Thursday, May 28, 2009

The Battle for Poetic Recognition

I recently bought a new "Poet's Market," an intimidating book printed on cheap paper of 572 pp. In it is an interview with a "successful" poet, who does 75 seminars and readings a year, up to 150 if he has a new book or album out. He edits a literary magazine and is also a songwriter.

He estimates that 1400 Americans may make some living through poetry, which sounds like a lot to me. Obviously this man works hard. Yet in researching him on the net he had only 5% of the references I do on Google. Apparently he has not published extensively online. Then I checked his latest book from 2007. It ranks below 1,600,000 titles on Amazon. My new book ranks just above 900,000, for comparison, rendering them likely equally obscure. I also did not recognize his name from the article.

T. S. Eliot wrote "There is no competition." Unfortunately, in this day and age of proliferating poets, Eliot is wrong. There is competition. Each poem published in a journal that rejects me is a potential place where I might have had success. Each reading booked up in advance in a major city is one reading I can't get.

Although K.F. admits that the poetry world has proliferated beyond his imaginings, from open mikes to slams, the Internet, etc., he has this to say about the art:

"What has not changed is the nepotism of the Biz and the preconceived notions of the academic sector. Most poets still teach to support themselves. There is still no one who rushes home to tell his parents that he is a poet and then is subsequently swamped with congratulations and financial support."

We all know this. Poets are not pariahs, just largely irrelevant to the larger culture. I have compared poetry to lawn bowling in this regard in past essays, "a cultural vestigial organ." Yet if one is truly infected by poetry there is no cure. I will go on writing and publishing until they take this computer from my cold dead hands. Yes, I want to be read. Yes, I would like more recognition. Yes, I have a new book to promote and eight interviews and eight reviews already. But I assure you my book is not jumping off the shelves. The most I've sold at once is five at a local reading. (I also importuned my bank manager, dentist and my shrink and family doctor to buy copies; after all, the monetary exchange for their services dwarfs a small purchase of my book.)

I did recently receive encouragement from Ireland, where a J. Patterson wrote me for my revised version of the essay on T. S. Eliot's "Four Quartets." No one to my knowledge ever finished that essay before; I even had a standing reward of $25 for the first person who did. Afterwards this good soul ordered a signed copy of "Unexpected Light" and gave me a good report. I enjoyed the correspondence. I enjoyed the fact that he felt my treatment of Eliot was substantial and witty and fun to read. I also know, from my research, that certain Christian aspects of the poems were better elucidated in my essay than any others I could find.

In fact, everyone has given me a good report; the reviews have been uniformly positive. So where do I go from here? More reviews, more interviews, more publications? If this fellow is relatively famous and interviewed for "Poet's Market" and his book ranks far below mine (though at these numbers one or two purchases can shoot you back up the ignominious ladder of obscurity), and he has 5% of my references on Google, what should I say? That I'm better known on the Net? I suspect he makes most of his dough leading seminars, that's where the real money is for mid-level poets, while the truly famous can command $10,000 or more for a single performance--you know, Collins, Angelou and the rest.

The scale of celebrity among poets is more variable than the winners of "American Idol." Luck has much to do with it, but so does nepotism. An MFA with a close connection to a well-known poet/professor has a much better chance at ascending the ladder than a disabled doctor with few connections. That goes without saying, especially since this doctor only became serious about publishing in 1997. Yet since then I've published two books of poetry and edited one anthology while being included in many others. I even recently had "Boundaries" recognized as the best poem currently online for a week: (see May 18).

I have some obstacles to furthering my ambition, of course. First, I live far away from metropolitan centers where venues abound. Second, I'm manic-depressive and travel can really screw with my mood. Third, I loathe to be away from my true love, Kathleen. But paramount, above all these, is the program in my head forbidding self-promotion. My mother instilled in me very early not to blow my own horn, not to brag, to rather wait for my excellence to be recognized. That's the Emily Dickinson way that many poets cling to: "I'll be noticed when I'm dead." Fat chance if you weren't noticed while alive.

To be noticed while alive can be arranged, however. For the well-heeled poet of unlimited means, an expensive New York publicist can be hired and she will get readings and reviews in that great hive considered the center of literature in these United States. Still, if the quality lacks, such a poet would be rejected by the academic community, and rightly so, but that will not stop them from out-googling, out-selling and out-maneuvering others of greater talent. I see many poets self-publishing, even in their own magazines, and acting as if they have received recognition when they have essentially granted it to themselves.

I hate cold calling people I've never met to ask for open reading dates on the Pacific Coast. I'm not looking forward to the travel in my four dates coming up (SF, Sacramento, LA, SD) require, and only two of them look like first class venues. But I will keep my word and show up, I hope, unless my energy fails.

But look at the downside again. K.F. does up to a 150 readings a year when a new book comes out and his Amazon ranking is below mine. And there's also a strange feather in my hat; my first book, "Elementary," is apparently rare enough now (only 300 copies were printed) that it sells for $189 on Amazon, and only one copy is available. So someone thinks my first book is valuable. What does that mean? I don't know. Probably something to do with book collectors who hoard obscure poets.

This all boils down to one question for me: Is it worth the work? If I knock my head against the world of poetry venues, will it result in anything of note--sales, publicity, what? Some result, yes, a few books sold here and there, not enough to cover my gas, but in the main, it's doubtful. It is probably wiser to concentrate on breaking into the august publications like Southern Review and Poetry. So far I haven't broken that glass ceiling, though to be fair, at my best, I do not think myself the inferior to those I see in there, though I often admire the work. And one wonders (despite the "blind reading" claims of so many of these journals) what would happen if my name were John Ashbery or W. S. Merwin or Mark Strand. Wouldn't these instantly be kicked upstairs by the powers that be? I do not believe the editors are fair in this regard, whatever they claim. Nepotism by reputation and previous publication within a magazine still obtain.

If I were a purist it would be all about the work, the next poem, the next song, trying to achieve that artistic perfection or Logos that all artists aspire to.

But I'm human, ah there's the rub. Like any artist I crave recognition, yet my Lutheran background tells me that ambition may be wrong, just as self-promotion is wrong. But that can't be right. Even Jesus promoted himself by miracles and street preaching. So perhaps it's the Protestant inheritance that drives me; I can't have work without result! I can't just write poetry for nothing for magazines that don't pay and come with little recognition. Or can I?

Further, Jesus promoted himself for the benefit of mankind; to what degree can I say my art does something of the same? I know my manic-depressive and love poems have helped some, but on a scale of good works--which the New Testament rejects wholesale--I can't compare to a missionary distributing food and medicines--or is my calling just different and just as important in its way? So my wife would have me think.

I have been undiscriminating about my best work, sending it to whatever e-zine suited my fancy at the time, or because of a submission call. I could have parceled my work out slowly, attacking only the best magazines. But initially I didn't have the self-confidence to do so, and the thrill of being published anywhere superseded the thrill of submitting to Poetry for ten years in hope against hope. (BTW, I do send them regular submissions, they may even recognize my name from the amount of rejections I endure.)

So what am I saying? Craig is confused. Plain confused. He loves poetry, he likes to publish, he loves giving readings, but he wonders 1) Does he have the necessary drive to promote himself like K.F.? And 2), Is it worth it?

In discussing this with my wife and editor this morning, she suggested that the best scenario is to be taken under a well-known poet's wing and mentored along. At 54 I feel I am in the mentor stage; I teach poetry online (see my website for the course offering) and every unpublished poet who has taken my course has been afterwards published, save one who didn't want to submit and likely wasn't ready.

I'm a little old for applying for fellowships at major universities for poets, and the stipend wouldn't cover expenses anyway. I don't want to uproot myself from my beloved Mendocino and go traipsing to the Iowa Writer's Workshop for instruction and connections. In truth I've only really been at this for twelve years, so perhaps, since I first published at roughly 17, I should think of myself as only 29 in the "serious poetry competition." So I would still likely benefit from a mentor. How do you get one? I suppose the way you do everything else: by endless queries.

"Cast your bread upon the waters and it shall return to you after many days."

But sometimes you only feed the ducks.

In a mixed state, between 2 Kilorats and 1 Kilobunny,


Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Chinese Brush Experiment Blog

I wrote the below without revision; it is what spilled out. I call this the "Chinese Brush Experiment," since the same is true of Chinese calligraphy and most painting, Japanese as well.

I haven't blogged in so long it seems a ring in a tree, a rose bare-limbed then blossoming, you know, the way a boat rocks in the water under the harbor lights, powered by pillows and gravity. And the gatekeeper always lurks with his skleteton keys to remind us of our anti-gravity, the digital blink of death, cancelling, cancelling, but you must believe! You must fight, fight, fight!

The warrior solves some things, the magician more. Better to twist your perspective into the guise of the gnarled than force the limbs to bend toward you.

Goldfish: the sacrifice of children.

Uninhibited writing is a phantasm. How can you write without editing? We edit as we write and good writers edit afterwards. Edit too much and you squeeze the juice out of a thing.

I love Sinatra. 50s are best.

How a wax myrtle tree became an anaconda in resisting sedge and a bog.

A bog does have a slow inlet and outlet, though no obvious streams. I saw a carniverous plant in Sholars Bog, the sundew. Sticky, sticky, sticky. Don't want to be no mosquito flittin there, no.

I'm too tired to put up my latest links.

Gotta get serious about book promotion, pull out all the stops, crash the dam, splinter the fort, suck the last drop of water from a rock, all the usual applications of perseverance.

All this stuff about Ruth Padel. I've met her and published her; I like her a great deal. I think she did indeed make an error in judgment, but a Freudian error. She didn't really want the post. She did not think she merited it unconsciously. Psychoanalysis can still be helpful at times.

1 Kilobunny,


Tuesday, May 19, 2009

New Poem; Akisthesia; Lakers

The Lakers won the first playoff game of the Western Conference Finals. They did it by grit and luck. Denver is a great team and this should be a great series. In the end, Kobe just wouldn't let the Lakers lose, and Trevor Ariza made a steal that sealed the game. I know this is not a basketball blog, but being a Lakers fan for 50years has me programmed.

As to my mood, several chemical alterations have happened. First I quit smoking. Then I withdrew from high dose morphine. My Effexor was doubled. Now I feel tired most of the time, need naps in the afternoon. I wonder if it is the increased Effexor or symptoms of withdrawal. One thing I can say is that I've felt that activated, uncomfortable "ants in the pants" feeling--clinically termed akisthesia--which often precedes a flip in mood. We shall see.

I feel so blase'. I have trouble putting my carcass in gear to do anything. I lack ambition. I haven't been playing the guitar. I'm in a sort of anhedonic desert where my crying spells have at least stopped. We don't want a repeat of the two-year depression of 2006-2008, do we? God forbid by his mercy.

Meanwhile I won a coup by having a poem published in Mannequin Envy, "Boundaries," named as the best poem online. It came as a complete surprise to me. I don't know who started the selections, but considering all the poems online that is some kind of an honor. Here's the link: Best Poems Online It appears to be an outfit out of New Zealand, since the link to my book where the poem occurs puts the price of my paperback version over twice what it is in American dollars. I hope some mad sheep farmer who loves poetry buys a copy.

I haven't much more to say. I don't know if this qualifies as a blog. Close to being a Twitter, I fear.

But I'll end it with a new poem:

The Wind

comes from everywhere
and makes the Bishop pines lean
the eucalypti sift and sift
as the west wind caroms north
and south and east in a forested cup
on the headlands of Pt. Cabrillo.

The wind scours the sky
and scrubs the stars so clear
it hurts my neck to look up.
“Like the sound of many waters”
the wind holds a million secrets.

Still to listen to the wind is dangerous
for it tells us nothing in a way
that seems a something--questions
wrapped in hush-swaddled answers
that lead to bigger questions.

If you do listen to the wind
try to shape a shape within it,
something to talk to, something
familiar with the unseen currents
that keep us talking to each other.

At 2 Kilorats,


Saturday, May 16, 2009

First Video, New Interview, Withdrawal

I was castigated by one Sissy T for not continuing this blog, even though her comment was below a post from 2008. Can't please all people in all times, as "Lost" and "Star Trek" (both of which I highly recommend) have taught us.

J. J. Abrams, producer of both, seems to have solved that old conundrum: You can meet yourself in the past because you're adult self is on a different timeline. Forget the math; it adds to the drama.

BTW, I bought a cheap webcam and here's my first recording:

Moodwise I've been sketchy. I've had a lot of weeping spells at my usual witching hour, 11 AM, though only once in the last three days. And with that emotion comes the cacophonous recitations of demons: "You're no good. You're worthless. Why exist? You're a burden." And blah, blah, blah.

Among the mood-disordered, this is the chicken and egg question. For severe mood disorders like mine, the affect or emotion always precedes the negative thoughts. Thus to improve my thoughts I must improve my mood, not the other way around. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is more helpful is lesser cases, I think.


(I think that that's the first time I've used capitals on this blog.)

Although I will not admit being more than three kilorats down, to give you an idea of where my head has been, here's a dark poem from a dark mind.

Dark Christ


I kissed the thin lips
of the black Jesus of depression
ignominiously tacked
to a rough-hewn cross.
His eyes stared blankly,
black marbles in white.
His loincloth had a gold band
to match his yellow hair.
On his black wrists
blood was barely visible.

I wanted to fall at his feet
but his eyes were fixed
at some insensible point
beyond any horizon,
some future judgment perhaps
of the cockroach called man.
I knelt and pawed at his ankles
in hopeless supplication.
Blood dried on my hands
but he never looked down.

Larger than death he hung
never accusing me
but staring, staring
at a point beyond any point,
his face lost to man.
How could my salvation be so eclipsed?
What did I owe him?
He owed me nothing.
All was dark save his hair.
And why blond?
An attempt at a halo?


In those three hours
he agonized, separated
from every good ever authored
by the smallest angel
sent by the Father,
bereft, without heft
or substance,
an entire negation
of carbon-based life
staring, staring
at a point beyond points--
there was no room for man
so I threw my salvation down
like a piece of bloody obsidian
and like the disciples
had no faith in the resurrection,
the ultimate betrayal.

See? It's not the kind of art you want to hang on a hotel wall, much less your refrigerator. But I think it's powerful, and it's rare I'm fairly happy with a near first draft.

As a docent I lead lots of tours through the Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens, which I highly recommend. I'm most gratified when I get elementary school children and I can show them how a flower is both a girl and a boy.

Talk about narcissism! Self-pollinators, obviously not Catholic.

I have now successfully withdrawn from m.s. contin, a long-acting form of morphine I've taken for my neck and back. I have sneezing, loose stools and a great tiredness, but I know it will pass. I do feel a little clearer, which was my goal. And I've rarely smoked since April 1, so withdrawal from narcotics and nicotine, quoth my shrink, might have something to do with my recent dip? Or was it the unconscious memory of my two-year depression that began on April 1, 2006? I've had less than a year of normal mood since. But I am so grateful for it, when pancakes taste good and the blue jays shine and flowers explode like popcorn, yes this incredibly variegated world in which we live, the small blue flower by the roadside whose name you'll never know.

Before closing I'd like to share a new link to an interview with me in MyDepressionConnection.

Unlike the romantic blog interviews, this one focuses on the manic-depressive aspect of my work.

Thine in Truth and Art,

2 Kilorats,

C. E. Chaffin

Monday, May 11, 2009

Inevitable Net Progression; New Poem

I fear my blogability (borrowing a neologism from Bud commercials) has been declining. Here is the progression of net communication as I see it:

1) e-mail
2) posting boards
3) listserv, newsgroups
4) blogs
5) My Space and Facebook
6) Twitter
7) Video twitter (a prediction)

There are still intimate places on the web, small poetry boards and boards of special concern, and none of these "advances" precludes the use of a previous one.

I like e-mail best because I hate handling paper. I've been on boards, still attend one. I've been on listservs, none now. My blog is self-explanatory. I joined My Space and facebook but only pursued facebook where I now have over 500 (mainly literary) "friends." (The existence of such platforms naturally cheapens the word, "friend.") My publisher encouraged me to twitter and now I have a tweet deck. The time will come when short videos can be posted through twitter; links to videos are already possible. Then we'll have canned film snippets from personalities falling through the rafters.

What does this progression say about the Net? First, that things go from private to public quickly. Second, that associations expand exponentially if you keep playing. And third, the greater the audience, the less data shared, which results in the trivializing of life to buzz words and sound bites and branding. Don't we brand cattle?

It's a dehumanizing process that began with the telegraph. Nevertheless we can overcome it and preserve intimacy within it, for which e-mails and small boards thankfully remain.

As obtains in poetry today, where we have too many poets and not enough readers, on the web we have too many platforms and not enough players (think of the demise of Ringo). We have more people inventing platforms than people that can use them.

Speaking of poetry, here's a new poem, one of the thirty I wrote in April for National Poetry Month:

Flowers of Heraclitus

I watch the garden too much.
hoping for it to happen.
The deer could undo it all.
Last year they savaged the cabbage,
cropped the snapdragons
and beheaded the broccoli.
This year I planted only flowers
mainly of the daisy family,
deer and drought-resistant.

I watch the garden too much.
Heraclitus explained we only notice change.
As too much part of what is changing
the observer becomes oblivious.
If only I could return in two weeks
to see the changes, but who would watch
over the garden meanwhile?

I watch the garden too much.
In the late afternoon the sun
curls around the cypress,
lighting the plants a second time.
Copper daisy, heliotrope, princess flower--
their time will come, while all time
belongs to weeds, the wild radish,
nettles, mint and wild cucumber.
And in all these no real tropes
except the hands of a gardener,
the dirt beneath the nails
I poke at with a toothbrush.

I have several new interviews out at romantic blogs, emphasizing the love poems in my book. Here's one:

Kristina Knight

I also fired my web publicist for the book, as he had only pursued general web promotion and never gotten me a single reading or sold a single book. In marketing nowadays you start with the personality and then try to sell the product--at least in the arts. I want the book to speak for itself, why readings are so salutary. I have readings coming up in SF and LA and SD in June and July. If anyone reading this blog has knowledge of more west coast venues, please send them my way.

While reading my poetry to an audience I feel a wholeness, as if this was what I was meant to do. How good is that?

Bouncing between 3 Kilorats and Kiloneutral,

Sunday, May 03, 2009

NBA Predictions, Poem, New Review

The last NBA playoff team to advance has been determined: The Atlanta Hawks. Cleveland should beat them four games to one.

The second round begins today with Dallas vs. Denver. This is a hard one to call, but based on superior inside strength I think Denver should be favored to move on and meet the Lakers, who should beat Houston in six.

In the East, contrary to most expectations, I think Boston will handle Orlando in six or seven and go on to be beaten by Cleveland in a tough series. Despite the loss of Kevin Garnett, they are still the champions, and under pressure they play like it.

It's a gray day here on the Mendocino coast, post-rain. It's great that we got our garden in during a sunny spell and that now it is getting a thorough watering from nature. I can't wait for our flowers to mature; many have started blooming. It gives me joy to stare out to the oceean over the colors of our garden.

I actually beat my wife and editor tonight at Scrabble. That was a feat I can get fat on. Oh, and she called me "fat" today. Like I didn't know it. I immediately comforted myself with extreme nachos. Actually I ate a salad.

Salads aren't bad if you put enough croutons and nuts on them to get some real calories up the pipe.

Yes, I need a diet.

No, I'm not smoking.

But do I have a poem?

Poems divide my readership to a certain extent; the literary folks read them while the mood-disordered folks sort of gloss over them, with the natural exception of mood-disordered literary types.

Oh, there's a new review out on my book at The Pedestal, a fine venue with an insightful reviewer who really gets the dark side of "Unexpected Light."

Here's a recent poem;

The Stranger

This morning I wept for no reason.
I've been pushing back the terror
like a stage curtain, one arm
holding back the darkness,
all that muffled noise of sets being moved,
sets for my future
when I don't want the present changed.
I wonder if my understudy
will look like me, act like me, suffer like me.
Of course not, he has his own life.
But isn't it my life, too?

Computers have a trash bin
for every stump of a poem we tried to save
although our grafts would never take.
But just to keep on writing, holding
the curtain at arm's length, is this not a life
terrorized? Shouldn't I welcome the stranger,
who comes robed in the future,
equally prepared for sadness or joy?

Perhaps at every moment of awakening
we generate a ghost, a dark companion
to drag the hero down to where
the dragon sits, whom we must overcome
by being still; to fight
would only seed another monster.
The one in the mirror is quite enough.

All for tonight.

At 1 Kilobunny,


Friday, May 01, 2009

Contest Winners!

I am proud to announce the winners of the "Unexpected Light" contest: James Wilk with "Anorexic" (previously published in the medical journal, Chest) and Edmund Conti with "My Son the Critic."

The two poems could hardly be more different in style. Wilk's careful, clinical dissection of a horrifying disease and the speaker/doctor's own attitude towards it is exquisite, although some of the medical diction may be a little hard to take for those spared the immersion in medicine doctors must undergo. Conti's plaintive, playful, sleight-of-hand in impressing his son with poetry, written in witty rhymes with the relationship as a backdrop, could be classified as "light verse" if such a distinction were necessary. I'm mailing the hardback copies to each of them today.

All of the entries were good. It was a difficult choice. I must put forth one honorable mention, "The Mission," by Fred Longworth, that made the judging especially difficult. It appears as the third poem, below.

Kudos to all for your participation. I should mention there are two new interviews up about my book on my new "blog tour." The first is at Tara S. Nichols' Blog (adults only). The second is at Sheri Whitefeather's Blog.

Without further ado, here are the winners!


From the outside, I see no heretic,
no witch, no bitch now burning at the stake.
I see a fertile field stricken by drought.
My fingers scamper down the crevices
of her neck, spider-like, across the gullies
between the muscles, formed as fat receded
in some sick parody of glaciation,
leaving behind the lumpy soil of lymph
nodes, salivary glands, windpipe and thyroid
traversed by pipes for irrigation—veins
and arteries—yet still this land is barren
but for lanugo, powerless to stop
erosion by the wind, the breath, the ruach.

I palm the stethoscope’s unfeeling head.
My fingers trace the furrows of her spine,
parting the fine lanugo hairs that bristle
like wind-blown grass effacing the once deep
ruts of a packed dirt trail across Nebraska.
Her ribs are furrows, breasts prairie dog mounds.

I auscultate, the stethoscope a snake,
slithering, pausing, listening below.
Without the muffling fat, everything’s loud:
the trochaic machinations of the heart,
the slow iambic rhythms of the lungs,
the free verse borborygmi of the bowels.

The pager breaks my trance. I leave to write
a note of the encounter, order labs
and artificial nourishment by vein.
I sigh, reminded of the psalmist’s words:
Their soul abhorreth all manner of food;
and they draw near unto the gates of death.

I hurry to keep my dinner reservation
but pause outside her door to glimpse the girl,
a fallow field half-naked on the bed.
Fluorescent lights, unmoving in their coffins
in the ceiling, whisper light across the dust
bowl of her belly, casting angular
and ominous shadows of trochanters
and tubercles from the bones she’ll leave behind.

--James Wilk


Read me a bedtime poem, said my son.
So I read him this:

We say hippopotami
But not rhinoceri
A strange dichotomy
In nature's glossary.

But we do say rhinoceri, he said. Look it up.
So I read him this:

Life is unfair
For most of us, therefore
Let's have a fanfare
For those that it's fair for.

I smell a slant rhyme, he said, sniffing.
So I read him this:

While trying to grapple
With gravity, Newton
Was helped by an apple
He didn't compute on.

My teacher says that's not poetry, he said.
So I read him this:

René Descartes, he thought
And therefore knew he was.
And since he was, he sought
To make us think. He does.

That made me think, he said. But not feel.
So I read him this:

My hair has a wonderful sheen.
My toenails, clipped, have regality.
It's just all those things in between
That give me a sense of mortality.

Did the earth move? I asked. Anything?
Nothing moved. He was asleep.

--Edmund Conti

The Mission

God climbs down from the rafters of your mind
and sits across the breakfast table,
mooching buckwheat pancakes and maple syrup
and telling you the world has gone all wrong.

You're the one He's picked to set it right,
but if you fail at the task —
at this point He looks you hard in the eye —
He'll make you the wick to a perpetual candle.
After all, you are His child and He loves you.

What's wrong with the world — God continues —
is infidels, at last count three billion and growing.
He commands you to kill them all by five p.m.

Your clear away the dishes and the food,
lay Kalashnikov and hand grenades upon the table.
You gaze out the window at the busy, suburban avenue.
You think it over.

Times like this, you envy Abraham.
To please his God, he only had to kill a son.

--Fred Longworth

Thine in Truth and Art,

(moodwise ranging between 2 kilorats and 2 kilobunnies--slightly mixed state)


Unexpected Light

Unexpected Light
Selected Poems and Love Poems 1998-2008 ON SALE NOW!