Tag Archives: Poets & Writers

#AmtrakResidency Politics Makes Me Laugh

19 Mar

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During my lunchtime reads, this headline, via Poets & Writers, made me laugh:

“Republicans Denounce Amtrak Residency”

The link round-up led to The Atlantic’s article “Shocker: Conservative Republicans Hate the Amtrak Writer Residency.

I’m not one to blog politics, but I will talk copywriting: these two headlines grabbed my attention and made me actually laugh out loud. It sounded like an Onion article! I kind of love the fact that they’re so outlandish and made me think about politics and the media.

Are some Republicans seriously against writers getting to use a seat that would’ve otherwise gone empty on a train? Of all the things going on in the world, is Amtrak’s residency really worth the political hubbub? Did the “liberal media” exaggerate and twist what Republican senators actually said? Are the senators’ concerns that the taxpaying public has subsidized Amtrak services with $1.5 billion and yet are giving away free tickets legitimate? Should the government help fund writers and those in the arts as a means toward furthering our cultural heritage?

When the Amtrak Writers Residency was announced a few weeks ago, friends came out of the wood works to urge me to apply. After all, writing and being on the road is my literary jam.

Then the official application was released. Thousands of people applied. And, I started hearing murmurs about the fine print.

No matter what your politics are and your stance on copyright, Amtrak’s certainly made headlines. Someone in their marketing department is doing something right!

UCLA Prof Blames “Beatniks” for Kristen Stewart’s Poetry

12 Feb

mc

Kristen Stewart’s poetry has been blowing up the internet. I read a bunch of snarky comments about it on facebook last night, and this afternoon on my lunch break I discovered via Poets & Writers that the venerable Poetry Foundation gave it attention on their blog, Harriet.

I wasn’t going to comment on it, but then I read, via The Poetry Foundation, what Brian Kim Stefans had to say about it:

My own initial post went like this: “The second stanza isn’t horrible. Worst part of the poem are those awful adjectives! Stupid Beats.” What I meant by this was that the words “digital” (applied to moonlight), “scrawled” when linked to “neon” (neon is a much overused word by poets who want to sound like Beatniks) and “abrasive” (applied to organ pumps) weren’t working for me….”

What Stefans doesn’t say and what The Poetry Foundation doesn’t say is that Kristen Stewart played the role of Marylou in the film adaptation of Jack Kerouac’s Beat novel On the Road. Part of her training for the film included “Beatnik Boot Camp,” where biographers and Neal Cassady’s son, John Allen Cassady, talked to them about the real-life individuals the novel was based on and the time period. It’s important to state this upfront because the very critique hurled against her work is that it sounds too Beatnik. Whether that’s because her poetry does sound too “Beatnik”—we’ll come back to defining that word in a moment—or whether her association with the Beats fueled criticism of her work is up for debate. Maybe, more than anything, though, the criticism surrounding Stewart’s poetry has less to do with the work itself and more to do with her celebrity persona—which, let’s face it, is similar to how the Beats are reviewed. Even before her poem was revealed, the media has loved to lash out at Stewart.

Actress Amber Tamblyn was also in a Beat-related film—One Fast Move Or I’m Gone: Kerouac’s Big Sur—and has gone on record about being influenced by the Beats. Except Tamblyn blogs for The Poetry Foundations’ Harriet and has published a jazz-inspired poetry chapbook, while Stewart, seven years her junior, revealed her road-trip inspired poem to the women’s glossy Marie Claire. This certainly says something about the difference in the seriousness and literary merit of their work, but it also says something about their celebrity persona and how they are received by the media.

Okay, so now we’re caught up on Stewart. In case Stewart, or you, didn’t know, Stefans makes his authority known at the outset of his open letter:

I’m a poet and professor at UCLA, and thought you might be interested in what some of my poet friends (most of whom also teach and are otherwise very accomplished) and I have been writing on Facebook about your recent poem published in Marie Claire.

I take it Professor Stefans is not a fan of the Beat poetry. That’s fine; to each their own. Stefans is actually quite an accomplished poet, and I particularly respect his postmodern innovations in digital poetry as he bridges the gap between new media and literature. From his UCLA faculty page:

My interests in electronic writing stem directly out of my work as a poet, though it has branched off into any number of art genres that have fallen under the persuasion of digital technology, such as photography, film/video and book publishing. Research interest include creating a “bridge” between the concepts and traditions of various 20th-century avant-gardes — Language writing, the Oulipo, concrete poetry, conceptual art, Situationism, metafiction, etc. — and the various genres of digital literature, including animated poems, interactive texts, algorithmically-generated and manipulated texts, “nomadic” writing, hacktivism and experimental blogs. Presently working on a series of wall projections called “Scriptors” which will appear as gallery and environmental installations in the coming years.

His research and work in electronic literature suggests his open-mindedness toward new and experimental ideas that may not yet be culturally accepted. I would think then that he’d find Stewart’s use of the word “digital” related to his own interests, but perhaps it wasn’t “working” for the Brown graduate who got his MFA in Electronic Literature because it was too obvious of a connection, the word “digital” sounding contrived or outmoded in today’s ever-changing technical world. I wouldn’t disagree with that assessment. His forward-searching eye may also be why he lays into her for relying on passé Beatnik clichés and the word “Whilst.” Stefans’ critique of Stewart’s poem is fair and balanced. There is validity to his point about “overused words” in poetry and even Beatnik buzz words.

My contention is with Stefans’ comment “Stupid Beats” and the lumping of Beat literature with “people who want to sound like Beatniks.” Yes, I get that this is a flippant response to pop culture that shouldn’t be taken too seriously, however the cultural knowledge of so-called Beatniks is wrought with so much misconception that it makes me uncomfortable to see a humanities professor at a well-known college perpetuate the stereotype.

Here’s a little Beat 101 refresher course:

  • Jack Kerouac coined the term “Beat Generation” during a conversation with fellow novelist John Clellon Holmes, in which they were riffing on the Lost Generation and their own generation.
  • Holmes went on to write “This Is The Beat Generation” for The New York Times Magazine in 1952.
  • Six years later, journalist Herb Caen coined the term “beatnik” in an article for The San Francisco Chronicle. An amalgamation of the word “beat” and “Sputnik,” the word, as conceived during the Cold War, was derogatory.
  • In fact, “The Examiner had a headline the next day about a beatnik murder,” reported the SF Gate. Note that this had nothing to do with David Kammerer or any of the writers associated with the literature of the Beat Generation.
  • In the column in which Caen coined the term “beatnik,” he was eye rolling at how Look magazine was doing yet another photo spread on the San Francisco Beat Generation scene, saying “250 bearded cats and kits were on hand.” So right there we have it that he wasn’t commenting specifically on Kerouac, Holmes, Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, and the specific poets or poetry associated with the Beat Generation. He was talking about the scene, man.

Let me put this into more current context. Caen used the word “beatniks” the same way people today use the term “hipster.” Think of the way people in the 2000s equated the Williamsburg hipster with the eccentric trust-fund kid wearing aviator sunglasses and skinny jeans and making really bad “art.” That’s the equivalent of a “beatnik.” They’re both pop-culture fads that aren’t wholly indicative of the art, literature, and music that loosely inspired these “scenes.”

Consequently, saying Kristen Stewart was writing in the vein of bad beatnik poetry could be a worthwhile critique and even a very interesting one if the critic were to delve into more specific examples like the use of the word “neon” (HTML Giant questions if “neon” is solely beatnik; I apparently already have a tag for “neon” because I used it for light sculptor Stephen Antonakos … was he a beatnik??), discuss the appropriation and disfiguration of Beat ideas and style (Stefans mentions a colleague who posted a response to Stewart’s poem that suggests an evolution of Beat literature: “If it’s ‘beat’, it’s more Bolinas or young Bernadette than hortatory elder beat.” [hyperlinks mine]), and analyze the cultural phenomenon of beatniks.

Saying “Stupid Beats,” though, is akin to saying “Idiot Pre-Raphaelites,” “Dimwitted Transcendentalists,” or “Insipid Oulipo.” It’s negating an entire body of literature that has resounding cultural importance.

You can read Stewart’s poem “My Heart Is A Wiffle Ball/Freedom Pole” on IndieWire’s blog, The Playlist.

Writing Wednesday: Is Greatness Sabotaging Your Writing?

18 Dec
For better or worse, I don’t recognize a lot of critics’ names. David L. Ulin is an exception. Book critic for The Los Angeles Times, Ulin writes reviews that do so much more than summarize or sweep up a book in a blanket statement. His reviews critique on a higher intellectual plane.
Of course, it helped that he articulated so much of what I felt when I’d read Bruce Bawer’s attack in the New Criterion on Jack Kerouac being included in the Library of America. That’s not to say he unscrupulously defended Kerouac’s poetry—he admitted the Kerouac poem Bawer quoted is “negligible”—but he called Bawer out on spending more time focusing on the so-called Beat label and the people associated with it than on digging into Kerouac’s individual style and innovations.
But I digress.
Ulin has an essay entitled “My First Book(s)”  in the Paris Review Daily that first-time and struggling writers should read. With humorous (not silly—witty) self-deprecation, he writes about what provoked him to write (jealousy, opportunity) and how he got so bogged down in ideas that he incapacitated his body of work. Perhaps my favorite line from the essay:
I was twenty that summer, turning twenty-one in August, and I felt a growing pressure to be (how do I put this without reservation or irony?) great.
That parenthetical itself says so much about not only writing but the human condition. Guarding ourselves through cleverness we can become inauthentic. Sometimes the more we strive to be “great,” the more we lose our true vision and voice. We lose our stories. We lose ourselves.
He writes:
But here’s what is important: I sabotaged my own book. I did this in two ways, first by overthinking and then by overtalking, by telling everyone I knew everything about the work.
Replete with quotes from renowned authors, “My First Book(s)” explores the expectations an author puts of himself, some of which are naïve (“I had gathered so much material—so much unused material—that I’d had the fantasy the book would write itself…”) and some of which are nearly impossible to live up to (“I wanted to write not just a novel but a landmark novel…”).
Ulin’s essay is a refreshing read for all of us who get overwhelmed by our own “big” ideas. It’s also a gentle reminder that all writing—including our unpublished writing—is worthwhile because it teaches us about the process and improves our skills.
In the same link roundup in which they mentioned Ulin’s essay, Poets & Writers linked to a blog post by Percy Jackson author Rick Riordan that also spoke to the slippery idea of greatness:
One thing I’ve discovered. People who believe they are awesome and wonderful at their profession are often . . . not. People who have more self-doubt, who question themselves and are always examining what they did wrong and how they might do better – those folks are often better than they think they are, and they are much more likely to improve. It’s a difficult balance, between self-confidence and self-reflection. No wonder writers are a little barmy. But it is an important balance to strike.
Riordan continues:
Writing is hard. Not everyone can do it. It requires a combination of innate talent and lots and lots of practice and endurance. It also requires the right story, and publishing that story at the right time.
Though they have dissimilar writing styles, Riordan and Ulin both suggest that writing requires humility and stamina.

* * *

Burning Furiously Beautiful: The True Story of Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road” is now available as an ebook and paperback!

Overarching Writing Tip from Big Sur Writers: Don’t Censor Your First Draft

17 Oct

If you’re a frequent visitor to this site, you’re probably a fan of the Beat Generation, which means you’ve probably read Jack Kerouac’s Rules for Spontaneous Prose.  In a recent fit of procrastination, I stumbled upon Henry Miller’s Commandments while browsing the blog a lovely being.  Then through a rabbit hole that began on Poets & Writers, I discovered John Steinbeck’s writing rules on brain pickings.

As I scoured their tips for jewels of wisdom, I considered whether there were any repeating schemes amongst the three authors, who each lived at various points in their career in the Monterey area of Northern California.  The theme that emerges is one of writing with the force of one of the ferocious waves in Big Sur—quickly, spontaneously, wildly, freely, bravely, deeply, purely.

John Steinbeck: Write freely and as rapidly as possible and throw the whole thing on paper. Never correct or rewrite until the whole thing is down. Rewrite in process is usually found to be an excuse for not going on. It also interferes with flow and rhythm which can only come from a kind of unconscious association with the material.

Henry Miller: Don’t be nervous. Work calmly, joyously, recklessly on whatever is in hand.

Jack Kerouac: Composing wild, undisciplined, pure, coming in from under, crazier the better

In other words, while you’re composing, just get it all out there on the page.  Don’t concern yourself with censoring your thoughts, diction, or punctuation.  You can always go back and fix things later, but for the first draft, at least, it’s better to let the story take shape naturally.

I’m generally not the type of person who subscribes to a set of writing rules, mainly because I believe everyone has their own technique and process, but I am a huge fan of lists.

Through Poets & Writers, I also discovered Kyle Minor’s “Advice to My Younger Self” and Margaret Atwood’s advice to writers, through which I consequently found similar lists by Zadie SmithElmore LeonardKurt Vonnegut, and David Ogilvy.

What are your tips for writing?

Clip: On the Highway of Love, Jack Kerouac Divides Men and Women

16 Aug

The Millions published my essay “On the Highway of Love, Jack Kerouac Divides Men and Women.”

The article made the headline in the Page-Turner section of The New Yorker.

It also made it into the On the Shelf section of The Paris Review.

The article was mentioned in The Atlantic Wire.

Poets & Writers mentioned the article in their Daily News on 8/14/12 … and then again on 8/15/12 to note the response the article has gotten.

That second P&W write up was mentioning Slate‘s response.

Jezebel also devoted a whole article to my article.

Guy Librarian referenced the discussion.

The article was also mentioned on The Daily Beast.

The Huffington Post added commentary to the discussion.

8/19/12; 8/22/12: This post was updated to include additional mentions.

My Culture Diary

20 Feb

Ran across literary editor Sadie Stein’s amusing Culture Diary on the Paris Review Daily via Poets & Writers.  Love her quips.  People are sometimes ask me about what exactly it is I do, so taking a cue from Sadie Stein, here’s an inside look into my day.

MONDAY*

7:00 AM:  My cell phone alarm goes off, and I blindly fumble for the phone and shut the stupid ringer off.  Ten minutes later the second alarm goes off.  Forty minutes after that I finally roll out of bed, toward the coffee maker.

8:30 AM:  Ooh, such nice comments on last night’s status update from writer friends on Faceback.  Maybe I do have something to say that resonates with people.  Listen to Mates of State.

10:00 AM:  Got to work and found out I had left my card key inside, on my desk.  Finally got in and restart my computer at work three times.  Ugh, ugh, ugh!!  Why isn’t it working?  It finally works but then I’m locked out of the server and have to call the home office.  It’s definitely a Monday.  I feel like Garfield.  Complete editing on a book project I’m excited to be working on.  Slice my finger open on a stack of paper.  Oh the hazards of the publishing business.

12:00 PM:  Forgot my homework for my writing workshop at home and now have to use lunch break to run back and get it.  Accidentally get off one stop too early, but enjoy the beautiful weather.  I love the smell of autumn leaves.  Someone follows me into my apartment building.  Oh good, he’s just my neighbor.  On the subway ride back to the office, I offer my seat to an older woman.  Her husband says, “That just got you two points.  You’re two steps closer to getting into heaven.  The woman sizes me up, “I don’t know about that!”

6:00 PM:  The cleaning lady tells me she didn’t throw out the bread in the ‘fridge because she knows it’s mine.  Hints that it’s wasteful to throw out food.  Oops, I’m one of those people that forgets about the food crammed in the ‘fridge.

8:00 PM:  Writing workshop gets emotional.  People lay their lives out for us to read.  It’s hard to critique work that’s so sensitive.  I feel like a jerk afterwards for doing it anyway.  Ride the subway home with a classmate, thankful to debrief.

11:00 PM:  I don’t care if it’s late; I’m eating a second dinner.  And I’m taking a second shower.  Watch Prime Suspect.  Man, I wish I was as tough as Maria Bello.  Watch Community.  This show has jumped the shark.

1:00 AM:  Conk out.

*November 14