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 scĂ©ne, 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!


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.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

PRESS: A Cross-Cultural Literary Anthology

PRESS: A Cross-Cultural Literary Anthology, is now online as the current issue of Wheelhouse Magazine Online. It commemorates the PRESS: Activism and the Avant-Garde conference that I was part of at Evergreen College in Olympia, Washington, in May 2008, and features work by many of the great writers invited to that event.

My own work in the anthology is not the fairly long poem I read at the conference, a piece from The End of America, Book 2, which was certainly more directly related to the concerns of the event. But the anthology does contain several pieces from my collection Party In My Body, which as of yet has never appeared as a book.

Great thanks to David Wolach and Elizabeth Williamson for their hard work on the conference, and to all the other students and professors who participated in ensuring that the conference was fascinating and worthwhile for all involved.