What Works sets out to examine a piece of writing and determine one component that just, well, works.
Required reading: Graduation, Sex Camel, Beach Sloth's blog
Graduation, a poem published in issue 3 of UP, isn’t weird or surreal or crazy or about Wish Bone — that goddamn dog. For a poem written by someone who goes by Beach Sloth and writes in a weird, surreal way--often examining indie lit from the most abnormal of point-of-views--Graduation is pretty straightforward. Just a piece about a guy and a girl. Go read it, it’s short, we’re going to talk about it in a second.
You done? Good.
For me, it’s the dialogue. Both spots of dialogue (though one isn’t even in quotes) work well here. They're probably the strongest parts of the poem. The parts where "her" voice comes through seem to tie the scenes together, making it easier to see the rain as the narrator walks--despite that message being sent in email--and making it easier to see the narrator’s “efficient” body later in the poem. I mean, come on, “efficient” isn’t exactly a word you describe a person’s body with. A car engine maybe, but not someone you’re about to share a physical embrace with.
When it comes right down to it, we need this dialogue to show off the characters as individuals. Why? Because this is a poem we’ve all written, lived, thought-up in the shower, and read before. We’re all human beings, we’ve all walked around in the rain bummed out about a loved one, so we need to know the narrator’s body is efficient instead of say, soft or warm. We need that little extra somethin’ to allow the piece to stand on its own instead of getting drowned out by, well, everything else like it.
The dialogue is what works. Without it, we not only lose the most distinct parts of the poem—the voice of it—but also any notion of character individuality.
So maybe it’s time for the rest of us who’ve written bad poems to take them out of our hiding places (dresser drawers, hidden under socks and tighty whiteys), and give them another go. Have another go out at the dialogue. As we can see in Graduation, a little bit goes a long way.
I recently sat down with Beach Sloth. It was in a wicker chair--one of those big ones made out of bamboo, so really, I guess it was a bamboo chair--and he sat on my lap answering a few of my questions, slowly falling over as he did so. He smiled the whole time. A slow-witted smile.Full of sunshine. Like the sun, you know, if the sun were mentally disabled.
Mason: What were your favorite parts of the poem?
Beach Sloth: The detailed parts were my favorites. [Sloth burps.] They were also fairly hard as I tend to sort of make everything a little vague. I think this may be one of the more personal things I've shared.
M: What else? What do you think is working here?
BS: What else did I like? I actually worked on this piece a little bit. I enjoy how I split it up into tiny pieces through the word “but.” I have a hard time writing longer pieces so I used the break as a way of extending my ideas and interrupting them.
I wrote most of the piece during one of my periodic “undergrad nostalgia” periods. I've been having more of them lately. That Stereolab song in the beginning sets the tone for me. I can remember it, it was the second track off of one of their less critically acclaimed albums. The rain made me feel sad.
[We move and continue our conversation in a bathroom. He talks, his head turned over his shoulder, as he pisses. I brush my teeth vigorously.]
By the end of the day it was beautiful and sunny. Somehow the weather had transformed so gradually I barely even noticed it. Somebody asked me to go to the bar with them but I was leaving the campus for a very long time.
I visited my old school for a little while. It was in a really beautiful part of the state. Even now I sort of miss it. My current school I doubt I'd have the same feelings for. At my old school I had certain supporters and friends. Here I have that to some degree but there's definitely not the same level of connection. Undergrad feels far kinder, far more gentle, than anything you experience afterwards. I guess that's kind of what I interpret my poem to mean.
Or I could just write another poem describing that. I'm not certain.
M: So you're pro the inclusion of pop media in writing? You make Stereolab sound like an essential part of the voice - true?
BS: Sometimes it is. Sometimes it feels a little like showing off. With most of my writing (creative, stories I haven't shared) I generally use music as a framework for how to mold the plot. I have a hard time describing it. So I'd say true - with some caveats.
M: How are you going to push yourself with your next poem?
BS: I have no idea. There's a rough sketch forming in my brain about a series of interconnected poems forming a chapbook but otherwise that's it.
M: You should go do that.
[Beach Sloth takes my suggestion literally and walks out of the restaurant we’re sitting in, leaving me with an expensive bill, and two mimosas to finish on my own.]