Tuesday, January 05, 2010


I haven't truly blogged in months. I've been busy with finishing One More Theory About Happiness, bits of travel, work on other projects, managing unreliable health care assistants, the holidays, you know, life. It's been difficult to carve out enough time, or mental space, to write something for here.

But my memoir is finished and it's a new year. I feel a bit of clearing inside my head. Which seems right when I read the following comment, left by Anonymous:

"Paul, while I am happy about your success, your poetry is weak and pretentious. I think you realize that yourself. I find it disturbing that everything is being sold on your physical issues. Yes, you have many poets recommending your work as illustrated in "Index," but notice that everyone puts them in the context that you are disabled.

Personally, I would be offended if that is why people read or publish your poetry. You need to allow your poetry to speak for itself--I think you would realize that the poetry is not very good. If you realized that, it might lead you to be a good poet. No one is willing to give you true criticism--I suspect you know it."


Oh, where to begin, friends? I don't care, and am not hurt, that someone might dislike my poems. It's hardly a novel opinion, I'm sure. But there are many more crucial elements in this comment which are objectionable, presumptuous, offensive, and, in the end, just plain wrong.

It is a mistake to presume one knows what another person understands, what they "realize." I have not done so for you and would appreciate the same courtesy in return. Whether or not I agree or disagree with you, I know enough to avoid such basic rudeness. Maybe you do, maybe you don't.

As far as the blurbs which appear on the back of Index, you should know that blurbs often are edited. A blurb may arrive in much longer form, talking about many different aspects of a book. A publisher sometimes will shape blurbs to focus on one of those aspects, for whatever reasons. Ecco is an imprint of HarperCollins, one of the largest publishers in the world, and they create books in order to sell them. Blurbs are, it should be remembered, sales tools, a kind of ad or commercial. Not poems.

What I find disturbing is the tacit implication you make that disability, and all its very real trauma and difficulty, are not suitable subject material for poetry. Because that is precisely your point: that the presence of disability does not allow the poems to "speak" for themselves. That poetry cannot contain such material without being corrupted. This line of thinking is depressingly unimaginative, not to mention dangerous.

For a bit of close reading, this: you write, "Personally, I would be offended if that is why people read or publish your poetry." You say you would be offended if that is why people read my poetry. We are not the same person. You are not me. I suggest that this is the crux of the matter. There is a kind of blending in your mind between us. I don't know why. But it's this blurring which allows you to presume what I know. It's what enables your closing remarks: if only I would listen to you. If only.

My friend, I am lucky to be alive today. Consider the twisted line of your thinking when you suggest my disability has been some kind of help to my career. In truth, it is in most ways an absolute detriment. I type with a plastic stick in my mouth. One key at a time. I work hard. I truly hope you don't now know, and never have to, what I mean, what this is like. If you do, my hope is that you would know better.


Stephanie said...

Go, Paul! Happy new year, my friend!

Allison J. said...

Oh, Lord. This is like when people tell me, I like your poems except for all that "black stuff." Or all that "female stuff." When I teach your poems, I teach them as the work of a poet who intentionally uses misdirection to lead readers away from a pure "Disability" reading of the poetry. And given that first part of the first sentence, I'd say this person is jealous of your success, not happy for it.

Paul said...

Happy New Year, Stephanie. And thanks, Allison....

fredwrite said...

Since the anonymous twit claims to have read "everything" you wrote, he/she has obviously forgotten about "Loyalty Oath" in River Styx issue 78. It has nothing to do with disability. It's the entire reason I started reading you. Yes, you are "fucking awesome" as the poem says. You might even be more awesome than I. But I don't resent you for it.

Paul said...

Thanks, Fred!

January said...

Those who can’t do criticize, and leave hurtful comments anonymously.

Your talent speaks volumes.

Nick McRae said...

I'm so angry I can hardly think of anything to type. This anonymous internet troll will be found and dealt with.

Sleep with one eye open, whoever you are.


John said...

Listen Paul--as a friend (and this will be the last time I comment)--I am trying to help you. I have never seen any growth in your poetry--it is always the same. I want to see you become the poet that you should be. There is nothing wrong with the subject matter. Of course you will write about what you know, but your poetry is bad to mediocre.

Look at "Being Reasonable Certain"--it is nearly impossible to read aloud. The words stumble and stutter. It is one huge sentence full of poor enjambment. You do the whole popular culture vs. highbrow thing that is a cliche of your work: "like Bela Lugosi
and lanyard." There is no rhythm or anything that really stands out.

If you take a single line, it should work by itself and as a whole--but no single line works by itself and seems like a clutter. I might say form fits function, but none of your poems are really any different. Your poems are paint-by-the-number poems--they have no personality or style. Nothing stands out, and you seem to have little knowledge of other poets (or if you do, you don't seem to care about them).

Your poetry comes off as a wannabe Iowa poet, who sat in the dark writing angst as a high school teen bleeding his weak lines. I want you to be a poet, not a disabled poet, but every person addresses your poetry by your physical challenges. Look at any first paragraph on any review about your work--readers see you as motivational or inspirational, but they do not see you as a poet. You are an Ai, Maya Angelou--bad writers defined only by physical characteristics. I want to see you be a Gary Soto. No one says he is a Latino poet. He is a poet first. Mark Doty is a poet (whose poetry works regardless of his sexual orientation). Fairchild is a poet who brings the highbrow like you should, but with effective writing. He does not try to demonstrate his use of the thesaurus--he knows the language. I want to see you know the language.

While I understand that the publisher is the one who does the marketing (I have been through it too), you have the choice to allow the publisher to change the quotes. You have the right to change the cover. Don't blame everything on ecco. Plus, you obviously were proud of it by showing it on your blog.

Don't take this as a criticism of your disability. It is not. It is a criticism of your poetry. I WANT YOU TO BE A GREAT POET. As long as you allow yourself to be defined as a disabled poet, your poetry will never be more than it is. Notice how the commenters can't read what I am actually saying--too blinded they can't see fair criticism.

fredwrite said...

Thanks, John. It's obvious you're smarter than us. And your poo probably doesn't stink either. Thanks again.

Radish King said...

There are places for review. They're called JOURNALS. John, a rather anonymous name with no blog attached of course, you might want to actually review one of Paul's books and then...but wait! You only want to review Paul himself, not his work. Bad form.

As for me, I read Paul's blog and his poems for quite some time before I realized he was disabled. I started reading here because he was so good looking. Some of his poems didn't move me but many of them did, and I told him so. I don't do that often, not unless I'm being paid to teach. So your comment every person addresses your poetry by your physical challenges is a lie. Check your facts.

I'm going to have to go for the jealous thing to as well, and add the fact that it's a shame you don't have the balls to out yourself so we can read your work. Tourist.

Rebecca Loudon

Collin Kelley said...

John wants to be William Logan, but he's a pale imitation. Ignore this kind of anonymous, baseless "review" masquerading as critique. I read your work long before I knew about the extent of your disability, and found it compelling. Keep writing your excellent poetry, Paul.

Anonymous said...

You're a great poet, Paul, and an even better person. Happy New Year!


Anonymous said...

I like your poetry. Very much. And I did not know you were disabled.

We are all "disabled" in different ways when faced with the challenges of life.

Jill said...

I liked your poems before I knew you were disabled, and my opinion hasn't changed.

My friend and mentor the great improv teacher Susan Messing responds to such criticism thusly:

"Fuck'em if they can't take a joke."

Sandra said...

As someone in the death-grip of a nonfiction book project, I can completely empathize with the lack o'blogging...and as a poet, I can empathize with experiencing every poet's worst nightmare anonymous reviewer(s).

Shake it off. You've done so much with the last year. We have to live our lives, first, in order to have something worth writing about, sooner or later. Priorities are a good thing.

Also, can I just say--and I'm sure I'm not the only one--that I have an utter crush on Rebecca Loudon right now?


Naomi Clewett said...

As Paul has pointed out, we can't reasonably speak for each other. For my part, I'd like to assure John that my appreciation of Paul's poetry stems not from his disability but from the strength and exuberance of his language and spirit.

John, clearly your experience of reading Paul's poetry has been quite different from mine, which is fine and natural. The manner in which you offer your criticism, however, is offensively arrogant.

You claim to be Paul's friend and write "I want you to be a poet, not a disabled poet." Personally, I want YOU to be a friend, not an asshole.

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Danny said...

Paul, I'm impressed by how courteously and thoughtfully you responded to this person. The bottom line, as you say, is that he's entitled to his opinions but it's ridiculous for him to act as if his opinions were facts. So he doesn't like your poems? So what! Let him read something else and stop harassing people.

Amanda Auchter said...

You don't need to justify anything to this person, Paul! You write because that's what you must do, it's what you love, and it's what you're damn good at! What a loser to say it anonymously anyway! I completely agree w/ Allison on this one! That jerk needs to get a life.

Danielle said...


Sorry you had to read that. It reminds me of a comment I got from a "friend" who looked over my manuscript a couple years ago. She said that if anyone published any of the poems, it would be a disservice to me and that I should basically stop trying to publish them before I embarrass myself. What she really meant, and what I think John really means, but neither of them have the insight to realize, is that they just don't like or get our styles of poetry. But clearly other people do, and poetry is one of those subjective things. Like my realtor said when we were looking at houses--a house is worth what someone is willing to pay for it, plain and simple. You've had great success with your poetry because there are some people in the poetry publishing world who like it, and editors of magazines who like it, and readers who buy your books and come to your readings and like it. Half of the poems in my embarrassing manuscript have been published because editors of good journals liked them.

John--it's a matter of taste and you're not the only expert on poetry. This was condescending to not only Paul, but to the rest of us who like his work--many of whom have MFAs, PhDs, and publications of our own.

Keep writing, Paul. I look forward to reading your work.

Rachel McKibbens said...

Oh, John, what part of your diatribe steers at all towards “help,” I wonder? Being that Paul Guest is a highly regarded, award-winning published poet, I'm curious - what other kind of poet “should” he be? Your obnoxious attempt to quantify your claim that Guest's poetry is “bad” and “mediocre” by referencing the line, “...like Bela Lugosi and lanyard,” lends the idea that you either a) did not bother to read the poem in its entirety or b) did not understand the line and (ironically) its nod to the ridiculous. So much of the music in Guest's poems are what first attracted me to his work. I followed his writing for a good while before I even realized he had a disability. To say that we, as readers, only enjoy his poems for their “inspirational” value is insulting (and confusing; I don't recall a single poem of his that celebrates the joys of being disabled and the sweet convenience of handicapped parking.) Paralysis has not had any effect on Guest's ability to create sharp, innovative writings that move in and out of our culturally refined language. His work isn't without impurities, because its honesty and frankness have not succumbed to “good behavior.” Hallelujah.

Your statement that a single line “should work by itself as a whole” neglects the idea that lines, images, and beats need each other to function as a whole. A brick can't be a house on its own.

And I would LOVE for you to recommend the paint-by-numbers book that will lead me to write such rhythmless, style-free lines like : “Once I was wood and my heart was a knot. / From a block my brain was slowly cut— / legs, arms, knees and nose, my all of me.”

Guest's physical characteristics do not define his work, but your dismissal of his art, and the accusation that his disability is the only thing holding it up assures me that you are incapable of finding the growth and authenticity of his work that so many of us admire. Sucks for you.


Rachel McKibbens

p.s. I will be recording myself reading “Being Reasonably Certain” and posting it on my blog. I assure you, it sounds fucking awesome outloud.

Brett Griffiths said...

Well articulated and sage response. I'd have left it at 'piss off,' but then, I am not you. Very impressive.
Echoes to Fredwrite's comments. Many of your poems do not take up disability in any way. Maybe your reader needs to reread some of your work. Cheers and Happy New Year.

Suzanne said...

Sounds like sour grapes to me, Paul. I fell in love with your work long before I knew anything about you personally. xo

The Reader said...

To John: Why not write a serious review of the poems and then sign it like a normal person?

Gee, Paul. I'm kinda sweet on Rebecca now too . . . and I thought you were closer to: Southern Man-Poet in the Lyric Tradition. Many readers have long-since forgotten about the wheelchair, if they ever knew. What carries us does not define us.

Anonymous said...

Here is one: I read Paul and heard Paul on the radio and I heard the poems that were early work and had no mention of disability. I sought him out, his work and when he "rolled" up to my table to introduce himself it was the first I had seen or heard of a disability. The poems, Paul's spirit and intellect indicated the opposite of a handicap and the subject matter demanded then, as it often does now, the same standards of work that bears no "handicap sticker" or race or gender, for that matter.

At their best, those poems are nothing short of Olympic athletes, at their worst, they are poems that each of us hold to the standard of our favorite of Paul's poems. In music, in film, in art, everything suffers the great love of what we loved before. Paul should not be able to predict or write towards or away from those aesthetics or preferences. Paul should just write.

I have promoted Paul's work, written reviews and frankly, done so without any reciprocity. In short, I am writing to respond to this as one who has no friendship, loyalty, pity or recipricol support of my own work to color my opinion.

Paul writes a lot. If you write one poem that someone adores, you will be lucky to write ten more that ALL hit with the same intensity. We choose our readers each and every time we compose.

For such a large body of work--much of which, most of which--deals little with the body or the disabled body, Paul strikes on more often than not. I too, have favorites and poems that work better and worse for me. But I acknowledge with utter objectivity, that there is talent here and that no one need direct Paul on what or how to acheive greatness. That elusive beast is subjective and I doubt that were it possible to carve a poetry that will stand the test of time and prove itself "great" that none of us, "John" included would have the magic recipe toward acheiving such a lofty, strange goal. Write what you must, Paul, that's all anyone great has ever done.

* said...

If anyone doubts your music they should read Small Wonder again and again.

Ruth Ann

Lisa said...

I agree that trauma and difficulty, in all their forms, are very legitimate fodder for poetry. Take "Remember How Sad That Was When." Part of what can connect readers to that poem is the raw trauma and the beauty you've turned it into. Emotional trauma, physical trauma, whatever--it can create a transformative, heartbreaking, and ultimately creative space.
(Also, I'm a book editor--great explanation of what blurbs are.)
Rock on!

Anonymous said...

hey john--

a lot of poets use blogs as springboards. the blog is not necessarily the stage nor the showplace. the blog poem is not necessarily the prize winning spaniel. often times, blog poems are merely ideas, not peacock feathers. go take a piss on lucia perillo (if you dare) if you want to criticize paul for writing about his disability. would you have him writing poems about running marathons? criticizing a poet for word choice (and excellent word choice--"thesaurus"-like to quote you) is like criticizing an oncologist for considering alternative treatments. that would only piss off a limited individual. and as for the high brow/low brow complaint: what else do you expect a highly intelligent, pop-culture saturated, hip-hillbilly poet to do? if you can't equate bela lugosi and a lanyard...go piss up a rope, to quote, well, you wouldn't like the reference anyway...

Diane Powell said...

To hell with this cave man and his opinions. Guess what? He doesn't like to read or think about disabilities of any kind because, when he does, he realizes, that there is something lacking within him. That something is empathy. There is not one person who can be a true poet and lack empathy. Your poems remind him of his own failures as a human being. Being differently abled myself, I enjoy those type of poems, but I like your other ones as well. And with friends like him, who needs enemies, as the old saw goes.