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Down in the Trenches

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Monday, October 17, 2011

Down in the Trenches

When I was a very old undergrad (*actual conversation overheard by two 20 year-old girls on campus.  "That guy who works in the Writing Center, Joe, is really hot!" "I know.  But he's really old.  He's, like...34!), I edited the school's literary magazine, Helix.  Until I got there, the magazine was basically Xeroxed and stapled together, so I petitioned the school for a bigger budget, and by "bigger," I mean "any."  I worked my way through the various channels, eventually tapping into media funds available to students, and got us 20K a year, which I then used to publish my own poetry, fiction, non-fiction, and artwork, along with the work of my friends out in SF and my ex-wife, Hadley, in Minneapolis (this was before the second ill-fated marriage), promoting nepotism in glorious four-color, perfectly bound glory (my paintings graced the cover of all but one issue, if I recall).

The Internet had been invented while I was a junkie, and outside of Dan Jewett, none of us knew what the hell it was.  Terribly excited by getting sober, I was discovering things like e-mail and the web, the whole exchanging of goofy video clips of chipmunks playing the piano (I hadn't even yet tapped into the endless sleazy sea of online porn).  I forget how I stumbled on this one, but, fuck, it still makes me laugh.

It's right up there with Li'l Brudder and the Dramatic Prairie Dog (80's edition).

I wanted "I Am Better Than Your Kids" for my penultimate issue of Helix, and wrote the author, Maddox, a very humble and professional-sounding letter asking if I could please reprint his comic.  I was thrilled--and shocked--when I received a response in about four minutes, saying, sure.

"I can't believe he wrote me back!  And that I can use it for the magazine!" I said to my then-girlfriend/soon to be 2nd ex-wife, April.

"Why wouldn't he?  He's just some guy sitting around a computer in Idaho."

I didn't understand how all this shit worked, that pretty much anyone could get a website and/or blog for pretty much free.  (And, actually, Maddox, recently just signed a book deal and his I Am Better Than Your Kids comes out this November [Gallery Books], so I'd say he's got more going for him than most.

But I got April's point.  It's what we do, as people, assigning weight and importance to visibility and prominence.  I mean, Paris Hilton, Kim Kardashian, all those talentless fucks, bank on it.


I've been receiving a lot of these letters (e-mails) recently.  Got this one Saturday morning.  I'll whittle it down to the essential parts...

  • unknown poet on other side of pond contacts established writer because he has nothing to lose‏

To see messages related to this one, group messages by conversation.

Dear Joe Clifford,  

I hope you do not mind me contacting you directly regarding your writing. Although I have only just discovered your work, I have been reading my way through your blog and I am a big fan. The post that prompted this email is Poetry (19th September 2011).
I have recently set up an online poetry magazine called Railway Poetry Project. I am admittedly influenced by American writers – the usual suspects – Bukowski, Kerouac, Ginsberg...
Railroad was set up in an attempt at tackling the problem of work simply not fitting time, place or style. We hope that it will showcase the work of talented writers who face this problem. It has generated a lot of interest in a short space of time...
We consider you to be a writer, who writes on his own terms, who refuses to tailor his writing to suit anyone, and this is what we hope to achieve, even if it is, in some small way.
Back to the post... “It's tough to understand poetry, at least in terms of its functionality in a modernized world"...  As writers of poetry this is something that we are concerned with... I was discussing this point with a friend and they asked if you wrote poetry. After searching your archives I found this post, and also found that if you have poetry lying around, you are reluctant to turn it out. 
I am not crazy enough to tell you what to write, or ask you to write for us, but since you have issues with all things poetry, I am crazy enough to ask, if you would be so kind as to donate one of your rare pieces to us?
If not, and I'm pretty much expecting 'not', it would be much appreciated if you would check us out and give your support.
In return all we can do is tell people how good a writer you are and send them in the direction of your work.
Many thanks for your time in reading this email and all the best with your writing. 
PS It really is refreshing to be in touch with a writer whose work really speaks to me - as most of them are dead. 
Such a courteous greeting!  I know the Brits are better mannered, but still.  It's almost an apology for disturbing me, as if I am this terribly busy, famous author run ragged between appearances on Letterman and The Daily Show.  Why would I care if someone writes me telling me how awesome I am?  I'm just some guy sitting at a computer in California.
A little later, my buddy, Rich, was telling me as we went running for our weekly Saturday jog (which was especially fun this week, since in addition to the arthritic hip, I now have a fucking plantar wart on the ball of my left foot),  how one of his friends at work is trying to create a "choose your own adventure" app for the iPhone.  This friend says he is going to contact some writers and wants to know how much he should offer to pay them.  And I was like, "Pay them?  He could fucking charge them."  That's how desperate writers are for validation and acceptance.
I wrote back Jade (in about four minutes), and was, like, Fuck yeah, you can publish my poetry.  Reluctant?  Here, take it all, whatever you want.  A "writer who writes on his own terms"?  Yeah.  Because no one gives a shit; I have nothing to lose.  I have an agent, who is essentially a pen pal.  I have no book deal, no publishing contract, no tour, no groupies offering hand jobs.  I'll take love wherever I can find it. I'm just a guy with a computer and a handful of stories floating around the web.  
Oh, and I have this blog.

Now I don't know if people find me unapproachable because I have this thing (, or if it's because I kind of sound like an irritable dick on it.  (I am actually a very nice guy.  I mean, I fucking hate people.  Conceptually, as a whole.  But on a one-on-one basis, I am very found of the fuckers.)
I tried to break into the "literary" world, and they didn't want me.  My personal trainer (at the time), Adam, suggested (as I bitched endlessly about not getting published) that I start a blog, because the art of exposure is a changing.  I've always considered myself a man of the people, a voice from the streets, so I figured why not?  And it's worked out splendidly, since it's become how I can justify not getting a prominent fellowship, invited to a colony, or accepted into a PhD program.  It's not that I'm not good enough; I'm just too lowbrow and common for the pretentious mutherfuckers (and I find the noir world imminently more friendly than the snobbish pricks who pen literary fiction anyway).
I have a showcase for my talents, people seem to like my stories, and it keeps me feeling like I am forging some sort of career, however delusional those assumptions may be.  And I get to interact
So if you want to write me, by all means, please do.  (It gives me an excuse to take a break from surfing that endless sleazy sea of online porn.)  You don't even have to be particularly polite.  I am honored that even one person gives a flying fuck what I have to say.
And now let me plug Railway Poetry Project (, since they clearly have excellent taste. Yes, I think poetry (in general) is a pretty stupid and a colossal waste of time.  But I like writing.  And I like Bukowski ( and the Beats, and Jade over there in England likes those things too.  And since Jade says nice things about me, I like him/her ("Jade" is a gender neutral, I think, and I'd hate to be accused of...something). 
So check them out, read, submit, share, and pretty soon you'll get to see some of my...poetry.
This is how it works down here in the trenches.  

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At October 17, 2011 at 10:48 AM , Blogger troubledwaters said...

Joe, I can't believe someone made the grave mistake of complementing you! Don't they know you at all?? So much for claiming to follow your blog...

At October 17, 2011 at 4:07 PM , Blogger Joe Clifford said...

Maybe the English think I go well with their shoes? You mean "compliment," jackwagon. Learn your fucking grammar.

At October 17, 2011 at 4:20 PM , Blogger Jenny Dreadful said...


Well, first of all - glorify in feeling fucking awesome.
Second of all - fuck YOU for getting this kind of e-mail. Really. Christ.

Why don't you post some poetry while your at it?
*mutters angrily*

But on a serious note: Congrats - too many of us writers labour away in anonymity. Whoohoo!

At October 17, 2011 at 6:27 PM , Blogger Joe Clifford said...

All I can tell you, Jenny, is if I ever go ANYwhere with this writing shit, I will use every platform possible to promote the work of my friends and those I consider talented (and you qualify for both). That said, I wouldn't get too excited. I have about as much of a chance of "going anywhere" as a fat man in an innertube on a sea of gravy...

At October 18, 2011 at 4:14 PM , Blogger Jenny Dreadful said...

It would be fucking hilarious if the thing you were most known for was poetry. I hope it happens. Take that, irony!

At October 18, 2011 at 6:01 PM , Blogger Joe Clifford said...

Hysterical, Jenny. A goddamn laugh riot... (If this happens, please please please shoot me.)

At October 19, 2011 at 12:39 PM , Blogger troubledwaters said...

Don't confuse care with knowledge...Unfortunately, this place is still categorized as 'mild entertainment' at best; so yeah, I'm not paying much attention ;-)


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