sleeping alone and starting out early

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Archive for the ‘poetry’ Category

paintball sonnet

Posted by Jenna McWilliams on June 27, 2010

You realize right away that if it didn’t hurt we wouldn’t call it fun.
“Fun”: horseshoed knots skimming slim skin, the harder your muscles
the tighter, the brighter the bruise. Cartoon pops
paint like blood bombs but tastes like those silicon beads that come
in vitamins that you’re not supposed to eat. All for the chance to _________.

So much sweat your facemask fogs on its smooth trip down your face.
I shot my boss right in the nuts: that was fun. Sort of. I felt kind of bad.
All for a reason to say now do you get why boys go to war? If it didn’t hurt
we wouldn’t call it fun but if they didn’t give us facemasks and rules and referees
we also wouldn’t call it fun: We’d call it that horrible game. Anyway. I got hit square
in the breast and it hurt. I awoke the next day with a headache for the ages.
That part about the paint’s taste? I made it up: I really don’t remember.
Advil cut the headache some.
I took pictures of my bruises and sent them to my friends.

Posted in poetry, sports, writing | Leave a Comment »

a poem by Khaled Mattawa

Posted by Jenna McWilliams on June 4, 2010

Khaled Mattawa

The trick is that you’re willing to help them.
The rule is to sound like you’re doing them a favor.

The rule is to create a commission system.
The trick is to get their number.

The trick is to make it personal:
No one in the world suffers like you.

The trick is that you’re providing a service.
The rule is to keep the conversation going.

The rule is their parents were foolish,
their children are greedy or insane.

The rule is to make them feel they’ve come too late.
The trick is that you’re willing to make exceptions.

The rule is to assume their parents abused them.
The trick is to sound like the one teacher they loved.

And when they say “too much,”
give them a plan.

And when they say “anger” or “rage” or “love,”
say “give me an example.”

The rule is everyone is a gypsy now.
Everyone is searching for his tribe.

The rule is you don’t care if they ever find it.
The trick is that they feel they can.

Read this poem at

Posted in beauty, poetry | Leave a Comment »

thoughts on creative writing, MFA programs, and the social beat

Posted by Jenna McWilliams on April 4, 2010

I recently participated in a local event called Ignite Bloomington, where my co-presenter, Christian Briggs, and I performed a poem we called “the social beat.”

The design of the background images, the development of the poem, and the planning of the performance were all completed collaboratively; this was by far the most collaborative creative project I’ve ever been involved in. I say that as a graduate of an MFA program who spent three years doing almost nothing but creative work. I say that as someone who intentionally moved away from what I’m coming to see as the antiquated approach to writing that pervades creative writing programs around the country.

I write more now, and more creatively, and with more enthusiasm, than I ever did during my days as a ‘poet.’ In part, this is because the primary type of writing I do these days is far more public and persistent, and more closely linked to issues that matter deeply to me, than was the writing I did as a creative writing major. But the writing I do nowadays is also more aligned with my ethos: These days, I embrace openness, collaboration, and collective knowledge-building; and producing, circulating, and building upon others’ ideas online meets these interests nicely. In fact, this “writing publicly for a networked public” thing meets my needs like gangbusters.

Creative writing, at least in the MFA-program sense of the term, never did meet my needs or interests. It felt too far out of my control. We more or less buy the idea of the “muse”–call it flow if you want, call it the zone, call it whatever you want, but what it means is that we embrace this strange idea that the greatest works emerge when you can set your conscious mind a little bit to the side and let your unconscious break through to the surface. It had to happen in silence. It had to happen alone. And you couldn’t control it. You could only control the circumstances that make it more likely to happen.

Sure, fine. We need people to make those great brilliant works by betting on the muse. But that way of thinking about writing is just not for me–it never has been. I’m more into the “how do you get to Carnegie Hall” approach to writing, which is why blogging, and the attendant potential readership, appeals so much to me.

And when it comes to creative writing, I’m kinda into this “collaboration” thing. Coordinating the partnership is tricky and time-consuming, but if you find the right partner you end up standing on each other’s shoulders, finishing with something better than any one of you could have written on their own. One thing I know for sure is that the work that came out of my collaboration with Christian is better, stronger, more powerful than anything I could have come up with on my own. I’m proud of this work, maybe prouder than I was of any poem I wrote on my own, and I’m proud to include the poem and a video of our performance of it below.

the social beat
Jenna McWilliams & Christian Briggs

let’s walk it backwards:
when a girl
in a field
face shielded from the sun
looks out at you and smiles
you think something has begun
but that’s not a smile
it’s a grimace it’s a sneer
you’ve got that camera around your face and a 21st century leer

but it’s a circle, a cycle, a snake that eats its tail
explosion, says mcluhan, split the instrument from the wail
and now we’re walking that split backwards to where the hammer meets the nail
to where the language meets its speaker and the face removes its veil

is this a flat world?
a kind world?
a world framed as a game?
what’s the win state?
who’s losing?
should we send it all up in flames?
and with every change we fight for does it all just stay the same?

in 1984 papert blew up the school or said computers would
{they didn’t
or if they did, they hid it}
it’s a long revolution
a slow evolution
characterized by dilution and diffusion
and confusion
sometimes, but joy too, and profusion, collusion and elocution
and hope, and motion, and implosion
of space and time and multiple uses
we lifted our tech and it calmly spoke through us.

implosion: the same plane with the same name moves us and rushes us and smooshes us together
that long walkway is us walking away from the everyday pulleys and gears of our years
we climb onto the tech we climb into the sky
we can collaborate now we can elaborate now we can fly

it’s gonna crash
the school becomes a skull
its planks and its floorboards and its chalkboards and its front doors flash past us like shrapnel
as we dash past with laptops
the floor’s falling in and we have them building backdrops and stage props in woodshop.

they’re gonna fall
explode in on themselves, the freight and the chaos
beams buckling, roof knuckling under the weight
as crowds spill like kindling into the street
meeting each other again flinting and squinting again in the sun {ignite}

it’s all going under
it’s all yellow light slanting sideways across shining faces
it’s thunder
it’s traces of ozone it’s acres of blight
as we push back the night as it grinds to a crawl as the old ladies watch and wonder
they’re gonna go under

but the story’s not finished
they’re gonna defend
they’ll never give in. they learned how to stand in an age of their father’s machine.
they’re clean.
so they defend. and they default. and they defer
to the icon and its policies and its politics and its poetry
we automate the manual. now our hands are clean on the path to hell

cue eye roll.
we know how to build, we can do it again. so we build.
and we machinate. and we slap down machines to palliate the children
we fill them as if they were containers.
it’s heinous.
it took two days for those green machines to fill up with guess what? porn.

we’ve had millennia now of dissemination, maybe it’s time to change the story
to disovulation: one perfect idea at a time, sent out into the world
then we’ll let you guys fight over who gets to claim it.
or blame it.
millennia now of the Churchills the Hitlers the Gateses the Jobses the Spitfires and Messerschmittses and Habermas and Hobbeses

like a girl
in a field
face shielded from the sun
is still inside the lines
where something has begun

it’s the circle, the cycle, the snake has caught its tail
the explosion’s moving backward though the timid first will fail

the tots will test it, resisting with a poke, a prod, a post
the slightest and the smallest seem the most benign of rabble
filling up the tubes with what will mostly seem a babble
to defenders of the past

now they’re teens
on the street
the lines are giving way
babble turned to business
as the structures start to sway
but still defenders are within this
scene, clutching for the days….
that will no longer be..

you see…

the teens have grown and jumped the lines
we’re not walled in and not walled out
nor confined by any doubt
instead we clamber for the time
when all that’s in will all be out
a coalescing of the minds
whose synaptastics speed the time

technology will take its place
a toy a tool connecting us
aiding a collective us
crushing in both time and space
freeing up the play in us

we are those girls
in our fields
faces turned toward every one
collectively reflecting on the
thing that has begun
or is it ending as it rends us?
the scream igniting as it mends us?
unbends us and upends us:
a lick of flame, a bonfire, night brought shrieking to the sun
a slow sermon whispered softly:
there is much that must be done.

Posted in blogging, creativity, participatory culture, poetry, social revolution, writing | 2 Comments »

a poem John Ashbery wrote

Posted by Jenna McWilliams on March 11, 2010


Is it possible that spring could be
once more approaching? We forget each time
what a mindless business it is, porous like sleep,
adrift on the horizon, refusing to take sides, “mugwump
of the final hour,” lest an agenda—horrors!—be imputed to it,
and the whole point of its being spring collapse
like a hole dug in sand. It’s breathy, though,
you have to say that for it.

And should further seasons coagulate
into years, like spilled, dried paint, why,
who’s to say we weren’t provident? We indeed
looked out for others as though they mattered, and they,
catching the spirit, came home with us, spent the night
in an alcove from which their breathing could be heard clearly.
But it’s not over yet. Terrible incidents happen
daily. That’s how we get around obstacles.

Lifted from Poetry Daily.

Posted in beauty, creativity, John Ashbery, joy, language, poetry, spring, writing | Leave a Comment »

on the decline of print media

Posted by Jenna McWilliams on November 10, 2009

The career counselors thought physician’s assistant or forester but I was born to this job like sturgeon.
My mechanic says cars are like people:
the oil’s always trying to find a way out—he beats off
twice a day in the utility sink.
The berry pickers heading home at dusk agree but it’s not oil, they say,
picking red clots from their feet,
it’s something else. It’s easy enough for them,
moving slowly in discolored robes, but I could never wait
so long for anything. At this speed shapes are baffled and missiles hover warily.

My composition coach treads in fear of modifiers but that’s
how they do it, I swear, warily. The architects guffaw.
That’s all we do is modify, they grin, turning back to their tables. Each night
they make love to someone who likes them less and less.
The journalists, my friends, have stopped taking notes. They are drawing their lions again; it’s impossible now
to get them to stop. We meet for drinks on Thursday nights
and an aproned man slaps an egg beater into his palm at the door. My friend,
says the editor, the earth doesn’t speak to us. We speak to each other and pretend it was the earth.
Then there isn’t much time, the berry pickers cry, squirting juice across the page.

Posted in creativity, journalism, poetry | Leave a Comment »

you have to watch this vlogpost

Posted by Jenna McWilliams on October 27, 2009

file under: world’s most awesome 16-hour vlog project

This link to pure awesomeness comes to you courtesy of my buddies, Jeffrey Kaplan and David Phelps. If you care about literacy or the learning sciences, you will die of joy.

Posted in awesome, creativity, graduate school, joy, learning sciences, literacy, poetry | 1 Comment »

Iconoclasts: Nietzsche into Sunset; Eastwood into Sunset

Posted by Jenna McWilliams on February 20, 2009

There he goes
consistently stoic and lean, unsinging
there he goes stricken and fluid and strung
so tight each line springs from his face and down
to the floor sings gently down his face to the floor.
Now he’s protecting beauty like it’s thighs
spread taut against the wall, now the wall
dissolves into thighs. He respects sidewalks
and copyright law, he leans like a chimney. Now he runs
for mayor of some town that has no need: Our man
in dungarees. Our spinning fool. Our man ill at ease
below gray suits. Now he’ll press in his hat
a long daisy, green tip just brushes the edge of one ear.
Our man of every hour, waiting for applause–
There were flowers once but it wasn’t real, it was
to prove a point and flowers? he thought, and still does.
Our man of cheerful despair leaves marks on every page,
they meant something once but it’s lost. It’s all
yellow light. The town succumbs or fails, there’s increase
or loss, taxes get paid, what matters. It did not begin there,
nothing began, our man of scribbled disaster wiggles
through his window, bobs over the rise and is gone.

© 2009 Jenna McWilliams

Posted in celebrity, creativity, movies, nietzsche, philosophy, poetry | Leave a Comment »

About sleeping alone and starting out early

Posted by Jenna McWilliams on February 9, 2009

Scientific Breakthrough

The snow whipped around so fast last night
it outashed ash. A dry stew shuttled over
rough-edged brick and rattled the window
until this morning dark rain tamped it
and all the riot down to the ground.

There were long grassy evenings but the light
slants blue lately and my only strategy
entails sleeping alone and starting out early.
My hands are red nested birds for now
and preliminary tests indicate only that I may
be fine. Soon noses will tumble out
on rumpled leashes and then and then and then.

They will never find their task
completed. They will never name it.

They have pressed too hard on the hood
and then paced indifferently away.
They have stepped wrong
against someone’s ankle,

snapping it twice. (The eaves
lean gracelessly toward the road,
revealing too much.) They want
to learn the meaning of each gesture.

They live elevated lives. They live
elevated lives. They adhere to a list.

In the park, a legion of ancient
women sprint shouting and
splashing for the slide. They screech
and crumple across a hidden swath
of ice, thin hair ribboning across gray
snow and mud, primary mittens
clutching for branch or hand.
A tinny wail lifts across the surface
and slides over the rise.

Someone has volunteered
to recall every bird and try again.
What happens next does not depend.

© 2009 Jenna McWilliams

Posted in cloning, creativity, poetry, science, zombies | 2 Comments »