"Monomania" was one of the words of the day on my Google start page yesterday. It means "obsession with a single subject." I knew it was talking about me.

I've written here before how when I get involved in a project, I suffer from extensive monomania. In my lived life, too, I suffer from the same affliction in the form of (mild) obsessive-compulsive disorder. For a period of time I will become possessed—which is how I prefer to think of obsession—with something, and generally it gets repeated for some time.

I will sometimes eat the same food for multiple meals—and I'm talking here like four consecutive meals minimum—or use every spare minute I have to engage in some kind of obsessive activitiy: blogging, Nofriendo (what a friend of mine used to call Nintendo), even cleaning and reading.

Robert Hass says there are two kinds of poets: obsessives and hysterics. Hysterics draw the world toward their poems, but obsessives make the poem their world.


Ground Zero


The first edition of LOCUSPOINT is going live, featuring Boston, St Louis, and Seattle.

BIG THANK YOUS to Christopher Hennessy, Julie Dill, and Rebecca Loudon for selecting some really stellar work in a wide range of voices and styles.

I'm spending part of today furiously checking links, font styles, blah blah blah in preparation.

Minneapolis and Phoenix will come online next month--stay tuned.


Warp Speed, Mr Sulu

The pace of things quickened. I took an under-the-weather break on Friday in my last ditch effort to rest before the avalanche of tasks began its plummet into my face.

Now: events, events, classes, conference presentation, group projects, online magazine debut, research paper, events, dinners, receptions.

This means: approximately 5% of the brain is currently devoted to poetry. The rest, other things. Demands, requirements, applications, letters, events, a residency.

I need a nap.

In other news, revising a manuscript, I noticed for the first time in 17 revisions that the first two poems both used the phrase "dark soil." I cut it out.


Fell in Love with a Girl

It's not too late for you to get involved with my girlfriend, Veronica Mars.

The premiere of season three is just two weeks away! October 3. You have plenty of time to catch up with the first two seasons. How do I know? Because I watched season 2 for the second time all the way through last week—and it took me less than four days!

Kristen Bell's portrayal of the plucky-yet-unyielding Veronica is unparalleled on network television. Bell's Veronica is driven by a quest for justice (at whatever the cost, which makes her full of flaws), an insatiable curiosity (which gets her into lots of trouble), and a rapier wit that would make Oscar Wilde blush.

As a show, Veronica Mars boldly and realistically addresses issues of class, race, teen sexuality and sexual orientation, drugs, parenting, privacy, and violence. Real people—teenagers—die in Neptune, whether it be by murder, school bus crash, or drug-related violence. And that's really what sets this show apart from others of its ilk. On Buffy the violence was always a metahpor for something else. But on Veronica, it is what it is, and it's ugly.

The good news is Veronica's going to give you another chance to shape up.

You can Netflix her or buy her at Target for a modest sum (or try tracking down a used copy of her seasons). But I'll warn you: don't watch season 2 before season 1 or you will be tainted by plot spoilers!

Plus, if you watch now, then we can sit around at AWP and recap the season together. Oh that Logan Echolls! Oh that Kendall Casablancas! What will they do next??


Heaven Again

Today all of my windows and doors are open, letting a wonderful breeze through my house. The wind takes with it the belched odor of burnt IKEA plastic (horrifying microwave-sausage incident) and is currently circulating vanilla, jasmine, and raspberry candles.

Light everywhere. Birds chirping. Even the occasional car engine has an allure.

I did not shave today. I didn't do my hair before I went to get my coffee. I got cozy with the elliptical machine. Happiest phone call ever.

Basically, your dream Saturday.


On Dissent and Dissatisfaction

Well, I'm pleased to continue to hear more about the perceived controversy involved in the annual Best American Poetry anthology. Why? No particular reason, other than I like my grapes a little on the sour side.

But sour grapes aside, it's interesting to watch these conversations develop here and there. People seem really invested in several ideas. I'm not judging anyone's position here (yet...?), just observing:

1. Best of the Best
First, as always, is the concern over "what constitutes the Best." Because notions of quality are completely subjective, this will be an annual outrage, I think. There is no way we can objectify a method to identify the "best" poem. We could probably do this for the "most effective" poem, or the "most grammatically correct" or "most frequent use of anaphora," but aside from what can be quantified in/about a poem, there's just no telling.

To that end, it's interesting to see how each guest editor selects work and from where. For me, this has always been the real interest in the series. Take, for example, the disparate journals selected by Jorie Graham and Adrienne Rich; or then again by Robert Creeley and Lyn Hejinian. On the one hand, I think it is fully the responsibility of the guest editor to make broad, wide-reaching assertions about taste (truly this is what we consider their "poetics") in making these selections. The variable nature of the anthology is, I think, its greatest strength.

If the same sense of poetics were supported each and ever year, we'd say precisely the same poets writing precisely the same poems there. And to some extent, it has been noted, many poets do appear again and again. But let's not forget the significance of the first-timers, the younger voices who have appeared in the anthology.

And I want to say, for the record, that the BAP anthology once presented me with what was and continues to be one of my most-loved poems: Thomas Sayers Ellis's "Atomic Bride." And when I was just a fledgling little squirt in college, it directed me to a smattering of (living) poets I could read and learn from. There were few (obvious) resources like this for me then.

2. Cronyism
Cronyism is the other major concern, and maybe/maybe not with good reason. I like the word "cronyism"—I mean, the way it sounds—and I'd like even more to think that I do or could soon have my own little band of cronies. In fact, there are at least three people on my blogroll I'm going to hit up first when it comes time to amass the cronies. Hell, maybe my blogroll in its entirety is my band of cronies. Who can say—except someone outside the group.

And that's really the function of cronyism. Like all communities, cronies are most succinctly defined by who they are not. Those outside the BAP circle are most aware of their outsideness, but this is true of any group. It wouldn't be as wrong, I suppose, if the anthology were called A Few Good American Poems from the Past Year or Really, Some Newer Work You Should Have Read or Some Stuff We Liked.

Or, if there were more than one anthology series each year that had the breadth and weight of a BAP. Then all sorts of crony groups could put forward their agendas. And at least then, although we wouldn't have solved the problem of cronyism, we would have created more opportunities for access to more poets writing a wider variety of poetry.

But what really impacts the definition of something being the "best" is the scarcity of other things that are as good. So if we were to flood the market with equally-good poems, all poems would become mediocre.

Friends, what we really need are some crappy poets putting out some crappy anthologies.

I don't see cronyism as such a nefarious thing. Unfair? Probably. It's a lot like life. You lose 95% of the time and the other 5% you're just really fucking lucky.

3. Making People Feel Bad
Lastly, I'd just like to comment that while the overall discussion is interesting and potentially effective, I also get concerned that some people I really care about, who have been included in the anthology, are feeling bad. I don't think it's their "fault" they were selected but I think that when we question the ethics and effectiveness of the selection process, we're also calling into question the quality of ALL the work selected.

And I don't care if their poems are the best or not. I like them. And I like those people. And I'll tell you, if there's one thing I've learned about the poetry world, it's that I'm a lot happier when good things happen to the good people I like rather than when good things happen to people who are assholes.


Dear iTunes Music Store,

Would it kill you to load the new Sissor Sister's album Ta-Da! sometime in the next 24 hours? Because it's killing me that you haven't yet; it's already 48 hours since it was released.

Since your inception, you have spoiled me by reducing my number of foot trips to the local music store by 90%. Now I only stop in when sipping my Jamba Juice before heading back to work. But why—why—of all the albums I have recently purchased must you refuse to load the one I really want? Why couldn't you have delayed:

Jessica Simpson's A Public Affair
The Essential Pansy Division
Air Supply's Love Songs

Or any of the other embarrassing album purchases I've made simply because I didn't have to get out of my chair to do so?

In conclusion, I want my Scissor Sisters.



Over the last few months I have been moving away from poetry.

I'm landing nowhere in particular, although I'm still thinking about my projects-in-progress, but I think I'm in one of my annual "confused states" about what poetry means/should be/wants to be/actually is.

This happens here a lot. It's sort of like getting a bump on the head. Like, I forget how to write poems for a little while, or there's some flashy thing out in the distance that captures my attention for a while. And then I snap out of it and I come back to myself.

But now, I'm out there drifting.

What am I doing?

a. I am listening to a lot of music and playing my guitar a lot.
b. I am watching What Not to Wear almost daily.
c. I am reading fiction: The Brief History of the Dead now; Only Revolutions soon.
d. I am working a lot.
e. I am seeing my friends.
f. I am taking care of Arden.
g. I am experiencing a normal-than-usual level of anxiety and obsessive-compulsion. (which is normal for times when I'm not writing)
h. I am playing Nintendo.

I am also making significant life changes (again) and making a place in my life. Making a little room in my life. Making some travel plans.

Most of all, friends, I am feeling happy these days.


Lies that Tell the Truth

When people read work from Living Things, one comment I invariably receive is, I can't believe you went through x experience or When x happens in y poem, that must have been really hard for you.

The truth was, it wasn't hard. Because most of the poems are fabrications.

But the poems are true poems. Although they are not documents in the sense they appear to be, they are (to paraphrase Marianne Moore) "imagined experiences with real feelings in them." But I do struggle a bit with these pieces because I know they purport to be documentation of events when they are, in fact, only documents of what I was feeling.

There are poems that are documents. "The Cat," I've often written here, happened to me, and it happened virtually as it appears in the poem—making my lived experience a literal metaphor (aside: can one's life be deconstructed as a text?). The statement made by the narrator in "Shopping" ("Somebody died.") was my explanation to a coworker regarding why I was leaving work the day I received the call. "Mail" is an actual piece of mail I received—one of the thousand post-mortem bills that streamed into my life.

So why did I lie?

I think the issue here isn't that some poems are "real" and some are merely "true," but honestly, I do feel a kind of ethical dilemma about the fact that the poems are so closely related to my lived life that people assume them to be documents. Confessional documents. Which they are and aren't. I intentionally refer to the speaker of the poems as the narrator and not as myself because he is a different voice. But we have things in common, he and I, and maybe we are too easily mistaken for each other.

Am I being overly concerned about nothing? And maybe again, the poems' proximity to real life makes for an uneasy and uncanny experience of living with this work....



It sometimes amazes me when I conceive of a project, put it into motion, and bring it to fruition. I'm an Aries—we are well-known for starting projects passionately....and then losing interest. It is with great, great pride and joy that I announce to you that LOCUSPOINT is indeed going to debut this month, on the 30th, and will feature AT LEAST: Boston, Seattle, and St Louis.

I really like the way it has come together. I do think it's so fascinating to look at poetry as a local/regional community rather than a large, looming, faceless GENRE. I like to make things smaller. I like to look at them up close.

When I was a kid, my mother had this metal and ceramic coin bank she kept on the nightstand by her bed. I was notorious for tracking down a phillips head screwdriver and dismantling it so I could see how it worked. I also used to pull all the pots and pans out of the cupboard. But never did I ever return anything to its original state.

Soon, for your reading pleasure, I will dismantle facets of Boston, St Louis, and Seattle for you. I hope you enjoy, and I hope you'll spread the word.

And join our mailing list.

I've also made arrangements with the following editors in the following cities for upcoming editions (some dates are flexible):

Francesco Levato, Chicago
Laurel Snyder, Atlanta
Alex Gildzen, Santa Fe
Tony Tost, The Lucifer Poetics Group (Virginia/by solicitation only)
Jen Currin, vertigo west (Vancouver/by solicitation only)
TBA, New Orleans
Richard Blanco, Miami



"Every play I write is about love and distance. And time. And from that we can get things like history."
            — Suzan-Lori Parks

Living Things

Today is my last day at the No Tell Motel. Stop by and catch the last piece.

Five more pieces from Living Things have just appeared at the Blood Orange Review's new "Resurrection Issue". My poems begin here.

There is also a lovely and flattering review of the chapbook as a whole here. The review might actually be better than the chapbook!

And The Daily Poetry Show gave "Debts" four somethings!


The Cat

Finally, Montgomery (et al), photos of the cat:

This is the kitten in her penthouse suite in my apartment (aka the guest bathroom).

And he she is at work, answering the question, "Has anyone seen the kitten lately?" We should have put her to work.

And, finally, an ARDENWATCH update:

Isn't she beautiful?


Love the One You're In

I had a peculiar experience a few days ago. I was running an errand for work in downtown Phoenix and ended up in an unfamiliar neighborhood as I made my way home. By and large, I have not been overly enamored of this city since I first moved here: it's flat and weird and spread out, and everything seems like it was built in 1960 and then changed hands about four times.

But on this day, I ended up driving through something beautiful—an unexpected neighborhood of cute little houses with cute little yards; streets lined with tall, lean palm trees. The streets were quiet and empty of traffic, but it felt home-like there and I loved it.

And so it was on that day that I fell in love—at long last—with Phoenix. With the city. Now that I am no longer a suburbanite, the urban core of downtown Phoenix has provided me with a really beautiful metropolitan home. Everything seems to be at my fingertips: groceries, gym, bars, restaurants, parks, art galleries, movies. I see a skyscraper from my balcony but I don't hear traffic.

I am making a home now.


Sense and Queer Sensibility

"I have a lot of frustration with the insistence on content when people are talking about homosexuality. People define gay cinema solely by content; if there are gay characters in it; it's a gay film. It fits into the gay sensibility, we got it, it's gay. It's such a failure of the imagination, let alone the ability to look beyond content. I think that's really simplistic. Heterosexuality to me is a structure as much as it is a content. It is an imposted structure that goes along with the patriarchal, dominant structure that constrains and defines society. If homosexuality is the opposite of the counter-sexual activity to that, then when kind of structure would it be?"
               —Todd Haynes interview

It occurs to me that limiting the world of art to a series of "sensibilities" is both too easy and too foolish. I think in the world there is the common belief that there does exist a singular "queer sensibility" in terms of art—and it would probably be as stereotypical as your average episode of Will and Grace: the queer sense would be concerned with aesthetic beauty (either by elevating it or destroying it a lá trash culture); it would put an emphasis on the experience of the physical body, particularly the sexual body; and it would encompass an outsider philosophy or vantage point that is evokative of experienced oppression and prejudice.

We could probably, with comfort, put W. H. Auden, Carl Phillips, Mark Doty on the train to the first camp; D. A. Powell, Tim Dlugos, and Peter Pereira into the second camp; and Cavafy, Stein, and folks like Brian Teare into the third camp.

But putting people into camps, history shows, is generally not the kindest way of understanding them.

The camps won't account for Doty's My Alexandria, which is concerned with the body as much as work by the others. Or, the palpable shift in Dlugos's work from poetry before the rise of AIDS, which are "light" and Frank O'Hara-like in their dailyness and irreverence, to the work he wrote after, which is much darker and physical.

Furthermore, I haven't heard much about a heterosexual sensibility over the last several decades. What are straight people concerned with? Is there a prevalence of poetry on making babies, on whether or not the toilet seat should be left up or down, on the sanctity of marriage? Well, yes. These poems exist! So tell me, my heterosexual friends: would you support this definition of a "straight sensibility"? And if you do, can you promise to support it forever?

I'm sure we can agree that there are any number of heterosexual sensibilities in the world, just as there are any number of heterosexual identities and experiences taking place at any given moment. Although television shows me that there is an overall commodified structure to the heterosexual identity (career/marriage/kids/retirement/death), no one is really "enforcing" this kind of structure on straight people across the board.

The same is true for queers. While even in our community there is some commodifying of experience, it generally relates to coming out and becoming a sexual being—the two most common roadblocks to our identities. But one thing that's important for art, I think, as we move into the new century is that we need to stop all the naming. We need to support the multiplicity of identities and concerns expressed in the culture rather than limiting them. Is anyone else at all concerned that Lance Bass's The Odd Couple remake foolishly superimposes queer identity into an already-heterosexually sanctioned system? Or is it just going to be Will and Grace with Joey Fatone in Debra Messing drag?

When Haynes talks about structure, he's talking about a lot of different aspects. Naturally, he's concerned about cultural power—straight people have it, queer folks don't—and so, in some ways, everything heterosexual people do within the straight norm reinforces the norm, while everything queer folks do outside of what is sanctioned by the straight powers-that-be is an oppositional act. These oppositional acts are constantly changing as more and more people become educated and comfortable with the existences of queer experience.

Even among queer writers and artists, there is concern with whether or not one should or should not be considered (or consider themselves) a "queer writer." This is a serious and important debate. My personal feeling, echoing Haynes's quote above, is that anyone with a queer identity is a queer writer. We are entrenched in our identities because the culture forces us to be. (If you are legally married, for example, you probably don't hesitate to begin a sentence with "My husband," while a queer person, in mentioning that relationship, has no corresponding term and each explanation or revelation of that relationship is a kind of risk). But one of the reasons queer people can't come to consensus of whether or not there are "queer writers" is because the term itself cannot be succinctly defined—because people get hung up on content. "I don't write about queer issues," might be one argument, while another might say that his or her work doesn't look or feel different from heterosexual counterparts' work.

Those are fine statements to make—if we continue to support the notion that queer is in content the same way culture enforces that queer is behavior, not identity.


Don't Speak: I Know What You're Thinking

In response to my own post recently about the sometime-sting of rejection letters, I just wanted to share this little gem that I received this morning.

I received a follow-up letter from Hildra Raz regarding the Prairie Schooner Book Prize, for which I was one of 13 finalists this year. This is the second rejection letter I received--the first was kind, of course, but this one was flat out wonderful.

In this letter, Hilda congratulated me on being a finalist and thanked me for supporting Prairie Schooner by entering the contest. What was really valuable, though, was that she was kind enough to send me comments from two of the final judges.

These comments, I think, are some of the most specific and helpful revision suggestions I've received on the manuscript in some time—things I haven't yet considered.

So often the manuscripts go out into the void and don't make a sound. But this, this echo is important to me. And helpful in shaping the book to a publishable version.

Don't Say a Word

I'm at No Tell Motel this week!

But I hope you will tell. The only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about.


I'm Bringing Sexy Back (with my original receipt)

In a recent post Seth stated that he wasn't interested in reading "sexy" poems, particularly poems deemed "sexy" by someone else and recommended to him for that reason (And, arguably, Seth wants to define what's sexy for himself. Which is good.)

It got me thinking about a recent "communication" (Don't want to tip off Eduardo again!) I had from an editor recently, in which she described my poems as "sexy."

It sort of concerns me. Let me explain why.

Those of you familiar with my work know that I have a few recurring concerns: what death it, what the body is, how people communicate. The concern with the body in my poems approaches the body as an object, a thing—which, granted, is nothing new—and to some extent this is "sexy" in that the spectator's relationship to the body as an object is often linked to sex, power, and sexuality. That's fine. But I will also caution that the bodies in my poems are often dead, decaying, broken, maimed, or untouchable.

If people perceive these bodies as sexual because of those aspects, then the body is no longer an object but a fetish. A fetish is an object whose power over the spectator is disproportionate to its function or appearance. That is, if I have a fetish for ladies' feet (which I don't, but for argument's sake...), then a foot is no longer a foot but instead it becomes the idea of a foot. And the idea of "foot" takes on more significance than the object of the foot—the foot begins to stand for something.

In terms of sexual fetish, it's generally assumed that the object stands for genitals. Freud's writings on fetish objects describe how a boy (for example), when faced with a woman's "lack of a penis" for the first time, freaks out. (All of this is debatable, yes; don't debate me on it—I'm not Freud.) Anyway, the boy's eyes, in horror, flee from the "lack" and look for something—anything—else. This is why fetishes take on these alternate symbols: feet, ladies' shoes, stockings, breasts, even "fur."

I'm digressing a bit here because I like fetish talk, but my point is, what makes a poem sexy? Certainly it shouldn't be subject matter, because that's so limiting. Language can be sexy, yes, but why? I know what kind of talk I think is sexy, but that's not true for everyone, right? I tend to consider opulent, sonorous language to be the most sexual. Generally, words from Latin are more sexual than their Anglo-Saxon counterparts, unless we're talking dirty, in which case I'd say "fuck" is sexier than "intercourse." I also think that poems about sex are generally not sexy. They give too much instead of holding back. And see? Now we're really getting personal. I like the allusion to the sexual, but not the reveal. I like suspense films instead of slasher flicks. I like to be hinted toward something, not thrust into it.

I also like to make teenage-boy like puns.

Should poetry be sexy? Is a sexy poem something we should look down on, like sex workers? Does it violate too many American Puritan values? Is it too easy to write the sexy poem?

And if Justin Timberlake really is bringing sexy back, where has it been all this time and why hasn't anyone else thought to look before now??

(And how's this for Freudian? In Googling the image of Justin, I "accidentally" typed "Justin Timberlack!")


What Makes a Writer

A few weeks ago, I started taking a class with several other professionals from the nonprofit sector. During our first break, the student sitting ahead of me, a man in his thirties who worked in a community college's finance area, asked me what I did for a living.

I explained where I work. It often spurs one of two reactions: complete lack of interest or piqued curiosity. This man fell into the second category. "Are you a writer?" he asked. I admitted it. The next question sort of startled me: "What do you think is the most important quality a writer needs to possess?"

"Perseverance," i said quickly, not thinking. But the moment it was out of my mouth, I knew it was true.

The man was surprised, assuming, probably naturally, that the most needed quality would be something like a big vocabulary or the general term "talent," the meaning of which is of course completely esoteric.

Today I recalled the conversation as I tore open what felt like my 3,000th rejection letter. My manuscript was compelling, the letter consoled, but there was simply too much competition this year. There were too many manuscripts more deserving.

My name was spelled wrong.

It shouldn't sting like it does, not anymore, and for the most part, many of them don't. But there are days when I can't stomach the thought of tearing open yet another quiet rejection, a stoic thank you for my submission. Submission: such an interesting word. To submit means both to send in for judgment and also to yield to the control of another. Are we all masochists, we perverse writers? Will you take the pain I will give to you? Dave Gahan of Depeche Mode asked in "Strangelove." But that doesn't really matter. What he wants to know is: Will you reteurn it? Like good masochists, we only send things out for the response, not for the act of sending them out.

I'm to the point now where every time I receive a response letter, I repeatedly whisper to myself, It's a rejection, it's a rejection. Not in recognition, but in hope: like Patty Hearst suffering from Stockholm Syndrome, I have seemingly come to love, to depend on the rejection of the literary establishment. Like Patty, I, too, have spent many years locked in the closet of failure, of "we liked your work but we can't use it now. I pray for rejection because I simply wouldn't know how to respond to anything else.

When Jim Elledge called me to tell me I'd won the Frank O'Hara award, I said things like Oh my God. Wow. Oh my God. Mostly without emotion. I was, at some level, waiting for him to say he was just kidding, that he appreciated my submission (read: my yielding to his control) but that my work really didn't suit his needs right now.

Rejection is more comfortable than acceptance because it indicates you still have work to do. It means, surely, there is something you can still repair, or improve—something you can point to and say, This. This is wrong. But with acceptance there is nothing like that. People can praise you until they go blue in the face, but these comments are generally so less specific than the critical—what we would probably consider "constructive." People might say they love your poems, or that they were moved by them, but the comments aren't as clear as the person who says, "Your poem lacks the kind of depth or precision we generally publish. We prefer work that uses images. Are you familiar with imagery?"

Earlier today I was talking with a coworker who told me she'd received her very first rejection recently. I said, with sincerity, that rejection was the first step toward publication. I described to her my file folder of rejections, now too big to take any more half-slips, quarter slips, scribbed notes—it could simply hold no more. A described the Jack Sprat-like comparison of my acceptance file, how anorexic it looked sitting in the same filing bin as the reject file, fat and gluttonous and disgusting, like a small child who has worked his way through a tub of frosting and now, mouth smeared with fudge, teeth blacked out, has turned his attention toward the jelly jars in the pantry. There is no sating the rejection file.

And so, I remembered the conversation from class. Perseverance? the man was asking me. He wasn't sure what I meant. I said, Writing's the easy part. I took a sip of my drink for effect. It's what you do with it that matters.


Wisconsin: A Photo Essay

Almost all of my pictures are from the last day of my trip because I was too busy working on LOCUSPOINT, napping, or reading to be bothered to go anywhere.

At breakfast.

A cow peeing. Also, me.

The school I went to in 8th grade, when there were 11 students in my class. It was the largest class in quite some time.

View from my parents' living room window. That's Lake Michigan out there.

At my parents' beach.

Some very old limestone stairs on my parents' neighbor's property, leading down to the water.

My parents' beach.

A rock wall my father built in the yard out of limestone dug up in the soil.

Creepy driftwood.

Me in the lake...

...and then just out of the water...

...and then an hour later after hypothermia began to set in.

Remains of an old pier on the beach.

Why they call it "Green Bay."


I Am Her

I walk into profile for the camera. I am her.


The new issue of Marginalia has appeared on the Piper Center website:

Click here to read it.

It has some really interesting stuff in it, including a piece by Peter Pereira on "Practicing Empathy."

Tomorrow: a very special song recording for Eric.


Against Competition: Artistic Philanthropy and the Philosophy of Goodness Among Artists (In Search of The Community)

A(nother) manifesto of sorts?

Andrew Carnegie wrote, "The best means of benefiting the community is to place within its reach the ladders upon which the aspiring can rise...institutions of various kinds, which will improve the general condition of the people...in the forms best calculated to do them lasting good." (From "Wealth")

The poetry pie is a small pie and there are many forks poised above it—but only so many hands can get close enough to the table to eat it. We know this. We probably arrive at writing poetry with dreamy notions of notebooks filled with verse that (somehow?) make it out into the public consciousness, resulting in some kind of cultural appreciation for our labors.

The reality of poetry is that it has nearly more producers than consumers. This creates a supply distortion: unless every producer makes steadfast use of conspicuous consumption to support the overall industry, it is doomed to fail us. However, to publish poetry in our current cultural moment requires money on the behalf of the artist and provides little, if any, return on the investment. I'm thinking broadly here of investments made among contest entry fees; investments in supplies, paper, pens, white-out, internet access, stamps, etc; and the cost of time—time likely spent away from or hindering other profit-making enterprises in each poet's life (this does include time away from family because the family is, while loving, also an economic unit).

Because the publishing industry is, at heart, an economy of scale (mass-produced goods generate more revenue than limited runs), poetry won't flourish there. Unless you are a Billy Collins or a Mary Oliver (and maybe you should be!), it's not likely you could walk into just any bookstore in America and find your book on its shelves.

Studies have shown that Americans turn to poetry in times of national crisis (to help manage emotions and to seek understanding) or to commemorate special cultural or personal events (lik anniversaries, deaths, and weddings). Unless some poets want to flood the market demand by orchestrating more ill-conceived marriages or by creating a crisis of conscience among our non-reading peers, we probably aren't going to sell more books. Perhaps legalizing same-sex marriage is the key to circulating more poetry books—more anniversaries and weddings!

It's clear that poetry exists outside the market economy in America, and maybe this is where it belongs. After all, most among us would probably agree that capitalism dilutes artistic expression somehow—by commodifying "talent." If the artistic product can be mass-produced, it loses its magical power of cultural significance (see also Walter Benjamin's essay "Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction").

If poetry is to do more than survive, more than just feed the six hands over that exposed pie, it needs to look elsewhere. As members of the community, we must take care of each other and we must caretake each other's work.

While critical dialogues are valuable artisticitic disagreements absolutely necessary to crystallizing our own sense of poetics and the way in which we create art, there comes a point in a conversation where one or more people should be asked to leave the room, simmer down a bit, and come back when they're ready to participate like rational, respectful adults.

Poetry and its consumption fall backward onto old stand-bys like the barter system, in which poets trade books, chapbooks, self-published 'zines, and free internet publications among each other. These are good things, important "counter-measures" to the pressures of sales. "If a book opens in America and no one is around to read it, does it make a sound?" We must be philanthropically-minded about our careers if we are to succeed and to help others succeed. In this regard, competition—while spurring many of us to create better work—is also counter-productive when you look at the big picture.

A Story Problem
Imagine three poets. Poet 1 wins a prestigious first book award, receives many favorable reviews, and distributes (through sales or through in-kind) a full first printing. Poet 2 wins a lesser-known award, is less commonly reviewed, and distributes only a portion of his or her book. Poet 3 never wins an award, but continues to write and freely distribute work through not-for-profit means (bartering, internet, etc).

Thinking About What You've Read
Of the three artists above, which is the best poet?

Which is the most significant poet?

Of the three poets I've described, whose work will be read and discussed in 100 years?

Which is most likely to win a Guggenheim, an NEA, a MacArthur Grant, or a posh 2/2 teaching appointment at a cute liberal arts school in snowy Maine?

That's precisely my point. Not only can you not choose, it doesn't matter.

What matters is how many other consumers of poetry read and respond to the work. Let's suggest, as Joseph Massey recently did, that Poet 3 is Jack Spicer, who never published a succinct, "full-length" collection of work. Or, even, that Poet 2 is someone like Edna St. Vincent Millay, a poet whose work was never fully respected during her lifetime but that, in the end, found its place among some of the most significant writers in the past century.

This is why we must be philanthropically-minded. We must be ready to be giving of ourselves and our work; to not only support other writers but to promote them.

Furthermore, it is up to us and only up to us to create new opportunities and vehicles to support new and emerging writers who join our community. This means our philanthropy should take forms of mentorship, education, communication, and "thinking-of-each-other-ness"—referring each other to the opportunities for which we may be well-suited.

There are more people living the philanthropic lifestyle than aren't. But we aren't yet recognizing the ways we can and do support each other. We need to make it intentional, this behavior, and the resources must be made available to all. When we become more selective about what is and what is not "supposed to be" poetry, we first and foremost limit ourselves and our potential.

If one voice is silenced, there is nothing left worth saying.


Rancor, Dismissal, and the Failure Rate of Poetry

An examination of the cultural dialogue of poetry.

Take 1
Over the weekend I met with Stephanie and she pointed out a section of a Billy Collins essay in which he agreed with a friend of his who had recently determined that "83% of contemporary American poetry" being written today was simply not worth reading. This is a bold statement to make, but one I'd hazard to guess that many poets writing today would make on their own behalf as well. Although we'd never agree on what constitutes that mystical 17% of "good" work, we can all agree that it does seem these days that only a small percentage of what's being written seems to really speak to this.

Please do not read this as me agreeing with the way Billy Collins has chosen to structure this argument. The statement in question is excertped from Collins's introduction to his Best American Poetry offering for 2006, an introduction conspicuously lacking a discussion of what Collins perceives as good—as all previous editors have done. Collins states simply the poems in the anthology are poems he "likes," and I would actually admit that this rationale is good enough for me: after all, why empiricize something inherently subjective? Who among us could sincerely enumerate the intangible listing of qualities we respond to in poems? So, Billy, I understand where your sentiment comes from. But I think you're making dangerous statements.

Take 2
I was directled by C. Dale's blog toward a discussion of Dan Chiasson's poetry reviews as reviewed by Bill Knot (go here to get caught up). Knott takes Chiasson's seemingly insubstantial review standards to task by interrogating Chiasson's need for and choice of an "accessible poet" who could be enjoyed by students of poetry as well as the "average reader."

What struck me here wasn't Knott's argument, but the rancor and dismissal with which both he—and, apparently, Chiasson—reject the work of other poets. Is dismissal the strongest, sharpest tool in the critic's toolbelt? It would seem so.

Take 3
I remember a while back there was a big buzz among bloggers regarding response to a Mary Oliver poem that concerned a dead, deformed kitten. The conversation that erupted on the topic gleefully tore the poem apart. Some poets offered thoughtful revisions of the poem from their own aesthetic; others mocked and ridiculed Oliver's unfortunate, Degrassi Junior High-like subject matter. Here, too, the conversation was less about the topic and more about the mode of communication: Oliver and her poem became as violated as an African zebra unzipped inside a circle of ravenous lions—they weren't just feeding, they were relishing the kill.

The Moral of the Story
I recognize that, at times, I'm just as capable of this kind of horrifying display of rhetoric. Any time I have to put on what a coworker recently alluded to as the "Crazy Gay Guy Hat" (but in her own case, the Crazy Feminist Girl Hat), I spout this kind of rancor. It's not fair, and I'm growing increasingly more and more concerned that instead of furthering a critical discussion, the medium becomes the message: the rhetoric bears more weight than the argument contained therein.

Stephanie and I talked at length about another essay, this one by Tony Hoagland, in which the rhetoric relied on qualifiers to move toward a conclusion or consensus. Instead of delineating poetry succinctly, Hoagland relies on statements like "I value ____ in poetry," which to me seems a much more honest and constructive response. The other conversations do not wear their values on their sleeve; in fact, few of the examples noted above clearly describe what their values even are.

When we write from the perspective of sincere criticism, of mutual understanding, the dialogue is more effective. To say 83% of American poetry isn't worth reading, Stephanie said, isn't as effective as discussing what makes the other 17% valuable. I thought it a brilliant remark: why do we, as poets, move first toward shutting out what we don't value rather than what we support?

All this delineation is slicing a small pie into smaller and smaller pieces. I'm not saying we need to like each other. I'm not saying, per se, that we even need to value each other. I'm saying that the base level of respect among artists must be: You have a right to do your work your way. We will all have our visceral responses, yes. We should. It signifies our investment level in an artform that is often undervalued or overlooked.

But what does this poetic rancor accomplish other than—essentially—making some people feel bad while others feeling better about themselves? If I constantly listed the poets I read whose work had little impact on me, I'd have little else to say. But it's important to me, in this blog, to support the poets whose work influences me, who are doing things that amaze and surprise me, and to me, that discussion has more overall value for us as artists. Why are we focusing so much on the things that don't work when the world is full of significant things, wonderful things that deserve our attention and focus?



The day I read the poems about his death for the first time, I get an email from someone who is looking for him.

The day I do not want to get up early and go to the gym I discover my car has a flat tire.

The day I begin writing my Arizona Arts Commission grant, a friend tells me to apply.

The week I receive a check from my grandmother for $200, I pay for car repairs totalling $200. The week I earn $1000 freelancing, my radiator explodes and I pay for car repairs totalling $1000.