February 26, 2010

The King is Dead; Long Live the Many Kings

Full disclosure first: I do not have a MFA; I did apply to a program, some years ago, and was not admitted; I have great respect for many of the folks involved in MFA programs: students, teachers, and graduates. The following is all because I care.

If you haven’t already, you should read Ted Genoways’ article, which can be found on Mother Jones’ website here.

Among other things, Genoways examines the past relevance of literary journal and postulates what's behind the shuttering of venerable journals, declining readerships, and the cultural irrelevance of "literary" writing. Some of this he lays at the door of Post-Modernism, a mindlessly innovative movement of self-reference and play, but by and large he places the blame squarely on the shoulders of writers and, to a lesser degree, their teachers:

To pull out of this tailspin, writers and their patrons both will have to make some necessary changes—and quick. With so many newspapers and magazines closing, with so many commercial publishers looking to nonprofit models, a few bold university presidents could save American literature, reshape journalism, and maybe even rescue public discourse from the cable shout shows and the blogosphere. At the same time, young writers will have to swear off navel-gazing in favor of an outward glance onto a wrecked and lovely world worthy and in need of the attention of intelligent, sensitive writers. I'm not calling for more pundits—God knows we've got plenty. I'm saying that writers need to venture out from under the protective wing of academia, to put themselves and their work on the line. Stop being so damned dainty and polite. Treat writing like your lifeblood instead of your livelihood. And for Christ's sake, write something we might want to read.

Genoways is overly-optimistic early in the essay when he says that Creative Writing MFA programs will continue to produce an army of under-talented, over-entitled writers into the foreseeable future. It seems obvious to me that the realities of the New Economy and the glut of graduates with “terminal” degrees will make the MFA increasingly unattractive to future students. Why should they enroll in a program that is unappreciated and which produces a degree that is devalued in an already over-saturated market? The MFA doesn’t produce professional writers as readily as it does professional teachers, and there are only so many jobs to go around.

This is the essential problem with the current design and mission of many MFA programs: they function as a pyramid scheme, a closed economy whose structure ensures its eventual dissolution. A successful MFA graduate will one day teach, ideally in an MFA program; they have few other practical (or field-relevant) options. The production of poems/stories/books is necessary to ascend through the ranks, a fact which often eclipses the writing itself. I have often heard folks with MFAs say, “One book doesn’t guarantee a job anymore. You need at least two.” Additionally, MFA graduates are under increasing pressure to pursue the new “terminal” degree: a PhD in Creative Writing. This inflation is an inevitable component of any pyramid scheme: because the economy is closed, more participants cause scarcity of resources and an increase in the dues that must be paid upwards. In the case of MFA students, the dues paid up come in the form of cheap labor for the school (TA’s, GA’s and adjuncts), student loans, contest fees, and a brutal job market upon their exit. Essentially, the fee many pay is a good chunk of their professional life.

Unlike Genoways, I’m not happy throwing the blame entirely on the backs of MFA programs and writers. The fact is some writers are improved by their experiences in MFA programs; many programs educate a new generation in the poetic tradition, which is important; and some culturally-recognized and relevant writers have emerged from MFA programs. Hell, I know many good, talented, hard-working, and purposeful writers with MFAs. I don’t think we should throw them out with the bath water.

Unsurprisingly, Genoways neglects to examine the role of editors in the ongoing sea-change; editors have helped to affirm aesthetics which have limited appeal. One could as easily say that the answer was for editors to publish more relevant, populist work, as opposed to his solution of writers writing better work. The reading-public plays a role too. While I believe wholeheartedly that writers should endeavor to communicate to a broad audience and fulfill a public service as canary, inquisitor, and mirror, the popular preferences and interests make that a challenge.

If literary journals hope to survive, they must expand their readership and reduce their dependence on academic institution and federal dollars. To do this, editors of journals need to recognize that part of their commodity is editorial endorsement. As I discussed in a previous post, there is popular interest in poetry and fiction; there is a public appetite for poetry, it just isn’t “literary” poetry. If you visit open poetry forums, not only will you find reams of poetry, but you will also find an enormous number of comments from genuinely appreciative readers. If journals used their powers of endorsement (which are still valued, believe it or not), and included and promoted the best work from these popular communities, right alongside their traditional fare, their readership would increase. Long live the many kings.

Not to let writers entirely off the hook, I would agree that we as writers are going to have to fight long and hard for cultural relevance. To be relevant we have to recognize that we serve a social function. If we write to be understood, to be appreciated, to express ourselves purely and without compromise, we will be dead, stuffed dodos behind glass in a museum before very long.

February 22, 2010

The Tedium of Other People's Dreams

Sometimes it seems that among contemporary poets there exists a tacit agreement that poems should adhere to the following model:

1. Introduction of scenario or thought, phrased strikingly enough.
2. Image.
3. Associated image.
4. Associated Image.
5. Associated Image. (Multiply as necessary...)
6. Concluding (grand) gesture towards original scenario or thought.

Lest folks think I’m slinging mud here, my own work often follows this model, which is something of an image lasagna. The connections between images are often so obtuse and strained that any sentiment (beyond tone or metonym) is lost. It looks like a poem and quacks like a poem, but is finally as compelling as “Chopsticks” played at a recital.

The effect of reading a poem of stacked, associated images is similar to the experience of listening to someone recount a dream: as enthusiastic as the person may be in the retelling, the significance of the dream’s movements and the great leaps in the dream’s setting and circumstance communicate little beyond the teller’s genuine but inarticulate enthusiasm and the byzantine nature of thought. I’ll be honest; other’s dreams generally bore or alienate me.

One of the reasons that I have written these lasagna poems in the past is that they are inscrutable enough to be nearly impossible to critique. It’s a cowardly way to make a poem unimpeachable, I admit, and far too many editors pass these poems along because they are indigestible but still full of poetic quacking.

Or perhaps we’re all fumbling in the dark for the vanguard. I just don’t understand why the vanguard is so fucking inarticulate.

February 19, 2010

Strangling the Gold out of the Goose

If you ask a room full of average twenty-somethings how many of them read poetry for pleasure, the ratio of poetry readers to non-readers is going to be horribly lopsided in favor of the non-. I’ve asked this question in my introduction to literature classes in the past, and have found that out of twenty students, on average, one will timidly (or obsequiously) raise their hand affirming that they are a reader of poetry. Often no one raises their hand. But when I ask the same group of young adults how many of them have written a poem, the majority raise their hand.

How is this possible? What other genre experiences this about-face, this hard turn from being valued and used to being abhorred and ignored?

The list of culprits is long, and God knows I love slinging the blame about. We could throw the body of Poetry at the door of anti-intellectualism, homophobia (poetry is suspiciously effeminate, after all), the collapsing age of literacy, the meme that ate cultural tradition, a weak educational system that overemphasizes tests and technology, invasive and frivolous entertainment programming, etc. etc.

But I wonder what part the poet played in the cooling of popular affections. We work in a genre that was made for this age of brevity, ornament, and self-expression, a genre that, again, many have personal experience with. So, what went wrong?

I’m not the first to say it, but it seems that there are “two poetries” active in America. There is the populist form, easily found on the web, which is often hyperbolic, limited in subject and scope, hovering generally near inspirational topics and boasts. And there is the institutional/academic form (or real poetry), which addresses a broader range of subjects to a much narrower audience. Of course, the two poetries are separated by more than their themes; their forms, tones, contexts, and points of reference vary greatly. What seems generally true is that the two poetries are pretty hostile (or at best, ambivalent) towards one another.

The populist poet/reader thinks that institutional poetry is a protracted riddle, made purposefully obtuse by a closeted professor, and which has an answer or “moral” which they’re just too dumb to get. The institutional poet/reader identifies populist poetry as a sentimental stitching of cliches; a artless repetition that is ignorant of the traditions and forms which define poetry. Bottom line, there’s mucho bad blood between the two.

Perhaps the most important difference between the two poetries is the audience. You know what I’ve noticed about poetry readings? Most of the people who go to them are poets, and much of the time they’re affiliated with colleges and universities. There’s nothing wrong with this, but when your audience is primarily poets, held primarily within institutions, the content that is produced is going to be effected; the work is going to cater to the audience. It seems that much of what is being produced in institutional poetry is being written to the poetic tradition and to other poets. There is nothing wrong with this decision, and the reason for it is quite sensible: poets lost their socialite patrons some seventy-five years back, and they needed a new supporting structure; enter the college. Since 99% of all full-time jobs in poetry (all twelve of them...) are held within institutions of higher education now, it’s natural that poets write in an academic vein and promote the product as real poetry. Populist poetry, on the other hand, is largely about connecting with a general audience and communicating relatively modest amounts of content.

But this seems evident: the role, the cultural, social role of the poet has been largely lost. By writing to a tradition, to an institution, and to poets, poets are promoting their own irrelevance. Instead of striving to redefine our role and to reconnect with a broad readership, we have, overall, chosen to kowtow to institutional expectations, and with predictable results: we’re fucking unpopular.

So what is our role? Are we communicators, entertainers, expressionists, facilitators, educators, reflectors? What can we learn from populist poetry? Are we priests preserving the Temple of Verse? Who are we beholden to? Who do we serve?

February 18, 2010


I’m anti the poem whose middle
is a nice neat pile of tender, brittle
who gives a shit details; who
gives a shit you spent five minutes
looking up an obscure flower,
a flower or a Russian mystic;
why don’t you call your dad
and ask him what kind of song
makes him sad, and why don’t you
research how people right now
are rarified and mystic, how even
the dullest person is blooming
like a fill-in-the-blank flower.

February 16, 2010

Dosed on Lorca

If I don't talk about my work explicitly I'm just going to preach. So I'll talk about Lorca, who I recently began reading for the first time. Not that I think I'm special. I'm not going to rename this unfamiliar continent just because I crashed my ship into it.

What I like about Lorca is that his intimacy is different from the intimacy of Plath, Sexton, Levine, etc., who divulge and dissect themselves with articulate and often barbed detail. Lorca's intimacy is that of shared myths; he seduces as the story teller. His myths are deep as archetypes and personal as fingerprints, and the seduction is not only in his voice but also in his images, which he repeats like pet names for other, more angular certainties.

I can't say if his is a cultural intimacy, expressed through touchstones and memes, or if it's more a story told by a father over the course of many evenings, full of the false-familiarity of ingenuity, a story that seems initially meandering that becomes a great epic.

That is some of what feeds the dogs. Here's an excerpt of what I worked on this morning:

Her antique ankle-coats air on the garden balcony
like deflated parade balloons, her leaked thin iterations.
She skins potatoes like she's roughly changing a baby,
one after another beneath the maternal umbra of the biloba.
Peels worm in the grass; the soup assumes a shape.
As dinner simmers, she folds up the crowd, crosses
their arms over their breasts and breaks them at the waist...

Reading Lorca also emboldens me to strike the lyric squarely and roughly, to focus on the gaps in the rhythm, and to rely on image over exposition. I'll be honest, I'm not an enormous fan of poems which are substantively paintings. Mediocre image poems are easy to churn out, but tedious to read, sounding finally like pomp or preamble to something that never materializes. Of course I'm horribly biased. My poems usually read like jingoistic jokes, or the end of that Bugs Bunny cartoon where he leaps from the train with his bindle and the sunset and says, "None of us citizens should be doing any unnecessary traveling these days." Now wasn't that a poem?

February 10, 2010

Dog Biscuits

Teaching academics to write poems is like teaching dogs to bake cookies. The dogs, no matter what you do, are going to make dog biscuits. Academics are going to write academic poems. Incredibly, academic poets will complain that only educated, enlightened, pinks read their work, and so bemoan the death of Culture. I’ll tell it to you straight: folks don’t want to eat dog biscuits.

I’d advocate a dumbing down of poetry. By dumb I mean, of course, purposeful, clear, relevant, and pretty writing. A poem (to scramble the analogy further) cannot behave like a tied up dog, snarling at pedestrians, snapping at hands, and expect to be liked. The reader doesn’t owe anybody anything, no more than a stranger has to indulge your life story at an airport bar.

February 9, 2010

Under the Influence

If you ever ask me if I’ve heard of a particular band or author or film, I’m going to say yes. This is because my generation’s coin is cultural knowledge, and I am a counterfeiter. Try me sometime; catch me at a party and fabricate an absurd band name. Not only will I have heard of them, I will have a poor opinion of their work, find it derivative, and will prefer instead some other howling absurdity like Cluck and the Chickenhearted or Take a Knee.

My personality, or that intellectual yawn I think of as my individuality, is almost certainly just an assemblage of influences. I am composed of .04% Paul Simon lyrics, .001% episodes of Airwolf, .02% misconstrued Kafka quotes, etc. etc. Take all that away and what am I but a monkey who likes to eat and mount things interchangeably.

Is that right? I guess so. This is awful. Why are you here?

If influences are dosh, one can associate them with stock. Therefore, the syllogism goes, there must be a stock market of memes and medium churning invisibly somewhere. Right now, I imagine, Nabokov’s stock is on the climb and Melville’s is tumbling; Ashbery is trending down, but Muldoon is a good hedge. Does this belittle the subject, the actual creative artifact? Certainly, but it enlivens the cagey exchanges between minglers, and it allows us to form factions and camps which are very important to primates. I don’t need to know exactly who I am if I can rely on my clan to define me. You know who’s stupid? People who like Lorca. I love Lorca. Who is he?