April 30, 2010

Revision, Part 1: Beyond the Muse

The writing community generally spends a lot of time talking and writing about inspiration. There are many how-to books and blogs that are mostly concerned with helping writers find something to write about. We have popularized a mascot for inspiration, the Muse. We talk about the rituals required to attract the Muse, the habits that frighten the angel off, and we generally accept that the uninspired writer is neutered, powerless, until the Muse returns.

Inspiration has become infused with religiosity: inspiration is to be revered but not questioned or altered. For the Muse of many, there is no audience, there is only the mysterious communion between the writer and the self. I take it for granted that a writer has something to say to people; we are students of the world and we share what we've taken in. I take it for granted, too, that a writer thinks in words, forms, models, images, and conceits. The writer can’t help it. I don't think that writers are helplessly waiting for the arrival of inspiration. I believe there is great power in revision, and that inspiration is, in part, the natural result of effort, reflection, and revision, not magic.

I think that we prefer to talk about inspiration and “The Muse” because it is often presented as an abstraction that cannot be critiqued. God knows, criticism is a tough pill to swallow, but reflecting on what we have written creates more ideas.

Writers, it seems, would be more helped by a protracted and nuanced conversation about revision. That’s where the craft is; that’s where poetry resides. Revision is not self-flagellation. Revision is a ferocious act of invention that any writer worth their salt will undertake. Revision is often uncomfortable work, work that requires honesty. But our labor has a clear result. It is through revision that we learn our aesthetic, identify our repeated moves, that we clarify our transmission, audit our intentions, and recognize an audience.

Over the next several posts, I’m going to explain how I revise, not because mine is the only golden path, but to inspire a broader conversation about craft. And, of course, I don’t mean to exclude inspiration from the conversation. Who ever said revision is without epiphany?

April 27, 2010

The Delight of Ruined Expectations

The act of describing one person to another is a dying art. If you ask someone to describe, for example, a friend of theirs who you don’t know, they will immediately look uncomfortable. Suddenly they are overcome with sensitivity; describing a person is, after all, political and personal. Political, because a truly discrete person won’t mention any distinguishing features beyond height (unless the person occupies either extreme) and hair (only in the vaguest terms), and certainly they won’t discuss body parts or race, though they will be secretly proud to have made the omission on both accounts. And describing someone to someone else is personal because we don’t want to half-disparage our friend by saying they have beautiful but teary eyes and an untameable haystack of hair. Describing a person if often used as a punishment which we inflict on those who we dislike: saying, for example, “That Cutie Parker has ape-arms and dog’s teeth.” Vivid descriptions have become more punitive than communicative.

And certainly there are occasions where we must pretend that we are all featureless, gray sock puppets. But this phenomenon isn't relegated to the office any longer. It's become part of the social contract. Many people would rather just present a photograph, and spare themselves the delicate negotiation of describing a person.

This is all a tragedy because having a person you don’t know described to you engages the mind in a wonderful way: I imagine what fills the gaps in the description; I fill in the missing parts with ideal faces or family faces or the faces of colleagues; I paint the body of the stranger out like an artist paints Orion onto his constellation; I guess.

Later, when I meet the person who has been described to me, I will be quietly surprised at how they look nothing like their description. But the surprise is delightful, because I realize that the person I’ve imagined looks like a mangled version of me. Who wants to have that expectation ever fulfilled? Who wants to meet themselves wherever they go?

In much of contemporary poetry, the task of describing a person’s physical appearance is frequently passed over. We are often presented with the disembodied “I,” or a tabula rasa nouns of “man,” “woman,” or “child.” Many of my poems fall into these categories, partly because I prefer to describe people by their action and thoughts, and partly because I often write about archetypes rather than individuals. There’s nothing wrong with omitting physical descriptions. But the omission is also, at least in part, the result of verbal habit. I rarely describe anyone anymore.

I find it interesting, though, that when poets decide to more fully describe the people who occupy their landscapes, the descriptions are often romantic, florid, and purple with praise. This may be because there is an intimacy to describing someone’s physical appearance, but it also seems to be related to the poetic tradition of describing the “classically beautiful.” These idealized descriptions are so prevalent as to merit their own sub-genre: the fair lady poem. While I enjoy some works in this mode, the descriptions tend to strike me as generic and dishonest.

There are those readers who suffer from Back-Flap Disease: the compulsion to begin a book by looking at the small author photo on the back flap. I’ve done this on numerous occasions, and, invariably, the act enables a slew of unfair conclusions: Isn’t she pleased with herself, or He smiles like a fraud. But if I read the work before I look for a author photo, I discover pieces of their face everywhere; I find their limbs and appendages strewn about the landscapes they paint; I assemble them and the gaps I fill in with myself. This is perhaps because poets are highly trained in the art of self description.

When I finish the book and finally look at the back flap, my expectations are never realized, but I am not disappointed.

April 23, 2010

Mr. Popular's Empty Dance Card

It’s a popular pastime among writers and academics to sit around and argue over the definition of Literature. It’s sort of our version of sports banter: everyone gets a bit hot when they’re talking about their team, but most of us don’t forget that it’s just a game. So with that in mind:

I love the wonderful snobbishness of the term “literary.” Like most snobbery, “literary” suggests superiority without specifically referencing any credentials. The word, popularly compounded with “journal” or “fiction,” typically infers:

1. The writer has read an undisclosed number of “literary” works, and produces work that emulates those works in some manner
2. The language is difficult or self-conscious, and sometimes referred to as “experimental”
3. The work is good, and its goodness will endure, and will be more appreciated once the people of the future receive the sparkling artifact

The term “literary” is used because it is a more politic and succinct than saying, “educated, obtuse, good writing which will be more popular with the unborn.” More ridiculous is how “literary” has come to be use as an antonym of “popular.”

This is ridiculous because Literature is, as I understand it, a product of reflective consensus; “Literature” is the laurel we bestow upon those works whose popularity has endured. So, we might say that literature is “really popular.”* We can argue that a work of Literature has endured because of merit, content, form, context, observer, academic/political agenda, or aesthetic, but all of these affect the consensus, not the work itself. The consensus is always evolving. Put simply, in defining Literature, it doesn’t really matter why these works are popular; sustained popularity equals Literature.

“Literature” is often misapplied as an objective evaluation: Literature is good; the best of what’s past. But we generally accept the fact that the most popular things are not necessarily the best, objectivity is often the ego in drag, and not all things from the past are good. Or, to state it more directly, there is some terrible Literature out there.

Functionally, a work of Literature offers a point of reference, a touchstone; it exists because it provides a useful common ground. Hamlet, for example, is Literature not because it is excellent; it is Literature because it is often visited, revisited, and discussed (that is, popular). One day, all traces of the play may disappear from the shelves, which will not make Hamlet any less excellent, but which will mean it’s no longer Literature. "Literature" is a state, not an innate quality.

Which brings us to the oft-repeated counterpoint that if Literature is the result of popularity, then Twilight, for example, is Literature. The answer to that is, we’ll have to wait and see. I don’t think the indicators are good. But maybe. Sorry.

Back to my original point: the term “literary” distances a work from the very thing that defines Literature. Essentially, when we say something contemporary is “literary” we are predicting the future: we are betting that a work will endure. Perhaps saddest of all is the fact that “literary” works often attempt to speak to the future from the past, entirely neglecting the present.

*Academia often tries to stuff the ballot box of Literature by arguing for the relevance, superiority, or usefulness of a certain text. Academia certainly does influence what is popular, and so what is Literature, but academia often forgets that academia is fickle (influenced by fad and context) and influential, not instrumental. This last point is a bitter pill; academics often behave as if they own Literature and are its only portal. Because they commit their lives to the preservation, study, and enjoyment of Literature, their role is often exaggerated. But we must remember, the park ranger does not own the park.

April 19, 2010

In the Booth with the Wiretapped Priest

Sometimes I talk to myself about myself in the middle of a poem. Generally, I’ll be frustrated by some poetic conceit or image or idea, and will suddenly find that I am writing about myself, or explaining myself, or aggrandizing some recent slight, or romanticizing my reality. And suddenly there I am, loitering in the middle of an otherwise reasonable poem, ridiculous as the famous photoboming squirrel.

The problem is not self-reference, or observed details, or intimacy, but rather the agenda and purpose of focusing on the self. Of course, agendas will differ, but failing to recognize one’s own agenda does not mean that an agenda does not exist.

Flawed agendas, in my estimation, are those that disrupt the integrity of the poem, interrupt the poem-reader dialogue, or exaggerate the self. I won’t speculate as to the reasons, realized or not, behind these agendas; I’d rather focus on their effect. Here, I take for granted the purpose of poetry (to communicate, entertain, and examine), which is, of course, open to debate.

Poems that rely too much on autobiographical context often frustrate the integrity of the poem. Enjoyment of such a poem relies on a reader's ability and willingness to consider it in the context of the poet’s life. Explanations are required. Interest in the poet is required, and often an examination of the poet’s body of work is required. The reader arrives nowhere near the poem.

Dialogue in poetry allows the reader to enter and leave the poem in a unique way, and allows the poem to be new every time the reader returns, entering and leaving the poem in a new way. This dialogue exists partly because the reader changes, but also because the poem embraces the many-personed reader. For dialogue to occur, the poem must leave room for the reader, must address a broader experience, must have something of the world to show us. The promotional poem, the poem which makes an epic of the poet’s life, is no more a dialogue than a can of Coke.

The greatest bore is the poet who has looked into the world and found it all a mirror. Poets who aggrandize their life, exaggerating their injuries and heartaches, are chasing after celebrity, not poetry. The bore becomes a beast when the poet begins to make a caricature of human suffering to add gravity to their own plights. Poets who make lyrical references to genocide, plagues, famine, natural disasters, and wars in an attempt to add ornament to their sadness are engaging in bald exploitation. If I sound vitriolic, it's because I think that turning human suffering into a personal commodity is about as reprehensible as it gets.

The point is, when a poem relies on the poet talking to and about themself, the poet needs to be both terribly interesting and responsible. (People who, after thirty, still believe that they are interesting, often haven’t consulted their acquaintances on the matter. Family and friends may lie to spare your feelings, but an acquaintance will set you straight. Believe me it is better for a writer to be astute, analytical, imaginative, or empathetic. God help the poet who is an interesting character.)

My poems are often ruined until I go back and take out the talking-to-myself. Redacting the lines is often a delicate negotiation. I have to pet and apologize to myself, because I'm a sensitive flower. I mean to say, I have to talk myself out of talking to myself. My reason for talking to/about myself generally relates to laziness, and always to vanity.

And, my god, when I write a me-me poem, the whole thing stinks like a corpse.

April 16, 2010

Folk Poetry

Public poetry forums, bathroom walls, high school literary mags, local newspapers, celebrity collections, and some popular magazines provide a sense of what the average American thinks poetry is. Literary poets can debate the merits, hazards, and even the ethics of these expectations of poetry, but we must accept them for what they are: an important, popular aesthetic. Though I’ve skirted this ground previously, I’d like to put forth the following as some of the specific qualities of "folk poetry."

1. No ideas but in ideas

To many readers, the message is the poem; it is the idea at the center of the poem that attracts them. Often, literary poets think of message as antithetical to poetry; after all, if it can be said sharp and hard, what need is there for the intricacies of poetry? Metaphor and image, the thinking goes, make messages more nuanced (a point I’m not necessarily arguing against). But frequently, the delight of the common reader is the ability to sympathize and interact with the poem, and the codifying of ideas can inhibit that connection. A poem that essentially teaches the method of how it should be appreciated will alienate some readers.

2. Sing, sing, sing

Literary poets love exotic words; popular readers love lyric, alliteration, rhythm and rhyme. It may seem a narrow distinction because exotic words often sing, but just as often they occur as obtuse fragments in the jagged melody of the poem. This popular expectation does not necessitate a return to formalism or elementary language, but littering lines with polysyllabic cowbells will leave many readers cold. (As an aside, we poets really have to stop referencing jazz to justify our tin ears.)

3. Close the circuit

Typically, the popular poem ends as it began, readdressing the subject or impetus of the poem. This recursiveness, instead of throwing the reader out of the poem, draws them back in, and keeps the conclusion relevant (if not redundant). Often the conclusion offers a new perspective, a change of heart or judgement which applies to the initial sentiment. This can be accomplished subtlety with image, but we shouldn’t confuse a hint with a conclusion.

4. The Muse Ain’t an Excuse

The literary poet’s habit of relying on associative leaps privileges the creative process over the reader. Reporting the processes of thought and invention often makes for unfocused, inscrutable poems, though this is often thought of as the product of inspiration. Popular readers expect a clear focus. Dramatic turns are preferred over associative leaps. This is, perhaps, the most difficult aesthetic to admit because it requires us to criticize our own intuition.

5. Poetry is Therapy

The purpose of poetry in pop-culture is often therapeutic, providing writers and readers with a process for expression, confession, and rehabilitation. Addict poems, abuse poems, war poems, strong women poems, mourning poems, heartbreak poems, etc. are common and popular. These poems are often abhorred by literate types for their triteness, which may seem programmed by cultural cliche, but we must remember that many of the canonical poems could be included in the category of Poem as Therapy.

Indeed, all of the above aesthetics are traceable through the long tradition of poetry; they aren't aberrations. And, to clarify, I don’t present these as dictums, and I’m not suggesting that the mob aesthetic is necessarily this narrow, or in any way superior. I take issue with some of the aesthetics I’ve described here, most particularly the last. None of my poems reflect all of these principles; some of my poems don’t reflect any of them. But these are elements of poetry that I try to remain aware of and attuned to.

I suggest we use current music culture as a reference point. Music culture now flourishes largely because of its openness to diverse influences, its defiance of boundaries, its cultural ear, its respect for the amateur and originator alike, and its interaction with the audience, broad and rare. Put another way, Music is trying to fit as many players on the stage as possible, while Poetry is off playing king of the hill.

April 12, 2010

The River Wants to Go Straight

The river that snakes and curves is a frustrated thing. Given enough time, the river will amputate the cursive parts of its body, leaving dry beds and oxbow lakes behind, all for the want of the straight path.

The Earth does not want the river to flow like a rail; a straighter river is swifter, stronger, and so draws more soil out to sea. The Earth must slow the river to keep from being roughly gouged down to bedrock.

The idea, the impetus, the sentiment inside a poem often wants to express itself directly, and the poetry in the poem wants to enliven the idea’s expression with turns, to slow its progress, because if the idea comes out too straight, the poem will split open, and we’ll be left with a decree, or lede, or ad.

Many of the poets I admire write poems that contain direct sentiments, and they each have their own poetic way of taming the expression of that sentiment. Ted Kooser will sometimes slow the sentiment with metaphor, Philip Larkin with lyric, Louise Gluck with hyperbole and image. There are, of course, poets who are more wend than intent, and they write in a rambling way, reaching a conclusion or sentiment through the meditative process of creation.

Managing the confluence of idea and poetics is one of the poet’s primary tasks, it seems, and there is room for poetry to be written at either extremity; consider Bukowski and Ashbery. But both poetics and sentiments allow readers the opportunity to follow, ponder, and diverge which strikes me as the point of poetry.

If you’ve ever seen the Mississippi where it flows between Louisiana and its namesake sate, you’ve seen a broad, brown, hurrying river. Often, the Mississippi is so broad and so swift that it appears almost featureless, like an enormous sandlot. But it runs furiously straight; not even the army can turn that horse.

The crooked, rambling river is lovelier, full of twists, drops and froth. But it often babbles, and it takes expertise to navigate its rapids, or conversely, the passivity of a leaf to travel upon its surface.

April 9, 2010

The Omega Man Complex

If movie trends reveal anything about the psyche of the modern American, it’s that we’re enamored with individualism: unique and isolated. Nowhere, perhaps, is this more evident than in the genres of horror, disaster, paranoid thriller, and dystopian future films, or any other genre that occurs in a ruined, dehumaned world. In these we see characters who are isolated, threatened, and full of the impulse to survive. Reflection is just sadness tinged with victimization.

The ruined world of these films becomes the lonely world that belongs to the survivor, to the new Adam and/or Eve. Their survival becomes the world’s mission. In the background there is carnage, inhuman in scope, and the absurdity of government, commerce, community, family, and marriage is finally revealed as fragile, ephemeral stuff. The individual is what survives, the instinctual self. There is only the Omega Man, the Omega Woman at the end of the world, and the shrunken totems of their affection, a photograph, a music box, a lock of hair, are all that remind them of their expansive and private loss.

The survivor formula is so potent that it can be (and has been) applied to every genre. We’ve been trained to think of the end of the world as a cathartic thing, a clarifying thing; it is not mass death but self-actualization. And, of course, we are all the survivors, superimposing ourselves onto the flimsily fleshed Omega Man. Importantly, the survivor is made glorious by the observer; without the voyeur, the survivor is just a inconsequential and delusional sub-human.

Our fascination with the Omega Man results, perhaps, from our sense of isolation in our current lives. It requires little imagination to project ourselves into an empty world. The people that currently surround us are insubstantial abstractions already, so seeing them all destroyed is hardly traumatizing. The morbid post-apocalyptic fantasy always depends upon us sympathizing with the centrally framed character, not the hoards and mobs and the burned environment. Incredibly, we all privately believe that we will survive the end of the world, not by wit or preparation, but by destiny.

Frost was often an Omega Man poet, writing about ruins, human residue, the isolated individual, and the empty world. The post-apocalyte and the aged-frontiersman are brethren, and we see elements of both in Frost’s work. One of the more interesting facets of Frost’s aesthetic is that he is able to make ambivalence seem romantic, or noble, or grand. I am never able to discern whether it is the speaker, the poet, or the setting that is indifferent to the empty, gray, and decayed world described in much of his work. The landscape is often articulated as an immense and apathetic presence which casts them as the half-buried and eroded monuments of another civilization, long vanished. Or put another way, Frost’s poems show a world that has ended many times before.

But again, it is the observer who enjoys ruination and the grandly desperate survivor. The voyeur gets high on this transcendence, but flying back and forth over the grave yard doesn’t stop him from crashing one day into a stone, and sliding like a cartoon into an open hole.

April 5, 2010

To the Editor (Part 1)

Diatribes about the editorial processes of poetry magazines are pervasive and vitriolic. Most can agree that the current model is frustrating and inefficient. Everyone involved is getting the short end of the stick; the whole system seems to be a short stick. The most popular positions in the debate might be (irresponsibly) summarized as follows: Editors are overworked, under-compensated, saturated with dreck, and consider writers to be generally too sensitive to rejection; Writers are punch-drunk and slaving at the base of the inscrutable pyramid of publication where, presumably, Pharaohs are buried.

I am reasonably toughened to rejection. I received my first from the BBC when I was sixteen after submitting a teleplay I’d written in collaboration with a friend. The rejection we received was one sentence long: “We here at the BBC feel that you should live a little more and write about it less.” Soon after, a small science fiction publisher returned my short story with a typed note that concluded with, “Close, but no banana.” Later still, I received a rejection from Marvel Comics which included a short note telling me where I’d gone off the rails. Last year, I received a rejection from a large publishing house for a children’s book I’d written with a friend, Ian Leino, in which the editor explained in one paragraph the flaws of our submission.

These are not examples of defeat; they are examples of victory. They represent some of the most rewarding, honest, and ultimately helpful correspondence I’ve ever received from editors. And they all occurred outside the scope of literary journals, poetry presses, and contests.

Over the past eight years, I’ve submitted hundreds of poems to literary journals and magazines, and with precious few exceptions, have received anonymous, vague, formal platitudes in response. Moreover, with few exceptions, the acceptances I've received were similarly anonymous and formal. I have, as far as I can remember, never been asked to revise a poem. I don’t think that mine is a unique experience.

Again, I’m not discounting that editors are overworked, underpaid (if they’re compensated at all), and often laboring out of love. And yet, the result of this uncommunicative “industry standard” is to the detriment of editors, publications, writers, and readers. A writer’s work is improved by the honest suggestions, earnest goads, and pointed jibes they receive from editors.

Honest, engaged editors make writers better. Writers need editors.

But “submission readers” do not make writers better. I realize that the role of submission readers varies from publication to publication, that often the position is something of an editorial apprenticeship, in which some folks (generally MFA candidates) are cast against their preference. But speaking generally, a submissions reader is expected to read with an aesthetic in mind, to seek out pieces that seem to suit the editorial tastes of the publication, and to identify works that will enjoy the consensus of the masthead. Moreover, the reader’s relatively passive role means that they communicate with writers very little. Readers become champions of the editorial aesthetic and of their own readerly experience. The result is often a homogenous publication and an alienated, bewildered writer. To improve the quality of work received and selected, and to reduce the number of submissions, all "readers" should be made editors, given a pen, and told to find, cultivate, and nurture the next Auden.

Editors should remember their active role in the publication process. Editors who do not have time to engage writers, to critique and encourage them, to divert and direct them, are not editors but “selectors,” selecting works that reflect their tastes. The result of this is that editors are not representing writers to their audience, but are instead presenting their own aesthetic as the product. It’s important for editors to recognize that they have made writers more sensitive to rejection by inundating them with anonymous, form rejections. Writers scrutinize form rejections, scribbled initials, roughly cut edges for some coded sign of direction. This is because writers need direction, need feedback, and telling them that they shouldn’t expect it does not diminish the need.

If editors want to reduce their work load and improve the quality of submissions, then they must begin to communicate with writers. Brevity isn’t a sin; I’m not suggesting that every submission receive a dissertation. Platitudes, cliches, dishonest and vague assertions are editorial sins. Honest discouragement keeps writers from flooding inboxes with crap and encourages writers to research publications more thoroughly, thereby lightening the load of dreck that editors have to sift through. Honest and specific criticism challenges writers to improve upon their strengths and address their failings.

Put another way: anonymous, form rejections engage writers in a game of twenty questions where the answer is always an ambiguous no. Those aren’t submissions in the editor’s inbox; they’re hapless, undirected guesses.