Month: August 2016

Carver Cuts: Part One

In the fall of 2012, I had the great fortune of sitting in on one of George Saunders’s fiction-editing classes at Syracuse.  I couldn’t believe how much of the Carver story (the letter he wrote Lish before WWTAWWTAL’s release, the extent of his alcoholism, the longer drafts) I didn’t know about until George showed us in class several different versions that Lish had chopped up/shaped.  Some stories improved, others dwindled, but it was remarkable to see how the process became, in a way, collaborative.  As an assignment in the class, we had to make our own “Lish” on the longer version of Carver’s famous “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,” which was originally called “Beginners,” and try to see how many words we could cut.

As a poet, I always pride myself (hubris, maybe?[edit: definitely]) in my ability to cut unnecessary words, and so I bit down hard on the challenge of turning Carver’s masterpiece story into as small a poem as possible.  I felt an obligation to maintain the integrity and components of the story, which forced me to make decisions about what dialogue, movements, moments, etc. were absolutely necessary to the story’s heart.  After I cut the original story from ~9200 words to about ~360, I felt a new kind of thrill from working with words from other writers, and so about a year and a half later, I wanted to get a better understanding of Carver’s stories: what made them work, what elements in them proved absolutely key, and so I began to take a bunch of Carver’s stories and try to cut them down into poem-sized bits.  It’s an interesting exercise.  It’s akin to reverse-engineering something, but also kinda shaping it into a different kind of writing.  Ultimately, I decided not to submit them (much) because they seemed mostly like exercises, and I had a little bit of guilt from stealing all the words from Carver.  But for the sake of sharing something I worked on and enjoy (and in the spirit of paying homage/promoting one of my favorite writers), I’m going to post some of the poems that I made from Carver’s stories.

I’m calling them “Carver Cuts” because I think of them like little wood-block cut-outs of famous paintings.  Not the real thing, but a condensed, somewhat simplified version.  The first in this series is the poem, “Like We Know What We’re Talking About,” the poem I made from George Saunders’s original “Lish” assignment:

Like We Know What We’re Talking About

after Raymond Carver

The four of us sat around the kitchen table.
Gin and tonic water kept going around.
An ice bucket rested between us.  We lived
in Albuquerque, but we were all from some-
where else.  Terri said the man she used
to live with loved her so much he tried
to kill her.  My God, don’t be silly, Herb
said.  That’s not love.  She looked around
the table then at her hands on her glass.
What would you call it? Terri said.  Sure,
it was abnormal, but he was willing to die
for it.  Herb got up from the table and went
to the cupboard.  If you call that love,
he said, you can have it.  I could feel
my heart beating.  Well, Laura said,
Nick and I are in love, aren’t we?  She
bumped my knee with hers.  Outside,
in the back yard, one of the dogs began
to bark.  We’re lucky, I said.  Knock on wood.
You’re still on the honeymoon, Terri said.
Wait a while.  Herb went around the table
with a new bottle of gin.  Jesus, Terri,
he said.  You shouldn’t talk like that.
She held her drink and gazed at Laura.
I’m only kidding, she said.  The leaves
of the aspen outside the window flickered
in the breeze.  Laura raised her eyes
to mine—her look was penetrating, and
my heart slowed.  She gazed into my eyes
for what seemed a long time, then she
nodded, as if she were telling me not to
worry, that everything was going to be
all right.  That’s how I interpreted it, though
I could be wrong.  I put a hand on her thigh
and left it there. Outside, cars moved back
and forth on the interstate connecting us
to El Paso.  The wind picked up, and the grass
in the fields bent, then straightened again.

 

I’ve loved the intimacy of Raymond Carver’s stories since I first picked them up twelve years ago and thought: this is what a story can do! Some of my favorite stories and poems offer a glimpse behind the curtain.  Nobody does that better than Carver.  His knack for atmospheric tension outpaces the need for big plots of explosive action.  Every time I teach “Cathedral” to my students, we all stand back, amazed, and then I point out that it’s a story about a guy coming and spending the night.  Just like this is just a story about two couples sitting around and drinking and chatting.  Of course the stories are so much more than that.  They transformed the way I understood character, motivation, precision, detail, etc.  The unease/tension in the air thick enough to breathe in and take hold.  But at their core, the stories are about the unnerved parts of us, the moments where nothing can be said, those snapshots of time that seem to freeze and reflect back on us with startling clarity.

I spent a few hours on this poem, but I can hardly take credit.  The story is and always will be Carver’s.

 

-Taylor Collier

 

What Poetry Can Do: A Few Words on Mary Karr’s “The Patient”

A few years ago, I had the great privilege of studying under Mary Karr at Syracuse University.  Not only did she show me how to throw a moment into a pressure-cooker, how to strengthen my lines, how to look (in revision) for moments where I dodge and, instead, lean into what I was writing around, but she’s been an inspiration ever since I worked with her–in terms of both writing and managing somehow to keep that tangled ball of hissing snakes (otherwise known as Texas childhood) knotted and calm (or at least as calm as possible).

It’s difficult to pin down her personality’s whiplash bite better than she does in her writing: both poetry and memoir.  If you’re only familiar with The Liars’ ClubCherry, Lit, or the recently-released Art of Memoir, make sure you check out her books of poetry too:  Viper RumSinners Welcome, The Devil’s Tour, and Abacus.  Her writing jolts you into a new perspective, where her remarkable knack for detail lures and illuminates.  Today I’d like to write a little about one of my favorite Mary Karr poems, “The Patient,” which appears in Viper Rum.  An alternate version is available via The Poetry Foundation, but I’m just a bit more partial to this version.  I’ve included a recording (from a couple months ago) of me reading the poem:

THE PATIENT

by Mary Karr

At the end we prayed for death,
even phoned funeral homes
from his room for the best
cremation deal.  But back
when he was tall, he once put
my ailing cat to sleep,
or helped the vet and me
hold it flat to the table
while we felt all muscles
tighten for escape
then freeze that way.  Later
in my father’s truck,
I held the heavy shoebox on my lap.
He said, I ever git like that
you do the same.  I remember the slight
weight of my ten-year-old head
nodding without a pause.  We peeled
from the gravel lot onto the rain-
blurred road.  What did I know
of patience then? Or my dad
for that matter, shifting gears.
Each white second was knit
into a sheet that settled over his features
like a snowfield.  Forgive me,
Father, this terrible face.
I was the patient one.
I got what I wanted.

The poem opens with an assertion that presumes some underlying knowledge.  The opening line makes me question:  The end? The end of what? Who is we? But by the time the sentence unfolds across the next few lines, the situation becomes clearer.  By breaking the opening sentence the way she does, not only does Karr situate you in the weird atmosphere of an unnerving moment–calling funeral homes before a loved one has passed–, but she places heavier emphasis on the phrases “prayed for death,” “phoned funeral homes,” and “best / cremation deal.”  Not only do these phrases have a musical quality, but they support-beam the strangeness of the moment.

But just as soon as you think you’ve got your footing, Karr shifts time, place, and perspective, which is, part of what makes this poem genius.  The transitions in this poem happen so seamlessly, which highlights the central tension of the poem: “shifting gears” from life to death.  Look at the sentence that begins, “But back / when he was tall.”  The phrase itself seems accessible, pretty easy to parse, but the more I think about it, the more I realize it’s the sleight-of-hand moment.  The poem, which centers around the speaker’s father, the memory of putting a cat to sleep, and his final moments, literally forces you into the child’s perspective.  The speaker’s father wasn’t necessarily taller “back / when,” but rather the speaker was smaller since she was a child.  What seems like a slip, turns out to be the sharpest dodge of the poem because forces us into the child-perspective before leading us to the childhood memory.

Sure, there’s the obvious link of putting an animal down, but the way the images all suggest weight or heft, deepens the experience for the reader.  The poem forces us to feel the cat’s muscles in the moment of death, the “heavy shoebox on my lap,” and “the weight of my ten-year-old head / nodding without a pause.”  Because these images are so tactile, we slip not only into the child perspective, but also the adult consciousness with the rhetorical question that follows: “What did I know / of patience then?”  And because the memory’s embedded within an existing story about the hospital room where the speaker’s father’s dying, not only does it cause meaning to resonate, but it mirrors the way our speaker felt in those final moments with her father.  It gives us a glimpse of the experience.

Just as the speaker’s father “peeled / from the gravel lot onto the rain-/blurred road,” (isn’t “blurred” so good?!) the poem uses the reflective questioning to take us back to the present-action, where we hear our speaker cry out in direct address and ask for forgiveness.  And, just in case you forgot where the poem began, which can happen with stories inside of stories, the closing of the poem references the title, working to conflate the position of the speaker and her father.  But if you’re like me, the final line left me puzzled at first: what was it that you wanted? Another way to encourage the reader to the poem’s opening line, where we “prayed for death.”  The result creates a chilling effect, especially with the earlier calling out for forgiveness, not for praying for death, but for “this terrible face,” which probably isn’t bobbing up and down in agreement like her ten-year-old self.

And that’s the heartbeat of this poem, the tension between agreeing to her father’s wishes as a child, and the difficulty of accepting that upon the moment of death.  How life can get so twisted and frozen and awful at the end that you pray for it to stop.  Which she ultimately catches herself on, catches us on, and lightning-bolts us back to our shared but fucked-up reality.  Sure, she’s better than most at distilling a moment down to “each white second,” but through precise detail, the layering of story and memory, the heft and precision of the detail, this poem guts me.  Which is exactly what it’s supposed to do.

-Taylor Collier

2016-08-10 09.46.50

P.S. Now Go Out There (and Get Curious) recently dropped in bookstores around the country.  And you can follow Mary Karr on twitter: @marykarrlit

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