Tuesday, March 30, 2010

“Against Unity,” for the AWP Hybrid Aesthetics and Its Discontents Panel

The paper I’ll be giving next week, at AWP, “Against Unity,” is too long for the time allotted, so I’ll be reading only (hopefully well-chosen) portions. I’m going to have to cut most of the introductory paragraphs, so I thought I’d post the opening of the paper here, since people at the conference will not be hearing most of this part. I may post the rest of the essay later, after I get back from Denver.


“And the followers of Namirrha were the dead of strange kingdoms, the demons of sky and earth and the abyss, and the mad, impious, hybrid things that the sorcerer himself created from forbidden unions.”

Clark Ashton Smith, “The Dark Eidolon”

In one of his many overwrought, Modernist art deco (and finally morally conventional) horror fantasies, “The Dark Eidolon,” Clark Ashton Smith, a compatriot of H.P. Lovecraft, describes a notion of the hybrid helpful for thinking about the term in contemporary poetics. Smith’s definition provides a worthwhile vantage point for considering the shortcomings of hybrid literature as it has been defined in The American Hybrid anthology as well as in a related series of anthologies and terminologies, including Lyrical Postmodernisms, The Iowa Anthology of New Poetries and the notion of “third way poetics.”

Hybrid things, in Smith’s formulation, are the opposite of pious ones. The deformed births of taboo sexual contact, these hybrids were never supposed to exist, although the issue of who supposes so is crucial. The host of hybrids that should not be, but are, are linked not simply to what has existed and been forgotten but to what has been rightly forgotten by all right-thinking people.

Smith was primarily a playfully grim aesthete. Anyone who knows anything about Lovecraft however, who was perhaps the most important writer to publish in Weird Tales in the 20s and 30s, knows that for Lovecraft the essential impure hybrid was racial miscegenation. Yet Lovecraft’s virulent racism masks an even deeper fear of any sexual contact whatsoever. In Lovecraft’s fiction, almost all sexual unions seem forbidden. It’s not so much that some creatures shouldn’t touch but that touching itself is disgusting.

In this context, the hybrid rejects the belief that something is best when unified in and of itself, untouched (that is, uncorrupted) by things outside it. The value of the untouched thing remains an assumed good in many contemporary discourses, including political, cultural and literary ones. Any use of the word “object” for instance is usually marked by singularity: an object holds together, is distinct. Artistic objects have often been discussed in terms of their structural or thematic unity. The same is true for concepts of tradition, school, or movement: if those are distinguished by similarity rather than untouched purity, they are still marked by a unity that defines itself through what it rejects. A tradition whose values have changed beyond recognition is no longer a tradition. A school that has no unity, whether of theme or technique, is simply not a school. Denying that your particular group of similarly-inclined artists has anything in common is the same as denying that they even are a group.

In literature, the hybrid distorts the normal unifying marks of many literary concepts. Genre, technique, tradition, the identifying marks of a movement or school: in the hybrid, all these things are subject to mismatching and deformation. Yet in many recent poetry anthologies, a seeming belief in the hybrid’s impure multiplicity ends up being used as a way of reinforcing a pure singularity. Belief in unity seems to hang on tenaciously even when invoking a hybridity that on the surface seems meant to displace it. Like too many readings of Lovecraft, we can be too quick to celebrate that we are not racists while simultaneously remaining unaware of how many ways we continue to live with the fear of being touched.

Perhaps no concept better represents confusion between desire for the multiple and for the pure singular as the political notion of The People. Is it singular or plural? Of course the word means more than one person. Add a definite article though and the phrase, “The People” is also singular, one of those tricky group entity singular nouns. When “The people speak with one voice,” as during the French Revolution when the concept of The People was a highly efficient tool for killing people, are they many or are they one?

The literary question is, how has the tension between the singular and the plural, the pure and impure, people and The People, the solid object and the melted one, the traditional and anti-traditional, the (singular and multiple) school or group and the (also singular and sometimes multiple) individual writer manifested itself in recent poetics discussions about the value of hybridity? And how much of the problem depends on the definition of hybridity that one works with?

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Bug Man outtakes (sleeplessness scene completed)

Continued from here.

“You need,” the bug said, “to take action.”

“Such as?” Richard said.

“You could kill somebody.”

Richard groaned like he’d been punched in the stomach. “Oh God. I really am dangerous, and not just to myself.”

“I’m not urging,” the bug said. “I’m just saying consider it. There are other options. Rearrange your patterns. Quit your job and move to some dead end desert spot like Tucson. At the very least, tell people what you think. Or hang around with different friends. Take a risk, that’s all. It doesn’t matter what. The point is, Rich,” the bug suddenly surged with movement, legs kicking wildly, the things that might be wings almost unfolding,” the point is a kind of metamorphosis.”

“The point seems to be that my subconscious is taking me down with stupid literary allusions.”

“I’m using your language, Rich. Dumb puns are how you think.”

“So you’re saying I should turn into a bug and move to Tucson.”

“It’s an option.”

“And I should take this idea up because you’re precisely the bug my mind has created in order to solve my problems?”

“Not quite. You haven’t created me. I already existed. But you certainly need me. It’s difficult to explain.”


“Okay. But it’s not going to make things easier. I don’t need you, Rich, you need me. There are lots of us. We’ve invaded.”

“Who’s invaded? What have they invaded?”

“We’ve invaded your world. All of us. We’re everywhere, only you haven’t learned to see us yet. I mean, you have, but most other people, no.”

“Who do you mean by we? Other bugs like yourself?”

“Bugs are everywhere,” the bug said.

“What are you talking about?” Richard said. “A bug invasion is taking over the world?”

“No,” the bug said. “I knew this wouldn’t be easy. If it was a human invasion, humans would take over. That’s how humans do things. But that’s not how I do them. I’m not human.”

“What do you do then?”

“I co-exist, Rich. Isn’t that the whole point of this conversation? I’ve been co-existing with you ever since we started talking. That’s the metamorphosis. The old Rich just existed and was losing out fast. The new Rich will have to co-exist. It’s the only way. It’s up to you of course. It’s not my nature to force you.”

“So,” Richard said. “Either I’ve had a psychotic break and think I’m talking to a bug, or else I’m talking to a bug that really exists. Or, sorry, a bug that co-exists, and in this case with me. In other words I’m talking to a bug who knows at least as much about me as I do and probably more. And I suppose it’s up to me to decide what to believe?”

“That’s right. As I said, it’s not my nature to make you do anything. I can’t even make you able to do it. All I can provide is input. So you can get stubborn and middle class and insist that you need a hospital and hardcore medication. Or else you can admit that you’ve suddenly found yourself in a universe that’s entirely transformed.”

Richard leaned forward, put his elbows on his knees. The sour sogginess of an evening of beer still sat heavily on his stomach, and his throat was dry. “What’s going to happen to me?”

“I wish I could tell you,” the bug said. “I can’t see the future any more than you can. I’m not a fortune teller. Still, I can say this much. If you need me, I’ll be around. It’s essential to my motivation.”

“That’s, uh, kind of you,” Richard said.

“My pleasure,” said the bug.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Beyond Baroque Presents Rod Smith, Mel Nichols, K. Lorraine Graham, and Mark Wallace: Saturday March 13

I'm very happy to be part of this hometown Washington, D.C. lineup that will be reading in Los Angeles on Saturday night. Now that Lorraine and I live in southern California (the very deep south of California, that is), we get up to L.A. more often. But west coast sightings of our longtime friends Mel Nichols and Rod Smith are much more rare, so if you're anywhere nearby, I hope you'll come out and join us.


Beyond Baroque Literary Center presents Rod Smith, Mel Nichols, K. Lorraine Graham, and Mark Wallace

Rod Smith is the author of Deed, Music or Honesty, Poèmes de l'araignée (France), The Good House, Protective Immediacy, and In Memory of My Theories. A CD of his readings, Fear the Sky, came out from Narrow House Recordings in 2005. He is editor/publisher of Edge Books which has established an international reputation for publishing the finest in innovative writing. Smith is also editing, with Peter Baker and Kaplan Harris, The Selected Letters of Robert Creeley, for the University of California Press. Smith is a Visiting Professor in Poetry at the Iowa Writers' Workshop for the Spring 2010 semester.

Mel Nichols is the author of Catalytic Exteriorization Phenomenon (National Poetry Series finalist), Bicycle Day (Slack Buddha 2008), The Beginning of Beauty, Part 1: hottest new ringtones, mnichol6 (Edge 2007), and Day Poems (Edge 2005). Other recent work can be found in Poetry, New Ohio Review, and The Brooklyn Rail. She teaches at George Mason University.

K. Lorraine Graham is a writer and artist. She is the author of Terminal Humming (Edge Books, 2009) and several chapbooks, including Large Waves to Large Obstacles, forthcoming from Take-Home Project. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Traffic, Area Sneaks, Foursquare and elsewhere. She currently lives with her partner, Mark Wallace, and Lester Young, a pacific parrotlet. You can find her online at spooksbyme.org.

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.

Beyond Baroque
681 Venice Blvd.
Venice, California 90291
Phone 310-822-3006

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

March 4 Teach In/ Rally at CSU San Marcos

CSUSM March 4th Teach-in/Rally

Classes too large, tuition hikes, jobs at risk, poor course selections, reduced services -- what's next?


Come to a teach-in and discussion addressing these and many other questions about California's plan for higher education, and the difficulties facing the CSU during this budget crisis and beyond. Four distinguished faculty members will start the discussion, and then will answer your questions.

When: March 4, 2010, 10:30-11:45

Where: ACD 102, streaming live in UH 100 and in many classes, simulcast and discussion participation from www2.csusm.edu/cfa/.


After the teach-in, join us for a rally in Library Plaza (noon - 1 PM) in support of publicly-funded higher education!


Although more attention has gone to the University of California system, the California State University system is under similar pressures and in many ways worse ones, with overly large classes, overworked and underpaid faculty and staff, and a lack of basic resources. As just one example, in recent faculty meetings in my department we have been discussing removing the phones from our offices because we simply may not be able to afford them. I hope you will join us in a day of meetings and solidarity with UC and CSU colleagues and students to protest worsening conditions for public education in California.

The CSU system serves many financially-disadvantaged students or students who for many reasons need to go to college in the area where they live. But with repeated tuition and fee hikes, as well as artificial caps that limit the students who can attend to a smaller number than the students whose record should allow them to attend, the CSU system is getting increasingly blocked from meeting the needs of students in California. Instead of grades being a guidepost to who should enter college, simply having enough money has now often become the more crucial criteria in California of who can attend college, and that’s a situation which needs to change.

A state that cannot afford to educate its children is a state whose financial (not to mention intellectual) future is in serious danger.

Whether you live in California or not, I hope you will support the faculty, students, and staff at various University of California and California State University campuses in their goal of maintaining affordable, accessible, and quality education for the citizens of California.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Monsanto, Portugal

Some images from Monsanto, where I'll be hanging my hat as a Writer-in-Residence in September. Needless to say, I'm looking forward to it.