February 2010

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Ended up eschewing multiple invites for fun times tonight, so as to decompress a bit and catch up some writing.  Blog writing, creative writing, letter writing.  I have notes scribbled down from my week for things I haven’t had a chance to compose.  I’m a busy man, public servant that I am.  My free time comes at a premium.

I had read this article earlier in the week, courtesy of the inimitable Bookninja. It concerns today’s glut of published poetry.  The fact that so many poems are being published today, more than ever, and the fact the standard of quality is pretty low across the board.  I’m having a hard time, honestly, deciding if the article inveighs against amateur poetry, novice poetry, publishing in general, or… I don’t know what.  I think the point is rather semantic, in either case.

Here’s a little chunk of the author’s thoughts:

Who is writing all this poetry? In quieter times, the art’s only significant promoters were English professors who focused on reading poetry for its own sake. Today colleges across America have hundreds of programs devoted to teaching men and women how to actually write the stuff. Those in charge of undergraduate and M.F.A. programs have cast themselves in the role of poetry-writing cheerleaders who are busy assuring tens of thousands of students that they are talented poets who should expect their work not only to be published but to win awards as well.

The notion that writing and performing “poetry” is the easiest way to satisfy the American itch for 15 minutes of fame has spilled out of our campuses and into the wider culture. You can’t pick up a violin or oboe for the first time on Monday morning and expect to play at Lincoln Center that weekend, but you can write your first poem in May and appear at an open mike in June waving a “chapbook” for sale. The new math of poetry is driven not by reader demand for great or even good poetry but by the demand of myriads of aspiring poets to experience the thrill of “publication.”

Clearly the situation is dire.  The article goes on to break down this modern poetic glut in terms of numbers, and, as anyone who watches the news knows, numbers are proof of any point that one might wish to prove.

One of my first jobs out of college was proofreading amateur poetry for one of the country’s (at the time) largest vanity presses.  It was the most execrable job that I’ve ever performed, and this is considering my experience in tech support and bill collecting.  You simply don’t know the depth of the tepid, cliche, trite pablum that the typical amateur produces.  Poems about sunsets were frequently the good ones.  Each stanza was a tribute to the fundamental lack of taste, education, and experience of the amateur.

So, I get it.  I really get what this guy is getting at.  It wasn’t until, some years later, after dating a poet that I began reading poetry again in earnest.  Jaded I had become.

But.  And I have a but.  While I agree with the author’s general sentiment, this begs a question I’ve been wrestling with:

To what extent should art be participatory?

It’s that simple.  But good luck with it.

The author makes a comparison to picking up a classical instrument and expecting to hammer out a few magnum opuses in a few months.  I don’t think that’s fair.  We all speak English.  We don’t all play music instruments.  That analogy would be more appropriate if I were to, tomorrow, decide to make my name known as a German poet, not knowing a single lick of German, save for (fittingly) schadenfreude.  We’re all amateur poets in English, at least in some vague perhaps platonic sense.  But that doesn’t mean that our drivel, or even our wit, is publication worthy.

There was this other article I read, and it was a few weeks ago, so I lost track of it, but it was some academic type railing against Rock Band.  The essential argument that he laid out was that people who play Rock Band feel like they are playing music, and this is one of the greatest fallacies of our digital generation.

I disagree.  I do, to be sure, lament the decline of musical skill that our culture has suffered.  There was a day when instruments and sheet music were present in every home.  Song writers actually made money off of sheet music.  Real money.  And folks at home would, if they wanted to hear a tune, pick up an instrument and play.

Yes, it is sad that those days are gone.  But I’m a practical man.  As enriching as experience with a musical instrument is, it’s very hard to find the time to dedicate to such pastimes these days.  So, wouldn’t it be okay if we had a game where people could, if not really play the instruments, play along?  No, it’s not original.  But the point is that people are participating in music.  And they’re doing it in the home, which I think is one of the most important parts of it.

The author of the unlinked article made a snide comparison early on to a chess master, suggesting that a chess master who considered himself an adept military strategist would be absurd.  Yeah, no shit!  And when people say that they’re good at Rock Band, they quite specifically mean the video game.  The author, in despising this verisimilitude of music has himself confused skill with the one for the other.

After reading this snob’s article, I couldn’t help but think that if he had met, in person, a legendary chess master, he would have been flattered.  He would tell everyone he knew about it.  But if he met a Rock Band champ (I guess they have tournaments for that?), he would revile him and mock him (or her!).  How much difference is there, really, between the two?  Both are highly abstract participatory activities.

I think maybe I’m getting a tad off track.  Or maybe not.  I’m talking about participation here.   Whether it be music or literature.  I think that the quick and easy nature of the participation is a distraction here.  It’s easy to blow off someone’s “15 minutes.”  But that’s really a red herring.  Isn’t it enriching for a culture to participate in its artistic community, regardless of how it might manifest itself in these confusing, fast, modern times?

So I come back to publishing and poetry.  Should amateur poets be encouraged?  I doubt you’ll see too many amateurs comparing themselves to the likes of Eliot.  Maybe the novices.  So is it okay that they suck so bad?  Should we find a way to embrace this unfiltered aesthetic?

On a certain level, I think I’m playing with a question in my mind that asks, how much difference is there, really, between a karaoke night and an amateur poetry slam?  Why should we embrace karaoke so readily, yet bring such a higher set of standards to the poetry reading?  I guess I should be comparing an open mic night to the poetry reading, on the presumption that there will be original works performed.  But still, you get the idea.

There’s a lot more to the discussion than that.  I’ve not touched on academics at all, nor the fact that the general public would be pressed to name even a 20th century poet to save their lives (including many of these amateurs).  Many would probably think that William Carlos Williams was a brand of paint or deck furniture.

Anyway.  I will leave you with this gem by Galway Kinnell, which you can read at its official internet posting here.  At that shitty old proofreading job that I had, one of my coworkers had this exact same job that Kinnell adumbrates and sardonically pokes at.  The closing line is killer though and is a disguised lesson to said amateurs.  Their inability to make such fine linguistic distinctions such as that captured in the last line are what keep them so (poetically) trapped.

The Correspondence-School Instructor Says Goodbye to His Poetry Students

Goodbye, lady in Bangor, who sent me
snapshots of yourself, after definitely hinting
you were beautiful; goodbye,
Miami Beach urologist, who enclosed plain
brown envelopes for the return of your very
“Clinical Sonnets”; goodbye, manufacturer
of brassieres on the Coast, whose eclogues
give the fullest treatment in literature yet
to the sagging breast motif; goodbye, you in San Quentin,
who wrote, “Being German my hero is Hitler,”
instead of “Sincerely yours,” at the end of long,
neat-scripted letters extolling the Pre-Raphaelites:

I swear to you, it was just my way
of cheering myself up, as I licked
the stamped, self-addressed envelopes,
the game I had of trying to guess
which one of you, this time,
had poisoned his glue. I did care.
I did read each poem entire.
I did say everything I thought
in the mildest words I knew. And now,
in this poem, or chopped prose, no better,
I realize, than those troubled lines
I kept sending back to you,
I have to say I am relieved it is over:
at the end I could feel only pity
for that urge toward more life
your poems kept smothering in words, the smell
of which, days later, tingled in your nostrils
as new, God-given impulses
to write.

Goodbye,
you who are, for me, the postmarks again
of imaginary towns—Xenia, Burnt Cabins, Hornell—
their solitude given away in poems, only their loneliness kept.

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I’m listening right now to the 40th anniversary re-issue of CCR’s Green River.  This is probably top 5 of all time favorites for me.  John Fogerty’s catchy songwriting was at its peek with this album.  In just a few years CCR cranked out more classics than most bands can ever hope, and this has some of the best of them.  Just the name, Green River, will always remind me of the Appalachian hills I was born in.  It transcends the simple status of classic rock and reconnects me with a halcyon period of yet-to-be-spoiled youth.

In either case…

I had to do a little self-reflection today and accept the fact that I’m in denial, at least to some extent, about my stress level.  This winter weather–and I’m not talking about the blizzards, but all several weekend snowstorms that preceded them, as well as the one week I got sick again–have cost me a lot of money.  My grand scheme for 2010 involved me blowing off my social life for a month or two in winter and grabbing all the extra hours at work I could handle.  Those hours were canceled.  Nothing I could do.  Thousands of dollars gone before I had a chance at them.

So now everything’s screwed up.  I’ve still got OT at work, but now the weather’s about to warm up and my social life is a calling.  I’ve been invited to two weekend getaways in March, and I don’t think I can do either of them.  One of them is a cheap weekend away in the Appalachians.  The other a trip to Boston.  I really want to go on this Boston trip, and not being able to afford just sucks.  It is going to be so – much – fun, and I am going to miss out.

I kind of got called out for being grumpy by a family member, and after some wild dreams last night I’ve decided to just accept it.  I’m stressed out.  It’s nothing to be ashamed of.  These blizzards have cost a lot of people a lot of money and problems, and mine are one among many.

In acknowledging this I do feel a little bit of relief.  I can just accept it and deal with how I have to.  I might still be pulling extra hours when the weather turns warm and everyone wants me to come outside and play, but what can you do.

So there’s that.

This weekend was pretty good besides said personal revelations. The Charm City Rollergirls finally got their season going, and I had the pleasure of cheering on a friend who made one of the teams.  She did great her first bout.  Go Junkyard Dolls!  Let’s hope the rest of their season goes a little better than last night.

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Future Notes for the Ultimate Vegetarian Chili

– the Boca brand ground round was perfect. use again.
– must incorporate Melinda’s hot sauce next time, even if as a garnish.
– the mirepoix (heavy on onions, light on celery) was solid. addition of leeks good. did not make it taste too much like “chili’d up veggie soup” as feared.
– consider mushrooms. unsure of which or in what form. to be used lightly. not sure if standard umami kickers such as soy sauce will work quite the same here as in regular chili.
– for chili powder, exploration of such dried peppers as anaheim and ancho necessary. much experimentation there. must achieve a well rounded and bright spicy, tangy flavor (this chili cannot and will not go as “deep” in flavor as regular chili). consider the technique for reconstitution of dried peppers read about.
– the sour cream as a topping brought it together. consider whether this will be necessary or if other methods of increasing the richness can be achieved.
– make the beans yourself next time, instead of canned.

Scheme for Revenge

Do not vandalize this person’s car. Though the rage may burn white and hot. Though you might have been forced to not only dig, but hack through ice to uncover another spot. Though you may have hurt your arm hacking said ice. Though your space was marked in the Baltimore tradition. Though, not only was the space marked, but there were other free unmarked spaces, making the theft of this space complete asshole bullshit. Though the superb job you did of shoveling this space was rewarded only in theft. Do not vandalize this property.

Instead dig. Rise early. Well before the light of dawn. Ready your shovel. And dig. Every bit of snow you spent hours and hours excavating from the road will be returned to it. You shoveled it out, and you can shovel it back. It may be everyone’s street, but it’s your fucking snow. Pile it high around the car. At least two feet, all around, with extra in the front. Do not touch the car whatsoever. Pack the wall along the side of the snow bank smooth. Extend your gloved finger, and carve boldly: “ASSHOLE!”

The Train

It reminds me of New York and DC. Manhattan mostly, but only because Manhattan is the most pleasant of these public transit memories. Nights spent cruising from the East Village to Greenwich Village. Old friends and family and the good parts of my 20s. But this train looks more like a DC train than a New York train. There is little about it that says Baltimore, aside from the names of the stops and the faces of its passengers. 

Riding with them I feel myself a part of my city in a way that is uncommon for me.  It’s strange that I avoid public transportation because I so prefer my own four-wheeled independance, and yet sitting in this crowd makes me feel isolated in a way that being alone never will.  It’s not a bad feeling.  I enjoy the bustle of a thousand microcosms shuffling together into and out of downtown.  I wear my earbuids the same as everyone else, but I don’t get my book out.  Instead I people watch.

Taking the train forces me to rise an hour early and trek the entire length of Hampden. This is not colossal, but it is certainly not what anyone should want at 6:00 a.m. on a cold morning. Somehow it doesn’t bother me though. I enjoy walking through my part of town as it is awakening. People bundled tight walking excited, wagging dogs and muttering sleepy hellos. Cars whizzing by. The line practically out the door at both the Dunkin Donuts and the Royal Farms. The birds. Even in the dead of winter, this nestled town within town wakes to song.

Finally stretching the last length of Union on my first morning I heard the clarion “BRAM BRAM” of the train’s horn and the urgent dinging of bells as the gates lowered. I was all the way down the street. Furiously I started running. Thanking Fate that I’d worn casual clothes. Holding my messenger bag to prevent a disastrous spill. Thud, thud, thud, thud. The train skidded into view. The northbound train. Whew! I slowed down and caught my breath.

Then, “BRAM BRAM!” the southbound train whizzed into the station. Shit! I took off, sprinting as fast as I could.

Rounding the tracks, the doors were already open. People were filing into the train. One, two, three, another, another. In moments they were all gone, and I was still at the other end of the platform. My breath starting to give way, the doors closed, and I came to an exasperated halt. Feet from the train. This is it, I thought, this is how my week is going to go!

But it waited. I stepped up to the train, pushed the “open door” button, and–panting–stepped onto the train. The last passenger.

Freelance Whales

My new love in life and my most listened to artist of the week. Hearing this album, I already know that it will remind of this snowy month in 2010. Blizzards, and cozy nights, and triumph over the elements. It’s the perfect music for these days.

Friday

I’m dead tired. Dead on my feet tired. I still have a hike to make to and from the train, and already I’m almost gone. Struggling to lead my students through the end of this lesson. Fighting to stay awake each time I sit down. But I must do something. Sit down. Write.  We finished early, and if anything, I must keep awake until the end of our workday. If only I could sort a single cohesive thing out of this fog that is my brain.

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I’m trying to upload some of these snowpocalypse photos to Facebook, and the damn thing’s not working.  Everything is coming apart around us, mother nature has turned against us, and now… et tu, Facebook!

In either case, the real danger today is icicles.  It’s above freezing, and the melt is sharpening giant ice lances that are breaking off and hurtling towards the ground.  It’s a risky affair stepping outside.

I read this morning that Baltimore is currently the snowiest city in the U.S.  I wish I could say it feels good to be the king.  I’ve gotten out and made much merry in the snow, but I’m getting a little tired of being penned in.  I want to go to the gym.  I want to visit other parts of town.  I hope it stays warm and this crap melts off quick.

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Jesus Christ, man.  It’s whiteout conditions outside right now.  White, white, freezing white.  We don’t usually see blizzards here in Baltimore, and two in one week is rather exceptional.

I was hoping to do some posting on here and put in a few anti-spam upgrades, but I got moody last night after coming home from the bar and drank a little whiskey.  The head hurts a bit.  Right now I intend only to veg out on the couch, eat popcorn, and watch movies.  Maybe I’ll goof off on the internet later.

In the meantime, here is my gift to you.  Corinne Bailey Rae.  I listened to The Sea for the first time yesterday, and it blew me away.  I listened to it twice back to back.  Couldn’t get enough.  I trust that you will enjoy it as well.

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Man, check this out.  There’s this thin swath of “warm” air from Long Island up to Cape Cod.  The rest of us are covered in ice.  (Click through the link and click again for the full version. It’s neat.)

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It’s been a crazy weekend.  Instead of letting the snow get us down, a number of intrepid souls braved the elements and conquered them with spirited laughter.  Here is me giggling like a kid on a playground.

Sledding is awesome.  Sledding on the way to and from the bar is even more awesome.  This was, of course, following a giant feast that I and some friends prepared.  Everyone cooked a dish (or two!) and trekked through the elements to enjoy fine food, fine drink, and fine company.  It was a fine night.  The weekend has been full of fine nights.

And it looks like it’s not over yet.  Another foot of snow coming tomorrow.  I’m actually hoping to wake up at a regular hour tomorrow and be productive.  I guess we’ll see.  I’m definitely not going to work.  In fact I hope they close the office (again).

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I seriously cannot wait for Lost to start tonight.  I’m used to catching up on it on DVD, which means that I’ve digested each season whole hog.  I’m somewhat trepedatious about watching it one episode per week.  Once I get into a season of Lost, I become a total junky for it.  And man did I love last season.

Here is a link that I randomly found providing a select list of books that appear in the show.  I’ve read stuff by most of these authors, but none of these specifically (I think I tried to read Valis once, ug…).  Maybe I’ll read through some of these to hold me over between weekly episodes.

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Phonies

Regarding Salinger, I liked John Hodgman’s quip the best.  It went along the lines of, “I prefer to think that Salinger has simply gone even further into seclusion.”  But I couldn’t resist the humor in this, courtesty of The Onion:

Bunch of Phonies Mourn J.D. Salinger

CORNISH, NH—In this big dramatic production that didn’t do anyone any good (and was pretty embarrassing, really, if you think about it), thousands upon thousands of phonies across the country mourned the death of author J.D. Salinger, who was 91 years old for crying out loud. “He had a real impact on the literary world and on millions of readers,” said hot-shot English professor David Clarke, who is just like the rest of them, and even works at one of those crumby schools that rich people send their kids to so they don’t have to look at them for four years. “There will never be another voice like his.” Which is exactly the lousy kind of goddamn thing that people say, because really it could mean lots of things, or nothing at all even, and it’s just a perfect example of why you should never tell anybody anything.

The Catcher in the Rye was one of those rare books that I hated not for the book itself but for its many devotees.  I’m at work and don’t have the book on hand, so I’ll skip the in depth analysis.  I think the main thing was that the book always seemed far more nuanced than most people understood.  In particular it always seemed clear to me that the author loathes his protagonist.  Holden is not someone we should be identifying with.  He is himself the biggest phony in the book.

Anyway, it’s been awhile since I read it.  I should stop.

I never read Franny and Zooey, and that was the book of Salingers that I always meant to read but never did.  Perhaps I’ll pick it up this week.

There’s a lot of speculation right now about whether or not Salinger wrote more novels and whether they’ll be published.  I’m curious too, but I can’t help but wonder if it will diminish his reputation.  Sometimes an author gets one or two right and then procedes to write nothing but drivel.  We can’t hold it against the author for trying to make a living, but we as fans sometimes would be better to leave it alone.  This reminds me of the Kafka journals that were recently published and outed him as a big time pervert (honestly, should that have been surprising?).

Anyway, lunch is done.  Must get back to work.

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