I just learned that the poet Russell Edson has died. I'm saddened and shock by his passing. I have long adored Edson's surreal prose poetry. He will continue to be an inspiration. He was a writer who ignored trends in pursuit of his original vision.
Here's a poem by Russell Edson:
A Journey Through the Moonlight
In sleep when an old man's body is no longer aware of its boundaries, and lies flattened by gravity like a mere of wax in its bed. . .It drips down to the floor and moves there like a tear down a cheek. . .Under the back door into the silver meadow, like a pool of sperm, frosty under the moon, as if in his first nature, boneless and absurd.
The moon lifts him up into its white field, a cloud shaped like an old man, porous with stars.
He floats through high dark branches, a corpse tangled in a tree on a river.
My essay "Paul's Boutique or, How I learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Beastie Boys" is now live over at StorySouth. Check it out. Thanks so much to Terry Kennedy and the find folks at StorySouth for publishing the essay, a reading of the album embedded in a personal reflection about my long relationship with the album.
The essay is also a kind of tribute to Adam Yauch, the gravely-voiced MCA, who succumbed to cancer last year. When I heard of MCA's death, I was shocked by how much the news affected me. I've long loved hip-hop (as well as jazz, outlaw country, rock-n-roll, the blues, and a host of other musical genres), but I felt no special affinity for hip-hop. The emptiness and sorrow I felt over MCA's death forced me to write to figure out my feelings. The resulting essay taught me something about the way that I conceive of music and authenticity. I am pleased that what began as a post for this blog grew into something much more rich and c complex. I'm also happy that the essay appears in StorySouth. Way back in 2004, the late Jake Adam York published some of my poems there, one of my earliest publications. I'm honored to have been included back then, and I'm honored to see my writing in StorySouth again.
This newest issue features awesome work by Richard Kraweic, John Tribble, and C.D. Mitchell. By the way, Mitchell's collection of short stories, God's Naked Will, has just been released by Burnt Bridge Press. You need to be reading this book right now. Yes, right now. Go, order a copy. Seriously. Read it.
Thanks to poet and blogger (and recently-dubbed "Doctor") Keith Montesano for interviewing me for his "First Book Interviews" blog. You can find the interview here.
The interview puts me in some very good company, and I'm honored to be featured by poets as amazing as Justin Evans, Allison Pelegrin, Dan Albergotti, Jehanne Dubrow, and Gary L. McDowell. To be mentioned in the same breath as these writers is simply overwhelming. Reading their work, I'm reminded that it's an amazing time to be a writer, despite the doom and gloom we hear about the so-called "death" of the humanities. Poetry is alive and kicking, and it's so much more compelling and diverse than anyone outside of the poetry world (and many inside the poetry world) suspect.
Keith's a wonderful poet in his own right. Definitely check out his debut collection, Ghost Lights, a haunting and memorable book of poetry, as well as his follow-up, the forthcoming Scoring the Silent Film, both from Dream Horse Press.
Poet, novelist, and critic Michael Meyehofer (poetry editor at Atticus Review) shows some love to Brackish in the new issue of Rain Taxi. I am very appreciative of this insightful review. I'm a huge fan of Meyerhofer's poetry. His book Blue Collar Eulogies is just fantastic. But his words about Brackish gave me pause. He understands my work better than I do. And, as I Tweeted the day I read the review: it's a great thing to be read. It's a blessing to be understood. Much thanks to Michael and to the fine folks at Rain Taxi.
From the review:
The poems in Jeff Newberry's Brackish balance grittiness with restraint, taut imagery with dark humor. the result is an intoxicating lyrical energy about as far removed from pretension and sermonizing as one can get.
I like to think that, at times, in the right light, I look a bit like one of my heroes, the poet Richard Hugo. We're both writers obsessed with place, both writers who love jazz, and both writers who see the terrain beneath our feet as a starting place, a jumping-off point, a pick-up note for poetry. Hugo's best work is improvisatory. He finds a rhythm in line one and develops a theme, like Miles Davis locked in the pocket, exploring the mode.
Hugo's work taught me that the triggering subject is the root, but the improvisation is the key. I'm nowhere near the poet was; don't misunderstand me. Rather, I see in him a kindred spirit, someone I look up to, someone who's work continues to inspire me.
I'm planning a fishing trip soon. I'll look out over the Gulf of Mexico, cast a line out, and listen to the surf churning in. I'll be thinking of Richard Hugo, mourning the fact that I never got a chance to meet him. I'll try to keep this poem in my head:
Quick and yet he moves like silt.
I envy dreams that see his curving
silver in the weeds. When stiff as snags
he blends with certain stones.
When evening pulls the ceiling tight
across his back he leaps for bugs.
I wedged hard water to validate his skin-
call it chrome, say red is on
his side like apples in a fog, gold
gills. Swirls always looked one way
until he carved the water into any
kinds of current with his nerve-edged nose.
And I have stared at steelhead teeth
to know him, savage in his sea-run growth,
to drug his facts, catalog his fins
with wings and arms, to bleach the black
back of the first I saw and frame the cries
that sent him snaking to oblivions of cress.
From Making Certain it Goes On: The Collected Poems of Richard Hugo
The Sundress Best of the Net online anthology is now live. Featuring some great poetry by Eduardo Corral, Elizabeth Ashe, and Wendy Xu, this year's publication features fiction by James Valvis (among others) and nonfiction by Peyton Marshall (among others). The beautiful cover image is by Rhonda Lott.
Contributing journals include Blackbird, Flycatcher: A Journal of Native Imagination, and Waccamaw: A Journal of Contemporary Literature, all perennial favorites of mine.
In effect, asking what a poem is about is like asking what music is about. And our inability to answer that question succinctly is hardly a testament to the meaningless of poetry—or music for that matter. When we mistake a poem for a newspaper article or even an anecdote, then the expectations for a poem’s language changes—and drastically. As Eliot said, poetry “is a concentration, and a new thing resulting from the concentration, of a very great number of experiences which to the practical and active person would not seem to be experiences at all.”
Can I get an amen?
Forget all that you’ve learned. How many workshops taught me never to use a to be verb? That rule used to cripple me when I tried to write prose. Now, I write “was” and “is” as much as I want to. Open up a book by Faulkner and count the to be verbs. You’ll be shocked.
For me, finding a writing place is key. Find a place, a physical location. Clear your schedule and go to that place. Sit down for an hour and write. Do not worry if the writing is any good. Just write.
Writing is not something to turn on or turn off. It happens all the time. I have my characters in my head constantly. If I’m working on a poem, I’m constantly chewing over a phrase or a word or a line break. To be a writer, think like a writer.
Read. Read everything from the classics to contemporary genre stuff. Read poetry. Read fiction. Read essays. Read a book by China Mieville. Then read a book by James Joyce. Read Hemingway. Read James Baldwin. Read Tom Franklin. Read Virginia Woolf. Read outside your genre. Poets, read fiction. Fiction writers, read poetry. Essayists, read fiction and poetry. Read challenging writing. Read writing that makes you use a dictionary.
Read and learn. Read like a writer. Ask How does this writer get away with that?
Fall in love with language. Pick favorite words. Enjoy those words. Fall in love with the sounds of words, the intrinsic rhythms of language.
Let literary theorists worry about literary theory.
Imitate the writers you love. Imitation is how all children begin to learn, and imitation is how writers begin to write.
Forget about originality. Your writing is original because you are writing it. Stereotypes emerge from half-finished work. If you tell the truth (whatever that may be and however that may appear), then your writing will be fresh and original.
Don’t worry about developing a “voice.” Your voice will emerge as you write. Despite contemporary thought that tells us the intrinsic self is a fiction, you know who you are. Your writing will sound like you eventually.
Ignore writers who tell you that you can’t or should write a certain way. Ignore writers who tell you to avoid certain subjects. Ignore anyone who tries to tell you that your writing is not important.
Readers are important, but the story or essay or poem needs to please you first. Write the kind of work you want to read.
Do not quit. Develop a damned stubborn insistence on your own writing. Harry Crews says that writing is like fishing. You have to keep a worm in the water. Do not let a day go by without casting into the water.
Writing is thinking. Just because you don’t a new chapter or a new poem every day doesn’t mean that you’re not writing. Keep your head in your work.
Care enough about your writing to discipline it. Don’t pretend that grammar rules are beneath you. If you don’t care about your writing, why on earth would you expect anyone else to?
Revision isn’t “fixing errors.” Revision is figuring out what the story/poem/essay is all about. Revision is writing. Writing is revision.
Read your own work aloud. Listen to your words. Enjoy how they feel in your mouth. Practice visceral reading: emphasize syllables as you read. Try go find the music in your writing, be it poetry or prose.
Don’t worry about writing “literature.” History will decide whether or not your work stands the test of time.
Find a community of writers, folks who understand what you’re facing. Make friends. Swap work. Understand that while writing is a lonely business, a writer doesn’t have to be a lonely soul. Nix that “suffering artist” nonsense. There’s enough suffering in the world already.
I’ve been reading a lot of prose this summer: William Gay, Tom Franklin, Charles Frazier, Larry Brown, all southern novelists who have a love for the land and whose work reflects that love. I’m working on a book, myself, and I look to these writers for guidance and inspiration. And as much as I love reading their work, however, I often find myself simply overwhelmed, and I sink into this pit of self-doubt. I worry that I’ll never be as good a writer as any of these guys, and I think Why try?
This is a hard place for any writer to inhabit. On the one hand, I need the inspiration. When I study how Larry Brown seamlessly intertwines the third-person narrative voice with the character’s voice, I am driven to try something similar in my own prose. At the same time, I think, “If Brown did it this way, when why would you even try? He’s a master. You’re a journeyman, at best.”
There is no easy answer here. I’m driven to imitate Brown and Gay and Franklin and Richard Hugo and Yusef Komunyakaa and numerous other writers for the same reason I imitate Slash and Buddy Guy and Stevie Ray Vaughan on guitar: the voice is one-of-a-kind; an irresistible charm comes over me when I hear it. No, I’ll never write a Larry Brown character any more than I’ll play a solo exactly as Slash does. But in my imitation, I slowly figure out my own voice, who I am on the page.
Poets talk a lot about voice, but fiction writers have a voice, too, a way of writing prose that is unquestionably their own. This voice is not something slap-dash, something thrown together. No matter how “natural” it sounds, I believe that this voice emerges from the wisdom accrued through revision and failure. The more you write, the more you fail. The more you fail, the more you learn. Then, you fail again, and, to quote Samuel Beckett, you fail better. And you fail better. And you fail better again.
I’m very hard on myself, and I don’t handle failure well. This probably explains why writing prose is hard for me. I’ve spent the better part of my writing career writing and reading poetry, and I think that I’ve come to some understanding of it. I am by no means a perfect poet (God, who is?), but I think I understand the genre, and I have an understanding of my own strengths and (many) weaknesses as a poet. Learning to write poetry was/is for me a process of failure, too. I have twice as many (perhaps three times as many) abandoned poems as I do successful poems. When I get frustrated writing prose (as I have been of late), it’s helpful to remember those failures that I’ve had as well as the failures that have yet to come.
Whitman said “Vivas for those who have failed.” He could have been talking to writers and artists everywhere. He likely was.
I’m still struggling to learn how to write prose. But I think, if there’s one thing that any successful writer has in common, it’s this: a damned, hard-headed, dogged persistence. You write, you fail, and you write again. Back to it. The page is waiting.
An interesting and heated conversation took place on my Facebook page a couple of days ago after I posted this message:
Holy cow. I just some ink on a rejection from a top tier journal. Very nice. It's rare that a rejection makes me feel good, but this one did.
I won’t go into the specifics of the conversation nor will I name the journal, but I will say that the vehemence and anger displayed in the conversation didn’t surprise me. There are a lot of poets writing today, and there are a lot of journals out there featuring many different kinds of aesthetics. Some poets struggle to find an audience. Other poets seem touched by the poetry gods and become well-known very quickly.
I’ll be honest: it’s hard not to be jealous when I see poets whom I’ve known a long time publishing their third and fourth book and getting featured in The Southern Review, Paris Review, and Ploughshares (for example). I want that kind of readership, too. I want that kind of audience for my work. And I want the respect of my peers. [Edited to add: I ultimately want to write well-crafted poems. History can decide if they're 'great.']
Perhaps, too, I’ll confess, that I’m trying to build a career.
“Careerism” is a nasty word in poetry circles. It carries a stink with it that keeps lots of artists at a distance. Indeed, some poets I’ve met even hold that to think about a “book” of poems as opposed to a single poem reveals (in me) an ugly need to be known. I disagree. There’s nothing wrong with a writer building a career. For some reasons, however, I’ve found that poets in particular bristle at this notion.
The reasons are probably varied, and I can only guess at a few, and I think those reasons have something to do with money. Is poetry somehow more “pure” that prose? Does the lack of money associated with poetry indicate that the genre is somehow immune from the marketplace of ideas? Make no mistake: I do believe that capitalism hurts art. One cannot reduce a work of art to its monetary value any more than one can measure the affect a work of art has on a viewer or reader.
At the same time, U.S. poets live in this system. Furthermore, many of us are academics, too, and our careers as writers are entangled (for better or for worse) with our careers as teachers. My poetry publications have a direct effect upon my teaching career—I teach composition, mainly, not creative writing (for the record). This fact sometimes troubles me—well, to be honest, this often troubles me. Still, I understand that this is how things are.
However, building a writing career is most certainly not why I started writing. I started writing at first just to express myself. Like most kids, I felt strange and awkward, and writing (songs and stories at first) gave me an outlet to try to understand my place in the world. I decided to pursue writing in school because I couldn’t imagine a life that didn’t place writing at the center of what I did. And now, though my writing career has become a part of my teaching career, I don’t sit down thinking, “Okay, that tenure review is coming up. Let me compose a new poem.” I doubt any writer thinks this way.
But to return to that Facebook conversation: my feelings about that rejection had nothing to do with my career as a writer or an academic. I respect that nameless journal greatly. I respect its editors and the writers who publish there. I respect its long history. I would love to be included in its pages, and the fact that the editors took a few precious moments to praise my work and invite a resubmission means a lot to me.
I hate to think that the poetry world has gotten so jaded that we all scoff at the notion of publication. Good and bad writing does exist, and publication can be a kind of validation. But at the end of the day, it’s just the page and me, trying to make sense of the world, trying to make meaning with syllables.
O for a muse of fire,