#279: The English Teacher Reveals the Writing Prompt for the Day

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The English teacher reveals the writing
prompt for the day and tells his students
to start writing and one student doesn’t
have his notebook and while it’s supposed
to be quiet another kid tells the kid
without a notebook that he saw him
leave it inside the lunchroom and
the notebookless kid doesn’t believe
him and for the first three minutes of
the quiet writing time these two boys
are arguing about whether or not the
one kid knows where the other kid
without his notebook
left his notebook.

The English teacher tries to shut
them up so that the other students
can have quiet time to write but
the argument between the boys is
so distracting that words begin
to fail him as he repeats the instructions
in a way that sounds to him incomprehensible
but nevertheless engages his students
in a fury of feverish free writing.

 

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#278: When I Was Away, Before I Was Born, I Have Never Been


I attended a writing workshop last weekend taught by the Oregon Poet Laureate Emeritus Paulann Petersen where I was asked to participate in a generative process very much unlike the process I am used to in my own creative work. It was a very particular kind of brainstorm activity she called “priming.” Now, as a teacher of writing, I ask my students to brainstorm often–but it typically takes a pretty simple or mundane form: freewriting, listing, word mapping, that sort of thing. And I will often do that with them to generate pieces of my own–right along with my students. But left to my own devices, (true confession) I most often skip the brainstorm/priming process altogether. I dive in feet or head first and swim. My brainstorming occurs simultaneously with composition; I storm as I create–in both fiction and in poetry.

So my contribution to day 26 is the result of the brainstorming or “priming” activity Paulanne led us through last Saturday. Different from conventional brainstorming in its specificity, we folded a single piece of paper into three equal columns, and, based on some guided instruction for each of those three columns, we primed ourselves for a poem. With no instructions about how we might tie these things together, we were asked to head each column with the specific name of a place we knew well, to record details of those places in their respective columns, and then add details about what might be happening in those places in our absence. Additionally, and quite discursively, we chose three concrete nouns from lists, a list of words from Szymborska, a list of words from Neruda, or a list of Nature words. We took further notes on what might be happening to or with those nouns, again, in our absence. So, to conclude the longest poem preample in the history of poem preambles, this is what I used for source material, the notes for which are in the photo above. It’s interesting to me what made the cut and what did not:

  • Lewis and Clark College
  • Champoeg State Park
  • The house I grew up in
  • Séance
  • Ancestors
  • Campfire

And here’s the poem:

While I Was Away, Before I Was Born, I Have Never Been

I
While I was away,
strangers moved into the house
I grew up in,
put a garage in the backyard
over the gaping hole where we
used to splash happily inside
the swimming pool. He’s there
now, this neighbor, inside his new garage,
a stranger to me, using a handsaw
to shape oak boards into
another new thing.
I walk by there, trying to
remember. I don’t wave.

II
Before I was born
my uncle Cecil graduated
from Lewis and Clark College
28 years before I would arrive there
on that transformed campus,
still bursting with old fir,
graced by the manor house,
the rose garden, views of the
Portland skyline and Mt. Hood,
but a different school nonetheless,
to be transformed again another
28 years later, and still later,
perhaps for my son, William
Stafford’s voice ringing on and on
inside the library.

III
I have never been
inside the circle at a séance,
whispering to the dead, burning
candles to light their way,
lavendar, or maybe vanilla,
because the dead like
the sweet stuff, are put off by
campfires, smoldering coals, ash—
the fires that burn
long after I’ve fallen asleep,
long after I’ve already gone.

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#277: The Topography of Our Intimate Being

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The Topography of Our Intimate Being

is a box
or a series of boxes.
I’m in there,
over four decades
on hundreds of scattered
pages, in a drawer,
on a shelf, the most
recent version of
myself in a box
on my writing desk,
or, where the oldest
pages are stored, in bins
in the basement,
in a room we call “scary,”
only because it’s the only
enclosed space down there–
and when we bought
the house the door
had a latch for a padlock
as if the previous owners
intended to keep something
or someone in or out.
I’m in there with
the earliest pages,
yellowing now and a
little fragrant from years
of isolation, a novel I wrote
when I was twelve, another
when I was thirteen,
a series of silly essays
I wrote as a teenager,
and then all the detritus
of six years of college
and my first serious attempts
as a fiction writer and poet.
I never look at this stuff
but I continue to save it,
this record of self,
these word snapshots,
moments in time of me
becoming myself becoming
still another self. Who, if anyone,
will know? Who, if anyone, will see?
Who might discover or map
this topography of intimate being?

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#277: Dog and Bunny Medieval Marginalia

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I
A dog astride a bunny
is jousting to the death
against a bunny astride a snail,
battling while balancing
precariously on a thorned tendril
of a rose bush.
The dog appears joyful
in the face of this encounter,
but both the bunny he is riding
and the bunny he is battling
look surprised, concerned,
on their faces the bunny version of
what the fuck.
It may be for the battling bunny
that he is self-conscious of his ride,
a snail after all, and thrown into
the bargain, a snail with a human head,
bearded and balding, no hyper-
sensitive slug antennae protruding.
And the bunny the dog is riding
can’t even look at the proceedings,
is bottomlessly shamed for participating
in the potential destruction and death
of a fellow compatriot, a brother bunny,
a long-time denizen of the community
rabbit hole. The dog with red shield
goes at it while the blue shielded bunny
has only gravity in his favor.

II
I’d like to think
that the medieval monks who scribbled
these delirious drawings in the margins
of what might have been manuscripts
of utmost import and gravity, were
thinking about these things, telling themselves
these stories to distract them from the
tedium of copying someone else’s words.
This is not mine, they said, so I will
make it mine, and I will draw things
like this in the margins, the absurd,
the grotesque, even the obscene;
I will be happy or
at least sufficiently entertained,
and my patrons
will be none the wiser.

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#276: Paradox–a Double Elevenie

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On day 23 of National Poetry Writing Month, I’m back to the suggested prompts: Here are the instructions for an “Elevenie” from Napowrimo: “The first line is one word, a noun. The second line is two words that explain what the noun in the first line does, the third line explains where the noun is in three words, the fourth line provides further explanation in four words, and the fifth line concludes with one word that sums up the feeling or result of the first line’s noun being what it is and where it is.”

 

Solitude
stands alone
near the ocean,
whispering nothing to itself:
needful.

Community
comes together
near the ocean,
bolstering each new solitude:
indispensable.

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#275: At the Writers’ Workshop 

I did not eat a single piece of candy. Boy, that orange was tasty.


This is a special kind of torture. On day 13 of my Whole 30 regimen, as I have sworn off alcohol, grains, beans of any kind, dairy of all sorts, cheese of all stripes, all things artificial, AND sugar, our workshop facilitator today puts a pile of candy in front of me as a writing prompt. I think Hell would be kind of like this: you are faced with and then have to write about all the things that you love, but for some inexplicable reason, cannot have.

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#274: Overheard

For an Easter gift my wife bought me an eraser that looks like a human ear. I brought it to school with me and I overheard the following conversation between two students: one student said to the other student, hey, I dare you. I was curious, so with my rubber eraser ear, I listened more closely. One kid was playing a game not unlike the game children play skipping down the cracked sidewalk trying not to break their mama’s back. This time, however, in a slightly more devious version, this kid was trying to throw something tiny into the garbage can from a distance of a few feet. If the student made the shot, a terrible fate would befall Donald Trump. If he missed the shot, a terrible fate would still befall Donald Trump. One kid said to the other, that’s not fair. That’s like saying, if I make the shot I win and if I miss the shot you lose. And the other kid said, your point?

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