anarcho-poetics

When Ageist Artists Attack!

at CUPSI ’09 (college slam nationals), the last time I felt remotely close in age to my writing peers

at CUPSI ’09 (college slam nationals), the last time I felt remotely close in age to my writing peers

I went to a tiny reading in Cambridge last weekend that ended up a round-robin situation with some saxophone players and a few poets trading off, sharing renditions and drafts.  Normally, I can make this kind of set-up work for me.  At readings, I am often the tag-along friend, rarely the featured performer.  An accidental salon-style round-robin lets me pull out my smartphone and jump into the mix without any of the pressure of preparing a set, worrying about merch, or feeling obligated to make small talk.  I can read my work and then recede into the background until my next turn.

During the salon, someone asked if I was applying to MFA programs; in response I mentioned my age and said I felt like I still had a good chunk of time before a graduate degree would feel like a priority for me.  This is my knee-jerk response to such questions.  I feel far too young to be on the graduate school path.  Mentioning my age is my way of arguing that point.  But the deflection tactic came back to bite me once we got to the bar.  One of the women I was with told me she was impressed my work was so mature for someone my age.  Now, sometimes backhanded compliments happen by accident.  But this one felt purposeful, dismissive.

I am thoroughly familiar with being the “baby” socially.  I had an early birthday in school and was always the youngest of my friends.  I had a full time job throughout college and graduated a semester early, so I was thrust into the “adult” world when I was barely 21.  My partner is 7 years my senior.  So the, “wait, you’re how old?” conversation has gotten a bit tiresome at this point.

The woman and I danced around this awkward spot in our conversation: she piled on qualifiers for her original statement while I answered shortly and tried to reorient the conversation in a less uncomfortable direction.

HER:  So, when did you start writing?

ME:  I mean, I’ve always written.  Do you mean “seriously” writing?  I guess in college, but I had kept notebooks very seriously for years before that…

HER:  It’s just so interesting, I mean, when I was your age my voice wasn’t nearly as…

UGH.  That’s the only thing it feels appropriate to say in this situation.  I refuse to apologize for my age, or the fact that I’ve made writing a very serious part of my life for at least a decade.  The biggest frustration that I have about this reoccurring conversation is that I could easily avoid it if I would just keep my stupid mouth shut.  That number is at once an excuse (just in case I disappoint) and a jibe (just in case I’m really awesome).  If I under-perform, I can blame it on being young.  If I exceed expectations, I can obliquely taunt those in nearby company with my wunderkind abilities.

Either way, I will never understand how age is at all proportional to talent, drive or craftsmanship.  I take my writing seriously, and have for quite some time.  I know what excites and interests me in my own writing and the writing of others.  Shouldn’t that be enough to make me a peer to any other writer?  Aren’t we all just lovers of words regardless of age, intention, or advanced degrees?  It seems so arbitrary to draw attention to what year I was born as it relates to what I’ve managed in my writing life.  Except, of course, if it’s making somebody older a little uncomfortable with where they stand in relation.

Scared To Read

Racing Hummingbirds.jpg

At some point in high school or college, I remember being assigned some selection from Harold Bloom’s book The Anxiety of Influence.  I can’t, for the life of me, recall what passage we read for class or why, but the title comes to mind every time I get into a reading rut.  Today, I am in a serious reading rut.  The past few weeks, I haven’t been spending much time with books.  I cracked open Murakami’s 1Q84 in mid-October, and though his work is typically something I can’t keep my hands off of, I’ve consumed all of two-hundred pages since then.  I’ve also been sitting on Eduardo C. Corral’s brilliant poetry collection, Slow Lightning, unable to push through the last few pages and pass it along to the friend I promised it to.  I have a to-read list I’m loathe to record here for posterity, as writing every title I mean to get to sometime soon will betray me as poorly-versed in what plenty of my friends and peers deem essential to a writing identity.  I quoted Joan Didion last week, but I’ve only actually read one of her books, The Year of Magical Thinking, in its entirety.  When authors mention the writers that shaped their work in interviews, I cringe, knowing I should have gotten around to some Octavia Butler or Edwidge Danticat by now.  I’ve not read Vonnegut (tried in high school when everyone was doing it, hated him) or Bukowski (ditto), writers most of the bibliophiles around me agree are the bees knees.  I bought a beautiful copy of War and Peaceafter a course in Tolstoy that made me fall in love with Russian fiction five years ago, but I’ve yet to even write my name on the inside cover.  All these books are more than worthy of my attention.  Much more worthy than all the circuits of internet I’ve been treading and retreading, from blog to email server to Duotrope to Twitter, back and forth until I shut down my laptop for the night and get into bed.  I know it’s not the quality of the work that’s holding me back, but something much more nebulous, intangible.

When I can’t get through the books on my plate, I tend not to write much either.  I’ve never been able to figure out whether the dearth of writing is the product of the drop of in reading or vice versa.  Normally, I’m firmly of the mind that to be a good writer, you must be a voracious reader.  I like to think I’m a decent writer.  I feel confident workshopping my drafts and reading my work in public, do alright when it comes to publishing.  But to call myself a voracious reader in my current state would be self-flagellation; saying such a thing is an invitation to the other party in the conversation to interrogate your taste.  ”What are you reading right now?”  I dread being asked that question.  Not because I have nothing to answer with, but because it invariably leads to the asker telling me what they are reading, then insisting I read it myself.  I then have to add the title to my ever ballooning list of books to get too.  And my bookcase grows ever-more intimidating.

There are ways around the attitude that a book is an insurmountable task, but you have to start small.  Running interference on my brain by taking in some (or any) kind of writing helps–I’ve been picking up back issues of journals lying around my apartment and reading them in fits and starts.  The frequent shifts in form, tone, and content in publications like the brilliantly quirky Forklift, Ohio have been a godsend.  I read all the articles in every issue of Vanity Fair that arrives in my mailbox; it’s not always a literary experience, but it’s something.  And as long as I don’t have any pressing errands to take care of, I spend my lunch hour at the office curled up with a book.  Even if I can only manage fifty pages a day, it makes me feel like less of a fraud when anyone asks about my degree in literature.

Bloom’s Anxiety is built around the concept that poets feel oppressed by the generation that came before and that this anxiety is what informs a lot of their work, preventing it from being truly original because of how preoccupied the poet is with her predecessor.  Some days, this thesis applies to me.  If I’m working on a story or poem, I try to steer clear of work that might pollute my own with borrowed ideas–the last thing I want to do is accidentally regurgitate somebody else’s artistic product and write solely in reaction to what they’ve already said.  But I’d be lying if I said that reading doesn’t help me write.  The most powerful aspect of reading is how it transports you worlds away without forcing you to leave the comfort of your favorite chair.  That transportive quality is invaluable, and it is what I most want my own work to have whenever I start in on a new piece of writing.  Instead of being scared of how few of the books on my list of to-reads I’ll actually get to, I have to remind myself of how many people I have met through the pages of a book, how much I’ve learned about myself as a writer (and a person) just by slogging through someone else’s imagined universe a handful of pages at a time.

Drawing From Life

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The funny thing about writers is that they are often the last people to define themselves as such.  Most of the dearest people to me write, but they would not introduce themselves as writer.  The writing is something protected, kept safe in folio, drafts (and dreams) revealed only to a chosen few.  Like Tatiana said on Monday, the blank page can be incredibly intimidating.  But left in the hands of a certain type of person, that void become the perfect audience.  Joan Didion characterizes this class of scribbler as a very special kind of collector:

Keepers of private notebooks are a different people altogether, lonely and resistant rearrangers of things, anxious malcontents, children afflicted apparently at birth with some presentiment on loss.

For a long time, I was the only scribbler I knew.  I journaled every day.  Wherever I went, my notebook was open and being manipulated.  I was writing constantly–during this period, I successfully completed the 365 project, which challenges participants to write a poem a day for an entire years–but the pages were not only full of words.  The journals were also exercises in accidental collage.  I glued in receipts, ticket stubs, pages from catalogs, bits of colored cellophane.  I affixed pictures and framed the images with paint pen.  I drew on top of my collages with oil pastels, wrote upwards, downwards, and in spirals.  The notebooks, originally sparse collections of drafts, morphed into visual catalogs of thought, living poems operating on multiple levels.  I went to a portfolio review for a San Francisco art school where the reviewer assumed I wanted to major in graphic design.  At the time, I thought of myself as a painter, and was offended to be characterized as anything else.  But what was painfully clear from the way my sketchbooks incorporated text was that I was a writer, whether I was willing to admit it or not.

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When I discovered Jennifer New’s Drawing From Life:The Journal As Art, I finally found a resource that talked about the hybrid personal museums that end up in private notebooks.  Drawing From Life is full of real-world examples of what lives inside the personal notebooks of writers, cartoonists, researchers, and all kind of scribblers across a wide range of professions and walks of life.  The journals range just as widely in their format–some are incredibly intricate line drawings augemented by text, others collections of figure drawings on a rainbow of Post-It’s.  There are collages and technical drawings, doodles and rough drafts.  All of them are gorgeous because of how personal and specific each featured scribbler’s work is.

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I was never arrogant enough to believe myself the only person on earth keeping a textual/visual journal, but finding this book made me feel held.  As an artist, your sketchbook is a space for experimentation, and sometimes your best work happens there completely by accident; same goes for writing.  I’ve read enough personal ephemera (shout out to the Rare Book Room at Smith College in Northampton, MA, where you can browse personal papers of brilliant writers like Sylvia Plath and Virginia Woolf) to know that sometimes these things end up in archives.  But no one can predict that such an archive will be made of her own life.

Self-curation is a fascinating practice.  Buckminister Fuller kept an exhaustive archive of everything he ever wrote or doodled called the Dymaxion Chronofile.  Anais Nin’s journals are massive and imaginative retelling of her experiences where even the most scarring experiences are transformed into circumstances completely under her control.  I like to think of my own journals as a hybrid of Fuller and Nin’s sensibilities–both exhaustive and imaginative.  In my notebooks, I am my best, uncensored self.

Experiments In New Formalism

I am not good with rigidity when it comes to writing.  I like to write on my own schedule, about whatever emerges when my pen hits the page.  I can’t be bothered with memorizing metrical patterns or when lines should repeat, so I am famously bad at form poems.  I signed up for a form slam once and nearly withdrew from the competition out of sheer embarrassment when my sestinas and villanelles turned out less than pleasant to listen to.

image from Biography.com
image from Biography.com

Last week I mentioned that Dana Gioia’s essay on New Formalism really got under my skin when he asserted that contemporary poetry has no idea how or when to employ form, and therefore has no ear for language.  It made me want to, in spite of my deep and serious aversion, write a form poem, and not only do it right, but do it well.  Easily said, but pretty difficult to execute.  Unless you have the right tools, of course.  (Here’s where it gets weird.)

I’ve been itching to write a poem about Danny Williams, tragically disappeared filmmaker and Warhol lover, ever since I first saw the documentary A Walk Into The Sea for the first time a handful of years ago.  (If you’ve never heard of the movie, you’re not alone.  But it is available for instant viewing on Netflix and very worth it, so go!  See!)  In fact, after seeing the film, I’ve been thinking about writing a series of poems about the revolving cast of characters in Warhol’s Factory, but I could never figure out where to begin.  So much about everyone of that specific cultural moment is myth or hearsay, and writing about people I have no personal connection to is rather difficult for me unless I can find an access point.  So the Warhol poems got shelved indefinitely.

Until Monday night, when I decided it was finally time to write Danny Williams a poem.  I cued up the movie and took notes from start to finish, filling four pages of my notebook; you can see the distilled version of those noteshere.  Initially, my idea was to write a found poem, using only dialogue from the first person interviews.  But as I scrawled away and then typed up the quotes, I realized how repetitive the information was.  How many people uttered some iteration of, “I don’t remember Danny Williams,” and then revised their statements, the truth building on the initial lie until something completely new and very real had come from the original obfuscation.

It seemed the perfect opportunity to write in form.  The repetition was already there, it was simply my job to shape that repetition.  Working from my notes, I started building a pantoum using the documentary dialogues.  Words were tweaked here and there, but the final product is almost entirely composed of found text from the film.  When starting a poem from scratch, form intimidates me.  But with all the raw material laid out in front of me, it helped to organize all that talk into a compact, evocative story.  Where normally it’s difficult for me to write about strangers, the form became my access point for speaking comfortably about someone I can never meet.  It imposed a distance from the subject that made it easier to pick out which pieces of information were important enough to present to a reader multiple times, while reminding of the way the layered truth comes about in the documentary.

Repetitive forms lend themselves especially to this layered version of the truth.  Check out contributor to our up-coming art issue Cassandra de Alba’s sestina, “Tchaikovsky, 1944,” in this month’s issue of Printer’s Devil Review for an example of contemporary formalism gone incredibly right.  Contributor to our Gender, Sex, and Sexuality issue and Side B‘s representative in the BILiNE anthology, Sean Patrick Mulroy, has a poem called“wight,” that consists of two blank sonnets based on some pretty upsetting footage of Brittany Murphy from her last public appearance before her death.  Amy Newman’s poem, “The Letting Go,” is another bit of neo-formalist excellence, and her book Dear Editor invents something of a new form by collecting cover letters as poems in their own right.  And though there are plenty of literary journals that may turn up their nose at such formal experiments, online lit mag Radius solicits submissions of invented forms with instructions, seeking poets who are not only willing formalists, but inventors as well as authors.

On Poetry And The Academy

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I’m going to start by saying that I don’t read a lot of theory when it comes to poetry–I tend to get annoyed with the holier-than-thou tone of a lot of critical writing, essays that end up so far removed from the original subject matter that ultimately what is said could be in reference to any situation or details disdained.  But I recently had a birthday, and my grandma gave me a collection of critical essays entitled Can Poetry Matter?  The collection is built on its title essay, which has a lot of points I generally agree with.  Dana Gioia makes plenty of convincing arguments therein that I fully agree with, most of them about how poetry’s shift from the artistic community to the academic community has institutionalized the art.  In my favorite moment, he diagnoses why this shift is dangerous:

Today poetry is a modestly upwardly mobile, middle-class profession—not as lucrative as waste management or dermatology but several big steps above the squalor of bohemia… The campus is not a bad place for a poet to work. It’s just a bad place for all poets to work. Society suffers by losing the imagination and vitality that poets brought to public culture. Poetry suffers when literary standards are forced to conform with institutional ones.

Unfortunately, he contradicts himself in a later essay, “Notes On The New Formalism,” claiming that the dearth of formal training evident in contemporary poetry has caused a generation of poets unaware of how their work sounds aloud, and wholly ignorant of how ugly their verse is.  His argument attempts to impose the institutional view of poetry–poems as rigidly organized syllabic structures instead of intuitive art objects–on a world where free verse reigns supreme, and has since the modernists he so lauds.

When Gioia speaks about free verse as the death of attention to sound in poetry, I get uncomfortable.  Not just because it seems hopelessly reductive, but because free verse, by its very nature, is the most democratic of poetic forms.  One need not have any kind of formalized poetic education in order to write a successful free verse poem.  There is no rhyme scheme to memorize, no feet to count out, no binding metrical pattern to organize the writing.  Because of this fluidity, free verse can be used by any person to enter the world of poetry.  It is how I fell in love with the medium.  It is the bridge poetry has into the layperson’s world, the one Gioia so craves in Can Poetry Matter?, where the academic guardianship of poetics acts as an affront to all things holy about being a poet.

In the same way that Gioia abhors the idea that poets must teach to eek out a living, I abhor the idea that a poem must be written in recognizable metrical pattern or formal structure for it to be well-crafted.  Full disclosure: this difference of opinion is likely owed to the fact that I cut my teeth in the spoken word community.  This happenstance is what inspires my biggest issue with Gioia’s reasoning; “Notes On The New Formalism” claims that poets have lost track of the importance of the sounds of words in their work.  He assumes no one reads their work out loud.  He could not be more wrong.  The proliferation of poetry readings in every major city I’ve ever visited makes him a liar.  The rampant popularity of slam poetry among young poets makes him a liar.

It is fully possible that a lot has changed in the poetry world since Gioia first penned his essays.  But what is more likely to be the case is that the poetry community exists in deeply divided factions.  Poetry’s most visible home has become college campuses, without a doubt.  Poets, more now than ever, make their living teaching.  Despite this change in the way poetry fits into our culture, it can still be found outside of the academy’s sphere of influence, and thus, outside the rules the academy has for what makes a poem.

I was in New Jersey this past weekend and ended up in a dive bar for drinks with a few close members of my family.  After the atrocious cover band finished up their last set, the bartender put on a hip-hop mix that was mostly Lil Wayne songs.  My uncle said, “You hear patterns in this, don’t you?” and we got into a discussion about the literary devices at play in contemporary hip hop.  I thought of a poet I know who structures poetry workshops for kids in juvenile detention around Lil Wayne songs.  That’s definitely not what Gioia was thinking of when he begged for form to be taught to budding poets, but I think it speaks to all of the roads we can take and still end up with a poem.

Recognizing Writers

I had an incredibly bizarre dream the other night about attending a David Foster Wallace reading.  He stood atop a massive pile of trash, bloated to a massive girth (were it not for his ubiquitous bandana, I wouldn’t have recognized him), and read from a new collection of short stories.  I was completely overcome by the experience.  His prose has wormed its way into my top ten list over the past few years, so as far as the writing was concerned, I was un-surprised.  But beyond the writing, I was annoyed at everyone else in the room.  They were listening, but impatient.  I could tell none of them knew who he was, simply because he did not look like his author photo.

David Foster Wallace, as found here.
David Foster Wallace, as found here.

The dream went on to other strange places, but once I was awake again, the thing that still bothered me was how no one had wanted to listen to him because he simply did not look like a writer.  He looked like a slob.  He was wearing dirty clothes that did not fit, he had not showered in some time; in stark contrast, everyone standing around his trash podium was well-heeled and deeply skeptical.  But what is a writer supposed to look like?

Often, especially when talking to strangers, people act surprised when they find out I am a writer.  Their level of shock increases when I mention the publishing success I’ve been blessed with.  Granted, I am pretty young to have done as well as I’m doing right now.  But I don’t think age is the main factor in their surprise.  My appearance is a good-sized leap away from average; I look more like a bartender than a bard.  I think the strangers seem uncomfortable that I’ve done well for myself in a highly competitive and often deeply academic field because  a woman in her early twenties with more than a few large visible tattoos and facial piercings isn’t someone they typically take very seriously.   But that’s where my empathy for their confusion ends.  Maybe this is due to my lifetime of friendship with crusty misanthropes, tattooed barflies, and other such misfits, but it really gets my goat that appearance and “refined” language are seen as requirements for a successful writer, or an intelligent person in general.  Show me your stuffy, elbow-patched ideal of a poet, and I call probably show you five writers just as talented who might be mistaken for carnies.   Even if you think they don’t or can’t exist, they do.  And they are no less brilliant at writing because of their unconventional appearances.

I wouldn’t take such serious issue with this line of thought if it didn’t show up across the board in academia.  Anyone who’s gone to college has had at least one “wacky” professor who exists beyond the norm, but for the most part, academia is pretty inhospitable to those who do not exist within that elbow-patched brainiac norm.  (Not that I don’t like elbow patches, but they have certain connotations.)  When I was finishing up my last semester at school, I had a few wonderful professors encouraging me to continue my studies, and a big reason I didn’t is because of judgments people made about me based on the way I look.  I wish I’d handed every skeptic of my intelligence level a book by Daphne Gottlieb or Rachel McKibbens or Nick Flynn or any number of hard-swaggering, big-brained rock-n-roll poets.

When I finished college, I had a teal mohawk, a septum ring, several large (and visible) tattoos, and a serious chip on my shoulder.  Anytime I spoke eloquently about literature or politics, people seemed genuinely surprised that I was not only a reasonable person, but a well-educated one fully capable of putting them in their place in spite of my somewhat-wild appearance.  It made me almost as angry as people assuming that because I am a woman, I couldn’t possibly have anything interesting to say.  To think that these kind of stereotypes exist when we close our eyes and picture our favorite writers makes me sick.

This disconnect between what the general public assumes writers should look like and what we actually look like isn’t only a poet’s problem.  Isabel Slone writes very eloquently about why spending most of her freelancer’s day in pajamas does not disqualify her from being a worthy fashion writer:

Frankly, it doesn’t matter what I look like, as long as the work gets done. …The grand dame of fashion journalism Cathy Horyn, is also a really boring dresser. Horyn may be fashion critic for the New York Times, sitting front row at fashion shows, but she isn’t there to be seen. She is there to have an unobstructed view of the collections being presented, so she can write about them with honesty and clarity.

Unfortunately, when it comes to stereotypes about appearance, things are rarely honest or clear.   The assumptions made about appearance are not only vehicles for racism, classism, and sexism; they make writing into an elite club that can only be accessed by those who “have the look.”  In Sloane’s article on the homogeneous nature of street style fashion blogs for the Toronto Standard, she discusses how the sameness is really just another form of advertising:

I started blogging before Susie Bubble, before Tavi, and I have never achieved insider status or anything close to it. For example, in October 2011, FLARE.com created a slideshow with 22 bloggers wearing Canadian fashion. Picture after picture featured a blandly “fashionable” aesthetic that appeals to people with too much money, not enough taste and a charge account at Holt Renfrew. …I remained embittered that none of the creative Canadian fashion blogs that I read and love (Nice and ShinyPull TeethCalur Villade) were included either. Whoever is creating this content seems to be aiming for mass appeal over unique perspectives.

Slone’s criticism can be applied to the larger writing world, in that the day we start having expectations about what a writer should or should not look like is the day we are deaf to innovative voices simply because they do not fit our idea of what a writer needs to be.  What should a writer look like?  What should an artist look like?  I know plenty of people who belong to both categories, and there is no one visual trend I could describe for you.  Every race makes art, as well as every permutation of gender, every political background, and every level of intelligence.  They all wear different clothes, listen to different music, have diverse vocabularies of both words and experiences.  There is no one-size-fits-all image of an artist we can use to recognize the creative class on the street.  It is not unreasonable to have expectations, but you need to be willing to question why those expectations exist.  Does stature or speech pattern tell us much about the capabilities of somebody’s mind?  Not even close.

David Foster Wallace came to me in a dream for a posthumous book release and I knew it was him because of his words on the page, their cadences, the thematic concerns.  When a writer has found his voice, that is how he can be recognized.  Not by height or weight or style of dress, but by the words he makes.  That is how we know writers.  Because they put words in rows on a page.  That is the face of a writer that should be the one most important to their audience: the face that changes and becomes more whole with every chapter.

Writing In The Fourth Dimension

With my birthday fast-approaching (tomorrow, if you want to throw confetti in the air wherever you may be), I’ve been thinking a lot about what I want out of the next year of my writing life.  Since last birthday, I’ve done a fair amount of publishing and started editing and blogging at Side B, all things I can be exceedingly proud of.  I’m not yet halfway through my twenties, and I am shopping around a chapbook manuscript and celebrating the releases of friends’ books (shameless plug–check out Nicole Terez Dutton’s If One of Us Should FallI guarantee you will not regret it) and their new lives as MFA students.  All of it is lovely–everyone should be so lucky as I am, surrounded by talented people writing their hearts out.

deranged writing face, circa 2010

deranged writing face, circa 2010

But I don’t feel ready to apply for any MFA program, and I don’t yet have a full length poetry collection ready to send around to agents and contests.  I also don’t think it’s wise to rush into either avenue.  If I were to go back to school just for the sake of going back to school, I wouldn’t get as much out of it as I possibly could.  Same goes for putting together a full length collection just because I can; I’ve got more than enough poems to fill a collection, but I want my first collection to be cohesive and necessary, not slap-dash and forced.

I am writing and editing and submitting my work consistently, even constantly, but the forward motion from this constant practice is almost imperceptible.  Waiting hundreds of days for a form rejection letter from whatever journal or magazine can be deeply demoralizing, especially when publishing is the only tangible sign of success I have to lean on lately.  Some days, I get intensely frustrated with the status quo of waking up early to work my 9 to 5, only to arrive home to spend 3 or 4 more hours at my real job.  This is a space of writerly limbo, one where you know what work you have to do, but the work that pays the bills (in my case, an office job requiring zero creativity) gets in the way of your creative self.  Forty hour weeks are a necessary evil for me and writing is the second shift I start after clocking those forty hours.  The only way I can see to carve out more time and space for my writing life is to spend the next year working towards fellowships and residencies.  Being awarded the money or space (or both) to take care of my writing self seems to be the only way to bridge the gap I feel myself straddling.

There is the Ruth Lilly Prize, and the Amy Lowell travel scholarship, which pays you to stay out of the United States for a year.  Both receive countless applicants and are highly competitive, but I am determined to throw my hat into both rings just to see how far I make it in the selection process.  The classifieds in Poets & Writers Magazine are also a good place to start if you’ve never considered applying for funding for a project, as they have comprehensive listings of the various grants, fellowships, and prize money available to the common word hustler.  I dig through them every issue, shortlisting anything that seems promising.  But my new true love I found by accident through a friend’s Facebook post on architecture: the Djerassi residencies.  The post talked about new individual studios designed by Cass Calder Smith, and after scrolling through the gorgeous interior photographs and then hopping over to the organization’s main website, I was completely sold.  I have serious love for the Bay Area, and though the residencies are unpaid, just the idea of escaping to my own minimalist space sequestered in the bristly, rolling hills of Northern California to do my best work gives me butterflies.

As a birthday present to myself, I will be picking out 5 super competitive residencies and fellowships to apply to and following through to the very end.  Because the best gift I can give myself for my 23rd is the time and space I need to keep writing.

Creative Cross-Training

A few days ago, Alex Dimitrov (founder of New York’s Wilde Boys Salon, and author of the e-chapbook American Boys) tweeted, “Things we do to stay creative.  Tell Me yours.”

I’ve written little in the way of what I’d refer to as “creative work” this summer.  A few thousand word of prose here, a few bar-napkin-scrawl verses of poetry there, but not much in the way of polished, cohesive work.  Submissions went out to magazines and journals at a snail’s pace, to little fanfare.  But these are the least important things one can do to stay creative.

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Whenever someone asks me what my advice is for churning up new ideas, I give a little speech about creative cross-training.  If you are solely a verbal artist, try your hand at something visual.  You can’t draw?  Sure you can.  Drawing, much like writing, is about training the eye and the hand to have conversations.  Sure, at first the results may be shaky nonsense, but the harder you look something, the easier it becomes to render.  See things from all sides.  Draw every view of the places you see every day–the seats on the subway, the tree branch bisecting your bedroom window, the water glass you keep on your desk at work.  Training your eye to view things as the sum of many parts will give you new sensibilities the next time you sit down to write.  You will better understand how the small details build into a bigger, moving picture.  This exercise is especially effective if you feel like your images haven’t been as strong as you’d like.

This next one is almost redundant, but keeping a notebook is an invaluable tool if you’re stuck for ideas.  I’m beyond certain that somebody somewhere has proven by now that the simple act of moving pen across page (especially now that most people predominantly write by typing) activates you brain in a way that other activities can’t.  The physicality of writing longhand–the momentum and movement, the weight of the pen, the way words look as they are conjured on the page–always helps me tease out concepts I’m not quite sure about.  And a free write can be a window into new ways of thinking, especially when you misspell, skip words, or can’t decipher what you’ve scrawled.  Oftentimes, when I go back to read a passage of longhand text, I find unintentionally off-kilter turns of phrase that inspire new associations and images.  But even if you don’t have time to wring your brain out on page, the next best thing is keeping brief notes.  A list of seemingly random thoughts can end up a goldmine of ideas, depending on how each snippets interacts with its bedfellows.

And, of course, you cannot be a writer without first being a reader.  Remember, reading is not limited to “literary” work.  Magazine articles can turn your idea of prose on its ear if you only ever sit awhile with long-form fiction.  Poems and those internet round-up lists have more in common than you might think.  Your next story or sonnet could be lurking between the lines of a breaking news story, or in the margins of a cookbook.  Watching TV or a movie is another act of reading, albeit a more passive one.  But more important than reading in the first place is hashing out what you’ve read.  Talk about what excites you in your reading to whoever will listen.  As you speak, things will crystallize.  In this same way, talking about your own work with a friend or small workshop group will help you chase down the ways to make it the best piece it can be.  The more people you have to bounce ideas off of, the more fully formed your ideas will be.  This isn’t to say you should be making art by committee; you should just feel comfortable articulating what it is you enjoy about art, as well as what it is you want your art to accomplish.  The more articulate you can be, the more your creative energy will benefit.

On Success (Not Yours, Silly)

In writing on rejection, I forgot to mention something that can end up feeling quite a bit worse, especially if you are surrounded by other writers.  Success.  But not your own.  The success of people close to you.  The success of people you admire, or the ones you workshop with.  The success of friends of friends, the success of frenemies, the success of the person you took a class with once in college who was rude to everyone and wrote mostly incoherent language work that you didn’t get and didn’t want to get.  The success of somone you met once in passing who seemed perfectly nice, but who you villainize in retrospect when you find they’ve gotten an advance from a publisher who will not answer your query letters.  Even the success of complete strangers who have done nothing wrong but be from the same age bracket and general socio-economic status as you while happening to catch a break where their art is concerned.  How do we rise above professional jealousy when it all feels so personal?

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I’ll be candid: the moment I most feared repeating in my own life when I first saw Girls was not my parents cutting me off (I’ve paid my own way for a good chunk of time), nor my best friend and I having a blow out and disbanding our post-collegiate treehouse of mutual angst (been there, sort of), but the moment when Hannah’s college classmate has her book release and Hannah obsesses over the inexplicable point that her rival’s book means  Hannah’s own writing is somehow unpublishable.  Except that it wasn’t inexplicable to me.  I have felt exactly that way about people I’ve not spoken to for longer than three sentences.  If they’ve been rewarded, what reward could possibly be left for me?  Hell, I’ve had full on personal crises over other people going on tour to cooler places than I have, and I can assure you, there is no glory in being a touring poet other than the glory you invent for yourself after the fact to justify your empty bank account.

I watched that episode alternately peering through parted fingers and chewing on my hand, because I too have been wildly green-eyed with jealousy over something so intensely arbitrary as the publishing success of others.  My moans of self-hatred while watching this particular bit of HBO are common to many artists my age hoping for recognition and finding the road to the brass ring not only impossible to gain access to, but also clogged with dopplegangers whom we wish to kill and rob of their success (if only figuratively) so that we may be the ones elliciting such jealousy.  Greener grass and all that, even when we know nothing of how hard or long a person worked to get to where they are.

I think this particular brand of un-researched jealousy is a probable explanation for why everyone was all a-Twitter about Girls‘ success in the first place.  Lena Dunham and I are essentially the same age.  The two of us are also the same age as, or at least from same generation as,  many of the women (and men) who wrote essays eviscerating the show.  I’m not saying that some of the criticism wasn’t warranted–the lack of diversity on the show was an issue for me too, but lack of diversity is an issue for me on all of television, so there’s that–but what I am saying is that Dunham caught a lot of that flack because, well, girls will be girls, and it’s difficult in the current social culture for young women (and young people in general) to see other young women (people) succeed without feeling like they need to cut them down.  Our moment in history is one of scarcity, right?  We hear every day that there aren’t enough jobs to go around, at least not ones that will afford us the lives we’ve dreamed of.  Mine and Lena’s generation is one of an over-educated, over-qualified workforce where everybody has a creative project they’re trying to get off the ground to offset the frustrating/mind-numbing ways they spend their day (brewing coffee, toiling at an unpaid internship, or, if we’re lucky, pulling down an actual salary from the isolating hell of data entry).  In light of this, anyone who is visibly living out our dream seems like an enemy.  How dare Lena Dunham have an opportunity to show her creative work to the world?!  How dare she make imperfect, highly effective art with the backing of a major TV network known for it’s tradition of thought-provoking series?!  How dare she have what we all so desperately clamor for: a platform from which to provide commentary on her own experience and the experience of others, a platform that pays and opens doors for further successes?!!!

When it’s put like that, who seems entitled?  All of us who do the complaining, that’s who.  Like I said, there was plenty of legitimate criticism glommed onto all the Dunham-hating.  But that takes a backseat to the fact that we have created a social climate where we’d rather see others fail than work harder to increase our own success.  By constantly repeating that the economy is bad and the publishing industry is failing and there is little room left for ascendant figures in the arts, we perpetuate a reductive and defeatist outlook that only soothes to serve our injured egos.  I’ll admit, I read the press on Girls before I watched the show, and I was scared that when I finally sat down to watch it, it really would be as offensive as everybody claimed it was.  What a delight to see, instead, that someone my age has been given an opportunity and done well with it.  Dunham’s show, though narrow, has routinely excellent moments.  And it is narrow because the world of the characters is narrow.  I have friends who moved to Brooklyn after college.  This is what their lives are like–insulated from the community they work, rent, and party in–and without setting up a baseline for comparison, Dunham couldn’t hope to ever tackle issue of gentrification or “privilege” without treating her series as a soapbox.  Also, did nobody watch HBO’s other (now-defunct) New York twenty-somethings dramedy How To Make It In America?  Why no complaints about diversity or narcissism there?  Kid Cudi, one of the only persons of color I saw onscreen for more than a moment during the show’s entire run, was playing a dog-walking drug dealer.  Seriously?!  Anyway, I digress.

Jealousy over success is a natural inclination when we see somebody with something we want, but it’s important to remember that the feeling will not fuel your own success.   It may seem like an emotion that you can harness and use as a kick in the ass towards your own goals, but it is poisonous if you actually want to get anywhere.  If you spend enough time worrying about what other people have achieved ahead of you and finding flaws that evidence they should not have done so well, what time is left to make your own work the best it can possibly be? Cheryl Strayed, in her Dear Sugar advice column on the Rumpus, has this advice to us green-eyed monsters about keeping our lesser instincts at bay:

When you feel like crap because someone has gotten something you want you force yourself to remember how very much you have been given. …someone else’s success has absolutely no bearing on your own.

And even better, she acknowledges that the real imbalance does not live in someone else’s success existing over our own, but in the way the world treats the production of art.

A lot of artists give up because it’s just too damn hard to go on making art in a culture that by and large does not support its artists. But the people who don’t give up are the people who find a way to believe in abundance rather than scarcity.

Again, the issue of scarcity comes up.  I think that the idea that there is a limited audience for many artistic mediums is founded in fact, but also blown way out of proportion.  As far as writing is concerning, there are literally thousands of literary journals publishing on a regular basis, and at least hundreds of small presses beyondthe big New York houses.  Want to celebrate success?  Become a better reader.  The more broadly you read, the more you learn.  You see what you respond to in the writing of others and hone your sense of what a good piece of writing is.  You also see what kind of work journals and presses are looking for, and what they are missing.  This allows you to better place your own work.

Making art is intrinsically tied to entertainment and commerce.  Sure, we all hope our writing or painting or film or whatever it is we spend time toiling to create is entertaining.  But ultimately, we don’t get to decide who buys it, nor can we control whether or not our stories get seen at all if we are too busy cutting down someone else’s talent, perseverance, and sure, dumb luck of the draw.  You’ll be better off spending the energy you use on hating Lena Dunham or your ex-best friend from graduate school or the poem you’re sure replaced yours in the latest issue ofThe New Yorker on something like making more of your own art, and making it better than you thought yourself capable of.

On Rejection

You capture a fleeting moment of clarity in your notebook, then explode it into a longer-than-fleeting brush with something maybe close to genius (you hope) that belongs on printed pages somewhere, in ink that did not come from a pen held by your own poor-writer hand.  So you send it out to a handful of the magazines you like to read.  The online ones, the print ones, the ones you browse to kill time at your office job, the ones you see named on the acknowledgements page of you favorite author’s new collection, the ones you know will never take you because they have a slush pile the size of the tallest building in your city, every place you can think of.  You know that somebody, anybody, might see the small spark of something worthy in your words, so you send them out and cross your fingers.

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With crossed fingers, you check your email compulsively for months, which is logistically difficult to do with crossed fingers and a standard keyboard, but not impossible.  You check Submittable to see if you submission is listed as “In Progress” even thoguh you know that some journals never list anything as “In Progress” even if they’ve already read what you sent them.  You check the journal statistics on Duotrope.  Standard acceptance time, standard rejection time.  Related journals, and how long their response times.  The response times of the fastest markets, and the slowest markets.  The paying markets.  The for-free markets.  Even the markets listed, ominously, as DEAD.  You read all of the spreadsheet nonsense you can stomach.  ALL the statistics, so many lines of percentages that your eyes glaze over.  You even read that page where they list recent responses by date of response, the one that no one checks, because no one is quite so obsessed as your are.  You curse the jerk who checked off the brag box in their profile, because now you have a name for the person whose work has been accepted ahead of your submission.  Screw you, person with a more “writerly” name than mine, you say.

You decide you’re being mean and rueful, so you watch a bunch of internet television and make all your favorite snacks and waste an afternoon you could’ve spent editing consoling yourself with the image of editors everywhere passing your work around their editorial office (do people even have these anymore?) with all the good parts circled and hilighted, except that the whole piece is circled and hilighted.  Your entire poem or story or article is a bright, shining, neon yellow ord of awesome that they are so over-joyed to have seen that they’ve simply forgotten to email you back to tell you they’re building an entire issue around you.

All of this seems very, very reasonable until you check your email one more time before going to bed that night, only to find a curt, ugly, form rejection letter staring back at you.  How do you feel now?  Crushed?  Sure.  Defeated?  Absolutely.

But should you?  I’ve been struggling with this question myself.  Where do you go from a rejection letter?

I know writers who obsessed over form letters, insisting they can imply differing levels of interest.  One sentence in response to your work means who cares; several sentences clsoing with a “please submit again” sentiment means almost, but not right now; and then there’s the ambiguous wording that trips all of us, regardless of philosophy.  I try not to buy into the close-reading reaction to rejection letters.  I try not to buy into rejection letters at all.  And here’s why: if you are writing for someone else’s approval, you are doing it for the wrong reason.

Maybe that seems a bit harsh, seeing as we’ve all just been slapped in the face with a terse “no, thank you” message, but I mean it.  There is no perfect journal or magazine that will make you feel like you have arrived as a writer.  The real reason we panic when a rejection letter turns up is because it calls our own judgement into question.  Suddenly, a piece I thought was ready to be read by those without direct access to my external harddrive has bounced back into my arms, unapproved.  The fact that it has returned un-lauded not only calls the quality of my writing into question, but my judgement.  The editor seems to be telling me, this isn’t done yet or,there’s no space for your thoughts here, or, worst of all, did you really think we would print this crap?

Speaking from an editorial point of view, rejecting worthy work is one of the hardest parts of my job.  I rarely have to overhaul a piece I choose to publish, so my real work is weeding through submissions and putting together a poetry component of the magazine that I feel best represents what the quality and candor that Side B is all about.  Never once have I read a submission and thought, why the hell did this person think this was worthy of my time?  I am lucky in that.  But beyond luck, I like to think that my position as an editor is not unique.  Publishing is in a place where there is a vast imbalance in resources: magazines receive thousands of submissions when they can accomodate less than fifty pieces of writing per issue.  Not everyone can make the cut even on the best of days.  And on the worst of days, magazines are soliciting submissions from poets they’d like to publish in addition to taking unsolcited submissions, which narrows the field even further.

So how do prop ourselves up in the face of rejection?  Read.  Read more poems and stories and articles.  Seek out your favorite writers, wherever they may be, and read who gets published next to them.  Discover new favorite writers.  Read interview on craft, read fluff pieces on the weekend box office offerings, read the stack of books next to your bed that you’ve been dancing around.  Ask your friends what the best sentence they’ve ever read is, and seek out that sentence.  Go to readings and listen to the way words sound out loud.  Go to concerts and listen the way words sound when sung.  Fill your eyes until they’re nearly spilling.  And then get back to your desk, and give your full eyes to your own work.  It will look different when revisited.  Write a new draft.  And another after that.  Show it to a friend.  Revise.  Resend.  Do not give up.  This “getting published” thing is not possible if you can’t take a step back, thicken your skin, and dive back into the fray again and again and again.

Liner Notes: Madonna, Poetic Activism, and Writing Sex With James Caroline

Mary of Christ

If you cut night’s throat
she would tumble from the open neck
come steaming
purring at tables end
or bed post
or desk chair.
Silent stepping and wet lipped
curling up to your wish
the way most men
believe in nothing.
How they forget Mamas milk
trade soft pillows
for steel
for rigid fucking in bought rooms
for things that break.

Kissing the hollow dip
in your throat
she whispers
I remember when
you were a bloody
crying thing—
soft-dicked and hungry
for the idea of my body.
I dreamt you perfect.
Look at you now
barely flesh,
always staring at the gasp
of storm clouds,
at the screaming promise of
your Father
calling you home
with a sharpening stone.

The work of Boston-based poet and performer James Caroline is a rare mix of literary craft and vulnerability. With the intensity of his live shows garnering comparisons to Patti Smith, James has performed on three continents, competed in three National Poetry Slams, and represented the Cantab Lounge in the first ever Individual World Poetry Slam. He has twice been voted Best Local Author in aBoston Phoenix poll and won multiple Cambridge Poetry Awards for Best Slam Poet, Male and Best Erotic Performance Poet.

James has facilitated workshops and performed as a guest at Hampshire College, Emerson College, Sarah Lawrence College, Berklee College of Music, Brandeis University, Mount Ida College, and Bilkent University in Ankara, Turkey, among others. He taught and was a featured artist at The Saints and Sinners Literary Festival in New Orleans as well as the Atlanta Queer Literary Festival.


During the spring of 2004, he directed and performed in Musician and the Muse, a performance of poetry and music at the Cambridge Multicultural Arts Center, featuring Nicole Terez, Tom Daley, Regie Gibson, and Iyeoka Okoawo. He was also commissioned to write the vocal text and act as artistic sound director for the Naked Truths; Voices of Shame, Sexuality, and Eating Disorders in Women, a play performed at HERE multimedia center in Manhattan. Selected publication credits include The Lifted Brow, The Cascadia Review, Quarry, Subliminal, A Face to Meet the Faces: An Anthology of Contemporary Persona Poetry, and Painted Bride Quarterly.
He is currently working on a collection of poems, Live, From the Killing Jar, and a novel in verse based on the myth of Dionysus.

What follows is the second interview in a series called  Liner Notes.  This collection of conversations digs for a poem’s point of view, the politics at play in the given piece, and the writer’s ideas about craft and community.

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People frequently say that writing about sex is difficult to do well, but you come back to it a lot in your work.  Is that something you do consciously, or is it just what comes up when you write?

I think that being queer–being gay, being a faggot–I learned really quickly that doing poems that are sexual, or about sex, or sexualized, was political. I think it’s more effective in checking people on homophobia. When you’re actively talking about rimming a guy’s asshole or fucking a guy then you can really see who’s uncomfortable.  I’ve done a couple [performances] where the audience was with [the poem] until they realized I was talking about a guy. I’m not going to say that I enjoy that, but it’s interesting.

I love to push buttons.  I have a lot of poems where [doing] that was the goal.  Consciously, I wanted to push people out of their comfort zones.  It’s not fun, but I love when that happens to me.  I really get off on it.  It’s not fun, but it makes me think.  I also like sex. I’ve always been a hedonist and a sensualist.  I think that’s why I cook.  You know what I mean?  Food is such a wonderful pleasure.

Do you find that straight writers who try to address sex often have a much harder time with it than queer writers?

Let’s be clear here–straight male writers.

No matter how we look at it, right now we’re still a racist, misogynist culture. Even with the best intentions, [writing about sex] can still come across as a little creepy or sometimes a lot misogynist. I hate the word “privilege”, but we do still live in a patriarchy where strong women are seen as bimbos or ogres.

Reading submissions for the upcoming gender, sex, and sexuality issue was a little dangerous in that way.  I came across a lot of writing that seemed certain it was being progressive in talking about sexual empowerment that really just flattened the issue to the point of misogyny. But that is the danger of writing about sex–that it can be cartoonish.  Or on the other side of that, it seems angry. Most of the poems about sex I’ve had success with are my “angry” pieces.  Do you find people expect that of you as well?

A lot of my poems that are sexual in nature are angry, or at least aggressive.  I don’t know why that is.  Maybe because we’re told that it’s not right.  There’s still this push in queer culture for the white picket fence and the need to prove that we’re just as normal as straight people.  I’m not into that at all.  And I’ve never written a sex poem in the voice of a woman. I don’t even know how to research that…I do have the “Mary of Christ” poem, but that’s more about how mothers are sexual.  [I've had friends say to other friends] “Jamie is kind of bored by gender, so the fact that it’s important to you just doesn’t register with him. It’s going take awhile for him to understand that…”

It’s funny that you say that you’re bored by gender but sex is so interesting. Can you elaborate?

I hate it; it’s so cheesy.  So much of my writing and how I live and the world around me and my expectations were dictated by the music that I got into and the family that I grew up in, and when shit goes down we come together like good old southern Indiana people, just vicious when it comes to standing up for one another. Between my mom and my sisters, I just thought men were pussies. And technically, what I should say is that they are big giant sets of testicles.  Hal Sparks has this bit where he talks about how we call people who are weak “pussies” and we call people who are gutsy “ballsy”, and he’s like “my balls are the weakest part of me” and vaginas are malleable, they can take it… I was like amen, yes it’s true.  But anyway, I grew up with these strong women.

Most people get into grunge but I discovered PJ Harvey, just this really raw guitar, and Patti Smith, and none of those women make a big deal about their gender.  It’s not used as a weapon.  It’s used, but in a really brilliant, intelligent way.  And even Madonna.  I related to her anger.  I just feel like she was really bored [with gender roles], like, I’m gonna play your game but I’m gonna win.  And she’s a total narcissist, but god, she changed everything.  And David Bowie, talk about fuck gender.  God love him.  I grew up a punk rock kid, and most of my friends came out as bisexual really early on and then later came out as gay.

Growing up, gender wasn’t a big deal, and coming out wasn’t particularly hard for me, but it wasn’t about shocking people, it was really about claiming my own space, aggressively, as I do everything.  I understand that gender is important because we live in a world where it is part of the dynamic and part of the culture, and you have to pick, right?  But it’s so boring to have to pick.

I took a bunch of AP courses in high school where we did all this reading on nature vs. nurture and the one thing I’ll never forget is little girls are spoken to more, little boys are held more.  Isn’t that weird? I think gender is nurture.  Too much really.  It is cool to see tomboyism really encouraged but I don’t think we’re going to see little boys being feminized for along time, if ever.  Although there are a lot of [feminized] aspects of the gay scene that drive me insane–the music, the clothes–that are very feminized, and I never wanted to be a part of that.

Isn’t that what it comes down to, at some point, [that you're] just attracted to someone because they are just vital, they have all the qualities you respect, and it’s not just about gender or first impression? I’m proud to say that the people I am close with sexualize that [vitality].

I’ve encountered a definition of queer writing that says it is characterized by speakers with an indeterminate gender. Would you agree with that statement?

I don’t know. To be fair, I don’t read a lot of queer writing, especially not gay male erotica. I did a reading for this book called Pulp.  It was all pieces of gay pulp fiction.  It was a blast.  There was some amazing stuff in it.   It’s like Anne Rice on crystal meth.

I don’t really mean writing for gays, I mean writing that happens to be by queer writers.

I haven’t encountered a lot of writing I’d categorize that way.  To be honest, a lot of my queer friends are doing confessional work, so I feel like I always know what gender their speaker is.

Do you think your gender functions as a signifier in your work or is it more about your sexuality?

It depends.  In the poem in the issue, “Blame It On the Song,” that’s where that poem began.  I was exploring the difference between those two things, and the tension between the two.  In college, I got really into this band called Songs: Ohia.  Jason Molina [the singer] is this country boy from Indiana who has the voice of a Marlboro-smoking angel.  That’s what I’m talking about at the start of the poem.

You come back to religious imagery a lot, as well as mythological imagery.  You have a lot of Catholic imagery and then there’s also the hedonist imagery, so that creates a tension in your work.

I mean I don’t think you have to memorize prayers to talk to god. And I waver back and forth about whether or not I believe in a god or gods, but I feel really connected to ritual.  How I started writing about Dionysus was when I was in Turkey, I was going to write about Apollo and a friend of mine was like, “No, this is your guy,” and I was like, “yeah, yeah, sensualism, depravity, of course,” but then I looked into the mythology and it blew me away.

Would you say you use myth and religious ritual as an access point for your life?

Yes, definitely. “Mary of Christ” is definitely about my mother in a lot of ways.

How did your poetry get you involved in activism?

That was an accident really. I was involved in the slam community, and I hadn’t really encountered a lot of homophobia but then…I did a couple of shows and workshops at Brandeis and I got asked to be a part of this rally right when Prop 8 was passed.  A lot people were just scared and hurt, and obviously something like that would never get passed here [in Masschusetts].  It was this huge rally, and from there I got involved with sit-ins and learned how to take care of myself legally and what to do when cops are involved. It was just inevitable, being someone who’s not afraid of being pissed, not just for myself, but on behalf of others.  It didn’t feel like just a platform for me, it was for everybody.  I wish there were more ways for poets to get involved, but I don’t think poetry by itself is activism. A lot of the work I hear that calls itself political is simply not challenging anything or anybody.

When you got involved in slam, did you encounter a lot of political work?

This kid at the Lizard Lounge did a poem called “Why I Hate Sodomites” and two of my friends started crying.  The next week I came back and slammed a poem called “Smoke.”  ….I got up to perform and thought I’m going to get my ass kicked but I started doing this poem and these kids started jumping up and I thought they were going to hit me, but then they started cheering and I was like, “Wow, this is what slam can be like.”  And then this wonderful girl who had been with the guy who read that hateful piece got up and did this poem about what she wished he had done,which was apologize.  A friend of mine apparently went on a date with this guy recently, and he’s now a devout Muslim who gets colonics, so go figure.

I’d been this stupid punk kid in a small town and it was cool to have a platform to be pissed.  One of the reasons people took to my work is that I am willing to be vulnerable and I always try to humanize what I’m examining in a poem.  The reason a lot of political poems fail in performance and on the page is because people fail to humanize what they’re talking about.

I won my first eight slams.  I came out of the gates quick.  And I got a lot of respect from people who I really respected, and I started going to the Cantab  and that was another layer to it.

What would you say the difference is between the readings at the Lizard Lounge and Boston Poetry Slam at the Cantab Lounge?

How they’re run. Lizard lounge is really sexy; there’s music, it’s a lot more laid back.  And then you have the Cantab, which is run like boot camp.  It really is a writer’s community, whereas lizard is more of a community.  Lizard is more of a respite to me, and Cantab is more like work.  There are good things about both, which is why they’ve both been so successful.

What do you think the new reading at Radio brings to the table for the poetry scene in the Boston area?

The workshop is the best part I think.  There are a lot of younger people who are new and really hungry. We’re doing more than just poetry there: we’re doing one man shows and musicians starting in June.  And maybe at some point in the future, we could find a venue that’s open a little later where we could have a variety show, kind of like Tourettes Without Regrets.

Coloring Outside The Lines

Watsky (and audience) at The Middle East Downstairs in Cambridge, MA, July 12, 2012
Watsky (and audience) at The Middle East Downstairs in Cambridge, MA, July 12, 2012

To call mainstream hip-hop and poetry synonymous would be outright laughable.  I can’t imagine Waka Flocka Flame getting up at an open mic and reading a recently-penned verse from his spiral-bound notebook any more than I can imagine Billy Collins reading over a beat.  But in spite of serious differences, contemporary hip-hop and poetry often can be found coming from the same throat.

Probably best known for a viral video that got him featured on Ellen Degeneres’ daytime talk show, George Watsky is a poet and hip-hop artist who was featured on Def Poetry at twenty.  He competed as a member of the 2009 Emerson College CUPSI team, the 2009 Providence National Poetry Slam team, and hosted the finals of CUPSI 2010 at Boston’s Cutler Majestic Theater.  Oh, and you can find his albums here.

Impressive resume aside, the man knows how to put words together, beats or no beats.  His work is impressive beyond the his virtuoso-speed and linguistic grace because it uses the hip-hop constructs of puff-chested bravado and free association to construct a persona that is completely outside the typically MC posture of hyper-masculinity, which hinges on sexual conquest and physical violence.  Lyrically, Watsky is more about intelligent, exuberant wordplay than self-inflation.  In abandoning the mantle traditional hip-hop manhood for a healthy dose of self-deprecation, he doesn’t err on the Drake side of the spectrum either, eschewing brooding over his flaws in favor of celebrating misfit status as part of the joy of being human.  To call his songs and poems uplifting would be accurate almost all of the time; he is somehow able to speak frankly about where we fail as people, while still advocating for authenticity and a strong sense of self, whoever that self may be.  And the fact that he always looks like he’s having the time of his life can’t hurt either.

I often find myself wondering if the common person is built to appreciate poetry.  I’ve read countless articles stating that fewer than 10% of adults in America identify as poetry readers, and at every performance I’ve ever done myself, at least one person has come up to me and told that they had no idea that poems had a life beyond loathed high school textbooks.  I constantly have to remind myself that my group of friends is unique in our obsessive scouring of journals, podcasts, open mics, and workshop groups for a new voice that articulates a feeling we couldn’t quite get right ourselves.  And then I go to a Watsky show, where I am crammed into a crowd of roughly 500 people who not only know the words to his songs, but can “sing along” to his poems as well.  When I saw him perform last night for the first time in several years, his set was exciting not because of the lyrical content of his songs or his impressive style of delivery (though those are both reasons I showed up in the first place) but because he performed three consecutive spoken word pieces sans backing band and the audience was rapt.

This isn’t one of the poems he did last night, but I once saw him peel himself off a hotel room floor in a cipher to perform it.  It is entitled (aptly) “Drunk Text Message To God”.

Not all hip-hop is poetry, and not all rappers can be called poets, but when you find a person riding the line between those two genres and remaining so impeccably themselves, you should probably download their entire discography and study hard.

Sonics

Do you remember how important bedtime stories used to be?  Maybe I’m alone in this (or perhaps just getting old) but every night before my sisters and I were shut into our shared attic bedroom until the sun came back, my mother would read to us.  We took turns picking out our favorites–Chrissie loved Skunk at Hemlock CircleKaitlin had the entire Muppet Babies collection near-memorized, and I was more than partial to French offerings aboutorphans and certain controversial elephants, as well as everything ever written by Beatrix Potter.  What was read may have been negotiable, but reading aloud was not.

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Which is why it is so troubling to me that reading aloud happens rarely, if ever, in my adult life (and no, my boss reading the bullets on a Powerpoint slide during our monthly sales meeting does not count).   As a writer, I am chiefly concerned with telling stories.  And the sound of a story is just as important as the way it lives on the page, if not more important.  Many of the greats are described as having well-trained “ears”–and what does that mean, except that their sentences and dialogue just sound right?

Nine times out of ten, if I’m having trouble unraveling a problem in a piece, be it prose or poem, reading the bit aloud will point me in the right direction for revision.  Stories have a music that must be served, a music that simply won’t be heard if the words never leave the page.

The other night, during dinner, my partner and I took turns reading Don DeLillo’s Americana aloud to one another, and I was struck by how right it seemed.  So much of the dialogue seemed too clever for its own good flat on the page.  But when made audible, there was a playfulness I wouldn’t have found without recitation.  In this way, every piece of writing is a poem.  The sound of language when it rises off the page is the core of its vitality.  The stories we tell aloud are the ones that stay.

Liner Notes: Talking Nuclear Power, Research Writing, and Curie’s Radioactive Child with Sophia Holtz

Marie Curie to Radium

Once the cast-off, once the runt,
when nobody knew what to do with you
I dreamt you real, a missing element,
and called you up into radium salts, called you up
from the mines. I am the one who made you real,
little child, I made you solid, tangible: pulled you out
from under our microscopes, pulled you from particle and gas—
burned my body making you, but my body
was blistered proof when they wouldn’t believe
a woman could make such a thing come to life.
You were my first born, little candle.
Little poison. You lived in my blood,
made brittle my bones, murdered
my husband— but your light was new,
a promise. I had never held anything so warm.
In the days before I died, I kept you in a vial
by my bedside. Do you remember?
I used to call you my child.

Sophia Holtz grew up in New York and lives in Somerville, MA. She graduated from Hampshire College in 2011, where she first became interested in performing poetry, and has featured throughout the Northeast. She is currently working on expanding her thesis: a collection of poems about nuclear weapons testing, radioactivity, and atomic kitsch.

What follows is the first in a new series called  Liner Notes.  This collection of interviews digs for the roots of a piece of writing, the politics at play in a given piece, and the writer’s ideas about craft.

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What made you want to write this poem?

I started writing this poem last year, 2011, during my thesis at Hampshire College where I was trying writing a manuscript on nuclear weapons testing and radiation. I was reading The Making of The Atomic Bomb by Richard Rhodes.  It’s a very comprehensive history of how they got to the Manhattan project, what led to making the bomb. It goes all the way back to the discovery of radiation.

How did Curie fit into that history?

She discovered radium by distilling pitch blend, which is a uranium byproduct that they thought was completely useless. And then she found that it was more radioactive than uranium and spent years trying to make into a tangible thing because people didn’t believe her, that it was in existence.

Did the book explain why she wasn’t taken seriously? Was it a problem with scientific credibility, or was it her gender?

Making The Bomb didn’t explain that particular part of her story, but I read a biography, and I also read a graphic novel last year called Radioactive, which is beautiful and glows in the dark, and that book was more about her relationship with Pierre Curie, her husband who was also a scientist.  Nobody believed her.  People didn’t want to give her the Nobel Prize.  She was pretty constantly under attack, even after her husband died.  She was struggling her whole life for credibility. She was one of the first women doing what she was doing and that came with obvious challenges.

from Radioactive, by Lauren Redniss

from Radioactive, by Lauren Redniss

What is the difference between the current form of the poem and your original conception?

The first incarnation of “Marie Curie To Radium” was a lot longer.  I’d read all these biographies and I wanted to include all that information.  It was one of a few poems from that thesis project that I knew I would come back to later.

Did you leave the poem alone for a long time after you first wrote it?

I left it alone for a really long time.  In December, I was writing in a cafe, which I like because you can just focus on the task in front of you.  I opened up the document for the first time in awhile.  I wasn’t consciously thinking let’s rewrite this.  I copied and pasted the poem in a new document and completely refigured it.  It was extremely different before.  A lot more all over the place.

When you started reorganizing, what was the driving force in your impulse to rewrite?

I think I found the anger in the poem. Before it was more explanatory, because I felt like people should know about this.  The poem is Curie talking, and I don’t think she would’ve talked like this.  She was a very reserved person.  But it serves the story.  The amount of crap she was dealing with…I don’t think I thought “I need to find the anger in this poem,” but…

But the anger found you.

I reorganized it and adjusted the flow, for lack of a better word, of the sentence structure.  It was a lot more stiff. I think it got more fiery.

Do you find research to be a help or a hindrance to your writing process?

I think the problem with research is that you can get too caught up and it’s important to remember you’re not writing an essay and that not everything needs to go in.  What I used to do is, I would over-research and get all the information I could before I write the poem.  Now, I take a more bare bones approach and fact check after I’ve written the poem.  You can’t let the research stifle the poem, but you have to do the information justice.  I don’t know how to put this…you have to have control of the story because it is your poem, but you can’t appropriate the story.  At least you shouldn’t.  You have to be conscious of what you’re writing about.  You need to have the knowledge in the back of your head even if you don’t have exact testimony.

Is research more of a collaborative experience for you now than when you first started writing from historical accounts?

Yes, whereas before the research is what I was holding onto.  You need to be able to move more freely, at least with poetry.  You’re trying to get at the story, what people will connect to, without doing the human interest, bad newspaper thing.  There has to be a balance.

I remember a poem of yours about radiation, maybe one of the first, about the community surrounding Chernobyl being evacuated.  Was that the poem that led to your interest in writing about nuclear power?

I wrote that long before I started my thesis.  The summer after that Prypiat poem, I was researching the Shackleton expedition to the Antarctic.  I knew I wanted to write about history.

In trying to parse how Holtz ended up writing about nuclear weapons testing when she’d originally been researching a famous story of endurance, she and I derailed a bit, talking about how changing directions sometimes happens by accident.  She entered college with the intention of being pre-med, but got involved almost immediately in the Hampshire Slam Collective, a now-defunct campus organization that held weekly open mics with featured poets, workshopping sessions, and field trips to Massachusetts and New Hampshire poetry readings.

What do you think changed for you that made you want to write?

I stopped seeing it as something that I liked to do and it became something I could do with a group of people.

So community was important to your conception of being a writer?

Had it not been for the slam community I was a part of in college, I don’t think I would’ve thought of it as more than a hobby.  I started writing by just jotting down phrases on the subway.  I’d be coming home from high school and just jot down phrases on the train. Everything was very situational.  It had to be sparked by something.  I don’t write on the train anymore, at least not as much as I used to.  Coming home from work is a very different experience from coming from school. Coming home from school it’s like, “I need to leave, I’m really idealistic, I’m going to do all this weird hippie shit.”  Coming home from work, I just want to take a nap.

Does any part of your job inspire your writing?

Mostly my job is my job.  It’s so specific. So, no, not really.  I find, often, when I’m not working I read one of the Israeli papers, Haaretz, which is like the Israeli equivalent of the New York Times. I also read a blog called 972 magazine.  I try to keep tangentially aware, at least.

Do you do a lot of writing about Israel?

Not as much as I used to.  When I was first writing in college, I was coming into conflict with how I felt about the Israeli-Palestinian tensions in ways I had not prior to coming outside an all-Jewish community.

Do you think that made you think about the world differently?

It definitely changed things. We weren’t just culturally Jewish; I went to a Jewish day school.  It’s not that I’d never had to present my views on Israel and Jewish culture to non-Jews before. I had.  My last years of high school I was in a class on coexistence.  We had a partnership with a Muslim school in Queens.  We’d have these dialogues.  Having to present my views there was very different for me.  The same thing happened in college.  I suddenly encountered people who had no opinion at all.  And then there were other people who had very strong opinions on all sides of the issue.

When was the last time you wrote about your views on Israel?

I was going to Jerusalem for the first time in several years and wrote this very political poem, a rant, image heavy, but still a rant.  I don’t think I wrote it because I needed to have an opinions, but having people asking my opinion all the time was abrasive.  I look at that poem now and see it for what it is.

In your work, there’s always an undercurrent of political awareness.  But you never argue for the sake of arguing.  There’s a deep humanity to how you approach your subjects.  You walk around things in your poems, examine things from many sides.

That’s how I approach politics. I get angry, but I have a lot of trouble staying angry for an entire poem.  It’s exhausting.  I’m more interested in observation.

Do you find it comforting to dig through the history and find the humanity beneath the horrors?

It’s all humanity, but that’s not always a positive thing.  There’s a lot of fear; everyone’s really afraid.  Look at the first Bikini test–they detonated that bomb because they were afraid there was going to be a war with Russia immediately following the return of our soldiers from WW II.  I have a very concise opinion about nuclear weapons testing: it’s completely unnecessary.  Nuclear power, I have more complicated opinions about.  With what happened recently in Fukushima especially.  But I need to do more research on what is going in Japan.  I was trying to keep track when it happened, because the event coincided with the end of my thesis work.  I can’t engage with the history without engaging with the modern.  The history influenced what’s happening now.  I started by looking at Marie Curie but what was happening in the news really influenced the course my work took.  There was this article in the news about the bomb photographers in the Times, which prompted me to take out a book from the library.  And that inspired a number of poems.

So it was ekphrastic writing as well as research writing?

Yes. I’d look at photos from the tests and videos of the tests and write about that because I wasn’t quite sure where else to begin.

Did you interact with popular portrayals of nuclear weapons testing during your research?

I’ve been working on some poems that deal with B movies and nuclear kitsch.  That’s how the public deals with it.  They’re representations of fear.  The mushroom cloud has its own associations, but it’s hard to fathom how much damage these weapons do.  So we make up these monsters.  The idea of weapons of mass destruction is something we came of age with because of the language of the Bush administration.  But we’re desensitized to what that phrase actually means.  You see footage and photographs from these weapons in action; seeing, it’s incredible but it’s horrifying.  There’s some footage from these drills where they were trying to get soldiers used to the idea of charging out of trenches after the bomb has been dropped.  After the cloud has cleared, you see them going willingly into the affected area.  The army went into these islands and said, “Hey for the good of the world we need to test our weapons here so you need to leave.” And they still haven’t been able to return. You can’t eat the coconuts.  They had people come back at one point and people kept eating coconuts because they’re a staple food and then they realized that the coconuts were full of radiation.  Really horrible things.  When I perform these poems, people ask me a lot about nuclear power.  I don’t know a lot about nuclear power plants.  I don’t think it’s somewhere the poems are going.  I’m interested in the way culture reacts to the knowledge of radiation. So many action movies center around stopping the villain from detonating a nuclear weapon.  It’s something’s people were legitimately afraid of, especially during the Cold War on both sides. There’s a nuclear presence in our lives and there has been since the first test but we don’t realize the extent of the damage. Once you start looking for it, you realize the effect that nuclear power has on our lives. It’s in everything.

I Have To Tell You And This Is Not The Right Time

Before I ever read a poem by Tommy McCaffrey, I had a drunken argument with him about Kanye West‘s song, “Monster“.  By the end of the night, we had talked our way from Yeezy to Philip Levine and back again.  I found out he was a poet by this happy accident.  In the same accidental way, I found out about I Have To Tell You And This Is Not The Right Time (burst and bloom records) on Facebook.  During our brief, tangential acquaintance, I knew him best for the “nightly decapitations/at the bars/and the afternoons pig-piling beers” he mentions in “Eagerness”.  I’ll admit it: I wasn’t ready for this book when it found me.  But as each poem unfolds, unpretentious and concise (many of the verses end before making it halfway down a single page), its as if McCaffrey is arguing with his surroundings in the same way he argued with me.

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Where so many poets approach thick emotional content (death, grief, heartache, et al) with a level of fanfare that drowns out the humanity of an individual’s experience, McCaffrey wisely backs off.  This impulse gives “Anenome (partial work)”, an eight part study remembering the speaker’s father, enough distance from the loss it narrates for the reader to make her own decision about who the father is, if and how he failed the son, and exactly how important his absence might be when weighed against his presence.  None of the questions that come up while reading are answered for you.  None of the heavy emotional lifting is simplified by a cue from McCaffrey.  The result is an almost airy essence of loss, illuminating a truth very hard to get at: when someone imposing is suddenly absent, there’s a sense of space that’s as invigorating as it is depressing.  The speaker moves from “feeling nostalgic about the present” to describing how “being alive asks you for a lot of yourself”, observations which, out of context, seem heavily self-important.  Except that these same moments live alongside free pizza coupons, imagining what a bartender “would look like naked and inserting a VHS tape into/her VCR”, and an at-once sad and hysterical characterization of dead fathers as “the pitching coaches of our lives”.

His sense of humor soars in the sparse “Variations on Facebook” where the reader infers an increasingly horrific newsfeed based on a litany of gut reactions.  His sense of balance–when we need to laugh, sigh, or change directions entirely–is his best asset.  Reading and re-reading the collection, I am struck by how many times the poems are set in bars or speak of drinking.  Normally, this repetition of setting and subject would distract me, but in McCaffrey’s case, by the time the collection comes to close, I was only struck by how everything mentioned in the book seemed to have equal weight.  The urgency suggested by the title is present, but it is more of a latent tension than any kind of melodrama.

In the collection’s final poem, “The Exit Interview,” McCaffrey’s disarming admission, “I wanted to tell her everything” only reminded me of how much he’d managed to say by layering imagery while withholding most of the facts.  I Have To Tell You talks much less than expected, but offers enough insight to keep you considering what is said long after the last page.

Adventure in Anarcho-Poetics

How delicious it is to finally be acknowledged as expert by the same institution that quietly rejected your entry for graduation speech because they were afraid you’d upstage the valedictorian on diploma day.  Yes, the satisfaction of proving your potential is sweet.  But that sweet sours quickly when you recall how alienating it was to be a poetry-loving teenager. Read More