Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Readings in Europe

In Paris:

An end-of-the season special all-English language reading
with authors Mark Wallace & K. Lorraine Graham
Tuesday, July 7 7:30 p.m.
At : Le Next
17 rue Tiquetonne 75002 Paris
M̊ Etienne Marcel / RER Les Halles
Gratuit! Free!
(+infos sur le blog: http://ivywritersparis.blogspot.com/)

In Ghent:

Friday, July 10
K. Lorraine Graham and Mark Wallace
Galerie Link
Blekersdijk 39
9000 Gent
tel. +32 9 223 59 42
Hosted by: KRI KRI


Mark Wallace is the author of a number of books and chapbooks of poetry, fiction, and criticism. Temporary Worker Rides A Subway won the 2002 Gertrude Stein Poetry Award and was published by Green Integer Books. He is the author of a multi-genre work, Haze, and a novel, Dead Carnival. His critical articles and reviews have appeared in numerous publications, and along with Steven Marks, he edited Telling It Slant: Avant Garde Poetics of the 1990s (University of Alabama Press), a collection of 26 essays by different writers. Most recently he has published a collection of tales, Walking Dreams, and a book of poems, Felonies of Illusion.

K. Lorraine Graham is a writer and visual artist. Graham is the author of Terminal Humming (Edge Books, 2009), as well as the recording Moving Walkways (Narrowhouse Recordings, 2006) and numerous chapbooks, including And so for you there is no heartbreak (Dusie Kollektiv, 2008), Diverse Speculations Descending Therefrom (Dusie Kollektiv, 2007), See It Everywhere (Big Game Books, 2006), Terminal Humming (Slack Buddha Press, 2004), Dear [Blank] I Believe in Other Worlds (Phylum Press, 2003) and It Does Not Go Back (Subpoetics Self-Publish or Perish, 2002). Large Waves to Large Obstacles is forthcoming from Take Home Project. Other work has appeared or is forthcoming in reviews such as Traffic, Area Sneaks, and Foursquare.


Other events and readings may still be scheduled, so be on the lookout for updates.

Over the next few weeks, I’ll be checking e-mail only occasionally, but I’ll put through any comments when I can, and I'll be back in California in late July. In the meantime, I hope you enjoy the summer.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Terminal Humming

Terminal Humming
K. Lorraine Graham

ISBN: 978-1-890331-31-5

96 pgs, Cover by the author

regularly $16.00

$12 direct from Edge Books, postpaid.

Click here for an interview with the author at Elisa Gabbert's insightful and entertaining blog.

Click here for earlier versions of some of the work that now appears in Terminal Humming.

For reasons that should be obvious enough, I’m a big fan of this writer and this book. I think people should buy and read Terminal Humming, especially people interested in challenging new writing. It’s energetic, original, perceptive, sensitive, and tough. I’m going on the assumption that my praise of it will be taken as an obviously biased given, so I thought what I’d do instead was to bring up a few ideas that this book makes me think about.

I’ve finally concluded that there is indeed an approach to literature that might be called DC School, although it’s still a little difficult for me to describe all its features. It doesn’t highlight theory/poetics quite to the degree of language poetry, nor is it as closely wedded to style as New York School writing. It has a lot to do with the city of Washington, urban, international, informed, uptight, backwards, bourgeois. Where politics is a matter of daily life, an ordinary, all-too-human business, the thing people talk about so much it feels like you never want to hear about it again. It’s a city of riots, where rich and poor, white and non-white people mix uneasily. Where the best bars always close and the ones that survive always deeply suck but the poets go to them anyway. Where the city government is bankrupt and the other government is morally bankrupt.

Edge Books is, without doubt, the home base of DC experimental poetry, even as it also publishes writers from other places and contexts—Kevin Davies, Jennifer Moxley, Anselm Berrigan, Leslie Scalapino, Lyn Hejinian, Tom Raworth among them—some of whom share more in common with DC poetry than others. DC, on Edge Books or otherwise, and whether in the past or now, is particularly a central location for some of the most energetic and challenging women poets working today: Joan Retallack, Tina Darragh, Beth Baruch Joselow, Heather Fuller, Cathy Eisenhower, Leslie Bumstead, Jean Donnelly, Mel Nichols, to name only a few who live or have lived there and have certainly written with the idea of DC as a place.

Because I no longer live there, I think I can see more clearly some things that mark contemporary DC poetry, the experimental wing of it especially. A fractured, off-kilter lyricism, a concern with both the international and the daily, an almost pathologically anti-naive skepticism, a humor (whether deadpan or high-pitched) inseparable from the desire to strangle, an insistence on politics as constant fact, one with an often hyper-awareness of how language functions as part of its sense of the daily and full of a bitterly ironic recognition of how facts become the poker chips of diplomacy. Where diplomacy and the breakdown of diplomacy are essential metaphors, and taking sides is rarely more than the first and easiest move. Structurally, it’s probably a genuinely hybrid experimental poetry, one not recognized as such by any of the usual taxonomies and power players. Narrative and anti-narrative, documentary and anti-documentary, lyrical and splintered. It’s about buildings, corridors, faucets, loneliness and love and the stink of knowing that your major export may be death. It’s about how locality and displacement are part of the same larger global processes and there’s no home to hunker down in.

Somehow, the city whose experimental writing most resembles that of DC is Vancouver. Anybody who can explain that to me please step forward.

The first long sequence in Terminal Humming, “If This Isn’t An Interview I Don’t Know What to Say,” presents the world of DC international think thank politics and office life through the lense of a knowing but desperate alienation, the voice of a writer who can be neither an insider or an outsider to what’s going on but has to work there anyway.

Here’s a list of places, supplied by the author, where K. Lorraine Graham has lived: Carlsbad California, Washington DC, Harbin (Peoples Republic of China: PRC), Singapore, Beijing, Sedgwick Maine, Guangzhou PRC, Mexico City, New Zealand, Tabubil (Papua New Guinea), San Jose California, La Serena (Chile), somewhere in Minnesota she can longer name, Norfolk, VA.

The places where she’s worked—national and international political think tanks, corporate export companies, art schools, foreign language schools, and lots of others—would need an even longer list.

Terminal Humming is also about sexual longing and sexual violence and the often schizophrenic pathologies of gender. It’s about putting yourself out there, being on the make and being made. It’s about a young woman in a world where monitoring the exchange of high-powered international weapons is Happy Hour post-work boy talk that leads to awkward attempts at love, while every apartment building has its share of lunatics and drunks who feel that the whole world is watching.

I find the book funny and startling and nasty and more than a little creepy. At times, visually and because of what it says, it seems like it’s going to spin off the page. I also think it fits quite well with most of the definitions of the gurlesque that I’ve seen floating around. If this book is an indication, DC has as much room for female gothic as any Ann Radcliffe castle.

These are poems that bring back, for me, a time and place where I no longer live while at the same time they remain absolutely contemporary. I remember when I first heard some of them and who was there. I can’t go back to those times and places. They aren’t there. Quite a few of the people aren’t either. DC is a place where a lot of people leave, even those of us who are from there. I can’t read these poems without thinking about all that. You can though.

If you’ve seen K. Lorraine Graham’s work around, and more and more of it is getting around, you’ll be surprised to find how much of it isn’t in this book. But this long overdue first full-length collection doesn’t feel skimpy for those who already know her work and it’s a more than significant chunk of it for those who don’t.

There’s no reason to believe me about any of this, obviously. I’m sure you're more than capable of deciding whether you want to find out for yourself.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Les Figures Blog Mini-Portraits of Writers

It shows how much I've not been paying attention lately to the world of blogs that I'm just now discovering that the Les Figues blog has been recently publishing weekly "mini-portraits" of writers.

The writers they've covered so far include many personal favorites of mine, people whose work certainly deserves attention, including Renee Gladman, Renee Angle, Robert Mittenthal, David Abel, and Maryrose Larkin.

Well-worth checking out, so I hope you will.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Stan Apps on the Flarf/Conceptual Issue of Poetry Magazine

I find Stan Apps' take on the very odd latest issue of Poetry Magazine intriguing.

Competence and incompetence, refinement and vulgarity are only a few of the concepts that Stan believes are called into question by this certainly one-of-a-kind issue.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Are Men Allowed To Write Blog Posts Like This?

I’ve had almost a month now of time for my own reading and writing, without teaching, and it has been a pleasant experience, if difficult at times. Except for the occasional e-mail exchange, I’ve been avoiding social involvements and instead taking some time to try to understand myself and my own writing in a way I often can’t when I’m busy. And I haven’t been thinking much about my blog either. Amazing though how much suddenly having time to write makes it easy to want to fill one’s life with meaningless clutter. Still, I’ve spent every morning writing and exercising, and every afternoon reading and writing and going for a walk, then in the evening watching a film or listening to music.

It’s strange to live in the state of California, where the government makes such bad decisions, many of them based on panicky responses to their bad decisions of the past. Maryland didn’t do that sort of thing. DC did, but for the most part the government of DC didn’t have enough power to really screw over most of its citizens. California, however, is better at that. Right now, the depression and financial crisis we have is an excellent example of what happens to a state when it gives all its money away to corporations, essentially with very little payback or oversight. Because corporations can “choose their own tax plans,” they pay almost no taxes and take the money in and out of the state as they please, and the state has no money. And all of it doesn’t benefit anybody other than a few ultra-wealthy people who maybe don’t even live in California. Does anybody in California really still believe that corporations create a lot of jobs? Maybe so, but that doesn’t make it true.

I have been a fan of the TV soap opera The Young and The Restless for 25 years. It’s on when I’m at home and eating lunch. Sometimes I don’t watch the show for several months, but more often I manage to watch it about once a week. Lately it coincides perfectly with my post-exercise lunch break. What do I like about it? All the characters are ultimately ambiguous, capable of generous and selfish acts by turns. Also, they’re all so messed up all the time that it’s a lovely lesson in the messed-up, waste of time lives of the American wealthy. Immature, deluded, vicious. Even the frequent homilies to family life and love and children, which I can’t really stand, are undercut by people’s actual behavior. Whatever they say, they don’t take care of their children and they don’t love anyone but themselves, and their corporations are mainly just a way of trying to take revenge on each other.

Why is it that many blogs written by women discuss a number of issues in each post, but that there are almost no blogs by men that do that? Blogs by men tend to focus only on a single issue with each post. Some women focus only on one issue per post, and others do it differently, but male blogs almost uniformly discuss only one issue per post, unless of course they’re doing a round-up of recent magazines or readings or something like that, and even then the round-up tends to focus on one main issue. Ryan Walker’s blog is an exception, except that it’s possible also to say that all his blog posts are about the same thing.

It doesn’t seem like anybody has much idea yet what’s going to come of the massive Iranian protests. Overturning the election seems unlikely without even more revolutionary change, and while that’s definitely needed, how likely is it? Are a lot of people going to die before this situation is resolved? A few already have. The situation is still changing as of this minute, obviously, and some election results are being reconsidered.

The most interesting music I’ve been listening to recently is the 2005 CD The Eleventh Hour by the Evan Parker Electro-Acoustic Ensemble. With his continuous breathing techniques, Parker has long been one of the strangest and most original musicians currently performing, and the range of odd sounds the ensemble makes here create a series of fascinating textures unlike anything I’ve heard. They do have some similarity to Parker textures on other releases but this CD pulls them almost into big band like arrangements. I’ve also been listening to a fair amount of blues and country and alt.countrypop (thumbs up for the best cuts on the somewhat uneven sun kil moon sampler ) as well as to the live 2004 Iggy and the Stooges CD Telleuric Chaos, which is really energetic and also sloppy in a great way (with only a little toneless hard rock thud), making their recent studio release The Weirdness sound even worse.

A lot of my reading this summer has been critical books on the history of science fiction and some key science fiction texts, along with poetry and much else of course. I may be teaching a science fiction course in the next year or two. Oddly maybe, I had never heard of Alfred Bester until this summer. I still think I might like science fiction less than either horror fiction or detective fiction, while at the same time, the greatest books in science fiction are certainly more profound than those of detective fiction. I find sci-fi most interesting when it includes a psychological component in thinking about science and alternative societies. I’ve really loved the Ursula LeGuin work I’ve read so far. I’m teaching her book of stories The Birthday of The World this fall, and actually I’m a little worried that it’s too sexually explicit for some of my California students. Imagine: I’m living in a place where Ursula LeGuin might just be too blunt.

The city is still perhaps best defined by the concept of the stranger. In cities, frequently encountering those you do not know is inevitable and part of what many residents are seeking. The stranger is a direct function of circulation. In contrast, the suburbs seem defined by the desire not to know anyone you don’t want to know and having no more than brief contact with them.

The kinds of loneliness that the city and suburbs create are therefore very different.

I just played Van Morrison’s song “Evening In June” last night for the first time this month. It’s from his album How Long Has This Been Going On and it’s a song that creates such a perfect longing for June that I usually play it frequently every June so I can feel like it’s June while it is June. Yes, I need a song for that. Know what I’m saying? Every day I’ve been telling myself I wanted to play that song yet by the end of the day I still hadn’t played it. But last night I finally did.

Just watched 1967's In Cold Blood for the first time ever on Sunday and on Monday watched Capote, which I had also not seen. In Cold Blood may be the book that gave me the most powerful emotional reaction I’d ever had from a book when I read it 25 years ago: revulsion and fascination and a big headache. I still remember much of the book and have never wanted to read it again. The movie was grim and compelling but didn’t stun me as much, perhaps because in the movie the characters of the murdered Clutter family were not as developed as they were in the book. Extra real-life painful twist; the actor who played neurotic murderer Perry Smith so effectively is of course Robert Blake, who was found not guilty after a long trial of the 2001 murder of his wife. Blake was later found guilty in a civil suit and ordered to pay $15 million to his wife’s three children. Almost everything connected to this book is horrifying.

Speaking of which, Capote was an intriguing examination of Truman Capote’s character and the kinds of manipulation he used to get information for the novel, an effort which ended up having genuinely destructive effects not only on the people who were the subject of the book but on him as well. Still, Capote was another example of the only kind of movie about artists that Hollywood seems capable of making, with rare exceptions: that of the tortured genius who looks into the heart of darkness and transmits it to us while being destroyed by it. I really get tired of that.

Yes, creative writing can be taught. And a lot of poetics debates circle the same ground over and over again with no new insight.

I’m flying to Paris July 1.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Talking the Sherlock Holmes-General George A. Custer Blues (conclusion)

Talking the Sherlock Holmes-General George A. Custer Blues

(AKA Women and Indians at the Limits of Induction)

Part Three (Conclusion)

(Parts one and two can be found at the blog posts on June 3 and June 7)

It might seem therefore that the Sherlock Holmes-General George A. Custer blues all adds up to one lesson: letting cultural stereotypes stand in the way of careful inductive reasoning is a mistake, sometimes a fatal one.

It turns out that the lesson isn’t that simple.

In fact Custer’s thinking about Indians was in many ways not one-dimensional. Politically, Custer opposed Grant’s policies of 1876 requiring the Lakotas and Cheyennes to report to reservations or be attacked. Custer testified on behalf of the idea that Indians were being abused on the reservations and that the policy was unfair, a political stand that further earned Grant’s enmity and nearly cost Custer the chance to die at the Little Big Horn. He was, that is, a fairly thoughtful observer of Indian life on reservations. He could see that reservation life was exploitative and awful, and he was willing to say so publicly in a way that risked his military career.

It was just that as a man finally most devoted to making a name for himself through the military, one used to acting under orders even if he didn’t agree with them, Custer was willing to fight the Indians if that’s what the military required. In fact he was eager to do so because he believed it would improve his public image, the thing which to him mattered most.

It’s possible to be a careful inductive reasoner who sees through the ideologies and stereotypes of others and still be full of your own unexamined stereotypes.

The case of Holmes, and Doyle who created him, is maybe even more complex, yet it too reveals a similar problem.

In “A Scandal in Bohemia,” it’s important to note that Holmes, referring to Irene Adler as “the woman,” defines her as unique. Her existence disproves Holmes’ theories about women and even shows her to be a superior inductive thinker. Yet there is no indication that Holmes believes she is one of many such women. As the exception that disproves the rule, she is also the exception that proves that the rule remains true in most cases. It’s crucial to remember that in the story, even she behaves as Holmes expects women to do. What Holmes misses is that she herself realizes that she has been caught acting as women do, and can respond by not acting that way. This realization and response leads to her success. She still behaves like a woman but is capable of rising above it when the situation demands.

Holmes, of course, is a fictional character who may not may not reflect the attitudes of the author. Given the lesson Holmes learns in “A Scandal In Bohemia,” it’s fair to say that Doyle’s attitude was not that of Holmes. And in fact the Holmes stories are full of brave, tough, intelligent, steadfast women of firm moral convictions, women who under the laws of England often find themselves at the mercy of corrupt, mercenary men but who are willing to fight back for their own liberty and lives as well as for those they love.

Of course the stories also feature women who are dangerous villains, or who are weak, cowardly, stupid or vacillating. Women are hardly idolized in the Holmes stories.

Still, by all accounts Doyle seems to have greatly admired and respected women.

Doyle was also, later in life, firmly opposed to the idea that the women he so admired should have the right to vote. In an interview of his daughter Dame Jean Conan Doyle, she suggests about her father’s often discussed attitudes towards women that Doyle believed that the division of men and women into public and domestic spheres was proper, that women should have political power but only by exercising good influences upon their husbands.

Like many Victorian men, that is, Doyle believed both in admiring women and that their proper place was the home. Dame Doyle also suggests that her father was appalled by what he considered the lengths to which the woman’s suffrage movement had gone, and particularly deplored any incidents of violence with which it was associated. In fact in some Holmes stories the women’s suffrage movement appears as another of the many dangerous political conspiracies that he personally abhorred and that made for exciting fiction: the Mormons, the Italian Mafia, and Russian Communists primarily.

And while Doyle’s portrayal of women is complex, his portrayal of cultural others is full of the standard stereotypes common in British culture of the era. Members of other cultures are frequently portrayed as passionate, vengeful, duplicitous and scheming, although some are portrayed as passionate, loving, and honest in their scheming.

It turns out, that is, that it’s possible to believe in the value of inductive reasoning and the authority of data, to reject stereotypes and write a story showing the problems of the limits of stereotypes, and even to understand how induction is often limited by ideology, and still be deeply committed to common ideological limitations and stereotypes from a given era. It’s possible to criticize stereotypes and simultaneously believe in or at least frequently portray stereotypes as the truth about people’s behavior.

It’s possible, that is, to write a literature and live a life in the belief that inductive thinking can critique ideology, and is a way of getting beyond ideology, and even to know how often inductive thinking is mired in ideology, while still revealing that ideology—that complicated nexus of beliefs, some articulated, some not, some individual, some group-oriented and historical—remains far more powerful than we know in shaping how we see the world.

One conclusion here could be that inductive reasoning needs to be even more cautious and thorough, that it needs to be more relentless than ever in its dismantling of pre-determined beliefs and ideologies and theories. In so doing, it could enable us to live a life free of ideological bias, a claim, it seems, that a number of our own contemporary poets and critics are making.

But the other conclusion is that this previous conclusion is a fantasy, an ideological limitation masquerading as its opposite. In this view, a rational induction-based pragmatism can never free itself entirely of other kinds of ideological baggage. There’s no value free, neutral objectivity to be had even when one is a careful inductionist. Further, pragmatic inductionism cannot get beyond ideology because it is itself an ideology, one full of its own beliefs and methodologies based on those beliefs.

The problem with Holmes’ statement that one should never theorize without facts and therefore avoid all bias in theorizing is that the idea of being able to do so is not only already a theory, but probably also a fantasy. Inductive reading of the facts suggests that the likelihood of maintaining such a point of view in a person’s actual behavior is microscopically slim at best.

A good inductive reasoner should never believe in something that can be shown inductively to be a fantasy.

Still, the notion of a radically pure pragmatic inductionism is a theory which despite its limitations has worthwhile applications. As “A Scandal In Bohemia” shows, insisting on a pragmatic examination of our beliefs is profoundly necessary. But denying that we have values because we believe only in practicality is a conclusion that induction itself cannot support.

That said, what this story of Holmes and Doyle and Custer and induction finally shows is not simply the old point (though still necessary, it seems, given many recent discussions of poetry) that it’s impossible to escape ideology. It’s not simply that pragmatic method and an understanding of how ideology functions are useful counterbalances, in that pragmatic method can sometimes successfully critique ideology and that understanding the power of ideology can provide a useful critique of pragmatism. In fact, it shows that we can know all this and still not understand the ways in which ideology is shaping our thinking. An understanding of how ideology functions is not the same as understanding our own ideological investments.

As it turns out, what Holmes and Doyle and Custer also show us is that the ideology whose limits we may be least likely to recognize is our own.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Women and Indians at the Limits of Induction (Part Two)

Talking the Sherlock Holmes-General George A. Custer Blues

(AKA Women and Indians at the Limits of Induction)

Part Two (Part One can be found on the blog post for Wednesday, June 3)

In “A Scandal in Bohemia,” the story opens with Watson discussing the admiration Holmes has for one particular woman, Irene Adler, in contrast to Holmes’ often generally dismissive view of women.

Holmes, in this story, is going to be defeated by Irene Adler, precisely because his view of women clouds his inductive capacity when he encounters a woman whose inductive and other skills are at least as great as his own.

At a key moment in the story, Holmes bases his attempts to retrieve a photograph from Adler on his stereotyped conception of women’s behavior. As he explains to Watson, “ When a woman thinks that her house is on fire, her instinct is at once to rush to the thing which she values most. It is a perfectly overpowering impulse, and I have more than once taken advantage of it. In the case of the Darlington substitution scandal it was of use to me, and also in the Arnsworth Castle business. A married woman grabs at her baby; an unmarried one reaches for her jewel-box. Now it was clear to me that our lady of to-day had nothing in the house more precious to her than what we are in quest of. She would rush to secure it. The alarm of fire was admirably done. The smoke and shouting were enough to shake nerves of steel. She responded beautifully. The photograph is in a recess behind a sliding panel just above the right bell-pull. She was there in an instant, and I caught a glimpse of it as she half-drew it out.”

It’s important to understand that Holmes’ generalization about women in this instance does lead to temporary success. Adler acts as Holmes suggests women do by definition. Holmes manages to witness all this because he has disguised himself as a clergyman who came to Adler’s aid and was wounded when her carriage was surrounded by street toughs (themselves actually also acting on Holmes’ orders). She brings him into her house to help him.

Holmes’ mistake is that, while watching her behavior, he is unaware that she is watching his just as capably. After the incident, Adler realizes that Holmes has figured out her secret, and she succeeds in escaping him.

Not only is Adler as capable an inductionist as Holmes, she is also equally adept at another of Holmes’ key methods for solving crimes: acting ability. Adler disguises herself as a man, a “slim youth” as Watson describes her, in order to follow Holmes and find out what he’s doing. In a letter to Holmes that he receives after her escape she notes: “But, you know, I have been trained as an actress myself. Male costume is nothing new to me. I often take advantage of the freedom which it gives.”

Holmes is defeated by a woman with the capability of disguising herself as a man. A woman who has all the talents he has, with one great advantage over him. She does not underestimate her opponent, as he has, based on stereotypes of gender. As she implies in her letter, gender is less a condition of biological fact and limitation than one of costume and performance. She defeats Holmes because she understands gender better than he does.

Holmes’ astonishment at her ability and her defeat of him genuinely leads him to rethink his attitude towards women. Watson concludes the story by noting, “And that was how a great scandal threatened to affect the kingdom of Bohemia, and how the best plans of Mr. Sherlock Holmes were beaten by a woman's wit. He used to make merry over the cleverness of women, but I have not heard him do it of late. And when he speaks of Irene Adler, or when he refers to her photograph, it is always under the honourable title of the woman.”

Custer encountered a similar problem to Holmes, a moment when his inductive abilities were undone at least partly by stereotyping an opponent. His mistake took place in the real world and the consequences were much worse, leading to his own death and that of more than 200 of his men.

Up to the day of his death at the Battle of the Little Bighorn, Custer’s role in the Indian Wars had been complicated and troubled by some of his behavior and by political difficulties. He was suspended from command for a year after being accused of going AWOL to visit his wife. After the end of the Civil War, Custer had supported the policies of President Andrew Johnson, earning him the longtime enmity of the General who soon became President, Ulysses Grant. In Washington DC, Custer was at a one point accused of perjury. It was only by begging Brigadier General Alfred Terry for reinstatement that Custer was allowed to lead the 7th Cavalry to the Battle of the Little Big Horn. In fact some people have suggested that Custer’s desire to regain his command, his image, and freedom from Terry’s patronage contributed to his reckless approach on that particular day.

There was however at least one other key difference that contributed to his fate. Custer did not think of the Lakota Sioux and Cheyenne warriors he was facing in the same way he thought of the Confederate Troops he had faced during the Civil War. Perhaps because of bravado, but more so probably because he really did believe it, Custer claimed that he could "could whip any Indian village on the Plains" with the 7th Cavalry. He even turned down an offer from General Terry for an additional four companies from the 2nd Calvary. Custer believed he didn’t need those troops because he was only fighting Indians.

Custer was less thoughtful about his inductions in this particular war context. He allowed his ideological convictions about Indians to overcome his usual reasoning. If he had been facing an army of white men, he likely would have behaved differently.

It might seem therefore that the Sherlock Holmes-General George A. Custer blues all adds up to one lesson: letting cultural stereotypes stand in the way of careful inductive reasoning is a mistake, sometimes a fatal one.

It turns out that the lesson isn’t that simple.

(End of Part Two)

Friday, June 5, 2009

Ryan Walker on Felonies of Illusion

My long-time Washington DC poetry compatriot Ryan Walker (pictured above reading at the DC Arts Center) says the following about my latest book Felonies of Illusion on a recent blog entry:

I have some poetry juices lately for reading and maybe a little for writing, eh? I like mark’s book. it is one of about 5 poetry books that I’ve looked at this year. felonies of illusion. hi mark. it is a strange book because… of its persistence and there is a machine-like craziness to it. frankenstein. it reads like a book that maybe a human started but then it started going of its own. it’s a long poetry book. there’s a brutality, methinks, to how it persists in a uniform (kinda) way. when I reed it, sometimes it occurs to me that the author maybe was not aware of that quality of persistence even tho to me that quality is hard to miss… for anyone except, possibly, the author, I imagine, for some reason. brutal machine-like persistence.

I like Ryan's take and continue to be fascinated by the differing kinds of reactions and non-reactions I've received for the book. Certainly I've long loved both Frankenstein and his monster. I think it's right to talk about the inhuman and the brutal in much of my writing. As for persistence, what else have I got? The world stuffed most of my imagination a long time ago.

If you don't know it, Ryan's blog is one of the most unique blogs around. A relentless persistence in exploring his own inner processes and their relation to the outside world is how I would describe what he does. It's not really a poetry blog as such although he often discusses poetry. But he often discusses everything that might very well be on his mind or that just turns out to be on his mind when he starts writing. It's interesting that Ryan and I both have persistence but of completely different kinds.

Thanks, Ryan.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Talking the Sherlock Holmes-General George A. Custer Blues (Part One)

Talking the Sherlock Holmes-General George A. Custer Blues

(AKA Women and Indians at the Limits of Induction)

Part One

In the story “A Scandal In Bohemia,” Sherlock Holmes tells his friend Watson, “You have not observed. And yet you have seen.” According to Holmes, while Watson is surrounded by the same sense data as Holmes, he does not register and process the details. Watson, unlike Holmes, is insufficiently attuned to his own senses and the data obtainable from it.

Holmes’ great attention to sense data is one of his key detecting skills and is displayed at the beginning of most Holmes stories. In a common opening to the stories, he notices people’s physical features, expressions, clothing and possessions and draws many inferences about those people based on what he notices. He is similarly observant about all aspects of material reality and uses his observations of them throughout the stories to determine how crimes have been committed and who committed them.

Although the Holmes stories speak of this process as deduction, in fact it’s an act of induction: Holmes reaches likely conclusions based on his prior observations.

As he also tells Watson in that same story, "I have no data yet. It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data. Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts.” Holmes only theorizes when the data is sufficient to support his ideas. Although he acknowledges that error is possible in drawing conclusions, the conclusions he draws are nonetheless based only on facts, never on pre-defined suppositions or ideologies. Given a small margin for error, his conclusions are therefore themselves almost always facts as well. One might say that—in theory—Holmes never theorizes. Instead he moves from one clue to another until he can draw a correct conclusion.

After graduating last in his class of 34 cadets from the U.S. military academy in 1861, George Armstrong Custer would almost certainly have played no major role in U.S. history had the Civil War not just broken out, leading to a need for officers, even those who had performed in school as pathetically as class clown Custer had.

Once in active service, however, Custer distinguished himself quickly. He first made a name for himself in the Peninsula Campaign of 1862 after overhearing General Barnard say, in considering how to cross the Chickhamony River, “I wish I knew how deep it is.” Custer astonished everyone by riding his horse right into the river. “That’s how deep it is, General,” he is reported to have said from atop his horse mid-river. He was soon thereafter allowed to lead an attack across the river.

It was this moment of reckless induction that first gained attention for Custer and defined the key characteristic of his military career. As Evan Connell pointed out in his account Son of the Morning Star, Custer made his military fame through one battle tactic only. In battle, Custer charged. Yet as others have pointed out, the charges he led were always meticulously and inductively planned. Custer always studied details of the battlefield and enemy closely before deciding whether a charge was possible, and if so, where would be best to charge.

But make no mistake: Custer was committed to charging. Despite the fact that his flamboyant, foppish dress (he preferred cinnamon-scented hair oil that made his long blond hair sparkle as it hung down in ringlets below his hat) often alienated soldiers under his command, he won them over by his willingness to stand at the front of the charges he led, instead of lurking behind the troops as other military leaders often did. Custer managed to succeed repeatedly with his capable battlefield inductions and thoughtfully reckless charges. Careful inductionist that he was, however, he acknowledged that his success and survival were in some ways a matter of luck.

Both Holmes and Custer, in their entirely different and obsessive ways, are pragmatic inductionists.

One key difference, among many, between these men is that Holmes, as a fictional character, never had to put his methods to the test in the real world. Not so for Custer, unfortunately.

It’s incorrect, however, to think of Holmes as a superhero detective who solves every case and makes no mistakes and has no weaknesses. Along with the emotional torment he goes through when lacking an engaging case, Holmes turns out despite his belief in facts to have his biases and ideological pre-suppositions.

Perhaps his key bias is against women. In fact, the story “A Scandal In Bohemia” is designed for Arthur Conan Doyle to teach both Holmes and his readers a key lesson: generalized biases against others, stereotyping and dismissing their abilities based on considering them part of a general category of human beings, is an error. And it’s an error that careful attention to the principles of induction can correct.

In “Scandal,” the story opens with Watson discussing the admiration Holmes has for one particular woman, Irene Adler, in contrast to Holmes’ often generally dismissive view of women.

Holmes, in this story, is going to be defeated by Irene Adler, precisely because his view of women clouds his inductive capacity when he encounters a woman whose inductive and other skills are at least as great as his own.

(End of Part One)