Thursday, December 18, 2014

Just a few more links, OK?

* The final installment of How Writers Read is up; you can read the full series here. Thanks to Hayden at the Believer for publishing the interviews, and thanks to Alice, Teju, Darcie, Jordan, Graham, Ruth, John, Ada, Leigh, and Laura for their fun and fascinating responses. I truly think it helped snap me out of my reading funk.

* I contributed to the EAT | READ series over at Everyday Genius, which will be a weekly beat on the forthcoming Real Pants. (More about Real Pants here -- I'll be writing a style column there starting in January.)

* I made a list of some of my favorite literary tweets of the year for Electric Literature.

* Also, check out Okey-Panky, another new magazine that will be featuring some of my Judy poems early next year. It will be weekly and is part of the Electric Lit family.


Image via George on Flickr

Thursday, December 4, 2014

My year in reading and some links

Hi guys! Happy December! Can you believe the year's almost over? I'm still writing 1976 on all my checks....

Anyway, I wanted to share a few links with you. First, I contributed to Open Letters Monthly's annual "Year in Reading" feature, writing about two of my favorite books of the year (that is, books that I read this year; they weren't published in 2014; sorry, I'm a slow reader). I wrote about Two Serious Ladies by Jane Bowles (more on that here) and To Anacreon in Heaven and Other Poems by Graham Foust. Here's a quick excerpt:
It’s so good I don’t want to finish it, and I keep going back to the beginning and starting again, afraid I may have missed some nuance through a moment of inattention. For example, I read the first three sections of the long poem “Ten Notes to the Muse” without having fully absorbed the title; I had to go back to discover the meaning of the “you” in lines like “Comes upon and at me does your gone-tinged promise,” and “You look like no one else; you look like smoke; I look like me.” There’s so much to latch onto in this poem – so many hooks, sounds, images, ideas – I’d love it even if I didn’t understand it as an entry in the tradition of muse poetry. But the poet is also, of course, talking to himself, as he does more explicitly in the poem titled “To Graham Foust on the Morning of his Fortieth Birthday”: 
You and I are one another in the ways the closest whisper might be called a kiss, and here we are – kiss or no kiss, kiss or not – up close and vanished as per standardized desire.
That said I’m both camera and satellite, so let’s cut live now to where it’s night to catch crowds rushing out of various overpriced events converting their initial impressions into speech they can’t be bothered to commit to memory. 
In your sad and American manner, you get as choked up about the collective as you do over the individual. 
When it comes to songs, you’re up and down for them, whether anthem or unfathomable murmur. 
The tone is often wry and the sentences often knotty. At his best, Foust has the ability to bend simple language into something startlingly complex, like the twist that turns a strip of paper into a Mobius band: “I sing as if I’m eating what I’m singing from a knife.”
Honestly, I read very little poetry this year, mostly just the Foust and Culture of One by Alice Notley, both at a snail's pace because I love them so much I want to savor them. When I turned in my piece, I had forgotten that I also read Autobiography of a Face by Lucy Grealy this year, or I would have included that as my favorite nonfiction read; it was beautiful and so intelligent. I am also really enjoying The Chairs Are Where the People Go by Misha Glouberman with Sheila Heti, a book of funny little philosophical essays on topics like compromise, talking to strangers, and how to be better at charades. A few other novels I read in 2014: Faces in the Crowd by Valeria Luiselli (very interesting short novel translated from Spanish; John reviewed it here), The Folded Leaf by William Maxwell, Voyage in the Dark by Jean Rhys (loved it but I think I loved Good Morning, Midnight more), Three Dollars by Elliot Perlman (the longest novel I managed to read this year; very funny and reminded me a lot of Gabriel Roth's novel, The Unknowns, one of my faves from '13). Oh, and 10:04 by Ben Lerner of course (I reviewed it here).

Also, The Believer Logger has been publishing a three-part interview I did called "How Writers Read." I asked 10 writers in different genres (Alice Bolin, Teju Cole, Darcie Dennigan, Jordan Ellenberg, Graham Foust, Ruth Graham, J. Robert Lennon, Ada Limon, Leigh Stein, and Laura van den Berg) 13 questions about their reading habits. In Part 1 I asked the authors if they ever get "reader's block" (which I've been suffering from this year), what genres they read most, and where and when they read. In Part 2 I got the dirt on whether they read YA, genre fiction or other guilty pleasures plus whether they prefer shorter or longer books. Some samples:
3) Where and when do you usually read? In bed? On the train? 
TEJU COLE: Everywhere. How long does it take to pee? Twenty-five seconds? I like to have something in hand even while doing that. (Don’t look at me that way, it’s not such a tricky skill.) 
DARCIE DENNIGAN: At a coffee shop is best. That way, if I’m reading something good, something worth reading, it will be ok—I’ll be safe, there will be people around, my life won’t be totally changed because there’s the world going on right there and I can step back into it. 
5) Do you gravitate toward shorter books or longer books? 
LAURA VAN DEN BERG: Shorter. A lot of my favorite novels—The Lover, The Loser, The Naked Eye—are under 250 pages, if not shorter. There are many long novels I love, but sometimes I have a low threshold for doorstoppers. Especially if the book is really really long and historical and involves some sort of multi-generational family saga, all handled with great loyalty to the conventions of realism; in all likelihood I will never read such a book. I have a horror of boredom. That is entirely my own weird failing and I’m sure I’m missing a lot. I will have to console myself with yet another viewing of Demolition Man.
Finally, thank you to Entropy Mag for including The Self Unstable on its list of the best non-fiction of 2014, even though it technically came out in late 2013.

What were your favorite reads of the year? 

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Elisa Gabbert's salsa recipe

There is a brownie recipe known as "Katharine Hepburn's Brownies." This salsa is my version of Katharine Hepburn's brownies. I have made it for many people and am frequently told "This is my favorite salsa." It's not complicated or especially spicy or anything like that; it's just really good basic, Tex-Mex restaurant style salsa, perfect for eating with chips or beans and rice or breakfast tacos, etc. I make a batch almost every week. (An earlier version of this recipe was published on Carrie Murphy's food blog, but she appears to have taken that down.) So here we go. 

Elisa Gabbert's Salsa 
Half a small onion (roughly)
1 clove of garlic
1 jalapeno OR serrano OR Fresno chile, or a combination of the three
1 handful of cilantro, leaves and small stems
1 small can of fire-roasted tomatoes (plain or with green chiles)
1 handful of grape or cherry tomatoes (optional, but better with)
1 lime
Salt and sugar to taste 
In a food processor (or blender if that's all you have) chop the onion, garlic, chiles, and cilantro pretty finely, but not to a liquefied paste. Then add the tomatoes and pulse until it's all combined and looks like salsa. Transfer the mixture to a pot, add the juice of a lime (or just half a lime, if it's really juicy) and salt and sugar to taste -- start with about half a teaspoon of each. Simmer for 15-20 minutes to take the raw edge off the onion/garlic and bring the flavors together. Delicious warm, but keep the rest in the fridge. It lasts for up to two weeks if you don't finish it first. You can adjust the spiciness level by leaving the seeds/core in your chile or using more than one chile. 

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

5 Reasons to Finish Every Book You Start

1. You’re an idiot. You know nothing about books. You’ve only read comic books or Sweet Valley High up until now. You may think you don’t like real books, like Les Miserables, but if forced to finish one, you’ll realize the true value of literature! You’re not in a position to evaluate the worth of books yet; just finish them and ask questions later.

2. The main reason to read novels is for the plot. You may think you don’t like a book, but there could be a killer plot twist at the end that makes you see the value of the beginning of the novel in retrospect. Also you might miss something incredible. Don’t worry about the incredible stuff you might miss in books you haven’t started. If you haven’t started the book, it doesn’t count.

3. All books have inherent value. Don’t worry about the supposedly better books you could be reading instead (grass is always greener!); whatever book you have recently, arbitrarily started is, in the end, just as good as any other book.

4. Finishing novels teaches strength. You’ll prove to yourself that you can do it. If you don’t finish every novel you start, you have probably never finished a book and are probably also the type to eat all the marshmallows.

5. Whoever wrote the book finished it. It upsets the sense of symmetry in the universe if the writer finished it and the reader does not.

(Inspired by "Finish That Book!" in The Atlantic.)

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Simple brine for chicken and pork

A few weeks ago I went to a friend's house for dinner and she served grilled pork chops, something I would usually expect to be dry and bleh, but they were delicious. She said she had quick-brined them. So recently I've been experimenting with brining. And by "experimenting," I mean doing the most basic possible version of brining. Here's the basic recipe I concocted out of my brain:


1/4 cup brown sugar (ish)
1/4 cup kosher salt (ish)
4-6 cups of water (ish)

Mix all ingredients in a big bowl or Pyrex until dissolved (I just eyeballed them), then pour over meat of choice in a Ziploc bag and refrigerate for 4-8 hours. You could probably add herbs and stuff of your choice, if you had them; I added two bay leaves once but can't discern if it made any difference.

I did this once with a pork tenderloin which was on the "natural" side (i.e. not already injected with all kinds of saline solution) and once with two bone-in, skin-on chicken breasts. In both cases, after removing from the brine, I patted the surface dry, then sprinkled with fresh-ground pepper and an herb mix I happened to have on hand (this stuff, if you're curious), then roasted in the oven until done. (For the chicken, I also topped the skin with a little butter.) In both cases, the meat was extremely juicy and very yummy.

My mind is sort of blown. I've brined turkeys on Thanksgiving before, but that's so involved (mostly due to the size of the bird) it never occurred to me to try brining just any old night. But it's kind of a "game changer." Must be the cheapest, easiest way to get good results from white meat.


Monday, September 15, 2014

Anthologies, readings and contests, oh my

Time to share some new stuff with you!

I have three poems in the new anthology just out from Black Ocean, Privacy Policy: The Anthology of Surveillance Poetics, edited by Andrew Ridker. More details:
Drones, phone taps, NSA leaks, internet tracking—the headlines confirm it—we are living in a state of constant surveillance, and the idea of “the private sphere" is no longer what it used to be. Privacy Policy: The Anthology of Surveillance Poetics responds to this timely and crucial issue through the voices of over fifty contemporary poets, including Robert Pinsky, Jorie Graham, John Ashbery, Rae Armantrout, Nikki Giovanni, and D.A. Powell. Nature, ethics, technology, sex, the internet—no voyeuristic stone goes unturned in this expansive exploration of the individual, information, and how we are watched.
I also have a poem in The Book of Scented Things: 100 Contemporary Poems about Perfume, co-edited by Jehanne Dubrow and Lindsay Lusby. The editors sent each poet a vial of perfume and asked us to write a poem in response. (My poem was inspired by By Kilian Rose Oud.)

For the Denver contingent: I am reading at Leon gallery on Saturday, September 27, along with Joshua Ware and Vanessa Villareal. Leon is located at 1112 E 17th Street in Denver CO, 80218. The reading will begin at 7:00 PM.

And finally, I am serving as the poetry judge for the 1st annual Sundog Lit contest series. More details:
With Issue 8 of Sundog Lit (our first print issue), we will be publishing the winners of the 1st annual Sundog Lit Contest Series, with winners in fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. All entries will be accepted through Submittable between October 1st, 2014, and January 1st, 2015. The winner in each category will receive $100 and two copies of Issue 8. Runners-up will be considered for publication in Issue 8.
That's my news! What's up with you?

Sunday, September 7, 2014

My answers to the Women in Clothes survey

Last year, I responded to an open call for submissions to Women in Clothes, edited by Sheila Heti, Heidi Julavits, and Leanne Shapton, and described by the editors as "not a how-to style guide, but an intimate look at the choices women make when they get dressed and an inquiry into the idea of personal style." The book is now out, and I was bummed to learn none of my responses ended up in the book. So below, for your reading pleasure or displeasure, is my full completed survey.

1. Do you remember the first time you were conscious of what you were wearing? Can you describe this moment and what it was about?

When I was in first grade, my mother was doing my hair, and I was standing in front of her in her bathroom, both of us facing the mirror. My hair was damp and combed back off my face – she was probably about to braid it – and I told her I thought it looked cool. I asked if I could wear it that way. So she put gel in it to preserve the slicked-back “wet look” all day. As soon as I got to school, I regretted this decision. I don’t think anyone made fun of me or even noticed, but I felt very self-conscious about it. Perhaps because of the mirror’s prominence in the memory, I happen to remember what I was wearing that day too, though not very clearly – I’m sure I was wearing a button-front shirt and pants, because the hairstyle combined with the outfit made me feel tomboyish, unfeminine. (I still despise the feeling of being stuck out in the world with regret over my fashion choices.)

2. Is there an item of clothing that you once owned, but no longer own, and still think about or wish you had back? What was it and what happened to it and why do you want it back?

There are so many of these. I can clearly remember many outfits I wore in high school (I once made a detailed list of these outfits for my blog). I would love to have that black butterfly dress from Delia’s – I felt beautiful wearing that – and my dad’s swim trunks that I wore as shorts until they fell apart. I got a pair of moccasins when I was 15 or so that were entirely perfect, incredibly soft and with minimal detail, and I wore them with everything. The soles cracked and they were too cheap to resole. If not for wear and tear they could have been my life shoes. (Many other shoes I have owned have fallen apart before I was tired of them – the black boots with the perfect wedge heel, the pink button flats, the studded, tan leather thongs…) It’s hard to pick a single item – and I don’t know what I’d do with it if I had it. Perhaps a beaded necklace I “made” by taking apart a strand of turquoise and stone beads and threading two souvenir pennies – the kind you get pressed in a machine – into the center. The pennies were from my brother, who got them at the top of the Empire State Building on a band trip to NYC.

3. Do you notice women on the street? If so, what sort of women do you tend to notice? What sort do you tend to admire? If not admire, what is the feeling that a compelling woman on the street gives you?

I do notice women, more so than men. I especially notice younger women, because they seem quite aware of how they look, they either want to be looked at or know they will be anyway, and respond to that. I’m always checking women out. With younger women, I especially admire those whose style is different and more radical than mine – outlandish hair, tattoos and body piercings, overt costuming. With older women, I admire chicness – confidence, comfort and ease, striking details.

4. Did anyone ever say anything to you that made you see yourself differently, on a physical and especially sartorial level?

There was a compliment from a guy in high school – I was wearing thrifted jeans and the aforementioned moccasins – I’m not sure of the wording, but the upshot was basically that my outfit had an I-don’t-care effortlessness that he called “so cool.” I remember this because while I thought that attitude/style was cool, I didn’t realize anyone else agreed.

Later, as a freshman in college, I remember a (male) friend expressing surprise that I was a virgin, saying, “I always thought you had to have sex before you could be sexy.” I think this is the first time anyone called me sexy.

5. Did your parents teach you things about clothing, or about care for your clothing, or about dressing or style? What lessons do you remember? Did they tell you things directly or did you pick things up?

The thing my mother taught me indirectly/implicitly was that quality is important, but you can get quality without venturing into showy, designer-logo territory. She was naturally thrifty, but didn’t like cheap stuff. I ended up inheriting these standards.

6. What is your process getting dressed in the morning?

These days, I rarely get dressed in the morning … I work from home, and I don’t get dressed until I plan to go out. If I know I’ll be going out later, I think intermittently about what I plan to wear throughout the day. Key considerations, in order of importance, include: weather, formality of event, company (anyone I want to impress?), recent purchases and/or obsessions, mood, confidence level. If there’s something I really want to wear (be it a shirt or a piece of jewelry) I’ll start with that and build around it.

7. Did you ever buy a piece of clothing without giving it much thought, only to have it prove much more valuable as time went on, to your surprise? What was the item and what happened?

In high school I once bought a simple gray twill kilt at the Gap. At the time, I had wanted a kilt (that whole schoolgirl trend was going strong), but preferably a plaid one with buckles, etc. This was a compromise. However, it remained in my wardrobe rotation for a good decade. In fact it’s still in my closet, though I never wear it anymore.

8. Did you ever buy an item of clothing or jewellery, certain that it would be meaningful to you, but it wasn’t at all? What was it and what happened?

Once I begged my mother to make me a bright blue corduroy jumper. She spent some time on it and then I only wore it once. I still feel bad about this.

I purchased a black velvet tuxedo vest about two years ago in a thrift store, envisioning it as an all-purpose “third piece” layer. While I often imagine wearing it with various things, it reminds unworn in my closet.

9. When you look at yourself before going out, what voice do you hear in your head and what is it saying? What is it looking at and evaluating?

My primary concern (see first question!) is always whether I’ll regret what I’ve chosen. So questions I ask myself might include: Will I feel over- or underdressed? Will I feel attractive? Will I feel fat? Will I be comfortable? Will this work if it rains or if I have to walk longer than I think? Will my nipples show? Etc. Generally I know myself and my wardrobe well enough to feel confident about my outfit the first time around, but on occasion I do end up changing a couple of times as a safeguard against regret.

10. Are there any clothing (or related) items that you have in multiple? Why do you think you keep buying this thing?

I am generally against buying the same thing in multiple colors, because a) you always end up liking one of them more, and b) you’re not fooling anyone, you can’t just wear them back to back. But I have done this with some basics like t-shirts and jeans if I felt they were truly perfect, and I have often wanted to re-buy shoes only to find they are of course not available anymore. One specific item that is always in my closet (I keep buying different styles/brands) is a black turtleneck. I just think I look good in a black turtleneck.

11. How and when do you shop for clothes? How does money fit into all this?

I buy new clothes far more often than I need to, probably once or twice a month, when I happen to be out and about and pass a store that interests me, and of course sometimes I go out with Intent to Shop. Because I work from home, I have a lot more wardrobe options than I really need, and in the past couple of years, I have often found things in my closet that I completely forgot I bought. But I love the buzz of having new things! On the other hand, I usually buy things on sale, and I don’t shop online very much, so it could be much worse. As far as money goes: I rarely strictly need new clothes, but I don’t feel guilty about this indulgence, because I have the expendable income, it brings me pleasure, and there are many things I don’t spend much money on (cable, vacations, gadgets, etc.).

12. What sorts of things do you do, clothing or make-up or hair-wise, to feel sexy or alluring?

Clothing-wise: I show some skin (arms, collarbone, clavicle, back, legs, not all at once, obvs), or wear very fitted dark jeans with heels, lots of jewelry. The kind of cliché sexy look doesn’t work on me, because I’m skinny with no cleavage, so “sexy” for me is usually pretty subtle. Makeup-wise: I amp up the eye makeup – I’m blond/blue-eyed so my features are naturally fair. (Side note: I love wearing bright lipstick but think of it as more fun than sexy.) Hair-wise: Long and wavy feels sexy, up in a slightly messy bun more fancy/alluring.

13a. (for adults) What sorts of thing do you do, clothing or make-up or hair-wise, to feel professional? How do you conform to or rebel against the dress expectations at your workplace?

My “dos” for work: Always wear makeup (otherwise I feel sloppy/unfinished) and avoid frizzy/messy hair. Always wear a bra (not required outside work). Jewelry helps. Add a jacket or cardigan over a tank top.

My “don’ts” for work: No shorts or baggy/frayed jeans. Nothing too revealing.

My jobs have always been pretty casual/loose on the dress code front so I don’t really have the opportunity to rebel.

14. Do you consider yourself photogenic? When you see yourself in photographs, what do you think?

Can I say I’m photogenic some of the time? I’m a lot more photogenic when I know someone is about to take my picture, if you know what I mean.

I’m always comparing photographs to my mental image, what I see in the mirror. So sometimes, obviously, I think the photo looks a lot worse. Sometimes it seems about the same. Now and then I think the photo is prettier.

As long as they’re not terribly unflattering, I enjoy seeing myself in candid pictures, especially in the background, because it’s a glimpse of what I look like to other people, to strangers.

15. Was there a moment in your life when something “clicked” for you about fashion or dressing or make-up or hair? What was it? Why did it happen then, do you think?

There have been a few of these. As far as fashion goes, I think I was about 25 when I realized it’s almost always worth the effort to try to look good (as in, better than just barely presentable), because it makes me feel more confident while out in the world, and I don’t end up comparing myself unfavorably to other women. Around the same time, I had an epiphany: all fashion is basically a costume. If I like something, but it’s objectively a little silly or ridiculous, who cares? If you look at fashion as costuming, you can do no wrong as long as you’re having fun. I think it happened then because I had gone through a big breakup and was starting a new job, and these felt like opportunities to start over, fashion-wise. [More on fashion as costuming here. Not that the outfit described in the intro includes the gray kilt mentioned in #7.]

Also, I only very recently figured out how, as a blonde, to wear eyeliner. (You have to rub it right into the base of the eyelashes!)

Also, I only recently, in the last couple of years, started wearing lipstick on a regular basis. My life is the better for it; lipstick is fun.

16. Have you stolen, borrowed or adapted any dressing ideas or actual items from strangers, friends or family?

There’s a certain way of rolling up the sleeves on a dress shirt that I stole from J.Crew catalogs.

17. Were you ever given a present of clothing or jewelry that especially touched or disappointed you? Or did you ever give someone a present of clothing or jewelry that they seemed especially touched or disappointed by?

Right after we got married (in a private ceremony with no wedding or rings), my husband’s grandmother sent me an old ring of hers that she used to wear all the time but had gotten too big for her. She didn’t intend it to be a wedding ring – it’s quite casual, a wide, domed silver band, and fits on my pointer finger. But it’s exactly my style, as it happens, and now I’m wearing it all the time. She’s an unconventional lady, like me, and I was touched by the gesture.

18. Do you ever wish you had a different body? What would it look like? Could be male or female, tall or short, curvy or skinny, etc.

I like my body, but there are little things I wouldn’t mind being different – an inch or two taller, a little sleeker here and there. The only time I really wish I had bigger breasts (I’m an A cup, though I was a small B when I was on birth control pills) is when I put on a swim suit.

19. What do you consider very beautiful or very ugly?

Beautiful: Curly hair, as in true ringlets. Very soft, smooth, evenly toned skin. Muscles. Strong jaws. Often, small asymmetries: a crooked tooth or small scar, etc. Distinctions. A widow’s peak. A mole. I love graying hair and eye wrinkles.

Ugly: I don’t like this word, but I often find signs of neglect/disrepair/bad health unattractive – split ends, yellowing nails or teeth, acne, sun-damaged skin, lack of muscle tone, etc.

20. Would you say you “know what you like” in the area of fashion and clothing? Or is there something else in life that you feel very sure about in this way (music, art, friends, home decor)? Where did your discernment comes from – is it instinctual or learned?

Yes, I know what I like in fashion! What’s still hard, though, is only buying what you love; sometimes one buys something mediocre (at Target, say) just for the small thrill of a purchase. I believe 90%+ of taste is learned.


a) How does makeup fit into all this for you?
Makeup and fashion occupy the same space for me: They’re a variable I can manipulate to change how people perceive me, and for the most part that’s a fun game for me. Of course, as a woman, there are certain expectations surrounding my clothing and makeup that at times can feel oppressive – but I actively avoid jobs and settings where that can become a real issue. I don’t dress up or wear makeup around the house (alone or with my husband) – it’s just part of how I engage in the public world.

b) What’s the situation with your hair? I think I have pretty good hair. I can easily straighten it or wear it wavy, depending on my mood. I don’t like to spend money on my hair, for some reason (not the same with makeup or clothes) so I get my hair cut infrequently and never dye it. I enjoy dramatic changes, so I often grow it long and then cut it into a short bob, then let it grow out again.

c) Do you care about lingerie? Not really, probably because of the aforementioned A cups. I insist upon wearing thongs, but not because I think they’re sexy (at all) – it’s because I can’t stand feeling my underwear rub against my clothes, and thongs minimize that, are the closest I can comfortably get to not wearing underwear at all.

d) Please describe your body. I’m medium height, just tall enough to look decently tall in heels. I have a small frame (usually a size 4), not terribly curvy but not boyish either, because my waist is definitely smaller than my hips. I think I have pretty good legs, and a great ass! I would describe myself as being on the muscular side.

e) Please describe your thought process and emotions. Highly logical and cerebral, but I cry easily, go figure.

g) What are some things you need to do to your body or clothes in order to feel presentable? If I gain even a couple of pounds and my clothes feel tight, I get irritable. So I always make sure to wear clothes that don’t feel overly tight. Usually, my outfit doesn’t feel “finished” unless I am wearing at least one piece of jewelry. Shoes are important; finding a pair of shoes that goes with lots of different outfits is a godsend, especially for packing. I always like for something to look slightly undone (what the Italians call sprezzatura) – a bit of cuff sticking out, hair slightly mussed, etc. I also always put on perfume.

f) What are you wearing on your body and face, and how is your hair done, right at this moment? I recently got back from a gallery opening and dinner with friends, but I’ve already changed out of my clothes into lounge/sleep wear: a very thin, soft baseball tee (white with red 3/4 sleeves) and plaid boxer shorts. I’m still wearing makeup: tinted moisturizer, blush, eyeliner, eyeshadow, mascara. I had lipstick on but it came off when I ate a burger. I’m wearing a necklace that I have on all the time lately (through sleep, showers, etc.): a tiny gold ring with a cursive E inscription, one of my first pieces of jewelry, on a gold chain. My hair is down (it’s on the long side now) and has a touch of the bedhead, as I showered last night.


Where were you born and where do you live now? I was born in El Paso, TX and currently live in Denver, CO.

b) Say anything you like about your cultural/ethnic/economic background. I’m white/European, my parents were upper middle class, nothing to see here.

c) What kind of work do you do? I work as a writer and content marketing manager at a software company. I do other, mostly non-paid kinds of writing on the side (poetry, criticism, etc.).

d) Are you single, married, do you have kids, etc.?
I am married with no kids.

e) Please say anything you like about yourself that might put this survey into some sort of context. I found the womeninclothes website through a Chloe Caldwell tweet. I love fashion and beauty on a pure, consumerist basis but I also love thinking about them on a more examined theoretical level. So it’s right up my alley. I’d love to read it whether or not I’m not included in the book, perhaps with an eye toward reviewing.


If you are sending a picture of your mother from before she was a mom, please write a paragraph or two about what you see when you look at that picture. What do you imagine her life was like then? Her emotions/feelings? How does this photo, and her style in this photo, make you feel? 

You can’t see much of my mother’s clothing in this photo, which is perhaps what strikes me about it – there was, as far as I can tell from pictures and oral history, a very small window in which she styled herself as “sexy.” I’ve never seen my mom wear anything revealing in my lifetime. So this photo from the 70s, showing her bare back and arms, is quite poignant to me. She was younger then than I am now, and she would have been more vulnerable, and yet stronger too. But at the same time, she is completely recognizable, she looks just like herself, exactly as she looks now, only filtered through time. She looks so young and yet it’s so difficult for me to see her as anything but my mom, my protector. It strikes me that her style (the simple glasses, the short, clean hair) have hardly changed at all. I hope the same could be said of me, when someone looks back at my photos in 30 years. (I can’t help imagining a daughter doing this, though I have no plans to have one.)

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Live-tweet Point Break with us. It has to be this way

Sommer (@vagtalk) and I have finally planned another movie live-tweet! And it's happening on Sunday, 9/21, at 6 pm Pacific, 9 pm Eastern. If you want to play, go rent or buy Point Break (honestly one of the most ridiculously rewatchable movies of all time; I recently watched it twice in one day), synchronize watches and tweet along with us using hashtag #keanu. (Here's the Facebook invite if you're of that persuasion.)

By the way, so far all the movies we have live-tweeted (2001, The Shining, Dirty Dancing, and now Point Break) have involved either Stanley Kubrick or Patrick Swayze. This was not intentional. The heart wants what it wants.

See you on September 21st! Endless Summer!

Monday, September 1, 2014

Crap you could buy

Consumerism: the great American hobby! The magazine Financial Times has a website called "How to Spend It," which I think is hilarious, because yes, there are people so rich they literally need help finding ways to spend all their money. Anyway, I haven't blogged in a month, or written a poem or anything like that, because I guess August is not a time for deep thoughts. So instead I'll show you some stuff that I've bought lately and recommend, in case you have no idea what to do with your paychecks (because you bought your house and cars and everything in cash, natch).

Let's start with fashion stuff.

Pilcro Superscript High-Rise Jeans

I bought these at Anthropologie when I was in Seattle for a few days this summer (#mozcon). I actually just grabbed them so I'd have something to try on with a top, but I liked them so much I bought them at full price ($128, not bad for jeans these days). They have a little bit of a "mom jeans" vibe so I'm surprised I like them so much, but they're like sexy '70s MILF mom jeans. They're also so, so comfortable, really soft and stretchy, but they don't lose their shape, which is key, because I literally never wash my jeans. And I feel like they make me look very skinny and long-legged, which is also key, because the trend in my 30s is that I tend to be a little chubbier during the summer months, which is backwards and wrong. Now that it's getting cooler I think I'm pretty much back to normal.

Dansko clog sandals

In the spring I picked up this pair of Dansko clog sandals at Nordstrom Rack, and they have been my best footwear purchase in a while. They're so comfortable! I love that the platform gives me a couple of inches in height, but I can still walk around in these all day. I wore them all summer and took them on all my trips, and they should last me another couple of years at least. (I view red as a neutral so yes, I wore these with everything, though I don't particularly like how they look when I'm wearing red.) Again, these are a little bit like mom sandals .. whatever. I'm 34, people, and not for long.

Madewell jewelry

I really like the jewelry at Madewell. It's more basic than the stuff they have at J. Crew and also actually seems to be "made well." Several jewelry items I've purchased from J. Crew have fallen apart after a few wears, but I've been wearing this stuff a lot and it feels pretty indestructible. Also I love this kind of brassy off-gold shade.

Now for some beauty stuff.

Trader Joe's Coconut Body Butter

I am very picky about coconut scents. I love coconut, but it can go wrong easily. Most commonly, it's either too buttery and ends up smelling like old movie theater popcorn, or there's too much vanilla and it's sickly-sweet. This body butter smells awesome (like an ice cream shop somehow) and also feels really rich and nice. I always have two or three of the Body Shop body butters around, but this is much cheaper ($4.99!). Look how luscious! It looks like frosting.

e.l.f. Long-Lasting Lustrous Shadow

I don't know what this shade is called; the container doesn't say, but it's like a bronzey gold. I found this at TJ Maxx, so it must have been like a dollar because e.l.f products are usually only $2.99 to start with. (Aside: I always feel like it's real redundant when someplace like H&M has a sale. I can't be bothered with those sale racks. If it didn't sell at $11.99, that's a sign.) Despite the name, this doesn't work as a base/primer on its own; I need to layer it over a long-lasting base like the Maybelline Color Tattoos or Benefit creaseless shadows. Then you can tap it over the top and it lasts a long time without creasing. Super shimmery and pretty, but not over-the-top glitzy like you can only wear it to the disco and feel appropriate. It has a cool, soft gel-like consistency, similar to the Dream Bouncy blush I mentioned here, still one of my day-to-day favorites. Also, speaking of Color Tattoos, I just bought two of the new matte "leather" shades at Target; one is a really nice taupe-y lavender, one of my favorite eye shadow shades.

Boots No 7 by Poppy King lipstick in History

This is from a collaboration that Poppy King did with Boots exclusively (I think?) for Target. This is one of my all-time favorite red lipsticks, and I recently repurchased after a disastrous parking mishap where John opened my car door and my bag tumbled out onto a sewer grate. I'm lucky that nothing super-valuable like my phone or keys fell down the grate, but I did have to watch like 5 lipsticks fall down there irretrievably (sob!). So far I think this is the only one I've repurchased, because I was afraid it would be discontinued. I haven't even worn it yet, though, because it's more of a fall/winter shade. These have such a nice, creamy formula and are a little sheer. They don't carry this in my store anymore, but you can order it online.

Everyday Coconut salt spray

I just can't bring myself to spend $20 or whatever on the Bumble & Bumble surf spray. It's mostly water and salt, right? And yet, I'm too lazy to make my own. I got this stuff on sale at Whole Foods (I think it was $5.99?) and I really like it. The below (heavily filtered) pic, which demonstrates its wave-ifying properties in action, is from before I cut my hair; now it's back to collarbone length. I kind of liked having it super-long and glamorous for a while, but it also felt semi-unnecessary and at times borderline ridiculous.

Surprisingly I don't really have any other makeup finds to share. I've bought plenty of stuff, but nothing I like better than stuff I already had. Oh wells.

And finally moving on to food.

Cucina Antica ketchup

Holy moly, this is some of the best ketchup I've ever had, and certainly the best packaged ketchup that normal people can actually afford. Homemade ketchup is one of my favorite things, and this really tastes homemade. I stock up when it goes on sale at Whole Foods (for a while it was 2 for $6). Amazing on breakfast potatoes.

Secco "vino frizzante"

A Trader Joe's opened up near us probably six months or so ago but for a while it was way too crowded to actually go. It's calmed way down, and I go every few weeks or so to buy wine and the funny little snacky foods they only sell there. It always makes me feel weird because I used to shop at TJ's in Boston all the time, and all the stuff is the same; it gives me those same kind of sad flashbacks as smelling the perfume that someone you used to know wore. Anyway, they carry this cheap prosecco (like the body butter above, $4.99!) and it's quite delightful and "quaffable." I just bought two bottles to bring to a picnic in the park, along with a liter of orange juice. NB: the boxed wine they carry is also totally decent. I think it's $11.99 and I like the white one more than some $30 boxes we've tried.

Unexpected Cheddar

Another TJ's find. This cheddar reminds me of aged gouda; it has that slightly grainy texture and hints of caramel. This would be great with sliced apples. (Boston people: Have you had the Farmer's Lunch sandwich from City Feed? Cheddar, green apples, grainy mustard, and pickled green tomatoes on a roll. So good.)

How have YOU supported capitalism lately?

Friday, August 1, 2014

Reading and writing (minimal arithmetic)

My review of Ben Lerner's second novel, 10:04, is up in the new Open Letters. Here's how it starts:
As a self-imposed pseudo-challenge, I recently decided to read T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” every day for 30 days. Though I left the tab open in my browser for a month, I failed to complete the challenge. Still, each time I re-read it, I was awed by the way Eliot posits a character and then projects on him a haughty, highbrow diction, creating ironic distance between author and speaker. Thus the poem unfolds like a kind of magic trick: Eliot manages to use “mock poetry voice” to write one of the most moving and beautiful poems in the English language. 
I suspect that Ben Lerner—who wrote three acclaimed books of poetry before his first novel, 2012’s excellent Leaving the Atocha Station—is also an admirer of Eliot. In his second novel, 10:04, Lerner has created a work of autobiographical metafiction that continually finds new ways to refer to itself as writing—“the author” is never quite the author, the narrative is always one or two steps removed. Lerner as author is a master manipulator, immersing you into the flow of a story and then pulling you back up to the surface at will. On the first page he tells us: “I am kidding and I am not kidding.”
I found it to be a fascinating but also frustrating book. For example:
10:04 is repetitive—recursive—by design, but people who are interested in repetition tend (guess what?) to overdo it, and while at first I found it clever when a simile or analogy would show up in both the novel proper and in one of the embedded stories or poems, I eventually grew tired of seeing the same metaphors and turns of phrase (literally verbatim) over and over, almost as though the book were creating its own system of clichés. When something unusual happens, it’s always for “whatever complex of reasons”; the warmth, whether in New York or Texas, is always unseasonable. (You can’t write a work of near-real-time autobiographical metafiction, or NRTAMF, without the undercurrent of global warming.)
Anyway, I hope you'll read the review, and the book! 

I also contributed to this month's "Title Menu" list feature, "10 Great 'Minor' Works by Major Writers" AKA in praise of b-sides. I wrote about U & I, Nicholson Baker's first nonfiction book:
It’s less about John Updike than it is about Baker’s weird obsession with Updike – weird not because Updike isn’t worthy but because Baker takes his fandom to such absurd, neurotic heights, approaching an imaginary rivalry: “Hardly a day has passed over the last thirteen years in which Updike has not occupied at least a thought or two,” he writes, then goes on to list all the Updike books he hasn’t read.
I also read Play It As It Lays, finally, then Alice Bolin on Joan Didion (coincidental timing), then a bunch of Didion essays I had never gotten around too. Then most of Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay (my favorite essay, oddly, had naught to do with feminism; it was the Scrabble essay; who knew Roxane Gay was a competitive Scrabble player?! Not I). (You can read the essay online, but it costs 99 cents.)

What have you been reading? 

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Some Notes on Influence (inspired by Noah Eli Gordon)

I’m just getting around to reading Novel Pictorial Noise by Noah Eli Gordon, which was selected by John Ashbery for the National Poetry Series and published by Harper Perennial in 2007. It’s pretty remarkable. By stacking up big, vague, abstract Latinate terms, he creates complex sentences that appear to be rich with meaning and knowledge, but upon inspection, mean almost nothing, because none of the terms are well-defined. The near-meaninglessness of the prose poems on the recto pages is highlighted by the true meaninglessness of the fragments (erasures?) on the verso pages – each open page looks like this (click the image to enlarge):

As such the poems become pure syntax and vocabulary, sentences for the sake of sentences, with the ideas seemingly just beyond view, obscured by the foliage. For example: “What example doesn’t contain the blooming topography of its own terminology?” Or: “The grand narrative the end of narratives had had had had no grandiose ending.” This is very much how Ashbery’s poetics work. And, as in Ashbery, the fog will break and reveal the occasional moment of crisp truth. (“By definition, actors are interchangeable.” Or: "The world's not weirder than we think, but weirder than we can think.") In fact, reading Novel Pictorial Noise, I feel that I better understand Ashbery.

Here’s one in full, to better see their diagrammatic beauty:

If you see the straight highway before you is permanently closed, then a picture is conjured to fix ambiguity. Although a rope doesn’t ask for its knot, any expression is merely detour dressed with intention, a side road muddied from constant use. Why should a thread understand a carpet? Unimportant that my arrows point anywhere, accidental that an actual wind moves them. As always, this road ends behind us. Why should a machine be anything other than a picture of itself, when meaning and purpose read as vestments of design and one has the burden of officiating doubt on one’s mind?

(The poems usually end on a rhyme, a funny little “yes, this is poetry” flourish that reminds me of Bach.)

Funny story: I learned recently that Noah Eli Gordon has confused me for years with another person, namely a woman that John dated on and off before we met. Once, this woman, who was also blonde but otherwise looks nothing like me, met NEG at the Boston Poetry Festival and told him she was a fan of his work. A few months ago, he recounted this memory to me, and I had to admit he was thinking of someone else.

I wonder if this false memory had any influence on the way he read my poetry. In any case, NEG taught The Self Unstable in his class at UC Boulder last semester, and I visited the class to do a reading and Q&A. We had a few minutes to spare beforehand, so we hung out in his office, and he gave me copies of all his books. He remarked that he thought I’d find Novel Pictorial Noise to be similar in interesting ways to my book. And yes, of course, I do. I’ve remarked before that I often lament I can’t write more like Ashbery, or perhaps it’s just that I don’t; when I sit down to write, Ashbery is not what comes out. But in Novel Pictorial Noise, I see a link between my poetry and Ashbery’s, suggesting we have a common ancestor after all.

I’ve been thinking a lot about influence lately. The only real anxiety in my influence is that I don’t have (m)any influences, at least not intentionally – I’m not good at imitating my “heroes,” and I don’t really believe in heroes, literary or otherwise. People, even heroes, let you down. But who knows how these things work? I was reading a lot of Anne Carson in college and grad school, and would have loved to have someone compare me to her. Nobody did, with good reason. Instead they compared me to Frank O’Hara. Now that I’m not reading Carson, people are saying The Self Unstable reminds them of Short Talks. It’s like the “watched pot never boils” theory of literary influence: only when you’re not trying. 

Friday, July 18, 2014

Sneak peek of Kate Colby's I Mean

Kate Colby's I Mean, forthcoming from Ugly Duckling next year, is going to blow your mind. I love love love this essay called "The Needle," which is about writing and art and monuments and memory and pain; here's an excerpt:
Does some pain mean more than other pain? 
A baby is born and left to die on an open plain. It has a name, but doesn’t know it. 
Pain is a fuzzy gray dot with definite dimensions that can’t be measured, except on a personal scale. Hospital nurses will ask you to rate your pain from one to ten before administering medication. This task is difficult for me. Am I ranking my pain against itself or against all other pain I’ve experienced? I’m fortunate to have only ever been hospitalized during and while recovering from childbirth. Both times I felt the pain of labor and childbirth itself to be very lonely, and I can’t explain why this is. It goes against my desolate sense that if pain has meaning, it has to do with the extent to which it is witnessed. Surely the experience of giving birth to a child is one of the most painful. Surely being born is another. But while mother and child simultaneously, symbiotically suffer and witness, neither knows nor thinks of the other’s pain, and maybe that’s what makes it so lonely—it’s a pain mutually witnessed and mutually unheeded by two entwined people, the physical part of whose attachment is but a taste of the crushing, comprehensive conjoinment to come. 
If witness makes pain mean, so might remembering—memory makes you your own ongoing witness. But one can neither remember the pain of one’s own birth nor call back the pain of childbirth. And while the pain of childbirth is to be dreaded, it does not matter so long as it’s behind you, even if you want it to. Why is it that the memory of one’s own physical suffering is not usually troubling, but the anticipation of future suffering is? And yet, knowing that a loved one has suffered before death is terrible. But knowing that a loved one has suffered and then survived is not very terrible at all. In any case, one is not suffering now. 
An unnamed baby is born and left to die on an open plain. (You little black hole.) (Shut up.)

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Some thoughts on the line in poetry

The importance of the "line break" in poetry is overstated. Yes, enjambment is a powerful tool, but all parts of the line are important. You can't turn any set of words into a great set of lines just by fussing with the breaks.

The beginnings and ends of lines are thresholds. Breaks are like exits, beginnings are entrances. Too many poets put all their focus on the exits.

The ambiguous line break (a break on a polysemous word, such that the meaning is unclear until you raster over to the next line) is one of the most overused tricks in all of poetry. Half the time the ambiguity doesn't even serve the poem; some poets seem to think this is what line breaks are for, to create cliffhangers and confusion.

I remember bringing a poem to a graduate workshop that included the line "stuck in a running-across shape" (poem about a dead squirrel, pretty cool) and someone (multiple someones?) advised me to change "a" to "the" and break on "running," like so:

the spot where it was last
alive, stuck in the running- 
across shape.

This emphasizes the phrase "in the running," creating an ambiguity, like the squirrel is still "in the running," on the side of the living, in the rat race. In retrospect this was terrible advice; what good is ambiguity based on a cliche?

A much more interesting kind of ambiguity through enjambment happens at the level of syntax, as in these Ashbery lines (I typed up the whole poem here; sorry if only seeing the closed end of the parentheses drives you bonkers):

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).

In the linked post above I was talking about the importance of obscurity in poetry, how lack of clarity, even incoherence allows meaning to bloom. Here's what I wrote about the break at "rapturous":
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.

See what I mean? The word itself is not ambiguous, it's not a homonym; the syntax is ambiguous.

There's another use of the line break that I've been interested in recently, where the break signals a sudden shift in voice, often a disagreement as though the poem were an argument with itself. For example, in this stanza from Ben Lerner's Mean Free Path:

A cry goes up for plain language
In identical cities. Zukofsky appears in my dreams
Selling knives. Each exhibit is a failed futurity
A star survived by its own light. Glass anthers
Confuse bees. Is that pornography? Yes, but
But nothing. Come to reference. A mode of undress
Equal to fascism becomes obligatory
In identical cities. Did I say that already? Did I say
The stranglehold of perspective must be shaken off

The break I refer to is "Yes, but / But nothing." In the tiny pause between lines, an about face. The break introduces a conflict. There's a lot of this going on also in Alice Notley's Culture of One. See "Cellulite":

The pretty cell of your womb presents you with the light of Eve Love.
She shoots heroin of course. Everything turns blue
I'm afraid when it wears off I'll want to do it again.

There, in the space between line 2 and line 3, "she" becomes "I." There is no signal of the shift except for the break. (Often in these breaks there is no punctuation, no period or dash as you would see in prose, which only heightens the abruptness of the interruption.) 

Perfect lines make you forget about the notion of the line break entirely. I never think about Wallace Stevens's "line breaks." Reading Stevens, you don't get the impression that he writes sentences and then breaks them into lines, you get the impression that he writes in lines. Or take these lines from "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," one of my favorite stanzas of all time: 

I have seen them riding seaward on the waves
Combing the white hair of the waves blown back
When the wind blows the water white and black.

One can't imagine these lines occurring otherwise. The only response is to lie down before it and play dead.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

State of the union

2013 was an extremely hard year. I spent the first half of 2014 feeling like I'd finally adjusted to the new reality. But suddenly whatever wisdom or peace of mind I had achieved is gone again. It's perhaps not that the struggle in itself is so bad, but that no one I know is struggling in a similar fashion; there's a perceptible struggle gap. They may have their own struggles but they're of an entirely different nature. I feel lonely and somehow cheated, like I arrived at the wrong ending of the Choose Your Own Adventure. Ugh, sorry so maudlin.

Anyway I realized I hadn't blogged yet this month. So I thought I'd check in and tell you what I've been up to.


In May I read Two Serious Ladies by Jane Bowles, which was fantastic, sort of literally in that it's not particularly realistic. The characters are outwardly irrational — their motivations unclear and unexplained — but this is what makes them so compelling, and in any case they seem to be operating under some self-imposed, opaque but internally consistent moral code (which has naught to do with the prevailing moral codes of the setting/s). The dialogue is very funny, but it leaves you shaken. It's somewhat like The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter in that the end is so unsatisfying as to be upsetting — meaning not that it's badly written, but that you hate what happens to the characters, hate watching their lives be ruined, which is like life I guess. (Bowles apparently considered Carson McCullers to be her literary rival, in the sense of a more commercially successful contemporary working in a similar grotesque style.)

Next I'm reading 10:04, Ben Lerner's newest, which reminds me a little of both Taipei and Open City so far. (Got that obligatory global warming reference in the first 20 pages.) See also my notes on Leaving the Atocha Station.


Rewatching the first four seasons of House on Netflix. The best episodes are the two 2-parters, the one where Foreman gets sick and the one where Amber dies.


Lots of salsa verde con aquacate. Here's the recipe:

Ignore that "3 hours" part at the end; it'll keep for a couple days in the fridge. But I usually split the tomatillo mixture into two batches and just make one avocado's worth at a time.

Thinking about

Moving. Our rent is going up pretty steeply when our lease renews, as it has every year since we've been here, and though I'm loathe to invite all the logistical nightmares of moving into my life right now, I want to stick it to these jerks and get out of here. I'm even considering buying, which may be a crazy idea. Is that a crazy idea? I need some stability in my life.

What's going on with you?

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Perfume in translation

John has been raving about this book Black Square by Tadeusz Dabrowski, translated from Polish by Antonia Lloyd-Jones. I am stuck in the middle of a poem I'm trying to write so I opened it up for some ideas. It is very cute; here is a sample poem (most do have titles, but this one is titled by asterisks):

* * *

I carried you unintentionally in my arms from a go-
go club straight into my bed and thoroughly
rubbed you into the bedclothes so now hardly do I awake
fall asleep or dream than without fail 
before my eyes stands a pastel image of quivering
breasts and every single time I feel a delicious
pain as if I don't give a sniff about conscience. I decided
to be done with it and sprayed the bedclothes with a perfume 
that's my mother's; despair came over me when
it turned out to be the very same scent (something
like apple). Ever since, when lying in bed
I feel at the same time both good and bad. 

In the Polish, the last phrase is "i dobry i zly."

Sunday, May 25, 2014

The TV World and the Word TV

Teju Cole has been tweeting a series of photographs and film stills involving TV, plus some lines of poems about television. I just yesterday reread this poem that Kathleen Rooney and I wrote several years ago. There's a pleasant, uncanny effect I get when reading old poems we wrote together; I don't know them as well as I know my own work; it's so easy to imagine they were written by someone else. Anyway, here it is, plus another one using a similar repetitive technique but with the word "recognition" rather than "TV."


Words may not refer to anything, but if they do
they TV the objective world, white noising
over what might've been a nice view. On TV
membership has its privileges. In the library
I try to "get lost" in a "slender volume" but
the volume's too low. Sarcastic & bleak,
TV gets me. Even though TV doesn't know
how to love me. How I want it to watch me.
No one can keep track of my saccades,
but "Vide" can be used to direct a reader's
attention to what's on TV: basically
a forced obliteration of the landscape
w/ TV music. Allowing yourself to be used
is the best way to be used. Shibboleths
issue forth from the muted TV.


I have a fear of getting stuck inside the recognition,
by myself, in the dark, after all the recognitions
are erased from cultural memory. No enclosed space
could contain more coldness or more strange noises.
Someone recognition in the back of the stacks---
and the sound is melancholy. Heartmelting.
I was seeking recognition on information but I found
isolation distills my recognition to its purest form,
a shapeless white. I was scanning the pages
when all the letters dropped off & hit the dusty
recognition, recognitioning down. It's not normal
for the slightest miscue to set me off, but there
in the air, a mote, a recognition. A light shines through,
illuminating my unreadiness. Astounding recognition,
that I could see my own breath.

*Both these poems are from our chapbook Don't ever stay the same; keep changing

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

I have a theory about low-fat diets and portion control

I have this theory about* low-fat diets and portion control. It goes like this: Eating food that's not dense in calories (i.e. low-fat, high-carbohydrate meals) means you need to eat a larger volume to feel full.

Proponents of low-fat diets would present this as a positive: You get to eat more for the same number of calories! The problem is that it resets your concept of what a normal portion is. Your brain is trained to think to you need more food to feel full, so when you do eat calorie-dense meals, you still want larger portions.

This would explain why the French can eat a much more calorie-dense diet than Americans and have much lower incidence of obesity and heart disease. (This is known as the French paradox, but it's only a paradox if you take for granted that fat, in particular saturated fat, is bad for you.) The portions in France are much smaller, so they eat fewer calories overall. Too, in the absence of a warped sense of portion size, more calorie-dense food is more satisfying.

Anecdotally, I think you can reset your sense of portion size by moving to a higher-fat diet (not low-carb per se, but not low-fat either).

*Yes, all my blog posts are going to start with the phrase "I have this theory about..." from now on.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

I have this theory about revision

First, let's talk briefly about conversion rate optimization, or CRO. If you have some kind of transactional website, like an e-commerce site where you sell your small-press poetry books, or a SaaS platform where you try to get people to sign up for a free trial of your software, the page where those transactions happen is called a landing page. And since your success as a business more or less depends on how many people you can get to "convert" on that landing page (i.e., buy the book or sign up for the free trial), businesses usually attempt to optimize their conversion rates through various tests. (Can you see where this is going?)

A lot of the "best practices" and received wisdom around conversion rate optimization have to do with little A/B tests that are basically trying to hack your potential customer's psychology. Some of these tests involve design elements, such as the shape, color, or size of the "Add to Cart" button, or where it is on the page. Others involve copy, like the main heading on the page and "call to action" (the words on the button, like "Start My Free Trial"). Is longer or shorter better? Do exclamation points help? Et cetera, et cetera. The idea is that you can eke a few more conversions out of the same number of visitors with these tricks that make your page more persuasive or frictionless.

Recently, my boss did this webinar with the sensationalist title "Everything You Know About Conversion Rate Optimization Is Wrong." There was a bunch of data and charts and some pictures of unicorns, for some reason, but the basic gist was, stop futzing around with the button color -- you can only make small incremental gains that way, and many of those apparent gains are illusory anyway. If you really want to improve your conversion rate, you need to make radical changes. For example, change the offer: Maybe it's not that people aren't buying that book because of poor landing page design, but because nobody wants that book. You might also need to change the whole flow of your signup process. You can mess around with button color and shape once you know for sure that people actually want what you're peddling.

Everything You Know About Revision Is Wrong

So here's my theory: Revision works the same way. For the same reason that most businesses fail slowly (by focusing on small details instead of big-picture stuff), most writers can't get their work better than a certain level of passable mediocrity because they're "optimizing" the small stuff before they hit on a project that's worth optimizing. They approach revision by thinking about word choice and commas and cuts and line breaks, but those things can only make a poem or a novel or whatever 1-5% better. A radical revision that completely rethinks the scope or the flow or what have you could make it twice as good.

If it sounds like I'm saying "Kill your darlings," I'm not. In fact, I most often approach revision by saving my darlings and killing the rest.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

May links

RIP Russell Edson. One of the great comic poets along with Bill Knott and James Tate (oh god are we about to lose him too)? Here's one of my favorite Edson poems:

Killing the Ape 

They were killing the ape with infinite care; not too much or it runs past dying and is born again. 
Too little delivers a sick old man covered with fur … 
Gently gently out of hell, the ape climbing out of the ape.

Anyway I started this post to share a few links:

I have a bit part in this cool British podcast (episode 15 of CAR) about perfume, along with Alyssa Harad and this beautiful Britney Spears song.

I did a "visual interview" for the Triangle PA (they sent me a disposable camera -- remember those? -- and I went on a scavenger hunt).

Tracy Dimond wrote about The Self Unstable at HTML Giant.

Also, a couple of recent collaborative poems: at The Rumpus and Atticus Review.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

The kitschification of abstract expressionism

Is there a term for the process whereby art that was once avant-garde becomes bourgeois kitsch? I had a minor epiphany yesterday at the Modern Masters show at the Denver Art Museum, an exhibit spanning Western art from Post-Impressionism to Pop Art and focusing on "20th century icons." Walking through the show, I suddenly realized I'm no longer moved at all by Abstract Expressionism, which I used to love.

The disenchantment is twofold: First, most of the Abstract Expressionist paintings have taken on the look of bad hotel art. I think this movement (once so radical!) has been "appreciated" to the point that it's the realm of contemporary hack artists, basically the same thing that happened to Impressionism 40 years or so ago, where the style became a symbol of bland "good taste," so commodified I associate Van Gogh with coffee mugs and mouse pads; not the museum but the museum store. That's what so many of these Abstract Expressionist masterworks look like to me now: calendars.

Second, I despise the rhetoric of the artists from that era. Part of the project of this exhibit was to display quotes from the artists alongside critics' remarks from the time (invariably they quoted conservative critics who hated the work). The artists' quotes were all about feelings, along the lines of "A painting succeeds if you understand how the artist felt." I'm suddenly appalled by this. Who cares how the artist felt? And how simplistic: We don't experience movies or music this way, as a one-time "guess the emotion" puzzle. I don't look at a Kandinsky and say "Sadness. Got it" and move on. (I'm reminded of Mary Karr's claim that the primary purpose of poetry is to "stir emotion," as if most people need help having emotions.) Then there was Rothko's suggestion that people should "weep" before his paintings. Really? This feels cultish to me. Would anyone weep before an orange canvas if we didn't know that Rothko committed suicide?

There should be a term, also, for this effect: you come to hate a type of art or an artist not because of anything inherent in the work itself, but because of its fan base. As with the Eagles or the Grateful Dead or Dave Matthews Band, the fans are arguably more annoying than the music itself. So much iconic art gets ruined through association this way; Dali, for example, has been ruined by the kind of entitled nerds who had Dali posters in the their dorm rooms, somehow always the same guys who loved A Clockwork Orange and wanted you to know they did drugs.

All that aside, it was a really good show. They also had a great, small exhibit of Polish posters for American westerns.

Who knew?

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Tenets of My Feminism

Have you noticed that I'm a militant feminist? I think once a long time ago someone asked me in a comment to outline my definition of feminism or my beliefs about feminism. That sounded like a lot of work. But I'm going to try to do it here, in rough fashion. I'm not going to bother listing out the dead-obvious stuff about feminism that everyone already agrees on. (That is, everyone who is a thinking adult; the average schmo doesn't even know the denotation of the word feminism. In 2011, I talked about the difference between a new usage and a misusage of a word, and why "feminist" is so often misused. Sorry guys, but feminism isn't sexist.)

So here are some of the tenets of my personal feminism:

1. Anyone can be a feminist. There's no required reading list. You don't have to major in women's studies or even go to college.

2. I believe in counterintuitive solutions. Orchestras used to be primarily male. They closed the gap by moving to a blind audition process, not by telling women to play more like men. Be suspicious when the proposed solution to any gender gap problem involves telling women to behave more like men:

  • When the VIDA numbers come out, editors claim they get more submissions and pitches from men, so everyone tells women to submit more. Be suspicious. Maybe men need to submit less. Editors are overworked and underpaid, and most of what they're getting is crap. 
  • What about the pay gap? The standard line is, men get more promotions and raises because they ask for them; there's a confidence gap; women need more self-assurance. Again, the problem is always with women, not men. Maybe men are over-confident? Maybe they ask for too much, and end up hording all the resources? It's also easier for them to take the risk of asking for more, since other men are making most of the decisions. A big part of the problem is that we define success in terms of male characteristics. Men are more aggressive, therefore aggression=good. (Kind of like how humans are the most intelligent species, since we define what "intelligence" is in terms of what we can do.) Question the status quo and the value system. It's not just that women aren't paid enough; it's that men are paid too much. (I'm not talking about your buddy at the next desk; look to the top.)

3. With regard to charges that "feminism is for white women": I don't think feminism is particularly racist. Has feminism, historically, as a movement, excluded women of color? Yes, of course, but this is a general rule, not a particular one. We (people) are racist as a whole and we need to change that. I do not think it's productive to pit feminist activists against race activists as though their goals were mutually exclusive. Let's do both at once. If you see a feminist being racist, call them out, but don't blame it on feminism. Blame it on racism. (Note: I remark on this because I think men can use charges of racism as a way to undermine feminism and derail feminist conversations; it's a form of the "always a bigger problem" fallacy, i.e. racism is more important because it affects men too! Naturally I take these concerns much more seriously when they come from women of color.)

4. That said, being white makes feminism easier. Being attractive makes feminism easier. Being rich makes feminism easier. That's because being white, rich and attractive makes everything easier! Privilege is additive. Being a "hot feminist" is not subversive.

5. To me, feminism isn't about honoring personal choices, i.e. "I'm a woman and I do whatever I want and it's my choice." Feminism is about seeking equality. If you're a woman and you make anti-feminist choices (like, say, editing a magazine and only publishing men), you can't then use "feminism" as the justification for your choices.

I think those are the big ones.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Frank O'Hara Cento

The angriness of the captive is felt,
The apple green chasuble, so
The avalanche drifts to earth through giant air
The best thing in the world         but I better be quick about it
The black ghinkos snarl their way up
The blue plumes drift and
The blueness of the hour
The Cambodian grass is crushed
The cinema is cruel
The clouds ache bleakly
The clouds go soft
The cold  now, the silver tomb, separates
The cow belched and invited me
The distinguished
The eager note on my door said "Call me,
The eagerness of objects to
The eyelid has its storms.
The flies are getting slower now
The flower, the corpse in silhouette
The fluorescent tubing burns like a bobby-soxer's ankles
The forest sprang up around me
The geraniums and rubber plants
The going into winter and the never coming out
The gulls wheeled
The guts that stream out of the needle's eye
The heat rises, it is not the pressure
The hosts of dreams and their impoverished minions
The ice of your imagination lends
The ivy is trembling in the hammock
The leaves are piled thickly on the green tree
The light comes on by itself
The light only reaches halfway across the floor where we lie, your hair
The light presses down
The lily and the albatross form under your lids. Awaken, love, and walk
The little dark haired boy whose black looks
The little roses, the black majestic sails
"The mind is stifled." Very little sky
The night pains inhaling smoke and semen.
The only way to be quiet
The opals hiding in your lids
The pursefishers have flaunted their last
The rain, its tiny pressure
The razzle dazzle maggots are summary
The root         an acceptable connection
The rose, the lily and the dove got withered
The sad thing about life is
The scene is the same,
The sender of this letter is a mailman
The sky flows over Kentucky and Maryland
The spent purpose of a perfectly marvellous
The stars are tighter
The stranded gulch
The strangeness of palaces for a cowboy
The sun, perhaps three of them, one black one red,
The Sun woke me up this morning loud
the sunlight streams through the cold
The trees toss and plunge in a skyblue surf!
The two slept in a dark red armory
The weight must at above.
The wheels are inside me thundering.
The white chocolate jar full of petals
The wrinkled page of the sky swells

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Today is where your book begins. The rest is still well-written?

So, I just realized that I went on two unrelated twitter rants (what my friend Chris calls trolling) in the past 24 hours that both hinged on the term "well-written." The first started with this:
The second started with this:
Let me expound on these a little bit more (oh ha ha ha). The first is an Ezra Pound line that is always getting thrown around in MFA workshops and whatnot, up there with "Kill your darlings" and "Show don't tell." I just saw it somewhere again this week, and it's like when you delete 40 emails from some company before one day you remember you can just unsubscribe. Suddenly I had a deep urge to say WTF: This statement makes no sense! Why do we keep quoting it like it makes sense? The implication is that prose has to meet some bare minimum standard of "good writing," but that's not even true of published prose. "Poetry" and "prose" are just categories, they communicate nothing in themselves about the quality of the writing. People who have quoted this: WHAT DOES IT MEAN?

FWIW, I think that version is a misquotation; this appears to be the correct quote in context (a letter written to Harriet Monroe):
Poetry must be as well written as prose. Its language must be a fine language, departing in no way from speech save by a heightened intensity (i.e. simplicity). There must be no book words, no periphrases, no inversions. It must be as simple as De Maupassant's best prose, and as hard as Stendhal's.
I still don't agree with it, natch; poetry can do whatever the hell it wants to, go ahead and invert your book words.

As for the second rant, I was reacting to a comment I saw on a Roxane Gay essay about shame and self-denial. Obviously I think a lot about standards of beauty so I was interested, and the essay was striking and discomfiting in that it wrestles with how it feels when one's body "does not follow society’s dictates for what a woman’s body should look like":
My body is wildly undisciplined and I deny myself nearly everything I desire. I deny myself the right to space when I am public, trying to fold in on myself, to make my body invisible even though it is, in fact, grandly visible. I deny myself the right to a shared armrest because how dare I impose? I deny myself entry into certain spaces I have deemed inappropriate for a body like mine—most spaces inhabited by other people.

I deny myself bright colors in my clothing choices, sticking to a uniform of denim and dark shirts even though I have a far more diverse wardrobe. I deny myself certain trappings of femininity as if I do not have the right to such expression when my body does not follow society’s dictates for what a woman’s body should look like. I deny myself gentler kinds of affection—to touch or be kindly touched—as if that is a pleasure a body like mine does not deserve.
This makes me feel awful, in part because I hate our sexist, racist, body-shaming culture, but also in part because so many of the things she denies herself are things I allow myself without thinking. Like painting my fingernails (actually something I almost never do, but I engage plenty in the equivalent) or eating on a plane: "My best friend offered me a bag of potato chips to eat on the plane, but I denied myself that. I said, 'People like me don’t get to eat food like that in public,' and it was one of the truest things I’ve ever said." Our own privilege is usually invisible to ourselves, and though I detest our beauty standards, I reap the benefits of meeting many of them every day.

Anyway, complicated feelings. And the first comment under the article was "This is very well-written." And I just did this massive eye-roll. Like ... isn't that totally missing the point? I mean, duh, don't read the comments, but this is part of non-comment discourse too; I've seen praise this bland in book blurbs. This is how I feel:
  • "This is well-written" suggests that the writing is a superficial layer on top of the content, or that the writer had the content and then did the work of translating it into good writing. Maybe so. But if that is the case, I'm much rather read really interesting ideas with so-so writing than "good writing" and boring ideas.
  • In a great piece of writing, the content is the writing, you can't separate it into layers. This is why people say you can't translate poetry, but really you can't translate anything w/ 100% accuracy, you can only approximate the effect in another language. (Not that I'm against translation, we do what we can do.)
Basically, I can't imagine any writer taking this as a compliment. If you're a writer, "well-written" should be your baseline, no? I mean, comedians don't want you to tell them their jokes are well-written, they want you to laugh. Presumably writers are trying to accomplish something other than producing passable examples of writing.

OK, whatever, end of rant. Now I have this song stuck in my head, and you will too!

P.S. Thank you to Ray McDaniel for this review of The Self Unstable. I have admired McDaniel's reviews at the Constant Critic for a long time so this is especially exciting to me. Example sentence: "Gabbert can pack a lot of weird into a very small picnic basket, and the familiarity of her approach – the sort of observational mixture of claim, question, comment and example that often comprises jokes, for instance – conceals, and usefully, some of her genuinely impressive and profitable ambition." Thanks also to Jacob Spears for the recent review in Pank! Example sentence: "In a world turning increasingly to the virtual, the brief prose poems in Elisa Gabbert’s The Self Unstable read like postcards or dispatches from a new frontier in which the map is just as much a part of reality as the territory." Thank you, thank you, thank you.