My Struggle to be a Poet, or a Dabbler’s Lament

One of my fellow workshoppers at Tinker Mountain came back from break one morning and asked if anyone was a poet.

“I dabble,” I said.

“Doesn’t everyone?” replied someone else.

“Well,” I said, “I’m writing a haiku a day in 2016. That has to count for something.”

The one who’d posed the poet question said, “I want you to try a poem, and I’ll give you the title: The Wife, The Gun Salesman, and the Alligator.”

For a moment we were all lost, but it eventually struck us. We were at Tinker Mountain the week after the slaughter at Orlando’s Pulse nightclub and after a small boy had been grabbed by an alligator at the edge of a lagoon in Disney World. There had been a lot of media coverage trying to establish blame in both incidents. The wife, who was with Omar Mateed when he bought ammo, should have turned him in and so she was to blame. (Turns out it wasn’t the ammo he used for the shooting.) The man who sold him his copy of an AR-15 was notoriously anti-Muslim–his signage bans them from his gun shop–so why didn’t he notice something? It’s likely in the case of the nightclub shooting, we may never know the real reason.

Unlike an incident at a Cincinnati zoo last month where a small child climbed through a fence and fell into a gorilla enclosure, necessitating the killing of a silverback gorilla to save the child, there wasn’t much blame attached to the parents of the child snatched by an alligator at Disney World. (I have my own opinions why, but this is the writing blog, not the defunct political blog.)

“So,” the workshopper said, “three potential bad guys. See what you can do with them.”

Challenge accepted.

A few days after the workshop ended I threw down some free verse. Now, some things are still under investigation, but I did some research before I wrote the verses. Here’s the first attempt:

The Wife, The Gun Salesman, and The Alligator

1. The Wife

I was his virgin on earth, but I told him in paradise there will be more.
One of them may do what I couldn’t: Make you a man.
Instead of kisses, I hand you masculinity in a box.
Bullets for Allah, you’ll say, but I simply wanted you to be a man.
What you wanted, we don’t know beyond veiled glimpses.
Social media; gay dating sites; 911 calls for ISIS.
You wanted our son to grow up in a safe country, as you had.
How safe is he now after you killed forty-nine?
Not virgins, perhaps, but a sacrifice.
How much did I know, and when did I know it?

2. The Gun Salesman

When I was a New York City cop I saw what they did on 9/11.
They buried my brother officers in fire for their pussy god.
We made them pay with Shock and Awe’s blood vengeance.
Make us great by banning rag heads from America.
Send them back to their camels and sand.
If you still feel unsafe, my inventory can help you.
My store is a Muslim-free zone for real Americans to buy real guns.
Didn’t you see the sign when you walked in?
More than the 2nd Amendment, money is god.
How much did I know, and when did I know it?

3. The Alligator

If my brain were larger than three olives, I might understand.
Pleistocene instinct is all that moves me.
Offer me food, I will strike, grasp, submerge.
Stow tomorrow’s meal in mud and silt.
Lurk in shadows, waiting until my olive brain registers decomp.
Tiny thing is no more than an appetizer, but I guard it.
Food is food, and I’ve marked this as mine.
Didn’t they realize the water’s edge is where I hunt?
My tender, sweet morsel isn’t stolen by a rival A. mississippiensis.
How much did I know, and when did I know it?

“This is Good, but…”

I sent it off to the challenger, and he recognized what I’ve known for a long time: I’m primarily a fiction writer and a dabbler at poetry. However, he liked what he read and suggested I keep tweaking it. I put it aside for a few days until today when I got the insane idea I’d rework each verse as a Shakespearean sonnet.

A few hours of trying later, my head exploded, rather like what happens in those commercials for Jet.com. What was I thinking? Iambic pentameter and a rhyming scheme? Obviously, I’d bitten off more than I could chew. But I’m still tweaking, so I compromised. No sonnets but the verses reworked in iambic pentameter. (In high school I was so enamored of iambic pentameter, my English teacher had to plead with me to stop writing my assignments in it.)

A few more hours and a headache later, I had something that I perhaps like a bit more than the first attempt. I’ve carefully counted the lines several times, but it’s likely I’ve screwed it up at some point because, hello, I’m a pretender poet. Here it is:

Verses for Orlando

1. The Wife

I was his virgin here on earth, but I
told him in paradise there will be more.
One of them may do what I could not: Make
you a man. Instead of kisses, I hand
you some masculinity in a box.
Bullets for Allah, you will say, but I
simply wanted you to be a man. What
you wanted, we do not know beyond veiled
glimpses in social media or gay
dating sites; 911 calls for ISIS.
You wanted our son to grow up in a
safe country, as you had. How safe is he
now after you killed forty-nine people?
Not virgins, perhaps, but a sacrifice
on your father’s dark altar of manhood.

2. The Gun Salesman

When I was a New York City cop I
saw what they did on 9/11. They
buried my brother officers in fire
for their pussy god. We made them pay with
Shock and Awe’s vengeance. Make us great again
by banning rag heads from America.
Send them back to their camels and sand, but
if you still feel unsafe, perhaps my cold
inventory can help you. My store’s a
Muslim-free zone for real Americans
to buy real guns. Didn’t you see the sign
when you walked in? More than the sanctity
of the 2nd Amendment, money is
my god, worshipped on my dark altar of
manhood, my inalienable right.

3. The Alligator

If my brain were larger than three olives,
I might understand. Pleistocene instinct
is all that moves me. Offer me food, I
will strike, grasp, submerge. Stow tomorrow’s meal
in mud and silt. Lurk in shadows, waiting
until my olive brain registers the
decomp. The tiny thing is no more than
an appetizer, but I mark it so
no rival A. Mississippiensis
steals my tender, sweet morsel. Food is food,
and didn’t they realize the water’s
edge is where I hunt? Five brothers and I
stalked, hunted, and captured. Sacrificed to
deflect responsibility, killed on
the dark altar of manhood’s need to blame.

###

Well, thoughts? Comments? More tweaking? Or do I give up?

Poetry Class Update

I’ve had three sessions of the poetry class I signed up for at WriterHouse in Charlottesville, VA. Time is flying, and I am having fun. I’ve received some great and helpful feedback on the two poems I’ve workshopped, enough to make me want to write more poetry.

The second poem was the one I wrote for #FullMoonSocial2014, and the suggested edits were spot on. However, Jeff Schwaner, who came up with the idea of #FullMoonSocial2014, had asked if he could include my poem, “Web of Fate,” in an anthology he was putting together of the poems written for that social media paean to the moon. Unfortunately, I didn’t get the edited poem to him in time, so he went with the original. If you’re interested in seeing the anthology and reading the other poems, you can download a copy for free by clicking here.

“Web of Fate” was actually my fall-back poem. I wrote a sonnet (fourteen lines in three quatrains and a couplet, where every other line rhymes, as does the closing rhyming couplet. I have a friend who is terminal with kidney failure, and I intended it to honor her; but I think I bit off more than I could chew. I wanted to work on it some more (a lot more!) before I workshopped it, so “Web of Fate” stepped up as the designated hitter.

For this week’s class, we had to write a persona poem–terminology which sent me to the Google for a definition and some examples. A persona poem is defined as “a poem written from the point of view of the object or person being written about.”* Sounds easy, right? Frankly, I was stymied, but a line came to me during our weekly SWAG Writers’ write-in on Monday: “I am the thing you wish to ignore, and I am unrelenting.” I found that line intriguing, especially when I split the sentence and made “I am the thing you wish to ignore” the opening line and “And I am unrelenting” the last line.

We’ll see on Thursday if those and the sixteen lines in between actually do constitute a persona poem.

*Willow Hambrick – Educator, Literacy Coach, Writing Coordinator, Royal Spring Middle School