Tuesday, September 22, 2009

The Napoleon Dynamite of poetry

If poetry had a recommendation system like Netflix, I think people who bought stuff by me would get recommendations for Heather Christle. (I guess Amazon does this too? Is it accurate? Would a poetry-specific algorithm be better or are the people who buy small-press poetry the only people who buy small-press poetry, if you know what I mean? So it works anyway? My Amazon recs include so much random shit because I have ordered, like, textbooks and baby shower presents through the same account, over the span of ~10 years. Order one Philip Glass CD and they think you're some kind of contemporary classical aficionado for the rest of your life, etc.) Probably if you bought any contemporary poetry it would recommend The Man Suit.

I'm trying to figure out what the poetic equivalent of Napoleon Dynamite would be. Supposedly, Napoleon Dynamite is one of a handful of very polarizing movies that totally stumped Netflix's recommendation engine. It couldn't reliably recommend it to anyone based on the other movies they had liked. (I happen to love it.) Hence the Netflix Prize, a competition that offered $1 million to any team that could improve the recommendation algorithm by 10%. I quit Netflix before they declared a winner, so I can't say if the recommendations have gotten substantially better. Actually I don't even know if it's been put into effect yet.

Anyway what poet or book of poetry is unpredictably polarizing? Tao Lin is polarizing, but generally in a predictable way. Same with Billy Collins. It needs to be someone that is occasionally embraced by those whose tastes otherwise run counter. I think it needs to be kind of a cult figure. Maybe Bill Knott? With a lot of cult figures in poetry (Jack Spicer, Russell Edson) I don't know anyone who dislikes them. (P.S. I've been meaning to post this great Edson poem about flies.)

Once someone asked me what the difference between an algorithm and a logarithm is. That was my Napoleon Dynamite. It totally stumped me. I mean, aside from rhyming (and being anagrams I guess), they are two totally different words. It's like asking what's the difference between a molecule and a meerkat. Except that's less confusing, because in the first case your brain does search in vain for something in common beside letters. I guess molecules and meerkats have something in common: cuteness.

It's the first day of fall! I'm so anal that it actually kind of irritates me when people say "Fall has arrived!" when it's technically still summer. So thank god I can say goodbye to that annoyance for another year. What also sucks is those girls who start wearing like fur vests and over-the-knee boots in September even if it's still 76 degrees out. And then try to claim they're "always cold" to justify parading their new fashions prematurely. Whatever dude, I can see your sweat trickle.

16 comments:

  1. Ellen Kennedy's Sometimes My Heart... might be the Napoleon Dynamite of contemporary poetry.

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  2. That strikes me as the same as Tao Lin -- too predictably polarizing. I.e. most people who like Tao Lin and Brandon Scott Gorrell etc. will also like Ellen Kennedy, and people who hate Tao Lin will also hate Ellen Kennedy. So the recommendation engine would reliably know when to recommend her and when not to.

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  3. the "unpredictably" part is stumping my algorithms. i mean, i can't figure out why napoleon dynamite is *unpredictably* polarizing, so it's hard to think about how to extend it to poets...

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  4. I guess the computer scientists couldn't figure it out either, hence the $1M price tag on figuring it out.

    It's hard to think of poetry books that enough people have even *read* that you could see big patterns. Just looking at what your friends like doesn't tell you much.

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  5. let's see, i imagine that for tao lin, you might get recommendations for "bartleby the scrivener". both melville and lin have novellas published by melville house. but someone who knows about melville house through melville himself might never have heard of tao lin. so i guess that would make up one side of an unpredictability...uh, thing, one of those -rithms, i guess.

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  6. Napoleon Dynamite is very interesting in that way... I tried to describe it once as awkward comedy, stuff you laugh at because it's easier to laugh than feel as awkward for the characters as you should. But I think The Office does that a lot too, and I know people who hate Napoleon Dynamite but love The Office.

    So I think, necessarily, the poetry equivalent would have to be something weird that doesn't quite fit a certain category.

    The problem is, unlike movies, which cost so much to make and must reach so broad an audience to make a decent return, and must, therefore, fit into a market fairly easy, poetry has like 15 people reading it at any one time, and I think more than half the poets are purposely -trying- to be different, to be outside of definition.

    So my answer I think, is poetry in general is the Napoleon Dynamite. Of literature. No matter how well read someone is, no matter how much they tell me they love Dostoevsky, and Shakespeare, and Hunter S. Thompson, and James Joyce--that is works of literature that might include poetry, or at least dense enough language or imagery that you read it LIKE poetry, in that you don't breeze through it--I can never, with certainty, know if that person likes poetry at all.

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  7. @Keith Wow ... that's a really good answer.

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  8. Eagle vs. Shark is like the exact equivalent of Napoleon Dynamite, only from New Zealand; and basically any movie where the weird quirky outcast awkward loser type becomes a kind of hero/hipster indy cult icon.

    Dan Boehl shared this quote with me today, that seemed to tie in with your observation about how people don't even read poetry enough to see bigger patterns.
    NYT this Sunday:
    Suddenly contemporary art was doing what it seemed to have forgotten how to do: establish a perch for truly independent thinking outside the larger culture, including its own larger culture. In this it was sharing the normal condition of contemporary poetry, a medium so far outside the mainstream that it has its own nothing-to-lose economy. It is so invisible to the world at large and so unpreoccupied by what’s up, what’s down — what’s a masterpiece, who’s a star — that it’s in transition all the time.
    http://www.nytimes.com/2009/09/13/arts/design/13cott.html?_r=1

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  9. a "nothing-to-lose economy" -- so true. that's why it's so easy to take "risks" in poetry, because the stakes are so low in the first place. you're not giving up $ and awards by aligning with the "experimental."

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  10. Thanks Elisa. I pretty much love your blog. I don't even know how I found it at this point, but I'm sure I'll end up linking to it from my own blog at some point, and give someone else the chance to forget how it is they made it here. haha.

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  11. Aww, thanks!!! "I love your blog" is like my favorite compliment.

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  12. p.s. I just added your blog to my reader.

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  13. The stakes in poetry are often embarrasingly low, it's true. I'm not quite sure though that poetry is a nothing-to-lose economy, or that it's all that easy to take risks in it as compared to anything else. I think that by aligning with the experimental, you pretty much do write yourself out of many of the few opportunities that are out there. Not all, admittedly, but many. And even if there are at least some options for members of all camps, how you write will certainly determine what jobs or prizes your writing might receive.

    Just saw this morning that Heather McHugh won a MacArthur genius grant. People get more than $400,000 for those. When I was a student at Buffalo, the writer who won one was Irving Feldman. Not Susan Howe, Robert Creeley, or Charles Bernstein.

    I'm not trying to moan about this, but just to say that the rewards for poetry are real, if limited, and the playing field is divided up very strictly.

    So I'd say there are things to lose and gain, and the way you choose to write is intimately bound up in them.

    But yes, for most poets, the stakes are next to nothing.

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  14. I guess I see things like MacArthur grants as so far-fetched and unlikely that it's crazy to modify your overarching aesthetic to maximize your chances (which are a million to 1 or worse anyway) ... when you're living in obscurity, there can be benefits to aligning with a slightly smaller subgroup (a la the avant garde) because you might stand out more even if you don't become "famous."

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  15. "With a lot of cult figures in poetry (Jack Spicer, Russell Edson) I don't know anyone who dislikes them."

    —I dislike both Spicer and Edson.

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  16. i dislike both spicer and knott, but like edson (um, except for his latest book, which seems kind of not as good).

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