Sunday, October 19, 2008

Instant Memorials and the Problem of Fodder

Get ready: It's nearly Halloween, and as soon as that night of rotten eggs and toilet papering is over, the real scare begins: marketing for the holidays kicks into full gear, with retailers eager to encourage us to buy, buy, buy in the name of Jesus. Your family will be inflicted upon you. You will be inflicted on them. Out will come cameras for endless shots of decorating, pie-making, present-wrapping, and Uncle Steve passed out in the eggnog.

I make joke, of course. I don't even have an Uncle Steve (though if I did, I'd want him to be like this guy.)

But the approach of the holidays has had me thinking about a lost ritual: the development of family photographs. Once upon a time, you had to wait weeks to see the pictures you took on vacation or during family visits. You mailed them off and got them weeks later; viewing them felt like you were looking over a historical event. Then, I think while I was in elementary school, came the advent of the express photo shop, where you could get your pictures in an hour or so.

Now, there's no delay at all. I can't remember the last time someone handed me a stack of photographs. Instead, it's all digital: you click, and instantly you can see the results. What's more, you DO see the results; I can think of many recent occasions when as soon as photos had been taken, the camera was passed around so that everyone could see the images. I looked at the pictures, some of which included me, and like everyone else I giggled and groaned—and felt somehow nostalgic for a moment that had occurred only seconds before.

What is that? Does looking at images of yourself enjoying a moment remove you from the moment you're enjoying? Never before have events taken so little time to be memorialized— which is a different process than remembering, and sometimes an oppositional one.

The effect of digital cameras reminds me of the poetic process, if such it can be called: When something interesting occurs or some emotional moment transpires in my life or I witness/ eavesdrop on a conversation, I often think within seconds, "This will make a good poem" or "I'm going to put that in a short story." How many pieces of my life have I missed thinking about how to convey them in words?

Do you do this? Is it healthy—or is health beside the point? Maybe once you start writing, you can't help vampiring big chunks of your existence. Maybe you should only worry once you actually start avoiding life in order to write; supposedly, Rainer Maria Rilke skipped his daughter's wedding because he was thought a poem might come. (If I'd been his kid, I would have been pretty pissed about this. "Hey Dad. I hear you were waiting for a poem. You know where your poem was? At our wedding with everyone else, you prick.")

Anyway, I've been reading Brenda Shaughnessy's Human Dark With Sugar this week. Lots of really striking lines and startling turns of phrase in the book, but the one below struck me as pretty damn funny. I laughed out loud, in fact. (And then started thinking, "This would make a good blog entry.")

A Poet's Poem

If it takes me all day,
I will get the word freshened out of this poem.

I put it in the first line, then moved it to the second,
and now it won't come out.

It's stuck. I'm so frustrated,
so I went out to my little porch all covered in snow.

and watched the icicles drip, as I smoked
a cigarette.

Finally I reached up and broke a big, clear spike
off the roof with my bare hand.

And used it to write a word in the snow.
I wrote the word snow.

I can't stand myself.


Anonymous said...

out on a walk along sligo creek, one of the takoma park loonies once said to me: 'yes, you've been dressed up as an AIDS victim by Nazi policemen."
... i said to myself, thank you for the poem, ma'am.
-- moose lodge

sam of the ten thousand things said...

I really like Shaughnessy's poem, and the idea behind it. Thanks for posting it.