Archive for the ‘PIRATES’ Category

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.


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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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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?

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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.

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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?

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I think this is just lovely.

It feels like I’m the one on display looking at these.


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