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For beginning writers, rules of thumb are important. My goals are simple:

1. Get them to avoid cliches–not of thought (almost all thoughts are cliche), but of language and image.
2. Get them to play with cliche so that they master them rather than being mastered by them.
3. Teach them to vary sentence length against the line.
4. Teach them to be aware of word choice.
5. Teach them to know the difference between the concrete and the abstract, and all the hues and shades in between (a big mistake we make is teaching them to show, not tell without letting them know that the showing must tell–that an image must work for the poem.
6. Re-orient their sense of the “poetic” to include ordinary experience rendered in an extraordinary way, rather than extraordinary experience rendered in a typical, and hackneyed “poetic” way.

Specifically, let’s take the first two goals here. I noticed that many of my students, when in the throes of an injured heart would have to mention “piercing blue eyes, “cold blue eyes,” etc, etc. Those blue eyed boys were down right evil. I explained that the Russian novelists had exhausted just about every shade of eye in the 19th century, and song writers of pop were just about the only people who could still get away with making a big deal out of eyes. Take blue eyes crying in the rain. Or “I’ll never get over those blue eyes.” Green eyes hardly ever got mentioned. Why were blue eyes so important? I explained that, according to evolutionary biologists, blue eyes made the pupil look dilated, and a dilated pupil is a sign of enthusiasm, interest, and atavistic sexual fitness. Thus, according to biologists, blue eyes, especially when they are looking directly at you, seem to “pierce” you. It’s an optical allusion, but obviously effective. I said the next time you got into heavy eye contact with a set of baby blues, imagine an annoying scientist narrating the moment.

Hook Up Olympics
Carol Schmitt

“Ladies and gentlemen, our subject is now
making significant visual contact
with the highly symmetrical, V shaped
mesomorph with the piercing blue eyes.
Jim, what’s happening here?

Well, Frank, I believe he’s about to perform
the cut off the crowd and shelter her
in the canopy of his well proportioned arms
maneuver that won him the gold at Edinburgh…
No… Look At that Frank! She’s
peering up shyly and rounding her shoulders, while
fully exposing her neck, pushing a
fetchingly wayward strand of hair from her ear,
and bringing her secondary sexual characteristics
together in a subtle, but definitely effective
display of cleavage. Good move!

Will he look, Jim?
Frank, Swen knows his strengths.
He’s keeping his baby blues, his dazzling
azures fixed on her sad and limpid browns.
Alright, here comes the moment of crisis.
He’s not looking. Will she laugh and show her
pearly whites, lick her lips, bend one knee
slightly towards his crotch?
Ah… she’s broken eye contact! The subject is
shyly fingering her necklace.
Swen looks down. He’s got a bead on her
breasts. She looks up again. Here comes the cock
block Frank! Ulga’s one of the best in the business–

a whiny, co-dependent room mate
who knows exactly when to ruin any seduction
with her unbridled neediness.
This is not Swen’s forte. At Sidney, he blew it,
insulted the cock block directly. Not good.
Even a turn here to block the block’s
access will cost him points. He’ll have to hope
his piercing blue eyes have done the trick.

And there it is Frank! The subject has
blocked the cock block, herself. Perfectly legal.
She’s turned her back three quarters and is now
melting in his large yet oddly gentle hands.
In this particular contest, Ulga is not
allowed to puke up her Southern Comfort.
And now she taps the subject’s shoulder.
I think it’s too little, too late. Yes!
No response. We have a winner here Frank.
Swen and his piercing blue eyes have done it again.

The point of this comic exercise is to blaspheme against the cliche, to expose it, to play with it, to come at things from an odd angle. In effect, to be imaginative. But student’s pieties run deep, and they often don’t want their sad and lonely lyrical thoughts on the boy (or girl) with the blue eyes to be trampled upon. I make them work for it. One of my students wrote:

His cold blue eyes melted my heart
until I was frozen by his cruel indifferent gaze.

Well, I asked her how cold could melt, and melt could freeze? I made her read John Donne. I gave her a pep talk on oxymoron. I said: “make an analogy between his cold blue eyes and global warming. She wrote:

The arctic ice melts off the coast of Alaska.
Bears and Walruses drown, lost in a three year thaw,
but I remain frozen, melted
in your cold blue eyes.
For my heart, there is no global warming,
no rising sea in which to drown my pain…

Now this isn’t good, but it’s a big improvement over what she had, and it teaches her to play with an image, to make leaps between disparate things to form a bridge of meaning.

Here’s a prompt (and example) to help beginning writers deal with the first two rules.

PROMPT: take a cliche and exaggerate it to the point of absurdity.

“Majestic mountains”

One day the mountain grew bored
with being majestic,
and tumbled down its slopes to sit at the Lodge’s bar.
It wanted to be convivial. It wanted company.
Most called this avalanche. I tell you
it was boredom–the way things
tumble, the way things fall,
only to be themselves again.

That’s one way to work at the first two goals. There are many other possible ways to being working with the first two rules.

How do you help beginning writers avoid cliches?

Musicians, jazz musicians, keep fake books–at least they used to–with all the chord changes as well as written-down alternatives they may want to try. Why don’t poets keep fake books? I know Thomas Lux has his own personal anthology of poems he likes or is interested in. It’s a great idea.

To make a good fake book,
1. Leave plenty of room in the margins to write notes.
2. Leave doodle space.
3. Keep the backs of the paper blank so you can write the poem out in your own hand, or write an answer to it, or a variation on it. When you write someone else’s poem out by hand, you get an entirely different relationship to the language–the line, word choice, etc.

Here’s another strange practice, but one that appeals to me as a sort of loopy scientist: Read a poem once silently. Close the book, take a pen or pencil and jot down the exact lines in your fake book (or what you think are the exact lines you remember). Even if it’s only an image, jot it down. Do this with every poem you encounter. Five months from now, see what it is you remembered: study it by mood, by words, by sound relationships. This is how your neural self stores immediate acts of language. It is a hand print of your own immediate memory. It will also show you how alliteration, repetition, and strong language are all mimetic devices. Look for a pattern to your memory. You will then have some idea what makes language immediately memorable to you, and you can use this knowledge for your work. Keep this in a note book. Don’t revisit the previous memory jottings until the five months are up. Read a poem a day, and do this. See what your mind misremembered or added to the text. I know a girl who remembered a line by Emily Dickinson: “I like a look of agony because I know it’s true.” She mis-remembered it as: “I like a look of agony because I know its you.” I loved it.

Once, in a kingdom called Catholic grammar school, I was made to memorize “The Raven” and The Song of Hiawatha.” I got up there and lost it. This is what I said (I spell Longfellow’s Indian place name wrongly on purpose):

By the shores of gitchee goomy,
Stood the noble Hiawatha
quoting from the other shore:
Only this and nothing more.

I spliced them, diced them, and mangled them. What I remembered flawlessly was the meter which is trochaic tetrameter. I screwed up. The kids laughed. The nun tried not to laugh, and then did. Later, when we were briefly alone, I said:

“Sister… did Poe steal from Longfellow.? They got the same sound.”
“Joseph, I wish your memory and your work ethic were on par with your perception. Poe did indeed imitate some of the effects of trochaic meter found in Longfellow. Mr. Poe could be somewhat of a thief.”

We remember rhythms and sounds because they are the verbal mold sets for imagery and words. Free verse has irregular molds and so it often relies on the imagery for its effects. Modern, written prose uses mimetic devices sparingly, unless it is trying to sell something. You will know when something is being sold because the sisters of repetition, and alliteration, and rhyme, and short sentences, and chiasmus, and rhetorical oration will come into play:

Buy bonds!
Where’s the beef?
If the glove don’t fit, you must acquit.
Play it again, Sam!

The last line was never actually said in the movie. The whole culture misremembered it. We do not remember words or even language. We remember effect, usually rhythmic effects. This is why jingles, sound bytes, slogans, and commercials are so memorable (and so dangerous). By keeping a record of what you remember immediately, or misremember, you are keeping an “effect diary.” I like that. I think I am going to do it myself!

Many poets obsessed with the page turn against a poem the moment they are too aware of its effects. They do not recognize this as snobbery, as a prejudice. They don’t get on Gerard Manley Hopkins for it because they have been trained to think he is a great poet and would not dare to accuse him of overdoing the alliteration.

I always wanted a t shirt that said, “Rose, thou art sick!” I can’t imagine a more jolting, a more provocative start to a poem. It would be nice to advertise Blake.

So in class, I’d like to have a slogan-bot. A little machine that would spit out catch phrases, received ideas, slogans, and cliches, on a fairly constant basis, in the voice of that English lady in cars that have a GPS device–only with no priority of order. I would turn it on for five minutes every day and just let the students listen. It would seem comic. It would train the mind of a student to associate the sounds of sound bytes with incongruity and to be suspicious. Eventually, the student would be conditioned to have a sound byte detector, and to test language that nut shelled things. He or she would be trained to know the effects of slogans–not necessarily the slogans. That would be better. That would be training the ear. This would both teach cliche, and train the student to use effective sounds, but without simplistic thoughts.

PHOTO CREDIT: See some more amazing jazz-themed photos.


Gene Tanta begins his first book of poems, Unusual Woods, with a 20-page essay that takes shots at T.S. Eliot, Harold Bloom and others. Why does he do this and what is he trying to say?

Surrealism and one of its American progeny, Deep Image poetry, have never been fully accepted. Their stock has taken a dip in the last few decades. But they are still with us, and they shape our contemporary poetry scene arguably as much as any of the other big guns of modern poetry: Whitman, Imagism, Symbolism.

What Gene Tanta has done in Unusual Woods is take the project of Deep Image poetry, which is to recuperate and shape myths from the images buried in our collective unconscious, and make it local rather than universal. In particular, he is assembling images from various fragments of his Romanian immigrant “area” of the collective unconscious. (The collective unconscious is of course a Jungian concept made famous by archetypal criticism and the Deep Image poets. It is the idea that the collective memories of the human race emerge in various forms, such as myths, folklore and the like.)

As I said, Tanta makes poetry out of his Romanian immigrant “area” of the collective unconscious. I say it this way because it is different from any of the following: (a) poetry built on the cultural memory particular only to the Romanian and/or Romanian immigrant experience, (b) the rendering of images and myths only for Romanians, or (c) a poetry that has a particularly Romanian (political) subtext. Instead, Tanta realizes that while his personal and Romanian self is reflected in his work, his American immigrant experience (and his generally human experience) is as well. In fact, the images that make up the 13-line demi-sonnets of Unusual Woods are universally human (while being contemporary). And he is creating “myths” that are universal.

So why does Tanta make such a big deal about his heritage and immigrant identity? In effect, Tanta is doing what any Deep Image poet does (or did)—we all make what we can out of the pieces of the collective unconscious that have been lodged in our particular psyches. A Jungian expects no more or less of anyone. The difference between Tanta and the traditional Deep Image approach is that Tanta foregrounds the particularity and individuality of his own memories and experiences. He knows his cultural biography is the lens through which he experiences and makes sense of his American (and generally human) experience.

This is a level of introspection that most of the Deep Image poets cared only somewhat about. (Jerome Rothenberg is an obvious exception, but he is better understood as the arbiter of ethnopoetics.) The others, such as Robert Bly, James Wright, Robert Kelly, are fully invested in the project of finding (somewhat interchangeably) universal and American myths. Also, in as far as they saw themselves as continuing the project of the great modernists, especially the Imagists, these poets were loosely committed to poetry as a universal art form, even if they didn’t take it quite as far as to say a poem exists only as an aesthetic object. These days, our claims about poetry are more modest. We recognize that the role of cultural biography inevitably ties our writing to material, contextual existence.

Recent decades have seen a surge in the “hybrid” poetries of American immigrants. What is particularly interesting about this poetic scene is that Eastern European poets writing as immigrants in English seem, generally, to be keenly aware of the “hybrid” quality of their poetry—they know they have more than one tap root in cultural experience. And yet, they remain ambiguous, or even agnostic, about what the particular components of this hybrid poetics are.

In his essay, however, Tanta offers at least a few concrete explanations. First, he, as an ESL poet, experiences idiomatic language as non-transparent. This shapes his experience of the language, which results in poetry that, like misunderstood idioms, mean different things to different readers: “As a form of linguistic irony, the idiomatic expression itself stands for two things at once, which of these two things the reader comes away with depends on the community with which the reader identifies” (30). This makes our reading of the text contingent and plural.

Another, more significant aspect of Tanta’s cultural biography comes from the mash-up of linguistic elements present within the Romanian tongue—partly Western Latinism, partly mongrelized Turkish and Slavic, Romanian has shaped the way Tanta approaches reality: “My own resistance to binary thinking feels ‘implicit’ and ‘experiential’ . . . and manifests in my practiced refusal to fit into categories of Romanian or American, Poet or Artist, Aesthete or Propagandist” (33). The claim is elemental and common, but it is essential: it’s not simply that different “content” is being inserted into our brains—it’s also that cultural and linguistic features have constructed our consciousness to process the content differently.

Ultimately, though, Tanta wants to have it both ways, and I think he is right. Even though both the form and content of Tanta’s work are particular to his Romanian-immigrant experience, he insists that his poetry is accessible to everyone. His poetry, he says, exists both as aesthetic objects and political propaganda. This is absolutely true about all poetry, not just his own. Inevitably, literary criticism will come to see that literature is always both. Most critics probably know this but have allowed themselves to stray from this obvious fact because the theory wars have created a false dichotomy between cultural and formalist criticism. Tanta brings us back to earth. We all experience texts as both universal and particular—both aesthetic and political:

I will not commit the essentialist error of taking myth of origin . . . only literally or figuratively: both the practical hardships of dislocation and the aesthetic insights that may accompany such cultural shifting go into creating our myths of origin. Cultural identity has multiple and simultaneous histories and motivating factors but this does [not] make it arbitrary. (35)

Later, he writes, “As a poet, I am interested in what the English language can do through how I use it. . . . As a critic, I am faced with the paradox that a poem operates both as an object with aesthetic form and as a process with social content” (36).

Tanta’s essay offers a corrective to the rest of the poetry world. Our readings need to focus on and scrutinize the dialectic between cultural biography and aesthetic form. Tanta claims merely that we need to do so if we are to understand his poetry, but it is not hard to see the wider implications of his argument—this goes for all literary texts. My own sense is that literary criticism has been beating around this bush for a while, even though when we are reading in our right minds most of us would probably concede this fact without difficulty. Many of us are probably already on board with this. Still, there is a notable absence of theory that directly targets the relationship between cultural biography and aesthetics. It’s odd and rather shocking.

Next time I will look at the poems of Unusual Woods, which are gorgeous and demonstrate what Tanta is saying in his essay. It is rewarding to read a poet who is willing explain his poetic approach and is knowledgeable enough to understand it without self-delusion.

Break up into groups, something they love to do now-a-days, and assign the following roles among yourselves: Line and space coach, image and word choice coach, rhythm and syntax coach, and meaning/subtext coach. This last coach will look at the poem in terms of its meaning, try to figure out what the poet’s intentions are for this and that, and edit wherever those intentions seem to be going off.

Now I will model how I might look at a poem when I first receive it and give a brief primer for each of my other coaches.

Line and Space Coach

1. Long Line Poems
Usually, these do not leave much white space, and are either narratives, contain catalogues, lists, enumerations, effect a voice of import (or mock import) and sometimes imitate the gravitas of scripture, but not always. C.K. Williams is known for long lines.

Suffice it to say, these are some of the reasons long lined poems are long lined poems. The free verse of long line poems is usually cadenced, rhapsodic, psalm-like, or prosaic-narrative or epic/mock epic. In free verse terms, its ancestor is the blank verse of Milton, or the rhapsodic, sacred text style of Whitman. Ginsberg’s Howl is written in long lines. Long line poems can be either breathless–a cascade of words and rhythms, or stately.

2. Short Line Poems (Skinny Poems)
In metered verse, these will be poems that employ no more than a couple metrical feet per line (see John Skelton), and in free verse, they usually focus on a single image, or incident, or action. Robert Creeley became famous for the skinny poem. Quickness is one of the purposes of short lines. Another is containment, as if the words–even “is” and “was”–were all precious pearls being squeezed out of a tube.

In a short line poem, each word gains an importance it may not have in longer lines. The poem may appear almost over whelmed by the white space. If the poem goes on too long, it may almost disappear into that white space. Imagine Whitman’s “When Lilacs Last By The Door Yard Bloomed” written out as a Creeley poem (Yikes). Short line poems draw more attention to everything: the line, the space around the line, the words, the syntactical strategy, and so forth. Here’s an example by William Carlos Williams. It is not as thin as his “Locust Tree In Flower,” but it will do for now:

To Waken An Old Lady

Old age is
a flight of small
cheeping birds
bare trees
above a snow glaze.
Gaining and failing
they are buffeted
by a dark wind–
But what?
On harsh weed stalks
the flock has rested,
the snow
is covered with broken
and the wind tempered
by a shrill
piping of plenty.

This poem is little more than an extended metaphor, actually a Homeric metaphor on old age, but it is tricky: why is it called “To Waken an Old lady?” The birds get to function both as an extended metaphor for old age, and as an actual flock whose shrill piping wakes her up. No line is above five syllables. It does most of what skinny line poems do: draws attention to each word, focuses on a single action or incident, or unit of images. It does not go on for too long. This is a perfect use of the short line. The short line poem has its ancestry in epigrams, fragments, epitaphs, ancient forms of graffiti, and proverbs.

3. Medium Line Poems
Medium line poems are not common in early free verse, but gain in frequency once free verse becomes the normative form of writing poems. Why? We tend toward the happy medium in normative structures. The suburbs are neat, and clean, and sensible, and free verse has become neat and clean, and sensible. The language of such medial length free verse is usually measured, understated, nuanced. One of the best poets in this mode is Stephen Dunn. If you study Dunn’s line, you will find, especially in his middle career poems, that he seldom goes over eleven syllables, and that he is a poet of wit, of reason, of a measured and sometimes mildly ironic stance. In his best poems, you get the feeling this is a ruse so as not to ruin the expression of overwhelming feeling by letting it get, well, overwhelming. The medium line poem is saying: “I am measured, I am not flighty, I don’t want to draw the wrong sort of attention to myself.”

The Medium line poem is often a creature of both narrative (long lined) and wisdom (proverbial short line), and its direct ancestor is the sonnet. Dunn does not augment this measured line with false form (putting a poem in tercets, or sextets, or quatrains only because the boxes please someone’s sense of symmetry). You will find this sort of poem proliferating in certain highly thought of literary magazines, but not all.

4. Staggered Line Poems
Those poems that are in Fence or magazines more oriented toward language poetry will use staggered lines, lines that go with Olson’s “Projection By Field” theories. Jorie Graham uses this sort of lineation at times. It tends to announce itself as speculative, experimental, disjointed by desire, Poems that use a varied line–some long, some short, what I will call “undulating” lineation are of two orders: 1. A poet with purpose. 2. A new poet who doesn’t know why his or her lines are long, short, or medium.

So those are the basics. Line coaches, take all this into consideration when you venture towards a class mate’s work.

Image Coach

Imagist poems use image exclusively, or nearly exclusively to either render an object, or to imply a greater meaning (ontology) behind rendering that object, image, etc. You must ask if the poem before you has any images that may not serve the poem. Very often, poets fall in love with an image without considering how it will effect the rest of the poem. If an image sticks out in such a way that the rest of the poem is either dwarfed by it, or out of sync with it note this. We often refuse to kill an image even though it may be killing the poem. Also, be aware of imagery that, if thought about deeply enough, is not really an image:

Black tears of rage pour like rivers
down from her ice blue eyes.

Say these lines ended “To Wake An Old Lady.” It would throw the poem off. It would be out of place. Suddenly this old lady would be a bad actress in a third rate version of media.

Look for cliches. If a personification shows up, ask if it is functional to the poem. If hyperbole rears its head, and the rest of the poem is free of hyperbole, ask if it comes at a critical moment, or is just an alien force within the body of the poem. Word choice is also something to be thought of along these lines. Does the poem suddenly indulge in ten dollar, latinate words when the rest of it uses a simple vocabulary? Is it heavy on adjectives that, rather than modifying and enforcing the power of a noun, are being used as a crutch for nouns that don’t hold up. Think of the sounds of the words.

To that end, here’s a primer on vowel sounds. The highest sound in the English language is the double EE. This is why many depressed writers hate adverbs. Here are the sounds in order of pitch:
– Long E, as in wee
– Long A, as in glade
– Long I as in bide
– Long U as in pew or boo
– Long O as in bone
– Short i as in bit
– short e as in bet
– short A as in bad.

Sounds that are either dipthongs or close:
– oi in boing
– aw as in saw
– ow as in how
– short O as in ah/body
– Om, and short U as in of, butt, luck, mud, muck.

English is not tonal, but it is–just not enough for tones to change meanings (but moods? Definitely!). Here’s a way to see how high and low sounds might function at a primitive level. Baby talk is often more about the sound than the meaning. It is very tonal:

Wee! We say, Wee! yay!
Make fly, sweety pie!
oodles, ooh! my poodle
oh, so soothing!, sit, pet, laugh!
loins burn? Aww!
Ow! How odd!
Uh, Ugly ugums. What muck!

Low u sounds often go with the hardest consonant sounds such as muck. This is not accident. We are tonal creatures. Word coaches, if you see a couple high sounds in a row, or a series of low sounds, or if the uh sound is appearing in places it shouldn’t, or if too many high e sounds are making the poem sound like a ditzy and shallow-pep-rally, note it. If the word choices seem wrong or off, if a simpler word would do, note it.

Note too many passive verbs (is, was, are, were). Note too many verbs made into gerunds. If there is alliteration, is it excessive? If there is an unintentional rhyme, does it hurt the poem?

Syntax and Rhythm Coach

Grammar and syntax control the speed, pacing, and temper of utterance. Grammar, if used with mastery, can create rhythm and timing. So your job is to ask the following: does the poem use complete sentences, and does its punctuation or lack of punctuation add or distract from the poem? If it uses fragments, and run-ons, why? Is the flow confusing? Does the syntax support the rhythm, and is the rhythm organic to the writer’s intentions? If the sentences are paratactic, why? If they are long and go beyond the line, or, if they are full of subsidiary clauses, and added on phrases, does it work, or does it get in the way?

Finally, meaning, and ontology. Here, the coach will determine if the poem is going off its original intentions and why. What is the poet trying to say? This will be the last coach to weigh in, and from this, the discussion of the poem will branch out. I am hoping that the coaches learn something about their own line, word choices, imagery, syntax, rhythm, and meanings while acting as coaches. We shall see. This is division of labor.

The other day, I posted a poem of Pablo Medina’s which I published in my second issue of Black Swan back in 1989. I put the magazine out with money from income tax returns. It was an act of love, an act of madness, and four issues went forth into the world before money prohibited my doing anything out of love.

Many of the poets were friends of mine, others friends of friends. In 1990, I published a language poetry issue—probably the only poetry mag in Jersey that did so back in 1990. Robert Kendall was my guest editor for that one, and layout and design went to the Aljira Arts Foundation, then under Victor Davson. Aljira later came into a shit load of grant money. Back then, they were fairly new. For that issue Robert Creeley gave us a poem.

I look back now and realize I published some good poets and fiction writers who later became well-known (or as well known as you might get in literary circles). It represented a wildly eclectic set of poets, fiction writers, and artists. Some of them, including Creeley, are now dead: my best friend, Joe Salerno, Charley Mosler, an unknown jazz poet and pioneer of spoken word, Steward Ross who got angry at me because I cut 14 lines out of one of his poems (it was twenty five lines long), but then used my edited version when he had it published in an anthology, Yictove, who ran the Knitting Factory poetry readings for several years.

One of these friends who is still very much alive is Tom Obrzut. I think Tom is one of the greatest writers of what I call “Wise ass.” “Wise ass” uses the dead pan, absurdism, and just drifting along tone of a comic routine as its chief shaping device. It is post-Lenny Bruce funny, meaning it is not tight and set up like a joke, but wanders over topical terrain, playing with the tropes that run from the silly, and anti-poetic, to the dark humor we might see in certain forms of Eastern European poetry—especially that poetry influenced by dadaism. It is knowing, “hip” in the old style of hip rather than ironic—kind of Steve Martin meets the funnier side of the Beats.

Well, this is an early poem from Obrzut. I think he was only 23 or 24 when he wrote it, and he was a lot prettier than he is now. Some of his newer poetry written by the uglier, older Tom, can be found in Maggy magazine. Tom is so deadpan some people take the poem seriously and don’t laugh, and wonder why this guy would talk about his friend eating four pounds of meat a day. Anyway, the poem:


My friend Anthony used to eat four pounds of meat a day.
Now he doesn’t.
I remember once I was a vegetarian.
Jeff says, “everyone was once a vegetarian.”
So it’s not so special
And besides I never ate four pounds of meat a day
except maybe once and that was kielbasi
Which isn’t exactly the same thing because kielbasi’s different
not like bacon or sausage really.

I like eating meat
Allen Ginsberg tells Pollack boys not to eat meat
And the Dalai Lama doesn’t even kill flies
Because he doesn’t want that responsibility.

And neither do I,
But there’s all these microbes on the seat of my pants and when I
sit down they’re screaming in pain and dying.
(Now, I know I’m sounding sarcastic and that’s not what I want to do)
I’m just trying to say—
We’re all busy killing things even ourselves
Which isn’t so great but it’s the way it is, the way it was, and
the way it’ll always be.
Someday, I’m going to die and never listen to Elvis ever again.
And that’ll be a shame.
Not especially for anyone else, but I won’t like it so much.
Not that that matters because even God don’t care—or the void or
whatever it is that powers this machine universe—don’t care
what happens to my ass.
And it’s only sad for me because it’s my ass and I like it.
Maybe that’s what the cow said before they smashed him in the
skull in that slaughterhouse
or maybe he didn’t have time and all he could do was think:
“Too bad, too fucking bad.”
As the end of the world came smashing through his eyes—
the way it always does.

This brilliant piece of wise ass manages to be pro-meat, anti-meat, and to show the absurdity of both positions because it uses the “just talking” wise ass voice of someone thinking out loud. It gets at the larger point of Buddhism: that everything in the world is suffering, and we cannot even breathe or sit down without destroying worlds. This is a far more difficult poem to pull off than the Pablo Medina’s well-crafted deep imagism. It does not have the “gravitas” of Medina’s poetic pallet, but note that it’s lack of gravitas makes the death of the cow that much more terrible (and funny). In its own meandering way, it makes an almost perfect essay on the impossibility of practicing a non-violent existence. We are meat to the universe, and the end of the world comes to us all. So what are the mechanisms of this structure.

Begin with an incidental fact that carries a sense of the ridiculous:

He’s a Dentist Now

My friend Mavis breastfed her children until they were 12.
I mean I thought it was a little quirky, but she was a motherly
type—you know—like the time she made me a quilt of all my favorite characters from Dante’s Inferno?
God I miss her. I thought when they arrested Mavis, it was
excessive. She was nice, always a good word for everyone,
and never a bad, just a good heart—you know what I mean?
The kids are fine—good cheek bones. All that sucking.
Jim, her eldest, went a little crazy for awhile, but don’t we all?
He’s a dentist now, and from what I hear, a really good one.

This ransacks the speaking schtick of Tom, and rambles, but it lacks his sense of voice. Voice cannot be ransacked because true voice, unlike tone, may be inconsistent within its range of indicators. The ability to play a modulating voice against a consistent tone is a deep mystery of poetics—especially of what we might call the conversational poem. Tom does not get outlandish (well he does, but not by creating an extreme situation). To get outlandish would ruin the dead pan. Still, he is absurd, and he uses deadpan and rambling in ways that allow the modulations of consciousness to go just about anywhere without seeming out of bounds.

Of course, if he suddenly gets overtly poetic on us, his poem would fall apart. It is hard to make a lyrical moment out of uber-prosaic lines like “my friend Anthony used to eat four pounds of meat per day.” Tom does what a good poet does—enters his own organic structure of language, and plays his consciousness against that loose structure. It is not the words, or images, but his tone, his timing and rambling that makes his poem work. So here’s your assignment: finish the Mavis poem, and then re-write Tom’s poem, adding poetic imagery. See how it affects the tone or voice? See how far you can take this experiment until the humor of the situation vanishes. You could try writing a pro-meat poem in a voice with a deadly serious, and humorless tone unaware of its own stupidity. Give it a shot.

Interviewer: The Paris Review has one quintessential question, which it has asked everybody from William Faulkner to Ernest Hemingway. What is the implement that you write with?
T.C. Boyle: I use my toenails actually—collect them, hammer them down, mold them into shape …

William Styron didn’t write in notebooks. He tried notebooks, but they didn’t work for him. They do work for Paul Auster, though, so he writes in notebooks. He likes the ones with gridded lines, which he calls “quadrille lines — the little squares.” When Auster’s done with the notebooks he types everything up. He has a typewriter he bought in 1974.

What is that supposed to tell us? What does this reveal about Styron? What do we know or understand about Auster that we didn’t before?

The Paris Review has been interviewing writers since 1953, and for more than five decades they’ve been asking this question about implements, about the actual, tactile things writers use to write. The question is, why? What is it we actually want to get at with this “quintessential” question? What are we supposed to know when we know the answer?

Hemingway would sharpen all his pencils — seven No. 2s — before he started writing. This is what he said, anyway. He said this in the Paris Review interview in 1954, which is about half way between his Nobel Prize and his suicide, after he’d stopped publishing books, and in the interview, when he says it, it sounds like it could be a joke, or maybe a self-made myth, a little mystification.

I don’t even have any pencils in my house, much less seven, and the last time I can remember writing with a No. 2 was when I took the SATs and filled in those little bubbles. If I had them, though, I’d take them out now and sharpen them all and lay them out in a row. And then what? What would I know?

It’s possible, I realize, that I’m thinking about this wrong. It’s possible the question isn’t probing at anything deeper. Maybe we really are just earnestly interested in typewriters and notebooks, pens, paper and blank computer screens. Maybe it’s just interesting to know. It’s framed, though, as an important question. The question seems to me to be about more than it’s about. It’s like a fetish. We seem to think there’s a secret here, a revelation to be revealed, a mystical, magical something we want to learn.

I’ve been thinking about this question because I’ve been reading all the times it was asked in those old Paris Review interviews. They’re all online now, as of a few weeks ago, which means they can be more easily looked at as a group. I have often liked particular interviewers and found them interesting and useful. As a whole, though, as a corpus, there’s something disturbing there.

There’s something very canonistic about them. Something … institutional. By which I mean, literature is presented in a weird way; its mystified, presented as if authorized, and made into something sort of magisterial.

Maybe its the problem with the interview as an art form: the condition of the interview is that the subject be worth interviewing, be an institution, be recognized. The author, in the interview form, can only be approached respectfully. The author is given, granted, this assumed position of authority to speak with finality, an authority that’s something like God’s. The author-god gets the final word, gets to answer the question about meaning in final way. That’s the ground of the form, the assumption of it. If the author-god protests against that assumption not least because it diminishes the work itself, marks he work as insufficient to itself, as something that needs this supplemental pronouncement, if the author-god protests as Faulkner does in his interview, saying “The artist is of no importance,” and “If I had not existed, someone else would have written me,” the protest is feeble in the face of the force of the assumption. Even as he says it it’s undermined by the fact he says it as Author. Anything he says is said from this position of having the right to the last say, and of course even if the author refuses to answer, that only heightens the mystery and makes us surer, because we were refused, that the author has the secret, the ultimate answer.

It’s not an accident, I don’t think, that the Paris Review interviewed its first author in 1953, inaugurating its “alternative to criticism” in a series that developed and popularized a form of discourse giving authors ultimate authority to pronounce on (and foreclose) the meanings of their texts. This was the same year and the same place that Roland Barthes published his first book, Le Degré zéro de l’écriture, which looked at the arbitrariness and constructedness of language, beginning a career that developed and popularized the school of thought that pronounced authors dead. It’s literary equivalent of the parting of Abraham and Lot, when Abraham dwelt in Cannon and Lot went down to the cities on the plain. The interview form might well be thought of as the counter movement to the movement that killed the author, though the effort wasn’t one to keep the author alive as much as to enact a kind of deification. But, just as the death works to liberate the work, to open it up to criticism and to thinking, the enshrinment of the author acts to canonize literature, it lock it up in an orthodoxy.

This can be seen in the Great Books movement, which happened in America at the same time: The great works of Western literature were bound in black and peddled from door to door, 54 forbidding volumes of works you were supposed to read.

They were, with this mystification, authorized, and elevated, raised to an aspirational level where they would be safe from reading. Instead of literature as a loud conversation, this was literature as a cathedral. It was conceived of as a class marker, a taste marker, as something genteel the middle classes could work towards and aspire too.

Don’t misunderstand, this isn’t just an attack on the great books. Or even The Great Books capitalized as they so often are. I went to the college I went to so I could read the canon, and I have read and value having read Virgil and Dante and Milton, Chaucer, Cervantes, Whitman and Hawthorne and Melville. But reading, for me, only makes sense as a struggle. Reading is a fighting-with. It isn’t and cannot be an act of reverence, because to read I must engage, and engagement implies a kind of conflict, a struggle. More than one conservative old prof. told me I was doing it wrong, but for me the great books is a big street brawl.

I guess this is what bothers me about the quintessential question they ask at the Paris Review. Writing is mystified with this question. The objects are presented like they’re magic, and they become objects to fetishize.

Joseph Heller wrote stuff down on 3×5 cards he kept in his wallet, which he called a “billfold” in ’74. Gore Vidal writes fiction on yellow legal pads, but essays and plays on a typewriter. John Updike had a typewriter too and Jack Kerouac had two. Gay Talese wrote outlines in different colors of ink on the shirt boards he got when his clothes come back from the dry cleaners.

What if none of this information actually acts to reveal anything? What if what it does is conceal? I think the question could offer a chance to think seriously about the materiality of writing — Don DeLillo does this, a little, with his answer, as does Jonathan Letham — but most of the time the question and these answers act to do the opposite, to cover up the complications and contingencies, to mask writing and make it mystical. It could be a good question. It could be followed up with questions that open it up: What difference does it make that you write the way you write? How does how you write shape your writing? Do the tools you use naturalize the text for you, make it kind of invisible, or does it heighten your awareness of the text as text and make more apparent the texture of the words?

It could, I think, really open some questions about writing up to thinking, but it doesn’t. Instead we end up with pin-up pictures of typewriters.

It’s like seeing a math equation with all the work erased. This is the example Roland Barthes uses, talking about Einstein in popular culture and how a fetish developed about his brain. Culturally, Barthes says, we began to talk about his brain as a machine, but not to actually reveal the thought and explain how the thoughts were thought, but to veil it in the mystery of genius. He says,

“Popular imagery faithfully expresses this: photographs of Einstein show him standing next to a blackboard covered with mathematical signs of obvious complexity, but cartoons of Einstein (the sign that he has become legend) show him chalk still in hand, and having just writing on the empty blackboard, as if without preparation, the magic formula of the world.”

If they asked Einstein, at the Paris Review, “what do you write with? what is the implement you use?” he would have said chalk. He would have said, “I write on a blackboard.”

But the answer to the quintessential question wouldn’t tell us more about his writing, but less. It wouldn’t reveal, but conceal. It would enable us to make a fetish out of his chalk like we make a fetish out of his brain, and we could put his chalk next to Heller’s note cards and Hemingway’s pencils, but we wouldn’t have a better critical understanding of the formula of the world, or how it was different because it was written with chalk then it would have been if it was written in red ink, or in a margin, or on a note card on a rooftop at dawn.

I really think it could be a good question. It could do what Charles Bernstein said he wanted to do in L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Vol. 4, when he said he wanted to “establish the material, the stuff, of writing, in order, in turn, to base a discussion of writing on its medium rather than on preconceived literary ideas of subject matter or form,” a way to make the materiality of writing visible instead of repressing it and “making the language as transparent as possible.”

What we end up with, though, is a fetish. Another way to not think about writing. The quintessential question is quintessential as an “alternative to criticism,” which is also, I think, an alternative to thinking, and isn’t just an alternative, but actually a defense against it