Friday, December 27, 2013

Rule of threes

Probably good advice! Especially since I think Goodreads is largely stupid/pointless: This is on record. But I am kind of grimly fascinated by what's transpiring there w/r/t my second book. The French Exit has almost exclusively 4- and 5-star ratings. The Self Unstable is racking up 1's and 2's and 3's.

You'll just have to take my word for it when I say I'm not particularly offended or hurt by these; I don't take random strangers' opinions seriously enough to be. I wouldn't be checking Goodreads at all but my free Mention account (which usually only sends me flattering mentions!) keeps alerting me to these middling to bad reviews. That is sort of annoying, but on balance I find this gives me an odd sense of pride. I have always felt that there's some threshold of "fame" (relative fame, people; it's pretty damn low for poets) that, when you cross, means people are going to start disliking you. So 1-star reviews feel almost like a badge of honor. Some guy has only rated one book, and it was my book, with 1 star? Great! Someone cares enough to send the very worst.


I thought that I had heard all my parents stories, dozens of times each. But stories must be like memories, getting reinforced with every telling, so the old familiar stories are easier to each for and more deeply etched. This year, it's just me and my parents doing the Christmas thing; my one living grandparent is no longer well enough to transport home, John is in Connecticut, my brother is in Austin with his wife and dogs, and my cousins, etc. all had other plans. Over the past couple of days, I was surprised to learn a few things about my parents that had never come up before:

  • My dad is one of the last hold-outs, among internists, that still visits his own patients in the hospital. This is called, in the parlance, "making rounds." Over the years, all the doctors he knows have stopped seeing patients in the hospital and left that to "hospitalists" (a word I never heard before this year). I asked my dad why he still does it; I assumed it was just an "old habits die hard" thing. But nope: It's because he really likes it. He told me that hospital patients are the difficult and therefore more interesting cases, whereas most of his job is just managing long-term stable conditions like hypertension and diabetes, which is boring. And even though hospital life is hard and getting harder (hard because you might get called to go down there in the middle of the night; getting harder because hospitals have moved to electronic records and everything takes longer), it's worth it to him for the challenge. I love knowing this about my dad.
  • At Christmas dinner, fraternities somehow came up. My dad was in a fraternity. I mentioned being glad that there were none at Rice but that I wouldn't have wanted to join a sorority anyway. My dad looked surprised; I don't think he's absorbed the new cultural idea of frats as Douchebag Nation. Anyway, then my mom told me something she'd never mentioned before: For months before my parents met, at the wedding of a mutual friend (a night they refer to as "Some Enchanted Evening"; it was love at first sight), friends had been trying to set them up, but my mom kept saying that she didn't want to date a "frat boy." I love knowing this about my mom.

This blurry selfie is us:

And here's an old picture of my parents I found in an album, from some vacation or other. My parents are so adorable to me!

And as long as I'm at it, here's one of my brother, our two cousins who are about our ages, and me when we were all at our maximally cutest:

I can't stand it!


So, I'm sick. I never get sick in Denver, but last year the same thing happened: Holiday traveling did me in. It sucks to be sick on your vacation, but since I work from home, if I weren't on vacation I'd be sick and working which I guess is worse. And sick/vacating though I am, I feel guilty about not working. America sucks! 

Monday, December 23, 2013

About that New York Daily News piece…

You might have seen me tweeting about the article published last week on New York Daily News, featuring six young women poets from NYC. It’s not the kind of publication I’d expect quality criticism or journalism from, and the text of the article is of course completely vapid. But it’s the photographs of the featured poets that really made me uncomfortable. Three of the photos are quite tasteful, rather nice portraits of the poets. (I especially like the one of Ana Bozicevic, one of my favorite poets.) The other three are tonally way off – sexed up in an almost calendar-girl-ish way. Two of the women are actually reclining on couches in the classic “male gaze” pose familiar from nude paintings. The third is wearing a lace bustier and posing (cheesily) behind a fence. It would be one thing if these were candid photos – capturing the poets “in the wild,” in their street clothes, in the midst of a performance. But they’re clearly planned, posed shots. So it comes off pretty gross.

In conversations I’ve had about the article, I’ve noticed a tendency for people to leap to the defense of both the poets and the photographer, suggesting that a) maybe it wasn’t the photographer’s idea to vamp them up in this way, but someone else at the magazine, blah blah blah and b) aren’t we taking away the women’s agency when we suggest they have been tricked or manipulated? Perhaps the outfits, poses, etc. where their ideas, and why should we “slut-shame” them for just being themselves on camera?

I’m pretty resistant to this line of thinking. Here are some reasons why I don’t think we can apologize this kind of article away:

It’s very late-wave-y to permit any kind of behavior on the grounds that it’s the woman’s own choice, that she has “agency,” and if she wants to be a stripper, more power to her, etc. The problem with this idea is that it’s giving both women and men too much credit. Nobody really has as much agency as we’d like to believe; everyone is deeply influenced by cultural standards and pressures. Just because a woman believes she is acting under her own agency and for her own best interests doesn’t mean she is. People act against their own best interest all the time, especially oppressed people. (See poor people voting Republican.) And even if the poets in the couch poses believed the photographs came out of their own ideas and choices, I call bullshit. Men in powerful positions were influencing and profiting from those decisions. Nearly naked women in sexy poses sell magazines, and the poets didn’t get a cut of that money. You could argue that maybe those photos will sell those women’s books. Well guess what, it sucks to high heaven that women have to show their cleavage to sell books. You’d never see a similar article about hot young male poets from Brooklyn lying shirtless in bed. So even if this does help their careers on some level, it’s still deserving of a cultural critique. We shouldn’t have to do that to get attention.

We had the same conversation at a national scale when Miley “twerked” with bears and stuck out her tongue and humped a Styrofoam finger at the VMA’s. The same argument applies: I’d love to live in a world where that performance was something she drove and owned, but I don’t believe it. She’s being manipulated by an industry controlled by old white men who get all the money. Of course they love it when a young woman with a hot bod wants to twerk on stage, that’s how they make their millions! Sex sells but it’s mostly images of women that sell, and men who profit.

Why this isn’t “slut-shaming”: We’re talking about women’s representation in the media, not their personal choices. Let’s say, for example, that Lisa Marie Bastile showed up to the shoot in a bustier. That doesn’t mean a sexy photo of her in a bustier belongs in this particular article, and putting all the responsibility on her feels like a version of “She was asking for it.” Speaking of, why are women’s clothes so often equated to their sex lives? Notice how men’s sex lives have nothing to do with their wardrobes. And men aren’t considered more or less sexy based purely of square inches of flesh that are showing at any given time. As I said above, I think candid photos would tell a totally different story, a woman living her own life for her own reasons. The photos in this article clearly had art direction (except, perhaps, for the one at the top of Monica McClure, which looks like it could be candid – it still feels pretty random/inappropriate in this context).

We’re all obsessed with beauty and youth, we’re all complicit, of course. It’s not really possible to divorce writing from appearance completely today, if it ever was – not with author photos and author websites and social media and the avatar. Your face and your body are going to get into the mix, they’re going to complicate your reception. How you look makes more of a difference if you’re a woman. And if you’re an attractive woman, it’s probably very difficult to resist the cultural forces that are trying at every turn to sexualize you. Smart, feminist women with their fair share of “agency” occasionally allow themselves to be objectified (which is not the same as women objectifying themselves, which I don’t think is possible; that’s like “reverse racism”). But we have to draw the line somewhere. We should be able to say, yes, she’s beautiful, yes she’s got great tits/legs/whatever, but right now we’re supposed to be talking about her poetry, her intelligence. This is supposed to be an article about writing. Isn’t this the time/place for a portrait that foregrounds the face, the expression, not the body? Susan Sontag and Joan Didion were very beautiful when they were young, but the photos you see of them are never pinup-sexy. In fact they look intimidating, almost mean. Unfortunately, as a woman, you usually have to challenge people to take you seriously. (See Laura van den Berg’s comments on her unsmiling author photo.)

Quick note on age: John pointed out that it’s the poets over 30 who get the “respectful” treatment, even though they’re all young. (True except for Alina Gregorian who is 29.)

Look, women can’t win. I’m not criticizing the women featured in this article. I don’t blame them. I don’t even blame the photographer entirely, though I think the photographer is much more to blame than the poets. (Look at these photos he, Lawrence Schwartzwald, took of a bunch of old dude poets – Ron Silliman, Charles Bernstein et al. The only skin showing is on their faces and hands!) I blame everyone involved in the creation of article (the writer, the editor, the publisher) but even more so the culture that allows this shit to happen and then apologizes for it and diffuses blame to the point that anything is permissible. We deserve better! All publicity is not good publicity.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Trying not to be boring...

and failing. I am weary from travel and work and gift-wrapping. Beauty blogs would have you believe that the holiday season is one non-stop party, with brief pauses during which you can change from one sequined outfit to another and touch up your lip gloss before having another champagne to ward off the hangover. That sounds rather grand, if you have a driver, but I got to my in-laws' in Connecticut on Monday night and then didn't leave the house at all (literally, not even to stand in the driveway or stick my hand out a window) for three days. (I just broke my streak for a quick trip to Target.)

Here's the crappy thing about time: Everything doesn't start over fresh just because the last digit of the calendar year changes. So, yeah, 2013 was not our best year, and some of its badness will probably bleed into 2014. We can't just put the bad year behind us. Alas. One plus side of suffering (aside from all the art): Resolutions seem truly meaningless! So this new year we'll be making wishes instead.

Anyway, I just wanted to share a few quick links with you. The Self Unstable popped up on a few "best of the year" lists this week and this made me feel nice:

  • The New Yorker asked contributors to name their favorite reads of the year. Teju Cole writes: "I found Elisa Gabbert’s The Self Unstable a wonderful surprise. It was the most intelligent and most intriguing thing I’ve read in a while, moving between lyric poetry, aphorism, and memoir, and with thoughts worth stealing on just about every page."
  • In the Poetry Foundation's Staff Picks for 2013, Art Director for Poetry Fred Sasaki writes: "Let the lyric essay here be poetry, and thank you Black Ocean for sending Elisa Gabbert’s The Self Unstable in time for Xmas."
  • And Christopher Higgs includes TSU in his 2013 Holiday Shopping Guide.

Thank you Teju, Fred, and Chris!

One more thing: I reviewed Une Rose Chypree, an amazing perfume, over at Bois de Jasmin. My first draft started with an elaborate metaphor involving accommodation, a concept in linguistics. The idea is that speakers accommodate to their interlocutors' speech patterns, meaning, if you have a conversation with someone who talks faster than you, you will start talking faster. This is especially true when you want that person to like you. I notice myself doing this all the time.

I have terrible posture when I'm sitting down. Bah, I just made a resolution.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Northeast Readings

Hello! If you pre-ordered The Self Unstable it should be arriving any day now. Further, if you live in Boston or New York, you can see me read from it this weekend. First, on Friday the 13th, in Boston at the Brookline Booksmith as part of Black Ocean's BASH series.

These are honestly some of my favorite readers of all time so I'm pretty excited.

The following night, Saturday Dec. 14, I'll be doing a launch party at Berl's Poetry Shop in Brooklyn. More details here. Featuring special guest apperances by Jennifer Olsen, Becca Klaver, Niina Pollari, and Cassandra Gillig.

Come say hi!

Sunday, December 8, 2013

I just figured out what I don't like about short stories

I don't read short stories very often. Of course I've read some great stories in my life but in general, I don't seek them out; I don't buy collections of short stories and I don't flip to them in magazines. And Reader, I only just now figured out what it is about collections of short stories that turn me off. I realized it while reading The Isle of Youth by Laura van den Berg (which is very good); I had just finished one story and was starting another and it hit me: I don't like beginnings and endings in fiction. This is true for novels as well. It generally takes 3 to 4 times as long as it should to get through the first 8 to 10 pages of a novel, given my usual middle-of-the-book reading speed; it's like there's this big activation energy I have to overcome, all these additional resources I have to put into figuring out the characters, setting, tone, what's going on, what's the style, how do I read this, etc. Then you ease into it and it's smooth sailing for at least 150 pages. Unfortunately, I tend to get antsy toward the ends of things. I think it's because I like finishing books; it gives me a sense of accomplishment and means I can start something new. So I rush a little toward the end and miss things; too, I overanalyze them, because writers fret over endings and I'm more likely to question the decisions there and feel like something falls flat or feels false. So there's a certain amount of dread as I approach the last 10-15 pages of the book.

So it seems obvious now, doesn't it? Collections of short stories multiply the beginnings and endings. For me, it's exactly like the choice between a direct flight and one where you have to change planes three times. The take-offs and landings are the most disruptive (and dangerous!) part. This is why I couldn't finish the The Stranger's Child by Alan Hollinghurst, whom I normally love; aside from the bloated, show-offy prose, it's constructed in such a way that you basically start over with a brand-new novella (new characters, setting, story line, etc.) every 80 pages or so – right when I was beginning to feel invested – with no closure on the previous story. This was utterly infuriating. (Still waiting for someone who has finished this book to explain the point of all that to me and why I shouldn't throw it into a fire.)

Nevertheless, for whatever reason, I've been picking up some short fiction lately and liking it. I keep thinking about a story I read a couple of weeks ago, "Teen Culture" by Elizabeth Ellen from the Summer 2012 issue of American Short Fiction. Not a good title IMO, but a great story. Mark Cugini recently asked, repeatedly, for Twitter to explain "alt lit" to him:
Here was my answer:
By these standards, "Teen Culture" is alt lit. But don't let that scare you off. It's in her book Fast Machine.

Another standout: "The Moody Pencil" by Rachel B. Glaser from the second issue of Uncanny Valley (Mike Meginnis and Tracy Bowling's neat magazine). I read half of it before bed one night, put it aside, then finished it like three months later. It begins unassumingly and then does weird, wild stuff with time and reality that made me think of some of the more "out there" fiction by Joy Williams (one of my favorites foreverrr).

And I've been spending my mornings this weekend on the couch under John's old comforter (it's so freezing our heat's not getting the apartment warmer than 62) drinking creamy coffee and reading The Isle of Youth. My favorite so far is "Opa-Locka," which is about two sisters who start a PI firm. I love how LVDB portrays relationships as accidental and in any case temporary configurations of essentially isolated and confused individuals. Also, you should read this great interview she did with The Believer:
LVDB: Do you know what’s been driving me crazy lately? People asking why I’m not smiling in my author’s photo, or knocking the photo because I look imposing and unapproachable, as opposed to “warm.” Do people ask you why you’re not smiling in your author’s photo? Or get requests for a different photo because you don’t look friendly enough? I get different versions of this a lot. As a result, I am pretty well determined to never smile in another photo ever again. 
BLVR: No, I’ve never been asked why I’m not smiling or asked to send a different author photo. I’m a thin, white, heterosexual man.

Monday, December 2, 2013

I hope she smells my perfume

I just discovered this Britney song and I LOVE IT:

So good.

I've been reading Paris novels with lots of smells. I just recently finished Good Morning, Midnight by Jean Rhys. According to Wikipedia, font of all accuracy, "the book initially sold poorly" because "critics thought it well-written, but too depressing." It is very sad indeed, but also very funny. Here's a striking passage that I dog-eared:

The curtains are thin, and when they are drawn the light comes through softly. There are flowers on the windowsill and I can see their shadows on the curtains. The child downstairs is screaming. 
There is a wind, and the flowers on the windowsill, and their shadows on the curtains, are waving. Like swans dipping their beaks in water. Like the incalculable raising its head, uselessly and wildly, for one moment before it sinks down, beaten, into the darkness. Like skulls on long, thin necks. Plunging wildly when the wind blows, to the end of the curtain, which is their nothingness. Distorting themselves as they plunge.  
The musty smell, the bugs, the loneliness, this room, which is part of the street outside — this is all I want from life.

This bit of prose is all I want from poetry!

Thinking it would make good travel reading, I just started "international bestseller" Perfume by Patrick Suskind ("originally published in German as Das Parfum"). It opens with a delightful passage about the overwhelming stink of civilization in the mid-1700's:

In the period of which we speak, there reigned in the cities a stench barely conceivable to us modern men and women. The streets stank of manure, the courtyards of urine, the stairwells stank of moldering wood and rat droppings, the kitchens of spoiled cabbage and mutton fat; the unaired parlors stank of stale dust, the bedrooms of greasy sheets, damp featherbeds, and the pungently sweet aroma of chamber pots. The stench of sulfur rose from the chimneys, the stench of caustic lyes from the tanneries, and from the slaughterhouses came the stench of congealed blood. People stank of sweat and unwashed clothes; from their mouths came the stench of rotting teeth, from their bellies that of onions, and from their bodies, if they were no longer very young, came the stench of rancid cheese and sour milk and tumorous disease. The rivers stank, the marketplaces stank, the churches stank, it stank beneath the bridges and in the palaces. The peasant stank as did the priest, the apprentice as did his master's wife, the whole of the aristocracy stank, even the king himself stank, stank like a rank lion, and the queen like an old goat, summer and winter. For in the eighteenth century there was nothing to hinder bacteria busy at decomposition, and so there was no human activity, either constructive or destructive, no manifestation of germinating or decaying life that was not accompanied by stench.

Have you read or smelled anything interesting lately?