Poetry Squawk

Indolent authors and friends share their perspectives on the life and craft of writing

Perspectives on Indolence from the Poetic to the Political

A Poetry Squawk
By Sarah Sarai
Author of Geographies of Soul and Taffeta

Sarah and Alice in VermontThe hammock of the Indolent Books logo beckoned to me when it was a mere twinkle in a graphic designer’s eye. It boldly and with cheek represents my revered indolence, an overlooked and perhaps abused state of being.

Indolence, as a concept, is a vote against capitalism, with its need for ever expanding growth and ever expanding earnings. Both come at the peril of the workers. Give me a pennywhistle (but first, tell me what it is), a book, an iced tea, and a hammock and I will have no desire to move the world, as opposed to Archimedes, who told a reporter at Brainy Quotes, “Give me a lever long enough and a fulcrum on which to place it, and I shall move the world.” As you probably know, he was a mathematician, engineer, physicist in Sicily, in the 200s BC.

Good for Archimedes. I have no problem with the innately inventive, a category that includes all style of creative writers and creative anythingelsers — cooks, mechanics, physicians. If it works, when it works, a go-get-em nature is grand. When it ends up with an overwhelming majority of people who work hard with little personal gain, then nah.

We who are indolent are spiritually evolved. We see the tiny spin of light each of us is, the speck among specks among specks. We who are indolent believe we are all bits of a divinity and that that is, or should be, enough. Alas, it’s not always enough. We struggle with understanding our destinies. Should we do more, given that, like all humans, we have talents and inclinations. Instead of a lever, Archimedes could offer us a level with its three bubbles of balance.

Paul Lafargue, a well-known socialist in nineteenth century France, wrote with humor about indolence’s poor cousin, laziness. Here’s a bit “The Right to be Lazy.” Please note: Lafargue and his wife, finding themselves helpless from old age and penury, committed suicide together. Even more notable: LaFargue’s wife was Laura Marx, Karl Marx’s daughter.

Weigh your options.

From “The Right to be Lazy”:

DOES any one believe that, because the toilers of the time of the mediæval guilds worked five days out of seven in a week, they lived upon air and water only, as the deluding political economists tell us? Go to! They had leisure to taste of earthly pleasure, to cherish love, to make and to keep open house in honor of the great God, Leisure. In those days, that morose, hypocritically Protestant England was called “Merrie England.” Rabelais, Quevedo, Cervantes, the unknown authors of the spicy novels of those days, make our mouths water with their descriptions of those enormous feasts, at which the peoples of that time regaled themselves, and towards which “nothing was spared.” Jordaens and the Dutch school of painters have portrayed them for us, in their pictures of jovial life. Noble, giant stomachs, what has become of you? Exalted spirits, ye who comprehended the whole of human thought, whither are ye gone? We are thoroughly degenerated and dwarfed. Tubercular cows, potatoes, wine made with fuchsine, beer from saffron, and Prussian whiskey in wise conjunction with compulsory labor have weakened our bodies and dulled our intellects. And at the same time that mankind ties up its stomach, and the productivity of the machine goes on increasing day by day, the political economists wish to preach to us Malthusian doctrine, the religion of abstinence and the dogma of work!

For more, please consult The Right to be Lazy, 1883, courtesy of the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Humor, Poetry, and Privilege

A Poetry Squawk
By Jennifer L. Knox
Author of Days of Shame and Failure

Jennifer L. KnoxThese thoughts (and more) occurred to me while I was preparing a craft talk on Humor in Poetry for the Sarah Lawrence College Poetry Festival.

The two types of humor pertinent here are:

1. Self-effacing humor (“I make fun of myself”)
Think: James Tate*

2. Aggressive humor (“I make fun of you”)
Think: Calvin Trillin*

*Yes! Both white men! More on that later.

Self-effacing humor (my fave) requires the ability to abdicate (or seemingly abdicate) authority and…here’s my epiphany…reflects privilege.

For women, POC, PWD, LGBTQ, anyone existing/living/writing outside of patriarchal privilege, the idea of abdicating authority is ABSURD because authority is always at risk. Writing creates authority, hard earned authority, and writing’s hard work! So who passes on the payoff?

One surrenders authority if one knows one can reclaim it. “Here, hold my beer.”

Aggressive humor does not require abdication of authority. Making fun of people can generate authority. Trump, for example, and all those “Just kidding!” assholes.

Clowns abdicate authority. They know the audience won’t tear them apart for having shown weakness, which is what happened to people in the Roman Coliseum: the guards sent a person seen as an “outsider” into the ring, the crowd laughed at the outsider, the outsider got ripped apart by wolves.

No wolf has ever become a successful comedian. Wolves cannot afford to abdicate their authority.

My instinct to make myself the butt of the joke is where I derive my power and authority. Though for some (authoritarian) people, it disqualifies me as an authority. Well…fuck them. Sorry. I can’t help it. I’ve had this compulsion since I was a kid (a fat one with a perm). As an adult, my ability to ignore other adults’ reactions to my self-effacement— along with an aversion to making straight forward emotional statements—probably indicates that I’m somewhere on the autism spectrum.

But I’m not a masochist, so getting laughed at all the time would obliterate my ego. So I must reclaim authority at some point in the poem. I got to get on top. The move must be fast and out of the blue. When people are laughing, they’re vulnerable. Lead the audience into the ring, and when they’re laughing their asses off, reclaim authority and cut their throats.

I give it away and take it back. That’s privilege.

I met a white male poet at a reading once who said, “I edit a funny poetry magazine, and no women ever submit! Why don’t women write more funny poems?”

It was a statement rife with logical fallacies, which are funny, kinda, because the speaker of a logical fallacy abdicates authority by being just plain wrong. A question for future discussion might be, if you’re not aware that you’re abdicating authority, are you still funny? If not, what are you being? Do we have a word for that in English? Anyway, he asked, “Why don’t women write more funny poems?”

“Because it doesn’t get us laid,” I said.

Long pause.

“It gets us laid,” he said with affable certainty.

“It sure does!” I agreed.

So for all the poets who said to me, “I’d love to write funny poems, but I don’t know how,” here’s a how-to for writing self-effacing funny poems:

1.    Abdicate authority
2.    Take it back (warning: may be violent)
3.    Do not get laid

Much Art a Dancing Robot Makes Not

A Poetry Squawk
By Darius Stewart
Author of The Ghost the Night Becomes

Darius StewartYes, I admit it, this is about one thing, and one thing only: I fail miserably at scansion. It’s one of the reasons I’m not a doctor: scansion is finite; the practice of medical science is finite. It’s why math and science detest me, and why the feeling is quite mutual. When I encounter anything remotely finite, I become finitely remote. For example, approach me with the idea of geometric proofs and word problems, or how measuring a line of verse as a method of inferring meaning in a poem, not to mention the inherent formalist’s tool for crafting it, and I will counter with:

“Give me ‘Things I Just Can’t Fucking Understand’ for a thousand, Alex.”

To me, these are concepts tantamount to mixing oil and water then using the mixture to fry an egg. Imagine that.

(Did I clarify that scansion is too finite for a free verse poet such as I . . . or is it me?)

Perhaps the underlying problem is that I find scansion counter-intuitive to understanding what a poem demands that I understand; whether it’s for the purposes of analysis or for construction, scanning a poem is like performing the Viennese waltz and instead of wedding oneself to the rhythms of the music, to the sweeping gestures, the glissandos of the feet dancing across the floor, one moves mechanically to the metronome: 1-2-3, 1-2-3, 1-2-3 . . .

Much art a dancing robot makes not.

Poetry, as with most modern literary mediums, is robust and shape-shifting. In the face of traditional rule today’s poetry doesn’t just fly, but suggests alternatives to the status quo. So does this make me an illegitimate poet if I can’t correctly assign stressed and unstressed syllables in a line? What if, in trying to scan a poem, being from the South, I employ additions or subtractions to words because it’s customary to how we create language in this region? What inherent meaning is thereby lost due to inadequate arithmetic? Stressed, unstressed, I’m stressed.

Of course, I don’t intend to decry the merits of and necessity for scansion used formally to arrange and infer meaning. Even as a free verse poet, I still rely on scansion; only my usage is more akin to how a composer might score a variety of time signatures to subvert a predominate theme, thereby adding dimension and texture to a piece, not to mention eliciting a variety of emotional responses.

(Maybe I should become a composer. I’ve always loved syncopation. Though, ironically, I find jazz composition to be too formally informal.)

What it all means is I can do without restricting myself to purisms. For some poets, scansion and other formalities are the lifeblood of their work. Verse isn’t verse unless it’s attuned to its metrical implications. I’d rather make up my own rules just to see what I didn’t know I could create. If a bit of self-consciously metrical passages bebop their way into the poem, then so be it; I’m still a free verser—kind of like how I can still do the robot, but I don’t dance like one.

Darius Stewart is the author of The Terribly Beautiful (2006) and Sotto Voce (2008), each of which was an Editor’s Choice Selection in the Main Street Rag Poetry Chapbook Series, as well as The Ghost the Night Becomes (2014), winner of the 2013 Gertrude Press Poetry Chapbook Prize. Other poems and prose appear widely in literary journals and anthologies. He is a former James A. Michener Fellow in poetry, receiving the M.F.A. degree from The University of Texas at Austin. Presently, he resides in Knoxville, Tenn.,  with his dog, Phillip J. “Fry.”

Digging into the Wormhole

A Poetry Squawk
By Nicole Callihan
Author of SuperLoop and A Study in Spring (with Zoe Ryder White)

Nicole CallihanAll weekend, my husband made me work in the yard. I put on soft, yellow gloves and pushed my sleeves up. I must admit I am a reluctant gardener, but I do love the feel of the sun on my skin, and if I practice long enough, the rhythm starts to settle in: the eight-inch spacing, the weight of the spade, a handful of manure, a bundle of bulbs or tangle of roots. Yesterday, we planted the whole hill with periwinkle vinca; last week’s azaleas are blazing; the rhododendrons seem promising. Sometimes neighbors stop, and we talk about deer or the weather. Late in the afternoon, I stand in the shower and wash the earth off my body. I welcome it: it’s been such a long time since I’ve seen actual dirt going down the drain.

I don’t know why I believed so thoroughly that if I began digging a hole in my tiny, dull North Carolina town, and dug and dug with my blue plastic shovel through the soft and hard and fiery layers, I would find, on the other side of the dense mad planet: China. I guess it was as good a way as any for the daycare workers to keep us busy. Here, kid, go dig a hole to China. I imagined first finding those tiny cobs of corn, the ones we got in every take-out dish we ordered from the Double Happiness in Wilmington, and then there would be strangers and rickshaws. The sky would be a whole different blue, and every cookie would hold the future.

My mother is haunted by a dream in which she kills a man and buries his body. I must have been seven or eight when she first told me about him, but she’s had the dream for as long as she can remember. Sometimes she buries the body under the pecan tree in her childhood backyard, or out behind the reservation house where we lived in South Dakota, or in the field near the apartment we first rented in Tulsa, or just south of the duck pond at the big white house that she saved and saved to buy. I don’t think she’s ever been caught; her dream operates entirely around the fear that she’ll be discovered.

And so, why do I write? I think that’s the question I’m supposed to be answering. Well, I write to feel the sun on my arms, to embrace the tedium, to learn the names of things, to watch it all bloom after a long, long winter. And I write, too, to go someplace far away from where I am, to dig and dig, and find, on the other side of the world, in Madrid or Amsterdam or Tokyo, a stranger who might share a meal or a cigarette with me, who might understand something I’m also trying to understand. And then, of course, there are the bodies. Let’s just say: I’ve got to have somewhere to bury them.

Nicole Callihan writes poems, stories and essays. Her work has appeared in, among others, The American Poetry Review, Painted Bride Quarterly, Forklift, Ohio, PANK, and as a Poem-a-Day feature from the Academy of American Poets. Her books include A Study in Spring (with Zoë Ryder White), winner of the 2015 Baltic Writing Residency Chapbook Contest; the 2012 nonfiction Henry River Mill Village (with Ruby Young Kellar); and SuperLoop (Sock Monkey Press, 2014). Her chapbook The Deeply Flawed Human is forthcoming from Deadly Chaps Press in July 2016. Nicole lives with her husband and daughters in Brooklyn, New York.

Writing at the Back of the Brain

A Poetry Squawk
By Lisa Andrews
Author of Dear Liz

Lisa-Andrews-994x1024I used to do a lot of writing while walking. (A friend saw me doing this years ago — before even flip phones — and assumed I must be memorizing lines for a play.) These days, more often than not, I write at home. Sometimes in absolute quiet (I’ve been lucky lately); sometimes while listening to music (music without words or in a language I can’t understand) — usually classical music, often opera. The music builds a wall around me; becomes a kind of armor against what I call the front-of-the-brain world — the world of health insurance disputes, taxes, proofreading. The music is larger than I am; inside it, I enter a different state of mind.

The back of the brain is where writing poetry happens for me. I keep writing and writing — out of a memory or an obsession — out of something I had no idea I was going to write about but that came up in the act of writing. I am writing as fast as I can, writing whatever comes into my head — what I am seeing, hearing — hoping to write faster than I can think, so that I may fall into something unknowingly — something that will take me by surprise.

I am not in charge. I am not in control. But I am, I hope, in a place where I will not be interrupted (here control enters in). I go for the early hours rather than the later ones — but I’ll take whatever I can get. A stretch of uninterrupted, uninterruptible time is the ideal. At home, I turn off every device.

Sometimes I go to a museum or a café. The subway is good. Trains are good. The shower can be great (although I may not be able to write anything down). You can’t really do other things on the subway. You’re not going to answer the door or the phone or the buzzer. You’re not, I hope, going to get up and start cleaning the subway car. There’s something about the movement, the motion of the subway car — and a kind of anonymity that covers me, encloses me (I am not talking about rush hour).

I once took a train from Penn Station almost all the way to Johnson, Vermont, and I wrote (almost) the entire way there. On the way back, I was not so lucky. It was a much smaller train. People were friendly. There were long stops. People were very friendly.

Writing over a period of months (or years), certain things keep coming up — surface repeatedly. Whether in the instant, or, more likely, over a period of time, something catches, takes hold; takes over. I work on it — letting it work on me, following it where it takes me. There will be multiple drafts of multiple versions.

Slowly, something begins to take shape, begins to cohere. Longer drafts I take with me wherever I go. Shorter drafts (or memorized drafts) I take with me on long walks, saying the lines out loud, hearing how things sound, making changes and writing them down — adding and subtracting…

Lisa Andrews grew up in Michigan and moved back to her native New York to study acting at the Neighborhood Playhouse School of the Theatre. A graduate of Hunter College, she received an MA in English Literature and an MFA in Poetry from NYU, where she taught in the Expository Writing Program and worked with poetry students at Goldwater Hospital and Bayview Correctional Facility. Chosen by Dael Orlandersmith as a recipient of the New Voice Poetry Award from the Writer’s Voice of the West Side YMCA, Lisa has had residencies
at Blue Mountain Center, the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, and the Vermont Studio Center. Her poems have appeared in Gargoyle, HIV Here & Now, Mudfish, Painted Bride Quarterly, and Zone 3. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband, artist Tony Geiger.