James Tate dies:
A lot of poetry news happened during the month I was gone. Here is a sampling...
The Progress of Poet Maxine Kumin (Forward)
Amy Gerstler’s “Scattered at Sea” throws convention and familiarity overboard and asks us to consider what remains. (Washington Post)
Poet Gregory Pardlo on Elton John’s ‘Bennie and the Jets’ (The Wall Street Journal)
A poem anonymously posted in a London bar is driving everyone crazy with its awesome twist ending The happy palindrome (my Dad sent me that one)
Poet Richard Blanco Talks About Cuba and His New Literary Project (Miami New Times)
Is Poetry Dead (CNN)
'It's Me, Singing, Gone But Here': Honoring Poet Philip Levine (Huffington Post)
Women's National Book Association honors poet Amy King (The New Orleans The Times-Picayune)
A Day in the Life of a Modern Poet (The Huffington Post)
“Last fall, we were issued a $250 fine for accepting a donation for poems we wrote on The High Line on National Poetry Day. Later, we learned of the vicious debate swirling the city about buskers and other public performers. We hadn't done our homework before trudging our typewriters to the city, so we innocently accepted the few bills floated our way as we wrote and gave away our poems for two hours before a sharp-tongued park police officer whipped out her citation pad. We fought the ticket in court, but lost, and felt so discouraged by the outcome that we were nervous to attempt writing poetry in public again.”
For many, it's a challenge to be habitually reading poetry. If you were a student of poetry in college (like me), you were often given a list of recommended poetry works by your esteemed professors. Why was it always so impossible to penetrate these lists?
Because another person's list is simply that: another person's journey, not yours. Their list is all about them. And you need to build your own list, a list that is all about you! That’s the journey of life and it's the same with poetry.
You need to find your own way. And I can tell you that once you do, reading poetry becomes something you look forward to, if not an all-consuming adventure.
Start by thinking about your own interests and obsessions. As you search for books to read, one title or article will lead to another and, before you know it, you’ll have a lengthy list of poetry to find and read. Find those titles that connect with you. Soon it will start feeling like a quest.
1. Explore by Style
Are you’re interested in perfecting your own poetic style or exploring the tricks other poets are using? Are you looking for new ideas of craft? You can search for books of poetry based on style. Look for classical formalists writing in rhyme, meter or particular forms like ghazals or sestinas. I went through a phase of trying to figure out why sonnets were so satisfying in length and I can’t pass up a crown of them. Anthologies can help you find writers who are working in particular forms. You can also follow conceptual poets this way as well, poets working with types of automatic or computer-generated content, poets who have developed various experiments of chance and theory.
2. Topic Quest
Are you interested in psychological topics, historical topics, scientific topics? Are you interested in books about a particular place? Do you want to read food poems, murder poems, ghost poems, cowboy poems, Zen poems? I have gone through searches on all of these topics over the years. I even have a very eclectic taste for pop-culture poems that mention singer-actress Cher. Whatever your obsession may be, there are poems out there for you.
3. Meet the People
Soon you'll find your favorite poets and will want to read all their books. You might be swayed by the cult of celebrity and want to read books by poets who make the news or win awards. You can also develop your own quirky explorations. Recently, I’ve been buying the books of faculty poets at every college or university I visit. My sister-in law likes to buy t-shirts from colleges all over the country; I buy books of faculty poetry. I make an extra stop at the university bookstore in every town I visit. Essentially it’s about meeting people and hearing what they have to say. You can figure out a map-of-meeting that interests you.
4. Fancy a Publisher
Sometimes you find you like a certain publisher and the way they publish their books. You like their paper or binding style, their cover artwork, or the type of works they publish. Something about their style amuses your sensibilities or you appreciate their political, cultural or social mission. As a fan of a publisher, you can explore their catalog.
5. Support Your Friends
Sooner or later, we all have friends who publish. At least many of our teachers have already published. I try to buy all the books my friends publish and at least one book by all my teachers and published acquaintances. Yes, sometimes it's about your karmic bank account. But it’s also about listening to your friends and appreciating what they do. Knee-jerk support combats natural feelings of competitiveness, jealously and superiority.
6. Follow Your Sensibilities
Each generation has sensibilities: diner culture sensibilities of the 1950s, Beatles-era sensibilities of the 1960s, New Wave and GenX sensibilities of the 1980s. It’s not quite a style; it’s not quite a topic. It’s about experiences, living with old or new technologies, processing changes and modernity, and how your generation consumes and makes sense of it all. Because I’m a GenXer, I tend to seek out poets who write about pop culture, feminism and identity in an ironic, irreverent ways.
7. Poetry Readings
If you go to a poetry reading, which 99% of the time is a free experience, buy the poet’s book. I’d even say whether you like it or not. No one's getting rich here. If you support the cause, support the cause. You just might be surprised what treasures you bring home. And a book that doesn't speak to you now may speak to you in 10 years. I’m often dismayed to hear poets brag about supporting their local economies at the grocery store but they can’t seem to bring themselves to do it at the local book store.
8. Unlikely Places
Be on the lookout for poetry in unlikely places: garage sales, art shows, history museums, local city museums. I found a poet in a local city museum in Bandon, Oregon, during a family reunion. The woman who wrote the book was about the age of my mother and had experienced a remarkably similar childhood as my mother had on the coast of Oregon. Finding that book enabled me to understand my mother’s experience in a fresh way. (I also found a picture of my grandfather on the wall at that museum!)
As I mentioned earlier, recommendations are often problematic but, once in a while, a friend will let you in on a great, secret find. I’ve been sent boxes of books by friends and it sometimes takes me years to get to a book. I can't tell you how many times I've cried out, “Book! Where have you been all my life??” and fretted that I hadn't made my way to the book sooner. But that’s how life is: stuff comes to you when it comes to you. Also be on the lookout for recommendations in journals, online and from reviews in old newspapers.
10. Free Books!
Big tip time: don’t assume everything marked "Free" is worthless. Don’t be a hoarder but take a book or two from the free pile at events, garage sales and those boxes on the stoops of used book stores. Give it a shot and see what you find. It’s like supermarket surprise!
Soon you’ll find that one book truly does lead to another and another. You can look for ideas in bookstores, literary journals, poetry anthologies, poetry textbooks, publisher catalogs like Copper Canyon's seasonal catalog. I’ve found a few amazing Zen books there. You should also be open to finding poetry in museums, on TV shows, or from teachers in other disciplines. My mindfulness teacher used to start each week’s class with a poem!
Without opening yourself up to finding new poetry, you'll miss out on reading friendships, surprising epiphanies and the amazing journey of reading your books.
So I'm very late getting back to blogging after my family reunion, my vacation trips and overdue work projects so I missed the deadline to help promote a SciFi writing contest from the website Inkitt...like I missed it by two days!
But I was able to visit their site and there are plenty of things there for writers to do, including:
- browsing the fantasy, mystery, sci fi, horror, thriller, fan fiction and editor selected stories,
- joining one of the groups,
- or submitting your own stories to one of their open contests.
A message from their marketing:
Our most active users include literary professors as well as published authors and students of literature. We are proud of the high number of professional reviews and mature stories on the platform and continually watch our content and community grow.
In this interview, we talk about poems from Arthur Sze’s latest book Compass Rose and about an older book River River. We also discuss poems about place: physical place, the mental place, the place of violence in a poem, his brand of particularity, the forms his poem take and his evolution between these books. Sze also comments andwhether art and science are antithetical.
Photo credit: Gloria Graham.
User X designer Joel Marsh published a blog post about the differences between sketching ideas with pencil, using computer software, and working solely in your head. He says the worst way is working it all though in your head because you are very limited in memory and database retrieval.
There are some new theories for conceptualist poets to chew on: new ways of thinking about the free agency of “I” where the author says,
“The same goes for all of us, almost all the time. We think we're smart; we're confident we won't be unconsciously swayed by the high list price of a house. We're wrong.”
Local Coverage courtesy of Ann Cefola:
Inaugural Poet Launches Cuba Writing Project (NBC Miami)
The Poet Who Died For Your Phone (Time Magazine)
When a Poet Needs a SWAT Team: The American Spectator Can there be any help for a white, male poet who has declared himself dead? (American Spectator)
A new U.S. poet laureate was declared: Juan Felipe Herrera!
My condolences and prayers to the families of the Charleston shooting victims. The Guardian coverage: The Charleston shooting victims: a poet, a politician, a librarian, women of faith"
It sounds obvious and I’m always saying this but, nevertheless, writing is thinking and we have, over the years, managed to separate the craft of writing, (the lightly intellectual tinkering with words), from the art of keeping our critical thinking skills refined.
I was reminded of this reading The Miniature Guide to Critical Thinking by Richard Paul and Linda Elder who are from The Foundation for Critical Thinking. I received my copy of this booklet from the faculty admin trashcan at IAIA where it was addressed to a teacher long since gone.
Yes, sometimes my reading comes from trash cans.
The book covers elements of thought, levels of thought, intellectual traits and types of questions. It has a reasoning checklist, a template for analyzing your own logic and has a template for problem solving and assessing research.
Even if your poetry challenges some of the structures and assumptions of reasoning and logic, to write poems with no understanding of more sophisticated systems of thinking is to limit yourself, your poetry and your message. As they say, to break it well you gotta know how well it breaks.
But what interests me more, of course, is the narcissism of thinking you know it all already. In fact, that’s the big narcissistic mind-fuck of our modern age: we think we’re all pretty sharp scissors but such is part and parcel of our many self-delusions. Poets go even further with this affectation of their own brilliance. I’ve met quite a few who like to assume that because they write poems, they’re a type of instant intellectual.
Which is why my favorite part of the book deals with “Intellectual Standards and Traits” which, as the booklet says, form part of your inner voice. They break down Intellectual Standards into:
Clarity: Is the writer clear on the issue being addressed? Does the piece lack elaboration? Remember the goal of this kind of writing isn’t language theory, it’s strictly, (relatively), successful communication.
Accuracy: Does the writer speak in true statements? Their example is “Most dogs weigh more than 300 pounds.” Some facts are indisputably false. Which is not to say there aren’t good poems out there full of 300 pound dogs.
Precision: Does the piece provide detail and specificity or does it deal in vague generalities?
Relevance: How do the examples bear on the issue? Is the point irrelevant?
Depth: Is the piece dealing with the most significant factors? Their example is the superficial response of the Reagan administration to drugs with the “Just Say No” campaign which failed to deal with complexities of the issue.
Breadth: Does the piece address other points of view?
Logic: Do the arguments follow each other logically?
Fairness: Is the piece written in good faith? Are Facts distorted, biased, tainted by vested interests? “We naturally think from our own perspective, from a point of view which tends to privilege our position. Fairness implies treating all relevant viewpoints alike…[this is] especially important when the situation may call us to see things we don’t want to see, or to give something up that we want to hold onto.”
Then the book delves into the Intellectual Traits. These, I find, are what many poets, (most artists actually), are lacking in socially if not artistically:
Intellectual Humility (versus Intellectual Arrogance)
“A consciousness of the limits of one’s knowledge, including a sensitivity to circumstances in which one’s native egocentrism is likely to function self-deceptively…recognizing that one should not claim more than one actually knows. [This is] not spinelessness or submissiveness...[but a] lack of intellectual pretentiousness, boastfulness, or conceit, combined with insight into the logical foundations, or lack of such foundations of one’s beliefs.”
Intellectual Courage (versus Intellectual Cowardice)
“Consciousness of the need to face and fairly address ideas, beliefs or viewpoints toward which we have strong, negative emotions and to which we have not given a serious hearing…recognition that ideas considered dangerous or absurd are sometimes rationally justified (in whole or in part) and that conclusions and beliefs inculcated in us are sometimes false or misleading …We need courage to be true to our own thinking in such circumstances. The penalties for nonconformity can be severe.”
[I’d like to add an addendum to my comments last week about Mark Twain. Sometimes the penalties of nonconformity can be ostracization from both sides of the issue, those whom you are defending and those whom you are fighting against!]
Intellectual Empathy (versus Intellectual Narrow-mindedness)
To imaginatively put oneself in the place of others in order to genuinely understand them...to reason from premises, assumptions, and ideas other than our own. Correlates with the willingness to remember occasions when we were wrong in the past despite an intense conviction that we were right, and with the ability to imagine our being similarly deceived in a case-at-hand.”
Intellectual Automony (versus Intellectual Conformity)
“Rational control of one’s beliefs, values and inferences…one’s thought processes. Commitment to analyzing and evaluation beliefs on the basis of reason and evidence, to question when it is rational to question, to believe when it is rational to believe and to conform when it is rational to conform.”
Intellectual Integrity (versus Intellectual Hypocrisy)
“[To be] consistent…[to] hold one’s self to he same rigorous standards of evidence and proof to which one holds one’s antagonists, to practice what one advocates for others, and to honestly admit discrepancies and inconsistencies in one’s own thought and action.”
[Were we ever rigorous thinkers, we Americans? If so, we’ve become fat and lazy thinkers, which brings me to…]
Intellectual Perseverance (versus Intellectual Laziness)
“In spite of difficulties, obstacles, frustrations…[and] the irrational opposition of others, to struggle with confusion and unsettled questions over an extended period of time to achieve deeper understanding or insight.”
Confidence in Reason (versus distrust in reason and evidence)
“…despite the deep-seated obstacles in the native character of the human mind and in society as we know it.”
Fair-mindedness (versus Unfairness)
“Treat all viewpoints alike, without reference to one’s own feelings or vested interest or the feelings or vested interests of one’s friends, community or nation.”
The booklet also elaborates on the problem of Egocentric Thinking: “Humans do not naturally consider the right and needs of others…[do] not naturally appreciate the point of view of others nor the limitations in our own point of view. We become explicitly aware…only if trained to do so.” Otherwise, we’re left with “our own egocentric assumptions, the egocentric way we use information…interpret data…the implications of our egocentric thought. We do not naturally recognize our self-service perspective…As humans we live with the unrealistic but confident sense that we have fundamentally figured out the way things actually are and that we have done this objectively. We naturally believe in our intuitive perceptions—however inaccurate.”
There’s also a list of self-centered psychological standards from wish fulfillment to group think to innate selfishness. These self-centered standards are kissing cousins to the list of mental biases and 30 Poems About Suffering.
There’s also a brief section on Sociocentric Thinking: “Most people do not understand the degree to which they have uncritically internalized the dominant prejudices of their society or culture. This phenomenon includes the “tendency to blindly conform to group restrictions, (many of which are arbitrary or coercive),” and the failure to “distinguish universal ethics from relativistic cultural requirements and taboos.” It also includes the “failure to realize that mass media in every culture shapes the news from the point of view of that culture.”
These are mental processes which, if ignored, will affect the types of poems you choose to write and read and the quality of every piece you write. You can be a technically savvy formalist or labratory-poet, but if your thinking is lazy, we all suffer for it.
Sometimes the literary community is so up its own derriere that it makes it hard to sort out what's what. Vanessa place, described in articles as an academic, white woman, has been doing a performative literary project around the text of Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind, specifically the racist parts (although she’s slowly tweeting the whole damn thing), to question whether the heirs of Margaret Mitchell should be making money off of a work that has come to be seen as very racist. A backlash occurred from allegedly from both black and white communities and Place was let go from a judging position with AWP.
Aaminah Shakur from Hyper Allergic tries to explain, "why a white poet should not be attempting to reclaim the 'N-word'" claiming that Place is “someone engaging in offensive racism and Blackface.”
First off, I'm confused. Why do we accuse Place of perpetuating racism for a performance piece trying to alert us to the continued profits derived from racism? Is Shakur misreading the piece? Or refusing to read it on its figurative levels.
Let’s start with the piece. Place is tweeting the entire novel to try to get the Margaret Mitchell heirs to make attempts to stop her in the name of copyright infringement. This will force them to admit they’re making money off the racist novel. Honestly, all this is small fish when you consider the money being made for Hollywood studios from all those classic movies made in the era of bold-faced racism. We live in a capitalist society. Nothing gets aired without someone making a buck. Sure, we can stop watching them. After all, those films get more and more disturbing each year. I went to college in St. Louis and for our first class in film studies, the teacher played us D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation without any context. Cut to class two and we were all pretty offended by the racist parts. And this was in St. Louis, Missouri! In 1990! For those of you who don’t know, Ferguson is basically a suburb of the St. Louis metro area. So that was saying something.
But maybe we should be made to revisit sexist, racist, abusive history to remind ourselves that such things as bad human behavior are always on the verge of existence. Try to erase your past and you will be doomed to repeat it, don't they say? There’s a caveat that what we do when we revisit these racist spaces is to have a discussion about them in order to understand the insidious, sometimes hidden aspects of racism and how it works. Hopefully, this knowledge will helps us stop being racist. Many are accusing Place of not providing this context. However, she’s engaging in a somewhat stark performance piece. She’s not running a college forum.
The Daily Beast says that AWP’s particular issue was “unmediated quotes of Margaret Mitchell’s novel.” So okay, context would be better…well, I guess that depends on your performance piece. What I don’t understand is the accusation that Place can’t perform issues of race because she is part of academia (privileged) and a white person. The Daily Beast broke that issue down, saying “If Place lost one of her privilege badges—if she wasn’t white and an 'in academia'—would her attack on racism have more credibility?”
Do you see what’s happened there? Are you looking closely? Performing the piece has become itself a performance piece!
The Daily Beast quotes “professional provocateur” Place as saying,
“I’ve been thinking about the ways this concept works for six years, so it shouldn’t surprise me that people who have thought about it for six days, or six minutes, have a different view of it,” Place said of her detractors, noting that her Gone With the Wind Twitter feed only had 1,200 followers and the petition had 2,200 signatures. At least half of those who signed it may not have even seen her project. “That said, the literary world does seem to take things pretty literally,” she added.
This literal/figurative disconnect must sound familiar to all Mark Twain scholars. We hear the same controversy and charge of racist leveled at Mark Twain for his depiction of Jim in parts of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and for the heavy use of the N-word (which also matches the issue with Mitchell’s tome). Most Twain scholars will tell you, (and if you read the figurative level of the novel you can see), that Twain’s project for the novel was to challenge racist ideas. These included slave-holding attitudes, Jim Crow attitudes and, in hindsight we know, some of Twain's own racism. Which is to say he was trying hard NOT to be racist but ended up being racist in parts of the book anyway.
Is that the worst thing that can happen? It seems to me the larger project for Twain and for all of us was the bare fact that he was trying to write through the process of becoming an anti-racist. In fact, much of his work supports anti-rasicm. The problem is he does this so imperfectly. Although his essay writing and political commentary was clearly anti-racist, his novels are too obscure. They’re not ever explicit enough in their racial messaging. At times he panders to racists. At other times, he confronts them with their inhumanity. He writes through it in the same way he writes through American Imperialism in Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court.
The truth is Twain was born into a community whose cultural biases were racist and it took him time and effort to evolve his thinking away from those beliefs. He did what few of us have the balls to do, he worked through all this publicly. He was a once-poor, ultimately-successful white man imperfectly writing to address racism in America. The fact that his work opens up conversations about race every day, (which we say we need), seems lost on everybody.
Listen, people will always criticize controversial things they’ve never read, viewed or investigated, (heck, I do that with the Bible all the time), but that’s why I’m so thankful there are black scholars of Mark Twain who have read the books. Watch the Ken Burns documentary to see for yourself. Some people will also refuse to see the figurative level. Biological studies in mindfulness and meditation tell us know that some people have a physiologically harder time even seeing figurative levels. They consistently resist seeing metaphors, symbols and ironies working in any art piece. This is the same phenomenon I see happening with Vanessa Place's piece.
Black academics, black political leaders, social workers, presidents (!) have all been calling for national conversations about race and the response needs to come from everybody: black people who continue to experience racism on the street and white people who need to work through it within their possibly mixed and often racially one-sided communities. Yes, white academics should be the forefront in talking about race…even imperfectly. Maybe especially imperfectly. As if black discussions are race are perfect. They’re not. They’re full of personal bias and emotion, just like everyone else’s.
Our freakout over this piece just shows what mixed messages we continue to send. We complain about the dearth of white people writing about race. We say that white writers were stuck in an ignorant bliss of white privilege. White writers complain that they're too scared to dare to write about race for fear of being criticized and ostracized. And apparently this is not an irrational fear.
I don’t think we’ve proven by any stretch that Place is a racist artist. But it’s a good question because it begs the next question: if you’re trying to expose racism, so what if you’re a racist. In fact, even better if you’re a racist. Because we can't have it both ways. We can't keep calling out the problem like a pack of victims and then villainize anyone who steps out to poke the monster with a small stick.
My husband in another life was involved with Chicago theater. He said a good performance piece is the one that makes people mad and gets a conversation going. You might say Place has succeeded. You might say AWP is a big performance piece of itself, all of us actors in the big piece called Wrangling Racism.
According to The Daily Beast, the AWP says, “The group’s work must focus on the adjudication of the 1,800 proposals, not upon the management of a controversy that has stirred strong objections and much ill-will toward AWP and the subcommittee.” Which is another issue in itself.
Can you even imagine an established literary group with some stones?
I don’t know Place personally or her work well enough to say what kind of character she is. I can say my interpretation of the work is anti-racist and I will support any white artist taking on issues of race. I don’t support the clusterfuck of criticism we seem to be indulging in.
Ironically, this news story coincides with a Supreme court decision on a Faceook murder-threat trial and the difference between perception and intent and what necessary for a jury instruction in a criminal case. There's a difference between perceived threat and intent. What's more important? Which gets priority? It’s probably one of the more crucial legal issues of our time, what with scary Stand Your Ground laws and online bullying. Weighing these two points of view has real implications on our lives and for our work.
So you should take some time to really think about it.
Hyper Allergic against Place: http://hyperallergic.com/208995/why-a-white-poet-should-not-be-attempting-to-reclaim-the-n-word/
Arguments about arguments, if you care to go there: http://www.thestranger.com/blogs/slog/2015/05/26/22275249/a-poet-defending-vanessa-place-equates-signers-of-the-petition-against-her-with-the-cop-who-killed-mike-brown (The Stranger)
Simon Armitage, Making poetry pay: In a culture that has consigned poetry to the margins, Armitage has become something very rare: a genuinely popular British poet. Aida Edemariam hits the road with the busiest man in verse. (The Guardian)
‘Welcome to This House,’ the Private Life of a Poet: Barbara Hammer’s impressionistic yet informative portrait of the poet Elizabeth Bishop. (The New York Times)
Poet Jessica Jacobs talks Georgia O’Keeffe and her debut collection (Mountain Xpress)
Russians Honor Deceased Poet Brodsky on His 75th Birthday (The Moscow Times)
Caution: World-Changing Poetry at Work, In essays as forceful as they are graceful, the poet Jane Hirshfield argues that poetry possesses the ability to transform the way its readers perceive the world. (The Daily Beast)
Poetry Kept My Patient Alive (Opinionator)
Egyptian Court Acquits 17 in Case Arising From Poet’s Death at March (The New York Times)
Poet Aja Monet Confronts Police Brutality Against Black Women With #SayHerName
Also, if you join the Academy of American Poet's email newsletter, there were good links in the last few weeks to LGBT Pride Poems and Mother’s Day poems.
Poets with Sexy Hair