In his intriguing, elegant essay, “The Solotaroff Protocol,” David Kirby reminds readers and writers alike that writing is a uniquely mysterious process in which poets and writers, despite working out “an initial plan,” often discover serendipitously in the course of writing that plans and initial inspirations often go awry in the course of writing. This happens, he argues, as the muse takes over, leading writers, in turn, to discover precisely that which they didn’t know they knew. He calls this creative serendipity “the Solotaroff Protocol” in honor of the legendary editor Ted Solotaroff who launched such august writing careers as that of Philip Roth. To support his point, Kirby exegetes four contemporary poems that lead him ultimately to conclude precisely that which Solotaroff claimed about effective writing in any genre, namely “that a piece of writing is a writer’s ‘only way to organize and to some extent comprehend life’s fullness and perplexity.’” As long as a writer or poet is engaged in the formidable and even terrifying activity of writing, “the mystery continues,” Kirby explains in deference to the muse in his conclusion, “and that’s where poems come from.”
THE SOLOTAROFF PROTOCOL
On April 14, 1994, Barbara and I were driving from Tallahassee to Baton Rouge to visit my parents and decided to split our journey with an overnight stay in Fairhope, Alabama. The hotel we checked into was hosting a writing conference, and one of the speakers was Ted Solotaroff. I’d never heard of him, but there wasn’t much to do in Fairhope that day, so I figured I’d go hear what this guy had to say. Boy, am I glad I did.
Solotaroff, who died in 2008 at the age of 79, was a writer, editor, and critic. He was also what National Public Radio called an “all-around publishing-world influencer.” He founded The New American Review and helped writers like Philip Roth achieve international recognition. Ian McEwan described him as “the most influential editor of his time” and said Solotaroff “shaped not only the tastes, but the direction of American writing.”
That day in Fairhope, Solotaroff was reading from his essay collection A Few Good Voices In My Head, where he says that a piece of writing is a writer’s “only way to organize and to some extent comprehend life’s fullness and perplexity.” When he said that, all my road weariness drained away, and I sat up as though I’d been had been hit by one of Victor Frankenstein’s lightning bolts. Solotatoff had summed up my entire life’s work in exactly thirteen words.
Sure, we all know that we organize our thoughts when we write. And we’re aware, too, that we’re trying to understand something. But it was that little phrase “to some extent” that sharpened Solotaroff’s adage and made it enter my heart like a spear. Brilliant! If we completely understood everything, we’d be sages or saints, be Gandhi or Teresa of Ávila. But if we can understand just a little more, wouldn’t that be enough?
I’ve never used a meditation app, but my favorite name for one is Ten Percent Happier. Wouldn’t that be plenty? If you told me you were going to make me a hundred percent happier, I’d check the lock on the chicken coop. But I’d give you every dollar in my wallet if you could make me ten percent happier.
And I’d do the same if you could show me how to write in a way that gave me ten percent more understanding of “life’s fullness and perplexity,” which, in recent months, is what I’ve been trying to show my students how to do. These days I call my class The Solotaroff Protocol, and my goal is to get the students to write in a way that allows them to organize and partly understand their experiences.
To that end, I show them poems demonstrating how other poets have done that successfully. Here are four such poems, the first of which is George Bilgere’s “The Forge.”
I remember watching my father stop
halfway up the driveway because my tricycle
was blocking the way to the garage,
and how he solved the problem
by picking up the tricycle by the handlebars
and smashing it through the windshield
of our brand new family station wagon,
his face red with scotch, his black tie
and jacket flapping with effort, the tricycle
making its way a little farther with each blow
into the roomy interior of the latest model
as the safety glass relented, the tricycle
and the windshield both praiseworthy
in their toughness, the struggle between them
somehow making perfect sense
in midday on our quiet suburban street,
the windshield the anvil, the trike the hammer,
the marriage the forge, and failure
glowing in the heat, beaten
and tempered, slowly taking shape.
“The Forge” asks a perfectly straightforward question, namely, what is the most logical thing for an angry drunk to do when he pulls into the driveway in his new automobile and finds that his son has left his tricycle in the way? The answer, of course, is that he should brandish the trike like a hammer and smash out the windshield of his shiny new car—what else? In just a few brush strokes, Bilgere paints a picture we can’t help but see of the father, drunk with fury but also just plain drunk, his clothes awry as he strikes blow after blow.
And these aren’t the first blows the father has struck, either: it’s the first time he has attacked a car windshield, but this dad has been hammering for years, forging, not a sword or tool like a traditional blacksmith, but a failure. If William Blake had used that word, it would have appeared as Failure so we’d know how important it is to the speaker’s understanding of what’s going on here, that, while this is perhaps the most dramatic incident of the whole failed marriage, it is also emblematic of the entire years-long process. As he looks back, the speaker remembers a single event. But as he thinks about it, he realizes that that occurrence was not an isolated incident but one of many hammer blows that forged something permanent, a monument to tragedy as durable as tempered steel.
This and the other poems I’m teaching right now adhere to what I call the Solotaroff Protocol, but I might also call them figuring-it-out poems, because in every case, the poet sets up a visual and highly relatable scenario and then works his or her way through it. That’s certainly the case with my second example, “Next in Line” by Josh Lefkowitz.
Next in Line
Ten minutes now he’s been talking to her,
the pretty bank clerk with rouge-y cheeks.
As far as I can tell the monetary transaction’s done,
while this other one is only beginning.
I am behind him in line, seventeen
I’ve never seen an attempted courtship before.
He wants her to come with him
to a concert this weekend. She demurs,
pretending to flip through deposit slips.
He’s respectful enough, but not yet giving up.
Inside him, empathy and instinct are waging their war.
And now I can see it’s not rouge at all, but blushing,
embarrassed for both of them. She came to work today,
with a job to do and a salary to earn.
This isn’t some singles bar. This is a bank
inside of a grocery store. She’s here to help cash checks,
not fend off the carnal longings of customers.
Everything that happens next for me,
by which I mean the decades and lives I’ll live,
can be traced to this moment:
when the man acquiesces, though not without leaving
his card behind, I take his place
at the counter, and, like a toddler absorbing a native language,
proceed to parrot behavior taught by example.
“That’s a beautiful necklace,” I say, for reasons
I don’t even know––I’m just trying it on, this new role––
as the woman, eyes down, sighs and shakes her head,
history rolling forward, a war with no end in sight.
The story here is as old as time itself. It depicts a young man trying to learn the unwritten rules of life by observing an older one. While “The Forge” is a poem that horrifies, this is one that amuses. As the saying goes, good judgment comes from experience, and experience comes from bad judgment.
You can’t go wrong making fun of yourself in a poem. Here the speaker does just that when he describes his inept attempts to—I was going to say, “to woo a woman,” but he’s not even doing that, is he? He’s not sure what he’s doing. As his own simile says, he’s just a baby learning a new language, one in a line of babies that emerges from the mists of the past and disappears into the future.
But he’s not a baby you worry about. Whereas you were frightened for the child in “The Forge,” you know that one is going to do just fine, that he’ll stumble through until he gets things right, not always knowing what he’s doing yet certain that others have trod the same path and have achieved what he wants, even though he’s not quite sure what that is.
The third poem is “The Thing You Might Not Understand” by Josephine Yu, and it’s a poem that brings an extraordinary delicacy to a troubling issue, one that is at the forefront of our times.
The Thing You Might Not Understand
when I tell you the man whose children I babysat in college
cornered me on the deck after the party and copped a feel
is how his eyes looked drunk, glassy and sad,
and how his smile tilted apologetically but his body
was straight and formal, as if we were dignitaries shaking hands,
or how he held my breast as gently as I cupped his daughter’s head
the first time I washed her in the kitchen sink,
rubbing the cradle cap from her hair with baby oil,
palming warm water over her head, pale silk strands
swirling like fine crackling in the glaze of old porcelain,
the veins of her eyelids a faint calligraphy on vellum,
the extant manuscript that would reveal, if we could translate it,
a treatise on forgiveness, or canticles maybe,
a tune we sometimes hum, unaware, under our breath
as we walk to the mailbox, or fill a birdfeeder with seed,
or lower a man’s hand and lead him back into his house.
In another time or place, under another set of circumstances, we might have expected the speaker here to blow the whistle on this guy, to call the cops or at least the man’s wife. But notice what she does instead: as in the other two poems, she reads the situation as a papyrologist might read a manuscript found in some goatherd’s cave. And she sees what to do. She sees that the man with the roaming hands is more sad than evil. Without saying so—remember, the goal in this kind of poem is partial, not total comprehension—she understands that part of human sexuality is learning that we are not the rascals we think we are.
So what does she do? She leads her bumbling employer back to the house, where there is light and music and other people and the chance for both of them to regain their bearings, to realize that the thing that happened doesn’t have to be a thing at all if the speaker, who is the real grown-up here, doesn’t want it to be.
Get the idea? Note there’s an implied time lapse in these first three poems: what happened took place some years earlier. The idea is that the poet is finally getting around to the mystery at the heart of the poem, has set it up, and is working through it.
The same goes for the fourth poem I want to use to illustrate Ted Solotaroff’s definition of good writing, Jeremy Radin’s “Tony Roma’s.” Since this is the last poem, you can call it dessert, if you like, but you might want to get your taste buds ready for an unexpected jolt.
There are two brownie sundaes on the table—
one is in front of me, one is in front of my sister,
we’re at dinner with our mom who we don’t know
is on cocaine, who’s wearing sunglasses & having
a hard time tasting her food, & my sister says
she doesn’t want her brownie sundae so I decide,
once I’ve finished mine, that I will eat hers as well,
it’s 1997-or-8, I’m eating my sister’s brownie sundae
& our mom tells me I’m not to continue eating
my sister’s brownie sundae, but I want to continue
(though unaware that I want to continue in service
of what wants to discontinue me), so I say I’m
going to, & our mom says no you’re not & I say
yes I am & she says no & I say oh gosh are you
going to start being a mom all the sudden (no
I don’t), & then she brings up my weight which
is tied to nothing, what am I, twelve, thirteen,
& my sister hasn’t yet entered treatment, & mom
hasn’t yet had the gastric bypass, & I’ve not yet tried
to squash the illogic of craving with the taller illogic
of god so our mom pours black pepper all over
the sundae is how the ordeal ends & I’m furious
but then she is laughing & my sister is laughing
so I guess, ha ha, I too am laughing—not that
it’s funny, but that she thinks I can be stopped
As you see, there’s no period at the end of “Tony Roma’s.” To me, this illustrates the second part of Ted Solotaroff’s equation: you can organize that experience you’ve been thinking about for years, but you can only partly comprehend it. The mystery continues, and that’s where poems come from.
Something you’ll notice about these four poems is that they are all highly cinematic. You see each scenario as though you were watching a short movie, one that, in each case, ends in a greater understanding of how people operate. No good movie every explained itself, and neither do these poems. They dramatize. We take in the drama. And we come away a little more knowing than we were before.
By the way, I call this class “The Solotaroff Protocol” because that sounds vaguely like a Cold War thriller, one involving a protagonist who (a) starts with a plan that (b) quickly goes awry even though (c) things work out in the end if (d) not in the way anyone thought they would.
You know, like poetry.