Indisputable influencer of words: for poet C.E. Chaffin, literary Web was keystone
ONLINE COLUMN: Web Savvy
Published: December 1, 2009
Beginning in the mid-1990s a spark took hold on the Web, with poets and writers of other genres coming together to workshop via newsgroups and message boards. As the movement began to expand, a poet emerged and his influence on others' work will remain for years to come. C.E. Chaffin, author of poetry collections and an essay collection that has become a touchstone for many aspiring poets as well as a provoker of debates among established poets, also founded an influential poetry quarterly gathering some of the best writing on the Web. "Influencer" is perhaps the best noun one might assign, after the primary description "poet," to a writer whose mark on thousands of writers is indisputable. Such is the power of the Web as a medium and such is the power of a writer whose skills and intellect are a reminder of the power of independent scholarship. Kay Day
Chaffin's new collection Unexpected Light has just been released by Diminuendo Press. And the wordmeister who is also a medical doctor acknowledges the influence of the Web began his own journey as influencer.
"Without the Web," he said, "I'd be lost. In 1997 I was coming out of a depression, recently having been put on disability for my back condition, and casting about for something to do. Suddenly I discovered the literary Web."
He said he "sought affirmation" through editors, resulting in publishing "furiously…with much success."
Part of that success was The Melic Review, a quarterly published from 1998-2004. Chaffin had a knack for bringing unique voices to a broader audience via the Web-only magazine. Among those he published are Lyn Lifshin, Sharon Kouros, John Balaban, R.S. Gwynn, Virgil Suarez and numerous others. Each issue of Melic carried striking graphics and cutting edge poetry, fiction and nonfiction.
Chaffin said he does miss the "rush" of publishing the quarterly. "I also miss the discovery of 'garlic and sapphires in the mud,'" he said, with a nod to T. S. Eliot's enigmatic lines. "But I don't miss the endless screening of bad verse, even though I had help in wading through it. We left the magazine online as an open museum, so to speak. Who knows that it won't be resurrected some day?" Saying he regretting ending it, he pointed out accurately, "We went out in style." Bob Hicok was among the many accomplished writers published in the last issue.
Although the Web figured significantly in his writing career, Chaffin concedes technology hasn't been a completely benign influence on the written word. For instance, it's been a negative for craftsmanship. "Anyone at the poetic 'journaling' level can quickly obtain praise at any number of boards, confirming the writer in her bad habits and lack of maturity. Some tougher boards exist that promote craft, but even there personal relationships get in the way of honest assessment. I think board participation and the ease of publishing tempt writers to put forth work that had better ripened for awhile in a drawer pending further revision by the poet, not by all the drive-by board critics."
Chaffin's own critiques were always sought after at the poetry workshop that was part of Melic. Often quirky, always succinct, he had a sharp eye for his own work and applied it democratically to the work of others. In a personal e-mail, he said he'd just submitted a poem to several print magazines normally thought of as dominated by the academic sector. The poem was rejected. "What's wrong with those editors?" he quipped. "I think it's a brilliant poem." Adding with characteristic humor, he said, "As you can see, my self-esteem is not presently challenged…"
His experience brought to mind a certain Pulitzer Prize-winning poet who, having been rejected by one of those magazines, sent a series of angry e-mail messages to the editors who then published those messages.
Experiences like those are a comfort prompting us to remember that poetry appreciation is a subjective process and even highly accomplished writers can be turned down regardless of their achievements.
|Chaffin's new book is a rather remarkable collection of verse. Within the pages of Unexpected Light are a variety of poems, but all of them are marked with a clear voice obviously using every tool at the poet's disposal. The pantoum "After Jack London's 'To Build a Fire'" is one of the best I have seen in English expressing poetry in a difficult form. One of the most striking poems in the book is "Last Poem of my 45th Year," a poem so good to do it justice you must read it aloud. The poem comes close to a song of praise, for the cycle of life and for the theme closest to the hearts of many poets, love and redemption. "Although Dante put Odysseus in the eighth circle/for deception, both Gods and men, I think,/underrate his aching for Penelope" are poignant lines that, rather surprising, follow opening lines about the white ribs of a whale. The poem is finely rendered by the hand of a master and it sings after the last lines conclude. It is also a song of praise to wife Kathleen who is also a gifted poet.|
The collection offers many memorable poems; two exquisitely touching pieces address the death of Chaffin's daughter Rachel.
Chaffin has long worked outside the academic sphere where most widely published poets ply their trade today, but his work provides fertile ground for the classroom or the lover of good verses.
Asked to offer advice to those who lack the formal networking the academic realm provides, Chaffin said, "Write well, write often and submit persistently—most of all, write well."
Even when that advice is followed, Chaffin cautioned that even if a poem "stands up and sings," to find it a good home, "you may have to shop it at a numbing amount of venues."
And although his Logopoetry essays on writing poetry are well-entrenched in the canon of the imaginative crafter of verses, Chaffin offers a final caveat. "Try not to torture yourself," he says, "with questions like 'What is the value of poetry'."
• Official author Web site for C. E. Chaffin
• Chaffin's Logopoetry essays (Note: make sure to scroll down when you reach this page)
• The Melic Review
• Early article by Kay B. Day about Chaffin, including comprehensive list of links to his work.
--Published Dec. 1, 2009
Is the Web a negative influence on good writing? Join us next time as we explore the issue that confounds many a good writer.
|Kay B. Day|
Florida journalist Kay B. Day has won awards for poetry, nonfiction and fiction. The author of two books, she has written for The Christian Science Monitor, United Press International, The Florida Times-Union and Sky News. To read Kay's other Web Savvy columns about writing for the Web, click here.