Good Writing Break: Poems That Are Better than “The Ballad of Ferguson, Missouri” [UPDATED]

Hey, Fickle Readers! I hope everyone had a peaceful holiday. (I myself got to visit my young cousins that I haven’t seen in two years. Then I slept for about 24 hours. But that’s another story.) I also hope that no one out there shopped at Wal-Mart, or at the very least only bought $1.25 worth of stuff and was sure to use up a lot of their store toilet paper and napkins, because I’m annoyed that Wal-Mart has screwed up yet another of my holiday experiences by forcing my older cousin (whom I also don’t see very often) to work on what ought to be a sacred, patriotic day of rest for everyone and not an orgy of buying and stampeding and consuming. (But, of course, we know what’s sacred to the CEOs and shareholders of this great country, now don’t we? Yet I digress…)

Since Thanksgiving and the Capitalist Orgy that Follows is now over, I thought I’d check in and see what’s happening in the poetry world these days. And what did I find but a sad, sad attempt by The Paris Review to plug into the spirit of protest over the events happening in Ferguson, Missouri. Now, I’ve been trying to avoid writing about Michael Brown’s death at the hands of a Ferguson police officer, and that officer’s inevitable escape from justice, even in the form of a trial, because I know that if I start talking about the whole thing I’ll get so enraged I won’t be able to stop. (For instance, I’m sure I could write for an eternity on how what happened in Ferguson is EXACTLY the sort of government-sponsored violence that Tea Partiers have been warning the American public about for years, and yet they’re HAPPY about officer Darren Wilson’s exoneration because those same Tea Partiers also HATE AND FEAR BLACK PEOPLE. And how the supposedly inconsistent results from Michael Brown’s autopsy and/or the eyewitness testimony given at the scene of Brown’s death are all completely irrelevant in their inconsistencies, because, you know, grand juries are only supposed to send cases to TRIAL, and the place to hammer out any problems with results and testimony is in a TRIAL, which the “prosecutors” involved in evaluating Darren Wilson’s potentially criminal actions clearly wanted to avoid at all costs, so much so that they put NINE white jurors on the grand jury…AAAAND you can see how my post gets away from me at light speed.) But since poetry is kind of my thing, and since the politics of poetry along with writing in general is always of great interest to me, I thought I should really comment on, or provide an antidote for, The Paris Review‘s latest foray into the political arena. Mostly because–all snark and/or ranting aside–the poem chosen by the editors of said elite journal to represent Ferguson is really, really not very good.

Frederick Seidel’s “The Ballad of Ferguson, Missouri” (which you can read here via a link that won’t add to the website’s incoming traffic) is quite a mishmash of surreal imagery, shoutouts to baby boomers and white liberals about the civil rights movement, and the occasional weak platitude about racism (“Skin color is the name. / Skin color is the game. / Skin color is to blame in Ferguson, Missouri.”). While I’m usually not averse to including Mars or other strange allusions in poetry, it seems somewhat unfathomably insensitive to take an event in which an 18-year-old African American took six bullet wounds to his body (that’s two fewer wounds that John Lennon died from–yeah, I can do baby boomer references, too) and transform that event into a detached, quasi-satirical, acid-trippy riff in which the message seems to be both “racism is bad” and “I wouldn’t want to be a black man in St. Louis County.” (Yes, that’s an actual quote from the poem. Seidel also observes, “Some victims change from a corpse to a cause,” a sentiment I’m sure Brown’s parents would have found thoroughly comforting as their son’s body underwent three different autopsies.)

I want to be clear when I say that I don’t think only certain poets can write about certain kinds of events, or that famous old white-guy poets can’t ever tap into the experience of the poor, brown, broken, or oppressed. I will say, though, that if you’re a famous old white-guy poet, especially one who’s just picked up his 2014 Hadada Prize (whatever that is), and if you try to capture the voice of a town you don’t live in which also is suffering from ugly, violent racial tensions, you might want to do more than phone in some self-absorbed historico-political diatribe–especially when there are many, many other poets out there who could represent the voices of the poor, brown, broken, and oppressed, and most likely all of them could do that better than you.

So what can you, as a reader, do if you want to read poetry about the issues raised by Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson? I’ve already highlighted Jason McCall’s “Roll Call for Michael Brown” in an earlier post. Danez Smith recently re-published two poems, “not an elegy for Mike Brown” and “alternate names for black boys,” in; both pieces are powerful and thought-provoking and show no interest in sentiments we’ve all heard before. Or, if you’re determined to look at Ferguson from an old-school perspective, take the advice of amazing poet and novelist Sofia Samatar, skip over Seidel and go back to Langston Hughes, whose “Let America Be America Again” manages to make about twelve times as many original insights into the problems of race as Seidel, even though Hughes’s piece comes to us from eighty years in the past.

UPDATE: Apparently, great minds think alike. And certain great minds kick the asses of other great minds in terms of thoroughness. (No, don’t try to imagine that mixed metaphor. It’ll only hurt your brain. Trust me.) Check out this far more extensive list of poems that are better than Seidel’s on poet Jeanne Obbard’s lovely web site, The Poetic License. Thanks for the shoutout, Jeanne! I only wish our virtual meeting were under better circumstances…

Good Writing Break: In Memory of Michael Brown (and Justice)

For everyone sickened by the decision not to indict Darren Wilson, the police officer who shot and killed Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, there’s a powerful and poignant poem by Jason McCall up on Rattle‘s Poets Respond page. Here’s a taste:

It will happen,
an honest mistake
in a hot August classroom.
Someone will blink
at the name and swear this
“Michael Brown” can’t be
that “Michael Brown.” Or someone
will be too busy with her head down
finishing syllabi to look up and see the flash
grenades and tear
This piece was written the week that Michael Brown was killed, but it still resonates today when Brown’s absence–and the absence of justice in Ferguson–is so keenly felt.

Haiku Hope: For the 98% Who Didn’t Get into Rattle

Hey, all you Fickle Haiku Writers Who Didn’t Get into Rattle Magazine’s Special Haiku Issue! Do you still have your four pages of Japanese-form verse? Then I have a few markets for you to try! I happen to have a contact in the haiku world (she, by the way, got four haiku into Rattle; want to know how many I got? It rhymes with “dear-o”) who gave me links for a few haiku pubs that are accepting submissions until December 15: The Heron’s Nest and A Hundred Gourds (NOTE: A Hundred Gourds is an Australian journal, so if you don’t live down under or thereabouts, you’ll want to get your material there by December 14th.)  There’s also bottle rockets and Modern Haiku, both of which accept submissions year round but have very specific requirements, so read all guidelines carefully.

If your four pages aren’t burning a hole in your pocket and you can wait until 2015 to send them out, here are some other haiku journals of note:

Acorn (accepts submissions January-February and July-August only)

Frogpond (accepts submissions February 15- April 15, June 1-August 1, and September 15-November 15; full disclosure: I’ve had one modest haiku published in Frogpond–really nice publication from the Haiku Society of America)

So there you have it: multiple places to send your Japanese formal poetry and mend your broken haiku heart. Also, this bit of news might help: my contact says that Timothy Green, the editor of Rattle, said he only had room for 40 contributors. Know how many of us submitted? Over 2000. A 2% acceptance rate is pretty much a lotto drawing. So don’t sweat the rejection and keep writing and submitting!




Calls for Submissions: Roxane Gay and The Butter

Oh, yes! Roxane Gay now has her very own editorial venture, a sister site to The Toast called The Butter. This seems appropriate, since Gay’s own writing is like buttah. (Yeah, okay, half of you Fickle Readers probably don’t know what I’m referring to. I’m old, okay? Shut up.)

Gay herself explains the project and her interests and quirks here. Of note is a long rationale about her fascination with Ina Garten. Some of you might remember that I posted a little confession a while back about how I unfollowed Gay because I couldn’t take another tweet about Ms. Garten. Well, miracle of miracles, Gay’s rapturous description on the FAQ page for The Butter actually made me understand why Ina Garten is so alluring. Seriously. Gay’s list of the battery of Ina’s rhetorical questions is a thing of beauty in and of itself.

Don’t misunderstand. I still wouldn’t give two pounds of goat butter for Ina Garten or to participate in endless discussions about her. But I get the attraction now. Thanks, Roxane!

Shakespeare Is Everywhere: The Daily Show Edition

Jon Stewart to Steve Carell, during their “fawn-off” on last night’s Daily Show. Stewart is talking about Carell’s performance in his new movie “Foxcatcher.”

Your acting…Shakespeare, from the grave, got an erection watching your movie.

Didn’t realize the Telluride Film Festival provides live-streaming services to seventeenth-century gravesites. I guess you learn something new every day.

Mighty Tiny Bill adds, “Gentlemen, kindly restrain yourselves from surveying the contents of my codpiece.”

The Simpsons Called It: Historic Homes Edition

By the way, in the midst of the sadness and tragedy in the Eaton article on L’Wren Scott I posted the other day, did anyone notice something a little…creepy? Not as in morbid-creepy or tasteless-creepy, but creepy as in something we astute pop culturists on the Interwebs might have heard of before? Describing Scott’s relationship with Mick Jagger, Eaton writes:

Nobody has a cooler life and friends than Mick Jagger, who had plenty of time to trot the globe as the Stones really weren’t touring much. In the Loire Valley, [Scott] and Jagger, a history buff, would roll up strangers’ driveways, browsing stately homes.

Anybody catch that? Mick Jagger as a “history buff”? Spending his time looking at “stately homes”? Any fans of The Simpsons out there do a double-take when they read this?

Have a look at this run of dialogue from “Lisa’s Wedding,” which first appeared in 1996:

Hugh Parkfield (Mandy Patinkin): I can’t believe how much we have in common. We’re both studying the environment, we’re both utterly humorless about our vegetarianism, and we both love the Rolling Stones.
Lisa: Yes. Not for their music, but for their tireless efforts to preserve historic buildings.

Holy God, Simpsons writers! What sort of magic Portal of Futuristic Accuracy did you have in your clubhouse back in the 1990s???

Okay, maybe it wasn’t so accurate. Note the poster behind Lisa’s fiance, Hugh.


Fickle as a Simile

From A Dictionary of Similes, compiled by Frank J. Wilstach, 1916. Not sure if my favorite is one by Scott or Holmes. (Okay, the Beaumont and Fletcher is good, too.)

Fickle as friends.


Fickle as the lightning.


Fickle as the weather.


Fickle as love.

–Honore de Balzac

Fickle as the flying air.

–Beaumont and Fletcher

Fickle…as the winds.

–Aphra Behn

Fickle as a feather.

–Alexander Brome

Fickle as the sea.

–William Cullen Bryant

Fickle and bright as a fairy throng.

–Eliza Cook

Fickle as the sky.

–James Graeme

Fickle as a female in hysterics.

 –Oliver Wendell Holmes

Fickle as the flood.

–William King

Fickle as the breezes blow.

–Joseph B. Ladd

Fickle as a changeful dream.

–Walter Scott