Blink of an eye / ideas and people connect / in haiku

The following article appeared in the Press-Enterprise, Sunday, December 6, 2015.

When my grandmother’s hearing had grown too poor for the telephone, we started exchanging letters. Once a month—on the same day as the Edison bill—I’d receive a handwritten letter, pressed firmly with a retired schoolteacher’s perfect cursive, yellowed paper cut neatly from the same ancient notebook. Family gossip, news of my father, the weather back east, details of her various ailments.

She’d close every letter with a haiku. It was both a hobby of hers, and a nod to my odd profession. Her last was probably her best:

snow-covered sundial
to tell time again

I imagined her as the sundial, snowed in by age, her bed long-since moved to the living room so she wouldn’t have to negotiate the stairs, waiting patiently for whatever spring might come in whatever existence might come next.

When I had a moment, I’d tap out a hasty reply, glancing out at the palm trees on Ventura Boulevard from my office window, and close with a responding haiku.

it’s December too
in California
the crickets shout!

There was a joy to the haiku that I’ve only recently come to understand. Easy to write but impossible to master, they never grow old. You can write them in the car stuck in traffic, or plop them easily at the end of a newspaper article. Haiku are so simple they can be simultaneously silly and profound, and that contrast has kept them fresh for centuries.

Most often my grandmother’s haiku would offer a shift in mood, adding levity or perspective or clarity to the information that the letter had shared.

lost my other shoe—
now even the right
isn’t left

Almost a decade later, I still remember many of them fondly, and they always embody my grandmother’s quietly sarcastic personality.

More recently, I interviewed Richard Gilbert, a haiku scholar at Kumamoto University in Japan. He described with great enthusiasm the beloved space haiku holds within Japanese culture. With a total population of 130 million, it’s estimated that 12 million attend a regular haiku group. Witty celebrities compose haiku-like senryu live on TV.

Haiku itself descends from a party game, so it should be no surprise that they’re fun to write. At the kukai, as it was called, friends would gather around a bottle of saké, taking turns composing lines on a chosen topic. Class boundaries and social conventions dissolved as participants adopted pen names, many of them humorous. Bashō was named after the banana tree outside of his hut.

Listening to Gilbert tell it, haiku as a social act sounds like so much fun that I can’t help wishing we made it a part of our culture in the West. An outlet for playfulness and creativity and face-to-face interaction, haiku embody much of what we seem to be lacking in the age of smartphones and Facebook.

So let’s start now. Why not cap off your annual holiday letter with a summary haiku? Turn a family dinner into your own kukai, composing short poems about the season.

Before you start, it’s important to know what haiku are and what they aren’t. No other form of poetry is so misunderstood. Haiku are not three-line poems of five, then seven, then five syllables. Counting syllables doesn’t make any sense in Japanese, which is divided into units of time and not sound. You can think of traditional haiku as three lines that are short, then long, then short in duration, but even that generality isn’t an important rule in modern haiku.

The heart of a haiku is really the kireji, the cutting word, which is almost a form of punctuation that divides the poem in two. In English we might use a dash or colon—this division separates the first image from the last, creating a comparison that can be evocative or uncanny. The best example is Bashō’s famous frog:

old pond—
frog jumps in
the sound of water

That dash is the kireji, and it signifies a complete cut in time and space. The haiku presents one image, an old pond, and then another isolated image, the frog jumping into the sound of water. How the two images relate to each other is left up to the reader—and it’s that interactive, connective leap that stirs our thoughts and emotions. This is one of the many things Bashō meant when he said, haiku jiyu, or “Haiku is for freedom.”

Much more goes into classical haiku, but this is all you need to know to write decent modern haiku in English. Don’t count syllables, just count images or ideas: There should be two.

watching football
my keyboard
almost silent

To learn more about the history of haiku, you can find my interview with Richard Gilbert in issue #47 of Rattle, or read his translations of contemporary Japanese haiku poets at his website.

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.

A Struggling Poet

Several people have commented recently on the subtitle of this blog: “Poetry Editor and Struggling Poet.”  Tim, they say, how can you possibly be a struggling poet when you have a book that’s just been published by a good press and a full-time job in the poetry industry?  Or as G. Tod Slone puts it, “Why would you be a ‘struggling poet’? Hell, the machine is paying you a salary, isn’t it?”

Obviously that tag isn’t referring to money — anyone who’s seen my gut lately knows I’m not struggling to eat.  If I cared about material wealth I wouldn’t be here — I graduated at the top of my class and could easily be a molecular biologist at some pharmaceutical company pulling down six figures right now — but that doesn’t mean I’m starving.

I’m not struggling at my career, either.  American Fractal is doing as well as a first book of poetry can be expected to (sold three copies this week, wow!), and Rattle is growing fast and furious.  The age of 30 is breathing down my neck, but it isn’t here yet, and already I’m feeling pretty cozy in this niche.

What I’m struggling with is poetry itself.  I haven’t written a poem in three months.  In the last 18 months I might have written a half dozen.  It’s been two years since my book was accepted for publication.  It’s been two years since I’ve submitted work to another magazine.  It’s been two years since I’ve cared to.

I still love good poetry, and I still love the meditative process through which good poetry is composed.  I still think poetry is an incredibly meaningful part of the human experience — I think it’s endemic to the way our minds work, as important an evolutionary tool as the opposable thumb.  It’s poetry that not only helps us communicate new ideas, but lets us form new ideas in the first place; it’s through poetry that we experience the nuances of the world.  Simple language produces simple thoughts.  Poetry is banned in 1984 for a reason.  Poetry is a garden for reflection, contemplation, awareness, empathy — all the things that are missing or deficient in this modern life.

And yet poetry as an industry is just as ridiculous as any other industry.  Just as much a game: CVs, MFAs, bios, blogs, open mics, cover letters, conferences, colonies, grants, awards, networking, politicking, policing…  I don’t care if you’re an academic poet, a street poet, or an underground poet.  I don’t care if you’re the Poet Laureate or the Poet Lariat or the poet Harriet, who has a 160 poems in four different themes in a three-ring binder on her desk.  It’s all a joke.  It’s an egotistical, megalomaniacal, self-aggrandizing, back scratching, crotch-stroking, fist pumping joke.  When I see a bio listing 104 “credits,” including Poetry and Triquarterly and the New England Review, I don’t think, Wow, that’s a real poet.  I think, Wow, that’s a lot of postage.  When I see the same poet reading the same poem over and over again to the same audience at every open mic in town, there’s no room to wonder about the transaction — the only one gaining something is you, gaining a captive audience for content that wouldn’t hold up through a dinner conversation.

You want fame, you want attention, you want respect.  That’s all the game is about.  It’s 28,000 submitters and 2,800 subscribers.  It’s an audience of 30 at a poetry reading, and 20 of them thinking only about the poem they’ll read when the host calls their name.  It’s a new book every four years because that’s what tenure calls for.  And every faction, from the most amateur to the most erudite, thinks they’re the one that’s doing it right.  It’s all the same silly enterprise.

Yes, you’re all poets.  But only because we’re all poets — every human being is a poet from birth.  We live in language, we enjoy language, we use language in interesting ways.  Only 10% of us are writing poetry, but 100% of us should be.  That’s what really matters.  Good poetry isn’t about linebreaks or imagery or avoiding cliches.  It’s not about books or applause or MFAs.  It’s about having a genuine fucking experience within language.  If you have an actual experience writing the poem, I will have an actual experience reading the poem, and we’ll all be better off for it.  If you aren’t doing that, then I don’t want anything to do with you.  We might as well be talking about the weather, or sports, or Dancing with the Stars.

And if you want to learn how to write poetry, if you want to teach it, then teach how to have a meditative experience within language.  Don’t workshop me, don’t writers’ group me, don’t line-edit the vapid into mediocrity.  If it’s not a genuine experience, it’s a waste of everyone’s time.  I’ve had a handful of teachers who have taught poetry the right way, sometimes without even knowing it, but so many others who are nothing more than foremen at a plastic factory.  I’ll love the former forever, but I’m done with the latter and all the empty molds they spawn.

When I call myself a struggling poet, it’s because I’m struggling with how poetry is treated, how poetry acts.  But I had a revelation last night:  I’m done with it.  I’m done with taking this industry so seriously just because everyone else does.  I’m done pretending Best American Poetry matters.  I’m done pretending 200 people reading my poem in some journal is better than the 200 people who would read it if I posted it on this blog.  I’m done with trying to be successful.

All that matters is the actual poetry.  All that matters are the real poets, who actually exist as real poets for the hour or two that they’re living within a real poem.  All that matters are the actual people, who actually enjoy reading real poems. All that matters is the joy of creating them.

That’s how I felt five years ago.  And five years ago I didn’t consider myself a “struggling poet.”

The Odd Life of Timothy Green

I have 12-18 months to live.  Like any Z-list,  fame-hungry, Plank-length celebrity, I periodically Google myself — blog search only, since web searches usually result in the same old pages — to see if anyone’s talking smack about me.  What do I see today on page 1, right between my batting averages post on the Harriet blog and some other real estate agent TG?  This exciting note from the film industry:

Peter Hedges will write and direct “The Odd Life of Timothy Green” for Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures. The idea came from Ahmet Zappa who produces with Scott Sanders and is a modern-day fable.  The plot details are being kept under wraps.

Good God.  Next year’s Up! is going to steal my good name and snuff me out of cyberspace!  Don’t believe me?  Try finding Benjamin F. Button‘s blog on Google.  He used to make a living through his website on the vibrant happenings in the (he’d argue) ironically named Barren County, Kentucky — now he’s nothing but a dead man listed by number (l2442) on a geneology website.  That forgettable, Oscar-cajoling, Forrest Gump knock-off starring Brad Pitt’s makup artist completely consumed his identity.  For 30 pages Google knows nothing but the big budget movie, which seems to even have consumed F. Scott Fitzgerald himself.

Megan and I were just talking yesterday about the importance of having a unique name in the digital age.  It’s as if Lyn Lifshin’s parents pre-reserved space on every message board and cyber-platform on the interweb.  For every johnsmith1134 who waited for the clock to strike 9pm EST on the day Facebook doled out usernames, there was a Martha Vertreace-Doody somewhere having a fun night on the town.

As the world grows smaller, more and more your name is becoming your brand.  And you only get one.  I’ve been Timothy Green for 6 years now — everyone just calls me “Tim,” but when I publish under Tim Green, people think I used to play linebacker for the Atlanta Falcons.  It took a while, but I’ve become the #1 Timothy Green on the internet.  There’s the Senator from Missouri, there’s comic book artist Timothy Green II.  I thought my toughest competition was going to be Timothy Green-Beckley, Ufologist and hack-scientist extraordinaire.  One by one I’ve knocked them down — but for what?  For all of us to be buried by a 3-D digital feature?

What’s worse will be off-line, in the so-called “real world.”  It was bad enough during Tom Green’s 15 minutes of fame.  Worse still when everyone started yelling “Timmmmaaaaay!” at my baseball games.   But this is actually Timothy Green — how many times am I going to hear about my “odd life” for the rest of my odd life?  How many emails will have that as a subject line?  How many times will strangers ask me, “So Tim, how’s your odd life going, har-har?”

Just shoot me now.  Next summer you won’t have to — I’ll already be dead to Google, and what else is there?