Here Are Two Things You Could Be Reading

Hi kids.

I’m busily packing and organizing and generally shrinking my life into a backpack. But, if you’re bored out there, two things you might like:

1. Spencer Gordon’s essay on Nick Thran’s new book, Earworm, in this issue of the Maple Tree Lit Supplement, is a great example of top-level writing about creative matters. It manages to use the same sort of moody, pop-culturally inflected, intellectualism of the book within its discussion of the book. The piece references Mike Lista’s review in the Post and noted ex-VoxPop roommate Jeff’s mention at OBTO. The three pieces are fine to excellent as independents, though I worry that as a trio they sound a touch like a review of hot new bands from a 1993 issue of NME. Lots of talk of cult support and insider knowledge and hipster identifiers, almost as much as the talk of the poems themselves. As a big fan of the book, I don’t want to see it get a “fad” label, you know? And how many of those bands from NME were still being listened to in 1994? Really, really, good poetry books by people who are around 30 are so rare, compared to really good musical albums by the same demographic, that I want to protect that flame long enough to share it with untapped readers for a long time, I don’t want it’s reaction to have the sonorous, and quickly-forgotten, quality of fireworks.

But Spencer’s piece doesn’t do that, and neither did Jeff’s or Mike’s (these things take more than one writer), and I have faith that good poetry can burn fast AND burn long. His review is a thoughtful, exceptionally well-constructed piece of prose for which the author was paid, I believe, thirty bucks.

2. Russell Smith’s column in the Globe today is all about how you’re not a real writer unless you make your thirty bucks and if you don’t hold out for that $1.50-an-hour rate you’re doing a disservice to the older guard among us and are basically a scab. I’ve had this argument with a lot of different people over the years and my position, typically centralist and uninteresting, is this: I don’t feel like my occasional propensity to write public content for free (as I’m doing right now as I type this, and as I’ve done more regularly in the past) undercuts my ability to land the occasional paid gig, because the work I put out for free is a fundamentally different product than the work I get paid for. The latter is written to an editorial standard separate from my own nature and preferences, and the former is unedited, or at best only edited by the original creator.

Obviously, this distinction doesn’t hold water where Smith gets into talking about HuffPo and whatnot, but I would still want to ask, where is the paid market that matches the tone and reach of that unpaid one, that has been shuttered by being undercut by the bloggers? Any comparison between HuffPo and failed magazines I can think of demands a highly selective memory when recalling the magazine’s editorial composition. I wouldn’t want to work for HuffPo because I couldn’t imagine being that bored on purpose. If the rationale offered for doing so is a careerist one, that’s fine, but I’m not a journalist so I don’t feel compelled to put myself through anything in the interest of career. In fact, my major foothold as a writer is as a poet, and being a poet is (by definitions economic, sociological, intellectual, and cultural) the exact opposite of having a career. Maybe this is why my reaction to this whole debate above is to yawn at its mutual preciousness.

-Jake

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8 Comments on “Here Are Two Things You Could Be Reading”

  1. david m. Says:

    Smith does not seem to realize that most writing does not fit into the narrow strip of culture that generates enough money for it to trickle down into paid work.

    The result of his advocacy would silence a much wider contribution to culture.

    His argument is not accurate in claiming that it is a generational divide, and he does not produce writing that is commensurate with the kind of sage fountain of wisdom that he is claiming as his right.

    At the end, this is one of the few honest things he has ever written:

    “I don’t care so much about the young people’s careers, I care about mine”

    I do not see any generational caretaking or wisdom in this.

    I only see the basest variety of public culture where people expect to be applauded for a lack of integrity that willfully declares its power through entitlement and arrogance.

    (For the record, Russel Smith has never worked the crime desk, nor has he ever challenged his own coverage of stylists in any corner of the fashion industry.)

  2. Heather Cadsby Says:

    Jake, you say “cult support”. It’s a point worth exploring. We all need the applause of our own generation. But it can be a narrow band of significance and a possibly exaggerated sense of worth. I may be a really really good poet but it won’t be just because of declarations by my age peers. If I’m under 30, is there a creditable critic over 50 for my work? And vice versa?

  3. voxpopulism Says:

    Hi Heather,

    Gosh, I hope not. If only because it’s so hard already to find credible (and willing) critics at any age. Seems like limiting by generation would make that even tougher.

    What you’re worrying about is a form of provincialism, really. The mutually protective blanket of a group of artists wrapping themselves up in some socially-adopted “community”. It’s a legit fear, maybe. Some books promote it without meaning to. I don’t think I’ve seen a review of Earworm written by anyone under the age of 35 yet, though the back cover has blurbers who are older, I think. It’s to balance, because taste does tend to trend demographically in big ways and small ways, and those trends become a sort of shorthand that encourages potential readers on one side of them, and discourages those on the other.

    I hope a wide swath of people are reading Earworm, though, as I think it’s really great. And while many of the cultural motifs are contemporary (or less contemporary: see Pink Floyd) the deeper of theme and music is broader. Lots to like for fans of Hughes or Transtromer, maybe Carson even, there.

  4. Heather Cadsby Says:

    Jake, just to clarify, I like Earworm. I wasn’t responding to that, but rather taking off from your phrase “cult support”.

  5. voxpopulism Says:

    Heh, well noted, Heather. I got the impression you liked it, too.

  6. Kevin C Says:

    Completely agree about Russell’s somwhatoblivious, typically entitled (my opinion) attitude towards getting paid or not. If I’d waited to get paid to write critical pieces/reviews/ commentary when I was 21 I’d still be waiting. I’ve worked for a number of years with some pretty gifted writers coming out of the Ryerson Grad journalism program, and many of them are still waiting to get paid for their writing, much of which is a lot better than what I was doing when I was 21. I still do piles of work in the cultural sector for nothing or next to it, because that’s what we all have to do (as you’re doing here — splendidly IMO) or we won’t really have a culture to do it in. Maybe writing about ties and Lulu Lemon and dinner parties is different. He’s defending shrinking turf, I get it. But don’t tell the rest of us what we want for our words. The best of mine have been more or less free, most of the time.


  7. Hey Jake,

    I appreciate your post about my review of Thran’s book. I regret talking so much about a cultural moment or the position the book seems to take up in our field of production. Such talk can get whipped up, drunk and stupid. I think I celebrated the book too much, was too hyperbolic with my praise. I also regret that (along with Lista’s and Latosik’s writing) the review contributed to what you believe are hipster identifiers and insider knowledge.

    I’d like to ask you how hipster identifiers and insider knowledge are being used in this review, and what those terms mean, exactly, but I think I can guess. Nevertheless, I think you’re on to something here that we are all guilty of, and that is talking about what a book could mean or stand for rather than what the poems in the book are actually expressing and achieving. Maybe this isn’t a bad thing. We’re not actually expected to read Kenneth Goldsmith, but we’re expected to be fluent or aware of his conceptual audacity. More or less.

    Poets gain reputations beyond their work. I think angela rawlings introduced Thran at the Scream in High Park as some sort of FUTURE of Canadian poetry. I think he wore big clunky hipster glasses and A Tribe Called Quest t-shirt. Makes people start sorting him out, placing him in a specific context, position versus opposition. These signifiers may not seem valuable to a critic of poetry, but perhaps they should be … or will increasingly be ..

    Just talkin’ back.


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