Banal. Lacking Insight.


In the spring semester of 1988, I signed up for a creative writing class in poetry. I remember the year and the season because a friend had died in a car crash the previous December. I remember the class because of the professor’s comments on one the poems, about the death of my friend, that I turned in as part of my midterm assignment.


“Lacking insight.”

Thirty years later, I wish I remembered his name as clearly as I remember his marginalia, so I could properly curse him.

I stopped going to class, forgot to drop it, and failed it. There were multiple reasons—depression, illness, money problems—but “banal” and “lacking insight” didn’t help.

Several years later, I started frequenting a coffee house that hosted regular poetry readings.  Listening to poems that ranged from godawful to brilliant inspired me to try again. Some poems came into my head fully formed, others required an enormous amount of work. One that I wrote for a friend’s wedding took almost twenty hours over the course of three weeks to write. I was never prolific. I averaged perhaps a poem every two weeks, until August of 1998, when I wrote this one:


Day opens her veins into an
Unforgiving sky absorbs the last drops of
Light seeps scarlet stains into
Dirty smokestack gauze oozes across the
Horizon slowly betrays day’s trust to
Night seeps into my eyes

With the exception of greeting card epigrams, I haven’t written a poem since.

“Sunset” revealed more about my mental state than I was comfortable with confronting. I’d only intended to experiment with enjambment, but this is a poem informed by clinical depression and a rapidly necrotizing marriage. I didn’t want to risk more material like this bubbling up from my subconscious.

In time, I convinced myself that I actually couldn’t write poetry. I dismissed the fact that I’d written dozens of poems, had one published, and had given readings that were well received. I told myself that the successful poems were flukes.

My poetry was banal. Lacking insight.

I even told people that I didn’t like poetry, which was patent horsefeathers. I threw away the paper copies, and now I only have seven from that period. Eight, if you count a limerick about a man who had carnal relations with chickens.

And so I have not written poetry for almost twenty years. Earlier this month, though, I started thinking about trying again. Some thoughts and ideas are better expressed in verse, and besides, I feel incomplete as a writer without being able to write poetry. I asked Carolyn to get me a copy of a book I used to have:  A Poet’s Guide to Poetry, by Mary Kinzie. I’ve started to read it, but I’m already stumped on an assignment from the preface. Paralyzed, almost.

What if it’s terrible? What if it’s banal? Lacking insight?

It probably will be, as rusty as I am. But I have to limber up somehow. I’ll write as many crappy poems as I have to in order to find my voice again, and start writing good ones.


Happy Holidays


When I was in New York last week, I heard the phrase “Happy Holidays” from every store clerk, every waiter, every cab driver I interacted with. It was charming. It felt like they meant it. Enjoy your holidays! Whatever holidays you celebrate, have happy ones!

Imagine that. People in a multi-cultural, polyglot city having the courtesy to extend general holiday wishes to each other rather than narrowing it down to a specific one, because they can’t be certain who celebrates what. In a city that gets an unfair rep for rudeness, a little bit of consideration and civility.

How shitty a human being do you have to be to consider that a threat to your way of life?

Notes on “The Apology”

The Apology” was inspired by the song, “Cheap Whiskey,” on Martina McBride’s debut album. The song is about a man coming to terms with his alcoholism having driven away “the light of his life.” I wanted to explore what might happen if he decided to apologize, and discovered that the apology didn’t make anything better.

In the first draft, there wasn’t much more to it. I felt like it was thin as I wrote, so I introduced additional characters: four customers and the cook. It wasn’t terrible, as first drafts go, but my critique group suggested that I cut the other characters. Removing them made me realize how thin the characterization was, especially of Margo, and that gave me a clearer vision of the story.

Margo, especially, was little more than a cardboard cut-out. What was in her heart and mind when Nehemiah walked in? What would it do to her to hear an unwanted apology? Deepening my understanding of her also gave me fresh insight into Nehemiah. These insights changed the story for the better.

What I’ve learned from this is not to clutter my scenes and stories with extra characters. The other customers, Margo’s brother; I’d put them all in as scenery, basically, and then I’d felt obligated to give them something to do. They distracted me from the heart of the story. In my next first draft, I’ll be ruthless about keeping the scene focused on the only people who actually matter.

The Apology


Nehemiah stared into the diner from the safety of the unlit sidewalk, watching Margo wrap napkins around silverware. No customers so late on a Monday. That’s why he’d chosen this night. But even without an audience, his stomach gnawed on itself like an animal chewing its way out of a trap.

You need a drink, friend. Steady your nerves.

He recognized the whisper in his mind for what it was. He squeezed his eyes tight.

“Go to hell, Whiskey,” he said.

He ignored the throaty chuckle of his eternal enemy and pushed the door open. The clank of cowbells announced his entrance. Margo looked up, her eyes as big as a startled owl’s.

Her walnut hair was shot through with silver. The harsh, fluorescent lighting made every line on her face look chiseled in.

She was too young to look so old.

How had two years changed her so much? Or had the amber haze he’d lived in for so long before she left made him unable to see her?

“What do you want, Nehemiah?” she spat. The muscles on her neck stood out, cord-like against her skin. Her disgust deepened his shame. Even in his thrift-store jacket, t-shirt, and blue jeans, he felt naked.

He let the door swing shut behind him. The bells clanked again. The place smelled of decades of eggs, bacon grease, and coffee.

“Nothing bad. I ain’t here to cause a scene.” It sickened him to have to say it. His hands trembled, and he hid them in his pockets. “I only want to talk.”

“Well, I don’t want to talk to you.” She finished wrapping a paper napkin around the silverware in her left hand and dropped the bundle into a grey, plastic tub. “You go on and get, or I’ll call the cops.” She picked up the handset of the old red phone on the wall behind the counter.

“Go ahead, if it will make you feel better. I can say what I need to before they get here, anyway.”

She stared at him a long time, brown eyes underlined by dark smudges. She remained still until the dial tone gave way to angry beeping.

“I let you say your piece, you’ll go on and go?”


She hung up the phone. Then she braced her hands on the counter, wide to the sides so that the crooks of her elbows showed.

“Get it over with, then.”

He pointed at one of the counter stools, bolted to the floor as though they might flee if given the opportunity.

“Can I… can I sit down?”

“You stand right there. That way you won’t have so far to walk when you’re done.”

She ain’t making this easy, Whiskey whispered. Nehemiah ignored it.

What have I ever done to deserve easy, he thought.

“I, uh, I came to say—” he began, but his words failed him. He’d written it out this afternoon. Memorized it, so when the time came, this wouldn’t happen.

“Let me guess. You came to apologize. Twelve-stepping it. Is that it?”

“No. I mean, yes. I mean, I’m not doing twelve steps, but—”

“So you’re still a drunk.”

Her words ran up and down his spine like cockroaches.

“I am not. I ain’t had a drop since—”

Since he hurled the bottle at the door after she slammed it for the last time. He had sliced his fingers to ribbons picking up broken glass with shaking hands.

“I don’t even want it anymore.”

“Liar,” she said.

Liar, Whiskey said.

“I don’t,” he whispered. “You ain’t me. Not anymore.”

“Who are you talking to?” She narrowed her eyes. “Oh. Whiskey. Like always.” She crossed her arms and dug her fists into her ribs. “Like it’s some other person inside of you, making you do things.”

His face burned.

“Not anymore.”

“I bet.”

The hell with her. Let’s get out of here. You know they’ve missed you at Charlie’s.

No. He was never going to be that man again. He breathed in deep, through his nose.

“I only blame myself.” And then the words he’d memorized came back to him in a torrent, rising so fast he feared they would choke him if he didn’t let them out.

“I did wrong by you. I treated you worse than anyone deserves. I ought not have said the things I said. I had no right. You never gave me anything but kindness and I repaid it with cruelty. I spent the last two years thinking about that. Regretting it. And now, I’m here to say… to say I’m sorry, Margo. I’m sorry for everything.”

Silence pressed down on him like a sack of gravel draped across his shoulders. He had thought he would feel better once he got it out, but his guts still twisted.

Margo pressed her lips into a bloodless line.

“That it?”

He nodded.

“Then you can leave, now.” She plucked a knife, spoon, and fork from a tray and started wrapping them in a napkin.

The cockroach sensation ran up and down his spine again, then down into his legs.

She didn’t even listen.

“You didn’t listen to a word I said!”

“I heard every word you said.” The words ricocheted off the counter, the walls, the floor. “And I heard all the things you didn’t say.” Her eyes shimmered.

“You think I owe you something now. Don’t you? I’m supposed to tell you I forgive you, and you can go on and feel better about yourself. Is that it?” She slammed the silverware bundle into the tub so hard it bounced out. She drew the back of her hand across her eyes, but new tears bubbled up to replace the ones she wiped away.

His mouth gaped, and his mind whirled.

“I don’t know.”

“Well, now you can listen to me. You put me through fifteen years of hell.” She thrust her finger toward the door. “So, you turn around and march yourself out that door, and you keep thinking about that for another thirteen years before you come back and apologize to me.”

All you wanted to do was apologize.

“All I wanted to do was… set things right.”

“Set things right?” She slammed her hands down onto the counter. The tray of silverware rattled.

“You can’t set things right, Nehemiah. Some things, you break them, you can’t fix them.” She sucked in a deep ragged breath.

“Get out!” she screamed.

He slipped out into the night. He looked back, over his shoulder. Margo was slumped over the counter, her face in her hands. Her shoulders shook.

A plume of steam escaped Nehemiah’s nostrils.

Where you headed, friend?

He looked down the street. The neon lights of Charlie’s beckoned. He turned his back on them.

“I’m going home, Whiskey.” He started walking.

“I got another thirteen years of thinking to do.”

Fate, Fortune, and Friendship


It happened that my friend Don and I discovered that we were in New York City at the same time. I was staying near the World Trade Center, and he was in Harlem, but that distance paled in comparison to the 1,200 miles or so that usually separates us. We arranged to meet in Midtown. When I spotted him as I crossed 8th Avenue toward the restaurant we’d agreed on, I felt a deep sense of joy and gratitude for the gift of time together.

Don and I met over twenty years ago in graduate school, when we were assigned an office together. We discovered mutual loves not only of literature, language, and drama, but also of less highbrow interests like superheroes and Star Trek. Our similar outlook and senses of humor meant we were sympatico in other ways as well.

It sometimes feels like it was fate, rather than mere good fortune, that we found each other as friends. Last night, it felt like it was fate, rather than mere good fortune, that placed us at the same time in a city where neither of us live, with time enough to get together. Whether it was fate or good fortune, I am profoundly grateful for it.