Monday, February 20, 2012


I added a couple of links to the blogroll, including Portland's Michael Donnelly blogging about music and life in "Williamsburg on the Willamette."

Also up:  links to two of my "old" blogs--archives of Geneva Convention for talk on poetry and food from 2004 to 2008, and my occasional photo blog, Recycled Photocopies, which had a short run but may return if people are interested in seeing new pictures of things.

The Dream Songs Dialogue #1

Over at An Hind, Bennet begins our informal discussion of John Berryman's The Dream Songs with a few questions about how to approach them as a more-or-less first-time reader.

I tried to make a few suggests in his comment box, some of which I'll reproduce below, but then I'd like to offer up a couple of observations borne from last night's foray into revisiting The Dream Songs, from the beginning, for the first time in quite a few years. It turns out that a few things I thought I knew about the project as a whole are not entirely correct, or my understanding of them is at best, incomplete.


First, in response to Bennet's preliminary questions:  1) what is the relationship between Henry and Berryman; does it matter?; does JB's prefatory note to the "collected" Dream Songs fundamentally alter how we, the readers, approach the poems?  Should it?  Why the minstrelsy?  Who is Mr.Bones?

These aren't Bennet's questions verbatim, but my brief recounting of concerns we both share.  I counseled Bennet that we should take Berryman's note with a heavy dusting of salt.  Anyone with even a passing knowledge of Berryman's actual biography will recognize the poet-as-Henry-the-protagonist here. Furthermore, Berryman has to know that we, the readers, know this and we're not buying his denial. My suggestion is that, yes, we are supposed to read these poems as biography.

I also noted that "Mr. Bones" is intended to be a sort of "nickname" for Henry/Berryman, uttered by his unnamed interlocutor. Many readers, it seems, consider them to be different characters.  Now, if we're not to trust Berryman regarding his claims about biography, then how are we to trust that Bones and Henry are one and the same?  Good question--one that I think our readings of the poems in the coming days should illuminate.


Now in a rather artless segue, I read the first 40 songs last night.  Concerns/thoughts which may or may not be obvious:

1. While the poems generally follow a form: 18 lines divided into 3 stanzas of 6 lines of varying length, sometimes rhymed and sometimes not, in the first 40 JB deviates from this form, usually by adding lines in 3 or 4 of the poems.

2. In the note I discussed above, JB tells us that Henry is "sometimes in blackface."  A quick reading of the actual poems makes this claim confusing in that at least part of the time, it's Henry's sidekick who seems to be speaking in a minstrel dialect--in that he interrupts / addresses Henry / Bones and what follows is often in this dialect.   Some of the poems are written almost entirely in dialect with no interruptions from a second speaker, so my first assumption is that this could be Henry, "in blackface,"  but we also have to consider the possibility that his sidekick assumes this mask as well.  Why did JB leave this seemingly important detail out of the preface?

3. It's a good idea to read these poems quickly at first, just to "take it all in" as it were. I was struck by how many of them I did not remember, and of those, how many I really didn't understand on this re-reading.  Best not to linger over that for now, methinks.

4. These poems, this sequence, is mostly about death.  But we knew that already.  Sometimes a reminder is a good thing. Another way to look at the project:  one long suicide note, over a dozen years in the making.

5. While we are aware of Henry / Bones as aspects of the speaker, there are other assumed personas here, some of which are quite amusing and / or affecting. My favorite on this read, so far, is the lonely sheep that narrates #28.  "I wish the barker would come." 


That should be enough to get us started.  More later.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

In honor of Berryman Week, a little mood music:

David Antin, Brief Weather, The "Writing Life" or Lack Thereof

I stumbled upon (and I urge you to take this figure of speech literally--if you could see my apartment at the time, you'd understand--400 square feet, two small bookshelves and over a thousand books makes literally stumbling over books a frequent occurrence) Conversation with David Antin, by David Antin and Charles Bernstein somewhere at the end of 2006 or beginning of 2007.   I had just finished something of a milestone year--both poetically and personally.  I didn't know when I picked it up that it would play a role in fundamentally altering my own "writing life."

I spent the spring of 2006 writing the poems that would eventually be collected in Brief Weather and I Guess A Sort of Vision; I began in March at the request of Betsy Wheeler, who accosted me at the Garden Party in Austin and asked to publish a book of mine.  Christ!  I guess I had to write a book.

The origins of that slim collection involve an airplane, my then-girlfriend Laura, and a book of sudoku puzzles.  There was also the now infamous make-out party in the Austin Hilton lobby, complete with stolen wine (I won't reveal what now-famous children's book author stole the wine by insisting on using me as a pack mule because I happened to be wandering around the Hilton with a backpack--but you can probably guess. It's okay--I don't feel guilty, as we were robbing the Poetry Foundation, at a "private party" that we just crashed).  There was the kindness of James Hall, who chauffered Laura and I around a bit.  There was the squalid apartment we spent four days in among piles of dirty beer cans, garbage, and a bathroom with one towel, one wet towel   There was the Nordic Venezuelan named Virgilio who spent the entire weekend locked away in a back room, drinking gallon jugs of Carlo Rossi and watching extreme sports videos.  There was The Princess Bride and the still-awful Star Wars Episode 1.  There was also the dissolution of my romantic relationship of the past year.  Yeah, that thing.

As soon as I returned to Oregon, I began writing every day, sometimes just a few lines; other days I'd knock out two or three drafts.  My method of working was very deliberate--each poem was made of nine lines, and they were assembled consecutively.   That is, I wrote each poem one line at a time, and line 2 always followed line 1.  There was no line re-shuffling allowed.  I'd often stop mid-poem to walk down the street for coffee, a journey that almost always involved being dive-bombed by starlings who resented my taking up residence in what was obviously their apartment.

I finished a batch of about 40 poems in around 6 weeks' time.  I sent them off to Betsy that summer, and she responded with extremely generous commentary, all handwritten and beautifully understated yet enthusiastic.  She focused her editorial chops into honing my 40 poems into a 27-poem machine.  This was expected, as the numerology of the project required 27 poems, no more no less. I published 8 of these poems prior to that in Court Green, under the dubious title "Aviary Evacuation Plan."  Betsy re-titled my collection Brief Weather..., which was a stroke of minor genius.  I had, at this point, ditched the bird title, and was leaning toward Cold Front which strikes me today as a terrible name for my little book. 

The book came out in November. I gave a single reading in Portland attended by very few people. I don't think a single person bought a book that night.  I lost my camera. I remember drinking a lot of wine.  Then I don't remember.


What I'm building toward here is the 3 year gap in my writing life that began soon after the book's publication and soon after I picked up Antin and Bernstein's book-length conversation.  By March of 2007, exactly one year after I'd begun the project, I had completed the FULL 81 poems--actually, there are a few stragglers in closer to 90, but if it ever sees the light of publication, I will of course trim away nine of those bad boys.

And then I stopped.  I can't pinpoint when and how it all went down or why.  I just remember reading the give and take between Antin and Bernsteinn, and being thrown a bit for a not-unpleasant but still somewhat jarring loop. Antin's talk-poems and his discussion of his poetics and practice are all a bit dream-like in their logic but fiercely intelligent.  I got to the point where I began to think that if David Antin is a poet, I don't know if I want to be a poet.  I didn't know if I could be a poet any longer.

And then the vagaries of a life ill-lived invaded, happened. Suddenly I had new priorities, a new  relationship, a series of episodes (fits? brief respites from sanity?) of mental and emotional self-reckoning and evaluation.  Not only did I stop writing but I also quite reading poetry mostly (save the weekly editorial meetings at the NWR that were then, unbeknownst to most of us poetry editors, in their final days).  I quit sending poems out to editors.  I shut down.  And I was strangely okay with that.

Life came on full-strength and I was, for a time, a very destructive force.  (Wallace Stevens in his odd little poem, wrote that Poetry is a Destructive Force--he had a point.  It had turned me into a bitter, often resentful little person.) I hurt a lot of people, made a lot of mistakes, and then, inexplicably, was blessed with a beautiful daughter amidst all the madness, the general ickiness I had made my life.

That daughter, now almost three years old, is the reason I returned to writing.  I'm still in the nascent stages of my "re-arrival" onto whatever "scene" it is I have wandered into. Trying to figure it all out by writing through the pain and mess that still lingers, and yes, also the joy. Especially the joy.

I never quite manage to end where I began, but I try.  Here's David Antin:

             . . . i had always had mixed feelings
        about being considered a poet        "if robert lowell is a
        poet i don't want to be a poet         if robert frost was
        poet i don't want to be a poet        if socrates was a poet
            ill consider it"

Dreaming, I am.

What a way to start a book of poems, huh?

Are you ready to begin, Bennet?

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Welcome to the Blogroll...

Bennet Smith, who so far is blogging about Thomas Wyatt, George R.R. Martin, and I'm sure, soon, other stuff, at An Hind.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

OK. So I can't resist.

Day of Hate -- Idiot Yelp! Reviewers

For  Day of Hate here on Horizon.Point, first up:  another reason to hate Yelp, or more specifically Yelpers.

From a review posted today:   (I'm paraphrasing so as not to uh, y'know, steal anyone's words away)

This Vietnamese Place has a lot of good things going for it:  friendly owners and staff, clean place, large and varied selection.
Now--about their pho.  I've eaten pho here a dozen times in the past and liked it.  But today I ordered my usual, beef w/tendon, and where was the beef?   I could only find two pieces of beef in my pho!   And I guess they were out of the Thai basil they usually put in because there was no Thai basil!  Why didn't they at least add extra cilantro?   One Star.
Here's a hint:  when you post a review to Yelp!  you are posting a general review of the business.  If you've only been there once, and it was bad, okay, I can understand the one star.  (Though, personally, I try to sample a place at least three times before reviewing it at all--if I do post a review after one visit, I make this clear in the review and take it into consideration when assigning stars.)   This customer, though, liked everything about the place--including the last 12 bowls of pho he ate.   So one bad experience out of at least 13 results in an extremely low rating?  That's rude.  You're an asshole.

Monday, February 13, 2012


I'm assembling most of the small poems I've written over the past year into a small collection.  And I'm posting some of them here.

So here's one.


The world keeps opening and falling over,
spilling through something I can't identify,
can't countenance and yet cling to
because love has taken over my chest.

It's hard to breathe here but breathe we must
mon frere.   And you're not really my brother
but I don't think that's the point. The point
is this:            we can take it with us. 

Conventional wisdom is conventional because
frankly, it's stupid.   God laughs at people
like us.  Probably because we're not all
that smart.  Neither is she.   Probably.

If you were Neil Young and I were David Bowie
perhaps we'd make love in an alley, or fuck
on a pile of trash.  I think in this, we would
be at our most beautiful.

I was going to make this a sonnet but I'm way
over the line limit.  A piece of paper that
has been shot through with these words cannot,
in any way, make sense to the commoner.

We are not common.  We are dumb little people.
We've spent our collective life smiling
at other people less fortunate, if only because
we can.   I'll take a taxi cab to the next state.

Please don't follow me.  I'll only hurt you
and fuck your friends. Don't worry: I'll only
be dead as long as it takes for the ferry
to reach the next island. Then: trees, grain.

fIREHOSE, Live Music, & Me

Lately, in several blog posts, Facebook statuses, and in private conversations with friends and acquaintances, I've mentioned the music of Mike Watt, particularly the work in fIREHOSE and the Minutemen, as reminding me of high school.   That's not entirely true.  I didn't listen to either band until I was in the Navy, a couple years removed from 12th grade.  I suppose I think of high school because both bands were on SST, a label that meant a lot to me--Black Flag, Descendents, Bad Brains, etc.   Why I never heard Watt and Co. before, I'll never know.

I do remember that the Red Hot Chili Peppers, before the great fame, before Rick Rubin, before the sensitive ballads, name-dropped fIREHOSE in "Good Time Boys," the lead-off track of their 1989 record, Mother's Milk. It wasn't until I saw the video for "Down With The Bass" from  Flyin' the Flannel in 1991 on MTV's 120 Minutes, that I actually went out and bought a fIREHOSE album. It was only a matter of weeks before I had the whole collection, and most of the Minutemen stuff too. Something about Ed Crawford's addition of traditional melody and classic rock and folk sensibility to the already potent mix of Hurley and Watt's drums and bass cemented fIREHOSE in my mind and heart as THE Mike Watt band.   I know I'm in the minority here, as most fans consider the later a band a pale imitation / deviation from The Minutemen.

I however, do not.

There's something about a three-piece.  Husker Du.  Minutemen. fIREHOSE.

When i saw fIREHOSE live, in 1993 shortly before they broke up, the opened with "In My Mind" and closed 90 minutes later with Superchunk's "Slack Motherfucker."  I just remember a lot of bodies, many shirtless, furious,  joyous, bouncing off one another in the tiny venue.  These were the days of  "moshing" and mosh we did.   Anybody hearing fIREHOSE's music for the first time today might have a hard time imagining how we moshed to that.

I never saw Husker Du live.  I can tell you this:  I like the sound of a guitar plugged directly into an amp.  A guitar with no fancy effects.  This is what Bob Mould has done at the solo shows I've seen.  Bob, one guitar, an amp, and his voice.  If he needs to quiet it down, he picks up an acoustic.  Simple.  A good song can survive, and thrive, with minimal gear.

fIREHOSE and Matthew Sweet, of all people, took a similar approach. While playing with full bands, they more or less just plugged straight in.  You'd think the guitar would sound the same throughout, smooth out the dynamics allowed by a few pedals, or a few different guitars.  Instead, though, it showcases a dynamic that can only be brought out with fingers and heart.  Was it jarring to hear the delicate "In My Mind" with semi-fuzzy guitar, way too loud?  At first...but it all makes sense.

fIREHOSE is playing here live for the first time in 19 years on April 10th.  I'm going.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

it's good, it's real, it's pretty

This afternoon, through happy accident of iPod shuffle, I was reminded of The Breeders' debut record, Pod (1990).

Pod was Kim Deal's side-project, formed with Tanya Donnelly. The rock and roll women, desiring to break away from their roles as second fiddles to Charles Thompson and Kristin Hersh, founded The Breeders (named after Kim and Kelly Deal's old hometown band), enlisted the help of Josephine Wiggs and Steve Albini, and recorded Pod.

It's better than Bossanova, the Pixies record released the same year.  Like Bossanova, it's both delicate and lacerating.  Where Bossanova, in its noisier moments, is a bit like the audio equivalent of being dragged across razor wire, Pod is like sitting in a field of wildflowers one moment before getting crushed by a giant rock falling out of the sky.  Art rock for Chicken Little and Indie Kids before there was such a thing as Indie Kids.

Tanya got the short straw this time out, becoming essentially, a session player for Kim Deal.  But it's Kim's songs here that really shine: shimmery and brutal, made all the more lovely by the stark, dry Albini production.  Pod is the color of concrete and smells like rain on hot asphalt. It marks a roughly 8 month period of my life, in between the age of 18 and 19.  I worked in a large office, essentially a receptionist.  But the office rarely had visitors. My boss sat in a small office behind me with his feet up on the desk, always reading a very thick novel.  He let me do what I wanted, and what I wanted to do was listen to Pod every day.   I also listened to fIREHOSE's Flyin' The Flannel and The Cars' Heartbreak City.

Three record soundtrack to Summer in San Diego.  Summer of grand theft auto (a Navy van).  Summer of acid trips and fence jumping.  Summer of stacks of paperwork. Official Government Documents. Rolling Rock in cans:  that mysterious "33." Summer of first regular sex.  And by regular, I mean often.  Not that I was having irregular sex before, but I probably was.

Pod, in fact sounds a little like sex and I suppose that's what draws me back.  Like its namesake, it's a sonic cocoon that wraps me into a time when I was still young and not yet fully born.  I remember standing in the office, slightly in front of my desk, holding the receiver of a rotary phone up to my ear and somebody (I don't remember mother, my father?) telling me that Grandma Davie had finally died.  Did I want to go home?     I didn't go.   Louder than the voice on the end of the line though, in my memory, is Kim Deal rasping, low, breathy, across the room, "well acquainted with the touch of a velvet hand, like a lizard on a window pane."

Breeders would continue to release albums sporadically, their biggest success, the sophomore effort The Last Splash, which yielded them their 17 minutes of fame thanks to the HUGE success of the "hit single" Cannonball.   This was a ramped up, Albini-less affair. More muscular, harder and sleeker around the edges, with a wider dynamic range, which strangely made the record sound less dynamic--more sonic tools to play with and everything bled. It was a glorious bloodbath, but at the end of the decade, and then again at the end of another decade (and another two years) it was no Pod.

Today, as I walked to my therapist's office, the song Metal Man came on the iPod.  Maddeningly quiet at first it builds spare bass figures and weird angular guitar lines into a delicate, almost lacy thing. You turn it up because you can't quite hear it.  Then it builds and anticipates a huge sonic boom.  Then it stops short.  When the boom finally comes, it is gone quickly and the song dissolves back into the roomy atmospherics of the first 30 seconds or so, this time with disconnected voices saying terribly mundane things amid the bare swirl.

It was raining today.  It tasted like rust.   I was 19 again, wet, not quite depressed.  Thanks Kim Deal. Thanks Tanya Donnelly.  Thanks Charles, for not letting enough of Kim's songs into the Pixies.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Tales of Shame and/or Weirdness

Here begins one in a supposed series of social awkwardisms, faux-pas, inappropriateness, embarrassing events, and general tales I would be better off leaving untold.

It had to have been about 1996 or 1997.   Two days post Christmas and I found myself in a local bar just off campus that hadn't quite been overrun by college kids.  It was never a strictly townie place, but over the decades, it had managed to maintain a bit of rough and tumble.  It was not necessarily the place to go if you were a college kid in search of a quick hook-up. It was an old-fashioned Tavern, something that I guess went out of fashion long before my time.   Now, 15 years later, it attracts a large college following but is still filled with bikers and unemployed working stiffs during the daylight hours.  For that it has my appreciation.
And so, here I was.  In this bar. Already drunk. Hanging out with a few people from my hometown who I barely tolerated.  If I hadn't just downed a six-pack, "barely tolerated" would be amended in this recollection with "detested."   At this point, though, they were tolerable.

Still early, 10 pm or so, we shuffled into the bar.   Almost immediately, my friend's younger brother had sidled up to an old-school wooden booth and began chatting up the two young women sitting there.  Funny thing is, I noticed that of them was Nicole, a girl I had met online (I was an early adopter--this was mid-90s) a few months earlier. She and I never really hit it off, but she became semi-close with one of my friends, so as friend rules go, Nicole and I were friendly.   I immediately felt sorry for the ladies, as Jason was not the most pleasant fellow to encounter in a bar two days after the celebration of the birth of Our Lord and Savior, so I quickly intervened.

I stepped up to the table and Nicole's friend, a pretty blonde, immediately thrust her hand out.  "Hi!  Guess what color my fingernails are?"   I glanced down at her nails and replied, flatly, "Vixen."  She, startled, said "Oh my god!  That's totally right.  The color is Vixen! How did you know?"   I shrugged.  "You're cute," she said.  "Sit down."  She scooted over, I sat down.  She ordered me a pitcher of beer.  I drank it, she got grabby. We kissed a bit, etc.  All pretty standard drunken 20-something bar antics.  After some time, she got up to go to the restroom, was met halfway back by a man she seemed to know. She stumbled over to the table, told Nicole that she was going home, and the man escorted her out the back door of the bar.

How did I know her fingernail polish was "Vixen?"  Total guess. My best friend at the time, Julia, had just purchased a bottle of Vixen nail polish a few days earlier.  When I looked at this stranger's nails, even in the dim light of the bar, they looked a bit purplish, a bit metallic.   So I said "Vixen."  Luck.  Or not luck.

It was only a few days later that Nicole apologized to me for what happened.  I was a little non-plused.  Apologize for what?  I got free beer and kissed a girl.   (She was fine--the gentleman who walked her home was looking out for her.)  "Well," Nicole said, "people are weird and she is weird about the whole thing with her mother, so when she meets new people, she gets nervous and she left because she was feeling strange."   I blinked.  "Her mother?  Huh?"    Nicole's face went a bit blank.  "Oh. You, you don't know..."  "I don't know anything about anything...I just met her."

Nicole went on to mention that the young woman's mother was a famous killer.  Not just locally famous but nationally, internationally, famous.  And the woman was, understandably, uncomfortable with the whole thing.  

And well, I never saw either one of them again. I did, however, a couple years later, buy some things at Gap, and was pretty sure that the clerk who sold me carpenter pants and polo shirts was the daughter of a famous killer who once bought me beer and kissed me in a dingy bar.  I didn't ask her though.  That would have been weird.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Challenging Readers: A Review of a Review: James Crews reviewing Wayne Miller in New Pages

In recent pages of New Pages, poet James Crews reviews Wayne Miller's The City, Our City (Milkweed Editions, September 2011) with a "critical" eye that manages to clumsily bypass the actual poetry and instead seems to proffer, once again, a very old argument about how and why poetry should do what it does and how a poet fails by being "inaccessible." (Which, in much poetry reviewing means "writing not like I do.")

[I should state outright that I haven't yet read Miller's book, and have only a passing familiarity with his work. Before enountering this review, I had never heard of James Crews but have learned through Google that he was born and educated in the mid-west, recently won a book prize of some sort, and now resides in Portland, Oregon, where he does something, I guess, to do with poetry. If there is any personal politics informing this review, I know nothing of them.  Similarly, as I have no association with either of these poets, my review here is based solely upon, well, the review I'm reviewing.  Still following?   I mention this because in future posts, I will be writing about poets and poetry with whom I have a personal connection or some personal stake--I'll note these connections when necessary.]

Crews begins with a declaration that, while appearing descriptive, is actually a prescription for what poetry should not do:

The principal aim of The City, Our City, [. . .] is to construct a difficult, philosophical poetics that most audiences will have trouble wrestling into meaning.
The assured tone here is admirable; the sentiment is not--not because it's empirically wrong in any sense, or not even because our reviewer presumes to know "the principal aim," or not even because it makes a sweeping assumption about "most audiences," but because it fails to communicate anything other than a vague disdain for a poetry concerned with the rather nebulous project of "difficult, philosophical poetics," that the equally nebulous readers collectively known here as "most audiences," will find too difficult. This is a sentiment that can't be empirically correct or incorrect, as it doesn't deal with concrete concepts, but abstract ideas that stand in for that which we find yucky. Dig? (I'll leave alone the slightly problematic use of the word "poetics" here to describe not "poetics" per se, but simply poetry.)

To put it another way, we have heard this argument before, and it is almost completely devoid of meaning, saying no more than poetry we don't like or can't make mean a certain way (our way, the normal way) is poetry to be avoided, or at least not worth much of our time. Crews proceeds to posit this imaginary audience as one that will not tolerate being "turned off," but may not mind being "unsettled" as long as there's a payoff. So far, our imagined readership here is a cipher, a null. What reader does like being turned off?  Part of this book's objective, we're told, is to almost turn off the fake readers, while unsettling perhaps a bit too much. I guess it does both.  And that's a real bummer.

Finally, Crews faintly praises Miller's "remarkable skill" and as an example, quotes a passage from a poem he deems "successful" because, at least in part, it "establish[es] a scene and context in which his [Miller's] talent begins to shine."  Less-than-adroit turn of phrase aside, this seems reasonable.   Here's the passage:

The sound of the wind--but the wind
has no sound, we hear
only the vibrations
of whatever it touches. How silent
this room would be
without the creaking trees...

My own first impression is that it recalls Stevens and early Ashbery, though stripped a bit of the mystery characteristic of say "The Snow Man" or "Some Trees."  Crews praises the language here because it "appeals to the ear" (whose ear, I ask?  I listen to Black Metal a fair amount of the time. My mother likes New Country) and "has the power to change how we think of something as simple as the wind." Okay, Crews.  Let's get this straight.  This language has "power."  Awesome.  I hate wimpy language. And it can change how we think about the wind.  Crews has never, it seems, been caught in a windstorm, or even noticed that an errant gust can indeed make trees creak, strip them of limbs, and so forth.   What Crews praises here is not the power of language to change anything but the fact that this language is quite direct--nothing here to think too hard about.  That might, after all, ruin our fun, unsettle us too much, and ultimately, turn us off.

He praises another piece because its title, "Those Boys," is "helpful" in indicating what the poem is about.  If only he had named ALL the poems so helpfully!  It might then even be suitable for your mother's book club.

Crews finally turns to the real work of the review which is to show all the ways in which Miller's poems do not work, the myriad strategies they employ in a deliberate attempt to turn off the imaginary reader.  In a preface to a section of a (watch:  this is important) poem that is untitled and "illogically broken up," Crews bemoans the inspecificity of it all.  This poem has no title, and it fails to "locate readers in a specific time and place" and the sky is falling but you forget to pencil in the sky! To disrupt, he helpfully reminds us, one first must establish stability.  (In this case, I guess this would start with giving the poem a title.)  Then, he says, the poet may stray.  Before I turn to that poem, I'd like to point out this observation he makes a paragraph earlier about a poem he does like, one he calls a "gorgeous, affecting elegy, which stays with the reader."  The poem places the speaker and his father in a large city, and, Crews tells us "Miller does not even need to specify the place here [. . .] he creates a vast literal and emotional landscape."  Mmmmkay.  And a bit later he sternly instructs us:  "Writers cannot have it both ways [!]" (overenthusiastic punctuation mine).

The poem ultimately fails because the reader isn't told which city this is, can't tell if it actually exists (London?) or is fictional (Mordor?).  Oh, and some of the poems are allusive. Some of them have notes. (Insert groan and sigh here.)  Crews looks out for the little guy when he opines that most readers, even avid readers of poetry, won't have the patience to read the notes simply to understand the poem. And, you know, the notes aren't all that good anyway.  We are still left "scratching our heads."

So I've tried to cobble together a rough crib sheet for Crews' anti-philosophical poetics.  Think of it as A Few Donts for an Imagiste, a century later.

1. Don't be philosphical. Whatever that actually means.

2. Names, people!  Titles.  Poems with titles, good.  No titles, bad.

3. Places.  See 2 above.  Disregard this rule if your poem is about your dad.

4. Your language should have the "power to change!"

5. The poem must not successfully resist the intelligence.  In fact, it should require very little intelligence. And please don't bore the reader with notes, references, allusions.  "The reader" has been at work all day, his feet are killing him, and he needs to get dinner on the table by 6 pm.

6. Address, whenever possible, other poets condescendingly by referring to them by way of backhanded compliments.  For example, "young writer" is a good one.  This is really fun if you are actually younger than the poet you're reviewing.

7. Disregard #6 as it is really a handy tip not for the poet but for the reviewer.

8. Five O' Clock shadow is always sexy.


I could go on.  I could conjure some clumsy metaphors about frozen food vs. homemade pot pies, or draw parellels between James Crews and Simon Cowell.   Instead, I'll end with two quotes.  The first is the entire final paragraph of the review.  The second is, (thanks John B. for looking these up), a pair of lines by James Crews himself.


One hopes that, in future volumes, Miller will find ways of including more readers by crafting poems that are both accessible and complex, both heart-wrenching and intellectually astute at the same time. A poet need not be obscure or detached to make work that challenges readers. He can choose to invite us into a piece, to share the wonder of experiencing our world more deeply.


Her mouth pondered the sweet crush of wet grass
as I approached.

--James Crews, "Palomino"

Poet Career Watch 2012

In these partly sunny days of stutter and fumble, of graceful recoveries, of 53 year old Madonna, poets are still having poet careers.

Yesterday's sporting event had commercials.   Now our poets are writing copy for multi-million dollar advertisements for the automotive industry.  OUR. Use your pronouns wisely.  It's OUR country, kids.

Perhaps this is a future model for young poets. Face it--very few practitioners, famous relatives or not, are going to make a living doing this.  Get on TV as often as you can, even if it's just a crowd shot. Play bit parts in film. Write slogans for the Edsel. Wedge your profile into national magazines; if you have a semi-lurid and or titillating story about a famous dead person, by all means, serve it forth.

Super super super...

No big surprise to those who know me, but I didn't watch the Super Bowl last night, though I was reminded of the first Super Bowl I was aware of, which was XVI, which makes me old.  I did happen to catch a bit of the Madonna half-time thing, though I was paying more attention to the overactive Twitter machine:  OMG it's great!  OMG this is sooo GAY.  OMG what is this, the 80s?  And so forth.  Keith Olbermann noted that barely 30 seconds into the performance, Slate had already posted an article on the performance, with the teaser (I'm going from memory here) "The Gayest Half Time Show Ever?"   As KO pointed out, somebody was jumping the gun just a bit.


I probably remember Super Bowl XVI because I watched it at my grandparents' house.  My grandfather, Jose, was the first person I ever knew to own an honest-to-goodness satellite dish.  It was gigantic. Occupying a plot of real estate adjacent to the garden in the back yard, it required quite a bit of work. To get the reception you wanted, you had to go out and manually orient it with a crank that physically turned it toward whatever magic satellite waves the desired programming required.  Of course, you didn't know what you were picking up as you were cranking, so you had to yell at somebody inside the house for feedback.  Changing the channel in 1982 was a big deal.

Other TV memories from that house:  watching President Reagan being shot in 1981.  The premiere of Home Box Office -- you could watch actual theatrical releases in your house, or your grandparents' house, anyway.  The two that stick out for me are Robin Williams and Shelley Duval in Popeye, and Clint Eastwood in Escape From Alcatraz.


Other things from that house:  fresh tortillas, sopa de fideos, pot of beans constantly bubbling on the stove, red chile, the laminated picture of the Virgen de Guadalupe tacked to the front door--it was actually a "no religious solicitors" warning in both Spanish and English.  As I recall it said something like, "This is a Catholic home. Literature and propaganda of other faiths not welcome here."


Which all should bring me back around to chicken wings, and somehow it hasn't.


Yesterday, I bought a pomelo.  As I type this, in the back of my head, I clearly hear Perry Farell intoning "one night I met a whore."  Three Days.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012


I have more readers from the Republic of Georgia than I do from Canada or Israel.  Hmm.