Tuesday, December 28, 2004

Splendor in the Can

Snow Monkeys at Play in Autum by Minol Araki Posted by Hello

“And this is because, today, I hurt with the mystery.”

We know monkeys can play the stock market with an almost equal precision to that of stockbrokers. We know further from the Japanese that monkeys can paint—abstract expressionism?—with equal pozazz to that of any human slashing away with a brush. Why even elephants can do that now. While this may prove certain Darwinian limitations, the entire theory of literary evolution may now be at stake.

Kenny Goldsmith, at least, is in the trying. As a professor of “Uncreative Writing” at Penn State he knows that evolution must essentially come to a halt. Hasn’t it already. Students in Goldsmith’s classes are “taught” to be “uncreative” because to be traditionally creative is boringly romantic, conventional and, yes, simply uncreative, traditionally speaking, that is. Goldsmith, rightfully, does not want his students to churn over that same old literary thing. That poem with a rhyme or, god forbid, that novel with a plot. I agree that if creative is boring then uncreative must be the way to go.

So how do you teach students to be uncreative and unoriginal in the contemporary way. Believe it or not such undertaking requires un-imagination. One way, why didn’t I think of it myself, is to have students watch Andy Warhol’s “Blowjob”—a film where only a man’s face in situ fellatio appears ripe and full of expression for thirty-five minutes—while the students churn away notes to later hand in as assignments. Talk about walking and chewing gum at the same time! (Goes to show you my own limitations: I’d have the students look at a can of Campbell’s Soup—all that red splendor—and have them write poetic recipes as an assignment. I’d give an A+ to any manuscript entitled “Splendor in the Can”).

Let’s face it, Goldsmith is right. We gotta teach kids to be unoriginal and uncreative. The contrary has already given wings to Goldsmith’s hypothesis. We must forever foster that inward, unconscious human ability to go beyond the boundaries of zero imagination. Nay! to the pundits. Who ever said originality cannot be taught? Question is: can it ever be learned?

Why should Ron Silliman, of all people, be suspicious of Goldsmith’s “uncreative position”. C’mon, Ron, it must be a question of your age. And, yes, as those thieving students at Penn State have been taught: we must all steal where we can.

Saturday, December 25, 2004

Emerging Voices from the Oracle

Oracle by Richard Baxter Posted by Hello

Eduardo C. Corral posed an interesting question in his Asleep Inside an Old Guitar entry for December 21, “March Forward Christian Soldiers!” His question is sincere enough and significant enough to note here in full:

The University of Arizona is publishing an anthology of poetry by "emerging" Latino/a poets. And I've been asked to contribute. The anthology will consist of 24 poets, and each poet will have ten pages. Ten pages!! That's a lot of space to fill. I'm having a hard time picking which poems to send off to the editor. Should I just send in my greatest hits? Or should I try to form a narrative with my selection? Should I send in only those poems that touch upon "Latino" subject matter? And what the hell is Latino subject matter? Or should I close my eyes & throw a dart?

Eduardo received much wise advise from his readers. I, for one, was quite interested with his concern over “Latino subject matter”. What the hell is Latino subject matter?, he asks. I’m certain that there is no one simple answer. Only a Herculean thesis might attempt a crack at it. Of course, transposing the “Latino” with another group modifier, say “African American” or “Asian American” or “Blind American” tells even further about the purposes, noble or otherwise, about contemporary anthologies: lovely monsters of well-intention, confusion and the marketing of unfairness.

Sad, but true, that editors need such tools to bring us emerging voices from all corners of the world. Such cataloguing may be necessary assuming that Latin voices, for example, would go unheard without their accompanying and descriptive modifier. Worse, however, may be corralling a group of poets that may not deserve to be heard solely for their poetic worth, but rather for their collective vein and tag identifier. Does such group cataloguing bring forth emerging worthy voices or does it promote group mediocrity? And who is to know?

All of this may not be worth answering. A poetry anthology is a priori a failed attempt at truth by its very limitations. But what isn’t that is an anthology? The Best of This is never The Best of That. Or it may also be, however difficult, a noble effort to let us hear and know. Meantime we await the pronouncement of the Oracle.

Thursday, December 23, 2004

Poetic Salads

Salads, Sandwiches & Desserts by Wayne Thiebaud

Back from Mauritius today and what did I find in Baudelaire’s little island? Poetry in salads. That’s right. Beyond decadence, always a banquet, of sorts. Here is a list of salads from the L’Escale Restaurant in Port Louis:

Walt Whitman – Pan-fried prawns with salmon roe, fresh sprouts mesclun on whole wheat crostini with a grape seed vinaigrette.

Fernando Pessoa – Dorado carpaccio and tabouleth with fresh Italian parley and lemon juice.

Rainer Maria Rilke – Heart of palm tapenade, pan-fried scallops with a cold emulsified combava lime sauce.

Linh Dinh – Vietnamese rolls with smoked marlin and crispy seasonal vegetables.

Oscar Wilde – Layers of cream of sweet corn with fine herbs, home smoked dorado and a seaweed salad.

Edgar Allen Poe – Pressed swordfish and celeriac with dill flavored sour cream and crunchy whole wheat bread.

Shiki Masaoka – Thin strips of ahi tuna sashimi with mizuna salad and avocado.

Kenji Miyazawa – From the Bento box – a selection of sushi and sashimi.

Charles Baudelaire – Layers of pickled aubergine, mozzarella and pickled tomato salsa with thin slices of Serrano ham.

I should say one thing. I did not steal the menu. I was told to borrow it “discreetly” to share with all my poetry friends. Bon appetite! You are, of course, welcome to make your own favorite poet salad. Any recipes? If not you can alwyas stop at the Earth Cafeteria for that special snack.

Saturday, December 11, 2004

Baudelaire Island

Charles Baudelaire

I’m off to the Isle of Mauritius tomorrow, to that same island Charles Baudelaire visited in 1841. I’m not jumping ship like he did though every time I visit that tiny spot in the Indian Ocean (for work, not pleasure) I can’t help but think of Baudelaire. It’s a long plane ride from my neck of the woods so this time I promise to go through “The Flowers of Evil” up in the sky. Reading Baudelaire so high up always assures some sort of rough landing, but at least you’re sure to come down. (Travelling with Rilke, as I did once, makes you think of terrible angels too close to their home ground.)

I get to change planes in Paris so you never know if I could get a friendly Parisian to read me “Beauty” in the native tongue. And then there is always la Maurice where surely I can find a willing soul to recite a verse or two. How about “Á une dame créole”? Regardless, I’m sure to enjoy the book, again, and with some luck to be back home for Christmas. But you never know about islands, the way they float in those waters.

And just as a kick off here’s a July 5, 1857 review of "Les fleurs du mal" by Gustave Bourdin that appeared in the Figaro:

"[...] Never have such brilliant qualities been so madly wasted. There are times when one has doubts about Monsieur Baudelaire's mental state; there are other times when one doesn't have any doubts: most of the time, it is the monotonous and premeditated repetition of the same words, the same thoughts. The odious jostles against the ignoble; the repulsive joins with the foul. Never have so many breasts been bitten and even chewed in so few pages; never has there been such a parade of demons, foetuses, devils, chloroses, cats, and vermin.

This book is a hospital open to all the dementia of the spirit, all of the putridity of the heart; it would be one thing if it was meant to cure them, but they are incurable.

[...] one might understand if the imagination of a twenty-year-old poet had let itself be dragged down to such subjects, but nothing can justify a man of more than thirty for having published a book that gives publicity to similar monstrosities."

How shall I bear such decadence? Consider this my “Invitation to a Voyage”. See you around Christmas.

Wednesday, December 08, 2004

The Poet's Sad Countenance

Don Quixote by Peter Bolton

No figure in fiction captures the spirit of the true poet as Don Quixote does. (Hamlet was a poet-prince so things came much too easy for him, like writing poetry on an everlasting grant, despite the pitfalls of that vision.) But not the Don. On he went—his sad countenance on a horse—alone against all odds. Giants? Why fear them despite defeat. Ridicule? Who was to judge. Don Quixote knew his calling and followed his quest. No poet has fought against obstacles, real and imaginary, as bravely as he has; no one could imagine so much, so greatly; not one of them could love friend or maiden as he did. (Romeo’s affair was mere infatuation compared to the Don’s quest for Dulcinea.) No poet—perhaps no hero—has tried harder against so many impossible tasks. And still he trots on the latest best-seller lists[1], unafraid of younger knights. To think some tried to save him. (When they searched the Don’s library to burn the books of chivalry that had caused his “illness” they were also wise enough to consider burning his books of poetry):

“These, as I take,” said the curate, “are not books of knighthood, but of poetry.”

“Oh, good sir,” quoth Don Quixote his niece, “your reverence shall likewise do well to have them also burnt, lest that mine uncle, after he be cured of his knightly disease, may fall, by the reading of these, a humour of becoming a shepherd, and so wander through the woods and fields, singing of roundelays, and playing on a crowd; and what is more dangerous than to become a poet? Which is, as some say, an incurable and infectious disease.”[2]

No. You cannot imagine what might have happened then.

[1] Don Quixote, appears in fifth place on the December 4, 2004 bestseller list compiled by ABC (a national newspaper in Spain).

[2] Don Quixote, Chapter VI, “On the Pleasant and Curious Search Made by the Curate and the Barber of Don Quixote’s Library”.

Tuesday, December 07, 2004


The Death of Socrates by Jaques-Louis David

Phaedo: The poet Evenus asks what he is to do in the composing festival in honor of Apollo. Why, Socrates, he is to choose among many young poets and some are from his own school.

Socrates: And what troubles the fine poet Evenus?

P: That he may not choose right, Socrates, because he knows how his students sing and may prefer their song over those of others?

S: And what if he should, Phaedo?

P: That others may think it unfair.

S: Why should others doubt the virtues of Evenus? Is he not a qualified poet to make a choice that is appealing to him, regardless of whom he chooses?

P: But others may wish to know the criteria supporting his choice?

S: What criteria can he possibly propose, Phaedo, that may please all?

P: He cannot, Socrates, but he can choose not to judge, letting another worthy poet take his place.

S: And what criteria shall that other use that may please all?

P: That is the quandary, but he may yet ask his students not to sing at the festival should he decide to be the judge.

S: How is he then to choose the best song if not all songs from all are song?

P: Indeed, that is why he asks you to help him, Socrates.

S: I am not a poet though I sense that one need not be a poet to seek truth.

P: How is Evenus to find truth?

S: By listening to all the songs and choosing one that does justice to Apollo.

P: But how is he to know it is the one?

S: He is to know that it is one, a worthy one among many, else they shall all stop singing to Apollo.

P: But that cannot be, Socrates.

S: No. That cannot be, dearest Phaedo, so Evenus cannot but seek the truth. He already knows that no one song alone shall please Apollo best.

Monday, December 06, 2004


Cerberus by Mikko S. Antonen

Poetry is a serious business. Unfortunately, the “business” part may be the only serious part of it nowadays. But it’s so serious—everything about it except the word—that watchdogs are necessary to keep truth on check. Underdog come to save poetry. That this has become a necessity, of sorts—and it appears important enough to the people at Foetry as not to be taken lightly—that serious issues on the state of contemporary poetry must be considered. Foetry writes:

One of the most common ways American poets publish a book is through open competition at some of the best-known presses. Many publishers require an entry fee, usually $20 to $25 per manuscript. With hundreds or even thousands of entries, a lot of money is involved.

And then it's a fair competition, right? Wrong.

Over and over again, judges often select their own students and friends, even when manuscripts are read "blind."

Should it be true—and what the hell, why not?—it is one of the most disappointing developments in modern poetry. Should we be content that at least something is developing? The rest still remains hidden truth in the interior of a conch shell in the depths of the Aegean.

Saturday, December 04, 2004

Wisdom in Feathers

Miguel de Unamuno

I don’t recall when or how I first made a connection between Miguel de Unamuno and the owl. I do recall that this connection was a childhood one; some book I saw around the house that had a picture of Unamuno that made me think he was an owl. It turns out that the owl is the symbol of wisdom in many cultures. Something to do with the owl’s stealth, its ability to see and survive in the dark. And ours are dark times aren’t they? Sometimes a child’s intuition travels in time.

My interest in Unamuno simply grew because my father liked his writings. Nothing like getting along with Dad on existential conundrums. In 1979 I began to read the Spanish philosopher in a beautiful hard-cover book—Obras Selectas de Don Miguel de Unamuno—which I bought myself in A Coruña during a summer vacation. At the stiff weight of 1,142 pages—not including red covers with golden trimming—I was afraid to even pick it up, let alone to scribble things in it. Nowadays I mark as I wish—something Dad would have despised—but which I think he would eventually understand considering the vastness of mystery to be unravelled. The book has survived remarkably well.

Understanding which Unamuno I'm reading is part of the pleasure and the mystery of reading him. He is unquestionably identified as a philosopher, the “Spanish philosopher of life”,[1] but then I find Unamuno the poet, the playwright, the novelist and, of course, the essayist. Yet, in the end, there is Unamuno the man, one of many men who tried to make sense of his existence: his coming to terms with life both intellectually and emotionally.

A wise man that man that looked like an owl. You didn’t think those were just feathers under his hat? Nowadays these wisdom things are rather simpler. You can go out and just get yourself some.

[1] Peter Koestenbaum, “Miguel de Unamuno y Jugo”, Encyclopedia of Philosophy, MacMillan © 1967, Vol. 7 at 182.

Friday, December 03, 2004

Writing in Sand


Ron Silliman’s recent blog for 2 December is inspiring. Ron explains, among other things and interesting anecdotes (such as being bitten by a student over a writing assignment), how writing tools—quill*, pen, typewriter, computer—have affected the writing of poetry over the years, including his own, though his experience doesn’t include the quill as some of you pranksters might think.

Of all the writing tools, say, from quill to pen to machine, it is always fascinating to “see” how the screen has changed and altered the ultimate composition of poems on a page. Beyond the ills and cures of writer’s block, now more than ever we also find that the cure can in many cases be worse than the disease or result in new viral variations such as Writer’s Dyarrhea. That poems can be drafted or written in paper to be later transcribed to the computer screen to be shaped and twisted, perhaps tortured, can also result in a false sense of the malleability of poetic form. Sort of like the cross-examiner who asks the proverbial one question too many. The ease with which form can be altered on a page has been a great advance, but it may ultimately lead to the conclusion that the poem’s visual impact is to be as important as its meaning or inseparable from it. And such may be the case, but I wonder how many poems could be saved by that “Undue” editing button on Word ®. Kinda beats that old eraser on the typewriter or writing in the sand.

Can the poet over-edit his work as a result of the ease with which changes can be made on a computer? This is of particular concern to the Muse. She hardly edits and can’t stand Microsoft ®. An old fashioned but nevertheless Shakespearean interpretation.

* A quill was the hollow, rigid shaft of a bird’s feather. The word “pen” is derived from the Latin name for “feather”—“penna.” Shakespeare and other writers of his day used a variety of quills. If a writer’s pocket lacked jingle, he invested in a goose quill. If he could afford something better, he invested in a swan quill. Writers or artists who needed quills to produce fine lines purchased crow quills. Quills from ducks, eagles, turkeys, hawks and owls also served as “word processors,” producing plays, poems and sometimes revolution. Quills were the writing instruments of choice between 500 A.D. and 1850 A.D. Michael J. Cummings.