What a poet wants

Now that’s a question worth answering. That’s a question that keeps many a poetry fanatic up all night. I don’t mean to exaggerate, but nevertheless, a poet’s internal conflict gives birth to such pristine work that it’s well worth a trip down to a poet’s thought lane to figure that out.

Well, one poet made it so much easier by writing it down. I came across a poem titled Ars Poetica by Dorothea Lasky. When I saw the title, I rolled my eyes, skeptical. Great, another poet who uses fancy foreign language to convey her meaning. Although I appreciate quirkiness in poetry, I only do so for as long as I understand it. This one, I didn’t. When I searched online, however, I realised that the phrase refers to an ancient treatise on poetry written by Horace. The phrase itself means “The art of poetry” or “On the art of poetry”. That was more than enough to intrigue me. And so I set out to read the poem,

It bagan so,

“I wanted to tell the veterinary assistant about the cat video Jason sent me”

Ok, my mind paused, frowning. For a poem following the old tradition of using Latin terms, that was an unconventional opening line. But it is also an interesting line, because it introduces so many people in so few words. My mind landed on the veterinary assistant who seemed out of place in the world of the poet, Jason, and the cat video. A therapist would’ve been more appropriate, I observed lingering on that first line.

I read further.

“But I resisted for fear she’d think it strange”

Yeah! I raised my eyebrows in agreement.

“I am very lonely”

Oh. I saw now. That made sense to an extent. The cat, the vet, the fear of being ridiculed—they were all justified now.

The poem doesn’t end there, as Lasky goes on to explain more about her life. But those three lines had told me so much more than I had hoped to learn in the first few lines of a poem that stretched for 30 lines.

In the next few lines, the poet describes a telephone call she received from her boyfriend. Yet another character.

And told me that I was no good
Well maybe he didn’t mean that
But that is what I heard
When he told me my life was not worthwhile
And my life’s work the work of the elite.

Ouch. We’ve all been there. While we’re already basking in self-doubt and discomfort of ourselves, someone plucks up the courage to tell it to our face. I could now relate to this poet whose topic of conversation I still wasn’t sure about. But I read on, because from what I’ve read so far, she sounds a lot like me, and I wanted to know how she’d reply to her boyfriend and carry the poem to its conclusion.

Then she talks about what matters the most to her. She accepts to herself what she is, and what she wants from her life.

I say I want to save the world but really
I want to write poems all day

Aha, I thought smiling in victory. So, this is nothing but a poet who wants to write poetry for the rest of her life. Now that’s not much to ask.

Or so I miscalculated.

It’s a simple desire. It’s the basic right of any individual to spend their life doing what they yearn for. Regardless, it’s also the most unattainable thing in life: Doing what you love, and doing it long enough without hating yourself or dying of starvation.

This poem is a bundle of mixed emotions and harsh realities. For me, it portrayed the life of every artist who pines to create art. It reflects undeniable truth that makes you smile in sadness as you finish reading the poem.

Here it is in its entirety, if you’re interested:

Ars Poetica — by Dorothea Lasky

I wanted to tell the veterinary assistant about the cat video Jason sent me
But I resisted for fear she’d think it strange
I am very lonely
Yesterday my boyfriend called me, drunk again
And interspersed between ringing tears and clinginess
He screamed at me with a kind of bitterness
No other human had before to my ears
And told me that I was no good
Well maybe he didn’t mean that
But that is what I heard
When he told me my life was not worthwhile
And my life’s work the work of the elite.
I say I want to save the world but really
I want to write poems all day
I want to rise, write poems, go to sleep,
Write poems in my sleep
Make my dreams poems
Make my body a poem with beautiful clothes
I want my face to be a poem
I have just learned how to apply
Eyeliner to the corners of my eyes to make them appear wide
There is a romantic abandon in me always
I want to feel the dread for others
I can feel it through song
Only through song am I able to sum up so many words into a few
Like when he said I am no good
I am no good
Goodness is not the point anymore
Holding on to things
Now that’s the point

Advertisements

An extreme society, narrated

It’s not the first time that I’ve felt this way. It’s not the first time that a book has taken over my entire soul, twisted it, wrung it, and then left me on the counter struggling to unravel myself. But The Handmaid’s Tale did that a lot harder than the other books I’ve read so far.

The Handmaid's Tale

A few days ago, I wrote about a book that confused me, that left me with so many unidentifiable feelings. I was referring to this one. And now that I’ve finished reading it, I can assert that I’m still lost in an ocean of emotion.

A colleague asked me what this book was about, and it took me more than a few moments of staring behind his ears and then some more into his expecting eyes to reply I didn’t know how to explain it. I don’t.

But what I do know is what I felt reading The Handmaid’s Tale. A close friend recommended the book and I obliged. So even as I flipped the cover I knew I’d like the book. I read through the first few pages, and grew confused with every paragraph I read. Who’s this woman, trapped against her will? And why has she accepted her fate without rebellion? Those were the two questions that popped into my head right at the onset. And they remained unanswered throughout the forty-six chapters of the book.

The story is set in a time and place that I didn’t recognize. It wasn’t historic and most characters seemed aware of modern social niceties. Which was good, except for the fact that there was this woman—the protagonist, the narrator—who lived in a closed room much like a prison cell. She had a red uniform and a constant veil over her eyes and head preventing her from looking at others or others from looking at her. She didn’t choose this life, but she didn’t protest against it either. It was her home, and she was a handmaid to a Commander. Her sole duty was to bear children for the Commander, and she had three years to do it. If she failed, she’d be cast aside to a worse fate. A mistress, she says she would’ve been in olden times.

She went to a school where she had to learn to live as a handmaid. She had classmates — other handmaids in training — and yet none of them were young women. They were all middle aged-women, I later learnt, who had led different lives before.

Every page I turned told me something new about this unfamilar world I was venturing into. And the confusion kept me going until all the pieces of the puzzle unravelled before my eyes, leading me to the final few pages — historical notes.

Part of it reminded me of Inception, the movie. A reality and a woman pining for the past. Her past, her life and society of the past is now the reality for me the reader. And so, it felt as if I was reading the life of a woman in the future. But it wasn’t too far into the future because they still had normal television sets and simple cars. It seemed so much to me like the present. Although it was also an alternate reality—no one in their right mind would stifle a woman as a mere container to bear children, at least not in this century.

The further I read, the more I understood what had happened. And that terrified me to the bone. An ordinary woman snatched away from her husband and child, stripped from her ability to live as an independent, and thrust into becoming a utility. And the reasoning: men and women were too busy with their own lives that they didn’t want children anymore. Ha, I mused before my recognition gave way to more terror. That’s what’s happening in our world right now. In the story, birth rates plummeted. In our world, it soon might. In the story, their solution is to force women to give birth. In our world—?

At that moment, I realised that The Handmaid’s Tale could one day become my own. We could walk into a future like that. After all, it’s not unheard of—we’ve seen polygamy in history, maybe that’s the future as well. Maybe, like in the story, we’ll have a bunch of gun-held ruffians walking into a workplace threatening to shoot down the manager unless he dismisses all his women staff. Maybe one day these ruffians would incorporate new laws and bring The Republic of Gilead into existence.

It does seem far-fetched, and even neurotic to an extent, but then again, so’s everything in the news every day.

“Superlative exercise in science,”

Angela Carter calls this book.

It is. In every sense. But it’s also an enjoyable read. I don’t believe that Gilead would one day become a reality, but I do believe that Ms. Atwood has covered the essential mentality of our flippant society. This book will make every woman’s eyes roll in wonder, it’ll inflame her ego and dignity. But it’ll also leave every reader a little scared. It’ll haunt me for the rest of my life, but it’s also one of the best books I’ve read. No regrets.

Nicely saying

Nicely Said

When you’re a copywriter at a corporate, some things you pick up overtime. But even after being on the job for four years, there are still some things that you’d pick up only from far more experienced teachers. This I realised halfway through reading Nicely Said: Writing for the Web with Style and Purpose by Nicole Fenton and Kate Kiefer Lee.

It’s unlike me to read a book titled as such, because I’ve always nurtured a distrust in “how-to” books. This one, however, was a present. It was a present from a few writer friends I hold in high regard. So I decided to keep my mind open and delve into what Nicole and Kate have to say.

“Whether you’re new to web writing or you’re a professional writer looking to deepen your skills, this book is for you.”

That was the blurb of the book, a simple, typical one-line description for so many guide books that often fall short of their expectations. It seemed far-fetched, as if anyone could tell anyone else how best to write copy for the web when no one—including the web readers—knows what works and what doesn’t.

There’s no one way to write. There’s no right way, perfect way, or a way that makes the most impact. Writing is a variable in every sense. The audience varies, the style does, and so does the purpose. How then, could anyone pinpoint one perfect method?

Many books assert that they’ve figured out the one greatest way of writing. This book doesn’t.

The book doesn’t say what to write, but it says how to go abut thinking about what to write. And that’s where this book stands apart from the rest of the sheep. The authors illustrate the process of writing for the web, using an example throughout the book so that’s easier to follow.

They ask some important questions. Who would write for the web? Possible answers include, bloggers trying to hone their writing, freelancers selling their services, and copywriters employed in business. Though they all have different targets of varying complexity, all categories have one thing in common: the medium they choose to write in. When writing for the web, clarity matters, because no matter who the audience is, they’re always on the verge of closing a tab, impatient to move on to the next tab.
In such a situation, Nicole and Kate say how a writer should focus on delivering their message.

As a copywriter in business, I’ve always followed a similar principle: tell readers who we are, what we do, and how we could help them. Then add a section explaining why they (as buyers) should choose us over our competition. That’s the template—a fool-proof guide to writing About pages and sometimes even landing pages.

But this book made me think further: we tell readers who we are, but we also need to tell them who we are not. That doesn’t come from words, but from tone. For example, we’re professional, but we’re not against good puns. We are consistent, but we don’t spam your inbox with ten emails a day. We’re serious, but we don’t hate contractions. All these come from the way we write our copy, not from what we write in our copy.

Those are the kind of lessons that Nicely Said outlines. The book doesn’t come right out of the dark to illuminate magical truths and best practices, but it narrates the minute things that we often miss when writing for the web. The little things that matter, the finer aspects of helping the reader understand our message a couple of seconds faster, of respecting the reader’s time, of being a good host to website visitors—these are a few of the things that make a good copywriter. And the advice this book contains suits anyone, even those who only write Facebook statuses.

Give this book a shot. Chances are, you’ll cherish it as much as you’d a dictionary. I do.

When arts and science collide

As an arts student in school, I had a hard time mingling with the science kids. For them, I was the one who read literature, making fiction the reality of my life. Whereas they micro-examined every organism, demystifying the nature of life. For them, I was nothing but a flimsy girl who walked around with her head in the clouds. My, they were so arrogant at times.

Most science students had the same egotistic attitude, and I so I began hating the elite that was science. Pity, since I enjoyed drawing sketching the heart, naming its parts, and narrating the story of how during inhalation, oxygenated blood runs through the veins, reaching every organ while deoxygenated blood travels through in the opposite direction. It was fun to create poetry about the body—for which I had to know about both. It wasn’t meant to be, though, because I didn’t want to become a bully as they.

I held on to literature, letting science off.

When Breath Becoms Air

And so when a friend recommended a book written by a doctor battling lung cancer, I hesitated. Did I want to read a fantastic, ego-filled book about how medical practice taught this doctor the fleeting nature of life?

My friend insisted, and I decided to give Paul Kalanithi’s When Breath Becomes Air, a try.

Just a few pages into the book, I realised I had been wrong about the author. He wasn’t just a doctor, but a literature major before he ventured into medicine. It was the first time I had heard of a doctor being sympathetic to those dabbling in the fictitious world of literature trying to reveal to the rest of the world that books speak reality, even though they guise as fiction. Paul not only studied literature, but used it as a coping mecanism during his treatment. He was a man of science and facts, but even he needed poetry and prose to survive.

According to the book, Paul loved writing, and reading the book, it’s evident that he did. I breezed through the book taking in all the emotions of a dying man speaking about death and disparity with indifference. In the first half of the book, Kalanithi talks about his journey from a literature student to a medical resident. He narrates his days and nights at the hospital tending to sick, even delusional patients. He writes about his fascination, how he approached anatomy classes, how the blade sliced through the belly of a pregnant woman as his attending doctor performed a C-section, he describes the pounding of a patient’s heart when they had cut through him to operate on the lung, he reminisces an incident when an annoying patient—who had to be conscious while Paul removed a tumor from his brain—swore at the doctors throughout the process urging them to get the stupid thing out of his head. As a reader, I felt myself crooning for most of Paul’s patients, and wishing that last one had died. Paul narrates such powerful stories, that you can’t help but emote along with him.

As a neurosurgeon, Paul speaks of the subtleties of the brain and the care that goes into each surgery. He speaks of the process in such a delicate manner that you, as a reader, can feel the sensitivities involved. As a writer, Paul employs the simplest of language, basic sentence structures, easy vocabulary—all of which makes for a needle sharp impact. The writing is straightforward and factual, the matter he writes about is moving and stiking. As a combination, the book is a joy to the beholder.

The second half of the book is more about Paul himself, about how his life, as a surgeon and as a husband, changed after his diagnosis. He speaks of his waking days and wakeful nights. He speaks of chemo and the pain that pricks at his spine, he speaks of discussing symptoms with fellow doctors, he speaks of his tears, of his fears, of his marriage, and the birth of his daughter.

I’m glad I read this book. It wasn’t life changing, it wasn’t a pool of advice, it wasn’t dramatic, mystic, or any of those things. Instead, it was simple, it was honest, and most of all, humble. And that makes When Breath Becomes Air a worthy read.

An uncanny realisation

an uncanny realisation

A few weeks ago I met with an old school friend. We had a lot to discuss about the last six years that had elapsed since we last saw each other. But of all things we spoke of, one stood out to me, nagging me from within.

She mentioned our school principal, Mrs. D. She also taught English Literature for senior classes during our time, and I had the opportunity to sit through her classes for a short 2 months before changing schools. The last thing I had heard of Mrs. D was that she had retired. I had no idea of her current whereabouts until my friend revealed it to me.

Mrs. D now taught English for adults from the comfort of her home. “Oh, nice!” I exclaimed when I heard that. I knew my teacher could never stop teaching, but I hadn’t thought of her moving on from enlightening school students to adults. Nevertheless, I was happy to hear that she had moved on and enjoyed retirement.

My friend continued her story. Everyone in school knew how much Mrs. D appreciated good music. She’d nod her head, smiling, whenever a student played the grand piano in the auditorium. And then she’d voice her admiration to the entire school during assembly. She was also a great pianist herself.

And so when my friend told me that Mrs. D still played the piano whenever she had time, I took a hike down my mind to those days when we’d file into the auditorium every morning, beating our feet to crescendos and staccatos. But the fleeting image burst like a gum bubble when I heard Mrs. D couldn’t play as often as she’d liked to because she had wrist pains and nerve issues. “Old age, you know.” My friend commented, offhand. It was just a matter of fact. At that moment, my reality stood still.

I hadn’t thought of my teachers getting old. I had been so busy focussing on my life and the changes I underwent that I didn’t even pause to think that my teacher had a life of her own—a life that went by just as mine did. My memory of Mrs. D was frozen in the classroom, and that I could walk into class tomorrow, flip the page of my text-book, and continue reading between the lines of Iago’s speech.

I hadn’t, even for a moment, considered that my teacher’s life no longer involved striding into class in a smart sari and not-so-heeled shoes. I hadn’t thought of her slumping on the couch in a sweatshirt, or watching television after 10 pm. Somehow, it never struck me that teachers are normal people, too, and that as they grew older, they’d also grow weak in the knees, stutter in their speech, and caress wrinkled skins.

It made me feel old to hear the reality of my teacher. She wasn’t as old as dying a natural death, but she was older than my image of her, and for a while, I couldn’t accept that. Here we were, standing at the airport, chatting away like a couple of adults discussing serious economic issues, when in truth neither of us felt adult-like at all. We had, of course, walked out formal education and into employment, but our memories still lived in the same school uniforms that we clad six years ago.

Oh, how much we hated Mrs. D’s rules. She made us all wear ribbons on our hair and would ensure our skirts reached well below our knees—the punishment for improper length being teachers undoing the hemming our skirts to make them longer.

Yet now, life had turned the tables on us and we just stared in longing into the mirror of our memories, that shadowed fondest part of our lives.