Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Whoops

Oookay. So, if you haven't read the wrestling/comics post below, do so with a grain of salt.

Turns out Benoit, who a ton of tearful pro wrestlers assured me was the greatest guy since Gandhi, murdered his wife and child before hanging himself from a weight machine.

If this pisses you off, take comfort in the fact that you can probably find dozens of clips of people pretending to beat the shit out of the guy on YouTube.

In the meantime, Pegasus Kid, my twenty-four hour retroactive fandom is officially rescinded.

Vince McMahon, Chris Benoit and Captain America

Two things caused me to actually pay attention to professional wrestling in the past two weeks. And both of them were deaths.

The first was the fictional death of Wrestling's head honcho Vince McMahon. For those of you who haven't heard, McMahon, who has long been a character on the show, was "killed" when his limo was blown up. The audience inside the arena was shown a video of McMahon getting into the limo, ostensibly outside the arena, and the limo exploding. At the same time a boom was heard from outside. When audiences filed out, they were greeted by the site of a burning limousine. Of course, the video was prerecorded and the burning limo was another vehicle all together.

Now, I pay 0 attention to wrestling. None. But this drew my attention. Really?! They killed Vince McMahon?! The burning limo trick was absolutely awesome, a terrific theatrical move, but theatrics alone wouldn't have gotten me to pay attention. Instead it was the death of one of wrestling's oldest, most recognizable characters. This got play in the national media, on Howard Stern, etc., and got people talking in a way I can't remember people talking about a wrestling storyline before. It made me, someone who has never watched wrestling ever, sort of want to watch and see what had happened, or at least see the death.

If you're a comic book reader, you know where I'm going with this. About three months ago, Captain America was killed in the pages of Cap #25. Maybe you heard about it. It would be hard not to - it was all over the news, front page of some major Metropolitan paper or other. My mom IMed me to say, "Oh my god, did you hear Captain America died?" Marvel EIC Joe Quesada went on CNN, the Colbert Report, probably some other places. Fox News criticized Marvel for killing Captain America in war time.

None of these people gave a good goddamn about Steve Rogers the day before he was killed. Captain America languished with sales of less than 50,000 a month. But as soon as he was dead, people came flocking to the comic shops trying to buy anything Captain America. Sure some of this was collector speculation, but some of this was the exact same thing that happened with me and Vince McMahon. There was a sense that something important had happened.

The second thing that made me watch wrestling recently seems a little tasteless to bring into the discussion, but you've already guessed what it is: The real life death of Chris Benoit. What I knew about Chris Benoit last night wouldn't have filled 10kb. But after the room mate eulogized him to me for hours as WWE replaced its normal program - what would now have been a fairly tacky three hour special on "Who Killed Vince McMahon?" - with a three hour tribute to Benoit, I got the impression that he was a pretty great guy. Heck, I started to kind of be a fan of this guy. "The Wolverine," they called him, because he was a diminutive Canadian with a bad attitude. Or something like that. Which was pretty cool, but not nearly so cool as when they showed this clip of him as "The Pegasus Kid" in Japan's Dragon Gate circuit. By the end I was sort of a fan of Chris Benoit... but I had to remind myself he was actually dead.

Vince McMahon is not actually dead, and neither is Captain America. Both will return to fictional life before too awful long. When they do, they might have a few new fans thanks to their deaths, but most will have stopped caring. But both fictional deaths caused a sensation and got people through the turnstiles. The irony of using a character's death as a promotional tool is obvious: the character that got people interested is the one who's no longer appearing. As with Benoit, we become fans of those no longer with us. Yet these fictional deaths have more drawing power than any single thing other thing you could do with the character.

When I started this post, I thought the reason for all this was that people were hungry to see something significant happen, and if you're not paying attention, death is the only thing of clear significance in a serial medium. But the Benoit thing has made me reconsider. Don't we do this when anyone dies, fictional or otherwise? When a major figure in public life kicks the bucket, be it entertainment or politics, don't we show retrospectives and devote more screen time to them than ever?

The truth is that humanity is obsessed with death. We are creatures who understand our own transience. Death is the thing that gives shape and meaning to all experiences. No story is really valid until it has an ending, and once that ending arrives, all interpretation of that story is by way of its ending. In fables, the moral is derived from the end position of all participants. In real life, there is no end position other than death, and it is only after a death that a person's life and importance can be made a story in our minds with all due reverence.

In a way, continual mediums like comics and wrestling imitate life in that they appear never to end. Each story may well have a conclusion, but no conclusion is final. The characters go on, have another adventure, and never have that deciding moment when they are put into context. Until you kill them off.

In the end, I still don't give a damn about professional wrestling. But for a little while, I was a fan of the Pegasus Kid.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Northeast Slam - The Running Diary

This is another poetry post, so most of you don't care.

All right. For those of you still reading, I had a funny idea the other day. People liveblog lots of crazy things - sports games, political debates, what have you. Liveblog is a term some people use for running diary. Whatever.

So when I realized Cantab was having their big bruhaha nationals-style Team Slam last night, I thought, "What the hell... no one else will be writing about it."

So here it is, my entire minute-by-minute account of the night.

Let's see if I can get through this without pissing anyone off.

8:05 - Our host for the evening - Ryk McIntyre! Looks like Simone decided to take the night off to make the slam more "fair," as though everyone in the room doesn't know who she is. Ryk kicks things off with a fable. The cool thing is, he doesn't tell people to shut up or anything, they just do as soon as something even vaguelly poetic sounds like it's happening. After that, Ryk promises that there will be “no sucky poems tonight” And I’ve already got an urge to write a joke about a certain team. Yeah, this diary isn't going to go well.

8:07 - Artie Moffa reads a letter from Jeff Buckley to Bob Dylan, in which Buckley apologizes for making fun of Dylan. He says it’s for some gaffe he made over the weekend, but I’m pretty sure he’s talking to J*Me.

8:13 - Aaaand we’ve got our first double-long poem reader of the night. I had slot 3 in the pool.

8:15 - Fifteen minutes into the night, and Ryk already seemed panicked about time. I think if he talked any faster, someone would offer him a job selling tiny cars.

8:17 - Artie has already leaned over my shoulder at least six times to ask what I'm writing about him.

8:20 - Someone reads a poem they wrote when they were five. They claim. I didn't think five year olds could spell "urethra."

8:21 - Okay, I feel bad about that joke, really it was about leaves.

8:22 - Ryk’s just announced that The Colonel will be hosting part of the open mike... and the crowd goes nuts! New Hampshire must be in the house. Does this mean Mark's not on the NH slam team? This should be interesting at any rate.

8:26 - Didn't have to wait long for that. Ladies and Gentlemen: The Colonel! It's a little surreal to see him hosting here, but he's not bad. I mean, his first two jokes flop, but he's got stage presence.

8:31 - Just had a brilliant heckle by Simone. A guy gets up and says, "This poem is called 'Lonely Candle.' It's about...a lonely candle." To which Simone yells, "Poet!"

8:32 - Colonel promises to beat anyone who goes long over the head with the music stand. Which would be twice as awesome if he meant it, and a hundred times as awesome if it happened to, say, John Stern. I like John Stern and all, but I'd pay money to see his reaction if the Colonel tried to beam him with a music stand.

8:33 - Brian Ellis announces Christopher Kain's candidacy for president. You have my vote, Chris.

8:41 - Sharyn claims that last week was so bad, she's going to try being sober all night. And I'll be shocked if Jamei Bauer lets it happen.

8:50 - My burger is here. Be back in a bit.

9:03 - And we’re back! Holy crap. Okay, remember that online dating poem I do that seems to piss off everyone in their own special way? Well, some guy just got up there and laid down a fantastic piece reaming me out for the part where I make fun of World of Warcraft. Specifically called me out. The funny part is, he seems to have mistaken me for someone who’s NOT a giant geek. I'm shocked to learn that I spend so much time getting laid and buying underwear for my girls at Victoria Secret! Artie calls it, "the best geek poem ever!" and while I won't go that far, it's pretty hot. “You call it facebook, I call it a character sheet.” Amazing. It gets one of the biggest reactions of the night, which just goes to show you, at a poetry night, you can never go wrong by betting geeky.

9:06 - James - you know him as That Weird Guy - has been reading Tennyson poorly for 3 minutes. Help.

9:08 - Five minutes. Someone get that music stand.

9:11 - The microphone goes. This is always fun.

9:14 - Simone goes scurrying down the side wall trying to find the microphone problem. Turns out it was partially... my fleece being on the cord? We might need to look into some new cables or something here.

9:18 - April gets up. I promised her this post would be mostly about her butt, so I won't list all the lines I liked in this poem. Still I love when someone gets up and the good poets get excited. As April reads her title, Brian squeals in delight like a school girl. Then in his own defense he croaks, “It’s gonna be pretty!”

9:22 - Tony’s really sticking with this Kaeper Funkhauser stage name. You have to give him points for persistence.

9:23 - Christopher Kain just did a poem inspired by 1two5. The next sound you hear might be your own head exploding.

9:27 - Jess reveals that her new boything is neglecting her, which is pretty stupid of him when you consider that she's in front of like 100+ people who want to do her.

9:29 - Ryk McIntyre delivers the out of context quote of the night: "Right now I have two penises, but what I want are two penises and three vaginas."

9:37 - Some people really don’t know what “two short poems” means. If your poem has two pages, it’s not short. You never see this shit out of the regulars. Once you've had a couple, "Oh shit what am I reading tomorrow?" Tuesdays, you lose that urge to burn two poems on Wednesday.

9:38 - Ryk is officially barefoot. Even I wouldn't do that here, and I've done it in the Emerson dining hall.

9:38 - Somehow, the Lizard Lounge team still isn't here. Ryk: “What, is Jeff Robinson driving them?”

9:39 - You know, I bet when Ryk was younger he was a lot like the Colonel.

9:45 - And it's the break! Decent open mike; there were some clunkers but enough knock-you-dead stuff to make up for it. Of course, a lot of the heavy hitters were absent thanks to the grand bru-ha-ha coming up. Back in a bit.

10:05 - We’re back! Somehow I got roped into being the door guy during the break. The thing about being the door guy, is people always come in during the poems you're trying to listen to, and never during the poems that make you wish your laptop had snood on it.

10:06 - Ryk jokingly calls Worcester, "Team Awkward." Providence doesn't realize it's a joke and frantically huddles to come up with a team name, emerging with "The Closet Misogynists." Just for the record, the teams on hand tonight: Worcester (Team Awkward), Providence (Closet Misogynists), New Hampshire (Team Who?), Lizard Lounge (Team Badass), and the home squad, Team Cantab (Team Scrawny).

10:07 - A ton of people just chanted “No Sex with Hippos!" I'm not entirely sure why.

10:08 - The judges: Richard Cambridge, James McCoy and three people I don't know. This should be interesting.

10:10 - Rochelle Frasier sacrifices. I've never heard of her but she's good, doing a well-written love poem. Not knock your socks off, but solid. Kind of the perfect sacrifice. Nets a 25.3, pretty par for the course for a sacrifice.

10:13 - I can't get over how charged this room is. The crowd is absolutely pumped. Cantab leads off and sends J*me to the stage, to an absolute explosion of applause. J*me drops the Pitbull poem, and utterly obliterates it. Haven’t seen J*me bring it that hard in a WHILE. James McCoy gives it a 7.4, and the booing is lusty, but it's the drop score anyway. Final: 27.1.

10:17 - Wocester sends up Gary Hoare. He's on page, but it doesn't matter, because he does the poem about eating out an ice cream cone. You know, the one where it seems like it's a poem about ice cream, but you quickly realize that it's really about frozen yogurt? Crowd eats it up and so do the judges - Score: 26.7

10:23 - In my lovely role as doorman I just greeted a reporter from the Boston Metro, here to take pictures... with her tiny, hand held digital camera. I'd laugh if I hadn't done the exact same goddamn thing a hundred times. She's not going to get any pictures to come out with that thing, but I let her in and point her in the direction of Simone anyway.

10:24 - Didn't catch Providence guy's name, and only heard half his poem thanks to Metro woman, but gets tremendous applause and a 26.7. It's clear now that McCoy is playing the East German Judge - hasn't broken an 8 all night.

10:26 - Manchester sends someone named Summer. She gives a great storytelling poem, starts funny, gets poignant, ends where it began. She even seems comfortable onstage. If only she didn't pause like Captain Kirk between every line. Gets a 26.4.

10:30 - The Lizard Lounge calls 1two5 to the stage. In homage, this post will now be in all caps: THE APPLAUSE IS DEAFENING. I'VE NEVER HEARD THIS PLACE SO LOUD! THE POEM IS THE AFFIRMATIVE ACTION PIECE. THE CROWD LOVES EVERY SECOND.

10:33 - Oh god. Ryk is in a wife beater.

10:34 - 1two5 gets a 27.7, topping J*me. The guy is a force of nature. For those of you keeping score at home, that round ranked out as Lizard, then Cantab, then Worcester, then Providence, then New Hampshire. Which is basically how the oddsmakers would have had them lined up to begin with, I imagine.

10:34 - Iyoka comes up next. Even though I know it's a disadvantage, it feels like a killer blow for the Lounge, riding on their momentum. Iyoka's on page, and delivers your basic Iraq poem. She scores a surprisingly low 26.3 which then gets time penalized to a 25.8 I’m the only one who yells Fuck New York. What happened to this tradition?

10:39 - Cantab brings out the first group piece of the night - It's Brian and Shira, which prompts J*me to shout, "Oh my god, I want to be the cream filling!” Probably there should be a rule about that kind of thing, but screw it, it's funny. The poem is Brian's Steven Radio. It doesn’t benefit that much from being grouped up, but Shira's style meshes with his so well she sounds like she wrote the damn thing herself. The East German Judge breaks an 8, and they score a 27.3 - probably got a bit of a home team bonus there. Then again, I'm always more critical of the poems I know well.

10:43 - Trevor Byrne-Smith comes up for Worcester and we have our second microphone malfunction of the night. Once that's sorted he drops a science poem and nails it for a 26.6.

10:51 - Jared Paul gets up for Providence. He's definitely their heavy hitter, and he lays down an absolutely killer poem, with more metaphors per minute (mpm) than anyone else has managed tonight... and gets a 25. Not a typo. A twenty-five. Slam poetry, ladies and gentlemen!

10:51 - J*me tells the judges to "fuck off" and "go read a fucking book." I think he might have disagreed with the Jared Paul score a little.

10:52 - New Hampshire sends up "Alphonso Rigatoni." Gonna go way out on a limb here and say that's not his real name. Anyway, he does a poem I've heard a few times before, but I've never seen it go this well. The crowd is into it, and he milks them perfectly, getting a huge cheer on what should be an innocuous line about Wal-Mart. Anyway, he pulls out a 27.9, which gives them second place for the round behind Cantab.

10:56 - Simone closes out the Cantab's offering with the Imagine You Old poem. By now, we've all heard this poem a gajillion times, but my god is it good. "I am your 1 watt lover. When you call me, call me by all the faces you forgot and I will answer. I will answer to every one." The judges give her a 27.7.

11:01 - New Hampshire sends up "Matty T," who used to call himself "Unseen the Poet" even though everyone could see him. He's improved since the last time I saw him, and gets a 26.4.

11:04 - The Lizard sends up Adam Stone. He's on page doing something new, which is fine with me. It's about a photographer in Darfur, and I find myself loving it even though it's a Darfur poem. Man, this Lizard team is ungodly. It doesn't get a lot of applause though, weirdly, considering the audience has been into everything tonight. Still gets a decent 27.5, but then gets time penalized to a 27.0. The Artie Moffa rule strikes again.

11:08 - Worcester brings up a group piece starring Gary, Trevor and a girl I don’t know. The piece is a pretty spot on indictment of the genre of slam poems that talk about how cliched slam is. So it's a slam poem about slam poems about slam poems. It's on page, and clearly needs more practice, but it’ll probably score well on concept alone. And so it does: 27.7

11:13 - Eric Hagan closes it our for Providence. He does the only poem he's been doing lately, although he changes the second line to, "I KNEW I was going to get a poem out of this," which draws an appreciative laugh from the audience. Just goes to show you the kind of crowd we've got. It's another in a long line of "best I've seen it" performances tonight, and the crowd goes BONKERS. Which means the last poet of the night also gets the high score - 28.4

11:17 - Final Results:
5th - 80.1 Providence
4th - 80.5 Lizard Lounge
3rd - 80.7 New Hampshire
2nd - 81.0 Worcester
1st - 82.1 Cantab

Cantab finally wins in their own building! Wow, that end result was NOT how the odds makers would have drawn it up, particularly not with Lizard Lounge in 4th, although without the time penalties they'd be 2nd. All and all a heck of a show. Did I manage to do this without pissing anyone off? Probably not. Am I posting it anyway? Yeah, why not.

Apparently, Poetry Is Dead

Just read an article in TIME that really pissed me off:

http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1630571,00.html

I'll give you the gist. Stop me if you've heard this one before: Gee Whiz, Poetry sure has lost touch with modern audiences. Why, whatever did happen to the days when people read poetry? Poetry is just too gosh darned academic these days. If only those damn poets would write some accessible poems.

I know, you are all shocked by this deep assessment of the state of modern poetry. The best part is at the end, when Grossman writes:

"What poetry really needs is a writer who can do for it what Andy Warhol did for avant-garde visual art: make it sexy and cool and accessible without making it stupid or patronizing. When that writer arrives, cultural change will come swiftly, and relatively effortlessly."

What's funny is that in an entire article about how poetry should be more accessible, not once does it mention slam poetry or even spoken word poetry, the bastion of, as the oh-so-inspired headline puts it, "Poetry for the People." Nor did Mr. Grossman mention, for example, Bill Collins or even Bukowski, the unquestioned standard bearers in accessible poetry on the page, whose books sell thousands of copies. To read the article, you'd think everyone since Byron was an impenetrable academic post-modernist.

My guess is, the writer of the article doesn't actually, you know, read poetry. But as he writes, "Don't worry, hardly anybody does."

Look, you're Time Magazine. Can't you find someone who at least likes the medium they've been hired to cover? Is it that hard to find a columnist who likes poetry? Call me crazy, but in my experience a lot of poets are journalists.

Okay. I've vented. I feel better. But here's the trouble. If Grossman's theory is wrong, if the problem isn't the poetry, then what is the problem?

Well, first of all, I think it's funny that Grossman points out that Tennyson and Byron were "like rock stars." Because that's part of the problem here; in Byron's day, there was no rock and roll. Music and verse came together only for Opera. The 21st century guzzles way more verse than the 19th century - it just does it with musical accompaniment.

So yeah, pretty unfair to compare the modern stuff to the old ass stuff. But there has been a noticeable drop off in the profile of poetry over, say, the last forty years. People know who T.S. Elliot and Ezra Pound and such were at least; most people couldn't name five living poets to save their lives.

So poetry needs a pick me up, but what it doesn't need is to "become more accessible" or "become more relevant." The poetry is already fine. Which means the problem is one of marketing, distribution, and packaging.

So here's my off the top of my head scheme for how to make poetry a force in American pop culture again. Here goes:

1). Televise Poetry Slams
You mean to tell me that in a country that goes gaga over American Idol you couldn't get an audience for a slam? Come on, people! This is a world in which the national Spelling Bee cleans up in the ratings, where watching people play poker became a major national phenomenon.

All you have to do is send a TV crew to Nationals. That's it. Televise it on A&E at odd hours. Keep it on rotation. People will tune into just about any competitive event as long as you convince them it's an important competitive event. Show them the top poets in the world competing, and they'll watch.

2). Change The Books
Books of contemporary poetry come in two sizes: Small and Smaller. You have actual bound volumes for something like $12 usually, and chapbooks for something like $5. Both of these things seem like horrible rip offs to the people buying them. When you cough up $12 for a 60 page book or $5 for twenty xeroxed poems, it's tough to feel like you're getting a good deal. Poetry has to either fix the price point, or make the books bigger.

Personally, I think lower price point is the way to go. There is something nice about the thin poetry volume, and at $5, I wouldn't be able to buy them fast enough. Now I know, you can't afford that in the anemic poetry market. Well you know what? High prices aren't making it less anemic.

And while we're on the subject, stop expecting these books to sell themselves. I own a bunch of volumes of contemporary poetry. You know what they ALL look like? They all have an ambiguous, meaningless image on the front, over which hangs the title. The title, invariably, doesn't tell you anything at all about the contents of the book. The back covers? Usually blank.

Now, this all looks very cool in an austere poetic kind of way. One problem: your cover isn't marketing your book at all. Hell, if you don't know what you're looking at, you can't even tell it's a book of poems.

Think about the way fiction does this. The cover is usually a striking, specific image or design, calculated to make you go, "What the fuck is that?" If the author's name is a big draw, it's big. If the title is interesting, it's big. There's usually a quote on the cover too, so that after you've picked it up thanks to that darn interesting cover, someone is already telling you what a great idea that was. Then you flip to the back, and there's a description of what you can expect in the book, followed by even more people telling you how great it is. It's a perfectly designed marketing machine.

Now, poetry books are tougher because they are anthology-like in nature. Every page is about a different thing. But there's no reason your cover can't be striking. You can put a quote on there, and it won't destroy a thing, I promise. On the back cover, descriptions aren't going to do you any good, so do them one better - put a poem on there. Or snippets from several poems. Or just kick ass lines. The point is, you have to let someone know that this - yes this book of poetry you hold in your hands! - is one they will not regret buying.

3. When Someone Wins Something, Make Sure It's a Big Deal
If you want to make an Arts & Entertainment section or book review give enough of a crap about your book to review it, they have to be convinced that it's important. There needs to be some kind of hook, something to suggest that this book is more relevant than its peers.

So why not use victories in Nationals or IWPS as platforms to launch books? Take whatever the prize money is for Nationals or IWPS, and turn it into a book deal instead. Win at a big competition, get a nationally distributed book. Then, you go on the talk shows and promote it. And you send copies to every major A&E section you can find. You send press releases.

You mean to tell me the EW guy, wondering what the hell he's going to do for books this week, wouldn't latch onto the new book "From the National Poetry Champions"? Especially if it's gotten even a little media coverage? It's a slam dunk.

Of course, Nationals is a team event, which brings me to...

4). Make Your Poetry Team a Brand
Americans are conditioned to see brand, then individual. Look at how sports or music work. You start out with the brand, which has a memorable name and maybe a memorable logo, and then you have the members. Some people know every member of their favorite band in and out, some just know they like band X. In sports, you start out by rooting for your local team, even if you have no clue who's on it.

Poetry teams also give you a local rooting interest. And more importantly, they could give you that easy brand concept to bite into. My non-poetry-watchin' friends don't care that Simone Baubien, Brian Ellis, Shira Erlichman and J*me are performing. But I could probably get them interested in THE BOSTON NATIONAL SLAM TEAM. For one thing, you know exactly what it is. For another, you know you're watching the best.

And this isn't just about performance. Release books as a team, and not the usual chapbooks, but entire books, with each contributor putting in a book-sized chunk. It'd be an easy way to make bigger books, and you can charge $15 for a bigger book without it feeling like a rip off. (This makes economic sense too since, in small run publishing most of the cost is the binding - extra pages are relatively cheap) The Team Book would become something between an anthology and a single poet's book.

What makes the Team Book (or Team CD for that matter) such a great vehicle for expanding poetry's reach is that each one would make a new reader familiar with 5 poets. Unlike a big anthology where you'd see maybe one or two poems per writer and quickly forget them all, this would give you a chance to get more intimate with the poets. And even if you didn't remember all of their names, they are conveniently categorized in your head under their team brand. The branding would work even as teams changed because venues tend to produce similar brands of poetry year to year.

One of the big problems with contemporary poetry is that there's a lot of it, and very little to help a newcomer figure out where to dive in. The team book would break the scene down into digestible chunks, giving them five top poets at a time.

5). Cross Promote
Now, I know what you're thinking. That would be great, Kev, if all the good poets were slam poets. But what about the ones who aren't? Well, first off this is a rising tide situation. People need to see poetry, any kind of poetry.

But lets go back to the bit where we remember that marketing is not evil. For years fiction has been putting ads in the back of the book - "If you liked this, you might like these other fine Random House titles!" It rarely work, because we all know that two Random House books are nothing alike, but there's a good idea here.

Suppose I'm a new reader. I bought your book, I liked your book. And, unless a friend tells me another book to read, I think you're the only poet I like. You're different from all those other poets and their inaccessible poetry. Well, what if each book had a recommendations section from the author? I know, I know, a lot of politics would go into the selections, but so what? I think most writers would be cool with the chance to pimp their favorite books. And if they, um, shuffle feet, don't um, read as much, you know, poetry as they'd like actually, that's where the publisher comes in.

Look, America loves poetry. It just doesn't know it loves poetry. Maybe not all of these ideas are gold, and maybe they wouldn't bring poetry back by themselves. But this is how we have to be thinking. We have a marketing problem. The current methods of packaging and promoting this art form aren't working. The current image of the art form sucks. Poets need to get smart, make some moves and define their genre for the new generation. Or guys like Grossman will define it for them.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

I Like Chinese

...But the Chinese don't.

http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/entertainment/6744245.stm


A couple things I found fantastic about this article. First off, the Chinese complain that they were "confused by the character's sudden appearance in the movie." Really? That was the part that confused you? You were cool with the surrealist rock crabs, but Chow Yun Fat threw you? I mean, don't get me wrong. It's a confusing movie. I imagine it's twice as confusing if your crazy-ass country banned the entire goddamn second movie.

But more importantly, let's get to this: The part they censored from the movie was the part where Chow Yun Fat recites poetry.

That's right. The Chinese government is afraid of Ancient Chinese poetry. And you know what? In some perverse way, I think that's fantastic.

Can you imagine living in a country where poetry is considered dangerous? Can you imagine a place so bottled up with internal discord that the sound of a thousand year old poem could ignite even a small fragment of the populace? Where the government lived in fear of a poet eloquent enough to catalyze its carefully herded citizens into some kind of thought or action?

"Don't let the kids hear Li Bai - there'll be anarchy!"

The world we live in is a different place. Our poets and artists criticize the government a lot more directly than dead ol' Li Bai ever could. We read William S. Burroughs in college. Michael Moore is allowed to walk free. We have a massive class of rabble-rousers, malcontents, protesters, artists and general pain in the asses... and they're all completely powerless.

Maybe if the people of China really managed to get their hands on that forbidden poetry, it wouldn't do a goddamn thing. Probably, the censorship office could take a permanent vacation, and nothing would change. Probably, the tanks could have stayed home during Tiananmen Square and nothing would have happened.

But it's nice to imagine that that isn't true, that somewhere in the hearts of China's billion people there is something more honorable than what we have, a vast sleeping dragon that needs only hear the sweet words of a long-dead poet to bring it to life.

-S


(After note: No, I don't remember (and can't find a transcript or translation of) the scene where he recites the poem either, but at least I went ahead and wikipediad Li Bai for you.

Nothing in his description sounds too awful revolutionary, but he does sound like a bad influence on China's impressionable youth, and all around swell guy:

"Li Bai is best known for the extravagant imagination and striking Taoist imagery in his poetry, as well as for his great love for liquor." My kind of guy.

But yeah, go to the wikipedia page, if only to read the poem at the end.)

Blog Content Types and You

So okay, before we get to actual content about things that are things and not un-things, let's talk about blogs themselves, which are an un-thing.

First of all, the current use of the term "blog" is a weird-but-brilliant kind of marketing thing. When I first heard the term like five years ago, it seemed like it implied, basically, "crap." Oh sure, it was short for "web log," but the first blog site I saw had a slogan like: "Blogger: A Place For Your Blog." Which, if you don't know what a blog is, sounds a lot like, "Blogger: A Place For Your Shit." As far as I could tell, there was no difference between a blog and a livejournal. So I thought, "That's stupid," and moved on.

So I was pretty surprised when people started talking about blogs as this next big thing that was going to revolutionize journalism and the internet. Huh? Some guy writing a livejournal was going to change the face of journalism?

Well, by now you've realized what the difference between a blog and a livejournal is; a blog is meant for public consumption. It's by and large a nonfiction medium, usually involving opinion, usually about something. At some point a blog started seeming less like another name for an online diary and more like another name for an online column.

What I've always found fascinating about this whole thing is how the hell it happened. What in the name of the Greek God Pan made people decide some other guy's rantings were worth reading? And why that guy?

Thinking about it now, the answer to that question isn't so much different to the answer to why certain columnists in traditional media become big. Some have some special expertise, and others got lucky. That latter group was easier to explain though in the days of print. Why do you read retard X? Well, because retard X is printed in TIME.

An independent blog though doesn't get that kind of inherent credibility. The kind that says, "I paid a million dollars to offset print hundreds of thousands of copies of this, so it better be good."

So I got to thinking what kind of content people look for on blogs, and how that might relate to my blog, and the blogs of other nobodies like me making anonymous pieces of nothing somewhere in the world wide web. A lot of these content streams are as old as newspapers, but I'll talk about their relation to the online world. Ready? Here goes:

Reviews - Possibly the ultimate democratic content type; there's a reason you can find reviews integrated into every online store, portal or info site on the web these days. What makes the review such a perfect thing for bloggers is that when reviewing something anyone can have implied credibility.

The most challenging question for any blogger is, "Why should I care what you have to say?" With a review, the answer is simple: The blogger has read/seen/tasted the product, and you have not. You want to know if you should. It also helps that traditional reviewers, who wanted to be, you know, qualified or something, are sometimes out of touch with a populace that says things like, "I don't care, I liked Matrix 2 and 3 anyway." These people are looking for like-minded people. And if there's one thing the internet is filled with, it's idiots with opinions*

Reviews have some decent staying power, but to be a sustained review site, you have to review things very promptly - people don't want to wait a week to know if they should see/buy/read this week's new release, and more importantly, people need to know when to check your site.

Interviews - Another great potential content stream for blogs that doesn't often happen. Here again we have an obvious source of credibility, of a sort. Why should I read Spak's blog? It has an interview with some other person I'm actually interested in. Another nice thing about interviews is that they don't have to be time sensitive and remain relevant long after they've been posted.

There's just one problem - in order for someone important to take the time to give you an interview, they usually need to be kind of convinced it's worth their time. Which means, you already need some notoriety. That's one of the reasons these things don't happen in blogs much. Another is that most blogs are mostly driven by the personalities of their creators, something that interviews don't help you leverage at all.

News Commentary - This is a tricky and weird one. I'm lumping sports commentary in with this, by the way, or any other medium's current event reactions. Obviously, this is a pretty popular way to fill kilobytes these days. Something happens, you respond to it. Just like a real reporter, bloggers are always looking for content, and always looking for a current hook to make what they want to talk about relevant. Of course, generally all they have to add to the discussion is their own opinions. So what makes these blogs worth reading?

Here's my hypothesis: I think people read these posts primarily because they confirm and lend importance to the obsessions of our lives. For example, back during Massachusetts's Gubernational** election season, I was following the campaign pretty intently. Whenever news broke, I'd rush to the blogs. Not because they'd keep me informed, but because they'd confirm my perceptions and validate my interest. The news might report that Healey was running the rapist add, but it was the blogs who would say, "That shit is fucked up." Watching the debates, I'd think things like, "I wonder if Grace Ross was trying to look like a librarian," or, "Is it just me, or does Kerry Healey look just like Doctor Blight from Captain Planet?" Of course, no one on TV would talk about these things, that's why I needed the blogs.*** I didn't need their insights, I needed evidence that someone else cared about this crap as much as I did.

So how does this stack up for blogs as a content stream? Well, as everyone is so fond of pointing out, blogs are uniquely positioned to do this thanks to their short response time. The disadvantage is that this kind of content lends no credibility. The answer to the question, "Why am I reading this?" is "because it's there, and because it's about something you're interested in." Which, if you're bored at work might be enough reason to read a blog, but isn't usually sufficient to draw you to one blog or the other.

For this kind of content to work, a blog must update on a regular basis, and daily is probably best. But if you can keep up that kind of schedule there is a reward - readers will get hooked on you like crack. The ultimate goal is to be part of someone's daily routine, the site they must visit every day to see your glittering take on the day's happenings.

Analysis - This is pretty rare as I'm defining it here. An analysis blog would provide actual factual analysis (as opposed to opinion-based commentary) of whatever its topic might be. Examples might include working with obscure baseball metrics, or providing inside information on obscure corporate practices. This stuff also lends credibility. Why read me? 'Cause I'm the guy with the info.

Random Pontificating - This post, for example. These non-time-sensitive articles are on the weak end of the content stream, strategically thinking. They don't offer any inherent credibility. They rely solely on the writer's voice or credentials being compelling enough. That's fine if you're say, Mark Cuban (www.blogmaverick.com), but not real useful for ye random internet shlub, which is what this post is really about. These articles also don't have any inherent advantage over their print counterparts, apart from being unfettered by word count, which scarcely matters because on the internet, shorter is better.****

Of course, a good Random Pontification is like an essay. It's well reasoned, well argued, original and insightful. If it's about a topic you care about, you might find it fascinating reading. Or you might say, "Why the hell am I reading an essay in my spare time?" I don't know, but if you've read this far in this post, you've clearly got a lot of said time on your hands anyway.

Link Posting - A lot like News Commentary, only without the commentary. A lot of blogs spend entire posts just linking to stuff. The worst part? It's not a bad practice. I frequent Warren Ellis's blog (www.warrenellis.com), not because I like his writing, but because he often digs up weird-ass news stories I want to read.

Probably, there is some kind of content I've forgotten, but I think I've covered my bases.

So what have we learned? I can hear you thinking "Fuck all" from the past when I wrote this, but hang on. We've learned that certain content streams are inherently superior when it comes to building readership - namely those types that give your blog some form of credibility. Tops in this stream are the Interview and the Analysis, both of which give you something the other guy doesn't have. Reviews are also good, particularly if you're reviewing an overlooked product or an advance copy. Commentary, on the other hand, is superior for retaining readers. Random pontificating... well, strategically I have no idea what its value is. Crap. Maybe I should have known that before I blew a few thousand words on this rambling.

Will any of this have an impact on the future of the Spak Report? Probably not. Know why? Because I really enjoyed writing this random pontification.

-S


* Present company not excluded.
** Man, I love the word "Gubernational." When else can you use the word "guber" and sound smart?
*** N0t that ANYONE else got the Doctor Blight resemblance. Seriously, look at her! She's one freak chemical accident and poorly-rendered CGI sidekick away from being an Eco-Villain.
**** Obvious irony not lost on me.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Don't Read My Blog

I don't care if you don't read this blog.

Really, I don't. I mean, there will, in theory be all kinds of lovely content on here, all jam packed with the deranged rantings of yours truly. So if you don't bookmark the page, subscribe to the RSS, get down on your knees and thank the sweet god you found this misbegotten piece of cyberspace, well, you're the one missing out.

All the same, I honestly won't blame you if you decide not to do that stuff, for one simple reason: I have no fucking clue what this blog is about.

See, I need to start blogging. I know this. I just don't know what I want to blog about. So this blog is mostly like blog training wheels. I'm going to post shit about anything and everything I feel like talking about: Comic books, baseball, politics, slam poetry, business, game design, books, and the ever-popular random weird-ass shit, quite possibly other things too demented to occur to me right now. And I am going to dump all of it right here in this space and see what happens.

Here are the odds, as Vegas would list them, were Vegas aware of my existence:

1-1 - I get bored after three posts and abandon this forever
4-1 - I actually pick a topic or two and start one or two real type blogs once I've gotten the hand of it.
50-1 - I gain an actual audience of some kind
100-1 - I find something more useful to do with my time
1,000,000-1 - I discover tge secret god of the internet and enslave him with my magical mind powers and make him give me pizza.

I'm not saying any of that would happen - honestly if Vegas were stupid enough to give me even money on me, and I was not me so that it wouldn't be cheap for me to bet on it, I would put my bottom dollar there. Then the person who was me would work hard just to screw me because that's the way my luck works, or would work if I was this theoretical other betting gentleman who is not me.

Ready? Ready. Let the futility begin.

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