My Commentary on the Slice of Life Ballad

 

The following comes from the original email in which I delivered my manuscript to Ellie for the Slice of Life ballad. I knew that my work can be kind of dense at times, so I used the postscript of the document to write her an explanation.
It explains the major thrust of the poem ::

 

 

Hey sister,

Though I consider it bad form to completely explain my work, I figure since we’re working together, it would be good for you to know what’s going on here. Obviously this ballad retells the entire story of Slice of Life (as most ballads do) and mythologizes Aura (as many narrative poems do). But, as you’ve asked, it also works as a plot device, beckoning her toward the chandelier.

Beyond all of that, it serves as a cultural marker of transmedia—a poem of transmedia, for transmedia, by transmedia. I’m calling it a polyform poem – a poem that uses multiple forms. It marks a transition out of the dissonant present where poetry (and subsequently art) must survive on very little and into a robust future where she might thrive again in her various forms.

What I wanted to do was to make mixed media inside mixed media, but the found poetry thing wouldn’t work. Found poetry generally depends on either (1) an abundance of source documents or (2) personal experience. In retrospect, I may have easily borrowed from the original Peter Pan and Illiad documents, but that didn’t cross my mind at the time. As for personal experience, there’s no way for me to travel to this particular world. I had to rethink my idea about a poem of, to, for transmedia.

Instead, I chose to mix the media by blending genres of poetry. This, by itself, would create a sort of dissonance—dissonance that the current age values so highly. However, I find dissonance useless without euphony to temper it. So I took some of the most highbrow of poetic forms and bound them together inside the most banal of poetic forms—the pop song. There are four main verses, a bridge, a chorus and a series of secondary bridges or pre-choruses (depending on who you ask). Each verse takes us back to a different era of ballad, nodding my head toward those writers who came before me and paving a road for future generations. All responsible art should do this—what Kyle Welch calls “In Memoriam, In Transit.” Life in the present lives in the tension between a memorial of tradition and a transition into the time to come. In memoriam, in transit. I hope to achieve that here.

 

We start the poem with a lyrical ballad nodding first to the work by the same name written by Coleridge and (as you mentioned) Wordsworth, but more importantly to their later progeny—G.K. Chesterton. This verse took the meter and rhyme scheme straight from The Ballad of the White Horse, even borrowing some of his grammar about “like children of some afterbirth/born long after judgment day” concerning wars and the like. The verse is iambic with alternating lines of tetrameter and triameter. This shifts for the five-line stanza, of course, but in general, that’s the rhythm.

slice of life ballad by ellie ann soderstrom fantasy novel

We then use Tennyson’s combination of alternating pyrrhic and spondaic feet, a pyrrhic/spondaic tetrameter (or ionic), for the bridge. The bridge acts as a sort of lead-in like in any shift during any musical composition—it’s a transition from dissonance to euphony, and (in two lines) states the thesis and plots the purpose of the poem.

 

That leads us into the chorus—a short lyric poem of troachic tetrameter/triameter. This chorus works as a refrain, pulling us through the plot into the present where Aura sits, needing to get that chandelier off of the ceiling and into her purse.

 

For the second verse, we move into anapestic tetrameter and summon the likes of one of the earliest rhymes young American children learn—Twas the night before Christmas and all through the house… Only now, like the rest of the story, something terrible has happened in Faeland. “Night” becomes “knife,” the liberation of “Christmas” has become the imprisonment “pinned her,” and the instead of the domestic “house” we meet this tome that is anything but hospitable. I mix up this anapestic meter at a couple of points to shift from “twas the night” and then to invoke the spirit of Dr. Suess—the modern master of anapestic hexameter. Most people that try to imitate Suess fail miserably because their meter’s terribly terribly off. I hope I represented him, and that issue, well in the latter half of this verse.

We refrain the chorus…

Then, since we’re entering something like hell, all hell breaks loose. Forms start colliding in this verse, creating a stark dissonance. First we meet dactylic tetrameter, the form gloried in Robert Browning’s writing. Because of this, I start like his poem The Lost Leader begins. I move out of that to state the current three options (death, flight, victory) in the broken cretic diameter a la Shakespeare. After that, I sum up the scene and the shift into battle by the king of all imagery shifters—the haiku. Most famous of haiku is the poem old pond and so I start with the word “old.”

Then, since so much happens in the battle, I chose crambo—a poetic form that you would love if we reboot Writer’s Creed this fall because it was invented by wordsmiths as a party game. However, the type I used here crams a rhyme scheme inside the rhyme scheme (aabccb) which gives it a bumpity nursery-feel, but also emphasizes how much is happening in so little time, to render all right in the face of the blight and so forth. Instead of letting the word “rustic” lead me into the idyll, I shift by the second line into an aphoristic Grook based on the poem The Road to Wisdom.

slice of life ballad by ellie ann soderstrom fantasy novel

Refrain.

 

By this point, we’ve arrived at the present where Aura, exhausted and without George, feels unbounded and disheveled (or something like that). She needs something more to see her goal. The poem becomes free verse, having torn asunder all other meters and forms by dethroning the kings of the various genres verse-by-verse and yet binding them together in the pop cultural assonance of a lyrical chorus. She, like the poem, feels shattered and the poem becomes a cosmic version of the Irish aisling—a poem where the very spirit of the land appears to the hero to tell both of tragedies gone by and of future hope. After all, that’s exactly what the apocalyptic genre is, and the Semites and early Christians weren’t the only ones to do it. In Chesterton’s words:

 

Well the old great Gaels of Ireland
Are the men that God made mad
For all their wars are merry
And all their songs are sad

 

Sadness of things passed, joy for the world to come—joy worth fighting for. That’s how I understand the Irish aislings. The spirit of The World To Come appears to her in her mind’s eye, tells her to get up, to keep going and then asks her to listen to the song—the chorus we’ve refrained the entire time. The World To Come then calls us, as readers, to be true to what we are, to our own spirit—The Spirit Of The World To Come—and to encourage Aura toward her goal by joining in the song. She does this and, since the reader is just now learning to sing, they start small like all children—Poor Old Michael Vinnegan. To which the spirit of the world to come joins in and asks Aura to, “begin again.” The method of new beginning? To make a new world by creating new artistic forms “the unborn can express.” In mentioning this, I invoke C.D. Wright and transform the free verse into modern narrative verse (which works something like memoir) and thus go full circle to the beginning, a lyrical ballad. We complete with the following refrain:

 

When the foot heals and the light shines,
Then the saint hails and the star sheens!

Aura fly east to the starburst,
place it in your pack.
Aura find the constellation
hanging, bring it back.

Aura flew east to the starburst,
placed it in her pack.
Aura found the constellation
hanging, brought it back.

As we cheer Aura up to grab the chandelier, we find the bridge transformed. Now all lameness is healed, light no longer dims but shines, saints no longer blood themselves for a martyr’s cause but rather hail around the throne, the star (and by extention all constellations) no longer portends omens of doom but rather doubles the brightness of the world to come.

 

The only problem with all of this is it includes less action in the present than your former poem. In order to compensate (if you want to keep what I have), you’ll have to add a couple of lines of Aura getting up and grabbing the chandelier or what have you. That would make this poem one part inner monologue, four parts myth, one part reader participation like an introverted adult’s version of a sing along song. You’d only have to add like an extra two sentences. Unless, of course, you think this is clear enough. I have my doubts as far as the clarity of that specific action goes. Were it me, I’d add a line saying “she saw the glass chandelier, the constellation of life force inside it and yanked it from the ceiling to put it in her purse. The lifeforce was trapped…” or whatever as long as it’s clear, but not redundant.

 

Make sense? I hope it makes sense…

 

There are other things at work in this poem, especially concerning the metaphors themselves, but I can’t show all of my cards. If I did, I wouldn’t really be playing the game, would I?

  • Lancelot

 

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Quotes from “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” that Made Me Cry

“If you could expect nothing better, why did you come to America?”

“For the sake of my children whom I wished to be born in a free land.”

“Your children haven’t done so well, Mother.” Katie smiled bitterly.

“There is here, what is not in the old country. In spite of hard unfamiliar things, there is here—hope. In the old country, a man can be no more than his father, providing he works hard. If his father was a carpenter, he may be a carpenter. He may not be a teacher or a priest. He may rise—but only to his father’s state. In the old country, a man is given to the past. Here he belongs to the future. In this land, he may be what he will, if he has the good heart and the way of working honestly at the right things.”

“That is not so. Your children have not done better than you.”

Mary Rommely sighed. “That may be my fault. I knew not how to teach my daughters because I have nothing behind me excepting that for hundreds of years my family has worked in the land of some overlord. I did not send my first child to the school. I was ignorant and did not know at first that the children of folk like us were allowed the free education of this land. Thus, Sissy had no chance to do better than me. But the other three… you went to school.”

“I finished the sixth grade, if that is what is called education.”

“And your Yohnny” —she could not pronounce ‘j’ — “did too. Don’t you see?” Excitement came into her voice. “Already, it is starting—the getting better.” She picked up the baby and held it high in her arms. “This child was born of parents who can read and write,” she said simply. “To me, this is a great wonder.”

“Mother, I am young. Mother, I am just eighteen. I am strong. I will work hard, Mother. But I do not want this child to grow up just to work hard. What must I do, Mother, what must I do to make a different world for her? How do I start?”

“The secret lies in the reading and the writing. You are able to read. Every day you must read one page from some good book to your child. Every day this must be until the child learns to read. Then she must read every day, I know this is the secret.”

“I will read,” promised Katie. “What is a good book?”

“There are two great books. Shakespeare is a great book. I have heard tell that all the wonder of life is in that book; all that man has learned of beauty, all that he may know of wisdom and living are on those pages. It is said that these stories are plays to be acted out on the stage. It is said that these stories are plays to be acted out on the stage. I have never spoken to anyone who has seen this great thing. but I heard the lord of our land back in Austria say that some of the pages sing themselves like songs.”

“Is Shakespeare a book in the German?”

“It is of the English. I so heard our lord of the land tell his young son who was setting out for the great university of Heidelberg long ago.”

“And what is the other great book?”

“It is the Bible that the Protestants read.”

“We have our own Bible, the Catholic one.”

Mary looked around the room furtively. “It is not fitting for a good Catholic to say so but I believe that the Protestant Bible contains more of the loveliness of the greatest story on this earth and beyond it. A much-loved Protestant friend once read some of her Bible to me and I found it as I have said.”

“That is the book, then, and the book of Shakespeare. And every day you must read a page of each to your child—even though you yourself do not understand what is written down and cannot sound the words properly. You must do this that the child will grow up knowing what is great—knowing that these tenements of Willamsburg are not the whole world.”

“The Protestant Bible and Shakespeare.”

“And you must tell the child the legends I told you—as my mother told them to me and her mother to her. You must tell the fairy tales of the old country. You must tell of those not of the earth who live forever in the hearts of people—fairies, elves, dwarfs and such. You must tell of the great ghosts that haunted your father’s people and the evil eye which a hex put on your aunt. You must teach the child of the signs that come to the women of our family when there is trouble and death to be. And the child must believe in the Lord God and Jesus, His Only Son.” She crossed herself.

“Oh, and you must not forget the Kris Kringle. The child must believe in him until she reaches the age of six.”

“Mother, I know there are no ghosts or fairies. I would be teaching the child foolish lies.”

Mary spoke sharply. “You do not know whether there are not ghosts on earth or angels in heaven.”

“I know there is no Santa Claus.”

“Yet you must teach the child that these things are so.”

“Why? When I, myself, do not believe?”

“Because,” explained Mary Rommely simply, “the child must have a valuable things which is called imagination. The child must have a secret world in which live things that never were. It is necessary that she believe. She must start out by believing in things not of this world. Then when the world becomes too ugly for living in, the child can reach back and live in her imagination. I, myself, even in this day and at my age, have great need of recalling the miraculous lives of the Saints and the great miracles that have come to pass on earth. Only by having these things in my mind can I live beyond what I have to live for.”

“The child will grow up and find out things for herself. She will know that I lied. She will be disappointed.”

“That is what is called learning the truth. It is a good thing to learn the truth one’s self. To first believe with all your heart, and then not to believe, is good too. It fattens the emotions and makes them to stretch. When as a woman life and people disappoint her, she will have had practice in disappointment and it will not come so hard. In teaching your child, do not forget that suffering is good too. It makes a person rich in character.”

“If that is so,” commented Katie bitterly, “then we Rommelys are rich.”

“We are poor, yes. We suffer. Our way is very hard. But we are better people because we know of the things I have told you. I could not read but I told you of all the things I have learned from living. You must tell them to your child and add on to them such things as you will learn as you grow older.”

“What more must I teach the child?”

“The child must be made to believe in heaven. A heaven, not filled with flying angels with God on a throne”—Mary articulated her thoughts painfully, half in German and half in English—”but a heaven which means a wondrous place that people may dream of—as of a place where desires come true. This is probably a different kind of a religion. I do not know.”

“And then, what else?”

“Before you die, you must own a bit of land—maybe with a house on it that your child or your children may inherit.”

Katie laughed. “Me own land? A house? We’re lucky if we can pay our rent.”

“Even so.” Mary spoke firmly. “Yet you must do that. For thousands of years, our people have been peasants working the land of others. This was in the old country. Here we do better working with our hands in the factory. There is a part of each day that does not belong to the master but which the worker owns himself. That is good. But to own a bit of land is better; a bit of land that we may hand down to our children… that will raise us up on the face of the earth.”

“How can we ever get to own land? Johnny and I work and we earn so little. Sometimes after the rent is paid and the insurance there is hardly enough left for food. How could we save for land?”

“You must take an empty condensed-milk can and wash it well.”

“A can… ?”

“Cut off the top neatly. Cut strips down the can the length of your finger. Let each strip be so wide.” She measured two inches with her fingers. “Bend the strips backward. The can will look like a clumsy star. Make a slit in the top. Then nail the can, a nail in each strip, in the darkest corner of your closet. Each day put five cents in it. In three years there will be a small fortune, fifty dollars. Take the money and buy a lot in the country. Get the papers that say it is yours. Thus you become a landowner. Once one has owned land, there is no going back to being a serf.”

“Five cents a day. It seems a little. But where is it to come from? We haven’t enough now and with another mouth to feed…”

“You must do this: you go to the green grocer’s and ask how much are carrots the bunch. The man will say three cents. Then look about until you see another bunch, not so fresh, not so large. You will say: may I have this damaged bunch for two cents? Speak strongly and it shall be yours for two cents. That is a saved penny that you put in the star bank. It is winter, say. You bought a bushel of coal for twenty-five cents. It is cold. You would start a fire in the stove. But wait! Wait one hour more. Suffer the cold for an hour. Put a shawl around you. Say, I am cold because I am saving to buy land. That hour will save you three cents’ worth of coal. That is three cents for the bank. When you are alone at night, do not light the lamp. Sit in the darkness and dream a while. Reckon out how much oil you saved and put its value in pennies in the bank. The money will grow. Someday there will be fifty dollars and somewhere on this long island is a piece of land that you may buy for that money.”

“Will it work, this saving?”

“I swear by the Holy Mother it will.”

– from A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith

image via Ironic Sans


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Don’t Kill Your Darlings. Exile Them.

I don’t believe in writer’s block, but man was I stuck on this novel.

 

I say that in passing, but I’m forgetting that some of you don’t know I finished the third draft my fourth novel (my first publishable novel). See the update bars < if you’re looking at this on a laptop. Mobile will have them below \/.

So that happened. Huzzah.

Okay, back to block people.

Rothfuss said it best, “Plumbers don’t get plumber’s block.” I think, generally, if I’m stuck on a piece it’s either because ::

  1. Distraction and anxiety have gotten in the way of my work or
  2. My ignorance has limited me. I’m up against a problem I haven’t yet encountered. If this happens, I shouldn’t freak out. I need to learn something about my opponent, about the block itself.

And I had two problems I hadn’t encountered this time around. Most people would call this “blocked,” but I call alleged “writers block” simply a worthy opponent. Every block is different, as is every opponent.

But first…

Anxiety and distraction.

 

I solve the anxiety and distraction problem by getting away from society and getting to a quiet place. In that quiet place I meditate (not Eastern meditation, I mean something more akin to prayer). I journal and I sit still and tell my body that sometimes it’s better to build an architecture of time than an architecture of space. I spend most of my weeks saying “I wish I had more time.” Well, The Sabbath is the day that I do have more time, the day that I build palaces and castles and giant freaking starship cruisers (complete with photon torpedoes) out of time rather than money or success out of space.

I literally make time.

I do this not by Netflix binge-watching. Not by to-do-list reading. But by dabbling in random books that peak my interest and I do not need to finish. Petting my dog for egregious amounts of time. Napping with my wife. Playing a board game. Eating leftovers. Hanky panky. But mostly thinking. Dreaming. Hoping. Praying to God the Father, which amounts not to a religious ritual but to a conversation with my friend. When I’m at my best, this too is Sabbath.

As my friend Ellie said recently:

“Some days I have to decide whether I want to be a professional writer or a professional internet browser.”

The internet really is best described as a web – an interconnected set of sticky threads that will catch you if you’re not careful. And who knows what might come along and inject its digestive juices into you once you’re caught in that snare…

So the other thing I did to combat anxiety and distractions in the last three months was install Freedom. I literally block The Internet when it’s time to write. When I’m disciplined with it, this is a beautiful thing. Thank you, Neil Gaiman. You have now changed the trajectory of my career for a third time.

Combatting ignorance.

 

But there were other pieces to this “stuck.” Sometimes I need to learn new information, which I’ll handle in the comments below, but sometimes I need to learn how to use a new tool. One piece of my ignorance played out like this: I was stuck not because of what I hadn’t written, but because of what I had. I knew that I needed to take an axe to some sections and completely disintegrate others into non-being, but I also knew some of these parts were workable bits of back story that I simply needed to relocate into other sections of the book, rework them into sections I had yet to write.

Then at the tail end of Writer’s UnBoxed Unconference (which I surprisingly never blogged about — I’m woefully behind on blogging), actually on the ride back to Boston, my new Aussie friend Jo Eberhardt told me she uses a “morgue” file. She highlights sections she’s unsure about. Cuts them. Pastes them into the document.

This may be the most liberating thing I’ve heard in years.

There were times in this novel where I literally highlighted fifteen thousand words and pressed DELETE and started again. That’s basically a novella, gone. It’s not as dramatic as the time I covered a typewritten novel manuscript in gasoline and struck a match, but it’s just as effective. Some of those fifteen thousand words were decent, a few were great, most of it was trash.

Other times in the writing, I couldn’t bring myself to do something that drastic. Not because I thought the given passage was gold, but because I couldn’t quite place when and where the passage went wrong, and so it stayed like a symbiont, a parasite, but one I could live with.

The morgue changed all of that. Some of it made it back into the novel. In the most extreme example, a small part of this long passage I cut from page 7 made it back into the novel on page 394. Most of it stayed out.

So yes, you need to kill your darlings, those passages you hold dear, the times you think the writing’s gold when it’s awful. But sometimes all of your children are blame-shifting one another and you don’t know which one to discipline. They all need to be put in time out so you can smoke out the darling among them, weed out the mole, the passage that needs eviscerated.

Don’t kill your darlings, exile them.

 

Create two files when you start – one for the stuff you’re putting in and one for the stuff you’re taking out. If your work is healthy, both files should grow as the novel grows and there should be a healthy amount of smuggling across the border between the two, exports and imports.

One of the guilds I work with in the city suggests something similar. The leader of the songwriter’s guild, Ben Grace, suggests his fellow songwriters dump every little voice memo and sound clip and lyrical phrase into one big Google Drive folder. Then as they start to coagulate, he moves them over to another folder. Stuff that only needs a new paint job he relocates in a third folder. Call them the “Bucket, Chunk, Marinade” folders if you will, but the point’s the same : you need a place where your good thoughts can congregate and then excommunicate other thoughts that don’t belong in your work in progress.

There are other things I learned this time around that got me past that second ignorance barrier, but most of those involved tricks for colliding characters or inserting more foreshadowing or making life harder on my protagonist or integrating my world’s sociological strata. Typical rewrite stuff and typical next-level tweaks like a golfer working on his downswing.

However, this morgue idea was a completely new one on me and it made a world of difference, so thanks Jo.

 •••

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image from Shira Gal

a brooklyn, new york author