Friday, November 6, 2015

Touching the Live Wire

He held no interest in the workshops until he saw Sandra Alcosser, a visiting poet, walk with me across the yard on our way to the Programs Room. After that workshop, he hailed me from the other side of the fence separating the sidewalk from the rec yard, and asked how he could get into the workshop. I told him what I tell everyone who asks, "Send in a kite." I thought that was the last I would hear from him. After all, the excitement of seeing a woman visitor on the yard passes as quickly as a June rain shower.

He did, however, follow up, and soon became the hardest working member of the workshops. A. is a lyricist at heart. He writes love songs, but he wants to understand poetry. He devours books I bring in. Laurence Perrine's Sound and Sense, for example, has long been a classic for university poetry seminars. It's a semester-long text book that covers theories of poetry, forms, and it contains a lifetime's worth of prompts for writing verse.

A. worked through the book and about drowned us all with the wave of paper filled with his responses to the prompts. He wrote villanelles, pantoums, haikus, acrostic poems, sonnets. He experimented with form poems, free verse. He crawled into metaphor, metonymy, meditations, and rants. The guy was on fire.

His eyes look at me with  a gaze I would expect from a bird of prey -- sharp and hungry. His nose is sharp, brow low, cheeks chiseled. There is an edge to him to makes me a little uncomfortable sometimes. But his passion for writing gives him charisma of leadership in the workshops. He is unafraid to speak his mind when critiquing the work of big-shot gangsters.

Beneath the sharp exterior, A. is a man in love with words. He spends hours revising single lines once he gets to the point where he wants to polish a piece. And he speaks lucidly about his quandaries between the connotations of one word or another. When he can't decide between one and another, he makes up a new word, such as "contradistinctive" in the piece below, or he juxtaposes opposites, such as the Dionysian Apollonian. I don't if it's because I know him, can hear his voice in these constructions, or if they do carry an organic sensibility, but his inventions make sense to me.

His work looks at complexity, paradox, contradiction. He goes to the heart of ambivalence. His instincts for tension help him sniff out the stories lurking in his own work and the work of others. He loves deeply and is angry. That might fuel some of his insights into conflict.

When, J., a grad student in the MFA program came in to talk about prose poetry, she brought along copies of J.G. Ballard's poem "What I Believe." Here A. found a form capable of conveying the range of his vision. Here is a sample of his work:

Untitled III 

            I believe in the power of the pen to bleed onto the page the pains of yesterday, to pollute the bright surface with audacious ideas laid down as loops and stray marks.

            I believe in painting in words, done by one stroke at a time, to add a little bit of blue to the natural gray of this dream called life.

            I believe in ideas, abstract as they come, to grab hold of them and smash them to the concrete, to create and destroy them, to conceive, deceive and make them bleed, to kill them.

            I believe in reading a novel but once, and to go over a poem over and over, ‘til each line becomes a novel in itself.

            I believe in making many pictures into one image, in making many lines into one, in making many words into one, in summing up many ideas into one punch line, in imagining how much more we can say using one word to convey sentences.

            I believe in observing the unseen, in containing the untameable, in capturing the wind from the East and keeping it for selfish gain.

            I believe in the daemon that troubled Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, the writer, in that shadow that is the light hidden in the vale of tears, that is the soul, in the entity that some call evil, but what I call the spring that gushes forth gold.

            I believe that before Satan was cast out, he robbed the treasury of heaven, and now showers those who will listen with rubies from the Holy of Holies, the secrets of the dream of life itself.

            I believe that the mysteries of life aren’t mysteries at all, but are the things we know the most of, the things that scream at us to only look within, into the mirror inside us that reflects true being, the demon within.

            I believe in the blunt talk, how oxymoronic it is when it cuts with machete-like words, hacking to the heart.

            I believe in putting notes to words, in giving voice to the heart, in giving color to the soul, and hope to the young.

            I believe in not holding Death at arm’s length, in not trying to avoid paying one’s debt to nature, in not running from tomorrow.

            I believe in illegality, in being tabooish in order to be crowned with the regal headband of Alexander the Great, in crossing moral borders, climbing the Great Wall in order to be Genghis Khan and trample into dust the so-called chosen, in breaking the law, in being part of the 1%, the rich and outlaws, giving it 100%, and schooling the street 1·0·1, all in order to be the Dionysian Apollonian.

            I believe in being unconventional, in untying one’s hand and foot, in being unconstrained, freewheeling my free will down the great road, in being unstuck, shaking the mud off my boots in order to stomp and get blood on them.

            I believe in being contradictory, in being contradistinctive, in being the contrarian, surpassing the norm, antagonizing the average, directly contrasting a constellation to a planet, putting to shame the prevailing wisdom of the age.

            I believe in Jesus and Darwin, in Muhammad and Krishna, in Buddha and Confucius, in the Aztecs and Spaniards; take a little here and a little there, puree and drink up the mixed blood of my ancestors.

            I believe in the sad eyes that hide a happy heart.

            I believe in being honest, in not lying, but honestly telling you nothing, in being truthful, and the truth is this; silence is the ultimate truth, in being sincere; I sincerely do not apologize.

            I believe in being passive aggressive; you can laugh now; I’ll just wait ‘til no one is watching.

            I believe in being aggressive; sometimes there won’t be a next time.

            I believe in keeping score.

            I believe in the rose, the petals and thorns of life, in the one apple a day, and in that one apple from that one day, he must have eaten the arsenical seed that took root in his loins and poisoned the seed of man.

            I believe in names, if we only lived up to them; in titles, if we only honored them; in handles, if we only grabbed hold of them.

            I believe in the deus ex machina, in the Godsend, in the Jesus of the story, in the eagle perched upon the nopal cactus devouring the serpent, in the father of my daughters.

            I believe in changing with the times, in if you live by the sword, you will die by the gun, in giving up your dreams of a better tomorrow for a better tomorrow.

            I believe in holding on, only to let go; in capturing the hummingbird, only to let it fly once more; in catching the white whale and releasing it back into the deep; in getting the girl, only to leave her in the morning.


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