Monday, August 31, 2009

Thanks for sending the memory

John & Elisa, orange couch
A pic of me and John, courtesy of Marstall's (new) iPhone.

I like how pictures taken on an iPhone always already resemble a memory, like there's a built-in nostalgia filter. You can imagine showing it to your kids in 15 years: "This is us back in the '10s. Or wait, honey was this 2009?"

I keep seeing articles (and "lyric essays") lately about our new understanding of memory, how recent research shows a memory's not, as we previously thought, something like a physical etching on the brain, something hard-wired and semi-permanent. On the contrary memories are easily manipulated or faked. (This turns out to be a good thing for sufferers of post-traumatic stress disorder.) Accessing a memory isn't like going back again and again to the same photograph, but rather like making a copy of a copy, so each time it's closer to the previous version than the original. This is so evocative, the number of novels and poems currently being written about it must be staggering.

I wonder if this is related to how I like movies from my childhood way more than movies I see now. (I'm watching Stand By Me with John tonight; he's never seen it before!) Books too. Am I gilding those memories each time I access them? I think it's more the thing about relative experience. I hadn't read as many books when I was 9 so a new, good book stood out way more. It wasn't that hard for something to take over the #1 slot and become my favorite book. Now I have trouble even naming a favorite.

Nothing impresses me all that much anymore. I can almost always think of something from my past that was just as good or better. One of the only ways to experience that old surge of awe and reverence is to have a new kind of experience. I felt that way about the Rodrigo Toscano/Collapsible Poetics Theater "reading" I saw a year or so ago in New York; it was not like any poetry reading, or any play, I'd ever seen; it was awesome. Unfortunately, or fortunately for my loved ones, I'm pretty risk-averse (and discomfort-averse), so I don't go out seeking new experiences a la skydiving and ice fishing. And society is short of forms of entertainment that are both novel and safe. It's all the same, movies, museums, snooze-a-rama.

Free plot idea for science fiction writers: In a futuristic/alternative world, a jaded character like me is given the option (via some kind of drug) to temporarily erase most of their current memories before an entertainment-type experience (like a film), so they have less to compare it to and can get bigger thrills. Of course, this goes wrong and I can't get the memories back or whatever. I realize this is a variation on Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and to an extent, Total Recall. But with a twist!

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Bits, Lorcaloca-style

I wrote a brief review of Bluets, Maggie Nelson's new book from Wave. Me likey, but go read the review on the Open Letters blog for the juicy detes.

*

It's a no-go for The Emperor's Children, obvi, so I think I'm going to read The Echo Maker next. I've read a couple of books by Richard Powers, and they're always good enough to finish, certainly, but vaguely unsatisfying. I think it's just that he's not as brilliant as he thinks he is, so his ambition slightly exceeds his reach. I'll let you know. Also starting to flip through Aim Straight at the Fountain and Press Vaporize, poems by Elizabeth Marie Young.

*

We had an awesome anniversary dinner at Bin 26 on Charles Street. The food and wine were fucking fantastic. Accordingly, I urge you never to go there, and we will surely never go back. Restaurants in Boston are only good once. (Also, the service kind of sucked, but we got over that in the midst of the foodgasms.)

Case in point: Gaslight in SoWa, which we have enjoyed before and has a number of things going for it: parking lot, outdoor seating, nice atmosphere, good drinks, fashionable without being ridonkulously expensive. But we dined there with Jared on Thurs and the food was really middling. As were the wines by the glass. Stick to the bar menu, and in fact don't eat there.

*

I need to lose five pounds. If you see me eating, do me a favor and slap the food out of my hand and say "Have no more!" This is a game Heather taught me, and it'll be fun for you too.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Bald-faced lies

I don't get the contemporary dictum that once you start to lose your hair (as a man), you must shave your head. The reasoning seems to be that keeping any hair is like "trying to hide it." The exact opposite seems true to me--shaving your head is like hoping people will think you could grow a full mane if you wanted, like maybe you just like to be aerodynamic.

This is not to say that I look at men with shaved heads as deceivers, or think they look bad. It suits and looks sharp on many a balding man. I'm just objecting to the attitude that doing so is de rigueur, the right thing to do. It seems almost akin to saying that when your hair starts graying you should dye it, like a denial of the signs of aging. I think gray hair looks lovely, and while I can't exactly say I think thinning hair is lovely, I definitely don't think male pattern baldness inherently looks bad. It suits some people. A shaved head doesn't suit everybody. Imagine if Einstein had shaved his head from 29 on. Would have been a grave loss.

In any case it's just fashion. (I keep wondering if this "rule" partly comes from that Queer Eye episode where they forced a balding man to shave his head--but in that case, he was wearing a toupee, which is ickier by far.) My dad and my grandfathers all just slowly went bald, keeping whatever hair they had left as long as they had it. Speaking of grandfathers, I think it'll be weird if in 30 to 40 years there's a generation of little old men still religiously shaving their heads. A few tufts in old age are charming, no? And yes maybe MPB makes you look unduly old when you're 25, but at 40? 50? Some pate and a little belly are kind of dignified, methinks.

In other news. We had a stopover in DC on way down to OBX last week, and I was thinking: Everyone points out that the Washington Monument is phallic, but does anyone notice that the Capitol looks like a giant boob?

Monday, August 24, 2009

If you liked insipid and predictable, you'll love middle-brow/implausible!

Kind of a continuation of the genre post: This morning on the train I started reading The Emperor's Children by Claire Messud—I've heard a lot of good things about this book in the past few years, and John knew it was on my list so he picked me up a used copy somewhere. I was excited because I like reading about (or watching) rich people who misbehave. See Gossip Girl, The Secret History, Metropolitan, etc.

But the first few pages—nay, the first paragraph, even sentence—tripped all my bestseller sensors. I really, really don't think I can go on. The writing screams chick lit. I've only read one book, to my knowledge, that qualifies categorically as chick lit—The Beach House by Jane Green, which I read last year for a big feature Open Letters did (they reviewed the full fiction bestseller list). You can read the review here; needless to say, I hated it.

From that experience I gleaned some markers of chick lit, which is basically like YA for adults—very similar to the crappy "bestsellers" I read occasionally when I was 11 or whatever (though I read a lot of good books too). The biggest and most obvious sign that "you might be reading a chick lit novel" (maybe any bestseller but I think particularly those marketed toward women) is that the primary method of establishing scene and character is via physical description. The first few pages of The Emperor's Children are full of descriptions of what color clothes people are wearing, what their jewelry and makeup looks like, how thin and/or hairy and/or doe-eyed and/or crow's-feeted they are etc., mixed in with some "house porn" (the opening setting is a party): opulent d├ęcor, people's red wine being illuminated by the sun streaming in the giant windows and so on.

This is exactly how every Babysitter's Club book started—they'd all be gathering for a meeting, tearing open bags of potato chips and M&M's (carrot sticks for Stacey, who was diabetic), Claudia (the artsy one) in leggings and an oversized, "day-glo" off-the-shoulder "top," Mary Ann (the shy one) in a prim pleated skirt, etc. The spread indicates socioeconomic status, the costumes indicate personality. It's all superficial signaling. (Isn't that what makes bad genre fiction bad genre fiction? Overt, ridiculous signaling?)

The other thing about bestseller writing—people are always grinning. I fucking hate when people "grin" in novels! It's like you might as well write in a parenthetical "I know this dialogue sucks but the characters don't know any better, they're having a good time. Trust me." This woman walks into a party, people are lounging on the opulent couch, the hostess shouts for "Rog" to bring more wine—except we don't know it's short for "Roger" yet, so I'm like "What kind of a name is Rog (rhymes with dog)?" Then the hostess asks the guest if she wants "red or white"—how fucking opulent could this party be if the only beverage choices are "red" and "white"? That is so goddamn amateurish. Then she chooses red, of course, and some dude in lavender with a "high" "Nabokovian" forehead leans in and says, "Good choice." And grins. UGH.

Have any of you read this book? How did you get past the first few pages? Does it get any better? (P.S. I just googled "the emperor's children chick lit" and I'm not the first person to make the connection.)

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Some thoughts on genre

There's a conversation about genre fiction going on over at HTML Giant in response to a post on Tin House's blog. It's basically an argument with one side saying that genre fiction is too often stereotyped and dismissed by snobby literary types who haven't read any of it, and one side saying the genre people are overreacting and what's wrong with calling a spade a spade: genre fiction is formulaic by definition, etc.

One example being bandied about is The Road (which I haven't read)—the genre side says that The Road is speculative fiction about a post-apocalyptic world and is therefore sci-fi and furthermore this label is useful because people who like The Road might like other post-apocalyptic fiction and vice versa. Whereas the lit side says, No, that's not a useful label because people who like The Road are more likely to enjoy other, non-sci-fi books by Cormac McCarthy than other post-apocalyptic science fiction, because the aesthetic/style of the book is more salient than the sci-fi-esque elements. And vice versa: regular readers of science fiction aren't necessarily going to like The Road just because they've enjoyed other post-apocalyptic novels.

Not that this puts me squarely on one side of the larger argument or the other, but I agree more with the lit side in this case. I kind of liked Rivka Galchen's Atmospheric Disturbances which indisputably has sci-fi elements, but that doesn't mean it made me want to go out and read more sci-fi books. The literal subject matter of a book has less bearing on whether or not I find it interesting than the aesthetic. I've also enjoyed Margaret Atwood and Kurt Vonnegut novels that have been classified as science fiction, though especially in the case of Atwood, the sci-fi elements were arguably the parts I found least interesting. What attracted me to those authors was a sensibility, not a genre label or knowing that they sometimes wrote about aliens or whatever.

I definitely don't dismiss science fiction or other genre fiction as "bad writing," especially compared to "literary fiction." As far as I'm concerned, "literary fiction" has become a label or genre with just as much baggage as "science fiction" or "fantasy"—it sounds like shitty book club fodder a la The Beekeeper's Wife (or whatever permutation of bees and wives, not sure if that's a real book or not). However, I do avoid books labeled as genre fiction myself, even though I haven't read many (although my mom and brother are huge genre readers and pushed lots of the classics on me). Why, you ask? Why, if I'm not just stubbornly assuming the writing will be crappy?

Because I don't like genre movies! I have yet to meet one person who enjoys genre fiction that doesn't also enjoy genre movies. For me, seeing a science fiction movie, no matter how great it's supposed to be, feels roughly like being in church. I don't like Star Wars, I don't like Star Trek, I didn't even like Bladerunner. Sorry, world, it just doesn't interest me. It's not that I think it's bad, I just don't give a hoot. It's purely the same principle that keeps me from watching team sports: total lack of interest. It's judgment-free.

This is all apropos of John begging me last night to see District 9 with him. I've heard so many good things about it I humored him and watched the trailer. But I dunno—it really does look, as one reviewer described it, like a war movie dressed up as science fiction. If there's a genre that appeals less than sci fi, it's war. See, I kind of want to see Moon, which looks more abstractly creepy—I like space. I like science! But I'm not so into gunning down aliens. (I also dislike arcades.)

I fully expect a comment like "Come on, Bladerunner is so good!" It's not it, people. It's me.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Pseudo-intellectual cliches

I shared this review of 500 Days of Summer from This Recording in Google Reader and Christen left the following comment (for context, if you haven't seen the movie or read the review, one character falls in smit with another because, I guess, they both like The Smiths; the reviewer says astutely, "Love based on the triviality of one's taste should at least be exclusive to the point where the shared preference saves both souls from eternal ostracism" (her example being the Klingon version of Hamlet)) (Aside: If you're not using Google Reader, you should, and you should share my blog posts; I want something I write to "go viral"):
I said the same thing re: The Smiths being way too popular for this use. Then, later, he says how they "talked for hours about Bananafish." Ugh. Everybody loves Bananafish, you idiot!! You know that on the DVD, there'll be a deleted scene in which they discuss how classic "Dr. Strangelove" is. Fun game: what other references would fit in the "we think we're deep and unique, but we really only operate in cliches"?
Sounds like a good game to me. So let's go: Help me add to this list of pseudo-intellectual/pseudo-hip/over-referenced cliches (Note: Many of these things, like The Smiths, are actually great, but still, you're ruining it for me, culture):
  • Anything Salinger, obvi
  • Bukowski, ditto
  • David Bowie (Sorry, but when a guy puts David Bowie on I automatically think "trying too hard")
  • "Love Will Tear Us Apart" (Sorry again)
  • The Violent Femmes
  • Goonies
  • The Big Lebowski (Haven't needed to watch this movie since 2000 because I hear it quoted in full on a three-week cycle)
  • WILCO
  • Freaks & Geeks (ha ha!)
  • Johnny Cash cover of "Hurt"
  • Billie Holiday
  • Old PSAs/DARE shirts/calling pot "weed"
  • Sushi/dim sum/Ethiopian
  • Yoga
  • Watching tennis (I don't know)
I could do a whole separate post on pseudo-indie-movie cliches which are equally loathsome to me (e.g., opening shot of serene, cookie-cutter suburban neighborhood with Elfman-esque music, give me a fucking break!!). I bet Christen could help me compile that list too.

We are off soon to New London for a BBQ and intense-sounding poetry + multimedia event put together by Drunken Boat. It should be pretty cool (not to mention Adam Golaski is reading and he is always a pleasure and always compliments my clothes and accessories (P.S. No, Google, I didn't mean "film forum")) but I am dreading the two-hour drive back at the end of the night. I'm sure I will be tired and I have a phobia about sleeping in cars because I girl I knew in high school was killed that way--her sister who was driving fell asleep too and drove off the road, and she had slipped down in her seat so the seatbelt wasn't properly positioned to save her, and instead killed her.

Sorry, this blogpost took a turn for the macabre.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Douchebag filters

I don't get approached by strangers in bars; douchebags don't talk to me. I've generally met potential suitors through friends or at parties or similarly vetted circumstances.

To anticipate comments from hecklers and trolls (ha, like I get that much traffic), I don't think it's because I'm not attractive. I think it's because I have a couple of douchebag filters in place:
  1. Small breasts. I am among the, as Kathy put it recently, tinily voluptuous.
  2. Abrasive personality.
#1, of course, is involuntary. Nonetheless, having minimal tits means that only the most hardcore intellectuals and weird aesthetes find me sexy, so it puts me at an advantage when it comes to avoiding frat boys and jerkwads. (Added bonus: I can go braless, which is especially nice in summer. There are disadvantages of course. I'll never be on the cover of Maxim, etc.)

#2, on the other hand, is largely voluntary, though I'm sure I'm giving off unconscious signals too. (For instance, my natural, relaxed expression is kind of a frown, and I don't usually actively smile at strangers unless they are:
  • Exceptionally attractive, non-douchey men.
  • Babies or toddlers (especially if they smile at me first).
  • Well-dressed women (only if they smile at me first).
  • Couples.
  • Over 50, etc.)
Being kind of mean and a snob is great in bars, because douchebags don't want to deal with some uppity bitch who's going to make fun of their senses of fashion and humor (or lacks thereof) and challenge their conventional worldviews.

Upon reflection, #1 is probably more important than #2, since hot bitches with nice racks do get approached by douchebags.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Do you write every day?

I feel like there's a bias, process-wise, in the creative writing community toward people who "write every day" versus those who write in spurts, with prolific periods and fallow periods (I prefer not to think of it as being "blocked"). So when people ask me this question ("Do you write every day?") I have tended to feel a little defensive. The thing is, I don't always have anything worthwhile to say, and when I write on those days, it feels hollow and frustrating and the resulting work sucks—it's an exercise, not a real poem. There's a kind of law operating here: If I don't like writing it, no one is going to like reading it.

But lately I've been looking at this question another way. I usually assume, because I'm a poet, that people are asking "Do you write poetry every day?" And in fact that's probably what they mean. But from now on I'm going to say yes, because I do write every day. It's just not always a poem.

Let's say there's a scale of satisfaction I get from writing, and a poem (a good poem, a poem I'm moved to write as opposed to forcing myself to write) is a 10—meaning I achieve full-on "flow," lose my sense of time passing and awareness of the outside world and so on. This writer's high is as much the reason I'm a poet as the satisfaction of having the finished product of the poem.

So if this is the scale, writing a blog post is probably a 6 at worst, maybe even up to an 8. Writing a good email is around a 6 or 7 too, though just any email not so much. Writing something interesting for work is like a 4 or 5. Reviews are probably in the same range. (Note that a 1 would still be some satisfaction.) I also write with Kathy every day via email. Collaborating doesn't give me the same satisfaction as working on a solo poem because it's so much more diffuse (like time-stop photography) but when we get a good one going it can be a 6 or 7. Fuck even Twitter is a kind of writing and a tweet might be a 2.

My point is that even when I'm not writing poetry, my daily life is still very much about words, arrangement of words, semantics, mode and genre. I look at almost anything I write as an opportunity to write well. I'd probably get satisfaction out of a grocery list if it had a certain style to it, a symmetry ...

Also, I need those fallow periods to cultivate thoughts, ideas, feelings, experiences that can turn into poems. I have thoughts and feelings every day, duh, but it takes an accumulation/aggregation to form the complex emotional scape and actual ideas that go into a satisfying poem.

You know? Is this lame.

I realize it's different for fiction writers because if you never force yourself to write it'll take 35 years to finish your novel. As it is it could easily take me five to write another book ...

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

The scent of a tween

I think I smelled someone on the train today wearing Sunflowers. Remember that perfume? When I was in junior high basically everybody wore either Sunflowers or CK One. (There was also a gaggy one called "Vanilla Fields" that you could get at a drugstore.) Those two smells are right up there with peanut butter and crayons on the recognizability scale for me. This got me wondering, are there any perfumes that popular/pervasive now? Anybody have a kid, little sister, mentee, etc. who's at the right age to answer this question? I see a lot of ads for that Delicious perfume, presumably derived from apples. Kids like to smell fruity.

I feel like perfume is one of the most luxurious, indulgent things I could buy for myself, but whenever I go to Sephora with this intent (because, maybe, I got a raise), nothing smells very good. Maybe the process--bombarding your nostrils with 40 different scents in a row--is flawed because your smell receptors shut off in defense. Dunno. But I like perfume, the idea of it especially. I like reading descriptions of perfume; like wine descriptions, they seem improbable. Sometimes Lucky will do a spread on which perfumes to wear with which clothes to match your mood, like "foxy" or "sultry." Notice the moods are just synonyms for sexy. Notice, also, that I pulled them out of my ass. But really, I think they're usually like "sultry" and "romantic" which can also be used to mean horny, right? Feeling romantic? The outfits for that, duh, are flowers + lace. Sometimes one of the moods is something like "clean" or "modern," and you can tell right away that's for the woman who rejects sexy. "Reject a world where some things are sexy, since you might not be."

Something food-related: For dinner I made potato salad with quartered baby Yukon gold potatoes, celery, shallots, capers, basil and a slightly creamy, mustardy, lemony vinaigrette. I also had some sauteed broccolini, and a homemade mango popsicle for dessert. John is out of town, so I am free to eat meals that consist solely of side dishes.

Something poetry-related: I'm reading Bluets by Maggie Nelson. I'll reserve judgment for now, since I think I may review it.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Is Seth Abramson unethical?

In the Twittersphere today (blogosphere also, I'm sure, but I didn't have time to follow it), much kerfuffle over Seth Abramson's announcement that he's starting a consulting firm to advise would-be applicants of creative writing MFA and PhD programs. Steve Fellner wrote a post decrying this as the "most unethical entity" in poetry; he later removed the post for "legal reasons." Lots of people seem excited, in a "Yay, awesome!" way about this. As far as I can tell, this is at least partly because people just don't like Seth Abramson, or find him "insufferable" to put a finer point on it, and enjoyed seeing him raked over the coals.

However you feel about SA and how cool he would or would not be to get a beer with, I just don't see how this can be called unethical. It's no more unethical than any consulting service whereby people offer expertise and advice for money. In other words, if it's unethical, so is SAT tutoring. So is resume coaching. Doesn't Steve Schroeder offer resume services for a fee? Is that unethical?

My understanding is that SA was previously providing similar services for free via email. He's a lawyer. That means his time is quite literally money. He realized he could bill for those hours. Guess what, that's how businesses are born. Every business is based on the premise that people will pay for what they want and/or need. Sure, most of the information he has is readily available to those who want to do the research and/or networking. But people are lazy and their time is worth something too.

When I was applying to grad school, I certainly would have paid for, if not a consultant, a book that told me what the top programs were, how much funding they offered, how many students they admitted and so forth. Nothing like that existed at the time. I relied on an outdated US News report and the advice of my poetry teacher (it was part of her job to advise me). The one place she suggested that wasn't already on my list was Emerson, both the best suggestion and the worst suggestion: best because it's the only place I got in (though I was later accepted off a wait list), worst because, as a program, it kind of sucked. I'm doing OK, but I could have been better informed. I'm sure there are people way more clueless than I was.

Is this a sign that creative writing has become an industry? Yes. As such, it is kind of "icky"? Yes. But unethical? No.

For the record, I don't have a problem with the "entity" being questioned or criticized. It's an open question whether or not such services should exist, are valuable, etc. Same goes for the MFA "machine" as a whole. I just think terms like "unethical" and "corrupt" don't apply here.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Plymouth Rocks!

plymouth graffiti
Actually, Plymouth kind of sucks. Yesterday was gorgeous and I wanted to get out town and John wanted to go somewhere we hadn’t been before, so we landed on Plymouth. (Wah wah.) It features a fake rock that signifies nothing (which I refused to look at) and a lot of tourists who subscribe to the tenet that conformity is its own reward.

Still, we had an excellent day. We ate lunch at a placed called The Deck with a view of the harbor; our waitress was exceptionally nice. Then we bought some too-sticky saltwater taffy and walked out to the end of the jetty in the hot hot sun. The jetty was composed of large, jagged, irregular rocks with big gaps in between, requiring the utmost concentration to avoid falling and splitting one’s chin and/or shin open. But when we got to the end we took a break and enjoyed the sea breeze.

elisa gabbert john cotter jetty
elisa gabbert john cotter jetty
The jetty is, as one meta-graffito proclaimed, “Plymouth’s Graffiti Area.” Alas, we had no spray paint with which to declare our love and existence. By the time we were back on the mainland it was the cocktail hour, so we drove north along the coast looking for a good spot to wet our whistles. We ended up at a place called Barker Tavern that had a superb wine list and more effusively friendly waitstaff who brought us crackers with homemade cheese spread and three buttered rolls even though we weren’t staying for dinner. A server even told me in passing, “You look cute,” which is such an intimate phrasing compared to something like “Cute top.” It’s something a friend would say rather than a stranger, since the implication is “You look cute for you.”

Then we moseyed along to Hingham, home to my favorite restaurant in the greater Boston area, Tasca. It’s consistently delicious with a great atmosphere and, being outside Boston proper, free of trendy restaurant hype. Kind of a perfect day, and not even tinged with sadness like the Lou Reed song.

A word about conformity and fashion: John is resistant, but I think it’s perfectly fair to prejudge people based on their clothing, and prejudge cities and towns based on the way their inhabitants dress. (Assuming, you know, you’re open to being proven wrong.) Because the highly educated, artsy-type people I prefer to surround myself with tend to wear more interesting clothes. Even nerdy, unfashionable rationalists are likely to “opt out” in a distinctive way rather than just wear the most conformist, boring thing possible. Getting dressed is mostly signaling—a way of broadcasting what you’re like. It’s almost socially dysfunctional to fully ignore those signals.

Of course it’s not a perfect system, but if you’re going to form preconceived notions about strangers (and we all do) it’s better than phrenology and racial profiling.

I have slept, I have jogged, I have showered, I have eaten an unsatisfactory breakfast of barely moist cereal, and some potato chips. Now I have to rearrange my manuscript again. There is almost no pleasure in this.