Thursday, June 24, 2010

On Neil de la Flor's "Almost Dorothy" and the Generosity of Comic Imagination

Evident from almost the first poem, Neil de la Flor's amazing debut collection Almost Dorothy brims with a rare generosity. Unlike a lot of comic poets, he doesn't hoard his punchlines for an attempt at an overdetermined closure. He's too good for that. More often than not, his first line is a joke, and so is the second, the third, fourth, etc, etc. There doesn't seem to be any fear if a joke goes wrong. And from time to time, they do, as, in the case, of all brilliant comics. That's where the generosity comes in. He doesn't pause and apologize; he just keeps on offering his comic imagination. The show must go on. And the guy has more than enough pizazz to continue without much of a hitch. And when something does go wrong, we're thankful--it makes him human, and root for him that much more intensely. The comics with the most seamless routines are almost always the least funny; you cringe at hearing them make their own drum roll.

A lot of the time, de la Flor is invested in the paragraph as a formal strategy. Here's a paragraph from one of favorites "T. Williams Talks to Birds or I'm talking to Birds":

A glass menagerie, glass menagerie, menagerie of steel, stainless steel, I've stolen my lines from the great Herodotus, or Hercules, I can't remember which was Assyrian. Istanbul is a city with great glass walls erected with the sweat of tigers, lions, and bears. The mighty walls, like skin of cats, are see-through. I see through, you see through. I am done with this cat business, the 9 lives of Nineveh, or 9 Visigoths, or Vishnu nude bathing on porcelain counter tops with margaritas in both hands.

This rhetorical strategy allows for what I like to call a lyrical discursiveness--the ostensibly ceaseless talking gathers its poetic momentum from surprising syntax and diction, odd leaps, etc.

And here's another example. It consists of the final three paragraphs from “Aphorisms for Frida Kahlo”:

Some say sadomasochism is a dirty word, but isn’t dirty a dirty word and merde? A sadist is just another form of disguise, someone who holds the Bounce and Snuggle in a dark corner of the laundry room.

With a frame bolted to the head with metal pins, a cyclotron can achieve stunning success in a single session of radiosurgery. In Spain, Salvador Dali masturbated with beans. Post-operative, monkeys can blink with half their brain removed.

At age 13, Khalo joined the Communist party. Inspired by the Mexican Revolution, she fell in love with a cactus and a pig. Shortly after her death, the hieroglyphs in Egypt were decoded. They all read, Diego.

It's often annoyingly said that the stand-up comic is in pain; the desire to get laughs is a plea for help, compassion. One of the things that's special about de la Flor's book is he doesn't encourage such readings. In a weird way, his book reminds me of early Steve Martin or Robin Williams, the sheer silliness of their acts. As Martin’s and Williams’ career progressed, they appeared in those quasi-serious films, which won him mainstream serious accolades, all of a sudden elevated to the role on an artiste. de la Flor has the courage to stick to his guns, and be an often pitch-perfect comic --this determination is admirable, and what makes his book stand out, and I hope that rare, bold choice allows his work to receive the love it deserves.

In a later post, I will talk about "risk"--that horrible word used way too often to praise confessional poetry. Rarely do members from different aesthetic camps use it to talk about formal strategies, or contents that don't evolve from individual psyhology. For a new gay poet, who no doubt wants to be read, it is a risky choice to mine the unabashedly comic, especially when it doesn't emerge from camp or self-deprecation--a quality too often praised in gay or female comics. Some straight people overvalue sad, humorless gay book--it makes them feel charitable for understanding, and a lot of gay poets play directly into this desire.

This is the one of the most risky books of the year--gay or straight.

I should disclose that my book Blind Date from Cavafy came out from the same press as de la Flor’s. I can honestly say that this had no impact on my opinions. In fact, the last two books that won the Marsh Hawk Press annual contest I found to be disposable. Michael Rerick’s In Ways Impossible to Fold and Karin Randolph’s Either She Was were bewildering choices. Thylias Moss-one of our greatest living poets-acted as a judge and chose Rerick’s book, and I am still perplexed. But that's the way contests go, I suppose.

Also: I love biting the hand that feeds me. It makes me feel alive.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

On Tony Leuzzi's First Book of Poems "Radiant Losses"

[It's always rewarding to write a post celebrating a local Rochester area writer who more than deserves the visibility. It is my pleasure to offer commentary on my blog regarding the debut of Tony Leuzzi's Radiant Losses. Also crucial for me to mention: the book is published by New Sins Press, created by the poets Glenn Sheldon and Rane Arroyo, one of my literary heroes, who recently passed away. Here's the link to the press:

Undeniably one of the many salient, exciting features in Tony Leuzzi’s first book of poems Radiant Losses is his steadfast incorporation of the Fibonacci-based series. The Fibonacci form yields a hermetic nature, a certain distance from the reader, and perhaps even the creator, that doesn’t encourage applause—unlike a sonnet which asks you to admire its ostentation at end of every single line. There's a modesty in the form; it thrives on self-effacement -- the practitioner knows all of his precision will for the most part go unnoticed. His pride is in the doing.

With remarkable deftness, Leuzzi uses Fibonacci sequence: a six line, 20 syllable poem with a syllable count by line of 1/1/2/3/5/8. In short, start with 0 and 1, add them together to get your next number, then keep adding the last two numbers together for your next one. It’s a pattern repeated in nature, (most famously in nautilus shells.)

Appealing controlling, Tony Leuzzi's poems in his debut book Radiant Losses eschews expectations of certain gay tropes (first love, seeing a hot guy in the gym, an elegy for Joe Brainard), refusing to make them merely palatable to any demographic. This choice makes Leuzzi's poems remarkable, his content invigorated by the Fibonacci pattern. Here’s one of my favorite poems “Consolation”:

in June
a gay man
walking through the park
is bashed by three thugs who leave him
curled and bleeding in a bed of white anemones.

is found
and driven
to a hospital
the police are there to take his
statement: tell us, sir, all you can remember of it.

man sees
it backwards-
him alone, the thugs
returning, lifting him, pulling
their punches, skulking off behind the dying lilacs.

What I like most about the use of the Fibonacci sequence in “Consolation” is the way it acts as a meta-commentary on the way gay-bashings find themselves reported—flat, perfunctorily calculated, without any investigation or depth. To Leuzzi's credit, it’s also a smart move to take advantage of the look the Fibonacci form offers: the hermetic nature resists disallows any invasiveness from the reader—you’re forced to descend downward. A defiant thud becomes the punctuation, an all-too-real end to the unfortunate situation itself.

The third stanza’s strategically odd syntax and word choice further complicates the point-of-view of the victim. Is the man seeing “it” –the bashing—from his own eyes? Is he imagining how the thugs witness themselves and their act of violence? What about the game-changing line break in the final stanza after “pulling?” If the man is seeing the violence against him “backwards” that word "pulling" acts obviously as a description of the intensity of their behavior. But even more provocatively, the break also makes it possible that the thugs are “pulling their punches”—the gay man, as victim, is erasing the violence himself. Perhaps precisely because of the rote ways in which the violence is inhumanely rendered.

Here’s another one. It’s called “Point of View”:

man in
an over-
sized army jacket
settles upon the scarred surface
of a bench in the park, then sinks slowly into sleep.

boy with
tangled hair
bends before the man,
tweaks the lens of his thirty-five
millimeter, steps in once more, is about to shoot

and the
men are caught-
Quickly-by the frame
of another man’s camera
for the “Living” section of the local newspaper.

The fun of the poem reveals Leuzzi's impressive range, and the way the Fibonacci sequence can adapt to various contents, as in this case with the extended joke. Among all the line breaks and double meanings with the words "shoot", "caught" "frame" (the conflation of the sexual and the artistic), Leuzzi does something that is rare: normalize promiscuity. And Leuzzi ups the ante even more. He seems to be saying that not only are the sexual acts good, necessary fun, but also the thrill of getting caught is perhaps equally important, perhaps essential to certain queer lives. According to Leuzzi, perhaps engaging in what is named as a criminal activity, having public sex, is one of the more truly liberating ways to be "living." And who else would know such a secret except a queer author who is creating such vital poems.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

On Charles Simic's Review of Koethe, Armantrout, and Hoagland in the June 24, 2010 issue of "The New York Review of Books"

Note: While I am somewhat familiar with all three of these authors, I have not read these particular books. I am simply engaged in writing a review of the review.

There's something undeniably entertaining in the June 10, 2010 issue of "The New York Review of Books." Poet Charles Simic writes a review of three poets: John Koethe, Rae Armantrout, and Tony Hoagland. Even though he rarely explicitly compares them, Simic's ars poetica become all too clear and symptomatic of what may be wrong with a lot of the older poets who are trying to remain hip and current. Simic doesn't possess the unabashed panic of a poet like Franz Wright, who argues for a particular aesthetic in order to fortify his presence in a canon that was ruined a long time ago. But that doesn't make Simic's opinions any less troublesome, and perhaps even more so, because they seem, I'm sure to some, so reasonable.


Perhaps a part of that reasonableness comes from Simic's strategic choice to first talk about Koethe. It gives him an opportunity on one hand to pay tribute to the long tradition of the Romantic lyric, and to offer a critique that tries to make him look less stodgy for "admitting"--a verb that Simic repeatedly uses in sometimes mildly deceitful ways-- such a valorization. Understandably fearful of his views being seen as antiquated, Simic quickly says that there's no doubt Koethe "sounds like an older poet." But then Simic tells us that the advancement in Koethe's work is that he relies on the autobiographical for his intellectual inquiry into old age (!) It's good to know that the incorporation of a middle-aged white man writing about the drudgery of old age is a novel idea. John Updike, where are you?


Simic praises a poem of Koethe's that's so self-aggrandizingly sincere I thought the lines from the poem and the commentary was parody, ridiculing the self-involvement of middle-class, older men.

Here's part of Koethe's poem that Simic describes as containing "disarming directness"-- a positive quality for Simic. It's from a poem called "Chester":

Another day, which is usually,
how they come:
A cat at the foot of the bed,
In its blankness of mind, with the
morning light
slowly filling the room, and
Memories of last night's video
and phone calls.
It is a feeling of sufficiency, one
By the fear of some vague lack, of
a simplicity
Of self, a self without a soul, the
nagging fear
Of being someone to whom
nothing ever happens.

Simic praises the poem: "It trusts the language we use daily to convey the complex state of mind of someone getting up in the morning, vaguely troubled by the events of the night before and by the feeling that something is missing in his life." You have to wonder whether or not Simic finds pleasure in the poem because of its language-why isn't commonplace language just common?- or because the "aboutness" of the poem is easy to gloss. Simic essentially sums up his mild praise of Koethe as saying that there needs to be a few more inventive similes, a tad more figurative language, sharp images to add a "bit more range" to complement his "fine mind." This is an odd suggestion. It seems undeniable that Simic affirms Koethe's ars poetica, but inserts just enough (for some) criticism in the review to make himself seem fair. The self-monitored affirmation he offers here is much more unabashed in his critical comments of Hoagland, a hipper, younger, and more popular man.


Out of the three poets up for discussion he most admires Hoagland, but is sure never to mention that Hoagland may be operating from the same aesthetic-political camp as Koethe. It's no surprise that Hoagland is saved for last. As Simic says about Hoagland's poems, "It's all there." The question then is two-fold. If Hoagland is in some ways the antidote for Koethe and Armantrout's failings, then what is the "It" and the "There." The "it" seems to be definitely thematic in regards to Hoagland: "He is a poet aware of the hard lives most Americans lead to a degree rarely encountered in contemporary poetry. This is his subject. And so is his sense that something has gone deeply wrong." I found this somewhat odd, especially since it could be said that Armantrout's "aboutness" is essentially the same thing. Simic's main argument against Armantrout is not completely one of content (although her abstractions to Simic sure are troublesome), but definitely of form. Simic writes:

"Even her most admiring critic, Stephen Burt, admits in an essay on her work that her poetry is almost never unambiguous. 'The sounds and tones of its stanzas are memorably crafted,' he writes, 'but it's large-scale arrangement can seem opaque: it can be hard to know why four segments, say, of a thirty-two lines poem requires the order they have and not one another.'"

What is disconcerting about that pulled quotation is that Simic never engages Burt's take on the material, that she is engaging as palpable socio-political themes as Tony Hoagland. The possibility of that intertextuality is underminded by Simic's questioning of Armantrout's method: "As maddening as that can be for the reader, the parts of them are often interesting in themselves, so one is usually willing to put off for awhile the question of how they link up." It seems that Simic's unwillingness to accept the openness of possible readings of a poem is what's frustrating. The abstractions employed by Koethe are suitable, even if a bit bland, and never get in a way of one being able to making a definite thematic comment.

I always ask my students when they are assigned to read a poem to note the particular places where they are confused or bored or frustrated. A lot of teachers hate when students talk about those things, because it seems to be anti-intellectual. I would claim it's just the opposite. I love when students are being aggressively whiny ("I can't understand this poem and that's not fair"). They are usually the most fun to engage in class. There's tension, and I thrive on it as a teacher. It's revealing what Simic does after he quotes the Armantrout poem "Heaven." Here's the wonderful poem.



It's a book
full of ghost children,

safely dead,

where dead means

or wanting
or not wanting

to be known.


Heaven is symmetric
with respect to rotation.

It's beautiful
when one thing changes

while another thing
remains the same.

This is what Simic says, "If a single point of view and tone is suspect, how is one to sustain an emotion in the poem? I mean, how does one write a love poem or an elegy if one regards any sort of continuity as untrue to the fragmentary way in which we experience language and consciousness? As far as I'm concerned, it's the individual part of her poems that are memorable and rarely the whole poem."

But yet when talking about Hoagland he seems to contradict himself or at least show some visible gaps in his argument. He praises Hoagland for the exact thing he sees in Armantrout. Isn't channel surfing as unstable as any of Armantrout's rhetorical strategies. Pay attention to the following for Simic's sanctimonious position:

"Reading Hoagland's poems is like surfing channels on TV. On one channel they are showing a 1950s sitcom, on another, soldiers are running past burning and overturned cars; on still another, diamonds are being sold at a fabulous discount; there's a baseball game; a preacher is telling his congregation to consult Jesus on how to invest their money; and so one for hundreds of more channels. All this is beyond comprehension. No wonder there are more poems still being written about pine trees and trout fishing than about teenagers with blue hair, tattoos, and tongue studs."

And then he praises a Hoagland poem that deals with "this ignored reality." Here's some of the lines from "Food Court" that Simic uses to make this argument:

"If you want to talk about America, why not just mention Jimmy's Wok and Roll American-Chinese Gourmet Emporium?-the cloud of steam rising from the bean sprouts and shredded cabbage/when the oil is sprayed on from a giant plastic bottle wielded by Ramon, Jimmy's main employee, who hates having to wear the sanitary hair net and who thinks the food tastes funny?''

The poem goes on and makes a few digressions that make you think Hoagland is going to deal with the intersection of race and class in his poem:

...where two boys from the suburbs
dropped off by their moms

with their ghetto pants and skateboards
are getting ready to pronounce
their first sentences in African-

Or class:

And the secretaries from the law firm
drifting in from work at noon
to fill the tables of the food court,
in their cotton skirts and oddly sexy running shoes?

According to Simic, Hoagland is writing about the mysteries of the world around us, "what we have avoided looking at closely"! Not only does Simic make that claim, but he also says that one of the purposes of this poem is "to liberate us from poetic convention." What liberation? We have the goofy, long, discursive lines; the flat, colloquial language, the predictable litany, etc.

Simic tells us that Hoagland has "too much sympathy to mock any of these people." But does he have the conviction to investigate far reaching questions? Here's the end of the poem:

Oh yes, everything
All chopped up and stirred together
in the big steel pan held over a medium-high blue flame

while Jimmy watches with his practical black eyes.

How are we supposed to interpret the word "practical"? Does it mean that the Chinese? white? owner of this hole-in-the-wall (or just plain mediocre) "American-Chinese Gourmet Emporium" has no choice but to sit with necessary resignation at his own fated future? Or is it a celebration that he's managing to support himself in a world "populated" by little groves "of palm trees maintained by the small corporation?" How does one make sense of that bizarre final metaphor? Is it saying that all of us of a different races, genders, classes are assigned to a "melting pot" and no matter how much we may try to carve out our own idiosyncratic self, we're doomed?

What is "practical" about Jimmy, the owner of this restaurant? That he has a quasi successful small business enterprise? Or that he has refrained from questioning his own role in the world? Or that he's a passive voyeur to the inevitable assimilation of various cultures, after all it's a "American-Chinese Gourmet Emporium?"

The strange thing about Hoagland's poem is that it creates less coherence than any of Armatrout's work he reviews. In fact, Hoagland predictably excuses himself from politicizing his poem with phony closure and the absence of that coherent "I" Simic so desperately craves.

It is no small surprise that what might also scare Simic off from Armantrout is, for him, her refusal to deal with the domestic. (Stephen Burt names Armantrout poems that deals with the domestic in his essay from "Close Calls with Nonsense" --maybe Simic would feel more comfortable if he re-read Burt's take on her.) The final poem Simic chooses to celebrate is a Hoagland poem about a father and son. The domestic should be written about, but I would argue that the poem is mean. Here's two sections of the poem called "My Father's Vocabulary":

In the history of American speech,
he was born between "Dirty Commies" and "Nice Tits"

He worked for Uncle Sam,
and married a dizzy gal from Pittsburgh with a mouth on her.
I was conceived in the decade between "Far Out" and "Whatever";

at the precise moment when "going all the way"
turned into "getting it on."

I don't understand why Hoagland doesn't put "dizzy" and "mouth on her" in quotations as well. Who sees their life like this? Are we supposed to be swept up be the cleverness of the language? Is Simic covertly telling us that Hoagland is more of a language poet than a language poet except that he can embed all that stuff in a conventional narrative/lyric as well?

Of course, pathos is used for closure to the poem which comes full circle. As Hoagland writes that the last time the narrator's father was alive: "For that occasion I had carefully prepared a suitcase of small talk." (Is this the sort of eerily forced language he wants so badly in Koethe's poem, the kind that would expand his "range?) Hoagland's poem continues:

-But he was already packed and going backwards,
with the nice tits and dirty commies,

to the small town of his vocabulary, somewhere outside of Pittsburgh.

The irony is simple. Hoagland's poem may seem to be more coherent: he's not interested in line breaks that open the meanings of the poems, they may not be divided into fragments, but the peculiarity of the language, his pathos-filled closures don't embrace any definite thematic either. Are we supposed to see that the poem's speaker by the end of the poem views his father's idiom as less distancing (no quotations or capitalization appear around the words tits and commies)? That his father's imminent death has transcended any alienation created by generational language difference which reflect ideological shifts? Or are we supposed to see the presumably working class life of his father as something he now can charmingly categorize as "quaint"?

The irony is that Armantrout's intellectual, framgmented inquiries provide a more definite thematic reading than Hoagland's superficial slick surface.

You can't help conflate Jimmy's "practical" eyes with that of Simic the critic here. All these various aesthetics, some more "exotic" than others are boiling in that saucepan. Simic serves the meal to himself, removing anything from his dish that looks odd, and then boasting to himself how he ate everything on his place with the utmost adventurousness.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

On Inflated Grades (Part One)

It's important for me to preface this post by saying that I don't teach at a Research 1 University, or in any sort of MFA program, but that I instruct at SUNY Brockport, a teaching college where students receive an MA in literature or creative writing. When I first received my tenure-track job, I thought (naively) that both a comprehensive college and a Research 1 university were the same. This was wrong. Where I work teaching and scholarship are of equal importance. At a Research 1 University, primarily only research is valued.

This isn't to say one is worse or better, but that both attract different sorts of students who have different needs. Here most of the time graduate students choose SUNY Brockport for a bump in their salary at either a middle-school, or high school. This is a good thing. The pursuit of more knowledge should be rewarded. No problem there.

I would be doing the same thing.

Most graduate students at SUNY Brockport do not plan on attending an MFA program or becoming a permanent creative writer--their focus is on teaching. Of course, I could cite a number of student in the program who are enrolled in the program for quite the opposite reason. But still. This isn't a critique simply; it is a description.


Some time ago, at a college similar to that of SUNY Brockport, I taught a graduate creative writing class and told my students on the first day that their grade would be based on their participation and writing. I said I would grade their writing in the following way: I told them each would present two stories or two batches of poem during the course of the semester. If they wrote at least a full eight pages or 4 poems, they would receive an A. I told them that the quality didn't matter in any way. I wouldn't judge them on that, even proofreading. All I was interested was in the generation of material. Everyone was also required to write a critique of every other person's work, and, of course, participate.

Of course, the quality of the pieces ranged from the sloppy to a-draft-away-from-publication. That didn't surprise me--that's the way it is in any workshop. What did surprise me was this: a high number of students came into my office to complain about my grading criterion. As one student told me, he felt "cheated." He stated that he knew someone in the class didn't put as much work into his writing as he did.

My response: So? Why does it matter to you?

"Because, it's unethical," he said. "I put more time into it."

This student told another teacher in the program how I assessed their work. The teacher was visibly upset. "Your grades are inflated," he said.

At so many college, there is a strange collective anxiety about ostensibly inflated grades, that we, as teachers, are not creating classes that are "rigorous" enough. "You see the evidence," they say, "look: the university's median grade is an A-. We should be ashamed of ourselves."

This sort of talk always concerns me: why does giving a high number of A's mean that your class wasn't rigorous? That you didn't give them enough to do? Why does giving a high number of A's mean that you are a "better," "more ethical" teacher?

Why do we never ask the following: that a teacher who gives extremely low grades might be a "worse, less ethical" teacher? That perhaps that teacher isn't making the grading criterion for the class transparent enough? That he isn't considering how he might not be succeeding as a teacher in some respects in helping a student achieve their potential? That perhaps he needs to grade on a curve, a choice that one might consider to be a way of inflating grades?