Thursday, November 27, 2008

Best of: Poetry Blogs and Karaokepoetry

From 7/28/06:

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." 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. I made it the whole 2000 plus words, so what does that say about me, I forget was that a good thing or bad. Anyway I enjoyed the poem, thanks for sharing.

    Logan Lamech

  2. Anonymous10:41 PM PST

    It's too bad you didn't figure out for yourself that you should only feature where you are the only feature and where there is no open-- before you chose to be so offensive. At least you figured it out.

    And I agree- it is tedious to be nice to people--the clerk at the store, the student, the colleague, the other poets, people in cars who stop at lights so you can go. Heck, I am so sick of being nice to my family that I'm not any more. Bye bye family.

    I am sure if you go to my site you will hate my writing and my poetry so don't feel like you should return the common courtesy there either.

  3. CE:

    The appetite for decent poetry is vastly exceeded by the need for affirmation. Since crafting good poetry is so damned hard, most people forgo it altogether and make a shameless beeline for the mic. That's if they are 'well-versed' enough to indulge even a sense of shamelessness. Most are oblivious, in which case there is not a chord that can be struck that can reach them.


  4. I was raised by the "Thumper" rule, too..."if you can't say something nice, don't say nuthin' at all" and, actually, I have to say it has served me well throughout mother was also fiesty when nice didn't work, but she always gave "nice" a fair chance. : ) I am not a "good critter" and certainly not a good poet by most board standards, but I do think I am a fairly good reader, respond to a poem when it trips my trigger...maybe not in a way a fine poet would like to receive critique, but you know, I think poets seeking to sell their work should take note of those who respond to their poems for whatever reason, those who, not only comment on them, praise them, but actually buy them. Just a thought to ponder. : )


  5. Anonymous8:11 PM PST

    I recently came across your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I don't know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.



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