Archive for the ‘Poetry Advice’ Category

The Conversation

Friday, November 25th, 2011

I just had the conversation again. I know, I know, it happens to all of us, and it’s not my fault. But still, I’m sitting here feeling like I did something wrong. Something cruel, even. It’s happened to me a thousand times, and probably you too, and it’s going to happen to us many more thousands of times, because as far as we can tell there’s just no other logical thing to say. I’m talking, of course, about those four seemingly innocent words that we all keep saying, and almost always end up feeling bad about ourselves for saying.

Someone told me they like poetry, and I asked “Who do you read?”

Obviously, I don’t need to tell you what happened next. The person’s face drained of color, her jaw dropped, and she started frantically making eye contact with the other people in the room, who were all staring at me as if I’d just asked her which religion she thinks is the most evil or what shape she shaves her pubes into. She looked at the floor and mumbled something that did not involve stating the actual names of any specific poets, and then I got embarrassed and changed the subject.

Since I’ve said that this happens to me over and over, you’d think I would have learned by now to just never ask someone what poets they read, no matter how much they say they like poetry. But I don’t stop, simply because I can’t believe I keep meeting so many people who say they like poetry—who bring it up themselves first—and then act totally blindsided and put out when I ask them who their favorite poets are. I don’t meet musicians who freak out when I ask who their favorite band is. I don’t meet aspiring actors or directors who crap themselves upon being asked to list a few of their favorite movies. Hell, it’s not even a quiz—this is the most obvious way that you would make conversation with someone who has just stated an affinity for a particular art form. Why is it only ever a problem when the art form being discussed is poetry?

I concede that maybe “Who are your favorite poets?” is a weird question to ask an eight-year old. But this person wasn’t an eight-year old. Like most of the people I end up inadvertently freaking out with this question, she was a college graduate who had studied writing and started a conversation about poetry with me. Was it not totally sensible of me to expect her to have an answer to this question? Fine, I realize she didn’t go to graduate school for poetry, but I wasn’t asking something so complicated that advanced study would be a prerequisite to having an opinion. I didn’t hand her a blue book and ask her to write an essay about how contemporary female poets under 40 are using the plain-speech surrealism of Ashbery as a springboard to inject the trappings of feminist literary theory with humor while recentering their discourse around a renewed belief in the power of a flesh-and-blood selfhood borrowed from the Confessionals, linking all this to the supposed “death of irony” effected by the September 11th attacks. I just asked her who she likes. That is a pretty open-ended question, and I wasn’t going to judge her on whether her answer was sufficiently outré. My favorite poet is Lord Byron, for pete’s sake; that’s not exactly obscure.

You don’t even necessarily have to respond with a ranked list. Any comment having to do with poetry is a perfectly acceptable response. “I think early Eliot is charming but late Eliot is a chore.” “I don’t understand why Edna St. Vincent Millay isn’t as popular with teens as Sylvia Plath.” “In my heart I know Ginsberg was bullshitting 90% of the time but I still love him.” “I really dug that book Louise Glück put out a few years ago with all the poems about Persephone in it.” All of these responses are fine. Like with any other conversation, all you really have to do at this point is say something next, which can take pretty much any form at all other than looking at the floor and implying that I am a dick for asking you this question.

If “who are your favorite poets” isn’t what you expect to be asked next when you tell a poet that you like poetry, then what do you expect to be asked next? I honestly can’t think of another way to move the conversation forward from that point. Seriously, if you say “I like poetry,” but you can’t name any actual poets, then what do you even mean when you say that? That you like the idea of the existence of poetry, as a concept? I guess it’s fine if that’s what you meant. I suppose I’m glad that you are in favor of the fact that poetry is a thing that exists. After all, it’s better than being against it. But Jesus Christ, at the end of the day, what the hell, just what the hell?

Dating While Poet

Tuesday, August 9th, 2011

About six weeks ago, I had a first date that I was really excited about, with a cute young actress. Unlike most things I get really excited about, it went great. I picked the perfect spot, I didn’t get too drunk and, being something of an animation buff herself, she seemed to understand my lifelong desire to get married at the foot of a firefly-infested waterfall so as to perfectly recreate the love scene from Disney’s Robin Hood, if not necessarily to be totally on board with it right away. As I walked her to the train afterwards, we passed a little theater that she’d always loved, and I said I’d buy it for her if I won on Jeopardy!, conveniently forgetting that even if I won as many games as Ken Jennings, this would still take more than half the money. I kissed her, but didn’t try for more than that, and headed home feeling for once like I had spectacularly aced a first date.

When I got home, I sent her a goodnight text. No response. That’s cool, I thought. She’s probably still on the train. Or furiously masturbating. Or furiously masturbating on the train. Or she lost or broke her phone somehow, probably while furiously masturbating. I thought nothing of it, furiously masturbated, and went to sleep.

The next morning I texted again to wish her good luck at an audition she had in the morning—an audition, I might add, that was definitely totally real and that she had in no way made up as an excuse not to go home with me. Would a girl give an excuse like that to a man who had started crying eight minutes into the date while telling a story about the time he put out a mousetrap to catch a mouse but instead of being killed the mouse was only paralyzed and when he came into the kitchen after hearing the mousetrap noise the paralyzed mouse was being tearfully comforted by a little mouse friend (or possibly spouse) and saying in mouse language “No, go on, leave me, and don’t look back, I don’t want you to remember me this way?” Of course not.

This time, there was a response. She texted back “Thank you.” I’d have preferred to see “Thank you from the bottom of my sodden pink panties,” but at least it was a response. I texted back something that I’m sure was too long, too soon, and not badass enough, because that’s how I roll.

Then I heard nothing back for a week. The pattern of “three texts from me equals nothing for three days and then one short, noncommittal text back” continued for a while. Eventually, I asked her point blank if she wanted to go out again. She said yes, but then reverted right back to the “I don’t text you back until you’re halfway home from the noose store, and even then it is three words if you’re lucky” M.O., so I naturally figured that the “yes” was just politeness and I was supposed to “take the hint” here, so as not to become that guy who keeps texting a girl who doesn’t want to see him again that you occasionally hear about every single time you talk to a girl, ever.

So, all things considered, I emerged with dignity intact. I never did anything dishonorable, and I knew when it was time to cut my losses and give up before making a fool of myself. Well played.

Then five weeks later, she texts to tell me I’m a fucking asshole for “disappearing.”

This confused me. I mean, I did pick up the valuable piece of information that when a woman ends a text message with “That’s all I wanted to say,” it means there are seven more texts coming in the next five minutes, but other than that I was confused. I mean, I was supposed to stop contacting this girl because she clearly didn’t like me.

…Right?

I asked a couple of my female friends about it. They told me she was crazy, and unanimously voted down my plan to write back to her and offer to ritually scar myself in some way. This made me feel 100% better right away. Or it would have, if “she’s crazy” were not the only answer anyone ever gets when they ask a woman about another woman. So it actually didn’t help at all, but hey, my fault for asking. If you don’t want to get told that the answer is in the Bible, don’t ask the Pope, and if you don’t want to just get told “she’s crazy,” then don’t ask a woman about another woman (who is thin).

Speaking of the Pope, although I am a nonbeliever, I have nonetheless had a longstanding agreement with the Catholic Church that absolutely everything is my fault, so I decided that this was too. Since girls tend not to text guys they weren’t the slightest bit interested in after half the summer has passed to curse them out for breaking contact, it must have been the case that this girl actually did like me at least a little bit. And that’s when I got really worried, on account of the fact that “dropping out of contact because the girl obviously didn’t like me” is something I’ve ended up doing approximately… always.

I quickly fired off a message to a girl I’d been out with a few times since I gave up on the other girl, but hadn’t contacted in over a week because… well, you know. But I was sure that this girl didn’t like me, and so I phrased my message accordingly: “It’s obvious you’re not interested in seeing me again, and that’s cool, but just for the sake of self-improvement, I was wondering what I did wrong,” etc.

Imagine my chagrin when she wrote back befuddledly wondering what I was talking about, asking whether she’d missed a message from me or something, and clarifying that she would love to see me again.

It probably sounds at this point like I just give up all the time because I don’t know anything about women. But that isn’t it. I mean, it can’t be it. Somehow, I’d always had a girlfriend—and a hot one, at that—virtually every second from late college until my early 30s. So how could it be the case that I suddenly didn’t know anything about women?

And that’s when it hit me. The problem isn’t that the women I’ve been seeing recently are crazy. On the contrary—the problem is that they aren’t crazy enough.

Until recently, virtually every girlfriend I’ve ever had, I met in school, be it in college, in grad school, or as a teacher. A few of them were other poets that I met through, you know, poetry stuff, but like everything to do with poetry, that still basically counts as school. So even though I’ve always had girlfriends, I’ve also met them all in a bubble that ensured all of them would be other writers. It’s only in the last year that I’ve tried dating women I met in normal grown-up ways—bars, dating websites—that have nothing to do with studying or teaching writing.

In other words, I’ve never dated a normal person before.

Sure, like anyone else, while growing up I’d heard references made to things like “playing hard to get,” “occasionally not being drunk,” and “having a first date where neither person proposes stealing a car and driving all night to get married in Vegas,” but I just figured those customs were relics of a bygone era. After all, they never came up in my undergraduate poetry concentration, or my graduate school for poets, or my subsequent jobs where I only met other poets.

If you’ve ever known any poets, then you already know we’re bad at two things: quitting smoking, and not randomly marrying each other. I went to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, for Christ’s sake—every time I snuck out of the bar to go home and take a dump, when I came back someone was married. Then by the time someone inevitably punched the bartender for refusing to sell us a take-home after closing, they were divorced. More of us got married than got fired from teaching positions for sleeping with students or showing up drunk, and that happened to all of us, so the first thing shouldn’t even be mathematically possible. Once a week we all got together to praise Ross from Friends for how infrequently he got married.

So by the time I entered my last relationship of any duration, with a girl who said “I love you” on our first date and then sang me Regina Spektor songs at the top of her voice in a crowded sushi restaurant, the problem wasn’t so much that this seemed normal to me—it was that anything less than this made it seem like the girl would be happy to see me step in front of a bus.

And you know who does less than that on a first date, even if she really likes you? Every woman who is not ovaries-to-the-wall out of her skull, that’s who.

But I’ve never dated any of those women. And at this rate, I never will, not as long as I keep expecting every encounter with a woman who feels the slightest bit of human emotion for me to end with the two of us strewn with garlands of psychoactive mushrooms, rutting in an abandoned field by the light of a church we just set on fire, while seventeen of our closest friends sing Anglo-Saxon translations of Gilbert & Sullivan songs, spattered with uncooperative bartender blood.

It’s not just that I’ve never been around women who pretend not to like you. I’ve never even been around people who are remotely psychologically capable of pretending not to like anything that they like, regardless of the consequences. When a poet likes you, you know it. How? Because you’re either not also a poet, in which case you’ve already called the police, or you are, in which case you’re already married.

But that’s just not what normal women do. Normal women pretend not to like you, and then flip out on you when you believe them. Apparently.

Fuck that. I’m reapplying in fiction. Who wants to get married?

How to Write a Good Poem

Wednesday, May 4th, 2011

I’ve been working for a while on devising a mnemonic device that beginner poets could use to avoid the biggest mistakes that people who are new to poetry (or not necessarily that new) tend to make. I decided that, in our wacky modern world with its many differing opinions about hustle and bustle, this would best take the form of YouTube videos. I sincerely hope that these videos will be helpful to young poets, and also that they will catch the attention of that redhead who does accents, whom I have a crush on.