Interstate

I meant to publish an old poem every other week or so, but just realized it’s been almost two months since I posted the last. Part of the reason is that I spilled water on my laptop, and no longer have easy access to very old poems.  But everything back to 2002 is still handy, so let’s carry on.

Much like “A Darkness Below,” this poem’s only problem is that it’s just not very good. In 2003, I was on the cusp of knowing what I was doing, but I wasn’t quite there yet.  Note the all-lowercase, which I couldn’t defend then, let alone now.  A lot of younger writers eschew capitalization for the love of E.E. Cummings (“Now that looks like a poem, even from across the room!”), but for me I think it had to do more with an aesthetic softening of the text — it’s hard to sound like you’re making large, arrogant proclamations from a meekly dotted, almost imaginary i, and grand was the last thing I wanted to be.  I felt then, and mostly feel now, that poetry should be like a whisper from the hindbrain, a ghostly incantation from somewhere beneath the self.  (And isn’t that grand?)  The lowercase letters seem more than a little silly now.

The bigger problem is that the melodrama in the middle — the blood, the fever, “we’ll breathe each other” — makes me gag.

But it was a melodramatic time.  If I were bipolar, my summer of 2002 would be considered my first manic episode.  If I were older it, it would have been a mid-life crisis.  That was the year I spontaneously quit my summer job and drove down to Miami to live with strangers in a house full of artists and Orthodox Jews.  I barely lasted a month there, but it was a month full of drama and ritual and new experiences.  Looking back, I think the only reason I took up the offer was to prove that I could do something so random — spontaneity to prove that the routine was indeed a choice.  I’m not an adventurous person, but I needed to know that I could be.

“Interstate” is the poem that the experience became.  As a memory-poem, for me, it’s the perfect distillation of that summer, particularly the last lines (if I believed in canibalism, I’d have saved them).  None of the images are references to anything specific — I don’t know where “san marcos” is, or what I really mean by “nueva” or the lice — but somehow their spontaneous appearances are fitting.

I don’t think it translates for anyone else, so it’s never been published.  A poem just for me.  And I think that’s a fine thing for a poem to be (which is why I’m posting old poems, I think, as an argument that value can be independent of publication).  Here it is:

Timothy Green

INTERSTATE (2003)

there were rhythms and shakes,
the gulf stream, the plunge

of a lure into saltwater.
there was the rowboat, the gull,

the relief of needing shade.
she said welcome to san marcos.

she said welcome to nueva, dear,
i’m bleeding.

welcome to this;
all this.

the fever tastes like rain, here,
she said we’ll breathe each other like air.

oh and your hands shake
like moss in the wind,

they slap at moths
and mouths and lice.

oh the devil wears a compass
and can’t tell time.

Koans Rhyme with Poems

Over the summer, the editors of the Buddhist magazine Tricycle approached me, asking if Rattle might help them with a poetry discussion group.  Though we have no direct ties to Buddhism, I thought it might be interesting to participate.  I’m not a practicing Buddhist myself — I’m too much a spiritless materialist to succor the notion of reincarnation or Buddha-nature — but I’ve always had a strong affinity for their philosophical and psychological views, which in the end comprise the bulk of their theology.  I went through a phase where I read a lot of Buddhist texts, and maybe I’m being too honest here, but my hunch has been that the Buddha got it right, but his message was corrupted by the canvas of the Rigveda, and then 4,000 years of the same human ambitions and anthropomorphisms that have dogged every religion since the beginning of time.  I even spun a fantasy that, when the Buddha said “reincarnation,” he meant moment-to-moment — the fact that we’re not the same person we were 10 minutes ago, let alone 10 years ago, and in that time even your bones have been replaced.  The miracle of reincarnation is the constancy of consciousness itself, which is reborn relentlessly, even as the body itself changes.

In any event, Buddhist scholars have been thinking about the nature of our reality, intelligently and unbiasedly, for an awfully long time, and their observations are as insightful as they are fascinating.  And much of it relates to poetry.  I’ve already talked about the poem as mantra (“mind-tool”) — poetry as a spell, a hypnotic string of words that alter your mental state.  In my opinion, that’s the best definition of poetry there is.  But that’s not all eastern religions have to offer.

Poems are also koans.

In the Zen tradition, koans are little stories teachers tell their students to mess with their heads — in a good way.  Koans are often presented as faux-riddles which cannot be resolved rationally.  Pop culture is familiar with many of these: “What is the sound of one hand clapping?”  “If a tree falls in the woods with no one around, does it make a sound?”  The teacher will present a question like this, as if there were an answer, and then the student will meditate on his or her failure to find a response. (For more on how this works, see this anecdote by Huston Smith in Shambhala Sun.)  When you fully engage a koan, the effect is a subversion — and thus exposure — of the tired and routine workings of the mind.  You can almost hear the gears grinding up there, as the mind tries to make sense out of the nonsensical, and with that comes the stunning revelation that the mind is not you — it’s something else, something less than yourself, something outside yourself.  If you can sense your mind flailing, who is doing the sensing, who the flailing?

So in the end, the koan has little to do with the koan itself — the koan really lies within the response it triggers. It’s a process, not a product.

But in many respects, koans do have answers.  For every scholarly analysis of T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land,” there’s a Buddhist scholar analyzing Two Hands Clapping.  Koans always seem to invite critical thinking at the same time as they subvert it.  The medium is the message, but that doesn’t mean their aren’t messages in the medium, too.  Here’s an example, a koan in narrative form:

When Bai Zhang consulted his master on his development, Ma Zu stared at a feather duster. Bai Zhang said, “If we want to use it, we have to take it from its place.” The master retorted, “If we take your skin from its place, what would become of you?” Apparently ignoring the master’s retort, Bai Zhang held up the feather duster. Ma Zu said, repeating Bai Zhang’s words, “If we want to use it, we have to take it from its place.” Bai Zhang then returned the feather duster to its original place. At this instant, Ma Zu gave a shout so loud that Bai Zhang was deaf for three days. Later, when classmates asked him about his temporary deafness, he said, “What deafness? After awakening, I just took a rest.”

If this passage sounds baffling at first, don’t worry.  It’s a story-equivalent of one hand clapping, meant to short-circuit your usual thought process.  But still beneath that, there is meaning.  When the two men speak of the feather duster, it’s a metaphor for the ultimate Oneness of reality — there is only one universe, all things connected, but to use any object within that universe you must first make it an object, which makes you a subject manipulating the object, dividing the ultimate Oneness into finite Multitude (the mind is a knife, carving up reality into discrete units).  When Ma Zu asks about separating him from his skin, he’s asking what would happen if the Oneness were separated from the Multitude, to which Bai Zhang replies, by using the feather duster, that Oneness and the Multitude are actually the same things, interpreted differently.

Ma Zu then tests his student further, with his own words, a kind of “Are you sure?”  In returning the feather duster to its place, Bai Zhang shows that he only understands in theory, not in practice, so Ma Zu shouts his student deaf, where he will be alone in his own mind for three days, receiving no instruction.  It is only then that Bai Zhang understands the lesson lies not within the words alone, and becomes enlightened.

I don’t know if that explanation makes sense without a working knowledge of Buddhism — but the point is that a koan is not just a transformative tool, it’s also a parable, with real metaphysical wisdom locked inside.  A koan is both things simultaneously — if it were just the information, the lesson, then it would not be a koan.  A koan is an instruction that must become an experience to do its job.

And that is what poetry really is.  You can read ten books on “The Waste Land,” exploring all the allusions and symbols and structures, but they will never add up to the experiencing of “The Wast Land,” because a poem is only the confrontation with the poem itself — the transformative, resonant response the poem gives us has nothing to do with the footnotes, and everything to do with the indescribable mystery and music within it.  There are many answers, but none of them are the answer — it’s the process that answers, not the product.

The problem with what we call “hallmark verse” — a category into which the majority of poems submitted to any magazine fall — has nothing to do with sing-songy meter or forced rhyme or mushy subjects.  Bad poetry, fake poetry, hallmark verse is all product, no process.  It’s the Cliffsnotes to the koan, rather than the koan itself — it lacks the magic of mystery, the transformative power of subversion.  So many writers seem to get an idea for a poem, and then merely pass that idea along, as if they’re passing along the answer to a question.  They might as well be writing letters or diary entries.  When you write with a message in mind, the message is lost.

A poem must be more than the message; it must be an experience.  All the novice admonitions — “show don’t tell,” “avoid cliches” — are subsets of this one lesson.  Poems are koans.   That’s why it’s so hard to write real poetry, but so easy to fake it.  Answers are easy; transformations are hard.

Which brings me to this week’s poem in the Tricycle discussion group, Jane Hirshfield’s “Those Who Cannot Act,” first published, along with her interview, in Rattle #26.  It’s the best example I know of a what I’ve been talking about:

THOSE WHO CANNOT ACT by Jane Hirshfield

“Those who act will suffer,
suffer into truth”–
What Aeschylus omitted:
those who cannot act will suffer too.

The sister banished into exile.
The unnamed dog
soon killed.

Even the bystanders vanish,
one by one,
peripheral, in pain unnoticed while

© Jane Hirshfield, from the book After, HarperCollins, 2006.

We can talk about this poem for pages and pages, for days:  the poem’s ending into stark silence, the voice of those who have no voice, the implicit responsibility for those who can act.  My favorite part of the poem is that it forces us, the readers, to be among those who cannot act — we’ll never be able to finish the poem, it will only end in frustration.  All of those elements are there, and worth discussing.  But they never add up to the experience of the poem, the haunting, wrenching truth that lies beneath it.

Like a sculptor carving marble blocks, the statue itself what remains, a poem is really the sum of all that isn’t said.  Poems happen within us — what matters is the leap they make us make ourselves.  A new koan:

A student gives the MFA instructor a poem to read overnight.  The next day the student asks, “Was my poem any good?”  The instructor replies, “What poem?  All I see is you.”

Stand-Up Poetry

Last week I read poetry with a comedian at a hair salon slash art gallery.  An unusual setup, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing — poetry readings are generally boring as hell.  They come in two forms — the poet plus open mic, and the fancypants poetry pair all by their lonesome.  I don’t know which is worse; the former is a more acute pain, the latter more a dull ache.  Both are mostly psychological torture, bound to a chair and suffering a tedium bearable only in small doses.  Maybe you do come out of them a better person, though.  Think electroshock therapy.  It’s only enjoyable when it’s a poet you already know and love, preferably reading poems you already know and love.  Or if it’s a good slam poet.  But I digress.

Sharing the stage with a comedian is surprisingly like sharing the stage with a musician.  No matter how good you are as a poet and performer, no matter how bad they are as a whatever else they’re doing, it feels like following the Beatles.  Poetry pales.  And comedian Barry Holiday was good — he made us laugh for a solid half-hour.  So, up next as a lowly poet, what do you do?

The only option seems to be becoming a comedian yourself, so that’s what I did.  It’s surprisingly easy to be funny on stage.  I’m not sure what it is — all laughter, whether nervous or pure, is infectious, maybe.  Or maybe something just happens with all that focused attention, some cosmic coalescence, some inherent irony in the very act of standing in front of a crowd with a mic and trying to entertain them.  It seems even easier as a poet, too — you know a comedian’s trying to make you laugh, but when you find yourself face-to-face with the rare and reclusive poet, you don’t know what to expect — laughter is an extension of surprise, after all, and what better blank slate of anticipation does the general public have?

I started out by asking how many in the room actually read poetry, and 3 out of 30 hands flew up.  So I focused on the majority, and gave them the inside scoop on this business, which is a pretty funny enterprise.  The sighs, the snaps, the golf claps.  The inferiority complex.  Subtle jabs at other poets that even they might not recognize.  At the end of the set, it was pretty clear that the audience enjoyed my banter more than my ballads, but there’s really nothing wrong with that.

It got me thinking again about poetry on the stage — what’s the problem?  Why is an off-key folksinger cycling through the same three chords more entertaining than the best of poets?  So often I focus on how to make the performance better that I gloss over the obvious fact that poetry is simply not meant to be performed in the first place.  Music, comedy, drama — those are performance arts, and no matter how often it gets grouped in with them, poetry never will be.  So of course the only way poetry can beat them is to join them — which is why slam poetry always drifts into comedy or dramatic monologue.  And maybe that’s why the best slam poets often drift back toward the page — the page is where poetry really lives.

Before you hit me with history, recitations of Chaucer and the bards of the Parisian Court, it’s true that poetry was born orally, a millenia before Guttenberg.  Music, comedy, drama, and poetry, all share a common ancestor, but each have evolved over thousands of years to become specifized within their own niche.  Poetry is the private, internal communication between an individual writer and an individual reader, in which the reader’s own breath and heartbeat become the artist’s medium.  Whenever we try to take it back to the stage, we’re like dogs trying to wrestle a grizzly bear.  Yes, we’re all caniformia, but that doesn’t make it a fair fight.  And evolution cuts both ways — put that cliched folksong on paper with a score, and try reading it for pleasure.  Bears don’t make good housepets.

In the end, the poet is left with two options:  Don’t perform at all, keep it on the page and keep your dignity.  Or accept that poetry isn’t meant to be done standing up, and incorporate elements from other performance arts.  Tell a joke, sing a sonnet, speak in tongues.  Don’t be so stubborn that you put us to sleep.

A Darkness Below

This poem is awful, so don’t bother reading it as if you’ll be able to take something from it — but it marks a key epiphany in my growth as a writer.  In 1999, we were all worried about Y2K and I was a freshman in college, still a biochemistry major, still thinking of myself as a fiction writer, if any kind of writer at all.  Spring semester, I took an intro to poetry class with James Longenbach, hoping it would spice up my prose.

As of April 8th, the day my records say I wrote this poem, the sum total of my poetry portfolio consisted of the 10 poems I’d written, one a week, for the class.  In high school there were a few poems written because I had to, but it had never occurred to me to actually try.  And I did try with those first 10 poems, but I tried a little too hard, or maybe just tried the wrong way.  I’d been writing them like stories, with a beginning, a middle, and an end, a plot that I knew I’d follow from the start.  One poem had a surprise ending, a James Wright’s “Lying in a Hammock…” ripoff — but even in that poem the end wasn’t a surprise to me, it was something I’d planned on all along.

I guess it took two months to run out of ideas, because by April 8th I was tapped.  A poem was due the next day, and I had no idea what to write about.  Somewhere amid my frustration, I decided to just grasp at any childhood memory that seemed vivid, and what came to me was the 4th of July’s spent at my aunt’s cottage in Sodus, NY.  All I had was the dock and the fireworks on the water, but I ran with it anyway.  And halfway through the poem another memory lept out of the water — the split-second of panic when I was seven years old and got a fishhook stuck in my nose.  A traumatic moment, and then the embarrassment afterword of such a minor pain being so traumatic — the hook didn’t go through my nose, just poked a little into the flesh.

But that experience would have been lost forever if it wasn’t for the poem; I hadn’t thought about it in years.  And it all tied together with something else, something about growing up, being a little older each year on that dock, and how finally nothing is incredible anymore; everything’s muted with age, and sometimes that’s a good thing, but you lose a little something, too.  I had no idea these things were buried within me, but here they were, bubbling up on their own.

And that was the epiphany.  Poems happen on their own, you don’t force them into a form or pull them out like teeth.  You can just let them come.  James Wright didn’t sit down to write a poem about how he wasted his life — he was lying in a hammock on William Duffy’s farm, writing about it later, and suddenly that last line came to him, something bottled up that he needed to say.

So while this poem isn’t anything special, the experience of writing it was special — it’s really what got me into poetry.  This is the kind of thing that doesn’t happen in prose, not in the same focused and intense way.  It’s also the kind of thing that doesn’t happen in revision, and is why, for me, a poem is either successful or abandoned.  The big fish bursting out of darkness is all I care about.

Timothy Green

A DARKNESS BELOW (1999)

water black beneath the dock, reeds
grasping toward
stars, rasping
as the wind throws them

together in knots of tan, swaying,
ripening, thinning.
my hair thinning even as I splash
my feet in the pond’s dark

water. it sneaks up,
bursts of lavender, of pink and green. glittering,
falling. the ashes fall
in orange specks. fireflies sift

in distant clouds, blinking between
trees near the overgrown path
where i ran, fish hook
piercing my nose, an orange lure,

the taste of blood,
metallic.
a liquid, red and glowing
as the searing

ashes that leave streaks in closed eyes,
still adrift in the wind.
those embers must look
like orange lures to the fish–a perch?–

lured from the black pond
and into that wind. a splash
near the splintering dock.
a gasp. ah! just a fish.

2009 Rattle Poetry Prize Math

There are two reasons I’m announcing the Rattle Poetry Prize numbers a full week later than I did last year.  First, our editorial priorities had to be adjusted to fit with Alan’s travel schedule, as he’s going to be gone for much of September.  But the bigger issue was the volume of submissions we received.  You might be surprised by how long it takes just to log them all in.  Here are the totals:

812 hardcopy entries
781 email entries
1,593 total entries

As you can see from last year’s post, this is 433 more entries than we received last year, and we blew past my goal of 1,350 with ease.  This is more than just a record total, it’s also an incredible and unexpected spike in growth rate:

Year / #entries / %change
2006 / 805 / —
2007 / 991 / +23%
2008 / 1160 / +17%
2009 / 1593 / +37%

What was the secret to this year’s success?  It’s impossible to disentangle the variables.  What’s clear is that the growth was digital.  Email submissions increased by 63%, while hardcopy submissions only rose a modest (and expected) 18%.   So I think it’s safe to assume that we don’t have our new print ads in Poetry magazine to thank, as happy to place them as I was.

A better explanation would be the positive change in our internet profile.  Just 14 months ago, Rattle.com introduced its blog-style format, and began posting a new poem or review every day.  In the time since, traffic has swelled — unique visitors per day have doubled to over 1,000, and page views per day have nearly tripled to 10,000.  As more consumers read Rattle online, our demographic shifts toward a more tech-savvy profile, and email submissions for the first time are nearly matching the hardcopy numbers.

But that’s not the whole story.  I also better-utilized email marketing this year.  In the past, we’ve sent flyers to college English departments, announcing the contest, but this year I sent emails as well, asking administrators to forward the information to their students.  I’ve also learned, from trying to publicize events, that people are natural procrastinators — rather than sending our deadline reminder out with a month to go, I waited until five days before the deadline.  As a result, half of the entries came in the last two days.

So the lesson to be inferred this year is that successfully utilizing technology is far more important than traditional means of advertising (not to mention a fraction of the cost) — which is the gospel I’ve been preaching on this blog for years.

I broke down the revenue situation last year, and you can still do the math for yourself.  The honest truth is, production costs haven’t increased much in the last 12 months, beyond the postage rate hike, which was covered by our slightly higher entry fee.  We made an extra $10,000 and get to use all of it to help offset our annual budget.  My long-term, pipedream goal is to make Rattle a fiscally solvant magazine, something unheard of in the literary world.  We’re not close to that goal, at this point, but we’re closer than we were last year. If we keep growing at this rate, a full year out of the red might actually be plausible at some point before print media disappears altogether.

That’s the good news for Rattle, and I’m not too shy to pat myself on the back.  But the bad news for you, if you entered the contest, is that the competition has gotten even tougher:

1,593 entries x 3.8 poems/entry = 6,053 estimated total poems

Obviously that’s 37% more poems than last year, and your odds of placing in the top 11 in a random draw have fallen to 0.18% (from 0.25% in 2008).  As bad as that sounds, it’s still roughly equal to the 1 in 500 odds of any given poem from a regular submission making it onto the pages of Rattle.

So when you read the winners in December, if the honorable mentions seem no stronger than the rest of the poems in the magazine, and there are a few in the open section that seem even better than the $5,000 prize winner, don’t worry — that’s exactly what should happen, statistically (if we assume the quality of a contest entry is the same as that of a regular submission, which is probably the case).  It depends on the slope of the bell curve, but the odds that the Rattle Poetry Prize winner actually is the best poem in the magazine are something like 1 in 5 (pretending we could find an objective measure).

If that sounds counter-intuitive to you, you’re not alone — it sounds weird to me, too, every time I crunch the numbers.  The contest winners won’t necessarily be the best poems in an issue — they’re simply typical of what we always publish.  So if you happen to have a poem already forthcoming in Rattle you should be kicking yourself for not entering the contest — you really might have won!