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1. The Shel Silverstein Years
I memorized my first poem in second grade, shortly after my talent show troupe ground to a final, Balkanized halt. We were always planning new acts. Our reenactment of the two-hour, made-for-TV gymnastics biopic Nadia failed because we couldn’t stop arguing over who would play Nadia. We later considered lip synching the songs of our favorite pop stars—blonde Christyna would be Madonna, while redheaded Mia would be Cyndi Lauper. “And you can play Tina Turner, since you have brown hair,” they told me. I had no idea who Tina Turner was, so I assumed she, too, must be a blue-eyed, Jewish-looking person.
But, when even a fairly simple, a capella version of “Rockin’ Robin” fell apart, I realized I was on my own.
My mom, a children’s librarian, suggested I recite a poem. I didn’t really see how that was a talent—certainly not like singing or doing back flips—but I was a competitive kid and I was hell-bent on being in the Pennekamp Elementary talent show. So I put on a black leotard, neon orange T-shirt, and a headband with Styrofoam balls bobbing at the end of springs to recite Richard Digance’s “The Ants at the Olympics.”
At last year’s Jungle Olympics,
The Ants were completely outclassed
In fact, from an entry of sixty-two teams,
the Ants came their usual last.
They didn’t win one single medal.
Not that that’s a surprise.
The reason was not for lack of trying
But more their unfortunate size….
And so on—stanza after stanza about what losers the ants are compared to the zippy cheetahs and the heavy-hitting hippos. Revisiting this poem thirty years later, my first thought is: What kind of life was my mom trying to prepare me for?
Possible answer: the life of a poet?
That was my first brush with poetry. Shel Silverstein’s collections were always in heavy rotation at the school library, and a few years later, my best friend Bonnie and I recited his poem “Sick,” in which the narrator bluffs her/his way through a list of terrifying symptoms to avoid school, only to learn… “What’s that you say?/You say today is…Saturday?/G’bye, I’m going out to play!”
We drew spots on our faces with eyeliner, wrapped our knees in Ace bandages and wore matching Garfield nightshirts.
That was the peak of my poetic life until high school, when my friends and I discovered open mic night at the Hungry Mind, a coffee shop near the pier in Manhattan Beach. We drank sugary iced cappuccinos while listening to our peers’ teen angst poems and the featured poets’ adult angst poems. It never occurred to me to read anything myself, but sometimes I’d stop on the long walk home to scribble in a journal printed with sunflowers. I wrote a long poem about a dead pigeon whose increasingly car-crushed body I’d passed on the way to school for weeks. I fancied myself something of an animal rights activist, but I would rather write about the indignities of death than clean that shit up.
There was a guy who read erotic poetry with a few shirt buttons undone and got big applause from the moms at the coffee shop. We thought he was hilarious. We thought our teachers, stumbling drunkenly out of Manhattan Beach’s one nightclub down the street, were hilarious. We thought our classmate, who read a sad poem about her ex-boyfriend at the open mic, was a genius.
Amy and Jenessa were my poetry-going buddies. Not coincidentally, they were also into punk music and guys who rode skateboards and halfheartedly dealt drugs. They had an edge that Bonnie—still my official bestie—lacked, especially since she’d started dating Jason, the basketball-playing drum line leader she would eventually marry and divorce. It would be a big exaggeration to say that poetry—about which I wrote grudging, bullshitty essays in school—was A Way Out, but on some level I dug the idea that there was a community of interesting people who liked words like I did.
2. Not the Norton
And there you have the two worlds of poetry, the two stereotypes that are too true: angsty people at coffee houses vs. pretentious academic bullshit. Neither camp likes the other, and most people hate them both. When Todd asked me to write “One Punk’s Guide to Poetry,” I imagined a survey course, starting with Sappho and finishing with some kind of punk alterna-canon. It sounded daunting and, the more I thought about it, boring.
If you want the Norton Anthology, you can just get your hands on a copy of the Norton Anthology. The last time I saw one, it belonged to my friend Tommy; I borrowed it for some reason, and it sat in the hatchback part of my car until it grew little freckles of mold.
People who want a more concise overview of various aesthetic movements would be wise to check out the Essays & Interviews section of poets.org, the website of the Academy of American Poets. They’re one of roughly four literary nonprofits that employ more than two people, so you know they’re legit.
From 2002 until very recently, I worked for an organization called Poets & Writers. Poetry was fifty percent of my job. Or rather, making tiny grants to poets in California was fifty percent of my job. I got to know a lot of them—poets are good people, if a little disorganized—but I was still a fiction writer who dealt with poetry strictly on an as-needed basis. I warned Todd that, if I were to accept this mission, my article would be very heavy on contemporary poets. Women poets. Queer poets. West Coast poets. Todd being Todd said, “Cool, write whatever you want!”
Then I realized that contemporary poets, women poets, queer poets, and West Coast poets are exactly who you don’t see much of in the Norton Anthology, or even Writer’s Almanac, bless Garrison Keillor’s heart. So maybe there’s a place for this particular punk’s personal poetry platter. (Hey, alliteration!) If the survey-course model is a prix fixe menu at a fancy restaurant, this platter is the happy hour menu at your local bar—the one with cheap beer and good, deep-fried chickpeas.
In high school, poetry tends to be taught like this: Poetry is a magical thing written by geniuses who were born geniuses, and our job as non-geniuses is to unlock it and discover the secret of their genius. There is only one secret, and if you think a poem is about something else, or if you just don’t like it, you are wrong.
In other words, poetry is taught like math, but with an added layer of mythology that tends to shame even nerdy would-be poetry lovers who spend Tuesday nights at the Hungry Mind. Most of the poets I know devote their adult lives trying to undo the poetry trauma high schools inflict. (Obviously, some high school teachers are creative and passionate. Some are poets. But almost all have to tie themselves in knots to sprinkle a little inspiration on the vast test prep desert that is public education.)
One of my favorite teachers at UCLA was Chris Cunningham, a young, energetic adjunct who sometimes wore bicycle shorts to office hours. I quickly learned that you didn’t have to read the books he assigned in their entirety; you could just point to a passage and write about how it reminded you of your roommate’s encounter with racism. Despite my literary slackerdom, I learned a ton in his class—about the world and culture and my fellow students. I also learned that it is perfectly acceptable to make a syllabus built only of books you like, as Chris did one quarter. This “guide” is my stuff-I-like syllabus. These poets are some poets I think you should know; a jumping-off point for your own stuff-you-like syllabus.
3. The Populists
“Accessibility” is always being debated in the poetry world, for the reasons discussed above. One camp of poets and readers says if we want poetry to matter, people who don’t have PhD’s in literature should be able to read it. It should be relevant, it should be about something.
The other camp says poetry should push language and play with it, doing what fiction and essays cannot. Not only does it not have to mean anything, it should question the meaning of meaning. And dumbing shit down doesn’t do anyone any favors.
I’ve alternated between the two camps, though my heart (and comprehension ability) is with the populists. Eventually I realized that the cliché about writing choosing you, and not the other way around, is true. Honest poets don’t write obtuse, difficult poetry because they love to confuse people. They write it because it’s the truest way they know how to say what they want to say. On the flip side, I always bristle when struggling writers sigh and say, “I should just write a trashy romance and make a ton of money,” as if integrity is the only thing standing between them and a Bentley. I believe that the authors of trashy romance novels love trashy romance novels. If they were just doing it for the paycheck, it would show.
Lucky for us, there are many writers who fall somewhere in between on the accessibility spectrum. I first read Eileen Myles in grad school. She writes long, skinny poems, allegedly because she had a skinny reporter’s notebook when she first started writing. It’s hard to feel too intimidated by a line that’s only three words long. She writes about city life and smoking and fucking women in ways that made grad-school me swoon like a middle-aged woman at the Hungry Mind. “On the Death of Robert Lowell” in her collection Maxfield Parrish captures exactly how Myles feels about the canon and the luxuries of fame:
O, I don’t give a shit.
He was an old white haired man
Insensate beyond belief and
Filled with much anxiety about his imagined
Pain. Not that I’d know
I hate fucking wasps.
The guy was a loon.
Signed up for Spring Semester at MacLeans
A really lush retreat among pines and
Hippy attendants. Ray Charles also
Once rested there.
So did James Taylor…
The famous, as we know, are nuts.
Take Robert Lowell.
The old white haired coot.
I have a black T-shirt that says, in big purple block letters, YOU GOT THE STYLES EILEEN MYLES. I bought it at RADAR, a queer San Francisco reading series co-run by writers Michelle Tea and Ali Liebegott. They thought that if music fans could buy concert T-shirts, poetry fans should be able to buy shirts at readings. Poets should be rock stars. (Does this make the older, college-teaching Myles a Robert Lowell in her own little world?)
Both Myles and Tea write prose too, and I sometimes forget which form I read their words in. Was Myles’ anecdote about wearing a miniskirt to a kid’s birthday party—an attempt to femme it up with all those heterosexual parents that backfired and left her feeling like a slut—in her autobiographical novel, or one of her books of poetry? They both write poetic prose and narrative-ish poetry.
My favorite poem of Tea’s is “the Beautiful,” an ode to America—as difficult girlfriend or neglectful parent—that channels Allen Ginsberg, probably:
what shitty parents you were.
we have to
again and again
to see if you missed us
but you didn’t
we were gone.
we write tell-all books
about our rotten childhoods
the bad food
you fed us
can i process
my bad relationship
can we go to couple’s counseling
can we sit down and talk about
My girlfriend and I have had arguments about Michelle Tea’s work. C.C. thinks she can be a bit of a cool kid, smoking outside some badass bar. But I think Tea breaks down the wanting behind the cool kid’s cigarette. A lesser writer would pretend not to want America, with its strip malls and Patriot Act, but Tea—who wrote wonderfully about the particular joys of working in an ‘80s mall in her young adult novel Rose of No Man’s Land—is aware of the wounds that led her to reject the mainstream. And she’s not afraid to talk about them.
People who love poetry often point to the fact that, after September 11, when the whole country was simultaneously speechless and overwhelmed by talking heads, certain poems started making their way to inboxes. Auden was a favorite.
It seemed that poetry was a way to touch the sublime. I define art the way I define God, as something that is more than the sum of its parts. Poetry is a way to use words to make something more than words. I can say, without hyperbole, that certain poems have saved me. From what? Fear, probably, that thing that is always about death, but actually worse than death. From isolation. From feeling like I’m the only one this crazy.
In 2011 I had a miscarriage that left me in a state of postpartum depression (but without the baby, just to add insult to injury) that manifested as intense hypochondria. For the few months I was pregnant, I could barely believe it, and I constantly checked my body for signs it was true, and that I would have a real, healthy baby. Did I have morning sickness? Was I having the right kind of cramps or the wrong kind? After the miscarriage, that little internal monitor worked overtime, but had nothing to find but things that must be wrong with me: MS, lupus, at least four kinds of cancer. I felt crazy because I was crazy.
No one writes about medical anxiety better than David Hernandez. Here’s his poem “Gene Test,” which appeared in The Rumpus:
Now is after the fact.
Before, a cloud of bees
frenzied above the neighbor’s yard, then ours.
Which is to say, hazard cannot stay long
in one place. Or one place is
never hazardless. Two weeks
we waited for the results, two weeks
I dissolved a cube of ice
in whisky, and Lisa’s mind was always
elsewhere, already cutting out
her breasts, her ovaries. Then the terrible
weight was crushed, the fine powder
swept to the vanishing point,
and I felt, for a few footsteps, that we were
immortal, our cells
never honeycombing toward ruin.
Slaphappy heart, bamboozled brain,
I also had believed the bees
an omen, how they mobbed and sizzled
around our angels’ trumpet tree
as if the yellow flowers could finally
blow notes. That humming: it was not music.
More like the drone of a chainsaw
a block away, dismantling another sapling.
Hypochondria can be a kind of addiction. You’re always riding the roller coaster of maybe-I’m-not-okay/hurray-I’m-okay! And even when you leave the imaging center with a piece of paper saying your MRI was normal, you know that someone else’s was not, and that in the future yours might not be either. In other words, the humming is always there.
I secretly suspect that some poets write about language because they’re afraid to write about love and death. There’s so much bad poetry out there. A really amazing poet is one who can write a love poem that does not invoke the moon.Or one who can mention the moon (as Terry Wolverton does here) without exiling the reader to PoetryLand, a flat, unearthly place of pomegranates and songbirds, whose inhabitants know the names of trees.
A really amazing poet can write a poem about her dog’s death that will make you cry, and not just because you once had a dog who died. Eloise Klein Healy’s poem “Into Eternity” (Artemis in Echo Park),about her dog Pauline, imagines death as a connecting force, defeating the messiness of modernity and language:
…the first tongue and movement,
the reptile brain and speech of smell.
The new brain stands up on its hind legs
and forgets itself.
But I build a small clay boat
to carry us back to eternity.
Companion species, we will row ourselves
back before our names.
I’m rereading this knowing that Eloise is currently recovering from viral encephalitis, which impacted her memory and speech, and took her back before her name. From what I’ve heard, it’s been a long, slow journey, full of terror and wisdom and delight. I wonder if she, like me, has occasionally written in a voice that resides years ahead of what she’s able to wrap her real life around.
4. The Boundary Pushers
There was a guy named José in my program at CalArts who wrote “experimental” poetry, which means I had no idea what the fuck it was about. At best, I could say he sometimes created pretty word collages; there would be a fragment or two I found lovely, like finding a sparkly piece of sea glass whose original source is unidentifiable. If I hadn’t known José—a friendly, laidback guy with a scraggly black beard—I would have found his poems pretentious.
Then I heard him read. During CalArts’s Thursday night art openings, writing students would gather in one of the lecture halls for an open reading series we called The Pig. One time I got up and read a full-page ad I’d found in Variety, placed by a woman who thought her life story should be made into a movie. In other words, we defined “writing” broadly. When José, who could always be counted on to bring a six-pack of Pacifico, read, he sort of hunched over his pages—not in a self-conscious way, but like there were some kind of magnetic force pulling him. He chuckled to himself the whole way through.
It was a small epiphany for me. Not only had José written these poems for his own amusement—as opposed to proving our stupidity by baffling us—it was okay to laugh at them. Experimental poetry could be funny! It was supposed to be weird. Also, it was not “breaking the rules” to enjoy certain kinds of work in certain forms. I could shrug at José’s poems on the page and dig them at The Pig.
Jen Hofer is a contemporary CalArts professor who does things like write and knit long scrolls of words in the middle of architectural landmarks. One of her current projects involves reading her own scripts over footage of old war movies. Back in the day, this was how people in foreign countries watched American movies—someone would just stand there explaining what was happening on screen. Hofer’s project can turn a heroic image tragic, spooky, or ironic. It also addresses a situation many in the poetry world are afraid to confront: When you’re listening to poetry, it’s nice to have something to look at other than the poet, just standing there.
At its heart, “experimental” means putting process before product. The writer starts something without knowing where it will lead (so, arguably all writing is experimental). Sometimes it leads to the poetic equivalent of cold fusion—i.e., a bunch of bullshit. Sometimes it leads to poems like the one I saw Terrance Hayes read last March in Pasadena.
“Wigphrastic” responds to an art piece by Ellen Gallagher, which depicts eyeless women in cartoonish, futuristic yellow wigs. Full of puns and pop culture references, the poem is one part critical theory, one part jazz riff:
…Somebody slap me. Norman Mailer’s essay,
The White Negro: Superficial Reflections on the Hipster,
never actually uses the word wigger. I’d rather say whack.
It may be fruitful to consider me a philosophical psychopath.
We clubbing in our wigs of pleas and pathological
coulda-woulda-shouldas. Oblong with longing.
Some of the ladies are wigs of No Nos and nots,
knots of nots: do nots, cannots, aughta nots….
I like Hayes because he’s political but never didactic. He’s serious about his topics, but he turns them over and over like a puppy examining a chew toy, never too serious about himself or where this all might take him. His wit is as sharp as that puppy’s teeth.
Also in the category of “experimental-ish poets with soul” is Allison Benis White, whose first collection Self-Portrait with Crayon sidles up to the heady subject of her mother’s abandonment by looking at Degas’s pretty paintings of ballerinas, among other pieces. Her neat box-shaped prose poems can be dense, not because they toy with the meaning of meaning the way true experimenters do, but because they go so deep into gesture and feeling that everyday things become almost unrecognizable, stripped down to their essence. Like seeing bones without skin.
“Horse with Lowered Head” describes holding a delicate sculpture, and Melanie Klein’s theory of object relations:
…The sway, for instance, of a long cornsilk mane. Which was not real. As in the thumb which replaces the nipple when the self becomes a circle. As in the mouth of a horse in the shape of a thimble. I could place my thumb inside my mouth to end the sound. But God is endless. Like fingers curling over inconsolable stones. Or a hand, finally, closing around the neck of a horse. Because I cannot hurt her enough to grow old. Surely we have tipped over by now.
Do I know what, exactly, “inconsolable stones” are? No. But this poem feels to me like a primal scream for the mother we all start losing the moment we leave the womb. According to Klein—well, according to what I gleaned from my therapist girlfriend when she was reading Klein—the process of growing up basically involves being totally, umbilically merged with your mom, then getting mad at your mom’s boob for not always being there to feed you, then eventually learning to feed yourself. But if the boob leaves too soon, how can you ever trust or rebel or do any of the other things you’re supposed to do in uncomfortable tandem with your mother?
5. So You Want to Read/Hear Some Poetry
If you’re still reading, you must be reasonably certain that poetry won’t hurt you. (Really bad poetry will hurt you, but just for a second.) But how should you develop your own random list of six or seven poets who quietly rock your world? Unfortunately, visiting the poetry section of the last Barnes & Noble in town will probably turn up a lot of Norton Anthology-type authors, plus Jewel and James Franco.
A better bet is to check out Poets & Writers’ yearly list of debut poets; if you’re like me, the first thing you’ll do is scan each profile for the author’s age to see if he or she is younger than you (thirty years after the talent show, I’m still a competitive fucker), but after that there will be interesting words and ideas. There are some good online review journals and literary blogs with consistently interesting recommendations with an indie bent, like Gently Read Literatureand HTMLGIANT (though it sometimes feels a bit clique-ish and Brooklyn-y).Harriet feels slightly more canonical, probably because it’s published by the Poetry Foundation, which is the only literary organization in the world that has more money than it knows what to do with, but the blog is always interesting and well written.
Go to your local version of the Hungry Mind. Have a hungry mind. Bring a notebook. When the caffeine kicks in and you get that antsy feeling in your stomach, write.
Poets.org, especially Essays & Interviews: http://www.poets.org/page.php/prmID/57
Poets & Writers: http://pw.org/
Writer’s Almanac: http://writersalmanac.publicradio.org/
“Undoing the Folded Lie: Poetry After 9/11” in Granta: http://www.granta.com/New-Writing/Undoing-the-folded-lie
“Sizzle and Chew” by Terry Wolverton in Really System: http://reallysystem.org/issues/one/sizzle_and_chew
“Eloise Klein Healy finds poetry in her recovery from encephalitis” in the Los Angeles Times: http://www.latimes.com/books/jacketcopy/la-et-jc-eloise-klein-healy-20140108,0,5263653.story
“Wigphrastic” by Terrance Hayes on the Tate Modern website: http://www.tate.org.uk/context-comment/articles/wigphrastic-after-ellen-gallagher
Gently Read Literature: http://gentlyread.wordpress.com/