Saturday, July 31, 2010

On Chip Livingston's "Museum of False Starts"

Similar to Lethe Press, Gival Press primarily appears to invest in gay and lesbian writers. In looking at their publications, I see several interesting new poets. What is upsetting is that these small presses often don't receive more attention from queers themselves. Recently I was talking to a friend of a friend about the trouble he was having finding a publisher for his first book. He said to me, "I'm holding out before I go to a specialty press. I'd prefer somewhere legit first."

I don't think there's anything wrong with a writer wanting to receive a substantial circulation. At the same time, it doesn't mean that such statements should go without criticism. It upsets me that books from places like University of Chicago and University of Arkansas receive so much attention from gay men, each repeating the same praise almost verbatim, determined to give those writers as much access as possible to awards, reviews, and interviews. But some of these same gay men rarely actively support small press queer writers. If Chip Livingston's Museum of False Starts from Gival Press came from one of those larger aforementioned two presses, I guarantee there would be many more well-deserved accolades from mainstream sources. Are there gay poets out there who may claim that they possess anxiety about sending out their manuscript when the real issue is that they only want to send it to the most high profile contests?

After reading two of the National Poetry Series winners, Carrie Fountain's Burn Lake and Colin Cheney's Here Be Monsters, it becomes more difficult to claim that the high profile contests necessarily reveal the most interesting work. The former is buoyant, but fails as a result of its consistent, ultimately unarresting deadpan and its faux interest in dated 1970s ecological feminism; the latter feels like a book that would win a contest -- it's ostensibly inevitable leaping between the personal, mythic, and historical feels like the sort of moves that one associates with "Good Art" when it may actually been indicator that the poet hasn't truly found his subject matter yet. Both are perfectly fine, forgettable choices.

How many times have you heard someone praising a book for the reason that he "simply manages to capture what it feels like to be a gay man." I have no idea what that means. As I tell my students, if I can "relate" to your work, you should probably start again.

I can't relate to the work of Chip Livingston, who Alfred Corn describes as "Native American" and "cosmopolitan" in his blurb, any more than any other writer. But still. I know a good poem when I see one.

One of Livingston's best poems "Coon Was Here, 1985" deals with naming, and mixed heritage. Imagine how a lesser poet may have easily shortchanged the elegy through clumsily attempting to interweave the various names of the deceased. Here's the opening:

I never called you Coon
though that was home Ricky
brother I still think is God
& pray to bound by half our blood.
Mom's firstborn by a non-Indian
you came out blond & blue eyed.

I got my Daddy's Choctaw eyes.
And eyes are what made Poocha call you Coon.
Crazy bastard with all your Indian

The line break between "Indian" and "names" complicates the nature of identity, the difference (if there is one) between who someone essentially is and what one is called. Does the naming actually change one's essence?

The poem continues: "...On your headstone it says Ricky./ But wolf is what you carried in your blood./Poocha took it straight from God./And whose eyes are bluer than God's?"

What's remarkable in this poem is that even with all of the various juxtapositions of identities, Livingston keeps the framing story intact, and when we notice the names, it feels simultaneously orchestrated and spontaneous. This is no small feat. Here's the rest of the poem:

Yet you put Mom's mascara to your eyes
& burning them you tried to brown your blood.
Fisting them tattooed you like a ring-tailed coon.
From then on Poocha never called you Ricky.
But named you Coon, 'cause you were an Indian.

Then named you again in secret in Indian
& told you how your grandma bet the wolf in his eyes
& won. I miss you so much Ricky,
I swear to God.
I thought you were smarter than a damn raccoon,
letting a bunch of rednecks doubt your blood.

By 17 you'd made spilling blood
a ceremony & finally learned to kick ass like an Indian.
You even hung a coon-
tail from your Pinto's rearview mirror. Eyes
still red from dope & daring God
behind your bangs. Then you did it Ricky.

You made the papers as a Richard.
But I want to write your name in blood
on the wall behind Geronimo's spirits where God
took you to rest with the Indians
through a western door where no one sees your eyes
& no one calls you Coon.

I'll write Coon was here & sign it Ricky
call you God & mix your blood
to pain forever closed your Indian eyes.

What is so impressive about this poem is that it is not a victim narrative on any level or a narrative about self-empowerment, which would definitely limit the psychological complexity of the poem as well as its politics. Instead, through an expertly tight narrative, Livingston's personae shifts the naming of his friend so quickly, sometimes through a single line, that we can feel his self-justification, accusations, and, of course, loving tone. It is also a more uncommon elegy in that the narrator doesn't try to completely demystify his friend's inner world.

One of the wonderful aspects of Livingston's book is the occasional indecisiveness of a particular narrator. You can always feel these narrators spinning their wheels, trying to find a balance between the appropriate and genuine thing to say... which aren't always the same things. According to these poems, Livingston proves that indecisiveness can be a form of openness, and as a result, a kindness--it allows for possibility rather than just finality.

My favorite poems in Livingston's book are the ones where he creates silences within the lines themselves--it seems that formal strategy allows him to juxtapose abstraction, odd images in a way streamlined narrative doesn't always allow. Often, for a lot of poets, the rhetorical strategy feels more like an uninspired pose -- a lot like the trend to put a space between each line of the poem for no apparent reason except possibly to make the poem feel longer. Also, silence seems to be a scary thing for a lot of poets. So many feel the need to write incredibly long discursive poems contained in one monolithic block of text.

Here's one of my favorite of Livingston's poems, "Creation Myth":

Crawfish’s idea         digging the mud up
But who thought up Columbus

Mud a man can sail to         flown through fog
And down down into mountains

My own breath part of that naming
Esakitaumesse Fuswalgi Chebon

Until we got the hang of marrying down   down   down

Not the very best idea         remember Atlantis
All that water     first deal with birth mother

Never in SF at the same time       in case it happens again
Never play piano under water       listen to piano music
under water never

There are legendary comparisons how could it be
The Christian reincarnate of a drowned woman

Listen     if you think it’s noisy in my head

For more information on Chip Livingston and Gival press:

Gival Press, LLC
PO Box 3812
Arlington, VA 22203

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Dear Paris Review...

Dear Paris Review,

I recently received a letter that you un-accepted my poems "Villianelle for My Pit Bull (who Died)" and "Rallying Against Feminism While the Moon is Full." I didn't quite understand what that meant until I talked to two other poets, JC and DN, who told me at first it might be a joke, that they didn't receive a letter and there was nothing to worry about.

As you know, they, too, soon received letters. Like me, at the time JC and DN were both dressed in their finest tuxedos, nervously standing at the mailbox waiting for the big day to arrive, for the mail carrier to grandly march up the walk, and to see our names joined for eternity with the name Paris Review splashed across the cover of the latest issue. Instead, the mail carrier grimly handed us a letter with black borders. "I'm so, so sorry," she said as she turned and walked sadly away. What could this be? Where was the issue that we had all dreamed was forthcoming? Our fingers trembled as we tore open the envelope. "It's not you, it's me," the letter read.

Oh, dear, dear Paris Review. I know you know that your magazine is one of (if not the) most respected literary magazines in the country. And here is the proof: even my father, who has always had bad eye sight and who would tell you that he never read an entire novel from cover to cover in his life, knows what the Paris Review is. It's right up there with the Saturday Evening Post. In fact, when my father was growing up, he always had to sit in the front rows of his single room schoolhouse grade school classroom, squinting to see the black board. His teacher, a true humanitarian, took him aside one day, and said that he could tell my father was struggling to take the notes.

This kind academic slipped my father the most recent issue of the Paris Review (my father still keeps it under his bed next to a well-thumbed copy of the Sears-Roebuck catalog) and said, "Even if it takes one full month, read this magazine from cover to cover and you will know all you need to know about the state of literature in our country." It took my father two full months. My father still says after all these years that what he learned still holds true today. I asked him what he meant by that, considering that he hadn't read a single piece of literature since that time. He winked and said it was a secret that I would have to learn myself one day (He also said that the aforementioned teacher told him not to worry, that he would, indeed, give him an A that year, no matter how wholly incorrect his exam answers were... this teacher is now a famous dean at a prestigious mid-American University).

So, dear Paris Review, I was shocked that I received that flimsy un-acceptance letter. Couldn't you at least send a singing telegram as you did for a friend of mine with the bigger reputation than mine? As you know, the job market is fierce, and I did put on my resume that I had two poems coming out in the Paris Review forthcoming. I don't have that many publications to my name --most people getting jobs these days have at least three books, I have only two full length-books, and I've even heard talk that some departments are now requiring three books, an "artsy" black-and-white author photo with your chin tilted at just-the-right angle, and your own reality television show, even to get a job interview.

Anyway, I called the university to which I applied; I wanted them to know that my resume had changed. The head of the department was out, helping to install the new, smaller cages in the adjuncts' office, so the secretary said that she'd relay the message. When I told her about me being de-accepted from the Paris Review, she gasped--literally, gasped-- "why, when I was in grade school, the teacher once slipped me a copy of the Paris Review and told me to re-write the whole issue in shorthand so that I'd understand the state of secretarial work in our country," she intoned. She also said that she didn't want to tell me this, but the job committee was currently taking notes at a meeting where they were discussing my application. "They want you, I think," she said. Guess what made me make the cut?

That's right: your magazine, the Paris Review.

She went on to say that nothing else really mattered in my case. Not my teaching experience, not my letters, not my other publications, etc. It was simply those three little words that every English department spends its formative years desperately longing to one day hear: The. Paris. Review.

So, Paris Review, and I really don't mean to belabor my distress, but, if I may, here is the thing that really bothers me: the poems had originally been accepted by RH. Did you know that he was editing the Western Humanties Review after teaching for a stint there? The backlog was four years, and, of course, weeks before my poems were about to be published in an issue, the editorship changed hands. RH tried to make it up to me by saying the poems would be published there. It was a three year back- log though for people who he had already told had a spot in the Paris Review. "Poets always commit suicide," I was told, "And I do give privilege to the living."

This made me happy. Not only because I was on two different anti-depressants, but because I knew I could actively eliminate some of my competitors. I found out who graduated from Columbia in the last few years--those were the only people who got into the magazine--and then sent them chain mail.

Ah, Paris Review, much like our own current torn-asunder relationship, in high school, my father once left my mother for a mystery woman. When we found out who she was, we sent her chain mail every other day until she refused to send it on and something bad happened to her. If I should ever be interviewed, the way they do in the Paris Review, I will claim that writing chain mail by hand is, in fact, what pushed me into the world of poetry. Chain mail needs to be explicit and concise and direct. Just like a good line of poetry. And in each letter, you're dealing with the theme of death. Which, as any college Freshman can tell you, is always the stuff of good poetry.

Sure enough, after a few weeks of sending chain mail to Columbia graduates, I would get a call, saying, "You're getting closer." I never looked at the obituaries. I didn't need to.

But, alas, I never got close enough.


A Forlorn Poet

Friday, July 16, 2010

On the Aesthetics of Sentimental Love in Francisco Aragón's "Glow of Our Sweat"

Glow of Our Sweat

by Francisco Aragón

Scapegoat Press

P.O. Box 410962

Kansas City, MO 64141

ISBN 978-0-9791291-3-1

2010, 72 pp., $12.95

Sentimentality can often be a scary thing--I think for gay men it may be downright terrifying. By publicly fawning over a loved one, even if it is welcome and deserved, you fear that you may come off as cute. And who's going to be intimidated into giving marriage rights to people who are simply cute?

You can't rush through an extended romantic moment. You need to slow down and enjoy it. At the same, in the urgency of civil rights and momentum toward fighting initiatives like Prop 8, slowing down can be a dangerous (pardon the pun) proposition. And can't confessing a sincerity make the institution of marriage seem like nothing more than an institution of feeling, rather than one that precludes certain economic and legal rights?

I know that as a creative writing teacher I often find myself in a bind about sentimentality. One of the exercises I sometimes do in the classroom is to type up three different “poems”: two taken from the inside of Hallmark cards and the third, something from Pablo Neruda. I tell my students to pretend they are editors of a literary magazine and rank the poems in order of their aesthetic merit. Their least favorite is always the Neruda. This can be one of the several starting off points of the semester. At first, I used to shame them for their choices, proselytizing that eventually I would teach them the path they needed to travel on if they wanted to be artists. I can be self-righteous and silly. And then after a few years I realized that there can be an artfulness to sentimentality, that perhaps such a commodity is even necessary.

I confessed to my students that only on special occasions I would buy those Just Between You and Me cards, accepting that nothing else could satisfy my need of expressing my love for my partner. In fact, I would underline all the abstractions so my partner would take note of the similarities between the abstractions and my feelings. Of course, this can cause confusion especially when you tell your students to avoid generalities at all costs.

I would claim that Francisco Aragón’s new collection of poems, “Glow of Our Sweat” attempts to deal with these complicated intersections between the aesthetics of sentimentality and queerness. His poems provides a sentimental vision that never becomes cloying. The self-monitoring within the poems themselves and the book as a whole is a successful, unpretentious enterprise.

A good number of the poems are written in unrhymed tercets- a steady formal choice. In one of my favorite poems entitled “Words in Space” the issue of time plays into its theme. The author remembers a shirtless lover who recited Lucky’s speech at the end of Waiting for Godot. In a roundabout way, this flashback causes him to reflect on the same lover’s occupational stresses. Which led them to hooking up afterward. Here’s a key part of the poem:

after which we

met at Flanagan’s

for steak and beer

an hour or so

before your shirt

fell to the floor

before you

later put it

back on but I

prefer to dwell

on how

in the middle

of Lucky’s rant

you begin to twitch

and rise

so that I approach

and slip

you in again

Aragón’s approach to sentimental love is instructive. Not only does he shuttle between descriptions of love and lust, but he also struggles with an admirable desire to withhold certain details of the encounter out of respect for the beloved. Notice the way key words take on double meanings: the verb “dwell” becomes a way of intensifying a memory as well as occupying a body, a home. Also, there’s a similar tension embedded in the verb “slip”: slip takes on obvious sexual connotations, as well as a way of “slipping up,” revealing too much information. This poem, a speech act, juxtaposes the ethical obligation of privacy with necessary descriptions of sentimental love.

Here’s the rest of the poem:

while the words

the tears the stains

the years the stones

leave your lips


down so blue so calm

each of them

beneath a little


parachute sweeping

into my ear

in that space

re-modeled Georgian

just off Parnell


At the end of the book, Aragón allows for a prosaic self-critical examination. I can’t think of too many poets who would within their own collection ask a question about the possibility of his poems failing to be “homosexual” enough: “My poems have been described as quiet. Is it possible that in some of them I am covering?” It’s a question that most gay poets end up being defensive about, overdetermined in their emphasis that no one needs to dictate what they need to create. I appreciate Aragón’s attempt to activate and broaden the discussion of political responsibility. He deflates the sentimental myth of the poet as apolitical.

At the same time, a number of his poems are translations or in direct conversation with poets now dead like Jack Spicer. Is there anything more kind than displaying love for the dead through bringing their poems and names back to life? Here is one of my favorite examples of Aragón's generous love, called “Arttalk”:



the sun’s

Why don’t you paint

“petals of light.”

Make something

Darker, fun

and shut your mouth

-the remains

of a moment:

glow of our sweat

and I’ll kiss it

after Jack Spicer (1925-1960)

Friday, July 9, 2010

On Not Assigning Homework in Undergraduate Writing Classes

Because of my financial situation, this past year I found myself teaching summer and winter session, something that most teachers look down upon. How can you compress everything that you would teach them in a fourteen week semester in such a short time?

For winter session I taught introduction to composition; it met four hours a day for two weeks. For summer session I taught introduction to creative writing, two hours a day for five weeks. Before the classes began, I wrote my students and told them that there would be no textbook and no homework. All writing would be done in class, even the rewrites. This was my promise, and I told them I do not break my promises.

This was the deal: for introduction to composition, I would give them 8 hours (2 days) to complete a full-length 8 page paper. In introduction to creative writing, I would give them 6 hours (3 days) to complete a full-length 8 page story. During this time, they could talk to their peers or me to help them with their assignment. There were about a dozen students in each class.

This made homework unnecessary.

How much can you expect any writer, especially one who's young, to do at any given time? I get tired after an hour.

When I told a colleague that all their writing would be done in class, the teacher replied: "You're really making it easy on yourself." I was offended even though I understood their suspicion. For me, the most difficult part of teaching is making the trip to campus and back. I love being in the classroom; it's thrilling being around people and feeling everybody's nervous energy.

I explained that actually I was afraid that I would be the one who would suffer. I got nervous I'd get bored. Boredom causes me to act weird. In Brockport, everyone who sees me thinks I'm mentally ill. I walk around talking to myself gesturing wildly. That's my form of entertainment. It was the same thing I did in Salt Lake.

I'm a teacher who does not believe in group work, peer critique. It always seems to be a way for a teacher to not have to do anything. You know the drill: stick them in groups. No matter how hard they're working, even if you provide them with the most stringent guidelines, group work almost always has problems. It's understandably difficult them to be tough on each other's writing; middle-class etiquette is something that takes time to eradicate.

Before they worked on their own papers, we did exercises which taught them what I was looking for: being able to identify abstract versus concrete, specific language; what's a support paragraph; what is a specific scene versus summary. Only after I could see that most of the class knew these skills did we go into the computer room. I told them to get used to the room; they were going to write their whole paper there.

This is what surprised me with this experiment: they were the best papers I've ever received.

I think the act of being watched made them more self-conscious. This heightened self-consciousness made them more aware of the process of writing. Not only were they conscious of me watching them, but they were watching their peers. What a wonderful thing to see one of their peers erase a whole paragraph! It meant they could take the time to do as well. Without having to wonder whether or not they were wasting their time or that was a sign of their lack of skill. The recklessness embedded in the process of writing was naturalized.

Writing teachers love to claim that writing is a process and that it is not about product. That may be true. In any other place than in the educational system. Even when teachers require their students turn in portfolios, it's a phony emphasis on process--the student is aware of crafting each step (first draft, outline, note cards for research, annotated bibliography, etc.) to show their involvement (or lack thereof). Your students are being graded on a bunch of little products rather than one big one.

The only way to teach process is to actually have them write in front of you. Perhaps taking them into a computer room (where they will use the entire class time to write their paper over a number of days) is the only way to teach the two most important components of the writing process: Time and Speed.

SUNY Brockport is an amazing place to work. My students are often first-generation college students. They are balancing work and family and friends and extracurriculars and babies. Most of them are not rich. Of course, inevitably, as it is for everybody to some degree, they want to know, even if it is never said, "How long should I spend on this paper? This question does not arrive out of laziness, or at least not always. But a genuine curiosity. How much should we edit? When are we going overboard? When are we doing something that could possibly harm the paper? When do we let it go and accept that we've done as much as we can?

I'm no different. When I was first starting out as a poet, I wanted to know how many pages comprised a book. When I began researching contests, I found that the standard minimum was 48 pages. I made a promise to myself: I would never enter a contest with a book larger than 48 pages. I'm mortal. The publisher would be mortal. There isn't anything more selfish than taking up someone's time. Selfishness isn't always bad, but you've got to watch yourself.

One of my favorite moments occurred was when a student printed out part of their paper, read it, said, "That's stupid," and then threw it out. Which caused another student to say, "Is that a smart thing for a writer to do? Start all over again?"

"Of course," I said, "It happens all the time." After that, a lot of papers ended up being thrown into the garbage can.

Those are the sort of issues that a writing portfolio never really raise. Also: when you're a student you can't talk about your relationship with Time and writing, because a lot of mediocre teachers will see it as some sort of admission of quality and punish a student. (Once I heard a literature teacher exclaim, "A few of my students admitted that they didn't spend much time on their papers. I was so angry. I told the class I was angry." I asked if the papers were any good, and the same literature teacher said yes, and then she said, "I didn't say that, of course. They might get the wrong idea.")

There's always a lot of talk about showing students that writing is a collaborative effort; students are put into groups and write one paper together. This always struck me as a dumb idea. I've made it a mission to think of other ways the usefulness of collaboration could be done within the classroom. That's when I realized that having people working on their papers in the same space is collaboration. Knowing that you can turn to someone and ask for help whenever you need it is collaboration. That's where you find process: in the actual doing.

My students were also instructed that they could come talk to me if they had any questions about their papers.

I found that my students were more likely to ask me nuanced questions. They were told that I would not read their entire paper for them. But I said that I would answer any questions they had about particular issues. And they did come up to me, surprising me with their desire to know what usually would feel petty to them, like issues of syntax and diction and other micro issues. When students start addressing those concerns, it means almost always that they're unknowingly creating their own style. Think about the typical scenario: when you assign a student a paper, they take it home and write it. You get the paper, you read it, and then you conference with the student for 15-20 minutes. Of course, you're only going to have time to talk about macro issues: thesis, organization, synthesis of claims and evidence.

Allowing them to have constant access to you as they write the paper opens up the dialogue for a more complex and thorough discussion.

One of my favorite activities is watching cooking shows like Top Chef. Which shouldn't be surprising. As far as I'm concerned, the most important invention in the 20th century is the George Foreman Grill. What surprises my about these timed reality show challenges is how almost all of the chefs take until the absolute last second to finish their dishes. Until the clock has run out, they're always fussing with them, obsessively looking, trying to see if there's any last change they can make. That's how students are when you give them a boundary of time and let them perform in front of you and their peers. They, too, wait to the last second. But the waiting is not a result of procrastination. The time is spent on perfecting. Only one student in each class finished early.

I would like to emphasize that I always assign homework during full-length semesters. Because of the complexities of time in winter and summer sessions, I have no choice but to make different pedagogical choices. Some of these decisions may (or may not) eventually, to some extent, be incorporated into full-semester classes.

Friday, July 2, 2010

On the Need for Solipsism and Steven Reigns' "Inheritance"

One of the delights of reading autobiographical poetry is the thrill of being upstaged. Somehow the authors’ problems upstage your own, and you have no choice to relinquish your own personal tragedies and pay attention to their amusing failings. That’s the pleasure of empathy: while you’re feeling bad for the person, there’s the undeniable happiness in not having their lives. “Woe as you,” and “I mean really woe as you,” because “the last place I would want to be is in your shoes.”

Pity is never monotone. It also comes in many different shapes and sizes.

I always prefer large.

There’s a smallness to Steven Reigns’ poetry collection “Inheritance.” I could see some people arguing that what I’m claiming to be smallness is a thoughtfulness, a refusal to take up that much space, a special consideration of others. You don’t have to look any further than his reputable professional credentials for proof of someone who genuinely cares about others. He has taught numerous writing workshops to gay and lesbian youth. No doubt his studies in psychology will lead to important work if it hasn’t already.

The book deals with the usual: affairs with married men, drugs, wanting to be beautiful, etc. etc. What I was hoping for was that with these unsurprising, yet wholly dependable tropes, he would see his own problems as something grand. He’d want to upstage us with his own miseries. But he does something much kinder and somewhat less effective, at least in the realm of poetry: he thinks about us.

One of the poems includes a description of a friend at a gay bar who is intimidated by all the muscle men. Rather than obsessing about himself, and seeing where those obsessions go, he pontificates: “We are all slaves to a feeling/whose rival is self-love,/whose force is the desire to be loved.” What fun is self-obsession if you ultimately refuse to upstage your friends’ concerns?

I’ve always been more interested in solipsistic people. If you ask my friends, no doubt they’d agree. Their singular, blind-siding obsessions excite me.

Solipsism is something you can depend on; it’s sturdy and doesn’t waver. Us Democrats need more of it. We’d be much more powerful. That’s why the Republicans triumph: they refuse to even consider thinking of anyone other than themselves.

One of the better poems “Recipe Box” has a promising opening:

He had a large stack of the memorial cars handed from funerals,

friends and lovers stolen by AIDS

I had joked once,

that he might need a recipe box

to categorize and alphabetize the mounting stack.

The insensitivity refreshes. It’s one of the more rare points in the book where Reigns allows himself to be thoughtlessly callous. Unworried about offending, he lets himself become something large. More self-obsession might direct Reigns into odder, admirably unreasonable directions.

Memoirists often claim their writing to be cathartic. I’ve always been jealous of writers who feel that. When I write something, I feel sleepy. And all I have is a mess on the page.

Reigns’ certainly stays clear from any messes. He provides conceits, the thoughtful self-assessments, and universalizing. I have no doubt Reigns would say that the writing of this book was cathartic. I want more proof of that. A genuine emotional catharsis eliminates the chance for structure, order, reflection. It happily rushes toward us without a care in the world.