Brian Spears

Poet, Editor, Teacher, Blogger.

The New Math Doesn’t Really Add Up

What does one do with an essay like the one David Alpaugh penned for the Chronicle of Higher Education on the current state of poetry publication? As an editor who publishes about 50 poems a year here on The Rumpus (all directly solicited), I feel like I have to respond, since I’m contributing to the noise that seems to bother Alpaugh so.

Others have already responded. John Gallaher says of Alpaugh’s claim that he doesn’t know who the best poets writing today are, “In the face of all of this raging against the blur of numbers, he gets his big chance to assist, to cull some of the chaff, and what he says is “I have no idea”? Nope. That just won’t cut it.”

Mark Scroggins replies to Alpaugh’s claim that the potential loss of a contemporary Blake or Dickinson would be the “most devastating result of the new math of poetry. The loss would be incalculable” this way:

That, not to put it politely, is bullshit. (My own answer to the pro-life folks who ask, “What if Beethoven’s mother had aborted him?”: We wouldn’t have missed him, would we?) Yes, the loss would be incalculable, precisely because it wouldn’t be a loss. We only consider Blake & Dickinson essential elements of our culture because we have Blake & Dickinson; if we didn’t have them, we’d be living in a different culture. It’s an effing time-machine game, Mr. Alpaugh – stop playing Star Trek and start reading, writing, & promoting as best you can the poetry you value. That’s the way critical approval, fame, canonization & the rest have always worked.

My problem, though, is with Alpaugh’s math. Let me start by conceding that the arenas for publication have exploded in number in the last ten years with the rise and mainstream acceptance of online publication. But I’m not sure Alpaugh is comparing apples to apples in his construction. First of all, he gets his numbers from different sources.

Len Fulton, editor of Dustbooks, which publishes the International Directory of Little Magazines and Small Presses, estimates the total number of literary journals publishing poetry 50 years ago as 300 to 400. Today the online writers’ resource Duotrope’s Digest lists more than 2,000 “current markets that accept poetry,” with the number growing at a rate of more than one new journal per day in the past six months.

Hold on a second–“literary journals” doesn’t necessarily equal “markets that accept poetry.” For example, Thrasher Magazine fits into the latter, but not the former category today, and I have my doubts as to whether Fulton included independent ‘zines (the equivalent, in a way, of online journals today) and magazines that published poetry as an afterthought in his count of literary journals.

Alpaugh also fails to take population growth into account. In 1959, there were about 177.8 million people living in the US. Today, that number is closer to 309 million, and the last decade showed a larger raw number increase than any of the last five. More people=more writers=a larger potential audience, it seems to me.

And finally, growth rates are rarely, if ever static. Alpaugh doesn’t take into account either the number of journals, online or otherwise, which cease publication (yes, it even happens online) or the possibility that the growth in publications will slow over time, perhaps due to their replacement by a new venue for poetry.

There are other problems with this essay, but I’ll leave those to other writers (and I’ll probably link to them as I see them). That the math doesn’t work is enough for me to dismiss it.

Crossposted at The Rumpus

February 27, 2010 Posted by | David Alpaugh, John Gallaher, Mark Scroggins, The Chronicle of Higher Education, The New Math of Poetry | Leave a comment

Reading update

Even though I’ve been busy as hell with the semester, I’ve managed to get some reading done in the last few weeks. Almost two months ago, I took a page from Mark Scroggins and other to think about just how much I read. Since then, I’ve finished George Witte’s Deniability, W. S. DiPiero’s City Dog, Stacy Lynn Brown’s Cradle Song (which I plan to review for The Rumpus soon), and I’ve reread Gabrielle Calvocoressi’s Apocalyptic Swing, largely because I’m teaching it in my Poetic Forms class this term.

I’ve also made it my goal to read things I probably should have read in graduate school but somehow missed, so I’ve just read Spring and All and I’m working my way through Robert Creeley’s Pieces at the suggestion of a close friend. Both of those will require multiple readings, certainly. And I’ve reread some fun stuff from my youth, thanks to my Stanza app–The Three Musketeers and The King Arthur stories. I’m also working my way through a version of Inferno done by twenty different translators lent to me by my friend Becka McKay.

So I guess that brings my completed total of new (to me) books this year to 7, and total to 9, with many more on my list. Next up (for now): Ann Carson’s Oresteia, Heather Hartley’s Knock Knock (in part because I named my own manuscript that for a contest or two) and Nick Lantz’s We Don’t Know We Don’t Know.

February 26, 2010 Posted by | tracking my reading | 4 Comments

Do What Now?

So I’m hunting around for links for my weekly Poetic Lives Online post over at The Rumpus, when I come across this gem of a post from the London Review blog. I couldn’t give it the full attention I thought it deserved in that column, so I’m putting it here instead. The blog post begins this way:

A properly sceptical article by Anthony Gardner on the creative writing industry, in the latest Royal Society of Literature mag, quotes one teacher explaining that ‘creative writing schools in the US teach that a poem needs to have what they call “redemption”: something at the end which lifts the reader up.’

What do you do with such an obviously ludicrous statement? What’s worse is that the blogger, Jenny Diski, rolls with it as though it’s so obviously true that it’s not worth challenging. Seriously, that’s the kind of claim I’d smack down one of my first-year students for putting it into the introduction of an argumentative essay.

Let me use my own experience as an example here. Got a minor in Creative Writing as an undergrad at Southeastern Louisiana University, and my poetry teacher there, Jack Bedell, never once suggested that a poem needed to have a redemptive close. Got my MFA at Arkansas, which is a pretty traditional school, and none of my teachers there–Miller Williams, Michael Heffernan, Enid Shomer and Davis McCombs–suggested that a poem needed to have redemption in it. I can’t remember if Miller had redemption or something similar in his long list of closing moves that he gave us in Form and Theory class, but if he did, it was one on a very long list. And Michael might have punched me in the throat if I’d tried that. (Not really–he was a great guy.)

Move forward to Stanford–Ken Fields, Eavan Boland and W. S. DiPiero. Never a peep about a redemption requirement in poems. And none, I might add, from any of the people I was ever in a workshop with, many of whom are teaching in universities across the countries. And while I’m not on the MFA faculty here at FAU, and I’ve never sat in on any of the graduate workshops, I’d bet money that Mark Scroggins doesn’t tell his students to put a moment of redemption or uplift into their poems, and I’d be surprised if Susan Mitchell does either.

Neither do I, and I teach undergraduate poetry workshop nearly every semester. In fact, I find myself very often telling my undergrads to be a bit more daring in their closings, because they tend toward that moment of uplift on their own, when they’re not going for out-and-out explanation of what they were trying to say all along.

Look, it’s obvious that Gardner and Diski have their doubts about the university creative writing industry that’s springing up in Britain, and the one we have here certainly has its flaws (though I don’t think they’re as dire as most detractors seem to suggest), but be a little skeptical for crying out loud. All you have to do is access a poetry journal, even one as mainstream as Poetry, and you’ll find poems written by poets who’ve gone through that system which disprove that thesis. Just don’t look in The New Yorker.

February 20, 2010 Posted by | Anthony Gardner, Jenny Diski, redemption | 2 Comments

Poem Flow, the online home of the Academy of American Poets, has just released an iPhone app called Poem Flow. (No idea on just how well that link will work, for the record–you can access the description through the home page as well.) I downloaded it because, well, I’m a sucker for apps, and it’s free. I’ve been fiddling with it a little, and here’s what I find interesting about it.

It changes the way you perceive the poem a bit. Here’s what I mean. The first poem that loaded up for me was Yeats’s “The Second Coming.” Here’s a screen grab of what it looks like in standard view.

Scroll down the screen and you get the whole poem–the lines are broken to fit the screen, but the indentions make clear where Yeats broke his lines. Here’s the traditional way of viewing the poem for comparison’s sake.

But when you go landscape, well, that’s a whole different story, because now you get the flow effect–there’s a play button at the bottom of the screen, and the words appear and disappear as you work your way through the poem. Notice I didn’t say lines–that’s because lines aren’t the units now. Here’s a screen grab from the landscape view:

This view seems to have done away with much, if not all of Yeats’s capital letters, but the big change, for me, is that they’ve completely changed the way one approaches the poem now. You can’t get the sense of movement from the screen grabs, but the rate at which the words appear and disappear limits the speed at which you can read the poem (in a good way, I think) and it emphasizes moments of tension in the poem. It creates dozens more line breaks than Yeats included or arguably intended. In a way, you’re no longer reading Yeats’s poem–you’re reading the programmer/designer’s edition of Yeats’s poem.

This also means that the programmer/designer can have some fun with the poem. I was grabbed by this moment the first time I saw it.

Combined with the previous line “a waste of desert sand;” these lines make me think of the Sphinx, and by extension, the Valley of the Kings, and while it may be coincidence that these three lines form a pyramid of sorts, it certainly reinforced the image for me.

The poems all appear to be older, public-domain poems–you get twenty for downloading the app, and then you have the option of buying another hundred for a dollar, or a year’s worth for $2.99, using the new inApp option iTunes has set up. I spent the three bucks and I’ll see how I like it. I hope that the AAP is using the public domain stuff as a teaser and that we’ll see newer poems in the subscription model. It would also be nice if the AAP would allow poets to collaborate with designers in the translation of their works into this new format.

February 17, 2010 Posted by | Poem Flow | 5 Comments