Friday, May 31, 2013


Social stratification isn't new. Many institutions practice it - how about, say, junior high? Or my first real job at Burger King, where one's ability to speed through orders figured heavily in the social capital metrics. I got pretty high up on that scale, being assigned to "push" drive-through, which required speed and attention to detail in the short term. I was good, but I was not the queen. R -- presided at the drive-through register during the lunch hour rush, keeping thousands of details about each order in the her head, barking when drinks didn't materialize fast enough, waving a metal tray over the car sensor that recorded how long a piece of metal was in front of it, to improve her aggregate time.

My son's Boy Scout troupe before he thankfully quit gave four feet high trophies to the boys whose cars won the race. The first year my son didn't win. The second year he got the big-ass trophy. Then he quit.

It's no surprise writers practice it. But shouldn't we, given that we plumb the depths and map the heights of human possibility, be just a little bit more generous with one another?

Shouldn't we, as in the Buddhist adage, feed each other? We all want our place in the pantheon. Some of us will never make it there. Fair enough. But the idea that one might not bring home the trophy causes fear so cloying they feel they must exploit, hoard, denigrate. Some writers pull others down, made possible by a complex interplay between each writers' personal demons.

I offer as evidence the existence of MFA programs where the survivors emerge bloody from the infighting, where comments like "I'm embarrassed to be in the same program with someone who would write shit like this" go unchecked by faculty. (That is a report from a Top 12 graduate who is, now, doing fine.) It's not uncommon to meet the survivors of such programs and hear they went through a long fallow period after graduating. And workshops wherein people hold their accomplishments or connections over themselves like haloes to bask in the golden light then eviscerate the work of others. And the whispered comments, the "what has he done lately." And the current sniping over "likeable characters," which is the same argument, really, as the one about plot-driven v. character-driven narrative.

What's the value of that eternal conflict? If it doesn't kill us, it makes us stronger? Or couldn't we all make each other stronger?


Had a bad dream last night in which two of my fifth graders came to me crying, because I'd given them an exercise that didn't speak to them, exercises that tied their metaphorical hands and made it impossible for them to write poems. "I couldn't do my exercises," they said. They had nothing to read to the group. They showed me blank pages. I said "Didn't I tell you that you could write another way?" and I woke before I got their reply.
Poetry must be made for poetry’s sake, for writing’s sake, for the sake of reaching through the space between us, connecting one human to another through this moment – not to fashion a ‘pome’ – but to give you the means to show me how it feels  or felt to be alive in various poses and incarnations.
It’s not the passive receipt of a set of feathers, glue, sequins, and cardboard tubes to affix to one’s imagination (that word capitalized, sound drawn out, syllables stretched until flabby – ih MAAAG in AAAYY shun.) Not that.
I mean image-ination. Making images out of lines, curves, dots, jots and  tittles, of holding back the force of ideas with a tiny comma or stopping them with a steadfast period. Of the clever turning of the winky  semi-colon. Of the held breath of the Dickensonian dash. Of the vehement and dramatic colon, double dots meaning half the stop of the period.
That’s what poetry does, dear. All that. It's the women in sub-Saharan Africa making small 'banks' for one another. It's Rosa Parks. It's WS Merwin, it's George Saunders, it's Elissa Schappell, it's the freckle-faced fifth grader with a raft of adult-imposed difficulties. It's the parent who fights for her kids and others. These are our tools. Raise them high, girls and boys. Bring them down, with force and accuracy.

This do in memory of all who went before.