I'm happy to be giving a reading and conducting writing workshops at the 2013 Ministry of Writing Colloquium at Earlham School of Religion in Richmond, IN. You can read about the event here.
Poet Jack Myers (1941-2009) is a poet to whom I return often, finding his poems full of good humor, humility, and all-out quirkiness. There is a quiet wisdom, too, in his seemingly nonchalant lines. His collection As Long As You’re Happy was selected by Seamus Heaney for the National Poetry Series and appeared in 1986. Other collections include Blindsided, The
Glowing River: New and Selected Poems, and The Memory of Water
(which appeared after he died).
I recently reread the poem below and laughed out loud even though I was sitting in a coffee shop and others turned toward me to see what was so funny. Somehow, such a moment seemed perfect for what happens in a Jack Myers poem.
For one thing, I admire how he brings together the awkward, the serious, and the comic while simultaneously finding a way to create a connection between himself and others. Such humanity is what I find refreshing in his poems. He can make me laugh while, underneath, nudging me toward recognizing the “mysterious and useless” and the daily intersections between the plainspoken and the poetic.
Read the poem below and then leap into one of your own—one where you explore your essential nature within the context of interactions with other people. Think of people who cross your path. In the way that Myers portrays the woman who “pipes up she’s four-foot-ten and is going to sue/whoever made these seats,” reveal the world through which you travel.
Within the context of this world, of what are you “reminded”? Speak of the “one small thing” you’ve learned in your own life.
When the man in the window seat
flying next to me
asks me who I am
and I tell him I’m a poet,
he turns embarrassed toward the sun.
The woman on the other side of me
pipes up she’s four-foot-ten and is going to sue
whoever made these seats.
And so it is I’m reminded how I wish I were
one of the aesthetes
floating down double-lit canals
of quiet listening, the ones
who come to know something as
mysterious and useless
as when a tree has decided to sleep.
You would think for them
pain lights up the edges of everything,
burns right through the center of every leaf,
but I’ve seen them strolling around,
their faces glistening with the sort of peace
only sleep can polish babies with.
And so when a waitress in San Antonio
asks me what I do, and I think
how the one small thing I’ve learned
seems more complex the more I think of it,
how the joys of it have overpowered me
long after I don’t understand,
I tell her “Corned beef on rye, a side of salad,
hold the pickle, I’m a poet,” and she stops to talk
about her little son who, she says, can hurt himself
even when he’s sitting still. I tell her
there’s a poem in that, and she repeats
“Hold the pickle, I’m a poet,”
then looks at me and says, “I know.”
Notes for a Praise Book was featured in the October 20th, 2013 edition of The Daily Herald. Check it out here.
List different kinds of people. For example, a dog-catcher, a tree-hugger, a caricaturist, a shoe salesman, a DJ at a high school prom, a tightrope walker, etc.
Now think of someone to whom this person may wish to offer advice. Remember the tone of voice of someone you grew up with, perhaps someone who once offered you advice.
Now create a title that brings these two together.
Read the poem below by Catherine Pierce and write your own “advice” poem.
The Guidance Counselor to the Girl
The test suggests an aptitude for solitary work.
Have you considered a career as a computer
programmer? Flower arranger? Planetarium
operator? No? What about zebrawood cultivation?
Minor-league mascotry? Those heads muffle all
voices, even your own. Column A indicates
a proclivity for nature. You may have more luck
as a bobcat than a sea turtle, a muskrat than a bobcat.
What do you mean, why? We just discussed
your inclination toward solitude! Here's the list
of promising careers: Muskrat we'll cross out.
Blue spruce on a half acre? Nest-fleeing cardinal?
Maybe? Let's mark it. Throw-pillow by the fire?
Asphalt-dinged Route 40 road sign? Lost gold
stud in the sand? Anything? We'll keep going.
Abandoned Chevy in near-mint condition? One stone
in the Grand Canyon at sunset? No, I agree, too much
responsibility. How about this—the iron clapper
in a wind chime. Well, I don't know, my dear--
I imagine you'd have to create the wind yourself.
**List as many ways as you can think of for saying “What luck!” Essentially, think of exclamations. Push yourself to find that just-right one.
**Now think of a place you have walked: a field, a dried-up branch in the woods, an old logging road, a backyard, a park, a specific zoo, the perimeter of a civil war battlefield, etc. Make them the specific places in your own life, not generalized places.
**Now list a few details/things that exist in this place.
**Now read the following poem by Anthony Piccione:
OUT INTO TWILIGHT, EARLY DECEMBER
A few stars, and suddenly thousands poke through,
their pale blue stares cool and weightless on my face.
What luck! to be alive, walking our frozen outpost,
toes numb, trees stark and wildly poised,
the soft spill of light folding on, on, into the world.
**Now write your own poem. Begin with one thing from your list, simply describing or locating it. How does it signify beyond itself? What does it tell you about, for instance, being alive, or about immediacy, or about longing, or about proclaiming the self toward others, or about forgetting what you most wish you could remember, etc.? In other words, what does it tell you about something from your own specific place in the world?
Jeff Hardin is professor of English at Columbia State Community College in Columbia, TN. He is the author of five collections of poetry, including Fall Sanctuary (Nicholas Roerich Prize, 2004), Notes for a Praise Book (Jacar Press, 2013), Restoring the Narrative (Donald Justice Poetry Prize, 2015), Small Revolution, and No Other Kind of World (X. J. Kennedy Prize, 2017).