Friday, May 26, 2006

The state of the American book

The big “do”, as we say in the South of any event that is significant, in the book world just concluded, and guess what? The book world has changed. John Updike says so. It must be true.

A release about Book Expo America from the Associated Press quotes Updike as saying the written word is “supposed to speak for itself and sell itself.”

I reckon if you’re John Updike, you can endorse an attitude like that.

Updike didn’t talk about his own upcoming book during his presentation at Expo, so I won’t either.

But as a poet, I can guarantee you that if you do not get your work out into the public arena, the only people who will buy it are your family members and maybe your very good buddies.

I’ll say it again: American literature has gradually become American entertainment. Mysteries, crime-of-the-week books, celebrity penned muck—those are the dominant categories on a best-seller list at the moment headed by book facilitator James Patterson.

If you think I’m sucking on sour grapes, that’s fine by me. But I don’t rely on my books to survive. Why do you think I stuck with freelance writing for all these years?

Take poetry, for instance (yep, that again). Go into your nearest library and try to talk about poetry with whoever’s in charge. You’ll be lucky if the librarian can identify ten living poets. Go into your nearest bookstore. Try to find a poetry title. Allow extra time if you’ve got anything else to do. Turn on your TV, pick up your newspaper. Pick up one of those glossy women’s magazines—after all, well-educated women, according to the Poetry Foundation’s Poetry in America study are primary readers of poetry. If you’re lucky, you might find some greeting card verse in a magazine like Woman’s World. Most guidelines for topical women’s magazines state emphatically: NO POETRY.

To the seven sisters in glossy women's publishing, I suggest you add some poetry. You are neglecting an important interest in your readership.

So we’ve split the purest most demanding form of writing apart from our mainstream literature. Intellectuals like to expound that your average American can’t understand “serious” poetry.

We got another word for that kind of attitude down “heah.” But I wouldn’t be comfortable sharing it with you.

I’ll concede this: Americans can’t understand it if they can’t find it. And at the moment, foreign owned publishers that dominate American letters and large corporations and small companies as well are doing a fine job of keeping poetry from the American people. The book world is no longer run by those who consider our literature the keeper of our language. It is run by packagers, marketing people and publicists. Bean counters figure in there somewhere.

I challenge anyone to read any of the plentiful articles penned about Book Expo. If you find a quote from a poet, do let me know. (Click on the title of this column for a sample).

Meanwhile, go read a poem. You may actually remember some lines or find yourself inspired. It won’t go from your eyes through your brain into the cerebral center where useless information vaporizes, and that’s where most of what you will find at the front of bookstores and libraries goes.

Finally, it isn’t the idea of reading to be entertained that bothers me. It’s the fact that this is the book industry now, lock, stock, and barrel. You’d think with the diversity buzz word on everyone’s lips, we’d apply that to the written word as well.

Friends don't call me a poetry warrior for nothing.

Hero of the week: Phillip Milano, assistant Metro editor and River Bend Review editor (also columnist and author of I Can’t Believe You Asked That). Phillip ran a poem I wrote about a photo taken by Dan Scanlon, metro writer and RRR writer. He ran it on the front page of the community sections. That may be a first in Jacksonville—for poetry to appear on the front page of anything. I freelance for the TU and Phillip is my editor, but if he hadn’t thought it worthy, he wouldn’t have run it. So I’m singing his praises.

A wilted bouquet to: Jacksonville’s public library foundation (NOT the library, but the private fundraising organization). Why? Poetry was completely omitted from this year’s book festival. James Patterson keynoted.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Q&A with Poetry editor

Writers are sometimes the last to know--I just found out that my Q&A with Christian Wiman, editor of Poetry magazine, is now live at The Writer. Visit the site to read:

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

A first for me

For the first time--I think, if memory serves me right--one of my poems has been published in a newspaper.

The Florida Times Union's neighborhood news sections, including the one for my own part of town, ran the poem today on the front page. I wrote the poem after seeing this cool photograph a reporter named Dan Scanlon took. I sent the poem to Dan so he could see what his photo inspired.

The photo showed the sun rising and the full moon in the sky at the same time. Unfortunately you can only see this photo in the print edition. But the poem's online.

I wrote about writing the poem in an earlier blog.

To read "The wishing sky" click on the title of this column or go to:

It's a neat thing having a poem in the newspaper.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Finding night

My daughters read it and were profoundly moved, but until recently, I’d never read Elie Wiesel’s memoir Night. When the book group I visit selected it, I confess I was a little unenthusiastic. Not because I thought it an unworthy book, but because I’d already read so much about World War II and Nazi Germany—nonfiction, fiction, and poetry.

So I picked up the slim little volume and read it last night. As I began, I wondered if it would affect me as sharply as Anne Frank’s diary. As I continued to read, I realized that although both books deal with tragedy, Frank’s diary, kept while she and her family were in hiding, pulls at the reader because her perspective is so innocent.

Wiesel’s memoir, however, recounts the direct experience of living in a concentration camp, of being subjected to forced labor and savage conditions. His innocence dissolved as soon as he was en route to the camps, and even earlier, once his family was moved from their home into the temporary ghetto in Sighet. The only innocence in Wiesel, narrating as a teenager, is in the brief pages that precede the deportation of his Jewish family, friends and neighbors.

Not long ago, I read news stories about Iran’s president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who called the Holocaust a “myth”. As I read Wiesel’s book, I wondered at an intellect that could deny the Holocaust. After all, there’s a daunting paper trail—one archive, according to an article in The Telegraph comprises over 50 million documents and includes records for over 17 million people.

One element that makes Wiesel’s memoir so disturbing is his narrative style. He recounts his experiences in an almost clinical tone, with occasional spurts of metaphor. He speaks in sparse prose passages of seeing prisoners hanged, of watching a man crawling to a soup cauldron die, by accident because of Allied bombing. He applies the same tone to thinking about the possibility of having his own leg amputated, and to caring for his dying father.

The most powerful image, in my opinion, is at the end of the book. Wiesel’s camp has been freed, and he’s in the hospital after a case of food poisoning. He gets up to go look in the mirror, something he hadn’t done since leaving his home town to go to the camps. “From the depths of the mirror,” he writes, “a corpse gazed back at me. The look in his eyes, as they stared into mine, has never left me.”

Reading Wiesel's memoir is like looking into the mirror alongside the author. And books like this never leave us either. Perhaps we might gift a selection of nonfiction books like Night and The Diary of Anne Frank, and maybe a novel like Sophie’s Choice to Iran’s top government leader. Are such books readily available, I wonder, in that country?

After all, Iran doesn’t exactly embrace freedom of speech. Unless of course you’re the president.

Recommended link of the week:Chicana Poetics
Interesting blog, but a must-read is the poem “Brandy down our throats like fire”. Just an exceptional work.

Suggested reading:
Creative Writer US; great advice for aspiring writers in my Writers at Work feature on W. Thomas Smith, Jr.

Monday, May 08, 2006

There's something about poetry

Last week, I did a poetry program for a trade association. I began by asking how many people liked to read poetry. A few hands were raised. Slowly.

Then I asked how many of them either read or listened to poetry being read when they were young. Almost every hand lifted. Enthusiastically.

When I asked how many liked poetry, every hand went up.

My findings were in line with information collected by the Poetry Foundation, publisher of the magazine Poetry. Another finding that I have experienced: people search for poems to read at funerals, weddings and other special events. Every time I check stats for my blog, I find at least one search string with one or more of the following words: poetry, funeral, wedding, healing. Click on the title of this column above to read the entire report at the PF site.

Poetry is a bit like God. Maybe we turn to it when we need it.

During last week’s program, I spoke about the significance of poetry. It’s the key to our culture and our passion as well as our history. It’s the best method for teaching students critical thinking. In my opinion.

I told my audience they likely won’t find a poetry book at the front of a store—any poetry book. Most poetry is pubbed by small presses, and I don’t know very many of those that can buy display space at the rate of $10,000. I read poems from my forthcoming collection NOTES FROM A FLORIDA VILLAGE, and a poem or two from A POETRY BREAK.

By the time they left, those who shared their time with me were excited about poetry. My publisher was very happy with the program and the results.

I like to think they all frolicked off to read some.I meant to tell them to pick up a jug of wine and a loaf of bread.

Link of the week: Poetry Magazine.
If America has a defining poetry publication, this would be it.

Tip of the week: Visit The Writer for my Q&A with Christian Wiman, editor of Poetry. It should be posted sometimes this week. Thanks to Anne Halsey, media coordinator of the Poetry Foundation, for helping to facilitate the interview.

And while you're at The Writer, enter Poetry Spotlight II, a free contest I'm coordinating there.

Monday, May 01, 2006

National Poetry Month in Jacksonville, Florida

What’s in your hometown for National Poetry Month?

I was in the middle of telling someone how much I liked Jacksonville. I told him I’d moved here about 3 years ago, and fell in love with the place.

“I don’t like it anymore,” he said. “I used to.”

We started talking about why. After all, this is the biggest land blob in the contiguous United States, as various Net sites like to tout. We’ve got a river next to none, a generous coastline, and temperate weather. Hurricanes more often than not avoid us. We’ve hosted the Super Bowl, for cryin’ out loud.

He started telling me how Jacksonville had changed the downtown area, how the jetty even changed—the popular pier was destroyed, how things used to be different when the downtown area was a place for people to congregate and entertain themselves. He believes those in charge completely miss the boat on our potential.

I’d have to agree with that. Go to St. Augustine on the weekend and you’re lucky to find a place to park. The historic downtown section is packed. Merchants have a field day. Go to downtown Jax on the weekend, and unless there’s a football game, you can have a parking field day.

But it’s not all about entertainment. Jacksonville has—dare I say it? A poetry issue. Let me give an example.

We get a Pulitzer winner here. His father won the Pulitzer for poetry too. Nary an official attended his reading. As a matter of fact, I’ve been to dozens of poetry events and I have never met any type of official (both political parties included herein) at a single event.

My publisher reissued an anthology of poetry by Jax writers. Nary a mite of support from anyone anywhere connected with the structural leaders herein. And there was actually some good poetry in that anthology—not all of it was brilliant, but some of it was written by leading magazine editors and university professors. I can whine about it because none of my work was in the anthology. So at least my criticism is objective.

What gives? I just read an article by someone who works at the library. She didn’t know April is National Poetry Month, except she works at a library and so she knows April is NPM.

Our annual book festival here, sponsored by the foundation for our city library, included a poet last year—from an out-of-state high school creative writing program. Word of mouth reviews were unkind.

That isn’t to say we don’t have poets here. We have them crawling out of our ears. We’ve got poets who go for formal work, a poet who teaches classes on a riverboat, a poet who is a university professor who edits an internationally known journal.

We’ve got poets here like me, who speak in many cities about our work, who have won awards that go far beyond North Florida’s rigid border in terms of recognition.

One of our poets, Dorothy Fletcher, just won the Robert Frost Contest.

A Jacksonville poet’s book was the only Florida poetry book cited by the Southern Independent Booksellers Association for poetry book of the year last year. A Jacksonville poet is organizing a reading of Florida poets for the Library of Congress in December, for the Poetry at Noon program. A Jacksonville poet writes regularly for well-regarded national magazines about poetry.

Our daily newspaper will absolutely not review a book of poetry, although it will do features on self-published poets in the community section. Thank God for community news. When I think about it, if it weren't for the community news and local book events sections, you wouldn't know the city had a single poet. Our city magazine rarely features anything to do with poetry. A leading women’s publication here has no idea what poetry is (I suspect).

April is National Poetry Month. In cities like Miami, Orlando, Tampa, and St. Petersburg, people know about it. But poetry should be a year-round interest. The people are interested in poetry. Teachers at schools are. I know because I am frequently invited to speak about it,not just in other places, but here at home.

Up here, “where Florida begins,” I reckon we need to tattoo it on one of our famous billboards. Maybe we could dress up a Hooters waitress, draw dark circles around her eyes and drape her with a sandwich sign asking, “Got Poetry?” Maybe we could decorate a poetry manatee? Could we invent a poetry football helmet?

Maybe we should all just send the various powers that be a poem. We could offer operating instructions with it.

Recommended poetry link of the week: Julie Carter’s blog, Carter’s Little Pill.
Why? Because her poetry works magic on your mind and ear.

Recommended to-do of the week: Enter The Writer Magazine’s online Poetry Spotlight 2 Contest.