Wednesday, January 30, 2013

A Funny Story

During a seminar in grad school, a professor asked a group of us if we ever used humor in our writing. When he looked to me, I blurted out, "I'm sometimes unintentionally hilarious, usually for the wrong reasons."

The thing is, whether unfunny people like me like it or not, funny moments are important. They can highlight a new aspect of a character's personality, break the tension in a serious scene, or help you draw readers into the story. Humor can be applied to any form--poetry, fiction, non-fiction, and beyond. Even the most emotionally fraught tale will have room for comedy, however brief the appearance.

You should try your hand at this sometime. Don't force it; just write what comes naturally. Run it past some trusted friends. If it's not funny, try again. I know you have the humor in you somewhere. 


Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Your Stories

A few weeks back, I was walking through a parking lot when I saw a bumper sticker that said, "Scars are just tattoos with better stories." I don't wish to put too fine a point on what I'm about to say, so here it is: I call bullshit.

Maybe that's easy for me to say, as I have few scars of my own (though you may remember this one) but am the proud owner of two tattoos. The truth is, though, that my tattoos ARE my scars. They tell tales unspeakable, and I hold those cards close to my chest because they are no one's business but my own. I have been known to divulge from time to time; however, this is not the venue, nor is it the time.

I have a point here: do not let anyone take the power away from your stories. Maybe they think you're telling them in an invalid mode. Maybe they think you're telling them wrong. As anyone who's ever sat through a creative writing workshop knows, these could be valid comments--it's possible you should write an essay about your childhood trauma rather than a full-length memoir, a poem about your wedding day disaster instead of a stage play. Pay attention to those comments, because they might prove useful in unlocking your work. Yet you should hold onto the core of what you're trying to say, because you're the only person who can say it.


Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Review: Diverting Angels

Deborah Diemont
Dos MadresPress, 2012
45 pp/42 poems

I first had the pleasure of encountering Deborah Diemont’s work when she submitted a few pieces to a literary magazine for which I serve as managing editor. She had my attention immediately because one of the poems was about a drawing by Vincent van Gogh, a favorite artist of mine. That poem (“Sien with Cigar”) appears in Diemont’s sonnet-filled collection, Diverting Angels. But Diemont focuses on far more than art here; she also covers such topics as childhood, womanhood, travel, nature, love, family, and culture.

The opening poem, “A Modest Blindness” (named for a Borges essay), reflects this variety of subject matter in its exuberant celebration of color--a poem-as-kaleidoscope. In fact, the majority of the sonnets contain some reference to color, thereby invoking not only sound through her rhymes and emotions through her themes, but also visual cues which give us a good sense of place. These sensory hints become especially important in poems where interior lives are the focus, giving the reader an idea of the physical surroundings when emotional matters are at the fore.

Diemont excels at discussing such things. Some of her strongest, most devastating poems center on women: “To Dye or Henna,” a rumination on chemical hair alteration; “Grimm,” calling to mind Plath’s “Mirror” in its focus on distorted reflections; “Untitled,” showing how the issues females face as adolescents (body image and criticism, especially) carry over into adulthood; and, most poignantly, “Grandmother,” in which a mysterious, semi-broken lady bequeaths to her granddaughter things that may--or may not--damage her but are beloved nonetheless.

The craft on display here is also commendable. While I am not personally a fan of rhyme--I often find it too sing-songy or poorly executed--I appreciate some of the ways in which Diemont plays with it. For example, the rhyme scheme in the second paragraph of “Housemate” reads thus: back/life/bike/grass; this bends the rhyme in a way that pleases my ear and helps Diemont make the sonnet form her own.

For this reader, though, Diemont’s crowning achievement in Diverting Angels is “The Poet in Victoria’s Secret™.” Here she provides the reader with a poem that works so well as a metaphor for writing good poetry that I found myself experiencing an actual fit of jealousy during the reading of it. If even a quarter of the poetry being published nowadays sent me--or any reader--into such paroxysms of admiration, the literary landscape would be a brighter place.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Review: Sky Sandwiches

John F. Buckley
Anaphora Literary Press, 2012
97 pp/48 poems

Sky Sandwiches, John F. Buckley’s first solo collection, is an uneven effort. In terms of subject matter, the poems flow well from one to the next, as Buckley groups them together--food and absent father figures at the front, cultural commentary at the back. Craft, however, overall seems to take a back seat to that source material.

Buckley is, it seems, overly fond of sound devices such as alliteration, consonance, and sibilance, as seen in these lines from “Lost Scent, Strange Mountains”: “Trip-hop mills the burrs from nerves / oversharpened by bottomless casino / coffee cups.” In fact, there were several instances during the reading of this book when I noted that meaning and visual composition suffer. Line lengths in individual poems tend to be standardized--most of the poems have medium-length lines. When I arrived at “Recipe for a Hex,” it gave me pause, because it stands out in part thanks to its stylistic departure: short, staccato lines rather than overly verbose ones. Additionally, it contains the great sounds that should be the focus--“whiskered cat skull,” “tough to find / enough stray casings,” “alien tchotchkes and / antique wooden hymnal / stands,” among others--rather than the devices aforementioned, which often feel as though they were ripped from a poetry playbook.

Unfortunately, like many poems here, “Recipe for a Hex” suffers from several weak line endings. Enjambment is not the problem; Buckley does seem to have an instinct for when not to end-stop a line. Rather, the words themselves cause trouble. Ideally, a strong word will round off a line, thereby serving two purposes: first, to give the line its proper due as a unit, and second, to pull the reader forward. This tendency of Buckley’s to ignore that is out in full force in “Iron Chef,” where the end words was, with, when, and, and it are used in some stanzas.

Another problem that comes up repeatedly is Buckley’s employment of inappropriate words or phrases, which often intrude on poems that might otherwise seem timeless. The most obvious of these are on-trend sayings that have entered our national lexicon and taken root but that are unlikely to survive. There are at least two references to McMansions (in “The Authority Figure” and “Hometown Expatriate”), a mention of Google Maps in “Exchange Rates,” and the appearance of the ever-ubiquitous Facebook in “Leaving New Eden.” While we may feel these things are here to stay, I might remind both reader and poet that MySpace was supposed to be the be-all, end-all of social networking, and then Facebook blew it out of the water. It’s only a matter of time before these three things are replaced, and then their use in these poems will make the works seem dated rather than prescient.

Likewise, Buckley’s attempts at timely social consciousness come off as disingenuous, as though the poet believes he must make some kind of commentary on the state of things. As a result, poems like “Organic Chemistry” and “Eco-Poem” suffer, their conviction stripped away by arbitrary lines such as “I bore nature no mind” and “Our appetite for oily sauces speaks louder than words,” which also contains an unfortunate cliché.

Other clichés are present. For example, “Short Stack” shortchanges Buckley’s current city of Ann Arbor by describing it in terms too often applied to that place: both hippie and hipster, and thus some kind of pseudo-grunge Mecca; having been in Ann Arbor many times and as recently as last month, I can report that while those two populations do exist, the city is more unique than Buckley allows, both culturally and academically. Meanwhile, “King of the Road” must overcome a cliché in the title, which it manages to do. In fact, that poem is an unexpected and refreshing foray into the natural world, pulling the poet’s focus away from himself and allowing his voice, as well as the reader, to take a deep, restorative breath in the second half of the book.

As it turns out, Buckley is at his best when he looks outward unselfconsciously. When he appropriates Native American culture in “Exchange Rates,” I cringe--the last thing we need as a society is another white man comparing his trials to those of displaced persons. However, “Poem for Christy’s Daughter,” about an adopted girl, partly undoes the damage caused by “Exchange Rates,” thanks largely to the fact that it reads like the most honest thing anyone has ever said. While the last two lines are tidy to the point of absurdity--“You don’t live where you came from, either, / No matter how you struggle to fit inside”--the overall effect of the piece is good.

Similarly, “Ode to Barabbas” is powerful and interesting, a poem-as-miniature-biography. The poet asks the right questions: “Just why did / they save you, Barabbas, and why did they call out your name // for release” stings, as if it is the query of someone who was passed over for salvation in favor of this strange figure. Yet the final lines indicate that the speaker is confident that he has the upper hand: “What or whom do you / wrestle, Barabbas, what or who will attend when you die?”

Buckley’s disadvantage, though, is that his speakers too often think they have the upper hand, either personally or poetically. “Island Living” showcases this well; the speaker attempts to come across as worldly and critical but instead seems pretentious, thanks to the clear hatred he has for the city in question, a hyper-manufactured place where the denizens are assumed to be oblivious to the consequences of their actions. I suspect, however, that if the speaker took the time to interview the people he derides, he would find that they are doing their best, the same as anyone else in this world.

Overall, Buckley’s work needs refinement. Arranging words in lines instead of paragraphs does not poetry make, as demonstrated by the more prose-type poems “The Authority Figure,” “Seven Courses, No Issues,” “Accounting Time,” and “Storefront Church,” as well as the fiction-esque “Documented Immigrant.” Smoothing out the roughest edges alone would serve Buckley well. Given his moments of transcendence, I believe he could be a much better poet than he is now.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Mr. X: A Role Model for Me

Several weeks back, I had an encounter with a well-known actor (in order to protect his privacy, I won't name names). Mr. X, as I'll call him, is pretty much the definition of an artist: he performs on stage, television, and the silver screen; he paints and sculpts; and--this is where our lives intersected--he writes, as well. His focus is on stage plays, but he also produces the occasional story and essay.

This might seem overly effusive, but I am in awe of this man. 

When I decided to delve deeper into Mr. X's history--knowing only of his cinema and television career at the outset--I realized how lucky I am to have crossed paths with him. His work ethic and commitment to the arts are admirable, to say the least. He's been at it for decades longer than I've been alive. He's well-rounded as an artist, since he is learned in painting/sculpture, the written word, and performance. To put it simply, he's the kind of role model I sometimes need.

Because I spend some days wondering how I'll accomplish anything--finishing a story or poem, reading a book, or even watching the latest episode of Community (SIX SEASONS AND A MOVIE!). Mr. X, on the other hand, devotes hours to each of his pursuits and makes something of his time. Cate = slacker. Mr. X = the ideal. 

Perhaps I'm giving him too much credit. After all, he's had more than thrice as many years to pursue these projects. But I still like what I saw in him, and his achievements make me want to be better. So thanks, Mr. X, for your unwitting example.