Review of Marjorie Maddox’s True, False, None of the Above

poet, editor, essayist, story writer, Marjorie Maddox
Marjorie Maddox (Photo Credit: Dawn Snyder)

I’m happy to have an overdue review of Marjorie Maddox’s collection, True, False, None of the Above in the spring issue of Whale Road Review. It just came out last week, and you should take a look. Issue 10 includes several solid essays and reviews along with many fine works by poets and short fiction writers, including a few favorites of mine like Trish Hopkinson and Sandra Kolankiewicz.

True, False, None of the Above was published in 2016 and won the 2017 Illumination Bronze Medalist Award in the Education Category.  While it has a mission of its own, the book makes an excellent follow-up to her collection Local News from Someplace Else (Wipf and Stock, 2013).

Since then she has also published a book of stories called What She Was Saying (Fomite Books, 2017), and a delightfully dark chapbook entitled Wives Tales (Seven Kitchens Press, 2017). You can learn more about all of her publications, news, and upcoming readings on her website at www.marjriemaddox.com.

Here is the direct link to my review of True, False, None of the Above, and below are my recordings of two poems from the book. When you pick up a copy, consider donating one to your local library.

Saturday Song and Dance, and Why I Hate the Phrase “Poetry Prompts”

I miss Margo Roby. No, not the Australian actor and movie producer. She spells her name differently. I miss Margot, my some-time poetry buddy and inspiration on the interwebs. Her old WordPress site is still live, but her last post was two years and one week ago. I hope she’s okay. I didn’t have the heart to Google too far, having uncovered more sad news than I wanted to find by doing that in the past.

But lives change and social media can be overwhelming, so let’s just hope she’s quietly leading a workshop in Atlanta, taking a long break from the web, and working on her next book of amazing poems.

Margo was, and hopefully still is, a tireless cheerleader for poets and poetry in general. Every week she would post links to other blogs where people were writing and sharing their ideas, essays, and projects. She even linked to me a few times and made my day in the process.

Poetry Exercises vs. Poetry Prompts

Margo would regularly post what I thought of as poetry exercises and challenges. Often she used those very words. It seems she sometimes used the word “prompts,” but I didn’t really think much about it then.

You’re going to hate me for saying this, so I’ll just be blunt. I hate how the use of the phrase “poetry prompts” has proliferated across the writing community, both online and in person. Here’s why: To prompt means to help or to remind or to get someone to say or do something. When an actor forgets her line, a prompter whispers it to her from the wings. When the President is too stupid to know what to say (too harsh?), or when she (too hopeful?) simply hasn’t memorized her speech, she reads it from the teleprompter.

English: Czech writer, journalist and theater ...
Czech writer, journalist, and theater prompter Irena Fuchsová. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Why do we feel like we’re out of ideas? Where did this belief start, that we need someone to nudge us into writing? Do painters get painting prompts, or do they simply work hard at learning to paint? Do athletes need to be prompted, or do they workout and exercise? Do musicians need to be reminded that they can play, or are they just eager to get to their instruments and practice?

I submit to you, my poetry-writing friends, that this is really what we mean when we say “prompts.” We mean exercise, practice, challenge, stretching and working out our writing muscles. So why have we fallen into the habit of using marketing buzzwords that were meant to encourage traffic on blogging platforms (and therefore advertising revenue), rather than operate in our native realm, that of the specificity and clarity of language? I swear it was all challenges and writing exercises when I got into this back in the 90s. I don’t remember the writing landscape littered with prompts.

It has carried over into publications like Writer’s Digest, and it’s become a weekly feature of Poets and Writers dot org. It’s become so ubiquitous that at least one dictionary, Cambridge, has added a definition that applies to the usage of the word “prompt” in writing circles. I don’t find this complimentary: “A prompt is . . . a set of directions or a passage from a book, poem, or play to give you ideas for writing something.”

I fancy myself an amateur linguist so I know that I should embrace and celebrate the evolution of language, yet language influences thinking. Are we sure we haven’t been duped into thinking less of ourselves here? Is this really the language that we want to use? And what are we implying to those who haven’t evolved into this new usage of “prompt?”

William Faulkner's Underwood Universal Portabl...
William Faulkner’s Underwood Universal Portable. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

To them, it sounds like we are at our desks desperately wishing we had an idea. But maybe that is how we see ourselves now. Maybe the need to publish has lead us to this. Or did we let some web marketers convince us, as they have in the past about our weight and complexion, our social or economic status, that we were helpless without them, hopelessly lost like the actor, searching for his next line?

I don’t mean to be a grumpy old man. I am speaking in your defense, writer. You are more than your insecurities, and writer’s block is just a state of needing to practice. It’s just the fear of stepping out into the dance, to get all those ideas that are already there onto a page.

Call it semantics, but word choice matters. As poets, we know this. “Tree” implies more than oak or pine. And you would never say juniper if you were thinking palm. I stand by my assertion that what we need is not prompts but practice. And we should say what we mean.

Rant Over

So at last, I turn back to where I started. Margo. Check out this “Poetry Tryout” post of hers from three years back. It includes the first video below.  I’ve added a second clip with even older movies and a different song. Mostly, because I got caught up in the joy of it.  If you need some inspiration or practice just do as Margo suggested, “Watch the video(s) all the way through. Then watch it (them) again. This time pause it at scenes you find are nudging at you.”

You might want to write about memories evoked by individual scenes or about how the music makes you feel. Ignore that she used the word “prompt.” I swear, she didn’t mean it. Work it out. Have fun and remember, if you’re feeling overwhelmed today, you probably just need dance rehearsal, poetry practice. You don’t need no stinkin’ prompts.

“Walking with Your Eyes Shut,” by William Stafford

Poet, Nickole Brown, reading on stage at eights avenue Queer Girl Lit.
Nickole Brown, photo by Kristin Shelly

This week the wonderful poet Nickole Brown was asking folks on social media for short, creative nonfiction pieces about sound for a class she is teaching on defamiliarization. I admit, I missed the acronym, CNF and was, as usual, thinking of poetry.

My mind went straight to a poem by William Stafford and my hands immediately reached for a favorite old paperback on my shelf. This tattered and stained copy of An Oregon Message has traveled with me from a bookstore in Indiana since, I think, about 1989. It was published in 87, and while I don’t know all the poems by heart, I do remember each by title, and I reread them from time to time.

I still vividly recall watching a video in Dr. Mary Brown’s class of Stafford reading his poem “Ask Me,” a piece I do know by heart and have recorded many times (look for the latest, upcoming soon). His poetry helped open my mind to what lines on a page can do, what vistas can be opened with minor alterations to diction and syntax. Cover image of William Stafford's book, An Oregon Message

For instance, in the poem “Ask Me” which begins with the iconic line, “Some time when the river is ice,” the poet says, “Ask me / mistakes I have made.” Not, “Ask me about,” or “ask me what mistakes,” but “Ask me / mistakes.”

That makes a reader stop, not because it’s incomprehensible, but because it varies a bit from the way we would expect the line to go. It slows us down and makes it difficult for our minds to remain on auto-pilot, slightly jostling our presuppositions about where the author is going with this statement.

That tendency of Stafford’s to place everyday language just off-center enough to make the line more vivid, the image fresh and new, was immediately more interesting to me than the deconstruction works I was reading for the first time then.

Rather than shatter the walnut of language into unnumbered pieces, sending meat and shell fragments alike skittering under furniture and into cracks in the floor, as it seemed the postmodernists were apt to do, Stafford chose to just crack the nut a little bit—and not always along the seam. This encouraged and tempted me to pry the rest open for myself. It was a revelation in what just a little non-conventionality in line endings, diction, and syntax could do. It was also a demonstration in the art of “less is more.”

Text of William Stafford's Poem Walking with your eyes shut

So, while it’s not what Nickole was looking for, she was gracious and sent me a “thank you.” Perhaps there is something there she can use. I was happy to be reminded of the poem, in any case.

It’s been a few months since I’ve uploaded any readings to YouTube or SoundCloud, so reading this again inspired me to sit down and record a few favorites, starting with this one.

Saturday Song, Zeros, Magnets, and “Home”

I know these two are no longer together, and if you know some of the story behind that, let’s just forget about it for now, shall we? I want to dance to this song at my wedding some day, and the loveliness of this is not diminished by the reality of what happened to the band.

Whatever people may say, I don’t believe that Jade’s happiness in this performance was anything other than her sheer joy of singing, her absolute love of life and song. That’s how I choose to see it.

The first video is the “official” one when Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros released the single. The second video, even after the difficulties of it all shows Jade‘s marvelous smile. God, I love her.