Hawking Up Hairballs

Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Pity The Poetry

There's been a bit of a turmoil in the world of American poetry in the last few months. First, there was the Foetry.com business. Some guy named Alan Cordle started a web site with the above name and started exposing the fraud in some of the most prestigious university poetry and fiction contests. The way these contests generally work, a contest entrant pays a $20-$25 reading fee and supposedly has a chance at winning the prize, which entails publication by the university's press. Foetry.com showed that some of these contests amounted to little more than scams. For example, the Univ. of Iowa contests are generally won by those who have close connections with the university's writing program. The Univ. of Georgia has a poetry contest and the winners of their prizes have been suspicious in some cases. For example, Jorie Graham, a poet now at Harvard Univ., chose her husband as the contest winner when she was the judge. A number of other examples were provided on the site.

More recently, there has been the assertion that there hasn't been any great or compelling American poetry written in the last fifty years. I would tend to agree with that assertion. For one thing, the audience for poetry is even smaller than it was fifty years ago. Hence, there's not much demand for books of poetry. As a result, good poetry and bad poetry will sell just about as well, which is not much at all. In point of fact, poetry as it has been known, isn't terribly relevant in our culture. Poets are right up there with potters. That doesn't mean that poetry is dead, but is found elsewhere than in books of poetry. It comes naturally to the human spirit. The young today find their poetry in other areas, like the lyrics of popular music of various sorts. Look too at the lines that people remember from movies. "Frankly, Scarlett, I don't give a damn." There's a certain poetry in that, if I've remembered the line correctly, as there is in Arnold's, "I'll be back." Too bad that he wasn't talking about poetry. I would like to see a poet laureate that mattered.

For those of you who might want a laugh, John Rocker now has a web site, though I'll leave it to you find it. I'm not about to link to the site of the mullet-head fool. Whoever is advising him on PR is really laying it on thick. There's a photo of John holding a kitten, and lots of talk of his work with charity.

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Just Give Me A Box Of Uni-balls

I read a recent blog entry by my friend David Matthews. In it he offered up some thoughts on the the writing process. He mentioned that, when writing, he liked to have a dictionary at hand, along with The Chicago Manual of Style, the Harbrace College Handbook, and Fowler's Modern English Usage. I'm somewhat different. Of course, there's a dictionary, one of the two college dictionaries that I own, and a large, unabridged one in the other room. In addition, there are two other books that I find to be indispensable, the Roget's International Thesaurus and something called the Random House Word Menu.

I like the Roget's International Thesaurus because I've found it to be the best organized and easiest to use. Many writers don't recommend the use of a thesaurus. They feel that one writes in more compelling fashion when using language with which one is most familiar. I think that's generally true, but sometimes I feel like I have the right word on the tip of my tongue but can't quite come up with it. That's when I reach for the thesaurus. There is one sort of situation when I use unfamiliar language and that is need the precise name for something. That's where the Word Menu comes in. It's full of the precise names for various objects, etc. For example, here are a few that I picked out at random. A kibble is the iron bucket used in mines to hoist ore. A barouche is a four-wheel carriage with facing double seats and a folding top.

As for the actual writing process itself, I write out a draft in long hand, then enter it in the word processor. If I'm feeling blocked, or having trouble with a passage, I will do a draft in precise, printed letters. A famous scientist once said that he got his best ideas in the bed, the bath and on the bus. That's the idea behind the printed draft. My mind is concentrating on the actual process of printing out the letters, so that the internal critic is preoccupied and my imagination can work in the background. Something else that works is to take a break play and solitaire on the computer for a little while. I know it's silly, but it gets me through the night.

Then there are the silly habits that so many writers have. One involves location. A lot of writers can only write in certain locations, some of them odd. August Wilson, the playwright, does his writing standing up at the end of a bar. Richard Russo does his in a noisy cafe. He apparently acquired the habit in graduate school when he had to write whenever he could snatch the time. I'm relatively tolerant of location, though I can't write outdoors. I prefer to be someplace where there isn't a lot of sensory stimulation. Many writers are very picky about writing instruments, etc. John Barth said that he has to use a certain fountain pen and on a certain kind of paper. As for me, I use uni-ball Vision roller pens, fine only. If I'm on a roll with my writing, I can use anything, though I prefer my uni-ball. If I'm struggling, it's got to be the uni-ball. As for paper, I don't really care what kind it is as long as it isn't too absorbent. I don't want the uni-ball ink to spread on the paper. If the letters don't have a crisp look on the page, it irritates me.

I'm linking to my friends, the Seabergs. Check out their site. It isn't to be missed.

Friday, June 17, 2005

Name, Names, Names

One of the reasons I'm starting this blog is to chronicle my struggles to complete my novel, "Buster Bungle's Big Top". It's a coming-of-age story about a young man, Neal Pilger, who has just graduated from college. His stepfather has arranged a job for him at Sisyphus Software as a technical writer. Neal doesn't want the job. It seems like such a pointless existence, hence the "Sisyphus" in the company name. He ends up running off to join Buster Bungle's Big Top, a tacky traveling circus, and the adventure begins.

One thing I agonize over is names. I like them to be meaningful, as in the company name above. It may be a little heavy-handed, but I'm satisfied with it. I'm not all that pleased with the protagonist's name though. "Neal" is just what I want, since there is a character who criticizes him for spending his life on his knees and, at the end of the novel Neal starts going by the name of "Ace". "Pilger" is a compromise that doesn't really ring true. It's German for "pilgrim", which is the name I really want, but Kurt Vonnegut, and perhaps others have already used it.

One of the key figures in the novel is a big-cat trainer named Syria Sable. It took me two years to come up with that after trying a number of unsuitable names, like "Circe". She has three cats with which she is very close and I have found it frustrating that I have not come up with names for them that I like. I am currently using "Alpha", "Beta", and "Gamma" as place holders.

Meanwhile, there is an antagonistic character who is called Joey Menace. He was Joey Alabama, but I didn't like that. I don't like his current name any better though. I want something that conveys the menace that characterizes the man, but I don't want to be so direct about it. Mack Mendel is a dwarf clown, and I'm very pleased with the name, given that Mendel was the father of genetics and that dwarfism is a genetic defect. I also intend the allusion to the novel "Mendel's Dwarf".

Jesus, this is worse than trying to name a child, though I think Frank Zappa had the right idea there. How about Joey Moon Unit?