Tuesday, March 29, 2011

The poetics of spacing out

Having low blood sugar can make you feel like shit in strange and interesting ways. One of the symptoms is confusion, so whatever else you're experiencing tends not to make sense; you can't describe it to yourself via the mechanism commonly known as "consciousness." I have been known to fall (literally) victim to low blood sugar, as in low enough to cause syncope, the sexiest word for passing out. The last time this happened to me was about four and a half years ago. I woke up at John's old apartment feeling uniquely awful; insofar as I was capable of thought, I was thinking, "I don't even understand how I feel." I was pretty sure that my eyes were dry, though -- I had fallen asleep in my contacts -- and I managed to locate the eyedrops I used to carry around in the inner zipped pocket of my bag. Tipping my head back to put them in my eyes was too much for the system, however, and blip, I was out. If I hadn't been so confused, I would have realized I was light-headed, and shouldn't be standing up. No such luck. Oddly, instead of toppling over where I was, in the doorway between the bedroom and the bathroom, I syncope-walked/stumbled forward until I met the nearest object in my path. That object was a French door.

A good thing I read this week: An interview with Alice Fulton in Memorious. Some excerpts:
I began experimenting with the double equal around 1992. I think I first used it in a poem in 1993, while working on Sensual Math. I became interested in lace making. I had some library books on the craft, and in the diagrams, the background threads that held the lace together looked like two equal signs. I learned that those background threads are called brides. This struck a chord with me; it resonated since I was interested in the background rather than foreground. In gendered terms, women, historically, have been part of the background. I wondered whether the bride sign “==” could signal a recessive space that holds everything together. The glyph itself is unignorable on the page—both present and silent. I liked that about it.

Because those little threads in lace are called brides, I began thinking about matrilineage and how visibility, in most cultures, comes through patriarchy. Naming comes through patrilineage rather than through the female line. The double equal sign “==” was a way to make such effacements visible on the page.


Poetry is inherently unpolemical because it leaves so much unsaid. A didactic poem is a failed poem, as I see it. If the poet builds in complexity, linguistic layers that make the poem rich and interesting, the problem of potential didacticism is solved. You can’t do all that and be pedantic at the same time. You can’t have depth and also have a t-shirt slogan. A poem beautifully, seductively, and partially resists the reader. Without some resistance, it’s not a poem. When poetry resists successfully, it sends you back up the page as much as it sends you forward.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

So Nikki Giovanni doesn't read poetry

So there's this interview with Nikki Giovanni in The Writer's Chronicle, and the interviewer, Chapman Hood Frazier, asks her in about five different ways who her favorite poets are:
  • "What are the books that have been balls of light for you?"
  • "Do you have key books that have influenced you?"
  • "If you were to create a lineage of key influences on your work, now, looking back on your evolution as a writer, who would you pick?"
  • "Do you read other poets? Are there particular poets who you read, or do you read when you are writing?"
  • "So there are no specific writers who really influenced how you write in particular?" (Seriously.)
Each time she dodges. Finally she admits that she doesn't read poetry, because she doesn't "want to get tied up in somebody else's vision": "I try to make sure I don't get influenced." The kicker is that then Frazier, who has really painted himself into a corner here, has to pretend that's some big new idea ("That's a really interesting perspective...") when he's probably been arguing with students on this point for fifteen years. I mean that is classic freshman overactive anxiety of influence right there.

I mean, who cares if she reads poetry; she's Nikki Giovanni. I just find it hilarious that Frazier pushed the issue so hard.

Sig Amet Literary Series, 3/25

I'm reading in the Sig Amet Literary Series this Friday with the fine folks of Canarium Books:

WHO: John Beer, Joshua Edwards, Robert Fernandez, Ish Klein, and me

WHEN: Friday, March 25 at 7:30 pm

WHERE: Lorem Ipsum Books, 1299 Cambridge St. (Inman Square)

Make like Wallace Stevens and say hi!


The Negation
Wallace Stevens

Hi! The creator too is blind,
Struggling toward his harmonious whole,
Rejecting intermediate parts,
Horrors and falsities and wrongs;
Incapable master of all force,
Too vague idealist, overwhelmed
By an afflatus that persists.
For this, then, we endure brief lives,
The evanescent symmetries
From that meticulous potter’s thumb.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Some thoughts on the first person

For a while now I've been musing on why side-scrolling video games are so much more fun to watch than first-person shooter (FPS) and 3D games, which may in fact be more fun to play. I had some ideas, but suspected that someone who spends more (as in any) time actually playing video games would be able to address the question in a more informed manner. (Feature idea: Ask a Gamer.) I asked my brother, who was a senior programmer for Epic Mickey, this question in December, and he had a theory, but he hasn't written it up for me yet. (The theory compared first-person games to being on drugs, wherein things that appear simple are actually quite difficult. Being on drugs is fun, but watching people on drugs is kind of annoying.)

Mike Meginnis turns out to be the perfect person to answer this question, because he's not only interested in video games and video game theory, such as that exists, but he's also a writer. (I'd categorize him as a rational aesthete.) He sent me the below thoughts in an email.

So, re: first-person games versus third-person games, I think there are a lot of things. First and foremost, 1st-person games are nothing like being inside the body of the character. Your peripheral vision is shit, you move like a jet-fueled unicycle, and there's this gun constantly hovering just below eye level. The only remotely fun-to-watch FPS I've ever seen is the Metroid Prime series, I think partly because suddenly this stuff has an explanation. You're wearing a helmet with a visor. You can see your own reflection (Samus' reflection) sometimes in the visor. You're pretty much a tank, really, and so the gun's constant hovering makes sense. It's immersive in a way that Halo can't be. And of course the speed of a competitive FPS is terribly disorienting. You spend most of them basically spinning.

But I think also it has to do with drama. Say you're doing a jump in Halo. What are you jumping toward? How close are you? And how close are you now? These questions are extremely difficult to answer. Depth perception in 3D games is awful -- this is why Mario, in 3D games, always has a shadow. Without it, even in the third person, jumps are nearly impossible. but at least in the third person you can have the shadow! In first person you don't even see your feet land on the ground. You know you made the jump if you're not falling. It's imprecise, which hurts playability, but good players get around it. Watching, however, becomes much less fun when there's a lack of precision, because if you aren't in control it's very hard to get a good feel for what's going on.

On the other hand, a jump in Mario is a beautiful little story. You're jumping toward a coin box. Your guy hits the coin box. A coin comes out. It makes the coin sound. You fall to earth. Probably you do this again. It's never unclear what's happening, what the stakes are, or how close you are to succeeding. If you fail -- or if the player you're watching fails -- it's not ambiguous how it happened.

I also suspect it's easier to identify with a body from outside than from inside. I find my own body rather mysterious. Sometimes I look at my limbs and I think how weird and long they are. I think the problem with being someone is you know how little's going on in there, or in any case you have a strong sense of it. You know it doesn't feel like anything to be Master Chief, or to be yourself. (Or anyway, I don't feel like much of anything when I'm me.) But to have an object for your identification -- to imagine what it's like to be Mario -- is really involving. My feeling is that internal lives are something we project on each other more than something we really experience. (What we experience, I suspect, is largely a result of knowing others are projecting on us.) Think of the hollowness in most second-person narration. It's right there at the center. And, weirdly, that hollowness is you. In a very literal sense, it's you.

Or something like that. Basically it comes down to the fact that people are more compelling to watch than they are to be, I think.

I love this last idea. A long time ago I read that most people dream in the third person. I dream in the first person, but, oddly, I often replay memories in the third person. Same goes for when I imagine myself doing something in the future or an alternate reality, as if the point of the exercise were to see how it would look if I did something, rather than how it would feel.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Things that blew my mind, part 2

From Boing Boing, brought to my attention by Dan Boehl, this is what Super Mario would look like as a first-person shooter game:

Mike Meginnis owes me his thoughts on why side-scrolling video games are more fun to watch than FPS. Stay tuned.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Fun with Google Analytics

Do you know the word "sockdolager"? I didn't, until today, thanks to Kathy (and whichever of her students used it). What a good word! In case you don't like clicking links, it means "something that settles a matter : a decisive blow or answer." Synonyms include beaut, doozy, and humdinger.

After tweeting about my newfound knowledge, Sarang (AKA @excitedstoat) alerted me that the third definition in the OED for "sockdolager" is "Something exceptional in any respect, esp. a large fish." Is that not the greatest? If more definitions ended in the phrase "esp. a large fish," vocabulary would be lots more fun.

Anyway. Blogging luminaries like Patricia Lockwood and Blake Butler frequently like to share the disgusting search queries that led people to their blogs, such as, in Tricia's case, "creature porn" and "owl vagina" (and in Blake's case probably something even worse). Most of the keyword referrers for my own blog are not disgusting (because I'm not an effing sicko, ahem), but nonetheless I thought you might be curious what brings the masses to these pages. Excepting my "brand searches" (searches for "The French Exit" and "Elisa Gabbert" plus many misspellings thereof (elissa gabbeert? just double everything!)) and lots of uninteresting stuff, here's whence I get the mad hits:
  1. "claire danes": I ripped some crappy photo off a celebrity site and my blog was ranking in the images at the top of the SERP for "claire danes" for a while, but the Claire Danes fanclub traffic has dropped way off this year. Related keywords include "claire danes insecure," "claire danes lousy actress," and "claire danes bitch and unfriendly" (no joke).
  2. "camouflage": Same deal as above. Someone got here by asking "why is camouflage pixelated" which is exactly what I wanted to know.
  3. "scare quotes snl": I provide not only funny video but a full rundown of what scare quotes mean.
  4. "seth abramson": And many variations including "i hate seth abramson" and "why does everyone hate seth abramson."
  5. "why I am not on facebook": Why would someone google this? Don't they know why they aren't on Facebook? Maybe they don't realize that you have to sign up first. (Something Zuck is probably working on.)
  6. "brazilian chicken stew": Amazingly, my fake chicken stew recipe is #2 for this query as far as I can tell.
  7. "jackalopes": Another short-lived image search.
  8. "dave matthews band tattoos": And "leonard cohen tattos," "tom waits tattoos" etc. Did I ever tell you about the time a girl emailed me and asked me to take down the picture of her tattoo? She just ran across it one day. Hilarious/mortifying.
  9. "poetry is boring": Nuff said.
  10. "________ in french": Because the word "French" appears in my blog title, many people arrive here looking for English-to-French translations of fun phrases like "I had a good weekend," "been thinking about you," and "did you bring the money"
  11. "whale joke": And related, including "whale joke muffin variation" which must have been someone I know.
  12. Bunch of 10-or-under-hit-wonders: "emo gay sex blogspot," "grace kelly arms," "freakgirl@aol.com" (!), "wrench porn" (OK I guess I have no claims to spotlessness), "better bald than balding," "if you liked waylander" (only two results for the exact match!), "rabbit run made me cry," "reading poetry to feel," "3 page essay why it's important not to talk during french," "after i saw black swan i felt weird" (ME TOO), "best way to ask for a happy ending," "classy sausage," "do twentysomethings live in northern wisconsin," "flat chested kitten syndrome."
There are literally thousands more, but with that I really have to call it a night.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Good things happen in threes, because when you get to three you start over

I'm reading at Manchester Community College's Spoken Word & Music Series this Thursday, March 17: music at 7 pm (the Norman Johnson Jazz Duo) and poetry at 8. My co-reader is the excellent Jason Labbe. More info here. If you live in Connecticut, and aren't super Irish I guess, please come! (I'm driving all the way from Boston, take pity on me, my arms will be tired, etc.)

Also: more new poems in RealPoetik.

Thursday, March 10, 2011


I have a few new poems up at The Awl (I didn't mean to time my Awl neg for the same day; for realz, I love The Awl). I like that someone called them "Aphoristastic!" in a comment, because I think of these poems as strings of faux aphorisms, plus connective tissue.

The difference between a new use and a misuse

One of the things linguistics nerds like to talk about is language change, such as old words being used in new ways. (See Language Log and its recent obsession with the word "literally.") But sometimes in these discussions, there's a confusion between a misusage and a new usage. For example, this recent piece on The Awl, wherein Paul Hiebert outlines his annoyance with the "reckless" and "unavoidable" use of the word "random" to mean something like "unexpected."
As an adjective, random is defined in the Oxford English Dictionary as follows: "Having no definite aim or purpose; not sent or guided in a particular direction; made, done, occurring, etc., without method or conscious choice; haphazard." In other words, random is without pattern or objective; it's perfectly unbiased. To judge by the pop-culture usages cited above, however, the word has shifted away from its traditional usage, and now means:

a) Inconsequential
b) Rare, strange, curated
c) Exciting, absurd, capricious
d) Unexpected, arbitrary, silly
e) Outcast, distasteful, unknown
f) Unlikely, unfeasible, impossible
g) Incongruous fun
Paul's definition, to my mind, has some clear overlap with the OED definition (something done with no definite purpose, method or conscious choice is likely to appear unexpected or arbitrary to humans). But in any case, I resist the idea that the "pop-culture" usage of "random" is replacing the original meaning of random; rather, it's extending it. I can say "I had a random impulse to clap my hands" (meaning the impulse was unexpected even to me) or "There were a bunch of random guys at the lecture" (meaning I didn't expect them to be there), and I still know perfectly well what "random" means in the context of "random number generator" or "The prizes will be distributed randomly." The process is similar to other slang extensions of words that retain their original meaning ("cool," "hot," "killer," etc.).

A good indication that this new usage of random didn't arise as a misuse is that, as Hiebert points out himself, it's believed to have arisen in "computer-science geek" culture in the '60s: "[Ben Zimmer] located one of the first colloquial uses of random in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's student newspaper, The Tech, from 1971. Here, the word random as an adjective meant 'Peculiar, strange; nonsensical, unpredictable, or inexplicable; unexpected,' and as a noun meant 'A person who happens to be in a particular place at a particular time, a person who is there by chance; a person who is not a member of a particular group; an outsider.'" If anyone knows what "random" "really" means, it's comp geeks.

A misuse, on the other hand, is a usage that arises when people guess at the meaning of a word or phrase they don't know, and guess wrong. Often, it's a logical enough guess that the misuse spreads and can overtake the "real" meaning in popularity. This is what happened with the phrase "begs the question," now more often used to mean "raises the question." It also seems to be happening with the word "feminism." I've come to believe that the average (wo)man on the street doesn't know what feminism really means. Due to the concept's bad PR, and the fact that it contains a feminine root, people guess that it refers to the belief that women are better than men. This is a new use, and a common one, but it's still a misuse, just like "begging the question."

It's probably not worth fighting over "begging the question," but I do think it's worth fighting over "feminism," because the misuse isn't just honest ignorance, it's a manipulation with political ends. It tells people that feminism is a crazy fringe movement whose members can be summarily dismissed, when in fact it's just a branch of civil rights.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Boys' Club Manifesto

This is seriously wonderful: How to Be a Woman in Any Boys' Club, a manifesto by Molly Lambert at This Recording. Thank you Molly for writing these sentences in this order.

In case there was any doubt, writing is a boys' club, so if you're a writer, this applies to you.

It's almost silly to quote from the piece as excerpts are assumed to be highlights, whereas every line of this is a highlight, but I do want to call attention to a few parts that resonate strongly with my experience:

"If somebody says or does something fucked up, call them out on it. Don't pretend like fucked up things never get said because you are afraid of getting exiled from the kingdom of being Angie Dickinson in the Rat Pack. It makes people uncomfortable to get called out on their bullshit, and they get weird and defensive [...] This might make you feel bad or like a bully but don't. Some conversations are uncomfortable but also necessary. They are so uncomfortable because they are so necessary. Discomfort is not death." One of the the things I have used this blog for is calling people out on sexist bullshit. It almost always leads to uncomfortable arguments, and I have to field defensive, dismissive, angry or outright insulting comments. It sucks and it often makes me feel like all I'm doing is racking up enemies. But it's something I care about, and I can't simply leave it up to other women, because I know many women agree but don't want to deal with the ensuing bullshit. Women frequently backchannel me or thank me in the real world for standing up and saying the feminist thing. Someone has to say it but not everybody wants to dodge rocks.

"If anybody makes fun of straight dudes and the lame bonehead things they sometimes do, you are not allowed to get defensive and say that you never do any of those things. Relax, we're aren't talking about you. We're just talking about privilege denying dudes in general, and admitting that they exist is not the same as being one. The best first step to demonstrating that you are not one is to admit that they exist." Yes yes yes. Along the same lines, if someone points out that there is a clear, consistent gender bias in an industry, such as writing, or in the masthead or table of contents of a particular magazine, or in the comment threads on a blog, or among the community of contributors and editors of Wikipedia, it is not helpful to name the one woman you know who is a part of that community, or to say "But Zadie Smith." The exception does not disprove the rule.

"Whatever you look like, it will be used against you. If you're attractive it will be used to suggest that men are just pretending to care about what you think in order to try to fuck you. If you're unattractive, it will be used to discount you as a human being entirely, on the grounds that a woman who is not physically attractive to heterosexual men is a completely useless entity, no matter how smart or talented she is." Rush Limbaugh is an extreme example of the latter view, that the only reason to be a feminist is because you're ugly and you're angry that men don't like you. As for the former: I've had men, not just any men but my friends, tell me to my face that it's easier for me to get published because I'm a woman and because I'm attractive. People will publish me in their magazines because they need token women, and people will ask me to read in their series so they can have a cute girl in the lineup. This idea that it's easier for women to succeed in male-dominated industries is pervasive and illogical. Even if magazines had an explicit quota to fill, more women would be competing for a smaller number of slots, because women are not a minority. This idea rests on two assumptions: 1) Most women aren't trying, so you all you have to do as a woman is try a little, and 2) Most men are trying, so it's harder for them to compete against each other. The average man is not trying harder, or naturally better, than the average woman.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Level vs. Score

In arcade culture, your score is all-important. High scores grant permanence, if only temporary permanence, and only for your initials. But back when I dabbled in video games, via our Nintendo Entertainment System (my favorites were relatively non-violent games like Super Mario Bros. and Tetris), all I cared about was the level I could get to. I never even paid attention to my score.

How do you measure your success in life, by your score or your level?