Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Passive aggression is underrated

Today I wrote on Twitter that passive aggression is underrated. I was mostly kidding/being contrary for the sake of it, but I think that's one of the best ways to find out what you think -- just say something, figure out if you mean it or not later. Seriously, everyone else is doing it.

It's not that I think being passive-aggressive is an attractive quality. As @marstall responded, "civil + direct" is best. I agree. But it doesn't always work. Sometimes when you've tried directness and then active aggression and not gotten the desired response, passive aggression, as a last resort, totally works. And as Gillian noted, there are situations in which other strategies will get you reprimanded or fired.

This came up recently when I described a friend as "maybe a touch passive-aggressive sometimes" (when asked, based on her sign, if she's vindictive). I didn't think this was a mean or insulting thing to say (I can certainly be passive-aggressive at times, though I think I only do it in the comfort of my own home), but I guess a lot of people put passive-aggressive at the top of their Shittiest Traits list. I think vindictive is way worse. Manipulative sucks, but there are worse ways to be manipulative -- passive aggression is generally so transparent, the most I can do is roll my eyes. I'd also choose passive aggression over overt anger and a lousy temper.

So my point is not exactly that it's underrated, more that it's panned disproportionately. Let's pick some other mildly annoying trait to blow up like it's on par with "given to fits of rage." How about "has a catchphrase"? Or "sends 'I miss you, what's up, we haven't talked in so long!!!' emails and then never responds to your response."

Sunday, February 21, 2010


* I never really appreciated the song "Wonderwall" until I heard the Ryan Adams cover, which is choke-you-up gorgeous; it has that atmospheric quality I die for in a song (see also "Father Figure"); now I like the original too, and Oasis in general. I wasn't into them in high school, when they were popular; I guess I thought they were too mainstream; all the aspiring frat boys were into them; also, what the fuck's a wonderwall? The first Oasis song I liked in its own right was "Don't Look Back in Anger." The first time I appreciated "Champagne Supernova," it came on the jukebox in a pool hall and I was like, Oh, I get it. It's weird how you can hate something completely and then one day's it's like, Huh, this is fine. That's happened to me with a few other pop songs from the '90s recently.

* The lyrics to "I Kissed a Girl" (the Kate Perry song, not the better/older song by Jill Sobule) are straight-up offensive, no? "I don't even know your name, it doesn't matter, You're my experimental game." They sound like they were written by the most annoying possible girl in high school, your Basic Skank (standard model) who thinks she's so crazy and out of control. I mean, who hasn't kissed a girl? The line "I hope my boyfriend don't mind it [sic]" is the most obnoxiously disingenuous (not that the whole thing isn't beyond hackneyed), since her music is obviously marketed to a tween/teen audience that thinks girl-on-girl action is live porn for guys.

* I was trying to lay off the perfume buying for a little while but then I read about someone finding Tocade at TJ Maxx and I decided to check out the "deep discounts" at Marshall's. I found a big (where 3.4 oz = big) bottle of Donna Karan Gold, which was on my to-try list, for like $20 and bought it untested. The risk paid off: love at first sniff, as perfume douches like to say. It smells very sophisticated, which is probably more a result of what it's not than what it is (i.e., not fruity, not sugary, not light or "fresh"), and almost savory at first. The main notes are lily and amber; amber is code for resins, the main effect of which is warmth (it's almost impossible to describe perfumes without invoking synaesthesia). Another good daytime perfume, distinctive without being in-your-face.

* John used to ask his mom to make him a few "plain cookies" when she was making chocolate chip cookies, i.e. to leave the chocolate chips out of some. I think that's funny. I also think it would be funny to describe a woman that way: "She's kind of a plain cookie."

* I'm reading next Saturday in the Small Animal Collective series, along with Jessica Bozek, Ori Feinberg, and William Walsh. (I also think it's funny that we're all standing in front of like, art or Europe in those photos, like your typical pretentious poetry dillbags.) Here's the info:

Small Animal Project teams up with Artifice Magazine to celebrate the launch of Issue #1 at Outpost 186. Small donation suggested.

Saturday, 2/27/10
Outpost 186
186 1/2 Hampshire Street
Cambridge, MA
3 pm

As an added enticement, there will be booze and snacks.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

The Poem and the Idea, Part 4: Beyond Sense

In a post by Sina Queyras on the PoFo blog called "Poetry is..." I found this quote I like very much (which doesn't seem to exist anywhere else on the Internet), attributed to Todd Swift: "Poetry is any use of language that somehow exceeds sense with strangeness and style."

I'm not ready to adopt this as my personal definition of poetry, as it seems to both include and exclude too much for the sake of quotability, but I love the phrase "somehow exceeds sense," in that it suggests an arrangement of language not that makes no sense, but that makes more sense than you can fully perceive at once. I've been interested for a long time in that which can barely be grasped -- the stars you can only see in your peripheral vision, but which disappear in your direct line of sight; sounds so high-pitched, you only perceive them as discomfort and not an actual noise.

I've felt this while reading Bill Knott. Here are a couple of short ones from The Unsubscriber.

A kite in the shape
of a map floats
over the land it depicts,

but at night no one sees
its roads at the end
of which a child feels

his hand tugged upward,
in salutations.



The spirit drifts as if
a bubble were after it--
a bubble is after it:
I'm all the foam froth

that's left, and I'm
about to pop
in this pursuit. Perhaps
when a seeker dies,

his prey's position
is fixed then

on the charts
of our quantum ocean?
The spirit drifts, uncaught.
I like when poems seem to come to ideas through language. It's as though by virtue of the comparison having occurred to the poet ("The spirit drifts as if / a bubble were after it"), the comparison becomes literally true. (There's some linguistic term for an utterance that effects the stated outcome, e.g. "I now pronounce you man and wife.") I'm not sure these poems feel wholly complete/satisfying to me, but they're a hell of a lot more interesting than the average haiku.

Probably my favorite nonsense/beyond-sense poem is this one by Wallace Stevens (someone told me what it means once, which I choose to ignore):

The cock crows
But no queen rises.

The hair of my blonde
Is dazzling,
As the spittle of cows
Threading the wind.

Ho! Ho!

But ki-ki-ri-ki
Brings no rou-cou,
No rou-cou-cou.

But no queen comes
In slipper green.
I've been getting a similar "ideas through language" vibe from Karyna McGlynn's I Have to Go Back to 1994 and Kill a Girl, which has to be one of the best titles in the past ... ever. She does fascinating things with language, as in "It Wasn't Phenomenal, She Followed the Phone Poles Up & Up": "she just kept walking / til it wasn't so choke and violet / to weird her the farmhouse didn't have a phone" -- or "Erin with the Feathered Hair: "I know: it's hot and I never left. / She runs to my closet and cuts all the necks out, / never asked and never will, / would I like a red cigarette? [...] I can iron out my voice, but still / I am field stock, body a rebar." Her poems remind me of sleeptalking, or when you try to read in a dream. It's like every fourth word goes flibberty-jabby.

I woke up early. I have to go to some kind of memorial after-party.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

More notes on perfume, pun intended, by request

blue hourA couple of weeks ago John and I were driving home at dusk and he told me about a cryptic monologue his friend Steve had delivered on a recent evening, about that hour when the sky goes deep blue and the tree branches look black against it (I've always loved the silhouette of trees at dusk) and how it's the saddest hour of the day. I smiled and told John that there's a classic, well-loved perfume called L'Heure Bleue supposedly inspired by that hour and considered to be a beautiful and melancholy scent. He was intrigued that a smell could be melancholy.

At the time of our conversation I hadn't yet smelled the perfume. But recently I had a few minutes to kill after work and I wandered through the beauty counters at Sak's. I wanted to try some of the older Guerlain and Dior scents they don't carry at Sephora and stuff, but I saw a lot of bottles sitting out and nothing to test them on. Someone saw me poking around and asked if I was looking for something and I said, Yes, did they have any paper smelling strips? The old bitch gave me a thousand-yard stare. So I was like, "...for perfume?" She kind of sighed and idly opened a few drawers and then said "We're out, just use a tissue, it smells better anyway." (???) So the first time I smelled L'Heure Bleue, it was sprayed on a Kleenex.

There's something inscrutably complex and antique about all the old Guerlain scents, something that comes across as reference old lady -- and I don't mean that in the "ew, gross, nursing home" way that girls who wear Pink Sugar would mean it, I mean that especially at first sniff you have the strong impression that some older woman from your past wore it, if not your actual grandmother. At this point, relatively early in my perfume education, I find them intriguing but difficult, evocative but hard to imagine wearing.

Lo and behold, this morning John gifted me with a gorgeously wrapped (reptilian green paper with a red ribbon, tulle poof and a little fake violet) gold box of L'Heure Bleue (purchased from Harvard Square's adorable Colonial Drug). I spritzed a bit on my wrist so we could experience the magic & the melancholy on skin. In the first blast and for the first hour or so, the bygone-era miasma was strong, very powdery and almost medicinal, the diametrical opposite of a fruity body spray from Bath & Body Works. This is the acquired taste part, the part I can appreciate but that I'm not sure I want to smell like. Now, about four hours later (and after a brisk run, no less), my wrist smells rather delicious -- quite like that sweet, smoky scent in the air when it's cold outside (which I've always associated more with snow than fire), and the faintest hint of vanilla at the edge of perception. Need to spend some more time with this one.

So, remember how I said Angel smells like bug spray? I know why! Imported silks were once wrapped in patchouli leaves to keep away moths, because patchouli has a camphoraceous smell, and insects hate the small of camphor. (What does camphor smell like? Carmex. And moth balls.) The scent rubbed off on the silk and came to be associated with luxury, so rich women wanted to smell like it, and patchouli was repurposed in perfume. (I don't know why it was later appropriated by hippies and potheads.) Angel is constructed as a candy-sweet fruity floral overlaid on a masculine patchouli base, which is why, to my nose, it smells like raspberry cordials and bug spray. (NB: I love it.)

Some more recent purchases:

Envy: As previously mentioned. This is a frosty green floral that smells like women more important than you. If I ever had cause to wear a suit, this is what I'd wear with it. Downside: It doesn't last very long on me.

Parfum D'Ete: Another Kenzo purchase, this is also a green floral but with a friendlier more open nature.

Some more perfumes I want:

Broadway Nite: This brand (Bond No. 9) is too expensive for me (>$100 for the smallest bottle) so I need to hold out for a gift or a good reason to treat myself. Broadway Nite, as the name suggests, is bright, trashy and brassy, reminiscent of the 80s, like what "Mama's Fallen Angel" would have worn in that song by Poison.

Pure White Linen: Clean, breezy, summery. I want to wear this with the gauzy white linen lounge pants I've had for three+ years and have yet to wear, because I'm sure once I do I will ruin them. This one is tres affordable so it won't be long now.

For further consideration:

Hypnotic Poison: Heavy, overtly sultry orientals don't feel at all like my style (or that of anyone I know, really) but it seems like I need something on this end of the spectrum to round out my collection. This is readily available so I'll keep sniffing until I figure out if it might suit me.

(Photo credit: Ctd 2005)

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

The Poem and the Idea, Part 3: Rae Armantrout

Given her association with the much-misunderstood Language school, one might (straw man alert!!) suppose that her brief, tightly lineated poems offer no overt ideas, only loose associations between lines and images. They'd be wrong though! The poems in Armantrout's latest collection, Versed, are constructed largely of ideas--not in the sense that any word or string of words is by definition an idea, but in the sense of complex thoughts (in sentence form)--with interstitial images. As in these sections from three consecutive poems that appear early in the collection (first, from "Vehicles"):
If that (head-on car crash)
had happened, we say,

all this
would not have been--

like "having been"
were a lasting thing:

the small tree
on the highway meridian [sic?]

having been lit up
for a moment now

by sun breaking through cloud


Look how
we "attempted to express ourselves."

Every one of these words is wrong.

It wasn't us.
Or we made no real attempt.
Or there is no discernible difference
between self and expression.
"A Resemblance" (in full)
As a word is
mostly connotation,

matter is mostly


(The same loneliness
that separates me

from what I call
"the world.")


Quiet, ragged
skirt of dust

encircling a ceramic



"Are you happy now?"


Would I like
a vicarious happiness?


Though I suspect
yours of being defective,

From "Outer" (vertical bars inserted to maintain white space):
Dolls as celebrities (Barbie);
celebrities as dolls.


I'm the one who can't know if the scraggly old woman
putting a gallon of vodka in her shopping cart feels
guilty, defiant, or even glamorous as she does so. She
may imagine herself as an actress playing an alcoholic
in a film.


Removal activates glamour?

To see yourself as if from the outside -- though not as
others see you.


Carried by light,
images remain

while sensation
is so evanescent

as to be always beyond


The outer world means
State Farm Donuts Tai Kwando?

Thoughts as spent fuel rods.

Preceded and
followed by
shadows of cacti
on a lawn.
Since "idea" is such a fraught word, this definition-by-example approach might be a better way of conveying what I meant when I originally said I wanted to see more ideas in Absent submissions (not that ideas are sufficient conditions for good poems in themselves).

If I were going to write a formula for an Armantrout poem, it would go something like this:

idea + related idea + related idea + tenuously related image + found speech/text + idea

(This recipe can be multiplied.) Which is not to say I find them cheaply formulaic. I like Armantrout (who doesn't?), but I can't say I love her poems. Perhaps the cool dial (cool as in "removed") is turned up a bit too high for my tastes. Poetry I love tends to have more of a raggedy edge, or a certain sense of ironic overstatement, or a barely disguised bleeding heart.

Anyway, check out this bit from a blurb on the back of Versed: "Like a string of prize chess moves, the opening sequences draw the reader in with a mixture of intrigue and apprehension ..." Moves, y'all!

Monday, February 8, 2010

Claire Messud's non-statement on women writers

Oh, Claire Messud. What exactly is your point? In the introduction to a feature on Guernica, Messud writes:
The great twentieth-century American poet Elizabeth Bishop refused to be included in anthologies of women’s poetry, insisting that she was a poet plain and simple, rather than a “woman poet.” She wrote that “art is art and to separate writings, paintings, musical compositions, etc. into two sexes is to emphasize values that are not art.”

As an American writer of the early twenty-first century, I agree with her wholeheartedly. An artist’s work is in no way limited or defined by her gender. To allot space, then—such as this fiction section of Guernica—to women writers specifically is, surely, to limit and define them—us!—by an irrelevant fact of birth.
[W]hen given the chance to gather a selection of writers for the magazine, I didn’t hesitate: I knew at once that I wanted to showcase the work of women writers. Not because they’re women, but because they are writers whose work thrills and surprises me. And because, simply on account of their gender, they are too often overlooked by the silly popularity contests that are juries and boards and lists.
I'm annoyed by this kind of non-statement that wants to have it both ways. She wants to go on record as thinking that women-only prizes and lists and sections in bookstores and journals are ways of ghettoizing women writers as "women writers" and not just writers, and this segregation is detrimental and limiting and in its own way sexist. But at the same time she wants to celebrate women for their wonderful writing, which is often unfairly neglected, and so she's carved out this space specifically for ("younger") women writers. She agrees with Bishop "wholeheartedly" and yet her actions directly contradict Bishop's statement.

So is the section she edited limited and defined by gender or not? Are the writers she chose just "writers, plain and simple," or are they women writers?

It isn't balanced so much as confused. Pick a side, propose a third option or don't invoke the argument at all.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Fugitive Music

Also: I've been epigraphed (I feel quite legitimized) in a long "think piece" by Joshua Harmon in the new issue of New England Review. "Fugitive Music" is a fascinating essay on the idea of aura in the "record industry":
We could read vinyl’s renaissance—since the declarations of its obsolescence when the compact disc was introduced to the marketplace—as part of a cultural nostalgia for products of perceived quality and with the status of the limited edition, or for a product that, perhaps because it has the appearance of having been redeemed from some dustbin of history, or because so many of its purveyors are do-it-yourselfers such as Thomas Bernich, has acquired the character of the handmade despite its origins as a petroleum commodity of the industrial age. Or, as Charles Bernstein puts it, in his essay “Frames of Reference”: “Oddly, in the electronic age, mechanical reproduction takes on the aura that handcraft had in the mechanical age; witness the antique shop fetish for old photographs or old labels, which when they first appeared seemed free of this type of nostalgia (much as xerox copies are free of any such aura at the present time).”
I love his syntax here:
While the tagline “Is it live, or is it Memorex?” (and Ella Fitzgerald’s glass-shattering voice) is more memorable than “Maxell: it’s worth it,” no one who came of age in the late 1970s and early 1980s can forget the image accompanying the latter advertisement: the dude getting blown, g-force style, into his Le Corbusier armchair, listening to heavy metal, we presumed, despite his martini and the tie flipped over his shoulder by the sonic gale.
Nicely done. Josh Harmon is also a poet and novelist and worth getting to know.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Some poems I like

In the comments of one of my recent posts, Matt "Cozart" Walker prodded Brooklyn "Hot Stuff" Copeland to post some examples of poems she likes and doesn't like. To my delight, she did. Then Cozart followed suit. (Is this the next big meme?!) Now I want to do the same. I'm going to start with poems I like because those are easier to find. Usually when I don't like a poem I don't bother to finish it or commit its location to memory. (I already know Brooklyn won't like these. Sadly, we don't seem to share the same taste in poems.)

Note: I went first to (online) poems that I remember liking, as in, poems that struck me enough in the past five years or so as to be memorable. I'm not sure I like them all quite as much now, but just being memorable is really saying a lot, given the abundance of entirely unmemorable poems out there.

"I Am Not the Pilot" by Tony Tost: This is a gimmick poem. I don't generally go in for gimmicks (though I like conceptual poems, and it's a very fine line), but I find this poem to be rather haunting:
Folks I am not a pilot and therefore
I am not at the glamorous end of the sword.

I have no feelings for the machine.

I know what pilots look like.

I am not a pilot but I am beginning to understand the pilot's cause
"She Uses Her Pinky Finger When She Types" (scroll down) by Mathias Svalina: You really have to push past the first stanza for this one. Again, this has an upfront weakness (overbearing irony) but it overcomes it with real feeling. (I have no aversion to irony, cuss-words, cuteness and the like unless there's nothing else to the poem.)

"Cloud Walk 2" by Matthew Rohrer: Very idea-forward (as a wine can be fruit-forward), this works because it's charming. This kind of poem can otherwise fail when the poet is A) obviously derivative, B) not charming, C) etc. For "context" read Cloud Walks 1 and 3.

"Insomnia" (scroll down) by Matt Henriksen: A poem I don't want to like, but can't help but. The end is like the end of the novel-within-the-movie at the end of Stand By Me (Richard Dreyfuss typing, Doogie-Howser-style, "Jesus, does anyone?"). This is the Beatles' song of poems, overplayed, over-perfect, over-quotable, and O.

"Some Occurrences on the 7:18 to Penn" by Ana Bozicevic: I've been mostly citing very casual-toned, personable stuff, and here we go again. Again, this transcends, because Ana is a genius: "I love jewels. Don’t you just love jewels? / (Oh good, you’re my kind. She-assassin of light.)" She always starts off cool, then pushes it into the beautiful, when most wouldn't dare. As Sam once quoted me, "When in doubt, be beautiful."

"Gallery of the Daughter" (scroll down) by Kristen Kaschock: A poem with "little titles," as John would say. KK's whole project on daughters (or "dotters" as in her poems in No Tell Motel) is fascinating. Her poems are often quite performative, almost like plays. They seem to enact, rather than describe, and are almost campy, but still affecting. They remind me of dioramas.

"Then & Now" (scroll down) by Mary Walker Graham: MWG is essentially a "school of quietude" poet, but so good and so thoughtful, it puts the lie to the distinction. She traffics in the "poemy" without frittering away into inconsequence. I love the "like a person" refrain. It reminds me of certain poems I've written, but doesn't, therefore, feel transparent/easy. MWG isn't a frequent publisher, but I really like what I've seen.

"The Problem with Samy Rosenstock" (scroll down) by Heather Green: The first time I read this poem, I felt jealous. I wished I'd written it! Again, the comfortable, chatty voice, the cleverness, and then it breaks through to real feeling: "I've loved you this whole time, but I can't get there by half. And now I hear you're living in the extreme ultraviolet. Where only a moth or a baby could see you." Also I love poems that riff off math or science or philosophy without feeling like they have POSEUR stamped all over them. HG's chapbook No Omen has another great prose poem with a baby motif.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

The quickest path to irrelevance

In his infinite-scroll list of links today, Silliman points to my blog with a bit of editorializing:
Publish the poem, not the poet
is the quickest path to irrelevance
So ... instead we should publish well-known poets regardless of the quality of the poem? The logical conclusion of this policy is that only poets who are already widely published get published. What happens when all the famous poets die? Poetry dies with it. Ah, poetry, with your built-in obsolescence, at least you were relevant while it lasted.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Do people openly mock your subculture?

I recently had a friendly conversation, mostly via email, with a coworker who takes some interest in poetry. At his request, I recommended a few journals (both print and online) that I tend to enjoy and thought he might too (knowing nothing about his tastes). A few days later he said that for the most part he didn't understand what he'd read, that it seemed like the audience for poetry was mostly other poets, and that the whole enterprise felt like a competition "to see who can be the most obscure and inaccessible."

I took this in stride; it's of course not a new suggestion; similar complaints are levied from the inside by the Dana Gioias and Billy Collinses of the poetry world. It's certainly true that mostly poets read poetry, and I agree in some sense that obscurity can be a crutch or a means of fending off criticism. But I don't want to get into an argument about difficulty right now (for the record, I am pro-difficulty when difficulty has meaning and purpose, and anti- the kneejerk assumption that all difficulty is smoke and mirrors; difficulty is obviously relative).

For the time being I'm interested in the fact that I wasn't immediately offended. Even if he'd only been inquiring about my hobby (and poetry isn't a hobby … IT'S A LIFESTYLE), shouldn't I have been a little miffed when he basically dismissed it as a charade? (If it's not clear, his intentions were good and he was genuinely trying to engage on the topic; this wasn't like a live troll situation.) I guess I'm inured to comments like this from non-poets and people who only dabble in poetry. But I'm wondering if members of other subcultures have to confront this kind of pseudo-insult head on.

Let's say you're a birdwatcher. Has a coworker ever asked you what your favorite birding blogs are, and then said, "Wow those were boring. It's like it's just a competition to see who can claim they saw the most obscure rare bird."

Or a cellist: "I went to hear some contemporary chamber music and it was like they were actively trying to sound bad."

Or you practice yoga: "Yoga is so flaky and 'spiritual.' I'm into real exercise."

Actually I can totally see these happening. (Except for maybe the birding one. That's just mean.) I guess the question is, if you take your subculture seriously, are you offended when people dismiss it from the outside? Is it ever worth going on the defensive? Or do you just dismiss them right back?

Monday, February 1, 2010

Challenge!: Find a good poem without an idea

My review of Personationskin by Karl Parker (No Tell Books) is up in the February issue of Open Letters. For some matrix of reasons, I initially had little to no interest in this book. I hadn't really heard anything about it, the cover was sort of unappealing, I don't know. But I picked it up idly one day (we get a lot of review copies) and read a few lines to sort of give myself permission to dismiss it. As it turns out I loved it. Karl Parker totally brings it in the idea dept.

Over at HTML Giant, the idea of the idea is being bandied about again; "Darby" (Darby Larson?) leaves this comment:
the problem i often have with ideas in art is that ideas are always either not new or too easily arguable so i prefer ideas in nonfic than in poems or fiction
I think part of the problem with this whole discussion is that "idea" is poorly defined. Darby's comment is so bizarre to me that I wonder if our definitions of "idea" are wildly different. My response to this comment:
  • If your concern is newness and its impossibility, ideas are the least of your worries. Most images are not new, most metaphors are not new. Avoiding ideas won't make your poems fresher. There's always the possibility that someone got to that line first.
  • An idea is not the same thing as an argument, something to be agreed or disagreed with. Sometimes an idea is just a concept (like more durable bubbles ... or tattoos for the inside of your eyelids), in which case, what is there to argue? The point is not do you agree, it's is this interesting, is it worth thinking about, does it add something to the poem.
Relegating ideas to nonfiction sounds like nonsense to me. (Does he mean evidence? Does he mean facts?) Are people really trying to write novels without any ideas? Some extreme form of lipogram?

I propose a challenge: Find a "good poem" that doesn't have any ideas in it. Either copy it into a comment, drop a link or email it to me and I'll post it myself. Confirmation bias aside, my prediction is that I'll either A) not like it or B) find an idea. But you might prove me wrong, and either way we'll probably all learn something. Go!