Friday, December 23, 2011

The Horse and the Hamburger

A while ago, somebody close to me read about the horse and the hamburger and asked how they had found themselves alone in a medical tent, one tormented, the other unconscious and dying. The answer is that there was violence, of course, and it did not go well for the hamburger. The sad thing, what upset the horse the most, was that the hamburger was not wounded by enemy fire or artillery but by the explosion of a poorly maintained generator on which he was sitting. He was not supposed to be injured, in other words, and this thought dismayed the horse, and it dismayed the horse that it dismayed him, because nobody, of course, was supposed to be injured, it just seemed more natural that if the hamburger was injured it would be because of combat action and not becuase of poor maintenance of a generator.

The horse and the hamburger had not known each other at all, and the total infamiliarity between them increased the horse's dismay. They were alone now in the medical tent, and not just alone for the first time but near each other for the first time; the hamburger was close to the horse but the horse could not be said to be close to the hamburger, really, because the hamburger was unconscious and probably irrevocably so and so nothing could really be said to be close to him. The horse had some ideas about what might be close to the hamburger now, but they were watery and contradictory: the leftover religious want of his youth created a hazy paradise for the hamburger, and a long-forgotten religiously experimental friend from college informed now an idea that the hamburger had transferred  into another plane, and the horse's medical training, his strongest influence, inclined him to believe that the hamburger, right now, was nonexistent, nothing, void of feeling and thought, suspended. Then too his own desire influenced him, and his desire was to imagine this hamburger in a delirium, living a fantasy from which he wouldn't want to (and probably would not) return, sharing pizza with a long-forgotten girlfriend or driving his first car, all the world glowing softly and comfortably heated.

The horse and the hamburger may have been friends outside of this tent, outside of this conflict, but it was more likely they would not have been. Despite his respect for soldiers like the hamburger, the horse had difficulty imagining them in positions with status reflecting his own, as physicians or lawyers or politicians or executives. It seemed likely that the hamburger, before this conflict, had worked as a pipe fitter or a plumber or as a cook at the sort of restaurant the horse would usually not visit. It was possible that, had the horse seen the hamburger working at one of these restaurants, he would have enjoyed an uncomfortable moment of pity, a prideful judgment on the hamburger, dressed probably in the baggy, shiny slacks of kitchen staff, in the loose NASCAR t-shirt of kitchen staff, in the sweat-matted hair of kitchen staff, and he would have thought that the hamburger's life was awful, a nightmare lesson to him about the dangers of professional laziness, a congratulations to the horse on the pursuit of his advanced training. And now the horse felt shame for thoughts he hadn't actually had. The hamburger, of course, did not work in a kitchen.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Sharp things frighten me

The fear of knives is called aichmophobia. It also refers to a more general fear of sharp objects, up to and including things like fingers pointed in accusation. I don't think I was always phobic around knives. I don't think I liked them especially. My hands shake constantly. I'm clumsy. Knives are not my friends. But it didn't used to be that whenever I saw a knife I immediately imagined what could go wrong--how it might end up inside someone's body.

It may have started one day when I was unloading the dishwasher. I had put a large knife into the white plastic silverware bin blade-up. I leaned down over the dishwasher to lift up some bowls. My mom pointed out that the knife was pointing up at my chest. If I had tripped, I would have fallen directly on the knife. I'm not sure how deep it would have gotten. The edge was probably pretty dull. Still, I would have fallen right on it. I laughed it off at the time. It still freaks me out a little now.

But I was wondering the other day if it's also partly a thing about writing. My work took a huge step forward when I started operating on the principle that what could go wrong in a story usually should. I started looking for opportunities to ruin my characters' lives. One of the best way to ruin a life is to have a character disregard what seems like a small risk for the sake of a short-term gain. The small risk turns out to have major consequences. A life is difficult to build but it's easy to break down. That's what scares me. It's also what obsesses me.

So the thing is that when I see a knife I can't help but imagine a scenario where it ends up hurting someone badly. Any movie becomes a horror movie the second a character starts chopping vegetables--carrots, say. I always imagine them cutting their fingers, their hands, and on up their arms, as if they wouldn't be able to stop once they had started. When I see one sitting out on a counter I imagine it falling into someone's foot. When someone holds a knife so that it's pointed in my direction--even if it's someone I love, who loves me--I can't help but imagine them stabbing me, by accident or on purpose. I imagine them stabbing each other, too, and themselves.

It's not a crippling fear.

I have a thing with guns, too. I don't consider that a phobia. They're guns. Chekhov said, "One must not put a loaded rifle on the stage if no one is thinking of firing it." I assume that if I see a gun then I will see someone shot. Maybe me or maybe not. I had a housemate who wanted to buy a gun. Hell if I know why. Ostensibly for self-protection, but we lived literally five houses away from the university police station. It wasn't exactly a neighborhood with a lot of crime. He didn't really have the money to spend on that sort of thing either. Honestly it creeped me out that he wanted the gun. He told me he was thinking about it. I said he couldn't get one while I was living in the house. I said it that way, too: that he couldn't while I was there. He looked a little shocked and a bit pissed. But I felt I had the right to decide not to live with a gun.

I remember once there was a knife on my TV tray--a steak knife, the cheap kind you get at Wal-Mart. It fell off of my tray (I knocked it off). When something falls while I'm sitting I tend to instinctively clap my legs together. (Remember Huck Finn disguised as a girl, clapping his legs together in the dress to catch the ball of yarn, thus revealing his gender?) I caught the knife not on my legs, but between them. The sharp end passed through my jeans and pressed into my thigh. The meaty part. The blunt end was up against my other leg. If I had brought my legs any closer together, the knife would have punctured the meat of my thigh. I don't know how I knew to stop. It happened so quickly. It was terrifying, but only after the fact, like the knife I could have fallen on.

I have dreams where people casually destroy each other, or me. For instance, one where a man with a hook for a hand tears off my limbs one by one, laughing because it's so easy. And I guess what I'm saying is I feel like writing fiction is at fault for all this, in some way. Like it trained me to see how everything could go wrong. I wonder if other people feel that way too. Or I wonder if I had this tendency already, and it's why writing feels so natural to me--because I was already thinking, always, about how a life might be ruined. Mine or yours.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Mother 3: Over There

Hey guys, thought I'd let you know that I did a post about Mother 3 over at HTMLGIANT, where I will be writing regularly now. I expect to continue posting periodically to this blog as well, but things have been quiet here for a while due to real-life stuff anyway, and you can expect its somewhat slower pace to continue. It's not that I don't love you! I do, and we do. And we're putting together an excellent magazine to prove it.

Apostrophe and the Post-Romantic Part 4: Conclusion and Afterword

An interesting thing to me about these above mentioned poets, is that, for the most part, they do not fit into a box.  Even the “hybridism,” described in Cole Swensen’s introduction to American Hybrid, does not contain these poets.  Swensen’s idea of hybridism, is relegated to only poetic hybrids, discussing nothing of genre hybrids, which is what I see Wenderoth and Göransson doing.  This bending and breaking of genre and form to fulfill a poetic goal, seems to lead into the bending and breaking of other poetic conventions, such as the conventions of apostrophe.

Younger poets will always have this ability to shake things up because they don’t have anything to lose, and they are not set in their ways.  There are some poets that do change constantly throughout their career, but they are the exception, not the rule.  For poetry that confronts the status quo, is alive, and full of potential, and I’ll always look to a younger poet.  They still have a sense of ambition, that gets lost somewhere along the way to becoming an established poet.

One can see through these examples that young emerging poets have interesting perspectives, techniques, and ways of employing their unique poetics, at least in the realm of apostrophe.  These poets take the apostrophic trope to new levels of interrogation and challenge the preconceived notions of what apostrophe is and can do.  Wenderoth shows us that apostrophe can exist inside of theory that exists inside of poetry.  Göransson demonstrates apostrophe’s ability to alienate in contrast to its traditional mode of reconciliation.  And through Doxsee we see apostrophe blankly evoking the you in opposition to the pathos that so readily typifies Romantic address. Though I’ve shown them against Culler’s romanticized vision of what apostrophe is, these poets still operate inside of the strictures of the trope:  the speaking I, utters to the absent and unspeakable you.

Afterword:  Criticism of the Criticism

With all this interesting work being done, one must ask, why isn’t there more criticism written about these emerging poets (in academic journals) or on this interesting topic of apostrophe?  Some of this lack might have to do with the size of the poet’s publisher, some of it might be the sheer amount of poetry out there and there are too few critics to delve into it all, and some of it might be embarrassing to the critic.

Cole Swensen’s introduction to American Hybrid briefly discusses the shift in the publishing world.  She points out that the vast majority of poetry publications come from small independent presses and that the once big publishing houses, now publish only a few titles a year.  When examining the role small presses play, and have played, in the world poetry publishing, one can see that they are important.  Some important books of the twentieth century were originally small press publications that were later picked up by large presses (specifically, and just off the top of my head, I’m thinking of Ted Berrigan’s Sonnets, though this can’t be the only example).  With the possibility that important work is being published on small presses, is ignoring small press publications really a good idea for critics?

Also a part of this “explosion” of small presses is the explosion of books of poetry.  Lots and lots of poetry is being published.  I might even say more poetry is being published now than ever before, although I would have no way to know.  There is so much poetry out there, any anthology that is superlative, (Best New Poets, The Best American Poetry, The Best of the Web, etc.) is going to be flawed.  How could anyone, or even how could any one group, read every poem published in a given year, and come to a sound conclusion about what is “Best”?  So how does one talk about all this poetry?  Well, the easy answer is, just start reading.  Since there is so much, anywhere is a good enough start.  Start reading it for fun, start incorporating it into papers, and start treating it as the potentially groundbreaking work that some of it surely is or will be.

Looking at the poets that have been used as examples by the critics I have drawn from for this paper, one can see a common thread:  they are all established, well known and/or canonical poets.  Now, this isn’t a problem in and of itself, but one can see how voices can be left out of discussions.  If the internet, digital printing, and direct marketing are leveling the playing field, as Swensen asserts, then why haven’t these small press poets received the same critical examination as the large press, established poets?  The answer to this question, I think, lies in the desire to say something important about important poets and the difficulty it would be to convince the reader of criticism (other critics) that Unknown Poet is important.  It would also be embarrassing if no one agreed.

What are the consequences of critics ignoring small press publications?  Swensen shows that the rise of MFAs is leading to communities that are analyzing as well as creating the new poetries.  Eventually I can see this as a leveling force in criticism, but I honestly think it shouldn’t.  I feel that there is a place and a need for both.  Poets are already the primary readers of poetry, we don’t need to become our primary critics as well.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011


Lost weekend: Not alcohol, just work. Accept this entire issue in lieu of usual weekend story link.

Of note: Mitch Patrick's video piece, Tyann Prentice's polyvocal poem, M Kitchell's splash page, and Ken Baumann, Helen Vitoria, David Peak, James Tadd Adcox, Mike Buffalo, Eric Wennemark, Ben Segal, Nate Dorr, Elizabeth Witte, William VanDenBerg, Clayton T. Michaels.

A Review Of Juicy Oozers

Juicy Oozers are a gummy candy made by Black Forest (what a good website eh?).  According to the results of a google image search, they come in a variety of flavors and styles (can candy have a 'style'?  what is the word I'm thinking of here?) such as sour skulls, sharks or insects (I am here reviewing the Insect variety).  Because of this blog's obsession with gummy candy (see gummies! gummies! and gummies! ) I decided that our audience and my fellow bloggers needed to know about this variation of the sort.

Initially I was hoping for Gushers (waaay better website huh?) or something even close, but was prepared for something terrible.  Something that would feel weird in my mouth, taste strange or familiarly gross, or a combination of all three. 


Upon first nibble, the "ooz" isn't immediately differentiated from the gummy part of the candy.  There is no gratifying "pop" or disturbing dribble of liquid goo.  It's very tame.  It's kind of like the opposite of fruit in your jello.  A softer spot in an already soft nugget.


Red:  medicine-y; like cherry cough syrup

Pink:  creamy; like lifesavers cream

Green:  just like green gummy bears 

Yellow:  like a tartness that's simultaneously overwhelmed by sweetness


They're a terrible disappointment.  I was hoping for an epic adventure for my mouth but I ended up with a walk through the "shady" part of Portland (which, surprise!  doesn't exist).  My favorite is the Yellow though, because you can see the green goo inside of it and that makes it easier to pretend I'm eating a real bug and sucking its guts out through a hole in its detached abdomen.  

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Apostrophe and the Post-Romantic Part 3: Doxsee, Göransson, and Wenderoth

So in Part 3 I'm getting to my argument.  In the next part I'll get into my argument's argument, something I even turned in to my professor as an "afterword" that was the whole reason for me writing this paper.
(fast forward to 2:28 for a reading)

In this era of so-called “hybrid” poetry, there are new “levels” of apostrophe that have emerged and existing levels that have been taken to such extremes that they become new, alien experiences for readers of twenty-first century poetry.  Contemporary poets are beyond all the levels that Culler describes and are breaking more ground than those that Keniston investigates.  They are not taking pathos as a given for poetic address, they break form and genre more forcefully, and if their address falls into one of the levels, they are more likely to take that level to extremes.

Emotional appeals in Post-Modern poetry often have to be tempered with irony or humor or a sense of self-consciousness so that the reader knows that the poet is aware of their pathos.  This is how a Post-Modern poet writes about emotions.  But, if a poet is writing in a genre, like apostrophe, that is inherently pathetic, can the poet opt out?  In Objects for a Fog Death, Julie Doxsee apostrophizes for the entire book, yet never seems to make an overt emotional appeal.  Doxsee uses surrealist gestures to wiggle around the use of pathos.  To talk about sex, Doxsee brings up knives:  “With a fingertip you cross/my chest beginning to end &//we graduate gradually/to knives” (75).  We can see this very intimate and sensual tracing of fingers across a chest eventually leads to violence.  To talk about longing, she uses HVAC and typography:  “I lined the ductwork//with emails you wrote from Alaska/& the heat thrums, now, on the low//moan linking serif to serif” (56).

Doxsee evades pathos in the apostrophic address through surrealism, though she is also able to address the thing that is somehow eluded as directly unaddressable as a you, though Waters mentions it as a this, and that is, the poem itself (Waters 6).


On this day
I take a bite of 

of glow & become
part of you.  I eat

a fireball in someone
else’s wooden yard.

When we fissure
smooth water

with fishhooks
I am handed the

legal pad of words
you hide in.  You

are a lizard in the
headlight but I see

only angel and tail.
(Doxsee 68)

In “HALO”, Doxsee addresses the poem itself, “the legal pad of words” that the poem hides in.  Her speaker becomes a part of the poem.  This fits into one of Culler’s levels, the creation of an event, the biting “of glow”, where the speaker is united, or reconciled with, the other, in this case, the poem.  Now, this is the case with all speakers, right?  That the speaker is a part of the poem?  Doxsee does this consciously, creating a twist, or expansion, of one of Culler’s levels.  It also shows that characteristic longing to address present in apostrophe, though it is done with despondency as opposed to pathos, (You//are a lizard) even though the poet wants to romanticize the object (but I see//only angel and tail).

Evading pathos through surrealism isn’t the only way that younger poets are doing so.  Johannes Göransson’s Dear Ra: A Story In Flinches evades pathos, even though it’s entirely composed of apostrophe, through invoking the grotesque, hyperbolic, language of the conspiracy theorist, the serial killer, and/or the psychotic.  It’s a poetic that feels fresh, though disturbing:  “Kidnap a car thief.  Talk to him as though you want to be slammed in his trunk like a bag full of rocks.//Talk to me in the woods.  To my chest.  With your fingers” (31).  The achieved effect is often humor, though taken sincerely, the effect is anything but humorous.  This may have to do with the form.  Who reads/writes poetry sincerely anymore?  Hopefully not this poet.

The grand abuse of emotion in Dear Ra actually expands apostrophe out of Culler’s levels.  Göransson undoes one of these levels:  the creation of an event in which speaker and addressee can be united.  Göransson creates an event in which the speaker can be united with the other, but through the speaker’s disturbing discourse the event becomes one of alienation.  Even the reader as addressee is fully isolated from the speaker:

Dear Tourists,
You can grope for moist souvenirs in the basement, 
but you’ll need patience 
because nobody down there will warn you about the floor.
In the streets you’ll find squirrels; on my scalp, bumps.
If you want proof for the folks back home that you’ve surged
like a seagull, print your name and number in the bathroom.
If you want a seagull for a pet, talk to my therapist.
If you find her, tell me where she lives and where her daughter
goes to school.  If you want a piece of me, suck my dick.
If you want to sell trips to the general public, take my pulse 
or my coffee-table picture-books about Italy.  
If there’s a house in the trees, throw up a hammer
and see what falls down.  The bleeding kid isn’t 
the best prize and you can’t return it, so be careful where 
you walk when you’ve had a few.  
If there’s a nettle between your shoulder blades 
and you’re having trouble breathing, tell the teacher, 
but don’t tell her it was me because it wasn’t.  
I was just watching, maybe even laughing at your gurgling sounds.  
(Göransson 39)

Much of the criticism surrounding lyric and apostrophe sees the speaker as one who turns away from the audience, forcing the audience to “overhear” the poet/speaker.  I feel that the opposite happens with Göransson.  The audience turns away from the speaker, or he keeps yelling at you like a crazy person on the sidewalk.  There is no “overhearing” of Göransson’s speaker because he is quite loud and he is talking to everyone who is reading and everyone that is in his poetic fiction.  It’s very hard to do a close reading of Göransson’s work because of his low culture diction, syntax, and subject matter, and the fact that his poems are buried in irony and satire.  This also points to the third level.

Like Göransson’s absurdist apostrophe, Joe Wenderoth’s Letters to Wendy’s, uses the epistle address often to comic effect.  Letters to Wendy’s is a conceptual/procedural book, in that Wenderoth went to Wendy’s almost everyday for a year and filled out their comment card with a poetic address to the company.  Some are purely absurd:  “I drink tea at home but would never at Wendy’s.  Tea lacks the necessary brutality.” (December 22) and some are purely meditation on poetry:  “Eschewing verse, I’ve assumed it best to break my lines like prose.  I’ve assumed a visit (to Wendy’s) a full thing—a thing demanding as many words as possible” (December 31).  Letters to Wendy’s fits strangely into Culler’s levels of apostrophe because the event is created in equal parts by the poet and by the speaker.  Wenderoth, the poet, goes himself to Wendy’s, and then, when composing, chooses the mode of address for his speaker.  The event then is equal parts actual meeting of the other (the other being Wendy’s), and the fictional event that Wenderoth creates on the card to foster another meeting, another possible place of unity.  Even the act of going to Wendy’s everyday, is in a sense, creating a fiction (who really goes to Wendy’s everyday?).  It’s also a way of showing this passion for address.  In some ways, it is more akin to Pre-Romantic apostrophe, where the audience is literal and could have a literal reaction to the poet’s performance.  

Letters to Wendy’s is also interesting from a genre perspective, as it’s part memoir, part poetry, part diary, part theory, part Dadaist game.  Because of this blending of form/genre, Wenderoth is able to chronicle and critique his own actions:  eating fast food, capitalism, poetry, even his daily apostrophe:

September 3, 1996
There may be no you—no other to receive and understand
these revelations of myself.  The Post Office may burn them
for all I know.  It’s not important.  I only need you as a good
idea—to make me apparent.  I love you, even if you don’t
understand me, even if you burn my attempts to reach you,
even if you are no one, nowhere.  After all, I warm my hands
by the same fires.

Here we see a poem that fully explains the concept of apostrophic poetry, and it’s also a poem that exemplifies all of Culler’s levels.  It has the passionate intensifying address, even a passion for address itself, “I only need you as a good idea—to make me apparent.”  It has the creation of an event where a relationship of you and I can happen, the letter itself and the relation as possibility as opposed to concrete.  This poem has the intensification of the I, “these revelations of myself.”  And it has the conflation of the I and you, “I love you, even if you don’t understand me, even if you burn my attempts to reach you, even if you are no one, nowhere.  After all, I warm my hands by the same fires.”  Wenderoth achieves this sign of a successful apostrophic poem in a radically different form and with radically different content than Culler might expect (or pay attention to).

Monday, December 5, 2011


Here is the entirety of Ravi Mangla's story 1954, from his collection Visiting Writers:
Vladimir Nabokov bought my daughter a chess set, with pieces carved from sandalwood by hand. Every little girl should own a chess set, he said, and my daughter nodded in feigned agreement, eager to rejoin her friends. Late afternoon, once the guests had left, my wife sent me to collect the plates and glasses from the backyard. And there was Nabokov, crouched in the garden, his pant cuffs folded to his knees, following a caterpillar across his finger.
 Go read them all.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Variations on the Sun

An excerpt from Mike Kitchell's Variations on the Sun went up at Everyday Genius a couple of weeks ago. A couple of weeks before that, there was another one. I don't know what Variations on the Sun is, but I would very much like to read the rest.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

More PokeQuotes from Herman Cain

So Herman Cain, in the midst of announcing the suspension of his campaign today, also announced that he is a gigantic nerd by quoting the ending theme from the Pokémon movie. But why did he stop there? A wealth of talking points and life lessons can be drawn from Pokémon. Here are some he missed.

What PokéWisdom do you live by? What PokéValues should your ideal candidate espouse?

Friday, December 2, 2011

Ravi Mangla's Visiting Writers

Dear Internet,

We are excited to publish Ravi Mangla's collection of small stories, Visiting Writers. Each story describes an encounter with someone like Thomas Pynchon, Richard Yates, Harper Lee, or etc., with a sort of surreality, and a sense of humor and tenderness. We've tended to go for more aggressive stories here in the past, especially in our online offerings, which are generally geared toward the Internet in (we think) fairly obvious ways. This one is, for lack of a better word, a little more quiet, a little more subtle--and yet, in its own way, still very strange. We hope that you'll like it as much as we do. Go have a look.

And of course, please don't forget about our craaaazy holiday deal.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Friends, Deals, Giftwrap

We have two fun things to announce.

First, thanks to the efforts of Candra Kolodziej, Issue 0001 author, tireless Occupier, bookstore worker, we are now available for real-life purchase at Elliott Bay Books in Seattle and City Lights in San Francisco. A thousand high fives if you spread the word to Seattle and San Francisco people. A million high fives if you visit and buy one, or take a picture for us. Just having the spine on the shelves is a great feeling. Many thanks, Candra!

Second, do you like hearing about special holiday deals all dang month? I do. We're running a holiday special through the end of the month: Buy a copy of Uncanny Valley 0001 and we'll send a copy to your friend for just the cost of shipping. We'll even giftwrap it. We will be buying the paper this weekend. Will your friend's copy have robots on it? Will you ship the second copy to yourself just so you can see it? (Note: I am an amateur wrapper at best. If Mike wraps it, it will be more...special.) We are looking forward to it. Get the details on our Press page:

Happy December!

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

These Are My Funnies #10, 11, 12

Here are some more cartoons that I am unable to draw or animate.

#10 (70 seconds): A horse in surgical gear stands close to an operating table. The few lamps propped close by seem too weak to explain the sweat on his long face. The medical tent around him is tight and dark. On the table, a hamburger breathes through a ventilation tube. The hamburger’s legs have been damaged in such a way that they might be salvageable in a different setting but are not in this one. Part of the hamburger’s body is missing and a long incision has been made in his side. The horse stares for a long time at the space just to the left of the table, then looks around. Voices shout from far off but in this tent he is alone. Obviously tormented, he takes up a scalpel and leans into the hamburger. After a moment the beep of the heart monitor, so regular that we hadn’t noticed it before, becomes one long tone.

#11 (15 seconds): A child in a Santa suit stares into the camera and repeatedly says, “I’m so tired.”

#12 (104 minutes): A woman walks along a row of cubicles, then turns into an open door. “Hey!” she says to the man inside. “What did you need?” “Yeah,” he says, nervous. “I thought,” he says, obviously pulling together all his courage. “Maybe after work we could,” he says, hoping she’ll finish the sentence for him. She doesn’t.

Later in the evening, he leaves the office building alone and trudges toward the parking lot. At home, he opens his computer and types an email to his boss requesting ten days of vacation. He then checks his bank account and finds a somewhat impressive but not exciting sum. He opens a desk drawer and digs through receipts, pencils, unopened mail, until he finds a credit card. He stands and walks toward the door.

Some time passes and the apartment is quiet. Then the door opens and the man lumbers in with two bulky computer monitors stacked in his arms. He unloads these onto his living room couch, then goes back outside. He comes in with two more, and these he places next to each other on the living room floor. He takes the monitors from the couch and places them next to the others in a tight arc, then goes back outside.

Days pass. When we see the man again he is surrounded by a circle of monitors stacked on monitors, by an igloo of monitors. The monitors are so closely packed that the living room is only visible in cracks. The hum of electricity is so strong that we imagine it vibrates the fluid in our eyes. The man fingers a power strip and the dim screens around him all glow to life and suddenly he is seated cross-legged on a sidewalk adjacent to a gorgeously rendered park. The sky is clear and the people zigging around the park are happy and energetic. A Frisbee cuts through the sky over the man’s head and bounces off the hood of a small imported car, which skids to a halt. A young woman gets out, takes the Frisbee from the street, approaches the man, who is still seated on the sidewalk. “Is this yours?” she says, and doesn’t believe him when he says it isn’t. A 95-minute romantic comedy then plays out as the woman sends her live-in boyfriend to the man’s apartment, which is now a house, then sends a friend, then sends herself. Toward the end, when the man has finally won the woman’s love, he reaches to touch her shoulder and tips over one of the monitors forming her jaw. The entire scene holds except for one hole where her face should be and through which he can see a pair of old cereal boxes standing next to his kitchen sink.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Visual Explanations

Helen DeWitt was interviewed by Lee Konstantinou over at the Los Angeles Review of Books. It's worth reading and then rereading. Joey Comeau, Man's Best Friend, Powerpoint, Hysterical Realism, and:
Information design might enable the reader to see the world through the eyes of persons with different kinds of expertise — which is to say, among other things, to see the possibilities for misunderstanding among persons with radically different frames of reference. The alternative, too often, is fiction which presents characters drawn to precision rather than the expression of feeling as obsessive, alienated, autistic, antisocial. It’s hard to believe this impoverished view of the world can lead to great fiction.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Writing Like A White Man Is Even Harder For A White Man

I read this thing, on the internet of course, about race and poetry (sorry, way over simplified).  In the essay the author feels trapped between embodying his identity in his writing and using a language of privilege to do so.  I feel he forgot a very important aspect of poetry and writing and, more generally, life:  it's all a performance.  Our race, our gender, our sexuality, is all performed, internally and externally.  Some of us perform according to roles assigned by society, self, or biology (society is what other people want us to be, self is what ourselves tell us to be, and biology grows us to be).  We play the roles of husband, wife, student, teacher, lover, worker and we play them as close as we can to other performer's expectations.  We play them subconsciously.  We play them hyper-consciously.  These roles make us who we are... Or we can play them.  In writing, we can play them all day long.  In fact, that's all it is:  Play.
I got into a little tiff with someone on the Montevidayo blog once about risk, or danger, or something to that effect, in poetry, and really I don't think anything in American poetry is dangerous or risky.  It's a terrible thing to compare something that is truly risky, like sky diving or unprotected sex with a stranger or war or participating in protests against corporate greed, with anything that happens in a poem.  Poems are play-lands where we say things for fun.  

What's the worst that can happen to us from a poem?
The next, and most bothering, thing I found wrong with the essay was this statement:
"The privilege of whiteness in America—particularly male, heteronormative whiteness—is the privilege to speak from a blank slate, to not need to address questions of race, gender, sexuality, or class except by choice, to not need to acknowledge wherefrom one speaks. It’s the position of no position, the voice from nowhere or from everywhere. In this, it is Godlike, and if nothing else, that’s saying something."
The reality is, that whiteness, maleness, and heteronormativeness do not mean godliness or a position of a blank slate.  I can't ignore my whiteness, maleness, or my sexual preference.  I know my position, and it is not blank, and it is not Godlike.  Knowing from where one is writing should be an important part of writing.  The most important.  If you're going to perform, know your role first, know the roles of others, know how to slip in and out of character.  Ignoring the normal societal roles is the only way to subvert hegemonic demands for easily identifiable and correctable norms (see what I did there? I just played Marxism).  I know that I am white and male and it's terribly hard to justify my own presence in poetry world.  I get sick of all the white dudes that run presses or have books or run reading a series.  It seriously makes me sick.  Why is my voice that important?  I think it's because I know that I am aware, that I don't like the status quo, that I can support other subversive voices.  I know that I want to ruin worlds through words.
There is something I agree with, and I think a lot of people would agree with:
"I don’t possess a vernacular English that’s significantly different from that of plain old Midwestern English. As such, it seems I’m able to write from a perspective that doesn’t address certain realities about myself, and this makes me queasy as anything. The voice in my head is annoyed with the voice in my writing. The voice in my head says I’m disregarding difference, and this feels like a denial of self, of reality, of a basic truth."
Oh man, language is flawed and broken?  Yep, that's true...
I guess the last thing I should say is that in the hierarchy of cultural capital, poetry is on the top, especially when compared to its monetary capital.  Visual, musical, and performing artists make way more money than poets.  Even other writers make way more money.  Poets are the CEOs of cultural capitalism.  Being a poet is, in itself, a position of privilege.  This is also a realization that gets made in the essay:
"It (the previous quote) isn’t exactly intentional. It’s a product of being privileged."
But really, it's a great essay.  It makes you think, makes you feel things, makes you want to write things.  That's what good writing is and does.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

A Theft by Johannes Lichtman

Johannes Lichtman has a collage/story up at Word Riot entitled "Like a Spilled Purse." With a list of "Works Not Cited." Seems like that could get out of hand. It doesn't, though.

Technology for Reading and Writing, part 1

So I was supposed to meet Kurt Vonnegut my junior year of college. He was scheduled to visit Butler, where Tracy and I both studied creative writing. They told me about it like half a year in advance (the faculty) because they knew I loved him so much. I was asked, perhaps prematurely, if I might like to introduce him, I think. I don't remember the specifics well because I didn't believe it was possible, and so immediately discounted the idea, even as I said "yes yes yes" to whatever it was I'd been offered. It was likely I would shake his hand. The semester Vonnegut was going to come I was taking a class on the works of our visiting writers with Tracy. It was one of those unbelievably easy lit classes you treat yourself to sometimes. Anyway, Vonnegut fell down and soon thereafter died. It was awful. In the visiting writers class, we were supposed to write letters to two of the visiting writers. Well to be honest Vonnegut was the only one I really liked. Mary Karr was fine (we read The Liar's Club) but not my style and I found A Map of the World actively distasteful (with all its imprisoned noble savages and clumsy literary-isms). I wrote to a poet whose work I barely enjoyed then and would most likely hate now, and I wrote to Vonnegut's ghost. The professor passed our letters to the visiting writers. In the case of Vonnegut, his family came in his place; his son Mark read the speech; I told the professor not to give my letter to the family. Maybe I should have said to go ahead but the idea seemed so shameful, especially because I had tried to be clever and interesting in the letter, and I didn't think they should have to see me doing that.

One of my other professors, I think, told me to submit the letter to NUVO, our local alternative weekly. And I did. They didn't print it, but they published it on their website. Jim Poyser, NUVO's editor, wrote me and said maybe we should meet sometime. We got along well. (I'm sorry I don't e-mail him more often, now; I never know what to say, to him or anybody else.) He ended up reading two of my novels, the one I had just written and the one I wrote next. He was extremely supportive. He helped me get my first agent (as it stands, my only agent), who seems to have a good reputation but also seems to have stopped reading my e-mails because I am not as easy to sell as he'd hoped. At the time I thought that was the biggest thing Jim could ever do for me. In retrospect, here are the two things he did for me that were most important:

1. He danced with me at my wedding. The sound system was not very good and it was difficult to make people relax in the way that I wanted them to relax because no one is as comfortable dancing as me (except maybe people who are actually good at it). So Jim had to leave but I asked him to, before he went, come dance with me, because I knew he would relax (he seems so comfortable in himself) and it would be fun and maybe inspire other people to have fun. I was right about the first couple things, at least: we were jumping around four feet at a time. It was great.

2. He gave me great writing advice. Of course when you're in college anyone reading your novels at all is a huge deal -- I spent so much time on those, and I think about four people read each -- but then he even invited me over, sat down with me, and talked through his thoughts and reactions, which were so consistently perceptive and practical that I carry a lot of what he said with me in my writing to this day. One of the things he said that seemed like a small thought at the time but has sort of grown in reconsideration to a major cognitive gift was the idea that sometimes you should ask yourself, when considering a revision to a story, "What would I think about this if it were published?"

There was a plot point in one of the novels that seemed to Jim undercooked. (I can guarantee you that it was, in retrospect, really not there yet.) But he said--and would repeat, several times, in other circumstances--that he thought it might not have even occurred to him if the book were published, or he might have seen it differently. This is, among writers, a sort of heroic admission. We like to think a book is itself no matter how it is presented. And yet this cannot be true or we would not love beautiful books so much more than their ugly counterparts so often. Jim understood that the ethos of a published novel is fundamentally different from the ethos of a manuscript bound only by a rubber band; he understood that things sometimes seem important in drafts and totally inconsequential in finished, published fiction.

This can be a way of letting yourself off the hook. ("No one will even notice that gaping plot hole!") But it also provides some much-needed perspective to an art where it's exceptionally easy to make a huge deal about things most readers will never notice. A writing instructor once said that one of his friends read an entire novel of his without apparently noticing that half the chapters were in the past tense and half were in the present. It didn't even occur to him. And yet these things seem so important when we're writing, though they have so little to do with the real experience of most actual readers. They are looking at other things.

Again, you don't want to let yourself off the hook. But think of it this way: in a fiction workshop, a perceived inconsistency of story or character, tone or etc., can become the focus of an agonizing forty-minute conversation, when in fact no reader could possibly care less about the supposed issue of "craft," and in fact you can make your story much less fun in trying to fix it. I've seen that happen before and it's frustrating because you don't want to say "don't worry about it!" because we are supposed to worry about everything. We are making ART. But in other forms people are generally less careful about these things. They tend to ask themselves, "Is this awesome? Will people enjoy it?" And if the answers are yes, they let it stand, or they build on it to make it even better.

We can all think of books we read in a sort of disbelief because others enjoyed them so much and we find them wholly unpersuasive, shockingly artless. Perhaps we can also think of books we loved that others felt that way about: totally gobsmacked by the idea that we could love them. Writers inevitably alienate the majority of their readers. Not because fiction isn't great, but because readers and books are such particular things. When I'm not sure if I'll be alienating people in the right way for the right reasons (and the inverse as well), I often think of Jim's advice. I ask myself how I would feel about the book if it were bound and published. If the answer is that I would feel good, I try to relax a little. I keep going.

Someday I hope one of these books really is bound and published. That has been the goal for so long.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Ariana Rienes Is A Giant

Mercury is a ball of liquid metal.  It looks as if you should not touch it, but should just look at it.  Look at yourself looking at it.  Look at yourself in it.  Ariana suggests shaving in its glow.  There are a lot of reviews of it already, so I shouldn’t review it.  I won’t.  I won’t tell you to buy it.  I won’t tell you to steal it.  Where would you steal it from anyway?  Powell’s doesn’t even carry fence books.  Why would your local book store carry it if mine doesn’t?  Would I steal it if it were here?  Maybe.  Maybe if I went to a bookstore that had Mercury and I stole it, the event of my thievery would lead the bookstore to believe Mercury was worth stealing, therefore worth selling, therefore would order another, or two others to make up for the money lost on the first one which I might have stolen. Why won’t I tell you to buy it?  I don’t know, because supporting poetry is about entering contests and reading periods right?  I do think people would like this.  Not just people who like Ariana’s work, but people who like big books and people who like weird books.  This book is full of the things people like about Ariana’s work.  Her work is honest.  It’s honest in the way writing can be honest because you can tell it’s lying sometimes.  It’s honest in the way it has flaws.  It’s honest in the way it has adornments and those adornments draw attention to their own adornmenthood amongst all the flaws like a chandelier in a shitty apartment.  Or spinning rims on a late model Cavalier.

When Ariana read she reminded me of when Ariana talked to people before the reading.  She was quiet and intimidated everyone by sheer fact of existence.  When she read the church gave out books.  They gave out books with words such as:  “What is art? Prostitution.” “A Dandy does nothing.” and “Love is a taste for prostitution. In fact, there is no noble pleasure that cannot be reduced to Prostitution.”  All of this is from Charles Baudelaires Intimate Journals and it’s a lovely book for a church to be handing out.  The church played music and Ariana read and it was too loud to make out anything that was real.  Maybe it was all that was real.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

These Are My Funnies #7, 8, 9

#7 (55 seconds): A tree frog and a cockroach drive a homemade truck over the uneven terrain of the rain forest floor. “This is amazing,” the cockroach says. “The construction was simple,” the tree frog says. “Sap, fallen leaves. The dark thing is I used some bones in the finer gears.” “Bones.” “Not from frogs,” the tree frog says. “Or cockroaches. Do you even have bones?” “I don’t know,” the cockroach says. “Do you feel like you have bones?” “This kind of talk weirds me out,” the cockroach says. “Well, what I was saying is, the really hard part was getting a license. Do you know what they put you through? Just the scheduling, getting to the shop, or the agency or whatever, then waiting. I had to take a morning off from work.” “That’s why I’ll never drive,” the cockroach says.

#8 (80 seconds): A woman stands in the dark of a late-night kitchen. She’s doing something, but we can’t see what. Greenish light, probably from the clock on a microwave, colors her eyes. Far back in the room, something shifts. Another woman says, “Get away from that cake batter.” She waits a moment, then hefts something heavy and metallic. “Get away from that cake batter!”

#9 (20 seconds): An elephant in a smoking jacket pours bourbon from a decanter, then carries it across the expanse of his den. Snow tacks against the windows but a warm light fills the room and a fire crackles somewhere close. The elephant drops into his favorite chair, splintering it, and carries on through the floor, through the basement. We hear the crushing of wine bottles, of an old bicycle. He breaks through the floor here and is suddenly in space, falling through darkness, a little speck growing littler as he is carried farther and farther from everything he knows.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

One Hundred Characters

Look at that horse on the right. No. Look at it.

Go read Sam Allingham's "One Hundred Characters" at Web Conjunctions. Won't take you long. Here are the first several paragraphs:

Your brother, the first boy you ever kissed. Your sister, the first person your brother ever kissed. Your mother, who has never kissed anyone, to your knowledge, since the age of thirty-seven.

      Your mother, a rebel in search of a cause. Your mother, a hurricane in search of an eye. Your mother, a crossword puzzle in search of one final long down solution that ends in X.

      Your father, a miner, a prisoner of the system. Your father, a lawyer, a prisoner of the system. Your father, a governor, a prisoner of the system.

      Your father, the captain of the HMS St. Lucien of the Inner Isle, married to the sea. The ship, his favorite child. The sea, forever retracing its doom-laden portents. The sharks, and their romantic hunger.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

These Are My Funnies #4, 5, 6

#4 (80 seconds): A couple lies quietly in bed. Moonlight blues the sheets and their faces. The man says, “What if we brought home another man.” “Like for sex?” the woman says. “For whatever you wanted,” the man says. “I don’t know,” she says. “Would he watch us or--” “Whatever you wanted,” the man says. “I think it could be a healthy thing for us.” “Healthy how?” “Just experimental, you know. Healthy in that we would like, be open to new experiences.” “Who would we find?” “I’ve found someone,” the man says. “He’s been lying beneath the bed.” “What?” the woman says. “On the dirty clothes under there,” the man says. A few clumsy knocks sound from beneath the bed, then the shuffling of someone sliding out.

#5 (25 seconds): We hear water splashing before we see it. A woman in a swimming cap digs at water with her arms, and we can tell that she is both very experienced and very tired. We pan out to see that she is alone in choppy sea. There is no land or boat or other swimmer in sight. The sky is dark on the horizon. She paddles on, growing sloppy with exhaustion. Her eyes narrow. She is focused on something in the distance. “I’ll hollow your head!” she yells, suddenly. “You fuck!” She swallows water, spits it out, swallows more, falters, regains her balance in the water.

#6 (60 seconds): A cat rubs against a woman’s ankles, meowing for food. The woman, dressed for work but still partially asleep, retrieves a bag of cat food from an overhead cabinet. She pours the food into the cat’s bowl without bending down. At first, nuggets bounce out and skitter over the floor, then are buried, then spill out to carpet the surrounding area. As the cat food forms a spreading, landsliding mound, the cat struggles to stay on top, moving, then stopping to eat, then moving, then stopping to eat. Food obscures the woman’s feet, then knees, then hips. The cat finds a stable spot and eats and eats, then vomits.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Do Women Writers Care About Surrealism?

Do Women Writers Care About Surrealism?  How many women poets make it into these types of lists/anthologies?  Are they thought of first as female poets, then as surrealist writers?  I don't know.  I was pretty upset by the list, by the lack of female participation in the conversation, and by the lack of women on the lists generated by men (what did they mention, six or seven female poets?  in the whole post?  c'mon?).  I'm not going to make a list/anthology of female poets who practice surrealism because I don't like the term 'surrealism' to begin with, but someone should.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

These are my funnies

It's been a while since I last posted here. It's because I've spent all my time living in the back seat of my Mazda, writing these cartoons, which I can't draw or animate.

1) (five seconds total) Open on a darkened living room. A bespectacled boy sits on the lap of his mother, who gently rocks while moving her fingertips against his temples. "Massage that bigass brain," she says softly.

2) (30 second total) A man and a woman, both nicely dressed, stand in a small but clean kitchen. Early evening light fills the space. The man is nervous, but not unreasonably so. He pulls a cluster of celery from the fridge, then a pair of potatoes, then a tall jar containing a miniature squid. When he unscrews the cap, the squid climbs out, blindly slapping the man's neck, the man's face, and falls to the floor.

3) (5 seconds) Holding a bursting bag of trash, a man opens a garbage bin outside his apartment only to be startled when a 75-pound bird flaps out and into the sky.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Matthew Dickman Was Matthew Dickman For Halloween

Matthew Dickman was Matthew Dickman at a Halloween party this weekend.  He could have went as a lot of things.  He could have went as the lead singer of The Decemberists, Colin Meloy.

Matthew Dickman kind of looks like Colin Meloy.  Colin Meloy kind of looks like the lead singer of Death Cab For Cutie, Ben Gibbard.

So Matthew Dickman could have went as Ben Gibbard, or even as Colin Meloy dressed as Ben Gibbard.  Matthew Dickman also looks like his brother, Michael Dickman.  They are both poets.  Matthew could have went as his brother Michael.  It could have actually been Michael going as Matthew.

Matthew Dickman was nice.  We talked about Spencer Short and how he doesn't write poems anymore. We both danced.  Matthew and Michael also look like the mayor of Portland, Sam Adams.

A lot of people look like a lot of people.  The end.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

One way to write a good story: Tim Dicks' "The Fireman"

So one of the questions that has come up here in recent discussions is how I can evaluate a story as quickly as I claim (it often takes me about a paragraph to know that I'm not going to take something, and most of the time when I am going to take something I have a strong sense that this is the case by page 3). And then there is the more fundamental question, in many ways the one underlying everything we talk about and do here: how do you know when you're reading good or even great fiction?

As I've argued here before, my goal is to identify great fiction, but I think that sort of curation happens on a longer schedule than our biannual publication schedule. It takes a long time to definitely know what's great. What I do instead, when curating for a magazine, is to make strong guesses about what I will later believe is great, beginning with judging whether or not something I'm looking at is, by my standards, good. Of course it's not enough to be good. A lot of things are good. A story also has to fit my idiosyncratic needs as a reader if I'm going to spend real time with it, and especially if I'm going to publish it.  (Note: I'm going to talk about "fiction" here because we publish more fiction than poetry and for the sake of convenience, but most of the things I'm going to say here will be true of how I read poetry as well.)

Today we're going to look at a story by Tim Dicks that we published in issue 0001. The story is called "The Fireman," and you can click here to download the full PDF. (You might want to just do that and forget about this post for a while.) The idea is that we're going to look at how one specific story successfully created interest, maintained that interest, and ultimately created a satisfying reading experience. I'm not trying to create an authoritative account here, just to make some interesting arguments about how fiction succeeds.

A Truly Open Contest/Reading Period

The thing that I really don't like about contests:  I don't know shit about what's going on with the process.  So I have a proposition:  have a truly open process.  I don't think this would be so hard.  I think it actually would be really cool and different.

This is how I imagine it working:

  • Everyone can see everyone's name
What's the point?  I'd like to know who actually entered the contest.  There is no way to observe other people's receipts and see the actual forms in other contests.  Who is to say that the people who win even entered?  There is no way to prove it.

  • Everyone can see everyone's entry
Why do I want to see everyone's entry?  Because I want to see if it's taken at face value, not potential value.  I know what a good editor can do with a manuscript.  I've seen it.  I've done it.  I'd also like to be able to say, "man, they made a mistake and I hope that entry by so-and-so gets picked up, cause it's badass."
  • Everyone can see the judges'/editors' comments on everyone's work
Why?  Because getting a form letter saying "thanks for entering our contest/giving us money, but you lose," doesn't really tell anyone why the judges/publishers chose the work they did.  And I paid you $20 for what?  They say marvelous things about the winners, but nothing about the losers.  I would love to see a real genuine letter announcing the losers (which is basically what seeing the comments would sorta be like).  The letter would go something like this:  "We got a shit load of submissions from people who just googled 'poetry contest' and sent us their haiku collection.  We rejected those instantly.  Then there were a bunch of idiots who imitated our last book, and we're flattered but no thanks. There were a dozen  competent poets who deserve to have their book published someday, just not with us.  Finally there were four or five truly good books that we liked a lot, but we could only pick ____."  This also keeps the publisher from ignoring and auto-rejecting books.  They have to engage a lot of the work in some way.

I'd enter this contest.  Someone start this contest.