Sunday, September 12, 2010


A poem is composed of words, not of ideas. A poem should come to you, you should not come to it. Be a tiger, not a rabbit. Don't fold laundry. Don't list your prestigious awards. And for heaven's sake, don't be witless.

Two books on writing and reading are on my morning reading schedule -- Ezra Pound's "ABC of Reading," and William Packard's "The Art of Poetry Writing." Reading both at the same time is enough to give a writer a complex. Reading about writing and reading makes me not want to write. But I do anyway. I respond.

Yesterday, just for the joy of it, I memorized a poem by Vasko Popa. There is no book you can read, no workshop you can take, that can replace the wonder of writing or reading a poem. Memorizing a poem reminds me of why I write. A poem is composed of words that form ideas, that wash empty spaces with emotion, that open entire landscapes. It's exciting to me to memorize the molecules of someone's thoughts. Depending on the poem, it can feel naughtier than opening a letter or a diary. The joy comes in sharing the music of those lines with anyone at any time. I have memorized the poem "by heart," as we say, but really it's "by mind and heart." The words become part of my pulse, part of my synapses.

I have mixed feelings about Poetry Out Loud, the National Endowment for the Arts and the Poetry Foundation's high school level contest for poetry recitation. The program has gained popularity over the past few years. Stakes are high. There's a hefty scholarship on the line. Students who move through the ranks memorize several poems, each one of a different time period. Recitations are judged on physical presence, voice and articulation, dramatic appropriateness, level of difficulty, evidence of understanding, and overall performance. An accuracy judge follows the text to make sure the reciter doesn't miss a word. They also act as the prompter if a kid "goes up on a line."

I've judged this contest at various levels and have been stunned by the level of understanding some of the contestants have of the poems they chose to memorize. I've also been one of our regional competition's organizers and felt overwhelmed by the level of administration needed to run a contest like this. One one hand, the students are learning poems that probably would not have learned in school otherwise (there's a paucity of poetry in school). On the other hand, there is little to no follow-through from memorization and appreciation of those poems to writing poems of their own.

The prize of memorizing a poem, of understanding the poem, is just that. You have a poem inside of you forever. A twenty thousand dollar scholarship is great, sure, but money has a way of disappearing. Poems have a way of rumbling around inside of you foreverly.

Monday, September 06, 2010

The Wedding Dance Floor

I'm not sure how many weddings I've attended in my lifetime. Twenty? Thirty? Maybe not that many. One thing I am sure of is that I have seen a little girl in a puffy dress at every wedding. She circles the empty dance floor alone with her arms out until she is dizzy and then she falls, exhausted and giddy. I think I can count my lifetime in dizzy, circling wedding floor toddlers. It is surely better than counting out one's lifetime in root canals, or in tax payments.

This weekend we attended the wedding of some dear friends. It was a memorable reception. Fondant robots topped the wedding cake. Articulated metal toy robots, chattering teeth, tiny bowling pins, dinosaurs, and noisemakers waited in clusters at each table for the guests to play and make introductions. An Elvis impersonator shimmied and gyrated the reception into action. A photobooth was available for guests to ham it up and leave a strip of smiles for the bride and groom, and take one away for themselves. I think a few regular restaurant patrons might have taken the opportunity to have their photos taken as well. That will be fun years from now for the bride and groom ... "Who's this?"

This was a relaxed and fun wedding reception, held in the open room of a local restaurant. The heads of moose, elk, deer, and a few whole animals (foxes), looked down at us in judgment. "Let me get this straight. You kill me, stuff me, and make me spend eternity watching you dine and dance?" Disco lights animated their frozen stares.

During faster music, kids four and under imitated what they see on MTV videos without care of who was watching. Loose arms gangsta flapped, bodies turned on the floor, legs kicked up, and those still on the floor elasticized their way back up into a vertical position. A three year old girl really listened to the music and let her body move to the melody, not the beat. Her parents didn't try to alter what she was doing at all, they let her be herself.

Adults who don't know what to do with themselves but who want to dance will try a few different techniques. I have seen these at every wedding reception I've ever attended. I've also used some of these strategies myself.

Survival Strategies on the Wedding Reception Dance Floor

1. Grab a kid and dance.
Smaller kids you can pick up and hold, spin around, and do a pretend, over-exaggerated Tango. With larger kids, you can hold their hands and sway. They will break away from you to dance with other kids.

2. Mock a dance move.
You're dancing in a safety cluster of friends, and you start an offbeat version of John Travolta's point to the sky, point to the floor. Make it obvious you're just "joking around."

3. Dance a waltz with a friend during a rap song.
This is a take on the second survival strategy.

4. Do the Charlie Brown. Or the Lawnmower.
Always a crowd pleaser. For more ideas, Ze Frank has a tutorial.

5. Be yourself.
This is the hardest. Watch the little kids and remember what it was like to not care what you looked like. Now move as who you really are. If you dance who you are, the little kids will dance with you. Maybe.

The bride danced with her sister the other night. A glorious, uninhibited, raucous whelping on the dance floor. Their happy dance was infused with years of history that no one could touch. As the bride's dress burned white in spinning and her sister twirled around her, I missed my own sister who is thousands of miles away. I remembered how we danced at my wedding. Years of impenetrable history. Together our bodies made a geometry. With her, I am myself. I am three years old, spinning with my arms out.

My husband danced with me and it wasn't just a slow turn to the right. He led me, our noses touched, and we closed our eyes. My feet finally felt right in high heels. If I can't spin myself dizzy in a puffy dress, I'll count my lifetime in nose touching dances with the love of my life.