Friday, July 18, 2014

Sneak peek of Kate Colby's I Mean

Kate Colby's I Mean, forthcoming from Ugly Duckling next year, is going to blow your mind. I love love love this essay called "The Needle," which is about writing and art and monuments and memory and pain; here's an excerpt:
Does some pain mean more than other pain? 
A baby is born and left to die on an open plain. It has a name, but doesn’t know it. 
Pain is a fuzzy gray dot with definite dimensions that can’t be measured, except on a personal scale. Hospital nurses will ask you to rate your pain from one to ten before administering medication. This task is difficult for me. Am I ranking my pain against itself or against all other pain I’ve experienced? I’m fortunate to have only ever been hospitalized during and while recovering from childbirth. Both times I felt the pain of labor and childbirth itself to be very lonely, and I can’t explain why this is. It goes against my desolate sense that if pain has meaning, it has to do with the extent to which it is witnessed. Surely the experience of giving birth to a child is one of the most painful. Surely being born is another. But while mother and child simultaneously, symbiotically suffer and witness, neither knows nor thinks of the other’s pain, and maybe that’s what makes it so lonely—it’s a pain mutually witnessed and mutually unheeded by two entwined people, the physical part of whose attachment is but a taste of the crushing, comprehensive conjoinment to come. 
If witness makes pain mean, so might remembering—memory makes you your own ongoing witness. But one can neither remember the pain of one’s own birth nor call back the pain of childbirth. And while the pain of childbirth is to be dreaded, it does not matter so long as it’s behind you, even if you want it to. Why is it that the memory of one’s own physical suffering is not usually troubling, but the anticipation of future suffering is? And yet, knowing that a loved one has suffered before death is terrible. But knowing that a loved one has suffered and then survived is not very terrible at all. In any case, one is not suffering now. 
An unnamed baby is born and left to die on an open plain. (You little black hole.) (Shut up.)

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Some thoughts on the line in poetry

The importance of the "line break" in poetry is overstated. Yes, enjambment is a powerful tool, but all parts of the line are important. You can't turn any set of words into a great set of lines just by fussing with the breaks.

The beginnings and ends of lines are thresholds. Breaks are like exits, beginnings are entrances. Too many poets put all their focus on the exits.

The ambiguous line break (a break on a polysemous word, such that the meaning is unclear until you raster over to the next line) is one of the most overused tricks in all of poetry. Half the time the ambiguity doesn't even serve the poem; some poets seem to think this is what line breaks are for, to create cliffhangers and confusion.

I remember bringing a poem to a graduate workshop that included the line "stuck in a running-across shape" (poem about a dead squirrel, pretty cool) and someone (multiple someones?) advised me to change "a" to "the" and break on "running," like so:

the spot where it was last
alive, stuck in the running- 
across shape.

This emphasizes the phrase "in the running," creating an ambiguity, like the squirrel is still "in the running," on the side of the living, in the rat race. In retrospect this was terrible advice; what good is ambiguity based on a cliche?

A much more interesting kind of ambiguity through enjambment happens at the level of syntax, as in these Ashbery lines (I typed up the whole poem here; sorry if only seeing the closed end of the parentheses drives you bonkers):

Then later it's forget-me-not time, and rapturous
Clouds appear above the lawn, and the rose tells
The old old story, the pearl of the orient, occluded
And still apt to rise at times).

In the linked post above I was talking about the importance of obscurity in poetry, how lack of clarity, even incoherence allows meaning to bloom. Here's what I wrote about the break at "rapturous":
Another big thing that makes a poem a poem and not something else is the tension between the line and the sentence. "Then later it's forget-me-not time, and rapturous clouds appear above the lawn" is a fine sentence, but before you get to the clouds, you are forced to pause a moment and concentrate your thinking on the partial sentence: "Then later it's forget-me-not time, and rapturous." We don't yet know that the clouds are rapturous, and so we assign the adjective back to "time." In poem-space, "rapturous" does refer back to time, just as much as it refers forward. Ashbery's choice to break the line there makes the referent ambiguous, so it's a blooming moment.

See what I mean? The word itself is not ambiguous, it's not a homonym; the syntax is ambiguous.

There's another use of the line break that I've been interested in recently, where the break signals a sudden shift in voice, often a disagreement as though the poem were an argument with itself. For example, in this stanza from Ben Lerner's Mean Free Path:

A cry goes up for plain language
In identical cities. Zukofsky appears in my dreams
Selling knives. Each exhibit is a failed futurity
A star survived by its own light. Glass anthers
Confuse bees. Is that pornography? Yes, but
But nothing. Come to reference. A mode of undress
Equal to fascism becomes obligatory
In identical cities. Did I say that already? Did I say
The stranglehold of perspective must be shaken off

The break I refer to is "Yes, but / But nothing." In the tiny pause between lines, an about face. The break introduces a conflict. There's a lot of this going on also in Alice Notley's Culture of One. See "Cellulite":

The pretty cell of your womb presents you with the light of Eve Love.
She shoots heroin of course. Everything turns blue
I'm afraid when it wears off I'll want to do it again.

There, in the space between line 2 and line 3, "she" becomes "I." There is no signal of the shift except for the break. (Often in these breaks there is no punctuation, no period or dash as you would see in prose, which only heightens the abruptness of the interruption.) 

Perfect lines make you forget about the notion of the line break entirely. I never think about Wallace Stevens's "line breaks." Reading Stevens, you don't get the impression that he writes sentences and then breaks them into lines, you get the impression that he writes in lines. Or take these lines from "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," one of my favorite stanzas of all time: 

I have seen them riding seaward on the waves
Combing the white hair of the waves blown back
When the wind blows the water white and black.

One can't imagine these lines occurring otherwise. The only response is to lie down before it and play dead.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

State of the union

2013 was an extremely hard year. I spent the first half of 2014 feeling like I'd finally adjusted to the new reality. But suddenly whatever wisdom or peace of mind I had achieved is gone again. It's perhaps not that the struggle in itself is so bad, but that no one I know is struggling in a similar fashion; there's a perceptible struggle gap. They may have their own struggles but they're of an entirely different nature. I feel lonely and somehow cheated, like I arrived at the wrong ending of the Choose Your Own Adventure. Ugh, sorry so maudlin.

Anyway I realized I hadn't blogged yet this month. So I thought I'd check in and tell you what I've been up to.


In May I read Two Serious Ladies by Jane Bowles, which was fantastic, sort of literally in that it's not particularly realistic. The characters are outwardly irrational — their motivations unclear and unexplained — but this is what makes them so compelling, and in any case they seem to be operating under some self-imposed, opaque but internally consistent moral code (which has naught to do with the prevailing moral codes of the setting/s). The dialogue is very funny, but it leaves you shaken. It's somewhat like The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter in that the end is so unsatisfying as to be upsetting — meaning not that it's badly written, but that you hate what happens to the characters, hate watching their lives be ruined, which is like life I guess. (Bowles apparently considered Carson McCullers to be her literary rival, in the sense of a more commercially successful contemporary working in a similar grotesque style.)

Next I'm reading 10:04, Ben Lerner's newest, which reminds me a little of both Taipei and Open City so far. (Got that obligatory global warming reference in the first 20 pages.) See also my notes on Leaving the Atocha Station.


Rewatching the first four seasons of House on Netflix. The best episodes are the two 2-parters, the one where Foreman gets sick and the one where Amber dies.


Lots of salsa verde con aquacate. Here's the recipe:

Ignore that "3 hours" part at the end; it'll keep for a couple days in the fridge. But I usually split the tomatillo mixture into two batches and just make one avocado's worth at a time.

Thinking about

Moving. Our rent is going up pretty steeply when our lease renews, as it has every year since we've been here, and though I'm loathe to invite all the logistical nightmares of moving into my life right now, I want to stick it to these jerks and get out of here. I'm even considering buying, which may be a crazy idea. Is that a crazy idea? I need some stability in my life.

What's going on with you?

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Perfume in translation

John has been raving about this book Black Square by Tadeusz Dabrowski, translated from Polish by Antonia Lloyd-Jones. I am stuck in the middle of a poem I'm trying to write so I opened it up for some ideas. It is very cute; here is a sample poem (most do have titles, but this one is titled by asterisks):

* * *

I carried you unintentionally in my arms from a go-
go club straight into my bed and thoroughly
rubbed you into the bedclothes so now hardly do I awake
fall asleep or dream than without fail 
before my eyes stands a pastel image of quivering
breasts and every single time I feel a delicious
pain as if I don't give a sniff about conscience. I decided
to be done with it and sprayed the bedclothes with a perfume 
that's my mother's; despair came over me when
it turned out to be the very same scent (something
like apple). Ever since, when lying in bed
I feel at the same time both good and bad. 

In the Polish, the last phrase is "i dobry i zly."

Sunday, May 25, 2014

The TV World and the Word TV

Teju Cole has been tweeting a series of photographs and film stills involving TV, plus some lines of poems about television. I just yesterday reread this poem that Kathleen Rooney and I wrote several years ago. There's a pleasant, uncanny effect I get when reading old poems we wrote together; I don't know them as well as I know my own work; it's so easy to imagine they were written by someone else. Anyway, here it is, plus another one using a similar repetitive technique but with the word "recognition" rather than "TV."


Words may not refer to anything, but if they do
they TV the objective world, white noising
over what might've been a nice view. On TV
membership has its privileges. In the library
I try to "get lost" in a "slender volume" but
the volume's too low. Sarcastic & bleak,
TV gets me. Even though TV doesn't know
how to love me. How I want it to watch me.
No one can keep track of my saccades,
but "Vide" can be used to direct a reader's
attention to what's on TV: basically
a forced obliteration of the landscape
w/ TV music. Allowing yourself to be used
is the best way to be used. Shibboleths
issue forth from the muted TV.


I have a fear of getting stuck inside the recognition,
by myself, in the dark, after all the recognitions
are erased from cultural memory. No enclosed space
could contain more coldness or more strange noises.
Someone recognition in the back of the stacks---
and the sound is melancholy. Heartmelting.
I was seeking recognition on information but I found
isolation distills my recognition to its purest form,
a shapeless white. I was scanning the pages
when all the letters dropped off & hit the dusty
recognition, recognitioning down. It's not normal
for the slightest miscue to set me off, but there
in the air, a mote, a recognition. A light shines through,
illuminating my unreadiness. Astounding recognition,
that I could see my own breath.

*Both these poems are from our chapbook Don't ever stay the same; keep changing

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

I have a theory about low-fat diets and portion control

I have this theory about* low-fat diets and portion control. It goes like this: Eating food that's not dense in calories (i.e. low-fat, high-carbohydrate meals) means you need to eat a larger volume to feel full.

Proponents of low-fat diets would present this as a positive: You get to eat more for the same number of calories! The problem is that it resets your concept of what a normal portion is. Your brain is trained to think to you need more food to feel full, so when you do eat calorie-dense meals, you still want larger portions.

This would explain why the French can eat a much more calorie-dense diet than Americans and have much lower incidence of obesity and heart disease. (This is known as the French paradox, but it's only a paradox if you take for granted that fat, in particular saturated fat, is bad for you.) The portions in France are much smaller, so they eat fewer calories overall. Too, in the absence of a warped sense of portion size, more calorie-dense food is more satisfying.

Anecdotally, I think you can reset your sense of portion size by moving to a higher-fat diet (not low-carb per se, but not low-fat either).

*Yes, all my blog posts are going to start with the phrase "I have this theory about..." from now on.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

I have this theory about revision

First, let's talk briefly about conversion rate optimization, or CRO. If you have some kind of transactional website, like an e-commerce site where you sell your small-press poetry books, or a SaaS platform where you try to get people to sign up for a free trial of your software, the page where those transactions happen is called a landing page. And since your success as a business more or less depends on how many people you can get to "convert" on that landing page (i.e., buy the book or sign up for the free trial), businesses usually attempt to optimize their conversion rates through various tests. (Can you see where this is going?)

A lot of the "best practices" and received wisdom around conversion rate optimization have to do with little A/B tests that are basically trying to hack your potential customer's psychology. Some of these tests involve design elements, such as the shape, color, or size of the "Add to Cart" button, or where it is on the page. Others involve copy, like the main heading on the page and "call to action" (the words on the button, like "Start My Free Trial"). Is longer or shorter better? Do exclamation points help? Et cetera, et cetera. The idea is that you can eke a few more conversions out of the same number of visitors with these tricks that make your page more persuasive or frictionless.

Recently, my boss did this webinar with the sensationalist title "Everything You Know About Conversion Rate Optimization Is Wrong." There was a bunch of data and charts and some pictures of unicorns, for some reason, but the basic gist was, stop futzing around with the button color -- you can only make small incremental gains that way, and many of those apparent gains are illusory anyway. If you really want to improve your conversion rate, you need to make radical changes. For example, change the offer: Maybe it's not that people aren't buying that book because of poor landing page design, but because nobody wants that book. You might also need to change the whole flow of your signup process. You can mess around with button color and shape once you know for sure that people actually want what you're peddling.

Everything You Know About Revision Is Wrong

So here's my theory: Revision works the same way. For the same reason that most businesses fail slowly (by focusing on small details instead of big-picture stuff), most writers can't get their work better than a certain level of passable mediocrity because they're "optimizing" the small stuff before they hit on a project that's worth optimizing. They approach revision by thinking about word choice and commas and cuts and line breaks, but those things can only make a poem or a novel or whatever 1-5% better. A radical revision that completely rethinks the scope or the flow or what have you could make it twice as good.

If it sounds like I'm saying "Kill your darlings," I'm not. In fact, I most often approach revision by saving my darlings and killing the rest.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

May links

RIP Russell Edson. One of the great comic poets along with Bill Knott and James Tate (oh god are we about to lose him too)? Here's one of my favorite Edson poems:

Killing the Ape 

They were killing the ape with infinite care; not too much or it runs past dying and is born again. 
Too little delivers a sick old man covered with fur … 
Gently gently out of hell, the ape climbing out of the ape.

Anyway I started this post to share a few links:

I have a bit part in this cool British podcast (episode 15 of CAR) about perfume, along with Alyssa Harad and this beautiful Britney Spears song.

I did a "visual interview" for the Triangle PA (they sent me a disposable camera -- remember those? -- and I went on a scavenger hunt).

Tracy Dimond wrote about The Self Unstable at HTML Giant.

Also, a couple of recent collaborative poems: at The Rumpus and Atticus Review.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

The kitschification of abstract expressionism

Is there a term for the process whereby art that was once avant-garde becomes bourgeois kitsch? I had a minor epiphany yesterday at the Modern Masters show at the Denver Art Museum, an exhibit spanning Western art from Post-Impressionism to Pop Art and focusing on "20th century icons." Walking through the show, I suddenly realized I'm no longer moved at all by Abstract Expressionism, which I used to love.

The disenchantment is twofold: First, most of the Abstract Expressionist paintings have taken on the look of bad hotel art. I think this movement (once so radical!) has been "appreciated" to the point that it's the realm of contemporary hack artists, basically the same thing that happened to Impressionism 40 years or so ago, where the style became a symbol of bland "good taste," so commodified I associate Van Gogh with coffee mugs and mouse pads; not the museum but the museum store. That's what so many of these Abstract Expressionist masterworks look like to me now: calendars.

Second, I despise the rhetoric of the artists from that era. Part of the project of this exhibit was to display quotes from the artists alongside critics' remarks from the time (invariably they quoted conservative critics who hated the work). The artists' quotes were all about feelings, along the lines of "A painting succeeds if you understand how the artist felt." I'm suddenly appalled by this. Who cares how the artist felt? And how simplistic: We don't experience movies or music this way, as a one-time "guess the emotion" puzzle. I don't look at a Kandinsky and say "Sadness. Got it" and move on. (I'm reminded of Mary Karr's claim that the primary purpose of poetry is to "stir emotion," as if most people need help having emotions.) Then there was Rothko's suggestion that people should "weep" before his paintings. Really? This feels cultish to me. Would anyone weep before an orange canvas if we didn't know that Rothko committed suicide?

There should be a term, also, for this effect: you come to hate a type of art or an artist not because of anything inherent in the work itself, but because of its fan base. As with the Eagles or the Grateful Dead or Dave Matthews Band, the fans are arguably more annoying than the music itself. So much iconic art gets ruined through association this way; Dali, for example, has been ruined by the kind of entitled nerds who had Dali posters in the their dorm rooms, somehow always the same guys who loved A Clockwork Orange and wanted you to know they did drugs.

All that aside, it was a really good show. They also had a great, small exhibit of Polish posters for American westerns.

Who knew?

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Tenets of My Feminism

Have you noticed that I'm a militant feminist? I think once a long time ago someone asked me in a comment to outline my definition of feminism or my beliefs about feminism. That sounded like a lot of work. But I'm going to try to do it here, in rough fashion. I'm not going to bother listing out the dead-obvious stuff about feminism that everyone already agrees on. (That is, everyone who is a thinking adult; the average schmo doesn't even know the denotation of the word feminism. In 2011, I talked about the difference between a new usage and a misusage of a word, and why "feminist" is so often misused. Sorry guys, but feminism isn't sexist.)

So here are some of the tenets of my personal feminism:

1. Anyone can be a feminist. There's no required reading list. You don't have to major in women's studies or even go to college.

2. I believe in counterintuitive solutions. Orchestras used to be primarily male. They closed the gap by moving to a blind audition process, not by telling women to play more like men. Be suspicious when the proposed solution to any gender gap problem involves telling women to behave more like men:

  • When the VIDA numbers come out, editors claim they get more submissions and pitches from men, so everyone tells women to submit more. Be suspicious. Maybe men need to submit less. Editors are overworked and underpaid, and most of what they're getting is crap. 
  • What about the pay gap? The standard line is, men get more promotions and raises because they ask for them; there's a confidence gap; women need more self-assurance. Again, the problem is always with women, not men. Maybe men are over-confident? Maybe they ask for too much, and end up hording all the resources? It's also easier for them to take the risk of asking for more, since other men are making most of the decisions. A big part of the problem is that we define success in terms of male characteristics. Men are more aggressive, therefore aggression=good. (Kind of like how humans are the most intelligent species, since we define what "intelligence" is in terms of what we can do.) Question the status quo and the value system. It's not just that women aren't paid enough; it's that men are paid too much. (I'm not talking about your buddy at the next desk; look to the top.)

3. With regard to charges that "feminism is for white women": I don't think feminism is particularly racist. Has feminism, historically, as a movement, excluded women of color? Yes, of course, but this is a general rule, not a particular one. We (people) are racist as a whole and we need to change that. I do not think it's productive to pit feminist activists against race activists as though their goals were mutually exclusive. Let's do both at once. If you see a feminist being racist, call them out, but don't blame it on feminism. Blame it on racism. (Note: I remark on this because I think men can use charges of racism as a way to undermine feminism and derail feminist conversations; it's a form of the "always a bigger problem" fallacy, i.e. racism is more important because it affects men too! Naturally I take these concerns much more seriously when they come from women of color.)

4. That said, being white makes feminism easier. Being attractive makes feminism easier. Being rich makes feminism easier. That's because being white, rich and attractive makes everything easier! Privilege is additive. Being a "hot feminist" is not subversive.

5. To me, feminism isn't about honoring personal choices, i.e. "I'm a woman and I do whatever I want and it's my choice." Feminism is about seeking equality. If you're a woman and you make anti-feminist choices (like, say, editing a magazine and only publishing men), you can't then use "feminism" as the justification for your choices.

I think those are the big ones.