Monday, August 30, 2010

Partial list of poems I brought into my workshop this summer

Friday, August 27, 2010

Camouflage meets pixel art

When I was a kid, camouflage looked like this (my dad used to do a lot of hunting):

classic camouflage
Now, whenever I see someone wearing camo, it looks pixelated, like this:

pixelated camouflage
It's like 8-bit camo. Nintendo camo. In general images get higher resolutions over time. Why is camouflage moving backwards, becoming lower-res? Did they show somehow that pixelated camouflage works better, i.e., helps you better blend in with your surroundings?

Psychosocial Tendencies

Mark Wallace, who is kind of a pseudo-hero of mine, wrote a very nice mini-review of The French Exit on his blog, Thinking Again. Here's an excerpt:
The high energy and exuberantly dark poems in [Thanks for Sending the Engine] are reprinted here, along with a number of other pieces. The book shows a much larger range in Gabbert’s poetic talents than has been on display before now. The biting, mordant psychosocial wit with which readers of her earlier work are familiar is surrounded by poems with a more sombre and melancholy tone, not to mention with some genuinely, although casually, brilliant social and even philosophical insights.
I love "biting, mordant psychosocial wit." I'm going to try to work that into future bio notes.

Mark also wrote a little review of John's novel:
I doubt many people will like the characters in Under The Small Lights, but we’re not supposed to. This narrative of the young, aimless, and well to do, with their desperately literary sexual desires and confusions, pinions its subjects keenly, while somehow managing to teeter effectively on the edge between satire and believable sympathy.
As you can see, Mark writes great reviews, just one of the reasons to check out his blog (his poetry and fiction are excellent too). Perhaps the most important quality in a reviewer is the ability to approach a book on its own terms, as my friend Josh recently reminded me, as opposed to condemning the book for failing to accomplish what it never set out to do.

SOTD: Calyx, composed in 1986 by Sophia Grojsman, the genius behind White Linen. The sillage and lasting power are weak, but the top notes are stupendous.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

I read a good book

The Emperor of Scent was a really, really good book. I'm not just saying that because it's about perfume -- I read enough crappy writing about perfume to know the difference. Also, it's not really about perfume. It's half biography and half pop science. The bio part is a portrait of Luca Turin, who is completely fascinating -- not only is he the world's most famous and respected perfume critic, he's a biophysicist who developed a primary reception theory of smell that, if accepted, could one day win him a Nobel prize. The pop science part is the story of the development of the theory, which required fairly in-depth knowledge of a number of different disciplines, plus a fascination with the way things actually smell. It's also the story of Turin's battle to advance the theory against massive resistance. It's written in a very "breezy" style, making it easy to read on the train, but it's also brilliantly meta -- it's about nonfiction. It's about science. It's about how human bias warps everything, even the scientific processes everyone assumes are basically fair and objective. It's about how investment (not just money but emotional investment) corrupts and blinds us. It's about spectroscopy, music, the smell of long-chain aldehydes and deuterated ions, resistance to the weird. In short, it's awesome. I'm sad it's over.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Things I've been thinking about lately

* Wave-particle duality, etc. I had a dumbass moment this week when I forgot you don't learn quantum physics, or even the basics of relativity, in high school. I forgot we're taught that matter (as in things with mass) and energy are two totally different things; in relativity, mass and energy are fundamentally equivalent. People think the interesting thing about wave-particle duality is that light can act like a particle. But that's like, who cares. The mind-blowing part is that everything else can act like a wave. In other words, there's a real possibility that you could fall through the floor. (According to the Many Worlds Interpretation of quantum mechanics, in some worlds, you do.) Light is radiation in the visible spectrum, a wave we can see. In a way, "matter" is waves we can see. This view is probably confused on some level, but so is everybody else's.

Anyway, the whole "is light matter" question is weird because "matter" doesn't have an agreed-upon definition. Some sources say photons are massless and not usually considered matter, but a system that emits a photon supposedly decreases in mass, and photons exert gravitational attraction and are subject to gravity, like objects with mass. So what gives?

SCIENCE!

* Other potentially needless distinctions. Why do we continue to study physics, chemistry, and biology as separate disciplines? You can't do biology without doing physics and chemistry. I mean aren't all sciences basically branches of physics (the study of "matter")?

* The above is in light of Turin's vibrational theory of smell (see video from a couple days back, or read his book The Secret of Scent or Chandler Burr's The Emperor of Scent, which is actually a more engaging read). Turin wasn't even the first to propose the theory (Malcolm Dyson was), but most biologists didn't take it seriously because a) Turin was a biologist, and his theory involved a lot of physics (e.g., electron tunneling) and b) it's supposedly implausible that our nose could interpret vibrations, since we'd need a biological spectroscope (an instrument that measures molecular vibrations). But human vision and hearing both work via vibration; receptors in our eyes and ears sense the frequency of light bouncing off objects or the vibrations in the air, and our brain perceives these as images and sounds. So why is it so implausible that our sense of smell could work in a similar way?

* Stability versus intensity of experience as a framework for happiness. I find I'd rather be stable, in the present moment, but treasure memories of certain unstable times more, with their jagged extremes of emotion, though I know I was miserable at the time. It's partly that I can access those memories more fully, and occasionally they're so immersive as to be almost hallucinatory. So strange, this nostalgia for pain.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Yes! No.

funny gifs - Curse you, bukkit.

I took a Benedryl a couple of hours ago, so maybe I'm kind of high, but this made me laugh so much.

I think I figured out why blue cheese sometimes make my throat feel all pre-anaphylactic: it contains histamine.

The list of things I cannot eat continues to grow at an alarming rate.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Against Consensus: Luca Turin's Vibration Theory of Smell



I'm thinking about doing a series of posts on consensus opinions I disagree with.

SOTD: Parfums de Nicolai Vanille Tonka.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Now I have Queen stuck in my head

If you've been reading this blog for a while, you'll remember the We Are Champion fiasco from a while back. If not, here's the short version: I saw a link to a newish online journal, whose second issue included only work by men. I made a disparaging remark about it here. Mayhem ensued; comment streams here and elsewhere (notably, HTML GIANT) devolved into utter shitstorms. I lost three days of my life. I've mostly recovered, though I think I'm still considered an enemy (if not THE ENEMY) over at the G.

Gene Kwak, the editor of We Are Champion, and I didn't exactly hit it off, unsurprisingly, but in the wake of the debacle, we backchanneled and basically came to an understanding. Later he asked me some really great questions about what people (editors, teachers, citizens, etc.) can actually do about gender bias, besides complain about it. The Q&A is now up over at the We Are Champion blog. (Amy King's answers will be coming in a day or two.)

Here's an excerpt from the interview:
Since historically, literature has been domineered by the patriarchy, what advice would you give to teachers to broaden horizons? Is it a matter of using more contemporary examples? Finding new angles on or reinvigorating a push toward established members of the canon (Dickinson or Plath for example)? Unearthing overlooked members (admittedly this is the more difficult example) of historically relevant movements/epochs? Others? Does it feel like an uphill battle as so much of literary history has skewed toward males that even if you were wanting to introduce elements to widen the purview of the canon, it'd still have to be within the context of "well this is what's been established"? Can we just cannon the canon (this part is only semi-serious)?

EG: All of these approaches sound feasible to some degree. I also think it’s crucial, when teaching literature, to bring in the history of literature, to explain the context in which the writing was created and celebrated. When teachers give students a reading list that is 90% men and don’t talk about why it’s so skewed, students just inherit the idea that a male bias is fine and normal. If no one else is questioning it, why should they? So if you’re teaching a class on 19th century British poetry, obviously almost all the surviving examples are going to be by men, but you can talk about why that’s the case. If we’re talking about high school English or a general poetry class, I think contemporary examples are key in any case, but if they’re balanced, they’ll have the added bonus of demonstrating that women are writing and publishing great work. Whether or not they feel comfortable admitting it, I do think a lot of people have this ingrained idea that men write more “great,” “ambitious” books. And it’s partly because books by men are more frequently reviewed, promoted, awarded, recommended, talked about and so on. (Probably also a factor: Men are encouraged to believe that if they’re going to bother writing they need to be “great.”)

Is it enough to have diversity of submitters or should there be a reach for diversity in subject matter as well?

EG: I think this is essentially up the editors. I wouldn’t personally be that excited about a journal that focused on a certain subject (I keep thinking poems about dogs), but I guess there’s a market for that. Probably more common is for editors to focus on a certain style. Take Artifice, which only considers work that somehow acknowledges its own artifice. There’s nothing in that editorial statement that prevents diversity in subject matter or among submitting authors. Still, not everyone is going to be interested in reading it or submitting.

The thing is, people tend to read and like work that is similar to their own. Only reading what you already like can be sort of limiting, in the sense that you can’t really know if you like something until you give it a chance. If you’re at all interested in expanding your horizons by traveling, trying new foods, doing new things, listening to different kinds of music … it seems worthwhile to keep an open mind about writing too. More exposure to work written by people who aren’t just like you helps you learn how to read it.
Big thanks to Gene for asking such good questions. Got better answers than mine? That's what comments are for (that and shitstorms).

Monday, August 16, 2010

The dreaded woody amber!

A pernicious material known as the woody amber has been going around ruining fragrances for me. Woody ambers are the chupacabra of scent. (I was going to say jackalope, but are jackalopes pernicious? Turns out yes: These "killer rabbits" can "convincingly imitate any sound, including the human voice." So jackalopes, I guess, are the John Carpenter's The Thing of cryptids.)


I first experienced the dreaded woody amber in Citizen Queen, but I didn't know what it was yet. Then it came out to play in Chanel Coromandel, a patchouli scent that I expected to love. But I could barely smell the patchouli because the damn woody amber was in the way. At the moment it's busy ruining Musc Ravageur by Maurice Roucel. By all accounts this seems to be a more expensive version of L de Lolita Lempicka, which I dearly love. From a foot away, it does approximate L; up close, it's nothing but that DAMNABLE WOODY AMBER, the dog whistle of smells. According to Luca Turin:
The woody ambers are harder to describe, though their uniquely clean character is reminiscent of certain kinds of windscreen-wiper fluids or of the stuff finicky old-timers used to clean real vinyl records with. In other words, they smell of isopropyl alcohol, only in a luxury class, fully upholstered version. Woody ambers are very popular at the moment, because they add sparkle to all sorts of otherwise soggy and sweet oriental confections.
The best way I can describe them is volatile. It's a piercing smell like specialized cleaning solvents, a little rubbery. It's interesting that I seem to be hyperosmic to woody ambers, to the point that the other notes are dwarfed in comparison, because I'm also hyperosmic to certain aldehydes, also said to give "sparkle" to scents. To my nose, aldehydes sparkle like the output of a fog machine, and woody ambers sparkle like a railroad spike to the frontal lobe.

Friday, August 13, 2010

The History of My Blog in 21 Sentences

1. August Kleinzahler is like sausage.
2. I'm not even sure that there aren't Shakespeare conventions.
3. If you don't participate in the activities associated with geekiness, by definition you're not a geek.
4. It's not schadenfreude, since that is taking pleasure in someone else's misfortune, when I was taking pleasure in my own.
5. The implication is that you expect unattractive people to be worthless in every respect.
6. The editor of the Readings section of Harper's finds nothing so droll as human torture.
7. No one thinks you go to school to learn to be talented.
8. If that doesn't convey maniacal laughter from the grave, I don't know what does.
9. Do it enough and suddenly everyone thinks you have style.
10. Americans are remarkably immune to cognitive dissonance.
11. 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.
12. How fucking opulent could this party be if the only beverage choices are "red" and "white"?
13. My type is a combination of ego and the weird.
14. How dumb is it that the Weekly Dig has a five-star rating system in which two stars equal "average" and one star equals "meh"?
15. It's like asking what's the difference between a molecule and a meerkat.
16. With no frame of reference, it was impossible to tell if it was the size of an actual UFO or a remote control toy.
17. It's like trying to pick your Scrabble tiles and all the shitty ones the last guy rejected are on top.
18. You can't rank kittens!!!
19. How long before it's synonymous with society and to remain on the outside I'll have to go full-on Unabomber?
20. I've always wondered, is Stuff White People Like itself an entry on Stuff White People Like?
21. Just put one of these books on your coffee table, pour yourself a scotch and feeling the fucking glow.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Some poetic uses of the Caps Lock key

In the past year I've found at least three poets who know their way around the Caps Lock key and have managed to use it successfully in their poetry. Prima facie, it seems both an impossible move to pull off and somehow cheating, like trying to make your poem better by changing the font. But these geniuses make it work. The latest example I encountered was in Ben Mazer's Poems from The Pen & Anvil Press. I picked this up and flipped through it this weekend and a long poem written all in caps ("Even As We Speak") caught me eye. Of course my first thought was, "Ahem, what now?" One page in, I was thinking "Ben Mazer is the new Whitman." Here's a brief excerpt:
THE MOVIES. HOME LIFE. CHILDHOOD. PAST CENTURIES.
FACES AND TALK. PAINTINGS AND SENSATIONS.
STUBBORN SHYNESS. BRIGHTBIRDS FLOWERING
MORNING. ORSON WELLES. CITIZEN KANE.
MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS. TREE GROWS IN BROOKLYN.
DAVID COPPERFIELD. TREASURE ISLAND. THE KID.
ORPHANS. POPPY. MISTAKEN IDENTITY. LIGHT IN THE
HALLWAY. ROSES OF DAWNING OVER THE SHOULDER.
POE. POE. NOT EVEN DARKNESS. NEVER GIVE A SUCKER
AN EVEN BREAK. AND THERE IS NO TIME, NO TIME. NO.
WITH THE CAT HOWLING TO BE LET IN. NO NEED TO
WRITE. ONLY THIS WHAT I'M TELLING YOU. TELLING
MYSELF. THERE IS A BEGINNING TO ALL THIS. AN
OCCASION. SCOTTISH BAGPIPES ARE ITS EQUIVALENT,
BUT IT BEAMS DOWN IN SPECKLED LIGHTS. SPOKEN
LIGHTS. I WOULDN'T SAY. GOAT LIGHT. SAWDUST.
I feel like I could read this all day. Or at least for the length of the poem. In the context of a poetry book, words in caps don't feel like shouting, they just feel uniquely flat, uninflected, like a ticker tape of poetry, like a telegram from space. And in a way this makes them more poignant. It's like watching a robot cry.

Karl Parker's Personationskin , which I reviewed a while back, also has a long section written mostly in caps. Here's what I wrote about it then (you can read some excerpts in the full review):
Flipping through Personationskin from back to front (as one may do with poetry collections, which needn’t necessarily be read in consecutive order), one sees first a section nearly all in caps. Since I decided to read from front to back as presumably intended, I was dreading this last section (titled “Horn o’ Plenty, or Notes Toward a Supreme Cornucopia”; in a previously published version, the alternative title was “A Poem in Sticky Notes”), fearing the worst. But it’s a delightful kind of tantrum, a Tourette’s-like explosion of pseudo-jokes and semi-notes after the controlled play that comes before it. And the Caps Lock effect actually renders the outbursts and name-games more hilarious.
One more example, from "Some Occurrences on the 7:18 to Penn" by Ana Bozicevic:
And the stars go:

THINGS ARE NOT LOOKING GOOD FOR US
MOLESTED BY HAIRCUTS ON LAW AND ORDER AND WHATS GONE WRONG
WITH THE SKYLINE, WHY,
INSTEAD OF READING A BOOK YOU READ STAR OR THE TOOTHPASTE, LOST IN AN ANCIENT ALMANAC

ANNE CARSON IN HEAVEN NERVOUS DESPERATE STUDENT
HER WINDBREAKER FILTHY CLUTCHING THE TRAIN SEAT SO TIGHT WE
SAW HER WRISTPULSE IT WAS
LIKE SEEING HER HEART IN COUNTDOWN

ITS NIGHT. THE ELEPHANT OF POETRY

WE MIGHT BE ON AN INVISIBLE PLANK
ABOVE THE DARKNESS AND IT MIGHT BE
A BLESSING, ANNE WHATS THE WORD FOR

BRANCHES DUMPING THEIR SHINE ON YOUR HEAD, WE THINK OF IT EVERY
TIME WE SEE A BOX. HER NECKS SHADOW

TRANSLUCENT, SHE TURNS TO…
NOTHING TO LOVE: CHEEK CLOUDS, EYEBROW NIGHT

WHAT PASSES FOR EUROPE

BOMBS. JUST LIKE US, PASSING FOR LIGHT
See? That's how stars talk.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

What's Douglas Hofstadter's favorite joke?

This one.

The "it's all about me" attitude

I have a new poem up at Dark Sky Magazine today: "The Self Is Unstable." I think it's kind of funny/sad how the layout makes it plainly obvious that my bio is just as long as the poem.

As long as we're in the me zone, I thought I'd link to a few spots where people said nice things about my book:
  • William Walsh at the Kenyon Review: "Gabbert writes smart and knowing poems that show the evolution of an idea."
  • Eileen Tabios: "such fragile-nesses are difficult to textually manifest-- a lovely achievement."
  • Leigh Stein at the No Tell blog: "I would like to go to the beach with Elisa and make her sing the greatest hits of the '90s to me."
  • Megan and Corey at Oh, Young Lions: "This was a refreshing take on human want. And yet the language comes off as poet-casual. She makes the meta-poetic conversational" ... "The Blogpoem section of the book is probably my favorite, and Gabbert gives us more of those sharply captured moments of anxiety."
  • Hannah Miet: "I like the way her thoughts fall out."
  • Jared Wahlgren at Amazon: "This book is haunting in a good way, if that's possible. The concepts of reality, future, the moment, death & exiting are all common. Between tennis matches, no one knows what exactly happens, what is reality, what is dream, what is death?"
  • Ben Mirov at BOMBLOG: "Gabbert’s ability to balance elements of surprise with a well-wrought topology of ideas is representative of a type of precision and expertise that runs throughout The French Exit."
I FEEL DIRTY NOW.

(Title stolen from a comment on my last post.)

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

I read a dumb book

In order to do some research for an essay, I tried to get a bunch of perfume books from the Harvard library (rather, John tried to get them for me), but almost all of them were checked out. (Which one of yous is reading all the good perfume books??) Among those they did have were Essences and Alchemy by Mandy Aftel and The Scent Trail by Celia Lyttleton. The former seems pretty interesting if you're trying to get into natural perfumery, which I'm not; I'm looking for information on certain synthetic aromachemicals. The latter had no such info, but I decided to read it (or skim it, as I'm wont to do with most nonfiction) anyway.

The Scent Trail is an incredibly annoying book I never would have finished if I weren't obsessed with the subject. The premise is entirely contrived: Lyttleton decides to travel around the world gathering rare ingredients for a bespoke perfume and write a book about her experiences. (It's 100% clear that she pitched the idea for the book first and then went on the "journey"; she didn't do it for personal exploration and then decide to write a book.) After visiting a bespoke perfumer and a color expert, for some reason, she embarks on a long trip to see where the various materials she has chosen come from (e.g., neroli from Morocco, Damask rose from Turkey, nutmeg from Sri Lanka, vetiver from India, etc.) and how they are harvested and made into perfume.

The main issue I had with the book should be obvious by now: It's an offensively elitist approach to perfume. Having a custom fragrance made is expensive enough, but traveling around the world to hand-pick your materials is outrageously over the top. This could maybe be forgiven if some attempt were made to amend for it, if the journey were as much about learning about foreign cultures as it was about securing her materials, but at the end of every chapter it's painfully clear that all she cares about is how her suitcase smells when she gets back home.

Adding insult to injury, the writing is bad. See: "In my case smells transport me, literally." You might think this is a joke based on the fact that perfume motivated her many international flights, but no. She means that "iris takes me straight to the hills of Tuscany [...] and when I smell basil I am instantly reminded of the warmth of the sun that surrounds the Aegean islands." In other words, the same non-literal way that smells transport everybody else. She's also flaky and illogical. At one point she wonders if Coca-Cola gives you a small buzz because the formula contains nutmeg. o_O And she refuses to use synthetic musk in her scent because she doesn't even want a copy of a material whose harvesting used to cause animal suffering, but she insists on using real ambergris. (Both musk and ambergris can be obtained without harming the animal, but animals are sometimes harmed in the process anyway.) Also, the perfume, structurally, sounds like nonsense.

Anywayz. Next I'm reading Luca Turin's The Secret of Scent, which is more like perfume meets pop science.

SOTD: Cuir de Lancome.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Inexperience is ignorance?

1. Fascinating article from the NYT last month about "unknown unknowns" and the enormous blind spots that shape our daily decisions. David Dunning offers as an example the average Scrabble player, who "has no idea how miserably he fails with almost every turn, how many possible words or optimal plays slip by unnoticed." Errol Morris, who wrote the piece, totally misses the point in a way that exactly illustrates the point, saying, "I don’t think that Scrabble provides an example of the unknown unknowns. An unknown unknown is not something like the word 'ctenoid.'" But what most Scrabble players don't realize is that the highest-scoring move is frequently not the biggest word, but a play involving multiple shorter words (all the better if multiple words make use of a single special square). (I think this is the best reason to read and read widely if you want to be a better writer -- weak poets, for example, often don't realize all the different things a poem can do, but model their work, consciously or not, after a small set of archetypal poems.)

2. My latest column is up: "The Smell of Money":
So what, exactly, does paying more get you? As with wine, watches, shoes, and anything else available at both bargain and luxury price points, cost correlates with quality to a degree only. At a certain point, quality seems to level off while the cost curve can climb almost indefinitely. (A $100 champagne is not twice as enjoyable as a $50 champagne.) To an extent, paying more for your perfume may buy you better-quality, more natural-smelling ingredients (though not necessarily all-natural materials); a higher concentration of perfume, giving you better lasting power; and a more interesting or unusual scent, since high-end perfumes are more likely to be composed by talented individuals (versus teams that must answer to focus groups). You also get the signaling effect of the prestigious brand and the placebo effect of having laid out more cash.
B.T. Dubbs, that whorey photo at the end is Kim Kardashian, not moi.

SOTD: Diptique L'Ombre dans L'Eau