Brian Spears

Poet, Editor, Teacher, Blogger.

A Poem for Memorial Day

I’m always conflicted on holidays like this one. I don’t like glorifying war, and I don’t like glorifying the military. I never have. I understand the need for a military, and I even acknowledge that at times, wars can be just, even necessary, but I still don’t like anything about them. And it’s too easy for people to take days like today and turn them into excuses for jingoism and hyper-patriotism for me to ever really embrace them.

So when I went looking for a poem to post for today, I wanted something that acknowledged the tragedy of war, and I went with this selection from Robert Fagles’ translation of The Iliad, Book 24: Achilles and Priam, beginning in line 570:

“Remember your own father, great godlike Achilles–
as old as I am, past the threshold of deadly old age!
No doubt the countrymen round about him plague him now,
with no one there to defend him, beat away disaster.
No one–but at least he hears you’re still alive
and his old heart rejoices, hopes rising, day by day,
to see his beloved son come sailing home from Troy.
But I–dear god–my life so cursed by fate…
I fathered hero sons in the wide realm of Troy
and now not a single one is left, I tell you.
Fifty sons had I when the sons of Achaea came,
nineteen born to me from a single mother’s womb
and the rest by other women in the palace, Many,
most of them violent Ares cut the knees from under.
But one, one was left me, to guard my walls, my people–
the one you killed the other day, defending his fatherland,
my Hector! It’s all for him I’ve come to the ships now,
to win him back from you–I bring a priceless ransom.
Revere the gods, Achilles! Pity me in my own right,
remember your own father! I deserve more pity…
I have endured what no one on earth has ever done before–
I put my to lips the hands of the man who killed my son.”

One other thing. On days like today, set aside in memory of those who do the fighting, also remember those people who had the bad luck to be caught in the middle, who are the true victims of a failure of imagination or diplomacy or humanity. Remember those killed in the crossfire, who starve or die of treatable illnesses because the battle destroys their infrastructure. They deserve our memory too.

May 31, 2010 Posted by | Uncategorized | 1 Comment

I want some people in jail over this

“Internal documents from BP show that there were serious problems and safety concerns with the Deepwater Horizon rig far earlier than those the company described to Congress last week.

The problems involved the well casing and the blowout preventer, which are considered critical pieces in the chain of events that led to the disaster on the rig.

The documents show that in March, after several weeks of problems on the rig, BP was struggling with a loss of “well control.” And as far back as 11 months ago, it was concerned about the well casing and the blowout preventer.”

Image by Neal Boyd

May 30, 2010 Posted by | Uncategorized | 1 Comment

My Mom’s on Facebook

I don’t expect she’ll friend-request me, since we haven’t talked in years for reasons I’ve gone into before here, but I have to admit I’m feeling torn by it. On the one hand, I feel the rejection all over again, even stronger than I imagined I would. The messed up thing is that I haven’t really been re-rejected yet, since I haven’t sent a friend request for her to decline–I can’t bring myself to take the chance. I guess I’m preempting her rejection by assuming what she’ll do, or by forcing her to make the first move.

I think I wound myself in a circle there.

But if I may synthesize some happiness out of this mess–and my brain’s working like the food replicators on Star Trek for this transformation–at least now I’ll be able to keep some track of what’s happening in her life, and by extension, my dad’s as well. I haven’t been able to do that for years, and my parents are not only getting up there in age, but my dad had some fairly serious health problems last time I heard anything. I still don’t know his condition, but at least there’s a chance I can find out now, when there was almost nothing before.

There’s one more upside. One of the first people to become Facebook friends with my mom was my daughter, which means that at least that connection is being reformed. Perhaps some good will come out of that.

May 30, 2010 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Poetic Lives Online

We mourn the death of poet Leslie Scalapino. Our condolences to her family and friends, and to all who were moved by her work.

PEN American announced the release of Burmese poet Saw Wei, imprisoned for “inducing crime against public tranquility” for one of his poems. That’s one of the highest compliments you can pay a poet, I think.

Powerful guest post at Big Other by Jennifer Bartlett about a disabled poetics.

Michael David Lukas at Virginia Quarterly Review writes about how author interviews have changed in the email age.

Reb Livingston and Hoa Nguyen have a chat at We Who Are About to Die.

I don’t know if I’ve ever recommended that people follow Paul Lisicky on Twitter, but if I haven’t, it’s a fail whale of an oversight. And since I haven’t done one of these recommendations in a while, follow D. W. Lichtenberg too.

May 29, 2010 Posted by | Poetic Lives Online | 1 Comment

Poetry, Obama, Dick-Riding, and E. E. Cummings

Elisa Gabbert noted this review of an anthology of poetry about Barack Obama’s first hundred days in office. The reviewer, Anis Shivani, is pretty brutal about the poems themselves, and I don’t have any reason cross him on that since I haven’t read them, and also because I don’t like occasional poems in general, and a collection of them sounds like a horrorshow of epic proportions. And if his choice of quotes is indicative of the work in this anthology, then the poets come off, as Boondocks creator Aaron Magruder put it in the opening scene of this season’s premier episode of The Boondocks, as dick-riders.

Yes, we poets are as susceptible to charismatic politicians as anyone else is, and we’re just as guilty (as a class) of foisting our hopes into the abstractions of political speech, even though we should probably know better. We’re supposed to be equipped to examine language closely and extract meaning from it, and more importantly, recognize when that language is empty, or when it only has the flavor of meaning, and not the substance.

I’m one of those people who isn’t disappointed with the Obama administration thus far, but that’s not because I think he’s been the bestest prezzie ever. It’s because my expectations weren’t high–not a slam on him, but on the nature of the system we live under. First of all, Obama never presented himself as a Kucinich-esque liberal or a fire-breathing populist a la John Edwards. He was a moderate. His health-care plan was more conservative than Hillary Clinton’s, and he made no bones about his plans to escalate in Afghanistan. There’s nothing in his history that would indicate he was anything other than a moderate, or slightly center-left. The one area where he has been more conservative than advertised has been on civil liberties, and he deserves all the crap that’s been flung at him over that.

His language on the campaign trail was about what you would expect from a person running for national office: a message of hope and change. What do those words mean? That depends entirely on who you are and what you want. The devil is, as they say, in the details.

Which brings us to E. E. Cummings and “next to of course god america i,” one of the poems I use pretty much every semester to illustrate the use of abstractions in political speech. It’s a poem that seems to me to be in the voice of a politician rousing a crowd to action, presumably to get men to join the military. It starts with an evocation of the holy trinity of political speech–god, country, and love–and continues with a reinforcement of patriotic themes.

“next to of course god america i
love you land of the pilgrims and so forth oh
say can you see by the dawn’s early my
country ’tis of centuries come and go

Pilgrims, the national anthem, “My Country ‘Tis of Thee”: for me, these things evoke elementary school indoctrination history class and Thanksgiving pageants, and triggers some of that nostalgia I’m now so wary of.

The evocation of these memories serves another purpose–to get the audience on the speaker’s side with an appeal to emotion rather than reason. All politicians do this, whether they’re saying “it’s time for a change” or “a thousand points of light” or “country first.” It’s easier, and it’s more effective than explaining how your tax plan will help the largest number of your constituents (assuming it will).

Cummings continues with these half-completed emotional phrases until line 9, the opening line of the sestet (though Cummings doesn’t break his sonnet here) when he says “why talk of beauty what could be more beaut-/ iful than those heroic happy dead / who rushed like lions to the roaring slaughter / they did not stop to think they died instead.” This is the most complete moment in the poem, and it’s no coincidence that he links a lack of rational thought to the “heroic happy dead.” It’s an emotional response to political abstraction that got the young men in the military, and that leads to their deaths, he says.

But the politician can’t end it there. He finishes his speech with the line “then shall the voice of liberty be mute?'” Liberty is one of the great political abstractions–its meaning is wholly dependent on the user, and yet it’s something we all want. It’s one of the least communicative words in politics, in language perhaps. And the audience, if the politician has been effective, eats it up, is willing to rush to the slaughter in order to preserve liberty’s voice.

The politician, whether in this poem or on the campaign trail, often counts on an emotional response to crowd out reason or analysis, counts on the audience to embrace abstraction rather than agree with policy. It’s easy to alienate an audience with details–that’s why politicians don’t often offer them on the trail. But liberty? freedom? justice? Ah, we love that shit, as long as we get to define it for ourselves. Problem is, we’re not the ones being elected–they are–and if we don’t know what they mean by “hope and change,” for example, then that’s on us, because we didn’t demand specific answers when we had the chance.

May 28, 2010 Posted by | Uncategorized | 1 Comment

A Little More on Nostalgia

I’ve had some interesting snippets of conversation over the last day or so about my dislike of nostalgia, and it’s gotten me thinking about memory and the difference between having a personal comfort with our own past versus Golden-Age nostalgia. I still maintain that the latter is a bad thing, and that that’s what Keillor was engaging in when he wrote his Op-Ed. I’ll get into that more in a bit.

One brief note about one of the comments here. While in the shower earlier, I remembered one example of something that was better in the past than it is now: supersonic passenger jet travel. We don’t do it anymore, and I’ve long found it bothersome that when the first Concorde failed, all of them were pulled out of service immediately and there’s been no move to restore that sort of service. I have had similar thoughts about the US’s manned space program in the past, but I’ve been so impressed by the unmanned exploration we’ve done of Mars recently that I’m willing to withhold judgment on that for now. But I think that the fact that I could only think of this example, and that my commenter couldn’t find one at all, really makes my point stronger. The arc of history bends toward progress and equality, and I wouldn’t live in a past era on a bet.

What got me thinking about memory and nostalgia was a comment from Katrina Vandenberg, who said “Nostalgia gets happy-fuzzy only b/c one knows shape of whole, how things end. Hike feels shorter coming back, not going out.” I replied that I’d always thought the hike thing worked because I had context for the distance–the unknown feels longer than the known. Katrina replied “maybe when ppl think good old days=better, they’re just reacting to feeling more comfortable, b/c they have context?” I think there’s some truth to this, but it also illustrates the problem of nostalgia.

We humans have a remarkable ability to find the good in a bad situation. The psychologist Daniel Gilbert calls this “synthesizing happiness.” Synthesizing happiness is what makes a man kept in jail for a crime he didn’t commit say, after he’s released, that he’s a better person for the experience. Hell, I’ll just let him tell you himself.

Now I’m really glad that we have the ability to synthesize happiness, or else I might have been suicidal when, at age 26, I lost my faith and my marriage ended in a period of two months. I look back at that moment now and say it was the best thing that ever happened to me. And I also look back at my marriage and say it was, all in all, a not-bad six years, even though I’m fairly sure both me and my ex were miserable for large chunks of it. Personal nostalgia seems to be a bit of a defense mechanism.

The problem, for me, arises when we take that personal nostalgia and extend it to the world as a whole, when we start fantasizing about the past as a Golden Age, where everything was better, where the schools were better and where people got along more and where there was less crime and violence, where the air was cleaner and the food was better, and where government was less corrupt. And where, in Keillor’s case, the publishing world was better, and by extension, so was the writing. The reason I say nostalgia is a lie is because pretty much all of those claims about the past are false, and even if a single example can be argued against, as a whole, the human race is better off now than it was a thousand years ago, or a hundred, or even ten, though the differences are less noticeable as you get nearer in time.

Take, for instance, my favorite old person complaint–one I’ve been tempted to make myself, dealing as I do with college students–that kids today are just getting dumber as time passes. I’ve heard this claim recently, I heard it when I was in my twenties, and I heard it when I was ten, and I’m fairly sure every person alive has heard something similar in their lifetimes. And yet, if that were actually the case, if each generation were dumber than the one before it, how on earth is it that we continue to make such amazing technological, medical and social progress? If we really are decaying with every succeeding generation, why is it that we have iPhones and our ancestors thought 2 of every animal would actually fit on a boat that could ride out a global flood? Okay, not the best example, given that some people still believe that, but I’m not talking to them, I imagine. Still, you see my point. I am, at this point in my life, more knowledgeable about a wider range of things than my parents were at a similar point in their lives, and I expect the same will happen with my daughter–or more properly stated, I expect that the average 20 year old today will be more adept with knowledge and technology at age 40 than I am currently, because things tend to improve and act more efficiently over time.

I should be clear on one point. More efficient doesn’t necessarily mean good in a moral sense. One of the examples Matt Cozart pointed out to me in a conversation yesterday was that of weapons. He’s nostalgic for a time when weapons were less efficient, and I don’t say I blame him. I’d rather we lived in a world where the most harm we could do to each other would be via a drive-by shouting, or one of Dr. Heller’s awesome non-lethal inventions.

I think–and I don’t have the statistics handy to back me up, so I’m open to being proved wrong here–that as a percentage of the population, we’re killing each other less often than we have in the past, whether we’re talking about conflicts between nations or on a personal level. I know that in the US, crime rates have been falling for years, though it’s difficult to believe based on the stories that I see in the news almost daily. And we’re certainly a less violent society today than we were a hundred years ago. We value life to a far greater degree.

I think one of the reasons we try to imagine a Golden Age, especially as we get older, is because change is scary at the best of times, and in our current world, it happens so fast that it’s hard to adjust to, no matter how nimble we are. The more complex our world, the more difficult it is to navigate, the easier it is to get lost–and being lost is terrifying. The desire for a simpler past is perfectly understandable, but we do ourselves no favors by insisting that the past was better, or by clamoring for a return to it. All we’re signaling when we do that is our irrelevance, I think.

Postscript: One other thing I should be absolutely clear about as regards Keillor’s post. I don’t think that self-publishing is superior to either the current system or whatever this system evolves into thanks to new communications technologies. Editors are great, or at least they can be, and there’s certainly value in having someone look at your work and say “not yet.” But I also think it’s ridiculous to suggest that self-publishing will be the death of the current model, and it’s foolish to look at the past model and suggest that it was the awesomest publishing model evar no lieeeess!!! like Keillor seemed to be saying. (By the way, to the people who suggested I just didn’t get Keillor’s schtick: Keillor the Lake Wobegon dude and Keillor the Op-Ed writer are not the same person. The former is a persona and the latter is a person, just as Ali G is a persona and Sasha Baron Cohen is a person. Cohen’s separation is just more extreme.)

Update: in the comments, Amy points to another Ted video, this one from Steven Pinker who notes that humans are getting less violent. Take the 20 minutes or so to watch it.

May 27, 2010 Posted by | Uncategorized | 4 Comments

How to Memorize Poems

I saw this piece earlier today, but I got so caught up in Garrison Keillor (here, on Twitter, and at The Rumpus) along with my class prep for this evening that I haven’t had the chance. Anyway, the article is on memorizing poetry, and the author wants to know how she should do it more effectively.

I’m no great shakes at memorizing poems–even when I was required to do so in high school, I always waited until the last minute, and I often did poorly at it. But I have picked up a handful of them over the last ten years or so which, not coincidentally, is the amount of time I’ve been teaching. In short, I’ve memorized most of these poems by accident.

Most of them are formal poems–metrically regular, often rhymed. Thomas Hardy’s “Channel Firing,” Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 130,” Frost’s “The Road Not Taken,” for example. The longest one of the bunch is the first at 36 lines, nothing like the example in the article of John Basinger, who’s memorized “Paradise Lost.” The lone exception in my very limited repertoire is E. E. Cummings’s “since feeling is first,” which was also the first poem I ever memorized because I wanted to know it by heart. I memorized that one in high school simply by writing it on the front of my English folder and looking at it every day for a couple of months.

So I guess that for me, memorization comes only with repeated and lengthy exposure. I didn’t realize I knew Frost’s poem by heart until the middle of last semester when I found myself not referring back to my anthology while we discussed it in class. It was an accidental memorization.

May 26, 2010 Posted by | Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Oh, Garrison

I came across this piece in the NY Times by Garrison Keillor bemoaning the new world of self-publishing via the twitter feed of Austin Kleon, who suggested Keillor should “just put a gun in your mouth & spare us yr ‘you missed the good ol’ days’ monologue.” How could I not click on a link with that as an introduction?

It’s not surprising that Keillor would take this position, given his writerly persona, so it’s difficult for me to get angry at him. But I do get tired of this nostalgic crap in general, and if at some point in the future, I turn into a curmudgeonly “things were better in the old days” type of person, I hope someone will smack the hell out of me and tell me to wake up.

Because, as a general rule, things were never better in the past, not even if you were a white male. The privilege you gained by being in power was offset by poorer health, fewer economic opportunities, less flexibility in your career options, etc. I can’t think of a single way in which life in the past–even the recent past–was better than in the present. Advances in technology alone make the present better, and the future potentially better than that.

And it’s those advances in technology which are causing the changes that Keillor is moaning about.

Call me a pessimist, call me Ishmael, but I think that book publishing is about to slide into the sea. We live in a literate time, and our children are writing up a storm, often combining letters and numerals (U R 2 1derful), blogging like crazy, reading for hours off their little screens, surfing around from Henry James to Jesse James to the epistle of James to pajamas to Obama to Alabama to Alanon to non-sequiturs, sequins, penguins, penal institutions, and it’s all free, and you read freely, you’re not committed to anything the way you are when you shell out $30 for a book, you’re like a hummingbird in an endless meadow of flowers.

Point 1: It’s not all free. In fact, a large part of the tussle between publishers and Amazon (with Apple stirring things up) is over how much they’re going to charge for this reading material. Yes, the web is full of free stuff–blogs, journals, webzines, journalism–but that’s not the whole of publishing, and it’s especially not the whole when you look at the world of contemporary fiction, non-fiction and poetry.

Point 2: You’re not really committed to finishing a book you’ve paid $30 for, or at least you don’t have to be. And if it’s the cost that’s driving you to finish a book, I think that says something about what you value in literature. Also, when was the last time anyone paid full price for a new hardback? Books are like cars–you never pay full price for them.

But this is only the start for Keillor. He’s on a roll now.

And if you want to write, you just write and publish yourself. No need to ask permission, just open a Web site. And if you want to write a book, you just write it, send it to or BookSurge at Amazon or PubIt or ExLibris and you’ve got yourself an e-book. No problem. And that is the future of publishing: 18 million authors in America, each with an average of 14 readers, eight of whom are blood relatives. Average annual earnings: $1.75.

Did you know that before the web, you needed a publisher and permission? That probably shocks the hell out of Walt Whitman, or would if he were still around to be shocked. Self-publication has been around a long time. All that’s changed is the cost of entry and ease of distribution.

Keillor’s not completely wrong here. The business model is changing, though that’s been in the works for a while now. And part of that change involves writers becoming brands, becoming more involved in their own publicity and getting closer to their readers–interacting with them personally instead of just being a distant figure who imparts art from on high.

And it’s clear that that’s what Keillor is really sad about–the power of the gatekeeper to determine who will and won’t be a writer is disappearing.

Back in the day, we became writers through the laying on of hands. Some teacher who we worshipped touched our shoulder, and this benediction saw us through a hundred defeats. And then an editor smiled on us and wrote us a check and our babies got shoes….Self-publishing will destroy the aura of martyrdom that writers have enjoyed for centuries. Tortured geniuses, rejected by publishers, etc., etc. If you publish yourself, this doesn’t work anymore, alas.

Maybe that’s how it worked for you, Garrison. If so, count your blessings, because you’re lucky beyond all belief. Most writers don’t make enough solely from their writing to survive, much less thrive. That era of martyrdom isn’t disappearing (though I wish it would–the stereotype damages a writer’s ability to make a decent living), and self-publishing won’t kill it because it’s not rejection that creates the stereotype of the starving artist–it’s the economics. And the economics of self-publication haven’t changed, really. Yes, you can self-publish your book online, but who’s going to market it for you? Who’s going to get paper copies of it into bookstores? Who’s going to set up a book tour? Who’s going to get reviewers to take a look at it, much less champion it?

But there’s one more reason why Keillor’s piece is so off base. He doesn’t seem to value the joy that someone can get simply from finding his or her work in print (or online). For him, there’s only value if an outside power has deemed the work worthy of publication, and I say that’s crap. Arrogant, self-important crap. There is value in writing a book even if no one else ever reads it, even if you never make a penny from it. Just count your blessings, Garrison, and leave it at that.

May 26, 2010 Posted by | Uncategorized | 13 Comments

Selling Out in Poetry

There’s a Twitter conversation happening on the #poettues hashtag over the question of selling out when it comes to your poetry. The question that started it all was from Robert Lee Brewer: Do you alter your poetry to try for publication? My answer was that if a poem gets rejected a number of times, I’ll look at it again and consider revising it. What I didn’t mention, in part because the conversation went in another direction, is that I might just abandon the piece, or try to find another audience for it.

But the conversation went into the realm of selling out, i.e. whether one should change a poem in hopes of chasing popularity. Many of the first responses were based around the idea (an accurate one) that there’s not much money in poetry so why bother selling out? I made that argument in a conversation with Elizabeth Tallent at Stanford–that if there were a market for our work, you’d find poets lined up around the block ready to sell out. There’s nothing inherently pure about poets or poetry.

One could argue that if you’re working in academia, then there’s an impetus to publish and taking some of the edge off in order to make a poem more acceptable to a major journal would constitute selling out, and in fact, that argument has been made at length in the past (at times by safely-tenured people inside academia–take that as you will).

I have problems with the term “selling out.” I’ve heard it used most often in reference to bands or musicians, and it’s generally used by people who were fans of bands when they were obscure, when they were playing dive bars and selling home-burned CDs during the breaks. When the band gets big–because a band can’t be accused of selling out without commercial success–these early fans often accuse the band of having mellowed their sound to appeal to a larger audience. What they don’t acknowledge is the possibility that 1) perhaps this was just the way the band was evolving, or more likely, 2) the band changed the tastes of the audience and drew them in.

Another problem I have with the notion of selling out is that it assumes that anything popular can’t have artistic value, and vice-versa. I’ve known a number of music and poetry snobs who claim precisely this, and it strikes me as the worst kind of intellectual laziness, because it requires absolutely no effort. The nerdcore rapper MC Frontalot really nailed this attitude in the song “Indier Than Thou,” provided here for your enjoyment.

I don’t think many poets sell out in the way the term is generally used–I don’t think most poets, especially the more commercially successful ones (and that’s using the term loosely), are consciously looking for ways to shave off the rough edges and make their poems more palatable to an audience. I like to give poets the benefit of the doubt and assume that they’re making the best art they can, and perhaps that’s naive of me, but what it means for me is that I can’t simply dismiss their work if I don’t like it. I have to delve into it and figure out why I don’t find the work challenging. That’s a lot tougher than simply labeling someone a sell-out.

May 25, 2010 Posted by | Uncategorized | 6 Comments

New BP Logo

My old friend Neal put this together, and I wanted to share it. Also, if you’re a writer and you want to contribute some work, Poets for Living Waters is looking to respond to current disaster. I’m working on a couple of pieces to send them right now.

May 23, 2010 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment