Addendum to the Last Post (Pieces of You)

Turns out the Mets could handle a bad poet after all: David Wright hit two home runs in the first two innings, and Miguel couldn’t get through the third, giving up 8 runs and securing his 10th loss of the season.  If only his slider broke with the confidence of his lines…

Anyway, I ended up reading several reviews of Jewel’s book just now.  A guilty pleasure, I guess.  And I thought it worth mentioning that there’s one common criticism of celebrity poets that I don’t agree with at all.

A lot of people have complained that books like A Night Without Armor steal slots at the publishing houses from legitimate poets, and even worse, that they steal readers themselves.  I don’t think that’s at all the case.  I don’t think the set of people who would publish or read Alan Shapiro are the same set that are instead publishing and/or reading Billy Corgan.  That should be obvious.  The audience is an entirely different demographic, and so the publishers are filling an entirely different niche.  The bad books of poetry aren’t doing any harm to real poetry sales — and in fact, there are probably boatloads of people who drift over to the island of verse from the wreckage that is Jewel Kilcher.  And we’re all the better for it.

The Ballad Stuck in My Head

I’ve been reading a lot of formal poetry lately, thanks mostly – and perhaps surprisingly – to the upcoming Cowboy/Western issue. Cowboys love their meter and rhyme. Poetry sprung up 50,000+ years ago as a pneumonic device for people who hadn’t yet invented the ballpoint pen (not to mention the ball itself), and verse became the first medium for transgenerational knowledge. Tibetan monks still memorize hundreds of thousands of lines of sacred text by putting the words to a beat. (I never understand why people are surprised to see poets reciting from memory at readings – in many ways, that was always the point.)

Out on the range – and I hope I’m not being too much of a greenhorn with this explanation – ranchers and wranglers have kept up this oral tradition. Setting up camp at night in the middle of nowhere, with only the supplies you can carry on your horse, entertainment is hard to come by. Maybe you have a book to read by the fire. Maybe just a harmonica, a flask of whiskey, and the stars. So it’s no surprise cowboys started turning to poetry, much the same way I mumble poems to myself as I’m folding clothes at the Laundromat instead of watching Oprah. I read somewhere, though I can’t find the link now, that the tobacco companies started tucking poems into their tins, like the plastic prize in a cereal box. But if you want to keep yourself entertained for weeks at a time, you’re going to need a lot of poems, you’re going to need to write some of your own, then remember them, so you can entertain your friends.

The most common form in the west, like most everywhere else in the English world, was the ballad—think of your typical church hymn: quatrains alternating between four and three beats, rhymed ABAB. The ballad is so common, in fact, that it’s also called “common verse”—and with all the rhymes and repetitions, no form has more pneumonic cues. Fit a good story into the ballad form, and suddenly you’ve got a good storyteller. And the tradition is alive and thriving even into the Internet Age.

So I’ve been reading a lot of ballads lately. Not all cowboy poets write in form, but a lot of them do, and maybe a third of all submissions are suddenly fitting this mold. And it works. I’m a foot-tapping poetaster – I’ve never been intensely interested in adding accent marks and counting beats, but even in free verse there’s always a rhythm I’m listening to, and if a word is off, if there’s one syllable that doesn’t seem to fit, the poem makes a sound like The Gong Show, with similar consequences.

Now we’re getting to the point of this post, because I’m wondering if there are other foot-tapping poets out there, or if this is just something that happens to me:

I’ll be reading three ballads in a row, say, and then I’ll go back to a standard, contemporary free verse poem, one that might be quite good, and suddenly it sounds awful. I can’t stop myself from song-singing lines that weren’t meant to be read that way, from waiting for the rhyme that never comes. At this point, even a bad rhyme would sound better than no rhyme at all. I find I have to keep cleansing my ear’s palate – slap myself in the face, gurgle some mouthwash, run around the block.

It reminds me of another quirk of the brain, that’s either normal, or makes me a freak. If I’m walking or jogging, and I start counting my steps, 1, 2, 3, I can’t stop! I’ll get into the hundreds, doing all sorts of mental gymnastics before I can get The Count out of my head. Does that happen to everyone?

Anyway, it’s gotten to the point where I have to group the ballads out of a stack of submissions and read them last. As soon as I see a bit of meter or an end rhyme, I banish it to quarantine ASAP, lest I catch the sonic virus and contaminate all the others.

What’s even more interesting, though, is that it’s never unpleasant to go in the other direction – free verse never taints the ballad. You never trip over an expected foot. Couple this with the feeling of perfection in a really great sonnet, a purity rarely felt reading contemporary poetry, and I can’t help but wonder, briefly, if there’s a superiority to form.

But then I remember the kind of songs that get stuck in your head – what the Germans call “earworms.” They’re always commercial jingles, or the Village People, or the Macarena. They’re never Leonard Cohen.

Before I offend the cowboys or the formalists, I’m not saying ballads should be banished to Hallmark cards and television commercials. It’s just a reminder that memorability is not synonymous with quality. If something is worth remembering, and it’s easy to do so – hey, bonus points. But memory is a sword, not a knife.

I’d really just like to know – does formal verse get stuck in your head, too? Can you go from John Donne to Stephen Dunn without getting all screwy in the head?

Interview with Outsider Writers

Usually I feel too inhibited to post a lot of personal information here.  But when people ask me personal questions directly, I have no problem talking about myself. Over the weekend, I did an interview with Outsider Writers, which they’ve already posted online, here. Topics range from where I grew up and how I fell into this job, to the new slam issue, to the state of poetry in the U.S., and where it’s headed. So if you’re wondering where the hell I came from, there you go.

As I mention in the interview, I don’t know if I could count myself as an outsider writer, or Rattle as an outsider publication, but the guild has a mission statement I can get behind, and we’re certainly outsiders at heart. Don’t just read the interview; browse around and join up.


While I’m posting links, I have short story that just came out online at Flashquake, and a poem at Strange Horizons.

For online reading, I’ve been turning more and more to two places, that I’ve been meaning to pass along. Arts and Letters Daily just posts links to the most interesting articles — I’m sure this is old news to a lot of people, but somehow I only just found this place, and I could spend all day there. I’ve also been loving the literary discussions at Wet Asphalt; their perspective is different from mine, and everything I read feels like a well-deserved kick in the pants. I like that.

Worst Week Ever

My trip to New York last week was a disaster. Almost literally, as I think some portions of upstate New York were declared federal disaster areas. When I left LA Saturday morning the weather forecast called for cold and partial clouds — no snow — for most of the week, including Wednesday afternoon’s hurried drive from Binghamton back up to Rochester for an 8pm reading there. Nothing to worry about. That night’s 11pm newscast was the first time I heard about an approaching storm, and even then the weatherman said just that: “A few inches, nothing to worry about.”

But by Tuesday it had gone from a few inches to the biggest storm in years — for Rochester, actually, the third-most snow ever recorded in a single day. Everything was cancelled, including both of my events, and my flight back to LA, leaving me stuck at my mother’s house an extra five days. It wasn’t so bad, though — a wasted trip that would leave me even further behind at work, but at least I got to spend some time with family.

I planned on relaxing, spending the afternoons at our local coffee shop, basking in free WiFi by the fire, drinking the best chai lattes on the planet. On Friday I logged in to check my email, and I couldn’t access it. At first I thought it was just the connection on my antique laptop, but when I tried logging in to our web host’s control panel, I realized the entire site was locked. For some reason it said it was a billing issue, though I knew for sure that we’re paid up. So I trudged out to the phone booth in my sneakers and hoodie and stood in the arctic wind talking to customer service, alternating ears on the phone so I wouldn’t get frostbite. Turns out it wasn’t billing at all — we’d been hacked again, and this time it was a malicious phishing scam that had added a fake Capital One login page to our site. The account would be unlocked until I removed that page, and tried to figure out a way to keep it from happening again. (Hackers, if you’re reading this, let me know how you got in, so I can make sure you can’t do it again, kay?)

So that was annoying, probably cost us a hundred dollars in business, and some deity seemed to be making it damn well clear that I wasn’t supposed to get any work done while out of town.

I went back inside, sat by the fire to thaw out, and worked on a pretty crappy short story I’d started that morning. I was about a paragraph away from the crappy ending, when a car crashed through the front of the restaurant and almost killed me.

“Almost killed me” in this case is probably hyperbole — it wasn’t going all that fast as it slammed through the plate glass window and headed straight for me, but there’s nothing hyperbolic about a car crashing through a building. I stood up, about to jump on the hood if I had to, and the coffee table banged against my leg. But the car, a Honda SUV, stopped about two feet away, knocking my treasured chai latte over Hicok’s Insomnia Diary.

The driver was out of it — either just in shock, or stoned, I’m not sure. We had to yell at her to turn the car off; she just sat there with it running, right next to the gas fire place like that was the plan all along. The fire trucks came, and the police. An EMT took my blood pressure and pulse, which were both low, and made fun of me for being “dead inside.” I had to sign a waiver not to go to the hospital for the silly little cut on my leg.

All in all, I thought it was pretty hilarious. After we got the woman to shut her car off, I started laughing, which I feel a bit bad about, because it hadn’t occurred to me at the time that she could have had a heart attack or stroke that caused the accident. There were no bloody bodies, so it seemed funny.

Before I left, I took some pictures:

After a few blissfully uneventful days, I landed back at LAX, only to find that I’d left the dome light on in my car, so had to wander around with all my luggage asking for a jump. I found someone and started up, but after driving my mother’s car all week with her weird clutch, I immediately stalled and had to ask for a second jump. The anti-theft feature in my stereo required a code I didn’t have, so I drove home in silence, praying at every stoplight not to stall.

And thus resumed the exciting life of a poetry editor.

Super Secret Introductory Post

I guess I should start this whole taking-blogging-seriously thing with some sort of introductory Hello post.


I’ve migrated here from LJ-land, and I want this to be more of a professional blog. The problem is, I’ve never felt like a professional. Six years ago I was a biochemistry major at the University of Rochester, thinking of maybe minoring in creative writing because it would be fun to write a novel some day. The novel would probably be Spec Fic, centered around some obscure and inaccurate physics theory. I don’t even know why this seemed like fun. English was by far my worst subject, and throughout high school I’d loathed spending hours writing papers on Thomas Hardy that would always lack the cold precision of a calculus proof.

As for poetry, I’d written a chapbook of ten poems — the mandatory minimum for 11th grade English. All were sing-songy rhymes. Colored fonts, Lucida Calligraphy. I can’t believe I’m posting this:

Golden Spool

Weave not thy vest in threads of gold,
A wisely noble wizard told,
Jeweled brow an anger doth enfold,
To a pauper’s mind not yet too old.

Thy feet wear soles which touch the street,
And tongue too young to lie and cheat,
In search of yellow fields of wheat,
The reaper soon the youth will meet.

Our hero glares at voices fair,
And turns his back to royal care,
Follow the sun, he mounts his mare,
Leaves shadow of his silver hair.

Off he rides to golden sky,
The distance where his treasure lie,
Burden shall fall and he will fly,
He tells himself, but asks not why.

What can I say, I was deep.

And then, spring semester 2000. Joanna Scott, who taught advanced fiction was on sabbatical, writing Tourmaline (at least that’s how I remember it), so if I wanted to take a creative writing class, it had to be intro to poetry with her husband, James Longenbach. My other classes were all hardcore math and science, so I figured I could use the break.

All I can remember about the class is that Jim loved that song by Six Pence None the Richer that played incessantly on the radio, and that he shared a poem he’d written about Matthew Sheppard that made me cry. We also read Robert Pinsky’s The Sounds of Poetry, and though I’m still not a big Pinsky fan, poetry started to make sense. It was easy to write, fun, so I kept taking classes, later with Barbara Jordan.

Meanwhile I’d been working in an entry-level job at a molecular biology lab, running melts and electrolysis gels, but mostly washing dishes. Coming to understand the hidden workings of the universe was always fascinating, but the mundane routine of lab life got boring fast. Sick of pipettes, I started skipping my biology lab requirement to go to the library and read or play pickup basketball at the gym. I got zeros on several lab exams before I realized we had lab exams, which still annoys me whenever I see the three letters GPA. I was officially listless. And so a biochemistry major became an English major.

For an honors diploma in English you needed to write a thesis. Begin the first novel. (Little secret: novels are hard.) I had a great idea, I thought, for a Michael Cunningham-esque book contrasting Nabokov’s expectations in writing Lolita, and the modern results — an online community of ‘nymphets’ and ‘humbers’ that my friend had found his little sister a part of; 13-year-old girls trading tips on how to seduce old men. I wrote the first chapter following my contemporary heroine home from school, but then chapter two was supposed to flash back to Vladmir, and it quickly occurred to me that I know nothing about pre-revolutionary Russia, and didn’t have time to learn. In a panic, I put together my second chapbook, perhaps slightly better than the first, and handed that in instead.

After graduation I spent a couple years as an overnight counselor at a group home, which provided hours every night to do nothing but read and write, and try to stay awake. The latter was supposed to be the challenge, everyone else in the house passed out on mood tranquilizers. But I had my books and my poetry to protect me.

Eventually I decided to start submitting work, and one of the first journals I submitted poems to was RATTLE. Through some chancy miracle that submission led to a part-time job offer, and that part-time job led to a full-time job, and now two years after moving from Rochester to LA I find myself editor, making a living at something I’d do for free.

So I guess the big secret is that I have no idea what the hell I’m doing. I love reading and writing poems, and I think I’m pretty good at my job, but the idea of having a writer’s blog is a little daunting. After this post I have no idea what I’m going to say next. On the newly revised RATTLE website we have a Poem of the Week, and I think I’ll try to explain what I like about each poem I pick for that. I guess I’ll also talk about various books as I read them, random thoughts. And I’ll post my own poems sometimes, some length of time after they’ve been published.

Speaking of novels, I think this is one. If there’s anyone out there reading who actually made it this far (which sounds a little like a Carl Sagan proposition) — what was it that drew you to poetry, either as a reader or writer? (I’m assuming if anyone reads this, it will be poetry people.) It seems to me that most people started much earlier than I did, hiding poems in leather journals under their bed and such. But if you have a stumbled-into-poetry story, share it.

Or post your first poem so I feel less a loser.