Anthologies

One of my former professors (my mentor, really) has published an essay entitled “Anthologizing” in Epoch that’s being featured at poems.com. Some of the material I had heard before in class and discussions with him, but it’s as always a lovely piece of prose. If you’re into anthologies or poems or writing, you might enjoy the essay. His essay collection The Napkin Manuscripts is full of great stuff as well if you like prose about writing.

I’m sort of down on poetry lately, but McFee also has a bunch of collections of poetry, and though I suppose I’m biased, I have a soft spot for his work. There’s plenty to appreciate in each of his collections.

Pinhole Poetry

When I was in college, I read poetry with great interest because I was interested in writing poetry. It all started, of course, with the composition of terrible sad poems when I was in high school, but as I read more and wrote more, I grew more interested in poetry as an art rather than just as a way of sharing how I felt about things. I went on to get a minor in poetry writing and was considered, I suppose, among my peers and teachers to be not altogether lacking talent (though not the voice of my age either).

When in college, I read all sorts of poetry, Romantics, Victorians, Modernists, mid-century folks, and contemporary poets. I went to poetry readings any time I could. I curled up in the periodicals section in the library with the latest poems of the day. I picked random slim volumes from the poetry shelves and fairly well immersed myself. And in my writing, I emulated those I liked — Wordsworth early on, somewhat comically, and William Carlos Williams, occasionally Creeley. I wrote in conventional poetic forms as often as not but was also interested in turning convention on its head, probably more as a gesture of a sort of bratty defiance than as anything terribly meaningful or original.

After college, I wrote much less. I continued to read poetry for years, though. I kept a subscription to Poetry magazine, let it lapse, and then renewed it. I was less tapped into contemporary poetry, but there was a handful of people whose work I kept an eye open for (I’ll still go out of my way to read Atsuro Riley). A couple of years ago, I let my subscription to Poetry lapse again. I found that, more and more, I enjoyed the prose sections of the magazine but found the poetry opaque, trivial, irrelevant to me, above me, or, maybe, sometimes, just bad. There were better magazines to read for good prose content.

In the July 2013 issue of Harper’s, Mark Edmundson writes an essay entitled “Poetry Slam: Or, The decline of American verse” that eloquently captures some of what has led me away from poetry in recent years. Of course he also says plenty of things I hadn’t really thought of.

There’s a danger of seeming simply to be a malcontent in articles like Edmundson’s. Someone is always saying that the world has gone to pot along one axis of interest or another. The critics of 200 years ago had plenty to say about the poetry of their day. Still, Edmundson does an admirable job of describing some of the things that sapped my interest in poetry, so for me, his essay registers as more than the ranting of a malcontent.

For example, in describing how the most respected poets of today often write blandly and circumspectly, he says the following:

Their poetry is not heard but overheard, and sometimes is too hermetic even to overhear with anything like comprehension.

Edmundson’s central complaint seems to be that poets write on a small scale. No more do we have poets writing about the human condition from the perspective of a universal “we.” Instead, they navel gaze, sometimes make attempts at writing in the vatic voice without much of discernible substance to say. He goes on:

When contemporary poets do write at length, with what appears to be large-scale designs, they tend to lapse into opacity and evasion: witness Paul Muldoon’s “Madoc: A Mystery” and [Jorie] Graham’s “Dream of the Unified Field,” two poems by talented poets that, for this reader at least, fail to make repeated reading worthwhile. “Madoc” is about Wordsworth and Coleridge and their poetic collaboration: I have studied and taught these poets all my adult life and still have barely a clue as to what Muldoon is going on about.

And (of a selection from Graham’s “Dream of the Unified Field”):

The lines are portentous without touching on any fundamental truth of human experience. Who wouldn’t like to write as if he or she held the key to the universe? But at a certain point the key must fit a groove and turn.

Edmundson warns that one of the dangers of writing either unmoving or opaque poems is that doing so shuts out the common reader (as happened with me). But he also warns that it gives too much power to critics. For Edmundson, this is a problem not because he desires to strip the critics of power but because the poets are leaving the job half done. Although this may seem like a sort of old-fashioned criticism, I’ve read enough poems and stories in which I felt that the author had hung me out to dry by making me wonder what interpretation to arrive at or how even to begin formulating one that it seems apt.

I’ve never had a great relish for long or grand poems, so Edmundson’s arguments about the function of the poet and the need for poets who’ll write on grand topics of humanity bear only so much weight for me. I have no quarrel with his arguments, but I’m not more likely to sit through a long poem that does what he pines for than I am a poem today that doesn’t.

What he does say very well that describes why I essentially gave up on poetry goes as follows:

What is a poem now? It is, to speak very generally, a moment of illumination. One might call it — after the poet who is, however indirectly, behind much current work, Wordsworth — a spot of time. Suddenly, through luck or grace, application or inertia, the poet sees into the life of things — or more likely into the life of his own being. Yet this moment of illumination need not contribute to any coherent whole. American poets now usually do not seek to weave a comprehensive vision… Now the poem is a pinhole in the massing darkness, not part of any grand illumination in the making… The poet writes the fragment that is given him to write; the idea of chronicling all experience, or all experience that matters, is entirely foreign.

I’m happy enough to read a poem that does a nice job evoking one of those pinhole moments, but ultimately these works feel lightweight and unimportant to me. I also enjoy looking at the pictures my children draw for me, but they seldom provoke thought or, on their own merits, stick with me as significant works of art. So, for all that I’m not terribly interested in reading contemporary epic-length poems that take on the human condition, I also have trouble taking pinhole poems very seriously, especially when I have to pick them out from among the poems made awful by opacity, in-jokes, and so on.

Edmundson writes a bit about poetry in the academy and a bit about fairly recent folk like Yeats, Eliot, and Ginsberg, who didn’t always get it right but who at least took strong positions rather than hedging and who wrote big.

For all his complaints, Edmundson’s not wholly down in the dumps, though:

I often think that our poets now write as though history were over and they were living in a world outside collective time. They write as though the great public crises were over and the most pressing business we had were self-cultivation and the fending off of boredom. Many of our poets are capable of work that matters. There’s a lot of talent in the room. But we need them to use it and to take some chances. We need their help.

I don’t know how much I agree that we need the poets’ help. We’re not a society much inclined to poetry, which maybe is why poetry now isn’t much inclined to take on the problems of our society. If you’re shouting into the wind, you may as well shout things for yourself. I’m not at all convinced that a poetry of the sort Edmundson craves would work today. The audience for it would be so very limited, would be the audience that’s already considering the universal “we” in one way or another. Still, I found much of Edmundson’s article convincing. I admire his passion, and I appreciate that he wrote a piece that articulated better than I’ve ever articulated it for myself some of the things that’ve turned me away from poetry (both reading and writing — for it’s not as if I ever wrote more than pinhole poetry myself). It’s worth a read if you’re a reader or writer of literature or criticism.

Writing Contest

Last year, I agreed to be a reader for a writing contest put on by my local writer’s organization. I did so mostly out of curiosity to see what kind of material people in my area were producing. I also thought it’d be fun to serve as a screener. I occasionally think it’d be a little rewarding to curate a literary magazine tailored to my own tastes — as no magazine gets it all quite right — though I know it’d be a lot of work for very little reward and with little chance of anything resembling success. So it was partially out of a desire to screen what being a screener would be like that I raised my hand to help out with the contest. I read 40 or 50 short stories and I think a dozen or two novel excerpts and floated my top few for the final judges to deliberate over. It was interesting and sort of fun but also a heck of a labor.

A few months ago, a couple of the organization’s members who were associated with the board and the contest asked to meet with me to discuss how the contest had gone. I took it to be sort of a post mortem but came away from the meeting with the sense that I had allowed myself to be volunteered to basically run the contest this year. Oops. Really, I’m just maintaining the web page for it, collecting entries, and presumably wrangling screeners once all the entries are in. There’ve been precious few entries so far, though, and I’d like to drum up some more.

So, the details. Although I had originally thought it was a contest only for local writers, there’s no such limitation. There’s a variety of categories, including some new genres in fiction, and each category has modest cash prizes. All but one also have modest entry fees (gotta pay for the prizes somehow).

Last year, there were some really good, publishable entries in the short fiction and novel excerpt contests. It’s a pretty small-potatoes contest, but I can vouch for the quality of at least some of the work submitted last year. I’d love to see some entries come through from people I pitched online. It goes without saying that I have no influence on who wins any of the contests; I’m just a conduit for the entries.

For full details, see the contest info here.

Pen Pals

Letters

A box of letters dating back at least 19 years.

Although I’ve lapsed in recent years thanks to the infernal intarwebs, I’m a cultivator of pen pals from way back. I’ve always loved letters, the pleasure of sending something off and waiting for a reply, and of course getting a fat envelope a few days or weeks later in my own mailbox.

I remember writing thank-you notes to my grandmothers complete with drawings of the presents I was thanking them for (I wrote these at the prompting of my mother, sure, but the fact didn’t diminish the care I put into them).

In other artsy letters, I remember sending notes off to baseball players Howard Johnson (no relation to the hotel chain as far as I’m aware) and Will Clark. My friend and I came up with the devious plan of including our own drawings of the players in hopes of increasing our odds of getting autographs in return. As there was never a reply that I can remember, these gentlemen were not, strictly speaking, pen pals.

One summer during high school, when I went off to a program lasting several weeks (maybe a couple of months — I don’t remember for sure), I wrote dutifully to my parents, my two best friends, and one or two other people who surprised me by being more interested in keeping in touch than I might have figured. I got into trouble with the two best friends for duplicating a letter to them essentially word for word. How many ways were there really to say the same things to them? At least I wrote it out by hand both times.

Midway through high school, both one of those best friends and I moved to different schools across the state, and we clove to one another at a distance via the mail as best as we could, resorting to phone calls only occasionally (as these were the olden days when you had to worry about raising your parents’ ire with high long-distance bills). That was a hard time for me, and these letters, often inane, frequently enough containing doodles and other silliness, were a great solace. I think it was the writing as much as the reading that helped. Later, one of my friend’s new friends struck up a correspondence with me, and it was peculiar and fun and wonderful to connect with a stranger in this way.

There’s something special and intimate and even workmanly about sharing your handwriting with somebody, and it seems like a real privilege, on looking back after years of reading friendly notes almost exclusively on a screen, to have been the recipient of others’ hand-written notes. I can still visualize my parents’ hand-writing, and that of my grandmother, though I’ve not corresponded any great amount by mail with any of them for probably a decade.

I was an inveterate decorator of envelopes, something I remember picking up from the R.A. who wrote to my older sister before her first year of college and who made elaborate abstract drawings all over the envelope.

During college, my use of the postal service tapered off pretty quickly, and with it the legibility of my handwriting, which was never terribly good to begin with, but I did keep right on pen-palling.

There was the summer during which I heard at random from a girl named Ingrid from Norway. She was a violinist, and we delighted in learning about one another’s cultures as we emailed back and forth. I forget why the correspondence ended, though I know it wasn’t a falling-out. She was one of my early email pen pals, and it was a bit of a wonder at the time how easy it was to connect with someone from across the world who, just a few years previously, you would never have known existed. We’re fairly well accustomed to this by now.

I emailed many strangers while in college. Early on, I would write random people to ask for permission to use fancy blinking background graphics to embed in various little web sites I was setting up, for example. I once put a really horrible paper about the author William Golding online, and a high school teacher asked if I’d be willing to correspond with his class. Twenty or thirty kids (just a couple of years younger than I was) sent me notes — some serious and seeking and others sarcastic and resentful at the assignment — and I answered them all with as much gravity as I could muster.

Later, I corresponded with friends over the summer breaks, and I once professed my infatuation for a girl whom I couldn’t work up the courage to actually speak to (and even managed to avoid a restraining order). I may have done that a couple of times. You can hide behind written words in a way that you can’t when speaking.

One of my favorite pen pals was a writer I encountered online maybe midway through college. He was a 65-year-old guy, not a name anybody’d recognize from a literature book, but I think he was fairly well known on the Stanford oral poetry scene. We enjoyed a longish back-and-forth that helped me learn a lot about what I thought about things. He was warm and accepting of the naive and searching letters I sent him, sort of a Rilke to the young poet I fancied myself at the time. Of course we lost touch not long after I graduated, and I learned a few years ago that he had died of cancer, and it made me sad. I’ve changed email addresses and mail clients enough times over the last 16 or 17 years that I’m missing much of my old correspondence, but I was thrilled this weekend to discover a CD I had saved my letters to and from Jim on, and it’s hard not to put aside a few hours and read them from start to finish.

My wife and I met online, and of course we wrote many letters as well, mostly via email. Thankfully, the necessity for that ended with my move to be with her in Tennessee after graduation, but the fact of the correspondence and the speed with which we were able to send our letters made the courtship at a distance somehow more bearable, if perhaps also somehow more tantalizing.

I rarely write people now, and I rarely get a letter of any length or importance. I scan my inbox, delete the things that aren’t quite spam but aren’t quite ham, and send back quick replies occasionally. I banter with people on Twitter and sometimes send something rather more long-form (e.g. this) into the void of the internet, but it’s ultimately not satisfying in the way that a good exchange with a pen pal always was. Much as I’ve to some degree embraced the culture of slow food in recent years, I now look back with longing to the culture of slow correspondence — if not of biding my time between letters, then at least of the satisfaction of a well-written personal thing, the care in writing something meaningful that somebody might linger over for a few days, that might provoke in somebody the pleasure of sitting down to enjoy the drafting of a thoughtful reply.

NaNoWriMo

Yesterday, I tweeted about NaNoWriMo to the effect that I thought I might give it a shot if I could untangle a plot by November 1, though I was a little embarrassed by the urge to do so. I’m usually pretty shy about saying anything at all about writing, but this was in reply to a twitter contact of mine who had said she was participating, and I thought I’d just hang it out there for once, partially, I suppose, for the sake of making some small kind of connection with somebody rather than just tweeting about my ham sandwich and going about my day with my fingers stuck in my ears. She later replied to encourage me and to ask why I was embarrassed, to which I replied that I wasn’t entirely sure why I was embarrassed.

I’ve thought about it a bit now, and there are a few of tiers of embarrassment.

The first is that I’m very private about any writing in which I have any real personal investment. My college degree is in English literature and poetry writing. A whole lot of people I’ve met who write poetry are proud of it, boast about it, and ask you to read their stuff and wait for you to shower them with praise because surely that metaphor they thought up all on their own about a dying leaf representing a dying relationship and which they wrote about in free verse with weird punctuation merits at least praise if not a Pulitzer. But I’ve never been that way (discounting the teenage years). At times, it’s due to a lack of confidence, I guess; it’s that I don’t want to put myself out there and face rejection. At other times, I think it’s because I’m being something of a hoarder, a jealous keeper of the words I’ve worked to smash together into something I think is good. I think that with poetry in particular, people don’t appreciate it or really even know how to appreciate it. I include myself among those who don’t really know how, by the way. For all that I used to fancy myself a writer of poetry, I don’t know that I’ve ever thought myself a good reader of it. I haven’t done much justice to the poets I’ve read. So if I’ve spent hours or days polishing a poem, I’m sometimes reluctant to make a gift of it to somebody who I think won’t appreciate it. That sounds so arrogant, but that’s not at all how I mean it. It’s more of a selfish impulse than an arrogant one. It’s not that I think it’s a thing of great value to anyone else; it’s that it’s a thing of great value to me that I’m reluctant to share because it’ll be a real let-down if the person I’m sharing it with doesn’t value it too (the more so if it’s because they didn’t really try). And but of course they won’t value it, because it’s just a trifling thing, a dozen or two lines of something possibly well-said about something quite probably inconsequential. So I don’t blame people for not valuing poems, but I’d rather keep them to myself. Which is all really kind of embarrassing to wring my hands over, so I don’t talk about it much.

Another tier of embarrassment is that I tend to suspect that people view writing — and especially writing poetry — as sort of effeminate. I don’t know why I care about that, but I do. (It also happens to just be stupid; you can name more famous male writers than female, I’ll bet.) I generally would prefer that some people not know I have this interest in writing because I fear that then they’ll think I’m like some weak, hysterical little Victorian schoolgirl who cries at the drop of a hat and writes weepy emotional poetry about stupid things. It’s a weird hangup, I know.

Yet another tier of embarrassment about being open about writing is that I don’t want to seem like that person who expects praise even though what I’m writing may be spectacularly bad or banal. Some people parade around with their moleskines (I have one, incidentally, but I kind of hide it) looking up at the trees and making a show of writing so that you’ll know they fancy themselves writers. And they irritate me. Probably most of them are just trying to write and not really trying to make a show of any sort, but I tend to interpret it as a show, and I don’t want to be the guy making a show of anything, so I keep my efforts under my hat. I’m embarrassed to be seen jotting things down on the rare occasions that I do it. Heck, I’m even embarrassed to carry around books I’m reading. Because I usually read things that are considered literary, I worry that by carrying my books around, I risk seeming as if I’m inviting compliments or conversation or even just speculation as to how smart I must be if I’m taking some big tome with me to the barber shop of all places. So I’m even a little embarrassed about my reading, and I’m usually careful to hide the cover of my book against my body when out in public so that it’s not obvious what I’m reading. In a nutshell, I don’t want to be or to seem like a poser, and this translates into a sort of embarrassment about public reading and writing endeavors.

My embarrassment about NaNoWriMo in particular sort of encompasses a lot of these other embarrassments (I’m cataloging an embarrassment of embarrassments here, it seems). It’s a public thing, for example; you’re putting yourself out there, and you’re doing it before the work is anywhere near ready for public consumption. And the whole community that has sprung up around NaNoWriMo seems to be one of encouragement and flattery and fawning and congratulations for what ultimately stands to be a very mundane achievement, for how hard is it really to pump out 50,000 words of garbage in a month? I’ve written 1,300 words (of arguably garbage) in one quick sitting here. NaNoWriMo praises mediocrity, it seems to me, and — what’s worse — something like public, mass mediocrity. And I guess that’s part of what’s embarrassing about it to me, that I’m considering joining this community that rewards quantity over quality, that encourages just the sort of thing that I find irritating about people who blog their crummy fanfic and want you to applaud their trite doggerel. To join them is to admit that you’re one of them is to admit to a sort of failure.

It’s not quite that, of course. I’m told that lots of fanfic is actually quite good, for example, and I’m sure that lots of good writing comes out of NaNoWriMo. Still. Would Steinbeck have done NaNoWriMo? What about Gaddis? Do you suppose Pynchon has a NaNoWriMo profile (wonder what he’d use for an avatar)? Or McCarthy? To do NaNoWriMo, for me, is to admit these things I already know but am sad to articulate: That I’m not anything at all like the people whose writing I admire. That I can churn out 50,000 words in a month but they won’t be any good. That people will want to pat me on the back and send me a tote bag or a mug or a sticker for that failure. That the positive feedback will probably be addictive and ultimately fuel continued mediocrity. That I’m not as smart as I thought I was or wish I could be. That I lack talent and creativity. That I need help — that I can’t do on my own this most solitary and almost sacred of acts, the putting of pen to paper to capture what I think and know and want and hope.