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Archive for October, 2012

Ohi.

I’ve missed a bunch of you since dropping out of the Poetry Friday scene earlier this year. After 18 months of posting original poems and making the rounds I felt like I needed to take a break (or give you all a break, depending on how you felt about my poetry!) and refocus my energies on other things. Getting a job after 4 years of unemployment was one of those “other things” and the result was that the writing balance in my life sort of shifted onto a back-burner. I’ve been slowly looking for opportunities to nudge back onto creative turf and this week I stumbled onto something that became a perfect catalyst.

Also, it makes a good poetry challenge for all, and could be the start of something big and new.

Over at Guys Lit Wire there was a re-post of a Neil Gaiman video where he’s proposing everyone give someone they know a scary book for Halloween, a project he’s calling All Hallow’s Read. Neil hardly needs my help getting the word out about anything, but if you want to see what he’s up to (along with a half-dozen people playing zombie in a graveyard over his shoulder) the you’ll want to check this out. But also in the post was a link to someone who had taken Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Raven” and printed it as a single-sheet self-binding booklet to be given away. It’s a cool idea, but it got me thinking.

What if, instead of a chapbook, all of us poetry advocates decided to give out something a little more manageable, spooky but fun? What about something as bite-sized as those little candy bars that get handed out, I wondered. What if, along with a treat, we tossed into trick-or-treater’s goodie bags…

An original Halloween limerick!

They would fit nicely on those pre-perforated business card sheets that you run through a computer printer, dozens of them would be super cheap, and they’re just the right size for carrying around in a pocket and sharing on the playground the next day! Share with friends! Collect them all! Trade them for valuable candies!

Why limericks?

First, it’s short and fits the space nicely. Five lines with an AABBA rhyme scheme that literally sings. The limerick also has great tradition of both nonsense and a twist ending, a character and an undoing or a fatal flaw. Plus a limerick feels most complete as a narrative style, it doesn’t necessarily invite reflection so much as it tells a great little story. In rhyme.

My personal feeling about this is that these Halloween poems is that they be like little birds (or ghoulish ravens, if you will) released into the night and allowed to spark and ignite a correlation between scary and fun and poetry, or any combination thereof. I would certainly expect that if you were to do this that you put your name on it, and maybe a website or email address, though there might be something scary-fun about an anonymous poem magically appearing among the candy. Maybe on the back of the poem you could print up a “Happy Halloween 2012 Trick-or-Treat Poem Day” or something like that along with some scary fun clip art. As long as the fun of the poem wasn’t diluted with a marketing promo, a moral message, or an obnoxious copyright warning that has a word count more than twenty characters or so, I think what it looks like is up to you.

What do you say? Anyone up for this?

I would be jazzed if people posted their poems as comments, and it would be a kick to see photos of the final product. Feel free to share this idea with anyone and everyone, just convince them to drop by and share what they did in the comments.

And now, just to show you what I mean, a trio of newly minted Halloween limericks!

In the rain a young pumpkin named Josh
Rolled down into the lane for a slosh.
His friends back on the vine
Couldn’t warn him in time
As a car came and turned him to squash!

A single dead playboy named Lance
Tried to score at The Afterlife Dance
He came dressed to the nines,
Spouting bad pick-up lines,
But he hadn’t a ghost of a chance!

On All Hallow’s Eve, dark and pale,
The same wretched thing happens to Gail;
She casts spells the whole day
To keep strangers at bay–
Trick-or-treaters show up without fail.

So it’s Poetry Friday, here and there about the internet. A little early, perhaps, but you can go a-trick-or-treating about the offerings over at Live Your Poem where Irene is hosting today.

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As a result of watching the recent presidential debates I’ve had the opportunity to catch glances of local broadcast news. I don’t watch a lot of tv and certainly not the news because in the past I found it to be shallow, superficial in its coverage, and slanted deep into sensationalism. These recent glances have reconfirmed my views and I now believe news exists purely as an instrument of fear mongering.

To what end, what purpose is all this fear sold to us as information that we feel compelled to need?

Fear, I’ve decided, is our national drug, our soma, one that once consumed requires a steady diet. Politicians dispense with rational and honest discourse in favor of getting votes by pushing fear like drug dealers earning loyalty – and dependency – by giving it away freely. The media redistributes this fear-drug after cutting it with good old-fashioned advertising hucksterism, knowing the consumer won’t consider the harmful side effects and decay to their ability to reason because they’ve become dependent on it. Thus the constant need for greater amounts of fear just to feel sated.

Enter dystopia.

The Science Fiction genre has a long tradition of discussing our current problems by masking them in constructed worlds similar to our own but distant enough not to cause us anxiety. They feed our strange human desires to explore new worlds, engage with the possibilities of life beyond our solar system, and through various proxies shine a light on our very human condition. They are cautionary, sometimes moral, tales with the promise of salvation or a warning of ruination as a matter of choice.

With kids constantly fed a steady diet of fear – on tv, in politics, in classrooms, anywhere it can be pedaled in favor of the ability to think for oneself – it shouldn’t be a surprise that they have grown to expect a dire future as entertainment. The ultimate message may be one of the human spirit triumphant over forces of darkness-to-come but rarely does it extend beyond the narrative hero. It is the flaw of hero-worship, this notion that one person may triumph in the end with the assumption that all will be right with the world from that point out. Revolution and change are rarely the carefully orchestrated desires of one individual motivating the masses, they are the will of the masses unified to rise up against the individual for the good of all.

The dystopic vision doesn’t happen in a vacuum, it isn’t the will of one person forced down on all, it is a collective agreement and a surrendering of free will and free thought that allows for the worst to happen. Over time, and with a steady diet of dark futures without workable solutions provided as road maps, dystopia as entertainment may condition readers to readily accept these worlds as eventualities. Fear re-conditions the mind to accept being afraid as a standard state of affairs, thus requiring a constant feed of fear in order to feel normal.

It took decades before people broke free of the fear and political inevitability of a nuclear Cold War. As entertaining as dystopic fiction can be, I hope it isn’t decades before readers (and writers) snap out of the coma of fear and seek out the roots of new stories that honor rational thought and honest discourse, and that politicians and the media lead, follow, or get out of the way.

Or, to bastardize Vonnegut: Tomorrow becomes the illusion we choose to believe, so we must take care in the illusions we choose to believe.

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In articles on writing, in agents calls to prospective authors, in creative writing courses everyone talks about characters needing a strong voice. You really want to see the characters in the way they talk, you want hear a voice you’ve never heard before. I get it, because when you read a strong voice it really sounds like you’ve captured something unique.

But I’m beginning to wonder if these strong character voices in literature are little more than the gilt edging on a book made from cheap materials. Oh, sure, it looks pretty, but how long is it going to last?

Can I blame our current trends in pop music for lowering our expectations? The radio (however you conceive it today) is full of a lot of hit songs that are catchy and bouncy and full of strong voices but musically they’re about as unique as a cheap ballpoint pen; they’re functional, disposable, interchangeable, and forgettable.

There was a time — pull up a rocker, the cranky old man is about to come out — when popular music moved from manufactured hits to artists looking to be more creative. Bands evolved into creative units looking to expand their musical vocabularies, a path blazed by the Beatles and followed by many. And when the Beatles broke up and become solo artists the era of the singer-songwriter blossomed. There are many things to be said — good and bad — about the music that came out of the “classic” era of classic rock, but for a period of time what’s clear is that music was a marriage of vocal, lyrical, AND musical ideas. True, Led Zeppelin was simply amplified blues and Jethro Tull towed old English folk sensibilities into their songs, but there were ideas that went beyond their singer’s voices. Crosby, Stills, Nash and (occasionally) Young didn’t invent vocal harmony, but they didn’t rest entirely on that magical melding of sounds; listen to the structure of their songs, their free-form progressions, and you realize that much of what they did would have been unique even without their stellar vocal approach.

The point is, there was more to pop music than a voice.

But today we have reality TV shows that celebrate the cult of voice as being above all things in music, throwing out the notion of original music by having people sing known songs and not dealing with anything more daring that a slightly different arrangement. As TV goes it’s cheap to produce, and besides a back-up band all you really need is a microphone for the singer, no messy band gear to set up. It is, in a sense, all surface with little substance.

And this is where I’m starting to have problems with this idea of voice.

In the Cult of Voice in pop culture an action hero with a reliable catch phrase is more memorable than a well-crafted monologue. Wise-cracking teens (who are much more articulate and quick-witted than real teens) dance their way through epically-told tales of romance and death fetish (zombies, vampires, etc.). But the author with a unique narrative approach, a story with three-dimensional characters with baroque dialogue, those are not the voices the gatekeepers are looking for, move along.

In a recent #kidlitchat on twitter a question was raised: in today’s climate would Shel Silverstein be published today? I immediately said ‘no.’ I wonder if many of the no-considered classics in children’s literature, or classic rock for that matter, would have survived our contemporary need for strong voices above unique ideas or a bold authorial style. If Vonnegut were just starting out, would he make it? Could Anais Nin unseat “Fifty Shades of Grey” on style alone? Is it possible that Roald Dahl could only have existed in his time?

I know I’ve garbled this subject, with music and TV and book references, but all the same I cannot help feeling like so much of what is published is voice-over-storytelling.

A correction is in order, a new balance. Writers need to dig deep down and let their freak flag fly. Hopefully the business side of the storytelling factory can hear the story above the din of empty voices.

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