Saturday, December 24, 2011

Weirdest thing happened

Yesterday I was awoken in the morning by the sound of the doorbell, which chimes in the hallway right outside my childhood bedroom. It dinged once, then again after a pause, then three or four more times, and so on, until it became evident that whoever was there was not going away. In my sleepy haze, I started to wonder if my parents had somehow gotten locked outside, so I got up to see what was the matter. Instead, they'd been occupied or undressed or some such, but my dad finally made it to the door, and it was some neighborhood kid, offering to clean up our front courtyard (it had snowed, maybe half an inch and was already melting; we turned him down).

Then last night around 2 am, I woke up to the same sound: the doorbell ringing in sporadic bursts. At first I thought it must be the same kid, returning to further terrorize us. Every time I thought surely he was going away, it would ring again. I was lying there awake thinking someone would have to answer it and get his parents' names so we could call and tell them to keep a tighter rein on their kid, when I heard my parents and John conferring in the front hall about what to do or not to do. John had still been up, night-owling on the other side of the house with a book, so a light had been on. There was no one visible through the peephole, but John peered out the big window in our dining room, which faces  the courtyard, and said, "There's a woman out there!" She was hiding in the shadows near the door.

At this point I was fairly terrified. Remember that old story about the guy who's being followed by someone who keeps flashing their brights? And finally it's revealed that someone was hiding in the backseat with a weapon? I'm thinking one of two things is true: this woman is a psycho killer, or she's hiding from a psycho killer, and if we open the door he's going to get us too. I'm not at my most rational in the middle of the night, wearing pajamas and no contacts. But no one else wants to open the door either. She sees that John sees her, but she won't step out in the light or shout that she wants to be let in. It's freezing out there by the way, and she's just wearing a sweater. So finally we call the police, and tell them there's a woman outside our door and we're not sure if she needs help or we do. After about five minutes, she's still periodically ringing the doorbell frantically, so we call back in an effort to up the urgency. Within two minutes of that, two cop cars pulled up.

We spent the next hour sort of watching the scene unfold. One of the cops came to our door and said that she was hiding from her husband, and that she wanted us to call the cops. So, I guess, we did the right thing? We think her husband may have been driving down the street in his truck with the lights off, looking for her, but we didn't see the truck until the lights on the police cars lit up the street. It looked like the cops tried to facilitate a reconciliation, but ended up arresting the guy. The cops eventually escorted her back home. It didn't take very long; they live right down the street, but we're not sure which house.

I never got a good look at her; John thought she looked young, 25 or 30. The whole time the cops were here, she was just standing under a tree across the street, waiting, in the cold. My dad says "Nothing good ever happens at 2 am." Isn't it scary to think that you might need help at 2 am, and the nearest potential savior might be too scared to help you?

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Review of The French Exit

Hello, hello, from El Paso, Texas. There's a very lovely new review of The French Exit in MAKE Mag, which was such a nice surprise, since I kind of figured there would be no more reviews, the book being well over a year old now. A bit from the review:

Like the title, many of these poems employ a sly brand of humor to temper the painfulness of goodbyes, though Gabbert’s cleverness and wit belie the seriousness of her project; at its heart, this collection is a relentless examination of exits and all that comes after them—memory, nostalgia, longing, questioning, regret. But close examinations of such hazy realms prove necessarily difficult for this poet, and so like the cover-woman’s face, many of Gabbert’s poems have a certain pixellated quality—she zooms in so close that things lose their meanings .... 
And because Gabbert strikes such a perfect balance between heart and head, between cleverness and earnestness, between language that demonstrates its own fallibility and language that is surprisingly, perfectly precise—this book, too, amounts to a great deal. Contrary to the quick, clean getaway implied by its title, The French Exit is a kind of quantum goodbye, a gnomon of a book the very presence of which is defined by all the exits it keeps trying—and charmingly fails—to make. 

Isn't that wonderful? Thank you to Ali Shapiro and MAKE Mag for the review.

Friday, December 16, 2011


This was the first poem I wrote that made me feel like a Real Poet, something like 10 or 12 years ago:

It was long since morning
but the city was quiet, whited,
and I was starting to think 
in words again. Long
lines got longer. I chased you
to the park, tread worn  
off my shoes. I tripped
behind you, bounding,
my heart skipping,  
clenching like a fist
to hold you in. And I gasped
through the freezing  
air, How can it be so
bright and so cold?  
Remember where
you kissed me on the shin, we sat
and waited on the bleeding,  
our jackets getting wet,
and stared into the trees.
That wasn’t a blackbird,  
just a black bird.
But I couldn’t tell you no.
And you were covered in  
crystals, the smallest snow.

I recognize some of this as sentimental or cliched now (hearts are always fists, aren't they?) -- and the line breaks somewhat inscrutable -- but I do still like that linguistic flourish of the blackbird versus the black bird. That's very me. I also still remember that one of the girls in my college workshop said it "breathes," and she "loves poems that breathe."

I had to dig through my MFA thesis to find that. I also found this one that I still like, though again, the sentimentality alert is at orange.

I was crossing the Harvard bridge, sun low and beaming,
when I remembered my dream—not the plot,
but a still frame from it: standing on a kind of plank
about two stories up, with the explosion behind me,
blooming out white and expansive like a nuclear rose.
I know I have to jump to the concrete below
but I hesitate, imagining the sound of my knees breaking,
though the scorching air shoves at my back. 
I stopped halfway across the bridge, and wondered
what I’m dreading. One end of a long, slender ribbon
from an audio tape someone had torn apart
was caught on the railing. It waved out shimmering
over the river, like a streamer thrown off the deck
of a departing ship, trying to kiss the shore goodbye.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Kitten jokes

What was the kitten's favorite movie?
Apocalypse Meow (big Coppola fan)

What's the kitten's favorite candy?
Meow & Laters -- the grape kind

What kind of ailment befell the kitten?
A cute rhinitis

What was the kitten's best subject in school?
Fuzzy math

What's the kitten's favorite 80s song?
Careless Whisker

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Who's crazier:

The guy who walked a tight rope between the Twin Towers on a windy day:

Or the guy who parachuted from space?

That's Philippe Petit and Joe Kittinger, respectively. Kittinger started way higher up, and had farther to fall if his parachute failed. I mean, he had farther to fall either way, but it would have been a long time to face his own death. Still, if I had to do one or the other, I'd pick the parachute, no question. The tight rope thing? That's just fucking crazy.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Joan Didion on Woody Allen

Manhattan is one of my favorite movies, but I still expected to enjoy on some level Joan Didion's 1979 pan of the movie from the New York Review of Books (you can read the whole thing online), to which I saw several references today, thanks to a Slate piece on dismissive replies by literary heavyweights. Instead I find it surprisingly petty; she seems to willfully misread Woody Allen throughout:

It was a summer in which the more hopeful members of the society wanted roller skates, and stood in line to see Woody Allen’s Manhattan, a picture in which, toward the end, the Woody Allen character makes a list of reasons to stay alive. “Groucho Marx” is one reason, and “Willie Mays” is another. The second movement of Mozart’s “Jupiter” Symphony. Louis Armstrong’s “Potato Head Blues.” Flaubert’s A Sentimental Education. This list is modishly eclectic, a trace wry, definitely OK with real linen; and notable, as raisons d’ĂȘtre go, in that every experience it evokes is essentially passive. This list of Woody Allen’s is the ultimate consumer report, and the extent to which it has been quoted approvingly suggests a new class in America, a subworld of people rigid with apprehension that they will die wearing the wrong sneaker, naming the wrong symphony, preferring Madame Bovary.

This is an interesting point to be sure, but I'm not 100% convinced by Didion's apparent contention that this "new class" is defined only by a fear of liking the wrong thing. The class in question seems to be artists and wannabe artists or general art-obsessives, people who define themselves through aesthetics rather than, say, a sport or an active hobby like cooking. But so what? The ultimate reason to stay alive is programmed in our DNA. Any other reason is what we tell ourselves and others in order to appear interesting or unselfish. What if the list included "active" items like skiing and making bread? Is that really any less bougie? Ask someone dying of malaria what they want to live for, what if they say "to see the sun rise another day," are you going to point out that watching the sunrise is passive?

When Natalie Gittelson of The New York Times Magazine recently asked Woody Allen how his own analysis was going after twenty-two years, he answered this way: “It’s very slow…but an hour a day, talking about your emotions, hopes, angers, disappointments, with someone who’s trained to evaluate this material—over a period of years, you’re bound to get more in touch with feelings than someone who makes no effort.”  
Well, yes and (apparently) no. Over a period of twenty-two years “you’re bound” only to get older, barring nasty surprises. This notion of oneself as a kind of continuing career—something to work at, work on, “make an effort” for and subject to an hour a day of emotional Nautilus training, all in the interests not of attaining grace but of improving one’s “relationships”—is fairly recent in the world, at least in the world not inhabited entirely by adolescents.

I'm not sure what her point is here either. Analysis is a recent phenomenon, yes, but so are movies and tiramisu. Again, so what? Analysis exists to address "first-world problems," of which America, fortunately or unfortunately, has plenty.

These faux adults of Woody Allen’s have dinner at Elaine’s, and argue art versus ethics.

I eat dinner and talk about art and ethics, I just don't get paid six figures to do so. Didion's life actually feels just as "faux" to me as anyone in a Woody Allen movie (movies are "fiction" by the way, so of course the characters are faux): sitting around writing all day in the same room as her husband, writing movie scripts, drinking scotch in glamorous Bohemian dresses etc.

In Manhattan [Diane Keaton] is a magazine writer, and we actually see her typing once, on a novelization, and talking on the telephone to “Harvey,” who, given the counterfeit “insider” shine to the dialogue, we are meant to understand is Harvey Shapiro, the editor of The New York Times Book Review. (Similarly, we are meant to know that the “Jack and Anjelica” to whom Paul Simon refers in Annie Hall are Jack Nicholson and Anjelica Huston, and to feel somehow flattered by our inclusion in this little joke on those who fail to get it.)

Or maybe we're supposed to laugh at how pretentious the comment is? Annie Hall is after all a comedy. This seems to operate in the same way as the scene in Manhattan where Diane Keaton talks about "the academy of the overrated" and we're meant to understand her as insufferable. Also I never knew who "Harvey" was and don't feel I missed anything by not knowing; it just sounds like the name of an editor.

Surely Joan Didion isn't entirely humorless, so can someone explain to me what her problem is here? Woody Allen has of course created his share of shit but I think Manhattan and Annie Hall represent a peak in his career (late 70s through mid-80s) when he transcended screwball comedy without becoming unbearably pretentious. (I'd put Hannah and Her Sisters in the same category.)

Art in America

When we moved to Denver we went on a little rampage of purchasing memberships to all the museums and to the Botanical Gardens (usually, if you're going to go to a museum more than twice per year this makes sense). One of the perks of our Denver Art Museum membership was a $20 deal for an annual subscription to both Art in America and Artforum, so we pounced on it. I initially assumed that these are the kind of magazines you don't read per se, but keep on the coffee table for guests and flip through now & then like picture books. In fact I find the prose pretty readable, even accessible, though it's interesting to see what knowledge is taken as a given. Like poetry, the visual arts constitute a subculture and insider references abound.

Just for fun here are some excerpts from the December 2011 issue of Art in America:

It almost goes without saying that art openings and booze go hand in hand, especially during schmoozy events like this month's Art Basel Miami Beach. And Austrian prankster Erwin Wurm is making sure of that with his new exhibition, "Beauty Business," at the Bass Museum of Art, Miami Beach. Known for his humorous works, such as his "One-Minute Sculptures" that have participants strike ridiculous poses with props, Wurm has created a series of "Drinking Sculptures," which he says are completed when the participants are drunk. Bay Area conceptualist Tom Marioni was on to something similar with his 1970 performance piece The Act of Drinking Beer with Friends Is the Highest Form of Art (ongoing), though he mercifully doesn't require such excess.

From an obituary on Richard Hamilton by Gillian Forrester (as an example of the aforementioned insider references, the first paragraph uses the acronym "YBAs," which I correctly guessed stands for "Young British Artists"):

He was a founding member, in 1952, of the Independent Group of painters, sculptors, architects, and critics, who met regularly at London's Institute of Contemporary Arts to discuss science, technology, mass media, consumerism and critical theory, issues that were to preoccupy Hamilton for the remainder of his life. He collaborated with John McHale and John Voelcker on an installation for "This is Tomorrow," the seminal 1956 exhibition at the Whitechapel Art Gallery, for which he made his influential collage Just what is it that makes today's home so different, so appealing? [see above] It remains, for better or worse, his best-known work. 
The following year Hamilton produced his celebrated list of the defining characteristics of Pop: "Popular (designed for a mass audience); Transient (short term solution); Expendable (easily forgotten); Low Cost; Mass Produced; Young (aimed at youth); Witty; Sexy; Gimmicky; Glamorous; Big business." 

From "Denial" by Mark Handforth (part of a series called "Muse" which I take to be artists writing about an important influence):

There's a firmly rooted belief in British art schools -- and I really do believe this -- that their project is not only to produce traditional artists. It's also to foster musicians, rock 'n' rollers like Bryan Ferry, graphic designers and so on. The schools produce a wider world of people who make the planet worth living on -- artists who are non-artists, if you like.

Are there hobby or trade magazines you like to read that have nothing to do with what you "do"? I assume Architectural Digest exists mostly for this reason; architects don't read it, do they?

Thursday, December 1, 2011

New issue of Open Letters

I've got two little things in the December issue of Open Letters. First up, my latest perfume column: "On the Scent: A Dip in the Mainstream," in which I review stuff you can get at big chain stores for under $100 a pop. I talk a little about the problems with mainstream perfumes:
New mainstream releases tend to suffer from a tedious adherence to trends (we’ve been stuck in a cycle of thin fruity florals, super-clean musky florals, and Angel-esque fruity-patchouli numbers for a good decade now) as well as a certain cheapness that belies their price tags. This cheapness usually manifests as a bare minimum, or complete lack, of natural materials, which give body and complexity to perfume. Simple, mostly synthetic formulas can smell pleasant at first, but get boring very quickly, since they don’t offer all that much more than the fragrance in your $10 shampoo.  
Also problematic is the fact that even if you are looking for something in particular – say you’ve set your fancy on a green floral – the sales assistants often can’t guide you to something that properly fits this description. It’s not entirely their fault – they’re encouraged if not forced by management to push the newer releases, so they’ve got to find something relatively green among this season’s batch of fruity florals; they can’t or don’t think to show you perfectly serviceable green florals of decades past, such as Chanel Cristalle or Estee Lauder Alliage. “Green” simply isn’t in these days.
Nonetheless, there were some solid releases in the past couple of years. You'll find reviews of scents including Bottega Veneta, Cartier Baiser Vole, Tom Ford Violet Blonde, and Diane.

Also, I contributed to the "Our Year in Reading" feature (Part 1, Part 2) along with the other contributing editors (including John Cotter, Steve Donoghue, Adam Golaski, Lisa Peet, and Sam Sacks). I wrote about the most memorable novels I read this year:
In 2010, my hands-down favorite reads were Howards End by E.M Forster and A High Wind in Jamaica by Richard Hughes. This year, I only managed to cross one classic off my list: The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers. I started this book about a month before moving 2,000 miles across the country, and what with the packing and unpacking and everything in between, I might not have finished it, were it not for Mick, surely one of the best young female characters in all of American literature. This novel starts off feeling like linked stories, until you realize the chapters are cycling through a handful of major characters, all misfits in a small Southern town. Each has an interesting story, but I fell completely for Mick, a fierce, protective tomboy with a secret passion for music. Struggling against hate and poverty, she eventually succumbs, unwillingly and almost unknowingly, to the banal horror of an ordinary life. The fifth chapter in Part 2, in which Mick’s little brother runs away, is twenty pages of utter perfection, a self-contained wonder I’ll keep coming back to.
To read about some of the great poetry books I read this year, see here and here.

The issue also includes cool art by Pattie Lee Becker (the above is her print "Ramona's Bright Idea") and lots of good book reviews as always. Go read!

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Because I hate being mischaracterized

I'll respond here to a comment that Johannes Goransson left on Uncanny Valley, addressing me:
The fact that Elisa rejects [surrealism] as essentially "privileged" is exactly the kind of dimissal I am interested in: because it's essentially the kind of rhetoric by which ART ITSELF is often dismissed
I don't reject surrealism. I love many surrealist poets. (Kathleen and I spent a while translating Max Jacob's Le Cornet Des.) I don't think the fact that something is privileged makes it bad or worthless as art. Classical music is about as privileged as it gets, I don't reject that either. Most of my hobbies are hopelessly bourgeois, and I think it's OK to acknowledge that. (I draw the line at skiing.)

I do think "surrealist," like "experimental," is a "problematic" term that gets used sloppily. As I wrote in a previous post, "Now that discursive, associative, free-verse lyric poetry is pretty much the norm, it feels like elements of surrealism (the definition is 'Pure psychic automatism, by which one proposes to express, either verbally, in writing, or by any other manner, the real functioning of thought') are pervasive." Also: I feel "surrealist staples such as dream logic, collage, collaboration, tragicomic approaches to human existence, and inventive syntax" are present in my own poetry, which has never to my knowledge been called surreal. Why? IDK, you tell me.
Elisa's comment that surrealism doesn't have anything "substantial" is standard expression of this rhetoric/ideology
I have no such ideology. My original comment was: "Unsubstantiated theory: Surrealism is what you write when you have nothing of substance to say." That "Unsubstantiated theory" preface should have been a tip-off that I was just bullshitting. Anyway, I think you can make great art without having "anything of substance to say." For example, I love and have taught Nathan Austin's book Survey Says as an example of conceptual poetry. It's the form alone that's interesting in this book; the text is found (it consists entirely of answers from Family Feud; the poetry is in the systematic arrangement). In conceptual art, the content is usually backgrounded. Most of the time, if you want people to focus on your message, you background the medium.

I think Johannes Goransson is one of the most interesting poets, translators, editors and bloggers in U.S. poetry, but I also think he's a little on the combative side. I am not the enemy, yo.

Update: Johannes reposted his comment on Montevidayo and called it his "usual schtick" [sic], which probably explains why I felt he was talking past me.

I just said on Twitter "Let's disagree to agree." Meaning I'm only arguing here because I don't think we need to argue.

Monday, November 28, 2011

I, too, dislike Mondays

  • Arielle Weinberg of Scents of Self recently 1) sent me a bagful of Bond No. 9 samples (I'm wearing the deliciously outre Broadway Nite today) and 2) interviewed me about perfume and such on her blog. Thank you Ari! 
  • Because the weather in Denver is frequently beautiful, we ate our Thanksgiving dinner outside in late afternoon sunshine, and after dinner we played games. John claims to have discovered the secret to Balderdash: picture a completely different word. Otherwise your definition will be too plausible, and the real one usually isn't.
  • A fun variation on Balderdash AKA Dictionary that I learned in grad school: the quotation game. Use a copy of Bartlett's Familiar Quotations, and instead of providing a word, provide the first few words of a (less familiar) quotation; players supply the rest, and, as in Balderdash, vote for the version they think is real.
  • Been listening to (for some reason this song reminds me of the ends of '80s movies, all triumph and emotion, see The Breakfast Club and Teen Wolf):
  • More creamy comfort food for you to make! This soup, adapted from here, tastes more like potato soup than cauliflower, but I prefer the texture to potato soup, which tends to be grainy. It also reminds me of clam chowder, which also gives me texture issues (chewy clams).
Chowdery Cauliflower Soup 
1/2 pound bacon, chopped
1 onion, chopped
2 leeks, cleaned well and chopped
1 head of cauliflower, chopped into small florets
4 cups chicken stock
4 oz. cream cheese, cut into chunks
2-4 tablespoons thinly sliced green onions or chives
salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
1/2 cup shredded cheddar cheese  
In a large saucepan over medium heat, cook bacon pieces until crisp. Using a slotted spoon, remove bacon to a paper-towel-lined plate and set aside. Add onion and leeks to saucepan and cook, stirring occasionally, over medium-low heat until softened and lightly browned, about 10 minutes. Turn up the heat, add cauliflower and chicken stock and stir, scraping up the browned bits from the bottom of the pan. When liquid comes to a boil, reduce heat, and simmer until cauliflower is tender enough to mash, 15-20 minutes. Add the cream cheese and mash the cauliflower with a potato masher or blend with an immersion blender. (I mashed it until chunky and then pureed half in a blender.) Stir in 2/3 to 3/4 of the bacon and green onions, saving the rest for garnish. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Serve hot soup garnished with shredded cheddar cheese, bacon pieces, and chopped chives.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Straw feminists

This is a good take-down of the standard treatment of feminism in media, where feminists are painted to be irrational, man-hating extremists in a world where equality has already been achieved, warping the term so women refuse to be associated with it.

Thanks to Dan Boehl for the pointer.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Things I wish I'd written

I recently came into a lot of good poetry books. I only had to buy one of them (I ordered Beauty Was the Case that They Gave Me by Mark Leidner during SPD's "Editors' Picks" sale), the rest were either gifted by the author or came to us as review copies. This is one of the benefits of knowing poets (though trust me, it's not all sunshine and rainbows; as Matthew Simmons once said, "Hell is author people."). And it's a funny thing about poets; you can know one by name or their work only for years, and come to think of them as a kind of distant celebrity, and if you are ever in the same city as that poet for more than three days you will probably become friends (assuming less than a 20-year age difference).

Anyway, here are some bits I liked from my recent reading. From Snip Snip! by Tina Brown Celona:

How can you let
Them see what you
Think you look like?
What you think it is
OK to look like?

That's almost the entirety of a very short poem called "Snack." This is the last stanza of a longer prose poem called "Event Diary":

There's a field full of nasturtiums and a ratty columbine and the headlight crashes down the trash chute to land in a quivering pile of filaments and Tic Tacs. I light a little pyre in the yard and wander around aimlessly thinking about things. Then I realize the things are actually thinking about me.

The last sentence in both cases strikes me as a kind of move or variation on a move. The second one is obviously a reversal (of both syntax and expectation); the first is not exactly but it has a similar effect, taking the words and ideas and rearranging them slightly to get at a different meaning (you could call it a "pushed idea"). This kind of move is often a good way to end a poem because it sounds good even if you don't think about it too hard. The trick is to do it so it still works if you do bother to think. In "Snack," it's interesting because even the first version is not what you expect (the more obvious "what you look like").

Here's another move from Amy King's new book, I Want to Make You Safe from Litmus Press. This book is full of very good titles which would make John Ashbery proud (or did make him proud; he blurbed it). Though I want to highlight a particular stanza, and the transition to that stanza, I'm going to go ahead and type up the whole poem here because, as usual, context matters. Hopefully Amy and her editors won't mind but if they do, well, I'll take it down or get a lawyer. Anyway:

The absence of casual banter does not require a missing
connection, if only the triangles of our bodies would intersect
where the pupil's eye returns
our stare. We shook hands in the language we meant
to speak, until God's mischief caught
us unaware. We couldn't quite sweep the wallets free
of our museums by then. We let salt
water calm leftover wounds,
we gave honorably in the halls of sailors land-buried, 
So much so, I envy the rice to consume sturdy husks
and an ache that sits between pacifists, big as the Loch Ness,
as invisible and paradise -- we pat the head, "There there is
nowhere" -- have sex dreams of not quite climactic
proportions, and awaken never quite anywhere. 
I don't know. A bunch of things. The mail, a bi-racial couple,
songs about a boyfriend who doesn't understand, Thai people
gathered, mostly transsexual, sushi for the masses, bacterial
moments of half-crazed drunk when no one touches
your bag or wallet across the bar, a lovely candle refusing
to flicker, one wind, one shirt, one sky teeters
fireflies asleep between paperbacks,
their names that SOS me,
a painter's bird red as plumes,
a bodily silence in dead-layered flesh,
and a hole, among other things, as I am a learning actress. 
I dreamt myself awake to see the face in her shoes, she
who will carry this parcel world
on its wire waltz in brown paper creased?
Submission is the only window
we can take
the dead moth asleep between us,
you who fingers its arched back, a spinal keyboard,
and sound out the words, "He's dead" before
we reach for the needle
that will sew the coffin shut.

The part I want to focus is on is the third stanza. As far as I'm concerned, the rest of the poem is basically throwaway, in that it didn't grab my attention, but nor did it bore me or push me away: it exists in order to let the third stanza happen, and the third stanza to me is breath-taking, magical. (I'm actually not sure if this poem has three stanzas or four due to a page break after "actress." If four, I like the final stanza too, especially the broken, nearly unparsable syntax.)

The thing is, you couldn't just start the poem with the third stanza; it partly works because those two staccato lines ("I don't know. A bunch of things.") interrupt the wordier flow of what's come before, and what they precede is an outpour. It's like you can see the poet breaking down, losing control -- she wants to put everything in, to show you everything, and the carefully crafted, subject-verb-object sentence with dependent clauses aplenty can no longer contain all these elements. Those monosyllabic lines mark a sudden shift in tone/style from erudite to something I'm hereby dubbing tragicasual -- it's not funny or absurd exactly but it is loose, unstudied, and yet the whole list that follows seems imbued with emotion and profundity. That is so hard to do! A rambling list is a common move, but this list strikes the ideal balance between meaning and randomness -- just as it starts to lose me in its mess, it wins me back with that "SOS me," a reminder that this person is (like all poets) lost and lonely. "I don't know." IDK. The moment you can't explain, that's what I'm looking for in poetry. Beyond sense. Coherent enough.

I'm also reading books by Jeff Alessandrelli and Joshua Ware and will say more when I've spent more time with them.

P.S. Please refrain from leaving comments of the unsubstantial "This poem didn't do anything for me" sort, nothing is more tiresome.

Monday, November 21, 2011

If anything it gets worse

I finally finished The Unconsoled. Apparently there are very few online reviews of it (didn't we have the Internet in 1995?), so people keep commenting on this one five-year-old blog post about it. This comment made me laugh and laugh:

I found the film Remains of the Day so boring that I haven't bothered to read the novel. The first book i read by Kazuo was 'When we were Orphans' and although I enjoyed the book I was disappointed with the ending. His memory was so unrealistic and unbalanced that I expected him to spend his final days in the country in an aslyum not in a rose covered cottage. I loved 'Never Let Me Go. I was looking forward to reading more. It was really brilliant! The kind of book I am sorry to finish and feel at a loss without. But then came 'The Unconsoled'. My friend said, 'it is readd a great book, very enjoyable'!!! A hundred pages into I called her, 'Does this continue like this or is there some revelation about what is happening? It is driving me MAD. Is he a in the middle of a breakdown? Are these people real? Are they all inmates of a lunatic aslyum that he calls the hotel? Is Stephan himself? Are there many versions of himself? Is Boris really a child and his child? What the hell is going on?? Is there ever a concert? Is he really a pianist?? AHHHH!!! She sai, 'If anything it gets worse, but I really loved it.' I did what I have never done before in my life I skipped pages and scanned it to the end and read the final three chapters, more madness, legless drunk with an ironing board!!! breakfast obsession everywhere, LET ME OUT!!! All you insane fans may you all be locked up and enjoy your madness together!!! 

I also found someone who theorizes that Ryder has dementia, which makes a lot of sense. Now the party of deciding what to read next. Maybe The Member of the Wedding?

I made this mac 'n' cheese last night, with the following alterations:

  • Ricotta instead of cottage cheese
  • Dijon mustard instead of mustard powder
  • I threw in several handfuls of baby kale when I stirred it all together
  • I of course used my favorite gluten-free pasta (which I can't find here and have to order in bulk from Amazon, like a boss)
  • I cooked the pasta first and only baked it for half an hour

Results: tasty. Really, it's hard to screw up mac 'n' cheese as long you use tons of cheese.

Friday, November 18, 2011

The bluest eyes in Texas

Justin Marks edited an all-poetry issue of Barrelhouse. It contains poems by some of my favorites: Ana Bozicevic and Heather Green (translations of Tzara).

I did something really stupid yesterday. I started running the kitchen sink to soak something, then I got in the shower. When I turned the shower off I thought, "Why do I still hear water running?" You guessed it, it was running all over the kitchen floor.

Today is John's birthday. Just call him Old Blue Eyes.

I watched one of my favorite movies this week, High Society. It sounds like a stoner movie (a la Half-Baked), but it's actually a remake of Philadelphia Story with musical numbers (written by Cole Porter). I'm not sure I can explain why I love this movie so much, but it probably has something to do with Grace Kelly's arms.

Is that not the most fabulous dress you've ever seen?

Speaking of blue eyes. I don't understand why people get wound up about Ryan Gosling. It's like they've never seen Paul Newman.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Misc. you much

  • I had a really good time in Lincoln this weekend. Getting brunch with hungover people is one of my favorite things to do. There's something about being underslept and then drinking a lot of coffee that makes me giddy.
  • I've been reading The Unconsoled by Kazuo Ishiguro for a couple of months. It's one of the weirdest novels I've ever read. I keep asking people on Twitter about this book but no one will "engage" with me on it. It (the book, not Twitter) makes me feel sort of terrible: the tone and progression exactly mirror one of those endless and incredibly frustrating anxiety dreams where you can't get where you need to go and you're unprepared in any case for what you'll have to do when you get there. 
  • Clifford Irving, the guy who wrote the fake autobiography of Howard Hughes, lives in Colorado and according to one report is a yoga teacher. He sounds like a real pompous ass:
    I always found the Hughes hoax fascinating. Irving is over it. 
    "It's a subject I avoid because it bores me," he says. "I live a very quiet and secluded life. But it was a fun event in my life." 
    What about the 17 months he spent in jail after being convicted of fraud? 
    "I survived that," he says. "It was an interesting experience." 
    He also returned the $765,000 advance to his publishers. 
    I talked with an Aspen man who read the book, and he liked it quite a lot. He thinks Hughes, who died in 1976, should have gone along with it. 
    "I gave him a better life than he had," Irving says.
  • I must have been in my late teens before I figured out Howard Hughes and Hugh Hefner were two different guys.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

John Gallaher recently did a post of "ten-second books" (four-line poems consisting of the first two lines of the first poem and last two lines of the last poem from a book of poetry). Here's the ten-second version of That Tiny Insane Voluptuous (my collaborative book with Kathleen Rooney):

Where did I leave my bracelet? Imagine
a world without wrists, is my next thought.
Forget what I said before. This is
all I've got. There isn't anymore. 

Here's the ten-second version of The French Exit:

It starts here, where you begin
remembering. (How else could it begin?)
(If he's mine,
why can't I keep him?)

I love when it forms a semi-coherent "poem," but what especially surprised me was that my first and last couplets both contains parentheses. I don't think of myself as a very parenthetical poet, though I do love a dash.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Richard Feynman on the female mind

From a talk given in 1966 at the National Science Teachers Association:
When I was at Cornell, I was rather fascinated by the student body, which seems to me was a dilute mixture of some sensible people in a big mass of dumb people studying home economics, etc. including lots of girls. I used to sit in the cafeteria with the students and eat and try to overhear their conversations and see if there was one intelligent word coming out. You can imagine my surprise when I discovered a tremendous thing, it seemed to me. 
I listened to a conversation between two girls, and one was explaining that if you want to make a straight line, you see, you go over a certain number to the right for each row you go up--that is, if you go over each time the same amount when you go up a row, you make a straight line--a deep principle of analytic geometry! It went on. I was rather amazed. I didn't realize the female mind was capable of understanding analytic geometry.  
She went on and said, "Suppose you have another line coming in from the other side, and you want to figure out where they are going to intersect. Suppose on one line you go over two to the right for every one you go up, and the other line goes over three to the right for every one that it goes up, and they start twenty steps apart," etc.--I was flabbergasted. She figured out where the intersection was. It turned out that one girl was explaining to the other how to knit argyle socks. I, therefore, did learn a lesson: The female mind is capable of understanding analytic geometry. Those people who have for years been insisting (in the face of all obvious evidence to the contrary) that the male and female are equally capable of rational thought may have something. The difficulty may just be that we have never yet discovered a way to communicate with the female mind. If it is done in the right way, you may be able to get something out of it.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Misunderstood isms I have known

Sady Doyle asks, "Why Are Youngsters Afraid of the Word ‘Feminist’?" Then she answers her own question in the subhead: "[Because] Young women (and men) are too busy fighting sexism." She argues that young people reject the word feminism for legitimate reasons (because everyone ignores feminists, because feminism is racist, because men can't be feminists) and older feminists do too much fist-shaking and complaining. I appreciate that she's playing devil's advocate here, but I'm not convinced. John recently asked a class of young women if any of them identified as feminists, and not one of them did. Asked their reasons, they mostly cited the following:
  • "Feminists" are radical. We're not radical; we shave our legs and wear makeup; we don't burn bras. (John pointed out that rumors of "bra burning" are greatly exaggerated.)
  • "Feminists" think they're better than men.
  • "Feminists" were fighting for equality, and haven't we achieved all that?
I still think most people reject feminism because they don't understand what it is.

Also in XX news: Robert Alan Wendeborn asks, "Do Women Writers Care About Surrealism?" He's referring to a post on Montevidayo, in which commenters attempt to create a list of American surrealists or neo-surrealists, a list mostly devoid of women. I threw out a few theories:
  • "Surrealism" is meaningful as a name for a movement that took place in the '20s. I'm not sure if it's particularly meaningful now, except when applied to a large handful of writers who are always referred to as surrealist, such as James Tate, Russel Edson and their imitators/inheritors (see Zach Schomburg). But surrealist writing stood in much starker contrast to its context when it began as a movement. Now that discursive, associative, free-verse lyric poetry is pretty much the norm, it feels like elements of surrealism (the definition is "Pure psychic automatism, by which one proposes to express, either verbally, in writing, or by any other manner, the real functioning of thought") are pervasive. (It's a continuum, of course; Mary Oliver and Michael Ryan make little if any reference to the "surreal.") However, people only seem to use the word "surrealism" to apply to a narrow slice of what's being written, and it's usually applied to men. Maybe women are writing "surrealist" poetry, it's just not recognized as such because the tradition is male-dominated.
  • Although surrealism, Dada, and the theater of the absurd (later but related) were partly a response to/rejection of bourgeois values, surrealism now feels as bourgeois as anything. I don't associate surrealism with a poetry of oppression or revolution or protest. I associate it with privilege. This isn't to say I don't like surrealist poetry; I do. But more often than not I read it for amusement. (Maybe Max Jacob and Ionesco were revolutionary at the time, but now it just reads as droll.) Maybe women are less likely than men to be satisfied with being amusing (since, you know, we got oppression).
  • That definition above is actually just the first half. The second half (from Breton's manifesto): "Dictation of thought in the absence of all control exercised by reason, outside of all aesthetic and moral preoccupation" (or, in another translation, "Dictated by the thought, in the absence of any control exercised by reason, exempt from any aesthetic or moral concern"). Certainly most poetry that gets the "surrealist" label slapped on it does not meet this criteria. Charles Simic and Dean Young do not write in a vacuum of reason or without aesthetic concern.
So what does "surrealism" mean now, and are women writing it or not?

Thursday, November 3, 2011

A poem from "Snip Snip!" by Tina Brown Celona

Upon arriving in Denver I had some "starter friends," but I've made a few new ones too, among them the poet Tina Brown Celona, who gave me a copy of her book Snip Snip! last night (I already owned The Real Moon of Poetry and Other Poems). I heard Tina read from Snip Snip years ago in Cambridge, at a weird little bar called PA's Lounge, which has a drop ceiling, middle-school-cafeteria-style.

This poem cracked me up:

I wrote a book of contiguous poems then mixed them up so they were out of order. They were poems about my cunt, language, Nature, war, and all of them were marked with drama. 
With the cunt poems I could have orgasms during sex. I had long, luxurious hair, which I wrapped around my throat like a scarf. You could say I was "released from my prison." My therapist was no longer busy.  
We started a business called Ethical Donuts. It was actually a kind of juice bar where you could go and read poems or listen to someone reading poems. If nobody felt like reading poems we would turn on a tape of someone reading poems, usually one of our friends, but sometimes a big star of poetry. Of course, we sold donuts. 
In my dream we were hitchhiking to Iowa City, but later when I looked at myself my cheeks were pink and so were my labia. Like a bird I discovered I had wings. I flew higher and higher, but when I got near the sun the wax melted and I fell into a poem by Auden. It was then that I wrote the poem "The Enormous Cock." 
For a while I hushed. Then I started up again about my cunt. Some said it was a vicious swipe at feminism. Others said it was a vicious feminist swipe. It was the only word I knew.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

I love this version ...

of "Don't You Want Me." It kind of chokes me up.

Rocky Votolato and Matt Pond PA cover The Human League

I'm pretty picky about covers. I love them, but they have to be substantially different from the original or it's just karaoke. Some of my favorites are the Snake River Conspiracy version of "How Soon Is Now" and Tori Amos's cover of The Cure's "Love Song," both of which are probably better than the original. Oh! And Ryan Adam's cover of "Wonderwall," of course, which I've blogged about before. What are your favorite covers?

Monday, October 31, 2011

Clean Part

I'm reading in the Clean Part Reading Series in Lincoln, Nebraska on November 12 with the lovely Lily Brown. Lily and I both have distinctive noses. Here's info from the Clean Part blog:

On Saturday, November 12, please join us at 7 pm to hear Lily Brown and Elisa Gabbert read for The Clean Part. Free and open to the public, drop by Drift Station Gallery, located at 1746 N Street in downtown Lincoln (corner of 18th St), to hear some wonderful poetry and win some November-ish raffle prizes! See you soon!  
Lily Brown’s first book, Rust or Go Missing, is available from Cleveland State University Poetry Center. Recent poems are out or forthcoming in Gulf Coast, Catch Up, Transom, and 6x6. She is from Massachusetts, but currently lives in Athens, GA.  
Elisa Gabbert is the author of two collections of poetry: The French Exit (Birds LLC, 2010) and Thanks for Sending the Engine, a chapbook (Kitchen Press, 2007). Her poems have recently appeared or are forthcoming in Another Chicago Magazine, The Awl, Denver Quarterly, Sentence and other journals. Her nonfiction has appeared in Mantis, Open Letters Monthly, and The Monkey & The Wrench: Essays into Contemporary Poetics. She lives in Denver and blogs at The French Exit. 

Here's a video of Lily reading one of my favorite poems of hers, "Leaf at the End."


And -- what the hell? -- here's me (or rather my doppelganger, Elissa) reading a poem, "Walks Are Useless II."


Thursday, October 27, 2011


There's been a trend going on for a while of extreme fast food in which one type of greasy sandwich is embedded in another. People think the interesting thing about wave-particle duality is that light can act like a particle. 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. In my mind, it's a sudden shift to a different worldview, as palpable as suddenly getting a foot taller.

Why is camouflage moving backwards, becoming lower-res? Nobody knows how homing pigeons work. If you were an American girl of the middle class persuasion in 1988, you probably wanted to be either Stacy Ferguson or Jennifer Connelly from The Labyrinth. I think the decade was defined by 9/11, but what were the ramifications of that, aside from fear and jingoism? 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. Anyway, coherence isn't really crucial in a pop song. It's not like they ever start packing people into the aisles.

Do some people really believe that everything is about sex? Of course this bias trickles down and bleeds into the articles in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. You know when you get a girl crush? The theory compared first-person games to being on drugs, wherein things that appear simple are actually quite difficult. I mean that is classic freshman overactive anxiety of influence right there. There are no happy short stories. What right have you to go and die?

It's true: northern hipsters have started a pro-littering campaign. Ashbery is a living contemporary writer! Apparently it's a staple at Midwestern potlucks; it belongs there right alongside the tater tot hotdish. I don't know the context, but doesn't this violate the basic rule of logic that for any given property A, a thing cannot be both A and not A? The "neg" is overrated, and arguably can't even be classed as flirtation. This will henceforth serve as my go-to example of a bad poem.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Unlikeable characters vs. annoying characters

Last week on a flight back to Boston I devoured a novel, front to back, before we even landed. It's the ideal plane reading experience, but almost never works out for me. Either I'm not really that into the book I've brought and end up watching the terrible in-flight movie (which usually makes me cry), reading a trash mag and/or sleeping; or I'm into it but the flight's too short (which happened with The House of Mirth; I actually wished we could taxi longer).

This book -- True Things About Me by Deborah Kay Davies -- is narrated by an "unlikeable character." As I've said before, characters aren't your friends, and I like unlikeable characters. (I also like spelling "unlikeable" with two e's, though Blogger disagrees.) In some ways, the novel is similar to Veronica by Mary Gaitskill. Both narrators are sort of flimsy, flaky, passive women who get trampled on because they don't have the self-respect to stop it (or they actively like being treated like shit, however you want to put it). But I liked True Things About Me and I didn't like Veronica (wow, that was one of my first blog posts). Why? I think it's because the narrator in Veronica is more than unlikeable: She's annoying. She's humorless, and she's always lapsing into dull little monologues like this:
I wanted something to happen, but I didn't know what. I didn't have the ambition to be an important person or a star. My ambition was to live like music. I didn't think of it that way, but that's what I wanted; it seemed like that's what everybody wanted. I remember people walking around like they were wrapped in an invisible gauze of songs, one running into the next--songs about sex, pain, injustice, love, triumph, each song bursting with ideal characters that popped out and fell back as the person walked around the street or rode the bus. 
Or this:
I was proud, too; I knew I was doing something hard. Sometimes I was even happy. But another world was still with me, glowing and rippling like a dream of heaven deeper than the ocean. I could be studying or watching TV or unloading clothes from the washing machine when a memory would come like a heavy wave of dream rolling into life and threatening to break it open.
It's like, Shut up, lady. The narrator of TTAM, on the other hand (I can't remember her name, maybe it's never given?), may be basically a "stupid bitch," but she thinks in crisp, nuanced, observant, funny sentences even though the scenes being described are fuzzy, because she's essentially confused and unwell and delusional:
I went off to the loo, but really I was bored with the whole loo thing. It was like I was spending all my life in there. Still, I felt it was my space. There was someone in a cubicle, so I had to wait until they had done everything they had to do, which took ages. To pass the time I swished my hands around in a basin of cold water. Eventually the slow woman came out, adjusting her skirt, which is always so irritating. As she washed her hands, she looked at my bluish fingers floating in the water, and then at me in the mirror. Are you all right? she asked. Why? I said. Are you? What were you doing in there? Writing a love letter? 
As the novel goes on you watch her alienate all the kind and decent people in her life, who make her feel guilty for being involved with a complete asshole, until you feel completely alienated and frustrated yourself. It's a strange effect. Can you like a book that totally pisses you off? Yes, you can, as long as it makes you angry for the right reasons. 

John reviewed True Things About Me in Open Letters earlier this year: "it’s a tribute to Davies that she makes such an unlikely descent read so plausibly. This is largely because even as her narrator sees and does sad and fearful things, she never loses her sense of humor about herself." 

Thursday, October 20, 2011

William Gass on Elizabeth Bishop

I wrote a guest post for the Grub Street blog about William Gass, Elizabeth Bishop, and the purpose of criticism:

Certain writers are simply unassailable – their renown is such that the quality of their writing is never questioned. If you don’t care for Shakespeare, you put it that way – you don’t say that Shakespeare is bad.
Elizabeth Bishop is one of these poets. While I’ve never cared for her (I hate sestinas, I hate description, and I hate her most famous line: “Write it”), I never questioned her talent, either – I assumed I hadn’t given it the proper chance. I did begin to feel a more certain distaste for her in recent years when I realized she was something of a misogynist ...

I highly recommend the Gass essay I refer to in the post, if you have access to Harper's.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

More meh marriage journalism: On "All the Single Ladies" by Kate Bolick

Following up on marriage, or lack thereof, I just saw this article in The Atlantic by Kate Bolick, "All the Single Ladies," covering the same topic, i.e., why she and many of her friends haven't gotten married (yet?). Although Bolick makes some of the same points I do (for example: "For thousands of years, marriage had been a primarily economic and political contract between two people, negotiated and policed by their families, church, and community" and "when I asked if they wanted to get married when they grew up, and if so, at what age, to a one they answered 'yes' and '27 or 28.'"), I was disappointed by the subtly anti-feminist and conservative rhetoric throughout the piece, including a generalized assumption that the women's movement is over, having achieved all it was meant to achieve. Here are some excerpts to illustrate my point:

"In 2008, women still earned just 77 cents to the male dollar—but that figure doesn’t account for the difference in hours worked, or the fact that women tend to choose lower-paying fields like nursing or education."

This is the standard conservative response to the assertion that women still don't receive equal pay for equal work. It's a bullshit response. Fields that women "tend" to choose are lower-paying because they are dominated by women; women are also encouraged if not forced to go into these fields, being told repeatedly that they're not suited to more demanding, higher-paying work. (I just heard that when young children are asked what they want to be when they grow up, an equal number of boys and girls say they want to be president; asked again as teens, only boys give this answer. Girls have had the chance to notice that few women occupy positions of true power.)

"But while the rise of women has been good for everyone, the decline of males has obviously been bad news for men—and bad news for marriage. For all the changes the institution has undergone, American women as a whole have never been confronted with such a radically shrinking pool of what are traditionally considered to be 'marriageable' men—those who are better educated and earn more than they do. So women are now contending with what we might call the new scarcity."

I'm sorry, but why do women have to marry men who are better educated and earn more than they do? Wasn't the point of feminism for us to have equal rights and opportunities? Not just better than in the past while still inferior to men? I expected Bolick to go on to contradict this assumption about what makes men "marriageable," but instead she reinforces it: "the new scarcity disrupts what economists call the 'marriage market' in a way that in fact narrows the available choices, making a good man harder to find than ever." Really? A "good man" is one that makes more money than us? (By the way, that's still most men!)

"In societies where men heavily outnumber women—in what’s known as a 'high-sex-ratio society'—women are valued and treated with deference and respect and use their high dyadic power to create loving, committed bonds with their partners and raise families. Rates of illegitimacy and divorce are low. Women’s traditional roles as mothers and homemakers are held in high esteem. In such situations, however, men also use the power of their greater numbers to limit women’s economic and political strength, and female literacy and labor-force participation drop. One might hope that in low-sex-ratio societies—where women outnumber men—women would have the social and sexual advantage. (After all, didn’t the mythical all-female nation of Amazons capture men and keep them as their sex slaves?) But that’s not what happens: instead, when confronted with a surplus of women, men become promiscuous and unwilling to commit to a monogamous relationship. (Which, I suppose, might explain the Amazons’ need to keep men in slave quarters.) In societies with too many women, the theory holds, fewer people marry, and those who do marry do so later in life."

Emphases mine. This is subtle, but given the context I couldn't help but noticing Bolick's non-neutral language. A high male-to-female ratio is empowering to men; the reverse ratio is "too many women." Notice how in both situations, men are the ones with agency. We're talking about a ratio of "50.8 percent females and 49.2 percent males," not an enormous surplus. The only ways I know of to achieve a more "ideal" ratio with less of a surplus of women is to kill a bunch of men off in a war or drown first children if they happen to be girls.

Here's a part I agree with, but she's quoting another author:

"This marriage myth—'matrimania,' [Bella] DePaulo calls it—proclaims that the only route to happiness is finding and keeping one all-purpose, all-important partner who can meet our every emotional and social need. Those who don’t have this are pitied. Those who don’t want it are seen as threatening."

Bolick's article seems to be about the cultural assumption that everyone wants to get married. But Bolick never really questions this assumption. When she talks about single women, she doesn't just mean unmarried, she means unattached. She hasn't discovered that she doesn't want to get married; she just "hasn't found the right person yet."

P.S. I blogged about marriage journalism in The Atlantic and Time back in 2009 in "Did you ask for the happy ending?"

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Why I don't want to get married

It's hard to have principles. It's hard in general, but it's especially hard to live by them, honestly, without hypocrisy, when you're living in (and therefore benefiting from) a society that pretty much laughs at your silly principles. There have been a couple of times recently when circumstances forced me to throw out my principles. I guess this happens more as you get older, huh? Principles are wasted on the young?

Here's something you may or may not have known about me: I don't want to get married. I almost said "I don't believe in marriage" but that isn't accurate. I guess my feelings about marriage are somewhat analogous to my feelings about eating meat: I don't think there's anything inherently wrong with it, but the way we currently engage in it, at a national and probably a global level, is ... what's the word? Not the dreaded "problematic." But not good. Not good enough, not by my standards.

I don't begrudge or judge other people's marriages as a rule, so please don't feel implicated or defensive if you happen to be married. But these are my feelings about marriage in general, in no particular order:

  • This has nothing to do with gay marriage. Some people deny themselves marriage as an act of protest, and I commend that. I support gay rights across the board. But the issue is irrelevant to my stance on marriage.
  • Most people believe they want to get married, but, as John said earlier today, "People don't know what they want." The societal pressure to get married, the overwhelming messaging from above and all sides that getting married is what you're supposed to do, clouds and warps your actual wants/needs/goals. When people express doubts about marriage, they are stamped out with "cold feet" rhetoric or the "You just haven't met the right person" line. Being permanently unmarried is still considered a flaw or at best eccentric.
  • I'm not religious, so I feel zero pressure or guilt to get married on those grounds. I think this probably influences a lot of people's decision to get married.
  • I believe women, especially, are disinclined to question any doubts they might have about marriage. Society/media/etc. make a couple of things about women very clear, and those are that you're supposed to be attractive and you're supposed to get married. Well, I guess you're also supposed to have kids. Everything else is kind of optional. For many years I too assumed that I wanted to get married.
  • I believe that many women (not all) very much want a wedding (again, it's what you're supposed to want). You have to get married if you want a wedding. I believe many parents want a wedding, too. I don't have any particular fondness for weddings (seeing as they fall under the rubric of ritual/tradition) and don't want one myself. It's amazing, really, how much this clarifies things. I wonder how many marriages would never have materialized if they weren't inextricably tied to a wedding.
  • Historically, I think most people have gotten married not for love but to better their situation in one way or another. In many countries this is still the norm.
  • I believe in long-term monogamous relationships (if both parties are willing). I think the benefits outweigh the costs, and if two people want to be together exclusively, they should try to make it work for as long as it can work. I don't believe that long-term monogamous relationships are only possible under the bond of marriage.
  • I am currently involved in a happy monogamous relationship of 5+ years. We have lived together for 4+ years. We have been through a lot, there have been some rough patches and close calls, but we've never broken up and we're still in love. We can't imagine life without the other. For all intents and purposes, we live like a married couple.
  • Life is unpredictable. When you marry someone, you're not just saying you trust them to want to be with you forever, you're saying you trust yourself to want to be with them forever. When my first long-term relationship ended, after almost six years, I realized how much people can change over five years, to say nothing of ten, twenty, thirty, and so on. I know what I want now, but I don't know what I'll want for the rest of my life. I can't say that about anyone else either. Relationship security is important to me, but not so important that I want someone to sign a contract. (Remember, for me it would just be a contract, because I have no interest in marriage as a religious ceremony.)
  • The fewer legal complications in my life, the fewer contractual obligations, the cleaner I feel.
  • Kids are a complication of their own. If/when I have kids, the benefits of marriage may in fact outweigh the costs.

Here's the thing. I may end up getting married anyway. In the interest of privacy, I won't get into why here, but I will say that John feels much as I do about marriage in principle. But, society being its overbearing self, we may have to get married anyway.

Sucks, doesn't it?

Wednesday, October 5, 2011


Anybody have any homegrown treatments for tinnitus? Anecdotal evidence accepted, no FDA approval required.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Smells like last century

As promised, here is the link to my latest perfume column, On the Scent: A Certain Vintage, on the smells of yesteryear, including discontinued gems like L'Arte di Gucci and Fendi Theorema as well as older versions of living classics like Joy and Diorella. Here's an excerpt:
To the perfume lover, vintage perfumes are a dangerous draw. There is reason to worry that after falling down the vintage rabbit hole, one may never want to return to the above-ground mall. That’s because they really don’t make ‘em like this anymore – many of the ingredients common in vintage perfumes are no longer in use due to reduced availability, ecological or health concerns, prohibitive costs, changing tastes, or some combination of the above. So if you like what you smell in vintage perfumery – real oakmoss in chypres, natural ambergris and civet, unctuous musks, a high percentage of natural floral absolutes – it may be difficult to accept what’s being manufactured today.  
The threat, then, is that you’ll fall head over heels in love with something in very limited availability. Let’s say you’re smitten with a bottle of Chanel No. 5 parfum from the ‘50s. Once it’s gone, there’s no guarantee that you’ll ever find the same vintage again, or that, if you do, it will be in the same condition or remotely affordable...
Read the rest!

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Little stories

  • My ex used to wear his t-shirts inside-out about half the time. Why? Because they'd get inverted when he took them off, and he couldn't be bothered to flip them outside-in again after washing them. I thought this made perfect sense: They were mostly cheapo logo shirts he'd gotten free one way or another, so it's not like they really looked better the right way. (His boss once said to him, all clandestine stage-whisper, "Your shirt's inside out!" and he was like, "Uh, I know, dude," and she backs up and goes, "Oh. It's a statement.") That was the explanation anyway. But one day, I caught him turning one of his shirts inside-out before he put it on.
  • I watched My Brilliant Career a few days ago, and was surprised (disappointed? dismayed?) to see it's basically the exact same story as Anne of Green Gables, a miniseries I have loved beyond reason since I was a little girl. The similarities are not superficial. They're both about a clever, plain, outspoken girl from a poor family who hates her life until she's swept away to a more idyllic and privileged world, but continues to battle social mores and gender stereotypes. Both characters want to be someone important (a writer or some kind of artist) but are continually pushed to focus on marrying well instead. They both fall in love with someone who is clearly perfect for them, but deny themselves the pleasure of a happy relationship, believing a woman must choose love or a career. They both work as teachers for unruly, disrespectful students. They both turn down proposals and eventually write a book. Though one takes place in Canada and the other in Australia, they depict the same time slice and the sets and costumes are strikingly similar. There are even scenes and lines that are almost identical. The whole while I was watching MBC, I assumed they had either the same director or writer. In fact they don't share any crew, and, especially puzzling, they are both based on books (by different authors). I'm forced to conclude that the miniseries is more "faithful" to My Brilliant Career, which came first and must have been influential, than it is to the Anne books (which I've never read). Oh well. I'm glad I saw the miniseries first, because, unconscious plagiarism or no unconscious plagiarism, I think it's a better film. (To be fair, both books probably reference Little Women.)
  • I have a new perfume column going up on Saturday, but I won't be here to link to it. I'm flying to Baltimore tomorrow for a wedding. I will throw up a link when I get back! (Metaphorically. I hope not to vomit any sausages.)
  • Micro-reviews of some things I have sniffed lately:
    • Bond No. 9 I <3 NY, pink version: Blueberry Pop-Tarts!
    • Bond No. 9 I <3 NY, black version: Brown sugar & cinnamon Pop-Tarts!
    • Angel EDT: Basically the same formula as La Rose Angel AFAICT
    • Elie Saab: Total cross between Narciso Rodriguez for Her and Alien
    • Prada Candy: Like all Prada scents, instant drydown, of the ethylmaltol + benzoin variety
  • New launches that might be good/interesting and require further sniffing: Cartier Baiser Vole, Bottega Veneta, Diane.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

The smell multiverse

Just saw this interesting video, a talk by a woman (Nicola Twilley) who created a scratch-and-sniff map of New York. In it, she talks about the ways different demographics respond to scents. For example, Asians like the smell of rose and orange peel more than white people, who prefer eugenol. Everyone likes vanilla. Men like the smell of guaiacyl acetate, a woody-smoky smell, and women like cis-3-hexanol, the smell of cut grass. (So, she suggests, women should wear smoky scents and men should wear grassy ones, assuming they're heterosexual that is.) She also notes that almost everyone is anosmic to at least one thing, meaning they can't smell it all.

Nicola Twilley at Gel 2011 from Gel Conference on Vimeo.

So far so good, and Twilley admits she is not a scientist, but she goes too far in concluding that "we all live in a separate smell universe" -- she says that we all see the same colors and hear the same sounds, but we don't smell the same smells. I think this is sloppy. The research she's referring to doesn't suggest that we experience different smells, it just speaks to different preferences. You'd find preferences for different colors and tones among different demographics and cultures too. If we can assume that everyone experiences a certain wavelength the same way, leaving associations and baggage aside, we can assume the same for smellable molecules. (There are holes in everyone's visual and auditory capabilities too.)

Her two big examples don't help her argument much: She says that some people in the perfume industry describe eugenol as sweet and carnation-like, while others describe it as spicy, like clove. "How can this be?" she wonders. Here's how: eugenol smells both sweet and spicy, as cloves do -- and carnations smell like cloves. They are not different descriptions, they're just both incomplete. Most people need training/experience to both recognize and accurately describe smells out of context. She also says that she has a selective anosmia to Galaxolide, a synthetic musk. In truth most people are anosmic to some types of musk because they're very large molecules (the effective equivalent, I suppose, of very high-pitched tones, which not everyone can hear). But it would be wrong to assume everyone's selective anosmias are totally different, like your neighbor on one side can't smell bacon and the one on the other can't smell garbage. Evidence suggests that most of the smells people are anosmic (or hypersensitive) to were created by humans.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Recent readings, vulgarity & excess edition

Trouble in Mind by Lucie Brock-Broido, who may be the queen of garish, costumey excess. No one can tell me she isn't trying to be funny, a little bit: Check out the first two lines of "Basic Poem in a Basic Tongue":
Here is the maudlin petty bourgeoisie of ruin. 
A sullen pity-craft before the fallows of Allhallowmas.
Ha, right? Also Felt by Alice Fulton. This is from "Close" (on Joan Mitchell's White Territory):
I saw she used a bit of knife
and left some gesso showing through,
a home for lessness that--
think of anorexia--
is a form of excess. 
While painting, she could get no farther away
than arm's length.
While seeing parts of the whole,
she let the indigenous breathe
and leave a note.
She dismantled ground and figure
till the fathoms were ambiguous--
a sentence left unfinished
because everyone knows what's meant,
which only happens between friends.
The lack of that empathy embitters,
let me tell you.
Also The Public Gardens by Linda Norton, a lovely woman we met at a performance on Friday. Refreshingly, she did not read from the book but gave a talk and showed us some photo collages. It contains both poems and prose, or poems and "history" as the subtitle claims, history in the form of journals. I love reading journals, it feels illicit even when it isn't. From "Brooklyn Journals":
August 23, 1987 
Since Joey died--an inability to believe I have a future--a feeling that it is vulgar to go on--to think that I could have time--when that was denied him. My mother says, "Linda, you are smart, but Joey--he was brilliant." While he was alive she found his intelligence and his homosexuality so--queer. Now his intelligence is invoked to put me in my place. He grows larger and larger in death while I disappear.
Listening to Ellington's "Sacred Mass" and remembering the nurse on the graveyard shift at Lenox Hill last year--coming in to keep me company as I sat next to the bed and looked at him and listened to the respirator breathing him--that's what it seemed like. He was brain dead, but the respirator was alive. 
There were other men dying of AIDS on that ward, many of them alone, and none as handsome and young as my brother. 
The nurse took her mask off and sighed, and pushed my brother's hair off his forehead, and told me that this was the bed where Duke Ellington had died.  
My brother would have loved to know that. 
No, he would have hated to know that, as he hated everything the last year of his life, spitting at people, even biting my father to try to infect him (he went home, to blame or beg, and my father threw him out; as my parents threw us all out, one after another). He was trying to leave his goofy older boyfriend, but there was nowhere else to go--he'd lost his job after he threw one of his tantrums at work--the job he loved, editing guides to the national parks. [...] 
"Never for less than one day in my life have I been less than completely happy." 
You would not understand what Joseph had meant if you had met him the last year of his life. 
But I know what he meant.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

The New Confessional: Post-Confession/Conceptual Confession

Two poets I like have interesting things to say about a new kind of confessional poetry. In both cases, they happened to be talking about my poetry, so yeah, it's kind of interesting by default to me, but I like to think these ideas are compelling in a general sense. I cut my teeth (god, I hate expressions) on confessional poetry (Anne Sexton, John Berryman) so I do see myself as being influenced by, or an extension of, this school.

Here's Leigh Stein (I think she wrote this in a comment somewhere; this was quite a while ago but I copied and saved it for future reference):

"To me, 'confessional' writing suggests a vulnerability. It isn’t just telling the truth, reporting the facts. Like watching a striptease vs. going to a nude beach. I haven’t read enough contemporary memoirs by female authors to comment on that vein, but I know in poetry I go for what I would call a post-confessional slant…the truth, but disguised by lots of false threads and humor and smoke and mirrors. I think Ellen Kennedy, Elisa Gabbert, and Dorothea Lasky do this well."

And here's Heather June Gibbons, in a personal email (I hope she won't mind):

"I appreciate the poem's willingness to make potentially unflattering, difficult observations. A kind of new bent on confessionalism, perhaps? But conceptually-driven as opposed to ego-driven, a sort of conceptual confession."

I like these theories. If asked to describe my own work, and its relationship to the self and the truth, I would have cooked up something similar (I'm in there, my ideas, my feelings, my memories, but I only include any element insofar as I find it interesting, so true things that aren't interesting get left out, while interesting things that aren't true take their place), but I wouldn't have thought to characterize this mode as a variation on confessional poetry. Thanks to Leigh and Heather for the catchy branding!

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Charles on Fire

I have always liked this James Merrill  poem (in truth, the only one I ever remember he wrote). I remember it for the name, and for the story, but upon rereading always find I like the lines as well.

Charles on Fire 

Another evening we sprawled about discussing
Appearances. And it was the consensus
That while uncommon physical good looks
Continued to launch one, as before, in life
(Among its vaporous eddies and false claims),
Still, as one of us said into his beard,
"Without your intellectual and spiritual
Values, man, you are sunk." No one but squared
The shoulders of their own unloveliness.
Long-suffering Charles, having cooked and served the meal,
Now brought out little tumblers finely etched
He filled with amber liquor and then passed.
"Say," said the same young man, "in Paris, France,
They do it this way"--bounding to his feet
And touching a lit match to our host's full glass.
A blue flame, gentle, beautiful, came, went
Above the surface. In a hush that fell
We heard the vessel crack. The contents drained
As who should step down from a crystal coach.
Steward of spirits, Charles's glistening hand
All at once gloved itself in eeriness.
The moment passed. He made two quick sweeps and
Was flesh again. "It couldn't matter less,"
He said, but with a shocked, unconscious glance
Into the mirror. Finding nothing changed,
He filled a fresh glass and sank down among us.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Why do people apologize?

I'm sort of known for not being big on apologies. It's not that I don't like to admit/vocalize it when I've done something wrong, it's that most of the time, I'm not really convinced that I've done something wrong, so it feels hollow, and I hate empty gestures. Also, even when I think that I've been wronged, I'm not super impressed with apologies. If it's a small transgression, I'd rather the person just acknowledge that it bothered me and try not to do it again. (Doesn't it seem like effusive apologizers are often the worst repeat offenders?) If it's a big transgression, apologies are beside the point: You fucked up bad, game over, etc.

It's not that I never feel sorry, it's just that my moral compass doesn't shift around all that much. I mean, I think about what I'm going to do or say before I do or say it (or, you know, have the illusion that I do; let's not turn this into an argument about free will), and apply said moral compass before the fact. Most of the time, if something reads WRONG, I don't do it in the first place. That way, I minimize both guilt and regret (feelings I despise). Obviously, other people in my life may disagree with the settings; they may feel I've done wrong by their lights and demand apologies, but saying "I'm sorry" when I don't believe I've done anything wrong by my own lights has never sat well with me. Also obviously, sometimes I recognize that something is wrong and do it anyway, or I don't apply much forethought at all (in moments of high emotion or compromised sobriety, say).

But most, less robotic people say "I'm sorry" now and again. And my thinking is that, in order to feel genuine regret for your actions, one or the other of these has to be true:

  1. Your own system of "right" and "wrong" varies from moment to moment or day to day. Yesterday, what you did didn't feel wrong, but today it does.
  2. Your system of right and wrong doesn't vary much, but you semi-frequently ignore your own morals; in other words, you knew what you did yesterday was wrong when you did it, but you did it anyway.

So what I'm wondering is, which is more true for most people? If you, reader, are given to occasional apologies, which feels more true for you?

Take my monkey, please

Some of you may know that John has an addiction to books. His literary acquisitiveness puts even my perfume buying habits to shame. However, the hassle and cost of packing, moving and unpacking our enormous library managed to quell his appetites for a couple of weeks.

The first book he brought home since we arrived in CO was His Monkey Wife by John Collier. I assumed this was a goof, since "Monkey" (and variations thereof) is one of his many pet names for me. But apparently this 1930 novel is considered something of a classic; it's introduced by Paul Theroux and blurbed by Anthony Burgess as "a wayward masterpiece."

The prose is surprisingly artful and ornate; here are a few example sentences from the first ten pages:
The tall trees on the edge of the clearing have here and there, it seems, lifted their skirts of scrub, giving us the same sickening drop from our expectations as shop-window ladies do, when their dresses are opened at back or placket, and we see only wire and emptiness.
Sitting on the wide verandah, however, almost alone, his personality expands naively, and something quite poetic appears in the twilight of that hour and of his nature, like the sweet but inconsiderable bloom on a ragged nocturnal weed.
And, in reference to Emily, the "monkey wife" in question, Mr. Fatigay's devoted chimp:
What seeds lay latent in her of qualities with such a claim, sprouted only under the sunshine of Mr. Fatigay's smiles, and the gentle warm monotonous rain of the evening monologues, in which, when work was done, he expressed his hopes, dreams, ambitions to the friendly dumbness by his side.
Methinks "the friendly dumbness" is a good alternative to "my other half."

We were especially delighted by the following passage:
She was, after all, a schoolmaster's pet, and on the frequent occasions on which she had accompanied him to the schoolroom, she had seen enough pictures of cats with the letters C A T printed beside them. Is it so hard to understand how she came to a comprehension of the function of books, and even, perhaps, of the abstracter functions of language? Our scientists may think so, who have chosen to measure the intelligence of the chimpanzee solely by its reaction to a banana. They suspend the delicacy from the ceiling of a cage, and assess the subject's mentality in terms of the number of boxes he or she will pile one upon another in order to secure it, failing to see that nothing is revealed except the value which that particular chimp chooses to set upon the fruit. And, beyond a certain low limit, this surely is in inverse ratio to intelligence. What boy of ten would not pile up a dozen boxes in an attempt to climb within reach of it? How many would Einstein clamber upon? And how many less would Shakespeare? Emily, though a fruitarian by instinct, would have disdained an eagerness capable of more than two and a jump.