Friday, March 27, 2015

So, now what?

After Reading Bill Holm, Whom I Never Met

Sitting at my desk reading Bill Holm, lamenting
the fact I can never write him a letter to say
I’d rather die than to think of a world without his poems.
for Hell’s sake, what am I supposed to do with them now?
I can paper the back bathroom with them, paint them
over with that shade of blue Becky likes so much,
but what good would that do?  It’s not the same blue
as the open skies of Minnesota or Iceland, no way
to get lost in the horizon or decide on a stand of trees
in which to sit down and get drunk.  So, what now?

Monday, March 9, 2015

Mama Said . . .

Something strange has been happening to me over the past few months I did not expect would ever happen.  I have not, as I have hoped, returned to writing poetry.  

Before we get into the meat of this, let me define the parameters of what I see as not returning to poetry.  In the past three years, I have written no more than a half dozen short poems worth showing to others or throwing into the submission process.  This includes the haiku I posted a few days ago. I have not written anything I would consider new, and none of the few ideas I have had regarding poetry exploration (I tend to write with a manuscript in mind) have panned out.  I have written the occasional book review for friends, conducted an interview, and had conversations about poetry, but no really good poems to speak of.  I will admit "really good" is a relative and highly subjective term, so allow me to expand on this.  I have attempted maybe a dozen poems in the past three years and completed a half dozen.  

Now I know that's a half dozen poems I wouldn't have at all if not for trying.  I understand that.  What I am speaking of is the growing feeling I have which tells me more and more every day I need to prepare for the moment when I no longer want to write poetry.  It's not a particularly disturbing thought, and it is entirely possible I am more upset that I am not bothered by the thought than I am at the prospect of not writing another poem.

I am no stranger to gaps and spaces in my writing life.  My first poems were published in 1994, and it took another three years to see any more poems published, and then another three years to see any more poems published.  Often times, when I am nearing completion of a manuscript (book or chapbook) I have a tendency to stop writing at about the 90-95% mark, and I end up struggling to get the last bit of the book finished.  However, I have never gone as long as I have currently gone without doing a lot of writing or returning to writing with a new passion and a considerable amount of production.  This is new.

It's a new feeling and I don't know what to make of it.  I have a book coming out later this Spring and I have a completed manuscript making the rounds. Normally I would have gone through maybe 11-12 months of not writing much as a way to cope with my rebound from the struggle I have when completing a manuscript.  but this has been 36 months of drips, drabs, and false-positives.  Even when I was at my worst, I was still writing a lot of bad poems---yes, even bad in my eyes.  

But not now.  Now I am in the midst of writing the longest piece of work I have written in more than a month---and that counts a book review and a series of e-mails to a fellow poet.  And I have no idea if I am even going o be able to finish this.

I have no idea why I am not writing poems.  Maybe I have said everything I want to say in poetry.  Maybe I do not feel I have truly resolved one or both of the above mentioned manuscripts.  Maybe I am afraid to try and write because I have forgotten how to write a poem.  Maybe I just have no more desire to write poetry and I am just a little stunned.  I mean, everything I know about myself tells me I should be knee deep in poems trying to figure out what kind of manuscript I should be constructing.  

But not now.  Now I am wondering what is stopping me from writing poems---good poems, bad poems, poems which mean nothing, poems which are sure to be rejected, and possibly occasionally accepted.  Instead of getting excited about which journals I would love my poems to appear in, I am questioning whether I ever want to bother submitting another poem---ever.  

Now for the thing of which I am most frightened.  I don't know if I have the energy or desire to do anything creative.  Not only do I not know what that might look like for me, I don't even know what direction to look.  I simply do not care and I simply don't have any idea what might spark my creativity again.

I can say that if I do end up returning to poetry in a relatively short time, I doubt I will bother with submitting or even sharing with too many people. I will still buy books and read poetry, but I doubt I will write too many reviews in the near future.  And those things might change, too, depending on what else changes for me in the future.  

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Philip Levine: Influence from the Peripheral

"Let me give you a little piece of advice about publishing. If you can live without publishing—that is if you don't have a job that depends upon publishing—then just wait as long as you can. Wait as long as possible... until you're thirty,thirty-five. And don't publish all that crap, and don't get involved in that whole world of connections and ass-kissing, networking and all that shit. Stay away from it. Meet some people who care about poetry the way you do. You'll have that readership. Keep going until you know you're doing work that's worthy. And then see what happens. That's my advice." -- Philip Levine

Thanks to Sam Hamill for posting this quote and reminding me of this great advice.

My first chapbook came out when I was 35 years old, in 2005.  I am not saying it was great or wonderful, or that any of my poetry will ever be great or wonderful to anyone besides myself,but I do know this:  My poetry was better for taking longer to get out into the world. It was a lesson I had to learn the hard way, but when I came across this, I immediately knew Levine was telling the truth.  I am heading into what I feel to be the third phase of my writing life, not having written more than half a dozen poems I am willing to let other people read.  I am just fine with that because I know what Philip Levine said is true.  Waiting is the greatest thing we can do for our poems.  Wait to write them, wait to revise them, and wait until they are ready before sending them out into the world. 

In an interview with a poetry journal, I gave the following advice when asked about publishing:

Of course every poet’s advice to other poets has the universal caveat of what I know is based upon my own experiences, and as such should also be universally ignored. With that in mind, these are some of the things I have learned over the course of my very fortunate publishing life.

First, write because you love it, not because you want to get published.  As writers we all want to share our words with others,but if you allow yourself to become obsessed with getting a book published, you will expend a tremendous amount of energy worrying about something for which you have very little control.  It is best to expend that energy on making your manuscript the best it can be.  I am not saying you shouldn’t seek publication, just don’t be wasteful with your energy.

And it is work.  Never let anyone tell you what you do is notwork.  You have to believe in your manuscript.  You have to forgive and ignore the ignorance your friends and family might express,dismissing your work as a mere hobby.  They will not understand the very real emotional connection you have with not only the work you create, butt he process by which you create it.  The public acknowledgement a book represents is powerful, but it will mean nothing if the only reason you want a book is to show it off.  If you are a serious writer, the books will come in time.  Overnight success only takes ten years. 

I was never a conscious disciple of Philip Levine.  I enjoy his poetry and I have two of his books (one of my first serious attempts at writing poetry was an imitation of his poem, "You Can Have it") but it will probably be a long time before I can fully appreciate the impact his work has upon my own.  I have trouble identifying the fingerprints of poets on my life whom I do not know personally---I simply do not think in those terms.  I can say I was happy to learn when he was named Poet-Laureate, and knew it was a marvelous choice.  I was sad when I learned several years ago he actually had to make a public request that his students stop asking for letters of recommendation.  That sort of thing is not an embarrassment of riches, it is a sad commentary on what too many poets think what a life in poetry should be.

What's left?  The poems---those Philip Levine leaves behind for all of us and the poems we all have yet to write because of what he taught all of us.  A pretty great legacy.

You Can Have It
by Philip Levine

My brother comes home from work
and climbs the stairs to our room.
I can hear the bed groan and his shoes drop
one by one. You can have it, he says.

The moonlight streams in the window
and his unshaven face is whitened
like the face of the moon. He will sleep
long after noon and waken to find me gone.

Thirty years will pass before I remember
that moment when suddenly I knew each man
has one brother who dies when he sleeps
and sleeps when he rises to face this life,

and that together they are only one man
sharing a heart that always labors, hands
yellowed and cracked, a mouth that gasps
for breath and asks, Am I gonna make it?

All night at the ice plant he had fed
the chute its silvery blocks, and then I
stacked cases of orange soda for the children
of Kentucky, one gray boxcar at a time

with always two more waiting. We were twenty
for such a short time and always in
the wrong clothes, crusted with dirt
and sweat. I think now we were never twenty.

In 1948 in the city of Detroit, founded
by de la Mothe Cadillac for the distant purposes
of Henry Ford, no one wakened or died,
no one walked the streets or stoked a furnace,

for there was no such year, and now
that year has fallen off all the old newspapers,
calendars, doctors' appointments, bonds,
wedding certificates, drivers licenses.

The city slept. The snow turned to ice.
The ice to standing pools or rivers
racing in the gutters. Then bright grass rose
between the thousands of cracked squares,

and that grass died. I give you back 1948.
I give you all the years from then
to the coming one. Give me back the moon
with its frail light falling across a face.

Give me back my young brother, hard
and furious, with wide shoulders and a curse
for God and burning eyes that look upon
all creation and say, You can have it. 

Friday, January 23, 2015

Book Review: John Gallaher's In A Landscape

John Gallaher
128 pp., BOA Editions, ltd.
ISBN: 978-1-938160-50-9

If I may, I will be so bold as to offer this declaration as my opening thought for my review: In A Landscape, by John Gallaher, is one of those books.  You know―it’s one of those books which picks you up from the earth’s gravity and sets you aimlessly afloat.  Gallaher starts talking to you with what initially comes off as unfocused or circumstantial thoughts, but soon reveals itself as having an agenda.  Most readers want books (particularly poetry books) to shove them in some familiar direction so they will at least be able to find their way home, and that’s a shame.  To quote some lyrics as Gallaher does from time to time, there is “beauty in the breakdown.” Zachary Schomburg’s Scary, No Scary lives in the realm of the semi-conscious, and so does In A Landscape.  Gallaher uses a different strategy (informal conversation) but the effect is the same.  In A Landscape deceptively asks all sorts of questions and does not take the easy way out by giving the reader any simple answers. There are perhaps answers for Gallaher, and even you if you are willing to think about the questions long enough, but therein lies the work set out with this stunning poem.

The physical scope of the book can be seen as an obstacle, but it soon becomes apparent to the reader there is purpose and function built into the form.  It appears in my mind as an endless and almost seamless series of fences in a Home Owner’s Association, mimicking the anonymity of the suburban landscape while the book attempts to mask its poetry in an almost prosaic display of long lines and thick stanzas.  Why is it essential?  The questions in the book are hidden, embedded into the fabric of conversation and they demand that the reader step into the ether to find them.  Certainly the important questions can be asked in a more direct and obvious way, but the beauty of this book is that both questions and answers are discovered in incidental and almost accidental ways. 

The book takes the form of a long conversation.  Part Socratic method, and part Hegelian dialectic, Gallaher goes about the long and complicated process of trying to discover what is essential.  When beginning the book, one might feel as if entering the process in media res, joining a conversation already in progress.  In some ways I am sure, Gallaher has been having this conversation with himself for years and is now asking us to join in the discussion.  The book demands a different kind of attention because each poem/section is numerical in nature, and the reader cannot simply identify any of the poems by title.  One cannot simply skip to a poem which differently structured or unique in appearance.  The reader must start and continue on if any sense is to be made of this book. This requirement mirrors one of the central themes of the book.  I for one believe it to be a worthwhile endeavor.  This is another level of anonymity which can be unsettling, but ultimately makes for a better reading experience.
Gallaher picks open his life at the seams and shares with the reader (by way of personal history and recollection) his doubts, questions, and musings regarding how a person gets from point A to point B.  We learn about Gallaher’s life, who plainly admits this book is factual, and we learn about ourselves because it is only natural to be sympathetic and have empathy for the many things he tells us by searching our own lives.  He examines the impact events have upon his life and appears at times to want a plot to emerge from a world he knows to be void of anything resembling plot.   Sewn into the book are dozens of tiny epiphanies; moments of stark realization which deliver themselves like pin-pricks to the brain.  Gallaher is also quite adept with his timing of these moments.  He jumps ahead and revisits themes from earlier sections with stunning precision, somehow reading the mind of the reader.  Gallaher always knows what topic to speak to next and what part of the reader to address.

One of the biggest discoveries I personally made as I read the book was there seemed to be an undercurrent of unsettling or lingering doubt about all of the really big questions.  Eventually I came to believe the book is asking this single question:  “Knowing all we know, how do we carry on?”  At every turn, Gallaher seems to be asking that question for all of us.  Detailing experiences which are big and small, seemingly random and at times frightening in their connectivity.  If poetry was the world of quantum mechanics, or quantum theory was perhaps meant to be expressed through poetry, I would gladly hail In A Landscape as one of the more elegant theories of how the universe operates.

Ultimately, In A Landscape asks us to join in the conversation.  We may not be able to make any predictions regarding our own lives, but we can be reassured we are not the alone in what we fear and the questions we ask.  There is hope in these pages, and it is the kind of hope which is lasting, because it did not take any short cuts and it did not shy away from the difficult truths.  John Gallaher has given us a jumping off point which is worthy of our time and our collaboration.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Mormons Don't Care about Political Party Affiliation

Mormons are just fine with differences of political opinion---so long as your views are conservative.  They don't care if you are a member of the GOP, a full blown Libertarian, voted for Ross Perot, or even if you campaigned for Bo Gritz. 

That's right.  I am referring to the Bishop Paredes, who recently wrote about my senator (I live in Nevada) Harry Reid, basically sharing his opinion as a Bishop of the Mormon Church, that he found it difficult to accept Harry Reid could be a Mormon in good standing.  As a Mormon (though to meet full disclosure I must admit I am an inactive Mormon) who is also a liberal, I am annoyed at this comment, but I am not surprised or offended.  I am not offended because I know too many Mormons who are hypocrites to continue to be offended by seeing exactly what I already knew about them.

I am saying this on Veteran's Day for two very specific reasons.   

1.  This is a political post about Mormons and their perceptions, and as a liberal Mormon I have something to say about this.

2.  As a liberal veteran, I break the mold yet again.   

Again for the record, I was a liberal Mormon long before I became inactive, and my inactivity has nothing to do with my politics. 

You see, Mormons are a special breed.  On a cultural level, Mormons do some pretty strange things.  They classify most of the world's population into two categories.  There are Mormons and Jews, and there are Gentiles, which consists of everyone else.  Yes, Mormons consider themselves a strange and peculiar people, right along with the Jewish people of the world.  What?  Do you think it an accident the original article written by Bishop Paredes was on The Jewish Journal?

Mormons also claim the Church does not direct any of its members towards any specific political affiliation, which is true.  You will hear it again and again.  The Church encourages participation in the political process without ever once endorsing any specific political party.  I even grew up in an era where you would never hear anything political spoken from the pulpit, though the debate over gay marriage ended that.  And though the Mormon Church does not espouse (see what I did there) any specific political party, it bleeds and sweats conservatism.  Liberal Mormons are rare, and as such, Bishop Paredes could not contain his exultation when one lost his leadership role in the U.S. Senate.

* * *

I opened with the fact that most Mormons don't care which political party you belong to, so long as it is conservative.  I stand by that and I dare any Mormon to challenge the truth of that statement.  I have seen from people I know personally, unspecified contests conducted to see who can run to the right faster and harder than the other Mormons they know.  And believe me when I tell you it gets pretty frightening.  I have debated toe-to-toe with some of these people, pointed out the hypocrisy of the GOP, only to have them retreat to the all-too-familiar trope, "Well, it's all politicians, not just Republicans."  You see, one of the great truths of Mormon conservatism is that while 95% of Mormon conservatives vote a straight ticket with the Republican Party, you will never get more than half of them to say they are Republicans.  They will swear oaths to affirm they are staunch independents or libertarians.  But try asking them to mane one non-GOP issue they disagree with and they will go blank, blink, gulp for air like a carp, and then say they don't think the GOP goes far enough to preserve gun rights or eliminate the capital gains tax. 

Another dirty secret: Most Mormons don't really hate President Obama.  They are actually happy to see him be president.  No, really.  Most Mormon' anti-Obama sentiments are a knee-jerk reaction, rooted deeply in the historic racism of the Church's history and its people.  Not to mention the firm doctrinal belief they are waiting for the historical moment when  the U.S. Constitution is 'hanging by a thread,' when a Mormon will save the nation from its own demise.  That's why so many Mormons had such a hard-on for Mitt Romney.  They just forgot about subjectivity.  Depending on who you talk to, The U.S. Constitution has been 'hanging by a thread' for most of our nation's history.

I grew up in Utah, so I understand Bishop Paredes' disconnect.  Not his political disconnect, mind you, but his inability to comprehend the liberal position.  I am okay with people disagreeing with my politics.  I think the debate needs to happen.  I actually believe it's healthy for the political process.  However, I am a liberal Mormon, and as such I have no choice to accept the other side's legitimacy.  The problem Bishop Paredes and his ilk have is they use their group-think mentality to collectively erase any part of cognition which might allow for the liberal philosophy to have any legitimate basis.  They claim the reason they do not accept liberalism as legitimate is that the liberal ideology has shifted so much it has corrupted all of its original tenets.  They say this with a straight face, too.  Irony is not a strong card for conservatives, and even less of one for Mormons.  They have all but forgotten Richard Nixon signed into law the EPA, that the tax rate during Eisenhower's Presidentcy was 92%, and that Ronald Reagan was in favor of reasonable gun control measures.  Remind any Mormon of that, and they will most likely tell you they are more of a "conservative independent" than Republican. 

One final example before I leave you to your day:

Mormons are a little shaky on regular history of the 19th Century.  Mormon History and Utah history they have in spades, but general U.S. or World history of the 19th Century are real blind spots for Mormons.  Ask a Mormon about the Second Great Awakening and you will get the Joseph Smith Story.  Ask about the Bill of Rights in the 19th Century and you will hear dozens of "true" stories about Mormon persecution.  Ask about Westward expansion and you will get more stories about Mormons trying to get to Zion, complete with hardships and fortitude.  Ask them how immigrants fared during the Gilded Age (1875-1900) and you will get stories about Mormons immigrating' to and settling different parts of Utah.

One of the many charges leveled against me is that I am a communist or a socialist or some kind of Socialistic Fascist, though I am still trying to figure out how that is possible, seeing the goal of socialism is the dissolution of government and fascism is the strengthening of government.  Ask your conservative Mormon friends about the Law of Consecration.  Then ask them to explain the difference between The law of Consecration and Socialism.  After they tell you that the Law of Consecration is based on voluntary participation (as mandated by The Mormon Church), ask them the same question again, because there is no real difference.  Ask about Collectivism and the myriad of Utopian efforts during the 19th Century, and Mormons will look at you because all they know is that mean people did their best to stop Mormons from being able to live their lives in peace or as a Utopian collective.  Ask them to read up on the popularity of Utopian movements in America during early to mid 1800's which helped inspire the mechanics (if not the doctrine itself) of The Law of Consecration. But because I believe in universal health care for all Americans, I'm some kind of Commie Bastard.   

* * *

Now, of course Bishop Paredes apologized for the appearance that what he had to say had any real connection to his being a Bishop and that connection having anything to do with temple worthiness.  For those who are wondering about that, I will tell you it's business as usual.  There are a lot of Mormons who simply have an embarrassing level of  hubris when anything related to or even peripherally associated with theology.  They simply lack the ability to comprehend how anyone can see the world differently.  In that regard, they are a strange and peculiar people.  

Of course I will come under fire from some Mormon for saying these things.  Not much, as mine is not a popular blog, but some.  To those people, feel free to share your anger and outrage.  Feel free to comment and to rail against my position.  Accuse me of generalizing, exaggerating, and perpetuating stereotypes.  Do whatever helps you sleep at night.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

A Draft with Theories


* * *

The above is a first draft of a poem I wrote last week.  It's the first poem I have written in a long time, and it's riddled with problems.  Chief among them, I have no idea how to end the poem.  It's not so simple as stop writing words.  I cannot see the ending like I am so used to with my poetry---or have had with most of my poems up to this point.  This is the furthest any of my poems have gone without an ending.  Ever.  I have absolutely no idea what to do with this poem except for one very real, very physical truth---I need to finish it.

This poem is a very real microcosm for my life as a writer.  Some of these things will be recognized by a regular reader of this blog.

1.  When I have begun to write a manuscript (that moment when I know what a book is going to be about) I become singularly focused on the book and everything I write is going to be related in some way to that manuscript.

2.  When I get 90% finished with a manuscript, I lose interest in what I am writing and begin to use my energy to write other things, desperately searching for some kind of escape from what I am supposed to be working on, and unfortunately that last 10% includes proofreading and the final tweaks of grammar, punctuation,  and syntax. 

3.  I cannot commit to new work until I 'feel' the work of the current manuscript is complete.

4.  I cannot write anything new until I genuinely panic as a result of not having written anything new for far too long.

I have such a manuscript which is as finished as I can make it---it is a sort of 'greatest his' from my chapbooks and similar themed/voiced poems.  It was a safe bet at the time.  I was 90% finished with a landscape meditations book I had been working on for a year or so.  I was completing it and was sending it off to Aldrich Press, who did in fact accept it for publication.  The advantage of this evil plan of mine was that most of the poems were already finished, already proofed and ready to go.  I would create  manuscript of older poems and I would be able to work on my landscape meditations book in random down time moments and not feel guilty about not writing anything new.  I was to distract my brain and subvert my usual pattern of anxiety and panic.  My plan was working, too.  

Well, I thought it was working, but a funny thing happened on the way to the trash can.  I began taking the fake manuscript seriously, actually investing energy and creativity above and beyond what I wanted.  I actually started to see real potential in this manuscript of mine, and my focus shifted to it rather than to writing new poems.  Oh, lots of false starts and attempts to return to previous and somewhat successful themes happened, but nothing solid, nothing which made me take notice.  I have accepted the direction my writing has taken over the past 20 years of my writing life.  I write in books rather than individual poems.  What I might think of as being individual poems mostly turn out to be poems which fit, at the furthest, on the periphery of book manuscripts.  

Over the course of the past 20 years I have become better at spotting the patterns and themes of my writing, which is of some comfort to me, but I have not ever lost the panic I experience between manuscripts, between creative bursts.  In 2005, my first chapbook was published.  I had been living with that manuscript for so long inside a black hole of an editor who refused to communicate, it was easy to move on and write more poetry.  I knew I needed to write more because the poems from that first chapbook were going to be the core of my first book.  Completing that first full length book and getting it accepted was six years in the making.  Ever since that long wait for publication, I have had a backlog of poems and manuscripts.  By the time the full length book came out in 2011, I had written two chapbooks worth of poetry, another full length manuscript , and begun another full length manuscript.  

Working on all of those books in such short order helped to alleviate the anxiety and panic, but having finished with all of that, I sat down and realized I was, with my landscape meditation book, simply gathering 14 years of work together.  I was writing very little new work specifically for the book.  Most of what I was doing was re-imagining work already completed.  Don't get me wrong.  I sincerely love the landscape meditations book.  I think it is some of my best, and certainly most mature work.  I just know it has been far too long since I have had any new ideas for a book, and as a result, I have begun to panic.  

Another chapter:  In 2012 some friends of mine started a band (Intra-Venus & the Cosmonauts) and they asked me to be their lyrical collaborator for songs and projects.  I was happy to oblige, and while I originally thought this might be a fun outing, I have since experienced quite the learning curve.  I think this is where some of my creative energy has gone, and with their first album coming out in December, I may have actually transferred my process into this timeline.  I might be waiting until the album is released before I release my brain to once again write.  They have asked me for more songs and I have a few ideas but yet to be able to follow through with any complete thoughts in the forms of song.

I am also teaching a creative writing class this year.  The class, I thought, would push me to write more, but it's a wash.  I am spending very little of my time writing poems of my own and a lot of time trying to get my students to leave the literal world behind.  It's a strange endeavor.  On the one hand the class is entirely voluntary, but on the other, I have to keep reminding myself they do not have the same priorities as I do when it comes to writing.  I spend a lot of energy trying to teach craft and creativity which instead of inspiring my own writing (what usually happens when I am busy) I find myself simply reading more.  Not a wasted endeavor at all, but I would like to be writing more, too.

That brings me full circle to the above poem and what I should do with it.  I feel an urgency to finish it, to make the attempt, but I have no earthly (or other) ideas as how to do that.  I don't know if I need to prune the poem, make it longer, re-write what I already have, or call it finished as is.  My usual ability to finish a first draft relatively fast is not with me right now, and that bothers me.  Usually, if a poem is going to fall apart on me it is going to happen much earlier in the process.  I have no clue and I don't like it at all.

I know a lot of what I am saying doesn't make sense and it feels like I lack gratitude for what I already have accomplished.  For that I am sorry.  I am merely trying to address my confusion.  I have never written a poem like this one and I am not sure of what I should make of it.  I know the draft is not finished and that's about all I know.  I hope the poem shows promise and I hope it does not fade away.  I'd like to see if it has the potential to outlast its current incarnation.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

It's always sunny in Poetryville, right?

So I've been working on two manuscripts these days.  I have been trying my best to proof and tighten my book of landscape meditation before things get serious early next year.  I have been tweaking it and questioning my grammatical choices, just like a real poet might.  But I have also been trying to put together and prepare to submit another book of poetry, this one not nearly as quiet, not nearly as introspective.  It's this work of the two manuscripts which is stopping me from writing new poetry on a regular basis.

I have, for all my life as a poet, been plagued with an obsession of completeness and being finished.  I literally cannot move on until I have convinced my brain the job is done.  That in itself is not a bad thing to have.  I may never be considered one of the great poets (and believe me when I say giving up that fantasy was the hardest week I have had in 2014 so far) but that's not the only trait I have when it comes to my writing.  I am also invariably led astray somewhere around the 90%.  What exactly does that mean?  When I get about 90% finished with a manuscript, I lose interest in it and I want to work on other things---other poems and other poem cycles. 

So the position I find myself in right now is both strange and terrifying.  I have over the past decade experienced some amazing success as a poet---four chapbooks, three full length books of poetry published, another accepted for publication, and another in the wings waiting to enter into the submission process.  New poetry?  Not so much.  This is difficult for me because of several things. 

1.  I am a firm believer in the idea: It's not what you have written, but what you are writing.  I am not writing new poems and it has been a long time since I have.
2.  I am 45, and like it or not, I also acknowledge my creativity is not what it used to be.  I am getting better at craft, but I am getting worse at the creative thinking which makes my poems possible. 
3.  The new poems I did write some time ago have been universally rejected time and again.  I don't know why, but it has been another multi-year stretch without any acceptances. 
4.  I have apparently burned a lot of bridges in the poetry community, with my many annoying AS traits.  I desperately want to belong to a community which my personality alienates more with each of my interactions.* 

The only real thread of hope I have in all of this is that I have a habit of not writing for long stretches of time and only really get back into writing new poetry when I have sufficiently panicked.  Well, I think it's safe to say I am panicking. All of the material in the two manuscripts I have mentioned is old, and I want to create something new.  After my landscape meditation manuscript is in book form, there is no guarantee the other manuscript will ever get accepted for publication.  I know that.  It's part of the game, but if it takes another two or three years of doing my best to get it accepted, that is another two or three years I will be convinced I am not ready to write anything new.  That bothers me.  

So I am left with working with two manuscripts---neither of which holds my interest like they should, and each serving as a roadblock to new writing and creativity.  Welcome to my neighborhood.

*  For clarification, I misread a lot of things because of my AS, but I have as of late felt less a part of the poetry community.  Whether that is because of my annoying obsessions and poor communication skills, I do not know, but my feelings are none-the-less genuine on the matter.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Book Review: Jon D. Lee These Around Us

These Around Us
Jon D. Lee
96 pp., Aldrich Press
ISBN 13: 978-0692233566

Eight years is a long time to wait for a second book of poem from a poet you admire, but most times you can take comfort knowing that the wait will be worth it.   Jon Lee's second collection of poems, These Around Us, certainly delivers on that promise.  It is a well written book of poems dedicated to the domestic life of a young writer and teacher.  The poems are biographical enough to spark the reader's curiosity and honest enough to leave no doubt of their essential truth.

Before I continue, I want to disclose I know Jon in person (outside of the internets).  We were in a summer course (Shakespeare's Histories & Comedies) at the same college a long time ago, and I have on occasion published and even solicited poems from him for Hobble Creek Review.  None-the-less, this review is written because I genuinely love this book of poems on several levels.

The first thing I noticed when reading this new book is Lee's subtle humor.  I mean this book opens with a brilliant landscape meditation, which I will always love, but that's not want I was most looking forward to when I picked up this book.  Lee's poems about fatherhood and the professional life of a teacher and poet are sharp as they come; the undercurrent of humor is spot on every time.  Lee's humor is not broad, nor does it seek out the lowest common denominator.  The humor in this book, and that of his first book, are precise and observational.  Lee doesn't make you labor too much for the joke, but he demands you pay attention.  Take for example "The Parent's Credo" here in its glorious audio, read by Lee himself:

With a structure adapted from Christopher Smart, we are treated to the unique perspective from which Lee sees the world.  This poem works because it takes the sentimentality of parenthood and mashes it with the absurd reality every parent knows to be true.  Lee applies this humor to every facet of his life: His marriage, his work, and his familial relationships. By pointing out the absurd to us, he draws us and lets us know everything will be okay, because we all go through the same things and we all have a much larger common ground than we believed before reading these poems.

The poems here do something else which is of vital importance.  They dispel the idea that family must (or usually does) take a backseat to a poet and his art.  Lee is a poet, but these poems are about his marriage, his family, and his career.  The poems, as they get more personal, become layered and more powerful.  With many other male poets I read, I get the sense they speak of the domestic aspects of their life as merely one facet of their lives, and the information they give us is merely incidental.  In Lee's poems, you do not get that sense.  His poems center around his domestic life because his domesticity is the center core of his being.  That, to me, is the mark of a real poet.  Not that all poets should write about their family, but that a poet should take what is essential, critical, most relevant and make art from that, not feeling it necessary to seek out some artifice or foreign structure to create poetry.  Lee is at home with his daily life, and there is no sideshow to distract you.  Everything you see is everything he is.  Interspersed throughout the book are small, fragmentary poems, dedicated to his wife.  Here is one of my favorites:

For Lynette, With Love (VI)

in the white heart of winter
when even the sugarblood
of tree and bush
cease its languid
spill and thump
I ask only
for the fever of your breath 

One of my favorite poems from the collection, "Newtown," is particularly powerful.  It is powerful because it claims its status as an elegy without once taking a political stance.  It merely (such a misleading term for this poem) focuses on the relationship between father and son.  In fact, it is the lack of politics which forces the reader to interact with the poem and refuses dismissal.  It is a poem I at once love and envy, too. When I first read the poem I immediately read the poem again.

To be honest, I have no idea how to effectively end this mini-review.  I will try to end it with a list of things I know.

1.  I know These Around Us is a fine follow up to Lee's first book, Ode To Brian: the long season---you should get both books to know what I am talking about.

2.  I know more than a few poems in this book are poems I wish I could have written.

3.  The poems in this book offer depth, humor, wonderful insight, and voice.

4.  In Robert Hodgson Van Wagoner's words, these poems are 'disarmingly intimate,' and that is something I both agree with and know we could all use more of in our lives.

5.  I know this is a book I will return to often.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Addendum from Hell

Yesterday as I was writing my little post about how I perceive the literary world through the lens of my AS, I kept cutting myself short because, well because I have an almost compulsory need to explain myself ad nauseum.  So, that I am here this morning talking more about all of this should not be a huge surprise.  I certainly saw it coming.

First, I want to thank those who took the time to read yesterday's post and made comment.  It really does put off a lot of the frustration i feel on a regular basis over the idea I might be saying things and being brushed off.  I would also like to thank Shaindel Beers for pointing me in the direction of another writer with AS a few posts earlier.  I wrote to her, and even though I have not heard back (after all, the prospects of dealing with another AS writer is not always a pleasant thought) I am certainly open to the idea of seeking out other writers with AS from time to time to see what's what.

I do not feel at all upset about piggy-backing on my last post so quickly because this will actually begin the discussion of what I said I was going to talk about---my Alexithymia, and how it affects my writing.  But more about that in a later post.  Right now I need to stay on topic and talk about what I started with.

I want to add another number to the list of things I talked about.  I want to go into a little more depth with actual Poetry Business.  What follows are a few examples, illustrations made with the best of my ability, to show you what I feel like when poetry business happens.  And when over 100 of your Facebook friends are poets, you tend to get a lot of this news all of the time.

The Poetry Editor for The New England Review, C. Dale Young, is stepping down after almost 20 years of holding that position.  I know C. Dale in the Facebook way you might know someone.  I have spoken with C. Dale, posted on his thread, e-mailed him a few times regarding certain issues which have come up over the years, and he has been kind enough to take me seriously when things were serious and joke with me when things are funny.  Now, this is not about C. Dale, but he is part of this first example.

When C. Dale made his announcement today who would be replacing him, it wasn't all of a sudden made real for me---I didn't freak out about who or that it was really happening, I freaked out over something entirely different.  I freaked out at how everyone was talking about the announcement, how speculation began with a poet innocently asking if anyone knew who the new editor was and all of the 'knowing' and 'wink wink' talk which ensued.  Are they a secret cabal of poets who, like the Illuminati, are moving towards world domination?  No.  Absolutely not.  But my brain started to review the entire list of reasons why I will never be a real poet and this . . . this latest discussion of who is in the know and who is decidedly not, is just the latest piece to the puzzle of why I cannot get to Poet Island with all of the other poets.

The next example is a result of the North Carolina Governor naming a self-published poet as Poet Laureate.  From everything I read, at least half the anger directed at the governor was not aimed at selecting a poet who was talented enough to properly represent the state, but that he had, in true Neo-Conservative/Tea Party Bully tactics, appointed said poet without consulting the North Carolina Arts Council and picking a poet from their short list.  To me that screams elitism and idiocy.  To me, if the governor of a state has the right to appoint the Poet Laureate all on his own, then you get what you get.  Do I think the poet in question should have been named?  Probably not, but so much of the poetry community's outrage was aimed at the process, leaving the spirit of poetry to choke and gasp.

Finally (well, not really, but this is all I am going to share), my focus, or special interests affect my writing, and when I write, I tend to write about the same thing for extended periods.  I write about something until the wheels fall off.  While this might be a good thing because it helps with my book manuscripts being more than just a gathering of poems, it means editors get really tired of reading what I send them as a matter of course, and what I tend to focus on has usually ended up being, for lack of a better phrase, outside of the general realm of popularity.

Take for example my romp into the realm of ars poetica.  Everyone loves the occasional ars poetica poem, a poem which turns poetry or the poetry world on its ear, and I would get a lot of poems published.  Problem?  Nobody wants to look at an entire manuscript of them.  I was very lucky to get two chapbook manuscripts of them published by Foothills Publishing.  Another problem?  I am about 15 poems away from having enough poetry to make for a really great full length manuscript, but my focus has shifted and I can't for the life of me write another decent ars poetica poem.  It's all landscape meditation and 19th Century Mormon Agrarian poetry, which as you can imagine, wows all of the editors.

* * *

That's quite enough for now.  I sure feel better.  How about you?

Thursday, July 24, 2014


Yesterday I tried to do something really stupid.  I tried to explain to you what the Poetry Business looks and feels like fro someone who has Asperger's Syndrome (AS).  Hubris?  Perhaps.  But I don't think it was stupid because such a thing can't be done, or that you wouldn't be able to see what I was trying to say, but because I knew I would get lost within my own narrative and lose track of what I was trying to say.  And that's exactly what happened.  I kept talking about things which had no bearing (except for me) on the point at hand.  Well, I will try to keep this much shorter and subject specific.

* * *

1.  Everyone but me is cool.  You all have a secret handshake and I will never learn it.  I will always feel like an outsider and that is why a lot of you probably think I am trying way too hard to convince you I belong and that is why I will always try too hard to make you think I belong with all of you.  It is why I will always talk too much and it is why I will only occasionally be able to tell when I am beginning to wear out my welcome with any of you.  The overwhelming perception I have of you is that you are just being nice to the slow kid.  And believe me when I tell you the existence of so many MFA programs causes me no end of grief.  Don't even get me started on AWP.  It's at the point where I just need to go away for 30 days before and 30 days after just to maintain my sanity.

2.  Every time somebody neglects to meet a deadline, I freak out.  I mean every time.  It's not your fault at all, but when someone tells me they will e-mail me by Tuesday with notes or an answer and that doesn't happen, I panic.  I mean, you said you were going to give me a blurb in a month, and that month ended yesterday.  Where is my blurb?  Did you forget?  Are you avoiding me?  Did something terrible happen to you?  The weird thing is when someone says to me, "It will be a while.  I'll get back to you as soon as I can," everything is great.  That will keep me calm for months at a time.  I don't know why that is, but it is.  It's why you have probably received some stupid e-mail from me asking about the status of something you thought wasn't that big of a deal.  Please accept my apology.

3.  I have no idea why you don't share my warped sense of quid pro quo.  Oh, I am sure all of you have some sense of fair play and helping out other poets when you can, but I am genuinely puzzled not a single one of you sees this practice of supporting your fellow artists the EXACT SAME WAY I DO.  I mean, my way is the best and it makes perfect sense, so why aren't you on board.  I am not talking about your specific support of me, either.  I am talking about how you do things differently than me.  It's as simple as that.  You don't support the poets in the writing community the way I do, and that's just weird.  Why don't you review your friends' books on your blog and on your Tumblr pages---even informally?  Why don't you take a picture of all the books of friends you buy and post them on Facebook?  Don't you want your friends to succeed?

* * *

The worst part of this is my AS makes me think irrational thoughts, gets me to  believe you are all consciously doing these things to me.  You know I want to be a part of your world and you are making sure there are too many roadblocks for me to get from where I am to where you are.  Even a year ago I had no idea why I believed that about all of you, but now I do, and I want to apologize for allowing all of those irrational thoughts getting in the way of honest relationships and letting them affect our interactions.

Next time I will talk about my Alexithymia, and how that little slice of heaven plays with my writing.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

The importance of helping money meet the arts

I want to say something about the nature of art and the importance of supporting art with money.  Most of the people who will read this are either people I know in real life or are poets I know from around the internets.  In either event, I am still talking about how important it is to support art wit money, and this message is for you.

I happen to be fortunate enough to work with a group of guys who are in a rock and roll band.  That band?

 Intra-Venus & the Cosmonauts.  

I know.  Awesome, right?  Yeah.  It's extremely cool that they asked me to help write a few songs with them.  It's practically a dream come true.  I say this with all sincerity because I have long been an admirer of musicians and music of all kinds.  So please, when I say these things, please know I am being totally sincere.

The guys from Intra-Venus & the Cosmonauts have a wonderful opportunity and need your support. They have secured David J (founding member of Bauhaus and Love and Rockets) to produce their first full length album. Please consider contributing to their Kickstarter project so they can do this thing right. 

Money needs to find its way to art.  More specifically, your money needs to find its way to this art.  Why? Because if you don't fund the arts, much of it will disappear, and in the case of Intra-Venus and the Cosmonauts, it might not get the chance to appear in the first place.  Oh, I know I sound dramatic and I am pushing a little.  You are right to think so because this is my hard sell.  You owe it to yourself to find something you can support with your money and watch it flourish.

I am not trying to imply you don't do this already.  I know as a poet I spend much more of my own money on my life as a poet than I will ever earn, as is true of the majority of poets in the world.  What I am trying to do is get you to do something extra, something outside of yourself and support the arts in a way you might not have normally thought viable.

When we support the arts, and the artists who create that art, we are providing  a wider response to the world in which we live.  We expand and extend the opportunity for people to experience the arts, and in turn, plant seeds of possibility and opportunity for new art to be created.

When we support the arts with money, we lend credibility to the artist.  We announce to the world being an artist is not a waste of time.  We tell the artist and audience alike "This is worthy of consideration" and even if that consideration is momentary, it will have an impact.

No truly great artist is an artist because of money.  Money does not inspire a lifetime of creativity and passion.  However, art does have a monetary price.  There is only so much on can do as an artist without money, and as many of you have, this band, Intra-Venus & the Cosmonauts, has reached the point of no return without money.  They either settle on the level of exposure local venues provide, continuing to self-produce the occasional ep, releasing them on the internet, or they step forward, into a much larger world---one where things might start happening on a grand scale.

Yes, I am personally vested.  I am not a neutral observer in this pursuit.  I have written songs with this band, and I have been able to live vicariously through their exploits.  If they succeed I can feel a little of the thrill. Well, I am giving money to their kickstarter, too.  I am going to be giving money just like I know they guys in the band are giving their money, in addition to their blood and sweat..   These guys are authentic, passionate, and talented.  You owe it to yourselves to give money.  Any amount you can give will be appreciated.  Any amount you give will be confirmation of the arts.

I will also say this.  If you give at least $50, I will, in addition to the packages offered by the band, give you a signed copy of my chapbook, Friday in the Republic of Me, OR a signed copy of my book Sailing This Nameless Ship, OR a signed copy of my forthcoming book of landscape meditation poetry.  Get hold of me for the details on that.

Friday, July 4, 2014

My New collection of Landscape Meditations officially accepted for publication

One of the things I never get tired of in this poet life I have been creating for myself for these many years (at least 25 on a conscious level) is getting to share good news with other people regarding the milestones and successes I have experienced.  In this instance, I am so very happy to announce my 4th full length poetry collection has found a home at Aldrich Press.  The book, whose title I am uncharacteristically re-thinking, is slated for publication in Late Spring, 2015. If you find that name familiar, it is because Aldrich Press published my second book of poetry, Hobble Creek Almanac, in 2012.  I will keep you informed and I hope you will consider supporting Aldrich Press by buying a copy of my book when it is released.

For now, I want to thank those involved with the development of this book, both directly and indirectly.  Many of you have been my friends for a long time and some of you only for a short while, but to all of you I extend my eternal gratitude and thanks.

Monday, June 23, 2014

This is not a Confession: Poetry and Autism

A while back I made the announcement to some of you by way of this blog that I was recently diagnosed with Asperger's Syndrome.  Well the DSM-5 has reclassified the definitions of how to label autism, and as such, I am at Level 1, which means highly functioning.  Not that has anything to do with what I am talking about other than to give you a little background and insight.  What I am really talking about today is how I interpret the poetry world.  The confession, you ask?  I will get to that pretty quick, but first and foremost I think it's a catchy title.  It's one of the things I focus on and have long fixated upon during my 25+ years of writing poems---both horrid and somewhat acceptable.  Besides, I said this was not a confession, so you will just have to keep reading if you want to see if I was lying.

A few days ago I found out I was not going to be receiving a fellowship from the Nevada Arts Council for poetry in the upcoming FY2015.  I received an honorable mention back in 2008, which was pretty awesome, and I recently received a Jackpot Grant for assistance in publishing my third full length collection through BlazeVOX, Sailing This Nameless Ship.  As the story often goes, I felt a little bit of a sting seeing other people's names listed as the upcoming Arts Fellows for Nevada.  I think I am a pretty decent poet, and I have a considerable amount of pride knowing I send in poetry written for the most part within the year leading up to my submission.  We can submit work up to four years old if we like in Nevada, but I try to keep my work as current as possible as I think it keeps me honest.  I take some comfort in my wife telling me I just don't write what's in fashion, but the truth is my work just isn't good enough.  I personally believe it's a combination.  My work isn't good enough, but I also do not write what is fashionable.

As someone with Asperger's Syndrome (AS), I fixate on my subject matter.  I'm not as bad as William Heyen, but I tend to write about very specific things and once I have a book project I cannot deviate from that topic.  Yeah, so what's different, Justin?  This is what's different:  I cannot write anything new or feel good about myself as a writer until I have closure with my current project and there is no way for me to know what will bring me that closure because it has been something entirely different for every manuscript I have ever written.  More?  I lose interest in every project when I am 90% finished.  So, for any project I create, I become obsessed with it until I am 90% finished, but I cannot move on until I finish it.  For anyone familiar with AS or Autism in general, you know that with the AS individual it's hot or cold.  There is no warm.  It's almost manic.  What is good is really good, and what sucks really sucks.  I am reminded of being on Amitriptyline when I was being initially treated for my headaches which is a part of my Desert Storm Syndrome.  It is a mood altering medication, and I was a real SOB.  In hindsight I now know that drug did a number on my AS and alienated almost everyone in my life.  So what happens?  I get stuck in some kind of limbo, unable to abandon a project, and almost unwilling to complete it.

Add to that, the following I mentioned in the post where I announced my diagnosis:

One of the things I thought was wrong with me and my poetry was not being able to write with what I perceived to be the 'linguistic depth' as other poets.  Now, I realize that one of the common disorders which accompanies Asperger's is something called Alexithymia.  It's the sub-clinical inability to 'identify and describe emotions in the self,' or, at least that's what Wikipedia tells me.  Well, I have it in spades.  When I took the profile questionnaire my numbers weren't off the chart, but they were quite high.  Imagine my astonishment that one of the special interests I had developed (poetry) as people with AS are prone to do, is hampered by an inability to do what said special interests requires.  Simply put, I am a poet who cannot identify or describe his emotions.

The result is I have a difficult time writing poems people like more than one or two at a time.  I will (actually I have written) write an entire manuscript of ars poetica poems and I have a great deal of success playing the individual poems, but taken all together, it was a very hard sell.  Now imagine what happened when I became fixated on 19th Century Agrarian Mormon History as what I wanted to write about?  The poems I wrote for Sailing This Nameless Ship were written in a three month period.  I had a great deal of success getting about 40% of the poems accepted for publication.  Then . . . nothing.  I mean nothing.  Everything stopped. I couldn't have had anyone take another poem from that collection of poems if I promised to pay for their kid's college tuition.  

And that's what the last two years have been like.  I have written poems and I have submitted, but I have not had a single taker.  Not a single "close, but maybe some other time." I received one "we respect you" rejection which was nice, but really it was the same thing I have experienced over and over again.  People just don't like what I am writing right now, and my ability to write the poems the way they deserve to be written is possibly at fault, too.  So when I made the decision to stop submitting my poems it really was based in my acknowledgement of not doing what a poet should be doing---making my thoughts and feelings accessible to the reading audience.  I received one message from someone who told me it was/is sour grapes.  I will admit I have sour grapes, but not over being rejected.  I know and accept if my poems aren't good enough, that's how it goes.

No.  My sour grapes is a result of my AS.  Part of my brain is convinced all of you are part of some cabal of poets of which I can never be a part of because I have never received an MFA or PhD, and I do not teach college writing like so many of you do.  I look at all of you and I see you talking to each other in some strange dialect and giving each other secret handshakes.  I have a similar perception of home-ownership, so I know how irrational my feelings are.  I have published more than a hundred poems in dozens of journals; I have had four chapbooks published; three full length collections published; I have blurbed books and have been trusted by quite a few of you to read your manuscripts and offer my thoughts.  Yet I still feel like I am not one of you.  I feel like the slow kid because I do not have the depth of language you do, and I do not have the credentials most of you have.  I got tired of faking it until I make it because it just never seemed to gel for me.  But now I know part of the reason why.  My AS tells me you all know something I don't, but that's not really true.  It's why I am such a pain in the ass so much of the time, and it's why I can go on at length about things long after you have stopped caring.  

So here's this: A Confession.

I am never going to be able to fully accept my role, value, or authenticity as a poet.  I am not okay with that all of the time, and it may come out in strange ways---sometimes frustration, and sometimes by way of jealousy.  Please bear with me.