Poetry writing is a field where everyone is on a mad mission to distinguish themselves from everybody else. The popular complaint among poets is that everybody writes but nobody reads. It’s true that reading someone else’s writing is a compassionate act and not too many writers are on a mission of compassion. They're on a mission of self-esteem. It's exhausting and Kristin Neff is a scientist who has given a Ted Talk on compassion versus self-esteem. She talks about how the self-esteem movement has contributed to the narcissism epidemic and how this contributes to bullying in various populations and the great American fear of being average.
You see the self-esteem drama everywhere: on TV advertising, interacting with drivers on the street, in awful news stories. I see it in MFA ads for poetry programs. In fact, there's a new game in town: tapping into a student's ego to lure them into the program. In Poets & Writers issue January/February 2015 there's an add full of published books with a blank space reading, “The Place for our Next Book is Here” (meaning you!) and in APR's last issue there is an ad stating “Before you write your success story, you have to find your voice.” It's all about your success story! Wow.
These are topics I cover in Writing in the Age of Narcissism. For years, advertising has been banking on our narcissistic tendencies, our self-obsession and our desire for fame and to consider ourselves above average.
View the Ted Talk: The Space Between Self Esteem and Self Compassion: Kristin Neff at TEDx Centennial Park Women
More quotes on the topic:
And I'm not the only poet talking about this. Bianca Stone (daughter of Ruth Stone) says, “I’ve always been drawn to science, especially neuroscience. I feel that poets look at the world so differently because of something to do with the way their brains are wired." Bianca Stone, Poets & Writers, January/February 2015
In his essay "Casting Stones" on the Mary Kay Letourneau story called Charles D’Ambrosio talks about the “reflective rush to judge” and “threadbare or disingenuous language which failed to allow for the possibility that [the case] was both simpler and more complex than they were prepared to understand or admit...My felling was, first you sympathize, then you judge – that’s a complex human response. You sympathize first, and until that happens, you don’t understand anything.” Quoted in Poets & Writers, November/December 2014
Read more quotes about writing and narcissism here: http://www.marymccray.com/writing-in-the-age-of-narcissism.html#writers
Inspired by this, I've decided to embrace my average-ness. I’m an average working writer. And that’s okay. In fact, that’s pretty respectable.
It's spring and poems are in the air!
The Poetry Month poster for 2015 is out from the Academy of American Poets. I've already hung mine (which I received as a member but you can request a free one here) on my office wall and have already received comments about it from artists in the office who walk by and recognize the work of Roz Chast. She illustrated a Mark Strand poem.
Which reminds me that April is also the month for the NaPoWriMo 30 poems in 30 days challenge. This will be my third year participating in this very exhausting gauntlet of poetry writing.
Every year I say I'm going to use the site's prompts and every year I'm itching to work on some other idea. I was going to try to do 30 "addresses" inspired by Kenneth Koch's book New Addresses which I read last year on my eReader.
But since I've been working at CNM and studying both user architecture and design and mindfulness and its cognitive science, I've decided on doing a project that melds both the Wikipedia list of cognitive biases and mindfulness practices. The project is called "31 Poems of Suffering."
Poems will be posted, as usual, daily on Hello Poetry. You can view poems from past year's challenges here, too: http://hellopoetry.com/mary-mccray/
News about World Poetry Day: http://www.cnn.com/2015/03/21/living/feat-world-poetry-day/ (CNN)
I did enjoy my subscription to Poetry London over the last few years. I liked it for its many reviews placing large amounts of international poets—insiders and outsiders—on my radar. But it has been expensive getting the magazine stateside and so for now I've switched to a virginal subscription to Poetry Magazine and the tiny journal of short fiction called One Story. Tough times, tough choices.
My first issue of Poetry (February) included a pretty amazing experimental poem by Elizabeth Willis called “Steady Digression to a Fixed Point” with some skillful verbal weaving that actually takes us somewhere.
There's also a snippet of the Amiri Baraka poem “Tender Arrival” that I wanted to share:
“What do you call that the anarchist of comfort asks,
Food, we say, making it up as we chew. Yesterday we explained
Lists of Poems
Over the last few weeks I've received two emails from Poets.org/The Academy of American Poets that were very interesting, one for St. Patrick's Day and the the start of spring and another for Women’s History Month. The emails include a list of relevant poems along with links to audio poems and video.
The poetry list for spring and St. Patrick's Day:
The list for Woman's History Month:
Visit their links above to view the poems and sign up for their emails to get these email lists.
Lists of Review Outlets
Poets & Writers Magazine has a database of book review outlets: https://www.pw.org/review_outlets
News Links, March 22
What Happened When A White Male Poet Read Michael Brown's Autopsy As Poetry (The Huffington Post)
A Poet In Every School - the Detroit iO Program (The Huffington Post)
Interview with poet Jane Hirshfield - Hirshfield has out a new book of essays about poetry (SFGate.com)
As a teen I was very inspired by Mark Twain’s home in Connecticut and his typewriter in Hannibal, Missouri. Since then I've always looked forward to visiting writer's homes. Poet's don't get as many museums turned out of their homes, however. But now we have one more:
TS Eliot Foundation buys poet's Gloucester summer home (WCVB Boston)
And because I've had family in Anchorage and Santa Fe...
Last week I found an app called "The Waste Land" from Touch Press Limited costing a pricey $13.99. If you're a big fan of this poem however I'd say the cost might be worth it. The app boasts having a performance of the poem by Fiona Shaw, audio readings by many people from Ted Hughes to Viggo Mortensen to Jeremy Irons and lots of references, allusions, and notes on structure. There are also 35 perspectives on the poem and the original manuscript with Ezra Pound’s editing. Find out more: http://thewasteland.touchpress.com/
Or you can buy the African American Poetry app for 99 cents and this app includes hundreds of poems.
I’m in a mindfulness program at CNM for faculty and staff. This week, we received a Harvard Business Journal article called Mindfulness Can Literally Change Your Brain by Christina Congleton, Britta K. Holzel and Sara W. Lazar.
Over the last few weeks, we've been talking about how mindfulness can create changes in your brain in a very testable, physical way. This article goes further to make connections to how our brain behaves in states of stress or mindfulness, what kids of thinking these states effect.
I feel this information has direct implications not only as to the type of poetry we choose to write but regarding why we write that way and how we conceptualize and intellectualize poetry. For instance, current arguments on form and conceptual poetries revolve around our sense of self, degrees of perception, complex thinking and the role of emotion and introspection. Turns out these ways of thinking are not only altered by mindfulness (homeostasis) and stress, but the brain is physically altered by continued experiences in these states. Specifically the hippocampus is one of the brain areas affected. Those living with chronic stress show smaller hippocampuses. This alters their sense of self, perception, body awareness, emotion regulation, and abilities regarding introspection and complex thinking. Mindfulness and stress affect another area of the brain, the ACC area, which involves decision making and resisting distractions.
Honestly, as an artist you can make any degree of homeostasis or stress work for you. That’s not the issue. What this does say, however, is that our intellectual differences in poetic identities and theory could be more physiological than truly intellectual.
It puts these endless arrangements in perspective if our predilections turn out to be physiological. It's possible we're not even starting on the same page, biologically speaking.
That Thing You Cannot Explain
Similar to last week's post on cognitive bias and persuasion, I've been finding a lot of good food for art-thought from articles on user experience and design. Joel Marsh is a self-described Experience Architect and his blog has some fascinating finds. Here’s a quote he posted about art, science and “that thing you cannot explain”: http://thehipperelement.com/post/111467573348/art-is-made-to-disturb-science-reassures-there
Mashable recently published a posted called "Why are poets' voices so insufferably annoying?", an essay on the annoyingly solemn voice poets use for public readings.
Without realizing it, I had been talking in "poet voice" — that affected, lofty, even robotic voice many poets use when reading their work out loud. It can range from slightly dramatic to insufferably performative. It's got so much forced inflection and unnecessary pausing that the musicality disappears into academic lilting. It's rampant in the poetry community, like a virus.
Some thought-leaders feel poets should affect this performative voice when we read in public. However, most of the public feel we sounds affected and silly. This is a usability issue!
Similar pleas to end "poet's voice":
My day job is posting and editing web content so I'm always interested in user experience design and testing. I've read a few books on the topic, like Don't Make Me Think by Steve Krug, The Art and Science of Web Design by Jeffrey Veen and Information Architecture by Morville & Rosenfeld. But to brush up for my new job I've been taking an online class on user testing and reading The Hipper Element's UX Crash Course in 31 days.
What is most fascinating to me is that user experience can be applied to anything, especially writing poems.
The Hipper Elements article #26 on persuasion is particularly interesting for those of us interested in how to speak with authority through a poem.
This list of cognitive biases is also something every poet should read. We all write with these biases and read with them.
Everything involves user experience…even a poem. Think about a poem’s user experience.
Thinking Back to the Book
For my job, I also read the latest edition (with illustration by Maria Kalman) of The Elements of Style by Strunk and White. I thought I had read it before but turns out I get this book confused with On Writing Well by William Zinsser which we read in college composition class. Both of these are great book to re-read and yet Strunk and White's aim toward brevity leaves my Proustian sensibility feeling somewhat chilly. Absolute clarity is sometimes a route devoid of any atmosphere. Colloquialisms have power. And some superfluous words work to add emphasis and personality which a flat Stunk and White sentence lacks.
I took exception with the books distaste for the word offputting as in "That gesture is offputting. I am put off by it." I can visualize it. Personally is another emphatic word I would make an argument for, as in "Personally, I liked it." Yes, it's redundant but it lets the stress sit on the speaker when over-emphasizing the word I sounds silly.
In news related to words and the Internet, father of the Internet Vint Cerf says we may be entering a digital dark age. Read the full BBC News article.
Think about all your poems lost on floppy discs and you will understand his point. At some point in the future we will have devices that can't read our poems in outdated Microsoft Word files from 2007. Aren't you already annoyed by .docx files you can't open from your older computers?
While Cerf and others are working on very smart solutions to keep the world's content (including poetry) accessible, consider this when saving and publishing electronically.
On some level, I feel we might be over thinking a problem we created ourselves. After all, aren't books so far the most sturdy, eternal and accessible technology? Sure, they're burnable in libraries. But it would be pretty hard to destroy every copy of a popular book like the Bible or Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities which is still doing pretty good on the list of best-selling books.
Books consume trees, but technology creates the physical trash of discarded plastic phones, computers and eReaders.
One drawback of the emerging technologies is their very asset: they continually improve. Our current content technologies are never static. Web browsers, software and hardware become outdated and unusable. eReaders will probably suffer the same fate. And the corporations pushing them are always itching to make prior evolutions archaic in order to force consumers to make a repurchase every few years.
Books, being pretty simple, seem to be immune from this dastardly cycle of expiration. It may get smelly, but I can still pick up a book from a hundred years ago and access its content.
Read his New York Times obit.
The first full length poetry collection I ever read in my twenties was They Feed the Lion. Levine was also the first living poet I ever read. He was living proof to me you didn't have to be dead to be a poet. He even wrote about living, modernity and about work.
He was the second poet I saw read live, the first was Tom Lux in St. Louis. The only other writer I ever saw read in St. Louis was Stephen King.
Levine was the first poet to visit Sarah Lawrence College while I was a graduate student there. That night, as he walked through the dark entryway of Slonim house and passed me on his way to the living room and I felt like a celebrity had just walked by! Imagine that? A poet celebrity! I was starstruck. I have always mythologized him and I probably always will.
We've also lost Louis Jordan. I honored him a few weeks ago by watching Gigi again. Gigi is full of great stuff. It’s slightly Proustean in its exuberance, full of Paris location shots, Louis Jordan as fluid as a dancer, Maurice Chevalier, (who is just as charming as Louis Jordan with his amazing smile), and there’s an adorable performance by Leslie Caron. And Eva Gabor is very good in her small part, too. Vincente Minnelli directed it. It’s based on a Colette novel. The score is by Andre Previn. I’ve heard the movie get a lot of flack for winning 1958s best picture and other Oscars but it’s one of my favorite movies. Full of some stunning poetic movie lines like where Aunt Alicia says, "Marriage is not forbidden to us, but instead of getting married at once, it sometimes happens we get married at last."
My favorite scene is when Louis Jordan is in a fluff over Gigi and pacing around a restaurant table where his uncle, Maurice Chevalier, is sitting. Maurice tries to calm him down with the serious suggestion to:
“Have some cheese!”
I use this suggestion all the time as a calm-down phrase to Monsieur Big Bang--spoken very Frenchly:
“Have a piece of cheese!”
My first taste of Nutella was where some was stuffed in a pain au chocolat outside of Notre Dame in Paris.
It was pretty mind blowing.
I haven't honored him yet but I plan to this weekend.
To view a sample: http://leonardnimoypoetry.com/
His poetry book covers look a bit like the "Jack Handey's Deep Thoughts" from SNL, but here they are on Amazon.
If this makes you miss Jack Handey's Deep Thoughts, here is the site for you: http://www.deepthoughtsbyjackhandey.com/
I love to see poem used to illustrate non-literary concepts in academic papers. I blogged about this in 2012, Using Poems for Research Projects.
So I'm thrilled to be in a CNM course on Mindfulness where our teacher, Beth Giebus-Chavez, opens each class with a poem that describes a concept where learning that week. It's awesome! The poems get at the topic from another angle, or a substrata that the academic papers, videos and mp3s, discussions and journalings can't reach. The poems are not only examples of mindfulness but they are the very practice of mindfulness.
Here are the poems we've covered so far:
In one of the live lectures on Mindfulness, we also covered this poem, "Autobiography in Five Short Chapters" By Portia Nelson.
You always hear laments about how people don't respect poetry, how entertainers steal focus from literature, how poetry is meaningless in our society. This is why I love to see celebrities talking about poems on television.
Poets can be bitter butter balls. Their hearts can't see when their heart are closed. And this includes noticing all the good television programs out there.
For years I've been enjoying Oprah's Master Class series. I have about eleven of them banked up on my DVR. I finally watched the episode with Berry Gordy, Jr. I only know about Gordy Jr. from reading histories of Diana Ross, Mary Wilson and Michael Jackson and I've always pictured him as a kind of stern record mogul who created the unlikely but inspiring success of Motown in Detroit. Hearing him talk about his own process was fascinating. He was much more charming and self-deprecating than I anticipated. He also attributes the success in his life to a poem, specifically the poem “If” by Rudyard Kipling.
If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,
And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise:
If you can dream—and not make dreams your master;
If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools:
If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breathe a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!’
If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with Kings—nor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!
Gordy Jr. said he was under great pressure, as his father's namesake, to learn how to be a man in a big, physical sense. He said this poem taught him that there were ways to be a man mentally and it changed his life.
I've had these games for year and sometimes I take them to small, informal writing groups.
Roger von Oech’s "Creative Wack Pack" are great cards to stimulate creative thinking. There are blue Exporer cards (a man with binoculars) that cover aspects of how we go looking for inspiration. The orange Artist cards (a head with its hair exploding) cover idea generation. The green Judge cards (an old man with a gavel) deal with evaluating our ideas. And finally, the red warrior cards (a warrior helmet) give tips for inventive ways to implement ideas.
Included is a book of ideas on how to use the cards, either as individual exercises, in group workshops, or as an oracle.
Each card tells a story with a final lesson learned.
Here’s a sample of one from each group:
Explorer card, Get out of Your Box: the story is about cutting across disciplinary boundaries and borrowing for ideas.
Artist card, Reverse: reverse how you look at something to dislodge assumptions, the example being when everyone else looks one way at a sunset, look behind you into the darkness. How can you reverse the way you look at an idea?
Judge card, Conform: the story is about St. Augustine being told "When in Rome…," the question being to what standards should you be conforming?
Warrior card, Do the Unexpected: the story is from 1334. Hochosterwitz castle was being besieged and a commander did the opposite of what was expected by the enemy, the lesson being use a surprising tactic to reach your objective.
I also have a game called Stones from the Muse, Runes for the Creative Journey. There are 10 double-sided rune stones in a bag and a book. You can draw one stone a day. Yesterday, I drew the Tool rune (a crude pick axe) which is about taking action. Or you can draw three or four stone configurations. I drew two more to do a reading called "immediate picture, big picture, action required." My second rune looked like a tadpole (the transformation rune) and the third looked like a swirl (the seed rune) which dealt with idea composting and fertility. The booklet has long descriptions of each rune and ideas for action steps.
The first creative oracle I purchased in college were these phoenix cards. The idea behind them is that you will draw the card that most represents your past life culture and its influences on your current life. For years, I have always been drawn immediately to the Zen Buddhist card. For years I researched Zen to figure out what that meant.
The cards each have radically different cultural aesthetics and most people only gravitate toward one or two of them. Strangely, when I used the cards to read everyone in my Bronxville, NY writing group years ago, the writers did claim the readings were pretty good. One friend said her reading was more like her than any of us could ever know.
I’ve ever only gravitated to the Zen card. Eliminating that card today, I picked the Medieval Illumination. And I have to say, its description of me wasn’t too far off either.
Anyway, fun games for creative types.
Poets with Sexy Hair