The Storm Rolls In

I don’t like driving long distances.  It’s not the trip; I like being carried over that ground, watching the land pass by.  I don’t like being the one to drive it.  It’s because I’m pinned in place.  The terrible thing about driving those miles is that you can’t reach for your notebook when the storm hits. The ideas are enough like a storm, yes?  The okra open-mouthed, empty-handed, cupping the sky. I am like those squash vines. I am like those blackberry brambles. Thirsty, thirsty, but planted in ground so hard that I cannot drink the rain.

The seat does get hard after a while.  There is no support for the back.  I am an untrellised tomato, slumping in my bucket seat, my lower back screaming while my spouse creature reclines passenger side, all sleepy-eyed.  I had wanted to read.  I had wanted to scribble.  And then this storm rolls up, filled with ideas like lightning flashes, words like rain, like hail stones, and I can’t catch any of it, hands glued instead to the wheel.

I ask him to take dictation, but he smiles sleepy-eyed, “sure,” and rolls over.  I will never know what that poem was to be.  Rolled through me while I was helpless to catch it and keep it.  I will never get to taste its words.  It’s gone, the rain receding.

A Vagrant in the Temple

I entered the Temple of Sound through the Gate of Words, which is not so grand as the entrance the musicians use, but I am a poet and we are not very grand creatures. My gate is a tiny back-alley wrought iron affair with creaky hinges, and the password is “dactylic trimeter” but if you don’t know it, they’ll ask you what a spondee is, and if you don’t know that, there’s a place to hop the fence next to the rose trellis up against the south wall where it’s not too noticeable, and the gravel crunches nicely when you land on the other side.

Once in the hall, I drove the critics and scansioneers mad marking stresses in half notes and quarters, setting vowels on staves. There is more music in it than most poets would like, but let’s admit it: sound is important, and you just can’t mark a bare touch of emphasis with only an ictus and a breve. So I unlearned them.  Instead, I learned to mark time by syllable with the swish of my denim on the stone floor, my feet gone all trochaic; to bow assonance into vowels so long I could drape them from the towers; to play with staccato bursts of consonance like a curt volley of cannon fire. It was through words I learned to dance.

Me vs. the Page

I am the kind of person who doesn’t make a lot of excuses when it comes to writer’s block. I have the notion that it’s a largely invented condition, a state brought about by any one or more of the following: feelings of overwhelmedness, stubbornness in insisting one can only work on one writing project at a time, over-editing in the draft phase, or a lack of confidence in one’s words (which is the hardest of these to rebound from). 

Lately, or rather just for the past few days, my writing has suffered from none of these. It’s fallen victim to a case of bluh. While in bluh, it’s hard to do any of the following: do chores, read a book, play a video game, garden, get out of bed, or even eat. It is not a state I recommend highly. In my experience, bluh is the precursor to a depressive expanse lasting I don’t know how long. Yes, there are management tricks. Yes, they require effort to employ. The energy to employ them is in short supply.
So where does that leave my writing? Do I doggedly slog through? Not yesterday or the day before, I didn’t. Maybe today holds promise, right? More like: go see someone about this. It’s a pattern. I’ve lived with it for a while. Let the moving settle out, and ask for a bit of help. Maybe I’ll be surprised. 

World Building: Who Lives Here?

Whenever I get on the topic of world building, inevitably Tolkien comes up.  It makes sense.  Middle-earth is not our world (even if he meant it as a mythic precursor to our world); Tolkien wove it from the stuff of mythology and linguistics.  And usually, when I’m talking world building, I’m talking world building for a tabletop RPG.  Though roleplaying games come in all flavors these days, it used to come in just one: D&D.  And if anything ever nestled down against the breast of Tolkien’s material, laid down parasitic roots, and sucked it dry, it was D&D.

What I’m specifically referring to is the prevalence of the “standard fantasy races:” elves, dwarves, orcs, halflings.  You get the idea.  And you know them.  You know them inside and out.  Because Tolkien gave them their present form, and D&D beat the daylights out of their corpses.  Since then, every major fantasy… thing… has relied on them, from Terry Brooks’ Shannara books to World of Warcraft’s original lineup of playable races (with some additions such as the Tauren)—  they draw mainly from the framework left by Tolkien.  Largely these “races” (and truly, they are races, because in many game systems and in many stories, they can interbreed) are the go-to toys to fill the sandbox.  You expect them: elves are unknowably high culture and at the same time nature oriented, untainted by the sins of base humans; dwarves are solid, traditional, makers of fine things, and their ancestry goes back and back.  Through their use, they have become tired hangers on which to place our ideas of the fantastical like an old coat.

At one point, even these visions of elves and dwarves and orcs and halflings were new.  But they came from somewhere, they were formed over time, and there was a source for their material.  Tolkien’s inspiration for these were born of his study of philology.  By his own admission, his love of language was the foundation for all of Middle-Earth (Shippey, 1983: 19).  This study of words, tracing their origins and cross-pollinations, their formations over time leads directly to tales—  not just histories, but mythologies and hero legends too.  Right to the gates of Faerie.

It’s clear that Tolkien bent and shaped and breathed life into elves and dwarves while holding in the other hand the stuff of older sources, fairytales and legends, by his treatment of the topic in his essay, “On Fairy Stories.”  In it, he discusses the difficulty in defining these stories, but more importantly, he discusses the act of invention itself.  By his own reasoning, he is the inventor here, though he has traced and borrowed and shared in these older ideas of the otherworldly.  Even before the close of his essay, he ruminates that consistency in fantasy is difficult to attain, because as one moves further away from the pattern of the world as it is, it becomes harder to strap together imagined worlds.

In other words, one of the things that makes a world compelling is the believability of its inhabitants.  Thus, in the context of Middle-Earth, elves and dwarves fit, are carved of the same earth that passes under Frodo’s feet— sprung from older philological sources, their very names and the histories of their languages deeply considered.  They belong, are ancient in their invented landscape even in the youth of their publication: Tolkien selected the plural and adjectival forms based on the formation of older English words (elf/elves/elven and dwarf/dwarves/dwarven) even after his publishers attempted to correct him (elfs/elfin, dwarfs/dwarfish) because these forms cemented the idea of the venerability of the creatures they described and their languages (Shippey, 43-44).  They are familiar in two senses, the linguistic and the folkloric.  That’s why they work.

This is also why when other worlds use these now standard races as plug-in inhabitants, the effect is so often flat.  Instead of rooting these fantastical beings into cultures that make internal sense, instead of building these races of the same soil they inhabit, instead of giving them a language, D&D abstracts their tongues (Common, Elven, Dwarven, Gnomish), and gives short generic and somewhat contradictory descriptions of their culture, ready made to fit any world.  This is why, at least to me, the elves of Shannara feel uncompelling, and the night elves of Kalimdor, though their architecture is consistent, are as hollow as the mesh and skin combination used to represent them on the screen.

This is the exact reason why I am loathe to scatter the worlds I invent with what amount to the empty exoskeletons of someone else’s research and imaginings.  They belong in the worlds built to hold their dreams.  That little archipelago? The people-creatures who live there are too big, too full of their own myths and memories to fill the molds of elves and dwarves.  Their breaths collectively smell of fish and olives when they speak.  All I have of them yet is the breath on which they speak.  Over these next weeks, they will take shape as they tell me things, as their mythologies are mined and modified from half-familiar things.  But I will not do them the disservice of air-dropping orcs and halflings on them.

Shippey, T. A. The Road to Middle-Earth. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1983

Effing Love Poems

I like to pretend I don’t write love poems.  I like to pretend my poetry isn’t informed by the lives of those around me.  I like to pretend that poetry isn’t a thing of plasma and marrow and bile, that I don’t need it, because there isn’t any money in it.  Sure.  We pretend things all the time, like we’re happy with our jobs, or that tomorrow will be better.

I like to pretend I don’t write love poems.  But I will tell you a secret: there is a folder nestled deep among my other poems where I put all the love poems I write.  It’s called “Effing Love Poems.”  Not “Fucking Love Poems.”  “Effing Love Poems.”  Because I can’t even be serious with myself when I pretend to disdain love poems.

I like to pretend I don’t write love poems.  But I write love poems.  May I share my love poems with you?

A Congregation of Words in Silence

There are a few moments just before dawn, when everything is damped down and quiet.  I don’t often see those moments, but a few times a year it creeps up on me, when I’m camped at a burn, after raucous partying, after play fights with friends and long talks into the night, after the thud and thunder of the music has died away.  After the rush is over, and the bonfires have burned low, and everyone who is still awake is dragging themselves to sleep, not quite able to hop the fence into unconsciousness… that’s the hour where a kind of quiet and solitude lives, that sits like a soap bubble in my hair, and I fear to move too much— I might pop it.

This is also where the words live.  Not just any words, but the thick words, the juicy ones that lay next to one another in strips we take for verse.  This is where they rest before dispersing into the day.  This is where they gather.

And like I said, only a few times a year am I there to see them in this state, myself crisped around the edges from long wakeful hours.  You don’t catch the words here.  You don’t capture them.  No.  You sit with them, and maybe sing a few songs with them.  And then, with care and respect, you invite them along with you.  Usually, they’ll agree, even if your singing voice is terrible.

So that’s the hour you can find them, and only in the kind of quiet that follows the truly wild and uproarious.  And you can’t force them; no one forces a poem.  It comes out wrong.  But if you can learn to sit with the words in their own time, they’ll often come to you in yours.

Early Dragon Slaying

Twenty years ago, I got my first Nintendo game. For my 11th birthday I had begged for and pleaded to have and longed after Dragon Warrior (I had also pleaded for a Swiss army knife). All of the boys in my fifth grade class had been playing it. Because back then, two seemed like everybody. My best friend’s older brothers were playing it. So, of course, I had to play it. It was entirely new to me. I loved fantasy. I didn’t know that it had come out in the US way back in 1989. Because three years for a child is an eternity. And from 1992, ’89 is waaaaaaaay back.

So it came as a surprise to me when I opened my birthday gift packaging and found a Nintendo cartridge labeled Dragon Warrior IV. Four. 4. There were four of them. After the vague initial disappointment of not getting exactly what I wanted (kids are brats), I settled in to play with the video game and my new pocket knife.

I did not stop playing. The first day I sat down with the game, eight hours evaporated. Or, they did for my parents. Me? I accompanied Ragnar on his quest to find the missing children of Izmut village, and learned that Princess Alena was so much more of a badass than any princess Disney ever portrayed; heaviest hitter in the game.

I learned the art of grinding. If there is anything that the Dragon Quest/Warrior franchise is good at, it’s requiring players to grind for days on end in order to survive a single boss fight. For weeks I sat with it, picking at it, amassing power in game, and learning the score by heart. It was very good music.

All that time indoors, staring at pixels on a screen and manipulating controllers with my thumbs. And where does that leave me today? There is not one hour of the time I spent playing that game which I’d like to claim back. I can say that of some films I’ve seen. I can say that of a very short list of books I’ve half-read and then discarded. But I can’t say that about Dragon Warrior. Even as an adult, I enjoy returning to these worlds, wandering through them, even if the path is linear. And I still love the music: I wake to Dragon Warrior IV’s battle theme every morning, and with each text from my love, my phone levels up.

Dragon Warrior was the first game that was really mine. As much as I loved Thexder, as deeply as I enjoyed Arkanoid and Ms. Pac Man, as dear as The Oregon Trail was, these games all belonged to my father, or were installed on a shared PC. I had to ask to play. But Dragon Warrior? Dragon Warrior was all for me. It made gaming mine. The door it opened looked out on years of green 1-up mushrooms, vast future-scapes of radscorpion-filled deserts that had me looking for new water chips, lazy afternoons leaning on the sound string quartet, attempting to disprove that my character— with her fine pistols and jaunty suede jacket— was the second coming of an elf named Nasrudin, and hours engaged in exploring a volcanic island once held entirely by nomadic dark elves. These were all adventures as fulfilling as curling up with a good book. These were tales that taught me to think about strategy, timing, and above all, inference. But most importantly, I learned about message and medium.

Because most of these later games I loved were rich stories— plots with beginning, middle, and end. The best of them had morally challenging quests and brought up difficult questions which didn’t have easy black and white answers. I learned that a tale should fit the method of telling. The epic sweep of these games made the player feel important, but these were not the only tales that could be told in this medium.

Because of that eleventh birthday gift and the hours conversing with the Zenithian Dragon, I want to see what tales I can coax from a bunch of pixels.