the poet Li Bai raising his glass

Brewing, writing, thinking

There’s no logical reason why my homebrew recipes should clutter up a site otherwise focused on my writing; I just can’t handle the thought of starting yet another blog. But it occurred to me the other day, while I was sparging a bunch of malt with my jerry-rigged lauter tun for yet another strange brew (a sort of Belgian dubbel with Mexican piloncillo sugar and tamarind pods), that actually I’ve approached both avocations in a similar manner. For one thing, I’m profoundly out of step with most other practitioners of each craft, and in somewhat similar ways. And while I certainly wouldn’t consider myself a master of either brewing or poetry, I’ve followed a slow-learning approach to both, focusing as much on the process as on the product, to the almost complete neglect of monetization or careerism.

How much am I out of step? Consider the average American homebrewer: obsessed with learning to brew to style, stressing technological sophistication and reproducible results. I respect the skill involved in this approach but would very quickly get bored if I tried to adhere to it myself. I’m into making up new styles of beer and using herbs and fruit I can collect myself. I think the whole focus of craft brewing on preordained styles is profoundly misguided, serving the interests of marketers but not drinkers and stifling creativity. And my lack of interest in hops has placed me well outside the brewing mainstream until very recently.

Brewers have been active on the internet since before the debut of the web, and there’s now a welter of different forums and social media platforms where brewers and fans of craft beer can compare notes. I’m active in none of them — in part because I don’t have the time, but also because I have no interest in arguing with hobbyists about some of their core motivations.

For the same reason, I’ve avoided some of the most active communities of online poets. In some, poets are fiercely committed to mastering traditional verse forms in the same way that brewers obsess over how to reproduce traditional kinds of beer. I’m a free verse guy; I have as little interest in writing sonnets as I do in learning to dance a minuet. Just as in my brewing, I want to make up my own styles, dammit!

In other online communities of poets, the focus is on submitting work and sharing writing tips, which is a bit more useful but still somewhat alien to my own practice, in which online self-publishing is the norm. I feel closest to online poets who are all about sharing their favorite books and poets, but I get impatient with those who are all over whoever the currently fashionable poets happen to be, especially considering how much truly mind-blowing poetry is available in translation. The poetry world feels at times as myopic and provincial as the craft beer world, with its almost complete indifference to beers from outside the Western European tradition.

To make matters worse, I don’t have much patience for canon-making, the pursuit of prestige, or the economics of scarcity which, for example, keeps poets from even sharing their own poems on Facebook out of fear that they’ll be rendered ineligible for publication elsewhere. Only here and there, on obscure blogs and eccentric video channels, have I met other poets — and other homebrewers — with compatible views and approaches.

I am also, as mentioned above, a bit of a slow learner. Had I enrolled in an MFA program or gone to brewing school, I could’ve learned more than I know now in just a couple of years. But without the life experience accumulated over decades — including the acquisition of lots of other arcane, seemingly unrelated facts and insights — how much would such knowledge really have been worth? How much pleasure would there have been in doing something I’d been taught by others instead of working it out on my own? (Maybe a lot, but I’m stubborn that way.)

I would argue further that because I’ve preferred to learn these skills on my own, I’ve enjoyed the freedom to focus on aspects of them in which few people are expert — and in the process to make some original contributions. For example, while I’m not the first person to have brewed with the native North American herb called sweetfern, there was so little reliable information about it online or in print that I’ve had to work out my own recipes, two of which I’ve shared here so far. Some of my other herbal beer recipes are probably as good as, or better than, anything else out there as well.

In a similar fashion, I’ve been able to make a real contribution to modern online poetry by focusing on videopoetry, though there it’s less my own creative output than my publication of the Moving Poems website that’s really had an impact. One of the other focuses of my writing these days is on something that used to seem equally arcane: erasure poetry. Even now that it’s becoming more mainstream, my erasure poems are still well outside the norm for the genre, which tends to favor more fragmentary work. I’m not saying that my Pepys diary erasure project always yields brilliant results, simply that my insistence on making whole poems that can stand on their own, and doing that with even the briefest, least promising of Pepys’s diary entries, helps demonstrate that this sculptural process of composition is more than a mere novelty: it’s a constrained form of free verse as creatively rewarding as translation, at least.

If you’ve spent any time on the internet, you’ve probably run across Samuel Beckett’s famous “fail better” quote.* I’m pretty sure that the experience of having homebrews repeatedly fail to taste as I’d imagined they might, and continuing to brew anyway until I got it right, was essential preparation for my Pepys project, which I knew from the outset would take at least nine and a half years (the duration of the diary) to complete. For the first two and a half years or so I had to be content with only occasional successes, until finally something clicked and I hit my groove (if that isn’t too much of a mixed metaphor). Five years in, I’m sufficiently satisfied with the quality of the poems to start making free ebook compilations.

Speaking of free: There are two more things that homebrewing and writing poetry have in common. First, I’ll never get rich from either one, because it’s illegal to sell homebrew — unless one gets a license and turns pro — while poetry is simply a very difficult sell — unless it can be worked into an advertisement or turned into a pop song. And finally, both are consumed for reasons quite apart from the need for hydration, nutrition, or communication. They’re intoxicating! And as a brewer or poet, there’s always that tantalizing possibility of hitting on just the right combination of herbs or words that will allow a glimpse of whole new worlds.
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*A later passage from the same work, Worstward Ho, expresses some of my own feelings about the need for concision that have led me to pursue erasure poetry and other short forms: “With leastening words say least best worse. For want of worser worse. Unlessenable least best worse.”