A Literary Series
My friend Jason asked me what I thought of a poem he’d just written. He was on a train somewhere, headed back to Brooklyn—this was through email—and I told him I liked it but might change a couple phrases. He said thanks but was instead thinking he needed to “blow the whole thing up and make it much weirder,” that it was too much like “the imitation of a poem rather than an actual poem.” That’s the sort of savvy stuff I’m used to from him. And it made me start running through my own Inventory of Weird. Like I’m lab-testing his hypothesis.
It checks out. For instance, the movie Tin Cup was on TV yesterday, and my favorite part is still when Roy and his friend (and caddy) Romeo are getting out of Roy’s old convertible Cadillac, and Romeo tells him, “I only got one rule, boss, and that’s never bet money that you don’t have on a dog race with an ex-girlfriend who happens to be a stripper, and you broke that rule, Holmes. Now you’re gonna have to be sweet to her.” This dialogue isn’t plot-centric at all. It’s just there. Weirdness that levitates.
Another example: I spent two nights in Hamilton, Montana, a guest being taken care of by strangers. One night I stepped out onto the back stoop and almost into a porcupine. It was there, maybe a foot away, eating out of the dog bowl. I said zero, stood still, then it gave me a bored look and walked away past an apple tree. Now, who cares what happened on the other night?
Or take New York City, where Jason lives, and not porcupines but Frank O’Hara. O’Hara’s got a poem (“Personal Poem”) about hanging out with his friend Leroi Jones, and he mentions the construction on all the corners and girders of Manhattan and says “if / I ever get to be a construction worker / I’d like to have a silver hat please.” Who’s he talking to, himself, the reader, some imaginary god of hardhat dispersal? Who cares? It’s an outburst of oddness and goodness.
I try to remember to notice things like that. And I try not to cross them out of my poems. And I like to imagine other writers resisting that same self-doubt. Take Keats. You’d have to call his work polished. And yet he’s got this long poem called “The Eve of St. Agnes” in which he hits on this description of Porphyro’s enemies in the castle: “Hyena foemen.” I can picture Keats thinking, “I should change that, although it does fit the meter. Me, a poor kid, surgeon’s apprentice, lived my whole life in London, never been to Africa, and TV isn’t invented yet; what do I know about hyenas?” But hyena foemen it is, and it’s my favorite part. It’s shaggier and sharper than the rest of the words, more weird and wild.
I like when my own work surprises me. It’s more fun. In “When I Asked My Friend the Entomologist,” for instance, things veered suddenly sideways. I’d just written about seeing bees with bright red circles on their abdomens when this happened:
“Probably Bombus centralis,” she told me,
“as common in Utah as dandelions.”
But then, since I’d come all the way to her lab,
she said, “Unless . . .”.
I’ve always liked that word—like a lighthouse
keeping an eye on possibility.
Where did that lighthouse come from? I mean, this wasn’t a recounting of a thing that really happened. It wasn’t “true.” But that lighthouse led to my logic-brain chiming in and adding, “I tend to forget that a lighthouse is signaling risk.” Man, I wanted to know instantly what was coming. What risk? And then there was some—cool, strange danger. I had no idea she was about to do what she does next:
“Unless it’s sylvicola.
They typically stick to Montana, Wyoming,
parts of Colorado.
They’re rare around here,
but sometimes they’ll surprise.”
She picked up a marker,
lifted her T-shirt,
drew a bright red circle on her stomach.
She said, “Bombus centralis or sylvicola, which am I?”
All because I didn’t cross out that lighthouse. Or worse, just treat it as a flourish.
I think what I mean—what my friend Jason meant too—is that weirdness can also be an evolution. If you don’t believe me, go and look at a moose. Did you know they can close their nostrils and stay underwater like these algae-grazing submarines? You don’t get weirder than an anglerfish, but it works. What’s got more style, a cow or a longhorn?
It’s the same thing with writing. Weird is good.
Read poetry by Rob Carney appearing in Terrain.org: 4th Annual Contest Winner and Issue 30. And listen to a new radio interview with Rob Carney.
Illustration of porcupine bcourtesy Shutterstock.