Monday, November 23, 2009

Borrowed Stories

One of the things I'm working on now is collecting other's stories and working them into poems. Right now I'm collecting baby stories and blending them in with my own stories.

I've been wanting to be more narrative in my poems, but less "confessional" and this seems like maybe an interesting balance between the two. I'm interested in how I could take someone else's story and make it my own poem--or a poem all of us can connect to. I'm also curious about what readers think of this "borrowing" idea. I've changed details in all of the stories, changed names, etc. in an attempt to make the poem more mine, and to not expose the original storyteller (this is a small town, after all). This is of course what fiction writers do in every story, so I don't feel unethical about it. But I am concerned that the poems will feel like they belong to me. Thoughts?

Here's one of the new ones I'm working on:

Heart Lottery

After her first son was born
with a heart defect, she insisted
on having testing done in the second
pregnancy. Her doctor said no,
her doctor said, better chance of winning the lottery than a second defect
her doctor said insurance.
But she insisted: order the test. I'll pay for it.
I'll fly to Seattle. I'll be the foolish one.
And so she did—lying on the crinkly, vinyl bed
in the quiet room, ultrasound machine humming
like nervous thoughts over her head, the tech
bored and humming too, and then—there it was—
the winning-the-lottery-second-defect, this one not even the same defect.
They stared at the little thumping heart
opening and closing the wrong way. They would do surgery
the day after he was born. If you would have had this baby
in Ketchikan
, the heart specialist told her, he would have died.
Which she had known, and hadn't known.
She had simply scratched her thumb against her own fearful heart,
hoping for the one break she needed.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Stereotype Busting

So the exercise we did in class this week was to introduce a stereotype and then break it, either in a scene or in a poem. I had them first create a list of the qualities of a stereotyped person, and then write from there. The idea was to embrace some aspects of the stereotype and break others. I always do the exercises I assign my students, just to make sure they work. I had fun with this one!

This Church Lady

Gloria is, in fact, a good cook—
and she signs up regularly for after-service treats:

but what she brings is chili peppers
stuffed with goat cheese, and homemade salsa.

She slaps her son's hand
as he reaches for another chip, says in a whisper,

goddammit Harry, knock it off.

After she gets the kids off to school
(no home school for her, Jesus no)

she descends into her finished basement
in pink feathered flip-flops, black coffee in hand,

to work in her studio. She paints fruit
in erotic positions, life-size nudes of a gay friend

who models for her. Right now she is working
on a banjo—she paints it over and over,

its pregnant belly opened to a cave of sound,
it strings taut as stretch marks.

You can tell, just by looking at that banjo,
how much she hates that thing, how much she hated

being pregnant, how much she hates
the church choir with its uplifting gospel bluegrass

and her red-haired husband, in the back row,
strumming and singing, eyes closed, in perfect grace.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

In the Poetry Blahs

So, a black-clad, cliched poet, I'm waffling wildly between euphoria over a new poem and depression at the general state of my poetry portfolio. Anyone else experience the same sort of celebrate/miserate mix?

I'm working on three projects right now, and this makes me think I'm hedging my bets. Maybe I need to commit to just one? I'm always most excited about the newest stuff, and this makes me less eager to be committed to older work--the stuff more likely, I know, to get published or turned into a book. I need to sit down and revise a manuscript, but I keep finding myself writing new poems instead.

The 3rd project, my newest, is just starting to form in my head. I'm finding myself (not surprisingly) writing a lot of baby poems. This delights and horrifies me. I mean, baby poems? Who is going to want to read those besides grandmothers? But I can't seem to stop myself...I'm addicted. So, could this be a project? Or am I dreaming? Right now I'm conceiving the book as a blend of personal, lyric poems about my girls, spliced into narrative poems about other children/parents/babies, most of which right now are very dark (babies dying of sids, child abuse, etc.). So I know it won't be a sweetness-and-light book, but could it work?

Here's one of the new, probably ill-fated poems.

Sleeping with Ellie, Four Months

I wake at 11:00, 3:00, 6:30
to your little arm waving
in the dark.

Your fingers rake the air
testing the waters, to see if
I am still near.

A little snore floats past,
the leaves of a dream,
a current of cold.

I reach out and pluck
you into the boat
of me, curve around you,

fill your mouth
with my warm breast
and listen to you draw me in.

All around us the cold night
air currents and eddies,
against the timbers of our sleep

and I can imagine it's this easy
to keep you this close, this safe,
above the world's deep waters.