The Kestrel

The Kestrel

I spied this evening gravity's bane, ground-
  Defying dusk's dirigible: an airship, soaring,
  Drifting in the dust-driven draft, mooring-
Mounted, engines churning, yearning to bound
Into the sky! Then, down, ‘round, and ‘round,
  As a raptor circles groundling prey, spooring,
  The Kestrel met the mooring, engines roaring.
Breath broken, I watched as her tether wound.
The ship's skin stretched, struts strained,
  Snapped! AND the fire that bloomed from within
Eclipsed the setting sun.  Downward sparks rained,
  Fiery teardrops reflected in their salty kin.
And yet, fantasies of flight remain;
  A tragic crash shan't quash the dreams of men.

— Stace Johnson, 2013

This poem appeared in Volume 9, issue 4 of Tales of the Talisman in May of 2014. It’s a pastiche of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ “The Windhover“, hence the odd, “sprung” meter.

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Publication Announcement

I arrived home from my first vacation in years Sunday to find a copy of Tales of the Talisman waiting in my mailbox. This is the issue that includes my steampunk sonnet, “The Kestrel”, which is a pastiche poem inspired by Gerard Manley Hopkins‘ “The Windhover“. (At least one other Colorado writer is represented in this issue: Ian Brazee-Cannon‘s story “A Night at the Club” also appears.)

Tales of the Talisman Volume IX, Issue 4

Tales of the Talisman Volume IX, Issue 4

Basically, I asked myself, “What if Gerard Manley Hopkins had been inspired more by technology than the priesthood?” I dug out my old Norton Anthology of English Literature and refreshed myself on Hopkins’ unique sprung rhythm so I could try to stay true to the meter of the original poem. Hopkins is my favorite poet, and in writing this pastiche, I meant no disrespect toward him or his work. I see it as more of a tribute to his writing, as well as an opportunity to work within a unique poetry framework, where the meter is dictated by the number of stresses in a line, rather than the number of syllables and feet.

Tales of the Talisman is a beautiful magazine, chock full of excellent writing. David Lee Summers did a great job putting this one together, and I’m honored to have my work represented.

 

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On the Death of Ray Bradbury

When NPR first announced their “This I Believe” series, I jumped at the chance to show the world why an early introduction to science fiction was essential to my creative development. My essay wasn’t picked for broadcast, but it is archived on their site, along with all the others that didn’t make the cut.

With the passing today of Ray Bradbury, I’ve decided to reprint that essay on my website, because Bradbury and Heinlein were my primary introductions to science fiction.  Bradbury was especially important to me because my favorite form of writing is the short story, and he was a master of that form.

 

I don’t remember which one I saw first. It was either Bradbury’s R is for Rocket or Heinlein’s Red Planet, but the sequence doesn’t really matter. What matters is that I took them both home from the public library and read them, sitting on my brown beanbag throne, flanked by tidy bookshelves like Centurion guards. In that space I discovered the alternate worlds of “A Sound of Thunder”, “The Foghorn” and Willis, the Martian roundhead, and I was hooked on science fiction.

Later, I stalked the arid dunes of Arrakis with blue-eyed Paul Atreides and cried when I learned that Ellison’s Jeffty was still five, and had never lost his Captain Midnight Decoder Ring. Science fiction crossed over into fantasy and I found myself lost in Mordor with Frodo and Sam, then combing the treasure room of Atuan with Ged, seeking to restore the ring of Erreth-Akbe, and with it, worldly balance. And Thomas Covenant, unwilling tutor that he was, reminded me that the real world was of prime importance, and that I was lucky to be in it.

When Dungeons and Dragons came along in the late 1970s, my friends and I were naturally hooked, and spent every Sunday afternoon in the library’s basement conference room, crawling through each other’s imaginations, solving puzzles and laughing at our own absurdity, bundles of creativity wrapped in cloaks of innocence.

Now, I’m nearing middle age. The marathon D&D sessions have morphed into occasional afternoon strategy games with the same lifelong friends. Books (when they aren’t in boxes) don’t come off the shelves nearly enough, and I seem to need more sleep than I ever did when I was younger. But the sparks of creativity and imagination that burst into life with Bradbury’s Rocket still smolder. Occasionally one will ignite and float skyward with the completion of a poem or short story. A flurry might crackle and spit into being while I play guitar with my band. More sparks glow when I read a sonnet to the woman I love, asking her to marry me beside a high country lake.

I believe that creativity is vital to the soul. It connects us to others in ways we don’t expect or understand. It builds self-confidence and teaches us to find solutions to problems no one can predict. It helps us to explore other worlds, mindsets, and cultural ideas. And in the visual and musical arts, creativity helps us express that which has no words.

If not for the sparks of wonder that I found in the Bradburys and Heinleins of the world, I might never have known what it’s like to feel the joys of creativity and imagination. I might have never learned to play guitar, or to appreciate the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins. I might have never gazed at the Milky Way above timberline and wondered who else was Out There.

And, worst of all, I might never have known the importance of Captain Midnight Decoder Rings.

Originally appeared on NPR’s “This I Believe” website, dated June 14, 2005

Godspeed, Ray Bradbury. Enjoy your train ride to the afterlife, because I know you won’t take a plane.

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Poetry, Batting Cages, and Moss

I read poetry tonight at Coffee on the Lowell. The event had a modest turnout, though from what I understand, it was better than the last meeting. I didn’t think it was too bad for only their third outing. I did find out, however, that I listed the cross streets incorrectly on the West Side Books website. Coffee on the Lowell is at the corner of 50th and Lowell (or Regis and Lowell, depending on how you look at it) but I had listed it as 58th and Lowell on the website. It’s fixed now.

Ira Slotkin hosted the open mic, and Seth from the Mercury Cafe Jam Before the Slam was there as well. Zach, a counterpart of Seth’s, accompanied many of the poems on keyboard. (Sorry I didn’t get all the names, guys. I’ll get them next time.) Ira read several of his Spam haiku, the humor highlight of the evening. One woman read for the first time — and read well — choosing Wordsworth as her initiation. Another woman, a friend, read a poem that she said “scared her.” I can see why, after hearing it. It was disturbingly effective, and I think it took guts for her to air it. I read a few of my own poems, and closed with Hopkins’ “(Carrion Comfort).”

Afterward, I was finally able to deliver a critique of a story for my friend, the “scared poem” woman. I’ve had the critique for months, and have been wanting to get it to her, but our schedules haven’t allowed it until tonight. She appreciated the critique, despite all the green pen marks on it.

As for my own writing, I jotted down few more paragraphs of “Chesterfield Gray” at lunch. I hope to finish the story’s first draft Sunday and revise it the same day. I noticed that the new Writers of the Future Vol. XVIII is out, and Kim bought it for me as another early birthday present. (Thanks, Babe.) I’m officially getting behind. I still haven’t read last year’s volume, and I still have to read the second Harry Potter book and re-read The Two Towers before those movies come out.

I want to rant a bit about a couple of news stories that came to my attention. The first is fairly minor; it has to do with the lawsuit settlement between John Cage’s estate and a British composer name Mike Batt. The upshot is that Batt included a piece called A One Minute Silence on a CD by his band, The Planets. Cage is famous for his avant-garde piece 4′ 33″, a four minute, thirty-three second piece of silence which Cage used to perform live by sitting and looking at his piano as the audience fidgeted. Cage’s estate sued Batt for plagiarism, which seems ludicrous until you learn that Batt credited the piece to “Batt/Cage” on the CD. Oops. I’m guessing that if he hadn’t credited Cage as a collaborator, he would not have been hit with a lawsuit. Then again, he knew the piece was inspired by Cage, and acknowledged that. For that, he has to pay a six-figure sum to the John Cage Trust? Isn’t this a bit out of hand?

Speaking of “out of hand,” let’s talk about Randy Moss and the NFL. Specifically, let’s talk about Randy Moss getting his wrist slapped. This is a man who, intentionally and methodically, pushed a traffic officer half a block with the nose of his Lexus. He was charged with two misdemeanors, for which he will only be fined a maximum of $2000 by law. He is not likely to spend any more jail time because of the nature of his occupation and because of his celebrity status. The NFL has not suspended Moss for his actions, though he will be up for evaluation after his arraignment on October 2nd.

Compare this to the NFL’s denial of Peyton Manning’s request to wear black hightop shoes in tribute to Johnny Unitas. Manning is quarterback of the same team that Unitas helmed (or at least the team with the same name) and most of the news that I’ve read states that people in general think this was a classy move by Manning. However, the NFL denied the request, saying that if Manning wore the hightops, he could face up to a $25,000 fine.

One man commits a near-felony (some say it should have been a full-blown felony) and will probably get away with a slap on the wrist. Another asks if he can break uniform dress code — not breaking any laws, mind you, just a dress code rule — to pay tribute to one of his heroes, and is told that he will get a large fine if he does so. He decides not to, in order to keep from creating a distraction for his team. This says volumes, not only about the NFL’s priorities, but about the differences between how Peyton Manning and Randy Moss look at their positions on their respective teams.

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