Friday, October 29, 2010

The Adult Paradigm

I've had a bad week. Some good things* happened, but I can't stop dwelling on the bad ones. I think having "bad weeks" might be part of the Adult Paradigm.

The Adult Paradigm is something Allen came up with, but I think John has the best example. Once when he was 17 or 18, I think, he was in a restaurant with his dad and a friend/colleague of his dad's, and they bought him a beer. Before John had finished it, his dad and the friend stood up to go. John clearly hesitated, and the friend looked at him and said, meaningfully (at least in John's memory or my memory of the telling), You don't have to finish your drink. Boom, teenage mind blown, welcome to the Adult Paradigm.

I've been trying to get Allen to do a guest blog about the Adult Paradigm, but he either doesn't remember what it is or I misunderstood what he meant by it. In my mind, it's a sudden shift to a different worldview, as palpable as suddenly getting a foot taller. In the Adult Paradigm, a dollar's worth of beer is not important. If you asked Allen he's probably say the Adult Paradigm is stuff like dropping abstract non sequiturs into conversation. (That's a bit more "adults in the movies" to me.)

*E.g., I've got some new poems at Everyday Genius.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Things I have smelled lately

All perfumes, people, nothing gross:
  • Love, Chloe: Smells exactly, photorealistically like honey at first, then turns into a bathroomy talc scent.
  • Miller Harris Geranium Bourbon: Gorgeous rich rose and geranium scent on a dark background. "Want."
  • Bond No. 9 Washington Square: Super boring guy scent. Next.
  • Bond No. 9 New Haarlem: This is supposed to smell like coffee, but instead I get bacon with maple syrup drizzled on top. Kind of hilarious.
  • Roberto Cavalli Oro: Like the above breakfast scent, this is by Maurice Roucel, whose perfumes always have a sense of humor or least a sense of trashy. Reminds me very much of eggnog (a smell I like).
  • Lolita Lempicka au Masculin: This is really good and only tenuously masculine. Strange how I hate the black licorice taste but like licorice notes in perfume. Mega-fugly bottle.
  • Acqua di Gioia: Only smelled this one on paper, but all I got was grapefruit. Disappointing, since I'd heard mojito.
  • Shalimar Ode a la Vanille: Only smelled this one on paper too, since it seemed to have a whopping dose of the dreaded woody amber. Why!
  • Paco Rabanne Lady Million and Gucci Guilty: Can't remember the difference. They were both way too sweet.
  • Ormonde Jayne Woman: Gorgeous mossy woods and amber. Want.
  • Natori: Sexy plummy musky thing. Kinda want.

Monday, October 25, 2010

New review of TFE

I just read this really terrific review of The French Exit by Timothy Bradford in H_NGM_N. Awesome not only because he liked it, but because he really got what I was trying to do, feels like, in terms of language and tone and mechanics and everything. I also love that he talks about "Blogpoem@Sea" but refuses to give away the ending. Here's a couple of excerpts:
While Gabbert’s poetry delves into linguistics and cognition and sometimes feels heavy with its self-awareness, it balances this tendency with a mix of physical violence, wry humor and edgy sexuality. Sometimes, as soon as you get your Lacan or Kant head on, the poem starts in on Marx Brothers with Mae West and Betty Paige ...

The sexual double-entendre is thick here, from the description of the joke to the final two sentences, and why not? Humor, like sex, can be a release, a letting go of control, and humor and sex are excellent tools for underlining language’s limits. “Freudian slips on tennis court and cracks her coccyx,” as Marx might say. “Serves her bourgeois ass right,” Marx might respond ...

Reader beware. Even with such emotional and human gestures, The French Exit is no catchy-hooks-got-you-on-the-first-listen sort of book. It intrigues and hides and even frustrates the first time through, enough so that you find yourself wanting another listen, and then another, and as the full complexity of what is happening unfolds, quantum like, you realize you’re holding a dazzling book that richly rewards those willing to sound and puzzle it out.
Thank you Timothy Bradford and thank you H_NGM_N!

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Who is the Joan Didion/Susan Sontag of our generation?

After finishing The Year of Magical Thinking yesterday, I did a little poking around on the Internet to learn more about Joan Didion's husband, John Gregory Dunne, who was apparently a well-known writer himself, though I wasn't sure if I'd heard of him. It turns out he had a fairly famous family: He was the brother of Dominick Dunne, a writer I had heard of, who was the father of Griffin Dunne (an actor I like quite a lot though he was in one of the worst movies ever made) and Dominique Dunne, an actress who was strangled to death in the '80s.

I found an article by Dominick Dunne, published in Vanity Fair after his brother's death, reflecting on their relationship; it was interesting for a few reasons, one being that his account of their family life over the years is so different from Didion's account. DD (whom Didion calls "Nick" in the book) focuses on a years-long rift between the brothers; Didion never mentions this. At one point he remembers how Didion seemed to him at her daughter's wedding: "that day I realized again what a truly significant person she is. She had, after all, helped define a generation."

Last night I got to thinking about this statement. I put Joan Didion and Susan Sontag in the same category: They are "women of letters" in a way, intellectuals with broad interests, writing in multiple genres, with a knack for tapping into the zeitgeist. They wrote essays that were memorable for being smart, yes, but also accessible and broadly relevant. I can't think of anyone filling this role today, by which I mean a writer and intellectual helping to "define a generation." For Generation X, David Foster Wallace and Dave Eggars probably fit the bill. (Maybe Douglas Coupland, but did he write nonfiction?) Is anyone doing this now? Is a woman doing this now?

Joan Didion wasn't famous until her 30s. Maybe our woman of letters hasn't emerged yet.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Numbers Trouble in 1920

Matt Mullins, a poet and teacher in North Carolina, was kind enough to send me a fascinating article he found while looking through old back issues of Poetry for a research project. He stumbled upon a short essay by Harriet Monroe that addresses the issue of gender parity in poetry and publishing. Monroe reports reading an article by an "enemy-friend" (!) who claims that "feminist influence has had a bad effect" and that Poetry is "edited by a woman" and "largely dominated by another woman with radical and perverse notions of the high art" ... most of its contributors, he goes on to complain, "are feminine by accident of birth." Monroe responds that she did the math for the preceding year and found that in fact almost twice as many pages had included verse by men as by women. "The facts compel me to accuse myself of injustice toward my own sex," she writes.

How little things change, eh? You can read the whole article (and the whole issue) here (PDF). The article begins on page 146. Thanks to Matt for the pointer!

Monday, October 18, 2010

absent 5

I'm happy to announce that the fifth issue of absent magazine is now live. This issue includes new poetry by Andrea Applebee, Travis Brown, Donald Dunbar, Caroline Ebeid, Evelyn Hampton, Joshua Harmon, Kirsten Kaschock, Lily Ladewig, Francois Luong, Nicole Mauro, Ben Mirov, Danielle Pieratti, and Fred Schmalz. Please read and spread the word!

Couple of notes on the issue:
  • Our amazing designer, Irwin Chen, coded the issue in HTML5 (same with absent 4); shitty browsers like Internet Explorer don't support HTML5, so please use an up-to-date, modern browser like Chrome, Firefox or Safari to experience the issue in all its loveliness.
  • If you're interested in the world of design, check out this interview with Irwin about poetry in the digital age. (Quote: "The ironic thing is that code IS poetry, and poetry is code. Programmers are just as anal about the significance of indentation as poets are, just as obsessive about syntax, and driven to tears by a misplaced comma or quotation mark. Programmers even put a more rigid constraint on the rendering of code than poets do, i.e., they only use monospaced fonts")
  • This is the first issue of absent that has consisted solely of unsolicited work. Every poem came straight from the old slush pile. I think this is awesome.
In other news, Tim Jones-Yelvington was kind enough to point me to this pop song by "an all Asian American rap pop group." Enjoy!

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Syllabus: Youth and Malice

A while back my friend Farrah was doing these posts I loved with syllabi for imaginary classes. (Here's one on cuteness. Here's one on acknowledging the camera.) I'd like to see a class on books and films that feature children or teenagers encountering (and in engaging in) acts of cruelty, violence, and evil, with a particular focus on children; teenagers are evil anyway. (Slasher films don't count.)


A High Wind in Jamaica by Richard Hughes
Lord of the Flies by William Golding
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
Cat's Eye by Margaret Atwood
The Secret History by Donna Tartt
Music for Torching and/or The End of Alice by A.M. Homes
Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro


Heavenly Creatures
Stand By Me
Mysterious Skin

What else should be on the syllabus?

Monday, October 11, 2010


* Is there a term for that moment toward the end of a pop song when the singer really gives it to you, vocally speaking? I mean the emotional climax when he/she increases the frequency and amplitude and probably does some crazy runs, and it's totally the best part of the song? "Alone" has that moment. "I'm With You" has that moment. "I Want it That Way" has that moment. It's an ass-kicking moment and it deserves a name.

* I am really starting to miss food. Like I'll see a commercial for Tyson frozen chicken nuggets at the gym and get all wistful. I would LOVE to eat some chicken nuggets. Not the ammonia-soaked kind reformulated from chicken paste, but you know, some pretty good chicken nuggets. Soy- or wheat-based nuggets were actually fine, since you're dealing with a hyper-processed food anyway. But I can't even eat those anymore. I always knew if I decided to eat meat again the first thing I'd want would be a fancy hamburger. But now I couldn't eat that if I wanted to. I hate my first-world problems.

* I have some upcoming readings. See you there?

The Madness Much Tour (Artifice Magazine)
with James Adcox, Jeremy Bushnell, Andrew Farkas and others
Saturday, 10/16, 5:30 pm
@ The Enormous Room
Cambridge, MA

Untitled Reading
with Gene Kwak, Mark Leidner, and Mike Young
Thursday, 11/4, 8 pm
@ Lorem Ipsum Books
Cambridge, MA

with Matthew Lippman, Rob MacDonald, and Leigh Stein
Wednesday, 11/17, 7 pm
@ Brookline Booksmith
Brookline, MA

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Partial list of songs for the pop canon

  • "In the Air Tonight" by Phil Collins (1981)
  • "Centerfold" by J. Geils Band (1982)
  • "Jack & Diane" by John Cougar (1982)
  • "I Know There's Something Going On" by Frida (1982)
  • "Tainted Love" by Soft Cell (1982)
  • "Cruel Summer" by Bananarama (1983)
  • "Africa" by Toto (1983)
  • "When Doves Cry" by Prince (1984)
  • "Time After Time" by Cyndi Lauper (1984)
  • "Against All Odds" by Phil Collins (1984)
  • "Careless Whisper" by Wham! (1985)
  • "Everybody Wants to Rule the World" by Tears for Fears (1985)
  • "(I Just) Died In Your Arms" by Cutting Crew (1986)
  • "Rock Me Amadeus" by Falco (1986)
  • "Alone" by Heart (1987)
  • "No Sleep Till Brooklyn" by The Beastie Boys (1987)
  • "Parents Just Don't Understand" by DJ Jazzy Jeff & Fresh Prince (1988)
  • "The Promise" by When In Rome (1988)
  • "What I Am" by Edie Brickell & The New Bohemians (1988)
  • "Stand" by REM (1989)
  • "Nothing Compares 2 U" by Sinead O'Connor (1990)
  • "Tom's Diner (DNA Remix)" by Suzanna Vega (1990)
  • "I Touch Myself" by Divinyls (1991)
  • "Unbelievable" by EMF (1991)
  • "My Lovin (You're Never Gonna Get It)" by En Vogue (1992)
  • "Two Princes" by Spin Doctors (1993)
  • "I Got a Man" by Positive K (1993)
  • "Loser" by Beck (1994)
  • "Wonderwall" by Oasis (1995)
  • "Waterfalls" by TLC (1995)
  • "Who Will Save Your Soul" by Jewel (1996)
  • "Semi-Charmed Life" by Third Eye Blind (1997)

Saturday, October 9, 2010

More thoughts on pop

Katy Perry is one of the worst pop stars we've seen in a while. Not only are her songs not very good -- the lyrics, when not outright offensive, are at best idiotic, and they hooks aren't catchy enough to excuse this -- she just seems completely phony in every way. She's one of those celebrities who wear so much make-up and ridiculous clothing that you have no idea what they actually look like. She always looks like the Saturday morning cartoon version of herself. It's like, if she's not musically talented, can she at least be worth ogling? "I Kissed a Girl" especially makes me angry (I've blogged about this before); she manages to objectify women in general and trivialize homosexuality in one fell swoop; there's no one I'm not offended on behalf of. And Jill Sobule already wrote that lyric into a way better song 10+ years ago, so the faux shock value is especially cheap.

Her popularity baffles me because I have a pretty high tolerance for stupid pop music. For instance I will happily listen to radio hits by any American Idol winner. I kind of like that Adam Lambert song "Whataya Want From Me" (Oh my god, I know, that is apparently how the title is rendered), even though the lyrics make no sense -- it's one of those songs where it's really unclear if he's trying to break up with the "you" or aver his love. I mean, one of the lines in the chorus is "Just don't give up," but wouldn't you give up if your BF wrote a song to you called "Whataya Want From Me"? It's a little confrontational. Anyway, coherence isn't really crucial in a pop song; probably the greatest pop song of the '90s is "I Want It That Way" which makes at least as little sense. Stupidity is also forgivable (see above) as long as the song is really catchy; see "Manic Monday."

I also think a semi-weak song is excusable if the video is really awesome. "Freedom 90" is actually kind of a boring song, and not much worth listening to on its own, but it's the perfect soundtrack to the video, which is one of the best videos of all time and basically short-film quality. Musically, "Father Figure" kicks its ass in every way. I have a half-baked theory that one of the elements of a good song is being able to tell where you are in its arc if you turn on the radio in the middle of it. "Father Figure" has an amazing build-up, and coming in at the end is a real let-down; "Freedom," unless you hit the bridge, kind of sounds the same all over; it's like, who cares. This is why "Total Eclipse of the Heart" is ultimately a ridiculous song and only has camp value, musically -- from the very beginning, it sounds like the final third of a song; it's all climax.

Have you seen Ander Monson's attempt at a canon of pop? He begins with Joy Division and Talking Heads and tours through the essentials of the past 30 years. I like it a lot, and he includes some of my all-time favorite singles ("Dancing with Myself," "The Boys of Summer," "With or Without You," "There Is a Light That Never Goes Out") but the list has obvious holes, too. Women are underrepresented, of course -- he includes the Backstreet Boys but no Britney. Still, I love when intelligent people talk about mindless music.

Who would be in your pop canon? (And I really mean POP here people; the comments on my recent post led to me believe some of my blog readers have strayed so far into the hipster fringe they've forgotten what "pop" means. So use your judgment. For example, REM probably counts, but does TMBG? That's probably a stretch. They were never on VH1.) I'd definitely include George Michael. And Britney! I'd also have to throw in the Avril Lavigne song "I'm With You" -- I hate pretty much everything else she's done, but I find this song oddly affecting and can listen to it over and over.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Questions from a high school English teacher

John Gallaher received the below questions in an email from a high school English and writing teacher. She wrote that middle and high school teachers "generally fall into three categories when it comes to teaching poetry: they either respect it but do not know how to teach it, they do not find it to be relevant to the state standards and therefore avoid it all together, or they teach it grossly incorrectly (i.e. encouraging students to crack the poetry code)." Yep, pretty much. So how do you teach poetry? My answers to her questions are below (emphases added since some readers seemed to think these were John's answers; they are mine).

1. What do you think are the most essential aspects of poetry that teachers should ensure young students are taught and made aware of?

Students should be taught to approach poetry the same way they approach other arts, such as music and visual art. In other words, they shouldn't feel pressure to immediately explain the work back to themselves or to their teacher. They should be taught to appreciate it before they are asked to analyze it. The usual elements of poetry that are used as tools of analysis can be invoked to teach appreciation (metaphor, voice/tone, meter and rhyme, and so on); understanding will come later. It might be helpful to ask students to describe a poem rather than explain it.

2. What do you think is the greatest misconception about poetry and how can educators help to dismantle these misconceptions?

The greatest misconception is that all poems are boring. One way to dismantle this might be to teach more contemporary works first, which are often easier to relate to. More advanced classes can tackle stuff like Chaucer.

3. What words of wisdom or advice would you offer high school English teachers attempting to teach poetry/creative writing when they themselves admit to not writing prose or poetry?

English teachers don't seem as troubled about teaching fiction when they don't write fiction. Look at poetry more like novels or short stories -- something you can appreciate without doing yourself.

4. Are there any exercises or lessons that you have found to be successful with students who've had little exposure to poetry OR with students who've had bad experiences with poetry in the past? If so, please share.

My advice would be to expose students to a wide variety of work, from the very direct to the conceptual, short poems, long poems, funny poems, serious poems, old poems, new poems. Beginner students often have a narrow conception of what poetry is, and dislike that conception, but will eventually find the kind of poetry that speaks to them.

Whatever the style, a good starting point is to look for poems that fall somewhere in the middle of the language vs. meaning scale. We get meaning through language in poetry, obviously, but the easiest entry point is often poems that have some definite ideas you can talk about as well as compelling or inventive uses of language. Explore out from there.

5. The question you most hear from students and teachers is: "I don't get it." Teachers then typically teach poems that they themselves can "crack." How do you get both students and teachers to enjoy negative capability, innovative writing, and innovations of style and/or form?

Just admit that there are poems you like that you don't understand. Say things like, "I love this line, but I don't know what it means." Or offer interpretations, but don't shut the poem down by claiming there is only one interpretation. Talk about the difficulty/impossibility of paraphrasing poetry -- there is no "other" poem, the real meaning. The poem is the meaning.

6. Open-- any extra comments you may want to add or share.

Anybody else have thoughts on teaching poetry in high school?

UPDATE: I received a note from Marlee Stempleman, the teacher who originally posed these questions: "I'm working on a project now that includes compiling student poetry from Title 1/low-income schools, and includes a reference section for educators where poets speak to questions like the ones you answered. If you have any idea about how to best get the word out about it and get some poets to respond, please let me know." They are accepting student submissions here: EdWeb. Please help Marlee spread the word if you can!

UPDATE 2: You have to join EdWeb to submit work, but it is free. If you'd like to send submissions to Marlee directly, contact me and I'll put you in touch with her. (My email address is on my profile page.)

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Where are the Asian Americans in pop culture?

I'm having this conversation on Twitter as we speak, but for those of you who don't do the tweet: Can you think of any Asian-American pop stars? So far the closest we've come, feels like, is Yoko Ono and William Hung (ouch). People named a string of Asians and part Asians in indie bands and whatnot (e.g., Karen O from the Yeah Yeah Yeahs) plus some solo artists (e.g., Rachel Yamagata), but nobody who really crosses the fame threshold to qualify as a "pop star" per se. I'm thinking high-profile solo artists especially, like a Kelly Clarkson or even an M.I.A. (who, being South Asian, at least comes close). There are plenty of white pop stars (obvs), lots of black pop stars, even openly gay pop stars. But I can't think of any Asian American pop stars, like Chinese or Japanese or Korean men or women born in America. It ain't 'cause Asians don't like pop, or aren't musically inclined. What gives?

In general I think Asian Americans are weirdly underrepresented in U.S. pop culture. In college like, 30% of my friends & Romantic interests were Asian. I don't get why they're so frequently tokenized or missing completely from the landscape in TV, movies, etc.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Why do chefs have contempt for vegetarians?

Yesterday I read an article called "25 things chefs never tell you," compiled from responses to a survey conducted by Food Network Magazine. Most of it, of course, is not actually surprising. For example: Unfinished bread baskets get recycled (I'm glad they don't waste it actually) and "vegetarian" food might not be 100% vegetarian. I can understand that some people would be pissed about the latter, but I generally don't bother to ask if something that appears vegetarian, like soup or risotto, contains any chicken stock; my food options are limited enough as it is. This makes things easier on the chef, right? Who "hate picky eaters"?

Well guess what, chefs hate that too: "Some of their biggest pet peeves: When customers pretend to be allergic to an ingredient, and when vegetarians make up rules, like 'a little chicken stock is OK.'" I thought it was maybe just one crazy chef who said that, but when I commented about it on Twitter, a chef named Brandon Chavannes responded "because you're not vegetarian, you're just difficult," suggesting that this really is a common annoyance.

So on the one hand, the vegetarian food may not be vegetarian. But if we say we're OK with that, then it's "Fuck you, you fucking hypocrite." Does this make sense to anyone? Also, I really don't see the hypocrisy in not wanting to order a hunk of meat, but not caring if a little meat juice from someone else's order dribbles on your fries. Most vegetarians do it for ethical reasons, not because they can't stand the taste or smell of meat. A little cross-contamination is inevitable in restaurants, but at the end of the week/month/life, you've eaten a lot fewer dead animals.

Even when I ate meat freely, 5+ years ago, I disliked this contemptuous attitude that some meat-eaters cop toward vegetarians. The very existence of vegetarians doesn't prevent you from eating meat. (If their existence prevents you from enjoying meat, you might have some unexamined hangups.) It's like being pissed about pacifism.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

The sense of smell in literature

From A High Wind in Jamaica:
Presently Margaret said:

"So that's that."

No one answered.

"I could smell it was an Earthquake coming when I got up. Didn't I say so, Emily?"

"You and your smells!" said Jimmie Fernandez. "You're always smelling things!"

"She's awfully good at smells," said the youngest, Harry, proudly, to John. "She can sort out people's dirty clothes for the wash by smell: who they belong to."

"She can't really," said Jimmie: "she fakes it. As if everyone smelt different!"

"I can!"

"Dogs can, anyway," said John.

Emily said nothing. Of course people smelt different: it didn't need arguing. She could always tell her own towel from John's, for instance: or even knew if one of the others had used it. But it just showed what sort of people Creoles were, to talk about Smell, in that open way.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Week is long, month is short

It's the first again already, which means my monthly scent column is up. This time, it's all about the memories:
Smells from childhood are especially prone to triggering deep memories: the almond-and-raw-flour smell of Play-Doh, mentholic Vick’s Vap-o-Rub, Johnson & Johnson baby shampoo. Early memories feel monumental because we had less experience to compare them to; things seem novel and amazing when you’re a kid, and somehow get coded as amazing, though later you can recognize that they’re not. But this can happen with anything emotionally charged—I had a long-distance boyfriend in college who reportedly would smell Pantene, the shampoo I used exclusively from the ages of 16 to 20 or so, in drugstores and instantly get an erection.
I reviewed some scents that were "Big in the '90s" ('80s too), so chances are high I covered something you or someone close to you actually wore. Chances are also high, unforch, that I hated it, so apologies in advance if I shat on your sentimental favorite.