When I was in college, a friend suggested that I take a poetry-writing workshop. Having tired of all the Derrida and Judith Butler I was being forced to read, I figured a creative writing class would be kind of fun. And more importantly, that it would be an easy "A."
Also, I did have some experience writing poetry.
Two years earlier, I'd been responsible for a whole notebook of verse that clearly was written by a freshman taking “Intro to Existentialism” and for whom the works of both Nine Inch Nails and Sylvia Plath had been very, very important in her earlier, formative years.
"Death at my door," began one knee-slapper. "And I shout, 'Come on in!'"
Really, really bad stuff. At the time, of course, I thought it was really, really good.
Cameron, the professor who taught the seminar, eschewed all things canonical and adored all things modern. As a result, we ended up reading a lot of poetry that didn't really say much but was kind of cool to look at, composed as it was from random, weird words (mostly nouns), inexplicably bisected by parentheses, with lots of back- and forward slashes and colons thrown in for postmodern panache:
ly/sis: : cannot/
This head scratcher was the poem (the entire poem) that Cameron handed out the first day of class.
"And what do we think of this?" he asked.
"I don't know," I volunteered hesitantly. "It seems like a literary 'Hooked on Phonics' to me."
Several people laughed and Cameron shot me a withering look.
"It's easy to dismiss. It's not 'pretty.' But it's about seeing beyond straight rhyme and rhythm. It's full of contextual possibilities."
So's the toilet after grandma eats a bag of dried apricots, I thought sourly.
It was a harbinger of things to come.
The only student in the workshop who was any good was a quiet girl named Megan with whom I later became friends.
When Megan would have to read, her face would turn nearly purple and her hands would shake from nervousness. Her stuff was subtle, disturbing and insanely complex for someone so young. I still remember whole lines, it was that good.
Based purely on phenomenal writing chops, she should be famous right now except no one, myself included, really gives a shit about modern poetry. And besides, none of her poetry contained deliberately abstruse postmodern shtick.
Cameron gave Megan "A's" though. He had to. She was too good for him not to but you could tell that they were grudgingly meted out. Her poetry insulted his sensibility.
It actually made sense.
Unlike Paul's. His mid-semester masterpiece “GO/n:Ad” dealt with "o/nion:: vegetable (for)mica/tritan(op)ia." He explained to the class that it was about insomnia, circumcision and black hole theory as well as corporate greed in America.
Since no one knew what "tritanopia" meant and Paul had cleverly bisected it with parentheses, he got an "A."
"I like it," said Cameron slowly. "It's a little...rough around the edges, but there's a certain 'found object' quality to it that I think works."
Then there was Katie, whose poetry revolved entirely around her boyfriend Josh whom she "loved like a star that rides through the night to my heart."
I actually kind of liked Katie. She was sweet and dumb and pretty in that ripe, voluptuous, just short of porky way you know is going to turn into full-fledged obesity a couple years down the line. Every day after class, Katie would call Josh on the pink cell phone that featured Enrique Iglesias’ “Hero” as his ring tone.
Cameron hated her poetry, of course. Not only because it was sidesplittingly funny ("Hold me, Hold me, Hold me now/Under the sky"), but also because it always rhymed: "Your mouth tasted like cotton candy/That night on the beach so sandy.”
Katie often sat next to me and made no effort to hide the many lip gloss applications that were performed during discussions of, say, silence as textual space. She wrote in big, puffy, girlish script in a Hello Kitty notebook. Sometimes, she'd scrawl notes as Cameron rambled on about phonological signifiers and push them over to me.
"I think Billy just farted," read one. "LOL!!!"
Jenna, another girl in the class, I didn't like. Her poetry revolved around anal sex. And witchcraft. And anal sex. Sometimes, cum. But always anal sex.
Once she wrote a poem called "Ch:lamy/dia." It was about chlamydia, pyromania and her perennial favorite, anal sex. And witchcraft.
Witch, I re/fuse to k(iss) your: bitters!
the itch/not just the f(ire)
but your: c/ock
in my a(s)s
Nothing was too revealing for old Jenna.
Your cum in my mouth/
Cock in my As/S:
Although Jenna wasn't particularly attractive, whenever she would read the guys in class, some of whom had probably never had their cocks in anyone's mouth or anal cavity or, for that matter, vagina would sit at rapt attention.
I'm not making this verse up. You see, I saved Jenna's final project. Because her final class project "AdAM:) aN:tine/ CuM (H)ere" is one of the most satisfying comedic reads I've ever experienced. And it's held up well. I still almost pee myself laughing when I read it.
Although Cameron was one of the most pretentious motherfuckers on the planet, he was also one of the biggest closet sleazes.
Jenna always got "A's."
"Visceral," he remarked one day after she had read yet another poem about yet another "C(ock) c/ock :cocK" ramming into her "a/Ss a/ss (A)ss.
Jenna smiled at Cameron.
Cameron smiled back.
If I play my cards right, you could see him thinking, Maybe I can ram my C(ock) into her a/ss. Who cares about the ch:lamy/dia?
Then there was Ron who, either like me, thought it was an easy credit or that a poetry writing workshop meant a lot of fast–and-loose artsy pussy. With a scary ardor, he hit on every girl in class and wrote a lot of stuff about horses and dogs. Apparently, the untimely passing away of Cody, the mixed breed German Shepherd he'd had when he was ten, was one of the most profound influences on his life: "The furry body shuffled out/And I knew he was no more."
Near the end of the semester, Cameron announced to the class that our final project would be a portfolio, containing no less than fifteen poems.
Ron and I exchanged worried glances.
Fuck, we both said with our eyes. This was supposed to be an easy "A".
Sure, outside this classroom Ron was probably a date rapist but in here, he was the closest thing to a comrade that I had. Because like me, he was at least smart enough to know that his poetry sucked balls.
Later in the student union, as I played Velocita!, a weird Italian race car game that was located next to the janitor's break room, Ron cornered me.
"What are you gonna do for this project?" he demanded.
"I don't know," I replied, swerving to avoid the polizia.
I had no idea what this game was doing there, in a communal space intended for students who almost without exception looked like “Mean Preppy #1” from a John Hughes movie, but I loved it and played it every day between classes.
"I may copy down the ingredients from a ketchup bottle and throw in some back slashes and colons."
I really wasn't kidding.
“This fucking sucks,” he sighed. “Cameron told me that 'Last Day of Cody' was 'puerile.'"
He brooded for a second.
I sped up. I was near the finish line.
"What's 'puerile' mean?" he muttered.
My car flipped over a barrier.
"Facile bersaglio!" taunted the game.
"Fuck!" I yelled.
Before Ron had distracted me, I'd been close to getting the best score yet this week.
I turned to him.
It means he thinks you're a fucking idiot, I wanted to shout.
Instead, I heaved a sigh.
"It means you're gonna have to write something with lots of weird punctuation. Throw in random words. Throw in big words. Just look through the dictionary."
"Huh," he said, considering. "That's not a bad idea."
It really wasn't, I thought later as I rode home on the bus.
As the bus passed the Safeway, I saw a sign in the window. "Fresh Whole Split Chicken Breasts," it read. I jotted that down in my notebook then crossed out "chicken."
I looked around and continued scribbling.
“Yolanda's Hair Weave Central. Tenemos X-Box! Checks cashed here.”
Despite the signs, my neighborhood, the only one I could afford even with all my part-time jobs, was filled with faux-hipsters whose parents paid their rent but were desperate to live near the members of Fugazi and to differentiate themselves from their “Mean Preppy #1s” cousins, even if it meant displacing poverty-stricken, elderly black and Latino folk.
I added, "No spitting on curb," "We Accept Food Stamps," and "Pollo y cerdo" to my list. And then, "Pupuseria de Miguel."
I scribbled in my notebook until my hand hurt. Then I added "my hand hurts" in my notebook. When I got home, I went through the dictionary and pulled big words that I thought sounded cool. Then I looked up "erection" in my thesaurus and jotted down several high-end synonyms.
I strung everything together and added some creative punctuation. When I was done, it looked like this:
sin/ter sin/ter (s)inter
:like the ecchymo(sis)::
di/lated with (blood)
fresh :wHolE s/plit: breasts
No (sp)itting on /curb
cashed here C/heck (s)
poLLo (y cer/do)
foo/d st:amps we: acc(ept)
:h/and my (hurts).
Using my notebook and the dictionary, I did this fourteen more times. At the beginning of the portfolio, I included an artistic "statement of intent."
It was, I wrote, a polemic against capitalistic greed predicated on consumer consumption in the United States as well as an indictment of racial, sexual and class segregation in low-income neighborhoods.
Then I passed it in.
I got an "A" on my project.
And so did Ron.