Don’t Forget to Eat Your Poetry

Note: This article first appeared in the print edition of the Press-Enterprise on April 20, 2014, in the Inlandia Institute‘s weekly column.

As you must know if you’ve bothered with this section of the paper, we’re currently knee-deep in National Broccoli Month. The official 2014 National Broccoli Month poster, which I pre-ordered for free in quadruplicate last fall, is plastered over all four windows in my office, lest I forget the season or feel the urge to look out at the cruelty of the lilac bush’s breeding. You’ve seen this year’s image, too, on the backs of bus benches and screen-pressed on tote bags—but nothing beats the effect of the full poster’s 16:9 aspect ratio: a field of broccoli, still green, stretching to the horizon in rows clipped with care like lines of meter in some olde thyme poem you read in high school, the cerulean sky bluer than the purest water high above—and basking angelic upon it the official 2014 National Broccoli Month slogan: “A Branch a Day Keeps Dementia at Bay.”

And if you’ve been eating your broccoli, as you should, you’ll remember that it was almost 20 years ago that the Academy of American Cabbage brought together the nation’s leading grocers, botanists, harvester manufacturers, and Monsanto with the aim of creating the first month-long celebration of broccoli. In April of 1996, National Broccoli Month was launched. The goal then was the same as it is now: to engage the public and heighten broccoli’s visibility and availability in popular culture.

Why celebrate broccoli? Because broccoli at its best is high in vitamin C and dietary fiber. It’s also full of nutrients with anti-cancer properties, including diindolylmethane, selenium, and sulforaphane. Broccoli is higher in carotenoids than any other plant in the cabbage family.

Remember, though, that boiling broccoli reduces the levels of these compounds, so don’t boil your broccoli. Eat it raw, or steamed, or stir-fried to achieve the full nutritional effect.

No matter how you eat it, broccoli is far more healthy than French fries or pizza or most of the other delicious garbage that you’re consuming 11 months of the year in your incessant gluttonous quest for biological sustenance. That’s why even fast food chains have embraced National Broccoli Month—it’s not just a ploy for profit. So drive up to your nearest drive-thru and order a broccoli-burger with a side of stalk fries! You deserve it and your brain will thank you!

You might be asking yourself, how could anyone argue against National Broccoli Month? Don’t we all deserve to be healthy?

I have to admit that some broccoli growers were opposed to this celebration from the start, claiming that the focus on mainstream broccoli breeds overshadows the more exotic and nutritious varieties of cabbage, such as beneforté, a cross with the wild Brassica oleracea var villosa that contains twice as much glucoraphanin.

Still others point out that broccoli is a hidden staple in the American diet as it is and doesn’t need a marketing pitch, or, moreover, that this particular marketing pitch doesn’t even work—broccoli shouldn’t be sold as a vitamin that you feel guilty for avoiding; broccoli is a decadent vegetable that is inherently subversive, branching as it does in mysterious and monochromatically psychedelic fractals. If we have to market broccoli, they say, it should be marketed as a mustard weed. This is your brain—this is your brain on broccoli. Imagine attractive people daringly eating broccoli on a billboard. High schoolers sneaking broccoli in the bathroom between meals. If you want to be manipulative, they say, then at least manipulate. This is Brassica oleracea we’re talking about, not your 30 minutes of exercise daily!

But obviously these growers have been consuming too much of their own broccoli.

So how can you enjoy your daily dose during this National Broccoli Month? Here are some ideas, courtesy of the Academy of American Cabbage:

Put a broccoli in your pocket.
Take a broccoli out to lunch.
Share some broccoli with a coworker.
Eat a branch of broccoli at a movie theater.
Watch a movie about broccoli.
Support broccoli by petitioning Congress.
Donate to a broccoli growers’ union.
Put a stalk of broccoli on the pavement.
Revisit an old piece of broccoli.
Buy broccoli. Then buy more broccoli for a friend.

If you follow just a few of these simple suggestions, you can make broccoli a part of your daily life this April.

And then you won’t have to eat any more broccoli until 2015. I promise.

What's Really Wrong with Poetry Book Prizes?

Last September, I chimed in on David Alpaugh’s provocative essay, “What’s Really Wrong with Poetry Book Contests.” The problem is economic — book contests are an easy way to get poets to subsidize their own publication.  You can think of it as a publishing co-op, something like Cahuenga Press, only instead of a dozen people getting together and publishing one of their books every year, a thousand people are sharing the costs, and most of them won’t live long enough to see their year in the sun. The entry fees are what pay for printing, publicity, etc.

Alpaugh points out is that this publication system is too effective — it’s become the only viable way for a press to exist, so everyone is doing it, and there are hundreds of “prize-winning” collections published every year, with no incentive for the presses to stand behind the books beyond that initial claim.  There were some points I disagreed with, but overall it was an interesting critique of the poetry publishing industry.

With American Fractal, I stuck a toe in the water, and entered maybe a dozen first book contests, before deciding to go the direct route with Red Hen Press.  It was a tough decision at the time, throwing in the towel on the pipe dream of becoming a Yale Younger Poet, but I thought that once I made it, I was done forever with contests.


Red Hen must have added my address to some mailing list, because now that the book is out, I’m being bombarded with calls for submissions — not for book contests, but for book prizes.  The New York Book Festival, the San Francisco Book Festival, the 2009 Beach Book Festival, and on and on.  Each “festival” or “award” is open to applications in dozens of genres, from cookbooks to poetry.  All you have to do is send a copy (or three) of your book, and the $40 entry fee.  Winning authors receive a $1,500 prize, and a flight to New York to read at their center stage.

Does this sound familiar to anyone?

Apparently entry fees subsidize the entire world. Wanna be a Pulitzer Prize Nominee? Go for it — you can nominate your grocery list; just send a check for $50 to Columbia University (PDF).

I always thought the Pulitzer Prize was run by a charitable foundation, a committee who surveyed books and essays and photographs, and chose the best each year.  I always thought all these state book-of-the-year awards I keep seeing in bios actually chose the best book by an author of that state, not just the best author to pony up a $50 entry fee.  Wow, was I naive.

To be fair, some book prizes are run in the open-ended way I always imagined.  There’s no nomination process for the LA Times Book Prizes — they just have a panel who picks books.  But the more I Google, the more this genuine a setup seems rare.

There are a million book prizes you’ve never heard of, and god knows how many people submitting books to them. If book contests entrants are subsidizing publication — which you can easily argue is a good thing — then one must ask, what are book prize entrants subsidizing?  Publicity?  A small stipend?  Am I missing something?

What’s worse, now I have to start deciding all over again whether or not to enter any of these.  I know I’m not going to win a Pulitzer Prize, but I want to not-win because I’m not-famous, and my book’s not-all-that-special — not because I never entered.  And what about the smaller book prizes, where I might actually have a chance?  Subsidizing a bit of publicity and a small stipend is annoying, but getting some publicity and a small stipend isn’t all that bad.

Damn you.