Friday, February 4, 2011



I read manuscripts for Switchback this year, like more than a hundred manuscripts for their contest, which was the most useful thing I've ever done for my writing. I saw thousands of perfectly proficient poems--good poems, even great ones--but after reading many of them, I wondered, "What is at stake here? Why must it be this writer who is writing this poem?" And most of all, "What’s with the full-on stage makeup and gorilla suit? We like you for who you are. But we can't see who you are. You don't need to be so ambitious and anxious."

Is this what you want?! Is this what I want?!

If you plan to publish poems, it’s hard to write like you don’t know someone’s watching you—because (if you’re lucky) someone will be watching you at some point. And as you’re writing, unless you’re insane or completely obliterated with various substances, you’re most likely watching yourself.

So, yeah, when reading the manuscripts, I kept thinking, "I am not judging you, friend. I just want to see what you've got. I just want you to bring it to me. That's all you need to do."

Thinking this made me cringe because, of course, I feel judged and watched all the time when I'm writing, and thus, cannot bring myself to bring it. It happens to the best of us. It's hard not to perform for your audience. It’s hard not to see yourself sitting in the audience in your underwear.


The winner of the Switchback contest, Jennifer Tamayo? Let's just say her poems were not overly focused on her audience.

I looked back on my comments in the electronic submissions software, and I had written something like, "HAHAHAHA….OMFG is this woman serious? I'm not sure I care. I sort of LOVE these poems. Definitely a finalist for me."

It was the only manuscript that, all the way though, felt unburdened and free. It really felt like I have fifteen minutes left on earth, and so excuse me, I must go write this manuscript.

It was ridiculous, how messy and associative her manuscript was. If you were the one who wrote it, it would be nearly impossible not to think at some point, “Why am I writing this? Nobody will ever publish this fucking thing.”

Which, of course, is why we had to publish it--because it looked and felt like nothing else we had seen. And it's hot to be ignored. It's like when you're sitting on somebody's lap all minxish and they're reaching around you to type and talking to themselves:

I am going to align this header to the RIGHT. I am going to change the font right HERE. I am going to put my driver's license HERE and lady parts HERE because it feels absolutely right to me. Yes, yes. Obviously this manuscript needs these things.


I had huge amounts of respect for Switchback for choosing that manuscript. It was a risk. I think when everybody found out who the winner was, and that she had published poems in Action Yes and Diagram we were thinking Thank god we weren’t just really tired or in a weird mood or something. Obviously, other poets and editors we respect are seeing the same thing as we are.

I also think, though nobody said it aloud, we were thinking, Either this person knows exactly what she's doing or she is typing this from the church of batshit.


Tamayo is a tornado. Her poems are like watching a natural disaster. They whirl around in an  interlanguage (self-created)--a conceptual limbo that exists from incorporating some aspects of a new language while still receiving a significant amount of interference from the first—-in this case, Spanish. But of course, this is further complicated by the fact that this interlanguage is inside of (on top of?) a third language, i.e., poetry.

When you’re teaching ESL and reader/writer/learner is stuck in interlanguage, you must analyze their errors and correct them so they can eventually leave that limbo and make it safely to the other side, to the second language, without becoming "fossilized," without having non-target forms become fixed. In other words, fossilization has happened if, after a billion years of instruction, you keep making the same mistake over and over--it's like a fossil inside of a rock, except the rock is your brain--and no amount of explanation or correction can remove it or stop you from making it.

There are many self-constructed non-target forms in Tamayo’s work, but are they fossilized? We’ll see. The Gatewood contest is a first-book contest.

Tamayo herself has taken on the task of error correction and we have an open window though which to watch it. The thing is, there’s a difference between an error and a mistake—-which Tamayo well knows—-and that’s the most interesting part of this book for me.

*Actually, from now on, for these next points, I don't want to refer to Tamayo the writer as "Tamayo" because I don't want readers to mistakenly assume that I'm talking about Tamayo's abilities and language skill as an ESL learner. So I guess I will call the student/teacher/learner--i.e., the overarching guiding voice in these poems--poetry mouth.

1. Sometimes poetry mouth makes a linguistic error, except it doesn’t know the rule, and so it stands uncorrected. “I dance the movements gentle. I sew a man rolling his eyes in the back.”

2. Sometimes poetry mouth knows the rule. It just says: I take your rule and I crush it, I crush it. Because I am poetry mouth! For instance, “I feel out how SHE feels me writing this;” No, PM, you mean, “feels ABOUT me writing this.” “No, reader, I actually meant just what I said, i.e., “I try to figure out how on earth she senses that I am writing this.”

3. Sometimes poetry mouth knows the rule but simply slips up and accidentally deviates from it and then self-corrects, e.g., “Stretch then into nonsense. Stretch them into nonsense.” Come to think of it, this actually might be #2--the word "then" possibly meaning "at that time" or "immediately after."

4. Sometimes poetry mouth makes patterns of repeated mistakes which other people wrongly detect as errors, but they’re actually just embedded patterns of slips. This might be an example a repeated slip, wrongly interpreted as an error: “They weaken with my breathe.” I say this because about 90 percent of people write that mistake--native English speakers/writers I mean.

5. Poetry mouth tends to make certain types of corrections more than others—for instance, discourse, content, and lexical corrections make a bigger appearance in these poems than grammatical ones. That’s where the desire to step in and fix stuff as an outsider comes in: "My eyelids are feel upside down and I know what has happened.” No, poetry mouth, it’s “My eyelids are FEELING upside down." When people’s eyelids are feeling upside down, that is how you say that.

6. There is danger of too much focus on error and poetry mouth knows this. It can diminish a sense of accomplishment. It can actually hinder language proficiency--in this case, the language of poetry. Thus, there are perfectly unblemished sections. “The rapid language acquisition at these years will separate natives from non-natives. Do you know Mr. Potato head?”

And then, soon after [in this case, in the very next sentence], the mistakes/errors start back up. “Do you now the “Ten Little Indians” song?”

7. Poetry mouth realizes errors should only be corrected by a teacher when a student is linguistically ready to accept that correction. Except that poetry mouth is both the teacher and the student, which complicates the matter slightly.

Reading this manuscript really is so similar to watching and listening to someone learn a language. It’s fascinating and thrilling and unnerving and extremely irritating. You really want to get in there and fix things, correct it, help it. You want to figure out: What EXACTLY does this poetry mouth know? What exactly does it know it knows? But it doesn’t want your help. Does it even know the word “help” or “fix” yet? It has to, right? It just used the word "clitoris" and drew a picture of it.

To figure out what second language learners know (I don’t know if English is indeed Tamayo’s second language, I know nothing about her but the author is clearly fluent in English and not stuck in an actual state of interlanguage), you need to consider competency vs performance and comprehension vs production.


We know poetry mouth is a poor performer (as noted above). It somehow does not seem to see itself in its underwear. Some people act like they don’t see themselves in their underwear, but that’s because they love being in their underwear. They love letting everybody see them in it and sneaking glances at themselves like, “Mmm, mmm, mmm. Pretty good.” That’s not PM. PM is honest-to-god NOT performing. But that’s not to say it’s not competent. Poetry mouth makes a ton of technical mistakes, but it competently nails the more subtle and complex aspects of language—humor, slang, irony. Book is funny, people. I like a funny book of poems. I approve.


We know PM has comprehension down. That comes from being competent (which, as noted above, it is) and listening well (which it definitely does). Production always lags behind comprehension so it’s not really a good indicator of how much anybody learning a language understands—and this is the case with that “gral” PM, too. Don’t you mean that “girl” PM? "Yeah, that 'gral,' that's what I said." See?

I’m pretty sure poetry mouth understands everything in fact. You better be careful. When you are not watching, it is going to turn to its teacher and tell her, “Shut up, motherfucker. Well, at least that’s what my mom always says to me! Ha ha."


Apart from watching and analyzing the language of PM, I like how Tamayo ties the content in this book together so so so tangentially--mother to country to language to childhood, with some sex thrown in--and then just leaves it, just walks away. It’s so life-like. Certain events are connected, certain themes are recurring, but you're not sure how because you're inside of those events, you're too busy generating themes from those events to deconstruct and analyze them real-time.

I was terrified upon rereading the poems below that I would think Jennifer Tamayo’s poems were terrible. But I still love them. Jennifer Tamayo’s poems have "it." She's real. She is really in her underwear. Nobody say anything.

P.S. I JUST remembered last night that Tamayo's manuscript is called (or at least it was when she submitted it for the contest) The Hanging Cloud of Read Mistakes. Told you she knows what she's doing!

Here are some of her poems at Diagram.

Here they are at Action Yes.

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