Friday, December 31, 2010

Resolution: Be a poet.

Before the sadly-no-longer-ageless Dick Clark takes custody of my television and I set my alarm for 11:40 so I can be awake for the annual commemoration, it seems appropriate to take a minute to think upon the year ending this evening.

In terms of my own writing, this was the year I finally pulled the trigger on my chapbook. Is there anything to add to that? The first time I submitted it was a little over 6 years before it finally saw the printer. It was a full-length manuscript then; it contained 55 poems of which about 18 survived the revision and resubmission process into the final cut. Into the mix were folded silent rejections, quiet encouragement, generous advice, familial patience, and finally, sufficient prodding. With a little help from a great designer, the thing in my head finally became a thing in my hand.

The first public viewing of the final product was in July. There, and in the couple of times since that I've taken it to the podium, I've been a little surprised at the positive reception; don't know why, except that having labored on it for so long, I'm fearful about the value of that labor.

And then earlier this month I receive an email from a poet of some renown, all of whose books are on my shelf, someone I've spent more than a little effort emulating, saying he wanted to get a copy of the book. I read the email to my wife. Twice.

And then, a poem from the book appeared at Your Daily Poem, and comments about the poem showed up in my box and on the poems' YDP page. A request to reprint. Invitation to promote the book. Hmm.

I've always felt blessed that so many terrific poets have let me run in their company over the years, and yet always been a little (OK, more than a little) self-conscious to have them introduce me as "also a poet" to their friends. I'm an engineer. A father. An educator. Sure, I write, but that's not what I really am, is it?

Kelli Agodon reprinted this week a list of common traits of successful artists. Her post is worth reading, and the primary trait was that art is the core of their lives. I have never really accepted that about myself. But as Kelli says, "you want to be known as a writer, not someone people run away from because they see your book peeking out of your shirt pocket."

Whatever else I might think, I realize that statement is true for me.

So here's my resolution for the year. I'm going to stop avoiding the word "poet" when I'm chatting with people, especially ones I'm just getting to know. I'm going to talk about the book like I'm proud of it, which I am. I'm going to be a poet when I'm working, when I'm bowling, and when I'm picking up the groceries. With my kids and with my mother. Watching football. And when I'm writing. Which I will do - because that's what I do.

Yeah, I'll waive my hands at losing weight and organizing my closets and not procrastinating, but this is my for-real and for-true resolution: I will be a poet.

Shouldn't be so hard, should it?

Happy New Year. See you back here in January.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

The Christmas Poem, 2010

If it is true that we write to find out what is on our minds, it's pretty clear where my head has been at this month.

Thursday, December 09, 2010

Of Readings and Readings

What makes a good poetry reading? I heard two rules suggested in my visit to the Wednesday Night Poetry Series last week: A crowd that listens and asks good questions, and an open in which everyone participates. I'll add a qualifer to the second: an open in which everyone who participates does so without self-promotion. I don't think it's necessary everyone in attendance read (in fact, I frequently repeat the line that great writing requires great audiences, too, not just other poets waiting for their turn at the microphone). But the WNPS crowd is genuinely a great audience - in the open presenting their own work, readings of classic poems, discoveries from newly uncovered books, etc. and paying such close attention to my invited reading that they were able to teach me something about my own presentation, noticing the musical modes I prefer and making observations about my delivery that surprised me. A great time.

And Sunday in Hoboken, my small but dedicated band of regulars gave a DeBaun and Symposia welcome to Joe Traum, who gave us the gift of some insight into his writing and editing process, as well as some entertaining excerpts from Waking Up. We don't turn out people by the dozen, but our audience contains some great listeners and the ends of our features almost always turn into Q&A.

Which, by the way, is a planned and eagerly anticipated part of the WNPS series, as well. There's something to this.....

Sunday, December 05, 2010

Joe Traum in Hoboken

It's a nice windy day in Hoboken, perfect for stopping in out of the Washington Street wind tunnel to hear Novelist Joe Traum read from his new book "Waking Up". We'll see you there!

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Beginning to look a little like Christmas

With Thanksgiving officially past (as measured in leftovers processed), thoughts turn to holiday tasks. These include mining of family conversations for gift ideas, mulling the possibility of holiday cookies before settling on pfefferneuse and whatever the kids want me to help with (and staying out of the way of the real bakers who us my kitchen as Bake Station Zebra), and the sifting of notes for the annual Christmas poem.

Christmas poses a particular challenge for me. I choose to recognize the holiday with a poem each year, but I don't want to simply contribute to the relentless dreck that passes for art and entertainment every December. As much as I love A Christmas Carol, and for every gem of an interpretation (Alistair Sim, Albert Finney, Kermit the Frog), there are a hundred craptacular ones in sitcom episodes and TV movies. And don't even try to count the Wonderful Life knockoffs.

What pains me is that the horrid imitations have turned people off the originals. So I am further pained if my effort doesn't add something to the literature of the season. While I'm not always successful, the goal has be that it must work as a poem first, not just be "Christmassy".

With one exception, I find that my success is inversely proportional to the length of the final poem. I need to learn to recognize that signal; if I'm having trouble telling the story or getting to the point, there's probably something flawed in the concept. That's true even when it's not Christmas, of course.

It's against policy to talk about a poem in progress - a policy I think most poets stick to - but I can say I'm weaving together present and past, as the holidays lead us to do. Don't know if this will be the last idea I work up (I usually complete 2-3 unrelated drafts before selecting one to refine), bit it seems to have a bit of life to it.

We'll see. Until then --

Thursday, November 25, 2010


I'm thankful for my family in all our loud, busy, need-to-clean-the-living-room-again cacophony. Despite the appalling lack of testosterone.

I'm thankful for the great poets in my life, for their eagerness to teach, and their willingness to welcome.

I'm thankful for being looked on as the kind of man people can approach in moments of need and say "I could really use your help".

I'm thankful for having a good job doing work I love for a company whose products help people lead healthy lives.

I'm thankful for a Jets season that seems to be leading to a productive end, though I haven't started planning the playoff watching party just yet.

I'm thankful for the time I'll spend with Albert Finney, Jimmy Stewart, Burl Ives, Joel Grey, and Peter Ustinov in December.

And I'm thankful for you, my six loyal readers, for letting me spend a little time with you during the past year.

Happy Thanksgiving, all.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Rediscovering My Moss-Covered Three-Handled Family Gredunza

There are many great things about being a parent: the opportunity to teach, seeing your children gain knowledge and confidence and independence, boarding the plane first. Among my favorite is the rediscovery of things I loved as a kid. Today's rediscovery was The Cat in the Hat.

I think many people recall Dr. Seuss fondly, no? And I'm not aware of a person who doesn't get the reference when I say "I do not like that, Sam I Am" (usually right before I try something and discover I like it). But this morning I had the chance to listen to the cat voiced by someone who isn't familiar with the story, who doesn't hear the voice of Allen Sherman in his head while reading, who isn't contaminated by an image of Mike Meyers. And let me tell you, it was remarkable to hear someone discover the story, to encounter the words fresh and repeat and repeat and repeat them just to hear them again.

This is a reminder for me of the casual disdain some artists have for the work that's preceded them. Well, maybe disdain is a harsh word; call it a lack of respect. I think poets are more guilty of this than practitioners of other art forms because technique is - to some - less obvious in poetry than in visual or performance arts. The old-fashioned Broadway musical is sometimes mentioned in the discussion of current shows, or at least the great performers they showcased. Most people can appreciate paintings because they're aware they can't produce similar results with their own brushes and bottles.

But for some reason, it seems hard for some people to pull down their Nortons and reinhabit the old works without mild derision; indifference at best. I haven't recently come across a person (teachers excepted) who thinks of EA Robinson the same way I do. I know the works well, I'm not surprised by the twists, but I read and reread the works to appreciate and relearn the art of the set up, the musicality of his language, the way the rhythms set up the pause before the punch. There's brilliance there, even if the poems belong to the past.

Have you read The Cat in the Hat lately? This is a book that works on at least 4 levels. The language is musical and repetitive and great for an early reader. The story is colorful and loud and funny for a young reader not struggling with words to enjoy reading many times. The artwork complements the story marvelously, and is itself a multilayered experience. And for seasoned readers - and hammy performance parents such as I am - the joy of reading the book aloud to an appreciative audience is almost unmatched.

I think there's something to be learned from that. Something we can think about in our poems. The great works work on the page, in the hear, and in the mouth. They look different from different perspectives, mean different things at each reading and for each reader. Which teaches us: Consider musicality. Consider meaning. Permit ambiguity. Let there be fun.

Let the cat in when your mother is out.

Saturday, November 06, 2010

An Arty Weekend in Hoboken

If you're loitering between the tunnels this weekend, please stop into the Monroe Arts Center on Saturday for an all-afternoon coffeehouse with short features throughout the day by Siobhan Barry, Wafa Al-Rimawi, Joel Allegretti, Sharon Lynn Griffiths, and Mark Brunetti; there will be some terrific musical performances also. This is all part of the Hoboken Artists' Studio Tour weekend, and highlights the new home of The Theater Company at Monroe Arts Center. First performance is at noon, and the day runs until 5PM.

Come back tomorrow to Symposia Bookstore to hear David Messineo and Tony Gruenewald in the November installment of the Spoken Word Series at 3PM. Tony is appearing with us for the first time, and series veteran David will be presenting something series fans haven't seen from him in past appearances, tailored to go with the tone of his latest book, Formal.

Monroe Center is at 720 Monroe Street, Symposia is at 510 Washington Street, and I hope to see you there!

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Things Good Poker Players Know That Many Poets Ought to Learn

I enjoy the game of poker. I enjoy the math, the interplay among the participants, the drama of watching a good game from the sidelines. It occurs to me that much of what attracts me to the game is similar - if not spot-on - to what attracts me to poetry. See if you agree with these principles and how they apply to both poetry and poker. You may need to interchange the word "hand" with the word "poem" once in a while....
  • With very, very rare exceptions, every hand/poem is improvable. You may be holding a great poem in your hands. You may consider it done and it may be excellent, publishable, and memorable. It may be "the nuts". But there may be something else you find, learn or discover later that would improve it. You may not ever find that something, and you may not need it to be successful, but be open to it if it comes along.
  • If you want people around you to take action based on what you hold, it's important what they think of you. It's of course possible to construct a great hand with limited input from other players/poets and limited history of poker/poetry. However, your decisions and your ability to influence people into action are drastically improved if you understand how things work and some of your shared history. At minimum, you need to understand the rules. Bluff all you want, but there are rules.
  • While people may make their decisions based on their opinions of you, there will be times when your only and best influence is to show your cards. Therefore, no matter how effective you are at the rest of the game ("being a poet"), you simply must have the ability to know when you've built a good hand (written a good poem).
  • It is possible - and probably necessary for most people - to combine competitiveness and social behavior. There are certainly Hellmuthian examples of poets being jerks and still being respected for their objectively and genuinely great poems, but you're more likely to get help on the way to Ledererian greatness - purposefully in the form of teaching and subtly in the form of noticing other people's habits - if your default mode is participating, learning, and listening. NOTE: Hellmuth doesn't seem to really be a jerk. Does that matter?
  • Playing with the cover of anonymity (online) can help you hone skills, develop a sense of what's important to you in the game, and learn some of the rules. However, a skilled player/poet with live experience of actual poker/poetry events will detect in seconds if that (individual effort) is your only experience. And if your goal in that meeting is to impress that skilled player/poet and impose your will in some way (win money, gain respect, acquire feedback), it will not end well for you. You must understand the universe to chart your way to the stars.
  • In any large gathering/tournament, there will be participants who will not pay much attention to anything but their own business, who will neither learn nor teach, and who are likely to leave early without having much impact on the rest of the people gathered, though they may have fun, contribute, and enjoy themselves. There is nothing harsh or disrespectful about saying this. It is helpful to recognize the ones who respect the game/art, for those are the ones from whom you can learn.
Think I'm way off? Go try the Poker Professor's "Poker and Zen" first; this little list may seem like the nuts (instead of being "just plain nuts") after that.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Another Obseration from the Second String

In my last entry, I articulated something I hope is not heresy: we're not all great poets, and it's hard to agree what "great" is. Just last month, in a poetry forum I follow, a couple of the poets were wondering what people found so great about Robert Frost. Personally, I think that's a silly question (there are those who think Frost wasn't a great poet? Really?), but I'll entertain the argument. There are, however, poets who can claim to be competent, good even, without a compelling argument available to promote them as great.

Like me, for example.

Now be advised this is not a hook dropped into the community pool in search of praise. But there are a few things I think are necessary (though perhaps not sufficient) conditions for greatness; let me present them along with why I say, with comfort and self-respect, that I don't meet them.
Great artists expand the art. The great poets add new things to their form or bring their form to new applications. They integrate other fields and disciplines and create links among their art and other areas of knowledge not obviously connected. This can be in an individual poem or artwork, a particular body of work, or a career of artistic reaching. Frost added conversational language; Williams added minimalist jazz; etc.

Great poets push an envelope. There's great safety in operating where other artists operate and where opinion of one's work is fairly well assured. Most sitcoms come to the air because of this principle. However, the most interesting and memorable work is that which surprises us, which takes us away from the safe and the known and still entertains us. Of course, there is risk there, because sometimes you stray so far from the known that you lose the audience you are trying to bring. And to know where you start to lose people, to know where that limit is you have to accept that you will breach that line sometimes. My favorite examples here are Family Guy and Pearls Before Swine. Both show great awareness of their forms and history and challenge that form and history all the time. They both are occasionally offensive and frequently brilliant.

Great poets create audiences. I expect some challenge on this one, but I'm not necessarily talking about popularity here. Many artists believe that they create for creation's sake, and are not concerned with reaching an audience. I think that's bunk. While an artist may not be concerned about the quantity of fellow appreciators of that art, they surely believe that fellow appreciators exist and that their artistic wants are not met through conventional artistry. When Pound integrated Chinese characters into the cantos, it wasn't to convince people to study Chinese, or as some sort of barrier to force the casual reader away, it was with the expectation that some readers would want to and be able to "get it", either through prior knowledge or understanding from within the poem, and would appreciate the poems more for it. While this work may not satisfy the conventional fan, these artists make fans of people who weren't fans before - fans of work that may not have existed before. The avant (post-avant?) of any art form operates with the confidence that there is an avant audience waiting for their output.

I think one needs to meet at least two of these criteria to even be considered for greatness. As for my small contributions to the universe of poetry? Well, I dabble in expanding the art sometimes through incorporation of concepts and language from the world of science and engineering. Maybe one day one or two of my poems in that vein will be thought of as great. But I don't live in that space, nor do I seek to bring people into it with me. As for the other two? Not really. My internal editor is set in a very consciously limiting way; there are boundaries I do not care to flirt with except in my journal and writing exercises. More on the what and why of my self-limitation another time.

Again - you don't need to be great to be good, to have an audience, to contribute to the art. We on the B-list can actually better appreciate who we are and what we offer by understanding the A-list and what the members of that list do that we don't. This helps us stay centered on what we can do well without deluding ourselves about things we can't. It helps us focus on connecting with our audience without the false impression that we're blazing new trails for them. I think this is a good thing.

Are we all striving for greatness? Maybe. But being a serious student of the art requires one to know where greatness begins, and where you're standing at the moment.

Saturday, October 09, 2010

A Writing Lesson from Rusty Staub

"He was never a great player, but hit for a good average and good power, and had a strong arm from right field."

Rusty Staub has been my favorite baseball player for as long as I can remember. He played for my father's team and was a dynamic player for them at two formative moments in my life: When I was becoming old enough and aware enough of the team to root for real and not just because rooting earned me a cookie, and again when I began accumulating my own money to spend on tickets. The line above is from his official website, so it must be description of himself that approves of.

I've met Rusty twice, and you wouldn't think from the way people treat him that he "was never... great". He surely made the most of "very good"; he played for 23 years, and was good in every role he had, at first, in right, DHing, or coming off the bench late in the game. He hit .279 for his career (which you may remember was approaching its peak around the same time as the "Year of the Pitcher"), and belted 292 career home runs. I suppose those aren't great numbers. But they were number I could root for. Numbers suggesting accomplishments that were important to me individually, and over a career.

Put your seat belt on; here comes the turn toward poetry.

I'm missing Dodge this year (first time since 1998), in part because of a confluence of busyness at work and home, and in part because of a nasty cold that's just kicking my tuchus mercilessly, so all I've seen is the Thursday night simulcast, where the 24 "featured" poets (though they don't call them anything like that anymore) each read for 4-5 minutes (or in Rita Dove's case, 9). As they paraded by in these short stints, I was wondering which of them I'd call "great", if any. It's not terribly relevant which ones I think compete for the title; the point is simply that (no offense to anyone....), it's probably not all of them.

Forgive me, oh gods of parity and you literarical correctness wonks, but that's the truth. Not everyone who speaks a line of verse during the 2010 Dodge Festival is a great poet. And if I were to name one or two that I think are truly great, I could find 10 people outside the NJPAC right now to disagree. And that's OK.

We don't all need to be great to contribute something to the art. But to contribute, we need to be aware that we are not all great. That the last poem I wrote is probably not "The Man With The Blue Guitar" that the last book I read is probably not Paterson. But there may be some artistic merit in them if we permit them to fill their role - in our own portfolios first, then in our writing communities, then amid the clutter and cacophony that is contemporary poetry.

Heresy? I don't know. Cop-out? Hardly. I listen to Amiri Baraka and read the analyses of Ron Silliman and know immediately where my part-time hobbyism leaves me in the pantheon. But I don't stop writing. I have an audience in mind, an emergence of a style, and an approach I don't see many other poets using. There's something there to contribute. Someone to contribute it to.

My poems, maybe, are the literary equivalent of a good right-handed stick off the bench. Rusty batted lefty; there's room for me on the team.

Saturday, October 02, 2010

Know me, know The Mets

I am a fan of the New York Mets. Even now, with respectability the only goal remaining for the year, I continue to root. I received the requisite training for this during my formative years of fandom. Playing in the street all those summers ago, I modeled my windup after Craig Swan, my right handed stance after Steve Henderson, from the left after Rusty Staub.

As it says somewhere on this page, I also root for the Yankees. You don't need to believe this, but it's the truth. It was much easier to hold this position before interleague play, but even nowadays, I support the pinstripes 156 games a year. When the chips are down, though, such as during the 2000 World Series, or back when I traded my Reggie for a Nino and a Mike and future considerations, the Metsies are my men.

That doesn't mean that I disrespect the Yankees even when I'm turning them off to watch the orange and blue. It would be ignorant of a baseball fan not to recognize the gifts the players on the Yankees have. I learned this attitude from my father.

Not the trading away of the Hall of Famer for two cards and a stick of stale gum. That he'd have though was ridiculous. And not just because of the legacy of the Seaver trade.

Anyway, here at the end of the season, I still want to know how the Metropolitans did, and I'm interested in seeing the young kids get their ABs because I'll be back next year to watch them again, because my father came back every year for them, too.

What does this have to do with poetry? Not a lot, I suppose, except for those poems where the Mets and baseball feature prominently. Or maybe in more places than that. Being a fan, coming back when you think there's more to see or to learn or to accomplish, the wanting others to succeed, these are attitudes that tend to pervade one's approach to life and writing.

I learned that from my father, too.

Back to poetry after the end of the season.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

In which the author refuses to let the Blogger monthly counter indicate a completely delinquent September

Confluence: Start of the school year, end of the fiscal year, start of some new teaching projects, ramp up of the drive to book reading events in the coming year, start of the DeBaun calendar (including rework of the schedule because we completely goofed on October).....

.... and one very nice, interesting thing. Started up a lunchtime writer's group in my office. Shouldn't have been surprised, I suppose, to find 15 energetic writers on a corporate campus, but I admit I didn't expect to find quite so much enthusiasm. Not just poets in the group, so I suggested a prompt I thought would be adaptable to any style: Start a poem or a paragraph with "Now that I can....". It would (IMHO) go against spirit of a new group to tell you much more, but I'll say that it worked pretty darned well.

For our next meeting, we've taken prompts in advance, giving ourselves a month to work on them. I'll be curious to see how well the variety works among forms in that case; I suspect that time favors the prosers. What do you think?


I'll be using the Facebook page to keep track of reading dates in the coming months, and all the DeBaun date are up to date there, so please head over there and "Like" my author page if you're interested.

And with any luck, I'll not be absent from here for the next month in the process.....

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Delete Your Darlings

Read over your compositions, and wherever you meet with a passage which you think is particularly fine, strike it out. - Samuel Johnson
(courtesy iGoogle Quotes of the Day)

Best. Advice. Ever.

This was the hardest thing for me to accept as I entered the home stretch with "To The Ones...". On an intellectual level, I realized that I wasn't objective about some parts of the manuscript. A lot of that's because there are scenes in there derived from real-life experiences with my kids, and it's hard to separate neutral-to-negative comments about the associated writings from neutral-to-negative comments about the events and kids themselves. Of course, that's complete nonsense, which I know - on one level.

I had some great and generously honest feedback on my manuscript that left me with two choice: reject the consistent feedback of poets I admire and defend my personal position on poems I'd been close to for years, or accept that maybe - just maybe - I might not be seeing those poems clearly.

You'll have to read the book for yourself and tell me whether I was successful in processing the feedback, but my clear intent was to listen.

I've also passed Johnson's advice along to other writers; usually I add "because those are the parts you're not objective about". Aside from "Read, read, read", I think it's the best guidance a writer can take to heart.

What's your favorite bit of advice?

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Appearing in the Rutherford Red Wheelbarrow 3....

Very pleased to announce I'll have two poems in THE RUTHERFORD RED WHEELBARROW 3. Take a look at the company I'm keeping in this issue. My thanks to the editors for permitting me entry to this prestigious club!


The Rutherford Red Wheelbarrow No. 3
ISBN 978-0-557-58376-8
Paperback: 232, Price: $15
Red Wheelbarrow Poets, August 2010

Editor: Jim Klein
Managing Editor: Mark Fogarty
Managing Editor: Sondra Singer Beaulieu
Designer: Claudia Serea
Editor Advisor: John Barrale
Editor Advisor: Céline Beaulieu
Editor Advisor: George DeGregorio

Contributors (in alphabetical order):
John Barrale
Céline Beaulieu
Sondra Singer Beaulieu
Marian Calabro
Teresa Carson
George DeGregorio
Gil Fagiani
Jane Fisher
Mark Fogarty
Elissa Gordon
Max Greenberg
Roxanne Hoffman
Pamela Hughes
Josh Humphrey
Gail King
Jim Klein
Melanie Klein
Janet Kolstein
Joel Lewis
Maria Lisella
Pete Loria
Zorida Mohammed
Michael O'Brien
Moira O'Brien
Tony Puma
Gabriella Radujko
Susan Rappaport
Susanna Rich
Dan Saxon
Claudia Serea
Ed Smith
Rosemarie S. Sprouls
Anna Toher
John J. Trause
Miyuki Tsurumaki
David Vincenti
B.J. Ward
Dorinda Wegener
Don Zirilli
Sander Zulauf

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Saturday Rounds

Finally, an appropriate piece about the death of publishing, by The Morning News's Non-Expert.


Via Diane Lockward, a new online anthology, with the pleasant surprise of work from old favorite Joseph Bruchac and the promise of more from other terrific poets soon.


Fascinating debate raging on the New-Poetry mailing list about Robert Frost, the gyst of which seems to be that he wasn't genuine in the character his poems suggested. Or that his poems are too cliche or out of touch to be meaningful today. I think there have been so many Frost imitators that we lose sight of what Frost was when his work was new, and I still think he's among the best ways to introduce poetry to kids. A short side thread wanted to compare Frost to Williams and to Stevens, which is - in my opinion - like comparing (in no particular order) spaghetti with sushi with hot dogs. Sure, they're all food, but what does the comparison get you?


Note to Monopoly fans: If you fancy yourself a serious player (which I do) and you allow yourself to join a game using a Disney(tm) Princess Junior game set (which I did), you should expect to lose to the youngest player by 4x the starting bankroll (which.... no comment).

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Hey, buddy, can you spare a workshop idea?

I have an ongoing relationship with dandelions. The first poem I ever had accepted for print by someone who wasn't also grading my term papers was called "Dandelion". It was a lovely bit of syrup and I remember fondly the poem and the time in my evolution as a writer it represents (my "early Crayola" period). When I first started shopping around to lead poetry workshops with kids, that poem was one I turned to as an example - it was simple, suitable for audiences as young as 3rd grade, not entirely awful, and contained a few teachable elements - but I never thought of it having much use for workshops with adults, or even older kids.

This month (well, next month, actually), I'll be looking for ideas to jump start a new writers' group, and I like the idea of starting with a workshop based on dandelion poems. It's subject matter everyone can attach to, both visually and metaphorically, yet have a range of reactions to on either axis. That's key for me, because this group will contain writers at levels ranging from accomplished to novice.

The old blogroll will serve me well in this case; starting right at the top with Adele Kenny, there are a dozen good ideas easily accessible (in the IT sense, not the New Formalist or any other "school" sense). But I'm open to suggestions, too.

Do you have any workshop ideas that you've seen work with a widely divergent audience?

Thursday, August 05, 2010

Don't even think of talking here

Ron Silliman has turned off the comments stream for his blog because he chooses to no longer moderate the vitriol. Somehow, some people have interpreted this as an offense against readers who do not favor L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry. I'm not sure how anyone can reach this conclusion.

A number of people calling into sports shows I follow have lamented that "because of steroids", Alex Rodriguez' 600th home run is meaningless. Really? While I understand people's disappointment in tarnished heroes, I don't know how, at least if you're not a Yankee-hater, you dismiss the accomplishment.

Wil Wheaton is attending a gaming convention this weekend and has decided to execute a Howiemandelic maneuver and not shake hands with people during the covention as a way to avoid illness. This has some people offended, and they've made that known in his comments stream.

Common thread here seems to be to find a way to subtract from the importance you assign to persons of accomplishment who do somehow not permit us to apply our values to their work. Or maybe that without the direct link we want to a person with talents we recognize, we choose instead to have no links at all. I don't get this at all.

It's not that we can't feel loss, even deprivation at something taken away. But how does it subtract from the pleasure of experiencing the artistic product to have diminished respect for the artist? I'd have to delete half my playlist if perfect respect for the performer were a requirement for enjoying the music. The message is "I am not interested in your talent of you don't deliver it to me in the way I choose."

In the specifics of Silliman's comment stream, my question is: if you have something to say in response to one of his posts, why is the only place you can say it on his website? If you object to the elimination of his comment thread, isn't that the same thing as resenting losing a forum for your own words? Does he have an obligation to provide not only his time and energy, but also an audience for his readers?

That's the question. What's the answer?

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Ta daa!

Well, I suppose it's official now. I've sold copies of my chapook, and not to people with whom I share a maternal grandparent. It was a quite an odd experience in the end - trusting the nice manager at Borders, seeing the books with the Borders price tags on them (I saved one!). But it was a terrific night - first time I've heard a full set from Barbara Crooker, who was just tremendous, and her incredible energy and broad artistry were an interesting balance for my pensive positions, or so we heard from a number of audience members.

The audience included some students of a Stevens classmate; she's left engineering behind and now leverages her technical skills as a high school science teacher, and she introduced some of her former students to the poetry scene with our little event. It's always nice to be able to show people that you can be a good scientist or engineer and still take an interest in the arts. And a great gift to spend a few minutes with someone who knew you when, and has the time and inclination to give you a few minutes today.

The DVP audience is quite a friendly crowd, some poets I know well, some less well, and it was a joy to be able to offer To the Ones there for the first time.

Extending the good feeling and the reach of our corner of the PoBiz, Barbara's "Patty's Charcoal Drive-In" was featured on YDP this week, as were poems by Diane Lockward and Scott Summers.

Up next, taking the book where the book wants to go.....

Sunday, July 04, 2010

As long as I'm not watching the fireworks....

(Aside: blah, blah blah, long time, busy busy, blah blah blah.)

I just clicked "Send" on a submission for the first time in (according to my iGoogle clock) 148 days. Partly, I admit, to celebrate completing a poem for the first time in about 50 days. It's a good feeling. And I don't think it's unrelated to finally pulling the trigger on the chapbook.

Yes, boys and girls, I have left the dithering at the dock and committed the chapbook to print. A short debate with Scott Summers over the value of self-publishing recently gave me a chance to confirm to myself that self-publishing is OK with me for this project. I've articulated the reasons before. And yes, I do still think there's a publisher out there who would be interested in the collection, but I also believe that the probability of aligning the manuscript with that publisher at the confluence of their resources (time, money, and submission period) is low, and I want, for a number of reasons, not to roll the dice to discover that alignment any longer.

It's true that you can get backed up artistically, I think. That it gets hard to bite off something new while you're chewing over and over on something you'd like to be done with. I'm not exactly done with the old, here, as I'll be taking it on the road and hopefully moving a few in the months to come, but moving the project out of composition and into presentation makes it a different animal. One that takes energy, yes, but which also creates it in a real way. I don't think I'm alone in thinking this.

So let's see. If I'm right, I'll be bringing that energy to a venue near you soon.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

A Father's Fathers' Day

"...We’ve thrown in rain,
we’ve thrown in darkness, once in March we
put on gloves under our gloves and threw in snow
and always to the soundtrack of our conversation,
a father and son’s seeds for a garden of love
I pray will bloom all seasons. ..."

From Ed Romond's Bald Spots, up today at YDP.

The thing that strikes me most today is how different my relationship with my kids is than the one I had with my father. That's partly a function of our respective generations, of course, but also a function of those unexplainable differences that make us all different. My father and I played a lot of baseball together when I was younger - a lot of golf when I was older - and it's not like I played those games reluctantly. But I was always aware that I was not driven the same way he was. I was always a little more joyful in the doing, a little less interested in the level of the achievement (after a point, that is - like him, I've always had the desire to do well anything I cared enough about to do at all).

Looking back at the defining moment in our relationship - the day I brought back to my parents' house a new car I had selected and paid for without their help - and how different our times together were after that, I begin to realize he was always pushing me to be "good enough". We may have had different definitions of that, but I see now that once he was convinced I would neither starve to death nor go bankrupt outside his care, all the (occasional) tension between us fell pretty much away.

Now, I know it's not that simple. Nothing is ever that simple, and the frosted lens of memory covers over many details that would complicate my conclusion. But the thought reminds me today of the father I want to be - the kind whose children are happy in the doing, who are able to do what they choose to do as well as they choose to do it, who are safe and know how to stay so, and who are able to find joy in their decisions. Baseball's not part of our repertoire; we're more likely to sit down at the piano together than go outside to play ball, but it's not really all that different than the way Ed sees things when he's with his son. It's just that our misunderstood imperfections are broken keys - "no music" spots, maybe - instead of the patches in Ed's lawn.


Here, by the way, are three things I think all fathers should share with their kids on Father's Day:
  • An activity they can do while laughing
  • A meal they can eat with their hands
  • A nap.

And so I'm off.

A Happy Fathers' Day to my many role models in the job.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Kibble (the stuff that's not quite up to "Bits" standards)

Wouldn't it make more sense for Mothers' Day to be coincident with the end of the (grammar) school year? As much as I think of myself as an involved and enlightened father, it seems sensible to celebrate mothers at the same time the day-to-day schlepping of the a school year hits a little bit of a lull.

Of course, "camp" starts soon enough...


At YDP, Jayne Jaudon Ferrer has been celebrating fathers this week. As always, her selections span from contemporary to classic, and the idea that we have been exploring our relationships with our fathers for hundreds of years is somehow comforting to me.

Jayne posted this week one of my favorite father-themed poems by I writer I am getting to know better this year. Go read Gregory Orr's "Father's Song" and, if you've been around these parts for long, you'll quickly see that it's the kind of poem I frequently aspire to write.

Today's poem, by the way, is by Jerseyan and literarymama columnist Ona Gritz; her work is always worth a visit.


I hereby concede to the spammenters. Comment moderation is now turned on here. I get so few comments, it's not a big deal, but it is ridiculous.

And yes, I will continue to prevent anything I find offensive from appearing in the comments section (though now proactively instead of through deletion. My mother visits here, after all.


Ron Silliman was in Poetry in June. He was last in that august periodical in 1969. I think that says something, but I'm not sure exactly what.

The issue in which he appears has letters on both sides of a "controversy" regarding the value, or maybe the appropriateness, of having poets explain their work. This may be particularly meaningful in an issue in which Silliman appears, given his ongoing position that most poets put so little effort into the craft that there is no "other layer" to the work - that most things people call "poems" today are at best interrupted prose in consideration of sitcom-quality topics (all of that is in my words, by the way, not his...). And I know that even I, whose work is not nearly as many-layered or allusive as that of the great poets I follow, grow weary of people stopping in the middle of a poem to ask "what does it mean?" However, I find the vehemency of some poets' opposition to explanation just as wearying. If we want to grow poetry's audience, we need to provide some opportunity for people to latch onto it. And once latched on, the explanations are irrelevant. Explanations are like the instructions to a great board game like History of the World. We cling to the directions when we're learning, but once we are proficient we leave them in the box and just play.

Why is this such a problem for some poets?


Quote today on iGoogle: "Rational arguments don't usually work on religious people. Otherwise, there wouldn't be religious people." (it's attributed to Doris Egan, but I don't know if it's her or one of her characters speaking). Now, as a daily practitioner both of my Roman Catholic faith and my technology career, I think this is selling people of faith a bit short, but that's for another forum. What's interesting to me is that you could substitute just about any subject about which people feel passionately for the religious connotation in this statement. For example, could you imagine hearing "Rational arguments about poetry don't usually work on poets. Otherwise, there wouldn't be poets."? Or soccer fans? Are annoyed with sportscasters feeling obliged to tell us how they don't like soccer everyday during the World Cup? I don't care if you like soccer (I'm not a fan, really, either), but don't disparage people who do. Likewise poetry.

BTW, doesn't this link clearly to the explanation argument? If the fervent are dismissive of the explanations, and the uninitiated are dismissive of the explanations, is there anywhere for the two to connect?


Today is one of six days every year (well, 11 days back in 2000). I root against the Yankees. Forgive me, please!


And in case I don't get back to you, Happy Father's Day!

Friday, June 04, 2010

Draft: One For My Father

Discussing the object of our respective writings, a poet friend recently asked me if I'd written much about my own father, wondering if exploring that relationship was somehow evolving parallel with my exploration of the relationships I'm seeking with my own children. I realized, and said in response, that I'd done quite a bit of writing when he died - going on 10 years ago, now - but much recently. Not long after, I had a nice long car ride in which to think about that. And this is the season for me to think about time: his birthday (he'd have been 69 this month) and Father's Day are close enough together to concentrate my energy on on his memory for a while, and it's about this time every year that I realize that I am more like him than I am like any other person - and I understand him a little better each time I reach that realization.

Of course, he'd slap me senseless for going on like this. He believed firmly that thinking of those who have gone ahead was akin to shouting down a well - might get some words out of your system, but you're not doing anyone else any good.

I disagree. But I'm also OK with that if it's true. Here's one for my dad.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Long Weekend Bits

Is it just me or do long weekends have a way of becoming fuller than shorter ones?


Been a busier May than I'd have designed, though I finally (this morning) clicked off my iGoogle Days Since I Completed A Poem reminder. 103 days is a long time. A number of drafts accumulated since then, but with the focus on the chapbook, I haven't been transcribing much. Getting to a couple readings this month has certainly helped, as has having a couple of long solitary car rides in which to aerate the idea factory.


The chapbook, you ask? Well, TTOWMBL v2.0 (the Beta) has seen daylight. I've even allowed left it out on a table for passersby to pick up and flip through. Of course, even in a poet's home, the probability that a book of poems will be noticed and read isn't exactly a given. But I'm trusting it. I don't know that it's done, but I have a few weeks before my self-imposed deadline of Father's Day to get comfortable with it. I've got one more small change in the contemplation stage; decision soon.


May ends for me with the start of the Memorial-Day-to-Father's-Day run, which includes my father's birthday; Dad's been gone for the better part of a decade now. The balance for me is to stay in the moment as a father without sacrificing moments of reflection. That may contribute to how long this weekend feels for me each year.


A completed draft tomorrow, maybe....

Friday, May 21, 2010

In which the author intends to skip the excuses and get directly to the business of blurbing about where we've been for two weeks. But fails.

I gauge my efficiency by the status of my inbox. At work, if I go two successive weeks without reducing the length of un-responded to emails my inbox to less than 1 screen (about 40 messages), then I know I'm slipping. I'm a little less compulsive at home, there it's "no more than one new page" (about 50 messages).

After an hour this morning I've cut the home account back to 200 unprocessed emails. Ugh. Faring much better at work, because the hierarchy is always 1/2 Family, 2/1 Work, 3 Health, 4 Community, 5 Art. But the problems not (usually) that I don't read these emails, it's that I keep thinking I'm going to do something with them.

Are we all like that? I receive 3 poems in my inbox every day: YDP, AAP (until they go exclusively to the iPhone, anyway) and TWA. I've long ago stopped being able to visit PD every morning - it's more of a monthly catch up with me now. But with many of the poems, I find that there's something keeping me from dispositioning it. Something I want to share, or imitate, or research, or - Forgive me, Lord - try to do better than it was done in the poem I just read.

I think this has been exacerbated for me this year with the focus on the chapbook, rather than on new writing: two rounds of reordering an rewriting, doing some local readings from the book to get the feel of how it hang together, etc. Heck, just deciding to and weeding through options to self publish was a lost month.

And could someone have warned me the urge to rewrite poems once you see the book laid out as as an actual book would be overwhelming? Anyway....

Now that I'm coming out the end of the book process (my goal was available by Father's Day - it'll be close....), the new poems are coming again, and the urge to keep piles of papers all around me (virtually and physically) seems to be going away. Which is nice.


Recent goodnesses: Attended Diane Lockward's annual festival at the West Caldwell Public Library; couldn't stay for it all, but what I saw was great as always - picked up a couple new books (Weil, Gwyn) and current journal issues.

Visited Connecticut for the first public airing of the poems from the anthology Crush (about romantic crushes in all their forms...) upcoming from Hanover Press. The official launch is in June, but I wanted to become acquainted with the work in whose company I find myself. I think this will be a terrific book, and I'm very pleased to be included.

More soon.

At least that's the plan.

Sunday, May 09, 2010


AAP ( is suggesting an untinterrupted hour of reading or writing time. is suggesting gift certificates to some pretty good restaurants and offering some deep discounts as encouragement.

The Metsies are having an honorary bat girl today as part of the Going to Bat Against Breast Cancer initiative.

Everyone who writes has written about their mothers (one great example is BJ Ward's "Upon Being Asked Why I Dedicated My First Book To My Mother When There's Not A Single Poem In There About Her" from Gravedigger's Birthday)

However you note it, use Mother's Day to acknowledge the small moments that otherwise go unacknowledged. A little thanks is worth more than a bunch of brunch.

Or so I've heard.

Happy Mother's Day.

Thursday, May 06, 2010

Cruising down the 405....

Post 405, that is - the 405th entry into this little corner of The Internets. Another busy week, so some bits and pieces as we pass through the neighborhood of the FOD:


Deborah Ager is running an online poetry workshop, part of the proceeds of which go to support 32 Poems magazine.


Elizabeth Lund has a new short review of two recent New and Selecteds, from Robert Hass and Kay Ryan.


Many of our friends will be appearing in one way or another at this year's Celebration of New Jersey Journals, hosted by Diane Lockward and featuring a seventh annual collection of readers selected from the pages of local magazines.


More general busyness likely the next few days, though I do hope to get to my notes from the great JNJP reading last week while the experience still echoes for me. Like I hope Jason Bay finds his lucky batting gloves soon.


Saturday, May 01, 2010

This Day in May

by James Schuyler

The morning sky is clouding up
and what is that tree,
dressed up in white? The fruit
tree, French pear. Sulphur-
yellow bees stud the forsythia
canes leaning down into the transfer
across the park. And trees in
skimpy flower bud suggest
the uses of paint thinner, so
fine the net they cast upon
the wind. Cross-pollination
is the order of the fragrant day.
That was yesterday: today is May,
not April and the magnolias
open their goblets up and
an unseen precipitation
fills them. A gray day in May

(courtesy AAP Poem-a-Day)


NatPoMo is over. Did you hear the gong at midnight? How did you do versus your goals? I did OK: touched a book of poems every day, attended at least one poetry event, completed at least one draft. Setting the minimum goal I did (put one book a day away) had made it easy to do. I could either do something with the book or not, but I had to touch it. Once it's in your hand, why not open it?


One third of the way through the year, I've accumulated 23 posts. That's a bit off the pace I wanted to hold, which was 2 per week (100 for the year). I can blame Blogger for eating two I tried to make this week, but I'd still be about 10 off where I wanted to be. I've said before, it's not the posting pace I care about per se, it's being immersed enough in poetry to have something interesting enough to say twice a week. But the truth is that poetry comes third for me, after the family and the job - that's not a complaint, it's a scaling of expectations - which makes the application of minimums important. And utilization - making the most of the moments in which I can choose to immerse.


Actually, poetry's fourth when the Mets are in first. Hah!


One thing I did make time for was the JNJP reading last week, which you know of you're following me on Facebook. Sandy Zulauf always presents a great show at County College of Morris and this was not an exception. Two hours of poems and music (and great cheeses!), about which more later.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Returning after a few days, the author's head is filled with miscellany and thoughts of Fudge Stripe Cookies...

You go away for a couple days, things happen in your absence. You actually take a day or two to clear your head, and you start to hear the muse again. You pay attention to the muse, and observations come your way again. A few such...

Observation from poetry world: Adele Kenny has joined to the universe of online commentators at, providing material from and suitable for her workshops. One of her first entries is on poetry presentation, including this note on reading speed: "Sometimes the proper pace seems ridiculously slow, but it’s really not." I usually put it this way: If you feel like your reading a little too slowly, you're reading almost slowly enough.


Observation from the getaway: If you don't like to get wet, don't go to a water park.


Observation from the poetry world: Having given Copper Canyon's anthology "The Poet's Child" another chance during vacation (I'd put it aside after the second poem that seemed to reject the whole idea of having children), I of course found some great stuff in it. I need in particular to learn more about the work of Gregory Orr; every time I come across his work I feel a keen connection.

But I still think poets about not liking children are out of place in such a book.


Observation from the getaway: The only itinerary acceptable to the under-12 set is the one in which every possible dessert gets sampled. This is not possible. Plan your life lessons in advance of the trip, not in line at the buffet.


Observation from the getaway: The books are right; your attitude changes immensely with just a short battery recharge. Monday morning looms, and you still have too much to do, and it's not possible to do it all (see: buffet, above), but somehow the same activity list seems less impossible.

Of course, summer camp season is a whole different story.


Observation from baseball: The Mets' solution to dealing with a struggling player back from a year away with injury is to put him in a higher-pressure position he knows less about? I don't have to wait for summer camp to know how I feel about that one.


Meter reads full. Off to the routine...

Monday, April 19, 2010

Comedic Kinship

"So part of me wants to let them see my weird side. And part of me wants them to see the serious craft it takes to dig this stuff out and turn it into art. And there's some need for me to connect with them. This whole thing is probably about connecting. Standing up in front of people is saying 'Hey, folks, look at me, ain't I great? Please induct me into your imaginary club of people you like. I want to be in that.' And there's the need to find things out about them. To make kinships. 'I feel this way about ... Volvos and farts.' 'Yeah! Me too!' 'You too? OKAY?'"

As usual, George Carlin says it best. And if this little rant, ostensibly about stand-up comedy, doesn't also apply to poetry, then I don't know what poetry is.

About Last Words, I'll say that that it's a bit disturbing to find out as much about Carlin as he admits in the book (though not really all that surprising). But over the course of Carlin's telling of his own life story, there was demonstrated time and again the same evolution in his comedy that is typical of the evolution of a writer - we start out as mimics, grow a little into learning an audience and giving them what they want, get lost for a while in a recursive loop of imitiating our early successes, then emerge into a discovery of voice that dominates the rest of our careers.

Or is that just me?

PS: Read the book!

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

MidPoMo Muttermutter

The heck with lilacs and dead land, tax season for Met fans is the very definition of cruelness. But more to the point, a little unexpected business and the pace of posting grinds to a halt. Not exactly cruel, but definitely disheartening when you feel like you've found a rhythm (7 posts in 11 days - unheard of in this little corner of the internets). Anyway....


Attended Diane Lockward's reading last weekend, the second annual event where she works with students in a local college's Poetry class. The students learn her work, design a reading for her to deliver, then host her in it. It's interesting to see what people who (1) have little emotional attachment to the work and (2) aren't in PoBiz look for in a reading. The students selected more of Diane's darker work (not that her books don't contain darkness, but her readings don't usually feature it); I suppose that shouldn't surprise me, should it?


Maureen Berzok continues her tour of NJ Poets, landing on Peter Murphy, Amiri Baraka and BJ Ward, Charles Johnson, and Frank Finale in the past week. Wow.

NJ always amazes me with its diverse and active community of poetry voices, so I was a little surprised this evening to find that a celebration / open-mic at my local library had been cancelled due to lack of interest. We seem to think that a National Whatever Month will bring the Whatever to people not already members of the Whatever community, but I don't think that's how it works. It seems to be a reminder to those who already hold the interest to make some time to celebrate. Not that that is a bad idea, but I don't know that it's the intent.

There are exceptions, of course. Diane Lockward leads a poetry reading in honor of Women's History month - a nice juxtaposition of interests - that attracts a large (and not exclusively female) crowd. I'm thinking the point for us as poets and lovers of poetry should be to use the art to connect outside the indoctrinated, or to bring something new to an event where poetry isn't an obvious direction.

Like Father's Day, maybe?


The cancelled poetry event at my library wasn't a total loss. I signed up for a "Blind Date With A Book", an event where you get a book for free with the request to read it. That's all. If you write a short review, you can be eligible for an iPod Nano. Sounds like a good deal to me. Tell you more about the book when I get into it.

I also borrowed George Carlin's last book and Steve Allen's How To Be Funny. I've always felt a kindred spirit between comics and poets - particularly comic strip writers and poets. File these under the heading of "continuous personal development". And "Good bedtime beading".


Rather long an interesting debate going on in the New Poetry discussion group about "taking a break from" "difficulty poetry", which has evolved into definitions of a scale of accessibility and what it says about the writer and the reader. I don't think it'd be in the spirit of the group to reproduce it all here (and it would be a colossal chore to cut an paste it all), but you can imagine some of the vectors the discussion has followed. As usual, there are those who consider "accessible" a synonym for "simplistic". Surely that's not always the case.

I think the whole argument misses the point. For me, there are only two questions that matter: "Is this a poem?" and "What can I get out of it?" The former specifically asks for awareness and evidence of craft. The second is can be answered in infinite ways, from providing a good story, to being a great example of form, to teaching me mythology, to anything else.

When we look at a piece of visual art, do we consider "accessibility"? No, we classify it and determine if we like it. That's it. Same should apply here.


Tomorrow is Tax Day, MidPoint of NatPoMo, and a day off for all the 3B on my fantasy baseball team. There's a certain combination of peace and pain in each of those, don't you think?

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Tom Plante in Hoboken This Sunday

Tom Plante
April’s Spoken Word Artist

Performance Date: April 11, 2010, at 3 p.m., with open microphone following
Location: Symposia Bookstore, 510 Washington St., Hoboken, NJ (Accessible by PATH & Light Rail),
Admission: FREE, with $3 suggested donation
Information: or 201-216-8933

Hoboken, NJ: For the final installment of the 2009–2010 Spoken Word Series, DeBaun Center for Performing Arts and curator David Vincenti have chosen a well-published artist to be featured on Sunday, April 11, 2010, at 3 p.m.—Tom Plante. The Spoken Word Series, co-hosted by Siobhan Barry-Bratcher and David Vincenti, is presented monthly at Symposia Bookstore, 510 Washington St., Hoboken, NJ.

Tom Plante grew up on Long Island in East Rockaway, NY. After a couple false starts at college, Tom traveled to the West Coast, where he earned a B.A. in Geography from the University of California at Berkeley. Tom published a literary magazine, Berkeley Works, and labored in the wholesale book business before moving to New Jersey in 1986. He continued his journalistic work with the Irish Echo in New York City, the Scotch Plains-Fanwood Times, and the Courier News in Bridgewater, NJ. In 1996, he was awarded a first prize for editorial writing by the New Jersey Press Association. Since 1988, Tom has edited EXIT 13 Magazine, an annual journal of poetry that he publishes in Fanwood, New Jersey. As an editor, he has participated in a variety of festivals and workshops, including the Union County Teen Arts Festival, the Long Branch Poetry Festival, the Walt Whitman Poetry Festival in Ocean Grove, and the annual Celebration of New Jersey’s Literary Journals held in West Caldwell. Tom is a co-director of the Fanwood Arts Council. The most recent collection of his poetry is My Back Yardstick (CC Marimbo Communications, Berkeley, 1998).

Tom will read from his works and then the microphone will be open to the public to share their work. Although it is not necessary to pre-register to attend the event, those interested in sharing their work during the open mic are asked to sign up at 2:45 p.m. Open mic participants are asked to limit their work to five minutes per person.

The Spoken Word Series takes place at Symposia Bookstore, 510 Washington St., Hoboken, NJ. Symposia is the only used bookstore in Hoboken and has great prices for used books, wireless Internet access and many events every week. This is the sixth year DeBaun Center for the Performing Arts and Symposia Bookstore have teamed up to co-produce the Series. With each reading, more and more people are introduced to this wonderful bookshop and the work of many superb artists.

For more information, please visit, email or call 201-216-8933

The 2010–2011 Spoken Word Series will begin on September 12, 2010.

Put Another Nickel In...

Been thinking about music today. Facebookies who follow me there got a link to Ed Romond's "It Must Have Been The Snow", which I thought of after Maureen Berzok's posting of some lyrics by Jersey natives as part of her JerPoMo observations. Some song lyrics can stand on their own as poems (Yes, Mr. Conley, I remember the mimeographs of Billy Joel lyrics), and I'm wondering if poets have a natural inclination, or an "in" if we want one, to songwriting. In the end, I think it's not as natural as one would think.

Some differences in the approach a songwriter might take to writing are:
  • Priority of structure and rhyme - if your objective is a song, you're more likely to contain your lines and force rhymes into these lines. True, many poets do this in poems as well, but your choice of rhythms is somewhat limited by what is "singable".
  • Necessity of a refrain - Folks songs excepted, most songs have a repeated section, introduced thematically early in the piece and permitted to return - this limits the length of content that can be presented. Mandates a stanza length, if you will.
  • Constraint on length - a song, to function as a song, has a meaningful lower length limit and (great writers and bands excepted) a practical upper limit.
  • More subtly, melody influences word choice, because some phrases become impossible (or unattractive) with some choices in musical phrasing. Of course, this works in reverse as well.

I've written three songs in my life that I'd be comfortable dusting off for performance, and none of their lyrics work as poems for me. Actually, one derives from a poem written by a friend in college, and in turning it into a song, I gave up quite a bit of his structure, to the point where he didn't like what I'd done with it because the structure loss dragged some meaning with it. Not good or bad, but not the same.

This is an interesting observation for me. I've been a musical performer (singer and instrumentalist) for over 30 years, a practicing poet for much less than that), which I think is why I naturally impose rhythm and sound (though not rhyme) at the expense of word choice sometimes. I guess I never really thought that through before. My friend, though also a talented performer, is by profession a teaching scientist -a purveyor of natural truth through precise language - and therefore less likely, I believe, to trust the music over the words.

This trade-off I see between music and meaning makes Ed Romond's accomplishment so much more impressive for me - the lyric functions as a poem and doesn't (appear to) sacrifice much in word choice for the sake of the song, but the song has a great rhythm and a memorable, hummable melody. And Ed can play guitar.

Friday, April 09, 2010

Where, oh Where, has my Underdog Gone?

Many people followed the Butler Bulldogs up to the near-miracle near-basket that would have beaten Duke in the NCAA Men's Basketball tourney, but there was an even better (if colder) story brewing in the Men's Hockey over the past week where the RIT Tigers knocked off two schools with long-established Division I programs (RIT's is only 5 years old) to reach the Frozen Four. Their push came to an end on Thursday as Wisconsin knocked them off, 8-1. A great run for an unlikely team. What a great winter season for college sports.

So, uh, where are the underdogs to root for in the coming seasons?


While we're considering underdogs, unlikely candidates for our energy and affection, may I make a pitch for all of us, during NatPoMo, to find a poet from a non-Borders bookshelf and give them a chance to win us over? I've discovered a number of poets that way - some of whom I've later discovered were quite well-known, just not to me. I think that's a great feeling, to grow to love the art before you know you're "supposed" to.

I've gotten to know a number of poets that way, and had the good fortune to meet some of the them afterwards, and without exception they've been pleased (and surprised) when they discover you knew their work before you happened upon them in person. So it's a gift for the poet, as well as to yourself.

As Gregory Orr said, "Whenever I read a poem that moves me, I know I'm not alone in the world. I feel a connection to the person who wrote it, knowing that he or she has gone through something similar to what I've experienced , or felt something like what I have felt."


Another underpoet sentiment might be a request to folks organizing festivals and events this year to consider some new voices in their programming. I promise to do the same in Hoboken!


If you really need a sports underdog to root for this year and you don't live in Kansas City, let me know and I'll send you a link so you can follow my fantasy baseball team. Season's 5 days old and already I'm two weeks behind. It's 'cause I'm reading poems, not baseball stat books.

Yeah. That's why.

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

NatPoMore Observations....

One thing I occasionally grow weary of is the mistaken idea that poems whose origins are personal experience must be factual and cathartic. While this can be true, it is also true that poems that cling to this rule are frequently interesting as experiences, but weak as art. Or to be a bit less gentle about it, they're stories, not poems. In a newly-posted episode of Poetic Lines, Elizabeth Lund leads Ellen Steinbaum through explaining (among other things) the difference between writing as therapy and poetry as craft - concepts which can overlap at some point in the process, but which are not nearly the same thing. Recommended.


I'm seeing less National Poetry Month in the non-poetry media this year. I'm wondering if that's economy on the literary side (fewer $$ in promotion to gain the notice), or economy on the mainstream side (less space = less non-mainstream material). I don't think for a minute it's lack of energy in the poetry community. My inboxes are bursting.


Confidential to the NCAA: a longer tournament increases the premium on athleticism, thereby reducing the probability of the interesting upset. As long as that's what you want, go ahead and go to 96.

But thanks for a great tourney this year. The performance if my personal bracket notwithstanding.


Chapbook 2.2 is off for the final proof; my goal of availability by Father's Day (it is a book of poems in the voice of a father, after all) remains a strong chance. April, with its NatPoMomentum is a great energy source for striving to complete this project - finally. Also, it was in April that my own father died, and it's impossible not to reinhabit my relationship with him when that anniversary rolls around. Another, different, energy source.


Let's Go Mets! (and Yankees until the subway series starts!)

Sunday, April 04, 2010

A Basket of Miscellany for Easter

A strange combination of busy and lazy is Easter in my house. Usually have house guests. Always have a few time-dependent things to do at church. Generally fighting off the first allergies of spring. And by early afternoon, having had a busy morning and a big brunch, we're scattered around the house napping. So yes, we're having a typical Easter. And a lovely thing that is.


I've met my minimums so far this NatPoMo. Yesterday the book I happened upon in my slow-motion cleanup was The Poet's Child, a Copper Canyon anthology that "explores the intricacies between parent and child". It covers that relationship at all stages from the birth of the child to the death of the parent, and many milestones in between. I've always found the inclusion of two poems whose titles reject the idea of writing about children a little off-putting (one is irony, two is making a point), but it's a good read, and a useful one if you're planning to explore that space yourself.

Having touched that theme, I dug through the pile for my favorite book in the semi-exclusive club of poet parents, Beth Ann Fennelly's Tender Hooks, which is a great and truthful account of what bubbles through the mind of a first-time parent.


A little exchange today in the New Poetry discussion group pitted a poem by Robert Frost against a similarly-themed one by Ted Kooser, and concluded (without my vote, I should disclaim) that the Kooser effort was superior. This is to me concrete proof that in human contest, on any given day, anyone can win. Once.


Which brings me to my Mets. (you like that transition, Mom?). Baseball season begins this evening with the Yankees and the Red Sox. Whatever. 180 wins minimum between them and they'll both be in the playoffs. A real fan places their rooting energy with a team that needs it, with a group of players that could be the best if they get some breaks and play a little over their heads.....

Or not. Some of us are just continuing to invest in our team in honor of having traded away a Reggie Jackson for a Nino Espinosa in 1978. But root we must.


NatPoMo continues. Here are a few events in the area I think you may want to have on your radar:

Diane Lockward will execute a reading of her work designed for her by Caldwell College students at the West Caldwell Public library on April 10.

Unfortunately opposite this, is the Book Launch reading for "The American Voice in Poetry" at Passaic County Community College in Paterson.

Of course, I know you're already planning to visit Hoboken on April 11 for Tom Plante in the Spoken Word Series at Symposia Bookstore.

And I'm planning to visit the County College of Morris on April 28 for the Journal of NJ Poets 2010 reading. One of my (and many others) favorite journals.

There are dozens of other events within reach this month. If you've not been in a while set a minimum to put one on the calender. Just write it down. See what it does for you.


Actually, I think I may have thrown an Ed Figueroa in with that Reggie Jackson card.


Happy Easter to my six loyal readers. And everyone else.


(links to follow)

Friday, April 02, 2010

Now I'm Looking For a Bowler...

Tonight I'm returning Valzhyna Mort's Factory of Tears to the shelf. I feel a certain obligation to disclose that I purchased Ms. Mort's book entirely because I saw her on the cover of P&W with her accordion. Turns out it was a good buy, but it may be the first time that the presence of a free reed instrument secured a poet a sale.

From Factory of Tears, here is "On a Steamer":

at night from far away
the city looks like
a huge overturned christmas tree
decorated for a holiday
then thrown away
it's lying
with its branches scattered
and its lamps
still glittering
in the dark

Thursday, April 01, 2010

Natural Pottery Mints

NatPoMo snuck up on me this year, and it's just as well. I had no time to cajole myself into promising that I'll make time to write a poem a day and two sestinas on Sundays. No time to cultivate the urge to reorganize the manic mess that is my bookcase and lie about how I'll reread a book therefrom every 30 minutes until May. No time to shop for discount hardback notebooks in a new color scheme to celebrate the start of new projects that will run out of gas 4 pages hence in the middle of June.

I've been working some of the tips from Marty and Joshua Seldman's sneakily impactful Executive Stamina into my routine; one of the really useful tips in that book is the practice of "minimums", setting simple and small goals for yourself in an effort to get you to change habits and gain momentum in areas in which you're eager to improve. It's been working for me in other areas, so for NatPoMo this year, I'm going to apply some minimums to my writing habit. Here is my minimum for this April:

I will put away one book a day. This will require me to put my hands on one book of poems. Just one. And if I flip through it for a minute, maybe something will catch my attention. Maybe I'll go write it down and play with a response, or email it to someone, or mention it here, call a writer friend to chat about it. But if I don't, that's OK. I will put one book a day away. I commit that to myself.

Now, if you are more into the immerse and overwhelm strategy, you can go for NaPoWriMo, or Robert Lee Brewer's Poem-a-Day challenge, you can sign up for the year-round The Writer's Almanac and Your Daily Poem (which you should already be signed up for anyway) and the seasonal daily list, or the weekly Poetry Daily list (to get its poets-selecting-poems emails; always a treat!).

But me? I'm just going to put one book away. One book like Coleman Barks' Tentmaking. The book with the poem "Seagull at the Newark Airport" in it:

Going low less than a foot off the asphalt, then up over
a tanker and around
the freestanding staircase, a poem with its

two black beads watches how government manages to fly.

What book will I pick up tomorrow?

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Dodgy about Dodge

The first flyer for the 2010 Dodge Festival reached the house this week. On the website, there's a photo of the NJPAC with a great and colorful crowd in and around it. The site talks at some length about how the new location (used to be in Waterloo Village, and one unfortunate year at Duke Farms) will be co-located with the vibrant Newark arts scene and "greener" because it will enable attendance by public transportation. This is all true, I suppose, but I can't help but feel this will be a very, very, different experience than prior festivals, and it will be missing some of what, for me, were the best experiences of the festival.

At Waterloo, there were occasionally long walks between selected venues - I guess for many people, these were an inconvenience, but for me, they were a chance to digest whatever event I had just been in, breath for a minute, and get ready to give myself over to the next experience. Can you imagine, for example, going from Anne Waldman to Coleman Barks without a sorbet-like stroll separating?

The spread-out nature of the festival permitted spontaneous gatherings; you'd sometimes see a group of (ahem) younger aspiring poets gathered in circle talking, or even having an impromptu critique group meeting. It also permitted the strolling musicians - like Yarina, who are featured prominently on the website - to really stroll. I'm hopeful the planners are considering this, though I'm not sure how it's going to happen.

The particular venues of the Waterloo layout also contributed to some events - storytelling in the barn, spiritual poems in the old church, the crazy joy of the high school kids' reading from the gazebo. I can't see how those venues can be recreated around NJPAC - different ones, maybe, but newer, pre-fab ones.

Probably what I'll miss most are those moments where I wander away to the side of the Morris Canal and just unplug from the intellectual energy of the event. Looking back over past festivals, those times are what I seem to remember most clearly. Walking along that quiet path down by the canal, toward those two buildings that always seemed somehow forgotten, to that tent across the canal that always seemed to collect all the water from all the other tents, thinking about the 6,000 stories in Dovie Thomason's repertoire, about meeting poets like Beth Ann Fennelly whose work I knew for 6 years before I met her, about Taha Mohammad Ali's experiences and Mark Doty's great joy for whatever he was doing (reading, chatting, greeting people on the walk. We'll see if those experiences can be recreated in Newark. Maybe they'll open the ball park for us.

I'll accept the "greener" label and its good intentions for now, though that's a very hard thing to prove. Most "greener" claims simply displace waste to a different location or trade waste for energy (like how hand dryers eliminate a bit of waste at the expense of bit of increased electricity consumption), but it's probably true that some people will take advantage of the public transportation, which would have been running anyway.

In any event, I just need to adjust my expectations for a different kind of Dodge. Even if it's not what I'm used to and some of the things I personally looked forward to each time, it's still a terrific gathering of premier poets, and worth the effort to get used to something new.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

A Few Tips From Brother Joseph and Sister Michael

Via Steven Schroeder, today I read this post by Chris O. Cook, in which he calls out the 600-pound gorilla by saying "Poetry readings are boring." While I don't share his vehemence, I think he makes some excellent points that my high school forensics coach and first director* would share.

Chris makes some excellent points, but it really all boils down to a lack of awareness of what engages the audience and a lack of effort (sometimes deriving from a lack of comfort) to be entertaining.

Here are a few things many poets can do a better job of:

  • Plan to engage the audience. Bad coaches tell you to open with a joke, good ones tell you you need a hook to catch them and make them listen. Either way, you have a responsibiltiy to push the START button on the reading somehow.
  • Understand but don't partition your audience. As you're starting and during the "casual" dialog, you should be aware of the demographics of your listeners (usually obtainable from a quick look around the room as you settle in at the microphone). It's good to speak to them once in a while, but try not to exclude anyone in the crowd when you do so (I've been inadvertently excluded based on gender, age, education, favorite poets, and politics).
  • Drop the mousy humility. If you're really uncomfortable reading, don't read. If you're going to read, doing act like you hate it. It sounds almost too silly to point out, but remember that your discomfort will make the audience uncomfortable.
  • Be aware of presentation technology. Spend a minute to understand your microphone before you read. Get there early enough to experience the venue, the lights, the layout of the space.
  • Cast off the monotony. Basic public speaking tip: Vary volume and speed. Your poems and your banter with the audience will have different mood and tone and meaning at diffreent points in your reading; why would you suppress your natrual voice at those moments to make them sound the same?

Truthfully, I've not had a reader in my series in 9 years who was genuinely difficult to enjoy because of weak presentation, but I make a serious point to understand the probability of a weak presentation when I sign someone up. In most cases I've seen them before or have a first-hand recommendation; in a rare case, I'll trust a large personality offstage to carry over onto the stage.

Give Chris's post a read - he's more eloquent than I on this issue, and I'm curious what points strike you as on the mark, and if you think he's missig anything. Let me know; we haven't even touched on how basic dance chorus training can be useful for your readings!

* - names altered, but they know who they are....