Saturday, October 30, 2010

Short Busdriver concert

Busdriver is awesome. It follows that this video of him performing would also be awesome. (And it is.) 

I don't know why Busdriver seems to get so little love. Probably at least half of the problem of course is that I'm not reading the publications, blogs, twitter feeds, etc. where rap of any kind is discussed with any frequency. But even on the rare occasions where I get to talk rap with my overwhelmingly white middle class college-educated cohort, he never seems to come up. Obviously on a technical level he's out and out spectacular, and his unique marriage of musicality and hyper-articulated high-speed flow is on a level of accomplishment you just don't see elsewhere. (I mean, at least stick it out through "Me Time" -- it's ridiculous he can do all that live.) I think the sense of humor is maybe a bit much for some people, but I have a taste for cruel music (also really enjoy Mindless Self Indulgence much of the time, for instance) so it works out really nicely for me. I've been trying for a while to come up with something smart to say about him but basically he's just really, really good.

Anyway, have a good Halloween!


Most writing intended for publication is failed in the sense that most of this writing will not be published. (Though the proliferation of online magazines is changing the proportions somewhat.)

Most writers will fail in the sense that they (we) will not be as successful, rich, famous, admired as they (we) hoped, or may not be successful at all at any point in their lives.

I spend most of my day, at school and in Uncanny Valley and at other lit blogs, negotiating the terms under which these writers and writing (and my writing) will fail. For every hundred stories I read for Puerto del Sol, less than one gets in -- and my odds, given my placement in the organizational chart, of seeing any successful prose piece before publication are 100%. Some readers for Puerto very likely see zero published pieces in a given year before we print the magazine. Uncanny Valley has an unusually high acceptance rate mainly because we have been unusually good at getting word out to, and interest from, writers we already admired or have come to admire. In workshop we discuss how best to revise a story with the usually-unstated goal of publication, which most stories we workshop are plainly unlikely to ever achieve, though the number that manage is higher than zero, though not by much. (Poets are a somewhat different story, of course, at least at NMSU.) When I teach I am discussing works with undergraduate students whose odds of ever finding publication are genuinely close to zero.

As an editor I often find myself rejecting a submission from a well-meaning, hard-working person who has probably been rejected hundreds of times already, who will likely spend the rest of his or her life as a writer seeing only rejection.

Even a successful writer (in the sense of publishing a high percentage of one's output in the sort of publications one admires, apart from any financial or career concerns) will spend most of his or her time failing: a piece is usually, but not always, rejected many times before it is taken. Rejection is in any case by far the most common experience to follow a submission. Writers develop the ability to satisfy themselves with kind rejections in lieu of acceptance.

What are the implications of these facts? If you call yourself a writer, how do you live with them?

Friday, October 29, 2010

The Aesthetics of Spanish Moss

Guys I am tired of reading the phrase "Spanish moss." I'm seeing it in a lot of stories right now and, I mean, I just want out. I want out of this!

We should stipulate at the outset that doing an image search for Spanish moss makes it clear that the actual phenomenon is pretty cool looking. But so far no one has had the conviction necessary to actually include an image of the moss in a submission. Nor have they bothered to describe the Spanish moss. It's just there, a detail in the background, a bit of throw-away description somewhere in the first two or three paragraphs to establish a) mood and b) that we are reading the sort of serious, sensitive, melancholy author who will notice and mention Spanish moss.

Maybe it's just the fact that the words "Spanish moss" are slowly driving me insane, but I'm beginning to wonder if Spanish moss isn't the telos and ethos alike of the modern literary short story. Perhaps no phrase has so perfectly captured what drives me up the wall about stale realist fiction. Let's really get up to our elbows, now, in Spanish moss.

What makes Spanish moss so appealing? Well, it sounds "crisp" and it has the ideal ratio of adjective (two syllables!) to noun (one syllable, ending in a syballent that echoes the Spanish). It's also sort of exotic, but not in a threatening or especially brown way. France sounds too silly, England sounds too dull, Ireland is too overtly romantic, Italy is so fiery, but Spain? Spain is like a gray blur at the intersection of all those countries, superficially specific but actually, for the average American reader, totally meaningless. This exoticism is of course immediately counteracted by the word "moss," which is just about the dullest object I can think of. Wikipedia -- which, hilariously, has a whole section of its Spanish moss page devoted to explaining the literary and cultural significance thereof -- explains that Spanish moss is also associated with the South.

This is perhaps the ultimate expression of American literary realism: the dogged insistence on finding beauty solely in mundane objects, the shame-faced tendency to use a vague touch of Europe or the South to make this happen, which ultimately reduces all language and style to flavor, vague passionless mood music barely noticed behind the dull-as-hell plot. It's not that you can't tell a good realist story, but that at this point both the foundation and the purpose of these stories seems to lie in Spanish moss -- in a phrase carefully designed to communicate without communicating, to balance perfectly the exotic and the mundane, the familiar and the unfamiliar, the beautiful and the boring, such that ultimately the words are a wash, have essentially never happened. You can't really object to Spanish moss, but you can't fall in love with it either. It comes pre-lubed for workshop; no one will complain about it, perhaps someone will even underline the phrase and congratulate you, marginally, for being "so specific!"

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Swan Lake Part I: Odette's Farewell

I really like ballet--dance in general--but I often get impatient with it in its staged form, especially when it's littered with extraneous Spanish dances and Arabian dances and so on--suites composed to satisfy some patron, some prima ballerina. And Swan Lake makes no improvements there. (Don't believe me? Watch Act I.) There's also the physical demands of ballet and their implications; women break their bodies to do this. That's not great, as an idea.

But this dancing is still an art, and so is the music that accompanies it, and so, very much, is the act of choreography.

Swan Lake's choreography was changed several years after the ballet was written, and it was this choreography that made the ballet so popular. It's immensely challenging, so much so that to change it in any serious way tends to draw disfavor--upon both the show's directors and the ballerina playing Odette/Odile (it's a dual role). Why is it she can't do what more than a century of other ballerinas have managed to do? What is she hoping to hide?

Yet, it's not the technical challenge that tends to impress people about Swan Lake anymore. The choreography in Swan Lake is deeply rooted in pantomime. The famous pantomime scene is when Siegfried first meets Odette by the lake. The whole thing is pantomime really--she is miming to you that she's a swan, that she's nervous; he that he won't hunt her, that he wants to look at her. The conversation really begins at 1:35: "Who are you?" Siegfried asks. Odette replies, "I am the queen of the swans." Though it's as graceful as any technical ballet movement, it is pantomime that lays out the story and that makes the emotional movements of Swan Lake apparent.

Despite the pull to adhere to tradition, directors obviously don't always want to perform Swan Lake in quite the same way. Neither do ballerinas. Usually, the aim for both has been to reproduce in Odette the nature of the swan itself, which has traditionally manifested itself in movements that are impeccably graceful, both stately and fragile. Thus each new production's interpretation of Odette has often been evaluated through the degree to which the ballerina's arm movements are seamless, on her ability to convincingly preen and flap, on the tremble in the legs. One Odette, Agnes Letestu, saw swans differently and based her conception of the character on that: "Swans are splendid creatures. They are not frail, fluttering things, and neither am I! They move a lot of air, and splash down heavily when they land; I've watched them and my interpretation has become more physical and animal." If you watch below, you can indeed see something a little more decisive and bold about her movements; no grace is sacrificed, but something does seem more animal, more emotionally blank--this is the swan pure and simple, not the swan-girl with her tragic love.

The interpretation also changes with the production's conception of Siegfried. Productions have alternately treated Siegfried as a typical Prince Charming, self-determined and in control of his reality; as a dreamer, an idealistic Candide moving from dream to reality; and sometimes as a Hamlet, who wants to change his reality but has trouble deciding how. When the prince changes, the queen of the swans changes; she becomes object of his desire, object of his dream, or subject of the story, with him as recipient and her as actor. To make the story make sense, the ballerina and premier danseur must be well matched--because her task is so physically difficult, and so emotionally important to the story, her dance must mime swanhood, in a way that shows her role in relationship to the role he's been playing. With Letestu, her desire to effect change in the swan queen's character was complemented by a change in her partner's conception of Prince Siegfried's relationship to the swan: "With Ghislaine [the premier danseur], I no longer see myself as a victim about to be sacrificed. What became important was to show the woman imprisoned under the swan's great wings." These conceptions of character enter the dancing, changing the emotional trajectory of the story, even as the technical movements and pantomimed gestures stay largely the same from production to production.

But there is one gesture that strikes me every time I see it. It appears in every production that's not pretty radically rewritten. This one gesture, in its particular executions and arrangements, makes manifest the emotional arc of each separate production.

This image may not mean much to you out of context. It probably wouldn't have for me, either, if I hadn't seen Princess Tutu in its entirety, and learned what this moment means. In this moment, Princess Tutu (yes, both) is being challenged to announce her love to the prince (Mytho) so that his heart, cast out of him long ago and split into pieces, will return to him. The problem is, as soon as she speaks of her love aloud, she will return to being--not a swan--but a duck. (A pitiful duck who can do nothing--they reiterate the point a lot in the Japanese. The duck is for some reason an inherently impotent animal, it seems, and you feel the force of this understanding as you watch. Her odds are impossible.) This moment shows Tutu attempting to announce her love through dance. The moment is important because she is dancing by herself a pas de deux, a dance requiring two. That she doesn't have her second is in itself a mime, communicating that she's missing him, that she needs him as her second. (The whole scene is here.)

This gesture comes directly from the traditional choreography of Swan Lake, and it is never performed the same in any two productions. It is altered by the particular posture of the ballerina, and it is altered by the physical positioning of prince and swan. In Tutu's case, the prince is absent but her movements suggest him; in a climactic moment, she leaps into the air and suspends herself in a lift--from which she ultimately falls, as she lacks the support of a partner. In this subtler movement pictured, she also expresses her need for him: the bend of the head, the extension of the arm. Where in the story of Swan Lake this movement functions as a sort of farewell, signifying Odette being pulled away from the prince and back to her swan form, Tutu's posture is not that of a wave goodbye. Her hand is reaching to touch something--a shoulder or cheek that's not there. Her particular posture communicates this sense of longing where other ballerinas choose to emphasize the swan's fear, the swan's grace, the swan's desperation, or her captivity to magic.

In the ending of the episode, therefore, it's not surprising that Mytho is close by when dancing this part with her. Her hand never quite comes to rest on him, but it's clear that that is what she wants to do, and that what she wants to communicate to him is her "deep love," her benevolence. That Princess Tutu is not fated to be with Mytho (despite all appearances in this episode) is foreshadowed by her gesture--she can love him, but it's a love separated by a veil; they will not actually touch.

Zakharova and her prince do touch. Watching the full scene, her hands crawl all over him as if trying to remember his face--her priority here is to the love story, to communicate that the swan queen doesn't want to leave and that she has fallen in love as much as the prince has. The prince, meanwhile, kneels in supplication; he can hardly let her go. The desire expressed between them in this instant of choreography is mutual.

Lopatkina has moved a small distance away from her prince; she circles him, ebbing further and further away. In the full scene it becomes clear that her obligation is not to him but to her spell. Siegfried likewise has abandoned the kneel--he's not begging, he's beckoning. There's nothing of her to hold onto. She is more dream than real.

Letestu moves quickly and almost frantically away from her prince. Her arms are liquid in the full scene--she does not give the same pause for the farewell gesture that most others do. She seems to merely be taking her leave like a nervous Cinderella: "Goodbye, goodbye, I have to go!" The narrative is matched in Siegfried; his arms are extended after her not in pledge, as with Tutu's prince, but in fervor: "Wait!"

Murphy bows more deeply than any of the others, and in the full scene the pantomime is exaggerated to show her resistance against the magic that compels her. Though she is far from her prince, this is her last, desperate gesture to him as a queen and not a swan--very shortly after she reverts to a mechanical object of enchantment. Though he fights against her transformation as well, this part of the story is hers; her emotional arc as the captive supersedes the emotional arc of their love.

It's just kind of amazing to me that a single gesture can be interpreted so broadly, and that some versions can emphasize it so heavily while others use it just as another wave of the swan's wing. It's amazing to me, too, that pantomime can communicate so much, especially when it's typically thought of as second-class artistry--a too-literal translation of what we like to think of as very nuanced shades of emotion. Maybe we, and our characters, are not all that complicated after all, at least in terms of our gestures. It would make sense to me to say that we all make the same gestures, that we all work from the same palette of preconceived actions, but that we perform them differently, in different posture, according to our priorities.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

As long as I'm talking online magazines

Here's something else that gets to me: where are the online publishers willing to publish the really big, crazy work? The ones that heard "nobody reads anything long on the Internet" and laughed their asses off?

Where are the online publishers who reward big, weird experiments?

Where are the online publishers, in other words, who will post something that doesn't fit into their blog's template?

Seems as if there must be places like this, and certainly there are adventurous publishers, but I guess I'd like to see more.

For what it's worth, if we get a great experimental crazy wild thing, Uncanny Valley will find a way to make it seen, online or off.

More online journal design: Kill Author, Abjective, Necessary Fiction

There was some interest in yesterday's post on this subject, including a laudatory note from > kill author. It may be that they liked my notes on design because theirs is, by my definition, damn near perfect.

Take a look at their new issue. One of the finer points I didn't get to yesterday is the extent to which I think it's important for online magazines to have textually-oriented design. > kill author doesn't have a graphical logo, which tend to look neat the first time and asinine on the tenth. It has text. The only graphic in the entire issue, in fact, is a picture of Kurt Vonnegut, whose grays have been adjusted to blend comfortably with the blueish gray (is it blueish? am I being color-blind again?) of their background. The background color has a nice level of contrast with both black and white text. In fact, generally speaking, the colors on their pages are just plain nice. It feels glossy and low-key at the same time. > kill author may just be the kindest, gentlest reading experience your eyes can have with a monitor.

Of course the contents are organized alphabetically by the author's first name. I continue to think this is a poor choice, and it continues to be the primary means of organization in most online magazines. The arrangement of names and titles into a chunky block of text feels good.

Head to a content page and you'll see why I'm really so into them, though. If we're going to get REALLY nitpicky, I find the horizontal balance between contents and title a little weird -- the contents feel, you know, a little pushed off to the left. But guys, look at the navigation links at the bottom! There's a link back to the issue index, and there's a "next" button. A next button. At first I was disappointed by the absence of a "previous" button but now I kind of like it -- how often do you go backwards in a magazine without just heading back to the index? This makes a lot of sense. Note also that when a writer has multiple pieces in a magazine, each piece gets its own page, which is linked at the right beneath the title and author's name. The next button will navigate first through the pages and then to the next author. This is really nice. It's readable, the navigation is sweet, I like going to this website.

Abjective is an example of another one that has it right. Of course, because Abjective only has to deal with one piece at a time, it has a simpler job: the contents page has to be readable, I have to be able to find the archives. The site's minimalist design is extremely attractive, and the info page takes care of everything else. This is a good model for an online journal, one that I honestly think more should probably follow (why are we all publishing fifteen million things on a monthly basis?).

Necessary Fiction works in a similar way and it's similarly attractive, but the stuff on the right is a little bit distracting. I understand why it's there! But I think that ideally it would be integrated into the navigation at the top.

So, I guess: high fives to everybody, keep it up.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Design notes for online journals

I have been thinking about this today and so I want to just go ahead and look at three online magazines whose design is good -- in fact pretty stand-out excellent by comparison to most online journals -- but could be better. I sort of know the editors of two of these magazines and I've had work of some kind featured in all three so I imagine the people that run these magazines will know I'm not trying to be a jerk here, just trying to offer my thoughts on how online journals generally ought to work.


I like this one the best of the three, design-wise. I'm not in love with centered text -- in fact as a rule I hate it -- but the austerity of the page is nonetheless appealing. elimae also does two key things: it shows me titles, genre and author name for each piece, and it mixes genres. These things are good practice for several reasons. For one, I like to have a reason to click one link instead of another when I look at a page -- otherwise I get overwhelmed. I personally think online magazines should make a tendency of excerpting one or two lines/sentences from every piece in their index, but giving me title, genre, and author is the next-best thing. Secondly, mixing genres in the index makes the magazine feel less like a collection of links and more like a magazine. It's tough to make decisions about how to arrange the contents of your publication, which is exactly why I appreciate when editors do it. This also relates to my general distaste for separating genres.

The main trouble for elimae comes when we go to an individual piece within an issue. The contents are very readable (nice font, nice narrow column, everything is low-key and feels manageable, no distractions) so that's not the problem. The thing is I can't go from this piece to the next in the magazine. The editors go to the trouble of arranging elimae as an actual reading experience and then they make it so you have to hit the back button, scroll down, and choose the next link if you want to read the pieces in the order they arranged them. And it really does have to be the back button, because the only clickable link on the page takes you to not to the index of the issue you're reading but rather elimae's splash page. These would be easy things to fix and I think they would enhance the reading experience a fair amount.

The Collagist

If you go to you actually end up at the Dzanc Blog, which wouldn't bother me (the magazine is after all a loss-leader for the excellent Dzanc Books, and it needs to work on that level as well as it can) except that getting to The Collagist from that page is surprisingly difficult. You've got to spot a small link in an unintuitive spot in a not-beautiful red header. There should be a Collagist logo at the top right, above the other links to Dzanc projects, so I can find the site I meant to go to right away.

Okay, so now I'm at the actual magazine, and it immediately looks professional, glossy, attractive. The site has what we in the freshman comp business call ethos. But honestly it's a little cluttered. I don't mind all the Dzanc buttons on the left when we're in the index page, but they stay there when you go to a specific piece, which I find a bit distracting. Were these always here or did they come with the redesign? I Can't remember. Again, I respect the need to promote Dzanc's other products, which are great, but I wonder about taking them out of the contents pages. If I'm getting distracted enough to actually click them in the middle of a story that's probably a bad sign for the story or the design that contains it.

I wish the genres weren't cordoned from each other, for reasons I mentioned above. It makes me a less adventurous reader, it makes the different pieces feel more like links the editors enjoyed and less like a product the editors arranged. I do appreciate that the pieces are clearly arranged within a genre, however. That tells me again that it matters what order I read the materials in, which I like.

Now for more navigation nitpicking: there aren't next or back buttons here either. I want them so bad! More troubling, though, are the permanent navigation elements. I understand some of these things are technical constraints but let's be perfectionists for a moment. 1) The Collagist logo takes you back to the Dzanc frontpage. This is counter-intuitive. 2) The Table of Contents link on the left hand always takes you to the table of contents for the most recent issue, which is fine if you assume that no one is ever going to be reading a back-issue and then want to get back to the index. But I've totally done both of those things and I expect I will again in the future. 3) So actually there is literally no way for someone reading a back issue to click a link that will take them back from a given story or poem or review to the issue in which it appeared. Instead this person would have to either hit the browser's back button (assuming they started at the index, which sometimes they won't have done) or, very counter-intuitively, click the "Previous Issues" link, scroll down, and choose the issue they were in. 4) ...which they might not actually know, because nothing says which issue it's in on its page. In practice none of this is ever a huge deal but I think most of it could be fixed.


I love PANK. There are a lot of things to like about the design. When you go to you're immediately greeted by a story or poem or thing. I'm not sure how these are selected for a given day (is it just a rotation from the current month's issue?) but it's a good idea: this is a website about reading and if you go there that's what you'll do. This probably isn't a good idea for EVERYBODY  but I wonder if it shouldn't be used more often.

It's easy to get from here to the magazine index and then from there to, say, the most recent issue. This is where PANK gets into trouble. (Again, remember I love you guys!) You're greeted by literally a column of names -- names, and nothing else. This column might be, depending on your monitor's resolution, several screens tall. One of the good things about PANK is that they publish the broadest sampling of writers and writing I've seen anywhere online: new writers, experienced writers, all sorts of different styles, genres, genre-benders, and so on. But the index of a given issue does almost nothing to help you sort through all this. You could click through the contents and read them one by one, but you quickly realize they're sorted alphabetically. This is actually as far as I can tell how the majority of online magazines do it, but I think this is a really bad mistake -- it's actually worse than not sorting your contents at all, because it's actively meaningless. Reading from beginning to end under these circumstances feels ludicrous: there's just no way that's the ideal order.

We haven't got titles or excerpts or genre here either, and, to be clear, I don't actually love knowing a piece's genre before I see it, but at least that's information. The result is that I rarely manage to read a significant portion of a given issue of PANK. I feel so overwhelmed that I click a few names (one or two I recognize, one or two I don't) and then I just sort of give up. I don't know where to begin or how to approach the issue so I never quite get absorbed.

Once I click a specific piece in the issue things get much better. As in the other two magazines above, the text is entirely readable and I appreciate the lack of distractions (though I could use a little more whitespace between multiple poems by a given author). I like that we have author bios on the article pages, but that's not really a usability issue -- I just like knowing that when I get to the end of a given piece, I'll have pointers about where to find more by someone if I like what they did. I wonder if we shouldn't always have at least links to bios at the bottom, and I'm curious about putting e-mail links for authors at the end of pieces as a more general thing, which as far as I know nobody does now.

One thing PANK got right that the others missed: right there at the top of the page is a link to the index of the issue in which the piece appears. On the other hand, still no next/back buttons. I can't think of anyone who does this either but I want it so bad, and so do some people I know.


So here are some things all of the magazines I've listed got right: they are all strong magazines with strong contents presented in an attractive, professional, and above-all readable way. And this is no small thing! For me, the majority of online magazines are essentially unreadable because of ugly, unprofessional, or excessively busy presentation. This includes some of the ones that are reputed to be very good. I wouldn't know! I can't read them.

On the other hand, most online magazines are suffering from a lot of small-but-niggling navigation problems that stem in part from the blog-based content management systems most magazines prefer. It can be distractingly difficult to get from one piece of a magazine to another, especially for those of us who prefer to use a website's interface rather than our browser navigation buttons to get from place to place (which should be, as a rule, always possible).

Counter-intuitive navigation choices can undermine the cohesiveness and specialness of a magazine by making the reader feel as if different pieces within an issue are entirely separate, rather than closely related and carefully curated/arranged. It should be as easy as one click to get from one piece to the next in an issue. Two clicks, after all, is just about enough to get you anywhere online, is the distance between this blog and probably Russian car catalogs or something bizarre.

Relatedly, editors should organize their magazine's contents by something other than the alphabet. This, along with additional information (at LEAST the title, and preferably a small excerpt) will both enhance the magazine's identity as a curated, designed object and give busy readers means by which to judge which pieces in a given magazine they want to read. Almost no one will read any issue all the way through, after all, and if we don't give readers the means by which to choose the parts they like best, they won't just read everything: they'll give up.

Again, this isn't meant to pick on these magazines or others, I am mainly fascinated by this sort of design and hopeful that discussing it in a clear, precise, and critical way can help online magazines to become as readable, beautiful and special-feeling as the best of their print counterparts.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Marginal Notes

A determined reader catches a long-buried
nuance in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein.
I never write in books. I was told to as a high school student, and I continued to try well into college, but I never really got the benefits from it I was told I would receive. I never remembered anything better, or made connections I wouldn't have otherwise made. Maybe it was just that I never liked the damage it seemed to do, and I encountered so many instances of readers' notes gone wrong--entire pages damp with highlighter, or margins littered with right-wing polemic (always right-wing, perhaps because college professors are always making students read this liberal literature all concerned with "expanding your mind").

Right now I'm reading Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities, the book I selected for my MFA workshop to read as instructional for my work. (I didn't have the courage to go with The Princess Bride, and besides, I do like Calvino, and besides again, I think I honestly couldn't handle people rejecting The Princess Bride in front of me.) I bought Invisible Cities for a college history/humanities colloquium on "Imagined Worlds," used. There's super-light pencil marks in the margins; I can't figure out whether I made them or Mike made them or someone before us made them. What's strange, though, is that every time I stop on a passage (most often trying to note for myself ways of mixing concrete with abstract, and separating concrete from abstract, which are my big problems with the book I'm working on for my thesis), it's one that's already been underlined or called out somehow in the margin. There's nothing written, so I have no clue as to what the notetaker thought was interesting or important about the passages he/she chose to mark. It's strange, then, that they're turning out to be so relevant to me under what I presume are vastly different circumstances.

How do you all approach writing in books? Is it more physical habit, or intellectual exercise? Do your notes make sense to you later?


I'm told it used to be you had to deal with your neighbors. You had to talk with them. You had to know their names. Maybe you brought them a basket with some fruits and cheeses in it. Maybe you shook their hands and introduced your children. Maybe you established certain standards of quality for lawn care.

Now a neighbor is either a silent mystery or a loud entertainment. (We prefer mysteries, in this case, to entertainments.) The neighbors on our left had a truck in their space that brought a breathing machine of some sort. We didn't see it arrive or leave, only saw it idle in the space, two orange cones at the front end for no obvious reason, a notice that we shouldn't smoke within such-and-such distance if we wanted to keep our nipples on straight. Someone in that apartment needs help to breathe. We also see cleaning supplies on their porch sometimes. We also, sometimes, hear the low end of the sound of a movie they're watching.

The neighbors on our right seem to be drug dealers but we'll never get proof. They never leave long enough to go to a job but they are constantly coming and going at high speeds. They are always screaming and fighting, and sometimes screaming and seeming to fight though they are in fact getting along. They seem to have a game where the husband pretends to assault the wife in order to taunt their dog, Hank. Only he is not the husband: we learned that once when Cynthia, who seemed to be the wife but has many gentleman callers (who all seem to come by our apartment first) insisted loudly that she was NOT his wife and he was NOT her husband. I know their names not because they've introduced themselves but because they are so loud. I do not know the one who seemed to be the husband's name was because no one shouts as loud as he does and he does not say his own name. He also sings, tunelessly, about their dog. Imagine Ernest dying of alcohol poisoning. I know how high their electric bill is. (It's pretty high, more than $200 dollars, is it energy-intensive to cook meth?) One time, when my family was visiting, they pulled into our second parking spot at high speed, nearly hitting my brothers, and they got out, and the man was wearing only his boxer briefs. They were laughing.

One time he was fist-fighting his brother in front of our door. We called the cops, who didn't actually listen to Tracy's description of what was happening, and who never came.

I think a lot of writers would get stories out of these people but I haven't got the energy. I already live with them.

A pretty good Sleep is Death game.

Remember Sleep is Death? I've been disappointed with most of the games I've seen on sidtube but this one is pretty good. Taken as a straight narrative, it's not that great -- you've got a therapist and a patient, you've got a pretty vague mystery, the hapless patient hears a voice, the voice is very strange and aggressive. You wouldn't want to read this as a short story or watch it as a film. But taken as what it actually is, a collaborative storytelling game between two people, I like it a lot. What isn't immediately obvious if you're not pretty familiar with the game is that the player is responsible for the voice in James' head, not James' dialog. This is the game's greatest strength, and its weakness -- if you think about it, the premise of being a voice in someone's head is most exciting if you can make them do things, especially things they don't want to do, or things they maybe secretly do want to do. There are gestures in that direction here, but they all happen in dialog, and James' dialog is rather flat, hitting the same two or three notes regardless of the player's inputs. The best bits are where the voice/player gets to speak *for* James. The worst bits are the long stretches where he's trying to make something happen but just can't do it. Sleep is Death is essentially a simple work-around for the problem of how to make games deal with language, but the controller really has to understand that concept to get the most out of that workaround, and there are good instincts here but they're not totally followed through on. Still, you can see that even in the slow patches the player and the controller are having a lot of fun.

Note also the careful visual composition, which pays close attention to negative space and relates the characters in an inherently dramatic way. Note the use of small gestures where most SID games rely on big movements. There's a lot to like about this, even if it's not 100% successful in my eyes.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Apparently I'm Antony's promoter now

What can I say? It's a good album. Give this one a little time to develop; it's worth it.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Poetry and Prose: Against Distinctions, Against Poets and Prosers

I've been told before that I should consider turning my latest novel into prose poetry, on the basis that it is sometimes "very poetic" (and, implicitly, therefore not proseful). I find this a very strange comment. On the one hand, clearly what they were expressing was a sense that the writing was in an awkward or transitional place, that it wasn't quite working on its own terms yet. This is useful knowledge and it was good to hear, and in the sections troubled by this issue I have revisions to do.

There is also an underlying idea that there are inherently poetic structures and inherently prosaic structures. I suppose this is true in the sense that when I see a linebreak I think "that's probably a poem" and when I don't I am inclined to call it prose or, sometimes, prose poetry. And what is prose poetry? It's prose that sounds poemy, I guess. It is probably not very long. Often prose poetry is really only bad prose -- it takes the form of a very small story, without any commitment to precision, structure, character, or any other constraint. In other words, a prose poem could be defined as prose that accomplishes nothing, language strictly for the sake of language (but not enough). (Flash is the more or less the same.)

There are poetry workshops where it is often said that a given poem or sentence structure or style or image is "not poetic." The people who say this can never define what is "poetic," and to the extent that it is necessary to be poetic, it seems only to be because they are poets in a poetry workshop writing poems. It is necessary then to write poetic poemy poems, but it is not necessary to know what those are, what it means, etc.

This is less common in prose workshops, partly because there is less of an idea of the practitioners as the priesthood of a dying God. (Though straight-up literary writers increasingly seem to share this anxiety as their preferred forms and styles become increasingly decrepit.) It does, however, happen that there are moments wherein the distinction is reinforced from the other side. "This could be a lovely prose poem, but it's not fiction." Often of course what we are really saying is that the thing is ugly or ineffective, that it needs to be fixed on a very fundamental level, but we are too kind or too cowardly to say this directly. But I think that we need to stop saying it.

There are people who might agree with much of what I've said here who, as a result, use terms like "texts" to describe their work. I believe at least one of our contributors uses such terminology. I am sympathetic to this but I disagree with it, because the virtue of "text" (that it has no meaning, that it can refer to literally anything one can be said to "read") is also its downfall: a "text" is like a poem or prose in that it needn't accomplish anything beyond existence. It makes no promises and no commitments to its reader. Note that no one says "I am a proser." No one says, "I make proses." People say they write essays, memoir, or stories. These words all contain commitments.

What I am saying is that it may be time for people to stop being poets. It may be time for us to stop writing poetry, and it may also be time for us to stop writing prose. What I would propose in place of poetry, in place of texts, in place of prose, is "stories." We should write stories. We could also use "essays." Essays are a real category. It's a word that means something.

This is meant to be an inflammatory post, but I should clarify that. A story can be very nearly anything. It demands essentially one thing: development. You don't need a character for a story, you don't need a setting, you don't need a theme or anything really beyond a sequence that creates interest and then develops that interest in some way. You could do this with linebreaks or without. You could do this by using characters or by using not-characters. It doesn't matter, really, how you do it. If it's not in some sense a story, then that doesn't make it a poem -- remember, "poem" doesn't mean anything -- it makes it a puzzle, perhaps, or a drawing, or an "experience," or a laser light show. (Of course, most laser light shows are stories.) It might even be music. But it's not a poem. Nothing is.

It's been interesting writing some of my recent short projects, some of which are poems to the extent that anything is a poem, because most magazines make you declare your work poetry or prose. Sometimes I'm really not sure what to do. My strategy is ultimately that I submit to whatever category the thing looks most similar to, or wherever I think it will be best received. It's a marketing strategy, which really we all know; there are people that only like to read fiction, people that only like to read nonfiction, and people that only like to read poems, and these people are often the mid-level readers at your favorite magazine. There's a reason these categories exist, and there's a reason they'll continue existing, and there's a reason I sometimes talk about "writing poetry" even though I don't really believe in the category.

In the long term I think that we would become more rigorous readers and writers, and more interesting human beings, if we combined it all. We should workshop everything together if we have to workshop, and this way instead of worrying about whether something is poetic enough or whether it's proper fiction, we can talk about how it works. We shouldn't cordon the one category from the other in literary magazines or anywhere, and once we've done this we can actually read for once. If poets didn't insist they were poets, if they didn't insist they were writing poetry, then people might read poetry again. They might even enjoy themselves. You'll notice if you go to the submissions page that while we do want poetry, we don't have submission categories in our Submishmash page. We did that without discussion -- it was intuitive. Why we should want to divide the many strategies available to us as writers into two overlapping but distinct categories when we could make everything instead is beyond my comprehension.

Friday, October 22, 2010


The critical response seems a little muted but Antony and the Johnsons' new album Swanlights seems more immediately engaging and exciting than their good-but-often-dull The Crying Light.

Thought you'd like to know!

HTMLGIANT's Literary Magazine Club

The tireless Roxane Gay has posted a few discussion starters for her wonderful Literary Magazine Club at HTMLGIANT. This is really a fantastic idea (a book club for litmags) and it is getting the notice it is due (Carolyn Kellogg at the LA Times litblog, Jacket Copy, wrote a post about it a couple of days ago -- misspelled Roxane's name, though). But there's always room for more discussion.

It is really easy: when a post goes up, there's a link at the top to a .pdf of the story being discussed. Download, read, and join in. NY Tyrant is a great magazine and you should probably already be reading it anyway, but if you haven't been, now's as good a time as any to start.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Lunch Break

It's lunchtime here in New Mexico; Mike and I are eating store-bought tamales due to lack of time and options here on campus. The ease is nice, but I often find myself thinking on Thursday afternoons of new things for us to cook for the week (since our grocery day is Friday). Here's a quick list of things around the Internet that I would really like to make and eat.

1. Tim's Mummy Cookies

These are not Tim's recipe, but he did link to them on Facebook, so I think of him as responsible for delivering them to me. I kind of can't stop thinking about how delicious they look. I love cookies, and Mike and I are both huge fans of white chocolate, so these are an easy sell. But they can also be made without. Either way, nom.

2. Cream of Pumpkin Soup

Some people in the MFA crowd around here are planning a Soup Party this weekend, and my current plan is to attend with this in a crockpot. The cinnamon croutons are the real stars here, but I'm also looking forward to the chance to make the soup without forgetting the cream this time. Turns out it really does taste just like pumpkin pie when all you put in it is pumpkin puree, fall spices, and brown sugar...

3. Mexican Crepes

Our friends over at Master of Fine Eats always have great stuff cooking, but this one has been making me salivate for a while: tortillas layered with strawberries, ricotta and cream cheese, and a sprinkle of chocolate chips.

I've had a sweet tooth bugging me for a while now, so I'm hoping for the opportunity to make at least one of these in the coming weeks. Especially the crepes, but especially the mummy cookies.

"In Alabama the Tuscaloosa"

The always incredible Robert Lopez has new stories in The Brooklyn Rail:
Someone approached me on the street. It was broad daylight, appalling.

Questions were put to me as if I might know something. The first had to do with my birthplace. I told them I couldn’t remember, that I’ve been told different things by different people.

Then they asked me if I was interested in making some extra money. I told them stories need to be verified. I told them I would look into it and get back to them. I said I needed more time.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

What Super Mario Bros. 3 taught me about the world

Reading Jeremy Parish's article about Super Mario Bros. 3, I remembered the period during which I started and participated in a number of video game websites. I imagine a lot of young writers today started out writing about video games, partly because games are awesome, and partly because it's pretty easy to get people to read about video games. There are maybe fifty thousand hobbyist websites and they are all in desperate need of anybody with the ability to string a few words together.

The first site I created was called a "Gamers' College." (Keep in mind, I was eleven.) The idea was that while most of the popular sites out there would give you cheats and tricks that worked in one particular game, I would give you skills that could help you to perform well and discover secrets in any game. These consisted mainly of reminders to look out for patterns: if most of the time the clouds or the platforms or the X in a given game look one way, look out for places where they look another way. I was thinking of Zelda, where you learn pretty quickly to bomb walls with cracks in them (and then, over the course of the game, to bomb and set fire to everything, just in case there's, say, one of eight essential dungeons underneath it). I was also thinking of a particular trick in Super Mario Bros. 3.

Most platforms in a certain type of level in Super Mario Bros. 3 are green, pink, or blue. They look like a natural part of their environment. There are, however, a few white platforms. Once you notice them, they stick out like a sore thumb. If you duck on one of these platforms for a few seconds, you'll fall through it, and this will allow you to run through the background of the level, safe from all the monsters. Discovering this trick makes you feel like a genius.

In playing Super Mario Bros. 3, we already knew that jumping in the right spot would sometimes lead to the discovery/creation of a box containing a coin or a power-up. We had learned this when we jumped into mid-air at the left edge of the green hill before the pit after the fourth pipe in the original Super Mario Bros. We had a sense for where these invisible boxes might hide. Something about the angles of a level. Something about the likely path of Mario's flight. We could feel it.

My Gamers' College would also point out that in a platforming sequence where timed hazards rotated or fell into place and then receded it was usually necessary to rush toward the hazard when it appeared to be most dangerous. It would also point out the necessity of planning and preserving one's resources. In other words, my goal was to codify the wisdom video games inherently teach. The necessity of saving small sums of money until they became larger sums to purchase video games taught me how to manage finances, and so did the necessity of saving the power-ups in Mario 3 until the appropriate moment.

Mario 3 also taught me how to explore:
Super Mario Bros. 3 begins by giving Mario familiar touchstones—bricks, a Goomba, a mushroom, a Piranha Plant—before throwing new things into the scenario. The Piranha Plant spits a fireball. There’s a Question Block on the ground, forcing Mario to kick a turtle into it... and out of that block comes a new power-up icon, a leaf. The leaf confers upon Mario a tail, which can be used to smack enemies from the side. And no sooner do you get a feel for the the raccoon tail than you realize that there’s a trail of coins leading into the sky. You take a running jump to see how many you can grab, and suddenly you’re flying. And all at once you realize just how very new this Mario game is going to be.
Here, too, does Mario 3 demonstrate a fundamental component of modern Nintendo design: The canonization of the unique. Nintendo has always been distinct from other developers in its tendency to take a simple core mechanic and explore countless different permutations of that idea: outward-looking game design. Other developers tend to grab a scattershot array of ideas and force them into a cohesive whole, working from the outside in. Such games usually feature a handful of brilliantly original ideas used to the point that they become utterly rote. 
Mario 3 took a different tack, tossing out countless improvisations on its core mechanics, but presenting each one sparingly, so that its embellishments became memorable rarities. Kuribo’s Shoe -- a massive wind-up boot piloted by a Goomba and wholly capable of being hijacked by Mario -- remains a fan-favorite feature. It appears twice in a single level of Mario 3, and its popularity is no doubt a function of its scarcity.
In Super Mario Bros. 3, the physics are fairly simple: you're a guy who can run and jump. If you land on top of something it dies. If it touches you in any other way, you die. If you hit a block something good will come out. There are power-ups and variations on the ideas in the game that change how you manage these rules, but these are the rules.

If it looks like you can do something in Mario 3, you probably can. When you first see Kuribo's shoe, you notice there's a goomba riding in it. You know that you can kill the goomba. If you kill the goomba, it might leave the shoe behind. There's no reason that you couldn't ride in the shoe.

What Mario 3 taught a generation of kids was to be observant, to imagine new uses for old tools. It taught us to explore. It taught us to see the world in terms of a series of creative opportunities. There are many video games that are probably not very good for your children. The ones your kids need to play have outward-facing game design. They are little Gamers' Colleges.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Whistle While You Work

It used to be that when I was writing I would almost always be also listening to music. I chose the music so that it was appropriate to my mood and the tone I wanted to set in the book, and then I would try to ride the rhythm and the melody of it into more musical prose. This didn't really work, I don't think, but it helped me get past my anxiety over writing and lay down words, which is I think the main thing beginning writers need.

For the last few years I've tended to listen to music that was the opposite of the mood and tone I wanted to set, though occasionally I will lapse back into my old ways for a little while. Often I've listened to energetic, aggressive music to help me keep my brain awake and my heart thumping -- and to remind myself that when my writing gets less engaging and absorbing than the music, I have to stop writing for a while and do something else. 

More recently I often find I need not to listen to any music because I get distracted or, in some cases, something about the combination of concentrating on writing and not concentrating on the music can put me to sleep. Often this seems to have something to do with headphones. If I can use my speakers I am usually okay to listen to music.

I also used to watch television or movies in the background while I wrote, sometimes. This was to make me feel less lonely. Now I don't need that so much.

A lot of my development as a writer seems to be about learning to think of writing as purely writing, and not through a metaphor of music or film, which can be very glamorous, tempting metaphors.

No big conclusions to make here, but I do wonder how other people feel about these things.


I really enjoyed Kathy Acker's rewriting of stories like The Scarlet Letter in Blood and Guts in High School. Who else has done things like this? How did they approach it? How did they use the original text? I'm playing with something like this now and I'd like to think about how to best to do it.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

It just occurred to me

that while we often make sounds in our sleep it seems we rarely laugh.

Why can't we tell ourselves jokes in our sleep? Or if we do, are the jokes not very funny?

Art, identification, blankness, emptiness.

I go through phases where I can barely listen to guitar music. I go through phases where I love guitar music. When I go through a phase where I can barely listen to guitar music -- about once a year -- it's bands like the Foo Fighters ruining things for everybody. I hate the Foo Fighters mainly because none of their music ever does anything beyond existing. All the drums communicate is the fact that they are drums in a rock song. All the lyrics ever tell me is that I'm listening to a rock song. All the guitars tell me is that they are guitars in a rock song. They're just a little sad and a little angry because that's what rock music is. Every now and then one of the guitars wiggles for a second in a certain way that reminds me Dave Grohl was in Nirvana, which is essential to the Foo Fighter brand. This is literally all they communicate to my ears. Here's an example:

See what I mean? The vocals are bland as hell and they're easily the best part of this song; the guitars weave a meaningless guitarhaze until they rouse themselves long enough to do...some things that guitars generally do. The drums might as well be a couple metronomes for all I notice them.

As a kid I didn't like almost any music because I could hear immediately that it only wanted me to buy into the brand of the musician so I would want to sleep with the musician and buy all their shit. To some extent I've softened on this point -- self-presentation is inherently a part of entertainment -- but when you listen to most country music, for instance, you're really listening to a few simple messages over and over again: I, the musician, am very white. I am an American. You are also perhaps a white American. Good for us. Here are some guitars no one thought about at all. Here is a drum kit. Here's a woman. She seems approachable. Maybe she'll marry you. And so on. If there is a fiddle it is a fiddle designed to do nothing more than be a fiddle. If there is piano it is there to be piano. It is more about promoting a certain brand of whiteness than it is about any real pursuit of beauty.

What I am grousing about is the fact that when I want to listen to music what I often really end up hearing is identification. Identification and not much else.

A lot of art reads this way to me anymore. When I look at literary magazines full of traditional fiction, I don't really see anything on the page beyond the act of identification with traditional fiction. When people talk about "the MFA story," if they aren't talking out of their asses, this is what I think they really mean: the story that accomplishes essentially nothing beyond signifying the fact that a writer has attended the MFA, and/or internalized its values. These stories aren't quite awful in the way that a Foo Fighters song isn't quite awful. They avoid certain mistakes (the avoidance of mistakes being the entire aesthetic of a pure MFA story). They show mastery of certain techniques, atmospheres, tones. They are, however, limited to a recitation of the small body of official knowledge granted any recipient of a liberal arts education -- a bland sort of liberalism expressed through aesthetic conservatism that ultimately renders it conservative, a mixture of fatalism and mysticism (an insistence that while there may be no god, there is in fact something to console us in the same way), etc. "Craft" is a word we use to refer to the presence or absence of these recitations, the commitment to or rejection of official knowledge.

My understanding is that the world of poetry is playing out a different but related dynamic, wherein more experimentation is allowed but there is a journal or there are several journals for each aesthetic or strategy or style or whatever (sometimes, embarrassingly, they call themselves movements).

And of course this is not strictly an MFA phenomenon. It is, I would argue, the primary way in which humans make and understand art. When I started buying albums and figuring out what I liked (having discovered, at the age of fifteen, that there were in fact records I liked) I went into a record store where they sold edgy t-shirts and small drug paraphernalia as well as the records themselves. Like anyone in a record store I was also hoping to meet girls; if I bought the right record or wore the right edgy t-shirt, perhaps I could make someone like me. Maybe we would fall in love. Etc. I asked one of the clerks to make some recommendations, which is something I did often. He recommended one album, noting that it was different from the artist's previous work in that it was sort of happy. I said, "What's it doing here then?" This was a ham-handed attempt at identification, and thus it is one of the most embarrassing moments in my life thus far. The clerk said, "I'm happy," which told me that I had failed at identification.

What I had wanted -- in addition to sex with a pretty girl -- was an album that would recite some things I already knew into my ear. The things I wanted to hear were about how awful and venal I was, and how awful and venal everyone in the world was, and how depressing everything was turning out to be when it was clearly supposed to be beautiful. Messages like these comforted me then (and still sometimes do now), mainly because they told me I was right about everything, which is all anyone really wants to hear.

A lot of people in the experimental lit crowd seem, to me, to be forever trapped in that moment; far from experimenting with new ideas and modes of production, they are asking to be told, and telling each other, how awful and venal people are, how they are awful and venal too, how ugly the world, how contingent identity, etc. I include myself in that number. Often when I don't know what else to do to give a work life I will reach for these easy wisdoms.

Ultimately, as I've said, I think most art more or less works this way. When we recognize genius it is often the experience of not identifying with something and knowing its greatness anyway. I guess it isn't such a big deal, really. I think it pisses me off in part because I am, as I've written here before, a deficient identification machine: while I experience empathy quickly and with great intensity, the experience of actual identification is essentially alienating for me most times I feel it. I'm not proud of this -- I think of it as a deficiency of my psychology, one that, for lack of power to change, I try to make a strength. And so there is that.

But there is also the sense in which art that does nothing but identify is art that perpetuates privilege and power. Privilege is the right to go unexamined. Art that sees publication or other distribution is generally art that never had to explain itself: The [Blank] Review prints a story or a poem not because they find it beautiful but because they can find nothing wrong with it, because it presents such a blank, smooth surface that it never occurred to them to try to find something wrong. When an artist finds success this is often crippling to the artist, and we say he has "sold out" or that he "got rich" and this ruined him. What we are really saying, I think, is that the artist has ended communication. To speak without speaking, to make noise without communicating, is to speak politically, is to assert one's privilege, is to protect one's position. Speech without speech is the heart of every powerful person's communication strategy. The MFA story is conservative. The MFA story is a pair of cement shoes with no practical function beyond the crippling of society. The Foo Fighters are the same. They fill our thoughts with thought simulations. They give us something to do without doing anything.

The sad thing, the funny thing, is that for most people who practice this blank horrible unspeech in their art, there is no real chance of ever attaining power or money. We might call the people who publish in The [Blank] Review successful, if we consider publication in a journal where no one is really writing and no one is really reading success, if we consider the opportunity to someday teach without teaching in some university success, if we consider the moderate wage this will draw a success. (I do consider the wage a kind of success, at least.) They are also, however, already dead, and they are killing us too, sucking joy and beauty from a life with too little of either.

Saturday, October 16, 2010


What's the longest it's taken a magazine to respond to a submission?  At what point do/did you say, "meh, I'd like that back..."?

Long poems at Octopus Magazine

New Octopus Magazine with many long poems. Am interested to explore. Have a look and tell us what's best in the comments.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Quick thought

Sorry we haven't posted in a little bit, but we've been busy with school things and etc. And at the moment whiskey.

One thing I was just thinking about, though: it seems like a lot of the stuff I write about here, I write about from the perspective of how it opens itself to reader/player/listener/user participation through what is, in classical terms, flawed presentation. Repetition that draws attention to itself, the inclusion of mistakes, intentionally "flawed" delivery, operation according to fairly specific constraints. These elements are common to vast swathes of art, of course, but even in the sort of minimalist exercises of post-modernists, there was a sense of engineering a sublime artistic experience. As increasingly the line between audience and artist/performer/whatever blurs, as we begin to understand that we are all creators not only in creation but in reading, it seems as if the appeal of what we might call unfinished art improves.

I was thinking of this in the context of the Penny Arcade-hosted Blamimations, which Tracy and I have been enjoying tremendously since their debut. The constraints are many: the artists animate very quickly, creating a presentation that is both professional (most people definitely couldn't draw, compose, or time this well) and limited: they don't have time to draw a lot of frames, so they wiggle the art around a lot, and use a lot of copy-and-pasting. There are only two of them, and only their voices appear. There is something of a format, though the format does change often. They leave in their mistakes (though of course the mistakes become intentional, and they are very likely doing the scenes several times and choosing pieces from different versions) and they often draw attention to the seams in their animation, the stiffness, etc.

There is a sense in which this sort of work is limited by its insistence on engaging with its own limitations, by refusing the artifice of grace. But there is also the potential, I think, for lasting greatness in this; and the illusion of sublimity may be something we could do a lot without.

Maybe I will develop this more tomorrow. Or tonight, when I am more drunk.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Oh wow

The Insane Clown Posse has been one of those weird mysteries of youth culture for a while, now; they just got a lot more mysterious, and a lot lamer. I guess they've been out as evangelical Christians for a few years now, but I never heard about it until today. This video will catch you up:

I mean, just, wow. This is the lamest thing ever. "Magic everywhere in this bitch!" Long-neck giraffes, butterflies, pelicans, and moms are apparently all very special to this new ICP. Can't wait to see their next video.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

On Generosity

A lot of writers talk about generosity in writing. I'm not sure, unfortunately, that I've ever totally understood what generosity in writing would refer to. I have an understanding that is intuitive, sure--generosity means giving, and there are many things that writing can "give."

Let's say I'm forced to use the word in a sentence. I might say that a story that carries a sense of full disclosure about its character (I thought of Dave Eggers' A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius) is generous, meanwhile countering that an unnecessary vomiting of information (Franzen's "They were the kind of liberals that...") is not generous but slack. Or I might say that a story or poem that wallows in its language a little, turning and turning and turning phrases round past the point of need till they come out more honest, more meant, is generous; I'd take care to differentiate this from a story or poem that twines its adjectival phrases, its nested subordinate clauses, delicately about to the point of rolling in its own slop. When I examine it this way, I wonder if the difference is really as simple and abdominally visceral as I imagine--is generosity an act of holding forth (and what a weird expression that is--I picture squeezing something tight as you deliver it into another's hands), not to be confused with excess, with indulgence, with binge or purge?

I came across the term most recently not as a description of writing, but as a description of music. My favorite musician, Owen Pallett (who I am going to see in concert tomorrow--I break the ban on Arizona to see this man) tweeted about Sufjan Stevens's new album, The Age of Adz, saying on its behalf, "I'm gonna be interested to see if anybody can give The Age of Adz a negative review and not come off like a complete asshole." Then, "It's like coming home to find that Sufjan's made you dinner, ironed your clothes, washed your car and installed a new hot tub," ending with the hash tag, "#generous." I hadn't realized Sufjan had a new album, which made me feel very stupid; he's rather a hero of mine too. So I went and found it waiting on the NPR site (generously). And I started listening, and obviously within mere moments I felt very stupid again, because I did not realize ahead of time that this album was made pointedly different from his last few, the ones I got to know him by. And so I started looking for that generosity, because in one sense I knew it was there--to explode your style the way Sufjan does here, to both totally unmake it and tease it to its limits, is some kind of generous.

It's been a long long time since I memorized your face / 
And it's been four hours now since I wandered through your place /
I do love you / I do love you

The opening song is incredibly lovely--these little Hauschka-esque plucked strings (I also love Hauschka), the immense overblown echo, the surprising strikes of a very homely piano. I think it's my mother's, which I reached a hand up to play when I was two years old, which I thought all children loved but they don't, which hasn't been tuned since I've been born.

But before long comes Bigfoot stepping through piles of sonic acid, banging trash cans on his way out of the sewers. A sick couple of trombones, eventually, dovetailing pleasingly and grossly into more pancreatic explosions. Flutes and clarinets, the same--trills that could eat their way through the ozone layer. It's kind of amazing, and awfully disturbing. It's the kind of thing I was always afraid I might hear in my head. The kind of thing that, in my deepest trances of composing, I was always afraid I'd make.

When it dies, when it dies / 
It rots / 
And when it lives, and when it lives / 
It gives it all it gots

It's the power of electronics to create worlds that don't exist for sensations that do, to create blight where real instruments and voices can't. You don't hear a whole lot of music that creates blight, that wastes itself. It's something writers don't really have. (Do we?)

It's clearly a work of great musicianship. It seems to fight logic so hard, but it has a vocabulary that can be tracked and made to fit next to the part of the musician's personality we already know. In some ways it's exactly what I always wanted Sufjan to do; I wanted him to yell at me, to break down, to scream. He doesn't really do that here, but he does put something of himself at risk. He risks his own overexposure; there's a quality of self-destruction, but without anger, without full violence. Balanced with it is certainly this quality of Sufjan inviting himself into your house, of playing in your brain--is this generosity? Or is it that he's inviting you into his house, his brain? Because he seems to do both.

Does a generous writer invite you in? Or does generosity impose?

Owen Pallett has a new album, too, to my joy: an EP called A Swedish Love Story. And he's trying new things too--the string arrangements are rickety in places; they strive as they always do, but they also scratch and warble and spread. There's a quality of openness to that--as with Sufjan, it's not a deliberate misplacement of elements, a coy wink at an intentional mistake; it's not an abandonment of craft but a careful deflation of it. Generosity, maybe, breaks the membrane a little to let us all see what'll leak.

Generosity as human stuffing, as life fluid. Generosity as abdominal after all. Generosity as bandage for a suppurating wound.

These are generous people, and maybe it's in part because they perceive a generous world. Just last week came this, too, which is one of the most generous things I've ever read (though I'm not sure it's necessarily generous to share). Generosity, maybe, bleeds. It does more than share. Generosity works glory out of blight.

I want to be well / I want to be well / I want to be well / I want to be well /
I want to be well / I want to be well / I want to be well / I want to be well /
I want to be well / I want to be well / I want to be well / I want to be well /
I want to be well / I want to be well / I want to be well / I want to be well /
And I forgive you even / As you choke me that way /

Monday, October 11, 2010

Authors on Art

Here is a thing that I think will be neat. Blake Butler is putting together a series of monthly columns called "Authors on Art" for the Atlanta-based art blog Burnaway. The first in the series features Ben Spivey, author of Flowing in the Gossamer Fold, writing about the photography of Yelena Yemchuk and how it influenced his book, both of which sound/look pretty great. Some of the photos are up on the blog, but here's some others on her site. I know next to nothing about art. But I like hers, and it seems like she does a really wide range.

Meanwhile, Ben Spivey's book involves a character who's a mannequin, and it just generally sounds cool. More here from Blue Square Press.

"Authors on Art" will be featured on Burnaway the second Monday of each month.


I have a number of library books at home right now. I am the jerk with six different books on his desk, each of them untouched for days on end, the bookmarks moving slow through the pages. I've also got chapbooks and thicker things that have come in the mail recently and I feel (sometimes pleasantly, sometimes un-) buried in words. Last night I read some of Tom McCarthy's C and got so anxious about finishing anytime soon so that I can move on that I had a damn nightmare about writing a review of it.

(C is making me particularly anxious because I liked Remainder quite a lot and C is heavy with singular characters and promise of weirdness but it's sort of densely narratively traditional, at least toward the front [I'm only 40 pages in] and I'm getting a little slogged down and feeling guilty for it.)

Anyway Thursday I decided to return some things to the library and when I looked at the website saw that the central location would be hosting Laura van den Berg, author of Dzanc-published What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us. I have not read every story in the collection but the stories I have read are strong. All the stories, as I remember, have appeared in well-known and respected journals. The stories I've read are about intelligent and resourceful people doing their best to navigate less-than-ideal situations, sometimes while wearing bigfoot suits. The plots aren't fantastical but they flirt with the fantastical.

So Saturday Sarah and I went to the downtown library and stumbled around feeling foolish and tried to log onto a machine to figure out where exactly this event was and then finally the Information Desk sent us to the third floor where Laura was reading from the first story in the book. We sat in the back and I was surprised at the turnout. After the reading, Laura conducted a Q-and-A on publishing, working with an indie press, etc., and was ultragracious in her moderation of topics and generous with her answers.

Anyway I recommend her book. When I've read it all I'll probably write about my favorite pieces, on Moonshot.

After the reading I met J. Bradley. If you've read the PANK blog, you probably recognize him as the interviews editor. He also produces poetry and fiction, a lot of which you can find around the internet and some of which you can find in books. His writing is very punchy and packed, which is to say that in the fiction you can see the close attention to word choice and feel the heat of the narrative engine.

Here's a picture of my cat sleeping with J. Bradley's book, The Serial Rapist Sitting Behind You is a Robot, published by Safety Third Enterprises: