Category: Humor

Interlitq’s Californian Poets Interview Series: Gary Soto, Poet, Novelist, Filmmaker, Memoirist, interviewed by David Garyan

Gary Soto

August 23rd, 2023

Interlitq’s Californian Poets Interview Series:

Gary Soto, Poet, Novelist, Filmmaker, Memoirist

interviewed by David Garyan


Gary Soto’s poems appear in Interlitq’s California Poets Feature


DG: Tell us how you began.

GS: I began not unlike how other poets and writers do, that is, by discovering the truth and beauty in literature. For me, the book was Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, which spoke to me in a way in which I identified with the characters and place. The novel, as we know, is set in the Salinas Valley with slices of the gray breezes of Monterey. The year of discovery was 1968. I was sixteen years old.

DG: You studied with Philip Levine, who, I understand, was a demanding and stern teacher.

GS: Studied? The students of the early 1970s at Fresno State didn’t study. We took classes! We piled up units to get our degree then headed out of town—laugh here, please. But about Levine . . . yes, he was an uncompromising teacher but very funny as he slashed and burned our poems. We laughed along and learned by listening. I was full of self-doubt, of course, as I was the first in my family to go to college. I took two classes from him; in all he looked at about eight poems. I grasped his intentions and was very much a driven soul. I lived for poetry, I wrote poetry, and began to publish as early as 1973.

DG: Who critiques your poetry these days?

GS: My wife is the first reader, then poet Christopher Buckley, an amigo from our college days when we were in the MFA program at UC-Irvine. He’s a slash-and-burn critic—tough on me. It’s essential to have someone like Chris.

DG: Your first book The Elements of San Joaquin was a pioneering book in Chicano literature. Would you explain, please?

GS: The early poets of el movimiento—the political movement that began as an agricultural protest—were loud and rhetorical. Instead of that, I wanted to call up place, that is, the San Joaquin Valley, my valley. It was a strange moment for me. In 1972 I was twenty, finally unfolding, awake. I began to see the valley in a new light and began to document it through poetry that was descriptive and small, small in that I wanted to document streets, rocks, fences, tumbleweeds, grapes, plums, irrigation canals, hoes, shovels, etc.

DG: You have a new book of poetry out this year. I understand that it began as a challenge.

GS: The book is Downtime from Gunpowder Press—excellent people there—and it was written in a rush from October to December 2022. During these months I challenged myself to write a hundred poems in a hundred days. In the end I wrote 116 poems. Of course, there were clunkers—lots of them that I fed happily into the shredder—but I managed to harvest 46 poems to make up this collection. Downtime was an in-your-face reply to Covid-19 when poets and writers had not much to do.

DG: Aside from poetry, you also write fiction for middle graders and young adults.

GS: I have written numbers of books for these age groups. My new middle-grade novel is Puppy Love and it’s a romantic narrative in which holding hands is about as risky as it gets. This is a sweet novel, which I admit is sort of corny. However, I have written serious and complex stories and novels for these age groups as well. Many of them have a Raymond Carver-ish understatement and sophistication.

DG: You have worked in almost every literary genre. Now you have your hand in filmmaking? What’s that like?

GS: The film is Buried Onions, which is based on my novel of the same title. It’s about gang life in Fresno, and there’s plenty of gang fighting in my hometown. For the most part the film is finished. We’re tinkering with it, thinking about the music and distribution. Fingers crossed on this project.

DG: Do you see any parallels between working on a film and working on poetry and fiction?

GS: No, I don’t. Filmmaking is about collaboration—actors, director, cinematographer, producers, sound engineer, boring things like insurance, catering, etc. Poetry and fiction are always solitary creations. You get coffee, eat toast, and get to work. It’s you and the pencil and pad—or computer.

DG: In the 2023 memoir titled What Poets Are Like, you speak—often frankly, often humorously—about the poet’s diminished status in today’s society. Is there a role for the poet?

GS: Absolutely. I’m proud of our country’s poets. Each one of us is putting to use language—fresh language—that is contrary to the language bantered about in the media. Have you listened to the songs on the radio? How about politicians summoning up their careers? I tried my best to read President Obama’s memoir and, while I admire the man, I was bored to tears by the uneventfulness of the prose. I didn’t bump into one interesting phrase. The prose reads like a long memo.

DG: Can you say anything else about What Poets Are Like?

GS: Yes, it’s out of print, which makes me wonder if poets, generally, are out of print! It’s OK to laugh here. But truthfully, we’re involved in literature and most citizens that we encounter daily have never met a published poet. We’re an oddity.

DG: You have written about the joy of meeting people.

GS: I’m not sure if “joy” is the correct word. But I think I know what you mean and will say that in my search for joy I don’t stay home a lot—well, maybe these days, in what I hope is the aftermath of Covid-19—but prior to this national emergency I was out of the house and busy going to plays, symphonies, concerts, art exhibits, gardens, lectures, historical homes. I self-published a book called Sit Still! A Poet’s Needs to See and Do Everything. I got dressed up and went out to visit the world.

DG: Can you describe one of these joys?

GS: I recall being in a foul mood, as if I had swallowed a dark cloud, and was walking around Berkeley, directionless, when a ragged convertible Volkswagen came chugging up the street. The VW stopped at the corner, which allowed me the chance to study the driver. He was ragged as his VW, gray hair in all directions, an unshaven mug. And in the passenger’s seat was a dog—a collie—that had his head tilted backward while eating an apple, eating in such a way that the apple rotated he slowly consumed it. The pooch then turned his attention to me and recognized one sad, undecorated poet. At this sighting—me, in other words—he let some of the apple fall from his chops. That apple, with doggy slobber, was a gift for me. In his way he was trying to make me happy. Now there was a joyful moment.

DG: Living Up the Street, a prose memoir, is about your childhood in Fresno. It’s also about your Mexican American identity. How would you describe this book, which appears to engage readers after nearly forty years since its publication?

GS: All poets visit childhood. All of us have small damages, some spurts of happiness, intrigue, etc. This tidy little collection is at times comic and other times not so comic. It was a favorite in composition classes as the pieces—twenty-one of them—are relatively easy to imitate. There is racial identity in the prose that, like Grapes of Wrath, spoke to the readers.

DG: People often make the case that writing comes “easy” for those who are prolific. You have written forty-plus books. Does writing come easy to you?

GS: Yes, it comes easy for me, but the revision part is often cumbersome. I have written plays—six in all, four of which have had degrees of success—and the first drafts were a cinch. However, the revisions were monsters. I’m thinking of In and Out of Shadows, a musical about undocumented youth. That took two years to write, two years for a ninety-minute production. In turn, my one-act The Afterlife took another two years. The Afterlife, by the way, is a play about teen murder and teen suicide, and it was commissioned, meaning that I had to do it since I had cashed the check that got me going. This play was performed at California high schools where there had been suicides. It touched a lot of young people. And it was a play that could have run longer except Covid-19 shut down the theaters. I recall the day it closed in Oakland, California, a gentleman my age—70—came up to me and said, “My boy jumped from a window.” What words could I offer?

DG: What are you working on now?

I finished in five weeks a middle-grade novel called Gormax. It’s been bought but won’t come out until spring 2025. It’s a novel about two boys, age twelve, who form a rock group named Gormax. They’d heard of John Cage, the classical pianist who is known for the 1953 piece 4’33” in which the maestro sat at a piano and did, seemingly, nothing. He then stood up, bowed to the audience, and created musical history. The two likeable boy rockers in Gormax imitate John Cage. They become a worldwide sensation for all of four months, then disappear. I had always wanted to be a rocker. This novel allowed me the chance to stand up on the stage. It was a fun novel to write.


About Gary Soto

Gary Soto’s most recent book is Downtime. His young-adult novel Buried Onions is being made into a film. He lives in Berkeley, California.

Interlitq’s Californian Poets Interview Series: Rick Lupert, Poet, Editor, interviewed by David Garyan

Rick Lupert (Photo by Alexis Rhone Fancher)

August 23rd, 2023

Interlitq’s Californian Poets Interview Series:

Rick Lupert, Poet, Editor

interviewed by David Garyan


Rick Lupert’s poems appear in Interlitq’s California Poets Feature


DG: The Poetry Super Highway has become an invaluable resource for writers. Can you talk about how it all started and what it takes to run an organization that’s always in the process of growing?

Thank you for that. Poetry Super Highway grew out of my own personal website which I launched near the beginning of the public internet. I realized quickly that the key to a successful website was changing content so people would have a reason to come back. I added a section with links to my friends’ poetry website, and then invited them to send poems which I would display in a “Poet of the Week” section. Turns out people enjoy opportunities to share their work and it quickly grew to a “Poets” of the week section. It wasn’t too long before I realized I had created an online publication which needed its own separate website.

It’s grown a lot since 1997 … it’s easy thinking up a new idea for the site … but, of course, it’s work implementing that idea, especially if it’s an annual one. I compartmentalize when I do the work so it doesn’t take over the rest of my life. My wife laughs at me when I think up something new which will lead me to a new weekly task I have to do forever.

DG: For years, you’ve hosted the well-known Cobalt Café reading series. How has organizing reading events and serving the community in general informed your own work?

Probably the most important thing  you can do as an artist of any kind, besides spending time creating art in your chosen medium, is to spend at least as much time exposing yourself to the art of others in that medium. Organizing the Cobalt Poets series (which I hosted live and in person at the Cobalt Café from early 1994 until the venue closed at the end of 2014, and has lived on as a successful weekly Zoom series since early 2020) has kept me constantly exposed to the work of others. As with any art, it’s all subjective … not good or bad … just some of it is for you and some of it isn’t. Hearing poems within every stopping point of that spectrum has had a huge impact on my work as I learn from other poets new ways to think, observe, and write, as well as, sometimes, examples of what I don’t want to incorporate into my work. Both are invaluable.

DG: Humor is an ever-present feature in your poetry. At the same time, every reading changes the dynamic of poem. Does the performance aspect ever consciously influence what you put down on the page, or does the page always hold ultimate primacy in driving the content?

I often, when writing, hear the poems out loud, or even stop in the middle of writing them to read them out loud to hear how they sound. I want to make sure they work going into someone’s ears. It’s hard to know how others might read them when I’m not there personally delivering them with my intended pauses and intonations. I’ve had the experience (a number of times) being in an audience where another poet has chosen to read one of my poems as part of their set. Besides the huge honor of that, sometimes I think that’s not how that was meant to be read, or they should have paused there. My hope is that the poems work just as well on the page, but I’m aware that I have little control over how someone else receives the work out in the wild.

DG: On your website, readers can access eight of your books for free. In a commodified world, this runs contrary to logic, and yet, for poetry it makes absolute sense. Do you think the biggest publishers can use this strategy to bring more readers to poetry or do you think readership comes down to more than just accessibility?

You know what, you’re right. I’d appreciate it if anyone reading this could please electronically send me a good deal of money. Thank you.

I put out a free e-book every year which is a sampling of new poems written since the previous e-book came out, and, usually, a preview of a few poems in an upcoming book. I think anyone planning on getting rich through poetry may need a reality check. The most successful of us have to, at least, have teaching jobs to pay the rent. I think just having eyes on poems is more valuable than making money from them. I also think the free e-books are a good promotional tool which, if someone enjoys them, will make it more likely that they might purchase one of my full collections. This will, of course, lead to a small amount of money coming my way which I can then use to make a down payment on a nice meal which basically means, in a small way, I’m literally sustaining myself through writing poems.

DG: Apart from poetry you also work on a daily web comic called Cat and Banana. It’s humorous, fun, and entertaining. Only two questions: Why a cat and why a banana?

You may have to ask my son about that. He’s 14 now. (or maybe 15 by the time anyone reads this.) When he was 4, we were sitting at dinner telling jokes. He wasn’t quite sure how a joke worked besides the basic format of someone saying something, often as a question, and then someone laughing after a response was given. So he blurted out What did the cat say to the banana? The answer was meow which made a lot of sense to me and immediately had my mind wondering what those two might actually talk about. I messaged Brendan Constantine (my partner in all things ridiculous) with an emergency request for artwork, and by the end of the day there was a website, Facebook page, and I had written ten strips. I’m not sure I know why a cat and why a banana, but perhaps their ongoing conversation will eventually reveal all.

DG: There is a poem, Dear Los Angeles,” in your 2006 collection To Hell With Rick Lupert. It captures the excesses of a city many dream of. The poem ends with this line: “I have to close my suitcase now.” What makes Los Angeles such a great, and yet difficult place to write, and do you ever see yourself leaving the city that has fueled your poetic development for so long?

Dear Los Angeles was one of the last poems in my print collection I’d Like to Bake Your Goods, poems written on my honeymoon with Addie, and previewed in the e-book To Hell With Rick Lupert. There’s a nostalgia in it which I often feel at the end of the vacations I’m lucky enough to go on every year with Addie. Or maybe in this case, a longing …I’m dreading the end of a vacation in which my only responsibility for a couple of weeks is to feed myself, and also, perhaps, longing to get past all the rigamarole of tasks, packing, ground transportation, etc … which I’ll have to get through to be back and comfortable in my home city. Most of my books are travel books … poetic travelogues written on the ground with a full and complete collection ready for editing by the time I get home. It’s ironic, perhaps, that I don’t have a book of poems about Los Angeles … or perhaps every other poem I’ve written is about Los Angeles, or informed by my presence here. (I mean, when I’m not writing poems about the weekly Torah portion.) For sure, Los Angeles deserves a book. It has everything … and if you don’t like any of it, surely just head to another neighborhood to find a completely new set of everything that you may like. Once you’ve got your niche in Los Angeles, you’re set. I’m not sure I could live anywhere else, mainly because I’d feel like I was cheating on Los Angeles. Though every time I travel, it’s always with an eye of could I live here?

DG: Indeed, only poets are capable of having the type of humor that allows them to give away their books for free while also jokingly asking fans to send them money in the mail (in the interest of mystery and intrigue I won’t give away where it says that on your website), but has anyone ever taken that seriously and sent you something? It would make for a good poem, I think.

I wish I had read this question before asking people to send me money three questions ago. Now it feels like I’m a one joke pony. I wonder if ponies tell jokes in their own language. Oh, no … now there needs to be a new comic strip Pony Tells Jokes. So much for my free time … I think I could work on this on Thursday mornings. Anyway, send me all your money, people. It’s important. I take Venmo.

DG: Some of your poems are dedicated to Brendan Constantine and he, likewise, has a lot of praise for you. The work you both write has some similarities, but it’s also very different. What makes Constantine’s poetry so special and how has this friendship influenced your own writing?

There’s no person who has had a more profound impact on my poetry, and maybe even my thinking in general, than Brendan Constantine. (Except for perhaps Addie who, for most of my travel poems, I’m just quoting her and adding line breaks.) The way his mind works and receives the world is always surprising, frequently hilarious, and often beautiful. Brendan is an ongoing education in the very possibilities of poetry. He teaches, not just by teaching in actual teaching settings, but by his example. Many times, when I’m writing a poem, when I read it out loud as I mentioned earlier, I’m imaging that I’m reading it directly to him. He’s my favorite audience.

DG: Apart from Cobalt Café, you also run a variety of other workshops. It would be interesting to hear about some of those. Surely, there must have been some good poems that came out of those? And friendships?

I sometimes get to lead a workshop, especially in the Jewish community. I think I’ve only got so much to teach other poets, but for the less experienced poet, or person who hasn’t yet discovered poetry, I think I can help remove some of the fear that comes along with the word poetry … show it as an accessible, interesting, and sometimes, entertaining art form, and create a space where anyone feels what they are doing is legitimate and has value. Of course poems of every goodness level have come out of those experiences, and yes, even better, real human connections with people. Those are the best.

DG: What are you reading or working on at the moment?

Well I just completed a long interview for INTERLITQ which I’m about to send off. I didn’t proofread it so I hope that it’s received well. I mostly read poetry submissions, but late at night I like to sit in my comfy chair in the other room and read a few pages of something or other. I’m having a hard time getting through one of Anne Rice’s later Vampire Chronicles books as she’s spending about six hundred pages just describing cameos. So I’ve been putting that down and reading a poem or two a night from Jeffrey McDaniel’s latest collection Thin Ice Olympics. It’s really good!


About Rick Lupert

Rick Lupert has been involved with poetry in Los Angeles since 1990. He is the recipient of the 2017 Ted Slade Award, and the 2014 Beyond Baroque Literary Arts Center Distinguished Service Award, a 3 time Pushcart Prize Nominee, and a Best of the Net nominee. He served as a co-director of the Valley Contemporary Poets for 2 years, and created Poetry Super Highway. Rick hosted the weekly Cobalt Cafe reading for almost 21 years which has lived on as a weekly Zoom series since early 2020. His spoken word album “Rick Lupert Live and Dead” featured 25 studio and live tracks. He’s authored 26 collections of poetry, including “I Am Not Writing a Book of Poems in Hawaii,” “The Tokyo-Van Nuys Express,” and “God Wrestler: A Poem for Every Torah Portion” (Ain’t Got No Press) and edited the anthologies “A Poet’s Siddur”, “Ekphrastia Gone Wild”, “A Poet’s Haggadah” and the noir anthology “The Night Goes on All Night. He also writes and draws (with Brendan Constantine) the daily web comic “Cat and Banana” and writes a Jewish poetry column for He has been lucky enough to read his poetry all over the world.

“American Prayer,” a poem by David Garyan, published in Interlitq

“American Prayer” was first published in Volume 10 of The American Journal of Poetry (January 1st, 2021). 

Please click here read the story behind the initiative to republish all my work lost with the disappearance of The American Journal of Poetry.


American Prayer

A long time has passed
since I’ve been alive;
that was when waves
convinced me
of the ocean’s danger,
when fires lit for no purpose
could feel warm,
when the composer’s ear
still heard joy in laughter,
when the cook’s tongue
never spoke a gloomy word,
when the killer’s hand
cut with the same care
as the surgeon’s,
when a mother’s eyes
could stand to watch
her children fall—
if only, for a second,
to study
the world’s pain.
Say, how do you feel naked
in a room where no one
wants to turn on the light?
How do you feel at home
when every neighbor hates you—
but only because they admire your house?
My world has become a jungle
in which I’m always in danger,
but where I feel no fear;
my thoughts have become a circus
in which I mustn’t trust
the goodness of clowns—
especially when they’re smiling.
I can no longer tell
the lions apart.
I’ve built so many cages
for myself—the wilderness
inside me has escaped;
my anger is an arsonist
happily lighting
just one candle in church—
then leaving without regret;
my depression washes
the windows of skyscrapers
without ever looking down.
The Europe I’ve known
has vanished like a prostitute
everyone wants to sleep with,
but no one cares to look for.
The America I’ve disowned
has returned like an illness
I brought upon myself.
America, I’m a smoker
trying to treat cancer
without quitting cigarettes.
Europe, I need a feminist wife,
the one who’ll obey
my every command
because she wants to—
and feels empowered
to act this way.
What’s next? Asia?
Like winter searching
for love in the mountains,
like summer trying to hide
its secret from fire,
I’ve run away from myself—
I’ve gone somewhere new
where it’s always the same,
where everyone knows
who I am because they’ve never
seen me before.
I’m giving myself away
like an artist no one can stand,
but everyone wants to collect.
The world is imposing itself
like a virgin looking to rape someone.
Every government has made
me hate the silence
of crowded libraries.
Every institution has given
me reasons to question
the shape of a question mark.
I’ve lost all faith in my prophets—
every day I laugh
at their caricatures.
My courage is a cartoonist
living in France who draws
what he wants but never
shows his work out of fear.
My cage is a religion
that tells me I’m free—
so long as I don’t leave it.
No, it’s better to bury
the words of dead
seers and their rules
all over Europe’s streets;
they resemble the abyss
you find at the bottom
of someone’s cup
when they’re drinking alone
and the bartender
will no longer serve them.
Like a terrorist
without friends looking
for a crowd,
I’ve come to hate
the happiness of large parties;
my own whiskey is sweeter
and I can’t stand the bitterness
when I’m not drinking it.
Still, I despise the smiles
of a thousand strangers.
I’ve begun admiring the mountains
like a geographer
who can’t wait to retire.
I start my prayers like poor
people who want to steal,
but don’t have the courage for it.
I watch every sunset
like an old man that knows
he isn’t waking up tomorrow.
I wait and wait for the sunrise
like a drunk woman
anxious to get a better look
at her one-night stand.
At noon, I ask myself questions—
the ones which bore
even fat philosophers
who’ve done too much
sitting and thinking.
After lunch, I think
about the loaded revolver
under my pillow,
and this makes me tired—
I take a nap and fly
myself to the next sunset.


About David Garyan

David Garyan has published three chapbooks with Main Street Rag, along with (DISS)INFORMATION, a full collection with the same publisher. He holds an MA and MFA from Cal State Long Beach, where he associated himself with the Stand Up Poets. He received a master’s degree in International Cooperation on Human Rights and Intercultural Heritage from the University of Bologna. He lives in Trento.

Heading West, a poem by David Garyan, published in Interlitq

“Heading West” was first published in Volume 9 of The American Journal of Poetry (July 1st, 2020).

Please click here read the story behind the initiative to republish all my work lost with the disappearance of The American Journal of Poetry.


Heading West

In a free world,
surgeons of words
could cut suicide
from ropes like a tumor;
and still, climbers
wouldn’t lose faith—
tying them around their bodies
on the wildest mountain.
The age of emergencies
has arrived like electricians
getting shock therapy
for schizophrenia.
Now our economy needs
the elderly’s bones;
living off buried
animals is nothing new—
call it fossil fuel.
Speed up the rate
of extinction;
save free enterprise.
Already, we’ve turned the uterus
of women into coal mines,
all for carbon-intensive babies—
there’s no resource we can’t touch,
no land we must conquer with consent.
The USA belongs to us, Marx;
we own the means of reproduction;
commercially transmitted
diseases are cured;
hospitals are factories
where assembly lines
for life end.
You have poor vision?
Receive books but no glasses.
You have poor judgment?
Build libraries
where no one returns
what they borrow.
Hold a camera
that forgets everything.
Speak to a world
whose eyes
never stop
taking pictures—
our ears are the windows
of skyscrapers in which people
believe they can fly.
Our minds are lightbulbs
away from spotting reason
in the darkness.
Our hands are paintbrushes
coloring millions
of homes white.
The scars on society
are visible like mistakes
corrected on a typewriter.
Still, our loneliness collects stamps—
only because there’s
no one left to address.
We became treasure hunters
only after losing our wealth—
asking gravediggers for shovels
and thieves for maps.
Presidents and PMs
of the free world
sit behind their desks,
bodies stiff
like exclamation marks,
egos bulging
like dotted eyes
never lowercased,
but still staring
like journalists
working in safe countries.
Liberty is now too popular,
hiding behind bodyguards
with guns;
democracy has nothing left to conceal—
like submarines
that are never in danger,
yet still refuse to surface.
Freedom is more than just freedom—
the ability to go anywhere,
but also without the danger
of landmines.


About David Garyan

David Garyan has published three chapbooks with Main Street Rag, along with (DISS)INFORMATION, a full collection with the same publisher. He holds an MA and MFA from Cal State Long Beach, where he associated himself with the Stand Up Poets. He received a master’s degree in International Cooperation on Human Rights and Intercultural Heritage from the University of Bologna. He lives in Trento.

“The Myth of Poetry’s Decline in the US,” an essay by David Garyan, published in Interlitq

“The Myth of Poetry’s Decline in the US” is an essay that first appeared in Volume 6 of The American Journal of Poetry (January 1st, 2019). 

Please click here read the story behind the initiative to republish all my work lost with the disappearance of The American Journal of Poetry.


The Myth of Poetry’s Decline in the United States

America, your poetry has become broccoli. No, this is not a line from an Allen Ginsberg poem, but it is true. Much of contemporary verse no longer tastes good, but it is good for you—or so the intellectuals say. It is time to take a different approach; maybe the reason why creatives/academics in the field complain about dwindling readership (absolutely misleading at best and completely untrue at worst) is not because the public is busy with other, more important things, but rather that post-modern balladry is too concerned with itself. How can readership be plunging when we have more MFA programs and literary journals than ever? In reality, the art is not affected by a waning readership but a change in readership. Poetry is largely not read by the everyday person (by this I mean people who are not scholars, enrolled in MFA programs, or edit a literary journal) anymore because it is, to a large extent, ignoring the sensibilities of the larger population, and, instead, choosing to satisfy the aesthetic of those involved in the art’s creation.

Verse is slowly becoming a hermit (or has already become one according to people who have abandoned it altogether). The hermits have deliberately taken vows of silence and have gone deep into the mountains to create “new languages.” Nobody can find these recluses, and, even if anyone is interested enough to seek them out, the loners refuse to share the burden of helping others understand their tongues; furthermore, they are not willing, at the very least, to provide some clues that people can use to navigate their lexis themselves—the burden is all on the reader and this is the best way, they claim, to learn new poetic “languages,” especially their own. The ascetics believe that their calculated and deliberate unwillingness to communicate the secrets of their lingo makes them more sophisticated than the very people who were interested enough in their message to begin with, and actually took the trouble to seek them out in the first place. The hermits have gone on, then, to call their variety of writing “experimental,” and, in fact, proceeded to claim that label entirely for themselves (even though there are millions of other ways to push verse’s boundaries besides just being difficult and making readers do all the work). To save the art, however, we must also be open to experimentation in other spaces of the linguistic laboratory, such as honesty, openness, and accessibility, because, in fact, new things are still waiting to be discovered there as well.

Poetry, like most sensible academic disciplines, should provide a service to people outside of its circle; in other words, disciplines like science or engineering, for example, are not just useful for scientists and engineers; these disciplines enrich the lives of other individuals who do not necessarily study them—or even want to; however, the majority of those who academically immerse themselves in verse—especially those who study the art of writing it—are in many cases not interested in providing a service to the everyday person at all. They mostly write for other creatives or academics, and they often neglect to consider what it takes to reach the world at large—those who may or may not be interested in the creation of art, much less high literary theory. Whether the non-humanities contingent of the population is actually interested in studying rhymed and unrhymed art makes no difference. Indeed, people must not be keen on studying science or engineering to have their lives enriched by it—better infrastructure, or more effective healthcare are just some of the ways STEM fields have improved society in general, and, strangely enough, also the bard who now uses a laptop to write and edit more efficiently.

Why is poetry, then, almost the only academic discipline—at least in its present state—mostly not interested in providing a service to those outside of its academic circle when other fields clearly have higher stakes than merely impressing their department chair? Maybe one day we will be lucky enough to have a type of experimental pharmacy where the burden to prove medicinal effectiveness rests solely on the patient’s effort to ingest various drugs in order to see which ones actually work, but, naturally, I have some reservations with this approach. Luckily, all noble scientists who have conducted experiments (especially the riskiest ones) never got the crazy idea to abandon their subjects in order for them to better figure out what their own work actually means; the “experiment,” for lack of better words, has always relied upon a mutual relationship between the subject and creator for optimal success.

A large part of what constitutes experimentation is dependent on the subject; it is he/she who ingests the drug and experiences the effects (and who likewise consumes poetic content that, in turn, becomes the experience), but a sensible scientific (and also poetic) study fundamentally requires a good scientist (and poet) who can guide the participant towards some reasonable result or outcome; otherwise, what we have is simply a bunch of recreational drug users (or readers) who do not contribute—or are incapable of contributing much to either discipline in a sensible way, mainly because they do not know what they are doing, or cannot even decide where to begin. The poet is the shaman—he must provide the trance, but he must also guide his subjects (to some extent) in order for them not to waste the experience that is given; the shaman cannot relinquish all responsibility the same way that a poet cannot relinquish the entire burden of meaning-making onto the reader.

It is important to recognize, consequently, that not everyone who takes risks writes one brand of the so-called “experimental” verse—that not all risks have the same value, and that not all risks are necessarily about the deliberate concealment of meaning—in this respect, not all “danger” has the same necessity. We must, thus, rescue the label “experimental poetry” from those who have hijacked the definition and rewritten it to mean only one thing—deliberate concealment of meaning. The problem with intentional obfuscation—or difficulty for difficulty’s sake—is that too much obfuscation leads to a greater decline in the readership of poetry among those who do not write it; this obfuscation, however, has almost no negative effect on the academic institutions where the art is actually produced because journals continue to be printed (yet mostly read by other writers only) and MFA programs grow in number every year. We should not relegate creativity to the populist sphere, but we should also not blame its loss of popularity on the populace when we deliberately withhold its essence from larger societies while at the same time desperately seeking their very recognition and validation.

Some obfuscation and difficulty in writing is good because it promotes closer reading and allows for greater interpretation, but bards should, to some extent, meet the reader halfway; they should challenge the reader to find the gated community where the party is held, but they should also send the invitation, and, when the hermits actually show up to celebrate, they should be willing to speak openly and honestly—indeed, attending a party presupposes a desire to socialize with others, not just with one’s self. What “experimental” writers want, however, is to somehow realize the classic, unattainable scenario: They want to socialize, but they do not want to speak; they want to be read by people outside of academia, but their entire aesthetic is built upon the exclusion of those very people: “As predicted, Simple Joe did not understand my piece about superstructures—success! Oh, when will the world finally recognize my genius?”

A lot of “experimental” verse claims to host a party but it does not want to send the invitation at all; it prefers that the reader find the gathering on their own, and, to make matters worse, some authors also take their house numbers down—if the reader actually manages to find the house through context (looking at the numbers on other houses), they prefer, then, to keep their vows of silence, and this happens out of fear that their cryptic genius is compromised any further, because, gee, after structuralism came post-structuralism, and we have not really taken the time to come up with something even more difficult, except maybe the font “Wingdings” on Microsoft Word, which is not really our invention, but we can nevertheless always fall back on Egyptian hieroglyphics to really push the envelope of “experimental” line onanism. Such authors are so obsessed with their own mind and so preoccupied with holding a pen in their right hand that they love to utterly forget about the readers sitting next to them (the few that they have left, anyways), who are interested in what they have to say, and might actually like them; this one-sided approach to writing does nothing but confuse and alienate the very readers we blame for the “decline of poetry,” which is supposedly real, but I have serious doubts about the veracity of this apparent “decline.”

To say that the US is undergoing a drop in readership is as absurd as saying that chicken nuggets are a vegetable. Take Germany, for example, a country of about 83 million people and the economic powerhouse of Europe. How many MFA faculties does Germany have? 10? 20? 30? 40, maybe? How about only 1? At the University of Leipzig, students can enroll in the only creative writing MFA in Germany, Deutsches Literaturinstitut Leipzig (DLL). Dr. Sebastian M. Hermann, who teaches in the American Studies program at the aforementioned uni, said the following about MFAs in a Deutsche Welle article written by Courtney Tenz: “Speaking very generally, Germans tend to think of creative writing as something that cannot be taught—a matter of genius, independent of education.” Historically, Germany has been called “Das Land der Dichter und Denker” (the land of poets and thinkers); yet, in a country with only one MFA-granting institution, why is nobody complaining about the “decline of poetry” in Germany? In the US, we have close to 300 such programs, and yet, people continue to put forth this misleading argument; with that amount of academic dedication to the craft, somebody in the US has to be reading verse, but who exactly are we talking about here? The problem is that these readers are largely not everyday people.

It should be noted that Leipzig’s creative writing program has its roots in the communist East German government, which founded the Johannes R. Becher Institute and here, in 1955, began the first so-called “creative seminars.” Notwithstanding, Tenz writes: “To keep the writers from getting too caught up in the world of fiction and philosophy, they were regularly sent to work in the coal mines.” Truly excessive, to say the least, and probably having more to do with the economic sake of East Germany than anything else, the idea, nonetheless, to put some distance between writers and the academy might be a good one to implement here in the States (albeit using different means) because it may remind artists that they are not simply writing for their workshops, and that many of their readers are not scholars enjoying comfortable existences, but, in fact, enduring challenging lives that many academics today are quite out of touch with. In other words, the everyday person probably does not need additional “challenges,” or what people with English degrees like to call “poetry,” which comes from learned individuals who feel that they must be obstreperous because they have nothing better to do in office hour.

It should come as no surprise that today’s creative writing program in Leipzig no longer requires employment in the coal mines; what is striking, however, is that the sole “MFA” in Germany mostly gets criticized nowadays for producing “institute prose,” which Tenz says critics define as “a consequence of studying instead of living outside the academy, where many authors find their inspiration.” Dr. Joseph Haslinger, a well-known Austrian writer and professor at the University of Leipzig, further echoed the danger of excessive academicism and theory within creative writing programs in Tenz’s article: “There is talk of works which are crafted with virtuosity but with scanty content, works which hide their deficient experience of life behind well-oiled literary technique.” David Ignatow’s, “No Theory,” is the perfect example of a poem which encapsulates the aforementioned view:

No theory will stand up to a chicken’s guts
being cleaned out, a hand rammed up
to pull out the wriggling entrails,
the green bile and the bloody liver;
no theory that does not grow sick
at the odor escaping.

However, what do the most prestigious MFA programs in the US do for their students? They surely do not make them smell the odor escaping from a chicken’s guts—oh no, God forbid the rich kids should suffer some adversity and actually improve their stories or poems in the process. “Here is what we will do instead, Professor Pennelegion-Dickford-Buckley-Smith, III: Let us give incoming students $30,000 stipends a year so they cannot focus just on writing, but so they can concentrate exclusively on writing what we want them to write without worrying about how they will fund their indoctrination program.”

With the sensibilities and needs of the general public mostly ignored by today’s contemporary writers, it is no wonder, then, why so many people refuse the urge to invite the art into their lives; it becomes apparent why they are sometimes put off by its anti-social, high-brow ways. The elitists have successfully moved the party to their aforementioned gated community, and refused the populace entry into the most sacred, intimate rooms of the compound; they force individuals to watch from a distance while they themselves salivate over “theory” and try to do everything possible to turn the plain cheeseburger into a manicured hors-d’oeuvre, all because no one is allowed to eat cheeseburgers inside a chateau. The writer, Joseph Heller, perfectly summarized such a position: “They know everything there is to know about literature, except how to enjoy it.”

The problem is that “sophisticated” literary theory is used as a cover for the inability to communicate profoundly in more accessible ways—authors take a vow of silence about the meaning of their work, because, deep down, they arrive at the realization that they have nothing interesting to share, so they invent their own language and speak to themselves. Consequently, the entire burden of meaning-making is redirected onto the reader and if the recipient does crack the code, it is not he who gets the credit for being a master codebreaker, but, strangely, the poet who becomes the “cryptic genius,” all on the backbreaking work of the ones who read him. This is an unfair exchange. No one should ever be someone else’s unpaid Alice Kober for writing that might, at best, be described as “experimental Morse Code,” but this is exactly what is happening.

To say “experimental” verse is an experiment is akin to saying that a scientist should write random numbers on the wall and redirect the burden of discovery onto other scientists, all in hopes that they will find some genius in the work (if it exists at all)—without guidance or help from its author; it sounds insane, but this is exactly what many “experimental” bards expect of their readers. It becomes apparent, then, why so many people simply give up trying to decode the hermit’s language or are no longer interested in finding his gated community where meaning is so closely guarded—even if they were initially very interested in the language or fascinated by the writer’s personality; readers are told there is a great party being held and if the invitation does go out, it arrives with no directions to the house, much less an address (even that would help) that can help society at large enter this space that is, at present, largely open only to those who are doing the creative work themselves. How are people supposed to feel welcomed, much less access these spaces, when many of the writers flat out neglect the sensibilities of the very ones they desperately seek (or claim to seek) recognition from?

It seems strange to say, but perhaps academics actually want this “decline” because it favors their kind of art. Maybe that is why we keep hearing so much about this “decline” in what seems like every literary journal because the argument favors the status quo—those who are heavily invested in literary theory and promote the type of verse which agrees with those theories while excluding all other aesthetics because they may threaten their academic specialization or have a direct influence on what classes actually enroll. In other words, imagine doing post-structural theory on Bukowski—it seems inherently absurd from the get-go because the theorists claim that all language is subject to the principles laid out by post-structural theory, yet, at the same time, almost no professors want to breathe within a five mile radius of a Bukowski collection (let alone teach it) because they realize the inherent, monumental absurdity of the effort: “Yes, Professor Winterbottom, I realize that even Bukowski’s work conforms to the principles of différance laid out by Derrida, but, golly, to do our privileged theory on this, excuse my saying, filth, is as silly as inviting a hobo to a White House dinner. Surely, the classes will enroll like wildfire and we’ll be suffering because we specialize in Keats and no one wants to read Keats—they all want to read this drunk, Bukowski. Well, we shan’t give them that pleasure, Professor Winterbottom. No, we shan’t.”

No, we have no right to say that the art is in decline simply because people refuse to read what the academy wants them to read and instead choose other things. If the academy has assumed the liberty to dictate what aesthetic is given attention and what aesthetic is ignored, then they should also assume the duty of realizing they cannot gain the readership of those they choose to exclude; however, the academy does not want to assume this latter virtue, and, therefore, it has resentfully declared that “poetry is obsolete” because those that they have excluded are not willing to support them in building an aesthetic that does not favor the excluded writing. Even though the art gains a greater academic audience every year, the actual diversity of the aesthetic grows very little and we simultaneously lose large portions of the non-academic readership that are needed to continue having a diverse audience. Why not, then, try to bring more flavor back to verse? Is it not about time to stop feeling guilty about reading a poem and “understanding” it? Why does everything have to be so damn difficult? Why can’t it simply be challenging, or even hard? Why does every piece have to be deconstructed so much that it is impossible to put it back together? No, difficult must stay because it is one of the experiments, but it cannot claim to be the only experiment.

Judging from the tidal waves of bad relationship lines on the internet, and the massive book sales of the so-called “social media poets,” it is surprising how many young people actually gravitate towards the craft, and, more importantly, how deceiving it actually is to say that the art is in “decline.” One must only look at how many people still believe in its power—even if they read “bad” writing or write badly themselves—to understand that “decline” is really not the proper word to use here. Yes, verse must be saved, but it must be rescued from a change of readership that is increasingly becoming too academic and one-sided. Writing does not belong exclusively to the university because it was not born there. Poetry was born on the walls of Sumer, in the amphitheaters of Greece, among the plains and mountains that Native Americans considered sacred, and, even, one might argue, after the invention of fire, at the moment when that caveman realized what he/she had done and uttered the ultimate sound of success. The art used to be generation after generation of kids raised in the wilderness, but their descendants have finally been adopted into hallowed halls of education and made to dress like royals in order to show off this prized possession that, for ages, made men and women—not university professors—immortal. “Behold, Professor Donahue and Professor Dinwiddie. In this cage, we have poetry in Ph.D. regalia, a soon-to-be visiting professor at Dartmouth and then Yale—under direct supervision, of course, and a great candidate for the tenure-track position at Brown; yes, Professor Donahue, it was once naked, dangerous, and powerful, but we have done a good job taming it—giving it some culture, beating the nostalgie de la boue out of it, so to say.”

To save the craft, one must return some of its privilege and essence to where it came from—to the world. Paradoxically, we can start with the people who choose it as a university path—not those who have studied it for years, but, rather, young people who have no clue about how verse should be analyzed, and, hence, have fewer biases about what must be read and what must be excluded; too many times, the few “creatives” who brave to pursue English degrees—despite parental objections to become doctors or lawyers—encounter unnecessary and deliberate obfuscation of the art. However, we need less academics who understand everything about writing (which amounts to informing students that they are utterly responsible for finding their own meaning) and more teachers who actually enjoy creating, mainly because they can formulate some original ideas about the craft without holding onto current or past literary trends like they are the only two pieces of paper on a sinking boat full of metaphors. In a word—less post-structural theory in class, and we need to stop equating only “difficult” genius with genius.

No student who happens to pursue a career in medicine would ever hear this on the first day: “Well, students, welcome to medical school. As you know, medicine is a very difficult subject and we will try to do our best to help you succeed; therefore, we have picked textbooks that are unnecessarily difficult and the burden is entirely on you to understand them. The authors are dead, although they actually live comfortably in New Haven and Boston, and if you do not read closely enough, your patients will soon be dead too. Good luck.” Exaggerated, of course, but often only sarcasm and hyperbole work to drive the point home: No professor would ever want to make medicine harder than it actually is, or confuse their students unnecessarily. However, many of those in academia working in Liberal Studies departments all across the country—for some reason or another—feel that verse should be “academictight”: No zephyr of enjoyment shall pass through or escape from these fart-ridden academic containers we call lecture halls and classrooms. Well, it is impossible to save the life of poetry, much less the life of one person, if the students—who potentially sacrifice power and prestige to study it—are continuously insulted with inaccessible writing and made to feel stupid when they cannot satisfy the often insane artistic reading demands of those who wrote gibberish.

Anyone can write something that is cloudy in the experimental sense—something akin to this scenario: “Dear Reader. I am conducting an experiment: You are on an airplane flying coach over Paris at 40,000 feet; it is quite overcast below, but, luckily, you are sitting next to a window, and, at least, there are no screaming kids. Your job is to describe how it feels like to walk the streets of Paris; by now, you have probably realized that “Paris” is my experimental poem and I am trying to make you ‘see’ it from a vantage point that makes it quite impossible, in fact, to see anything at all.” If the endeavor fails, the writer can always fall back on the comfort of saying exactly that— thereby escape any serious criticism, much less allow themselves to feel vulnerable; in other words, the paradox is that the so-called “experimental” writer is actually taking less risks because failure is almost always excused—in other words, the courageous act of experimentation alone is enough to excuse the mess outright; however, try to write a bad villanelle, or even a bad lyric piece in free verse—the ridicule will come like mudslides in Los Angeles after the El Nino. Perhaps another type of risk worth taking, or experiment, for lack of better words, is honesty, melody, and originality, capable of reaching people who hold no academic titles—to attain an audience in new, original ways, and to struggle doing this with a language they already know. Sometimes, the bard must also work hard to create meaning, and not simply assume that readers are happy to carry this burden all the time. The poet’s plight for new, accessible meaning can also lead to sophisticated writing, or have we forgotten this? Our difficult journey for original clarity should continue to be an experiment worthy of pursuit, and, in fact, it is this area of the “laboratory” where most of the risks are actually dangerous for the writer because it is here that ridicule is most likely to occur; if one writes a bad poem, it is his fault; on the other hand, if readers cannot find redeeming qualities in an excellent work, they can try again if the piece is accessible enough, or simply ignore it. However, “experimental” writers are often not interested in this type of experiment because it requires “openness,” not obfuscation—it requires empathy for someone else—the ability to feel vulnerable, above all, and the ability to guide someone towards a “new” language using the language people are familiar with.

Poetry can be saved if writers take a little more time to notice the artistic sensibilities of the everyday person—they are there; I am absolutely sure of it. Readers must be challenged, but not sacrificed; they must not only be invited, but also be given some guidance. “Experimental” verse, on the other hand, is like a mountain guide who tells people to climb difficult peaks themselves—maybe one or two climbers will somehow reach the top, and this has always been the guide’s excuse that his philosophy is sound. Good poems, however, meet the reader halfway—they do not abandon them. If the art is to be saved, it must not only talk to itself, but reach out to others for help.

Works Cited

“No Theory.” Against the Evidence: Selected Poems, 1934-1994, by David Ignatow, Wesleyan/University Press of New England, 1994, pp. 59–59.

Tenz, Courtney. “Leipzig Writers’ Program Shapes New Generation of German Authors.” Deutsche Welle, 17 Mar. 2010,