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I am posting this as a benchmark, not because I think I'm playing very well yet.  The idea would be post a video every month for a ye...

Saturday, August 29, 2020


 I write very fast. My collection of short stories is 15 pages, single-spaced, so far. Sure, I can go back and pick at it a bit, but the quality would not be improved if I wrote slower. 

At the same time, everything I write is based on ideas that I have always had in my mind. The ideas have been accumulating for a very long time, and I have turned them over in my head repeatedly, over the course of several years, in some cases. Any sense of speed, then, occurs in the context of several decades. 

New Stories

 I wrote several new stories in the past few days. I realized that in a story I could use ideas that I had that didn't fit into poems or academic essays. (Although some stories I stole from my poems and blog posts). Some of my stories are non-fictionl, in the sense that they really happened to me. What makes them stories is the form of presentation.  I realized, then, that the important part of fiction is not its made-up quality, but its attitude toward its subject matter. 

Friday, August 28, 2020

Short Story Update

 I wrote some other short stories. Some I wrote by converting parts of my dream diary, or some of my prose poems, into stories. Others occurred to me as I was compiling the collection. I am as surprised by this development as you are. It's true that as a lit prof I have read and taught many stories, that I have read taken much interest in Kafka and Borges, but I have rarely thought of myself in as a potential writer of short stories. I am not particularly interested in long form, like the novel, but I think my interest in the short form lead me to microfiction, which lead me then to stories that are longer than two or three lines. Some are short short-stories, and some are short short-short-stories. I haven't attempted yet a medium short-story or the oxymoronic long short-story. 

Rollie Fingers: A Mistake

Today I was trying to find my dream about Rollie Fingers, a baseball player I had dreamed about once. I couldn't find it, and it turned out that I had not dreamed a bout Fingers, but about Catfish Hunter. Fingers pitched for the Giants, and Hunter for the A's, in the same period of time, when I was young and reading about both of them in the sports pages of the Sacramento Bee.  

UPDATE:  Fingers actually pitched for the A's, not the Giants!

Sunday, August 23, 2020

Phrases the don't make sense: a story shorter than its title

 "Before the invention of time travel...."  

A strange event

 This is not a dream, but a real event from waking life. We went to a hardware store to buy a grill for B. First she went to get spray paint, and I saw some empty spray bottles, of the type that can be filled with any liquid, and reminded her that she had recently  mentioned wanting one. They were big ones, though, and she said she needed a small one. So we went over to the section with the grills, and looked some over, discussed the prices, etc... We called a guy over to help us, and he called over another guy who knew more about them. 

 At one point, as we were about to go to the register to buy the grill, I looked in my hand and saw that I had a small spray bottle in it. I asked B. if she had handed it to me, but she didn't remember picking one up or handing it to me. I don't remember either being handed the bottle or picking it up myself. Neither of us could reconstruct how the bottle ended up in my hand. She suggested that it might have been on the grill on display, and she had moved off and handed it to me. It seemed implausible to me that the exact item we wanted would have been already resting on another item we were also shopping for. 

Friday, August 21, 2020


 Identity is actually one of the most interesting things possible. The fundamental question is "who am I?, what am I doing here?" That is pretty much what all literature is about.  

The problem is that identity politics takes that complex problem and empties it of its nuance. Identity become a monolithic block, to be seen in black and white terms (literally and figuratively).  Intersectionality should help with this, but ends up not. It should help because it introduces nuance again. It doesn't help because it ends up being a way of keeping score or of scoring points. Now it seems as though there were only one way to think. For someone who learned a certain way of thinking about race from Henry Louis Gates, the popularity of Robin D'Angelo is deeply disturbing. The lack of historical depth and the anti-intellectualism is astounding. 

We get all the social constructionism of postmodernism, but wedded to a puritanical essentialism. How is that supposed to work? Everything is constructed, nothing is in nature, but WE get to decide exactly what construction is valid, and what exact terminology is allowed. 


 I don't know if you've noticed this, but there are academic books and dissertations that are so bloated with inessential material that there is little left for the substance. About a year ago I wrote a book review of a 279 page book about the work of 3 Argentine poets.* You would expect that you would learn a lot about these three poets, but in the end you don't. Everything is so laborious in setting up the context, that we don't have a poem cited until page 80 or so. With so much contextualization, we might think that we would know a lot about the poets' lives, or have something concrete to grasp about their approach to poetry, but we really don't. We don't get interesting commentary on the poetry, just a lot of "according to so-and-so..."    

I call this dissertationitis, or inflammation of the dissertation. Students learn to do research and acquire knowledge, but not to catch themselves in the act of coming up with an interesting idea, realizing why it is interesting, and developing it. Instead, it is about being very thorough and showing all the work that has gone into it, with little concern for the reader's attention. There is Theory, but it isn't well integrated. 

In a book of similar length, I could do more with the work of 5 or 6 poets. In fact, I have. Ezra Pound has something in the ABC of Reading about works that don't contain much information on each page. Literary criticism should be condensed, as Pound argued poetry should be. We know the dichtung = condensare etymology is not valid, but the idea behind it is.   

*I've changed some details here to disguise the identity of the book and author, etc... so when I say poets it might be dramatists, etc...  

Thursday, August 20, 2020

Short stories

 It occurred to me that I could write short stories. I have read stories by Updike, Munro, anyone else who published in The New Yorker in the past century. I have read stories by Borges, Cortázar, Matute, Pardo Bazán, Clarín, Maupassant, Atxaga, Borges, Salinger, D.H. Lawrence, Coover, Updike, Lydia Davis, Otxoa, Singer, García Márquez, Roth, Calvino, Sorrentino, Hemingway, Greene, and Borges. I am probably forgetting a few, like Poe, Carver, Barthelme, and Barthelme [Donald, Frederick, another brother I'm forgetting?). I am not intimidated by the genre in the least. Unlike lyric poetry, in which I have specialized, the story seems like something that would be easy to do at a mediocre level. It's not like I don't respect it. In fact, I am not crazy about novels, preferring the short story in most cases. 

Becoming a short-story writer is one of my crazy pandemic self-improvement plans, like learning Romanian.  

How long to review a book manuscript?

 I got a manuscript to review, so this is a good test of how long things take. I read the book, about 250 pages, in 2 1/2 hours, so I read at more than 60 pages an hour. 

I wrote most of a report (1000 words) in another hour. 

I will need another hour to write the rest of it and revise and polish it to make it very good and carefully worded throughout. I work fast but I want the report to be super impressive, as though I had taken longer. I will wait another week before sending so people won't think I'm being too hasty. Also, then I can look it over again and make sure it is all good. 

So the whole process will take 5 hours, making my rate $50 an hour.  

Wednesday, August 19, 2020

Hijo de nadie

 In this dream, Christopher Maurer had written a book titled Hijo de nadie... He cited me and I was listening to his argument with great respect. I cannot remember what the content was, but it was very good. The dream went on for what seemed to be hours. I came up with the title as I was half away, something like Hijos de nadie: Lorca y la crisis de la identidad. Anyway, it was clear that I was projecting my own ideas onto a better Lorquista than I am. 

Monday, August 17, 2020

How long do things take

 I'm interested in how long thing take to do. That seems to be very powerful information to have. We've talked about book reviews. I think 10-15 hours is about write to read the book and write and revise a book review of standard length (800 words). 

A graduate level paper should take 60 minutes to read and comment on. I'll read it in 30 minutes while making some comments, and then spend another 15 minutes to write one extensive comment on the paper. If it is a very bad paper it will take longer. 

I take about as much time to prepare to teach a class as to actually teach it, except for extra time to do the reading. So if the students are reading 30 pages, I have to read those pages too, then prepare in an hour for an hour length's class. If the students have to watch a movie of 90 minutes, I have to do so as well. 

For a tenure case, a minute a page for the research, and then an hour a page for a three-page letter. Of course, that time doesn't include an idea that occurs to you while taking a walk during the time you are working on it, or in the middle of night. 

For a pre-publication review of a book: a minute a page, then write the draft of the review in a few hours, then revise in a few more hours. I'm assuming that when I read I am thinking about what I'm reading and formulating ideas in my head, and that these ideas will take a verbal form, that I will mark places to come back to.  

An article of my own can take quite a bit to write. The time it takes to accumulate the necessary knowledge is not easily conceptualized in finite terms. I was trying to understand Lorca 40 years ago. 

The power of this information is to set you free. If you know how long things take then you can schedule, budget time, without either under- or overestimating time. If you are you cowed by how long something will take, you might be afraid of beginning. If you know something will take 3 hours, then you can take 1 hour on three separate days and get it done painlessly. If you think you only have 20 minutes, you might not realize that you can do one thing in that time: write 4 mails, say. 

Sunday, August 16, 2020

72 hours

 Someone on facebook, a former grad student in my department who is now editing the book review section for a journal, suggested that it takes 72 hours of work to produce a book review of 800 words or so. The context is that publishers now want to send ebooks instead of hard copies of the book to the reviewers. 

Now it takes me much less time I read about 60 pages a minute, so that would be 5 hours for a 300 page book. Then I would write the review in about two hours, spend another half an hour on another day and tweak it. I can write a paragraph of 250 words in less than an hour, etc... I don't think I've ever spent more than 10 hours on a review, and I think my reviews are well-written and responsible. The editors rarely ask for changes. 

I would give similar answers to doing a peer review of an article. I would read it in an hour, then the next day spend another hour writing the review. As I'm reading something, I start to form opinions and draw conclusions, and then I start to formulate sentences in my head. I make a note of page numbers I want to come back to to cite, etc... 

I'm sure the 72 hours is reflective of someone's experience doing this, but then I wonder if hypothetical-person-for-whom-it-takes-this-long should be even doing book reviews at all.  That would be basically all the person's research time for two months. If person is grad student or non-tenured, then he or she needs to allocate energy correctly. If said person is that slow in doing things, then it is hard to see how they could write a dissertation or an article, so doing extra tasks that are extremely time-consuming is not well-advised. 

I do not mean to be criticizing my former student, for this has opened up for me a perspective that is valuable to me: I might be faster than other people doing the same amount of work. I don't cut corners, but I work efficiently on things like this. I tend to prioritize things that are significant, so in a tenure review I won't write summaries of someone's arguments in all their articles and books, but say in a few words what the strong points are. I have to be careful, because a very short letter would look bad, even if I can say all I need to say in a short space. I typically have to flesh things out more just to make the letter longer and more substantial in appearance. As a reader of such letters I typically find that 3 pages is ideal. Four or more pages of a tenure letter means that the writer is doing a lot of summary or entering into non-essential detail. One or two pages is not enough for a substantive review. 

Once again, I would typically read a page a minute and mark things I want to quote, then take a few hours to compose the letter itself, maybe an hour a page at most. 


Saturday, August 15, 2020

I tried

 I tried to tie a bird to a chair 

I tried to sew a butterfly to a nail 

I tried, I tried 

I tried to elbow into a situation 

I tried , I tried 

I tried and it worked!

for a short time

I tried, I tried

What did you try, what did you ever attempt? 

Tell me because I am running out of time

I tried, I tried 

Some pandemic projects

 *Learning Romanian.

I know all the major Romance languages enough to follow a novel, but not Romanian, yet. So this is going to be challenging. I've learned some already. By "major" just mean ones that have enough novels in them to make it worth while. I'm sure the minor ones are just as valuable, but I have to set an arbitrary limit.  I'd also like to do this for modern Greek and German. 

*Listening to all Beethoven Sonatas while following along in the score. 

This is super good, not because of my half-assed ability to follow along, but simply because you can't get distracted, and gain a sense of the structure of the music. I get lost a lot, but it's ok. 

Monday, August 10, 2020

Myriam Marbe (1931-1997): Songs on poems by Federico García Lorca (1961)

Şapte lieduri pe versuri de Federico García Lorca (traducere de Teodor Balş) pentru mezzosoprană şi pian (1961)

So my Romanian is good enough to say that this means "7 lieder after poems of FGL (translated by Teodor Bals) for mezzo-soprano and piano."

Nonnus and Romanian

 I translated Book 37 of a Greek epic by Nonnus, for a collective translation that will be published next year. It was a lot of fun to translate. Here is my translator's note:

My version of Book 37 attempts to harness the dynamic exuberance of Nonnus’s verse in my own version of Williams Carlos Williams’s tri-partite line. Nonnus is especially skilled at describing physical movement, as in his quite lengthy and virtuosic account of a chariot race. A literal line-by-line rendering, I decided, would make him sound too clunky, failing to do justice to his gift for conveying kinetic energy. What some might see as the excesses of the Greek original, such as its long-winded and hyperbolic descriptions, provide the gateway for a loose and playful approach to translation. If I have done my job well, Book 37 will be a lot of fun to read in English. 


I have been learning Romanian. Why, you ask?  It is the only major Romance language I cannot read. I can read Spanish, of course. My French reading is very good, at about 85%. I get most of Catalan and Portuguese. My Italian is ok, at about 70%.  But Romanian is still fairly opaque to me. As is often the case, I don't know where this is headed. If I can read Romanian, I'm sure there will be some poet that I will want to translate. 

Thursday, August 6, 2020

Mostly benign and well-intentioned thuggery

Muldoon isn't my favorite poet. But this quote is divine, in an unintentional way. I have to admire the phrase "a mostly benign and well-intentioned thuggery" and also the idea that "some ideas must be overstated to be stated at all." Alors! When was a thuggery ever benign? Maybe in the sense of a benign tumor:  
Outside observers should be sophisticated enough to understand that universities are socially and politically complex communities where faculty members don’t always say what they mean, especially when asked to sign on to a group letter with hundreds of their colleagues in a moment of national crisis. “Much as I’m averse to aspects of any letters signed by more than one person—chiefly that they represent a form of mostly benign and well-intentioned thuggery—I’m convinced we live in a moment where we have to be seen as being part of a solution to what is clearly a problem,” Muldoon told me elsewhere in his thoughtful email. “That means that, as in the case of the Princeton letter, some ideas may need to be overstated to be stated at all.”

Open Letter from Princeton

"That criticism made more sense to me when I learned that some signatories believe the demand has no chance of being met, and treat it as something only bad-faith critics would take seriously. Of course I don’t want that, more than one signatory told me, as if anyone with common sense would already know as much. "

Tuesday, August 4, 2020

Humor & Seriousness

Let's think about humor and seriousness. That is one major axis we could use to define attitudes

But humor and seriousness themselves work along several axes. For example, does the humor work through exaggeration or through understatement? Is it cruel or compassionate? Is it merely whimsical or does it have serious intention behind it? It might be "gallows humor" or cutting irreverence, or grotesquery. It could be absurdism, Beckett style, or Kafkaesque humor, or Kenneth Koch style parody.

Does the humor expand into exuberance, Kenneth Koch style, or does it lead to narrowed, embittered world-view, a la Philip Larkin? Does it begin in pessimism, as in Beckett, but with the possibility of unexpected moments of joy? "Hope is a thing with feathers" is kind of a funny line (Emily D.). Is it funny in the same way as Byron? Probably not. You could tell a bad joke, knowing it's bad, or say something funny that people aren't quite sure is a joke or not. 

Much humor derives from incongruity, like irony does, so humor and irony have common sources. But suppose we notice an incongruity or disparity, aren't there many possible attitudes we might adopt in relation to it?  So irony is not a single attitude, but an opportunity for diverse attitudes to come into existence. 

If it is a serious attitude, does the poet tell you why? Is it justified? If he or she is being solemn about something that is not earth-shaking in its consequences, then that could be unintentional humor. How much self-awareness or self-indulgence is there? Where does the authority of the poetic voice come from? Does the tone match the formal and sonic qualities of the text? For example, a solemn limerick might not work very well. 

More attitude

Curiosity is the mother of creativity. 

Here is an exercise.  Take a poet or two and define their attitudes in as much detail and nuance as possible, with the fullest exercise of your own curiosity. If you aren't getting any attitude, then find a poet you know better, or one for whom you have a stronger reaction. Don't pick one to whom you are indifferent. 

Say your first impression is that the attitude is one of "exuberant nonchalance." That would be a good place to start. Then you would try to figure out what is really going on there. Is the nonchalance a pose, a defense? How does it vary from poem to poem? You don't have to worry about getting it wrong, because it is what you feel in relation to the text. I used to have this argument with people about Frank O'Hara's poetry. They thought his emotional range was limited, whereas I saw it as very broad. Of course, I was right, but they were not wrong. They just hadn't responded (yet) to as many things in the poetry as I had. For example, the phrase "In Memory of My Feelings," the title of a poem by F O'H, reveals a complex attitude, or "Meditations in an Emergency." Or titling a poem after a skin-care product, like "Biotherm." That is fucking hilarious, because who else would have done that?  

Berryman thought Stevens was emotionally cold, and that Creeley was boring. So what he was really saying was that their attitudes were not something that he could respond to. He was correct, speaking for himself. A strong dislike of a poet's attitude is something to be respected, after all, because the reader has an attitude as well. 

Or try it with Emily Dickinson. You might start off with a cliché version, which is fine. So you'd think of a reclusive person with a slight coyness, and also a sharp wit. But that cliché already has some nuance to it. Then add to that her ecstatic mysticism! Then ask how that lines up with the wit and the reticence, the idea that she's not going to treat you, as the reader, like a stupid person that has to be told everything explicitly. She is very modest in the worldly sense, but she also knows very well her own worth and intelligence. Her emotional range goes from ecstatic joy to abject depression. The verse form seems simple at first, since it is all ballad / hymn stanzas, but that is just an illusion, since every line has to be performed rubato. In practice it's almost free verse. 

Even just unpacking or questioning the cliché a bit gets you very far. You go from a single adjective or phrase to a sentence, from that to a paragraph's worth of insight or more. 

With William Blake, I would start with the ideas of innocence and experience. Is innocence a mask? Can the savvy poet really talk with an innocent voice? What is really going on? Is experience really all that different from innocence in its core emotional tone? How does paradox function? How sure of himself is he? When he says "The dog starved at his master's gate / predicts the ruin of the state," there is a kind of shattering of delusions. Everything is connected, and it bursts into the poet's consciousness with abrupt force. 

If you don't read with this attitude of curious attention, you won't get any of this. 

Monday, August 3, 2020

I saw that doggy in the window

My dad would always say that "I saw that doggy in the window" was the worst kind of novelty song. I was watching a documentary on Sinatra on Netflix, where that song is used as the epitome of what Sinatra hated. That was the nadir of his career. 

He says he had "a week of Mondays."  Then he had throat surgery. 

Dream of Language Game

I had a disturbing dream of being verbally attacked by X. She said, among other things "you are a goy." Then I reasoned that almost everyone is a goy, including the person telling me this, who is not Jewish either, and I said something like "I cannot be insulted unless I agree to play the same language game as you are playing." 

 It was a zen insight. Our language has arbitrary categories, dividing the world up in dumb ways along a million axes. To say I am in a category, the goyim, that includes billions of people is not an insult unless I am playing along with that particular language game. 

Sunday, August 2, 2020


I am a prolific dreamer, I have more dreams than I need for my own uses

I bundle them up and sell them 

They are probably not the right size for you, though

I call them my poems


One half of writing poetry is what we might call the conventional values. Musicality, imagery, and a feel for language, or what Pound called melopoeia, phanopoeia, and logopoeia. That can get you very far.  

The other half is an intangible quality that we might call personality or attitude. It is the why. These aren't each 50%; it's more as though each were 100%. Take Emily Dickinson. You can say that she is strong in logopoeia, or the quirky relationship to the words themselves. That she does interesting things with the meters she chooses, and introduces weird pauses and other prosodic devices, or that her poems appeal to the five senses. All that would be true, but without that peculiar attitude, all that would not necessarily add up too much. With Baudelaire it's the same thing. It's not just the cold mastery of French verse, but the attitude that makes him Baudelaire. It's what O'Hara meant when he said "you just go on your nerve." 

The attitude won't be the same for every writer; in fact, it will be radically different, and will be the most original part of each writer. That is why poets who don't seem as good at charging language in the Poundian sense can still be very interesting. Levertov is a better imagist than Creeley, but I feel more drawn to Creeley's attitude than to hers. Eileen Myles is strong in attitude, so I don't care if every poem is strong in other ways. Many of her are, though. 

Saturday, August 1, 2020

More reasons your poems are not good

In the last post I talked about why you overestimate the value of your poems. And when I say "your" poems I mean "mine" too.  In this post I will talk about why it is improbable that your poems are any good, and why you shouldn't worry about it. 

Memorable poems are rare. To be a really good poem, the poem must be memorable, remarkable in some way. We know they are rare because the complete works of a famous poet will not include all that many of them.  Also, poems by great poets before they began to be great are generally no good either.  You can't look at a kid's work and predict whether they'll be a good poet later.  

But then since most poems are not good, you shouldn't worry about yours. Yours will be bad in possibly interesting ways, and maybe sometimes rise to a level that satisfies you.