March 8, 2017

Prompt: Lux and Punctuation

When I read that the poet Thomas Lux had died last month, I immediately had a rush of memories of a week I had spent in a workshop he taught in Provincetown.

The design of his sessions was that we would devote an extended block of time on a deep reading of one of each participant's poems. If it was your poem being discussed, you sat quietly, took notes and did not react to the praise, criticism and misunderstandings of the readers. It was a great experience, both being a reader and having your poem get a morning or afternoon of attention.

Our group hung out after the sessions, going to the beach and out for dinner and drinks in the evening. I had brought my family along for the week on Cape Cod and my sons got a football game started on the beach with the poets. I always thought Lux might write a poem about that game. After four downs of badly missed passes, he said to me "Poets are generally pathetic football players."

My youngest son, ten that month, showed Tom a poem he wrote. Tom liked his line "When we get to the place we're not going to."

Lux was a generous teacher.

He said I should call him Tom, but that he would always be "Thomas" on the page. I had several long solo conversations with Tom about writing, publishing, and parenting. He had not brought his daughter, Claudia, along and regretted it because he thought she would have had fun with my sons.

Thomas Lux was born and raised in Northampton, Massachusetts where his father ran a dairy farm, He attended Emerson College and the University of Iowa and was poet in residence at Emerson College (1972-1975) and was a member of the writing faculty at Sarah Lawrence College for 25 years. He also taught in the Warren Wilson MFA Program for Writers and at the University of Iowa, University of Michigan, and the University of California at Irvine, among others. He spent his last 16 years iving and teaching in Atlanta, where he served as the Bourne Professor of Poetry and director of the McEver Visiting Writers program at the Georgia Institute of Technology until his death.

We talked about "the voice you hear when you read silently" and how
It is your voice
saying, for example, the word "barn"
that the writer wrote
but the "barn" you say
is a barn you know or knew.  
And that barn that Tom wrote is the dairy barn of his childhood, and it is not the barn that I knew as a visitor coming to a place to ride horses.

Our Provincetown poetry group with Thomas Lux - Summer 1997

I asked Lux that always-asked question about "how do you get published." He said he always had a dozen poems out there to magazines and journals, and he had envelopes ready to go to other magazines so that when a poem was rejected, it went right back out again. Persistence. And write every day.

I saw Lux again a few times at several biannual Dodge Poetry Festivals, and he was always said he remembered me. I doubted that, but it was nice of him to say it. I asked him at one of the festivals why his newest poems seemed to all be one stanza. He said that he needed a really good reason these days to break a line and especially to make a new stanza. He was opposed to you making a poem with stanzas of say 4 lines each just to have a poem with that form. He was opposed to poetry becoming "prose with line breaks."

One of Tom's most popular poems is "I Love You Sweatheart." It is pure Lux - witty, wise, funny and all those thing comes through on the page and especially when Tom read the poem aloud. (Check out the video of him reading this poem below.) I used that poem for a prompt here on "stupid love" and I checked the archive and discovered that I used Lux poems five more times as models for prompts:  "what sustains you," "never born," "foreign words," "daughters," and a shared prompt on "fruits."

This month I chose his poem "Virgule" as our model. This ode to the  /  was one of the poem he read to our group that summer.


What I love about this little leaning mark
is how it divides
without divisiveness. The left
or bottom side prying that choice up or out,
the right or top side pressing down upon
its choice: either/or,
his/her. Sometimes called a slash (too harsh), a slant
(a little dizzy, but the Dickinson association
nice: "Tell all the Truth but tell it slant--"), solidus (sounding
too much like a Roman legionnaire
of many campaigns),
or a separatrix (reminding one of a sexual
variant). No, I like virgule. I like the word
and I like the function: "Whichever is appropriate
may be chosen to complete the sense."
There is something democratic
about that, grown-up; a long
and slender walking stick set against the house.
Virgule: it feels good in your mouth.
Virgule: its foot on backwards, trochaic, that's OK, American.
Virgule: you could name your son that,
or your daughter Virgula. I'm sorry now
I didn't think to give my daughter such a name
though I doubt that she and/or
her mother would share that thought.
originally published in The Atlantic, January 1992. Listen to Lux read "Virgule"

I am sure that Lux liked the word "virgule" for its foreign and exotic sound and because most people don't know the "proper" word and call it a slash (as with the "back slash/forward slash" of our computer age - which I divide here with a virgule). The ellipsis is another mark that is often unidentified and often misused (especially by poets). Tom would like having us think about how we use each punctuation mark in our writing for this prompt.

It will require some creativity and wit on your part to do this month's prompt, which is a poem about a mark of punctuation or punctuation itself.

I am broadening the choices beyond the ones we use most commonly in English. You can use the tilde  " ~ " (which has a new life beyond Spanish as a separator between a quote and its source) and all those other German, French and other languages' exotic marks. How about that the French comma is called une virgule?

The deadline for this prompt is April 2, 2017, which will launch us into National Poetry Month.

Thomas Lux reads "I Love You Sweatheart"

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