restricted access Scotch Tape Receptacle Scissors and a Poem
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Scotch Tape Receptacle Scissors and a Poem John O. Espinoza When most young poets write their first poems, they turn out lines that are either long and wormy or stubby as toes. Of course, it’s not that writing either length is against any rules, but short lines for the beginning poet tend to be more like shards with splinters for line-breaks, and longer lines tend to be chatty and wordy. As a beginning poet I wrote both these lengths. Early on, my sense of line length and line end was modeled on Gary Soto’s Where Sparrows Work Hard, which typically had lines of two beats. For the most part, these poems dictated my sense of the line: pick a length and stick to it. It took me a while to learn the value of the poetic line that paid attention to subject and content. During my undergraduate days in workshop, my drafts were returned to me saturated with blue ink. Words, phrases, and whole lines were crossed out. Prepositions would be added, word pairings inverted, and the thin blue line from Professor Christopher Buckley’s pen, wedged like a fence between two words, indicated a line-break. In his own poems, Buckley showed mastery over his lines. In workshop, he taught us about using syllabics and meter, although, at the end of the day, we turned in free verse. At that age, more thickheaded than arrogant, I wasn’t interested in syllables, meters, or poetic feet, other than mine that needed a good rub after walking around campus all day. I was attending UC Riverside, located in the Inland Empire east of Los Angeles where first-generation college-goers didn’t attend the university to learn how to write a successful poem. I was a brown kid excited enough about poetry to buy a black-and-white marble composition notebook and spend an additional $6 worth of quarters on foil stickers of Aztec warriors, low riders, cholos, and payasos to decorate the front and back covers. Back at my apartment bedroom, I wrote poems at dusk, at what cinematographers called the “magic hour.” Writing by hand, the lines of my poems always reached the inside trench of the notebook. Besides, the wisdom of Buckley’s blue slash Espinoza | 83 upon which I was so reliant would transform a sloppy line into a tight one. The suggestions in his line endings were so simple they were almost mysterious, but I soon began to hear the music and measure of my own breath. Scotch tape. A receptacle. Scissors and a poem. These were the tools we needed for Alberto Ríos’s do-it-yourself editing kit. It was my second year at Arizona State University’s MFA program, and I was enrolled in Ríos’s popular Magical Realism course where his writing exercises would give my poems and their poetic lines a good licking. The assignment was to take a poem that wasn’t quite working for us, triple-space it, scissor out each line, and dump it into a receptacle, so that each day I would pull out a strip and read it like a fortune from a fortune cookie before taping it to my wall. Do this once a day until you’re done. Finally, type out this “revision” of the poem, make copies, and bring to class. Taken out of their context my lines were senseless; I was, after all, primarily a narrative poet. I discovered that I continued to make poor choices in enjambments . Rarely did the lines stand alone, and when they did, the language, like a Triscuit, was flat and bland. Often, subject and nouns masqueraded as lines: “The palm tree,” “tabernacle,” “almonds. Afterward I.” Or maybe a cut-off prepositional phrase: “Under the.” Because only one line could be drawn a day, it was torturous to stare directly from where I lay in bed at the poorly written lines taped to my bedroom wall. I wanted to cheat, pull out the strips all at once from the Arizona Diamondbacks ball cap in which they rested in a tangle, to expedite the embarrassment. That would have been a disservice more to myself than my teacher. Ríos wanted us to contemplate our lines, let them dissolve in our mouths like a dinner mint. He wanted us to find our patterns that hindered us from writing good lines, to see how much of the poem depends on how strong the lines are...


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