Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Pushing the Rock

Well, I wasn't a finalist for the Slapering Hol annual chapbook competition. Good experience - both in the paring down of the book to its shortest incarnation yet, and in working with an accomodating contest staff. This is rejection #5 in a little over 2 years, but the guidance I received from Teresa Leo a few weeks ago at the annual Celebration of NJ Journals was not to worry until year 8 - it took her 10 to get The Halo Rule accepted.

Lately I've been wondering if the manuscript I'm shopping around isn't better suited to be a second book. It's not that I'm losing confidence in the poems (though the last couple have contest preps have helped me be a little more brutal about what's "good enough"), but that it's not an unconventional enough theme to be memorable in the harsh and immediate process of a contest screen. My new project is more "quirky", more attention-grabbing in that it's a different kind of presentation on a historical subject many people recognize but few actually understand, and it seems to me therefore more likely to survive the first cut - the one that ends on the first page.

Do first books tend to be more unusual than next books? And what, then, is the point of second book contests? A couple more things to mull while reworking for the September deadlines.

PS: Diane Lockward recently made a series of postings listing journals that read over the summer, for those of you not taking a vacation from the grind.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

The Bronze Age of Poetry?

It’s not that the SoQ poets, then and now, were bad writers – I think you can demonstrate that it’s objectively not the case. But they didn’t create change for poetry in their poetry...

The SoQ (School of Quietude) reference will clearly indicate to anyone who has clicked through the links at the right that this though originates with Ron Silliman. I read his blog religiously for the same reason that I used to fiddle with my father's slide rule: I knew there had to be great ways to leverage it if I could come to understand it.

Before you run away, note that this juxtaposition isn't really that far a stretch. Many replies (to this and any number of his prior posts) criticize Silliman for (1) using labels to categorize poets and (2) implying an absence of talent in the SoQ category. In this short excerpt he has, I think beyond dispute, dispelled both complaints.

First, he clearly says here that there are poets in the derided category that have talent. If you read through his posts, he sometimes names poets whose work he doesn't care for, but who display strong poetic craft. And more importantly, he's made it clear - for me, at least - that his purpose for categorizing is to create a kind of timeline for poetry: overlapping bands that, taken together, clearly illustrate an evolution of poetic craft and purpose. Independently, the terms have some, but greatly diminished and incomplete value, which explains why, when used independently, they lead to misunderstandings and bad feelings.

Look at an analog: Take three terms which describe the evolution of technology preceding the modern age: The Stone Age, The Bronze Age, and The Iron Age. What do the terms do? Create a memorable structure into which to organize basic commonalities (eg: the use of stone tools, the absence of metal forming and metalworking technologies, etc.), not a complete sets of characteristics (doesn't try to capture social structure, regional differences, etc.), and no finite opinions on start/end or on the quality of those who executed within its limits (excellence of workmanship within the limits of the age, etc."). It was possible to have brilliant stone workers who did not, out of ignorance or will, practice metalworking. However, a society that refused to accept and integrate the new technology - as part of its evolution - was likely to die off.

Where my analogy falls apart is that the transitions between Stone, Bronze, and Iron - or more dramatically, the ages themselves - were too far long for individual members of society to feel any pressure from the transition. Silliman seems to be searching for the artists who are clearing the path for the next steps on the evolutionary path in areas where the ages of the art are shorter than the lifespans of their practitioners. Pejorative implications notwithstanding, the application of a term merely identifies a form of the art in which that groundbreaking seems, in general to be absent.

Might there be examples like this in the sciences? Imagine an advanced practitioner, schooled and studied in the branches that have come before, making public the results of a meta-analysis of unprecedented size along with results of her own research and theories. I wonder if such a figure would have more respect inside or outside her discipline. I wonder if fellows would tend to compare the conclusions of the meta analysis with the direction of the research to ask "is this scientist following a consistent and logical direction" or to form opinions of the research and then skim the analysis for bits to quibble with. I wonder.

Anyway, I'm probably way over the top (or drilled down way too deep - your choice) with this discussion. But this idea of classification for consideration is so essential to a technologist's mindset (and I am certainly a technologist first) that I'm regularly fascinated by the dismissal of interesting ideas because they require classifications to commit them to paper.

A quick to those lamenting the impending All-Star Break: If you like, I can rewrite this post using the dead ball era instead of the Stone Age. Less universal, I dare say, but possible....

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Another Writer Accidentally Talking About Poetry

"In narrative non-fiction, I know the entire story, and when I find a lull, I just look around in my memory for something that can keep the story interesting until the next thing happens. I know how it's going to end, so I have a certain amount of security while I'm writing, because I know where I'm going.

In fiction, I have no idea what's going to happen until it's actually happening. I mean, I have a basic outline, and I know that I have to get the guy from point A to point B, but everything that happens along the way is a mystery to me until I write it. This is really scary at first, but eventually it becomes pretty cool."

Wil Wheaton, of whom it can no longer really be said "who is probably best known as Star Trek's Wesley Crusher", has long been making the transition from performer of other people's words (read: actor) to creator of his own words (read: writer). Wil has only recently turned his attention to fiction. Like Douglas Adams in yesterday's quote, Wil is acknowledging the mysterious - and "scary"! - element of creating words from nothing more than the absence of words.

Interestingly, Wheaton is skilled in acting, an artistry foreign and scary to many writers, yet admits to pre-performance jitters when reading his own work (read
his piece on seeing David Sedaris). How deeply felt must be the need to write to face such fear producing AND sharing one's writings?

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Douglas Adams, Poet

"...I don't know where ideas come from, or even where to look for them. Nor does any writer. This is not quite true, in fact. If you were writing a book on the mating habits of pigs, you'd probably pick up a few goodish ideas by hanging around in a barnyard in a plastic mac, but if fiction is your line, then the only real answer is to drink way too much coffee and buy yourself a desk that doesn't collapse when you beat your head against it.

I exaggerate, of course. That's my job."

Douglas Adams was such a poetic purveyor of fiction, I feel perfectly at ease applying any of his comments to poetry. The only other writer whose prose approaches the poetic unpredictability of Adams', whose next word is so infrequently the one you thought it was going to be, is Woody Allen.

I'm reading The Salmon of Doubt right now, being reminded how brilliant Adams could be. Also recently completed Ron Koertge's Shakespeare Bats Cleanup - which deserves its own entry and Goodreads treatment, to come soon.