Writing programs are implicitly encouraging a career path of indentured servitude, and in good conscience, I don’t see how we can continue to hoodwink students with this “time to write” nonsense when the writing program culture encourages professionalized poverty. A graduate writing degree is the beginning, not the end, of a writer’s education. And maybe the first of the beginning lessons is to treat that culture with suspicion.
If I called to you now. If I carried your name to the skateparks
and railroad temples of rust, would you come to me, brother,
wherever you are in your faded arrangements,
your growing away from the past? Would you lie with me here
in the shore-grass, watching the college boys paint
the gazebo, the endless advance and retreat of the sea?
I’m trying to imagine us back to our origins.
Skitching the Friday night dump truck in Moorhead,
shoplifting soft packs of Camel Lights,
kicking our boards through the rodeo crowds at the fair,
searching the beer tent for half-finished bottles of High Life,
for cigarette butts in the ashtrays, for lighters,
for dime bags and dollar bills left on the tables, for anything
other than home. We were saved from oblivion once.
Slack in the shoulder blades. Climbing the roofs
of the for-sale houses in Dundas, diving off chimney tops,
ladder rungs, letting our bodies go limp in the arms
of the pines. And here on the fog-covered beach in Bolinas
a girl is rolling her jeans up, gathering seashells and green-tinted nuggets
of sea glass, letting the high water circle
her knees. I watch her approach in the rippled light, lifting a sand dollar,
lost in the sound. I can almost see light falling out
of her body, the space where the sea-wind is too shy
to touch her, too embarrassed to run itself
under her shirt. What grainy, impossible dreams
used to guide us? What wildernesses burned on the vacated stages
and bankrupt resorts of our brains?
Anders, we get old. We divide ourselves up into seasons,
digressions, failed attractions, glorified versions
of jaded and lost men we promised
to never become. Do you remember the Indian
selling us dusters and turtle skulls under the bridge?
And watching the staged reenactment at sunset, the overgroomed horses
and amplified pleadings of Heywood refusing
to open the safe. Refusing to hear what it meant
they would do to him—carving an X in his collarbone,
cracking his skull with the butt of a gun.
The teller lying dead in a puddle of blood
beside him. The sound of the bullet that ripped off his ear,
more a physical weight than a sound, a texture of things
growing suddenly far away, fattening, filled with a needling buzz.
The ease with which he could picture those three
silent numbers, floating like neon-lit billboards against
the darkening lids of his eyes. Really just simple
abstractions, marks on a chalkboard, lines in a ledger that nobody else,
besides himself and the wealthy proprietor
who sometimes stopped in on Sundays
with his twin boys to look at the weekly reports,
could read. Do you remember the way the horses were trained
to carefully lower their heads, to give us the softest part of their jaws,
regardless of whether we carefully touched them
or offered them handfuls of grain? And do you remember
the way we discovered the Indian,
slumped in the willow-reeds, dotted with secondhand light
from the Tilt-A-Whirl sign, sniffing a milk gallon,
laughing at shapes in the overhung ceiling of leaves?
How we were able to recognize the irony,
even then. And even more than the irony, the inevitability
of all things defined by their pasts, by duties that outlive
the vanishing crowds, their instruments measuring
dust. And how you approached him again
as a stranger, and sat at the base of the willow tree,
pressing your nose to the outheld mouth of the jug.
And the river crawled off in a fever of lights
and the music was suddenly clear. Anders, come rest with me here
in the shore-grass, leaning away from the wind.
Enough of these shivers and reverent symbols,
these crab shells and wind-whitened rails
of sand. I want you to walk with this young girl
in silence, speak to her only in footprints, in subtler signs
she can read in the foam, explain to her how we erase ourselves
knowingly, hands outstretched to the sound of it passing us,
letting the riders ride in. The way you became
this ridiculous whisper, sky growing vague in a cover of fog—
whatever description, assemblage of passages,
memories left to the dead. And what do we feel now,
watching the years float slowly by, as if in the skin
of another man? What do we find in the comfort
of time’s absent shadow? Shooting our guns
at the city-born crows. Chucking our bricks at the immigrant carp
in the backwater next to the dam. Look, we are losing ourselves
to the waves. Faltering after it. Claiming or trying to reclaim
the inventions. Wishing for, naming the magic away.
Tell me, what fissures, what twinkling dimples of light
came spiraling out of your face? As the cries
of the fairgoers danced on the water,
and the actor who played Jesse James for the weekend
went down to the beer tent, took off his holster,
his button-up chaps, his handgun that only
shot blanks, and danced to the fiddle and lap-steel guitar,
to the rhythmless crowd, and the hollowed-out sound of the bullet
that still seemed to ring in the streets, that will ring there forever,
in the unopened vault, in the scattered remains of an ear.
Our poem of the week is Kai Carlson-Wee’s “Jesse James Days

"At 24, suffocated by the prejudices attendant to being  a gay black man in America James Baldwin left for France. He’d live there on and off for the rest of his life (referring to himself as a “Trans-Atlantic Commuter”) and it was there that it was able to pause, breathe, and explore himself beyond the “negro” label forced upon him in his country of birth. All that’s to say that at least one francophone track is essential for this playlist and I can’t think of a better one than the unbounded energy and joy of this Yacht rework of an avante-garde Brigitte Fontaine track. I don’t care how bad your day’s been, it’s impossible to not crack a smile and move to this one.”

Wes Hazard, “So You’re Picking Up James Baldwin From the Airport”

Things I find unsettling –

A brain coral – no, an actual brain, the folds of gray matter
unraveling through a sleeve underwater –

The gutter, a lake of no respect –

Are you a lifer – schadenfreude-laced exchange
at the speed of its antidote, a confession or apology –

A suspicious package at the local airport,
milled palm-oil soap called green tea –

Carry me, cries a stranger, mispronouncing my name –

Last week’s poem of the week was Karen An-hwei Lee’s “X Is For Xenophobia
My sister used to have this grand idea that she would read all the books in the world when she was younger and my parents supported it (why wouldn’t they — their child wanted to read instead of watching endless cartoons), while I scoffed in her face. (If you can’t already tell, I’m the older sibling.) Reading all the books in the world meant that she had to read every book she laid her eyes on from cover to cover. I used to always think that she was ridiculous for continuing to read books she found boring or just plain bad, but it’s been several years since she’s grown out of that grand idea and now I’m not so sure I was right to scoff at her.
Dusk as silent as an owl’s wing. The old wall, built by the Romans, or built to keep the Romans out, stands scaffolded and tarped for a long restoration. All the roads wind round to the mountain’s top, where the little village, hunched, is half-obliterated by shadow as if the klieg-lit façade of an old movie set. In the town square, a table set for a séance. A stray dog turns round three times before settling down on the cobbles. The voyeur peering into a window turns away nonchalantly. He exhales smoke. An arc of embers falls as he flicks the butt away. As he passes, he touches the brim of his hat. One of the six chairs at the table is toppled, as if someone had taken fright and stood suddenly. The planchette on the Ouija board centered over NO.

Our poem of the week a few weeks ago was Eric Pankey’s “The Little Village

I have no interest in retreating from my past. I want to hold it in my fists and move forward with it. I want to help the men and the ladies as much as I can. I want to be back there because, before jail, I was a college dropout without any hopes, making $7.25 an hour at a shit job. Now I make $8.25 at a different shit job, but I’m on my way to a graduate degree, possibly to teach at the very jail I was housed in, while writing short stories that mean something to me. There are no words to express that mix of humbling awe and terrified excitement. Sometimes I think about all of that and it melts down over me like some great majestic light.

Free to travel, he still couldn’t be shown how lucky
he was: They strip and beat and drag us about
like rattlesnakes. Home on Brattle Street, he took in the sign
on the door of the slop shop. All day at the counter–
white caps, ale-stained pea coats. compass needles,
eloquent as tuning forks, shivered, pointing north.
Evenings, the ceiling fan sputtered like a second pulse.
Oh Heaven! I am full!! I can hardly move my pen!!

On the faith of an eye-wink, pamphlets were stuffed
into trouser pockets. Pamphlets transported
in the coat linings of itinerant seamen, jackets
ringwormed with salt traded drunkenly to pursers
in the Carolinas, pamphlets ripped out, read aloud:
Men of colour, who are also of sense.
Outrage. Incredulity. Uproar in state legislatures.

We are the most wretched, degraded and abject set
of beings that ever lived since the world began.
The jewelled canaries in the lecture halls tittered,
pressed his dark hand between their gloves.
Every half-step was no step at all.
Every morning, the man on the corner strung a fresh
bunch of boots from his shoulders. “I’m happy!” he said.
“I never want to live any better or happier than
when I can get a-plenty of boots and shoes to clean!”

A second edition. A third.
The abolitionist press is perfectly appalled.
Humanity, kindness and the fear of the Lord
does not consist in protecting devils. A month–
his person (is that all?) found face-down
in the doorway at Brattle Street,
his frame slighter than friends remembered.

Last week’s poem of the week, Rita Dove’s “David Walker (1785–1830)

When I say Frances, I mean the maple trunk
bulging through the chain-link fence. I mean the pit bull
with spiked collar who lives on the other side.

I say Frances, and I sound like a leaking bike tire.
Frances: my purple Schwinn, my flowered banana-seat.
My legs pumping through the subdivision

that springs from the field. Frances
rides on the air. You might say, I don’t understand,
and I’d say, This is not my voice. It’s something

in the leaves that keeps speaking. Something that saw me
as a child, rubbed a coin on the sole of my foot, charmed.
When I say Frances, I mean a woman. I mean

a place. The dead cling to the land. The living cling
to a story that, like currency, changes hands.

An old poem of the week, Laura Van Prooyen’s “Location: Frances

Another installment of Wes Hazard’s playlists: So You’re Picking Up Margaret Atwood From the Airport

"1. Prince – The Future

Prince’s soundtrack album for Burton’s first Batman went to #1 and featured some of his most radio-friendly work between Purple Rain and the name change. Still, relative to his other hits of the era these don’t get heard much anymore. We should all work to change that. The lyrics fear a future not too far from some of Atwood’s speculative fiction but even more importantly you might get a chance to talk about her Jungian breakdown of Gotham’s finest.”

There are probably some general wise moves to make—don’t piss everyone off, write more than once a month, read some books, and so forth—there isn’t one correct way to get wherever it is you’d like to end up. The lack of set rules may be a bit terrifying, especially those first steps in any given direction outside of school. But they’re crucial steps. This really just boils down to accepting risk. The world doesn’t have an outstanding road map for a young writer, but when you’re fully engaged in your own work, you’re always going to be able to make your mark. It’s nothing to fear, especially when taking a few steps off the beaten path is, always, inevitable.

Ask Me

She’s so darling about the whole thing—
asking me to be a bridesmaid

when we both know but won’t say
how two years ago she called me

drunk from a bar bathroom, her slurs
knotted like fingers in hair.

Sweat pooled in the crook of my arm
as I swore to her, Girl, he’s a dog.

It was the season of abandoned
couches that mushroomed in lawns,

the smell of Palmetto bugs soaked
in hot tequila. God bless

the state lines: I said yes when he asked
on a beach towel between Florida

and Alabama, yes the timeshares
loomed behind us in their turquoise

and salmon knolls, yes the jellyfish
floated thin as ghosts. How long

until I became just a sad and empty bag?
Weeks later, he and I ate sundaes

on a breezy patio, my eyes rimmed
in salt, while a baby screamed

at the next table over. The dogs and I
have this in common—our mouths

remember everything we put in them:
the bright fruit’s unexpected gristle.

Our own Anne Barngrover has some poetry in Paper Darts.