Thursday, April 26, 2007


I'm not happy with the poems I'm writing right now. For one thing, there aren't many of them. And the ones I do produce strike me as boring and predictable (and based on a few initial comments on the latest batch from my readers, they think so too -- although they say so far more graciously). It's disheartening, not only because it never feels good to create crappy poems, but because good writing depends on a kind of momentum that I'm not currently able to achieve.

I have a feeling that this is one of those situations when you have to resist your instincts to forcibly regain control and instead loosen up -- like not slamming on the brakes when your car skids on black ice. But it's not easy. Relax. Relax! RELAX! I yell at myself.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Against E-Z Poetry

Speaking of Robert Pinsky, the former poet laureate has published an interesting article on, "In Praise of Difficult Poetry." "The issue of difficulty in art is far from new," he writes, "though people may like to refer to some unspecified good old days, when stuff was easier." A fine point to keep in mind, especially since both sides in the argument of "difficult" vs. "accessible" poetry have summoned armies of straw men and flotillas of cliche to fight for their respective causes. But such is rhetoric.

I'd prefer to be neutral in this little war, but I'll admit that I side with the forces of accessibility when drawn into its skirmishes. Still, what I like about Pinsky's article is its suggestion that difficulty can be something we enjoy rather than resist, as well as the way he inveighs against our tendency to view poems as puzzles to be solved, a bad habit most of us learned in high school. That said, I'd suggest not that all poems should be simple or easy to understand (complexity and uncertainty being some of the hallmarks of great poetry), but that complexity and obscurity alone are insufficient to propel a poem beyond its creator.

Which brings us back to extremes. When I write that, I envision the kind of linguistically-occupied poems that are baffling and, frankly, a bore to even educated readers, just as Pinsky envisions the "genial, simple, and folksy... work of Edgar Guest [whose book] Heap o' Livin' sold more than a million copies" in the first half of the twentieth century. Both are over-simplifications. I am confident that most of those arguing for "accessibility" do not hope to bring about another Edgar Guest. Conversely, I am also sure that poets like Pinsky are not eager to see the rise of ludicrously obtuse verse. It's a false dialectic, like red states and blue states. In reality, most of us are somewhere in the reasonable middle, shaking our heads.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Prime Time for Poet Pinsky

Imagine my shock last night when Stephen Colbert of The Colbert Report brought out poet Robert Pinsky (he of the honeyed and vaguely lascivious voice) to host a "Meta-Free-Phor-All" with Sean Penn. And further shock when he proved to do pretty well. Bob Barker, look out:

Sure, the show was mostly about Penn's politics and one particularly colorful (if not nuanced) metaphor he employed vis-a-vis our misguided President. Still, I can't remember the last time a living poet appeared on national television outside of the token features that the news networks tend to run in national poetry month (which we're in the middle of, and which for most people is really national file your effing taxes month), much less one as popular as Colbert's. Three cheers for Colbert for bringing Pinsky on, and three cheers for Pinsky for showing poets are (A) actually still around and (B) not incapable of humor.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Irritable Reaching

Jackson Pollock's Blue Poles: Number 11, 1952.

"A painter like Pollock," John Ashbery writes in his essay The Invisible Avant-Garde, "... was gambling everything on the fact that he was the greatest painter in America, for if he wasn't, he was nothing, and the drips would turn out to be random splashes from the brush of a careless housepainter. It must often have occurred to Pollock that there was just a possibility that he wasn't an artist at all, that he had spent his life 'toiling up the wrong road to art' as Flaubert said of Zola."

No one wants to spend life "toiling up the wrong road." So the question becomes, how do you overcome those doubts? How do you know if you're the real thing or a sham? What separates the amateur (in the least derogatory sense of the word) from the artist?

Lately, as has consistently been my bad habit in poetry as well as in life, I have been jumping ahead of myself and thinking about what will happen at the end of A Writing Year. I can't help but dwell on what's next. Does writing become just another hobby, something to do at night or whenever I can find a few quiet moments? Do I cease writing poems altogether, having had my year to make it work and failed to find that elusive, undefinable proof that I Am A Poet And The Struggle Is All Worthwhile?

Keats would say these are all symptoms of weakness in Negative Capability, "that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact & reason." What is so insidious about these questions and that "irritable reaching" is the way they infect the mind. The question, "is this poem really any good?" spawns others: "Do I know what a good poem really is?" "Do I have the passion and strength to create good poems?" "Is a 'good' poem really enough?" "Why continue when so many others can do better?" Each one adds its small white ribbon until they form a kind of mental straitjacket.

I recognize that all art requires a kind of faith. As Ashbery continues about Pollock's work, "It is a gamble against terrific odds. Most reckless things are beautiful in some way, and recklessness is what makes experimental art beautiful, just as religions are beautiful because of the strong possibility that they are founded on nothing." I agree with Ashberry that a degree of recklessness is necessary. But finding the confidence to be reckless (or again, call it faith) isn't easy. I worry I may not be reckless enough. I worry I may not be reckless at all.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Rate the Rejection - FIELD

Here's a stumper: How to rate a rejection letter that doesn't exist? It seems like a task for one of Samuel Beckett's characters. Yet that's exactly the task I'm faced with, as FIELD, apparently having nothing nice to say, says nothing at all. What that means for me is my SASE returned, with my poems, and no explanation. It's baffling. Here's what I've got to show you:

That's right, just the empty envelope -- that's all I've got. Nevertheless, I persist.

Rating Summary: It could be ingenious: just skip the rejection letter altogether. You save some money and time and skip over all the difficult sentiment. Alternately, it could be accidental: one of the interns forgot to include the standard rejection note. Whoopsy daisies. A third possiblity: laziness and inertia. Whatever the case, the lack of any letter at all, the mute returning of poems unmarked in any way, suggests an appalling lack of respect and consideration. It's a cop-out, a mistake, or a sign the editors just couldn't be bothered. It may have enabled a faster turnaround time (six weeks, give or take), but the means to that end are brutish.

The Grade: 0. As far as I'm concerned, the folks at FIELD didn't turn in their assignment.

Click here for more about the Rate the Rejection series and links to other rejections I've rated.

Back in Action

Did you miss me? Last week was a doozy. Two rejection letters (or rather, one actual letter, but two submissions rejected -- more on that later) and a four-day conference for work meant I was distracted and off-schedule all week. I'm still feeling a bit down and uncertain, but hopefully I'll be able to get back into some sort of rhythm and regain my focus. We'll see. For now, please accept my apologies for the long stretch of no-posts. I know how AWY readers (all six of you) depend on these rants and inanities and I hate to disappoint.

Sunday, April 08, 2007

Rate the Rejection - Tin House

Sadly it's time for another episode of Rate. The. Rejection! Today's contestant: Tin House, the pretty magazine from Portland. Someone responding to a previous Rate the Rejection mentioned that the House was particularly loathsome in its refusals, so I was (morbidly) curious to see if that really was the case. To the slip, shall we?

Rating Summary: Well. Where to begin? Let's start with the paper. I'd say it's somewhere between Kinko's cheapest and prison-grade toilet tissue. Classy. That it's poorly cut out only adds to the elegance. Editors, listen up: If you're going to skimp on paper by printing multiple rejection slips on 1-ply, how's about at least investing in a decent paper cutter? Just a thought. And you know what else? Twenty-one words doesn't cut it. I spend a lot of time putting my submissions together. I think about where they're going and I write short, careful and respectful cover letters. It's fine with me if you're going to print out the same rejection note for everyone, but put just a modicum of thought into it. Try to avoid being utterly spineless. That goes for the name at the bottom too. "Sincerely, Tin House Editors." Sincerely my ass. If you're sincere, man up and put your name on it.

Any upside here? Well, to their credit they responded quickly, with a turnaround time of about 6 1/2 weeks. That certainly counts for something. Other than that, no.

The Grade: A solid D. It's a fine example of what makes trying to get your writing out there such a lonely and dispiriting endeavor. And I thought people from Portland were so nice.

Click here for more about the Rate the Rejection series and links to other rejections I've rated.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

The Awkwardness of Poetry Readings

Poetry readings are generally solemn, mirthless affairs. Kind of like church. You go out of a sense of obligation, or habit, or because of your own fervency. The poet takes the pulpit and to hushed nods and amens delivers the short, plosive sermons. Before leaving, everyone stops by to say what a fine thing it was.

Don't get me wrong -- I love hearing poets read their work. It's just that the events themselves can become somewhat stifling. That's partly why the reading by Dean Young and Tony Hoagland last night was such a pleasure. Characteristically irreverent, they disrupted the poetry reading paradigm. The crowd, which packed the Chicago Public Library's Pritzker auditorium, had all the hallmarks of poetry readers (blocky eyewear, abundant wool, etc.) and responded eagerly to Young's dry, wary humor ("The longer a poetry reading goes on--mine in particular--it becomes an increasingly awkward social situation") and Hoagland's riffs. I don't think I've ever heard poems inspire so much laughter.

At the same time, the tragedy in these two poets' work inevitably seeps out, which is why they transcend mere comedy. More than anything else, both are driven by the sheer absurdity of human experience. As Dean Young put it, they derive from the ridiculousness of "sitting in a hospital room with your dying aunt, while next door there's a TV on with a laugh track.... Reality moves very quickly between the devastating and the debacle."

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

A Closer Sandburg Connection

Last night I read Jonathan Franzen's curiously long essay "Lost in the Mail," about the problems of Chicago's postal service and in particular the disaster that is the Uptown Post Office (my post office). Don't be fooled by the lovely architecture and murals depicted here -- they only enhance the Kafkaeque experience of doing business there. Anyway, Franzen notes in the essay that Carl Sandburg lived in the neighborhood for a few years, at 4646 N. Hermitage Ave, which is just blocks from where I live now. Huh.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Tony Hoagland & Dean Young Reading - Apr 4

Two fine American poets reading tomorrow as part of National Poetry Month. Check 'em out if you're in Chicago this week.

DATE: Wednesday, April 4
PLACE: Cindy Pritzker Auditorium, Chicago Public Library (400 S. State St.)
COST: Free, but call to reserve a seat - (312) 787-7070

Monday, April 02, 2007

Confessions of a Day-Job Liker

Conventional wisdom suggests that most writers dislike their day jobs. It makes sense, since they work other jobs out of necessity--writing alone (or creative writing alone) generally doesn't pay the bills. Waitressing, copy writing, temp work, teaching or bar tending does. It also makes sense that writers would harbor at least some resentment toward these more remunerative endeavors, which inevitably encroach upon their writing time and sap their energy.

For many, the disjunction between the pay-the-bills work and the do-your-thing writing fosters conflict and anxiety. It's a conflict that essays and movies about writers often fixate on: the day job as obstacle to be overcome, or counterbalance to the interiority of writing time, or uncanny source of inspiration.

What you don't hear about so much is the inverse of this conflict: what happens when the writer's day job is equally appealing/rewarding as the writing itself. Maybe that's because this conflict isn't as interesting ("I like doing this... but I like doing this too! Woe is me!"), but it's one that I've been dwelling on lately.

The problem is, I like my job a lot. I'm lucky enough to work for a well-run national nonprofit organization that engages me in work I care about and feel proud of. Like any other job, mine has its share of frustrating days and can become tiresome, but for the most part I'm happy with it. This summer I'll have been with the organization six years, making me one of the more senior people on staff, and over the last two years, especially, I've been closely involved with some of its most important research initiatives and played a major role in writing policy briefs, book chapters and editorials. The fact that my employers are letting me take time for A Writing Year is just one more reason I appreciate working where I do.

So the conflict for me is not so one-sided; that is, it's not all about finding a way to work around my day job in order to write, but truly finding a balance between my writing and my career (with the recognition that, for now and the foreseeable future, they will remain separate). AWY has been an incredible experience because it has finally allowed me a significant amount of time to devote to my poems. However, there are also days when my other work is equally engaging. I had not anticipated a time when I would be as eager to get to work as I would be to get to my writing, but that has certainly been the case on some occasions.

Although this conflict (balancing time and energy between two occupations I enjoy equally, or nearly so) sometimes makes me feel indecisive, I think it's also liberating. If AWY is a failure, I won't be unhappy going back to my other work on a full-time basis. Frankly, I may need to anyway as my wife and I start thinking about having a baby, which I hear can be expensive. On the other hand, maintaining a balance between these two sides of my life is precarious, and I'm not sure if I can keep it up indefinitely. It can be frustrating not to dedicate myself fully to one or the other, and exhausting to try to do both.

Well, for now I'm not giving up on either, and I'd love to hear from others out there who are struggling with the same problem. Do you secretly love your job? Jot down work-related notes when you're supposed to be writing your play? Let's hear how you handle it.