Are you ready for 88 pages of poetry that, according to Larissa Szporluk (author of Traffic with Macbeth), captures the “darkest and lightest aspects of being alive”?
Well ready or not, here it comes. In the fall of 2016, Modlin’s debut book Everyone at This Party Has Two Names will be available. His work has made him the Cowles Poetry Prize Winner. His previous works of writing have been nominated for several Pushcart Prizes.
You can read Modlin’s poetry that was published in Issue 8 of Superstition Reviewby clicking here.
Here´s a game I play in the kitchen: I rip out pictures from magazines and tape them to my cabinets.
Selected at random, their only similarity is that they’re interesting enough to look at for a while. (No ads for Xerox machines or anything like that.) The game is that you find what these pictures can have in common.
Once I ended up with a saxophone player, a train track, and an ad for the TV show, Pushing Daisies.
For weeks, while I was stirring soup or waiting for my pasta pot to boil, I looked up at these pictures and built bridges. Maybe the Daisies couple had pressed their ears to the ground to hear the music of the approaching train. Or, a different bridge—the bell of the saxophone was circular like the wheel of the train and the center of the daisy. Also, the saxophonist’s hair was grass-like. Or maybe he was a hobo who hopped trains searching for the brunette he once loved in the grass. Each picture contained death: the TV show about the girl who died, the abandoned train track, and the jazz of a New Orleans funeral.
It was a simple—and surprisingly fun—way to build my metaphor muscles. And the longer those same pictures were on the cabinets, the more challenging it became to find new connections.
Plus, as several other writers have reported on this blog, we can all go through spells when we’re not exactly writing. In those times, this picture game can be a way to trick yourself into staying in shape.
When I tape other magazine cutouts to the chalkboard and share the game with my students, they really get into it and always create similarities I hadn’t anticipated. Poetry classes often find sensory connections: the noisy motorboat probably screams like the pregnant woman will do when she goes into labor. Or they easily do what teachers frequently hope they will—explain an abstract concept via a concrete image. The Egyptian queen from the museum photo, they say, is proud and stubborn and as unflinching as the blue mountain from the magazine cover.
The fiction students find narratives. They link five pictures together into one story, and then I add a sixth picture, and they come up with a complete different plot or character. Maybe the desert that was the setting becomes the loneliness that motivates the main character.
If you want to give it a try yourself, here are some pictures:
Maybe the fight with cancer is like the dragon tattoo versus the Godzilla toy. Maybe that’s The Grim Reaper on the staircase. Maybe smoking makes you cough like a cat with a hairball.
Or, maybe the cat is waiting for someone to feed her, the ghostly staircase figure is floating to the dining room, the little boy wants someone to fix him an afternoon snack, and the cowboys are on their way to campfire soup. Maybe everyone is hungry and wishing the cook would pay more attention to the pot on the stove, and less attention to the pictures taped to the cabinets.
Before I tell you about the puppet parade, let me tell you about my past two weeks.
I was stressed, and as I told a friend, “feeling under.” I alternated between 1) accidentally waking an hour before my alarm and then—afraid to waste time—reaching for a stack of papers to grade and 2) sleeping until 8:30 and feeling guilty for it. Each day I needed to accomplish three tasks, but then one of them ate up all my hours until suddenly it was bedtime. I struggled for days to get to the grocery and in the meantime had cereal for dinner. When I finally bought a carton of eggs, I dropped them in the driveway and five cracked.
I know that a month from now, I won’t even remember the frazzle of these two weeks, and I know that other—truly sad—stories have taken place or been written down in the past 14 days.
But yesterday I was concerned with my story. I vented (whined?) to an artist friend over coffee. She, too, had been feeling under. One of the projects that had kept her busy was to paint a puppet. Apparently, while I had been rushing around, a group of artists had recruited dozens of townspeople and together they were recycling old materials into twenty enormous puppets. The next night they’d march them in their own parade.
I was too curious to grade papers, so I left the coffee shop and went to the artists’ studio space. So far they had constructed: a fluorescent orange owl in a dress; a giant red vulture head wearing flowing strips of garbage bags; several six-foot tall “talking” skulls with Christmas ornament eyes and mirror teeth; a gauzy whale; and imaginary animals with VHS tape clothing.
I spoke with one of the leaders as he measured some scraps of wood. He said about 70% of their supplies were leftovers, things other people had trashed. Of course, I thought about writing. A lucky trick writers have is that we can take a crummy, or disappointing, or even heartbreaking real-life experience (or pair of weeks) and use it to make something new. We can—at least in part—redeem it, give it purpose as material for creating. And then some good has come from it.
The project leader went on to say they dumpster-dove for many of their supplies. I asked, “So how do you know what material is valuable when you see it—what’s worth harvesting?”
He said, “Everything is.”
This answer was enough to get me signed up as a volunteer puppeteer for the parade. And so this evening I led a line of fanciful creatures down the main street of our town. I wore a huge praying mantis whose arms and legs moved with mine. Cloth people with balloon hair hopped behind me, the birds flew on poles, the whale swam circles around us, and the metallic lion heads bopped in time with the snare drum.
As we processed through downtown, kids climbed onto their parents’ shoulders to see and college students cheered from their apartment balconies. When people noticed us through coffee shop windows, I waved a mantis hand to them.
I picked up my insect legs, which were made from bamboo shoots and tied to my ankles with old bike inner tubes. In the heavy green body—made from styrofoam swimming pool noodles, PVC pipe, wire tomato cages, and packing cardboard—I shuffled lightly. And my shuffling grew into even sort of a samba step by the time we paraded back to the studio entrance, where the snare drummer played softer and softer as if not wanting to end it, and we all danced in place on the sidewalk, each of us trying to stall before we had to take off our puppet costumes.
Each Tuesday we feature audio or video of an SR Contributor reading their work. Today we’re proud to feature this podcast by Brad Modlin.
Brad Modlin’s poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction have appeared in Denver Quarterly, Indiana Review, The Florida Review, The Pinch, and River Teeth, among others. His work has been nominated for several Pushcart Prizes. He holds an MFA from Bowling Green and is a PhD candidate in Creative Writing at Ohio University, where he reads for New Ohio Review. He just finished discussing modern-day panopticons with his students and looks forward to discussing less scary topics next term—Beowulf and Middle English Chaucer.