regarding the roles of the writer and the reader

Today, my friend Christy Wells wrote to me in a little conversation we had, ” a demanding reader is an opportunity for a writer to rise to the occasion of improvement.” This idea is truly how I hope I always look at my audience, whether it’s visual or written.

She also said, “The most engaged and appreciable reader is too (wonderfully) selfish to care about what I want as a writer. That reader is my target audience.”

Now, like I told her, I don’t know if I share her target audience precisely, but in a broad general sort of way I agree with a lot of those concepts.

I think, the addendum that I might put on that target might be that while they don’t care what I want to accomplish they are receptive to whatever is put in front of them. They are willing to try to perceive what I might be trying to do, whether they care or not is somewhat irrelevant.

It is important to me that I respect the fact that they cared enough to read what I wrote, or view what I created, and they are not so hostile to my intent that they immediately reject it without any consideration. A sort of apathy towards my intent is absolutely fine, but it shouldn’t be an active obstacle either.

I love the point that selfishness is definitely wonderful in its way, but I do want the allowance that, if I’ve written what I’ve written well, regardless the myriad ways an audience might embrace or reject it, it will have the opportunity to have effect I intended. Perhaps it succeeds, perhaps it doesn’t, but I want an audience that approaches it with an honest indifference.

In that way, I like the idea of an audience and a writer that are only aware of each other in the broadest sense. The writer is often not writing ‘for’ them and the reader is not reading ‘for’ the author. They each have their own agenda and each is perfectly legitimate and acceptable.

I guess, in my mind, the great writer allows the audience to read the work as they wish, and the audience accepts that the writer meant something whether it is relevant to them or not.


such is love

everyone wore red or white or blue
back in ’76
i asked my nana for a pair
of shortsleeve pants
made from a flag

she could think of 200 reasons not to
then she gave me a kiss
and I was wearing them an hour later.

the role of community

Over the years I’ve been a part of many writing communities and they’ve had varying affects on me and my writing. One of my favorite writing community experiences was “The Department of Modern Verse” it was a site built  on the code that I worked on with my friend Steve Podielsky. We had it going for a tiny bit more than a year and had fairly close to 1000 members when we shut it down.

In some ways I regret shutting it down, not only because so many of the members never fully forgave me after, but also because I had so much fun with it. I made tons of friends and they were all so genuinely supportive about my writing. But there was a dark under-side to that whole thing that was very difficult for me to really understand a the time.

The saddest part of it was the way it became a baby-sitting gig. Constantly being the diplomat to prevent blow-ups between different people on the site. Ensuring that the environment remained good for people to join and grow and write became a harder and harder job over time. That devolved rather quickly into a sort of resentment inside of me that made me hate the place more and more – not only the place bu the people who were making my life hellish.

The lessons I learned as I took it down really stick with me to this day, and have probably held me back in some ways, but in others they’ve really helped me maintain a high level of productivity.

I thought about this a little as I was walking about through doors open Lowell today. Whether it’s in writing or in life, our community is both a huge blessing and an invisible barrier, and we must embrace both parts of that.

To the degree that a community offers opportunity to connect and share in all of the best things in life, there is absolutely nothing more important and vibrant. As an artist, I would be nothing without those connections, the hands shaken, the smiles collected, the hugs stolen on a truly bad day – these are the things that lift me up and carry me through. They’re the brilliant and wonderful moments that inspire me to write, to paint, to imagine a better world. So yay for that.

But there is also the other part of community, the part that leads to shame and guilt. There is the shame from the people that are upset when you don’t make their event, or the guilt from the ones that look at your askance because they don’t approve what you’re doing – all of that uncomfortable awkwardness that is built by the pillars of the community that just don’t like you becomes an enormous barrier to sharing and creating work.

It’s easy to say, “Hey, if they don’t like what I’m doing, screw’em.” Easy to say, hard to do.

But then, I walk around on a day like today. I walk into buildings that have been re-claimed from the jaws of demolition and find beautiful inspiring places that were recently just the dreams of men and women at drafting tables. I bump into acquaintances and share smiles and laughs with strangers, and I feel ashamed that I ever let the little bumps and barriers hold me back at all.

I admit, I am a bit of a bull when it comes to creating things every day, so maybe I’m not the best one to go on about the problems of being blocked and uninspired. Still, I can say this, there are a lot of opportunities in any given day to connect with the world around you and it is on you to make that happen – the world won’t do anything for you.

Unlocking the great poetry within… or without.. or something.

I think there are three keys to writing great poetry, give or take a dozen. I don’t want to really pretend like I have all the answers, even if I do have all the answers. It just seems sort of pompous. Besides that, I’m sure a dozen very learned professors have already said whatever I should actually say, and will shake their heads sadly at my ignorance.

That said, I really do think there are three keys, and I’d like to hear you’re thoughts on them. If you disagree, please let me know.

Key #1: Read Poetry
If you want to write great poetry, you have to read great poetry. To me, this is the most important thing of all. It’s a matter of knowing what has gone on before you, what has been said, how it has been said, why it was said in it’s time, and why it was said where it was said.

If you want to get out there and produce writing that is interesting, that is witty and deep and worth the investment of time that someone will have to make to read it, then you have to know what they may or may not have read. And you have to have an actual experiential knowledge of the art.

I would like to also add that I used the words ‘great poetry’ on purpose, even though it’s impossible to define. To my thinking, “great poetry” means poetry that has survived over a long stretch of time, or has been vetted by the masses and found interesting and good enough to buy and share extensively. I know there is a lot of great poetry on the internet, but it is very hard to be sure what is good and what is not, particularly if you haven’t read a lot of poetry. So, I tend to go back to the classics and the ‘big names’ and start there.

So there there is my number one. Read the damned poetry.

Write Regularly

If you want to write poetry, you have to write poetry. That means that you have to actually do it, not just think about it, or occasionally toss one off for all to ogle and marvel at.

The truth is, if you just write once in a while, the ogling and marveling will be quite limited. You need to really write often, not only to generate sufficient volume to give you a ‘productive feeling’ but more importantly to hone your skills. Writing is definitely an art that improves with practice.

Talking about writing. Thinking about writing. Imagining writing. These are all fun, but really they’re not that productive. The second key to being a great writer is to write.

So, write.

Think Differently

This is the most complicated of all the keys I think, but every bit as important. People want to read interesting things. They want to read thoughts that they’ve never thought, and be spurred on to imagine things they’ve never imagined. As a writer, a person has the responsibility to do that for them.

Great writing takes complicated or important ideas and connects them to grand or small ideas. Understanding that concept of connection is huge, but it’s only the first step to thinking differently. The next step is connecting things that are not easily connected – logically or illogically.

In the case of prose a writer can take a little story about something very mundane and connect it to the audience because everyone knows someone in that particular situation, or they’ve been in that situation, they make the story interesting by adding little twists, whether they’re internal/dialog twists, or external forces acting upon them, and the story is only as engaging as it is unpredictable.  The reader does not want to KNOW the ending, they want to be brought there and have it revealed to them. In situations where people know how the story ends (particularly non-fiction) they want to see how the characters  will move forward after the events.

Poetry is really the same as that. Readers are looking to be taken through a thought and arriving somewhere they didn’t expect, or, if they get where they expected, they want to see some glimpse at a new future or thought that never occurred to them.

This imagining is not easy. And while I do think there are techniques that can help a person see the world in a different way, I believe everyone has to find their own unique way by themselves.

If I could give any advice here, I think it would be this – be a prism for ideas.  Take disparate thoughts, and splash them together to see the patterns that arise where they intersect, or the shapes of the spaces between them when they do not. Prose or poetry, non-fiction or fiction, take every idea and divide into as many parts as you can, look at every part from every angle, and then take another idea or image or sense, and divide and reconnect them together.

I’m very abstract there, which might not be helpful, so let me be more specific.

Take a spider.
The spider is an idea.
It is also a thing.
A spider has eight legs.

Look at the spider from the end of each leg. Look at the spider from above from the side, from below.

A chair is an idea.
It is ALSO a thing.

The spider and the chair have no immediate relationship.

However, if you look at the spider from some angles, they are proximate or not. The chair is an obstacle or a danger for the spider. The chair means nothing to a spider. The chair, if moved, might mean death to the spider.

The chair has half as many legs as a spider.
The person has half as many legs as a chair.
The legs define each of them.

The spider means nothing to the chair.

The chair is to the spider
as a building is to a human

The chair is to the spider
as the skyline is to a human.

continue on. Break it down. These ideas are still mundane, but if you keep abstracting it, if you keep putting the prism to the two ideas, and consider how they intersect, how they relate to each other, how they relate to us – eventually, you find something interesting to write about.  Eventually you find that you are thinking about things differently than everyone, anyone else. THEN you can write great things.


the dead cat bounce on a thursday night

the dead cat hissed like a monkey or a steam valve
loud and angry and heated
like every other argument about bad accounting practices
or the religion of snakes

the dead cat rolled over in the box, I think
to give Schröedinger the finger
to give a bad name to all the theoretical physicists
and the quantum mechanics with theoretical tools
and the string theorists named Bill who hardly exist at all.

the dead cat rotted away in a happy cloud
of methane and snot-like-something
your mother told you never to touch.

but just remember this,
you thought you didn’t hear them sing
a hiss is just a hiss
a sky is just a sky
as dead cats fly

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