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, April 24, 2012


Enough said.
According to Ronald Wallace, a McPoem is a "poem you can count on always to be the same – small, domestic, fun for the whole family." In other words, it is a poem for people who don't read poetry, composed by someone who can't write poetry.  For an example we need look no further than Mr. Wallace's definition itself.

The McPoem should never be confused with Seinfeldian verse, which is poetry about nothing, written by someone with nothing to say.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Salamander Entropy

   "If everyone is thinking alike no one is thinking at all." - Bill Walsh

    In "Exploding the Groupthink Myth" the point was made that serious criticism expands rather than contracts boundaries.  Speaking more generally, the critic--be it a critiquer before publication or a reviewer afterwards--is the only unambiguous force for originality, diversity and quality.  Since originality is a subset of the other two, let's concentrate on diversity and quality. When it comes to material, design and execution, better is different enough.

     If there is a spate of bad verse the critic won't be shy about saying so, collectively ("Is this the best we can do?") or individually ("Is this the best you can do?").  The critic's standards are not affected by time, personalities or some bizarre pressure to be upbeat while standing in an outhouse basement.

     Unless they have the option of not publishing anything during dry spells, editors will, perforce, lower their standards and give us the best of a bad lot.  No, they're not happy about it;  they'd love to have a steady stream of scintillating, innovative works.  Weak editions are inevitable and there is no reason for an editor to apologize for them.  The best angler can't catch trout in a drought.  Shit happens.

     It follows that, in practice, quality tends to move in lockstep with diversity.  As an extreme example, imagine producing a monthly e-zine featuring sonnets about salamanders.  How many great poems, let alone sonnets, are written on that subject each month?  If the best poem written that month is about newts aren't you oh-so-close but out-of-luck?  Naturally, the more narrow our focus the lower the quantity and quality of submissions and, in turn, the lower the standard for the publication.  Not surprisingly, literary magazines rarely place any limitations on subject matter or styles. 

Rattle's Tim Green
     Or do they?  Not explicitly, but they usually do insist that submitters read not only their guidelines but the underlying periodical itself.  The editor may think the point they're making is "Don't send us junk" but a different message reaches the poet:  "Send us more of same."  Thus, the track record--the mere existence--of a journal will mitigate against diversity which will, by reducing the number of contributions, compromise quality over the long run. 

  Editors are keenly aware of this entropy.  The circumspect ones, among them Timothy Green of "Rattle" on the print side, Mike Burch of "TheHyperTexts", Christine Klocek-Lim of "Autumn Sky Poetry" (currently on hiatus) and O.P.W. Fredricks of "Touch: The Journal of Healing" from the pixel side, take a proactive approach, shaking the bushes for recommendations from critics.  Others watch their options dovetail.

     Speaking as an editor, let me interject that, while no individual outlet does, publishers in toto show at least as much variety as we see in a high end workshop.

Molly Peacock

     Nowhere will we see less range than among winning contest entries.  As an indicator let's use form, if only because it is the most evident and verifiable criterion.  Workshops show the greatest diversity, with metrical poems comprising between 20% and 50%.  That is about twice what we see in literary publications.  Meter is extremely rare in poetry contest short lists.  Citing one example, to my knowledge and despite having been judged by Molly Peacock, not a single line of verse has finished in the winners' circles of the annual CBC Literary Awards.  Free verse doesn't fare much better.  Almost without exception, slice-of-life prose narratives rule the day.  Before investing their time and money participants will read successful entries from previous years and produce "more of same", in some cases without regard to who is judging. 

    Let's flip the perspective.  What if you were to write a unique brilliancy?  The critiquers would, of course, rave about it.  Then what, though?  It's the Watermelon Problem but from an author's perspective:  to which outlet do you send something that is inconsistent with everything that that  particular venue has ever published?  Why even bother?  (Were shyness and humility the only reasons that four of the five most remarkable poems of this century were never submitted over-the-transom by their authors?)

    We can predict what follows.  Sending the masterpiece to a contest would be a complete waste of time;  judges know their decisions will always be seen as controversial but careers and contests can be ruined by choices that are viewed as outlandish.

     Maybe you send your gem to a literary magazine, as T.S. Eliot did.  To no one's surprise, it is summarily rejected, as "Prufrock" was.  End of story...

Ezra Pound
...until and unless the editor is swayed by an Ezra Pound, as Harriet Moore was.  (In this albeit rare and unlikely scenario, the role of Mr. Pound is played by the aforementioned effervescent critics.)

    The rest, as they say, is history.

     Indeed, I have it on good authority that this plot line is about to play out in the upcoming edition of "Rattle" magazine.  You'll know it when you see it.  (Hint:  FM-AtH)

    How's that for a teaser?

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Exploding the Groupthink Myth

Factoid from Facebook: A group comprised of fewer than 1 in 10,000 living poets has quietly produced, in addition to the bestselling personal poetry collection (not including educational sales), one third of the speakers at the 2012 West Chester convention and all of the last ten Nemerov winners. Who are these poets and what is the source of their mojo? Do they have a secret handshake?

To be fair, the Groupthink myth isn't among the silliest things that poets believe. After all, it makes sense at first blush that a workshop filled with people critiquing each other's poems would produce a consensus aesthetic. Indeed, this may be the case in universities where all participants share common traits, most notably the same teachers. That is a function of demographics and education, though; working on their own those new poets would likely exhibit marked similarities in their writing.

The issue, then, is whether or not a mixed congregation of experienced writers will, over time, establish a common style. The major online critical sites provide the perfect testing ground, embracing members of all ages, education levels, styles, backgrounds and locales.

So, does anyone claim that they can tell the difference between poems from Gazebo, Eratosphere, PFFA and/or Poets.org? No, not even if the focus were narrowed to members who don't hop between venues. Can people distinguish individual poems coming out of those outlets from poetry on the same subject and of the same quality and form written in less serious forums or by offliners? No.

What about individuals within these workshops? Do they adopt a "house style"? Erin Hopson, D. P. Kristalo and Margaret A. Griffiths were active contemporaries on Gazebo in the mid-2000s.

  1. "Studying Savonarola" by Margaret A. Griffiths
  2. "Beans" by D. P. Kristalo
  3. "How Aimée remembers Jaguar" by Eric Hopson
Are the styles of these poems or, more broadly, these poets even remotely similar? No. In fact, anyone familiar with these and other long term participants is liable to observe how much more disparate the styles are. That's right. The data suggests that, collectively and individually, workshopping expands stylistic and thematic choices. The Groupthink Myth isn't just wrong; it's antipodally so.

"How," you may wonder, "can that be true?"

I'll answer a question with a question: "Which is more likely to produce coalescence: pushing or pulling?"

Outside critical venues stands the blurbosphere. Criticism is largely pointless and rarely appreciated. Commenters "pull" (i.e. root) for poets. They sweet-talk poets, glomming onto them like honey. Why should poets change when every voice is marvelling at their work? Where "never is heard a discouraging word" reviewers politely ignore strangers and foreign styles. Not surprisingly, this supportive and protective environment leads to overuse of the same form (i.e. prose with linebreaks), the same theme (i.e. the poet's navel), the same medium (i.e. text), the same [dispassionate] tone, the same [affected] voice, the same everything. All of this comes before an editor's taste narrows variety even further.

Objective critiquers don't have a quota of poems they need to approve/publish this quarter. Easily bored, they push back against anything they've seen too many times before. They push for variety between poets and poems, thus discouraging bandwagon jumpers and one-trick ponies. They push the writer to improve each word, each line, each poem. Homogeneity is the first thing they notice and the last thing they want to see. Members are more interested in making new poems than new friends. (In my experience, those who kvetch about cliques and the tone of critiques--the wrapping over the gift--are just looking for an excuse to leave.)

It may seem counterintuitive at first but any examination of the results and processes should convince us that open workshopping enhances diversity and originality. Were this not so I'm sure the 1-in-10,000 poets who participate on Gazebo, Eratosphere, PFFA and/or Poets.org would be far less successful than they are.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Education I: The Decline of the English Department

The terminal you're using to read this should be enough to convince you that we live in an Information and Leisure Era. We have much more time than any previous generation to spend on our favorite pastime: "processing information", which is a fancy way of saying entertaining ourselves with phones, parties, movies, television or the internet. Being artists, let's concentrate on the latter three media.

Consider technological democratization: two generations ago there were less than a handful of television networks. Pilot programs had to compete against studios producing shows like "The Mary Tyler Show" with million dollar casts and equipment. Television was plutocratic, if only because the costs of production precluded entry by smaller participants.

Today there are thousands of networks, few of which have the advertising revenue to support ambitious projects. Even the largest broadcasting concerns are hyping cheap "reality" shows. The odds are now stacked against the expensive studios and in favor of the talented individual. Anyone with a cell phone camera and a modern microphone can produce videos with sound and resolution superior not only to "The Mary Tyler Show" but to what most televisions can support. The History channel is crying for new documentaries from anybody who knows the URL of a digitized archive and can use a freeware video editor. In short, there are myriad new media and venues along with infinite uses for them; the only things lacking are interesting conceits and the paltry time it takes--often expressed in minutes--to learn and practice techniques as rudimentary as cutting and pasting.

It follows logically that this must be the Golden Age of Art. Universities must be flooded with applicants. Instructors must be taking that one last step between the Ivory Tower and the public by teaching students the fundamentals of presenting their thoughts to the public: marketing, grammar, editing text and video, photography and filming, multimedia, etc. Surely getting an Arts degree requires the basics of serving an audience, right?

Well, not so much.

Please take the time to read William M. Chace's illumination of academia, "The Decline of the English Department - How it happened and what could be done to reverse it". Few accounts of the status quo are as comprehensive and comprehensible as this effort.

Nevertheless, we shouldn't overlook how, even in the "what could be done to reverse it" section, Mr. Chace never mentions the utimate goal of art: entertaining an audience. How many of his concerns would disappear if the arts community, in and out of school, were to focus on its own raison d'être? How much more successful would graduates be if they were taught the practical skills of presentation? Mr. Chace does mention the need for proper grammar, but must we set the bar so low that it could be cleared by an earthworm in street shoes? How about a practicum, such that poets and even actors don't graduate with MFAs without having faced a public audience? How about teaching researchers the basics of databasing? How about markets? Innovation? Technology? Software?

What happened to imagination? Are we doomed to produce yet another generation whose ambition is limited to either teaching or, for the other 97%, sending out oft-rejected manuscripts and proposals while working at McD's? This, while thousands of TV networks and billions of YouTube viewers are starved for novelties?

For which century are we preparing our students?

Saturday, April 7, 2012

...worse than someone stealing your words...

The only thing worse than someone stealing your words is no one stealing your words.

When the video above was posted to YouTube on December 19th, 2011, the copyright owners precluded viewers. No problem. It's their product. By April 7th, 2012, though, they had changed their minds, removing all restrictions worldwide. Why the change of heart?

In fact, this is the trend today. Music producers who go to such great lengths to get their songs onto radio and television are realizing that fan homages like this one are excellent free advertising.

One wonders when poetry publishers will come to the same inescapable conclusion and start using Creative Commons.