Being A Writer
LitKicks member Tulate recently offered this up for consideration:
"John Lennon swore up and down that he wrote Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds about a drawing his son made in school. Meanwhile, I think I recall that UCLA actually offered a course interpreting the song which everyone assumed was a reference to John's LSD use.
Lennon knew about LSD first hand and could certainly write a song about it if he so chose. I'm sure writers with no drug experience have written about acid trips too.
For a piece to be riveting, full of gut wrenching imagery, able to evoke deep emotion -- does the writer need first hand experience? Or is reality over-rated? Does the fiction writer using good research, vivid imagination and poetic license get higher marks than the guy who's actually been there and done that and is now writing fiction adorning factual accounts with beautiful, moving and precise words?"
I decided to try and capitalize on my carnal inclinations and answered an ad for a writer at an "adult magazine" based in Philadelphia.
The interview went well. They said 'let's see some of your fantasies in writing' and I probably frightened them with what I presented. They made me an offer but the job paid next to nothing. I opted for another gig.
While the job would have been a kick of sorts -- that episode revealed me to be a whore willing to sell my craft for dollars without a care in the world as to whether or not my writing did anything constructive or positive for me or anyone reading it. Even worse, no thought was given to possible damage my twisted tales might have helped cause.
What's the strangest or most "sell out" thing you ever did with your writing? (Those of you with more integrity than me, which may be most of you, please relate the most magnanimous or altruistic use of your art.)
Steve Morse is my guitar idol and he really plays. He studied with Segovia at one time. Played with the likes of McLaughlin and Howe. Over time Morse has pretty much established himself as one of the reigning geniuses with the instrument.
My idol worship has gone too far in that I came to the realization that I'll never do anything remotely close -- neither musically nor technically -- to what Morse does. My reaction is to play less. Why bother? Turning something I enjoyed doing into something I could never do well enough wasn't the most brilliant move I ever made but that's another story.
Transferring this idolatry run amok to the literary field, has anyone out there had a similar experience with writing? Anybody read something so utterly perfectly fantastic that it just makes you feel like hanging up the pen? And if so -- what was that wonderfully demolishing piece of literature?
Ah, writer's block, you wily sumbitch ... you strike without warning, leaving us to twist in the wind like an old sweatsock forgotten on the clothesline. But wait ... is writer's block even real? There are tons of books, websites and seminars that promise to help you jumpstart your writing, cure writer's block and help you get your groove back (although we hope it turns out much better for you in the end than it did for "Stella" recently); but do they help? If writer's block is more than just a myth, more than a euphemism for "hey I'm tired and I don't want to think no mo'", are there different types of writer's block? Do you experience writer's block? What gets you over the hump? Maybe it's a writing group, critique, writing challenges or perhaps a contest ... or a hard deadline combined with a swift kick in the pants? Tell us what works for you and what doesn't.
Jamelah Earle: A lot of people are forced to read poetry in school and then make a point never to touch it again because it was boring or they didn't understand it or their teacher smelled like mothballs or some combination thereof. Say those people were to read this interview -- what would you tell them? Is poetry something necessary (outside of the echo chamber of poets, teachers, intellectuals, etc.)?
Gary Mex Glazner: First let me say how much I appreciate the forum LitKicks provides to do this interview. Last summer I was working in a poet-in-the-school program with a group of students who had all flunked at least two classes, these kids were culled from all the middle school students in Santa Fe. It was a really hard class, we were in trailer, no water, no air conditioning and three classes of twenty-five to thirty students.
It turned out their average reading level was fourth grade and they were acting out a lot to hide the fact that they couldn't read, couldn't pronounce words, just had really low skills. The day before the class ended one of the students as he was leaving said, "You're looking for a Columbine." At first I just blew it off, but later that night I thought I should tell someone. We had a meeting with the principal and the school therapist. The student denied even having ever heard of Columbine. It was chilling, later it came out his father had a large collection of guns and had been reported to the state Child Protection Agency for beating the boy. It was only the Friday before where that kid in Arizona had shot his family. As I left that meeting someone hit me in the back of the head with a rock. Ouch, taking a rock for poetry!
As a poet I see a value in poetry that can help kids to be creative, can help them to learn language skills and public speaking skills. Those skills are useful to most professions. Studying poetry isn't the only way to get those skills but seeing that there is something practical and useful in poetry can help to reach students that otherwise might dismiss poetry.
I think it can be a great outlet especially for young people. I was lucky after that experience to start working with a group of students at Desert Academy. The class is an elective so all the kids want to be there. The group is called the Precision Poetry Drill Team and they were featured on NPR's "All Things Considered" in April, you can check out the broadcast at this link:
I don't think we should force people to learn poetry and I think in general that after the basics are mastered students should have more say in their curriculum.
JE: Is there anything you really hate about the modern poetry scene? Why?
GMG: The division between academic poetry and performance or slam or cafe or street poetry -- which ever name you choose to call poetry outside of the university system -- bugs me. When it gets down to it, both sides love the art form and have more in common than what they have in common with an avid football fan. The so-called poetry wars would be laughable if the academic side didn't control so much of the funding for poetry. If I could echo the famous line, "Can't we all just get along?"
JE: A common perception is that the general public doesn't have an interest in poetry, making it hard (if not impossible) to make a living as a poet, yet that's what you're doing -- making a living as a poet. Even so, from your experience, would you say this perception carries any weight? Are you a special case, or is poetry something anyone can pursue as a career?
GMG: If poetry is of use to the community, it is pretty easy to get paid. I am the director of the Alzheimer's Poetry Project, alzpoetry.com and have recently received funding from the City of Santa Fe Arts Commission to expand the program to include a Spanish speaking poet and a Native American poet. The State of New Mexico awarding funding to help expand the program to rural parts of the State.
That is just one of the programs I talk about in How to Make a Living as a Poet, and of course I hope this interview will point people to the book. I have about ten interviews in the book with other poets, including Mary Karr, Sherman Alexie, Naomi Shihab Nye all touching on different aspects of generating income from poetry, so I don't think I am a special case. I am working on a follow up book that will come out next year that has about twenty-five interviews with poets who make their living from their poetry, so it can done.
If I say to you I am a free lance writer, people don't automatically say, "But what is your day job?" I see being a poet as similar. I put poetry at the center of all my actives in generating income. I have done radio, digital film, set type and run old printing presses, worked with everyone from YMCA after school programs, to MFA graduate students, to Alzheimer's patients. Don't limit yourself to what poetry can be, be as creative in bringing poetry into the world as you are in writing it. In the fall, I am going to start working with a program that puts poets into the break-room for ER doctors and nurses. The idea is they can hear a poem, or write one them selves. It's an intense environment and I am looking seeing if I can make poetry work there.
JE: Online writing (from blogs to messageboards) has become a really popular medium in the past few years. While it has allowed people who may have never had a chance before to find an encouraging audience, do you think that the proliferation of online writing has helped or hurt those hoping to make it as writers?
Check out my blog: http://howtopoet.blogspot.com.
I think blogs can be useful tools in helping to build the audience for poetry. I am also very interested in podcasts as a way to get poetry out and help build the audience. I will be teaching a literary journal class this year at Desert Academy here in Santa Fe and plan to have the students explore both blogs and podcasts, as well as learn how to set type and how to run the old printing presses at the 400-year-old Palace of the Governor's Museum.
JE: Your book, How to Make a Living as a Poet, serves as a guide to turn writing into an actual profession. Why did you think it was important to write it?
GMG: I kept getting requests on how to get sponsorships, how to pull off some of the projects I was successful in doing, like the Slam America tour with Grande Marnier. (Here is a scoop for LitKicks, the film "Busload of Poets" which documents the tour, just sold to the Documentary Channel, a new cable channel which will launch in November.) So I kept getting phone calls and people pulling me aside and asking about getting funding for their poetry projects and I realized I had enough material for a book. Soft Skull liked the idea enough to make it a three book series, so the second book, How to Make a Life as a Poet (working title) will come out in April of 2006 and the third book, with the working title of The Readers Respond will come out in April of 2007. The idea with the third book is to gather stories on how readers have used the first two books, how the ideas have worked, good or bad and tell those stories. We are collecting them at http://howtopoet.blogspot.com/
So there is a chance for LitKicks readers to get published. I would also be interested in essays on the general topic of making a living as a poet, pro or con.
JE: To switch gears a little, you're attuned to spoken word and the slam scene and also ran the Bowery Poetry Club for awhile. With all this experience, you probably have some opinions on poetry readings. What do you think makes a good poetry performance? What makes a bad one? Does it take a special kind of writing to sound good when read live?
GMG: I am a big fan of the "Naked Poets" from L.A., also, drinking helps. In general though if the poets are to be clothed, I tend to drift to something original, in presentation, form, subject matter. "Make it new," says Ezra Dog Pound. Bad for me are most open-mics, but I think that might have to do with starting to attend them in the late seventies, I just have been to so many bad open-mics. I like to hear more of one person, in a featured reading setting, give the person a chance to shine, an opportunity to push themselves and present a range of their work. Having said that, some of the hip-hop flavored open-mics at the Bowery Poetry Club have been amazing, the late night "Crunk" works for me.
I guess this proves, once again, that it really isn't the shape or size, but how many times you can make it rise.
Rose's message to up-and-coming authors is simple: when it comes to marketing your book, hold nothing back. Her litblog is called Buzz Balls Hype -- that's "balls", I think, as in "balls to the wall". Here's an example: Rose has arranged for a consortium of contributors to donate five dollars to the Reading Is Fundamental organization every time a litblog links to the vidlit (an animated online promotion) for "The Halo Effect".
We're game, M. J. These "vidlits" are pretty cool to look at, too, and maybe some other writers around here want to look into creating vidlits for their own works (as well as, yeah, buying blogads on LitKicks).
Send that five bucks over to RIF, somebody ...
If more writers could write like Richard Hell, I'd be a happier man.
Hell doesn't write very much, or very often. He'll give us one new book of poetry or a slim paperback novel every few years. Godlike, his first novel since 1997's superb Go Now, is an absolute pleasure and a perfect distillation of this unique author's talents.
Godlike purports to be the scribblings of a middle-aged poet named Paul Vaughn who sits in a mental hospital reminiscing about a younger poet named R. T. Wode, but it becomes quickly apparent that Hell is basing the story on the real-life relationship between two 19th Century French poets, Paul Verlaine and Arthur Rimbaud. He tells the tale with a light, glancing touch. Imagine if Jim Jarmusch made a movie about Verlaine and Rimbaud, and you get the idea. The Vaughn/Verlaine character also resembles Richard Hell himself, and the story is updated to Lower East Side New York City circa 1971.
But enough about the plot, because when Hell writes I only care about the sentences. I couldn't get through half a page without pausing for a big smile or a grateful sigh of recognition. Hell's writing is pointed, sharp, like a junkyard of broken glass. Surprising connections abound, celebrating random oddness, reaching for beauty or truth:
To give offense was his mission, his meaning ... People say James Dean was the same way, mean and arrogant and competitive. And I remember having this revelation watching Bette Davis on-screen one time. That everything that was magnificent about her in the movie would be impossibly obnoxious in the same room with you ...
Nixon the opposite of Dylan, right? Does that make them creators of each other? What would you do with that? Was there anywhere to go with that? Dylan's name looked like Dylan too ... They both have hanging noses and tense mouths. Richard Nixon -- cross-eyed, his tight downturned lips where the spit leaks out at the corners. What if you switched their names?
Why are soap containers so beautiful? The packaging, I mean. Brillo, Ivory, Tide, Comet. It can't be a coincidence. But the thing I really love to see, that gladdens my heart, is a thick stand of empty two-liter generic soda bottles pressed against each other on the floor. The soft gleanings, the complexity of the light, the humility, the blue labels, the uniform bottle shape in the random blob of the clustering ...
Snot is white blood cells that've died fighting germs.
Some writers are dull at heart, and mask their dullness with literary complexity and intellectual obscurity. I don't like writers like that. Hell is my kind of writer; his sentences are rational, direct, clear as water. It's the ideas behind the words that stand surreal and gather poetic mystery.
Like Paul Verlaine himself, Richard Hell suffuses his writings with images of filth and depravity but expresses, through it all, a surprisingly affirmative and affectionate view of life. As the pages of Godlike progress, we know that Vaughn will have to shoot Wode (without seriously injuring him), that Vaughn will go to prison and that Wode will disappear, reemerge and die. After this all plays out, Vaughn tells us the difference between Wode and himself, which is the difference between Arthur Rimbaud and Paul Verlaine:
He looked at emotions as a scientist, but there are things I know more about than he did. I know that love is real."
I think this is also the difference between hundreds of mediocre writers and Richard Hell, a great modern transgressive poet and author who writes about nothing but the joy of our world, and of life.
"The post on John Twelve Hawks got me thinking ... between him and Lemony Snicket, is the future of publishing books going to couched in the author creating a whole separate persona? Is it all just a gimmick to promote sales? If so, do you think it's a justifiable action, or a cheap sell out?"
Is this merely another facet of a long tradition of pseudonyms in the writing world? Or is the increasing number of books being published forcing authors to pull "stunts" for publicity? Does this kind of mystery surrounding an author pique your curiousity or is it all in the writing?