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Nick Courtright
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Now let’s turn the lens on our own personal folly, and take a visit to psychologists’ and behavioral economists’ Land of Advice. Maybe with some study we can stumble into a few methods that will help us keep from falling on our faces, at least so frequently. Advice #1: The pre-mortem technique is an incredibly useful method to combat overconfidence when you embark upon a complex plan. This simple technique might be painful, but it’s good for you. Here it is: when you start on a plan, imagine that it’s a year or two down the line and the plan was an absolute failure. What went wrong? This would be a good thing to do in earnest when considering entering an MFA or PhD program, or trying to write a book, or getting married, or relocating to the middle of nowhere for that job you think you can’t do without. It’s difficult to make people use the technique on their own, since they want so badly for their immediate desire also to be the smart thing to do. This is why they need to be encouraged heartily to consider their own demise. And even then, they’ll probably ignore the findings. Humans are an obstinate species. In general, a good way to retroactively assess this method is to reflect on your errors, and to be truthful about what is an error. Don’t kiss your own ass. Most people, though, tend to focus on their successes. But focusing on these rarely prevents future folly. Be honest: you love(d) those compliments in your writing workshop, but sure hate(d) that punk who cut out your favorite simile. As an extension of this, studies are clear that it’s unwise to tell a kid that she’s smart, because it will foster entitlement and also a fear that something (“smartness”) can be lost. It’s much wiser to tell her that you’re proud of her for working hard. This is why it’s probably a bad idea to tell young poets that they have talent. Even if they do. It may be better to emphasize the labor that went into the successful poem, or even the serendipity. Advice #2: Another interesting way to address a pernicious problem is called “Paradoxical Intention”: in this, you actively encourage the thing that’s giving you trouble. For example, if you have a stutter, rather than trying not to stutter, you should try to stutter more, and the effort might give you some relief. If you are really anxious you should try to be anxious to see if it gives you an objective viewpoint over the problem itself. This would mean that if you want to stop writing bad poetry, you should make yourself write purposely bad poetry. This way you will truly know it when you see it. Or, you might find the low-stakes approach frees you to write with more spontaneity. Advice #3: For God’s sake, let’s not over-think things. Because when we do so, we can be dumber than rats. Proof:... Continue reading
Posted Apr 18, 2014 at The Best American Poetry
One fascinating match-making experiment, and one that can be conducted anywhere with a decent number of people (new enrollees in an MFA program?! or at a particularly bloodless faculty meeting?!), is to affix to everyone’s forehead a playing card that is visible to everyone except the person wearing it. From there tell everybody to try to match up with somebody who has the highest card value. Most everyone will aim high, only to get rejected if their own card is poor. Thus, ultimately, people tend to end up with someone who has roughly the same card value as what they have. The metaphor between this and finding a mate could not be more apparent. Also apparent is how this relates to finding a publisher. Are you the son of a Pulitzer Prize winner? Then perhaps the card on your forehead is pretty high. Did you go to graduate school in New York, or in a certain strange place in the middle of the Iowan cornfield? Then perhaps the card on your forehead is pretty high. But did you grow up in a nondescript area, with non-academic parents, and without much money? The card on your forehead is not a good one, and it will take many gifts, labor, and luck to find a high-class mate. And patience. But don’t even say “talent” to me, especially given the role of luck in all this, from an amazing poem slipping through the cracks of the slush pile at a small journal, to just happening to be the book manuscript a prize judge read when in a good mood versus an exhausted one. If you don’t take much stock in the idea of the fickleness of mood having an impact on decision-making, check this horror out: magistrates/judges grant parole at higher rates right after they have eaten, ostensibly because they’re in a good mood, while when they haven’t eaten in a long time, they are much more likely to use the rejection stamp. It’s much better to cross the desk at 1:30 than 11:30. This has been proven, and it shows that even a monumental decision like whether one is granted parole doesn’t necessarily have as much to do with whether parole is deserved, as it does with whether the person in charge of that choice just ate or not. Accordingly, editors are prone to the same whimsical decision-making. Additionally, from the publisher’s perspective, there are always those nagging financial pressures. For an example at the high-end of publishing, a publicly-traded company can be sued for breach of fiduciary responsibility if they knowingly engage in action that reduces profits. Back in 1919 Henry Ford was sued by his stockholders for raising the minimum wage of his workers because it cut into profits. Laws like this make perfect sense in a Randian world, but in the world we live in they often end up leading to dirty behavior, because you must maximize profits at all times, lest you potentially put yourself in line for... Continue reading
Posted Apr 17, 2014 at The Best American Poetry
A cursory news media analysis of positive stories versus negative ones makes it no wonder we consistently feel a sense of doom about the state of the world, even though telling metrics like air conditioning, disease control, and food and clean water availability have all improved dramatically over the last century. And let’s not forget that, crazily, the average life expectancy in ancient Greece was under 30, and that infant mortality has loomed large for most of the human race’s stay on earth. For example, as late as the 1600s in England only one-third of children made it past the age of four. Only one-third! So, it is true: got to admit it’s getting better, it’s getting better all the time. As a more abstract but no less telling way of measuring prosperity, some analysts say that saved time is the new gold standard, and that the amount of time it takes to acquire something is the true measure of what it’s worth, not how much it costs. And this is how we should measure the value of poetry: in time, not in money. Because “the time it takes to acquire” includes not just the cost of it in dollars and cents, but also the mental energy of its experience and comprehension. And if for no reason other than to measure it using money can be so damn depressing. Consider “The Wasteland.” I can easily find a copy of Eliot’s poem online for free or in a used book for under a dollar. But is this what it’s worth? Not really. I’d say it’s worth much more, if you factor in the time it will take not just for its physical acquisition, but the eons it will take for its mental acquisition. So ripely complex and irritating can that brilliant poem be, that a fine argument could be made that, in truth, it is “priceless.” As a practical analogy, though, of how time equals money, to have a light on for an hour today at an average wage will cost you about a half of a second of labor, whereas in the 1800s using a kerosene lantern, it’d take you about 15 hours of labor for 15 minutes of light. In ancient Babylon in 1750 BC using a sesame seed oil lamp, it’d take you hours and hours and hours of labor to light your tiny abode for long enough to read, say, “The Wasteland.” And this past history and context shapes everything. “Parataxic Distortion” refers to how any individual’s view of everything is impossibly and inextricably affected by her or his own past experience. For example, whenever one person talks about “mothers,” he/she is bound to the experience with his/her own mother. This gives an air of never-to-overcome subjectivity to all things: every person is bound to his/her own set of experiential definitions, and the binding is impossible to wholly break, no matter how great the desire for objectivity. In this sense, we all use a “private language,” and... Continue reading
Posted Apr 16, 2014 at The Best American Poetry
For decades, The Forest Service had a program of trying to put out every fire immediately, which was a disastrous error. This is because fires are natural, and they keep highly flammable undergrowth from becoming overgrown. Of course, during this time we also logged all the larger trees, the ones more resistant to fire. These two factors led to the humongous, unstoppable wildfires we have today, because all the trees that could slow them have been cut down, and all the brush that they feed off was allowed to grow. I love how everything in the world is a metaphor. Surrealists, if taken literally, are going crazy on this: the hamburger is the eagle, the heart is the sidewalk, the piano is our mortality. I wonder what sort of complex allegory we could craft to make the situation of wildfires applicable to poetry. Have we cut down the larger poets, and allowed the smaller ones to grow by not extinguishing what would have put them out? Or, is this a situation in which we want the wildfire, and we have allowed the poets of history to grow too strong in our minds, that the agony of their influence on us is that they are blocking us from the sunlight? To keep on the trees theme, Easter Island is a fantastic example of grotesque deforestation in an area that was once lush with forest, and also with both land and sea birds, only to become completely bereft of all of these things. The island's inhabitants just chopped down all the trees until there were none left, using trees for firewood, to build canoes, and to help them put up their silly statues, which are likely the only reason any of us know what Easter Island is. In this metaphor, I wonder whether the trees that have all been cut were tradition, or meter. Nah…those are too easy. Instead let’s say it’s the idea that a poem is where you go for spiritual knowledge, for the truth. As soon as poets ceded this territory to prose, the marginalization had begun. And now, through the eyes of the more debbie-downer among us, many of our grand statues have been tipped over, the populace has resorted to cannibalism, and no one comes to visit except tourists. Cannibalism is common in the annals of human history. The Anasazi, who thrived in the Four Corners region of Southwest America, definitely had cases of it, even though their complex of irrigation and architecture was some of the most impressive in the pre-Columbian New World. Europeans ate each other in West Greenland, while poets of all sorts have been eating each other for centuries. And Europeans, this time in Australia, were so short-sighted that they imported for hunting purposes non-native rabbits and foxes to the island, to such degree that they’ve spent the last hundred years trying to get rid of them by introducing diseases and blowing them up with dynamite. Very poetic! Continue reading
Posted Apr 15, 2014 at The Best American Poetry
You can’t write a poem so that that poem can be famous. You can only write a poem that is worthy of being famous. And if it does not become famous? Maybe it was not worthy of being famous. Or maybe it was “passed over by the grand horrible entitled machinery of the establishment leviathan who wouldn’t know good poetry if it slapped them in the tenure.” Or perhaps it “didn’t satisfy the shallow hungers of a Buzzfeed-ified media landscape where only meme-worthy clickbait poems of this exact moment in time and no other grab the groveling masses’ attention.” Or, maybe fame is not what a poem should be about in the first place. “Learned helplessness” is a term that describes when an individual or community has been conditioned not even to try to avoid suffering. This term was the result of an absolutely wretched 1960s experiment in which they shocked the hell out of a dog over a long period of time, and then, even if the dog were given the opportunity to escape from the shocks it didn’t—it had already succumbed to an utter lack of hope. We as poets must fight against this sense of learned helplessness. Although it’s possible we’ve been shocked—by student loan debt, by mountains of rejections, by the rarity of good jobs—when someone opens the door we need to be ready to walk through it. A great metaphor: if architects want to fix a decrepit arch they do what would seem counterintuitive: they put more weight on it. This is why we shouldn’t necessarily try to relieve existential tension to improve our situation, but rather we should compound the situation in hopes of ending up stronger in the future. So, perhaps to cure the oft-lamented cultural ills of poetry, we need to bring this pot to a boil. Get mad. Throw poems into the ocean. Scream them. Renounce them. Make writing a poem a criminal act. The more poets we have in prisons, the better off the art will be. You first. Continue reading
Posted Apr 14, 2014 at The Best American Poetry
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Mar 15, 2014