Why kids hate poetry and why you probably hate it too – THIS IS NOT A TEST #60 (transcript)

Published April 9, 2016

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Hello, hello, hello again and aren’t you lovely for joining me, Michael Phillips, for another action packed thrill ride on THIS IS NOT A TEST, where we will spin around faster than Space Mountain, rock you harder than an 80s hair metal band, and then bring you back down to earth like a parachute landing in a fluffy and poppy sea of bubble wrap. It’s like that, it is, and aren’t we all lucky to be alive and together today, tonight, whenever and wherever you are. Lucky indeed. I’m recording this on the last night of American Idol. That incubator of mediocrity and mainstream mush. But to listen to all the news reports you’d think Babe Ruth was retiring or something. Luckily for you we’re going to ignore that. We’ll just pretend it never happened. We’ll pretend there never was an American Idol.

After talking about politicians and “occupy” last time I thought it would be good to do something less…intense this time. I always get too wound up over politicians. Or not so much over politicians, but over people believing that any one of them is ever going to do anything “good.” You may have hear me go off on the occupy movement, which isn’t a movement at all, and boy oh, boy oh, you should have seen the unsubscribes come rolling in to the mailing list and the podcast. Well, what can I do. I guess I gored their ox, as they say. Their precious occupy ox. It’s all fun and games until something or someone you care about comes under fire. No one wants to be told that what they’re doing is foolish or a waste of time. It hurts to hear those kinds of things. But when it’s true, if you’re smart, eventually you realize that you are wasting your time, and you are foolish. We’re all foolish, it doesn’t matter what we believe in or drone on about until our friends want to stuff us into a car trunk and take us out to the country and abandon us in the hope that we’ll get lost and never make it back home to bother them again.

But the truth is I don’t really decide what to talk about here. Well, I decide but I don’t plan. I don’t know what it’s going to be until I see or hear or do something and think, “Oh, there you go. Podcast.” You know, when I started this thing I thought I’d record a bunch of episodes, 10 or 12 of them, and just sit on them and pick and choose what to drop on the world on any given Saturday. But it didn’t work out that way. Not even a little bit. That’s probably the smart way to do it, which is probably why I don’t do it that way. Like today, I have a short story I intended to read to you, but now that I look at it, it would require too much acting, and acting it out would ruin it. I think. It’s about the singer Richie Havens doing a Fritos commercial. You remember Richie Havens don’t you? Of course you don’t. Well, you can look him up. Indeed, it’s a classic of the modern short story form, but you’ll have to wait and read it somewhere. Maybe. Someday. A long time ago there were these things called literary magazines, where people would publish poetry and short stories on paper and send the little booklets out to people through the mail. Can you imagine? In those days I sent out a lot of poems and short stories and they were published in those little magazines, and I thought, “Well, this is nice, it will be nice to do this forever.” Then the Internet happened and “forever” turned out to be “hardly ever.”

I was an early proponent of the Internet, a booster, you might say, an enthusiast. I had a website with art and poetry on it but I never saw a website as a replacement for printed writing. You could see pretty early on though that that was exactly what it was going to become. As it did. 75% of the printed poetry magazines stopped printing and tried to go web-only. The problem with that – well, there are a lot of problems with that, but what ended up happening is most of the printed magazines that decided to go online only lasted a short while, or never got off the ground at all. I suppose that had something to do with building and managing a website, and that being a new thing to the publishers. They looked at the web and thought, “Ah, the answer to my dreams!” then when they got under the hood they were like, “What the fuck is this mess? I have no idea how this thing works.” Anyone could throw together a simple website, but maintaining the things is a bitch. And expanding them, always expanding and improving and keeping up with changes in technology…it becomes a job. And it was a job that most of the literary magazine publishers weren’t interested in pursuing, so that was that.

I mean that was that for some of them. I said 75% stopped publishing on paper and I have no idea if that’s anywhere near accurate. It’s what it looked like to me, so take what I’m saying with a grain of salt. If you don’t already. And that applies to everything I say. Which, if you’re listening right now, I assume you already know. Anyway, most of the other ones, the ones that did carry on with their websites, eventually abandoned them too. For a while there, there were poetry websites everywhere you looked. You couldn’t dial in to your AOL connection without getting lost in them. But most of them withered and died. And that’s the real problem with moving literature – if we may be so fancy as to call it that – from the printed page to the web. When something dies on the web, it disappears. Of course print magazines die too. If you look at the small press, the poetry magazines, the majority of them come and go, came and went, pretty quickly. A lot of them only published one or two issues because they were just too much work for the people doing them. Usually it was a one person job – one insane person – and it really eats up all of your time, publishing a little magazine.

So most of them came and went, but after they went they continued to exist, right? They are still there. You can still pick up The Knucklehead Chronicle #1 that was published in 1982 or 1922 and read it. It’s still there and it will be there until all the copies wind up under half eaten tacos and dirty diapers in a landfill. But people being the savers and collectors that they are, that will probably never happen, so even though The Knucklehead Chronicle only came out once, it will live forever. Or as forever as anything is. But the website that The Knucklehead Chronicle guy might have built? It’s gone. Was it ever even there? Who knows. No way to find out. And the work that was published there, it’s all gone too. So if someone only wrote 40 poems in their life and only ever got one published and it happened to be on The Knucklehead Chronicle website, well it’s as if they were never published. Gone like the fog, baby. Or gone like a baby fog. Or baby frog.

And that’s not always a bad thing. Just because we type something or paint something or film something doesn’t mean we’re entitled to have that thing last forever. Most of what we make doesn’t deserve to exist right now, let alone be archived for the ages, for future generations to look at and laugh. But there’s something really great about picking up an old poetry magazine and reading the weird shit in it. Seeing what was considered art 10 or 50 or 100 years ago. What culture was. It’s good that they’re there, whether or not they’re relevant or even matter any more. It’s good that we have this record of our yelping out into an uncaring universe. Even if it only exists in a dusty box in someone’s attic or a moldy box in their basement and no one ever sees it. Someone could see it, eventually, and that’s where the magic is. The time traveling. All those dead people’s words, waiting for someone to read them again. And say, “What the hell does this mean?”

Yeah, I know there are still printed magazines – I don’t know how many, not as many as there used to be – but I have no idea where to find them anymore, so as you might imagine I don’t send my genius work out into the world much these days. I used to find them by walking into one of the fine independent bookstores in my neighborhood, but I moved and the stores are all gone anyway. When I do hit the magazine racks at an independent bookstore I don’t see any of the wild little Xerox jobs that used to be all over them. Wild little Xerox jobs that were only 3 or 4 or 5 bucks so you could pick up a few of them just for curiosity’s sake. Hosho McCreesh talked about the small press and why it remains small in a blog post and an email very recently, and he has some interesting ideas around how to do something about that. How to embiggen the small press. But it seems to me that making the small press world not so small, taking the small press world mainstream, would kill it, just like the mainstream kills everything that it absorbs. It isn’t done maliciously or even on purpose, it just kind of happens. It’s what the mainstream does. It emblandens everything it touches. That isn’t its purpose but it is its function. It’s inevitable.

Well, that’s not true, is it. It seems like it sometimes, but it’s not really what happens. If you’re just some unknown slob and you make a record or write a book and it becomes popular and mainstream, the record or the book are still what they were when you made them. Popularity doesn’t change the essence of the thing. The difference comes when you create something designed for the mainstream, or to appeal to the mainstream. That’s where the compromise and dumbing down creep in and you wind up with something that is lesser than it might have been if you were creating it for purely artistic reasons. And everyone does it at some point, intentionally makes something that they think will appeal to the masses. We’re usually wrong, it doesn’t wind up appealing to more people, but we do it anyway. Because we want to be loved. Every poet or songwriter or artist of any kind that ever made anything only made it so you’d love them. So that a lot of people would love them. Or at least look at them for a minute.

It’s funny, I was driving home from work the other day and my favorite NPR station was fundraising, so I switched over to my second favorite NPR station and they were talking about Donald Trump, so I hit the last button on my radio and went to the “classic rock” station just as a song was ending and then came the familiar notes that start “Stairway to Heaven.” And I thought, “Seriously, they’re playing “Stairway to Heaven” in 2016? And I reached over to change it, but then I thought, “Well, I haven’t heard this all the way through in probably 30 years. What would happen if I just listened to it…” So I did, and what I came away with at the end was that it’s a really stupid song that doesn’t do anything until the drums come in. And when I listened to it after these decades of just hearing it in bits, the drums were the only thing I liked. But that song was massively popular in its day for a reason. It resonated with people, and they wanted to hear it over and over. And over and over and over.

Now Led Zeppelin didn’t go into the studio thinking, “Let’s make a hit record today, let’s record a massive anthem for a generation.” It was just one of the new songs they had so they recorded it. It wasn’t fashioned for the mainstream, it just became mainstream. But I have to say that it probably wasn’t a huge surprise to them when it did become what it became. When you’re in the studio working on a track, you know when you hit one that’s just different or dare I say, better, than everything else you’re working on. You know. Just like when you’re writing poems you know. You knock one off and think, “Okay, this is a good one,” and whether that turns into something, whether that means it becomes popular or relatively popular with your audience is still a crap shoot. I know that this thing you’re listening to, this podcast, sometimes I wrap one up and think, “Oh, that’s a good one,” but that never translates into more downloads or comments or anything. It’s all in my head that it’s a good one. It’s up to the people who take it in – it’s up to you – to really decide.

And sometimes things are discovered long after they’re current, long after they were created, they’re discovered and everyone says, “Wow, this is a classic,” while the person who crated it is on to something else, or dead. It’s all a crap shoot and as the person making the thing you figure out after a while that it doesn’t really matter what you think of it. The people who take it in, consume it, if you will, they’ll decide what it is. But the fact that it can and does happen without intention, long after the thing is created, is certainly an argument for putting things down on paper rather than sticking them onto the web. If something great exists but then it’s ultimately lost, was it ever great? Who knows, it isn’t there to see anymore. And that’s the problem with art and the Internet. Some kinds of art on Internet anyway, but mainly writing. The Internet was designed to be a great repository, a place where the wisdom of the ages would be available to everyone, but it didn’t turn out that way.

Originally the Internet was a bunch of university computers, and everyone assumed that because that was the case, the information would be reliable and it would be “everlasting,” or at least long lasting. Then we mere mortals, we non-academics took over and all bets were off. We made it into a commercial space and an ephemeral space, where things come and go, and no wisdom, if it should accidentally appear, is preserved for anyone, let alone a future generation. So the printed page, the recorded music on some physical format, those things have to keep going if anything is going to last, if we’re going to have any history of our generations here way off in the distant future. Whether having that history is important is another question, and the answer is probably: not always. But I for one like history, it’s interesting to me, so I feel a bit like we’re cutting off our own heads here sometimes.

But don’t ask me to produce a printed literary magazine. I’m not going to do it. I actually thought about it once, way back when, but then I made some poetry chapbooks and it was such a horrible and tedious task that I swore I’d never do it again. And that was for my own work. I can’t imagine going through that torture for someone else’s work. And it finally occurred to me that I wasn’t an editor anyway, or a curator. I learned that lesson from the art website that I ran. I pulled the plug on that thing, just like the plug gets pulled on every site like it eventually. And every poetry magazine and art gallery. They all come and go. It takes a certain kind of person to publish a poetry or literary magazine, an I ain’t that kind of person. But I’m glad those kinds of people are out here. Keeping poetry alive for the 3,000 people in the world who want to read it once in a while.

And like everything else, I fully expect that the printed poetry magazines will return. Maybe not in the same numbers that they once existed in, but they’ll be back. You can see a return to the “analog” everywhere else, so it only seems logical that some kids will get agitated and start publishing paper zines again. They probably already are, but I’m just too old and out of the loop to recognize it. It’s all just the flow of humanity and culture, surging this way, then receding and surging in some other direction. We’re impatient and capricious so we’re always looking for some new direction to move in. That’s good, it keeps things interesting. You never know what’s going to happen. I mean, sometimes you can look around and know exactly what’s going to happen, because people are kind of predictable, but there’s always that aberration, that odd duck, that weirdo that takes things somewhere unexpected. That’s art, man, that’s creation.

All I know is I have a shelf full of magazines with my poems and stories in them, and some of them are more than 20 years old. I had some poems on some websites 20 years ago, and where are they now? They aren’t on my shelf, I can tell you that. They may exist on a backup disc somewhere. At least until that backup disc is thrown into a dumpster. But otherwise they’re gone, gone, gone. Well that’s not true either, I still have the poems, obviously. I’m no fool. But they aren’t on the sites because the sites are gone. You know, I said that only 3,000 people read poetry, which was kind of a joke but really not far off the mark. I suspect that the only people who read the magazines my poems appeared in were the other poets who also appeared in them. “No one reads poetry,” everyone says, and for the most part it’s true. But why is it true?

Well for one thing, they don’t expose kids to a lot of poetry in school, do they. I don’t remember ever reading or hearing anything but rhyming children’s poems in school. And when I got older, if it did branch out beyond that it was usually into literary poetry, which is about as interesting to the average kid as a barrel full of steamed vegetables. And if you show any interest in literature when you’re in high school or get to college, what do they throw at you? Old shit. They throw shit at you. And the poets who come out of universities are so utterly worthless that I can hardly find words to insult them with. But if you look at what kind of poetry books are published – and yes, a lot of poetry books are still published – they are all academic twaddle. They lack even the faintest glimmer of life. But you can’t blame an academic poet for being boring, since all they’ve ever done is go to school and look at themselves in the mirror.

Who buys that academic poetry-sludge that’s published by the university presses? Other MFAs? Other Masters of Fine Arts? Their parents? People who want to look intelligent? No normal, regular people do, I can tell you that. And why would they. It’s not worth reading. And if you are ever unfortunate enough to be locked in a room for three days with only one book and have to read any of that modern academic poetry, be prepared to have a dictionary by your side, because there’s nothing academic poets like more than words you don’t know. If there’s a 13 letter word for fork, you can bet they’ll use it instead of saying “fork.” They do that to demonstrate their education and the breadth of their knowledge. And they will write about Paris and Prague and Istanbul and how the pre-dawn smells in those places transported them to a freshly harvested field of Kansas wheat or 17th century Vienna or their grandmother’s kitchen. But they’ve never been to Prague or Istanbul or anyplace interesting, and they stay clear of their grandmothers if at all possible. Is it any wonder that any kid walking the earth today who’s forced to read that comes away thinking it isn’t for them? It isn’t for them. It isn’t for anybody.

So if you reject that, which any human with a soul naturally would, what’s left for you? The small press. The small press poets. The poets of the people! The poets who are telling it like it is. Telling it like it is to 50 or 100 people with each book or magazine. Because, again, people don’t read poetry. I can tell you that when I started reading Bukowski, it was the short stories, and then the novels, and then I figured I was finished. I didn’t want to open one of his poetry books, because it was poetry, man, and poetry is horrible. I had no experience with any poetry that I liked, only with poetry that made me roll my eyes, and I liked Bukowski’s stories too much to roll my eyes over his poetry.

But they tricked me by putting out a couple of books that mixed stories and poetry. And the first time I read those I even skipped the poetry. Because, you know, it was poetry. But as we all know, or hopefully know by now, Bukowski’s poetry isn’t like the poetry we were exposed to when we were young and impressionable. It’s something completely different. It’s alive and messy and often simple and direct. The opposite of what the university poets write. And a lot of regular old people like Bukowski’s poetry. He speaks to them. But other poets could speak to them too. They just don’t know about them because their work is too hard to find. Well, okay, it’s not hard to find, but you have to know where to look. You can’t just happen across it while you’re minding your own business or doing something else.

So the question then becomes, why the hell don’t we expose the kids, the yout’ dem, to some poetry they’ll be able to relate to? What are the people who decide what to teach kids afraid of? I don’t know. I don’t know that they are necessarily afraid of anything. I think most of them come from universities, so they probably think that university-type poetry is where it’s at. They think that’s what poetry is. They’ve been duped and they don’t know any better. And even though they teach it, they know only one kid in a thousand is going to latch onto that stuff, but they’ll take that. They’ll take that one kid because kids don’t like poetry, right? They aren’t advanced enough. See, it’s a vicious circle. Kids hate poetry because all they get is shit poetry that makes them sleepy and angry.

And I’m not sure I even care if kids learn to like poetry. It’s only a small percentage of kids, a very small percentage, who even learn to enjoy reading, period. So I suppose we should be grateful for them, and not scare them away with anything as weird and radical as poetry! But to get back to what we were talking about before, even that rare kid who does dig poetry and tries to do something that relates to their life with it, I wonder if the world will ever get a chance to see what they come up with? Because it will probably go up on the web somewhere, and it will flitter around like an adorable poetry butterfly, then disappear forever. It’s an impossible fix, innit. It’s like the web and the Internet was designed to suck away our cultural memories and leave us salivating over the next round of clickbait, the next picture of some celebutante’s bleached asshole or drug stash.

All the pictures we take will disappear, all of our genius writing, all of our everything. Your mother or your grandmother can whip out a box of pictures and papers and show you a picture of that one distant cousin with the humpback who went off to join the circus and no one talks about, and they can do that because they still have a picture of the weird cousin. Maybe the cousin is sitting at a dinner table with your dead grandfather and your dad who you’ve only seen twice in your life, and there’s the picture, you can see it. They have that stuff – they do, just ask them to see it, you’ll be there for hours – they have it and we won’t, and that’s – I don’t know what that is. No one knows what the end result of that is, a generation – or more – losing their souvenirs, their memories. No one knows what that’s going to mean. But it’s probably going to mean that your great grandchildren won’t know a god damned thing about you, including what you looked like. That may be tragic or it may not matter, I don’t know. They probably wouldn’t look at pictures of you anyway, or read something you wrote that was preserved in a paper magazine.

But as far as poetry on paper is concerned, for anyone wondering how to interest kids in it, the answer is simple. Give them some poetry they can relate to and you’re going to open a lot of them up to different ways of thinking about words and ideas. Give them something that doesn’t set off their bullshit detectors and they will respond. You aren’t educating those kids, you’re just steering them. They educate themselves with what they think matters. If you make poetry matter to them they’ll eat it up. If you keep trying to feed them dust and academic masturbation, they’ll reject it. As they should. It seems simple, doesn’t it? Maybe I’m missing an important part of something somewhere, with my simplification and idiocy. But 9 times out of 10 the simple answer is the right answer and the one that’s going to work and last.

Okay, so that wasn’t exactly a thrill ride, was it. I promised you Space Mountain and I delivered PBS. Or something that could loosely be gathered under a very large umbrella that also included PBS. But what do you want? Space Mountain isn’t so great anyway. You know it’s just a roller coaster, right? A roller coaster inside a dark box with some colored lights. Just like every ride at Disneyland. They’re all roller coasters in dark boxes. Except Small World. That’s like a hot tub in a dark box with puppets. Speaking of puppets, I told you we were going to see the Bob Baker marionettes, and we did, and they were very puppety. It was certainly weird, but also nice to sit there and watch something that most people thought went away with black and white TV and people going to the moon. The little kids that were there certainly went apeshit over the whole experience, so all’s right in the universe as far as that goes. Okay. Until we meet again.