Friday, August 28, 2015

The Long and Short of Postcard Poems

This month's haul, as of
August 28th. Go, Group 3!
The August Poetry Postcard Fest is coming to a close. This is the third year I’ve done this month-long marathon where you write a poem every day, jot it down on a postcard, and send it off to someone else who’s doing the project. I had more than my share of slacker moments this year; one day I had to write seven poems to get caught up, and I spaced out badly last week and had to write four yesterday and two today. So my postcard recipients are getting a motley, ill-timed bunch of poems from me. But the reverse is also true; some days I get a fistful of postcards, and then for days and days my mailbox goes dark. So a lot of us seem to be, shall we say, sporadic. But I’ll end up writing 31 poems, one way or another. I have yet to break out the “emergency haiku.”

This year more than 200 people signed up to do the Fest, and the structure was a little different than in past years, thanks to organizer extraordinaire Paul Nelson. This time he divided the big list into subgroups of 32 people so that each group could send postcards to just the people in their group, creating a tidy loop we haven’t had before—now you get postcards from the same people you’re sending postcards to, instead of sending them off into the ether to someone you’ll probably never hear from. I actually liked that ether-sending of yesteryear; there was a freeing, anonymous quality to it that pushed the Postcard Fest into a more intimate part of the spectrum than, say, the much more public Tupelo Press’ 30/30 Project, or even our local NaPoWriMo group. The act of sending that postcard off to some unknown person always felt a bit like whispering in a stranger’s ear. But this year, I’m enjoying getting poems back from the people I’ve written them to. They’re not answers, or even responses, to the poems I send out; they’re more like pings coming back on the radar. Hello, poet—I am here too.
        Paul also put together a Facebook group for the participants, which I’m starting to think every project in the world should have. People post about the challenges of writing a poem a day, intriguing postcards they’ve received, other news in their lives, and the books they’re reading. The past few days we’ve been posting links to our own books. Again, it’s a mix of anonymity/randomness and camaraderie/intimacy. Here are all these strangers participating in the same project, all these people at this virtual cocktail party, and some of them are smart and damn funny.

Dear Stranger
This year Paul suggested that we all write epistolary poems—poems written in the form of letters. I don’t know if that was the suggested form in years past; honestly, I tend to skip right over rules and suggestions about what to write in these things and do whatever the hell I want. But I got stuck for ideas early in the month, and those first few poems were painful. Then I thought, “Epistolary, hmm...,” and wrote “Dear _______” as a title, and a poem popped out very easily. Since then, I’ve structured almost all of the poems as letters. Most of them don’t have titles, only the “Dear _______” part. That proved to be very, very fertile ground. Intimacy again, I guess; the feeling of writing a missive to one person gives me less stage fright than trying to “write a poem,” and the month’s output has taken on the air of a dreamy conversation. And now I’ve got this odd little collection of letter-poems, many with river images from a recent rafting trip on the Rogue—dismantled dams, abandoned power stations, salmon leaping out of the dark waters, the lazy bends and chaotic, crushing rapids. The collection feels more cohesive, like more of a project unto themselves, than my August postcards usually feel. So my hat’s off to Paul for that suggestion.

Shorts get the short end
Every year when I do this postcard project—a marathon in which each poem can’t be more than about 12 lines because, again, you have to squeeze it onto a dinky postcard—I always wonder if these shorties will ever get published anywhere. I’m gratified to see that some journals favor the short form—Right Hand Pointing* comes to mind, among others. Still, I can’t help feeling that an unspoken length-ism prevails in the literary world: The longer poems get most of the love and win most of the prizes. So in a way, it feels especially good to invest a whole month in short poems. Maybe someday short poems will walk alongside their tall cousins, respected at last. In the meantime, somebody’s got to do some captive breeding to keep their numbers up. Postcard Fest to the rescue.

*Right Hand Pointing’s sister site, White Knuckle Press, has a series of fantastic online chapbooks, all consisting of short prose poems. I just got the good news that they’ll be publishing my chapbook Rough House early next year. Their whole list of chapbooks is worth exploring—strong poetry, striking designs—and here are a couple that I especially love:

The Russian Hat by Claudia Serea

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Beloved Movies That I Hate

Come on, you’ve probably got them too—those big movies that everybody around you loves, but that make you reach for the remote as soon as they come on. Maybe the jokes don’t work for you, you don’t like the hero’s forelock curl, or…well, you just can’t stand it and that’s that. Here are a few popular films that, for one reason or another, make me want to stick a fork in my eye.

The Wizard of Oz
I don’t know how many times I’ve sat down to watch this movie, thinking I might like it this time. But it just never works. I like the little hard guys in the Lollipop Guild and the Cowardly Lion’s song (“What makes the Hottentot so hot? What puts the ‘ape’ in apricot?”). But a half-hour in, right after Billie Burke floats away in her big bubble and inexplicably strands Dorothy, I find myself squirming, stuck in this movie’s spiral of frustration. It’s like one of those dreams where you’re trying to catch a plane or drive to work, but everything keeps going wrong and you never get there. Too many of the songs have the same melody (bad dream again), the talking trees scare the crap out of me, and I get antsy for Dorothy—I keep thinking she should sit down and have a meal, or maybe take a shower. And when the scene with the poppies comes up, I find myself wishing I were watching Traffik instead. Now there were some poppies.

Forrest Gump
Fingernails on a blackboard, people, from beginning to end. For my money, Tom Hanks hams it up too much when he’s playing “extraordinary” characters, like that morose cryptologist in The Da Vinci Code or the stressed-out survivor in Cast Away. I love him when he’s playing more of an everyman, like the poor schlub in Catch Me If You Can or level-headed James Lovell in Apollo 13. Forrest Gump is further hampered by one of my pet peeves: actors playing people with learning disabilities. It just seems like something we’ll look back on in 50 years with shame, the modern equivalent of white actors playing in blackface. And despite this movie’s having Gary Sinise—who can pretty much do no wrong—it doesn’t convince me of its magic realism and whimsical sweet nature because I’m too busy thinking about how Hanks is putting on an act and Sinise’s legs were erased with special effects. And if you buy the right box of chocolates, you do know what you’ll get. There’s a chart and everything.

Sleepless in Seattle
I like Hanks fine here, but this movie has the version of Meg Ryan that grates on my nerves*—the one where the director seems to have said, “Look how cute she is! Let’s exploit that in every possible way!” But the elaborate stalker story is creepy, and I can’t believe any man would be attracted to a woman who stands in the middle of a busy road, gaping at him like she’s had about 16 margaritas. At the end, when they’re peering soulfully at each other and walking away with the kid, I always think, “Won’t last six months.” They don’t know each other at all! And she’s crazy! The movie does have a lot of funny lines and some great supporting actors—David Hyde Pierce, Rosie O’Donnell, and the always wonderful Victor Garber. They’re just not enough to overcome the cringeworthy premise.

The trouble with this Scottish historical saga is that whenever I see it, I find myself comparing it to the other Scottish historical saga that came out the same year, the fantastic Rob Roy. That movie had Liam Neeson (always perfect in my book) and a much wider emotional range than Braveheart: good guys who make mistakes, an almost-too-intimate air of tragedy, and a couple of the best swordfights ever filmed. Braveheart also doesn’t bear up well against Gladiator, which came out five years later and basically tells the same story—a chaste hero’s family is killed by a bad guy, driving the hero to exact revenge on said bad guy—and Gladiator, of course, had Russell Crowe**. So when Braveheart comes on, I just find myself sitting there thinking about other movies I’d rather be watching. Some of them are even Mel Gibson movies; although he made a few that I didn’t like (all the Lethal Weapons and What Women Want), he’s been in three that I absolutely love: The Year of Living Dangerously, The Bounty, and Signs.

Pretty Woman
This is another one with a creepy premise that I can’t get past: Richard Gere buys Julia Roberts, and then the “happy ending” is that he buys her again (to snuggle up against for a few more weeks before he throws her back on the street, I cynically figure). Of course, it’s based on Pygmalion, so Roberts’ lady of the night has to be as chipper and undamaged as Eliza Doolittle (“Oy’m a good girl, oy am!”), which is beyond implausible. Her street-smart roomie—the formidable Laura San Giacomo—is much more convincing, and I always wish the movie were about her instead. There is one fun thing about Pretty Woman, though: It bears a strange resemblance to The Princess Diaries.*** Maybe it’s because Héctor Elizondo is in both of them, playing more or less the same guy, but Anne Hathaway starts to look like Julia Roberts if you squint your eyes and think “hooker” instead of “princess.”

* I am not a Meg Ryan basher, though I hope never, ever to have to watch When Harry Met Sally again. I like her fine in You’ve Got Mail, but her character is smarter and more cynical in that one than in Sleepless. And I like her a lot in Proof of Life. But that has Russell Crowe in it, and—well, that man is hot sex on toast.

** See * above. Sub-footnote: Other actors considered for the starring role in Gladiator were Hugh Jackman, Antonio Banderas, and…Mel Gibson.

*** My other favorite thing about Pretty Woman is that it’s used as a joke in a much better movie, Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion. (Lisa Kudrow, tearfully: “I just get really happy when they finally let her shop.”)