This Poetry Thang

Last Summer, I was grateful to learn that a pair of my poems had placed in a competition held by the Virginia Poetry Society.  A few weeks later my award, a check for $50, arrived in the mail.  This stunned me.  Over the past 40 years or so, I’ve written at least a thousand things that I call poems, attempting to articulate nuggets of insight or awareness with an accessible line that yet rewards rereading.  It’s a fine line to walk, especially nowadays, when the poetry in journals seems divided between the warring camps of confessional blatherers and hermetically sealed puzzle makers.  Of course, the very  idea of spending time writing poetry is absurd, unless you may be one of the English professors who rely on occasional publication to keep your job.  So for me a passionate hobby, I guess you’d call it.  Sometimes I’d send out a batch (this has become easier over the years, thanks to online submissions), and occasionally one would get published.  But getting a check came as such a surprise!  Who knew that a lifetime of scribbling poems could be so lucrative!

But that’s a snide thing to say.  Millions of people write poems, fretting and sweating over the right word placed just so inside a matrix that doesn’t quite mesh, but let me try this.  When they could be binging Netflix!  Some of this work sees the light of day, so to speak, in journals nobody reads, but most of it collects on laptops or in little notebooks, destined for the dust bin.  A check for $50 would surprise these poets, my kin, as much as it did me.  It’s an odd cult, isn’t it?  At St. Phillips Church here in Richmond, sometimes hundreds turn out for readings by laureates.  In the past year, sitting on a pew at some of these events, I’ve been moved as much by the communal leaning in with ears perked as by the regally intoned prosody.

Then this.  One of my poems “Immigrant Reflection” piqued the attention of the judge in this year’s James River Writers/Richmond Magazine Shann Palmer Poetry Contest.  She’s a well-known, well-published poet, a person who can make a living doing this, a VCU graduate by the name of Tarfia Faizullah.  And what she wrote about my poem when it was (amazingly!) published this month in Richmond magazine touched me profoundly, as if I had been grokked:

I love the lucidity of voice in “Immigrant Reflection.” This poem showed me worlds that I’ve never visited but found warmly drawn and happily familiar.  It reminds me that life is both grand and quotidian at once:  “We never learned much,” the speaker recalls nonchalantly, before stating a number of life’s largest and most crucial lessons:  “How to catch a fish./How to dip in dance.”  The conclusion astounded me in its wisdom, and awareness of every immigrant’s strange inheritance: to be always both there and here.  This poem made me think “Yes, it is like that, isn’t it?”  And that is a very good thing.  The ending slayed me with its casual tenderness.  The narrower lines made for a very satisfying tempo.  I beamed!  Thank you for taking the time to reflect.

No, thank you, Ms. Faizullah.  I share your comment shamelessly, because it seems like such a miracle, and I can’t expect that it will happen again.  On behalf of all of us scribblers who yearn all but hopelessly for such a generous and attentive reading someday, thank you.  We should all be so lucky.

By the way, just learned that the winning poems from the contest are available to read online here:  https://richmondmagazine.com/news/features/2018-shann-palmer-poetry-contest/.  Enjoy!

On Reading a Worn Copy of Kerouac’s Dharma Bums at 62

Finished Dharma Bums, its final rapturous rush as Kerouac’s protagonist (clearly and baldly autobiographical) packed a Summer on a Cascades Mountains (Desolation Peak) fire lookout into half a dozen pages; the final page as innocently exalted as I have felt in my epiphanies, so many of them nature-driven, and heartbreaking since we know how his short life will devolve into alcoholism (his drinking a recurrent theme in the book, the Gary Snyder character deriding him for always needing a drink) and a sequestered death at his mother’s house in Florida. Coming off the mountain, believing he’s learned an ultimate truth through a Buddhist filter, all is right; he fears and yearns for the tumult of the cities, suggests that the lessons of his mountaintop solitary Summer will carry him through. I have felt exactly that, and wondered if I was the only one who had walked that path. Kerouac says, no, this is not an uncommon thing, it’s open to anyone; just let yourself turn towards that edge of madness depth perception, check your everyday cynicism at the door, and grin.

Can’t believe I’ve never read this book before. It sums up so beautifully a path I’ve trod (and you have to think this book influenced the music and literature and the whole cultural gestalt that led me along all these years – it certainly had to up the ante for the coming youth movement, almost seems a blueprint for hippiedom and its many offshoots, in ways that On the Road was not) (that classic almost a cautionary tale about the dread of aimlessness, whereas Dharma Bums, with its hilariously ham-handed and dilettantish Buddhistic flourishes, points the callow reader towards inward-seeking life goals Thoreau or Muir would have appreciated).

The woodsy parties sound like Electric Kool Aid Acid Test fests, minus the LSD (not yet invented), no doubt emulated by all the hippie communes to come. I’ve been to parties like that – I’m thinking especially of weekends at Nora’s rundown Mississippi plantation. Young people at play with flowers in our hair, skinny dipping in the creek, at the cusp of some sort of revelation, and holding it there like a glow of pot smoke swelling our lungs. Those weekends, probably every day of my wild oats years in New Orleans, too, just another On the RoadDharma Bums derivative. And not just then and not just me, of course. Think of their influence on the searching, fulfillment-yearning, meandering way we have all lived in the sixty-plus years since their publication! Even if you never read them, they signified.  What culture shaking power Kerouac’s two great novels unleashed!