"A writer and nothing else: a man alone in a room with the English language, trying to get human feelings right. " ~John K. Hutchens, New York Herald Tribune, 10 September 1961

Saturday, September 25, 2010

On The Dock

posted by Jalal

- in which the author discovers a new condition to his life, attempts to develop a whole new communicable disease, tries to change, is targeted by Halliburton, out does the Pakistani Cricket Team, takes a hike and socks it to big Pharma

It starts innocuously enough.
There’s a pounding in my head, my vision is swirling, I have a shooting pain in the left side of my chest and three fingers in my left arm go instantly numb. So I chalk it up to:
a. Stress
b. Bad posture (damn those office chairs)
c. Last night’s, not-gas-attack-inducing-at-all, masala daal fry
d. The horrible project briefing my team is giving me
Until it gets scary and my colleagues are staring with giant ‘O’s at my face.
His voice is a whisper in the thundering now emanating from my ears.
“You look pale,” my colleagues have a gift for understatement I discover.
And from that moment, from my desk to the emergency room, it took only twenty minutes to be introduced to the rest of my life as a blood pressure patient.

My dad was using the car when I called for it so he came along for the ride. Distinguished elderly gentleman that he is, the doctors and orderlies all assumed that it was he I was accompanying and not the other way around. So they all looked at me funny as I lay down on the bed when the doctor ordered, ‘Will the patient please lie down!’
‘What’s the issue?’ says he.
‘I feel funny,’ Says me.
‘Oh holy crap! Why are you not dead?’ says he, ‘You call this a BP?’

British Petroleum has instructed me inform you that they disavow all knowledge of the unnatural disaster that is this post and besides…it was all Halliburton’s fault anyway.

Halliburton at this stage have also instructed me to inform you that nothing is ever their fault. Nothing. Whatsoever. SAY IT BITCH! OR THE US ARMY WILL BOMB AND OCCUPY YOUR DILLHOLE!

You know you have a serious problem when your heart has a higher score than the entire Pakistani Cricket tea…DAMN YOU CRICKETING SCANDAL! NOW I CANT EVEN BE SURE OF MY JOKES ANY MORE! And here I had this awesome joke about how my BP hit 190 over 140…higher than our cricket team’s batting average.

The doctor in the emergency room put me on BP meds and gave me tranqs and told me to just lie there and go to sleep. Three hours later…I’m still not asleep. The doctor looks at the monitor and says that if the numbers don’t go down soon, I’m getting hospitalized. They go down. I go home. Word travels that Jalal was in an emergency room for three hours. Everyone, family and friends, gathers at my house that night, all concern for my brush with high blood pressure and soothe down me frazzled nerves and racing pulse with such comforting homilies like,


What followed were constant trips to the doc’s to figure out the optimal chemical concoction that is to keep my BP within normal ranges and out of the stratosphere. And doctor’s room conversations with my beloved like the one below:

‘No salt.’
‘Really…just a little…from time to time’
‘Mind your language. And don’t get upset. You have high BP! You’ll pop a blood vessel! What will I do then?’
‘Well I wouldn’t be on edge if you let me eat a little salt.’
At this stage the doctor feels she needs to interject to prevent my then fiancĂ© now wife from killing me with kindness and worry, ‘Actually, he can eat normal food salt. Just don’t sprinkle on more on the top like you have been doing…’
‘HAH! See?’
‘Shut up Mr. 190 over 140.’
‘Are you sure you two aren’t already married…?’

And injunctions from all and sundry that the best thing for BP is constant exercise and the Miracle of all Miracle exercises, God alone knows how we ever lived without it, was…
Prepare yourselves
It may sound like crazy talk
The miracle, universal panacea, the Holy Grail cure for-every-frakkin’-thing is….


Doesn’t it strike you as strange as how the healing powers of tramping up and down are touted as nothing short of miraculous? Or that over 30 odd years of education to become a highly qualified physician and ‘talking a walk’ is the best that you can do for a patient? What next will you be prescribing?
‘Doctor! I’m Dying!’
‘Quick! Take two Nikes and one Reebok then call me in the morning!’

Well after spending 10 minutes circumnavigating the Aunty ridden walkways of Hilal Park, I called up my beloved, then fiancé now wife, and said,
‘Hi Baby! Guess what. I’m off to go shoot myself! Love you. Bye!’
And then life has since settled into a comfortable rhythm. I take my meds, watch what I eat and walk regularly…
Okay. Semi Regularly.
Okay. I walk sometimes.
FINE! I THINK about walking sometimes!
Oh have it your way Mr.Factanista! I lounge on my ass all day and play computer games in the evening and call it exercise. Happy?

And the BP has not been that bad to live with. It could have been much worse. Sure I have my episodes when I push myself or am irregular with my rest. Some days I wake up feeling low and like I’ve been running. The numbers are 150 over 110 and the office gets a phone call from me, ‘Hi team. I’m not coming in today because I’m sick. Don’t do anything that could make me get sicker. Just do what I’ve told you to do. Don’t use your heads too much and remember that I will yell at you if I see you haven’t used your heads at all. Enjoy figuring that out. Bye!’
I am now doing my best to turn high BP into the world’s first disease communicable over cell phone.
No Twitter, I am not talking about you.
At one point, when my episodes kept coming with more frequency, it was time to go get a professional consult. The cardiologist pooh poohed it and told me to get an ECG. That resulted in a rather humorous episode involving a cell phone, two tubes of Anne French, Magic Carpet Rides and perhaps the most bizarre trip to the loo I’ve ever taken.
The ECG is clear so the doctor advises that I quit smoking,
Oh yeah! Absolutely. Tomorrow.
That I keep up with regular walks
Uh huh. Yup. As soon as there comes out an XBOX Walk. Till then…will lots of guitar hero do?
And that I maintain a Zen like calm and inner peace to manage my stress.
Now those of you who know me also know that in my head I am much akin to the hyperactive squirrel from Ice Age, on speed, and crack, with ADD, trying to decide between the world’s biggest pile of nuts or Mad Donkey Stud Monkey sex.
But methinks I have discovered the ultimate groove to mellow out in. Once in that groove not even work can harsh my calm, bro.
It has to do with the Missus. I can come home raging like a lion, pace the floor like a tiger and tirade against the world like Hitler addressing Berlin. Then all she needs to do is go,
‘Aw Poor Baby! Did yoo haz a bad day?’
I pout.
‘Aaaawww,’ she melts. ‘Did the big bad world eated your cookie?’
‘It did! It did eated my cookie.’
‘C’mere!’ she holds out her arms…

Hah! Suck on THAT big Pharma!

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

The Problem of Imagery

posted by Noor

“There is a simple trick at the heart of imaginative writing…The trick is that if you write in words that evoke the senses, if your language is full of things that can be seen, heard, smelled, tasted, and touched, you create a world your reader can enter.”

-Imaginative Writing – The Elements of Craft by Janet Burroway. Second Edition. Page 3. (Not following a standard citation method here).

I have often belabored a singular point in my critique to poets who must have come to detest it by now: introduce more concrete images to your poem. When you create a poem, no matter how commonplace the language written, it evidently transforms into a masterpiece in your mind. It is the same instinct that makes a mother love her child beyond its physical appearance. Obviously, the devotion to the poem from the poet is of (slightly) lesser magnitude.

During my years at DWL, I have come across countless poems that hold great potential. The themes may be very strong and refreshing, the idea nothing short of genius, but more often than not, the poems fall flat once written. The most important thing that the poet must understand is the importance of getting the reader involved. No one cares about your personal suffering, plight, identity crisis, break-up, et cetera, if it doesn’t somehow pull them into the theme of your poem. If readers can’t hold on to the poem by some kind of tactile imagery offered to them, they will not give a damn about the story you have to tell. Essentially, they want to be able to find a world they can enter – aptly phrased in the quote above.

In my experience, the best way to check a poem for its impact and quality is to take yourself out of the poem. Invariably, my poems are in first-person. Empathy dictates that a large ratio of a random sample of readers should be able to relate to my experiences as written in the poem. If I am to write about my life however, without giving them a chance to be a part of it, chances are empathy will be flushed down the toilet in 2 seconds flat. Even if I am writing about something that is of extreme personal significance, I must make the poem “friendly” for my readers. I generally try to do this by introducing the reader to my world, getting them acquainted with my life and surroundings. I mention the pile of dirty laundry at the foot of the bed in passing. A bamboo bowl of two month old potpourri on the nightstand – almost completely scentless, except the times when a wayward breeze from the broken window teases it. A red lampshade throwing diffuse light on a dried ring of stale chai on the coffee table. These are concrete images. Something the reader can recognize and hold on to. Now if I throw in a hurtful fight with my significant other somewhere between the dirty laundry and the caked ring of chai, with the emotional outburst highlighted metaphorically by the red lampshade – aha! I have a poem and I have pulled. You. In. I do this by writing out what exactly I want to say in the poem (the fight) and slowly fleshing it out with images, metaphors, and similes – figures of speech do wonders for your poem. Be creative with them. The way to flesh out your poem is best done by trying to look at what you have to offer beside yourself and your personal experience. So if you take yourself out of the poem, what is left? If you’ve got a handful of articles and a weak line of introduction, then you’ve got work to do. Build a world around yourself in the poem and you’ve got what you are looking for.

I am going to leave you with a short poem by Yusef Komunyakaa. It is a very personal poem (as most of them are), but please try to look for concrete imagery that he cleverly introduces along with spectacular metaphors and similes. Enjoy – and of course, happy writing!

Facing It by Yusef Komunyakaa
My black face fades,
hiding inside the black granite.
I said I wouldn’t,
dammit: No tears.
I am stone. I’m flesh.
My clouded reflection eyes me
like a bird of prey, the profile of night
slanted against morning. I turn
this way – the stone lets me go.
I turn that way – I’m inside
the Vietnam Veterans Memorial
again, depending on the light
to make a difference.
I go down the 58,022 names,
half-expecting to find
my own in letters like smoke.
I touch the name Andrew Johnson;
I see the booby trap’s white flash.
Names shimmer on a woman’s blouse
but when she walks away
the names stay on the wall.
Brushstrokes flash, a red bird’s
wings cutting across my stare.
The sky. A plane in the sky.
A white vet’s image floats
closer to me, then his pale eyes
look through mine. I’m a window.
He’s lost his right arm
inside the stone. In the black mirror
a woman’s trying to erase names:
No, she’s brushing a boy’s hair.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Piled Higher and Deeper - writer's block of an unusual kind

posted by Shehla

I once watched a documentary on Leonard Cohen and was struck by his discipline in writing. He insisted that to be a writer, he had to "go to work" every day, and therefore, to write every day. I'm much more liberal in my approach to writing, choosing to wait for revelation, the right mood, the perfect environment. It is one of the main reasons why I often tell people I am not a "real writer".

So imagine the gravity of the task at hand. Writing the introduction chapter of my Ph.D. dissertation. Is there ever a perfect environment to sit down and regurgitate facts about prostate cancer and molecular signaling pathways? Can one ever be in the mood to describe, in great length, the zonal anatomy of the prostate, the gaping holes in knowledge about the disease, and the dearth of treatment options available for advanced stages of said disease? No prizes for guessing the right answer.

It hasn't been all that bad. I've learned some very intriguing things, which 5 years of doing experiments and reading the literature never taught. Did you know, for instance, that prostatic intraepithelial neoplasia - the precursor lesions that lead to prostate cancer - can be present in men as early as at 20 years of age? Now there's a reason to be grateful I'm not a man. Sadly, this documented, reference-able fact takes up only one line to communicate. I'm supposed to write an entire CHAPTER. It also makes for very strange conversations, as I go around punctuating dinner with my treasure of "believe it or not" prostate cancer facts.

As stuck as I'm feeling, this is a very exciting time in the life of a graduate student. Years of hard work has finally shaped up to form a coherent theory. And nothing can match the feeling of coming up with and proving a novel hypothesis. My thesis mentor told me writing the intro will be hardest part of the process. I couldn't imagine what would be so hard about collecting background information on a topic I have lived and breathed for years. Turns out (as always) he was right. It's not so much collecting the information than figuring out how best to summarize it. Gives a whole new meaning to the term "writer's block". For inspiration (or for lack of it), I have resorted to perusing my favorite comic website, www.phdcomics.com. Yes, it's real. Yes, they really do put up comic strips on the life of graduate students. I can safely credit them with hours of procrastination, and in addition to providing the title to this blog post they have also been an amazing support group over the past half-decade. Too bad they can't summarize the different stages of metastatic adenocarcinomas.