Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Between the lines

The trick of this exercise, which I adapted from the book The Practice of Poetry, is to pretend you're not reading ahead, to eschew any effort at total comprehension--to respond to discrete lines.

Here's a chunk of text from a Liam Rector poem, "Fat Men in Summer Suits."

Not wearing a coat of some kind. I love
The coats, and though I love them most
In the fall I still enact the summer code,

I suppose, because my father and I did buy
That code, even though I organized students
To strike down any dress code whatsoever

In the high school I attended (it was a matter
Of honor). And it still puts me in good humor
To abide with the many pockets, including

One for a flask. So whether it's New York,
Vermont, or Virginia, the spectacle
Of the summer seersucker proceeds,

Suspenders and all, and I lean into the sweat
(Right down to where the weather really is)
Until it has entirely soaked through my jacket.

The title of this poem grabbed me. I didn't need the whole poem for my exercise, so I just took about half of it. Mid-sentence, in fact, which doesn't matter.

I copied the partial poem into a blank Word file. Then I looked at each line, separately, and wrote a line that it brought to me. (This is where the mystery comes in, where I imagine every poet will approach the task differently.)

I did not try to make all my lines hang together, but neither did I make an effort to avoid connections and echoes and whatnot.

I did this quickly. "No thinking too much!" as Sloan Wainwright's acupuncturist warned.

Then I stripped away Rector's lines.

This is my set of lines. It is not meant to be a poem.

when the borrowing days of April are over, and dark things grow warm

I must lay them in the trunk, dusted with moth flakes, lower the lid

of running, sockless, down Bay Ridge Drive in the falling sun

those strawberries, we’d best eat them before they rot

to speak carefully and respectfully, avoid the risible, the risque

--hell, to go naked if the whim strikes

of merit to be a magnet student, drawn from poverty to this holy place

to watch the stiff walks of soldiers, so whipped and unmanned by war

the ones where mice have made their winter beds

I take the train to Homecoming, pretend this trench is raccoon, toss my scarf

of brown tones and maple candy and other old-lady sweetnesses

twittering, blue-striped, in the dwindling trees

as if it wasn’t a Sunday and I in my gym togs

six inches under the soil

Then I drop my clothes and dance in the hot rain.

I can tell you some of the extra-Rector sources...

I read in my friend Wayne's Oxford Book of Days that the first three days of April are called "the borrowing days" because they "borrow" the weather of March; April doesn't start until about the fourth (just as the 1970s don't start until about 1972).

I seem to write about going without socks, and about dancing in the rain, a lot. (I often do the former and have done the latter only once, to my recollection.)

And I really did read "seersucker" in the Rector poem as if it were the name of a bird, and respond accordingly, although by the time of my response I knew my "error."

So now my task is to make a poem draft out of some of that. I'll get back to you.

The full Liam Rector poem is here.

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