Friday, October 31, 2008

Happy Halloween!

Nice little montage of poets' graves by the Academy today.

(Of course, some of us prefer to go au naturel.)

Here's a little tribute to one of nature's creepiest.


My name is Charon.
I am the ferryman
across this black river
to the land of the dead.

My name is Charon.
Someone must dine
on the flesh of the gone.
Their lives flow in my bald brain
after they are nothing but bones.

You can’t take it with you,
but I can. Many complain
about my breath,
but I don’t get mints.
I stay alive by eating death.

My name is Charon.
My beak is the oar,
my stomach the boat.
Please leave your bags at the gate.
The only luggage I take is carrion.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Maybe We'll Have Dust Tupperware, Instead

While driving into D.C. today to check out some of the new exhibits at the American Art Museum and National Portrait Gallery (which, most excellently for a rainy pisser of a day, are located in the same building in Penn Quarter), I heard an excellent Freudian slip on NPR. Discussing the collapse of Wall Street and the coming D.C.-based economic summit to discuss it, the reporter noted that "the crisis will be held in Washington."

Indeed it will.

And in (gulp) barely more than a week, we'll know who's going to be holding it. Whether it's Obama/Biden or The Exoskeleton Formerly Known as John McCain and the Gleeful Moose-Killer, they're going to have a hell of a job ahead of them.

Last week Forbes reported that seniors are selling off previously purchased cemetery space in order to nab a little cash. Forget that sweet little space in Forest Lawn; sell it now to pay for your medications. When you die, just have your next of kin stick you in a Hefty bag and drop you in the nearest 7/11 dumpster.

Every time I hear news about the economy, visions of Cormac McCarthy's The Road dance in my head. For those unfamiliar with the plot of McCarthy's Pulitzer winner, here's an extract from Wikipedia's summary:

Civilization has been destroyed, and most species have become extinct. What happened outside of North America is left unexplained. Humanity consists largely of bands of cannibals, their captives, and refugees who scavenge for canned food. Ash covers the surface of the earth; in the atmosphere, it obscures the sun and moon, and the two travelers breathe through improvised masks.

Good times!

I'm not sure I could say that visiting the gallery cheered me, exactly, but the American Art Gallery contains some amazing works created during the Great Depression, some under the auspices of the WPA. There's a stunning mural by Thomas Hart Benton, and Alexander Hogue's Dust Bowl (above) could have served as the cover for McCarthy's novel. Hopefully we won't be seeing similar images on the cover of U.S. News and World Report any time soon.

Get tips on surviving the apocalypse to come here. Enjoy them while you can; it's hard to access hilarious online videos from the back of a boxcar.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Instant Memorials and the Problem of Fodder

Get ready: It's nearly Halloween, and as soon as that night of rotten eggs and toilet papering is over, the real scare begins: marketing for the holidays kicks into full gear, with retailers eager to encourage us to buy, buy, buy in the name of Jesus. Your family will be inflicted upon you. You will be inflicted on them. Out will come cameras for endless shots of decorating, pie-making, present-wrapping, and Uncle Steve passed out in the eggnog.

I make joke, of course. I don't even have an Uncle Steve (though if I did, I'd want him to be like this guy.)

But the approach of the holidays has had me thinking about a lost ritual: the development of family photographs. Once upon a time, you had to wait weeks to see the pictures you took on vacation or during family visits. You mailed them off and got them weeks later; viewing them felt like you were looking over a historical event. Then, I think while I was in elementary school, came the advent of the express photo shop, where you could get your pictures in an hour or so.

Now, there's no delay at all. I can't remember the last time someone handed me a stack of photographs. Instead, it's all digital: you click, and instantly you can see the results. What's more, you DO see the results; I can think of many recent occasions when as soon as photos had been taken, the camera was passed around so that everyone could see the images. I looked at the pictures, some of which included me, and like everyone else I giggled and groaned—and felt somehow nostalgic for a moment that had occurred only seconds before.

What is that? Does looking at images of yourself enjoying a moment remove you from the moment you're enjoying? Never before have events taken so little time to be memorialized— which is a different process than remembering, and sometimes an oppositional one.

The effect of digital cameras reminds me of the poetic process, if such it can be called: When something interesting occurs or some emotional moment transpires in my life or I witness/ eavesdrop on a conversation, I often think within seconds, "This will make a good poem" or "I'm going to put that in a short story." How many pieces of my life have I missed thinking about how to convey them in words?

Do you do this? Is it healthy—or is health beside the point? Maybe once you start writing, you can't help vampiring big chunks of your existence. Maybe you should only worry once you actually start avoiding life in order to write; supposedly, Rainer Maria Rilke skipped his daughter's wedding because he was thought a poem might come. (If I'd been his kid, I would have been pretty pissed about this. "Hey Dad. I hear you were waiting for a poem. You know where your poem was? At our wedding with everyone else, you prick.")

Anyway, I've been reading Brenda Shaughnessy's Human Dark With Sugar this week. Lots of really striking lines and startling turns of phrase in the book, but the one below struck me as pretty damn funny. I laughed out loud, in fact. (And then started thinking, "This would make a good blog entry.")

A Poet's Poem

If it takes me all day,
I will get the word freshened out of this poem.

I put it in the first line, then moved it to the second,
and now it won't come out.

It's stuck. I'm so frustrated,
so I went out to my little porch all covered in snow.

and watched the icicles drip, as I smoked
a cigarette.

Finally I reached up and broke a big, clear spike
off the roof with my bare hand.

And used it to write a word in the snow.
I wrote the word snow.

I can't stand myself.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

A Dish Best Served with a $5.99 Sticker

While I was in grad school, an editor from a major publishing house came to visit our writing program. His visit was greeted with much excitement by those of us scribbling away at novels and short story collections; we were invited to submit a sample of work that he would read before meeting with each of us.

While we feigned nonchalance, I'm sure each of us secretly hoped to be Discovered by this editor, a writer in his own right whose first novel had been highly praised by critics and whose career seemed poised to scale the heights. Knowing he was unlikely to read everything I sent, I struggled to decide which story to place first in my batch. I chose an atypical piece: it was more frothy and “chick-lit”ish than what I generally wrote—but it had moved a few readers to tears, and had scenes I’d continued to find funny months after writing them.

When we met, it was immediately clear that I had chosen the wrong story. “How old are you?” he asked. I admitted that I was 23. “Good,” he said. “This first story is obviously the work of a very young writer. If you had been older, I would have tried to discourage you from continuing. But you obviously have some years to grow.”

Bummer. But while I felt a bit patronized (and cursed myself for putting that story first), I figured, hey—could’ve been worse.

It wasn’t until a friend told me about his own meeting that I was truly put off. My friend was working on a novel about sharecroppers; it was taut and lean and beautifully written, with real depth and scope and a strange, cut-down prose that served the story well. When he met with the editor, the man praised the writing but told him it was derivative, had already been done by Faulkner, and would never sell.

“If you want to see a Southern novel that doesn’t repeat what’s already been done before, one that’s truly original,” he said without irony, “read my book.”


Soon after grad school, my story, “The Colonization of Helena Capezi,” ended up in Iron Horse Literary Review. I was ecstatic (more so than usual, even) for it to find a home, and later to get calls from an editor and an agent wanting to read more work.

But that visiting editor was right: The damn thing practically has ringlets.

Nonetheless, since then, I’ve seen his first and second novels stacked in the bargain section of at least a dozen bookstores. I’m not gloating—I was 23, after all, and with the perspective of years, I think he was generous. But every time I see his books, I think about him telling my friend to read his own novel as an example (the only example—no suggestions to read Barry Hannah, Tim Gautreaux, Lee Smith, James Lee Burke, Dorothy Allison) of how to do Southern fiction right. And I think about Clive James’ most hilarious poem, which David Orr quoted in a review of James' new selected poems a few Sundays back.

Blessed are those humble in success, for they shall never remind anyone of this poem.

The Book of my Enemy Has Been Remaindered

By Clive James

The book of my enemy has been remaindered
And I am pleased.
In vast quantities it has been remaindered
Like a van-load of counterfeit that has been seized
And sits in piles in a police warehouse,
My enemy's much-prized effort sits in piles
In the kind of bookshop where remaindering occurs.
Great, square stacks of rejected books and, between them, aisles
One passes down reflecting on life's vanities,
Pausing to remember all those thoughtful reviews
Lavished to no avail upon one's enemy's book—
For behold, here is that book
Among these ranks and banks of duds,
These ponderous and seemingly irreducible cairns
Of complete stiffs.

The book of my enemy has been remaindered
And I rejoice.
It has gone with bowed head like a defeated legion
Beneath the yoke.
What avail him now his awards and prizes,
The praise expended upon his meticulous technique,
His individual new voice?
Knocked into the middle of next week
His brainchild now consorts with the bad buys
The sinker, clinkers, dogs and dregs,
The Edsels of the world of moveable type,
The bummers that no amount of hype could shift,
The unbudgeable turkeys.

Yea, his slim volume with its understated wrapper
Bathes in the blare of the brightly jacketed Hitler's War Machine,
His unmistakably individual new voice
Shares the same scrapyard with a forlorn skyscraper
Of The Kung-Fu Cookbook,
His honesty, proclaimed by himself and believed by others,
His renowned abhorrence of all posturing and pretense,
Is there with Pertwee's Promenades and Pierrots—
One Hundred Years of Seaside Entertainment,
And (oh, this above all) his sensibility,
His sensibility and its hair-like filaments,
His delicate, quivering sensibility is now as one
With Barbara Windsor's Book of Boobs,
A volume graced by the descriptive rubric
"My boobs will give everyone hours of fun."

Soon now a book of mine could be remaindered also,
Though not to the monumental extent
In which the chastisement of remaindering has been meted out
To the book of my enemy,
Since in the case of my own book it will be due
To a miscalculated print run, a marketing error—
Nothing to do with merit.
But just supposing that such an event should hold
Some slight element of sadness, it will be offset
By the memory of this sweet moment.
Chill the champagne and polish the crystal goblets!
The book of my enemy has been remaindered
And I am glad.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

The Bits of Stuff That Let Art Happen

A while ago, I wanted to write a poem about someone working in a pen factory, putting the tiny little caps onto pens that would be used to sign contracts, endorse checks, and write poems.

Behind any kind of art that now exists—even one as insubstantial as poetry often seems—there is a pile of materials that must exist in order for the art to be made. Someone must mix the colors for paints, creating the precise balance of pigment and chemical that makes a paint burnt umber rather than sienna or rust. Someone must run the machines that press out keys for the keyboards upon which novels and poems are written. Someone must mine the kaolin that's refined into porcelain clay. Yet how many of the people who produce the materials that allow art to exist have the money to possess the final “product”—or the free time to appreciate it?

The gap between those producing the raw materials and those creating the final artworks has long interested me. It’s more elaborate, too, than just producer/artist—for a shade of paint, there’s a mine where the pigment is obtained, then the pigment is refined, then the paint is created and sold. How wide is the economic and cultural gap between the laborer who pulled the ore from the earth and the artist who uses it as one shade on a canvas?

Most people in my zip code can afford to buy a book of poetry, but some the next zip code over would find even that purchase difficult to squeeze into a budget. I'm lucky enough to be able to buy a book now and then, but most visual art is beyond reach. Choosing to buy a painting I love would mean not paying our gas bill, and so I prioritize. But the fact of that choice is a sad one.

Tolstoy said something like, “To say that a work of art is good, but incomprehensible to the majority of men is the same as saying some kind of food is very good but that most people can’t eat it.” I think about both sides of that idea frequently; my husband works as a food writer, and we sometimes find ourselves noshing delicious things during press events at restaurants we can’t afford or would have to save months to eat at.

I never got around to writing the pen poem, but this weekend my husband mentioned a job he had after high school that captured another iteration of the exact image I’d been considering: he worked in a plant that made pads for saxophones, stamping out tiny bits of felt all day.

What a tedious, mind-numbing, menial job—without which no one would have ever known the names of John Coltrane, Charlie Parker, Lester Young …

** This draft passed out hearing Kenny G. **

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Poetry and Politics: Strange Bedfellows?

Great event at the Folger Shakespeare Library this past Monday: Terrance Hayes, Nick Flynn, Eileen Myles, and Edwin Torres reading in support of a new collection, State of the Union: 50 Political Poems.

I’d heard Flynn read part of his poem “Fire” on the Academy of American Poets Poetcast a while ago and found it stunning (little did I know that the podcast contained only about half of the whole poem; apparently the Academy didn’t want listeners to hear the c-bomb dropped in its hallowed recordings. Flynn apparently didn’t know this either; when I asked him about it Monday he said he hadn’t heard the Poetcast of his piece and didn’t know that it had run censored). The whole of it appeared in Tin House’s issue on the subject of evil a while back; it’s an amazing piece of work that's utterly chilling and humanizing of both captives and captors at Gitmo and Abu Ghraib.

I was curious to hear Flynn read, but the main reason I went was to see Terrance Hayes, who is writing some of the most exciting American poetry out there right now. Hayes draws on history and the language of both sermon and myth to explore the ways in which we’re both in thrall to the past and desperate to move beyond it. His collection Wind in a Box is rich, strange, and really funny, and the work he read Monday made me wish his new collection were coming out today. Some writers are not good readers of their own work (it’s always painful to go to a reading of work you love to find that the writer’s shyness or dry/forced delivery comes close to ruining the poems), but Hayes is a natural performer and was a pleasure to hear.

After the individual readings, one of the editors of the new anthology, Matthew Zapruder, led a panel discussion of the writers about the nature of political poetry—a combination that many regard with suspicion or downright dislike. Zapruder asked the poets why, and why a “political poet” is seen as such an odd creature in the U.S.

The poets kicked it around for a while, and fear of didacticism seemed to be the number one reason—creating a poetry that’s the political equivalent of the sentimental verse found on Hallmark cards. I can think of a few poets whose works has veered into that zone at times.

At some point Zapruder started to say how the issue is seen differently by poets in other countries, and Flynn interjected “That’s because they’d be put in jail.” A valid point. But I think what Zapruder was leading to is the point that in other countries, politics is seen as so central to a person’s being and such a major component of life that there’s not the disdain for it we often see in the U.S. A “political poet” in South America or Europe is any poet at all; labeling one as such would be a bit like the name of the old Department of Redundancy Department.

Part of the issue to me seems to be that poets and politicians mutually look down on each other; each group thinks it’s dealing with the more important matter. To some poets, the stuff of politics often seems too fleeting to muddy the hands with, and to politicians, much poetry seems incomprehensible or at least detached from real, contemporary concerns. There are so many celebrities now who dabble in politics; political dilettantism is rampant among artists. And there are plenty of political poems that, when you get to their core, seem satisfied with simple messages: war and sexism and racism are bad bad things.

If the job of the artist is to deepen the mystery, can a poem that makes an effective political argument really succeed as a poem? Thoughts?
And a couple of interesting thoughts on the matter here and here.