TBD: Confirmation

From confirmation hearings for Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress Kay Ryan before the United States Senate Committee on Interstate Commerce, Recreation, and Poetry, Patrick Leahy, D-VT, Chair.  The excerpted testimony comes from the third afternoon of the nine-day hearings in early July of 2008, in which Senator Orrin Hatch, R-UT, requested that Ryan explain her poetic philosophy underlying “He Lit A Fire With Icicles,” her elegy for German writer W. G. Sebald.  Many later recalled this relatively heated exchange as one of the most memorable of the hearings in part because of Ryan’s coinage, “The Enjambed States of America.”  The slogan “UnbreaKAYble,” which appeared on bumper stickers, T-Shirts and at the end of television and radio ads purchased by the 527 group Citizens To Confirm Kay Ryan, has been compared to the “I Believe Anita” slogan that was publicized similarly during and following the Senate confirmation hearings for then-nominee to the Supreme Court Clarence Thomas.

Senator Orrin Hatch: And Ms. Ryan, do you recall your use of enjambed line breaks to break up a rhyming couplet of iambic hexameter at the poem’s conclusion?

Kay Ryan: Senator, I—It has been some time since I wrote that poem.  I’m not sure that—

SOH: The poem’s sixteenth line ends with the word stay.  And the poem’s twentieth, its final line, ends with the word away.  Isn’t that correct, Ms. Ryan?

KR: Yes, Senator, that does, that sounds correct, to the best of my recollection.

SOH: Then do you also recall that the final four lines, and I’ll read them, “When he could feel his feet he had to back away,” do you also recall that this single sentence, six iamb feet lined up like ducks in a row dah-dum, dah-dum, dah-dum, that it is in fact four lines, at least according to your poem as published?  It is four lines, isn’t it?

KR: Yes, Senator, I believe that is correct.

SOH: I’ll get back to the issue at hand then, Ms. Ryan.  I’m sure you won’t be surprised, and I’m sure the other members of the committee and the members of the public here today won’t be surprised to hear that I’m curious about how you came to the decision to break apart that single thought.  I say single thought, of course, since that is the traditional, and, well, agreed upon definition of a sentence.  A single thought.

KR: Senator, I think what you’re—

SOH: And I consider enjambment, the breaking up of that single thought, a serious matter.  I think all Americans do whether they agree with my position, which I know is a matter of deep personal, moral feeling, whether you agree with me or not.  I’m sure that my constituents from the great state of Utah agree that it’s a serious matter.  But frankly, Ms. Ryan, based on the record that myself and others here today have tried to bring to light, I’m not sure I am yet convinced that you treat this matter with, really, the gravity it deserves.  And that concerns me.  It does.  It concerns the American people.  So I would hope that the other members of this committee would give pause before simply rubber stamping a Poet Laureate who went out and enjambed single, inviolable thoughts, thoughts contained in rightfully codified, systematic meter, went out and enjambed them willy-nilly.  The, really, the question before you, Ms. Ryan, is whether or not there was a legitimate reason, a poetical basis if you will, for your dissection of the poem’s closing thought in the manner you did, in fact, dissect it.  And I give you the opportunity to explain yourself, if you can, here today.

KR: I thank you, Senator Hatch, for that opportunity.  Before I answer though, I believe some clarification may have—may be, rather, in order.  I think what you’re calling a rhyming couplet of iambic hexameter is perhaps, if you’ll excuse me, not entirely accurate.  It is true that those final four lines can be considered six iambs, and that the second iamb of the first and third of those lines is enjambed.  But it might also be said that each of those four lines is a trisyllabic foot unto itself, a Cretic or amphimacer foot.  These are matters left up to interpretation, and intended to be left to interpretation, by the American people, as established in the precedent of 15 Poet Laureates and many, many Consultants in Poetry for the, to the Library of Congress before me.  I feel I should also note that the poem’s previous lines do not follow this structure, whatever we choose to call it, and that the couplet itself, is in question even if undoubtedly this poem does contain some rhyme.  A digression, perhaps, that I hope this committee will forgive.  The larger issue, however, if I take your meaning correctly, Senator, is a question of my loyalty to integrity and, I believe, by implication, clarity.  The suggestion has been made today and in the previous weeks, before I was able to speak for myself, that my use of enjambment is confirmation of a not-so-secret belief that some parts of thoughts, some words, and therefore some citizens of this great nation are more important than others.  In other words, my critics would have it that I have a tendency toward prejudicial emphasis.  I want to assure you, Senator Hatch, as well as the other members of this committee and all of the American people that this great deliberative body represents, I want to assure you that nothing is farther from the truth.  And I think if you go back and look at the context in which these, well, these line breaks occur, that is in the whole poem and the author it was trying to honor, I think you’ll see that I had intended to show exactly the opposite.  It is my belief that the integrity of a single thought is unbreakable, just as this nation has proven it is unbreakable, following our bloody second birth in the Civil War.  What the poem suggests about Mr. Sebald, who is, for the record, a man I greatly admire for his unwillingness to insert even a single paragraph break into his narratives.  The poem suggests that we must notice the juxtapostion, the natural pauses for mutual regard, for perspective, the stopping and restarting that takes place within integrity.  And again, I would suggest that this notion is confirmed in our history and in our character as a nation, a nation that is united because it is enjambed, the Enjambed States of America, if you will.  We are joined by our integrity as a culture, as a nation, as individuals.  But we are set apart, as states, as people, set next to each other, enriched by our relation to each other.  We comprise a more powerful whole because of our undeniable separations.  We are enjambed as a nation and within ourselves and it is the fact of this enjambment, the acknowledgement of it, that makes us so great.  It is what makes us unbreakable.  That’s not exactly that that poem is about, but that is, was rather the basis of my use of the, I want to re-emphasize, rather narrow usage of the technique.

SOH: Ms. Ryan, are seriously suggesting–

Senator Patrick Leahy: Senator Hatch, your time has expired.   We must—

SOH: Mr. Chairman, I retract, I—One more question, please, Chairman.  I will be brief.

SPL: I don’t think I need to remind you, Senator, that we would all like to ask the nominee a lot of questions that—

SOH: I do apologize, Chairman Leahy, I simply want to know if Ms. Ryan is aware that W. G. Sebald, the subject of her poem, was a German citizen who wrote extensively about the so-called atrocities committed by the American army liberating Germany in WWII.

SPL: Senator Hatch, your time has expired.  I will thank you to respect—

KR: Mr. Chairman, excuse me.  Excuse me.  If the chairmen permits, I’ll answer the Senator’s question.

SPL: Very well, Senator Hatch, you may ask your final question.

SOH: Are you, Ms. Ryan, aware of Sebald’s writings on the so-called fire-bombing of Dresden?

KR: I am.  I am well aware of Mr. Sebald’s sympathies.  I would ask, request that you judge me, however, on my own work, and not by supposed association with the sentiments of anyone else.   My tenure as Poet Laureate would be loyal to the best interests of the American people and nothing else.

SOH: Thank you, Ms. Ryan, for your testimony, and thank you Chairman Lahey, for your consideration.

SPL: I prefer, for future reference, keeping to the schedule to being thanked, but I thank you both for your brevity once consideration was granted.  We will, uh, will take a ten-minute, a flexible, ten-minute break now.  This hearing is now in recess.

This morning, I sit in the car, listen to the famously homespun man from my home state reciting a poem called “Lonely Lake.”  Reportage of a beautiful, silent experience with an unnamed Other, every moment soaked in that familiar longing for God knows what and humorless attention to the world’s detailed confirmation of nominal meaning, the poem recalls nothing so much as poems like it.  Busy not working, the poet has noticed the world around her, sponged it all up, contemplated, tested experience against its anticipated description.  She has crafted something carefully small, flawless as a photograph of sunlight in water.  Still, I sit in the car, in the air busily soaking up the lukewarm rain now that the air conditioner is off, let the careworn voice chant the poet’s last few lines, my breath chuffing protest of predictability.  Stepping out into the street, I look across the park at the sun holding up the rain clouds beyond the trees, thrusting daylight toward me, at the water birds stalking the grass.  Everyone else spends the moment somewhere dry and out of sight, as if the scene is mine alone.  Is there a more tempting way to look at a landscape?  As if I’ve come so far for good reason?  As if I’m supposed to do something about all this.

Do not, I repeat not read that interview with the writer instead of not reading it.  And don’t go back to Google when you’re done, don’t see there’s another farther down the page that might be better.  Do not read the other one since maybe the first is just him responding to the wrong questions.  Yeah, the second has better questions, more interesting answers, but he’s still keeping the magic all to himself, and the inspiration you thought you’d get from hearing how a book you loved got made will only reveal how shallow that love is.  Don’t think that maybe the book wasn’t so good after all, that it maybe says that same thing over and over, that we’re just who we are and that’s it, since the world doesn’t allow much else, and certainly don’t waste any time worrying that your own book might not even say that much.  Don’t realize away your innocent experience of the story when you experienced it, now that you begin to see the mind that made it, and don’t worry about the politics of your own unwritten story.  Do not, not now or later, wonder what he would think of the people in your world, the ones struggling to live on the page, the others still unimagined.  Do not confuse his book that exists with yours that wants to, don’t make that confusion an excuse to stall progress.  Don’t imagine anything but more things happening in your own world.  Don’t have a conversation with the writer, and do not, if you do, turn it into an argument.  Don’t try to parse his faux humility, actually certainty that some just got it and some just don’t.

The best poem I read all week, new graffiti appears in the bathroom of the coffee shop.  A rectangle of Sharpie ink holds a heading, Petition To Kiss The Jonas Brothers, and three entries in the same hand.  The first is obscured by crayon or lipstick, some waxy stuff the color of a new bruise.  It’s hard to imagine anyone but whoever is under the substance being the one who put it there, satisfied then that the joke is no longer on her or him.   Names two and three, Angie B., Airplane, stay slapped onto the wall in plain view, apparently unnoticed, or undamning, or still eager for those fraternal kisses.  Then, underneath, in some shakier hand’s pencil, two more additions: Excited PedaphileSex.  Like some British comedians’ absurdist sketch, the list has quickly careered out of control, the penciled genius turning the joke inside out, into infantility itself, a destructive commentary that assembles some new form.  It’s hard not to imagine the thoughts of other coffee drinkers who notice me walking out of the bathroom, then right back in to linger on the names one more time, making sure I have them right in my mind.

So, I figure if California can issue 28,750 IOU’s worth $53.3 million dollars, then I–on a holiday weekend when I’m a million miles away from home and all I’ve got is sky and church lady pie and firecrackers and road and family and a little baby who gives kisses and smells like pears and wants to swim in the pool and a mother-in-law I need to steal secrets from and a husband who just flew in from London and a tupperware dish filled with banana pudding and old friends who are getting divorced and need to tip champagne glasses and other friends who have fallen in love or seen Hawaii or gotten new jobs or degrees or just gotten (happily and a bit to their surprise) through another day; when it’s all crickets and fireflies and sitting on the porch; when the heat’s so thick, your mind swims and your limbs hang limp; when your mother keeps calling from the other room, calling and calling, and you remember all the times she called for you, the lilt of her voice, and you can’t tell if you’re ten again or a hundred, and the door swings open, and Get off the computer, she says. Come on in for some coffee–well, then,  I can issue an IOU too.

Dear Reader, IOU. I can’t promise my word is any better than California’s, but, heck, at least it’s summer, and if I don’t pull through, you can drown your sorrows in lemonade and call it all a midnight dream. Happy, happy Fourth!!! May you make it to Monday with your appendages intact and your debts all paid.


You’re at your computer. Tickets are a tense, electrifying JBB-Cover-Smallfew seconds from going on sale. Eyeing the time, you’re hitting “Refresh,” and elsewhere, all your friends are doing the exact same thing. That’s Paul Siegell’s jambandbootleg. A widespread, high-spirited head rush. Desperation, fretfulness—all out life-leaping. “The party starts in the parking lot,” indeed. With poems shaped like a guitar, the American flag, even a Golgi apparatus, Paul’s monumental artworks could easily transform into posters. His is a poetry of exploration, heart and astonishment. Simply put: read Paul Siegell’s music. Read it as if listening to the most banging bootleg.


Please check it out here: A-HEAD Publishing, and here: AMAZON

(Amazon’s already on backorder. Oops! But go ahead. They’ll still fulfill it. Pronto!)


“For centuries, people have tried to take words and turn them into music. What Paul Siegell does in his collection of poetry, jambandbootleg, is take music and turn it back into words. And he does it exceptionally well, capturing both the excitement of concert-going and the poetic essence of the improvisational music scene.” —MARC BROWNSTEIN, bass player of the Disco Biscuits

TBD: DIY Labyrinth

N gives in, starts writing a story about writers.  He figures, hey, why resist, all his characters talk that way already.  They say, “denouement.”   Say, “tellingly.”  “In the end…”   They scour experience for details that gesture toward meaning, spending most of their time alone, shuffling through the world or the worlds in their own minds.  They are all so self-aware that their interactions read like transcripts from group therapy sessions, every bit of dialogue confessional, reflective, narrative, wandering, wondering.  Their few actions are outbursts, often literally, always effectively, and more often than not these isolated incidents are fueled by liquor, loneliness, and a slow-burning sensation of powerless responsibility.  In the beginning, he stalls over a choice: first- or third-person?  A coin flip and the caffeine jitters decide: first.   Twenty minutes later he splits the difference: multiple first-people.  And if they all talk the same, fine.  That can just be part of the overall statement, or whatever: inside of ourselves, we all speak in the same cadence.  Sitting in breezy, leaf-strobed sunlight on his recently deceased mother’s favorite chair, the one where she would survey the birdfeeders while sipping morning tea and jotting in her journal, N bangs two full pages up onto his grimy laptop screen in under an hour.  When he finally looks up, the sky is making its move from orange to pink beyond the birds, the trees, and the houses across the street

Having avoided this kind of story, maybe this particular story for a long time, N is ambushed by how easy it is to write.  The paragraphs pile up and his hands are drawn to the keyboard, as if the clattering plastic keys are magnetic or life-sustaining, as if his fingers draw some mystical energy from the molded plastic squares, as if the wearing away of the letters on them somehow spells an incantation conjuring newly vivid awareness of his life unfolding in time and of the secret understanding hidden all the while in his own mind and its malleable memories.  The story heads off on its own, following a path he can only discern one sentence at a time, deep into the past, far off into the world, and probingly ever-closer to the molten core of human life.  The characters, given names and the merest description by N, step out of haze into clear light, doing what they will, writing their own dream-like tales, careening toward and away from each other, leaving glittering debris at the sites of their crashes, a luminous milky way of hopeful sadness laced into every moment, every line, every word of the story.  N wakes after only a few hours of sleep that night, the details of newly dreamed strands of the story fading with each step to his mother’s chair and his sleeping computer, entirely new ones flooding his mind even before the word processing program starts up and offers another blank page.  By dawn he has twenty pages, single-spaced, a cacophonous choir of the many voices inside him.  Some are those of people he had long forgotten knowing.   Many, to his surprise, and despite their unique timbers and lilts, are voices of his own, never spoken aloud, but for all of his life, he now realizes, murmuring in the dark recesses of his consciousness.  As the birds outside the window sing their blessings for another day born, he reads, for the first time, what he has written.  Tears welling in his eyes, he is paralyzed by his love for his own creation as his pages scroll up the screen, once, twice, three times before he is sure he is right, that he has something here, something pretty great.  Blinking quickly evaporating warmth onto his cheeks he sits back for a moment, sips from his mother’s favorite mug, and hollows himself out with the thought that she will never read these pages.

Two years later it is summer again, and N’s novel is shipped to bookstores with his mother’s full name and a descriptor, who showed me why to write and how to live, on the dedication page. He quits his job at the public transit advocacy nonprofit, gets his little cousin to watch his cat, sublets his apartment to a friend of a friend’s friend, and heads out on the road for his book tour.  Waiting nervously for the bookstore employee’s introduction to wind up at his first stop on the tour, he stares at the blown-up cover on an easel.  He frowns at the book’s title, With Hoops of Steel.  It was not his first choice, not his idea at all, but the publisher has, his agent told him, “put a pretty big push behind the hardback, PR-wise,” so N has given in, has let them decide how best to get his story in front of as many people as possible.  Besides, his agent had pointed out, the phrase is Shakespeare, from Hamlet, the play the characters almost put on at the end of the story.  N then pointed out that it is Polonius talking, that it is part of the “to thine own self be true” speech that lets you know Polonius is a fool.  His agent had stared at him for a long moment then said, “but that still works for this story, right?”  At the time, N had thought his agent was suggesting the title might be saying something about the tragic inability of people to truly hear each other’s distinct voices and their willingness to live out other people’s bad advice.  Those seemed like central themes.  Now, as the smattering of applause from the half dozen members of the audience ushers him to the podium, he thinks that his agent might not have meant that at all, might not have any idea what the story is really trying to say, and worse, that he might not be sure what the story is trying to say, or if any story should be trying to say anything.

The reading goes fine, and after signing several books, he accepts the offer of the young woman who ran the reading, and after a few drinks at downtown bar, he makes out with her in her car before heading up to his hotel room and its few dozen cable channels.  The rest of the tour goes similarly, the few people who show up seeming to enjoy the sample chapter and the way he reads it.  Reviews of the novel follow him across the country, some laudatory, some ho-hum, only one scathingly negative.  In a hot southern city on the last leg of the tour, N returns to the apartment of a friend who has let him stay the night and finds a message from his agent.  Bad news: the publisher isn’t happy with sales and is “pulling the second publicity push,” the radio talk show circuit and an upcoming convention for booksellers.  He can still do Atlanta and Miami if he wants, but his expense budget has been halved and they can only pay for a room in one of the cities.  N sets his phone on the coffee table and sits on his friend’s couch where he slept last night, sweating into the cushions, looking at the hardwood floor’s sun-shaped stains of sunlight streaming from the holes where’s where the cord goes through the mini-blinds.  The holes are lenses, someone once explained, bending the streaming photons into a picture of their origin.  He stands up, goes into the bathroom and takes a shower.  Toweled off and dressed, he calls his friend and says he’ll ride the streetcar downtown and meet him after work for drinks.  He’ll buy.  They bar hop, stuffing in burgers between cocktails and beer, and by midnight, they are both hammered.  N’s friend needs to get some sleep, he says, so they should head home.  In the bathroom, N holds himself up at the urinal with one hand as his swimming eyes bring the wall’s call and response graffiti into focus.  The words are a frightening revelation to him, the voices almost bare of character, just somehow surprisingly typical opinions and accusations jockeying with each other.  “Bush is the best,” they say.  And, “Nope, he’s a dick.”  “Thats what u suck tho.”  Who are the people in his own story, N wonders, what world did he think that they lived in?   He heads back into the smoky thunder of the bar, finds his friend, then a taxi, then the couch where his last hope for his novel’s success died that afternoon.  He falls asleep inwardly humming a wordless tune his mother sang to him when he was little.  He lies awake for hours thinking he couldn’t have done anything differently, that it doesn’t matter if he could, that he is here now, alone, that he’ll figure something else out, and he wracks his brain for what, possibilities only half-considered before he’s onto the next ones.  In the end, he gives up, letting himself falling to a swirling sleep, waking with all his dreams forgotten, his head aching and containing only one voice, his own, which asks over and over, what pushed me to this, the place that I have now come to rest?

I often talk to my NYU students about the “I” they create in their essays. Your “writerly I,” I tell them, has to be your very best I. She‘s the one with the clean home, with fresh roses on the counter, with the husband who kisses her “right there” (and here she points to that pale tender spot behind the ear) every morning before he leaves for work. Your “writerly I,” I say, has to be infinitely more interesting than you could ever be. At the very basic level, she shouldn’t go to Weight Watchers, and if she does, she shouldn’t talk about “points” (12 in a King-Sized Snickers!!!).

There are other things she should also keep under wraps–say, letting a baby “cry” while she finishes a sentence; or her habit of sucking on bird feathers and long strands of hair when she was a child; or, uhm, her terrible, crazed love for “The Bachelorette” (Can you BELIEVE Jillian let Jake go?). But sometimes our I’s get the better of us, and we end up writing the whole sentence, or with a mouthful of feathers, or worse, watching the entire episode of “The Bachelorette,” even as the train comes to a halt and lets poor Robby-the-Bartender out in the middle of the Canadian wilderness.

But this isn’t about “The Bachelorette,” it’s about the news, and everywhere this week, there’s news. We’ve got Jon & Kate & their 8, and even though I have no idea who they are, I find myself clicking on the link when it says “Jon ‘hurt’ by Kate’s remarks about ‘activities.'” If that isn’t bad enough, there’s South Carolina governor Mark Sanford who told his staff he was “going to hike the Appalachian trail,” but ended up flying to Argentina to see his mistress. (Perhaps a good move for a “writerly I” but a very bad move for a married governor.)

Everywhere we look: train wrecks. And as badly as we might want to look away, we’re still staring. The week began with the commuter rail crash in Washington D.C., and then it kept crashing and crashing, and suddenly, not only were Jon & Kate calling it quits, but Ed McMahon was dead (and right after that horrible TV commercial about the gold!), and then Farrah–who, as a girl, I dreamed I may someday become–was dead too.

Now this: Michael Jackson, King of Pop, dead. Legend, train wreck, legendary train wreck. This is the man who turned his “I” into just about the freakiest (though oddly sweet) “I” the world has ever seen–he’s PYT; he’s DOA; he’s gone.

So…it’s one of those weeks when I’m not quite sure what to make of the world, not quite sure how to avert my eyes. Perhaps, my husband will come home–with fistfuls of roses–and kiss me, just there, where my rubberneck meets my ear. Until then, it’s all just Human Nature, and I‘m just a Tabloid Junkie.

TBD: Other People

1.  We first noticed him in the park.  As S and I followed the dog into the clovery meadow between groping oaks, he was off to the right in the shade, bent 90 degrees at the waist, agitating his torso like a washing machine, outstretched fists churning a blurred menace in the 90-degree air.  Was this preparatory exercise for capoeira?  What else explained the juxtaposition of these movements with his odd get-up: forest green cargo pants, a black T-shirt and thick-soled boots?  His close cut hair, a uniform length all around his skull, made him look both militant and outside any organization.  The dog chased his tennis ball and did circles around us in the sun, finally flopping onto his side while still in motion so that he slid to a rest on his back, panting beside us.  When we looked up the man was gone.

A few days later we saw him in the park again.  While the dog yanked me toward some urgent odor, the man ran past us a few dozen yards away.  He was dressed in the same clothes as before.  All around us, joggers, bikers, rollerbladers and walkers wore activity-appropriate outfits, often clumped in chattering pairs or groups, smiling at each other and proud of their dedication to their own fitness.  Next to them, this man, all alone and stone-faced, overdressed in street clothes with skin-head overtones, seemed more than out of place. He looked dangerous, or at the very least crazy.  Over the next weeks we saw him a few more times, always identically dressed, always running or performing combative exercise with the air.  When we saw him together, S or I would point him out, careful not to look like we were looking.  “There’s your friend,” I would say.  “He’s your friend,” she would say.  “Go ask him where you can get some of those pants.”  Pulling up to the apartment building in the last light of another hot day we caught the finale of his routine.  He was galloping sideways down the sidewalk across the street like an overgrown child.  He stopped at the corner and calmly walked away from us down the block.  As if this all was all perfectly normal.  As if he had done what he had had to do, preparation for some great physical undertaking yet to come, and for now it was time to go back to the sorts of things the rest of us all did, blending in to bide time until that inevitable confrontation.

Yesterday evening, S and I brought the worn-out dog home from the park, and crossing to our block with the sun in our eyes, we saw the man walking toward us.  There he was, in his makeshift fatigues, enlarging himself in my vision with every steady step.   My muscles tensed and my mind raced.  Had he heard us snickering at him, noticing us gaping at him in the park?  I looked down at the dog as if he needed my surveillance.  Just as the man came past me, I looked up and met his eye.  I was shocked by what I saw before he shyly looked away: the sweet dark eyes of a tentatively curious young man, much younger than I had seen, much more gentle than I ever would have suspected.  “He’s foreign, right?” said S when we were safely down the block.  I agreed.  Something in that facial stucture suggested he was seeing the strange details of everything, everyone around him with a kind of reverence.  As if he saw the rest of us just as amusingly inexplicable as we saw him.  But more generously, with much more hope and kindness.

2. I got up yesterday and made my way out into cyberspace.  On a site probably best known for its porn clips and jokes in horrible taste (they also always have a few things that are pretty amazing that few others have publicized yet, and the porn is pretty easy to avoid, so, yeah, I’m a regular) I saw an image of two men crouching in the street beside someone who appeared to be bloody and struggling, with the caption, “Woman standing aside with her father watching the protests was shot by a Basij.”  At first I paused to marvel that the webmaster of this apolitical site thought the name of Iran’s now-not-so-secret police was well-known enough that his visitors would understand this description.  Then I began to study the image.  These people could be anyone.  Nothing in the image made it look like Tehran.  I considered the possibility that this was a joke/snuff clip, ridiculing the violence on the other side of the world while turning it into a Tom and Jerry-like spectacle.  The site had done this before.  I had accidentally watched motorcyclists crushed by tractor-trailers and other caught-on-video deaths, tricked by a caption or an image that didn’t give away the grisly scenes.   The possibility that this Basij video was a snuff clip from Tehran piqued my curiosity though.  A scene from that conflagration that would make it to this site was just too strange a cultural crossroads to refuse.  What scene from this struggle was so spectacular?

In the video, the woman is in the arms of a few shouting men as the person holding the camera shakily circles the scene.  Suddenly her eyes loll to the side and the shouting increases in rate and volume.  Something blossoms at her mouth, and then across the rest of her face like a dark ribbon.  Even though I knew what I was watching, it took me a moment that I was seeing blood seeping out of her mouth, nose and eyes.  That’s what I remember seeing.  I could only watch it once, and now recalling it in detail, I don’t want to see it again.   In the last few seconds of footage, the sound drops away and the mourning, frantic crowd scrambles silently around the body of this woman whose life has disappeared right before them and now us.

The video had been posted in the morning.  By midday the Times was reporting that a funeral for the woman, Neda Agha-Soltan, had been broken up by the Basij, and that the video of her death had become a sensation over the weekend in Iran.  Now Iranian state television is saying that her death was staged.  The opposition describe her as a martyr.  She is beautiful in the photo that accompanies the article on the Times website.  “Is everyone in Iran really good looking?” S asked me last night as we watched a lame Daily Show report from Iran.  It’s hard, looking at the photographs from Tehran each day, not to suspect they all are.  I suspect part of the attraction is how full of life the faces of the protesters appear.  These people who flaunt death, who put their lives in the street to demand better ones, they look nothing like us but appear exactly as we hope we would in such circumstances.  No wonder the Republicans identify with their oppression.  No wonder they look beautiful to all of us.  In a connection world, everything is a mirror.  And maybe that’s why this footage is so moving: it doesn’t really allow identification.  In the video of Neda’s death – everyone just calls her Neda now – she is beautiful, and her expiration is not exactly ugly.  But watching that video one is overcome not so much with the tragedy of a life cut short in its prime, but by the terror of how much is unknown and undocumented by the amateur photographer.  Seeing those black ribbons suddenly appear on her face you are horrified by how little you understand what is going on.  How was she shot?   Where did the bullet enter her body?  What was this life that you have seen ended?  What would it have been?  Why are you the one watching it disappear instead of the one lying there in the street, unable to hear all those people silently wailing all around you?

3.  These days I avoid writing my novel by reading a draft of one my friend has finally finished writing and by doting on the small dog with whom I live.  It is surprisingly comforting to read page after page of this story, the making of which I have been witness to for six years, a story that is so much better put together than it was in pieces that reencountering each previously read scene is like being reunited with a presumed-dead loved one.  It is unfathomably gratifying to speak to a creature who hangs on every word I say, cocking his head for better comprehension, a look of such eager love on his face that I find myself speaking to him all day long.  Together, the dog, the pages and I, help each other believe we understand each other and ourselves.

Reading E’s book I begin to see again how I will be able to write my own.  I recall conversations we had in which he described wrestling with passages, and then I see them there on the page, mostly wrestled through.  I think of my own comments over the years about particular moments or habits of the structure, and then I see them accounted for or rightfully ignored.  He has created a whole thing, 550 pages of a story that needs reading.  The lively insights of his characters, the purity of their voices, the places where I see the mechanics of the plot reflect the tenderness of E’s own mind – all of these are not just impressive.  They are beacons of hope.  Sitting down to read these pages that few others have seen, and I believe many will love, I am buoyed by the people I see in the scenes and the person I can detect behind them.  My friend and his characters are better than I had previously suspected.

Walking the dog, I am aware of the eyes of others upon me.  A couple weeks ago, when my sister was visiting, she overheard a woman say, “Look at that man walking his Chihuahua.”   I’m not sure if I was more disconcerted at being perceived as the kind of man who walks a Chihuahua or as a man at all, since the feeling adulthood always seems to elude me.  Besides, he’s only half Chihuahua.  Half rat terrier.  S tells me that I have stolen his heart away from her, and for now perhaps that is true.  He sleeps by me, sits on my lap when he can and stares me in the eye when he wants to know what is happening next.   I am in love with this little dog, because he is smart and adorable and good natured and obedient, but also because he so clearly is a person underneath that little fur tuxedo, because you can see, as you can with a great character in a novel, the way his mind works, how he considers his position in a room, why his particular life happens to belong to him.  And every day I love him more because my heart breaks that he can’t tell any of it to me.

If I notice, I am always caught in the tidal awareness of what I do and do not know about others.  I concoct back stories and conduct possible conversations in my head.  I ache for details of the lives out of my grasp.  I revel in their unwillingness to be my own.

I’ll never forget the first time I stayed up late enough to watch Johnny Carson. I must have been eight or so, and it must have been summer so I must have smelled like watermelon and bug spray and stuck-on chlorine. There in the TV-blue of the night, I watched as Johnny rolled out walls on wheels, and on the walls: giant ears; then more walls with noses, eyes, chins. My mom laughed, so I laughed too. The walls have ears, she said, and I laughed again. And noses, I said. But then she explained to me that it was a saying. Oh, I said, the walls have ears!!!

These days the walls don’t just have ears; they have lawyers too. An article in this week’s Time magazine devotes itself entirely to the sticky topic of Facebook and divorce. Apparently, lawyers around the country are monitoring various social networking sites and bringing the information they find to trial. These lawyers have a clear message: if you’re going to claim you’re “broke,” don’t post pictures of yourself on your new Harley, and if you’re leaving your man, try to refrain from telling the world that you’re “free at last (!!!) and gonna get every penny I can from that sorry son of a…” Well, you know what I mean.

And I completely see where they’re coming from. I’m often wowed by how much information people give on Facebook. Just last week, I met up with two friends for lunch, and one–before we even looked at the menu–said to the other, “Okay, spill it! I saw your Facebook status. What’s going on?” And things were going on, big things. And when I got home and pulled up her Profile page, it was there, clear as day, word for word.

But, at the same time, there’s this gulf–this ginormous gulf–between what’s really going on and what we’re writing on our walls. Right now, if I click on my Facebook tab (not that I’m looking at Facebook when I should be writing!), I find that one ‘friend’ is “meow, meow, meowing;” one is “chillin in chilly New Jersey;” one is “getting her drink on after the babies go to bed,” and I guess I’m left feeling the gulf even more; I’m left thinking that just because at any given moment I can find out what my ‘friends’ are “doing,” I still don’t know them any better than I did months ago, before I joined Facebook, before my summer nights were lit by the white of my computer screen.

I guess, though, there aren’t any answers. Unless, of course, we can make the wall have legs and those legs can walk on over here, and then, make it have hands, and in the hands, a good bottle of wine, and then slap a big, pretty mouth smack in the center of the wall, and after that, we can sit out back and talk all night long. Until then, I think I’ll turn off the computer and do whatever it is people do when they’re not sitting around trying to figure out the writing on the walls.

TBD: Titles

Possible Titles For My Unfinished Novel

The Ages

The Endless Journey

Living A Lost Cause

The Book That Didn’t Save Him

A Labyrinth Of Wondering

Words In Hiding

Swallowing Darkness

How To Be (Bad At Being) Alone


Potential Titles For My New Novel

Blood Gun

The Spy Conspiracy

Unswerving Action: A Dirk Gambles Mystery

The Sexing Of Minerva

Desire’s Apex

The Notebook*

The Soul-Seller

Money To Burn: A Prescott B. Baines III Thriller


Increasingly Unlikely Titles For My Autobiography

Unbridled Bravery, Endless Lust

Milton Reborn

A Life At War With Caution

The Library Filler

His Always-Moving Pen: A Star Of The Page And The Stage Of Life

Son Of Greatness, Father Of Followers

Success Story: Thriving Against The Odds And Ends Of Literary Life

Who Needs Glory When You’ve Got the World In The Palm Of Your Hand?

Author Of The Ages


Titles Of Web Pages I’ll Visit In Lieu Of Writing Today









New Title For This Blog Post

Quitting Time


*Titles cannot be copyrighted

There’s a poem by the late poet Jane Kenyon that runs through my mind on mornings like these. “I got out of bed/on two strong legs,” Kenyon writes. “It might have been/ otherwise.” She goes on to write of flawless peach and birch wood, of laying down for a noontime nap with her love, of having dinner together at a table with silver candlesticks, and finally acknowledges how one day—in spite of her plans and the dreams she has in her bed in a room with paintings hanging on its walls—it “will be otherwise.”

I first read the poem in the late-90’s when I was a graduate student and teaching poetry at Goldwater Hospital. It was the first time I had been around so many people with physical disabilities, and the presence of all those disabilities unnerved me. My first months working there, I often found myself on subway platforms walking in tight circles and being fully aware of the strength of my legs, of the tightening and lengthening of my hamstrings and quadriceps, of the give of my calf and the arch of my foot. “Two strong legs,” I would mumble to myself, over and over, disappointed that for so many years I had taken those legs for granted.

It was around this same time that I traveled down to Washington D.C. to visit a friend and went for my first and only time to the Holocaust Museum. We had walked around the city for hours and hours, and we made it to the museum just before closing time, allowing ourselves not nearly enough time to take it all in, or maybe it was just enough time; maybe all the time in the world would not have been enough, would have been too much. The museum’s impact was heart-wrenching, so heart-wrenching, in fact, that I still find myself caught off-guard—my breath catching in my throat—when I think about it.

It is the shoes that have stayed with me, thousands of them, shoes from the Nazi’s victims—piles and piles, large and small, ornate and simple, men’s and women’s and children’s, leather, cloth, hardly worn, worn through the soles—and I remember standing in the empty place between the piles and thinking of all the feet that had been in those shoes; feet that had blistered, that had been rubbed by a lover; feet that had kicked balls and had turned back home; feet that had soaked in the tub and walked through strange streets and gotten damp from puddles; feet that had danced; feet that belonged to legs; feet that had bones with marrow, that had veins with blood pumped from a heart.

And that is where it always ends for me: the heart.

On Wednesday, Stephen Tyrone Jones, a security officer at the museum, went to hold the door open for an elderly man. The 88-year-old, James W. von Brunn, who as a self-proclaimed white supremacist had a history of anti-Semitic efforts, then opened fire on the museum, fatally wounding Jones. A photograph outside the museum depicts the inadequacy of mourning: a few lilies stuffed inside a water bottle, their petals already falling. I think of those who will walk by that water bottle today, think of the legs that will carry them, of the breakfasts they ate, of the rooms they sleep in.

My husband kissed me when he left for the office just a bit ago; my daughter is napping; my hands are lemon-y from the sponge I used to wipe the counter; and now, like Jane Kenyon, like Stephen Jones, I do the work I love. These days—especially with the death of a dear friend’s husband a couple of months ago—I am more aware than ever that it will some day be “otherwise,” but it makes my heart sick to think that sometimes that happens because of the sheer disregard for human life displayed by von Brunn and far too many before him.

PLUS, another great poem by Painted Bride Quarterly contributor Arlene Ang:

What Happens to the Postwoman When She Stops Delivering the Mail


Vegetable Garden with Donkey, 1918, Joan Miró

Vegetable Garden with Donkey, 1918, Joan Miró

Slowly unpacking from a weekend trip to Tuscaloosa, I had iTunes play an On The Media interview with the New Yorker’s Sasha Frere-Jones and my browser on a Slate article worrying that JD Salinger might have been writing all this time and, worse, might be getting ready to burn it all.   I sat down to a piece of cheese toast and browsed Ron Rosenbaum’s article while SFJ explained his use of jargon and allusion in various publications and formats.  Salinger had a right, like Nabokov, to keep us from reading what he considered to be unworthy of the public, according to RR.  If we didn’t want to encounter phrases we didn’t know, we shouldn’t follow SFJ’s tweets.  The microwaved cheese had over-softened the toast—no toaster oven.  Where is my phone charger?  Maybe still in the wall below the Glade plug-in.  RR went to Salinger’s house once, just stood in the driveway.  Once, a New Yorker editor wasn’t sure if enough people knew about Echo and the Bunnyband. Sic–that’s the kind of joke you get if you’re as worldly as SFJ.  He sat in a Denny’s down the road and wrote the author a confessional letter, then went back to the driveway and slipped it in with the mail.  The green underwear with the gray band: I hadn’t worn them, but they’d acquired a bad smell packed next to my running socks.  I got up to get a sharp knife for the rubbery toast.  What is it that has always hardened my heart against Frere-Jones?  That note of pride in his voice confirms whatever it was.  The dog cowered under the coffee table as I dug in the bag; I was planning to leave him behind this time, wasn’t I?  Too many people misreading Catcher: that’s why he had retreated into Live Free or Die obscurity.  Twitter, and a New Yorker article for that matter, they’re instruments, and he wants to see what they can do.  He wants some cheese too, I see, as he licks his chops sheepishly, ears turned down to a driver’s ed ten and two.  What did Emerson say? That there’s no worse feeling than finding your great idea in print under someone else’s byline?  Is it the same thing, or some sort of opposite, discovering a shared love for the wrong reasons?  Don’t tell me what to like and how to like it if that’s why you wrote that. Have a bite, boy. This cheese isn’t that great anyway.  Nabokov, he was a perfectionist, sure, but at least he published eventually.  Pharoah Monch: you couldn’t expect anyone to remember him decades hence, and isn’t it delicious to know what that means in the mean time.  Maybe it’s his knowingness, his eagerness to avail us of his definitive empiricism.  And about what?  A mash-up of a song that wasn’t punk rock enough to begin with?  Maybe it’s seeing what you hope isn’t your reflection extended into a landscape of cheesiness itself overlayed upon a real place with too many important particulars, some gray leaf-strewn driveway on a gray near-winter afternoon.  Who writes that letter?  Who writes about writing it twice?  Some version of me?  If I don’t write my version, I’ll comfortably never know.  Maybe if you write as much as Emerson you have that feeling seldom enough that you can steel yourself against it, instead of letting it bombard you with the bone-softening recognition that you do not really yet know how to talk to the imagined many because you talk to yourself so much about yourself.  Enough.  That’s enough, boy.  Don’t whine.  This bag is just to go to the coffee shop so I can work on a new chapter.  Where are the keys?  I’ll sort the laundry later.

As I remember it: first there was God, and then there was Oprah. Then for maybe a week or two there was Dr. Phil, but Oprah from her very, very high place in the blue, blue sky saw she had created a beast (think: fallen angel), and so finally, there was just Oprah again.

And she was the Word.

And no one questioned the Word because the Word was powerful and fun–spunky even!–and when we thought about it, we’d love to have the Word over for coffee (we’d serve it from a silver urn!), and if the Word wanted to stay for lunch maybe her chefs would come over and whip up some sort of deliciousness (truffled egg salad on multigrain!), and if lunch bent into evening, and the Word wanted a white wine spritzer, who were we to question the Word?


Well, questioning the Word is exactly what’s happening. Newsweek‘s latest cover story claims that the Word abuses her influence to spread wild health claims. Don’t want to age? Take these 60 daily supplements recommended by the eternally young Suzanne Somers. Don’t want your child to be autistic? Just say no to the life-saving vaccinations your doctor is forcing on him. And–possibly my favorite–are you fat? Well, woman, it’s because of a thyroid dysfunction caused by a lifetime of “swallowing” the words you’re aching to say!

(Frankly, the only words standing in my way of being skinny are a polite “No, Thank you” when the waiter offers the dessert menu. But that’s a whole nother post…)

I guess our only hope for redemption is Angelina Jolie who just yesterday stripped the crown from Oprah and now reigns as “Forbes Most Powerful Celebrity in the World.” If only Jolie could do for the lit mag world what Oprah did for the novel. Can’t you see it: the masses reading PBQ on the subway? Start: here. Or here.  Or here.

Ah, Words. What do you think, reader? Oprah: Word or Wash? Jolie: Capable of filling such big, mythic shoes or will she go the way of…the way of…well…of…far too many words?

Dear Heat Rash,

I’ll just come out and say it: what gives, Ms. Rash?  I thought we understood each other.  As our days together now add up to a full week, however, I feel it necessary to write to you in an effort to clear the air, as it were.  My understanding, before making your acquaintance, was that you were looking for kind of a wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am thing.  If you’re hoping for something more long term—and I think it’s pretty clear you do—I’m going to need some more information.  Like just what the hell you want from me, for instance.

I am well acquainted, having neglected to wash my cross-country ski socks and underwear for my entire sophomore junior varsity season, with your cousin Fungal Infection.  Fun, as I called him for short, stayed with me somewhat longer than I would have liked, frankly.  But we got on well enough after the initial friction.  Once I did what he wanted, he was pretty content.  And, after a short time, Fun seemed to grow bored of our relationship.  I guess that’s the nature of any sadomasochistic fling; you make a habit of something kinky—like rubbing all sorts of humiliating creams on humiliating parts of your body several times a day—and eventually your partner wearies of what once enflamed him.  If we’re being perfectly honest, I wasn’t that sorry to see him go.

I mention ol’ Fun because you often get compared to him and from everything I’d heard, you are supposedly the “milder” of the cousins.  This is what I get for depending on public reputation, I suppose.  I can’t help but feel that some of the deception is your fault though.  When we first met you were mild.  Your little love bites weren’t exactly my cup of tea, but they weren’t a big problem either.

A week later, there are parts of my body I wouldn’t show in public for money.

Since Fun liked the creams, I tried that.  How was I to know this would enrage you?  Look, I get that I did the wrong thing, but the way you treated me after that was nothing short of abuse.

Next, and I’m not proud of this next bit, I did a bit of cyber-stalking to find out what you do like.  (BTW, those pictures really don’t do you justice.)  So, yeah, that’s how I came up with the soapy washcloth and the fan-drying.  And you seemed to like that.  For like a day.  But even devoting myself first thing in the morning, last thing at night and even in the middle of the day, to you, solely to you, doesn’t seem to be enough now.  Just what the fuck is going to satisfy you?!

Here’s the thing.  I don’t see how this can last, and I don’t think you’re accomplishing anything by dragging the situation out.  I really think it’s best if you just tell me what I need to do so we can end on the best terms possible and go our separate ways.


Dear Al,

You are the best.  I know we haven’t been spending as much time together as you would like.  Believe me.  The feeling is mutual.  I would tell you I’ve been busy, but honestly, I haven’t been busy at all.  Most of my time these days is eaten up here at this desk where I’m writing to you.  I try, not hard enough mind you, to get words on the page.  Yeah, yeah, I’m back to the novel.  And, I realize this is an activity you have long suggested we could do together.  I know, know.  You have done this sort of thing with plenty of friends.  And yeah, I get it, a lot of them are famous.  (Actually, Al, I think the name-dropping is getting a little old.  And really, have you read any of Bukowski’s poems lately?  Not sure you should keep going around bragging about that.)  The thing is, I need to do this by myself.  I know you think you’d be a big help, but every time we’ve tried to work together it just hasn’t gone very well.  We seem to be best for each other in festive situations.  Okay, you’re right.  You have been very comforting in some of the hard times too.

All of which is neither hear nor there.  I’m writing for a few reasons.  First and foremost, I wanted to invite you to dinner tomorrow night.  My sister is coming to town and we’re going to go out.  I know you guys don’t get along all that well these days, but I’d really like you to be there.  Even if we have to keep you on opposite ends of the table, I think the meal will be a lot more fun with you there.

Second, I want to apologize for last weekend.  I know we’d planned to stay out all night on Friday, but I was just exhausted from the week.  I’m not exactly sure why I’m apologizing since you and the whole rest of that goddamn frat bar seemed to have formed a mutual admiration society.  But a broken promise is a broken promise, so I apologize.  You really could have come home with us like I suggested though.

Finally, I think we may have to mainly hang out on the weekends from now on.  Staying up with you is great, but I kind of hate myself in the morning every time.  And then my whole day is wrecked.  No offense.

Okay, I have to go meet up with Smoothie now.  Do you guys know each other?   I feel like you could be the best of friends.

All my love to Mrs. Cohol and little Zima, Boont, and Vanilla Extract,



I think I love you.

Normally, I wouldn’t be so forward, but sometimes I get the sense you don’t even realize I exist.  I feel like if you took the time to really get to know me you’d see how much we have to offer each other.  You get a lot of attention from people like me, and I’m sure that you’re really looking for someone who will stick around and make a real difference in your life.  I get that.  I do.  But I can’t help that I have to go back to New York at the end of the summer.  And unlike a lot of those other people, I care about every part of you.  I bet a lot of people tell you they think your Garden District is beautiful and your jazz scene is totally unique.  They are right.  But I am even more entranced by your rusting riverside cranes, your ripped-apart crawfish shells littered everywhere, and the way you smell just before the sun goes down.

I know we don’t actually know each other very well, and it’s probably too soon to be saying so, but it seems like you’re maybe trying to shut me out.  If you just let me into your heart, you’d see how well I could get along with the others in your life.  And eventually, I think I could, truly, become important to you too.  If we only ever hang out by ourselves though, I don’t see how this can go anywhere.  I’m not trying to pressure you.  Really.  I’m simply saying that you and I could be so much more.

This isn’t an ultimatum.  I’m going to stick around for a while no matter how you feel about all this.  However, few things would make me happier than some sign that you love me too.  I’ll see you in Audubon Park, at dusk.  If you fee like it, put on all that Spanish Moss.  I love the way you look with your hair down like that.

Love, really,

Media scholar Jonathan Burston has been doing some fascinating work on Broadway mega-musicals—you know the kind: Phantom of the Opera, The Lion King, Beauty and the Beast. His focus is not merely the Disneyfication of Broadway theater (which is its own rich, wicked topic—get it? Wicked?). Burston is also interested in the transformation of the actor’s experience of  work—from the act of, say, making acting choices, to, for example, doing it just like they did in London, or singing a song just like the first Phantom did it. Check out his latest at


The actor’s craft has been reduced, compressed, turned into a quasi-creative factory labor under the logics of not only late capitalism but of what Burston calls “recombinant Broadway”—shows that started out as (animated) films become Broadway shows then turn back into films, version after version proliferating like a reflection of a mirror caught in another mirror. Think Hairspray. Waters’ film made its way to Broadway then made its way back into a cinematic form—complete with a cross-dressing John Travolta doing a tremendous Baltimore accent. We come to the theater with a sense of what we’ve already seen; we head to the movies already familiar with the songs.

Burston writes about some of the creative frustrations of theatrical performers as a result of these new forms with particular force. I’m hooked on such insights. If you’re like me, then you too dig Inside the Actor’s Studio, have felt a giddy curiosity when, say, Natalie Portman describes her craft in one breath and her favorite foreign-language curse-word in the next. The boundary between audience and actor, fan and celebrity has always seemed porous—and electrified.

But several shows of late have explicitly played with that boundary. Take the revival of Hair. Happily breaking the 4th wall since its original production in 1967, the current revival ramps up the impact of that seemingly radical theatrical gesture. The whole way through the new Broadway production its players (members of The Tribe) gallop up stairs, stand on chairs, dance in the aisles— all of which culminates in an extraordinary Technicolor theatrical freakout where the audience is invited, cajoled, corralled on stage as the entire theater erupts into the plays anthem: let the sun shine. And in an age of Broadway mega-musicals and movie-to-stage transfers, there’s something radical about audiences singing like they’re at church.

Plus, I saw Slava’s Snow Show and watched clowns literally sit on some grumpy audience member’s head (this before they blew snow into the crowd to the tune of Carmina Burana). Or take Spring Awakening with its staggering narrative and imaginative staging: you can get seats on stage if you so desire. And as you sit there watching the drama unfold, watching the audience in the theater proper watching you on stage as you watch the play, you’ll be thrilled and surprised when one of the other audience members on stage turns out to be a member of the chorus, but you won’t know this until the cute little Asian girl in 7-jeans and a t-shirt stands up on her chair and starts to wail.

But actors have always been running through the aisles. And even Ayn Rand knew that an audience seated on stage heightened the tension of a show (recall her play The Night of January 16th). And if you dig this line of inquiry, check out Peter Greenaway’s uber bizarre-o masterpiece The Baby of Macon (1993). If actors are frustrated by the logics of a system demanding the near-exact reproduction of performances because producers believe that that’s what audiences have come to expect—the pleasures of consistency and familiarity, the reproduction of a performance rather than the reinterpretation of a text– then what to make of this secondary pattern? Some audiences relish the pleasures of boundary play. If audiences are on stage, if actors are in the audience, then are we not all somehow implicated in the broader transformations Burston describes?

When my parents got divorced, my brother and I were still young enough to believe that there might be something we could do to bring them back together. We spent the summer of ’77 coming up with one elaborate plan after the next, hoping that they would fall back into each other’s arms. The most elaborate of those scams involved playing dead. We arranged ourselves on the floor—arms and legs at chalk-outline angles—and waited to be discovered. The fantasy ended the way all of our fantasies ended: the four of us at IHOP feasting on pancakes and the waitress bringing free helpings of extra whipped cream.

The other scams—equally as earnest and proving to be just as ineffective—involved broken washing machines, bizarre mall abductions, missed phone calls and official letters from the government. But as wild as our young imaginations were, we never—not once!—ended up at Disney World. I mean, to end up at Disney World, the land of magic and make-believe and Goofy and sunshine, well, that would just be too idealistic, too silly, too much.

Philadelphia mom, Bonnie Sweeten, it seems would beg to differ. While our fairy tale didn’t end at Disney World, Sweeten’s fairy tale did: with her in handcuffs. Not exactly what you dream of as a child–from Mickey’s wonderland to the Orange County Jail–but Sweeten had come upon tough times, and based on the recent embezzlement discovery by her employer, times were about to get tougher.

The story began on Tuesday when Sweeten called 9-1-1 from what she claimed was the trunk of an SUV driven by two otherwise nondescript “black men.” The whole thing just got more bizarre: Sweeten had “borrowed” her friend’s ID to get onto the plane; had left her 8 month-old at home; had withdrawn $12,000 from local banks to fund her escape. $12,000. That’s it. I’d imagine after a few Big Gulps and the price of admission, Sweeten didn’t have much of her booty left.

But it’s got me wondering about how–if I knew my days outside of the clinker were numbered–I’d like to spend my time. This isn’t about disappearing; it’s about living it up. Sweeten chose Disney World; I might choose Rio with its pulsing life or all those canals of Amsterdam  or Paris with its Moules Frites and tiny cafes. How about you? Ah reader, do tell.

Kazim Ali’s recent American Poetry Review columns have been stunning. His most recent is a bad-assed belletristic constellation of texts (where he makes a common cadre in media studies—Paul Virilio, Jean Baudrillard, Slavoj Zizek, and The Matrix—meet up with Melville & Dickinson), and it transcends the boundary of a “column” to become an essay.

Ali thus reminds me that 1) poetry magazines are indeed the ideal venue for aesthetically gorgeous and intellectually rigorous essays; and 2) the term “belles lettres” has unfortunately come to be used as a derisive moniker for essays that rely on “long, spooling, New Yorker style stuff” (as the fictional Charlie Kaufman says of Susan Orlean’s work in the film Adaptation). The art of the relevant tangent makes some readers—and teachers of college composition—roll their eyes.

But what if the effect of the artful essay could be similar to the most stunning poems? Or, to twist this line of thought to include the work of Kathleen Graber (check out http://pbq.drexel.edu/issue78/content/prose/1.html ), Ciaran Berry (http://www.siuc.edu/~siupress/berrythesphereofbirds.html ), and Gregory Pardlo  (http://www.aprweb.org/bookprize/pardlo.shtml): what if some of the best poems could be described as essayistic?

All of which brings me back to Kazim Ali’s recent APR column, “Write on My Wall.”

When he uses a riot of texts to ponder the body and its boundary(less)(ness) he makes me wonder about the “boundaries” of literary magazines. Does PBQ reinforce or blur its boundaries when, say, I link to APR?


To Henry Israeli at Saturnalia Books?


Or the Crab Orchard Review?


(All of whom have published my essayistic trifecta above—Pardlo, Graber, Berry).

Online, are PBQ’s boundaries rigid or porous? On one hand we engage in a mutually constitutive game: we reinforce the cred of the sites and sources we link to, and by linking to them we reinforce our own. But we also soften our own edges. Building links into this blog I feel like Whitman’s noiseless patient spider; sending out filaments I conjure a web of ideal works, call our aesthetic into view.  But spider webs are virtually invisible things; you’ve got to cock your head to see them.

When I was a girl we were allowed to sit at the foot of Mama Heaton’s bed while she watched her ‘stories’ under one condition: that we covered our eyes when people kissed. It strikes me as funny now, all that we did see: sister betraying sister, father betraying self, mother betraying ex-boyfriend-turned-surprise-son-turned-bigger-surprise!-used-to-be-daughter; but the moment someone leaned in, the moment they got close enough to smell the pear-breath of another, the moment they tipped their heads, well, that was the moment when we were supposed to clamp our hand tight over our eyes and not let a single drop of love get in.

Sure, we peeked. I mean, how could we not? But the good thing is: no matter how much we might have peeked, there wasn’t a heckuva lot we could have seen.

TV has never scared me. Barring Janet Jackson’s “wardrobe malfunction” and that guy who ran naked across the stage at the Oscars a hundred years ago, there’s not a lot that can happen on the small screen. Cliff Huxtable, Archie Bunker and Charles Ingalls all kept their clothes on for the duration of my childhood, and I can imagine–if you don’t let your child watch VH1–you can feel pretty safe about what’s going to come up on the screen.

The internet, though, now that’s a whole nother story. Maybe it’s just me, but I feel I’m always a click or two away from seeing waaaaaaaaaay too much of something I don’t want to see. That’s why today when I saw the “YouTube Inundated With Porn” headline, I nodded my head wildly. I thought the “powers that be”–whoever they are–had finally realized what’s going on on the ole interweb.

Apparently, however, it’s something else entirely. Early Thursday, online community group 4Chan which describes itself as being the “home of the sickest, strangest and most horrifying stuff on the internet” uploaded hundreds of videos that began with footage appropriate to children before segwaying into graphic sex acts. The attack, the group says, was coordinated to prove that not even powerhouse Google can control its content.

Maybe I’m old fashioned–still sitting at the foot of the bed waiting for the dirty parts–but I wasn’t in the least bit surprised. A cyber-attack, they called it, but all I was thinking was, doesn’t this happen every day? I guess I’m wondering how much the average Joe trusts the cyberworld. Are you all as leery as I am? Do you sit with one hand on the mouse and the other hiding your eyes? Please tell. And, no matter what you do, don’t click: here.

I have a major intellectual-aesthetic-poetry crush on Gregory Pardlo and Teresa Leo.

Poet Lore has a crush on Greg too. Cornelius Eady selected Greg as this month’s featured poet. Be sure to check out the stunning “Problema” poems included there–  http://www.poetlore.com/issues.php (Actually, APR had a crush on him first, awarding him the Honickman Prize for his stunning collection Totem—available on Amazon. But my crush is longer still, tracing back to his early poems, his Serengeti years, his Rutgers days).

And Elixir Press has a big crush on Teresa Leo’s Halo Rule. http://www.teresaleo.com/

Each time I read Teresa’s poems I’m stunned by the way she masterfully combines rigor, heart and wit. And you MUST check out “Arc: A Quest,” the essay she penned for APR. Basketball, a broken tooth, artist colonies, and the art of crafting a poetry collection: the wild range of material coheres via the magnetic pull of her thought process. Cool indeed:  http://www.aprweb.org/issues/july07/leo.html

And the attendees at the New Jersey Poetry Festival now have a crush on them too.

Greg and Teresa read for PBQ yesterday at Diane Lockward’s New Jersey Poetry Festival in West Caldwell, NJ. http://www.dianelockward.com/fest.html.

Lockward runs an warm, welcoming, amazingly efficient day of readings–  4 hours, 12 journals, 24 poets, AND the Mayor showed up and dubbed her West Caldwell’s Poet Laureate. Huzzah.

So, fine, everybody loves them now.  But PBQ loved you first; we’ve loved you longest. And we’ll keep on loving you as your stars continue to rise. Cue REO Speedwagon: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u-mw1HGJjdA

Do I sound desperate? Fear not. I’ve decided to expand the range of objects of my affection.

Helloooo, New York Quarterlyhttp://www.nyquarterly.org/support.html

Come here often, Now Culture?:  http://www.nyquarterly.org/support.html

How you doin’, The Literary Review: http://www.theliteraryreview.org/

I once dated a guy who summed up each of his exes in one pithy line. There was the redhead who smelled like baked organic goods and left him for a woman. There was the way-too-young painter who showed up on his stoop in the rain with a glass bowl of goldfish whimpering like a puppy and begging for love. There were, of course, and in no particular order: the anorexic who made the world’s best mashed potatoes, the bore who in awkward moments would spout knock-knock jokes, the crappy poet, the would-be home-wrecker, the wannabe prude, the Jesus-freak-turned-Wican-turned-yogi, and, uhm, me.

I lived in fear of what I would become. It seemed “the tall, thin one with soft hair who was equal parts wise, compassionate and hilarious” was out of my reach. Would I be “the one who was always hungry and thought magic was pulling nickels from behind kids’ ears”? How about “the one who never remembered to shave”? Fortunately, the guy beat me to the punch. He made me: “the one he dumped on Valentine’s Day”.

While I can’t say I’ve been a big fan of his since then, I will admit that I love that he never named names. Especially since he was one of those types that liked to surround himself with his exes, throwing parties where we’d all stand around ducking knock-knock jokes and wondering who the crappy poet was. As you can imagine, after one particular Valentine’s Day, I didn’t bother showing up for the parties, but the no-name-naming stuck with me, and I thought of it again this morning when I read about Elizabeth Edwards.

Edwards, as you likely know, is the wife of one-time Presidential hopeful John Edwards. John had an affair—one of those headliner fathering-a-child kind of affairs—and Elizabeth has been extremely forthcoming in her thoughts regarding the affair. She grants interviews; she’s written a memoir, but she does it all under a single condition: that the name of the woman—Edwards calls her simply “The Unwelcome Woman”—not be uttered.

As a writer and a thinker, I love that the ‘uttering’ feels too intense to Edwards; as a regular ole gal, I’m a little like, uhm, who are you? The artist formerly known as Prince? I mean, isn’t a Jennifer Flowers a Jennifer Flowers no matter how bitter the smell? Enlighten me, folks. What am I missing here?

Where was I?  It was a barbecue.  In Brooklyn.  We were on a roof where you could see a lot of the city.  We could also see that we couldn’t see a lot more of the city.  Bigger buildings occupied significant swatches of the panorama.  If you got up on the structure housing the spiral staircase down into the apartment you could see the Statue of Liberty.  Otherwise, you couldn’t.

Someone said, “That new Filet-O-Fish ad?”

Someone Else said, “I know, right?

Someone Else’s Girlfriend said, “When that comes on?  I have to stop everything.”

At first I thought this conversation was headed toward hating the ad.  I would not be surprised to learn that some people find it annoying.  In the ad, bearded white guys, (maybe hipsters, maybe regular guys, probably some frustrating new hybrid), hang out in a garage while a Big Mouth Billy Bass look-alike sings/raps/laments that one of the beardos is eating McDonald’s only sandwich invented to combat declining Friday sales during Lent (see History here) while he, the bootleg Billy, isn’t eating one, said incantation accompanied by what I believe is the tune/beat that the old Casio SK-1 used to play when you pressed the “samba” button.  At once, you are awash in uber-hip trends you didn’t even know existed and nostalgia you didn’t think it was possible to feel.

It’s a pretty obnoxious piece of video.

But it’s also got a lot to love in it, that love being of the “I can’t believe all of this stuff I know about is happening at once” variety.  This is like a strange dream that takes place in my parents’ old house except it’s not because there’s a pool in the basement and for some reason all of my coworkers are sorting the recycling to pay for my walkathon, you might think, while watching it.  Except you can’t think that, because the ad is so absorbing that you cannot think anything, cannot do anything except be enveloped in the insane collage of half-remembered tropes that really only point back to themselves.  That kind of love.

My barbecuing someones, two out of three of them beardos themselves, of course, loved it.

“That is my favorite thing to watch in the world,” said SEG.

“She punched me in the neck to make me stop talking when it came on last week,” said SE.

“Yeah, I get really happy whenever it comes on too,” said S.

They weren’t, I note now, speaking of poetry.  And maybe they couldn’t have been.  But  I think ads—and I’m talking about good ads, ads that verge on being works of philosophically important works of art—take up a lot of the space in our minds that poetry could these days.  Part of the issue here is the “coming on” that ads do.  (I’m resisting an unfortunate extension of the unintended sexual metaphor embedded there.  Please award me two points for restraint.)  The opposite of verse, advertising seeks us out.  They come to us (knowledge that makes searching for ads on YouTube an uncomfortable business, by the way).  But more problematically, good ads prey on our love for unexpected allusion, dream-like images, and just-out-of-reach ideas.  They satisfy our craving – promising even greater satisfaction down the line, granted – for momentary sublimity, or, to be less grandiose, novelty.

As I’ve said before, using pixels far below these words on this very page, I’m not the first person to point this out.  In fact the Germans are already up to something.  And as much as I think the Late Capitalist ship is going down, I am a pretty big fan of consumerism.  In fact, my little brother and I once bonded importantly over the short-lived Messin’ With Sasquatch Ads, a moment that entailed a nearly identical conversation to the one I recount above.  It was he who, at the age of 13, posited: “ads are better than TV now.”  He meant that they are funnier. And that they have better learned the lessons of juxtaposition and gesturing toward what is hilariously not on the screen we can see in the early seasons of The Simpsons and the late ones of Seinfeld (when they mostly abandoned the studio audience and thus the pace-murdering laugh track).  In fact, the ads probably taught those lessons first, and they stepped up their game when real storytellers appropriated the techniques.  The gist of all this is that those “groundbreaking” Dove ads are crowding Sonnet 41 out of our minds.  Not because, as the standard logic goes, ads are so mindless that they stupefy (I think this is an acceptable usage) us through mere exposure, but because they are such sensational delicacies.

I filled up on tastily carcinogenic flame-broiled sausages and left the rooftop barbecue early to come home and grade papers.  These days I find this task more difficult than I used to do, I think because my episodic TV drama addiction has gotten way out of hand.  And true to form, after two disappointing essays in a row, I sat down in front of Hulu to catch up on the few remaining episodes of Rescue Me I haven’t seen.  Dennis Leary’s fireman character, regular viewers know, just keeps encountering self-creating problems and I was eager to see which ones he would face in the episode entitled “Pussified.” Ahem.

The episode kept being interrupted by the same spot, an Ad Council PSA warning teenage drivers to pay attention while they drive.  In the ad, Fred Willard, in top form, plays a poor imitation of typical teen.  I know the thing by heart.  When I say that I believe Fred Willard’s deadpan is a true invention of beauty, my tongue is well away from my cheek.  Murder probably is not on the long list of acts I would commit to be able to deliver words the way he does, but it’s close.  Watching the PSA, I recited Mr. Willard’s lines along with him, just as I sometimes used to do with my recording of Dylan Thomas reading Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night, practicing the cadence that wrings the perfection from words and images we’ve heard and seen before.

Where was I?  I was here in my chair where I type these words now.  And I was, ludicrously or not, out there somewhere in the landscape of possibility we see, patchily, when we encounter and reencounter real poetry.

Years ago, at St. Mark’s New Year’s Poetry Festival, Bob Holman stood up and spoke this poem: “If you see something / say something: / banana.”

The crowd cracked up.

That was the first successful 9/11 joke I can recall. And, unlike Gilbert Godfrey’s earlier failed attempt at a 9/11 joke at the Friars Club roast of Hugh Hefner (a joke that made the grief-stricken the crowd shout “TOO SOON!” and made the comedian leap instead into a raunchy rendition of “The Aristocrats”— the “greatest dirty joke ever told”– all of which is captured in the documentary film of the same name), Holman’s timing was perfect.

The MTA’s “If You See Something, Say Something” security ad campaign was launched in 2002. New York City had already long been in the grip of Orange Alert, so long that we’d become accustomed to being mobilized. Eyes open, cell phones at the ready: something seen, something said. Unattended baggage on a subway? On it. Notice someone in bulky or inappropriate clothing? Suspicious! Dead guy riding the Q? OK, that one took longer to call in.

[Sure did: http://www.foxnews.com/story/0,2933,182321,00.htmlhttp://www.foxnews.com/story/0,2933,182321,00.html ]

The “See Something, Say Something” public service motto, emblazoned all over NYC public transit has become part of the cultural wallpaper, a comforting refrain for those of us who use buses and subways and occasionally teeter on the edge of the void: what happens if I’m down here and it happens again? London’s subway bombings? Eep?

And just as the heart torques toward hysteria, we recall our role: be a good citizen. If you see something, say something, and that way maybe the whole thing can be avoided. And even better: since everyone else sees those signs too, then they’ll see/say something and that will further expand the force of ground-level urban surveillance, and we’ll all be safe in a web of like-minded onlookers looking out for each other. Force multiplied.

But the MTA’s motto puts us in a tightly restricted position. It’s not asking us to do more than describe what we see. “Be alert,” “Be wary,” “Take notice,” “Report.” And as much as my love of poetry would have me argue that the act of description goes a long way toward conjuring the world(s) we inhabit, it is not an act of explicit reflective interpretation. It is not an act of analysis, or sense-making; it does not ask us to ponder or question or wonder. All of which, granted, might interrupt the crucial flow of information: evidence on the ground must make its way quickly to security forces who can take appropriate action, or we’re all in trouble.

But we’re also all in trouble if we don’t actively practice the art of reflection, analysis, interpretation. Deliberate force expansion is not deliberative democracy. Perhaps the best supplement to Orange Alert is a robust blogosphere—essayistic blog entries where writers perform the act of thinking, enact an urgent expression of idea, critique what we come to take for granted.

“If you see something, say something: banana.”

sch_g_taoI am currently reading “The Tao of Physics” by Fritjof Capra and learning a thing or two about Eastern Mysticism and subatomic particles. This is one of those books where the author has read almost everything in the world there is to read and so he decides to throw two of the most dissimilar topics together so as to stave off his own boredom. Motherhood and radiation. Shoe shopping and polar ice caps. House cleaning and sex (scratch that last one). You get my point.

Anyway, it took me till chapter three to get the parallel between the two. But in a nutshell this is it: both eastern mysticism and physics must be taught and learned without the advantage of the known senses. We cannot see subatomic particles. We cannot smell them, taste them, hear them and most importantly, we cannot even think about them LOGICALLY as they, apparently, defy logic. But we can see “the consequences” of them in how they react in certain natural and unnatural situations. Capra writes on the subject of the atom: “What we see, or hear, are never the investigated phenomena themselves but always their consequences.” Eastern mysticism is much the same. Knowledge of life and wisdom cannot be taught with logic. It cannot be seen, heard, smelled, tasted or touched. But we can experience the consequences of that knowledge as it exists in the form of our spirituality. In fact, “whenever the essential nature of things is analyzed by the intellect, it must seem absurd or paradoxical.” This is much how “faith” runs. It cannot be explained. It’s not logical.

So, of course, that all got me thinking about my own life in general and how I am incessantly trying to figure things out. Analyzing. Deconstructing. Wondering about people and/or situations that cannot be understood. Plucking a part, detail for detail the why of why we do the things we do. And here, I come to find out it’s pointless. That the essential nature of things is a deep mystery, not to be understood by logic.

Granted, this is a great way to think when trying to understand half the crazy shit in the world. It’s almost as if it gets me off the hook of trying to really understand anything. Perfect example: Black Friday 2008, a Wal-Mart employee is killed by a stampede of shoppers. The story popped back up into the news this week because Wal-Mart is settling out of court and paying two million in damages to people who were injured in the incident and for “community service.” Whatever the hell that means. But what gets me when I really think about this is that a corporation is being sued for a death caused by a crowd of individuals.

Why are we suing a corporation?

Have we lost our sense of responsibility when it comes to acceptable shopping protocol? Is it safe to say that when a bunch of humans gather together they lose sense of their human-ness and become animals, incapable of logical thinking, incapable of proper behavior? At what point do you go from being an individual to one among a “stampede”? At what point in evolution do we as humans become candidates for a “crowd-management plan” that now has to be instituted in Wal-Marts all across the country? What the hell was on sale that day anyway?

Yes. The essential nature of things is a vast and deep mystery. Faith is required to explain certain things. Mystics know this. Physicists know this. Now I need to know it because I highly doubt i’ll ever be able to explain the weirdness of the world. And more so than anything, I can now say that humanity is probably as clueless about their own nature as the sub-atomic particles we’re all made of.

As a girl, I loved few things more than I loved the Miss. America pageant. As I remember that oh-so-lucky night of the year, my Aunt Anne would make a swimming-pool-sized batch of French onion dip and pour us each a fuzzy navel, and then, well past any decent bed time hour, we’d sit on the nubbly rug in the cool of the den casting our votes for the winners. Back then, Miss. Texas always seemed to win, and everyone wanted to feed the starving children.

These days, my husband hardly even looks at me when I jump up and down and clap my hands together. It’s on! I yell. Tonight! It’s on and we’re gonna watch it!!! But then night comes and goes, and I completely forget about it until a day or so later when I come across some grainy picture in the Daily News of a woman with flowers and a crown, and oh crap, I say, we missed it again.

I’d imagine we’re not the only people who missed the pageant. (Any watchers out there?) But I’ve been thinking a lot about these tiara-wearers, and I guess what I love most about Miss. Americas is that the only ones we ever hear of are the ones who “disgrace” the crown. Think: Vanessa Williams, that blue-eyed beauty of the 1984 crown who resigned after it was revealed that she had posed (uhm, naked) for some “questionable photographs.” Now, try to think of any other Miss. America winner. Stumped? Me too.

This week, though, we’ve got Carrie Prejean, and while Prejean was not the actual winner of last week’s Miss. USA pageant (she was second to the lovely Miss. North Cackalacky!), she’s got a whole slew of talk going on around her. First, there are her breasts: courtesy—some believe—of California pageant organizers (Thanks, fellas! With these babies I’m unstoppable!); then there are the “semi-nude” shots of her circulating on the ole interweb, but more than anything is a little comment she made during the usually uninspired interview question. Only “opposites” should be allowed to marry, she said, when asked about same-sex weddings. (Clearly, she knows me and my husband because we’re quite the opposites!)

No, readers, trust me, I have no desire to hear what you think about same-sex marriage. I want, instead, to advocate a revamping of the interview portion on television pageants. I want us to compile a list of questions so wild and controversial that they will spin the pretty heads off these ladies, spin the heads off all of us sitting in the light of the den with nothing but our vat of dip and a dream. It’s not that I want it to get ugly, I just don’t want it to be so darned pretty. I mean, heck, it’s easy to want to feed the starving children, but give me a little more meat on the brain-bone. Any suggestions?

Ever pulled the plug on your hair dryer and blown a fuse? I knew someone who did that, then soon realized the power was out in her whole building, indeed the whole Eastern Seaboard. The blackout of 2003 had many of us feeling that undeniable feeling of “ooops.”

‘Fess up. Maybe you’ve felt it too, that odd mixture of culpability and confusion. The brain seeks closure, causality. My hand + that switch + lights out East Coast= shit.

What is that emotion? A twinge of guilt, a whiff of ego? It’s funny the way technology brings out the magical thinkers in us. This adult feeling has a darker twin in the way children sometimes feel at the loss of a loved one– that somehow, in some deep, undeniable way, the child is at fault.

But I’m starting to think that funky combo of narcissism and culpability at the heart of “breaking” the power grid, for example, is inversely proportional to a new emotional relationship I’ve developed with my Blackberry: I’m addicted. And I’m clueless.

Picture me thus: whaling away with both thumbs, texting and e-mailing; wild-eyed with the velocity of information. But do I know why I can’t save a photo file? Have I a clue where the photo-taking button actually is? Am I constantly/inadvertently taking pictures of my knee caps? At least I’ve stopped “butt-dialing” random folks in my address book. And what’s with all those icons? An “app” used to mean chicken fingers back in the day.

I’m so old I “learned the computer” back in the basement of Armitage Hall at Rutgers University in Camden. I learned COBOL; I programmed in BASIC. I actually developed a program for a video store cash register and got a B+ in the class. Not bad for a diehard English major. But even then, when computers were new, the lot of us in the basement often looked up from our monitors, blanched, convinced that we’d somehow made the wrong keystroke and broken the hard drive.

Do kids weaned on X-Box ever feel like they might break the machine? Bring down the grid?  Or is this generational angst, borne of a moment when old technologies were new?

Still, I dusted off my skills in late 1999, when Y2K was a looming crisis and only those who knew the old languages could save the day. C’est moi.

So imagine my chagrin at thumbing my Blackberry like the worst cliché of an octogenarian learning e-mail. AS IF I SHOULD WRITE THE REST OF THIS BLOG IN ALL CAPS.

I don’t think this dual capacity to relish new communication technologies while simultaneously owning my “unsophisticated user” status is unique to Web 2.0 culture.

Take, for example, driving a car. In a snow storm. You’re in a skid. The dreaded fishtail. And you recall what Driver’s Ed. taught you to do: don’t hit the gas! Don’t jam the brakes! Spin the steering wheel into the direction of the skid, lad, spin it into the skid. But me? I assume “crash positions” a la Airplane. Hands and feet off the wheel, off the pedals, whooping whoops until the car comes to a stop.

I was reminded of all this when I saw a graffitied NYC MTA subway map recently. (Go here: http://www.mta.info/nyct/maps/submap.htm ). Some wiseacre had tagged it, specifically in the wide open expanse of blue to the upper right of what can only be described as the technicolored spaghetti of the subway grid. In the spot where the waters of the East River turn towards Rikers, where the Sound is a promise the map makes, someone wrote “There Be Dragons Here.”

We fill the limits of what we know with magic. We are all cartographers at heart. Drive on.


I learned tonight that I don’t always have the resources or the capability to be a sturdy human being when the world chips away at me. Friends yelled at me. Work shat on me. Some crazy white trash ho in a Pinto (I didn’t even think those things were around anymore) kept screaming “Bitch!” at me in the parking lot of McDonald’s. The swine flu is driving me insane. One f’ing toddler, living is squalor, some where down near the Mexican border is dead and the world is resurrecting their face masks from back during the Avian flu. The word “pandemic” is sweeping the blogworld. I’m losing confidence in myself. These antibiotics are depressing me. And I can’t have sex for six more days.

What’s a girl to do?

The good news is, CG is engaged, or shall I say Wuffle-lump and Lover- nugget are officially engaged as per her announcement on facebook today. Probably done over the phone or in facebook chat. Probably haphazardly. Like he blurted out “I kinda feel like taking the next step.” While she concluded, “marriage?” Which ultimately led to being “engaged.” Folks, theirs is a four month relationship. Not even. Three weekends together that I know of, since Christmas. Do you even get engaged in your 40’s after three drama-driven weekends unless you’re a diner waitress in South Jersey trying to get rid of your current ten-miles-of-bad-road boyfriend with something else? WTF. As Delores, my cleaning lady would say, “don’t let me get my strut on.”

I’m bitter. It’s the antibiotics. It’s not me. But I wonder sometimes if, in all fairness, I have some worldly right to pass such harsh judgment on people I don’t even know. Who cares! Right? I mean, do morals need to be applied to facebook? These are the philosophical questions I seem to be unable to answer at the end of the day. What’s more is that I realize I am getting more involved in a virtual world, unhitched over the surreal. Not what is real, but rather a “representation” of what is real.

So, I start to read actual, real magazines and books to combat all this “virtual” stuff. An article on the Kindle, for example, from ADBUSTERS magazine caught my attention:

“The trouble with abstract thought is that the concepts we play with in our minds often become preferred to the real upon which these concepts were originally based. As soon as we draw a picture, or take a photograph, of a bird we often no longer care whether the bird continues to exist. The picture is, in our visual society, superior to the chirping bird. This trait of our world-view leads to a despairing and paradoxical situation where our cultural storehouse of symbols, imagery, art and concepts increases in direct proportion to the death of our planet, living beings, other world views, beautiful landscapes, etc. [emphasis mine]. ” –Melt Your Kindle, by Micah White (Adbusters Magazine).

Simultaneously, an artist friend of mine out in San Francisco was working on a design project on the life of Marcel Duchamp and I was able to appropriate this blurb of his life, circa 1923: “his [Duchamp’s] legacy includes the insight that art can be about ideas instead of worldly things.”

It sounds so positive on the one hand, and so nihilistic on the other. So, which is it? Is it a good thing that all that we think and feel can be absent of actual, worldly things, or is the very nature of abstract thought destroying us a la Dawkins’ memes?

As CG’s status goes from “in a relationship” (March 28) to “engaged” (April 30), I can’t help but wonder if she recognizes that she and her “smoochy-bear” only exist in the very narrowest sense. That their love isn’t so much love as a representation of love. And that I (as distant and as virtually unknown to her as I am) am a big part of her virtual engagement. Not only am I a witness. I am also taking the components and pieces of her engagement information and I am reconfiguring them. I am re-presenting them to you, which makes me a large part of her life, real or otherwise.

Understand this: I barely know this woman. I think we went to high school together. That’s about it. But today, shortly after she announced she was engaged (to which someone responded: “to who?”), she posted a computer-generated picture of what her and her fiance’s baby would look like IF they had one. Talk about creepy. Just imagine a picture of some baby with CG’s haggard, forty-year-old face morphed with Smoochy Bear’s weather-beaten, I’ve-spent-a-lifetime-suckin’-down-whisky looks. Cute, huh? But, whatever. They named it “Chris” and just like we used to carry around an egg in Home Economics class, they can virtually burp this thing and change its poopy diapers and hope to god that their computers don’t crash.

But I wonder if Marcel Duchamp saw all this sur-reality coming. I really doubt it. Heck, he was concerned with chocolate grinders and urinals (the “Fountain” by the way, according to a panel of 500 top artists, was named the most influential artwork of our times.”). And what about Magritte? I always loved his painting of a pipe and underneath it are the famous words, “Ceci n’est pas une pipe,” this is not a pipe.

But it is a pipe, isn’t it?

No. It’s a representation of a pipe.

But CG and Smoochy Bear are engaged to married, aren’t they?

No. They are a representation of two people engaged to be married.

And so, you see the dilemma and the freedom with which I carry this argument. On the one hand, I am writing judgmental things about people I barely know. On the other, I am merely only judging a representation of those people, in which case, I am not so much a judge as I am a “critic.” An art critic, if you will. If, indeed, you consider a urinal or the sloppy love story of two recovering alcoholics “art.”

In light of all that, I suppose I shouldn’t complain about the ho in the Pinto, the antibiotics or the no sex stuff. Those are real. Those are really real facets of my life. They are to be appreciated much like the bird chirping outside my window, the beauty of the earth’s landscape, and the slow, imperceptible sweep of swine flu making its way through the world in a cough or a sneeze.

Yesterday at the gym, breathing in the thick sweaty breath of my fellow Brooklyn-ites, I watched the TV screen flash from one surgical mask to the next, each fastened tight beneath a pair of sad, worried eyes. At the bottom of the screen, in all caps: “IF YOU’RE HUMAN, YOU’RE AT RISK.”

I was reminded of a cough I developed when I was six. It raged through me, sent me in wilds fits that left my eyes watery and my throat sore. I remember it as being accompanied by chills, by an inability to eat, by nightmares and cold sweats and general malaise. I thought I was dying.

A few years later—after going through rounds of medication—I mentioned it to my mother. We were driving, I’m sure, to some new place, and Remember when I had the whooping cough, I asked. What? She said. You know, that cough, when I was in first grade. She took a swig of her Diet Coke and laughed. That was psychosomatic, she said. Psycho-what?

In your mind, she said. We think you were just trying to get attention. But the pills? I asked. Fake, she told me, they’re called placebo. I stared out the window long and hard. Had I really not been dying? Had I really not narrowly escaped Ole Man Reaper?

Because of this, I never really believe I’m sick. A couple of weeks ago, when Eva and I were laid up in the house, and I was sucking down chicken soup and reading US Weekly, I kept thinking, I hope no one finds out we’re faking it. Yes, we were coughing and going through tissues like mad and we didn’t really have voices and we were curled up like two shrimp in the bed, but deep down inside, I wondered if it was really all just in my mind.

And now this…Pigs flying…151 dead in Mexico from the Swine Flu…if you’re human, you’re at risk. None of this is accompanied with a reminder that 35,000 people die each year from the HUMAN flu. I’m just wondering if it’s all in our minds a little. What do you think: is America suffering from the same cough I had as a girl? Or should I stop getting on so many airplanes and invest in a mask or two?

I’ve been missing zines today, and thinking about how they seem to have disappeared from my radar now that blogs have taken their place. One of the novels that I’m working on in my dissertation features a 16 year old writing a zine for victims of sexual abuse, and now I imagine he’d have a blog instead. Of course, he wouldn’t be isolated—he’d spend his days in chatrooms full of survivors of sexual abuse—and the novel would more or less evaporate. But there was something wonderful about going to an out of the way bookstore and discovering a zine. I read some pretty amazing zines at St. Marks back in the ‘90s. But now I can watch Karen Carpenter: Superstar on Youtube, so it all balances out. And chapbooks are doing great. Who doesn’t love chapbooks?

* * *

Is the book really disappearing, or is it libraries? My own trusty university library is increasingly purchasing electronic versions of books (I find such a thing unreadable for more than a page or two) and joining consortiums to make books flow easily from campus to campus. I suppose that the promiscuous books of library collections (indiscriminately read by endless eyes) aren’t very good for a publisher’s bottom line, but it seems like there should be a solution here to something.

* * *

Kids, the internet is rotting your brain. It gives you cortisol. I just need to focus.

* * *

Craig Arnold, please be found, come home.

Gotta love the ironies of digital culture. A big fretful debate among publishers is whether the printed word is on the way out. But the first big internet retailer made its money selling books online. Amazon is a great example of what some folk call “convergence culture”— the term is a bit slippery: for some it means the way older media forms appear inside the newest media channels (like books and movies and TV shows showing up online); for others it refers to the way the technologies themselves are converging (that we can watch videos on our cell phones, which double as e-mail devices, and internet sources).

And now the Library of Congress is getting into the game. Check out their digital archives. The LOC has made its Slave Narratives, oral histories, and American Life archives available online. “Nearly 3,000 of the oral history interviews are now available on the Library of Congress’s W.P.A. Life Histories Web site, memory.loc.gov/ ammem/wpaintro/wpahome.html, with more to come.”

Since the late 1970s the Library of Congress has been quietly unpacking and vetting the contents of the WPA’s Federal Writers Project, making the materials available to researchers. During the Great Depression, as part of Roosevelt’s New Deal, the federal government employed over 6000 poets, essayists, journalists, and writers to interview and document the stories of the nation. Editors included John Cheever, Zora Neale Hurston, Studs Terkel, Ralph Ellison, Dorothy West, Kenneth Patchen and many more. They produced the famed American Guide Series, and they also produced the Slave Narratives. The timing was crucial: social and economic crisis met up with the literary, historical, and sociological imagination of the federally-employed writers. Plus, in the late 1930s the population of once-enslaved people was dwindling. Armed with microphones and notebooks, the editors went out into the nation and collected their stories. The editors also amassed oddball anecdotes and local histories. They believed—even in the face of a culture rife with white supremacy, anti-immigration laws, and the like—that they could celebrate a national culture of diversity. W. H. Auden called the whole project “one of the noblest and most absurd undertakings ever attempted by a state.”

And now all that material is available online. You can download audio files and listen to the voice ex-slave Fountain Hughes.

Take that, Facebook. I got yer “25 Things” right here.

Or, better still:

Dear 21st Century Writer, what should a poet do with those voices? What would a novelist do? Or an essayist?  What would you do? Would you listen? Bear witness? Or…

To the Lighthouse

It’s late April and it’s 90 degrees in Philadelphia.  Right now I’m listening to the loud omnipresent hum of what I assume is a cooling device for the meat/produce store loading dock right next door.  It ends and, before I know it, it begins again when I’m in the middle of doing something else in my room.

It’s 3am and every time I try to sleep I start sweating profusely.  

I just spent an hour with my favorite book  — To the Lighthouse.  Even though I’ve read it about seven times (mostly in college), there’s something mysterious that draws me in.  No matter where my copy might be (lost, at the bottom of a pile of magazines, at a friend’s house), I think, “I should be reading that book.”  And then I’m reading it and it’s like an entirely different piece of fiction.  

I also just read tonight that there is going to be a new David Foster Wallace book, titlted “This is Water.”  It’s a commencement speech that he gave at Kenyon College.  I’m pretty sure I read it all online (it’s not that long, and you can read it here), but it’s most definitely worth re-reading.  Here is Wallace at his big-hearted, big-brained best.  

The refrigerator is running again and I’m still sweating.  Maybe the weather will be better tomorrow.  


Sorry loves– I’m home being ill and doing things with a neti pot that should not be recounted.

Woke up in Rome; now, in Athens. Hiked up a hill for the Aprokopli, and it makes me wonder about all this news, why we sift through the papers all day long, why so many living rooms are stale with the light of the Weather Channel, why so many kitchens hum with what’s just happened. I guess it’s just as good as thinking waaaaaaay too far ahead or waaaaaay too far behind, but tonight, in this strange Athens’ Internet port, none of the news matters to me; only this matters to me; this now; this way back when.





Maybe he doesn’t work at the bookstore anymore.  He goes there to pick up an old check?  After the scene at the doggy daycare, she wouldn’t be browsing magazines if she thought he might be there.   Also, she should be wearing the shirt from the night where he met her sister.  Ties into the blue theme.

More sex.  Three new scenes?  (They need to go all the way.)

Also, before the car crash, a new scene where he’s talking about the sex with Kenny at a restaurant and the woman from her office overhears.   This is where the milk coming out of the nostrils part can go back in.

Cut out the long thing on whales.  Steve is probably right – this has been done before.

Too many singing in the shower scenes.  Cut six of them.

Dr. Toliver is not his father, but he has to be the prime suspect at the party so that the road trip happens.  Need new reason for suspicion.  Smokes a pipe?  Line dancing?  Someone tells him his dad used to have wavy hair?

He has to go to the bank after the Laundromat, otherwise why does he have the coat hanger with him when he bumps into her again?

Move last chapter to somewhere near the beginning of part 2 so the talent show coincides with death of the grandmother.  Write new last chapter that sums up living in America these days.  A parade?  Reality show?  Race riot?  Maybe he has to fill up a friend’s car with a really big gas tank – super expensive.

Prettier adjectives for the camping chapter.

Something missing from the Mount Rushmore part.  Do pumas live around there?  Possums?  Research.

She doesn’t accuse him of stalking at the dentist.  But she does at the Lamaze class.  More room for drama there.  Could be really touching if it’s handled right.

What if all the dream sequences have him chasing a butterfly that symbolizes his hopes for the future?    Maybe work in some stuff on Native American beliefs when he goes to the “haunted” museum.  Then it makes more sense.

Tone needs to be Tolstoy crossed with Palahniuk.  But the exact same feel as a Johnny Cash song.    Rhythm.

Not enough descriptions of people’s clothes.  Add more.

They need to have a kick ass band for the wedding.  Like a dream band.  They can do Salsa, reggae, hip hop, show tunes, 70s rock (no 60s because of the protest theme – too obvious).  Irish line dancing too much?  The singer is hot, but not hotter than the bride.  And the guitar player can do that thing with his teeth.  The first dance should be November Rain or the Humpty Dance.  Either way, this part needs to be written really, really well so people get how freaking awesome the whole night is.

If his mother doesn’t kick him out of the house in chapter 47 they can just live together there at the end.

Swearing or no swearing?  Need to nail this down for the part where he drops the hammer on his foot.

More brand names.

Her cat runs away.  And they find it in the park with bite marks all over.  Foul play.  Professor Fraussenpunch?

Probably too many scenes where they bump into each other (14 if you count the Ferris Wheel?).  Cut one or it will seem like he is stalking her.

Start writing tomorrow!

There is much to love about Amy Hosig’s brief poem in this issue (http://pbq.drexel.edu/poetry/hosig-amy_shrimp.php). In its 14 lines, “Shrimp” makes me remember why poetry feels good to read.

Volta. I’m most drawn to the poem’s turns, and the particular nature of what feels like more than a mere turn of thought or change in argument. What Hosig does in a line characterizing her hope that the shrimp she’s about to eat “…spent their life, hopefully, / jetting about” is to hold the reader in a light uncertainty: does she hope the shrimp were hopeful as they jetted about? Or is the hope that they jetted about hers? It’s obviously the latter, but fun as hell to feel the possibility of both before the line breaks and we’re dropped into a more specific thought.

Oddly, it’s like cross-dressing comedian Eddie Izzard’s schtick where he starts nodding his yes, yes, yes, then switches to “oh, no, no” in repeated rhythmic waves.  ( I can’t find the exact scene, but check this out:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WYcnEonB04E&feature=related )

What the nodding Izzard turns into a hoot of indecision appears more subtly in “Shrimp,” obviously, but it’s there in the duality, the lift, the turn at the ends of key lines.

Or in whole lines doing similar work. Take “make me” in her last stanza:

Oh you little shrimp

who involuntarily

died for me,

make me,

like the intelligent whale,

able to change you

into song.

On one hand the poem feels like a classic Christian intercession prayer. But “make me” makes us feel that moment of limbo once more: we expect the next line to be “happy” or “thankful”—the simply statement of the emotion that’s been “jetting about” this poem of gratitude: You make me happy.

But instead, Hosig’s prayer is for metamorphosis– her own, specifically, and ours, by dint of reading the poem as it unfolds. Her prayer for the dead is also a prayer for the living. And it’s in the way the line “make me” makes a promise, makes us wait, and delivers something more than what she’s made us think will come. The experience of uncertainty and surprise gets built into the structure of the poem.

Poesis, vates— poet as maker, seer; dulce et utile, baby, dulce et utile. Happy poetry month.

I am currently dealing with a bit of a crisis of faith precipitated by my mother attempting to friend me on Facebook, but I’ll take a break from my whining long enough to congratulate Brendan Lorber and Tracey McTague for successfully publishing another issue of Lungfull! Magazine.

Lungfull! (lungfull.org) is an independent journal that regularly publishes print issues of over 100 or so pages of poetry. Lungfull’s cool because they publish the first draft of the poem alongside the finished product, lending them their tagline “a compendium of horrible mistakes.”

Painted Bride at age thirty-seven is certainly a grandmother of poetry journals, but congratulations again to Lungfull! who, at seventeen, is certainly our favorite crazy uncle. Of poetry journals.

I think I’m gonna just not respond to my mother’s friend request.

Dorothy Parker

Dorothy Parker

I am once again, sitting in Les Deux Magots. I am a nobody. But it’s one of those right time, right place moments. Dorothy Parker is inside. She’s drunk and laughing at the center of a clique of American and British expatriates. She’s singing over and over, “I like to have a martini, two at the very most. After three I’m under the table, after four I’m under my host.” This causes more laughter and more singing to the point of glasses breaking on the floor. It’s close to three and the serveur is pressing everyone to leave. There’s only about ten or so left inside and out. And I am quite surprised to be one of them. Karen and I lost our chance to catch the Metro back home, so we walked from the Violon Dingue by way of Saint Germain de Pres.

Sartre & Beauvoir

Sartre & Beauvoir

Just as we are about to leave, in walks Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. I am beside myself. The maitre di tells them the place is closing. And Sartre looks at Simone and says, “Three o’clock is always too late or too early for anything you want to do.” She takes a quick peak inside, notices Dorothy parading around on the tabletops drunk as her male friends on the floor hold her up and says, “Society, being codified by man, decrees that woman is inferior; she can do away with this inferiority only by destroying the male’s superiority.” Sartre then nods his head in agreeance and they leave. But not before Sartre has the chance to go over to Parker and spank her on the ass.

Of course, by this point, Parker falls off the table into the arms of one of the Americans. Simone gives her the finger. And then the serveur comes out from behind the bar and shuffles everyone onto the boulevard and locks the doors, leaving Karen and I, Simone de Beauvoir, Jean-Paul Sartre and Dorothy Parker standing on the corner wondering what the hell just happened. Karen and I decide to wait for the metro across the street at an all-night club instead of walking the rest of the way home. Sartre and Beauvoir take off toward the Latin Quarter, arguing over Sartre’s infidelity. And Dorothy Parker is scraped off the sidewalk by what looks to be the spitting image of Henry Miller, who comes meandering up the street just as polluted as Parker, shouting, “There is no salvation in becoming adapted to a world which is crazy!”

Henry Miller

Henry Miller

I was talking to a friend today about a rather prolific poetry blogger X (male) who has a rather ardent fondness for a rather annoying poet Y (female) and wrote a number of blog posts along the lines of, “anyone who doesn’t like poet Y just doesn’t like strong women.”  Anyway.  The posts went on for a long time, and basically convinced me that Poetry Blogger X wanted to sleep with annoying poet Y, without telling me much of what was of value about annoying poet Y’s writing.  For example, one virtue of annoying poet Y was her attempt at writing a manifesto—not that he said the manifesto was any good—just how wonderful that someone of our generation was writing one.  Uh-huh.  There is a reason that the age of the manifesto has passed, and it’s because only a moron thinks that poetry should do only one thing.  I was particularly angry about annoying poet Y because having taken a class to hear Poetry Blogger X and Unknown Poet Y read together—meaning that I had provided about a quarter of her audience—annoying poet Y posted on her blog that she was offended that more people hadn’t come to hear her read.  You’re welcome, annoying poet Y.  She also referred to the audience as being “cowed” by her performance.  I’ve never felt bad about having *not* heckled a poet before.

So, anyway, as I was telling my friend this long story (the topic was “The Second Worst Poetry Reading I Ever Attended and How It Convinced Me to Stay OUT of the Poetry Blogosphere”), my friend said, well, you know, Poetry Blogger X does work very hard.

This is true.  Poetry Blogger X works hard.  Between poems, blog posts, essays, and reviews, he probably works more in a day than I do in week.

But wouldn’t it be nice if he didn’t?  Wouldn’t it be great if everyone just worked less?

Law Firms right now are letting their lawyers take a year off at a reduced salary.  Unions are working to reduce everyone’s hours, lest anyone be fired.  What if we began to actually value leisure, not as something we pay for and make fungible (saving for a trip to Hawaii or London or a week at EPCOT Center), but as an ethic.  What if we all said that we should spend time being citizens, or staying home to cuddle, or just recuperating and chilling and thinking.  I think that Academia is very rare in that they value the idea of the sabbatical—that one works better when not working—or at least that one’s obligations should be relaxed periodically.  I often think that in America it’s very hard to be a good citizen, because we’re all so busy—and yet an informed citizenry is the very engine on which democracy runs.  So what’s so great about Poetry Blogger X writing about poetry faster than I can read about poetry?  What’s so great about the Collected Poem’s of Frank O’Hara?  Wouldn’t’ you rather have a selected?  Have you ever been glad that you sat through the mega-extended director’s cut?  Wouldn’t you rather see the shorter version?

Obviously, this is a modest proposal.  What I’m really asking for is less of what I don’t like in the world.  But really, wouldn’t it be great if we all did less?  If someone said, Yeah, Jason is always so interesting and relaxed.  I guess it’s that Protestant Leisure Ethic.

I must have been six. The circus!!! We yelled. The circus!!! We spit-washed our dark places, dug out our cleanest clothes and prepared to stuff ourselves silly with stringy cotton candy. We could hardly believe what we were about to witness: dancing bears and sad clowns, ladies with suntanned-colored pantyhose and men with lions, whips and mascara. All of my when-I-die-I-wanna-go-to-heaven-and-be-a-trapeze-artist fantasies were about to be fueled, and I pinched my cheeks, hoping to be ‘discovered’.

What we hadn’t prepared for that night at the circus was the creature in the tiniest ring. The spotlight spun figure-8’s on the ceiling, hundreds and hundreds of infinities, loop-de-loop-de-loop, until finally it settled on the knobby-kneed, wide-eyed creature in the center. Ladies and gentlemen, the announcer said. Drums rolled, and we looked at the creature, noticing the unimaginable: a single horn in the middle of its head. We gasped as the drums kept rolling. The world’s only remaining unicorn!!!

Looking back I realize that much of my disappointment stemmed from the fact that the creature was a goat; everyone knows that unicorns are flying horses!!! But there was something else. Here was one of the great myths of our childhood unveiled, and in that unveiling, it looked like nothing we had ever fathomed. What was next? Real cowboys? Pirates?!?!?!

And yes, it seems, pirates were next. Suddenly, they’re all over the news: getting shot in the head by Navy Seals, earning top billing at Pentagon meetings. A few years ago when the head editors here at PBQ wanted to do a “Pirate” issue, I thought, uhm, okay, but now it makes all the sense in the world; now I think perhaps they had their fingers on the heartbeat of something that was just drifting around in the blue, and that something happened to be beating in the barrel chest of a parrot-toting, jewel-loving, plank-walker-making, sea-legged-Argher of a man.

But it’s got me wondering about what’s coming next. How about you? What were the great mythological creatures of your childhood, and how, dear reader, do you imagine they’ll unveil themselves?

ALSO, here’s an interesting look at what it takes to get a manuscript ready for publication, reacting to critics and editing. Pretty funny, too.

Whenever I Am About to Publish a Book… by MARK TWAIN


This blog is not supposed to be personal or confessional.  I know this.  And I know that I’ll probably regret admitting what I’m about to admit for reasons bigger than breaking blog rules.   But I must confess, I, personally, have been having a low-level anxiety attack for about a week now.  When I think back on it, I’ve had many of the symptoms for longer.  Since the end of January or so.  But no, now that I think of it, I felt this way back in September, October and November too.  Being a certain type of person, I’m probably always on the verge of high anxiety.  However, being on the verge of it and in the midst are very different states.  The distinction between then and now is a kind of heart-burn-restless-sick-to-the-stomach-weariness.  I don’t sleep very well.  I pace.  My conversations with people are strange and drifting.  I eat both more and less than I should.  I procrastinate in such a way that my skin dries out and my eyes sink farther back into their sockets.  Little things set me off.  Mostly they have to do with imagining someone else thinking something unkind and, worse, accurate about me.  That I am not up to snuff at work.  That I am not a particularly good friend.  That I will  never amount to much.  My mind gets much more specific, but I’ll spare you the detail.

The excuse for the unpleasantly personal confession is inclusion of myself in a larger trend.  I am, apparently, not the only one.  I am trendy.  You know, the economy and such.  It’s f@#$ed and so is our place in the world.  We’re all in the midst of this shared feeling, and I use the term midst deliberately, because the mood is palpable, as if the air has become soupy, or maybe granular.  We are walking around pushing our way through this stuff, and when we stop to rest more of it settles on us.  I was telling my friend Eric about my ailments and he reminded me of Planet Money’s report about the increase in broken teeth.  We are all biting down harder these days, it seems.

All of this, except maybe the procrastination-eyeball thing, is something Anderson Cooper could tell you.  And as I tell my students, any issue that CNN thinks they know how to dissect is one in which we’re going to have a hard time finding the pancreas and the precious, precious bile inside.   But I’m thinking of another angle: a new literature of anxiety.

Stick with me a moment.  For a while now, we have seen a lot of stories about the apocalypse, and even more stories about the shadowy conspiracies behind the guy behind the guy who runs everything.  Our worst fears seem to cause us to retreat to fantasies of survival (McCarthy’s The Road, anything with Zombies) and malevolent Wizards of Oz (The X-Files, Lost, etc.).  Surely anxiety about the precarious and delicate nature of late capitalist comfort and the void left in a godless universe are at the root of these horror stories.

The anxiety we’re all feeling is a bit different though now, I think.  We are worried about the end of all this, of course, even if some of us think that it – and I’m referring to whatever it is that’s closest, for you, to that over-generalizing phrase The Way We Live Now – has already outstayed its welcome.  We are still titillated by our own plans for what to do at the apocalypse and we are still comforted by the notion that all this badness in the world is someone else’s fault.  These days, however, feel closer to the good old hide-your-head-under-the-desk-when-the-A-bombs-coming-raining-down-even-though-we-know-it won’t-help days.  We feel completely naked to whatever the world has in store but also somehow complicit in both our own exposure and letting what is out there in the dark get so big and toothy.  I’m not saying that anything has fundamentally changed in the world this past year.  Most of us are still hurtling deeper into debt and box office receipts are bigger than ever.  I am claiming that a lot of people, a lot of American people in particular, feel as though something big has shifted though.

And so, I suggest that we need new literature for this moment.  We need old literature too, of course, and there are plenty of classics and also-rans that apply to this moment.  I suppose all I’m saying is that I’d like to get something out of all this heartburn.  I’d like some poems and stories that tell me the truth, literature that aches with its own complicity, heart-racing for the nothing behind it, darting eyes seeing the same old stuff anew.

I ask you: what would that new literature of anxiety look like?

At a recent meeting Marion and I (possibly others as well) got excited about the idea of a New York rip-off of the “Poetry Month Story Slam.”  We thought maybe we’d call it a “New York Story Slam Jam,” the distinction, besides the location, being that the event would not be a slam.  We don’t want to foster, nor, more importantly, do we want to go through all the work to create a structure for, judgment.  Instead, the event would feature our lively contributors, feeding off each other’s energy, combining each other’s ingredients to make something momentarily sweet.  Hence, a jam.  The theme, the topic upon which all the writers would have up compose–that would be “slam.”

Before you decide if this is a good idea, consider what happens when we slam  in New York.

So what do you all think?  Which contributors should we invite to participate?  Where should we do it?  What’s your favorite Onyx song?

Before you read any further, go take a look at Ravi Shankar’s poem “Hand Dip” in this issue of PBQ (#79). I’ll be here when you get back.

What makes Shankar’s poem such a pleasure is the way it snowballs into its rhetorical move: it is a definition. But it is a definition of a made-up word. When Shankar submitted this poem to PBQ, the combination of erotic imagery and Dr. Seuss-like language play– “nervy frottage, pervy wattage”– got the attention of our editorial staff.

But Kathy & I recused ourselves from the editorial decision: while the staff was charmed by the poem’s wit and velocity, they did not know the poem’s erotic definition of “a hand dip” had been borne of an informal writing “challenge.”

The year prior to the poem’s acceptance at PBQ we met Shankar at AWP. As is true for most professions, annual professional conferences are often the site of serious networking—and as the cliché goes, most of that networking happens after hours in places like the hotel bar.

Such is the case for “Hand Dip.”  At 3am I realized I’d misplaced my cell phone. I had not backed up its memory, so if it was gone, then I was in trouble. I blanched. But the conference director happened to be at this post-conference soiree. He quickly took action, got on his walkie-talkie, and disappeared. Within moments he was back, my cell phone in hand. Giddy with gratitude—and a lack of sleep—I made a joke about the proper measure of thanks. A hand shake? A bear hug? Whereupon some wiseacre in the smoky mix made an off-color remark about shaking something a little further south. We all laughed and wondered what name such a gesture should have: someone came up with the term “hand dip,” then someone else one-upped the stakes: we dared each other to write poems using the word “hand dip.” Based on this late-night challenge, several poets wrote and published their “hand dip” poems in literary magazines. In the poetry world, a publication results in a line on the CV, and that line will add to professional legitimacy the poet applies for grants, awards, and tenure.

The sociologist in me loves this social moment turned creative arc—from the haze of cocktail-hour inspiration to creation to legitimate publication. The popular term used to conceptualize such schmoozy social behavior is, obviously, networking. But “Hand Dip” illustrates more than the informal networks within the professional poetry field (or the drunken reverie of professional conferences). It also suggests the balance and tension between collaborative work and individual ambition, the creative stakes of poetry. But it also reminds me how every act along the continuum outlined here somehow reinforces a basic faith in the idea of creative writing as craft, as community, as the literary lifeworld we create and inhabit.

One of the nice things about NaPoWriMo is that it sometimes makes poets out of ordinary civilians. I think it’s grand — I wish everyone would write poetry.

I had a funny conversation with a friend who is writing poems this month. She’s a short story writer. I’ve had this conversation many times before. It goes something like “man, I sure do like some poetry, but I don’t know anything about it, you know, I don’t get it at all.”

I was trying to decide where this idea started that poetry is something mystical and opaque. I pointed out to my friend that poems, not short stories or novels, are closest to the way we tell stories to each other. Most people when they tell a friend about something unusual will strip their story down to the most important and interesting details. They will not always use complete sentences, and they will speak in a casual and free tone with their particular voice. They’ll allow themselves unusual asides and digressions as they see fit. This is a poem.

I think I could teach anyone to write a passable poem in less than ninety minutes.

When I was thinking about poems and conversations, it occurred to me that when we exchange stories they might be metaphorically linked to each other. But that was hours ago in the shower, when everything was so much clearer. I’ll have to think about it some more.

Wine coolers from the 80’s.

You know what I really miss? Remember back in the 80’s when you wanted to feign superficiality and dumb-blondness? You’d approach someone at a frat party with a bottle of whatever you happen to be holding at the time, you’d cock your head or flip your hair from one side to the other, and then you’d say, in a high-pitched, Southern Californian girlie voice, “Cooler?” As if you were offering someone that symbol of shallowness and bad taste– the then ubiquitous California Cooler.

I don’t know where that expression came from or who started it, but it was brilliant and I want to bring it back.

I searched on urbandictionary.com, just out of curiosity, to see if it even existed as a term. The only thing that came up was the actual drink: cooler: (n.) A sweet alcoholic beverage. Usually fruity flavored with vodka. Mike’s Hard Lemonade. And then the example: “It took me 5 coolers before I got tipsy! Next time I’m getting a six pack.”

Who ever submitted that entry is an idiot. Stick with your quasi-beer or fruity-vodka or whatever, dude. Mike’s Hard Lemonade is NOT a cooler. And second, asking for a “Mike’s?” or a “Hard-Lemon?” doesn’t exactly carry the same nostalgic and relevant weightiness as asking for a “Cooler?” Besides, this entry is greatly misleading. The essence of the beverage, if I remember correctly, was that, when you drank it, the immediate urge to vomit followed shortly after having consumed it. It was so cheap and so badly designed that it made an entire generation of young alcoholics sick for a good five years. And those of us who were smart enough to avoid it, invented the catch-phrase in consolation.

What exactly was a California Cooler I’m still not sure. Some uber-cheap concoction of wine, juice and soda, I believe. I wasn’t much of a drinker back then but I do remember someone handing me one, saying, “drink it. It tastes like peach schnapps.” I think we were in the woods behind my house at the time and after consuming half a bottle I rolled off the rock I was sitting on and puked into a pile of dead leaves. That was the beginning and the end of my wine cooler days. After that, I simply soaked in the culture that went along with it. It soon became evident what type of people drank those things. Under-aged bleach blondes and dudes that were trying to lay cheerleaders. I know that’s an awful sweeping generalization, but when you consider that the company made millions..well…it all becomes clear.

The idiom itself, I’m guessing, sprang up organically as a mockery against “those” people. And eventually became a blanket expression for anyone not making any sense at all. It definitely made the user feel superior. And it culminated into having so many uses. It passively defined a stereotypical group of idiots. It was a subliminal message to your core posse that there were bimbos in close proximity. Or it merely served as a direct assault upon some brainless faux pas one of your friends might have made in public.

Like this girl from college I knew. Her name was Lil. We were all snowed in one year during finals and she ate half a bottle of aspirin because, she said, she was hungry. How else can you define something like that but to say, “Cooler?”

Or this mimbo I knew from the frats in Newark where we used to party on weekends. I had no interest in this guy so, when he asked for my phone number I gave him this one: 867-5309 (Anyone of my generation would catch the Tommy Tutone reference). I used to think that was hysterical. The next week I haphazardly bumped into him on campus and he was all like, “hey, you gave me the wrong number. This one’s been disconnected.” Like I was a number off or something.


You see how fun it can be? I want to go out to bars and go up to total strangers who are like, twenty years younger than me and I want to say, “Cooler?” and see if it catches on. Like how old hippies keep regurgitating that ever-present word “groovy.” Hell, that expression never died. So why should “Cooler?” If anything needs to come back into mainstream American culture it’s that.

I mean, when you think of half the things fashion trendsetters have brought back, “Cooler?” is mild in comparison. Call me crazy, but large plastic earrings are back. The term “fabulous” is back.  Shoulder pads and moccasins with fringe are back. All of them should have been buried with Rod Stewart and jump suits twenty years ago.

But “cooler” should stay. Or rather it should come back. All you have to do to is watch out for any thick-headed, moronic human behavior and when you see it, acknowledge it like this: just tilt your head a little to one side while asking someone…or no one at all…if they’d like to have a Cooler.

Simple and fun. Works best with a bottle in hand.

I read an article back in ’07 that a beer distributor was thinking of bringing the California Cooler back to market. Underneath a shrewd exterior of doubt and cynicism (i.e. who the hell would drink this shit after what my generation went through?), I secretly hope it’s revived. It would definitely give more weight to my argument that this gem of an aphorism needs to be a part of America’s disintegrating culture once again. I mean, duh, if my attempt to bring “Cooler?” back is to be successful, I guess I can’t have one symbol of mindlessness without the other.


So, anyway—all of my old comics have come back from the ‘90s to haunt me, and some of them are pretty awesome. I’m looking forward to re-reading Martian Manhunter: American Secrets—thought I’m not sure what I was quite thinking when I bought the Marvel 2099 series (Marvel Superheroes in the year 2099) sequence, except that that the foil covers aren’t quite as cool as they were. But comics are a lot like blogs—these endless new iterations in what is a fundamentally disposable medium, and the networks are endless. I stopped reading comics because it gets too expensive—the narratives are always crossing over into other and you end up being unable to keep anything straight. Also, like blogs, the same discoveries kept being made. Every 10 years, DC seems to reset its universe to great fanfare, only for it to creep back into the same problems (an excess of parallel dimensions, an excess of melodramatic loose ends, an excess of reinvented heroes). Blogs have that same, oh, yes, you just noticed what Baudrillard was saying 10 years ago, and now you’re presenting it as your own idea, which it is, but still, I don’t have time for you. It’s like listening to high school students discuss theology, or really deep problems, like how whether we can know that what we call “blue” is seen the same by everyone (answer: we can’t know) or whether or not we can think without language (answer: not really). Re-reading my comics is a bit like rehashing Hemingway short stories, or going through a photo album. Everyone has the same pictures—there are a limited number of poses a human being can strike without being in an Annie Liebowitz shoot—but these are mine. There’s a limited number of melodramatic situations any given hero can encounter, but these are in my personal archive, so they’re fun to revisit.

In the meantime, can anyone tell me why Rateyourprofessor won’t take down a page from a university where I haven’t taught in 4 years? I keep asking, but they sort of ignore me or tell me they’ll look into it and then never look into it. It’s not really helping anyone decide whether or not to take my class—which is their excuse for creating their nasty little universe of vitriol, venom and effusion. And yes, the top three reviews are 5’s all across the board, but it’s just annoying. When people google me, I don’t want the fourth hit to be teaching evaluations. It’s like finding my tax returns or my dental records.  I love teaching, but it’s very much tailored to the individual or the class– as far as my public persona is concerned, I’d like to stick with my poems and essays.

All of my misery fantasies end the same way: I’m in Wyoming. Alone. As old and as gray as the gray, old sky. I’ve just locked up the diner where I made about forty bucks on the late shift, and it’s windy as all get out, and I’ve got a helluva long walk home, but I don’t really mind because I’ve already lost everything, and the wind’s all I’ve got. Oh, and maybe a pack of cigarettes, and if I have the cigarettes, maybe a lighter, maybe one my brother gave me, years ago, when we were in the habit of picking up bad habits.

I don’t know why. It’s just my go-to, my if-I-lost-everyone-and-everything-I-loved-at-least-I’d-still-have-Wyoming-because-I-sure-do-love-that-sky-and-how-it-makes-me-feel-so-un-alone. Of course, the fantasy has its variations, most of which are apocalyptic and involve my weather-battered husband and our wild-haired infant daughter-turned-teenager, but all of them take place in Wyoming.

I thought of this the other day when Yavuz Burke, a native of Turkey and a Canadian citizen, stole a Cessna 172 from a Canadian flight school and landed it in southern Missouri after almost six hours of eluding F-16 fighter jets. I imagine Burke as a young boy in Turkey, drawing in the dirt with a stick, putting a big X right there in the heartland, Missouri, he’d say to himself, that’s where I want it to all go down.

Reportedly, Burke went into a general store and bought himself a Gatorade. He’d also tried to purchase a Beef Jerky but didn’t have enough cash. Canadian authorities are quoted as saying that Burke is “not a happy individual,” and I love that they bring happiness in. Hmm…happy men do not steal planes, fly them to other countries, walk into a 7-11 and plop down a buck-fifty for a Gatorade. Thirsty men, maybe; happy men, no.

But it’s all got me thinking about place, about how it buoys us and frees us, how it gives us hope or sends shudders down our spines (read: the burbs), how it makes us re-imagine ourselves. If we have the wind, we say, then maybe we can make it. Even just another day. And yea, yea, I know, I know, no matter where you go there you are, but I’m curious, what’s your place? Where does your mind send you? And what, please tell, is it saving you from?

Spinning Rhetoric

First of all, if anyone is paying attention, I apologize for missing the last two Fridays. I realized I just called attention to my negligence, but it is what it is. How long do they say it takes to establish a life habit? 30 days? Give me awhile.

A life habit I’ve had for about four years now is spin classes. At my gym last week, I had an instructor I’d never had before and I was struck by her word choices. She kept saying things like, “I want you to be uncomfortable right now” and “If you are happy right now, you do not have enough resistance on. You should not be happy.” And simply, “This is work.”

I had enough resistance on, but I was hard pressed not to react to her phrasings. I questioned the impact of her methodology. I looked around at my fellow spinners and saw their faces grimacing, their exhales determined, many sets of eyes squeezed shut. I believe I’d never seen them all in such pain.

Other spin instructors use phrases more like, “Your time; your ride.” And about as aggressive as they get it is, “Come on, give me another turn” or “Speed! Speed!” But all through their classes, they are saying, “You got this!” “We’re putting on more resistance because….we can!” “Here comes the best ten minutes of your day!”

Of course, this all made me think about projection, perception, about the power of suggestion, and of course, about teaching.

I get these students who have been ruined by their high school teachers. I’ve read studies that discuss how students get more and more discouraged as they go on in their education, more and more anxiety-ridden about their own work, their own ability.

We all know if you call a kid a stupid jackass enough times he will come to think of himself as a stupid jackass. If we say, “This is hard. This is hard,” doesn’t it become harder?

So, teachers with a positive outlook, a certain methodology, try hard to make work feel like play? Sometimes, it works. Sometimes, the teachers intent is too transparent; the exercise not fun enough to “forgive” that.

During grad school and my TA ship I was told the secret of the inner circle—when you write your comments at the end of the paper, find something positive to say, then tell the student what they should work on and fix, then end with something positive.

Sugar with the medicine; hello and goodbye with a friendly smile and a hug, even though our time together is all bad news. This positive bread sandwich is probably just as transparent, but I would still contest that it’s better than all bad news. At least give me a hug when you’re done.

How do teachers of writing break through all of the morass we must, the basic resistance to assignments, the fact that we’re dealing with individuals who have their own approaches, the damage that other teachers have caused, the fact of writings very subjectivity.

If you’ve taken a spin class or do any other physical work or exercise where you need to break through the “wall” to get to the other side, you know. That metaphorical wall is similar to writers block:

That feeling of “I am never, ever, ever going to make it today. I am just too tired. My legs simply do not have the energy.” Is the mantra for the first ten minutes of the run, the spin class, and then, even as I’m going for my towel draped over the handlebars I’m thinking, “Yes, yes. I could do this all day.” The body fills with joy, something close enough to joy.

The writer sits down at the blank screen or page and says, “I’ve got nothing to say.” But if she starts writing anyway, starts saying anyway, eventually she’ll break through the wall and be saying something and her fingers on the keys or her hand holding the pen will barley be able to keep up. The body fills with joy, something close to joy.

As writing instructors, we need to walk around the room as they write, and shout, “You got this.”

Jazz, Poetry, & Allen Ginsberg’s Socks: An Interview with poet Al Young

Absolutely check out Michelle McEwen’s phenomenal interview with Poet Laureate of California, Al Young. HERE IS THE LINK

Among the many paradoxes of Web 2.0 culture is the way the counter-cultural ethos of the 60s, fused with the digital utopianism of the 90s, has triggered not only a “prosumer” revolution but a deep and abiding fear of the end times. Folks like Andrew Keen, for example, warn that the digital free-for-all we’re witnessing has dark implications for more traditional cultural institutions: from the music industry to news to (gasp!) our standards of what makes good literature good. Culture as we know it, he warns, is disintegrating.

So it’s a lovely irony that in an era when traditional newspapers are on the verge of extinction that some of the best writing about the economic crisis helping that extinction along has emerged. Take, for example, NPR and Chicago Public Radio’s “The Giant Pool of Money,” which is also available as a daily podcast called Planet Money (http://www.thislife.org/Radio_Episode.aspx?sched=1242 ). Or open up the pages of The New Yorker or Harper’s and you are bound to find a stunning piece or two of essayistic journalism on the housing crisis. (See, for example, some of the pieces called out here: http://www.newyorker.com/search/query?keyword=Housing%20Crisis ).

It’s the coverage of the mortgage crisis that’s got my attention. The images of tract housing abandoned mid-development, of suburban homes overgrown and forgotten, sidewalks and driveways cracked and sprouting weeds—these images haunt.

For some the ‘burbs have always held a certain clutching terror—we’re over-exposed and alienated, keeping up, shutting down or acting out. (Consider, for example, the way Desperate Housewives delights in reinforcing these ideas.) That’s part of the draw of cities, where we can run away and reinvent ourselves, more anonymous in the crowd than in the seeming quiet of our home towns. (Now compare Desperate Housewives with Sex and the City).

But if we go a little further back, say to the 70s, New York City was not the shiny fabulous place Carrie &Co. would have you believe. Think, for example, of Fort Apache the Bronx or Escape from New York. The big bad city was burning itself down; its rubble and ruins emblematic of a failed economy, failed administration, failed communities.

In the 21st century, though, we’ve got wounded cities, cities attacked by external forces—be they man-made or natural, the terror was not from within but without. (Though in the case of NOLA it was a toxic mix of both). And people are returning to these wounded cities, seduced rather than repulsed. The city is no longer the sole locus of despair.

The shift in focus from the city to suburbs shows up innocuously in the transformation of Hitchcock’s Rear Window to Shia LaBeouf in Disturbia. Or as Rebecca Solnit points out in her excellent A Field Guide to Getting Lost, the modern suburban landscape is nearly lunar: no trace of children at play; the tracks of animals more prevalent than those of kids now kept inside for fear of strangers and the draw of computer games. (Now, mind you, that’s a whopping generalization—as I write this I’m thinking of Kathy’s amazing neighborhood, Collingswood, NJ, a community so rich and vibrant and full of kids on big wheels you have to be uber-careful when you drive).

But the shift is getting stronger. The ruin and rubble we’re beginning to see as foreclosures pile up, as people pack up and leave (by choice or by force), this disintegration is reminiscent of the city of the 70s. If Escape from New York represents an old vision of New York’s dystopian future, how will modern films imagine the future of the suburbs?

The sociological forces impinging upon people—the getting and spending, the greed and the getting gotten by adjustable rate mortgages—are having a semiotic effect. Our signs are shifting: the new wasteland is not urban blight, it’s suburban failure.

So when panicked pundits predict riots this summer, do they think they’ll happen in the Bronx? Or will the mayhem unfold at the mall? Or will it matter: we’ll all be inside blogging about it (if we still have a roof over our heads).