So, Why Is this Book Called “Lift Your Right Arm”?

15 Dec

Having put the finishing touches on “Mr. Deadman,” the newest work in the collection, I was now ready to give the book a name.  My original inclination was to call it Five Sequences, but when I ran this title by some trusted friends I was told that it made the prospect of reading the book sound about as exciting as watching paint dry or water boil.  Not a good recipe for selling books, I realized, so I decided to look for another title.  Freed from the shackles of my original choice, I quickly settled on Lift Your Right Arm.  Why?  “Lift Your Right Arm” is, without a doubt, my best known piece of writing, it appears the collection, and once chosen it just felt right.  It’s the opening section of “Bagatelles,” one of the book’s five short prose sequences.  About ten years ago, when he was U.S. Poet Laureate, Billy Collins selected it for his Poetry 180 website, aimed at introducing high school students to contemporary poetry one school day at a time.  Over those ten years, hundreds of thousands of young people (and a bunch of older ones) have read “Lift Your Right Arm” on the site;  quite a few have blogged about it and several have even made YouTube videos of it.

“Bagatelles,” which was written in 1980 and ’81, is the earliest work in the book, and it was a breakthrough for me.  For several years I had been writing short stories and “flash fictions” (though that term didn’t yet exist), but with the extended short prose sequence I felt I had really found my metier.  This book collects what I consider the strongest work I’ve done in this mode over a thirty-year period.  Is it fiction?  Is it poetry?  Perhaps, with work like this, genre is in the eye of the be-reader.

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