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Poets in Progress

Works by Students of Charles Harper Webb

Instructor's Statement

I'm not one of those who sneer, "Creative Writing can't be taught."  Maybe talent can't be taught; but students can be helped to develop many aspects of their writing that are viewed as marks of talent. 

Students can be taught to examine their worlds—inner and outer—more closely, to see more clearly, and to record their observations with more accuracy, and therefore, more originality.   They can be guided to read works that broaden their outlook and increase their writing skills.  They can be taught to develop their own image-pools and diction patterns, to explore their own beliefs and values, and to value (but not overvalue) what they find. 

These teaching tasks demand that I react to students in much the same way that a therapist reacts to clients—not by moving the students' vision toward mine, but by moving each toward a vision of his/her own.  I tell students, "No one can write about your world as well as you."

One of the dangers of any Creative Writing class is a committee-like tendency to smooth rough edges and move toward common, safe, and neutral ground.  Workshops—especially "advanced" ones—can become piranha tanks in which only the most middle-of-the-road or cleverly obscure poem escapes unscathed, and in which students fear to take chances.  If I see this happening—or even if I don't —I weigh in heavily on the side of openness, experimentation, and a sense of creativity-as-play.  A little knowledge of literary "rules" and "technique"—or even quite a bit of knowledge—can be a dangerous thing. 

Because it never gets easy, writing poems seems to me a great adventure.  I try to convey my love of the adventure by being excited about my own poems, other people's poems, and most of all, each student's poems.  I let students know when I admire, or even envy, work they've done.  I try to lessen their chagrin at missteps by assuring them that I've made the same ones.  Many times.   I let them know that we're all poets together, facing the same obstacles, working toward the same goal: to write poetry that lives. 

Jhoanna S. Aberia

and onto his own power drill
is you, your skull cored like an apple,
your fingers tracing the bit’s trajectory
from eye socket to nape.

Suppose that first shock
doesn’t kill you, splayed on the harsh grit
of the construction site floor.  Checking
if your legs still work, scraping your work boots
through sawdust and wood chips.
Suppose you are the one comforting
your co-workers, their eyes drawn
to the pooled blood, the red meat
of you pierced and shot, still lucid
despite the metal arrow in your head.

Suppose you hear the ambulance’s
slow whine, sound grinding in your ears
like the drill buzzing through your cranium,
sound throbbing in the canted walls
of your head.  It’s the last sound you hear

before waking in recovery, head
a puffed-up wrecking ball craning your neck
out of alignment, the surgeon brandishing
your drill bit, sterile and polished
on the tray beside you.

Suppose you wake just as he’s telling the nurses
how he plotted the first incision,
the best possible way to crack your head open
and remove the bit without killing you,
before deciding to just unscrew the damned thing.

Suppose you reach out, knowing how good
it would feel to grasp that steel heft in your fist
and pound it into the doctor’s balding
pink forehead, catch him, mid-chuckle; stop the bastard
from stealing your show.

Ja'net Daniels

at the first sign of sickness—a throbbing temple,
the sharp jab of stomach cramps—call your mother.
Do not question her question as she asks,
Have you lent out any of your things?
Listen to her voice fall into a whisper
as she tells you about the fetuda
some neighborhood hag put on her mother
after borrowing her black dress with the white
calico print. How, after that, her mother suffered
stomach pains for weeks. Listen, as she swears
what broke the curse was a two-inch long, silver
Italian horn her mother wore on a necklace,
and a tiny red bag filled with salt that she tucked
under her mattress.

Try not to laugh. This is your mother.

Tell the story to your friends. Laugh over beer
and cigarettes. As a joke, make them all red bags.
Then when, all in one week, you lose
your car keys, vomit four times, and are followed
by a strange man who professes his love
at your doorstep, be suspicious of everyone:
the checker at the grocery store who smiled
a bit too long, the girl at work who fawned
over the ring your boyfriend gave you,
and neglected to say, Wear it well.

Find the horn your mother gave you as a kid,
fasten it around your neck.
And that red bag—
pin it to your mattress

Kathryn Formosa

We were short clowns and aliens, loose in the streets,
Smacking blue lips, baring green tongues,
Touching everything with red, slimy fingertips,
Running, always running, because the black asphalt
Became soft under your feet and emitted warped waves
That could melt your Jelly shoes right off.

So we sucked that ice-sugar through the clear plastic
To cool off, pushing each purple wedge, sliding each pink
Chunk slowly so the ice’d melt a little and leave a pool
Of colored sweetness at the bottom to slurp, then
try to push the last few drops to the top with numbed digits,
lips pursed, waiting to suck them up.

We’d settle in the tree shade with a paper towel
And our Otter Pops, our exasperated mothers retreating
Into the dark, cool doorways to sweat and gossip,
Leaving us alone to argue over our Otters.
Who is the smartest Otter?  Sir Isaac Lime, of course.
Who is the cutest Otter?  Little Orphan Orange and Strawberry
Short Kook battled this one out.  The funniest Otter?
Louie-Bloo Otter with his rakish beret? Or Poncho Punch,
clearly drunk, but just crazy to us? We were what we ate.  Therefore,
I was always Alexander the Grape, with his white Toga,
laurel wreath and purple face with whiskers. I forced my little
sisters to pick a lower place on the Otter hierarchy.

Afterward it was always Tag.  Leaves stuck to our gooey hands,
dirt crusted in the corners of mouths, and drips of color
littered our shirts as we rolled in the dirt, falling down
When someone bigger “tagged” us too hard, our scabs as bright
red as food-colored sugar-ice.  Inevitably, there would be a “Do Over”
that would send a little one home squealing and, by then,
it was cooling off anyway. We helped our bruised and stained
brothers and sisters home, limping and licking
away the Otter Pop from our faces.

Harold Hoffman

some scientists believe
the universe will
eventually retract
into a black hole
and we will live
our lives in reverse.
this gives me hope.

your car will pull in
the driveway.
you’ll unpack, placing
unmatched socks
and t-shirts on the floor.

your stupid porcelain
clown will come together,
turquoise shards leaping
from the wall into my hand.

weeks will pass
where you’ll come back
to bed every morning
and we’ll wake most nights
in each other’s arms
until we make love again
for the first time.

meals will begin with dessert
while bouquets flourish overnight
and we fall out of love.
our last words will be hello.

Nestor Silva

New Year’s Eve in rural Colombia,
I sat on the only paved road for miles
and watched a bus, yellow red blue white,

bleeding black smoke and salsa trumpet,
piano and bells, a whirlpool spilling
into Andean foothills above the village.

The bus riders, dressed for a Sunday
revel, passed bottles and yelled from
the windows, tossed spherical fireworks

like paper grapefruit detonating on the
asphalt. Round-faced, with hair like cold
beer and dry clay colored eyes, homely,

in old blue jeans, she rode the back bumper
of the bus, held onto the ladder one-handed,
laughing at exhaust and black-powder smoke

in her mouth. She was drunk and her audacity,
plain and beautiful, like a scream in a cathedral,
made me stare as she blew a kiss I could taste.

The bus climbed the foothills. I’m convinced
that had I chased her, we would’ve had children
who swung from cribs and chased balls into

the street. At night her hair would hold the faint
smell of matches and diesel fuel. In the morning,
her face like a grapefruit, she’d explode into
laughter whenever breakfast burned.

Ali Stevenson

She stands, arms firmly crossed, eyes wandering
from the bookshelf to the white laundry basket
to the antenna on the TV.  I stand folding sweaters

and socks, glance at her occasionally and think
what I can say.  I’m sorry.  You’re right, I am quiet.
Why do I fuck other girls?  She leans onto the bed,

lowers her head.  I stop folding, stare until she looks
up.  Her hazel eyes demand; her lips could quiver
anytime.  Never again.  I promise, I’ll squeeze harder

when we cuddle.  We’ll hang out more, do stuff.
She puts both hands on the bed, her knuckles crack,
the noise cuts the air.  I pick up a work sock and look

for its pair in the pile.  “I don’t know what I can tell
you,” I say, “I gotta get ready for work.”  She walks out
of the room before I look up.  The tattoo on her back

fades into the hallway, and I start hurling clothes.
I’m in Alaska, my pulse rising, my purple hands
and face pressed against thick ocean ice, my eyes

and mouth, gasping for the air on the other side.

Charles Harper Webb's fifth book of poems, Tulip Farms and Leper Colonies, was published in 2001 by BOA Editions, Ltd.  In 2002, the University of Iowa Press published Stand Up Poetry: An Expanded Anthology, edited by Webb.  His Reading the Water (1997) won the Kate Tufts Discovery Award and the S.F. Morse Poetry Prize. Liver (1999) won the Felix Pollak Prize in Poetry. Webb was also the recipient of a Whiting Writing Award and a fellowship from the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation. He teaches at California State University, Long Beach.