Thursday, October 31, 2013

The double surface

Love this quote on poetic process and effect by Catherine Meng, from The Conversant (emphases mine):

While writing Eclipse, I spent a lot of time thinking about genre, and about how to write a poem that could feel like prose but have moments where it would bloom out/balloon in/shift from past to present. I was fixated on the idea of wormholes, and I was trying to actually write them into the poems—the bookcase that lo and behold is actually a door that leads to a secret passage. Is there a way to actually move through space in a poem?
[...] I was interested in the moment when the poem becomes a double surface of sorts, when there is a slippage in the words so you end up, without noticing the transition/transmutation, on the other side of the glass. I was interested in this happening to the reader of the poem and the writer of the poem at the same time. Is there a way to live-tweet the slippage? To write about the making of the poem while you are making the poem? [...] Many of the links that happen are a surprise to me; the secret passage way reveals itself, and you write into it and hopefully end up somewhere more interesting, but sometimes you end up exactly where you started. I think I say something about “round and round we do this without ever starting or ending the poem.” I sometimes get very dramatic about the futility of it all (an “I can’t go on, I’ll go on” type of thing), especially when I get involved in concept projects like this. There were days when I was just bloody sick of writing and sick of my own writing, but slog slog slog, you just keep writing in hopes that one of the bookcases will be false.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Some Number of Things I Learned in College that I Don’t Remember

One of the dumb listicle formats we see all the time on the Internet is “X Things I Learned from Y” – for example, just from the past week:

  • Five Things I Learned from Wearing Man Pants
  • Four Things I Learned from My Catholic Mother
  • 3 Things I Learned from the Government Shutdown
  • 15 Things I Learned from my Nervous Breakdown
  • 15 Things I Learned from Marathoning Pretty Little Liars

You get the idea. Aside from the fact that “X Things I Learned from Y” is a cliché and contemptible for that reason alone, it’s a silly way to frame your knowledge. Why should I care what you learned about anything? I don’t click on these headlines as a rule because:

a) There’s a good chance I already know what you “learned,” since posts like this tend to be full of common sense, or as my friend Seth used to say, “standard shit,” and

b) I have no reason to believe you learned the right things.

If I’m going to read an article about a Pretty Little Liars marathon or some random person’s opinion on the government shutdown, I want some indication from the start that it’s going to be worth my while, that it’s informative or insightful in some way. Like “I Learned How to Seduce Men from a Pretty Little Liars Marathon” – that sounds semi-interesting! Or "The Government Shutdown Proves that Democracy Sucks." My point being, your job as the writer is to look at the four or eight or fifteen things you learned from whatever and then do something with that knowledge – find a theme, make an argument, something.

And now, I will contradict/prove my own advice by showing you some stuff I “learned” in college. These are sentences pulled from a stack of college papers I found in my filing cabinet. I guess I learned this stuff, but I barely remember the context, and it has little to no application in my life.

From a paper on Gottlob Frege’s “On Sense and Reference”:

[Senses] also explain why a statement of the form a=a has a different “cognitive significance” than one of the form a=b, when both are ostensibly claims of identity. Because every name has an associated sense, simply substituting an “equivalent” term into a sentence does not guarantee that we will interpret it in the same way, or even that the true-value will remain the same.

Interestingly I can follow my objections to the Frege paper even though I have no recollection of ever reading the Frege paper; in fact, if you asked me ten minutes ago who Frege was I would have told you that I’d never heard of him. (This was my final paper in my final philosophy class so I must have spent some time on it … GOT AN A, BY THE WAY.)

The following is from a linguistics paper (LING 402, Syntax and Semantics):

It is important to note that whether or not they have an adjective class, languages associate property concepts with either nouns or verbs (or sometimes both). [Sandra] Thompson’s explanation of this involves discourse, or pragmatic usage. In her study of English and Chinese, she found that adjectives and adjectival verbs function mainly as predicates. Their second function is that of introducing new participants. The predicating function is shared with verbs, and the introducing function is shared with nouns.

I don’t know what this means.

Ooh, here’s something that I just learned afresh, from one of my own papers! I’ve often wondered why the hell we should assume that microwave radiation coming from all directions is evidence of the Big Bang. Because, like, couldn’t it just ... be something else? This helps a little:

At the same time, two other physicists were working with the idea that the early universe was extremely bright and hot. They reasoned that, if the universe is expanding, we should be able to see some of this light, since it would only now be reaching us from the very distant parts of the universe. But it would be so greatly red-shifted as to become microwaves, which are of very high frequency. This microwave radiation is the noise that was registering on the detector.

Turns out I already knew that! Incidentally, this was a popular bumper sticker at Rice:

Now for something I really, really don’t remember: a question and answer from my COMP 210 midterm:

Consider the function insert-sort: List-of-Number -> List-of-Number, which takes its unordered input, and returns the same elements in a sorted (non-decreasing) list. For example, (insert-sort (list 8 6 2 4 10)) = (list 2 4 6 8 10). (A) Give two other examples and (B) write the function. (Be sure to follow the template!) 
(insert-sort (list 2 1)) = (list 1 2)
(insert-sort empty) = empty
(define insert-sort
(lambda (lon)
(cond [empty? lon) empty]
[else (insert (first lon) (insert-sort (rest lon)))])))

I HAVE NO IDEA. Pretty sure it's recursive though.

And finally, here’s a study sheet I made for a neuroscience exam:


Friday, October 18, 2013

What I've been reading

Not much fiction lately; I've started a few novels but they didn't hold my interest, not, I'm sure, through any fault of their own. I've been in a poetry/nonfiction mood, and here's what I've been visiting/revisiting:

Increment by Chris Tonelli

Chris is one of my best friends from graduate school; last weekend, I stayed with his family in North Carolina for the weekend, and one cloudy morning, feeling a little slow and stupid and stiff from travel and bad sleep, etc., lounging in the guest room while everyone did their thing,  I read this chapbook in its entirety. What a beautiful little book. I perceive a similar trajectory in Chris's poetry to my own: We both used to be more verbose, more prolific, not just in language but in feeling. Now I think there's evidence of writing as practice, versus writing as necessity. We're older, more settled, more content ... and the poetry now is more distilled, and more a form of philosophy than a series of bursts of emotion, masquerading as objective correlative. (Remember I like philosophy mixed up in my poetry.) These poems are spare, with plenty of white space (they look like this); each contains at least one thought that I find myself dwelling on, or in. Like this one, from "Souvenir": "Like stars, / like futures, new pasts are born. / The spread out / in both directions." Or, from "Murderer": "In the dark, / I am a father. / In the dark, / I am a murderer / not murdering." Jeremiah Gould, of Rye House Press, does the little author portraits on the back; isn't it great?

Culture of One by Alice Notley

This is billed as a "novel in poems," and sure, why not. (I like thinking of a novel as "a novel in paragraphs.") In terms of the characters and setting, this reminds me a little bit of one of my favorite novels, The Quick and the Dead by Joy Williams: basically, WOMEN AND BAD SHIT IN THE DESERT. But I'm just reading it for the poetry, which is not exactly the same as reading it for the poems. Alice Notley is a genius, and Culture of One is a good reminder of how much you can do with a poem that just looks, superficially, like a poem. (See also Ashbery.) There's a kind of schizophrenia in them, a multiplicity of voices and fragmented reality. This is from "Overmodeled Skull":

I'm too bizarre to go to school again. I
want to be scary, that's all. So I can make it down the street. 
Your crotch still has power, with its tremendous frightening
slit—another mask. I don't have to
breathe or dream: not in this black void where I really am. 
I've grown very tall and large, and may not fit into the metro.
Are you battling some demons? Only you my sweet 
god I hate that vapid on exhibit form stuff. 
Scratch your cheeks and face the humorless circumstance
no one's delighted to see you; it's a soft world, full of murders
committed by one for others. I'm not in it—I'm not here.

See how it argues with itself?

The Hidden Reality by Brian Greene

You may know Brian Greene from a NOVA series he did based on his book The Elegant Universe. He's a big string theory guy but this book is basically about how every scientific framework we currently work with, not just string theory, leads to the same inevitable conclusion: There are probably parallel universes. I read pop science strictly to blow my mind and there's a lot of mindblow in here. For example, this passage on page 51:

The speed limit set by light refers solely to the motion of objects through space. But galaxies recede from one another not because they are traveling through space—galaxies don't have jet engines—but rather because space itself is swelling and the galaxies are being dragged along by the overall flow. And the thing is, relativity places no limits on how fast space can swell, so there is no limit on how fast galaxies that are being pushed apart by the swell recede from one another. The rate of recession between any two galaxies can exceed any speed, including the speed of light. 

Whoa! On a related note, there's a good explanation of the speed of light on this page, which I found in a link on a Reddit thread about facts that you accept intellectually but still seem wrong. The page is an "abridgement" of a book called From Science to God by Peter Russell; I find the conclusions semi-abhorrent but it's a fascinating read nonetheless. For example:
Kant argued that space and time are characteristics not of the noumenon, the underlying reality, but of the mind. Quantum theory reveals that the same is true of matter. Matter is not to be found in the underlying reality; atoms turn out to be 99.99999999% empty space, and sub-atomic "particles" dissolve into fuzzy waves. Matter and substance seem, like space and time, to be characteristics of the phenomenon of experience. They are the way in which the mind makes sense of the no-thing-ness of the noumenon.
Next up on my reading pile: Young Tambling by Kate Greenstreet.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Pre-order The Self Unstable

You can now pre-order The Self Unstable directly from Black Ocean, if you so desire. Why would you want to do that, you ask? What does "pre-order" mean? It means this:

  • You'll be among the first to receive the book when it's officially available in early November (just after my birthday!)
  • You'll save about $5 off the cover price and get free shipping

Here's what it will look like, from the front, when it arrives:

As someone commented on Twitter, "it makes your eyes hurt in a good way."

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

On Meaning & Obscurity in Poetry (AKA, Leave John Ashbery Alone!)

It drives me nuts when people trot out John Ashbery as the default example of meaningless obscurantist poetry. Mark Edmundson did it in his idiotic Harper's piece, and I'm not going to bother to list a hundred other examples because I'm sure you've seen it too. The thing is, there is poetry that is essentially meaningless by design, so why use Ashbery as the go-to for poetic gobbledygook when most of his poems are built out of coherent sentences with beautiful Patrician syntax?

Calista (@stuffedowl) just tweeted this poem from a 1977 issue of Poetry, and I had my usual Ashbery experience: reading it several times in awe, wondering why I don't write poems like that, wondering why I bother writing poems at all, etc. First, here's the poem.


Although I mean it, and project the meaning
As hard as I can into its brushed-metal surface,
It cannot, in this deteriorating climate, pick up
Where I leave off. It sees the Japanese text
(About two men making love on a foam-rubber bed)
As among the most massive secretions of the human spirit.
Its part is in the shade, beyond the iron spikes of the fence,
Mixing red with blue. As the day wears on
Those who come to seem reasonable are shouted down
(Why you old goat! Look who's talkin'. Let's see you
Climb off that tower—the waterworks architecture, both stupid and
Grandly humorous at the same time, is a kind of mask for him,
Like a seal's face. Time and the weather
Don't always go hand in hand, as here: sometimes
One is slanted sideways, disappears for a while.
Then later it's forget-me-not time, and rapturous
Clouds appear above the lawn, and the rose tells
The old old story, the pearl of the orient, occluded
And still apt to rise at times).
                                                        A few black smudges
on the outer boulevards, like squashed midges
And the truth becomes a hole, something one has always known,
A heaviness in the trees, and no one can say
Where it comes from, or how long it will stay— 
A randomness, a darkness of one's own. 

Now, some thoughts on meaning and obscurity in poetry.

~ Despite its syntactic rightness, one could fairly say that this isn't an "easy" poem; it begins with an in-medias-res-ness and the "it" of the first sentence has no clear antecedent. If you're Mark Edmundson you're going to pound your fist and stop reading. But you have to read poetry with trust; you have to trust that this interesting opening is going somewhere even though there's a big fat undefined variable in the equation.

~ Obscurity is built into the form of poetry. Turn the obscurity down to zero and a text won't look much like a poem anymore. How much obscurity is too much? That's up to the reader to decide, but here's the reason you can't pit meaning against obscurity: obscurity is where much of poetic meaning happens. Clarity of language is like the resolution of a photograph; more definition leaves less room for interpretation. We experience poetry as art—as something that makes us think, and therefore makes us smarter—in part because the language of poetry does not have perfect clarity. Meaning blooms in the fuzzy parts. This is why people often find poetic meaning and beauty in randomly generated "nonsense," like spam emails.

~ Note all the rhyme and near-rhyme (concentrated toward the end), the attention to line as unit. People who don't read Ashbery must assume he doesn't use these devices, since he's always held up as the exemplar of poetry's descent into formlessness.

~ Another big thing that makes a poem a poem and not something else is the tension between the line and the sentence. "Then later it's forget-me-not time, and rapturous clouds appear above the lawn" is a fine sentence, but before you get to the clouds, you are forced to pause a moment and concentrate your thinking on the partial sentence: "Then later it's forget-me-not time, and rapturous." We don't yet know that the clouds are rapturous, and so we assign the adjective back to "time." In poem-space, "rapturous" does refer back to time, just as much as it refers forward. Ashbery's choice to break the line there makes the referent ambiguous, so it's a blooming moment.

~ Remember the anecdote about the guy who said he liked Ashbery, then was challenged to quote a line? (The implication being, Ashbery lines float out of your head as soon as you're done reading them, as opposed to, say, "They fuck you up, your mum and dad.") The very exercise is whatever, because I can't think of a line from Seamus Heaney, not because he doesn't write memorable lines, but because I don't care about Seamus Heaney. But what's more quotable than "The truth becomes a hole, something one has always known"? And you can't forget the ending, because it rhymes.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Upcoming readings and links

Hello darlings. A lot has been going on. We went to LA and saw more doctors and sunsets, got coffee at the Coffee Bean, ate the tuna tataki salad at M Cafe two days in a row, got fancy drinks at Bouchon with a Twitter friend, etc. I'm making it sound awesome, when it was actually kind of depressing and outrageously expensive. Still, here's the social media version. John pointed out that this walkway at LAX is in a scene from When Harry Met Sally:

John liked his tacos at this place so much he didn't offer me a bite:

We went to the Last Bookstore in the "Historic Core" area of LA:

There was time for happy hour and people watching on Venice Beach before our (delayed) Friday night flight:

Two true things about Beverly Hills: Everyone is EXTREMELY good-looking (you especially notice how well-dressed and -coiffed are the men, since in most places I've been to, men put a lot less effort into their appearance than women), and everyone openly stares at everyone else. As soon as I pointed it out to John, he couldn't stop laughing about it. A couple will sit down next to you in a restaurant and just look at you the whole time, like you're the entertainment. I have a few theories:

  1. People are checking you out to see if you're famous.
  2. People want to be discovered, so they stare at you just in case you are an agent, to be sure you see them.
  3. Most people are wearing sunglasses, which breaks eye contact, so it's easier to stare. (This works even if only one party is wearing them.) 

I think the third one contributes, but it's definitely not just that, because people wear shades in Colorado too, and it's not a staring culture.

Anyway, I have some upcoming readings and other things to share with you:

* This Saturday I am reading in the So & So Series in Raleigh, North Carolina, with Aaron Belz and Kyle McCord. All readings take place at 8 pm at The Morning Times Cafe, 10 E. Hargett St.

* I'll be reading at Counterpath here in Denver on Friday, Nov. 8 at 7 pm and at Innisfree Bookstore in Boulder on Saturday, Nov. 9 at 4 pm, both times with Michele Battiste and Joy Katz. (With any luck, I'll have new books to sell!)

* Boston folks: Catch me reading with Chris Tonelli and Dan Magers at the Brookline Booksmith on Friday, December 13.

* We're early in the planning stages, but I'm also working on setting up a reading and launch party at Berl's in Brooklyn on Saturday, December 14.

And now, LINKS!:

* Kathy and I have a collaborative ekphrastic in the new issue of Better. It's based on this painting:

* I have two poem-koans in The Volta.

* I am going to be doing some guest-writing at my favorite perfume blog, Bois de Jasmin. My first post, on smoky perfumes, went up this morning.

* And just so this post isn't all about me, here are a few poems I loved recently: "One Way of Doing Battle" by Lisa Ciccarello ("Do you think I spent all this time in the bear-dark forest / in the wing-maze in the trap-howl // in the blade-hunt with the animals stringing up their dead // just to name the moon in the name / of my father?"); "I Throw Rocks" by Matt Henriksen ("An ear infection turns into the realization that I do not need a style, only to move and watch the formations of time, of sound, and of color and shape. The light now, in our dark living room, where I type with one exhausted eye on my phone, does not reach through the open door to you and our daughter asleep in the next room. I am no longer sick with fire or bad ideas."); and "When He Is a Woman" by Rebecca Hazelton ("When he is a woman / I feel optimistic, / when he is in a dress that suits / his small frame, when the heels / he walks in puts his round hips to sway, / all these things make the smoke hover / above my scotch / on the rocks.")