My First Published Poem: “Roadside Freak Show”

Impossible Archetype Issue 2 cover
Roadside Freak Show
Impossible Archetype issue 2
21 August 2017

Today was a perfect day: after sharing the spectacular solar eclipse this morning with friends among the large crowds gathered at the University of Arizona campus, my very first published poem became available online in the second issue of the wonderful LGBTQ+ journal Impossible Archetype! The issues of this journal are available as free PDF downloads. Packed within issue two are so many fantastic poems; I’m still amazed that my poem “Roadside Freak Show” is included among them.

I have much appreciation for the instructors and writers at The Writers Studio Tucson who offered helpful feedback on early drafts of this poem. They helped me find the best way to navigate the tonal differences in my early drafts between factual information, protest, and lyricism. I learned a lot about considering readers when I start revisions of my poems. Good poetry can be opaque, have lots of different meanings, and make the reader work to read it, but the poet also has some responsibility to make their poems in some way accessible to diverse readers. I write for myself in the first few drafts, but then I take a step back and try to imagine what strangers coming to my work will see. It helps to have fellow writers as first readers to offer their critiques. Frequently there are images and phrases that make sense only to me, that end up offering no means by which a reader can come into the poem, too.

Yellow monster print on concrete at Bowlin's The Thing? roadside attraction, March 18, 2017
Yellow monster print on concrete at Bowlin’s The Thing? roadside attraction, March 18, 2017

I did research for this poem. On a Saturday in March, I drove southeast of Tucson to visit The Thing and experience for myself the weirdness that is the United States roadside attraction. I had been talking myself out of going for several months for various social anxiety reasons, but I knew as soon as I arrived that I had made the right decision. I took notes and pictures while I followed monster prints to the three sheds packed full of dust-covered items behind glass, hanging from the ceiling, standing behind metal dividers, or inside a cinderblock coffin. Without experiencing this place, I wouldn’t have been able to capture the atmosphere and horror I believe are important components of my poem. I wouldn’t have made the necessary connections between the roadside attraction, its history, and current events. I’m now convinced that research must be part of my writing process. I had a lot to think about when I came home from my weekend trip and my poem improved so much in subsequent drafts because I had personally experienced and documented the place.

Banner and cinder-block coffin containing The Thing at Bowlin's The Thing? roadside attraction, March 18, 2017
Banner and cinderblock coffin containing The Thing at Bowlin’s The Thing? roadside attraction, March 18, 2017

The biggest surprise, of course, was how the other items at this roadside attraction frightened me more than The Thing. I wasn’t actually expecting any real fear at all, but the disturbing things collected there forced me to grapple with the very idea of roadside attractions. You can’t walk in to find a mannequin of Hitler in the back of a vehicle and other mannequins in scenes of torture and not feel a little terror.

The Thing under glass and reflected banner inside a cinder-block coffin at Bowlin's The Thing? roadside attraction, March 18, 2017
The Thing under glass and reflected banner inside a cinderblock coffin at Bowlin’s The Thing? roadside attraction, March 18, 2017

I found The Thing itself incredibly poignant. A crafted thing “from fabric and plaster, / more pile of dirt and wet cardboard / than realistic human skeleton” suggests many things about the creator of it, the era it’s from, the era it finds itself in now, the roadside attraction, and these United States. It calls attention to various issues and themes like racism, cultural appropriation, art, and commerce. It’s beloved by, though it’s also meant to frighten, travelers and children. And it’s surrounded by the reckoning we still haven’t had with our country’s past.

I felt like it could be me someday. There’s nothing attractive about that prospect.

Looking Ahead

on August 21, 2017, before

I’ve seen the eclipse already.
I’ve seen how it begins:
the radiant sun, the vanished
moon. See how they are going
to collide, the many decisions
the moon made, the sun in its
place and bright and not waiting,
but willing. I’ve seen the introduction
by the sky, the first tentative kiss,
the way it can flare. the way these two
spend their two hours together: intensify,
more colors than imagined, gray and blue and yellow,
white, too bright, scalding, frigid passage of time
together, orbits constrained to a circle and collapsing
in, leaving everyone else outside, in the dark,
afraid, unprepared, caught in traffic, under
moon and sun timid reconsidering recoiling
while sleeping birds cry out in alarm
and howling coyotes transform into humans,
into bats, into umbrellas, and whine when
they are coyote again. How they pull
apart, not easily, with great pain,
groping, mistaking legs for fingers,
tripping, huddling, finding stars
in the vastness, making a run
for it. Get away from me!
Apart. Hot and cold. Lonely.
Remember those good times?
Remember how they kept coming,
these eclipses, these holes
in the sky, brief beginnings
and long endings? It’s there
behind your eyes and mine,
the twirl never-ending.
So brief.

Condemn

Condemn

Condemn

when necessary

Condemn

Condemn white supremacists kkk nazis
whatever name gone by Condemn
always

family and friends Condemn
when necessary
yes parents siblings relatives
grew up with them
no blood loyality
grew up with
friends
no loyalty
friends and coworkers
no loyalty
Condemn who needs Condemning

always

Condemn

no loyalty when hate is involved
no loyalty to hate

Condemn

these and more

clergy religion spirituality new age supernatural dogma
atheists scientists eugenicists creationists bad science dogma
pseudoscience academics philosophers written oratory any media dogma
politicians authority figures the white house dogma
public figures celebrities loud figures news anchors
news channels reporters news not news but commentary too much opinion
artists poets writers writers and tellers of jokes
jokes religious jokes race jokes gay jokes trans jokes
rape jokes blonde jokes hair jokes body jokes dogma
Condemn jokes that need Condemning

Condemn

free speech not the right to but the practice of as blunt weapon
as free speech without free response

Condemn Condemn! white supremacy right now

Condemn the worst in you your hate your parents’ hate born
in you Silence your complicit saliva ancestors blood evil
awash in colonization sending the worst upon your current shores

there are more shores than these

Condemn all our garbage-strewn shores awash in plastic patriotism
without free response without basic decency or cleanup without open borders

and Protect them

awash in oily rationale and devil advocacy
breaking waves of ignorance and measles
the red tides of daily horoscopes celebrity worship
amusing ourselves to death
free markets without free response
capitalism without critique
occupation conquerer text books
limits to freedoms facts no limits to guns prisons opinions
the weighted rebalancing of unbalanced perspectives
commentary ad-supported neuroscience marketing
gamification notification surveillance shadow dark webs
social network algorithms mob addiction
relentless crash of polluted waves

Condemn

no loyalty when hate is involved
no loyalty to hate

Condemn

when necessary

each other

it’s necessary

always

involved

Condemn

Making the Poet

I don’t believe in natural talent. I use “believe” on purpose because I might be wrong; nevertheless, there’s more to talent than whatever innate capabilities a person might be born with that makes them prodigy and genius. Natural talent is at best a leg up. At worst, it’s destiny and entirely uninteresting. I believe.

I did not start writing poetry until I was forty (ignoring English homework in K-12 and song lyrics when I was a teenager and foolish and in crush with anyone.) Fall 2013 at the University of Arizona in “The Elements of Craft in Creative Writing” course. Our professor introduced us to craft in poetry at the beginning of the semester. Why start with poetry? To paraphrase the professor, poetry is good for teaching all elements of good writing in general.

The poems I wrote in “The Elements of Craft” class are not examples of good writing. No natural talent. The professor’s feedback was kind, helpful, and illuminating; it illuminated the ways in which my poetry was cliche-ridden, overwrought, and abstract. I became frustrated with my inability to write what might be considered good poetry, and then I became angry. I was not angry at my professor or other, better students. I wasn’t angry at poets. I was angry at poems! I read poems and frequently didn’t understand them. I wrote poems and none of them were any good. I was angry at poetry, the body of literature itself! I was angry at poesy, the act of composing poetry! For every poem I wrote and thought “this is finally the one that means I understand poetry” there was the professor’s illuminating critique and there were better poems by the other students in my class that quickly disabused me of my confidence. Did my classmates, most of them many years younger than me, have natural talent? Yes, maybe, no. Whatever they had, I did not have it. My poetry was not alive, it did not surprise, it did not have layers of meaning, it did not resonate with readers. It failed miserably. It made me so angry!

But the anger I felt was not a miserable anger; it was strangely appealing. This anger made me read more poetry. It made me read poems more than once. It made me read poems out loud. This anger sat me down at my computer to write new poems. It made me focus on my images, on my lines, on ways I could make them stronger, on ways I could break my lines in more interesting places, on ways I could make my poems sounds better.

Let me put this in perspective. My concentration in my creative writing degree was fiction. After “Elements of Craft,” I jumped into my fiction workshops with excitement because even though I was not capable of writing good poetry, I had learned a lot about writing in general and I brought these elements of craft to bear in my fiction. Not great work, but promising. Not anger-inducing at all. In addition to our genre of concentration, students were allowed to take introductory workshops in other genres, like nonfiction. I loved my nonfiction workshop and used the same elements of craft in my essays. I liked what I wrote. I received helpful critiques from instructors and students to make it even better.

Oh, but how my anger for poetry seethed during all of 2014. I wrote poetry in anger all year long. The result was a huge “Poetry Fragments” text file in which I angrily typed poems and fragments of poems, sometimes late at night when these fragments burst into my mind like a haunting and the only way to exorcise them was to get out of bed, turn on a light, and in cold fury write them down. They spilled out of me, these terrible lines and terrible poems:

Sunday, March 16, 2014 ~11:15 PM: “There is terrible poetry / on my fingertips / splinter wooden shards / too thin to tweezer.”

Well, of course I used a cliched splinter metaphor. UGH!

Wednesday, April 16, 2014 ~10:46 AM: “The man in the mirror / is not the face of the man”

Yuck, yuck, yuck! Of course I would write something about the “man in the mirror”!

Sunday, June 8, 2014: “He can wear hats. / It comes with the green eyes.”

Well, of course… Actually, this poem was the easiest poem I had ever written. It spilled out of me, too, but not quite so angrily. In fact, it arrived on the page with deep emotions and astonishing gentleness.

When the new school year started in the fall, I was desperate to do something about this obsession of mine. So I enrolled in the introductory poetry workshop. I discovered that eight months of angry writing had made me a better poet. Meanwhile, the other students in the poetry workshop were insanely great. I’m not sure I felt competitive, but I felt like their mastery of poetry was beyond my grasp. I learned a lot from reading and critiquing their poems, and from their feedback about my poems.

Friday, October 10, 2014 ~8:30 PM:Ich fyrcht Den Tag / when a man / lacquered not from dust / but fallen into it / shrugs off his black dog skin, / animates shoulders / broadly drawn with loess, / and shuffles into / biting at her ears.”

Sunday, October 12, 2014 ~1:20 AM:In one hole bury the bell. Bury the bell in dirt without ringing. In the dirt without ringing bury the bell. Bury it. The voice will ring.”

I collected revisions of my poems “He can wear hats,” “The Divorce of Lilith and Samuel,” and “The Talents” on Monday, October 13, 2014 and dropped them into Microsoft Word. I carefully formatted the document and submitted it online to the University of Arizona Poetry Center’s annual undergraduate poetry contest.

And I was one of 2014’s three winning poets. Cash prize. Public reading.

Oh, but how my anger continued to grow! Imposter Syndrome met obsession met ambition met doubt. I complained to everyone. I didn’t want to be a poet! I had no idea what I was doing! I collected 98 pages of poems and fragments of poems between 2013 and 2014.

In 2015, the English Department changed the policy that had previously prevented students in another genre concentration from pursuing a second concentration in poetry. I took the intermediate poetry workshop in the spring and the advanced one in the fall. I graduated. During 2015, I had written at least 54 more pages of poetry. An anger born out of frustration transformed into anger about my identity as a writer. In a country that has forgotten to value poetry, in a country where poets cannot make a living writing poetry (as artists in general cannot), in a country that teaches its children how to “decipher” a poem to uncover the poem’s “one true meaning,” I was afraid to admit that I might like to be a poet.

I abandoned poetry to focus on fiction; just a few hours later I had written yet another poem. I began purchasing physical books again, because poetry books in digital format are still difficult to find and often poorly formatted. I added poetry by my college professors to my bookshelf (something I should have done while I was still in school.) I discovered speculative poetry and the Science Fiction & Fantasy Poetry Association. I discovered the poets who particularly inspire me, who write poems that suggest ways forward for me. I began to pay attention to news about poets. I enrolled in writing workshops at the Writers Studio and at the Poetry Center and worked on even more poetry.

During 2016—I don’t remember when exactly—I realized my anger was gone.

The process of accepting poetry into my life and accepting myself as a poet had begun. I have no natural talent in poetry. I crammed a lot of exploration and discovery into a few short years to become the mediocre poet I am today. Like trudging up a dune while sand slips and slides you back down and only after much annoying effort arriving at the crest breathless only to see that there is now an entire dangerous ocean left to navigate, I have some sense of this period being the end of the beginning of my life as a poet. I don’t miss the anger, exactly. What I feel today is much more complex and, perhaps, more mature. I appreciate how contemporary poets frequently use the word “consoling” when describing poetry. Poetry brings me comfort now. For someone originally from the Pacific Northwest, poetry is consoling to me the way standing on the beach against the loud ocean, gusty winds, chilly air, and light rain is consoling.

My anger may be gone, but my resistance is not entirely. I still write other genres. I still see myself as a science fiction, fantasy, and horror writer of short stories and novels, and as a nonfiction essayist concerned with technology and its impact on humanity. These were my early visions of myself as a writer and I’m still pursuing them.

As a poet, though? I’m soon to be a published poet.

I don’t believe in natural talent. I believe in exploring your interests, and also exploring those things you don’t know or are not sure will interest you, and then learning which of them, especially which one of them, makes you angry while it pulls you into its orbit anyway, makes you so damn mad that you keep at it, emotional, uncertain, persistent. It’s wonderful to be that kind of angry. It’s wonderful when the anger is gone and in its place the real work begins.

I’m not sure I believe my anger is really gone, though. There might be a current of it underneath my poesy still today. It keeps me insecure, challenged, and writing. It gives me ideas. It’s in my first published poem and it’s in so many of my most recent poems. Consolation, but anger, but natural and rewarding.

I believe.

There’s A Great Silence Down Here

I planned to go to Mars.
My enthusiasms set to eleven
years old, I engaged in scrapbooking
and a Face looked back.
It’s a trick of mind,
this wanting bigger
alien monuments than human
artifacts, a willingness
to disbelieve disbelievers
disbelieving everything
not set in stone.

I planned to go to Mars,
but the Moon was a promise kept
too many. We choose to go
to the ends of the Earth instead,
by fire and heat, melt and parching
confines of one sphere too few
to contain so many squares.

I planned to go to Mars,
but devils detail Death divining
skin holding one cubic person
of water, flesh, and contempt,
three dimensions of depth,
a fourth without time.

I planned to go to Mars,
but I’m afraid of falling up.
Falling down isn’t any easier.
Following everyone, who must fall,
implies a nonzero chance for pits.
There’s a Great Silence down here.
I plan to pack light.

#NaPoWriMo 2017 Day 30

Discussion:

That’s it! The last poem of Camp NaNoWriMo and NaPoWriMo 2017! It’s a bit of a downer; the long drive home after a fun weekend Disneyland and Disneyland California Adventure led to lots of thinking, alone, in the dark.)