Brian Spears

Poet, Editor, Teacher, Blogger.

Announcing The Rumpus Poetry Book Club

So this has been in the works for the better part of a month now, but it’s really come together in the last couple of days. The Rumpus is going to do a poetry version of its book club. I believe it was Matthew Zapruder’s idea, but four of us will be sharing the responsibility: Matthew, Gabrielle Calvocoressi, Camille Dungy, and me. We’ll take turns choosing a book of poetry that’s about to be released, blog about it, and lead a discussion about it with the people who are part of the book club, hopefully with the poet along for the ride.

Camille will be running the first one, and I’m excited to say that the book is by an old friend of mine from my Stanford days, Shane Book. Those are the basics. It’s 20 bucks a month, and for that you get the book about a month early, and if you like, you can write a review of it for The Rumpus. We’ll choose the best one and run it on the front page as a feature. And you get to be part of the conversation. If you want a sense of how much fun that could potentially be, check out the uncut discussion of our first regular Book Club book, Citrus County. Now why wouldn’t you want to be a part of that?

June 30, 2010 Posted by | Uncategorized | 1 Comment

The Things I Find on Twitter

@casiestewart can this be us? lol on Twitpic

Perhaps I will have more to say later on. I’m a bit indisposed right now.

June 29, 2010 Posted by | Uncategorized | 4 Comments

Physical Book as Fetish Object

Don Share tweeted this excerpt from a longer piece about Andrew Wylie: “We spend 96 percent of our time talking about 4 percent of the business.” Wylie is talking about the current share of the market held by e-books. But it’s the statement which followed which interested me more.

“That 4 percent will climb slowly, and I think it will grow first for frontlist,” he continues. “I suspect that the trashier the book, the more likely it is to be converted to an e-book. You don’t have a desire to save James Patterson in your library. Those who want to keep a book for a long time will buy a physical book.”

This is a bit of a variation on an old (by internet standards) argument, namely that e-books are inferior by their very e-nature to print books. There’s something inherently better, I often read, about the print book, the smell, the feel, the physical act of page turning rather than brushing a finger across a screen. And I have no doubt that these objections to e-readers come from an honest place. But I can’t agree, and I’m going to use a relatively recent group of technology changes as an analogy to illustrate why.

Look at the way we access recorded music today as opposed to 10, 20, 30 years ago. 30 years ago, when I was nearly 12 and first starting to have actual opinions on music, vinyl was the medium of choice for most people. Audiophiles had their reel-to-reel tape players, but a good turntable was a must. Your other options were 8-Track tape; cassettes were just emerging, really, and besides, their sound quality was never their greatest feature. Vinyl was where it was at.

Within five years, CDs were starting to make significant inroads, and the debate was a hot one. Many people swore they’d never give up their vinyl–I was in high school and couldn’t afford to repurchase my vinyl collection in CD format (I couldn’t even afford to buy a CD player for another 7 or 8 years)–and there were major disagreements over the quality of the sound. Vinyl was richer and warmer, the vinyl experience was a fuller one, no one will trade that in for the harsher sound of the CD. They were wrong, in part because the people who weren’t locked into a particular technology, who’d gotten used to the portability of cassettes, and who were looking for more convenient ways to consume their media didn’t have the same emotional connection to the medium their predecessors did. And who buys LP albums now? Collectors and deejays, as far as I can tell–not too many other people.

I see a similar debate over e-books, and I think it’s going to end the same way, with physical books becoming something of a curiosity to most. If I were fifteen years old right now, and just starting to purchase my own books, I wouldn’t be looking at physical books. They’re bulky and they’re inconvenient and they’re fragile, just like vinyl was to me when I was 15. CDs were slimmer, were sturdier, were more portable, and .mp3’s were all that and more.

If I could afford to replace my current book collection with e-books (assuming everything I have was available in e-formats), I’d do it for two major reasons: 1) to free up space and make moving easier and 2) to make it easier to decide what reading to bring with me when I travel. In the long run, convenience and accessibility is going to trump whatever emotional connection I have to the format.

And what’s more, a generation is growing up right now which will never, for the most part, form that emotional connection with the physical object. Kids born in the next five years will, I predict, learn to read on an e-reader of some kind. Paper books will be curiosities to them, a throwback to an earlier age. They will become a sign of retro cool, will provide hipster cred, will move more into the realm of high art. Just as there are music snobs to this day who hold tight to their convictions about the superiority of the vinyl LP listening experience, there will be those who fetishize the paper reading experience, but they’ll be a small part of the population, and fewer publishers will produce work for that market.

And that’s not a bad thing for either group, I’d say. My early reading explorations would have been far different if I’d had access to more than what was available at the Slidell Public Library or the local bookstores. And if you’re a book artist, then making books rarer can help increase your profile, I would think. There are opportunities here for lots of people.

June 28, 2010 Posted by | Uncategorized | 6 Comments

On Boycotting BP filling stations

I can’t honestly say I’ve been boycotting BP stations since Deepwater Horizon first blew up, because I didn’t often fill up there. There is a station close to where I live, but it’s a pain to get in and out of, situated as it is on a very busy corner and with not much room to maneuver between pumps and traffic, and the price of gas has never been that much different from the other stations. And the price has to be significant to make me inconvenience myself–even a ten cent difference per gallon comes up to less than two dollars if I’m bone dry and fill up. So it’s not like my habits have changed any, except to the extent that now it’s not an option for me at all.

The New Orleans Time-Picayune has an article about frustrated independent BP station owners who want their supplier to do more to help them out, since they’re the ones who are actually feeling the effects of the boycott. There’s nothing really new in the article about the way gas stations work–I already knew that BP wasn’t going to feel the pinch, that BP (I keep typing BO; I wonder why?) can sell its gas to other stations, that the margins on gas are low for station owners and that they make their money on coffee and candy bars–and yet I can’t really find it in my heart to change and fill up at a BP station, even though the station owner is largely blameless in this.

Which is not to say that I would be opposed to some of that $20 billion the Obama administration suggested BP set aside to help those affected in the Gulf region going to some of those station owners to help offset some of their losses. Anything that actually takes a chunk out of BP’s ass is good with me. What might even be better, though, would be some action from Congress encouraging BP to allow any station owner who wishes the chance to buy out his or her contract with BP on very favorable terms, and allow them to sign up with some other supplier.

The real problem with boycotting filling stations is that the real problem is that we’re buying gas in the first place. It’s not like Exxon is a champion of safe drilling or that Shell is the gold standard for environmentally safe production. They all suck, every last one of them. The only real solution–and I’m belaboring the obvious here–is to stop using gasoline to the greatest extent possible.

I’m as guilty as anyone else. I should walk more; I should bike more; I should take public transportation. I drive a reasonably efficient car–a 1995 Saturn SC2–and Amy and I carpool to work. We also have jobs where we do a lot of work from home, so that helps reduce our consumption. But we could cut down even more if we were willing to brave streets filled with distracted drivers in gas-guzzlers.

So no, boycotting a particular brand of station won’t actually harm the company responsible for the greatest ecological disaster of this young century, and it will harm people who are only tangentially related to the disaster, but it’s still happening, and I’m still going to buy gas elsewhere, and I’m still going to sneer at people who do fill up at BP stations, at least until the next disaster hits the headlines and my ire is transferred to a new company. No, it doesn’t make sense. But it’s all I have right now. It’s all anyone has. We can’t hit BP, so we lash out at someone who’s connected to them. It’s not personal.

No, that’s a lie. It is personal. Oil is coating the beaches I skipped school to go lay on 25 years ago. Oil spewing out of the sea floor has forced me to change my diet and give up some of my favorite things to eat, most notably shrimp and oysters. And don’t tell me they’re safe because I don’t trust it. Nothing that comes out of the Gulf right now is safe to eat as far as I’m concerned. Oil is going to further weaken the already meager hurricane defenses protecting New Orleans, one of the cities which helped me become who I am. And eventually, oil is going to wash up on the beaches near where I live now, so yes, it’s personal, and if I can’t take it out on Tony Hayward, I’ll have to be satisfied with someone who’s connected to him. Sorry, Mr or Mrs BP Station Owner, but that’s what happens when the company you’re contracted to deal with screws up. That’s the chance you take. That’s the price you pay.

June 28, 2010 Posted by | Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Poetic Lives Online

I didn’t do one of these last week, and I haven’t blogged much lately either. End of the semester always does that, even if it’s a summer semester. Hopefully I’ll get back to blogging now.

So, as Stephen mentioned in a recent Daily Rumpus, we’ll be doing a poetry version of the Rumpus Book Club. We’re in the early stages at present, but we’ll make more announcements as we start to nail things down.

I’m more a fan of Wendell Berry’s prose than his poetry (though I like both), but there’s no denying that he’s been a major voice in in poetry for the last 50 years, so it was heartening to see him take back his papers in protest from the University of Kentucky over its decision to ally itself with the coal industry.

I’ve mentioned Poets for Living Waters here a bunch, and I’ll probably continue to do so off and on. I’m enjoying the poems, but I’m also enjoying the statements of purpose which accompany some of the poems, as well as the atypical author photos.

I have to admit, when I read Anis Shivani’s screed against the latest Best American Poetry, I was tempted to buy a copy for the first time in years just to see what had gotten him so worked up. John Gallaher took another, and better tack.

Reb Livingston continues her recommended Summer reading series.

You absolutely need to read Rebecca Wolff’s essay/letter/response to Juliana Spahr, Joshua Clover and the 95 Cent Skool.

June 26, 2010 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

The cost of education, and a bit on student evaluations

In the past, when I wrote about Stanley Fish over at Incertus, it was to blast him, usually over his (to my mind) ridiculous statements about atheism, and occasionally about his ideas on politics in the classroom. But here, he’s making sense when he talks about the problems with the consumer view of higher education and student evaluations. I have some slightly different thoughts, though not disagreements, on the two matters.

Fish’s issues with the consumer model of education are well worth reading, but they neglect one major flaw with the model as a whole, in my opinion. Even if we were to assume, for the sake of argument, that students are consumers purchasing an education, we also have to acknowledge that students are never paying the actual cost of that education. They get closer when they attend private institutions than public ones, especially if they receive absolutely no financial aid, but even then, they’re not covering the actual expense of their attendance.

And that’s because schools, particularly public schools, have alternative revenue streams. They receive tax dollars, both from federal and state governments, and they often receive funding from corporations for specific research projects, as well as funding from other grant-dispensing bodies. Depending on the university, a student’s tuition may only cover 10% of the actual cost of attendance. It seems to me that if the university is going to be concerned with making the people responsible for its funding happy with the product it’s turning out, then students aren’t exactly at the top of the list. There are other people and groups with a lot more skin in the game.

There’s also a problem with the metaphor itself. Education is not what a university produces, and it’s not what students, to the extent that they’re buying anything, are purchasing. A university (hopefully) produces educated people, people who have increased their ability to learn and to adapt and adjust to a changing world. Education isn’t a thing that can be purchased, after all (though a degree can be–but that’s not the same thing).

Fish’s objection to student evaluations is also a good one, and fairly self-evident, I think. It’s difficult, if not impossible to evaluate a class when you’re still in the middle of it, assuming you’re approaching it honestly. More often than not, they’re a tool to measure a teacher’s popularity with his or her class, and as such, they can be gamed to a certain extent.

During the regular term, we usually get our evaluation sheets with about 3 weeks to go before final exams, and the moment I get them, I start looking for the sweet spot in the syllabus to give them out. I avoid the following to the extent I can–days when a project is due, and days when a project is being returned. I don’t bribe, even in jest–no cookies, no promises of extra credit. The potential for backlash is massive. And I downplay their importance. I treat them like they’re no big deal, and that the sooner they get them done, the sooner they can start for their next class or their coffee-slushy and return all the text messages they got during class.

I’ve always gotten good evaluation scores, in part because I’m a good teacher who gets to know his students and is willing to work with them if they get jammed up. I’m also a good performer, comfortable in the give-and-take of class discussion. And I use self-deprecating humor all the time–that one works for me, but might not for everyone. But the worst evaluations I ever received–and they were only bad by my standards–were the ones I did right after giving back a paper on the day of the final exam review. I’d paired up the evaluations with two negative moments, and I suffered for it. Never again.

It’s a little silly that I go to such lengths for something that, by all rights, shouldn’t matter. Fish is correct when he writes that “they measure present satisfaction in relation to a set of expectations that may have little to do with the deep efficacy of learning.” And I suspect that most of the people in my department who determine whether my contract is renewed every year know that evaluations are a flawed representation at best.

But they’re not disappearing either, because the metaphor that the student is a consumer has taken hold, for better or for worse, and consumers get to rate their shopping experience. As long as that’s the case, it makes sense for me to control the circumstances of that rating as much as possible.

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


One of the tabs currently open in my web browser is a Google map of the quickest driving route from Waveland, Mississippi to Missoula, Montana. Sometime on Monday, my daughter and her best friend will begin their great adventure, driving interstate highways and US routes and toll roads and who knows what else on their way to a place I’ve never seen.

I’m jealous, honestly. When I was her age–just over two months short of 20–I was a full-time minister holding down a full-time job as assistant manager of a local fast food chicken restaurant. My great adventure had been a road trip to Orlando to Disney World with my two best Witness friends at the time, and there were no great surprises on that trip. We’d planned out everything in advance, from route to hotel to what parts of which parks we’d see on the days we were there. We even went to a meeting at one of the local Kingdom Halls–we met up with a family we’d barely known when they lived in New Orleans and spent the evening with them. It was safe. We even (mostly) obeyed the speed limit.

I’ve never moved to a place where I didn’t have something waiting for me. I moved from Slidell to Hammond to get married, from Hammond to Fayetteville for grad school, from Fayetteville to San Francisco for the Stegner, and from San Francisco to Fort Lauderdale for Amy and her family. I’ve always had backup, always had connections. Brittany will have her friend–they’ve got an apartment waiting for them–some money she’s earned and saved to get started, and… That would scare the hell out of me, even now when I’m nearly 42. To go somewhere without even having a job waiting? Or a contact person? Madness.

I wish there was a way I could track her progress as she makes her way across the country. I’ve driven it a number of times, both alone and with Amy, though never through Montana. I’ll talk to her on the phone, no doubt, and I’ll be the great worrywart I always am when it comes to her safety. It’s what I do. But I haven’t discouraged her from doing this, and I won’t. I’m really proud of her for doing this, striking out to an unknown world with no idea what to expect. It’s something I may never do myself, though you never know.

Maybe that’s what kids are for, I mean besides just the continuation of the species thing. To inspire us, and perhaps to make us want to capture something we missed the first time around. I’m not ready to sell all my stuff, pack up Amy and the cats, and strike out for Bolivia or anything, but I am more interested in new forms of art and writing than I ever have been before, and I’m branching out in my reading as well. The things that have possessed me for the last ten years don’t grab me the same way now; I’m on the hunt for new demons, and maybe my daughter’s adventure will help me scare some up.

June 21, 2010 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

New Poems

I’ve mentioned Poets for Living Waters before, a number of times. It’s a poetic response/action to the current and ongoing ecological disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. They’ve run a couple of my poems written in response to the disaster, and I feel honored to be not only a part of the project, but to be in some pretty solid poetic company. Much thanks to Amy King and Heidi Lynn Staples for putting this together.

And if you go there for the poems, that’s great. But while you’re there, check out some of the links and see if there’s anything more substantial you can do to help. I can’t travel to the Gulf right now, and I’m not sure there’s much I could do if I were there, but I suspect we’ll see tar balls on Fort Lauderdale beach before this whole thing is over, and I’ll be part of any volunteer cleanup/documentary force that’s around.

June 17, 2010 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment


I apparently missed this tweetmeme the first time it came around, but when I saw it yesterday, I knew I’d wind up writing about it, just because books have always, it seems, been an important part of my life. Important really undersells the effect–they’ve been integral to my life. I used to walk into walls and trip over things because I had my nose in a book. (Probably the only reason I don’t do that as often today is because I’m usually walking with someone, and reading while walking would be rude.)

But which books actually changed my world? Here’s one.

Junior year of high school, American Lit, second semester, Ms. Nancy McKee introduces our class to E. E. Cummings, and I flip my shit over it. That’s the first book of poetry I ever bought with my own money–not allowance money, either. Money I’d earned frying chicken part-time. It’s the book I’ve owned around the longest. The pages are yellowed and crumbling a bit, the cover is dog-eared from being shoved into bags or boxes, and the pages are dog-eared from marking the poems I loved the most over the years. When I first started writing poetry, I wanted to be Cummings. I got over it, fortunately, but if there’s a book that set me on the path to writing poetry as more than just a hobby, that’s the one.

I don’t have a copy of number 2 on my list, because I’ve never owned it. But fast-forward roughly ten years and you find me as a freshman in college (I started late). In fact, it’s my first semester. My knowledge of the physical universe had always been colored by my faith, which is a nice way of saying I was a creationist, and a fairly arrogant one at that. But then I found myself in a college Zoology class with a no-bullshit professor, one who had a reputation as being a brutal lecturer and grader. It was well-deserved. He required outside research for a study question on each exam, and in the course of that research, I checked out The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins. It wasn’t all that related to what I was researching for the exam, but it gave me an actual understanding of the mechanisms behind evolution, and it paved the way for my move away from the church. I only read it once, and I wouldn’t return to any of Dawkins’ other writing until The God Delusion but that was enough to change my world.

I could go on to list tens, maybe hundreds of books which I love, and which affected my life in some way, but the more I think about it, those really are the two biggest for me. One set me on the path to discovering my art, my passion, my bliss, and the other set me on the path away from superstition and ignorance about the natural world. Neither became my world. Both opened up new worlds for me to discover.

June 16, 2010 Posted by | Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Poetic Lives Online

Check out this terrific interview with Amy King at Huffington Post on the current “Femininaissance” in poetry.

Artifice Mag muses on summer reading and wants to know what you’re reading this summer.

Dante Michaux on “What’s American about American Poetry?”

Another year, different drama over the Oxford Poetry Professorship.

Video from the Brooklyn action by Poets for Living Waters.

June 12, 2010 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment