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  #1  
Unread 09-09-2019, 05:22 PM
Mark McDonnell Mark McDonnell is offline
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Default A Laugh

A Laugh (rev)

The thin boy is the worst,
gurning by his mate whose eyes
are hooded egg-whites.
This lot are butter-knife poised —
a house of cards waiting
for one piss-bored joker
with a pantomime sneeze.
And here it is. Fat mess!
In slow motion vacuum
as she moves to my desk,
this girl's body sucks
the aimless rage of the room
to a needle point. She freezes,
an open book, stares
at her careful lettering,
controlled and small.
Sad counterweights.
But my eyes are on him —
it's just a fucking laugh, sir —
and he meets my gaze coolly
with a look that makes me
want to warn somebody. Her.




Changes to L2/3
added 'wet-break' to L5
Moved final line four lines up


(edit: removed 'wet-break')


A Laugh

The thin boy is the worst,
gurning by his mate with the eyes
like hooded egg-whites.
This lot are butter-knife poised —
a house of cards waiting
for one piss-bored joker
with a pantomime sneeze.
And here it is. Fat mess!
In slow motion vacuum
as she moves to my desk,
this girl's body sucks
the aimless rage of the room
to a needle point. She freezes,
an open book, stares
at her careful lettering,
controlled and small.
Sad counterweights.
But my eyes are on him,
and he meets my gaze coolly
with a look that makes me
want to warn somebody. Her.
It's just a fucking laugh sir.
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  #2  
Unread 09-10-2019, 01:53 AM
John Isbell John Isbell is online now
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Hi Mark,
I think this is actually one of my favorites of yours. What teaching teaches us. I might take the out before eyes, i don't think you need it. No other nits from me - this one feels done. Also, nice to see the word gurning.

Cheers,
John
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  #3  
Unread 09-11-2019, 10:58 AM
Mark McDonnell Mark McDonnell is offline
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Thanks John, I'm glad you enjoyed it. Yeah, I've been thinking perhaps

whose eyes / are hooded egg-whites

Edit: it also just now occurred to me that I pick out an unpleasant physical feature to hint at his character there. The irony isn't lost on me.
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  #4  
Unread 09-11-2019, 12:05 PM
John Isbell John Isbell is online now
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I saw hooded as a choice, an expression of mood not genetics.

Cheers,
John
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  #5  
Unread 09-11-2019, 03:41 PM
Matt Q Matt Q is online now
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Hi Mark,

Some great lines / phrases here: "sucks the aimless rage out of the room to a needle point", and her tellingly small, controlled letters as "sad counterweights" stood out for me. I think the penultimate line is strong and effective. The unexpected "her", there as a single word sentence.

I think the enjambment on "with the eyes" is a bit odd. I has me reading "his mate with the eyes", which, of course, everyone has. I think your suggestion of "whose" works better.

I'm not entirely sure what "eyes like hooded eggwhites" is intended to conjure (I get the hooded part in relation to actual eyes). Egg-whites don't have a specific shape unless they're cooked, and then it'll depend on how they're cooked; and their colour and constituency will depend on their being raw or cooked. Is it that gloopy transparency of raw egg white you're after. Or the cold, slightly shiny oval of a hard-boiled egg? Is it fried eggs you want to suggest? "with his hooded fried-egg eyes"? So anyway, it sounds good, but I don't get an image from it as it stands.

She's (metaphorically) an open book. When she freezes she looks at her own writing, so I guess she's also carrying an open book. I wonder if there's a way to get "open book" to work both ways: so that it can be read as a metaphor and also that she has one. Or is that's what you're aiming for here? I didn't read it like that.

You might find something fresher than "house of cards", against the freshness of the rest of the poem's phrases, it stood out for me.

I wonder a little about the last line. It seems to be the penultimate one that delivers the turn or twist. And I think that works very well. I just wonder if that's diminished a little by the last line. Or maybe it's just the rhyme that's bugging me?

Do the kids in your class get to say 'fucking' to you?

best,

Matt

Last edited by Matt Q; 09-12-2019 at 02:13 PM.
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  #6  
Unread 09-13-2019, 09:11 AM
Mark McDonnell Mark McDonnell is offline
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John - thanks, that's good to know.

Matt - thanks as always for the feedback. It's always thoughtful and precise and nearly always helpful ha. I've posted a revision. I'll answer your last question first...

Quote:
Do the kids in your class get to say 'fucking' to you?
Thankfully, in the school I've been at for the last two years, no. This is actually a pre-sphere poem that has been hanging around on a memory stick for about four years. In the school that I was at in Stoke-on-Trent when I wrote it, yes. I mean, they weren't technically allowed to, but it was very common to hear the word and occasionally have it directed at you. Not every student of course, and not every lesson, but there were enough significant behaviour issues there to make it pretty chaotic and hostile a lot of the time. The incident in the poem is fairly mild. I was there for sixteen years. My starting to write poetry sort of coincided with me mentally distancing myself from the place and then finally calling it a day in reasonably spectacular fashion. I just stopped 'teaching' (which, with some classes, was basically crowd control) in the middle of a lesson, said 'fuck this' and walked out. Sort of a productive nervous breakdown, ha, since I stopped caring but started writing loads of poetry. What causes the stress isn't so much the behaviour itself as the pressure from above to make sure the students reach their unrealistic 'target grades', so the school keeps its head above water and the threat of ofsted and 'special measures' at bay. And the nice kids, who just want to listen, and have to sit there while you devote all your energy to behaviour management. Well, that's totally heartbreaking. Anyway, it's depressing me just writing about work haha. I did supply teaching for a bit then got my current job. Which is a much nicer school, though not without its problems. And I only do four days a week. Yaay!

I changed the 'eyes' line to the one I suggested in post 3. I've kept the 'hooded egg-whites' image though. I see what you're saying, but I think I'm happy for the reader to get whichever of those variations on the idea you mention. All are fairly unpleasant.

I'd hoped the 'open book' line would give both readings that you suggest, yes: that she's carrying an open school exercise book and that her vulnerability makes her an 'open book'. You say you didn't read it like this, but in a way you must have done, because you saw the double meaning there.

House of cards is a bit of a stock image, I suppose. They're 'wet-break' cards now to put a bit of contextually specific life into the dead metaphor.

I do like to end on a couplet, don't I? It's a habit. It's a bit of a flourish, and possibly an unnecessary one. I like the line though, and the closure of rhyme. I've moved it further up where I think it might work better and the rhyme is less blaring.

Thanks Matt.
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  #7  
Unread 09-13-2019, 06:42 PM
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Julie Steiner Julie Steiner is offline
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Hey, Mark!

I don't know what "wet-break cards" are. Google was no help. One virtue of a cliché like "house of cards" is that everyone knows what it means.

I think the new ending is more poignant, and therefore more effective, although I have very conflicted feelings about it, and about the overall poem.

Situations like this one are why so many girls and women don't report sexual, emotional, and physical abuse: over and over again, starting in childhood, authority figures who are aware that ill-treatment is going on implicitly condone it by doing nothing. The unspoken message is "Mistreatment of you is so normal that it's unremarkable, and if you get offended because you can't take a joke, there's something wrong with you, not with the abuser, so you need to just toughen up and say nothing." This attitude reinforces a culture in which victims learn early on that it is futile to report abuse, because even when it happens right in front of an authority figure, little or nothing is done to discourage it from happening again.

My own experience alternating between being a victim (like the girl in the poem) and being a vicious little shit (like the boy in the poem) makes me think that the boy's cruelty is not just recreational, but strategic, for the benefit of so-called friends who are likely to bully him if he doesn't keep reminding them that he is not the lowest person on the totem pole.

The conventional wisdom when I was young was that kids should be forced to figure out how to deal with teasing and bullying on their own, without adult guidance, because this process of finding one's own way was deemed character-building. (If you think about it, that's about as stupid as saying that kids need to figure out how to deal with geometry on their own, without being given any handy shortcuts by Euclid and Archimedes. This stuff is hard! Sheesh, at least give the kids some useful formulas and theorems to apply. Withholding help won't turn every kid into a genius. And society should discard the formulas and theorems that don't work. Pi cannot always be safely rounded to three, and girls who complain that boys are groping their private parts should not be told "He just likes you" or "He only does that because you react in such a dramatically offended way--instead, just ignore him and he'll go away.")

A significant number of kids who can't figure out on their own how not to be the target of bullying solve the problem by committing suicide.

When I was a kid, students' suicides were never, never discussed in front of other children, due to family stigma and fear of copycats. I only found out that a girl I'd made mean witticisms about had attempted suicide because I accidentally overheard some teachers discussing the fact that she wouldn't be returning to school, because the attempt had left her with permanent brain damage.

This news had shocked me. I had been gleefully pouncing on opportunities to score social points at her expense, and I had been telling myself that her obvious hurt feelings were her fault, not mine, because she should have been able to take a joke. Why? Because that had been what my parents and teachers had told me when I was victimized. It was just a joke. Just a fucking laugh, sir. The adults in my life repeatedly told me that my problem was that I was too sensitive. Silly me, I had thought that my problem that someone was deliberately hurting and humiliating me, and no one seemed to give a damn about it.

In recent decades in the US, how bystanders, teachers, and parents can help put an end to individual cases of bullying is getting a lot more attention. Probably because when suicidal kids take some of their classmates and teachers with them when they go, that's impossible to cover up.

I think it's unfair to expect kids to figure out how to deal with harassment and bullying and teasing by themselves. Many teachers don't seem to be able to figure out on their own how to respond, either, so why do we expect kids to be able to do it?

Case in point: the narrator of this poem seems to accept that he is powerless to change the depressing state of things in and around his classroom. His inaction implies that intervening to defend the victim and/or confront the perpetrator would be futile, so why bother? Warning the victim to stay away from the perpetrator is about the most he will do, if that. The ending implies that, more likely than not, the warning will remain in his own head.

I get the impression that not a lot of training on this subject was provided to the teacher in the poem. Which is a shame. Again, I think it's unfair to expect people to know the best practices for dealing with such situations, if they've received no guidance. You can't teach what you've never learned.

Last edited by Julie Steiner; 09-13-2019 at 06:53 PM.
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  #8  
Unread 09-13-2019, 09:55 PM
Mark McDonnell Mark McDonnell is offline
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Hi Julie,

'Wet break' is when it's raining too much for students to go outside at break (recess?) so they stay indoors. And there might be a box of board games or puzzles or playing cards in a classroom to amuse them in these circumstances.

I'm sorry the poem came across to you the way it did. The poem describes a situation where a girl is called fat, or specifically a "fat mess", as she walks across a classroom to the speaker's desk. The suggestion is also that the class appears generally unsympathetic to the girl, as the incident just provides distraction and a focus for their 'aimless rage'. The teacher, the speaker, looks at the boy who used the phrase. The implication is that the speaker looks at him with some anger and disapproval, because the boy responds dismissively with "it's just a fucking laugh sir". (I should probably add that the boy calling the teacher 'sir' isn't suggesting the teacher is commanding much authority over the boy; the most out-of-controll students will still, weirdly, address their teachers as 'sir' and 'miss'). The speaker thinks about the "look" in the boy's eyes as he said this and how it immediately makes him want to "warn somebody", the priority being "Her", the girl herself. Then the poem ends.

I hope there's nothing in the poem to suggest that the teacher did nothing afterwards about the situation, or routinely did nothing about similar situations. We just don't get to hear about that because the poem ends where it does. The poem is a miniature snapshot of one incident. I'd hoped the implication was that the teacher is taking it very seriously because he sees something in the boy's look that suggests people need to be warned about him. (And he wrote a poem about it) "Warn" is a stronger and more emotive word than if the speaker had just expressed a desire to 'report' or 'reprimand' him.

The reality is that if the teacher had stopped the class to deal with the issue right there, he would have certainly caused the girl further embarrassment and possibly got into an argument with the boy, who may well simply point-blank deny having said anything, or claim he was actually talking about his mate John who thinks it's funny to be called a 'fat mess'. The rest of the class would by now be amused at the sideshow. Those sympathetic to the girl would probably be saying very little. If the teacher had instead asked the boy to step outside to discuss it, the boy may well have refused, resulting in the teacher having to then deal with that situation, which would entail sending a student to a senior teacher's office to get the boy removed from class for refusing an instruction (there may be no telephone in the classroom). Choosing a suitable volunteer might be difficult, as anyone volunteering for such a task would be automatically setting themselves up for potential bullying for being a 'grass'. And anyway, leaving some classes unattended for longer than 30 seconds is not a good idea. Meanwhile, the girl is still the centre of unwanted attention. The teacher may well do all these things, however, with all their subsequent consequences.

Alternatively, the teacher might ask the girl if she was OK after the lesson and reassure her that she should always report any bullying she experiences. The teacher would then report the boy's behaviour to a senior leader or 'behaviour manager' in an email after school: "Billy called Hannah a fat mess during Period 3" and it would be out of his hands. Or the behaviour manager might feel this incident doesn't seem serious enough to merit his or her intervention and email the teacher back to say that he needs to put the boy in an after-school detention himself. Since there was no physical violence involved, the boy wouldn't automatically be excluded from lessons. The teacher would do this and the boy may or may not show up for the detention. If he doesn't, the teacher is then obliged to make a phone call to the boy's parents who may or may not be sympathetic. They might argue, angrily, with the teacher that their son has told them 'his side' of the story and that he did nothing wrong. It would now be several days later. And this could be just one of half a dozen similar incidents every day.

Every school I've worked at has an 'anti-bullying policy', a 'zero tolerance approach', student counsellors, posters on walls, regular assemblies on empathy and tolerance. I've received training in how to deal with bullying every year of my 20 years in teaching. It's obligatory. But the reality is that British schools are under-funded, short-staffed and obsessed with grades to the detriment of everything else, due to the pressure of successive governments. If bullying is allowed to continue it certainly isn't because of a lack of compassion on the part of teachers, or that authority figures are 'doing nothing' and have an attitude that victims need to be able to 'toughen up and take a joke', in my experience.

Quote:
In recent decades in the US, how bystanders, teachers, and parents can help put an end to individual cases of bullying is getting a lot more attention. Probably because when suicidal kids take some of their classmates and teachers with them when they go, that's impossible to cover up.
I hope that's working over there.

Obviously, there's a good chance that the poem isn't doing enough to imply everything I've said here, in which case it may be a failure as a poem. Or at least have a very niche audience of harassed teachers.

It is a depressing poem, because it's a depressing situation.

All the best

Mark
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  #9  
Unread 09-14-2019, 12:58 AM
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Julie Steiner Julie Steiner is offline
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I think most readers of the poem will project their own biases and memories onto the situation in the poem, fairly or unfairly. Some readers will identify 100% with the teacher's challenges maintaining too many squirrelly kids with too few resources and too little administrative support; others may fault the teacher for not being sufficiently intimidating and authoritarian to dissuade the boy from uttering either the cruel comment or the forbidden eff-word in the first place. (For the record, I'm not big on zero-tolerance policies and law-and-order authoritarianism, which I consider to be just another form of bullying. Respect and fear are not the same thing at all.)

I don't think different reactions than you intended are a weakness, especially in a poem that isn't supposed to be warm and fuzzy. I've been thinking about this poem, mostly positively even if the emotions I feel about it aren't positive, for several days now, and I can't say that about many poems. So I consider that to be a big success.

Do others here recognize the term "wet break," or is the fact that I was raised in the arid Mojave Desert showing?
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  #10  
Unread 09-14-2019, 04:06 AM
John Isbell John Isbell is online now
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Wet break is quite new to me after fifteen years in the UK. But I left in 1993.
Interesting discussion.

Cheers,
John
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