Drying Out Poetry

A10“I thought you’re not supposed to understand poems,” my student said. “They’re supposed to be mysterious. That’s what the experts are there for, to explain.”

I answered this by arguing that poems must be understood, and without a middleman. If they aren’t, what good are they? How can they reach us where we are and help if we have to order in specialists? Let poetry be food for a moment and imagine the Thanksgiving table surrounded by expert chewers who stand at the ready behind our chairs. When the dinner bell strikes, they reach over us and grab handfuls of turkey, mashed potatoes, and stuffing and they stuff it all into their mouths where they gnash it into goo before hinging back our heads to spew Thanksgiving down our throats. Continue reading



I’ve thought of writing as an escape for a long time, so I was happy to bump into this in Strunk and White’s Elements of Style: “creative writing is communication through revelation—it is the Self escaping into the open.”

Prison 1: you’re a baby. The Self has only a few simple tools for everything it wants to say. It climbs out of the well of babydom, ascending by little more than a scream in each fist.

P sunPrison 2 (a little bigger, but still prison; Self would stay here forever if it didn’t have writing): you’re older. You’ve got better tools now. The face alone communicates more than anyone would believe if they only heard about faces secondhand. There’s vocabulary too; it joins with your ability to string words into messages as cheerful as popcorn strings or as gruesome as a necklace of shrunken heads. This is power. Continue reading


I’m wrong when I say prose is checkers and poetry is chess, but I believe it. I fear writing poems like I fear IQ tests, spelling bees, florescent lighting, and yes, chess—anything offering too much exposure.

I used to write poetry. I wrote about Hobbits and whales and trees, and one a13poem even got published in my university’s 2003 lit-journal, a poem entitled, “A Breed of Chicken.” It was about some crazy boyish farmer who cut off chickens’ heads for a living until eventually, of course, he cut off his own family’s heads. I remember a local literary elder read my poem and accused its gloom and gore of being typical of the age I was moving through at the time. “Kids always write this way. He’ll get over it.” This made me mad. “I’ll show you! I’ll write triple-dark forever—I’ll burn the world down with shadow fire! I’m no kid,” sniveled I. Continue reading

Rabbit in a Turtle Tank

Writing feels like a tortoise and hare race where writers are both the turtle and the rabbit. Now stretch the fable further. Turtles are tanks, and rabbits have to drive them. Basically, “Slow and steady wins the race.” Why? Because doing big writerly things takes time. Sadly, this doesn’t mean the doer of these big things slows down in nature, making slowness more comfortable. Nope. Rabbits stay rabbits and must endure again and again the withering strain of moving slowly—this is the only way to hit finish-lines. Continue reading

Give Away

I logged many childhood summer hours in a little bamboo jungle near our house. They were long hours, holiday hard candy melting slow, and cozy as winter whales summering in their big coats.

This jungle grew out of the cellar hole of an old butcher’s shop, the building long gone before my time. Animal bones floated in the maroon ground, dregs announcing where a pirate ship went under, skulls and crossbones unfurled everywhere. You couldn’t help but kick up relics with your pig snout boots rooting around. But I never went digging for these little skeletal bands and bobs. Probably a good thing. If I sought the skele-bits, I believe their ghosts would have sought me in return. And I don’t need any ghoul-herds of goats or swine following me around, the clicking of their hooves badly camouflaged inside the sound of my footsteps, or their eyes staring out of basement glooms, luminous and mad as moonlight. Continue reading

Tolkien’s Cards

C dark eat lightI see Tolkien’s creatures as different stages of people. We grow through his beast deck, some of us all the way through, before we die.

We are born orcs, goblins, trolls, and dragons. Babies of course. Next, we become dwarves, as self-absorbed as Lucifer, searching for precious jewels, memorizing any spell that declares, “Gimme, gimme.” Then we morph into elves, a civil war between wisdom and pride—our eyes are up for starlight, having learned this from gem-light underground. And lastly, we become hobbits: thick and shrunken, dreamy, fireside sitters, loving and having laughter and stories or bitterness and silence (likely all of the above) to share, or have pried from us. Continue reading

i warned him

cropped-cropped-c-boatman1.jpgI visited the ocean with an old friend, one I hadn’t talked to in two years or so. We had a lot of catching up to do, and happily we discovered our brains still work together. The blueprints of our conversational houses lined up like in the old days, so we could walk those talk-hallways without running into dead ends or opening doors onto brick walls. He’s still him, and I’m still me in the way that made us friends to begin with. This is what keeps us friends now.

Before seeing the ocean, I warned my friend that “I expect to have an emotional experience. I’m going to try for it. So you’ll either find me weeping from success or disappointment.” These are the ages where I’m getting prophetical about myself. Though I’m not yet old enough to do anything about my predictions, working a change into things coming down the pike, trying to avoid something bad or lean into something good. I can only drive through a landscape that seems increasingly familiar, though it is uncharted. Continue reading