Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Strong Verse, Part 7: Strong Verse, Living Art

Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6

This post will end the series on creating "Strong Verse." It begins with a bit of discourse on criticism and theory.

So I've found myself dealing again with content created by the fellows at Penny Arcade. Specifically the following:

"As Tycho mentioned, Ebert is simply filling a role played out by art critics throughout history. There was the newspaper headline back in 1959 with regards to Jackson Pollock's work that said "This is not art — it's a joke in bad taste." It's a funny line but time has proven it was also completely wrong. Ebert has thrown his hat in with the rest of the short sighted critics who would rather debate what is or isn't art, rather than simply enjoy the work of artists."

There are two halves to this argument of "Gabe's": the first half, that "time has proven it was also completely wrong" is a bit of a stretch--will Pollack's work still be hanging in a hundred years? Three hundred? That's the time scale of art--which is at heart, the problem with both being a critic and being a critically minded artist (as opposed to one who simply "creates" without mind to audience or time--but generally those ditherers are not worth spending ones time on). Moreover, it doesn't take into account the critics and patrons who supported Pollack.

But the part of Gabe's quote I've been running around in my head is the second part, regarding "short sighted critics who would rather debate what is or isn't art rather than enjoy the work of artists." On the one hand, he does us a great deed to remind us that the proper response of art is our enjoyment.

Critics, on the other hand, serve an important purpose, as recounted in the inimitable Ratatouille:

"There are times when a critic truly risks something, and that is in the discovery and defense of the new. The world is often unkind to new talents, new creations. The new needs friends."

"The New," is of course, the crux of the problem. Too many critics are concerned with defining "the Good" and not finding "the New."

Defining "the Good" is not possible. What I've tried to do on this blog when writing about writing for the past two years is not to define the Good but recognize its signs and encourage poets to write not for themselves but for the Good. But this is writing theory. One must be careful not to confuse theory with criticism.

It is the job of the critic to discover and defend the new.
It is the job of the theorist to recognize and encourage the Good, which needs no defense.
It is the job of the poet to create work both new and good.

That having been said, let's come to the remaking of a living art (or the resurrection thereof, depending on your level of pessimism)--making a Strong Verse.

It must be said, of course, that poetry is alive and well within the realm of poets--a nebulous population of perhaps a hundred thousand to a million souls in the US.

But poetry has left the mainstream. No longer does a Longfellow create the idiom of the coming decade. No longer does a Dante create and enshrine a new language.

It is possible that that task has been given to song birds and television and film writers. Possible, though depressing.

In order for poetry to return from the echoing halls of academia, strong verse must be brought back to the mainstream. There are three ways for this to happen:

First, the Wagnerian argument that poetry must be a larger part of art (as in, one part of opera--which I'm sure Wagner would put on "the big screen" now) is certainly a tempting one. As I mentioned in the AWP recap, the discussion regarding poetry and opera librettos was both fascinating and productive--I am still waiting for the delightful and energetic Beth to put out her list of poets and composers interested in collaboration--and, indeed, as "novelizations" of films tend to sell very well, it is possible, even probable, that a successful opera, whether filmed or live, would put books of poetry into the hands of non-poets.

The second, as David Yezzi says, is for poetry to embrace the dramatic element, either fully--in developed plays, as Eliot and MacLeish did, or partially--in poems, as Frost was famous for.

The last has been my argument all along, that contemporary poetry is hung on the cross of fealty to the lyric and that narrative poetry will engage the mainstream.

All three arguments are essentially the same--we should tell stories with our verse.

Of the parts of "strong verse," "full verse" is the voice of narrative poetry.

I hope that this series will serve as the definitive theory of this blog. I would prefer to spend my time on discovering and defending the new strong verse being written today--the new narratives that will define our language in the decades to come.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Prophet Muhammad

Butts and crap!
There is no religion or faith when one must fear not God, but the followers of a god.
The whole "Prophet Muhammad" crap has got to go.
We can tolerate faiths,
we can tolerate beliefs,
we cannot tolerate violence in the name of anything.

Prophet Muhammad Prophet Muhammad Prophet Muhammad Prophet Muhammad Prophet Muhammad Prophet Muhammad Prophet Muhammad Prophet Muhammad Prophet Muhammad Prophet Muhammad Prophet Muhammad

Friday, April 16, 2010

AWP 2010 Recap

Though certainly appreciative of the comments and traffic and progress generated by the 14th's post, I've got other things to cover. As I said, I returned on Sunday from the AWP 2010 Annual Conference in Denver. Here's the recap:

Disclaimer: If I don't include your name or a good link for you, please forgive me--I'm pretty terrible with names. Just leave a comment or shoot an email and I'll correct the problem.

Flew into Denver about 11p.m. Wednesday night. I know the conference "starts" on Wednesday but I've not been able to drag myself there before Thursday morning yet. Perhaps next year, in D.C.

After using my CPAP machine (why is there an 8-ball in that picture) for the first time (so that's what sleep is like!), I got up bright-eyed and bushy-tailed Thursday morning, had a delightful breakfast with the friends who had so generously donated their house for the weekend (seriously, y'all--unless you hit the donate button on the right or get me a book to sell, I don't really have money for all these travelings), and hit the conference.

For the second year in a row (which means 100% of the conferences I've been to) my name tag was "set aside" and difficult to find. Next year I'm starting in the help line.

I started at the reading for the Swallow Anthology of New American Poets, edited by my good friend David Yezzi (who I met at last year's conference). The readers in attendance besides David were:

David also read from Craig Arnold and Rachel Wetzsteon, two poets included in the anthology who both died in 2009. In my forthcoming review of the Anthology, I'll discuss the readings.

During the question and answer session, the tired old "how can form be new?" question was asked. David's answer of "why would you not avail yourself of every trick in the book?" was, I think the best standard answer I've heard--certainly a great way of putting it. Jill Rosser answered with a different tack: she discussed visual art and wondered if you threw out color because it was old (or, I would say, images at all--why not write a song and call it visual art?).

My favorite answer, though, was from Erica Dawson, who referenced Donne, et al. when she referred to "all that old poetry" as being dirty and nasty and decidedly not old and stale. I liked Erica's answer because she was unafraid to speak to the inherent ignorance in the question--the only people who imagine that form can be staid are, I have to imagine, people who apparently have only read--or heard about--Edwardian poetry. The very question they ask belies their ignorance of the vastness of poetry's delightful and delicious forms. Ah well.

After the reading, I bummed around the Book Sale, arm-in-arm, for the most part, with my dear Jill Alexander Essbaum, stopping every dozen steps or so for her to fling her arms wide and embrace the newest person I don't know but quickly meet.

At 1:30 we went to the reading in honor of Craig Arnold. I didn't know Craig, though I am certain, seeing his picture, that we met at AWP last year--nor was I familiar with his work. Jillian, however, had been a good friend of his--as had most of the people she introduced me to, and so, an awkward guest at the funeral of a stranger, I went.

I was very glad to have gone. Apart from a few hiccups of strange and self-indulgent reading, the poets who spoke were both amazing and powerful--reading from their own works and from Craig's (who, if you did not already know, was a poet of great capability--look for more in my review of the Swallow Anthology). The highlight of the reading was Jenn Koiter, a colleague and friend of Craig's who recounted their time together in Laramie. As I said, I didn't even know Craig but Jenn's remembrance brought a tear to my eye.

After a late lunch at Jimmy John's (ohmigod, I just found out there's two in J-vegas! I wonder if they need a poet laureate?) I met up again with Jill and we took a taxi out to Denver's Green Spaces. Certainly not the best place for a reading, it was nevertheless a fine time of small press readings from poets with Bloof, Noemi, and Cooper Dillon (including Jill--Cooper Dillion brought out her chapbook Devastation).

After the reading, an incident involving Reb Livingston, Jenn Koiter, Steven Schroeder, Jill, P.F. Potvin, a poet from Wyoming, me, a sedan, and a shuttle van led Reb and I to admit that we were certainly no longer in high school.

Friday involved more bookstore wandering and a fantastic panel on libretto writing from Kate Gale, David Mason, David Yezzi, and Annie Finch. There was talk during the Q&A about creating a group of poets and musicians interested in creating collaborative works. Whenever I get the email from the group, I'll provide more info.

After the reading, I got a chance to shake hands with Christian Bok, and to tell him he called me a troll. He said it was likely I deserved it. Had he not been so impeccably dressed and so damned Canadian I might have wanted to punch him. As it was, we had a nice laugh.

Friday evening began swimmingly. Kelli Anne Noftle and I made plans to create a poetry folk band and I was exposed to the Austin contingent of AWP (notably--in terms of alcohol consumption--Malachi Black and Chris Mink [who apparently needs a stronger web presence]) and plans were made for a fine Austin party come May.

Then we went off to dinner. It was a pretty lackluster restaurant (that I was late to--ah, miscommunication!) but so were most of the ones I went to in Denver. We then went to a reading for Barrelhouse. Oy. Not that Barrelhouse isn't a great mag. But the venue was for shite--it was opening day for the Rockies and folks were, well, being folks. The bar was loud and crowded and there was not adequate sound engineering for the readers.

Not content to ruin great expectations, we continued on to the Prime Bar. It should be called the Fu Bar. Don't go here unless you think a mishmash of a chic bar and a sports bar that pumps in vintage Sheryl Crow is a good idea. Oh, and the bartenders can't tend bar.

I left (along with Kelli and Andrew[?]) to go back to the Hyatt bar (where at least they made good drinks) but by the time we got back, my morale was all shot to hell. I had a water.

Saturday was a pretty great day. After wandering the bookstore, going back to Jimmy Johns, and manning the UNO table (and selling lots of books!), my hosts took me up into the mountains. Or at least the foothills. I got a nice picture with my foot in some snow and ate a buffalo burger (overcooked but what do you want?).

After the Rockies was The Loudest Voice reading hosted (with free, good booze!) at the lovely and weird Dikeou Collection. If you scroll towards the bottom of the Loudest page, there's a picture of me and a blow-up bunny. Just saying. So I went to the reading to hear Jessica Piazza. Not only did she redeem herself from the terrible choice of bar the night before, but the reading of her crown of sonnets was perfect. I especially enjoyed her line "people like us: we're dust."

We finished up a fine evening in the Hyatt and then at 11 sharp, I turned into a pumpkin. Off to the airport for a 1 a.m. flight, I got back to Jacksonville at 9:00 in the morning--just in time to leave for church.

Well, folks, that was AWP for this year. Look for forthcoming reviews on books from Annie Finch, Jehanne Dubrow, Moira Egan, Nabile Fares, and Antonio Gamoneda. See you next year in D.C.!

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Regarding Freedom of Art and Speech

UPDATE: Please read through the end of the comments section--everything personal has been resolved. Also, I have edited the tenses in the introduction to reflect the current status.

I've got a lot on my plate from AWP: seven reviews to write and the AWP recap. Plus there are, I think, two or three posts left in the Strong Verse series. However, an event came to my attention today--back in Gainesville, Florida--my old poetry stomping grounds.

A good friend of mine, who is a conservative in a sea of progressives, read a poem that has been decried as racist--consequently he has been banned from one place of poetry reading and was on the verge of being banned from another one--the oldest continual weekly poetry open-mike reading in the state--possibly the country (going strong for 20 years)--though that director (as seen in the comments) has eschewed any such path of censorship.

Here I'll say no more. What follows is the poem, "The New American Slavery," by Michael Bobbitt. After that is my letter to the two poets in charge of the readings who have banned and are thinking of banning a poet for their interpretation of his poem.

I ask you two things, readers: 1) do you find the poem racist? 2) how do you find my letter in response?

Thanks all,

The New American Slavery

We’re on the cusp of a new world

An order unlike anything our fathers could have imagined

We’ve been trading morality for comfort for too many years

And finally, painted into the corner of our own undoing

We’ve decided to just close our minds

Sit Indian-style like children

And chuckle while shit burns down.

We’ve finally outsmarted ourselves

Reasoned that style and platitudes

Could uplift us straight out of reality

They’s a nigger in the woodpile”

My granddaddy would say

And though I hated his language

I can only imagine he was prophesizing about right now

And how our leaders herd us like cats

Into unnaturally straight lines

“Come on up here little pussies…

Massa’s got some healthcare for you

Come on up to the porch, Toby,

And get you some free milk…”

The fields are going unplanted

The harvest time will come and go unnoticed

But we’ll just keep grinning

And eating

And not worryin bout nothing

Cause Massa’s got this magic machine

And he just gots to hit a button

And corn will roll out this here contraption—

Wheat and chicken and flour

Will just pop right out I think

And we don’t need to ever plant the fields

Or tend the flocks again.

The rich folks’ll keep the magic machines rolling

And we’ll just grin and think about equality

And how nuthin’s really equal

If’n we don’t get to pay less and take a little more

On account of all the wrong done to our granddaddies and such.

But I’m starting to think the magic machines

Might not be working proper

It’s turning cold again and I worry about the empty fields

I’m doing what I’m told, though.

I continue to hope, to think “Yes we can” all the time

But I’m gettin hungry

And it’s taking longer each season

To get my ‘lotment.

I hear the Chinamen gots all the rice they can eat

But it still don’t seem right

They should have to work so hard

At planting and harvesting—

Food is a basic human right—

What sorta evil Massa they got

Makes them work to eat?

The baby’s sick most days now

And we’re all pretty fed up

With the failin’ machines

Think maybe we’ll get pitchforks and torches

And tear apart that woodpile

Till we find that liar done trained us out of farming.

I tried to plant a garden today

But I couldn’t work out all the steps anymore

Massa’s forgot about me

And momma’s long gone

And it’s turning colder again.


Jimmy and David,

I'm sorry, but since when did the CMC PoJam or other Poetry institutions (TWIS) become centers of repression?

I'm hearing from Bobbitt about his banning. In my day we read naked and drunk--people would read poems about cunts and doing coke with William Burroughs while children were in the room. No one batted an eye. Hell, David--you screamed about cunts at a reading at Michael Bobbitt's house while my children were present.
Though I was annoyed--and disgusted--I certainly never thought about curtailing your freedom of speech.

Moreover, on frequent occasions folks would gleefully read--to gleeful response--poetry that was vehemently anti-Christian, anti-capitalist, anti-conservative, anti-Republican, anti-American, anti-man, and anti-white. That is to say, religionist, Marxist, progressive, totalitarian, seditious, misandrous, and racist.

Certainly you can't be banning Michael Bobbitt for the use of the word "nigger" or "Chinaman." I have heard that first word uttered at the CMC on more than one occasion--and none of its pracitioners were banned. Though I have never been to TWIS, I have a hard time imagining that you, David, you who so frequently employ "cunt"--which is the female equivalent of "nigger"--and could easily be accused of writing misogynist poetry--would have the gall to accuse someone of writing "racist" poetry.

Moreover, how on earth can either of you possibly imagine bringing in the police force into all of this? Do you truly wish humanity to be ruled by the state? I thought you, Jimmy, were an anarchist.

More than all of this, though, perhaps you should actually read the poem. In no way is it racist. It is obvious that the terms "nigger" and "Chinaman" are used ironically and for effect through the voice of the speaker.

Nothing I see in the poem justifies anything resembling a dustup over its language--perhaps its content should anger one due to the inherent oppression we have been receiving since at least the first Bush administration, ramped up by Clinton, exploded by Bush, and exploited by Obama--but Bobbitt's poem is in no way a racist work.

Even if it were, in what way is it of either of yours to police someone's thoughts or language? And David, how dare you interrupt someone's reading? The proper response--if you were offended by the poem--would be to address Michael after the reading.

I pray that you all will realize the grave error you have made--and the damage you are doing to the freedom of art in Gainesville.


Monday, April 12, 2010

Strong Verse, Part 6: Lyric, Narrative, and Dialogue

Playing music with someone must line up quarks in the brain. My banjo playin' buddy David Yezzi wrote the following:

Contemporary poetry is woefully limited by its over-reliance on the lyric form, but the lyric itself is today further reduced by the absence of the dramatic element, by the loss of voices (and of milieux) other than the poet’s own.

in March's New Criterion. I'll let his entire article serve as part 6 of my discourse on what makes for strong verse.