Advice

ADVICE

Think buckshot:
Not the rifle,
but the musket.

Ear-horn of
powder, arm-
deep in black

soot. Think
flint lock
and flash pan.

Muzzle blast.
Hollow point.
Don’t paint

the rounds,
don’t ready
the bayonet.

No aim
is necessary;
nothing is true.

Think percussion
cap. Any metal
as shrapnel.

Any spark as
lightning;
be bottled.

Funny on Paper

As someone who isn’t very funny — I have a good sense of humor and laugh often, but lack the social skills to tell a good joke — I’m always amazed at how easy it is to be funny on stage (at least when the situation doesn’t demand it).  I was at a poetry reading Monday night, and found myself telling a story about my mother watching a clip of me on YouTube.  Of course, I embellished a bit to maximize the entertainment value, as humans are wont to do, mingling in my wife’s common critique in a way she’ll probably call Freudian, but the gist is true.  I said something like this:

I did a reading a few weeks ago, that the host filmed and put up on YouTube.  My mom still has dial-up, so couldn’t watch it at home, and when she tried to watch it at her office, she realized her computer didn’t have any speakers.  So, like any loving mother, she watched the whole poetry reading with no sound.  For 30 minutes.   Needless to say, I now have a full list of all my nervous ticks and poor postures.  So if you see me putting my free hand in a pocket or oddly leaning to one side, smack me with a ruler or something.

Did you just laugh out loud?   The 40 or so people in the audience did.  It’s definitely an amusing story, worthy of a affectionate smile at least, but I bet very few people reading this let out a soft snort, let alone a chuckle loud enough that an office-mate had to look up over the cubicle wall.   And it’s not like the 40-or-so people at Village Books on Monday were freaks with a hair-trigger funnybone.  Laughter is infectious — it’s evolutionarily encoded, a still-useful tribal bonding mechanism from the caveman days.

A few years ago Megan and I went to see Mary Oliver in Santa Barbara.  Aside from the National Poetry Slam, it’s still the largest literary audience I’ve ever been a part of — almost 1,000 in attendance.  Mary read her poems of simple nature and grace, and in between each one, no matter what she said, the audience would laugh.   It got to the point where she seemed to be testing how low the comedic bar could go, how little it would take, until finally she gave up and said, “For some reason everything I say is funny.”   The audience laughed.

A poetry reading might be the easiest place in the world to become  a comedian.  Mary wasn’t even trying to be funny, in fact, she seemed slightly horrified.  There’s something unique, I think, that happens at a poetry reading, a perfect storm of haha.  Poetry is the most empathetic of all mediums — a poet speaks and manipulates your own inner voice; she uses you as the canvas.  I think when we encounter a poet on stage, we relate so much that the experience becomes slightly uncomfortable — and for many that translates into a nervous giggle, which then spreads through the crowd like an instantaneous meme.

Moreover, poems themselves are fundamentally funny — in one of my favorite essays on poetry, Kay Ryan points out that “Ha!” and “Ah!” are really manifestations of the same thing.  They’re both spontaneous reactions to emotional/psychological surprise — an “impossible pang,” as she puts it.  As poets, we’re often hoping for those quiet awe-struck gasps, a trickle of soft “Ahs” at a the end or in the middle of a poem.  But I think that reaction is so close to it’s sibling that we just as often get the “Ha!” instead.  The audience doesn’t really know what to do, but we know we feel something strange bubbling up from our gut.  And so we laugh.

The effect is like a hurricane forming — an empathetic unease in relation to the poet depresses the room; all that moisture swirls and condenses around the kernel of surprise that’s fundamental to poetry, and then rapidly expands over the warm waters of an infectious laugh track.  Is that analogy ridiculous enough to be funny?

Anyway, a poet walks on stage to a comic’s dream — the audience is primed to laugh, almost desperate to release that communal, emotional energy.

And I haven’t even gotten to the fact yet that most of comedy is in the timing, and all those non-verbal cues that can’t be expressed on paper.  My story above was probably more funny for the look on my face, and the pause before the slightly deadpan semi-punch line, “For 30 minutes.”  On paper you don’t get the pause, unless I add some white space, but white space would also take the attention away from the scene and remind you that you’re reading something on paper.  And even then you’d miss the goofy look on my face.

My favorite comedian is probably George Carlin.  I love his bit on religion, about the invisible man in the sky who has a special place for you full of fire and misery where you’ll scream ceaselessly for all eternity — “but he loves you!”  I can fall out of my chair laughing at that on his HBO special.  Even reading the transcript makes me chuckle now, and I can hear it in his voice, with his well-timed, pious, one-legged bow.

But here’s the transcript of a bit I’m not familiar with — similar topic, but to me just words on a page (don’t watch the YouTube clip at that link until after you read some of the text:

Here is my problem with the ten commandments — why exactly are there 10?

You simply do not need ten. The list of ten commandments was artificially and deliberately inflated to get it up to ten. Here’s what happened:

About 5,000 years ago a bunch of religious and political hustlers got together to try to figure out how to control people and keep them in line. They knew people were basically stupid and would believe anything they were told, so they announced that God had given them some commandments, up on a mountain, when no one was around.

Well let me ask you this — when they were making this shit up, why did they pick 10? Why not 9 or 11? I’ll tell you why — because 10 sound official. Ten sounds important! Ten is the basis for the decimal system, it’s a decade, it’s a psychologically satisfying number (the top ten, the ten most wanted, the ten best dressed). So having ten commandments was really a marketing decision!

Read that to yourself, without doing an internal George Carlin impersonation, and it’s kind of funny — more funny than my anecdote above — but I’m not laughing out loud.  Not even close.

The point here is obvious, and you knew it before you started reading this post:  Being funny on paper is a hell of a lot harder than being funny on stage.  Let alone being funny on stage at a poetry venue that’s primed for laughter.

In fact, being funny on paper might be the hardest thing a poet can ever try to do.

And to make matters worse, poets are tricked into a false sense of their own comedic ability by an always-encouraging audience.

The summer issue of Rattle is going to feature a tribute to humor, and so far this seems to be the most difficult tribute yet.  Three weeks before the deadline we have 14 poems slated to appear, with our target somewhere in the 20s.  I think we’ll make it, but only because of an unprecedented volume of humor-related submissions.  Recent tributes have all been fairly restrictive — you had to be an African American, or a sonneteer, or a rancher, and so on.  This is the first special section we’ve had in years that’s actually open to anybody — any poet in the world can take a shot at being funny.  And thank god for that, because we really need the volume, with such a low success rate.

So how do funny poems actually work?  Well, the same way serious poems work — there’s just, I think, less room for error:

  1. An authentic voice, with a nuanced sense of rhythm and diction, lets a reader hear the “George Carlin” in their head.
  2. Using line breaks to manipulate pacing and provide a sense of timing.
  3. A strong narrative to make the scene engrossing.
  4. Startling images, surprising juxtapositions and turns of phrase — that’s what a punch line really is, and on paper you have to get it perfect.

That’s the problem with humor on the page — every element has to be perfect.  Because, the opposite of what hapepns on stage, the situation is working entirely against the poet.  We read alone, in the comfort of our own chair, with the expectation that the work should be compelling.  There’s no nervous laughter and no echo-chamber to amplify it.  No voice, no timing, no exaggerated facial expressions or pantomimes.

It’s just words on a page, and the poet’s ability to manipulate the way you experience them.  Which makes me really appreciate the poets who manage to consistently pull it off, the Parkers and Collinses of the world.

If you’d like to try your hand at being funny on the page, the deadline for submissions is February 1st.  Go here for more info.

The Democratization of Literature

If you look at the Greek plays, they’re really good. And there’s just a handful of them. Well, how good would they be if there were 2,500 of them? But that’s the future looking back at us. Anything you can think of, there’s going to be millions of them. Just the sheer number of things will devalue them. I don’t care whether it’s art, literature, poetry or drama, whatever. The sheer volume of it will wash it out. I mean, if you had thousands of Greek plays to read, would they be that good? I don’t think so.
–Cormac McCarthy in
The Wall Street Journal

I love people who think this way, furturists who ponder and project, and maybe that’s why I love Cormac McCarthy’s fiction (that and his beautifully bare prose).  The interview is full of this kind of speculation and well-worth a read, but it’s as bleak as you’d imagine from the guy who wrote The Road and Blood Meridian, and I think he’s wrong about the effects of volume on art.  Like most members of an old guard bemoaning change, he fails to see that change as transformed through the lens of the paradigm shift that comes with it.

The same kind of talk abounds about the media, as the old giants slowly die.  I’ve had long talks with a friend of mine who’s worried about the effects of social networking and Wikipedia — if there’s no authority to fact-check, no New York Times or Encyclopedia Britannica, how will future generations ever know what’s true?  My response is always the same: Past generations only thought they knew what was true, which is much more dangerous, much less accurate, than being perpetually skeptical.  When Walter Cronkite tells you it’s true, it’s true, and few bother to dig deeper.  As news itself becomes increasingly independent, where there was once one reporter, “there’s going to be millions of them.”  The truth becomes a collective truth, and a collective is almost impossible to corrupt.  If one report lies, you can fact-check it yourself against a million other reports, and the lie won’t stand for long.  I see the future of news as a combination of Indymedia and Wikipedia — user-generated news, edited continuously, vetted by the users themselves. Maybe that’s already starting with Google Wave, but it’s still too new to really know how it’s going to work.

The democratization of media.  It looks like a big mess now, but so did democracy to the monarchs of Europe.  Let the people rule themselves, with no king to oversee the big picture!?  My god, what chaos!  And there is chaos — but out of that chaos emerges incorruptible order.  The Wisdom of Crowds, the flocking of birds, fuzzy logic, quantum computers.  If there’s a theme to the scientific of the last 30 years, it might be that chaos is a harnessable power.  But the domino of political democracy, and the relative peace and prosperity it brings, has been showing us that for two centuries.

McCarthy’s fears about the future of literature are the same as the loyalists in Europe, or those who worry about the effects of social media.  As with so many things, the paradigm is shifting from an authoritarian model to a democratic model.  No longer will the editors and publisher and critics be the ones telling us what’s good.  With a million novels being published every year, no critic or award committee will ever be able to read them all.  He assumes that, with no ruling agency to tell us what’s worth reading, we’ll all read different books — no one work will be able to reverberate across a culture, because the sheer volume of all those books will turn them into white nose, the whole cancelling out all individual parts. With no unifying literature, the will be no “literature,” just a million people, reading a million different things.

What he fails to see is the power of “we.”  Under the old model of publishing, individual readers can be seen as mostly discrete units — word of mouth is important, but it was always one mouth to one ear, one reader at a time.  It’s easy to see how at that speed of communication, a large volume of information quickly overwhelms the system.  But what he doesn’t see is that we’re no longer one mouth to one ear — we’re one mouth to a million ears, and all those ears have mouths that are talking.  If you watch birds flock or bees swarm or fish in a school, there is no leader, but the groups still move as a group, and get where they need to go.  And they make decisions more quickly and effectively than they would with a single leader and a chain of command, because every individual has the power to temporarily be a leader.

We can already see readers flocking on Rattle.com.  The most popular poems are read by 100 times as many people as the average poem.  And if you read the poems on that list, they’re all good poems — not the best 15 I’d pick out of the thousands we’ve published, but the top 15 we’d pick, and who’s to say my opinion is better than a collective of 40,000 others?  It’s not.

There are often times when I’m at an event and have to pick one poem from Rattle to share — for a long time I just picked one of my favorites, Li-Young Lee’s “Seven Happy Endings,” for example.  Recently, though, I’ve started using one of the collective choices.  My best sales pitch at a book fair is to simply get someone walking by to read Brett Myhren’s “Telemarketer.”  It was always a poem I liked, but I had no idea that it was a poem that would resonate so readily with so many people, until the people themselves told me.  And they were right.

So I’m very optimistic about the democratization of literature.  I want forever more people writing poetry, reading poetry, submitting poetry, posting poetry on their blogs, starting poetry magazines in their living rooms.  It’s going to be messy for sure, and we’ll have to beware the mediocrity of the middle — but I’m convinced that in the end, literature will be more vital for it.  It’s time to topple the ivory tower.

Twitter & the History of Poetic Utility

A few years ago I was driving to a softball tournament with a pair of microbiologists who didn’t like my taste in music (folk, for the record — and no, this isn’t the beginning of a bad joke about cell division).  Shuffling through my CD case, they came across a burned disc with “To Tim, From Sally” scrawled at the top, along with a track list full of indie bands that I still can’t keep straight.

“Who’s Sally?” one of them asked.

“She’s a…fan, I guess?” I said, and explained how she’d read some of my poems in a magazine, then emailed me to ask if she could read more.  I sent her a copy of my in-progress manuscript, and then she sent me a mix-CD in exchange.

“You have fans??”

“I have three fans, maybe.”

“You have three fans??”

The conversation went on like this for the next hour, as we made our way to Palm Desert.  I couldn’t believe that they found it so interesting — these were microbiologists who do important research, publish papers, attend conferences all over the world, write letters to other microbiologists…  And in publishing my silly little poems in magazines that don’t sniff a thousand readers, I had something that they seemed strangely desperate for.  Maybe a little celebrity in this star-ful culture, maybe just a voice in the void.  There’s a romanticism to the thought of connecting with strangers, and a power to having your words echo out of the blue.  Until that moment, it never occurred to me that there’s this need to be heard in everyone — and that poets are part of a very small fraction of society that gets to have that need fulfilled.

But every day now, this becomes less and less the case.

On the long view, poetry’s usefulness is a history of technological assault.  Technology, by definition, is the steady replacement of simple tools by those more complex and efficient.  And make no mistake — poetry, at its heart, is the simplest of tools.

The first poems were mnemonic devices.  Even thousands of years before petroglyphs began evolving into proto-writing, human beings were complicated social animals, with rich spiritual lives.  Our ancestors had religions and rituals and origin myths, just as we do, and these incredibly important stories needed to be passed down to their descendants uncorrupted.  Without any tools for record-keeping, they turned to poetry, using the literary devices we’re familiar with to this day — assonance and alliteration, rhythm and rhyme — to solidify their myths into fixed-form oral histories.  Not only does poetry allow for tremendous feats of memory, it also inhibits our natural tendency to embellish a good story.  It’s hard to add your own fraudulent details without losing the meter as you tell your tale.  Poetry was the best record they could keep.

Then came the Bronze Age (4th century BC), and with it, the beginnings of a true phonetic writing system.  For the first time in human history, spoken language could be recorded almost verbatim, and poetry became a little less important.  What had been written on breath could now be written in stone.  But still, materials were expensive and literacy levels were low.  The technology of writing remained mostly limited to the scholarly class — at times, literacy itself was a trade secret of professional scribes.  Part of the allure of a poem like The Odyssey was still that it was an exciting story that could be recited.  Poetry was still a vessel for information.

Then came Gutenberg’s printing press in 1440, and even more importantly the industrial revolution of the 19th century, which made books affordable.  As literacy levels rose, an affinity for poetry remained — it’s in our blood, a crucial part of human history — but its necessity as an informational medium had been supplanted.

At the same time, verse began losing its hold on fiction, as well.  Written prose — the novel — became the new vessel for story, eliminating the need for the epic poems of writers like Homer, Chaucer, and Spenser.  The new epics would be written in paragraphs, not lines — why bother with rhythm and rhyme, if there’s no need to memorize?  Why bother putting your words on the tongue of the world when your books can fill the libraries of forever?

With another pair of uses stripped away, poetry remained entertaining.  We love language — the sound of two words next to each other, the shape of a phrase in our mouth.  We evolved to love it; it’s written into the structure of the brain.  Music provided a similar — and sometimes superior — aural pleasure, but the only music was live music.  In the absence of a band and your own ability to play the fiddle, there was poetry, which had a monopoly on the private, acoustic experience.

Then came the phonograph.

But poems were still intensely imagistic, kindling to the fire of the mind’s eye!

Then came movies.

But you can’t take a movie to the beach!

Portable radios.

On a train, on a plane!

Walkmans, CDs, iPods…

The history poetry’s usefulness is a history of technological assault.  From every place that poetry draws its importance comes a new technology to replace it.

And here is a new use — over the last 50 years, the rise of the lit rag industry, hundreds of journals then becoming thousands with the ease of the internet, giving tens of thousands of poets their own voice in the void, and the possibility of developing a handful of strangers who call themselves fans.  A little bit of celebrity for everyone, in a society obsessed with celebrity.

And here comes a new technology — Twitter — to replace it.  With a Twitter account, you can pretend to be your old dead cat and generate hundreds of “followers.”  You can just tweet about your life, and if you’re funny or lucky enough, reach thousands.  My favorite is God, who shares the most banal of messages with 33,000 people, pretending the whole time to be — you guessed it — God.  And who wouldn’t want to know that God is “Seeing the Pixies again in Denver on Monday”?

Of course, this just a continuation of social networking technology — a journey from blogs to MySpace to Facebook to Twitter.  But there’s something about this last step that feels final.  I think it’s the simplicity of it, the ease of signing up and watching your readership rise.  Blogs have to be both interesting and well-written to be popular with strangers.  Twitter can be neither — the medium is often the message…and sometimes it’s as simple as being the first to stake out a good handle.

Thinking back on those ballplaying microbiologists, they could easily have Twitter accounts themselves, and then my three fans would sound exactly as pathetic as it actually is.  And it’s only a matter of time.

Where does that leave poetry?  If you’ve been reading this blog, you know that I think poetry is still important, both as a mind-tool, and as a social barometer.  Will it be long until we develop technologies to replace those uses as well?  When the phramaceutical companies develop prescription mood pills, and the hyper-net allows for total information awareness and empathy, what will we be left with?  Will poets be nothing more than flat-earthers and civil war reenactors — a cadre of Luddites refusing to let go the tools of the old world?  Or will poetry always find a smaller niche to escape to, as it always has, to have its place?

The Importance of Poetry

When I was a freshman in college I took my first poetry class, and my father started referring to me as “the poet,” like an epithet.  Even then I had no interest in being a poet — I had a passing interest in writing fiction, mostly as a hobby, and thought I’d minor in creative writing — but it was chemistry that interested me, visions of designing drugs to keep people healthy, researching the origins of life, using organics as fine tools for the first time in human history…  Writing was just a game, an outlet for excess creative energy, as important to my psychological well-being as a diary, maybe, but no more meaningful to the rest of the world than a stack of journals locked in someone’s dresser drawer.

Even as the excitement of the natural sciences evaporated into the tedium of lab work and the rote memorization of randomly assigned terms, it took a long time to allow myself to believe that writing could be important — that art could ever trump intellect, and that a life spent in pursuit of such ephemeral nonsense could be fulfilling.  That life seemed selfish; it was a waste the time and talent.  A poem never helped provide someone with clean drinking water, could never be used as a fuel to replace hydrocarbons or as a vaccine to cure disease.  As much as I preferred my English classes, it took a lot of soul-searching before I was able to accept that I did.

What the hell is the point?

Long before I even knew of Rattle, Alan grew tired of devoting space at the back of each issue for a list of publishing credits.  Maybe these kinds of bios made sense before Al Gore invented the internet (and he really kind of did) — but nowadays if you read a poem you love and want to find more of a poet’s work, all you have to do is Google.  So instead of 10 pages of wasted space, Alan began asking a simple question instead:  Why write poetry?

These contributor notes are a treasure-trove of solutions to my undergraduate conundrum.  What’s probably the most common answer, that writing is a compulsion — “I write because I must!” — doesn’t really help much, unless you have that compulsion, too.  And besides, compulsiveness is no excuse — when people are compelled to violence or addiction we try to cure them.  With so many people writing because they must, maybe we should just start a support group…

Others claim to write for immortality (“So my work will outlive me!”), to get laid, or to change the world — and it was this last one that I latched onto first.  This is still a world of full of suffering.  We have the technology to provide food, shelter, and clothing to every human alive, and yet we don’t.  We’re always at war, we’re always stealing and cheating and dehumanizing each other.  80% of the world is still ensnared in the myths of their ancestors, searching for a meaning to life that is outside of the only life they’ll ever have.

There were two quotes I kept coming back to.  I gave my copy of Zen in the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance to my brother a couple years ago, so I have to paraphrase, but Robert Pirsig writes something like, “All over the world, scientists are working hard to extend our lives — but none of them bother to ask why.”  And then there’s Nietzsche: “He who has a why to live can bear almost any how.”

Why is always more important to a consciousness than how, and I began to see science as the how and art as the why.  What value is there in living a longer life, if it’s lived poorly?  If I could dedicate a writing life to the ideals of collectivity and kindness, if I could help illuminate the interdependency of individuals and the moral power of self-created meaning, then I could do more good than the invention of a million pain killers.

It was that grand idea that allowed me to take poetry seriously, and cleared a path which led me here on a Friday afternoon, a stack of books on the editor’s desk to my left, still pondering the importance of poetry.

But over the last 5+ years of working in poetry full-time (and then some), I’ve gradually come to a new understanding:  Poems don’t do doodley-squat.

No matter how naive you want to think I’m being, no matter how hard you resist this fact, it remains a fact.  Everyone points to “Howl” as the most influential poem of the 20th century, talks about how it distilled the sentiment of an entire generation — but the ’60s would have happened without “Howl.”  The world will end not with a bang, but a wimper, and we didn’t really need Eliot to point that out.  Maybe a few of us are a bit more bold because of Frost, more persistent, but “The Road Not Taken” and “Stopping by Woods…”  are more slogans than a poems.

Moreover, no one even reads poetry.  Rattle has thousands of subscribers, and only a handful of them don’t have at least a few poems in a folder on their computer that they’d like to have us publish.  Our favorite nemesis G. Tod Slone likes to mock lit mags as one big circle-jerk — and he’s right!  We’re only talking to each other here.  No one just reads poetry; we write it, too.  And writing it is mostly what we really care about.  So even if a poem could effect change, who is out there be effected?

If you want to change the world, don’t write a poem, write a chant and stage a protest (“The people, united, will never be defeated!”).  Be a teacher, be a doctor, be a lawyer, build a house.  Volunteer at a nursing home, a homeless shelter, an animal clinic.  The value of any poem, or book of poems, or school of poets, is so overblown — by people like you and me and MFAs and AWPs — as to be delusional.

But that doesn’t mean that poetry isn’t important.  Poems themselves are inconsequential, but poetry — as an activity, as a mindset — is central to all that is important.  The pursuit of poetry is the distillation of that critical Why — it’s what we live for, what can “make us bear any how.”

Poetry isn’t a career, or a passion, or a form of entertainment.  It’s a lifestyle.  It’s an entire doctrineless philosophy that we reconfigure into each of those things.  To engage in poetry, whether reading or writing, is to practice an enriching attentiveness.  To practice poetry is to pluck detail from the surrounding world — to see things more clearly, to recognize beauty, to experience pain, to struggle to connect.  Because the writer uses the reader’s inner voice as a medium, poetry is fundamentally empathetic.  We see through another’s eyes, wear another’s shoes.  Poetry is cathartic.  And who needs a prayer or a trance — poetry has your daily meditation built right in.

The cliche is the tortured poet — the melodramatic outsider with half a head in the oven.  But what I see is a subset of society that’s more alive, that experiences life more fully.  Poets tend to have good marriages, raise bright kids, spend time thinking of and doing things for people other than themselves.  There are exceptions, of course, but I have direct contact with a huge number of poets, and I can say with confidence that we’re more happy and functional and productive than the whole.

And it’s not because some poem taught us how to act.  It’s not because we have any special talents, or more education, or better genes than everyone else.  It’s because our thoughtfulness has been turned on and tuned in.  A better life is simply a function of a more present awareness.

I’m not saying that poetry is the only way to be engaged — we can use science or sports or motorcycle maintenance to the same ends.  But poetry is a great way — maybe the best way — to get there, because it operates on so many levels of consciousness, and because language is so central to the structure of the mind itself.

So over the past few years, I’ve come to see the practice of poetry as a kind of barometer for the health of a society.  I’ve come to see Utopia as a world where everyone writes poetry — I think that in such a world we’d be done with racism and sexism and classism, selfishness and greed.  There would be no torture or war.  How could you torture someone empathetically?  How could you fight with someone whose experiences you’ve shared?

And so I’ve also come to see it as my mission, and a worthy mission, to get as many people writing poetry as possible.  That’s why I encourage everyone to keep writing and submitting, and never tell them to wait three months or close a reading period.  It’s not that the publication matters, but that the lifestyle matters, that there’s an expanding community of poets out there doing what we do and sharing with each other this life-enhancing, collective of concentration.

To me, what you write is inconsequential, or just the frosting on the cake.  Just write it.  That’s the cake.