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Archive for May, 2009

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got more bizarre: Sweeten had “borrowed” her friend’s ID to get onto the plane; had left her 8 month-old at home; had withdrawn $12,000 from local banks to fund her escape.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.

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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?

http://www.aprweb.org/

To Henry Israeli at Saturnalia Books?

http://www.saturnaliabooks.com/

Or the Crab Orchard Review?

http://craborchard.siuc.edu/

(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.

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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.

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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/

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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?

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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.

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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.”

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