Friday, October 30, 2015

Leading with a Soft Hand

Most people know at least one person in their organization that they have difficulty communicating with, but must in order to advance or finish projects: the ability to minimize friction with people we’d rather not interact with is essential to success. Meanwhile, a “director” or “chief” is just a title: the person promoted/hired for that position must tailor their presentation, message, and interactions to accommodate the egos and concerns of those whose work is critical to advancing organizational plans and achieving goals.  Without this self-awareness and social-awareness there’d be no leaders and no teams: instead we’d work in isolated vacuums as petty bureaucrats.
A 2014 McKinsey survey indicated that in the social sector, more than half of those in leadership positions rate team building and collaboration as two of the most important leadership skills, and despite this far less than half of the respondents felt they were proficient in the most important leadership skills. Clearly there’s a gap in particular leadership skills. Forbes magazine’s 2014 Corporate Learning Factbook notes that last year saw a 15% in corporate training, and that “leadership training” makes up 35% of that spending. Increased recognition of the value of relationship building and supporting staff has resulted in a boom in leadership training and the proliferation of academic programs in leadership; however, despite the increased attention these skills are receiving, many persist in referring to them as “soft skills”.
As Steve Wood, the President and CEO of Work Opportunities Unlimited Inc, notes in a post on his blog, most often Soft Skills are associated with Emotional Intelligence While this term was popularized by Daniel Goleman’s 1995 book, its fundamental thesis— that an Emotional Quotient could be a more meaningful predictor of success than the standard Intelligence Quotient— is still largely ignored.  Leaving aside more technical considerations of whether Emotional Intelligence is an intelligence or a skill, it would be hard to ignore the impact of the constructs Goleman lays out in his 1998 book Work With Emotional Intelligence: Self-Awareness, Self-Regulation, Social Skill, Empathy, and Motivation.  Some gifted few know just how to manage and support all their coworkers, while others have taken some sort of leadership training or degree program, and ideally someone in leadership role has demonstrated at least some ability to work well with others, but it seems most people who achieve leadership roles do so on the basis of content knowledge or expertise in some specialty other than their ability to build relationships. 
As a metaphor we live by, and particularly as an operational dichotomy, "soft" is almost always subservient to "hard".  We want "hard facts" and value “hard workers”.  Basically, “Soft” is only good when placed before “serve” or in describing a microfiber comforter. In business “soft ball questions” are the easy ones, having a “soft touch with employees” is seen to be necessary only for the overly sensitive.  A “soft deadline” is an irrelevant deadline, and a “soft launch” is only a precursor to the real thing.  A “softie” lets things slide, while a “hard ass” keeps people in line. Things that are “soft” are easy and usually not important; instead we need to answer the “hard questions” and make the “hard decisions”.  This mindset is intrinsic to our daily operations, so all labeling a vast and highly important skill set as “Soft Skills” does is devalue the associated tools, strategies, and mindset. If anything, the skills associated with “soft” and “hard” should probably be flip-flopped: soft skills are not only not soft, they’re significantly harder to master than the supposed “hard skills”.
Typing, writing, math, reading, and content knowledge (i.e. discrete, teachable content-related constructs) are most often referred to as “hard skills”, and HR managers, such as those surveyed by Millenial Branding, as covered in Entrepreneur Magazine, indicate that content expertise is more important than the “soft skills” which are erroneously lumped together as “personality”.  Let’s be clear: “personality” is not a skill, it’s a construct, and focusing on “personality” is not particularly effective when compared to whether or not, for instance, a programmer knows the coding languages necessary to complete the tasks of the job. But the fact of the matter is that content gaps are far easier to discover and correct through education than social/communication skills, or the so-called “soft” skills, which encompass the disciplines of leadership and communications, and are vital to organizational success.
Meanwhile, it could even be said that the devaluing of “soft” in favor of so-called “hard” skills reinforce prejudiced stereotypes that prevent women from being promoted to leadership roles.  A nurturing nature is more commonly associated with women than with men, and nurturing is essential to the development of staff.  Antithetically, often men are promoted not due to their team-work prowess, or ability to develop staff, but as Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, Professor of Business Psychology at Columbia University, addresses in his controversially titled HBR article, “Why Do So Many Incompetent Men Become Leaders?”, in many cases “manifestations of hubris — often masked as charisma or charm — are commonly mistaken for leadership potential, and that these occur much more frequently in men than in women”.  Indeed, as he notes later, “women outperform men on emotional intelligence”.
Despite increased attention to employee management and relationship building, surveys indicate that these skills are the hardest to teach, and that when it comes to inter-personal skills, those hired in leadership roles often have a great deal of difficulty connecting with those they are meant to lead. In order to have effective leaders and leadership training, we need to address the hard truth that soft skills usually make the biggest difference.
[Originally published a post on LinkedIn]

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Poetry for Professionals #1

[On Angela Palm's lyric essay in the 15.4 issue of The Diagram, post originally appeared on Linkedin]

Since graduating from my MFA program, leaving behind a reassuring ecosystem in which everyone cared deeply about authors and their craft, and choosing something other than itinerant-poet-lecturer as a profession, I've come across many people who either bemoan the lack of good poetry in the world, or worse, professionals who can't name a single poet or poem they like, and really don't see the point of it.  
This is sad.  First, if anything we are in a golden age of poetry.  Partly due to the rise of creative writing classes in higher education, and the work of places like 826 National to promote the value of both good academic and creative writing, while I've yet to conduct the definitive survey, I'm certain that more people are writing poems and aspiring to write poetry that ever before.  The internet has also provided an amazing avenue for the discussion, publishing, and promotion of poetry.  There are also more literary journals publishing writing worth reading than every-- more than one could reasonably read, unless reading poetry is your profession. And poetry has expanded: it no longer has to rhyme! In fact, it can appear similar to an essay.  Really, there's no accounting for form; still, whatever it's shape, a good poem still functions to illuminate our experience like no other art.  And in few aspects of our lives do we need more illumination than professionally.  
Whether it's a poem that brightens our day by turning our thoughts away from TPS reports, or gives us a new, possibly hilarious way of looking at the work we do, poems and short lyrical writing can surprise, delight, or cause us to think about our day in way that makes those hours pass just a little more manageably.  If I had the power, I would assign everyone on linkedin the introduction of Gregory Orr's Poetry as Survival for homework. Since this is not within my power, I'd like to begin periodically offering up on LinkedIn poems I've read that I think professionals in different fields might enjoy.
Years ago, I had a poem published in The Diagram, an online journal edited by Ander Monsoon, a poet/essayist/writer who you can find on YouTube, wearing a tiger suit, reading a poem into a fridge.
The most recent issue of The Diagram has a arrived in a flurry of red and black text mixed with “schematics” (diagrams) including Nest Profiles and Plans, as well as Relative Seasonal Availability of Nectar (surely the schematic we’ve all been waiting for).
One thing you can never reasonably claim is that you're "too busy" for poetry: nearly every month I read the poems of at least a few of the contributors, usually authors I know or think I’ve read before, and authors whose names strike me in some way.  For instance, today I read Jennifer Wheelock’s amusing poem, Cloven, solely because one of my colleagues on LinkedIn has notched an anniversary at Wheelock College!
But Angela Palm’s lyric essay (which I will refer to as a poem, because that is how I approach every piece in The Diagram, even when they are not necessarily designated as such) I selected due to its title, "Bloom’s Evaluation of Her", on the off-chance that it might by a reference to the Taxonomy of Educational Objectives, more commonly known as just Bloom’s Taxonomy. I’m hard pressed to think of a more dominant instructional paradigm in education, or one that guides more of what I do on a day-to-day basis.  Angela’s poem repurposes the taxonomy as a way of thinking about a somewhat unexpected relationship, from early intimations and knowledge gathering through her final analysis of what they had or did not have together.
At the risk of pedantry (okay fine, to revel in pedantry), I could quibble at the definition for Comprehension, which I think would be more apt for Synthesis, and could be better expressed as “The student communicates the knowledge in their own words”, and I also feel it’s necessary to point out that her poem (or lyric essay) does not strictly follow the taxonomy, since her piece ends with “Synthesis, Analysis”, out of order, and without the capstone piece of “Evaluation”; however I think it could reasonably argued that in relationships it’s far more natural after they’ve ended or tapered off to analyze them, than it is to “Evaluate” them.  While we may have best friends, we rarely rate them against an objective scale.  At least I don’t.
There has been some question as to the validity of the taxonomy, and while over and over again its validity is confirmed, I think most educators would agree that the boundaries between taxa are not always so rigidly defined.  We may think we comprehend a topic, only to find through analysis that we understood far less than we thought.  The same is at play in this lyric essay, and I think is a large part of what makes it successful.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Informed Opinions

By the time I went to college, The Big Lebowski, which had come out just a few years before, was just starting to attain its cult status.  Some were drawn to the bowling, the drugs, the jokes about contemporary art, the various satirical social commentaries.  I often found myself replaying lines in my head during classes, and no line did I repeat to myself more often than "Yeah, well, you know, that's just like your opinion, man".  I went to a small liberal arts college where opinions and so-called "world views" were often challenged, and sometimes it seemed that students debated non-stop, in the dorm rooms, at meals, and even at the gym. If you wanted to have a varied and interesting group of friends, or just not be known as an ignoramus/asshole, you had to be prepared to let some opinions go.
Last week, Jef Rouner had an essay published by Houston Press that I think should be required reading for all college students (and everyone else):
Increasingly, it seems that students do not pursue higher education to learn and expand their understanding of issues, but to reinforce their preconceived world views, or with none of this even in mind, as they seek out a professional degree.  They do not have a solid understanding of rhetoric, and don't necessarily understand the difference between an argument based on facts and an argument based on opinions.  Some students, instructors, and administrators worry less about this, and more about making sure appropriate "trigger warnings" are in place as well as various "safe" places for students.  While I understand the value of these for some situations, my fear is that sometimes this caters to the reinforcement of opinions over facts, and silence over debates and discussion that could help people achieve a better understanding and compassion for the issues that create triggers and create the need for safe spaces. 
The most important thing I learned in college was that sometimes my opinions were at the very least uninformed, and other times, they were just plain wrong.  I left with the pride of understanding that in order to stay well-informed, and keep learning, I would need to continue to interrogate my beliefs, question my dearly held opinions, and most importantly, avoid what I think is an all too common response of indignation and anger when someone attempted to educate me beyond my preconceived notion of something.  This is a hard lesson to learn, and I'm still learning it, but now it's a rare and strange week when at least one of my opinions doesn't change in some way, and I think that the willingness to change ones opinion, including sometimes acknowledging that it's in fact completely wrong is crucial both from an educational and professional standpoint.
Meanwhile, indignation and anger continue to be an all to common response when people's so called opinions and beliefs are challenged.  In part, I think we have a detrimental culture that associates changing of opinion with weakness. For instance, consider what the media says when a political challenge changes their mind about something: we call it "flop-flopping".  Do we want our leaders to change their mind every couple weeks on key issues and beliefs? Of course not. But I also don't think it's productive to attack leaders when they acknowledge that over the course of many years, they've changed their mind about an issue. Without the ability to acknowledge that new facts or experiences have taught us that we need to let an opinion go in favor of fact, there can be no compromise and no progress.
What opinions drive what you do?  When was the last time you allowed someone to change your mind, based on facts you had not seen or sought out?  I think these are good questions to ask ourselves periodically, and also fine questions for teachers, at any level of education, to ask their students.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Police Training and Chain Letters

My future-father-in-law forwarded me the text of this open-letter, ostensibly authored by Retired Sgt. Kenneth Gross (this might be him), and asked me what I think.  What I think, is that this would be best filed under "don't even get me started", but nevertheless, I've decided to post my own open-response.

I think the problem that the former sgt refers to is both "societal" and "training". He raises some good points, in that this is not "all cops", and I suspect our president and many top administrators could use additional "training" to understand the training, challenges, trials, and tribulations of our law enforcement officers who put their lives at risk every day.

The "training" this sergeant initially refers to, i.e. being raised in a supportive and loving environment that includes family, religious institution, sports teams, and schools, is a broad generalization, and assumes a level of privilege that we associate with the American dream, but is in considerably shorter supply than most people think.   He undermines his own argument about the ubiquity of such an upbringing by saying that police officers are the "Thin Blue Line" (I know that to him this means something else, but try an internet search, and one of the first things to come up with the movie by the same name about a man wrongly convicted by a corrupt justice system) separating us from "total anarchy".  Are police what maintain "civilized society"? I think this sort of hyperbole really doesn't do much of a service to service members, who do take real risks, but are not all that stands between us an anarchy: hopefully, as the sgt notes, our societal up-bringing and common values are what keep us from running the streets naked while looting.  Do these things still happen, of course (or something like it), but I think we're still a long way from total anarchy and the need for a strict police state.

Meanwhile, any time someone talks about the guv'rmint "dumping mounds of cash" on anything, you can be relatively certain that argument is going to lack nuance and facts. When it comes to understanding welfare's role in society and its causes, plenty of people have well-intended, but essentially misguided ideas about who benefits (see "welfare queens") and what the rules should be. The fact is, that the Pew Research Center reports that more households and people than you may think receive some sort of government benefit from Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, TANF, Unemployment benefits, or WIC/SNAP (food stamps). I've been on welfare, and benefitted from Massachusetts reduced cost healthcare before ACA was passed.  I used it for a short time, and stopped when I was doing better.  Of course I had a family safety net, and far more extensive education and privilege than most people who need that aid.  And, incidentally, the elderly and children make up probably the two largest groups that receive these benefits.  I assume most people would not advocate for putting Americans aged 70+ back to work, or stripping parents of benefits that would result in children going hungry. 

We need to educate citizens such that they have the skills they need for jobs that will pay them a living wage.  Millions of jobs in this country pay wages so low that even working two supposedly "full-time" jobs puts them below the poverty line.  A job flipping burgers isn't going to support someone the way they need.  If that were my only options for employment, I'd probably turn to crime.  But while a broader discussion if these issues is important to society, it doesn't really have much bearing on whether police need additional training and accountability.

When trying to achieve a particular standard, norming is necessary.  Police departments can't know which officers are not going to uphold the values of their job, whether by choice or ineptitude, but training improves quality and decreases failures, and so by necessity, it makes sense to train ALL police.  Everyone in my workplace undergoes multiple mandatory trainings every year, and the highest responsibility most of us have is protecting sensitive student information. Police have the responsibility of deciding when to wield lethal-force, and making that choice should invite review and followup training every time.  

Having a rigorous and transparent system in place is beneficial to those with and without a badge.  Let's say for the sake of argument that it's "less than 1%" as the former sergeant suggests (which sounds to me like a made-up number), and let's reduce it further to fewer than .25% of all cops. Going by DOJ law enforcement numbers, that's still over 2000 cops with the power of life or death in their hands.  If we cut in half, or even in quarter, I'd still have a problem with that.  Would you say it's okay to have even 500 gun-toting racists, idiots, or just fat guys with anger management issues and a license to kill? That's no Six-Sigma (the management philosophy meant to reduce defects to 3.4 in every million opportunities), and there are things police could do, and even things that we should reasonably expect them to do, that could help a great deal:

1) Undergo regular training on appropriate use of service weapons and physical restraint in the line of duty.  This should include regular physical examinations to be sure that police officers are able to apply the training.

2) Wear cameras and have cameras mounted in their cruisers to maintain a record that holds both them and citizens accountable.

3) Increase communication with the community and solicit feedback and discussion on law and safety issues that are mutually important.

If I were a police officer, I'd want these things: insufficient training is as likely as anything else to get an officer killed or injured in the line of duty (and in fact, far more police officers die due to preventable accidents than due to "felonious" acts), wearing a camera protects officers who are upholding the law in a legal manner from frivolous lawsuits and media scorn, and many urban police departments are undergoing high level PR crises, so having civil and productive conversations with the citizens seems like it'd be in everyone's best interest.

But that's just what I think off the top my head. I don't think this chain letter presents much by way of a solution or an argument against training, so much as it takes offense at government officials' suggestion that more training might be effective in reducing the number of these situations.  This is a complex issue.  Taking any one group or individuals to task for their role isn't particularly productive.  I know that the overwhelming majority of officers serve out of a sense of duty to the greater good, and I respect them for that commitment, just as I respect teachers, firefighters, social workers, and our military; however, that does not mean that police are above reproach, nor that we don't have a responsibility to ensure that our system does as much as possible to protect those they serve, as well as those with the fewest privileges.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Against Inconsistent Typography Pendantry

Several years ago, I participated in an online forum that discussed the topic of spaces after a period.  That the “tradition” of putting two spaces after a period, as befit monotype font on typewriters, had become anachronistic thanks to font-creators for computers factoring in some extra space after the period to make up for it.  I argued that I preferred the two spaces, not because I argued against that, but for aesthetic and philosophical reasons; paragraphs get a break and an indentation, so why not give sentences a little extra breathing room to acknowledge their individuality?

Since then I’ve continued to put two spaces after the period, though a pedantic Slate article ensured that nearly everyone knows the historical basis for putting two spaces after a period, and as a result more and more people are eager to share this with me when I send an email or send a memo.  I’ve always been of the opinion that in this and other formatting peccadilloes, such as citation style, it’s more important to be consistent than to be pedantic.  Still, in more and more pieces of writing, I find myself only using one space. I still don’t feel as though the amount of space that has been allotted after the period automatically by programmers is sufficient, but I bow before the march of progress, and only continue my iconoclastic behavior in my poetry, where really anything goes.

Recently though, I wrote up a memo and sent it my supervisor for suggestions/edits and found that she had corrected another of my consistent punctuation patterns: when I use quotation marks, I put the punctuation outside the marks, unless the punctuation is part of the quote.  For example

I can’t believe that Jeff said, “punctuation always belongs inside quotes”!

It seems to me that by necessity, the exclamation goes outside the quotes: it’s my emphasis and putting it inside the quotes could make it appear that this was Jeff’s emphasis, when Jeff probably said this very casually.  I think that sort of issue makes the best case, but I’d also put the comma after the quotes in more basic grammatical situations, such as:

Americans put punctuation within quotes, according to supposed “rules”, but in fact there’s no reason to do so, and plenty reason not too.

This is a typographical peccadillo that comes up periodically, and appears to be yet another formatting topics where England, and Commonwealth countries such as Canada employ one technique, and the USA tends toward another.  I would have considered this akin to other topics, such as alternate spellings like “labor” and “labour”, where ultimately both are acceptable, and consistency is most important.  Honestly, I don’t know if my choice to put punctuation outside of the quotes is a result of having been raised by Canadian parents, or if, like two-spaces after a period, it just felt right.  To me, it seems obvious that the only thing that belongs inside a quote are the units of punctuation that are a part of that quotation. Partly it’s a philosophical issue, and in many cases it increases clarity, rather than creating confusion, which ought be the role of grammar and proper punctuation.

As to the title, ultimately it’s the inconsistent standards applied to punctuation that gets to me.  The pedants rail again those who use two-spaces after a period, occasionally on a scientific  basis (two spaces slows down reading: I think that’s a good thing and as it should be, but I’m apparently in the minority), and most often by trotting out the explanation about how this is an outdated practice, leftover from the time of typewriters.  

But the fact is that the American convention around placing punctuation within quotation marks is even more outdated than clinging to conventions from the days of typewriters, and instead dates all the way back to type-setting, when according to the CCC Foundation, the “.” and “,” were the most fragile metal-bits of type, and printers were worried that the piece of type may break away from the body of text, and be dented or ruined if they had the wider “”” on their right-hand side.  Therefore, printers began placing the smaller punctuation within the quotation, as means of protecting the type.  

This means that even once we began using typewriters, this convention was outdated, and doubly so in the digital age.  Unfortunately, the alt.english.usage FAQ that the CCC Foundation links to as proof of this historical basis is dead, and I have been unable to find another reference to this origin. Still, even if this story is apocryphal, the logic of not putting punctuation in quotations should win out. Even though the status quo is unlikely to change and I may still have my quotation/punctuation corrected, I will continue my current typographical practice.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Equality for All, and Compassion for Allies Who Need a Little Help Expressing Support

At last night's Oscars' Patricia Arquette received the award for her performance in Boyhood, and used the podium as an opportunity to highlight the need for equal pay for women saying, "It's our time to have wage equality once and for all, and equal rights for women", resulting in re-tweets and love across the internet.  Unfortunately, when she was asked to elaborate on that proclamation, her follow-up left some subtlety and understanding of ongoing issues to be desired.  She said

"So the truth is, even though we sort of feel like we have equal rights in America, right under the surface, there are huge issues that applied that really do affect women.  And it's time for all the women in America and all the men that love women, and all the gay people, and all the people of color that we've all fought for to fight for us now."

First, I'm not sure who, besides religious watchers of Fox News believe that the laws that are meant to give us equal rights are actually getting the job done, and following the events in Ferguson, I think anything that was below the surface is not.  Whether the attention has provoked the right actions remains to be seen, and I think is doubtful.  But I think the language everyone's really keying into is how Arquette has asked "gay people" and "people of color" "to fight for us now". 

Pundits leaning to the far right of the political spectrum have already chimed in to tear Arquette down for raising this issue at all.  Just look at Stacey Dash saying she was “appalled” by Arquette’s comments.  Meanwhile, more distressingly, at the same time pundits on the right dismiss her comments as too left leaning, those on the left of the political spectrum have fallen over themselves to tweet, write articles, and in other ways tear down, or "attack" Arquette for flubbing her followup comments and implying positions that any . In the same way that Stacey Dash suggests that equal pay for women is not something that needs more attention because of the Equal Pay Act of 1963, Arquette seems to exclude gay women and women of color from the pool of women fighting for pay equality, as well as imply that since gay rights and the civil rights of people of color have received a lot of attention in the past year, that those struggles are "done" so all those people should now turn their attention to women. While that implication is troubling (and to my mind, patently false), I don't think what she implied was what she meant, or that what was implied are beliefs she actually has.

 Instead I think this is a symptom of an actor, who possesses earnest intentions, yet is not a scholar of equality issues, and flubbed an unprepared follow-up statement.  Not that Arquette believes that the issues of race, gender, and sexuality in our country have been "fixed", though almost certainly her comments demonstrate that she could use a more nuanced understanding of equality issues so she can frame her advocacy better. At the same time I think people who feel they understand these issues better need to be careful and empathetic in how we address that shortcoming.  

So it troubles me that in Dave Zirin’s response to Arquette’s poorly framed words, he sets his concerns up by saying “part of me is very hesitant to attack an actor I deeply respect”.  To me the liberal response to Arquette's words has felt a little too much like twitter-shaming, and I'm reminded of the article on Justine Sacco's tweet that Jon Ronson wrote earlier this month.  It seems everyone fighting for justice is just a little too eager to jump on people, even people who are really allies, who simply need more education to be better allies.  How about keeping the respect and ditching the “attack”? Far too much of what I’ve seen of the coverage of Arquette’s comments has been about people’s frustration and anger or desire to “correct” and “revise” Patricia Arquette’s words or attack her as a person.  Even if she didn't get things quite right last night, it's clear that she's aware of the struggles gay women and women of color face.  As she confirmed implicitly by the latest posts on her twitter account, what her quote seemed to imply is not what she meant.

Over at Slate, Amanda Marcotte even goes so far as to say that Arquette's words are "bad for the cause".  How can anything that generates as much press and discussion, on twitter, in articles, on facebook, and other places about feminism and equal rights, such as Patricia Arquette's words be considered bad for the cause?  It strikes me that what's really bad for the cause is the rush to berate and belittle and name call people who are clearly allies, but are not as well-informed and well-spoken about these issues.  

I think we can acknowledge that, even if she did not do it in the best way, or if her comments bear clarification, Arquette is worthy of praise for using the platform that winning an Oscar gave her to address an important social justice issue.  Rather than taking a caustic approach to Arquette’s comments, I think this provides us with a wonderful opportunity to address and properly frame the dire need for equal pay for all, and highlight other struggles for equality.  

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Against Unemployed Poetry, and other musings

I've got a gap in publications this month since DecomP is waiting to publish until December, but I've got poetry and writing on the brain and thought I'd share some thoughts. . . Years ago at a library book sale, I picked up a copy of Clement Wood’s “The Complete Rhyming Dictionary” written almost 100 years ago.  It begins like this:

The desire to write poetry, or at least acceptable verse, is almost universal.  The achievement of this desire may be gained by anyone without excessive effort.

I’m not sure what acceptable verse is, and I’m sure I don’t write it, but I do consider myself a poet, and most things I’ve written have likely been the result of excessive effort. And I’ve considered myself a “poet” for many years.  Long before I knew what the job of a poet is. 

I still don’t know what it is, but I think while writing rhymes may be relatively straightforward, Wood was wrong about the effort.  Poetry is a job.  The job description is constantly changing, and to be a poet you must at least wonder about it.  You must be working in service of that job every time you write.  The job often encompasses other actions.  Usually to chase/woo, sometimes to capture, other times to maim, occasionally to kidnap.  Often, a poem starts with whimsy, and ends in enlightenment.  Sometimes it ends in a satisfying confusion.  That’s a hard job to do. Don’t write a poem if it’s not at least trying to do a job.  “To essay” is to try, and even poetry has the word “try” in it.  This is not to imply that fiction doesn’t try, though sometimes I wonder; instead, let me just say, that there’s little worse in literary terms than an unemployed poem.

At the same time, I refer to the work I send off as “prose poetry”.  There’s a proud tradition in literature of no one knowing the job of prose poetry.  Sometimes it’s narrative nonfiction.  Often, as in the case of the “godfather of the prose poem”, Russell Edson, it operates in the territory of tiny surreal fictions, as if Italo Calvino had followed up Invisible Cities with increasingly strange and small locations: invisible towns, invisible neighborhoods, invisible homes, and barely opaque kitchens.  Meanwhile, in the last 10 years or so “flash fiction” has taken off.  So what’s the difference? 

Judging by Russell Edson and myself, the boundaries are somewhat porous. First, characters in prose poetry are archetypes: the father, the woman, the daughter, the steam engine.  In flash fiction they almost always have names, like “Jeff”.  Flash fiction *tends* to have a more realist edge, and realists demand names for things.  Additionally, flash fiction, by informal survey of guidelines, is “500 words or less”.  I rarely crest 150 words.  I have a few pieces that go to nearly a full page, and quite frankly, these feel too long to me.  So maybe I write nano fiction or micro fiction.  To this I say “no”.  Why? Because I am a poet, and we are prone to flimsy presumptions reached after staring at the crabapples fermenting beneath a tree in October, after having just finished a full bottle of sake, that we could ill afford.  Li Po did it.

But I’ve thought deeply about the effort and job of poetry, and there’s a little more to it than writing acceptable verse, swooning at the unutterable glory of nature, describing our unique deep dark pits, or even telling very strange stories.  Instead of taking Clement Woods’ advice, take mine:

1. Lines make poets lazy.  The meaning is not in the lines.  The form of the poem must follow its function, or it’s job.  If the poem is meant to house something, its lines cannot be arranged haphazardly like a game of pick-up sticks, unless it is a poem about a game of pick-up sticks.

2. Rhyme is either for those committed to “forms”, i.e. not prose poetry, or for doggerel.  There are many beautiful poems written in forms, and occasionally I turn to form as an exercise, though usually the sonnet in question transforms into a prose poem on the first full moon, and never goes back.

3. Everything needs rhythm.  A poem that pays no attention to rhythm is not a poem. Any writing that pays no attention to rhythm might as well be a shareholder’s report or the Terms and Conditions that we blithely agree to.  Someone has to write all that, and virtually no one ever reads it.  I imagine everyone who writes Terms and Conditions is a failed poet, and I’m sorry for them.

4. The number 13 has died a noisy death, unless your poem is about bar mitzvahs.  Do not write a “13 ways of. . .” poem.  That’s the buzzfeed click-bait of poetry.  Wallace Stevens may have been a prophet, but 13 is not holy.   It may just so happen that you think best in groups of 13… I believe I’ve heard of this disorder somewhere, but please find another title to your poem. Shakespeare never titled his work, and now they’re known by there first line.  That’s what a title is to me.  It’s a bud, or a stunted first line.  Or a job title, while the poem is the job description.

5. In 8th grade, suddenly, everyone’s favorite word was “defenestrate”.  It’s okay, I guess.  My favorite word is “galvanize”.  Or “dotage”.  Or “wooly”.  I use the word “genuinely” a lot when I talk, but never in poetry.  Why not? You must choose the right words, but fine words genuinely do not make a poem.  These days, I try to write poetry that an inquisitive 12 year old could read; mostly simple words, with a couple that an adolescent may look up in a dictionary.  Here are some words it is time to ban from poetry: vellum, pomegranate, persimmon, fate, infinity, [and] ephemeris.

6. Okay, so we shouldn’t ban words.  You may be writing about a persimmon orchard.  But let me just say, the sky is not cerulean, nor is that swimming pool, or “her eyes”.  Few words infuriate me like “cerulean”.  About 10 years ago everyone discovered it, like “defenestrate” in 8th grade.  The swimming pool is cobalt, the sky azure, and her eyes are kyanite.  But whether cerulean or cyan, the job of poetry is not to introduce precocious 12 year olds to fancy words, it is to use the best words. For fancy words they can try the Oxford English Dictionary, David Foster Wallace, or PSAT study guides.

7. The order is more important than the words.  Don’t just know your tone.  Know your syntax.  Know the rules of grammar and punctuation, and then, if you must, make your own.  That said, there’s never a reason for double commas or triple semi-colons.  There’s plenty of exotic and wild punctuation out there: lure it in and put it to use.  Personally, I’d like to see more emoticons/emoji in poetry.  Nabokov advocated for emoticons, and if he didn’t turn his nose up at it, well then ¯\_()_/¯.

8. Writing the narrative of a personal experience? Why aren’t you writing an essay? What job are lyrics and line breaks doing that an essay wouldn’t?  Know the answer.  If you don’t know the answer you are probably writing florid and lazy nonfiction.  You have just created another unemployed poem.  The unemployment rate of poetry is unacceptably high.  There’s no safety net for unemployed poems.  If they don’t work they just contribute to national poetic deficit.  Everyone’s poem can work; sometimes they just need to consider a new job.  Like poets.

9. I’d rather not identify what I write as flash fiction, prose poetry, or even poetry.  I’d rather my work were tossed into the waters of a literary journal, and then classified according to the ripples it makes.  Fiction floats.  Nonfiction sinks.  Poetry lilly-dips.  Prose poetry obeys its own rules.  It bounces on water, then bobs.  It expands to fill the space.  It spreads like oil. It sinks ships, and before they drown, the sailors thank it.