How to be a Great Writer

How to be a writer. Not just a writer; a great writer. Two easy steps.

  1. Sit on your butt.
  2. Write.

Beverages and music allowed.

That means you don’t dodishescheckemailmakecallsbalancethecheckbookpaybillsdochoreswatchtv or blog.

I’m writing this waiting for the tea to boil, so I’m claiming the beverage exception.

Don’t tell me how busy you are. It implies I’m not. I am. If you want it, you make the decisions you need to make.

But yes, sometimes you need to stop to clear your head, and yes, once you’ve written, trying to sell that writing kills your writing time. That’s truly the worst.

Tea’s done, time to stop.

P.S. Vinyl is better than CDs.

Tiffany at 50: She’s Not Alone Now

I had the pleasure of seeing 80s’ pop icon Tiffany (Darwish) perform in Melbourne, Florida, at the Iron Oak Post on November 21st. Her performance gained national attention through outlets like TMZ because she said to the audience, “F-you, guys,” after struggling with her singing during the performance of her hit song “I Think We’re Alone Now.” She later apologized for her behavior in a recorded video, saying she had a panic attack because her voice was failing.

As someone present in the audience, I’d like to give my own firsthand account of that night and correct some misleading impressions made by TMZ reporting.

Iron Oak Post is a bar that’s split in half between a drinking area and a performance venue. The bar itself stretches between the two. It’s a small venue that holds concerts regularly. For a bit of context, Melbourne has about as many heavy metal bands as my current town, Merritt Island, has turtles, and let me tell you–that’s a lot. The opening act was a great local band, DL Serios, who that night had Michelle Jones on glowy electric violin (check out the DL Serios Facebook page for additional video).

I’d seen DL Serios before, and they rocked, hard, closing with a cover of Kiss’s “Let Me Go, Rock ‘N Roll” that blew my doors off. I think they played it better than Kiss. The night they opened for Tiffany, however, they were more subdued, with their lead guitarist on acoustic and their drummer on a stripped down set he was playing with his bare hands, slapping the drums. He still sounded so big I couldn’t tell until I looked hard at his equipment. Frontman Chris Long was on point, energetic, and engaging, as always. They played acoustic versions of many of the same songs I’d heard cranked up loud and electric in another performance. Michelle Jones, who performed with the orchestra for the Page/Plant No Quarter tour in the mid 90s, sat in because she likes to jam with the band, and she did. Jam.

When Tiffany came out, there were sound problems right off, including some squealing feedback and a lack of reverb. I’d seen Ektogasm in the same venue some time back, and they had sound problems then too. The bass guitar sounded louder than the lead guitar that night, for example, at least to me. After two or three songs, however, the sound problems seemed to get worked out, and Tiffany and her guitarist Mark Alberici, sitting next to her on acoustic guitar, started moving through a number of Tiffany’s songs from her most recent album, Pieces of Me. I wasn’t at all familiar with these songs, but I was impressed with the songwriting, which in that format sounded like very well put together singer-songwriter pieces.

She also spent some time talking about a charity she was sponsoring on her tour, the Give Foundation, dedicated to poverty relief. It was clear from a number of her comments that she was at the end of a long tour and some fatigue had been setting in. Near the end of the night, Michelle Jones joined Tiffany and her guitarist onstage, unrehearsed, for a nice jam at the end.

And now we get to the “incident.” I initially decided not to write about what happened, because why draw attention to it?

But once TMZ covered it, why not?

A friend of mine in attendance that night sent me her video footage of “the incident,” which you can also see in the TMZ links. My friend’s video is immediately below.

Of the three Tiffany videos I posted above (gotta slide right from the first to the second in the first embed), the first was at the end of the night, once Tiffany quit singing and her guitarist and Michelle took over. It’s frankly hard to believe they didn’t rehearse. The second video (yes, slide right) was from very early in the night, Tiffany’s popular version of the Beatles’ “I Saw [Him] Standing There” from her first album.

TMZ accurately reports that Tiffany’s voice started giving out at the end. She sounded hoarse and like she was losing breath, and she was self-conscious about her fatigue and the sound quality all night. But TMZ gets a few things wrong in these sentences:

Tiffany was onstage Sunday night in Melbourne, FL with her band, belting out a few tunes including her hugely successful “I Think We’re Alone Now.” You can hear Tiffany struggle with a few notes, but fans help her out — singing along word for word.

However, near the end of the song, Tiffany apparently hears or sees something she doesn’t like in the crowd … telling them, “F*** You!!!”

Let me respond line by line:

Tiffany was not “onstage with her band.” She was onstage only with her guitarist Mark Alberici on acoustic guitar until the end of the night, when Michelle Jones joined them onstage.

Tiffany did indeed “struggle with a few notes,” and fans did “help her out — singing along word for word.” If you watch the video, the audience sang along loudly for a few lines. Right before she got frustrated, the audience stopped singing along because she’d quit singing lyrics.

Tiffany did not say “F*** You!!!” The typography here implies she shouted angrily at the crowd. She didn’t. You can see in TMZ‘s own video and the video I provided above that she didn’t so much sound angry as maybe a bit annoyed. She sounds like she’s talking to an annoying friend at a party. And TMZ didn’t report everything she said. What she said was,

“F- you, guys. I’m gonna f-ing… [I can’t make out what else she says.] This is my hit.”

When she said it, she was looking straight into the audience, slightly to her right, so TMZ is right in saying that something in the audience set her off. But she was talking to someone specific, maybe a couple people up front laughing at her for her singing.

By that point it wasn’t so much a concert as drunken karaoke with the original performer.

And yes, TMZ also reports that “there’s been some speculation alcohol played a factor…” From my point of view, that’s not speculation. If you watch to about 13 seconds into my first video, you’ll see a barstool slightly behind and between Tiffany and her guitarist populated with the contents of a minibar. That pint glass she was drinking from, I have been told, wasn’t Guinness, as I thought at the time, but whiskey, so she started out with a good 4-5 fingers in there, and I was told that there was some pretty hard drinking backstage too.

Yep, Tiffany was a bit lit by the end of the night.

But the biggest thing TMZ got wrong was this: “her latest show in Florida struck a sour note between the singer and her fans.”

No. There was no “sour note between the singer and her fans.”

When she told the audience, “F- you, guys,” the crowd cheered. Just watch the videos. That was their highlight of the night.

Her guitarist Mark, by the way, was a great stage partner. When he thought she started going a little off the rails he’d try to reign her in, tugging at her sleeve, and I think he and Michelle Jones started jamming together at the end to get her away from the mic.

But did I tell you this was a heavy metal crowd? Did you know there’s a Jim Morrison house not far away?

What I saw, and what I think most of the crowd saw, was a great moment in rock and roll. Morrison died when I was just a kid, so I’ve never been to a Doors concert. But that night with Tiffany, or at least that moment, felt like one. Most of all, it was a moment of reality instead of polish. That’s what made it great to so many people there. Five seconds of her real feelings were more important to the crowd than 90 minutes of polished self-presentation. Without necessarily encouraging that behavior in the future, we love you for that, Tiffany.

It was the death of a vapid 16 year old singing fun pop songs and the birth of our next Janis Joplin. She has the material. She has the voice. Just don’t die on us like she did.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not knocking her 16 year old self. She was great when she was 16, 17, 18 years old for a teenager. She’s just better now.

What I saw was a 50 year old woman who has earned the right to be herself… being herself. It was Tiffany proving that one 50 year old version of herself is better than two 25 year old versions, even if they’re crammed into one body.

I don’t need to hear those 80s songs. I’d like to hear her sing “Honkey Tonk Woman” in the real voice she has today. Heck, that should be the title of her next album. I want to hear her next album, which she announced she’s delaying until 2022, and give her last album, Pieces of Me (2018), a good long listen, because the new music I heard that night was better than anything I heard from her in the 80s.

Miley Cyrus and Brittany killed their teen pop idol alter egos. Let Tiffany do so as well.

Tiffany is alive and well, and she proved it at Iron Oak Post that night.

Iggy without a Shirt

Buy any album with Iggy without a shirt. . .

I recently picked up a used copy of Iggy Pop’s 1982 album “Zombie Birdhouse” and, looking at the seated, shirtless Iggy on the cover, I was reminded of a general buying principle for Iggy Pop albums passed on to me by Michelle Pessaro, owner of Savvy Vinyl Records in Melbourne, FL: “Buy any album with Iggy without a shirt.” It carried with it the implied corollary, “Shirted Iggy albums suck.” This buying principle had been passed on to her by Chris, the owner of the former Vinyl Request Records, whose store Michelle inherited when he passed away in 2019. It was a great store, one that had the space to host live music, and it was a staging point for a lot of great bands around the Melbourne, FL, area. It also hosted some better known bands like Agnostic Front.

Needless to say, I had to test that theory. I had to test it because it seemed testable, because there is objective data available by which we can test the theory, and because I’d graded waaaay too many papers over the last three days and desperately needed to do something else.

So, I made a spreadsheet.

Dare I say it? This spreadsheet is a glorious instance of Digital Humanities at work, one that quantified ratings of each Iggy Pop album on a 5 star scale and correlated those ratings with album cover features (shirted/non-shirted/other). I submit for your consideration The Table:

Results: average rating of shirted Iggy albums, 3.0. Average of shirtless Iggy albums, 3.4. The principle holds with a couple of early exceptions, such as Iggy Pop’s Bowie-produced solo albums from 1977, which have ratings of 5, and the late album Naughtie Little Doggie, which even a shirtless Iggy couldn’t save from sucking horribly.

Score distribution:

  • 9 shirtless albums: 7 of 9 shirtless albums are rated 4 or 5.
  • 8 shirted albums: 3 of 8 shirted albums are rated 4 or 5 while 5 of 8 shirted albums are rated 3 or below.

Bottom line: Chris was right!

This whole “project” leads me to think about record stores in general, and what makes a good record store good. At the risk of sounding cliché, a good record store loves the music, while a worse record store either doesn’t love it as much, doesn’t know how to love it properly, or just exists to take your money.

This difference is measurable and quantifiable from store to store. It is observable. I’m not just being sentimental. A store that loves the music loves its vinyl. If they’re selling you a piece of used vinyl above $10.00, it will have been checked for scratches, scuffs, and dirt and cleaned if necessary. It might be given a new inner sleeve, even if the original is still there. The record store can’t control what condition the vinyl, inner sleeve, and vinyl are in when the album arrives in the store, but it can control the condition it’s in when they sell it.

And sellers can also control their selling price. Ebay and Amazon selling prices for used vinyl are all over the place, and there is no quality control in check. Discogs.com is a better source for the real value of any given piece of used vinyl on the market. It will display the selling history of any used vinyl by specific edition and by condition, which has to be listed on the website following their guidelines, which list vinyl and covers in conditions from Mint (basically, new) to Poor. I’ve published two books on rock music and literature, and have two more under contract right now, and I’ve found Discogs.com to be an invaluable resource on the details of any specific release of almost any specific album.

I’ve bought some used vinyl in my lifetime, including over the last couple of years, and my go-to store is Savvy Vinyl Records because the owner takes care of her vinyl — she has a cleaning machine on her table next to the register — because she prices in the middle of Discogs listings, and because she stands by her product. If an album turns out to be in bad shape, she asks you to bring it back. If the album leans a bit on the expensive side, she’s probably listened to it before selling it. She has an extensive Discogs catalog of her own, by the way, so she’s a safe vendor to buy from online. Another great vendor is Gator Records on Instagram. I’ve never regretted a purchase from that vendor, and he cleans his vinyl before shipping it and puts his vinyl in new sleeves.

There are a number of good online vendors for new and specialty vinyl as well. Experience Vinyl has some interesting curated editions — for example, Miles Davis’s Sketches of Spain in yellow and red swirl vinyl curated by Carlos Santana, selected by him and including his notes on the album, and it has recently begun expanding its catalog. Sound of Vinyl is great for colored vinyl reissues from popular bands and other specialty releases. Vinyl Me Please has some fantastic releases, but a very limited and somewhat expensive catalog at any given time. Look for Music on Vinyl rereleases from any store, or Back to Black, and of course some of the most interesting vinyl releases during any given year come out on Record Store Day. Look up the RSD website to see when this year’s RSD albums will drop and what they will be.

The best thing to do, however, is to find a small, independent seller that loves its vinyl and support it.

My Blakean Life

I have been lax in celebrating William Blake’s birthday, which passed by recently, on Nov. 28th. A Londoner almost all of his life, he was born in 1757 and died in 1827, just short of his 70th birthday. He’s best known for The Songs of Innocence and of Experience, and within that, the poem “The Tyger,” and also for an excerpt from his long poem Milton a Poem which was set to music by Hubert Parry in a piece called “Jerusalem” (And did those feet…), a composition used as a school song for many schools around the world also famously covered by Emerson, Lake & Palmer. Selections from “Auguries of Innocence” are found in the Tomb Raider movies, his art in the Hannibal Lecter movies, and his poems are probably used for lyrics by contemporary musicians more than any other poet from any time. There are book-length lists of Blake poems set to music. 

I didn’t learn about Blake in school, however — I learned of him when I heard the song “William Blake,” which was written by Terry Scott Taylor for the band Daniel Amos on their Vox Humana album. Hearing that song was enough to get me to rush to — remember these? — a B. Dalton Bookseller, where I picked up a copy of the Viking Portable Blake. That started me on a journey that took me through graduate school, a dissertation, my first book, and then two Rock and Romanticism books. But it was all about music and literature from the beginning, not just the stuff they make you read in school, as it was for Blake himself, who originally sang many of those poems at dinner parties to his own original musical compositions. He was said to have a good singing voice, and scholars of music notated his compositions at the time, though those are lost to us now. Roy Starling was my first instructor in Romanticism, and he made Romantic poetry come alive for me, as he did all the literature he taught to all of his students at the college and high school levels. 

I chose Blake because I wanted a subject of study that I could attend to for twenty years without getting bored, and he has not disappointed. In addition to my own writing about Blake, I was also privileged to work with Michael Phillips on three occasions for Blake printmaking demonstrations, one of these resulting in an exhibit at Rollins College and another in an exhibit curated by Lee Fearnside that consisted of contemporary artists inspired by Blake alongside Phillips’s own reproductions of Blake’s work through his reproduction of his printmaking methods. 

And Blake has informed and inspired my own creative work — following in his footsteps I’m working on my own reworking of Milton’s Paradise Lost as a steampunk western as well as assorted collections of my own poetry. We will see where it all leads, but I remain grateful for what Blake has meant to me.

I should end this with Blake’s own words… 

And did those feet in ancient time
Walk upon Englands mountains green:
And was the holy Lamb of God,
On Englands pleasant pastures seen!

And did the Countenance Divine,
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here,
Among these dark Satanic Mills?

Bring me my Bow of burning gold:
Bring me my arrows of desire:
Bring me my Spear: O clouds unfold!
Bring me my Chariot of fire!

I will not cease from Mental Fight,
Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand:
Till we have built Jerusalem,
In Englands green & pleasant Land.

Line and Poetry

20821239I read a few pages of Mary Oliver’s Blue Horses (2014) this morning — which is very enjoyable, by the way, pick it up if you can — and while reading recalled an experience I had publishing one of my own poems in a small journal. The poem was a little gimmicky. Titled “Liber Abaci,” it was based on the Fibonacci sequence, a series of numbers in which each number is based on the sum of the two preceding ones: 0+1=1; 1+2=3; 2+3=5; 3+5=8; 5+8=13; 13+8=21, etc. The sequence was discovered by Leonard de Pisa in 1202, later known as Fibonacci, and is historically and mathematically significant because it’s so often found in nature: tree branches, leaves on a stem, bracts on a pine cone, fern leaves, and on and on.

I wrote my poem so that each line had a number of syllables corresponding to each sum in the sequence. 1, 3, 5, 8, 13, and then 21. The poem was six lines long ending with a twenty-one syllable line almost too long for the page, and it compared objects in nature to a woman waking up in the morning and not wanting to get out of bed. I used words like “stone” and “mountainous.”

Now I’d like to describe publishing in the United States: there’s real publishing, and then there’s poetry publishing. In real publishing, publishers allow authors to see proof copies and make corrections before the book goes to press. If the publisher edits or changes your work, you know about it, and you know how and usually why. In poetry publishing, at least most US poetry publishing, you don’t see your poem until you get it mailed back to you in the published work, you may not have even been told your work was being published, and often they — whoever they are, but they’re everywhere, you know them — do whatever they want to your poem without telling you.

In my case, the published product was eleven lines instead of six, none of the line breaks were followed, and of course that ridiculously long twenty-one syllable line was broken up into at least three lines. The editor of the collection didn’t understand the main conceit of the poem, didn’t understand the placement of the line breaks, and was only reading the poem for imagery and nothing else. In all fairness, it’s a weird and unexpected conceit, but the poem looked weird enough that s/he might have thought to ask first. I would bet, though, counting syllables doesn’t land on the editor’s radar, but even if it did in this case, the pattern may not have been identifiable.

Either way, I initially wanted to title this post “The Unbearable Stupidity of Poetry Publishers,” but somehow (and in the end only partially) restrained myself. To be honest, I’ve collected a number chapbooks and poetry collections over the past couple of years, and aside from the big publishing houses, what I find is very inconsistent. Some of it is very good, but quite often poetry publishers and editors seem to care only about what is being said with no attention to how, or how well, and the results are often juvenile and embarrassing. Poetry publishing follows the basic US business model: selling a lot of stuff cheap will make you rich, so don’t sweat the details or worry about quality. Save time and money and just get it out there, especially if you can get a bunch of people to pay you to publish their work. The product itself doesn’t matter.

So I’d like to start on the ground floor about what a poem is. A poem is a written creative work characterized by attention to…

  1. rhythm
  2. sound
  3. imagery
  4. metaphor/metonymy
  5. originality in its use of all of the above

Notice what I’m not saying: “meaning” and “emotion.” It’s not that meaning and emotion don’t matter, but that meaning and emotion don’t make a poem a poem. Prose works, both fiction and nonfiction, convey meaning and emotion. Paintings and sculptures do. Movies do. Facial expressions do. Hand gestures do. Almost everything does, but not everything is a poem. What makes a poem a poem is attention to rhythm, sound, imagery, and metaphor/metonymy, not meaning (in a big sense — imagery and metaphor are a kind of attention to meaning) and emotion. Poets who know what they are doing certainly convey meaning and emotion, but they do so by paying this kind of attention, by paying attention to the craft of writing a poem.

Rhythm and sound don’t necessarily mean fixed rhyme and meter, as in a sonnet. Free verse pays attention to rhythm and sound too, and employs it deftly to create emotional and other effects. It’s not that free verse doesn’t follow any patterns of sound and rhythm, just not fixed patterns of sound and rhythm. Free verse creates its own patterns and its own effects. But I think this brings us to a fundamental truth about poetry: what makes a poem a poem is its attention to line.

How poems divide up their lines controls their rhythm, sound (whether or not they’re using rhyme), metaphor and metonymy (as words at the ends of lines will be implicitly linked), and the poem’s arrangement of white space, which can also convey meaning. In other words, the poem’s use of line, more than anything else, is what makes a poem a poem. There is one exception: prose poetry, which runs its lines from one margin to the other just like prose, but that’s a lone exception. Otherwise, you know that a poem is a poem just by looking at it because it is broken up into lines, even if you don’t know anything else about poetry, or in other words, if you’re like most poetry publishers.

So mungling up a poem’s line breaks is a cardinal sin, and not paying attention to where you put your line breaks is a sign of ignorance in poetry writing. Amateur poets pay attention, and use line more or less effectively (as do professionals), but a complete lack of attention means you haven’t written a poem but a sentence with line breaks. And no, a sentence with line breaks is not a poem. It might be a greeting card, or a song lyric, and it might get you laid, or published, or both, but it’s not a poem.

So, if you like reading poetry, and want to try writing poetry, and especially if you’re publishing poetry: pay attention to line. Start there. Write the whole thing out as one sentence and then break it up into lines again and ask yourself: what changed? If you noticed a difference, that’s a poem.

 

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