Friday, September 28, 2007

What's in a Name?

The new poems I'm writing now are a lot more playful than many of those I've written in the past. I thought I would give you a peek through the keyhole at all the wackiness by listing some of the draft titles from the past month. Probably these are illuminating to some, alarming to others:
  • "Babies"
  • "Feeding Your Neighbor's Cat"
  • "Lunatics"
  • "What You Don't Know"
  • "Weathermen"
  • "Wipe On, Wipe Off"
  • "The New World"
  • "Kryptonite"
  • "Dragonflies"
  • "To Paper Towels"
  • "When Walking on the Beach"
  • "Being a Superhero"
  • "Zombie Uprising"
  • "Picnics"
  • "When You Are Gone from Home"
  • "Watch Out for Eagles"
Oh my. I should emphasize that many of these drafts will never, ever be allowed outdoors, but at least a third or so of them are keepers. Having submitted a few to the Kenyon Review yesterday, I can only hope I'm not delusional about that.

Monday, September 24, 2007


Running perilously low on reading material ("perilously" because of the way an hour or so of reading kicks off my writing day, every day), I went searching this weekend and returned with some great stuff. I've found that the work of a few poets in particular resonates with the new kind of poems I'm writing now. For the most part they're poets I've always liked, but now I'm seeing something new in them. People like Kay Ryan, Kenneth Koch, August Kleinzahler, Billy Collins, Tony Hoagland, Dean Young, Ruth Stone, Kevin Young, etc. Very exciting. Anyway, here's what I brought home this weekend:
  • Ambition and Survival (essays by Christian Wiman)
  • Embryoyo (poems by Dean Young)
  • Halflife (poems by Meghan O'Rourke)
  • Donkey Gospel (poems by Tony Hoagland)

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Just an Update

I'm feeling guilty, as usual, for not posting frequently enough. The truth is I've been running out of time in the mornings, when I've been prioritizing new poems. A few days ago I wrote about the lucky moment when I realized what kind of collection I wanted to put together, and fortunately that realization has continued to be a source of energy and inspiration. I've gotten some good feedback from my readers on the initial drafts that emerged from it and have been moving forward with others that I'm excited about. So good news there.

Speaking of readers, this weekend I also enjoined my friend and certified AWY reader Lars (who works in design) to help create a cover for my collection whenever I finish it. My current idea is to self-publish what I'm able to compile this year through or a similar site -- not so that I can claim I'm a published poet or anything ridiculous like that, but to have a record of what I was able to accomplish this year. I feel like that's important, regardless of whether I'm able to get the poems published elsewhere as well. In any case, I'm happy to have Lars on board.

What else? I need to send out a few more submissions, whenever I can get my act together on that. VQR still has a few poems of mine. I need to send a few more to Kenyon Review this month or next (to try to capitalize on an encouraging rejection I got earlier this spring), and I'm considering sending a few to a new literary journal here in Chicago, the Packingtown Review. As always, I'll keep you posted.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007


The September 2007 issue of Poetry has an essay by Brian Phillips on "Poetry and the Problem of Taste." It's a good piece, but like many other articles about the culture of contemporary American poetry, it puts too much emphasis on the extreme factions. I got so worked up about it I wrote a letter to the editor. Who knows whether they'll print it, but I will, right here and now:

Dear Editor,

I appreciated Brian Phillips’ exploration of taste and beauty in the context of contemporary poetry (“Poetry and the Problem of Taste,” Sep. 2007). Mr. Phillips’ careful articulation of this inherently abstract issue is especially praiseworthy. It’s one of the few essays I’ve read recently that made me think about a much-belabored subject (the problem of poetry, call it) in a new way.

However, I wish that Mr. Phillips had more steadfastly resisted the pull of the prevailing narrative about the American poetry community, which insists on dividing its members into two neatly oppositional camps; in his words, the “poetry activists” and the “anti-activists.” I understand that he embraces this structure in part for the sake of argument, in part because that’s how everybody else talks about it, and in part to save time. But like so much other rhetoric that relies on rigid binary relationships for its foundation – “red states and blue states,” “you’re either with us or against us,” and so on – the end result is oversimplification.

I think it’s fair to say that, in real life, most poets, poetry critics, and poetry readers are somewhere in the reasonable middle, watching the volleys arc far overhead with bewilderment. They don’t really care which side you’re on, just whether or not you’re writing good poems. That takes me back to the issue of taste and the central question of Mr. Phillips’ essay: how and if anyone can make such a judgment. Well, to paraphrase the late Justice Potter Stewart on the challenge of defining pornography, those of us in the middle may not always be able to articulate what a good poem is, but we know it when we see it.

David Keeling

Friday, September 07, 2007

Restrain Yourselves

This morning I re-read W.D. Snodgrass' masterful essay on poetry, "Tact and the Poet's Force," which he wrote just under half a century ago (and which is included in a book I've raved about before, Claims for Poetry). In it, he states that, "it is a poet's business to say something interesting.... He always says something we have not heard before; he always suggests possibilities," and explores the three ways poets create something "worth stopping for":
  1. Through a new idea
  2. Through new details or facts within old ideas
  3. Through a new style
What I find most compelling about the essay, however, is Snodgrass' exposition on the critical role of tact and restraint in poetry, and the necessity of restraint in order to write effectively about the extraordinary and difficult truths that characterize human history. He makes the case that poets must be ambitious in what they write about; discussing Randall Jarrell's poem about the holocaust, "Protocols," he writes, "Such subjects become almost impossible to write about--during the war, in fact, Auden said they were impossible. Yet, if you cannot write about these, almost the key subjects to our civilization, why would anyone go to the terribly hard work that writing is?" It's a great piece -- a reminder of what poetry is all about and how poets can approach even the largest looming subjects.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Straight Workshoppin

The Sep/Oct issue of Poets & Writers has a curious article by poet and professor John Poch ("Pimp My Writing") in which he compares the workshop he teaches to an episode of MTV's Pimp My Ride. This is awkward, to say the least, though it does yield some interesting, statistically improbable phrases, such as "Did Ezra Pound pimp T.S. Eliot's ride when he helped him with one of the greatest poems of the last century, 'The Waste Land'?"

I don't mind odd comparisons, but in exploring the challenges of a creative writing workshop, Poch manages to find fault in everyone but himself, from the kids on Pimp My Ride ("You know he's going to chop the car up into pieces and sell the parts on eBay. If he doesn't, the stuff's just going to get stolen or smashed by his jealous friends. The kid is probably pretty lazy. Just look at the car he'd been driving.") to Americans in general ("Americans want it easy. We want to win the lottery. We want somebody to pimp our rides for us.") to his students in particular ("What's the solution when a teacher has to confront unimaginative minds?").

I've never met any of Poch's students so I can't confirm whether they're as dim as he thinks. As for Americans, sure many of us want it easy, but so does most of the rest of humanity. And I think it goes without saying that laziness is not the only reason that the kids featured on Pimp My Ride drive busted up cars.

What I can say is that Poch consistently contrasts his own virtues against everybody else's vices. "All I did during the semester was pimp their rides," he says of his students' poems. "And I'm pretty good at it.... I'm like the sound technician who has been working with woofers and tweeters for years.... I can trick out your poem. Shoot, I can even stick some neon lights under the poem's chassis if I put my mind to it." When he remarks on his own faults, it's mostly to show how he has grown past them and become a better person as a result.

In the end, the conclusion Poch comes to isn't a bad one: "Creative writing teachers who want to best teach the art must strike a balance. The teacher must weigh offering suggestions with remaining silent, general discussion with exposure to the masters," he writes. Sure, sounds great. But the best creative writing teachers are also those who don't go into the workshop assuming that all of their students are a bunch of lazy, entitled, unimaginative morons.