Sunday, February 27, 2005

And it's not even National Poetry Month

My local paper actually ran a story on a local poet recently. A happy surprise to be sure - New Jersey is home to a large number of well-known poets (too many to mention, but start with Williams, Pinsky and Muldoon), but they usually are marginalized in the "mainstream press" to a few profiles during NatPoMo every year. While Rachel Hadas doesn't reside in the Garden State, she does teach at our state university; that's good enough for me. Newark Star-Ledger columnist Bob Braun profiled her recently; you can also find her in the current issue of Poetry.

By the way: If you've trolled through my links at right, you've already been to the website to read Maureen Berzok's NJ Writers blog. If you've not visited yet, you should do so soon - she presents a tasting menu of Jersey writers past and present that covers more elements of the literary arts than you're likely to see collected anywhere else. And I'm not just saying that because she said something nice about me.

Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Please, Hate It.

I stuck my nose into an interesting discussion in Kelli Agodon's journal, concerning Ted Kooser's advice to keep your audience in mind (from The Poetry Home Repair Manual: Practical Advice For Beginning Poets). I do subscribe to this notion, as I think expecting people to take an interest in something you wrote purely for yourself is narcissism of the highest order. But I also agree with this great (possibly paraphrased) quote, attributed to Marvin Bell: "There should be at least one person in the room who hates/dislikes your poem. If it has a little sugar, it needs a little salt." I don't find these thoughts mutually exclusive.

Poetry is never going to be universal. Done properly (and this includes all forms and schools and clans and workgroups and whatevers), poetry is language distilled into art - concentrated, impactful, sometimes warming, sometimes disturbing. It's like a very strong cocktail; these have their fans, but they have their haters as well. But this does not mean you can throw any three liquors together, give it a name, and expect anyone to want to sample it.

My poems reflect the things I find powerful. It so happens that my artistic mission is to find extraordinary moments lying about among ordinary things. Because of this, I think many people can find something to latch onto in my work. But many of my poems have met wrinkled noses and been greeted with questions, and this is fine. I should be concerned when the noses stop wrinkling, as I'll know then that I've stopped stretching, that I've stopped challenging myself to find something better, more meaningful, more memorable to say.

Confidential to Frank Chase

FC: After you work your way out of this mess, be sure and wish an HBB to the man who doomed you in the eyes of Murphy. -- dv

Monday, February 21, 2005

Riff, Resolve, Repeat

Had the great fortune to see the Lincoln Center Jazz Band (with Wynton Marsalis) last night, and I'm reminded all over again of the essential links between poetry and jazz. Like many people, I've always felt the connection between William Carlos Williams and Thelonious Monk (the spareness, the simple structures, the use of silence/rests), but I see very clearly and for the first time a direct parallel between the poem (or better, a series of poems) and the jazz performance. Follow:

- There's a structure. A melody. A theme, if you will, whose job it is to hold the mood together while providing space for the riffs - either the soloists or the departures in the poem, the things that deliver the unexpected and dynamic.
- In those riffs, there's an feel which has strong roots in the improvisational. It always has a feel of newness, and, done right, never takes you in the direction you expected.
- While the riff is the vehicle for delivering the energy, the surprise, it isn't the place the work leaves you. It delivers you through the highs and lows to someplace beyond. Forget the meadow beyond the woods analogy and think about the music you love. Am I right?
- Jazz comes in many styles: bebop and blues, fusion and classic, etc. But they all are true to the basics of the form: setup, riff, resolve.

OK, poetry isn't necessarily religiously improvisational, though I would argue poems with roots in improv (or that ride inspiration equally with craft) tend to be the better works. And I know many poets resist "resolution" in a neat sense, but we always find ways to end poems that feel satisfying to us, and these are usually different than the middles of our poems, no?

See if any or all of your poems fit. And next time you're stuck, feel free to call on
Dizzy to seduce the muse.

Thursday, February 17, 2005

They Really Show Me Something

I really enjoy The Missouri Review's website. It's a very good journal, but for my money TMR's web presence is just the perfect face of a literary magazine. In addition to periodically excerpting past issues and posting the work online, and maintaining a discussion group in which they actually and actively dialog with people over issues relevant to the magazine (including following up on submissions!) the editorial team posts commentaries frequently and maintains a pretty fair blog (self-advertising, no doubt, but which of us with this hobby isn't engaging in a little shameless self-promotion?).

I haven't visited in a while (busyness and forgetfulness), so I don't know when they were posted, but there are two terrific poems by Gabriel Welsch at the top of the poetry archive, imagining telemarketers talking in one case to Albert Goldbarth, in another to Billy Collins. I think I have my writing prompt for tonight, should the poem I started this morning about roadkill skunks as a sign of Spring not go anywhere for me.

Oh, and there are more telemarketer poems online, too,

Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Common Knowledge

According to The Writer's Almanac:

It's the birthday of Italian astronomer Galileo (Galilei), born in Pisa (1564). He devised a simple open-air thermometer (1607), but his greatest breakthrough was to build an improved refracting telescope (1609), with which he clearly confirmed the view of Copernicus, who insisted Aristotle was wrong, the Earth was not the center of things; the Sun was. Galileo's books were banned; he was summoned to Rome, to be tried for heresy. In 1633 he was convicted, sentenced to house arrest for life, and his books were ordered burned. He was forced either to renounce all his Copernican beliefs or be tortured on the rack. While signing his declaration that the earth was stationary, he muttered, "And yet... it moves." Confined to his home, he continued to study physics and astronomy, until, in his seventies, he grew completely blind.

Galileo is a hero of mine, because he saw no contradiction between scientific advance and faith in God, and because he is one of the fathers of empirical physics. Of equal importance to us as writers is the way he published his arguments in favor of the Copernican view of the solar system, which were radical for his time in two ways: First, they were written in Italian, not Latin, which made them accessible to many more people (not just scholars). Second, they were written as dialogues, in which the competing worldview was presented respectfully (though clearly discredited). I wish there were more people today willing to package their learnings this carefully for consumption.

Monday, February 14, 2005

My Love is Like That Red, Pete Rose

OK, she's not, except in the sense that she's been out of baseball for a while, too; though she is, of course, a bonnie lass. But when you get a good title in your head, you trust it, you know? (Apologies to Robert Burns).

Anyway, a little Valentine's Day reading:

The inimitable James Lileks writes on the day's effects at various stages in one's life over at the BackFence.

The Academy of American Poets has selections on Love, Lust and Loss. Make sure you know which category you're in before reading one across the candlelight tonight.

Robert Pinsky presents a miniantholovey at Slate.

As for me? Well, it's KFC tonight as always. And that's a good thing.

Thursday, February 10, 2005

Poets' This, Poets' That

My college poetry professor, Ed Foster, was interviewed recently over at Here Comes Everybody. I remember loving his classes not only for the poems we studied and the poets that came to campus (Pinsky, C.K. Williams, McClure), but for the arguments we had in class. Even as an engineering school, we had enough students in the room for (occasional) quality disagreement. And it's testimony to his ability to teach that despite how different his interests and likes were from ours with our limited worldviews and math-and-science brains, he was able to direct us to appreciate the art we were studying.

What I find interesting today is the bang-on similarity of two of his answers at HCE to the way I would have answered: (7) Have young children write poems rather than try to define them and (8) The poet's role is to write poems - not more and not less.

My poetics could not be more different from Ed's. I write a narrative, character-and-scene driven, punny sort of a poem; you could call me "mainstream" and not offend me. I don't know how to characterize Ed's without oversimplifying so I'll send you here and here and ask you to judge for yourself. And yet we have the same opinion on two issues which are fairly fundamental to how poets interact with the world. Hmm.

Has anyone else noticed that when we permit ourselves to step back from our differences (such as that recent string of thoughts separating "My Kind" of poetry from "That Kind"), our similarities are usually more striking?

Tuesday, February 08, 2005

There's Always Time to Change

Any of you who have been thinking to yourselves that you're too whatever to change, that you're too set in your literary habits and reputations and should resign yourselves to your niche should take note of this: Wil Wheaton, once the overstated and hated w├╝nderensign Wesley Crusher on Star Trek TNG, fresh off the publication of his second book Just a Geek (about which more another day), will be playing a psychopathic homeless murder suspect on an upcoming episode of CSI.

And you think you've got a reputation too hard to shake? Please.

Friday, February 04, 2005

Pre-Game Poetry

In honor of Le Bowl Superb this weekend, some football poem excerpts:

First this from Louis Jenkins' "
Football" (which I first discovered at the Poetry 180 project site):

".... I've got a receiver open downfield..
What the hell is this? This isn't a football, it's a shoe, a man's
brown leather oxford. A cousin to a football maybe, the same
skin, but not the same, a thing made for the earth, not the air."

Here's a bit of verse from Flak Magazine's Joshua Adams - a 13-part poem composed in real time in commentary on Super Bowl 38. It starts out as a theft of "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird", but it ambitiously steals lines from many more good works than just that:

"I was of three minds, like a field goal -- missed!
The South Dakotan kicker owns the day
no longer? How could you, Adam? Wide right?
Vrabel, verily, sacks the city Delhomme.
Would that Hugh Jackman shelve the Van Helsing
and punt for the Pats. ..."

Do you know these lines from James Wright's "Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio"?

Their sons grow suicidally beautiful
At the beginning of October,
And gallop terribly against each other's bodies."

Finally, did you now that a Google search for "football poem" yields almost 600,000 hits (most, it seems, for the game we on this continent call soccer)

Give yourself a challenge this year: Find something about the Super Bowl - the GAME, not the commercials or the hype or the halftime extrashaganza - to write about. Capture bodies in motion, human struggle, your uncle's tirade at Terrell Owens. See what you come up with.

By the way: Patriots 23, Philadelphia 13.