26 December 2013

Fighting for Life

If you walk around a city, any city, avoiding the tourist spots and purposefully heading down small back streets you will eventually become aware of how close together everything is. How on top of each other the spaces are.

Today you can look at these spaces, especially on the nights when trash is piled and rats are hovering, and easily think of them as hotbeds of illness and crime.

Lower East Side today
You will not be surprised that at one time these spaces were deathtraps.

In the 1890s the Lower East Side was the most densely populated square mile on earth. 1/3 of children in the area died before they were 5. Typhus, smallpox, and diarrhea were rampant enough that many wrote off the entire area and the people living there.

Of course this part of the city and those tenement buildings are pretty fashionable these days. But in 1908 the area was still referred to as 'the suicide ward'. That same year S. Josephine Baker became the first director of New York's Bureau of Child Hygiene. By 1911 she had more than halved the death rate of children.

New York tenements 1910
Which is amazing.

And she did it with simple education. Teaching mother's how to properly make formula. How to keep babies protected from the sweltering summers and freezing winters. Basic things, like clothing, and checking in with health professionals.

And it was all a public work. All for free to the woman and children.

In America.

Baker's memoir of that time, Fighting for Life, is a fascinating glimpse into the very recent history of our country. And of the very recent problem of health and living conditions in our cities.

And the whole thing has the air of relevance today.

I couldn't help while reading this to be overcome with a sense that Baker's fight to get poor, immigrant mothers the help they needed with child rearing is akin to the fight over health care today.

It is expensive, unwieldy, and clearly taken for granted by a lot of the country.

The implementation of the Affordable Care Act has been rocky. But no more so than any other government program going into effect. In the end it will help a lot of us to be healthier. It will aid our future generations in the same way social security has.

In the same way Baker was able to lower the death rate of children, the ACA will eventually make us healthier people.

The fact that we seem to not see the benefit of this is shortsighted and depressing. But unsurprising. As a country we react to things, we do not pro-act. And we tend to be shortsighted. It is rare that we gaze generations ahead and attempt to set ourselves up to succeed long term.

The New Deal was one of the times we attempted to reach into the future and fix it before we got there. The space program was another. The ACA is yet another.

We just need to not get in our own way.

23 December 2013

Inspiration : Paling

Paling 10/2/09

This is a poem about the fall. About the loneliness of the city. The sudden confrontation with nature that a cold, wet leaf on the floor brings in the middle of the night.

1.
Again trees

2.
Rounded hills
covered
A yellow blanket, its
shock
colors cause the eyes to
dart

3.
Body remembers waking

3am naked toe touches

First fall leaf, first rain


The fall is my favorite season. It crops up again and again in my writing. Call it a love of the death/rebirth cycle. A fascination with entropy. Whatever you like.

4.
yellow
drops
the sky is busy being orange

everything is mulled wine
spices over butternut squash

mostly
everything looks ending
a deepish bruise


The other night J and I hosted a wonderful holiday party. We made this recipe for Wassail. It has apple cider and cranberry juice. And a bunch of spices. You then add a bunch of bourbon.


It was a delicious deep purple. Like liquid plums.

5
All of this is cliched
Cycles, colors, seasons.
Death, death, death...

But -

When leaves start their jumping,
like baby birds from the nest,
it is hard not to think about
a slow darkening.

The way soil turns
smooth, black.

That damp smell,
subtle chocolate,
parts around leaf veins.

6.
You pull up the blankets.

You pray for smoothness.


Picture the way earth looks after worms have had their way with it.

New.

Fresh.

Blank.

02 December 2013

Review : High-Rise Stories

High-Rise Stories
Editor: Audrey Petty
Publisher: McSweeney's/Voice of Witness
Date: 9/15/13
256p

If I could breathe in that dust when these buildings coming down, why not let me breathe in the dust of something coming up?

Housing projects.

The phrase elicits immediate responses in people.

Images of poor people. Probably not white people. Large, grey, high-rises standing in the worst parts of cities.

America's great social experiment of the late half of the 20th century. Starting in the 1930s New York City's First Houses, the US was trying to deal with the great populations of poor.

The intentions were good. Clean, affordable, subsidized housing. Get people off the streets, into homes, moving in the right direction.

Over time these developments would deteriorate. They would be left to fall apart. The people, forgotten.

Voice of Witness has teamed with McSweeney's to present a new series of oral histories of people affected by contemporary injustices. The organization has recently won the Smithsonian American Ingenuity Award for Social Progress.

I've never lived in a project. I know people who have. But I've never been inside one, so my thoughts on them are purely intellectual and hypothetical.

Those buildings scare me. They are designed to scare. They are the worst in utilitarian mid-century construction. The low of brutalist architecture, they are meant to be large, imposing, and shut off from the outside world.

Or, to be more accurate, to shut those living there in from the rest of us.

In High-Rise Stories editor Audrey Petty has brought together 11 stories of people who lived in the Chicago Housing Authority's various complexes prior to the mass demolition and rebuilding projects that started in 2000. 17 of the 27 housing projects have been demolished. Only 6 of those projects have been directly replaced.

Started in 1937, CHA oversees more than 50,000 households. Over 21,000 apartments and over 37,000 Section 8 vouchers. Petty's book focuses on the lives of those displaced in the wake of CHA's Plan For Transformation.

Each of the stories is told in direct, diary style. Each tells the story of how these buildings filled with life, were loved, and then how it all began to crumble under the weight of too many residents, too little funding, and little civic support.

It's hard to not feel like these people have been abandoned. That they do not see the city as a source of support. That they don't understand how the new living options are any better.

Many of the stories end with the people relocating to some of the new mixed income housing that CHA has built. Many are faced with suspicion and horrible 'one-strike' laws where even family members being in trouble with the law can lead to eviction.

This book fills a need in the study of what these housing projects were. Over time these histories will be important to help cities move into a more equitable direction with housing.

I do wish that Perry had spent a little time connecting the dots. Explaining the context of the projects in the larger US housing experiment. And then also discussing the current attempt to 'do away' with them. The oral histories are visceral, are direct, and are vastly more important than academics debating theory. But I wonder if it's trading bad for bad.

A little more academics would have been nice. A little more of the issues. The connective tissue between these stories.

The 2011 movie The Interrupters deals with the violence side of this issue. Focusing on the work of Cure Violence (formerly CeaseFire), the movie follows the work of people trying to break the cycle of violence in Chicago. Where High-Rise Stories tells individual stories of growing up in the CHA projects. The Interrupters does heavy lifting to show the work being done to change the neighborhoods for the better.

The premise of the Cure Violence work is that violence is comparable to an air born virus. It is catching. Moving. Alive. That there are anti-bodies. Immunizations. Like the over-crowded poor sections of old cities that were overrun with disease. Our modern versions are overrun with violence.

Each of these works tell half the story. One is the housing and separation problem. The other is of violence.

The final line of the book, spoken by Lloyd 'Pete' Haywood, sums up this sentiment:

It's the dust of something new. It's still unhealthy, but I breathed that in, so let me breathe this in.

25 November 2013

Dust Jacket : When Women Were Birds

When Women Were Birds
Designed by: Abby Kagan
Art by: Adly Elewa

Empty journals are frightening.

All those blank pages.

That silence.

From Terry Tempest Williams book:

"They were exactly where she said they would be: three shelves of beautiful cloth-bound books . . . I opened the first journal. It was empty. I opened the second journal. It was empty. I opened the third. It too was empty . . . Shelf after shelf after shelf, all of my mother’s journals were blank.

A blank journal becomes a sigil of unshared personal histories. And that is where the fear comes in.

What are we if we leave only blankness behind?

You could look at a blank journal another way. As hope. A future untold. And a new journal is that. A soft bed for thoughts, hopes, life.

This cover is both comforting and menacing.

A bed of feathers. A pillow. Nature. Birds in flight.

But these are the feathers of a bird of prey.

peregrine falcon.

The most widely spread of the raptors. It has been clocked flying up to 200+ mph. It is the fastest animal.

How are blank journals like a peregrine falcon?

Peregrine means 'to wander'. As a mind. As the possibility in a blank page.

The artist, Adley Elewa, designs for Penguin Press. The photo also resembles a flock of birds in flight. Again. The mind let loose.

Sky Chase by  Manuel Presti

Again. That silence is both soft and beautiful. And also deeply troubling.

A quiet mind is a home to infinity. And to nothing.

Finding a room full of journals. That were your dead mother's. Then finding them empty.

Nothing left but that blankness. All that blankness.



Dust Jacket is a sometime article about the design and art of book covers. The idea is to shine a spotlight on the work of the designer separate from the author. Literally judging a book by its cover.

21 November 2013

Child of the Storm

The re-examination of cultural figures happens with regularity. We go back, take a look, and decide if they are still worth our time. Periodically, this process allows people who were 'forgotten' or 'under appreciated' to be redeemed.

My most recent review for Publisher's Weekly was The Bully Pulpit by Doris Kearns Goodwin. It's a book about Teddy Roosevelt and William Howard Taft. The focus is on examining their respective public personae. On how they were or were not capable of directing public discussion.

The book served as a somewhat redemptive look at Taft, who is often viewed as a 'failed' President.

Nikola Tesla has undergone a much more complete transformation in public minds. You could even go so far as to say he's kinda cool these days.

I've personally been fascinated by the life/mind/inventions/madness/etc. of Nikola Tesla for years. His battles against the might of Edison are amazing for their ugliness. On both sides. Tesla's mind was expansive. Was manic. Was destructive.

He was a bad businessman. He was capricious. He refused to profit from his designs.

There are many books about him. W. Bernard Carson's 2013 book, Tesla: Inventor of the Electric Age, is a good start. Though I feel the book is simplistic and a bit on the glowing side.

I hate a biography that paints someone as a saint. See most bio movies.

I bring this up because I've been working on a project about Tesla for a L O N G time. I've mentioned it in brief before.

I started it seven years ago while I was still in grad school. The poems in the project are a sweeping biography of Tesla fused with strange dream-like poems about energy and space. Then they finish with a cycle of poems about a trip to The Lightening Field in Quemado, NM.

Walter De Maria - The Lightening Field 1977
It is infuriating to write about a person in this very close way.

It is enlightening.

It feels like opening a door. Allowing myself to write from some other perspective. To think in a slightly off way. A slightly not my own way.

Who knows if I will ever finish it.

At the moment the project is like Tesla's own work. Unfinished. A tower hanging out on Long Island Sound. Waiting for something.

To be declared cool enough so I can finish it.

But that's how a lot of my writing has felt lately. Not finished. Rusting. A bit broken maybe. It is a winter of putting things in the ground and seeing what happens.

Maybe light.

12 November 2013

All Is Gravity

A body floating in an expansive void.
One being. Alone.
Every element of the environment out to kill them.
No way to contact anyone.
No way to get home.
Nothing but wits. And luck. To save them.

This is the basic plot of two high-profile movies in theaters right now. Gravity and All Is Lost.

Each begins with an almost immediate calamity that leaves our 'hero' alone and adrift. A breath from certain doom. In Gravity, Sandra Bullock is at first given the safety of George Clooney. But that is soon taken away. Robert Redford has no one from the start. Neither movie has much dialogue.

Both include sweeping views of the isolation of the characters. Disorienting rolling camerawork that conveys the instability of the moment.

Both films present road block upon road block in front of the stranded figures. Bullock must deal with fires, explosions, crashes, suicidal thoughts, broken everything. Redford must deal with fires, crashes, suicidal thoughts, massive storms that might as well be explosions.

Leaving the theater after All Is Lost this weekend I was overcome with a sense of 'why?' about these two movies.

Why now?

Why stories about such absolute isolation. About death. About silence.

About survival.

Because both of these movies end with impossible survival in the face of all of this. In fact the endings of these movies are almost metaphoric in their need for the characters to come through the fire and still not die. To, at the last moment, be saved, reborn.

J and I were talking and I feel like this is some post-Iraq War psychology. Though real American in its focus.

Hear me out.

You can pretty safely argue that post-9/11 the US was in a serious state of PTSD. Lashing out and going through the many stages of grief. The fact that other countries took the brunt of that is deplorable. But it is.

Are these movies a sort of selfish 'we came through that' played out on the screen? I'm sure there is some of that at play here. At least from a cultural stand point. We as a country certainly didn't actually deal with anything post-9/11. Most Americans certainly felt little of the impact from the decade of war we are emerging from.


That the movies are about death but against all odds the protagonists survive. I see them as attempts at explaining human will. Ingenuity. That we can face great darkness and come out into light.


The final scenes of both movies involves the character literally reaching for light. Bullock crawls out of the space craft and then onto a beach. She stands in the rays of the rising sun. It shines over her as she stumbles, like a new born, into the future. Redford is drowning. Is actually in the process of giving up, when a hand reaches into the darkness. He reaches up. Rays shining into the water from above.

Fade to black.

Culturally we are in a dark place. The economy has improved, but not for all. Politics has become overly fractured. There are little wars igniting and smoldering all over. We send drones to fight our ever elongating wars. Zeno's dichotomy playing out in real time, these wars are in a perpetual state of 'ending'.

Quetzalcoatl. Dies in fire to be reborn.
That these movies seem to predict a light at the end of the tunnel. That both seem to use their respective isolated environments as a sort of parable for the death/rebirth cycle and the improvement of self speaks to a rebirth through fire. Bullock in the shower of space vehicles entering the atmosphere and Redford literally starting a ring of fire that he is submerged beneath.

Psyche as phoenix.

J pointed out that the end of Zero Dark Thirty could be interpreted in a similar way. The final shot of Jessica Chastain sobbing uncontrollably, alone, in a plane can certainly be interpreted as the culture realization of what we have spent the last 10 years doing.

If Chastain represents America going through the post-9/11 stages that America did. Then do Bullock and Redford represent our hopes for what comes next?

04 November 2013

The Bridge of Beyond

I have an unsteady relationship to post-colonial literature. In general I find it too interested in theory to the detriment of story and style.

Oftentimes I find the need to make "A Point" to be placed above all else.

Few books exemplify this more for me then Foe by J. M. Coetzee. Or, for that matter, all of Coetzee's work.

Foe is a retelling of Robinson Crusoe. Or a reworking. From the perspective of Susan Barton and Friday. She is a fellow castaway with Crusoe. The book is told as if Barton is trying to convince Daniel Defoe to tell her story in print.

The implication is that he took the story and focused on the white male. Barton herself is responsible of telling the mute Friday's story as she feels fit.

The idea sounds interesting because it is.

The problem is that it hits you over the head with it's themes of sexism and imperialism. It is telling that the section on Wikipedia about the books themes is over double the length for the plot.

Wide Sargasso Sea is more functional for me as a book. Jean Rhys novel is a prequel of sorts to Jane Eyre. The book details Bertha Mason's life. How she got to be Rochester's wife. And why she burns it down at the end.

This book is more about the inner sickness that imperialism/colonialism wrought. Antoinette/Bertha's mental illness is the result of the coming of white men to the Caribbean. Similar in concept to Things Fall Apart. Though Rhys' book is more baldly presented.

Post-colonial theory is important. I don't want to diminish it in any way. Taking the status quo and re-examining it from the perspective of the oppressed and marginalized provides a whole picture of history.

Even when that examination becomes bitter it is still worthy. The problem arises when the theory of re-examination removes the art from the art.

Achebe's book is more in tune with my idea. The 'message' of Things Fall Apart is the same as Rhys. But the book is also concerned with character development and being a whole work on its own. It also is told in a style unique to Nigerian culture and history. Both Rhys and Coetzee tell their stories in very European styles. In the case of Coetzee, also very coldly.

Recently I was gifted by J a NYRB club. I get one of their newer books every month. It has meant that I've spent most of 2013 reading NYRB books. They are consistently fascinating. August's selection was The Bridge of Beyond by Simone Schwarz-Bart.

The book tells the story of Telumee from birth to death on the island of Guadeloupe in the French Antilles. From being abandoned by her mother to working in the house of rich white plantation owners to having a quiet cabin near some sugar cane fields we watch Telumee have failed relationships and grow old.

The book manages to be an indictment while never being histrionic.

The tone is one of overcoming. Telumee is a spot of brightness amongst the despondent.

It helps that the tone is one of magical realness. That it is short, even, and beautifully rendered.

I was immediately reminded of The Ten Thousand Things by Maria Dermoût. I briefly talked about that book before. In that story the world is slowly dissolved into fantasy. Into magic. The effect of living in the world consumes the main character.

Which is the main theme of most post-colonial novels.

That swirling destructive force.

To go back to Foe for a moment. The book ends with Barton staring into Friday's open mouth. That open mouth "...is not a place of words. Each syllable, as it comes out, is caught and filled with water and diffused." That deeply poetic moment sums up the idea that Coetzee has spent a whole book getting to.

The slave ships, the oppression, the taking of history, of language, of family. Everything dissolved. It is a triumph of simple language revealing much. And it comes in the last two paragraphs of the book. It also manages to sum up everything about post-colonial theory I like and dislike.

It is too technical.

And it is very true.

30 September 2013

Dust Jacket : Every Day

Every Day
Jacket art by: Adam Abernathy

I love me some black and white photography. Even more so if the tone of the print is icy cold.

The cover to this really great young adult novel takes those loves and adds another - off-white paper.

In these covers posts I don't usually read the book I'm talking about. It's meant to be about the design only.

BUT. Read this book.

David Levithan is a great author. Every Day is about a person who wakes up a different teenager each day. Different sex, different race, different everything. The main character falls in love and must overcome the weirdness of the relationship. It manages to be a perfect metaphor for general teen angst, transgender issues, gay issues, etc. So so so so good. Read now.

Now that I got my infomercial out of the way.

This cover immediately reminds me of:

Garnet Lake (2010) - Peter Essick
And:
 Person Floating - Jens Sage
The sense of wonder in it. Of drifting. It is beautiful.

Outside of the photo work, the use of a window motif makes the whole thing feel like we, the reader holding the book, are watching this scene from inside our own home. Do we open the window or not?

It's a nice visual nod to the role of reader and author. That promise that something awesome may lie inside. If you open the cover.


Dust Jacket is a sometime article about the design and art of book covers. The idea is to shine a spotlight on the work of the designer separate from the author. Literally judging a book by its cover.

05 September 2013

Review : Emmaus

Author: Alessandro Baricco
Publisher: McSweeney's
Date: 7/16/13
134p

Have you seen Andre?

With that question Alessandro Baricco begins a study of teenage boys and the perils of becoming an adult.

What’s interesting about books like this – coming of age tales – is that they all follow a basic formula. A narrator will make it through. Some bad shit will go down for everyone else. Chances are one will die. One will fall into drugs/sex. Etc. And that formula is mostly a lie. I don't know anyone who lived a life like this. And the closest to it was hardly this dramatic.

There are totemic films in this vein: Stand By Me, My Girl, The Virgin Suicides. Both the film and book versions of The Virgin Suicides weigh heavily over this short book.

The four main boys in Baricco's book obsess over Andre. She is the archetypal aloof, sexy, free-wheeling girl who hangs out with older men and gives blow jobs in the back of cars. The boys circle in periphery, judging. Like Eugenides Greek chorus of unnamed boys, ours are called Bobby, Saint, Luca, and the unnamed narrator. The names feel like aliases.

It all feels like the unnamed boys from Eugenides 1993 debut given more agency in the tale. When he is asked that opening question the narrator responds with “Everywhere”. And it is literal. Our boys follow Andre’s every move, or are aware of it. She is living a life that they can only dream of. She personifies something they cannot speak out loud. It all feels calmly juvenile and benign.

At first.

That’s because our boys are also obsessive Catholics. They stew in a blind self-righteousness that oozes ‘this is what I was taught and I don’t question it’. They perform as a band for mass. They volunteer at the hospital where they empty bags of urine from bed-ridden men. They show up at Andre's house to get her mother to send her to confession.

The homoerotic nature of the Catholic church enters in the hospital. The boys must handle these men. Remove tubes from penises. Then we are told that priests touch thighs and it is ok. That they love Andre because she is masculine. By the time the narrator tells us about giving a hand job to a transvestite prostitute we must question what these boys are up to.

What follows is the destruction of childhood. A literal destruction of the children. All four are torn apart. The tropes neatly checked off. Death, murder, drugs, sex. A vague non-redemptive redemption.

Through the imagery of Catholicism we are treated to metaphors of original sin, Lazarus, the Madonna. Special focus is paid to the Virgin and Christ child. And here is where Barrico draws the closest to his Virgin Suicide inspiration. Andre is pregnant, no one knows the father. She is suicidal. Luca's father is suicidal. Luca is suicidal. They stare longingly at the dark waters of a river.

We learn that Andre tried to commit suicide the year before. That she was ‘insoluble’ to both life and death. The boys seem to follow her there. Only our narrator makes it back to the beginning. A church. A band playing at mass. Him staring into their faces and seeing himself. And then Andre, in the back of the church, staring forward.

There is no movement. They begin where they end. Saint tells the narrator late in the book that there was no ‘before’ Andre. That they were always who they were. There is no nostalgia to be had for a lost childhood. They just grew into who they were. And that seems to be the whole point of Emmaus. A sense of death and resurrection. But the death is childhood's end and adulthood's start and I am not entirely sure that those are real things.

The bleakness feels terrible. Beautiful. Though Baricco’s prose and brevity save this book from being a mere pastiche on Eugenides or Sophia Coppola’s film, it feels too much like a retelling from Virgin Suicides unnamed boys perspective. Which may be reductive. The revelation of Eugenides was that is was book about girls through the eyes of men. This is a book about boys through their own eyes. It is a beautifully written story. But one that has been told many times. And few childhood's resembled the ones portrayed within these pages.

Saint’s final words to the narrator are “Nothing ever happened.” And they may be the truest saddest words ever written. The prose saves this otherwise cliched story. I feel like this makes it sound like I hated the book. I didn't. The writing is magical and captivating. The story pulls you in with atmosphere and a touch of mystery. It's short so you will fly through it in a sitting.

I just wish that there were other ways of telling growing up stories. Ways that weren't so loaded with guilt and fear and adult feelings of loss of something. Something that never really existed.

02 September 2013

Hadrian the Seventh

The official List of Popes spans 21 centuries of human history. It begins with St. Peter and ends, obviously, with Francis. In between are 266 men. A few highlights:

St. Peter by Peter Paul Rubens
- From August 1799 - March 1800 there was no Pope. The previous, Pius VI, died in France while imprisoned by Napoleon. There have been 4 other breaks between Popes. Those were for 2 or 3 years and were mainly caused by politics in the church.

Pope-elect Stephen died 3 days after being elected and before his ordination. The Catholic church removed him from the official list of Popes in 1961. Though Stephen's after him counted him in the number after their names.

Benedict IX was Pope 3 times. He was deposed all twice and sold the Papacy to Gregory VI because he wanted to marry. What's amazing is that he became Pope the third time AFTER he sold the seat.

John Paul II has the third longest reign behind Pius IX and St. Peter. He was Pope for 26 years. Pius IX for almost 32. St. Peter is said to have reigned for 34 years.

Study after Velázquez's Portrait of Pope Innocent X 1953
This is just scratching the surface. This leaves out the Borgia Popes and the 41 Anti-Popes. And when Pius IX declared himself Prisoner of the Vatican in 1870 and the title stuck until 1929. And countless other things.

My favorite Pope-related artifact is the series of Pope Innocent X paintings by Francis Bacon. In all, there are 45 variations. Bacon was painting after the famous Velázquez painting of Innocent X.

I've always loved the horror in the paintings. The feeling of a caged soul. A trapped thing. That yawning mouth eating the world.

It is critique without being critique. Bacon famously said that he painted the Pope because he merely sought "an excuse to use these colours, and you can't give ordinary clothes that purple colour without getting into a sort of false fauve manner."

I bring up Popes because I just finished reading Hadrian the Seventh by Frederick Rolfe. The book concerns George Rose, an Englishman who is basically elected Pope on accident after Leo XIII dies in 1903. What follows is one year in the life of the new Pope. He sells off the Vatican jewels and forces Europe to redefine its borders. And then he is assassinated by socialists.

Fr. Rolfe
The book is an interesting look at church politics. There are pages of Papal machinations and in-fighting. There is a scene where Hadrian removes his Papal ring and confronts his Cardinals not as Pope but as George Rose that is one of the most interesting exchanges I've read recently. The compartmentalization that Hadrian/Rose puts himself through to allow himself to BE Pope is amazing.

Frederick Rolfe's book is also mostly a thinly coated wish. He was a failed Catholic priest. He shortened his name to Fr. so people would think he was a friar. The book reads like one long fever dream of a man who felt that the world owed him more. And for that alone, you should go read it. Each page is a screed on what Rolfe thinks the church should be doing vs. what they are doing.

I could discuss Rolfe's at length, but will just add that he dabbled in photography. Of young boys. He was an open homosexual in Victorian England. He died alone and penniless in Venice at the age of 53. And he carried on a long distance affair through love-letters and poems with a priest.

19 August 2013

The Only Thing I Have To Declare Is...

Last night I went to the opera. The show was the new opera 'Oscar' that had its premier at the Santa Fe Opera this summer. It moves to Philadelphia in 2015.

It is a good thing that the show has over a year before its next performance because it was not good. The worst I've ever seen.

It managed to be outdated, dull, poorly directed, drama free, and generally awful. How does a new show feel like it's 30 years old?

It was witless. Artless. My jaw dropped and I held my sweater in front of my mouth so bugs wouldn't fly in there.

It was not about overcoming adversity. It wasn't about love. It wasn't about politics. It wasn't about Oscar Wilde. I don't even know what it was about because it was so so so broken.

The lyrics were laughable. The prison was played for comedy then discussed as a hellish place. It was all telling and zero showing. Walt Whitman was the narrator? Bosie was a mute dancer......

I have no real words to describe it beyond this. Because it was that bad. There was a song about ABSINTHE.

When I see bad art I have to think it out. I joked last night that I would need to go to therapy to process the night. It was a joke, but kinda true. Bad art is depressing, sad, etc. But gigantic failures have lessons hidden in them. Lessons about process and editing. Lessons about huge corporations pumping money into the creative process. Lessons about people not telling other people no.

It makes me want to scream. Scream then write a better version.

As we were clapping for the cast at the end you could feel the sadness in the room. A sort of 'sorry guys' vibe. I clapped for the fact that the cast was trying their best. The score was interesting. The set was really good.

But every time the show would get to something good it would do something absolutely mind-numbingly dumb. Like end with Walt Whitman ushering Oscar Wilde into heaven...where a pantheon of classic writers dressed in white angel costumes welcome him into 'immortality'. And his response? He makes a joke about wanting to make a good sauce and says 'thanks'...

I don't even know what more to say right now. That is how weird the experience was. It is hard to be coherent about incoherence. Hard to form a center about a non-held object.

Will someone in Philadelphia go see this hot mess in 2015 and tell me if it is good? Better yet, someone let me stay with them so I can watch it again and see what's different. Because it will ALL be different.

02 August 2013

Sunflowers

I've been a little over stimulated on the internet and writing fronts lately.

Blame this on summer. On the jungle of sunflowers outside my house. On the intense storms that rush in off the mountains every evening.

Blame it on me suddenly having several writing gigs to juggle outside of the blogs I am meant to be keeping for personal 'satisfaction' and artistic 'growth'.

You can blame it on summer lazies.

But in reality I have reached a saturation point with 'social' media. There have been too many things to be too angry and concerned about and too many incredibly obnoxious and illogical and fucking stupid voices screaming at the top of their lungs for the last month or so.

And I have sort of been broken by it.

I've started tweeting short non sequiturs and one word answers. I've been posting videos of my cat staring at me on Facebook.

I've been reading about turtles. And the strange, creepy YouTube channel - Pronunciation Book.

The point is that I'm still here. That I am writing and working and it's just not making its way to this blog at the moment. But it will.

In the meantime. Check out Coldfront, I write there sometimes. And starting next month I will be featuring some book reviews of new McSweeney's titles right here.

29 July 2013

Transit

The first American forces arrived in Europe in January. In March the War Relocation Authority was signed into law by Roosevelt creating internment camps for Japanese citizens. Anne Frank started her famous diary in June. In December the first self-sustained nuclear chain reaction is set off under the bleachers on the football field at the University of Chicago.

And Anna Seghers wrote Transit, a book about the plight of refugees of the Nazis. The book would be published in 1944.

The book basically details the bureaucratic process of getting transit papers. Those papers are defined as: "A transit visa...gives you permission to travel through a country with the stipulation that you don't plan to stay." And that is the entire plot. A man who just wants to stay but cannot. Anywhere.

Seghers went through this process. She fled to Marseilles in 1940 and then on to Mexico in 1941. She wrote The Seventh Cross there and it was released in 1942. It was one of the earliest representations of a concentration camp in media. A movie version was made in 1944. It starred Spencer Tracy, Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy.

It's hard to imagine in 2013 the idea of fleeing your home and then moving consulate to consulate hoping to find a country to take you away to a better life. Or maybe it isn't. The Edward Snowden/NSA story seems out of spy novels. Out of WWII era tales of people trapped, country-less. Whether or not you agree with the details, the similarities are interesting.

That the ultimate feeling from the book is one of hopelessness. A sense of futility. It becomes clear that Seghers is very suspicious of people who leave Europe. In the end her main character decides to attempt to stay. To carve out a new life for himself. He chooses to not abandon Europe. And it is shown to be noble.

It is a bold statement in 1942 to make.

It is a bold thing to openly talk about the horrors of WWII.

I was reminded of Carlie Chaplin's The Great Dictator. That film holds a firm place in history as an early shout against the Nazi takeover of Europe. The final speech is still shocking and wonderful to hear today. And this book seems to conjure a darker version of it.


From the afterword by Heinrich Boll:
For anyone who would like to make writers aware of the dangerous conditions under which they live and write, I would refer them to the last danger enumerated by Saint Paul and cited by Anna Seghers: 'Perils among false brethren'.

The cover of the new NYRB edition has a cover featuring a drawing by Francis Picabia.

15 July 2013

Foundational

Edmund Dulac
I said something deep today while talking on the phone with JAA. The discussion was about ourselves as writers. A notoriously douchey conversation topic, but we are writers so we talk about that thing a bunch.

We had stumbled into a discussion of looking backwards at our old work. Seeing what it was about. Learning from it. Personal archeology. JAA writes in journals all the time. Every few months he takes a journal and moves the work onto a computer and begins to edit. I tend to not write things down. It means I forget a bunch, but the written word is like concrete to me and I don't like to set things too early.

I mentioned that I do have a pretty rigorous computer filing system. It's by year and alphabetical. I even put draft numbers in there.

I mentioned that I was sifting through poems from 2000 recently. That it felt like a gift to be able to go back to that time and rethink the work. Edit it. And here's where I got all deepish. I said:

As writers, we get to rewrite our pasts. Erase it. Rework it until it's perfect.

And thinking on that, I realize that I meant it. But not in a erasing the past to pretend it didn't happen way. In a way similar to a cover-up tattoo. You will always remember that there was something else there, Always. And maybe only you can see it. But it exists. Foundational. Underneath.

I've been thinking a lot about foundation lately. Being back in NM has led me down paths I walked 12 years ago. My early 20s were spent writing a lot and working only on weekends. It was great in the way only your college years can be.

My foundation as a writer is in that space. That work. Re-reading it, I am struck by how of that space I was. Writing angry anti-war poems. Aping Ginsberg's voice. Trying to write a poem about body image form a woman's perspective. A few slightly questionable sex poems that border on being rapey. It's all very young man of me. Very Bush V. Gore of me.

At the same time I've been reading a few actual foundational texts for my Pub Weekly review gig. I read a new translation of One Thousand and One Nights by Hanan-al-Shaykh. And then this week I did the new Wole Soyinka translation of Forest of a Thousand Daemons by D. O. Fagunwa. The Fagunwa book is only from 1939 but is deeply foundational to modern African lit. 1001 Nights is obviously foundational to most lit.

They relate to each other in tone, in topics, and in structure. They both are about someone telling stories. They both rely heavily on morality and on a readers pre-known knowledge of certain tropes. They 'teach'. And they both have deep, problematic sex politics.

Foundational literature - Aesop. Plato. 1001 Nights. Forest of a Thousand Daemons - is a thing we often don't think about. That little hidden thought in the back of our head. It only rears up when we actually reopen the file saved away somewhere. When we stare into it long enough to see ourselves in there.

The ugly and the beautiful.

08 July 2013

The Crisis of the European Mind

Paul Hazard on poetry at the hands of Realists in the late 1600s:

"To the rich music, the soothing caress that may be born of words, they were wholly insensitive, and all sense of mystery had vanished from their souls. They floodlit the world with the pitiless glare of realism...

...If poetry is prayer, they never prayed; if it is reaching out towards the ineffable, they would not hear of the ineffable; if it is to hesitate on the delicate line betwixt music and meaning; they never hesitated; no, not they! They aimed at being just so many proofs and theorems. When they did write verse, it was merely a vehicle for their ideas on geometry."

2013 NYRB edition
The part that sticks out to me most are the lines about prayer and the ineffable. Poetry as a prayer to self, a personal god, the world, humanity. It rings with a kind of truth that I find hard to argue with.

This comes very near the end of Hazard's classic take down/history of the Enlightenment, The European Mind 1680-1715. The book is dense and catty. My knowledge of the Realists is not strong enough to agree or disagree with the thesis - That the Enlightenment may have put arts such as poetry on a back burner in favor of hard, cold reality.

I do think you could argue that while not poetry in its strictest sense, Voltaire, Locke, Spinoza, et al do reach a sort of poetic space by virtue of their ability with language. But it requires a very broad definition of poetry.

Here is Rousseau from Discourse on Inequality:

The first man who, having fenced in a piece of land, said "This is mine," and found people naive enough to believe him, that man was the true founder of civil society. From how many crimes, wars, and murders, from how many horrors and misfortunes might not any one have saved mankind, by pulling up the stakes, or filling up the ditch, and crying to his fellows: Beware of listening to this impostor; you are undone if you once forget that the fruits of the earth belong to us all, and the earth itself to nobody.

I put the parts I find most poetic in bold. This might help you see what I mean more clearly:

The first man,
having fenced
a piece of land said,
This is mine

How many horrors
might one have saved
by pulling the stakes,
filling the ditch,
and crying out:

Beware this impostor;
you are undone to forget
the earth belongs
to nobody.

Nicolas-Charles-Joseph Trublet said in 1735:

"The earliest writers, we are told, were poets. That I can well believe; they could not very well have been anything else. But the latest will be philosophers."

I would argue there isn't a difference.

01 July 2013

Inspiration : Exoenzyme

Exoenzyme 10/1/09

Take off your shirt let me hold it to my chest


The poem has obvious sexual overtones. The act of eating is inherently sensual. Sex involves the tongue. The body. The fact that we are moved by pheromones, that a person's smell holds the key to attraction. Our clothes, objects, homes also hold this power.

There
is a taste as I spoon you into my mouth


There is the story of the Mellified Man, a particular obsession of mine - An elder, knowing it is their time to go stops eating. They only ingest honey. It fills their insides. Eventually they even sweat a thickened golden liquid. Their blood also turns sweet. Then they die. The body is placed in a coffin filled with honey and the whole thing is buried for a generation. When it is dug up, the body has turned into a semi-solid. The entire town/village/tribe comes and partakes. The ingesting of the dead elder infuses the next generation with that person's knowledge. They are literally becoming their ancestor.

From your ___ to my ___

Beautiful - anything could be sitting
filling those blanks


Ambiguity is key to all things. Sex, history, the rites of cultures. Those blanks hold the world. But they also seem to be obviously filled.

24 June 2013

Marigolds

New Mexico gardening is hard.

Which is not a surprise. It's dry. Hot. High altitude. The soil is sandy and rocky.

Things that can grow here must be hardy. Must need little water.

Hollyhocks do well. Roses. Succulents.

Sunflowers.

I try to look at gardening as a sort of haiku. A one-season riff. This is what I want to present this year. Each time it is redone - an edit.

But it feels more like a sprawling oral narrative. A 1001 Nights. Each time the death is reached, there is a rebirth. An attempt to go just once more. To get it right this time.

Without trying our garden is full of mint, sunflowers, hollyhocks, thyme. Our rose bush is covered with blooms. Like snow.

The things I planted did not fare well. The forget-me-nots didn't even sprout. The catnip came up and withered. The marigolds I bought at the farmer's market are burning, though I have managed to keep them blooming through the baking leaves.

I can only seem to grow aloe. The 6 plants I inherited 5 years ago have multiplied into 18 plants that I am in the process of potting to give away.

There is something in there about giving and getting. About the things passed from one to another.

A cultural inheritance. A personal one.

This garden that is growing without my help is not mine. But it is now. These aloe are not mine. But are.

This land, this place, the writing I do. They are all things that are and are not mine.

I hold them for a time. And then have to walk away from them.

For the last two weeks I've been without a computer. I wrote my last book review on paper and typed it into my phone to send to my editor.

To be away.

Returning to the computer. To my writing saved on it. Has felt odd. I always feel strange coming back to old work. It's like a room that is sealed off for years. Dusty, old-smelling. There is something of a time capsule feel about it.

And it never ceases to be jarring.

Who was I when I wrote these lines? Who am I now? Do I still think this way?

I am in the midst of a new draft of my novel. Of a huge edit of a large poetry project. And to be forced to walk away for 2 weeks has left me feeling a little lost in my own thoughts.

How to find that ground again. When it is almost accidental it was found the first time. This is the question. How does one take what has been given, make it over as your own, keep it going. Even when the person giving is a past self.

The last two weeks have made me feel like I have been wallowing in my own introspection a bit. I need to shake that off. So these posts will hopefully become less about myself and more about the world out there.

The one left for us to tend.

22 June 2013

Computer is back and running fine. Will be posting again starting Monday.

17 June 2013

My computer when all kunds of dead. So for now I will be MIA. Be back soon.

03 June 2013

Trappings


I have never wanted to be someone else.

Not really.

I definitely love fashion. Definitely love what make up can do to a face.

I love the armor-like qualities of it all. It's a costume. And it is a wall between you and out there.

Which is why I love drag. Good drag is all about illusion. About unreality.

Recently I've noticed an uptick in the color choices and patterns available in men's fashion. Thank you sweet baby Versace. If any part of the 80s needed to come back it was COLOR. The 90s and their plaid and grunginess bleached out a lot of the vibrancy of 80s fashion. Even in pop music. Everything got a touch darker, grayer.

This is also to say that I find inspiration in the artifice of all of this. That facade.

A local Santa Fean, Pippa Garner is a good example of someone who has taken this idea to the full endpoint. In the 90s Pippa transitioned from male to female in an attempt to invest in herself as she would a car. To 'tinker' with herself. From Trappings: Stories of Women, Power and Clothing by Tiffany Ludwig:

"It was a way of actually making a purchase of something that I can incorporate into myself, and know that it will never have to be insured or stolen or anything else."

Pippa goes on to explain her uniform; a home made t-shirt and tights. The shirt changes every day. She also says that she hopes her look raises 'curiosity'. Almost a silent confrontation. You can read the whole essay, and check out the rest of this great book on Amazon.

While I do not hope to achieve discomfort and I am definitely not going to change my sex for fashion. I see the interest in using clothing, appearance, etc. as a means to promote discussion. To make a statement.

I wish more would play with this.

Jeffree Star
Dapper Q is a great site and broader, part of a community of sites devoted to 'transgressing men's fashion'. Born out of women and queer circles wanting to move away from traditional 'feminine' clothing, the site is an amazing resource for people who want to dress in traditional male clothing but do it in a way that is moved into ambiguous. Queering it up basically. Movements like this are interesting because I don't see a male version of this outside of drag.

The closest I can see are goth and rock circles where Adam Lambert and Jeffree Star exist. These sort of neo-glam Bowies. But they are outliers. There has been a move towards some club-goers in NYC and a few other places to wear high heels. I support this wholly. They are sexy, and a heel looks good on men or women.

I want these lines to blend more though. Not that I want to wear dresses, or heels. But maybe a little more freedom of choice in it. Without a stigma. A hassle. Or a bashing.

30 May 2013

Inspiration : Ghostly

Ghostly 9/30/09

It's fog over valley - a warm day - pressure
on my skull filling in every crack

In the original post I talked a little about my headaches. I've also talked about this here and here.

I have never gotten a diagnosis. It feels like my brain has come loose in the shell of my skull. When you turn it is like the brain takes a second to also turn.

I know it's some weather - pressure drop - a
hung-over lecture rattling

There is a need, a want, to come up with explanations for the occurrence. Maybe it was warm yesterday and colder today. And that could be it. Maybe a storm is coming in, you can see it on the horizon. Maybe the trees are particularly pollen-y today.

The reality is that I don't know. Maybe there's a tumor growing in there. Maybe my brain has come loose from the meniscus of my skull. Maybe the pressure and weather do it.

Maybe it's all in my head. HA HA.

It drills - a curtain over eyes that buzzes lightly
cicadas with glassine features

It isn't really like cicadas. I mean, it is a constant feeling. But it isn't sound. That I equate it with the noise made by them is synesthesia at work.

The headaches I get are more like someone holding their hands tightly, but not painfully, around your neck. They may apply a little pressure, but it isn't serious. Over time it grows in apprehension and annoyance until it feels like they are trying to kill you.

It's like that game kids play. "I'm not touching you"

Only inside my head.

they break at the first sign of breathing -

When a headache ends. There is a weird feeling of lightness. People call them 'auras'. Some feel a headache coming on. Like a strange premonition. I don't usually. I can sometimes feel the tightening inside and grab some ibuprofen in time. But usually it is there before I know it.

I get echos. I can feel where the headache was for hours, sometimes days, afterwards. Like a bruise. Like there is permanent damage in there.

Then that too vanishes. And I sort of magically forget this is a thing that happens to me until the next time.

27 May 2013

What Purpose Did I Serve In Your Life

I've talked about Cat Marnell before. I don't particularly love her whole 'thing'.

Recently, I read Marie Calloway's What Purpose Did I Serve In Your Life. Calloway is another internet 'star' of the new supposed alt lit scene.

Marie Calloway
It is all very New York in that sort of way where no one else but a teeny tiny group of New Yorkers care. That group is made up of other members of these 'stars'. Tao Lin, Frank Hinton, anyone involved in Vice. Their writing revolves around twitter, Facebook, and tumblr. It's purposefully seedy and exclusive.

And it is incredibly dull.

From 2001-2007 I kept a LiveJournal. I've had this blog in one form or another since 2007. I have obviously blogged fairly regularly for over 10 years. I get blogging. I really really do.

That old LiveJournal was full of woe-is-me melodrama and pseudo-philosophical nonsense. I certainly had silly relationships and fights with people online and I certainly blogged the hell out of it. I named the names and was as honest as I could be. And it was mostly boring to re-read when I opened it up this morning to check in.

But I got tired of it. Of the whole idea of pouring myself out like that in a public way. Tired of explaining it. It hollowed me out. Honestly, it lessened the experiences I had if I ran home to 'talk' about them online.

It is one of the reasons I now use initials for people when I talk about them. It's one of the reasons I no longer linger on the hyper-personal unless it relates to what I want to say.

This whole clique seem to only have things to say that are about themselves. It is self as commodity. And that is fine. But damn do I lose interest if the self being sold is vapid and only about the other people in that teeny bubble of a world.

Marie Calloway rose to 'stardom' in NY lit circles after MuuMuu House published Adrien Brody. A overly long journal-y 'story' about Calloway sleeping with an older writer. Most of the attention rose from her using 'Adrien Brody' as a stand in for the man's real name. And that interest was in the fact that the man was a sort of well-known NY writer.

That story is interesting. Calloway is a good writer. She just needs to come up with more to say. Which seems to be good advice for all of these writers. Find more to say than what happened in your apartment last night.

Tao Lin seems to have sort of attempted this with his new 'novel' Taipei. While it is still a thinly veiled memoir and the book is about drug and alcohol fueled late night shenanigans. There seems to be more there there. Will it stick? Is the whole new 'alt lit' thing just a bunch of kinda well-off people who think they are really amazing and want you to look at them to validate that? Probably.

That doesn't mean something good might still arise out of it. Let's all hold our breaths.

23 May 2013

Fem

Back in February Raphael Magarik discussed the mess that is Hugo Schwyzer. If you take a quick trip to Schwyzer's website you will be treated to this image:


I like to think that I am a feminist. I am a gay 30-something of the Gen X/Gen Y crossover years. I am hardly knowledgeable on feminism's more academic sides. But from my point of view our feminism is one based in theory. It is one of research and intelligent discourse. The idea being to push feminism into the upper areas of academia.

Today's feminism is different. I think it is more about 'real world' application. It isn't a rejection outright of theory, but a reaction to the over-ivory towering of it.

That said.

Look again at that picture. The bile rises as I read the stupid white box next to his ridiculous grin and above those obnoxious social media icons.

I have no horse in the game of feminism. So to speak. But I agree partially with Magarik's assertion that men cannot be leaders in feminism. I agree that a self-ascribed leader is silly. I also see the problems of a born-again, one-time violent, student dating white man being that self-ascribed leader.

But.

I think we should be able to discuss things we are interested in. Things we feel about. We should be able to discuss race, sexuality, religion.

That said. Schwyzer seems to be very into being an 'expert' a 'leader' he seems to really be into himself. A. Lot.

When I was younger. A teenager, a pre-teen. I was often called a sissy. I was not into sports. I was called 'girly'. I wondered why that was bad. I still do.

Things that are 'girly' that are fierce as shit:

- Make Up - You can entirely change your face with a little war paint. It's amazing.
- Dresses - Gowns...serious drama. Air all over you!

These are just two things that most men would toss out there. My point isn't to condescend with a look at why women should feel good about themselves. It is to say that these are things that are traditionally gendered as female, and they are interesting. The list could also include uteri, breasts, etc. It could also include art, theater, music, poetry, feelings. All things that are viewed as less than masculine.

Again. I am not as well-read on this subject as I should be. The article on Schwyzer was interesting in that this man was basically driven out of a lot of the areas he has been involved professionally by his admittance of past behavior that is abusive and anti-woman. I don't want to defend him, I don't know him, but he seems to have moved beyond those earlier 'issues'.

BUT     BUT     BUT

He seems to have replaced those problems with a strange narcissistic sermon-y persona that is just as disturbing. And he doesn't seem to see the problem in his past. He doesn't seem to care that much about it. Neither does The Atlantic. He still writes for them regularly.