Loyal readers (if indeed I do actually have any) may recall me mentioning in a previous post back in May a couple of good friends of mine, the very talented poet Curt Curtin and his wife Dee O’ Connor. In the last few months, they generously helped me put together my first real book of poetry, a still yet unpublished chapbook entitled The Farmer’s Son (I have been writing poetry for over fifty years, and believe it or not, this is my first attempt to gather together a volume of my poems for actual publication). Today I would like to share with you the title poem of this collection.
I am not sure if I can claim this poem written about my father Winslow Szlosek, who passed away 26 years ago last month, is the best one I ever written, but definitely my most award-winning and most published as well as a personal favorite, It won first place in The Landmark’s annual poetry contest in 1998, and as I understand one of the reasons why I was awarded the Jacob Knight Poetry Prize in 2001. The poem was subsequently published in Sahara (2001), The Randolph Herald (2018) and numerous times online. Here it is:
The Farmer’s Son
On a certain June evening,
unable to descend
into the shadowy depths of sleep,
I find myself back
in the back of a pickup truck,
seven years old and pining away
for the Saturday morning cartoons
I’ll be missing.
My mom’s at the wheel,
steering the old Ford
down the rock infested path
to the potato field.
My two sisters are already there,
so eager to begin, they are digging
with their bare hands, the soil accumulating
in back quarter moons at the tips of their nails.
And my dad, he’s perched high in the seat of the John Deere
staring straight ahead, as steel fingers
rake the earth behind him.
It’s our job to walk these trenches,
trying to tell the dirt-encrusted spuds from stones,
dropping our bounty in to burlap feed bags
slung over our shoulders.
I do not care to be here,
laboring under the morning sun.
I do not care for potatoes
except for their names:
Kennebec, Catawba, Green Mountain,
names too exotic, too divine
for such bland-tasting fleshy tubers.
I believe they are really the names
of foreign kingdoms,
lands of of untold wonders.
I am the farmer’s son,
but not a good one.
I am, by nature, an indoor child
grown pasty by the blue light
of the television screen,
a pale boy who prefers
school work to farm work,
who withers and faints
while picking string beans
in the summer heat.
My dad conceals his disappointment
in a son who does not share
his love for the land
he has toiled for his entire life.
Yet somehow he understands
and tries not to push me so hard.
Perhaps he recognizes
I am not a crop to be cultivated,
but more like a weed
which must spread its roots
wherever it pleases to survive.
And now once again,
it’s thirty years in the future,
the path I chose, led
not to the potato field,
but this cramped city apartment
where I lie in an unmade bed,
trying to come to grips
with the passing of my father,
harvesting longings and regrets.
It is soul, not soil
I dig through now
and what I uncover may not be
as comforting as potatoes.
—Paul Szlosek (originally published in The Landmark)
Thank you so much for reading, I hope you enjoyed my poem “The Farmer’s Son”. As a bonus (or perhaps a punishment?) for those readers who may be curious what I look and sound like now, please click here for a video of me reading it out loud.
“Everything in [my] poems is true … you should take them at face value.”
“In the writing of a poem… at a certain moment it has its separate being from you to which you have your obligations. You’re you; it’s it; and eventually, it really will separate from you and be absolutely not yours anymore — even if you made it. It is, of course. But it isn’t. It’s a thing out there.”
“Looking at [my] poems is sometimes an extremely strange experience, as if . . . who the hell wrote this? What’s odd is that, at the same time, I also remember alternative possibilities and associations at the time of the writing of the things. So it’s interesting, that one should have that going on as well. It’s rather a surprise, almost as if it were a surprise that they managed to get done at all.”
“Write beautifully what people don’t want to hear.”
“The expression of aspects of the self that you understand or, rather, that you fancy may not be attractively expressed or attractive once expressed. Another way of talking about this is to talk about your becoming yourself: your finding who you are as a poet, finding what you sound like, finding your subjects that bring you out of you that are your subjects. It’s almost as if there’s a moment when you decide, Well, whatever the problem of writing this way, of writing these things, whatever the difficulty with presenting yourself this way . . . well, that’s it.”
“I like to hear the sound of form, and I like to hear the sound of it breaking.”
“I got back a letter from [an] editor saying that [my] poem was brilliant . . . but wouldn’t I consider a number of changes they wanted to propose to the poem’s advantage? So I took a look at their suggestions, hung onto the poem and three months later sent it back to them — no changes whatsoever. Back came a note saying: ‘Wonderful! That does it! It’s just superb.’ ”
“I was left with myself and had to do the one thing I could to survive. I knew it would be difficult to write, very difficult, but I set about doing it.”
“I like poems that are daggers that sing. I like poems that for all the power of the sentiments expressed, and all the power to upset and offend, are so well made that they’re achieved things. However much they upset you, they also affect you.”
“Sometimes you finish the poem, and that last piece clicks in place. Sometimes the poem is finished with you.”
A little more than a year ago, I published a post on the Streetbeatina, a poetry form I originally created to celebrate the fifth anniversary of the Street Beat, an amazing open poetry reading series that was ran and hosted by Anne Marie Lucci, a talented local poet, in my hometown of Worcester, Massachusetts for many years. At the time, since three of my streetbeatinas, along with a short history and explanation of the form, was just published in a prestigious online literary journal called Radius: Poetry From the Center to the Edge, I decided it probably wasn’t proper etiquette to republish those 3 poems or go into much details on how to write the form on this blog and instead just posted a link to the original publication on radiuslit.org. However I feel enough time has now passed to revisit the Streetbeatina and give instructions on how to write one using those 3 original poems as examples:
The streetbeatina is an eight line poem with each line consisting of eight syllables. What makes this form both a challenge to write and uniquely different from other forms is that the first syllable of the first line is repeated as the second syllable in the second line, the third syllable of the third line and so on, the repetition of the sound of the syllable at precise intervals providing the poem with a natural beat and musicality. Although it is completely optional, the poet can emphasize the repeated syllable by either printing it in italics, bold, or a different color.
Three Streetbeatinas by Paul Szlosek *
Go unprepared into the world.
Forgo certainty. Pretend to
be cargo bound for distant ports
(perhaps the Gobi Desert? Mars?)
Travel by pogo stick or dreams,
a blank map: your logo. Treat the
unknown as your amigo. Or
ignore this advice, but go. Go!
A Message to a Married Middle-Aged Man
in Middle-Management in Mid-Life Crisis With Artistic Ambitions
So few chances to start over,
go solo, cover past mistakes
with gesso, paint a new version
of your life (sophisticated,
worldly, yet also real) like a
truly virtuoso artist
living in a loft in Soho.
to replace one that’s just so-so.
Local legends say if you go
solo into the deep dark woods
when the lotus blossom first blooms,
and the moon’s low in the night sky,
the girl in yellow will appear,
her lips mouthing “Hello, my love”
while lunar light spills like lotion
on skin translucent as jello.
*(Originally published by Radius: Poetry From the Center to the Edge )
“In almost every book I’ve written, there is a reference to a movie – legendary films, actors and actresses, and forgotten made-for-TV movies. The leaps poems make are not unlike the cuts in a film. The miniature and avant-garde prose poets have perhaps the most obvious ties to film, as a prose poem in its shape is not unlike a movie screen.”
“I believe it’s impossible to write good poetry without reading. Reading poetry goes straight to my psyche and makes me want to write. I meet the muse in the poems of others and invite her to my poems. I see over and over again, in different ways, what is possible, how the perimeters of poetry are expanding and making way for new forms.”
“What has stayed true in my life as a writer is my dedication to writing – I try to write every day, no matter what – and the joy that writing has given me.”
“The “biggest” poems I ever made are based on the psychological principal of the “Johari Window:” what the self freely shares with others; what the self hides from others; what others hide from the self; and what is unknown to the self and others.
“Writing is performative – and while, yes, the words in essence will be there “forever,” poems are often about ecstatic moments rather than trying to pin down a particular truth of an event.”
“The “truth” is the poem itself. Just because someone writes a poem about a feeling she has does not mean that the feeling will stay forever. The truth of the emotion of the poem remains, even if the particular truth of the poet changes.”
“I don’t know if there are topics that I unconsciously avoid, but as soon as they pop up in my writing, I try to take on those topics, whether or not I publish the poems.”
“Over the years, I became more and more interested in the forms and techniques in which things could be said.”
“My advice to my younger self would have been, ‘Chill. Concentrate on the poems. Everything else will work itself out.’ “
“I know writers for whom the act of writing is a necessary chore. They suffer to write great work. I am very lucky that for me writing is a delight.”
“All good poems are victories over something.”
“Poetry does so many different things, it’s difficult to say anything definitive about its role, which of course varies from culture to culture. It can range from being stories of the tribe to the private lyric, to being as W.H. Auden said “the clear expression of mixed feelings” to nonsense verse. “
“I don’t let a poem go into the world unless I feel that I’ve transformed the experience in some way. Even poems I’ve written in the past that appear very personal often are fictions of the personal, which nevertheless reveal concerns of mine. I’ve always thought of my first-person speaker as an amalgam of selves, maybe of other people’s experiences as well.”
“And the words we find are always insufficient, like love, though they are often lovely and all we have.”
“If the motive of writing is for some people a kind of exercise in dirty laundry, that’s one thing. I’ve always thought of my poems as meant to be overheard, as I think all of these poems are. It seems to me if you get experience right, even your most painful or humiliating experiences – if you get those experiences right for yourself and make discoveries as you go along and find for them some formal glue – they will be poems for others.”
“A good many of my poems over the years have alluded to or taken on the political. Stevens has a line in one of his essays: “Reality exerts pressure on the imagination.” Inevitably what is omnipresent in the culture exerts its pressure on our imaginations to respond to it, even if indirectly. But in this case the backdrop of 9/11, coincident with the breakup of a marriage, the finding of new love, some kind of personal cataclysm… all of those were forces informing the poems in some way. “
“I wrote poetry for seven or eight years, maybe longer, before I could say I was a poet. If people asked, I’d say I wrote poetry; I wouldn’t go further. I was in my mid- to late-thirties before I felt that I was a poet, which I think meant that I had begun to embody my poems in some way. I wasn’t just a writer of them. Hard to say what, as a poet, my place in the world is. Some place probably between recognition and neglect.”
“Perhaps basketball and poetry have just a few things in common, but the most important is the possibility of transcendence. The opposite is labor. In writing, every writer knows when he or she is laboring to achieve an effect. You want to get from here to there, but find yourself willing it, forcing it. The equivalent in basketball is aiming your shot, a kind of strained and usually ineffective purposefulness. What you want is to be in some kind of flow, each next moment a discovery.”
“There’s a certain pleasure in violating the strictures of your education. The trick is, if you’re going to explore ideas in a poem, to be suspicious of ideas and suspicious of your own mind at the same time. It’s often a matter of orchestration and pacing. Of shaping some kind of dialectic flow.”
“The world is always somewhat vicious. I take that as a given, but at various times in various circumstances that fact will be no more than a shadow or an echo behind some poem. Other times it will be more manifest. I try to write myself into articulations of half-felt, half-known feelings, without program. I’m always working toward getting my world and, hopefully, the world outside of me into a version that makes sense of it. Viciousness requires the same precision as love does.”
Recently, a couple of good friends of mine, the very talented poet Curt Curtin and his wife Dee O’ Connor were perusing through Curt’s sizable collection of local poetry publications, when they came across an interesting literary oddity. In a wonderfully generous gesture, they graciously made scans of the pages of it, a literally forgotten chapbook of mine from 25 years ago (at least I forgot about it) and emailed them to me. Actually I did have a vague memory of it, but had no idea that any copies still existed. I do recall it was a handcrafted miniature chapbook (consisting of just 5 poems) created from a single sheet of folded paper and entitled Four Prayers and a Curse. As I read these scans , I immediately recognized three of the poems, including one that is still in my open mic reading repetoire, but the other two has apparently been completely obliterated from my memory. Although a bit embarrassed, I do truly find these poems somewhat amusing in a crude sort of way and feel maybe the readers of this blog might too. So I am sharing them with you today (omitting possibly the best one “An October Benediction for Baseball Fans” to post at a more appropriate time in the Fall). Hope you enjoy them!
Three Prayers & a Curse:
The Wall Street Prayer
Oh, Almighty Dollar,
The Lord of Loot,
Shallow be thy name.
Dow in Heaven,
Forgive us our Debts,
But put the squeeze on our Debtors.
Spare us Bears
But spur on the Bulls
For Greed is Good,
Greed is Great.
For all our earthly sins
May monetary gains compensate.
Lord, let my faith be as steadfast
as the atheist of unshakeable will,
who wagers all against the House
that there is no House
to win a jackpot
of nothing –
The Critic’s Prayer
Oh God, give me a critical ear
So anything that it might hear
Which I do not understand,
I’ll dismiss with a sneer,
Make sure it gets panned.
Oh God, give me a critical ear.
Oh God, give me a critical eye,
So anything that it might spy
Which I don’t particularly like,
I’ll vilify & crucify
With a verbal spike.
Oh God, give me a critical eye.
Oh God, give me a critical disease,
So anyone who won’t do what I please
Or chooses to disagree,
I’ll infect with a sneeze.
Then they’ll think just like me.
Oh God, give me a critical disease.
A Curse for Poets and Writers
(Warning: To Be Used Only Against
Ones You Truly Can’t Stand)
May a plague of plagiarists
Descend upon your unpublished work
And feast upon your experience,
Consuming your images
Until all you have left
Is the dried-out husks of words.
“One writes not by will but by surrender.”
“In poetry you can express almost inexpressible feelings. You can express the pain of loss, you can express love. People always turn to poetry when someone they love dies, when they fall in love.”
“I am not quite sure how writing changes things, but I know that it does. It is indirect-like the trails of earthworms aerating the earth. It is not always deliberate-like the tails of glowing dust dragged by comets.”
“It is for this, partly, that I write. How can I know what I think unless I see what I write.”
“Poetry is the language we speak in the most terrifying or ecstatic passages of our lives. But the very word poetry scares people. They think of their grade school teachers reciting ‘Hiawatha’ and they groan.”
“When I’m sitting at the desk not being able to write line one, it’s silence and despair! It’s not so easy to put the pen to the legal pad or type the first sentence on the computer screen.”
“I guess the thing that I’m most proud of is that I kept on writing poetry. I understand that poetry is sort of the source of everything I do. It’s the source of my creativity.”
“Often I find that poems predict what I’m going to do later in my own writing, and often I find that poems predict my life. So I think poetry is the most intense expression of feeling that we have.”
“I went for years not finishing anything. Because, of course, when you finish something you can be judged…I had poems which were re-written so many times I suspect it was just a way of avoiding sending them out.”
“It’s easier to write about pain than about joy. Joy is wordless.”
“We write poems as leaves give oxygen – so we can breathe.”
“You are always naked when you start writing; you are always as if you had never written anything before; you are always a beginner. Shakespeare wrote without knowing he would become Shakespeare.”
“I never became a writer for the money. I am a poet first. Even getting published is a miracle for poets.”
“What are the sources of poetry? Love and death and the paradox of love and death. All poetry from the beginning is about Eros and Thanatos. Those are the only subjects. And how Eros and Thanatos interweave.”
“Critics write out of intellectual exercise, not poets. Poets write straight from the heart.”
“If you imagine the world listening, you’ll never write a line. That’s why privacy is so important. You should write first drafts as if they will never be shown to anyone.”
“Nothing you write is ever lost to you. At some other level your mind is working on it.”
“It takes a spasm of love to write a poem.”
“What makes you a poet is a gift for language, an ability to see into the heart of things, and an ability to deal with important unconscious material. When all these things come together, you’re a poet. But there isn’t one little gimmick that makes you a poet. There isn’t any formula for it.”
“Poetry . . . comes blood-warm straight out of the unconscious.”
You may be familiar with my series of beau présents recently written as tributes to my favorite poets that I have been posting on this blog lately. Well, the poem I am posting today is not part of that series; it is definitely not a beau présent, anf not actually in any specific poetry form per se (though it was certainly written in a style meant to emulate the poet I was attempting to honor: E. E. Cummings). The following poem was written over 20 years ago when Peter Mancevice, the publisher of a local poetry journal called Sahara, approached poets in the Worcester, MA area (including myself), asking them to write and submit poems about their favourite poets and the reasons why they liked them for a planned special issue. Apparently there wasn’t a sufficient amount of submissions, and this special edition of the journal never came to fruition. However, Peter did graciously end up publishing my response to his request in their Spring/Summer 2001 issue. I must note that my poem was first written with very unusual spacing and line breaks in an attempt to imitate Cummings, but unfortunately I found WordPress is unable to preserve the original typography, thus the version you will be reading here has more conventional spacing and lines. Also the first and last lines intentionally reference two of my favorite Cummings’ poems : i like my body when its with your body and somewhere i have never travelled, gladly beyond.
Here is my poem (I hope you will enjoy it):