Posts Tagged ‘Marion Wrenn’

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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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.

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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…

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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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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).

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I taught a course in advertising history last summer and we spent a lot of time discussing the way “the culture industries” try to train us to see the world. In the 20s, for example, when PR and advertising were new professions, when mass production demanded mass consumption, advertisers tended to celebrate modernity: what’s new is good! They hailed the consumer with a promise of aid: we will help you navigate all this newness!


That soon morphed into a promise of magic: use this product and you will get that job or find that man; drink this beer and that woman’s boobs are within reach! Raymond Williams famously described this “magic system” when he unpacked the way advertising, fundamentally, produced consumers.


I can’t help but think of this history when I watch a film like, say, Hancock— Will Smith’s little super-hero ditty, the one who’s denouement amounted to Hancock making an offer of gratitude and friendship to his estranged mate and her new husband by turning the moon into a billboard.


(I had literally just shown my students a dated documentary – on VHS!—whose dystopian view of the future (it was called, for pete’s sake, Advertising and the End of the World) included a warning about the looming possibility of space-aged, rocket launched billboards. They laughed in class. Then they went to see Hancock).


Product placement has so seamlessly become part of the cinematic ether we fail to see it. It’s there among The Truman Show’s faux ads (Dog Fancy is a real magazine); it’s there in Cloverfield’s rubble (“What are we gonna do?!” “Wait, let me lean against this wall emblazoned with the Sephora logo and let me catch my frantic breath.”)


But Hancock is a special beastie: it makes the viewer want to cheer the logic of advertising in its entirety. Three cheers for the special logic that makes the moon a billboard! And the audience is all warm and fuzzy because our grumpy hero has acquiesced to his calling, has returned to fulfill his destiny, and his sign of peace is to put his new pal’s logo on the moon. (Now, OK, granted it’s not a Nike swoosh. Instead it’s the logo for a non-profit human rights campaign a la Bono and Project Red. But it’s still an ad, sustainable capitalism or not.)


And Slumdog Millionaire is Hancock’s steroidal brother.


Slumdog is based on Q & A by Vikas Swarup, Swarup’s first novel. He worked as a career diplomat, wrote the book in his spare time, and it’s a picaresque, Dickensian romp. As it renders the social hierarchies, institutionalized racism, ethnic tensions, and daily exploitative violence of India, the book unfurls its own conservative slant, pinning the hope of a new/redeemed/culture on the spirit of good-hearted individuals. It leaves the systemic social forces and structures that limit the range of choices available to those individuals unscathed. It seems to argue, instead, that suffering is a function of biography.


But the film version takes this conservative view much further. What do I mean? Swarup’s narrative was far more complex than Boyle’s film: the game show host was a rapist; our hero gets on the show so that he could punish this villain; so, at book’s end, when our hero wins, the villain is punished and the show is destroyed. Slumdog Millionaire compresses multiple major female characters into one, and, more importantly, leaves the game show in tact.


Boyle’s film erases this part of the narrative and makes the film a more obvious love story. It fills us all with feel-good hope, and reassures us that all will be well if we put our trust in reality TV.


(In this way the film reminds me of Kubrick’s adaptation of King’s The Shining. In King’s novel, the Overlook is destroyed; in the film the house remains– Jack freezes to death in the hedge maze. The effect is deeply creepy and implies that the house lives on, its power in tact. A Kubrickian comment on the damage and danger of the nuclear family. But Boyle’s film is a seemingly hopeful reversal, though nonetheless creepy: the TV show remains in tact, fosters our hero’s reunion with his beloved, and gives them enough cash to rise above the social suffering, economic blight, and sex-slavery that threaten to do them in).


Three cheers for the global spread of reality TV!


Magic system indeed.

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