Sunday, February 2, 2014

Welcome to the Land of Ironica

Irony has a way of sneaking up and exposing itself in some of the strangest ways.  My English professor at Cypress College in Southern California first unveiled the nature of irony to me one day when he pointed outside his classroom window, drawing our attention to a large field where cows innocently grazed.  “Irony,” he explained as he pointed out the Burger King joint visible from the other window, “is sometimes where we least expect it.” 

Some of my favorite examples of irony still have me sitting here, cross-eyed and scratching my head.  For instance, when I lived on the Windward side of Oahu, I used to drive by a shopping area that had an ominous chain-linked fence surrounding it.  Attached to the fence was a single metal sign that in bold red letters proclaimed, NO SIGNS ON FENCE!  Out of fear of arrest or worse, having my face on Hawaii's Most Wanted, I have managed to resist the urge to post a sign with an arrow pointing to it that says, EXCEPT THIS ONE!

Then there was the day I was riding on the Honolulu city bus on my way to the beach when I glanced up at the advertisement posted directly across from me:  BLIND?  VISION IMPAIRED?  CALL 722-2222.  Perplexed, I sat there for the duration of the ride, wondering how anyone blind or vision impaired would know that they could get help by simply calling that number.  Years later, while shopping for a new kitchen sponge, I spotted one with Braille strangely printed on the package—without the dots raised—and thought, Hmmm, must be the same idiot who made the bus ad


And how about the Hawaiian activist I saw on TV one night?  She was talking about how she could not tolerate racism yet in the same breath, she blurted out how sick and tired she was of all the haole people (Caucasians), taking over Hawaii.  Being hapa (half) haole myself, I felt offended as I thought about my haole father, risking his life during World War II to protect this small, defenseless island chain—strategically located in the middle of the Pacific Ocean—from the big bad bullies that would love to use it as a stepping stone to devour their capitalistic, Land of the Free, enemy.  

I love the Land of Ironica, especially when I find myself living in it...like I am right now.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Wretched Writers Welcome!

Edward George Bulwer-Lytton
With only four days left before I must return to the chaos of my classroom, I am feeling an urgent pang to write a serious entry about literary silliness. 

Since 1982, San Jose State University’s English Department has sponsored a literary competition to compose an obnoxiously bad first sentence of what would become (if, God forbid, followed through), an equally bad novel.  The inspiration for this whimsical contest came from the infamous first sentence of an 1830 novel entitled Paul Clifford by Victorian novelist, Edward George Bulwer-Lytton:

“It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents—except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.”

Notice this clunky mess of a sentence contains a whopping 58 words, 1 sinister semicolon, 1 devious dash, 3 commas, and a useless pair of parenthesis.  To an MFA graduate in Writing, this is unadulterated literary sin!  And now with over 10,000 wretched writers (me being one of them), having tried their hands at outdoing Bulwer-Lytton’s immortal opener, the website is chock-full of an impressive chunk of unimpressive first-liners.

I have selected a couple of my all-time favorite winners to whet the appetite, and if I feel brave enough at the end of this entry, I may even share a couple of my own dirty little attempts.

2002 Winner
On reflection, Angela perceived that her relationship with Tom had always been rocky, not quite a roller-coaster ride but more like when the toilet-paper roll gets a little squashed so it hangs crooked and every time you pull some off you can hear the rest going bumpity-bumpity in its holder until you go nuts and push it back into shape, a degree of annoyance that Angela had now almost attained. — Rephah Berg, Oakland, CA

2011 Dishonorable Mention
Dawn crept up like the panther on the gazelle, except it was light, not dark like a panther, and a panther, though quiet, could never be as silent as the light of dawn, so really the analogy doesn’t hold up well, as cool as it sounds, but it still is a great way to begin a story; just not necessarily this particular one. — Warren Blair, Ashburn, VA

For more silliness, I dare you to peruse their website: 


And finally, in honor of Mr. Bulwer-Lytton, here are two of my best/worst novel openers…

After a long, treacherous day teaching preschoolers, Miss Lucy dragged herself into the shower and let the hot water pour down onto her head, her shoulders, her knees, and her toes…knees and toes…knees and toes…eyes and ears and mouth and nose…head, shoulders, knees and toes, knees and toes!

Hungry as a ravenous wolf, Lucy hadn’t eaten herself yet and wasn’t planning to either. 

Now it’s your turn!  I look forward to seeing what you all come up with…




Friday, September 6, 2013

Choose Your Monster

Back in the days of tight ponytails and early bedtimes, I used to tremble under my bed covers, truly believing that there were enormous, bona fide monsters in my closet, behind my dresser, or under my bed.  My ineffectual retaliatory tactics consisted of a cache of rolled up socks, a motley collection of hot-tempered Barbie and Ken dolls, and as a last resort, a neon green water pistol that I had permanently borrowed from the boy next door.  My exasperated dad, with his subtle rhythmic Swedish brogue had routinely coerced me to try counting sheep as a way to focus my attention onto something peaceful and non-threatening, and to my surprise, it did help…at least while he was there next to me.  But as soon as he left the room, my bounding, fluffy, cute sheep mutated into red-eyed, bloody-fanged, monster sheep that instead of hopping over my imaginary white fence, turned on me, snorting and flashing their glistening sharp horns as they headed straightway toward my bed.  I wanted desperately to leap off the bed and bolt to my parents’ room, but I couldn’t risk the attack from under the bed.  Defeated, I would bunch myself into a ball of fear, shaking into a fitful sleep that would hold me captive to my own monster-laden nightmares. 

What I didn’t know back then was that I had complete control over those invisible beasty creatures—that I could have at any moment banished them from their pseudo-existence.   

So this summer I went to see Pixar’s latest Monsters University and found it to be not as psychologically transforming as the original Monsters Inc., but overall better than I had expected.  Maybe it’s a genre thing, but somehow I missed the most important fact that this second film is a prequel to the original.  I erroneously thought it was about the next generation of the first dynamic monster duo: One-eyed Mike Wazowski and his burly blue furball of a friend, Sulley.  But no…this film takes us back to the early college days of the two barely scary monsters and reveals how they overcome their greatest fears of not being scary enough for the university as they ultimately band together to create their notorious Monsters Inc. enterprise.  This second film ends—somewhat awkwardly—where the first one begins.


Overall, the one redeeming factor that makes this a blogable film is not actually based upon anything connected to Wazowski or Sulley. Instead, it’s the diabolical Centipedess, Dean Abigail Hardscabble, who philosophically lectures to future graduates of her university that “Scariness is the true measure of a monster…” and that “…if you’re not scary, then what kind of a monster are you?”  But what this tightlipped, angry monster of a woman fails to mention is that the scare factor is only as scary as the victim allows it to be.  

As a grown up, I no longer cringe over the prospect of imaginary monsters, but I am grateful for what I have learned from them. They have taught me from that young, impressionable age that when the time would come for me to face my own fair share of human monsters—a mere handful of humans who have tried to wreak havoc upon my life for no good reason—that they have no power over me as long as my lack of fear prevails.  When I refuse to cower under their seemingly ominous presence, they ultimately become…pardon the expression but…sheepish.  It really is a matter of choice, and my choice is to stick my tongue out at these cowardly wolves and say, “Nanny-nanny boo-boo, you cannot scare me!”

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Closet Poet

I love writing poetry but I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not very good at it, especially when I compare my work to that of my most admired masters, like my literary husband, T. S. Eliot, who pounds his rhythm of time into my bones:
 there will be time, there will be time 
to prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet...








and then (’s my nemesis) e. e. cummings, rev-
erently break-
                     ing every    g.r.a.m.m.a.t.i.c.a.l.   rule
I have so   r-e-v-e-r-e-n-t-l-y   
                                        tried to force child-
ren to o- (for the love of god with an uppercase G) bey.  
 







    



                  
                                                  Robert Frost warms me.


And Emily Dickinson is…well…Emily Dickinson.   
 










Then there’s my Maya Angelou with
            The span of [her] hips,
                        The stride of [her} step,
                                    The curl of [her] lips. 

                                                Phenomenal.

So as a humble closet poet who has posted only a few of my verse attempts online, I know that most likely I will die outside of their poetic kingdoms. But what keeps me poeticizing is when I have no prose to express myself properly.  It’s like shifting into a second language—one that puts stifling syntax and mundane mechanics on a high shelf somewhere temporarily out of reach—freeing me to turn off the nagging voices of my grade-school language Nazis who always rebuked me for my frivolous fragments, rampant run-ons, and for using way…too many...ellipses…. 

Yes, poetry frees me, albeit momentarily after midnight usually, to let it all hang out…

All of this poetic freedom, however, does require some user responsibility. Consider poetic license.  Back in high school, I used to think it was a real license I could carry in my wallet along with my driver’s license.  I remember asking my poetry teacher Ms. Gerber how I could apply for one.  She laughed, but I was serious because even though I struggled with prose writing back then, I was compelled to experiment with poetry.  While many of my classmates were experimenting with marijuana and speed, I was hiding in a corner behind the band room rolling up metaphors and smoking similes.  It was sometimes lonely there, but rhythm, tone, and rhyme could keep me high for days.  

Sometimes I wrote without thinking much, coming up with original phrases like “Cookies in love” and “Gear shifts forever”, but other times I went into what felt like forced or overly academic fluff…stuff Ms. Gerber would cross out and write in the margins next to it: Blah, blah blah!   She was right.  The obscure references I made to my favorite gymnasts or my lame attempts at using Greek mythology to prove I was intelligent only proved one fact—that I was trying too hard and had come close to committing what I now call a PLV (Poetic License Violation).

PLV consists of three major infractions.  The first and most criminal is being so cryptic that even the above-average reader has no idea what is going on because the jargon is too thick and the message behind it, too thin to create an effective image in the reader’s discombobulated mind…
            I look to Socrates’ interminable sagacity
            With self-defeatist tones
            Of an irretrievable Handelian sonata
            Untouchable, like the Pariahs of Calcutta
            Both ephemeral and emphatic and…yadda, yadda, blah, blah, blah…
Can someone please pass the barf bag while I give myself a citation for creating this overly cerebral piece of schlock?

The second PLV infraction is trying to disguise dry and banal prose by setting it up in poetic format.  Anyone can do this.  Just open up a sports magazine and find a poorly written article about some obscure athlete, and then type it up as follows:
            News of Donovan                                              
            being forced to sit out
            after too many fouls
            made fans overly
            angered
            and
            equally
            disgusted.

The third and final PLV infraction is what I call word abuse.  Many inexperienced poets get hung up on a new word that they feel is worthy of using too many times.  For example, the word “slither”.  It can be very poetic if used to describe something that is not obviously sneaky, like Robert Cormier does in his novel I Am The Cheese:  “The wind, like a snake, slithers into my jacket…”  Brilliant.  But when a “poet” fixates on the word and uses it to describe a hand moving across a table or a foot playing with a person’s leg, that becomes a serious case of word abuse and must be punished. 

There is a poet from New Mexico who has my name.  A friend of mine found her a few years ago and asked me if I ever lived in New Mexico.  And as Johnny Cash would say, “I been everywhere man…” but unfortunately I’ve never been to New Mexico.  She gave me the link to this poet’s website, and I was intrigued.  This Debra Tenney woman was pretty good, better than me, that’s for sure.  I wanted to contact her to tell her that she had a namesake in Hawaii who also writes poetry, but by that time I had found out from a post made by her daughter that she had passed away from a battle with breast cancer.

I especially like the piece Ms. Tenney wrote called “Hot Java” because it captures the magic of the mundane.  Here are two of my favorite stanzas:

Early morning crisis
caught between sunny side up,
and scrambled egg imperatives.
Yesterday's burnt toast dressed
in lumpy oatmeal
has found its way into
a trash can, over-full with 
coupon madness,
milk cartons,
unpaid bills
and Tuesday's
eggplant
on a suicide mission.

The tube chants
Regis and Cathy Lee mantras,
garbage disposal humor
grinding its way
through the early morning chill.
Pop Tart commercials and Barry Manilow
render their greatest hits,
assaulting the mind like
a Waring Blender set on puree.
Rescued to the trash,
Tuesday's
eggplant
finds new meaning to life,
slithering again to the floor,
vowing to change its ways.

See?  She even uses the “s” word in an original way: 

Tuesday’s eggplant finds new meaning to life...slithering again to the floor, vowing to change its ways.  

Nice.

Maybe one day I’ll be more confident, like my namesake, to post more of my poetic endeavors on the World Wide Web.  For now, though, I’ll keep living my life within the security of my poet’s closet, where you will find me musing, like I am right now, after midnight. 

 
http://www.angelfire.com/nm/owlworks/index.html
http://www.yasni.com/ext.phpurl=http%3A%2F%2Fbooks.dreambook.com%2Fsiennas%2Fguestbook.html&name=Debra+Tenney&cat=book&showads=1