Tag Archives: poem

Creative projects: “The Gambler”

Finishing a short story collection – with stories in a variety of styles – is one of my goals for 2015, along with reading more books. So far I have three stories published to my Tumblr (“The Loop,” “The Lightning,” and “The Chancellor“) and I am working on a fourth. Below I have printed an excerpt; the idea with this one is to somehow weave in lecture-style writing (which I practiced while doing a Humanities course five years ago) into a narrative. I’ll do a debrief of sorts on my logic in a future post, but for now here’s part of this work in progress.

“Where are you, Lauren?,” James scrawled in the Prentice Hall composition book from his eloped daughter, appending “what should I learn in 2015,” this one with the question mark elided to seem more earnest like a university student taking notes, or a lonely Twitter account mining for at-replies.

Mottled questions, all, written at his kitchen table bearing a bowl of fake fruit under 4pm sunset. The mild winter space was filled out with the sounds of Above & Beyond’s “Group Therapy” and the sudsy sizzle of a Goose Island Mild Winter, leaving its Chicago comfort zone for a green plastic cup.

“Time paints over the truth,” he followed up on the facing page, inscribing these song lyrics with a hope that his chicken-scratch script would with its all of its slicing T’s mimicking the Chicago skyline – choosing “mimic” for its funny sharp-seeming participle, though “panic” would have been a more forceful epigraph – cut ephemeral EDM poetry from an Ibiza, or more dearly for James a Halsted St., scrapbook, and transpose it into this country notebook. The Prentice Hall even still had a receipt in the back: Walmart, Lebanon, August 1991.

“I never take notes,” Lauren told him a few years after that late summer purchase. “I know, ‘why’? Everyone is always pounding away at their keyboards or have their gel-pens out with a legal pad. It’s pretentious. Maybe it’s exercise, like rowing for the hands and I’m some lazy elitist. All I do is circle receipt totals and double-over my too-light writing on rent checks.

“When I was in Philosophy-35, laptops were still like briefcases with screens, but they were good for capturing all the high-sounding ephemera – ‘Aristotle and the Academy,’ ‘substance vs forms’, ‘the rebuttal to Parmenides’ – that would be all musty minutes the second after leaving the class, almost like the whole point had been, from the beginning, only to create something to trivialize years later upon finding and laboring to boot an ancient PC with VGA connectors, or the analog equivalent, heh, like sizing up a crinkled yellow zombie page, aged after its interment in a moist closet…”

James, with his Bucktown beard and Instagram sunglasses, layering Aly & Fila on top of Marion County, Kentucky and reading the Book of Psalms while Burgess Meredith recited it from a Willow-filtered “Twilight Zone” fresh with the glow of the new year.

Lauren, with her Queen of Hearts paleness and Facebook neck, shunning the prefabrication of any antiques to rival Egypt, instead seeking a Future Sound of Queens in her job as a content marketer for an AV firm, peddling Shure and Kramer to the integrators

“…I mean, how would I know months later, on the eve of the final, wtf ‘Physics section on change’ means? There is the issue of me thinking the Physics important, granted. Notes – the pre-ripped jeans of the academy. The reinforcement of the workmanlike original as something for prelaw dabblers to gawk at and laughily mention during Thanksgiving break.”

Unmoved by James’ kitchen-table micro philosophy, Lauren chewed Bazooka Joe in her apartment, which had no room for a kitchen table. The space was tight enough to force food preparation on unlit burners and in an unfilled sink. She thought back to a lecture that was lively in her head, even if scribbled on the page only as “10/8/04 religion as labor”:

“One of the best arguments against religion is that it gives people bad reasons to do good deeds when good ones are readily available. I’d like to propose a corollary to that, namely that religion also gives us bad reasons to do bad deeds when better ones are out there.

Let me explain the original first. Say you go to Africa to provide relief for a famine – so that you can ascend into heaven after you die. Why not just do the deed because you want to help? Why the dark bribery of religion?

Now, let’s think about bad actions, and bad men.

James’ poem, somewhere els:
The Bad Man: A black-booted Persian Gulf cowboy,
With a James-like Anglo-Saxon beard,
With a silhouette cast across 1990s local TV news;
His profile is gray – “pic upon request”?
No account activity since 1991.
Can we make it slightly easier?
We’re out in a desert, stuffing our briefcases.
Yes. Filling up on trinkets bought in Jerusalem,
Look at these stockings we have on for gathering sand
And bringing it all back home.

In this case, say you attack another country’s embassy with rockets and suicide bombers – so that you can be magically transported to a 7th century bordello and escape the tortures of a fallen angel. Why not do it (if you had to do it) because of political or economic grievances?

Many in the West realize that the latter reasoning is more palatable, even if they don’t acknowledge it. See, they will respond to every terrorist bombing, every hostage situation, no matter how cynical, with remarks about how the imperialist regimes of Europe and North America had it coming, how fanatics were simply evening the geopolitical score.

But in taking this line of reasoning, they tacitly signal that they regard strictly religious motivation – that pining to escape hell and reach heaven – as too absurd to explain the actions at hand. This is the logic of people who don’t know what it’s like to really believe in the high stakes of religion, where eternal life (and, alternatively, damnation) are on the table. They haven’t spent Valentine’s Day fearing eternal damnation for the mere thought of ‘adultery.’

No economic or political prize can compete with religion’s various promises and threats. Accordingly, we find actions, motivated by religion, that have an intensity totally out of sync with whatever perceived slight they are retaliating for. So we get beheadings, massive civil unrest, and threats of worldwide domination – for the desecration of a book. Or sham trials and executions – for giving off the air that one might be a fictional creature, let’s say a wizard or a witch.

High-stakes drive people crazy. That sounds like an oversimplification, but consider the herd mentality of Wall Street, or the surge pricing of Uber, and all of the attendant fierce arguments, justifications (“supply and demand”), disregard for the non-wealthy, and general ego-feeding that goes into these enterprises.

Now, imagine that even the billions or trillions of dollars at stake here were dwarfed, and you brush up against religion’s dark world.

Religion’s stakes are eternal. It would as if one could win a game of poker and the victory lasted forever, never having to worry about the next hand. Meanwhile, the losers would be tortured endlessly.

The metaphor becomes even more instructive if one considers that the randomness of poker is a pretty good stand-in for the madness of religious dogma – not eating shellfish, ensuring that women are covered head to toe in clothing, believing in the virgin birth of a Jewish prophet.

Or maybe a slot machine gives a better idea of the motivations of religion. I have gone to many casinos with relatives who play slots despite all the evidence – plus their own experiences, of losing hundreds of dollars – that they are impossible to crack and will destroy you.

The default mindset here seems to be, in an unspoken way, one of “yes I am going to lose, but wait no, this time, this time I’m going to get lucky,” with both that tacit acknowledgement – like a certain stripe of Westerner toward radical Islam – that madness is at play and, yet, a stronger feeling that, no, the universe makes sense and so madness can’t possibly win (right?). Religion is like compulsively pulling the slot on a slot machine, except its unique brand of pulling is praying, adhering to ritual, and persisting in dogma.

There’s an episode of “The Twilight Zone” in which an old man, fittingly for our book here with a strong vaguely religious moral opposition to gambling, tries a slot machine once on a whim and then ends up losing everything to it – his money, his spouse, and finally his life, after a delusion that it is invading his hotel room. What a feast for anyone trying to break down religion:

  • Just like this man, the true believer has a certain buy-in cost. For him, it was his first coin into the slot; for her, it’s accepting Jesus as her personal savior, or acknowledging that there is no god but Allah and Muhammad is his prophet.
  • The stakes at play are so high that they almost have to cascade into view. For the average casino-goer, the idea of winning tens of thousands (or millions, depending on the promotion/location) of dollars with no effort is so abstract, yet so overwhelming in its potential energy, that it almost demands a type of effort, no matter how mechanical and fruitless, to justify its promise.
  • It’s like there is a certain labor – no matter how tedious and useless and insane – that is needed to justify, in the laborer’s mind, the enormous prize that seems (and is) too good to be true. In the workplace, this approach may be called the delusion of hard work (i.e., putting in long hours will automatically get me ahead), in the casino the sucker’s bet, and in religion a dangerous dogmatism that inspires highly physical action like jihad or corporeal punishment for imaginary crimes, all of which are insane actions toward an insane goal – but they seem less so when broken up into small chunks like making strange requests (“I just want a new car”) to a god conceived in the Iron Age Levant.

Then there’s…”

“Six for gold”: The long shelf life and deep riches of nursery rhymes

There’s an English nursery rhyme called “One for Sorrow” that is about the superstitions associated with watching magpies. If you haven’t read it, it is simplicity itself:

One for sorrow,
Two for joy,
Three for a girl,
Four for a boy,
Five for silver,
Six for gold,
Seven for a secret,
Never to be told.

The rhyme is strange, only hitting at “joy/boy” and “gold/told.” It doesn’t put on the airs of high poetry, but it succinctly covers a vast range of the human experience, including feelings, both genders (one more than many novels, poems, or short stories deal with), money, and uncertainty. Moreover, its superstitiousness masquerades as the domain of children – e.g., “if don’t go to bed early, Santa Claus won’t come,” likewise if I look at the magpies the wrong way there won’t be the number I want to see,” a feeling that every neurotic knows – yet it is of a piece with the arbitrary customs, symbols, and religious rituals of say the Book of Leviticus, making it as mature a piece as possible. It distills the idea of a world beyond willpower and an unknowable afterlife.

“One for Sorrow” was written around 1780, more than decade before the first experimentations with telegraphy, which would lead to the telephone and then the Internet, unlocking the poetic potential of the phrase “bird on a wire” along the way. It also came on the heels of Samuel Richardson’s innovations in the novel through in his epistolary works Clarissa and Pamela. More than 200 years later, though, this little nursery rhyme has long since outlived the telegraph’s relevance, will outlive the declining landline telephone, and now has more popular culture relevance than any of Richardson’s catalog.

At least two fantastic songs, both more than 200 years the rhyme’s junior, have used this song to tremendous effect, as the centerpiece to their dark poetry. Counting Crows, on “A Murder of One” from their extraordinary debut album August & Everything After, used “One For Sorrow,” with minor changes, to flesh out an image of, well “as you stood there, counting crows.” It’s the heart of the song and an explanation of a the band’s name in one package. Patrick Wolf, in “Magpie” from his The Magic Position, enlists Marianne Faithfull to give a haunting reading of the old poem. Having listened to the Counting Crows song so many times, it’s easy for me to imagine Faithfull as the female lead in the story of “A Murder of One,” reciting her side of the view.

The rhyme is beautiful and bewildering. It’s enough to make  writer throw up his hands and wonder why she couldn’t just write something as straightforward and be immortalized, instead of toiling on a complex novel or paper that no one will read. If anything, the insane instant gratification culture enabled by smartphones et al makes these nursery rhymes, with their snappy conclusions and showy phrasing, more relevant than ever.

“Little Miss Muffet” and “One For Sorrow,” to name but two, will be with us long after “Infinite Jest,” but creating something similarly universal and monocultural will be so hard, if only because of the current media saturation (ok, I’ll stop with the dairy puns). “One for Sorrow” was a brilliant foil to the excessive art and writing that emerged in the late 18th and 19th centuries – a mere nursery rhyme, going up against complex novels, albums, and films. But with all those latter forms seeming in decline thanks to the “too busy” mindset of today, its shortness is still a virtue but in a fresh new way, as philosophy condensed for pop music and bite-size attention spans.

Using TextWrangler to write poetry

One of creative writing’s decisive advantages over similar arts is its low barrier to entry. The writer needs little more than a way to produce text, whether word processor, blog template, or pen and paper. Great work can be created at minimal expense; the labor is mostly in the head.

This doesn’t mean that the writer should become complacent and be contented with standbys like Word and iWork or even higher-grade tools such as Scrivener. Writing-specific apps, especially distraction-free and corrective ones, have come to the fore over the past decade, and while many of them aren’t so useful (for example, I wasn’t so high on the overbearing Hemingway) there are some that can be hacked for neat effects.

I previously discussed how both Google Keep and Notif Pro – neither one a “writing” app per se – can be used to improve the writing process. Although one may never find herself composing “Ulysses” in Google Keep, it serves as a scrapbook and a way to air mental dirty laundry. Notif Pro is great way to see and manipulate the top idea in your mind, through persistent notifications with lists and photos.

Text editors
Simple, barebones text editors are powerful creative writing tools. Many were designed for composing source code, but they have features that make them uniquely conducive to offbeat poetry and prose composition. In these examples, I mostly consider TextWrangler, a free text editor for OS X that I first started using in early 2013 to write Python files:

Writing poetry in Word or Google Drive is painful because it feels like a prose tool is being contorted into a poetry one. TextWrangler et al treat text as a collection of discrete lines rather than a blob of contiguous words.

This paradigm is naturally suited to poetry. Plus, the white space that naturally occurs between blocks of code and poem stanzas, and the source code comments that are often written in apps like TextWranger, inspires avant-garde approaches to creative writing.

Through TextWrangler, I got the idea for commented poetry. By that I mean poetry in which a blank line is left above each line so that the poet can make meta-comments on the poetry. It’s easier to show than tell:


A commented poem written in TextWrangler. Note the gray side margin.

I doubt I’m the first person to take this approach, but I know that I would not have thought of it had I stuck to Word or Drive. The notion of text as just lines on a page is utilitarian and literalist, but effective for unlocking new creative angles.

Stylistic agnosticism
Text is text in text editors. Fonts, sizing, and automatic spacings from copy/paste cease to be bottlenecks. Writers can focus on ideas and execution instead of wrangling with style. Poetry, more so than prose, has little need for elaborate formatting or supplementary material. A text editor like TextWrangler helps because it gets out of the way.

The upgraded version of TextWrangler, BBEdit, has other features such as clippings and scratchpad (no need to create an entirely new file just to temporarily hold text you may not end up needing) that ease poetry and prose composition. Repetitive poetry, even on a super-simple level, can be powerful, while advanced pieces often employ motifs (“The Raven,” anyone?).

One of my favorite workflows in TextWrangler is writing a poem, taking a screenshot of its finished state, and then editing the photo in something straightforward like Pixlr Express. The stark interface of TextWrangler provides an earthy grounding to the eventual visual poem:


An example of a poem screengrabbed from TextWrangler and then edited with Pixlr Express