Friday, August 31, 2012

A little self-promotion never killed anyone that I know of

Virginia Konchan asked 13 writers what the word "genealogy" means to them. Mostly, I just hate the way the word is spelled, but I responded by talking a little about the subjects I am always returning to in my writing. Here's an excerpt:
Over the past decade, as my love life has stabilized, my writing has gravitated toward two subjects, two obsessions. One is the death of my mother. Forgive me – she is still very much alive and in fact successfully managing two careers, in addition to a thriving garden. But she will die someday. We’ll all die someday, but her death is more threatening. Her health is tenuous; I can’t be sure that she will live into her 90s or 80s or even 70s, and the knowledge of this haunts me, when I don’t suppress it entirely. The other obsession is my brother; we were once very close, but our relationship began to deteriorate in my mid-20s, and though we’re now in a place that is civil and mostly free of contention, we rarely speak or see each other, and the memory of our former friendship – or rather, a connection that was more than friendship, and is now less – haunts me too...
You can read the full piece (which includes the text of real private email chains!), as well as responses from Kathleen Rooney, Rebecca Hazelton, Elizabeth Hildreth and others at the Michigan Quarterly Review blog (be warned, it's a scroller; my piece is second in the sequence). Thanks to Virginia for including me!

Also, today is the last day of my guest-editor stint at Everyday Genius. Thanks again to Adam Robinson for letting me take the reins. I was so happy to be able to feature work by poets like Jason Labbe ("I don’t have your best interest anywhere / near the still sunken portion of my chest. / Unless ruined, and so overrated, you fester."), Darcie Dennigan ("Yes, yes, yes, the film is about loving this world. Though who can stay long enough in it. The bells that call you to heaven call you to the next available agent."), Fani Papageorgiou ("This is the hurt which drives everyone mad in books and although I don’t feel it yet / I am being in the know / Life will be tenuous and always in faded pale blue—the color of ice. / Write down what you love."), and other clever people.

This is a picture of the back of my head. That's John reading a poem in the background.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

The Dogs Go on With Their Doggy Life: Some Notes on Kenneth Lonergan's Margaret

On Sunday evening, we were a little early for our anniversary-dinner reservations at Fruition on 6th Ave. (which was excellent, by the by), so we stopped into Video One's new location down the block. Video One, which used to be situated in a seedy strip off Colfax, feels, even in its new incarnation, like it hasn't been updated since the '80s. Almost everything is lumped into the "New Releases" section regardless of release date, which is interesting in that you end up browsing through an utterly random selection of movies. We ended up taking home Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore and Margaret, the latter of which initially looked to me like the kind of post-2000, overproduced, overserious trash that Hollywood churns out only to keep the awards season going. But then I saw that it was directed by Kenneth Lonergan, a playwright whose only other movie, You Can Count on Me, is one of my all-time favorites.

Not knowing the tortured story of the movie's production -- or that we had popped in the "Extended Cut," whose running time is over three hours -- we watched it last night. This morning I read up on the history. You can read the long version here; the TL;DR version is that it was filmed in 2005 (which I actually guessed based on the skirt Anna Paquin wears in the first scene; I used to have one just like it), then got stuck in post-production for years due to legal battles, funding problems and an inability for interested parties to see eye to eye on how long it should be. Searchlight finally released it in a very limited run in 2011, and the extended cut was released to DVD earlier this year.

It's one of those movies that you want to talk about after seeing, so I'm going to "talk" about it a little here. If you have three hours to kill this weekend, it would be awesome if you rented it so we could "talk" about it too.

* The film has been called a "masterpiece," or "Kenneth Lonergan's masterpiece," by a number of critics. While I think it's a really interesting movie that's very successful in some ways, this instinct to overlaud Margaret in comparison to You Can Count on Me kind of irks me. YCCOM is less ambitious, certainly, but it's kind of a perfect movie, a focused and fully realized film. Margaret is sweeping, epic -- but also bloated and self-indulgent. It's very easy to think of scenes that could have been cut without losing much, if anything, in terms of plot, character, atmosphere. I don't understand why people love this kind of movie so much, the Big Expensive Mess. It reminds me of Magnolia. Viewers get swept up in the sweep of the thing and feel compelled to forgive all flaws as some inextricable part of the auteur's vision. Can't we just admit that some of the acting sucks and it didn't have to be that long?

* That complaint aside, it's a fascinating movie in many ways. It revolves around a young, female protagonist, which is unusual in itself considering the scope of the movie. To boot, she's a pretty detestable character, really admirable in some ways but also selfish, self-important, attention-seeking, and downright mean to her mother. This has commercial failure written all over it! If audiences are ever going to accept a three-hour-long character drama (as opposed to an action or superhero flick) it better at least be about a guy. Anna Paquin does a good job of playing the character (whose name is Lisa, by the way, not Margaret) such that you both sympathize with and hate her. You sympathize because it's unclear how much of her behavior can be attributed to a kind of PTSD brought on by the bus accident in the first scene, and how much is just her innate personality. Aside: Why is Paquin always typecast as a vaguely intelligent bimbo? I've seen her play the same character (well-spoken, half-broken seductress) in so many films I'm starting to think she's not a very good actress.

* The title of the film is taken from this poem by Gerard "Manley" Hopkins:
Spring and Fall: 
to a Young Child 
Margaret, are you grieving
Over Goldengrove unleaving?
Leaves, like the things of man, you
With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?
Ah! as the heart grows older
It will come to such sights colder
By and by, nor spare a sigh
Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;
And yet you will weep and know why.
Now no matter, child, the name:
Sorrow's springs are the same.
Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed
What héart héard of, ghóst guéssed:
It is the blight man was born for,
It is Margaret you mourn for.
There's a scene where Lisa's English teacher, played by Matthew Broderick (Lonergan's best friend), reads this poem in class and she is obviously moved by it. However, another poem (for me) haunts the movie: "Musee de Beaux Arts" by W.H. Auden:
About suffering they were never wrong,
The old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position: how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer's horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree. 
In Breughel's Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water, and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.
The film is edited in such a way that you realize a big part of Lonergan's project was to convey that Lisa's story -- however earth-shattering it seems to her -- is really just one person's story among millions, billions (at one point Matt Damon's character tells Lisa that there are 7 billion people in the world and they're not all bad). This is perhaps most pronounced in a restaurant scene where Lisa sits with one of her best friends, who has just asked her out on a date, and she struggles to tell him that she's not interested in him romantically, obviously conflicted about how this will affect their friendship, and still haunted by visions of the accident she witnessed perhaps a day or a few days before. In this scene, shot from a high angle some 20 feet from the table, the ambient restaurant noise and surrounding conversations are pitched louder than Lisa and her friend, so you're only half-able to focus on them over anyone else. Later, a character explicitly yells at Lisa for trying to make a stranger's death all about her. The movie is constantly telling us that what happens to her, and how she feels about it, is both very important and not important at all.

Have any of my movie-buffy friends seen the flick? Adam perhaps?

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Things I have long wondered about

1. In The Secret of My Success, there's a line I have never understood. The Michael J. Fox character is driving Aunt Vera back to her house in the country and eavesdrops on her car-phone conversation. She says (of her husband), "The last one I caught him with was so dumb, she thought 'dictation' was some kind of S&M trip." As a kid, I thought maybe this supposed bimbo was combining the words "dick" and "vacation" to arrive at this meaning of "dictation." But even in the '80s I knew this wasn't a very good joke; dicks don't necessarily entail bondage. Twenty-odd years later I still don't know what this joke means. Because he's telling her what to type, she thinks it's like a dom-sub situation? What the hell is going on here?

2. You know how they say people eat spicy food and drink hot beverages, soups, etc. in hot climates because it makes you sweat and that cools you off? I've never bought that reasoning. I mean, if you weren't hot enough to sweat to begin with, weren't you better off before? Like let's say your body temperature is hovering a fraction of a degree below the point where you start sweating. Then, you raise your body temperature by drinking a hot Chai. So you start sweating. Then a breeze comes by and that one sweaty part on your forehead feels kinda nice (evaporative cooling FTW!). But is that really going to make you feel better than you felt before you drank the tea?


Two interesting things I read on the Internet this morning, which have that sweet-sour quality of dry schadenfreude/amused horror in the style of Harper's info-curation:

1. Via the blog of Jordan Ellenberg, a math professor in Wisconsin, "The Half-Life of Alanis Morissette":
Interesting fact: each of the four Alanis Morissette albums since Jagged Little Pill has sold fewer than half as many copies as the previous one. That’s an impressive streak! Can she do it again with her forthcoming August release? I just listened to the new single and it seems possible.
I heard said single in the car on the way back from a recent hike at Isabelle Glacier, and it was indeed pretty bad. But you know, I kind of like the single "Hands Clean" (from the album after the album after Jagged Little Pill, which by the way I can honestly say I never owned).

2. Via Ellen Burstyn's Wikipedia page (we watched Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore last night):
In 1964, she married fellow actor Neil Burstyn, but the union was turbulent. Neil Burstyn was schizophrenic; he would have episodes of violence, and eventually left her. He attempted to come back to her, but she rejected him, ultimately divorcing him in 1972. In her autobiography, Lessons in Becoming Myself, Burstyn revealed that he stalked her over a period of six years after she divorced him. He eventually broke into her house and raped her, but no charges were filed, as spousal rape was not yet legally a crime. He committed suicide in 1978, upon which his parents sent Burstyn a telegram stating "Congratulations, you've won another Oscar; Neil killed himself."
In my mind I keep trying to turn the name "Ellen Burstyn" into a Tom Swifty, a la: "Well I won an Oscar," Ellen burst in. Sounds like Neil's life lends itself more to the joke, if anyone knew who he was.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

5 super-sexy songs

I rarely think songs are sexy, and when I do, it's never R. Kelly-style bump 'n' grind music with explicit lyrics about, you know, getting peed on in a closet all night long or whatever. To me, the sexy in music = moody + atmospheric. I like a relatively slow tempo, and having a low or breathy voice doesn't hurt either. To further state the obvious, I don't think "sexy music" means "music to have sex to." I don't even think that way. Our stereo is in the living room! Rather, these are the ideal kinds of songs to hear in the car on the way home from your second or third date. (Why do I romanticize driving soundtracks to such degrees? I don't know, but in my fantasies it's always summer and the windows are down. Music sounds better with a breeze in one's hair.)

1. "Everybody Here Wants You" by Jeff Buckley

This is one of the first songs from my adult listening life that led me to develop a working theory of Sexy Music. (Much earlier, the first songs that made me feel acutely aware of sex, and thus embarrassed, were "I Want Your Sex" by George Michael -- which still, frankly, shocks me -- and "Darling Nikki" from the Purple Rain album. I also thought "Love Bites" was pretty hot.) Shoot me in advance, but I sort of think this and "Morning Theft" are better than anything on Grace. Or maybe it's not that they're better but just easier, more comfortable, less wrought. I don't mind wroughtness per se but it's not very sexy.

2. "I've Been Thinking" by Handsome Boy Modeling School feat. Cat Power

As above, smoky vocals and that swanky, slanky beat. The lyrics here are also super-sexy -- she's singing about a memory of something that happened in the past (I've been thinking about ... those things we did), rather than about something she wants to do in the future, which seems more dude-style (a la "I Wanna Sex You Up").

3. "Fascination Street" by The Cure

My favorite Cure song. Why is it sexy? Maybe mostly by association; it reminds me of New Orleans and New Orleans is sexy. But also I love when he sings "Cut the conversation, just open your mouth"!

4. "Come to Me" by Bjork

This whole album (Debut) is pretty sexy I think, but this is a particular favorite (and it's pretty-sexy, as opposed to ugly-sexy). Bonus points for strings.

5. "Love or Prison" by Blonde Redhead

Some element of doubt and/or tension is important in Sexy Music. In song, if not in life, I prefer obsession to overconfidence.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Music I hate more than the Eagles

Why do people hate the Eagles so much? Last week on Twitter I discovered that Graham Foust, Michael Robbins and Joshua Harmon avidly, vehemently hate the Eagles. Notably all these writers lived through more of the '70s than I did, so perhaps they have been forced to confront the Eagles in a more direct way than I ever have. To me, they seem so middle-of-the-road musically that they're not worth detesting; feeling strongly one way or the other feels disproportional.

But I wonder if there isn't some element of displacement, i.e. what people are really reacting to is the Eagles' fan base, rather than the music itself. Or, at least, the music wouldn't be so offensive it weren't so popular. That, I can understand; Billy Collins' poetry wouldn't be so maddening if he weren't making all the money.

Anyway, I basically don't care about the Eagles. I don't love them or hate them. I have always had a weird soft spot for Don Henley; I'll listen to "Boys of Summer" any way, any day.

Here's some stuff, musically, that I do hate, or at least find actively irritating:

Most Tom Waits. I used to just hate it all, indiscriminately, but John is a huge Tom Waits fan and went out of his way to try to find material that I might like. With exposure I have found that some of his songs are charming. He seems to have a tendency, though, to write these really textbook SONG type songs, like they just feel very standard to me. He's also inclined toward slow songs in major keys, which I irrationally dislike almost always. See:

So boring to me.

Much of Wilco. I feel like Wilco is the most overrated band of the 2000s. With a few quite likable exceptions, all their songs sound the same to me, and that sound is incredibly grating. Like this awful song I can't believe anyone would listen to on purpose:

Make it stop!

More indie-folky whatnot: Iron & Wine, Devendra Banhart, Belle & Sebastian. I mean, ugh:

I don't really care if these people have technical musical skills (I wouldn't know the difference between a pretty good and a very good guitar player). What I hate is the sensibility. This music has no edge! It's like pork chops for dinner.

Basically, I like sad songs and dance songs, that's what it comes down to.

And then there's popular stuff that I don't hate but just don't understand: Like, what is the appeal of Hall & Oates? I don't even think their songs are catchy.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Perfume people, ease my worried mind

I recently became, it would seem, hyper-sensitized to a certain sweet, powdery synthetic musk material that appears in a lot of floral perfumes. I believe you can find it in Estee Lauder Pleasures and the similar but more recent Cartier Baiser Vole -- but the perfume that tipped the balance for me was Diane (by Diane von Furstenberg), in the eau de toilette concentration. I liked Diane well enough in EDP but the EDT is completely overwhelmed by this purple-gray laundry musk.

NBD, I thought, I'll just avoid Diane. But yesterday, to my horror, I put on Flower by Kenzo (one of my favorite perfumes!) and all I could smell was this dreaded musk. After an hour or two of torture I attempted to wash it off, but today, a good 24 hours later, I can still smell it on my arm.

So I have a question for my perfume-loving readers: Have you ever found yourself suddenly oversensitive to a certain material that never bothered you before, and if so, did it ever, eventually, go away? I hate to think I'll never be able to wear Flower again.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012


John and I are teaching an ekphrastic poetry workshop through the Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art tomorrow evening, then participating in a reading at the museum next Friday. We'll be reading poems based on the current exhibit ("Visual Rhythm presents non-narrative, abstract, and immersive experimental film, video, and digital art, connecting recent directions in media art to earlier modes of expression").

It's not too late to sign up for the class, but if you can't make it, consider coming to the performance next week!

A little more info:
Experience Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art's upcoming exhibition, Visual Rhythm, through the art of ekphrastic writing with Lighthouse Writers Workshop. Take part in a workshop and learn how to craft your own ekphrastic writing. Then join us for a performance and share your writing alongside ekphrasis experts in a moveable poetry reading throughout the museum.  
Workshop: Thursday, August 16 [TOMORROW!], 6:30 pm. Led by John Cotter and Elisa Gabbert. Cost: $35 members of Lighthouse & BMoCA, $50 for nonmembers  
Performance: Friday, August 24, 7:30 pm. Cost: $5 members of Lighthouse & BMoCA, $8 for nonmembers. Scheduled to perform (so far): John Cotter, J Diego Frey, Elisa Gabbert, Michael Henry, Ginny Hoyle, Vicki Mandell King, Chris Ransick, David Rothman, Eleni Sikelianos, Barbara Sorenson, Seth Brady Tucker, Roger Wehling, Jake Adam York
To register: visit Or show up at the door.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Women who write criticism are mean and scary

Someone I know, I can't recall whom, recently told me that one of her students said feminists are "mean and scary." This is why I'm always a feminist for Halloween. If you are very brave, please check out this roundtable discussion with women who write about poetry on the Best American Poetry Blog, moderated by Sandra Simonds and featuring Sina Queyras ("I don’t find comment streams at all interesting"), Vanessa Place ("Happily self-congratulatory by proxy"), Shanna Compton ("I have nothing against looking, or beauty itself"), Danielle Pafunda ("As feminist-grotesque as I might be in the poem, as much as I might seek to horrify the male gaze, in my material life I costume (subtly) and perform (subtly) in the pretty matrix."), and Juliana Spahr ("Can we stop talking about aging as making beauty go bye bye?"). Also, me ("I’m ambivalent about this reluctance of women to speak").

If that all seems too fearsome of a Tuesday, you can read poems instead: perhaps "Robinson's Friends Have Come Over for His 41st Birthday" by Kathleen Rooney ("His actuality has become burlesque— / affection toward a stripper he met doing theater: / bleached blonde in lowgloss lip paint"); or "Cellardance" by Kirsten Kaschock ("I made a dance about torture. I choreographed it. / Yep."); or "A Nina Simone song playing in your head" by Jeff Alessandrelli ("Back in town if your boss thinks you’re guilty of something / you’re guilty of something, / but not out here, not tonight"); or "The Red Kerchief" by Virginia Konchan ("My Paleolithic heart / blooms through the blackness // of attire"); or "The Girl" by Ben Mazer ("The girl I mirdered has a blonde white head. / De girl I mudered has no blond wite head.")?

Sunday, August 12, 2012

The Sundays

We've now been in Denver for almost a year -- we moved into our apartment on August 20, 2011 -- but despite knowing a lot of people, I still feel like an outsider sometimes. I think I can attribute this to two causes, aside from the obvious truth that it takes time to feel at home in a new city: 1) The vast majority of writers in town are involved in academia somehow, either as students or teachers or both (with MFA and PhD programs in both Denver and Boulder). I'm apart from all that. And 2) I'm not on Facebook. I never felt that opting out of Facebook hurt my social life in Boston, but here it really seems to. I'm less visible. I'm half a person! I also read recently that employers assume people who aren't on Facebook must be psychotic or otherwise have something atrocious to hide. Great.

Things that are good: I'm writing a lot, almost every day. I bought new glasses, for the first time since 2005. Well, right now they're just frames, with fake lenses. I'm tempted to just wear them, over my contacts. (NOT OKAY, RIGHT?) I'm also working on a play -- not writing but acting in one. John is directing it and I'm playing the female lead. This is insane! It is a very bizarre and difficult part and I am not a pilot. This is mostly good but also kind of bad because sometimes I get so frustrated and embarrassed by it I want to collapse to the earth and weep. Also, I don't seem to get hangovers anymore.

Things that are bad: Oh, you know. Loneliness. Lack of hangovers aside, one can't deny we're getting older and flabbier all the time. John lost some of his classes, which was very bad, but then he found new ones at the last minute, which is good.

With romantic relationships, the early falling-in-love stage is arguably the best part, but with friendships, the early stages are a drag. I don't want to have to woo new friends for a year. I want to be old friends, instantly! Complete trust!

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Martin Seay's favorite poem

My dear friends Kathy and Martin passed through Denver this week at the tailend of a road trip around the Southwest. Over dinner we asked them if they had any favorite ekphrastic poems, as we're teaching an ekphrastic poetry workshop next Thursday at the Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art. That's how we learned that this, by W.B. Yeats, is Martin's favorite poem (he recited it to us, most wonderfully):

YOUR hooves have stamped at the black margin of the wood,
Even where horrible green parrots call and swing.
My works are all stamped down into the sultry mud.
I knew that horse-play, knew it for a murderous thing.
What wholesome sun has ripened is wholesome food to eat,
And that alone; yet I, being driven half insane
Because of some green wing, gathered old mummy wheat
In the mad abstract dark and ground it grain by grain
And after baked it slowly in an oven; but now
I bring full-flavoured wine out of a barrel found
Where seven Ephesian topers slept and never knew
When Alexander's empire passed, they slept so sound.
Stretch out your limbs and sleep a long Saturnian sleep;
I have loved you better than my soul for all my words,
And there is none so fit to keep a watch and keep
Unwearied eyes upon those horrible green birds.

He had such a twinkle in his eye as he said those horrible green birds....

Check out these crazy-ass flowers! They're like rainbow sherbet:

Monday, August 6, 2012

Links of note

Up on Everyday Genius since Wednesday: five drawings by Paul Legault (I have always loved art that includes text), "Elise Qua Elise" by Rebecca Hazelton ("and there was no meaning in any of it, just the ordinary / prayers and hands, / just songbirds competing / with traffic noise, / her, standing in my doorway, / explaining how my life / was no longer solely mine"), and "The Half-God Appears" by Heather Green ("The half-god is graceless, / but an arrow can't kill him. // The half-god points / to your false hope of fulfillment."). Mmm, poems.

Also: I wrote a little piece about Exile in Guyville for the Albums of Our Lives feature on The Rumpus:
I must have heard about Liz Phair from Sassy Magazine, my go-to and, really, only source for anything remotely counter-culture in the early ‘90s. I think I recall seeing the now-iconic cover of Exile in Guyville – Phair in black and white, mouth open, mid-song or mid-shout, her eyes obscured by the shadow of her hood – in the “What Now” spread, Christina Kelly’s sounding board for trends spotted, recent infatuations (“Zine of the Month,” “Cute Band Alert”), and the occasional complaint. Maybe I saw the video for “Never Said” on 120 Minutes one night before buying the album, but I don’t think so – “Never Said” being one of the least interesting songs on the album and a weak choice for a single. I think I bought the album, at some point later and sound unheard, based on Kelly’s recommendation alone (likewise for Teenage Fanclub’s Bandwagonesque and It’s a Shame About Ray by the Lemonheads). 
I know I came to the record a little late, after Kurt Cobain’s death. It was 1994 or ‘95....
One more: John and I went to see a production of Twelfth Night at the Colorado Shakespeare Festival in Boulder on Saturday. I loved the outdoor theater and the costumes were great. The direction and acting left a little to be desired; they really played up Willie's tiresome cheeseball side. John wrote a good little essay on his not-updated-enough blog about why it didn't quite come off.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Everyday Genius

I am guest-editing Everyday Genius for the month of August. Every weekday you'll find a new, awesome poem or poem-like object. My first selection is up today: "Sea Reliance" by Chris Nealon. Here's a bit of his poem:

Andrew! Tell me what poetry should be about –
I have a list of band names that comes close  
A note in my notebook says, if your poems are based on optimism about people you are fucked 
But I don’t believe it

22 more shards of brilliance are waiting for you from living geniuses like Darcie Dennigan, Kirsten Kaschock, Ben Mazer, Dan Magers, and lots more. I hope you'll be reading.