Saturday, December 26, 2015

Autism & the Artist: Part Two

Today I want to write about where I, as a poet with mild autism, seem to thrive.  I will primarily be speaking of the places and instances where autism actually works to my advantage.  I want to shift from the general difficulties I spoke of in my last post because I think it is important to show that even what others think of as a disability can in fact be an advantage at times.  Also, I need to be clear that as I talk about my own experiences, I will be speaking of poetry as opposed to art in general terms.  It isn’t that I don’t believe in the inclusive nature of other genres, only that as I get specific with my examples, I need to speak of those things for which I have actual experience.
I did not begin my journey into poetry knowing I was on the autism spectrum.  I was not diagnosed until I was an adult, so I have had a majority of my success and failures simply thinking I was simply struggling to be the best poet I could possibly be in much the same fashion other poets struggled.  That was not the case.  Looking back now, I can see where my autism interjected itself into my life as a poet.  Here are a few key ideas:
1.     Rejection never got the best of me.  Once I decided I was going to be a poet that was it.  There was no more discussion or debate regarding that choice.  There has been plenty of debate over what I should do to become a better poet, but not the decision itself.  This means all of those rejection letters I received as young poet in my 20’s, some pleading with me to stop writing, merely rolled off my back, much like water off of a duck.  I was utterly convinced I was going to be a great poet.  Since my 20’s I have tempered my vision of artistic greatness and come to accept I will most likely toil at poetry in relative mediocrity and anonymity for my entire life.  That’s okay.  But I look back now and realize my autism granted me a certain amount of tenacity because I was single-minded, and remain so to this day. 
2.    Being single-minded gives me an advantage when it comes to research and focus of attention.  Well, yeah.  That’s how special interests work, right?  Well, yes, and no.  That I have special interest answers how I can be focused on writing and talking about writing to excess, but being single-minded gives me an edge in reading up on a particular subject in order to write a poem, and like William Heyen, to write a great many poems about the same thing.  Just this last summer, I wrote 55 poems from the same first person perspective, all using the same writing strategy to help ensure consistency of voice and structure.  So?  What’s the big deal about writing 55 drafts?  Well, I wrote them from July 15th, through the September 9th.  In December of 2008, I began writing a series of poems based on a poem by W.S. Merwin.  In two months I had an entire book drafted.  For better or worse, I write a lot of my poems in a dizzying flash of heat and frenzy. My singular focus pushes me.  I become driven.  In fact, the busier I am with my life in general, the more productive I become as a poet.  This aspect does have some drawbacks, but those will be discussed later.
3.    Asperger’s helps me in the revision process.  I hear about drafting poems from other poets and I often wonder how it is to leave something alone for a few days before the revision process begins.  You see, I continually revise as I write, often times going through three or four drafts in one sitting.  I don’t say this to brag, but to explain my condition pushes me to test my writing.  I will fiddle with a poem until one of two things happens---I am completely satisfied with the poem (aside from a few cosmetic considerations) or the poem breaks.  This for some might be a deficit, but it is a godsend for me.  Because I model my behaviors on sets and routines I see others do, I need to have faith what I am doing is working or not working.  Otherwise I grow frustrated and anxious.  I draft a poem over and over and what I consider my first draft (writing I do in one sitting) is probably a second or even third draft for other writers.  This doesn’t make my process better, either.  In some ways I envy other writers their ability to let writing steep and ferment.  However, from my perspective, for my peace of mind, my revision process, born through my condition, helps me to make sense of my art.
4.    I don’t know what can’t be done.  Now I have plenty of real issues when it comes to self image as an artist, but in one regard, specifically, I seem to enjoy an advantage.  I am a bit of a chameleon when it comes to poetry.  I have never settled into a singular voice when it comes to my poetry.  Oh, there are certain hallmarks in my poetry which can identify me as the author, but I seem to move in extreme sweeps in my poems.  I am either firing on all cylinders or I am completely misfiring.  I write a lot of landscape meditations, but I also write a lot of tongue-in-cheek poems.  I write in a hybrid of lyric and narrative, but I also write political poems.  I enjoy the Japanese forms of haiku and haibun, but I also write persona poems.  What I write is not dictated by what I last wrote.  In essence, I cast my gaze like a wide net, and I write about a lot of different subjects and from a lot of different perspectives.  This isn’t to say other poets don’t do this, just that I suspect other artists who fall on the autism spectrum are often perceived to only be capable of having a few areas of focus or special interest, and that isn’t necessarily so.  Some of us have so many different things we want to do, we simply don’t know where to start, and that delay often does not fit in the neuro-typical vision of how things should work.

One final thought for this installment, if I still have your attention:  Much of my success is because I had a family who dealt with me and made decisions geared towards treating me like everyone else---that is, like a person who was both an individual and as part of a family.  I have heard Asperger’s called the “Alien Planet Disease” because it often feels like we are somehow stranded on an alien planet trying to learn how to operate.  Yes, I have often felt that way, but the expectations and support my family (specifically my grandparents) had and gave me was possibly the strongest foundation I had when it comes to having success in general, and the space to believe I could in fact be a poet.

Next time, I will discuss the challenges I face as an artist with actual interactions with artistic expressions.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Autism & The Artist: Part One

          I have been seeing a lot of articles regarding autism and Asperger’s Syndrome lately, and some are thoughtful, reflective, and funny.  Some are quite informative, and most mean well.  Right now Autism seems to be a buzzword and medical hot-topic, and because I have been diagnosed as falling within the spectrum, I may be a bit more aware of such discussions.  However, very few are intersecting with what I feel to be a fundamental issue I struggle with on a daily basis---Autism and the arts.  You see, I am a poet.  I mean, I am not just a poet.  I do other things.  I am a husband, a father, and a teacher, and even those things certainly create a great many variables in my life, it is poetry and artistic expression I am going to talk about now.
          Before I begin to discuss my interactions with artistic expression, I need to define a few things for you.  First, I fall under the category of mild autism in the latest Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) ---what used to be classified as Asperger’s Syndrome.  True to form with many others diagnosed with Autism, I have secondary issues.  Among them, I have Alexithymia, which is a disorder which affects my ability to identify and express myself on an emotional level.  I also believe (though I have never been tested) I have a mild version or variation of Prosopagnosia, which is essentially face blindness.  I have a pronounced difficulty remembering people’s names, even those I work with on a daily basis.  I recognize their faces, but I have difficulty accessing their names when I need them.  As a poet, I am much more affected by the Asperger’s and the Alexithymia I must also state I was diagnosed as an adult.  In fact, it’s been just under two years since I was diagnosed.
          I would like to begin with Special Interests & Social Interactions.  If you know someone on the Autism spectrum, or if you are on the spectrum, you may understand that a lot of people with autism develop special interests, for which they become somewhat obsessed.  The stereotypical areas of focus seem to be math, numbers, science, trivia, and sub-genres of culture (e.g. superheroes, science-fiction, etc.).  The stereotypical nerd or computer programmer comes to mind.  I am not going to tell you anything new when I say these are popular for autistic people because these areas of focus seem to allow for obsession and rely upon abilities/interactions which fall outside normal social interactions.  These sub-genres allow for, and even demand the ability to obsess over the minutia often shunned by popular and more widely accepted social interaction touchstones.  Take football or baseball for example.  All of the popular kids like sports.  Some even play in Fantasy leagues, and they will talk about their favorite teams at the local sports bar or at work.  This is socially acceptable for everyone.  Take Phil, who is mildly autistic and who has a special focus for football, and he can talk stats with the best of them, because that is how he explores his focus.  But when the others have had their fill of discussion regarding stats and want to move on to player salary disputes, Phil is just getting warmed up and he still wants to talk stats.  Phil starts bringing up player salary stats to try and be a part of the conversation, but by then, the office guys have moved on to why Coach X hasn’t decided to start using Wide Receiver Y, and Phil becomes more and more marginalized.  To no one’s fault, Phil is not invited to go to the sports bar for beer and the game.  Phil quickly becomes that guy who knows about any stat, but is too intense for regular, friendly socialization. 
          That’s how it is expressed.  Phil will naturally gravitate to those people who not only have the same set of special focuses, but allow for his awkward social interactions---the avoidance of eye contact, the long-winded and complicated syntax, and the excess of energy for establishing opinion.  What this doesn’t tell you, is that the only reason Phil joined the conversation was because he thought everyone wanted to know everything there was about what he is passionate about.  Phil doesn’t understand when enough is enough.  He doesn’t know when the conversation is over.  He isn’t able to transition to new levels or different directions as easily.  His momentum is a hard thing to influence and shift.  He thinks because you are changing the subject so quickly, you haven’t listened to him and acknowledged his subject mastery.  He feels as if you are not taking into account what he has had to say.  You are foreign and strange, and Phil moves away from interacting with you just as much as you move away from him.  The difference is that Phil doesn’t necessarily realize that it’s the autism making him feel this way, and he feels like it’s his fault you don’t want to interact.
          Now, when the special interest is acceptable, either acceptable because other people enjoy the subject, or it’s easily categorized in the realm of nerd or geek behavior, everything is fine.  However, when it’s art (whether that is writing, painting, music, or something else) an added level of discomfort is added.  First, it is difficult because most people like art, but they do not understand its creation.  Why anyone wants to be an artist when you can be a banker or lawyer is a strange thing, indeed.  For someone with autism, it is excruciating.  Not only because people look at artists differently, but because people look at autism and those with autism differently.  However, at least one more layer exists.  Autistic people often scaffold their behavior and actions on those around them.  Somebody with autism who wants to be an artist, must first learn artist behavior by imitation, and not being able to read what is essentially based in emotional expression is all too common.  Now imitating is an essential step in the progress of an artist, but here lies the struggle:  Autistic artists will always struggle to make the shift to authentic, individual, and original creativity.  For the artist with autism, knowing when to make that shift, and how to make that shift is incredibly difficult.  

(At this point, I will sometimes be using the second person “we” to describe some aspects of what I am discussing.  Please know that I am only able to speak of how I feel, as no two people with autism manifest in the same ways)

I will use one such issue from my own experiences.  One of the issues I have with poetry is the skilled and crafted line break.  Often times, well considered line breaks can make the difference between a fair poem and a really good poem.  So much (not to employ William Carlos Williams intentionally) depends upon good line breaks.  It is an aspect of poetry I have struggled with and continue to struggle with to this day.  I liken it to reading the faces of people. Just as someone with autism struggles to read the emotion and intent in another person’s face, I struggle to understand the subtle differences in the choices line breaks can connote.  The person with autism knows there is something to be gleaned in the subtle shifts in facial expressions, but the specific emotion is not a nuance easily understood.  The autistic person will take their cues from these facial expressions and guess at which facial expressions they themselves should make in order to help them express what they are feeling. When I began writing poetry, I began with imitating the line breaks I saw in other people’s poems, not understanding that line breaks other people used would not work for me.  My poems were different and therefore required different line breaks (as well as different forms and constructs) but I could not see that.  I could not see how one person’s use of a line break, which worked, could not have the same impact when used in a poem I was writing.  My imitation was a cause for consternation as I was trying to learn from the act.  This conflict---learning from imitation, but imitation failing on so many levels, was confusing and disheartening.  I still struggle with line breaks, even though I have become better.  I have created a list of rules and rarely let myself stray from them. 

Another challenge facing an artist who wants to be an artist is that those with autism struggle to be accepted and viewed as normal.  I cannot speak for those who fall on the severe end of the spectrum, but I do not a common theme among those who can talk about their experiences is the struggle to be viewed by the world at large as simply normal, or average.  The desire to express one’s self in art is to say to the world I see things differently.  This presents a huge conflict of interest for the individual with autism.  We struggle in a daily basis to fit in with the crowd, to be just another face and avoid being thought of as different, but the artistic spark is telling us to be different.  When we look at other artists without autism, we see a confidence in this opinion and we get depressed because that confidence is not a thing we can imitate.  We have to own it, and sometimes the best we can do is to pretend we are confident in our art.  This isn’t meant to take away from the struggles people without autism go through to be artists.  I am simply trying to explain the depths of what the autistic artist struggles with which feels to be in addition to the typical struggles artists in general face on a typical day.

* * *

In a few days, I will continue with my discussion relating more specific issues and struggles.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Confessions of a heterosexual white male poet

That's right.  I said it.  I am a heterosexual white male poet.  I proudly own that label, too.  I carry with me all the baggage accumulated over a lifetime of experiences many of you will never be able to fathom.  Do you want to know something else?  I do not have any guilt over being a heterosexual white male.  I have no guilt because I have no problem accepting the privilege being those things have granted me throughout my life.

I grew up in a working class neighborhood in small town Utah.  The only black person I remember knowing as a child was a classmate, Haywood, from when I lived in Salt Lake City for a brief time. Other than that, the limitation of cultural diversity as I was growing up in my high school was limited to three kids with Hispanic last names, one exchange student from Africa, and a girl who was adopted from Korea as an infant.  Yes.  Rodney Dangerfield had more soul than me.

White privilege.  Economic privilege.

Growing up, I was expected to graduate from high school, but being raised by my grandparents I was not pressured to go to college.  Not graduating from high school was not an option.  That was in part due to the prevalent Mormonism of where I grew up, and part familial pressure, seeing that no fewer than seven or eight of my relatives/ancestors were teachers. I had to graduate from high school because the alternative was very much against my grandfather's baseline protocol.  No child he raised was going to be a high school dropout.  So I graduated high school by the skin of my teeth, knowing I had essentially graded myself out of any scholarship or easy entry into  post high school education.   Still, I had it in my consciousness that college was what I wanted and needed to do if I was going to be like 95% of my friends and not be a disappointment to my family.

White privilege.

When I joined the army at the age of nineteen, I did so believing four years in the army would give me sufficient funds to go to college.  I did not join the army because it was a way out of some place, or even a step up.  It was a means to an end.  I would serve my four years and then get out and go to college.  I did not have to make the army my career out of fear that no other options waited for me, but because I had squandered those which had been handed to me.  I ended up getting out of the army after 3 1/2 years as a world traveler, combat veteran, and a man with a mission---to graduate from college so I would not have to do the kind of labor I did in the army.  I immediately joined the national guard, had a regular job two days after I got home (actually being hired before I was off of terminal leave), and back among all of my friends with no social or financial deficit.

White privilege.  Male privilege.

Back up just a bit to when I began to clarify my ideas of becoming a poet.  I had been writing poems since I was 15, and submitting them when I was 20 and still in the army.  I started sending out my work fully expecting to be on top of the poetry world within a year or two, max.  So certain of my future, the very real hate-mail I received from several editors rolled off my back.  Why?  Part of it is my Asperger's.  Poetry being one of my special focuses, I had the idea I just had to write better cover letters because my poetry wasn't the problem, it was the packaging.  Part of it was because I had been conditioned in my early life and in my teen years that nothing could hold me back.  I was white, male, American, and straight all at the same time.  Nobody could tell me I didn't deserve everything I wanted from the world.  A completely different message than what women, minorities (I grew up feeling more comfortable with that term than with 'persons of color'), or anyone who identified as gay or queer.  Simply, I forged ahead with my shitty poems in part because I didn't know any better.  My ignorance was a huge part of my privilege.  I did not know it then, but I know it now.

White privilege.  Male privilege.  Straight privilege.

As I started college, I took literature and writing classes which helped my poetry to improve in small increments, and I started to see a world outside of the many sets of blinders I had been given or had picked up and started to wear on my own.  I admit to you now, I bristled a bit.  For a while I couldn't understand why so many writing contests were geared for women, gays, Hispanics, or Asians.  I was wondering where the contests were for straight white men.  Why did I have to be Asian to submit my three poems?  Why was this press only interested in publishing women?  The answer took a little while, but once I realized what was going on, I made my peace with it and moved on.  I had been writing bad poetry, bu until I started writing better poetry I had no experience with publishing.  It took several of my poems to be accepted to student publications and some early acceptances with non-school journals to see just how lopsided publishing really was. I started to see how women poets, poets of color, and LGBTQ poets needed to see the Heterosexual White Male poet much like Derrida's concept of the Other.  What's more, I needed to fix whatever it was in my head/heart which might be offended by them doing that to me.  This was a matter of their survival, not mine.  I and many others like me will always out, we will always be there, and there is plenty of room at the table for all of us. 

When I started reading about what had happened with the BAP 2015, what  Michael Derrick Hudson had done, I was more than a little pissed off.  I was pissed for all of the reasons I should be pissed, but my anger is not an easy thing to talk about.  Asian poets, and actually all poets of color, and poets who have felt the limitations I have not, should be angry.  Some might say I have no right to be angry.  After all, I am a heterosexual, white male poet. Nothing of who I am as a person or poet has been co-opted.  And to an extent, I agree.  I do not have a right to that part of the problem Mr. Hudson has created.  However, I would say I have a right to a portion of the anger, and that has to do with my being a poet.  

Even as a heterosexual, white male poet, I am extremely angry with Michael Derrick Hudson for treating the poetry community with such contempt and entitlement that he think it acceptable to attempt to rub our collective noses in his shit.  I am angry that a poet with as many remarkable successes in placing his poetry in high profile publications, he feels it necessary to play such childish and close-minded games with editors, who have a difficult enough time as it is juggling the egos of poets.  I am angry because Hudson's actions are a consolidated effort to cheapen the pride so many poets have earned in their struggle for identity. I am upset because it distracts poets from doing the work of being poets and forces people I admire to wear themselves out explaining how what he did is a big deal and not just a bunch of too-sensitive poets complaining.

Now, I offer no apologies.  I do not apologize for my privilege, and I do not apologize for talking about this issue with my narrow perspective.  I do not apologize for anything I have said in this post.  It's not like my opinion on the matter counts for much.  I will say I think what poet Kazim Ali is saying and what poet Kelli Russell Agodon is reminding us on Facebook of, is some of the most loving and positive things we can do. When it comes to talking about this stuff, I am not as elegant as Ali or Agodon, but I do confess this:

I wanted to contribute something worthy of this discussion.

Friday, July 31, 2015

Rejected 2016 AWP Panels

Yes, it's time I reveal all of the (fake) panels I submitted to AWP and which were turned down.  I hope you enjoy my (fake) suffering.

1.  How to restructure your University Press to pay for renovations to subsidized housing for Administrators.

2.  Clawing Your Way to Mediocrity:  The Poet's Place in the Publishing Industry.

3.  The After-party: How to network your way into the glamorous life of the Adjunct Instructor.

4.  Eugene V. Debs & Unions in the 21st Century

5.  Comp 101:  How Students and Teachers alike have turned into the Walking Dead.

Friday, May 1, 2015

So this just happened

I just received my proof copy for my latest book, Lake of Fire: Landscape Meditations from the Great Basin Deserts of Nevada.  If that title doesn't draw record crowds, I don't know what will.  This is going to be my fourth full length collection of poetry, and I thought I would try to do a little more this time around to actually, you know . . . um, sell this book.  You know I am no good at the hard sell, but I thought I would give it the old college try.  That's what this blog post is about, so if you want to watch a poet flail his arms and make a fool of himself, generally speaking, then stick around.  I am certain you will see something to laugh at, and that is half the battle.  What follows is my feeble attempt at trying to convince people to buy my book, and it is important for me to let you know I will do my level best to make sure no animals will be harmed during the production of this blog post.  Bruised egos are another matter altogether.

I think the best way to get this show on the road, is to give you a few reasons why you should want to buy my book.  Interspersed with those reasons, I will throw out some random poetry facts---some specific to me and some specific to the book.

Reason Number 1 to buy my book:  Aside from five copies I owe to various people (to include the generous poets who wrote blurbs for the book) I will not be giving any copies away.  That's right.  The usual for Justin is no longer the usual.  When it came to my chapbooks, and certainly my third book, Sailing This Nameless Ship, I was in the habit of giving copies of my book to anyone who asked.  Well, not any longer.  for better or worse, this book is for sale, and if you want your fix, you are going to have to pay. End of story.  don't like that business model?  Well, complain to the management and wait patiently for a response.  If you leave your phone number, I will be sure to ignore it just as I ignore your complaint.

Reason Number 2 to buy my book: Aside from three poems, none of the poetry in the entire collection has been published in any journal or chapbook.  By my count (and sets of haiku are counted as one) that's 42 entirely new and virtually unseen poems for you to read.  You see, part of my goal with this book was to publish a volume of poetry without the anxiety of basing my decisions on whether a poem had been published in a reputable journal.  I intentionally assembled the collection I wanted and revised work I had not ever submitted or work which had never been accepted for publication.  The three poems which were published?  They fit my needs, and that's why they are in the book.  This wasn't an attempt to thumb my nose at the poetry community or its standards.  It was about my own peace of mind as I came to terms with some of my own emotional and psychological needs and realities.

Reason Number 3 to buy my book:  Not to put too fine a point on it, but I think the title goes a long way to sell the book.  I mean, who doesn't a ripping good yarn?  Everybody loves a great tale, and nothing will keep you on the edges of your seat quite like landscape meditations.  When I was starting to look around for my next project, I asked myself what could top my foray into 19th Century Mormon Agrarian poetry, and landscape meditations just crashed into my consciousness like a freight train.  Haiku, haibun,  and aubades, oh my!  And look at that cover!  I designed the color scheme myself.  The book is divided by the four seasons, and I think you will be pleasantly surprised at the spin I put on them.  Well, that might be pushing it a bit, but this book really does have the potential to be one of the more unique books you will read this year, if for no reason there aren't too many people writing and publishing landscape meditation these days.

There you have the first three reasons you should buy my book as soon as it becomes available. I will be back with more, even though, if you have been paying attention, are entirely superfluous.

Monday, April 6, 2015

Rejected AWP Panels

It's time again to let you in on the various AWP panel proposals I made and which were summarily rejected.  Here you go:

1.  Broet Lifestyles in Contemporary Writing:  How to maintain memberships in your college fraternity while trying to write feminist-sensitive poetry.

2.  Poetry Event Drinking etiquette for the Male:  How to maintain your buzz without turning into 'that guy.'

3.  Poetry Event Drinking etiquette for the Female:  How to maintain your buzz and avoid 'that guy.'

4.  The Ego Stroke:  How to garner attention and make it look unintentional (a refresher course).

5.  How to Maintain Your Dignity After an A-List poet Asks You For Your Name For The Third Time.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Why I am [Still] Never Again Going to Submit to a Poetry Contest

I have talked about this before, but I think it bears repeating her, now, April 2015, NaPoWriMo. So, hang on and respond if you care to.

Some time ago, I turned my back to the whole contest thing because of financial and other reasons.  My poetry is never going to win contests and isn't going to be published by the kinds of journals or publications which most poets (myself included) dream of finding their work featured.  I am okay with that.  My poetry is not edgy, and it sure as hell isn't groundbreaking.  For the most part I write my quiet little poems and put together my quirk-free books, hoping a few people will find them interesting enough to publish---and I have had a fair amount of relative success in doing that.  What has not happened because I have turned away from the contest system is all of the following:

Anxiety.  I no longer obsess over my e-mails or count days since I submitted a manuscript.  I no longer worry about deadlines or researching presses in the hopes I might be a fit for them---something I rarely got right.  

Alienation.  Losing again and again at something doesn't just demoralize a person, it alienates them.  I am not talking about giving every child a medal.  I am talking about feeling I never belonged to the larger community of poets.  Every time I saw my friends get mentioned or honored I felt happy for them, but I also felt further away from them because I knew I would never have that kind of success, that kind of knowledge my work had hit the mark and made a connection.

Envy.  I am no longer jealous of people who win poetry contests.

Competition.  I no longer worry if certain poets I admire or respect have entered the same contest as me.  I can happily pass on news of contests and not wonder if I have cut my own chances for publication.

* * *

In my mind, all of these things interfere with being a poet.  Now, I was careful to say my mind, and I mean that.  My mind is not a completely rational device when it comes to this sort of thing.  I have a difficult time seeing things the same way other people do, even poets.  My issues have created for me a sense that I am better off, healthier without the anxiety, alienation, envy, and competition which poetry contests create in my head.  Some people can handle it and some people cannot.  Do I think I am the only person better off not participating in poetry contests?  Absolutely not.  I have met more than a few poets who are self-serving egotistical, soul-crushing stains, who do nothing to help other poets and will drain the life-force from every person they stand next to.  My belief is that you have met a few of them, too, but that doesn't mean we need to convince everyone to quit entering contests.

Do I think contests serve a noble cause? Yes.  Some contests enable presses the ability to publish work which might otherwise go unnoticed by the poetry community at large.  Martin Scorsese said, I like to make a movie that earns a lot of money so I can turn around and make a film."  A well run poetry contest makes money for the greater good, and I used to look at my entry fees as donations to the cause.  Unfortunately, the four horsemen of my poetry apocalypse I mentioned above turned my good will into piles of frustration.  Instead, I buy books.  I buy books and I give books away.  If I buy a poetry book and I like it, I put it on my shelf behind my teacher desk in my classroom.  If I don't, I eventually find a new home for it.  I mail it off to someone who might like it better.

Of course I cannot speak for you or any other poet.  All I can tell you is how coming to terms with the sort of poetry I write and the realities of the poetry community's landscape has made me a better poet and a better person.  All the best.

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.