Friday, September 30, 2011

The Academic World: a Conversation

So through reddit, I got into an interesting conversation with R.S. Bakker over at Three Pound Brain.

I think you'll enjoy it.  I am.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Laura Miller is an Ignorant Nazi

So thought it fitting to print this drivel today:
"some classics are painful enough to ruin reading forever"


No,  No, Laura Miller.

Some teachers and some children and some parents are ignorant enough to ruin reading forever--but that's not the fault of the books.  Some writers are painful enough to ruin forever, too, but that doesn't stop them from writing.

In her tiny, ill-conceived screed, Ms Miller chastises Beowulf, The Lord of the Flies, The Pearl, Animal Farm, A Tale of Two Cities, Oliver Twist, A Separate Peace, and Ivanhoe.  The comment section gets far worse.

Now let me be the first to say I was underwhelmed by A Separate Peace.  I wasn't really interested in "Brinker's salient buttocks" or anything else that happened at that private school.  I also set my copy of The Pearl on fire in seventh grade.  I don't like Ivanhoe or Oliver Twist, either (or Hardy or Austen or most pre-20th century novels [except Victorian children's literature--that stuff is the truth]).

But Beowulf is amazing.  Read the Heaney translation.  Read the Old English aloud.  Beowulf. Is. Amazing.  Sure you've got to do some frontloading as a teacher to make kids understand it but so what--that's your job?  

The Lord of the Flies, Animal Farm, and A Tale of Two Cities are all great reads--again requiring work on the part of the teacher--but honestly none of that really matters.  What matters is that Laura Miller doesn't get it.

Because one of your jobs as a high school English teacher is to teach kids how to extract information from texts they couldn't care less about because they are likely to have to do that for their entire professional lives.  That's the point.

So I'm sorry, Ms Miller, if you had a bad English teacher (or string of them) who couldn't make the books come alive for you--but grow up.  Threatening, suggesting, or joking about banning books is bad form in the extreme.  Not only does it make light of the very real past and present evils of censorship but it also adds fuel to the fire of future censors.

Before you open your big keypad next time don't.  Open a book instead.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

The Quiet Passing of R.E.M.--a Eulogy

In the fall of 1996, when I was 18 and didn't know the first damn thing about the publishing world or copyright (and precious little about writing), I was convinced that my liberal use of song lyrics (and especially R.E.M. song lyrics) in my poetry would get me in trouble when I got big and famous. O for the ignorance of youth. . .

Anyway, I called directory assistance for Athens, Georgia and got the number for Jefferson Holt, the longtime legal council for the band (yes, I was fan enough that I knew nerdy things like that)--I called him right up (nb: I either have no shame or huevos grande--or a little of both).  I got his wife, who said he was no longer working with the band (this was not yet common knowledge) but that I should call Bertis Downs, the manager.  I did and, after my questions about "getting published real soon" or whatever bumkin junk I said, he told me to send my stuff along and they would check it out.  Like a nerd, I did.  He called me back some weeks later and said the band thought it was fine if I quoted them.  Now, I've no idea if Berry, Buck, Mills, and Stipe ever saw my work--I doubt they did--but the story ought to tell you a bit about how I felt about R.E.M.  I was the "buy every album on vinyl, tape, CD, and special release CD, go to the first-or-midnight release (Monster, New Adventures in Hi-Fi, and UP) kind of fan.  Unfortunately, they only toured once that I could see them (I wasn't going to see them without Bill Berry--sorry, gents) which had done the previous fall with my ex-girlfriend who (for all I could tell) hated me though I still madly loved her--things got really uncomfortable when Michael Stipe told us all to take our shirts off.

My first R.E.M. experience was listening to "It's the End of the World As We Know It (and I Feel Fine)" on a church road trip when I was 12 or so.  Unfortunately, that was 1990, and the radio and MTV were full of Madonna's "Vogue" and Wilson Phillips "Hold On."  But then came that day when I was glued to my MTV and a dark set appeared, rain drizzling and people ducking and then the clear knife of a mandolin.  I had no idea what I was listening to--or if I even liked it--but I had to keep listening; every time (which wasn't a lot in '91--yet) "Losing My Religion" came on MTV I watched.  My mom got me a CD player for Christmas and I ordered Out of Time out of the BMG music club (along with some dozen other awesome [Men At Work's Business as Usual] and awful [I think there was some Bryan Adams in there] albums).  Unfortunately, the CD player had a program function, so I just made it play the songs I liked.  I pined for new albums by Nirvana and Pearl Jam, whose tracks made the rounds later that year but had to pay that big BMG bill first.

In my freshman year, however, I got involved in a band, The Actual Size.  My bandmates, Tommy and Loyal, came over to my house and went through my CDs--and thought I was a dork until they came across Out of Time.  They asked how I liked "Belong."  I didn't know what they were talking about.  They made me listen--it was amazing.  We listened to the whole album.  Loyal then played Green and Document for me.  I was hooked.  Hooked more than my friends were, in fact.  Though The Actual Size had long since broken up (in a parking lot, close to a woman throwing bottles at her man wailing "I love ya but you're scarin' me!"), we spent that Christmas in Tommy's huge house, playing pool and drinking Crystal Pepsi.  I gave Loyal a copy of Murmur.  By this time I had bought all the albums on tape or CD (Automatic for the People had just come out and excuse my hipster, but I loved "Everybody Hurts" before there was that cool video) and was in the process of tracking them down on vinyl (Neil Young told us that everything sounded better on vinyl).  I dreamed about them going back out on tour so I could catch them live--it would be just like Pop Screen!

Sophomore year I dated Sara (a senior--aww yeah), who was a bigger R.E.M. fan that I was.  She completed my early music education (everything pre-Blues and Bluegrass), filling out my knowledge with bootleg concerts of Stipe and Natalie Merchant, Sisters of Mercy, Morrissey, "Kinko the Kid-Lovin' Clown," and The Velvet Underground.  We found a pink album called So Much Younger Then with songs like "I Want to be a Narrator (for the Jacques Cousteau Show)" from some unnamed 1980 show.  That homeless summer I crashed on the couch of my buddy Kris's Air Stream in a Cuervo and clove-induced haze and listened to my vinyl Life's Rich Pageant more times than there were mosquitos in the air.

When Monster came, I was ready--I learned "What's the Frequency Kenneth" on guitar (with the help of my bassist), wished I could get a star t-shirt, skipped school to buy the album on the day it was released (we didn't have midnight release parties in Tampa yet--at least not for R.E.M.), and even learned the words to "Tongue"--I was overjoyed when they said they were finally going to tour.  Even the aforementioned awkwardness didn't stop me from enjoying the show (and getting the set list).

The story was pretty much the same with New Adventures but as a better guitarist, I sat down and figured out all the songs myself--if I had had faster internet access and typing skills, I could have tabbed the whole thing out for everyone on day one--falling slap in love with "Electrolite" and hoping it spoke of the new direction the band would take.  I played it with confidence at open mikes and apartment concerts--it even "got me the girl" once (though not "The Girl"--she doesn't really like R.E.M.).

Though I didn't think the band would survive Bill Berry's departure (after all, he had written "Perfect Circle" and "Everybody Hurts" among other songs), I looked forward to the release of UP.  I was running a pirate radio morning show at the time and we played, critiqued, and analyzed each track.  Though it was a good album with some fun songs (I still love "Lotus") it just wasn't R.E.M.  The other Mike of the Mike and Mike morning show quipped "well, they're just falling into the Depeche Mode maxim"--the limit of a band sounding like Depeche Mode approaches infinity as the band progresses in age.

Reveal came out and it was awful.  Maybe it was good music, you might think so--but it wasn't R.E.M.  The soul of "Don't Go Back to Rockville" and "So Fast, So Numb" had died.  Around the Sun was worse.  They tried with Accelerate and I tried to love it but the songs faded as fast as they lasted--and sounded like they were written that quickly as well.

I didn't even know they released Collapse Into Now earlier this year.

While it's true one can grow out of a band (much as I used to love "Ghost" by the Indigo Girls I can't even approach that level of angst as a happily married father of three--it's simply laughable) I think R.E.M.'s announcement today proves what everybody knew in 1998--R.E.M. wasn't a band--or at least wasn't a great band--without Bill Berry.

It's not that I'll miss them--you can't miss what hasn't been fresh in 15 years (half the band's life)--but I do mourn the passing of what could have been.

Now, if you'll excuse me, it's time to Begin the Begin--and end with a Perfect Circle.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Our Fellows

In case you haven't heard, A. E. Stallings and Kay Ryan have just been announced as MacArthur Fellows for the Class of 2011.

What does this mean for poetry, especially the poetry that we promote?

 First I have to say that if it weren't for Alicia (A.E. Stallings), I wouldn't know half of what I know. In the middle part of the last decade, when I got professionally serious about poetry, I sought out some "leaders" to figure out where I should go for instruction and publication. Alicia was the most helpful of many helpful people and directed me to the Eratosphere, which helped me hone my critical and metrical crafts.

But what do Ryan and Stalling's awards mean for not just me but all of poetry?

First we ought to note that Kay Ryan's award comes on the heels of her Laureateship (2008-2010) and Pulitzer (2011). This doesn't detract from her award (and, honestly, Ryan does such a good job of writing that not much should detract from her awards) but it does "place it" in meaning for poetry--here we are, adding more laurels to the queen. Nothing wrong with that and I'm glad it's not going to other, similarly aged famous female poets whose work I prefer slightly above the average grindcore album. Ultimately it's the less surprising of the two awards--but here's to hoping we get some more amazing work out of Ryan from it!

Stallings' award is more from left-field. Though I would argue most working poets are familiar with her work, Stallings' doesn't have the mountain of accolades (nor the name recognition) Ryan has. Part of this is the beauty of the MacArthur foundation--good for them for supporting A. E. Stallings.

But what's more important is that Stallings is, if I may wrench a term, a "compleat poet." Her works run the gamut from light verse to the scholarly-and-accessible to complex undertones (see "The Ghost Ship" along with the other poems there) to translations (hello? De Rerum Natura? AWESOME). Her work is vital and alive and valuable. If anyone's going to out-Fagles Robert Fagles in the 21st century or contribute that verse to our common life and the lives of our children's children, Stallings is a heavy contender.

Moreover, perhaps of the utmost importance, she is a master of form.

Her receipt of a major award (which I hope is the first of many) signals the end of our obsession with the poor flattery of prose we have allowed "our poetry" to become. I, along with many, applaud it. Congratulations, Alicia.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Poetry Contest at Lutheran Surrealism

For those of you looking for a nice place to share work, check out this "contest" at Lutheran Surrealism. LS is a delightful little blog where a tight-knit community spars about religion, poetry, and politics. Hope you'll enjoy it as much as I do!

Monday, September 12, 2011

Well, this is serendipitous.

Poetry Post-9/11

Hello neglecterinos!

If all goes well, reviews from me will start popping up at the Contemporary Poetry Review any day now.

I thought I would need to shutter the blog in respect of their publishing schedule and a new, grueling pace of work.

Since, however, they publish on a traditional-publishing model, I think it's best I get back to the blog for some unadulterated poetry commentary.

First I think we might as well start off acknowledging our new calendar. Conveniently we have the 9/11 attacks to encourage us to look at "the new millennium" as an actual turning point and not simply a calendrical one.

We live in a world of blogs, smartphones, viral videos, and a bunch of other junk that it's pointless to say and makes me look like a bit of a fuddy-duddy.

I'm not, however. But most poetry publishers are.

A search on Amazon tells me that the most popular books in poetry are all e-book editions. Even the books that are popular in hard-copy have audio and e-books available.

But those are all published by "the big guys" and the problem with "big guy" publishing is that the poems are generally tepid at best and more like lukewarm sugar-coated kitty litter in practice.

What of the small presses (even the big ones)?

A search on Red Hen Press gives me lots of books to buy but none to download, either to read or listen to.

I don't see any electronic versions on Graywolf Press's site either.

The micro-presses I'm most familiar with don't offer such things.

Now, I would love to be wrong.

I would like, you my readers, to say "this! This small press publishes e-books and audio-books along with their traditional books."

Because if I can't find that then we have witnessed another gaping hole in the quest to deliver great poetry to the people (and specifically the American people): there's no outlet above the "mere blogosphere" yet below the giant publishing houses to deliver quality work.


Recording studios do this all the time--every band with a recording has a way to buy that music electronically.

Why don't we do this with poetry?

In a world where skyscrapers can be knocked out of the sky, why are small presses still holding on to hard-copy books?

Anyway, that's what's on my mind this morning.

I've changed this blog a dozen times since I started writing. We'll see where this new iteration takes us.