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July 18, 2012

Book: Poet offers up advice in a self-help memoir

‘The 6.5 Practices of Moderately Successful Poets: A Self-Help Memoir’
By Jeffrey Skinner. Sarabande Books; 184 pgs., $15.95.

You don’t need to consider yourself a poet to gain from reading this book, because Jeffrey Skinner is a teacher (a professor at U of L). He’s practiced at listening, giving advice and re-wording the most important ideas until all nuances are clear. He doesn’t use terminology to alienate. This book is for any artist — schooled or not.

If you’ve ever read Skinner’s poetry (and you should read his poetry), then you know two of the best qualities of his writing are his honesty and humor. The latter can be a risky choice, especially when it comes to both memoirs and poetry: If humor is not in the service of truth, it becomes a shield, and fails both reader and writer. But his humor isn’t a diversion. He isn’t trying to avoid a crude element or an unflattering fall. In fact, I think he’d take great care and joy in describing to perfection a personal unflattering fall.

His new book doesn’t disappoint this expectation. Folded between stories of his life as a young writer working as a private eye, Skinner discusses pragmatic habits (6.5 to be precise) that he and other widely published writers embrace. Each private-eye vignette is interesting, keeps the book in motion, and provides illustrations to concepts and ideas covered in preceding chapters.

The occasional breaks, when he utilizes the words and ideas of other writers, are pitch-perfect and have the effect of keeping the reader engaged in a kind of unintentional active learning.

Structurally, “6.5 Practices” is as playful and original as Skinner’s poetry. On the back of the cover, there is an image of the “Periodic Table of Poetic Elements.” The title of each chapter is a statement or demand followed by a list of six or more seemingly unrelated words, fragments separated by bullets: “DISCIPLINE (self) Bad Boat, Bad Boy * The Revisionarium * The Silence of the Iambs * The Time Clock.”

What makes his book more than memoir, more than self-help, is that the “how-to” extends beyond how to write a good poem and get it published, and moves into the realm of Zen organization: He includes ways to balance a life that includes self, family, writing and professional success.

Skinner’s tips are at times poetry-specific. In the “Discipline [self]” chapter, under Revisionarium, he suggests that if you have “misplaced the emotional emphasis of the poem,” you need to “ask yourself if the scene you have set — the literal level of the poem — serves the emotional center of the poem.”

But he also offers a kind of you-are-not-alone fatherly advice for any artist brave enough to compete for status: “There is a large temptation to take such honors (publications, prizes, etc.) as a measure of our worth. I don’t think we can fault ourselves for this state of affairs.” He says we have to learn to reject this compulsion for outside validation of our work for practical reasons: “… distinctions are based on inconsistent criteria. Trends come and go … the editor who loved us yesterday, ignores us today.”

In other words, one must be patient beyond success and past failure, and be comfortable in the unknown and unsteady if any original art is to be made. An artist’s success, he implores, rests on her ability to stop, sit, look, wait and see. Poetry isn’t for the few who know the ether; poetry is for the few who refuse to quit. 

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