A Poem A Story A Prompt, Issue 21

Dreams

It’s been said that hearing about other people’s dreams is deadly boring, but I think today’s poem and story prove otherwise. More than that, there’s much writers can learn about good storytelling from our dreams. Consider their potent symbolism, how they’re full of moments of emotional intensity, how they often begin right in the middle of the action, how they continually deliver the unexpected. One of my favorite artists, David Lynch, uses the peculiar logic of dreams in much of his work. In his memoir, aptly titled Room to Dream, he writes, “Things have harmonics, and if you’re true to an idea as much as you can be, then the harmonics will be there and they’ll be truthful even though they may be abstract.”

Mulholland Drive, directed by David Lynch (2001)

Poem

My Cockroach Lover

The summer I slept 
on JC’s couch, 
there were roaches 
between the bristles 
of my toothbrush, 
roaches pouring 
from the speakers 
of the stereo. 
A light flipped on 
in the kitchen at night 
revealed a Republican 
National Convention 
of roaches, 
an Indianapolis 500 
of roaches.

Once night I dreamed 
a giant roach 
leaned over me, 
brushing my face 
with kind antennae 
and whispering, “I love you." 
I awoke slapping myself 
and watched the darkness 
for hours, because I realized 
this was a dream
and so that meant
the cockroach did not really love me.

—Martín Espada

Who is this guy?

Born in Brooklyn in 1957, Martín Espada has worked as a tenant lawyer in the Boston area, published over 20 books of poetry and essays, and edited poetry anthologies. The strong sense of social justice underlying his work is perhaps partly due to the influence of his father, a civil rights activist who founded the Puerto Rican Diaspora Documentary Project. In 2018, Espada was awarded the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize; today he teaches English at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. Richard Blanco said of his work, “Espada’s poems continue to define the role of the poet as an emotional historian. Like Whitman, Espada stirs in us an undeniable social consciousness and connectedness.”

Story

A Dream

Josef K. was dreaming:

It was a beautiful day and K. wanted to go on a walk. But no sooner had he taken a few steps than he was already at the graveyard. Its paths were highly artificial, impractical in their windings, yet he glided along such a path as if hovering unshakeably over raging water. From far away, he spotted a freshly dug burial mound at which he wanted to halt. This burial mound exerted an almost enticing effect on him, and he felt he could not get there fast enough. At times, however, he could barely glimpse the mound, it was covered with flags that twisted and flapped powerfully against one another; the flag bearers could not be seen, but there appeared to be great rejoicing.

While his eyes were still riveted in the distance, he abruptly saw the burial mound next to the path – indeed almost behind him by now. He hastily leaped into the grass. Since the path continued rushing along beneath his feet as he leaped off, he staggered and fell to his knees right in front of the mound. Two men were standing behind the grave, holding a headstone between them in the air; the moment K. showed up, they thrust the stone into the earth, and it stood there as if cemented to the ground. Instantly, a third man emerged from the bushes, and K. promptly identified him as an artist. He was wearing only trousers and a misbuttoned shirt; a velvet cap was on his head; in his hand, he clutched an ordinary pencil, drawing figures in the air even as he approached.

He now applied this pencil to the top end of the stone; the stone was very high, he did not even have to lean down, but he did have to bend forward, since he did not wish to step on the burial mound, which separated him from the stone. So he stood on tiptoe, steadying himself by propping his left hand against the surface of the stone. Through some extremely skillful manipulation, he succeeded in producing gold letters with that ordinary pencil; he wrote: “Here LIES—” Each letter came out clean and beautiful, deeply incised and in purest gold. After writing those two words, he looked back at K.; K., who was very eager to see what would come next in the inscription, gazed at the stone, paying little heed to the man.

And in fact, the man was about to continue writing, but he could not, something was hindering him, he lowered the pencil and turned to K. again. This time, K. looked back at the artist, who, he noticed, was very embarrassed but unable to indicate the reason for his embarrassment. All his earlier liveliness had vanished. As a result, K. likewise felt embarrassed; they exchanged helpless glances; there was some kind of misunderstanding between them, which neither of them could clear up. To make matters worse, a small chime began tinkling inopportunely from the tomb chapel, but the artist waved his raised hand wildly, and the chime stopped.

After a brief pause, it started in again; this time very softly and then promptly breaking off with no special admonition from him; it was as if it merely wanted to test its own sound. K. was inconsolable about the artist’s dilemma, he began to cry, sobbing into his cupped hands for a long time. The artist waited for K. to calm down, and then, finding no other solution, he decided to keep writing all the same. His first small stroke was a deliverance for K., but the artist obviously managed to execute it only with utmost reluctance; moreover, the penmanship was not as lovely — above all, it seemed to lack gold, the stroke moved along pale and unsteady, only the letter became very large.

It was a J, it was almost completed; but now the artist furiously stamped one foot into the burial mound, making the dark soil fly up all around. At last, K. understood him; there was no time left to apologize; with all his fingers he dug into the earth, which offered scant resistance; everything seemed prepared; a thin crust of earth had been set up purely for show; right beneath it a huge hole with sheer sides gaped open, and K., flipped over on his back by a gently current, sank into the hole. But while, with his head still erect on his neck, he was welcomed down below by the impenetrable depth, his name, with tremendous embellishments, rushed across the stone up above. Enraptured by this sight, he woke up.

—Franz Kafka

Who is this guy?

You know! It would just be wrong to publish an issue on dreams and not include Franz. Kafka was born in 1883 to a German-speaking Jewish family in Prague, and interestingly, like Espada, he also trained as a lawyer. He later worked for an insurance company, squeezing in writing time where he could (sound familiar?) Much has been written about his tormented inner life, the nightmarish (and funny) predicaments of his protagonists, his influence on modern literature. The New Yorker is running a series of never-before-published short stories by Kafka, which you can read here.

Prompt

Write a scene (or poem) that feels like it came out of a dream. Or, adapt a dream into a story, poem, or essay.


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 for future newsletters, and the results of writing prompts (if you’re so inclined) to info@alannaschubach.com