Wednesday, April 29, 2009

CPR for Poetry

One of my favorite newspapers is the San Francisco Chronicle. Of all of the newspapers I've read, this one is hands-down the very best at covering art, music, lifestyle, and food. If you want to read the online addition, it's You can find some very interesting articles there, especially if you're into the arts.

The last article that I read interestingly had to do with improvisational poetry. Now, we're all a little more familiar with the term "improvisational" than we are "extemporaneous." I've been referring to oral poetry composed on the spot as extemporaneous. Just to let you know, it is the same as improvisational poetry.

In that article, they highlighted a poet who has made a living at doing improvisational poetry, selling his poems from $0-$350 per poem. What struck me, though, was the poor quality of this guy's poetry. I read one of his pieces, and I was a little dismayed at what he called poetry; however, that being said, I'm not really the person to judge his work. That's a personal preference, and I did not personally like the poetry. But what he does bring to the table is an interesting idea, and he is trying to bring back the old extemporaneous poetry movement.

Right now, he's renting a one-room office space and is selling poems to anyone who comes in and gives him a topic to write about. For whatever amount of money he quotes, he'll write the person a poem using an old typewriter which adds an artistic element from his perspective. I'm not sure that I really like this concept. It is just one step removed from fast-food poetry. However, the guys artistic ideas are interesting, and I thought I'd share them with you.

On one hand, he's thinking about renting a small theater space and doing a one-man show around poetry. Perhaps doing his own poetry competitions. He's thinking about doing a one-man competition, but what if he decided to make it a true competition? I think that would be a phenomenal idea. I like the idea about a one-man play around poetry. I'd have to think about that a little and see what kind of play would work, but I think people in the right region of the country would find that interesting. I also like the idea of an extemporaneous competition. Eventually, he could grow that to draw poets from all over the United States and get them interested in this grand old art form.

His second idea is my favorite. He's considering doing his poetry recitations in an art gallery. Now, why I like this idea is because he's trying to show that poetry is an art just like painting on a canvas and sculpture. I think that everyone knows that. Poets are artists too. But, I think we lose sight of that in the real world where we reserve fancy shows for canvas painters and sculpturers only. Now, his idea is to just do poetry in the gallery. I think it would be interesting if he were to team up with an artist. The artist would have her show, and the poet could make poetry about the works of art. That way, people attending a show would get two artistic moments at one time. Wouldn't that be interesting?

And what I'm getting at here is that poets need to get more creative in their endeavors to ensure that the art thrives. We've all seen some pretty outrageously creative art exhibits, fashion shows, and music concerts. But all we're getting from poets are stodgy old books that no one wants to read anymore. There is a way to put life back in poetry, and I think the San Francisco Chronicle is trying to get poets to think with this mentality. A little creativity is all it takes, and you would think there would be a few poets out there with some creativity left to make something happen.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Miscellaneous Poetry Matters

A new friend and I have been having quite an interesting conversation over email about poetry. She works for a poetry journal and is a very good poet herself. She has been sharing her poetry with me, and I have sent her a few of mine. It's been a stimulating experience, and it has brought me back to a time in my life where I used to write poetry every day -- graduate school. A couple of interesting things have been brought to my attention during this ongoing conversation, and I would like to share them here.

To begin with, I sent her four of my poems. Three of them were written in stream-of-consciousness and one was written traditionally (I wrote, edited, re-wrote, edited, etc). The one poem that she didn't like was the one that I spent so much time on! I never would have thought that, but it became clear to me why I love oral, extemporaneous poetry so much. Stream-of-consciousness is as close as you can get to the extemporaneous poetry of yesteryear. When I write in that fashion, I tend to let all of the thinking go by the wayside and let my heart take over. In essence, I skim off the top surface of my emotions and throw it out there. When I do that, I seem to get to the heart of the poem much quicker, and my use of poetic devices becomes natural and a flowing part of the poem. When I analyze and think a poem through, my brain becomes entangled in the poem which, to me, completely sterilizes the emotional connection that the poem is trying to make in the first place. I have just never had anyone point that out to me, and I think it is a fascinating observation.

During this conversation, there came a natural question: what is poetry? This would seem simple to answer, yet it is a difficult question. Sure, there are the academic answers regarding meter, rhyme, etc., but, still, there are poems that do not adhere to any of those standards. I think of the poems of Sandburg, for example. His poetry does not fit any of the traditional definitions, yet would anyone dare call him anything other than a poet? Poetry comes in all shapes and sizes, and there is no way to truly define it. In addition, who is able to say this poem is good and this poem is bad. All poetry, if written from the heart, will speak to some and not to others. Every poet has had her fans and her critics, and every poem is looked at both highly and critically. So, where do you draw the line? What is the definition of poetry? I say that poetry is the music of language, and it's goal should be to create an emotional response in the reader. But that is a simple definition. We never answered the question, but I think it's an interesting one to think about.

I've enjoyed this conversation, and it has provided a nice balance to the work I am doing for my play. Yes, I am still writing my play, and I am enjoying every minute of the experience. Everything is coming together well, and I expect it to be something worthwhile for production. I am putting everything I have into it, so I'm praying that it will go far. I will do everything in my power to make sure that it does. I plan to continue this course until I am through with the play and am happy with it, then I will seek someone who is interested in producing it. This process is the life I have always wanted, and now I am living it. Everything in my life will change when it goes into production. And it will be a positive change at that!

Monday, April 20, 2009

What was Extempore Poetry Like?

It's quite the dreary day here in cow country, and I have to keep reminding myself that "April Showers Bring May Flowers!" We've had relatively few sunny and warm days lately, and when we do have one, our family definitely takes advantage of it by staying outside all day. Ian, who has Sherry's skin, isn't quite susceptible to sunburn, but Aidan, who has my skin, will turn tomato red in a heart beat, so it's hats and sunblock for him.

But, this kind of weather is the perfect motivator to work long and hard on my play, so that is what I've been doing. The research has been interesting, and, although I've been doing it for the past three years, I'm still enjoying the nuances of information I've been getting. My last post sparked a question that I'm having difficulty answering, so I've been digging about as deeply as I can. The question is: what was extempore poetry like in its heyday?

I know that extempore poetry was the most popular form of poetry for some 1,800 years. I also know that there were competitions throughout all of Europe to see who the best poet was. The typical competition would begin at the local level with winners progressing through regional and national levels. At the end of the year, a champion would be crowned, and then the process would start all over again the following year. It was very similar to our sporting events in the way it was organized and the number of spectators who followed it. Indeed, the Poet Laurette (the person crowned with the golden laurel at the end of the year) was viewed as a national hero. It was most popular from 10 B.C. - 100 A.D., and then it made a resurgence from the 1600s-1800s.

But that still doesn't answer the question. We have plenty of information about the poetry contests and how they were arranged, but we have little poetry to fall back on to see what the quality was. That's because it was all oral poetry and made up either on the spot or within days of the competition. This is not exactly the perfect conditions for preserving the poetry. We don't even have the poems from the 18th and 19th centuries much less what was written in the 1st Century.

Was it good poetry? That is what I'd like to know. I mean, based upon spectator reports, it was good poetry. But how good? Is "good" measured against all forms of poetry, including written, or just against other oral poets of the time? No one seems to know. My research on Metastasio and Da Ponte leads me to believe that their extempore poetry was good but was not necessarily in the same style that they wrote in. Much of what I've read states that both men were successful opera poets because they brought much of the rawness of emotion and descriptiveness to operatic poetry.

Taking that description and coupling it with similar descriptions of other poets, it is fairly easy to infer that extempore poetry had some general characteristics. To begin with, I believe that the poets did not use a formalized meter and rhyming system to deliver their poetry in extempore. The reason I believe this is due to the difficulty of writing in those forms much less speaking in them in a highly-visible contest. Having to come up with rhymes in an A,B,C,D,E format and having the rhymes available just doesn't make sense, and it doesn't agree with what history tells me. Secondly, I believe that extemporous poetry was valued for its rich descriptiveness and emotional rawness. In other words, it had the same characteristics of stream-of-consciousness writing. The poets had to rely upon descriptiveness and emotional honesty. Their success was based upon emptying their hearts in the most colorful and descriptive way possible, probably in free-verse or with some rhyming. Third, I believe that they incorporated as many poetic devices as they could in their poetry, so if alliteration, for example, came to mind, they used it. They had to be masters of incorporating as much of this as possible.

Therefore, I can imagine a rawness with lots of descriptive flavors mixed in with multiple poetic devices. I cannot imagine a set style guiding them throughout. And by set style, I mean that they stuck to the English or Italian Sonnet form. If they did that, then they would have needed days to prepare, and most contests did not allow days of preparation. These traits show in the writing of the two greatest extempore poets around: Metastasio and Statius. So, I believe that I'm pretty much on target with my assessment.

Like I said in my last post, there are a few small groups trying to bring this art form back into our culture. Unfortunately, I've seen video of the poetry being delivered, and poets they are not. I applaud these groups for their efforts, but I would love to see some very talented poets get up there are dig deep from the inside to pull out some good emotional and descriptive material. What I've seen so far are kids who are doing nothing more than talking about something or doing what kids do best and being nastily graphic with some subjects. The sensitivity of the poet isn't there. That, I understand, comes with age. I don't blame the kids or the organizations. Who I blame are the poets who look down upon this art and who don't participate. And that is why it's not resurfacing. Too many poets are too afraid to put it on the line. If any of these organizations were on the East Coast, then I'd definitely participate. So far, though, they are all in California.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Extempore Poetry

Among my literary obsessions, I consider extempore poetry to be one of the highest. There is no reason for it. It is rarely practiced today, but I want the day to come when the grandeur of the poetry competitions in extempore return.

For some 2,000 years, poetry was considered the noblest of arts, and it was a competitive sport in the early Olympics through the Roman Circus era. It continued to be in vogue until the late 1700s when, for some reason, the competitions died out, and the art was rarely practiced anymore. It has grown so out-of-vogue that one can Google the topic now and find relatively little information about it.

Extempore poetry competitions were held in two forms. The first form was a sort-of stream of consciousness competition where a topic was given to the contestants, and they had to compose a poem out loud in front of an audience without any meditation, writing, or editing. The second form was a little easier. It provided each contestant with a pre-determined amount of time to compose the poem on the topic and then read or memorize it and deliver it to the audience. Sometimes, the time period was five minutes, and other times it was a day or so in advance.

Either way, the idea was too see how well a poet could produce a poem without constant revision. In ancient Greece and Rome, before writing became a mainstream art, this was the only way that poetry was delivered. The oral tradition was very strong in those cultures. Later, after quill, ink, and paper were invented, the competition was considered the best way to determine who was the most talented poet.

We all know that the Poet Laurette is a position within the United States government. Each President has the right and responsibility to nominate a poet to read their own poetry at large, important events. The most famous Poet Laurette was Robert Frost, and his reading at John F. Kennedy's inauguration was the most famous poetry reading ever. The Poet Laurette stems from a longer tradition in Europe where the person crowned with the laurel of grape vines (the traditional symbol of the poet) was the one who won the Emperor's own poetry contest. Each participant in this "World Series" of poetry had to get there by winning on the poetry contest circuit. This circuit was still in existence in the early 1700s, and some great poets such as Metastasio and Lorenzo Da Ponte grew up and thrived in that culture.

Both Metastasio and Da Ponte went on, as you know from reading my blogs, to become great opera librettists. Part of the reason that their poetry resonated with the masses was because they were great extempore poets. Their words tended to be more powerful and raw than their companions who only wrote poetry on paper to be published. This translated into more realistic opera and was credited for both of their successes on stage.

Today, as I have said, there are few extempore poetry "readings" being held in the world. There are a few organizations that are trying to bring it back, but they have had little success as of yet. Even stream-of-consciousness writing is out of style now. It's just a shame because I think these forms of art are the most direct ways to getting to the heart of the poet and writer. The words and feelings expressed are just so much more powerful than anything composed over a long time period. Sometimes, it's just better to reach in and pull out the first thing that comes to your mind, but we have forgotten to think like that. We have television, computers, video games, and movies. Our society is built upon structure, and structure dictates that everything should be planned and revised before sending out. Well, sometimes that sterilizes the subject, and all of the color, depth, and feeling are washed away. I have always eschewed planning and lots of editing because I feel that I lose power in my writing when I do those things. Most writers today disagree with me in that regard. The extempore poets who were the greatest of their time would not.

Maybe I am obsessed with this art because I think like an extempore poet. Like I said, I rarely write drafts, and editing is just to make sure that what I've written is readable. I write in my head, and when it is clear to me, it goes down on paper. That's extempore.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Needed Time

I'm sorry that I haven't been posting as regularly lately as I have been in the past. These last two months have been overwhelming, and now that I have some breathing room...well, I'm taking advantage of it!

I had a book deadline for late March/early April, and that book was one of the most difficult projects I have ever worked on. I cannot go into any detail about the book, but I believe that it is going to do extremely well. I am very proud of the way it turned out, and even though there were times when I thought that I just could not make it out of the abyss, I was able to get through it.

Interestingly enough, the person who hired me to do the book was more of a collaborator than anyone I've worked for in the past. He was very hands-on, and I have to admit that he had to be due to the complexity of the subject. I am not used to having someone so involved in a project, but because it was necessary, I was able to adapt. And not only did I adapt, but I ended up enjoying the collaboration.

Collaboration is great when you're working on a creative project that you're creating together. In ghostwriting, though, it tends to be a hassle because the people who hire me are not writers, or they would be writing the book themselves! But, for this particular project, it turned out well, and I enjoyed the friendship that I developed with my client.

Oddly, this project really took me to depths that I haven't been to in a long time. I believe that I turned out to be a better writer as a result. His voice was very difficult to mimic, and it took me a long time and a lot of practice to really nail it down. After I pinned the voice down, the subject material was the next mountain to conquer. Although I still can't say that I'm an expert in his field of expertise, I feel that I am one of a few people who actually understand his message in detail. The book, of course, is going to grow that number exponentially, and I suppose that was part of the difficulty in writing it -- taking something very complex and whittling it down to something that everyone can understand. Needless to say, it was taxing on me, and it slowed down my blogging.

I finished the book last week, so you would think that I would have all the time in the world to blog, wouldn't you? Well, I have other projects that I'm scheduled to work on, but I'm also taking a couple of weeks to work on my own project, and I'm very excited about that. I spend all of my time writing for other people, and, while I love the fact that I'm a full-time writer, I really despise not writing for myself because the only way to truly break through in the writing world is to publish in your own name.

So, I'm doing just that. Did I mention that I'm excited?! A couple of weeks ago, I was accepted as a guild member of the Dramatist Guild of America. It's a "juried" process, and I am honored to have been selected. The Dramatist Guild is for playwrights, librettists, composers, and lyricists. Because of my acceptance into the Guild, and because I've had a play brewing in my heart for a long time now, I've decided to write a play. I love writing plays. Not only does it give me a break from writing books, but it also allows me to play with dialogue in ways that you can't in a book. I love crafting stories, and I have a good story to write, so this is the perfect genre to write it in.

My goal is to have something very artistic -- something extremely poetic throughout. I've thought and thought about ways to bring poetry back to the stage, and this is the only way that I could think of to do just that. I want this play to be remembered for its beauty of language and the poetic devices throughout. In addition, I want it to be very colorful with an artistic set design, costumes, etc.

I'm not going through the story now. I really have a fear of telling a story before it is written. Not only do stories take on a life of their own and can change at the drop of a hat, but they are very vulnerable to being taken at this early stage of the process, and I cannot copyright the idea. So, I've decided not to go into much detail about it in such a public forum where anyone can read the blog. Forgive me for being such a prude, but I feel strongly about this story. I'll share it once I'm done and after I have it registered and copyrighted.

So, for the next couple of weeks, I will continue to blog, but my main focus will be on this play. The writing process and research is sure to make me want to share things with you, and I will make sure that I do so as I'm inspired.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

In Good Hands

Written in Stream of Consciousness in 7 min. 34 sec.

Joshua Bennett sat down in a hard plastic chair after talking to the receptionist. An hour already wasted, he was looking at thirty more minutes in this waiting room. It was as sterile and void of color as all the other rooms in the building, and all of the magazines were at least four months old.

"What did she say?" asked his wife Alecia.

"It'll be another few minutes or so," he said, not wanting to reveal the extra half an hour to the already impatient patient. He patted her knee, "Don't worry. It won't be much longer."

Alecia slumped back in the uncomfortable chair, her belly bulging with child. She could not find a comfortable position, and the chairs were narrow -- so narrow that they pinched her thighs. Definitely not designed with the pregnant woman in mind, she thought as she slid into another angle to ease her back pain.

Joshua was beside himself with the wait. He didn't want to make a scene in front of his wife because she was already an emotional time-bomb with eight months of hormones built to explode like an atomic bomb at any given moment, but his patience was wearing thin too.

"I'm going out for a stroll in the hall. Want to go with me?" he asked.

"What if they call us in? We've been waiting this long, and I'm not going to wait any longer than I have to."

"Ah, don't worry about that. I'll let the receptionist know. They won't forget about us." He looked up at the clock. It was 4 p.m., and he knew they were the last appointment of the day. He walked up to the receptionists window and tapped.

The receptionist was a twenty-something named Irene. Although she'd only been working for Dr. Holmes for three months, she was used to the drill. Patients wait, and she takes the grief. As soon as she heard the tap, she got ready for another tongue-lashing. She slid the window open slowly. Here it comes, she thought. She hated getting yelled at, and she wondered if she'd ever get used to it.

Joshua gave her a cold stare as if to say, "I"m pissed," but instead of letting his emotions get to him, he calmly told her that they were going to walk down the hall. His wife, he explained, was having difficulty getting comfortable, and they wanted to move around.

Irene was relieved that he didn't yell, and she was more than happy to accommodate his wishes. "Just stay on the floor, and I'll find you with Dr. Holmes is ready," she said.

"Any idea when that will be?" Joshua asked.

"No sir. He had two deliveries this afternoon, and he's still not in the office. He will be here though, or he would have called and had me reschedule you."

After waiting this long, rescheduling was not an option for Joshua. He knew that Alecia would exterminate them both if that were suggested at this point. "We'll stay on this floor," he said. "Just come get us when he gets here."

Joshua started to walk away. He could see the relief in Irene's eyes when he talked to her. He stuck his hand in the opening of the window as she was closing it, and he leaned in so she could hear his whisper. "This happens all the time, doesn't it?"

Irene smiled. "All the time."

"Why is he like that?"

"Deliveries are always first. He doesn't want some intern delivering his patients, so he always does it himself."

Somehow that made Joshua feel better about the wait. He hated wasted time, but there was something about that statement that made him feel better. Who would he rather have bringing his baby into this world? The doctor or some rookie?

He went over and helped Alecia out of the chair. "Come on honey, Dr. Holmes will be here shortly."

"Good," she said. "I'm getting ready to walk out of here if he doesn't hurry."

"Nah," Joshua said. "I kind of like the old man."

They walked through the door and slowly exited the waiting room. Joshua took small steps while Alecia wobbled down the hall. He put his arm around her waist. "I still think it's going to be a boy," he said.

"Nope, I know it's a girl," Alecia said, and they giggled, glad that they hadn't found out. She stopped and looked at Joshua. "I just want it to be healthy."

"Somehow," he said, "I believe we're in good hands." And he kissed her softly on the lips only to be startled by the elevator door opening. It was Dr. Holmes.

"Joshua, Alecia," he said. "Come on into the office. I'm so sorry for the delay."