Full of optimism and hope, I submitted some poems to a literary magazine. Long before deadline! Hot damn, I accomplished something! Hot damn, these are good poems!!
Then I get an email from the editor from the mag saying:
I just wanted to send you a quick note because, after logging in all of our Poetry Prize entries for 2013, it appears as though you placed a contest subscription order, but we never actually received a file with your poems. If you’d still like to send poems, I’d be happy to receive them now, even though the deadline has passed. If you can do it within the next few days…
So I dug up my original email submission and re-forwarded it both to myself and to the editor. I explained:
“I sent it to the ‘submissions’ email. Should I have sent it directly to you instead??”
And the editor wrote back: “I don’t know how… but I never thought to check the submissions account! That explains how we had so many no shows…”
I stopped reading and moaned aloud… Why didn’t I become a mechanic or a barber like my parents instead of a poet? If I could only go back…
But I have been going back. To re-edit older poems long since abandoned.
The poems I found, about working on a fishing processor in Alaska, are exactly 20 years old. I forgot they existed. Going over them now is like having a conversation with my past self. Those older poems are so prosy and overwritten. I was trying too hard. Over the last few years I’ve learned cut words in order to get to the point faster. Today, I read lines like these and feel sorry for myself:
‘…I imagine / him a runt in Jr. High School with stork like bony / knees stretching out from underneath his school / issue uniform. He says something in Japanese / and I stand there politely ignorant like a fool’.
That’s not poetry. Calling the man a ‘runt’ first of all… Then to keep pummeling him with ‘stork’ and ‘bony’. And “Politely” seems to me the sore thumb of the next sentence, not that ‘ignorant’ and ‘fool’ are improvements—they’re words one cannot consider endearing or beautiful. And in spite of ‘school’ and ‘fool’ at no point did this poem ever rhyme.
After I discovered the local scene I began searching my life for the raw materials to construct poems. I kept journals during my stay in Alaska and poured over them to find stories worth modifying.
This prose poem, called Best Kept Secret, is not bad. Its still close to the original though there were lines I couldn’t bring myself to re-type. I wrote how the man repeated something to me in “his raw Japanese accent” which is Dumb. He doesn’t have an accent, James. He IS Japanese.
And I also forgot he sexually harassed me a little bit. Let me explain:
The back half of my 16 hour work day was spent folding and labeling boxes. My tool was a pneumatic staple gun which used 1” long steel staples wound on a tiny cardboard roll, like a mini-toilet paper roll, maybe a little larger than a Tootsie Roll. This Japanese dude’s job was to take random samples of fish and test them for quality, so he would frequently visit me at the rear of the processing area late afternoons. Often we would ‘talk’ without words. One day, he picked up one of the little cardboard rolls on the floor, held it at his zipper, then pointed to himself and pouted. I stood there staring, dumb. Then, he took the black marker I was using to label the boxes, put that to his zipper, then pointed to me and smiled wildly. I didn’t expect that. Disarmed is the word for how I felt right then. Embarrassed. Humiliated, sure. But mostly I felt properly disarmed. What would Jesus do?
Best Kept Secret
The Japanese man whom everyone on board
is suspicious of after watching him read
Japanese porn in our galley, comes over to me
during work and watches as I fill out the date
and freezer numbers on unstapled cardboard
boxes. When he wants to ‘talk’, he’ll stand
behind me and gently touch my back. Somehow
he asks my name: James, I tell him.
Jame-zAh! He repeats. He is slight
framed with drooping shoulders.
Tiny head, narrow waist. He says something
in Japanese and I stand there, silent.
Then he takes the black marker I was using
and writes on the steel table: 007
Days later he returns and as I’m
writing, notices something. He reaches
for the marker, gently taking it out of my left hand
and puts it in my right. Now, I understand.
I write the date for him on a box (5.3.93) with my right hand.
But it’s a child-like, concentrated scrawl.
The strokes for the number 5 are focused as
if I’m cracking a safe. He watches this, mildly
amused. He tries writing something
with his left hand and shakes his head in disgust.
I pantomime, mid air, how quickly I write with
my left hand, then he pantomimes a question.
He raises his leg like a dog at a tree and
begins pulling at his crotch with his left hand,
pointing to me and grinning wildly. In
the subtitled version of this conversation,
I read this sentence posted across his chest:
Which hand do you use, Jame-zah! for
Your most important work?
Later at dinner, my Scottish roommate, Andrew,
who has travelled much of the world,
tells me what he remembered about visiting
parts of Africa. There is no toilet paper, he said.
People use water.
The toilets, if there are any, are low to the ground.
Nearby is a container of clear water
used to wash out anal debris. For that
work, he says. They use their left hands.
During meals, everyone eats with their right hands
while the left is kept respectfully
beneath the table
like a well guarded secret.