Category Archives: Robin Kemp

New Patio! Old Password!

Loyal Readers, if any of you are still out there, I have just remembered the correct password for the Patio! (Perhaps the subconscious coughed it up because we have a new patio in real life.)

I have been battling the last bit of grad school, combined with a full load at a new part-time job, as well as the equivalent of teaching a fifth class at a second part-time job. In short, the Ph.D. has reached the point of diminishing returns. I’d like to be done by next year.

Meanwhile, I’ve been hanging out on Twitter, writing the equivalent of what we at Old CNN used to call Times Square Headlines. (I wrote ’em; they rolled in Times Square. Now it’s all giant full-color Jumbotron screens.)  I’m 4/5 of the way through my Latin American Studies graduate certificate, at present immersed in Precolumbian art of the Andes and Mesoamerica. Most recently, we held a big garage sale, got rid of a ton of crap, and are fairly well satisfied with our lives at the moment.

What all this has to do with poetry is the ability (at last) to create the conditions in which I can work most effectively. No more nomadic quests for quiet study space. No more insane workloads. No more crawling over unpacked boxes of books in my office. No more imprisonment in other people’s bad energy! I feel as if I’ve been freed from prison. I love my new teaching gig and I really love my students. We have the most interesting conversations, individually and collectively. (It also helps to have a supportive boss. Supportive bosses, I should say.) I don’t drag around with this funk of negativity and harassment on my shoulders all the time anymore. I’ve gotten most of my life back and can see the rest coming.

I’m also working on a documentary (see kempwrites.wordpress.com for sporadic updates), which is very important to me, and am back in touch with several old CNNers, largely through Atlanta Cutters.

And I’m gearing up for the dissertation, which thankfully involves travel to some out-of-the-way places.

I reiterate with confidence that much of what passes for poetry in the United States today is self-promoting, circle-jerking, po-biz crap. I’m sure you have your own opinions on this subject. Rather than rehash that tired discussion, I propose to show some examples of what I think are excellent poems, and to explain in minute detail why I think so. If this exercise helps you, enlightens you, entertains you, annoys you, please–post a well-thought-out comment. Warning: No douchebaggery or stylistic school/poetry clique flambe’ will be tolerated. Engage!

Kindle, iPad, tablet: not the same, with good reason

I just ran across an article claiming that iPads are superior to Kindles because iPads are more than just e-readers.

I love my Mac, but I love my Kindle, too. I love them for different reasons. I love that I can play with Calibre, Stanza, iMovie, and all Teh Internetz on my Mac. I love that I’m seriously unable to get distracted by web-surfing and e-mailing on my Kindle, and that I don’t need Calibre or Stanza to create readable personal files (thank you, .doc files, e-mail, and free.kindle.com).

I use my Kindle for reading, annotating what I read, and occasionally hitting the wi-fi to download the daily paper, classics from Project Gutenberg, some feverishly-typed-up study notes, or copies of my favorite magazines. For people who read tons of text, have five too few bookcases, and need to avoid distractions, the paperback-book-sized Kindle is far superior to the iPad. One could send an e-mail in a crisis, assuming wi-fi or 3G capability was up, yet the Kindle’s deliberately too-small keyboard is an effective deterrent for those of us on a social-media diet.

I think of tablets as slightly too-small PDF-reading and e-mail-checking machines with limited typing capabilities–and I mean that as a compliment. Tablets are almost there, as far as research tools, but I’d like to see a true 8.5 x 11 screen size and the ability to highlight and annotate PDFs before I commit to an iPad (or to whomever meets the requirements first). I would love to take a tablet into the stacks with me to take notes (or scan/photograph images) and to fill it with tons of academic database articles and newspapers. (Hey, I’m a writer. I’m a grad student. I have been a reporter and likely will be one again.) However, the tablet/iPad would have to have native PDF annotating and highlighting capabilities to win my eye. And with the AARP about to stalk me, the eyes get priority.

I broke up with my iPod Touch because the mice-type was making me blind and I didn’t enjoy the “alternative” of reading novels half a paragraph at a time. On the Kindle, I can resize text for whatever my need is at a given moment. Resizing PDFs on the small Kindle is a non-starter. (Imagine covering half of a page vertically and then trying to read it.) I thought the big Kindle’s sumptuous 9.7-inch screen would solve both text size and readable-PDF-page problems, but the DX was too awkward and heavy for casual reading or one-handed key-poking, especially for someone with bird-bone wrists and tiny hands. I swapped my big Kindle for a small one and have been watching the iPad/tablet developers duke it out ever since.

I got a great deal on an Acer Iconia A500 for my partner, who was disappointed at not having won an iPad in a drawing at work. Of course the A500 isn’t an iPad, but because she has an Android phone and the A500 runs on Android, it seemed like a good fit. It also seems more practical, in that it has “gigs and gags” the iPad doesn’t, like a mini-SD card reader. She’s warming up to it, in her usual technophobic way. The A500 can talk to her Mac, which treats it as a USB device, and she has many free software options (no online purchasing needed). It talks to her e-mail and she can tap the address on a work order and pull up a Google map. She can take endless cat-worship videos with “The Eye”–“Oh! It has The Eye in the front AND in the back!” And, if you have The Eye, you can use Es-Skippy, just like on the regular computer. A technophobe who develops a secret passion for Google Sky on her phone should have no trouble adapting to the A500.

Why do manufacturers always load stupid games onto your new toy without asking? Why not let us choose the games we want? We’re not all 12-year-old boys trying to sublimate our testosterone rushes via combat sims. I like the occasional game of Asteroids or Pac-Man, and I admit to letting the iPod whip my butt at level-one chess a few times, but I really don’t play games on my e-toys. (Okay, I have played Scrabble online. My idea of portable-device diversion is WriteRoom. Or a fresh download from Project Gutenberg.)

I’d much rather have the option to choose, say, five or six basic productivity programs: a mind-mapper, a PDF annotator, a fully-functional suite like Pages or Office, a web browser, and maybe a Leitner-box flashcard set and a decent gradebook). Call it the iStudy package.

Another marketing tip: Don’t fake-load the program in demo mode, only for users to find out that they have to pay $14.99 to get a fully-functional version (ahem, DataViz…). If the Documents to Go icon shows up, I don’t expect to unwrap a hollow box–and I definitely don’t expect my partner to have to pay for what seems to be a gift. The first thing she asked to see was the word processing program. She didn’t want me to pay for Docs to Go. I thought we could download OpenOffice, but the open-source gods haven’t cobbled the Android tablet version together yet.

Quite a few iPad-armed colleagues would appreciate an essay-grading app. If we could edit the rubric criteria, this would be a must-have. However, if we can’t open and view the essay alongside the app, and iPad can only run one app at a time (really?), we’d still need to pick up paper submissions from students.

How would this make grading any easier for instructors and less confusing for students? It wouldn’t:

“I don’t understand why you didn’t mark up my paper! If you e-mail me comments, why can’t I e-mail you my paper? Why should I have to pay to print out my paper?…”

Really, Apple and other developers have overlooked this research/academic/writerly market niche for too long. Let us decide whether to download Angry Birds or Chess or whatever, but first give us the tools we actually might use with an iPad or other tablet. Include a few good market-targeted programs instead of junk apps priced into the deal yet destined for the recycle bin. That, and a slightly bigger screen, would convince me to part with a few hundred bucks, possibly for the October-surprise version of iPad.

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Writing Time and the Ph.D. Poet

Recently, I’ve gotten a couple of e-mails from poet friends inquiring as to my digital and 3-D whereabouts. I’ve been teaching a compressed-semester writing course. That means I’ve had exactly zero time for anything else. Unfortunately, “anything” includes my own studies and writing.

All those poets who warn that the Ph.D. kills poetry are correct, in the sense that the Ph.D. demands so much time and headspace for so many things that are not conducive to producing new work. Envision the unholy marriage of repeating your MFA workshop without the fun of making the reading circuit, while simultaneously adjuncting, writing two major proposals a year, and being hazed regularly for five to seven years, and you’ll get some idea of what a creative writing Ph.D. is like.

Is it all bad? No, not unless you allow yourself to get sucked into the vortex that is teaching in the 21st-century university. I finally got to take Spenser and Old English, courses which never were available to me in programs past. I got to pick up a few goodies on the side: ed psych, screenwriting, technical writing, Spanish, historic preservation, a scholarship for a research trip to Cuba.

Every semester, I learn something more about myself, about the students I work with, about building and delivering a solid course, about some great book or study I might not have sought out on my own. I learn what’s worth putting precious time into. I also learn how to say no–to time-wasters, to manipulations, to worthy causes, to counterproductivity, to saboteurs, to bad energy. I learn to say yes–to my research, to my writing in all genres, to my life beyond the university.

Meanwhile, I regroup for the next exam, the next conference panel, the next course syllabus, and Whatever’s Next.

Whatever’s Next is serious business for doctoral students in the liberal arts these days. All options are open.

In my twenties, with no degree and lots of raw talent, I wrote for a living. In my forties, with 2.85 degrees, one small-press book, and lots of experience and education, I grade papers for a living. Projects on hold include two nonfiction books, the dissertation and book to follow, and my freelance writing business.

I would much rather be writing any one of those books. Or producing a documentary. Or filing stories from any number of datelines. I have reached the stage of Ph.D.-dom at which many grad students throw up their hands and say, “I’m going back to work!”

Each day, I remind myself that I’m almost there. Others counsel that the decision to quit the Ph.D. is highly personal, that quitting is not a sign of failure to follow through, that quitting is the best course of action for all those laboring in non-Ivy programs, that the economy and student loan repayments don’t mix, that far too many Ph.Ds compete for far too few tenure-track openings, and any number of suggestions specious or sensible.

My solution: What do I have to do today? Of course, I don’t have to do any of it. So I rephrase: Am I committed to doing this today? Like an alcoholic chasing the sober life, I deal only with today.

Do I write a poem every day? I do not. Do I commit to working on a poem every day? I do.

It’s that simple.

Any project, any problem, I tell my students, is doable if you figure out how long you have to finish it, count backwards, and divide the work into small, doable parts.

This basic time-management principle is a revelation to many of them, especially the younger ones who get caught up in their own anxiety and mistake high stress for hard work. To protect my own sanity, I have had to learn–the hard way–to meet their Velcro with Teflon. (I’m still learning.) All graduate students who teach must learn the fine art of setting and maintaining boundaries between themselves and their students. For poets doing the Ph.D., protecting that space can be extremely challenging. Lately, I think a lot about what I did to finish my B.A. while working full-time at CNN. I read photocopies at lunch and index cards in the ladies’ room. I listened to French tapes in my Walkman between CNN Center and Georgia State. And I refused to deliver updates on the Gulf War when I walked into poetry workshop.

The grades are in. My parents wants me to move my things out of the basement they’re having remodeled. My dog flings himself down in the middle of the living room and bicycles his back legs, begging for belly rubs. My partner is exhausted and needs me to pick up my end of all things neglected. I had planned all year that I would use this time to drive out of town and work on the dissertation–in the field, away from people and in the marsh, on the coast, under the surface.

Will I say yes? Will I say no?

Bear with me.

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AWP 2011: Oye Como Va

This year’s AWP convention in Washington was one of the best I’ve ever been to. It was also one of the strangest. The far more serious matter of Egypt overshadowed everything–for me, anyhow–as did my other writing life outside of po-biz. The precise chronology of events is a bit fuzzy. I should fact-check like a good reporter; for now, here’s a poet’s pastiche:

DAY 0 (Tuesday): Drove from Atlanta, skirting the gargantuan storm system that kept many folks from flying into DC. Was almost the only person on road. Weather was foggy and misty in Georgia, not too bad in North Carolina, and extremely dense rain from Richmond up. Had the rain been snow, it would have been a blizzard. Listened to Tahrir Square events unfold on BBC World Service, CNN, and MSNBC via satellite radio, pondering geopolitics while driving through the storm.

After trolling from place to place until the wee hours, finally found room at the inn: a no-tell motel in “La Republica Popular de Takoma Park,” as the bumper sticker says. Slept on the unused of the two beds, still fully clothed. Contemplated adding both hammock and folding cot to survival stash in trunk.

DAY 1 (Wednesday): Thank you, IHOP. Thank you, strategically-located banks. Thank you, schedule, for not placing me in the bank when it was robbed four days earlier. Arrive at historic Omni Shoreham with its nifty diving rebreather history. Exceptional staff. Beautiful room. Clean room. Light switch cover that rests directly on wall surface. No DNA samples from previous occupants. A desk where I could line up 50 or so Katrina-poetry-related books, plug in my laptop, and refine my annotations. I watched TV as street fighting broke out between police and protestors, feeling the same dread I felt the first night of the (first) Gulf War, wondering whether I would see or hear people I knew get blown up during their liveshot. Finally removed to the hotel bar for a double and a call to my favorite newsheimer. Scary night, even now.

DAY 2 (THURSDAY): Friends arrive. Panels ensue. I hit the bookfair after the long hike across the street, down the block, down the stairs, up the elevator, through the hall, across the lobby, down the escalator, into the bookfair, and then back, and back, and back to small-press-hinterlands to see Louie, Palmer, and Pat at Pecan Grove‘s table. Hooray for Pat and her new book, Inherent Vice, which she kindly signed! Reverse-hustled through aforementioned maze to see “Trading Stories with the Enemy: Navigating the Cuban/American Literary Landscape” panel back at the Omni. On the sign outside the meeting room, someone has posted a note, along the lines of: “The Cuba panel has been cancelled. None of the presenters were able to fly out of the Midwest.” Shortages here, too? Is this how it’s gonna go? Oyame. It’s not often that I get to talk Cuban literature outside of my own house.

Meandered into overpriced hotel buffet and bumped into Nicole and Peter Cooley. Had old-home week with them and met Thomas Beller, to whom I apologize publicly for all the New Orleans-centric references.

Escaped from AWP to meet up with old pal at CNN’s Washington bureau. Got the nickel tour to see how the new setup works. Saw old friends and colleagues, more than one of whom asked,”So, when are you coming back? We need you!”

This gives me much to think about.

I’m thinking.

Went to Busboys and Poets with said pal to meet an old college pal of his. Had dinner, wine, great conversation. Then we get down to business, that being our 23-year relationship as dance partners. Regrouped at the funkalicious Madam Organ’s, where a badass Latin band did bossa nova interpretations of Nirvana, hipped James Taylor up to speed, and threw down some smokin’ Colombian dance music and Grateful Dead. Oye como va. Unfortunately, I was dead on arrival, feeling my age and his, and barely moved my exhausted gringa feet while he did all the work. Who are these tiny twenty-somethings with the 360-degree swivel hips? I want to dance like that when I’m 90.

We discussed the goat-decor’s pendulous appendages. I allowed as how they might function as mistletoe for guys betting on which girl they could catch.

Inexplicably, DC seems to put orange slices in all of its beer.

Beg for mercy because my feet hurt so damn bad.

Drag into the Omni lobby, exhausted but thrilled at seeing the old crew again. Who should I find in the hotel bar but my new crew–West Chester and FORMALISTA friends Marilyn and Kathrine? Drink, talk shop, show photos on various digital devices. Eventually drag up to bed, order room service (which arrives in even wee-er hours), fall asleep over $20 egg and revolution of people who would make far better use of both the egg and the $20. Self-indulgent poets and writers, spending all that money on hotel rooms and airfare. I can’t enjoy this.

* * *

DAY 3 (FRIDAY): Oversleep yet again, this time through Mezzo Cammin timeline panel. Hit the NEA how-to-apply-for-a-grant panel, only to discover that poets should read the website. Left with other poets who also have read the website, but were looking for finer nuances. Back to the bookfair. Hugs and catching up every few feet. And lunch with Marilyn, Kathrine, and Moira. And drinks with Mona Lisa and Sister Anne, talking about Catholicism and community and her upcoming trip to the Father/Mother Land Ghana, and especially about Mona Lisa’s finally disentangling the byzantine New Orleans permitting offices to pour the slab on the house in which she and five generations of her family had lived until Katrina took it. Every AWP since Katrina, we discuss the glacial progress that is rebuilding her piece of New Orleans. Six AWPs later, still no house.

* * *

I wasn’t organized enough to get new business cards before AWP. I zipped over to the copy center, whomped up something pre-fab, and had a very short run of cards made at the whopping price of about 26 cents each. I gulped and put it on the plastic. The place was slammed. The woman behind the counter dickered with the carpet installer about coming back after closing. He didn’t want to. She talked him into it. I figured I’d copy the bib in the morning.

Height of the night: the Floricanto reading, which blew the roof off the historic True Reformer Building. Highlights: Martin Espada’s poem about the marriage problem, Marilyn Nelson braving croakiness to read and run, the curandera/politician who read as if she were officiating at High Mass, Sonia Sanchez’s shaman-self channelling/chanting/exorcizing, and the room itself, which looked and felt like a church. Each reader was outlined by a white aura. Lighting? Energy? Spirit beings? Poets report. You decide.

* * *

Back in my room, still drained from faux-dancing effort, I tweaked an extensive bibliography of post-K poetry and poetics. I saved it to Gdocs. I saved it to my hard drive. I saved it to a jump drive. Multiple redundancies. The plan: print some copies and e-mail it to anyone who gets left out. Oye como va.

So then I start writing a few thoughts about poetry in and out of post-Katrina New Orleans. No big deal. I peeked in the mirror occasionally to see Egypt while I was writing what I thought was a quick and dirty set-up for the bibliography. And I kept writing. And writing. Nicole had asked me point-blank last year, “Why don’t you write about it?” And I stammered and said I hadn’t been there in the same way and that nobody really cared about my vantage point and all those things writers in denial say when they avoid writing. And then it was 4:37 in the morning, and I had this crazed, slightly disjointed essay about who has the right to say what. And it was a first draft, not anything I would read at the panel, but the makings of a really good essay for sometime in the near future.

Then I insisted on sanity and sleep, but just let me check my e-mail once first, and et cetera. So I open the ASLE mailbox, which apparently I hadn’t done since November. And there was an e-mail from Sheryl St. Germain about precisely this notion of outsiders speaking for locals, only from the point of view of nature writing. And from November. And, she was giving a talk about it at this same AWP, which hadn’t registered with me because I was only looking at poetry panels. So I opened her essay and it was a hell of a lot like mine, although clearly not a first draft. So I told her about this weird coincidence. Two writers plus one wavelength equals a certain kind of poetic zeitgeist.

We will explore further.

* * *

DAY 4 (SATURDAY): I have given up completely on all panels other than the one I’m moderating. The tubercular cough that’s haunted me all week inexplicably disappears in the oppressive mist that today coats everything. I eat lunch with Pat and Marilyn and Kathrine at the Lebanese place everyone’s been raving about. I hustle over to the copy center. It’s closed. The carpet guy is there. I ask you: who the hell decides to close the hotel bar and the copy center in the middle of the afternoon during a writers’ conference? Oh, it’s the hotel. Not my hotel, mind you. That other flagshippy one, where the ladies’ room looks like the Superdome’s by the third quarter. The hotel for which AWP probably paid a fortune because it had a copy center and a bar in close proximity.

Oye como va.

* * *

I don’t want to waste people’s time. Especially in the final session slot.

It goes like this:

Kalamu doesn’t make it. Peter has what he’s going to read. Julie has a DVD of clips from the Still Standing reading: Lee Grue and Paul Chasse. I bring the necessary dongles and cables to make the computer talk to the projector, but neither the audio nor the volume control appear. I am on my knees before a roomful of people, listening to Peter’s talk and making sacrifices to the computer idol. St. Fragile and St. Expedite intercede for us, in the form of the hotel a/v guy bearing an audio jack. Now we can all oye como va. I handed out cards to anyone who wanted me to e-mail a copy of the bibliography. And I felt compelled to read that strange essay.

We made it work.

And then we opened up the mic to the audience, as opposed to taking questions, and the room was energized.

They made it work even better.

Keep open to the poetry of the moment.

* * *

I rushed off with Peter and Nicole to the oil-spill reading, which overlapped the Katrina panel. This means I stood up my other friends and our vague plans. Oye como va. Anne Waldman did a Buddhist version of Sonia Sanchez’ exorcism, violently yoking rant and chant and manatee and humanity together. Muriel Rukeyser wrote, “If one woman were to tell the truth about her life, the world would split open.” I would like to see a Sanchez-Waldman reading. Just the two of them. That would split the earth in two.

Dinner at a little Ethiopian place. Again, I missed someone at home who knows more than a little bit about Ethiopia firsthand. The rest of the world was very much part of the little corner we call AWP this year, more so than ever.

Far more than choice of restaurants makes the matter pressing.

* * *

Day 5 (SUNDAY): The long leisurely drive back, but not before photographing plastic debris along the Potomac and visiting Mr. Lincoln. At the corner, another former colleague jogged past. I flagged her down, and we hugged and jabbered on the streetcorner. “Do what your heart tells you,” she says, and she is in a position to know what that means.

Many stops, a hike uphill in the snow, past deer tracks, hawks huddling in highway trees. Truckstops. Atop the mountain, after dark, Egypt by satellite and Cuba by radio skip.

Oye.

You’re a writer. Do you choose to spend the rest of your days caught up in adminstrivia and makework? Do you write your way around the world? How does your writing serve the world? How does it serve your fullest possible remaining time on the planet? How much time will you exchange for money? For writing? For having written?

Can you hear how it goes for you?

Frostbytes: A peek at the prof’s online version of Day One

From my teacher-blog: a peek at the first official unofficial day of workshop, in which we leverage the tech to talk poetry, snow or no.

 

Slow Thaw: A Fragment

Snow’s liminal whisper

between ice and slush,

unhushed, weeps

into stuttering gutters,

crushed. Machines sweep.

 

 

Resolved: A Year of Pleasure; or, Writing for Writing’s Sake

Happy New Year! As I begin The Year Without Facebook, I thought I’d also take part in WordPress’ PostADay challenge as a timely prompt. I have some new things in mind, not the least of which is my next book, which will make a pit stop as my dissertation.

Despite my flu-stuffed head, I’ve been reading a lot via Kindle and hope to post some discussion-worthy reviews and recommendations here. Feel free to join in via the Comments section. Also, watch for the Patio’s design to become a tad more reader-friendly as I revamp my web presence.

Perhaps these are New Year’s resolutions. Here’s some more:

Be kinder. Graduate school makes people cranky and crazy. I don’t like what’s rubbed off on me during the journey. Something about the fluorescent lights and the warrens of power makes otherwise intelligent and humane people go berserk. I don’t like some of the associated habits I’ve picked up and want to shake them off ASAP. I have not been myself.

Be healthier. I’ve made some progress, but have miles to go before I’m sleek. Objectively speaking, I should lose 50 pounds. That’s a lot. Twenty-eight minutes twice a week is not enough. My old friend Erica sent me a half-marathon training book last year, but (for other reasons) I wasn’t medically able to join her and Maria at the appointed day and time. Now she has challenged us to another half-marathon. I’ve avoided running in the neighborhood because it’s a little polluted and a little sketchy. I remember how passionate I was about running and swimming when I was a kid, and think I’d better find my way back to that feeling while I can still stretch my ligaments.

Woodshed. That’s what another old friend and now famous musician used to call “practicing”: “Can’t come! Gotta woodshed!” While I don’t consider myself nearly as good a poet as he is a musician, our friend wowed everyone with his early work ethic. I’m ashamed to say it, but it’s true: I’ve been slack. I’m moving from “not having enough time” to “stealing time” to “I will take time anytime” to write. I have a stack of specific, detailed craft-honing tasks. I have several particular projects and publications to finish this year. I am reclaiming the minefield that was once my home office. Life is short. Write like a motherfucker. (Hi, Ray and Brad.) I’m going back through various old standbys from the early days, reminding myself that this–writing–is fun. Not work. Fun. All the reading and study is important. Just reading, just writing, just messing about in boats–those are my passions. I will not die wishing I had followed my passions. I am marshalling all my passions into symbiosis.

Jettison. I have so much stuff. Books and clothes are my weaknesses. I’ve come to the point where I really can get rid of some books I know I’ll never look at again. I love my Kindle, but am never going to give up codex books. As for clothes: How can I have so much clothing, yet so little to wear? I’m tired of looking like a grad student or someone on a camping trip. I’m really tired of making do at Wal-Mart. Therefore, I have begun ruthlessly laying in a stash of work clothes and am about to donate a dresserful of stuff. When I lose a couple of sizes, I’ll get some new pants and I’ll be able to fit back into my stash of excellent work shirts. I’m having nightmares about Clinton Kelley and Stacey London snarking through my closet. I’d love five grand to shop Manhattan bare, but I’m not willing to let them trash the nice new pants and suit that need hemming. I’ve always preferred having a few nice things to tons of crap and I like to travel with one carry-on bag. How can I live aboard if I have to deal with all this stuff? Avast! Crap overboard!

Do what I love. I do not love being a graduate student. However, it is what I am doing right now in order to do what I love (writing) even better. Every day, I have the opportunity to teach people about the basics of good writing, introduce them to interesting and important ideas, and guide them through the maze between where they are and where they say they want to go. If I don’t love reading what students have written, then I have to ask myself whether I am a writer engaged in sparking a dialogue, or just a writing instructor copyediting my way through the disengaged meanderings of sleepwalkers. It’s one thing to have the fire. It’s another to pass it along. If I engage as a writer, albeit a far more advanced one, then I will be writing all day long, even when I’m grading, even when the class is shaking off its collective fuzzy head.

Dive, dive, dive. I can’t dive unless I’m in good enough shape to tote my own gear. Right now, I’d probably have to put on 40 pounds of lead just to get below the surface. I need to get in some crappy local dives and some shore dives away from the slick that was the Gulf Coast so that I can go on to the dive leadership part of the program. Oh, and I’d like to take a nitrox class. I’d really, REALLY like to take a rebreather course, but maybe that’ll be my graduation present to myself. Once the fiction exam is done, I’ll need to hit the water quickly.

Save money. I try to, and I do OK juggling my bills, stipend, and credit lines. However, I am a lot closer to alleged retirement than most of my cohort; I have a partner to take care of; and I need to finance my travel habit. Given the new wheels and the shrinking time to degree, a safety cushion is essential. Although I don’t like the freeway-flyer gig, I might pick up a little freelance on the side. Any such extra income will go straight into the Hands Off Savings Account. I have never paid someone else to roll my change.

Don’t waste time. Checking into Facebook for “just a second” adds up when you do it several times a day. I love my friends, but I doubt I’ll miss much by asking them (you!) to meet me elsewhere. “Wasting time” also means obsessing over the occasional hostile or triflin’ incident. I want to spend my time productively, and I derive no pleasure from getting swept up in other people’s headgames, real or imagined.

While most of these are ongoing projects, committing to specific, doable steps towards these goals is an act of resolution. I clarify my own desires. I write them down. I promise myself.

What do you promise yourself this year? What gift will you give yourself?

A year without Facebook

A herd of sheep as metaphor for Facebook users

Baaaaaaah humbug! I'm tired of Sheepbook's data-fleecing!

I’ve given my thousand-plus friends and “friends” fair warning: If they want to find me online in 2011, I won’t be on Facebook.

The combination of creepy face-recognition and geotagging was the final straw in Facebook’s series of ever-more-invasive presumptions. I grew sick and tired of hearing after the fact about new settings to turn off, new terms to opt out of, and new layouts to navigate. No longer do I feel conflicted about leaving the marketing orgy disguised as a virtual non-stop cocktail party. At first, I worried about losing track of what various far-flung friends were doing. Now, I have nothing to lose but acquaintances. I let folks know that I’m out as of 1/1/11. For one solid year, I vow not to update my status or to check into Sheepbook in any way whatsoever. At the end of the year, I promise to write about the experience. If I were not in grad school, where I’m obligated to respond to student e-mails and to tutor online, I’d swear off the entire digiverse and retreat to Walden, but this will have to do for now.

John Allemang’s “Technocurmudgeon: Confessions of a Facebook Heretic” in the Globe and Mail, here also tweaking Twitter, frames the effect nicely:

I don’t need to accumulate friends in quantity, but I want to know what drives my fellow beings. And what I discover in Twitter is the curious disconnect of all this connectedness: People I know as morally obtuse find the meaning of life in a cottage sunset, people I admire as artists can’t stop nattering about their frappuccinos, newbie political organizers I hoped would succeed get so caught up in Twitter self-congratulation that they forget to fight the real election on the streets.

What are we missing in life that makes us settle for these faux-social gatherings? You tell me. Except for the enforced sense of alienation in the workplace that comes from opting out – but boss, I thought you prized non-conformity – a life freed from the social networks’ demands should be a better way to pass the time.

And BBC Radio’s Rory Cellan-Jones did a great series, in which he interviewed EFF founder and WELL denizen John Perry Barlow about the virtues of meatspace versus the online mutton-pen:

Throughout our interview, the man who founded the Electronic Frontier Foundation kept harking back to his life in a small town in Wyoming, where he spent years as a cattle rancher.

Ever since, he told us, he’d been trying to find the same sense of small-town community in cyberspace. The Well, whose members met in “meatspace” as well as online, had been a great experience. He told how, at Well parties, the members of the community emerged blinking into the real world, and discovered the faces behind the words.

John Perry Barlow seemed disappointed by today’s social networks, and in particular the one that has really taken the online experience to the masses. “Facebook is like television, the opposite of what I was looking for,” he grumbled. “It’s the suburbs, not the global village.”

Way back when, say, in the early 1990s, when very few people had Internet access, launching an “app” meant typing ~vi, and the Web was text-only, I dipped briefly into the WELL. Eventually, I found cyberhomes at CREWRT-L and WOM-PO, and those friendships continue today–both in real life and online, if not necessarily via listserv. Today, I also listmom FORMALISTA, which is a closed list precisely because we wish to stay on topic, because we wish to avoid unproductive distractions, because we share a common interest in formal poetry by women and all considerations which the phrase implies.

By contrast, CREWRT-L has always been a heavy-traffic list, our discussions punctuated by news of spouse’s health, grandkid’s arrivals, and birdfeeder’s traffic, and we like it that way. The difference between CREWRT-L and Facebook is that a sense of community actually inheres. We see each other not only at AWP, for example, but also because we’re passing through town. We make allowances for our differences and we genuinely care for one another. We may “toot” a small success, but we don’t continually harp on our magnificence every time we finish a draft.

Facebook was originally conceived as a marketing platform, a tool for manufacturing popularity, and popularity is the fetish of the insecure. It allows one to post commercials about oneself in real time to an adoring circle of dozens. In short, it makes one feel special. Temporarily. Until one needs another hit. The first step, say anonymous addicts everywhere, is to admit one’s powerlessness.

If you want to surrender control, you’d better know to whom you’re capitulating. Some people say, “Privacy is dead.” Let’s assume such is the case (which I don’t actually believe to be true.) Discretion, however, survives.

So what’s your story? Are you sick of trying to keep up with Facebook’s periodic flux in terms? How much online data is too much? Would you like to punch Mark Zuckerberg in his smug little face? Are you ramping down, swearing off, or otherwise reorganizing your “online presence” in 2011? If you could have only e-mail and ONE other online means of communication, what would that be? Have you considered unplugging entirely? Confess your techno-conflicts below.

And if you’re reading this via Facebook, please consider responding on Every Poet Needs a Patio instead.

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Creative dissertation financing (in both senses)

I have scoured the Foundation Center databases and library, and I assure you that no one (as of this writing) offers a grant for a doctoral student over the age of 40 (a supposed liability based on outmoded assumptions) to hang around beaches and write poetry (no matter how noble the project or qualified the poet).

The Muse willing, I am about five months away from being ABD. Because I chose to attend a state R1 university during the most brutal economic downturn since the Great Depression, I’ve had to hone my financial survival skills. Like many other graduate students, I’ve been fortunate enough to earn my tuition (and some of my bills) through teaching undergraduate classes part-time. Unlike many other graduate students, especially at the doctoral level, I haven’t been as fortunate in securing research funding for my own work.

The problem is not any flaw in the project itself. The problem is that I am studying poetry in a culture which sees poetry as a hobby at best and as a break with reality at worst. This culture openly applauds hostility to the systematic study of any humanities or art. This culture lionizes the professional dilettante. This culture parrots McCarthy-era scripts, in which professors are “eggheads” and students “dupes,” and fancies it has said something original. This culture believes that pseudo-intellectual attention-seekers like Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin, who rely on ghostwriters, are “authors.” But I digress.

As one of the “optional” duties our financially-strapped department has assigned graduate teaching assistants, I tutor students who want help with their writing. Some of these are graduate students in other disciplines. I help them fine-tune their research grant proposals and job dossiers.

There’s no small irony here.

I think of my partner, who once traveled the world and held diplomatic clearance and now works part-time as a medical interpreter, but who cannot get the same coverage her workmen’s-comp clients get because her at-will employer doesn’t offer health insurance. I help graduate students in the “STEM” disciplines write funding proposals for their own research, at the cost of my own research time and energy. QuikTrip managers make more than we do, possibly combined. Together, we are living in a Dickensian novel, pressing our cold noses against the glass and watching other people eat–sometimes not in only the metaphorical sense, given two part-time incomes between us.

* * *

As for my work, my research, my reading, my writing, my poetry, I feel as if I am carrying the dissertation, wrapped in a threadbare sheet, while forging head-down against a bitterly howling snowstorm:

“You missed our mandatory meeting!”
“Please get the (makework) in by (date).”
“Have you graded my paper yet?”
“My friends and I wrote a sestina a day for a week and self-published an anthology!”
“Your poetry isn’t _____ enough!”
“A chapbook isn’t a real book!”
“You don’t publish enough!”
“Is that self-published?”
“You don’t schmooze enough!”
“How are you going to pay your bills?”
“Can you help me with something?”
“What are you going to do with a Ph.D. in… poetry?!”

The winds are whipping and my fingers and toes are numb. But I clutch my idea more tightly against my chest and forge ahead. The work itself drives me. The weather changes. The grail does not.

* * *

Therefore, travel light and trust your compass. If one path proves treacherous, find another. If you find none, make a way. Blaze a fresh trail through the undergrowth. Read the signs–a snapped twig, a print in the mud–and track silently. One needs provisions for the journey. A packing list:

1. Set up a donation site. Explain precisely what your dissertation research involves and why you need outside funding. In exchange, offer acknowledgement in the manuscript and a copy of the future book itself. Keep good records and follow through. Also consider alternative funding sources like prosper.com, but be aware that repayments begin immediately and that interest rates may be significantly higher than those on your existing credit card, depending on your financial snapshot at any given time.

2. Clear the credit cards whenever possible and check your credit rating regularly. Use them as The Spike Lee School of Arts Funding has taught you, not as speculative investments. It’s tough finding any leftovers in that student loan check, especially because it covers basic living expenses and conference travel during grad school, but try to earmark at least some part of it for your research budget.

3. Do as much of your dissertation research as possible within driving distance of your home. If this relegates you to weekends and breaks in some cases, plan to hit as many of these, as efficiently as possible, on one trip. Leverage conference travel by building in solo time at any suitable archive, museum, historic site, natural landmark, or interviewee’s house. Skip the drunkfests and use that hotel room as a short-term writer’s retreat.

4. For more distant locations, try to double up during a Study Abroad trip. Seek out graduate-level programs whenever possible–and remember to look outside your university. While in country, make quick notes of impressions that can’t be imagined or researched. Take photos to jog your memory. Talk to people who share a passion for your research topic. Make genuine contacts (not just ugly-American po-bizzy ones) with poets and writers. Be aware that poetry is serious business in many other countries. You might bring a few extra copies of your work to give as gifts.

5. Volunteer. While the words “unpaid internship” may make a dissertator’s flesh crawl, search out opportunities at agencies and organizations that lend themselves to your project and see if you can negotiate a mutually agreeable arrangement. Use your work time to learn more about your dissertation subject and your free time to write. Another alternative is to seek out a suitable volunteer-abroad program. You will have to foot the cost of your travel, but it’s often less costly and more schedule-friendly than figuring out who’s going to watch your house, car, and dog for a year.

6. Act locally. If your project has an inglorious local component, make a date to investigate that dull little thing which no one notices. Make them notice it. Make it your writing exercise. Show how it’s part of the larger, more exotic project you’re doing. Find another. And another.

Creative funding is a necessity for the creative dissertation. The fact is, our country does not support doctoral-level poetry research. For decades, our leaders have chanted the mantra of “greater funding for science, technology, engineering, and math,” pouring more and more money into that research while ignoring or cutting even the most modest arts funding.

Yet I persist. Before I became a graduate student, I wrote for a living. My words put food on my table, a roof over my head, and a decent amount of money in the bank. I was nimble, brazen, and fearless. Then I decided to go to grad school. Graduate study tends to beat what is broadly termed “personality” out of its apprentices.

For artists–especially for poets–the real test is escaping with these qualities intact. They are what distinguish poets from people who studied poetry. Turn those skills to your advantage and figure out how to write for a living. I’m not talking about writing grants–or, God forbid, ghostwriting–for other people, although those are options. I’m not talking about whether or not to apply for teaching jobs, return to Corporate America, or join a monastery, assuming any of these will have you. I’m talking about following your writing where it takes you. I’m talking about the Buddhist concept of right livelihood. Trust the writing. It will make a way, one poem at a time. The funding project is the compass for the dissertation. The dissertation is the compass for the book. The book is the compass for whatever comes next.

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I can haz e-books I paid for, Amazon?

I left this note–well, essay–on amazon.com’s Kindle Customer Service board:

My dad bought me a nice new Kindle DX as a gift. Meanwhile, he loaned me his while I crammed for Ph.D. exams. I purchased a few books, downloaded many classics, and uploaded study notes, lists, individual docs, etc. All well and good. I decided I much prefer the smaller Kindle and so he’s taking the DX. However, it’s my understanding that, because I bought my obscure literary criticism on his machine, that I cannot transfer those titles to my Kindle.

This is a major, major DRM issue. I in fact purchased the book on his Kindle, and we in fact are swapping possession of our respective Kindles, both of which he purchased.

If you look at our accounts, you will see that we have spent TENS of thousands of dollars at amazon.com over the years. I think that, as a goodwill gesture, you should do whatever is necessary to tweak the code on these individual downloads OR to issue an immediate credit back so that I might repurchase said books on my own machine.

If not, I would be extremely wary of continuing to use the Kindle at all, and would go directly to a more user-friendly version. I understand the issues with DRM and piracy, and (as an author) I strongly support protecting *author’s* rights. However, in cases such as this, clearly the customer who has paid for the use of this particular e-book should certainly be accommodated, as the book is not being pirated or even read/shared by two people.

You might counter that you have no way of knowing this. Given that each download has its own identification, I doubt that. It’s easy enough to see later whether I’d cracked this individual copy of Spiller’s _The Development of the Sonnet_ and sold thousands of copies on the international black market (think of all the sonnet specialists drooling for such contraband!– all 12 of us!).

Yet, cynically, retread versions of public-domain classics (often poorly formatted) are shamelessly sold on amazon.com. Sold? Someone downloads a work from Project Gutenberg, “designs” a “cover,” sells it on amazon.com, and repeats the process?… And I can’t get a book that I paid for on my dad’s account into my account when it already exists physically on the Kindle I put it into? And he just paid for the new, expensive Kindle?…

In this case, I suggest that sound judgment should override mindless policy. I cannot afford to repurchase titles which I’ve already bought and being forced to do so is not in any way fair. I’m certain a judge would agree.

Surely this can be done on the back end via the users’ web interfaces. Create a particular link: “Transfer ownership”–make the person read and agree to swear to whatever legalese that covers the situation I’ve described–and then allow User Account A to e-mail the book(s) in question to User Account B ONE TIME ONLY via wireless. Your tech people could set up a database to track such transfers. And you most certainly should NOT charge any fee for doing so. If User B subsequently upgrades, he or she should be able to put all existing purchases into the new device.

Philosophically speaking, I think the current situation overreaches reasonable transfers. Again, I stress: I am NOT advocating that amazon.com create a Napster– or LimeWire-sized venue for mass file abuse. I do think it obvious that situations like this offer amazon.com an opportunity to demonstrate respect for its loyal customers.

Finally, I think it’s only a matter of time before some kind of system for transferring between users comes up. Whatever that might be, I hope that the author benefits from each use, just as recording artists and actors earn residuals when their works are played. I wonder whether ASCAP/BMI offer useful models for this.

What I enormously resent as a writer are huge publishing companies whose “pay” for, say, encyclopedia articles doesn’t even cover copy costs, yet who retain all digital rights and then resell MY work for enormous sums via library subscriptions, for example. I worry that, despite the savings on freight, paper, ink, distribution, etc. the middlemen and weasels will earn a disproportionate percentage of rights at the author’s expense.

Anyway, this is much longer than I’d planned. I hope you find this persuasive and that you will return my obscure literary analysis purchases as soon as possible.

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