Oh, just accept it. It’s that time again!
Note to self: Summer has flown by. Get going on this.
I would be remiss in my duties to not include Amiri Baraka (originally LeRoi Jones) here, as I am currently writing a big paper on his play Dutchman. (If you want to hear about his use of masks and lynching allegories in it, feel free to email!) This guy led quite a life, and did a little of everything. Poems, plays, essays, books, you name it. He’s quite polarizing and confrontational, but I’m into it.
I read one chapter from a book of his on music (Black Music), and it was pretty mind-blowing. He’s like a madman running down the street tossing out ideas, and you have to figure out which one you’re going to grab and follow to the end. A Beat in the best way. And that’s his prose! His poetry is something else.
Chalk Rae Armantrout up to the same mysterious process of discovery as Lisa Jarnot. She’s on that same “poets to check out” list of mine, but I learned of her in some mysterious anthology whose name has been lost to history. Or the library. Maybe I’ll go loiter in the stacks and see if any books there ring a bell. If anyone needs me, that’s where I’ll be. Anyway, I checked her out, and I dig her work.
Poets.org has a pretty extensive bio of her if you’re interested. I’m all about just laying some poetry on you right now, though.
I have no idea how I found out about Lisa Jarnot. I became aware of her around the time I read The Outlaw Bible Of American Poetry, but she’s not in there. I think I just associate that book with good discoveries because that’s how I found out about Mike Topp. But for whatever reason, I found myself with a list of poets to check out and she was one of them. Now you should put her on your list of poets to check out. DO IT.
There’s not a ton of info on the web about her, but that’s how some people roll. She has a bio here, and her blog is here. I can say for certain that she did not want to be my Facebook friend right after I discovered her, but that’s also how some people roll. I’m not bitter. No, really! Anyway, let her work speak for itself:
I spend a fair amount of time derping around on Tumblr. One day I noticed that an account called “One Dollar Poem” had liked a few of my posts (of different genres – I tend to span the fields of writing, chickens, and general internet idiocy over there) and I clicked on the name to see what their deal was. (I also get followed by a lot of pornbots for some reason, so I was seeing if they were legit.) They are legit! For $1 they will write you a poem and post it, for $3 they will write you a poem and mail you the actual poem on paper. I splashed out on the $3 version. Dig it.
Anyway, being the curious sort, I had to know more, so I sent them some questions, and they were nice enough to respond. Go buy some poems once you’re done reading!
1. Someone already asked “who are you” on Tumblr. Are you few, or many? Is this a collective effort, or that of a lone wolf? (Dodge this as you see fit. I’m cool with secrecy.)
M: We’re Alaina and Megan – two friends who live quite far apart but are excitedly collaborating together for one dollar poem.
A: We are two, for now.
2. Who are your favorite poets?
A: My favorite poets are lyricists like Kendrick Lamar, Brandon Flowers, Jai Paul, Ben Gibbard, FKA Twigs, among many others. I used to spend hours reading over different lyrics websites as a kid and, to this day, I pay very close attention to what my favorite bands/musicians are very literally saying to me in their music.
M:My favorite poets are the American greats – Thoreau, Whitman, Emerson. I often travel alone and find lots of inspiration in their works so heavy in themes of nature, solitariness, and self.
3. How did this idea come about? It’s so simple, but so great. Had it incubated for a long time, or did you just jump right in?
M: The idea for one dollar poem was more of a journey than an epiphany. When I was in high school I used poetry as a way for dealing with all the feelings of being a teenager, carrying around notebooks full of things I had written, writing short blips of words strung together on the back of my math homework, and occasionally sharing poems on my livejournal account. On my dresser I kept a poem a stranger had written on a scrap piece of paper and given to me at basement punk show – I would look at it for years and years and always loved it. This was the original inspiration behind one dollar poem.
Daydreaming at a horrible desk job one day I grabbed a scrap piece of paper, wrote Alaina’s name down the side of it, and started filling in the gaps. when I was done, I sent it to her. it reminded me much of the poem I had kept on my dresser for so many years, how it was simple but still evoked a feeling. I thought that I could do this for not just Alaina, but other friends, for acquaintances, for strangers. The idea for one dollar poem was born.
I had shared my idea with Alaina, but building the framework to get started got swept under the rug for a number of years. I wanted to do the writing, but the leg work seemed beyond what I had the time or skill to do. When Alaina contacted me out of the blue this year and said “Let’s do one dollar poem together” I knew it was the energy the project needed.
4. What kind of typewriter do you use? (I have 2 non-functioning IBM Selectrics, and an Erika from East Germany that does umlauts, so I might be a typewriter weirdo.)
A: With no knowledge of typewriters, I bought a Brother SX-4000. Megan and I decided within roughly 24 hours that, in order to get this project off the ground, we would have to jump in head first. So, I bought the first piece of equipment that had good reviews + looked like it wouldn’t take a genius to figure out. I really enjoy typing on it, but I am not used to the slight delay between the speed I type and the speed with which the typewriter can process information. Sometimes I lose my train of thought. I don’t know if I type too fast or if my attention is easily drawn elsewhere. Probably both.
5. Have you ever eaten a whole pie? If so, what kind? How long did it take? One sitting, or over time?
A: Yes. I made Jónsi & Alex’s strawberry pie (http://jonsiandalex.com/recipes) and ate the whole thing by myself over the course of three-ish days.
6. Given the unsustainability of factory meat farming, could you see yourself/yourselves turning to insects as your primary source of protein? (Scientists are thinking about this. I’m vegetarian, so no bugs for me, thanks.)
A: I’d eat a bug but I think I would feel pretty sad about it.
M: I eat a plant-based diet and think I get enough protein through greens, so I’m happy to stay away from insects.
7. Are there other Tumblr poetry/writing/whatever sites you recommend?
A: Not really, and it’s not because I think other sites are not good, but because I don’t seek them out. I am inspired by everyday language. I am interested in my friends’ feelings when they’re deeply emotional about something. And I genuinely find a lot of inspiration in any randomly generated combination of words.
M: Alaina is more versed in Tumblr than I am, but I also keep a travel blog where I have a large catalog of writing: http://bertabroad.wordpress.com
Fans of my annual Poetry Month Freakout may remember I did a write-up on the greatness of Stevie Smith last year (or, just scroll down a few posts, I’ve been a bit of a deadbeat once poetry month ended). The BBC just did an article on her, given that there was just a big event celebrating her in the UK. Always an unheralded tastemaker, I am. Dig it.
I first came across the poetry of Stevie Smith when I was a teenager. Once again, I think it was in some collection of literature meant to be used in the classroom. I don’t remember if it was one from a class of mine, or if I came across it in some other way (the used bookstore obsession began early). I do know two things for certain. The poem of hers I first read was “Not Waving but Drowning,” and for the longest time I thought she was a man because I am a doofus and apparently learned nothing from Stevie Nicks. (Though, the book could have included some biographical information that might have cleared this up. JUST SAYIN’.)
More recently I discovered that she also illustrated many of her poems. This completely added to the appeal, since stylistically she keeps it simple, which I enjoy. Sometimes a doodle says more than a grand work of art (and sometimes a doodle IS a grand work of art). This is not to besmirch grand works of art. Everything has its place.
Anyway, while Not Waving but Drowning is her best known poem and it seems like I should go for a deep cut, sometimes you just have to play the hits. Here’s a scan of the poem (from The Collected Poems of Stevie Smith) with the illustration that was so dearly lacking from the version I first encountered.
I come from a family of teachers. As a kid, I had these two elderly aunts who had taught generations of people in their town. I spent a lot of time with them, and they had tons of cool old books, which I dug through eagerly. One of these books was called Along Story Trails, and I think it was a “reader” for a classroom. It had a wide variety of stuff in it – folktales, poetry, short stories, and abridged versions or excerpts from longer pieces, to name a few. It was where I first encountered Beowulf (an adaptation), Rikki Tikki Tavi (sparking a lifelong love of the mongoose), and this poem by William Carlos Williams, often referred to as “As the cat,” given that’s the first line.
What I love about this is the illustration (a cat, years before the internet!), and how it helps a young reader visualize the action in the poem, and how the words reflect the movement of the cat. This remains my favorite Williams poem. Note the “plum” jar, likely referring to another famous Williams poem.
Sadly, I lost my original copy of this book years ago, but was able to find another. I use it in school visits a lot to show how I came to be such a voracious reader. (I then show the comic books I read as a kid to point out that I didn’t just read fancy poetry, I read EVERYTHING.)
Happy Poetry Month! And don’t forget I’ll be on Boston Public Radio on WGBH radio for the MBTA Poetry News Quiz this Friday around 1:30. I’ll be facing off against Liam Day, who has written a book of poems about MBTA buses. Tune in!
Big things are happening! I’ll be a part of a MBTA Poetry News Quiz on Boston Public Radio on WGBH Radio on Friday, April 10th. The news quiz is on around 1:30. With any luck, I will have a collection of MBTA haikus ready then too (however, problems, as we all expected, are ongoing – this is going to end up being an epic collection). I’ll be facing off against Liam Day, who has written a book of poems about MBTA buses. You can stream it online, so tune in.
To kick off Poetry Month, I thought I’d share a found poem by Tuli Kupferberg off his album of found poems called No Deposit, No Return. There’s some hilarious stuff on there, some of it very NSFW, but I chose one called “Social Studies,” and you’ll figure out soon enough where it was taken from (click the words “Social Studies” back there to hear it).
And while we’re in the found poetry mood, here’s one of mine:
Hairy and slender
with slim fingers and black nails
the Capuchin monkey’s hands
are just right
a bottle of juice
There’s a bit of a rumble in the writing community right now over an app called “Clean Reader,” and rightfully so. This app is designed to “prevent swear words from appearing on your screen,” while reading e-books. They promote it by saying, “you decide how books should appear,” which, as a writer, is pretty alarming. As you’ll see in my letter to them below, word choice is a huge part of writing. Using the wrong word can weaken what you’re trying to do, or change it completely. Since we’re dealing with swearing, say you have a character who never swears, and then at one point in the story this character is made so angry by someone that he or she yells, “damn you to hell!” That would illustrate how far this character had been pushed. However, a third party coming in and changing this to “Darn you to heck!” has now completely altered the intention of that line. Not only that, they have done so without the permission of the author, as they do not notify writers if their books are included on the list of books this app can provide. According to one of the articles that they link to on the Clean Reader site, the owners make a commission on any books they sell through the app too. This is super shady.
On the topic of word choices, they say in their FAQ that they have “discussed [the legality of altering book texts on-screen, even if not altering the original files] with several lawyers and they have all agreed that Clean Reader does not violate copyright law because it doesn’t make changes to the file containing the book” That doesn’t fill me with confidence. Did they actually hire these lawyers? I discuss things with people all the time. That’s not the same as paying someone to do due diligence. It’s a strangely casual word choice, and it makes me wonder if they’ve really investigated their legal standing as deeply as they should. If nothing else, it certainly illustrates my point about word choice nicely.
Swears exist. People use them. If you don’t like that, that’s your preference. If a writer has put a swear in a book, they likely had a very good reason to do so. If that upsets you, you can choose to not read the book, or to tolerate the swearing as part of the larger work. (Great works of art can often contain troubling elements – that doesn’t lessen their greatness.) To read a book with any words changed is not reading the book as the author intended, as you’re not reading the same book. And to go and try to impose this on any book you want because you don’t like swearing is another thing completely. To impose this on peoples’ books without their knowledge, and while making money by doing so, takes it even further. This all started because the creators’ daughter is an advanced reader, and read a book intended for an older audience that had some swears in it. Rather than using this to open a dialogue, or perhaps be more involved in their daughter’s reading process, they just decided to pretend swearing doesn’t happen by making it not happen.
Everyone’s values are different. A swear in a book is just a word. I’m fine with swearing, but I don’t care for people changing my words without my knowledge, so I’ve requested to be removed from their app.
To Whom It May Concern,
I have written five books for children, and only one of them contains swears. The sweary book is a book for teenagers. I chose to use swears because the book is about my own experiences as a teenager, and my experience was that teenagers swear. Sometimes a lot. To pretend they don’t is dishonest, and wouldn’t be believable in my story. Kids are smart. They’d know if I was trying to sell them a bill of goods by making everyone in the story speak in a squeaky clean manner.
While we’re on the subject of honesty, I don’t know whether or not my books are even listed in Clean Reader, since you don’t feel that it’s necessary to notify authors of their books’ inclusion. Yet you have no problem with censoring their words. (Yes, I know, you leave the original book file intact, but don’t kid yourself into thinking that what you’re doing is anything short of censorship. You are altering, whether permanent or not, the work of authors without their permission because you find certain words they use offensive.) I have not granted you any permission to change my words, and therefore request that you remove my books from your app immediately. If they’re there. Which they may not be. I don’t know.
It’s unfortunate that your daughter had an unpleasant experience with a book containing swears. It’s much more unfortunate that your response was to try to wipe swears out of literature entirely by way of an algorithm. I also teach writing, and something I tend to stress is the importance of word choices. If a writer chooses the wrong word in any given sentence, it can make a huge difference in what they’re trying to say. So I impress upon my students to think about each word they use, and to ask themselves if it is the right one for their intention. I could give you examples, but I don’t think you’re interested in what writers do, unless they swear. A lot of thought goes into writing, and to mindlessly replace words a program thinks is “wrong” with words it thinks is “right” is highly insulting, and negates the time spent writing a book, which can often be years.
We are allowed to disagree. But you are not allowed to alter my writing. Please keep Clean Reader away from any of my existing books. I may write some with swears in the future. Stay away from those too.
Erik P. Kraft
The bookstore system powering Clean Reader has pulled out. I just got this email in response to mine:
My town paper did a nice story on me, and used some illustrations I did that were inspired by the ongoing train disaster.
I’ll be talking about my MBTA haikus on Under the Radar this Sunday, March 8th, on WGBH radio. That’s 89.7 in the Boston area, or you can stream via WGBH’s website. (Click “Radio” at the top, and then “Live Stream” on the left.) It’s on 6-7 pm EST.
(The title of this post is a reference to a Billy Bragg album that I am a fan of, which is in itself a reference to a poem. Round and round we go.)
And if you’d like to read more of my haikus, you can buy my 2011 Haiku-A-Day book here.
Boston.com did a nice story about my MBTA haiku coping mechanism. I’m not alone in my beef with the T.
Even if you’re not in the area, you may have heard about the winter Massachusetts has been having. We’ve been getting pounded relentlessly, and it’s caused the Boston-area transit system to be completely shut down several times. Even when it’s not shut down, it works less than great. In an effort to stay sane in the face of being constantly stuck on trains, I’ve begun to write haikus and tweet them at the MBTA. I’ve been collecting them at T’d Off Haikus, or if you want to watch them unfold in real time, you can follow me on Twitter (@erikpkraft). They predict it will be 30 days from the end of snow to get the system back up and running, and snow is forecast for tonight, so I’ve got at least another month to go with this.