Brian Spears

Poet, Editor, Teacher, Blogger.

Poetic Lives Online

Jessica Smith wrote a post about the incivility in the comment stream at Ron Silliman’s blog, and in comment streams in general. Silliman has since turned off his comments, and I can’t say I blame him. Comment streams can become ugly places, especially when you get the kind of traffic Silliman does, and you can find yourself spending so much time moderating that you don’t have time to do anything else. It’s also a little soul-crushing to deal with that much bile over a long period.

Brian Henry argues that poetry criticism is in a perpetual state of crisis, but what he seems to suggest is a bug–“It’s not just that critics cannot agree on which poets or kinds of poetry are the best, but that poetry critics often have no common ground”–I see as a feature. Maybe I’m oversimplifying here, but I can’t think of anything more boring than a world of poetic criticism where critics were all coming from the same stating point, or agreed upon set of values.

Elisa Gabbert asks if poetry is boring.

Have you joined The Rumpus Poetry Book Club yet?

July 31, 2010 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Why (some) lists are dumb

At The Rumpus, we have a rule–okay, we have a few rules–but one of them is no lists. Why? As Stephen says, “This is the laziest form of journalism.” And this extends beyond the literary scene.

Here’s an example from the world of sports, a world which dearly loves its lists: the top 20 quarterbacks in the NFL. This is a particularly egregious example, but not because of the way the quarterbacks are ranked. There’s always room for disagreement over that, and while the reasons the unnamed director of personnel used are often silly in my opinion, they are, in the end, just opinions. No, here’s the reason the list is stupid.

There are only 32 starting quarterbacks in the NFL. That means that this person’s number 20 (Chad Henne of the Dolphins, to be specific) isn’t even in the top half of the rankings. Neither are Joe Flacco, Matt Cassel, and Matthew Stafford. What’s the point of ranking people outside the top half of a group? Hell, what’s the point of ranking people outside the top quarter?

The situation becomes even more absurd when you factor in that 11 of the 12 teams whose quarterbacks were not featured either had a rookie start last year, will likely have a rookie start this year, or have a battle brewing for the position. The only team that didn’t apply to was Jacksonville and David Garrard. Brett Favre is on the list, and there’s no guarantee he’ll even play (even though I suspect he will).

So here’s the story: Sporting News asks an NFL guy to rank the top 5/8 of the NFL’s quarterbacks, and provide some justification for the positions he gives them–justification which includes such riveting insights as “He’s as competitive as anybody” (Drew Brees) and “He is a smart and wise decision-maker who gets better because he puts in the work” (Matt Ryan). Is it any wonder we don’t do lists?

July 29, 2010 Posted by | Uncategorized | 1 Comment

In which I throw myself a pity party.

The news is good–my first book is going to come out because the budget didn’t suck quite as bad as it looked like it might. A Witness In Exile will be published, and I’m planning on being positively obnoxious about it once it’s available.

What that means in practical terms is that I have to finalize the manuscript, and that’s proving to be tougher than I imagined. See, my publisher has given me a great deal of control over this manuscript. This wasn’t a contest win–it’s a handshake deal between me and an editor who’s published a number of my poems and who trusts me, which is great, because that means I’m not forced to include poems that no longer reflect my poetics. I can produce a book that shows who I am right now, which includes what I perceive to be my newest and best writing.

That should be easy, right? Except it means tossing a lot of work, like a majority of the poems I’ve written over the last ten years.And there’s a part of me which wants to hold on to some of my newer work, save it for the next book, and include instead some of those older poems which I once loved. And if I toss that work, it’s gone forever, because this is stuff I really haven’t been interested in revisiting in recent years, not because it’s bad, but because it’s largely about being a Jehovah’s Witness, and I’m well past that part of my artistic life.

It’s also largely narrative poetry, and I’m moving beyond that as well, though I think there will always be a bit of the story teller in my work. There’s value, I think, in putting that older work out there, but when the book comes out, I’ll have to sell it. I’ll be doing readings from it, signing it, marketing it. I worry that if this is a book of older work, I’ll be less excited about it than I need to be to make it a success (as successful as poetry collections can be, that is).

I also wonder just how much this book will define the way others perceive me as a writer. I’m not that widely-published, not compared to most of my contemporaries, and so I imagine that this book will be the first extended look most people (outside my workshop-mates and teachers over the years) will have. I want them to see who I am now, not who I was four or five years ago.

Of course, if I save my newer poems, then I’m that much closer to another manuscript (“a manuscript you have no guarantee will ever be published,” my inner demon whispers in my skull).

I’m pathetic. I’ve got an agreement for a book and I’ve got near carte-blanche to put what I want into it. Someone smack me and tell me to get to work.

July 27, 2010 Posted by | Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Poetic Lives Online

I really had planned on doing this column ahead of time last week, but Friday night found me under the kitchen sink teaching myself how to unhook a garbage disposal and attempt to unclog pipes with a plumber’s snake. I was not successful. Here are some poetry stories to look at for this week, though.

It’s Sandra Beasley’s turn to answer ten questions on poets and technology.

Don Share writes about Erik Anderson and the pastoral.

Barbara Jane Reyes on Diane di Prima’s talk at the San Francisco Public Library.

And finally, an update on the Rumpus Poetry Book Club. We had a meeting this week and worked out some of the details, and talked about upcoming books (as soon as we get official agreements from the poets and publishers we’ll announce them). If everything works out as planned, we’ll have a stunning range of poetic voices on display in this club. Exciting times.

Speaking of which, your twitter follow recommendation for this week is, no surprise, Rumpus Poetry, the twitter account of the Rumpus Poetry Book Club. Hope to see you there!

July 24, 2010 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Back from vacation

Vacation is where you go to remind yourself of how much you love being home. That’s probably the most clich├ęd thing I’ve ever written, and that’s saying something. But tonight, after having spent the better part of three glorious days in St. Petersburg, Florida, I have to say that I think it’s accurate.

I always get dehydrated on vacation. I forget to drink water, mostly because I don’t like drinking bottled water. It’s bad for the environment and way overpriced. So I tend to drink a little more soda and a lot more beer, and the net result is that I wind up dehydrated. I did a little better this time around, in part because of the brevity of the trip, and in part because it’s hard to forget to drink water in south Florida.

We walked a lot in St. Pete. The B&B we stayed at, La Veranda, is one of the coolest places we’ve ever stayed. It’s an old mansion separated into huge rooms–ours had a positively luscious jacuzzi tub in it, as well as a wonderfully comfy bed–and the decor is eclectic. Amy took a lot of pictures–I’ll link to them if and when she posts them. And it’s located right in the walkable part of downtown. We parked the truck the day we got there and didn’t drive again until we left. The only time we did anything other than walk was when we took the trolley/bus to the Dali Museum, which at a quarter per trip was a steal.

And the trolley was an experience in itself. Our driver was a tour guide as well, and knew a ton about the local architecture and the restaurants. And it’s hard to go wrong with the food in that part of St. Pete, but that said, we went to Crowley’s twice. Try the Reuben egg rolls: the beer selection is incredible as well.

All that walking meant that I was sweating through a shirt in about ten minutes, and I didn’t bring enough of them. It also meant I was thirsty all the time, and while my soda and beer intake rose during those three days, I also drank a lot of water, just to try to stay close to even.

We wanted to see a few more sights this morning before we came home, but Tropical Storm Bonnie interfered with that. I’m hoping Florida took a large enough chunk out of her that she just dissipates in the Gulf, but I can’t imagine we’ll be that lucky.

“The Hallucinogenic Toreador” is one of those paintings that you can’t get the feel of from an art book or an image online–it’s so huge. Amy and I got to see a couple I knew from college who we last saw at their wedding nearly ten years ago, which Amy and I went to after only dating a matter of weeks. We met two artists Amy met at a Creative Capital workshop months ago, along with their husbands, and we all ate curry at an English Pub named The Moon Under Water, and then walked blocks to a wine bar where we finished the evening. We all found things to talk about even though few of us did the same thing: artists, writers, coffee shop manager, concrete form supplier, legal document firm manager. It was a wonderful last night in the city.

We got home to two cats who didn’t seem to notice we’d been gone, one who had fallen in love with the sitter, one who was terrified the whole time we were gone, and who didn’t come out until we’d been home for a few hours. She’s come out now, though she doesn’t trust me yet.

I missed my desk, my new kneeling chair, the shower, the taste of the local tap water. I missed being able to pull a clean t-shirt out of my drawer, to choose a book other than the one I need to finish reading. Plus we got iPhone 4’s today. How awesome is that?

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

When is an acceptance not an acceptance?

Crossposted from The Rumpus

When it comes from The Paris Review, apparently. Continue reading

July 20, 2010 Posted by | Uncategorized | 7 Comments

My own anosognosia

This story has gotten a lot of attention on Twitter this morning–Billy Collins doesn’t like the way e-books can mess up the way his poems look on the page. Neither do a lot of other poets. (John Lundberg’s objections are similar, but they’re also linked to the old “I prefer paper” argument.)

I’ve got this on the brain right now because I’ve got to get my manuscript in final shape for publication, and I want there to be an e-version (eventually–I’d like the print version to run alone for a while at least). But I understand the objections from people like Collins and Hirsch and Lundberg. How the poem looks is important, after all.

My problem is that I don’t even know which questions to ask to try to figure out what’s possible and what technical challenges need to be surmounted to make sure the poems look right on the page, no matter if you’re using a Kindle or iPad, a Nook or a Sony, or if you’re just looking at it on a computer screen. So I’ve (sort of) enlisted the help of some Twitter friends, and maybe I’ll at least get to the point where I can ask intelligent questions. Here’s hoping.

July 19, 2010 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Are you related to…?

I thought I’d written about having a daughter named Brittany Spears before, and all the odd connections we have with the singer of the almost identical name and her family, but apparently not. I have, however, published a poem about it at the very least. Warning: this is going to ramble a bit.

So, it’s 1999, my daughter is 8 1/2 years old, my ex and I have been separated for nearly 4 years, and I’m in my final year as an undergraduate. I’m getting ready for class, checking email, drinking coffee; the alarm clock is tuned to a Top-40 radio station. It’s a song I haven’t heard before, and wouldn’t have given a second thought to until the DJ came on afterward and said “that’s local girl Brittany Spears.” Or at least that’s how I spelled it in my head, right about the time I wondered if my ex had been involved in something that I didn’t know about.

I learned later that Britney Spears was from Kentwood, LA, about 40 miles north of where I was living and going to school at the time. I learned that she’d been a minor star for quite some time, and that she was about to eclipse the last famous person to come from the region, Michael Jackson (not the singer).

I also learned, quite by coincidence, that she had a brother named Bryan who was a student at the same university I was attending. I found this out because a year earlier, a friend had asked why I wasn’t in math class that morning, to which I replied “I finished my math classes when I changed majors to English because I couldn’t pass my math classes.” (I’d been a chemistry major prior to that.) Bryan Spears was, I believe, a kinesiology major. Our mothers both go by Lynn as well.

All this serves as a great way to introduce myself to my classes at the beginning of each term, by the way. I dread the day when Britney Spears becomes so irrelevant that my freshpeople no longer recognize the reference. I wish for a Madonna-esque career for Britney, truth be told.

The question I always get is “are you related to Britney Spears?” and I will admit to often answering “yes.” This is especially fun when the question comes in the form of a drunken Facebook friend request. I usually follow up with an explanation like the one above.

But the truth is that we probably are. Amy, when she attended a writing workshop in St. Augustine a couple of years ago, met a woman who shared my last name, and who looked an awful lot like my aunts. She’d done some genealogical research and traced most of the southern Spears to a single man in north Florida who’d had two families–a black one and a white one. He had over 30 children between the two wives, and most of them had spread throughout the south. My branch–assuming I came from this lineage–made it all the way to south Texas, while the singer’s branch (same assumption, but not an unlikely one) only made it to Louisiana, where we glanced off each other before moving on.

The other funny thing is that my side of the family also has a connection to music. My grandfather was a fiddle player and my uncle Bee has been Willie Nelson’s bass player for almost as long as I’ve been alive. I have musical cousins, and Brittany was an in the All-State Honor Band when she lived here in Florida. Another connection?

My daughter dealt with name similarity about as well as can be expected. In some ways, the name was a blessing. My ex and I both moved around a lot when she was young, and Brittany attended probably 5 or 6 different schools by the time she’d reached 8th grade. The name made it a little easier for her to break the ice with strangers. At one point, when she was in the 7th grade, she asked us to call her by her middle name–Amy and I did so happily, but her friends refused to make the change, and so she went back. We call her Monkey more often than not anyway.

July 13, 2010 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Twitter Updates

We did a lot of work on the Rumpus Poetry Book Club today, including nailing down an order of months for the advisory board. But the most movement we made today was on the Twitter front. The Rumpus Poetry Book Club has its own Twitter feed, and you should follow it. There’s no telling who’ll be on the other side of the feed, though I suspect I’ll be doing a lot of it at first. And I don’t promise pearls of wisdom or great excitement, but I will promise to follow you back as long as you aren’t a marketer or spammer or pornbot.

And the same goes for my personal Twitter account.

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

“It’s been towed outside the environment”


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