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 17, 2012

The Difference an Audience Makes - Part II

Poetry's Revival

    In "The Difference an Audience Makes - Part I" we discussed how, without an audience, criticism inevitably comes to mean its opposite, blurbing.  That is but one of hundreds of effects, almost all of them deleterious, of not having an audience. 

    Just yesterday, July 15th, 2012, in "On the Power of Positive Poetry-Reviewing", one of my poetry heroes (a word I don't use lightly), Seth Abramson, asked this astonishing question:  "You might well tell such a person, 'Look, telling me not to purchase a Ford Flex or a Honda CRV still leaves me with 69,998 car models I know nothing about, and I need and want to buy a car now, so how is this helping me?' And you might well add to that admonishment, 'Can't anyone out there help me figure out which cars I should buy?'"

    The problem is that, if we've ever read a back cover, we know that we can always find someone to blurb anything.  If all 70,000 different brands are being praised--and they will be--how is that remotely helpful?  Might as well just leave such "evaluations" to advertisers, no?  Or cheerleaders.  Why do you suppose a Consumers Guide is a blend of positive and negative?

    The very last thing we need is more blurbers.  At a macrocosmic level, until and unless objective authorities stand up and say "Hell, no!" lazy producers and publishers will continue to crank out unspeakable shite, all of which will be "given unqualified praise."

    If everything is "mahvelous" then nothing is "mahvelous".

Obscurity Equals Failure

    When we are in the entertainment business, which includes but is not limited to art, comedy, film, music, fiction and, lest we forget, poetry, the unknown is the unsuccessful.  Why that obscurity occurs (e.g. our lack of energy, commitment, talent or luck, a heartless public, an unfair system, the numbers game, etc.) matters far less than some may think.  All of us know some very talented artists who, by any practical measure, have failed.

    All of this is equally true at the global level.  Poetry has failed to capture an audience for more than half a century.  The questions are many:  Will it regain its place in the public consciousness?  If so, how and when?  How will we know if it has?  By book and magazine sales?

Lest we have forgotten

    Consider these seemingly unrelated points:

  1. Poetry existed for eons before the written word.

  2. Poets used to be "rock stars", appearing in public theatres and in private gatherings organized by wealthy hosts.

  3. In the seven years since its launch Youtube has resulted in more people viewing contemporary poems than reading them in books, magazines and webzines.

  4. Most cell phone, video camera or webcam owners know how to make and upload videos and/or slide shows.

  5. More than 98% of lyrics searched online are of songs the user has already heard.

  6. More than 90% of scripts purchased are for productions the buyer has attended.

   performance:  Noun

  • the act of performing  a ceremony, play, piece of music, etc.

  • ...the efficiency with which something...fulfills its intended purpose.

    With prose, performance (if it happens at all) usually follows reading, as in a movie based on a novel.  With film, theatre, music, and poetry, performance precedes reading.  Shakespeare's plays were published years after they were staged, and only because the productions were as successful as they were.  Today, the poetry reading tries to encourage poetry reading but fails because it is--you guessed it!--a poetry reading.  As opposed to a performance.  Imagine the prospects of an unknown rock band whose idea of "performing" is limited to reading lyrics aloud onstage.

    Without performance, poetry remains as obscure as sheet music or theatre/film scripts would be without performances.

The good news

    Not only is the sorry state of poetry criticism, publication and acceptance changing but the speed of that metamorphosis is increasing geometrically.  Evolution is occurring at speeds previously associated with revolution.  By the time we formulate predictions they are already the status quo.  We need to "predict" in the present progressive tense.

    So, what grand transitional event is happening?  I am betting that before 2020--perhaps today--poetry produces something for the first time in half a century:  iconic words.  That's right.  By 2020 we will no longer be able to say that the average person is unable to cite a single line of poetry written since 1970.  All it takes is one poem going viral.  How long will this take?  Personally, I'm surprised it hasn't happened already!

    Let's break the sequence of events down.  Almost all print venues have a web version and almost all of those feature videos:  interviews, readings/performances, and slide shows.  With this in mind, submitters are beginning to include URLs of their poems on video to permit the editor and no one else to view the performance.  (Currently, the easiest way to do so is to upload it to YouTube and mark it as "Private".) 

    In a choice between texts of equal caliber a video could be the deciding factor.  Even if it isn't up to the publisher's professional standards the video helps the editor envision the motif.

    The next hurdle is the publishing world's fixation on first serial rights.  In due course, some practical editors--assuming that isn't an oxymoron in the poetry world--will realize what an opportunity they are squandering.  They will go from demanding YouTube videos be Private to insisting that they be Public.  By doing so editors can see how many viewers it attracts and what their opinion of it is.  In both senses of the term, editors can see how the poem performs.  Think test marketing here.  If and when the piece is accepted its author will be asked to change the YouTube title to include the periodical's name before the poem's (e.g. Pat's Poetry Review:  "Proof Rocks") and include a link to the webzine.  In this way, every work published becomes an advertisement on one of the highest trafficked sites in the world.  Now that there's a link to something with broader appeal than text we can add social media into the mix.  Poetry could go from being dead to being a centerpiece of our culture in the space of 24 hours. 

    Magazines and webzines are by no means the only ones that benefit from the web's multimedia options.  Individual books have pages on publishers' and booksellers' sites.  These will accommodate videos or links to them as they are created.  Inevitably, people will purchase poetry collections for the same reason they bought music CDs:  because they already love one or more of the pieces included.  Let's not forget the effect of participation.  Having acquired the book or e-book, readers might become video producers of other poems from it, creating an upward spiral of success. 

    A new paradigm is being born.

    Tuesday, July 10, 2012

    The Jury Is Excused. Or Not.

        I know what you are thinking:  "What does this have to do with poetry?"

        Everything.  Trust me.  If not, then humor me.

    Michael Cunningham

        The announcement in April that, for the tenth time, there would be no 2012 Pulitzer Prize winner for fiction seems to have astonished the literary community.  I have no idea why.

        Michael Cunningham's inside view of the process, "Letter from the Pulitzer Fiction Jury:  What Really Happened This Year", continued here, was illuminating--perhaps more so than he realized.

        As always, the 3-reader jury rendered up three finalists to the 18 member board.  These tomes were regarded with such disdain by the final arbiters that they didn't bother to ask for other submissions.  Did they feel that this particular trio, Michael Cunningham, Maureen Corrigan, and Susan Larson, would not produce a candidate worthy of a Pulitzer?  If so, was it because there were no great novels proffered in 2012?  Can 300+ sets of blurbers all be wrong?  Possibly.  Otherwise, we turn to the jury, a remarkably homogenous group (i.e. "three slices of academic NPR white bread") embracing a single, peculiar aesthetic.


    Maureen Corrigan
         Some of their predilections would raise eyebrows, at least.  According to the standards they defined for themselves, the "visionary" was to be preferred over the "modest", even if the former lacked the wherewithal to bring that dreamscape to life.  That "every line should be a good one" would be a stringent requirement even in poetry (pacing, anyone?).  The writing must have an "original voice" (WTF?) and a "solidly crafted structure" (apparently, nothing else needs to be solidly crafted, just the structure).  As every soap opera or Gothic Romance fan knows, love stories must all "depict the body of darker emotions that are integral to love: moments of rage, disappointment, pettiness, and greed, to name a few."  I guess anything else would be...what?  Insufficiently clichéd?  For me, the smoking gun was this sentence:  "We would tend to favor the grand, flawed effort over the exquisitely crafted miniature."  In other words, they wanted ramblers, not economy, purple rather than tight prose.  That's right.  Concision would be regarded as a liability.  Leave brevity to poets, I suppose!

         For example, this elephantine excerpt from Denis Johnson's "Train Dreams", a train wreck complete with questionable em dash and semicolon use, superfluous cliché (e.g. "vividly", "ever", "white", "wondrous"), ending only eventually and with a moribund personification, is touted as "magnificently written, stylistically innovative, and...profoundly American":

    "All his life Robert Grainier would remember vividly the burned valley at sundown, the most dreamlike business he’d ever witnessed waking--the brilliant pastels of the last light overhead, some clouds high and white, catching daylight from beyond the valley, others ribbed and gray and pink, the lowest of them rubbing the peaks of Bussard and Queen mountains; and beneath this wondrous sky the black valley, utter still, the train moving through it making a great noise but unable to wake this dead world."

         All three jury members have taught creative writing or literature.  Perhaps their next course could be on everything that is wrong with Johnson's sentence.

         A similar ouverture from David Foster Wallace’s "The Pale King" begins with the same conjunctionitis, turns into a seed catalogue and then, like so much roughage, ends as tripe:

    "Past the flannel plains and the blacktop graphs and skylines of canted rust, and past the tobacco-brown river overhung with weeping trees and coins of sunlight through them on the water downriver, to the place beyond the windbreak, where untilled fields simmer shrilly in the a.m. heat: shattercane, lamb’s-quarter, cutgrass, sawbrier, nutgrass, jimsonweed, wild mint, dandelion, foxtail, muscatine, spinecabbage, goldenrod, creeping charlie, butter-print, nightshade, ragweed, wild oat, vetch, butcher grass, invaginate volunteer beans, all head gently nodding in a morning breeze like a mother’s soft hand on your cheek."

         Could you imagine not knowing the difference between that and Pulitzer Prize winning writing?  If these are the exemplars shouldn't the also-rans be reported to the EPA and the rejects quarantined with the Spanish Flu virus?

    Susan Larson
         Had the same tastes and acumen been shared by jury and board the latter would have either liked one of the nominated tomes or asked for a fourth.  Can we draw inferences about the expectations of the board, whose members were described as "primarily journalists and academics"?

         Actually, yes, I believe we can.

         The who-what-where-when-why journalists weren't going to like the florid passages.  Similarly, at least some of the academics were likely to have more experience with poetry, such that they might hold a far more positive view of the succinct.  Among the eighteen, some may have been more perspicacious about proper grammar and punctuation than Larson, Corrigan and Cunningham.  Clearly, the board understood that there could have been dozens of Pulitzer-quality books in that pile but that these three screeners wouldn't find one before the deadline.

        "When Maureen, Susan, and I talked Big Book," Mr. Cunningham explains, "we were thinking almost literally--a book that was, if not over five hundred pages long, vast in its scope, enormous in its concerns."

         Gee, how can we argue with this bigger-is-better "logic"?  After all, at used book stores all over America literature is occasionally sold by the pound.  Why should Pulitzer judges use a different scale? 

         In lamenting the inability to find a winner, Mr. Cunningham says that an "American writer has been ill served and underestimated."  We can only hope he understands that the odds are better than 100-to-1 that he and his two fellow jurists were the ones doing the underestimating.  To wit, the jury read and tossed over 300 books;  the board received and rejected only three and, from what we've seen, those were eyesores.

         This debacle confirms a few points I may have touched (read:  harped) on in the past:

    • Cudgel #1:  Except as a voting bloc, three heads with a single thought are not better than one.  Save money and dump two of them.  Remember:  you're trying to create a judge's chamber, not an echo chamber.  Having three jurists is a luxury that other contests can only envy;  use it to include three different sensitivities or perspectives and more than one community.  Don't worry if your selectors don't get along as well as these three did.  You're dealing with High Art, not High Tea.

    • Cudgel #2:  Juries need to be charged.  Even the broadest aesthetic needs to be presented as such, lest it be abridged, as it was here.  The mandate from the Committee was simple:  find exceptional writing.  That is the kind you would recommend to your mature offspring, the kind you remember long after you forget reading "Zen Zombies and the Art of Trailer Park Maintenance".  The mandate made no mention of "insufficiently complicated" plots.  We aren't talking about dime store Indiana Jones travelogue thrillers.  Indeed, Hemingway managed to win a Pulitzer by writing about an old man, a fish, and the sea.  That's it, the whole plot line, character list and setting:  man, fish, sea.

    • Cudgel #3:  The Pulitzer Prize is an award, not a contest.  It isn't about "the best entry submitted" or even "the best of 2012";  it's about the best.  Period.  If the 18 panelists didn't see anything of the calibre of "The Stone Diaries", "The Executioner's Song", "To Kill A Mockingbird" or "Tales of the South Pacific" then they made the perfect choice.

    • Cudgel #4:  Don't select jurists who worry about being "seduced by the language".  That is what good writing is all about.

    Monday, July 9, 2012

    The Difference an Audience Makes - Part I

    A Public Safety Officer sees a blind woman walking toward an open manhole. Should the PSO warn her?  Or say nothing?

    You might expect that, barring a psychopath or two, everyone would say "Yes, warn her!" even if it were not the PSO's job. What ethical person would remain silent there?

    Jan Zwicky
    This is what reviewers do. They buoy works, boosting the profiles of great novels such as "Stone Diaries" while placing markers over "Howard the Duck" so we'll avoid it. In fact, it doesn't even have to be a full review; a rating on a "Best of..." list might suffice for the impatient web surfer. For this service we are all grateful.

    Thus, when some ignore my advice to the contrary and read "The Ethics of the Negative Review" by Jan Zwicky they are gobsmacked. It's not merely the sloppy editing; much of the verbiage is an argument against bringing up various tangents in the first place. We can only guess Ms. Zwicky's DELete key is broken. No, what amazes many is the central thesis that reviewers, not to be confused with blurbers, are meanies. In addition to all of the objections raised by Michael Lista in "On Poetry: The good in bad reviews", there is the painfully obvious point that the "ethics" of bad reviews is the very same as the "ethics" of good ones: "Ya calls 'em as ya sees 'em."

    End of story, right?

    Michael Lista
    People from outside the poetry worlds would certainly think so. Of what use would Rex Reed or Siskel and Hebert have been if they didn't pan clunkers? Ditto fiction critics.

    Online poets certainly don't have a problem with negative feedback. (Feel free to test this with your own discussion thread:  blog, Facebook, newslist, etc.  Ask:  "How do you feel about negative reviews in poetry?"). By definition, online workshoppers regularly engage in constructive critique, based as it is on a negative premise: this poem isn't perfect yet. That is their focus:  poems, not poets.  As a group they discuss technique and originality, always with a view toward the existing poetry audience.

    The problem with "the existing poetry audience" is that it doesn't actually exist, which makes any question about reviews--or poetry itself--all the more existential. If there is no audience--and there isn't--then there is no blind woman striding toward an open sewer. Indeed, there are no residents at all. What does it matter if there is a pitfall in a ghost town?  What purpose is served by pointing out this carelessness beyond gratuitously embarrassing the worker who forgot to replace the manhole cover?  Someone's job could be on the line here.

    We need another analogy.

    By definition, those in the careerist world endeavor to create an attractive CV and acquire a job teaching poetry. Get a book or two published in a local/university press and a few poems in high profile literary magazines, none of which are targeted beyond their academic contributors. Virtually any wan, allusive, intellectualized prose will suffice. Get a few well known friends to blurb it and you're good to go.

    Seen in this light, negative reviewers become unwelcome interlopers. It is as if they are barging into a job interview to tell the prospector employer that the applicant is a poo-head.