Tag Archives: identity

In the Company of Roses

Flower Last week, a man told me a parable about a lump of clay and some roses. He cited it as a Persian parable, but I did some research and found that it actually comes from the thirteenth century Persian poet Abū-Muhammad Muslih al-Dīn bin Abdallāh Shīrāzī, commonly known as Sa’di. He is one of the most influential poets in Islamic and Asian literature. In Iran, April 21 is celebrated as Sa’di Day.

While Europeans were busy killing each other in the medieval period, which they eventually termed the Dark Ages like a bad sequel to the Roman Empire, most of Western and Central Asia witnessed an artistic, philosophical, and scientific renaissance. Sa’di was only a part of this unique cultural era.

The poem I heard comes from the “Adoration and Preamble” section of Gulistan, or “the rose garden,” one of Sa’di’s most famous works. It reads something like this:

“I held in my bath a per­fumed piece of clay
that came to me from a beloved’s hand.
I asked it, ‘Are you musk or amber­gris?
Like fine wine, your smell intox­i­cates me.’

Till some­one set me down beside a rose,’
it said, ‘I was a loath­some lump of clay.
My companion’s scent seeped into me.
Oth­er­wise, I am only the earth that I am.'”

Apart from talking lumps of clay, I love this poem because it reminds me that I am defined by my proximity to others more than I realize.

Artistically, I am the product of the writers and poets I read: Billy Collins, Sylvia Plath, Douglas Adams, John Steinbeck, Dunya Mikhail, Jamaica Kincaid, and Pablo Neruda have made me the writer I am. Aesthetically, the Southwest made me an experimental, avant-garde magical realist. Socially, I am shaped by my friends, family, lovers, mentors, and the two or three enemies I keep around for good measure. Professionally, I’m a workaholic, being the son of professors who know education is a religious devotion serving the many at the expense of the few, the happy few.

I’m honored to live in the company of roses. I surround myself with those who inspire me. It took me a while to figure out how miserable one can get surrounded by those who are negative, over-critical, dishonest, manipulative, and toxic. I don’t mean I’m in the company of the perfect; all roses have their thorns. But for what it’s worth, I’m glad to let my friends rub off on me. It makes me a better person (and apparently more appealing to bathe with) to walk with roses.


In Which the Pen Name, Nickname, and Legal Name Meet Each Other

Who? More authors than I can count have used a pen name at one point. Dean Koontz has used Aaron Wolfe; Charlotte Bronte used Currer Bell; Daniel Foe, being the creative genius that he was, used Daniel Defoe, not to conceal his identity but to convince his readers he was more gentlemanly. My favorite is Daniel Handler’s pseudonym Lemony Snicket, because Snicket becomes a character in Handler’s Series of Unfortunate Events, one who navigates the reader through the troubling plots. I’ve never imagined myself using a pen name, until I realized how many names I’ve gone by.

For most of my life, I’ve gone by my middle name Keene. In middle school, I got tired of correcting people who thought I said Ken or Keenan or Keith, and I also wanted a name requiring no spelling correction. Not Keen, not Keane, not Frank, but Keene! I tried my first name Jeffery, but even then most people misplaced the R, spelling it Jeffrey. So I shortened it to Jeff. This was also around the time I started writing, and I wrote my earliest stories as Jeff Short. But Jeff was not a very pleasant person, nor a very good writer. He was obnoxiously political, and was competitive in music, writing, and grades.

Along the way, I decided that I liked Keene better. Keene Short. It’s a good name for a writer, and frankly I like Keene as a person more than Jeff. Whereas Jeff was picky, Keene embraced just about everything. He had a better sense of humor than Jeff. Most importantly, he gave up competitiveness. Keene wasn’t concerned with being superior with distinction, but with enjoying the show. Jeff slowly diminished into a forgotten nickname.

In the last years of college, I adopted another name: JK. The nickname originated in the place I worked, the NAU Honors Writing Center, which I can only describe as a mythical realm where the drawers are stuffed with candy and sarcasm flows freely from the tutors. My boss began calling me JK, and soon I started signing emails, letters, and even blog posts as JK. Keene now blogs as JK, who can withhold his sarcasm and be somber when the time calls for it but prefers to be lighthearted. You do not know everything about Keene; you don’t need to and I don’t want you to, which is why JK is here as a literary filter.

But I will always be Keene Short, even in publication. JK is a nice nickname, but I can’t see critics taking Collected Stories of JK very seriously. Maybe JK is just the fictionalized version of Keene, and I’m content with that. I don’t think of Keene Short as a pen name because Jeffery Short, to me, isn’t a real person. I’d be lying if I published under Jeffery or Jeff, both strangers to me. I am simply Keene Short.