Tonight I’ll be doing a short reading at the Third Coast Fifteenth Anniversary Party at the Book Arts Center in Kalamazoo, Michigan. 7-9 p.m. My lyric essay, “Students Die, and What Is Poetry?” appears in their current issue.
It’s the middle of the day when Shawna shoots herself. The kitchen table is white, oval, formica. I can picture the scene, or a scene, perfectly, as if her ranch house is a stage set. There are strawberry vines on dishcloths, curtains, and potholders in the kitchen—stage right. Shawna is seated alone at the head of the table, viewed in profile, facing across the table into the kitchen, her back to the wall—stage left. She holds the gun near her mouth like a hot dog she may or may not eat.
Later I learn that the bullet goes through the top of her head and strikes the clock on the wall, marking the time of death in Roman numerals.
If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.
Homework assignment: Do not take this literally.
. . .
It’s morning, third bell, freshman English. We’re acting out scenes from Romeo and Juliet. Shawna stands in front of the class with three other students. Their heads are bent toward the aging hardcover textbooks in their arms. Adventures in Literature. The inside covers of the books are full of names of students going back to when I was in high school. THIS BOOK IS THE PROPERTY OF. CONDITION. ISSUED. RETURNED. I remember signing my name in my own high school textbooks, scanning the names listed above mine, and feeling bonded to those people in a private, intimate way. We shared a book.
Shawna is a ruddy-faced blonde. What you notice is how unnoticeable she is. She wears the same uniform clothes for days in a row, and early in the year they already begin to show wear. All of her money has gone, impossibly, into white leather Air Jordans. Her writing journal is full of rhyming couplets written in oversized, over-curled letters about her black boyfriend whom her parents don’t approve of. A pair of star-cross’d lovers. Is that poetry?
Today she takes a turn as the Nurse. Her slight lisp is exposed at, “Ay, forsooth.” She giggles self-consciously when she hears herself say, “you slug-a-bed.” And her voice is without inflection as she says to the open crease of her book, “She’s dead, deceased, she’s dead; alack the day.”
Adventures in Literature: The first and most important test of a story, poem, or play is, “Does it bring enjoyment?” If it doesn’t, we want no more of it. But we must also ask, “Enjoyment to whom?” The best poem in the world will bring no enjoyment to a person who doesn’t know how to read it.
Homework Assignment: Write the best poem in the world.