Tag: CarverCuts

Carver Cuts: Part Three

The site has been live for over a year now!  Thanks to all the visitors and people who’ve shared.

Today I’m releasing the third installment of the Carver Cuts.  The first two can be found here: [1][2].

Today’s poem is called “The Dance,” and borrows everything from Raymond Carver’s story, “Why Don’t You Dance?

The Dance

after Raymond Carver

He poured another drink and looked
at the bedroom suite in his front yard.
That morning he’d cleared all the stuff
out of the house, run an extension cord,
so everything was connected.  Things
worked, no different.

This girl and boy were furnishing a little
apartment.  It must be a yard sale, she
said.  He pulled into the driveway and
stopped in front of the kitchen table.
They began to examine things; he sat
on the sofa, lit a cigarette, and she sat
on the bed, pushed off her shoes.  She
thought she could see a star.  Come here,
she said.  I feel funny, he said.  I’ll see
if anybody’s home.   Whatever they ask,
she said.  Offer ten dollars less.  They
must be desperate or something.

He came down the sidewalk with a sack
of sandwiches, beer, and whiskey.  He
saw the car and the girl on the bed,
the TV going.  You found the bed, he said
to the girl.  I was just trying it out, she said,
patting the bed.  How much do you want
for it?  I was thinking fifty, he said.  Would
you take forty? she asked.  He put down
the sack and took out the beer and whiskey.
The girl looked at the boy.  You kids, you’ll
want a drink, he said.  Glasses in that box,
he said, then sat on the sofa, leaned back
and stared at them.

The boy found two glasses and poured.
I want water in mine, she said.  The boy
came back from the spigot.  The man
gazed at the television, finished his drink,
started another, and looked at them as
they sat at the table, something nice,
something nasty in their faces, he couldn’t
tell.  He poured another.  Everything goes,
he said.  She held out her glass, and he
poured.  The boy was writing a check.
He put on a record.  Why don’t you
dance? he said.  I don’t think so, the boy
said.  Go ahead, he said.  It’s my yard.

Their bodies pressed together, the boy
and girl moved up and down the driveway,
dancing.  And when the record ended, they
did it again.  He turned the record over.
Dance with me, the girl said, and when he
stood up, she came to him.

They’re watching over there, she said.
It’s okay, he said.  It’s my place.  Let them
watch, she said.  That’s right, he said.
He felt her breath on his neck.  She closed
her eyes and pushed her face into his
shoulder.  You must be desperate
or something, she said.  There was more
to it; she was trying to get it talked out.

What I love most about this story is probably the occasion.  The  main character’s obviously going through some sort of crisis, having pulled all his furniture out on the lawn.  Some of you may be thinking: hey, wasn’t there a movie like this? And yes, yes there was.  Everything Must Go, starring Will Ferrell is based on this Carver story.  But there’s something almost magical about this man, at the end of his relationship with his wife, running into these two kids who seem to be newly in love.  He’s at the end of one cycle, and they’re just at the beginning, and so it makes sense for him so practically give away all his stuff (hell, he’s got it out on the lawn anyway) to these kids.  But the girl, there’s something both conniving and sweet about the way she wants to talk the guy down on all the prices but ultimately tries to understand his plight.

Plus the story ends with the image of this divorcee dancing on his front lawn with this total stranger while the neighbors all gawk and look on.  The design of the story unfolds so that this moment’s charged with sincerity, sexual tension, and perhaps most important: it simultaneously suggests the main character’s acceptance of his lot/position in life, while zooming in on him in a moment of defiance–or at least acting out of line with the suburbanite sense of propriety.  It’s got that undeniable magic of despair and hope all knotted up like a ball of rubber bands.  It’s sweet and desperate and somehow both steeped in sorrow yet hopeful.  It’s the kind of story the reveals human resilience and sweetness in the face of personal, financial, and familial collapse.  Astounding.

Thanks for reading!

Carver Cuts: Part Two

For the second poem in this series, I’m posting a poem called “Bankrupt,” which, as I explained in the first part of this series (found here: [1]), borrows everything from a Raymond Carver story.  This time the story is “Are These Actual Miles?”

Bankrupt

after Raymond Carver

Fact is the car needs to be sold in a hurry.
Toni dresses up.  But Toni takes her time,
puts on a new white blouse, new heels.
Leo stands in the doorway and taps his lips
with his knuckles.  Open at nine hundred,
he says.  I know where to start, she says.
Things are going to be different, he says.
We start over on Monday.  I mean it. She
gets into the car and accelerates—the tires
give a little scream.  In the kitchen Leo pours
Scotch.  His undershirt is wet; he feels
the sweat rolling from his underarms, listens
to the traffic on the highway, and considers
whether he should stand on the utility sink
in the basement and hang himself.   Instead
he makes a large drink, turns the TV on.

Nine.  She’s been gone nearly five hours.
At ten, he hears the telephone ringing.
I wanted to call, she says.  Where are you?
he says.  I don’t know, she says.  Did some-
body buy the car? he says. I have to
go now, she says, .  Wait, he yells.
The line goes dead.  He turns the empty
glass in his hand and considers biting off
the rim.  When she calls again, she says,
Everything is all right.  I have to go, but
I wanted to call.  I told him everything,
she says.  I think I had to.  Please honey,
Leo says.  Come home.  I’ll be home
in a little while, she says.  He waits.  Two,
three hours later, the telephone rings
again—no one at the other end, only

a dial tone.  Near dawn he hears footsteps
on the porch.  She bumps the wall coming
in, grins.  Go ahead, she says.  Swaying,
she makes a noise and lunges, tears his
shirt down the front.  Bankrupt, you son
of a bitch, she says, clawing.  She stumbles,
and he hears her fall on the bed and groan.
He’s reading the check when he hears
the car come into the drive, its motor running,
headlamps burning.  He opens the door
cautiously, and sees her makeup pouch
on the top step.  The man looks at Leo
across the front of the car, gets back in.
Wait! Leo calls and starts down the steps.
I want to tell you, he says.  Monday, the man
says and watches for sudden movement.

Leo nods slowly.  Hey, one question, the man
says. Between friends, are these actual miles?
Look, it doesn’t matter either way, the man
says.  I have to go.  Take it easy.  Leo tucks
at his shirt and goes back inside.  In bed he
runs his fingers over her hips and feels
the stretch marks.  They are like roads, and
he traces them in her flesh.  They run every-
where.

What I love most about this story is the different tensions at play.  Toni and Leo corkscrewed themselves into a situation where they’ve gotta hawk their car for cash before they have to file for bankruptcy, but the best way to sell the car, or so Leo and Toni think, is to have Toni go out and sell it.  This increases the tension because we have to sit with Leo as he’s waiting for his wife to return from this sale.  After she calls and quickly hangs up and then he can’t get her back on the phone, I’m fraught with panic just as Leo is.

The situation’s already desperate, but this uncertainty, which never really gets answered, about Toni’s fidelity amps up the stakes of the story.  The initial question of whether or not she made the sale takes a back seat to our question of what she’s doing out so late with strange men who have fat wallets.  By the end of the story, we can’t do much more than assume, which is exactly the position Leo’s in.  But the way Toni comes home drunk and upset, the guy returning her makeup bag…it seems to suggest some kind of infidelity.

Carver’s story gets its title from the question the guy asks Leo as he’s dropping off the makeup bag the following morning.  It’s just more salt for the wound.  Not only did this guy probably sleep with Leo’s wife, but his question just highlights how good a deal he got on their car.  By the end, when Leo walks back inside, I’m half expecting him to burst into a fit of unchecked rage, but the final gesture, the image of him tracing the stretch marks in her legs, it’s so goddamn sweet and unexpected and perfect.  The road simile ties in not just the car they just sold, but their past, the roads they’ve traveled together.  The story sings on both concrete and symbolic levels.  Just so so good.

 

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

 

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