Earl Gray

Earl Gray
"You can argue with me but, in the end, you'll have to face that fact that you're arguing with a squirrel." - Earl Gray

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Information Logistics


     Have you ever wanted to perform a speech, poem or presentation in a natural, authentic and engaging voice and manner?  What is the fastest way to master this passage?  In one form or another, Information Logistics is becoming a key concern everywhere from stages to politics to board rooms--anywhere that values precise verbage and public performance.

     Please take a moment to listen to this song a time or two (and, yes, there will be a test later):



     Squirrels don't have very good memories.  This, paradoxically, explains our fascination with poems--things that facilitate something we can do only with great difficulty. 

     Information Logistics or "InfoLoge" (pronounced "Info Lodge") involves putting precise, context sensitive data into our hands in a timely, compact and unobtrusive manner without our having to request it.  Instant mnemonics, if you will.  The goal is to make a performer seem comfortable with imparting information.  Think of an advisor to Julia Louis-Dreyfus in "Veep" or Téa Leoni in Madam Secretary" whispering (lest the visiting dignitary be affronted by her need for such a reminder) into her ear the names and quirks of the people she's meeting at a party or welcoming line.  Poorer examples might include:

1.  A web search engine, as in a cell phone or tablet.  No time for queries!

2.  A teleprompter.  We need precise snippets, not the whole spiel.

3.  A word cloud, flash cards or point form notes.  We're getting closer, but we need to find a raindrop rather than an unorganized cluster.  We need to coordinate and personalize that cluster.  Indeed, we need to choreograph and stage it.

     Among the simplest applications would be a poetry recital, perhaps followed by a Q and A about those particular poems and poets.  Unless our intention is to look as dorky as possible and make the materiel seem unworthy of absorption and recitation, we want to avoid following a script in front of us.  A teleprompter would help but is likely to fix our gaze in one place, reading text.  A set of teleprompters, if affordable and practical, would allow us to shift from one to another but we'd still be reading, our pace and focus always controlled by the scrolling.  In addition, we're not looking for a one-size-fits-all solution;  info logistics have to be tailored to the individual and circumstance.

     The error is in using an algorithmic solution to solve a heuristic problem.  We're not reading text for the first time.  We're quite familiar with the narrative, we just need to be prodded at the start of each section/paragraph/stanza and, perhaps, each sentence or line.  We're not trying to remember lines, we're trying to re-member them, piecing them together by prepending the beginnings of verses to prompt their endings. 

How Elliptic Are You?

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #191
     Russians say "Kto skazal 'A'...", meaning "Once you've said 'A'...[you must say 'B']."

     We often use elliptical language, relying on the listener to complete a truism.

     "Don't count your chickens..."

     "If at first you don't succeed..."

     "When in Rome..."

      Of course, this demands that both the endings and their implications be understood.  Such constructions are so common that, in some cases, even the ellipses themselves are implicit:

     "Do this or else."

      Now for that test we promised you.  From memory, how many of the lines from "The Rose Above the Sky" can you complete?

Something jewelled ----- ----
Round the next ---- ---- - -----
Laughing at the hands - ---- ---
Only air ------ ----- -----
All you can do is praise --- -----
For the fineness -- --- -----.

Gutless arrogance --- ----
Burn apart the best -- -----
You carry the weight -- --------- ------
From your first day ---- --- ---
Toward that hilltop ----- --- ----
Forever becomes one ---- --- ---

Ozone on --- -------- ----
Got me thinking of --- ---
And the mercies of the -------- ---- -------
Me to you --- --- -- --
And in the silence -- --- ----- -- ------
Where all true meetings ---- -- --

       It might help to sing it to yourself.  The beat, rhymes and meter can be very helpful.

      (Incidentally, did you find it easier to reconstruct the first three lines or the last three lines in each stanza?)

Reading the Audience

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #36
      Info logistics involves supporting the performer with just enough of a prompt to instantly reconstruct the text, not so much as to adversely affect the performance or to make the speaker's brain get lazy and dependent on the text.  It isn't like minimalism;  it is minimalism.

      One of my favorite human beings lost most of his memory in a fever when he was in his late teens.  Imagine my amazement at seeing him, in his fifties, wowing an audience at a slam!  He carried no notes, had no teleprompter or earpiece.  Like any good performer, he was in complete control of his speech and never lost sight of the audience. 

      I asked him how he did it.  He pointed at four posters along the back wall.  They looked like word clouds:  terms and phrases haphazardly printed in various hues and sizes on bristleboard.  I had assumed they were intended as art.  On closer examination, I saw that it was the text of his poem, scattered across the four posters.  How did he stitch it together, when the parts of each line might appear on any part of the next page? 

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #122
      Sizes, fonts and colors.  The beginning of each verse was in larger print, tailing off into smaller letters as the line progressed.  This tiny text gravitated toward the center of the sheet, creating a spiralling effect.  The verses themselves were aligned on the color wheel:  line one was in red, the next ones purplish, leading to stanza two in blue turning into green and, finally, stanza three was in yellow becoming in orange.  Against the grey background, black text listed factoids relating to the intro and white words related to the poem/poet.  (At this particular slam, winners were often interviewed after the event.)  Each stanza had its own character face:  Times Roman, Courier, Helvetica, et cetera.  This created a visual effect in the brain, dramatically reducing the learning curve.  The small lettering soon becomes unnecessary and, after flitting from poster to poster landing on larger print, the crutches could be tossed aside.

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #192
      It also enhanced performance.  Have you noticed that the "Back" button on modern browsers don't just bring us to a certain web page but to the exact spot we were on?  Similarly, speakers could leave the text to look attendees in the eye--which is the whole point of the exercise--confident of finding their place via the color, style and size of the letters. 

     My eyesight being what it is, I couldn't see the back of the room when I tried this.  Rather, I had to place the posters from the left to the right edge of the stage, facing me, like feedback speakers at a concert.  It worked perfectly.  My attention remained on or near the audience, my head turning to address everyone, and I couldn't fall into the trap of lingering on the text.  I was, almost literally, reading the audience.




Crude Facsimile:  Poster #1 (positioned on the left)
Crude Facsimile:  Poster #2 (center left, with album details)

Crude Facsimile:  Poster #3 (center right, with bio details)

Crude Facsimile:  Poster #4 (positioned on the right)



    

The Rose Above The Sky - by Bruce Cockburn

Something jewelled slips away
Round the next bend with a splash
Laughing at the hands I hold out
Only air within their grasp
All you can do is praise the razor
For the fineness of the slash

'Til the Rose above the sky
Opens
And the light behind the sun
Takes all

Gutless arrogance and rage
Burn apart the best of tries
You carry the weight of inherited sorrow
From your first day till you die
Toward that hilltop where the road
Forever becomes one with the sky

'Til the Rose above the sky
Opens
And the light behind the sun
Takes all

Ozone on the midnight wind
Got me thinking of the sea
And the mercies of the currents that brought
Me to you and you to me
And in the silence at the heart of things
Where all true meetings come to be

'Til the Rose above the sky
Opens
And the light behind the sun
Takes all


Monday, July 4, 2016

Who Reads About Poetry?

     We all know that no one reads contemporary poetry other than those who write it and, perhaps, their friends and relatives.  Indeed, we calculate that the author of most poems today will read it more times than everyone else combined.  Who reads about such poetry, though? 

     When you arrive at a website your browser presents a "certificate" stating where your computer is located, what operating system and web surfer you are using.  This data, collected by the software that drives sites like this one, allows webmasters and bloggers to create a rough demographic picture of your viewership.  For example, this is a snapshot of traffic here in the last little while, starting with country of origin:

United States 146

Ireland        24

India          24

United Kingdom 22

Philippines    21

Ukraine        20

Brazil         15

Netherlands    15

Canada         12

China          10


      Among the English speaking nations, the disparity between the United Kingdom and the United States reflects our Amerocentric spelling and points of reference.  The stereotype of the Irish being a poetic nation finds some evidence here.  Bearing in mind that we're talking about English language discourse and verse, the interest from the Ukraine, Philippines, Brazil, Netherlands and China reminds us how much healthier the art form is outside anglophone countries.  The percentage of visitors from India, which has more English speaking people than any other nation and retains a keen interest in the subject, is quite low in this particular survey.

      Here are the operating systems used by our visitors:

Windows  231 (58%)

iPhone    58 (14%)

Android   45 (11%)

Macintosh 28 (7%)

Linux     18 (4%)

iPad      13 (3%)

Unix       3 (less than 1%)


      The tendencies may be too weak to draw conclusions, but the data sample suggests a demographic that is working/middle class and more savvy than the average computer user.  This is supported by the low number (1%, listed below) of Windows users who cling to Internet Explorer.  7% are likely using mainframes at work and 25% come to us via small-s smart phones, which suggests a somewhat keen interest. 

Chrome           213 (53%)

Firefox           84 (20%)

Safari            73 (18%)

Internet Explorer  8 (1%)

Opera              6 (1%)

UCBrowser          6 (1%)

GSA                5 (1%)

Mobile Safari      5 (1%)

CriOS              1 (less than 1%)


     The list of preferred articles underscores how people might want to influence, be or learn to become poets, but not to read actual poems:

10 Greatest 21st Century Poets - The List       - 146

Scansion for Beginners                            - 9

10 Greatest 21st Century Poets - Versers          - 7

The Ten Most Influential People in Poetry Today   - 7

     To be fair, our "Great Poems of our Time" series was 10th overall in readership.  As always, we're gratified to see the interest in verse-writing.

     What caught our eye were the traffic sources or referrals.  That is, what brings people here?

Google             118

Android Quicksearch  2

Mirrors              8

ECabotage           20


     Of 148 visitors, 8 were from forwarding mirrors (e.g. if you type "commercialpoetry.blogspot.co.uk" or "commercialpoetry.blogspot.fr" you are redirected from the facsimile site in the UK or France to here).  120 were from search engines, who are presumed to be newcomers because regulars would normally bookmark your site.  118 of these got there via Google, which speaks to the utter dominance of that particular choice over, say, "Bing".  It also says something about interconnectivity within the poetry world:  There is none.  There are eddies but no river.  That is, with all of the other blogrolls and hypertext out there, few or, in our case, none of the visitors follow links from other poetry web sites.  From talking with other webmasters, we can confirm that the current crop of poetry onliners are among the least curious people on the Internet.  They almost never click on the unknown.  As we've said before, "They are the most cliquish and least clickish."  For what it's worth, this is a complete turnabout from 20 years ago, when rec.arts.poems Usenetters were among the most outgoing or welcoming (though not always welcome or well-mannered) among Internauts.

     When we are posting more regularly we see a number of Facebook and, far less often, Twitter referrals.  This is the audience everyone wants, but far more common are the web searchers.  It is gratifying when Googlers have a native curiosity about the subject at hand but most are students wanting to copy and paste their homework assignment.  The comments section is often flooded with questions like "Can you cite three instances of irony in 'Hamlet'?" or "What is 'The Red Wheelbarrow' about?"

ECabotage

     The most rewarding number is always ECabotage (or "e-cabotage, rhyming with "we sabotage").  As you know, cabotage refers to transportation within a nation, not to be confused with the international voyage that brought these passengers or goods into the country in the first place.  ECabotage involves those who come to your site and, having sampled one of its wares, decides to examine other posts there.  This is a credit to the web editors and to the authors of the material.  For a typical poetry collection, it involves someone coming to read a poem written by themself, a friend or relative and sticking around to examine the works of a stranger. 

      Levels vary from genre to genre.  Sites detailing popular pursuits will have a lot of ECabotage;  a person who goes to NFL.com to read about Tom Brady might well stick around to read the latest on fellow SuperBowl-winning Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.  Given the high percentage of Looky Lus and the low level of poetry consumption in general, 2% ECabotage is encouraging.  That is, if one in fifty arrivals is from another page on the same site, the staff and contributors are doing well.  One in twenty is exceptional and one in ten would be phenomenal.  We here at Commercial Poetry are delighted with our one in six rate, and would be even more so if this were a typical compendium of poems.  In any case, we are grateful to those who take the time to ponder our offerings, all the more so if they sample more than one.



Monday, May 30, 2016

$200,000,000

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #189
      Suppose you were given $200,000,000 and tasked with improving poetry's profile.  What would you do?

     Where would your focus be?  On writing?  Performing?  Education?  Edutainment?

     What sources of revenue would you design to sustain your efforts?

     How would you define success?

Saturday, December 5, 2015

Dana Gioia, California's Poet Laureate

     Dana Gioia has been appointed the California Poet Laureate.  If you recall, Dana wrote poetry's Goldstein Diary, "Can Poetry Matter?", in May of 1991.  This tongue-in-cheek satire featured the most hilarious statement in the history of literature:

     "Never has it been so easy to earn a living as a poet."

      Each "argument" for this conclusion is funnier than the last:

1.  "There have never before been so many new books of poetry published..."

     ...none of which have sold.

2.  "There are now several thousand college-level jobs in teaching..."

     ...but none in poetry, which involves writing and performing.  Not teaching, per se.  

3.  "Congress has even instituted the position of poet laureate, as have twenty-five states..."

     ...not that any of these people "earn a living" for their efforts.

4.  "There has also never before been so much published criticism about contemporary poetry..."

     ...almost none of which would be recognized as "criticism" when poetry was alive.

5.  "...it fills dozens of literary newsletters and scholarly journals," having disappeared from more successful media.

6.  "No one knows how many poetry readings take place each year" because no one attends them.

7.  "With an average of ten poetry students in each graduate section, these programs alone will produce about 20,000 accredited professional poets over the next decade" whose failure proves that "professional poets" is an oxymoron.

8.  "Not long ago, 'only poets read poetry' was meant as damning criticism. Now it is a proven marketing strategy."  One assumes he means "proven failure as a marketing strategy."  Were he serious, we wouldn't wonder why he is no longer working in the private sector.

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #123
9.  "Or it might never be reviewed at all."  Reviewed for whom?  An imaginary readership?  Can you say "cart before horse"?

10. "Usually the less a critic knows about verse the more readily he or she dismisses it..." or write endless blather about its content.  Obviously, this article predated Facebook poetry groups.

      When he speaks in earnest Gioia makes a number of points we echo here at Commercial Poetry.  He writes this of the Watermelon Problem "The heart sinks to see so many poems crammed so tightly together, like downcast immigrants in steerage. One can easily miss a radiant poem amid the many lackluster ones. It takes tremendous effort to read these small magazines with openness and attention. Few people bother, generally not even the magazines' contributors."

      Of poetry's solipsism he comments:  "Forty years ago, when Dylan Thomas read, he spent half the program reciting other poets' work. Hardly a self-effacing man, he was nevertheless humble before his art. Today most readings are celebrations less of poetry than of the author's ego. No wonder the audience for such events usually consists entirely of poets, would-be poets, and friends of the author."

      While we may quibble, his "six modest proposals" held promise:

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #67
1. When poets give public readings, they should spend part of every program reciting other people's work--preferably poems they admire by writers they do not know personally.

     Agreed.  We have reservations about the next three words:  "Readings should be..."  Perhaps they shouldn't exist.  Perhaps they should be replaced by poetry performances.  Why promote what even the author cannot remember?

2. When arts administrators plan public readings, they should avoid the standard subculture format of poetry only.

     Ayup.  As Shakespeare did.  As bards and raconteurs did.  As Leonard Cohen does.

3. Poets need to write prose about poetry more often, more candidly, and more effectively.

     Heaven forfend!

     Let audiences speak.  Even their silence, owing to their non-existence, says infinitely more than the usual self-promoting spam from poets.

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #166
4. Poets who compile anthologies--or even reading lists--should be scrupulously honest in including only poems they genuinely admire.

     This is the problem, not the solution.  Again, anthologists should present poems audiences¹ genuinely admire.

5. Poetry teachers especially at the high school and undergraduate levels, should spend less time on analysis and more on performance. Poetry needs to be liberated from literary criticism. Poems should be memorized, recited, and performed. The sheer joy of the art must be emphasized. The pleasure of performance is what first attracts children to poetry, the sensual excitement of speaking and hearing the words of the poem. Performance was also the teaching technique that kept poetry vital for centuries. Maybe it also holds the key to poetry's future.

      We agree wholeheartedly on the value of performance, though obviously not on the definition and import of analysis.

6. Finally poets and arts administrators should use radio to expand the art's audience. Poetry is an aural medium, and thus ideally suited to radio.

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #175
      This treatise was written in 1991, just before the world wide web relegated radio--other than NPR--to breaking news, talk shows and programmed music.  More to the point, poetry was never an aural medium;  it is and always was an audiovisual one.  This is one reason why, almost a century ago, poetry was replaced by music (which is an aural medium) on the radio.

      Will Dana Gioia be a good poet laureate for California?

      In his capacity as National Endowment for the Arts Chairman Dana Gioia brought "The Big Read" initiative to the U.S. from Britain in 2004.  Two years later he instituted "Poetry Out Loud".  Thus, Dana has already done more for poetry than all previous laureates--state or federal--combined.

      We have observed an inverse relationship between one's value as a poet versus laureate.  Even if this doesn't remain true, Dana Gioia rates to be the greatest poet laureate ever.

      Watch this space.



Footnotes:

¹ - Or would admire, if such audiences existed.



   Your feedback is appreciated!

    Please take a moment to comment or ask questions below.  Failing that, please mark the post as "funny", "interesting", "silly" or "dull".  Also, feel free to expand this conversation by linking to it on Twitter or Facebook.  Please let us know if you've included us on your blogroll so that we can reciprocate.

    If you would like to follow us, contact us confidentially or blog here as "Gray for a Day" please befriend us, "Earl Gray", on Facebook.

    We look forward to hearing from you.

Signed,

Earl Gray, Esquirrel


Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Love is a Weakness - Chapter II - Mother

Love is a Weakness - Chapter I - Meetings

Love is a Weakness - Chapter II - Mother

Chapter II - Mother

     Even though most of us were alive at the time, few can believe what life was like in the decades before Kemla stepped onto that stage.  Who can accept that in the first two decades of the 21st century fewer than 2% of anglophones could recite a single line of contemporary poetry, or that most new "poetry" books didn't include a single verse?  Who can accept that the average English graduate didn't understand how meter worked?  Who can accept that poetry magazines never discussed technique?  Who can accept that for more than a century it was illegal to perform poetry without the author's explicit consent?  Or that poetry didn't produce a single successful writer or performer for more than a generation?  Who could expect those defending the abandonment of centuries of experience and science to be taken seriously after decades of total failure?

     Who could imagine poetry dead?

     Such was the status quo as Kemla finished reading that first stanza.  It would remain so for sixteen more seconds.


Grasshopper from Earl Gray on Vimeo.


     We have the exact timeline from the four cameras trained on the stage.  The Closed Circuit Television one saw the action from behind the podium, looking out into the audience.  It allowed us to count and identify the 43 people present.  Maude's event camera recorded all the performances head-on from across the room.  (With the artist's consent, these videos would be posted online.)  Auden's auction camera caught Kemla from the left at a seventy one degree angle. 

     At the two second mark Rick entered the room from the kitchen and saw Auden filming the performance.  Thinking this unusual, the waiter turned on his cellphone and waited for it to power up.  Standing at 23 degrees to the speaker's left, Rick took a few still photos before switching over to video. 

     At the four second mark Kemla, still looking down, folded the placemat containing the poem she was reading and set it aside.  (A month later this scrap paper would be auctioned off online for $155,000.  It was resold the next day for twice that.)


     At the seven second mark, still without looking up, Kemla switched off the microphone.  The click resounded about the room.  Later, the world.

     At the eleven second mark Rick's phone-cam became fully operational.  He pointed it onstage just in time to snap the most famous photograph in human history.  (It would adorn bedroom walls, posters and memes, in addition to serving as the default wallpaper for 73% of the computers and 62% of the smart phones sold over the next twenty years.)

     At the twelve second mark Kemla did the unthinkable.  She looked into the crowd.  Not at her text, as all readers must.  Not above the attendees' heads.  Not blankly into the space between them.  She peered into their eyes, one by one.  It was not searching.  It was neither defiance nor boldness.  It was not timid.  It was the intimacy of a friend sharing sorrow.  It was the plea of a child being abandoned. 

     The flash from Rick's camera phone caused many to flinch as if tased.  A lady in the front row gasped.

     Four seconds later Kemla spoke with them.  Not over them.  Not down to them.  Not at them.  Not in the monotone of the soporific academic or the Screaming Me-Me.  Each listener became the departed heroine.  With rising urgency and pace, Kemla's tone moved from scolding to exalting, from interrogating to witnessing, from reporting to begging for one more audience.

     "When you died and the bees did not mourn, did the crickets...hesitate? Did they draw long blue chords on each thigh?  Did they speak? Did they say 'She is gone. Face that fact.'?"

      In the space of mere moments her angry tone became one of resignation, then inspiration:

     "It's the truth but, in every other sense, it's a lie!"

      Her volume rose, as if she were speaking to the deaf.  Or the dead.

     "You remain, sui generis, one light that beams as the guide of my passing..."

      Only now did Kemla release the crowd from the grip of her gaze, turning it upwards and into the distance.

     "...and mother to my dreams."



Love is a Weakness - Chapter I - Meetings

Love is a Weakness - Chapter II - Mother



    Your feedback is appreciated!

    Please take a moment to comment or ask questions below.  Failing that, please mark the post as "funny", "interesting", "silly" or "dull".  Also, feel free to expand this conversation by linking to it on Twitter or Facebook.  Please let us know if you've included us on your blogroll so that we can reciprocate.

    If you would like to follow us, contact us confidentially or blog here as "Gray for a Day" please befriend us, "Earl Gray", on Facebook.

    We look forward to hearing from you.

Signed,

Earl Gray, Esquirrel






Monday, November 30, 2015

Greatest Poet Of Our Time

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #52
     What the word "poet" means to us can be very revealing.  And very convenient.

     Producers say a poet is someone who shares that avocation.  That is, at best, tautological and, at worst, presumptuous.

     Prosody geeks assume we're talking about those who exhibit superb technique.

     Performers think of their fellow YouTubers, slammers or open mikers.

     People who read or listen to poetry don't exist. 

     On the rare occasions when the public speaks of contemporary poets, it is usually in reference to those who bring us popular song lyrics.  For example, some might describe Elton John as a poet without knowing or caring that Bernie Taupin wrote the words to his tunes. 

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #156
     Naturally, Content Regents, regardless of their level of sophistication, rate and categorize poets according to their material.  Rebels love Charles Bukowski, romantics turn to Maya Angelou, and "critics" blurb an endless list of p[r]osers who can't write verse any better than they can.

     To be successful, one must appeal to all of these constituencies.  A great poet would be a modern Shakespeare whose audiences appreciate themes that stir blood and brains in language that survives its utterance.

     We don't have any of those.

     In order to produce a great poet we would need, in place and in sufficient quantity and quality:  education, performers, directors, critiquers, venues, networks and, above all, audiences.

      We don't have any of those either.




Sunday, November 29, 2015

Infasia

John Prine
     No, it's not an Oriental tourist advisory.

     The cause is information overload, the constant bombardment of trivia--"data smog"--emanating from television, radio, print and Internet sources.  The effect we call "information aphasia" or "infasia", a declining ability and desire to retain details.

     We ask ourselves:  "Why commit to memory what we can web search at will?"

     This facility of research and fact checking, coupled with the difficulty to perform on our feet, leads inevitably to a processing paradox.  As Pearl says:  "We know everything and nothing."

     Everyone understands that poetry was replaced by song lyrics in the 1920s and that copyright law was the coup de grace.  The casual sharing of work on the Internet has all but solved the latter problem.  The former might be overcome by education and expertise in verse writing and presentation (e.g. performance, multimedia, networking, integration, et cetera).  Presently, the greatest challenge facing poetry is infasia, a problem that promises to get worse long before it gets better.

     The good news is that the cure is simplicity itself.