Friday, April 28, 2006

Plato's Ouija Board

Working as a legal secretary in San Francisco as I do, I think a lot about the advantages and disadvantages of a poet working outside academia. The disadvantages are rather obvious, as teaching offers a way to make a living while working with like-minded people on work one loves. On the other hand, the etymology of academia is simply “the school where Plato taught,” and knowing what we know about Plato’s opposition to poetry, we might expect to find a few problems.

One problem is the inevitable academic emphasis on theory. Yes, it’s important for writers to reflect on the theoretical underpinnings of their writing, to become aware of their unconscious theoretical assumptions. But mostly I think writers need to find a theoretical foundation that works for them. Let’s face it: some of the greatest poetry ever written has come out of the most crackpot theories. Think of Yeats. Inspired by geniuses like Wittgenstein and Barthes? No way. He seems instead to have been inspired by the likes of Madame Blavatsky, the Order of the Golden Dawn, and an apparently literal faith in “the little people.” That is not even being inspired by an esoteric cult. It’s being inspired by a second-rate Las Vegas magic act. Penn & Teller are postmodern geniuses next to the jokers who inspired Yeats. (And I won’t even start on James Merrill and his Ouija board or Ezra Pound and his “economics.”)

But who cares? It’s what they needed to make their poetry possible. In an academic environment they might have found far more brilliant theories that left their poetry cold. And that brings me to my second problem with academia. Isn’t there an inevitable tendency to distort our criteria for judging poetry? Of course this problem is just as true of blogs as it is of academia! What is mean is that in academic settings—as in blogs—we form strong impressions of the people we encounter: who’s brilliant, who’s charismatic, who’s compassionate, who’s honest, who’s boring, who’s shallow, who’s bourgeois, who’s mean. And often these opinions are formed without having read a word of the person’s poetry. How many writers have reputations for brilliance because they’re charismatic teachers (or fascinating bloggers, or wise speakers on a panel discussion at AWP), poets who would never make any foolish, embarrassing remarks about “the little people”—with barely any attention paid to their poetry at all?

Thursday, April 27, 2006

Room with a View

The sun is out and I'm feeling (sorta) optimistic. This morning it was too sunny to work on the laptop in my new office (my son’s childhood room--posters removed, staple-holes filled in, and walls and moldings painted a lovely shade of gray-green). Really, we will have to get shades for an office that faces East or give up working there mornings. Our new office looks out on the garden, the white Adirondack chair nestled among the lavender, the Douglas iris and ferns, the bright patch of orange poppies, the little path. True, the deck is rotten and dangerous. True, the best-case scenario short of winning the lottery is a job that will take me away from this bucolic scene. But hey, right now I’m optimistic.

I figure my manuscript will eventually get published. I may even still be alive when that happens. I toy with the idea of writing a novel or screenplay, just so I could sit here and write every day and not have it be “self-indulgent” like poetry. Well, even if I knew how to do that (I don’t), it doesn’t erase the fact that we will soon be living off our line of credit.

The job leads come and go. In half an hour, I will have a phone interview, the second step in an employment ritual that may or may not get to a third step. I’m trying not to put too much weight on it. I figure if it’s the right thing for me right now, we will both recognize that. But I don’t want to screw up by saying the wrong thing --as I did at that contract position I was supposedly starting in March—screw up by being too trusting, too na├»ve. (It’s not something I want to go into in detail—really, I’d rather forget it – but to make a long story short, friends, don’t ever tell an employer you have carpal tunnel syndrome. You may think that will make them take your needs seriously, but they will likely, as they did me, show you the door.)

So, be it. The office is mostly done. I’ve got my garden to look at for now. I’ve got a small teaching gig coming up in June (Please point your poet friends my way! Or see this listing for more information.) Maybe all the puzzle pieces of my life will fit together one of these days. Maybe not. But at least the sun is out right now.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

On a Break

I've been in a state of almost-suspended animation vis a vis poetry for a while, on hiatus from the group, not writing a lot or even reading a lot of poetry. I've been writing a piece on depression for a psychotherapy forum and another on infidelity for a chapter in a book. It was challenging, thinking about what infidelity actually is and how/whether it's possible for people to heal from betrayals.

I'd been feeling too much like a consumer, even a purveyor, of poetry, losing the essential thing (that which perhaps cannot be said without a poem) in the process. Backing off clears the palate a little. I miss writing more than reading and have begun a few small things, but the limited reading I've done has been enough. For example, Mary Rueffle, from "Parallelogram":

All those I love
and all those who love me
are unequally sad,
which is the only sadness,
besides a little fence
with lambs on the other side
who disappear into fractions.
Pity the rain.
Pity the silence.
Pity the slow passage
from the soul to the esophagus.

(How's that for a meditation on infidelity?) I would never write a poem like that, but reading it is almost as good as writing it. You have to be "writing" along with it to get into the poem.

On another note, did anyone read William Logan's piece in the Times Book Review on the new Oxford anthology of American poetryy? Did anyone besides me think, Get that man some Pepto-Bismol? Please.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

What happened yesterday

About a year ago, I got a message from the folks at Lunarpages, my web hosting service, that my "Advanced Guestbook" was vulnerable to exploits. Apparently, it could "be hacked to gain access to the guestbook's administrative area and upload a php mailer script, which in turn sends out mass numbers of PayPal phishing emails." Well, the Guestbook being more trouble than it was worth, and the blog being more fun, though I have my doubts sometimes that anyone reads it, I revamped the website so that there wasn't a Guestbook any more. I didn't delete it from the server at Lunarpages. I guess I knew I should, but I never got around to it.

Well, yesterday, I got an email restating the above nastiness and telling me that my "account was running 13+ mysql processes continuously due to this script, causing high load and almost crashing your server" and so my account was suspended. Okay, so that got me off my ass and I remedied the situation. Nevertheless, they had the site under observation until the early hours of this morning.

Now we're back up -- and maybe more important -- the sky is blue and the sun is out!

Happy, Happy Quake Day!

It’s the 100th anniversary of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. As this recent study warned, “if that same magnitude 7.9 temblor strikes again along the San Andreas Fault, the toll would be far, far worse.” More specifically, according to what the article calls a “chilling forecast,” “At least 3,400 people in a 19-county region from Mendocino to San Benito would die if the quake struck during the day when streets were filled, offices were occupied and children were in school; if it hit at night—at, say, 2 a.m.—the death toll would fall to at least 1,850.”

Did other people have the same reaction to this as I did? I know I live in at least as much denial as the next person. People like me who have lived here all our lives are even more in denial than most residents: “Earthquakes? I know all about ‘em. I’m used to ‘em. No problem.” Of course nothing I’ve experienced in my lifetime, including the big 1989 quake, would be anything like a really big one.

I keep some emergency water and food supplies on hand, but I’m not at all prepared the way I should be. And I’m afraid “chilling forecasts” just do not have the desired effect. All I thought was, “3,400 people killed—at the worst?” There are millions of people in the Bay Area! Rather than chilling me, this made me jump for joy! My chances of surviving The Big One are roughly 999 out of 1,000! I always assumed a really big quake would kill tens of thousands of people, if not hundreds of thousands. My life expectancy has just gone way up! (And yes, I know this is just another form of denial.)

Sunday, April 16, 2006

Rising From Computer Hell for Easter

Our wireless connection has been AWOL for a week and I’d been avoiding calling Dell “Support” (euphemistically named) because I knew it was going to be frustrating, but I didn’t know how frustrating. Yesterday I spent SIX HOURS on the phone with Dell before the problem was solved.

After spending 45 minutes on hold, it took another 45 minutes of troubleshooting before the Dell tech concluded (surprise!) that the problem was not with Dell hardware or software but with the modem that Comcast had supplied. The tech said he’d be happy to transfer me to the sales department so I could purchase technical support for the modem, and did so before I had a chance to sputter any objection.

I finally convinced the sales guy I was already entitled to tech support, so he transferred me back to tech support. Every time you talk to one of these guys, they write up a report and assign you a case number so the next tech can look up the report so you don’t have to reinvent the wheel. But every damn time, they ask you the exact same questions and have you try the exact same things the last guy did.

I talked to the second tech for almost an hour until I got cut off because the battery on my phone died. He hadn’t figured anything out, but at least he wasn’t blaming the modem anymore. He had managed to disable our virus protection, though. He should have called me back after we got cut off but he didn’t so I had to call back and jump through hoops again so they’d let me talk to tech support without paying for it.

I then talked to a third tech until my phone died again. This time the guy at least called me back and I gave him my cellphone number so he could call back on another phone. He said he’d call back in five minutes, but it was yet another tech who called back. I think the other guy had decided I’d gone through enough hell and he’d finally give in and connect me with someone who knew what he was doing, because Jonathan, the last guy I talked to, knew what he was doing. By now I’d spent five hours on the phone.

Jonathan also had more tools at his disposal. He was able to connect remotely to my computer and see directly what was going on. He found my lost virus protection and reactivated it, cleaned up a bunch of screwy settings, and finally—after six hours—found the problem and fixed it. For the record, he deleted the DNS server addresses after “Use the following DNS server addresses” (found under Wireless Network Connection Status Properties, Internet Protocol Properties), and instead checked “Obtain DNS server address automatically.” That fixed the whole problem! It took about 30 seconds.

Happy Easter!

Monday, April 10, 2006


Read a great review of Robert Thomas's DRAGGING THE LAKE.

Dorset Update

Though I am very grateful for all my finger-crossing friends the past month or so while I was a Dorset finalist, I'm not really upset about the outcome, never really believing I could win. Here are the results, straight from the horse's mouth (Jeffrey Levine):

Winning manuscript: Dismal Rock, by Davis McCombs

Daivs McCombs' first book, Ultima Thule, was chosen by
W.S. Merwin as winner of the 1999 Yale Series of
Younger Poets, called "the finest Yale Poets selection
in years" by Publishers Weekly, and one of five
finalists for a National Book Critics Circle Award in
Poetry. Among many other honors, Davis has won Ruth
Lilly, Henry Hoyns, Wallace Stegner, and NEA

First Runner up: Sweet Darkness, by Greg Rappleye

Additional Runners up:
Shaggy Parasol, by Susan Gubernat
The Book of Sleep, by Eleanor Stanford
The Little Hour, by Kathleen Jesme
Red Door, by Donald Platt

Honorable Mentions (in no particular order):
Biogeography, by Sandra Meek
Emphatic Numeral, by Molly Tenenbaum
The Transits of Saturn, by Leslie Ullman
The Lost Tin Myth, Lytton Smith

Thank you all for giving Tupelo Press such exquisite
work. It's hard, I know, to be philosophical about
coming so close, but I hope that you will temper that
disappointment with the knowledge that we would have
been just as delighted to publish any one of this
years' finalsts. Know also that among those who did
not "make" the finals this year were dozens of
manuscripts from poets of national and international
reputation, some with as many as a dozen books.

Maybe someday someone will publish my book....

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Papa and Liza

Talk about guilty pleasures! Not only was I watching Inside the Actors Studio, but I was watching Liza Minnelli on Inside the Actors Studio. Liza (with a Z) had some ideas of possible relevance to poetry. She said when she prepares for a concert, she puts together a book with the song lyrics on one side and notes on the other. She writes notes about why the person is singing the song, and includes details like “the color of the rug on the floor” where she’s singing. She said the secret of great singers is that they have a secret. While they’re singing they keep in mind a secret that the character singing has but that is not revealed in the lyrics.

This sounds like Hemingway in A Moveable Feast:

It was a very simple story called “Out of Season” and I had omitted the real end of it which was that the old man hanged himself. This was omitted on my new theory that you could omit anything if you knew that you omitted and the omitted part would strengthen the story and make people feel something more than they understood.

When I stopped writing I did not want to leave the river where I could see the trout in the pool, its surface pushing and swelling smooth against the resistance of the log-driven piles of the bridge. The story was about coming back from the war but there was no mention of the war in it.

I am intensely interested in the idea of lyric poetry not as poetry that has no story, but as poetry in which the story is a secret. In fact I’ve been stuck on a poem recently and this may just offer a way out. I’ve got a secret!