Friday, October 23, 2009

The First of A Series of Responses to Saeed Jones' Blog Post Concerning Class and Poetry

Saeed Jones’ October 9 post on his blog for southern boys who consider poetry raised an important question in terms of writing and class:. As Jones himself asks, “The language of class seems to be hyperbolic at best. Sure, we can name what it means to be exorbitantly wealthy or extremely poor, but where are the words to describe the rest of us?” This is such a brilliant and necessary question to raise, and before I began to discuss the where, I think it’s urgent to ask the reason we can't readily find them.

Unlike most writers who raise the issue of class, Jones instructs us to look what’s between the extremes—something I don’t believe we do enough of. Jones’ call-to-action should be amplified. It’s a difficult thing to hear (let alone accept) when so many poets, especially those employed full-time, complain about how poetry doesn’t pay.

It’s a lie. There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t feel grateful for what my poetry afforded me: health insurance. What’s greater than the luxury of living in a small, generous community where my partner and I can be shut-ins and read to one another at night before we go to bed? (Yesterday he read Young Goodman Brown.)

Most poets employed full time obviously come from MFA programs where they're encourage not to talk about class in such precise terms, as Jones asks us to do. They like to think their art transcends the particular and embraces a dumb universality. Which it can. Sometimes.

MFA students (the ones who later receive those full-time jobs) often feel unconsciously guilty that they are attending a writing program; as a result, instead of admitting their privilege in attending school, they do the opposite and claim poverty. I cannot tell you how often a best friend of mine from Syracuse claimed she was “poor.” At first I first believed her. But then as the months continued and our friendship deepened, I found out what constituted poor: she only received $500 a month (or maybe more, can’t remember) from her parents. Her mother made an investment for her that was guaranteed to pay off. Without any self-awareness, she told me that she was afraid that she may need to take out a student loan, and would I help her with the paperwork if she asked.

Needless to say, she didn't need to take out those loans.

It often made me cringe how many MFA and full-time employed poets squawk about their poverty and can call Mom and Dad for that extra hundred dollar to make ends meet and to have a little extra left over. I would like to emphasize that MFA students and part-time faculty are exploited. There's no doubt about that. I couldn't believe how much buying health insurance for me as a student took out of my already paltry stipend. However, I wasn't destitute, and living off the streets, and as poets and fiction writers we need to realize that. This isn't to say we shouldn't silence our complaints, or fight radically for more, it's just the opposite, in fact, but we do need to see exactly where we stand in relation to everyone else.

Not having is a different than not having as much as you want. If you can call someone to bail you out, you have nothing to worry about. You're doing OK. Some MFA students (and full-time employed poets) and their mock crisis of a fictional poverty refuses what Saeed is asking for: an analysis of the full range of class statuses. How can you talk about class when everyone is boasting unabashed financial ruin.

These false narratives of poverty reveal the privilege of academically trained poets. On one hand, they want to be seen as extremely charitable (look at how much I care about the world! I’m writing about it!), and on the other hand in-the-gutter poor (look at how much I’m deprived of as a writer!). This constant oscillation makes it impossible to have a genuine conversation: everyone feels the need to reveal their generous contributions to the national crisis and prove their own suffering.

Financial problems occur after graduation. When the loans are due. And you may be only able to find work as a part-time adjunct, shelling out your hard earned cash on gas to shuttle you from gig to gig to gig.

I lucked out. I got a great job.

I have $90,000 in student loan debt. I was not going to live a life that I led growing up. Screw a cheap, scummy trailer. Screw hand-me-down clothes. Screw meatloaves and casseroles.

I have no shame in tell you: Watch how many Dragon rolls you order. They do add up. And all the clothes you used your student loans on won’t fit after awhile. Too much rice can put the pounds on.

Monday, October 19, 2009

On Mary Oliver's Gay Activism

Is their anything more anticipated and inevitably dull than poets revealing their exasperation with the most recent volume in the Best American Poetry series?

How many times can a blogger promote themselves as a young rebel for claiming that a BAP editor choose the wrong best poems?

I’ve always thought of the Best American Poetry Series as pure fun; I always buy a copy in advance on It’s a giddy thrill to see someone like Ashberry or Gluck or Collins read whatever’s contemporary and offer their endorsements of not only particular poets, but also individual poems. The Best American Series isn’t any more rigged than the Pushcart Prizes.

Except that the Pushcart editors like to believe they’re all-inclusive and democratic when, over the years, they’ve essentially stopped looking for emerging writers. Every year they choose fewer and fewer writers from little-known or completely obscure lit magazines. The Pushcart Prizes ignores them for the same old favorites. After looking at a few of the more recent Pushcart volumes, you can see the writers included are the same ones edit the Best American Poetry series: Ashberry or Gluck or Collins.

So much for the little guy.

That’s global capitalism for you.


I mistook this year’s BAP editor David Wagoner as David Shapiro. I was excited. What a cool, unsurprising choice, I thought! It turned out the two aren’t the same, not even related.

Why didn’t David Lehman choose David Shapiro? It’s not like Wagoner is any more of a name than Shapiro. The only difference: Shapiro writes good poems.

I’m still trying to get over the disappointment. But that’s enough of that.

I’ll turn my energy to a more troublesome issue in a different annual: the 2009 Best American Essays Series, edited by Mary Oliver, whose sentimental editing may prove to be a contributing factor to the liberal refusal to wholly lambast Proposition 8.


There’s something unkind when a critic channels negative energy toward a young, unformed queer writer. At the same time, age shouldn’t necessarily be a factor in barricading necessary critique. If the writer’s old enough to publish his work, he should be ready to accept the flak as well as the praise.

Oliver choose a memoiristic piece entitled "First" by a writer - Ryan Van Meter- who I presume is young and gay. Out of all the pieces she’s read, she has claimed Van Meter’s essay “First” is one of the year’s best. The piece is really nothing more than a slight, mostly humorless piece about closeted gay adolescence. You can feel Van Meter attempting to give his essay gravitas through implicitly linking it to the necessity of gay marriage rights, but the political intent proves ultimately ineffectual.

In the essay, Van Meter and his best friend Ben enjoy covert expressions of their “love” for one another: “We face glowing white headlights of cars following us, our sneakers pressed against the back hatch door. This is our joy-his and mine-to sit turned away from our moms and dads in this place that feels like a secret, as though they are not even in the car with us.”

Van Meter then makes the perfunctory (and completely annoying) gesture of acknowledging the unreliability of memory: “Years from this evening, I won’t actually be sure that this boy sitting beside me is named Ben.” This is the kind of move that too many non-fiction writers use these days. Either you remember it, or not. If you don’t, then write something your memory does claim.

Other than the roteness of the claim, Van Meter is surely lying. No way can you not remember then name your first crush. Unless the car where Van Meter expressed his love for another boy crashed and caused him serious neurological damage. Which is what I expected to happen after such an unbelievable claim. I'm all for reading an essay about a mentally challenged gay man. I thought Van Meter was going to position himself to become something like a young, queer Floyd Skloot.


But the essay doesn’t travel into that direction. Instead we move through familiar terrain.

Instead we receive a tepid replay of the young boys admitting their sweet, trite love for one another in the car. Van Meter asks Ben to marry him; Van Meter’s mother freaks a little; Van Meter humors his mother and acts docile. The essay closes with an aggressive banality: “No one speaks for the rest of the ride. We all just sit and wait and watch our own views of the road-the parents see what is ahead of us, while the only thing I can look at is what we have just left behind.”

And what we, as readers, have left behind is an earnest meditation, a pre-coming out story. Obviously, Oliver’s attraction to the story was not a result of its strong writing or complicated psychological observations. She liked it for the simple reason that it deals with the issue of gay marriage in an unconfrontational way.

Van Meter made himself and Ben as sweet as a pair of dumb horned owls. How could the most boring nature poet, Oliver herself, not be in awe?


The Best American series are big sellers. You can buy them at the airports. Does there need to be any greater proof of their attraction to the average reader?

I would hope that someone as smart as Robert Atwan, the series editor, would realize the mixed blessing of choosing someone like Oliver. On one level, it’s a marketing decision: people recognize her name. On another, it delegitimizes the series: does anyone think Oliver is any more important to the essay than David Wagoner is to poetry?

Lehman should have chosen Oliver to edit this year’s BAP. She can be an odd bird. I love that years back she choose someone as unexpected as inspiredly wacky as Matthew Rohrer for the National Poetry Series. It was wild and different. It showed a side to Oliver that no one would have expected to see. That's what a smart critic does. That's why I've always had hope for Mary Oliver.


Cynics could claim that no one’s mind is going to be changed by a pro-gay marriage writing in any of the Best American Series. Anyone who buys the anthology is already a liberal, they’d say. You’re preaching to the converted.

I don’t think that’s really the issue. I’ve always believed, as ridiculous as it may sound, in the collective unconscious. Through writing, you can affirm things like equality and justice; that affirmation spreads, and slowly, through indirect and direct means, love has the power to work through the accumulation of even the smallest of gestures. Anyone who might be reluctant to agree needs to look no further than the fact that a few poets unexpectedly are the ones who everybody is talking about. With all the poets out there, why do the same two or three in any season become cited more than anyone else? I love Allison Stine’s work, but it is a little weird that within less than a month, she was the one poet everybody was clamoring about.


What I find disconcerting in the Oliver-edited volume that out of all the essays about gay marriage, she choose to include one that doesn’t have the inclination to explicitly state what’s at stake with Proposition 8. Van Meter’s sentimentalism is a useless politeness. By failing to directly tie in his personal anecdotes into the larger, urgent issue of Proposition 8, the essay, at this present historical moment, renders itself unnecessary. Perhaps, like a lot of gay writers, he’s hoping that through unnaming he’s offering his essay a sense of artistic timelessness. This is a common problem with gay male writers—they’re willingness to receive accolades for dealing with an urgent political matter; at the same time, safeguarding themselves from being known as as someone more than simply Another Gay Writer through refusing to be confrontational.

Van Meter is no Bernard Cooper. Included more than once in the Best American Essays, Cooper writes conventional gay narratives that are bolstered through his exemplary mastery of the create writing workshops’ draconian mantras: show, don’t tell; find those perfect verbs and nouns, etc etc. You could claim Cooper’s operating under the same tepid gay male politic, but at least, he does know the difference between active and passive voice. Or at least in terms of the verbs written on the page.

For the most part, Oliver’s body of work has never accumulated into anything other than pretty pastoral pictures. One might want to think they would eventually lead to something greater. But they don’t. There’s no formal variation, no real critique. You would think that someone with Oliver’s clout would feel the limitations of her own content, and would want to push further. Like Van Meter, she’s not done anything new with form. Her affirmation of Van Meter is an affirmation of the most pointless of liberal politics: show a societal problem without naming, without telling. Oliver has possessed the opportunity to make important statements about two of the most important political issues –the environment and civil rights, and, I would claim, she’s hindered the progress of both causes. Sentimentality can be a good thing, but when it’s used to conceal what’s at stake, it’s a danger.

When it comes to Oliver’s editorial and her own writerly choices, the distinction between a homosexual and a wild goose blurs. In fact, there may be only one difference: the gay man is easier to pet.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

A Directive to My Graduate Students: Don't Proofread

[This post relates to graduate creative writing students only.]

As a creative writing teacher, I prefer incomplete pieces, unpolished, embarrassing messes. That’s one of my basic world views: sloppiness is a good thing. It should be cultivated. It’s an affirmation of your own mortality. You’re not pretending to be a god.

When I teach a graduate creative non-fiction classes, I require them to have written at least eight full pages of new material for their first workshop; fifty is the limit.

Recently after a student turn in her piece, she said to me: "I'm embarrassed. I only wrote eight pages."

Do the minimum amount of work, I believe. That’s what I tell my students.

I looked at my student and said, "Good. That's all I would have turned in. Sometimes there are more important things to do than write."


Once another student told me that in one of her other classes, the teacher required them to turn in finished pieces. “But I'm not that teacher," I said, "I don't care."

Workshops encourage you to complete things. That’s bad for an artist. I remember taking fiction workshops as a graduate student, and as it grew closer to the time to turn in your story, people would ask, “So have you finished?” As if the point was to find an end to the story. Isn't one of the perks of being a graduate student that you have the leisure time to fumble and pick yourself up again?

People with real jobs can't afford to take a deep breath. They have stuff they must complete. Or else people can become hurt. Or sad. Or both.

This is a horrible confession: I don’t care if my graduate students proofread their stuff. In fact, I wish they wouldn’t. Better time can be spent simply getting the words out on the page. Why take the time to polish something that may not be worth it? And usually isn't.

Maybe it’s something you needed to write simply because you needed to write it. You needed to make room for something else to enter a psychic space.

In fact, that’s something I should encourage more. Let’s see all those misspellings, bad grammatical structures, misplaced punctuation. Let’ s admit those errors freely and without judgment. That kind of stuff can easily be cleared up. The soul needs more attention.

To want our graduate students to proofread is to ask them to create a finished product. That’s the worst thing we can teach young artists: you need to finish. Isn't the fun in writing that you are in a sense always are always are at the beginning?

I like the dumb, sweet idea that in Time, you might find the perfect arrangement of words.

When I was a graduate student, I remember racing to create a completed story for the workshop deadline. I missed out on the fun of writing. To have fun you need to lose track of yourself, lose your self-consciousness. That’s very difficult for an artist. Writers suffer from being too sensitive. That’s why they become depressed. You let too much of the world in.

If we, as teachers, force our students to come to an end, turn in something finished, then we’re ruining their fun. Their art becomes an assignment. With assignments come deadlines. And shouldn’t young students who take our creative writing classes feel they have all the time in the world? That if they relax and take a deep breath, they'll lose consciousness and find themselves in their own imagination?

Sunday, October 4, 2009

On The Danger in Not Revealing Any Political Leanings in The Graduate Creative Writing Class": PART ONE

I’m tired of creative writing teachers complaining that their students cannot accept criticism.

I find the opposite to be true: CW teachers refuse to interrogate their own failed pedagogical choices.

Students know if you’re lying to them. Talking to them one-on-one always yields a simple fact: to a certain degree, regardless of talent or ability, students crave honesty.

It all depends on how teachers go about offering it.

But I do become concerned when a student says, “It’s OK to rip me apart. I don’t care what anyone else thinks.” Teachers often skip past such comments, maybe fearful that they’d be offering psychological advice rather than advancing writing skills.

This decision is a mistake. Would anyone sing up for a CW class if they didn’t care what everyone else thinks?

I always begin the first workshop with telling them the truth: I care whatever everyone else thinks. I want everyone to see me as The Beautiful And Amazing Artist I am. “Self-aggrandizement is important,” I say, “It protects us not from other people’s comments, but their stupidity.”


For the rest of this post, I'm writing specifically about the graduate creative writing classroom, not the undergraduate one.

Often times I find myself concerned that heterosexual men will not see me on their side. I feel the need to confirm that a gay man can see through their eyes. I can be a good resource for him on how to build character, advance a plot, etc. Yes, I want to say: I know how heterosexuals behave. Which causes me some difficulty in the classroom. From time to time, they create the most offensive representations of women I’ve ever seen.


Two semesters ago, I found myself in an odd position in my creative writing classroom.

It was a graduate class. That’s an important fact. The students were all graduate students. It was a predominantly male classroom; there were very few women.

As a gay male teacher, I always become nervous that the heterosexual men will feel alienated. They’ll read my queerness as a lack of ability to understand the heterosexual arrangements in their stories.

You can’t take a lie detector test to affirm that you are capable of understanding a story focusing a man getting drunk with his buddies, lusting after a woman. (In Alabama where I taught for several years, cow-tipping was a key plot point. I miss cow-tipping.)

Again here are my fears: If I critique these male-female scenarios, or heterosexual male friendships, then I might be seen as harboring a liberal politics that of course shuts them out.

And I also become concerned about how women—if I don’t automatically validate certain victim narratives (woman rages against psycho boyfriend, etc.), I’m ultimately sexist, as someone who ultimately favors men over women because he is a man himself.

Monitoring myself hampers my ability to be as straightforward as I like. I want my students to see my joy in reading their stories. I do think there’s something to be said about giving intuitive comments, spontaneous analytical reactions. Don't we read literature to feel that epiphany? Is there anything better to publicly witness someone else's happiness in reading your work?


Never in workshops do I allow myself to invoke the word sexist, racist, homophobic, knowing it would shut down the conversation. I wait for someone else to use the word(s). Once someone does, then I see it as permission to interrogate the word in regard to the given story.

I feel that for me to employ those words, I’m seen as impartial, revealing a liberal bias that would alienate conservative students. Not to mention that “liberal” students who employ the words somewhat lazily, wrongly dismissing some texts, refusing to read against the grain.


But this story was at best misanthropic, particularly creepy in its attitude toward women. There was no way in getting around it. I couldn’t imagine any of my graduate students not questioning its representation. I was naive.

It was written in the third person and featured the protagonist, Lucifer, a young male vampire, seducing women in the most uninspired ways. Lucifer was given a little comic dialogue—a meager attempt at characterization. His partner-in-crime Lucky, a vampire, smoked cigarettes and became jealous when Lucifer left their home during the middle of the night to prey on young beauties.

The women were described in peculiarly antiquated ways: “big-bosomed,” etc. It wasn't erotic. The women had no personalities. Which doesn't always have to be a bad thing. Some characters are merely functional in any narrative.

But the women were essentially mindless idiots; Lucifer picked them up in sleazy bars. Time and time again they threw themselves at him. Not once did they need to be hypnotized!

And sometimes the point-of-view turned omniscient declaring “A more than average amount of women want to have sex with Lucifer. He’s a bad boy. Almost irresistible to women.”


There were very few women in the class.

I opened it up to class discussion. When the line of inquiry quickly became repetitive (Do you like vampire stories? I like romances. Isn’t a vampire story a romance?), I deflected the conversation.

So I asked: “What are the conventions of a vampire story?” We briefly listed them. “How many of these populate the story?” We listed those. “How many of those does the author reinvent to a certain degree?”

One female student said, “Why do all women have to be so dumb?”

A male student responded, “Did you read the scene where the female vampire compliments Lucifer for being such a strong man, and then she claims that she’s jealous she’s not a man? Right after that scene, she cries in his arms. That’s character complexity. Maybe it is too subtle.” He wasn't being sarcastic. For him, it was a sincere question.

The conversation continued, one woman in particular arguing vainly against the men.

I felt it necessary to put my two-sense in: I turned to the author and said, “Why don’t you think about giving the women one nuance in the story. Just one.” I sounded like I was pleading. Which, I guess, I was.


It felt impossible to make the majority of straight men in the class to realize that offering one nuance to a female character would improve their story on merely a dramatic level, even in terms of something as key as suspense. Do we really want the vampire to see easily manipulate these women without some sort of fight.

A majority of the straight men in the class couldn't believe that someone would say anything other than yes.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Guest Blogger Nicole Walker on D.A. Powell's "Cocktails"

Brilliant poet/critic Nicole Walker's analysis is featured today. Be on the lookout for her debut book of poetry This Noisy Egg (Barrow Street Press, 2010).

In Cocktails D.A. Powell prepares us for his extended, wily metaphors. The word play with homilies, hominy and harmony, the allusions to 80’s pop music, Modern English and Air Supply, the puns, again with air supply and safeway, we’re ready for Powell’s poems “writing for a young man on the redline train: “to his coy mistress.” There, we incant Marvell’s mistress poem, letting the doubling we’d learned in the first few poems to read “ride this monster to the end.” A kind of vegetable love, this train. It’s the wry self-consciousness that keeps us from saying “ugh” about the puns. The speaker is already there. The “ruin” that Powell invokes reminds us of Marvell’s lines:

then worms shall try
That long preserv'd virginity,
And your quaint honour turn to dust,
And into ashes all my lust.

Powell’s “already turning to ruin” makes it already too late. Powell can forecast the story told to him so many times, but so many other, equally fruitless pursuits.

Every chase turns everyone old. The future is already pre-imagined. “I’d lead him on a merry chase: pausing every few…we could while away the afternoon just so.” What was a brief, in the moment afternoon chasing turns to long term pursuit “the years of too many scotch sours. Think of another poem, Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” where the lovers our always pursuing but never catching. Here, there is that desperate resignation that there will always be pursuit, but unlike the Grecian Urn, time takes its ill effects. “Sprouting in chestnut-colored pubes is how I’d want him,” the speaker declares. The sprouting version of the man, young, not even fully plant yet, let alone vegetable, glosses Marvell’s poem—making it clear that in Marvell’s poem, not only is the here and now the important reason that the speaker and his boy mistress should get it on immediately but that in every case, one wants to get it on with the young version of that person.

Pursuit ages both the pursuer and the pursued. It’s the young body that’s wanted. Any beautiful body, even a beautiful corpse, is better than a long life. The de-eroticzied image cruelly and clearly makes it plain that the young body is pursuable only because he’s young. The dead bug image at the end “die young and leave a pretty corpse: die with his legs in the air” makes his body less than meat. There’s also, with the sexualized (though still unerotic) image of his legs in the air that even after he’s fucked, that will be the end of him. The fucking itself, the capture by the pursuer, itself makes the boy mistress old. Young, chestnut-colored sprouts are crushed and erased by the friction of time-taking sex.

Powell’s early preparations for these doublings couldn’t be achieved without his bad puns and de-brand-named allusions. It’s through these dorky 80’s references that the cliché, hollowed out as a dead bug, is rebranded as something classic and romantic. I’ll stop the world and melt with you is absolutely true for this speaker, except for the world stopping and the “with you” part.

Powell and Gertrude Stein make a good match. Stein, in “Narration: Lecture 2” performs in her essay “There are now several questions is there anything that is not narrative and what is narrative what has narrative gotten to be now” a similar evocation and erasure that Powell performs. We think we know what narrative means, then she repeats it and we don’t. She carves out a hollow space for the idea of narration both positing and evacuating what we thought she meant with what she means. It’s important here that the tenses change. Like the easy definition of narration—events that change over time—Stein seeks to disrupt that easy definition. Just as Powell invokes the easy cliché, he seeks to both make it happen (posit it) and evacuate it (make it empty so he can lay a new definition.) The catching of the boy mistress is the point (the posit, or more sexually, the deposit), is already ruined by the capturing (he’s already-laid, therefore already ruined, thus, already bug dead).

Both Stein and Powell question the idea of progress. You can’t get anywhere, either with narration or with chasing the beautiful boy, because what will you do when you catch him? The catching will kill the boy as fast as it will kill the story. The poem is the place where you can go forward and backtrack simultaneously. The poem refers backward, toward Marvell, toward Keats, and forward to the poem’s exit. It’s the cliché, the 80’s song, the safeway and the air supply, that pull you back again from leaving the poem entirely, thus saving the reader from being caught in the dead bug position. The cliché, posited, evacuated, and then reconstituted, keeps you young and in the poem.