Dealing Out Poetry: Writing Verse Based on the Negocios Infernales Cards

One of the missions of making the Negocios Infernales RPG that Claire and I are working on has nothing to do with the game. We also wanted to make a writing tool to inspire writers and help them break out of their traditional ways of thinking. That, in fact, was one of the stated missions of the sabbatical: using game mechanics and gamic thinking to stretch my writing.

Today was our first official try at using the cards not for the game, but for art. You can judge the results for yourself, but I have to tell you, folks: I am pretty pleased.

Now, Claire is such a poet that she hardly needs anything to write poetry, except perhaps a cup of blackest tea. But she stated that the cards gave her that little nudge that allowed her to unleash things that have been on her mind. It reminds me of the way Langston Hughes talks about poetry: that a couple of beginning lines would come to him, and, “if there were to be a poem” (not an exact quote, but pretty close) it would emerge from the initial inspiration he derived from those first lines.

Here is what the cards unleashed for her:

I am afraid of sitting placid
drunk on honey sweetness, drunk
on safety, sated, mildly anxious
stymied by happiness.
I want joy to be a strength, not weakness
a decision, not a default or 
escape from unpleasantness.
I want to get off my ass.
I’m afraid it’s sticking.

If I never stand up, if I stay
here at my window, if I fossilize like
this, which part of me will
rot off first? moral certainty
or personal hygiene? my ability
to open my eyes to any vista but the screen?
will my blood settle? will I settle 
for this? 
to leave behind a world of cages? 
they worked so hard to move us past
de Tocqueville’s filthy prisons.

at least I’m not the only one sitting
one-socked, in yesterday’s nightgown.
the newsmen in their jackets and ties
have stopped wearing pants—
and the politicians, fully clothed
are nakedest of all, in public
smirking bare of masks.
at least I’m not the only one
on a throne, shitting away opportunity.

the housemate’s hookah smoke
is a gauntlet to be got through.
he misses his midnight friends,
the bar he bounced, the gym that sculpted him.
now he blows up zombies, or whatever
(at all hours)
and bakes lasagna in those rare moments
the kitchen is unoccupied by us exiles.
and his hookah smoke, his hookah smoke
is a gauntlet to be got through. 

lightning travels at one third the speed of light.
this means everything to me,
has no direct bearing on my life.
it’s just the thought of light—
slow-moving light, that fills me
itches my plasma to boiling: let’s get up!
get up, let’s go for a walk! 
it is sunset, the sky is dry and cloudless
and look—there’s Venus! 

love is a poisonous planet
but it’s ours, after all.

phoenix, az

If the Negocios Infernales cards accomplished nothing else than making Claire’s poem possible, I would count them an unmitigated success.

But, well, they lured a poem out of me, too. Here’s what I wrote:

Let me be a weak hyena.
Not the alpha taking point
on hunts, pushing teeth into
throats, defying lions with
urine. No—

I’m fine with lesser meats,
smaller bones, cartilaginous
bits for which no scavenger
would risk death.

When I must eat
let death have happened.
Let death not be my happening.

This acacia smells good.
The grass beneath my belly
is a bed of nails—the sun,
that dead-minded fire, would
kill softer verdure. Other

hyenas glance around, panting
their tongues rock dry.
Sometimes they stare at me. I am
ready at any moment to expose
my belly, submit to my death
playfully. I will not

resist. I would have died
a long time ago without
my pack to feed me.

I have been bitten. Clawed.
Gored. Trampled. Each time
I healed. I never broke a leg
bone. Leg bones never
heal in time.

I have been so hungry, the
truth of the world wavered in
my vision like heat rising from
a mirage. But I always
scavenged enough, and always
the world hardened once again
to yes and no.

I have been thirsty. I am
thirsty now. I will
always thirst. Only one day
this body will do
nothing about it
and this liquid life
will turn to steam.

Sometimes my mouth is
filled with living fur.
I have smelled many times
the ozone of a soul atomizing.
I bite down hard.

And I fought the alpha once
when I didn’t want her near me.
She had done nothing to
provoke me. To deserve
what I did to her right hind leg.

She never recovered. She could have;
I didn’t snap the bone. But
knowing that I could have? It left her
cowed. She grew in that instant
too wise to lead us anymore.
Another took her power, and she
relearned the ways of submission.

It was my pleasure to mentor her.

–May 1, 2020, AZ, CH

What I loved about using the cards is staring at them, concentrating on details, tearing through a draft quickly, and revisiting the cards from time to time as I wrote for a recharge of inspiration, or a fresh direction to take. I can’t be sure they’ll work for others the way they worked for Claire and me, but I suspect they will.

The only way to know for sure, however, is to test! We will have to host a salon soon of writers and test whether the cards will provide that perfect balance of guidance and freedom.

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