Reluctant Poet (on writer’s block)

 

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The following is one of the first poems I ever wrote, back in those voice-finding days when I still believed in writer’s block. A bit melodramatic but accurate, which is more than I can say about many of my poems from back then. 

I had a conversation with an interesting fellow recently who said he was plagued by writer’s block and asked me what the cure was. I told him his belief in it was making it real. The world is full of interesting things to write about. All one needs to do is watch the news, talk to a neighbor, look out the window, sit in on a courtroom, read a newspaper (if you can find one), read a well-written book, or file through the thousands of memories each one of us has. With all this to draw from, how can anyone ever run out of stories?

This poem, when I wrote it, was about writer’s block, but what it was about more specifically was writing the things we know we must. The hard stuff most people spend their lives avoiding and burying. This is why authors and artists of any kind are celebrated, and should be – because they give freedom to the multitudes trapped within themselves, without the desire, ability, or perhaps the courage to excavate these emotions in themselves. As Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “In every work of genius, we recognize our own rejected thoughts.”

 

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Reluctant Poet

Words bound
through darkened corridors of my mind
like coy lovers daring me to catch them.
But I do not follow.
The darkness frightens me.
I do not follow.
I am safe in the light.
Safe from the worlds
they might open to me.
I accept myself, a fool,
until frustration with this half-life
erodes the empty shell of comfort,
forcing me to venture out,
to gape into the horrible blackness
I created
and groping, search
for what I really am
beneath the tortured, questioning facade
of awareness.

 

“Begin to write in the dumb, awkward way an animal cries out in pain, and there you will find your intelligence, your words, your voice.” (Writing Down the Bones, Natalie Goldberg)

Smash writer’s block by writing one line. It will lead to another, and another, and another, naturally following each other. Every book and poem you’ve read and every movie you’ve seen were written that way – one line at a time.

So when someone tells me they’re plagued by writer’s block, I assume that a) they’re being artsy and playing writer, b) they’re looking for excuses not to write instead of reasons to write, and c) they’re not paying close enough attention to the great, big, wide, throbbing world, to humanity, which is always bursting with stories. The hard part is choosing which ones you will devote large portions of your life to. I tell those plagued by writer’s block to stop thinking about it and it will evaporate like the fantasy it is.

Talky Tina (humor poem for Twilight Zone fans)

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When I was a kid, I was constantly terrified.
My imagination was a bad neighborhood.
I read scary comics like Tales From The Crypt
And watched horror films more than I should.

The first Sunday morning of every month,
I could be found at the local drug store
Looking for the latest issue of Monster
And other mags filled with blood, guts and gore.

On Saturday night, my buddies and I
Would stay up late and watch B-horror flicks
Presented by Vampirella or Seymour
And get our horrification fix.

One would think I was a pretty tough little guy
From all these “inappropriate” movies and rags
But I was actually the world’s youngest insomniac.
I had suitcases under my eyes, not just bags.

But the thing that scared me the most, by far,
Didn’t haunt houses or howl, creep or crawl.
Frankenstein and Dracula were big sissies
Compared to typical, everyday DOLLS.

During sleepovers at my best friend’s house
All the dolls in his little sister’s room
Made me not just run back home to mommy,
I’d run straight back up into the womb.

I couldn’t stand their cold, lifeless grins;
Their painted-on, glassy-eyed stares.
They attempted to murder me night after night
In tortured, tormented nightmares.

Then Rod Serling had to throw in his two cents
And make my night-time fear level climb
When he introduced me to a one Talky Tina –
The freakin’ scariest doll of all time!

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Every night after that, I’d perform a routine
To make sure I was completely alone.
I’d check in the closet and under the bed
With fear that made me quake to the bone.

As I lay in my bed, hiding under the sheets,
A sweaty, petrified, nervous wreck,
I’d hear Tina say, “I’m going to kill you”
And feel her little hands grabbing my neck.

Of course, that was a long, long time ago.
Now I’m all grown up, brave and strong.
Talky Tina never comes to call anymore
And my slumber is peaceful and long.

But sometimes even now, when the moon is full
And the wind makes shadows dance on the wall,
I imagine I see a small figure run by.
I imagine I hear Tina call.

I pull in my dangling hands and feet,
Yank the covers up over my head
And I’m that goofy kid all over again
Lying scared and alone in my bed.

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The Journey (love poem)

To emerge from the chrysalis of fear
In the haunted cave of sorrows.

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To plunge into the sea of hope
And shimmering tomorrows.

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To drift to the island of dreams
On soothing waves of bliss.

Unknown

To sleep in the sands of peace
And awake to your sweet kiss.

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Writing Greatness (short story, humor)

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Donovan Stone wanted to be a writer more than anyone had since the first hieroglyphs were scratched onto the wall of the first pyramid. He had read just about every book written on the craft, attended every fiction writing class he could, and had even changed his name to something he thought sounded more writer-ish. His actual name was Sidney Weatherwax, which he considered singularly inglorious and not in keeping with the illustrious future he had planned for himself.

In one of his writing books, the author outlined his formula for greatness. “There are three kinds of writers,” he wrote –

1. Those who stink and don’t know they stink. This type of writer’s efforts will only be a big waste of everyone’s time, primarily his own. One lifetime is never enough to overcome pure, unadulterated stinkiness.

2. Those who stink and are determined to become less stinky. This type of writer faces an uphill climb but may someday create something passable, albeit inconsistently, and then only by dumb luck.”

3. Those who are great by divine intervention or some accident of nature and who couldn’t write poorly if they were being suspended over a pool of sharks. Only this kind of writer will ever be truly great, and even he doesn’t know how he does it. If you’re wondering if you’re this kind of writer, you’re not. You wouldn’t have to ask. Quit now.

Donovan wept uncontrollably after reading this, fearing he was a category two writer. When his wrenching sobs subsided, he steeled his resolve to achieve greatness. Still, every effort was met with severe frustration. There was just nothing in there. He loved poetry but every word he wrote, nay, every letter, was a struggle he likened to childbirth.

One of his first poems read:

Her love reminds me of flowers.
I don’t need her tomorrow, but nowers.

He saw nothing wrong with the use of the non-word “nowers” because he once read that Shakespeare created many words when ordinary language failed him.

Donovan’s poem continued:

She’s hot, like a jalapeno squirt.
I would cut off my ear, but it would hurt.

He thought the Van Gogh reference was pure genius, others not so much. In fact, when he shared it with the crowd at The Daily Grind Coffeehouse, a normally gracious group, they laughed unguardedly, assuming his poem was meant to be funny.

With sweat beading on his upper lip, he continued,
“My love is a sponge,
On our love raft, we will plunge.”

The laughter grew louder. Trembling with a mixture of embarrassment and rage, he pressed on,
“Her love is a towel
cooling my weary browel.”

That was it. The room erupted. He could have saved himself some humiliation if he had pretended he meant it to be funny, but he was cut to the quick. He threw his Gauloise cigarette on the floor, spit in a very French manner, and said, “You people wouldn’t know talent if it bit you on your fat, pimply asses!” He then kicked over a table and stormed out the back door into the alley. He kicked over trash cans all the way home, cursing about how most great artists were misunderstood and how that audience of barn animals was just too ignorant to grasp someone as brilliant and tortured as he.

The next week was spent in a bottomless purple funk. He drank excessively, didn’t bathe, and barely ate. If his phone ever rang, he wouldn’t have even answered it.

He felt comforted by the tragic lives many great artists had. Hemingway shot himself. Plath had electroshock therapy in an attempt to cure suicidal tendencies. Dostoyevsky was exiled in Siberia for his political opinions. He felt he was suffering along with them, equally unappreciated. The more he suffered, the more romantic it felt. Unfortunately, he was the only one who felt it.

His father was no help. The last time he had spoken to him, he said, “Son, it’s time to grow up. How much of your life are you planning to waste on this pipe dream? Even the best writers struggle to eke out a living, and frankly, you ain’t one of ‘em. I found a poem in a notebook you left in the back yard and it stunk. Wait here, I’ll get it.”
He walked away and returned with a tattered, coffee-stained notebook, flipped through it and found the page.
“Oh, here it is,” he said. “Explain this one to me, if you even can. He began to read, “Flaming doorknobs tumble down my blasphemous eyebrows. The tragic sand screams oblong operettas to my parched bicycle seat. I am.”

He set the notebook down and asked, “What in hell’s blue blazes is that supposed to mean, Sidney? Why can’t you write a nice, rhyming poem that tells a story like Robert Frost or that Longfellow guy used to do?”

“I wouldn’t expect you to understand,” he replied, “and my name is Donovan.”

“That’s another thing. That name might work if, A, it was 1957, and, B, you were a teen idol.”

“Look, daddio,” Donovan replied, “Great spirits have always encountered violent opposition from mediocre minds. You know who said that? Einstein! That’s who!”

“Daddio? What is this? 1968? It’s 2014! Wake up and smell the failure, hepcat!”

After a pause, his father softened and said, “Look, son. I just want you to be happy. I hate seeing you running down a dead end like this, because there’s a big, brick wall at the end of it and you’re not gonna see it coming until it’s too late. I mean, of all things to choose to be, you had to pick a writer? Nothing has ever happened to you! I did two tours in Vietnam, was a prisoner of war, and survived cancer that damn Agent Orange gave me! If anyone should be a writer, it’s me!”

“Oh, so that’s it!” Donovan snapped. “You’re jealous because I’m a writer and you’re not!”

“Yeah, I’m real jealous I don’t have flaming door knobs tumbling down my blasphemous eyebrows. Think about it, son. All the great writers lived through some heavy stuff. Tennessee Williams had diphtheria as kid, was tormented by a sadistic father, lived most of his life as a repressed homosexual, and died penniless after a nervous breakdown. But his sister one-upped him by getting a frontal lobotomy! So, again, what have you been through? What gives you the right to call yourself a writer? I would suggest you do some living first, then grace the world with your insights. You’re putting the cart before the horse, boy!”

Donovan couldn’t take anymore. He stormed out. He was good at storming. He hadn’t spoken to his father since, which was difficult because he still lived at home. Though he cursed him, he couldn’t get his words out of his mind. What did give him the right to call himself a writer? Maybe writing was so hard for him because nothing worth writing about had ever happened to him. He was forced to conclude that his father was right. He decided to change that. He would do things, dammit, and starting right now.
He showered, found clothes that smelled the least bad, and walked to a military recruiting office in his local mall. Many great writers had brushes with death, and killed many men in battle. He would, too. That would show his dad.

He tried to enlist in the Army but was rejected because the minimum push-up requirement was forty-two and he was only able to do seven. The reviewer also mentioned a comment he had made in his application about hating America for runaway Capitalism and Imperialist foreign policies.

Dejected but still determined to have something bad happen to him, he put on a white suit and costume jewelry rings, stuffed his wallet with toilet paper until it bulged, and walked through the worst neighborhood he could find on Saturday at midnight. A group of gang-bangers pulled up in a car next to him and yelled very hurtful things. His mania was such that he had no fear for his safety, but instead thought, “This will make a great story!” One of the men got out of the car and started pushing him around, but an elderly woman ran out of a nearby house and yelled, “You get on home and leave that boy alone! He’s obviously not right in the head!”
She drove Donovan home that night, gave him a lecture he thought would never end, and handed him a Bible, saying, “You need a whole lot of Jesus, son.”

Actually, the old lady’s lecture was the worst ordeal he had ever endured, much worse than being beaten and robbed would have been, so he was off to a great start.

As he lay in bed that night, it dawned on him that he was going about things all wrong. Instead of trying to make bad things happen to him, he would do bad things himself! Be pro-active! His father always said he lacked initiative and was hiding in writing as a way to avoid taking real chances in life. This would show him once and for all!

The next morning, he bought a pellet gun at Big 5 and a pair of nylon stockings at 7/11, walked to his local credit union, pulled the stocking over his head, pulled out the gun, walked in and yelled, “This is a stick up!”
None of the customers paid much attention because his voice lacked the requisite amount of bass to properly scare anyone. A teller nearby recognized his voice because he chose to rob a bank he’d had an account at for several years.

“Sidney, what are you doing?” she asked.

“It’s not me,” he said. “Uh, I mean, who’s Sidney?”

“I know your voice, Sidney,” she replied.

He was then tackled by an elderly security guard who had been awakened by the conversation. However, due to his advanced age, he began to clutch his chest. He had a heart attack and was dead in under a minute.

The trial was only a formality. Due to a recent rash of bank robberies, and because he had induced the guard’s death, the judge made an example of him. He received the maximum sentence of thirty years for robbery and involuntary manslaughter.

During his first year in prison, he was subjected to every atrocity imaginable, but his mania to amass colorful experiences to someday write about still overrode even his own retched misery. Finally, he was experiencing something extreme and dramatic, fodder for great literature. Talking to his cellmate one day to pass the time, a psychotic, sexually ambiguous brute nicknamed Crusher, he said, “I’m here voluntarily, I’ll have you know. All this stuff that’s happening to me, including what you did last night, is going to be in a book someday. Remember my name because I’m going to be famous.”
“Cedric Weatherwax?” Crusher replied.

“No! Donovan Stone, man!”

Crusher laughed and said, “Don’t you know federal law prohibits you from profiting from your crime or anything that happens to you in here? You’ll never get that book through the bars!”

After a few months of severe depression, Donovan signed up to read a poem at the prison talent show. Surely, he thought, this menagerie of nincompoops would be impressed with his talent. He walked to the stage, cleared his throat, and said, “Her love reminds me of flowers. I don’t need her tomorrow but nowers.”

The prisoners laughed and laughed, and Donovan stormed back to his cell.

Little Ways (poem about the end of a love affair)

I wrote this poem decades ago and found it yesterday in an ancient journal inside a forgotten box at the back of a cabinet, but the time and events it describes were not so obscure in my memory. The highest and lowest moments tend to stay in the mind and heart as well as that old box stayed in the cabinet.

I remember reading a poem by Charles Bukowski wherein he attempted to answer the question most commonly asked of him – “How can I become a great writer?” He gave advice in the form of a list, but the only piece of advice that repeated was “Have a stormy love affair.”

Pain makes us think, thinking makes us wise, and wisdom (i.e., lessons learned) gives us something worth writing about. 

Dried up Roses

Little Ways

Again, I lie down tired but empty
as though I have walked a great distance
through cold and dismal streets.
I have grown used to sleeping alone.

Love dies so slowly, in little ways.

Separate, you have given me more
than I ever would have allowed you to
beside me.
Loneliness and regret
are harsh but patient teachers
with cold hands and gentle eyes.

With no more you to hide in, the mirror is too clear.
Every flaw is exposed
and I can’t bear to look for too long.
But when I force myself, for my own good,
a man with haunted eyes looks back at me
and I wonder what compels him
to chase all the goodness from his life.
How much can be learned from the night?
I turn away from the mirror and go on with my day.
And love dies a little more,
but only the amount that living demands.

Six months after you left,
I took your photo from the shelf,
but not from its frame.
I put it, frame and all, in a box,
at the back of a closet.

Today, a little stronger,
I used the frame for a new photo
of some more recent, peaceful moment,
and filed yours away,
to be taken up again sometime, years from now,
when the person pictured there
is little more than a stranger to me,
someone I once cared about.
The laughter and the pain,
the peace and the mayhem
will be all but forgotten.
And the love . . .
it will be dead by then, I suppose.

The bouquet of flowers you collected
hung on the wall until only last week.
I took them down
knowing that what they had represented
had withered along with them.

In reality, the colors
created in that long-ago springtime
faded the moment you left.
I just refused to notice.

Gathering dust, they hung on the wall,
a museum piece from some happier time.
They were brittle in my hands
and some of the buds crumbled to the floor.
I walked to the trash but,
cursing myself, my heart,
I stopped, unable to throw them away.
I put them in a vase instead
as if they were still alive
knowing it was not healthy,
knowing I should move on,
take another chance, etcetera, etcetera.
I knew, but I put them in a vase anyway
on the shelf where your photo used to be
to be ignored for just a little while longer.

Love dies so slowly,
so slowly,
in little ways.

Because if it happened all at once,
we would be swallowed up by darkness
and crushed beneath all that tragedy.

The Withered, Old Stick (love poem)

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In my garden, there was a withered, old stick.
It was a beautiful flower, before it got sick.
I tried to pluck it but, with a defiant stance,
My wife said, “Don’t, honey. Give it a chance.”

Many months passed and the stick didn’t grow.
It just stood there laughing at me and my hoe.
(A gardening tool, not my wife. Come on!) 
But I kept my word and left the old stick alone.
A full year passed and it still hadn’t grown.

Then one morning while pruning a plant nearby,
Something green to my right attracted my eye.
A delicate bud had come up through the earth.
The old stick was not dead! It was a rebirth!

All that time, my wife never once gave up hope.
I called her to see it, though I felt like a dope.
I should have known she was right – for, you see,
Long, long ago, she did the same thing with me.

On Vanity Publishing

When I was very young and desperate to get something published somewhere, I came across a poetry contest online hosted by a company with a very important-sounding name like The International Consortium of Master Poets. (I just made that up, but you get the drift.)

I submitted something for it and, to my surprise, received a glowing letter a few weeks later stating the poem had been “reviewed by a panel of judges” who deemed it to be of the highest quality and “worthy of publishing.” I didn’t know who this judging panel consisted of but I pictured something like this –

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A bunch of highly-educated old men, all laboring over the merits of my little poem. Man, oh man. Things were gonna start happening to me now!

I was overjoyed until I continued reading beyond the flowery praise to the request to pay them for the high honor of having my poem included in their annual “anthology” of poetry. This request was so deftly worded that I almost didn’t notice that it was the polar opposite of legitimate, traditional publishing wherein the author gets paid by the publishing house. I was also so talented, according to them, they would even allow me to pay them some more money to see my poem printed on a plaque, and even a coffee mug!

Fortunately, I didn’t fall for it. I was naive, but not too naive to smell a rat that big and stinky. So for a laugh, I entered another poem into their contest under a fake name to see if that poem would also be deemed the height of literary mastery by their panel of judges. A friend and I laughed ourselves sick writing it at the beach one day. Our goal . . . to pen the worst love poem of all time. Here it is –

My Gal Penelosquat

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Her love reminds me of flowers.
I don’t need her tomorrow, but nowers.
She really makes me feel groovy,
like that Mona chick at the Louvie.
She’s hot, like a jalapeno squirt.
I’d cut off my ear, but it would hurt.
Her love is a towel
cooling my weary browel.
My love is a sponge.
On our love raft, we will plunge.
She’s just so – I can’t find the word.
Her hair is so . . . you know.
Her nose is so big, though.
And that name . . . Penelosquat McSchmultzerd.

I typed it out and sent My Gal Penelosquat off in the mail. Sure enough, two weeks later, I received the same letter stating that this high crime against the English language was as brilliant and worthy of publication in their anthology, plaque and coffee mug as the last one was! Imagine my surprise. 

I post this as a warning, but not a condemnation of anyone who has been taken in by vanity publishing. There’s nothing wrong with paying a company to print a poem in a book, or on a plaque or coffee mug, as long as one doesn’t think it’s published and knows these companies are just offering a service and will take money from anyone willing to buy their anthology, no matter how horrific the poem is. It’s their deception in making each writer feel special that is repugnant to me.

Unfortunately, I’ve met people over the years who proudly stated they had a poem published by one of these companies, and I didn’t have the heart to tell them any of this. Some people just don’t have a very strong rat detector. But I hate to see fellow writers, baby eagles with downy wings, struggling with words for the first time, taken down by con artists selling them a bill of goods. They take more than money, they take self-respect. I mean, if they’ll take My Gal Penelosquat, they’ll take anything.