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Brass Tacks [by Janice Erlbaum]
That's what we're getting down to, folks. Not tin tacks, not copper tacks; not a tie tack or the wrong tack to take. Shiny, pointy, brassy tacks with slightly convex heads, such as you might find in a tack factory, or hammered into the arms of your leather sofa. Because it is Friday afternoon, here in the EST, and there is no longer anything preventing us or prohibiting us from beholding and begrabbing these brass tacks in front of us, no more alluvial layers to dig through in our quest to get down to them. (Also to get down to a margarita, should we so choose.) (YES I know it's early but it's FRIDAY.) What is the Best American Goddamn Poetry, already? I have several suggestions for arriving at the answer. 1. Just choose the poetry of Frank O'Hara. He's my personal favorite, plus his Meditations on an Emergency was featured on Mad Men, which is a television show. On television = the best, right? 2. Let the people decide! Oh, wait, I just got a call from the people. They decided on Kanye West. I told them that he was a musical artist, but they directed me to his Twitter page to explore the breadth of his oeuvre. I explained that Twitter wasn't poetry, but they told me that I was defining "poetry" by an alienating and hegemonic metric, and that the constriction to 140 characters to express meaning is not unlike the parameters of other poetic forms like haiku, sonnets, etc. I told them I'd suggest it on this blog, but I'm pretty sure nobody here is going to go for Kanye. Lesson learned: Never ask the people anything. 3. Give it to whichever poet the largest number of Americans have heard of. This means that the Best American Poet is Shakespeare. Congratulations, Shakespeare! I personally haven't read any of your work, but I hear it's really top notch. 4. Check Poets.org's list of most popular poems by page views. Right now, Langston Hughes is hogging six of the top twenty spots. So the answer is Langston Hughes. Phew! 5. Let's get a really smart guy who's read a ton of poetry to consult with other smart people in the poetry field to make what he considers to be the choices that represent the highest expression of craft, the most accurate depiction of unspeakable emotion, and stuff that sounds good. 6. Nah. 7. Two words: POETRY SLAM! So there you have it -- brassy, tacky, and hacky -- the Best American Blog Post About What Constitutes the Best American Poetry, as determined by a totally unbiased panel of myself. Thanks for reading along this week. See you in the wordy pages.
Posted Nov 19, 2010 at
The Best American Poetry
Flarf vs. Slam [by Janice Erlbaum]
In the ongoing battle to see which school of poetry can greater damage the reputation of the truly BEST American Poets -- the ones who, you know, actually read and write poems instead of watching poems, thinking them up and then performing them -- I ask you to consider these two contenders: Flarf and Slam. Flarf, a poetic form born in the digital age, originally relied heavily on Google searches of random phrases to provide the raw materials for poems. The tension between the computer generated text and the poet's human point of view results in a mishmash of half-formed ideas that resemble to an alarming degree what's going on in the scrambled brains of those of us who live at least part time in a virtual world, while also inviting the reader or audience member to impose their own meaning on the poem. I like flarf for its playfulness, its dadaist tendencies, its resemblance to found poetry, which is something I've always loved. The only downside? I can hear my friend Katie Vagnino yelling in my head: "IT'S BULLSHIT!" One of my favorite flarf poets, Sharon Mesmer: Then there's slam, either the best thing or the worst thing ever to happen to poetry. Wonderful, in that it continues the oral tradition of poetry, and inspires a lot of young people to consider poetry in a new light. Terrible, in that a lot of it is speechifying, acting, and comedy; also, oh my god, that CADENCE. Here are some slammers who come highly recommended by my friends in that community. I like this line by Buddy Wakefield, "Forgiveness is the release of all hope for a better past." So which do you think is "better for poetry?" Which do you think is "worse?" And most importantly, what do you think is next?
Posted Nov 18, 2010 at
The Best American Poetry
Mamihlapinatapai [by Janice Erlbaum]
In 1993, the Guinness Book of World Records declared the word "mamihlapinatapai" to be the world's most succinct word. I heard this and thought, "Seven syllables isn't exactly succinct," but then I learned its meaning: "A look shared by two people with each wishing that the other will initiate something that they both desire but which neither one wants to start." Like a kiss, or a game of rock-paper-scissors. What a beautiful way to say it, as opposed to how it sounds in English: "And then we were both, like, uhhhh..."* The word mamihlapinatapai is Yaghan, an indigenous language from Tierra del Fuego; it's the language of the Yagan peoples, who populated the archipelago for over 10,000 years before Magellan "found" it in 1520 and basically set them up to be slaughtered by Europeans. Now the language that described life for the people who lived at the very southernmost tip of the habitable world for a thousand centuries may be coming to an end in ours -- there's only one living speaker of Yaghan left in Chile, and she's in her seventies. Truth? I cribbed most of this off the Endangered Languages Alliance site. I was poking around on it because I've recently joined the Board at Bowery Arts & Science, and Bowery founder Bob Holman is involved with the ELA, and BAS also sponsors some endangered language projects, which I'm trying to learn more about, because it overlaps with the mission to keep the oral tradition alive and vital, and also because it's sort of my homework. But, like, I mean, I dunno. Languages change, you know; whatevs. They're dying out all the time, another language every two weeks. I think about my recent travels to Amsterdam and France, where everybody was speaking English, a language born of a world view of foreign origin, imposed upon most of Europe like an ill-fitting costume. I think about all the things I can only say in Yiddish -- "ungapatchka," or "kvelling" -- which have no English analog. And then I read this on the ELA site: "As languages die, thousands of years of accumulated human knowledge, experience, creativity and evolution goes with them." As we say in Internet-ese these days, THIS.
Posted Nov 17, 2010 at
The Best American Poetry
Recipe for a 15-minute poem [by Janice Erlbaum]
I wanted to share a poetry exercise I like to do with students who are intimidated by the idea of writing poetry, in case it might be useful to you, reader dear. Because it consists of writing fragments and then tumbling them together, and because it's like looking at your life through a bunch of tiny mirrors, I call is the Kaleidoscope. The instructions are as follows: 1. Get your notebook, or open a new document. (You'd think this would be evident, but I've seen people try to do this in their head.) 2. Write down the top five things on your mind in no more than a few phrases E.g.: The thing with Melanie Money money money Cheryl's tumor Writing writing writing Gut hanging over waist of pants 2. Write down five lines of dialogue you've either heard or said this week E.g.: "These tickets are no good for tonight, you were supposed to be here last night." "Janice, can you take care of that?" "Based on what happened yesterday I think we need to talk." "I think the material is mostly there." "Pardonnez moi?" 3. Write down five things you have in your bag, using two words per item. E.g.: Broken lipstick Extra tissues Great Expectations Sugar-free gum Various change 4. Write down five "freeze frame" moments, little moments from the movie of your life, from the past month. E.g.: Hugging a woman I didn't want to hug Biting my lower lip while watching reality TV Nearly crying with hunger and frustration outside the store Standing in tree pose while my oatmeal cools Glaring at the empty page, which glares back at me 5. Write down five quotes, phrases, lines from songs, whatever jumps into your head as describing your life right now. E.g.: Fake it 'til you make it "La vie en rose" "Shut up, just shut up, shut up" "I work this relationship 9 to 5, and I deserve overtime" "I can't help it, that's the way that I am." Okay! You now have eight minutes to reorganize these lists into stanzas. You can use a formula -- one from list A, one from list B, then from C, D, and E, then repeat -- or you can shuffle them according to any scheme you want. You can leave items out or rephrase them, or you can copy them exactly. If one of the above phrases seems like a good title or starting point, start there. As long as you write a poem, you can write anything you want -- obviously -- you don't need my permission to write a poem, and in case you do need it, you most certainly have it. These tickets are no good for tonight, you were supposed to be here last night. Pardonnez moi? Nearly crying with hunger and frustration, Faking it until I fake it some more; shut up Just shut up, shut up. Based on what happened Yesterday, I think we need to talk – The thing with...
Posted Nov 16, 2010 at
The Best American Poetry
NAACPoets [by Janice Erlbaum]
I judged a poetry slam on Friday night. It's been about eighteen years since I was a little baby slammer, all of 23 years old, waving my righteous little fist around on the stage of the Nuyorican Poets Cafe, hoping that MTV would put me on the air (they did) and make me into a famous poet (they didn't). And in that eighteen years, I've seen my share of slams, and often enjoyed them, though the formula's getting a little stale. But it's been a while since I put on my judging shoes (sneakers, in case I have to run from an angry poet), whipped out the fat black marker that makes me dizzy when I smell it (I know -- don't smell it! But I have to, just to check and see if it still makes me dizzy!), and tried to assign a quantitative value to another poet's expression of their art. Then I was invited by a teenaged writer I know to judge the NAACP -- that's the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People -- Jamaica Youth Poetry Slam. Which was very cool, especially for a comparatively colorless Pink Person, as I am definitely in favor of the advancement of all peoples, especially youthful peoples, and I was eager to see what the ever-rotating cast of Kids Today was up to when it came to the spoken word. Friends! I have journeyed far and wide! (St. Albans, Queens, which is pretty goddamn far/wide from my place in Manhattan, and is also the birthplace of LL Cool J, and therefore a significant site in the history of hip hop.) I have listened to derivative drivel, and I have had my ears filled with gold! (Metaphorical gold, not the molten metal kind, because that would be painful.) And I have come to tell you that there is hope for slam poetry! Teenagers, man. They're really good. They're really inspired -- they are passionate about social justice, they are passionate about their loves and their hates, and they are passionate about their art. And they're fresh; they haven't had the hope stomped out of them yet. They haven't been told that their work suffers from a lack of tangible imagery, or the meter here is inconsistent, or that the last word of every line in your poem needs to be the same in every stanza according to this formula: ABCDEF, FAEBDC, CFDABE, OMFG. They just talk about what's on their mind: Paying the bills, getting harassed by law enforcement, worrying about the long term effects of this summer's oil catastrophe (I refuse to call it a "spill," a word that implies a small, easily solvable mess). One young man, in the course of an otherwise beautifully composed and intricately rhymed poem, dropped a couple of lines that suggested he felt antithetical to homosexuality. And he lost to a lovely young woman with a short 'fro and a girlfriend. Not only were the young poets on fire; the crowd was...
Posted Nov 15, 2010 at
The Best American Poetry
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