188135_309347012499824_1562935498_nRecently, I edited a book of poetry for 2012 Asbury Park Poet Laureate nominee Joshua J. Ballard. There’s gonna be a release party on January 30 for I Keep Going to kick-start his next tour, and the author was kind enough to ask me to perform as part of the 5, 7, then 5 (buy via amazon) collective. Several other poets, bands, and artists will be there, so come on out! It’s also my last appearance in 2012 and might also mark my extended retirement from the scene as a whole. So come glimpse my majesty while ye may!

In other news, Death Loves a Drinking Game has been pushed back a little for a 2013 release and is now to be paired with the work of the stunningly touching and immensely talented Keith Baird! Look for more on that as news becomes available.

Hope you have a grand send-off to 2012 and that 2013 treats ya right.

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Haiku: an Animated Critique

Posted: November 14, 2012 in Misc
Tags: ,

The clip below comes from a stand-alone, day-in-the-life story of Sokka – a living, breathing, wise-cracking comic relief device within the animated world of Avatar: The Last Airbender. What it accomplishes so masterfully is a very tongue-in-cheek commentary on how contemporary American audiences appreciate haiku. The premise: Sokka, a member of the Water Tribe, finds himself in an Earth Kingdom town, where he accidentally disrupts a reading of haiku by several girls and their teacher. Watch (total running time for both videos is ~2 minutes):

How this is amazing:
After Sokka inadvertently issues a 17-syllable apology for his intrusion, note the girls’ giggles and applause. At its most vicious, this is academia passive aggressively humoring the clown, but given the young girls’ seemingly earnest reactions, it seems more appropriate to say that they represent contemporary culture lowering the bar for poetic excellence by living in the yuks of the moment – relishing the respite from tradition and all its oppressive rules. Sokka’s utterance is not intended to be a poem and, indeed, disregards all haiku rules (save the syllable count).

Obviously displeased with her pupils’ delighted reactions concerning Sokka’s coincidental phrasing, the teacher stands and counters with a blunt 17-syllable phrase that outlines the syllable requirements of haiku in 12 syllables and finishes with a blatant, 5-syllable insult that also serves to recognize Sokka’s accidental but proper senryu. She sinks down to his level by using plain language, expressing academia’s contempt for those who break form for no reason but accept laurels for what are accidental achievements. Not quite comprehending the rebuke (or encouraged/challenged by it), Sokka, a little more confident, counters with a prideful, 17-syllable introduction and refutation, this time purposefully ending on the seventeenth syllable to show his prowess. More giggling ensues; contemporary culture LOVES the challenge to history. Unfazed by the impression Sokka is making on her students, the teacher strikes back with all the power haiku is capable of pushing with:

chittering monkey
in the spring he climbs tree tops
and thinks himself tall

Here, the teacher attacks Sokka with the perfect haiku: the juxtaposition of two nature-based images, a seasonal word (kigo), a “cutting word” (or kireji, a word the indicated the emphasis of the poem), and yes…a 17-syllable format. While staring directly at Sokka, the teacher’s oral delivery of “Monkey,” not so coincidentally emphasized by “chittering,” is the kireji that identifies Sokka and his behavior regarding his performance (chittering like a monkey, meaning unimportant babble – insult #1). The rest of the poem describes Sokka’s pride in creating false haiku (thinking himself tall despite only having climbed a tree – insult #2).

In the next volley of 17-syllable plain language phrases, an un-disparaged Sokka ignorantly taunts the teacher’s formality by calling haiku easy, while the teacher, still trying to edify while warding off this disturbance, hints at the need for a seasonal word as well as the dedication of time which goes into the craft. Sokka fires back with a bit of crass inference that raises the teacher’s ire and makes her issue an all-out poetic threat:

there’s nuts and there’s fruit
in fall the clinging plum drops
always to be squashed

Again, an epic haiku: all show, no tell, and an emphatic foot stomp which results in a squashed plum (why and how she keeps plums up her sleeve…I really don’t want to know). As if to raise the ante in this epic battle, Sokka retaliates by bringing in his boomerang as both punchline and prop to his playful poem. It’s very important to notice that the word “slang” is invoked and used to express contempt for the teacher’s carefully crafted language by equating it to popular language that has yet to prove its stance against time. The teacher backs down, but not from show of force (Sokka’s raised boomerang). She’s had it playing with this fool and knows he, like all brash fools, will be his own undoing. After all, she has faith in what she’s taught her pupils and how they’ve learned (as evidenced by the first poem read in this story), and Sokka has not taken the time needed to master the poetry that will win their minds. Of course, the teacher is proven right; proud Sokka’s victory poem turns out one syllable too long, and the deviation from the form, unsupported by any other poetic elements, results in a cricket-backed silence and a hard boot out the door.

But think back to the beginning; Sokka is shown to be an appreciator of poetry. He’s melting over the windowsill. His disruption is not intentional. His continued disruption, however, is. Sokka’s ham-it-up nature gets the best of him, and the dreaded argument then rears its ugly head: is the laughter Sokka reaps from bastardizing the elements of haiku any less valuable than the emotions garnered from haiku that follow all the rules? Is reaching “the people” any less important than creating a poem that only epitomizes itself? How is expression worth anything if its essence is beyond most listeners’/readers’/viewers’ sense of patience? Is it still the same mode of expression if the rules are ignored? Concerning the latter, given the culture from which haiku comes and the history of the form, in which the same 5-7-5 structure has changed its name depending on how it has been used, I’d say the answer is no.

If all the requirements are not obliged, haiku is not haiku. It is very technically something else, which is why I fully support nomenclature deviations such as beer-ku (haiku format poems about beer), mean-ku (insult-based poems in haiku format), etc., which infer an aberration while hinting at/honoring the form from whence it was derived. Still, exceptions make the rule; even in classic Japanese literature you find haiku that crack if not break some borders. The difference? They are exceptions. So while it’s fun to ham it up and fool around with a poetic form most malleable, to expect a sustained welcome from the establishment when under-studied or lazy in practice is to test the patience and invoke the wrath of those who’ve toiled so in the name of love for the form which allowed you to get your quick laugh.

By Candlelight

Posted: November 4, 2012 in Misc

(pic via)

One of the lucky, I was only without power about 4 days due to Hurricane “Super Storm” Sandy. Since I work from home and there was not much else to be done in the dark, I took advantage of the absence of electric buzz to catch up on some reading. All of the following come with my enthusiastic recommendation:

Exit, Civilian” and “The Next Country” by Idra Novey
Boneshepherds” by Patrick Rosal
Frankenstein” by Mary Shelly
Poetry’s June, September, and October issues
“Drops of God,” Volume 4 and New World by Tadashi Agi
Higurashi no Naku Koro ni, Massacre Arc, Volume 1 by Ryukishi07
Or Something Like That” by Bud Smith

Reading the Higurashi manga and rereading a good chunk of “Frankenstein” by candlelight on Halloween was by far the best experience of the storm, or at least the most mood-appropriate. Idra Novey has quick become one of my favorite contemporary poets, and Patrick Rosal (whom I discovered at the Brooklyn Book Festival along with Ms. Novey) is definitely in the running as well. “Boneshepherds,” which I took for a collection that would have a few choice pieces but ultimately disappoint, had me fighting back sympathetic tears on more than one occasion and marveling at the author’s diversity of techniques and talent with the word most of the rest of the time. Of the issues of Poetry I finally caught up on, June, with its selection of W. S. Di Piero’s work, was the most enjoyable. And if you’ve yet to check out Bud Smith’s short story collection, “Or Something Like That,” do yourself the favor and stop procrastinating. The best thing about reading his stories is that he never takes the reader where they’ve been taught to expect to go, all the while with a humorous, Bukowski-influenced, realist wit.

This has happened two years in a row now, and there’s really no excuse. So once again, it’s up to me to alert any and all potential judges to a misprint regarding the 20th Annual Asbury Music Awards:

AMA2012

While my general mode of modesty is self-deprecation, I can think of no typo more flattering or grievous. Don’t get me wrong; I am truly humbled that someone even noticed my poetry, let alone thought it worthy of such an honor, but the fact stands that almost all of the other nominees in this category, as well as those who were not included but should have been, are far more deserving of the title/trophy than myself.

The laurels typically associated with this title carry with them expectations of honed talent as well as responsibility for promoting readership. While it is true that I can write the hell out of a poem (you cannot imagine how much admitting that makes me cringe), all of the other talented nominees, or at least those I know, are active purveyors of poetry: educators, slammers, open mic emcees, guerilla poets. None simply concentrate on selfishly crafting their own formula of the word (as is my case).

As it stands, aside from a few failed ventures in starting workshop groups, I am naught but words on pages (electronic and otherwise) and an apparition at open mics. I carry a ravenous hunger and broad appreciation for the art of poetry, both on the page and off the tongue, but do nothing aside from lend my specific dish to an already distinguished menu. So please join me in rooting for all the other nominees who have actually earned such recognition. Then, if you still have applause left in your soul and your hands aren’t too sore from applauding, pick up my book(s) or simply let me know what you think of my poems; that’s the best honour I could ever imagine.


(Pictured, left to right: Fanny Howe, Juan Philipe Herrera, Raúl Zurita, Daniel Borzutsky, Nikky Finney, moderator)

Description from the 2012 Festival’s guide:

Some poets take the position that poetry must address the political and social issues of its time. Others believe political debate has no place in poetry. Most, even those who don’t write political poems themselves, agree that if a political matter is of personal importance to a particular poet, it is a valid topic for their poetry. Festival Poets consider how and when poetry might/might not be called upon to bear witness.

What actually happened:
To paraphrase Juan Felipe Herrera, “Tenderness encouraging tenderness, making things that haven’t been said come to light.” If ever there was a panel that could bring about tears from sympathy and thumps of the heart drum from inspiration, this was it. The discussion was so enthralling, I completely forgot to take notes! The urgency behind Zurita’s reading in Spanish, the call to stop being polite in writing (literature having been defined as “polite writing”) to affect positively one’s local community, and to further that and take back the entire world. Large aspirations for such small groups words as poems, but the way the panelists spoke and read and bantered could be enough to sway any borderline heart to compassion (and hopefully action based upon that compassion). Don’t let me tell you how you should b affected. Listen* for yourself and get affected! Then maybe, if you think more discussions like this should take place, go donate a few bucks to the Foundation that made it possible.

Know your voices:
First speaker – moderator
Second speaker – Raúl Zurita
Third speaker – Daniel Borzutsky (translating for Raúl Zurita)
Fourth speaker – Nikky Finney
Fifth speaker – Fanny Howe
Sixth Speaker – Juan Felipe Herrera

*This recording is not sanctioned by the Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival or its associated Foundation and is solely offered in faith that 1) no-one reads this blog anyway, 2) it was for the benefit of poetry and those who appreciate poetry that the event took place, and 3) supposedly the Foundation’s own YouTube channel will soon offer coverage of this event anyhoo. In short: please don’t sue. Email me, and I will remove the link permanently as well as delete the files in question from their source.