Friday, July 28, 2006

Groggy in Bloggywood: How I unnecessarily make enemies

Note: the following post exceeds 2000 words and thus may prove too long for cyberlitcruisers, so I'm going to insert in the text where you pass another 500 words, approximately, the way Disneyland puts up signs telling you how long you have to wait for the ride.

I'm amending the post below with an admission: I understand that I may come off as suffering from hubris, and no doubt I do; but there is a psychological reason for this. Suffice it to say that because of my father I use a hammer to kill a fly. I write as if someone's against me, opposed to my opinions, else act cocksure to repel attacks. Truly this is not who I am, or who I want to be, at least I hope not. Although I'm trying to become more self-aware of my defects, like most of us I will die more a mystery to myself than not.

Here's a poem I wrote long ago that explains my defense mechanism better:


My dad turned to me at times,
eyes hooded in drink,
to say, “I love you, Son.”
The words were eerie and eviscerate,
mechanical nightingales of rickety song.
A cigar store Indian
could have spoken them better.
My heart burned anyway.

Late at night, curled on the rug
in a fetal position before the television,
his nostrils trumpeted snores
deep enough to rattle
the fragile beanstalk of my spine.
I could never wake him

Especially in the mornings
I felt my bird-like spirit
unwelcome in his lap.
I might have been smothered
by the sports section
or crushed like a cigarette.

(Published long ago in print, later online--so my records say but I have lost the names of the journals. I only bother to explain this because of what I say below.)


A Bloggywood of Poets

I am a contrarian by nature. My wife defines genius as "being able to see your mountain from another's mountain." Once in a while I qualify.

The hallmark of genius is seeing through a different lens--much like painting the empty space around an object. It has nothing to do with SAT scores. Newton's discovery of gravity may be the single best example of genius. Who else thought about why things fall?

Archimedes, from what I've read, must have been one of the greatest geniuses ever to live. Thomas Edison, with his sixth grade education and hearing impairment, was also a genius, as was Lincoln for different reasons. The list is very long.

But the woman with the highest recorded IQ (210), Marilyn Vos Savant, is not a genius. She makes a living through a column that answers factual inquiries. She's never written a symphony or come up with a fundamental discovery in physics, and she has not supplied a paradigm for analyzing Jimi Hendrix's leads, to the best of my knowledge.

You have now read 479 words

As a same-sex second-born child, I have an exaggerated sense of fairness (my older brother beat up on me from a very early age). So when I see something crappy being praised, or merely damned with faint praise, I get angry, I get on my high horse and want to skewer the phony responses. I can't seem to get over this. Strange that birth order may be the secret to my contrariness. I have the courage of a fool. I'm the senator from Mars, the dog from disobedience school.

I feel the same contrarian spirit regarding this blogging business, especially with regard to blogged poetry.

Most comments on blogs are superficial and cheerful and very short. That's usually a sign that someone with a blog wants to get their picture and link into your blog in order to funnel more hits their way. Such bloggers go to their referral stats and post anywhere that is supplying them hits in order to increase their unique visitors per day. I’m guilty of this motive, I confess, but my comments are usually much longer than average.

Now there are a lot of crappy poets out there blogging. But because of the above, I am amazed at the trifling little compliments showered on mediocrity. It's all good!

No, Virginia, it's not. Much of it is very, very bad.

Like Hollywood and the Karaokepoetry scene, if you know the craft of poetry and are willing to speak your mind, you will soon make some permanent enemies. And that’s because most artists can’t divide their identity from their work. I tell my poetry students to “Wear your art like a loose suit.” If someone can help you taper the suit to better advantage, why not listen?

Now for my confession. Yesterday I left a less-than-complimentary comment at a blog of one who left a compliment here. I could have said nothing. I could have walked away. But after reading all the other facile comments, I wanted to say something. I tried to be polite in deviating from the constant stream of praise, but my last comment was something like, “Your poem concludes with a fatal sentimentality. I’m not interested in watching a Hummel figurines move about.”

I didn’t have to go that far, did I? What possible advantage can this have for me? None. And how does it help the artist? It doesn’t, because he/she is not at a level where my criticism would benefit them.

Anyway, if my opinion was right, all the comments before me were devalued. I may have made ten enemies with one post. I fear to return there for that reason, because friends will come to their friends’ aid and likely accuse me of cruelty. One always hopes that people will act more maturely, but I have discovered that they usually don’t. (Obviously, my need to speak "the truth must be considered immature as well. How I loved the boy who exposed the emperor!)

I want it to be about the poetry; they want it to be about feelings. Few attitudes are more destructive to the quality of art, although it is a pervasive attitude in all the orbits of the art worlds I’ve come across, from drama to music. You know— the eleventh commandment.

If I am in awe of poetic achievement, I am equally irritated by substandard poetry, especially when it is fawned over. And there's more of the latter than the former on the Net, where any nitwit can start a poetry blog and self-publish. I’m not afraid to be an example. Almost all the poems I post here have been published elsewhere.

My mother told me over and over again, "If you can't say something nice, don't say anything at all." Still, I felt the falseness of her compliments to others by some inflection or familiarity with her; she went beyond silence into trying to find one good thing to say about something that was marginal at best. That's good breeding. It wasn't passed on to me. Then she was the baby of six siblings, a better place in the birth order.

You have now read 1,176 words.

In the poetic blogosphere I see the same phenomenon: post a brief, superficial complimentary comment at someone else's blog and hope that your appearance there garners more hits on your home site. It's obvious that many people who comment on a blog do so only in order to pump up their own traffic. Rarely is anything of substance said, because this is Bloggywood. Don't say anything negative, that site might drop your link.! Oh no! Everything is good in Bloggywood, just like Hollywood: “Great work, it's a sure hit, a pleasure to read, yada yada yada sis bam boom.”

Having got that off my chest, here's contrarian column about why I quit doing readings in LA and how I was blackballed there.



Last night I did the unthinkable; at a venue in Santa Ana, CA, where I was "featured," I did the unthinkable; I spoke my mind and offended nearly everyone there. My first remark:

"I don't give a shit about what any of you think of me, nor do I mind if you leave now, or later, or go outside to smoke a cigarette while I am reading."

More: "I haven't heard one poem tonight, even from my co-feature, that deserves publication in a quality magazine." Then I employed my now standard cinema metaphor, where if poetry were film there might be one listener in the audience while the rest of the participants holed up in the projection room, desperately hawking their canisters for one projector, just as there is but one microphone.

I did my usual grandstanding of handing out books of poetry to any who came who read or listened to poetry but did not attempt to write it; unfortunately, their were four in the audience, the highest number I've ever found, and I had but two books, hardbacks by Tony Hoagland and David Slavitt-- but may I say in my defense that two of the non-writers were merely the parents of my "co-feature" who had come to support their daughter, though I was still sorry to have run out of books.

I went on speaking freely about the state of poetry today, the lack of a true audience not jealous of my every minute behind the microphone, the woeful standards, the ignorance, the smug Hollywood glad-handing world of the Spoken Word Scene here in LA. At the conclusion, the host did "something he'd never done before" and publicly castigated me from the stage for dissing poetry in general, even my own (I made fun of my most narcissistic poems as I read them.) Though livid, the crowd forced the host to allow me to reply, where I explained the difference between PEMLODS and unusual personal experiences worth recording, or universal personal experiences made fresh by the gift of language. Basically, as chief featured emperor, I pulled my own clothes off and tried to leave everyone else naked. I reminded myself somewhat of the Quaker who lit himself on fire in front of the Pentagon to protest the war, an event that haunted MacNamara for the rest of his life.

You have now read 1,698 words.

Afterwards, the host implied "You'll never work in this town again," yada yada. And by coincidence, he was forced to give me a ride home-- where we continued our argument. It was then that he gave a gift of poetry to me, in terms of metaphor: "CE, we know a lot of the poetry isn't great, but it's like... like... Karaoke."

A light then went off in my brain! That's it exactly; all spoken venues with an open mike are exactly like Karaoke, though the audiences are even less talented-- since writing good poetry, IMNSHO, is more difficult than singing passably. But I understood, finally, why for a year, with about one reading a month (solicited only because of my publications, I didn't go the "open mike" competition route), I more and more dreaded reading in public. I usually left feeling used, soiled and false. So last night I spoke my truth, and was roundly castigated for it. "Imagine," I said to the host, "where the one place you can't tell the truth is at a poetry reading. What does this say about the spoken word scene and poetry in general?"

To make my point about PEMLODS, I tried to refrain from first person poems, but was trapped even by my own work where an occasional 'I' would creep in at the end of a poem I thought safe as external to the poet's self-involvement. But as I said above and in last night's after debate, if the 'I' is universal and invites all into the experience, or the 'I' relates an exceptional experience, these are not to be discouraged. It is the 'I' that magnifies a trivial adolescent world view (depression, romance, discovery of language, poems about poems about writing poems, etc.) that qualifies for my displeasure, even disgust.

After the brouhaha they offered me my share of the hat passing and I said, "No, you hate me, I have embarrassed you, you keep the money. I don't care about it anyway." Afterwards, when they took pictures for the local Orange County rag, I refused to be in the picture because "I had shamed you and should not be included." Yet they insisted I pose with the other "feature," so I did so in penance, at which I am good, and need to be good, especially when I shoot my mouth off. ;-) But for me it was a cleansing and liberating experience.

The spoken word scene in LA, by in large, consists of poets not good enough to be published or win prizes, admittedly in themselves not the best measure of quality, but unfortunately the best measure of quality extant. If you put the words of most "performance poets" on paper they violate the opposite pole of Eliot, that is to say, boring in their repetitive monologues that have to be juiced up for delivery. Spoken word poetry to my mind more resembles the speech contest category of "Dramatic Interpretation," except the author is also the actor-- and lacks a director, or in this case, an editor. It's of poor quality, adolescent, omphaloskeptic, composed of run-on sentences, and not worth my time. Politely enduring this crap, including the "co-featured" if I am unlucky enough to have one, for ninety minutes in order to read for twenty minutes (after the Karaoke Poetry microphone is placed in my hands) is eminently not worth it to me.

So the host, driving me home, said: "Well, you can do what so and so does, and forbid open readings or co-features when you read." And I thought, "What a great idea. I may never read in LA again, but it's worth it. That way I don't have to be false and gushing (as expected of me socially) to a bunch of nitwits who, having followed the example of spoken word poets, write mostly crap, whose chief features are 1) Redundancy; 2) Narcissism; and 3) Cliché'(in a word, lack of craft).

You have now read 2,361 words.

A good poem is hard to write; a great poem nearly impossible, almost a gift, why the idea of the muse has persisted even today. But emptying your guts at a Karaokepoetry venue has very little to do with poetry. My host criticized Shakespeare and felt some LA spoken word poets compared favorably to him, that he was only good because he did it "first." Naturally, after such a comment, there could be no resolution between us, although the young man is earnest and fairly well-read. He has only been ruined by example of a decadent subculture, where celebrity is cultivated in a Hollywood atmosphere ("And never is (publicly) heard a discouraging word.")

My favorite quote about Hollywood: "In Hollywood, it is not enough to succeed; your best friend must also fail." And though there may be innocent souls out there at these venues, hungry for quality, open to improvement, the cultivation of celebrity in self-authored dramatic interpretation has to affect them negatively, and I hope they are eventually driven to read the Greats.

Ranting with Pleasure,

C.E. (blackballed in LA?) Chaffin


  1. Very interesting rant, CE!
    I do have one question. I'm sure there is a very good answer, but I just don't get it...
    Why do poets care so much about the quantity of the traffic on their site? I like to track who has visited my blog mostly because I like to see all the different countries that are represented and I think the statistics are fascinating. However, I just don't get what the big deal is about having a lot of hits. So what if a bunch of people click on your blog and click back off without even reading anything there? What does this accomplish?
    I blog because it is a way for me to meet people with similar interests. I also think it makes it possible to share parts of yourself with others who actually might be interested. Like, for instance, your post for today. You had something you wanted to get off your chest, and you were able to do so, with a fair amount of certainty that your ideas would get at least a few people thinking.
    Anyway, please enlighten me! I'm sure there is something I'm missing out on. Or, is it just the competetive nature of males? Please, do tell!

  2. I understand your point-- in Bloggywood and in Karaokepoetry.

    One thing I don't understand is, since I assume you already knew the poetic climate in Santa Ana, why you would subject yourself to such a reading, knowing that you would be blackballed and that you, in turn, would be speaking to a crowd that you would blackball.

    I am sorry that the reading did not go well for you.

  3. Loguru--I wrote you privately. Apparently you weren't born with that especially male gene, competitiveness. ;-)

    Sam, I was hypomanic at the time I spoke of, as my oldest daughter was once more in peril of some kind. Without my mood disorder I would have no doubt behaved myself better. I had read in Orange and Laguna Beach with no problem. The problem was really me. If I had been better socialized I would not have overridden all the cues about how to behave in public. And it was my public! I was the featured reader, for Christ's sake.

    I LOVE poetry, which makes me protective of its reputation. Strange, no? As if someone had to preserve the standards already achieved? That's what I mostly did at Melic and what I do in the online course I teach.

    It's the same curse a cineophile suffers when, while someone praises Mulholland Drive, another person feels compelled to compare it to Car 52, Where Are You?

    There's a real esthetic gap for you.

    I know the best thing I can do is say, "That sure is a baby" when the kid's ugly, and I do. But I go mad about poetry. I want to box the ears of those who compare themselves to Shakespeare, like the fellow in the Karaokepoetry piece.

    "What poetry most lacks is an audience worthy of it."

    --Message from Mexico

    The bad feeling in my stomach I used to get before readings turned out to mean that I didn't like doing it. My dissociation of sensibilities can be extreme, however; I did not recognize the feeling I had until I'd read at any number of venues. Feeling- wise I'm educably retarted.

    I write poetry because I'm not fully human yet. I keep trying to achieve humanity in my art. At the same time I try to offer something more than a wince or a smile of identification-- which are, incidentally both good and indicative of good writing. I try to slip in a philosophy--words that would make a deconstructionist roll his eyes.

    I say to students and other young poets, "Say something. Anything. But say something." This admonishment would be comical if it were not so needed. Form has triumphed over substance in our era, which resembles the Age of Enlightenment in this one respect.

    How I do blather! But writing helps me think, and thinking gives me pleasure. Maybe it is all good! Poetry as therapy, poetry as a means to socialization, poetry as a fine art. We can live together. Just gag me, won't you?

  4. No you should not be gagged; it's an interesting post that generates good discussion!

    So, here I go:

    There's a little undercurrent here that I disagree with and must mention: I don't believe publication, or the winning of prizes, equals quality. Certainly, quality poems are generally the ones that win prizes, but a poem that has not won anything isn't necessarily unworthy. I believe that is more a reflection of the editor, or judge(s), than it is of the poet.

    By the way, I have been "blackballed" in my literary community, as well, but not because I intentionally spoke any truth that pissed people off. The academics that run the community of readings/festivals/publications do not my poetry. Nothing wrong with academics; they do the work of putting these things together and they can feature what they like - they just don't like my style. And I'm too lazy to put together my own readings, so I accept that.

    As far as blogging goes, I don't take it all that seriously, simply for the reasons you've mentioned: anyone can run a poetry blog, so why get worked up over it? I suppose I feel this way about open mics, as well. If I'm there to read a poem, why should I care if no one is really there to hear it and is just sitting waiting for their turn, or if everything else that gets read is crap? I'm going to read my poem because I want to. And sometimes I hear a few good poems, too.

    Regarding comments: in the workshops I've taken, people were free to say, I just want to read this poem, I don't want critique. I never understood this, as I love critique and always welcome it, but I respect that someone else may be too delicate or shy or sensitive to handle it. Whatever - doesn't bother me. So, I try, when commenting on people's poems, to feel out what they want, and give them that. If it's someone I know, and have communicated with before, I may critique. If I don't know them, I start with the positive and see how that goes. I'm not out to fix anyone, or help anyone who doesn't want my help. So if someone is just starting out, venturing into writing or putting a poem out there for the first time, I'm not gonna overstep and possibly hurt their feelings. That's just the way I am, doesn't mean your way is worse or anything.

    And, BTW, I have had people offer me critique and then get mad when I didn't take their suggestions! Seriously! Sometimes I take them, sometimes I don't - I have a feel for what I want a poem to do and can pick and choose what I change. But yeah, a friend of mine actually got pissed when I rejected something he said and hasn't been back to my blog since. So, who was he more concerned with in offering those comments - me, or himself? Makes ya wonder.

  5. Anonymous7:54 AM PDT

    CE: preach to the choir so unfailingly that I know the sermons by heart...

    Any defender of the art must weather the prospect of being alone. So I see courage where you see immaturity. Of course, there will always be a psychological context. But so what. With all due respect to your mom, we're awash in transactional praise or praise meant to curry favor or to placate mediocrity. Someone must champion the exceptional as that is all that will survive (in the long daisy chain of culture) into the next century. Maybe we're too tangled in our personal projects to identify the exceptional. But that's why Time was invented.

    Anyone managing to extract self-worth from this froth of false-praise, the blogosphere, has an enviable capacity for lying to themselves. The more compelling psychological question is what would compel an intelligent, self-aware person to cavort through this hall of mirrors, gathering this sort of 'praise' (since they're smart enough to know this praise is no praise at all)?

    I don't direct this question at you, but rather ask it rhetorically of all those who have 'published' on the net, myself included. Who do we write to? What do we write for? Who reads us if we cannot read ourselves?


  6. Such long and thoughtful responses to a long post. I'm truly flattered, and not in a false kind of way.

    Naturally I've seen the work of Twitches, Sam and Norm, and they're all worth reading. I feared some denizen of the lower reaches of composition would go high dudgeon on me after my last post, but I did have that saving requirement of over 2000 words.

    Twitches, you have apparently acquired a more mature attitude towards my struggles. You have made your own peace without rancor. What drives me crazy is my love of great poetry, and how few "poets" nowadays can pull off a sonnet in fifteen minutes or discuss Piers Plowman intelligently. We're in the age of the undereducated poet, poets with nads but no class.

    On the other hand, who's to say who's a poet and who's only writing verse? Who's to say this poet is good and that one bad?

    That's a job for critics, of whom I happen to be one. Man, that was an awkward sentence. Anybody like my length warnings in the text?

    Twitches has a good point about the quality of a poem not being determined by publication or contests. Unfortunately, as I've argued many times, if you don't run the gauntlet of editors with success, you're probably not very good. We have no other measure of quality, although this is admittedly a bad one, just like the joke about democracy.

    Norm, soul-brother, madmen sometimes perform courageous acts.

    You know that the purpose of my magazine, now retired, was to preserve the standards of the past in the hope of discovering quality today. How well we succeeded time must judge, but now that the magazine's retired, I wonder (what have you done for me lately) if any will ever read it again as archives.

    To your question, "Why do we write?," I've had an answer for a long time. I write because I can't not write. I have to write. I've been writing poetry since the age of six, and I remember being pissed off in second grade when my best friend's poem garnered more attention than mine when I knew his meter was off. Talk about nature vs. nurture!

    Further, a correspondent of mine pointed out that psychology had proven that happy people are more apt to believe in their own lies, whereas depressed people have a more objective view of the universe. I wrote a poem while depressed this time about that subject after my correspondent (Novelist Phillip Routh, not Roth) shared that tidbit with me. And that tidbit made a whole lot of sense.

    Now I'll go post that poem.

    Thanks for all the feedback and the long posts that demonstrate you folks aren't in it for the stats. Norm doesn't even have a blog, though if he did, I would read it daily.


  7. I don't really mind people leaving short messages at my blog. I'm free to investigate further or not. To be honest I usually do and sometimes the site is very good. Strangely I feel under pressure to provide a link even if the site is crap! I can't explain why very well. Maybe it's because the person has bothered to leave a comment rather than nothing at all, and I don't see it doing any harm to give them what they want. I have found some excellent blogs that way too.

    I tend only to leave comments on other people's blogs if I feel I have something to say, although I confess there are some blogs I would like to leave a comment on, but haven't found anything worthwhile to say yet. Why? Probably so they know about me. One interesting thing about blogging for me is the connections we can make and worldwide interaction we can have that wouldn't have been possible only a few years ago.

    On giving negative comments: I tend to do that only if I am familiar with the other blogger's work and know they won't take it badly. On the other hand, I don't mind people giving me critical feedback on poems, including negative feedback. It's interesting to see how different people react to a poem, especially if it becomes clear that I haven't achieved my intent.


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