I write short stories every day in my gchat status,
then post them here. If that doesnt do it for you,
well I don't know what.

Contemporary Poetry in Three Parts (III)

By Hanna Tawater, on reading and interpreting modern poetry. Also check out Part I and Part II.

Something that strikes me more and more is fiction writers saying they “don’t get” poetry, AND poets saying they “don’t get” fiction. Sometimes I feel there is this growing divide between genres, at the same time that so many people are interested in blurring lines between genres. It creates this exclusionary paradox, it creates genre cliques. 

But I think there is so much to be gained from studying those genres you don’t understand. Poets can learn a lot about structure, arc, and voice from studying and even writing fiction. Likewise fiction writers can learn a lot about sonics, aesthetics, nuance, precision from studying and writing poetry. Fiction sort of requires understanding the world you are creating which leads to more cohesive writing. Poetry requires you understand the decisions you are making, using each word with purpose, which leads to tight, intentional writing.

So, I personally feel, for any writer in any genre, the “I don’t get _____” argument is a load of crap. If someone is serious about writing, it is their responsibility to explore what forms and genres that writing can be delivered in. And with anything, you don’t have to like it, but you should be able to at least think critically about it. 

Contemporary Poetry In Three Parts (II)

by Hanna Tawater, in response to a question of how to approach the work of current poets. Read Part I here.

Eleni Sikelianos is probably my favorite living poet and perhaps the most influential on my own work. Her big thing (and mine too) is using other venues and disciplines of knowledge to create poems that are both beautiful and thought-provoking. The way I think of it is taking poetry out of its arena of exclusivity and showing how it integrates with other fields.

Rae Armantrout has similar concerns as Eleni, but her concerns manifest in a much more pared down way. She’s one of the big figures associated with the Language movement, but she still thinks of herself as a lyric poet. Her big thing is nuance and economy of language. Note the explanation at the end of this one:
And a good example of language economy ‒ saying as much as you can with as little as possible:

I read Gillian Connoley’s newest book recently. I didn’t love it, but it’s a good example of new poetry that is subtly didactic and still very aesthetic. (Excerpt is in the middle of the review)

To illustrate a third dimension of poetry, I heard Jean Portante read a few weeks ago and bought his book that day. He is a little more rooted in “tradition,” but his poems are stunning. This clip shows another aspect of poetry that contemporary poets are thinking more and more about: the performance. Some poems are simply written to be recited more than read ‒ again thinking about ways traditional notions of form can be disrupted.

I couldn’t find any excerpts online, but Rodrigo Toscano’s Deck of Deeds is amazing and, I think, a great example of the “project poem.” Ezra Pound had his Cantos, but the idea of long-form cohesive poetry projects is pretty recent trend. Deck of Deeds takes cards from the Mexican bingo game and write prose poems to them. They are sometimes impenetrable, but really quite good.

Claudia Rankine is someone who works a lot in sound and voice. Check out her Situations videos: http://claudiarankine.com/
And here is an excerpt from her book Don’t Let Me Be Lonely which I really loved (it’s all prose poetry and sort-of blurs the lines between fiction, non-fiction, and poetry.)

Julie Carr is just an awesome contemporary poet. She’s a dancer and I find her poems often have a kinetic energy at the same time as being lovely to read.

Amaranth Borsuk is the poster child right now for digital poetics, even though she’s only got one book that really deals with digi-poetics, but it’s the book that everyone references when they talk about the “next step” for poetry. Here’s a clip of her discussing it.

Part III here.

Contemporary Poetry In Three Parts (I)

Having fallen asleep on the couch last night reading X-Men comics, I was not yet awake when my girlfriend Hanna Tawater wrote this slapdash of brilliance this morning like it weren’t no thang. It was originally composed in response to a fellow writer’s public Facebook proclamation that they didn’t understand how to interpret the poetry they’d been reading in current lit journals. I wanted to catch it in a blog bottle before it disappeared into the ether of social media comment threads.

So behold: if you, or someone you love, fancies themselves a writer but harbors the dark secret of not “getting” poetry, this is for you. If you “get” poetry but have trouble explaining it, or if other kinds of writing elude your similarly, this is also for you. Enjoy.


Hanna Tawater

First off, just generally, a large concern in contemporary poetry which can be alienating to audiences sometimes are questions such as: What hasn’t been done yet? How can I complicate form? How can I complicate content? How can I make something that is both aesthetic and useful? etc.

I think to understand contemporary poetry, you have to understand the tradition it comes from and also works against. Up until, really, just the 50s-60s poetry was still the stodgy stiff white man’s domain. It was all Tennyson and Chaucer, or Whitman and Williams if you were edgy. Even as more women and people of color began writing, they weren’t widely read or taught until the second half of the century. That’s about the time you start to see more experimental writing as well, and an increased interest in being subversive. Poetry, like much art, was becoming no longer a serious tenet of the upper class, but an accessible mode of social expression.

Fast forward to today, in an increasingly technocratic society the arts and humanities are having to defend their usefulness more and more. Poetry is getting hit the hardest. But at the same time more and more people are writing poetry than ever before. So there is this constant urge to not just express, but to contribute, to do something new, or find new ways to reinforce the old. 

I think the three characteristics that I see most often in new poetry can be boiled down to the following:

Experimental: Fucking with form for the sake of fucking with form. Often times has no great reason for the formal decisions, but sometimes gives cause to think about how form affects content which is a concern of largely the second half of the century. Sometimes this errs into the “gimmicky,” but sometimes can be very interesting and makes poetry feel more three-dimensional.

Aesthetic: This includes things like sound poetry and language poetry. Having little context or meaning, but creating a purely aesthetic experience. This started in Dadaism and grew through the Language movement as a tactic against classicism of traditional poetry ‒ creating something beyond meaning and therefore penetrable by all.

Didactic: The specific use of poetry as a social tool. I think this arena is where a lot of anxieties over purposefulness of poetry manifest. People who write didactic poetry are trying to show how the arts are still a tool for social change and a venue for free speech. Often times didactic poetry is just beat you over the head simple, but sometimes it can be quite clever, nuanced, and empathetic.

Part II here.

Goddamned Horrible Monkeys

No one could be sure who put the lamppost at the corner of Birmingham and 5th Street, especially because Birmingham was a bombed-out crater and 5th Street had become a radioactive fallout shelter so toxic even your ex-girlfriend wouldn’t look for drugs there. The entire neighborhood of North Heronside was some kind of desolate trashland of desert and shadows that just bent light wrong, either because of the radioactivity or somehow in spite of it, as sunbeams curved around the vibrations of waste that made the air soupy with flammable grit and the odor of burning tires.

If it weren’t for the cache of rabid turkeys that were able to beat the heat and feed on the cockroaches and horned beetles that swarmed there in the afternoons, no one would have bothered with that particular section of street — it was all whirlydoodles and hyped-up wild hares on ribbons of fried jackports, and no one could make heads nor tails of the violence that came out of there. The whole thing was just about enough for me — I was more than content to stay at home watching the afternoon movie, with kids hollering and the wife shooting up comasteaks in the bathroom down the hall, the same kind of domestic bliss I remember from other children’s families as I watched them through the windows of their homes when I was young.

But no — I was your friendly neighborhood lamppost collector, a trade I learned from my father’s father and his father’s father before him, and so it was my duty to trek headfirst into the cloudforms in order to retrieve what few examples of steel, glass, and useless conduits I could in the barren wreckage of the worst parts of town. It was lucky this was my last pickup, as I’d heard a score of ‘posts had just been found by the north sluice, across the Pottermine River, which everyone knew was code for “halfway to never and never to none”.

I was sick of the gig, to be honest, and more than a little concerned that in my gonetime the old lady was making cozy with the armored baboon who’d moved in up the street. But he and his monkey laboratory would have to wait — right now it was between me and that fucking lamppost on 31st and Barnes, which all things being equal made the one in North Heronside look like a creamy, dreamy-smooth side of Turkish Delight.

Literary Conferences of the Pacific Northwest

We were in Seattle when they found the Peruvian in the trunk of our white Dodge Challenger. We insisted he was only there because the backseat was overflowing with poets and anarchists. The Peruvian’s head was half-shaved and he swore this was common practice back where he was from. We promised we were new here and pointed to the California plates.

They asked us why we’d been dancing in traffic and arguing loudly about the worth of performative rhetoric in various bars, submarine shops and organic grocery stores since we’d rolled into town. We explained that our driver had lost her glasses, and since then it had been nothing but green smoothies, peanut butter and banana sandwiches, Tom Waits dance parties, and nine fifty-dollar boozehound ne’er do well professional academicians shacked up in a hippie mansion near the interstate that used to be a day care center.

If only we hadn’t rented that pearl-toothed muscle car, we commiserated afterwards. All the Nissans we could have chosen were at least five-person backseaters.


Do you live in Southern California? Would you like to see me read aloud things that have been posted on gchatus, and other things that haven’t?

Next week I will reading at two — erm — readings in San Diego, California (greatest city in the world.)

First up is a showcase on Saturday, Nov 16th, being put on by So Say We All, a literary non-profit I’ve done a lot of work with. I’ll be reading/performing/shouting a short piece affectionately called “Bullshit.” Click the pic to check out the event listing:

And on Monday the 18th I’ll be reading as a part of NOW THAT’S WHAT I CALL POETRY VOL II, which is from all accounts going to be an evening of crazed wordslinging debauchery. I will probably be reading some familiar pieces there from the gchatus archive.

What’s more, I’ll be doing it up with amazing Tumblr-ers, bloggers, and friends Tina Hy,  Grant Leuning and Kendall Grady, and my girlfriend, poet Hanna Tawater. It’ll be extra psycho-nuts. Click the pic:

So yeah, maybe those things? Maybe you being there? Who knows in this crazy mixed-up world.

Bear Suit

He called his students white devils, refused to learn our names, and told us not to try that shit until after we got tenure. He told us he wouldn’t retire until there was a cure for polio, or he got students who could build him new legs. It took us three semesters to realize he never answered the question of what tribe he was descended from the same way twice. He told us his totem was a bear spirit. He wrote books that he said young white devils were too stupid to understand. Two of the guys built a full-body prosthesis for their final project and covered it in bear fur. He failed them on sight. Then he tried it on anyway and said, “If this works, white devils, you’ve built the real shit.”

Two Cowboys and a Dinosaur and A Declaration Of War

If I had to nail down exactly what I wanted to do, I think about taking apart the walls of my house. I think about unstapling the sky that hangs over my house and taking it down and crumpling it like shelf paper and throwing it out. I think about the act of dismantling — how many structural systems might need to be fragmented in order for me to sleep better. How much nothing would put me at peace.

The Polytribes

We lived in a universe of pockets and of orbs. Each room has a key and each key refracts so that the world you came from is a room and the room you entered is a world. If you feel like each tribe you meet has rules and traditions you don’t understand because you don’t have rules and traditions of your own, this is completely normal. There are systems of thought happening around you and you weren’t born with one, and the one you were born with you can’t see. Conversely, the tribes around you think your tribe has it so together. They marvel at the richness of your world, at the completeness of your room. They dress themselves in fruit paste and peacock feathers and dance around their fires. They reinforce the universe they have constructed and by extension you feel less and less that you are allowed to share. It stopped making sense to you how everything works and sometimes you are overwhelmed by the responsibility you feel to contribute. I am talking about living in a technoverse. I am talking about whether you live in the moment, or you live in the same word on a page a hundred years. We’re none of us getting out of here. One room opens into another. You try to paint a complete picture but you need a canvas that isn’t flat. You need a canvas that opens into a thousand other canvases, and each one of those a thousand more. You are only one painter and one painter has no time to paint them all. All the other painters try and this is fine. It is fine that they paint faster and better. It is fine you can’t get the paint just right or the angle just right. There is time. Believe that there is time.

The Riders

I like to think I knew them pretty well. Their hoofprints, the weight of them, the way the steam from their mouths and nostrils hung on air. I had no names for any of them. They would not take my names.

One morning I found her in the plains where the herd grazed. She had saddled one. It wasn’t one of mine. The stirrups hung loose from its flank. She ran a hand across its back while it fed. The beast did not tense, or try to bite her. Simply huffed its meal, teeth brushing on dirt.

We walked with the herd until midday, until the edge of my father’s land. She saddled up, and readied to depart.

"There are more herds out there," she said. "Of all kinds. All stripes."

The sun hung behind her and I thought of my cabin. My barn. My fences. My father long since gone. How each time I made my way to town, the road got longer.

I almost lost her against the treeline, and for a moment let her go. Then I saw the rhythm of a rider against the sky. I saddled up, and moved out. 

I did not rush, at first. And then the skyline changed, and I rode through forest, invading clearings. We crashed through tumbled trees.

I keep sight of her. She is always one horizon farther. And I wonder if she, in turn, is following. If she’s like me. If she never catches up.