Taming the Wildebeest

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This week, I had the chance to attend the Richard Ellman Lecture Series at Emory University. It is a four-part event, held biannually, that features a great literary thinker. The last presenter, Margaret Atwood, was wonderful, and I expected nothing less of this year’s speaker—Paul Simon.

He gave two lectures, had a public conversation with Billy Collins, and gave a concert to bring the event to a close. I had tickets to all parts except the concert (because they went like wildfire the morning they were released). But that didn’t matter because, during the conversation, I got to hear Billy Collins read five poems and Paul Simon sing three songs—“Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard,” “The Sound of Silence,” and “Slip Slidin’ Away.”

I also briefly met both men after their time on stage was up, which was a thrill to say the least! And, despite the long, hectic day, they were wonderful and gracious and signed the stuff I stuck in front of them.

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I got both in one day. Color me excited!

During their discussion of songwriting/poetry, they agreed that there is no moment in a piece of writing that is without consequence. As Mr. Collins said, “No line must sleep; every line must make a contribution.”

They went back and forth for the better part of an hour discussing exactly how to go about it (and how you could know you had accomplished this lofty goal.) However, the most interesting point for me was the “wildebeest note” example Mr. Simon gave.

Apparently, when he was recording “Rewrite,” a song on his 2011 album So Beautiful So What, a note at the end of a repeated phrase just sounded “wrong.” Not out of tune or a poor fit for the key, just flat out wrong. It sounded, according to him, “like a note being played on an acoustic guitar in a recording studio.”

That’s exactly what it was, but he wanted it to have an altogether different color, a distinctive depth of tone. So he said he thought on it for awhile and decided to blend that slightly pear-shaped note with a sound he had recorded on his last visit to Africa.

Photograph by ABPL/Gerald Hinde/Animals Animals—Earth Scenes. Image courtesy of National Geographic.
Photograph by ABPL/Gerald Hinde/Animals Animals—Earth Scenes. Image courtesy of National Geographic.

Yep, you guessed it….a wildebeest. There is a note in “Rewrite” that is part guitar and part wild animal, but for the life of me, I cannot hear it. Can you?

He went to amazing lengths to get a sound precisely correct. He labored over it for who knows how long until it resonated just the way he thought it should. My ears cannot suss it out, and had I not attended this lecture series, I wouldn’t even know to listen for it. But it’s there just the same.

That’s the kind of attention to detail that has to be present when we create anything, be it in the field of music, art, dance or writing. And it made me ask myself, “Am I always paying that much attention to the things I create? Have I settled for an almost-right word instead of going back to the thesaurus one more time? Have I gotten lazy with my sentence structure and gone for what’s safe instead of what’s best?”

Hearing Paul Simon tell this story made me realize that creating something from nothing is hard. I mean damned hard. But it’s also worth it. And with everything I write in the future, I’m going to ask myself if I can add a “wildebeest noise,” a certain element that makes the piece feel natural and beautiful. There will always be an element I can slyly place in my work to make it flow more organically without sounding forced. To be worth it, writing must be done to that level of painstaking detail. Always.

Can you tell me a way you’ve done it? Is there something you’ve added, some tweak you’ve made to a piece of art or a performance that made it perfect? Was it worth it even if you were the only one who knew it was there? I’d love to hear all about it in the comments. Lay it on me!

A Little Thing Am I…

I’ve had a poem brewing in my head for some time about the concept of “dying daily” and what it means to empty one’s self of…well…self in order to be a truly useful vessel for Christ while I’m in the world. The reason it’s a struggle for so many Christians is because it’s just darned hard to give up what you believe to be vital, your identity and sense of individuality, especially when the world touts its importance above everything else. However, we are in it as believers, not of it, and more is expected from us.

This is the result of my musings, and there will likely be other drafts to follow. I would truly appreciate any feedback or comments you would like to provide!

Please click on the image below for a full-screen version of the poem, which I have tentatively titled “Self-Actualization.”

 

Read Poetry for a Good Cause!

I just received word that one of my poems, “Redemption,” will be included in the anthology titled Not Only The Dark, slated to be published at the end of this year. The anthology is themed on the idea of survival–what it takes, what it costs, and what it’s worth. Should be an interesting read! I can’t believe a little piece I wrote about my dad redeeming glass soda bottles to buy me a coat made it in! Who says real life doesn’t make for a compelling read?

The flyer here is for the release party in the UK in December, which I cannot afford to attend due to the fact I am a poor, working stiff. (And a grateful one, I might add!)  However, if you’re interested in the anthology, you can use the contact information to order a copy of it for yourself. I believe it is a fairly reasonable £10 plus shipping.

The anthology has been sponsored by WorldAid, and all proceeds will benefit Shelterbox. Both foundations are non-profit and are devoted to aiding those who are struggling around the world. Check out the links here to see what they’re all about!

Lost at C

Alright boys and squirrels, this one is going to take some explanation.

I recently visited the High Museum here in Atlanta, and I walked around the corner to find the installation piece titled Windward Coast by Radcliffe Bailey. At first, the sheer size of it caught me off guard; it filled one of the larger spaces on the second floor of the museum by itself! However, despite its size, it contained very few elements. Unlike his other pieces, which were mixed media and contained everything from fishing line to glitter drenched construction paper and old photos, Windward Coast was stark by comparison. The description posted on the wall informed me that what I was looking at contained nothing more than “piano keys, a plaster bust, glitter, and a shell with sound.”

The description also informed viewers the intention of the piece, what it was meant to convey. (Yes, I am aware that what an author or artist intends to say is meaningless to discuss because we all experience art and come away with different interpretations. I’ll not argue that here as this piece is direct proof of that fact.) The title of Mr. Bailey’s entire collection was titled Memory as Medicine, and it was his attempt to connect with his immediate and distant past as a black man, a soul abruptly uprooted because of the evils of slavery. The plaster bust, glittering and black in the spotlight floats amid a huge “sea” of piano keys that are arranged to replicate moving water and crashing waves.

I had to admit as I looked at it a second, third, and fourth time that the piece was impressive. However, when I sat huddled in the corner to examine it and take notes, I was able to see the keys  at eye level. Some were tipped with plastic, others with something darker (perhaps bone or ivory), and black keys, those glorious half steps, were intermingled with white. It was then that I got to thinking about the pianos themselves–their guts lying on the floor. What kind of pianos had these keys come from? What kind of “lives” had they led?

Which sat in cold parlors or warm family rooms? How many of them proudly bore the family manger scene at Christmas? How many had the pleasure of enjoying two family members playing them together or been a part of a child’s musical education all the way from “Hot Cross Buns” to more challenging pieces? Had someone fallen in love near one or spent an hour in solace using it? How many had been given up willingly, and how many were sold out of desperation or ignorance as to their true value?

The more I thought about it, the more I saw a parallel between the pianos and the slave floating in them. They, too, were displaced, stripped of their meaning, value, and voice! That’s what bothered me the most about the piece–all the stories of pianos and the families who owned them floating in there that could no longer be told. Theirs were stories worthy of attention, too, and they had been cancelled out to create this installation.

I was planning on writing a free verse piece to mimic the chaos of the sea of keys, but the more I thought it over, I came to see that a fixed verse poem was more appropriate. To make something orderly out of something chaotic, to give meaning to something so disjointed, I would have to try something requiring rules.

I didn’t want to rhyme or be stuck by a meter, so I chose the challenge presented by the sestina. Please take a moment to read the link here if you’d like to know more about this form.

Essentially, the poet must choose six words and repeat them at the end of each line. I chose sea/see/C (homonyms, homophones, and homographs are fair game), keys, tone, master, wood/would, and sound. The first stanza is A,B,C,D,E,F. You then repeat that pattern, using the last word in one stanza as the first in the next. For example, if you look at stanza two, you’ll see that tone (my F word) is the end word of that new line. That stanza is ordered F,A,E,B,D,C, and so on and so forth it goes until all six stanza are complete.

The envoy, the three line stanza that closes a sestina, includes all six words in three lines. They do not have to be at the exact end, but you must use the B and E words in line one, the D and C words in line two, and the F and A words in line three. (However, some poets change that up and use the six words in whatever order they prefer).

It’s difficult because of the repeated words that create a sort of internal rhyme structure. It’s not perfect, but I think it’s a solid start. I’ve not written a complete sestina on my own before this, so that’s progress!

Please read and comment. Let me know what you think!

***

Lost at C

A Sestina Inspired After Viewing Windward Coast by Radcliffe Bailey

The gallery floor lies buried beneath a sea

of writhing, cacophonous keys.

In the distance, as if discarded by his master,

a slave’s head bobs without a sound

amid the endless waves of splintered wood.

His suffering sets the tone.


But I’m left longing for the tone

that sounds when striking middle C,

the note among all others that would

help me place my fingers on correct keys.

A familiar place, safe and sound

on the instrument I longed to master.


In how many homes was it the master,

the symbol of domesticity? In tones

of chestnut and mahogany, the sound

made by each was like the sea,

rhythmic as a metronome, as key

to the security of its home as the roof or the wood.


If not for this artistic creation before me, how many would

still remain in the hands of a master

who’d polish its surface and clean each key,

tune it to maintain those harmonious tones,

relish the marriage of hammer and string, and the delicate C

atop the eighty-eight orderly architects of sound?


Would someone open the lid to release the sound

and the family history locked within the wood?

Would a starving soul sit on its bench once again and see

that while time is something we can never master

we can preserve memory in the mind’s sepia tones

and in sacred objects like a piano, those that are key


to understand our parts in life’s symphony? From key

signature to coda, from downbeat to the sound

of the final fermata, our pasts set the tone

for all that was, that is, and that ever would

be. None of us live lives made from a master,

without uniqueness, our own variation in C.


Knowing this is key to what otherwise would

be a sound failure. One cannot master his past

by stripping another of his tone and using it to create the sea.

All-You-Can-Eat Romance

The Herscher Project’s April topic is “Food for the Soul.” I normally use food as a positive force in my literature, using it to bring people together, to experience joy, and to create comfort. However, food can also be used for so many negative things–to fill a hole caused by sorrow, to stave off boredom, to tamp down rage. I got to thinking about that plus the mindless excess in places ranging from The Cheesecake Factory to buffets like Golden Corral, places where people gorge themselves past the point of good sense.

I then began asking myself what those from the past might think about such a sight, and the line from William Wordsworth’s poem “The World is too Much With Us” came to mind. Granted, his poem bemoans the fact people were too far removed from nature and caught up in the trappings of mankind’s technological world, but I thought the statement was applicable to people simple shoveling in as much as they can without paying attention to (or perhaps enjoying) any of it. The result is the first draft you see here.

***

All-You-Can-Eat Romance

Wordsworth would be aghast, I’m sure, at the sight

of our getting and spending, our caloric rivalry of Rome.

Certainly, he’d turn up his refined Romantic nose

at sneezeguards standing sentinel between consumer

and consumed and the golden halo of heat lamps, pendulous

angels supplying warmth to an endless parade

of entrées basking in their own bain maries.

                          *

Coleridge would no doubt become his own doomed

ancient mariner, his deep musings an aesthetic albatross

around his neck as he was compelled to explain

the definition of poetry to patrons concerned

with eating all and tasting nothing. After all,

how can the masses of mass quantities

grasp the pleasure of solitude and musing

behind a frosted window pane

with two hot bars and a dessert table

left to be devoured?

                         *

Blake alone might rejoice in his idiosyncratic

heart to see a place where no children hunger

and black/white, Jew/Gentile, she/he, high/low

eat from the same deep fried cornucopia, a testament

to liberté, égalité, fraternité worthy of engraving.

But would he know the sight of such excess

could pinpoint precisely where his palace of wisdom

may be found?