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!