Magnetic Poetry Transcriptions
When I started my Master's degree in music composition in 1994, I was assigned a desk in an office that was in a different building from all the other music graduate students. I don't know if the university had run out of space, or whether they didn't quite know what to do with a composer who was kind of also a serious music theorist, but whatever the reason, my workspace was isolated from the main hub of academic musical activity.
The office itself had been created when somebody dropped a wall through an existing classroom, creating a long, narrow room roughly 50 feet long and about twelve feet wide. The original classroom's blackboard was along one of the long walls, and ten desks were arranged against the outside walls of the room.
The arrangement of desks looked ridiculous, so my first task upon moving in was to rearrange the desks in an exciting "open office" plan with daring right angles and interesting clusters. None of this mattered, because I had the room to myself, but I wanted to make the space more interesting. A few weeks in, another composer was assigned to be my office-mate. He added a Fender Rhodes electric piano and a Hammond B3 organ with one of those huge Leslie speakers, officially making our shared office the coolest workspace in the building.
As an artist, I've always been interested in indeterminacy, chance, found objects, and other constraints that take some control away from a creator. When I saw a new thing called Magnetic Poetry, I knew I had to buy a box. If you've never seen a Magnetic Poetry set, I can tell you that it is a little box filled with small, rectangular magnets. On each magnet is printed a word or a syllable that can be combined with other magnets to make larger words. The idea is that you arrange the magnets so that the words create a poem.
By coincidence, moving the furniture in my office uncovered a large metal plate that extended across the entire length of the narrow outside wall, and this surface seemed like the ideal place to stick all the little magnets with their words and word fragments.
I started playing with the magnetic words and composed my first (and so far only) magnetic poem. My compositional goal was to use words in ways that the designers had not intended. A dry-erase marker gave me a good, non-destructive way to add punctuation. The following poem is what I came up with:
the ugly music of sausages—
it manipulates the elaborate symphony;
like bitter chocolate lather it trudges
on repulsive, honeyed feet.
you ask a delirious goddess
to put a raw egg
in your juice.
together you worship the essential apparatus of two thousand
(would the fiddle sing about milk?)
an enormous breast of white meat from the produce place
is it yet still pink?
(Spacing and indents are a rough approximation of the layout on the wall.)
I thought that using "produce" as a noun instead of a verb, and using "pink"—and "breast"(!)—to describe undercooked chicken would not have been what the people who chose to add those words to the kit would have expected. (The addition of the raw egg makes this poem a bit troubling from a food-safety perspective.)
The Ugly Music of Sausages does not even begin to exhaust all the little word magnets that came in the box, so I shoved all the unused words to one side, so as not to distract from my masterpiece. I got busy with music things, and forgot all about the magnets until something unexpected happened.
My sister "Gail" (all names changed unless they tell me to un-change 'em) stopped by for a visit and saw my poem, and beside it, all the unused words on the wall. Now Gail is a creative type with an off-kilter sense of humour and a willingness to embrace the irrational—she once wrote a Dadaist poem that began, "Yajani qm tijt og nadrak su phlam." It's hard to resist a wall of poetry magnets, and she felt compelled to compose a companion piece to complement my poem.
Gail's work displays more craft than mine, employing alliteration and some of the standard literary tools like meter and probably some other stuff that I lack the training to notice. She also channeled her inner teen goth to come up with the following:
chanting, purple, frantic, fluffy flood
smell the power of my
delicate shadowy summer gown.
above and beneath a misty moment,
rainy water dreams;
luscious and languid...
red blood sprays!
my sweet sordid death
for the gorgeous lust;
he whispers: it was not I.
If I tell you that most of my friends, much like Gail, are also creative types, I think you can predict what happened next. The next visitor to my office was "Dex". Dex and I had just finished working on an Anne of Green Gables short story in the style of William Gibson's Neuromancer. (Our motivations made sense at the time.) Dex was still feeling a bit cyberpunk, and there were some technological words among the remaining magnets:
though our waxy dressing has heavèd
a falling void into her sky,
screaming chains of black watches
go in a shakey ron.
under a friendly sweat suit
lies his blue TV girl!
when wintery cars butt their mean urges;
using incubated hairless shadows for stormlike mothers...
these irons panted?
The misspelling "shakey" was, if not deliberate, at least unavoidable. Among the words and fragments in the magnetic poetry box were a bunch of suffixes, so you could add an "ed" or an "ing"...or a "y" on the end of "shake". Not quite correct but close enough. "Ron" was a combination of a loose suffix "r" added in front of the word "on", which doesn't form a word, but we worked at Lucky Chucky's Burger Bucket with a guy named Ron, and that was seen as adequate justification. Everyone who has attempted to read this poem aloud stops and questions the "word" ron, which seems to align with Dex's intentions.
Next up was "Clark", a man with a fondness for the classics who was also taking an English elective at the time. Clark really, really wanted to arrange the remaining magnets into a Shakespearian sonnet but there just weren't that many left over. He did spend a long time crafting the opening couplet, paying particular attention to the rhythm:
take my love through lazy drool and sit,
lick fast and smear some tiny rose.
no forest or finger need I...
to manifest puppy's love in all.
most easy spring I can recall!
mad as a drunk near sunshine's leg.
one tongue is always a sad vision.
Clark's "manifest" is a clever aggregation of the words "man", "if", and the ending "est", creating a word that was not intentionally present in the original magnets.
Last up was "Enzo", a musician with an affinity for the surreal, and, well, the just plain weird. Poor Enzo didn't have a lot left to work with; the previous four poems had already used up most of the useful words. However, constraints can often inspire, and Enzo, never one to sweat comprehension, sorted through the dregs to come up with the fifth poem:
"er...," I said, "I'd never do an ache."
knife, let boy bare her pound!
be as woman, she did as she is,
"stare at me," moaned he.
as they say
some go by, seeing life after beauty.
those who but trip him in her sea.
smooth petal & head wind
"smooth petal & head wind" is the title of Enzo's poem. Its placement on the final line, separated from the body of the poem, was inspired by Débussy's Preludes for solo piano, in which the titles appear after the music, allowing the player to reflect on the experience after the final notes fade away.
At one point, we submitted the full set of five poems as a cycle to a poetry contest under the nom de plume of "Sir Humphrey Smythe-Holmquist" but we never even got an acknowledgement of our entry. Genius is never appreciated in its own time.
Postscript: some time after graduating, I stopped by my old office before returning the key. My office-mate and I had moved out of the office the previous semester. All of the desks had been shoved back against the walls, and there was no poetry to be found anywhere.