by Steve Burns, Guest Writer
WARNING: This post is risqué and groovy.
Suddenly her bra’s off and the boobs are out. Maybe some fella’s schlong dangles momentarily on-screen. Either way, it’s happened and both parties who are watching this raunchy scene don’t know how to react. Typically, postures shift or someone clears their throat. You’ve been there when wobbly-bits enter the room, and you’ve endured the post-sex cool-down. These are three minutes and forty-five seconds you’d care not to watch (publicly) again. This is film, however.
When a poet uses the words dick, pussy, cunt, or cock at a reading before an already intently listening audience — something else happens. Ears perk up; smiles crack. My experiences at readings have shown me that poets use these suggestive terms to call attention to something larger than the words themselves. I first heard Ian Davisson read his work at Milano’s Pizzeria as part of CA Conrad’s Milano’s Reading Series. Davisson read his poem, “May 4th, 2012,” which says, “ask the right questions/you’ll be my friend forever/it’s a secret/boner in everyone’s/cup of coffee.” Combined with Davisson’s blunt, quivering delivery, folks around me immediately nodded, smirked, or sent consenting murmurs towards the front of the room where he read. I thought: “Ian uses the word boner in a really interesting way.” Sexualized terms can be abrasive, hauntingly absurd, and, at times, quite charming — Davisson’s work revealed this to me.
“May 4th, 2012” comes from a manuscript titled Summa Cum (appropriate, no?) and, in its entirety, is a ruthlessly lonesome, gnawing piece that flows from one shattered line to the next. A broken sexuality and paranoid isolation is the poem’s driving force; the phallus is at its core. Davisson begins his poem in hiding: “there’s a part of sleep/where you forget/it’s wonderful.” Sleep seems to be Davisson’s only solace. Unfortunately Davisson “won’t sleep tonight” because “I is for ian or/I is for issues.” “Ian” and “issues” are practically interchangeable, equally (painfully) alive. “[S]omeone,” says Davisson, “sleeps/inside me/leaves before I wake up.” It’s this someone who’s “a ghost/on [his] back.”
Davisson’s agony is most evident, however, in his sexually charged lines. On a restless night Davisson writes, “held my dick so tight/must have busted/something/lonely/out.” Here “dick” is being abused, exclaiming loneliness; this is not pleasurable. Davisson’s not sure what’s been released; he’s only certain it feels like isolation. Even “lonely” and “out” sit singularly on the page, unaccompanied in the line. “I’m paralyzed,” says Davisson. The issues Davisson faces have likely been assuaged by “Dr. Verdi” in the past, but in “May 4th, 2012” Davisson “can’t make it this week.” It’s safe to assume that Dr. Verdi is a counselor or therapist—“ask the right questions”—yet Davisson’s difficulties are not so confidential. “[I]t’s a secret/boner in everyone’s/cup of coffee,” writes Davisson. A boner, usually a private phenomenon, is poking obtrusively through everyone’s everyday beverage; it’s not a secret because it’s prodding everyone outright. “I love her,” says Davisson, “I’m sorry/there’s no reason for it/but I do/tell my relatives/I’m ok.” These fragmented lines, which illustrate Davisson’s attempts to calm concerned relatives, struggle to remain cohesive on the page. The “boner” renders assurances useless.
Davisson concludes that he “love[s]/knowing the stuff/that eats [him] alive.” After all, were it not for that stuff, we might not have this wonderfully compelling poem.
Check out more of Ian Davisson’s work here.
Steve Burns works and writes for Philly-based APIARY Magazine. He’s currently enrolled in Rutgers-Camden’s MFA program. His poems are weird. Also, he’s pretty tall.
Dear Filthy Writers, Filthy Lawmakers, and Filthy Sloths in Fear of their Lives on the Jungle Floor,
I talked to a creative writing professor the other day, and he mentioned a concept I’d like to explore. The room had alabaster walls, ruined over time by greasy, mind-numb college students. The room’s rug was a speckled universe of blues, whites, and greens. In one dark spot of the rug, near the corner, was a black hole stain that caught my attention. My eyes drifted upwards to a lingering pipe, fashioned in the 60s by a burly South Jersey man in flannel who wasn’t exactly getting paid by the hour.
Though all of that was entirely fabricated, it involved realistic details that contributed to a certain tone. The details may have been abstract, but we understand the futility of existence, the quest of the Pelagian v. Augustinian argument, string theory, the greatness of Domino’s Pizza. Whatever the theme was, the details left behind an image my professor called the clutter of reality.
The clutter in the story is what gives it depth. Even in narrative poems, certain details anchor the reader and provide images that act as emotional triggers. These triggers can either fashion a mood that the reader will feel, or transform the reader in some oddly convenient way.
Sometimes writers take this too literally and, as my professor says, have all arrows pointing in the same direction. Obviously, achieving a dramatic effect in a story involves the inclusion of details that contribute to a greater meaning. However, the reader starts to believe that the writer is a conman and the story is a true falsehood when all of these supposedly “random” textures of life have an all too coincidental meaning. For example, when you’re writing about the meaninglessness of marriage, it’s okay to have a ring break, symbolizing the destruction of some matrimonial bond (though that may even be a little hokey). Yet it’s incorrigible to have not only a ring break (and have it rust on top of that), but to have a wedding cake ornament snap apart, a TV show talk about the decline in marriages across the nation, passing conversationalist talk about how their marriages failed, yada yada yada. The reader’s going to say, “Hey! I’m onto you, filthy writer!”
Keep your motifs in balance. Motifs are sub-themes that aren’t exactly grabbing at some universal truth, but contribute to greater themes through reflection on the nature of certain human motives. For example, Moby Dick has an overt “Jonah and the Whale” motif, carrying over with men in the story named after characters from the Bible. One of the greater themes that this motif contributes to is man’s madness in the face of revenge. Other motifs involve details concerning the royal ass-ripping Captain Ahab gives to his crew time and time again. However, Moby Dick doesn’t have arrows pointing in one direction. As we follow Ishmael’s journey, we explore a lot of territory, and since some arrows point in logical directions, some in emotional, some in abstract, the novel becomes realistic and worthy of reading. If you’re into reading Melville’s poetic drivel, of course (keep your fists away, angry Melville scholars. I enjoyed it all the same.)
You can develop your motifs by keeping a track record of your details with a “motif grid.” After writing your story, think about at least five different motifs that occur consistently. Next, comb through the story and find all the details that you’ve used; these details can be descriptions, objects, or even relationships between characters. Every component matters, and every detail contributes to the end result. Organize these details into your motifs. If a detail doesn’t fit, ask yourself why you included it. If a detail does fit, see if it needs development, or if it’s necessary at all (assuming there are stronger details that give way to the same tone and feel). When done right, the motif grid will aid your writing significantly.
By having a clear sense of your story’s details, whether they are overt or covert, and to what motifs they give their substance, you will achieve a greater clutter of reality in your story. Successful realism, if intended, will convince the reader that you are, indeed, not a filthy writer after all.
Thanks for reading. Hopefully you garnered something from this semi-didactic article and experience. You can give me some credit, but give 97% of your “Awesome!” to Professor Ron Block of Gothenburg, Nebraska for his impeccable way with words.
By the way, there really is a dripping pipe and an awful stain. I didn’t make that up.
photo credit: Elisabeth Stonaker