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Saturday, April 14, 2012

The 5-2 Blog Tour: Clarinda Harriss … Sweet-Talk Me On Valentine's Day


Temporary Knucksline is honored once again to be a host (one of 30+) in the 5-2 Crime Poem Blog Tour. It’s national poetry month (who said April is the cruelest month?) and we’ve done this before and will do it again. Aside from being a terrific writer himself, Gerald So is the master of ceremonies for all the terrific writers at the 5-2 and probably the best promoter of writers everywhere/anywhere. So good on Gerald and all those he sponsors … year after year after year.

My process (did I actually type that?) was to read all the poems on the 5-2 Contributor page and narrow down my favorite dozen to three. Then I waited to see which of three stuck in my mind; which one remained there. Here are the three I waited on until one was left:

“Some Like It Hot” By Charles Rammelkamp I was literally engaged with a co-worker about the trials and tribulations of the Monroe-Miller marriage and its aftermath and this poem hung around my noggin’ for a long time. The opening line was an eye-catcher for former altar boys like myself (can you believe it?). No matter how far we may have strayed, there’s no straying from MM.

“$25” by Keith Rawson My wife is now an RN; a late career change because of outsourcing and a love of teaching (what she hopes to do some day in the field). Her anti-capitalist husband found Keith’s poem way more genuine than it ever should be. The wife loved this one too and admitted it is an absolute fear of hers to have to search for a vein the way the nurse in the poem did. I say we should all fear tripping over each other to get in line for blood coin someday.

“Sweet-Talk Me On Valentine's Day” by Clarinda Harriss. In letting the three finalists sit awhile, I wondered if perhaps my ultimate choice (this one) provoked flashbacks of a particular email to my wife when I was first pursuing her; when we were nothing more than co-workers at a law firm in the middle of the night (me, still a half-assed word processor and knockaround guy, and she a good catholic girl). The email, much like what Ms. Harriss explained beneath the poem on the 5-2 website, was a shot I was taking; either the good catholic girl would run screaming (maybe to HR) or return the volley. As it happened, she (my not yet wife) was not yet desensitized enough by my particular brand of romance to respond and thus opted to not respond at all (probably from shock), except I saw her blush from across the room and the blush turned to a smile and that was good enough to go public, or as they say at sit-downs, handle it face to face.

In one of the pictures on her home page, Clarinda Harriss is reading in front of a sax and a beautiful colored drum kit (sans tom and ride cymbal). To my limited poetry-mindedness, it’s reminiscent of a beat generation reading; the fusion of jazz with words. I’ve been to readings where poetry was funny, exotic, sharp and edgy and I’ve listened/viewed quite a few on Youtube. Lately, thanks to Gerald, Jennifer Gresham (my writing mentor’s daughter-in-law, a published poet, Ph.D in Chemistry and former major in the U.S. Air Force), and some fellow students in the SNHU MFA program (Stephanie Milligan and Tyler Fish, published poets both), I occasionally read poetry for the best of reasons … because I want to.

Sweet-Talk Me On Valentine's Day is a sexy poem intended to be so (as the author explains). The Sweet Talk was daring and intimate, perhaps baiting the hook with an invitation of a misogynistic vernacular (if that’s where one needs or desires to go), but with the seducer transforming it to advantage.

Monster… Pond Scum … Whore… Bitch …

Ironic sweet talk or a crude passion while in the moment?

Or say, "Happy Day, my Ancient"; I'm your
whole history of mothers, and mothers work

like this: put something in, get something out.
In, out. In, out. Baby, I’m a sweet machine

The above lines were where my wife and I had different reads: She saw it as the eternal dance between men and women. My take was probably a typical male assumption/fantasy; the seduction of a younger partner (what he wants, needs or desires?)

Whatever we may have misinterpreted, my wife and I reached a unanimous decision as to the passion inherent in this poem. It was aggressive, not in the least shy, and very visual. For me it was a reminder of the strong sexual female characters that adorn the wonderful noir novels of Vickie Hendricks; strong women unapologetic about their wants and needs and unafraid to pursue them.

Enough from me … let’s here from the author (who gives us a bonus poem in one of her responses) …


Question #1: In your confession on the 5-2 page where your poem appears, you state: “'I never write Occasional Verse.' That's what I used to say before realizing that somebody I once had a considerable crush on was going to be attending a reading where I was to be one of the featured poets. It was scheduled for Valentine's Day a year ago. I wrote this poem especially to titillate him. I am pretty sure it did not, and it had lasting consequences: Now I'm forced to utter the much weaker statement, 'I almost never write Occasional Verse.'"

Tell us more about “Occasional Verse”. Writers are usually grouped into one of two categories; the stone polishers (those who need to get it perfect from the get-go) and those who vomit it out and worry about the details (polish, etc.) later on. You’ve published several books of poetry. Your confession suggests you’re usually a stone polisher. Is that the case?

CH: I started to say Yes, you're right, I'm a stone polisher, mostly because I am often writing in traditional forms like the sonnet and villanelle and the sestina etc., though usually w/ variations; call me Devoid of Spontaneity, but I just don't think it's possible to write in the masonry of "form" w/o some polishing of the stones along the way. But then I realized that, in fact, I usually write whole poems--and often my short fiction as well--IN MY HEAD before ever setting anything down on paper or computer; so they do sort of shove themselves out willy-nilly, then get "polished."

And here's a relevant confession about my Confession: note the sentence that goes "I wrote this poem. . .to titillate him": what I didn't say there was that I wrote it in about 5 minutes, DURING A CLASS in which the start-of-class warm-up exercise was for everybody to write a few lines toward a Valentine poem which Hallmark would never, never, never print. So yeah, I'm a polisher and a vomiter both.

Question #2: I like the idea of a start-of-class warm-up … even more so that it be something Hallmark would never, never, never print. I noticed some of your collection titles were as enticing as the 5-2 poem was to read. Hot Sonnets, Dirty Blue Voice. Are the main themes across your collective works something Hallmark would never, never, never print?

CH: HOT SONNETS is an anthology of 20th-21st c. erotic sonnets edited by me and Moira Egan. We both write some hot sonnets ourselves, but we are represented in this fantastic anthology only by 3 poems apiece. Many of my current sonnets are mini-narratives. One is about the miners who died in W. Virginia. One is about the Waverly Farmers' Market. One is about building construction (and a spot a pot). I think my earlier poems were sexier (I mean it literally) and also more self-consciously feminist. They seem pretty juvenile to me now. But, though I have several not-old poems occasioned by civil rights issues, I can't stand preachy poems and, lord willin', will never write them, even on subjects that I feel preachy about.

Questions #3 & 4: What do you look for in poetry? (i.e., what turns you on, literally and figuratively?) I did some Googling for this interview and found this for a Poetry-Writing workshop of yours: Session One: Make a Joyful Noise. There’s an explanation beneath it ending with “or ugly-sounding words; rhythms that tell the tale; echoes (rhyme, repetition).” Sweet-Talk Me On Valentine's Day certainly presents rhythms that tell a tale (Madonna mia, it does). I doubt the protocol is ever conscious (especially when writing something in 5 minutes), but was it an afterthought? Does some of your polishing, so to speak, ever entail adherence to the technical aspects of poetry?

CH: About "Making a [Joyful} Noise" workshop: w/ me, rhythm may start instinctually but is never something that just happens. To me it is the single most important thing to differentiate poetry from prose (though great prose also is very rhythm -driven). Rhythm runs neck and neck w/ arresting imagery as what I look for most intently in judging poetry--my own and others'. I guess conciseness is something I look for too. Poetry can't afford to waste words. I'm not talking about length here. PARADISE LOST is pretty concise.

Question #5: Your thoughts on crime poetry. Do you see it in the classroom from students? Is it encouraged or something best left to creativity (i.e., rather than ask for it)?

CH: Truthfully, I never thought of “crime poetry” as a genre until a month ago, when I submitted to the zine. As for students, though, and others I work with, who include prison inmates and former inmates, the subject area of crime, whether petty (pot possession, underage drinking, etc.) or as serious as felony murder, is voluntarily chosen so often I can’t imagine a need to “assign” it, so to speak. Since Baltimore, alas, has become famous via THE WIRE and HOMICIDE for its high crime rate, writers in this area seem particularly prone to writing about crime. Several of my own poems include crime in other aspects of the city they explore. My publishing company, BrickHouse Books, Inc., brought out a choreopoem modeled on Ntzoke Shange’s famous FOR COLORED GIRLS. . . . written from a male point of view by the members of the Maryland House of Correction for Men’s Writers’ Club. The whole book is a long, multi-part crime poem.

Question #6: Okay, what’s that like (working with incarcerated talent)? A dear friend of mine (and a great writer), spent 10+ years on the other side of the bars and used his time to gain both a BA and MFA from the Boston University prison program. Rick Marinick is his name and he wrote a masterful crime novel called, Boyos. Honest to God, a classic in the crime genre deserving of George V. Higgins-like praise. He now counsels those about to be released. You stated you’ve been doing this for decades. Obviously, you enjoy the work you do. What’s it like?

CH: It’s an amazing experience. If you’re ever feeling kind of undervalued as a teacher, you need to teach in a prison. (I always “went inside” as a volunteer, not as a hired teacher. I tend to do a lot of things that do not earn me any money!) Inmates want every ounce of your knowledge, your energy. And most do not want to be told,” OK, that’s good enough, that’s OK (for a prisoner).” They want to be told how to do it RIGHT! I am still in contact with some of the former residents of MHC—they are now solid citizens and community activists; for them as for many, writing was a way of learning and of “doing their own time.” BTW, a fairly recent BhB book is a collection of essays written by Walter Lomax, a MD man who served 39 years for a crime it was finally shown he could not have committed. He wrote the essays when he was editor of THE CONQUEROR, the residents’ monthly magazine. Note: you say Residents, not Inmates.

Question #7: Are there classical poems dealing with crime you can think of offhand? Is it something the world has ignored or mis-categorized?

CH: If you count attacks on women, murder of black people, Jews, other "minorities," prison atrocities both in the US and in gulags etc., much great poetry IS crime poetry. (I have worked w/ prison writers for decades, btw.) I’m not sure about “classical” in the Greco-Roman or Renaissance sense, except of course for ‘TO LUCASTA, FROM PRISON”; however, I think Margaret Atwood’s dramatic monolog spoken by a prison torturer is a classic in the iconic sense. I think I’d like to make a small poem simply by excising those paragraphs near the end of Camus’ “l’Etranger” in which the murderer about to be executed likens the guillotine to a piece of kitchen equipment.

Question #8: Name a few of your favorite poets (female and male) contemporary and/or otherwise …

CH: Chaucer, Shakespeare and Donne, of course. Once upon a time I determined be either a medievalist or a Renaissance/17th-C scholar. Oh, my answers are too obvious: Whitman, Dickinson, Yeats, Eliot, Pound (despite the latter two’s horrible politics and chauvinist piggery); Plath and Sexton; Hecht; Wilbur; Heaney, Larkin; fast forward to Henri Cole, Kate Ryan, Patricia Smith (not to be confused with Patti Smith, whom I also love); Harryet Mullen; Marilyh Hacker, Moira Egan, and indeed all the sonneteers represented in HOT SONNETS, just out from Entasis Press, edited by Moira and me (shameless plus). And so many more. OMG, Wanda Szymborska!

Question #9: Bukowski: Genius, crude or meh?

CH: All 3. The “meh” aspect stems largely from his tending to be Johnny One-Note and also to write WAY too much. And I guess I can’t quite forgive his attitude(s) toward women—just as I can’t forgive T. S. E.

Question #10: In my comments about your piece, I write: It’s a sexy poem intended to be so (as the author explains). The Sweet Talk was daring and intimate, perhaps baiting the hook with an invitation of a misogynistic vernacular (if that’s where one needs or desires to go), but with the seducer transforming it to advantage.

I have to know, how far off the mark might I be?

CH: Not a bit! Kudos!

Question #11: A follow-up to the above. The last lines (below) evoked dual responses from Ann Marie (my wife) and myself. She saw it as the eternal dance between men and women. My take was probably a typical male assumption/fantasy; the seduction of a younger partner (what he wants, needs or desires?)

Or say, "Happy Day, my Ancient"; I'm your
whole history of mothers, and mothers work

like this: put something in, get something out.
In, out. In, out. Baby, I’m a sweet machine

Again, how far off the mark might we both be?

CH: You’re both right. No, really, you are. (I speak as one whose 2nd husband was her junior by 25 years.) (That was a dumb idea, btw. Ask to see my funny little poem on a related subject). Never mind—here it is in all its 5-5-7-5 syllable glory:

A Cougar Regards Her Boy-Toy

Bless his sweet ass, but
Did he have a stroke?
He can’t remember a thing
From when I was young.

Final Question: After reading and listening to the poem, then reading your confession, one has to wonder: Okay, so was the guy deaf, dumb, blind, all three or what?

CH: No, just in deep denial. (crone-like chuckle)

Thanks to Clarinda for sharing her work and thoughts with us and for putting up with my dopey questions. She’s a sweetheart, doll, wonder woman and extremely talented writer. Now, all yous TK readers, go look up the 5-2 crime poem page, read and share your thoughts with the authors. And all yous poets, submit to the 5-2 ... go for it!


Some fun with the poetry of my youth ... and so on.

Herman ...

Speaking of Bukowski, my favorite Barfly scene ...

Mike Myers doing Jerry Lewis?

Something more serious ... it was years (30 or so) before I remembered the lines starting frisch weht der vindt was from a poem I’d had to read in college ... how I remembered it was hearing and reading the libretto from Wagner’s Tristan Und Isolde. After that, how do you not read the poem a few more dozen times?