‘Don’t use YOU’: Writing advice from a high school paper on Shakespeare

Reviewing one of my high school papers I saved from over two decades ago, in which I discussed King Lear, I note my original paragraph:

Some people are able to maintain their goodwill to others despite personal insult and tragedy. Edgar says, ‘[I,] by the art of known and feeling sorrows, / am pregnant to good pity.” The context is not optimistic, but his philosophy is clear, and it is more promising than the idea that people are born evil and misfortunate. Edgar says that when bad things happen to you, you can make something good out of something bad or at least grow as a person.

The teacher’s feedback in red pen on that last sentence: “Don’t use you.”

The teacher was correct. “You” was a bit too informal here, especially as my paper about human nature was otherwise written in third person.

“…when bad things happen to you, you can make something good out of something bad…”

Similarly, several years later, in college, I wrote in a classics paper on Lysistrata: “Therefore, if most of the women don’t pretend to be deeply committed to a political agenda…” and the professor circled “don’t” and wrote in the margin: “Avoid colloquialism.” Maybe that, too, was the correct guidance to conform to the habits of the scholarly genre at the time.

Photograph of a college paper on the Lysistrata. Relevant sentence: "Therefore, if most of the women don't pretend to be deeply committed to a political agenda, this only makes them more honest than the men."

“…if most of the women don’t pretend…”

But when my inner self-critic finger-wags at me, even today, “Don’t use you,” “Don’t use don’t,” I’d do well to remember where this teacherly advice came from. These were shorthand comments that applied to specific papers. They may not apply to whatever I’m writing today.

Abstract digital art
poetry, Uncategorized

Poems read Jan-Mar 2021

Darth Vader with arms raised

‘How Pharaoh Tried to Steal the Exodus’

For Passover, I wrote a rhyming poem in the style of Dr. Seuss’ “How the Grinch Stole Christmas!” It’s called “How Pharaoh Tried to Steal the Exodus.” The link I provided here will get you through the paywall. At the top of the article, there’s a link to a SoundCloud recording that will open in a new window and play you my 9-minute narration of the poem, in case you’d like to listen while you read with the text. Hey, if you don’t need the transcription and just want the direct link to the SoundCloud, there you go.

Enjoy the holiday! Let quarantines not take rhyming poetry, at least, away from us.

Detail of book cover: TRANS-GALACTIC BIKE RIDE

‘Trans-Galactic Bike Ride’ is a Lambda finalist!

On Monday, Lambda Literary announced the 2021 finalists! Who’s on the list? Stellar work from a lot of great authors, and I’m honored to tell you that Trans-Galactic Bike Ride: Feminist Bicycle Science Fiction Stories of Transgender and Nonbinary Adventurers made the list! (I have a short story, “Lucy Doesn’t Get Angry,” in this anthology.)

Ebooks and print books are available internationally from Microcosm. In the US only, you can order print copies from Bookshop. If you’re not ready to place an order, just mark it as “Want to Read” on Goodreads so that you will find it again someday when you circle back around the galaxy. But please consider how cool it will be to be holding copies of all five finalists in the Transgender Fiction category when one of them is announced as the winner on June 1!

2021 Lambda Literary Award finalists – Transgender Fiction

Close up of an elephant eye.

‘The Elephant’: A poem about authenticity

Today I learned about Carlos Drummond de Andrade’s poem “The Elephant,” translated from the Portuguese by Richard Zenith in the collection Multitudinous Heart. The translation of this poem is also available online.

“I make an elephant,” the poet says, repurposing “some wood / from old furniture” and stuffing it “with cotton, / silk floss, softness.” Glue, too, will have to do. But what to do about the ivory, “that pure white matter / I can’t imitate”? What to do about the eyes, “the most / fluid and permanent / part of the elephant”?

It’s not so much an external object. The elephant is “my dearest disguise,” the poet says. He is constructing himself.

It is a poem that might appeal especially to anyone who has tried to sculpt or reconstruct their own body, and perhaps it also may, more abstractly, address the sculpting or reconstructing of nonphysical aspects of a life.

It’s about the risk that we do it badly. We don’t meet our own standards, or the world is not ready to receive us and believe in us. The elephant enters “a jaded / world that doesn’t believe / anymore in animals / and doubts all things,” and “no one will look / at him, not even to laugh / at his tail.” It’s also about monstrosity: how an attempt to imitate an awesome, beautiful being may result in a half-invisible, ugly accident that inevitably must be disassembled by its creator as a failed experiment. Or: This is, at least, part of the process that others pick up on when they perceive us as monsters.