Tuesday, August 26, 2008

The Poet's Ego

Friend of mine, younger and talented, is still trying her best to get the work honed so it can be published in high-level rags. Hopes to publish enough to impress a book editor or win a contest, and then secure a job teaching full-time in a university, and thereafter have a nice life. That's what I wanted for myself.

The good side of giving up on this is, I don't sweat anymore about publishing in the right places or even the wrong places. I don't even have to try. It saves a lot of mileage on the poet's ego. It's enough for me to have somebody HEAR my poems, if they won't read them.

And this has led me back to why I wanted to write in the first place: to communicate. To tell the truth as I saw it. To have fun. For art & beauty. To get my ideas aired. To show off my individuality and my passion and my very nice mind. Long leap from those original ideals to applying for a position at Squat University -- a starter university, of course, until I worked my way up to one of the Big Ones.

It strikes me that this -- the academic job -- was the only goal anyone thought was worthwhile, that made a poet successful. Golly, what a wild imagination those people had!

Saturday, August 23, 2008

I Get Intimidated

Thought I was immune by now, but at this month's "Loud Mouth" hootin' & hollerin' open-mike reading at The Mack, a bar in South St. Louis, which I'd dared myself to read at, I got intimidated. I didn't read the poem I planned to road-test -- a feminist poem that would have filled my entire five-minute slot. Instead I played to the mostly-male audience's Bukowski fixation and lost all my respect for myself and whatever respect the audience might have had for me. I was one of two female writers on the bill of ten. The other wore a tube top. The emcee, a student of mine five years ago, now a stand-up comedian manque, had never recovered from the final "B" he had earned in my class. He introduced me thus, "Have you ever really wanted to get back at a teacher? One of those mean teachers who tried to destroy you?" --and so on. (I fail to see why "B" is such an injurious grade.)

Most of the readers knew one another and had brought their own entourages. I had sensed I would need one, so I dragged in a long-suffering, patient couple, the husband a fine poet I thought might get a chance at the open mike. He was cajoled to read a poem, but refused to be part of this historic lineup. At least one of the readers, volcanically loud and incoherent, was certifiable; and the others were terrible, or terribly impressed with themselves -- like the bewigged 70-year-old Parisian who stopped his reading to accuse me of laughing at him (I wasn't laughing, just unable to repress a smile). A kindly nebbish read a 9/11 poem he had laminated. The other female reader actually said, "I wrote this this morning, about 11 o'clock" -- and then there was yours truly, all rehearsed, who jumped ship on myself and gave a terrible performance. Final grade for me: D. Pride goeth.

A good learning experience and proof that I still need to work on confidence. If it is at all possible for you, learn from my mistake.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Publish-On-Demand Wins A Round

File this under Publishing's a Business: A publisher with a new and favorable book about Barack Obama is offering it first through Publish-On-Demand (P.O.D.), exclusively through Amazon.com. This is because it can -- and it wants the book available to readers before next week's Democratic convention. Now, so far, that's just good business -- for the publisher, for the readers, and for Amazon. Barnes & Noble, among other bookstores, is P.O.'d because brick-and-mortar stores wouldn't get Obama's Challenge for another two weeks, when it's yesterday's news and sales will be limp. So it'll be selling the book online, but not in stores. Read the story with all its juicy numbers and quotes in The Wall Street Journal.

The B&N spokeswoman says that by pre-releasing the book through Amazon, the publisher did not allow "an even playing field -- which is common practice in book publishing." (Authors, if that statement leaves you speechless, place here an emoticon of your choice.)

But unless the publisher made a contractual agreement regarding the book's availability, it's just business.

Friday, August 15, 2008

"Part of Being a Great Poet Is. . ."

"Part of being a great poet is having great pictures of yourself taken," Tess Gallagher told our class back in '87; and I admit to being fascinated by author photos, especially studio or "studied" photos such as these here. Such photos alone express the high drama and confidence involved in the work of writing -- never otherwise visible. Probably for the drama of it, authors are traditionally photographed only in black & white. True, I've seen some super-dramatic, off-putting, plunge-neckline jacket photos, but most writers have more taste than that.

Here's Tess (photographed in Washington State by Corbin) in 1987, about age 44, when I knew her; the picture is on her book Amplitude: New and Selected Poems. And here's Vladimir Mayakovsky as a 20-year-old art student in 1913, the year he published his collection "I" and blew some windows out of the Moscow literary establishment. I like how Mayakovsky defined himself in a poem: "I'm not a man; I'm a cloud in trousers!"

Poet Marina Tsvetayeva, Mayakovsky's contemporary, left a hint on what she thought writers should wear: "Clothes that are not beautiful in the wind are not beautiful at all."

Tuesday, August 12, 2008


"He wrote, that while an ordinary man was obliged 'not to participate in lies,' artists had greater responsibilities. 'It is within the power of writers and artists to do much more: to defeat the lie!'"

That's from the NYT last week, after Solzhenitsyn died. Mainly I remember how he and his bone-shattering books embarrassed the liberal intelligentsia in the 1980s, when I lived in Boston among, but not of, the Cambridge cognoscenti. They didn't like his shamelessly truthful chronicles of the great failure of the Soviet experiment -- such as One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, The Gulag Archipelago, or even Cancer Ward. They spoke of his work as "fiction."

Russians have a saying, "Eat bread and salt and speak the truth." Solzehnitsyn was a blunt and truthful witness and that's worth more than a hundred witty and cultured Cambridge cognoscenti.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

"Starving in a Garret"

Writer (usually poet) is always, in the popular mind, "starving in a garret." I wondered whence came this phrase and image of our profession. Looked it up. The original "born in a cellar and living in a garret"comes from the 18th century. The word "starving" replaces "living" in the19th century, whence comes this romantic 1856 painting, "Death of Chatterton." Seventeen-year-old poet Thomas Chatterton committed suicide in 1770. He actually WAS going to starve, and chose to poison himself. The phrase and image endure; has nobody come up with anything more accurate? I mean, bummer!

Credit Lord Byron, in "Childe Harold" (1812) for making a powerfully attractive figure out of a brooding, reckless young artist who, in real life, would give anybody a pain. I can see Byronic poets wearing black and smoking cigarettes on Delmar Blvd. even today.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Hell Freezes Over; Publisher Gives Away Books

The late Carol Bly wrote a probing, wholly adult textbook on short-fiction writing, called The Passionate, Accurate Story (1990, Milkweed Editions), always my choice as the fiction text for my Introduction to Creative Writing course. Heather Clark of the Washington University Bookstore told me that Milkweed had 5 copies left, not enough to fill my order for this fall, and it wasn't printing more, but would send those 5 if I wanted; plus:

"[Milkweed] cannot technically sell the books to us since it has been declared out of print. They are going to 'donate' them to us. I cannot charge a student for a book that was donated to us. So I gave her my shipping number so we can be charged for the shipping. I will contact you when the books arrive and give them to you to distribute to your students, or for your students to share. If you have any questions, let me know."

Free books for my students, direct from the publisher!? What a delight! For such a great book! (It's available used.) Ms. Bly (1930-2007; pictured) would have loved this! I'd be a fool to ask questions!

Monday, August 4, 2008

How to Anger a Poet

Now, I know enough to PICK my battles, but for Christ's sake PLEEZE, America, cut me some slack and don't show me any more course descriptions like this one I saw today:

"POETS AT HEART": We’re all poets at heart. In this course we will address several poetry forms and devices. Class reports will be made defining these forms and devices and each week we will write and read poems (our own and other poets’). Our goal is to gain a greater understanding and appreciation of poetry, along with enhancing our abilities to write poetry. Remember, anybody can write poetry. (Text: Poetry For Dummies.)

Saturday, August 2, 2008

When Poets Gave Orders

"We order that the poets’ rights be revered:

  • To enlarge the scope of the poet’s vocabulary with arbitrary and derivative words (word-novelty).
  • To feel an insurmountable hatred for the language existing before their time.
  • To push with horror off their proud brow the wreath of cheap fame that You have made from bathhouse switches [clearer translation: "from toothpicks"].
  • To stand on the rock of the word “we” amidst the sea of boos and outrage."
The above is from the Russian Futurists' manifesto, "A Slap in the Face of Public Taste," 1912. By comparison, our poets are people-pleasers and wusses. Each of these century-old demands is, for poets in 2008, a total taboo. We say, "I don't think your experiment with coining new words is very successful," and "I don't know where you'll find a market for this," and "If only I could make it into Best American Poetry 2009," and "I can't figure out who is that collective 'we' being referenced in your poem."

By comparison, how timid we are! And how powerless! Are those things linked?