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From the Mad Mind

of Anthony Watkins

Whose Houseboat is It, Anyway?


Not long ago I wrote a poem, in fact, I have written 12 in the first 23 days of February. This one was a bit of a concept poem, which is not generally how I write a poem.

As I think it illustrates a few points, I will share it now, and then discuss the points I mean to raise because of it:


Houseboat Days


One of my rich uncles 
owned property 
in Alabama

his wife,
not my aunt,
was very particular 
and though they only used 
the place about five weeks, 
and a couple weekends 
besides, every year,

no one was allowed 
to use the lake front house 
when they weren’t there,

but one summer 
my uncle had a houseboat,
a gift, I believe,
docked at his pier.

He let me stay there
a glorious quiet summer 
of painting and writing,

(I was not very good either) 
and an occasional drink 
on the deck 
and occasional friend 
to share an occasional 
drink on the deck 
and more than 
an occasional mosquito 
to bite me 
or me and my friend 
when the sun went down.

Horseflies during the day 
to keep me company 
I was alone most of the time 
but I was rarely long alone.

I can’t say I’d like to spend 
the rest of my life like that 
but I have never dreamt 
of a more wonderful 
summer either.


I had an ending, a footnote, but to me, it was part of the poem. When my wife, who is a much better critic of poetry than I am, read it, she said she thought the footnote hurt the poem. I mentioned this where I shared the poem on Facebook. One person agreed with me that it made the poem a bit of an experiment. My nephew reminded me of a statement I had made to him in the past, as the all-knowing poet uncle, that if one gives the reader information that is not exactly in the poem, it limits the poem. I had to agree with him and my former self. One of my favorite sayings for many years is: “If you have to set up a poem, you probably need to rewrite it.”

I have removed the footnote, though I am sharing it at the very end of this article. If you want to read it so you can see whether it is an interesting experiment or simply something that kills the poem, feel free.

The bigger question is what right does the poet have to screw up his/her poem? And how much background information helps a reader “understand” a poem? The understand is in quotation marks, because I have long wondered how much a poet should or can help a reader understand a poem. I have to admit I sometimes enjoy knowing a bit of background of a poet when I read their work, but I also am a big believer that a poet makes a poem, releases it to the universe and like a crystal of light, that poem is owned and co-created by every reader every time they read it.

Once written, can I say who the poem is about? Is it about me? Is it true, as I am fond of saying about my stories - they are all true - even if they didn't happen that way? Does the poet get to pick the narrator, or does the poem do that after the poet has written what he thought he meant?

Speaking of reading, I have never been a big reader of poetry. I mean I read hundreds of submissions, that we get here at BTS, and I try to read the poems that are part of the ModPo curriculum, though I tend to get swamped. I am not sure why I tend to write two poems for every poem I read. I hear so many people in poetry say “read, read, read” but I just want to write, write, write.


I love a lot of the poetry and poets I do read. I have no idea if what I write is poetry, is good poetry or what, and somehow, reading great poets does not seem to inform me regarding this. As much as I can tell, it doesn’t even make me a better poet. In fact, my brother, who has been a long-time reader and fan, isn’t very impressed with half the stuff I write now. He says I make him work too hard to “get it.” He is as uneducated as I am, but he, too, writes poetry, sometimes stuff I consider really good, though he writes one to a hundred of mine. So, I worry.


I have a very hard time imagining reading other poets can do anything but make one a better poet, but that brings me to the next question: How can people read poetry and not write it? I mean, writing poetry is easy, writing good poetry may be hard, I don’t know - I am not sure if I have ever done it, but sitting down, and putting thoughts on paper, then looking at those thoughts and deciding how they look best on the page, and then calling it a poem is an easy thing for me. (I also am a huge believer in the title, if your poem is “Untitled” then I wonder why you wrote it and even more why the heck would I read it?)

I say this as a person who has dedicated himself to writing poetry since age 5, and now at the age of 58, is unsure that he has ever written a poem. How does one know? And if someone, the reader, is going to co-create, how important is it that the poet write a great poem?

Most of all, because I am just one silly middle aged man, who will soon enough be old and then dead and then most if not all of what I write will go into the dumpster and both me and my words will disappear as if we neither had ever existed, but we did, and still do, in the meantime I wonder how many other poets deal with this, and how do they deal with it? If you are poet, or know a poet, or if you once met a poet, and you have any thoughts about any of this, I would love to hear from you!


The Footnote:

The above poem is a lie, inspired by the title of a John Ashbery collection, which I have not (yet) read. I had two rich uncles, but neither had a houseboat, and if they had, they would never have let me spend a summer on it!

NOTE: From the Mind of ... obviously DOES represent the thoughts of the publisher, though not neccesarily the other 6 staff members. If you feel my comments do not represent your point of view, we are very open to a guest From the Mind of column from a reader. Because you would be a guest columnist, the standard of facts and logic will be higher, but we would welcome a printable response.

Better than Fiction is also open to pieces from people with various perspectives on a range of issues. Better than Starbucks does not endorse anything on that page, nor in the Poetry nor Fiction pages, for that matter. We are interested in publishing high quality thought provoking work. If you feel you have a point of view not well represented here, send us your piece. If we feel that both your writing skills and logic are up to our standards, we will publish it. Typically, we publish about 10% of all our submissions. - Anthony Watkins

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