Writing


The Abracadabra: A New Poetry Game

I invented this game during Paul Violi’s poetry workshop “Romantic Rebellion.” Two examples of the Abracadabra—“Four Reviews” and “Four School Subjects”—are presented below. Read the rules, check it out, and play along!

Rules:

The player chooses a general topic and four subjects within the topic (e.g. Critical Reviews: Theatre, Book, Food, Film and School Subjects: Math, History, English, Science.)

The player writes four poems—one for each subject (these together make the Abracadabra.)

The poems are written in Dactylic meter—each foot has three beats: Stressed, unstressed, unstressed. ONE, two, three, ONE, two, three. It’s like waltzing. (NOTE: This rule can be broken. If you find a meter better suited to your purposes, you must use that one.)

The rhyme scheme is ABCB. You may write as many quatrains as necessary—but less is more!

The player must use each letter of the alphabet in order throughout each of the four poems. You do not have to use one letter per line, only in order.

In the A-Z words, you may not use the same word twice in the Abracadabra. (This rule can be bent. For example, using “X” to mean “crossing out” is not the same as using “X-” as the prefix for “X-axis.” But try and stay diverse.

* Editor’s note: Click MORE to view Luke’s poems and play along – leave your magic poems in the comments box.  Have fun!

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Yesterday was Wednesday, so I of course read the NYT Dining section.  I generally read it online, but since I was Long Island-bound, I got myself a copy for the train ride.  Eventually I found myself at Section A, with the International, National, and Local stories, followed by the Op-Ed pieces.  I always read this section from back to front, and once I passed the Op-Eds the last page of local news contained 2 articles.  Above the fold a sad girl, seemingly in her late teens, stared out at me, and below the fold was a photo of three 30-something people standing around a turntable.

The Article up top was about how kids age out of the foster system. With unemployment climbing in the city, many of their advocates are concerned they are now effectively on the fast-track towards homelessness.  They are the forgotten children, bounced around their entire lives and then cast off to fend for themselves.

The other article was about a bunch of recently unemployed people who have decided to become DJs, and who have gone to school to learn how to spin records and mix music digitally.  The undercurrent has a whiff of people becoming unbound by the falling economy: with little left to lose, they can now pursue their youthful dreams. The top note, however, was about the rise of enrollment in DJ schools and the semi-lucrative opportunity DJing affords people who are slowly whittling away their severance packages.

At first I was taken aback at how the foster youth article was essentially buried in the paper, hidden. They are the forgotten ones, indeed. I am aware of the hierarchy of newspapers, the way stories are prioritized based on what sells the most papers—but still. This story made it sound as if foster kids definitely don’t have the dollar and change to spare for their daily NYT.

But what the page really made me think of is the characters we give voice to in fiction and the worlds we illuminate in our stories, and if in shedding that light we create portals of opportunity for our readers.  When we write about marginalized people, or show a kaleidoscopic (and often grim) view of humanity, are we in effect helping to make the marginalized more mainstream?  Should that be the duty of a writer?  Or should we avoid such subjects at all costs?  If so, are we then effectively marginalizing ourselves as authors?

But to come back to my trip to Long Island: I was headed there to visit my Grandma and spend the day making gefilte fish and matzoh ball soup for the Passover meal. Over the course of the day somehow my uncle’s dog came up in conversation.  That dog has been dead at least 20 years, but Grandma’s stream of consciousness can wind in unexpected ways. She asked me if I knew the dog was born a hermaphrodite.  I said that perhaps I did, but who could really say whether or not that was true? 

While I don’t mean to place aspiring DJs, foster children and hermaphroditic dogs all on the same plane, maybe it is important to create pointed characters.  Perhaps we should make an effort to carve out places in literature for those who cannot afford to buy the books written about them.

All this is by way of me asking: Where do your characters come from?  What do you ask them as you write their stories?  Is literature salvation for “lost” peoples?     

The blog has been quiet as of late. The print journal has been shipped back and forth, from New York, to California, to Canada, then back around again. The next time I see it, it will be in its finished form, ready for the shelves of Barnes & Noble, ready to be found on my bookshelf, and this year I am going to work hard to place it on the shelves of other booksellers too. (Should anyone have any suggestions, or advice, it would be greatly appreciated.)

While getting the journal ready to go has been time consuming, I don’t think it is actually the culprit for my lack of blogging. I went back and looked at old blog entries and realized how heavily influenced they were by my restlessness last fall—restlessness that I think stemmed from anticipating the election. Unease at the thought of certain governmental policies being continued, rather than dismantled. And now my mind is a bit calmer. It isn’t that I am writing less; it’s just that I have been less inspired to blog.

We talk a big game about how reactionary and responsive blogging is, but I’m not sure I knew what I was saying until I watched my interest both wax and wane. I don’t think I am any less interested in the world around me, but I may be less worried about it. Does that make sense? I don’t know if I am blind to how the economic problems will effect my future, but I find comfort in the idea that the problems are communal. I think that makes the pain less acute.

Or maybe I am growing complacent and should be worried. Perhaps we all become complacent when we are happy with who is at the helm of our government, and that is why every 4 or 8 years we see major party shifts. While one side sits and fumes for 8 years, it galvanizes them to go and win an election, and the other side gets comfortable and finds itself without enough steam come election time.

I know our readership doesn’t all share the same politics, but do you find your investment in the current climes waning post-election? Was the constant noise of the campaigns just so exhausting that you are taking a bit of a break? Or am I just making up excuses for being lazy?

On February 26, 2009, Michiko Kakutani wrote in the New York Times of Philipp Meyer: “American Rust announces the arrival of a gifted new writer — a writer who understands how place and personality and circumstance can converge to create the perfect storm of tragedy.”  The reviews for this first-time novelist have been rave, with comparisons to Richard Russo, Salinger and Steinbeck. This pressure on a writer brings excitement to readers.american-rust

It was the first day of spring and I was excited to attend the event, Fateful Acts: A Fiction Panel, with authors Valerie Laken (Dream House), Katharine Davis (East Hope), and Philipp Meyer (American Rust).

Katharine Davis discussed the difficulties in briefly describing her novels. “It’s the complexity that makes [novels] interesting.” Valerie Laken described how the idea for her novel came from a personal experience. She and her husband had bought a rundown house in an up-and-coming neighborhood in Ann Arbor. Soon after, they learned that a murder had occurred years before in their fix-it-up home. A young man had shot his mother’s boyfriend in the house, then walked down the street to the ice cream shop, set the gun on the counter and asked if someone would please call the police. “Stories come from mistakes,” she said, getting a laugh from the crowd.

American Rust, Mr. Meyer described, starts with a killing in a town where the steel industry went under. “It’s about how much people are willing to sacrifice for their friends.” He said he’s hesitant to call it a crime novel because throughout the book the reader always knows more than the characters.

“It’s set in southwest Pennsylvania, which is very beautiful, and very remote, with a lot of wildlife. It’s a place so depressed that a job at Walmart is coveted.” He described the place as having a “certain sense of loss, both human and material.”
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He’s held many unique jobs, including working in a trauma center, driving an ambulance, and doing years of construction work. When Mr. Meyer was 16 he dropped out of high school and got his G.E.D. “I didn’t understand at the time how it would change me. It’s a social handicap. The decision was more significant than I first expected.”

While working in construction he knew several people who had been to jail, and what he learned from them made its way into the novel. “Most had some awareness that people are interested in them as ex-prisoners. When they realize that you’re not afraid of them, they’re willing to tell you anything.”

Researching the novel he “did a lot of walking in the town, and so in the book there is a lot of walking. Sometimes I would go to a bar and buy someone a beer. You’d be surprised, everyone wants to talk about themselves.”

Mr. Meyer admitted that American Rust is the third novel he’s written, but only the first one published. He was writing for eight years before he had a single story published, but now he’s had stories in McSweeney’s and on Salon.com. “I’ve always been a big reader,” he said. “I don’t remember learning to read, I just remember always reading.”

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There is something to be said for a change of environment. For the past couple of weeks my writing has been stuck, stagnant. The answer was to get away.

I am a creature of habit. Every morning I make coffee and then eat breakfast while I check my e-mail. After eating, while drinking my second cup, I start looking over my writing and create a list of things to work on for the day. All of this is done at the same desk, sitting in the same chair, looking at the same view. But the habits have not spawned much creativity as of late, so it was time to shake things up.

Last Saturday my wife and I got in the car and drove to Longwood, Florida, to spend a week at a house on a lake with a gorgeous view of the sunset and a kitchen full of good food. Since our arrival, I have been able to relax and have gotten a renewed excitement for my writing. The fresh air, the warm pool, the food—they have given me a clear mind and have helped me make substantial progress. The words are coming easier now, and the end appears in sight.

Traveling has always sparked my creative energy. How has your traveling affected your writing? Has your writing affected your travels?

Julie Sheehan reciting “The Song of Wandering Aengus” by W. B. Yeats.

Justin Taylor reading “I See Tiny Mouths” by Anthony McCann from the Agriculture Reader.

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