Monday, July 18, 2011

Cooking Up a Good Story

Here's a cautionary tale: first marry a slender husband, overfeed him until he barely fits into his military uniform, vow to do better, to cook with one eye on his waistline. Take a perfectly good recipe for stuffed bell peppers and eliminate most of what's good about it--take out the fat, be stingy with the lean ground beef, shun the salt shaker, and plunk that plate with its awful burden in front of him. He'll eat it, although it takes a lot of liquid chaser to get it down, but he won't rave to his buddies about his young wife's cooking. This might be an omen of food to come, stingy as a miser, warped out of shape by ulterior motives that have more to do with weight loss than love and nourishment.

I served those awful stuffed peppers in a time when we labeled eggs, butter, cream, salt, and almost anything tasty as toxic, fatal. Now we know that everything we eat can kill us, given the wrong proportions. So I've relaxed as a cook. I know that meals need seasoning and binding, they need salt and texture. Roasted beets need honey and olive oil, salt and pepper. And stories need good ingredients and a taste that lingers, be it crisp or creamy. Good writing is like good cooking: begin with a recipe and feel free to tinker, but don't make nothing out of something. Feed the reader.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Alas, Poor Prufrock

In "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" T. S. Eliot says a lot about food. There is, first, a restaurant with oyster shells, then yellow smoke licking its tongue into corners, and hands that "drop a question on your plate." There is the "taking of a toast and tea." The measuring of life in coffee spoons. Food to left of me, food to the right of me and in between a book called Will Write for Food (Diane Jacob).

Last night I ate nectarines, trying not to let the juice run into the controls of my e-reader. Also avoiding the smear of a little wedge of cheese in my left hand.  Will eat and read, read and eat. Usually, I eat ripe fruit over the sink, letting the juice drop as it will, leaving no puddle on the counter or drip on my shirt. Food stains down the front of a shirt are for toddlers or geezers, and I refuse to be a geezer. I could have cut the fruit into a bowl, eaten it neatly, in lady-like bites with a fork. Why did I not?

Because Prufrock  takes careful tea and cakes and ices, because he has fasted and returned to "the cups, the marmalade, the tea . . ." and "bitten off the matter with a smile." And ended, almost, with the famous question which he never answers: "Do I dare to eat a peach?" Yes, I dare, I do, I did, I will again, and let the juice run where it will.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Desperation Poems

No, not poems about desperation, though I'm sure there are good ones somewhere. I'm thinking about the ones I write out of desperation to meet a weekly deadline that a group of friends and I have set for ourselves. Practice, as I've said before, is as important for a poet as for a singer, dancer, painter--anyone who wants to stay in the creative game. The desperation poem is not just practice; it is a mouthful of humble pie. Pretenses of depth and beauty become a stale crust. Sharing these poems is self-mutilation. But I suspect all writers have duds in the notebook or the wastebasket or wherever we file them. At least desperation poems stretch my muscles, suggest what I need to know in order to write a valid poem.

And what is a valid poem? One that shares an experience in such a way that the personal, specific language becomes useful to another. A valid poem interrupts consensus reality and says, hey, pay closer attention to the world. Allen Ginsberg said, "Notice what you notice." Someone on line recently asked that we "Notice one thing each day, write it down and share." Chris Ransick has a wonderful new blog entry {} about what he calls "dasein"-- that feeling of being in the now that allows us to see more deeply, to sense our place in the world. Desperation, too often, turns my attention to an anxious need to comply with some expectation.