Wednesday, April 30, 2008

On Being Noncommittal

The following is the introduction to a book review I'm writing for the class. I thought it was particularly relevant to my experience of the past weeks, where a number of people have asked me questions about my work to which I could only reply: [*crickets*]. Through addressing another writer's ways of meandering around explaining her work, I've been able to pin down some ugly truths about a) why I avoid talking specifically about my work or reflecting on my processes and b) why it annoys me when others do the exact same thing. So, with no further adieu:

In No One’s Land
Paige Ackerson-Kiely
Ahsahta Press, 2007

In No One’s Land is Paige Ackerson-Kiely’s first book. In her author’s statement, published on the Ahsahta Press website, she engages in problematic indirection when she writes, “I find it difficult to discuss In No One’s Land or my work in general in any way that isn’t prefaced with: ‘I might have had a nebulous feeling about something, I don’t know what—I remember it was small and fleeting—at one time or another, but that, my friend, I cannot say with any certainty.’” It is the same kind of refrain we hear all the time from young poets—“I’m not the one to talk about my work,” or “I can’t really articulate what I was trying to do,” or “It just came out that way. It’s a mystery to me,” all of which seem to be translations of “Don’t look at me.” She takes a stab at more substantive commentary later, as she notes,

"David McDuff in his book Ice Around Our Lips described other work of Gripenberg’s era as ‘the elaboration of an austerely beautiful nature poetry in which man is portrayed as a lonely, alien guest awaiting reabsorption into a cosmic night.’ Although I would never embolden my own verse in such a lofty and lovely description, [my emphasis—TB] I cannot help but feel that there is some relationship there—if only because I clutched at it so unbecomingly…"

While I can appreciate that nice fat slice of humble pie, I also wonder if this sort of exaggerated humility is really benefiting writer or reader? It is as if the poet does not wish to commit to a reading of her own work. I can certainly sympathize. How many times have I criticized artist statements as useless, self-indulgent, or flat-out inaccurate? And how many times have I made similar claims of ignorance about my own work? As a reader, I am not entirely drawn in by these milquetoast attempts at creating a context for the work. As a writer, I am frightened by the mirror being held up to my own face.

So I wonder if this impulse of avoidance has anything to do with a fear of being made answerable for one's project. After all, when one actually says something, puts a concrete idea out into the world, one is opening up the (real or imagined floodgates) of criticism. Or maybe it's a more deeply seated fear that has to do with the possibility that, if one truly examines one's own work, one will find that one isn't actually saying anything. What if it's not about anything? What if it's an empty shell that is so coded and repellant to statement that there simply isn't anything to explain? All that time and effort for---nada.

Or maybe that's just my baggage.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Post-Reading Bliss: And Now I Love

I've heard that women who have just given birth experience a sense of euphoria, forgetting the preceding hours of searing crotch-pains almost immediately. Since I earnestly hope never to experience that particular joy, I guess what I'm feeling to day is as close as I'll get to it. That is to say, this: I love you. I love everyone. I overbrim with ecstatic, puppies-and-bubble-hearts-and-daisy-chain love for the entire cosmos. If you were here, in the room with me, I would give you a big bear hug and a wet sloppy kiss on your mouth. YOUR MOUTH! I've already hugged everyone in my own home so many times that now they push me away and threaten me with broom handles every time I even look at them. My pug runs away from me and my cat spits. And still I love. Love love love love love. Love.


Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Readings: I stab them with knives

So I flipped out hardcore last night. Let me back up--I handle endings in stages. First, I withdraw from the thing that is ending and retreat into a nice, numb state. Kind of like denial with a bit of reclusiveness added in for spice. Then I decide I hate everything about the thing that is ending and I wish it would just end already. Then, as I did last night, I freak the fuck out and decide that if the thing that is ending won't end, I'll take off to the Yucatan, or the great white North, or Bali, or Laredo--anywhere that bears no resemblance to here and the thing that is ending because I hate every little miniscule thing about the thing that is ending. And it's never true--I don't really hate anything about the thing that is ending.

But here's one thing I do hate about this particular thing (the MFA program) that is ending: giving the required thesis reading. It seems cruel and unusual at this time of the semester to schedule a bunch of readings and parties. Not only that, but I don't see the point. I don't have a book to schill. I don't feel like my thesis is a finished product that is ready to see even see the light of day, much less be distributed to others aurally. And really, what does an audience really get out of hearing an unfinished poem read aloud once, and poorly, at a thesis reading?

Some would argue that it's really about sharing one's work with one's colleagues and instructors in a celebratory atmosphere. But haven't I been sharing my work with each and every one of my colleagues and instructors every day for the last two years? And there's really nothing to be celebrated beyond receiving a stamp of tentative approval from a committee who already essentially gave me their stamp of approval when they let me into the program.

One of the reasons I hate reading is this: I hate speaking. I hate talking to individuals and I hate talking to groups. I hate talking on the telephone. I hate having any attention focused on me in the present. It's the same impulse that drives my hatred of changing hairstyles--that people are going to look at me and make note of something that is different about me, commenting and asking questions. This is why I write--becuase human beings, for better or worse, are social creatures. I do feel a need to communicate and to receive communications. Just not while I'm in the same physical and/or temporal space with another person. Writing (and reading) provides an alternative for expression without the messy, awkward interactions. So why on earth would I want to read my work, which I have written to be read elsewhere, quietly, away from me, in public?

So I say: a pox on the people who made the decision to make public readings a requirement for graduation. May they come down with a blistering case of rampaging butt boils.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Wednesday, April 23rd: KELLY FERGUSON and ANNE-MARIE INGE. Shakespeare and Company, 103 South 3rd Street West. 7 pm.


Tuesday, April 15, 2008

On pitching yourself/ pitching forward

While all three of us prepare to give our thesis reading (T-11 days), prepare to format the living daylights out of our manuscripts, and try to call U-Haul for the summer van rental and slam the phone down in horror before the first ring, the hunting continues.

Recent whims in the job-search/grovel (findings usually occur between the hours of 7-10pm, when things feel critical):

1. Should I take an unpaid writing internship with the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation in Missoula to increase my editing skills? Dang-- looks like they'd prefer current students, and as interns tend to go, to grant college credits in lieu of monetary compensation.
2. Can I be a field manager for a women's health non-profit in the summer months in Missoula while I wait for the ticking clock that is my lease to run out? We'll see (if I'm qualified).
3. Should I apply for a craiglisted job based in Chicago, but that allows telecommuting, to be a part-time moderator for a message board on a radio-news website (which, by the way, offers an unheard-of-in-Montana rate of pay). Sure. Can't hurt.

Summer after MFA is now filled with attendance to two weddings, a trip to Portland, OR to see more coast, and that daunting U-Haul call I've got to make. Our graduating friends & peers seem to have beautiful and lavish plans for their immediate future. When will they find out I'm the fraud in their midst?

Today's job application curiosity was instigated by Frances McCue's visit to UM to talk to us about, among other things, pitching yourself to....the outside world. Which, very fine advice in itself, placed me in an odd out-of-body mind-wandering state for hours afterwards. The idea of grant-writing and supporting yourself in the nonprofit sector to supplement creative writing led me on this tangent (nevermind how I can use the practical information in the future):

1. McCue's obsession with the trails leading from and to Richard Hugo around the Northwest allowed her talk to capture the value of Hugo's anti-Romantic romanticism in poetry. That is, he's know for writing about the remnants of crumble in an urban or rural-urban landscape, and less about the organic matter of the world and nature-to-beauty ratios.

2. Recent lit crit illuminates the details of another boat-rocker, Walt Whitman, as contributing to specific ideas of Romanticism used by Emerson. Emerson distinguishes between "religion" and "spirituality" in terms of degrees of individualism. Perhaps Whitman and Hugo share a similar poetic ability to seek the spiritual in the grass--or in the bars and barns of the U.S.--and create from this individual spiritual commune with the things plain and crumbling around them a kind of religion, where "...every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you."

If we keep this in mind, we'll all do just fine. No matter who out there is hiring.

Acceptance Saves the Day!

Today included, but was not limited to: being blown off by a more established, Seattle-based writer; finding out some disappointing gossip about people behaving badly when they should have known better; weeping uncontrollably while attempting to figure out how to format the page numbers on my thesis according to the graduate school's rather convoluted guidelines; a rejection from Alaska Quarterly; and teaching ENEX 101.

But I've forgotten about all that now. Why? Because two of my poems were just accepted by Phoebe. God Bless you, Phoebe. I kiss your knees.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Travel Writer Plagiarizes, Whines About Pay

So there's this article on about a writer for Lonely Planet who says the company didn't pay him enough to travel to Columbia, so he got the information to write the book from some "chick" he was dating. Not only that, but he claims he dealt drugs to supplement "low pay." The worst part is that he's bragging about it in a book about his nefarious deeds. Boy, did he pull one over on "the man" or what? What a clever, clever man.

My initial reaction, obviously, is anger. The last thing I need to hear is a bunch of whining and bragging from some douche who has the job I want. Of course, being CNN, the article doesn't go into any detail regarding exactly how much the writer was being paid for his work or how it compared to fair market prices for travel writing. Maybe it was a pittance and the writer was rightfully indignant. Maybe he's not alone. Maybe a large percentage of travel writers engage in similar unethical practices. Even so, I'm not sure I can get behind the growing trend of writers behaving badly and then profiting from it with a book that delineates what they got away with and how they got away with it. Not only is this morally problematic, it's annoying to me as a reader. The implication always seems to be that I'm the rube because I play by the rules and expect quality information for my $30 while the writer is an evil genius who's always one step ahead of his/her employers and audience.

The article makes Mr. Kohnstamm out to be one of those self-entitled, Richie Rich murder suspects from a crime scene investigation show: "So what if I did it? Lonely Planet was just a dirty trailer park whore who had it coming. You'll never pin it on me! Mwah hah hah, suckers!"

Maybe I'm just angry because I have a stack of Lonely Planet guides on the bookshelf. And, predictably, I think any guy who gets paid to travel and write about it should be thanking his lucky stars. Sure, I don't know what working for Lonely Planet is really like, but I can't imagine its the sweatshop environment that Mr. Kohnstamm makes it out to be. And he uses the word "chick" to refer to his ladyfriends like he's some commuter-school frat boy.

So anyway, if Lonely Planet is looking for a writer to abuse, they can bend me over any way they like.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Ways of Looking at Patronage

Was reading this article that I found on the Poetry Foundation website.

I don't know that there's really any economic benefit in not taxing artists since half of the artists I know either get so little money for their work or are paid under the table. Maybe it would be a nice gesture toward publicly acknowledging the value of artists. An empty gesture, but a nice one.

The idea has me thinking, though. I've often wondered how a system of patronage could be brought back into vogue. I'm not talking about government or foundation grants, which are largely handed out via convoluted, extensive, and impersonal application processes that have less to do with the merit of the art than the bullshitting capabilities of the artist. Instead, I'm thinking along the lines of a more personalized practice that focuses on the cultural cache that well-off people might find in surrounding themselves with artists and art in which they are genuinely interested. Of course, that assumes that the well-off people would have to care about or even know about art. It also assumes that this practice isn't already going on. The latter may very well be true. Maybe I'm just not hanging out in the right crowds. In my circle, the artist-to-wealthy person ratio is about 700-1. The very idea of having a wealthy patron is like a fairy tale. Or an elaborate joke: A poet walks into a bar and sits down next to Tom Brokaw, Huey Lewis, and David Letterman...

And really, if I'm honest with myself, wealthy people make me itch. I grew up on the periphery of wealth and never quite reconciled myself to its representatives. In my experience, the people with less wealth have always been more generous--especially when it comes to supporting the arts. For instance, when we put together an art auction for Cutbank earlier this year, the people who spent the most money weren't professors or well-off community members (very few of whom even bothered to show up). Rather, the broke graduate students and fellow artists were the ones making donations and bidding on the art. Just like Halloween when I was a kid: The people big, gaudy houses were the ones that handed out pennies or sacks of candy corn (if they even bothered to open their french doors to a bunch of bused-in kids who weren't from that side of the neighborhood) while the people in the humbler homes on my side of the neighborhood handed out Hershey's miniatures, candied apples, and homemade gift bags.

When I look back on the people who have offered me financial support for my education and my art, they aren't glamorous fast-lane types. They are the people who look exactly like me, or exactly as I will look in 10 or 20 years. Like my partner's mother, who did my taxes this year free of charge and taught me that I can write off things like contest entries, travel to writing conferences, paper, pens, computer hardware and software, and postage. Or my friend Katie who, when I was living in Seattle without a job or health insurance, offered to pay for my health care (I didn't take her up on it, but what matters is that she offered and that I knew, if things got dire, I had somewhere to turn). Or Patrick, a fellow writer I met in Russia who found out that I have editing experience and hooked me up with a freelancing gig for his company. Or my aunt, who sends me a check every month without fail, whether I like it or not, because she thinks my education is important and that I shouldn't have to go into debt while I pursue it. I don't know how I came to be surrounded by all this generosity. In a sense, I do have patrons. A whole legion of them.

When I first moved to Seattle, I met a wonderful couple, Frank and Suzan, through my former boss. They are about 15-20 years older than I am and they didn't know me from Adam, but they invited me to dinners, introduced me to their friends, and generally helped me get set up in a daunting city where I knew no one. One day, when I was feeling particularly low (still without a job, still waiting for my life to take off), I lamented to Suzan that I hoped there would be a time when I could return some of their generosity in kind. And she told me how she had been in my position many times and that there had always been some older person there to help her get her footing. She also told me that she knew I would eventually be established and comfortable and that, when that day should arrive, I would use my position to help some other struggling young person.

I hope that comes to pass. I feel like I will have arrived when I can be the one to offer some sort of stability, instead of the one who is constantly asking for it. Maybe the solution doesn't lay (lie?) with any official entity at all, but rather with individuals making conscious choices to support each other within whatever means they have.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

For: Laura I. W. , Kelly

You know how you get the lucky chance to peruse old editions of now-untimely weeklies at the doctors office, gym, library, etc. ? Well, I finally gleaned something useful: Newsweek's Feb. 18th "Life in Books" segment interviewed Ann Patchett. She had this to say about you-know-who:
A book you hope parents read to their children: All of Laura Ingalls Wilder's "Little House on the Prairie" books. The girls grow up to be smart and resourceful. What could be better than that?

I smell springtime. list of spring books delights. Some highlights for us Missoulians:

1. K. V. ! How we very much look forward to her book...

2. Letters to a Stranger by Thomas James (edited by Lucie Brock-Broido, Mark Doty). As a visiting writer last year, LB-B told us of her project to see to publication the "lost" works of James who, in her view, was one of the finest poets saddled with the burden of out-of-print status.

3. Woods and Chalices by Tomaz Salamun. For CutBank 68 we solicited translations to reprint from WaC after Salamun's campus visit earlier this year.

Monday, April 7, 2008

Left Facing Bird

The project: to email 1300 or so poets and give them 12 hours to respond with a poem and to take another 12 hours to upload said poems to a website.

Congratulations to our fellow poets Lucas Farrel, Greg Hill, Jr., and Brandon Shimoda on pulling it off with flair.

Featuring: Tomaz Salamun, Ed Roberson, Joshua Marie Wilkinson, Maxine Chernoff, and a lot of other cool people.

The Three P's: An Update

PhDs: I applied to two PhD programs - Florida State (denied) and Nebraska (accepted). I was not offered funding at Nebraska, although I was informed there are alternative grad assistantships, and told to email the secretary. I was kind of shocked, because the website was not clear, in my mind, that the school accepted anyone without funding. I mean, this is a PhD, right? The idea is that I am contributing to the the greater scholarship of academia, and as such deserve my pittance. The faculty was apologetic, and I could tell felt poorly to have so little to offer. As it stands I have seven days to decide. Accept? Deny? Defer?

Publishing: Over Christmas I sent out five copies each of four stories. Yesterday I heard from Crazyhorse. Strike 18! Two stories I think are worth resending out. Two I know aren't any good, but I labored over them so long, felt I owed them the opportunity for rejection. I entered one contest, The Richard Hugo Emerging Writers, and made finalist. Luckily, I heard from the Hugo House first.

Panhandling: I haven't turned my fine writer's brush to the cardboard sign yet, but I did just take out financial aid. I will use this money to...?

Good question. My friends are moving to: Seattle, Chicago, New Orleans, San Francisco, Charlottesville (Virginia), and my boyfriend is going rent a boat and row out to Prince Edward Island where he shall search for a house with green gables or perhaps a fine Canadian fisherwoman. As I walked out to my car yesterday, pelted by hail in April, I have to say New Orleans was starting to appeal.

Friday, April 4, 2008

My "Relationship" with Poetry

I'm about to get woo-woo.

I've always considered reading poetry to be a private, personal endeavor. I have an intimate experience (get your minds out of the gutter) with each poem I read. It's probably the closest I ever get to spirituality. So studying poetry in graduate school has been difficult, to say the least. Yes, it's useful to bounce one's ideas about a poem off of others. It's useful to have to articulate those ideas and, sometimes, defend them. It's useful to listen to what others have to say and develop your own ideas through discussion. I say tell that to my 101 students all the time. That being said, the single thing I'm most looking forward to after graduation is regaining poetry as a private, undiscussed experience. Sometimes when I'm sitting in class, listening to the discussion, I can't help but think that all this leads to is reading-by-committee or coming to a loosely defined consensus about a poem. Sure, not everyone agrees, but the focus seems to be on coming up with the most academically acceptable, logically provable reading of the poem at hand. And that has never been my individual approach to reading poems. It's an odd proposition to post on a blog about how I'm looking forward to being able to read without having to put my interpretations into the public domain where my thought processes may or may not be picked apart.

Mostly, I just can't wait to reacquaint myself with my own thought processes outside of an academic context. This is why I wouldn't make a good scholar. This is why it's the end of the road for me in academia.

{/end woo woo}

Now here's for the news. Partner Doug has a job in Seattle waiting for him at the end of May. This means we'll be moving in a little over a month. What was once in the nebulous future now has specific dates assigned to it and is now very much in the realm of reality.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Montana? Spring?

Sure, it's Poetry Month. Yes, there's only 26ish days until all three of us give our thesis readings. But...I keep running around outdoors, hopeful the workload won't find me there. Last week was our beautiful, wise, wondrous Spring Break. I saw the once- 3rd largest dam in America in Hungry Horse...and (another) casino. Weeks prior, I walked around my neighborhood in search of poet epitaphs. This is but a mere sample of what you could find in Montana...


Teaching. Ushering students toward their cumulative portfolio of writing takes 1) prayers that the overhead projector bulb won't burn out in the computer classroom, 2) heavy reference to the MLA handbook, and 3) patience with revision strategies (their's and mine). I'll see what I can do.
Summer. Temp. job in Missoula? Moving in July? Big-ass yard sale to pay for the U-Haul (or--even better--make it unnecessary)? These are a few of my favorite things.
Thank our lucky stars for funding/traveling. All three of us can, in fact, confirm that funding is there in the school's myriad offices. You just have to uncover it. I was fortunate enough to go to Nicaragua last year (after reaching across the vast departmental divide to the environmental studies realm) and NYC for AWP this year-- the former for graduate credits and the latter with full funding from the President's office.
A "Real" Job. Ah, the application process. The University of Chicago sent an email regarding my recent application for an editorial position. I was not a fit for the position, but considering my personal availability date I provided, I understand. It's just too early for all those jobs out there. All in all, it's good to know UC gives responses either way, so as not to leave applicants in the WhoKnows? abyss.

April is National Poetry Month

Today is the first day of National Poetry Month. I think it's appropriate that such a month should begin on April Fool's Day. Over at Writer's Digest, Robert Lee Brewer is posting daily prompts. is offering daily poems delivered to your inbox. Poetry Daily, which will send poems to your inbox any time of year, offers Poet's Picks, wherein contemporary poets introduce and comment on the poems of past poets.

How am I celebrating? By sitting on my duff, drinking coffee, and eating cheese toast. Which is how I celebrate poetry every day. It's also how I celebrate the premier of a favorite TV show, my dog learning how to evacuate outside the house rather than inside, my boyfriend taking his daily shower, etc. Which is to say I simply don't know how to celebrate a marginalized artistic genre over the course of the cruelest month.

But I was thinking: maybe this prompt-a-day thing isn't a bad idea. I'm knee-deep in thesis to the point that I hate everything I've ever written and I want it to die, die, die. The answer could be to generate new work. Get excited again about writing. So here are the 30 prompts I will use. I've taken care to make them applicable to any genre.

1. Address anxiety. Include: one drug brand name and a scene of soporific stupor.

2. Satirize one of your old works by noting your writing ticks and exaggerating them wildly.

3. Write something regional. Include: a native plant, a study in dialect, and a harsh invective addressed to a particular person.

4. Imitate a sample of technical writing. Have the sample in front of you and lift its diction, tone, and form while introducing elements that undermine its purpose.

5. Imitate a sample of work from a writer whose writing you absolutely loathe (i.e., a particular chapter, poem, paragraph, etc.).

6. Write a dialogue of overheard fragments. Choose a particular place to sit and eavesdrop in order to collect said fragments.

7. Choose a page of a fashion magazine at random (I prefer Vogue). Tear it out. Fold it in half. Fold it in half again. Cut along the seams. Rearrange the quadrants of the page. Tape or glue them together. Rewrite the page as it appears now (if it's an advertising image, use the revised image as your inspiration).

8. Write an address to a television or movie character whose motivations are unfathomable to you.

9. Write a haibun. Travel if you must in order to do so.

10. Holy shit, how many days are there in this month? Take a day off.

11. Imitate a repetitive sound that drives your crazy. In words.

12. Watch the movie Baraka. Write in response to it.

13. Listen to George Crumb. Write in response to it.

14. My dog likes to chew rocks. He's a pug. Write about that.

15. Write an epigram about some relevant social ill or scandalous person.

16. Describe a favorite food (a) without mentioning the food itself and (b) without using any ingredients or any of these words: taste, flavor, sweet, sour, bitter, salt, savory, syrup, tangy, sauce.

17. Melt a bunch of crayons together on the sidewalk in the sun. Write about that.

18. Do an internet search for someone with whom you've lost touch. Write about all the people you find who are not this person.

19. Write as if there's no tomorrow. No really. Imagine what you would write if you had reason to believe you might not be around tomorrow.

20. Pick a kid you know. Write as if you are that kid. Use the diction and grammar of a child who is his or her age. Use whatever details you know about his/her life. Write in crayon or pencil, on lined paper, if that helps.

21. Begin again with #1, knowing what you know now. I'm out of ideas.

I should note that I used to think prompts were worthless. But it turns out that I've written some decent stuff in response to some very convoluted prompts (Thanks Joanna Klink). I also no longer believe in writer's block because of prompts--even when you have no idea what to write, you can always pick up a prompt and force yourself to write in response to it. What you produce may be a steaming pile of crap--but it's writing, isn't it?