Friday, April 29, 2011

My Poem "From a Deposition" in The Lineup #4

As noted previously in this space, I have a poem in The Lineup #4: Poems on Crime, edited by Gerald So and Reed Farrel Coleman.

Gerald has graciously asked contributors to write a post to which he would link from his own blog, and today is my day.

First, I want to publicly apologize for being a few hours late on this. My stats counter indicates people have been checking.

Second, I should note that my first choice of topic was actually the great gut-punch of a poem in this year's issue by Charles Harper Webb (a poem to which I was first introduced by my friend and colleague Henry Perez). Other contributors got there first, though, so my fallback is to discuss my own poem in the issue, entitled "From a Deposition." The discussion will be a lot more polysyllabic and cerebral than the poem itself, which is plain-spoken and visceral, so please don't let my prose scare you aware from my poetry.

The poem's title may need a little explanation. From time to time I find myself writing poems that take the form of excerpts from non-existent larger works. This is by no means original with me. While I am not enough of a scholar to say where that technique originated, I learned it from reading the stories of the great Argentine writer José Luis Borges. If you're up for a reading challenge, you may also want to check out emerging American writer Jenny Boully's book-length essay The Body, which consists entirely of footnotes to an absent text. This technique invokes the possibility of a wider reality while allowing the writer to address only the most important points and avoid details that would bore the reader.

Using this framework, the poem is a first-person account of rape, drawn from imagination rather than experience. The available information on rape victims' experience suggests that describing the crime and acknowledging its full (and horrendous) reality in its immediate aftermath proves difficult if not impossible, and the poem attempts to capture that ambivalence about discussing the subject with strangers in the legal and justice system. One may reasonably wonder if rapists depend on this difficulty in order to elude arrest and prosecution for their already underreported crime.

Some might argue that the poem (and the poet) are guilty of appropriation, or taking up a topic one is not entitled to address. This issue most often comes up when a writer addresses the experience of an ethnic or racial group other than his or her own, but in this case means writing about a victimization I have not experienced.

There are some people who won't be satisfied by any attempt to justify appropriation, but here's mine, which people can take or leave as they see fit: this poem, like many poems, came about as an experience of empathy, and it is the only poem I have ever written or am likely to write about rape. It is not part of a career-building strategy or a literary hoax. Moreover, like the editors and the other contributors, I am not doing this for the money, only the possibilities of art.

This long post at its end, I invite you to read my short poem "From a Deposition" and work by approximately two dozen writers, some very well known, in The Lineup #4.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Take a Chance on E.

I'd like to paraphrase ABBA, as well as interrupt my usual self-promotion, to put in a word for a friend and colleague.

That is one Eric Hendrixson, whom I've known for about a decade from DC-area events including The Batcave and the Iota Poetry series. I've read and endorse his Bizarro Fiction novel with the highly improbable but strangely apt title Bucket of Face. Published by Eraserhead Press of Portland, Oregon as part of its New Bizarro Authors series last October, this novel features a noir sensibility and a MacGuffin-driven plot and has a cast of characters including various sentient fruits and vegetables, most notably a "hit tomato" whose softer side involves Michael Jackson fandom.

No, I am not making this up. Eric is.

But in these days of constrained resources and limited advertising budgets, Bucket of Face has not yet found all the readers it deserves. As noted in a piece on the book in the Washington City Paper, books in the New Bizarro Authors series must sell 200 copies before an author's second book is considered. Right now Eric's book is just a little over halfway there, which means that lots of people have not treated themselves to a story that will make you laugh out loud, challenge your sensibilities and, when you least expect it, deliver an emotional gut-punch.

You could spend bigger money on smaller thrills, but why bother when you can read Bucket of Face?

Monday, April 18, 2011

On Not Being a Poetry Star

As you may very well know at this point, we are deep in the throes of National Poetry Month. If you were trying to forget about that, please accept my apologies.

As in most previous National Poetry Months, I am haunted by an all-pervasive question. To wit, "Where's my cut?"

To paraphrase the words of Nils Tufnel in This Is Spinal Tap, "The answer is nowhere. Nowhere is my cut."

This is because, while National Poetry Month affords much-needed exposure to an art form that is all too easily overshadowed and shouted out in an era of spectacle, the exposure and such perks as exist go to those who are already poetry stars. In this instance, it must be said, "star" is a highly relative term. Even the best and most established poets in the United States, the ones with multiple prestigious publications and an impression collection of grants, are fortunate to have a book sell five thousand copies. Few have literary agents, and none of them needs a bodyguard or entourage. All are blessedly immune to the prospect of a reality television role.

Still, poetry stars get a few expenses-paid readings and maybe some extra sales this time of year, as well as the attention noted above. And the last time I checked, I am not one of them.

It might be a wise marketing move, a way of making a virtue of necessity, to say that such poetry stardom as exists probably isn't all that great, or that the poetry world is completely corrupt and toally composed of the "phonies" that Salinger's Holden Caulfield denounced in The Catcher in the Rye.

I can't honestly say those things, however. The fox in Aesop's fable may have consoled himself with the thought that the grapes he couldn't reach were probably sour grapes anyway, but I suspect that the grapes of poetry stardom (however few or small they may be) are actually kind of tasty. Put me down for two bunches, please.

Moreover, the poetry world is only partially corrupt and only partially composed of phonies, which in this instance means handing out scarce prizes and publication slots to friends, students or family. Sorting out which poets are and aren't inspires no small number of off-the-record debates.

Worrying a great deal about one's status in poetry, an oxymonoric phrase to be sure, is a decidedly First World problem. Doing so betrays both vanity and envy, at various times called character flaws or besetting sins. I am comfortable with either term, if not the reality it names.

One question that arises from this morass of self-involvement is, in short, "Why am I not a poetry star?" By extension, why aren't many others?

A variety of answers come to mind.

  1. Inadequate achievement. Poets are not the best judges of how their work stacks up. Maybe my work to date doesn't deserve poetry stardom, or doesn't show signs of doing so any time soon, if ever. Maybe my best poems are far ahead of me or, heaven forfend, behind. The truth can hurt. We'll see how things shake out.

  2. Inadequte achievement. See Item 1.

  3. Insufficient charisma. As noted in Pulp Fiction, personality goes a long way. Some people command attention simply by being present, and all other things being equal that will help them to find audiences and sell books. Some of the rest of us are more retiring by nature and don't electrify a room by walking in.

  4. Insufficient connections. In the prestige economy of poetry, connections are a kind of currency. One can inherit them by being born into a literary family or acquire them by attending certain schools, whether Ivy League stalwarts or better-known creative writing programs. I have more connections than some and fewer than others, and no amount of connections will help a poet whose work doesn't attain some theoretical minimum degree of quality.

  5. Being insufficiently "beautiful" in a conventional sense and/or insufficiently photogenic. People gravitate toward good-looking and photogenic/telegenic people, especially those who are charismatic. It just works like that. If Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt start writing good poetry, or even average poetry, many of us poets are in trouble. As it is, poetry careers sometimes benefits from the poet's good looks. The same could be said for this as for Items 3 and 4: we play the cards we're dealt, and who wouldn't use the advantages they have?

  6. Writing poems that may not find favor with current factions and fashions. Poems and poets can fall between the cracks that separate different schools, styles and publications. Falling between the cracks can happen to a good or very good poet, but it also happens to plenty of mediocre or worse poems.

  7. See Items 1 and 2.

I may attain some level of poetry stardom, or maybe not. That's largely for others to decide. In the meantime, to paraphrase Allen Ginsberg, I will put my slight shoulder to the wheel.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Open Mic Bingo

Since April is National Poetry Month, even non-poets may find themselves attending a reading or two. While many events include only featured readers, some events also include, or consist entirely of, an open mic segment in which all comers can sign up and perform for a certain length of time or text.

Like other gatherings, the open mic includes a variety of features and rituals. For the edification of newcomers, and for a variety of uses by experienced attendees, I present above a card for Open Mic Bingo (click to enlarge). Prompted by a conversation with my wife, this card also has antecedents in Meeting Bingo and the recent AWP Bingo card by Daniel Nester. Others may have done this previously and/or better, but this is the first attempt I know of. If I can observe enough by watching, to paraphrase Yogi Berra, I hope eventually to provide a second card for the ambitious or experienced player.

For now, game on!