Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Why you shouldn't use a white male pseudonym

The below exchange is between my husbo, John Cotter, and a former student of his, a young Chinese woman whom I've anonymized. She has a common Western first name and a common Chinese surname; let's call her, for the purposes of this post, Judy Li. I thought it was really great advice for a young writer, so I wanted to share it. 

Hi John,

What do you think about pen names? My flash fiction just got accepted for publication for the first time, and I was completely unprepared. I've toyed with the idea of using a pen name in the past, but since I hadn't been published, it was an imaginary dilemma until now.

For me, the main reason I would want to use a pen name is so that the reader wouldn't approach my story with any preconceptions. My name immediately communicates (even if only to the subconscious) a female and Chinese perspective, which I would prefer to leave out of the experience of the story. Do you think the author's name really has a big influence on the reader's experience?

Also, logistically, how would I go about establishing a pen name? Do I make a note of it in my cover letter?

Thanks for your input!




Well the very first thing is that congratulations are in order. You should be proud of yourself. Let me know where it was accepted and when it's coming out and I'll help you spread the word. I'm sure this is the first of many successes.

Secondly, I don't have any problem with pseudonyms at all. They are a great tradition. That said, I don't think you should use one, and for the exact reason that your name is Judy Li. Publishing is changing, very very slowly, but it is changing. An entire organization, VIDA, exists for the purpose of shaming publishers (and they should be shamed) who don't publish a representative number of women in the arts, and they're getting results. Publishers are more conscious of diversity than they've ever been. The review site The Critical Flame (a very smart site) just vowed to review no books by white men for a full year. These are small examples, but there will be more of them. You're really young, but say you were ten years younger, a teenager with a female Chinese name, and you were flipping through literary magazines. Wouldn't you want to see the name Judy Li in the TOC? Don't we all wish in retrospect that George Eliot had published under the name Mary Anne Evans? Also: plenty of white men write convincingly about women and having a white male name doesn't seem to bother their readers all that much.

Thing is, if you're going to change your name, then you're going to be signaling some kind of ethnic & gender identity no matter what you do, just by the fact that people will read into the name you do choose. I'm guessing the kind of name you're thinking of picking is one that will be read as white and male, under the assumption that this is a normative state, a blank canvas, on which the reader won't project a specific identity. But they will project an identity: a white male identity. Do we really need more of those? And isn't the fact that we have so many of them part of the problem? By publishing as Cody Billings (or whatever) you'll be making it all the more likely that the next Judy Li won't want to use her name either. The cycle will continue forever, enabling further bigotry.

It's trickier to publish under the name Judy Li -- there will be readers who come to your pieces with preconceptions and unfortunately some of them will be editors and publishers -- but I think you should accept the burden (and it's not nearly so large a burden as it was only 10 years ago or will be in another 10 years). You'll be helping to redefine the normative (since, as you know, white males aren't the majority) and helping to direct literary culture toward something more readily inclusive and more imaginative.

That said, the choice is yours and not mine. And let's not forget that I'm speaking from a position of privilege -- I'm not in your shoes and don't know how I'd feel if I was (aside from being irked after reading such a long, preachy email). Of course any decision you make will the the right one for you and so, as far as anyone should be concerned, the right one. But you've got my 2 cents now in any case.

As for practical stuff, the best thing is to never tell the publisher your real name (submit as your pseudonym) but, barring that, a simple, smiling mention in your acceptance note that you'd request your work appear under the name XY should do just fine. You'll also need a fake bio note, and sometimes they'll want a picture (that's when it gets a little strange).

Good luck whatever you do and let me know when the piece comes out. And congratulations again!



For what it's worth, this was her reply:

Thanks so much for that thoughtful advice. What you wrote makes a lot of sense. I will publish under Judy Li.

Friday, January 24, 2014

I want people to like my book (but it's OK if you don't)

I like when people like my book*! Especially smart, awesome people. So I was very excited that The Self Unstable was #8 on Coldfront's Top 40 Poetry Books of 2013 feature. Coldfront is one of the best supporters/promoters of contemporary poetry while still offering serious criticism (as opposed to empty rah-rah-ing). A big thank you to John Deming, and to Melinda Wilson for the review:
Gabbert’s unruffled approach allows her to address some of humanity’s greatest anxieties–the possibility, for instance, that “if life has any meaning, it comes at the end.” On page after page, we receive stirring insights that frequently possess the power of aphorism; time and again, the book proves illuminating. These poems awaken our curiosities regarding the human life and its possibility for holding any real purpose. They are philosophical yet pragmatic. They don’t expect too much of the truth; they teach us satisfaction with life’s “continual climbing, with no resolution—just an ever-building terror” because, like the self, the truth is unstable.
The whole feature is great, look no further if you don't know where to start with recent poetry collections.

I was also excited to get a name-check in this super-fun post that listifies every book Roxane Gay read last year. I am under "If You Only Read Three Books of Poetry Read These." ALL BRAG, NO HUMBLE. The post is worth reading for the list titles alone, e.g.:
  • A Book I Read Because I Saw the Movie Preview and Had to Know What Was Going On and Then It Was Terrible.
  • Books I Truly Did Not Care For And Was Kind of Angry At
  • A Book I Appreciated on the Sentence and Conceptual Level That I Wanted More From
  • A Haunting, Excellent Book With a Breathtaking Ending
  • The Fifty Shades of Grey Imitation I Truly Regret Reading That Makes FSOG Look Like a Literary Masterpiece

*Yes, I do, I want you to like my book. I don't care, however, if you agree with it.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Analysis of a "bad" poem

PREFACE: I read a poem I didn't like, and I found myself wanting to talk about it. Then I immediately questioned this instinct, because I worry that I'm predisposed not to like this type of poem, and I hate when people write negative reviews of books that they dislike on sight and refuse to accept on their own terms. And I don't really believe that there are "good poems" and "bad poems"; you can't assess goodness without a framework, and we haven't all agreed upon a framework. But then, on the other hand, I respect and trust critics who talk about what they dislike occasionally, not just what they like, because it gives you a better sense of how they read. And on the third hand, I opened to this poem at random in a literary journal that was sitting on our coffee table (the Fall 2013 issue of Crazyhorse, which I received because a poem I co-wrote appeared in a recent issue); I had never previously heard of the poet. I hope you believe I had no preconceived notions about or agenda against the poet, or the journal.

So, all that said, here's the poem. It's by Danielle Cadena Deulen. (For what it's worth, she has a creative writing job and a couple of books; I wouldn't be doing this if it was the poet's first published poem or something like that; my hope is that a credentialed poet can handle a little pushback.)

The Needle, The Thread

What am I suppose to do with all of this
happiness? The needle that pierced through

then the thread that follows, that seems
immeasurable, but so thin, delicate. I run my fingers

along the healed seams in my skin, the patched
ruptures in the walls of my mind. But now

the storm has washed the pavement, lost water
rises from its unadorned body and the flowering trees

flood the gutters with pink. What am I
supposed to do with the scent of the weeds, the sharp,

impatient greenness of them, split, as I am
with a history of sorrow? When I breathe the sweet

June light, my lungs crackle, my hair stands on end.
What do I do with this swirl of pines, the wasps' nest's

astonishing swell, the rivets in the maple, rough
beneath my hands, and my God, the sky---the sky---

First, I think this poem's opener invites suspicion: "What am I suppose [sic] to do with all of this / happiness?" The typo, yes, irks me, but I'll grant that it's possible this is the fault of the editors and not the poet. In any case, the question amounts to a kind of humblebrag, so the author is setting the reader up for an overturning of expectations: The only way to correct for this abundant windfall of happiness is to allow some darkness to seep in later on, so that's what I expect as a reader.

What I get, instead, is a pretty flat register of emotion: awe all the way through. The poem ends on the same note of shocked appreciation as the first line: "my God, the sky" etc. And what comes in between? There are some hints at a more painful past, leading up to this beauteous moment: "seams in my skin"; "patched / ruptures"; "a history of sorrow." The problem is that these gestures toward pain feel false because they're turned into music. You'll notice that Deulen uses the "X of Y" construction throughout -- "walls of my mind," "scent of the weeds," "greenness of them," "history of sorrow," "swirl of pines" -- to the point that even phrases that don't quite fit the pattern start to feel like part of the tic: "all of this," "seams in my skin," "stands on end," "rivets in the maple." In contemporary poetry, the X of Y move has become a kind of syntactic substitute for real meaning. It sounds poetic, especially when the variables are plugged in with poetic words like "sorrow" and "rivets," but what is actually being accomplished? Is the occasion moving or are you just forcing me to go through the motions of being moved?

My issue with a poem like this is that there's no real tension. The poet is using beautiful language to describe beauty -- it's a five-star review of beauty. But beauty is not underrated; it doesn't need an advocate. The poem oozes sentimentality ("sweet June light"!) and the end is overdramatic. And I like drama! Give me a big Rilkean ending any day. But in a Rilke poem, you get 13 staid lines about a bust of Apollo before the flushed demand of the ending. There's a sense of subtlety, a sense of balance.

I could sort of see this poem having a place in a sequence of poems that demonstrate some tonal variance, but as a poem on its own, I don't think it works. And I guess that is on the editors as much as the author. I see journals publishing stuff like this all the time. It's a fine example of paint-by-numbers "craft"; you've got your assonance and your nice "line breaks." But in the end it's just the poetry equivalent of Oscar bait. Beauty without depth; wafer-thin.

Somehow your selfhood persists

Joshua Ware interviewed me for the "Awful Interview" series at Vouched Books; despite the name, it wasn't awful. We talked about:

  • What the hell is a lyric essay
  • Why koans make good bathroom reading
  • "The great doubt"
  • The paradox of the self
  • Post-humanism
  • Philosophy as bullshit 

...among other things. Here's an excerpt:
You open The Self Unstable with the question: “What is the self?” Then, you offer a concept of the self that aligns itself with constructivist thought: “You wanted a life of cause, but it was all effects”; moments later, you forward a proposition that promotes essentialism: “Luck is a skill, as is beauty, intelligence–all things you’re born with” (3). As both a person and a writer, how do you negotiate these ideas of the self that appear to be in opposition to one another? What are your expectations—or, at least, desires—for a reader when they encounter such a paradox in your writing? 
I remember reading recently that cognitive dissonance is overstated as a phenomenon, that people can hold all kinds of contradictory beliefs and experience no dissonance whatsoever. Certainly I think it’s almost impossible, if not completely impossible, to have a coherent experience of the self, considering that you have to use your selfhood to form that concept – it’s like trying to look at your own eye or taste your own tongue. Here’s another analogy – you know when people take a bunch of different photos of the Eiffel Tower from different angles and then use it to build a collage that depicts the whole tower, because when you’re close to the tower, you can’t get it all in one frame? A book about the self is similar, in that you can’t get a complete picture of it in one view or from one angle. I think that’s part of why it makes sense to label The Self Unstable as an essay – which of course etymologically means “attempt.” This is an attempt to get a grasp on the ungraspable. And I suppose I assume readers will be intimately familiar with the paradox because they are selves themselves.
You can read the whole thing here.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Hell Is [listening to your own] Other People [podcast]

Brad Listi interviewed me for the Other People podcast, which is one of the few podcasts I have actually listened to and enjoyed! (That is to say, I don't listen to a lot of podcasts, not that I think all podcasts blow.) It was fun talking to him, probably too fun because we just shot the shit for an hour and listening to it made me feel like a boring person who says "um" and giggles too much. But if you're into podcasts and/or eavesdropping on other people's conversations, you can listen to it here. Below is a semi-exhaustive list of the topics we touched on:
6:30 Have I purchased marijuana legally yet?
8:40 Why did I leave Boston and move to Denver?
13:12 The importance of "starter friends"
14:10 Why neither of us is on Facebook
17:20 El Paso as exemplar of Border Town
19:48 Violence in Juarez
23:01 The Tarantinozation of violence
24:44 Are my parents literary folk?
26:20 Being a "gifted" kid
27:25 My programmer brother
28:48 Rice University
29:29 What I wanted to be when I grew up
30:13 Linguistic breakdown of the "Swiffer" brand name
31:20 The not-awesome economy of '02
33:50 Was I an academic nerd?
35:14 My diminishing ambition
36:30 Did I go nuts in college and do a bunch of drugs?
37:15 My one B in college
38:08 How coding is like writing a novel
40:10 Anne Carson
41:03 Influences and pretend influences
41:30 Internet as influence
42:50 Twitter as fragment archive
44:00 Appropriation and attribution
45:00 "I vote every day by not having children"
46:30 "Stitching," Google, and Wikipedia
48:40 Is the Internet a primary component of my work?
51:50 Twitter as idea testing ground
52:45 What is an aphorism?
55:55 Input vs. output
57:25 Poetry binges
58:15 Parallel universes
58:29 Consensus
1:02:00 Writing process
1:03:26 Choice vs. accident
1:04:25 Shit-talking the New Yorker
1:05:40 Are you supposed to thank reviewers?
1:07:05 The ethics of writing about friends and acquaintances
Thanks to Brad Listi for having me!

P.S. If you're some kind of stalker or completist, you can also listen to an interview I did with Ian Hill, a student at CU Boulder. We talked less about drugs and more about writing, if you're into that kind of thing.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Beauty and subversion: Can privilege be subversive?

Montevidayo is publishing responses from the women featured in the New York Daily News article. They are interesting and worth reading. But there's a definite sense that the poets are defending themselves against attack (see also here and here), which I find to be an annoying distraction from the real issue. If I critique a representation of a woman in the media, it should be clear (even if I don't explicitly say so, which I did) that I'm critiquing the representation, not the woman herself*. Critiquing sexist male-gaze culture that foregrounds appearance over writing is a way of "supporting women poets."

Specifically, I'd like to address this comment by Monica McClure:
So many images of women in the media do disturb me as much as they mesmerize me, and my poetry tries to air out both sides of that. I cringe at Miley Cyrus’ twisted performance of a manufactured sexuality, the pro-patriarchal garbage spewing from the mouths of Fox News blondes, the ubiquitous battered, raped body of the black woman in 12 Years A Slave, and on and on. 
On the other hand, there’s power in the images of themselves that girls put online, even when they’re highly decorated or their flesh is on display. Does that mean they are in collaboration with the culture that hurts them? Sure they can’t control whether their image will become an affront or a pleasure object, but they’re beating the culture to the punch anyway.
I agree ... but the article in question is not a case of "images of themselves that girls put online." We're not critiquing the women's Tumblrs, we're critiquing a story on a news site. The poets did not create or control those images. So how exactly is it different from the Miley Cyrus performance? In both cases, "agency" seems beside the point when it's an image being broadcast to the masses for the profit of media companies, not the women on display. 

This morning, Drew Gardner linked to an interview with Pussy Riot, which includes this quote:
GQ: Does it bug you as feminists that your global popularity is at least partly based on the fact that you turned out to be, well, easy on the eyes?
Nadya: I humbly hope that our attractiveness performs a subversive function. First of all, because without "us" in balaclavas, jumping all over Red Square with guitars, there is no "us" smiling sweetly in the courtroom. You can't get the latter without the former. Second, because this attractiveness destroys the idiotic stereotype, still extant in Russia, that a feminist is an ugly-ass frustrated harridan. This stereotype is so puke-making that I will deign to be sweet for a little bit in order to destroy it. Though every time I open my mouth, the sweetness goes out the window anyway.
I kind of hate this idea that a privilege (and beauty is a privilege) could be subversive. It may be a stereotype that all feminists are ugly; nonetheless, some feminists are ugly (in the sense that they're not attractive by conventional standards). So take two women who have the same feminist beliefs, one of them "ugly" and one of them "beautiful." We're supposed to believe that the beautiful feminist is somehow more subversive, just because she breaks the stereotype? No, I don't buy it. All her beauty means is that she's relatively lucky, both in terms of genetics and, since what we call beauty is mostly manufactured and a force of effort anyway, probably wealth.

This reminds me of Frederick Seidel, whose own wealth is his main subject. This too is often seen as subversive; Billy Collins, for example, said Seidel "does what every exciting poet must do: avoid writing what everyone thinks of as 'poetry.'" So, if poets are expected to be rich white men writing about nature and feelings, a rich white man writing about being a rich white man is subversive? I guess he gets by on a technicality.

*Even if, for the sake of argument, I were critiquing the women's actions, instead of the culture, I'm tired of this idea that feminism is purely about women's choices, in the sense that whatever women feel like doing is fine. As Sandra Simonds said on Twitter recently, "it's market enforcement in the guise of liberation." Or, as Chris Rock might put it, "Women are supposed to be beautiful." So how is that subversive?

Thursday, January 2, 2014

My beauty discoveries of 2013

This is another BGFG post, sorry. (By girls, for girls.) Inspired by EauMG's list, which was in turn inspired by Gaia's of The Non-Blonde. Here are my favorite beauty product discoveries from the past year.

Chanel Vitalumiere Aqua + Laura Mercier Smooth Finish Foundation Powder

I have dry skin and a shiny nose, and I've never been able to find a single base that worked for all parts of my face. If it's moisturizing enough that it blends easily and doesn't make me look dry and flaky, it's not matte enough on my nose. I've finally found the right combination: the Chanel all over, and the Laura Mercier powder just on my nose. The Chanel stuff is really light and moisturizing, and the powder creates a really matte, poreless finish. (Oddly, having this powder on my nose seems to make my eye makeup and lipstick look better.) If I don't want to do both, I use just the powder on my nose and chin to cover up redness. These products are pricy-ish, but both under $50, and I'd rather spend more on skin and cheap out on eyes and lips. I use the 10 shade in the Chanel and the 04 shade in the powder.

L'Oreal True Match Crayon Concealer

This may be the first concealer I've ever truly liked. Usually they're too dry and cakey for my skin. This one's super easy to use and blend in. Caveat: I use it mostly to cover up little spots on my skin, be they sun or "blemish" related. (I love "blemish" as a euphemism.) I don't really do undereye concealer, so YMMV.

Maybelline Dream Bouncy Blush in Hot Tamale

This is the product that made me realize red is my favorite color for blush, which is totally counterintuitive; you'd think pink or peach shades would be the most natural, but I think my natural blushing shade is closer to red. The weird texture is like a cross between cream and powder. Note that I tried buying a couple of other shades and ended up returning them; they didn't show up well on my skin. Also, looks kind of gross after you use it, as you can see. Visible fingerprints; not crime-safe.

Revlon Just Bitten Kissable Balm Stains

I have like eight of these things.They're easier to apply than lipstick and last longer. My favorite shades are Romantic (red) and Honey (nudish pink) in the original formula (not matte or lacquer), not pictured here because the labels are worn off from use. These are my favorite drugstore version of the Tarte pencils pictured below, which are fabulous but so expensive I have to wait for them to go on sale.

The Tarte ones have a better texture, but they actually don't last as long as the Revlon ones.

e.l.f. Eye Palettes

These are great precisely because they are so cheap, which satisfies my constant consumerist need for novelty. I got the small one for $2 at Target yesterday on Christmas clearance. The formula isn't perfect but it's passable, and the colors are really good.

L'Oreal Lash Out Butterfly Mascara

I usually have eight to ten different mascaras going at a time. I get a lot of sample-sized tubes as gifts with purchase and I usually buy a tube every few months too. This has the kind of slinky inky formula you usually only see in high-end mascaras and a very useful, grabby-at-the-corners brush. See my tips below for application; this one especially benefits from the looking-down method.

The Body Shop Honeymania Body Butter

I always have two or three containers of body butter in my house (again, wait for a sale). This is the first one I've liked that wasn't based on a nut (shea, almond, brazil, etc.). It smells a little like honey, but more like a dessert wine, like Banyuls or Sauternes. Really lovely, and not so strong that you can't wear perfume on top. (See also the Vanilla + Bergamot body butter from Bliss.)

Pure Hyaluronic Serum

I got this tip from Carrie Murphy. I layer it under my face lotion (I've been using the classic Clinique yellow stuff for decades) in the morning. I can't say it makes me "dewy" and I don't think "dewy" is really a possibility for me, but it does make my skin feel plumper. Commercial serums are usually upwards of $50 for a tiny bottle but this stuff you can get for like $10 on Amazon.

Also, three beauty things I finally figured out this year, divorced from specific product recommendations:

  1. Apply mascara while looking down at a mirror. You need to use a tilted mirror (as on a makeup vanity) or a hand mirror that's sitting flat on a table or counter. My mascara looks ten times better when I apply it this way, versus leaning over the sink and looking in a vertical mirror on the wall. Also I get less mascara on my eyelids. 
  2. Tightline top lashes only. "Tightlining" is when you draw eyeliner right at the base of your lashes, almost on the inner rim of your eye. To do this I hold my lid up a bit with my other hand, and come at the lid from underneath the top lashes. This just makes your eyelashes look thicker, versus looking like eyeliner. 
  3. When it comes to tinted face products, buy the palest shade. Obviously this one only works for me. I used to struggle with which shade of foundation or whatever to buy; I'm pretty pale but not ghostly pale and since I have freckles, several different shades can all seem to blend in decently well, especially with in-store lighting. This year I started just getting the lightest shade by default, and it almost always looks better on me than the darker shades. The trick is to match to your neck, not your face (my neck is paler and has fewer freckles than my face).