Ceremony Grades Our Readers’ Poetry

Ceremony's Ross Farrar


A few months back, we asked self-titled readers to share poetry with Ceremony singer Ross Farrar as part of a free-wheeling feature in the summer issue of our free iPad magazine. When he’s not redefining 21st century hardcore, Farrar is a poet himself, you see, one who was happy to spend more than 4,000 words “grading” 10 pieces for the issue.

We couldn’t even begin to fit it all, so here is an unedited version of what he had to say about everything alongside a few selections from Ceremony’s new album (The L-Shaped Man, available now through Matador) and their earlier, gnarlier era…

Poem #1: Sam McCroakam’s “Day 37”

Same old routine, up from the sunlight
A hairdryer confirming she is off to work again
How can I still be doing this?
It was meant to be easy

Walk around the block
Didn’t bring a coat this time
The sea air is a lot stronger today
Is this what it’s come to?

The last two or three hours are the worst
Still not found a purpose for those seconds
She’ll be home soon, and i’ll be smiling
She buys dinner again

This can’t be everything
The repetition is going to kill me
I’ve got to get new friends
I’ve got to get a job

I’ve got to get a job

I’ve got to get a job

The first thing I notice is the lack of punctuation. This is fine as long as it has a purpose. Some people want their poems to flow and have no stops or breaks, which works well when using no punctuation.

Often, form can complement the content of a poem, and vice versa, but here we see a poem about the dailiness of life, and certain complacency that comes from domesticity and routine. Poems about such can often be uninteresting to read. All of us have been there—tired of our surroundings, our lovers, where our lives are headed, but we need more. I always tell people to take a moment in life and illuminate it. You can tie this to the bores and the terrors as well.

While doing some editing at the Berkeley Poetry Review last spring we talked about a concept called the “Magnitude of Failure.” This was supposedly a term coined by Faulkner, and applies to any artistic endeavor. It simply means that talking about stuff that has a large scope, or things that are considered cliché have a greater Magnitude of Failure. Take flowers for example. Roses have a large magnitude for failure. Now, if a person was to write about a very particular flower, something like the Mohavea confertiflora, or Ghost Flower, they would have less magnitude for failure because less has been said about the subject, and you an exact an instance easier. Since flowers have such a wide range of meanings and because they have become heavy clichés in poetry, we try to steer away from them, but if you zero in on a particular flower and connect them to something interesting in life, we may enjoy reading it.

Can you dig? Sam’s poem is a bit vague about what’s happening. In stanza two you say, “The sea air is a lot heavier today.” If you go further into that image and think about why that is, possibly creating an air (no pun intended) of mystery or questions, you might have somewhere to begin. You should try to illuminate a feeling or emotion. The number one rule for any writer: show don’t tell. With that said, your poem is on its way my friend, but you must show us something deeper. We want to know more.

Poem # 2: Vivian Burgess’ “Church Bells”

Maybe my problem is that I lack conviction,
but speak with a proper tongue and excellent diction

From what I can see from a church bench in the back
or front row of the choir,
Hell lies in the heart
and I am condemned to the dark

It’s an anomaly of sorts
With all of the same parts
And I still don’t feel any shame
I’ve never been one to point fingers and place blame

If God really wanted to forgive
I guess he’d try harder to remember what it’s like to live

If church bells still ring for me
I’ll be on the steps at dawn
humming quietly

The poem begins with a rhymed couplet, similar to Chaucer’s timeless Canterbury Tales. I have a soft spot for Chaucer. He was the father of detail and had this crazy ability to tell us things about a character without directly saying them, what Sidney called “signifying badges.” Please dig into his tales at some point in your life—really amazing stuff.

The rest of Vivian’s poem is not in couplets though. Lines three and four don’t really rhyme, and the last stanza uses off rhyme, but makes it work somehow. Also, the stanzas follow: couplet, quatrain, quatrain, couplet, tercet. I’m not sure if that was purposeful, but I like it regardless. It’s almost symmetrical, but not quite because of the last stanza. This is very true to life. Everything in nature is asymmetrical. There’s always something that throws symmetry out of balance. Good, I say.

Poem #3: Harley Clifton’s “Modern Man”

I’m not a bible man,
I’m not a sex man,
I’m not a breakfast man,
nor a caring man.
I’m not a man of belonging,
or one for exploring.
I’m not a man of feigns,
I’m not a man of feelings,
I’m not a man of light television,
nor a running man

I’m not a man of distance,
and I’m not a man of habit.
I’m not a man without a map,
but I’m not a man of direction,
I’m not a man of evening conversation,
nor a man who’s scared.
I’m not a man of rhythm,
or patterns.

I could be a man of many traits,
I could be your jack-of-all-trades.

I’m just a man, who wipes his piss off of public toilet seats,
most the time.

When I was a child I used to get the meanings of lethargic and nostalgic mixed up. I’ve done this with many words that sound similar throughout my life, anaphora and alliteration being another confusing combination. Harley’s use of anaphora jumped out at me as soon as I began reading. Anaphora is a rhetorical device used to get the reader’s attention. Repeating the first word of each sentence places emphasis on what’s being said, and connects the ideas in an understandable way. By using “I’m” repeatedly, Harley declares certain truths about himself / herself, while simultaneously persuading the reader into believing these notions as factual. I enjoy the casual first person perspective. It’s something concrete to grab onto, but not so serious that I turn away.

The list poem can be done, but you can come dangerously close to cliché, which is a poet’s biggest enemy. Also, by listing a series of things you are not, you’re also not giving the reader much. What I mean is that there’s not a lot of substance to retain, think about, ponder or excite. Do an exercise. Try taking each line and making a separate poem from said beginning, and try going into the reasons for each thing you are not.

I really like “I’m not a man of belonging” and “I’m not a man of feigns.” These two examples are very broad and open ideas, which would free you up to go in any direction. You could do hundreds, thousands of these poems starting out with “I’m,” which I think would be very interesting. There’s something strange about reading your list and getting to “…wipes his piss off of public toilet seats / most of the time.” This is a message to every young punk out there. Piss in the urinal. If you are scared of exposing yourself to your fellow man go ahead and use a stall, but always—ALWAYS—lift the toilet seat. That way you don’t have to do what Harley does when he’s in the mood, and you’re also looking out for the next guy. Remember—one human family.

Poem #4: Zach Tomas’ “A Brief Guide to Crises”

come to the realization that neither of your parents are super heroes distance yourself from religion but respect religious people accept how tasteless morrissey is outgrow childhood asthma eat mostly plants and drink mostly water experience at least one evening of casual intercourse with a beautiful woman find out later that she lied about being single avoid tobacco, drugs, and alcohol understand that the universe cannot be against you when it doesn’t know you’re here experience claustrophobia in the city get the creeps in the country know that your failures will always be a part of you be hospitalized for anxiety be advised by the physician to find a new hobby leave the country do not pursue single mothers lose faith in bipartisan politics confront health scares with confidence confront pregnancy scares with nausea fit in the pants you bought two years ago be unable to afford both health insurance and doctor’s visits make yourself vulnerable to those who do the same be patient with the elderly run three days a week do not turn away those who experience depression know that you have about eighty years here know that, if you’re me, a quarter of them are already gone find comfort accepting that you’ll decompose in soil just like all others who have felt affection or appreciated a quiet night

Now, there is a bit of listing going on here as well. This list comes in a series of reminders or personal maxims. The second person narrative works well here. We don’t know if the narrator is speaking to a second party or to himself, but it definitely feels as if the narrator is trying to remind himself to be more humble, take life as it comes, and leave the squares behind—all things we must do in the every day.

There are really fantastic areas of seriousness such as “understand that the universe cannot be against you when it doesn’t know you’re here” and the funny and more lighthearted “experience at least one evening of casual intercourse with a beautiful woman.” Needless to say, I think Zach and I would get along. We share some of the same sentiments. I think it’s very important to mix the serious with the comedic when writing anything. Shakespeare was the first person to mix comedy with tragedy, which was genius because our lives are filled with hilarity and equal parts catastrophe. What comedy is supposed to do is reveal the ‘common errors’ in life, often tied to the lower and middle class, and usually serves as an example of how not to live. Comedy can exist in the upper classes now, but back in the day it was unspeakable. The royal and upper classes had no errors to speak of. There is a lot of honest truth to Zach’s poem. I think he does a great job of mixing it up. I’d say keep the voice you’re writing in and expand, go deeper, keep looking at things from a similar perspective. It will take you places.

Poem #5: Magnus Bergman’s “I Will Not Be Blamed”

Don’t come near the Quarry
it’s been long since I was there
and never trust the soothing silence
the hills could break and prove its violence

‘Cause I for one will not be blamed
for the death of James
I knew his ways

Every year or decade
I would visit, keep it surveyed
no God nor man could ever interpret
the reasons for its cracking surface

And I for one will not be blamed
for the death of James
I heard him sing through dust and landslide,
I searched for days

I loved him so.

What an incredible name. Four strong syllables that bounce perfectly from each other—mag-nus-berg-man. It’s a name with shoulders. Please take that name as high as possible. It deserves greatness.

The poem reads as if inspired by the Elizabethan era. Queen Elizabeth I wrote a few poems herself, actually a few really fantastic poems, one being “On Monsieur’s Departure,” which kind of reminds me of Bergman’s. I did a little experiment and copied Bergman’s entire poem into a search engine, and Robert Burns was the first thing that came up. A few years back I memorized “A Red, Red Rose,” one of Burns’ most popular poems, for extra credit in an English Literature class. A Scottish poet, Burns influenced many people. Steinbeck even got the title Of Mice and Men from one of Burns’ poems.

I’m veering again. What I’m getting at has to do with rhyme and meter. Bergman’s poem follows a particular rhyme scheme and calls back to the classics, yes, so—I would say move around the lines and stanzas, try different line breaks, freak out a little. Iambic pentameter works well of course, so try and stay in its boundaries, and once you’ve gotten good at that, move into freakier stuff. The last line (“I loved him so”) seems very archaic, and a bit too much bleeding at the heart. As of now the poem reads as a lament, and entirely closed, so experiment a bit. You may find yourself enjoying the strangeness.


Poem #6: Cory Y’s “…And Here’s One More from the Peanut Gallery”

Most of the time I really despise the idea of poetry,
how it seems so forced and contained in a pretty little box.
Whether thinking inside or outside of the box,
we’re all coffee shop hobbyists of our craft,
picking and choosing pithy aphorisms or catchy, caustic ephemera,
personal feelings filtered through the tangled web of culture and circumstance,
absorbed by society and regurgitated back
into a vat of conscious oblivion,
a centrifuge of self-contradiction,
of vicarious egoism.

I can’t help but feel at times that my limited ability to relate and relay
these ideas in a comprehensible way comes across as over-wrought and over-thought.
Like vaudeville vernacular, it is an exercise in forced comedy.
When you laugh, it is at the expense of my integrity and often skewed,
marginalized, or disrupted by context–
black-face/blackfish/white lie–
Everything’s not black and white, nor a uniform gray.
My green isn’t the same as your green, nor red, nor blue, nor yellow…
What is the point of perception if I can’t even be honest with myself?

In the air around me, there is an ever-present naivete,
a space full of tiny particles of myself I’ve abandoned over time,
a dust cloud looming over my head, jumping at the chance to appropriate me,
to co-opt me subliminally.

I am Pigpen.

I love the title. This is a title you pat yourself on the back about. When you invite people over you bring them to your desk and place them in front of the paper: “Look what I’ve created.” Well done.

I see this poem as Ars Poetica, or possibly Anti-Ars Poetica, depending on your outlook. Poets will always write poems about poems, and they will continue to work through problems, list their qualms and as I’ve said before—fight paradise for the right to burn. Czeslaw Milosz, an incredible Polish writer who actually wrote his famous “Ars Poetica” at Berkeley in the ’60s, is one of the most memorable poems of that form. I quote him: “The purpose of poetry is to remind us / how difficult it is to remain just one person / for our house is open, there are no keys in the doors / and invisible guests come in and out at will.” A truly inspirational human being. The quote reminds me of Cory’s poem momentarily. It is confused about where it lives and how it’s supposed to be. I praise him for his daring attempt, and see quite a bit of potential in him. He has the intellect, and the ability to step into the obscure, which can be tough at times.

I also see how he’s often turned off by poetry, which is sadly a common sentiment I find in many people. I’ve heard a lot of “I don’t get it” and “it just doesn’t do anything for me,” which I understand because a lot of people think poems are puzzles, when they shouldn’t be. When I first started writing poetry I filled mine with a lot of showy magic, used big words I found in dictionaries, and wrote about the mundane, which made my poems mundane and hard for people to relate to, and in my opinion that is the last thing you should do as a poet / writer. This may be purposeful, but the first stanza seems to contradict itself. Cory says that we, as poets, are all “coffee shop hobbyists” and that we choose “pithy aphorisms or catchy, caustic ephemera,” which is funny because he is doing the thing in which he is trying to exploit.

When I read a poem I don’t like to go to the dictionary a handful of times, and I feel myself having to do that here. He talks about having a limited ability to relate what he’s trying to articulate, and I feel him, because his poem makes that problem real. He’s writing about the difficulty of articulation, so I say to him, take out all the flashy diction and funny business. The emotion does not come off as genuine, and the reader can feel that. What I think you should do is write about a beautiful or haunting moment in your life—show us, don’t tell us, how you feel. We want to see something unfold through your point of view, and we will love you if you succeed.

Poem #7: Chandler Mirkovic’s “Throwing Cards: A Poem for Bryce”

The room felt cold
I thought of you leaving
My chest caved in
Everyone avoided it
Nobody said what was on their mind
A year ends
But the trees are in bloom
You’ve got other places to be
And I understand
Stings to see you go
The words become heavy
My throat collapses
I woke up to you smiling
Waving your hand
Telling me you’ll see me again
I said a prayer as you walked out
Even though I don’t believe in it
I hoped it would make you happy
In my head
I’ll go back to the beach
To the park
To the smell of coffee in the room
I’ll always have these when we’re apart
Although I loathe it
I’m glad you are leaving
For you are better than this place
I understand the situation you’re in
Don’t be afraid of the new world
It’ll open its arms to you
Just like everyone of us did

This is a very quiet and delicious poem. John Berryman used to say things were delicious when he really enjoyed them, so I think of him now. I praise you for your simplicity, and ability to show things in their most naked. The poem is near dreamy, and reminds me that our imaginations work continuously, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, creating dreams while reason is asleep.

James Joyce once said, “If you can put your five fingers through it, it is a gate, if not a door. Shut your eyes and see.” I picture the poet shutting his eyes and imagining loss, how it felt to him, and what it means to be without. I enjoy lines such as “I said a prayer as you walked out / Even though I don’t believe in it / I hoped it would make you happy.” There is something devastating about that statement, and I feel like the poet is working through some reconciliation, which is very moving when done correctly.

Also, I love, “I’ll go back to the beach / To the park / To the smell of coffee in the room.” The lines have a harmonious rhythm to them. Say them to yourself a few times. You can hear them moving. I usually don’t like poems without punctuation, but I feel like it works very well here. The enjambment functions as a way of slowing down the poem, and that’s extremely evident in the lines quoted above. The last two lines are quite heartbreaking, and can be imagined in many different ways, and I think a lot of us can apply those lines to certain moments in our lives, which makes this poem very human, and also impossible to come to terms with. But there are moments Chandler must watch out for. Things such as “words becoming heavy” and “throat collapses” are clichés, and need to be looked at. Try and come up with something you’ve never heard, or possibly a metaphor or simile. Whatever you do, try not to take from the every day speech patterns of humans. We say the same stuff over and over, where in a poem you’re always trying to create something new.

Poem #8: Spencer Lucas Oake’s “A Walk with the Cicadas”

I run through
Speed, my ally.
Through the cicadas that scream and scream.
So loudly they scream.

Rumbles, shaky, loud within the tall grass and I am in orbit with ancient sounds.
Springing up and over, these little green men shower down
Rainbows of parched yellow and failed golds and visceral green.
Souls bewildered and ensconced with present calamities.

At the end of the path floats a wreath of foxtail, shed of all hair but not of guilt.
Teeth like fangs hang down and chatter in the wind.
Sign language of the dead.
Sign language for the dead.

I can’t understand a word.
I walk through the sickly cicadas, purgatory caterpillars, stocky ants.
Affluence begets chilling collars who choke out chillier whores.

Different species pry through to sleep reaching down and back, south, for outcomes.
“Not so few now,” the old man sleeps in the helm.
Civilization’s catharsis steers the ship.
Blocked is the Styx by piled bodies and porous fleshy mounds, sopping.

Here is where they buzz.
Humdrum cocks of Death lay claim to imminent graves.
The cicadas, erethral in life, remain at the end.

Zzz. Zzz. Tck. Zzz, zzz. Tck, tck, tck.
I walk with cicadas now.

Creepy poem. The ancient cicada has represented carelessness for thousands of years, while Mexican folk music has depicted the insect as singing until it’s death, which is a representation of mourning that has been connected to the lament. There are many variations of folklore surrounding the cicada, so it’s hard to pinpoint what the poet is referring to exactly, since the poem inhabits many different actions, emotions, landscapes. I like how complicated it is; it reminds me of Rilke or something more fantastical like Carpentier’s Kingdom. There are areas that call on the unreal, but remain very absolute in the way they relate the natural world and its peculiar, yet familiar sensibilities. (“Rumbles, shaky, loud within the tall grass and I am in orbit with ancient sounds.”) This mixing of temporal and spiritual gives the poem an air of curiosity, which I really enjoy.

I feel like the poem gets a little heavy-handed, beginning in stanza four. The word “wash” has its own line, which designates heavy significance. I understand that it may hold significance for the poet or may have a greater aesthetic purpose, but to the reader it may feel trite and unnecessary. I try to veer from single word lines because of their dramatic appearance. Lines such as “affluence begets chilling collars who choke out chiller whores” leaves me in the dark, but I also may just not get it, which is often the case.

The language Lucas uses very is interesting. Sometimes it reminds me of Steve Brooks’ poem, “the breakfast show.” And other times Galway Kinnell’s work, which I like very much. I’d like to know how “civilization’s catharsis steers” a ship, but I also enjoy the ambiguity of the image. There are various areas that leave me wondering, which I think is a part of the dream-like quality the poem represents. In stanza three, “Sign language of the dead. / Sign language for the dead.” I feel a nice repetitious moment, and the two lines are ambiguous, but they also feel like they’re coming off the page, saying “this is where the creeping begins.” This poem would be best read at night, possibly afte
r 12 a.m., and certainly in the summer months. I picture the poet living in New Orleans, which I’m sure he doesn’t, but wouldn’t it be nice? I feel hot and sticky when I read it.

Poem #9: Brandon Boozer’s “The Wayside”

A town of lies
or a town of secrets,
there is a difference.
This is where the city meets itself
every night. Over and over again.
We feel and we fuck.
It is all about support.
All are welcome at The Wayside.

This is our agreement,
our understanding.
There is no judgment,
sex is sex and
men are men.
No names, no labels,
no promises, no worries.
When it’s over, pay no mind.
Just go back to wives, back to lives.

You will see us around,
we all carry the same bag,
but please say nothing,
keep it hushed.
it can wait until the night
when the city is asleep,
and the universe turns her head
on all of us for
just one moment
of complete and utter bliss.

After reading through the poem a few times, I find myself drawing conclusions. I want to say it’s about sex addiction or prostitution or a cult, but I really have no idea, and I suppose it doesn’t matter what I think; the focus is on feeling. Emotional response has a lot to do with past experience, but it also depends quite a bit on currents states. What makes the poem difficult are the general statements such as “men are men” and “sex is sex.” Also things like “this is our agreement” and “there is no judgment.” Statements like this take me out of the poem and into something else, something that seems more like a review or an article. Because of the matter-of-fact nature of said lines, the way I’m being told, instead of shown, makes it hard to imagine anything.

A lot of what I see comes from what’s said in stanza one. After that I don’t get much. Also, I see there’s a lack of poetic device. Try playing with metaphor and simile. Mess around with alliteration, anaphora, and even try using meter. These classic devices may lead you into something that sounds more like a jingle, but you can pull them apart, rearrange them, and experiment. Try describing something, and think of things that have similarities. I recently used the old cliché “The world is round” and changed it to “The world is round and colorful like a beach ball,” which changed the cliché into something kind of cool. I really love, “when the city is asleep / and the universe turns her head.” This can be the beginning of something very cool. You could even go, “when the universe is asleep / and the city turns her head,” but I suppose the universe is never asleep, and the city is probably a man, for its dirty, rotten tendencies.

Also, so many things are personified as women, not saying that’s a bad thing, but it has become a high cliché. Try thinking about the universe as a rock or a stone, maybe even a cliff – it can be anything. Ships at sea are always going to be women, as well as cars for some reason? I like it, but you know – it has been done.

Poem #10: Becky DiGiglio’s “God Bless the Schizophrenica”

Like weather-worn lips laid loosely atop one another,
barely touching but inextricably connected–
that’s how I want lives to work.

I want multiple (onetwothreefourfive)
Where I can drive along the sand-strewn cliffs of Highway 1
Hands clasped tightly to the wheel
watching sky sink into ocean leaving a sea of sun-spat clouds above.

Meanwhile, another set of hands hide
curled in the cotton sleeve of a hoodie somewhere in Brooklyn,
Feet awkwardly kicking at dried leaves and broken glass,
remnants of anger left from one of some other person’s many lives.

The sky is imperial, the moon confident in its ability
to drape itself over everything at once,
like the memory of a past love in an old apartment once shared.
I don’t need that sort of omnipresence;
merely two or three lives I can hold onto, suffer in.
They need not be perfect or even pleasant.

How sad that we are all confined to just one.

This is an interesting poem. One has to read through it a few times to grasp what’s happening, and of course whatever is happening may be much different to you than what the poet intended. I feel like it’s about longing or a particular sense of yearning that is specific to the poet, more tied to the notion of wanting to be other people, other places, other entities.

Stanza one is very nice with those first two lines describing the need for life to be close, yet free-hanging, followed by the clear, concrete statement “that’s how I want life to work.” This is a good tool to keep in your toolbox. The first two lines are a bit more ambiguous; using metaphor to set up the image, then follows up with a statement that is easy to understand. In doing this, the poet uses language effectively, painting a picture, while simultaneously giving the reader a foundation to stand on. Stanza two also works well in connecting to the first. She goes from what I like to think as the thesis—“…how I want life…”—to a line that draws further on that idea: “I want multiple.” Wanting to be somewhere else is a desire as old as love. I think all of us have wanted at one point or another to be in another place, somewhere more exotic, more luxurious, but what sets Becky’s idea apart is that she wants to be in each place simultaneously, strange indeed. To be in two separate places at one, while also feeling different things is a trippy idea. T

here are areas that need work, lines such as, “watching sky sink into the ocean” and “hands clasped tightly to the wheel.” These are clichés, yes, and must be put aside. I like “the sky is imperial” and also the image of love being tied to an old apartment. That last image can become near cliché if not done correctly, but I think there is definitely something there. Apartments make for great poems. There is strangeness to them, how so many other people have lived, and journeyed through them. I had an apartment in Santa Rosa, California that was once inhabited by an old writing instructor, and during my time there an older man in the unit below me passed away. I watched a young couple move into the apartment, and without know, they kept it moving, used the lights, opened the windows, let air in. To begin with “…memory of a past love in an old apartment” is a nice image, and I think the line bounces well.