Brian Spears

Poet, Editor, Teacher, Blogger.

More Shameless Self-Promotion

About 3 or 4 weeks ago, I saw someone on Twitter announce that an online journal was just starting up and hunting for submissions, so I thought I’d drop some work on them and see how it went. Well, the editor liked my poems enough that he accepted all of them, and what’s more, he’s using me to launch the journal. I’m guessing he’ll post one a day until all 5 are up.

From my perspective, this is cooler than I ever could have imagined. I get excited about acceptances in the first place, but to be the first ever published in a journal is wow-making. So, a big thank you to the Eunoia Review, and may you have a long and impressive run.

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

Poetic Lives Online

The Essential American Poets series selection this week is Carl Sandburg. I’d never heard his voice before, and it was nothing like I’d expected. I suppose I’d assumed he sounded mid-western, Chicagoan, perhaps deep and barrel-chested. Nope.

I thought about not posting this, as I don’t want the competition, but No Tell Motel’s reading period opens in a week.

Elisa Gabbert has developed a “heat scale” for poetic moves.

Mark Scroggins discusses the savage review (and the comments stream is lively as well).

Mike Chasar takes on the poetry of beer advertising.

We’ll have an announcement about our next Poetry Book Club selection as soon as I can find the time to write the damn thing. It’s a big book, and I’m working my way through it right now. I’ll mention it on Twitter when the essay is up.

September 25, 2010 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Shameless Self Promotion

I have two poems in the latest issue of storySouth, both from my upcoming book, A Witness in Exile, which is in the design stages right now. I’m very excited about that as well, and as soon as I have a photo of the cover, I’ll post it. I might even use the photo to make a cover for my phone. Would that be over the top? I can never tell.

Anyway, two poems from the book. The first is “Mesa” and the second is “Arch.” Both come from a trip Amy and I took some years ago when we did some hiking in the 4 Corners area–“Mesa” comes from our time at Mesa Verde and “Arch” from Arches National Park. Incredibly beautiful places, both of them. I’d love to go back some day. Yeah, I know. Titles aren’t my strong point. What can I say?

September 15, 2010 Posted by | Uncategorized | 5 Comments

No One Writes Poetry For the Job Prospects

The complaints about MFA programs and their proliferation are many and legion, and in some cases, I even agree with them, or at least with the possibility that such conditions could possibly exist. But I can promise you that what Clayton Eshleman is worried about isn’t really an issue.

The hundreds of undergraduate and graduate university degree programs offering majors in writing poetry and fiction worry me. This system is producing thousands of talented but unoriginal writers, many of whom would not be writing at all if it were not for jobs. Once upon a time, there was a “left bank” and a “right bank” in our poetry: the innovative vs. the traditional. Today the writing scene resembles a blizzard on an archipelago of sites. Not only has the laudable democratization of poetry been compromised by being brick-layered into the academy but with few exceptions there is a lack of strong “signature” and a tacit affirmation of the bourgeois status quo, the politics of no politics.

Emphasis mine.

All I can figure is that Eshleman hasn’t seen the state of the academic job market in creative writing (especially poetry) lately, and by lately, I mean at any point in the last 15 years. If there’s been a year in which there were more than 25 tenure-track jobs available in poetry lately–and I’m including jobs where creative writing is more a sideline than a primary area of teaching–then I don’t remember it, and I’ve kept a fairly close eye on it. Anyone who goes into an MFA program thinking “if I crap out some poems, I can get a cushy job” is going to be smacked in the face pretty quickly (by reality, not by me).

Now, if Eshleman is suggesting that there are people in those jobs who wouldn’t still be writing if they weren’t forced to publish in order to gain blessed, blessed tenure, maybe that’s a bit more defensible, but even so, that’s a small percentage of the academic workforce, and there’s no way they’re producing the incredible volume of poetry being pushed out into the world.

It’s completely possible that MFA programs are pushing out thousands of “talented but unoriginal writers,” but it seems to me that every generation has those anyway–at worst, MFA programs gather them together into more easily recognizable groups, the easier to ignore them (if you buy into the theory, that is. I don’t.). And if that’s the worst thing an MFA program does, well, it ain’t genocide.

September 14, 2010 Posted by | Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Song Lyrics as Poetry

Every semester, I give my 2nd year students a chance to earn extra credit by reciting a poem. My only requirements are that it be 16 lines long and that I approve it first, and my primary restriction is that it cannot be the lyrics to a song. They’re always disappointed by that limitation, mostly because they all know songs by heart and they’d rather not have to learn something new, but it generally starts a discussion over what is and isn’t poetry, and why I feel song lyrics generally aren’t.

I want to be clear–there are tons of song lyrics which are poetic, and which make great use of the same tools many poets use. But it seems to me that the musical part of a song has as much of an effect on the emotional response a listener has to the lyrics as the lyrics do themselves. Change the music, you change the response, and there are a great number of fairly famous (and infamous) covers of songs which proves this point, I think.

And the same can happen when you remove the music from a song completely. This semester, I presented the following to my class undated and without the poet’s name attached, along with five other poems. None of my 54 students recognized it. Do you?

I am the stone that the builder refused.
I am the inspiration, the visual
that made Lady sing the blues.
I am the spark that keeps your idea bright.
the same spark that lights your way
so that you can know
your left from your right.
I am the ballot in the box,
the bullet in the gun,
the inner glow that lets you know
to call your brother “son,”
the story of what’s begun,
the promise of what’s to come,
and I will remain a soldier
until the war is won.

These are the lyrics to the theme song to the TV show The Boondocks, by a rapper named Asheru. They are, I would argue, both poetic and lyrical, but when taken out of their intended context–the music and animation which usually accompany them–it becomes more difficult, if not impossible, to interpret them as much more than braggadocio.

Consider these two videos:

Now I don’t know if anyone is going to argue that the lyrics to “Hey Ya” would qualify as poetry, but I think we can agree that one’s emotional reaction to the song is significantly changed by the music that accompanies those lyrics. That’s certainly been the case for everyone I’ve ever showed the second video to–the reactions range from “wtf?” to “I never considered that this was actually a sad song” and everywhere in between.

The point I’m trying to make is that song lyrics seem, to me, to be more closely linked the non-lyrical content than poems are to, say, the way an individual poet or reader reads those lines aloud. Perhaps it’s a difference without distinction, perhaps my lines are no less arbitrary than anyone else’s, but it seems like a significant difference to me, even if it means I find myself in agreement with Billy Collins on something.

September 11, 2010 Posted by | Uncategorized | 2 Comments

The 6 Myths of the Creative Writing MFA

Seth Abramson has a pretty good piece up at HuffPo about what he calls the myths of the Creative Writing MFA. I recommend the piece, mainly for the last five myths. They’re pretty pervasive myths and he handles them pretty well.

And I’m not going to take issue with the first one so much as I’m going to offer a couple of other points that might mitigate Abramson’s argument a little. Here’s the myth and his response:

1. MFA programs are “cash cows.”

Nearly a third of the world’s 148 full-residency MFA programs fully fund 75% or more of incoming students. More than half of the top 50 programs are fully-funded, with 70% fully funding half their students or more. And most applications from the nation’s three to four thousand annual full-residency MFA applicants go to these top 50 programs. Compare this funding record with that of other Master’s degrees and the generosity of the MFA system becomes apparent. With so many fully funded programs, no student need feel forced to apply to even a single non-fully-funded program. In fact, the MFA is fast becoming the largest patronage system for artists in the history of the United States.

All true, so far as it goes. But what Abramson doesn’t mention is what fully-funded often means, and why MFA programs can be considered a cash cow of sorts for English departments. Where I went to school (University of Arkansas) and where I currently work (Florida Atlantic University–though I’m not a part of the MFA faculty), fully-funded means you’ll probably have a Teaching Assistantship. All or most of your tuition will be paid for by the university (including out of state fees) and in return you’ll teach two classes each term, generally first year composition. )Arkansas offered more opportunities, but I was last there in 2003 and can’t say if that’s still the case.) Now, that’s not the case for all MFA programs–some offer, as I understand it, a smaller course load, or none at all, and for those schools, good on you. I liked teaching and I really appreciate the variety of courses I was able to teach at Arkansas–7 different courses in my 4 years–but hey, the less work the better.

Here’s where the MFA program as cash cow meme comes from. With an MFA program, an English department (and by extension, the university) is able to theoretically increase its work force covering the lower level classes for less than it would cost to cover those classes otherwise, even if you factor in the higher costs of a handful of assistant professors on the tenure track to teach those graduate students. Unlike graduate programs in the sciences, for example, an MFA program doesn’t require much in the way of capital costs–no special facilities are necessary other than a conference room, and if necessary, you can use a regular classroom and just sit in a circle. And what does the department get in return? A graduate program roughly double the size (I’m guessing) of what it would have with an MA/PhD program, which makes it easier and cheaper to cover all those first year comp classes that the department would either have to hire instructors or adjuncts to cover (or have upper level faculty cover).

Do the numbers work out in the department’s favor? I don’t know–I haven’t done the research, and I have only the two schools I’ve been attached to as evidence. Abramson would undoubtedly be in a better position to answer that question than I would, since he would know the different funding methods these universities use.

Not all MFA programs are the same, which makes these sorts of broad comparisons difficult at best. But there’s a reason that the MFA program as cash cow meme gained relevance in the first place, and to dismiss it completely without looking at what gave rise to is seems unsatisfactory to me.

September 8, 2010 Posted by | Uncategorized | 4 Comments

Labor Day Poetry

I was putting off the work I need to do by catching up on podcasts–a practice I follow even when it isn’t Labor Day–and found that this episode of Poetry Off the Shelf is all about the poetry of labor. It’s an interesting piece, and worth the 15-20 minutes of your day to listen to, and it got me thinking about a poem I teach nearly every semester, “Two hundred men and eighteen killed” by James Henry.

Henry’s poem isn’t particularly subtle–he’s a scold, as a matter of fact, hoping to improve the plight of Britain’s coal miners–and his primary objective seems to be to make his audience complicit in the tragic deaths of 218 coal miners, killed by a cave-in in 1862. And even though the working conditions for coal miners now are far better than they were a hundred-fifty years ago, much of Henry’s argument still holds true today, especially when you consider the work done by business interests in the US and around the world to weaken labor unions.

Henry begins with economics:

Two hundred men and eighteen killed
    For want of a second door!
Ay, for with two doors, each ton coal
    Had cost one penny more.

And what is it else makes England great,
    At home, by land, by sea,
But her cheap coal, and eye’s tail turned
    Toward strict economy?

We don’t have to look far for contemporary equivalents. The Deepwater Horizon explosion seems to have happened at least in part due to cutting corners on safety issues in order to save money, and that’s just one example. And when the federal government decided, after the accident, to put a moratorium on new drilling and make sure that what was going on in the Gulf was being done as safely as possible, what happened? Screeches from industry complaining about how their businesses profits would be affected. They clamored for the public to look at “the big picture,” and spun fabulous stories about how the economy, both local and national, would be destroyed if they were hampered in any way from continuing their standard practices.

In a case like this, there’s no point in trying to argue with the companies. They’re out to make as large a profit as possible–in fact, they’re mandated by corporate charter to do that in almost every case–and if it’s cheaper to settle lawsuits (or, as happened with the Exxon Valdez and will happen with BP, I’m afraid, drag them out so long that they become meaningless), then it would be poor strategy to consent to any changes whatsoever. The same was the case in Henry’s day, so instead he tries to get the middle class on his side by having them recognize the humanity of the miners. After noting that middle class people are always on the side of accident victims in day-to-day life, he points out why those same people aren’t concerned when miners are killed in an accident:

For God be praised! the chance is small
    That either you or I
Should come, for want of a second door,
    In a coal pit to die.

Henry reiterates this point in lines 45-52 where he says, in part, “And if the pit’s a whole mine deep, / What is it to me or you?” Henry is trying to get his audience to recognize that the only reason they aren’t already outraged about the working conditions for miners is that there’s little or no chance they’ll ever find themselves in that situation. It’s a tactic used by activists today when they try to bring to light the working conditions in sweatshops or factories, both here and overseas, with the idea that if you can see how your goods are being made (or mined), then you’ll be less likely to purchase those goods, or to demand that the manufacturer improve working conditions. And it’s had an effect, even though there’s still much to be done even in the US. (Check into where much of your food comes from some time.)

Where Henry’s poem works best as a poem (as opposed to as an activist statement), I think, is when he’s sarcastic. It’s practically dripping from the following lines:

Besides, ‘twould cost a thousand times
    As much, or something more,
To make to every pit of coal
    A second, or safety door,

As all the shrouds and coffins cost
    For those who perish now
For want of a second door, and that’s
    No trifle, you’ll allow;


And if we do, our gracious Queen
    Will, sure, a telegram send,
To say how sore she grieves for us
    And our untimely end;

And out of her own privy purse
    A sovereign down will pay,
To have us decently interred
    And put out of the way;

And burial service shall for us
    In the churchyard be read,
And more bells rung and more hymns sung
    Than if we had died in bed;

By juxtaposing the cost of the coffins and the cost of a safety door, and by cheapening the human cost of such accidents (Henry also suggests that the widows be given a cup of “congo” or black tea, and the orphans half a cup as recompense), Henry really hammers home the true cost of cheap coal, and makes the reader complicit in the death of these miners. And Henry channels Jonathan Swift when he argues that such tragic deaths are in some way superior to dying of old age in one’s bed, as if a telegram from the Queen and her aid in covering burial costs makes up for losing the better part of one’s adult life.

It’s worth keeping this attitude in mind when you look at the various marketing strategies that retailers use. When Wal-Mart says “Save Money. Live Better,” remember that those savings often come at the expense of shoddy, even life-threatening working conditions for the people making those cheap goods. And also remember, on this Labor Day, that to the extent working conditions for most workers are safe and clean and pay a living wage (not a certainty for everyone by any means), it’s due to activists and unions and their allies who refused to let the status quo stand unchallenged.

September 6, 2010 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Poetic Lives Online

If you were a member of the Rumpus Poetry Book Club, you’d be involved in the conversation Gabrielle Calvocoressi is leading about Timothy Donnelly’s The Cloud Corporation. You’d also have the book before its official release.

I really enjoyed this piece by Clive James in the latest issue of Poetry. It’s one of those essays that winds around a bit, from Berryman to Shakespeare to Menashe to Ashbery and Wallace Stevens.

Dante Micheaux makes a very good point about semantics and racism and the way white still seems to be the default (conscious or not) when it comes to describing people.

Like Natasha Trethewey, I grew up in one of the areas of the Gulf region that was also devastated by Hurricane Katrina and didn’t get much in the way of news coverage, so I’ll be taking a look at her book on the subject.

Ta-Nehisi Coates is reading William Faulkner right now, and it reminds him of reading Yusuf Komunyakaa.

Congratulations to Friend of The Rumpus Barbara Jane Reyes. Her book Diwata is now available from BOA editions.

September 4, 2010 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Book update

I haven’t written much about my upcoming book here because, well, I was worried I might jinx it. That’s not quite true. It’s been more because I was nervous. The economy hasn’t been kind to university presses, and the university system in Louisiana, where my book is being published, has been particularly savaged, both by economic decline and a governor/legislature which doesn’t value higher ed to the same degree it values tax cuts for the wealthiest. But the press’s budget came through, and now there’s a bit of a mad scramble to get the book designed and printed before the state claws the money back.

The poems are chosen and put in order; the cover image has been selected. I wrote my bio last night and have hit up three poets for blurbs, one of whom has already responded (and written nicer things than I could have ever hoped for). I’ll be working with the editor on designing the inside of the book over the next couple of weeks. We haven’t talked printing dates yet, but I hope to have copies in my hand by year’s end. When I get a prospective shipping date, I’ll start working people over for places to read, and make plans for AWP and potentially MLA as well.

September 4, 2010 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

The Ultimate in Recycling

It’s just a coincidence that I’ll be teaching the Wendell Berry poem “Enriching the Earth” tomorrow, a poem which ends with the lines “And so what was heaviest / and most mute is at last raised up into song,” but I couldn’t help but think of Berry’s sentiment about the body being of use after death when I read this story from Autopia about cadaver testing in the auto industry.

The article makes clear that auto companies don’t actually test with cadavers themselves–they just make use of the data universities provide from tests funded by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Apparently some people get upset at the idea of using human cadavers as test subjects in this way. Perhaps they think it’s undignified, or creepy–I can’t really say, since I don’t share the opinion–but it’s enough of an issue that auto companies are quick to distance themselves from the work.

But it seems to me to be a good way to use these bodies, all of which have been donated for the advancement of scientific knowledge. My grandfather donated his body to science when he died. I have no idea what was done with it–he might have been used by med school students to study human anatomy; he might have been swaddled into a car and slammed into a wall at moderate speed. Makes me think I should check into the program he was a part of and make a similar arrangement.

September 1, 2010 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment