Car Crash Haiku

Damaged bumpers from car accident

As we were about to read Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art” for the poem of the day, I was introducing my students to a poetic formal structure I was pretty sure none of them had ever heard of, the villanelle. To begin with, I explained to them that a formal structure was one in which the poet was following a set of rules. I asked them if they knew of any formal poetic structures, and as it turns out, most of them were familiar with these two giants: the sonnet and the haiku. We unpacked what they could remember about the rules of a sonnet, and then the haiku. Many of them recited: five, seven, five. Okay, a haiku is a three line poem in which the first line is five syllables long, the second line is seven syllables long, and the third line five syllables long. I do not consider myself a haiku scholar by any stretch, but I ventured to guess out loud for the edification of my charges that there might be other “rules” at work in a haiku, especially in its most traditional form. I speculated that many haiku are meditative in tone and usually incorporate some nature imagery. And then I told them that they were unlikely, for example, to find very many car crash haiku. After one student suggested that Car Crash Haiku might be a great name for a band, I laughed out loud, agreed, came pretty close right then and there to walking out of the room to form such a band, and then, having embraced the idea fully, I suggested a student could actually do a series of car crash haiku, thought better of it, and claimed the idea for my own–which, you know, is kind of a cheat–because any individual in that room could go out into the world with their own series of car crash haiku and there wouldn’t be anything I could do about it. So, this little paragraph is just to say that somebody might be generating some number of car crash haiku in the near future. It could become an entirely new haiku school. I just wanted people to know how it started. You’re welcome.

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#344: Who Let The Dogs Out?

They let themselves out, thank you very much.
On a warm, August night, 11 pm, something outside
catches their attention, and the larger of my two dogs
simply stands up on her hind legs and, using
the handle, opens the latched screen door.
And they run. Together. Free to run and roam.
They cross the busy street into the neighborhood
of brand new houses across the way and again,
partners in crime, they pillage, side by side.

I’m in the house cursing. I grab the double dog
lead and arm myself with a couple of biscuits,
and out I go. They will not come to me. I follow,
doggedly, into neighborhood streets. Calling after
them, but not loud enough to wake anyone
and unfortunately, not loud enough to get the
attention of my freedom-crazed pets. A bit of good
news: they make their way down a dead end.
They go to the very last house, and because
they are dogs, they sense another dog inside.
The house is dark. It’s 11:00 pm, but inside,
a little dog starts with the yapping. And all
the sensory lights outside go on. I manage,
somehow, with the treat, to capture one of them,
the door-handle dog, larger, younger than
the other, still with a degree of puppy love
for the humans in her care. She takes the biscuit
and I leash her up. Meanwhile, the other one
sets off a car alarm when she runs underneath
and I am certain that these people are coming
outside with baseball bats. They don’t. The dog
makes her way back down the street, goes into
another back yard through an opening in a fence,
and I am pissed at this one. She emerges.
I throw the treat down on to the pavement and
finally, she approaches. I’m feeling vindictive
and when she gets close enough I scoop
up the biscuit and deftly grab that collar.
No treat for you, I say. I lead them both home
and boy, do they get an earful.

Damn dogs. I love them both,
but at times like this, I really hate them.
But look at that face. And that other one.
My hatred is impossible to sustain
and I will snuggle with them both
before I turn in for the night.

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Life Envy: The FOMO

 

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I want to be living that life. By myself, late at night, sitting in the dark of the back yard with my phone, the dog, and a drink, I actually heard myself say this out loud: I want to be living that life. It’s crazy, I know, but looking sometimes at pictures of people on Facebook doing things you would like to do, having experiences you would like to have, you get this feeling, an inescapable feeling that you are missing out. We call it FOMO. I must admit that I have experienced the FOMO. I try as best as I can to massage my FOMO into something like happiness for the person in the post: I am so glad they get to have this experience. Then, I take it a little bit further by thinking that I am so glad they decided to share this moment with their friends, of which I consider myself one. Then, the conclusion of the exercise is to think or actually say out loud how grateful I am for the experiences I have had, the luck, and the privilege. I know, in these moments, I have had experiences that some of my friends have never had, and I know that I am super fortunate because of that. In 95% of my waking existence on the planet I would not trade my life for anyone else’s. But on this last occasion, when I caught myself expressing the FOMO out loud to no one in particular, to the trees, to the dog in the yard, to the martini I was sipping, to myself, I panicked for a moment. What is it about this that I desire? The person in question may be beautiful. It may be that they seem extremely happy or content. In all likelihood, they are in a place I have always wanted to go, seeing something I have always wanted to see, learning something I have always wanted to learn, successful at something at which I too would like to succeed, or doing something I know I would enjoy but find I have not yet had the opportunity to enjoy. It is ridiculous and ridiculously human, a tendency we have always had, to be envious of others, but now exacerbated by social media because we are not only hearing ABOUT the experiences of others, we are seeing them in photo, or seeing and hearing them in video, ALL THE TIME. And that pushes the buttons of desire and envy. But . . .

It’s like meditation. You don’t beat yourself up when your mind wanders. Instead, you simply notice its wandering, you pay attention, and then you come back to the breath or the mantra and you continue. Maybe that’s why I said it out loud: I want to be living that life. I was paying attention. It was kind of an alarm set off by my internal brakes to the wheels of envy and desire. This is better than what I suspect a lot of people do: they see their friends and acquaintances living a great life and they begin to feel anxious and sad without being aware of the connection. And we have to remind ourselves, don’t we, that our facebook personalities are self-curated. Some people select only the happiest moments and ignore the trauma and sadness, others, in an effort to be authentic, balance the joy and the suffering, while still others use social media to essentially suffer in public. While the middle way seems most admirable, none of these strategies are inclusive of a life. They’re still just snapshots. Judging me from my facebook posts, it might seem like the only thing I ever do is play the drums and listen to music and that I am an extremely cheerful guy. Only partly true. There are things that make me fearful or anxious; there are issues that need attending in my own inner and outer work; I sometimes question, as William Stafford does, if “what I have done is my life.” It is pointless to haunt one’s self with What If questions. If one is haunted by a What If question, perhaps some action is necessary. But if one is suspicious, self-reflective enough to recognize the FOMO for what it is, sure, go ahead and say out loud, I want to be living that life. In the next moment, though, allow the gratitude to bubble up for this one–and then put your phone away, write a poem or read a book, or have a drink outside with your dog.

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The American English Teacher Rereads a Clean Copy of Beloved

I’ve posted a slightly different version of this piece before, two years ago and some change. It seems appropriate to post this revision now in honor of Toni Morrison, whose fiction has over the course of my adult life completely changed my heart and my brain in immeasurably powerful and positive ways.

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The American English Teacher Rereads a Clean Copy of Beloved

My classroom copy is copiously marked in three or four colors of highlighter and underlined and bracketed and annotated with pen and pencil seven different ways to Sunday. I’ve read and reread and reread this novel perhaps eight or nine times now, but this time I choose a clean, elegant copy over my raggedy-ass classroom copy and it’s like reading it for the first time again. I’m a sucker for fine editions and could not resist this one. I can smell the ink. I can feel the lettering engraved into the spine like braille, or like the text carved into a tombstone, Beloved. And my reading this time is not cluttered by my previous readings, marked up by some earlier version of me who thought he had answers. I complain sometimes about the time I lack to read new work because I am always rereading to teach. And yet, with this gem, I might be happy if it were the only book I could ever read until I died. Every time I read it I find new things to love and new reasons to mourn or hope, and I understand more deeply how tragic our history, how tenacious our ghosts, how all the repair work in our country that needs doing (now more than ever before) springs from this, from this.

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Dispatches from Writer’s Camp: All Good Things. . .

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Our time together had come to a close and I was alone in the dorm where we stayed at Macalester College for the annual Warren Wilson MFA Alumni Conference. It was strange, that quiet, after all that activity, after all that brilliant conversation, after the nightly readings and daily classes, the meals together three times a day, the walks around surrounding St. Paul, and the laughs and drinks around the common room way into the wee hours. It felt kind of spooky, surreal. Where’d everybody go? And this was not my school, my town, my home, and my plane would leave late–so there was a bizarre sense that I’d been abandoned here. On top of that, after a week of near perfect beautiful weather, it was raining. It was cloudy and dark and thunderous.

And yet, my heart and head were brimming, practically exploding with gratitude for this week of treasures and this incredible community, the likes of which I have experienced in no other place.

And after a lonely day in the dorm by myself, packing, napping, a little light reading of things I have written and some things written by my friends, I had the great pleasure and honor of an early Thai dinner with my dear friend and co-coordinator Terri Ford before she took me to the airport and sent me on my way.

I have started a practice, each time I attend a Warren Wilson MFA Alumni Conference, of doing a series of blog entries under the heading, “Dispatches from Writer’s Camp.” In some years, I might do a whole string of them, almost every day of the week-long conference, but I notice a significant change when I am coordinating in some official capacity. This year at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota, I was coordinating in some official capacity. I wrote a dispatch two days before I arrived, during the conference I wrote zero dispatches, and here I am, back home in Portland, Oregon, writing the only official dispatch from the conference, several days after the fact. I was too busy to write, mostly, over the past week, and when I did have time to write, my focus was on generating new creative work.

I’m not sure how to capture the week. The task, in full blown prose paragraphs, seems daunting. I will try instead a number of bullet items that, I hope, will succinctly capture the highlights of the week.

  • Macalester is a beautiful campus surrounded conveniently by a commercial district, making it super easy to forage on foot for things we needed or to find interesting distractions if a break or some good exercise was in order.
  • In a novelty gift shop almost across the street from campus, I found a set of cocktail glasses–because it’s difficult to drink good whiskey out of a plastic cup.
  • One could walk, and many of us did, to the Mississippi River!
  • Terri Ford took me to Hell’s Kitchen for breakfast! OMG!
  • We volunteered to teach classes to each other and there were scads of great ones to choose from: the fiction of Joan Silber, the mystery and history of memoir, collaboration and cross-pollination in the arts, Jung’s shadow archetype, marketing strategies, persona poems, issues of misappropriation, the lyric essay, Elizabeth Bishop, a round-robin reading of Shakespeare’s As You Like It (in full!), diction enhancements, supportive strategies for getting started, a table reading of a play by one of our campers, and finally a film/memoir project enriched and deepened by the revelation of family secrets! Oh my!
  • This last class around Family Secrets had many of us diving into our own family histories–super relevant to moi, in particular, and to the writing project on which I am about to embark.
  • A group of us meditated every morning, opening and closing our silence with poems by Mary Oliver, William Stafford, May Sarton, and Margaret Wheatley.
  • We heard 42 absolutely stellar readings from our campers.
  • One of our esteemed Masters of Ceremony, Helen Fremont, threatened readers who went over the ten minute limit with super soaker squirt guns. Happily, these weapons were never employed or deployed.
  • We gave our readings in a church, the campus chapel–until the PA broke down–and then we moved into a space that felt more like a night club. Both venues, totally appropriate.
  • We held two writing contests, one of which was a 25 word lyric to be sung to the tune of. . . Much hilarity ensued.
  • People were workshopping all over the place in small groups, sharing their writing with each other, receiving generous and supportive feedback, learning about the enormous gifts of their fellow campers. I heard nothing but rave reviews from people in these groups. All of us, having experienced at one time or another the nightmare MFA workshop, have learned in our practice together how to jettison all of that baggage. No writers are ever harmed, damaged, or traumatized at an Alumni Conference workshop. That seems to be a given.
  • We held a noisy silent auction to raise money for Friends of Writers. Two of the most interesting auction donations: an impersonation of Ruth Bader Ginsberg on your voicemail message, and a performance of an opera aria–and lucky for us campers, the winning bidder requested that the aria be performed at the conclusion of our last night of readings. Can you say “transcendent”? I knew that you could.
  • And no alumni conference would be complete without a dance. So we danced.
  • We had 47 campers! Many of them had come to previous conferences, but a good number this year were attending a conference for the first time, and a number of those were brand new graduates of the Warren Wilson Program for Writers. Cause for celebration, indeed. But for me and others, we were sorely missing some of our buddies who have come before, but for some reason, couldn’t make it this year. And every year for the past three years we have grieved the loss of our beloved Carlen Arnett. We miss her so much, and yet, she is always present.
  • We all learned so much from each other. But on a personal note, I learned something about my own process, and perhaps, that deserves a paragraph.

Concerning my own creative output, I have discerned a pattern, one that I realize now I have been repeating all through my writing life. I will have an idea that I believe is worth writing about but I won’t know how to go about it. For example, I have, over the course of my entire career, wanted to write a book about teaching. I wrote poems here and there, I wrote essays and blog entries, letters, and sometimes (often) would work teachers into my fiction. But none of these, while satisfying in their own right, were trending toward the book I wanted to write, a book that, instead of advocating a particular practice, strategy, or argument, would instead just accurately and engagingly capture the life of this vocation I have chosen. It has taken me 30 years to find finally a form or structure that will contain the idea. It has taken the shape of a collection of micro-essays or prose poems that I have titled, “Fail Better: The American English Teacher Makes a To-Do List.” I doubt that I would have made this discovery without the gifts of the Alumni Conference. Finishing, or close to finishing that manuscript prior to arriving at camp, my challenge this year was to figure out how and what I can write toward a title that I have had swimming around my head for years now. And I think, as a result of some inspiration from the folks at Rinky Dink Press and continual inspiration from my fellow campers, I have finally found a form for the new project, a memoir written in short numbered bursts of no more than 50 or 60 words. Don’t ask me why, but this feels like a fit–and I have now discovered some momentum towards a rough rough draft.

Recently, one of those inspirational memes has been making the rounds, a list of three things you can do in order to fail at life. In a nutshell: blame, complain, and be continually ungrateful. I have decided, that in large part, my tribe of graduates of the Goddard/Warren Wilson MFA Program for Writers, and in particular the miracle of this unique alumni community and my sense of profound belonging within it, has made it virtually impossible for me to fail at life.

Cheers. Until next year!

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The chapel panorama

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The chapel

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The clubhouse

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The Mississippi

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Hell’s Kitchen

 

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Dispatches from Writer’s Camp: Countdown T-Minus a Day and Some Change

I’ve got plane tickets, I’ve got plane snacks, I’ve got a new Moleskine notebook, I’ve got the new album by GLASYS, I’ve printed and practiced my reading, I’ve chosen some poems for morning meditation, I’ve packed my copies of Monster Talk, I got a tooth crowned, I got my hair cut, I got a copy of As You Like It, I’ve listened to the playlist for the dance, I’ve answered every email, sent off the schedule, troubleshot and revised the schedule, ordered beer and wine for the receptions, made myself a packing list, purchased a pair of shorts with lobsters on them and a couple of silly t-shirts, I have communicated back and forth with my co-colluder Terri Ford, the wonder of the planet, my poet friend and partner in crime, and have almost not forgotten anything important as I do all this stuff in preparation for joining my tribe of writers for the annual Warren Wilson Alumni MFA Conference. All I have to do now is a little laundry, some packing of suitcase and carry-on, eat my last meals in the house, do a couple of drumming gigs, and wait a single day longer. I fly out Sunday morning at six flipping a.m. to St. Paul, Minnesota toward my final destination: Macalester College, which I’m told, looks something like this.

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There are very few things I look forward to more in life than joining my Wally Tribe for Writer’s Camp. I go almost every year. I fly to Massachusetts or North Carolina or California, once I didn’t have to fly anywhere because it was held in my lovely city of Portland, and when I arrive at my destination I convene and commune with the most supportive and creative and inspiring group of people I have ever come to know, with very few exceptions. We talk, we teach, we learn, we workshop, we share our work, we have meals together three times a day, we laugh a lot, and we dance–one of the only places you will ever catch me dancing.  It is, has always been, without exception, one of the most joyful experiences of my life. So I am, to put it mildly, STOKED.

This year’s trip, though, has a note of bittersweetness. I will miss my family more so than usual–because right before I leave, the very day before, my wife and my son will have already been away for a week at a camp of their own, the Alan Keown Drum Line Camp. My family has been away for a week and the moment they return I will be leaving for another week. Well, you know what they say. Absence, and not being together on your 33rd wedding anniversary, makes the heart grow fondue. I mean fonder. I must say, and I’m not joking, that I do feel a kind of fondness blossoming. I am super jazzed about meeting up with my writing buddies, but I do miss my family. I think that’s a good thing.

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On Social Networks, Redux: Is Real Dialogue Possible?

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This is a follow-up from an entry I made in 2012, before Trump’s presidency, before fake news, before Russian interference in our democracy, before doctored videos that made Nancy Pelosi seem like a drunk, from a time when, nevertheless, half way into Obama’s two-term presidency, a vicious kind of divide was taking place, exacerbated by and made manifest in all social media platforms. In that moment, I was writing about a facebook fight that ensued between myself (a public classroom teacher) and a “friend” of mine who posted that school shootings were somehow the direct result of Americans falling away from religion.

I thought I had learned my lesson. I have, since 2012, been in the habit, when facebook friends of mine post something that makes me angry, rather than engaging in the faceless debate, of simply ignoring or de-friending them. It’s easy enough. But yesterday, when a facebook friend (who is not a close friend but a former peer from high school) posted a meme with the image of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez accompanied by text seemingly attributed to her, text that she clearly has never uttered, text that, nonetheless, made her sound like an idiot, I felt compelled to respond. I responded. I said something to the effect that the meme was bullshit because AOC had never said the words the meme attributed to her: “Yes, we can land on the sun; we just have to go at night.” So, to unpack this a bit: the message, of course, inherent in the meme is not necessarily that AOC said this–but that if she were given the chance, she would have–because, you know, she is, after all, just a stupid waitress. This is unfair and inappropriate on so many levels, but that, I believe, is the gist of it. And there are lots of mouth breathers out there who would just mindlessly accept that the sentiment here is true. Additionally, and even more troublesome, there may be a number of slow-thinkers reading this meme who believe that AOC actually said these words, and thus, believe it provides proof of her lack of intelligence. This is the fake news–this is the propaganda so perniciously and easily spread throughout the web by an ideology that has no respect or regard for truth.

So I called out my high school friendly-acquaintance. He wrote back: it’s just a joke. I wrote back, how is this funny? He wrote back: get a sense of humor. I wrote back and thanked him for the sage advice. He wrote back: go ahead and unfriend me, then. Okay, but then, a couple of his buddies chime in. One says, to confirm the veracity of the meme, “AOC is a dumbass.” And then, some other guy, after calling me “bitchy,” says this: “Mike, I’m close. Come find me.” And I’m like, what the fuck does that mean?–but I didn’t post that. In fact, at that point, rather than unfriending or blocking the friend or any of his brilliant pals, I just decided to turn off notifications to the thread. I don’t know what that guy meant, but it seemed to me potentially threatening. It’s the grade school playground all over again. Someone disagrees with you? Threaten to beat them up. And here’s the thing that I would like these guys to understand, even though I have refused to further engage with any of them: I don’t care what your politics are. I DO care that your idea of political engagement is to post insulting and blatantly untrue memes about your opponents. I DO care that you take the time to articulate your criticisms of policy and politicians with substance, thoughtfulness, and above all, honesty. I went back to this thread today to see if anything else had happened there, and this is as substantive as it got: “Three words: green new deal. How stupid can you be?” Wow. I’m convinced, aren’t you? This guy has deemed stupid the green new deal–and me into the bargain. I am sufficiently put into my place. I can’t even begin to unpack the ridiculousness of this comment.

So the question, again, is this: is dialogue possible in this format? I am almost completely convinced that it is not. There’s a part of me that feels responsible for calling out bullshit when I see it, because that’s the ethical thing to do, and yet there is another part of me that does not have that kind of energy to invest, that believes that ultimately, any effort I make to ask people to explain their insane ideas will fall on deaf, dumb, and hostile ears.

It’s all kitty and puppy pictures from here on out.

 

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