To create believable and memorable characters, start with understanding people.
To create believable and memorable characters, start with understanding people.
What I hope my students have taken from my class are the foundation tools to go in whatever direction they want to go in writing and publishing. I hope that in my class, and in their other writing or literature classes, they’ve made friendships that they will have (and lean on more than once) for the rest of their lives. I hope that they understand that more than any other time, the publishing world is deeply interconnected, and you never know who you’re going to come across that will have a meaningful role in your work.
After it was over and done
the dust settled and nobody killed
nobody arrested and thrown in jail
people from every corner of town
said it was the best thing
that man ever did in his life
but why the hell did he quit so soon?
Ralph Ragsdale played snooker alone
because nobody wanted to shoot with him
being so inept he’d take an hour
to play and lose against himself
and also because on his best day
he was deemed a useless dullard and anybody
playing with him would be tainted by association
but on that moment he whirled and hit Odus Millard
his veritable mal-equal who every day sat by himself
on the raised wall bench hateful and miserable
contemplating conversion to Republican
with his pool cue and when he squealed
like a shoat being castrated hit him again
until he ceased squealing and then he stopped
not one person in Billy’s Pool Parlour raised a hand
to break it off or hollered Y’all quit it now
or called Sheriff Red Floyd
to come see if Odus was alive
or Victor Hudman at the mortuary to collect the remains
all glorying in Odus Millard’s misfortune
which was universally adjudicated appropriate
after he lay whimpering
under the snooker table a sufficient time
to realize he would unfortunately survive
Bus Pennel called his wife
at the Waybourne Pig Cafe to tell her
she ought to come down and get him
if she managed a break working coffee counter
by the time she came Odus
was back sitting on the raised wall bench
wiping his face and hair
with a chalkboard erasing towel
she said Who did it?
he said That goddam Ralph Ragsdale
he hurt me real good this time
and here where they were both who swilled
at the trough of the Goddess of Second Chances
she went over to Ralph playing snooker
by himself again said Did you hit Odus
with a pool cue? And when he said Yes I did
she said How come you to stop so quick?
and he said Guess I got tored
she said You want to tell me why for?
he said Your goddammed Odus he said
the only reason Buena Vista had legs was so she
wouldn’t leave a trail like a slug when she walked
she said Odus said that? About Miss Buena?
he said Yes the sonofabitch did you’gn axe him
but Odus guilty would not look up from the floor
she said Then I don’t blame you and Ralph said
I don’t either I heard that story before
it’s about nuns, Buena Vista she wasn’t
no goddam Catholic we was Baptists
and I won’t have Odus Millard slurrying
her memory by the connection in this town
somebody is got to stand up for Christian womern
and she said Yes I see
and she pulled Odus off the raised wall bench
and she spitwiped the dryblood and snot tears from his face
and she got both of them in her Chevrolet pickup and she drove
Odus Millard across town to their house, walked him in and shut the door
and Ralph Ragsdale a hero now in the place he called home
played out his snooker game in Bill’s Pool Parlour all alone
If you’re still struggling to find satisfaction within the lines of a poem, try to think about the whole thing less. In other words, the best way to read a poem is to read it. Poetry is better without the preconception. Reading a poem with an open mind, allowing the language and images to wash over you as they are written, can do wonders for enjoyment.
“Prince Jesus, crush those bastards …”
—François Villon, Grand Testament
It is the unremarkable that will last,
As in Brueghel’s camouflage, where the wren’s withheld,
While elsewhere on a hill, small hawks (or are they other birds?)
Are busily unraveling eyelashes & pupils
From sunburned thieves outstretched on scaffolds,
Their last vision obscured by wings, then broken, entered.
I cannot tell whether their blood spurts, or just spills,
Their faces are wings, & their bodies are uncovered.
The twittering they hear is the final trespass.
And all later luxuries—the half-dressed neighbor couple
Shouting insults at each other just beyond
Her bra on a cluttered windowsill, then ceasing it when
A door was slammed to emphasize, like trouble,
The quiet flowing into things then, spreading its wake
From the child’s toy left out on a lawn
To the broken treatise of jet-trails drifting above—seem
Keel scrapes on the shores of some enlarging mistake,
A wrong so wide no one can speak of it now in the town
That once had seemed, like its supporting factories
That manufactured poems & weaponry,
Like such a good idea. And wasn’t it everyone’s?
Wasn’t the sad pleasure of assembly lines a replica
Of the wren’s perfect, camouflaged self-sufficiency,
And of its refusal even to be pretty,
Surviving in a plumage dull enough to blend in with
A hemline of smoke, sky, & a serene indifference?
The dead wren I found on a gravel drive
One morning, all beige above and off-white
Underneath, the body lighter, no more than a vacant tent
Of oily feathers stretched, blent, & lacquered shut
Against the world—was a world I couldn’t touch.
And in its skull a snow of lice had set up such
An altar, the congregation spreading from the tongue
To round, bare sills that had been its eyes, I let
It drop, my hand changed for a moment
By a thing so common it was never once distracted from
The nothing all wrens meant, the one feather on the road.
No feeding in the wake of cavalry or kings changed it.
Even in the end it swerved away, & made the abrupt
Riddle all things come to seem … irrelevant:
The tucked claws clutched emptiness like a stick.
And if Death whispered as always in the language of curling
Leaves, or a later one that makes us stranger,
“Don’t you come near me motherfucker”;
If the tang of metal in slang made the New World fertile,
Still … as they resumed their quarrel in the quiet air,
I could hear the species cheep in what they said …
Until their voices rose. Until the sound of a slap erased
A world, & the woman, in a music stripped of all prayer,
Began sobbing, & the man become bystander cried O Jesus.
In the sky, the first stars were already faint
And timeless, but what could they matter to that boy, blent
To no choir, who saw at last the clean wings of indifferent
Hunger, & despair? Around him the other petty thieves
With arms outstretched, & eyes pecked out by birds, reclined,
Fastened forever to scaffolds which gradually would cover
An Empire’s hills & line its roads as far
As anyone escaping in a cart could see, his swerving mind
On the dark brimming up in everything, the reins
Going slack in his hand as the cart slows, & stops,
And the horse sees its own breath go out
Onto the cold air, & gazes after the off-white plume,
And seems amazed by it, by its breath, by everything.
But the man slumped behind it, dangling a lost nail
Between his lips, only stares at the swishing tail,
At each white breath going out, thinning, & then vanishing,
For he has grown tired of amazing things.
A few rules-of-thumb prevail in successfully landing one of these coveted spots. Especially when you’re first seeking an invitation or award—because colonies and residencies are indeed fellowships, ones you’ll proudly list on CVs and bios—you’ll increase your chances if you apply to the mid-list first. Renowned, fully-funded colonies like MacDowell and Yaddo receive huge numbers of applicants from the U.S. and overseas; they are the Ivy Leagues of the colony world, but there are numerous other well-regarded places where you’ll get the supportive environment you seek to further your project. You’ll also establish your reputation as a congenial resident—someone with a colony one or two listed per year on their application is likely to stand out to selection committees, i.e., “She’s been invited to the Anderson Center and twice to Ragdale. Since then she’s landed her first book contract, so evidently she’s a diligent worker who uses her time well. Her recommender assures us she’s of high character. Let’s invite her to come.”
A fabulous reader makes any and all sins forgivable. Of course, if you’ve never heard the author read from her/his work before, you won’t really know until thirty seconds into the reading. Everyone is there for the reader, and if the reader delivers, nothing else really matters.
Running enhances creativity. I’m not exaggerating when I say that the majority of my ideas for both critical essays and creative pieces come to me while I’m running (predictably, this very post was born and three-fourths conceptualized somewhere between miles six and seven). Running forces you to cleanse your mind of distractions – no Facebook, email, or unwatched episodes of House of Cards; no dishes that need washing or piles of other work in need of attention – it’s just you and your thoughts. Running affords those meeker but nonetheless valuable ideas an opportunity to be heard; the fun part is when those latent thoughts combine, contrast, and interact with other ideas in new and compelling ways
In my publishing class last week, we had our fourth and final Skype conversation. We spoke to Dave Housley, one of the founding editors of Barrelhouse. Like many independent literary magazines, Barrelhouse was founded on the premise of “Well, why not?” when five friends, after weeks of talking about it, decided at a bar (hooray, beers!) to start a magazine.
But If I’ve learned anything in prison, I’ve learned to expect the worst. And that’s what I got. The worst. Three hundred and twenty pounds of train wreck, to be exact.
Remember those blue irises I’d left for years?
You dug them out with Sean’s big fork,
then left them on the grass for me to split.
After you’d gone I wrenched and tore.
Got nowhere, gave up struggling, fetched the spade.
That mat of yellow roots, the slicing blade,
the last despairing heave, the rain of soil—
the shock still live and scorching through my flesh.
I’m certainly not the only one who found studying some of the greatest works of literature in school to be one of the biggest tortures a 14 year old could endure because if you tell someone what is good and why they should think it’s good a lot of people are going to do the opposite. The only way I came to love most literature was when I thought I had found it for myself and the same happened with short stories.