The Hermit Poet

August 28, 2005

Tamiko Beyer in August DMQ Review

Filed under: General — Neil Aitken @ 6:51 am

Stop by the latest (August) issue of DMQ Review and check out Elegance of Surprise by fellow Kundiman poet Tamiko Beyer. There’s something magical in how the poem weaves its way (almost surreal in its beauty) to that unexpected discovery of new love. The line “we kissed in the blue-lit bar” grabbed me and through the entire poem I am pulled in by a deep sense of wonder. Great poem. Great poet. Congratulations Tamiko!

August 27, 2005

Small vs Large Classes

Filed under: General — Neil Aitken @ 2:38 pm

Well, it looks like my dream of a small class is over. I’ve been assigned instead to the slightly earlier class of MWF 6:10 to 7:00 pm. It’s still evening, but currently has 18 students enrolled — as opposed to my dream class of 6 students. I think I can manage 18 students.

I wonder sometimes if there’s any benefit to having these larger classes. Some of the other grads will be teaching a full class of 22. Given our 10 week quarters, it seems difficult to cover everything we want to cover for both poetry and fiction in that time (it’s actually impossible — I think I should start off with that realization). As I see it, it’s largely an economic move — the university makes more money by having more students in their classes. This isn’t so much about the quality of the creative writing experience. Trying to create quality when the system hasn’t made it a priority can be frustrating.

For discussion and lecture, I don’t see class size as an issue. Where it does break down is when we want to workshop. Trying to handle 18 (or potentially 22) people’s work can be daunting. Not only to keep discussions focused, but also to keep comments useful. I hesitate to divide the class into groups because that introduces the problem of supervision, but I also dislike a large workshop environment where not everyone feels comfortable speaking. To some degree this can be combatted by asking all students to prepare a 1-page response/critique of the work being workshopped. Two copies to be brought to class – 1 for the student being workshopped, 1 for the instructor who will grade the critique.

Ideally, we would mentor small groups of 1 to 5 students. Up to ten is manageable. Beyond ten, something gets lost. Above twenty, it seems more like a circus unless you’re ready to crack the whip.

August 23, 2005

The New Sincerity as Response to Postmodernism

Filed under: General — Neil Aitken @ 12:05 am

I highly recommend the following essay by Mikhail Epstein, The Place of Postmodernism in Postmodernity, which was presented in the 1997 After Postmodernism Conference.

I’ll pull some of the more pertinent sections out.

Here is what several Moscow artists and art scholars of the post-Conceptual wave have said about the subject: “It is crucial that the problem of the universal be raised as a contemporary issue. I understand that it is a utopia. It is done completely consciously, yes, utopia is dead, so long live utopia. Utopia endows the individual with a more significant and a wider horizon” (Viktor Miziano). “The future of contemporary art is in the will to utopia, in the break-through into reality through a membrane of quotations, it is in sincerity and pathos” (Anatolii Osmolovsky). The subject here is the resurrection of utopia after the death of utopia, no longer as a social project with claims to transforming the world, but as a new intensity of life experience and a broader horizon for the individual.

The Post-Conceptual Movement (aka the New Sincerity) is occupied primarily with the “resurrection of utopia after the death of utopia, no longer a social project with claims to transforming the world, but as a new intensity of life experience and a broader horizon for the individual.” While Epstein here is refering to the fall of the Soviet empire, the present rise of New Sincerity here in the US might well be seen as a similar reaction to 9/11. In this case, the vision of the American utopia has shattered, and in its place is the desperate need to establish an intense and individual connection to the world. An interesting parallel.

Regarding the rise of postmodernism:

Over time, postmodernism itself may be perceived as an initial and inadequate reaction to this aesthetics of repetition, whose suprising emergence seemed to demand a full anaesthetisation and automatisation of feelings.

Which Epstein further illustrates by noting:

The postmodern utterance of “I love” was masked by citationality as a loophole for meaning, in which the subject of language could shield himself from its literal meaning and its responsible consequences.

This shielding of self from literal meaning and responsible consequences seems to be the very thing that irks the New Sincerists about the present state of much of the poetry that is published today. The Postmodernist movement has certain created an atmosphere of irony and non-literalness, a rejection of sentiment, or even of authorial intent. Perhaps consciously or unconsciously many poets who have taken an academic path have been influenced by such thinking?

As a culture, postmodernism has definitely left its mark. From film to television to cartoons to books, we have been trained to question and distrust, to regard everthing as construct, and to participate as well in the “language game.”

More than that though, Epstein suggests:

The fundamental thrust of Postmodernism’s solution was toward a new impersonalism, the use of the unconscious and superconscious, a reflection of medievalism. This was accompanied by fragmentariness, dispersion, eclecticism, irony with respect to the absolute (which appears under various names: “totality,” “canon,” “center,” “logocentrism,” “metaphysics,” etc.) In other words, postmodernism works against two major postulates, that of the individual and the absolute, whose tortuous dividedness gave rise to the inexorbaly tragic sense of Modernism, combining extreme optimism and extreme pessimism. The man of Modernity is Goethe’s Faust, Dostoevsky’s Raskolnikov and Nietzsche’s Zarathustra. He aims for the absolute and tries to encompass it with his own personality. The collapse of this aspiration marked the end of the entire epoch of Modernity.

If postmodernism works against the individual and the absolute, it is no wonder that poetry which rises from such a tradition lacks feeling and responsibility. Without the individual, the poem is bodiless and bloodless. Without the absolute, there is nothing to answer to or to revile against.

Epstein continues

The tragedy of the division between the individual and the absolute, between the individual and society, and between consciousness and reality, becomes as impossible as the avant-garde utopia and ecstasy of overcoming that division. What kind of alienation is possible for a theory (postmodern) that does not accept anything as one’s “own” and “originary”? There is nothing left to become alienated from. The cause of tragedy has thus disappeared, just as has the possibility of utopia.

This is where the postmodern movement leaves us — with nothing to be alienated from, having made all signs meaningless, and all forms empty. And in such a vacuum, what kind of poetry is possible? It appears to me at least that the New Sincerity is a rejection of that vacuum – a refusal to buy into the legacy that postmodernism attempts to leave us. Instead, there is a call to refocus and resurrect the body and the absolute. There is a sense that the individual does indeed feel and in that feeling (despite the problem of translation from one body to another) is of potential universal worth.

Am I a New Sincerist? I don’t know. But I do know that I write to stay human. Even in the fragmented world, I write both in the body and in response to absolutes. I believe in blood and feeling. So perhaps I am.

August 22, 2005

Gathering New Sincerity in a Bucket

Filed under: General — Neil Aitken @ 10:28 pm

Links updated 8/26/2005

There’s been a lot of talk in the Blogworld about the New Sincerity and somehow I feel that I’ve missed the boat.

Interestingly enough, “New Sincerity” is actually a term already used in relation to “Post-Conceptualism” in this index of new “poetries” in the Russian post-Soviet era. In Mikhail Epstein’s Catalogue of New Poetries, the New Sincerity entry reads:

Post-Conceptualism, or the New Sincerity
– is an experiment in resuscitating ‘fallen’, dead languages with a renewed pathos of love, sentimentality and enthusiasm, as if to overcome alienation. If the absurd dominates Conceptualism, Post-Conceptualism moves in the direction of nostaligia: a lyrical intonation absorbs anti-lyrical material, comprised of the wastes from the ideological kitchen, errant conversational cliches and foreign loan-words. (Timur Kibirov, Mikhail Sukhotin).

In Matt Hart’s online review, An Accidental Appreciation: A Few Pieces on Gregory Corso with a Nod Toward a New Sincerity, at Octopus Magazine, Gregory Corso’s work is suggested to be a precursor to the current New Sincerity movement.

This is an early post from Anthony Robinson which begins with a discussion of craft and moves towards proposing the New Sincerity movement — read it here.

Here are a few critical links which should provide an overview of the discussion:

Joe Massey:
The New Sincerity Manifesto
Summary of the current discussion

Ginger Heatter:
“Sincere or Insincere”
“(In)Sincerity and Myth”

Charles Jensen:
“Response to Ginger”

Seth Abramson:
“The New Sincerity: Is It and Does It Matter?”

Anthony Robinson:
“A few notes from a New Sincerist”
“Jonathan’s talking irony with Jordan”
“Response to Paisley Redkal”
“Some More Notes on the New Sincerity”
“Response to Seth Abramson”

Jeannine Hall Gailey:
“This morning I watched the internet news” (another take on irony and the New Sincerity)

Reb Livingston:
“Slipping on My NS Sweater”

Jenni Russell:
“But the blanket is really brown!”

Steve Mueske:
“Some thoughts on the NS movement”
“My Response to Tony’s Response to my NS post”

Rik Roots:
“New Sincerity?”

Kristy Bowen:
“Last night terrible storms” (some thoughts on the New Sincerity)

The New Sincerist Movement

Pamela Johnson Parker:
The New Sincerity — Waxing with Odysseus

August 21, 2005

Poetry Under the Full Moon Last Night

Filed under: General — Neil Aitken @ 10:06 am

The reading last night was wonderful. There’s a certain radiance to each of these fine poets that stood out. Each distinguishable from the last, but possessing the same heightened sense of beauty. The drive home, despite a wrong turn and an extra half-hour of finding my way back (I forgot that the 10-E doesn’t merge with the 60-E, but merely passes through it), was even more remarkable. The moon haunting the sky above all the dark roads and the cars rushing along like heavy salmon bound for someplace like home.

Our line up consisted of (not exactly in this order):

Sarah Maclay – bio more poems
Amaranth Borsuk – bio poem
Eric Gudas – bio poem
Say-Vun Khov – bio + poem
Michelle Daugherty – website bio poem 1 poem 2
Margaret Wang – bio + poem
Brett Garcia Myhren – poem (last on the page)
Anne Silver – website bio poems
Neil Aitken – website bio poem
Julianna McCarthy (Brendan Constantine’s mother and a very fine poet in her own right) – filmography!

August 19, 2005

Truth in Advertising

Filed under: General — Neil Aitken @ 12:04 am

I was out shopping earlier tonight and spotted what I thought was a rather sad piece of advertising in the frozen food section:

“Pizza for One”

I think I understand why I never see tv ads for this.

Alternative names that came to mind:

“Pizza for a Lonely Guy Who Doesn’t Have Anything Else to Do Tonight But Watch TV”
“Pizza to be Eaten By Yourself in a Dark Room While You Listen to the Smiths and Wonder Why the Cockroaches Look Happy”
“Pizza for Another Empty Life”
“Pizza to Fill Your Belly, Even If it Won’t Fill That Huge Aching Hole in Your Heart”
“Pizza for Nights When You and Neruda Both Can Write the Saddest Lines”

It also made me wonder if “Personal-Sized Pizzas” were all that personal. They actually feel quite impersonal — haphazardly thrown together without any indication of care. Of course, perhaps by “Personal Pizza” they mean that some poor struggling single person in the factory has scribbled on the inside of each package, “SWM 24 seeks some indication of outside world” or “SAF 28 loves children and classical music.”

What does this have to do with poetry and poetics? I don’t know. It just struck me as odd. Maybe this hermit life is wearing thin and I should invest in bowling shoes…

August 18, 2005

Saturday Reading in Studio City

Filed under: General — Neil Aitken @ 7:19 pm

Sat Aug 20 – 7:00 pm
Beyond the Valley of Contemporary Poets’ Anthology Reading
Portrait of a Bookstore (access through Aroma Cafe) (directions)
4360 Tujunga Ave,
Studio City, CA 91604

Coming up this Saturday, I’ll be reading as one of featured readers for the 2004 Beyond the Valley of Contemporary Poets Anthology. The VCP has featured some outstanding poets this past year. Included in the anthology (but not necessarily reading on Saturday) are the following poets:

Chris Abani
Neil Aitken
Amaranth Borsuk
Jennifer K. Dick
Michelle Daugherty
Ethan Gilsdorf
Eric Gudas
Dima Hilal
Say-Vun Khov
Steve Kowitt
Sarah Maclay
Julianna McCarthy
Brett Garcia Myhren
Robert Peake
Anne Silver
Margaret Wang
Jan Wesley

August 16, 2005

Rejection Day

Filed under: General — Neil Aitken @ 1:08 am

Today was a rejection letter day. Double whammies from Cimarron Review and Barrow Street.

I guess what was particularly disappointing was that both of these were journals I had just submitted to a few weeks ago on Aug 4. When you do the math, it’s clear that the poems never made it past the first reader. Now, I’ve been around long enough to know that the first readers are fickle and unpredicable in their decision making. Still, it’s frustrating to get no feedback on poems I’ve felt confident about when I sent them out.

Oh well, I’ll sit down tomorrow and figure out where to send the next batch to. In the end, it’s just a numbers game — the more poems I send out there, the better the odds that someone will read and like what I’m writing.

Reading at the Alta Coffee House (8/10)

Filed under: General — Neil Aitken @ 12:48 am

Well, it’s a little late, but here’s the report from the venue:

Last Wednesday I drove out to Newport Beach for my reading. The traffic was light and I made good time. When I arrived, I was pleasantly surprised to find parking almost immediately. Better yet, it seems that Newport Beach is quite the parking friendly haven — all the street meters are free after 6:00 pm. Try finding that in Los Angeles, Santa Monica, or Hollywood!

The Alta Coffee House is cozy — not impossibly small, but just about right for having a smallish reading. I think we had around 15-20 people in attendance. The readers stand at the front with their backs to the window, looking out over the tables in the coffee house. The host (actually guest host since Lee Mallory was unexpectedly called out of town) was Michael Miller – a younger looking guy who writes for one of the Orange County newspapers. He was very nice, worked hard to keep the reading moving at a good pace, and genuinely enthusiastic about the whole thing.

After a few songs by Tom Monroe (the musical feature), we had a few open readers, then it was my turn. I had 20-25 minutes to do my thing, so I read 14 poems and ended at 23 minutes. I led off with my newest piece called Bio (or a few words about myself that may not necessarily be true) — something that I had written largely to make fun of the types of bios people give in the cover letters. Of course, like most of my “comical” work, it usually starts funny then ends with a more serious or philosophical turn. In any case, it was a nice transition piece before I shifted over to the rest of my poems all drawn from the manuscript I’ve been working on all summer.

All in all, it worked out well. We had a couple more musical pieces from Tom Monroe, a few more open readers, then Louise Mathias read. This was actually my second time hearing Louise read — I caught her a few months ago when she featured with Victoria Chang at Tebot Bach in Huntington Beach. She read mostly from her book, Lark Apprentice, but also read some of her newer work which sounded very intriguing. I’m curious to see where this next book will take her. While our styles are somewhat different, it was interesting to find little resonances and parallels between the pieces we had selected for reading. The recurring theme seemed to be ghosts.

After the reading wrapped up and people filtered out, Louise and I had a great conversation about the process of assembling a first book. She pointed out that we have a tendency to place rather high hopes on what our books will do for us and mean to others in the world. But, when it comes down to it, usually we’re exactly the same person we were before the book was done. Publishing the book won’t make you happy. Won’t make you famous. Won’t make you fantastically wealthy. But it does open a few doors and does help you close a chapter in your life. Some books will make you famous or wealthy, but for the vast majority of us, it’s only a beginning. We have much much more to do afterward.

August 4, 2005

Bad Poetry and Perspective

Filed under: General — Neil Aitken @ 11:58 pm

If you ever want to feel better about what you write now, look back at what you were writing in high school.

Yuzun (a friend of mine from Kundiman) and I spent most of this evening exchanging our worst poems from high school. Wow. I’m amazed how far we both have come. We both almost died laughing from how abysmal some of our early poetic efforts were. If anything, I will definitely be more forgiving to my students this fall — it’s not easy starting out as a poet and we tend to make quite a few missteps along the way.

I will stick my neck out and share what we agreed was my worst poem:

(Note the dramatic pause and the skillful use of “sundry”)

On Paths of Pain

When bitter blackness sucks the summer sky dry
A billowing surge of darkness to drown
The cackling laugh of the thundergod’s son

Then… a flood of despair seals the bloody rain
On silent mountains
Their roads paved with broken hopes
From sundry lives.


Ooo the pathos. And bathos. And the terrible terrible teen angst. I can’t even read this now with a straight face.

A close second though is this:

A Crimson Rhine

Streams of blood endlessly flow
Through once green fields, lost long ago.
‘Neath churned mud, the rusty wires writhe,
Dark snakes that slither, through the stockpiled dead.
The cold gray eyes of the innocent lie, half-mute,
Under the darkening skies
Black numbing silence hides the sores
But still, in the night, artillery roars
Echoing in thunder the words of the Kaiser:
“I lead you to glorious times!”
False hopes hide a crimson Rhine.

Hmm… “half-mute eyes”? and the awful groaner of a last line.. ack. I’m glad those days are behind me (mostly).

So I’m curious, what would you consider your worst poem and why?

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