Is a phrase that expresses action the smallest unit of narrative?

Is this where the narrative impulse begins?


New Responsibilities: Gay Men & the poetry of AIDS

About a week ago, Eduardo wrote this in his blog:

"Some people have critiqued me for writing these "AIDS" poems. They want me to engage with the subject on a more personal level. But I can't. AIDS is like 911 for me: a trauma too recent to even approach in my work. I came of age as a gay man at the height of the AIDS epidemic. The mid-to-late 80s. After I kissed a man for the first time, I spent the rest of the day scanning my skin, looking for purple patches of KS. I remember spending hours in high school touching my lymph nodes to make sure they weren't swollen.... For me, the pleasures of the flesh will always be intertwined with death. Paging a therapist."

I remember, as a child, hearing reports of gay cancer on the news. In high school, all sex ed talks were focused on preventing HIV transmission. It's something we live with every day. And maybe it's because of the "false safety" of the late 90s—when many young queer men returned to unsafe sex practices because they thought the epidemic was over—that poets need to continue writing the disease. It's not over for us.

What's probably the most unfortunate part of this whole post is that more heterosexual people don't write about AIDS, or don't think about writing about AIDS, or don't ask themselves why they don't write about AIDS. Or why we clearly believe AIDS is an American homosexual disease when it is clearly spreading like wildfire across Africa.

I, too, have written poems that touch on AIDS, and they are peppered throughout my ms. But my poems don't address the experience of having AIDS, and I don't think Eduardo's do either. I don't know what it's like to have AIDS, but I sure know how it feels to believe, and to fear, deep down, beyond all doubt, that I have AIDS and will die. The HIV test, although we know now that it belongs to everyone, is an intricately queer experience—a responsibility we have to ourselves and to each other, to our community.

I believe this young generation of gay male poets must continue to write AIDS poetry, but for us, it's a different disease. For the previous generation, AIDS was faceless, could come from anywhere, took anyone without discrimination. For us, AIDS has a face—and our biggest fear is that it will be our own. It isn't just a disease anymore—it permeates our relationships, our conversations, our thoughts, our concerns. We ask new partners, Have you been tested? because we have to and always have had to. It isn't an adaptation we've made to our lifestyle. It is our lifestyle.

You can see the effect AIDS had on the poetry of the 80s—how suddenly, it carves itself in to the poetic consciousness, fracturing queer poetry. You can read people like Tim Dlugos migrate from nonchalant, arrogant poems about how cute he is to eulogizing his own life, slowly confronting his own life and death. And Aaron Surin writing ethereal, intangible pieces about male bodies because maybe the male body can never be touched again. There's a sense of slipping under, being taken by a wave...


Thought from My Morning Shower

We are the only culture concerned that maybe we have too many poets.

The Best Defense is a Good Offense

I'm thinking of reading too many poems, so maybe you folks could recommend some cuts—even just based on the titles:

Her Breast
The Killing of Frank O'Hara
A Game of Pool
Elegy for Harvey Milk
White Rabbit: This Is Not the Right Hole
Straight Men Make Difficult Lovers
Red Door Clinic
The Private Lives of Pigeons
Ritual Visit to Bathrooms I've Intimately Known: a Last Goodbye and Marriage
Therapist with a Dream Inside: Friday Morning Aubade
The Taste of Me
Walk-in Closets Are Better than Boxes
Truth Be Told (Either By Me or Someone Else Who Inevitably Speaks Up)
First Crush
Saturday Night: Underage, I Escape My Misery in Liquor


The Seclusion of Poetry: Tattoos, Part 2

After my discussion of why my parents don't understand poetry, I asked myself some questions, but I forgot most of them. Here's the one that has lingered:

1. Why is poetry different than prose--specifically, fiction?
The Confessional movement in poetry is important to me as an artist, mostly because I think, as a whole, it has been grossly misunderstood. This question for me relates to Confessionalism specifically because that movement's devaluation seems to be a result of its "documentariness." This exposes a bias held by some critics and scholars that poetry is designed to be, in a sense, fictional. If not fictional, then it should lack discernable author, or that author should appropriate a persona different from him or herself.

I think these assumptions about writing—that poets write in persona, that when talking about our work we should never indicate if an experience is true, or, worse, real—continue today, although contemporary writers feel possibly more compelled to buck this convention via contrary movements such as Language Poetry and such.

Should poetry be fictional, or should it involve itself in the conventions we commonly associate with fiction writing?

And, more interestingly, is fictional narrative poetry a short story in drag?

* * * * * * * *

What is a poem?

Fuck, man.

* * * * * * * *

Then you get into questions about prose poetry. Are they short shorts? Should they be narrative, differently narrative, lyric, subversively lyric, etc?

And who gets to own them? Or, like wishbones, can we each get a stick?

* * * * * * * *

What do we expect from our poems? Right now I'm asking myself a lot of questions about length and precision, trying to write very spare, very lyric, very non-narrative poems. It's difficult for me, but I enjoy the results, when they work.

I expect my poems to be surprising, to be interesting, to make charming small talk with other poems, and to behave appropriately when I leave the room.

Seriously, though, I want my poems—most of all—to be distinctly mine.

* * * * * * * *

I feel like there is a push-pull in the ether of the poetry world to sequester poetry in its own prison of form/convention, but an equal and opposite force that is willing to sacrifice the form & conventions of poetry and risk blurring edges between poetry and fiction.

Can a poem be a documentary?
Can a short story be lyric?
Why do we have creative non-fictional prose but no creative non-fictional poetry?

Signs keep pointing me to narrative—fiction "requires" it, poetry options it. But such a good wealth of conventional American poetry is decidedly narrative—in my opinion—that I keep wondering where I can find the lyric today. Is the lyric now a mode of narrativizing, or does the lyric—distilled, pure, raw—endure?

Fun with Site Meters, Or Why Dropping Names of Famous Poets in Your Blog Helps You Get More Play

I've commented before about the joy of my site meter.

Lately, I've been interested in exploring my "Referrals" area—specifically, the search terms that have resulted in people arriving at my blog.

I've had the expected:

charles jensen poet
poetry blog charles jensen

And some unexpected:

victoria chang blog
g. c. waldrep

And my favorite this week:

feminine fauxhawk

I'll update these lists as I discover new search terms. Oh, Google—does your fun never end?


The Prose with the Navel Tattoo: Or, Why My Parents Still Don't Understand Poetry

Before I start my longer consideration for today, I just wondered if anyone else noticed Victoria Chang's appearance in the "Letters to the Editor" section of the current issue of Poetry.

Anyway, I was thinking today about my parents.

No matter how I often I share with my parents the poems I write, I continually get the same response: "I don't get it." Initially, they seemed interested, wanted to learn more, but as time has gone on and I've strayed further and further from traditional markers of narrative, their zeal has decreased. I could be writing in Greek, or assaulting them with step-by-step instructions on how to effectively remove pet hair from between couch cracks.

This is not necessarily a fault of my parents. Both of them are voracious readers. My dad tends to fall on the side of biography and historical writing (but not fiction), while my mom mainly enjoys romance novels, mysteries, and contemporary fiction a la John Grisham et al.

I recently showed my parents the long, fractured, footnoted poem I wrote that really confronts our experiences when I came out to them. My mom tried reading it for five minutes, asked me a brief grammar question, ("Shouldn't it be 'he knocked on the door?' Otherwise I don't get it."), then gave it to my dad. Surely they haven't finished it.

Americans, by and large, crave narrative. Require narrative. Narrativize.

Nightly news broadcasts are sort of lyric in their structure—involving meditations on events—but do not stray too far from explaining chans of events. 97% of American films have a discernable beginning, middle, and end—and in order to make money, every film must have a story (even 21 Grams, the most successful, non-traditionally narrative film in recent history, is beholden ultimately to its story arc). America's bottomless appetite for Reality TV stems from the impulse to narrativize taken to an oppressive level: now even REAL LIFE must have a narrative arc or is worthless.

Lyric poetry, because of its strange relationship to time, has no need for narrative. Narrative can play there, but narrative need not be present for the lyric to function.

American brains like narrative because of the clearly delineated mathmetical equation it creates: A + B + C = D. And we are trained from an early age to read narratives forward and backward: arriving at point D, we can easily read back and determine the nature and role of occurrences A, B, and C in bringing out point D. Americans place value on value: each term stands for something, has a place in the overall greater economy of time, and therefore remains meaningful. This is probably a direct result of a stridently delineated class consciousness, the inborn "American" desire to gain wealth (money is, of course, the ultimate value—a completely valueless term given infinitely determinate value).

Americans turn up their noses to lyrical poetry because they force its square peg into a round hole. What is there to cull from literature if not theme, cause-and-effect, etc? The typical American prefers poetry to have meter and rhyme because those aural terms, when narrative is absent, ultimately become more meaningful than the words themselves.

Ultimately, poetry isn't playing on the same court as the novel, as the newspaper, as your latest issues of US Weekly or Men's Fitness. But Americans want it to. Because, after all, what's the point of joining game in the third period? And Americans—well, we hate sitting on the bench.


The Burden of Boredom

I was just writing up a list of books I want to read in the next year, ranging from Muriel Rukeyser to Alice Fulton to Yusef Komunyakaa, and it got me thinking about my response to poetry that doesn't engage me.

For example, when I was required to read Elizabeth Biship's Collected Poems from cover to cover for my program, my eyes spent most of the book glazed over with boredom. Her cold, detached mode of writing doesn't connect with me. I'm not judging the quality of her work, mind you, just the fact that I don't relate to it or find it to be a valuable resource for me per se.

But, I moved my glazed eyes over every page in the book. I thought, maybe, if I stick with it, something will catch. I'll pull something away from this, understand something better.

My question is, though—with so many other books I want to read and that will possibly resonate with me, should I bother reading books that don't engage me?

I can't say that my experience with Bishops has done much for me since then (it was a year or so ago), other than to help me better understand the poets who revere her. I was recently directed by a close friend to read Laura Jensen's work, but again, I felt disconnected and read only about 20 pages before I stopped. I haven't gone back. Should I?

On the one hand, I recognize the importance of being a trooper and "eating my lima beans," but what if these books that seeminly don't help me are actually keeping me from finding the work that energizes me, invigorates me, makes me want to write through the night? The D. A. Powells, the Frank O'Haras, Tony Hoaglands, Lynn Emanuels, David Trinidads, David St. Johns, James Wrights, Chase Twichells...

Does a poet need to read the work that tastes bad just to grow up big and strong?


Two Weeks To Defense

With two solid weeks until my defense, I've finally gotten my thesis into a condition I'm pretty happy with.

1. Format
Oliver, I passed the format review with flying colors and will only need to double space my title on my approval page! This was the result of four + hours of work this past Sunday, but it was worth it.

2. Revision
I spent a long time on Sunday confronting those poems that weren't working. "Dress-up" always made my stomach turn for some reason, so I cut the entire first stanza, and suddenly it became a surreal wonder—exactly what it needed to be at that point in the book.

There's one poem left that's still sort of bugging me: "My Episode of Straight Lie for the Queer Guy." It's actually a cross-pollenated poem hybrid--the head of one poem, the torso and legs of another—and I think it's still a tad uneven. Needs some ironing.

Today a fellow MFAer told me, "Cool title." I needed that.

Beckian told her cw students to come—some of them were students in my cw class last spring, so it will be interesting.

Explaining my book's aesthetic to a colleague today, I called it "confrontationally diverse." I think that pretty much sums up what I was doing. These poems look you in the eye when you read them.

* * * * * * * *

And I started working on some very tight, compressed lyrics—like sketches really—encouraged and inspired by the work of Joseph Massey, who's friended on my LiveJournal page. He's linked via Anthony Robinson on this side of things, if you're interested. Good stuff.

I like compression. My thesis is all about spinning yarns, about saying so much and barely getting anywhere. Now, I want to keep secrets.

Beckain recommended I read Jean Valentine's The Door in the Mountain, some Jean Follain, and Paul Celan. Any suggestions?


A Softer World

One of my weekly joys is pointing my trusty web browser over to the internet comic strip A Softer World. Each week, over the course of three brilliant panels, the authors almost never cease to amuse me with their dark, cynical humor.

Aside from the funnies, what I love about A Softer World is its inherent (help me out here) poetryness? Poeticism? A word like that.

Each strip is usually a single sentence or two, stretched out over the panels with discrete line breaks put in to cue the reader. there even seem to be stanza breaks built in as well--some text blocks are solid white, while others are more clearly lineated. Some examples:

Oct. 29, 2004:

"my superpower is

everyone smiles at me

I don't know
who to trust."

Oct. 8, 2004
over photos of a girl in a bathtub)

"I meant to suicide

but the warm water
was your voice

and I touched myself

The spare lyricism of this comic strip really transcends its media. Not that I think there's anything especially lofty about poetry or anything low about comics, but this collision of the two is a sum greater than its parts.

The photography in these strip is also phenomenal, hypnotic, and frequently haunting, even as the lyric language of the strip mocks, skews, or refutes the images.

And if you're angry about the election, this strip will definitely speak to you.


Slap your Red-headed MFA

Reb Livingston posted a link to an article in her blog today that pretty scathing critiques the experience of the MFA, hence compromising its value as a degree. I've read several such discussions by folks in Victoria Chang's (now) dead blog and other places, and every time I just get so angry.

My MFA experience has been amazing, and fucking expensive. I'll be paying it off for a decade easily, probably more. And I don't care. My faculty, my peers, everyone has been an amazing influence on me, and every day that I was involved in work for the MFA, I was challenged in my thinking, my aesthetic, and my beliefs. I worked hard here, although I wouldn't have had to in order to make it to the finish line—I took nearly every opportunity that presented itself to me, and I cultivated a few of my own.

Reb's linked article focuses mainly on the cashcow-ness of MFA programs, how "talentless dolts" taint the pot for the "real" poets, and I'm even more frustrated. Someone in my program, I'm sure, considers me a talentless dolt. And that's great! We need not like everyone else's work. I'm sure Lyn Hejinian doesn't spend a lot of time cozying up to Dana Gioia's work and vice versa. Maybe its my talentless doltness that causes me to feel unencumbered by my peers, and maybe it is they who feel encumbered by me. *shrug* And in fact, I'll be honest: comparatively, from where I sit as a poet now against where I was when I arrived here? I hate to be the first to say it publically, but I pretty much was a talentless dolt then. But I've grown up.

And I've never felt like anyone around me here was a talentless dolt. I always felt like I was sitting with the most diverse set of writers, all bringing their own business to the table, all with great talent and potential. I didn't like everyone's work. But that didn't mean I couldn't learn from it.

And I hope in ten years I'll be able to look back at the poems I wrote yesterday and cringe and think, "God, I was such a talentless dolt then."

I guess I'm reminded of something from a Richard Jackson poem:
“One out of four
Americans is crazy. Look around at your three
best friends. If they’re okay, you’re in trouble.”

If you're in an MFA program and you're surrounded by talentless dolts, maybe you'd better wake up and consider the odds...


Uncle Me

My newphew Ben was born yesterday (no—I mean literally) and weighed in at a whopping 9 pounds!

That means my offiicial spoiling of him with toys, stuffed animals, and clothes begins...NOW.



And naturally, the true disturbance of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is that these two people, at their core, are two people who desperately, beautifully love each other beyond even their own comprehension.


My new favorite Beckian Fritz Goldberg quote ever:

"When I was nine I was writing poetry, but, you know, it was crap. It was nine-year-old shit."


Publishing News

I've had a really great week of publication news:

Gihon River Review took two poems, "Smoking Bride" and "Therapist with a Dream Inside: Friday Morning Aubade."
Newport Review took a poem of mine called "Explanations & Advice for Eaters of Fortune Cookies."
And I found out today that Eclipse has taken two poems, "Bag Boy Asks Myra Breckinridge to Leave Express Lane Checkout for Having Too Many Items" and "Elegy for Harvey Milk."

Good news!



I finished Sexton's Sleuth in two sittings. It's a fast read because it works so biographically: you get a vivid sense of the character growing up in the book, and the poems tend to fall on the narrative side of things. Brains like narrative—at least, capitalist brains do. Everything's so neat and orderly, sensical.

But ultimately, I think I was disappointed in Sleuth—it left me wanting more and less: more imagery, less epiphany. Contrast this with my other recent readings: Tony Tost's Invisible Bride, which toys with narrative like a big, hugely-pawed and clawed tiger cub; and snippets of both Saskya's The Portch is a Journey Different than the House and Zapruder's American Linden

The Saskya book is so concerned with the thingness of language, its meaningfulness and simultaneous meaninglessness, and it plays with this by both commenting on it and demonstrating these traits. It's a tough book, but a wonderful book (so far). It too toys with the autobiographical and the pedantic (like the more instructive passages of Invisible Bride), but fractures narrative.

Zapruder's book is interesting and lyrically very beautiful (so far). But I can't shake the feeling that he's doing something on purpose, like I've just walked into the room and he does a cartwheel, just because he can, and because he knows I'll notice. I'm waiting to conclude my thoughts on this until I've finished the whole book. One thing I love is the sound of his poems--I've read most of them out load as I've gone through the book. The sounds make sense to me--sometimes they signify more than the words do on the page. And that's interesting to me.


Library Love

I went to the library last week to check out some new books of poetry to read on my bus ride to and from school:

Invisible Bride, Tony Tost
Shelter, Laura Jensen
Snapshots for a Serial Killer, Robert Peters
Sleuth, Elaine Sexton
American Linden, Matthew Zapruder
Granted, Mary Szybist
The Porch Is a Journey Different From the House, Ever Sasky
Goodnight Architecture, Gretchen Mattox

I just finished Tost's book this afternoon. I was really taken with it. It had a nice tension between an autobiographical I and this overpowering data-obsessed voice. I think "Unawares" is one of my new favorite poems ever. The whole book felt very Calvino-esque to me: waxing philosophical at times, playing with conventions of narrative, etc. An enjoyable read, and very different from most everything else I've read lately.

I started Shelter but I'm just not getting in to it. Jensen's poems seem very flat to me. And this may be because they're spare lyrics, which present a challenge to me personally as a reader, so I'm going to stick with it and see if anything resonates.

I would love it if people would drop some good, contemporary reading suggestions in my comment box as they think of them.