Monday, June 4, 2012

What I'm Doing- Asking Elvis

I currently have two shrines at my house, one to Elvis, one to Gertrude Stein and Alice Toklas. I use these shrines to show respect, to generate particular kinds of energy/mojo, and to help me think. Do Elvis or Gertrude really channel through my shrines? I think they do and I love having them both. (The next shrine I'm going to build is going to be for Thoreau and it's going to be a Three Sisters garden (corn, beans, squash) like Thoreau built for the newlyweds Nathaniel and Sophia Hawthorne when they moved into the Old Manse in Concord.

Today I lit the Elvis shrine and asked for release from Loserville. (Loserville is the handy term I use when I get on a string of poetic rejections. It can include other rejections as well but the poetic ones are usually the trigger.) Elvis told me "Loserville will let you go when it's done with you darlin'. Until then, keep taking care of business."

Thanks Elvis. I always find comfort in your advice.

Friday, June 1, 2012

What I'm Reading-Alcohol and Poetry

I read for the first time Lewis Hyde's excellent Alcohol and Poetry: John Berryman and the Booze Talking  and loved it for several reasons.

First, I like it as a piece of criticism. I wonder why this sort of plain-talk assessment has fallen out of favor, tumbled into the venue of comical literary columnists, instead of entrenching itself in academia. Its voice is smart and strong without being over the top and elusive. It isn't afraid to make statements (even if I don't love all the statements it makes. The leaking of drunken psychology into poems doesn't always convince me) and it isn't afraid to make big statements. Hyde makes statements about his understanding of alcoholism (don't buy all of those either)- that therapy can't cure it, that AA is the best way, that there is a spiritual component to recovery- and moves from them. I even enjoy that he's willing to identify and use an author to understand Berryman's work. There's some truth to what he says about who Berryman is and what it does to his writing that acknowledges that a real, flawed human being sat down and hashed out those poems in a place and time. Brave. His talk about "spirit-helpers" and the pull to stay with them as a guide instead of forge your own path is as insightful as it may be inaccurate.

Second, I like its voice. As I noted above, Hyde says things. he doesn't equivocate or apologize or hand it off to someone else. And he does it responsibly, unlike talk radio shows, about the only place you hear people put forth explicit world views and statements any more. Talk radio though makes statements to entertain, to amuse, to infuriate. Hyde makes statements to explain and elucidate. I can disagree and read on, momentarily step into the world he builds, even if I know I plan to step out later. Hyde doesn't yell or try to move eyeballs to his blog. He simply states what he understands- jump on and you know you can still jump off at the end, at least having witnessed the scenery. "A good spirit does not just change you, it is an agent of growth."

Third, I like that it takes poetry seriously. Poetry was Berryman's work to do and he didn't do it-  he chose the drink instead. That matters to Hyde- something real was lost, never created, or created askew because Berryman drank and kept on drinking. Even though Hyde begins with the generic link between literature and drinking, it's apparent that it isn't inevitable. No matter what those folks told themselves, they didn't have to get drunk to get to the place where they could write. In fact, getting drunk to get to that place meant they couldn't really come back at least not with everything they could have sober. It is both sad and infuriating that we buy this connection and while not explicit about it, Hyde argues that literature has lost, we have lost because of the decisions these authors made. "An anaesthetic is a poet-killer."

Strangely, it made me want to read both Recovery and The Dream Songs. The first bit of  Recovery  was infuriating and sloppy but I do want to finish the rest. It's refreshing though to see a smart piece of criticism that makes a real argument that is respectful of poetry's power. We need to demand this attitude from media and culture, as well as write poems that deserve the public's attention.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

What I'm Fretting About- Grow It On Up, Boys

The point of this blog is to keep a list of things that I am reading, hearing, watching, seeing, thinking about while I am working on a new manuscript. Mostly I want to be able to go back and see how ideas sprouted and grew throughout the process and you're welcome to peek in as well if you like. I've been keeping a short list to catch up on during the end of the semester, so they'll be more this week.

But this entry is about what's driving me crazy right now, what I feel particularly sensitive to, what I'm noticing to my irritation. And it comes in two separate but related stages.

The first is men who dress like boys. I went to a reading the other night and both men, fully grown with university jobs, wives, children, partners, etc. had on some version of jeans, t-shirts, sneakers, headphones and other children's wear. Now, there's nothing really wrong with jeans and a t-shirt and the occasional pair of sneakers (although I still think those need to be reserved for the gym or other special events) and I have no more love for ties than I do for sneakers.

But what I'm really talking about is dressing like a little boy. Converse/Keds/hipster idiot sneakers. Vintage t-shirts (that the adult might have worn as a boy) of TV shows or bands or toys. Stupid filthy-looking jeans. Why this wears me out is directly related to the second part.

Both these guys read a series of works by other authors, many of which featured emotionally constipated men who ironically commented on everything from a great distance. There was not a real emotion to be found. (The one nice exception to this was a reading from Invisible Man. That's right- the man who could not be seen was the most emotionally present character of the evening.)

So I would like to officially announce I have had it right up to here with the emotionally absent male character- see my entry on Drive. Why have I reached this place? If men feel compelled to remain children who are incapable of recognizing or feeling their feelings, what is it to me? Obviously there are important ramifications for my life- I have a nephew, I have to live in a world primarily shaped by these men, and I truly believe everybody is typically happier when they are somehow aware of what they are feeling and have some healthy way to express that. I even feel bad that so many American men live in a world where that isn't possible for them. And these are all important effects.

But today's topic is how I  hate the effect this attitude has on literature, particularly poetry. I think poetry requires bravery- a poet has to be able to dive into and swim around some messy, messy places and then come back and talk about it. That's the poetry I'm interested in writing and reading. And I don't think all poetry has to do that- ironic, comedic, distanced poetry has a place. But the problem now is it has all the space.

This I blame on MFA programs. Emotionally-retarded boy poetry has somehow become the standard that all poetry is supposed to be- it's chalkablock in lit mags. I'm not saying it should all go away but neither should it be the only kind of poetry that finds a home, is taught, wins prizes, and gets reviewed.

It's even worse because I think the lionization of this kind of poetry is also at the expense of women. Women particularly are mocked and degraded if they don't produce what I've come to think of as 12-year old boy poetry, although there is also that strange arm of whispery, nature poetry that's open to women.

So I've decided to put this at the feet of American men. Men need to start acting like grown men, grown men who feel their real feelings, express them in healthy, respectful ways, and allow others to do the same. That might start with what they wear. If you don't want to live as a boy, don't dress like a boy. Grow up, boys, and drag the world of poetry along with you.

Monday, April 16, 2012

What I'm Watching: The Sound of Insects

I watched this film on streaming Netflix the other day and found it really beautiful. The Sound of Insects is a movie based on a Japanese novel; in turn, that novel is based on a diary of a man who starved himself to death.

The movie is a slow series of images, some atmospheric music, and a narrator reading passages from the diary. The voice alternates between detached, analytical of what it is to starve to death (it doesn't go the way he thought he would) and ruminating and poetic- what it means to live/die, the existance of god, how much a self needs a body.

I found it all beautiful and intense. It left me thinking about a variety of extreme situations- Diana Nyad swimming to Cuba, Tibetan monks immolating themselves in squares, explorers who died trapped by ice. I've just finished putting another round of edits and adjustments on Boyishly (currently called Monstrum but we'll leave Boyishly as the title here right now) and have been wondering what I would write next. I love the idea of starting with these kinds of situations and seeing where that takes me.

The Village Voice called this film the anti-127 Hours and I see their point- calm and muted where Boyle's film is speed and flash. I found Sound of Insects meditative and watchable, a great find off the instant list.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

What I'm Researching- Feral Children

Researching is my favorite part of writing. It doesn't feel the best (like the actual writing or giving a reading does) but it's the most fun, least painful part of the process. Right now I'm reading about feral children. I'm currently working through Feral Children and Clever Animals by Douglas Keith Candland. It's much more philosophical/psychological than I care to be on the topoic but it is a nice summary of some feral children stories and some smart animal stories.

I also read The True Story of Kaspar Hauser by Catherine Lucy Wilhelmina Powlett Cleveland (Duchess of Cleveland). her father kept Hauser before he was killed and she attempts to clear the father's name. I love researching old, strange topics via Google Books- all these great, long lost tomes written in often, radically different times. I got interested in this topic by reading Bram Stoker's (yep, that one) Famous Imposters a collection of tales about people who pass, often as lost members of royal families. I love Stoker and love that he wrote this book. What is everyone in Dracula but an impostor- the fear is not being able to recognize an impostor and believing that s/he is really who he or she claims to be. Sane. Buying real estate. Sitting on a park bench. No one in Dracula is ever really doing what they claim to be doing and everyone is slightly frigthened they will be discovered. Secret loves, agendas, and stories crowd the narrative.

Anyway, feral children are now knocking on the door of Stay and I'm very excited about letting them in. Poking about in old stories, taking notes, and beginning to see what takes shape, what sticks together, what voice starts to emerge is a blast. I wish I could spend more time doing it. So far, I'm interested in the set-up of the children's identities- The (Animal) Boy/Girl of (Location) and am currently stuck on  the idea of The Bear-Girl of Fermanagh, although it was actually a sheep-boy who lived in Ireland and the Bear-Girl was from somewhere in Germany.

I'm not sure who is going to have the voice in the poem. In this manuscript I'm interested in sort of glimpsing the folks with a sidelong glance. Chang/Eng get talked about by a sailor who brings them to the States and then by a woman who spots them at a fair. I'm not sure if the feral child will get that same treatment. I miss having the big voices of people direct like I did in Boyishly, but I'm liking this sideways version of the stories too.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

What I Watched- Drive

This is more of an entry about what I don't want to do. Last night I watched Drive. I would link you to the trailer here, but, honestly, it contains almost all of Gosling's dialogue in the whole movie, as well as any facial expression which is not the frozen mask he wears throughout. (In a nice touch he does wear a mask of someone else's face as part of the plot and it is, smartly, almost impossible to tell it's a mask. This was the most intelligent move in the whole film.)

Mostly though, it's just another film featuring a monosyllabic, emotionally retarded white boy who somehow manages to have a magnetic personality that everyone is attracted to. (He glances at Carey Mulligan in an elevator and she feels compelled to track him down.) I am officially over this character type because there is no other story there. I'm also afraid that it's a source of so much that is repellent about white boy masculinity- the frozeness, the fear of any sort of emotion, the muteness.

I'm currently attracted to works that are big and don't apologize for their emotional core or movement. (I did love Albert Brook's character in the Drive. The scene where he walks into the garage and says "I was so excited about having my name on a car" felt like the best scene in the whole movie. He felt and wasn't ashamed of feeling.) Those are the works I want to write. They feel something and won't apologize for their bigness.

Unrelated to my weariness of what was ultimately an uninteresting (but pretty) movie, was a dislike of its fonts. Is 1980's pink semi-handwriting making a comeback? Let's not.

Part of the buzz for the Ryan Gosling thriller "Drive" is chatter about the movie poster's "flamboyant, pink script."

Monday, January 30, 2012

What I'm Reading- A Moment in the Sun

A Moment in the Sun is John Sayles new, monstorous epic that captures the American  moment of imperialist expansion. Running from 1897-1902, it focuses on the the coup in Wlmington NC, the Yukon gold rush, and  staged U.S. wars in the Philippines and Cuba. It runs 935 pages and alternates between gripping, confusing and blah.

There are few women characters in it and none that are developed- Sayles tells only of  a man's man's world then and the presence of women solely from the sidelines seems a real loss. I think the character of Hod and his story has proven the most compelling so far- his story of entering the gold rush fields in the Yukon starts the book and has the feel of both an old rip-roaring yarn and a modern, psychological short story. I'm less interested in /able to follow clearly the war in the Philippines  (This may not bode well for apparently the war in the Phillippines is also the topic of Sayles's next film, Amigo. On the other hand, I can also imagine that this section would work much better on film. It's confusing because it's hard to track- who is who and where everyone is is important but not easy for me to picture.)

What I love about the novel is the language- each section does has a unique feel and sound (although there is also a monotony at times to all the war speak) and most of the language is rich, exotic, and beautiful. I think too few authors try for big anymore and I appreciate that Sayles has. It's a joy to lose yourself in a novel for an hour and know that you still have hours of story to unfold before you. We mostly get that kind of temporal displacement from TV series now, which may partially explain the popularity of shows like The Wire, Deadwood, Mad Men. There's a great joy from getting outside yourself and living in another place, time, and mind. Perhaps it's Sayles work as a filmmaker and writer that allows for him to imagine this grand a stage. A Moment in the Sun is one of the few new books that, like Ulysses, allows for temporal and psychological displacement in such an extended manner.

What I would like to steal from this book is its bigness and grandiosity. Too few writers go big anymore and I want to bring back the big topic, big line, big book, big ambition. What I admire most is what feels like the accuracy of the language. I know how hard that is in a poem- to tackle it in almost 1000 pages of prose seems amazing. I'm neither a huge fan or hater of Sayles's film work, although The Secret of Roan Inish is one of my favorite films to watch. But I like the way his interest in a variety of mediums talks to each other here. A Moment in the Sun argues for the importance of reading, watching, and listening widely.

Friday, January 27, 2012

What I'm Reading/Watching- Marina Abramovic

I recently read Phaidon's Contemporary Artists book about Marina Abramovic. I saw her MOMA retrospective The Artist Is In and was really moved by it and by her presence in the museum. My favorite video pieces were from the Balkan Erotic Epic. I thought they were smart and beautiful. But mostly I like Abramovic's work because she's so present and open in it.

Last night I watched The Order  from Matthew Barney's Cremaster III. The film itself was beautiful and I bought the argument of Barney working as a sculptor in film and I would absolutely go see more from the series.

However, I also thought the film was hiding behind so many layers of, well everything, mythology, flash, silliness, that it just seemed like an elaborate MFA exercise. There was a documentary about Barney afterwards and I, from the moment he opened his mouth, wanted to punch him in the face. It was an endless pile of language meant to obfuscate anything he wanted to say or the film may have wanted to explore.

All of that obfuscation is fine if that's what you want, but he presented himself and his work as heroic. Anything that may have been in stake in that film or in his interview was safely swaddled in clouds and clouds of academic jargon and bullshit (For example, instead of talking about playing football he alluded to his "athletic practice". Dear Suffering Jesus.) which I think immediately drains all the heroicism out of it. It was just a puzzle or a  trick, one Barney played well, but far from heroic.

I do think Abramovic is and has been heroic. While that heroicism took the blatant form of personal danger for awhile, I think her heroicism now- of being well and truly present and open- is so much more moving. I could have stood upstairs and watched her sitting for hours- it was a beautiful, moving exercise.

What I want to steal from her is that presence, that ability not to hide behind words or images, but to tell a truth and not distance myself from that truth.

Here is Abramovic talking about Balkan Erotic Epic. It has a lot of boobies and penises and masturbation and ground humping so don't watch it is you don't want to see those kinds of things.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Labyrinth- Roberto Bolano

I've been at a loss with what to do with this blog. I think it's a good idea to keep one as part of being a poet, but I haven't cared enough about what I'm writing to take the time to do it.
But I've been interested lately in keeping track of what I'm reading, listening to, watching, and looking at while I'm working on a new book, Stay. And then it dawned on me that those are things easily kept up with by blog, especially with a mobile app to blog by. No one else may care, but this should be a handy list of what input is shaping Stay. First up-
Roberto Bolano's Labyrinth in the Jan 23 2012 The New Yorker. (Doesn't the The make you want to punch them a little?)
I'm a little hot/cold with Bolano but I loved this piece for its concrete origins- a picture of Sollers, Kristeva, & some Tel Quel folk that Bolano runs with. There's thick description, some speculative fiction, a little psychology, all beautifully written. It feels beautiful & insightful instead of pretentious & tricky. The ending feels cheap (Since this is posthumous work I wonder if it was just a placeholder ending. DO NOT PUBLISH UNFINISHED WORK BY ME AFTER I DIE. This is my poetic DNR. Although since no one is batting down the doors to publish me alive, I'm probably safe.) but the rest pulls you along & the structured turnbacks are beautiful. I love the imagination & the joy you feel Bolano had in writing it.
I want to steal its combination of smarts & play. Read it for yourself here