Sunday, April 27, 2008

Of Pregnant Men and the Definition of Slavery

In the late Octavia Butler’s short story “Blookchild,” a group of humans have left Earth for an unnamed distant planet and entered into a unique social arrangement with one of the species living on that planet. Highly intelligent and evolved insect-like creatures, Tlics are about eight feet or more tall, with multiple legs and body segments and a stinger that puts those who get stung into a pleasantly numb sleep-like state in which they feel no pain. The humans (known as Terrans on this unnamed planet) have agreed to accept protection by the Tlics from elements of the planet never entirely described, although those elements include what seems to be an unpredictable climate, numerous dangerous beasts, and certain Tlics whose intentions towards Terrans are more hostile. The Tlics also offer a health-restoring drink that comes from their own unfertilized eggs. With a fountain-of-youth like effect and mild hallucinatory properties, the egg drink keeps humans looking young and feeling strong and full of a sedating if temporary inner peace.

In return for the never quite clarified protection and as much egg drink as they want, individual Terran families have entered into close, caring, but also sometimes tense relationships with individual Tlics, who become part of the family and help raise Terran children. The essential feature of this relationship is that Tlics now use Terrans to give birth to Tlic young in a startling way. Finding that they get better results than with other animals on their home planet, the Tlics choose individual Terran men to lay their eggs in. They don’t choose women because women have to give birth to babies of their own species. The men are stung to sleep, then their bodies are cut open and eggs (usually six to eight of them) are laid in the open wounds, after which the wounds are sealed up again. At the time that the eggs hatch in their bodies, the men must be stung again, cut open, and the now living Tlic babies have to be removed. The men are quickly restored to good health by the healing properties of the egg drink, which even eliminate the scars from the operation so that the men look like they were never cut. The operation is delicate and, it turns out, dangerous. If the Tlic babies are not removed right when they hatch, they will eat the body that they’ve hatched inside, causing a very painful death for their host. Sometimes a Tlic makes errors in monitoring a man, or grows sick and can’t complete the birth process, and when that happens, sometimes the man involved will die.

While the Terrans have ostensibly agreed to this arrangement, they seem to have done so only under the threat of the loss of the unspecified, vaguely gangster-like protection. Further, they are not allowed to witness the Tlic birth process. Some of them have witessed it though, whether accidentally or out of determined curiosity, and when they do they usually become permanently disgusted and angrily refuse to be part of the Terran-Tlic relationship. They often become proponents of violent revolution against the Tlics, one of the reasons that it is illegal for Terrans to carry guns, although many Terran families keep hidden guns.

Many critics have seen in the social world described in this story an allegory of slavery. Human bodies are used for purposes that humans themselves do not control and in ways that sometimes lead to a violent death, although if the operation is handled properly, they feel no pain. Further, while in theory human men volunteer for this operation, the problem of the ambiguous protection means that the arrangement is actually based in coercion. If the Terrans as a whole refused the relationship, protection would be removed, with the implication perhaps that the birthing process would become one that the Tlics would impose upon unwilling humans, although that possibility is never openly stated. The humans are clearly subject to a degree of control by the Tlics that is not marked by equal authority for both races. Further, this relationship is only maintained through a condition of human ignorance. Drug addiction also plays a role, as most humans have become to various degrees hooked on the miraculous egg drink, even though in this case the drug leads to good health and a youthful appearance. Add to all these details the fact that Butler is African-American, and the idea that this story explores the condition of slavery has become common.

Fascinatingly though, in her afterword to the story that appears in the collection Bloodchild and Other Stories, Butler denies that she thinks of the story as an exploration of slavery. Although she never says so directly, the implication seems apparent that people have assumed the story is about slavery partly because Butler, as an African American, is assumed to be writing about that subject. But Butler herself describes “Bloodchild” as the story she always wanted to write about men becoming pregnant, as well as a tale of how human and non-human creatures might be able to live together and cooperate rather than instinctively treating each other as incomprehensible and disgusting enemies. Many individual Tlics and Terrans have loving relationships. They are part of each other’s families and consult each other’s feelings. And again, no individual man is forced to give birth to Tlic babies. Those who do so have volunteered and those who don’t want to don’t have to, although if all of them refused, the agreement between Tlics and Terrans would break down. Tlics and Terrans talk to each other, tell stories and secrets and share emotional support, although the Tlics seem to do most of the nurturing and the nurturing never seems entirely benevolent.

If Butler’s afterword rejects the slavery interpretation though, her own interpretation doesn’t seem entirely satisfactory either. First, the men in the story aren’t exactly pregnant. Humans give birth through organs designed for giving birth. They don’t have embryos surgically implanted all over their bodies, embryos that grow into fetuses that will eat them alive if not removed at the correct moment. Granted, human organs for birth don’t always work perfectly, and cesarean sections, for instance, involve surgical procedures significantly similar to Tlic birth. So there are similarities to real human pregnancy both in terms of some elements of the operation itself and the physical shock it entails. Also, on some level childbirth is indeed imposed upon women, who never asked to be able to give birth, however they feel about it once they learn they have the ability. And there is also the metaphorical suggestion that parents always risk being eaten alive by the needs of their children. Nonetheless, the Tlic birthing process is one that human bodies were not designed for, one which they hate if they ever actually see it.

Second, even if the interpretation that the story is a slavery allegory is one Butler rejects and did not intend, an interpretation that was imposed on her because of her racial identity, the fact is that thinking about slavery in relation to the story raises worthwhile questions. Slavery, for instance, by definition is not accepted voluntarily. It’s the lack of volition that makes it slavery. The social situation described in the story is somewhat closer to sharecropping or servitude, in which the opportunity to choose this particular way of living is more a legal technicality than a real choice, since other options have been effectively, if not absolutely, eliminated. But even that comparison isn’t quite right, since individual humans can opt out of the Tlic birthing system with no more than emotional consequences. It’s just that changing the system as a whole would potentially lead to the destruction of human life as a whole, or at least to potentially widespread violent consequences. The system depends on the fact that some men must volunteer.

Butler’s “Bloodchild” ultimately isn’t a story about slavery, male pregnancy, or a world in which human and non-human actors cooperate with each other for mutual benefit. Instead it’s a story about the complex intertwining of love and servitude, desire and power, enforced by a social system in which one race has more control than another. It’s a story that suggests that nurturing and control, and birth and violence, go hand in hand. It’s a story that shows how people can come to love those who control them and that those who control others can feel that they do so out of love. It’s a story that shows how our most deeply felt emotions can be constructed by conditions of power that are easier to describe in their totality than to understand in specific cases. In this story, power and love are not opposites. Instead, love takes place under conditions of unequal power, and power exists in even the most apparently loving relationships.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

The Unexamined British Influences on the Work of Gary Sullivan

Gary Sullivan isn’t afraid to poke a little fun at writers who become too obsessed with their own lineages of influence. Gary's contribution to Telling It Slant: Avant Garde Poetics of the 1990s, his cartoon “America, A Lineage,” shows a writer desperately trying to define himself by knowing which writers have influenced his own work.

So Gary is a perfect writer with whom to play “False Lineage: A Game,” one of my favorite literary pastimes.

The game works like this: find writers that you are almost certain did not influence a certain writer, but yet somehow or other, in the unhinged alternative universe that you live in, they really were an influence.

Not every writer likes this game, I’ve seen first hand. Tell someone that his writing reminds you more than a little of Alfred Lord Tennyson and watch what happens. Between you and me, there are maybe a few too many Alfred Lord Tennysons around these days (and I might even be one of them, damnit) but that’s a story for another time.

But Gary is the kind of writer who hopefully won’t mind a few false lineages, so here goes.

In reading Gary Sullivan’s recently published PPL In A Depot, I saw that I’d never realized how deeply Sullivan had been influenced by the work of P.G Wodehouse, Ronald Firbank, and Eveyln Waugh. Sullivan’s thorough reading of these pre- and post-WWI and II British fiction writers, silly, whimsical and satirical in various degrees, has greatly informed the sensibility of his new book. The absurdist plays in PPL In A Depot pick apart the contemporary world of New York City, showing us a society full of lunatic antics and overwrought social maneuvering. Sullivan’s work splits the difference nicely between Wodehouse’s kindly oblivious humor, Firbank’s campy excess, and Waugh’s harsher yet often hilarious skewering of social mores.

Writing this kind of work needs more than an eye for satire though. It also requires a specific kind of social context.

First, it needs a world of nuanced, labyrinthine and finally absurd social networking, in which every moment of conversation has become so burdened by innuendo and implication that it becomes impossible to breathe, leading the satirist to try to blow some fresh air into people’s stuffed shirts (I could be dirtier here, but you see what I mean). How close, it turns out, are the maneuvers of the decaying British aristocracy of the earlier 20th century to the inbred compactness of contemporary New York City life and its desire to escape from itself into miracles:

PPL, page 75:
David Moorehead [Thinking aloud]: OMG, I am totally falling in love with Brooke. How can I tell her that I killed her daughter?

Shirley Wood [Shaking her head at the book in her hands]: You have to be in the mood for some death-defying Orwellian back-flips to read “Poems From Guantanamo.”

Daivd Moorehead: I am such a tard when it comes to Brooke! It’s because I respect her values too much {To Barista} Hey, is my iced frappuccino and my muffin ready yet?

PPL, page 64:
Dewey: Why do educated people believe in demons? I can’t fathom this. I have no idea why you would believe in demons.”

Jenny: Well, I think because it’s fashionable, it’s crazy, and you have to let your hair down sometimes.

Second, it must be the kind of environment that breeds saturation with art, one in which the constant claims for the seriousness of art and literature have become stifling. Not another serious poet looking for fame please. Not another novelist telling the truth for our times. If anyone else at this party gets even a little more self-important, I don’t think I’ll ever be able to read again. We have turned the details of art over and over again in our minds until it’s our minds that are turning:

PPL, page 68:

Joel: I always tell the Karaoke Queen that Elton John was the death of rock and roll. His emphasis on Las Vegas style shows with a gay edge effectively ended the great era of rock and roll. Rock was, and should be, a macho phenomenon. The gayification of rock seemed like fun, but it was fatal.

Gina: Donald, your story is somewhat similar to mine. I enjoyed pop music a lot in the early to mid 70s. In 76, the year I graduated from high school, I noticed that there weren’t as many “really great” songs as there had been in the few previous years. I remember my friends and I talking about this.

It’s in this context of social and artistic saturation that the writing of Wodehouse, Firbank, Waugh and Sullivan becomes a necessary antidote. Yet this fact raises an issue that’s relevant to all these writers: the farther removed one is from this kind of world, the less one might feel able to share in laughing at it from the inside. If the foibles of the British aristocracy or the life of contemporary New Yorkers don’t interest you, you may not find this work for you.

Where Sullivan’s work departs from his predecessors, and may also have more staying power as literature, is in its relation to politics. Wodehouse remained throughout his life notoriously naive, never seeming to understand the seriousness of the wars and social conflicts he lived through, even though while living in France in 1940 he became a prisoner of the Germans and was later accused of collaboration with the Nazis for a series of radio satires he made in Germany while still a prisoner. George Orwell famously said of Evelyn Waugh that he was “about as good as a novelist can be while holding untenable opinions.”

Sullivan, however, no matter how absurd many moments in his plays are, keeps bringing his readers back to contemporary political conditions from a leftist perspective:

PPL, page 35:

Brad: Here’s a list of the countries that the U.S. bombed from the end of World War II until the end of the 20th century, compiled by historian William Blum...

And then, despite interruptions, Brad lists them. The result is that, within the flippancy and rejection of the tone of serious art, a serious understanding of the world remains, although it’s handled more than a little bit more lightly.

I have to admit that I wouldn’t want to read the work of any of these satirists every day. Yet at those times when I do read it, it often comes as a relief, not to mention a source of much-needed laughter. It turns out, finally, that it’s in the most complexly developed social environments that a great dumb joke is often most necessary.

You can catch Gary Sullivan and his compatriots in absurdity this week at the 2008 Flarf Festival, the Holistic Expo and Peace Conference version.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

&Now Literary Festival at Chapman University

That's where I'll be for the rest of this week. Take a look at the lineup:

If I don't get back to any of you for a few days, that'll be because I'm having too much fun to check my e-mail. And how often does that happen?

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Who Wrote That?

As someone identified only as Patrick recently suggested in response to a post by Linh Dinh on the blog International Exchange for Poetic Invention (and later, Harriet) , most poetics discussions regarding the concept of self or identity and its relation to the creation of writing and language are tired, reasserting old ground in unexamined and contentious ways. “All writing is autobiographical.” “We write from inside fundamental conditions of bodies and cultures.” “In writing, we can be anyone we want to be.” To assert that the self is central or insignificant to writing; both beg the question of what this self is.

Generally speaking, discussion about politics among contemporary poets is very developed but discussion about psychology much less so. Obviously there are exceptions: a writer like Nick Piombino, a practicing pscyhotherapist, has always explored the psychological formation of selves and others as much as the social ramifications involved. But in the world of innovative poetries broadly, Marx and Debord are discussed every day; Freud and Lacan much less so; Karen Horney, a psychoanalyst whose writing has been tremendously valuable to me, is practically unknown to poets. So is Alice Miller, whose book The Drama of the Gifted Child seems to describe much about the internal conflicts of any number of writers I know although they’ve never read her work. It remains common for poets to dismiss psychology as irrelevant to supposedly more important political and aesthetic questions.

I’m hardly a scholar of psychoanalysis any more than I’m a Marxist scholar. Nonetheless I feel like I can make some suggestions about what these selves might be that we so love or disdain. So, tentatively, and with less than scholarly thoroughness, I’d like to suggest that anyone asking the question “Who Wrote That?” is dealing with at least the following set of conditions.

Body: A set of physical conditions, outside language, that create us and limit us and make themselves known to us. We can affect the body through our living habits, healthy or unhealthy, and we can describe the body. But can never control it; it always exists somewhat outside all our purposes for it. The body imposes a powerful set of limitations, needs, and desires. The need to eat, sleep, and drink, the physical urges of sexuality; aging; illness and disease; these are perhaps the main key components of the body.

Identity: Identity is a condition of culture and the languages created by cultures. Identity consists of a series of stories that exist beyond us as individuals, stories which shape us long before we know they do. What it means to have a gender and a sexual orientation, what it means to have a skin color, to be rich or poor; what it means to be in a family; what it means to live here or there, to have fought this war or been invaded and assaulted by these people in this way; all these meanings are abroad in the cultures we are born into, and they shape how others see us. Soon enough, they become essential to how we see ourselves. One can celebrate an identity, accept it, try to reject it or to redefine it, but key to identity is the fact that it is culturally imposed upon us before our own reactions to it can begin. It is objective in that sense; subjective (or cultural) in the sense that identity is no more than the story that a culture or set of cultures tells and thus can be changed.

Self: The stories we tell others, or just ourselves, of those things that make us unique, that individualize us more than identity can. More thoroughly subjective than identity, it concerns our individual experiences and our individual reactions to those experiences. Self inevitably implies others because the stories we tell about who we are as individuals are frequently shaped out of our relation to others. Nonetheless self has a greater degree of individual freedom and volition than identity even though it is greatly formed in relation to identity. Self can be largely a matter of assertion, although gaps between assertions and behavior are included in the way others see us (and such gaps are often the subject of psychotherapy). No doubt, as Erving Goffman has shown, the self is a series of performances. But in this case, the performance is one of who we think we are or wish ourselves to be.

Performativity: Related to self in being a series of individual gestures, but beyond the self because it consciously highlights the game-playing element. Performativity involves a series of gestures that we often use to free ourselves from our daily senses of body, identity, and self. They are games we play in which we imagine ourselves others or attempt to strip ourselves free of our own limitations. The concept of the actor is crucial to perfomativity; for a time, we create ourselves as other than ourselves. That said, the freeing of ourselves from ourselves that is crucial to performativity is never complete. As actors know, our ability to play successfully at being others always requires that we imagine those others, and such imagining can only come from our own perspectives. Still, the degree to which we can imagine and create ourselves as other shouldn’t be underestimated. If some trace of our selves and identities always remains, it’s still truly remarkable how far people can go in creating temporary selves and identities unlike their own.

The Ineffable: As poststructuralism made clear, all attempts to define the complete structure of anything always leaves something out, something missed or that can’t be or isn’t spoken. In relationship to who we are, some call this undefinable piece the sacred. Julia Kristeva speaks of the semiotic chora: those processes outside language to which language is always related. In writing about Jack Spicer, Robin Blaser speaks of The Practice of Outside. The ineffable is that irreducible fact that no matter how accurately we describe our bodies, our identities, our selves and our performative freedoms, not even all of them together can account for all we think and feel ourselves to be. We know that we are different from all that has been said of us; we know that nothing can fully account for all the change that we have experienced. Like body, the ineffable operates outside language (and Kristeva’s chora essentially combines body and the ineffable) and so what is most mysterious connects back to what is most concrete. We are always more, and other, than we know ourselves to be.

While I would suggest that all these features are interrelated, and all bear on the act of writing, it’s certainly true that they are related in different ways for different individuals. Some people feel the weight of one or the other more heavily, body and identify especially because we have so much less say in them. Obviously, writers can focus on one or some of these features rather than all, or assert that, to them, one or the other is most central. But I would suggest that when we deny that the others exist, our sense of who is writing is probably too limited.

Among the many fascinating issues that it raises, Stanislaw Lem’s great science fiction novel Solaris posits the following question: How can we understand what life might be like on other planets (and read here also: other cultures) if we don’t even understand crucial things about ourselves? He doesn’t ask the question smugly, or with the implication that we shouldn’t try to understand lives other than our own until we understand ourselves completely. Instead the implication is that exploring the lives of others and exploring our own lives are processes that need to work together. Trying to understand who somebody else is always requires trying to understand ourselves.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Some Thoughts on Readings

(The photo is from Rodrigo Toscano’s “Clock, Deck, and Movement,” a poetics theater work for five actors performed at the Bowery Poetry Club on March 29, 2008)

I remember Tom Mandel once saying to me that giving a reading to a group of gathered friends and other interested people was, for him, in many ways the highpoint of life as a poet. The chance to have others respond to your work, to feel part of a group that was interested in the things you had done, was something that led to a sense of connectedness and value, the sense that you were not alone in the endeavor of wanting to create literature.

Just a few days ago in Washington DC, Tina Darragh talked to me about a reading Robert Creeley gave at Georgetown University several years before his death, in which Creeley had said that for him it was always difficult to avoid sentimentalizing such moments. That in fact, now that he was old, he didn’t always even try to avoid it.

My most recent trip to the east coast reminded me, again, of the significance of literary readings, both to individuals and to a culture. It was great to see so many people I liked, people I had not seen in several years in some cases, people whose character or work or both has been important to me. It was great to meet some people I had never met before and who I hope to see again. And it was gratifying—I’m not ashamed to admit it—to get the sense that people liked and respected the work of mine they heard.

I don’t think I’m being naive. I understand how complicated and even vexing a reading can be. I know that there are conflicts between writers, dubious alliances, misunderstandings, unfair likes and dislikes. I know that public readings are often events during which those problems can be staged. I know that some people don’t like readings but go anyway, from a sense of obligation or just not wanting to be left out. I understand that such events involve a politics and a psychology, that there are critiques and resentments.

For myself, though, whether I’m reading or someone else is, readings are often the way I learn most about writers and literature. Even when a reading is bad—and as we all know, many are—I’m rarely bored. In fact some of the worst readings I’ve been to have also become the most legendary. There may be nothing more fascinating than an epically bad performance; certainly I remember them long after many excellent performances have faded. In any case, listening to someone read their work, whether or not the performance is good, tells me things about who that person is that reading the work on the page couldn’t. Hearing some writers read makes me more interested in their work. Hearing others helps me confirm what I already liked or didn’t.

For those of you living in cities where readings happen all the time, as I did for many years, I understand that after awhile readings can get tiring. One of the things I liked about DC was that we rarely had readings in the summer. Nine months of them, with three or four a month, was enough, and I was happy to go several straight months without a reading. By the time fall came around, I always felt ready to go to readings again. Or if I didn’t, that was a sure indication that something significant was wrong.

But imagine an environment in which there were few readings, or none. Imagine a place where there was almost no one other than yourself interested in literature. Imagine, even, living in a place, as too many people still do, where it’s illegal to gather and say what you want to say. Or, less extreme, imagine what it would be like to not know that readings existed, to not know that there was a culture of people who cared deeply about the act of reading and writing.

In fact, most Americans live in that last place. One of the reasons that I require my creative writing students to go to readings is that many of them simply don’t know that there is such a thing. And some of them, more than you or I might have thought perhaps, are intrigued and even amazed by what they see. They didn’t know that there were living writers, actual people who cared about literature, who would stand up and read it and talk about it. They didn’t know that such people would talk to them. They certainly didn’t know that they themselves might become such a person. And as it turns out, at least a few of them do. And if they do, it’s sometimes the literary reading that most grabs them, that makes the world of literature seem real.

When my students ask me what it’s like to be a writer, many of those questions full of course with preconceptions about publishing and the concept of fame, one of the things I tell them I love most is that I get a chance to know so many interesting people in so many interesting places. I can go to Vancouver, or Portugal, or New York, and not be just a tourist but instead talk to people there who share my interests, who have things to tell me about art and culture and politics, in those places and elsewhere. Some students find that idea amazing. They themselves talk only to their families, friends, co-workers and maybe their teachers. Whether they love some of those people or not, for these students the idea of a world out there, or even close at hand, where literature and ideas are things that one would be allowed to love and talk about can seem a revelation.

I remember what it was like to be 16. I liked books, I liked music. I had friends in heavy metal and southern rock cover bands who would play parties on Saturday nights and we would go there, drink bad beer and rock out. I remember there was a sense of power in it, how that power seemed different from my daily life, the one where I spent most of my time lonely, angry, sad, and working a job I hated. I remember the feeling of being trapped, a feeling that for all too many good reasons I’ve never left behind. But I remember how for a moment, while we were all wrapped up in the music, another kind of world seemed possible. But then of course it was back to the alienation of routine, back to the “no way out” mentality that dominated my life until I was almost 30.

If, when I was 16, working nights at a local fast food restaurant in a suburb as faceless and nasty as every suburb you know about, someone had asked me whether, pushing thirty years later, I would like a life in which I had written books that had been published and knew fascinating people all over the world and sometimes could travel to see them, I would have said yeah, I’d like that, but I don’t think it’s going to happen. If they’d said, okay, but the trade-off is that you’ll still have to work as hard then as you’re working now, you’ll still sometimes feel trapped and lost and alone, I would have said so what, I feel that way already, so I might as well get the good part too, right? My 16-year old self would have thought that the idea of that kind of life would be pretty great.

And I think so too. Nor do I think it’s sentimental to suggest that one measure (though hardly the only one) of the value of life and writing can be found in the kind of connections it helps us create with others. If the literary reading, even with its frequent alienation and ridiculousness, turns out to be crucial at least to my sense of that connection, well, so what? The world has always been a stranger place than I imagined.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Agitprop Poetry Series: Saturday, April 5

Please join us for a literary reading in the company of "Colby Jackson's Alien People" (ceramic sculpture) at Agitprop in North Park, co-sponsored by the gallery and local poetry presses 1913, Kuhl House, and Tougher Disguises.

Susan Maxwell & K. Lorraine Graham
Saturday April 5th 7pm
2837 University Ave in North Park
(entrance to the gallery is actually on Utah)

Susan Maxwell's first book of poems, Passenger, was published by the University of Georgia Press in 2005 as winner of the Contemporary Poetry Series. Maxwell earned her BA in Peace and Conflict studies at the University of California, Berkeley, and her MFA in poetry from the Iowa Writers' Workshop. Her work has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and featured in such publications as 1913 a journal of forms, American Letters & Commentary, New American Writing, Denver Quarterly, Bay Poetics Anthology, Verse, VOLT, as well as other journals and art installations. She's currently a doctoral student in Psychology at the Wright Institute in Berkeley.

K. Lorraine Graham is the author of several chapbooks, including "Diverse Speculations Descending Therefrom" (Dusie), "Terminal Humming" (Slack Buddha), "See it Everywhere" (Big Game Books), and "Large Waves to Large Obstacles" (forthcoming from Take Home Project), and the recently released chapdisk "Moving Walkways" (Narrowhouse Recordings). Graham has just completed the extended manuscript of "Terminal Humming" and writes the blog from her home in Carlsbad, CA.

This event is free and open to the public. Donations to the gallery are greatly appreciated.