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Tuesday, March 23, 2010

The Martha-ness Badass Society

According to, there's much to be admired about Martha:

(noun) a term used to describe a girl who's a genuine badass; a successful independent woman who doesn't take crap from no one and is well respected by everyone; everyone she meets loves her and just flat out envies how bad-ass she is; may be used in adj. form, as in

The new girl applied to the new teaching program and was such a bad-ass that she got in; the interviewers were stunned by her sense of martha-ness.

What or who exactly is this badass martha-ness, anyway? What are the basic personality traits?

* Supreme confidance

*Successful and respected

* Frequent disregard for authority

*Aristocratish, with flowing garments

Examples of badasses:

*Dirty Harry, of course, because he kills anyone who bends the rules and has no fear.

*James Dean, America's #1 Rebel Without a Cause

*Sanzo from Gensomaden Saiyuki, a female anime character, along with some others who like to smoke while striking a pose.

Who are the badass women out there? Joan Jett? Patti Smith? Mae West? Dorothy Parker? Edna St. Vincent Millay? Emily D. was quite a badass in her day, wouldn't you agree? And how about Emma Goldman? That lady didn't care what you thought about her, no way. And what about Joan of Arc? And going back into the vault just a little further, add Sappho to the list, don't you think?

I probably can't turn in just yet my obedience keys (1. mom, 2. salary), but martha-ness is definitely sounding good to me. If we can't be badasses ourselves, we should all at least have a badass friend, don't you think, not that I'd want to be the one putting up bail. But let's face it, badasses always have the best obits, and they sure know how to pose for photos.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Avoiding BES & Other Related Maladies

I was thinking today, while sitting in traffic and smearing wasabi onto take-out sushi rolls with my index finger, about the fact that all the checking under the hood and spraying with perfume in the world won't make a bad poem fly.

Maybe this is very obvious (if it seems obvious to you, go ahead and stop reading), but a big step in my life as a poet was when I realized that certain subjects are boring, and the most boring one is, I'm afraid, the one that's all about you. I don't mean this in a you-can't-write-about-your-own-life way. What I'm saying is if you're writing about your friends, family, the places you like to hang out, your girlfriend, etc., just do your best to take those details and make art out of them (see below).

Close behind the confessional tales lacking linguistic pizazz are the cliche-ridden diatribes (aka the poem with an agenda, an axe to grind). I am wary of these poems that know where they're headed before the first word gets scribbled onto the page because, as Robert Frost once said, "no surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader."

Okay, so how do you make art out of personal experience? Instead of focusing on words as solely conveyers of meaning, pay attention to their music, the ways you can make them alliterate. The way you can substitute metaphors for ho-hum (straightforward) descriptions. The wonders of assonance, internal rhyme, and slant rhyme. The fascinating story of how words evolve (make it a habit to look up the etymologies of key words in your poems).

And then there's the whole business of structure! Making cool patterns (series of wing-like lines), or even plain old couplets, or inventing a pattern you've never seen before (4-line stanzas with increasingly shorter lengths).

And then there's the thesaurus, decent newspapers like The New York Times, NPR, and, probably most important of all, reading the best poetry you can get your hands on (all eras, all schools, all the time).

And because no one bursts out of their father's head fully formed with a full set of armor (except, okay, Athena), plan on spending, at the very least, a few weeks on a poem, giving yourself the chance to try out different verbs, syntactical structures, stanza patterns, titles, metrical possibilities, line lengths, etc., making sure you've chosen "the best words in the best order" (Stephen Dobyns), instead of increasing the odds of BES (Bruised Ego Syndrome) when the poem comes back to you in a crumpled SASE (or, in these days, in the form of a very curt email message beginning "Dear Poet").

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Starting Today: 100 Poems for Obama's 1st 100 Days

Rachel Zucker & Arielle Greenberg's blog of the same name is now a book, and what a thing of beauty it is. Between its covers you will find, among many more finds:

* a "Prayer for a President": keep them safe / keep them safe / keep them safe (Leslea Newman):

* a squeegy guy screeching "Obama! Obama! Obama! Obama! . . . his wiping little life . . . stuck on triumph, as if / that's all anybody needs to know this day" (Patricia Smith);

* the revelation that though "the stars don't care . . . the new president said science" (Matthew Rohrer);

* a description of "Michell's Citrine Dress": "color of where / something growing / starts. Spring. Clean / and new." (Lyn Lifsin);

* The reminder that "Hope / has no rearview, / can't live in memory." (Laurel Snyder);

* A jolt away from the honeymoon to the fact that "Cleveland is listless. Everything's on sale." (Michael Dumanis);

* Lots of good advice, including

Better to forget
perfection, to remember we were born
a nation of blemishes,
a posse of strays with cellulite.

If Benjamin Franklin
were alive today,

you know he'd be working a thong
and roller blades on Venice Beach, flying

the freak flag just beneath Old Glory!

America, it's time to unsuck our bellies
and show our ugly asses." (Erin Belieu);

* The persistence of Orwell, as in "We heard free, almost inadvertently, / when it said surveilled. When we talked / and voted, we defined irony." (Craig Morgan Teicher);

* Excitement and relief because "our president / is smiling . . . not smirking." (Diane Wald);

* God saying "quit your crying . . . I stopped the planes, I closed the base, I turned out the lights, what else do you want?" (Kevin Prufer);

* Lynchings where "In some places they held picnics / where a hanged one remained, unnamed and held high . . . [and] some feel the tree still swinging." (David Roderick);

* A parable with newspaper and dogwood logs (Catherine Barnett);

* A great deal of candor "(O Captain, O Presidente. / We are sad, / we are scared. / We are not very pretty, most of us, and / not very rich. / Less rich now.)" (Patricia Carlin).

In here the poems are immediate, full of the now and today of each of those 100 days, but also the resounding echo of our country's history--our founding, our slavery, our assassinations, our Kennedy and our King. There is hope in these poems, hope for change, the risk of climbing "to the top / of a blade / of grass/ [where] the aperture of my wingshell / opens and closes / and opens again" (Aimee Nezhukumatathil), but there is also a great deal of taking stock.

I don't know about you, but I'd much rather read poems about Obama's early presidency than pony up $39.95 for a commemorative coin. In 10, 20, 50, 70 years, people will be asking, what was it like? How did the country react to those first months of having a person of color--a person with optimism, energy, and the drive to forge unity--in the White House? And when they ask, you'll be able to hand him or her this book.

Monday, March 1, 2010

So Then the NEA Called Back, and It Was the Ghost of Kenneth Koch

When I wrote the previous post, my life was nothing even close to a roller-coaster ride or a tilt-a-whirl or any particular sort of carnival ride, not even the bumper cars.

It was a day of giddy and pumped ("I am making sense of this application! I will beat this thing!") and--the agony of defeat--realizing that I hit "send" too soon; i.e., before I attached the PDFs.

What was I thinking? That each separate section of my application needed to be submitted in order to move onto the next section, of course. Wrong, terribly wrong.

So I sat in my bed and cried for half an hour--sobbing, cussing myself out, sobbing some more. And then I got myself out of bed, and started working on other stuff to take my mind off the dreadful, bonehead move I'd made.

I thought to myself "Okay, no biggie--2012 will be here in no time; and besides, if you win this year, you can't apply in two years, and you'll be a better poet by then."

Just in case. however, I called and emailed the NEA to tell them what I'd done and could they please let me try submitting my application again?

I figured I wouldn't hear from them. After all, the website even says in plain English Don't freaking think we're gonna go out of our way to help you if you can't even start the application process ten days before the deadline.

After all, when I called, a woman took my first name, last name, phone number, date of birth, favorite type of pasta, name of elementary school, how many blades of grass in my backyard, put me on hold, then came back and said "You need to call the organization listed on the cover page of the grant application you're applying for."

Though I kept hearing from friends how nice these NEA people were when they ran into similar brick walls, I just couldn't get my hopes up.

And then a few hours later the phone rang, and it was The NEA. I picked up, and a man with a lovely, lilting New York accent told me that everything was re-set, that I could go ahead and resubmit my application, and there would be no trace anywhere of the incomplete application. His voice emanated with understanding and compassion; I think, in fact, that he was an angel, or else, on second thought, the ghost of Kenneth Koch. I spoke with Kenneth Koch, the new president of the NEA, and he was avuncular, optimistic ("I bet you'll even win!"), and kind.

During this very same time, friends were emailing me and calling me from all over the country, offering to walk me through it, convert my Word docs to PDFs; they were cheering me on, they were telling me "you go!" and "you can do this!" and "hit send!"

And suddenly I knew I was far, far away from the Soviet Union, from those dark days of the Eastern Block, when artists risked their lives to sneak away from the Iron Curtain for a weekend in Paris.

I was in the United States, where even in a giant, giant organization such as the NEA, mistakes can be fixed, and a kind voice can reach out of the phone saying "It's gonna be okay . . . "

We All Live in the Soviet Union

I'm sorry, my fellow U.S. citizens, but we do not live in a country where any non-self-published published writer--whether rich or poor, whether Mac owning or PC owning--can apply for a literature fellowship.

It is not fair, and I am outraged.

This is because it is impossible to create the required PDFs of one's poems without the latest, spiffiest computer software, software that cannot be downloaded on even the newest Mac. It's a conspiracy, I tell you!

I thought we lived in a democracy, but guess what? Right at this moment, we are all living in the Soviet Union before the Wall came down. We are all that poor guy in The Lives of Others who refused to snitch on the artist he was supposed to turn in, so now he's steaming open envelopes in some dank, bureaucratic basement, spying on his brothers and sisters. We are all him, and we are all that playwright who cannot make art unless his art is in the service of the State.

But listen, all you out there in Washington, DC, I am going to beat this thing; I am going to find a way to get this application submitted if it kills me, to quote a poet friend who rocks it in the perseverance category (thanks to you, dear, I am not giving up).

If you still haven't applied, the deadline is March 4, 2010, but the website makes it clear that they can't guarantee any kind of support in the process (or guarantee that your application will successfully submit) unless they receive it 10 days prior to the deadline. (Could someone please explain to me how a deadline could actually not really be the actual deadline?) But warning, you need to find a computer that will allow you to read and create PDFs, or you're in the same living hell I'm currently stewing in. Have fun!