February 2007

Notes to Poem—


Robert Pinsky's
Poetry Workshop
Stanford University
January 31, 2007

By Peter Y. Chou

February 2007

Preface: In Wednesday January 24th Workshop "The Occasions of Poetry", Robert Pinsky told the class to bring in an anonymous poem. He felt that after three workshops of reading and critiquing each other's poems, students should have a good idea of everyone's writing style. Pinsky said: "Perhaps you could write in a style of one of your classmates to fool us. Email your anonymous poems to Ryan Jacobs, the English Department Assistant, so he could staple all the poems together. We'll guess who wrote each poem while critiquing them on January 31." Rachel asked Pinsky if he was going to participate and submit an anonymous poem too. Pinsky just smiled "We'll see." This exercise sounds fun and challenging. Most of my writing is philosophical in nature and easily identifiable. My friends will say "Another Peter poem." Last week, Supriya wrote a poem "Next Door" about her roommate reading "Glamour" magazine, celebrity gossip, dark nail polish, and canned cinnamon fragrance. I decided to write a list poem about fashion magazines selling in the supermarkets. The list poem is a poetic form used by Mark Strand in his "Giving Myself Up" (1970) on his body parts. This form was also used by Christopher Smart in "Jubilate Agno" (1762) extolling his cat Jeoffrey that I found quite amusing. On Sunday, January 28, I went to Safeway in Mountain View, and spent 45 minutes jotting down the titles of feature articles in 11 fashion magazines at the checkout racks. From this two-page list, I spent four hours making a list poem using the juiciest titles in these magazines. When I read this list poem to a friend the next day over the phone, she said "It's terrible and boring!" She suggested a conversational tone among Stanford girls on getting a guy for the Prom." "Why not put lipsticks such as Strawberry Passion and Jungle Fever into your poem", she tossed more ideas my way. When I asked her whether those are actually real names of lipsticks, she confessed she just made them up. After my research, I wanted to put real titles of magazine articles and real names of cosmetics. My friend told me she'll go to Long's and jot down real names of lipsticks and nail polishes. I went to the Foothill College Computer Lab in Palo Alto at 3 pm Monday, and began revising my list poem into a conversational piece. Pinsky's first assignment was to write a poem imitating the way people use language such as oration, sermon, hymn, argument, instructions, small talk, flattery, nursery rhyme, etc. Bring the idiom suggested by the title to some unexpected kind of experience or emotion. Because Ryan forwarded Pinsky's email to the class late, few did his assignment. I decided on "Small Talk" with a slight twist at the end. The poem is divided into two 24-lines stanzas. The first stanza depicts two female roommates chatting on getting a guy to the Prom. The language is directly from the cover articles in the fashion magazines. The language in the second stanza is more uplifted and spiritual. The Hindu friend who walks in, shares her Oriental philosophy on why those fashion magazine recipes don't work and how she found happiness in life. I managed to squeeze a line from all 11 fashion magazines in the first stanza. The Sensual Spice lip gloss and Star Kissed nail polish were not on the magazine covers, but are real names of cosmetics my friend found at Long's. I incorporated them into my poem and emailed my anonymous poem to Ryan Jacobs just before Foothill Computer Lab closed at 10 pm Monday.

Notes to Poem:

missing cats & dogs in the classifieds
Jim Berkland, a retired geologist, predicted the October 17, 1989 Earthquake in the Bay Area four days earlier in the Gilroy Dispatch. He based his prediction on the unusual gravitational pull of the moon and missing pets in a Bay Area newspaper's lost and found column. Three weeks before he phoned the Gilroy Dispatch, there were 27 missing cats, a record high compared to an average of 4-5. There were also 57 dogs missing in late September, again a record high except for the usual Fourth of July fireworks scares. Four days after he notified the newspaper, at 5:04 p.m., just as the 3rd game of the 1989 World Series was about to begin, the ground shook violently for 15 seconds along the San Andreas fault. It was the deadliest earthquake to jolt Northern California since the San Francisco quake of 1906.

My friend suggested the names of Jamie and Jessica as popular names among girls these days instead of Betty and Sally. These are the actual names of her bank teller's young daughters. Sujatha is the name of another banker there, who is from India and speaks Tamil. When I typed "Sujatha" in Google, I learned that this is the pseudonym of the Tamil writer S. Rangaranjan (born May 3, 1935) who has written over 100 novels, 250 short stories, ten books on science, ten stage plays, and a slim volume of poems. An engineer by profession, he supervised the design and production of the Electronic Voting Machine (EVM) during his tenure in Bharat Electronics which is currently used in elections throughout India. (Here's someone using both hemisphere of his brain creatively in art and science very much like my heroes Leonardo Da Vinci and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.)

Sanjiv is a male Hindu name derived from Sanskrit samjiva meaning "reviving". I got this name from an acquaintance working at Stanford's Green Library. When I gave him a copy of my poem, he told me his name is spelled Sanjeev.

Dalai Lama's five inner values
The Dalai Lama spoke about these five virtues (compassion, forgiveness, patience, tolerance, self-discipline) in his talk "The Heart of Nonviolence" at Stanford Memorial Church on November 4, 2005. Stanford students who attended the talk were surprised that his Holiness did not speak about human rights or freedom for Tibet. Instead he offered them practical advice on how to be successful in school and at work when they graduate.

pain comes from selfishness and cravings
Buddha's "Four Noble Truths" begins with "Suffering comes from cravings." Krishna tells Arjuna "Those who forsakes all desires and abandons all pride of possession and of self attains the goal of peace supreme." (Bhagavad Gita II.71). The class would have guessed that I wrote this poem had I quoted these sages, so I attributed these words to Sujatha's granny.

joy comes from selflessness and helping others
Lao Tzu (6th century BC) says "The sage pulls himself last but ends up first. Selflessness must be the reason whatever he seeks he finds." (Tao Te Ching VII). Also "The sage accumulates nothing. The more he does for others, the happier he is. The more he gives to others, the greater his abundance." (Tao Te Ching LXXXI). The Zen master Dogen (1200-1253) says, "We study the self to forget the self. And when you forget the self, you become one with all things." [Gary Snyder expresses this point well in his The Real Work (1980) which I quoted in "Poetry and Power"]. The Sufi poet Rumi (1207-1273) says "If you speak well of another, the good will return to you, and you are always in a paradise, in a garden of flowers and herbs. If you speak ill of another, you'll be wandering day and night in a briar patch of thistles and thorns with snakes and scorpions." (Rumi, Signs of the Unseen, Ch. 55). I attributed these ideas to Sujatha's granny, otherwise the class would realize that I wrote this poem.


Fashion Magazine Sources for the Poem:

Allure (February 2007):
Cover: Julianne Moore
  On Love & Younger Men

30-Second Hairstyles & 17 Indispensable Tricks
Sneaky Wight Gain: 26 Surprising Causes (and Cures!)
Improve Your Mood: Food, Exercise,
  and Makeup that Make You Happy
RELAX! The 10 Best Places to Destress
Get Great Skin: Top Facialists' Best-Kept Secrets
Cosmopolitan (February 2007):
Cover: Eva Mendes—
  Fun Fearless Female of the Year

The SEX He'll Die For:
Foreplay Ideas Almost Too Risqué to Share
A Dirty Little Secret You Never Hear About Marriage
9 Love Lies Guys Tell
Turn Your Man Into a You-Pleasing Sex Genius
(Warning: Earthquake Coming!)
Plus: Young Guy Eye Candy Inside
Elle (February 2007):
Cover: Gwen Stephanie:
  New Album, New Baby, New Style!

Your Spring Essentials Shopping Guide
240+ Ideas to Update Your Look
Bold Bags, Sexy Shoes, Minis, Jeans
More Sex, More Money, More Respect
E. Jean's Guide to Getting What You Want
Project Runway Exclusive!
The Winning Looks
In Style (February 2007):
Cover: Hilary Swank in Love?

Shiny Hair Every Day
Get the Body You Want
27 New Pants You'll Look Great In
Inside: The Year's Best Celebrity Weddings
Valentine Gifts
Give Him Our List!
Lucky (February 2007):
Cover: Rosario Dawson—
  Gorgeous & Super-cool

Easy New Steps to Perfect Skin
How to Look Good in Everything
710 most-wanted items
Smart Sexy Style Secrets
Double duty clothes
We're actually giving away diamonds!
Marie Claire (February 2007):
Cover: Cate Blanchett Heats Up

Perfect Skin at 20, 30, 40
Hot Sex Guide: what men wish you knew...
Wake Up Energized!
7 New Secrets
What Works on You
Hollywood Breakups: What's Going On?
Redbook (February 2007):
Cover: Courtney Cox reveals her love
affair with a tabloid tipster! and why
her husband David is all for it

The very SEXY Issue
• what everyone else is really doing in bed
• men's secret desires
• look & feel your hottest
PLUS home Ideas, easy Recipes, money Advice
Seventeen (Prom Issue 2007):
Cover: Jo Jo

Prom: Find the Best Dress for Your Body
Avoid Prom Drama!
Jo Jo: "Girls Should Absolutely Ask Guys to Prom!"
Your Ultimate Shopping Guide:
600+ Dresses, Shoes, Bags & More!
47 Pretty Hair Ideas
Shape (February 2007):
Cover: Heather Locklear
  "How I stay strong during tough times"
  Her 10 Rules to Live By

Water-Weary Skin: 30-second cures
Get Slim in Just 5 Weeks
Not in the mood?
How to boost your libido by tonight
Drop 10 Pounds Without Trying
Vanity Fair (February 2007):
Cover: Demi Moore— Her Husband,
Her Body, and Why She Never Ages

Portraits of Power:
Who's Who in Washington's New Ruling Class
Why Britain's Sex Scandals Are
  So Much Juicier Than Ours
Vogue (February 2007):
Cover: Renée Zellweger:
  From Bridget Jones to Beatrix Potter

Taking Control of Your Look & Life:
19 Dresses that Show Who's Boss
The Ultimate Date Dress
The Most Decadent Chocolates
The World's Sexiest Bachelor
& A Divorcée's Fantasy Affair

February 2007 Magazine Covers (good source of large images)

Note: Some of the magazine covers were not available at the magazine's web site or the images were too small. Larger images were obtained by searching in Google typing the magazine's "title" + "February 2007". Resized in Photoshop to fit in table.

Afterword: Pinsky asked the class to select the anonymous poems they like to read and critique in today's workshop. Somehow, the quality of today's poems were better than the previous three sessions. Many I felt were better than mine. Some of the students were imitating the style of Emily Dickinson and William Carlos Williams— poets that Pinsky liked and included in his Reading Syllabus. As the hours passed, none appeared interested in reading my poem perhaps because it was longer than most of the others. Then Pinsky said, "How about Small Talk?" and began reading my poem. The women in the class acknowledged that the women magazines were all saying the same thing. John felt that these fashion magazines are exploiting women. Pinsky suggested that the author scramble the lines to make it go better— mix what the Dalai Lama said with these fashion headlines. Maybe the line about "why Demi Moore never ages" or "the SEX he'll die for!" would make a good ending. Kelcey, a documentary film major, liked that idea. She learned that a film scene of a departing train edited with someone catching the train always brings suspense and tension in the viewer. Pinsky then suggested the author see Sergei Eisenstein's Potemkin, how he used splicing so effectively in juxtaposing a train wreck scene with the actor's face. [Note: I had seen Potemkin in a Cornell film class decades ago, and still recall Eisenstein's montage of the Odessa steps— soldiers firing on civilians, mother carrying her dead child toward the firing Cossacks, a baby carriage careening down the steps, mother getting shot in the eye, her glasses splintering!]. I took notes on all these suggestions for later revision of this poem. The class had read and critiqued 12 poems, and Pinsky didn't have time for the six remaining poems. He wanted the last 15 minutes of the class for students to guess who wrote what today. Some identified correctly the author, others were mistaken. None ventured a guess on who wrote "Small Talk" until it was the only poem with "Sola Renga" unidentified. Then some of the women pointed to Pinsky— "You wrote Small Talk!" Pinsky said he didn't write any poem himself, but the anonymous poem "Why the HG Is Holy" is a poem by Mark Halliday from his first book Little Star. "Nobody cared for the poem I brought in" Pinsky said. I've kept quiet for the entire class. Finally Rachel (who wrote "Sola Renga") pointed to me "Peter— Did you write Small Talk?" and I said "Yes." The whole class bursts out laughing and applauded. Pinsky shook his head "I didn't believe Peter could write such a poem." He congratulated me for my attempt in writing something in a different vein than usual. It was the first time I wrote in a female voice. I gave Pinsky this set of notes, and upon seeing the magazine covers I've compiled with all the juicy headlines, he said "I see that you really did some research" as he dashed off to catch his plane flight back to Boston.

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© Peter Y. Chou,
P.O. Box 390707, Mountain View, CA 94039
email: (1-31-2007)