Type of Culminating Activity
Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing
Martin Corless-Smith, Ph.D.
I cleaned my room early in the spring of 2009, sorted laundry and cleaned off my oft-cluttered desk. In the process I found an old Mead Composition Notebook from a Film and Literature course I took at the College of Southern Idaho. Inside the back cover I discovered a page of useful information. The charts and measurements included: a multiplication table, 12 other tables intended to measure everything from paper, drugs, liquid and time, metric nomenclature and, finally, conversion tables from the metric system into American standard systems of measurement. I tore the back cover from the notebook and tacked the cardboard back cover onto the wall above my desk.
I began writing poems with titles from each of the tables. I began with Linear Measure, because I thought I could comfortably write about feet, yards and inches. When I finished, I went back to the top and wrote poem after poem with titles like 12 months = 1 year, and the like. At first, I wanted to tell everything man can measure. The usefulness of these systems abounds. Everything we trade, sell, buy, find or transfer takes on these values to better categorize and measure actual value via monetary markets. I realized early on there was no way I could describe everything that happens in a week, or properly grasp the measure of a furlong. The writing of these poems was elementary at first. I was jumping in all-happy and excited to have a thesis in mind, to have a project worth projecting. The early poems were packed with information and tidbits from my life to help balance the equations. As I pushed forward and wrote these poems I realized there needed to be a foundation of equality, not just among the greater world I tried to encapsulate, but among the poems themselves. I stopped creating new poems, went back and started cutting the first ones (all written in prose/block format) down to nine lines; it seemed somewhere in the middle, a perfect-plus-2) of prose poetry.
I stuck to the format until Miscellaneous Measures, where my formlessness took over and organic patterns emerged, often through ruptures of the block and then into bulbous shapes, then thin. I finished the remaining tables with 9-line format.
When I reached the Metric System I increased the font size to 14 and lowered the line requirement to 8 lines. I found that though the font was larger and there was 1 fewer line per poem, the measured length was identical to the 9-line, 12-font poems of the previous tables. This cognitive choice asked me to re-examine how we measure our world differently, acts commonly traced to cultural expectations and rule of law.
The shift to the metric system forced me to question the previous tables and all they had discovered, about me, my measurements and the literature I swallow. I began to pull apart these warring systems and tried to find reasons why we cannot have one system. This bothered me, asked me about cultural roots in measuring, noting changes through history and really tried to access the current modals that make us measure through these forms. In writing, I found three different voices emerged, one my own, one of voices of authority and another slang voice (see Key for notations).
When I hit the conversion tables, metrics and others met, I was thrown into a caldron of numbers and systems, confused to the point that form was obliterated. I could not keep it straight, literally, and allowed the organic flow of lines to ebb my tides. I wanted to bring up the tropes I’d created in the tables, from myriad systems, but found through conversion that something new emerged. When ideologies become permanent, then asked fort transformation to fit the ideologies of fresh cultures, a common hesitance creeps in. I am more comfortable with gallons than liters, with pounds than grams. But once I was knee-deep in the metrics, I became brethren with them and inches and feet of my initial out-spring leapt foreign; I adapted. In the end, I fought to include any piece of me left, to mash a thousand ideas and slips of information I gained in the process.
Process. My set plan could not order everything. I planned as I went, and found I often disregarded my own promise to the project. In places, my emotions got the best of me. I was Micah, tying a bowline from across the crevasse.
The beginning, the multiplication table, I saved for last, concerned about the form it may take. I chose to write the table so it could be read both up/down and left/right, to show how multiplication muddles the existence of the original numbers, the prime 1-12’s that initiate the table. Mathematics was the basis for this segment, but I wrote about the objects/stories/relationships measured, rather than the process. Or so I thought. In revision, I noticed places where the difference, the equations took precedence over the mass on the scale or the numbers on the stick. The bigger numbers had ‘bigger’ thoughts.
I had adolescent dreams of keeping this thesis uniform, but measurement systems began to conflict, to converge, I found myself caught in power hustles, trading decimals for wholes and tracing degrees of my personal circumference. This thesis is full of broken/mashed words. I invented a form of word math to save space (see Key). Th(is the(sis I wanted to build, a free-flowing blob of language tucked into bed, feet wriggling.
By the end (which is now the beginning), I found out what I set to discover. This project begins and ends with the number 1. I am a singularity in a world of plurals, trying to find my measure, my table, to discover my width, girth, reach, depth, weight, capacity and miscellany that skirts the edges of who I am. I didn’t find great answers, but this made it possible for me to at least acquiesce to the idea that some distinct measurements of life are possible, even if the graduated cylinder is half a milliliter off. A certain disillusionment of truth arose, and I accepted it. I set out to find my place in this world and I finished at that singularity. I am 1, just one person, one writer, one mind. Billions of people contribute to the execution of these measurements. I reached out and grabbed chunks of the world, local and global, but found my hand empty. I grasped at patriotism, dialog, advice from elders, hen-picked lines from literature and mashed it all together to write these 120 poems.
The final poem, which appears first, the Multiplication Table, can be read both vertically and horizontally. Each individual box also carries with it a certain lesson or weight, a distance covered. I wrote it in columns and rows, going across, then down, then down and across, so that I would be forced to write them in ways that could be read in multiple ways. As I wrote, the first boxes I’d tackle were 1x1, 2x2, 3x3 and so on. The physical document was made of pencil, pen and paper, written (and cut from) a mead composition notebook, much like the one that was the catalyst for this thesis. I glued paper on paper in tiny boxes. Each numbered box has the equivalent number of letters.
The typeface and arrangement of these poems was explicitly taken from the back cover of that comp book on my wall (see page 1). Hence, some of the structure of the thesis is atypical. The capitalization in the titles is exactly as it fell on the catalyst page. Hence, some of this thesis will not fit the guidelines required.
In essence, this is a thesis based on a found table of contents.
Lapray, Dustin, "Use(ful In(form)ation" (2010). Boise State University Theses and Dissertations. 159.