Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Kill the Bird

Thoughts on poetry from Charles Bukowski:

"There's too much bad poetry being written today. People just don't know how to write down a simple easy line. It's difficult for them, it's like trying to keep a hard-on while drowning--not many can do it. Bad poetry is caused by people who sit down and think, Now I am going to write a Poem. And it comes out the way they think a poem should be. Take a cat. He doesn't think, well, now I'm a cat and I'm going to kill this bird. He just does it."

Monday, January 29, 2007

Poems a la Netflix

Three new poems for my readers this morning. As I mentioned in my email to them, it's all a little like Netflix. They send the old ones back and get new ones a few days later. Of course, the poems don't have quite the same entertainment value as, for example, "Mr. and Mrs. Smith" (currently #2 on the Netflix Top 100). Well, perhaps a Brad Pitt / Angelina Jolie / married assassins poem is in the offing. Oh, it's possible. Here's a Brad Pitt poem to prove it, courtesy of Aaron Smith.

Friday, January 26, 2007

Fitting Together Shadows

It strikes me that writing a poem is like creating a picture by painting only the shadows. What the poem references is impossible to recreate, so we write around it. To work, the poem must achieve a certain volume defined by the words and, to last, the shape it makes must have a kind of movement or tension. You could also say that making poems is like sculpting pots, only the poem is not the pot but the space inside.

Whatever the case, it's been a frustrating morning. Clay, paint, shadows, words -- all I know is nothing I've started on today is holding together, much less making any space worth sounding.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Huzzah for the Readers

As I continue to get feedback from my motley crew of readers, I'm thrilled with their honest, probing assessments and their refusal to let me get away with any laziness. So far each of them has pointed out something I hadn't noticed or acknowledged before, not just in the poems themselves but in my fundamental approach to writing as well. That's a great thing, and I can't thank them enough for their time and insights.

This virtual workshop also has the interesting effect of disaggregating everyone's responses. In a typical writing workshop, it's hard to avoid the urge to arrive at some consensus about whatever is being discussed, which means that the participants may unconsciously censor any comments that run counter to the direction of the group's collective judgment or emphasize those that align with it. That's just human nature. However, my readers are all responding privately via email, so I get their undiluted opinions, and it's fascinating to see how various facets of the poems stand out to each of them differently.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Finding My Voice (Cue the Enya)

My friend Lucas observed that the first group of poems I sent to my readers span a range of styles. In his response to me, he suggested that this was either an indication of my great virtuosity or evidence of internal conflict about the kind of work I'd like to produce.

Much as I'd like to believe the former is true, his conjecture about my conflicting thoughts on what and how I want to write is probably more accurate. It's not an unfamiliar conflict for me though -- I've always been torn between various different types of writing and felt a genuine interest in the possibilities offered by them all (or nearly all). One day I'm pulled toward Frost and his focus on plain speech and sentence sounds. The next I read Kay Ryan and want to write twisting, crystalline observations. And a day later the complex grammatical mechanisms of John Donne and Carl Phillips seem the only things worth creating.

As a result, I end up exploring all of these styles and others as well. At this point, I think that's the right thing to be doing, but there is the problem of coherence, and I don't relish the thought of seesawing back and forth between styles forever.

Poetry People always talk about "finding your voice," and I despise the touchy-feelyness that encumbers the phrase. I think when most people say it, they have in mind a kind of beatific blossoming. It seems like something that a lot of scented candles and dreamcatchers would help. (Plus, how do you know when you've found it? Is there a bell of some kind? A glowing light? Enya?) Still, I have to admit that I see the basic idea behind it as a central challenge for me this year. I have a multitude of voices in my head that I need to corral together into a single shouting crowd.

And that's the thing -- I don't feel that I should have to choose between these voices or among the many schools of poetry. For me, "finding my voice" means figuring out the kinds of rhythms, sounds, words and images that blend together best, that express the way I see the world, and that approximate, if always imperfectly, the unachievable, a priori poem that is behind everything I write. The real challenge is focusing, and listening, and working hard. Maybe in the end it's not so much that you find your voice as your voice finds you. No Enya necessary.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Travels with Carl

Some observant AWY readers will have noticed that Carl Sandburg's Complete Poems has been in my reading pile for some time now. That will continue to be the case as I make my way through his 600+ page work at the pace of about 10-15 pages a day. As one of the most recognized poets of Chicago (really, the poet of Chicago), I thought he would make a good companion as I started off.

So far he's proven an able guide. Before I began reading him in earnest, I knew him only for "city of broad shoulders" -type sentiments. But he's been good company not only because of his obvious affection for the city of Chicago and its people (and in particular, its workers), but because of the humor, pathos and sheer strangeness of so many of his poems. He is democratic in all senses of the word. Back then, he was a poet of hogs, bricklayers, harbors, blood, money, jazz, boxcars, Lake Michigan, jabberers, plagues, honeycomb, beautiful women, Jesus, and the blues. If he were writing now I think he would gravitate toward much of the same, plus pay-day loans, do-rags, express buses, broasted chicken, Beamers, green cards, pawnshops, lawyers, towncars, junkies and labradoodles.

Of course, Sandburg is also a poet of two world wars, and the frustration, sorrow and fury of his poems over the suffering and death of the people he feels so much for is, in our own time of far more senseless conflict, somehow comforting but deeply sad. It reminds me what's worth writing about, and how hard it is to get it right.

Monday, January 22, 2007

A Few Notes Rightly Placed

From "The Trouble with Poetry," by poet (and apparent foot fetishist) Charles Simic:

"The true poet specializes in a kind of bedroom and kitchen metaphysics. I'm the mystic of the frying pan and my love's pink toes. Like every other art, poetry depends on nuance. There are many ways to touch a guitar string, to kiss and nibble someone's toe. Blues musicians know that a few notes rightly placed touch the soul, and so do lyric poets. The idea is, it is possible to make astonishingly tasty dishes from the simplest ingredients. Was it Charles Olson who said that myth is a bed in which human beings make love to the gods? As long as human beings fall in love and compose love letters, poems, too, will get written."

Friday, January 19, 2007

Dominance and Submission

Submission. What a strange, unhealthy word. Whenever I write a cover letter to send off with a few poems, I can't avoid using it, and when I do, I can't suppress a little cringe. There really couldn't be a more perfect response to the word, with its suggestion of tentativeness, of I-await-your-good-judgement-my-lord. I submit unto you these humble poems, dear editor.

Then again, sending out your writing is more or less an exercise in masochism in general. You put your heart-wrung darlings onto paper and hope that they are chosen, or at least acknowledged. Months pass, then that skinny SASE returns (and, by the way, is there anything more depressing than seeing your own damn address in your own damn handwriting, in your own damn mailbox?) and the indifferent rejection note confirms your expectations and fears. And then you do it again. And again. Yes sir may I have another!

Well, I have cringed again today, while sending off four poems to The Kenyon Review. We'll see what happens to the poor dears.

Let me talk about The Kenyon Review for a minute. Highly professional, snazzily produced, long history of excellence, etc., etc. But, whereas most literary journals steadfastly refuse to even think about accepting submissions through any delivery system other than the mail, KR has taken the opposite approach and established an online-only submissions (*cringe*) process. You register for an account, type in your cover letter, upload your file, and you're done. It has a kind of transactional flavor, but it works smoothly.

The benefit to KR is that it enables them to control how often you send in your work (you cannot send new material until the work you have already submitted has been reviewed), make the review process easier for editors, audit the system for orphaned submissions and monitor turnaround times (presumably), and stop fussing with envelopes and piles of paper. Cleverly, they have also limited the box for your cover letter to 250 words, which prevents anyone from sending their autobiography in letter form.

The benefit to writers is that you can log-in to check on the status of your submission (still meek! weak-kneed as ever!) and pull it from consideration if things are taking too long. No postage or SASEs required. The system also sends email confirmations upon receipt of your work, so you know that everything got there safely. Of course, that also means that they send rejection letters via email, which could lead to a new heights of inhumanity. Can't wait to rate that rejection.

In any case, I think The Kenyon Review is ahead of the curve on this one. Undoubtedly there are writers and editors out there who will claim that it signals the end of an era, that you should use the web to order DVDs, not send in your masterpieces, and so on. That's all hooey. The people at KR have just had the good sense to take a shitty, inefficient system and make it work better for everybody.

Or at least I think so. If I find out their system ate my poems, well, I'll... submit someplace else. *Cringe.*

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Quotes on Ambition

I've just finished Donald Hall's collection of essays on poetry, Breakfast Served Any Time All Day, and his essay "Poetry and Ambition" seems to be resonating with me. A few quotes I find especially memorable:

"I see no reason to spend your life writing poems unless your goal is to write great poems."

"Poets who stay outside the circle of peers--like Whitman, who did not go to Harvard; like Dickinson for whom there was no tradition; like Robert Frost, who dropped out of two colleges to make his own way--these poets take Homer as their peer. To quote Frost again: 'The thing is to write better and better poems. Setting our heart when we're too young on getting our poems appreciated lands us in the politics of poetry which is death.'"

"Although in theory workshops serve a useful purpose in gathering young artists together, workshop practices enforce the McPoem. This is your contrary assignment: Be as good a poet as George Herbert. Take as long as you wish."

"If it seems hopeless, one has only to look up in perfect silence at the stars... and it does help to remember that poems are the stars, not poets. Of most help is to remember that it is possible for people to take hold of themselves and become better by thinking. It is also necessary, alas, to continue to take hold of ourselves -- if we are to pursue the true ambition of poetry. Our disinterest must discover that last week's nobility was really covert rottenness, et cetera. One is never free and clear; one must work continually to sustain, to recover."

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Goals for the Year

Already into week three, which makes me mindful of how quickly AWY may pass, which has me thinking about what I want to accomplish.

"Goals" has a kind of corporate aftertaste to it and suggests a focus on product that many would argue is or should be antithetical to the writing of poetry. I think that's probably true, or mostly true. However, I'm also aware that defined goals keep me writing when I otherwise might do something easier and more immediately entertaining. I'm doing AWY because I want to write, so I need to make sure I don't waste the time I have.

So, my goals for the year:

1) Prepare a manuscript of poems
That means I need:
  • 50-60 good poems, which should require...
  • 65-75 drafts, if not more, which means...
  • 6-7 poems drafted per month, which comes down to...
  • About 2 poems per week.
2) Get a few poems published along the way
Specifically, I'm aiming for:
  • 6 poems published over the course of the year (at least), of which...
  • At least 2 are published in national or otherwise prominent journals and...
  • At least 2 are published in local (Chicago-area) journals; so that means...
  • 1 submission per month (yikes).
3) Read a lot
Focusing on great poets, first books by poets I like, biographies of poets, and essays on poetry and poetics.
  • 2-3 books per week
4) Tap into the Chicago literary network
I haven't done a great job of this in the past, so I'll make more of an effort by:
  • Attending at least 1 reading or event per month
  • Submitting poems to local journals (see above)
  • Reading the work of at least 3 Chicago poets
5) Explore publishing options
By which I mean:
  • Identify competitions and deadlines for young writers / first books
  • Discuss options and strategies with friends in the publishing world
  • Reach out to friends who may be able to help
6) Document the process
  • Through this blog, by making at least 1 post per week, and...
  • By writing an essay or article about the experience

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Meet the Readers

I'm thinking of A Writing Year as a do-it-yourself MFA, and no MFA would be complete without the workshop, would it? Workshops are often maligned, and anyone who's taken a creative writing class or attended a writer's conference knows why -- they tend to devolve into therapy sessions, support groups, circle jerks, etc., and if unchecked they can result in a kind of writing-by-committee. In his essay "Poetry and Ambition," Donald Hall characterizes the poetry workshop as, "a garage to which we bring incomplete or malfunctioning homemade machines for diagnosis and repair." Mark Strand, in a class I had with him a couple years ago, remarked, "I was in a workshop once. I found that even when a poem was praised it was depressing."

Despite such aspersions, workshops do have merit in that they offer writers a (hopefully) open forum to discuss their work and receive criticism from others engaged in the same endeavor. They also provide some good old fashioned motivation (you have to produce something) and serve as a walking, talking, and sometimes nit-picking reminder that your work cannot be totally hermetic -- in some way, it has to engage these people.

The best workshops are led by dedicated writers who push the participants hard and are forthright in their comments. By far the best workshop I've ever been in was one led by the poet Stanley Plumly, who was known to make people cry. He wasn't mean-spirited, just honest, and he would champion good work as much as he would rip apart the bad. To me, it was a sign of his respect for us as writers that he looked at our work with such a critical eye. Why shouldn't we meet his standards?

In any case, I knew when I started thinking about AWY that I wanted some semblance of this workshop experience. I haven't found an actual writer's group I'm interested in joining in Chicago (yet), so instead I've convened my own little group of readers to give me feedback. All are friends, but not all are writers themselves. What they share are smarts, general artistic inclinations, and a god-bless-'em willingness to tolerate my early drafts. Let me introduce them briefly, in no particular order:

Jeff Navicky and I met in Prague in 1999, where we were roommates during a summer writing seminar series. We've been reading each other's work ever since. When we both lived in New York, we led a writer's group called 4140 that met every other week or so at the Cedar Tavern. Jeff earned his MFA in poetry from Naropa University in Colorado and now lives in Portland, Maine. His chapbook Map of the Second Person is available from Black Lodge Press.

Nell Henderson is a fellow creative writing alum of Middlebury College. Nell was also a member of 4140 (see above) and has always been a truly insightful reader, not to mention a great friend. She recently received an MFA in fiction from the University of Virginia and now teaches writing and American Literature at James Madison University. Her students are lucky to have her.

Lars Soderkvist works in freelance art direction and production here in Chicago. Although we've been acquainted only a short while, he has a sophisticated aesthetic perspective and promises to be a great addition to the group.

Lucas Klein and I have been friends since college. We have very different writing styles and ideas about poetry, but the contrasts work for us, or at least make for interesting arguments. Lucas' abilities as a critic (and as a poet) are formidable. Currently, he's a Ph.D. candidate in the department of East Asian Languages and Literatures at Yale University. He runs an online literary journal focused on translation, Cipher Journal, and also hosts CipherBlog.

Nicholas Merchant-Bleiberg used to live in Chicago but recently moved to Brooklyn, where he works as the assistant principal of a charter school. In addition to Saving Our Children From A Life Of Poverty And Crime, he is a talented painter (of canvases, not drywall).

And of course I would be remiss not to mention my lovely wife Jen, who is in the regrettable position of having to read or hear my poems before anybody else does. Readers, because of her you will be spared many a pained phrase this year.

So that's the team. I anticipate sending them 2-3 poems every couple of weeks, or at least once a month. In fact, the first batch goes out today. All of these people lead busy lives, so I've told them they should respond to whatever extent their time and interest allows, whether that means a quick email with gut reactions or a line-by-line analysis with reading suggestions. I'm just grateful someone's listening.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Kevin Young Reading - January 16

Strange goings-on. This morning, battling writers block, I turn to Kevin Young's incredible collection Jelly Roll for inspiration. Hours later, I get an email announcement that he will be reading from his newest book, For the Confederate Dead, next week. And there was much rejoicing.

Those in Chicago will not want to miss this chance to see one of the best young American poets working today. Here are the details:

DATE: Tuesday, January 16
PLACE: The Newberry Library (60 West Walton St.)
COST: Free, but reservations required - call (312) 787-7070

Into Week Two

Having the whole morning to write still feels odd. Or maybe it's the opposite -- not getting my coffee, sitting down at my desk, and starting to check work email at 8:30 feels odd. I haven't quite developed a new rhythm, but I'm getting there.

Last week I typed up several older poems in various draft stages, but I didn't do quite as much new writing as I had hoped. So this week I'm focusing on productivity. I'd like to get at least three entirely new poems on paper. Yesterday I wrote the first, so two to go. This week I also want to send out my first batch of poems to the crack team of readers I've assembled (read: coerced / guilt-tripped) to give me feedback in lieu of an actual workshop. I'll tell you more about the team in a future post; for now suffice it to say they are all smart, perceptive and charitable people from a variety of backgrounds.

Another possible (but I think unlikely) goal for this week: sending off a submission. Which magazine might be the lucky recipient? Shenandoah, the Southern Review, Beloit Poetry Journal, Dogwood, and The Bitter Oleander are all potential targets. If it doesn't happen this week, I'll aim for next week instead.

Finally, note that I've updated and re-organized my reading list as well as the 'what I'm reading now' box on the right side of the blog. I'll do my best to keep these current for those following along.

Friday, January 05, 2007

Another Skirmish in the Poetry Wars

Speaking of MFA programs, John Barr of the Poetry Foundation certainly has knotted some knickers with his essay "American Poetry in the New Century," which appeared in the September 2006 issue of Poetry. In it, he argues that, "American poetry is ready for something new because our poets have been writing in the same way for a long time now," and though he is careful to say that, "the malaise that lies over poetry today has no single cause," he does call out MFA programs for their part in creating "a climate of careerism." As an alternative, he urges poets to "live broadly, then write boldly."

Not surprisingly, all manner of apologists emerged, rhetoric-ablazing. In the November issue, the reaction ranges from disgusted disbelief (et tu, Poetry?) to self-righteous scorn (Poetry as entertainment? Preposterous! Sacrilege!). From Stephen Yenser to Sidney Wade, they lay it on thick.

Now, I don't agree with all of Barr's ideas, but I'm disturbed by the mocking, absolutist response. It seems to me that the surest sign that an art (or a business, a field of study, a country) is in trouble is when its leaders cannot entertain conflicting ideas or philosophies. At the same time, I agree with several of the angry-letter writers that, judging from the many essays and general hand-wringing that takes place over it, American poetry is perpetually on the brink. Of course there is exaggeration and short-sightedness in such claims, and we are within our rights to roll our eyes at them.

But is it so impossible even to admit, like honest addicts, that we have a problem? That even some of the blame for the public's lack of interest in contemporary poetry lies with its practitioners? That academe, as the chief builder and supporter of poets today, is at least somewhat responsible? Poetry is the province of uncertainty, exploration and question. Why then do so many purport to know the answer so surely?

In her response to Barr's essay, Sidney Wade of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs declares, with the assurance of someone who sleeps well at night, that, "public neglect for poetry is not the fault of MFA programs." I suspect, however, that she, like Barr, is only partially correct. In my opinion, MFA programs and universities are at least partly to blame because they have created a kind of echo chamber for poetry that is written, reviewed, studied, published and promoted by people who share a highly sophisticated understanding of the art. No, they're not all writing the same thing, the same kind of poetry, or exclusively for one another, but they do share a similar, university-influenced perspective. It's hardly unreasonable to suggest, as Barr does, that poets who reflect a diversity of backgrounds, experiences and occupations would be healthier for the art form.

American culture has indeed changed, and changed in a way that discourages quiet, time-intensive pleasures such as reading poetry. But poetry, too, has changed. Much of it has moved away from the wide avenues of human experience and into the attics and machine rooms of language. So much of poetry today seems the product of hobbyists -- elusive, intricate, fixated on minutae. Some of this is great art, and expands the limits of poetry as we have known it. More of it is drivel. This is not to say that demanding, forward-looking poetry should not be written, taught, supported or appreciated -- only that we should be aware that there is a cost to our indulgences. In this case, that cost may be a non-specialist reader's patience (or respect).

The challenge for poets writing today is not to dumb down their work, but to be mindful that a core purpose of poetry is the communication of ideas, emotion and experience. Making poetry appealing to a broader audience doesn't entail using smaller words, but embracing bigger issues. It also requires some acknowledgement of the truth in Barr's assertion that, "Poetry... must meet a standard of pleasure as well as profundity if it is to recover its place in American culture." That line reminds me of an exchange about jazz and black culture between Bleek Gilliam (Denzel Washington) and Shadow Henderson (Wesley Snipes) in Spike Lee's Mo' Better Blues:
  • Bleek: ".... It incenses me that our own people don't realize our own heritage, our own culture, this is our music, man."
  • Shadow Henderson: "That's bullshit."
  • Bleek: "Why?"
  • Shadow Henderson: "...Everything, everything you just said is bullshit.... That's right, the people don't come because you grandiose motherfuckers don't play shit that they like. If you played the shit that they like, then people would come, simple as that."
Simple as that.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Why Not an MFA?

The way I see it, MFA programs have a few important things to offer. Mainly, these are:
  1. Structured time
  2. Motivation
  3. Community
  4. Mentorship
  5. A degree
Before I started AWY, I debated doing an MFA program instead. Taking classes, working with practicing writers, and making new, like-minded friends were all powerfully appealing, as was, frankly, the idea of having a socially acceptable reason to write while not being otherwise gainfully employed for a couple of years. Because I'm not immediately interested in teaching, the degree itself held only limited allure.

As I thought more about what I really wanted, it gradually became clear that these benefits were outweighed by other factors and concerns, including the following:
  • Overall, I'm a little suspicious about how large a role academia currently plays in literature. I believe part of the writer's role is to question and comment on the established ideas and institutions of his or her time, and I think that's difficult to do from an institutionalized context (however benevolent that institution may be). Moreover, I'm interested in writing that appeals to a wide spectrum of readers, and I worry that many MFA programs unintentionally promote a type of writing that is accessible only to a specialist audience.
  • If I were to do an MFA program, I would want to enroll in a good one and study with someone I really respect. For me, that would necessitate leaving Chicago (an expensive and hugely disruptive proposition, at this point) or doing a low-residency program like Warren Wilson's... but if I did a low residency program, many of the major pluses of an MFA program (face-to-face workshops, interaction with like-minded colleagues, etc.) would be effectively negated.
  • Low-residency or not, most MFA programs are expensive. Except for a handful with particularly storied programs, most universities like MFAs primarily because they are cash cows.
  • I'm uncertain about the actual value of an MFA degree; I now have several friends who have completed MFAs, but (as far as I can tell) the degree hasn't gotten them much further along than they already were. I think they would all say they loved the experience and that it shaped them in important ways, but I would question whether they couldn't have achieved similar results by pursuing writing on their own, outside of the program structure.
  • I don't feel compelled to teach writing at the college level, at this point. I could imagine doing a full-time MFA program only to emerge from it looking for exactly the same type of job I currently have (which uses my writing skills, pays reasonably well, and allows me to work from home).
  • Although the MFA has emerged as a kind of credential for writers, that obviously wasn't always the case. To learn about writing, you read a lot of books. If you wanted to write a book, you went out and wrote one. If you were lucky you had another writer or two to correspond with about it. Of the writers I admire most, very few have MFAs.
  • I've already published a couple of poems and seem to be doing all right on my own, in terms of improving my fundamental skills. More than anything else, the chief obstacle to pushing my writing further is having enough time to dedicate to it.
So, it seemed to me that my options were (1) to spend a lot of money on an MFA degree of questionable value or (2) to invest that money in myself (by allowing myself to take time off of work) and try to go it alone for a while. Given the factors I've described above, the choice seemed obvious -- the worst that could happen is that, after a year, I'd decide I needed an MFA after all, but at least by then I would presumably have a lot of material (and hopefully a few more publications) to support my application.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

A Few First Impressions

Some thoughts as the first morning of A Writing Year ends:
  • Actually doing something I've always wanted to do is exciting, but also nerve-wracking. Sleep did not come easily last night as various doubts and anxieties careened across my mind like bats, dark shapes glimpsed then gone on wild paths.
  • But, in the light of morning, five hours of uninterrupted reading / writing time feels really good. I read for about an hour (essays by Donald Hall), did some work on a new poem, typed up an older draft, researched Chicago literary events and a few authors, and went prospecting through an old journal for promising poems (I found about a dozen). I didn't feel rushed at any point, and in general the schedule I constructed seemed right. However, I may divvy up my morning reading hour into two 30-minute blocks, one for essays and one for poetry.
  • That said, getting started on time is important. I stuck to my 7 AM start this morning but it would be very easy to let that slip. I'll do my best to submit to the tyrrany of the alarm clock.
  • What a difference a pen makes. My wife got me a nice rollerball for Christmas and it makes me want to write more just for writing's sake. Fancy.