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.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Self-Promotion: New Homes for Poems

Last year, after submitting to literary journals at a fairly steady rate, I stopped.  Partly, I was exhausted.  Submitting is relatively easy, though it can be a pain to reformat submission after submission, but mostly it's the waiting.  Two days to a rejection with no explanation.  Four months to hear from an editor that several readers liked it, but then decided it wasn't for them.  Additional work sent to editors who praised a submission, but requested something slightly different, only to take six months to reject it with zero feedback.  Sometimes, an editor or readers likes a piece enough to accept it.  Sometimes they like a few.

As it turned out, I was just successful enough, so that I only had a handful of poems left, and most of them, even the ones I loved, felt a little stale.  Like a marshmallow.  Still good for roasting, and sort of pleasant in its chewiness, but not always the best kind.  So last year I started going to the Boston Public Library in Copley Square to write, and did not submit at all: I ended the year with a sack of new poems, ready for s'mores (or some other confusing metaphor).  Then I began to submit, and racked up a handful of acceptances, usually a combination of fresh and the old, chewy ones.

In just the last week I've had pieces in three fine places.  Perhaps you find yourself here, because you found me in one. In any case, thanks to BOAAT Press, Pretty Owl Poetry, and Storyacious for providing homes for my poems, and to Boaat and Storyacious for the nifty illustrations! Paper Darts, who published a few of my pieces a couple years ago, still takes the cake for best accompanying artwork, but I do like when journals provide you with additional stimulation.

Here they are:

BOAAT - Unexpected Delays and Small Comfort
The food court is a desert, undergoing renovations, and the fast food burger chain has run out of Happy Meals. Instead, they are selling Tragedy Meals...

Pretty Owl Poetry - Strange Shores and Memories of Water
A man’s head was filled with water. In summery months it teemed with glittering fish-like thoughts that he’d lure with the subtle bait of meditation...

Storyacious - Lightbringers
They kept their angel chained to a post in the subdivision. Its song was so beautiful, all the birds left town in shame...

Stay tuned for more publications and random musings in October!

Thursday, August 28, 2014

#Don'tShoot: Hip-hop All Stars Come Together on Track for Ferguson

At first when I saw the lineup on this track I was psyched. I love Curren$y, who constantly releases free music with chill lyrics and great production and have downloaded mixtapes from some of the other contributors, but when I stopped to think about it, the whole thing seems just a tad hypocritical: some of these rappers have songs that boast about violence and guns.  Check out Yo Gotti's lyrics on World War III (yes, I suppose this could be taken as an anti-establishment song, but it's a stretch), or Rick Ross on, well any Rick Ross track every, but here's one that also features the Game.

Their heart may be in the cause, but have they taken the time to think about the meaning behind their lyrics? I'm not so sure, when the intro to the song starts "Rest in peace, Mike Brown, and all the young soldiers out there".  The "young soldiers" reference refers to an aspect of drug and street culture that doesn't seem productive in this conversation.  Mike Brown was not carrying a gun and he was not a soldier, and referring to him in this way seems like the perpetuation of an unfortunate stereotype.

The Game's quote in this Rolling Stone article is moving and thoughtful, and I'd like to see that as opportunity for some of the hardest rappers in hip-hop to come together and discuss the effect of their lyrical discourse, as it pertains to violence, sexism, and drug use on American culture and today's youth.  What do they want their children and hip-hop fans to emulate? This song may be a one-off, but it'd be great if this could get the ball rolling on some more anti-violence pro-political lyrics.

In any case, the proceeds from the song go to the fund for Justice for Mike Brown, so I'll probably buy it here.  Then again, self-awareness is critical.  It kind of makes me want to skip the song, donate to Justice for Mike Brown, and then listen to "Hard to Earn" on repeat:

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Women's Equality Day

As a counter-balance to last week's post, I just wanted to share this image from National Women's Law Center.  The catcalling debate and differing opinions and how they affect women's rights and safety are important to discuss, but we must also increase awareness of the many inequalities women still experience that are much more insidious and strangely attract less attention:

Friday, August 22, 2014

Caterwauling About Catcalling. . .

This article, provocatively titled Hey, Ladies--Catcalls Are Flattering! Deal With It, by Doree Lewak, a writer for the NY Post, has been making the rounds on Facebook and generating a lot of conversation.  Some people think it’s a joke, satire a la the Onion, others agree, but the most vocal group seems to be utterly enraged and contemptuous.  While I don't think ladies should have to just "Deal With It", I don't think the rage and contempt that's being directed at this piece is reasonable either.  Of course, unwanted male behavior can be threatening and uncomfortable; however, I think one key point the author makes is the distinction between relatively tame compliments (enjoyed) and x-rated lewdness (inappropriate harassment).

Meanwhile, the comment section is distressing, with many questioning her mental health or asking her how she'll feel when one of those men rapes her. The author is expressing a personal opinion; she identifies opposing opinions, but does not make a value judgement.

Instead, she carefully delineates why she does not experience catcalls in the same way, and explains what actions she takes and reactions she enjoys as a result. Is the enjoyment of a little PG-13 rated exhibitionism and titillation really that deserving of our contempt? How is expressing outrage at this significantly different from slut-shaming?

In the text of the op-ed she never addresses how she thinks other women should feel, just how she feels. The worst jab she makes is at the "sanctimonious... young women of Vassar". I take this in the same usually playful spirit as articles that reference "patchouli-soaked hippies at Oberlin", i.e. not that seriously, and she's not in fact telling them they should get over catcalling and enjoy it, just that they shouldn't roll their eyes at her for her enjoyment.

Really the most unreasonable part of the article is the title, which generalizes, and is the only confrontational part: I wonder if she wrote it, or if that's a little tabloid-style treat NYP added to rile people up and generate traffic (in which case, it worked!).  Then again, put this in the context of the titles and topics of some of Lewak's other journalism [some titles truncated[: "Nudists Fight Nude Beach Ban By Getting Naked", "Best Celebrity Tweets about 'Sharknado 2'", "Can You Spot a Gold Digger", "Mother Daughter Duos Party Until 4am" etc...

Denizens of the internet: have you ever dressed to impress and solicit male (or female, though that's obviously different) attention and comments?  Or is all catcalling categorically bad and attempts to solicit it a sign that people weren't loved correctly as children?

Postscript Added: I've never catcalled, aside from people I know, and I think cat-callers need to be cognizant of how they are perceived and respect peoples' boundaries (which should almost always result in nothing being said). That said, once you take the title off, the editorial is composed almost entirely of "I" and "me" statements. It doesn't tell other women to "get over it", say "you should enjoy it", or that it's "not a big deal", though I'll admit it's troubling when she asks "What’s so wrong about a “You are sexy!” comment from any observant man?" Obviously, there can be plenty wrong with that. One could also ask the over-arching question of why this op-ed is necessary at all, particularly in a culture where most men think they have a free-pass for bad behavior, and it's possible this was intended purely as click-bait. But I also don't think anyone who actively enjoys attention when dressing-sexy should be vilified for expressing that opinion, and that's the gut reaction I'm seeing most.
Additional Postscript Added: I've heard from a number of people who didn't want to comment on the blog that there are other issues with this op-ed and that there are in fact several places where it's prescriptive to how other women should feel and the ethics of street harassment:

"The wolf whistles that follow will send your ego soaring."
"It’s as primal as it gets, ladies! ... It’s not brain science — when a total stranger notices you, it’s validating."
"What’s so wrong about a “You are sexy!” comment from any observant man?"

The latter I caught, but in context with the others, they put the piece in a different light.  Still, I largely wanted to discuss this, not because I agree with Lewak's assessment or what she's advocating, but because of the comments that followed the piece, many by woman (or posters using female-gendered profile names) suggesting that she'd be singing a different tune once she was raped, or even that she that she deserved to be raped for encouraging the catcalls: to me that gets dangerously close, or is nearly identical to the "if she didn't want it she shouldn't have dressed that way" line.  That seems a worse than the article, though to be fair, the article has significantly farther reach. The other side, of why this article should not be celebrated and does not add to a positive discourse about this topic has, fortunately, been captured in some more nuanced posts in the comments board under the article.  The best of which I've seen was posted by "Alexis":

“I think that unfortunately for those who can appreciate a less aggressive catcall, myself included, giving up small moments of flattery to set a standard that protects ourselves and other women from the potential for harassment should be a small price to pay. It's all about consent, after all, and we need to establish standards for behaviour where consent for the many is not assumed based on the actions of a few.”

Friday, July 11, 2014

Don't Go Too Bananas. . .

From Wikipedia, Taken by Timothy Walker
Recently Health Digest, a Health/Wellness Website with nearly 2 million likes on Facebook, shared a post entitled “Banana for Breakfast Anyone???”  I love a good banana.  Or banana bread.  Or a banana split, so when my first friend shared it, I read it with interest.  Bananas, I learned, were high in iron, great for constipation (getting rid of it), provided an instant boost of energy, and in a program at a Twickenham School in England, a school administrated, I assume, entirely by monkeys, students ate bananas at every meal and by the end of the year had confirmed the existence of the Higgs boson in the particle accelerator they built in their gym as an after school project.  Also, bananas, when inserted as a suppository, are a foolproof cure for the hiccups.

Okay, maybe I added some "facts" of my own at the end there, but while I’m no nutritionist, I am a researcher, and when I see that many un-cited claims, my first instinct is to check them out.  Once I started, all but the most obvious claims quickly unraveled.

For instance, the post claims that bananas are great for anemia because they’re high in iron, according to the Wikipedia entry, the average banana has 1% of your daily iron: hardly "high" in iron.  Though that’s for a medium-size banana.  Who knows how high it could go for a large banana?

Another claim suggests that a recent “survey” showed that people who ate a banana each day were less depressed “because bananas contain tryptophan”.  Most of the craze around Tryptophan is based on a 1986 Psychopharmacology study that showed doses of 1-15 grams helped situational insomnia: Livestrong says the average banana contains .011 grams of Tryptophan, so on average you'd need to eat about 100 bananas to get to the low end of that range level.

And yes, it has "FOUR TIMES" the protein of apple, but I'd hardly recommend replacing your whey protein with bananas, as you'd have to eat nearly 40 bananas to get to the RDA. 

While the post said nothing about this, I did learn that bananas are also relatively high in Magnesium (eat two!), a good source of Vitamin C (move over orange juice, it’s banana juice time) and even better source of Vitamin B-6, and I know from the constant barrage of energy drink advertisements that B vitamins make it possible for even relatively un-athletic somnolent adults to base-jump, BMX bike, and drive for 27 hours straight (I’ll double check these claims later).

The final stroke was when I looked into the details for the Twickenham School for Criminally Insane Monkeys in Rehabilitation (TSCIMR).  A banana at every meal?  What could have provoked a school to make that choice?  Searching for information about this experiment turned up nothing about what lead to it being conducted, or how it turned out, but it did emerge that despite the fact that the post said “this year”, the story about the Twickenham Experiment dates back at least to 2005, as does the original post, which was debunked on truthorfiction.com by Chiquita banana representative and has been reposted many times over the years, by some who refer to the email their aunt sent them, and by others who claim it as their own "research" (i.e. plaigirized).   Meanwhile, the claim about “a Twickenham school” (visit scenic Twickenham) is either a total fabrication, or the articles about their experiment are buried too deeply beneath all the different reposts of Bullsh*t About Bananas that it'd be too time consuming for me to find it in search results.  A search on scholar.google.com for Twickenham and bananas turned up nothing in the first 100 results that sounds remotely like this.

The best lies are built around shreds of truth, and so I wonder if in fact this banana post is one of the least questioned and most successfully propagated in the last decade.  While I wasn't able to find any proof the Twickenham Banana Experiment actually happened, some of the articles I found in Google Scholar even referenced the apocryphal study. The lesson, I guess, is that just because a webpage or Facebook page contains “Health” in its title, or has a lot of fans/likes doesn’t mean that they are even remotely responsible health professionals.  And that bananas are great as part of a well-balanced diet, but don’t expect it to solve all your health problems.  Though if you have the hiccups, please let me know how the suppository treatment goes.