Friday, September 23, 2011

Damon McLaughlin @ Best American Poetry--Vital Signs

Best American PoetryFor my last trick this week, I’m going to write about some ideas I had when at Toad Hall. I think we were talking about Flarf and Language poetry when one of us—or maybe I thought of this after the fact . . . I can’t remember—voiced a unique theory on their origins: so many resources and years and years of traditions and movements had become available to us poets, we suddenly had to dump the excess. That is to say—we had to use the excess, even if it was garbage, because it was there and we could. These movements, then, arose less as rebellion than as corollary. They weren’t commentaries but consequences.

While I appreciate the original Language poets for their innovation and application of theory and politics to political practice, I don’t often love their poems. I enjoy the experiment—and have learned from it—but I find much of the emotion in that poetry stilted, and that’s just not my personal preference. Whether the poems are accessible, so to speak, is inconsequential. Generally I can’t (and shouldn’t) approach an Armantrout piece with the same lens I use for a Collins poem, so I’m not bothered when I don’t get it—anyway that’s rarely the point of any poem. As for Flarf, I think—so what? When things are new, they’re exciting and sharp. Over time, much sloppiness ensues.

At the same time I can’t help but think how wonderful it is we live during these (according to theory) excessive, extravagant years in which movements like Flarf can germinate and be popularized, in which we can grant time for these art forms, to not tax the rich, to have lockouts over the salaries of professional athletes, to afford personal computers in all shapes and sizes and—nearly—in all things, to market almost any extravagantly unnecessary item and, in an ironic twist, deem it a must-have even in these dire times because well—why not? If we want, we need. If we can, we must. It’s a basic, underlying proposition of the United States of America.

Read the rest @ Best American Poetry -- my last post as Guest Blogger.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Damon McLaughlin @ Best New Poetry--Runnin' Down a Dream

Best American Poetry. . . is it possible such habits—such things as routine exercise, diet, routine sleep patterns, and so on—can affect not only our ability to imagine but also our ability to write? They must, but—I mean—what if there’s a recipe for good poetry, and it includes things like—50 sit-ups and push-ups daily, preferably before breakfast, which should be comprised of 1 mango and a cup of Greek yogurt, preferably with a drop of honey, and one 8 oz. cup of medium roast coffee, preferably a single-origin bean from Latin America, all of which should be consumed within 12-15 minutes for optimal imaginative prowess, and so on, and so on throughout the day, each ingredient and the ingredients in tandem resulting in a specific mental effect. What if—worse—that recipe is like a baking recipe, which can’t really be fiddled with or you’ll the ruin the cheesecake, the custard, what-have-you. I know there’s a growing science on creativity and on how genes and the environment interact and on how such interaction affects the brain. What if these researchers discover a formula for the muse? The diet-exercise plan for sonnets? The Shakespeare diet? The Billy Collins Diet? The Ashbery Plan? What if the success of your craft was as dependent on the other mental processes as it was on those related to poetry?

Read the rest @ Best American Poetry.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Damon McLaughlin @ Best American Poetry--Form for Thought

Best American PoetryIn his initial discussion of tone languages in Music, Language, and the Brain, Aniriddh D. Patel writes briefly of the Chinantec, an indigenous people of southern Mexico, who utilize a whistled speech in addition to their tonal, spoken word. They use whistle combinations “of tone and stress distinctions to communicate messages with minimal ambiguity.” And he’s not talking about a hey! or an over here! or some ridiculous catcall. He’s suggesting they actually have a whistle language. . .

Read the rest @ Best American Poetry.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Damon McLaughlin @ Best American Poetry-- Cameron Scott asks...

Best American PoetryA few days ago, poet Cameron Scott sent out an email that asked “What role should ‘the self’ play in a poem? In other words should a poem be about the self as little as possible, or what the heck, it’s all about me?” He’s a contributing editor for CheekTeeth, the blog for Trachodon Magazine, and is looking to incorporates responses into a future post. With his permission, I asked that I respond here at Best American Poetry.

Read the rest @ Best American Poetry.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Damon McLaughlin @ Best American Poetry--Oysters, Pure and Simple

Best American PoetryWhen my mother and I were recently, briefly in Boston, she wouldn’t try oysters. We’d been in New Hampshire at Toad Hall (see previous post), and that day Legal Harborside was our final destination before we headed out. We had just enough time for lunch before returning our rental car and catching our planes. . .

Read the rest at Best American Poetry.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Damon McLaughlin @ Best American Poetry--Thank You, Brenda Hillman

I was listening to a lecture at the Poetry Foundation the other day when I jotted down this little Brenda Hillman tidbit: “For the lover of poetry, there is a disequilibrium between himself and the world that nothing satisfies but poetry.” For one of my posts here, I was going to write about the manic state, itself an imbalance, into which poetry can thrust me, the effects of such a state, and to discuss that state in terms of writer’s process. Then I heard Hillman and was like—that’s it, that’s what I was hoping to say. My wife, who is not a lover of poetry, agrees with Hillman’s declaration—at least for the strange case of her husband. At her gentlest, she says I’m in my head; at her most honest, she says I’m not living in reality. But I doubt that’s the case, right?

Read more @ the Best American Poetry blog, where I am the guest blogger this week. Look forward to posts about the "self," oysters, the mind-body connection, and Emily Dickinson -- that's the plan anyway. On any given morning, who knows what will happen?

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Bicycle Riding, Teaching Poetry, and David Ignatow's "The Bagel"

I've been helping my 5 year old daughter learn how to ride a bike over the past two days. Each time I've become--as she has become--overwhelmed with the sheer joy of bike riding, that distinct pleasure that is so . . . unadulterated, the wind in her face, lips peeled back in that smile of pure freedom that comes when one learns to do something on her own for the first time. In a matter of an hour or so, she went from hardly being able to pedal with training wheels (they hobbled the bike despite my adjustments) to biking unaided down the street and around the cul-de-sac. On her pink Disney Princesses bike, she's a (My Little) racing pony with "the power of speed, the power of balance," so she shouts from her glittery white seat. And away she goes.

And I thought there must be a poem I can post about this joy of bicycling. What came to mind instead was David Ignatow's "The Bagel,"perhaps the most joyful poem of all time.

And I intended to share it here and not say too much else about it. Problem is--one of the first links I tabbed in Safari turned out to be a brief analysis of Ignatow's poem at Elite Skills, a "Poetry and Writing Workshop" website. What I read so irked me--I no longer found myself capable of just dropping a link. I don't believe the text is copyright sensitive, so here it is:

Recently in our English class, we deciphered David Ignatow's The Bagel. We discovered deeper meaning and found that the bagel was a metaphor for the man's childhood. At first the man thinks childhood is something he wants to give away and get rid of but then realizes that he needs it. When chasing the "bagel" down the street he turns into a "bagel" himself, meaning while chasing down his childhood he relives some of the fun of his childhood that he initially wanted to give away.

While the analysis is not exactly off, it reeks of a high school English class (egad! this could be a college course...) whose coaching on the matter does little service to poetry and its pleasures at large. In fact, it does a grave disservice. Of course, I am making some assumptions here, which is a bit unfair, but--I doubt the writer of this little blob came up with the explanation on his own.

More likely, based on my experience as a former poetry-hating high school student and my conversations with many other former and current poetry-hating high school students, the writer was told, with a bit of pseudo-prompting common to the poor teaching of poetry, what the poem was about. Words like "deciphered" and "deeper meaning" lead me to this conclusion, as does the notion that "the bagel was a metaphor for the man's childhood." I mean--really? The bagel equals childhood? So then, in the poem's penultimate line, we can insert "childhood" for "bagel" such that the speaker rolls "one complete somersault / after another like a childhood / and strangely happy with [him]self"? I don't think so, Bub. That would elevate the bagel to the level of symbol, and the symbol is dead. Why must teachers of English (they hardly teach poetry . . . or English for that matter) revert to the symbol? Why must this always stand for that? I avoided what I thought was poetry for a long time due to such a pedagogical stance and ingraining. As for Ignatow, "The Bagel," and Elite Skills, the bagel does not stand for childhood in any way, shape, or form.

However, this moment, this wonderful, magical moment when the speaker turns into the bagel, somersault by somersault, is certainly child-like, so I can see where such a leap could be erroneously made. But it's this moment that evokes childhood, not the bagel. It's the pleasure of turning lemons into lemonade by surprise--an unforeseen joy--that takes the speaker, the poem, and its readers into the fun of being a kid. Who else could turn into a bagel and roll down the street? Certainly not the old man who wrote the poem (Ignatow was born in 1914). So, yes. There is some truth to that analysis when it says the speaker does relive "some of the fun of his childhood," but in no way is he chasing it down. In no way does he want "to give [it] away . . . then realizes that he needs it." Nothing in the poem leads readers to such "deeper meaning" conclusions. In fact, those ideas are just wrong. I mean--the speaker says directly he was "annoyed with [him]self / for having dropped it." He didn't give anything away.

So, yes, deeper meaning. It seems to me that poems that work offer everything--or just about everything--a reader needs right on the surface. It's all right there in direct view, open sunlight. The problem is that we are trained in our early years to believe that poetry is a code, that it is a mystery that must be figured out, that its words are clues to some vast, hidden agenda that lies deep below the surface of the poem, and so we learn to look past the surface into some abyss where answers apparently lie. I am not arguing that good poems don't work in layers. They do. I'm simply saying "the answer" isn't there. There is no answer. There is no code to break--generally speaking--and there is no hidden mystery. If there was, then what's all that stuff at the surface if not a cover-up? The poetry becomes a mechanism for hiding meaning and truth--the true meaning of a poem--instead of a mechanism for revealing such matters. To say there is a hidden meaning--a deeper meaning, whatever--altogether negates the purpose of writing poems, which is to express and reveal, not to hide and conceal. There are always exceptions to the norm, of course, but Ignatow's "The Bagel" is not one of them.

Really, my beef with all this is that when teachers teach poems in this manner of deciphering and such, they really mistreat the art of poetry. They relegate it to the role of legerdemain and bypass all the quality craft-stuff that makes a worthwhile poem worthwhile. An additional detriment, by treating a poem like a Rubik's cube, teachers tell students that once it's been figured out, it's done. It's over. It's--solved. And then students don't see the poem as an experience; they see it as a trick to be mastered, a question to be answered, when in fact that's hardly ever the case. Consider it's the journey, as "The Bagel" suggests, not the goal.


Anyway, I think my daughter has had a few bagel-like experiences these past few days, and I with her. Pure, unadulterated joy. And there's no mystery in that.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Rain Song #1, circa 1999, the JimRobbie Trio

Tonight's rain and forecasted weekend rain and hail has me suddenly hearing the "Rain Song," first recorded by The JimRobbie Trio in the winter of '99 -- like, forever, ago.JimRobbie album: JimRobbie, 1999 Jake, Andrew, and I recorded the album in this guy's home studio on an 8 track recorder that served it's purposes well at the time. I can still remember the setup, where Andrew's kit was positioned, the green curtain that separated Seth, our producer of sorts, from the rest of the band. More than anything I recall how cold it was, like hurt-your-teeth cold, then stepping out into it anyway for a cigarette between sessions.

Listening to the song now I think how Andrew is to splash cymbal what Will Ferrell is to cowbell. And I wish I could get rid of that little buzz on my guitar. Jake, as always, sounds great. And did I mention it was through Jake that we conned George Dalton--a radio journalist from our local NPR affiliate--to open the song with a little intro? Can't beat it, just can't beat it.

As for other comments about the recording and the band, we were working sort of from a minimalist viewpoint, which meant as little extra as possible: no over-effecting, definitely no over-producing. I'm still sort of into that, musically speaking.

So, please, enjoy "Rain Song #1." Feel free to hear a me-and-my-acoustic version--complete with its mistakes--on my Music page.

Saturday, September 3, 2011