Tuesday, August 20, 2019

Black Sabbath (10 Rock Albums That Made My Sense of Music What It Is)

10 (Rock) Albums That Made My Sense of Music What It Is

2) Black Sabbath

This is the first record I bought that I’d never heard any music from before buying it. It changed a lot for me and helped me down some paths I was already going.

My friend Steven was the source of most of my music knowledge from the ages of 12 until 14 or 15. Along with most of the Beatles records and some Stones, he played a lot of the big albums from the current time: Fragile by Yes and the first albums by Bad Company and Foreigner and Boston (which was the first album I ever bought for myself) were the ones I remember most. But Steven didn’t play heavy metal, a music that at that time couldn’t be found on any radio station I knew about.

When I bought the record, I didn’t know what heavy metal was. I just liked the cover art. Since about the age of 10 or 11 I’d been a fan of Edgar Allan Poe and had also begun to love horror movies, which I could see sometimes for whole weeks of afternoons down in the basement on the ABC afternoon movie that I could watch by myself, in the dark, before my parents called me upstairs for dinner.

The album turned out to be a musical equivalent of what I already loved. And I didn’t know anybody else who’d ever heard of it. The record became the first example of something that was becoming true of my musical taste and my taste in books and movies: I liked to explore and to find out about things on my own that nobody else could tell me.

Of course, there wasn’t anything like a social scene of gentle, sensitive, shy goths at that time. Didn’t exist. In my junior high, you could be a jock or a preppie or a pothead who hung out by “the tree,” a big tree down by a stream at the bottom of the hill on one edge of the school. Or you could be nothing.

It was only somewhat later that I met anyone who liked heavy metal, and it wasn’t in school: they were young mechanics or bikers (motorcyclists) or other kinds of tougher guys, some quite a bit older, who sometimes came to certain high school parties by the time I was 16 or 17. Black Sabbath didn’t have a pop audience. It had a working class audience.

I loved the big, slow, doomy sound of Black Sabbath. I loved the heavy guitar and the dark lyrics which matched my growing junior high mood. I loved the cover, which in comparison to other later heavy metal covers didn’t feel (then) cartoonish; it felt genuinely disturbed. For someone who read Faulkner’s Sanctuary at age 13 because I’d learned somewhere that it was supposed to be his most horrific book, disturbing was where I wanted to be. I liked the Black Sabbath songs about hell, or hell on earth, just fine.

I was about to go to high school. Hell? High school? I doubted there was a difference.

Once I bought this record, I was on my way to defining for myself what my taste in books and music and movies should be.

The Beatles, aka The White Album (10 Rock Albums That Made My Sense of Music What It Is)

Ten (Rock) Albums That Made My Sense of Music What It Is.

This is not a challenge from someone, just my idea of fun.

1) The Beatles, aka The White Album.

Music wasn’t played often in my parents’ house. Although growing up I’d heard many songs on the radio or at the houses of friends, this was maybe the first album I ever listened to repeatedly from beginning to end. The summer I turned 13, my friend Steven played a tape of this album (and a few others) over and over again on a driving trip across the country with his father, my father, and my brother.

The adults tolerated the music, barely, and Steven’s father more than once told him to shut it off, but I loved and still love these songs, although I had no context then for knowing why I loved them. Young as I was, my favorite song at that time (Steven’s too) was “Piggies.” Even at thirteen I knew it was a nasty song about nasty people and I approved. Other favorites were “Blackbird” and “Rocky Racoon,” maybe because I’d always liked stories about animals even though that wasn’t really the focus of these songs, or maybe because the melodies and lyrics were just appealing.

Tuesday, August 13, 2019

Book Review: In Brazen Fontanelle Aflame by Ted Rees

Ted Rees
In Brazen Fontanelle Aflame

Timeless Infinite Light, 2018
142 pgs.

A few weeks ago, poet Ted Rees asked people on Facebook what poet they wished they’d read when they were younger, and I wanted to say to Ted, you! Which is funny; he’s 20-25 years younger than me and his books didn’t exist when I was younger. Also though, it was true. As I was reading his recent book In Brazen Fontanelle Aflame, I kept thinking to myself, this is the kind of tradition I’d want my own poems to be in, if my poems were going to fit into any kind of tradition.

The works here, mostly prose poems although a few are lined, have a lot of elements that I really admire in poems, including a big geopolitical sweep. The poems often explore contemporary landscapes that picture the variety of human and non-human interactions happening in different locations, some urban, some in the rural back country and even the wilderness. Environmental concerns, concerns with power structures and what’s happening to people, insights into a range of identity and class issues: all of these are mixed together in a way that makes clear that the problems that the poems are exploring are not easily separated from each other. Rees doesn’t write single poems that try to isolate single central issues. His writing moves in sweeping waves that gather things together from place to place, person to person, problem to problem.

The poems also aren’t the pious commentaries of an outside or supposedly objective observer. Instead, the figure of the poet himself is very much a part of these interactions, a young man struggling to survive and facing a shortage of options. He can observe and participate in street level activity because he’s already more or less living right there, down in the worst of it, at least at times, except for those stretches when he seems to have moved out into the California back country. As anthropology has known for awhile, there’s no such thing as an outside observer; there are only people who are involved in a situation, however differently. The narrator in these poems moves around at the most immediate levels of social and financial alienation and disenfranchisement.

One of the most fascinating and original ways that Rees signals his involvement in the many conflicts of the book is the constantly surprising language. The ornate, sometimes nearly anti-imagistic language disrupts any notion that what he’s doing is merely describing. The voice is not that of sober (and often implicitly masculine) direct description that somehow asserts its normalcy by vanishing into the expected vocabulary. Instead, it flaunts a flamboyant and uncontainably wild vocabulary:

“So as to better skiptrace moisture’s corpse, you heave a slippy couch to the makeshift summit and settle into some kalimotxo. Beyond unctuous tide and squall of trade, the incarcerated juttings in murk, what progress has been marched. There emerges a frame of reference for the structure of this smoke, its frottage with our garments and exposed pores, a darling of the blank monolith set.” (31)

My only reservation about In Brazen Fontanelle Aflame, and it’s not a huge one, is the tendency of certain lines to focus more on the poet’s anger than on what’s being discussed, and not always in interesting ways. This happens most often in the use of the word “fucking,” which every time it appears it stands out, at least to me, as the most boring word in this otherwise consistently inventive book: “because being a teenager is always fucking terrible.” (99). The book has a lot of original insults, but at moments the poet’s anger comes off as one-dimensional. This tendency makes the last section of the book, centered around a response to the work of queer writer and artist David Wojnarowicz, feel just a little less effective, maybe also because the more clearly essay-like elements of the last section lead Rees towards what sometimes feel like overgeneralizations.

Quibbles about invective aside, In Brazen Fontanelle Aflame kept me involved and fascinated. It’s hard to put down. It offers a perspective on contemporary U.S. social problems that comes from a narrative voice like no other I’ve read in recent American poetry. I loved the intensity here, and the insight, and the sheer exuberance of the language. Rees is a poet determined to say whatever he needs to say to make the world more survivable for him and many others who live on the outcast edges of a culture too often committed to ignoring its ever-growing human and environmental disasters. And if that’s not poetry worth knowing about, then I don’t know what is.

Monday, July 8, 2019

Book Review: Born Again by Ivy Johnson

Ivy Johnson
The Operating System
112 pgs.

I really like the tightly constructed, and tightly wound, poems and prose essays and narratives in this gripping and sometimes disturbing collection. They center on the experiences of a young woman shedding her small town, Christian past and remaking herself, and finding herself remade, in an urban environment unlike the one she was raised in.

These are Gothic-influenced poems, but not in any clich├ęd way. Like much that’s Gothic they don’t reject Christianity outright so much as turn its imagery into new forms of worship and obsession and a woman’s determination to find a self that could never have emerged in the environment where she grew up. The dynamics of dominance and subservience are unique and surprising. The prose pieces are more loosely structured and narrative than the sharply-lined poems and tend to fill in elements of the narrative that the poems mostly just suggest. The writing is blunt, sexually but not only sexually, yet also implies many barely spoken and sometimes unspoken struggles. Intriguingly, the book both tells a lot and tells only a little. The book is not memoir; its intention is to lift itself beyond a recounting of experience.

Anyone interested in the Gothic and religion and American culture in cities and small towns will find Born Again fascinating. Any woman who has used the Gothic subculture or perspective as a way to overcome a small town or Christian upbringing will find it essential.

Monday, June 24, 2019

My Democratic Primary Betting Odds as of June 24, 2019

If I was a bookie, here are the odds I would be giving as of Monday, June 24, 2019 for the winner of the Democratic primaries.

Joe Biden: 3-1

Right now he has the majority of the center-right portion of Democratic voters, plus a surge of anyone-but-Trump supporters. He’s most popular in states where Democrats lean center right, which is a lot of states.
Biggest advantages: Democratic corporate money, and also the Romney Effect. He’s going to win some primaries, but he’s also going to finish second and third a lot. Still, there’s a strong likelihood that the other candidates who might win this or that primary will do poorly in other primaries, leaving Biden standing as the middle-of-the-road surviror.

Biggest threat: he’s Joe Biden. Mistake-prone, clumsy, not eloquent, with a long record of policy decisions that the left wing of the party doesn’t like, he could crash and burn quickly, one of the reasons I think that he sometimes seems to be hiding in the background and letting the others take each other out.

Elizabeth Warren: 8-1

She’s smart and informed and has the Policy Left and the Identity Left moving in her direction. Anyone paying attention can see that she makes thoughtful decisions. I don’t buy the “lack of charisma” critiques: this is the party that nominated Dukakis, Kerry, and Hilary Clinton, so you don’t need charisma to win the Democratic nomination. Plus I’m not so sure that she lacks as much charisa as some people say.

Biggest threat: Bernie Sanders. The voting left is already not necessarily the biggest portion of Democratic primary voters, and if she splits that vote with Sanders, they will both lose.

Bernie Sanders: 12-1

He seems to me to be fading, although his new student debt forgiveness plan shows he’s still hatching Big Ideas. He still has the left Democratic primary voters who like fiery rhetoric, but he doesn’t win the Identity Left even if he wins the Rhetoric Left, and he doesn’t always win that.

Biggest advantage: He never stops. And that also means that he won’t quit the race to make room for anybody.

Biggest Threat: Elizabeth Warren. She’s taking more and more of his potential votes and that seems like it might continue. As to gender bias, I can’t say whether more people will vote for him because he’s not a woman or for Warren because she is a woman.

Kamala Harris: 25-1

In many ways, she has the best chance to appeal to the whole range of likely Democratic primary voters, even though the Hard Left doesn’t like her history as a prosecutor. She’s a solid liberal who could win votes with the Identity Left and on the center/ right for her history as a prosector. But most likely voters seem to prefer somebody else.

Biggest advantage: Joe Biden. If he really blows it, she has a chance to build votes across the whole constituency of primary voters. But I don’t think it’s likely to happen.
Biggest Threat: She’s not going to have the benefit of the Obama Effect. Sorry to say this, but a lot of voters who voted Obama believed that he was a radical choice not because of his policies (which he never claimed as all that radical) but because of his racial identity--and some of that voter support was oddly racist in the sense that it seemed to come from the idea that a black man was inevitably going to be a radical. Because the Obama presidency is behind us, no one is going to think that Harris is inevitably a radical

Beto O’Rourke: 40-1

If Biden falls all over himself, O’Rourke could surge as the new, energetic, articulate candidate for center / right Democratic voters. He doesn’t have the name recognition and history that makes him clearly safe enough for the center / right to want him, but if Biden self-destructs early enough, many of Biden’s voters could shift to O’Rourke.

Biggest weakness: What does he stand for exactly? Sooner or later his positions are going to be more and more known, and his ideas to date, like the Non-Military Family Tax, don’t seem likely to attract enough Democratic voters.

Pete Buttigieg: 50-1

Same story as O’Rourke, but his sexual identity will make center / right Democratic voters more skeptical of him and “Anybody but Trump” voters likely to feel that he’s too big a risk. Still, if Biden stumbles, if O’Rourke flashes out in the pan, and if Harris can’t make any headway, Buttigieg’s candidacy is not automatically a dead end. In any case, he and Harris and O’Rourke may be angling for a better spot in future elections.

Anbody else: 200-1
Come on, let me take your money. I suppose that there’s still time for someone unexpected to rise from the pile of entrants, but it’s not likely.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Poetry & Poetics of the 1990s conference at the University of Maine: my panel and presentation info

I'm looking forward to presenting my paper "Telling It Slant and the Anti-Aggressive Poetics of the 1990s" on the panel "Historicizing the 1990s" (also featuring Miriam Nichols and Mark Scroggins). Saturday, July 1 at 2:30 p.m. at the conference "The Poetry and Poetics of the 1990s," at the University of Maine at Orono, June 29 to July 1.

At 10 a.m. that day, I'm also looking forward to being on a discussion roundtable about the forthcoming The Collective Explosive Anthology.


Panel Title:
Historicizing the 1990s
 Panel Date and Time:
Saturday, July 1 2:30 to 4:00 pm


Nichols, Miriam
“Re:Publics of Poetry: Revisiting the Recovery of the Public World Conference, 1995”

Scroggins, Mark
“The Executor’s Legacy: Paul Zukofsky and Louis Zukofsky’s Texts in the Nineties and Beyond”

Wallace, Mark
"Telling It Slant and the Anti-Aggressive Poetics of the 1990s"

The Collective Explosive Anthology
A roundtable coordinated by Kay Lederer
Saturday, July 1 10:00 to 11:30 am


Brown, Lee Ann
Lederer, Katy
Moxley, Jennifer
Schultz, Susan
Sharma, Prageeta
Smith, Dale
Smith, Rod
Wallace, Mark
Willis, Elizabeth

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Support Independent Bookstores and Order Crab from Indiebound

Maybe the way to buy a copy of my novel Crab that’s most supportive of the world of literature is through Indiebound.com, a community of independent local bookstores (link below). You can buy the book directly from Indiebound or use the page to locate a local, independent bookstore that will order Crab for you.