Sunday SciKu | Fossil Tracks

footprints in the sand

Photo by Kevin Bluer

A lot of the cool things about this story are in the science paper but not the article: They found mile-long tracks at White Sands National Park and determined it was a girl carrying a toddler, shifting the kid from one hip to the other and occasionally putting it down. She walked in a straight line like she knew exactly where she was going, at about 3.8 mph, so a brisk pace, and then followed the same path back a few hours later without the toddler. During the time in between, a giant ground sloth and a mammoth crossed her tracks. The mammoth just kept walking, but the ground sloth sniffed, then stood on its hind legs to look around, seemingly worried about human predation. A whole mysterious story in these tracks—and what happened to the toddler?

 

such a long walk into the future fossil

 

Instagram and the Commercialization of Poetry

Note: This article first appeared in the print edition of the Press-Enterprise on Sunday, August 25, 2019, in the Inlandia Institute’s weekly column.

Instagram poetry might be the most hotly debated topic in literature today. For the last few years, citing a boom in book sales, outlets like The Atlantic, the Guardian, and Publishers Weekly have regularly proclaimed the social media platform to be the savior of poetry. “Traditional” poets have either professed a sanguine agreement or fired back with scathing reviews and parody accounts.

Whatever the response, Instapoetry is something to be reckoned with. As I write this, 7 of the top 20 bestselling books of poetry on Amazon were written by Instagram poets, and none of the other authors—Homer, Mary Oliver, Maya Angelou—are contemporary in the literal sense.

They’re all dead.

One of the top 20, the poet and musician David Berman, died just last week, and just this week became a bestselling poet, I assume, for the first time. The message to poets seems clear. If you want to be commercially successful, there are two options: be dead or be on Instagram.

Needless to say, that isn’t a message poets want to hear.

With an open mind, though, we’ve spent the last year exploring Instapoetry for this summer’s issue of Rattle. Over a decade ago, we did the same with slam poetry while it remained controversial among publishers and found much to admire on that stage, so I thought we should try the same with Instagram.

For those unfamiliar with it, Instagram was designed as a social media app that allows people to quickly optimize and stylize smartphone photos to a quality that mimics professional photography, and then share them with friends and followers. Eventually users started sharing aspirational quotes and other text along with the photos and adding longer captions—features which lend themselves well to short-form and visual poetry.

In preparing the summer issue, we received submissions from over 1,000 self-described Instagram poets. We also allowed each of them to recommend other Instagram poets, and we scoured hashtags and media articles, trying to read as much as we could.

Having scrolled through thousands of accounts, it might be true that I’ve now read more Instapoetry than anyone in the world, and I’ve come to this conclusion: Instapoetry just isn’t poetry—at least not in the way that I’ve always conceived of poetry.

That doesn’t mean it isn’t creative or artistic, or that it’s lacking in value. That doesn’t mean there aren’t poets on Instagram or poetic elements involved. But poems and Instapoems are different objects on a fundamental and irreconcilable level. They’re different actions, in different directions, with different motivations.

Elizabeth Bishop was talking about poetry when she called art the act of “self-forgetful, perfectly useless concentration.” What she meant was that poetry is a meditative form of aimless exploration. It’s a door to the inward unknown and to the mysteries of our existence. The word “poetry” itself comes from the Greek poiesis, “a made thing.” A poem is a mantra, a “mind-tool,” that makes meaning out of the chaos of human experience. Poetry is the creation of an associative empathy machine, forged on human breath, which illuminates the limits of our awareness.

Instagram poetry is the exact opposite. It’s self-aware and entirely useful. It is designed to sell and so it sells. It’s not exploration, but expression. Rather than poiesis, it is mimos, “to mimic,” or better the Latin mirari, “to look at and admire.” Rather than a door to new meaning, it’s a mirror held up to the reader, reflecting and rendering beautifully back what the reader already knows and wanted to express.

For example, this recent post by Atticus is typical of his style:

If I conquered all my demons
there wouldn’t be much left of me.

The two line aphorism doesn’t have 40,000 “likes” in spite of it being a cliché—it has 40,000 likes because it’s a cliché. It’s the memorable re-articulation of a cliché that we can all relate to and appreciate.

There is value in that. And there is skill and craft involved in its construction. There is, sometimes, even poetry—but the poetry is tangential in the same way poetry is tangential to music. Some music includes poetry, but it doesn’t have to in order to be music. The poesis, the meaning making itself, isn’t the point.

In the same way that some great musicians are also great lyricists, there are many Instagram poets who are also “real” poets. We had no problem filling an issue with interesting Instapoems, but there was no correlation between there poetic quality and their popularity.

In the process of putting this issue together, I met and interviewed Pavana Reddy, a kind of Leonard Cohen, who does a marvelous job of successfully navigating both worlds.

Reddy has tens of thousands of followers online, but has also published two books, Rangoli and Where Do You Go Alone, that genuinely are doors to the unknown. In her candid interview, she acknowledges both the strengths and limitations of Instagram:

“For Instagram as a way to make any kind of profit, I’ve learned that you need to write for that audience, as much as you don’t want to. It’s funny, sometimes I’ll post poems to see what the reaction will be … and it could be a good poem, but people would rather hear me tell them they’re magic.”

People are magic. And it’s important that we be reminded of that as often as possible.

But to remind is an act of reflection, not creation. Once we understand that distinction, the controversy about Instapoetry begins to unravel. Instapoetry sells more than traditional poetry because it isn’t poetry—it’s something different altogether, something with much more commerical appeal. And it’s no coincidence that the dominant publisher of Instapoets, Andrews McMeel, isn’t a literary publisher—it’s best known for its comics, puzzles, and gift books

Later in the interview, Reddy shares her excellent and concise definition of poetry as “making a story out of a moment.” She goes on, “You can unpack any moment so many different ways, and that’s what I like to do. It’s kind of a relaxing time; I can go to work and come back and unwind by thinking about the story.” In other words, she writes for that self-forgetful, perfectly useless concentration that Elizabeth Bishop described.

That’s why Pavana Reddy is both a poet and an Instapoet.

For those interested in learning more about Instagram Poetry, Reddy is hosting a workshop on September 28th as part of this year’s Wrightwood Literary Festival.

Literature Lives in Print

Note: This article first appeared in the print edition of the Press-Enterprise on December 15, 2013, in the Inlandia Institute’s weekly column.

Last month San Antonio, Texas, opened Bibliotech, America’s first bookless public library, which allows patrons to borrow inexpensive e-readers and download electronic books from home. For us writers and lovers of literature, the mission before us was clear: Lament! My Facebook feed was full of posts forecasting the end of paper books: Would it be five years? Ten? “Technology doubles ever year, Moore’s Law!” the pessimists fretted. The more nostalgic among us simply shared their first encounters with books: the smell of the glue, the weight of the pages, the paper-cuts—all things our children will never have a chance to experience.

As a publisher of print literature, my career is on the line—I should be rending my garments as much as anyone. But I’m not worried. Paper books are here to stay, and every tablet and e-reader that’s sold only makes them a better home for writing that we truly value.

When I hear publishers complain about ebooks, I’m reminded of broadcasters predicting the demise of radio when television was introduced in the late 1940s. Their concerns were understandable: Why would anyone just listen to a program that they could also watch? And it is true that television brought an end to the Golden Age of Radio—but it’s also true the producers were able to adapt.

When an environment changes, creatures survive by learning to fill a new niche. There was no longer a need the serial dramas and quiz shows of the past—television could clearly do that better. But there were other formats that played to radio’s strengths. The high costs of television production meant that radio was more nimble, and it quickly became the superior format for up-to-the-minute news. This led to further development as a medium of discussion, with popular call-in shows that gave their audiences a new and broader soap box, and then the modern shock jocks and NPR story hours in counterpose.

Six decades after the introduction of television, there’s still a radio in every car—and the internet has brought it back into our homes, in a way, with the ubiquitous and often idiosyncratic “podcasts.” I don’t have access to television, but I listen to radio-like streams every day—interviews with authors and lengthy lectures on an array of topics that would have never been broadcast otherwise. What’s more, this content works better as audio, where complicated information can be presented without any excess visual distraction. The mind has room to muse. Podcasts, I think, have become the medium of the day-dreamer—and millions of listeners take advantage of that every week.

As we become increasingly plugged-in to the digital age, I’m sure paper books will find a similar fortune. Books provide something that technology tends to destroy: Let’s call it “sanctuary.” I don’t have to explain how this happens; everyone who has a smartphone knows the bitter-sweet buzz of a new message. Everyone’s read an article online and been distracted by the banner-ad at the side of the screen. This will only get worse. Google Glass. Cortical implants to project the web directly into the mind’s eye. If you think you feel distracted now, just wait ten years.

And in ten years, when you want a break from it all, you’ll pick up an old-fashioned, dog-eared, glue-smelling, paper-scraping book.

The tech companies want you to pick up an e-reader, but the problem is e-readers feel too much like what you’re longing to avoid. E-ink is nice—especially for those with vision problems who need to enlarge the text—but anything that has a screen and is the size of your phone looks like your phone. And you’ve already spent too many hours conditioning your brain to be distractible while using it. When I read an ebook, I can feel a tingling on the left side of my frontal lobe that’s telling me to toggle over to another program and check my email. It’s an itch that I’m wasting attention on by not scratching even when I don’t. My fingers are ready to X-out a pop-up ad. My auditory cortex is primed and waiting for the next beep of a tweet. Even though none of these things will be coming from my e-reader, my brain has been trained to expect them. It’s impossible to lose myself when I’m so self-aware.

Only when I open a real book can I finally relax and become immersed in what I’m reading.

In the future, we will return to paper as a sanctuary, as a place for quiet contemplation and introspection. We won’t bother reading tabloid magazines or informational texts in print—ebooks are better for that; we can give up that ground. But when we want to escape our world, when we want to explore complicated ideas, when we want to feel deeper emotions and come to truer understandings and use our imaginations at full capacity—when we want to experience literature, in other words—we’ll always turn to paper books.

_______

p.s. This article was written almost five years ago. In the time since, Real Books Are Back: ebooks sales are down, print sales are up. You can also see our waning interest in ebooks by looking at the download totals of Rattle‘s ebooks, which are offered free to subscribers. Every issue sees fewer download than the last, despite the fact that print subscriptions are up 105% (more than double!) since 2013.

So You Want to Write a Political Poem?

The following article appeared in the Press-Enterprise, Sunday, April 17, 2016.

This is the year it could happen. Maybe you’re stuck in a stop-and-go rubberneck on the 91 Freeway, the radio a dull drone through your morning migraine as the partisan station of your choice recaps last night’s 184th presidential debate, a town hall-style, lightning-round game of charades, where the candidate who terrifies you the most intellectually pantomimes the dismemberment of the candidate who offers at least a squint of hope, like those glimmers that might or might not be oncoming headlights emerging from the glare of a blinding commuter’s sun. Maybe it’s already happened. Maybe you’ve already begun making a list of rhymes in your head. Dump. Slump. Jump. Maybe you’re slant-rhyming Bernie with wormy, smarmy, and germy—most poems start as limericks (it was true until the fact-checkers checked it, I swear).

Wherever it happens, you might find within yourself at some point over the next eight months the sudden urge to write a political poem. If you do, I’ve prepared this simple guide to help you handle the situation with aplomb.

First of all: Don’t panic. Pull over to the side of the road somewhere safe, or wait for the nearest exit, then find an empty parking lot or an exceptionally long drive-thru line. Poems sometimes write themselves, but they can’t write themselves while you’re driving. Only poem in park.

Don’t feel guilty. A poem is just a special way to talk about special things. Human beings come equipped with language processing lobes in their brains that demand we talk, and all humans are subject to special times like now, and special thoughts about those times like these. We all have an innate desire to say the unsayable, to articulate all that lies just beyond the reach of articulation. Poetry can happen to anyone, anywhere, so remember: It’s not your fault.

Find a recording device. Often people today carry with them smartphones, and if you yourself have one, you can record your poem as a voice memo, text it to a long-lost friend, email it to yourself, or tap it out using a standard writing application. If not, many of the world’s greatest poems have been written on ancient, crusty glovebox napkins. It’s true. If all else fails, there’s still rhythmic memorization, a pneumonic device, which historically has been the point of poetry more often than not. Whatever tool you use, just don’t lose it.

Now that you have your poem saved, the real trouble begins. Sure, you’ve written something “felt in the blood and felt along the heart,” as Wordsworth put it, but what next? Does your political poem have any cultural value? Should you share it with close friends, or perhaps even the general public?

On this question, poets themselves have long been split. In “A Defense of Poetry,” Percy Shelley famously wrote that “poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world,” and others have been trying to pat themselves on the back equally firmly ever since. William Carlos Williams says, “It is difficult to get the news from poems yet men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there.” Your political poem could be a matter of life and death! More recently, Meena Alexander writes that, “We have poetry/ So we do not die of history,” a statement I particularly love.

Not everyone agrees, though. In a 1965 lecture to students at Berkeley, Jack Spicer said, “I don’t know of any political poems which have worked,” and suggested instead of writing poems that they write letters to their congressmen. Both would be equally effective, he reasoned. I once asked National Book Critic’s Circle Award winner Troy Jollimore why he finds political poems difficult to write, and he worried about preaching to the converted: “The people who know those are good values are already on my side; the people that don’t think they’re good values aren’t going to be convinced by my siding up with good values.” He has a point, too. A poem isn’t an argument. A poem’s purpose isn’t to persuade—persuasion is for op-eds and campaign ads. Poetry doesn’t argue; it argonauts.

So keeping that in mind, re-read your political poem. Is it cheer-leading, or is it trail-blazing? Is it just a bullhorn for someone else’s bullshit, or does it reach deeper into that abyss to haul up some new creature?

Last month, an Orange County poet named David Miller wrote in a political poem, an elegy for the personified American Dream: “I ran when I heard you crying/ like a phone, no one told me how alone you are.” Now that’s what Shelley meant when he said that poetry “purges from our inward sight the film of familiarity which obscures from us the wonder of our being.”

Be honest, does your political poem really purge the film of familiarity, or is it just more mosquito guts on the windshield? If it’s the former, then by all means share it widely!

This is the year for purging.