Saturday, May 31, 2008

What is a failed poet?

I posed this question to poets of my acquaintance: "What is a failed poet?" I hear the term used all the time, but what does it mean? How do you define a failed poet? Is there such a thing? Below are some very thought provoking answers to this question I posed:

A failed poet can be a mainstream adherent who buckled to society's pressure against artistic commitment and stopped producing work in order to "act like a grownup" or "get a real job." Worse than this type of poet, however, is the practicing, productive poet who never reaches his or her full potential out of fear of offending readers or popular poetic figures and theorists.

An artist who holds back, obeying current rules or trends whether or not they challenge or showcase individualized craft, generally frustrates readers as well as himself by writing safe for decades. An artist who lacks personal integrity is the worst poetic failure of all.

--Mignon King (co-editor of Bagel Bards 3 Anthology)

Just off the top of my head, a failed poet is one who doesn't write.

--Tam Lin Neville ( editor “Off the Grid Press”)

Even Faulkner, you know, described himself as a failed poet. Raymond Chandler, failed poet, found his talent late in life...writing crime novels. I was not familiar with the term. Sounds like a good subject for a funny poem.

--Ed Meek ( author of “Walk Out” )

Thanks for the prompt. A quick search turned up Wordsworth, Faulkner, Raymond Chandler, J Alfred Prufrock (Eliot by extension?), and Alexander Wilson, father of American ornithology all as "failed poets."
There is something a little precious about the idea of calling oneself a failed poet (Oh, I couldn't possibly...), and most of the above (admittedly abbreviated) list used failure as a catalyst for something else. What is a successful poet?

--Valerie Lawson ( coeditor of “Third Coast” magazine)

To answer your question, first let us ask what is a failed human being. If the question promotes strict answers then we will have strict answers to the question “What is a failed poet”.

But then let us particularize the query to other categories as well and ask the question:

What is a failed flower?
What is a failed kitten?
What is a failed cow?
What is a failed elephant ?
What is a failed worm?

And then ask:
What is a failed baby?

And then ask again:
What is a failed planet?
Or what is a failed solar system?
Or what is a failed galaxy?

I have a preferred answer. It is that if anyone of those things had cause to exist and have fulfilled their existence in any way, according to any place on a range of some Platonic ideal that listed things from low to high, good to bad, quick to slow, sweet to sour, heavy to light and so forth, then they would have to be called successful. That is: they would be successful if they performed their state of existence along any particular position in the entire range of their performance.

I often quietly reflect on of Grey’s Elegy In A Country Churchyard. We are all are unknown and our Fulfillment is unknown. We all deserve quiet contemplation and fond consideration. It seems harsh to speak of a “failed poet”. Might it be more a reflection on us who ask the question then on the thing the question is being asked of?

Sidewalk Sam ( founder of “ArtsFirst”—Boston, Mass.)

A failed poet is a person who loves language, but they cannot express in words the bridge to the other world where poetry is supposed to take you. I am a failed poet because I cannot attain the lean, carved from the air grace of the poet's I most admire. I've written only a handful of poems at that level. So, I write what I call spoken songs, and I write fiction.
A lot of fiction writers are failed poets. They started out as poets but couldn't take the heat.
A failed poet could also be a shadow artist who wanted to write but became a talker and an alcoholic instead.

C.D. Collins ( author of “Blue Land” -- Polyho Press)

I have to hand it to CD, because whether or not she agrees with it, the woman is a poet because she authentically uses original language and phrasing. Her narratives use repetition and musical phrasing like all great modern lyric poets. As for the mint juleps…we’ll that’s another story. Someone I once loved said that writing poetry is largely a thankless task, and in that sense, for those of us still “in the “Tower of Song” no matter what degree, well, we fail and succeed. It’s the love of language and the compulsion to capture something beautiful, weird or hidden about the world that makes anyone a good poet.

Lo Galluccio ( author of “Hot Rain”)

If your poems falls in the forest and nobody hears it you have failed
as a poet. Poets write to be read, to be heard---if poets don't put
themselves in the position to be heard, either by not working hard
enough to be good or are not being good enouth to be published and read-
--then they have failed. They have failed if they fail to make people
care about what they write. It is a no brainer that they care about
their own writing---not a measurement of success.

Tim Gager ( founder Dire Literary Series—Cambridge, Mass./ author of "this is where you go when you are gone")

I tell my workshop students that there is no such thing as a bad poem, as long as the poet is happy with it. It's all about what purpose the poem serves for the poet. I've learned from students that there are multifold reasons to write poetry: Some are closet poets who write strictly for themselves; some like to journal with poetry; others want to write social/political commentaries in verse; one student wanted only to write poems for his girlfriend; another wanted to write poetry in order to become a better, more concise newspaper reporter. The list could go on. So who outside of poets themselves, is qualified to determine how well a poem executes the purpose for which it was written.

If one wishes to write for publication, there are of course standards, but these vary drastically, depending on editors' likes and dislikes. Poets sometimes feel "failed" if they keep getting rejections from editors with a different definition of merit than they have. That doesn't mean there aren't editors elsewhere who would like and publish the same poems.

And getting published doesn't always mean the poet is satisfied that her/his work is good either. William Faulkner said, "I'm a failed poet. Maybe every novelist wants to write poetry first, finds he can't and then tries the short story, which is the next most demanding form after poetry. And failing at that, only then does he take up novel writing." Yet both Faulkner's first nationally published works, the poem “L’Apres-Midi d’un faune," and his first published book, The Marble Faun, were poetry. Was his poetry good? At least his publishers thought so. But it was Faulkner's own expectations that compelled him to consider himself a failed poet.

It's easy for those of us involved in the publishing part of poetry to develop stringent definitions of excellence. And where has this gotten poetry, when most Americans think they don't like poetry because they can't relate to it?

Ellaraine Lockie ( author of “Finishing Lines”)

When I announced to my mom that I wanted to be a writer she wearily told me that I came by it naturally and that I came from a long line of failed and petty literati. I’ve often thought about what that means and Liz (my daughter) and I had a long debate about it. Our conclusion is that a failed writer is someone who has put their heart and soul into their writing with no lasting results. We all know poets who thrive on being “poets” without much output. I’m sure they anguish over their work but the results are, to put it politely, trivial. Our conclusion that it was better to be a petty literati than a failed one. I’m still not sure I agree, but a part of me would much prefer to go down swinging for the fence in the majors than being a position player in a very minor league.

Steve Glines ( founder of the “Wilderness House Literary Review” )

There is no such thing as a failed poet. What gives someone the right to call a poet a failure? A poet can only fail if he stops writing. Just write. I hate all this labeling. To summarize: “There is no such thing!

Gloria Mindock ( founder of Cervena Barva Press)

maybe a failed poet is one who doesn't attempt to capture what s/he feels and thinks through language . . . perhaps s/he is one who loses touch with the impulse to write . . . maybe a failed poet is one who never finds another with the capacity to sense the works / words as "instruments of evocation" (using Christopher Wilmarth's words for his sculptures) . . . maybe a failed poet is a poet, acknowledging that there may inevitably be distance between impulse / intention and word-form . . . in Japan there is / was a tradition of a sort of savoring of failure, related to the experience of pathos, passing, and poignancy . . .

Eytan Fichman ( professor Boston Architectural Center--Boston, Mass.)

Maybe a more sensible question is what is the definition of a poet? What is poetry? And who has the qualifications to make these definitions or determinations? What makes a succesful poet? Sales? Media attention? The number of publications you are published in? Pimping yourself? I dare say there are not that many poets around who have read the work of Gene Ruggles, considered by many to be an important poet, but who had only one book published (Lifeguard In the Snow, University of Pittsburg Press). Does that make him a failed poet? I think not!!! And the idea that everyone is a poet is absurd, just as absurd that if you write a poem and you are happy with it, that this somehow makes you a poet.

I think the suffering of those people in Burma and China are far more important than an exercise on what is a failed poet.

a.d. winans ( founder of Second Coming Press-)

I think the worst version of a failed poet is one who has never tapped into his or her deepest private self and it inside-out for the public. Like digging deep past the skin, the tissue and the muscle for the humming tuning fork in the marrow and letting it resonate on the page for the whole world to see....if this is not accomplished then the poet has failed and his poems are soulless and the equivalent to crossword puzzles.

--rob plath (author of poetry collection "Ashtrays and Bulls")

I've been giving more thought to failure. It seems to me that failure is an inability to achieve what one has set to accomplish. And the concept that if one is satisfied with one's own work and chooses not to publish, they too might be a success. I have a friend or two who's shrink told them to write poetry and/or memoir as a method of dealing with their issues. If it helped and they never sent them out, are they success or failures? Then there is the poet who sends poetry to magazine "a" and is rejected, but magazine "b" accepts. What does that mean for the poet? Your question is an interesting rhetorical exercise with no right and no wrong, no answer to success or failure.

Zvi Sesling (founder of the "Muddy River Review)

FAILED POET CHARLES PLYMELL AVAILABLE TO LEAD YOUR SEMINAR ON SUBJECT Honorarium; $100 thousand based on awards from Ms. Lilly to the likes of Princeton Prince of the Academe, C.K. Williams and Grand Scoutmaster, Gary Snyder. (or some pills)---

Charles Plymell-- (founder of Cherry Valley Editions)

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Renowned African American poets Afaa Michael Weaver and Major Jackson to be in a filmed public discussion at Somerville Community Access TV

( Afaa Weaver)

(Major Jackson)

Renowned African American poets Afaa Michael Weaver and Major Jackson to be in a filmed public discussion at Somerville Community Access TV.

( Somerville, Mass.)

Doug Holder, founder of the independent literary press “Ibbetson Street,” and the host of the Somerville Community Access TV Show “Poet to Poet: Writer to Writer” has started the process of organizing a public discussion featuring renowned African American poets Afaa Michael Weaver ( and Major Jackson ( on April 2, 2009 ( Poetry Month)

Somerville poet Afaa Michael Weaver has won the prestigious PUSHCART PRIZE (2008) for his poem “American Income,” published in POETRY magazine and in his collection "Plum Flower Dance" ( U/Pitt Press.)

Henry Louis Gates, historian and professor at Harvard University writes of Weaver:

"Afaa Michael Weaver is one of the most significant poets writing today. With its blend of Chinese spiritualism and American groundedness, his poetry presents the reader (and the listener, for his body of work is meant to be read aloud) with challenging questions about identity, about how physicality and spirit act together or counteract each other to shape who we are in the world. His attention to the way language works is rare, and the effects of that attention on his poetry are distinctive and expansive."

Major Jackson is the author of two collections of poetry: Hoops (Norton: 2006) and Leaving Saturn (University of Georgia: 2002), winner of the 2000 Cave Canem Poetry Prize and finalist for a National Book Critics Circle Award. Hoops was a finalist for an NAACP Image Award in the category of Outstanding Literature - Poetry. He has received critical attention in The Boston Globe, Christian Science Monitor, Parnassus, Philadelphia Inquirer, and on National Public Radio's 'All Things Considered.' His poems have appeared in the American Poetry Review, Boulevard, Callaloo, The New Yorker, Post Road, Poetry, Triquarterly, among other literary journals and anthologies. He is a recipient of a Whiting Writers' Award and has been honored by the Pew Fellowship in the Arts and the Witter Bynner Foundation in conjunction with the Library of Congress. Last year, he served as a creative arts fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University and as the Jack Kerouac Writer-in-Residence at University of Massachusetts-Lowell. Major Jackson is an Associate Professor of English at University of Vermont and a core faculty member of the Bennington Writing Seminars.

A description of the discussion is as follows:

“Two Generations of Black Male Poets/
Two Sets of Eyes on the Urban Landscape

Afaa Weaver & Major Jackson

In a public chat in the SCAT television studios in Somerville,
these two poets share the experience of their lives as black
men who came of age in large American cities, Baltimore
and Philadelphia. They discuss the music, visual art, and
literature that were influential in their times, from The Temptations
to Grandmaster Flash and Chuck D, from Ron Milner
to Susan Lori Parks, and more. They share intimate moments
in their lives and some of their own work as well as that
of poets they know and admire in an evening setting in the
burgeoning artistic community north of Cambridge to be
recorded in front of the live audience.

The moderator of the event and time of event will be announced…

Contact: Doug Holder: for more information.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Tim Gager: A Talk with a Dire Reader

An interview with Timothy Gager: A “Dire” Reader in Somerville, Mass.

Writer Timothy Gager is a man who crosses many literary genres. He has a new poetry collection out from Somerville’s Cervena Barva Press: “ this is where you go when you are gone.” In 2007 alone Gager had 32 works of fiction, as well as poetry published in online and print journals. Gager is the current fiction editor of the “Wilderness House Literary Review,” the coeditor of the “Heat City Literary Review,” and the editor of the fiction and prose anthology “Out of the Blue Writers Unite.” He is the cofounder of the Somerville News Writers Festival, as well as the Dire Literary Series in Cambridge, Mass. The series was voted “Best Of” in the Boston Phoenix 2008. I spoke with him on my Somerville Cable Access TV show “Poet to Poet: Writer to Writer.”

Doug Holder: Tim you write both poetry and fiction but until recently you were primarily known as a fiction writer. Which do you identify with more strongly: poetry or fiction?

Tim Gager: I don’t define myself as exclusively either of them. I don’t wake up in the morning and say: “ I am a poet, I am going to write a poem.” Or “ Gee, I haven’t written a story for awhile, I’m going to write a story.” If something strikes me at a certain depth or certain level, that is when it is going to become a poem or a story.

DH: Charles Bukowski wrote that wine, classical music, jazz, the horses, and women were essential to his writing life. What’s on your list?

TG: Reading. Food. Love. Disappointment. Achievement.

DH: Any music?

TG: I like calming music. I like folk music. I also like to have baseball on in the background. I’m not really watching it on the TV. I’m not listening to it, but I like it on.

DH: Some writers claim that writing is like an addiction. Your take?

TG: Addiction is sort of a strong word. It can be viewed negatively. I think “passionate” is a better word. With passion-you always want to be in possession of it. If you have a passion for writing you want to spend as much time with your love as you possibly can.

If I wasn’t writing I would miss it. It would be like my best friend went across the country. But I would survive. But I can’t see myself giving it up. If I didn’t write there would be definitely a void.

DH: Baseball comes up in a lot of your writing, as well as other writers we know. What is it about the game that holds such allure?

TG: Baseball is the first reality television show. The drama is each individual’s numbers going up and down: it’s who is hitting better, who’s in first place. It’s a lot like life. Life has a lot of drama. There is also love in the game. When Manny Ramirez makes that great catch you love it.

DH: You co-founded The Somerville News Writers Festival. With the support of the folks at The Somerville News, you managed to book top name talent like Junot Diaz, Tom Perrotta, etc… You spend a lot of time on this. You are in essence making a showcase for other folks, and you are not getting rich. What makes Tim Gager, run?

TG: I promote other people, but, if I didn’t have the Dire Reader Series, The Somerville News Writers Festival, I would be missing out. The fact that I have these venues provokes people to check out my stuff. A lot of excellent writers’ work may never see the light of day. The fact that I founded these series is a big payoff for me personally. When in doubt (because it is subjective to a great degree of what good writing is), editors, etc… when they see that I have read with the likes of Franz Wright, may have second thoughts about my work. It has given me a lot of respect. I even getter better rejection slips…almost apologetic ones.

DH: But of course there is an altruistic reason, right?

TG: I believe writers should be treated like rock stars. It makes me happy to have an event where writers can be seen.

DH: The Norton and Tauro families, the owners of The Somerville News have been very supportive ,right?

TG: It has never been, “Hey, get 250 or 300 people or the festival is over…” I have that internal pressure on myself.

DH: In the poem “2A.M.” from your collection “ this is where you go when you are gone” you write provocatively about sex:

“On me
you push down
the weight on each bent leg,
cures my evils…”

Often you explore the ying and yang of your relationships with women. Is there more ying than yang or vice-a-versa?

TG: That’s a personal question. I use intentional double meanings. People may not get the poems—but it adds an extra layer. For instance: “ Pushing down on someone”—you might think that refers only to the physical aspect of sex. But it also means you are leaning on someone.

DH: You have run the Dire Literary Series for many years now. Recently it was voted of “Best Of…” in the Boston Phoenix. What’s your secret?

TG: It is funny how Dire evolved. I had thought it would be a variety show, like David Letterman, with all the guests as readers. It evolved into a house party, and everybody is involved.

You have to make your series fun—it has to move quickly—you have to be able to relate to people. You have to have “events” not just another reading. The audience should have a chance to schmooze with the writers for instance. Oh yeah, publicize…I am afraid not to.

* On July 11 at 6PM there will be the annual Dire Barbecue, with readers, food and drink. Out of the Blue Art Gallery 106 Prospect St. Cambridge, Mass.