Friday, March 11, 2011

The Notion of a Reader: Poet Jack Spicer

After an odd, misguided lifetime of writing mainly in solitude, I’ve started to share my writing with others. Sometimes just for the hell of it, sometimes to have another simply witness my writing, sometimes with the idea of receiving useful, intelligent feedback—and sometimes for all of the above. The whole experience has given rise to thoughts about what it means to think of writing with actual flesh and blood readers in mind.

I’m more and more convinced that great art and great creations in general (yes, I believe in greatness, at least unless it includes me) are in essence collaborations, even if unwittingly. Would there be a Patti Smith without a Robert Mapplethorpe? A Jack Kerouac without an Allen Ginsburg? A Sartre without a de Beauvoir? A Brad Pitt without an Angelina Jolie (kidding)? And vice versa in all cases.

Life at its best is a constant riff, one idea arising from another in a wild, jazzy ping-pong match where you lose track of whose idea is whom's. That’s art for me, even if you have to shuffle back to your hovel to record it all in mildewed solitude.

Such chemistry is rare, almost divine I’ll venture, whether it’s in the form of a true artistic collaboration or simply the good fortune of finding a trusted reader. But just what makes for a good reader is worth pondering.

Despite going to grad school for creative writing, I’ve had many more bad readers than good ones (hence the years of writing in solitude, I suppose). When John Updike was asked who his ideal reader was, he once spoke of a teenage boy in a library, walking the aisles and pulling books off the shelves, more or less randomly, looking for literary adventure.

But I challenge Updike. His teenage boy is a nice notion, but I don’t want such an abstraction—it seems useless to be so removed from a real person who can receive one’s words.

Likewise, Harold Bloom posits that great writers feel an “anxiety of influence,” that they’re writing in a spirited competition to outdo their literary heroes, dead or alive (yes, a very male competitive notion of creativity).

Again, while I certainly write with influences and voices in my head, they’re more friends than competitors (could this be why I’m not a great writer?).

If love is a desire to reveal and relinquish at the same time that it’s a desire to possess and understand, then a writer wants to find a reader in the same mold. A writer wants to hold another with his or her words, to have a sense that words flow into feelings, that a pause is struck upon another’s gaze of life, if not a transformation.

You might say that the writer’s audience is always a fiction, a projection—as most of life is, certainly—but that’s not to say it doesn’t exist. Again, to pick up the metaphor of the writer as lover, a writer writes for effect, to give pleasure and meaning, to pique interest. It’s only with a loving or inviting recipient in mind that such effects can be achieved.

So what do I want from a reader? I used to think that I wanted a biting critique, a certain regimen for self-improvement, but I don’t think that’s necessarily so valuable. In the end, I want someone who’s fundamentally interested, who I feel wants to read me in that pure energetic and curious way that one person wants to know another.

If I feel that, then I can write to move another. I’ll scrutinize each word, make sure I’ve challenged each scene. I’ll know whether I’ve succeeded just by the enthusiasm of the response, not through any workshop critique (most of which end up as, “I want to know more about….” and more and more and more—sorry to all who've received such bad reading from me, which I'll call "stuck in the workshop rut of response").

I’ll leave the teenage boys looking for books in libraries and the writerly workshop folks to others. The ideal reader is not someone who adores without question, but one who wants to love and be loved, which as anyone who has loved knows, can be a quite complicated scenario. I’d expect nothing less than complexity from any reader. I’d never want a lover who didn’t challenge, scrutinize, dare, and sometimes ignore.

So reader as friend, lover, source of generosity, curiosity, yet intelligent and critical and biting if necessary, or something along those lines. But a real person.

This is all a lead-in to a piece the Bay Area poet Jack Spicer wrote on audience—in the form of a letter to Lorca (an essay on audience with a dead poet in mind, you might say—but an audience nevertheless).

Dear Lorca,

When you had finished a poem what did it want you to do with it? Was it happy enough to merely exist or did it demand imperiously that you share it with somebody like the beauty of a beautiful person forces him to search the world for someone that can declare that beauty? And where did your poems find people?

Some poems are easily laid. They will give themselves to anybody and anybody physically capable can receive them. They may be beautiful (we have both written some that were) but they are meretricious. From the moment of their conception they inform us in a dulcet voice that, thank you, they can take care of themselves. I swear that if one of them were hidden beneath my carpet, it would shout out and seduce somebody. The quiet poems are what I worry about—the ones that must be seduced. They could travel about with me for years and no one would notice them. And yet, properly wed, they are more beautiful than their whorish cousins.

But I am speaking of the first night, when I leave my apartment almost breathless, searching for someone to show the poem to. Often now there is no one. My fellow poets (those I showed poetry to ten years ago) are as little interested in my poetry as I am in theirs. We both compare the poems shown (unfavorably, of course) with the poems we were writing ten years ago when we could learn from each other. We are polite but it is as if we were trading snapshots of our children—old acquaintances who disapprove of each other’s wives. Or were you more generous, Garcia Lorca?

There are the young, of course. I have been reduced to them (or my poems have) lately. The advantage in them is that they haven’t yet decided what kind of poetry they are going to write tomorrow and are always looking for some device of yours to use. Yours, that’s the trouble. Yours and not the poem’s. They read the poem once to catch the marks of your style and then again, if they are at all pretty, to see if there is any reference to them in the poem. That’s all. I know. I used to do it myself.

When you are in love there is no real problem. The person you love is always interested because he knows that the poems are always about him. If only because each poem will someday be said to belong to the Miss X or Mr. Y period of the poet’s life. I may not be a better poet when I am in love, but I am a far less frustrated one. My poems have an audience.

Finally there are friends. There have only been two of them in my life who could read my poems and one of that two really prefers to put them in print so he can see them better. The other is far away.

All this is to explain why I dedicate each of my poems to someone.


To Write or Not to Write. To Be or Not to Be.

I never had a good writing teacher, or at least not until I actually attended grad school in creative writing. I actually don’t even recall being taught to write. It was more like a checklist. Topic sentence. Check. Thesis. Check. Conclusion. Check. With some grammar tossed in.

Learning how to write was an exercise similar to memorizing facts in my schools, akin to knowing how to spell the words on a spelling test even if you didn’t know their meaning. It wasn’t something that was practiced in a genuine way with any idea of, say, an audience, a reader who you might want to move or persuade.

In the hierarchy of school subjects, writing was just a notch above penmanship in elementary school. If you had the gumption to copy your research paper from a World Book Encyclopedia and put it in a nice cover, you usually got an A (I essentially learned how to write by plagiarizing, which isn’t a bad technique, but that’s another story). It was a variation of the same in high school. To write well, to write in a probing and expressive way, to wend through nuanced meanings or titillate with mellifluous flourishes—or just write for the simple joy of it—no.

I think alliteration might have been alluded to in a random reading of a poem in high school. I didn’t hear the phrase “vivid verb” until a twelve-year-old kid I tutored mentioned it to me—this was post-college.

In fact, I learned a lot about writing while standing in front of a classroom and teaching it as a marooned adjunct community college composition professor, scared as hell as I stared into students’ searching, scrutinizing eyes. I was afraid because I’d never been trained to teach such a thing (and teacher training, not to mention a teacher community, is quite valuable in such moments, trust me, because there are few things more frightening than being a teacher in a classroom and not knowing how to do it).

I don’t mean to unnecessarily disparage my teachers—I don’t think they were equipped or encouraged to teach writing. Perhaps they had the same feeling I did when I first opened a composition textbook and taught grammar as if a comma was something one took out of a kitchen drawer, the one right next to the drawer with the colons and semi-colons in it.

Which brings me to my point: the disturbing news that the National Writing Project lost its funding last week. The National Writing Project, where I’m employed, is one of the nation’s preeminent writing organizations because of its “teachers teaching teachers” model of professional development. Teachers attend NWP summer institutes at more than 200 sites across the U.S. each year and write—because you can’t teach writing without writing yourself—and examine, explore, and demonstrate effective classroom practices, whether they involve journals, blogs, wikis, or post-it notes (the ideas and the creative uses of various tools is just amazing). And then those teachers teach other teachers in their regions through their local sites.

It’s an organization that has proven to be very effective in its 37 years.

But why is writing important? Why shouldn’t it stay just a step above good penmanship?

Writing is thinking. It’s as simple as that for me. Try it out the next time you have a thought to explore. Pause and write it down and flesh it out and you’ll find yourself testing it, adding counterpoints and layers and details, and the thought will sink into your consciousness and anchor itself there in a way that it wouldn’t have otherwise. You might even change your whole thought in the process—and that’s the definition of thinking, isn’t it? Just like a scientist testing a theory in a laboratory and revising it depending on the outcomes.

Robert and Michele Root-Bernstein, two scientists, explore a number of benefits of writing in their book Sparks of Genius, which analyzes the 13 thinking tools of the world’s most creative people (Robert Root-Bernstein, a professor of physiology at Michigan State was awarded a MacArthur “genius grant” himself). Writing weaves its way through modes of thinking such as “recognizing patterns,” “analogizing,” and “synthesizing” that have produced Einsteins in all fields.

For example, the Root-Bernsteins say that writing is important across disciplines because it aids such important thought processes as observation and imaging—noticing the things that often go unnoticed and visualizing things from other realms. A thinker can model a theory through words, pen keen observations (think of Piaget constructing his theory of child development with his notebook in hand as he watched his children), or develop empathy for another by entering “into the person you are describing, into his very skin, and see the world through his eyes and feel it through his senses,” as Willa Cather put it.

Cather describes more than empathy, though; she’s really discussing the genesis of a  perspectivist mindset that goes beyond the narcissism of a child’s mind. To go into another’s skin, after all, is the first step in being able to hold various viewpoints in mind and see the world in its multifarious truths. (Remember F. Scott Fitzgerald’s definition of a first-rate intelligence: “the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.")

Isn’t this the kind of sophistication we want from students? Isn’t this the foundation of such traits as tolerance, grace, humility, creativity, critical thinking, understanding, and problem-solving that a democratic society relies on to function? I’d venture to say that it even provides the foundation of a constructive bipartisan approach, God forbid, so perhaps our representatives in D.C. should take a break to write about what the other side might be thinking. Gosh, how transformative that might be.

Without good writing teachers, I don’t worry about kids like me so much. I was a strange kid because I would go to the stationery store and lovingly stare at the assortment of pens and notebooks like other kids might go to a candy store and drool over lollipops. I was fascinated by the instruments of writing, genetically inclined in a peculiar way. I owned my first diary (with a nifty and necessary lock) when I was only five or six. I don’t remember a time in my life when I didn’t write.

Still, what I would have given for one of the teachers I’ve met through the National Writing Project to actually teach me how to write at an early age—and without copying World Book Encyclopedia entries. To feel the passion and purpose of words. To rank writing at the top of the academic hierarchy.

So I worry about the students who don’t dote on fountain pens in their free time. The mathematicians who might think that math is only about numbers, or the scientists who think science happens only in test tubes, not to mention the kids who could open a door into their souls and understand themselves in this crazy world just a little bit by writing their stories.

The Root-Bernsteins wrote Sparks of Genius in part because “ever-increasing specialization is clearly leading to a fragmentation of knowledge” in our schools. We’re losing the benefits of the multiple approaches for true creative thinking. “Learning to think creatively in one discipline opens the door to understanding creative thinking in all disciplines. Educating this universal creative imagination is the key to producing lifelong learners capable of shaping the innovations of tomorrow,” they say.

I don’t think the keys to making the world a better place require much research. If everyone ventures into the world with a true desire to explore it and their place in it and tries to articulate their experience in a meaningful way that creates dialogue, I trust that we’ll be all right, no matter one's political persuasion.

Yesterday I walked into my son’s public school and watched the kids buoyantly dash around in their wondrous world of play and thought how the school should be a source of hope, but it’s not. I turned to see stressed-out, unsupported teachers and stressed-out, unsupported parents trying to keep all of the pieces in place. We’ve lost ground each year despite the energetic efforts of all of us who now show the ragged edges of our toil. Third-grade test scores are already being used to plan future prison capacity in the state. I’ll watch a boy dash to the swings and wonder who he’ll be running from ten years from now.

When I was in fifth grade I first encountered the phrase “the pen is mightier than the sword,” and I was fascinated by the arguments on each side—and still am. I’m afraid I argue much less fervently for the power of the pen these days, though. I’ve seen the sword in all of its various guises win too many times (the rich get richer and the poor get poorer, etc., no matter who’s president).

The people with pens in their hands will be the ones making sense of it all in the end, however, whether they’re writing about climate change or writing apocalyptic novels. If the sword wins, I know those holding the swords will have to look to the scribes to understand the world they’ve created. They might even pick up a pen themselves.

So we shouldn’t sacrifice the teaching of writing. Now more than ever in our fast-paced world, we need to honor that mysterious pause that occurs when one sits down to type or write words. It’s in that pause that we discover the rudiments of thought itself, almost without even knowing it. So if you want to take out your pen and take on the swords, go to NWP Works to help out.

Thursday, March 03, 2011

Tamping Down a New Path: PANK Magazine

In part three of my ongoing (and hopefully never ending) series of profiles of online lit mags, Matt Seigel, founder of PANK magazine, discusses the magazine’s taste for writing that has a “little dirt under its nails” and PANK parties where there a few “awkward make-out sessions, and at least one fight that ends in tears.”

Yes, I’m clamoring for an invitation and ready to board a flight to Michigan to attend such a Pankish bash.

Enough of me. Here’s Matt.

What's behind the name PANK?

I teach at Michigan Technological University in Houghton, Michigan. I had a student, Megan Collier, working with me when I started the magazine. We needed a name. Megan suggested "pank." In the idiom of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, pank is a verb meaning to pack or tamp down, usually in regards to snow, to make a path. "I'm going to go pank down the path to the garage." It was also used in the mines to describe packing dynamite into blast holes. We liked both meanings. Bob Hicok wrote a poem about the word that we published a while back.

You publish experimental prose and poetry. What kind of experimental writing are you looking for?

PANK has been described as edgy and experimental. I'm always flattered by that, but I've never known exactly what it means, either. We definitely like work that has a little dirt under its nails, work that is adventurous, work that is trying to push at the margins of something. Beyond that, I'm not sure we know what we're looking for until it finds us. 

What kind of writing do you wish you saw more of?

All of it. We're gluttons for language. 

You mention on your website that you only accept 1% of the submissions that you receive. Do you receive a lot of bad stuff, or is it just not right for PANK? Or do you just receive way too many submissions?

We received hundreds and hundreds of submission a month and we can only publish a fraction of the awesome. Our clown car is only so big. 

If you could publish any living writer, who would you pick?

That unknown writer who goes on to change the world with their work.

What does PANK think about Jonathon Franzen?

I'm not sure we have an official Franzen policy at PANK. I liked The Corrections, not so much the newest one, and while I'm not a fan of all the megalomania, I've never met the guy so the only things I know about him are gossip. 

If Lady Gaga sent you a story, would you publish it?

If it was good, we would.

Do you read other lit mags? Which are your favorite, including online and print?

Yes, obsessively. My favorite list would have to include H_NGM_N, Forklift Ohio, Lumberyard, Hobart, McSweeney's, Le Petite Zine, DIAGRAM, and Bateau.

Editing a magazine takes time away from your own writing. How do you deal with that?

Editing a magazine inspires my writing. It's like being in the most kick-ass writing workshop surrounded by the most kick-ass writers every day of my life. I produce so much more as an editor than I probably would if I were left to my own devices. Honestly, the busier I get in life (wife, kids, friends, family, teaching, editing, writing...), the more productive I get. Time-schmime. 

Describe one of PANK's parties.

Messy, embarrassing, and heartfelt. There will be a lot of slurring of words, a few misunderstandings, raised voices and loud laughter, several awkward make-out sessions, and at least one fight that ends in tears, hugs, and forgiveness. By 6am, we will have all shared a giant bottle of aspirin and a bunch of us will go out together for breakfast.

What was PANK's favorite movie of the past year?

Mine was Howl. Ginsberg, c'mon! Franco rules.

For more, see my profiles of Monkeybicycle and Frigg magazines.