Sunday, January 25, 2009

Readings and Writings and Readings

Reading (Definition 1)

I've been spending my free moments with Don Marquis' Archy and Mehitabel, and finding a great deal more there than I'd anticipated. I picked up a 1975 edition at Symposia, the wonderful second-hand bookstore that hosts the Spoken Word Series, and I've been taking it in a little at a time ever since. It has a great comic spine (as book purportedly written by a cockroach should), but there's a lot of satire to digest along the way. There's a great write-up on the book and the characters over at

Writings (vicarious)

One daughter has composed her first song. She's diddled about with melodies and such since she took up the piano, but this weekend she produced a mature lyric and melody with a solid pop-song structure to it. I helped a little to realize it as a two-handed piano piece (yes, accordionists can use our left hands, those of you informed enough to be skeptical of such), but this was hers. I've produced one song in several decades of trying, and my one wasn't as good as hers. She's also about 17 years ahead of my literary publication record. Good gravy, I couldn't be prouder. Jealous as all get-out, but just as proud.

Not to be outdone, one daughter (not the first) demonstrated another creative compositional ability I've coveted for years and never been good at - that musical improvisation known as scat singing. For all the time and occasional money I've invested in my musical capability over the years, improvisation is something that's consistently escaped me. Maybe it's true that we exist to serve the next generation. I could live with that.

Readings (Definition 2)

Having mentioned Symposia and the Spoken Word Series earlier, I should point out that we have Bob Rosenbloom and Edie Angelo this Sunday at 3PM in Hoboken. They are representing the estimable Somerset Poetry Group, which serves as the beacon and incubator to a surprising number of members of the NJ Poetry community. Rest assured, Cardinals fans, you can attend the reading and still make it home for kickoff. Steelers fans, too, of course.

Writings (continued)

My two manuscript-length projects are both at crossroads this month, for very different reasons. I think I've made a decision on one and a plan for the other, but I'm not sure enough to begin kicking it around out here in the front yard. Come around back in a few days and we'll what we've come to. If you come back on Sunday, bring wings and wear your Warner jersey. I'll be the one with the Troy Polavoodoo doll in my hands.

And in closing...

Cardinals 23, Steelers 16.

A man can dream, can't he?

Friday, January 09, 2009

Writing Your Own Reality?

"For all the guilt there is to go around in the "Angel at the Fence" debacle -- including the willful myopia of Rosenblat's champions and editors as well as the man himself -- a deeper blame may lie with an audience that demands so much treacle and sensationalism that apparently even the Holocaust requires narrative embellishment."

This from a good column this week by Meghan Daum, which explores why the need to brand a story "real" is so present today. I've been trying very hard to develop a position against this statement, but I can't; this is true of many readers. And readers of poetry, in particular.

Before Sharon Olds dropped the fourth wall and announced/admitted that much of the graphic detail in her poems is truthful to her own experience, she conducted an interview with Terry Gross for Fresh Air in which Gross - an experienced and literate interviewer, stated quite clearly that the assumed or expected truthfulness of the experience was part of her enjoyment of Olds' work. At last year's Dodge festival, most of the poets - at all levels of experience - felt the need to include the introductions to their poems a map to the parts of it that were true. How often is the first question we face after we present something to a new audience or share a new work with a trusted reader "Wow, when did that happen?"

I find that question intensely frustrating, not in the interaction with the reader, but in how it feeds my internal interaction - my fight with the editor in my head. I will always fictionalize to improve the poem and sacrifice the more "truthful" word for one which increases my satisfaction with the sound of the line. But, anticipating that first, itch-inducing question, I'll sometimes find myself wanting to sacrifice entire poems (bury them, neither share nor submit them) if I fear I'll have to explain away something that I wouldn't want assumed true about me.

This, of course, is self-limiting, and is part of the reason I'm a B+ poet. And I don't say that with any self-pity. In any endeavor where you're not willing to fully give yourself over to the effort, you cannot achieve the highest performance. It's true for professional/career development, for creating art, for snagging line drives at third base - everywhere. Alignment of the level of your ambition with the level of your investment is the key to satisfaction, and to realistic expectation. I know what I invest in my art. I know what I should expect of that investment.

And what of the C- audience? I've always been one to believe the artist must reach out the audience, that the elements of craft applied must engage not only those who understand them, but also those who cannot. But I have also always believed that the audience member must make an effort to engage the art, that there is an expectation - and a fair one - that the reader/listener/viewer bring enough energy to their engagement with the art to develop an informed opinion. Bring your own rules, and don't worry if you can tell pentameter from a pentathlon, but be able to explain what it is about the craft of the poem that you like. That "it's so true" or you've "been there" just isn't enough. Align ambition and investment with expectation.

And this is where the idea of the fake-memoir is flawed. The gross misalignment of effort with expectation. The thought that this interesting story that you thought up is intrinsically worthy of reward, so rather than invest in crafting it and recrafting it, you brand it "true" and cash in. It's like putting a cube of clay on a pedestal, calling it "Life", saying "Life is important" and passing the collection plate. But if the plate fills up, is it wrong?

Well, yes. There's nothing wrong with finding an audience and giving them what they want. But I don't believe that any audience wants to be lied to. Nor that any artist can ever trust a lie more his ability to practice that art.

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Of Origins and Infinitives

As a wise man once said, a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. And it's particularly dangerous in the mind of an amateur grammarian.

One of my favorite columnists, Paul Mulshine, weighed in on word origins and interrupted infinitives this week.

Interestingly, a little Google action on some of the terms in the above article linked me quickly back to Steve Schroeder's blog, where he once issued a position quite similar to Mulshine's.

I need to get over to SPOGG and verify their take on these critical issues...

Friday, January 02, 2009

Poe's Shoulders

For Christmas this year, my Mom slipped a copy of Poe's Tales and Poems into a package for me. As I was flipping through the pocket-sized volume, I was reminded of how important Poe was to the development of my interests as a writer. Aside from an occasional Halloween rereading of "The Raven", I haven't really touched Poe in a long time, and I'd completely forgotten some of the ways his work touched me along the way:
  • One of my earliest second-hand book finds was a history of bells containing, naturally, "The Bells" alongside the photos of old bells, the histories of churches and the handbell sheet music. How could a teenager with a thing for memorable language not be captured by "Keeping time, time, time/In a sort of Runic Rhyme/To the tintinnabulation that so musically wells/From the bells, bells, bells, bells/bells, bells, bells." I think this poem in particular is at the heart of the prioritization of sound that drives my style to this day.
  • In sophomore English we would read short stories aloud by taking two-paragraph turns and going around the room until every student had read and we finished the story. One day "The Cask of Amontillado" came up, and I completely forgot to not be the primary geek in the room and got lost in the story and the characters and filled my classroom performance with all the forensic flair I could muster. Not for the class, not for Miss S. (well, maybe a little), but because giving voice to Poe's story was unbelievable fun.

Mom certainly didn't intend this introspection with her gift (or so I assume), but it turned out to be the best kind of present - a reminder of something I can easily pass along to my kids as their interest in language and storytelling grows (they're already a couple laps ahead of where I was, anyway), one that will inform my teaching moments when coach young writers.

Thanks, Mom.