Monday, March 31, 2014

Upcoming readings

I'm reading a couple of times this week. Come see me!

Thursday, April 3, 7:30 pm
Creative Writing Reading Series at CU Boulder
CU Museum of Natural History, Paleontology Hall
w/ James Wagner

Friday, April 4, 5-8 pm
Lit Crawl @ Mission Creek Festival
Iowa City, Iowa

Writers and publishers from across the country again invade downtown Iowa City businesses for three hours of literary mayhem. [I'll be reading for Black Ocean at Studio 13.]

5:00 - Beadology - cookNscribble and Graze
5:00 - FilmScene - Rescue Press, F, OH & H_NGM_N
5:00 - M.C. Ginsberg - Iowa Review and Red Hen Press
5:00 - NoDo - Hobart and A Strange Object

6:00 - Revival - POETRY MAKE & Canarium
6:00 - White Rabbit - Wag's Revue & HTMLGIANT
6:00 - Dublin Underground - Coffee House Press and Ninth Letter

7:00 - The Foxhead - Curbside Splendor and Artifice Books
7:00 - Studio 13 - Black Ocean and Spork Press

8:00 - Studio 13 - Lit Crawl After Party

The Mission Creek Festival will host 30 literary events in venues throughout downtown Iowa City. These include readings by emerging authors, book prize winners, a publishers’ 20 anniversary celebration, a day-long book fair held in a music venue with free beer samples from New Belgium, a lit/rock show hosted by Nashville’s Third Man Records, and other literary-crossover events in food, film, and more. Participating authors include Rachel Kushner, Brian Evenson, Lindsay Hunter, Molly O’Neill, Jennifer Percy, Kyle Minor, Leslie Jamison, Tim Kinsella, Janaka Stucky, Michelle Wildgen, Bernard Cooper, T. Geronimo Johnson, Bill Hillman, Jamaal May, Jac Jemc, Tom Williams, Daniela Olszewska, Adam Fell, Tarfiah Faizullah, Elisa Gabbert, D. Foy, Rauan Klassnik, Ben Fama, and many more writers from Iowa City, the Midwest, and across the country.

Friday, March 21, 2014

This be the multiverse

(Totally stole that title from Sarang.)

So, I've been having a three-day debate with a Twitter pal (James) about morals in the multiverse. It started with these tweets:
I was actually referring to the gravitational waves detected at BICEP2, which lend support to an inflationary model of the universe, where our universe is just one bubble in a larger multiverse. But this quickly segued into a discussion about the possibility of ethics in a multiverse where every possible universe exists. (There are viable models of reality where this could be the case: one a way of interpreting quantum mechanics, another the result of a truly infinite universe.)

James was/is worried that in such a multiverse, morals would be impossible:
For example, if you see a drowning child, why save it, because in some universe, you don't save it, and it's all the same anyway (or something to that effect.)

This reminds me a lot of the philosophical argument that comes up from time to time in regards to free will, i.e., if there's no free will, how do we punish criminals? This argument drives me bananas! This is basically philosophers thinking "there's no free will" means "criminals don't have free will, but I do."

I think I finally came up with the right metaphor to describe what's wrong with this kind of thinking, and it has to do with levels of accuracy — significant digits, if you will. Basically, moral decisions (any kind of decision, really) happen at the level of our immediate, experienced reality. You might need Newtonian physics to make some of your human decisions, but this isn't a use case where you're going to need to involve quantum mechanics or general relativity. (Unless you're literally a rocket scientist and doing the math on satellite orbits.) You don't need to get down to the level of accuracy of an atomic clock to decide whether or not you're going to save a drowning baby.

When we talk about whether or not we truly have "free will" in the pure sense, or if we're living in some version of a multiverse, we're speculating about a very fine-grained level of the "underlying reality." We're going to an extreme, ultra-high-resolution level of accuracy, way way over to the right in terms of decimal points of accuracy. And the thing is, when you get that accurate, human concepts like "free will" and "morals" just don't exist. We're reduced to probability clouds. So worrying about morals in an infinite multiverse is like worrying about how your complexion looks under an electron microscope.

I see this kind of wrong-headed thinking a lot, so I kind of want to coin a term for it  — something like "The Resolution Fallacy." Anyone know if someone else has already formulated a statement of this kind?

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

And now for a word from my sponsor (me)

Talking to Brad Listi for the Other People Podcast made me a little self-conscious about thanking critics who review your work in a positive light: If you're supposed to ignore your negative reviews, should you just ignore all of them? Well, whatever. I thought this essay, "404: Identity Not Found," in the Critical Flame (which is dedicating a year to writing about women writers and writers of color) by Daniel Pritchard was quite brilliant. Here's a little excerpt:

By placing the first instance in quotations, Gabbert appears to be referencing her own future text (or her own future self). Is the painful memory of the first passage also drawing from the anecdote of the later one? How is pain destabilizing? What about the assertion that “all pleasures are obscene”? The non-linear patterning rewards second and third readings, and it places these fragments into multiple, overlapping, nearly simultaneous contexts. Unlike Maggie Nelson’s wonderful series, Bluets, which Gabbert has cited as an influence, each fragment here does not logically follow the last. Nor is the central focus in Gabbert’s collection as clear as it is in Nelson’s deconstruction of the word / color blue. The Self Unstable does not purport to argue, or make of the themes an edifice. It offers only loose associations, familiar gestures.

I also want to thank Matt Mullins, a North Carolina poet who is teaching my book, for his very smart and interesting thoughts here:

I've called these poems "poems" throughout, but although they're certainly poetic, they're not quite poems either. I've seen reviewers use words like "treatise," "aphorisms," and "koans," (a word Gabbert herself uses in the book's final poem) to refer to the pieces in The Self Unstable. To look at them on the page, you would think "prose poems." But to read them you might think "aphorism" or "haiku without the formal features." They are koan-like in the sense that they do not always follow a clear or logical path at first. Oftentimes the sentences within each poem are less directly connected and more associational, but they do all work toward the idea of the self as a present but unstable entity. So even though I would never call the book a treatise, it does have a bit of the spirit of a treatise. The form of the pieces resonates with the unstable effect they create.

Matt has also been writing his way through The First Four Books of Sampson Starkweather. You can find all of it at his blog, Unstable Euphony.

And thank you to Kathleen Rooney (my friend and collaborator) for including The Self Unstable in this fascinating essay, over at Coldfront, on three recent books that explore poetry and selfhood in a post-Rumsfeld world:

The point of a koan, of course, is that it’s unresolvable and leads to contemplation. An unresolvable poetic utterance does no harm, or does it? Rumsfeld’s utterance is kind of a poan, too, but it’s a policy koan, not a poetry one. Gabbert’s poans retrospectively make Rumsfeld and his ilk’s rhetoric more apparent, and also make evident the gap between the public’s ability to speak of these events and its ability to influence them.

Thank you, also, to Bobby Baird for speaking to me about Bill Knott for this lovely remembrance at the New Yorker:

I knew Knott glancingly, and only on the Internet. We first crossed paths nearly a decade ago, during what now looks like a golden age of poetry blogging, on sites like Harriet, at the Poetry Foundation. Knott liked to linger and heckle in online comment sections, hawking his self-published collections and lamenting his ill treatment at the hands of an all-powerful poetry establishment. To those of us who were young and green enough not to know better, he seemed, at first, like an ordinary Internet crank, the kind who scorns rules of decorum and proper English punctuation. In time, however, it became clear that Knott had a better gift for wordplay, and a wider range of reference, than many of the bloggers on whose posts he commented. He also had an odd penchant for self-deprecation: he insisted, loudly, on his own insignificance, and when someone inevitably informed us who we were dealing with—a poet whose fans include Denis Johnson, Richard Hell, and Mary Karr—the volume of his self-denunciations would only increase. “my poetic career is nugatory,” he wrote once. “no editor will countenance my work; i’ve been forced to self-publish my poetry in vanity volumes; i am persona non grata and universally despised or ridiculed by everyone in the poetry world.” 
As though in thrall to the homonymic force of his last name, Knott seemed to thrive on self-denial. Never mind that he’d published collections with major presses, or that he’d won a Guggenheim and the Iowa Poetry Prize, or that he’d held tenure at Emerson College, where he taught for more than twenty-five years. To hear Knott tell it, none of this mattered.

One final bit of news: I'll be at the Mission Creek Festival in Iowa City April 4, 5, and 6, representing Black Ocean. 

Stay tuned for details on a reading that Friday night. If you're planning to go, or live in Iowa City, let me know!

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Goodnight Bill Knott

Bill Knott, one of my favorite living poets, is no longer living.

Bill Knott was one of my poetry idols, my model of a political poet, critical poet, contrarian poet, anti-establishment poet, anti-poet.

His poems changed my ideas of what poetry is and can be. They really did. I remember sitting in an IKEA chair in my hovel of an overheated Beacon Hill apartment in August of 2002, reading The Quicken Tree and thinking HOLY SHIT! In particular, the potato soup poem blew my mind. It is not a serious poem, and so it is a very serious poem.

He lived his life as performance art. Life as tragicomedy.

Bill Knott led my first workshop in grad school, at Emerson College in Boston, MA. In some ways he was a wonderful teacher. In some ways he was a terrible teacher. Recently I was asked to share the best and worst writing advice I'd ever gotten, and I attributed both to Bill Knott. I remember him making students cry, telling them he didn't understand what they were doing or why or that they weren't real poets. A student told him he was reading Lorca and Bill just shook his head. His sweaters always had holes in them. One day he offered me $5 for one of my poems.

I wish he could have known how much he meant to me. I was afraid to let him know, because he distrusted admiration. His grand act was "I'm unappreciated," but he deflected appreciation.

How does it feel to have The Unsubscriber brought out by Farrar, Straus and Giroux? 
Many sensitive souls in my line of business hold similar views: we actually prefer to work in low-budget independent films -- that's where the challenging roles are, that's where one can really grow as an artist, and that's why we're always appearing in big-studio blockbusters. But honest I TRIED to get Pitt and Iowa and Rat Vomit Review and Dan Halpern's National Poetry Series and all those other places to publish my book. I entered all their annual contests, or all the ones I could afford. But after their rejections, there was no recourse. I had to lower my hopes and eat crow. None of them would publish it, so I was forced to go with FSG.

That's from this Bookslut interview from 2005. Please, please read the whole thing. It's wonderful. So is this interview from Memorious. So is John's recent profile of Bill Knott at the Poetry Foundation. (John took a poetry class with Bill at Emerson as an undergrad; he made him want to be a poet.) (We talked about how much we loved him the night we met.)

I think everyone is still hoping it's a hoax. I hope it is. He's done it once before.

I will add more relevant links as they come to me. Love to my Emerson friends who also loved Bill, and love to my poet friends who are still alive.


Read the obit and four poems at Open Letters Monthly.

Read the memorial at Coldfront.

Read the Emerson story, which includes lovely quotes from colleagues/friends including John Skoyles and Tom Lux.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

I am never unhappy while...

For personal reference, I am never unhappy while:

  • Hiking
  • Reading about theoretical physics
  • Writing a poem (but not necessarily reading poetry)
  • Cooking (but not necessarily eating)
  • Listening to (good) pop music
  • Playing Balderdash
  • Rewatching a favorite movie, the more times I've seen it the better

I think that's the end of the list. Not that other things don't make me happy, they just don't necessarily preclude unhappiness. The key seems to be distraction via a kind of passive, familiar involvement (a song or movie I know well, the rituals of preparing a meal, or the repetitive nature of hiking plus the added benefit of sidescrolling scenery) or intense engagement of the mind, as with physics (mathematically beyond my understanding, of course, but mindblowing anyway) or poetry (brief, elusive flow state). Distraction vs. concentration; one is not better, I need both, but it has to be truly engaging distraction.