In my desire to “Show, Don’t Tell,” and to chronicle the prelude to my third career act, I’ve been writing prose poems about my career, the communications industry, and some of the philosophies that guide me.
I published more than a dozen of these prose poems on LinkedIn. Now, I’m offering eight of the poems in one package here.
According to the Poetry Foundation, a prose poem is a prose composition, while not broken into verse lines, that demonstrates other traits such as symbols, metaphors, and other figures of speech common to poetry.
Poetry Is A Clear Point of Difference
As someone who writes ads and marketing copy for clients, I like the idea that poetry and art can be used to inform commerce. I also like the idea that poetry can be a point of difference for me in my search for meaningful work.
When looking for work, you’re looking for people. In my case, I am seeking to connect with business and community leaders who need help communicating their marketplace value.
There are marketers in the world today who believe they can simply state their offer and win—no personality, charm, creativity, or strategic planning necessary. I’m not looking for these marketers and they’re not looking for me.
I’m a good fit for marketers committed to pursuing a clear point of difference in the marketplace. A clear point of difference starts with the product or service and moves from there to how people inside and outside the company talk about (and think about) the product or service.
To make a brand culturally relevant today, and to give people something to talk and think about, we often infuse brand communications with arts and culture. Lowbrow. Highbrow. It’s all up for grabs.
When I work with clients on a brand communications problem, I reach back to my training like everyone else. I was trained to read and write poems, stories, essays, and news.
Today, I believe in the use of poetry and poetic frameworks to advance the objectives of a business, cause, or political campaign. To get an idea to stick and to get people to share it, there has to be a short powerful punch of words.
To tap one legendary line, “Where’s the beef?” … it is not poetry. It’s advertising that benefits from poetic construction.
Writers of literary works say don’t go chasing an audience. Don’t picture the reader in your mind. Just focus on the story and serve the story. Basically, the exact opposite of how copywriters work.
The best copywriters are obsessed with reaching members of a pre-determined audience and moving them to act. For a copywriter, words on the page are not abstractions, they’re not hazy thoughts draped over a red velvet chair, words are the vehicle, the high-powered engine with the means to reach the desired audience and the agreed-upon end.
Not Always the Best Advice: Tell Your Story, Your Way
To highlight the “tell your story, your way” argument, I could pick out any one of a hundred pieces of writing advice. This is what screenwriter, John Milius says:
To write for someone else is the biggest mistake that any writer makes. You should be your biggest competitor, your biggest critic, your biggest fan, because you don’t know what anybody else thinks. How arrogant it is to assume that you know the market, that you know what’s popular today—only Steven Spielberg knows what’s popular today. Only Steven Spielberg will ever know what’s popular. So leave it to him. He’s the only one in the history of man who has ever figured that out.
When I consider his point of view—one shared by countless other writers—part of me nods my head in agreement. Another part of me wants to scream.
The biggest mistake a writer makes is leaving untold stories withering on the vine. The biggest mistake is not writing, not believing, not developing a routine, and not improving. Writing for other people is not a mistake at all. Writing for other people is also not the same thing as compromising your values or dumbing down your work. That sometimes happens, but it’s not a pre-ordained outcome.
A writer of literary works can care about the reader and maintain their integrity. The reader is not the enemy of your best work. In fact, just the opposite. It’s readers who spend time with your work and gain something from it. To me, it seems neglectful to not consider the reader.
Cozy Up and Open Up
John Milius also suggests that it’s best for a writer to be his or her own biggest fan. I disagree. Writing is lonely work as it is, and what helps is to hear directly from a reader who knows and supports you. A few kind words from this person can help spur you on, and help you to remember to believe in yourself and the work you’re doing.
Publishing is a business and a writer has to know something about it, how it works, and who is who. The lone writer in a room is where the manufacturing of books begins, but it doesn’t end there. Getting a book into a reader’s hands requires the help of several more people. Professional people who know how to help writers make better books.
If you write experimental fiction, then cozy up to the editors, agents, publishers, and readers in that world. By immersing in a community as a reader before you step up as a writer, you instinctively know what readers want, because it’s also what you want.
Writing is about artistic self-expression.
Writing is about connecting with readers.
Both of these things are true. What I don’t like about the lack of market awareness in literary writers is the solipsistic pose. For a story to work, it needs to reach a reader, and when it does the reader ought to be changed by it. Writing when there’s a reader on the other end is an alchemical exchange. That’s exciting to consider and to consider it fully, it means keeping readers in mind.
Texas writer and literary lion, Larry McMurtry, knows all about this premise. In fact, he has spent several decades making this geocultural reality his own truth and his books are both products of and reflections of The West.
As a new resident of Texas, I love to hear the stories of this place, and I want to hear from the state’s best storytellers.
It’s interesting to me how dated some of the material is—for instance, he describes Austin, but he does so over 50 years ago and the description, while insightful, is of another city. I blame the fact-based form more than the writer. At the same time, some of the things McMurtry says about other parts of the state ring as true today as I imagine they did then.
Like this one:
In Dallas, a flavorless Protestantism seems to have yielded superpatriotism as by-product. The Dallas true believers have made conservatism a religion-surrogate: they hate liberals the way passionate religious dogmatists once hated heretics.
And this one:
The South is memories, memories—it cannot help believing that yesterday was better than tomorrow can possibly be. Some of the memories are extraordinarily well packaged, it is true, but when a place has been reduced in its own estimation no amount of artful packaging can hide the gloom.
We suck at conflict resolution in this country. We suck because we generally lack the skills as individuals, and we almost always lack the collective will do to the right thing as a nation. The price we pay is, therefore, sky high. Until you resolve the conflict in the right ways, it lingers and festers.
When I lived in rural North Carolina as a teenage boy, my friends would constantly remind me that The South was gonna rise again. I would nod and then ask, “Then what?” No one said they’d reinstitute slavery on Day One. It didn’t need to be said. It was nevertheless understood.
Today, nuance is napping. Today, we do need to say what is. For me, this is what is: I believe We, the People, need to atone for our two original sins—slavery and genocide—and until we do, we’re going to keep paying too high a price as a society. Atonement and restitution will not wipe away racism. This is about acknowledging the damages done. It’s too important to leave the next generation. The time is now to take these immense and long-overdue first steps.
Money Doesn’t Make The Man
McMurtry also examines class in 1960s Texas.
Amid the bland Texas middle class, our vulgar rich can seem baroque and delightful, and indeed, certain of them are delightful. As a class, however, they exhibit all the difficulties of the desperately confused, and they are dangerous in proportion to the amount of power they wield. They are frequently very able and very strong people, but I have yet to meet one whose abilities or whose strength counterbalances his insecurity.
That’s casting some serious shade on your fellow countrymen. Of course, this is often the work of a conscious writer. The dark side is the side that needs words to light it up. Thankfully, McMurty has excellent words to express his deepest thoughts.
I know not which “dangerous men” the author has in mind in the above passage. I do know he shows no indication in his book that he thinks highly of President Johnson, who at the time of the writing, held immense power and did not always use it wisely.
I’m sure there were other men that McMurty considered when he took out his knife pen. He did not write about the Bush family in this book, as that family’s Texas story didn’t fully emerge until the 1980s when Goerge Bush became Vice President, and then President. Even if they had emerged in time, the Bush family are Yankees who emigrated to West Texas for the oil. They’re Eastern prospectors, or they were.
Cowboy Love and Longing
The theme of the collection is the disappearance of the Old West, and with it, a way of life lived by a few short generations of cowboys. The McMurty clan lived this life, and Larry McMurtry saw it fade away and in its place, he witnessed the rise of modern Texas.
I wrote this poem after visiting a photo exhibit at Mexic-Arte Museum in downtown Austin.
Maria from Monterrey
It’s not terribly far, as a bird flies, from Monterrey to Laredo
Young Maria’s journey was wingless
She moved at night, her thirst unsatisfied
Coyotes and owls shared their star-lit canyons
When she slept she had bad dreams of home
Maria finished fourth grade at Santo Nino Elementary
The family moved to San Antonio for a year
English slid smoothly from her tongue
Sister Sarah said she could go to college
“Do they have scholarships for Dreamers?”
Her softball coach was no Nun
Her history teacher spit white lies
Maria found some solace in science
She played her flute by the lake
Butterflies swooned, Suzy, the poodle exhaled
The people of Laredo named her “Best Dental Hygienist”
Maria was always careful with the instruments
Her husband the handsome highway engineer
They made friends with other parents at the pool
She never served a casserole
When Don descended the neighbors turned
The lady at daycare asked for her papers
The dental group let her go
America turned its lights down
Maria cursed the powers that be
Now, heavy white clouds roll in from the Gulf
Torrential rains pound the dry Earth
Maria bathes half-naked in the yard
Her minerality is pure Meximerican
Her spirit, mighty Texican
We were in the second row Tuesday night for “Julius Caesar” at Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland. The play, directed by Shana Cooper, is both timely and powerful. This modern production is also highly inventive. The ancient tale is set in contemporary times, with urban decay on full display—the walls are literally decomposing as the narrative unfolds.
The play is full of memorable scenes. The closing of the First Act is absolutely searing and unforgettable. We watched a mob stomp an innocent poet to death while chanting “tear him”.
Violence is at the center of this play and at the center of the human drama. Caesar is murdered. Mobs are incited to kill. A civil war breaks out. Shakespeare wrote “Julius Caesar” in 1599. The events that the play depicts occurred many centuries before that. Yet, the play could not be more relevant than it is right now.
Let’s hear from Cassius, a Senator, on the conditions in Rome…
And why should Caesar be a tyrant then?
Poor man! I know he would not be a wolf
But that he sees the Romans are but sheep;
He were no lion, were not Romans hinds.
Those that with haste will make a mighty fire
Begin it with weak straws. What trash is Rome,
What rubbish, and what offal when it serves
For the base matter to illuminate
So vile a thing as Caesar! (Act 1, Scene 3)
Cassius is the main conspirator, along with Brutus. They’re both moody men who let their assumptions get the best of them, and who are ultimately trapped by their own minds and obsessions. In the above passage, Cassius seems to say it’s the common Roman who is equally at fault, and that people get the leaders they deserve. His conspiracy to murder Caesar was driven by the idea that he might do horrible things sometime in the future. It was not about settling an old score for a crime he had already perpetrated. I like Cassius for the most part, but Caesar rightly notes that “he thinks too much.”
Another theme in the play that stands out is how easy it is to sway the crowd with rhetoric, as Mark Antony proves at Caesar’s funeral.
Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears;
I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him.
The evil that men do lives after them;
The good is oft interred with their bones;
So let it be with Caesar. (Act 3, Scene 2)
Shakespeare is the master of duplicitous tongues, and in Mark Antony, the Bard has a perfect snake. Antony praises Caesar while inciting his fellow Romans to drive the conspirators from their homes. He’s a real piece of work, Mark Antony.
What can we learn from this amazing historical drama from the world’s greatest playwright? We can learn that power is a narcotic, while deceit and violence are blunt means to power’s unjust ends.
President Obama’s speech in Selma, Alabama on Saturday—commemorating the 50th anniversary of “Bloody Sunday”—was a major moment in his presidency, and a reminder to all how far we have come as a nation in 50 years.
The context and setting of the speech helped to amplify the power of the President’s words, which ring poetic throughout.
We broke the old aristocracies, declaring ourselves entitled not by bloodline, but endowed by our Creator with certain unalienable rights. We secure our rights and responsibilities through a system of self-government, of and by and for the people. That’s why we argue and fight with so much passion and conviction, because we know our efforts matter. We know America is what we make of it.
The speech contains passage after passage of language artfully rendered. President Obama has a strong vision for America—and his own place in it—which is both remarkable, and proof that we have indeed “broke the old aristocracies,” at least to some degree.
Yet, racism is not gone from the American scene. It is still a daily reality for many Americans. Pick any headline (or personal incident) you want. For instance, David Boren, the President of University of Oklahoma, banned a fraternity from campus on Monday and declared the students “a disgrace” and “not real Sooners”, for singing a racist chant at a frat function.
Hats off to David Boren in Norman, OK. “We know America is what we make of it.” The struggle to make ourselves and our nation better is not easy, nor will it be easy going forward, but it is a struggle worthy of our energy and full attention.
As President Obama said on Saturday, “We are the people Emerson wrote of, ‘who for truth and honor’s sake stand fast and suffer long; who are ‘never tired,’ so long as we can see far enough.”
“Information without context strikes the mind but peters out before the heart.” -Sarah Smarsh
Creative nonfiction is a form I find myself increasingly drawn to. In the hands of a great essayist, we see a real writer struggle with real life.
Sarah Smarsh, for instance. She is a Kansas-born journalist, public speaker and educator, and her recent piece of media criticism in Aeon struck a nerve.
In a media landscape of zip-fast reports as stripped of context as a potato might be stripped of fibre, most news stories fail to satiate. We don’t consume news all day because we’re hungry for information – we consume it because we’re hungry for connection. That’s the confusing conundrum for the 21st century heart and mind: to be at once over-informed and grasping for understanding.
In her essay, Smarsh exposes the mechanics of reporting and the news business as one culprit in the dehumanization on news. She also explores the need for real story, versus packaged up text masquerading as coherent content. Regarding what is sometimes called “hard news” she writes:
…in J-school my peers and I learned never to call 10 inches of lede, nutgraph and body an ‘article’ – true journos, we were told, call them ‘stories’
I hear and admire Smarsh’s call for a higher standard in today’s metric-fed mediascape. Media enterprises need page views, subscribers, events, merchandise and ad dollars to survive. I get that, and most writers get that. We also get that there’s a need to make a product or service out of our writing, and for the most part, we are happy to abide by these terms. Perhaps publishers, editors and writers can begin to work towards more equitable outcomes all around.
Smarsh writes about how we’re “hungry for connection” today. I agree. Imagine hiring a great chef, sous chef, line cooks and prep cooks and outfitting them with all the best kitchen equipment. But then you tie their hands when it comes to ingredients—all this talented crew can make is pork and beans, onion soup and tater tots. Publishers are in a hurry to be mass feeders of media. Conventional wisdom says that’s where the money is.
Brands want a return on content. B. Bonin Bough of Mondelēz International argues that “without the metric of monetization, there really is no way for you to determine whether content is good or bad.”
Media companies also want a positive return on their investment in content. Meanwhile, people find it hard to pay attention, can’t sit still, can’t take it all in. A lot of smart people are working on answers to the media conundrum. I am glad, because it’s easy enough to see the connection between junk media and an unhealthy citizenry.
As a writer, I want to answer Smarsh’s call for more substance and more heart in the pieces we put into the world. As a reader and consumer of media, I want to scroll less and read and think more.