Writers on Writing #107: Claire Schroeder
Every Acid Dealer Gets Busted Eventually
It is not unusual to encounter mnemonic devices in the study of music performance, most of which tend to find employ at the early stages of learning a new instrument. At the Old Town School of Folk Music in Chicago, there are a number of teachers who introduce a memorable mnemonic at the start of beginner guitar lessons. To help students remember the order of tones represented in standard (Western) guitar tuning, starting from the lowest notes, these Old Town teachers remind pupils of the handy and memorable phrase, “Every Acid Dealer Gets Busted Eventually.” This device is especially useful for people with electronic tuners, though I have always preferred tuning strings in relation to each other—a practice that can be somewhat unhealthy for an instrument’s structure in the long term, but one that suffices for me.
Nevertheless, the Old Town tuning phrase circles around in my head at regular intervals and I have made an unfortunate habit out of relating it to so, so many unsuspecting topics. While most of these perceived relations are weary stretches at best, the phrase can be useful in an attempt to break down the craft of poetry into some describable entity. Just as a person with non-impaired hearing capabilities can tune a guitar by isolating the tones that ring from each string, and manipulating the strings to create pleasing musical combinations, a person with even just a morsel of cognitive functioning can interpret a poem in some way, isolating words in print or spoken aloud, structural techniques, metaphors, similes, and every imaginable aspect of language under the moon to glean meaning from the collection of ink before his or her eyes. So at the risk of producing an essay that reveals just how obtuse I really am, what follows is an attempt to isolate each piece of the aforementioned mnemonic device, with the intention being that the pieces, either alone or together, will shed light on how I approach poetry as both a craft and a concept (and perhaps this is an important time to mention that I consider the “craft” and “concept” of poetry to be entirely co-dependent—what are words without life behind them? And is life alive if not made manifest?)
A tricky place to start, but a necessary one. In poetry, absolutes rarely show their awful heads. When they do, the awful heads are exposed for all the danger and ugliness they enable. “Every,” “Always,” “Never,” “Completely.” Sure these words show up now and again, often when a writer wants to place emphasis on a particular aspect in a written scenario. But as concepts, absolutes do little (if anything) to advance a line of thinking, nor do they add contour to a piece or even establish credibility. They are limiting to a severe extent, and facilitate denial.
To introduce a concept that presents itself as absolute is to invite argument. Some people might be happy with “bad press” starting out, but absolutes deny readers/consumers/passersby something warm to chew on. They also reflect an author’s refusal to grow, thus in my mind signaling a distinct immaturity, in spite of any surface confidence present in declaring a perspective the definitive Right Way.
(Is my insecure Virgo side showing yet?)
Plus, regardless of what people much smarter than I might say, we are alive and breathing RIGHT NOW in a Postmodern World. Everything changes, man, and we all go through life with our little snowflake lenses made up from unique cores. I acknowledge that, following this reasoning, I am quantifiably Wrong to even suggest that using absolute concepts in writing can be harmful. To label is to limit, even if that label is “Everything,” but to explain the limitations of labelling is just as limiting a practice as labelling. So to circumvent these issues when writing, I find it helpful to constantly question my own perspective. Which is to say, never stop learning (or at least attempting to learn). I don’t know the truth about anything except my own experience—and even that, I’m foggy on—and I am only one of over seven billion living experiences. So are you. It is best to avoid presumption when writing from your own voice, but lack of blind presumption does not mean every poem will turn out a mucky wet noodle, as I hope will show in later examples.
Much has been said about the relationship between mind-altering substances and art production, and to embark on a writing “education” journey all but guarantees encounters with peers who work under the influence, or claim to have stumbled upon brilliant ideas during trips. Having grown up in a town where parents smoke weed with their children like that is a normal thing to do, and where a good chunk of teens mess around with DMT by the time they make it to the halfway mark of high school, I cannot help but acknowledge the relative merits of the drugs=enlightenment=better art argument. But when it comes time to sit down and write, I find myself more often thinking back to passages of text that provoke “thought-trips” simply through their language, which can be read when sober and produce neurological episodes as potent as any hallucinogen.
Naturally this kind of reaction strikes different people in different ways, and what some people think of as the most powerful turns-of-phrase will not even register as remotely note-worthy to others. The point is that finding what, in nothing more than its state as ink on a page, makes one feel like he or she has entered another plane is crucial to the development of a writer. A person cannot think about moving others in such a powerful way before that person first discovers what makes him or her respond in a like manner.
For me, this kind of reaction comes not from a famous or even practiced “poet”—though he tried his hand at the craft (and failed)—but from a man whose prose often hits higher poetic peaks than entire volumes of poetry. Yes, I’m talking about that stuffy Southerner William Faulkner, with whom—alcoholism aside—I can think of no characteristics I share. The “Addie” section from his iconic As I Lay Dying delivers one gut-punch after another, a notable feat considering context up to this point in the novel shapes Addie as a thoroughly unlikeable character.
In what I consider to be the height of poetry in the novel, Addie tells us, “I could just remember how my father used to say that the reason for living was to get ready to stay dead a long time” (169). This line comes at readers without elevated language, experimental form, or even much music, yet its strength lies in its simplicity of language. It does not take advanced education to know the literal meaning of each word, yet their combination produces a truth beyond what even some of the greatest living thinkers like to admit. The concept does not touch on whether or not there is an afterlife, not really, but its potency is not diminished for that, because even if “staying dead” involves floating around in some paradise, to “stay dead for a long time” has an inevitably dark ring to it. This is precisely the kind of passage that gives me goosebumps, and inspires me as a writer to make my own readers feel like I feel when reading it.
Again, this effect can come in many ways. Perhaps there is a person out there who feels just as satisfied when confronted with Madonna lyrics, and it is not at all my place to diminish the importance of that. Whatever the inspiration, it is important for writers to experience the emotions they seek to evoke, on a sincere and personal level, before ever sitting down to craft a piece of their own. And to encounter or create these emotions with nothing more than words on paper is, I believe, at least as powerful as most enlightenment attainable through substances.
I welcome the reader to consider this next section as corny and immature, but I cannot write an essay about the craft of poetry without acknowledging my poetic fairy godfather (if only…) Walt Whitman. It can be helpful for poets to think of themselves as “dealers” in several ways. First, in relation to the previous section, a successful poem will evoke internal reactions representative of trips, and the poet is the one who deals those trips—a drug dealer does not enter your body and manipulate chemicals to get you high, but he or she provides the physical catalyst, while poets do not mold your life into a specific form with a context that makes it most receptive to their words, but ideally their pieces will trigger your reactions and guide you into the desired state.
Though Whitman did not seem to think of himself as a “dealer” in the strict modern sense of the word, he did view himself as a sort of deliverer, guru, and all-encompassing human capable of spreading the Word to nourish all words. In “Song of Myself”—and here I reference the 1855 version of Leaves of Grass—Whitman takes on Prince Hamlet and exposes the lighter side of decomposition. Whereas Hamlet frets a loss of status that comes with death, bitter about the worms that will eat his body, Whitman finds joy in the idea that the atoms that make up his body will never truly cease to exist (AND NEITHER WILL YOURS, SO SMILE) as he says, “I depart as air” and “I bequeath myself to the dirt and grow from the grass I love,/If you want me again look for me under your bootsoles” and then closes the massive poem with, “Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged,/Missing me one place search another,/I stop somewhere waiting for you” (88).
Scores of people have taken issue for years with Whitman’s apparent self-centeredness, but I feel that these people miss the point. Whitman talks about himself as a piece of a larger whole. He cannot make his point speaking from someone else’s shoes because he knows only his own experience, yet at the same time his own experience is larger than his literal life. He reflects a transcendental utopia that he believes to already exist, and merely puts the thoughts into words to show the way for others. In this way, I believe “Song of Myself” to be the opposite of self-centered—it is inviting to the greatest degree, and proves Whitman to be a quintessential poetic dealer. He brings us insight not with a condescending raised-know-it-all-brow, but with a warm smile and the hope that we will take his hand.
I promised corniness and plan to deliver even further, for just as Dumbledore tells his school that “It takes a great deal of bravery to stand up to our enemies, but just as much to stand up to our friends” (Rowling 306), I believe it takes a good deal of intelligence for a poet to open minds, but just as much intelligence for a poet to invite others to reach similar ends. In other words, I mark Whitman as a successful poetry “dealer” because he does not seek exclusivity, nor does he want to be the winner in the humanity-spanning game of memorable art. Rather, he truly wants his audience to grow from his work, and I don’t think it matters to him whether or not his part in any individual’s growth is explicitly recognized and cited.
When it comes to crafting a poem with certain techniques and wordplays, I will allow myself a special dispensation for the “absolute” idea that there is no “right” or “wrong” way to do it. The world is your oyster etc. etc. People can advise on what is and is not working until they are blue in the face, but countless twentieth and twenty-first century poets have already shown us that there is no limit to experiments with language, and even basic English words are malleable. Take for example the legendary Black Arts poet Haki Madhubuti, who famously uses words in print to mimic the unconventional sounds of John Coltrane’s music in one of his best-known poems, “DON’T CRY, SCREAM.”
Like many of Coltrane’s pieces, Madhubuti begins the poem with a lucid melody readers can follow, even as the words creep across the page, and he reels readers in with stark accusations like, “driving some away,/(those paper readers who thought/manhood was something innate)//bring others in,/(the few who didn’t believe that the/world existed around established whi/teness & leonard bernstein)” (27). At the same time that he calls attention to and then bashes established societal notions (you mean the world shouldn’t exist around Leonard Bernstein??), Madhubuti alters the very way those notions come across through their signifiers, as he splits “whiteness” with a line break. And that little mindfuck is just a sampler plate of what is in store.
Madhubuti travels with Coltrane into the world of less-tapped tonal possibilities, writing, “a good nasty feel with/tangled songs of:/we-eeeeeeeeeee sing/WE-EEEeeeeeeeeee loud&/WE-EEEEEEE EEEEEEEEEE high/with/feeling” (28). Were a poem like “DON’T CRY, SCREAM” brought into a present-day workshop, students and possibly the teacher would doubtless call attention to the “weak” line-stops, as he breaks after “in” “of” and “with.” Others would likely say the movement of stanzas across the page has no actual merit, and is done for shock value or in a feeble attempt to replicate work that is well outside of his reach. But if it is not already clear, Madhubuti doesn’t give a shit whether or not his form and unconventional play with language disturb concepts of acceptable poetic techniques. And currently active writers should not give a shit either. In fact, disturbing concepts of what is and is not acceptable was a huge motivator for Madhubuti, Amiri Baraka, and many of their Black Arts contemporaries. However, neither should writers seek to fuck around with language just for the sake of fucking around (“Poetry Friends Forever,” perhaps?). Madhubuti’s experiments have a purpose here: to emulate Coltrane’s music in a form outside of jazz, and to show that emotions can be evoked in previously unimagined and, yes, alienating and offending ways. So long as there is some intention and practice behind it, whether or not either of those come across to readers, a poem is free to bust up any and all notions of what language is and how it can be conveyed without stepping off the cliff into waves of utter nonsense.
Eventually (my manifesto, can be skipped)
Eventually we will live in a world where everyday non-“poets” understand that poetry can be found in most things, as well as crafted from most things. Maybe we are already there. I wouldn’t know, I can’t read minds. I do not intend to belittle the work of poets who have put their lives and souls into the craft, but I honestly think that anyone can do it, just as anyone can run a marathon after enough training (yes, seriously, anyone can). What separates “poets” from “the rest” is a willingness to try, the courage to look inside and handle their own emotions without shame or disgust. Or if shame or disgust occur, a willingness to explore those reactions. But the ability to communicate effectively is not guaranteed at birth (I’m at five years and counting, trying to tackle that bad boy with my psychotherapist), nor is the ability to craft poetry a given just because someone finds beauty in odd places. These are skills that must be honed in order for the end-product to speak to someone else. I don’t have advice that is helpful in a concrete/sit-down-and-write-better-right-now way, but I believe that the messy work of refusing to settle down and refusing to ignore outside perspectives is crucial to each person’s growth as a social and productive member of a community, as well as an insightful and trustworthy writer.
Claire Schroeder is a recent graduate of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where she earned degrees in English and creative writing. She writes album and concert reviews, as well as annotated playlists and featured articles for WPGU 107.1, where she also served as the web director for a year. She has written articles for Buzz Magazine and worked as a proofreader of web and brochure content for several businesses. She is currently working on a novella-length nonfiction profile of her hometown, Oak Park, Illinois.