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February 21st, 2003

the rules matter

This last week or two, two terribly tragic events have taken place, each involving multiple deaths at nightclubs. One, in the Chicago area, involved deaths in the aftermath of a curious disturbance, in a club that had already been ordered to close down. Another involved dozens of deaths in a Rhode Island club, in which a heavy metal "lite" band began a pyrotechnics display, apparently without a pyrotechnics permit, which tragically turned into a fatal fire. I feel so badly for all the people involved, and for their families. The time for assessing how these incidents happened will be something best handled by courts and administrative bodies, not Fox News or weblogs.

But I cannot escape the feeling that we live in an era in which everyone is through special circumstances "exempt" from the rules which apply to everyone else. I don't mean that literally. Instead, I mean that we live in a culture in which traffic regulations, health and safety regulations, environmental regulations, and consumer protections are all treated as mean-spirited formalities, rather than protections against tragedies. I'm not ready to say why things happened to all those people this week. But so many problems in this life could be solved if people just did what they teach kindergartners to do. It's become prudish to say it, but I can't help but feel--why can't people just follow the rules?

worthless words made free

An answer by amatrixangel to a question in my poll today reminded me that part of my dark side is that I am remiss in re-mailing him something I had mailed him once, but which had inadvertently through an error among folks at the addressee end, come back to me. A charming "friends only" post by an LJ friend which mentioned Emily Dickinson have put me in that mood of contemplation in which I wonder just what words really matter. I don't ask this rhetorical question in any profound or sweeping sense, and I don't have quite that Missing Persons catchiness ("what are words for? no-one listens at all"). Instead, I thought of my theory of bad poetry. I've written poetry for years, publishing a smallish amount of it in those tiny little literary magazines nobody reads (but which garner tiny little grants), posting a fair bit of it in 'net sites, posting a little of it in my LJ (I keep the sad relics in my "memories" section), and even getting one odd little notional bit of verse in a book about distance learning.

My theory is that my poetry is not really intended to be good, or, to my mind, in the traditional sense, "poetry". I tend to like simple wordplay, aphorism, and perhaps the barest creation of a notion of an image. I believe that in poetry, as in many other creative pursuits, excessive critical baggage has reinforced a paralysis upon the aesthetic pursuits of the ordinary person. I am instead attracted to poetry "without judgment". I've written a detailed discussion of this idea in this old post, which I will not belabor here. Suffice it to say that my notion of "poetics", or, more properly "bad poetics", is that in order to escape the manacles of quality, one must write with a certain heedlessness of modern forms. The result is a kind of populist poetry based neither on the striving for an illusory self-defined "excellence", nor for a retreat into outmoded conventions. "Bad poetry" is simply that, bad, when taken aesthetically as pure poetry. But the purpose of this poetry is merely shared amusement, and sometimes a shared notion.

I have for decades believed that advancing technology will in the long run kill all the ways in which we now experience media-as-commodity. Thus far, my working hypothesis that a free information society will bring an end to conventional marketing of media has been supported repeatedly. I could argue that the entire weblog movement is an example of this;
also, that the marginalization of academic criticism as time moves forward appears to hold the potential for a genuine shift in emphasis from those who document dreams to those who truly, if "inexpertly", dream them. We are seeing the mammals grow and prosper, and brontosaurus' wail is loud, but not long for this world.

In late 1999, inspired by a public radio spot on the then-new "print on demand" technologies, I wrote my chapbook "Chess Poems for the Tournament Player". My theory was that a booklet of light bad free verse, written with a specific interest group in mind, could be marketed through silly advertisements in on-line auction services such as ebay.com and amazon.com. I wrote the booklet in a weekend or two, got my brother the computer genius to put it on MS Publish for me, and had the local copy shop print up dozens of copies for me at nearly nothing a copy. Then I wrote a number of mock-grandiose advertisements for the work on ebay, extolling the kitchen-table self-publishing eccentricity of self-published poets and self-published chess players.

The work sold almost from the moment I had it printed up. Indeed, the first sale took place when somebody saw it being copied, and had to have it as a gift for a chess-playing relative. But please understand--it's not at all what I consider "good" poetry. In one newsgroup, a chess player purchaser issued a review which aptly compared its quality with that of the Vogons, the turgid planet-destroying Bureaucrats of the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.

But you see, its goal was never to "make a mark" as poetry, but instead to make human connections about the simple absurdity of people who play their hearts out at games in which they will never excel. I think there's something wonderful and touching and sad and absurd about the weekend chess addict, whose rating will never be within three rating classes of even the lowest level of master. I wrote the book to discuss that absurdity, which to me is some universal metaphor for all the things we talentless sheep do as we stumble through the pastures.

The book sold well for quite some time, and then the days came when it had saturated its ebay market, and it rarely sold at all. I stopped posting it on ebay, and now inflict it upon friends or acquaintances to whom I wish to show a silly bit of myself. I think that one key to understanding me is to understand how important trying is to me, even if my own skill set has such well-defined limits.

But tonight I am in a worthless words mood, and I realize that, in addition to amatrixangel, to whom I have long neglected to remail the booklet, there may be others out there upon whom I have not inflicted a booklet of bad poetry.
Accordingly, if anyone would like me to mail a completely free, completely worthless aggregate of words, all one need do is fill in the requisite mailing info below:

Would you like a free copy of "Chess Poems for the Tournament Player"? If so, please enter your address below. As ever, feel free to leave a work address or similar alternate address, because I have no real interest in learning your personal matters, but just wish to spread the message of bad poetry by earnest bad poets throughout our little world.