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Words Are Not Enough

Stan Rogal and Mark Truscott value words differently. One writer is fast, the other takes his time


BY Chris Chambers

In On Writing, Stephen King’s guide to craft, the prolific author of 33 “worldwide bestsellers” advises working writers to produce 1,000 words a day. King himself claims to produce 2,000 words a day when he is in the groove, which is a lot of the time. However, in On Writing, King devotes almost as much space to defending his time-battered reputation as he does to reminding readers how popular his books are. I haven’t read any of his other books, so cannot weigh in on his critical bad rap. His productivity, however, makes me wince—part of it is jealousy, but there’s another part.

The prolific writer persistently demands what is and will always be highly valuable to readers: time. And if prolific writers value time differently than slowpokes, should we not then assume they value words—the tool of their craft—differently also?

Some writers are fast. Stan Rogal is one of these. The poet/playwright/fictioneer published his eighth collection of poems (his 13th book) last fall. In Search of the Emerald City (Seraphim Editions) is a sequence of 50 untitled poems that manage to spin Rimbaud and van Gogh through the kaleidoscope of The Wizard of Oz. In these punning, poignant, playfully allusive lyric poems, Rogal juggles various themes (going home, growing up, being exiled, going nuts, missing parts, giving up, talent being squandered/abandoned/unrecognized) and bizarre narrative turns (schizophrenia, suicide, asylums, ear slicing, leg losing, cancer) from the true lives of his principals. He smoothly goes about his business, introducing his characters and themes, buffering them with quest tropes from The Wizard of Oz and then loosening up and playing them off each other until some of these poems positively chime with their accretion.

Future anthologists who might be daunted by Rogal’s growing oeuvre should make sure to check out “XXXIV,” a dazzler, which begins:

We must pay the price.
Childhood being denied to adults
as unproductive.
Space being designed to afford fences.

There is a problem with using roman numerals as titles, though: Unless your poems are referring to various Super Bowls, they don’t stick in the memory like a favourite title might or could or should. “XXXIV” continues:

A fanciful imagination is soon a costly bore.
So what if a piece of wood discovers it’s a violin?
It had better stir batter as well as hearts.

After it effortlessly collects van Gogh and Rimbaud in a pair of couplets, “XXXIV” ends in a hippy triumph:

Let us all pay our debts
    with the painted kisses of rainbows!

Perhaps a writer as prolific as Rogal was overtaxed to come up with 50 titles for the Emerald City poems. Most likely, he was trying to guide the reader, coerce him into reading the whole book in sequence, which is an enjoyable way to pass the time.

I imagine a day’s work for Rogal: He might occasionally live up to King’s 2,000-word prescription. Mark Truscott’s debut collection Said Like Reeds or Things (Coach House Press), on the other hand, was years in the making. But its 77 pages contain fewer words than a good day’s work for Stephen King. Apples? Oranges? Time is time.

Truscott values words differently than Rogal. In Said Like Reeds, the lyrical idea strikes Truscott, but only in the brief second section of his book. There is little narrative whatsoever. It is like geography with words (beautifully designed by Darren Wershler-Henry).

In a Truscott poem, every word patiently tells you its name. Words
cry out from space. There is lots to
go around.

Said Like Reeds has a handful of longer poems, including the epic (for Truscott) “Eights,” which tells a sprawling story in four three-quarter-page sections the way four David Hockney Polaroid collage pictures might, but mostly this book contains very short poems.

Confronting so much white space allows time for some provocative questions. Is Truscott trustworthy? Is he capable of making a good decision about a three-letter word? The brilliant “Haiku,” for example, heeds none of the rules of haiku, yet captures its distracted spirit:

like
    mpty so what
is it
    sounds

Read it like a poem and it gives the effect of a radio being tuned from clarity to different clarity across part of the dial. It is a moment from a walk down a long hall in summer—a breeze attending—all the classroom doors are open, emptying themselves briefly, completely, of sound, as you pass. Isn’t it? Read north to south, it is pro-style imagism bookended by a pair of astute and snarky remarks.

Said Like Reeds or Things is filled with these moments: in fewer than seven words a small peaceful world. This book will cleanse you of all worldly/wordy spam if you let it. You can trust Truscott with those three-letter words. But who’s counting?

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