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The End of Night by Paul Bogard

April 22, 2014

endofnightI’ve never really been afraid of the dark, which is odd because I’m an anxious person in general and the dark is a primal fear. I’m clinically phobic of spiders, and of heights, and it turns out thanks to a good friend one summer I was able to prioritize those fears. I am more afraid of spiders than of heights. We were on a bus day-trip into Albania, to see the spectacular ruins at Butrint, curving along narrow dirt roads. This was our third such trip, so I (and she) knew I would need some literal hand-holding as I cried silently, my imagination sending us to our deaths at every turn. She narrated the landscape for me, just talking to keep me unfocused, describing the flat prairie of Iowa where we both were in school. She described the rolling farmland that surrounded us back home, and then the bizzare half-built buildings that surrounded us on the road in Albania. The driver told us that they had been built without permits, and that what happened is developers would start to build, and then the government would stop them, leaving the half-made carcasses of buildings in their wake. Many of these were not up to code, as was obvious by their tilting exposed foundations and collapsing floors and roofs. Heroic though her efforts were, she was running out of things to describe when she exclaimed in delight “Look! A spider!” I jumped in my seat, and she quickly added “It’s on the outside of the window.” But in that moment I learned something about myself that I didn’t previously know: spiders are scarier than heights.

The dark on the other hand always felt comfortable to me. Comforting. Safe. I’ve always been a night owl, and I grew up in the suburbs of Boston, in pervasively brightly-lit neighborhood. I had nothing to fear then from the dark, in fact, what I would have called the dark I know now barely qualifies as darkness at all. A teenager in Boston staying up all night there was enough ambient light in the city to read by easily. I’m not much of a nature person, and I’ve spent most of my life living in or near cities, and when I travel I travel to other cities. Like most people my age living in an industrialized country, I hadn’t ever really known the night. Until two summers ago, when we went on a week vacation to Acadia National Park in Maine.

This book talks about individual experience of the dark in terms of deprivation, of pollution, of biological necessity, of spiritual and psychological necessity, and in terms of wonder. The wonder that I felt that night in Acadia when we just happened to have been outside by firelight long enough that my eyes were more adjusted to the dark than they’ve ever been before, and I just happened to look up, and it happened that it was a clear, moonless night. It was brief, but exquisitely transformative. I’d never seen anything like it before. The Milky Way. A year later, traveling in rural Peru, we took a brief cold moment to go outside, stand around for a few minutes to let our eyes adjust, and stare up at the Southern Hemisphere view of the Milky Way. Even more impressive, even more astonishing. These are my two darkest nights. I hope to have many more.

The End of Night covers ever imaginable facet of the issue of our fleeting darkness. That we take for granted our mostly starless skies in the same way that a hundred years ago most people would have taken for granted the sight of the Milky Way, even in the city. That 90% of people growing up in the U.S. now will grow up without ever seeing the starry sky. That light is not a simple good in the world, where more means better. Light is not unambiguous. It has an ethics.

Electric light especially, but earlier forms of lighting the nights had their own ethical complications, more obvious now to a modern mind. Whale oil, for example. Not just an ethics of animal cruelty and exploitation, but also of the exploitation of humans. Or, something horrifying to my sensibilities, that Shetland Islanders would kill and store hundreds of storm pestrels  (a blubbery seabird), thread wicks down their throats, and light them on fire for a torch. Our nearly pathological fear of the dark has resulted in some gruesome acts. Especially when you consider that on most clear nights there is enough natural light for the human eye to see by. Not just from the zodiacal light, but from atmospheric reflection, and the moon much of the time.

But electric light, and the relative cheapness of energy, has a whole different set of ethical complications. There are the obvious energy ethics: only 4% of the energy used to light a lightbulb is used to make light. The rest is wasted and dissipated primarily as heat at the power source, through the transmission, and then at the light source. That it costs on the order of millions of dollars a night to light up a mid-sized city, and that money is coming from taxpayers. There are obvious ecological issues too: lights at night damage the environment in a way that is almost unimaginable because of its pervasiveness. Nocturnal animals have their biorhythms disrupted, their mating and breeding patterns altered, their feeding and migratory patterns damaged. Those are long-term issues. Short-term issues go like this: one night, in Georgia, 50,000 migrating birds followed a light at an airport (this is called “light trapped,” and its very common) and plunged straight into the ground, dying on impact.

There are also human ethics here. Electric light at night, especially blue light (the ever-increasing majority of the light we experience) is a known carcinogen. As in causes cancer. It’s also linked to increased depression, anxiety, obesity, miscarriages, and diabetes, to name just a few. The disruption of human circadian rhythms is a serious health problem, and the American Medical Association has adopted a resolution against light trespass, the primary cause of these disruptions. Most of us who live in communities (really, of any size) experience significant light disruption. But people who work the night shift experience worse. That’s about 20% of the current workforce in the U.S., and that demographic made up of a disproportionate number of women and ethnic minorities.

And what about safety? Well, actually, all the studies done on the relationship between lighting and crime show something similar: that there is no positive impact of increased brightness on crime. In some studies, the opposite has been shown: that brighter areas are more likely to have crime. The military has consulted with lighting experts, and this result has been replicated. More light is actually more dangerous, on so many levels.

This book is an absolute trove of information about light and darkness. But it’s also expertly written, extremely enjoyable to read. It engages not just with numbers and studies and explanations of the Bortle scale (which measures the darkness of the sky, 1 being the darkest), but with the idea of the dark. Artistically and culturally, spiritually and psychologically, we need the dark. And this book makes an informed and compelling case for preserving this natural resource, along with the others we are already fighting for.

(Since this is International Dark Sky Week, let me also recommend you visit darksky.org)

Cyborg Erotic

April 5, 2014

cyborgsexgooglesearchJust re-read Audre Lorde’s “Uses of the Erotic” thanks to a friend of mine reminding me how phenomenal it is. I’ve been thinking a lot about erotic energy recently. A few weeks ago a different friend gave me Donna Haraway’s “A Cyborg Manifesto” to read, and it was revelatory. As I was reading it, I felt as though it was revealing me to myself. I don’t know that anything has ever made me feel so intensely engaged in all my life.

It’s actually been a kind of terrifying thing, in a way. I read it, and read it again, and realized that this was in large part the framework for myself I’d been looking for. And to find it now, at the end of my time in grad school, when I’m about to not have time anymore to devote to figuring this stuff out really, has been spectacularly hard.

I only remember feeling this chaotic, this frenzied, once before in my life, and it was when I became a punk. Punk, in some way, touched a part of me that was waiting to be given permission to exist. A release, a feeling of some sort of framework to make sense of the chaos of my mind and soul. I have a punk rock soul. That was sixteen years ago, and I really never expected to encounter another thing that felt so important. Another framework for seeing myself in the world, or for clearly thinking about what it is I am already in the world.

I’ve written before about the cycle of academia, how this time of year is the world time of year for someone like me, who craves constant newness in terms of stimulation and yet hates change. Not only is the semester ending, and taking with it all the productive routines built around its structure, but (right on schedule) my grad student time is ending. I’ve been a grad student for a long time, and now I’m going to be in the world more fully than I have been in a sense since I was a punk rock street kid. Without the structure of school, I look ahead and see chaos.

That chaos is both exciting and terrifying. The potential is there, if I can focus it. Focus me. And this new cyborg-poet-punk (and definitively not cyberpunk, but perhaps more on that later) framework is what I hope will provide that focus.

So whirling through this is the erotic. While reading “A Cyborg Manifesto” I kept thinking about objectification. Haraway talks about two intellectual gestures that are both reductive: totalizing (looking for a single unified self/worldview) and reductive. Objectification in feminist theory gets a lot of attention, and I’m interested in it along these terms because it’s both totalizing and reductive. But reading this made me wonder if there was a way of objectifying that was reverent, that was additive rather than reductive. By reverent I do not mean worship-full, which is just another way of reducing and simplifying. But to treat a complex system (me) as an object in a way that adds value and complexity, rather than reduces value and complexity.

And I’m thinking about this in erotic terms, of course. Because objectifying women is almost always a question of who owns erotic power. And when women participate in their own objectification (see: Miley Cyrus, Madonna, Lady Gaga, Béyonce, etc.) people of are two minds about it, neither of which I find satisfying. On the one hand, it can be seen as an aggressively empowering act, to claim ones own body as a site of erotic desire not only for yourself but for others. To be unafraid of the potential (sometimes explosive) of erotic power. On the other, and these are some of the charges leveled at Miley, it can be seen as nothing more than submitting to and participating in a system of power that imposes its standards and expectations on women-as-objects. There is nothing truly revolutionary or empowering about merely operating within the system of power as simultaneously an agent and a subject. The goal is to subvert or at least divert the actual ideology.

Ok, but isn’t there something more to it? Both of those seem absurdly simplistic. We cannot take our ideology-glasses off (thanks, Zizek, for that awesome phrase) and so no matter what we’re doing we’re participating within the cultural constructs that inform everything from the smallest most private moment to the overarching structures of power and meaning and culture. So even the “revolutionary” acts of sexual empowerment (the pill, women’s lib, Roe v. Wade, Madonna—yes, I put Madonna there—the queer movement, etc.) change the way we participate but not the system within which we participate. Or if the change is happening it is happening by accretion rather than by dissolution.

In other words, rather than dismantling the systems of cultural power and significance we live within (and mostly can’t even see, though we can look at some parts, there are always more layers and more hidden structures), we can accrete new meanings onto them. Because we can’t refuse to participate (just like not voting doesn’t dismantle the democracy, or delegitimize it, because the structures are consumingly enduring) in a meaningful way, we can choose to participate in a meaningful way. And that meaning can slowly, over time, with use, accrete to create new structures of meaning. Like the way language evolves through use.

So can that be applied to the erotic? Haraway identifies sex (both pleasure and reproduction, separately) as an important site of self-coding for new imaginative possibilities. She says towards the end: “‘We’ did not choose to be cyborgs, but choice grounds a liberal politics and epistemology that imagines the reproduction of individuals before the wider replications of ‘texts’. … A cyborg body is not innocent … Intense pleasure in skill, machine skill, ceases to be sin, but an an aspect of embodiment. … Cyborgs might consider more seriously the partial, fluid, sometimes aspect of sex and sexual embodiment.”

As I see it, choice can become eclipsed as the ideological imaginative force by consent (and transgender politics and theory perhaps can expand that view further). So, I did not choose to be a biological woman, but I consent to it. I consent while resisting, redefining, splicing various ideas of what it is to be a woman together to create a woman that ever more closely resembles me, while understanding that a resemblance can never be more than approximation (and hence the partiality of connection even at its utmost). A simulacra of my identity, figured through the imagined perceptions of the world, the various lenses magnifying some parts. “Our bodies, ourselves; bodies are maps of power and identity.” (Haraway).

Which transitions to what Lorde says early on in her brief essay: “The erotic is a measure between our sense of self and the chaos of our strongest feelings.” Eros, born of chaos, the primary connective and creative power. My body as a site of expansive and deep power. In the way that I understand Haraway to predicate cyborg identity on fluidity, permeability, expansiveness, boundaries as a porous site of contact rather than enclosure and exclusion, openness and adaptiveness that embraces multiplicity, and paradox, and pleasure, it seems to me that the erotic is an obvious site of that. Lorde: “Another important way in which the erotic connection functions is the open and fearless underlining of my capacity for joy… my capacity for feeling. And that deep and irreplaceable knowledge of my capacity for joy comes to demand from all my life that it be lived within the knowledge that such satisfaction is possible…”

The erotic as a core component of the cyborg; perhaps the component that allows the cyborg to expand and be hybrid. To establish tenuous and partial contacts with external beings: humans, animals, machines, all of this falls under the possibility of the erotic connection. Because the erotic cannot be reduced, as Lorde says, to the merely pornographic. Or rather it is almost always already reduced to the pornographic, and in order to use it as a driving force for expansion into the world (in a cyborg sense) it must not be reduced to that. Rather, it must be allowed its complexity and its desire, the urge for connection (that is always partial, and so never fully sated, which is what gives it its continuous drive I think). “To share the power of each other’s feelings is different from using another’s feelings as we would use a Kleenex. When we look the other way from our experience, erotic or otherwise, we use rather than share the feelings of those others who participate in the experience with us. And use without consent of the used is abuse.”

So a looking away, a reduction either in a totalizing or simplifying way, these are use without consent. The cyborg erotic demands looking, and seeing with complexity rather than simplification. To “make connection with our similarities and our differences.” And in this way the kind of objectification I imagine, a cyborg erotic, is more like a lens, a focus, one that does not operate through metonymy to reduce a complex whole to its part, nor as a disfigurement to separate one part from the others for analysis or desire. One that does not discount the chaos, one that permeates the boundaries between

Aside: When looking for an image to accompany this post, I realized how often the concept of “cyborg sex” is used as a machining-the-erotic; but what about eroticizing-the-machine? Also, there’s a sort of disgust/horror element to most of these images that is troubling, because it seems to allude to a state of being less-than human rather than imaging other ways of being human and more.

4 Percent Universe by Richard Panek

March 23, 2014

fourpercentI have an amateur’s interest in physics and astronomy. I once took a class (and still have the course book) called Physics for Poets. I’m ok but not brilliant at math, but love the abstract thinking, the scientific deduction and inference, of rigorous attempts to understand the world (at whatever scale). This is the kind of book that is written for someone like me – an understanding, or at least an ability to understand, some pretty complex theoretical concepts if explained well, and without too much math.

This book routinely blew my mind. Over and over I had to put it down, walk away, and think about what I had just been told. Some of it is the enormity of scale. Billions of galaxies, hundreds of millions of light-years apart, in an observable universe billions of years old. It’s hard, even for a poet, to get there, to not merely accept but really imagine it. And some of it is the enormity of the implications of these theories about the universe. The analogy Panek makes at the beginning of the book to Copernicus and Galileo is apt: the scientific revolution he describes changes not just what we understand, but our capacity to understand the universe in which we live. And that change is deceptively simple: we can’t see most of what’s out there. Not only can we not see it, we mostly don’t even know what kind of affects to look for. What is unknown, what is dark, is so much more than what is known.

Last summer I read a book that had been published in the 80s called Darkness at Night which similarly explored our changing conception of the universe through the exploration of centuries of attempts to answer a seemingly (deceptively) simple question: Why is the night sky dark? Because it shouldn’t be, it should be suffused with light. It’s darkness is a blessing – without it life couldn’t survive. It was a fascinating accounting of the changing scientific understanding of our scale in the universe. And I longed for an update, something covering the thirty years since it was published. This book was exactly that.

We take light for granted, but it is not the essential condition of the universe. We take matter for granted, but it is not the primary component of the universe. We take gravity for granted, but it is not a fully explainable force. Our inability to see beyond sight is what this book provokes. To accept that what we see is only part of the story; that our sensory capabilities are extremely limited, that our observation and even our imagination of the universe is circumscribed in ways that are beyond comprehension. How to see beyond your own limits?

Maybe this is a tad romantic of me, but I think here is where poetry can participate interestingly. Or art more generally. To explore and expand imaginative capacity.

This book makes complex revolutions of scientific thought comprehensible to a layperson, but beyond that it provokes the fascinating questions that engage people in these scientific pursuits in the first place. While providing substantial experimental and mathematical detail about these explorations, it makes sure to explain what the point of measuring a single ping hundreds of miles below the surface of the earth is. Why people devote enormous resources to the pursuit of these sciences.

Every now and then I got lost with the circuitous story-telling; bouncing around in narrative time, while trying to keep track of a huge cast of players, and an ever-growing horde of acronyms for institutions, teams, research projects, telescopes, etc. I longed for an index of acronyms and names. I wished it weren’t quite so cliffhanger-y at the end of every chapter, that the reveal had come earlier and with less build up but more exploration after the fact. But those are very minor flaws in an exceptional work.

CFP: Queering Translation – Translating the Queer

March 3, 2014

Oh boy does this sound great!

Call for papers: Queering Translation – Translating the Queer
Centre for Translation Studies, University of Vienna
26-28 March 2015

Aim and Theme of the Conference:
Since de Lauretis introduced queer theory as „another discursive horizon, another way of thinking the sexual“ (1991:iv), this approach has played an important role in the analysis of sex and gender in Literary, Film and Cultural Studies. Despite its claim of interdisciplinarity, Translation Studies has yet to fully integrate the concepts and theoretical instruments of Queer Studies. If Queer Studies problematizes the representation of otherness, then Translation Studies highlights the otherness of representation. Bringing together Queer Studies and Translation Studies, therefore, should destablize not only traditional models of representation, understood  as mimesis, reflection, copying, but also the authorial voices and subjectivities they produce. The aim of this conference is to explore the common ground, both on a theoretical and practical level, of the two disciplines and to promote cross-fertilization by bringing together scholars from different cultures with various research backgrounds.

Suggested Topics:
The conference is open to a variety of queer and lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender topics and approaches. Possible themes include the following:
•    Queer Theorizing of Translation/Interpreting
•    Intersections between Queer Studies and Cultural Translation
•    Queering Translation/Interpreting Pedagogy
•    Translating/Interpreting (for) Marginalized Sexualities
•    Constructing Queer Identities across Cultures / in Translation
•    Translation of Queer Theoretical Writing
•    Translation of LGBT Fiction/Films
•    Queer Representations of Translators/Translation

Abstract proposals and deadlines:
Scholars are invited to submit 200-300 word proposals (with 3 keywords) for papers in Word as an attachment with the format: authorname.doc. or docx. (Please include your contact information in the body of your e-mail, not in the file.)  Abstract proposals should be sent by 30 September 2014 to: queertranslation@univie.ac.at. Please indicate ABSTRACT in the subject line in your e-mail.

Presentations will be 20 minutes in length, followed by discussion. There will be sessions Thursday, Friday and Saturday.
Date of notification regarding acceptance of abstracts: 25 October 2014
Conference Languages: The languages of the conference will be English and German (with simultaneous interpretation into English)
Keynote Speakers:
Brian J. Baer (Kent State University, Ohio)
Martin Stegu (University of Economics and Business, Vienna)

Information and Contact Details
For all correspondence about the conference please use the e-mail address: queertranslation@univie.ac.at
For more information got to:
https://queertranslation.univie.ac.at

The Hair Experiment, The 1st Month

March 3, 2014

SelfieIt’s been a month since I cut all my hair off, and it’s getting a little longer. I’m still getting compliments on it from friends I haven’t seen in a while (hello AWP). And today, on the train back to the Seattle airport to get back to Boston, something really nice happened. I had just gotten onto the train and was putting my headphones on when the man sitting across from me said “Excuse me…” I looked up at him, and in a super un-creepy way he said “You’re very beautiful.” I said thank you, and he smiled and went back to reading, and I put my headphones on and we didn’t interact again. It was nice,  surprisingly un-invasive, and didn’t feel objectifying. He didn’t make me feel like there was any expectation attached to the compliment.

Anyway, I’ve been thinking, and talking to some of my gender-sensitive friends, about what differences I’ve noticed. Not as much in the way other people react to me, mostly I think because I’m less aware of the difference myself. But one unexpected thing: I’m showering a lot more, because I can. Turns out I like showering in the mornings, when it’s quick and easy. Before it took an extraordinarily long time to wash and style my hair. Now, I can do it all in under ten minutes. I feel somewhat bad about this, because I think in fact I’m using just as much water as I did before, rather than reducing in that way, but I am enjoying it immensely. Maybe I’ll let that keep happening for a little while.

Also turns out I’m wearing mascara more. I’m not exactly sure why this is. I’ve gone through phases of wearing some makeup, a lot of makeup (in the punk rock, big eyeshadow, kind of way), and no makeup (most recently). I still put some on every now and then, but mostly haven’t in years worn it with any regularity. But now that my hair is short, I feel like I need to feminize myself in some way, and mascara seems just about enough without requiring too much effort. And, as I mentioned before, I’m wearing earrings more. Probably also something to do with feminizing, but mostly I think it’s because you can see them now!

But I have also been wanting to wear skirts more, and have been more aware of my body in an interesting way. It’s almost as if my hair gave me some sort of protection – it made me read instantly as sexually-available-female. Even when I hadn’t washed it, styled it, had just thrown it back in a pony-tale (about 90% of the time), it was as though just possessing long hair was performing a kind of sexualized femininity. I’m not sure I would have said this before, I’m not sure I think this is true now, but that’s what it seems like at the moment.

Ok, but the other part of the experiment, where I stop shaving and all, is driving me a bit nuts. Not the legs but the armpits. It’s uncomfortable, I’m finding. Like, it catches and pulls sometimes, and that really hurts. And maybe this is my Hispanic and Russian heritage at work, but it’s really freaking annoying. It’s been a month, and it’s as long and thick as its ever been, so this might be literally growing pains. I’d like to give it another month just to see if I adjust physically. But I’m not sure I’ll adjust psychologically even so. I definitely feel sort of vulnerable. Even though it’s winter, and no one can tell, I feel like if I take off my sweater and am in a t-shirt, I’m exposed. I’m exposing something about myself that’s super abnormal. And coming from someone who has for the majority of her life been unapologetically abnormal in many ways, that it makes me uncomfortable says something.

What I think it says is how deeply I’ve internalized the super hypocritical double standard about body hair and gender. That far more than my long/short hair switch, this is something really different. It elicits a strong response, in me, and because I know it will in other people, I cringe in anticipation. Even one of my very progressive male friends, when I told him I’d stopped shaving (it was in context, not just a random announcement) immediately said “gross.” Didn’t even think about it. I laughed and asked why, and pointed out the double standard, and he at least got to the point where he said “to each their own, I guess…” as though before he determined it was OK I hadn’t been entitled to decide how I would groom myself. But I anticipate/fear this reaction in other people in part because I’m self-conscious all the time, and in part because I’ve had it myself.

When I was younger, and I would see girls with unshaved legs, I would silently judge them. Feminist-hippies. Going too far. I was a lot younger in many ways, and really didn’t understand at all the basis of my scorn. But now, experimenting with what is surprisingly perceived as a radical gesture of feminism, partly for those reasons and partly for others, it’s haunting me. As soon as it warms up, I fear seeing it in the eyes of strangers. I know I shouldn’t care what strangers think, or even friends whose sexist programming makes them react as though I’m doing something disgusting by doing exactly what men already do. We’ll see if I can get there. Or if the physical discomfort, combined with the emotional discomfort, is too much.

Part of me is already giving myself permission to shave. It’s about choices, and I have a right to make mine. I just want to fully understand why I’m making the ones that I am.

 

Poetry in the Streets (of Seattle)

February 23, 2014

jamesfrancoeatspieI have a bad habit, it’s something I can’t really help. I have extraordinarily good hearing, and like many introverts, I’m especially observant in public. I notice a lot of little things all the time, and have mostly learned to tune out (to some degree) other people’s conversations. But I can’t do it when they’re talking about poetry.

I have another bad habit, one that I suspect is common to those in my general demographic – MFA-land educated writers. When I hear other people talking about poetry, I can’t help but listen. And then I judge. I really don’t want to, I’m actually a firm believer in the “room-in-the-pool-for-everyone, just-because-I-don’t-like-it-doesn’t-mean-its-invalid” school of poetry. It’s how I run my workshop (figuring that reading widely and carefully, and learning to talk respectfully about many different kinds of poets and poetry is more useful than learning one person’s version of “good” poetry, which is of course subjective and culturally conditioned).

So I struggle with this. Last week, in Elliot Bay, I was submerged in the potery section, squatting down to look at the books on the bottom shelf, when two young women (maybe high school, maybe a bit older) started talking behind me. The one was asking the other for suggestions of poetry books. “I don’t really like poetry that much…” she said, after picking four books off the shelf. I had to look, what had she handed the other woman before confessing that. A guarded over-the-shoulder glance revealed only one title, but it was revealing enough. It was Leonard Cohen’s Book of Longing. Ok, I love Leonard Cohen. I went to see him live, I know most of his songs by heart, but I don’t particularly care for his written work. Like many famous-in-other arts people (ahem, James Franco, and that girl who played the woman in Twilight), his poetry isn’t terrible, but it’s not really that great in my opinion. No wonder she doesn’t like poetry, I thought, if that’s what she’s reading. But I didn’t say anything.

Then on Sunday, walking through the Fremont Sunday market, just as we were about to go inside to escape the cold rain, I noticed a youngish hipster-looking man with a small typewriter (covered), and an open panhandler-style briefcase with a sign in it that was hawking custom-written poems. I’ve seen this kind of poetry-peddling before in other cities, Boston and New York most recently, and actually think it’s a pretty cool idea. Why not, right? Poetry gets unfairly accused of irrelevance, so why not make it personal. I was inclined to stop and buy a poem. In retrospect, I regret not doing it, but at the time I thought, perhaps deeply unfairly, “how good could it be?”

Taste is taught, learned, institutionalized, commodified, and essentially destroys the thing you apply it to. It cannibalizes itself.

Later in the afternoon, sitting in a crowded delightful cafe, I was handed a sticker by a three-year-old girl. It was of a pink ice cream cone. It made me smile. Then she handed one to the woman behind me, who I hadn’t really been aware of before. But after that I heard her talking with the man sitting next to her, about Kickstarter, and him inventing things and printing them on 3D printing machines, and it all sounded really interesting, actually. Until he started talking about how he likes to rap, but he’s not very good. Then she started talking about how it was one thing to write the poetry and another thing to perform it, and slam poetry, and how she wants to go to a slam but hasn’t yet. And I couldn’t help it, my hackles raised. I think rap is great, fun, powerful, awesome music. But I resist calling it poetry.

I’ve spent some time thinking about this, and I think I resist calling rap (and really any other music) poetry, because it both denigrates music as a high form of artmaking, and appropriates poetry figuratively. In the same way that happens when someone refers to a painting as poetry, or a sunset, or a political speech. These things are clearly not poetry, but by calling them poetry as an attempt to elevate them does a disservice to each art form. Maybe that argument doesn’t hold water, but that’s all I was thinking today in the cafe, overhearing this woman talk enthusiastically about a kind of poetry she’d never experienced.

A few days ago on Facebook I read the 55 comments (and counting) on Joyelle McSweeney’s page about the James Franco poem in the current issue of Diagram. I’d seen someone else in a previous discussion about this use the word dilettante, and that makes sense to me as a reaction to him. But of course those of us who are self-critical have to wonder if we’re just haters, just envious of his success and audience and career and wealth and fame and all that envy and bitterness just seeps out in attempting to continue to be the arbiters of taste. I have to say I’ve lost some respect for Frank Bidart, and Greywolf, and now Diagram, because it seems a little parasitically opportunistic to publish his work. Because the work, while not terrible, is also not great. And I know my own bitterness comes from knowing so many great writers who don’t get published by the likes of Greywolf, so many who are so much better than Franco, but wouldn’t turn that kind of profit and fame towards the press.

Poetry for most of my academic career has been the site of so little real reward that it’s upsetting to acknowledge that it’s for sale like most of our culture, and any celeb with a fortune and a little bit of talent can just purchase the success that most of us strive for decades for, and many never reach. And maybe that’s really the heart of it. We don’t want to accept that we’re participants in a machine that functions within a system, not outside of it, and that system is consumer capitalism, and so we are the product and the consumers of ourselves, and something that will really “sell,” will be more valuable than our own cannibalizing scene.

Maybe none of that made sense. James Franco is eating all our pie, and so there’s none left over for us. Except the pie is made of the deteriorating corpses of a culture that has been so unprofitable that even the scent of success nauseates. Especially when it’s someone else’s.

The Road to Seattle: Unicorns!

February 22, 2014

936full-the-last-unicorn-photoAWP, the largest writers’ gathering known to man, is in Seattle this year. Sometime next week, about 10,000 writers, editors, publishers, MFA program representatives, and essentially anyone who things they can earn a living working with literature in some capacity will be descending on Seattle. Like lemmings running to their doom a herd of unicorns running into the sea to escape the red bull.

I came out a week early, to visit family and friends, and generally enjoy the awesomeness of Seattle before it becomes an anxiety-ridden madhouse. There are so many articles out there already about making the most of the madness, surviving the conference, etc. (Roxane Gay’s is maybe the best.) This is not one of those. I’ve been to AWP for the last four years in a row, I have no advice worth sharing. My strategy in all the previous years has been bookfair-only.

Like many writers I’m an introvert, in the clinical sense, in that interacting with people, or being in large groups is incredibly draining. I get a headache about two hours in, start getting adrenaline-shaky about an hour after that, and then the migraine, sets in. A full day at the bookfair does this every time. But what I realized is that this year might be worse.

I’m happy to have been invited to be on two panels. Sad that they’re on the same day, one right after the other. And then the reading Drunken Boat is hosting (I’m Managing Editor, so definitely need to be there, and am pretty excited to hear all the readers read) and the reading I’m part of are actually overlapping, and on the same day. I couldn’t imagine a more difficult day if I tried. This seems unimaginably harder than the limited interactions of the bookfair…

Anyway, AWP blah blah blah. This is actually meant to be about my strange experience getting here. I flew, not that strange, but what was was running into a friend from middle school who I haven’t seen since then, essentially. She was traveling with her two young children, and we spent a good amount of the flight catching up. It was a strange, nice surprise.

During a lull in our conversation on the plane I ventured back to use the restroom. Because two girls had decided they desperately needed to tart themselves up in one of the bathrooms, there was a long line, and so I stood in the back with the flight attendants to be out of the way of people coming and going from the other bathroom. Naturally, one of the flight attendant wanted to chat. He started by complimenting my boots. Thanks. Then my unicorn necklace. Thanks again. I’m not all that social when I don’t have to be, and this guy was throwing off some seriously weird vibes.

There was another passenger back there, and man about my age, and more of less of my demographic – visibly liberal, educated, etc. As soon as I got drawn in, he shot me a couple of “WTF” glances, because the next statement out of this flight attendant’s mouth was “You know they recently found a unicorn horn.” I laughed, assuming it was a joke. “I mean, so many species go exctinct…” he said. “It was probably a narwhal…” I started, before he cut me off talking about how so many species went extinct, and there was proof that unicorns were real. Ok.

Other passenger dude left at that point, but I still had to wait for the bathroom. I don’t even remember how he transitioned but the next thing out of his mouth was about how New York City was a socialist paradise communist haven. “Sounds great to me!” I inserted, hoping he would just stop. Oh, but no, then he started going on about lazy welfare people and Obama, and then it came out that he had moved to Florida where he currently lived (and apparently swallowed hook line and sinker all the Fox-news bullshit out there). Sigh.

This is when it got really good. Another passenger, a big townie kind of guy wearing a Red Sox shirt, started talking about how many people (implied: brown-skinned) in Massachusetts just took advantage of welfare and lived off the system and…. well, you know the whole bullshit-y fact-less spiel. The flight attendant (brown-skinned, with an accent I couldn’t place) joined in. Insanity.

Finally, I extricated myself when townie-passenger started talking about how all the good doctors in Canada had come to the U.S. because they didn’t like socialized medicine, and it was true because he’d read it in a newspaper. I thought I wouldn’t call The Herald a news-anything, and said “I need to leave this conversation before I say something I regret.” and walked away. Without having used the bathroom.

Now I don’t assume everyone shares my politics. I’m extremely liberal, and I recognize that debate and conversation makes an educated populist stronger and better. But I just can’t debate with people who aren’t using logic. Who believe that just because someone says something on TV or in a newspaper it must be true, without questioning the source, the motivations, the finances behind it. Who believe that unicorns really existed.

BadUnicorn

This is already a long post, but I just want to end on unicorns. I’m a big fan, have been for a long time. I wear a unicorn necklace almost every day. The unicorn was my father’s and when I was little I played with it, and wanted to have it. “When you’re old enough,” he always said. And then he gave it to me on my 21st birthday. I like that unicorns are the emblem of a particular internet-based group of atheists. I like that unicorns are cheesy and fantastical, and a little nerdy and girly.

And Seattle has always been a city of unicorns for me. The last two times I’ve been here I’ve been especially attuned to them, finding several around the city on any given day. Today, my first day in Seattle of this trip, was no exception. We’ve found three so far: one on the cover of a book at Elliot Bay, and two (one on a flask, one on a t-shirt with a cob of corn instead of a horn) at store in Capitol Hill called Retail Therapy.

I’m looking forward to seeing if the unicorns will make an appearance at AWP. So listen, if you see any at (or around) AWP, pic + #unicorn #AWP14 please! I’ll be keeping an eye out…

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