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 28, 2015


I heard ten thousand whisperin' and nobody listenin'
I heard one person starve, I heard many people laughin'
Heard the song of a poet who died in the gutter

   - from "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall" by Bob Dylan performed by Jason Mraz

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #15

     In "Does poetry still matter?" by Brandon Griggs we read: 

     Polito, the Poetry Foundation president, argues that poetry's reach shouldn't be measured merely by sales of books or literary journals. As it has with everything else, the Internet has democratized poetry by making it free and instantly accessible to everyone, he said.

     "There's clearly a paradigm shift going on," he said. "A lot of people experience poetry¹ not through printed books ... but online and through social media."

     In our first post on the topic of social media we showed how this is done, combining text, graphics, video and/or sound.  Before we return to that, let's look at the Who-What-Where-When-Why aspects of recreating--in both senses of the word--an audience for verse.

     "Poetry," said poet and associate professor Kyle Dargan of American University in Washington, is "not the kind of thing people are going to run into on their own. It's not 'Jurassic World'."

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #158
     Actually, poetry's condition is very much like "Jurassic World".  Think of who is presenting verse¹ on social media:  the authors, their friends and, occasionally, their editors.  It is never an arms-length member of the 99% who aren't involved with the production of poetry.  That is because nobody reads poetry.  Yes, 7% of the population has read poetry in the last year but what percentage of that is contemporary?  Given the choice between one of today's versifiers and "Homer, Rumi, Dante, Shakespeare, the Romantic poets²," what choice do you think the vast majority of those readers are making?  Is it possible that fewer people are reading poetry³ than writing it?  It seems so.  In any event, we have "ten thousand whisperin' and nobody listenin'."

     We cannot breed dinosaurs because we don't have any stock.  Similarly, there isn't a significant population online who were alive when poetry was.  It's not a matter of poetry being dead;  the problem is that we can barely imagine it being alive.

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #171
     As in "Jurassic Park", we need to use preserved material to reanimate something which once reigned supreme. Then, like "Jurassic World", we need to use technology to process and present it.

     We start with the DNA and the amber in which it is caught.  These are genetically coded predispositions encased in the resin that binds all of us together.  Throughout history, the two most significant of these have been Humor and Love.  This isn't confined to bawdy limericks about a man from Nantucket or protestations like "Sonnet 43".  If you've been online for more than 5 minutes you know that the sole purpose of all human technology endeavor is the appreciation of adorable puppies and kittens.  The reason is as subtle as a double-barrel shotgun:  using cuteness and cuddliness, these critters appeal to both of our main interests.  (Of course, to paraphrase "Kemla's Farewell", romance in the past perfect tense is sadness.  #elegy #RainbowBridge)

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #72
     Now that we know what people will click on, we need to put it in a palatable format.  If people were interested in using their own imaginations they'd be writing poetry, not reading it, so "palatable" means "video", with or without text.  If you have Windows 7 or higher you have or can download Movie Maker, watch a short tutorial, and be ready to go.  For Mac users a similar program is available or you can use IMovie.

     Upload your final product to a site like YouTube or Vimeo and then post links to it on Facebook or Twitter.  We assume you know better than to mention the word "poetry" in this process. 

     Let us know how it goes!

Coming Soon"Love is a Weakness", Chapter 1


¹ - Unless stated otherwise, "poetry" or "verse" will refer to contemporary poetry other than religious (e.g. Quranic, Biblical, etc.) verse or song lyrics.

² - i.e. the examples the article uses.

³ - i.e. other than the quid pro quo skimming of poems in the venue to which they contribute.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Critique - Twins and Triplets

Amber Rambharose
     Tim Green of Rattle magazine critiques submissions from his subscribers as part of a popular feature.  This is helpful to potential contributors since it shows precisely defines the editor's aesthetics and prosodic interest (if any).  This, the first in a series, examines "Portrait of the Second Wife as Understudy" from Rattle #47, Spring 2015, written by Amber Rambharose.  Please take a moment to read it now.

      What we have here is an excellent story with a fine, crisp ending. 

      Is it a poem, though?

      You tell me.  As you read it can you imagine yourself "owning" it?  Memorizing, performing or quoting it, as you might "High Flight" or a passage from "Hamlet"?  Can you imagine anyone else wanting to?  More to the point, is it written in a manner that would facilitate this?  How does it compare to others of its ilk?  As an attempt at a climactic poem, it aims to start slowly and gain in momentum, pace, intensity, sound and rhythm as it goes along.  How does it compare to the modern archetype, "Studying Savonarola" by Margaret A. Griffiths?  What is missing?  What could be trimmed?      


     Every poet we know keeps a notebook or file containing random thoughts gathered over the course of time.  For "avante garde" types the next step is to assign a meaningless fake generic (e.g. "conceptualization", "ideational", etc.) name to the inchoate scratches and find someone naive enough to publish them.  (The latter task is alarmingly easy these days.)  By contrast, an experienced poet will often record these musings in rhythmic strings.  This is a function of habit, permeating everything the educated verser writes.  We'd wager that there are fewer rhythms and sound repetitions in most "poems" today than in Derek Walcott's shopping lists.  Or this blog, for that matter.  Such raw material is often overwrought, as these throwaway lines attest:

...retrace the echo of your fingers.  Let us be
a bright mandala in the waves.

...as hunger is the opposite of death.    

...as if you print your words on apple blossoms.

     The second stage is to cull many of these lines thematically into one piece, and then into individual paragraphs or strophes to form an outline.  Then the work of adding the actual poetry begins, culminating in a first draft.  After considerable fine tuning we have something worth showing an editor.

     Notes -> Outline -> Draft -> Revisions => Submission + Audience = Poem

     "Portrait of the Second Wife as Understudy" is a draft, one that exhibits two serious problems and two blinding flashes of genius.



    "If even, I'm leavin'"


     "Veni.  Vidi.  Vici." ("I came. I saw. I conquered.")

     The first is a boast by NFL Wide Receivers to CornerBacks trying to cover them.  It means that, while the CB thinks he has the WR in check, the fact is that the latter is about to use his superior speed to get clear and catch a pass.  It is a contrast between belief and reality.

     The Latin phrase, on the other hand, is a process:  three things Julius Caesar did in the order that he did them.

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #173
     When repetitions are not for dramatic effect, as in "Oh, please. Please," they follow this same Rule of 2 and 3.  If the same word recurs in pairs, like "I sighed my sigh" and "believes what it wants to believe", the mind expects a comparison, especially given that poetry is an acerbic form and "I sighed" or "believes what it wants to" (especially after "believable" much earlier) would have sufficed.

     This applies to repetitions of phonemes, too.  Throughout the poem Ms. Rambharose uses proximate, conspicuous assonance and alliteration isolated in pairs far more often then in triplets (e.g. "for months, fine-tuning the flutter") or multitudes¹.
the way the script dictated. I threw my pupils
up as wide as windows. The orchestra swelled

     The long "u" sounds in "threw" and "pupils" stand out as the only occurences in the strophe.  By contrast, the "w" from "wide as windows" is nicely presaged in "way" and later confirmed in "swell".  The rest of the poem exhibits far more pop-up pairs ("tell by scent", "sock slide down around", "her heart") than integrated iterations.  All of this said, it is far more encouraging to see slightly off-kilter sonics than the typical prose with linebreaks. 


     When poems have two major deficiencies the first is usually sonics and the second is rhythms.  Not so here.  This piece has long strings of binaries, starting with the iambic first sentence and ending (with little tweaking) at the appropriately imperative trochaic coda:

Tell the stage director to place a pair
of Prada espadrilles [beside] the front door.
Size eight. Dark blue. Exactly²
where she left them.

  The trinaries need considerable work, as do the transitions, but these touches of mastery can wait.  For now, the piece's obesity requires attention.  It's more than removing the rhythm-killing pronoun, "my", in line 2.  Redundancies range from (S3-L4) "brought to me" to (S2-L4) "at precisely the right moment" (do orchestras normally swell at the wrong moment?).  There is a flabbiness in the manipulative first and third entreaties here:

Tell me I am better
than she was. Tell me my breasts are higher.
Tell me I am everything
you ever wanted.

     These would benefit from being more concrete and, perhaps, sensual.  Think Michael Ondaatje's "Cinnamon Peeler" here. 

     Strategic decisions need to be made in order to pare this down to size.  As it is, I'm guessing that many who started this offering didn't read the whole thing.  (Did you?)

     Amber Rambharose is something rare among poets, young or old:  she gives a damn about her audience, not just her readers.  She studies the craft and will be worth watching sooner rather than later.

Coming Soon"Love is a Weakness", Chapter 1


¹ - e.g. the scintillating "n", "d" and "a" sounds of:

     "into the dance she had abandoned. If I...",

     ...culminating in all three together for the third time in this single phrase:


     This comes right after the word "changed", no less!

² - Ignore the faintly enunciated "E" in "Exactly".  Treat it as anacrusis.

Thursday, July 23, 2015


Earl the Squirrel's Rule #181
     What is the difference between "pandering to" and "pleasing" an audience?

     Many are dismissive of popular writers like Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Charles Bukowski because they catered to young, disaffected politicos [many of whom have since grown into old, disaffected politicos].  Their writing has no appeal to other demographics or constituencies.  It excited the base and bored everyone else.  That said, to criticize poets because they serve their audience is nothing more than criticizing the audience itself.  Of course Ferlinghtetti's writing was jejune;  look at who he was writing for!  Of course Bukowski wrote long-winded misogynistic prose;  look at who he was writing for!

     The fact that a jumper can clear a one-foot hurdle doesn't prove they can't overcome a six-foot bar.  It is ridiculous to insult these authors because they succeeded exclusively with audiences who had little or no experience with verse.  Hey, wouldn't it be ironic if the critique were coming from the very authorities who failed to educate that demographic in the first place?

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #5
     Edgar Guest and these carnival barker wannabes weren't awful authors because of who liked or disliked their output.

     They were bad writers because they wrote badly.  Pure and simple.

     They were bad as poets because their fans don't care to memorize, quote or perform what they wrote.  They were bad because their fans could see the same thing at nightly open mics, then and now.  They were bad because their fans subsequently encountered the same things being said much more eloquently and succinctly by others.  They were bad because, in an hour or less, anyone could be taught to do better...if only their products were given similar exposure.  This, incidentally, is why we don't have such iconic messes in the Internet Age.  If someone were to show us such a hack today sixty seconds of web searching would allow us to counter with a dozen examples who are better aren't quite as terrible.

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #85
     On another front, an academic poet was recently lambasted on Facebook because her verse was "very precisely calibrated for her intended market."


     When did poetry pleasing its market--in this case a sophisticated one--become a bad thing? 

     I'll bet it happened at about the same time poetry lost its market. 

     The difference between "pandering to" and "pleasing" is jealousy.  In my experience, only failed poets use the previous expression.  If we had to point to one reason why poetry is dead this contempt for audiences would be it.

Coming Soon"Love is a Weakness", Chapter 1

    Your feedback is appreciated!

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #27
    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.


Earl Gray, Esquirrel

Submission Fees

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #69
     "Submission fees are just one discriminating editor removed from the Poetry.com scam."

     That was our reaction when reading fees first appeared.

      For those unfamiliar with the practice, submission (aka "reading") fees are monies paid by contributors for publication consideration.  They differ from contest entrance fees in that publication, not prizes, are the central purpose.  Indeed, folding in a subscription with an entry fee is a laudable way to increase circulation.  As for submission fees, if nothing else, they prove that Nobody Reads Poetry [without being paid to do so].  Would anything be sillier than a glossy like "Readers Digest" or "Golf World" charging its writers instead of paying them?  Actually, yes, there would be:  comparing thriving genres like fiction, general nonfiction or sports reporting to poetry.

Tim Green
      One of the most insightful discussions on this topic was Rattle Editor Timothy Green's¹ "Clowns Against Submission Fees" thread.  He and his supporters make a number of excellent, familiar arguments against reading fees, minus the consideration that it undermines the editors' incentive to seek subscribers.  In the margins, though, the conversation also aired a few thoughts in favor of the policy:

1.  For the individual contributor the cost is inconsequential.  Thanks to the Internet, "a $3 reading fee is less [or little more] than it would cost" for stationery and postage.  Does this token payment not serve the practical purpose of limiting the number of frivolous submissions?

2.  Printing and mailing is costly, requiring that such venues be "externally funded".  If their subscribers are writers rather than strictly readers (tanr), isn't it less like a commercial endeavor and more like a pot luck gathering or friendly poker game where everyone is asked to ante up?  A backer is putting up more than 50% of the total cost, the Greens are doing all of the "grunt work", and these "contributors" balk at ponying up a measly $3?

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #45
3.  Indeed, given that "the average circulation of a print journal is 500 copies, that the average Alexa ranking of an online journal is about 5 million", why not join the 21st century and put out a full-fledged e-zine instead?  Devote the majority of external funds to the staff and writers.  Sell the print versions as subscriptions to Old Schoolers, as collector's items, on Amazon as souvenirs or as performance contest marketing prompts², but concentrate on where the future lies.  Dominate the field.  After all, how many webzines have any significant funding whatsoever?  Yeah, that would be "about none".

4.  No one objects to entry fees, but the only significant difference between a contest and a magazine is that a contest must declare a winner (even if it's the best of a bad lot) whereas, in theory, if a magazine doesn't get enough quality submissions it doesn't have to publish anything.  In light of what is being put out today, though, this is a distinction without a difference.

5.  One final thought:  We are talking about chopping down forests in order to print magazines for a population dominated by tree-huggers (not all of whom are squirrels).  Think about that for a moment.

Coming Soon"Love is a Weakness", Chapter 1


¹ - As you may know, we here at "Commercial Poetry" have a different mandate, medium and approach to aesthetics and education but when it comes to promotion there is no one we admire more than the Greens, Tim and Meghan. 

² - For example, have a cash prize for whoever makes the best video using a poem in, say, the Summer 2016 edition.  "No purchase necessary!"

Tuesday, July 21, 2015


Earl the Squirrel's Rule #174
     In past centuries wealth dominated the literary landscape.  In human terms this translated to "white male", a lack of racial and gender diversity which continues in the print and performance worlds today.

     By contrast, we geeks tend to be purists.  To allow anything other than quality to interfere with aesthetic decisions is heresy laced with condescension, cowardice and craven self-interest.  The reason we have moved so quickly to the online world is simple:  the thought that brilliance is being overlooked because of a lack of access is unbearable.  Ask yourself this:  "How many of the great poets or finest poems of the 21st Century would we know without the Internet?"

     We squirrels find that, with "authorities" judging work based on content, a preference is shown for writers with similar life experiences--usually those of the same locale and subspecies.  Rural chipmunks like the bucolic focus and energy of other country chipmunks.  Urban tree squirrels prefer the arboreal but cosmopolitan view of other red city squirrels.  We small town ground squirrels lean toward the down-to-earth stories and philosophies of others with neutral fur tones and box office addresses.  This is natural and, probably, inevitable.

     At first blush, this is easily solved through specialization.  One 'zine might serve the male moles of Montana while another entertains the gay groundhogs of Galway.  WTP? 

     For starters, this fragmentation of an already tiny market ensures that none of these outlets will be financial viable.  Worse yet, because of the inconvenience and expense of so many sources, many of us would not have been exposed to such modern classics as "The Life and Times of Prairie Larry" by Gordie the Gopher or "Edges and Ledges" by the Lemming sisters.  The fear is that, in centralizing the process to reach a broader audience, voices might be lost.

     The solution, it seems, would be for editors to observe formal or informal quotas to reflect the population at large.  Whether or not this involves DNA and hormone testing would, I assume, be left to the discretion of the individual rodent publishers.
     Is there another, less arbitrary and convoluted approach?  

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #155
     What happens when critics and editors make informed assessments based not on Content Regency and politics but on intrinsic technical and artistic merit? 

     Everything changes.

     When we make double blind/objective evaluations, as we find in contests and would hope to see in editors, egalitarianism and diversity appear as if by magic.  In the long run it is as reliable as arithmetic.

     For example, take a look at the geeks' choices of the top ten poets of this century:  Margaret Ann Griffiths, D.P. Kristalo, A.E. Stallings, Derek Walcott, Rhina Polonia Espaillat, Rose Kelleher, Julie Carter, Catherine Rogers, Marc Smith, and Jennifer Reeser.

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #170
     Needless to say, biographical data played no role in the experts' discussion or decision.

     So, how did they fare demographically?  The list includes someone of African descent, at least one person of Hispanic heritage and one who is part native American.  Given the small sample size, that is remarkably close to the composition of the English speaking world.  This result required nothing more than equal access along with knowledgeable judges and editors.¹

     Who could have guessed that the antidote to centuries of discrimination and neglect would be something as simple² as education?

Coming Soon"Love is a Weakness", Chapter 1


¹ - Lest it be lost, note the distinction between "knowledgeable judges and editors" making "informed assessments based...on intrinsic technical and artistic merit" versus so-called "'authorities' judging work based on content."

     Care to divine what percentage of poetry editors know even the rudiments of verse?

     Hint:  Divide your first guess by ten.

² - The only questions that remain are:

a) Why are 80% of the best 10 poets female?  Wouldn't we expect 5-to-5?

     Well, sample size is a problem.  As it happens, all of the next five poets are male:  Andrew Kei Miller, George Elliott Clarke, Jee Leong Koh, Michael "Juster" James Astrue, and Dennis Hammes  (1945-04-08 - 2008-12-23).  No surprises there.

b) Why is there such a gender imbalance in the stage world (e.g. slams, open mikes, etc.)?

      This question deserves its own post.  Stay tuned.

    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.


Earl Gray, Esquirrel

Monday, July 20, 2015

Writing The Great Modern Novel?

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #43
     Remember when unknown writers sent their work "over the transom" to editors who read them with an eye toward publication?  No?  That is because, if those days ever existed, they were more than half a century ago.  Today, the watch phrase is "No one publishes strangers."  Best way to introduce yourself to an editor?  Have a following that constitutes a market.  Enter the Publication Paradox:  you can't get a readership without publication and you can't get published without a readership.

     Let's say you want to bring The Great Modern Novel into this world but you have four interrelated and insurmountable obstacles:  you are too lazy--you prefer the expression "motivationally challenged"--to finish writing it, especially in light of the fact that you are too obscure to have a publisher or a readership that might attract one.  Also, you're too modest and shy to promote your work or yourself, before or after publication.

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #81
     The situation looks bleak, and isn't helped by knowing that this is the norm, not the exception.  Nevertheless, we may have the solution to all four hurdles you face [if your writing makes the grade].

     Write three chapters of your book:  the first one, the last one, and the one that best advances the main plot.  Post them on a free blog like this, one at a time over a few days or weeks.  Post social media links to it with a nifty title and catch phrase.  In theory, at least, your friends and relatives will read it and post complimentary reviews and a desire to see the completed work.  Their acquaintances might do the same.  Soon, strangers will be commenting.  Once you have generated enough positive feedback an editor is likely to notice [with or without your assistance].  What outlet wouldn't want to produce work that already has a built-in market?¹  (See "#slam dunk" and "#fish in a barrel.")

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #90
     This is an example of wholesale script-teasing.  It differs from "pitching" in that it involves the public [essentially, as a ramp or lever toward publication] and uses cogent excerpts rather than synopses.  It differs from retail script-teasing in that, originally at least, it doesn't involve a final product.  By not withholding anything yet it tends to create less ill-will than sample chapters followed by a purchase option.  It's more like crowd-sourcing than, say, shareware, movie trailers or free cheese samples at the supermarket.  Best of all, it saves labor, printing and distribution costs;  if the work cannot generate enthusiasm from family, friends and strangers (in that order) we needn't bother an editor with it.  The Internet has served as a screener.

     In the near future we will release an experimental wholesale script-tease novel entitled "Love is a Weakness", a tale about a girl who changed the world.²  Watch for it here!


¹ - Other than Poetry magazine, of course.

² - Note the provocative title and description.  The poetry connection will be abundantly evident when you read it.

Sunday, July 19, 2015



1.  an obsolete word for useful

     To logicians, the word "utile" is hardly obsolete.  Nor is that a comprehensive definition.  It means, literally, "full of use(s)", as in "frequently employed for a variety of purposes." 

     To wit, if your home were about to go up in flames a fire extinguisher would certainly be useful.  Handy.  If that is its only purpose, though, it isn't considered "utile", even if you battle conflagrations with it every day.

     A Swiss Army knife has a number of various applications.  If it languishes in our drawer all of our lives, though, it isn't considered "utile".  Yes, it is useful, but only in theory.

     Let me cite an albeit crude example.  Suppose you decide to take salads to work for your lunch.  For a dollar or two you buy bowls like the one pictured here.  You mix in your dressing before going to work but the texture is unsatisfactory.  Plan B:  dressing on the side.  This works for a few days but carrying a separate container is inconvenient. 

     Buying salads at a restaurant or cafeteria is expensive and, perhaps, unpalatable.  While walking past a kiosk you spot the apparent solution to your problem:

     Brilliant!  A bowl with an insert at the top for a dressing canister!  All self-contained!  Just to be safe, you buy a few extras.  Toss a plastic fork into your lunch box and you're good to go!

     The satisfaction lasts a week or so.  Perhaps without a concrete, apparent reason, you lose enthusiasm and give up on your veggie lunches.

     What happened?

     Chances are good the hassle of remembering disposable utensils contributed to the loss of enthusiasm.  Maybe one broke, leaving you high and dry.

     As the picture to the right illustrates, something was missing from your kit:  a durable knife and fork that attaches to the box itself (along with a dressing vial).  In short, the two bowls above were insufficiently utile.  Lacking utility.  Inutile.

     If poetry's only purpose were to bore people with attempts to show how clever or profound we are it would be inutile.  Nobody would read it.

     Oh, wait...