New Poem by Conway: “Coliseum”

“Then I saw that the wall had never been there, that the ‘Unheard of’ is here and this, not something and somewhere else, that the ‘offering’ is here and now, always and everywhere — ‘surrendered’ to be what, in me, God gives of Himself to Himself. So long as you abide in the ‘Unheard of’, you are beyond and above — to hold fast to this must be the first commandment in your spiritual discipline.”  –Dag Hammarskjold, Markings

My prison pen pal “Conway” shared this quote with me in his latest letter. Too well, he understands that the impulse to pin down and possess the sacred can fuel the self-righteousness of the oppressor. Hammarskjold suggests that God is a mystery that we abide in, with humility. Believing we can comprehend God is a short step away from believing that our group has the divine right of superiority over someone else who disagrees with us.

Conway also sent me a revised version of his poem “Screw”, which I published here here in May. Though I miss a few of the phrases from the original, I like this version’s tighter rhymes and slam-poetry energy, and the new title, which adds a dimension of political commentary.


Which bowl do I pick to torture me
I’ll choose one or two, but never three
that’s an unlucky number for me.

    All screw-ball;
Captured with fiction (false prevention)
for a warrant scored, law ignored
in turn arrested, past inspected
stuck in the county jail congested.
Forced to sleep on a nasty-ass floor,
as time passes by but never clicks
on phantom clocks (in our mind) that tick,
unless of course, someone pays for bail
cares enough perhaps, to spare those straps?

    Only then;
Can we be dragged, from beneath of it
this God-forsaken — bottomless pit
Where a pancake tastes like pigeon shit.

Jailbirds, bound against each other nude
then lewdly gagged with rude restraint
beseeching eyes express their complaint
scooching voiceless, along corridors.
Where chains, dragged in exploit (bragged about)
by infinite banes of committee —
sparing no scrap of humane pity.
Suffer the fools, this ruthless city
Controlled lies can never compromise.

    Show us when;
Take this summons they say “Come along”
It matters not, if you’ve done No wrong!
Blind’s the law, to an innocent’s song.

What is all of this, our time of day?
Without a window sun’s light to see
What would you say, if you had grown cold
while nakedly sold, then told “No way!”
you cannot wear their warm clothes today.
“Rue ice-cold talons of punishment”
chilled bones are part of this correction;
We must oppose (who chose) to strip skin
of warm clothes (like the fooled emperor).

    They say, while —
wearing a poison barbedwire smile:
“You’ll harm yourself for quite a long-while”
receive reprisal without god’ style.

Fool! pick your poison, get on inside
regardless if, you will not decide
to ever get caught-up on this ride
screaming so loud, to start a landslide,
where razor-wire, divides the road;
One, our ancestors surely have strolled,
built on fanatical persuasion —
on some poor fool’s screwed-up vision
sanctified rule of prohibition.

    Do you know?
To break free-spirit, is their main goal.
We only leave when we’ve paid that toll,
then, some lost soul just refills their bowl…

Tuesday Random Song: “Great Is Thy Faithfulness”

This song touched my heart when I heard it about four years ago, when I was just beginning to write my novel and was scared by the unpredictable ebb and flow of feeling close to my characters. I’ve always been hyper-aware of the transience of human lives, and for that reason, all the more grateful for the hope that God’s love is an unchanging foundation.

This clip is from The Big Sing at the Royal Albert Hall, featuring soloist Aled Jones and a whole lotta choirs.

1. Great is Thy faithfulness, O God my Father,
There is no shadow of turning with Thee;
Thou changest not, Thy compassions, they fail not
As Thou hast been Thou forever wilt be.

Great is Thy faithfulness! Great is Thy faithfulness!
Morning by morning new mercies I see;
All I have needed Thy hand hath provided—
Great is Thy faithfulness,” Lord, unto me!

2. Summer and winter, and springtime and harvest,
Sun, moon and stars in their courses above,
Join with all nature in manifold witness
To Thy great faithfulness, mercy and love.


3. Pardon for sin and a peace that endureth,
Thy own dear presence to cheer and to guide;
Strength for today and bright hope for tomorrow,
Blessings all mine, with ten thousand beside!


Tell Hard Truths, But Go Easy on Yourself: Advice from Glimmer Train Writers

There’s always something inspiring and insightful in the email bulletins from the literary journal Glimmer Train. Each issue features interviews with fiction writers who’ve been published in the magazine. These two articles particularly resonated with me.

I think I’m a reasonably upbeat and entertaining person to be around, but darkness predominates in my writing. My novel protagonist is a gay fashion photographer with a laid-back Southern approach to life–what could be fluffier?–but after four years of working with me, he’s often found lying on the beach in a drunken stupor, crying for his dead boyfriend and worrying about his soul. “Be more funny, Julian!” I berate him, like Homer Simpson talking back to “Prairie Home Companion”.

After all, my so-called logic goes, if my book doesn’t make people happy, I won’t be able to sell my ideology to the masses, and the whole idea that I’m doing Something Important for the World is called into question. Then I start to feel guilty that I’m not using my law degree to bring about social change instead of writing gay erotica. (Or sitting at my computer blogging about my literary self-loathing instead of writing the damn book!) I once wrote in my diary, “I don’t want to sing the blues that no one wants to hear.”

Jenny Zhang, winner of Glimmer Train’s April 2010 Family Matters Competition, understands this fear. When she was a young girl in China, her parents left for America to get an education, and she sent them cassette tapes recounting her adventures in kindergarten. Only problem was, her upbeat tales weren’t actually true. She missed her parents and felt like a misfit in school, but created an alternate storyline for the adults to hear. To protect them? She isn’t so sure. What she does know, as a grown-up storyteller, is this:

…I have come to realize that as fiction writers, the easiest thing we can do is to invent, to lie, to make things up, to imagine, to create fictions. I know this is true because there is nothing more natural and intuitive than the impulse to dream. The difficulty lies in telling the truth. We will always have opportunities to tell stories that are meant to comfort, to delight on dark days when light is needed, but where else and when else, if not in our fiction, are we going to tell the stories that comfort no one, the stories that we often don’t tell out of love or pity or compassion or simply because it is unpleasant? If not in our fiction, then where else can we tell stories that say: I’m lonely. Or: I fear I may matter so little to this world that I can cease to exist and no one and nothing would mourn my disappearance. I know it isn’t much to say: Tell the truth! But it’s the only thing I have, and it’s the only thing I can offer you.

Zhang’s essay reminds me that my approach to writing can become too instrumental. I fall into thinking of my book as a way to change what other people do and feel, when perhaps it would be better understood as a way to name and reflect the experiences that they already have. In other words, my job is to give my readers a way to make sense of who they are, not force a new identity or agenda on them. My excessive need for control springs from the fear that I may not be heard by the people I most want to reach, because they are unwilling to recognize themselves in Julian and his friends, no matter how charming he is or how clever I am.

In the same bulletin, Nic Brown advises writers to “Make It Easy”: use whatever simple tricks you can find to turn your book-length project into a manageable task that you can get your mind around. In his case, it was structuring his story collection like a 12-song musical album with A and B sides. “Make it easy, however you can. It’s not going to cheapen the work. It will improve the writing. It will keep you from hating the process.”

This essay recalled themes from my earlier post on resisting compulsive revision. Writers need to overcome insecurity that we’re not doing real work, because to the untrained eye, we seem to be lying on the couch daydreaming. But being kind to one’s self is the necessary support for telling those hard truths.