Poetry Out Loud

by Jim Danger Coppoc

Next month, I will be judging the State Finals for Poetry Out Loud in Iowa. Poetry Out Loud is a national recitation contest where high schoolers choose a selection of canonical poems to perform from the stage to a live audience.

I’ve done judging and coaching for POL in several states, and I’ve given most of my adult life to the study of spoken word. I intend to keep doing this as long as the various state arts councils allow me. I think it’s time I declared my biases and offered some coaching, so competitors know what they’re getting into.

First, a bit of rhetoric. Poets are people. Audiences are people. Poems are tools for disseminating ideas—logical, emotional and ethical—among people.

Who are your people? Who’s in your audience? Regardless of what the author intended (I’m very firmly in the “the author is dead” school), what do YOU intend to get across with this poem? What’s the central conflict/tension of the poem? What’s the core message? If you could assign your audience one “takeaway,” what would it be?

If you don’t know the answers to these questions, all the technical performance work in the world can’t help you. Voice, breathing, dynamics, whatever—they are tools, not goals in themselves. They only work when you’re using them do the work of poetry—to get your ideas into somebody else’s head.

Of course, research can make this easier. If you read all the poems POL has to offer, and read them deeply and out loud, eventually you’ll know which poems speak to you best, and can best be translated by you to a live audience. Do not choose based on what you think people will like or what you think sounds like an important poem. Choose with your heart. Which one of these feels like it could/should be yours?

Next, lose the ridiculous distinction between poetry and song. There is none. A spoken poem is a song with particular choices in pitch and timbre. Your choir teacher/vocal coach has just as much to offer in this process as your English teacher, and might be willing to help. Use your resources, and SING!

With these two ideas in mind—1) that poetry comes alive only when it is treated as living communication among real live humans, and 2) that the mechanics of spoken word are breath for breath the same as the mechanics of song—you are ready to begin.

Print out the poem, double or triple spaced. Get a pencil, and mark it up. What are the natural dynamics (louder and softer parts) of this poem? Where does the tone change, and what should your voice/body do to reflect this? Where do you stumble, and need to put in extra work? What’s the core message, and how does each part of this poem contribute?

Remember, the poem should take your audience on a journey. If you read it the same way from beginning to end, the journey won’t be very interesting. Pay attention to what you’re doing in any given moment, how it’s related to all the other moments, and what you’re doing to bring the audience through these moments with you.

Also remember that I asked you to use a pencil. It’s likely your performance will grow and evolve as you practice. Don’t be afraid of this process. Embrace it, and keep pushing for something better. One end writes; the other end erases.

THIS IS THE ONLY ALL CAPS SENTENCE IN THIS ESSAY, BECAUSE I WANT YOU KNOW IT’S IMPORTANT! People don’t like to be yelled at all the time. People don’t even like to be talked to all the time. Have you ever seen a score of sheet music without any pauses?

Take your pencil, and mark all the natural silence in the poem. Remember that the words you’re using are drawn on a canvas of silence. Some poems are busier, some poems are quieter, but all poems have silence in them, and that has to be respected.

Now you’re ready to begin.

Stand up. Make sure there is room around you. Put your arms straight out to your sides, making a “T” with your body.

It is likely you did this with your palms down. Everybody does. In fact, this exercise wouldn’t work if you hadn’t.

Leave your arms where they are, and rotate your thumbs 180°, so that your palms face straight up, and your thumbs point behind you. Push your arms back, following your thumbs, until your hands are just behind the plane of your body.

If you did it correctly, this action should have pushed your sternum up and out, and your shoulders down and back. Whatever happens for the rest of the poem, keep you sternum out and your shoulders back. This is the only way your lungs and diaphragm have enough space to do their job.

Keep your sternum where it is. Lower your arms.

Your body is now prepared to breathe, so breathe. In through the nose, out through the mouth. Take deep, slow breaths. Feel the energy flow in and out of your body, in balance with the air around you.

It’s not actually energy—it’s oxygen—but it has the same effect when you’re delivering a poem.

Now, on an out breath, begin your poem. Pay attention to all the dynamic and tonal markings you made on the page. Keep mind, body and spirit open. You should imagine yourself as an instrument. Don’t mute that instrument. Open.

This will be hard to maintain. I know this, and so does ever other working spoken-word artist on the planet. This is why we rehearse.

Now that you understand the poem, and you’ve begun using your body to correctly sing it, make space in your life to rehearse. Begin rehearsals early, and hold rehearsals often. Get as many live audiences as you can, and find microphones and stages as frequently as possible. The closer your rehearsal is to the actual conditions you’ll perform under, the better.

If there is an all-ages open mic near you, go there. If you happen to write your own poetry, and can find an all-ages poetry slam in your area, go there too. Even if you don’t write, find your local poetry slam, and sit in the audience. You can learn a lot just by watching.

As you rehearse, continuously google “Poetry Out Loud,” “poetry slam,” “spoken word poetry,” etc. Look up the great contemporary artists, like Shane Koyczan, Patricia Smith, Suheir Hammad, Anis Mojgani, and others. Locally, get all the audience you can find, and ask them to reflect back to you what they see, and where you can improve.

If you’re brave enough, record yourself, and watch the tapes.

As with any other sport or art, the more preparation you put into this, the better the results.

And now, at the end, come back to the beginning. When you step out on that stage and see me in the judges chair, when you see all your friends and teachers and their friends and family in the audience, when you see a sea of faces out there all looking back at you, waiting to hear what’s going to come out of your mouth in the next few minutes—remember that we are all human, and that there’s nothing humans want more than a good story.

Use your poem to give us that story.
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The Night Before Christmas…

by Jim Coppoc

‘Twas the night before Christmas
and all through the house
not a creature was stirring
not even a mouse

When Clement Clarke Moore wrote this poem in 1823—a poem once called “arguably the best-known verses ever written by an American1”—he published it anonymously. “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” the versified story of Christmas that gave America a good portion of its holiday folklore, was intended to be a gift. A contribution. A retelling and reshaping of many old tales into one unified narrative for the ages.

Or, in another history, Professor Moore was an erudite and serious academic, and was worried that such a light-hearted piece would reflect poorly on him in the academic culture of the time. Apparently, 190 years hasn’t changed all that much.

In either history, Moore only acknowledged authorship when his children, who loved the poem, requested he include it in his 1844 anthology.

However the poem came to be, I grew up with it, and likely so did you. My father. A third grade play. Disney. All the silly parodies we’ve heard over the years. Again and again—at home, at school, on TV, everywhere—we heard and saw version after version after version of this poem until it became part of us.

And this is the power of poetry.

To paraphrase Karl Kroeber, one of my favorite experts in the oral tradition, stories like this—the ones that really sink in—are at the root of how we learn culture, and they operate by what I’ve come to call Kroeber’s “3 Rs”: Repeat, Revise, Retain.

The repetition part is obvious. Most Americans have heard this story so many times that they can (and do) recite it out loud at some point in the holiday season at least once—especially those of us with children to raise.

The revision part might be a little more subtle, but one of the key features of this story is that it is not new. According to legend, Moore borrowed the image of St. Nicholas and the names of the reindeer, blended them with various cultural traditions, and threw in his own musings from a sleigh ride on a snowy day. Even the jolly figure of St. Nicholas was taken from a Dutch handyman of Moore’s acquaintance.

Even after Moore put all this together and codified it in verse, though, the poem continued to grow and change. It has been published under several titles and in many variations. It has been told and retold both orally and in-person, and in all our culture’s many evolving media. The surface details change, but the underlying themes that have to do with the spirit of the holiday remain intact. What anthropologists like Claude Levi-Strauss call the “deep structure” of the narrative has continued unbroken through generation after generation of Americans for almost two centuries.

And so we retain this little piece of culture—this story of the holidays. We shape our experience and that of our children around it. We keep the chain of culture unbroken, and forge our own links every year.

If, as many cultures believe, the world is made of stories, it’s fitting at this time of year to stop and reflect on the many stories that bind us together and keep us in community. That teach us how to see the world and how to be in the world. That make us human, and give us family, community, country and culture.

And while you’re reflecting, don’t forget to take a moment to open yourselves to the wonder of Christmas and share these beautiful, light-hearted verses with your children—the next link to be forged.

And next year—to embrace the pluralism of the Great American Story—remind me to tell you another story I know about a few brave Maccabees, or the Nguzu Saba of Kwanzaa, or the child of a carpenter and a faithful Jewish maiden, born in a manger in Bethlehem…
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1Edwin Burrows and Mike Wallace, from their 1999 book, Gotham: A History of New York City.
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So You Want to be a Writer…

by Jim Danger Coppoc

At least once a month—and just about every time I do a reading—someone asks me for advice on publishing, getting a job, getting into an MFA program, etc. Most of the time this person is already a writer, and when I see their work it’s usually pretty good, but they also always seem to be looking to take that next step and become professionals.

The problem is that I’m not sure I actually know what professional means. If there is a clear path to a writing career, I never found it. I stumbled through my first few years on some combination of luck, pluck, guesswork and industry. I wrote all the time—most of it junk—and I failed again and again and again until I didn’t. Most days, that’s still the cycle I’m in. Writing is hard, making a career of it even harder.

So here’s my first piece of advice for those wanting to become a “professional” writer. Don’t.

Seriously—don’t. You’re probably very talented, but so is everybody else. MFA programs all over America are overflowing with young, ambitious, talented writers who will never make it and who will spend the rest of their lives working crappy jobs teaching freshman comp just to pay off student loans. Give up the idea of writing as a profession, because except for a lucky few that path just doesn’t exist.

If you can do that—if you can strip yourself of any capital-R Romantic notions of winning a National Book Award, getting your work in the Norton Anthology, and watching your mailbox flood with royalty checks—you just might come to a much more important and telling truth:

Writing is not a profession; it is a calling.

Right now, the rest of your life is spread out before you. If you can imagine yourself grading the essays of football players and Ag majors every evening for the rest of your life, replacing the steak-and-caviar award dinners of your dreams with Chinese takeout in your crappy apartment; if you can imagine yourself driving the same car fifteen years at a time, forgetting about royalty checks and watching your mailbox fill with rejection slips and past due bills instead—if you can imagine all that, and the writer’s life still seems worth it, then we might have something to talk about.

If it turns out instead that the lifestyle you imagine is more important to you than the actual act of writing—well, your skills would be equally useful in law school, and that path can buy you all the steak dinners and first-class living you need.

_______

So here, for those of you still with me, is what I know about becoming a professional. It’s not much, but it’s what worked for me…

First, write. Then read. Then write. Then read. Then write then read then read then write then write then write then read then write.

Most of what you write won’t be very good. You won’t know that on the same day you write it. Sometimes you’ll instantly fall in love with garbage. Sometimes you’ll hate what’s creeping out of your pen, but later it’ll turn into the best and most important art you’ve ever made.

If I’ve learned one thing studying the writers who have made it, it’s that they write. Whatever processes or rituals or routines they need—at the end of the day, they sit down with pen and paper (or keys and screen), and they do their job.

Anne Lamott—whose Bird by Bird is a book every aspiring writer should own—writes in her essay/chapter “Shitty First Drafts” that what is important is getting your thoughts on paper, no matter what shape they’re in. Self-censorship is the enemy. Quality comes with revision, not with drafting. You can’t really begin to apply real craft until you have something on paper to apply that craft to.

And of course, learning the craft you need to apply in revision is not something you can do by yourself. You can’t reinvent the wheel with every story/poem/essay. You would never get anything worthwhile done.

A more realistic approach is to carefully read all the writers you can who are better than you (and there will always be writers better at something than you), and learn how they work. My imagery comes from Leonard Cohen, Allen Ginsberg, Miguel Pinero, the King James Bible, and a whole host of slammers from around the turn of the century. My prosody comes from Jack Kerouac, Saul Williams, Allen Ginsberg, Bryonn Bain, Shane Koyczan, and the Baptist hymns I grew up with. My themes come from grunge music, urban spaces, the Gospel of Matthew, and all the hip-hop crossover poets—like Saul Williams and Miguel Pinero—I can find…

These lists go on, but the point is that writers write in community. If you want to grow, you will need both a living community of writers, editors and honest friends, AND a large library of truly great influences you can draw from. There’s no Ginsberg without Whitman or Blake. There’s no Shakespeare without Petrarch. There’s no tree without roots. It just doesn’t work any other way.

As for the MFA—well, that choice is yours. I chose the best possible MFA for me. Hamline University is interdisciplinary by nature, and so am I. Jim Moore—one of their flagship poets—brings big metaphor to everyday living in a way I needed to learn. Deborah Keenan—their other flagship poet—is good at all the things I’m not. I learned more from her than I could have from a thousand professors whose writing is more similar to mine.

Maybe even more important than all that, the MFA program at Hamline prides itself on faculty who can teach instead of just faculty who bring big name recognition and high visibility. This is what I needed at that point in my life.

I made my choice. You make yours. Find writers you admire, and look them up on sites like Rate My Professor to see if they can teach. When you find the faculty you need, apply to the schools they work for, regardless of reputation or location or price or any other factor. If the mountain won’t come to Muhammad…

And give up on trying to game the application. Just send them your best writing sample and your most honest essay. Don’t overthink. Let the pieces fall where they may. If the program doesn’t like what you do, you would probably not be happy there anyway.

As for the job market and the publishing game—nobody really knows how they work. Apply to places you want to work, where you’ll be surrounded by people you want to work with. Send out to journals and book publishers you admire. Find out whether or not you admire them by doing your research, reading past issues, and learning what they’ve published before.

Whatever you do, don’t lose sight of what’s important. Careerism has its place. That place is not on top of your list of priorities. Read what you read. Write what you write. Remember your calling, and trust that somehow the Universe will keep you afloat long enough to put something worthwhile out into the world.

If it can happen to me…
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Dead White Males, and Other Truish Stereotypes of Canon

by Jim Danger Coppoc

I’m writing this blog on Columbus Day. Because I am an American of Euro and Indian heritage, this is not one of those days I can ignore race.

I actually think about race quite a bit these days. Because I teach both literature and creative writing, from both mainstream and American Indian Studies perspectives, and because—after the basic bits I gather from Gardner and Bloom—I draw most of my teaching theory from the realm of Critical Pedagogy, I am always teaching race.

Let’s start with a few basic facts. A couple years ago, a student had a question I couldn’t answer in class. How do you know the canon is a bunch of dead white males? Everybody says this, but nobody ever proves it.

Every part of my political self wanted to scream at this student because it just is!, but for once, I was able to step back, and give my critical self some space to enter the conversation. I told the student I’d get back to him.

So I went to the capital-C Canon, and I dove deep into my own weird fascination with statistics-as-truth. After some consideration, I chose four primary stakeholders in the Canon: the government, the literary establishment, the education establishment, and mainstream America. I looked for consensus from the four main stakeholders by choosing representative groups of poets from each, comparing these groups side by side, and building a list of poets who appear all four places.

To represent the government, I chose the poets listed for the National Endowment for the Art’s “Poetry Out Loud” program. To represent the literary establishment, I chose the poets listed on the Academy of American Poets website at www.poets.org. To represent the educational establishment, I chose the Norton Anthology of Poetry. To represent mainstream America, I chose Wikipedia’s “List of Poets from the United States,” to which anyone can at any time add entries. Of the hundreds of poets listed in these groupings, exactly 75 were listed by all four.

Once I had uncovered the 75 poets who by process of consensus seemed to best represent The List of Canonical American Poets (hereafter referred to as “The List”), I decided to evaluate it in several dimensions to see if the stereotypes about canonical poets held true.

First, I wanted to know if The List really was populated by Dead White Males. The List is definitely white (85.33%, compared to 65.4% in the general U.S. population) and even more male (74.66%, compared to 48.5% in the general U.S. population). Surprisingly, though, The List wasn’t very dead. Of the 75 poets to make The List, 21 of them (28%) were still alive. Even those who were dead hadn’t been dead very long. A startling 67 poets, or 89.33%, were alive during the 20th century, with 35 of them, or almost 47%, alive during the past 20 years.

After establishing that the Canon of American Poetry is 1.3 times whiter than America itself, I began to wonder how many other races were represented. The answer, to any degree of statistical significance, is one. Of the 11 non-white poets on the List, 10 are African American. One, Li-Young Lee, is Asian American. With the possible exception of William Carlos Williams, there are no Latinos. With the possible exception of Langston Hughes, there are no American Indians. No other race is represented.

While it is a sign of progress that African Americans are proportionately represented (13.33% of the List, compared to 12.4% of the U.S. population), it is clear at least that no agreement has been reached about leading voices among other races. At best, this represents an unfortunate underrepresentation mixed with inevitable problems in the sampling process. At worst, this is institutional racism.

Although it’s difficult to pin down through statistics, one possible explanation for the racially imbalanced canon could be class. As I researched the biographies of these 75 poets, I was struck over and over again by the wealth and privilege that seemed to accompany the poets’ lives. Numbers aren’t available for each poet’s family income, but it is very revealing that 36 of them (48%) attended Ivy League schools with 21 (28%) at Harvard alone. Bio after bio revealed old families from New York and Boston, world leaders and captains of industry in direct lineage, and the sort of independent wealth that allowed for travel, education, networking, and other seeming prerequisites for the canonical poet’s life.

More than just economics, though, are the social connections these poets share. Thirty-seven of them (49.33%) lived in New York City at some point in life, and most of the rest came from other East Coast states. Thirty-eight of them (50.67%) taught at major universities, giving them access to each other and to the many book and journal editors supported by the American academic system. The Yale Younger Poets Series alone published the first books of more than ten percent of the poets on The List, 8 poets (10.66%) are Columbia grads, and 6 of the poets (8%) are graduates of the Writer’s Workshop.

The last dimension I evaluated The List for was a hodgepodge category of traditional stereotypes. As it turns out, most are true. Poets on the list are 5 times as likely as the general public to self identify as homosexual or bisexual, 3-4 times as likely to suffer from alcoholism, nearly 3 times as likely to suffer from depression, and more than 2.5 times as likely to commit suicide.

Conclusions? Well, all I really have to offer are the numbers. How America came to be this way is a mystery too deep for me, and too deep for any one blog post. The Canon is what it is, and my job, as I see it, is to give my students what they need to raise the right questions to build something better in the next generation.

As for the student who started me on this research project—let’s just say his participation grade was secure for the rest of the semester.

For those who are interested, I’ve pasted in The List below. Please feel free to use your own criteria and repeat the experiment as often as necessary. I’d be interested to see what you come up with on your own terms.

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A.R. Ammons, John Ashberry, Amiri Baraka, John Berryman, Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Bly, Louise Bogan, Gwendolyn Brooks, Gregory Corso, Hart Crane, Robert Creeley, Countee Cullen, E.E. Cummings, James Dickey, Emily Dickinson, Rita Dove, Paul Laurence Dunbar, T.S. Eliot, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Robert Frost, Allen Ginsberg, Louise Gluck, Jorie Graham, Barbara Guest, Donald Hall, Robert Hass, Robert E. Hayden, John Hollander, Langston Hughes, Richard Hugo, Randall Jarrell, Robinson Jeffers, Donald Justice, Galway Kinnell, Kenneth Koch, Yusef Komunyakaa, Stanley Kunitz, Li-Young Lee, Denise Levertov, Philip Levine, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Audre Lorde, Robert Lowell, Amy Lowell, Archibald MacLeish, Herman Melville, William Meredith, James Merrill, W.S. Merwin, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Howard Nemerov, Frank O’Hara, Dorothy Parker, Robert Pinsky, Sylvia Plath, Edgar Allen Poe, John Crowe Ransom, Adrienne Rich, Edwin Arlington Robinson, Theodore Roethke, Carl Sandburg, Anne Sexton, Charles Simic, W.D. Snodgrass, Gary Snyder, Gertrude Stein, Wallace Stevens, Mark Strand, May Swenson, Phillis Wheatley, Walt Whitman, John Greenleaf Whittier, Richard Wilbur, William Carlos Williams, James Wright

Slam

by Jim Danger Coppoc

I wanna hear a poem about revolution
about fists raised high and hips
twisting in a rumble like a rhumba
I wanna follow the footsteps of Che
and hear the truth about the day
the CIA killed Lumumba

-from Steve Coleman, “I Wanna Hear a Poem”

I’m waiting just offstage, two hours after the plane landed, trying to catch my figurative breath, about to give what I hope will be the show of my life to a room full of total strangers.

“Jim Coppoc is, well, Dangerous.” the program director alludes to my Facebook name, which has somehow become securely attached to me in real life as well. She pushes her reading glasses into place, and beams down at the front row. The front row beams back.

“He’s, um…” she looks down at me, as if there’s a question she forgot to ask, then back to the audience. She lifts a paper from the podium.

“Coppoc has published several books of poetry and nonfiction, his plays are being produced in multiple cities as we speak, and…” she drifts off into boilerplate she got from a book cover somewhere.

Bookstore owners. Grad students. Library administrators. Conference organizers. It seems like nobody is quite sure how to introduce a creature like me at readings. They know that half the audience is there for my spoken word roots, but they’ve been trained to believe that “slam” is an insult to the serious and literary minded. So instead, they gloss over the most important parts of me, offer up a list of books and awards, and get off stage as quickly as they’re able.

But I am slam. And so are you.

See, poetry is a process, not a static art. It grows. It evolves. But it never loses the most basic parts of its own DNA—the core pieces that animate and give it life.

Poetry is the Ur genre. It existed before fiction, before nonfiction, before drama, before anything else we think of as literature. All other genres spring from it. Poetry is in the chants and ululations around the campfires of our earliest ancestors. It’s in the griots and shamans and monks and cantors and clergy and medicine people. It’s in our bones—the natural music of bodies in motion and at rest. It took a long time for us to forget that, and if slam and hiphop and charismatic religion are any indicators, the truth is that this most basic, primal aspect of poetry has never really left us.

The earliest laws were written as poetry. The earliest histories and religious texts too. For millennia, even poetry and music were indistinguishable. A ballad is a ballad is a ballad, no matter what the delivery. A psalm is a psalm with or without a lyre. A villanelle is just a villanella that goes undanced.

The list goes on, but I think the point is clear. This truth might be hidden now, but all the priests and troubadours and minstrels in our collective history knew, without a doubt, that poetry and music are just two dialects of the deeper language of the human spirit.

In the mid 1980s, a construction worker from Chicago named Marc Smith took a good look at the contemporary poetry scene, and realized that all of us could stand to be reminded of this. In a flash of genius, he added a silly game show format with live judging to an open mic, Slam poetry was born, history was made, and a movement was begun.

And once begun, Slam grew like a contagion. People get one taste of poets who write for a real human audience—poets trained by the random and arbitrary nature of the contest not to take themselves too seriously—and they want more. After the first couple years, slam spread like wildfire. Ann Arbor. New York. San Francisco. All the big cities and college towns of the United States and then abroad. It found its way into schools and libraries, coffee shops and theaters, street corners and music venues. It found its way into our culture, and made a home there for itself that it’s unlikely to be dislodged from anytime soon.

If you’re reading this blog, it’s likely you’ve been touched by slam. Maybe you’ve read poets like Patricia Smith (a 4-time national champion), or maybe you’ve read one of the many hundreds of young poets in Cave Canem and elsewhere who’ve been mentored by her. Maybe you’ve picked up a book published by a trendy press like Write Bloody (founded by a slammer), or maybe your college poetry professor, like me, likes to sneak away on Tuesday nights to refill his tank at the local slam and draw inspiration to bring back to the classroom.

Poets write in community, and when the community is on fire with something this transformative—something that reaches this far back in our collective poetic unconscious to the deepest roots we have—it’s bound to touch all of us eventually.

I do have books, and I do have awards. I’ve been very fortunate so far. Some of that is talent, some of it is luck, and some of it is just hard work and good networking. But the core of who I am as a poet has nothing to do with the number of lines on my CV. Who I am and who I want to be as a poet is the thing that Marc Smith was trying to touch almost three decades ago. I am Slam.

To those who might be reading this blog because I’m coming to your town, and you’ve been tasked with introducing me—if you want the introduction to be both honest and meaningful, consider leading with that.

Scriptorium

by Jim Danger Coppoc

My grandmother used to turn off her hearing aids at what seemed like the oddest times. There are those in my family who considered this an act of passive aggression. The more of herself she lost to dementia, though, the more striking the difference became between those moments the hearing aids were on, and she was fighting through the pain and confusion to make sense of her surroundings, and those moments the hearing aids were off, and her face registered nothing but a perfect, blissful peace.

The world I live in—a world of students and their essays, children and their questions, a marriage by turns on fire and burning down—is chock full of beauty, love, joy, adventure and excitement, and I never have to reach very far to find my gratitude. But sometimes when that beauty comes at me from ninety directions at once, with demands and deadlines attached to every one, I wish I had my grandmother’s hearing aids—those magical instruments that could instantly switch off the noise and bring her back to center.

I think a lot of writers have the same dilemma. We are called to engage fully in life, so that we have something real to write about, but we are also called—sometimes at the same time—to disengage fully so that we can do the work of processing, writing and revisioning our experience.

Ernest Hemingway famously sharpened 20 pencils before each writing session to put himself in the right frame of mind. Willa Cather read the Bible. Best-selling novelist Steve Berry goes in to work early, before anybody else is there, and writes in his laptop. J.K. Rowling wrote Harry Potter in coffee shops because the walk outdoors was what it took to get her infant daughter to sleep.The list goes on—from the hyper-literary to the hyper-popular, writer after writer describes the need for silence. For escape. For a quiet center from which he or she can write.

That’s why this month my project to make myself a better writer was to find a space to escape the rest of my life. A scriptorium. A sanctum sanctorum from which I can put my words out into the world, and in which I can focus only on writing. I rented out a corner of an artsy tattoo shop on a second floor, with high ceilings, exposed brick, and a window overlooking Main Street. I don’t imagine the few lit journals that publish me will pay the rent, so I’ll take on more readings and sell more books to pay for it. I’ll be there 3 mornings a week for as long as I can afford it. With luck, I’ll find the place my grandmother found—my quiet center—and I’ll be able to put something worthwhile out into the world.

_____

The 400-pound Nutritionist

by Jim Danger Coppoc

I have a friend. One of those friends. The type who goes to parties intent on sharing her personal life with anyone who will listen, hoping to get some sort of support/advice/sympathy. She’s tragic and gorgeous, so of course a good chunk of the party is always willing to comply.

I can remember clearly a night a couple years ago when this friend holed up in the far corner of a backyard barbeque with a self-proclaimed “nutritionist,” and listened intently for most of an hour to piece after piece of diet advice from this almost total stranger.

This almost 400 pound total stranger.

To be clear, I am a large person myself. 263 pounds. Hypertension. Fatty liver. Cheeseburgers in every artery. I am the last guy anybody should ever go to for diet advice—and that’s my point.

I have friends who take diet advice from fat people, financial advice from broke people, and life advice from the chronically unhappy, and none of it has ever made any sense to me. If I ever start telling you my ten best tips to lose weight and feel great, walk away. There’s nothing I could say that you should trust.

It is the same way with poetry.

Workshop after workshop, chatroom after chatroom, conference after conference—experience tells me that it is the loudest voices and flashiest personas that get listened to, and the shy poet in the corner who is writing some of the most exciting work of our time never seems to get heard at all.

So my project this month was to try to upend that. Instead of going to the magazines and websites and other usual sources for advice on how to be a better poet, I went straight to the source. I spoke to a couple of the best poets I know—people I want to write and be more like—and did my best to listen to what they have to say. I’d encourage you to check out both of these poets yourself—if you like what they write, maybe you’ll find something useful in what they have to say about writing.

First, National Book Award finalist Patricia Smith, whom I love both for her musicality and for her fierce openness dealing with really difficult subject matter time and time again:

I’d say never settle for the language as it is presented to you. Writers often make the mistake of assuming that we’re all working from the same canvas–but a good part of the joy in writing poetry is tweaking, reshaping, inventing, learning rules (prosody–absolutely necessary) in order to shatter them in gleeful and blatantly sinful ways. If the word you need doesn’t exist, create it! That’s a way of stamping a signature on your work. Your goal should be having a reader recognize your work, whether or not your name is on it. For that to happen, you’ve got to wrangle language and make it your bitch! (Did I just say that?)

Next, Pushcart Prize winning poet Matt Mason, whom I love for his humor, his theatricality, and his ability to take on even the deepest subjects with warmth and gentleness that completely disarm his audience:

I would tell the developing poet: don’t try and write poems to match what you think poetry, as established, is. Imagine what you wish poetry was and write that.

I say this as after college I wanted to keep learning about poetry so would go to book stores and pick up this and that award-winning poetry book and find myself disliking every one. Seeing this, I had a long time wondering if what I was writing was poetry. Fortunately, I kept writing it and, when I heard Galway Kinnell, award winning and established poet, read “Oatmeal,” finally heard a “big” poet read a poem I wish I’d written, so maybe what I was writing WAS poetry.

Well, hopefully it is, at least…

These people are my heroes. If there is anyone on the planet I need to learn from, it’s them, and now here in this blog research I have the thumbnail versions of exactly how these people approach poetry and the poet’s life. If there is any advice anywhere I can trust to help make me better at what I do, it is this.

So now to you. Who are your heroes? Who are your 400 lb nutritionists? Who should you be listening to, and whom should you take with a grain of salt?

There’s a whole world of good, useful and trustable knowledge and experience out there, just waiting for us. It’s about time we dove in…

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Poetry is Dead… Again

by Jim Danger Coppoc

So apparently, poetry is dead.

I know this because I hear it at parties. I know this because all my poet friends are terrified of their own irrelevance. I know this because Mark Edmundson of the University of Virginia—in the latest installment of a centuries long tradition of replaying again and again the same essay lament about the state of contemporary poetry—tells me so on the pages of this month’s Harper’s.

See, according to the standard anti-party line, poems used to be more—bigger, grander, better. Poems used to be about Important Things, and their writers used to know how to get those Important Things across. Today’s poets wouldn’t know Important if it bit them in their assonance. All they write about is themselves, in voices meant only to please their masters. All they’ve ever been trained to do is intellectual masturbation.

And so, every couple years, someone in a (safe, tenured) position of authority bravely breaks (or rebreaks) the hegemonic silence and calls every living poet he (and yes, it’s almost always a “he”) can think of to account. Edmundson, a Yale-trained scholar of 19th century capital-R Romantic poetry, is only the latest in this series.

Of course, I’ve read just about all of the poets Edmundson mentions. In some cases, my pettier self wants to agree. Others, we’re so far apart on that I’m convinced I could change his mind if only he’d come audit my 300-level Intro to Poetry course. But there again, that’s my petty self talking.

Instead, maybe I’d do better inviting Mark Edmundson to audit another course at either my institution or his: Freshman Composition.

You see, Freshman Composition (or whatever each new crusader in that field renames it) is where students first come into contact with the idea of “rhetoric”—of the nuts and bolts logistics of getting a real message across to a real human audience.

In rhetoric, we learn (in some form or another) that “a Text occurs when an Author attempts a Purpose with an Audience under a Context.” We find—and for many this is a mind-blowing discovery—that there is no such thing as a “good poem” (or essay or letter or website or whatever you’re composing) in a vacuum. We discover that each text must appeal to its intended audience to accomplish its intended purpose in very heterogenous and personal ways.

In other words, if middle-aged hausfrauen with long-forgotten bachelor’s degrees in literary studies get turned on at their weekly trip to the bookstore reading about John Ashbery’s Mottled Tuesday—well, then, John Ashbery is doing his job. If some PhD student at a state college in the Midwest feels somehow changed by finally getting Jorie Graham, then Jorie Graham has done hers.

But of course these aren’t the only poets poeting. Edmundson conveniently forgets that. As with every other iteration of this same essay, Edmundson chooses the implied working definition of “poetry” as “whatever your 8th grade teacher beat into you.” If Edmundson wants the sound and the fury of poets in the trenches—the kind of conflict that makes the “agon” in pro- and antagonist—he needs only to look to the world of hip hop (the most popular contemporary poetic form). If he wants grand expository on Big Ideas, I’d happily buy him a beer at any local poetry slam.

For that matter, even in the “literary” world, if Edmundson needs to see some poetry with a pulse, I’d invite him to investigate groups like Cave Canem or Kundiman, or publishers like Write Bloody Press. I’d happily mail him a starter set of books that might help.

In the end, Edmundson is right, but he’s right only for himself, and only in very narrow ways. The poetry he’s attacking has a purpose and an audience, but that audience is not him. He would do well to recognize that, let go of his seemingly personal attachment to making this poetry about him, and move on.

And for next week (or next month or next year), when someone else writes the same essay believing he (yes, probably still “he”) is breaking new ground, I invite you to save this blog to your desktop, learn the “search and replace” function of your word processor, and see just how well the new critic’s name fits in place of Edmundson’s.
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The Guest Critic

by Jim Danger Coppoc

So there’s this setup I keep walking into. I get invited to be a guest critic (and sometimes even a “celebrity” guest critic!) for workshops run by various poetry and arts organizations. At least half the time, I’m the youngest person in the room—sometimes by several decades. There’s always a wide variety of experience and skill in the craft, but the poems are heartfelt, and the poets generally have such incredible life experience and perspective that I’m left thinking about what I’ve seen for weeks afterward.

The problem is that inevitably a certain number of poets in the room choose to write in a voice that isn’t theirs, and that doesn’t belong in the same century they’re writing in. They believe that the only way a poem can sound like a poem is to heighten the diction to sometimes ridiculous extremes—“the verdant, sylvan glades effervesce their leaves in brilliant hues of viridian and bice…” Sometimes I’m left wondering whether the poet or his/her thesaurus actually wrote the line.

And here we come to the setup. Out of duty, I make some gentle reminder along the lines of “less is more” or “be careful not to fall into the trap of bogging down your readers in language more complicated than they really need,” and some grizzled and venerable veteran of the group stares me down, takes a deep breath, and lets me know that writers of a certain age appreciate a certain gravity to their diction. Apparently, at 37, I’m just too young to understand the beauty of language.

There’s a group like this near where I live. They’ve invited me back five times over the last 6 years, so we’ve come to know each other almost as family. I’ve seen their souls bared again and again in the poems they’ve submitted, and they’ve seen mine in the readings I give at the end of each session. We meet at a Methodist church, they serve the kind of coffee and pie that can only come from middle-aged church ladies, and we grow together more every year.

This year, I finally got comfortable enough that I could share my response.

The most senior members of this group came of age in the Modern era, where economy of language was a key tenet. They didn’t know any of the same poets from this era I do, but they did recognize this trend in prose writers like Hemingway and Faulkner. The next generation down, which includes most of the group’s officers, came of age in the explosive mid-20th century that included writers like the Beats, the Confessionals, the Black Mountain Poets, etc. After that, postmodernism took root, then postmodernism’s many offspring, and so on. In fact, not one member of the group could think of a single poet contemporary to their generation who writes like they do.

Then came the clincher—most of them couldn’t think of a single poet contemporary to their generation at all. So we started talking about where they do draw their inspiration from, and it turned out most of the group never really outgrew the 19th century and earlier poets they’d first encountered in eighth grade English class.

The discussion ended with my joking offer to give any poet in the room a free pass on diction if they could show ID documenting them as a true Victorian at least 114 years old, but what we talked about stayed with me for quite a while after that session was over.

I’ve always told my students at the university level that writers write in community, and encouraged them to seek out writing groups, writing partners, slams, workshops, etc to support them and keep them moving forward as writers. I’ve never put much effort, though, into encouraging these same students to seek out the same sort of support for their development as readers of poetry. I give them a syllabus of books and journals and online resources, and just expect that they’ll continue seeking out contemporary influences after they leave my classes. My real world experience with lifelong writers of poetry tells me that this doesn’t happen nearly as often as I would like it to.

So today, as the deadline for this blog entry approaches, I’ve decided to make a commitment myself, and consciously model it both for my students and for my workshop attendees. I’m going to stop browsing journals for my friends’ names, and start reading them instead as an act of discovery—of intentionally expanding my awareness of what’s out there in the contemporary poetry world. I’m also going to start reading one full-length poetry collection each month that has been released in the last year or two. My current favorite press—Write Bloody—has recently been putting out books faster than I can read them anyway, so I’ve got a good place to start.

And from now on, every time I do a reading, instead of my usual “cover poem” by beloved dead poets like Ginsberg and Cummings and Piñero, I’m going to start making a point of sharing something beautiful I just read—something I intend to draw the audience to a certain journal or website or book publisher, so that they can do some contemporary reading too.

Who knows, maybe it’ll catch on so well that someday I’ll have to start cautioning the octogenarians to be less hip-hop or less New Yorker or less anything-new instead…

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La Vie

by Jim Danger Coppoc

If you want to view paradise
Simply look around and view it
Anything you want to, do it
Want to change the world, there’s nothing to it

-Willy Wonka

“In this class, and in the literary life in general, there are two rules, and two rules only—one, have something to say; two, don’t screw it up. These are the roots of both content and craft.”

-me, every semester on the first day of English 306/406, Intro to Creative Writing: Poetry

I have a good life. I married my dream girl, my friends and family are amazing, I have a good and growing audience for my writing and my music, I get to travel to places I used to only dream about, and I’m able to make a decent living teaching and doing only the things I love. This is not to say that there are no hard times, but in perspective, the ups in my world are bigger, better and more numerous than the downs by a long shot.

This, of course, makes it very hard to write good poems

See, when others teach poetry, they often teach that the center of a good poem is the image, or the metaphor, or the diction, or some other element of craft. I have never believed that for a second—not even during the grad school years, when I was required to accept at face value all the craft-based wisdom that dripped from my assigned teachers and mentors. This might sound like heresy, but I don’t believe the center of a good poem has anything to do with craft—I believe it has to do with conflict. Tension. The agon at the center of the Greek protagonist and antagonist. Paint me a picture as beautiful as you like—it’s not going to grab me until I see a little darkness behind the Mona Lisa smile.

Of course, there are moments. The poet (and my friend) Jack McCarthy died recently, and his passing touched me in such a way that I could not sleep until I’d written him a poem. My wife had feelings for another man, and I’m two poems and four songs into that experience already. Sometimes I remember the times my life was more of a struggle, and if I can dig my way deeply enough into those memories, works like my long poem Manhattan Beatitude are born. But these moments don’t erase the fact that on a day-to-day basis I am struggling to come to a place where I have something to say. Where I can write without violating my own first rule.

So now we’ve come to this blog, and to the direction I’m taking it. To accountability.

Each month, I plan to try a new experience or exercise to kickstart my poetic self. A way to dig back into the agon without having to destroy my life in the process. Live like Ward Cleaver—write like Sylvia Plath. I don’t have these exercises laid out yet, and I’d love any suggestions you (should I be forward enough to call you “Dear Reader”?) could offer, but I assume the best moves will come to me when the time is right.

This month, I chose to dive deeply into my domestic life, instead of rebelling against it. I’ve begun a writing project with my 3-year-old son, Fionn, one of the lights of my life. He supplies the content, and I supply the line breaks. We’re up to 5 poems now—my favorite so far is our first, where Fionn takes on the complex dynamics of a blended family. It begins with a few words about our cat.

My Mommy

Lilypad likes sunbeams
Lilypad likes cold beans
Lilypad likes to snuggle
and Lilypad likes my mom

What kind is your mom?

My mommy is Mommy
but my brother calls her “Jen”

My brother’s first mom is at work
I’m going to draw pictures for them both

What’s next?
I don’t remember

“What kind is your mom?” Agon. Tension. Beauty. And 3-year-old Fionn never had to set foot inside an MFA program to get it.

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Jim Coppoc makes his living through some murky but evolving balance of poetry, nonfiction, pedagogy, playwriting, music and performance. In addition to his long history on spoken word and musical stages, Coppoc has recently been getting a lot of good attention from the literary world, with 4 Pushcart nominations for both poetry and nonfiction. Among other projects, Coppoc teaches Film, Literature and American Indian Studies at Iowa State University; plays bass in the Gatehouse Saints and guitar/keys/vocals in Love Rhino; blogs for Coal Hill Review; and lives in Ames, Iowa with his wife and two sons.