Citizen of the Month

the writing and photography of Neil Kramer

Tag: Poetry Thursday

Confessions of a Poemphobe

One of the most surprising blogging relationships is my unlikely friendship with Dana and Liz Elayne of Poetry Thursday.  I say “unlikely” because they are both creative women very much in touch with their emotions and inner selves, and I live my life to avoid those things.   I really enjoyed their Poetry Thursday blog.   Sadly, they recently stopped publishing the site in order to focus their energies elsewhere. 

From day one, I appreciated the way these two women weren’t snotty about poetry.  They told me that reading poetry was good for the soul and the brain.  They used every trick in the book to seduce me into the world of poetry.  They introduced me to Billy Collins, to funny poets, and to poets who wrote love sonnets to women’s breasts.  They appealed to my interests and soon I was even reading poems about things foreign to me, like trees and animals.

Today, I was feeling sad about the destruction caused by the California wild fires.  The sadness made me think of poetry, and poetry made me think of Dana and Liz. 

A few months ago, Dana and Liz asked me to write a column for Poetry Thursday titled “Confessions of a Poemphobe.” I only had the chance to write three columns.  I don’t know how long Poetry Thursday will be archived online, so I’m republishing them here on Citizen of the Month.  Re-reading the posts reminds me how lucky I’ve been to meet such wonderful people like Dana and Liz.

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confessions of a poemphobe — poetry for men

My Russian-born wife loves to watch professional figure skating. Together, we’ve watched countless competitions on TV and I’ve even been dragged to few World Championships. Whenever we’re sitting in the arena, watching all the lifts, axels and flamboyant costumes, we end up having the same discussion — why do Russian male figure skaters look so “masculine” and athletic, while the American men look so … hmm, how can I say this while remaining politically correct … like interior designers from West Hollywood? Why does each country attract such different types of men?

I think the answer lies in cultural differences. In the Russian culture, it is considered manly to figure skate, to dance ballet and to write poetry. I’ve attended Russian dinners where it is almost an obligation for the men to recite poetry to the hostess, while drinking vodka, of course.

I know I’m skating on thin ice here (ha!), but most American men are leery of artistic expression that is considered “too feminine.” While any ballet dancer is probably more athletic and stronger than a typical soccer player, how many fathers would want to hear that their son is interested in taking ballet lessons?

I think the TV networks and the U.S. Figure Skating Federation are fully aware of how figure skating is perceived by the average American man. When Michael Weiss, one of the few “manly”-looking American figure-skating competitors had a child, the ESPN cameras were all too eager to show him holding his baby in the air and kissing his blond model-type wife, as if to announce to America, “Hey men, he’s a figure skater AND a hot-blooded American man. It’s OK for YOU to watch the coverage with your wife!”

This ridiculous type of masculine/feminine stereotyping has affected my own enjoyment of poetry. I write fiction, screenplays, nonfiction. But poetry … what would my friends think?

What makes this especially sad is that I’m not some macho guy who watches football on Sunday or even fixes his own car. I’m an English major from an Ivy League university. I’m knowledgeable about the Western canon, from Blake to T.S. Eliot. I even enjoy reading poetry. But the truth is, poetry makes me feel awkward. Fiction feels more “masculine” to me. With fiction, there’s a plot — a thrust from point A to point B. Narrative deals with ideas and action. Can it be that this fear of poetry boils down to another cliché about men — the fear of expressing emotion and revealing vulnerability?

Of course, fiction requires emotion, but it is easier for the writer to hide behind a plot, a character or a concept. Writing poetry makes me feel naked, and no man wants to be seen naked, unless he works out at the gym first.

Like many men, I’m also more “practical” than my wife. It took me years to understand why a woman would want to get flowers. After all, they just die in a few days. Wouldn’t a blender be a better Valentine’s Day gift? Like flowers, poetry isn’t always meant to be practical, and this is sometimes hard for me to “get.” Sometimes there isn’t even a “point” to a poem other than it being an expression of emotion. I’m always looking for “meaning,” rather than taking the emotion in. The words, the image provoked or the music of the poem should be just enough to make a piece of writing special.

I’m learning to appreciate poetry more by reading poems, including many of the poems I see here on Poetry Thursday. It is good to be reminded that not all poems are about flowers or “girly” things, or topics that make you go out and buy a black beret. You can write poems about baseball games and pissing in the forest, and it can still be considered a poem.

Did anyone see the Rich Snyder poem “How Are You Doing?” reprinted in last week’s “American Life in Poetry?”

Rich Snyder is my new Michael Weiss. His poem reads like the poem of a regular hot-blooded American man.

How Are You Doing?

As much as you deserve it,
I wouldn’t wish this
Sunday night on you—
not the Osco at closing,
not its two tired women
and shaky security guard,
not its bin of flip-flops
and Tasmanian Devil
baseball caps,
not its freshly mopped floors
and fluorescent lights,
not its endless James Taylor
song on the intercom,
and not its last pint of
chocolate mint ice cream,
which I carried
down Milwaukee Ave.
past a man in an unbuttoned
baseball shirt, who stepped
out of a shadow to whisper,
How are you doing?

Reprinted from “Barrow Street,” Winter, 2005, by permission of the author. Copyright © 2005 by Rick Snyder. This weekly column is supported by The Poetry Foundation, The Library of Congress, and the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. This column does not accept unsolicited poetry.

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confessions of a poemphobe — ‘wow! you are good!’

Lately, on my personal blog, I’ve been complaining about the whole system of “commenting” on blogs. After a while, these short little back-and-forth statements seem superficial, even frustrating. I wish I could be there with you, sharing a cup of coffee, rather than writing three sentences of encouragement. At other times, if you are having a bad day, I just want to hug you. Writing a comment saying, Don’t worry. Things will be OK! just seems phony and is NOT what I really want to say to you.

I find it especially difficult to comment on a poem. What is the appropriate response? I love the poetry of the Poetry Thursday participants, but how many times can I write Wow! You are good!

I come from a family of gabbers and kvetchers — so I love to talk. I can talk for hours about any subject, even those I know nothing about. Surprisingly, words frequently fail me when I experience something artistic. If I see a really great film, I want to keep the experience floating in my brain, not analyze the director’s vision or the acting of a new starlet. You can imagine the trouble I had dating when I was in film school. Brainy female film student always wanted to talk about the movie! Not now! I would say. It’s still fresh in my mind!

Language cannot always capture my true feelings about art. What is there to say the first time you see a famous painting, like Mona Lisa? It’s nice, but it looks smaller than I imagined just doesn’t cut it.

For me, poetry is the most difficult subject to discuss. In a novel or a film, I can talk about the narrative or characters. In a painting, I can talk about the color and movement. But how do you find the right words to talk about words that are more beautiful than yours?

If I like a Poetry Thursday poem, I usually write a variation of That’s wonderful! I know it’s lame, but I feel it is important to connect with the writer. (And frankly, everyone likes comments, even the dumb ones!)

I would like to write better comments. Maybe as I learn more about poetry, I can feel more confident in my ideas about poetic expression. I feel intimidated about saying what’s on my mind, particularly if I don’t understand a poem. For instance, I love the images in the first stanza of Carolyn Kizer’s “On a Line from Valery.”

The whole green sky is dying. The last tree flares
With a great burst of supernatural rose
Under a canopy of poisonous airs.

Do I really understand what she is describing? Not really. Under a canopy of poisonous airs? Huh? Is she talking about a forest fire? Now, honestly, if you were the poet, would you want me to ask you in the comments to explain this to me? I probably wouldn’t have the nerve to do it. Am I an idiot? I might ask myself, or is everyone just too afraid to ask the same question?

I understand that it is not a requirement to “understand” a poem completely. The poem can still work and be a little mysterious. But what can I say that sounds intelligent? How can I match the beauty of a poem with the appropriate response? Some of you are trained poets and can talk about the line breaks. I’m sometimes interested in mundane things — Is this autobiographical? How long did it take you to write this? Did you really write this in the bathtub?

Are these legitimate questions?

I think there are a lot of people like me — they enjoy poetry but are unsure how to participate in the discussion of it. I have no dreams of becoming a professional poet, but you want readers like me to keep poetry vibrant. I think poetry is too insular lately, with poets mostly writing for other poets. Any suggestions for how a layman like me can better participate in the conversation? Do poets actually want to know if someone doesn’t understand their poem? I hate saying Wow, nice! all the time.

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confessions of a poemphobe — anger management, poetry style

Last night, I think I wrote my first real poem. By saying that, I mean that I expressed some emotion on paper that was consuming me, rather than just trying to be clever or witty with words. Unfortunately, this emotion was a negative one, and I’m not sure I enjoyed the experience of dealing with it. I’m certainly not ready to show YOU the result.

There’s been a lot of tension in my household over the upcoming surgery of my wife, and if life was high school, I would get a failing grade in “Handling Stress.” I had trouble sleeping last night. I tossed and turned, and had an unpleasant dream about being in a bloody fistfight in an alley. This was an unusual dream, because I’ve never been in a fistfight and I rarely go into alleys. I even punched the bedroom wall while sleeping, jarring myself awake and scaring the hell out of my wife.

It was four in the morning and I was wide awake, so I went to my office to write “something” on my computer. What that “something” was, I wasn’t sure. At first I was going to write a post for my personal blog about punching the wall, but I found myself getting lost in unknowns of the narrative.

Why was I angry? “I’m not sure.” Who was I angry at? “?????.” Time to look into therapy.

I decided to write a poem. Actually, I didn’t really “decide,” I just did it. It was a primitive poem, but since there was no narrative, the writing came easy. No characters. No story. Just an expression of the emotion named anger. It was a poem about a bloody fistfight in some unnamed alley. It was a bad poem, but it was cathartic.

But afterwards, I felt a little dirty. It was uncomfortable expressing anger ― even to myself. It’s not something you do in my family.

But back to poetry.

Poetry is an ancient literary form. It is a form that many use to express themselves with more intensity than other types of writing. Is that why I ran to “poetry” to deal with some unpleasant emotion? Has this happened to you? Does writing about your unpleasant emotions make you uncomfortable? Do you try to push them onto the page for your art or for your own therapy? Do you get worried about what others might think if they saw this part of you?

And most importantly, if you read an angry poem about a bloody fistfight in an alley, would you cross to the other side of the street if you encountered this “poet” walking in your city?

A Year Ago on Citizen of the MonthWhat Did You Have for Lunch?

Quiz

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For which website am I LEAST likely to have written a post today?

A) ebony-ivory.oregon.gov — African-Americans Who Love Portland

B) do-svidanya.ru — The Self-Help Site for Separated Men with Foreign-Born Wives

C) members-only.biz — A Forum for Co-Dependent Men and Their Co-Dependent Penises

D) poetrythursday.org — An online project that builds community by encouraging bloggers to read and enjoy poetry, as well as sharing it with others.

A Year Ago on Citizen of the Month: Teacher of the Year

Changes – Poetry Thursday

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This week’s theme at Poetry Thursday is “Changes.”

Changes 

I change my life
V E R Y  S L O W L Y
like a businessman
stuck in a revolving door
that is so heavy
he grunts and pushes
until his palms are red
and his Wall Street Journal
is on the floor
shredded by the grip
of his shiny black shoe.

I change my life
V E R Y  S L O W L Y
like a Wall Street Journal
from years past
tattered by a shoe
still unread.

Sex Advice for Men

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This week’s challenge on Poetry Thursday:  Write a poem about sex.

Sex Advice for Men
by Neil Kramer

Problems in the bedroom?
Your lady unfulfilled?
Ask me any question,
And get her garden tilled.

Question: 

“I really like this woman,
She’s sexy through and through.
I always climax way too fast,
What’s a man supposed to do?”

Answer: 

“That happens very often,
When relationships are new.
So, here’s a tried and true technique,
Passed down from Jew to Jew –”

You entertain thy woman,
With everything you know.
You tell amazing stories,
From Dickens, Eyre, and Poe.

You paint a lovely portrait,
You wear an artist’s frock,
You balance twenty dishes,
You buy her penny stock.

You tell her she is gorgeous,
You tell her that is why —
Your passion rose so suddenly,
And hit her in the eye.

You kick and do a swing dance,
You cook her Cream of Wheat,
You promise her gelato,
You say you’ll sail to Crete.

You feel her being curvy,
You lick her little toe,
You spread her arms behind her,
You move her high and low.

You be an opera singer,
You be a Shakespeare bard,
You pray to God repeatedly,
“Please let me stay real hard.”

Soon she’ll be all ready
Her heatbeat all a rush
She’ll want to climb atop you
Her body all aflush

Of course, by now you’re tired,
From all that work and fun,
You still might be excited
But your c**k might say “I’m done.”

The Ballad of Seth Blackwell

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The Ballad of Seth Blackwell

When I was younger,
So much younger than today,
I had long hair and oval specs,
“Like John Lennon,” they would say.

When I got much older,
And started having dates,
“Hey, look at you, said women,
“You look just like Bill Gates.”

Now I’m old and grizzled,
I’m only known as Seth,
When people choose to see me,
They see a man near death.

(written in IHOP after this)

Poetry Thursday

Everybody Loves a Baby

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This week’s Poetry Thursday assignment was to read your poem out loud. I read my poem to a few women in my neighborhood, and they all hated it. For some reason, it made me like it even more.

Everybody Loves a Baby

Everybody loves a baby
That’s the title of this piece
I heard this conversation (maybe)
While visiting my niece:

“Look at my little Beatrice
Isn’t she a gem?
She’s really quite angelic
She’ll surely voting Dem.

Her hair’s just like the hubby’s,
So fiery and red.
And don’t you love the Yankees cap
That’s sitting on her head?”

Now, as I watched this drama
I bit my lower lip.
I prayed for the overpriced stroller
To hit a rock and flip.

You see: I hate all babies,
And I mean every single tot!
All they’re really good for
Is dripping yucky snot.

That Beatrice, she looked stupid
I’m sorry, but that’s the truth.
And in that NY Yankees cap
She was ugly as Babe Ruth.

Babies are like homeless
They beg and beg for more
They don’t pay any taxes
They puke all over the floor.

I know I sound grouchy
With this tantrum, with my snit.
But my mother gave me formula
And this little brat gets tit.

Driving in LA – In Two Parts

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Part One — Car Poetry

This week’s Poetry Thursday assignment was to be inspired by a single line from another blogger’s poem. I picked “A Morning By the Sea” by Susannah of Ink on My Fingers.

The line that inspired me was:

The computer hums,
the kettle rumbles.

Why this line? Her poem is wonderful, filled with wonderful images. This is probably — content-wise — one of the least important lines. But that’s exactly what inspired me about it. Its importance is more than just the content, or the onomatopoeia of “hum” and “rumble.” I like the way the line rolls off your tongue, like a good song lyric.

The computer hums,
the kettle rumbles.

I think one reason I find it poetry difficult is because I’m always focusing on the “meaning” of the words. Poetry, more than fiction, is about the music of the words themselves.

I have a comedian friend who is always rewriting his material to make it funnier by using “funnier” words. These are words that start with a “hard” letter. So, a “Crazy Cat” is theoretically funnier than a “Weird Worm.” It’s his own way of using the “poetry” of words to enhance his routine. In a way, Susannah’s poem helped me to remember my love of words — words for their own sake.

In my ideal world, Elliot Yamin would have won “American Idol,” not because he has the best voice, or a doting Jewish mother, but because he has the coolest sounding name.

Elliot Yamin.

Taylor Hicks? Not poetry.

As I was driving on the 10 Freeway today, I thought about how much the big auto companies must spend to come up with their “poetic” sounding names for their cars.

I wonder if they hire poets.

Chevrolet Cabriolet
Toyota Corolla
Ford Focus
Hyundai Santa Fe
Mercedes
Rolls Royce

I like the way all of these car names “sound.”

I’m driving on the freeway
In my Hyundai Santa Fe
Zooming past a Corolla
and a Chevy Cabriolet

I know my car ain’t a Mercedes
Or a beautiful Rolls Royce
But it’s better than that Ford Focus
Now that was one BAD choice.

I know, I know. A fourth grade poem. But it was fun.

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Part Two — Overheard in LA

As most people know, Los Angeles is a driving town.  What you drive matters.  Since I first met Sophia, she’s had four completely different types of cars — each one evoking a wildly different negative response from some other driver. 

1) 1996 —

As we entered the parking lot of Campanile Restaurant, an upscale restaurant, a friend told Sophia, who was driving a five year old Honda Accord:

“I’d be embarrassed to give this piece of junk into the valet.”

2) 1999 —

After a motorcycle cut us off in Beverly Hills, Sophia blinked her lights at him.  The motorcyclist turned to Sophia, who was now leasing a Infiniti i30, and yelled:

“Screw you, you rich bitch!”

3) 2001 —

As we left a coffee shop in Redondo Beach, an environmental activist was putting a flyer on a windshield of Sophia’s new Hyundai Santa Fe SUV:

“Do you morons know what you’re doing to the environment with this monstrosity?”

4) 2006 —

As (Republican) Sophia pulled away from an IHOP, after having breakfast with me, in her new Toyota Prius Hybrid, I heard two men talking about the special DMV stickers that allow some hybrid owners to drive alone in the carpool lane:

“What gives these liberal treehugging assholes the right to use the carpool lane when we can’t?!”

Moral of the story:  You can’t win driving in LA.

A Year Ago on Citizen of the Month: 90 Million Women Wear Wrong Size Bra

Poetry Scares Me

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Denise Levertov – poet

My blogging pal, Lynn, from Sprigs, and Liz Elayne, of be present, be here,  have started something called Poetry Thursday.   Poetry Thursday “is an online project that encourages bloggers to read and enjoy poetry, as well as sharing it with others.”

I’ve never been a big fan of poetry.  It’s embarrassing to say, considering I was an English major in college and I like to read.  I think one of the reasons is that I feel most comfortable with traditional A-B-C storytelling.   Poetry is often about mood or language itself and it doesn’t always have the forward thrust of a narrative.  When Lynn asked if I was interested in getting involved, I sent her this email:

I’ll think about it.  To be quite honest, I do have an interest in poetry.   Maybe you can help me understand why this is, but I avoid poetry, because reading poetry frequently makes me feel nervous — almost anxious.  Is that weird to admit?  Maybe because I’m so used to words and sentences having a structure and making a concrete point – providing information in a story that I can focus on —  I’m not really sure what to do with just words and emotion?  Maybe it’s a male thing, like not asking for directions.  I mean, does poetry have tits I can play with?

Her response:

It depends on the poems. Some have tits and ass that don’t mind being played with, but others are terribly prude.

I don’t know how fully I’m going to participate, but I thought I’d take a cue from Sophia, and be brave.  Look fear in the eye.  And actually read some poetry.

I went to the Index of Modern American Poets and spent the next couple of hours just reading different poems. 

I wish I had the literary skills of an arts critic.  I’m terrible in explaining why I like one piece of art better than another.  Why do I love watching “24,” but fall asleep watching “CSI?”  Is there a specific reason I like one book over another?  Why do I relate to one blogger’s writing more than another, especially when I don’t know really know any of you.

Maybe if I keep on reading poetry for a while, I’ll be better prepared to explain why I liked this following poem the best out of the dozens I read.  It’s not particularly a “big” poem, or about anything dramatic.  It’s written by Denise Levertov, who died in 1997.  This is supposedly the last poem she ever wrote.

Aware

When I found the door
I found the vine leaves
speaking among themselves in abundant
whispers.
My presence made them
hush their green breath,
embarrassed, the way
humans stand up, buttoning their jackets,
acting as if they were leaving anyway, as if
the conversation had ended
just before you arrived.
I liked
the glimpse I had, though,
of their obscure
gestures. I liked the sound
of such private voices. Next time
I’ll move like cautious sunlight, open
the door by fractions, eavesdrop
peacefully.

(Denise Levertov. “The Great Unknowing: Last Poems.”

Copyright 1999 by the Denise Levertov Property Trust. 
Publisher:  New Directions.)

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