Wednesday, January 30, 2008

The Problem with Chunky Monkey

When Marjie Lambert penned her article "An American Odyssey", I don't think she was thinking of poetry. Nor was I - the first thing that popped into my head was that this article, subtitled "Rating the best and worst after traveling to all 50 states" was something I should send to my continentally-explorative sister-in-law. (Hi there, Sis!). And while it's generally a pretty good article, it contained a sentence that hit close to home, and made me think about one of the issues facing poetry.

Lambert talks about how the global availability of products and information has cost some of the rustic corners of the country their charm, and uses the following example:

"I didn't see much point in going that far to visit L.L. Bean's flagship store in Freeport, Maine, when I knew it so well from its catalogs, or to eat at the original Ben and Jerry's in Waterbury, Vt., when I'm already way too familiar with their ice cream."

Can't speak for the flannel purveyor, but in not stopping by the factory, Lambert missed out on a lot more than just a cup of Cherry Garcia. She missed the chance to see the ingenious layout of the factory (designed with the tourist in mind!); to see how the family-farm and environmentally-conscious mindset of the company extends not only to the product, but to the pallets, the cleaning solutions, the store itself; to hear how the first argument between the founders was about how thorough the mixing tank should be - with one saying "no spoonful should be devoid of chunks and "one saying it's OK as long as the next one has two." Is this terribly important stuff? I don't know. But it was interesting as hell to me, and it put the founders, the products, and company in a wholly different context than I had from just chowing down on the Chubby Hubby.

I'm getting to the point.

I think one reason poetry has an audience that is mostly poets is that most people have the same attitude about poetry that Ms. Lambert has about her ice cream. It's not an incorrect attitude, it's not even a negative one. It's ignorant, but in the most innocuous sense of the word: If you're not aware of the complexity and the context of something, it's often impossible to appreciate it. In a society where the omnipresence of information about a product leads people to conclude that awareness of a subject is binary - to know any is to know all - it behooves producers to make consumers aware of a little of its history, its making, its heritage.

Does this matter if the ice cream stinks? Not at all. But it can create a deeper appreciation for the ice cream if it is deserved.

Poets? While you should let people come to and sample your product willingly, don't just sit back in your Waterburys, letting people think they understand everything about it. First, make sure you know your product is worth consuming. Second, put it out there to be consumed. Third: Put it in some context; give it some values (artistic or social) and make people want to learn more about it, and therefore to learn more of it. Fourth: Repeat and raise it a level. The Ben and Jerry model actually applies quite directly here.

OK. I'm putting my biodegradable, recycled-parts-and-materials soapbox away now and gettin' me some Coffee Heath Bar Crunch.

A whole bunch of Ben and Jerry's trademarks are used quite liberally above. Please visit for more information on those trademarks, and to become a ChunkSpelunker.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Apostrophe Catastrophe?

"Do you adore clean, correct sentences? Do ungrammatical advertisements make you cringe?

We understand completely, and this is why the Society for the Promotion of Good Grammar and Encarta have designated March 4, 2008 as National Grammar Day.

We owe much to our mother tongue. It is through speech and writing that we understand each other and can attend to our needs and differences. If we don't respect and honor the rules of English, we lose our ability to communicate clearly and well with each other. In short, we invite mayhem, misery, madness, and inevitably even more bad things that start with letters other than M."

(via Martha Brockenbrough, a Queen (Martha)Bee at both SPOGG and Encarta)

And now, since I've endorsed this event, I suppose I really ought to write the Silk Road webmaster and ask for an apostrophrectomy.

On that note: Confusing "its" and "it's" I understand. Insisting on using an instrument to adjoin an "s" to a proper noun ("Shall we visit the Vincenti's?") when you don't use it to pluralize a common noun ("Only if they're serving those wrap's!"), I understand less, but OK. But a sign in a bakery like "Come try our bun's" give me an itch I can 't stratch. I just don't want to be imagining the things that their buns might be in possession of.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Places and Labels (Pieces and Bits)

Just noticed that the good folks at Silk Road are using my poem to represent Issue One online. I thank them for the honor!

Contributed to a discussion over at Jeanine's place about the use of labels to classify poets. The gist of it was discomfort (ranging as high as offense) with Ron Silliman's use of the phrase "School of Quietude" to lump a lot of "us" together as artists failing to push the boundaries of poetry. You can read the discussion in its original form, but it reminded me of a time I described myself to a more experimental artist as a "mainstream poet", my point being that I tended to write accessibly and narratively. She barked at me: "What the hell is a mainstream poet? If it's poetry, it's not mainstream." That, to me, should be the point: even if we don't like a poem or poetics, if we recognize the craft, we should speak of it with some amount of respect. Using descriptors within the discussion of differences in style for our own purposes should be OK with us.

UOP (Unintended Offense to Poets) #1: Please don't stop at the end of the first line and ask me what it means. I don't stop in the foyer of your home and ask you to explain the coat hooks, do I?

Middle of a tiring week; more to come. But I'm not giving up this posting momentum!

Friday, January 18, 2008

Ought Eight, Part Six

Is it a truism that the busier you get, the more time you seem to have? I know for me, when I'm forced to flex my organizational skills the most, I tend to be apply them most effectively. So here I am, averaging a post every 3 days - by far my most communicative since launching this enterprise so long ago - at the same time as I'm ramping up at a satisfying rate on the day job, managing a more complex home schedule than is typical for me, actually reading some of the books in my queue, and even spent an hour (pun alert) fiddling around with songwriting, which I haven't touched in years.

If I can bowl a deuce and the Giants win Sunday, it just might be a perfect month.

The problem with all this efficiency, of course, is that it breeds opportunity, which brings with it more work. So when I was approached earlier this month about doing some grammar school poetry workshops, I couldn't resist the urge to revisit my prepackaged programs, refresh the anthologies I like to use, polish the writing exercises a little, etc. So instead of kicking back with a Blue Moon and some Numb3rs tonight, I'll be cleaning up the Burgess-Meredith-worthy piles of poetry and teaching books around the couch so my family can get near the TV tomorrow. I should know better.

But all the fiddling reminded me of the best advice I got as I was starting out with poetry workshops, which (oversimplified) is "Don't work so hard. Get the kids writing". For me, this simplifies the lesson plan: (1) Create energy. (2) Promote interest in poetry. (3) Get out of the way. Fortunately, the teachers I've worked with in the past (and present) have the same basic idea - and are sensitive to beating interest in poetry out of their students with curricula too focused on the "right answer".

That doesn't mean that this next book doesn't have a better example of rhythm and assonance, though....

Monday, January 14, 2008

Changes & Miscellany

For those keeping track on your Detective Note Sheets, there are a few recent changes to the column that disappears off the page to your right. I deleted few links to blogs of folks taking permanent or externally imposed hiatuses, and included some more compatriot art links in the Useful Sites section. Which reminds me, I just got an update from my ENIAC administrator that my main site is in need of update. Need a new cursor for my slide rule, too.

I need to apologize the good folks who have added me as friends in Goodreads. I just haven't thought to post reviews there, and I admit to having the "if you can't say anything nice" switch toggled on in my internal editor at the moment. But I'm centrally located between started and done on a variety of Christmas presents at the moment, and promise a writeup on at least one of them this month.

I'm thinking if the Giants and the Bolts can get that far, maybe I can win that contest I entered.

Saw several "seven things" lists on other bloggers' sites recently, and I started two of my own: "Seven things you should never say first after finishing a friend's new poem", and "Seven reasons engineers should make good poets". One list I'm having trouble pruning to seven, one list I'm stuck at two. You decide which is which. And come back later this week to see one of them posted.

Friday, January 11, 2008


Randomness at the end of a long week. Click away now if you're looking for something profound.

For the first time in 18 years, I woke up this morning NOT owning a car made by The Ford Motor Company. For all of you who are thinking Fix Or Repair Daily otherwise Found On Road Dead, let me state clearly: I know you have ample data to support your sneers, but my two Fords served me well for a total of 215,000 miles. Actually, my Tempo was much more reliable than my Focus, but both were more than adequate for me.

Got to thinking what else was different about me 18 years ago. Wasn't married yet, so it's hard to even consider that person I was back then me. I hadn't yet submitted anything for publication other than to my college litmag. As I look back at what I was writing then, there's generally about 2 lines in each "poem" that's still interesting to me. A couple of pieces still work as a whole, but what characterizes my work today is not evident in those poems. Indeed, the ones that work are the farthest departures from my style then and my style now - experiments that found something that worked.

That year did plant the seeds for work that is just sprouting recently, though. My relationship with my father changed - for a significant number of reasons - that year. Since his death a few years agoI've started to realize all the whens and whys of those changes. Some of these have work their way into some poems. Forgetting some of the subject matter was even more fictional then than it is in the poem, I could never have written this in 1990.

It would be interesting to have someone who doesn't know me well compare this to my early dreck and tell me what's changed, and if it's as much for the better as I think. But I'm not ready to share all the dreck yet. Maybe in 18 years.

{Sorry, this poem has been deleted}

Saturday, January 05, 2008

Changed Your Mind?

John Horgan this week posted his answer to's The Question for 2008: "WHAT HAVE YOU CHANGED YOUR MIND ABOUT? WHY?"

Interestingly, The Question is prefaced with:

"When thinking changes your mind, that's philosophy.
When God changes your mind, that's faith.
When facts change your mind, that's science."

I don't 100% agree with this - there are facts outside the realm of science, after all - but it's close enough for the set up of an interesting question.

Like most dabblers*, I change my mind a lot as I acquire more information about an area of interest. Over the years, some of my more surprising evidence-based mind changes have involved men's gymnastics, the musical Cabaret, Bill Clinton, and the color yellow. As far as the literary arts go, here's one I've been changing my mind on, with some decisions made this year:

In the debate on "Spoken Word" versus "poetry", Diane Lockward recently commented (essentially) that works which entertain the ear but don't work on the page are missing an element necessary to define them as poetry. She's right, and here's the learning I've acquired this year. There are three buckets in this debate: Poems which are successful on the page and to the year, poems which are less successful in one or the other of page and ear but which essential contain the craft elements of both, and entertainments which are called poems but are more performance arts that lack elements of poetic craft.

Bucket 3's pretty easy to define: Think Def Poetry Jam, which is 75% entertainments. The other buckets are subjective, but I bet you can name a few poets for each one right off the top of your head. You can read the list of performers at the 2006 Dodge Festival and populate all three buckets quite easily.

Where I've changed my mind is in the acceptance of bucket 3. It's fine for me to internally note that what I'm hearing or reading is not poetry, but it's not necessary for me to set up flares around it and discredit it for anyone else. In fact, if I can use an entertainment to lure someone a step closer to the recognition of poetic craft, then it's served a purpose valuable to poetry, for which God bless it. It's like using the singsongy verse of early childhood to learn a vocabulary and appreciation for poems. Or like using the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles to get a child to ask "Who was the real Donatello?" Maybe that last bit's a stretch.

Anyway, take a look at the (more meaningful) answers at Edge. It's dominated by science-related posts (which is very interesting for me, of course), but I trust there's something for everyone there. I'm disturbed at the infuriating misquote of Emerson a little way down the page, which was used by the Toronto Star to discuss The Question, but I suppose that's a personal problem.

Quick aside: Five days and 12 signatures into the new year, and I haven't written "'07" yet! Go, me! And Happy New Year again!

* - a dabbler in this sense is someone who discovers a topic and becomes progressively more immersed until his or her opinions become better informed, but who doesn't hold back those opinions in the interim. Think of an amateur Asimov.

Friday, January 04, 2008

Ms. Gillan's Grandmother

Delighted to find a poem by Maria Gillan on today's Writer's Almanac. She reads this one frequently (or at least, I've heard her read it a few times here in The Jersey) . Nice to have the King of Ordinary recognize.

A bit from the middle, formatted improperly, as always:

.....Was her heart a bitter
raisin, her anger so deep
it could have cut a road through the mountain? I touch the
tablecloth she made,

the delicate scrollwork, try to reach back to Donna Laura, feel
her life shaping itself into laced patterns
and scalloped edges from all those years between her young
womanhood and old age.

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Resolutions, Part 1

Happy new year!

I hope all six of my loyal readers have had a great holiday season and are poised for a great 2008.

I'll be back soon to begin acting out my NYR's, which include:

Reposting on the relationship between writing and playing chess. It's really simpler than I made it.

Finishing any one of the drafts I started sitting in the airport when my mother's plane was delayed before Christmas. Maybe even posting one here.

Sending out overdue submissions.

Ceasing to worry if my chapbook contest submission actually arrived in December. I mean, it had to. Surely, right?