A Poem A Story A Prompt, Issue 1

Not Knowing

Welcome to A Poem A Story A Prompt, a free newsletter delivering to you twice weekly just those things. This being the first ever issue, I’m going to keep it brief. My aim here is to share poems and short fiction I like (though I may throw in essays too at some point), as well as a creative writing prompt. Hopefully you’ll find some distraction, and maybe motivation to create something of your own.

I’ll organize each issue’s poem, story, and prompt loosely around a theme. Today’s theme is Not Knowing.

I’m also open to recommendations for what to include—but no promises. Scroll down to see today’s poem, story, and prompt. And to receive the next issue in your inbox, please subscribe.

Poem

A Note

Life is the only way
to get covered in leaves,
catch your breath on the sand,
rise on wings;

to be a dog,
or stroke its warm fur;

to tell pain
from everything it's not;

to squeeze inside events,
dawdle in views,
to seek the least of all possible mistakes.

An extraordinary chance
to remember for a moment
a conversation held
with the lamp switched off;

and if only once
to stumble upon a stone,
end up soaked in one downpour or another,

mislay your keys in the grass;
and to follow a spark on the wind with your eyes;
and to keep on not knowing
something important.

—Wislawa Szymborska (translated from the Polish by Stanislaw Baranczak and Clare Cavanagh)

Who is this lady?

A poet, essayist, translator, and Nobel laureate, born in Prowent, Poland in 1923, died in Krakow in 2012. In her Nobel Prize acceptance speech, she said, “In daily speech, where we don’t stop to consider every word, we all use phrases like ‘the ordinary world,’ ‘ordinary life,’ ‘the ordinary course of events.’ …But in the language of poetry, where every word is weighed, nothing is usual or normal. Not a single stone and not a single cloud above it. Not a single day and not a single night after it. And above all, not a single existence, not anyone’s existence in this world.”

Story

The School

Well, we had all these children out planting trees, see, because we figured that ... that was part of their education, to see how, you know, the root systems ... and also the sense of responsibility, taking care of things, being individually responsible. You know what I mean. And the trees all died. They were orange trees. I don’t know why they died, they just died. Something wrong with the soil possibly or maybe the stuff we got from the nursery wasn’t the best. We complained about it. So we’ve got thirty kids there, each kid had his or her own little tree to plant and we’ve got these thirty dead trees. All these kids looking at these little brown sticks, it was depressing.

It wouldn’t have been so bad except that just a couple of weeks before the thing with the trees, the snakes all died. But I think that the snakes – well, the reason that the snakes kicked off was that ... you remember, the boiler was shut off for four days because of the strike, and that was explicable. It was something you could explain to the kids because of the strike. I mean, none of their parents would let them cross the picket line and they knew there was a strike going on and what it meant. So when things got started up again and we found the snakes they weren’t too disturbed.

With the herb gardens it was probably a case of overwatering, and at least now they know not to overwater. The children were very conscientious with the herb gardens and some of them probably ... you know, slipped them a little extra water when we weren’t looking. Or maybe ... well, I don’t like to think about sabotage, although it did occur to us. I mean, it was something that crossed our minds. We were thinking that way probably because before that the gerbils had died, and the white mice had died, and the salamander ... well, now they know not to carry them around in plastic bags.

Of course we expected the tropical fish to die, that was no surprise. Those numbers, you look at them crooked and they’re belly-up on the surface. But the lesson plan called for a tropical fish input at that point, there was nothing we could do, it happens every year, you just have to hurry past it.

We weren’t even supposed to have a puppy.

We weren’t even supposed to have one, it was just a puppy the Murdoch girl found under a Gristede’s truck one day and she was afraid the truck would run over it when the driver had finished making his delivery, so she stuck it in her knapsack and brought it to the school with her. So we had this puppy. As soon as I saw the puppy I thought, Oh Christ, I bet it will live for about two weeks and then... And that’s what it did. It wasn’t supposed to be in the classroom at all, there’s some kind of regulation about it, but you can’t tell them they can’t have a puppy when the puppy is already there, right in front of them, running around on the floor and yap yap yapping. They named it Edgar – that is, they named it after me. They had a lot of fun running after it and yelling, “Here, Edgar! Nice Edgar!” Then they’d laugh like hell. They enjoyed the ambiguity. I enjoyed it myself. I don’t mind being kidded. They made a little house for it in the supply closet and all that. I don’t know what it died of. Distemper, I guess. It probably hadn’t had any shots. I got it out of there before the kids got to school. I checked the supply closet each morning, routinely, because I knew what was going to happen. I gave it to the custodian.

And then there was this Korean orphan that the class adopted through the Help the Children program, all the kids brought in a quarter a month, that was the idea. It was an unfortunate thing, the kid’s name was Kim and maybe we adopted him too late or something. The cause of death was not stated in the letter we got, they suggested we adopt another child instead and sent us some interesting case histories, but we didn’t have the heart. The class took it pretty hard, they began (I think, nobody ever said anything to me directly) to feel that maybe there was something wrong with the school. But I don’t think there’s anything wrong with the school, particularly, I’ve seen better and I’ve seen worse. It was just a run of bad luck. We had an extraordinary number of parents passing away, for instance. There were I think two heart attacks and two suicides, one drowning, and four killed together in a car accident. One stroke. And we had the usual heavy mortality rate among the grandparents, or maybe it was heavier this year, it seemed so. And finally the tragedy.

The tragedy occurred when Matthew Wein and Tony Mavrogordo were playing over where they’re excavating for the new federal office building. There were all these big wooden beams stacked, you know, at the edge of the excavation. There’s a court case coming out of that, the parents are claiming that the beams were poorly stacked. I don’t know what’s true and what’s not. It’s been a strange year.

I forgot to mention Billy Brandt’s father who was knifed fatally when he grappled with a masked intruder in his home.

One day, we had a discussion in class. They asked me, where did they go? The trees, the salamander, the tropical fish, Edgar, the poppas and mommas, Matthew and Tony, where did they go? And I said, I don’t know, I don’t know. And they said, who knows? and I said, nobody knows. And they said, is death that which gives meaning to life? And I said no, life is that which gives meaning to life. Then they said, but isn’t death, considered as a fundamental datum, the means by which the taken-for-granted mundanity of the everyday may be transcended in the direction of –
I said, yes, maybe.
They said, we don’t like it.
I said, that’s sound.
They said, it’s a bloody shame!
I said, it is.
They said, will you make love now with Helen (our teaching assistant) so that we can see how it is done? We know you like Helen.
I do like Helen but I said that I would not.
We’ve heard so much about it, they said, but we’ve never seen it.
I said I would be fired and that it was never, or almost never, done as a demonstration. Helen looked out the window.
They said, please, please make love with Helen, we require an assertion of value, we are frightened.

I said that they shouldn’t be frightened (although I am often frightened) and that there was value everywhere. Helen came and embraced me. I kissed her a few times on the brow. We held each other. The children were excited. Then there was a knock on the door, I opened the door, and the new gerbil walked in. The children cheered wildly.

—Donald Barthelme

Who is this guy?

An American short story writer and novelist known for his “postmodernist” style. (I've never been entirely clear what postmodernism is. Maybe a reader can fill me in.) He was born in Philly in 1931 and died in Houston in 1989. In between those dates, he wrote 15 books. I’ve heard it said that “The School” is his most accessible story—whatever! Barthelme called writing “a process of dealing with not-knowing,” which seems to me is what “The School” is also about.

Prompt

Think of a person who is baffling to you—someone in your life, or maybe a public figure—someone whose behavior you find unfathomable. Write a scene in the first person in which you inhabit this individual’s point of view.


Alanna Schubach is a fiction writer, freelance journalist, and teacher. Follow her on Twitter @AlannaSchubach and read her work at alannaschubach.com. Send questions, recommendations, idle threats, and the results of writing prompts to info@alannaschubach.com