The Rise of Red Lit: Where It Is and How to Write It

by James Cactus

To one who has faith, no explanation is necessary.

—Saint Augustine

I don’t know where this stuff is coming from. You can’t track it with hard numbers. Or maybe you can, but there’s certainly no one doing the polling. But it’s there, and it’s growing, and it’s more than what’s ignored in The Nation (till it ain’t) or there is every month in Monthly Review (there’s always more). It’s something new, united but lonely as a salmon’s pilgrimage. Operating on hormones and star charts, watching like the Luddites did for revelations in comets, heroes all dead or reduced to specters. I have evidence, and I’ll get to that, but I concede something in doing so. My burgeoning compulsion towards the spawning pools of red lit didn’t derive from the strength of a spreadsheet. To one without faith, no explanation is possible.

I wasn’t with Protean when they started it. I emailed them three poems out of nowhere and they told me they liked the one about the rabbits. They gave me some money for it. I don’t remember why I wrote that, or why I started writing poems at all, but here we are. There are other places printing poetry, or at a minimum agreeing to consider doing so. You should read the poetry there, and if you have decent politics, send some as well. Scroll to the end of this post to figure that out.

If there was, somewhere online, actual and decent advice for how to write this stuff, it would be all fucked up. Like crowd-funded. Unresearched. Wrong as hell. And it wouldn’t come from someone established and working; they’d be too busy writing to know anything. It would be like this, couched in self-sabotage and irony.

The bad news first. You know how to tweet. Or, whatever. Use Reddit, or something where you type a tremendous amount every day? That gives us somewhere to start. (If no, get out.) A few centuries ago, literature was built on the habits of correspondence. You don’t write letters, except just clowning, like a last-minute Halloween costume. You know how to write. I’m sorry it isn’t in any way you would like, but what else could it be? It’s a self-loathing era.

Begin by writing a post or reply of some kind, exactly as you would while in line at the bank. But, some time before you hit the edge of the screen (you’re using your phone, right?), give it a linebreak. That’s a poetry word; it means Press Return. Finish the sentence, and add a second or third according to taste. But keep adding those linebreaks. You’ll want your lines to be fairly even in length. You can fix them later, so don’t stress yourself out about it. Or, you can mess with them now. See if you can’t make a square-ish box with your lines of poetry. It should look attractive on the page. Most of writing is really just graphic design. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. Writers—established writers, that is—know how much competition there is in the publishing industry and will lie to you constantly. You’ll do it, too, when you’re famous, as will I. That’s why I’m saying this now.

Anyway, what you’re looking at is a stanza. This means “room” in Italian. Your finished poem should be built of stanzas that correspond in length more or less to the relative proportions and functions of the rooms in a comfortable home.

There are other kinds of poems. I learned them by sight and have feelings about them that are private and mysterious, even to me. I’ll tell you one in a moment, just so you have a concrete example, though I ask you to appreciate that doing so will dispel its magic forever. There’s a type of poem wherein you make your lines nearly as wide as the page, and the lines are packed in groups of two with a blank line between them. Now, these two-line teams look like stanzas, don’t they? But, how could somebody make each of these stanzas as complete and measured as, for example, the loose stanzas of the form discussed in the previous paragraph? The answer is that nobody can do that. Or not for very long, anyway. They are obviously faking it, these people who pretend those are really stanzas. Poetry is full of these little lies. I’ve decided not to describe my special feelings about this.

The rest you can sort out on your own. There’s a lot of Italian and Latin poetry words to learn: the dictionary’s name for every limping rhythm or rhyme spring-loaded, and so much more. They’re good to intimidate the casuals. Also God bless you if you’ve made it this far without working it out, but poets play a collectible card game to determine which of two people have more of a right to speak. If you’ve got to the point where people are reading your poems, the war is already lost. ♦


Protean Magazine, of course.
Build, the wildly cozy unofficial zine of the DSA.
Prolit: First issue closed for submissions. About communists who aren’t making rent.
Homintern: First issue closed for submissions. About communists who aren’t cis or straight.
In Philadelphia, the Partisan.
Something called Rabble Lit.
Not strictly ‘Left’, but SOFT CARTEL has repeatedly infuriated a lit mag edited by a literally bumbling white supremacist.
And finally, FORWARDS.

Good luck out there, everybody. Things are changing, and the New York Times just reviewed a 1,300-page book of Bertolt Brecht poems. Let’s start there:

Questions From a Worker Who Reads

Who built Thebes of the 7 gates ?
In the books you will read the names of kings.
Did the kings haul up the lumps of rock ?
And Babylon, many times demolished,
Who raised it up so many times ?
In what houses of gold glittering Lima did its builders live ?
Where, the evening that the Great Wall of China was finished, did the masons go?
Great Rome is full of triumphal arches.
Who erected them ?
Over whom did the Caesars triumph ?
Had Byzantium, much praised in song, only palaces for its inhabitants.
Even in fabled Atlantis, the night that the ocean engulfed it,
The drowning still cried out for their slaves.
The young Alexander conquered India.
Was he alone?
Caesar defeated the Gauls.
Did he not even have a cook with him ?
Philip of Spain wept when his armada went down.
Was he the only one to weep ?
Frederick the 2nd won the 7 Years War.
Who else won it ?
Every page a victory.
Who cooked the feast for the victors ?
Every 10 years a great man.
Who paid the bill ?
So many reports.
So many questions.

—Bertolt Brecht

James Cactus is the poetry editor of Protean Magazine.

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