POEM: You’re Killing Me, Ms. Dickinson, or: Samurai Surgery


“If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.”    – Emily Dickinson

 

It’s mean accuracy and angry power that can cleave the top off a head;
neither merely scalping the reader,
nor decapitating him.

Popping the top to blow the mind is samurai surgery.
Some lines tink against the forehead like a dull knife,
while others — with razor-sharpness — succeed only in shearing an unsightly bald spot.

The fabled Taoist butcher could cleanly slice between the bone ends,
never dulling his cleaver,
but that’s not much help for one seeking to take off the top of a head…

or is it?

The Only Bad Poem is a Dead Poem, or: Random Thoughts on Meaning in Poetry

What makes a bad poem?

  • too cloying and / or angsty?
  • too cryptic and indecipherable?
  • uses too many words like “cryptic” and “cloying”?
  • composed by Paula Nancy Millstone Jennings, or a Vogon?*
  • reads like pop music lyrics from the 80’s?
  • doesn’t rhyme?
  • does rhyme, but in a Dr. Seuss-y kind of way?
  • a trochee got jammed amidst the iambic pentameter?

In my opinion (typically, not humble), the answer revolves around meaning and feeling. Poetry is a product of words, and for every other product of words, clarity of meaning is at the forefront of desirable traits.

Allow me to illustrate: Say one produces a business memo, and one hands copies around the conference table. If, having read the memo, not all readers are in agreement about its meaning, one has failed as a memo-writer. (Unless one or more of the readers is an idiot.)

However, if one produces a poem, hands copies around a table, and everyone agrees about its meaning, you’ve failed as a poet.

Like any blanket statement about poetry, that one is a lie. My point is that meaning is overrated as trait of poetry. Poems can be like Zen koan. If you can grasp the meaning intellectually some old monk will be there to cuff you upside your noggin (probably figuratively, your own inner angry Zen monk.)

So if conveying meaning is purely optional, what to convey? Feeling. Sounds, images, and even metaphors can evoke a feeling in one reader that’s different from the next reader, but evoke a feeling in each never-the-less.

So, just ask, will this poem make a reader feel some kind of way?

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* This is a joke that only makes sense to those who’ve read Douglas Adams’s “Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy” books. If you haven’t, go read at least the first (same-named) book and come back. I’ll wait.

BOOK REVIEW: The Sounds of Poetry by Robert Pinsky

The Sounds of Poetry: A Brief GuideThe Sounds of Poetry: A Brief Guide by Robert Pinsky
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Amazon page

 

As the title suggests, this is a book about sound as a component of poetry. Besides the characteristics of noises made in reading poetry, the book details the various characteristics that shape the overall sound of a poem–such as the duration of a syllable and whether it’s stressed or unstressed. Having said that, a major theme of Pinsky’s work is that one shouldn’t be absolutist or rigid about these characteristics (e.g. stress versus unstressed) and should instead look at the relative traits (i.e. more or less stressed.) By adopting a more flexible view of the concepts like accent (stress), rhyme, similarity of sound, one opens up limitless options for poetry.

The book consists of five chapters. The front matter includes an introduction and a brief commentary on theory. The latter points out that there are no hard rules, but by paying attention to these concepts one can produce richer and more interesting sounding poems. Pinsky reviews the most common poetic terms (e.g. iamb, trochee, spondee, etc.) but also looks at how these are varied for effect in a way that is enjoyable to all but prosody hardliners.

The chapters are: 1.) Accent and duration; 2.) Syntax and line; 3.) Technical terms and vocal realities; 4.) Like and unlike sounds; 5) Blank verse and Free verse. (fyi: Blank verse is unrhymed verse that has a regular meter (most commonly iambic pentameter. Free verse is unrhymed verse with irregular meter.)

There are relatively few poems used as examples in this book. Some readers may find this a bit tedious and would prefer being exposed to more (and more varied) examples. However, other readers will enjoy drilling down into a few poems along several dimensions. That’s a matter of personal preference, but the reader should be aware of it.

The book is less than 150 pages even with the back matter, which includes recommended readings and glossary of names and terms. It’s a quick read.

I enjoyed this book. It’s not too technical, and can be followed by a reader whether they’ve had an extensive education into poetry or not. It’s not doctrinaire about prosody, which appeals to my personal preferences. It provoked some intriguing insights, such as the flexible approach to accent as well as poetry as an art that uses the body of reader as its medium—their respiratory systems, vocal chords, and related musculature how these sounds are produced.

I’d recommend the book for poets and readers of poetry who are serious about the endeavor.

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BOOK REVIEW: Publish on Amazon Kindle with Kindle Direct Publishing

Publish on Amazon Kindle with Kindle Direct Publishing Publish on Amazon Kindle with Kindle Direct Publishing by Kindle Direct Publishing
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

KDP website

 

This is a short guide to self-publishing using Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) that was put out by KDP. I’m not sure this particular e-book exists any more, though all the information in it will be on the KDP website. There are about a billion (exaggeration, maybe) Kindle books that have taken this information and made their own book, using similar names. I can’t comment on any of them. I’m sure some include helpful tips for increasing your sales and making your product more appealing, and some of those tips are likely much better than others.

This is a straight up guide to using KDP. It covers topics like how to set up an account, what formats are accepted (several) and which is best (HTML), royalty options (there are two, and the lesser royalty allows one greater freedom of pricing one’s book, i.e. if you want to sell it at cut-rate to get some sales volume or if you’re a narcissist who thinks their self-published masterwork is worth $200 USD per copy), and how / when payments are made (varies by EFT [electronic funds transfer] v paper check options.)

This guide provides all the information needed to get your book up on Amazon. However, if you want insight into other topics (how to market your book, covers, etc.) you’ll need to look elsewhere.

If you can find it, I’d recommend this handy guide. But it may be quicker to just go to the KDP website.

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5 Reasons to Write Poetry

We’re a week into National Poetry Month. I’ve posted a few poems with more to come, but here I’ll reflect upon the benefits of writing poetry. Some may point out that this is one-sided because the pantheon of poets is littered with opium addicts and suicidal depressives. I read a BBC article citing research showing poets were 20 times more likely to be institutionalized than the non-poet population. I maintain that those bards were broken from the beginning, and that there’s another side to the story.

 

5.) Poems are puzzles, and puzzles make you problem-solve. This may be more true of structured poetry than free verse, but a poem wrangles words into a relationship designed to create a desired outcome–often an emotional state. With structured poetry one faces a tight puzzle that’s constrained by syllable counts, the relation of stressed and unstressed beats, or rhyme schemes. But even free verse cuts away everything that dampens a desired resonance. That’s done by a series of strategic choices.

 

4.) Poetry aids emotional management. A study by UCLA researchers found that poetry writing dampens the activity of the amygdala (the brain’s bringer of fear) and, of course, gives the pre-frontal cortex something to do (besides creating catastrophic scenarios–which is its go-to occupation under stress.)

 

3.) Poetry helps build better prose. Some writers will be more concise and others will be more graphic, but there’s always a benefit to be had. I found a NaNoWriMo blog post that tackles this topic nicely, so I’ll just link.

 

2.) Poetry activates attentiveness. This is especially true of a form like haiku, which consists of natural observation unembellished by analysis or sentiment. However, all poetry styles require one examine the world intensely enough to see the old anew. This post may be of interest on the topic.

 

1.) Poetry can access the unconscious. As a practice, I often just put pencil to paper write whatever comes without intervening or directing my conscious mind. Yes, most of it’s crap.  Or not even crap–more like gibberish. But when I go back through these later on, phrases often jump out at me as interesting or evocative, and these often find their way into the heart of actual poems. This is a particularly beneficial practice when one is stuck.

POEM: Edits Awry

“Punch that word into proper position,”

the angry god of grammar cried.

It started surgically.

Teams tapped in pry bars,

popped out words,

and spackled in a space or a substitution.

Then they found rot,

and it’s all wrecking balls and dynamite from here.


[National Poetry Month: Poem #6]

5 Ways to Manage Your Email & Social Media Addiction

Addiction? That seems harsh. It feels like I’m equating a person who has his phone in hand several times every hour with a heroin junky or a nymphomaniac. But, the difference is in the word “Manage.” I wouldn’t write a post entitled “How to Manage your Heroin Addition.” I’d write one called, “Quit that Shit Before it Kills You.”  I’m not suggesting that one needs to do away with checking email and social media. These are great tools that allow us to be much more productive (potentially.)

 

Still, if we’re honest about it, most of us at some point get caught up in the compulsive checking of emails, social media, internet feeds, click-bait sites, sale pages for online retailers, and stats pages. There’s no denying it. A pile of evidence has accumulated about the extent to which people are dismayed by their own e-world activities. I just started reading Kotler and Wheal’s “Stealing Fire” (out February 21, 2017) and they site a study that found that about 2/3rds of those surveyed admitted checking their status page when they woke up in the middle of the night. It might seem off topic for book about altered states of consciousness to report on such matters, but its not because it’s all about the pursuit of a neurochemical bump. (Also, as I’ll discuss, a major problem of this addiction is in keeping one from slipping into the Flow with one’s work, family, or hobby activities.)

 

So, below are five methods I’ve found useful in my own on-going struggle with this addiction.

 

5.) Set a timer:  The problem with this addiction is that when one falls into habitually checking one’s status, one isn’t able to stay on task, and that means that one won’t achieve that elusive state of optimal performance called Flow. One needs time to immerse oneself in a task.

 

When I’m writing and editing, I set a timer, and until it beeps I do nothing off topic. I don’t make it some Herculean effort. I use 60 and 90 minute intervals. After the alarm rings, I can check email, do Tai Chi, get a cup of coffee, or work on my handstands. A longer time period may be more–or less–beneficial for you. (Isaac Asimov was said to only take a break after 5,000 words, but few writers have that in them.) The point is to make it long enough that one can get into a focused state of mind, but not so long that you become distracted and run down.

 

 

4.) Know your high energy period: This point relates to the last because it’s about blocking one’s productive time, and putting the more Flow-demanding activities when one is at one’s best. e.g. Are you a lark or an owl? (i.e. morning person or evening person.)

 

For example, I’m a morning person. This creates a potential problem. While I find it easy to get up with the sun, I’m at risk of saying, “Oh, I’ll just check emails, Facebook, my blog stats, a couple YouTube channels, and then I’ll get to work.” Then it’s noon, and the hours in which my mind was at its very best are gone. From 7pm until I go to sleep is when I should check these feeds because by that time my mind isn’t good for editing or writing tasks that require a high level of attention to detail.

 

 

3.) Go Cold Turkey [for a few days]: Sometimes it’s easier to make changes when one is forced by circumstance to quit. Then one can be more conscientious in resumption of the activity in question. (Moving to India helped me break a lot of bad habits.) If nothing else, this will help to give you confidence that the Earth won’t roll off it’s axis just because you aren’t checking on it twice an hour.

 

I can offer two examples from my own life. Every year my wife and I go on an extended trek in a place where there are no bars and saving batteries is essential. The past couple years, this has been in the Himalayas because we’ve been living in India, but anywhere remote will work. I also did the Vipassana Meditation Course last year. (If you’re interested in the latter, you can read my account of it here.)

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2.) Meditate: Why? Because when you start meditating regularly, you tend to do less and less out of mindless habit. You become conscious of what you’re doing, and that’s the first step to making changes. You also start to become attuned to those very subtle dopamine bumps, and in that way you  aren’t fighting it the impulse blindly. The high of the click is infinitesimally more subtle than taking mind altering substances, and so it’s easy for this all to take place below the waterline (analogizing the mind to an iceberg but instead of the majority of the mass of ice below the waterline, it’s the conscious mind above and the subconscious below.)

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1.) Substitute: In the immortal word of the rock band “The Who.” If your problem is so extensive that it does more than block your attempts to hit the Flow, you may need to find a healthier alternative to wean yourself away.

 

What does one look for in a substitute? If it’s going to fill the same space, it requires immediate feedback and a mix of “fails” mixed in with “successes.” These are the components that make the e-world so addictive. We know immediately whether we got something or not, and that keeps us clicking–not unlike the famous rats that would keep pressing a button for pleasure even to the point of forgetting to eat.

 

Some people may work on games that will help build their brain. (Warning: just don’t trade one unproductive addiction for another.) I’m an advocate of working on physical activities (e.g. trying to develop new capabilities in calisthenics or yoga), but these often involve a demoralizing amount of fails to reach the optimal level (the optimal being that one has enough fails to keep it from being boring but not so many that one is brutalized.)

BOOK REVIEW: Maps and Legends by Michael Chabon

Maps and Legends: Reading and Writing Along the BorderlandsMaps and Legends: Reading and Writing Along the Borderlands by Michael Chabon
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon page

 

This book consists of 17 essays about reading and writing. As the book’s title–also the title of the second essay–suggests, there’s an analogy drawn between story and a map, but—more importantly– Chabon proposes that the literary domain is a realm with frontiers and hinterlands. The central theme is that there is room for great discoveries if we stray from the center of the map were all is clear and well-defined. Literary fiction is the center. The hinterlands include a range of genres and approaches to story-telling that are often maligned as low-brow—e.g. fan fiction and comic books.

 

The book could be split into two parts, though the aforementioned theme cuts across all essays. The first 11 essays offer insight into maligned genres and their merits, but the next five shift gears into autobiographical telling of Chabon’s transformation into a writer. (The last essay, not present in some editions, could be seen as an epilogue to the entire work.) I’ll list the essays and give a hint about what each is about:

 

-“Trickster in a Suit of Lights”: This essay invites us to reconsider the connection between entertainment and literature, and in particular with respect to the modern short story.

 

-“Maps and Legends”: Here Chabon reflects upon the nature of a map and its analogy to the domain of fiction.

 

-“Fan Fictions: On Sherlock Holmes”: Fan fiction is maligned, and not entirely without reason. Even when it achieves great popularity, it’s often bad (e.g. “Fifty Shades…”) However, Chabon correctly suggests that we consider fan fiction too narrowly, including only that which reinforces our notions. He offers a great example of a character, Sherlock Holmes, who launched a thousand fan fictions, some of which are masterpieces in their own right.

 

-“Ragnarok Boy”: Mythology often seems tired and cliché, but there are reasons such stories survive across ages. Chabon explores what it is in Norse mythology that makes it an ongoing font of inspiration for writers.

 

-“On Daemons & Dust”: For a while, YA was the only genre with rising sales–much to the chagrin of those who felt this might herald the rise of a real world idiocracy. In this essay, Chabon describes what it is about Philip Pullman’s “His Dark Materials” series of fantasy books that pulls readers in—including the appeal of dark elements in stories.

 

-“Kids Stuff”: In this essay, Chabon considers the comic book and its evolution from kids’ stuff to a vast domain meant to appeal to a broad readership.

 

-“The Killer Hook”: This essay continues Chabon’s look at comic books, but through a specific example: “American Flagg!” a dystopian sci-fi comic book. Chabon proposes that “American Flagg!” spawned a new approach to comic book art and tone.

 

-“Dark Adventure”: This is about Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road.” Some topics are revisited, such as the appeal of dark and dystopian content. [For those unfamiliar, “The Road” is the story of a father and son wandering through a post-apocalyptic wasteland in search of some sort of stable community. McCarthy is the master of sparse prose, eschewing dialogue tags and maintaining a minimalist approach to his craft.

 

-“The Other James”: Here Chabon discusses the ghost story, using M.R. James’ story “Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad” as an exemplar.

 

-“The Landsman of the Lost”: Chabon discusses the comic strip work of Ben Katchor.

 

-“Thoughts on the Death of Will Eisner”: Eisner was a popular cartoonist, associated with such comic books as, “The Spirit.”

 

-“My Back Pages”: Here the book ventures into autobiographical territory as Chabon talks about his first dalliances with writing a novel.

 

-“Diving into the Wreck”: This continues Chabon’s telling of how he came to be a writer, and his early troubles in structuring a novel.

 

-“The Recipe for Life”: Here Chabon tells us about his introduction to Golems, a concept that would play an important role in one of his most influential works—an in the rest of the book. You’ll note the connection between fantastical devices and the telling of story that carries over from the first part.

 

-“Imaginary Homelands”: Chabon describes the role that is played by culture in forming a writer’s experience—both the culture one is living in and the cultural heritage that we each carry with us wherever we may roam.

 

-“Golems I Have Known”: This is one of the longer pieces and it presents the climax of Chabon’s tale of his transformation into a novelist. Golems as fictitious creatures built to facilitate certain truths are a central feature around which Chabon’s story is told.

 

-“Secret Skin”: [Note: This essay didn’t appear in the initial version of the book, and so your edition might not have it.] This essay invites the reader to reconsider the role that costumes and secret identities play for superheroes and how that need resonates with readers. In the process, this last essay sums up the reason why fantastical elements are so powerful in fiction.

 

There are only few graphics in the book, i.e. comic panels. Other than that there’s not much by way of ancillary matter, though there are recommended readings (oddly) interspersed within the index—rather than being a separate section.

 

I’d recommend this book for readers and writers. The essays are well-crafted and thought-provoking.

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2016: Our Year in Photos

New Year's Day sunrise over Bai Tu Long Bay, Vietnam

New Year’s Day sunrise over Bai Tu Long Bay, Vietnam

JANUARY:

-Travel: returned from our December 2015 visit to Vietnam

-Began RYT300 (Int / Adv) yoga teacher training at Amrutha Bindu Yoga

Taken at Kesava Temple in  Somanathapura

Taken at Kesava Temple in Somanathapura with the RYT300 class

 

FEBRUARY:

– RYT300 course continued

Teaching yoga at Socare

Teaching yoga at Socare

Learning to cook Indian food at Manju's

Learning to cook Indian food at Manju’s Cooking School

 

MARCH:

-Completed the RYT300 course to obtain my RYT500 certification

The RYT300 Class at Fireflies Ashram to learn Shatkarma

The RYT300 Class at Fireflies Ashram to learn Shatkarma

 

APRIL:

-Traveled to Varkala and Amritsar

-Taught a two-week Kids Camp at a1000 Yoga, Kormangala

Varkala, Kerala in early April

Lilla in Varkala, Kerala in early April

 

Golden Temple (Harmandir Sahib), Amritsar

Lilla at the Golden Temple (Harmandir Sahib), Amritsar

 

MAY: 

-Travel: Thailand, Zambia, and Dubai

-Completed the Muay Thai 2 (Int.) at The Muay Thai Institute in Rangsit, Thailand

With MTI teachers and students after a successful fight by a German student

With MTI teachers and students after a successful fight by a German student (shirtless)

 

Zebra at the Chaminuka Game Reserve near Lusaka

Zebra at the Chaminuka Game Reserve near Lusaka

 

Lilla and I amid the dunes in the UAE near Dubai

Lilla and I amid the dunes in the UAE near Dubai

 

JUNE:

-Between travels and trainings, a quiet month in Bangalore

Back again with the kids at Socare

Back again with the kids at Socare

 

JULY:

-Travel: Kolkata and into Jammu & Kashmir for our August travels

Quintessential Kolkata (Calcutta)

I’m afraid you can’t jam more Kolkata (Calcutta) into a photo than this

 

AUGUST:

-Travel: Jammu & Kashmir (Srinagar, Sonamarg, Great Lakes Trek, Leh, Nubra Valley, and Pangong Tso) and into Chennai for the beginning of my Vipassana Meditation course

Lilla on our first night camp site on the Kashmiri Great Lakes trek

Lilla (green hoodie) on our first night camp site on the Kashmiri Great Lakes trek

 

Lilla and Eeyore in Leh

Lilla and Eeyore in Leh

 

Lilla and I at the (reputed) highest motorable pass in the world

Lilla and I at the (reputed) highest motorable pass in the world

 

SEPTEMBER:

-Travel: 2 trips to Chennai; the first for my 10-day Vipassana Mediation Course, and the second for a wedding

Chennai (Madras)

Chennai (Madras)

Lilla henna'd and bangled for the wedding

Lilla henna’d and bangled for the wedding

 

OCTOBER:

-Travel: rainy season in Goa

-Anniversary month (22 yrs.)

-Took the 5th level test at Kalari Academy but promptly threw my back out–an injury from which I’m still recovering (although it’s down to a mild leg tingle) [I wouldn’t mention it but I think I’m obligated to by the rules of year-end / Christmas letters to mention any health issues.]

Lilla in front of the Se Cathedral in Old Goa (Velha Goa)

Lilla in front of the Se Cathedral in Old Goa (Velha Goa)

 

NOVEMBER:

-Travel: Singapore

Lilla in front of the Marina Bay Sands

Lilla in front of the Marina Bay Sands

 

DECEMBER:

-Travel: We’ll be in Hungary (fingers crossed) in the latter half of the month

-Finished a draft of the novel. I don’t know what version this counts as, but it’s the only one so far even close to having an ending that I can tolerate.

-I’ll probably have read about 100 books by the end of the year.

Here’s a pic from another winter trip to Budapest:

Budapest a few years back

Budapest a few years back

A more recent Budapest Winter pic; this was our most recent winter visit 2014

A more recent Budapest winter pic; this was our most recent winter visit-i.e. 2014

BOOK REVIEW: Conflict & Suspense by James Scott Bell

Conflict and Suspense (Elements of Fiction Writing_Conflict and Suspense (Elements of Fiction Writing_ by James Scott Bell
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Amazon page

 

This is a book about the stuff that keeps readers reading. Without conflict there is no hindrance to a character achieving his or her goal, and thus no story. Suspense is a lack of clarity about what comes next that spurs the reader to keep exploring. Bell defines conflict and suspense, and then explores the various means by which these crucial features are conveyed in stories. I say in stories, but Bell is predominantly speaking to novelists with this book.

The book is divided into two unequal parts. The first, and larger, consists of fourteen chapters about conflict. The first few chapters describe conflict and how it is set up. Then Bell examines how the many dimensions of writing can be manipulated to fire up the tension, including: point of view, openings, subplots and flashbacks, dialogue, theme, style, and even editing. Chapter 14 suggests some tools that writers may employ to help them ratchet up the conflict.

The second, and shorter, part (8 chapters) delves into the topic of suspense. The organization follows a similar progression. First, Bell describes suspense through many potent examples. Second, he moves onto examine the various means by which suspense can be created. With respect to the latter, Bell suggests ways in which dialogue, setting, and style can be presented in order to create cliff-hangers. The last chapter pulls everything together to advise writers on the how to create stories that maximize conflict and suspense. This is in part a summary of the book, but it looks at the process more and the dimensions of writing less, and therefore offers something new as well.

Readers of Bell’s other guides may be familiar with the LOCK formulation that he uses in his “Plot & Structure” book. LOCK is an acronym for Lead (an intriguing opening), Objective (a goal of dire consequence), Confrontation (the battle for the objective), and Knock-out Ending (a conclusion that satisfies.) I mention this because one may find synergy in reading other books in the series. LOCK is not as central a concept here as in the “Plot & Structure” book, but it’s nice to have a common mechanism by which ideas are conveyed.

There’s not much by way of ancillary material. There are a few simple black and white graphics / diagrams. However, there is one nice feature in the form of an Appendix that analyzes conflict for two novels: “To Kill a Mockingbird” and “Silence of the Lambs.” These were good choices both because they represent literary as well as commercial fiction, and because they both have popular movie adaptations. The latter comment might seem like sacrilege to the “the book always beats the movie” crowd. However, using movies as examples—as Bell does here and there—offers the advantage that the average reader will have seen a higher percentage of good movies than they’ve read good books. This is even true for most us who read a ton because relatively few (if any) great movies come out each year and the history of cinema is much shorter.

I both enjoyed and learned from this book. Bell uses many excellent examples to support the ideas that he’s presenting, and this makes the book readable and easily digestible. I’d recommend it for writers of fiction who seek to put more zip into their creations.

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