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.

This Is the Line

This is the line that marks the space between what this journal used to be, and what it will be in the future.

When I started blogging about the relationship between poetry and editing, I had two goals:  1) to demystify the role of an editor within the broader literary landscape, and 2) to become a more vocal part of that landscape.

I think I’ve done a good job with the first goal — if you scroll back through this blog, there are dozens of posts that reveal my perspective from this side of the desk, and that I think do so with an honesty and clarity that have made them worth sharing.  I have strong feelings about what my role as an editor should be, and what poetry fundamentally is, what it offers us as human beings, and I’ve enjoyed writing on those subjects.

When it comes to the second goal, though, I’ve been a total failure.  I’m not really a part of the literary community — when I go to conferences I feel entirely out of place among other editors, up on panels, or even  in the audience listening to intellectual discussions of the latest trends in genre or tributes to poets I should admire but can’t bare to read.  I don’t care who wins the Pulitzer Prize this year, or what G. Tod Slone said, or which book contests are rigged, or what’s happening on the staff of Paris Review, or what comes of Ted Genoways, as much as I admire his work.

Those are the things I don’t care about, and never have.  The only reason I wrote about them was because they were things I thought I should care about; if I want Rattle to become an influential enterprise, which is one the tasks I’ve been given, I should become a part of the literary community — even if my part in the pantomime is just the groaning, indignant  outsider, I still have to join in the dance, don’t I?  I can’t participate on a social level, because I hate socializing.  So maybe I’ll blog — that was the thought.

And maybe it wasn’t a bad thought.  But the fact is, no matter how much I try to care, I just can’t make myself.  And it shows.  In sloppy, indifferent, rudderless prose.  And so my futile attempts at participation remain ineffective — maybe even counterproductive.

On top of that, I published a book with a small press, which made me feel obligated to work at promoting the book in reciprocation for their confidence and investment in me.  So in the middle of posts where I pretend to care about the latest literary happenings, I had to swallow my vomit and try to talk about American Fractal in a way that would keep it alive, on life-support, for as long as possible.  You publish a poetry book and it inevitably dies; I didn’t want to let that happen before it had earned its time on earth.

But I hate promoting the flotsam of my fiddling almost as much as I hate the idea of a literary community I’m thrust inside.  So, like my posts about Ted Genoways or Cider Press or whatever it’s called, the best I could muster was half-hearted, pointless babble.  In a way, I admire the people who are passionate about the cliques and gimmicks of becoming a successful poet — Red Hen, Rattle, American Fractal deserve all the promotion they can get.  It’s just not me; I’m not good at it, and I hate myself while trying.

So I’ve accomplished my first goal, and I’m giving up on the second.  As such, there’s no longer any purpose for this blog in its old form, hodgepodge mess that it was.  It’s over.

I’m going back to basics.  I only find myself an editor by accident; I tripped while running through a love of writing and fell face-first into this cubicle.  I used to have a blog, under a handle, where I posted poems and stories and photography, and took none of it seriously.  That was fun.  Then I started publishing poems, and had to worry about losing First Rights by posting them online, so I hesitated, then withheld.  Then a job, then a book, then the thought of the next book, and somewhere what was fun turned into work.

Fuck that.  Now that I’ve published a book — and not just any book, but a book that I’m proud of — I can see clearly how inconsequential the whole thing is.  How wrong the entire structure of the system has become.  Publishing a respectable book of poetry is not the goal of poetry.  There’s writing, there’s reading, and there’s being read.  Those things matter.  Imprints and barcodes and serial rights do not.

As a writer, I’m bowing out of the literary system.  Everything I write will be posted here, whether it be rough draft, or revision, or final copy.  If you want to read, read, if you want to comment, comment.  If you want to go away, go away.

If other magazines don’t want to publish what I’ve written because it’s appeared on here, so be it.  When I want to gather some of it up into a coherent collection, that’s what I’ll do.  If no press wants to publish that book, then I’ll self-publish.

I suppose this is my manifesto.  Not much of a manifesto, but it exists as negation.  I’ve felt this way for a long time — it’s the reason I haven’t submitted a single poem to any magazine in three or four years.

There is a place for publishing in my current view, but there is not a place for withholding within publishing.  The job of an editor is to be a poetic sieve — to filter out the one poem in a thousand that the most people will want to read twice, and then present it as nicely and to as many readers as possible.   As an editor, I’m going to work hard to keep on doing that.

As a writer, I’m going to write. That’s what this blog is for. The detritus of my day, turned into play.

In Other News

I’m thinking about radically changing this blog.  I like writing, but I don’t like blogging.  I’ve done my due diligence, trying to come up with things to post about, and I just don’t really care what I have to say, at least when it comes to poetry and editing.  And I think it shows.  More and more it shows, as more and more I come to the realization that I just don’t care.  And if I don’t care why would you care?  Do you care?  Would anyone be heartbroken if I deleted all 233 posts I’ve made so far and turned this into a travel log of my trips between the office, the grocery store, and the garbage disposal?  Honk if you’re horny, I guess.  I’m not.

Fractal Performance

A confluence of events had me thinking a lot about the act of performing poetry last week.  Between Rattle‘s feature on the Performance Poetry Podcast and our AWP panel “Stagecoaching for the Page,” in which a group of cowboy and western poets discussed the on-stage aspects of their craft, I found myself on a two-hour plane flight with nothing to read but my own book.  I’d bought a copy of Russell Edson’s recent collection of prose poems at the conference so I’d have something to read, but accidentally left it in my checked suitcase.

As I read American Fractal start-to-finish, really for the first time since it was published, I realized I’d been going about readings all wrong.  I’ve always believed that between-poem banter is an important aspect of any poetry reading.  It’s not so much about helping the audience access the complexities of the poem they’re about to hear — I hate nothing more than a self-important poet pointing out all of the references ahead of time, to make sure you understand their brilliance.  It’s mostly just acting like a real person for a few seconds, and giving the minds in the room a chance to relax.  Even the most quiet poems are intellectually intense, and the mental energy required to enjoy them is hard to sustain for 20 or 40 minutes without an occasional break.  I always think of reading poetry as like snorkeling — it’s great to dive in an explore the vivid and alien world down there, but you have to remember to come up for air.  If you can chat comfortably with the audience in between poems, preferably with a sense of humor or a little personality, it can really add to the experience — but regardless, you still have to give them time to breathe.

And that’s what I’d been doing for the two dozen or so readings I’ve done in the last year.  Each poem has a little anecdote that goes along with it; sometimes I use those, other times I just riff off the cuff, but it’s all part of the show.  Before reading “After Hopper,” I’ll talk about my class with formalist Robert Mezey, and how I found an anthology of nothing but poems written after Edward Hopper paintings.  Before “Poem from the Homeland,” I warn them “turbofans” are a kind of jet engine, and it’s not just a goofy word for the crowd at the Rose Bowl.  When I read “Cutlery,” I usually talk about working at the group home and then explain the extended metaphor.  And so on.

What occurred to me last week, 30,000 feet over the high desert, was that this format, as pleasant as it is for the audience, really does the book a disservice.  American Fractal is a series of simultaneously connected and disconnected vignettes about recurring patterns within different layers of the American psyche.  The structure of the book is a fractal, even though the poems themselves are not — the form emerges as various phrases and ideas are recast in unexpected places.  The poems are all echoes of each other (reflections in opposing mirrors), and when read in sequence, you can actually hear the echoes.

For example, in a little run around “Poem from Dark Matter,” which itself plays with ideas of light and darkness, fire and ice, the two preceding poems end with the lines “cool insistence” and “their heat.”  Then the first word in the next poem after “Dark Matter” is “Iridescent.”

Or another:  in “To Montevideo” the speaker says, “We were the hollow space/ a shell curls around.”  The very next poem, “Fifty-Hour Online Gaming Binge,” concludes, “One finds a pearl, another just the shell.”  The poems have nothing in common — different characters, different form (one’s a sonnet, the other free verse couplets) — but the shell repeats.

These things happen over and over again throughout the book — and as a book, that’s really what the book is about.  But I realized that at readings, breaking up the poems with some friendly banter, the crucial sense of echo is completely lost.  Thus divided, with no unifying plot or characters, the poems become individual poems, rather than a coherent collection.

What’s worse, I think talking about the genesis of each poem gives a false impression that there is a traditional cohesion — that the first person pronoun is a consistent I, rather than an evolving cast of narrators.  Most of the poems are inspired by my life — where else would I find inspiration? — but the details are almost always fabricated; it’s more fiction than non-.  When I explain where the poems came from, the sense of a narrative arc supersedes the broader formal structure where my argument really occurs.

Luckily, the day after my epiphany, I had an opportunity to test it out.  Last Sunday I read at the Ruskin Art Club with Ernest Hilbert, and for the first time I ever, I didn’t talk at all between the poems.  I set the book up and warned them that I wouldn’t be chatting, and then just dove straight to the bottom.

The results, honestly, were mixed.  It’s fortunate for me that the book is full of tones and lengths and energy levels.  It’s easy to mix in a short quiet poem with a longer, more dramatic piece, and I think that helped to keep the audience on their toes.  I also tried to add an extra long pause between each poem, so that we could get a sense of the silence that surrounds life, or some such thing.  As far as I could tell, everyone stayed engaged for the full 20 minutes — and that’s a pretty long breath. No one seemed at all bored.

But when I asked people afterward, a few mentioned that they miss the back-stories — that the stories are what makes going to readings better than just reading the book.   And I agree with that.

So I’m still not quite sure what to do, going forward.  If I had another book, that had a consistent narrative, or no narrative at all, then I’d be happy to talk half the time.  But while reading American Fractal, I still feel compelled to do the book justice, and talking ruins the mood.  If there’s a compromise, maybe it’s just to use even more time on the introduction — build a mountain of expectations and then plunge in with confidence.