Thursday, December 10, 2009
Saturday, December 5, 2009
What if epiphany is not a brief flash that changes everything? Lessons of spiritual practice suggest that the flash of insight is usually illusion, or, at best, passing.
Saturday, November 28, 2009
Wednesday, November 25, 2009
Announcing a new self-publishing venture recently, Harlequin unleashed unholy fury from writers across the spectrum—established, emerging and hoping-to-be. Even the indie publishing community spoke up against the venture (make sure you read the comments on Small Beer Press’ hilarious post). They’re not the first publisher to experiment with a vanity division, but their readership is among the most intense. Apparently “brand” does matter in book publishing—or at least some do. In this case, the publisher’s struggle for new revenue streams slammed up against the reading/writing community’s passionate belief that the old school system is the only legitimate way to confer the title “author.” This conflict mirrors the poetry contest wars over the last twenty years. See under: Foetry.
Most poets spend several years and many hundreds of dollars submitting manuscripts to contests in hopes of being chosen for publication. While some of the biggest names in the business (Graywolf, Copper Canyon, FSG, New Directions) have not had to resort to the contest model, nearly every other house has. While there are decent arguments against this system (especially re: potential for scams), the truth is there isn’t enough money to be made in publishing a book of poetry by anyone not named Billy (Collins or Corrigan that is). In fact, I have serious doubts that the Knopfs of the world will be able to continue to publish money-losing genres like poetry as long as they report to corporate HQ in Germany. In fact, when the corporate model hit poetry in the 1970s poetry publishing saw a big hit at all the major publishers – a reality that motivated Daniel Halpern and James Michener to create the National Poetry Series. The current poetry programs for almost all publishers are simply a vestige of the old system that will soon be squeezed shut by the increasingly harsh economic reality for books. If there weren’t contests, the only publishers of poetry would be wealthy scions like James Laughlin. That worked out pretty well for New Directions and modernism in general, but it’s not a model that fills me with hope for our own crowd-juiced, hyper-capitalist, nominally-democratic moment.
Still, despite all the hand-wringing, poetry has never been stronger. You can disagree about who the “best” poets are, but there are very strong books coming out in every style – lyric, abundant, absurdist, austere, flarfy, conceptuallissimo, spoken word -- and that indicates a healthy environment of creativity and readership. While no single book sells enough copies to make a mark on Nielsen Bookscan, the number of poetry readers in aggregate has spurred a creative new business model that has the industry buzzing. Hell, even the 2009 National Book Award for poetry seems to be cause for more celebration than angst.
There remains a working business model for the James Pattersons, Sarah Palins, and vanity press aggregators. But there is no room in that model for worrying about literature. Once upon a time this would have been a problem for serious reading. Access to major publishers was the only way to get work into the hands of the reading public. But with inventories tightening up at independent bookstores and major chains alike, publication by a major house is no guarantee your book will be carried in a general bookstore. That, combined with anybody’s ability to sell anything to anyone online whether through Amazon, SPD Books or from your own site, means that there is no longer a distinct advantage to publication by a major house. Wanting it both ways -- corporate-style profits produced by thought-inducing, break-the-mold art -- is unrealistic and as condescending to people who enjoy books-as-mindless-entertainment as those who like them as brainfood.
Literature has always done its best work as a coterie business. So it will.
Tuesday, November 17, 2009
Sarah uses content in similar ways, of course, all good writers do. Her latest book is a prose meditation on a devastating illness she wrestled with in her twenties--and, as with Rachel’s work, it is in no way my experience, but it works through matters of suffering and desire in ways that extend my own understanding. But Sarah is wary of the ways motherhood would limit not only her physical capacity to write (the time and focus required to raise kids) but also a reader’s perception of her work (the ease with which a narrowcast mindset can shuttle off a book on motherhood to a “women’s only” section).
What does it say that this question, which feels so unavoidable to women writers now, does not come up with the two most important poets of the modern period, Emily Dickinson and Gertrude Stein? Nor for two of the most influential poets who came of age in the 1950s, Elizabeth Bishop and Marianne Moore. The difference is in the cultural context. Dickinson, Stein, Moore, and Bishop wrote before feminism had radically altering options open to women with children. Their choice was stark: kids or writing. There is no evidence to indicate that any of these four ever considered having children. Though they may have thought about it, the question was simply not aired. It is only with the generations that came of age in the 1960s and later that the question of motherhood and (not "or") writing seemed even possible.
Fatherhood has changed nearly as dramatically as motherhood in recent decades, becoming more and more a hands-on experience. Yet, I can’t think of any men who tackle the question of “father” vs. “non-father” writers. To be sure there has been a recent spate of famous men writing about the occasions of their fatherhoods. But these don’t go much farther than relatively charming (or annoying depending on your angle) exercises in the lovably clueless man adapting to new domestic roles in changing times. The matter of fatherhood is not an occasion for soul searching or culture rattling. It’s just cute entertainment.
In a recent interview for the Poetry magazine podcast, Tom Sleigh spoke of Thom Gunne’s domestic life in San Francisco, suggesting that Thom Gunne was one of the few men who wrote about domestic concerns--even though domesticity in this case meant San Francisco’s gay scene. As surprising as this is to me, I’m hard pressed to come up with counter-examples.
Of contemporary poets, Galway Kinnell has perhaps written the most about his children--what young parent can help but identify with the poem in which his toddler wakes up and crashes the bedroom the instant any sex threatens to occur. But it’s not clear that fatherhood changed Kinnell's writing, or changed the terms on which he encountered the world through his work. For Zucker, motherhood is a radicalizing subject that pushes the very form of the poem in new ways. For Sarah Manguso, "non-motherhood" is a question in the foreground, and choosing against motherhood an occasion for profound thinking (as is the inability to choose to have children for women who cannot).
Mostly, I am astonished that so few (no?) men talk about the ways children affect their work because having children has changed my own work in profound ways. This is true in all the obvious ways: by keeping me physically busier than I ever thought possible (tightening writing time to near zero), and by kid-matter inevitably invading the poems. But, more, the experience of having children has altered my sense of time, being and responsibility. It provided the occasion for the only thing close to a Blakean vision I have ever experienced. I spent the week after my first son's birth with just Miranda and the baby, never leaving, never sleeping, hardly eating. The closeness of it all became a fever dream that collapsed distinctions between inside and outside, night and day. When I first left our rooms to shop for groceries at the corner market, I looked at the 300 lb. man working the cash register and saw in him--physically, actually--the newborn he once was. It seemed neither confusing nor alarming, simply a reality that all the time of his existence was present in that one moment. Looking around, I saw all of us--the 80 year old woman behind me, hunched with osteoporosis, the sharp-lipped teenage girl one aisle over, the homeless man slogging a bag of cans for redemption--in our physical beginnings as infants. There was no distinction, in fact, between any of us. That this vision came from a near total lack of sleep and food is obvious. But while I don't see the layers of time as I did on that particular June morning 13-1/2 years ago, what I knew in that moment remains 100% real to me.
I like to read accounts of cave-meditators about the years spent alone with their infinite mind--the long, slow, boring, rolling, speeding, broiling, burning fact of it. In the course of my day, among all the wounds to lick, covers to tuck, shoulders to rub, porridge to sling, punches to punish, candy to swipe, tears to dry, feet to tickle, homework to enforce, empathy to extract, paperwork to push, soccer to coach, and plates to scrub, I think this father, this once-and-future narcissist known as me, is learning something of what they say.
Saturday, November 14, 2009
Is there a role for commerce in poetry? Ezra Pound worked his (crackpot) economic theories into his Cantos. Katy Lederer wrote a book using her hedge fund experience to spin the stuff of the money-drunk 00’s into metaphors for longing, ambition, sex, God and grief. Money is considered anathema to the dream of poetry even if (especially because?) most poets make a middling salary in gigs as college teachers. Poetry magazine’s $100 million windfall from a pharmaceutical industry heiress caused all kinds of anger and belittlements from poets (including me). Complements for the Poetry Foundation’s wide-ranging efforts since then have been grudgingly given, even though the money has not only been used to revivify the magazine, but also to support a relatively wide range of the art through mainstream outlets and through building up its own vibrant online center of blogs, links, videos and essays.
But this week a project launched that throws money and poetry in a way that can’t be dismissed as charity, or scam, or mere academic exercise: PoetrySpeaks. To even type the words “.com” after a poetry site instead of “.org” feels like I’m pimping for one of the sleazy contests that charge a bundle and deliver nothing but profit for the organizer. PoetrySpeaks is made equally out of a love of poetry and a keen business sense, and it displays the potential of both to enhance each other rather than cancel each other out. You can explore and even contribute to its resources for free. Or you can buy books, videos, or individual poems. One of the advisors to this project, Guy Le Charles Gonzalez, comes out of the Nuyorican scene from the 1990s and makes the case that this new .com site offers more dynamic possibilities than the current scene. And he’s right. While my own background is traditional, I can’t ignore the ways in which traditional readings have grown stultifying: long-winded, academic introductions, a prevalent anti-performance style (as if the material itself is so deep it needs to be flattened to be accessed), and audiences that are either half-asleep or all the way there. How have we come to this? Surely this is a total waste of our time. While my own preference is for quieter, page-based work, spoken word events are much, much more entertaining. You are much more likely to have an experience at spoken word than at a traditional reading. There’s something of a vacuum, an anti-experience, about a traditional poetry reading.
Poetry’s as relevant as the people making it. But as makers we owe our audience an experience. Otherwise we’re just keeping a diary. It doesn’t matter who your audience is--your lover, the guys on your soccer team, word-gamers, philosophers, whichever people are in the room with you right now--you owe it to the work to connect with them. One way of doing that is to create new works in new forms than the paper page: video and audio, digital and physical. MFA programs should offer classes in Flash, Illustrator and AfterEffects. These are the newest tools for working “by hand” with your words. But as Kat Meyer mentioned during a chat on Twitter with the founders of PoetrySpeaks.com, digital poetry now simply means anything that can be tagged with metadata and accessed digitally. So the old ways of working by hand can also be considered digital: the hand-stitched letter press book, the hand-built box with free-floating typewritten lines.
Poets need to break with the idea that their words deserve to be archived because simply because they’re labeled “poetry.” The work falls for its audience before the audience falls for it.
Thursday, September 3, 2009
“The basic theme on which I’ve tried to play all my variations is the problem of the artist, the contrast between the excitement of beauty and the demands of life; between, if you will, the ab- or super-normal poetic vision and the normal necessity of catching the eight o’clock bus. My theme is also the paradox that the vision could never live without the opposing necessity since it must be inspired by it.” — Thomas Mann, New York Times, 1955
Thursday, August 6, 2009
There's a nascent movement to start an independent conference on Contemporary Women's Poetry. This is a brilliant, necessary idea for all sorts of pedagocial, political, and situational reasons--women are currently writing some of the most charged work at the intersection of autobiography, authenticity, imagination and political reality. Another one of the reasons this seems a good idea to me is that all of the poets who shake my brain (the way it likes to be shook) are women (with a few exceptions). My top five in today's rankings: Field, Minnis, Moxley, Robertson, and Wagner.
Tuesday, July 21, 2009
Wednesday, July 8, 2009
Dear Chris Anderson, "The world is free, but I am not; the space is so saturated, the pressure of all which wants to be heard so strong that I am no longer capable of knowing what I want. I plunge into the negative ecstasy of [the Web]."
Love, Jean Baudrillard
What JB was really talking about was the "negative ecstasy" of radio. Re-reading Baudrillard's The Ecstasy of Communication 15 years after I first picked it up at Prairie Lights and nearly 25 years after it was first published, I'm amazed by how prescient Baudrillard is about terrorism, twitter, flarf and the costs of "free."
More to come.
Sunday, June 28, 2009
We're sold the idea that bands and authors are unified stable formations--whether it's a brand like The Pussycat Dolls or James Patterson constructed with marketing in mind, or more "authentic" acts like REM and John Updike. Recent concerns about Twitter and authenticity in social media suggest that this is not just a matter for big brands but also for the new mass anxiety around "The Brand of Me." To turn the perspective around: tags make us easier to market to, but the complex of our desires and thought-patterns are both infinite and evanescent. Art, music and literature are made created from a passing weather of personalities, situations, and materials.
Friday, June 12, 2009
For all the concern that the Web = the death of reading, words still rule the roost. Witness that these two blazing sites that are pure porno for wordies: Wordle and Wordnik.
Monday, June 1, 2009
sack is opening to your love
sack is the reason for 01/17/02
sack is a paper poke
sack is always a threat
sack is complete
sack is required
sack is flexible and tends to “round”
sack is big enough for several ferrets
sack is the answer to heavy duty sack demand
sack is made in the USA
sack is a simple rectangular bag sewn along the bottom and one side
sack is solid
sack is sealed with oil mixture
sack is a trademark of wham
sack is 4" x 10"
sack is sewed with cotton rope
sack is slipped upon the spout as shown in the picture the bottom rests upon a small table or platform which is so balanced that it slides down to the . . .
sack is completely absorbed
sack’s an attorney
sack is in the way
sack is placed
sack is for a specific child
sack is locked escape proof
sack is also good exercise
sack travels with professionals
sack is slightly more than half and measures 36" wide and 25" long
sack is attached to the hammock so you can never lose it
sack is reversible
sack is carried on the shoulders
sack is the statewide self
sack is a game whe'e dey ain't no winnas and no losahs
sack is something to think about
sack is so easy to sew
sack is a beautiful silent drive – der weg ist das ziel
sack is activated
sack is made of water
sack is 15" wide
sack is magic: inside it holds millions of
Tuesday, May 12, 2009
Where are the poems with people in them?
I mean friends. Where are your friends?
There’s the guy in the bar poems.
The postal worker hello poems.
Dude with Chihuahua poems,
Lady with scotch tape poems,
but the reached out to this one
and that one was there poems?
“Snaking through your trembling hideaway.”
“The bird-fueled shack purring like a rocket.”
“One white plate, three slices of chicken. ”
Present our measureless head—swathed in lichen,
such monsters as men shudder to catch.
Friday, May 1, 2009
This practice rhymes with my own sense of how all artistic disciplines work. Music works this way most obviously -- you can feel it in any decent live performance, as what we call "music" is the activity of locating and harmonizing the feeling-tones of audience and players, how they relate and feed each other. But you can feel it too with a live play, or even simply in the interchange between a painting on the wall and the individual viewer. And with poetry, too, of course, the kind that works. A working poem harmonizes the experience of the poet and the reader/listener/audience. It's why Ta-Nehisi Coates responds so directly to a Frederick Seidel poem that might seem to oppose his own experience.
Wednesday, April 29, 2009
It's a trail worth following, making not only for one of the richest ways through which to read some of the best contemporary poetry, but also for brilliant insights into how we construct a male sense of self in the Western tradition. I talked about it in this review in the Boston Review, and certainly expect to go back to it in future reviews, essays and blogs since I've been thinking about it off-and-on for 20 years now. But then this morning I had a few minutes of coffee and Jack Spicer, and came upon his perfect "Sheep Trails Are Fateful to Strangers" -- inserted here like a bookmark to indicate the ongoing conversation:
Dante would have blamed Beatrice
If she turned up alive in some local bordello
Or Newton gravity
If apples fell upward
What I mean is words
Turn mysteriously against those who use them
Hello says the apple
Both of us were object.
Friday, April 24, 2009
Saturday, April 4, 2009
Nobody writes about sunburn, whipcracks and negligees quite like Chelsea Minnis. She's not so quietly building up a body of work that does more than any one line, image or poem can accomplish. It's an argument about what poetry can mean at play in a world somehow both plush and spikey with lousy beautiful crystal gods and boffo luxuries. She's a little bit like Jeff Koons, but like a Koons where the pornstar ceramics and silver balloon bunnies have edges that could actually cut you. She read last night with Joshua Beckman and Noelle Kocut (whose "Poem for the End of Time" will knock you flat with awe). They'd just come from a reading at West Point, which blows my mind even to consider. Chelsey read a poem from her new book that's a response (after the fact) to a cadet's question about her goals for her poems:
Friday, April 3, 2009
The Academy of American Poets throws a big party every year where famous people put on a show for poetry. There are arguments about why this is mis-guided: Why silence living poets? Why this myopic insistence on American poets only? Why is every chosen poem so tenaciously mainstream? Do famous people need another platform? But to rail heedlessly against the event is to miss what it accomplishes. It puts a different shine on a little corner of the enterprise. It encourages someone who kinda liked poems once upon a time to return to it, even for an hour, to sit and listen to a form they'd long-ago forsaken as it became buried by the exigencies of daily living. But more than that, it allows the audience a different entry point for particular poems. At this same event a few years ago, Mark Morris read several Frank O'Hara poems, all of which I'd read for years and loved deeply. But Morris gave me something new. He lived in the poems--giving them a body they hadn't had before, now a stance, now a gait, fresh attitudes at every turn that I'd not encountered in the poems before, but remain with me. O'Hara's poems had lived in the context of my life before, but now they lived on their own too. And that new relationship, like a marriage between two attached and independent forces, is infinitely richer.
Monday, March 30, 2009
Thursday, March 19, 2009
Thursday, March 12, 2009
Tuesday, March 10, 2009
in a kelp forest. Between
canopy leaves, sunlight filters thru
the water surface; nutrients
bring life where there'd other-
wise be barren sea; a vast eco-
system breathes. Each
"Kelp" from Jeffrey Yang's "An Aquarium." How it tends toward my longing: a poem moving through ideas but built entirely of one word, each repetition creating a different inflection and grammatical role in the word, movement in stasis, a la "being being being's."
Friday, March 6, 2009
Tuesday, March 3, 2009
Sunday, March 1, 2009
Friday, February 27, 2009
Thursday, February 26, 2009
Tuesday, February 24, 2009