Before you read any further, go take a look at Ravi Shankar’s poem “Hand Dip” in this issue of PBQ (#79). I’ll be here when you get back.
What makes Shankar’s poem such a pleasure is the way it snowballs into its rhetorical move: it is a definition. But it is a definition of a made-up word. When Shankar submitted this poem to PBQ, the combination of erotic imagery and Dr. Seuss-like language play– “nervy frottage, pervy wattage”– got the attention of our editorial staff.
But Kathy & I recused ourselves from the editorial decision: while the staff was charmed by the poem’s wit and velocity, they did not know the poem’s erotic definition of “a hand dip” had been borne of an informal writing “challenge.”
The year prior to the poem’s acceptance at PBQ we met Shankar at AWP. As is true for most professions, annual professional conferences are often the site of serious networking—and as the cliché goes, most of that networking happens after hours in places like the hotel bar.
Such is the case for “Hand Dip.” At 3am I realized I’d misplaced my cell phone. I had not backed up its memory, so if it was gone, then I was in trouble. I blanched. But the conference director happened to be at this post-conference soiree. He quickly took action, got on his walkie-talkie, and disappeared. Within moments he was back, my cell phone in hand. Giddy with gratitude—and a lack of sleep—I made a joke about the proper measure of thanks. A hand shake? A bear hug? Whereupon some wiseacre in the smoky mix made an off-color remark about shaking something a little further south. We all laughed and wondered what name such a gesture should have: someone came up with the term “hand dip,” then someone else one-upped the stakes: we dared each other to write poems using the word “hand dip.” Based on this late-night challenge, several poets wrote and published their “hand dip” poems in literary magazines. In the poetry world, a publication results in a line on the CV, and that line will add to professional legitimacy the poet applies for grants, awards, and tenure.
The sociologist in me loves this social moment turned creative arc—from the haze of cocktail-hour inspiration to creation to legitimate publication. The popular term used to conceptualize such schmoozy social behavior is, obviously, networking. But “Hand Dip” illustrates more than the informal networks within the professional poetry field (or the drunken reverie of professional conferences). It also suggests the balance and tension between collaborative work and individual ambition, the creative stakes of poetry. But it also reminds me how every act along the continuum outlined here somehow reinforces a basic faith in the idea of creative writing as craft, as community, as the literary lifeworld we create and inhabit.