Sunday, March 21, 2010

Stone Skippers

Boys and rocks and water. What more do you need? There's something about that combination of ingredients that is unlike any other. The locations where the ingredients are combined may vary. But in the end when it comes to skipping stones, location is totally inconsequential.

This weekend, the location happened to be on Angel Island in San Francisco Bay---not bad as real estate goes. On Saturday morning a small but determined group of Sacramento Scouts ferried across from Tiburon to Ayala Cove on the island. With our backpacks securely strapped on, our party of 11 made the short hike to the Kayak Group campsite on the west side of the island. After setting up camp, the water's edge was calling and all in our group answered that siren's call.

The adults among us mostly enjoyed the momentary respite from the weekly grind as small, wake-driven waves lapped at the narrow rock-strewn beach. But the boys? Well, for anyone who might declare that imagination is dead, this day told a different tale. Each Scout became an instant expert in the fine art of stone skipping.

What makes a good skipping stone, anyway? Is it a particular rounded edge that cradles perfectly in the curve between index finger and thumb? Must it be thin and flat? How large should it be? Too heavy and the toss results in a resounding "SPLOINK!" Too small and whatever happens is just not very satisfying. And almost intuitively, all stone skippers know shape is important for a great skip. Yes, you can almost skip anything once. But to get the repeating hops across the surface in rapidly increasing succession takes a shape within certain generally accepted tolerance limits.

But, ultimately, a good skip doesn't just depend on the stone. It also requires the right speed and the right angle, both of which are totally in the hands of the skipper. There's almost nothing worse than wasting a good skipping stone on an insufficiently serious toss. Rarely will a casual approach to skipping earm the accolades of one's fellow skippers. But a good skip is pure joy.

However, much like the short-lived laurels awarded to ancient Olympians, a record breaking skipping toss is transitory and in the moment. Judging is instantaneous by those present and not subject to review. To witness a great toss is its own reward. In fact, even being lucky or attentive enough to see a great toss, sets one apart from those who might have missed it either because they weren't present or simply because they blinked or looked away at an inopportune moment. Yet even the declaration of a record-breaking toss is sufficient to lay down the gauntlet to all others who might attempt to best it.

And so, as boys have done for as long as there have been rocks and water, our Scouts followed suit on this March day on Angel Island, California. They joined all past, present and future skippers, bound in silent brotherhood, standing at water's edge, searching for just the right stone to fling with just the right speed, at just the right angle, hoping to catch the most air or the most bounces across the surface.

Such is the way of the stone skippers.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Twisted Tales Of An Ancient Warrior: A Sestina

Just when you thought it safe to dip your toes into the poetic pool, along comes the sestina. For those up to the challenge, the 39-line sestina is one of the most interesting forms in a mind tickling way.

As it turns out the structure of a sestina is almost as difficult to explain in words as to write. That is, the easiest way to understand it is to write one. Using the line by line break down below, the letters indicate the word at the end of each line in the six stanzas, each of which has six lines; plus a three-line kicker at the end. So, for example, the last word in the last line of the first stanza must be the first word in the first line of the second stanza.

To top it off, the ending three-line stanza (tercet), uses the six line endings from the first stanza in the sequence noted below. Often the endings of the three lines in the tercet are the same as the endings for lines two, four and six in the first stanza. The object is to write the sestina so its rigid structure doesn't appear evident. My attempt is not an eloquent example of a sestina and, in fact, becomes more twisted with each succeeding verse. But it may give you something to go on.

Give it a try and you'll soon be writing sestinas with the best of them. Here's to getting all your line endings to end up where they must.


Sestina line-ending sequences:

Stanza 1: A, B, C, D, E, F
Stanza 2: F, A, E, B, D, C
Stanza 3: C, F, D, A, B, E
Stanza 4: E, C, B, F, A, D
Stanza 5: D, E, A, C, F, B
Stanza 6: B, D, F, E, C, A
Tercet: AB CD EF

Twisted Tales Of An Ancient Warrior
By Bill Kirk

“I came.
I saw.
I conquered.”
That’s what
The warrior

And since the day he said
He came,
Each warrior
Who has come after the one who said he saw,
May think he knows just what
That warrior supposedly conquered.

But could he have conquered
All that he said?
And is all of what
He came
To tell us he saw,
The true tale of a warrior?

For which warrior
Has ever conquered
All he said he saw
At precisely the time he said
He came?
Can we be sure of whom or even what?

Alas. The truth of neither whom nor what
Can be verified because the warrior
Who so long ago came
To tell us he had conquered,
Simply said
Only that he conquered what he saw.

Might his tale be just another old saw—
The stretched and embellished bits and pieces of what
Has for centuries been said and re-said
About the deed this fabled warrior
Might have done, were he to have conquered
All that he said he did when he came?

Nay. As all warriors then and since, when the ancient warrior came and saw,
He could only have conquered or been conquered; so what
More could be asked of any warrior? And what better could be said?

Sunday, March 14, 2010

I Ran The Roads My Daddy Ran

By Bill Kirk

It's early morning and the air is still cool
In this patch of kudzu heaven between Jackson and Yazoo City;
Not yet thick and heavy with river delta humidity
Which gets pulled into the air by the heat of the sun.
Leaving Mollie's, I strike out at a run across highway 49
And pick up Dover Road for the first two miles.

Mostly rolling hills lay before me
As I hug the edge of the asphalt—
My shoes find chance purchase in the loose gravel and sand.

Holding my steady pace, in just fifteen minutes,
I make a left onto Neely Road,
Leaving my open exposure to the morning sun behind me.
I wonder if that’s how long it took Daddy—
And his brothers and his cousins--
When they ran these roads bare-footed 75 years ago?

The road is paved at the turn
But it quickly changes to gravel mixed with powdery Mississippi clay.
Sun flashes unpredictably through the thick canopy,
Dappling the dusty road at my feet.

“Come on Woodrow, keep up,”
I can hear my Daddy call out over his shoulder to his big brother.
“Last one home slops the hogs before supper! Souuuee!”
In unison, quiet foot strikes kick up the road dust into a cloud
Like some kind of shook-up reddish talcum powder.

In wet weather the powdery dust would be Mississippi mud.
But on this day, a fine layer of red clay covers the bare feet and legs
Of a half-dozen young farm boys
Out for a good run after a long day in the fields.
Now that was entertainment!

Someone, it could have been anyone, coughs out between breaths—
“This sure beats pickin’ cotton by a long shot.”
Then it was Daddy: “Yeah, ‘cept when I slung that whip snake
At Woodrow four rows over while we was pickin!’”
That got a good laugh out of everyone, hard as it was to laugh on the run.
“Not a lot of cotton got picked that day!”

Back in the moment,
I feel the first traces of the morning heat on my face—
Sweat streams down my back.
There, before me, I can see those boys
As they must have sprinted down
What would one day be the very same road—now Kirk Road--that I find myself on.
The thought of running on a road named after my own extended family
Tugs the corners of my mouth into a smile.

At the next left the pack would leave Kirk Road.
With few trees for shade, Fletcher’s Chapel Road
Would take them home--
Past the very fields they had worked all day.

Imagining the tight group of runners ahead of me.
I pick up my pace. Can I catch them?
My high-tech running shoes seem no match
For the six sets of calloused feet ahead of me.
Those feet know the feel of every inch of these country roads.
I can say I know them, too. But not really—
Not like they do.

The old home place suddenly pops into view.
I may think I can take ‘em. Yet those farm boys have an edge.
They are clearly running for more than bragging rights.
The first one through the gate gets the first slice
Of Mammaw’s chocolate cake after supper.

Less than a quarter mile away from that sweet confection,
I know I have to make my move to catch the virtual runners before me.
It’s time to see what kind of a kick they have.

Keeping time with a silent cadence caller,
The boys stretch out their strides—
Their threadbare over-alls flapping in the breeze.
Jockeying for position on the inside, each aims to be the first
To cut the sharp left corner into the gravel driveway.

Then, in an instant, Daddy swings to the outside—
Farther to run but more room.

In my mind’s eye, I fall in behind him.
For a split second, stride for stride we make for the gate.
In a final burst, Daddy breaks away from the thundering herd,
Slicing through the front gate opening,
Just inches ahead of the pack.

On this night, like many others, to the victor go the spoils:
The first dipper of cool well water and, of course,
That slice of chocolate cake.
Oh, yeah. And the others can fight over who gets the hogs tonight.

As for me? I relish the feast before me—
Rich memories of an earlier generation of young runners,
Fleet of feet in times gone by, long before I was born.

Thanks for the run, Dad.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

The Vagaries Of The Blogosphere---Celebrating The "Grateful Read"

To all writers out there in the midst of promotional struggle, I feel your sense of frustration and wondering---wondering sometimes if we are individually and perhaps even collectively in the bottom of a deep well, seeing the small circle of light high above us come and go, making noise hoping someone will notice and pull us out or maybe toss in a coin.

What a rich topic for commentary. So, here's my two cents in a somewhat stream of consciousness fashion. I'd love to get your individual or collective take on the matter. By the way, I've also updated, simplified and tightened up my website at recently and am always interested in drop-ins. No appointment necessary.

We all have blogs and websites, e-mail address books, social/professional/academic networks, school/library contact lists and are members in writing groups, critique groups, oh, and extended families. We write our blogs on all things 'writing' and update our websites to keep them current regarding our publications and 'fresh' so the web crawlers will excitedly buz about something new they have found.

But, let's be honest. Who really stops by to visit our roadside lemonade stands, to linger for a moment or, even better, to mention how tasty our nickel-sized offering is? Who out there in the universe has the time or interest or even awareness that we are "here"? Are we the cyberspace equivalent of a small-town five-and-dime on a formerly busy road through town, now struggling 20 miles south of the politically placed Interstate Highway?

To be sure, our announcements are made to those in the aforementioned communities so they know something new is afoot in our little corner of the literary world. We bait our promotional hooks, hoping for a nibble or a catch. But, mixing my metaphors, are we preaching to the choir or at most to those in each of our relatively small congregations?

Interestingly, one of my favorit visitors---OK, she's my little sister---saw my blog post on Facebook and wrote, "What?". Yes, my entry was a bit obtuse even for a family member who knows me well. Then one of my few "followers"---a former critique group moderator---stopped by and noted, also on Facebook, that she very much understood my feelings to the extent that she has pretty much given up on her blog because no one was reading it. Sad commentary indeed but so true.

Of course neither of those replies from my loyal fans are posted on my blog site. So, listen up Facebook. Perhaps there might be a way to link any comments people make on the blog posts that are re-posted on Facebook, Jacketflap, etc., back to our blogs just so the comments actually appear there. At least it might create the illusion that our blogs actually have an audience. Did I say that?

This is an interesting business, isn't it? But to the question, "Why do we do it?" the answer has got to be that we feel called to do it, we love the work and we can't see ourselves not doing it. So, I will continue to leave my little written deposits, like geo-caches in the wilderness, hoping that someone will find my cache and leave a note behind---and, as rarely as it occurs, I'll be very encouraged when they do. Let's just call it "cache-ing in"....

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Blog Reading Early Warning System

This is a test and only a test of the Blog Reading Early Warning (BREW) System. This is not an emergency.

If an actual BREW System emergency were to occur--whereby no evidence can be found that a blog has been visited or read in over two weeks--you would be directed to logon immediately to as many blogs as possible, read them and leave a comment.

Because this is only a test, you are simply being reminded about the millions, nay billions, of blogs circulating in cyberspace waiting to be browsed and perused. To prevent an actual BREW System crisis your mission, if you choose to accept it, is to reach out and help save a blog from imminent extinction. If everyone chips in, there is no limit to the number of blogs and bloggers which might be pulled back from the brink.

Is but a visit to one blog a day, too much to ask? Remember, the blog you save may be my own....

While you are here, consider if you will the sea change which appears to be underway (started a few years back) as book production models change to keep pace with book consumption.

Specifically, the traditional publishing model in which large inventories of printed books are warehoused in anticipation of sales, must certainly have been affected by the growing interest first in e-Books and more recently in Print On Demand (POD). That shift (extent unknown) clearly has the potential to, in turn, affect the entire book publishing food chain from traditional publishing houses to printers to brick and mortar booksellers. It's no wonder traditional publishers, resistant at first, have begun coming around to e-Books and POD just to stay competitive.

So, to this apparent evolution bordering on revolution in the publishing industry, what say all ye observers and prognosticators? Are the makers of books in a bind?

Thank you for your attention during this test of the BREW System. You may resume your various and sundry activities--and even blog about them if you dare.

Kirk, Out.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

In An Instant, History Was Made

I, Roger Bannister
By Bill Kirk

May 6, 1954. “Will this be the day?”
Is the singular question for the 3.000 present
At the Iffley Road track today—
A question for which only I will have the anwer.

Three runners to the line:
Chris Brasher, Chris Chataway and I, Roger Bannister.

It is a day like no other has been or will be again.
In the minds of men, long anticipated expectations
Were held in check by the history of a feat often tried
But never accomplished.

With tension in the air and muscles on the brink of exploding,
The gun goes off—then heartbreak
As we are called back to the line.
“How to put the lions back in the cage,” they wonder?
Might our legs recover sufficiently for another go?
We would learn soon enough they would and they did.

Then, in an instant, the world turns on four words,
“Runners take your mark!”
Another shot and the eternity of that first quarter mile
Flashes by in just 57.5 seconds.
Hearts pounding and lungs near bursting,
I hear myself yell, “Faster”
As I run impatiently from behind.

An arm's length ahead of me,
Brasher’s cooler head prevails, controlling the race.
Were he not leading with patience,
The price I would pay in three scant minutes would be dear.
The next two quarter miles each exceed a minute—
“Not by much,” some would say.
But will "not much" be "too much" at the end of the day?

Then Chataway takes the lead in the third circuit around the track.
Stride for stride three champions drive on—
Into the last revolution.
Now is when “faster” is needed.
At last it is my turn—my time.

I surge ahead down the back stretch.
“59, 59, 59 seconds,” is my singular thought.
Can it be done? Is this the day?
Rounding the last turn, with 50 yards left,
I race toward my date with destiny.

Nothing left now but raw will,
I stare at the tape stretched across my path.
It beckons from a mere 15 feet before me.
Less than three more foot strikes to leave on the track.
In a duel with the clock: What razor-thin portion
Of a single second might I gain or lose?

The snap of the tape—time frozen with the
Click, click, click of stop-watches,
And the pop, pop, pop of flashing bulbs.

Then unbearable pain and
Total collapse into waiting arms.
Gasping for breath. I strain to hear
The three long-anticipated words: “… three minutes and…”
Everything after is swallowed by the rising din.

I, Roger Bannister, have done it—
With a time of 3:59.4,
The unassailable 4-minute barrier has at last been broken—

The first sub-four mile is mine.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Life Is Good--One Step At A Time

Life Is Good
By Bill Kirk

She wakes early,
Before first light
And slowly makes her way to the kitchen
To start the coffee ritual.
Her footsteps are muffled by thick, woolen socks
Pulled on out of habit—
Even in summer.

The house is quiet
And will be for another hour,
Except for the occasional creak or pop
In floors, ceilings and walls,
Just as old bones are also sometimes wont to do.
It’s odd that those noises always seem to be
Upstairs or in the next room—
Present but never proximate,
As if the house wants the attention—
Letting you know
It should not be taken for granted.

What makes those noises anyway—
In bones and boards?
Are people like houses when they get old?
Come to think of it,
Old ships are like that, too,
What with their snaps and cracks
From movement on the water,
Even when safely sheltered.

She feels that way sometimes—
Just an old girl with ancient ribs and joints
Making noises as all the pieces and parts
Settle and resettle into place.
But not today.

Today the noises don’t matter.
She has no time for feeling old.
For this day, she has fifty miles ahead of her—
On foot; uphill and down,
Over rocky, narrow trails
Carved out through the heavy underbrush
Of ancient forests by pack mules, horses and pioneers.

Today, she will join the company
Of thousands of her comrades,
Both past and present,
Once again, experiencing a level of
Anticipation, pain and exhilaration
Shared by few.

But now in this quiet moment,
Like no other in its simplicity,
She savors the first steamy sips
Of rich, dark coffee laden with
Fresh cream and sugar—
The steady warmth radiating from her core.

Cradling a comfortable old mug in her hands,
She closes her eyes, thankful for this day.
Then, as if in prayer,
She imagines the start of her long day’s journey—
The steady cadence during twelve hours
Of her 80,000 foot strikes,
As she leaves her own transitory yet enduring
Marks on the trail—
The next first steps of the rest of her life.

It’s almost time to lace up.
Life is good.