Monday, May 25, 2009


I’m still working hard at attempting to understand the differences between photography and poetry. After years on the subject, the one, and one of the few things, I’m convinced of is that there aren’t as many as you think. One is supposedly a visual art, the other a literary art; at least that’s what most people would say. But they would be wrong! You see a poem and you read a photograph.

My undergraduate degree is a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Photography from Art Center College of Design in Pasadena. I was taking photographs before I began writing poems, and not just to make money. I wandered through days and weeks with a camera to my eye through four years of the army, sometimes pretending that some of the photo I took were actually art. Back then I consciously thought of myself as a poet who didn’t write poems but instead photographed them. Eventually, I became a copywriter, and then a poet. Photography took up less and less time in my life*. There was a tipping point, after that I thought of myself as a photographer who didn’t take photographs, instead wrote out his photographs. Though my nostalgia for all things photographic infected my poetic life in an unexpected way. I wrote The Myth of Photography*, a book-length poem that re-examined – and at times, re-imagined – the history of photography; and let the result mingle with memoir.

Photography is a primitive form of time machine. Poetry is always in the present tense, though it is often written in the past tense. The emotional experience of reading a poem is immediate. Just because they are called still photographs doesn’t mean they can’t move.

People should pose for poems in the same way they pose for photographs. As of yet I haven’t hired a beautiful woman to sit naked in a large red chair in front of me so I could write a poem but I have every intention of doing so. A hand gun laying beside a folded newspaper, half-eaten apple and five bullets scattered about, morning light pouring in through the window – this will be the first in a series of still life poems I plan to write.

Imagine the entire world, each and every tree, person, building and cloud in one photograph. Now begin taking things out. Take out billions of things. Keep removing until you’re left with a woman standing under a streetlight at night. She’s smoking a cigarette. Her arms are folded just under her chest. Behind her is a 24 hour Laundromat. That’s a how a photography works, edit out everything except your subject. Outside of the view finder the rest of the world might exist but outside the photograph there’s nothing. Elliot Erwitt said “photography is simply about seeing.” See something interesting and press the shutter release button. Poetry works the same way. Imagine each and every word in the dictionary forming the uncountable amount of images and thoughts that make up the world** . Now start to remove things, remove words, and then remove more words. What you don’t say in poem is as vital as what you do, well, almost.

I find it comforting to discuss a poem as if I were discussing a photograph and vice versa.

*Today I again think of myself as a real photographer, shoot with a Canon 5D and print with an Epson 2880.
**Sections of the poem have been published in the Southern Review, Washington Square, Main Street Rag, Lake Effect and Agni (online).
*** The world available to poetry is much larger than that available to photography in that poets can write about the past in a way that photographers cannot photograph it.

Sunday, May 10, 2009


While the sun makes no sound, at night I hear the moon scrape against my window. There was a time, long before we were here, that Moon was much closer to earth. Everything was better because of that. Since then, Moon has moved to a position some 250,000 miles away. Though don’t underestimate its importance. We need each other, Moon and earth; Moon and I. Anything written in Moonlight is off to a richer start than what might be written under other circumstances. It is a ridiculous oversight on behalf of Whoever that the sun is vital to life on earth in a way that the Moon never was. Strangely, as I wrote that line I was overwhelmed with an uncomfortable sensation. I am a poet of Moon10 and feel that I have just betrayed a lover.

Let me start over.

Man has been attracted to Moon in a way we never have to the sun. Yes, the sun is farther but that’s not the only reason there is little discussion about visiting. The sun possesses little poetry. Moon is rich, its topography a poetic table of contents. Earth has the Pacific Ocean, Moon has the Ocean of Storms11. Earth has the South China Sea. Moon has the Sea That Has Become Known. What I might write on a bamboo raft adrift in the Sea of Crisis! The Sea of the Edge is a place no man has returned from! Though men have returned from the Sea of Tranquility. Sea of Clouds. The Foaming Sea. Federico Garcia Lorca was a poet of the Moon*. The night he was murdered I’m convinced he fell into a puddle of Moonlight. I’ll probably never wade though the Marsh of Epidemics but I will write as if I have. Make Moon a planet, that’s what I say! One night in North Carolina I threw a rock at Moon. I apologize. I was drunk. And I was young. I’ve seen Moon in a bright morning sky. You’ve never seen the sun in a dark night sky. Ian Randall Wilson** has complained about my use of Moon. In fairness to his concerns Moon as metaphor, simile, pawn of figuration or whatnot does border on sentimentality. This is a border I have hopefully not crossed.

* The Moon of the Difficult Work

The moon like a puddle of milk.
If you toss a cup of moon into the air
what will it come down as?
The moon like a pale breast.
The moon like a hole in the black sky.
The moon like paper discarded by a hole punch.
Like the back of my eye, the moon, held between dark fingers.
The moon like a stranger.
The moon like a friend.
The moon like something forgotten.
The moon, a welt in the sky.
The moon is swollen.
The moon sinks
The moon sings.
The moon is the sky’s graveyard.
If there were no moon, would the sky need a new name?
Would that name be moon?
The moon of seven days ago.
The moon in another man’s poem.
The moon where I hang my hat.
The moon, what I reach for after I spit
in my hands and begin the difficult work.

** Ocean of Storms

A shark’s tooth in a previous life,
I shivered in the mouth’s broad horizon.
Felt electric fear as I sliced flesh.
Warmth blossomed.
I could taste the depths.
If I could I’d dig a hole
in the water for a dry grave.

In the next life I want to be
a tooth in a shark’s mouth
hunting an ocean on the moon.
Wreckage like praise.
Sublime fable.
The difference between
immortality and grief is delicate.

Friday, May 8, 2009


We parked on the side of Mulholland Drive, above the San Fernando Valley. Two in the morning. Only a couple of minutes into our commotion, the point you’re committed to the conclusion but clothes remain wrapped around legs and arms, not yet completely shed; a tapping on the window, a California Highway Patrolman and a flashlight. This is not about lust. Cars are the topic. So far, I’ve owned nine in my life. At one time or another, slept in three of them; also had sex in three. To me, a car is utilitarian, never saw them as status symbols. Most other people do. Currently, I drive a hybrid, my commute is fifty miles each day.

I’ve never written a poem about a car, though in one poem* a car co-stars. My favorite line that I’ve written that involves a car, “The bank robber fell asleep at the wheel of his getaway car.” The rest of the poem** has nothing to do with cars.

The first car was invented in Germany, 1886, by Karl Friedrich Benz. A four cycle internal combustion gasoline-powered engine drove a small chassis with three wheels. Top speed, 8 miles per hour. It’s much more difficult to establish the first car poem. And the first poem?

Was it Harold or Patrick who told me that a car is a monastery? Was it the front or rear tire that I urinated on in reply? Context is everything. There is a misunderstanding. Poetry in motion has nothing to do with poetry; nothing to do with cars, either. Many of the world’s most accomplished car designers are trained at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, by coincidence, the college I graduated. Large, glass-walled rooms, boys in wrinkled shirts sculpting quarter-scale cars from damp clay. Isn’t everything made this way, sculpted? Yes. If a car begins as damp clay, how does a poem begin?

Driving to work just as the sun was making its way over the Santa Monica Mountains, two lanes over, a silver Jaguar was sliding down the freeway just a tad faster than I was. Relative speed made it seem like it was doing ten miles per hour. A swatch of reflected sunlight licked the Jaguar from the front of the hood to the top of the windshield. The windows were tinted, the silhouette of a man with sunglasses was the only the thing visible inside. The dark brown hill lining the freeway was a blur. I’ve never seen a more beautiful car.

A car is not a poem, but a poem could be a car. I’ve driven poems, perhaps more accurate to say, poems have driven me. I’ve tried to write in a car but it never works for me. As soon as I start to scribble poetry in a car a tiredness overwhelms me. My eyelids seem to grow thicker. The other day I arrived to a meeting early, decided to kill twenty minutes sitting in my car. Happened to False Prophets by Stan Rice with me, read two poems, began to write. Within minutes I was asleep.

According to a 2006 story in the Cleveland Plain Dealer, a man was found dead sitting behind the wheel of a 1994 Honda Civic on Laurel Drive in Rocky River, Ohio. There was an open notebook in his lap. The police officer on the scene told a reporter it appeared that “the guy was writing a poem, imagine that, dropping dead in a car on a snowy Monday night.” I could imagine that.

* The Invious

An automobile washed up on shore.
Was found laying on the passenger side,
could only imagine the side mirror was crushed;
could only imagine the difficulty
someone would have had climbing out,
if they hadn’t exited prior to the moment
the surf tumbled it into position.
It was found at low tide.
Drying salt water
gave the blue sheet metal
a patchy white sheen.
Seaweed clung to the bumpers
and was caught
under a windshield wiper blade.
The headlights, and this is the strange part,
though faded, still glowed.
A gift from Neptune
or the result of an accident
-- we’ll never know.
There were no witnesses when it arrived.

We tried to imagine
what else might have washed up
but returned to the ocean before dawn.
This was the same beach
where last month a woman walked
out of the water after being missing for seven years.
Her torn white dress clung to her thighs.
She carried her blouse and two broken shoes
that she put on at the road just beyond the sand.
She waved off the two men who rushed to her.
There’s so much we don’t know about the ocean.

** The Short Season of Sleep

A zookeeper carried a bucket of raw meat
into the lion’s cage, then yawned, sat down
and began to doze. The lion was snoring,
its tail sweeping the ground in a dream.

The bank robber fell asleep at the wheel of his getaway car.
The money in the paper bag next to him closed its eyes.
Not even the dentist could resist, eventually resting
his head against the face of a slumbering patient, the small
drill left to twist harmlessly in the cavern of the mouth.

The sleepiness was contagious, drifting from one heavy eyelid to another.
The last thing anyone remembered were the voices of people
singing lullabies as they strolled arm-in-arm through the town.
Not wanting to wake his passengers, the deaf bus driver waved
and didn’t sound his horn as he drove past the choristers.

No one knows what music the bats made that night
as they rose from their cave into the quiet sky
and chased a somnambulist walking along the river.

This was how the short season of sleep came and we discovered
the only difference between sleep and death was the waking up.
The next day this was discussed by everyone except the schoolteacher,
who remained at the desk in front of the classroom, her head tucked
into the fold of an arm, her blond hair moving with the breeze.