Monday, July 30, 2007

Jersey Writing Stuff (Non-Fiction)

Newspapers may be going the way of the mammoth, but I happen to live in a zone with a pretty good one. What's more, the columnists of my local Newark Star-Ledger are beginning to establish a credible presence in the 'sphere.

Stephen Whitty, the terrific film reviewer and columnist who has read for the Spoken Word Series, has always been very interactive with his readers, but now has a blog that accelerates those interactions into a real dialog. I'm not as much of a filmgoer as I used to be (though that's starting to change as the kids become suitable viewing partners), but I find his reviews extremely well-crafted and enjoyable even when all I know of a movie is its television hype. His profiles of film stars are great reading.

It helps to be interested in NJ politics, but even if you're not you'll appreciate the craft in Paul Mulshine's columns and now in his blog. Mulshine is a devout Parrothead (if a non-member of the following may be permitted to use the word) and defender of the sanity and responsibility of the individual in NJ, and his essays are infused with cultural, political, and personal insight.

They're not blogging -- yet -- but the columns of Kathleen Shea and Kathleen O'Brien (the Jersey one, not the Texas one or any of the others that lurk beneath the surface of Google search) are available at the site, and if you're not as fortunate as I to live within their circulations, I really encourage you to stop by. The former Kathleen's Bad Mother Reports have a tremendous following (ardent enough to get people to a reading in Hoboken who had never attended a live reading OR been to Hoboken!), and she's great fun to work with. The latter can wander anywhere from behavioral evolution in society to next-stall celluar etiquette. Wait, that's pretty much the same thing, isn't it?

I have been tending toward non-fiction (the historical sort) in most of my non-poetry leisure reading for about a year, and I've really come to appreciate good practitioners (because there are some awful ones - particularly executing parenting and 20th century history books). These four writers are consistently good, entertaining and insightful, and I recommend them, their still-fine newspaper, and their burgeoning web presences to you.

Next up: Weighing in on the weight of the comics. Sneak preview: The only rational argument also applies to editing an anthology or your own manuscript.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Welcome, Diane!

Diane Lockward - excellent poet, organizer of one of the best poetry events in NJ, and generous supporter of the writing communities she has helped develop through her teaching - has joined the blogosphere.

She was reluctant at first, noting: "I resisted in the past, thinking blogging was perhaps a waste of time and perhaps a bit self-indulgent. Maybe it is. But I've also realized lately that a blog is a good way of joining the larger community of poets."

I think she's right on all counts. And I'm sure she will have something to add to the mix.

Coincidentally, Poetic Asides chose this week to post an excerpt from the 2008 Poet's Market interview with 5 poet-bloggers with some guidance on how poets might want to approach blogging. The good news is, their list contains at least one piece of advice to support just an any approach Diane (or any of us!) should choose.

Please welcome Diane with a visit. The link is to your right.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Publishers, Is This What You Really Think of Fathers?

OK. I have come to accept that the "Poetry" section in most commercial bookstores is going to contain the works of Jewel, Shakespeare, Maya Angelou, and two local authors. But I also accept that - for the most part - contemporary poetry is a limited-appeal art form and a bit of an acquired taste. As a pledge to the fraternity of the word, I feel comfortable admitting this aloud.

But parenting? Is there really an acquired taste for being a good parent? An attentive spouse and caregiver? My local paper recently ran a microreview - a positive microreview - of something called "Dad's Own Housekeeping Book" (Link deliberately omitted). Author David Bowers is a stay-at-home Dad and in general seems to be a creator of useful books, and I hope he won't take this personally, but:

Oh, please.

I'm sure it's filled with useful advice (to be fair, I'm reacting to the review, not the book), but how many more books do we need that assume male parents haven't progressed past Ricky Ricardo? The publisher's description of the book (via opens with "Just because you’re born with a “Y” chromosome doesn’t excuse you from cleaning the bathroom, especially in this day and age when time’s at a premium and partners have to be, well, partners." Excuse me, but which of us knuckle-dragging cavemen in the 45 and under category hasn't been living this since we first dropped to one knee?

Maybe my ire is misdirected. What I'm really aggravated about is when friends anticipating their first blessed event turn to me for resources (knowing my first approach to just about anything is to acquire baseline knowledge and the right vocabulary), and I have just the one suggestion: Armin Brott. Don't get me wrong - Brott's books are pretty good, and I learned much from each of them (except for some of the deliberate redundancies of Father for Life). But are these really the only books available that don't assume that we (fathers) are stupid, reluctant, incompetent, depressed, belligerent, or some appalling combination of these? Maybe I'm missing the forest here, but for every "Be Prepared: A Practical Handbook for New Dads", I see 6 "Keeping the Baby Alive till Your Wife Gets Home: The Tough New 'how-to' for 21st Century Dads". I mean, even the (presumably) well-intentioned anthology Fatherhood displays a dismal lack of awareness by including Plath's "Daddy". I'm not looking for pollyanish, sunshine-and-saccharine treatments, just ones that don't think me an imbecile, a jerk, or a monster. Isn't there market for a book about caring, positive, literate fathering experience?

Are there good books out there I just haven't found? Or is this my call to arms? Or, more accurately, to pencils?

Thursday, July 19, 2007

RIP Sekou Sundiata

I am very surprised at the degree to which reading of Sekou Sundiata'a passing struck me just now, and I'm trying to understand it. I was introduced to his work at the first Dodge festival I attended, and I had a chance last year to sit in on a couple of his smaller events. People have been referring to him as a "performance poet", and he certainly was that - in his craft discussion, he mentioned that he tended to want to produce a CD, not a book, when he was compiling his poems. But when I asked him what might be different about writing for the ear as opposed to the page (which is how I interpreted his comment), he gently pushed back on my assumption. He clearly wanted his work to be an experience in print or in person - an event no matter how it was encountered - he just seemed to think of the CD as the way he would present the work first.

He had a quiet but forceful presence at the microphone, the kind that for me that makes clear the distinction between confidence and arrogance. Arrogance says "I have had these experiences and I know things better than you and I will tell you them now. Sit down and listen." Confidence says "I have had these experiences and I'm going to talk for a while now. You might want to listen." His presence was augmented by a great set of pipes - the kind of effortless bass that baritones with aspirations of C like me can't help but envy.

I've been looking for links to audio files of some of what he presented in his Dodge appearances so I can talk more about how he adjusted his work in real time, and how the crowd began to create our own rhythms in response to his, but I can't find them. Maybe later.

In the meantime, here are a few links. If you never heard him speak, find some audio below and give a listen. You won't be disappointed. I'm going to go stick Longstoryshort in the player and close my eyes.

Some links:

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Expanding Your Sources

I came to my current marginlly serious approach to writing by a circuitous path. While I've always played with words (my earliest "serious" effort being a novella penned in the fourth grade about a villanous plot to make Mars invisible to the Earth for nebulous and never-detailed nefarious purposes). But I was always more active as both participant and practitioner in other art forms. I've been a chorus and band performer in since first grade, played the accordion since the 4th (more bands, but as a serious solo for the first time, acted in and directed plays and conducted musicals since high school, and devoured books of all genres for as long as I can remember - including those 4 glorious summer of commuting into Manhattan, where I averaged 2 books a week (one I particularly remember was Ed Koch's Mayor - not to date myself or anything...).

My point is this: my poetry today is heavily influenced by sources other than poetry. If you surf the body of my work, you'll of course find weak echoes of
Stevens, Frost and Williams, and some more contemprary influences as well. But you might also detect the influence of Loesser's lyrics, any number of prose authors of any period (Twain, Bradbury and Zelazny, to form one non-obvious group), and one I'm often surprised to find myself turning toward, Woody Allen.

If you only know Allen from his movies (or worse, from his more recent, more average movies), you are avoiding the company of brilliance. He has a new book of essays out, his first since 1980, which I'm going to pounce on this week.


Having always been enjoyed books, plays, and movies in that order, I first came upon Allen in a copy of Side Effects stolen out of my Uncle Frank's bedroom when I was 13. That copy has since been stolen from me, which makes a sort of sense. But I still have my Without Feathers, which has any number of examples of how all great writing has elements that poets can learn from.

Excellent poems are often built around phrasing which is both unexpected and perfect. As in this line, opening "The Early Essays (On Seeing a Tree in Summer)": "Of all the wonders of nature, a tree in summer is perhaps the most remarkable, with the possible exception of seeing a moose sing "Embraceable You" in spats".

What I love about that line is how it starts in ordinaryness (banality, even), and wrenches you to someplace completely different and unanticipated. We can debate whether it's funny (I know, Mother, I know), but there's no debating its originality and craft.

Another example: Allen's names are designed to dive through the ear and create tangible and complete characters by the end of the sentences in which they are introduced. Names like "Sir Osgood Mulford Twelge" and "Kaiser Lupowitz" seem to come with headshots attached.

The point is that Allen is brilliant at dropping you someplace you could not have anticipated. It may not be taking the top of your head off, but remember what Mr. Allen had to say about another of Ms. Dickinson's quotes: "How wrong Emily Dickinson was! Hope is not "the thing with feathers". The thing with feathers has turned out to be my nephew. I must take him to that specialist in Zurich."

NOTE: All quotes are from Woody Allen's Without Feathers, 1975 edition. Also stolen from my Uncle Frank.

Sunday, July 08, 2007

I don't know how long they've been around, but Writer's Digest has a number of pretty active blogs now. Seems the poetry one is pretty new, with posts from Nancy Breen and Robert Lee Brewer from the WD Books cast list. I discovered Poetic Asides through a comment made over at Jeannine's place and visited with some trepidation. I gave up on WD a little over a year ago, when it became clear to me that their opinion of meaningful poetry content wasn't aligning with mine (also when Nancy Kress's contributions became less frequent).

It's early, of course (though relative posting rates being what they are, Poetic Asides will have reached the word count of this humble establishment before summer's end), but I think it shows some promise. I think anyone who frequents one or more of the poet's blogs at right will find the content a little light at first (the concept of the spam prompt, for example, are quite old to established poet-bloggers), but remember these blogs aren't for the established "blogosphere", they're for WD aficionados learning what blogs are and are not, what they are capable of and who they can reach.

Which leads me to a question. Many of us began the discovery our voices through relentless imitation. Some of those imitations must have, at times, found a way to an audience (publication, workshop, friend-of-a-friend), and that audience may not have recognized the imitation. For example, a good hunk of my early work aspires to be After Apple-picking or Birches. But a good hunk of my "immediate audience", having a knowledge of Frost that ended at the edge of the woods, therefore learned of the original through my works. Is that bad? Does it mean my work is less meaningful? Less useful? Sure, to one "schooled in the art" my work brought nothing new, but for some people, my work was the key to deeper knowledge of Frost. And to me, those same poems were the apprentice work that helped me hone my sense of rhythm, of sound, of line, etc. that have become something of my own voice.

So: Imitation of the past greats: good or bad? Useful? If so, to whom? Does it deserve positive, negative, or no attention from those who discover it? Enthusiastically joining the blog party without deep, knowledge of what earlier-arriving guests brought with them: good or bad? Useful? If so, to whom? Does it deserve positive, negative, or no attention from those who discover it?

My answer: Poetic Asides may bring new readers the long way around to the places Ron Silliman et al have been working in for years. It will definitely add a new voice, even while it searches through what came before looking for a place to settle in.

(Quick aside, poets only): first submission in almost 2 years went out yesterday. Got any luck you feel like sharing?

(Another quick aside, SF fans only): If you haven't already, go read the July Asimov's - Nancy Kress's novella is terrific.

(Final quick aside: computer nerds only): Any idea why Blogger is resisting accepting a title for this post?

Wednesday, July 04, 2007


Independence from a tyrannical June, that is. A difficult month for a number of reasons which, for tradition's sake, I will not detail here. So. Draw a little picket fence (which is what we used do to between frames of a really bad line of bowling to indicate a fresh start - when we kept score with pencils, that is. Remember those terrific overhead scoring "systems" where you wrote with a nice soft pencil on an acetate and projected it overhead? But I digress...) and let's start this blog new.

Spent Independence Day at the Grover Cleveland Birthplace for their annual 4th of July Ice Cream Social. They really do a nice job - aside from the freezer for the ice cream and the guy on playing Mala Femmena on the synthesizer, they provide you the experience of a party they way it would have been when Cleveland was a boy. My kids rolled hoops, played marbles, enjoyed the game o graces, and dressed up in time-appropriate garb. A delightful afternoon overall.

During my hiatus (which clearly began long before I declared it here), it's occurred to me that I may be a sort of Ed Sullivan as regards the poetry world. After 20 years on and off and 6 years of serious pursuit, I'm confident to say that - even if my career someday shows me to be a B+ practitioner of the art myself - I have a good ear and sense of the craft, have realized some terrific luck recruiting some really fine poets to read in my series in Hoboken, have had some success "discovering" artists in some way. Case in point: the pairing of poet John J. Trause with painter Michael Filan in our Visible Word event. When the fruit of your ideas is good enough to get picked up by objective third parties, you gain a little confidence. And I am just as pleased to see my idea flourish in recognition for other artists as I am to have my own words recognized; in my mind this is one of the things that distinguishes managers and mentors. If you will: Confidence in the skills, independence from the ego.

Speaking of which, I won't have time this year for the annual watching of William Daniels' wonderful portrayal of John Adams in 1776. Good thing I have it memorized.