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If you followed a link here from a comment I made on somebody's google blog, I would love to have you visit my blog, but this is no longer it. While I may occasionally post things here again once in a long while, virtually all my content will be at from here on out. If you were curious enough to come this far, why not give me one more click?

Friday, November 26, 2010

Poetry and Mind Reading

I was reading a poem that I didn't quite get, but I could get some sense of the meaning and passion behind it, just out of reach, and it occurred to me that if some sort of mind reading were possible, this is what it would be like: Sometimes a message comes through loud and clear and you get it and can either agree or not, or you can at least appreciate it. And sometimes the set of experiences that you'd need for the thought to speak to you are just slightly skew of your own, and you get some vague impressions but at the end of it all you just can't say what it's about. And usually, even when the meaning is reasonably clear, it takes a little bit of intellectual work to unpack it all. I'm not claiming for a moment that this is an original thought, but when I approach it this way, even poetry I don't get provides me with a neat experience.

This is a switch from my experience as a literature major in college and grad school. So much of my schooling focused on decoding poetry, as if we'd intercepted from the front--"If they be two, they are two so/As stiffe twin compasses are two"--"Roger that: the lovers are staying together BRRRSSSCHT!!!" "The white dove sails at dawn" "BRRRSSSCHT!!! Wait--what?!" If you decoded it the same as the professor did, you had succeeded. If you decoded it differently or not at all, you failed. And that's where my discomfort with poetry probably stems from: too much experience of failure. Who likes feeling inept so much?

I've been stumbling across a lot of poetry lately. I suppose discovering Taylor Mali a few months ago reawakened my interest in the form. I don't ever find that I don't know what Mali is talking about. Maybe because he places an emphasis on accessibility, or maybe because, as a teacher, I share enough common background with him that I get what he's talking about.

I'd like to go to a poetry slam sometime, ideally with someone who was into them and knowledgeable. I don't pretend for a moment that I could write anything worthwhile myself, but I'm just enjoying the opportunity to appreciate what others can do. It's a little bit of a relief, actually, to be able to come to art as a consumer only. I think I can maybe appreciate more purely when I'm not thinking about how I would like to do it myself.

And yet . . . and yet part of me wishes I understood the medium better because I'd like to crystallize thought this way. I wrote crappy poetry as a teenager like every angsty, arty kid does. I don't mean that. I mean I wish I had some sense of how to write poetry that captures and evokes something without being self-conscious. Maybe I'd like to experience more poetry in the hopes of getting a sense of how this is done. Lord knows we don't need crappy teen poetry from nearly-forty-year-olds.

Some poetry I've been reading recently, along with how I ended up there:

  • "On the Amtrak from Boston to New York City" by Sherman Alexie. I read this because The Rejectionist posted it on her blog, and I was especially interested because Alexie wrote a YA novel I'm dying to read, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian. (You saw what I did there, didn't you?) I have no experience of genocide, but I can thoroughly identify with being a minority who can pass for Anglo, and with having white people say things in front of me they might not say if they realized I wasn't Anglo. So while all of this poem speaks to me, parts of it do so as experiences I share and parts of it as experiences I'm grateful not to share. Here's some more poetry by Alexie:
  • "Love poem in the shape of a cochlear mechanism" by J. Mae Barizo (not a permalink, sorry). I found this poem while looking for more online poetry by Alexie. This poem actually prompted this post, largely because I don't get it. My uncle and aunt are deaf, so I have some passing awareness of what a Cochlear mechanism is and the pros and cons of restoring hearing this way. I feel like I can *almost* sense meaning here, but like I lack some experience that would tie it all together and make it understandable to me. This is what prompted the comparison to mind-reading without the background to make the thoughts intelligible. In the past, coming across a poem like this would make me feel inadequate, like maybe if I were smarter I would get it. This would be followed in short order by anger: This poet is obviously some pseudo-intellectual playing a masturbatory game by stringing together cryptic phrases so that a bunch of snobby elites would stand around and nod thoughtfully, with nobody daring to point out that the emperor has no clothes. Now I'm just appreciating the experience for its very alien-ness.
  • "Narrative 5" by Paul Guest. Another look inside someone else's head. I like the images here, particularly that of the soaked book and the crude drawing of a bus. I feel like a lot of it sails over my head, but that's okay. I ran across his poem when I followed a link to his excellent rant about the idiocy of the new TSA screening procedures, and his uncomfortable experience with them.
  • "Song for an Ancient City" and "To the River," by Amal El-Mohtar and Jessica Paige Wick, respectively. Elizabeth Bear linked to this page on Twitter, and possibly in her LiveJournal as well. She was linking to "Song for an Ancient City," but I actually found "To the River" more compelling. Later I read here that El-Mohtar wrote "Somg for an Ancient City" as a love song to Damascus and this seemed to emphasize my sense that my ability to "get" poetry depends on my ability to step at least partway into another's shoes*. I'm not going to feel embarrassed if what I took from "To the River" is something other than what Wick intended, or if I missed a world of nuance--because there's the flipside: that our experience of someone else's poetry is our own, neh? I guess the speaker is a ghost or possibly a vampire, but I keyed in on the images of stolen innocence: the ribbon, the knee-socks, the unmade bed. As an adult survivor, these images speak to me. There is a sense, to me anyway, that the speaker is now tempting new victims to the river, which is of course disturbing when I look at the poem in that light. But I focused instead on the confusion embodied in the lines "And I'm hideous and hair-thatched/because I must be trash/for him to throw me to the river/like a used cigarette." Who can't identify with being used and discarded?
Anyway, I don't think I'm fully communicating how much this idea of poetry as imperfect mind-reading changes my appreciation of poetry, but to me it's kind of game changing. It goes beyond a throwaway metaphor. It basically empowers me to enjoy poetry without regard to whether I'm decoding it in the way the author intended, where before I could only enjoy it if it spoke to me perfectly.

*Um, I totally intended to put a footnote here, but now I can't remember what it was. Damn.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Waxing rhapsodic about independent booksellers.

As part of her series on the changes in the publishing industry, Kristine Kathryn Rusch has more or less your typical paean to independent bookstores, along with all the reasons the rise of superstores and Amazon are a bad thing.

Intellectually I know how the prominence of Barnes & Noble limited the possibilities for the midlist author. If the buyer for Barnes & Noble didn't want to carry your book, then the publisher may as well not bother to publish it. And I know how Amazon throws its weight around to demand bigger discounts, resulting, among other things, in less viability for traditional royalty publishers and lower royalties for authors.

Rusch hasn't quite gotten into all of that yet, but she's got a ton of experience in the publishing world, and I don't doubt her observations as a buyer.

I just haven't experienced it the same way myself.

I remember the days before the box stores well, but I only remember one independent bookseller competing with the Waldenbooks and B. Daltons back then in Miami: Books and Books in Coral Gables. Books and Books is still there. As a teenager, I perceived Books and Books as a place I could go experience indifference from the employees, and to find virtually no science fiction and fantasy. Lots of artsy literary stuff, but none of what I liked. I absolutely received more attentive service from the mall chain.

Maybe the only reason they ignored me was because they didn't perceive teenagers as genuine customers; maybe I'd have had a different experience as an adult, or if I'd brought an adult in with me. Maybe their selection of books changed somewhere along the line. Though I don't live in Miami anymore, I have noticed online that most of the genre signings in Miami seem to end up at Books and Books. Does that mean they're friendlier to the genres, that they're friendlier to signings, or that authors are trying to help them out out of some fetish for independent bookstores?

Waldenbooks and B. Daltons had a pretty terrible selection of just about anything, to be sure. They had like a "club" you could sign up for as a genre reader, though. You got some worthless little card that might have scored you discounts on some things, I can't remember. And a little flimsy magazine-type thing that would talk about upcoming books to look for. The staff pretty much kept behind the counter, but they did seem enthusiastic about books and occasionally about science fiction and fantasy.

Bookstop was the first big bookstore I ever encountered. They also did the genre club thing, as I recall, and they sold the discount card like everyone does now. But their selection was huge! I only had a year or two of shopping there before they were eaten up by Barnes and Noble, but again, a huge selection compared to the mall stores. (And compared to Books and Books.) As a reader barely into his twenties, I loved the place.

I haven't had Rusch's bad experience with B&N employees. Of course, I don't ask for recommendations from them, so that might be part of it. For the most part, my interaction with bookstore employees involves asking where this or that title is, or if they plan on ordering something else, and I suppose that interaction looks the same at one bookstore as it does at another. I do often get engaged in casual conversations about the books I'm buying or looking for, and the staff always strikes me as pretty knowledgeable, actually. I've never worked at a bookstore; during the time in my life when I was working for minimum wage, the closest bookstore involved an hour's drive on the interstate. But it has always struck me as a job that attracts people who love reading, and I've always found that very cool.

Now as an aspiring writer, I know I've got a vested interest (or not technically vested yet, I suppose, but certainly an interest) in what happens to book retailers, and in whichever option increases the likelihood of my making money from my writing. So yeah, go independent bookstores. Rah.

And I'm not saying I disagree with Rusch's observations. She's describing her experiences, so she can't possibly be wrong. I just found it interesting food for thought, because I find myself sharing the knee-jerk reaction to Amazon and Barnes & Noble that the literary blogosphere tells me to have. And yet, when I look through my own memories, I've never really experienced that mythical independent bookseller where the light is always golden and they're knowledgeable about my genres and they hand-sell me all sorts of awesome things I'd never find on my own.

(Incidentally, you know where I get my to-be-read titles from? Not booksellers. Blogs. I see stuff that sounds cool and add it to my--wait for it--Amazon Wish List. And then I pull that wish list up on my phone when I'm in a brick and mortar store and find maybe 25% of the things on it. Other stuff I order online when I get around to it. Which does make Rusch's point that while the big box stores have a big selection, they don't have a lot of variety. One bookstore's selection is much the same as another's. Again, I'm not disputing her observations, just noting that I've never known a time when it was substantially better.)

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

I can haz full request?

So I'm easing into the query process, and made this video to blow off some steam.

Any idea what I'm doing wrong?