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

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Novels versus Poetry - Part III

    In Parts I and II we discussed the value and nature of performance.  Now it's time to revisit an old theme to examine the approaches of prose versus poetry.  If you're a regular here you are more than familiar with the Watermelon Problem:  how do we get readers to notice exceptional writing?  What pedestals do we use to highlight masterpieces?

    Prose writers have the luxury of using an axe to cut through this Gordian knot.  Reviewers do help but novels are so popular that, as long as we get their genre right, they will usually find a readership.  As long as it makes it into the stores or libraries, the worst whodunit of 2013 will fetch far more readers than the best contemporary poetry collection.  Once the work finds its audience reader discussion, critics and the passage of time will separate the Timothy Findleys from the Stephen Kings.

    The novel's size will force a consumer to devote a whole day's leisure time to it.  He or she will stay up late trying to finish it before sleeping on it.  No film or poem will be accorded such time and attention.  In essence, the fiction world solves the problem by growing a watermelon so humungous that nothing else will fit on the cart.  Crude, but effective.

    Compare this to what little individual attention poems will receive from consumers, nestled in collections with other pieces.  Things are even worse at the wholesale level, where great verse might be overlooked by overworked editors.

    So far this century the poetry world--print, pixel or stage--has not solved the Watermelon Problem.  No best sellers.  No viral YouTubes.  No memorable movie or television dramatizations.  No iconic verse, even within the fragmented community itself.  True, every Usenetter knows "Hookers"* by Marco Morales and all webbers beyond the blogosphere are familiar with Maz's "Studying Savonarola" but even these classics are unknown outside their medium.  If we can't popularize the signature poem of the greatest poet of our time, what chance do the rest have?

    Whatever the solution, it doesn't start with a poetry magazine that has a circulation lower than a campus newspaper.  It may begin with their staff, though.  Imagine a forward-thinking editorial group, organization or individual searching for the word "poetry" on YouTube, contacting the authors of the very best offerings to get permission, and creating an eclectic series based on such efforts.  In time, a publication could get the word out to encourage YouTube poets to include the name of the periodical in their posts (e.g. "Could you please mention our magazine/webzine, 'Rattling Pedestal', when you post your videopoems?  This will help us with our searches and signal your willingness to participate.").  Meanwhile, existing 'zine fans could be encouraged to post audiovisual productions of their work to the Internet.  Indeed, one could save resources by creating a videopoetry channel like Nic Sebastian's "Whale Sound Poetry" and linking to it.  What could be simpler?

    Indeed, that may well be the future of the poetry 'zine:  to address the Watermelon Problem by highlighting and documenting the best written, performed and produced poetry of our time.

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #33
    One final point:  Poetry needs to get over itself.  Let's stop promoting by mode.  Seriously.  Who does that?  Do we go to movie theaters to see films or cinematography?  Do we go to bars for drinks or liquids? 

    Imagine if people used the term "prose" in the same way, [correctly] describing everything other than poetry.  The reason no one ever says "Hey, let's go check out some prose" is that it could mean anything from political speeches on C-Span, a contemporary play on Broadway, a novel or an instruction manual to the latest Star Wars movie.  There is nothing prose can do that poetry can't.  In dealing with the public, at least, let's remove the words "prose", "poetry" and "verse" from our focus.


* "Hookers", by Marco Morales:

Missing you again
I embrace shallow graves
pale faces, doughlike breasts
help me forget.

Novels versus Poetry - Part II

    When poetry books approach parity with novels we'll see verse collections in book clubs.

    Don't hold your breath.

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #15
    In "Novels versus Poetry - Part I" we established the primacy of performance (in poetry, at least).  Note the term "performance", never "recital" and certainly not "reading".  Too many videos sound like the voice is following from text.  Perhaps they believe that we viewers can't detect this. 

    We can. 

     That would be fine for prose, which is meant to be read, aloud if necessary.  Not so for poetry (as distinct from "poetry for poets").

    In this brief installment we're going to define the Actor's Prime Directive, something that should be taught as Lesson #1 on Day #1 of Acting 101.  Everything we need to know about convincing role play flows from this fundamental principle.  What is more, we're going to define it in five words.

    Most theater arts texts will phrase this maxim as "make your words your own."  This could be misunderstood, much as "these are your lines" is what production assistants say while handing you your script.  You need to make your speech sound natural.  Even if everyone present knows that Shakespeare wrote your dialogue in language that was obsolete centuries before you were born, "sound natural" means you must make us viewers believe, for the moment at least, that you are the author and are making it up as you go along.

    If you never derive anything else from this humble squirrel, understand this:

    As a performer, your job isn't to convince us that you composed your words. 

    As a performer, your job is to convince us that you are composing your words.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Novels versus Poetry - Part I

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #26
    From "Where have all the young poets gone":

   "Sales figures reflect this;  only around £13 of the £2436 million pounds revenue from 2004 book sales was generated by poetry."

    Not only is fiction outselling poetry 200 to 1 but most of those poetry sales are of classical verse.  The number of poetry readers--most of whom read far more prose than poetry--is also dropping.  From "Newsweek" via "The Daily Beast":

   "Yet according to the NEA report, in 2008, just 8.3 percent of adults had read any poetry in the preceding 12 months. That figure was 12.1 percent in 2002, and in 1992, it was 17.1 percent, meaning the number of people reading poetry has decreased by approximately half over the past 16 years."

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #32
    Thus, we're seeing fewer people reading less poetry, very little of which is contemporary.  The basis for optimism is tiny:  of the classical literature that people are buying today, the majority is verse.  This makes it easier for us to accept the fact that there was, indeed, a time when fiction took a back seat to poetry.

    With the advent of various modern forms of mass communication everyone predicted the demise of literature.  Why read poetry when you can listen to [verse set to] music on the radio?  Later, the question arose:  why read novels when you can wait for the movie to come out or watch television instead?  Later still, would Internet options, including social network banter, replace novels?  In an instant gratification generation with no attention span, would consumers be willing to invest hours into any endeavor?

    As we know, the Cassandras were right about poetry (i.e. music on the radio did replace verse), wrong regarding fiction.  Not only did the novel not perish at the hands of audiovisuals, it thrived!  Why so?  How so?

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #20
    The answer, in a word, was performance.  Poetry needs it.  Fiction benefits from production without requiring it.  In poetry, the order of occurrence--performance before reading--matters;  not so with prose.  To wit, we might watch a film, video or play before or after reading the book;  one begets the other in a chicken-and-egg scenario.  By contrast, poetry sales figures make it abundantly clear that no one buys poetry without performance of that poem, of that poet's work or of poetry in general.  Aside from the paltry numbers involved, the model of publishing a tome and then doing readings for a few dozen friends and fellow poets fails for two reasons:
  1. it must be a performance, not a reading;  and,

  2. it is ass-backwards:  live, film or theatrical production comes before any expectation of profitable text publication.
Earl the Squirrel's Rule #31
    This was true even in poetry's heyday.  Shakespeare's plays were not collected and published until well after he retired.  How many copies would his scripts have sold without production?  Just as you don't buy MP3s of songs/artists you've never heard, interest in individual poets usually began with seeing their work performed, not necessarily by the poet*.  If enough of that writer's work caught your fancy you might buy the book or catch the author on tour.  Contrast that to poetry's status quo:  to no one's surprise, people who have never encountered a contemporary poem being performed competently are not enthused about reading any particular poem or poetry in general.  How many Superbowl tickets are purchased by those who have never seen a football game?

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #21
    We don't need to guess how modern audiences read poetry.  They don't.  In centuries past, though, poetry was a primary source of entertainment.  It was incumbent on you to perform it well, if only because it permitted you to impress not only the community at large but that certain someone with whom you were "sparking"--even with all four parents present.  As people read poems for the first time they envisioned it being acted out, perhaps by themselves.  In this way, text could never hope to precede performance, real or imagined.  Chances are good that, for those who didn't grow up with poetry performance, no one will be able to explain this paradox;  for those who did grow up with poetry performance, no one needs to.

    Poetry isn't about audience;  it's about audience participation.


* The notion that anyone other than the author would want to perform a contemporary poem seems utterly foreign to today's poets.  As long as this is the case there is no hope for poetry's reanimation.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Zombie Poetry Part II: You Should Perform

    ...for all the reasons you don't want to.

"I'm too shy!"

    That's a given.  Otherwise, the mere existence of an audience would pull you in like a bee to pistils, a bridger to Stayman or Bill to Flowers.

     For us squirrels, timidity is survival, like your fear of snakes, spiders, heights or tax audits.  The same reserve is not so healthy with humans in general, poets especially.  A shy verser is like an acrophobic paratrooper.

    As an introvert, your perfect test audience would be a group of deaf and blind people turned in your direction.  Well, that pretty much describes the average slam or open mic audience.  These people are so self-absorbed, even when not waiting for their three minutes of fame, that you could probably strip naked and dance a tarantella without any of them noticing.  (This may explain why nudity is among the few things expressly forbidden at slams.)

     As a newcomer, regardless of how well or badly your performance goes, 30 seconds after you finish no one present will be able to pick you out of a lineup.

"Aren't those people slightly creepy/crazy?"

    This is a gross misapprehension based on a ridiculous stereotype.  Open mic and slam afficionados are not "slightly creepy/crazy".

     They are completely so.  Lest you doubt me, try showing up five minutes before starting time.  Watch the performers robotting about, making spastic movements and gestures while grunting and whispering to themselves.  They are either poets practicing their presentations or zombies, and the smart money isn't on "poets practicing".

     Do not worry about your safety, though.  Such events are like boarding the Borg cube;  if you aren't seen as a threat you aren't seen at all.  That said, stick close to the organizers and MC, just to be sure.  (Why staff members aren't forced to wear white coats is anybody's guess.)

"But my interest is in teaching, not writing or performing, poetry."

    Of the the myriad reasons to practice performance, none trumps the fact that you will be quoting poetry to students on a regular basis.  To put this in perspective, only the need for teachers to perform poetry exceeds the need for students to read it.  That may seem like hyperbole to anyone unfamiliar with Literature or Creative Writing course dropout rates.

"But these performers are so much better than I!"

    Hell, no, they ain't.  You must participate in order to appreciate the fact that, sight unseen, when you take that stage for the first time you'll be among the three best presenters present.  Don't believe me?  This guy is a world champion slammer:

    Did he go to the same acting school as William Shatner?*

"If these performers are so bad what am I going to learn from them?"

    Nothing.  If you're extremely fortunate you'll find someone who isn't trying to cram as much angst into 180 seconds as possible.  You will find a friendly (or, at least, totally indifferent) audience, though.  This will help you overcome your fear of public speaking.  You'll discover why reading poetry aloud works only on kindergarteners.  You'll learn to perform from memory so that you can look the mealy-mouthed bastards in the eye to know how well you're really doing.  None of this can be convincingly imparted by a squirrel on a blog;  it can only be learned through experience.

"But slam is a competition!"

    And getting published in a high end literary magazine isn't?

    Ignore the competitive aspect of slams.  The judging is insane.  As recently as this week I saw a competitor blow the audience, including the judges, away, only to earn 7s and 8s.  The next poet put everyone to sleep.  The judges shook off the effects of their slumber, looked at who was climbing off the stage, and flashed 9s and 10s.

    There is a competition going on here but it is far more subtle than the one involving drunken judges raising cards with numbers on them.

"But I don't write for an audience."

    Then isn't it time you started?

"But I write for myself."

    They why show it to anyone?

"Sorry, I meant to say that I write for poetry readers."

    Why not for something more numerous, like unicorns?

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #31

    Let's take a best case scenario:  A fair-sized publisher puts out your poetry collection.  You'll be asked to do book signings and readings.  Why readings?  Because even publishers understand that poetry is not primarily a textual or an audio art form.  Like standup, television and movies, it is an audiovisual one. 

    Let's say there are so many attendees that the event can't be held in a phone booth.  (I'm sorry.  Phone booths were tiny alcoves built to accomodate obsolete land line telephones.)  Knowing that viewers may own videophones and that poetry readings cause narcolepsy, don't you think the time you spent overcoming your shyness and developing performance skills might come in handy now?  Whose video will make a bigger and better impression online?  Your scintillating display or readings that cause stocks in Ambien to tumble?

"Won't this change the way I regard and write poetry?"

    Only if you're lucky.

"I don't know.  Open mics don't sound like something I'd like."



     Are you kidding me?

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #30
     You will loathe every second of it.  After the first one you'll resolve to never return.  You will wonder why you ever listened to some silly squirrel on the Internet.  You'll stay away for months.  Maybe years. 

     Then, an eerie, perverse, Capistranic homing instinct will kick in, inexorably drawing you back.  Soon you will be making friends and looking forward to the next get-together.  Nevertheless, you will remain an outsider until that one, transformative moment when a few listeners, their eyes gleaming with fascination, lean forward and smile.  If only for a instant, you will own them.

     And they you. 


*  William Shatner in an acting class?  What was I thinking!?

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Practical Poetry: Presentation

     This being the last installment, let's take stock of what students have learned:
  • The definition of poetry (i.e. verbatim speech);

  • scansion;

  • sonics:  the effective use and repetition of sounds;

  • form in both the broadest (e.g. technique) and narrowest (e.g. sonnets, limericks, villanelles, et cetera) senses;

  • the jargon;

  • the perils of Content Regency and Convenient Poetics;

  • the value of performance;

  • that song lyrics have eclipsed [spoken] poetry in our culture; and,

  • that a market for [spoken] poetry will have to be created.

     As rudimentary as this knowledge is, it places the student in a tiny minority of those who like to think of themselves as poets, well ahead of most PhDs and any of the hundreds of MFA graduates we'll meet.  Now we come to the most important poetry lesson they will ever learn.

     Time to repeat that experiment (i.e. "Find two mediocre contest-winning and/or published poems that have been blurbed.  Add this poem and this verse  into the mix.  Ask your students which two of these poems are better than the other two.  Record your results.")  Before taking the vote, though, show them the blurbs of the two poems you chose and the analyses of "Savonarola" and "Beans" poems.

     This time we'll discuss the results.  Ask the class which was more compelling:  the blurbs or the analyses? 

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #21

     The students' first exposure to these four pieces was as readers.  After they learned about the craft, critical thinking and the value of performance the consensus typically moved toward the technical masterpieces.  This was also a remarkably accurate predictor of who would drop out of the course along the way:  those without an ear for poetry were more likely to vote for the lesser works and more likely to give up early.

     This is not news.  In general, the more people know about anything the more they will enjoy it.  Baseball, football, needlepoint, science, bridge, chess, fishing, Russian verb tenses, anything.  The more we know about philosophy the more we're going to enjoy it, with or without linebreaks.  The more we know about the elements of poetry the more we're going to appreciate it as opposed to doggerel or prose with linebreaks--including deep, philosophical or dramatic prose with linebreaks.

     This brings us round to a discussion of presentation, either performance (often recorded for a larger audience) or graphics.


     Check out some of the astounding recitations on "Poetry Out Loud".  Why, oh, why, can't adult poets--especially but not strictly slammers--come close to this standard?  Another point of discussion is the chronological decline in performance value.  Like rings on a tree, we can guess a poem's age by how difficult it is for the reciter to render it without sounding like a Tamarian's interpreter.


    Montages, dramatizations or slide shows featuring the text or an audio recording of the words can be very effective.  Ideally, the instructor could go through some of the basics of creating such videos and how to upload them to a site like YouTube. 

    The class might discuss whether the somewhat amateurish videos of "Savonarola" and "Beans" add to their effect.

         No amount of graphic technique will rescue shoddy writing, as the finalists of the VidLit Contest so aptly demonstrate.  That said, we shouldn't use this as an excuse for not acquiring those film skills.  That combination of skills is the future of poetry.


           If we could encapsulate the fundamental nature of great poetry as opposed to fine prose, rhetoric, film or theatre it would be thus:

           Poetry isn't about what you say but how you say it.  It's about the words, not the message.

    Zombie Poetry Part I

        For reasons no one can fathom the question reappears:  "Is Poetry Dead?"

       As a participatory sport golf is booming.  Duffers take to the links in unprecedented numbers, many without any care that they will never get a tour card and compete professionally.  Teaching golf can provide a steady, if not spectacular, income for some.  In these two senses poetry thrives, too.  There is more verse being produced and published today than at any time in the past.  Creative Writing and MFA programs are cranking out graduates in near-record numbers.  Conducting poetry seminars and workshops augments many an income.

    Earl the Squirrel's Rule #5
        As a spectator sport golf is doing well, bouyed by lucrative television contracts, thanks to millions of faithful viewers.  Poetry?  Not so much.  A century ago every newspaper and most magazines had a poetry column.  Now?  Not so much.  Before the effect of mass media, starting with radio, poets were rock stars.  Now?  The 2009 death of the woman voted the greatest poet of our time barely made the local news outlets.  People used to recite contemporary poetry often and at length.  Now?  Few people today can recite a single line of poetry written in the last half century.  In his May 4th, 2003 Newsweek article Bruce Wexler said, "poetry is the only art form where the number of people creating it is far greater than the number of people appreciating it."  As Dylan sang, "I heard 10,000 whispering and nobody listening."

        In short, poetry is booming on the supply side, moribund on the demand side.  No one needs a degree in Economics to grok that demand can create supply but supply does not create demand. 

        "Anyone can write a bad poem," continues Mr. Wexler. "To appreciate a good one, though, takes knowledge and commitment." 

         As long as this is the case--or even the perception--debate is over.  Poetry is history.  Of course, there will be glib namedroppers,, self-interested deniers, knee-jerkers and the-customer-is-always-wrong shamers but the coroner's report is in:  poetry is dead and has been for more than half a century.  Why else would we be trying to reanimate it?

         As we'll see, even those who understand the obvious can still say some silly things.

    Nathan A Thompson

         In "Poetry slams do nothing to help the art form survive" Nathan A Thompson expresses agreement.

         "Poetry is dying. Actually, it's pretty dead already for all intents and purposes..."

          He quickly goes off the rail, though:

         "...the rise of performance poetry slams is doing nothing to help matters. I know, I used to be a performance poet."

         It's a tiny point but "performance poet" is a reserved phrase for something quite separate from "slam poet".  The former exists in an "anything goes" environment;  typically, slam does not allow costumes, music or props.  Call it quibbling, but such incautious use of language bodes poorly.  Sure enough, he soon lapses into nonsense:

    Earl the Squirrel's Rule #23
         "There was no cabal of posh people who had purposely made poetry unintelligible."

          L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E.  Postmodernism.

         "Poetry has always been words on a page..."

         ...if we don't count the eons and cultures that produced poetry without benefit of literacy.

         "The politicisation of art and the drawing of sectarian lines continues to damage poetry to this today."

          Can anyone name a single competitive or artistic endeavor that hasn't benefitted from stylistic differences and strategic/aesthetic arguments?  No?  Neither can I.

         "I have taught poetry to hundreds of children aged seven to 14 and not one of them could name me a poet beyond Shakespeare."

          Then WTF were you teaching them?

    Earl the Squirrel's Rule #26
         "A further nail in the coffin is the rise of poetry slams."

          Oh, this should be good.

         "I have performed at many slams and the audience is almost always half drunk..."

          Not to be confused with habitués at poetry readings, all of whom wish they were falling-down drunk.

         "The only division in poetry is between those people willing to take the time to read it and those who will not."

          What about those willing to watch it?  In addition to slam, open mic and performance fans, were Shakespeare's theatre attendees not poetry lovers?

    Earl the Squirrel's Rule #16
          "Most slam poems are not strong enough to be published in even minor poetry journals."

          And do those "published in...minor poetry journals" routinely win slams?  Is this an "apples make poor orange juice" argument?  Are we forgetting that most poems published in minor poetry journals "are not strong enough to be published in even minor poetry journals?"

         "It's like there is an oedipal urge to kill the art that made it."

         Did I miss a memo?  When did it become illegal to enjoy contemporary, modern and classical poetry?

    Earl the Squirrel's Rule #2
         "We cannot allow slam poetry to replace the role poetry plays in our lives."

         Bafflegab.  "We cannot allow...poetry to replace...poetry...?"  Says who, why not, and how so?

         "There is a school of thought that thinks slams are the answer."

         And what was the question again?

         "Poetry, like all art, whispers its message and we must learn to slow down and take the time to hear it."

         "Whispers?"  I thought poetry had to be read.  I'm so confused!

    Bottom line:  Don't confuse a mode (i.e. poetry versus prose) with a medium (i.e. text versus speech).

    Alexandra Petri

         Because it appeared in the Washington Post Alexandra Petri's "Is poetry dead?" drew a lot more fire.  Actually, it made a number of good points but couldn't seem to get the time of death right.  The last anglophone who could eke out a meager living from writing for adults died in 1953, 60 years before Richard Blanco's inaugural effort.

         "You can tell that a medium is still vital by posing the question:  Can it change anything?"

         Again, it's mode, not medium.  Changing things seems an odd criterion.  What if we simply want to report things?  Or praise them.  Or commemorate them.  Or laugh about them.  Not all communication is exhortation.

    Earl the Squirrel's Rule #7
         "... a very carefully gated medium that requires years of study and apprenticeship in order to produce meticulous, perfect, golden lines..."

         Okay, so we've established that Ms. Petri has never been to a slam.

         "All literature used to be poetry."

         Yes, as we all know, cave-dwellers spoke only in rhyming couplets that were memorized and recited by everyone else in the tribe.  Storytelling came later. 

         "But then fiction splintered off."

         Do people actually think before they write this stuff?

         "All the things that poetry used to do, other things do much better."

         Name one.  She mentions visual art, which has coexisted with poetry for almost as long as we've had caves.  True, songwriting did replace [spoken] poetry in popularity but, aside from lyrics being a subset of verse, too often the music overwhelms the words.

    Gwydion Suilebhan
         At this point playwright Gwydion Suilebhan steps up to the plate.  No one knows why.

         "What pretends to be poetry now is either New Age blather or vague nonsense or gibberish. It's zombie poetry."

         As are many plays these days.  All are easily ignored without abandoning the art form.  Speaking of form...

         "There is no longer, really, any formal innovation possible."

         Wow.  Curginas, corata, cada líneas, cliché collages, reversers...  Such profound ignorance* leaves me speechless. 

         But not for long.

         "The constraints of meter have long been abandoned."

         By whom?  Those incapable of recognizing, let alone employing, meter in the first place?

         Alexandra goes on to make some valid points.  Yes, Blanko's inaugural poem was an embarrassment.  Public funding for poetry, while meagre, is a serious controversy, but one I'll leave for another day.

         And, yes, poetry is dead.

         But not for long.


    * To be fair, if Mr. Suilebhan were using his terms advisedly he would be correct.  We cannot create new forms without an audience to serve as a testing ground.  (By that token, we can't have poetry--or any other mode of communication--without an audience.)  He means that we can't have new structures, though, which is ridiculous.

    Friday, February 15, 2013

    Practical Poetry: Criticism versus promotion

    Elizabeth Taylor (1932-02-27 to 2011-03-23)
        It doesn't make any sense.  To casual observers the blurbosphere is a double-thinking ecosystem dedicated to a subjective group belief that the emperor is well accoutered.  Sustaining this delusion is easier than one might imagine:  keep the indiscreet kiddies off the street, keep your headphones plugged into the echo chamber, your eyes between the blinders and your head below the parapets.  Remain willfully ignorant of all other poetry worlds (e.g.  online, slam, commercial, performance, et cetera), some of which are larger than the PoBiz.  Volumes have been written on this lexicological discovery:  whereas oxymorons have previously required two or more terms, in the blurbosphere the word criticism--without scare quotes, mind you--translates to "anything but criticism". 

        The worst of it is that these "critics" actually think they're helping to promote poetry in general.  They expend their energy trying to dictate to prospective consumers what they should like rather than predicting whether or not they will.  Even by Sturgeon's Revelation, 90% of the underlying work is crud.  Add in the fact that, by definition, business card poetry isn't audience-oriented, most of it written by people who don't know iambs from trochees, and that 90% skyrockets to 99+%.  Blurbing such drivel simply causes readers to question the critic's judgement/taste/integrity or to shrug their shoulders and say:  "If this is 'poetry' I want nothing to do with it."

        It makes no sense!  At least, not to the casual observer.

        In fact, the logic of both groups is impeccable, even though the paths diverge early and sharply.  Both groups begin with the same undeniable premise.  This is how practical poets approach and appreciate reviewing:

    • There is no audience for poetry.

    • Ergo, we must create one.

    • We learn the elements of our craft in order to please an audience.

    • Objective criticism and audience feedback measure our progress.

    • Dishonest appraisals/reactions would be counterproductive.

        Compare this idealism to the blurber's thought process:

    • There is no audience for poetry.

    • Ergo, there is no feedback.  No need for crowd-pleasing forms or techniques.  Tree, falling, forest.

    • With rare exceptions, the only opportunities are in teaching.

    • Teaching requires publication credits from PoBiz publishers who form the opposite end of the blurbosphere.

    • Actual criticism would be as unwelcome as an intruder bursting into a job interview to badmouth the applicant.

        Those of us outside the bubble might remark on the defeatist tack but, truth be told, the blurbot's vision is, if anything, more practical than that of the "practical poet".

        "Read a lot of poetry" is good advice for everyone, not just poets.  I, myself, repeat it like a mantra.  First, though, we must stress the word poetry, as opposed to what Leonard Cohen described as "other forms of boredom advertised as poetry."  Second, we must stop abridging the truism;  it should say "Watch and then read a lot of poetry."

         "Show, don't tell" should apply not just to writing poetry but to criticism and promotion as well.  Rather than telling us that such-and-such is good why not demonstrate it via performance?  What better way to promote poems/poets/poetry than to display the words in their most engaging and entertaining light to the widest possible audience? (More on this presently.)

    Writing Reviews

        Scholarly criticism is the long view of verse:  trends, styles, schools, influences, et cetera.  What is this piece's role in poetry's evolution?

         Critiquing involves suggesting changes directly to the author before publication.  Is this poem ready for prime time yet?

         Reviewing is the past tense of critiquing except that it serves and is directed at prospective consumers.  Is this finished verse worth accessing?

         Within the blurbosphere the product is almost invariably a book.  Outside the bubble, it may also be a live performance (if so, bring a video camera and record it) or appear on a website as either text or a video performance, dramatization, montage or slideshow.

        When it comes to writing reviews of poetry books only Guideline #1 applies:


    Earl the Squirrel's Rule #9
        "Why not?" you ask.  Because No One Gives A Shit (i.e. "NOGAS").  Few enough people read poetry in toto.  Why would anyone want to read an analysis of some utterly obscure subset "heavy with proverbs and corrections?"  Worse yet, the process is ass-backwards.  Why not wait until the poems, poet or, better yet, the art form has a following?  Otherwise, by definition, NOGAS.  Knowing how few will ever see the critic's or the poet's efforts, reviewing is like performing an autopsy on a ghost.

        The indiscriminate practice of passing blurbs off as reviews exacerbates a significant "watermelon" problem while constructing a boy-crying-wolf roadblock.  If someone does publish something worth reading an appreciative critic cannot be heard above the blurbing.  As for the 99+% of collections that have no merit, one must either lie/blurb or tell the ugly truth and incur the enmity of authors, their friends and publishers.  Where is the benefit to the writer, critic, publisher or public?

        If forced to comment on published poetry bear this in mind:  a reviewer is a reporter, not an advocate.  Given the preponderance of confessional poetry, the critic and poet are often nothing more than journalists of different sorts.  Avoid the rookie mistake of putting the conclusion before the evidence.  Show examples of the best, worst and average excerpts.  Estimate the ratio between these.  As a rule of thumb, any collection containing two memorable new poems--four if it's a contemporary anthology--is well worth investigating.

        Do not get bogged down in biography.  Stick to the poem, not the poet.  If these cannot be separated revisit Guideline #1.

    A Better Use of Your Time

         If you find a poem you think is worth showing to the public why not do so?  Obtain the required permission, create a video and post it to YouTube.  If and when the vids of a particular poet attract sufficient attention (i.e. hits) and applause (i.e. "likes" and appreciative comments) consider writing a review of any or all of them.  Horse, then cart;  few people will read a poem or script before they've seen it produced.

          Don't forget to repeat that survey from Lesson #1:

         "Find two mediocre contest-winning and/or published poems that have been blurbed.  Add this poem and this verse into the mix.  Ask your students which two of these poems are better than the other two.  Record your results but do not discuss them yet."

    Wednesday, February 13, 2013

    Practical Poetry: Critique: Workshopping with knowledgeable peers

    Earl the Squirrel's Rule #18
        There are two major differences between the online and academic approaches.  The first is that high end Internet forums involve critique after one has learned the craft.  The typical MFA class practices critique either before or instead of technical study.

       The second distinction involves Content Regency.  Because most business card poets don't study the elements of craft there is nothing other than content (e.g. plot, theme, genre, moral, allusions, et cetera) on which they can base their criticisms. If you have a point to make or a story to tell and you can operate a spell checker then--presto!--you're a poet!  This is the essence of Convenient Poetics.

        With apologies for singling her out--this attitude is universal in the PoBiz but, if we think about it, all negative examples are cruel--here is a Question and Answer exchange from an interview with PRISM Poetry Contest Judge Rhea Tregebov:

    Question"What makes a good poem for you?"

    Answer"One that engages the reader on all levels: intellectual, ethical, sensual, emotional."

    Contest Judge Rhea Tregebov
        Well, this excludes just about every classical or contemporary poem worth reading.  Whole genres, beginning with comedy, are removed from consideration.  No "Miller's Tale" here!  Romantic poems and elegies need not apply.  Most troubling is the bookburner's favorite expression, "ethical".  WTF?  Whose ethics?  Does this mean that poems reflecting the sexism or racism of an era aren't "good"?  So Shakespeare was...a hack?  Speaking of bookburners, I assume that an unapologetic declaration of love for a repressive, murderous theocratic tyrant wouldn't qualify as "good".  Nor, I assume, would a politically and morally ambiguous requiem for a controversial leader (unless the judge shares the deceased's politics?).

        What happened to the quaint notion that poetry writing contests (and editors and critics) should honor excellent poetry writing?  With no mention (or knowledge?) of technical aspects, couldn't someone just cut up their "intellectual, ethical, sensual, emotional" prose with linebreaks and submit it?  In short, which of Ms. Tregebov's requirements has anything whatsoever to do with poetry?

        Obviously, our "Squirriculum" would follow the online critical forum's example of informed critique.  The focus should be on technique, including two elements that other approaches ignore:  performance and presentation. 

    Earl the Squirrel's Rule #20
         Ideally, all of the students would have Internet access, allowing them to record their performances, upload them to YouTube "privately" (i.e. such that only those with the URL can locate it), and then email the text and YouTube URL to the other students beforehand.  In any case, they'll be doing it live in front of the class, with the text displayed on a monitor or projected onto a screen.  The first lesson the students will learn is the value of preparation--of memorizing their words so that they can perform them.  There is no substitute for "looking the bastards in the eye" to gauge their reactions.  Failing that, the students can learn how to avoid staring at their prompters, the key being big fonts and peripheral vision.  This is something they can practice, the audience yelling "Eyes!" whenever the speaker loses visual contact with them.

    Earl the Squirrel's Rule #27
         At this juncture we need to discuss an integral aspect of art, that being value added.  Your words should add to the significant value of silence.  Writers understand that performance enhances text but the opposite is equally true.  An opera singer can make a telephone book sound lovely.  They can even make the names sound rhythmic, simply by timing the stresses.  However, they cannot make the text interesting.  The more coherent and meaningful the writing the more attractive the performance.  If a medium does not add to the final product it can be deleted or modified;  we can all think of silly music videos that add nothing to the songs or book-based films that should have been shot with guns, not cameras.


        The bad news is that, beyond productions of Shakespeare, there are very few acceptable performances of poetry to be found.  Most are either dull readings or OTT slam bluster.  The good news is that any fine performance--theatre, movies, television (yes, I said television), standup or storytelling--can serve as an exemplar, its features including:

    1. Credibility - The sounds, gestures and facial expressions make it seem like the person is making the words up as they go along as opposed to reciting them.

    2. Voice - The speaker sounds consistently like the person who would be telling the story.

    3. Clarity - The words should be clear and not rushed like a slammer trying to cram as many words as possible under a time limit.  Establish the difference between shouting and projecting.

    4. Modulation - The volume, pace, tone and urgency of the performer follow the plot--buildup, climax and anticlimax--rather than the usual soporific drone of the typical reader or the constant shouting of the typical slammer.

    Earl the Squirrel's Rule #1

        The need to "own an audience" is what distinguishes poetry from what careerists produce.  As important as the ability to recognize good from mediocre or bad is to an editor or contest judge, it is that much more integral to a poet.

        Suppose a person were able to predict that more than 90% of people, including more than 90% of poets and every other significant demographic, would prefer Poem A to any other published poem listed.  What would this prove?

    1. That great poems exhibit certain shared traits;  or,

    2. That "it's all just a matter of taste!"

         Students who reply #2 need to be studying Statistics, not poetry.

    Earl the Squirrel's Rule #15
         Attendees can begin their critical approach to poetry by studying the "Laws of Poetry".  At the very least, they should understand that even the most profound or inspirational prose doesn't become poetry by inserting linebreaks.  At the moment, the fact that this proviso (i.e. that poetry should actually contain poetry) excludes more than 99% of the "free verse" and "prose poetry" being written and published today is not our concern.

         In an educational workshop environment it may seem natural to conclude that the purpose of critique is to improve the poet or poetry in general.  Not so.  Those are merely welcome byproducts.  The purpose of critique begins and ends with improving the poem

         Here are some guidelines for workshop participants, largely based on the online workshop ethos developed on Usenet and, later, web fora such as the Poetry Free-For-All, the Alsop Review (Gazebo) and Eratosphere:

    1. The critiquer's job is to improve the poem where warranted and possible

           Critics should not be asked to turn a laundry list into a Sonnet LXXIII, nor should they be expected to improve on a Sonnet LXXIII.  If a poem is perfect or not ready for anyone's attention, starting with the critic's and the poet's, then critics should say that and nothing more.

    2. Avoid the Megalomaniacal Troll

            Students are bound to encounter "MTs" (aka "Empties") who subscribe to [the satirical] "The Dennis Hammes Rules of Poetry" and believe that every molecule of ink that flows from their pen is ambrosia.  There's at least one in every workshop.  If you can't spot your workshop's Empty then it's probably you.  (Just kidding!)

           Those beyond criticism are beyond hope.  Others must recognize that the critiquer is your friend, one who is doing you a favor...and other favors may ensue (see below).

    3. Do not defend or explain your poem

    4.      We're lucky when our poem gets one chance to make its case.  It won't get two.  Footnote any terms or conventions the audience might not recognize.

    5. Try to have your writing make sense

    6.      Even if your work is going to say nothing it should do so clearly.  For example, under repressive regimes poets often won't [seem to] be making their point because they are not permitted to do so.  Their lines are borders, barely containing what lies between them.  Such samizdat poets use code words, symbols, metaphors and references understood by their supportive audience members.  Without these conventional meanings in place the writers would be producing cryptocrap, their audience soon siphoned off by the lure of crossword puzzles and sudokus.  Oh, and that old bullshit-baffles-brains trick of swallowing a thesaurus in order to fool people into thinking you're saying something profound has been done to death.

    7. As a critic or, especially, as a poet, be succinct.

           Enough said.

    8. Do not blow smoke up anyone's ass

           Next to plagiarism, the fastest and surest way to ruin your credibility is to engage in blurbing.  An editor who will cross a street to avoid such a sycophant will often seek out skilled critics, hoping they may have recently encountered a blockbuster unpublished poem, often in a workshop.  Such experts, though rare, can help a new poet far more than vapid praise will.

    9. Do not "crit[ique] the crit[ique]"

           Don't highlight the fact that your perspective conflicts with that of a previous commenter.  Just state your case and move on.

    10. Thank your critics

           All honest perspectives are a useful gift.  Do not whine or whinge.  Do not attack or cross-examine your critics.  Do not list which of their suggestions you will be ignoring.  Beyond honest requests for clarification, just say "Thanks."

    11. Avoid Content Regency

           Concentrate on the writing, not the subject matter.  Poems about Subject A are not inherently better or worse than those on Subject B.  Profound ones are not inherently better than funny or evocative ones.  At most, one might comment about a trend (e.g. "Yet another free verse confessional effort, I see!"), the implication being that if everyone uses the same form, genre and theme the search for originality gets more intense.  Above all, avoid political or personal arguments.  Accept that you may be called on to help someone say something with which you vehemently disagree.

    12. Critique is not interpretation

           Critics should point out where there is a lack of clarity.  This includes unfamiliarity with terms (e.g. don't be afraid to admit that you didn't know that "bone-house" meant "body") or customs (e.g. "Why are the people wearing black to a wedding?").  If explanations are required it will be the poet's/presenter's/annotator's responsibility to detail them.

    13. Critique is not test marketing

           The point of the exercise isn't whether or not the critics like the poem;  we need to hear the critics' best guess as to whether or not the intended audience will like it.

         Participants in these particular workshops will be encouraged to comment on the elements of performance mentioned earlier:  credibility, voice, clarity and modulation.  This is a reflection of the fact that more people will see contemporary poems on YouTube than will read them in books or literary magazines.  Avoid clapping during the performance;  the slam tradition is to show your approval by snapping your fingers instead.


    Earl the Squirrel's Rule #12
         While it is hardly their main one, critiquers can serve another vital function.  In the case of Erin Hopson's Great Poems of Our Time: "How Aimée remembers Jaguar", critics encountered a poem that couldn't be improved.  It may seem that great writing makes critics irrelevant.  Not so fast!  Whereas 1,000 blurbers won't help anyone find an audience (if only because the same 1,000 blurbers will each praise ten other friends and fellow alumni in the same breath), one word from a respected, objective critic can rescue a brilliant poem from oblivion.

         Almost a century ago an impatient, surly critic helped an obscure young man work on some verse that had appeared in a church bulletin--this despite considerable differences in theology between the two men.  Theirs was no "touchy-feely" collaboration;  the critic would throw more than just tantrums when he felt the heterometer included too much pentameter.  His role did not end there, though.  The finished verse was about to be rejected by a prominent poetry magazine--at that time "prominent poetry magazine" wasn't an oxymoron--when the critic championed the poem by scanning it for the editor.  The rest, as they say, is history.

          Don't forget to repeat that survey from Lesson #1:

         "Find two mediocre contest-winning and/or published poems that have been blurbed.  Add this poem and this verse into the mix.  Ask your students which two of these poems are better than the other two.  Record your results but do not discuss them yet."