Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Serial Killers, Profilers, and Poetry Imitation


At the University of Northern Iowa I teach a course titled "Craft of Poetry" and from time to time I employ poetry imitation as an instructional approach in that class. Students read several books of poems by well-known poets; analyze each poet's subject, sensibility, and style; then write poems in imitation of specific pieces they have chosen from each poet. (I "inherited" this course model from Maura Stanton, from whom I took the exact same class at Indiana University when I was a grad student.

In my poetry-writing courses, I sometimes "do" the assignments along with the students, and in "Craft of Poetry" in Fall 2002 I wrote this imitation of Louise Glück’s poem "Siren."

Sniper, 2002
after Louise Glück’s "Siren"

I become a god when I squeeze it off.
I was . . . before that, I was . . .

I don’t know what it was
I was. I wanted to marry.
I wanted to ride in a long black hearse.
I wanted my fifteen minutes . . . forever.

I wanted to be a child again, to squash lines of ants.
I am a 30-caliber flyswatter.
I am the clean-up hitter.

Does a good person think like
I do? I do. I don’t care what you think.
I am. I am. I am.

I have been a god before. In the Gulf War,
I was Superman with an M-16 and a sniperscope.
I could see miles and miles like a desert raptor.
I wore black smoke from oil fires like a cape.

I will tell you my dream. Last night
I dreamt I was in a jail cell. In the dream,
I am white light. Iron bars melt. Walls crumble.
I stand among ruins wearing a crown of spines. Though

I walk in the valley of shadows,
I shall fear no evil, for I am the Golden Calf.
I am gathering my twelve apostles. Join me.

I see you. I see you.

I squeeze off another round.


— Vince Gotera, from Ghost Wars (2003).

Louise Glück opens her poem "Siren" with this line: "I became a criminal when I fell in love." Well, the most notorious criminal of 2002 was the Beltway Sniper, aka the Washington, DC, Sniper. I'm not quite sure exactly when I started writing "Sniper, 2002" but there had probably been several deaths already; in the sniper's killing spree, carried out "during three weeks in October 2002 . . . [eventually] ten people were killed and three others critically injured" (Wikipedia). I'm pretty sure it was Glück's word "criminal" that bridged me to the "sniper" topic.

I have had a healthy interest in crime-solving, especially forensics and profiling, for a long time. I originally started the poem in the voice of a profiler — in fact an early title was "Profiler" — trying to get into the head of the Beltway sniper who had not yet been caught, take on his persona, so to speak. If the FBI could psych out his "moves," he could be apprehended by knowing ahead of time where he would be and what he would do.

Imitating poetry in the way we were doing it in class, we also spoke about "moves": what moves might Glück conceivably make in writing a poem on a sniper, based on the moves she had already made in "Siren," a poem spoken by "the other woman" in a love triangle. That speaker says, "I wanted to marry you, I wanted / Your wife to suffer." And "I sat in the dark on your front porch" — a deliciously stalkerish moment. Etc.

I imagined that, mirroring Glück's "other woman," my sniper would be similarly self-obsessed; he would speak in ultra-bold and aggressive, even outrageous, first-person declarations, always starting with the word "I." Before I got too far along with the poem, the authorities arrested a man named John Allen Muhammad, who turned out to be a US Army Iraq-war veteran. That bit of info led me to abandon my FBI approach: profiler as speaker morphed into sniper as speaker, and the poem pretty much wrote itself.

If you compare "Sniper, 2002" to "Siren," you'll see there's not much of Glück's influence left. The poem quickly became my own poem — or rather a poem in its own right — rather than simply an imitation of her poem. In an epigraph, however, I do give props to Glück because she and her marvelously rendered and imagined speaker got me going and showed me the way.

Leave me a comment below, okay? Let's talk. Ingat, friends . . . take good care.


One small footnote: if you're a regular reader of the blog, you know that I usually include photo or art images. In this case, I decided to use none. I just didn't know how to illustrate this post without potentially causing pain to someone or other. The victims, their families, the Muhammad and Malvo families have suffered enough (Muhammad had an underage apprentice, Lee Boyd Malvo).



1 comment:

Noah Regan said...

Hey Vince, I'm really enjoying your blog. I had to go back to this entry, the poem you wrote really stuck with me. I keep re-reading it. The 30-caliber fly swatter, the golden calf--it's all very vivid and revealing. You can really see this sniper's god complex, but then again, who wouldn't feel the same way when it's your job to end someone's existence with the flick of a finger. I'll be ordering your book Ghost Wars, I look forward to checking out your other interpretations.

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