Don’t Forget to Eat Your Poetry

Note: This article first appeared in the print edition of the Press-Enterprise on April 20, 2014, in the Inlandia Institute‘s weekly column.

As you must know if you’ve bothered with this section of the paper, we’re currently knee-deep in National Broccoli Month. The official 2014 National Broccoli Month poster, which I pre-ordered for free in quadruplicate last fall, is plastered over all four windows in my office, lest I forget the season or feel the urge to look out at the cruelty of the lilac bush’s breeding. You’ve seen this year’s image, too, on the backs of bus benches and screen-pressed on tote bags—but nothing beats the effect of the full poster’s 16:9 aspect ratio: a field of broccoli, still green, stretching to the horizon in rows clipped with care like lines of meter in some olde thyme poem you read in high school, the cerulean sky bluer than the purest water high above—and basking angelic upon it the official 2014 National Broccoli Month slogan: “A Branch a Day Keeps Dementia at Bay.”

And if you’ve been eating your broccoli, as you should, you’ll remember that it was almost 20 years ago that the Academy of American Cabbage brought together the nation’s leading grocers, botanists, harvester manufacturers, and Monsanto with the aim of creating the first month-long celebration of broccoli. In April of 1996, National Broccoli Month was launched. The goal then was the same as it is now: to engage the public and heighten broccoli’s visibility and availability in popular culture.

Why celebrate broccoli? Because broccoli at its best is high in vitamin C and dietary fiber. It’s also full of nutrients with anti-cancer properties, including diindolylmethane, selenium, and sulforaphane. Broccoli is higher in carotenoids than any other plant in the cabbage family.

Remember, though, that boiling broccoli reduces the levels of these compounds, so don’t boil your broccoli. Eat it raw, or steamed, or stir-fried to achieve the full nutritional effect.

No matter how you eat it, broccoli is far more healthy than French fries or pizza or most of the other delicious garbage that you’re consuming 11 months of the year in your incessant gluttonous quest for biological sustenance. That’s why even fast food chains have embraced National Broccoli Month—it’s not just a ploy for profit. So drive up to your nearest drive-thru and order a broccoli-burger with a side of stalk fries! You deserve it and your brain will thank you!

You might be asking yourself, how could anyone argue against National Broccoli Month? Don’t we all deserve to be healthy?

I have to admit that some broccoli growers were opposed to this celebration from the start, claiming that the focus on mainstream broccoli breeds overshadows the more exotic and nutritious varieties of cabbage, such as beneforté, a cross with the wild Brassica oleracea var villosa that contains twice as much glucoraphanin.

Still others point out that broccoli is a hidden staple in the American diet as it is and doesn’t need a marketing pitch, or, moreover, that this particular marketing pitch doesn’t even work—broccoli shouldn’t be sold as a vitamin that you feel guilty for avoiding; broccoli is a decadent vegetable that is inherently subversive, branching as it does in mysterious and monochromatically psychedelic fractals. If we have to market broccoli, they say, it should be marketed as a mustard weed. This is your brain—this is your brain on broccoli. Imagine attractive people daringly eating broccoli on a billboard. High schoolers sneaking broccoli in the bathroom between meals. If you want to be manipulative, they say, then at least manipulate. This is Brassica oleracea we’re talking about, not your 30 minutes of exercise daily!

But obviously these growers have been consuming too much of their own broccoli.

So how can you enjoy your daily dose during this National Broccoli Month? Here are some ideas, courtesy of the Academy of American Cabbage:

Put a broccoli in your pocket.
Take a broccoli out to lunch.
Share some broccoli with a coworker.
Eat a branch of broccoli at a movie theater.
Watch a movie about broccoli.
Support broccoli by petitioning Congress.
Donate to a broccoli growers’ union.
Put a stalk of broccoli on the pavement.
Revisit an old piece of broccoli.
Buy broccoli. Then buy more broccoli for a friend.

If you follow just a few of these simple suggestions, you can make broccoli a part of your daily life this April.

And then you won’t have to eat any more broccoli until 2015. I promise.

Oh wait—April is National POETRY Month? Well, how is that any different?

The Pathways of Clichés


Note: This article first appeared in the print edition of the Press-Enterprise on February 18, 2014, in the Inlandia Institute‘s weekly column.

In the time it takes to read this sentence, 50 English instructors will write the word “cliché” in red ink in the margins of a student paper. The admonition to “Avoid clichés!” has almost become a cliché—as much a cliché as the word “cliché” itself. And since clichés are meanings that have lost some of their meaning, it might be time for a reminder of what they really mean.

The word “cliché” comes from the 19th century French printing industry. In the days of movable type, each letter or symbol was set on an individual metal block, with each word and sentence painstakingly arranged block by block. To save time, printers would combine commonly used phrases into large blocks called “stereotypes” or “clichés” (presumably after the sound they made being set: cliquer, “to click”). Eventually this expression was used so often to refer to common phrases that it became a word of its own—a word so commonly used that we’ve mostly forgotten its original meaning. Cliché became a cliché.

A cliché is a kind of dead metaphor. It’s a connection between different concepts that has become so prominent in our minds that we no longer have to associate it with those original concepts to understand its meaning. When you hear the word cliché, you don’t think of the French printer or steel slugs of type. It’s not visceral in the least. It just is what it is, and you know what it is. A cliché.

Seen this way, a cliché can be an amazing thing: It’s an original, useful concept that’s hard to imagine ever having lived without. It’s the birth of an individual idea, a new discrete unit of thought that’s become an inherent part of how we see the world, who we are. But there, too, is the rub: Now the concept has already been born,  and it exists as a fully developed thing. There’s nowhere else for it to grow.

In neuroscience, Hebbian theory is summarized as, “Cells that fire together, wire together.” The more often a neural pathway between two concepts is fired, the easier it is for that pathway to fire the next time—which makes it fire more often, which makes it fire more easily, and so on, until that pathway is firing in the same pattern every time, at the drop of a hat, so to speak. The dominance of that pathway becomes a part of the architecture of the brain, and overwhelms the possibility for any new connections between those original concepts. This process is how an entire ant colony can find your puddle of spilled syrup, or how human highways and cities form.

Imagine two towns separated by countless miles of dense jungle. The townsfolk to the west think they’re alone in the universe. Until one day a brave adventurer hacks her way through the vegetation and miraculously discovers the town to the east. A new connection. When she returns home, she tells her friends of the wonders of the town to the east and the amazing sights she encountered along the way. And her friends, being young and adventurous themselves, want to see those wonders, too. They could, of course, hack their own paths east, but why bother, when a path has already been hacked?

As they travel, the larger group, by its very nature, widens the path, their footsteps trampling the earth. The wider path is more enticing, an easier trek, and those who were once disinclined to risk decide it’s worth the journey.

The path becomes wider still, now wide enough for a wagon. A well is dug halfway between the towns, so that the horses have water. The towns begin to trade goods, which means more wagons on the road. An entrepreneur opens an inn next to the well. Now the road is cobblestone. Now pavement. It’s still a scenic drive—look at the waterfalls, the flora, the fauna, but look from the road—which becomes a highway, four lanes, then six, then eight. Eventually the trip is a daily commute that the townsfolk make without a thought, a most convenient connection between east and west, and no one bothers to notice the scenery blurring by—they couldn’t get out and touch it if they wanted to, at the speed the traffic flows. They’re thankful for the road, it takes them efficiently from one town to the other, but they no longer experience the journey. They build a freeway wall. They listen to the radio while they drive. Nothing changes. The road is the road and it works.

Until another adventurer appears, a writer, who says, “Has anyone looked out there north of the road?”

The joy of reading is that we can follow. That we can grab an ax and smell the earth and feel the grass as the writer hacks ahead, stimulating new paths (and maybe, eventually, new clichés) through the jungles of our minds.

Rondel: Skunk

SKUNK

Drink up, boys, tip back your growlers!
Refill’em at the microbrewer!
A hipster’s cred is never truer
than his eco-friendly powers.

Save the trees and fields of flowers
and make the sky a little bluer:
Drink up boys, tip back your growlers!
Refill’em at the microbrewer!

But rinse’em twice and maybe scour
with a steel brush or cloth and skewer—
that old jug’s cleanly as a sewer,
so throw’em down quick before it sours:
Drink up, boys, tip back your growlers!

__________

Note: This poem is for a weekly series of locally inspired topical poems for the Inlandia blog at pe.com.  For more on the form, and the local story that this was drawn from, visit the blog.

Ghazal: At the Feet of a Dove

AT THE FEET OF A DOVE

for Jeremiah MacKay

A vandalized unveiling: “Only the feet of the dove
are left,” he said, his sigh like the bleat of a dove.

Who could break the brazen brave, hand over heart,
open arm outstretched—when at his feet was a dove?

They mate for life, she said, pigeon husbands and wives
build one nest: Eternal is the seat of the dove.

Oh Yahweh, Allah, Elohim—why must you take
what we offer? What use is the heat of a dove?

Look there, at the edge of the lake! The children hunt but
their hunger is smaller than the meat of a dove.

Fly away, my love, find another branch and rest your wings.
High tide never sounds the defeat of a dove.

Bronze will green, and bullets rust; no metal is stronger
than memory. That’s the sweet of the dove.

__________

Note: This poem is for a weekly series of locally inspired topical poems for the Inlandia blog at pe.com.  For more on the local story that this was drawn from, visit the blog.

Write Like a Child

I have exactly one academic-style talk that I give, and I’ve given it a few times, because I have exactly one thing that I know well enough and that I think is worth talking about at length. The talk is called “Poetry and the Subconscious,” and it basically riffs off of my favorite quote by Elizabeth Bishop: “The thing we want from great art is the same thing necessary for its creation, and that is a self-forgetful, perfectly useless concentration.”

I go on to weave through a couple dozen quotes from interviews with poets, and make the case that this is what all poets are really doing, regardless of means or motive or intent, or even the style of writing once they get there: They’re using tricks they’ve learned over the years to reach the meditative state the Buddhists call Samadhi—a unified state of mind in which there is no distinction between self and environment, no sense of time or place. Samadhi is becoming attuned to the fundamental interconnectedness of reality. It’s the dissolution of Self, the absorption of one mind into the total oneness of creation. It’s what Mihály Csíkszentmihályi famously calls “Flow” (though I’ve always felt his definition is a bit too restrictive). It’s what athletes call “The Zone.” It’s the source of surprise and wonder at our own spontaneity.

Only when the Self dissolves is the subconscious free to speak—and it’s the subconscious that’s the real artist; it’s the lower, ancient regions of the brain finally having a chance to communicate, after being silenced by the domineering logic of the cerebral cortex in our daily lives. Because the subconscious understands things abstractly and intuitively, and because the neurological pathways are so old—stretching back millions and millions of years—hearing a message from the subconscious a powerful and personal experience. We’re finally hearing deeper selves, in the voice of another.

All art, then, in my opinion, is a bridge of communication between two subconsciouses.

And the way to make art is through this state of “self-forgetful, perfectly useless concentration” where the consciousness fades away. Here’s a quote from one of my favorite books, Zen in the Art of Archery:

The right art is purposeless, aimless! The more obstinately you try to learn how to shoot the arrow for the sake of hitting the goal, the less you will succeed in the one, and the further the other will recede. What stands in your way is that you have a much too willful will. You think that what you do not do yourself does not happen.

That “willful will” is exactly what I try to avoid when I’m writing.

The most interesting thing is that this is a practice we all have to re-learn, as artists. Children do it instinctively. Again from Zen:

You must hold the drawn bowstring like a little child holding a proffered finger. It grips it so firmly that one marvels at the strength of the tiny fist. And when it lets the finger go, there is not the slightest jerk. Do you know why? Because a child doesn’t think: I will now let go of the finger in order to grasp this other thing. Completely unself-consciously, without purpose, it turns from one to the other, and we would say that it was playing with the things, were it not completely true that the things were playing with the child.

I’ve always been fascinated by the idea of children as poets. I’ve taught a few classes as a poet-in-the-schools, but any parent, I’m sure, can attest to the amazing powers of a child’s imagination, and the creative ways they invent new words and metaphors. It really does seem, sometimes, like the child isn’t playing with words so much as the words are playing with the child.

Adult writers can learn a lot from children, I think.

And so we’re trying something new at Rattle this year, and asking for submissions of poems written by children, for what we hope to be a stand-alone annual anthology. Unlike most anthologies of “children’s poetry,” this collection will be written entirely by children for adults. I think it’s worth listening to both what they have to say, and how they play at saying it.

If you have a young poet under 15, you can read the guidelines here. They’re pretty simple. The deadline for this year is September 15th.

Cross-posted to the Inlandia Blog