Thursday, June 30, 2005

This Is NOT Why We Do This

Courtesy of Mr. Keillor:

"It was on this day in 1857 that Charles Dickens gave his first public reading. He liked to perform in public, he could make good money at it, and it got him away from home and from his wife. His first reading was of A Christmas Carol."

There are Dickens references turned up by a casual search. This chronology is part of one that has some good information capsules.

Hmm. Now that I read it again, Dickens; readings were the polar opposite of modern poetry readings, no?

Monday, June 27, 2005


The original voices of Tigger and Piglet died this week. Both men were underappreciated, I think - Paul Winchell was an inventor and comic innovator, John Fiedler was a talented multidimensional actor.

I do feel a sense of loss today, for my childhood and for two talented performers. And I think this is a brilliant sendoff that Winchell would have appreciated:

Well done, Matt. (Go view the original. And read the "Poetic License to Kill" story from the archives while you're there!)

Is it "Self-" if they pay for it?

The Document Company is holding a book contest. Hurry, submissions are due Friday.

Birthday Banter

Mr. Keillor informs us that today marks the birth of both Frank O'Hara and Lucille Clifton. I think tonight I'll take one of his books and one of her books down off my shelf and alternate - one poem from each - for an hour or so.

Then I'll take two aspirin.

Thursday, June 23, 2005

Words and Pictures?

Have you taken a look at the American Film Institute's long-awaited Top 100 Film Quotes yet? It's an interesting read. Everything you'd expect is there, I think, as well as homage to some great movies that had no really seminal single lines. The excellent film critic Stephen Whitty had a great column just before the thing was release, talking about filmmakers' decreasing respect for dialog. That may be true, but I'm more perturbed today about the AFI's complete lack of sense for climactic language. The list captures good lines from critical movie moments, but it frequently misses the peak, the poetic moment, if you will of these dialogues. Some examples:
  • At #91, from the Abbott and Costello movie The Naughty Nineties, AFI selected "Who's on first." If you're familiar with the routine, one of the great comedy bits ever, would you say this line captures the spirit of that scene? Or would you immediately bark out "I don't know. THIRD BASE!"
  • A couple notches up, we have a short Katherine Hepburn speech from "On Golden Pond". It's a lovely scene. It was a lovely moment. The lines are memorable only because they were Kate and Hank; otherwise, they're pretty ordinary. This was a very good movie. I've never, ever, heard it quoted.
  • Up at #82, from all the marvelous lines in National Lampoon's Animal House, AFI selected "Toga! Toga!". Uh huh. If you want to quote that scene, it's "There's only one thing to do. Toga Party." Maybe the dialog that follows it. Or give me something Bluto said. Or better still, list "Thank you sir, may I have another," which I've heard uttered at least once a week for 20 years.

Peruse the list yourself. Some I like ("Don't call me Shirley", "Here's Johnny", "There's no crying in baseball"), and you can't really argue with most of the top 20, but for the most part, I think the list just misses the climaxes of the scenes it quotes.

Which has me thinking: it's part of the poet's approach to always know where that climatic second is, no? Because we write (for the most part) in distilled language, and (for the most part) in snapshots and images and fragments, we can't afford to be just off, can we? If we are, the poem simply doesn't work. Unfortunately, with our own words, it's not always obvious to us that this is the root of a failed or stalled poem. Movies have a luxury we don't.

As do top-100 lists.

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Voice, Definition 2: Voice as Instrument

Poetry Daily informs us that Billy Collins has a new CD out. I like Billy Collins. I have some of his books, and I enjoy and still find useful his Poetry 180 project (I don't really undersand the purpose or connecting thread in 180 More, but there are many fine poems there). He's an entertaining speaker when he discusses writing process, or how to craft a collection, or when answering questions from an attentive audience. But his poems? Hearing him give them voice doesn't do much for me.

This brings me to the line between "poetry" and "performance art". In my Poetry Hosts group, we've been having a pretty active discussion about what "defines" poetry, and whether we as hosts should attempt to teach this to our audiences at all. In my series, I've heard entertaining performances of material I'd not call poetry, as well as poor readings of really excellents poems. So this leads me to ask: What's more important to me?

Bottom line for me: the poem exists on the page. Oral presentation of that poem may improve understanding or enjoyment of it, but if it doesn't work on the page with some attempt to apply some of the tools that separate poetry from prose, then we don't have a poem. I think I feel this so strongly because I believe poetry must be inhabitable, that I must be able to step inside a poem and hear it in my head, in my voice, for it to be successful.

This doesn't mean that a poet presenting a poem in his or her own voice shouldn't be a delightful thing. But the director in me wants that presentation to be more than, and different than, someone else's. Some examples that come to mind:

Lucille Clifton works on the page (I especially like the Clark Kent poems), but when she breathes into her own work it takes on a personality that suits the poem. It's her, mostly, but it's a dramatic embodiment of the work, more. I find the same in Coleman Barks. And while his own work and his presentation of Rumi share a slowness on the page and in his reading, it's a different slowness - his own work is sarcastic and nostalgiac, Rumi is neither of these things.

I can't go on about slams much, as I've never been to a real one, though I've featured good slammers in my series. Good poets who are good slammers follow the rule. You can feel on the page some of the energy that would exist in presentation. Different in your mind than in your ears, but there.

Back to Billy Collins: I never hear anyone but him when he reads. He doens't present his own work in a way that makes it different than what's on the page. I do enjoy his work, but I don't think I'll be buying this CD; I'd rather have the book.

A quick postscript: If you've belonged to AAP ever, you may have purchased or received a collection of reading excerpts. Dig it out and see if you don't find some great, great poets whose readings just don't improve their work.

Sunday, June 19, 2005

Happy Father's Day

With Love
by Ray Bradbury

for Leonard Bradbury

My father ties, I do not tie, my tie.
On some night long ago, in June
I tried to try
My first tie snarled upon my vest
My hands all thumbs
And presto-chango
Something Awful This Way Comes.
My father quietly came by
And studied me and stood behind.
"Be blind", he said.
"Stay off of mirrors.
Let your fingers
Learn to do."
His lesson lingers. What he said was true.
Eyes shut,
With him to help me over up, around and under-out
Somehow a knot miraculous came about.
"There's nothing to it," said my Dad.
"Now, son, you do it. No, eyes shut."
And with one last dear blind perceiving
He taught my crippled fingers
Arts of weaving. Then, turned away.
Well, to this day, how dare I boast,
I cannot do it.
I call that long-gone sweet tobacco-smelling ghost
To help me through it.
He helps me yet;
Upon my neck, his breath, the scent of his last cigarette.
There is no death, for yestereve
His phantom fingers came and helped me tuck and weave.
If this is true (it is!) he'll never die.
My father ties, I do not tie, my tie.

from I Live By The Invisible (Salmon Poetry)

Thursday, June 16, 2005

The Poet in Orion's Belt

When you spend your formative years among geeks, and then attend a geeky college twice to major first in geekdom, then in geekdom management, you occasionally get to reap benefits such as the following sentence: I'd like to wish my friend the astronomer a happy birthday.

It's actually a happy belated birthday, since I missed the actual event, but I figure when you make a living
looking at things that actually happened (or rather: were emitted) tens of thousands of years ago, what's a week here or there?

And let me take a moment here to point out once again the confluence of science and poetry: This career scientist not only was with me on the staff of our college literary magazine, but was an extremely talented stage performer as well. He was always the leading man, I was always the comedy relief (see #5 below), but that never bothered me. Really.

Anyway, as
Jennifer will attest to, the sky is a beautiful and inspiring place for a poet. And in their truest sense, the scientific and artistic impulses are not that dissimilar. As Livinia Greenlaw said during her tenure as Poet In Residence at the Science Museum in London: " stems from human enquiry and our experience of the world. And in that sense it is as subjective as poetry."

Monday, June 13, 2005

Things You Didn't Know About Me

NOTE: I'm only doing this because I want in on the Deb/Dale Bowling Challenge.

  1. As a former head kegler for his college team, David can out-bowl Deborah, C. Dale, and most anyone else who stops by here today. But not his mother. (Note: Trash talking between two people 3,000 miles apart is best done if you are not located on the straight line path between them.)
  2. This is a guarantee: if you have been to a doctor in the United States in the last 15 years, you have seen or had used on you a medical device that David had a hand in developing.
  3. He won the New York State Accordion Association championship for pop music performance by a 12 year old with a performance of the theme from Star Wars (near-disco version).
  4. Unaware of how it would brand him for life, David founded the Chess Club at his high school.
  5. David holds the modern record for times pantsed on stage at Stevens Institute of Technology.
  6. He can operate a slide rule.
  7. He has never lived more than 15 miles from the Atlantic Ocean.
  8. Three-word sequences in normal conversation often prompt David to break into song. Especially into showtunes.
  9. He has no fewer than 10 relatives who have performed music (solo or in a group) for audiences of 500 or more people.
  10. David once captained a softball team called The Slugs.

Sunday, June 12, 2005

Intro to Poetry: The Mix Tape

Steve set it up this way:

You've just met someone you think is special. They're smart, but they don't really read poetry. However, because you're who you are, they want to learn more about poetry. To get them started, you must create a "poetry mix tape" of 10 poems as a starting point for their reading.

I tried not to think too much about rules, to select 10 poems and see what rules seemed to have emerged. Here are 10 poems I would hand to someone interested in learning about poetry:

untitled ("won't you celebrate with me"), Lucille Clifton (scroll to the end)
"God Gives Faith to Baseball Fans", Edwin Romond
"After I Read Sandy Zulauf's Across the Bar, Victoria Takes Me Skiing", BJ Ward
“Across the Bar”, Sander Zulauf
"Bachelor Song", Douglas Goetsch
"My Daughter at 14: Christmas Dance, 1981", Maria Mazziotti Gillan
"The Word Kite", Tina Kelley
"For May is the Month of Our Mother", Cat Doty
"Messiah, Christmas Portions", Mark Doty
"Club", Coleman Barks

Interestingly, this didn't turn out to be a list of "poems I wish I'd written". I started to list out what I thought were my biases and intents, but the bottom line is these are contemporary poems that strike empathy with the reader, take great playful joy with language (even, some of them, to express despair), and can be talked about on several levels: for their story, for their individual poetic craft, and as gateways to greater body of work of the authors. One bias I should make clear: I only considered poems by poets whose work I felt I knew fairly well, well enough to intelligently introduce a new reader to.

Saturday, June 11, 2005

Paying Attention to Your Voice (Part 3)

Getting back to voice, the most important thing I noticed in completing my first manuscript was that subtle variations in voice can be greatly magnified in certain context. Now, mine is a narrowly focused example, because of the gimmick of the collection (poems addressed to small daughters), so perhaps I'm more paying more attention to this than is usual. But here's an example:

A draft of a poem contained this sequence:

.............................We all check one box:
clowns, bats, death, lonelieness - we all have
one thing besides sex we can’t discuss with
our mothers, or else that brainbound rush
of red will make us five again.

In a sequence addressed to a child, with a father as the narrator, the appearence of the word "sex" is a distraction. It's out of character; I know because I've successfully avoided that word for the better part of decade - except in this poem. The rewritten section is a little different:

.............................We all check one box:
clowns, bats, death, lonelieness - we all have
one thing we can’t discuss, especially with
our mothers, or else that brainbound rush
of red will make us five again.

Weaker, frankly, but more supportive of the work as a whole. Another discovery, similar to the point Jeannine made a few days ago, was that the poems written earlier in this process (when my children were younger) don't feel the same as the ones written more recently. I've gotten better at getting past the sentiment to the interesting and ironic just beyond, but more importantly, my line has shrunk.

Aside: Does this happen to other poets? The basic construct of all your poems suddenly feels wrong and you are moved to create with different music? In my case, it seems I don't think in pentameter anymore. I've looked back to see the fuzzy period where I forced my line breaks and made some bad word choices to maintain the rhythm I used to want. But in the context of the larger work, those forces jumped out at me. Some got rewritten, some extracted.

Finally, I killed off at least one poem that I like that didn't fit with the essentially light tone of the collection, or with the subset of me that the narrating father represents. To simplify, several of the poems in the manuscript refer to Christmas, all in a neutral-to-positive way, religiously. One of the later poems I'd written for this project has at its center doubt about a particular element of my Roman Catholic faith. While it may be true to me personally, it may be interesting to read, and it may be a good poem, it just isn't necessary to the exploration of emerging fatherhood or to dialog with small children. It seemed a conversation with myself instead of with them. Maybe when I write for them as teenagers, that one will have a home.

So adhering to voice as it applies to a single collection of poems boils down to this: one book is by one person. Be complicated, be surprising, but be one person. The corollary is: if you are presenting a theme, stay on that theme; sacrifice length for coherence and sacrifice your favorite poems if they call so much attention to themselves that the reader loses his or her place in the larger work.

Ah. I feel better now. All this from a prawn tweaking a tin thing's pecs. I really gotta get out more.

Thursday, June 09, 2005

A Brief Interruption

At the risk of disrupting my train of thought, there are few bits of SSP (Shameless Self-Promotion) to get out of the way:

  • The Edison Literary Review has accepted my poem "The Good Thing About Rain" for the 2005 issue.
  • Last Friday night I received the Robert Reed Service Award from The Center for the Performing Arts at DeBaun Auditorium. It recognizes significant volunteer efforts for bringing arts to the communities around Hoboken and Stevens Insititute of Technology.
  • This quiz, which I found first at C. Dale's place, seems to think I'm John Ashbery ("People love your work but have no idea why, really. You are respected by all kinds of scholars and poets. Even artists like you."). That's an interesting fit; I'd have thought I was more Wallace Stevens. Or I would have if I thought I deserved to be mentioned in the same paragraph as either of them, that is.
  • We announced the 2005-2006 season of The Spoken Word Series last week. Quality poets of several styles, some personal essay; local editors, local newspaper columnist. Watch the site for names and bios appearing over the summer.

We will shortly return you to your regularly scheduled series of blatherings about voice.

Wednesday, June 08, 2005

Paying Attention to Your Voice (Part 2)

Gonzo's nipples (prior entry) a little too tough a reference for you? OK. I understand. But the point is this: if you've created a universe that has certain rules, don't change the rules on me just to make a point or a joke, or - worst of all - to advance the plot. Fans of science fiction and fantasy take things like this quite seriously. {aginggeekreference} For example: In the Star Trek universe, "beaming" is possible. In the Star Wars universe, The Force runs through all things. If after two seasons Spock suddenly began deflecting phaser fire with a glowing stick, if after 90 minutes Obi Wan had suddenly materialized at the tractor beam's power source, would you stop thinking about the plot? Would you find yourself distracted by the one scene and lose sight of the larger work? {/aginggeekreference}.

Similarly with characters, if you've imbued them with certain characteristics, don't drop those characteristics suddenly to make a point or a joke, or - worst of all - to advance the plot. My point about Gonzo's comment was that it wasn't part of the action (the scene essentially stops so that Pepe can prompt the line), it was inconsistent with its context (Disney? Nipples?), and it was inconsistent with what we know about the character who spoke it (anyone who knows Gonzo as well as I do will agree).

So what does this have to do with poems? And my poems in particular? A friend once gave me a book of poems that an acquaintance of his had self-published. They were pretty standard fare - unrhymed, little regard for meter, no regard for form, preoccupied with death and badly-ended affairs. Except for one poem in the final third of the book: 3 rhymed stanzas about getting sprayed while changing his grandson. The last lines were "when changing a baby / better cover his spout". It's not really relevant whether or not this was a good poem. It came from such a completely different voice as the rest of the poems in the book that I lost sight of the collection as a collection. It wasn't a cohesive work by an author anymore. It was just some poems bound together. The collection had established the dark voice of an unhappy former cop and then sprung James Garner reading Hallmark cards on me. Boo.

The manuscript I just completed and submitted is a collection of poems all written as if I were speaking to my daughters. Not that the language is juvenile, but the topics are ones that derive from the experience of a man coming to understand how to deal with two small female presences in his life. The character I create as narrator is that man (NOTE: Yes, he's close to me. But since poetry is fiction, he can't really be me. Got that, Mom?), and his tone is consistent with that. Some of the poems are sarcastic, some are angry, some are frightened, but they're all consistent with that character. When I lined up the 70 or so poems I'd written (so far) for the project, which I'd never done before, I noticed that the tone varied in some of them. Less gentle, more adult subject matter, etc. It's not really relevant whether or not they were good poems. They distracted from the work as a whole and therefore had no place in the larger work.

I therefore rewrote a couple (probably weakening them as individuals), and decided a few of my favorites needed to be left orphaned. A tough process. Coming Friday: some examples.

Thursday, June 02, 2005

Paying Attention to Your Voice (Part 1)

Do you write in character much? Do you take measures to ensure that your characters are internally consistent - that is, that they do and say and like and buy and discard things in a way that you find believable? That is consistent with the person your reader imagines them to be?

This is not to say your characters can't surprise us. But they need to surprise us in a believable way, one that is consistent with what you know about them. Cinderella can't turn to Drizella at the end and say "Take that, you uppity bitch." There's not much that will make me put a book down and walk away, but having characters utter inconsistent dialogue is one of them. Much of what I read for pleasure is science fiction and fantasy, so I do a lot of suspending disbelief - but if I have to suspend it a half-dozen different ways, I get tired, and I move on.

Did you see The Muppet Wizard of Oz? I was looking forward to it. I admit it. I'm a Muppet fan. I had a Dr. Teeth poster on my wall until college. I can quote the original Muppet Movie and name most of the cameos. In order. I rank Muppet Christmas Carol in my top 25 favorite movies of all time. But this movie lost me ten minutes into Oz. (Disclaimer: I'm about to discuss the believability of characters made of felt. So noted.) First, the witches portrayed by embodiments of Miss Piggy just made no sense. Were they good? Bad? Each sentence spoken by the Glinda-like character could have been attributed to a different member of the scene. But the worst offense came later when we met the Tin Thing.

OK. Gonzo as Tin Thing was cute. The set up was believable - he's fused into a lot of gadgets. Then Toto (Pepe the Prawn, about whom don't get me started) touches one of Gonzo's handles and asks what it does, and Gonzo replies "Nothing. Those are my nipples."

Forgive me, but that line is a disbelief-burster. I suspend so that my film universe includes the Muppets as real characters, then one of them speaks a line completely inconsistent with who I've believed "him" to be. The nipple line is for the writer, not the audience. Trust is broken. Channel changed. Opinion is divided on this issue, but I think it's fair to say that those with more investment in and attachment to the characters probably had the hardest time with it. Please don't confuse this with nostalgia or resistance to change. This is about a character losing believability as a character. It could be Wonder Woman praying to be rescued, Chandler Bing starting an episode by writing out a career plan. You lose trust, and therefore interest, in the character before you.

NOTE: I haven't seen Muppet/Oz past FozzieLion's appearance. I have the whole thing on tape, and I have no desire to pop it in the VCR.

What does any of this have to do with my writing? Well, recall when I said I'd learned the difference between a manuscript and a series of poems? I'll put these two thoughts together next.