Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Billy Collins, Distraction Tactics, and Your Must-Read of Today

One of my favorite comment buddies recently asked, in response to my last post and the lack of new writings since then, if I've given up posting for Lent.

Ha-ha...well-played. And No. (Or at least no, not intentionally.)

I've truthfully been bogged down with some new literary undertakings.

So I'm going to do what all writers desperate for deadline extensions do in their low moments: distract you.

Specifically, I'm going to distract you with this excellent, awesome and easily digestible interview THE WALL STREET JOURNAL ran this morning with the excellent, awesome and easily digestible former poet laureate Billy Collins.

Read on, especially for this quote: "I found that 83% of American poetry isn't worth reading. That's my figure. The other 17% is hard to live without."


Billy Collins enjoys something rare for a poet: name recognition. As his publisher gleefully notes, Mr. Collins's nine books together have sold more than 500,000 copies, and he served as the United States Poet Laureate from 2001 to 2003.

In his latest collection, "Horoscopes for the Dead" (Random House), Mr. Collins continues his penchant for writing witty, companionable verse that's often rooted in everyday matters (shopping for mattresses inspires one new poem, "Hell"). "I want my poems to be accessible in that you can enter them in the beginning," said Mr. Collins, a native New Yorker who now lives in Westchester County. "But as the poem goes along, its desire is to move the reader into less clear areas."

With April marking National Poetry Month, the Journal recently spoke with the 70-year-old about his own work and why a chasm persists between poetry and mass culture.

When do you decide you have enough poems for a collection?
That's in the very back of my mind. One swings like Tarzan—from book to book, instead of from vine to vine. But as I'm writing an individual poem, a book is the last thing on my mind. I'm just trying to write a good poem. I send my poems to a friend, a younger poet named George Green, who grades them: A, B, C, D. After a couple of years, if I have 60 or so poems—if I have a lot of As and Bs—then it starts looking like a book.

What's the inspiration for the title poem of your new book?
My poems tend not to be terribly personal in the autobiographical sense. I assume strangers are about as interested in my personal life as I am in theirs—which is to say not very much. But a longtime friend of mine, Michael Shannon [the co-founder, with Mr. Collins, of the Mid-Atlantic Review], passed away a few years ago. Our birthdays were around the same time of the year. I sometimes read horoscopes. So after he died, I'd read my Aries and shift over to his Pisces. I like the title in that it conveys a hopeless optimism.

For someone who grew up in Queens, your poems don't feature much urban imagery.
It's not there at all. My persona is semi-rustic or suburban. I spend a lot of time in New York City, but there's too much going on and I want to create a vacuum where very little is going on and then a poem arises out of something very small happening.

Do you think your popularity is due to the accessibility of your work?
It's embarrassing to account for one's own popularity. "Miss Kentucky, why do you think you're so beautiful? Well, my nose for one thing is cute." I've been very fortunate in being connected to a wider audience through NPR. It's been extremely critical to what's happened to me.

Do you accept that poetry isn't part of mass culture, or do you fight that perception?
There's this chasm for a reason, and part of the blame lays on the poets who are creating poetry that is a) willfully obscure and calls on the reader to do a fruitless amount of work, and b) assumes an interest on the reader's part in the poet's personal suffering. I read poetry because I want to be linguistically pleasured. As Poet Laureate, I was asked to go out and beat the drum for poetry. I found that 83% of American poetry isn't worth reading. That's my figure. The other 17% is hard to live without.

This month's issue of Oprah magazine has poets modeling fashion. Have you ever done anything silly to promote your poetry?
I wrote a poem for the 40th anniversary of Golf magazine, for which I was paid a certain amount of money, negotiated by my agent, and given two Scotty Cameron putters—one for me and one for my agent. I'm not sure if you know anything about golf, but Scotty Cameron makes very good putters. There, you got that out of me.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Dryer Lent (Seasonal Musing)

Mardi Gras has ended. Mourning photo:

Single. Black. Tear.

No poems or prose or plugs today, just a barely creative sneeze musing on how it is time to be repentant, to give things up and to give things out, because it is officially Lent.

(Lent: Christianity's second chance at all your failed New Years Resolutions!)

Regardless of spiritual or religious leanings, giving and giving up both seem worthy of musing. Is God okay with me giving up grudges instead of TV or beer? I assume as much:

for Lent the one good Catholic I know is parting ways with alcohol
except for wine, which we agree is good for him

which made me think of heavy things, like charred memories, I'd like to part ways with too
except for those with funny parts, which we agree are good for everyone

now that we can laugh at them

Protestants do not repent the same way during holy days
but as a good non-Catholic I can at the very least

and relenting is the best way to give and give up
and take something at the same time

Monday, March 7, 2011

Delicate F-ing Flower #1: Tobacco Blossom Dearie

A momentary shift of gears.

See, there's this metaphorical garden. It's overgrown with Delicate F-ing Flowers, fragile-stemmed blossoms with poetic petals, sharp tongues and hidden thorns, all perfumed in that intoxicating way that makes you have to sniff them. 

They may or may not snap their jaws shut fly-trap style and consume you whole when you stick your lovely nose in. They have been known poison admirers when worn in a lapel.

But you'll still want to pick them because they're so damned pretty. 

Today I humbly submit for your approval the first of the bouquet. This first bloom is from Louisiana, a green sapling somehow old enough to dangle years of Spanish moss, who knows what it means to miss New Orleans and to help grow it back from scratch. When she's not tending cities she's tending herbs, making roux, stitching vintage undies and dresses back together and making them new, putting little birds under her wing until they're grown, and occasionally tossing back red wine like water.

She sent us this piece scrawled on an old envelope (the best kind of submission) as Mardi Gras approached, when sequins and feathers should take priority over words, earnest or otherwise.

So on this sacred Lundi Gras we post this bit of poem, mailed in from the south by Tobacco Blossom Dearie

Untitled (or "none in particular, or all")

the wind has picked up 

my hat lifts, and sails

i shift the weight of solitude from hip to hip,
testing its heft,
and round the corner

a child chases a dervish of leaves,


further on
an old man walks by
under my hat.

i can smell the rain on his breath.

-in loving memory of RJS.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Don't You Just Hate Poetry Readings?: The Debut of Banjoetry


A few weeks ago I turned to a trusted buddy and said, "I want to score poems to banjo."

She said: "That is a terrible idea."

I said: "I want to read them live, with the banjo."

She said: "That is a terrible idea."

I said: "In front of a bunch of people."

She said: "That. Is. A. TERRIBLE. Idea."

I began scribbling notes.

A few days later I mentioned to a trusted mentor that I had a feature slot reading at Bowery Poetry and wanted to perform a suite of poems scored to live banjo twanging.

He said, "That sounds like absolute agony."

I decided then to do it.

I fortunately have a dear friend who can twang banjo. He has toured with Pete Townshend of The Who and pop-punk demigod Bob Mould. He has recorded with members of Teenage Fanclub. And Sleater-Kinney. And The Posies. And Ash. He has his own indie album of aching, perfectly strummed alt-rock tunes. (Aside: I highly recommend that record--great break-up album. Doubly sweet on vinyl.) Oh, and a Tony Award and a bunch of big Broadway credits and a list of off-Broadway mega-roles, like rock diva Hedwig from Hedwig and The Angry Inch. Sometimes you see him on TV. His name is Michael Cerveris and he was, and still is, clearly overqualified for my plot. 

I told him I wanted to score some poems about New Orleans to banjo. And read them. In front of people. I explained he was essential because he is the only one I know who can play banjo.

He said, "Okay, let's do it."

Thus the inside joke of "banjoetry" went public. Both the friend and mentor who said it was a terrible idea attended the performance. I have video proof (embedded below) that they cheered like loons for us in spite of themselves. A bunch of other people did too. They may even have enjoyed it. Or banjoyed it. (Either works.)

Fantastic photographer Jenny Anderson was there to get it on film (scroll down for pics). There's video of the whole set. I'm also pasting in the text from my "set" opener, "Don't You Just Hate Poetry Readings?" below. I love reading but somehow always get nervous and start shaking like a crack-baby for the first 5 minutes of all performances, which occasionally leads to tripping over the words of whatever is read first. I wrote the poem a few hours before hitting Bowery, so it was especially unfamiliar and raw...the text is here to fill in the gaps where my crackbabyness failed the piece.

Don't You Just Hate Poetry Readings?

Behind a curtain, under some stairs,
shoe-horned into community centers or the nearest jail,
spawning on student coffee shop stages,
dressed up and made up and paraded for sale
at your nearest megabookshop franchise, there it is folks! (and this is no joke),
we got right here for you fine folk the fruit fly of the literary world,
the buzzing
slip of public word breeding known to us as The Poetry Reading,

Where everyone’s less than secretly competing for rattiest scarf,
holiest boots,
most crumpled transcripts of items that could’ve been committed to mind if we’d taken the time

Best disapproving sigh,
best judgmental eye,

least best chance of separating spectators short on patience from Thorazine patients when you prop them all up in one straight line;

Most likely to jack from Kerouac
to buy off Bly
or rip off poor Miss Smith by dragging up some poorer stiff
with a guitar with them to riff on riffs while the whole ship goes down and watchers go stiff

before they make it to the awards portion of the night!
where blue ribbons are given for angriest word rant,
droniest tone poem,
most unnerving piece of childhood nostalgia,
most unremarkable slab of melancholia,

and don’t forget the coveted award of most maligning backhanded complimented handed out as you walk out the door, and that’s before

we event mention honorable mentions for artful statings of the obvious,
heartfelt ramblings by the oblivious,
irreverent references,
obscure preferences,
whored out metaphors
ALL absorbed while keeping an ear out for a cell phone ringing or Death finally bringing
some carefully delivered blessed delivery from asking why we’re here again, especially when
every time we leave one of these creaking old creative heaves we always seethe

Because we know if we don’t go
we’ll not have heard that line or word
that makes it clear while we’re all here

and still coming to poetry readings.

Michael Cerveris rockin' the MANjo for the love of banjoetry.

"I love reading out loud thiiiiiiiiiiis much...."

Seriously? This photo? What the hell am I doing? It does look intense though, maaaaaan. **Poetic beat finger snaps.**

The "banjoetry" starts around the 6:57 mark. (At one point some affable lout steps in front of the camera, which was resting on the bar next to a whiskey and ginger. He quickly realizes his folly and steps back outta the shot.) 

This set includes the above detailing of why poetry readings are agony, delivers missives for my inarticulateness in romantic situations, paces out a suite of poems about the alchemy of New Orleans while Cerveris twangs the strings, then brings the hyperbolic silliness of Mick Jagger's Shirts back to its original home at Bowery Poetry.

Hannah's set is sex, mangled love and why you should think twice before letting her play librarian, with a spotlight thrown on the accidental poetic rhythms hiding in GMail threads.

Banjoy, and thank you to everyone who packed the house. Special thanks to Michael for lending his talent and insight during the collaboration process, George Wallace and Russ Green of Bowery Poetry Club for having for allowing me to read poetry in public.  

Kimberly Kaye at Bowery Poetry Club 2/20/11 from Hannah Miet on Vimeo.

And Hannah:

Hannah Miet at Bowery Poetry Club 2/20/11 from Hannah Miet on Vimeo.