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?