Archive for March, 2011

“Let’s Not Be Too Precious”


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I’ve been thinking a lot about David Orr’s commentary in The New York Times Book Review today.  “O! Poetry” laments Oprah’s decision to run a spread with poets modeling spring fashions in the April 2011 of O magazine.  He calls this “heart-sinking” because poetry “can’t approach the world inhabited by O and fashion design–that is, the world of American mass culture–with the same swagger as other fields do.”  He says that “the chasm between the audience for poetry and the audience for O is vast.”  He also takes issue with the magazine’s sound bite approach to poetry discussion.  “I wish,” he says, “that they had found space for someone–not a critic, necessarily, just someone willing to be honest–to talk about the actual experience of reading a poem.  Not why poems are good at rehabilitating people.  Not where poems come from.  Not what they can help us do, or forget, or remember.  Not what the people who write them are wearing.  Just what reading one of them is like to one person.  If the chasm is to be ever so slightly narrowed, it seems to me this is how it will be done.”

I agree with Orr.  But I also think it’s a little more complicated than that.  After all, when have magazines ever been interested in an accurate representation of life or reality?

Everybody knows that Oprah translates to money, fame, and mass appeal.  Therefore, to say that there is a gap between Oprah’s audience and poetry’s audience is to say that poetry is for the few.  This suggests that poetry is exclusionary, that the average person is not interested in poetry.  Even if this were true, this seems to me more like a problem than something to celebrate.

I saw Richard Thompson perform recently, and in a joke before playing a song titled “Sunset,” he said to us, “I’ve never played this song at exactly the right time of day… well, let’s not be too precious about it.”  To say that Oprah shouldn’t have poets model spring clothes because fashion has nothing to do with poetry (I’m not sure this is true…) is being a little too precious about poetry.  I once bought a bookshelf from IKEA, a store that embodies mass production and quick distribution, just because it had “William Shakespeare” graffitied over it in the design.  Is buying it the same thing as sitting in Jacobean drama class listening to a lecture on symbolism in Measure for Measure?  Of course not.  Was that bookshelf a corporate ploy to manipulate bookworms into spending their money?  Maybe.  But I just think it’s fun.

It doesn’t do anyone any good to treat poetry as something that is only for a certain demographic.  So Oprah’s April issue has poetry commentary from Ashton Kutcher.  This is lame.  However, it’s no more lame than Snooki’s novel becoming a bestseller while other great books remain in obscurity.

Bottom line:  Why the need to keep poetry, as a genre, so precious?   If a little dose of mass appeal encourages someone to read a poem or try her hand at verse when ordinarily she wouldn’t have, I think that’s great.

I leave you with one of my favorite poems, introduced to me last year by one of my friends:

Like You

Like you I
love love, life, the sweet smell
of things, the sky blue
landscape of January days.

And my blood boils up
and I laugh through eyes
that have known the buds of tears.

I believe the world is beautiful
and that poetry, like bread, is for everyone.

And that my veins don’t end in me
but in the unanimous blood
of those who struggle for life,
little things,
landscape and bread,
the poetry of everyone.

Roque Dalton

Hello, Chicago!

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My friend Jen is a blogger for Chicago Now, a news site in Chicago.  She’s started featuring a “fellow blogger” once a week, and I’m her first selected blogger!

I love Jen’s blog, Stop and Blog the Roses–every day she blogs about three things for which she’s grateful.  It’s both fun and inspirational… check it out!

Vogue and Writing

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When I was little, Vogue magazine (the few times I came across it) confused me.  Its pages, though numerous, appeared to be exclusively ads, and none of women on the pages looked real–their hair, clothes, expressions, and poses were of an alien world.

About two years ago, though, I began subscribing.  There was an offer of a cute, free handbag with the subscription, and I figured, a handbag and a subscription for $16?  Even if I read two issues and used the bag for a year, it’d be worth it.

But I did begin reading each issue of Vogue, and I also began to really like it.  I realized that their fashion spreads always tell some kind of accompanying narrative.  For example, they’ll never just feature a bunch of blue dresses–rather, they’ll structure the ten page spread so it’s a re-telling of Alice in Wonderland, or another original story.  A section titled “Nostalgia” features writing from great writers:  Joyce Carol Oates, Nora Ephron.  They treat fashion as art to be analyzed via in-depth reporting.  Even the letters to the editor are well-written.  Not to mention that a new issue always has that awesome perfume-sampley kind of smell.

This month’s issue features an excerpt titled “Stand By Your Man” from Anne Roiphe’s Art and Madness:  A Memoir of Love Without Reason, published just this month.  Roiphe recounts her role during the 1950s as cheerleader/muse/supporter in a short-lived marriage to a moody writer interested in only his own genius.  Eventually, Roiphe began writing her own material when she realized being a muse can only be so fulfilling.

My favorite lines of the piece appear in the last paragraph:

“I had to learn that muses can be fired or dismissed, but writers either do or don’t write, without permission or encouragement from anyone.  I did begin.”

I’ve been dragging my feet with some revisions to my novel recently.  Maybe it’s because I know the revisions involve killing off at least two characters and one plotline (writers know we must “kill our darlings,” but that doesn’t make it any easier to do it), maybe it’s because life’s been busy, but it’s more likely that I just have been lazy about it.  But Roiphe’s statement is a call to action.  If you write, you’re a writer.  If you don’t, you’re not.  The best part of it all is that it’s our choice to make.

Yet Another Good Poem

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I was looking through some of my creative writing materials today and came across this poem by the incredible Stephen Dunn.  The title initially caught my eye, and the poem itself really left me thinking about life, death, and our responses to both.

On the Death of a Colleague

She taught theater, so we gathered
in the theater.
We praised her voice, her knowledge,
how good she was
with Godot and just four months later
with Gigi.
She was fifty. The problem in the liver.
Each of us recalled
an incident in which she’d been kind
or witty.
I told about being unable to speak
from my diaphragm
and how she made me lie down, placed her hand
where the failure was
and showed me how to breathe.
But afterwards
I only could do it when I lay down
and that became a joke
between us, and I told it as my offering
to the audience.
I was on stage and I heard myself
wishing to be impressive.
Someone else spoke of her cats
and no one spoke
of her face or the last few parties.
The fact was
I had avoided her for months.

It was a student’s turn to speak, a sophomore,
one of her actors.
She was a drunk, he said, often came to class
Sometimes he couldn’t look at her, the blotches,
the awful puffiness.
And yet she was a great teacher,
he loved her,
but thought someone should say
what everyone knew
because she didn’t die by accident.

Everyone was crying. Everyone was crying and it
was almost over now.
The remaining speaker, an historian, said he’d cut
his speech short.
And the Chairman stood up as if by habit,
said something about loss
and thanked us for coming. None of us moved
except some students
to the student who’d spoken, and then others
moved to him, across dividers,
down aisles, to his side of the stage.

Stephen Dunn

A Good Poem

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I’ve been in the mood for poetry lately.  Here’s one that I fell in love with this past week.  It’s by John M. Ridland and was published in the February 2011 edition of Poetry magazine.

Age Looking Back at Its Youth

We had so little, yet we had so much:
Thunder and lightning at the lightest touch.

Love it.

Blog is Thicker than Water

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Check out my brother Paul’s guest blog musings on vinyl and turntables of yesteryear (and today!) on The Vinyl District

The Voices of Teachers Past

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I’ve had many writing teachers and mentors, and all of them play a role in the writer I am.  It’s hard to boil down who taught what, or how exactly a person influences you.  You might have a teacher whose craft philosophy you disagree with, but because she was so stringent with deadlines, you emerged from the course with a fantastic work ethic… yet you might not realize it until years later.

However, there are some things my teachers have told me that have absolutely stuck over the course of time.  I hear their voices sometimes as I write, continuing to guide me long after our time together has ended.  I suppose that’s one of the things that makes teaching so special.  Check out some of their sound bites below.

Ann Hood
On mood:  “Every passage must shift in mood from the beginning to end.  If a chapter begins happily, it must end on a note of danger.  And vice versa.”

Helen Schulman
On the protagonist’s conflict:  “Think of the wall coming down on Indiana Jones in that scene.  His life will drastically change depending on if he rolls out in time.  What wall is coming down on your character?  What is at stake?”

Erica Wagner
On description:  “Describe what something is, not what something is like.”

Karen Satran 
On being a good reader:  “You haven’t read [classic]?  Well, as soon as this class is over, you are going to go straight to the library, check it out, and not leave your room until you read it cover to cover.”

Catherine Texier
On avoiding stereotypes:  “What do you mean, a nice girl can’t be a smoker?  How can someone look like or not look like a smoker?”

Melissa Katsoulis
On rejection:  “You’ve got to keep trying, no matter what.”

Lynda Curnyn
On cutting the fat:  “Two of my characters were in a long-distance relationship.  Then I realized I had about four scenes in the novel where she was picking her boyfriend up from the train station–totally unnecessary and didn’t move the story forward at all.  Cut the fat!”

Sigrid Nunez
On keeping dialogue tight:  “Treat your fiction dialogue like a screenplay–think about chopping off the beginning and ends of the sentences, leaving only the heart of the line.”

Judith Lee
On keeping your protagonist interesting:  “Your character has to mess up.”

David Levithan
On revising rotating points of view:  “Re-read one whole voice all the way through the manuscript, even if the voices will splice one within the other in the final product.  That way you can make sure each voice stays consistently distinctive.”

Susan Shapiro
On what you write:  “Write the book you want to read.”