This afternoon I heard the familiar knock and rattle of our mailbox and stepped onto the porch to collect the mail. We had a flier from The Container Store and a tightly bundled parcel of coffee beans from an old friend down in Austin. But what caught my attention was the quiet rain shower misting over the street and the fresh smell in the air. And I decided I needed to take a break from work and sit on the porch for a bit.
I put the mail in the mail bin and the coffee beans in the kitchen, which is when I realized a cup of fresh coffee would go perfectly with the rain. So I brewed a quick cup of pour-over.
While I watched the coffee grounds bloom, I decided I didn’t want to just sit outside and smell the rain. As long as I was taking a break, I might as well enjoy some reading, not the critical works I was assigning my students or the news I’d been avoiding all day — something that would feel right during a short break on the front porch, something that would go well with coffee and rain. So, poetry, of course.
So I picked up Leaving Clean, the debut collection by my friend and grad school classmate Natalie Giarratano, which had arrived in the mail a few days ago but which I’d only got a couple of poems into.
The first two poems are beautifully lyrical and ornamented with these hard little images from everyday life — shoes on a telephone line, screaming kids and trampolines. But by the third poem, I was beginning to see past the line breaks and stanza structures to the narrative, almost essay-like purpose underlying the poems. This is something I’ve always loved about Natalie’s poetry: her ability to make a point not by beating you over the head with it but by feeding you lines that bring her point blooming forth from inside you.
I sat a few moments, sipping coffee and marveling at her subtlety and her compression, and I remembered that I’m spending more time this year focusing on compression and precision in my first-year composition classes. I usually spend a lot of my time in those classes trying to get students to expand their ideas and hone their topics, and then we deal with the language once it’s on the page, in a full draft. But I want to spend more time up front this year thinking about the pieces, about individual words and sentences.
And I’m reading Natalie’s poetry and thinking about my good friend and mentor David Breeden, who used to turn all his novels into screenplays just to tighten them up. And I’m wondering if I couldn’t do the same with essays and poems. If I couldn’t ask my students to turn their first drafts into poems in order to focus on the language and squeeze out all the excess.
It’s just a thought, but if I try it, I’ll write here how it went.
In the meantime, my break is long since over, considering my quiet few minutes reading poetry on my porch has turned into lesson planning….
PS: The title of this post is a line from the first poem in Natalie’s book. You can find the whole poem, “Self-Portrait as a Pair of Shoes Hanging from a Power Line,” on her website, but the two stanzas that this line begins (you need two for the context) go like this:
There’s nothing but time here,
so wait: we could love you;
though, you should know,
we’ve seen the way you devote
yourself to pavement and always
appear to be rushing, leaving,