Wednesday, November 12, 2008

FSPA Keynote, "Poeticus Interruptus," Part 3 of 5

Poeticus Interruptus
(or: Is that a poem in your pocket or are you just happy to see me?)
Keynote at the Florida State Poets Association Convention (theme: "A poem in your pocket"), 18 October 2008, Part 3 of 5

FSPA Keynote, "Poeticus Interruptus," Pt. 3
FSPA Keynote, "Poe...
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Last year Sunday Scribblings had the prompt "Decision," which inspired this poem of alternating count-downs and count-ups, called


Our leaders tossed a coin and tempted fate.
Blind and deaf, the gods ignored our pleas
While our people froze, wracked with doubt,
Our land in paralysis.
No one could tame the fear
Choking every move,
Error's spectre.
Then a child
Just said,

Ice split.
The town thawed
And creaked to life.
Pressing into fog,
We fought through our malaise,
Knowing that we could be damned
For making the wrong decision.
So many choices, so much to lose,
So much to gain in a moment of risk.

One random act unravels tapestries.
Lifelines fall away. Existence stops.
An insect dies beneath a thumb
Or suffers the doomed, webbed turn.
Something dies. Something lives.
A body at rest
Remains at rest.
One decides
To move.

Right place
But wrong time.
Everything shifts.
A new path opens:
Plan B. Plan C. Plan X.
Courage instilled by blind faith
Or by an itch, a drive, a need.
We pare desire down to the bone
Until all that remains is readiness.

In 1985 I found a poem in Aldrich 111, a lecture hall at the Harvard Business School. The poem made its way into the July/August 1986 Harvard Business Review and then into a case by Professor John K. Shank called "Jones Ironworks, Inc." That case, with my poem in it, has been taught around the world.

When I wrote the sonnet "Labor Intensive" I was working behind the scenes as support staff for the business school's News and Information Office. We were hosting a Senior Editors Seminar, inviting all the editorial bigwigs from publications like Forbes and BusinessWeek and the Wall Street Journal to hear our professors speak.

I could tell that Aldrich 111 had filled up for the seminar because of all the coats and hats left behind. Notebooks and purses sat on terraced rows of curved, black-topped desks edged in teak.

My job that day as support staff included spending my lunch hour guarding the lecture hall and our guests' belongings while they and the lecturers were being wined and dined at the Faculty Club.

I had stayed in the office that morning, unable to attend any of the talks because it was a work day. The last lecture of the morning had been about factory automation. As I entered the hall while our guests filed out, I caught snippets of their conversations, including exclamations of surprise and disbelief that a factory worker could actually enjoy what he or she was doing, performing mindless, repetitive tasks on an assembly line.

One of the attendees said, "You'd think it would be incredibly boring!"

What could anyone possibly get out of a thankless job like that?

I thought: Ownership. Never mind that the advent of automation meant jobs could be at risk.

Sitting in that empty hall I remembered a story told by my psychology professor, Dr. Lee A. Borah, Jr. He had held a summer job, working in a factory, decades earlier. While he was there he had met a woman whose job it was to attach labels to cans. She had performed that job, day in and day out, for so many years that she could do it as well as any machine, perhaps even better. That woman had worked her way toward both perfection and pride. Her job might have been viewed as menial by others, but she had owned it.

Performing my own menial task as human watchdog over at the Harvard Business School, I made myself at home in quiet, cavernous Aldrich 111 with its plush beige carpeting and blue upholstered seats. With time and space to think, I spent a few minutes composing "Labor Intensive."

Labor Intensive

That people love their work, who work a drill
Or run a lathe, sounds alien to some
Who see in them "the robots they've become"
Automatons bent to assembly's will.

And some are that, who welcome programmed steel,
Greet automation heralded as Change --
But others feel an intimate exchange,
The tiniest components but a field

As varied as a single breed of snail,
With textures, contours hidden from all eyes
Save those communing daily half their lives
With parts they know like totems. They have nailed

That one philosophy, have made the grade
Who see in work their lives, and love their trade.

At that time, I really wanted to write a short story, but a poem was what came out that day. The story, "Cog," came two years later and was published in Tales of the Unanticipated. I learned this past May that it will be reprinted in a "best of" issue from the magazine's first ten years.

Laini Taylor, the co-host of Sunday Scribblings, wrote a terrific series of posts in a blog called Not For Robots. It's a blog about the writing process, and it's about owning what you write. With respect to getting ideas, she says,

"[G]etting ideas is the easy part. They just come. But more can be said: they come from stray thoughts and tidbits gleaned from headlines or from dusty old folklore books, they come from dreams and memories, or maybe from one perfect, shining sentence that emerges from the middle of a wild, jumbled freewrite. Sometimes they come when two flying thoughts collide in mid-air and merge into a new, mutant idea. And, they come when you make them come."

Taylor adds, "A writer is on safari for ideas every single moment of his or her life, waking and sleeping. And when an idea pops up from behind a baobab tree, you capture it. Write it down. It’s yours now."

As Taylor also points out, you can change it. Through brainstorming you can fold, spindle, and mutilate it. It's yours, so you can do anything you want with it.

That's an extraordinary amount of freedom. Here's how Taylor puts it: "You can write whatever you want. It’s the most basic idea about being a writer, but sometimes it gets lost beneath a whole pile of expectations about what we should be writing, what might 'sell,' what we covet in other writers, etc. Strip all that stuff away and just figure out what you love, what sets your mind on fire."

Taylor doesn't talk about rough drafts. She talks about exploratory drafts. I think "exploratory" is a marvelous word.

I also love referring to my drafts as crap -- not in a disparaging way, but in a way that conveys true tenderness, because sometimes you have to write a lot of it to get to the good stuff. Crap is Awesome! Which is why, in the throes of writing it, I took a few minutes to put together an inspirational art piece, with apologies to Nike sneakers, called Just Poo It. That little piece is also in your bag.

Part 4

Covenant, the first volume in the Deviations Series, is available from Aisling Press, and from AbeBooks, Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Book Territory, Borders,,,, DEAstore,,,,, Powell's Books, and Target. Deviations: Appetite is forthcoming. The Deviations page has additional details.


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