Friday, December 18, 2009

Poetry in Baltimore and the i.e. reader



i.e. reader
Narrow House Books
150 pgs.
$16

Contributors:

Elena Alexander, Bruce Andrews, Michael Ball, Sandra Beassley, Lauren Bender, Bill Berkson, Charles Bernstein, Mei-mei Berssenbrugge, Miles Champion, Norma Cole, CA Conrad, Bruce Covey, Tina Darragh, Ben Doller, Sandra Doller, Buck Downs, Rachel Blau DuPlessis, kari edwards, Cathy Eisenhower, Graham Foust, Heather Fuller, Peter Gizzi, Adam Good, Jamie Gaughran-Perez, K. Lorraine Graham, Jessica Grim, P. Inman, Lisa Jarnot, Bonnie Jones, Beth Joselow, Michael Kelleher, Amy King, Doug Lang, Katy Lederer, Reb Livingston, M. Magnus, Tom Mandel, Chris Mason, Kristi Mexwell, Megan McShea, Anna Moschovakis, Gina Myers , Chris Nealon, Mel Nichols, Aldon Nielsen, Tom Orange, Bob Perelman, Simon Pettet, Tom Raworth, Adam Robinson, Phyllis Rosenzweig, Ric Royer, Ken Rumble, Justin Sirois, Rod Smith, Cole Swensen, Maureen Thorson, Chris Toll, Edwin Torres, Les Wade, Rosemarie Waldrop, Ryan Walker, Mark Wallace, Terence Winch, Rupert Wondolowski, John Yau, Geoffrey Young



I’ve just finished reading the recently released i.e. reader, a chunky collection of poems from a variety of writers who have read at the i.e. reading series, hosted by Michael Ball, which has been running in Baltimore since May 2005. Michael is one of those people who works very hard in his own local environment to create opportunities for other people in the world of literature. He’s an energetic, restless, and sometimes even practical visionary who doesn’t come from any fancy side of anywhere, literary-wise or other, and whose work life, which I can’t claim to be entirely sure about (construction worker, handyman, painter and I don’t mean of paintings, things of that kind), nonetheless hasn’t taken away his love not just of literature but of helping to make literature happen. He’s a fine poet too, although it’s characteristic of his modesty that none of his own poems are included in a collection of work from a series he himself curates and hosts.

In the brief curator’s note that opens the collection, Michael mentions his indebtedness to the folks from Narrow House in Baltimore, the publishing group that has put out books and CDs from a significant group of contemporary poets and which produced and published the i.e. reader. Justin Sirois has been the founding brains and braun of Narrow House, and he works these days with Lauren Bender and Jamie Gaughran-Perez and, I think, in earlier days worked with others. Michael also mentions his close working connection to those of us who were running (and many of course still are; it’s just me who’s moved away) a variety of reading series and small presses in Washington, DC.

Although I don’t remember the date exactly (it must have been some time early in the 2000s), I remember first meeting Justin and some of the other young Baltimore poets. At the time, it felt like a significant change in the poetry energy in that part of the world. There hadn’t been much of an avant/experimental poetry scene in Baltimore before that, at least not any that I was aware of. All of a sudden there was a new group of energetic young writers traveling into DC for readings and doing their own events and publications in Baltimore.

Sometimes, it really doesn’t take any more than a few interested people willing to work hard and pay attention to get a literary community on its feet and on fire. In the early years of this decade, much of the new energy from Atlantic-area poetry below the Mason Dixon came from that Baltimore crowd, an infusion that I at least felt was very important for those of us in DC who were getting a bit woozy from years of effort.

I last read in Baltimore in May 2006 at an event hosted by Michael, and I think I met him for the first time that night. A man a few years older than me who had the marks of having lived a life of fairly tough experiences, he wasn’t immediately one of that younger crowd of poets but he had every bit the same level of enthusiasm and energy. His effort during the reading and afterwards made for a lively and memorable day that’s actually chronicled in a piece of my own writing called “We Need To Talk.”

As the list of contributors shows, the i.e. reader contains work by a combination of well-known avant poets, up-and-coming poets, and poets who have labored a long time making poems in Baltimore. For me, reading the book was some combination of nostalgic and informative about just how the world of poetry in that area has shifted since I moved away from the east coast.

There’s going to be an i.e. reader poetry event happening in Baltimore tomorrow night. Along with last weekend’s 20-year anniversary reading for Edge Books in Washington DC, it has clearly been a time for celebrating some of the significant literary work that has been done in that part of the world. It’s a subject worth celebrating. Needless to say maybe I’m more than a little sorry that I’m not going to be a direct part of either event. Just couldn’t get away from California in time, although right about now I sure wouldn’t mind being elsewhere. I’ve got the travel bug today and I’ve got it bad.

There are a lot of intriguing poems in the i.e. reader. Like a few other collections and anthologies that focus on a local scene but don’t feature exclusively local writing, the i.e. reader probably makes most sense for people who are part of the area community, or who are aware of the dynamics that make literary communities work, or who have some significant understanding already of directions in contemporary avant work. Yet I’m also going to use the book in a creative writing class this spring because of the impressive range of poetic approaches on display. It doesn’t contain explanatory or contextual material, not that by any means it automatically needs to, but it certainly constitutes a record (although, of course, not even close to a complete one) of what a group of people can do if they decide to work together where they live to make poetry an essential part of an active life that always involves much more than poetry.

As anyone who’s paying attention knows, the field of poetry, like any other, is regulated by systems of power and influence and connection and all the small foibles of who knows who and why and what’s in it for anyone. But it’s also made up of people who don’t stay at home, waiting for someone to discover them, but who make the effort to create opportunity for themselves and others. For me, that sense of working with people to make something happen is easily as important as anything else that literature may supposedly be about.

And if I don’t post again before that, Happy Holidays to everybody.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

DVD of my Ghent, Belgium performance now available


For anyone interested, a DVD version of the reading I gave in Ghent, Belgium along with K. Lorraine Graham is now available. The DVD was created by Svend Thomsen (shown by his equipment in the photo above) as part of his Trekanten Video Formidling (TVF) project. The quality of the DVD is impressively high, especially considering how so many literary reading films turn out. I’m grateful that on this particular film I don’t look like too much of a large, overbearing goon pretending to be a writer.

Anyone interested in obtaining a copy can write Svend directly at:

tvf@artvideo.tv

More information about other available TVF videos can be found on the tvf website:

www.artvideo.tv

This particular set is actually a two DVD set, the first (62 minutes) featuring Helen White’s introduction, my reading, and then K. Lorraine Graham’s reading.

The second DVD (45 minutes) features the reading and performance that followed our event featuring a variety of poets and performance artists who live in and near Ghent or were visiting at the time, including Olaf Risee, Leila Rasheed, Wouter De Bruycker, Eddy Debuf, N.N., Tine Moniek, Josef Hajas, Philip Meersman, Réné Mogensen, Xavier Roelens, and Jelle Meander.

I blogged earlier about the variety of work that I heard presented that night, an excellent cross-section of the kind of poetry being practiced in Ghent among several generations of writers and particularly among an active younger generation.

My reading on the DVD is a bit unlike other readings I’ve given, although it shared my usual tendency to try to present different kinds of work at a reading. I was aware that I was going to be reading to an audience of individuals with different degrees of fluency in English, although as Helen White had told me, everyone or nearly everyone in Ghent speaks at least some English. I thought that a variety of my more minimalist poetry might work better than denser, more overwhelming or linguistically disruptive material, although I presented enough challenges, I hope, to conventional notions of poetry.

Watching the DVD, I also came to the conclusion that this reading was one of the most consistently and directly political readings I’ve given. Politics and social issues are always a part of my work, but I tend to think of the most explicitly political elements of my writing as part of a more varied framework that tries to engage politics as only one element (although a significant one) of the social and linguistic concerns it explores. I tend to work with the political as one aspect of the fabric of experience and language, rather than either trying to purge the political or make it the whole point. Still, in this particular reading, because of choosing more minimal poems, a more direct politics and cultural criticism than usual seems to come out.

Lorraine’s reading looks and sounds good too, although the most minimal aspect of it is perhaps her understated use of the hoola hoop. Her pieces, many from her book Terminal Humming, constitute a kind of reportage about the various language styles of people in Washington, DC, from state department confuse-speak to the language of young women and men on the prowl for love, although the linguistic game playing and appropriation and sheer sonic invention she works with are much more than simply reportage.

By the way, Svend Thomsen has made it clear that he doesn’t discourage bootlegged versions of the TVF material he shoots, so if you’d rather contact me than him about the DVD, please feel free. But I doubt that he’ll ask for all that much money, so please do consider contacting him first.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

California Public Higher Education: What's Happening to Students in the California State University System


The article I have linked to here does a good job of explaining some of the main problems facing students in California who are seeking a college degree at an affordable cost though the California State University system, which as the article points out is the largest university system in the U.S., one for which student applications admissions are continuing to grow rapidly.

I hope everyone will remember that though there are genuine financial issues involved, the changes that are happening in California public education are not inevitable but are happening because of specific political decisions. Those who want California's students to have affordable education in the future (and that would certainly include, I hope, those who have benefited from it in the past) can make a difference by supporting education awareness drives and, crucially, by supporting California politicians who believe in the value of public higher education.

Thanks to Lauren Mecucci for pointing the article out to me.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

300: Contemporary Fascist Film-Making, American-Style



When I watched the movie 300 about two months ago, I was astounded, in the proverbial jaw-dropping way, to be seeing a film that struck me as one of the purest examples of a fascist aesthetic ever filmed, rivaling even a film like Triumph of the Will for the sheer promotional quality of its ideological implications, and in fact exploring more deeply than Triumph many aspects of fascist ideology. It’s amazing, in fact, that 300 makes Triumph of the Will look rather reticent regarding the ugliest parts of fascism. That a film this starkly fascist could have been made in the U.S. in 2006 and toured the usual run of suburban and urban multiplexes seems to me both intensely fascinating and horrifying. Whether it surprises me is something I’m still trying to figure out.

When I posted a brief Facebook (where I’ve been spending a lot of time lately) comment about the fascism of 300, a friend of mine wrote back to challenge me to define what I meant by “fascist aesthetic.” So, thanks to John, I put together the list below.

This list doesn’t for the most part describe my individual take on fascist art. I consider it just more or less a description of the main elements of fascist art work as it was defined by Hitler and other artist-fascists at work in the Nazi regime and elsewhere. If you would like my personal take on fascist art though, I’m happy to offer it: I don’t like it. Now there’s a surprise. Fascist art works through an avoidance of history and any actual material conditions of the world. It offers a violent mythology and epic cartoon designed to blur and hide anything resembling actual history.

As Michael Theune pointed out in his response to me on Facebook, another thing that 300 illustrates is that a fascist aesthetic can indeed result in a boring film, not to mention an absolutely preposterous one. Still, by watching the film with the sound off and my own alternative soundtrack blaring, as well as with a generous serving of long commercial breaks courtesy of TNT (you don’t think I rented the damn thing, do you?), I was able to watch 300 in compact snippets that really highlighted the film’s affects and goals.

Of course, an argument can be made that the Spartans, the subject of the film, really were the world’s first main proto-fascists. Still, nothing about 300 is designed to be historically accurate, so claiming that historical accuracy was the reason behind taking such an approach obviously won’t wash.

And now my list of the basic characteristics of fascist art:

1) Belief in the moral corruption and physical and mental inferiority of dark-skinned people, homosexuals, and the physically disabled (all of which groups are, in fact, more or less interchangeable, in some degree).

2) Belief that the only true calling for a man is that of soldier, and that there is no greater honor than to die for one's country.

3) A promotion of the muscled male physique in a standardized, glorified way.

4) Belief that governments and democracy are corrupt hindrances to the activities of great moral soldier-leaders, who deserve the right to make decisions for all without the input of corrupt, morally and physically weak others.

5) A monumental, cleanly lined architecture whose goal is to emphasize physical strength both of building and of human physique.

6) Obfuscations about freedom and conformity; all free men must look, think, and act alike.

7) A sense of being a small, embattled moral elite in a world of corruption and decadence.

8) As that small, embattled elite, the group must finally die in defense of its values. Oddly, in fascist art, success is less beautiful and emotionally fulfilling than death.

9) A mythological landscape on which the fascist drama can be played out, one that describes even the environment of the world as a pure function of fascist values. No actual material messiness is allowed in the details.

This list may not be complete, but I hope it’s at least a good start. Of course, many of these values can be found in other art that is by no means fascist. It's the total combination of these characteristics that makes for fascist art, and that also makes 300 such a significant and unexpected new addition to the genre.

And have a happy Thanksgiving, everyone.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Listen Up, Student Applicants: Let’s Talk MFA in Creative Writing


It’s that time of year when students applying to graduate programs are putting together lists of schools and portfolios and asking for recommendations. U.S. professional culture now has full-blown Recommendation Mania but I’ll save the details of my critique of that for another time.

Over the last few weeks, there have been some extended and quite useful blog discussions of the problems and possibilities of the MFA in Creative Writing. I’m gathering a few relevant links here for people wanting to read more.

I hope especially that students in the process of applying for MFA’s will check out these discussions. And that includes all of you who have been stopping by my office to talk about graduate school applications.

A significant discussion of the political, social, and economic problems that MFA programs both suffer from and promote can be found at Rachel Zolf’s Tolerance Project blog. Both Rachel’s initial post and the many responses are all well worth considering in detail:

http://thetoleranceproject.blogspot.com/2009/10/statement-to-mfa-workshop-october-13.html

A discussion of an entirely different tone and topic, regarding MFA Program Rankings and their value and why the very idea of such rankings makes many writers purple-faced with rage, took place over at Elisa Gabbert’s blog:

http://thefrenchexit.blogspot.com/2009/11/why-people-dont-like-mfa-program.html

And, partly in response to the conversation on Rachel Zolf’s blog, K. Lorraine Graham posts the following thoughts about her own MFA experiences and desires, and some of the contradictions and complexities she has found:

http://terminalhumming.blogspot.com/2009/11/pauvre-pierrot.html

What follows in the rest of this post are some of my own thoughts on getting graduate degrees in creative writing. Take them or leave them, as you will.

There’s no doubt that MFA programs participate in, and benefit from, a situation in which there’s a lack of satisfying career options in the U.S. for people who are in the process of becoming writers or deciding whether to become writers. Too many people enter MFA programs because there isn’t anything else they can find worth doing while still trying to develop their writing. In some instances, I suppose, that’s caused by lack of imagination on the part of the person applying, but in many (and I would say probably most) others, it’s closer just to being a social fact of life in the U.S.A. One, by the way, that needs to change.

MFA programs also therefore participate in university exploitation of labor. An MFA may help someone become prepared to teach, but most of those teaching options are not great. Adjunct teaching at low wages and with no job security is not automatically or even usually a stepping stone to a successful career as a professor. It can be such a stepping stone (and beware professors who too smugly say “There are no jobs for professors” and appear to be taking pride in their own success at the impossible) but isn’t always or even often one.

It is worth noting that many people who get an MFA or even an academic Ph.D. and who don’t end up working in universities are not automatically doomed. In fact, many who take such a degree and then leave academic institutions for other careers (or work in those institutions at jobs other than teaching) do better, at least financially, than some people who continue working as teachers. Despite cliches about English majors, most people getting literary degrees are quite capable of surviving once they leave their academic programs. Imagine that.

In terms of actual academic jobs teaching creative writing, the less prestigious a university is, the more likely it is to require that professors of creative writing have an MFA or Ph.D. More prestigious universities (Ivy League universities, for instance, and some similar others) will more often hire writers simply for their achievement as writers, although that approach may be increasingly disappearing at all but the most elite U.S. institutions.

What that means is that at most U.S. universities, just being a publishing writer isn’t considered a good enough background for teaching creative writing. You have to have both the degree and publish. Many writers have been critical of this fact, and rightly so in most instances, since having an MFA doesn’t mean that someone is automatically going to move forward as a writer or that their writing is any good. Still, right now that’s how most U.S. universities and colleges operate.

This problem is also tied to the issue of how universities consider the importance of teaching and writing when it comes to being a professor. The less prestigious the school, the less likely its administrations are to really want to see its professors publish that much. That’s a sad fact. For instance, as several of my very helpful academic colleagues pointed out in letters they wrote supporting my application for tenure, the fact that I’ve published a lot didn’t actively hurt my ability to be a good creative writing professor. I’m not criticizing my colleagues in saying this; it was a good practical tactic. The point though is that too many administrators at too many institutions see publication as getting in the way of good teaching.

Students who enter an MFA program are probably best off when they know what MFA programs offer and what they can’t. Such programs give people a few years to read and write and learn and to have further chances to create a community of others who share their interests. They give people a professional credential that has some potential career and earning value, but by no means necessarily much. Therefore by no means do MFA programs necessarily solve the problem of anyone’s future work life, and of course most last only two years. They end fast.

The students who are especially best off in MFA programs are the ones who enter an MFA while either developing or already having developed other possible options for their future work lives. Remember the saying, “Don’t put all your eggs in one basket.” I myself worked as a professional journalist for many years, on and off, while getting my own academic degrees.

And remember, crucially, that getting an MFA degree doesn’t make anyone a writer. Only continuing to write will actually do that, and many people do that just as well without an MFA. And entering graduate school is not the only way to develop a connection to other writers or to become part of a community of them. Another approach is to move to a city where many writers already live and become part of the literary activities in that place.

One final irony here: having a developed social critique of MFA programs is helpful regarding knowing what you’re getting into, but is much less helpful than having other actual options.

I hope anyone with further thoughts or questions about MFAs will respond in the comments section.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Joseph Thomas and Mark Wallace reading at Agitprop this Saturday, November 7





The Agitprop Reading Series Presents:



Joseph Thomas and Mark Wallace



Saturday, November 7, 7 p.m.


A libertine of unimpeachable taste, Joseph T. Thomas, Jr. is an assistant professor of English at San Diego State University’s National Center for the Study of Children’s Literature. He is the author of two books, Poetry’s Playground: The Culture of Contemporary American Children’s Poetry (Wayne State UP, 2007) and Strong Measures (Make Now Press, 2007). Poetry’s Playground was named a 2009 honor book by the Children’s Literature Association.


Mark Wallace is the author of more than fifteen books and chapbooks of poetry, fiction, and essays. Temporary Worker Rides A Subway won the 2002 Gertrude Stein Poetry Award and was published by Green Integer Books. His critical articles and reviews have appeared in numerous publications, and he has co-edited two essay collections, Telling It Slant: Avant Garde Poetics of the 1990s, and A Poetics of Criticism. Most recently he has published a short story collection, Walking Dreams (2007), and a book of poems, Felonies of Illusion (2008). Forthcoming in early 2011 is his second novel, The Quarry and The Lot. He teaches at California State University San Marcos.


Reading Location:
AGITPROP Gallery
2837 University Avenue in North Park
(Entrance on Utah St., behind Glenn's Market)
San Diego, CA 92104
For more information, call 619.384.7989

The Agitprop Reading Series is currently hosted by James Meetze, but this event will feature special guest host Steve Willard.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Summer Reading: Theory and Criticism



Adam Roberts, The History of Science Fiction. Although it discusses a lot of fascinating books (and is great for compiling a reading list), Roberts’ account of the commonly accepted history of science fiction (essentially from Shelley and Poe forward) doesn’t add that much new and exciting, and The Cambridge Companion of Science Fiction is still a better book for that general overview. And Roberts’ understanding of gender and science fiction is somewhat weak in comparison to the Cambridge. What’s great about this book though is the convincing case it makes for exploding the belief that science fiction didn’t begin until the 19th century. The survey of science fiction among the ancient Greeks, the disappearance of it during the ascendence of Catholicism, and re-emergence in the 17th century was fascinating and informative. I also felt convinced by his detailed argument about how science fiction re-emerges in the tension between Catholicism and Protestantism, which is not exactly the same as the tension between belief in the heavens as metaphor and belief that outer space is a real material reality, althought the two tendencies are undoubtedly closely related.


T. J. Clark, Farewell To An Idea. There were a lot of things I loved about this book, especially its thoughtful detailing of painting as aesthetic practice that’s also always tied to cultural and political history. I found theoretically persuasive (partly because I’ve long believed it myself) Clark’s claim that painting always struggles both with a relationship to the world and a relationship to the fact of its own manipulable materials (that is, in both cases, the unavoidable problem of the representational status of any constructed art work). For Clark, there’s no such thing as a painting that’s solely about painting or that can unproblematically picture the rest of the world. The historical context he brought to bear on various painters was also fascinating and insightful. The best chapters were the earliest ones on Jacques-Louis David, Camille Pissarro, and Paul Cezanne. The chapter on El Lizzitsky and Malevich and the development of Russian communism was also brilliant. Diminishing returns for me started in the chapter on Cubism and grew larger in the chapters first on Pollack then on Abstract Expressionism more generally. What in the earlier chapters had been fascinating re-visiting of the significance of these painters became increasingly tendentious, more determined by the biases of his (genuinely complex) Marxist theoretical perspective. Clark is ultimately not quite capable of developing a convincing case regarding the history of 20th attempts to move beyond conventional representation, tending to see them as isolated moments that end up being dead ends, rather than as part of a whole history of such paintings, one that far from being dead continues to be ongoing. The idea, by the way, that’s being said farewell to in the book’s title is the idea that (fine) art has an important role to play in politics and social change. According to Clark, modernism emerges in the tension between art, politics and culture but also often finds itself saying goodbye to actual stakes in social change while simultaneously reflecting a nostalgic belief that there was a historical moment when it lost this power. Modernism according to Clark is thus often about its own defeated attempt to become socially relevant, and by relevant I mean something that forms a significant partnership with actually political practice and actually foments social change. I did find fascinating the idea that Modernism always dreams of a (past) time when art mattered, but I’m not sure I’m entirely convinced by it. I also got a kick out of the fact that Clark tries to re-write the value of Abstract Expression by describing it in ways that, to me, make it out to be a kind of proto-flarf. Clark argues that what makes AE still fascinating is not its ideas about representation but its cheap, gaudy vulgarity that thumbs its nose at the tasteful. Convincing, I don’t know, but eye-opening, sure.


Michael Azzerad, Our Band Could Be Your Life. Much more than a fan account, although it’s that too, Azzerad’s book is best at being a cultural history of the 1980s American underground punk/post punk bands that are now called Indie Rock (but were not at the time), beginning with Black Flag and going up through the alt-lifestyle revolution heralded by Beat Happening. The historical moment where the book ends is just prior to the commercial explosion of Nirvana, the creation of the concept of alternative rock, and a new world in which anti-mainstream alternative bands really could make big bucks in a way that had been unthinkable for bands like The Minutemen: a world, that is, in which the idea of “mainstream” and “alternative” became intermingled. Azzerad’s work covers that earlier decade when everybody thought they knew the difference. I was particularly fascinated by the story of what happens when communities create themselves in the hope of being genuine alternatives to the political and cultural repression of mainstream America. Not all the bands discussed here who were part of the environment shared that idea of community; some just wanted to take drugs, get drunk, and play music that ripped apart notions of the acceptable, not to mention more than one eardrum. There’s a lot to be learned here about the possibilities and limitations of imagining such social alternatives and really trying to put them into practice. The book suggests that the pitfalls are many, while also seeing real value in the kinds of communities created by bands like Fugazi who, as in many other accounts, are described here as genuine counterculture heroes as well as sometimes perhaps overly straitlaced moral preachers. Azzerad describes an era I lived through intimately, during the time when I was first publishing my own writing, record reviews in on campus and beyond campus publications in Washington, DC. I realized again how formative for me many of these bands were on the subject of how (and how not to) write about history, culture, and politics. In fact I’m tempted to say that it’s the lessons of this era that make my consciousness (and that of many writers I know) about politics one that seems so at odds with those writers whose came of age in and just after the 60s.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

When University Presidents Can't Think: Hamid Shirvani


The gentleman writing the editorial below, Hamid Shirvani (pictured above), is a president of a university in the California State University system where I teach.

I'm amazed, if sadly not surprised, by any number of things in the editorial: the writer’s disdain for graduate schools and academic scholarship generally. The idea that students and professors are not "working" for what we have, and the incredible paternalism of his metaphor: yes, it’s true, faculty and students are children who need mature administrators to tell them when they can and can't have "ice cream." His notion that "privilege enters the conversation" instead of acknowledging that he's the one calling it that. The idea that smaller classes are not necessarily better for students and that they exist just because faculty and students "prefer" them. The idea that faculty are not "productive"--does he or does he not have standards for promotion at his university, and don't faculty have to "produce" in order to meet them? I'm especially amazed by the idea that the "teacher-scholar model" may not lead to "thinkers and makers"--is his implication that people who do not have time to think, and who don't make anything, will be better able to teach others to think and make?

In short, it's an article so full of blatant logical errors, weak metaphors, and unexamined thinking that I doubt very much that it would qualify as "B" level work in most classes I teach that require argumentative writing.

I do think those of us in California need to face a series of hard facts though, and one is, that top level administrators in the CSU system have disdain for critical thinking and the necessity of supporting evidence. They simply believe what they wish to believe and invent supporting evidence. Of course, one excellent model for this behavior is the previous president of the U.S. And with leadership this poor, we wonder why our state, and our country, is having a financial crisis?

And by the way? Your tuition dollars and California taxes are paying him a nice fat salary.



Will a Culture of Entitlement Bankrupt Higher Education?
Chronicle of Higher Education of 10/18/09
By Hamid Shirvani

In the wake of our nation’s economic crisis, previous levels of government support for colleges and universities can no longer be maintained—regardless of how much we in higher education may wish otherwise. States are appropriating less money to higher education not because legislators and the people whom they represent value us less, but because they can afford less. Practical realities will drive what is possible for colleges and universities in the coming years.

The economy has suffered changes so deep and fundamental that institutions cannot just hunker down to weather the storm. The time has come for creative reconstruction. We must summon the courage and will to re-engineer education in ways founded on shared responsibility, demanding hard work and a willingness on the part of everyone involved to let go of “the way it’s always been.”

Much has been written in recent months comparing the problems of higher education with those of the auto industry, and many of the comparisons are apt. Resistance to change in academe has helped create inflexible, unsustainable organizations, just as automobile manufacturers wedded to gas-guzzling models have been unprepared for the demand for smaller, more eco-friendly cars.

Yet American auto manufacturers are no more alone in creating their disastrous present than colleges are in attempting to stare down the budget cuts and dwindling revenues they now face. In both instances, inflated consumer demand has created an expectation of elements once considered “extras”: MP3 players and GPS navigation systems in new cars, country-club-quality recreational facilities and multitudes of majors and minors, however narrow, at colleges. People feel entitled to things that were once considered luxuries. And that sense of entitlement—among students, parents, faculty members, and administrators—has driven expansion in higher education beyond what is reasonable or necessary.

Coupled with such growing demands has come an expectation that, as the costs of education rise, government should absorb them. That is no longer possible or desirable. We are moving into an era in which all participants must help bear the costs, direct and indirect, of the privilege of higher education.

As soon as the word “privilege” enters the conversation, people bring up the subject of access, with the implication that if something is a privilege, only privileged people will enjoy it. But in America, access to higher education is unparalleled. No other country has so many fully accredited colleges or has provided such widespread access to student financial aid.

Instead, we should view the privilege of a higher education much as we did the privileges that we enjoyed as children. We knew we couldn’t get ice cream if we didn’t help wash the dishes—we worked for the privileges that we enjoyed, and we shared in the responsibility of earning them. Those special activities were available to us, but we did not enjoy them as a “right.” We were expected to contribute.

We can only hope that today’s harsh economic realities have finally broken the stranglehold of the sense of entitlement about higher education and brought people back down to earth. The reality is that higher education is expensive, and students and their families will be asked to pay an ever-larger share of the costs. Although annual increases in tuition have diminished recently, tuition is still rising faster than inflation.

But the issues are complex and, again, the notion of shared responsibility comes sharply into focus. While students and their families will have to pay more, administrators and faculty members must also work together to offer affordable, effectively delivered educational products and services. With budgets being cut and staff members being laid off or facing a reduced number of workdays, employees in higher education must become more productive.

Cutting costs is not enough. We need to break down expectations based on entitlement and focus on educational productivity and outcomes. Institutions should review redundancies, rethink staffing models, and streamline business practices. Productivity measures should be applied in all areas. In the same way that secondary schools are being challenged to consider longer school days and an extended academic year, we in higher education need to revisit basic assumptions about how we deliver higher education to students. We should not be tied to any one model or structure.

For example, we should re-evaluate the notion that large classes are inherently pedagogically unsound. What both students and faculty members tend to prefer—small classes—is not the only educationally effective approach. Although no one would advocate for large classes in every discipline or instance, we should review what we do in light of new financial contingencies, while keeping an eye on what students learn.

Similarly, at many institutions, it may make more sense for professors to teach more and do less governance and committee work. Faculty members must make education more productive, even if it means sacrificing work in other areas, which, while important, are not central to our primary educational mission.

Colleges and universities should focus more on degree completion, not just on how many students enroll. That does not mean “teaching to the test,” but rather paying more attention to student success and seeking more and better ways that faculty members can support and guide students inside and outside the classroom.

Indeed, in light of the growing demand for a better-prepared work force, we need to revisit undergraduate education as a whole. We should re-examine the teacher/scholar model, for instance. Is it appropriate for every institution? Does that model really produce what it is supposed to: thinkers and makers, learned and professionally skilled graduates?

In addition, we should re-evaluate the relationship and the balance between graduate and undergraduate education. It is too easy to overlook the ever-increasing specialization of graduate programs, in which professors happily replicate students in their own, often narrow, interests, focusing on limited knowledge. Particularly in the graduate arena, not every program is sacred.

We in higher education must determine what we do best and what is reasonable and possible. We should separate legitimate aspirations and a drive toward excellence from the costly and often fruitless pursuit of higher status—which may feed egos but is beyond the reasonable prospects of many institutions. Not every college can be on a top-20 list. Not every college or university can be a Research I institution. Not every regional institution should aspire to national status.

In an era when pragmatism must prevail, those of us in higher education must come to grips with the idea that we can opt out of college rankings and national recognition without doing damage to the fundamental value of the education that we offer to the students whom we serve.

Government, of course, needs to be a part of this process, and taxpayers must be reminded of their shared responsibility for public education. But the only way that we can persuade them to invest in higher education is to demonstrate our commitment to efficiency, openness, and accountability.

Every constituency involved in our educational enterprise bears responsibility for earning the privileges that access to higher education in this country offers. For students, that means the hard work of studying to be prepared for college. For faculty members, that means the hard work of teaching more to enjoy the benefits of the academic life. For administrators, that means the hard work of reconsidering our educational models and structures in order to enjoy the privileges of being engaged in our noble profession.

In an era of less government support and fewer family resources, colleges will emerge stronger and more nimble—ready to provide an accessible and excellent education to those who are prepared to take advantage of that privilege—only if we all embrace the notion of true transformation. Shared responsibility means that we must take a harder look at what education needs to accomplish for society as a whole and then rise above our own special interests for the greater good.

Hamid Shirvani is president of California State University-Stanislaus.








Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Anne Boyer’s new review blog: Books of Poetry



While I’m still finishing up my final round of Summer Quick Takes (coming next week), I wanted to point those of you who don’t already know about it to Anne Boyer’s excellent new book review blog, Books of Poetry.

So far, Anne’s reviews have been tremendously insightful and lively, very much like her poetry. Not quite standard full-length reviews, but longer and more developed than my own recent Quick Takes, Anne’s reviews also raise important issues about what’s going on in contemporary poetry while providing helpful information about some of the most exciting recently published books.

Her emphasis on reviewing books of poetry by women writers makes the blog a particularly useful forum for writers, readers, students, and teachers. A class I’m currently teaching, Studies in Contemporary Literature, asks all the students to review one book of contemporary literature, and Anne’s blog is an excellent resource for finding books worthy of reading and receiving further reviews.

Authors whose books Anne has reviewed include Anne Waldman, Ann Lauterbach, Alice Notley, David Lau, Renee Gladman, Shanna Compton, Susana Gardner, Rebecca Wolf, Stacy Szymaszek, Gina Myers, K. Lorraine Graham, Sandra Simonds, and Cathy Eisenhower. That’s quite a list. Thanks, Anne.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Summer Reading Quick Takes (part three)




Anne Tardos, I Am You. This book is another example of the fact that far from being exhausted, avant garde poetics continues to have many directions (and dare I say it, hybrids) to explore. This book is truly avant garde confessional in a way like no other, with the language theory and lyrical, emotional elements simultaneously working together and unraveling each other’s certainty. In the face of the honesty of this book, most other poems seem dishonest, like they’re trying to prove something that even they don’t believe in. At times this book’s honesty is so searing because Tardos knows so much about how the dishonest lurks within the honest, and vice versa.

I also greatly enjoyed the more familiar (to me at least) aesthetic extremism of Tardos’ The Dik-dik’s Solitude (New & Selected Works). Multiple languages, nonsense and sense, high tech and a concern for animals and the physical world. The poems and word games and visual art in this book never let any mode remain settled for too long.

Joe Ross, Strata. I’d read some of these poems in a chapbook from several years ago, and it was fun to encounter them again along with some others I hadn’t seen as a book from Dusie Press. Subtle lyric poems with surprising twists on the level of the line and in ideas. By turns political, philosophical, concerned with beauty and details of the daily, the poems reveal a searching, always restless intelligence and sensitivity.

Nicholas Manning, Novaless. I wish I’d had this much talent at this poet’s age, or at any age as a matter of fact. Seems like a bit of a Gustaf Sobin influence (or at least similarity) on the fragmented bits of line and angular changes of direction, although not in the spacing on the page, and reflective like Sobin too but not with a set of concerns that resemble his at all. Grand philosophical questions of time and space often balanced among more ordinary life conundrums, including the problems that result from emotional projections about others. These are poems deeply tuned also to the possibilities and limitations of the attempt of language to get at the world. If you haven’t heard of Nicholas Manning yet, I think you will soon enough.

Joseph Mosconi, Galvanized Iron on the Citizens’ Band. This limited edition hardcover poetry/art book is a worthwhile addition to the history of concrete and visual poems. One poem to a page, with each poem only a few oversized words in variously odd juxtapositions. The minimalism recalls Aram Saroyan but the ideas in the poems do not. Some poems actually create a brief surrealist image, others link words together in ways that frustrate attempts to define a clear image. Some of the poems, through their absurdity, imply a range of just offstage political and social abuses. There’s a great deal of humor here but it’s in the service of serious issues.

A Helen Adam Reader, ed. Kristin Prevallet. I’ve long been a big fan of Helen Adam’s work, and I’m lucky enough to have copies of the now hard to find Selected Poems & Ballads and Ghosts and Grinning Shadows, but this book is a much bigger gathering of Adam’s work than has existed before. Prevallet’s well-researched and carefully detailed introduction tells the story of Adam’s writing and life with focus and precision. The book contains correspondence and commentary, prose and interviews and facsimiles of original editions with drawings, as well as a DVD of some Adam’s readings and visual art. The whole package is really quite wonderful. The main highlight of course is Adam’s poems themselves. Mystical, sexually charged, and often in Scottish dialect, the poems present a world where violence, sexuality and loss are forever intertwined in a landscape that’s mythological and gothic simultaneously. I advise people not to read more than two or three Adam’s poems at a time. Each one evokes a powerfully beautiful and unsettling mood that tends to blur and smear if one tries to read them more quickly. A Helen Adam Reader is now the single essential text of this remarkable writer, and cliche or not, no full understanding of 20th century American poetry is possible without it. Thank you, Kristin, for putting it all together.

Monday, October 5, 2009

This is What a (Pro)Feminist [Man Poet] Looks Like


The discussion forum “This is What a (Pro)Feminist [Man Poet] Looks Like” is now up at the Delirious Lapel website, a connected side project of the ongoing feminist forum website Delirious Hem.

Danielle Pafunda invited me to co-host this special satellite to the Delirious Hem project after an online discussion regarding my blog post on Post-Millenial Feminist Poetry back in May, and it has been a great experience. As I say in our brief co-introduction to the forum, I’ve never before been involved in a large scale public discussion among men about feminism, and I think the opportunity to do so has been very important. I really had no idea what any of these men was going to say.

The co-introduction written by Danielle and me also discusses briefly the reason that the forum came to have the name it does. Let’s hope though that people actually spend their time thinking about issues other than the basic descriptive terms.

A few new essays a day will go online between now and Friday October 9, at which point I hope the discussion will continue to extend.

I hope you’ll check it out and respond with your thoughts, either after the essays themselves, at the introduction or, if for some reason you prefer it, here on my blog, although I very much hope you’ll respond over there.

And if you comment about it or link to it on your own blog, will you let me and Danielle know?

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Word for Word #15 and the question of “political” poetry


(Photo: Tom Hibbard at Woodland Pattern Book Center in Milwaukee)


Word for Word #15 is now online, with its four sections defined as poetry, visual poetry, “political” poetry (quotation marks from the issue), and essays and notes. Jonathan Minton has been edited Word for Word for awhile now, and each issue is always fun and insightful, combining a wide range of experimental and underground writers.

Several of my poems can be found in the “political” poetry section edited by Tom Hibbard, a section which also features work by some of my favorite poets, like Buck Downs and Michael Baskinsi. I’m not sure how many people in the world of poetry know Tom. I’ve been reading and learning from his poems for more than a decade. My favorite book of Tom’s is The Songs of Divine Love, a limited, perhaps now impossible to find (and probably never very possible) edition of poems of clipped lines and fascinating reflections and images, a combination of stark understatement, political commentary, and philosophical grandeur. The Songs of Divine Love had a powerful effect on me when I first read it in the 1990s and was a central influence on my own collection Belief Is Impossible, a manuscript that has never been published as a book while almost all the poems in it have appeared in some magazine or other.

Here’s the first poem in Tom’s The Songs of Divine Love:

exterior

On top a hill is someone’s house.
Trees brush the hot grass of a battlefield.
Your word destroys the walls of the monarchs.
To deliver up refers to publicly giving
False evidence against what is worthwhile.
No one’s arms hold the dead body.
The sky is a picturesque, powdery blue.

Tom is one of those writers whose work reminds me that the higher profile echelons of the world of poetry are by no means necessarily the place where the best poems are coming from. Poetry is never restricted to the context of poets who are most broadly known as poets.

Tom has written reviews of my work in the past, like his review of my book Haze in the online journal Jacket. While he and I have slightly different takes on what we’re looking for out of books of contemporary literature, his ideas are always thought-provoking. My many interactions with him regarding poetry have been worthwhile and intriguing, although he and I have never met in person.

I hope you’ll take a look at Tom's brief introductory discussion of the concept of political poetry. I’m not sure I agree with Tom’s way of defining the political poem as “uncovering the real problems of real people.” I remain uncomfortable with the simultaneous flexibility and inflexibility of the term “real” when applied to people and problems—flexible because of the way it includes everyone (we’re all real) and inflexible because of the implication of excluding them (why say “real person” except to distinguish it from just plain “person,” so that there’s an opposite “unreal person,” and who exactly would that be? Wealthy anti-health care reform Republicans? Aren’t such people all too real?). Still, “uncovering the problems of people” seems one way of talking about what it means to write a political poem.

I once wrote a taxonomy describing various kinds of political poems, and I see Tom’s ideas as operating within a range of poems that can be said to be political in some of their elements. The poems gathered as “political” in Word for Word #15 are quite a surprising group and overall offer a good challenge to the idea that the political in poetry can ever be defined as existing only within a narrow range of practices.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Summer Reading Quick Takes (part two)


Rob Halpern, Disaster Suites. If you don’t think it’s possible to write poems that provide a precise materialist analysis of contemporary social conditions while also being filled with an overwhelming (and often quite blunt) lyric longing, you need to read this book. Halpern has showed in earlier work that he’s an extremely sophisticated, politically and theoretically insightful poet. This new book sacrifices none of that while amping up the sheer rawness of the wound and never being less than utterly convincing. I’m not sure there’s anybody right now who’s doing anything like this or could. Tremendous.

Stephen Collis, The Commons. I enjoyed, and often found very insightful, these poems investigating the history of the concept of the commons and various people of importance (like poet John Clare) to it. A strong understanding of the interrelationship between the land and human struggles to divide up and control the land and each other. I usually like books of poems that do Susan Howe-like investigations of history, and Collis handles this mode well. The sense of line was calming and even, maybe the result of there being almost no (literally no?) caesuras in the book, although Collis still manages significant rhythmic variation without them.

Rodney Koenecke, Rules for Drinking Forties. I didn’t realize west coast guys knew anything about front stoop beer etiquette. But these are flarf poems, okay? They go where other poems won’t. Vulgar, vital, funny, quick shifting, sometimes brutal but also somehow always large-hearted. Not afraid to spill a few King Cobras on their way to perdition. Take your hands off my beer, pal, you got that? I gotta down this sucker before I go to the Department of Monday staff meeting.

Susan Briante, Pioneers in the Study of Motion. These poems are a little more conventionally narrative high lyrical than usually matches my own biased preferences, but they’re consistently well-written, moving, and insightful in that mode. Plus the political and cultural elements of Tex-Mex border culture make them far more than simply expressions of lyric subjectivity. There’s a world here, and it’s keenly seen.

Sawako Nakayasu, Hurry Home Honey. This was another book whose tone took me awhile to catch onto, perhaps because the poems are subtler than I am. Or maybe because they’re so often about the unfamiliar. Once I tapped into the mix of understatement, irony, and loneliness, the eye for social oddity and the sharp, maybe-you-just-missed-it humor, I could more easily let the constantly defamiliarized environments of these poems bend, twist, and nick me in the way they were designed to do.

Mark Cunningham, 80 Beetles. Rod Smith, who blurbed this book, suggested I get a copy and I wasn’t disappointed. Wry ironies of a contemporary New York School style poetry that’s more anxious and cutting than precursors, with a sharp paratactic edge. I actually don’t know whether Cunningham is a New Yorker. All these poems are titled with the names of actual beetles, and guess what? They have more interesting names than people do, and for all I and Cunningham know, maybe more interesting lives.

More reviews on the way in upcoming weeks.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Summer Reading Quick Takes (part one)


Now that my summer reading time has crashed and burned, I thought I’d provide just a few brief thoughts about some of the books I read this summer. Look for this series to continue over the next several weeks, if I have time. And I have more than a few books that I picked up this summer that I haven’t yet had the chance to read. I hope I get to them soon but I’m not counting on it.

Contemporary Poetry

Sina Queryas, Expressway. One of the books of contemporary poetry that I most enjoyed this summer, the poems in Expressway have a smart, up-to-the minute geopolitics with a fine combination of irony and intensity. The sense of line was consistently energetic. In particular I was persuaded by the interactions these poems detail between human material construction, environmental problems, and stifling social limitations, all on a world scale that nonetheless always precisely reflects the specifics of locality. A truly translocal poetics.

I also enjoyed reading this summer Queryas’ earlier book Lemon Hound, with intriguing repetition and variation in its sentences, and subject matter moving between the possibilities, sadness and ironies of human interaction and an inventive, knowing pastoralism. An impressive updating of how nature poems can be made to work in a way that doesn’t seem old-fashioned.

Michelle Notebook, Uncaged. This 2009 book of English poems by Michelle Noteboom, resident of Paris, with facing translations by her husband, Oulipo poet Frederic Forte, felt a little overly loose to me at the start but gripped me more and more as the book went on and I absorbed the tone more thoroughly. By the time I finished, I was a big fan. To me the lines and poems were often most effective when most cutting, but there was also a genuine, significant sense of loss that came through even when the poems went most on the attack.

Judith Goldman, The Dispossessions. This 20-some pages chapbook was relentless, beautifully written, brutal and eye-opening. The energy, determination, and frustration, along with the jagged shifts of the lines, make this a totally unforgettable small group of poems. There have to be other people out there besides me who know how good a poet Judith Goldman is, right? Help me out here.

Joshua Harmon, Scape. A powerful sense of mood and place. A sense of desire in isolation too—a different relation to desire and the world than I usually take up even when I'm working with melancholy, but Harmon manages to make it vivid, not so much simply through images but in a feel created by a combination of tone, perspective, and detail. The tightly twisted yet still crackling language may be the thing that made it all work so well. The lines had tension and bounce so that the moodiness never came across as flat. It was especially curious to read this book on the beach in southern California--I think that contrast highlighted for me the regionality of the scapes. It really was a different "world" and I could feel myself in it.

Tim Atkins, Horace. Is anybody right now writing poems wittier than these? Hard to imagine. These free-range “translations” of Horace are sexy, hilarious, and informed, and their playful classicism is somehow utterly contemporary. The sense of line and the consistently inventive line breaks are astonishingly tight.

Johannes Görannson, Pilot (“Johan the Carousel Horse”). Especially noteworthy about these crafty and slippery little poems is how they are placed next to their translations in a way that defamiliarizes the usual poem/facing page translation dichotomy. Neither the Swedish or English versions in this book become in any clear way the dominant or subservient ones. Both seem translations of each other, that is, interactions with each other. Gone here then is the idea that a translation constitutes a second-order poem. There’s also a pleasant bit of creepy gooeyness to add to the bodily instability that these poems often address.

More poetry reviews coming next week.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Maintaining Quality of Education in California’s Public Universities



Those of you who work in education in California might already have seen these things, but I wanted to provide the following links for others interested in following or becoming involved in the struggle to maintain a quality education for California students enrolled at state universities.

Here’s the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) statement calling for resistance to furloughs, salary cuts, freezes, and modifications of work arrangements for professors in California state universities:

http://www.aaup.org/AAUP/newsroom/2009PRS/prnogivebacks.htm

For those who think professors won’t take off the gloves and fight back against unfair, anti-education editorials, check out this stupid editorial in the Sacramento Bee and the many comments showing what’s wrong with it:

http://www.sacbee.com/opinion/story/2161639.html

On September 24, in solidarity with University of California staff and students, faculty from all divisions and campuses throughout the UC system (just FYI, I don’t work for this system but for the California State University (CSU) system), will walk out in defense of public education. This page is dedicated to offering information, updates, and organizational coordination for anyone who supports this collective action.

To read the walkout letter signed by professors throughout the UC system, and already endorsed by hundreds of UC faculty, visit:

http://ucfacultywalkout.wordpress.com/

Those of you interested in supporting University of California faculty in their efforts to maintain educational quality and their planned September 24 walkout should contact and join the Facebook group University of California Faculty Walkout, 9/24 (I believe you probably need a Facebook account to join):

http://www.facebook.com/reqs.php#/group.php?gid=138689602704&ref=mf

You can also support them by doing the following: Support the walkout by sending your name and UC affiliation to ucfacultywalkout@gmail.com

George Lakoff’s take on these issues can be found at the Keep California’s Promise blog:

http://keepcaliforniaspromise.org/?p=77

If anybody has any websites, blogs, or other links that you think are relevant to this struggle, please let me know and I’ll add them to this post. And please help me correct any errors in this information.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

I'm here to tell you that things will get better


It's the Sunday night of the Sunday night of the year around here. In preparation for the deluge, I'm playing today a fair amount of droney and gothic European art rock. Do you blame me?

Despite that, I have to say that I still believe that in the future, things will be better. Much better, in fact, than even you may be imagining.

Or that, at least, is one possible way of reading my poem Prediction, which is now available online in the August issue of Open Letters: A Monthly Arts and Literature Review.

I hope reading it makes you as happy as I felt writing it.

John Cotter, an interesting young writer who attended the premiere presentation of this poem (or, if not a poem, just a piece of writing), on March 29, 2008 at the Bowery Poetry Club, prior to a bit of great Collapsible Poetics Theater from Rodrigo Toscano, is the poetry editor of Open Letters. It's a journal that attempts to reach out to a broader, dare-I-say more mainstream literary audience than the journals in which my work more commonly appears.

After reading it, if you'd like me to predict your own personal future as well, let me know. Especially given what's going on in California lately, I'm available for a reasonable fee.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Versal Magazine and the Concept of the Translocal



Pictured Above:

Michelle Noteboom introducing the K. Lorraine Graham and Mark Wallace reading at Le Next, Paris, July 7, 2009

Megan Garr, Sarah Ream, and myself at Cafe de Balie, Amsterdam, July 15, 2009


The concept of the translocal calls into question a few of the assumptions often made about the split between what is commonly called the local and the global. “Think locally, act globally,” a worthwhile political slogan that points out that political activity needs to develop in specific places while keeping in mind world scale issues, tends to accept the normal division between a smaller, clearly defined locality (and the activity found there) and an all encompassing world condition that is both real and yet difficult to picture specifically in its “totality,” as those inclined towards Marxist and Situationist terminology often put it.

The concept of the “translocal,” both in terms of translocal writing and other kinds of social and political activity, might be described as the work of people who live not just in one local and not in some global “everywhere” either. People who have lived, significantly, in more than one place. People who are not from the place that they are nonetheless now in, or, having grown up or lived in multiple places, for whom the idea that one is necessarily “from” a place can grate uncomfortably.

The notion of “translocal” raises a few worthwhile questions about what turns out to be in some ways an overly schematic separation. Certainly the “local” exists (after all, places are where they are), but it’s obvious enough that local environments are also hardly separate from larger resource and population flows moving through them from elsewhere. There’s no static, untouched local, although I sometimes suspect that some nostalgic cultural studies leftists wish there was. Even those people who have never lived anywhere other than where they currently do are hardly immune from the outside conditions that move through and alter localities. Similarly, no matter how wide one’s travels have been, no one ever lives in some global “everywhere” and experiences some totality of global effects free of the specific differences of local places. No matter how many places you go, you’re always specifically somewhere.

As a concept, the “translocal” isn’t just a 21st century version of the expatriate, although it certainly shares features with that. Nor do I think it’s the same as the kind of life discussed in Pico Iyer’s fascinating, insightful, if ultimately tedious and frustrating book The Global Soul, about those individuals, multicultural and not, who fly from place to place on wings of capital, living in airports and airport hotels and the fanciest neighborhoods of the cities they move through and whose delights they sample but who sometimes feel more isolated than they like. Translocals aren’t necessarily rich. Poet Michelle Noteboom, for instance, who hosted the Ivy Writers Paris reading that K. Lorraine Graham and I gave in Paris, and whose books Edging (scroll down linked page) and Uncaged I’ve been reading with pleasure, told me that she originally came to Paris to work as a nanny.

Many translocals live in circumstances between Iyer’s capitalist Global Souls and their mirror opposites, displaced borderless subcitizen refugees and migrant workers. Translocals have moved for work or family or love or just because they wanted out of something and into something else. They’ve moved from wealthier places to poorer ones or vice versa. Some of them stay in new locations because, like earlier expatriates, they just think life is better in Paris or Amsterdam or wherever they’ve come to live. Having just returned to my translocal life in North County San Diego, where health care and education are in danger of collapsing, I see their point. But others are also still living temporarily in places from which they will move on soon enough.

Versal is an English-language literary magazine published in Amsterdam (and here are links to the Versal website and Versal blog). While in Amsterdam Lorraine and I met Megan Garr, the editor of Versal, Sarah Ream, the managing editor, and on a different occasion a former editor of Versal’s poetry, Cralan Kelder. All of them had their own fascinating stories to tell which it’s not really my business to repeat here, but Megan has lived in Montana, Sarah came from England, and Cralan was for a time first a student and then later a teacher at University of California at Davis.

Megan Garr’s brief editorial at the beginning of Versal 7, the most recent issue, raises some intriguing concerns around the idea of translocal writing:

Up to now, most of the monologue I’ve seen about translocal literature is restricted to the relationship between the author and his (yes, his) narrative text: observations of a street scene in Prague by a long-time former resident (the author)—the locality itself becoming protagonist to the poem. This either reduces the self-sufficiency of a piece alone on the page—i.e. it is the author’s biography that makes a piece translocal or not—or it limits it to narrative surveillance. Certainly not all poetry is traceable to a particular mise en scéne, nor is all prose a story. The very pivot of translocality would indicate that there are many, many kinds of localities, and we need not focus solely on where our (or the author’s) feet are standing.


Among other points, Garr goes on to ask a few questions about consciously translocal writers and writing:

How do they invite (or force) interdependence between a string of vocabularies from two (or more) languages within a single stanza? How is the distance in the line of poetry crossed in a translocal sensibility? How is this distance ever crossed?

Garr answers some of these questions, at least for herself, concluding, as just one for instance, that “I’ve come to see the translocal line as bearer of the familiar and the unfamiliar at the same time.”

There are some essays and short fiction in Versal 7, and also some striking visual art. In contrast to the more aesthetically extreme work I encountered in some other contexts while in Europe, the poetry in Versal 7 is mainly lyric, ranging from poems with a more fragmented, elliptical line to more straightforwardly narrative poems. Many of the poems are overtly or implicitly feminist. Versal 7 looks a bit like certain U.S. poetry magazines that highlight more aesthetically challenging notions of what lyric might be, while the topics and themes are more consistently international and translocal than would be the case if it really was a U.S. magazine.

Having lived for several years now in a place which I like well enough (in some ways, on some days) but am unlikely ever to consider home or to define myself as local in relation to it, it was helpful to talk with people for whom that kind of displacement is a feature of life that they’re aware of sharing with others.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Report on Health Care: An American In Paris



My longtime friend Joe Ross (pictured above with me in Paris on July 7), author of a number of books of poetry and a book of plays, has lived in Paris since 2004. I asked him to send me some anecdotal information about health care in France so that I could pass it along to students and others. He sent me the following details (used by permission):


Hey Mark-

So, a health care story for you.

Last week I was having real difficulty in breathing (because of the summer pollution and pollen). I had a little bit of asthma as a kid and here in the summers sometimes I need very rarely to take an inhaler... maybe 4 or 5 times for the entire summer.

Anyway, I called my doctor on a Thursday afternoon and found out that he was out that day but could see me first thing in the morning. Not bad, but I knew I would not be able to sleep that night and had a class at 9 on Friday.

So I called the "emergency" docs (SOS Medicine). I talked to a first response doctor on the phone, told him the problems and what I normally do. He said that sounded correct and would send a doctor to my house. The doctor arrived 30 minutes later, did an "over the top" examine and wrote me the prescription for the inhaler.

I went downstairs to the drug store and bought it.

So the cost?

Emergency house call: out of pocket 40 Euros ( 23 will be refunded by my French health care and the rest by our "private" insurance).

Medication: 5 Euros, fully covered. Out of pocket: zero.

My cost for French health coverage: about 400 Euros per Year.
Our cost for the "private" insurance: zero, part of Laura's job (if not they cost about 20 Euros a month)


Another case:

I had surgery for a hernia in December.

Five doctor visits, hospital, anesthesia, recovery, meds, and post op.

Total cost : Zero!


Having a baby:

Doctor visit (mandatory!) once a month
5 days post-birth hospital stay (private room)
In home check-ups (3) to make sure mom and baby are well
Lots of pre and post birth meds
etc etc

Total cost : Zero. In fact, you get about 600 euros when you are confirmed to be pregnant and then receive about 300 euros per month after the birth.

There are some things specific to talk about with your students and others. Hope that helps!

Best,
Joe


It sure does help, Joe. Thanks. The circumstances you describe are pretty much unthinkable in the U.S.

Even as the last few days have raised questions about whether it can happen, I remain committed to the idea of a public option insurance plan in the U.S. to compete with private insurers and end their current monopoly on health care coverage. Private health insurance options have not only proved no solution to the rising cost and declining standards of health coverage in the U.S., but are obviously the source of them.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Fiction in the latest Big Bridge


I continue to lack time to blog in detail about Versal Magazine from Amsterdam and the translocal, or about the importance of supporting a public option in the upcoming push for better health care in the U.S. (currently ranked an impressive 37th in the world!), or the California education crisis that’s making my work life extremely miserable even while I’m not yet teaching.

In the meantime I thought I’d point people here to the new issue of Big Bridge, #14. While some sections of Big Bridge (including significant features on Slow Poetry and the Post-Beat Anthology) are likely to get more attention, I wanted to highlight the fiction section of the magazine, edited by Vernon Frazer (who also edited the Post-Beat Anthology). There’s a lot of good contemporary poetry on the web, but fiction much less so. I think the presence of this feature, and Vernon’s work in putting it together, deserves some kudos.

Frazer has gathered work by some fine contemporary fiction writers (including a few who are good friends of mine): Mel Freilicher, Eric Beeny, Stefani Christova, Lynda Schor, David Madgalene, Stephen-Paul Martin, Susan Smith Nash, Andy Stewart, Richard Martin, Peter Conners, Ann Bogle, Jefferson Hansen, Carol Novack. Many of these writers share things in common with the concept of Submodern Fiction, which I wrote about in the three issues of the magazine I co-edited (along with K. Lorraine Graham) under that name. I posted on my blog awhile back the editorial I wrote for the first issue of Submodern Fiction.

My longtime friend Jeff Hansen, whose stories “Guardian” and "Venezuela, Africa" appear in the issue, has also just published a novel, ...and Beefheart Saved Craig, on Blaze Vox, which is well worth buying and reading. I know because I read it to write the blurb:

This book comes at readers from all angles, literally, with its energetic mix of innovative narrative, informed cultural criticism, and good old-fashioned character development about life among the drinking classes. Hansen’s absolutely contemporary questioning of individual identity spins out through a story about some ordinary and ornery people whose mundane lives are paradoxically compelling and often shocking. The characters are always thinking even if they don’t think they are, and the result is a novel in which boredom, pain, humor, and the unexpected swoop through the rubble of what everybody seems most sure about. In a way that keeps readers guessing right to the final word, ....and Beefheart saved Craig shows how philosophy and getting through the day are much more tangled up than so-called common sense often suggests.

Jeff’s novel is experimental and highly readable, theoretically sophisticated and down to earth. It’s about a group of people who are more lost than they know, and it’s about how physiology, psychology and large scale social dynamics powerfully affect people. ...and Beefheart Saved Craig can be bought at Blaze Vox, Small Press Distribution, or, if you must, Amazon.

And if you don't know Jeff's blog Experimental Fiction / Poetry / Jazz, you'll find there a wealth of reviews, interviews and other commentaries, done by him and other writers, that is a great source of information.

Lastly, I’m very glad of course that some fiction of my own appears in Big Bridge 14. It’s the first chapter of my novel The Quarry and The Lot, which Blaze Vox is planning to publish in early 2011. It’s a significant departure from much of my other fiction, the closest I’ve ever come to writing straightforward realism, although I also hope I’m playing some worthwhile games with the problem of narrative voice and perception. Among many things, the novel tries to provide a framework for understanding how American life changed in the 1980s and how it affected a group of people just reaching adulthood at that time. And I think it has more than a bit to say about what life in the American suburbs, especially the Washington DC suburbs, where I grew up, is like.

So if you want access to some worthwhile current fiction on the web, Big Bridge #14 is where I’d suggest that you look.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

from Dead Carnival: The Disjunctions and Conjunctions of the Fragments and Unities



Kenny Goldsmith’s typically provocative but also typically incorrect claim recently that “Disjunction is Dead,” and the intriguing follow up post and discussion on Nada Gordon’s blog, reminded me of the following section from my novel Dead Carnival.

The issue I take up in it has to do with the problems of fragmentation and unity both in fiction and in philosophy, of focus and distraction, argument and digression. But I think they resonate pretty closely with dynamics of disjunction and conjunction in poetry, synthesis and the rejected, and also even with recent discussions around the notion of the hybrid as something that either disrupts genres and traditions or unifies them. It also highlights the problem of what used to be called, back in the Golden Days of Theory, a binary opposition.

This section of the novel was probably written 10 or 15 years ago. It’s one of the many essay moments in a novel that includes essays, plays, poems, and multiple story lines. A hybrid monstrosity that connects and disconnects various genres (the essay here is a fairly good description of some aspects of the novel). I might now change one or two of the ways that I said things in the section (my conventional and questionable use of the metaphor of blindness now bugs me), but its ideas still ring true to me.


What does it mean to be distracted? What does it mean to digress?

Looking around, it's hard not to conclude that distraction is a bad thing. Perhaps more than ever, the supposedly civilized human mind exists in a constant state of distraction. It's practically impossible to focus on anything. At any given moment, there's something else waiting to grab your attention. It's not just a matter of entertainment, a question of what to do with free time, whether to watch movies, exercise, go out for dinner or drinks, take drugs, develop a hobby. It's that focus has become increasingly impossible even in the work one wants to do. We never seem allowed more than a little time to concentrate on anything. Now that jobs have become so unstable, how much more time do people spend thinking about what their next job will be? It's hard to focus today on the job you were hired for when you know you may need another tomorrow. Besides, it's hard to focus on things one needs to do on a job when those things always change too; here's the new computer system, the new rules and regulations, the new competition. And maybe we shouldn't even speak about those whose world is not so simply divided into jobs and entertainment. What can we say about those who think of their real work as something not a job, that can't be defined by wages and possibility for advancement, but by the chance for creation? What can we say about those who see entertainment, however entertaining at times, as simply a displacement of a more significant human value, which is play? How does one play anymore, if one means by play the chance to participate in games that might change who you and others are, whereas entertainment is simply the things you do in the time you have off from the work you don't want to do? How easy it is to be distracted from that creative work that is perhaps the same as creative play. You want to create, but your bank book is empty, or you have to go to dinner with someone you don't like. So creation will have to wait.

Looking around, it's hard not to conclude that distraction is a good thing. Perhaps more than ever, the human mind is constantly in a state of tunnel vision. I must organize my present, future, past. I must have goals I can clearly express to others. Anything that doesn’t fit the pattern, that can't be immediately centered around the goal at hand, must be rejected, denied, eliminated. If the need to function increasingly takes up all human time, then anything that lies outside that functionality gets perceived as being in the way. In such a situation, distraction becomes a necessary reminder that human life is about more than functioning. Distraction points out how much lies beyond the state of tunnel vision. Distraction reminds us that the things we're trying to forget might be the most interesting of all, it reminds us that some things can never be organized or unified in the name of the goal. Here I was trying to develop a new credit card, but somehow I find myself listening to music. Distraction reminds us that the urge to unify, to control the world in the name of what we intend, can never be the whole story, that it’s crucial to have one's mind wander, to recognize there are things one does not know, to understand that perhaps we are most alive when we are discovering, not when we are controlling.

Some thinkers will have it that all these distractions are leading to a world where people never take any significant action, because they are buffeted relentlessly by this and that. To these thinkers, human beings are becoming dangerously fragmented. These thinkers want a way to avoid fragmentation, so people can be returned to feelings of unity.

To other thinkers, the attempt to impose unity, to see everything in terms of the tunnel vision of the goal, has made the world unlivable. To these people, fragmentation is the savior of a world that has become too controlled. They want fragmentation to break down the illusion of unity.

It's hard not to see that both types of thinkers have a point. But I can't help believing that both of them also miss the point. Because the question seems like it can't be whether one is pro-unity or pro-fragment. Rather, the question seems when does unity help us, when does fragmentation help us? And the question seems also, isn't it true we will always have unity sometimes when it doesn't help, always have fragmentation sometimes when it doesn't help?

One can hardly be in favor of a world, for instance, in which someone's mind is bouncing from one thing to another so fast that they can't think, work, love, even tie their shoes. Similarly, one doesn't want to live in a world where people are so obsessed with their goals that they kill everything that doesn't fit the picture.

Perhaps we've all known people who digress because they have no idea what they're saying. Such people don't even know they don't know what they're saying; people who knew they didn't know what they were saying might be interesting to hear, because one could hear them discover what they're saying. But people who don't know what they're saying, and don't know they don't know it, are at best boring, and at worst deadly.

But perhaps we've also known people who seem so certain about what they're saying that they're not believable for an instant. Such people don't digress; they know, apparently, everything already, and all that remains is to tell us about it. But their certainty makes them blind, for whenever they come across something that doesn't fit with what they're sure they know, they can't see it. People who think they know everything, and who ignore anything that differs from what they know, are at best boring, and at worst deadly.

People who don't know they don't know what they're saying, and people who think they know everything they're saying, turn out often to be the same people.

What most interests me, here, is the idea of conscious digression. Conscious digression prevents any simple unity between things. It doesn't try to make the world add up to a new tunnel vision. But it is equally not the chaotic words of people who can’t help anyone because they're so busy being distracted they don't even know when someone is listening. Conscious digression suggests there are times when certain things might almost be unified, that, if no exact unity exists, similarities do, and those similarities matter. But it also suggests that one must not make too much of similarity; one must remember to digress precisely at that moment when it would be a mistake to tie up all loose ends.

A narrative of conscious digression would be one in which there is not one story but many, but those stories would be related. But it would also be a narrative in which the moment one tried to say it all added up, that everything was similarly headed in the same direction, one would find that the pieces didn’t fit, that some things could not be made to belong. Even when things did belong, they would not belong in order to tell one story with one meaning, but to say that many stories together might have many meanings. There might even be a central story, but it would not be the only story, nor would it be one that could exist without the others. And it would not be a story easily made complete.

Now that I'm thinking about all this, it reminds me of something else...

But I digress.