Thursday, November 24, 2005


Happy Thanksgiving!

Things writers should be grateful for today:
  • An always-refillable well of inspiration
  • A plethora of good writers to emulate and good teachers to learn from, if you're willing to spend just a few minutes to seek them out
  • The proliferation of resources for us in Internetland, ranging from exercises to do, to legal form templates, to places to advertise our readings, to an infinite stream of distractions should we choose not to write today.
  • Our ability to be moved by words, and our desire to similarly move with our own; that sometimes, words you write and forget about show up somewhere and affect someone,

I'm also very grateful for everyone who's taken time to comment here over the last however-many months I've been using this space to refocus myself on creative writing. You are an accomplished crowd, and I enjoy the chance to learn from you whenever I can.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Trusting the Poem

My reading Monday night went very well, according to all reports. I'm still new enough at the process that I lose myself to the performance a little - having come to reading by way of acting, I tend to disappear into character when on stage. It's a character quite near to myself, to be sure, but it's still a character at the lectern reading those poems. But the feedback was gratifying and it felt good while I was up there.

Got some terrific insightful feedback from my cousin. He's not a big poetry fan - the only readings he's ever attended have been my mine, and not even all of those, but he knows me well and he knows good performance when he sees it. Summarized, he said he liked the poems, but couldn't understand why I spent so much time setting each of them up - explaining them in advance, as it were.

Of course, I didn't see it that way (I never do. Do I, Ben?). But I quickly realized that I had, in fact, inserted a set up before each of the dozen poems I'd read. I told myself (and still sort of believe) I was just designing good transitions, turning "some poems" into "a reading", but the bottom line (drumroll, please) is that he's right. I didn't trust a single one of the poems to start with its title.

I've heard poets do tons of set up and some do almost none. I'd once thought it was a simple matter of audience outreach, that poets taking seriously the task of making a connection with an audience would naturally want to present a show complete with crafted transitions. That may still be true.

However, my astute, observant cousin - who will (if I'm correct) never read this post and therefore go on thinking I've hated him since 1986 - was right. If I have enough confidence in the work, I should trust it to hook its own listener without me holding its hand. And if I don't, how could I possibly think of sending it off on its own in a book?

Saturday, November 12, 2005

One for My Mother

I'll be reading Monday night in Princeton, and my Mom will not be able to attend, so I thought I'd share one for her here.

After-Dinner Questions for My Mother


Talk to you tomorrow, Mom.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Maybe Little Brother Poems, Then

Here are a few annual index section headings from Writer's Digest (from the December issue, indexing the 2005 volume):
  • Business/Legal Matters
  • Grammar/Language Use
  • Interviews/Profiles
  • Marketing/Submitting
  • Personal Essays/Poetry

What, exactly, is that last grouping telling us? It's either a poor opinion of poetry, or some bad advice about writing it.

Or both.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Two Sides of the Coin?

Deb Ager, discussing "Grandmother poems":

After we write the poems about our families, it seems we then struggle to write something that isn't about family. It becomes a habit. We mine every detail of our lives for ideas. We run out of ideas. We don't want to share the truth. We don't want to use what few ideas we do have. We strike those poems out as too confessional or juvenile. I was familied out about a decade ago. If I write any poems about my family now, the poems are all lies. Lies are more interesting.

William Logan (from The Undiscovered Country: Poetry in the Age of Tin, currently excerpted at Poetry Daily):

Oh, and ... poems must be about the poet's life, because we should always write what we know, and what else does a poet know? How fortunate that Shakespeare was the close personal friend of Julius Caesar and that Milton supped frequently with the Devil.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

As Political As I Get

Here in NJ, we gave the privilege and duty today to select between two men of means with equivalently encumbered pasts and remarkable similar (for the most part) platform cards. I prefer one to the other - slightly - and will be be voting for him, though there are a couple interesting alternatives on the surprisingly vast undercard.

The whole process this year (at least in New Jersey) reminds me more than a little of the worldview of
Nancy Kress' Beggars' series. In that universe, most of society has become impoverished, and they choose from candidates based on promises to spend their own vast wealth on the people. Further complicating that society is commonplace genetic modification technology, making designer babies common, at least among the rich-enough. I don't want to give away the critical tech hooks or the plots (true SF fans never commit such abominations), but if you've never read the books, you should. They're good speculative fiction and, as most of her writings, they touch issues of interest and importance in 2005 society.

Kress also writes a fiction-writing column for Writer's Digest (which she shares now with other writers), and has won awards for her short and long fiction. Check her out.

And remember: Vote early and often! And vote smart!

Friday, November 04, 2005

Gina and John Larkin in Hoboken

The mostly-monthly Spoken Word Series has its November installment this Sunday in Hoboken. Gina and John Larkin run a magazine out of Edison, NJ. If you know Edison more for the view from the Turnpike than for artistic accomplishment, you need to come to Symposia Bookstore and get recalibrated.

I met Gina a couple years ago when she accepted a poem of mine for publication, but I knew I'd seen her around the NJ poetry universe before. What I hadn't realized until recently was that she'd beaten me out for recognition in a contest 6 years ago. Maybe I can goad her into reading the poem that made the grade that year.

Thursday, November 03, 2005

Poetry Appreciation 101

Jeff and Josh have had a minor exchange over poetry critiquing the last couple days. It's very interesting to me, as someone slowly climbing the steepest part of the learning curve into the universe of creative writing, to see two voices I respect in disagreement. Let me try to cull a couple critical learnings, and (natch) interject an opinion or two of my own.

Jeff starts by pointing out that in poetry forums (critique groups), the tendency is to "microcritique", going line by line and identifying flaws, where discussions in blog entries tend to focus on the "strategy" of work(s) . I see this is a community norming issue, influenced by the form restrictions: in most blogs (Silliman excepted), entries of more than 100 words (like this one) are darn near unreadable. Of course, most blogs are darn near unreadable, but that's a different issue.

Josh came back to compare forum critique frenzies to fraternity hazing, and I think he's right on: it's pain you volunteer for in exchange for community membership. Now, my experience with these forums is limited and mostly second hand, but I'm not aware of anyone serious about writing who takes seriously, or can point to a piece significantly affected or improved by, comments from codenamed online writers.

And Jeff (whose motto seems to be "The only thing I really know about poetry is, occasionally, how to write it") returns with acknowledgement of Josh's good points, with a question of whether tactics really follow strategy in poems. If I understand properly, the issue on this count seems to be whether a poem can be judged outside of its context (the poetics or ambitions of its author or its surroundings in a longer work). I have a strong bias here, being a practitioner of short forms: I think a poem needs to stand on its own as a work of art, including consciously practiced elements of craft. It can be improved by its surroundings (as in novels-in-verse), but if an individual poem fails to present itself well (cliche-free, aware of its own sound , etc.), it fails on its own. On a side note, poems cannot be improved by their messages. A bad poem for a good cause is still a bad poem.

Josh made one statement on this point that intrigued me: "The result is a poet getting beaten up for playing chess on a checkers board". This may be an apt analogy, but I can't help but read a little disdain for checkers - for poems without ambitious literary construct - and I don't know if this was intended. I would certainly disagree if it were.

Jeff also noted that he sees no "correlation between brilliant poeticists and first-class poets". This is a fascinating issue for me, and it takes me in the direction of great teachers not needing to be great artists, but I'll come back to that in the weeks to come. Remind me if I forget, would you?

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Illustrated Elements of Style

Have you heard about the illustrated Strunk and White? Childrens' book illustrated Maria Kalman picked up an old copy of the classic handbook and found magic in the example sentences. Then, naturally, she turned it into an opera.

Don't believe me? It's true! You think Modern Materials Dance Engineering is next?

Me neither.