Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Speaking of Asian Guys...

...anyone seen the Old Navy "Scarves" commercial that parodies an awards show? They show the winner for "Best Reaction to a Scarf": a couple: "Kate" and "Jeff," are opening Christmas presents. Kate pulls an Old Navy "shimmery scarf" out of a box, looks at Jeff and says, "Are you asking me to marry you? YES!" and throws her arms around him, the scarf flying in his face. A stunned-looking Jeff can be heard muttering, "It's...a scarf..."

Oh, and: Jeff is an Asian guy.

So I can interpret the look on Jeff's face in one of two ways.

Guy reaction: It's...a scarf...

Asian Guy reaction: Oh my god, a white woman is hugging me...on television...

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Memento Morita

Well-intentioned but slightly disappointing piece by Lawrence Downes in the NYT today on the death of actor Pat Morita. Since I'm currently teaching two Asian American studies courses, I can testify to the extent to which Downes seems to have absorbed the conventional Asian Americanist critique of Hollywood, as it limits Asians to caricatured, pidgin-speaking, sidekick roles; he even notes that there's an especially poor choice of roles for Asian American men.

But the article would have been a great opportunity to point out some actual achievements in film by Asian American directors, writers, and actors. Even if you just start counting at Wayne Wang's Chan Is Missing (1982), that's over two decades of films to choose from. Instead, Downes settles for describing a new Asian American-directed film as coming from "an unusual perspective, by past or current standards," and lamenting an "utterly forgotten" Asian American cast of a film of the 1950s (without naming any of them).

I'm certainly no expert on Asian American film. But last week I was reading Anne Cheng's The Melancholy of Race, which includes a slightly revisionist reading of the 1961 film of Flower Drum Song, which is remarkable for featuring an all-Asian American cast. I confess to never having seen it, but Cheng suggests that the curious attraction/repulsion many Asian American viewers experience towards the film (as opposed to the more conventional dismissal of the film as perpetuating orientalist stereotypes) is part of the work the film does: showing Asian Americans joyously embracing the American ideals they can never quite comfortably inhabit.

Then there's Wayne Wang's whole oeuvre, which ranges from the b/w indie Chan to big-budget tearjerkers like The Joy Luck Club (not to mention Smoke and Maid in Manhattan--c'mon, grad students, let's see some Asian Americanist readings of those), or Mira Nair's Mississippi Masala, and in the last few years films like Better Luck Tomorrow and Alice Wu's Saving Face. That's just the tip of the iceberg: those of you who have greater experience with Asian American film, please enlighten me.

What's missing, I guess--and this is something that Asian American viewers seem to crave as much as Downes does--is a "mainstream" male Asian American star, one who could be cast in a role not merely marked as "ethnic" and ring up big change at the box office. Would that be progress? Well, while we're waiting for Hollywood to figure it out, there's no reason not to see what Asian American filmmakers are actually doing.

Monday, November 21, 2005

Oh Good! My Parents' Congressman Isn't Scared of Me

From Tenth Dems, an organization of intrepid Democrats on Chicago's heavily Republican North Shore:
Republican U.S. Rep. Mark Kirk was at an event last weekend at Northwestern University when he was asked about the difficulties of the visa process for immigrants. He was quoted by the Chicago Sun-Times as saying: "I'm OK with discrimination against young Arab males from terrorist-producing states. I'm OK with that."

"I think that when we look at the threat that's out there, young men, between, say, the ages of 18 and 25 from a couple of countries, I believe a certain amount of intense scrutiny should be placed on them," the Highland Park congressman was quoted as saying. "I'm not threatened by people from China. I'm not even threatened by people from Mexico. I just know where the threat is from. It's from a unique place, and I think it's OK to recognize that.''

Saturday, November 19, 2005

Uncle Wang

Currently laughing my tail off reading short fiction pieces by Australian writer Tom Cho, fantastic bits about identity and pop culture. The story "Suitmation" imagines that everyone in the family wears Godzilla-like suits that turn them into perfect replicas of celebrites. It's followed by an image of Tony Danza with the caption "Uncle Wang."

Better yet, Tom has a blog.

Friday, November 18, 2005

Headless Indians and Other Art

There's a feature story in the Toronto Star today about a new exhibit by Canadian artist Charles Pachter, best known for his "queen-on-a-moose" paintings. Pachter's exhibiting paintings done on a recent trip to India, where he said "even the poor people looked exotic and beautiful."

In the photo from the Star, Pachter is standing next to a painting of an Indian woman in a sari. The painting is nearly photorealistic, but for one thing: the woman's head is erased, replaced with a large red dot located where her forehead would have been. This, Pachter says, is "reality-based but moves on to abstraction"; he says he erased the head because he wanted to focus on the colors of the sari. Indeed, according to the article, all the faces of Indian women in the show are erased. (Men obviously don't get the same treatment; there's a man's head in the background of the Star photo.)

The result, to me, isn't beautiful but disturbing. As suspect as Pachter's gloss is, I'd be inclined to give it more credence if the image were framed differently. But since the painting is framed like a conventional portrait, the absent head becomes the focal point. Actually, that's not right: it's the bindi, retained as the pure signifier of exoticism, that becomes the focal point, literally erasing the person who is wearing it.

A few weeks ago I was at a conference and saw a paper on Leslie Scalapino's The Tango, a large-format book illustrated with color photographs of orange-robed Tibetan Buddhist monks. I asked whether race ought to be a factor in interpreting the text. The response, in part, was that the pictures were probably selected as studies in color and movement--in other words, that the clothes we were seeing should be regarded as empty, bodiless. I wonder if such a reading could have been supported if the photographs were all of white women in flowing bridal gowns, or of male African Americans in football uniforms. The Asian body was easily aestheticized--which is to say, rendered invisible.

Isn't Pachter's painting doing that, literally? Indeed, it's arguably quite a bit worse: the erasure of the head, and its replacement with the red dot, makes the Indian woman's body nothing but a marker of foreignness--an exoticism that ultimately becomes not some means toward abstraction but the point of the picture itself.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Ashburied

I, too, caught that New Yorker profile of John Ashbery. Josh and Jack quite rightly take issue with its failure to offer anything particularly helpful in reading Ashbery's work. That didn't surprise me; I instinctively cringe when I pick up any New Yorker writer profile/puff piece and am usually glad if I don't come out on the other end hopping mad.

My guess is that Larissa MacFarquhar thought she was being quite clever, not in the content of her piece (it has almost none) but in its form. Ashbery is rarely, if ever, quoted in the piece; instead, MacFarquhar folds any material she must have gleaned from interviewing him into an omniscient, third-person, present-tense ramble that seems to want to portray Ashbery's process as if from the inside. It would be laughable to do this to, say, David Mamet or Matthew Barney--and it's pretty silly here--but I think MacFarquhar must have thought it was a kind of journalistic version of New York School writing: a "he does this, he does that" celebrity profile.

Ron Silliman: The Early Years

A few days ago Ron Silliman posted an early, quietudinous poem on his blog, while noting that most of his other juvenalia was, alas, locked up in the Archive for New Poetry at UCSD.

It so happens that a few years back I did some research there, and lo and behold, digging through my notes I've found that I have a huge cache of transcribed early Silliman poems, largely dating from 1964-68. Should the public demand it--and should, of course, Ron permit it--I'd be happy to post a couple here. A few titles: "Chow Mein," "Freshmen," and "One Thousand Years in an Opium Den."

Monday, November 07, 2005

SUSAN HOWE & DAVID GRUBBS: “THIEFTH”

November 8, 2005
Fulton Recital Hall at The University of Chicago
1010 E. 59th Street, 4th Floor
7:00pm

Poet Susan Howe and musician and composer David Grubbs will present the United States premiere of “Thiefth” on November 8, 2005 at 7:00pm at Fulton Recital Hall on the University of Chicago campus. The performance, one of only two to take place in the US, will include electroacoustic performance versions of Howe's poems "Thorow" and "Melville's Marginalia" for voice, computer, and piano. For this performance, Susan Howe will read, accompanied by David Grubbs at the piano and computer.

Drawing from the journals of Sir William Johnson and Henry David Thoreau, “Thorow” both evokes the winter landscape that surrounds Lake George in upstate New York, and explores collisions and collusions of historical violence and national identity. “Thorow” is an act of second seeing in which Howe and Grubbs engage the lake’s glittering, ice surface as well as the insistent voices that haunt an unseen world underneath. "Melville's Marginalia" is an approach to an elusive and allusive mind through Herman Melville's own reading and the notations he made in some of the books he owned and loved. The collaging and mirror-imaging of words and sounds are concretions of verbal static, visual mediations on what can and cannot be said.

For more information about the collaboration and for bios of Howe and Grubbs, visit: http://poempresent.uchicago.edu

The performance, which is free and open to the public, is being made possible through the unique collaboration of a group of area institutions. Support for the event comes from: the Chicago Poetry Project, Chicago Review, The Poetry Center of Chicago, The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, The University of Chicago Committee on Creative Writing, and The University of Chicago Poem Present Reading and Lecture Series.

Fulton Recital Hall is located on the fourth floor of 1010 E. 59th Street, Chicago, IL 60637. Attendees should enter through the courtyard entrance.

Saturday, October 29, 2005

You Know You're on the North Side When...

...it's three days after the Sox won the World Series and every guy you see is wearing a Cubs hat.

Thursday, October 27, 2005

White Sox Win!

I got a phone call from a friend of mine (a Canadian, as it happens, now resident in Utah) just before game time last night, who wanted to offer me premature congratulations, as the only person he knew who had a remote claim to being a Chicago South Sider. (Our place in Chicago is, indeed, in Hyde Park.) He was polite enough not to mention (or, perhaps, to know) that as someone who grew up in the north suburbs I am actually a Cubs fan, which seems like about the silliest and most ungrateful thing a Chicagoan can be today.

Still, I did my fair-weather best. I don't have cable here in Toronto, so I spent the past few days either listening to the radio or wandering about looking for a bar that had the game on. The pub two blocks from my office, usually a good bet, had the Series on a small TV above the bar, flanked by two huge flat-screens showing hockey. Okay, wrong country. I watched Game 2 in another nearby pub, nearly empty; inexplicably, a group of three Asian kids who came in and sat at a table behind me turned out to be Astros fans. Last night I found myself in yet another pub, watching the final game on a big-screen TV I had all to myself.

The Fox broadcast kept cutting to frenzied-Sox-fan shots at Jimbo's, with the caption "Southside, Chicago." I always get annoyed by this. It's "South Side" and "North Side" (and also "West Side"). You don't see people referring to something being located on New York City's "Lower Eastside" or lining up to see "Westside Story." It's certainly not "South Chicago," which is another town altogether.

Another oddity: at one point I heard one announcer rattling off names of various South Side neighborhoods, followed by the names of the various ethnic groups that inhabited them: Irish, Italians, Germans, Lithuanians...I didn't catch them all, but it struck me that this was a perpetuation of the image of Chicago (much like the self-image of Boston) as a city of white ethnics, a sense reinforced by the white faces in Fox's "South Side" fan shots. This despite the fact, of course, that the South Side as a whole is now predominantly non-white. The Sox, in this sense, are seen less as the team of the South Side as a whole than as the team of Bridgeport, the Irish enclave that is the home turf of the ruling Daley clan.

In the mythology of Chicago, the Cubs/Sox divide thus gets played as a class rather than a geographical division, with the Cubs as the team of North Side yuppies and suburbanites and the Sox as the team of the working-class ethnic. That allows Chicago sports types to avoid the awkward fact that "North Side/South Side" in Chicago has become a shorthand for "white/black."

Monday, October 24, 2005

Gale Force Metaphors

Something about covering a hurricane brings out the worst in a writer:
Palm trees bent; their fronds looked like they were on a 100 mile an hour ride in a convertible...

At about 9:30 in the morning, when the torrent of wind and rain and calmed down somewhat, people ventured out. They looked like extras in a dawn-of-the-dead movie as they walked through the destruction from the storm.

Saturday, October 22, 2005

Is literature conservative?

Jonathan on his politically wary colleagues:
They worry that literature itself is a conservative thing. That is, they view the object of study itself as somehow suspect, infused with conservative baggage that it is their task to be suspicious of.
If I'm understanding this statement correctly, it's a little different from the subsequent discussion over at Bemsha Swing, which is about the relationship between the politics of the author and the politics of reading his/her work. Since a) we can find plenty of authors who are politically on the left and b) there's no reason you can't read a "reactionary" author in a "radical" way, I don't think that discussion quite gets at the issue.

The question, rather, seems to be whether there is something inherently conservative about the act of studying literature, or maybe even about the idea of "literature" itself. I can think of a few possible responses to this:

Academic answer #1: Yes, and no. The idea of studying literature is inherently conservative in the simple sense that it seeks to "conserve" something: old texts by dead writers. It's also backward-looking, in the sense that literary study as we now do it involves at least nominally placing a work in some kind of tradition that extends backward in time. This doesn't necessarily have to be associated with the political right (one could, say, be attempting to conserve the radical viewpoints of earlier writers), although today it often is (e.g. in attempts to defend "Western culture" in the curriculum). Essentially, though, literature, in this understanding, is relatively independent of political values.

Academic answer #2: Maybe. This answer is premised on the idea that #1-style conservatism is, in fact, political and not just curatorial. The teaching of literature, and its perpetuation of a limited "canon" of great works, can enshrine reactionary, nationalist, racist, and sexist values by aestheticizing them. It may be possible, though, by opening up the canon (to women, writers of color, gay and lesbian writers, and across national borders) and questioning its status, to mitigate some of these tendencies and to inculcate values seen as more progressive.

Academic answer #3: No. This one's based on the idea that studying literature is a form of "critical thinking," which anyone who's ever read a student evaluation form knows is supposed to be one of the main goals of a college education these days. Critical thinking, one assumes, is supposed to give on the ability to detect propaganda, lies, and malarkey of all kinds, but I would guess that in the current political and cultural climate the ability to read language carefully and to remain skeptical of the texts produced by corporations, governments, and media would be a skill more closely identified with the left than the right. (Literary study, in this model, has little or nothing to do with maintaining a tradition or body of texts; you can "critically read" anything, including New York Times articles and cereal boxes.)

Cultural capital answer: Yes. In its academic version, this is based on the idea that the study of literature is a way for powerful groups to extend their power into the cultural realm; literary "value" becomes an element of class domination. In its popular version, this is the idea that studying literature is an elitist and snobbish pursuit.

Materialist answer #1: Yes. Literature is ideological; it provides a timeless fiction of reconciliation that conceals or even justifies socioeconomic domination. Literature, at least in its conventional venues of the academy and mainstream publishing, is either merely a commodity or a distraction from the real work of organizing and direct political action.

Materialist answer #2 (via the Frankfurt School, I suppose): No. Literature's autonomy from social life, far from being ideological escapism, actually gives it enormous value in its critical distance from the relentless logic of capital and domination. Literary value can, at least momentarily, escape commodification, and great literary works (when read properly) can provide a critique of society as rigorous as that of critical theory.

I note that none of these answers (with the possible exception of academic answer #2) depends all that much on which texts are being taught; they have much more to do with the institutional status of literature and what its general social function is.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

WWPOH #2

From Jon Leon:

Poets and Parties:

Issue #2 of Wherever We Put Our Hats has arrived and will be hitting the post Monday morning with a spritely new cover and a generous cache of poems from the young and the old(er), and the young and the western.

See the contents here: wwpoh.blogspot.com

Thanks to all the contributors past, current, and future for making wwpoh your home.
The University of Chicago Committee on Creative Writing's
Emerging Writers Series

presents a poetry reading by
SAM WHITE and GEOFF HILSABECK

Tuesday, October 11
Classics 21
6:00pm
Reception to follow

The Emerging Writers Series presents three joint readings per year that pair a professional emerging writer with a U of C student writer of his/her selection. This Fall's Emerging Writers Series Reading will feature poet Sam White and MAPH student Geoff Hilsabeck, whose work was selected from over 60 student submissions.

SAM WHITE’s debut collection The Goddess of the Hunt is Not Herself is now available from Slope Editions. He is a graduate of the Iowa Writers Workshop and a recent MacDowell fellow in poetry. He has published his poems in many journals including Jubilat, the Paris Review, the Harvard Review, Ploughshares, and American Letters & Commentary among others. A story in Poets & Writers chronicled his experiences reading ten great poems to passersby in Times Square, NYC. He currently teaches at the University of Rhode Island, and lives at Monohasset Mill, an art collective on the west side of Providence.

GEOFF HILSABECK received his B.A. from Vassar College in 2003. He is the author of one chapbook, The Keepers of Secrets, published as part of the ongoing Kenyon-Vassar Chapbook Series. He is currently enrolled in the Master of Arts Program in Humanities at the University of Chicago.

This event is free and open to the public.

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Wierd

So I'm idly browsing some stories on the announcement by 15-year-old golf prodigy Michelle Wie that she's going pro when I start to notice some oddities about the way her nationality and ethnicity are being described.

The first story, from the Rocky Mountain News:
Wie, though born in Hawaii, is of Korean ancestry and speaks fluent Korean. The straight-A student also is learning to speak Chinese and Japanese and figures to be a bigger draw in Asia than she has been in the United States.
Emphasis added, obviously: so what's with that "though"? As if her being American-born was an afterthought, secondary to her ethnic origins?

And there's another theme that I started noticing in all the articles--the idea that Wie is going to be a huge hit in Asia. But again, this story seems to make slightly too big a deal of this: why would she be so much more popular overseas than in her own country? Are Americans going to have a problem with her?

So then I see this AP story in the SF Chronicle:
But her marketing appeal is above any other woman in golf — a 6-footer of Korean heritage who was raised in Hawaii, has loads of charisma and power and a captivating smile to boot.
This avoids the question of nativity altogether--indeed, it implies that Wie is not American-born but was just brought up in Hawaii.

More on the Asian theme from Sports Illustrated:
Her heritage -- both of Wie's parents are Korean-born -- suggests that she will be embraced by Asian golf fans.
Go on, I dare you: "Tiger Woods's heritage--his father is black--suggests that he will be embraced by African golf fans."

Of course the Tiger Woods comparisons are everywhere, but without any of the "breakthrough" rhetoric that accompanied the perception of Woods as the breakthrough black golfer (even though Woods is, of course, part Asian); Wie's ethnicity is all gravy, pure marketing pleasure:
She's a Tiger-like blend of promise, magnetism, ethnicity (a Korean-American from Hawaii) and glamour.
Well, at least that guy knows the term "Korean-American."

Maybe the oddest piece is a long feature in Fortune that hauls out pretty much every stereotype of the model minority family you can think of:
Up to this point it has been the three Wies—Michelle, BJ, and Bo—vs. the world. As first-generation Americans who speak English as a second language, BJ (short for Byung-Wook) and Bo (short for Hyun Kyong) have guided their daughter's every move through the fierce world of high-stakes golf.
I'm curious about the relationship between that "As first-generation Americans..." and the rest of the sentence: just an oddly dangling modifier? Or (as I suspect) a implicit reflection of the inward-looking, controlling Asian immigrant family? (Compare the characterization of Wie's parents to, say, that of Venus and Serena Williams's father, who's usually portrayed as a raging tyrant.)

The bottom line, of course, is that Michelle Wie is (exotically) hot:
Over six feet tall, with creamy skin and black sloping eyes, Michelle Wie is a knockout.
Black sloping eyes? Oh no you didn't.

Don't worry, though. Michelle Wie is still a good all-Asian American girl.
She stresses about the SATs and getting into college. (Her top choice is Stanford.)
Look out.

Susan Wheeler at UChicago

POEM PRESENT Reading and Lecture Series

SUSAN WHEELER
Reading: Thursday, October 6
Classics 10, 1010 E. 59th Street
5:30pm
A reception will follow the reading


Lecture: Friday, October 7
Wieboldt 408, 1050 E. 59th Street
1:00pm


Title: "Mutant Vernaculars!"

Susan Wheeler is the author of four collections of poetry, Bag ‘o’ Diamonds (1993, University of Georgia Press), Smokes (1998, Four Way Books), Source Codes (2001, Salt Publishing), and Ledger (2005, U of Iowa Press); and of Record Palace, a novel (2005, Graywolf Press). Her awards include the Witter Bynner Prize for Poetry from the American Academy of Arts & Letters, the Norma Farber First Book Award from the Poetry Society of America, two Pushcart Prizes, and fellowships from the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation and the New York Foundation for the Arts. Her work has appeared in eight editions of the Scribner anthology Best American Poetry, as well as in The Paris Review, London Review of Books, Verse, Talisman, The New Yorker and many other journals. On the creative writing faculties at Princeton University and the New School’s graduate program, she has also taught at Columbia University, the University of Iowa, Rutgers, and New York University.

Recent interviews w/ Susan Wheeler:
http://www.bombsite.com/wheeler/wheeler.html
http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2005/09/29/AR2005092901777.html

Susan Wheeler's reading is funded in part by Poets & Writers, Inc

This event is free and open to the public.

Myopic Poetry Series: October

MYOPIC POETRY SERIES -- a weekly series of poetry, fiction, and occasional talks

Myopic Books in Chicago -- Sundays at 7:00 / 1564 N. Milwaukee Avenue, 2nd Floor

OCTOBER EVENTS

Sunday October 2 - Chicago Noir hosted by Adam Levin

Sunday October 9 - Melissa Buzzeo and Amina Cain

Sunday October 16 - Raymond L. Bianchi and Jennifer Karmin

Sunday October 23 - Matvei Yankelevich and Anna Moschovakis

UPCOMING

Sunday November 6 -- Phil LaMarche & Chris Fink

Sunday November 13 - Andrew Zawacki and RM Vaughan

Sunday November 20 - Tyehimba Jess and Krista Franklin

Sunday November 28 - NO READING THIS WEEK

Sunday December 4 -- Stefan Kiesbye & Jeff Parker

Sunday December 11- Simone Muench and Barry Silesky

Sunday December 18 - Matt Hart and TBA

Sunday December 25 - NO READING THIS WEEK

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Realizing the extent to which Sau-ling Wong's theory of Asian American literature relies on an analogy between texts and persons:
Just as the Asian American ethnic group is a political coalition, Asian American literature may be thought of as an emergent and evolving textual coalition, whose interests it is the business of a professional coalition of Asian American critics to promote.
It's an elegant conception, simple to the point of brilliance, possibly the only coherent theory of how Asian American texts work together I've seen. Reading the rest of the book, I can't argue with the results.

But I'm still trying to decide whether, on some more fundamental level, I buy that basic move. It's a way around the thornier word "tradition"--acknowledging that the usual lines of influence and direct allusion that might define, say, the tradition of British or American letters simply won't suffice to hold together a diffuse and emergent canon. It's also a way to avoid a conception of Asian American literature that uses an extratextual prop--say, the (fictious) unity of "Asian American history" or "Asian American experience"--to give the category coherence.

Monday, October 03, 2005

Comment box spammers seem to have found me over the weekend; I came back to a good two or three dozen junk comments. I may have to suspend commenting if it continues, despite the devastating impact I know that will have on national poetry discourse.

Long absence over the past month largely due to general start-of-term busyness, I guess. I'm again teaching an undergrad course on Asian North American literature (this week: Carlos Bulosan; next week: Asian American poetry from the 1970s), as well as (for the first time) a grad course in Asian North American studies. Two things I've concluded from the latter so far: Frank Chin is a much better and more nuanced critic of Asian American writing than you'd think from his over-the-top rhetoric; and the most intelligent and sensitive reader of Asian American literature I've seen is Sau-ling Wong, hands down. Reading Asian American Literature is just good. (I guess it's that Stanford Ph.D.)

In other news, I did make it to the Toronto Film Festival for at least a couple of showings; given the overwhelming schedule, I picked more or less and random, with predictably random results. The closet thing to a big-ticket experience I had was Breakfast on Pluto, for which I waited in the longest line I've ever seen: well over three city blocks long. I enjoyed it in an antic sort of way, although the weird stitching-together of queer-coming-of-age story and IRA violence was jarring and even clumsy at times (e.g. the slow-motion explosion of a disco ball in a bombed nightclub), and Cillian Murphy's performance was compelling despite the occasional Mrs. Doubtfire quality to his breathy falsetto. Still, I got to see Ralph Fiennes shamble up to the stage for the Q&A and Murphy hiding behind his hair as he murmured responses to audience queries.

I also took in an hour-long sampling of films by Ernie Gehr, silent street scenes filmed in New York in the 1970s and recently edited onto digital video: screamingly dull for the first twenty minutes or so and then there was that breakthrough that you sometimes get in the midst of boredom, where the abstract shapes of shadows passing rapidly over a paving stone seemed compellingly beautiful. Not so rewarding was the program of Canadian short films I saw: some hideously pretentious animations; an entertaining visualization of a poem by Al Purdy; and some videos made on a cell phone.

Meanwhile, what you should all be doing instead of reading this silly blog is buying this. If you already haven't.

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Contests and Communities

Ron Silliman remarks that poetry contests "substitute an administrative social context for poetry in the place of a community one...To win a contest generally is to announce that one as a poet does not come from any community."

"Community" here is something analogous to being a member of a poetry "scene," though Ron notes (as I would) that membership in such a scene can be determined by geography, aesthetic, or even race.

It's that last type of community that interests me here. Because when Ron characterizes contest-winning as a kind of rejection or abadonment of community, I think immediately of a moment that is often seen as a breakthrough for Asian American poetry: Cathy Song's winning the Yale Younger Poets competition in 1982. (Asian American prose has a similar "coming of age" story, with Maxine Hong Kingston's The Woman Warrior winning the National Book Critics' Circle award in 1978.)

For many Asian American writers and critics (see, for example, Garrett Hongo's introduction to The Open Boat: Poems from Asian America), Song's winning the Yale contest was a moment of recognition and validation for the Asian American poetry community. Indeed, one might go so far as to argue that the visibility Song's award gave to Asian American poetry helped create the flourishing Asian American poetry community we see today, since it gave younger writers who might have been working in isolation an example, an awareness that other Asian American poets were out there and finding success.

If we follow Ron's argument, though, Song's contest victory ought to be seen not as a great victory for Asian American poets but as a kind of betrayal of Asian American poetry: to be named a Yale Younger Poet is to declare oneself part of no community, Asian American or otherwise.

There's certainly something to that. To read Song's poetry of the early 1980s is to realize what a departure it is from the vast majority of Asian American poetry of the 1970s--much of which was a poetry of explicit political engagement, raw emotion, and archetypal sweep. Song's sensibility, in contrast, is pointedly lyric, focusing less on Asian American social realities than on the inward states of a sensitive and somewhat detached observer. It might be too easy to assert that such poems turn away from "the community," but in the context of the early 1980s, as a younger generation of Asian American writers began to come of age and seek opportunities beyond "movement" literature, it's not entirely inaccurate.

The paradox, though, is how a book that looks like a departure from the inside of a community looks like an arrival from the outside. While Song's poetry didn't look much like what other Asian American poets were doing at the time, it was consonant enough with "mainstream" practice to be seized upon as "representative" Asian American writing--opening the door for other Asian American lyric poets of the 1980s, from Garrett Hongo to David Mura to Li-Young Lee. In Ron's terminology, I supposed we'd have to say this is a transition from a "social" Asian American poetry community to an "administrated" one, mediated by MFA programs, trade presses, and academic recognition.

Indeed, it would be hard to argue, at least in the very narrow and local sense in which Ron uses the term "scene," that there is now anything like a single community of Asian American poets. (The one exception might be the activity surrounding the Asian American Writers' Workshop in New York, although I've never sensed that institution--as valuable and necessary as it is--producing anything like a scene or a coherent aesthetic.) We can now speak of "Asian American poetry" as a broad and abstract project, going on all across the country in many different venues; we cannot speak of it as a social community, a network of peers forging their own standards and their own aesthetic. Whether that's good or bad, it's a vision of Asian American poetry that began with one poet winning a contest.

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Contributors' Notes: Yes or No?

Here's a question for everyone: Should poetry mags have contributors' notes? You know, those little things in the back pages that say, "So-and-so's poetry has appeared here, here, and here; he/she teaches at the College of Wherever and lives with her/his two dogs."

I ask because neither of the two journals I'm currently reading (The Hat and New American Writing) have them, and I'm wondering if this is a trend or something.

I've always found such notes vaguely irritating and feel like a moron on the few occasions I'm called upon to compose one. But I'll grant that they do serve a few purposes. They tell you something about a new writer you might like. They tell you where else you can find that writer's work. They give you some context for what's otherwise a set of disembodied texts. (Ron made this point a few weeks ago.) They can tell you a biographical fact that illuminates the work. They show you a web of connections between people in a journal that can explain why Poet X and Poet Y are next to each other.

And I can think of just as many reasons why they're awful. They all sound the same. They're show-offy. They're like posting a resume at the end of an aria. They emphasize the most crass and careerist aspects of being a poet (I went to school at the right places, publish in all the right places, and have a better job than you; I went to the same school all the other people in this magazine did and that's why we're being published together).

All these apply, of course, to the conventional bio note. There's the subgenre of the funny bio note, of which SHAMPOO is one of the more entertaining examples; these can keep the whole enterprise from taking itself too seriously, or even act as an extension of the poem.

So is the note on its way out? Is dropping contributors' notes an egalitarian act? a demand to focus on the text itself? Or does it hide the matrix--fetishizing publication even further by erasing the way the authors got there?

Friday, July 29, 2005

Noelle Kocot: The Raving Fortune

I first read Noelle Kocot in the first issue of Lungfull I ever picked up. My immediate sense was that her poem ("Palm Sunday, 1998") didn't belong there. I mean, I could see certain surface resemblances between it and the other poetry in the journal, but the differences were striking: it had an explicitly religious theme; it was formalist (a loose terza rima); and most importantly, it had a baroque diction, a way of nesting metaphor within metaphor--yet deployed casually and extravagantly, as if someone had crossed Kenneth Koch with Hart Crane:
A thought interrupts. A draggy river
Runs under a cloud of power.
There will be signs, all right. The Giver

Of time and anecdote splits the hour
Into years that hone
Their edges on the edges of a rumor.
You can see what I mean about Crane: that final sentence is held together by what Crane would call the logic of metaphor, as one abstraction ("the hour") is literally split into a series of further abstractions, which paradoxically become so palpable they develop "edges" of their own. There's something bravura about this rhetoric, which is always running along the edge of bombast or ridiculousness, always threatening to fall apart under its own weight, just as it threatens to do in Crane; and like Crane there's a certain melodrama correlated with that rhetorical excess, one that takes itself so seriously you can't believe it could be serious.

This difficulty of placement seems to be the story of Kocot's career thus far. What attention she's received seems to have been from the avant-end of things, but the reviews are a bit mixed; it's not at all clear she fits in with that body of work, or that she even wants to. David Hess's review of Kocot's first book, 4, has some caustic words for the mode of production ("No judge should be allowed to put his name on the cover of a book") but allows that there's much in the book that is "amazing" and "astonishing." Still, he's still not quite sure what to make of the whole thing:
Too often I feel as though she’s leading us away from the edge (where the poetry usually is) to a comfort zone where meanings, differences and conflicts get tied up and resolved in imaginary moments that I want to believe in but can’t, which is strange since I share many of the transcendence-desiring tendencies in her poetry.
What's interesting, though, is that David concludes that Kocot is primarily a comic writer, at her best in her late-New York School/McSweeney's-style sestinas and the like; Cal Bedient's brief notice of the book in Boston Review proceeds from much the same assumption, although Bedient decides that Kocot is a bad comic writer, an "over the top" example of the "late adolescent zest" that's plaguing our avant-garde.

The notices of Kocot's most recent book, The Raving Fortune, seem to follow much the same pattern, emphasizing those elements of Kocot's work that are most consonant with the zaniness of current post-New York School practice. Joy Katz's slope review describes a book I can barely recognize as Kocot's: it's "exuberant" and "funny," full of "canvas sneakers" and "UFO pictures" and as "crazily intense as a porno-movie orgasm." Jordan's review in the Village Voice is far more sensitive to the book's polarities, but still finds Kocot's primary sensibility in her humor:
Her contemporaneity is more deliciously off when she uses Snuffelufagus as the end word in a sestina, announces that "Long Black Veil" was her shower song, or writes an ode to the person who, during a subway bomb threat, pickpocketed her Tao Teh Ching.
I don't mean to say that Kocot isn't funny, or that she doesn't display the kind of self-consciousness that's come to define experimental practice. But the irony of this reception, I think, is that it's precisely these traits that Kocot's trying to slough off in pursuit of what she sees as deeper goals. The goofy, good-natured surface is, in this case, just that--a surface--one that's perhaps inevitable for a poet of Kocot's time and place (and that marks her for experimental writers as one of their own) but that she's not entirely comfortable with.

Take, for example, "Beginner's Mind and Purple Plants," a poem from The Raving Fortune that's "Dedicated to the artists of my generation":
We eat ice cream at the cerulean zoo,
While saltimbanques siphon the wheat of the whale.
Live wire/wild card, I hold you up, libational,
The dangling factor in a cheap velour equation.
A parade of shiny numeric gestures
Where we become breathless and call it busy.
As in much of Kocot's work, there's an instability of tone here that makes it hard to know how to read this: are Kocot and her ice-cream-eating peers delightful flaneurs or laughable decadents? I'm guessing the latter, because the pure pleasure of the opening line quickly gives way to what sounds like guilty moralizing. There's a grab bag of effects here, some of which I might call post-avant (the embrace of mass culture [ice cream, zoo, cheap velour], the show-offy vocabulary), some not (the leaning on an adjective ["I hold you up, libational"], the aphoristic tie-up); but there's also a clear trajectory from the silly to the serious.

It's the final lines of the poem that are the most characteristically contemporary:
The waffle building--it looks so small tonight.

The planet Dagobah shimmers in the sky.

O where are Chrissy and Weezie and Tootie and Gabe?
This is the porno-movie book Joy Katz read; it's the section Matthew Rohrer jumps on for his blurb ("[Kocot] finds poetry in everything. Even in The Jeffersons' Weezie"). But what is Kocot really doing with these pop-culture references? The attitude doesn't seem to be one of playful nostalgia, or of exploring the possibilities of commodified language; instead it's the pathos of a dead end, puncuated by Kocot's mock-serious footnotes ("The planet Dagobah is the swampy green planet in The Empire Strikes Back where Yoda trains Luke Skywalker to be a Jedi Knight"), which deflate any idea that these references reflect some kind of common experience. For Kocot that last line is an index of impoverished expression, a question that is some kind of degraded Ubi sunt--something we don't have the language to ask anymore. Kocot lives in our language but hates being there, suspicious of its pleasures:
And I do not want the mineral water.
I do not want the green green lime.
Kocot's pyrotechnics are, even for her, a distraction from what she really seems to be trying to get to:
In all of this, I'm trying to think of what you love,
And how to give it freely, without pause,
How to get inside the tinctured moments splattering
The ghost ship's sails of when we're old.
If I'm reading David's review right, this would be an example in Kocot of just plain bad writing, where the language turns sentimental and cliched--away from the razor's edge of experiment. But what if we took these moments in her poetry as seriously as she seems to? What if we take seriously the religious (indeed, specifically Catholic) imagery and yearning in her poems, her desire to reanimate seemingly worn-out abstractions? What if the verbal gymnastics are a kind of throat-clearing, exhausting language and getting it out of the way so we can talk about love and God again? That, I think, would give us a very different kind of poet, one whose relationship to the avant-gardism of her generation would be more critical than complementary.

Thursday, July 28, 2005

SHAMPOO 5th Anniversary Celebration!

From SHAMPOO editor Del Ray Cross:

This is to happily inform you that I'm going to host an unprecedented 5th Anniversary SHAMPOO Celebration and Reading on:

Thursday, August 18 at 6:30pm
at GalleryOne San Francisco
Mezzanine Level of One Embarcadero Center
(same building as Embarcadero Cinema)
on the corner of Battery and Clay Streets

Expect to hear some poetry from Alli Warren, Bill Berkson, Brent Cunningham, Cedar Sigo, Kevin Killian, Kit Robinson, Leslie Scalapino, Ronald Palmer, Stephanie Young, and more.

Please join us if you are in the Bay Area.  If you're not able to be here, thanks again for keeping SHAMPOO on the shelves for 5 fantastic years!

Spread the word -- and stay tuned for issue 25 coming in September!

Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Weather change--at last--like a fever breaking. A string of 90-degree-plus days stretching back to May; this past week too hot for coherent thought, our two portable air conditioners creating pitiful auras of cool we huddled around like a stove. In the car on Sunday the external temperature read 108.

Monday evening the air finally cracked open: hours of lightning, power flickering on and off at my mother's house, sending us scrambling for the house's two dim flashlights, lighting Christmas candles and sitting in silence around the kitchen table waiting for the lights to come back on. Trees down in the road, vanished traffic signals.

Today it seemed possible to breathe again. The study is no longer stifiling, and I can type for more than a few minutes without the cursor skittering under sweaty fingers. On Michigan Avenue people stood on sunny street corners and looked up without flinching; a man painted silver lounged in the shade. The dogs, who spent all weekend lying on their sides by the front door, were up again, barking with joy.

Thursday, July 21, 2005

Anthologize This! (II)

Kasey on "hot ecleticism":
I'll leave myself open to the possibility that there is a way of valuing both Sharon Olds and Carla Harryman on a hotly eclectic level. My instinct tells me, however, that such appreciation must occur on a carefully measured and considered individual level that is a bit much to ask any anthology to be responsible for.
True enough. There are any number of collections that make absolutely no aesthetic sense in the sense Kasey's referring to: they juxtapose totally weird or historically or aesthetically disparate choices and insist that these choices somehow cohere. See, for example, any anthology assembled by Ezra Pound, which tend not even to respect massive chasms of culture and language (troubadours::Noh theater::imagism, etc.). Such collections tend only to work when seen as the idiosyncratic and even monomaniacal vision of a single individual--hotly eclectic, then, because they make sense when we understand who's editing them--which make them really useful as glimpses into the aesthetic of that individual but almost totally useless for any of an anthololgy's usual functions (which I tried to describe in my last post). (It's possible that such an idiosyncratic collection may work when the anthology is edited by someone more self-effacing than Pound; this may be why Hayden Carruth's The Voice That Is Great Within Us, mentioned several times in this discussion, is at least a partial success.)

It might be argued that an anthology shouldn't be expected to be anything more than that: the considered choices of one individual. But nearly every anthology--certainly any anthology that's put on the market today--is weighted down with other kinds of expectations: that it will make a historical statement, that it will be an authoritative catalog of what is considered the "best," etc., etc. The paradox is that the more "authoritative" the anthology is supposed to be, the more the editor has to fade into a kind of studied neutrality or even anonymity. This is why Norton can continue to publish an anthology while listing many of its editors as dead: these aren't personal choices but the abstract spirit of Judgment. Any expert in a given literary field can see through this facade (although students generally can't, which is the point), but it should be obvious to any of us who have ever flipped to the contemporary section of one of these anthologies how narrow the range of choice really is.

Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Anthologize This!

[Note: I've belatedly realized that I stole the title of this post from Shin Yu Pai's review of several Asian American literary anthologies in the most recent issue of Hyphen. Apologies to Shin Yu for that. Guess it was a good title.]

Ron and Kasey, among others, discuss what it would be like to construct an Anthology of Twentieth-Century American Poetry, or whether such a thing would even be desirable.

I've been thinking about this topic quite a bit, since I've been working on a review of the anthology Asian American Poetry: The Next Generation. What is an anthology for, anyway, and why do people put them together?

It seems to me there's a few different functions an anthology can have, which may overlap but which are ultimately fairly distinct:

1. The historical or textbook anthology. Something like your typical Norton Anthology, heavy with introductions and headnotes and designed primarily for the classroom. Its goal is to provide a definitive survey for an entire historical period: e.g. medieval, Renaissance, Romantic, modernist. There will be a focus on choosing the most "important" (i.e. most collected in other anthologies) works by the Major Writers, of whom there will be between five and a dozen, with a corresponding lack of concern about how "minor" writers are represented.

I'm guessing that it's only possible to put together an anthology of this kind for a body of work that is more than 100 years old; 200 is even better. Only with that kind of distance is it possible to shed worries of the kind Ron talks about: who will be upset if they are left out, whose partisans will go on the warpath for or against them, will your friends speak to you afterwards, etc. More importantly, I think, you can't do a historical anthology until a more or less complete paradigm shift separates you from that period. The aesthetic issues are no longer "live"; they can be viewed in a historic context, and you become more concerned with how you can put together a collection that is useful to you, as a later reader, than one that fairly represents every aesthetic current of the age. The vast majority of the verse written in English between 1790 and 1850 didn't sound much like Wordsworth or Coleridge, but for the most part we don't care. This is why it's possible to do a historical anthology of Victorian poetry, but not yet of modernist poetry: modernism is still "live" to us, its offspring still among us.

With this kind of anthology it's possible to have something that lasts for a while: David Perkins's English Romantic Writers remains a standard text almost 40 years after its first publication. Radical revisionism isn't out of the question--see how much anthologies of 18th-century and Victorian poetry have changed over the past decade--but those revisions tend to happen, again, because our demands on those anthologies change, not because one aesthetic school suddenly triumphs over another.

I agree that American Poetry: The Twentieth Century is as good an anthology of this sort on the 20th c. we're likely to see anytime soon (I'm using it in a class this year): but it contains 1400 poems over two volumes and barely gets halfway through the century. The Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry, even in its recent revision, seems like a hopelessly Anglocentric dinosaur--less usable each year, it simply can't keep up with the contemporary, which has been spun off into a second volume whose selections are simply too short to be usable--and the Oxford Anthology of Modern American Poetry is an odd patchwork, reflecting its editor's scholarly interests more than classroom realities. Rutgers has released a New Anthology of American Poetry, whose second volume covers 1900-1950; it's not bad but is hampered by obtrusive notes than follow nearly every poem, ending up too broad and not deep enough.

I respect Ron's sense that the number of poets is getting larger and larger with each generation; but I honestly think that is a product of contemporaneity: the fact that we are able to be aware of all of our peers in a way that we could not possibly be aware of, say, the full range of poetry going on in mid-1912, even if we lived in 1912. At some point--whether through merit, ambition, perserverence, dumb luck, or better distribution, a few people will end up getting remembered and a lot won't, and later anthologists won't be sensitive to the feelings of dead poets who get left out. Actually, though, the other sorts of anthologies I'm about to describe can play a role in determining who ends up surviving this Big Forgetting.

2. The "movement" anthology. Not a great title, but what I simply mean is an anthology centered around a particular aesthetic or group, usually produced contemporaneously by a member of that group (or sometimes by a sympathetic bystander). The goal is to stake out aesthetic ground, either by bringing the activities of a local avant-garde to the attention of a wider public or to create a "movement" by bringing together the activities of disparate writers into a single documents. The Lyrical Ballads, even if they were only written by two people, might be the first major example of such an anthology in English; but it's the 20th century that really perfects this form, from the Objectivist Anthology to The New American Poetry to, say, In the American Tree. I would probably also put anthologies organized around, say, Asian American writing in this category, for they often do (implicitly) endorse a certain aesthetic that goes hand in hand with their vision of Asian American identity and politics; but some such anthologies end up falling into category 3 (below) as well.

When they work, such anthologies can create durable new "schools" of poetry, as The New American Poetry shows. But they can also be the first step toward the Big Forgetting: they have to include some people and leave out others, drawing hard lines around what's probably a much more amorphous realm of practice. Language poetry, in many ways, has probably suffered from this phenomenon.

There are anthologies like Poems for the Millennium or From the Other Side of the Century--both of which I think are remarkable achievements--that I would consider blends of 1 and 2: they are in part historical, but their historical interest is largely in tracing the genealogy of a particular aesthetic tendency (which they may see as the central aesthetic tendency), rather than trying to single out the few writers that matter. This, I think, is the most we can hope for out of a 20th-century anthology at the moment: something that traces the history of one mode of practice in the century. Indeed, this may be the only kind of 20th-century anthology that would be useful and usable for anyone, since one that tried to do this work for several modes of writing would have to do so much work and be so big as to be incomprehensible.

3. The promotional anthology. This one's hard to separate from 2, but I think it's becoming increasingly prevalent. When you see an anthology with "young" or "new" in the title these days, it's a pretty good bet it falls into this category. I think of the Morrow Anthology of Younger American Poets from the '80s as a prime example, with something like American Poetry: The Next Generation a more recent one. You'll often find that such anthologies are prefaced with remarks about the "diverse" and "unclassifiable" nature of the work within; what usually holds such things together is the sense that anyone within might be the Next Big Thing. (Sometimes an anthology that presents itself as a (2) will in fact turn out to be a (3); I'd put Asian American Poetry: The Next Generation in this category.) The increasing number of people earning MFAs in poetry virtually demands that this genre will expand; already we're seeing series of "new work from the writing workshops" lining the shelves. I'm not claiming that this is a phenomenon solely of the workshop culture, or even that it's an inherently bad thing; Free Radicals: American Poets Before Their First Books partakes of the same logic. Every (3) anthology is going to have some element of (2), some aesthetic slant (often determined by its institutional origins--just whose rising stars it's charting); every (2) anthology is ultimately a (3), too, trying to make you pay attention to what its contributors are doing.

Monday, July 18, 2005

Joblog

Via Josh: The Chronicle of Higher Education tells us academics that if you ever want a job, don't blog. This is excellent advice, which I will add to other excellent job-seeking advice I have received over the years:

Don't be a vegetarian.

Don't be married, have a partner, or date.

Don't have a baby. Don't get pregnant or even think about getting pregnant. If you are pregnant, hide it.

Don't be a woman; or a man; or Asian; or white.

Don't drink during your campus visit; if you do, you will embarrass yourself and never get hired.

Do drink during your campus visit; if you don't, they will think you are uptight or uncultured and you will never get hired.

Corollary to above (A): Drink wine on your campus visit to prove that you are sophisticated.
Corollary to above (B): Drink beer on your campus visit to prove that you are one of the guys.

Wear an expensive suit in order to look your most professional.

Wear a moderately priced suit in order to look frugal and sensible.

Wear a highly fashionable suit in order to look cutting-edge.

Wear a cheap suit in order to look impoverished enough to need the job.

Be sure you have published many articles in impressive journals.

Be sure that you have published nothing so that you can look like you are "all potential."

Always read the Chronicle of Higher Education to know the cold, hard facts about our profession.

Never read the Chronicle of Higher Education, lest you become too depressed to continue in our doomed profession.

Monday, July 11, 2005

London

The north wall of my study in Chicago is dominated by an enormous, framed map of the London Underground, of about the same size you would see posted in an actual station. I'll confess to being a bit of a public transit junkie, so the map was one of my most prized souvenirs of a month in London a few years ago--a "research" trip in which Robin did research and I met her for lunch every day, boarding the Northern line at Borough, disembarking at King's Cross, and walking the few blocks to the British Library.

It's a bit hard to look at the map now. I'd had it up on the wall in part as an aid to composition; after I discovered how much of my pleasure in riding the Underground was rolling the station names around in my head, I began a series of poems, later titled "Elephant & Castle," that used Underground station names as its primary source of language. At times it seemed I could glimpse the whole history of England and English in these oddly abstracted place names--grand and evocative, silly at times, at others with an undercurrent of violence I was at a loss to explain.

One American interviewed on CNN noted that the London bombings had happened about the same time of day as the 9/11 attacks; that was certainly part of the psychological sameness for me, waking up to a news anchor's voice intoning when I should have been hearing Oprah. I spent most of Thursday morning watching BBC America and surfing the BBC and Guardian websites, in a muted echo of the same state of long-distance agitation and dull shock that I recall from being on the West Coast in September 2001.

It sickened me that, just hours after the bombings, there was President Bush, speaking less of sadness and sympathy than of endless war, grotesquely using the attacks as an occasion to puff up his own half-hearted efforts on African aid and global warming. By Friday, CNN analysts were speculating in bloodthirsty fashion about which nations the British government would make retaliatory strikes against.

The contrast with the British response couldn't be stronger. A press conference held by London authorities just hours after the attacks was a picture of bureaucratic efficiency, but also of restraint. After one reporter asked a question about the role of "Islamic terrorism" in the attack, a police official did a remarkable thing. He took the reporter to task by saying that he believed "Islamic" and "terrorism" did not belong together in the same sentence; that acts of terrorist violence were not compatible with the tenets of Islam as he understood them; and that police would keep an open mind about the identities of the perpetrators while conducting a thorough investigation.

Though it's hard to say from a distance, Britons seem to be shocked, hurt, determined, defiant--not vengeful.

What can Americans do to show their support? Perhaps the best thing we could do would be to tell our president to listen to the man who has to lead Britain out of this trauma--his one real ally in his war on terror--Tony Blair. Blair brought the G-8 leaders to Scotland with a challenge to double and redouble aid to Africa and to act now against global warming. Really, though, as always, such challenges were directed at us. Bush budged a little, but hardly enough. Americans should answer these attacks not by boasting of our own strengh and resolve, but by joining in full the humanitarian and environmental commitments of a nation that is now suffering in much the same way ours did four years ago.

Tuesday, July 05, 2005

5 Years of Clean Hair

I've been meaning for weeks now to put up something about the 5th-anniversary issue of SHAMPOO, and have finally decided to overcome the twin bugbears of laziness and fear of self-promotion.

Mostly because SHAMPOO deserves the attention. It's hard to believe it's been around for five years--in the world of literary journals (especially online ones), that makes it something approaching an institution--but at the same time it feels like it's always been there, cheerfully welcoming me to the big world of poetry.

That sense of welcome is, I think, what's distinctive about SHAMPOO: a kind of unabashed enthusiasm for new, good poems, but with a laid-back openness that doesn't determine in advance where those poems are going to come from or what they'll look like. SHAMPOO 1, posted in May 2000, contains the work of only one poet, William Corbett, whose name I would have known at that point (and whose presence is a nod to the journal's Boston roots); people like Timothy Liu and D.A. Powell don't start appearing until issues 4 and 6, respectively. It's a nod to how influential SHAMPOO's become that the latest issue has a good lineup of heavy hitters (like Coolidge, Silliman, Bernstein, and Scalapino), but those are only four of a throng of 60-odd contributors, most of whom I'm reading for the first time here.

But that isn't to say SHAMPOO doesn't have an aesthetic. I hope no one thinks it's condescending--or aggrandizing--if I say it feels like a Blakean blend of innocence and experience: unsentimental reminiscences, love poems that know they ought to know better, poems where the "I" finds itself there and tries to find its way out again. Certainly these are traits of editor Del Ray Cross's own work. But it's no accident that some of SHAMPOO's most prolific contributors have been folks like Jim Behrle, whose witty self-consciousness
language isn’t poetry

yet / must be the same dress size

audience is the new orgasm
doesn't keep him from getting in your face:
go on, waive your right to counsel

*I’ve* come to chew on *you*
Or Michael Farrell, whose artifices of repetition can turn unexpectedly theraputic:
another weird sunny day at the laundry
lose weight instruct the notices
go next door for cigarettes jelly and change
if theyd only feel the need for jelly we could change
Or Cassie Lewis, whose searing venture into autobiography is both a remarkable depature from her earlier work, and an extension of its calm, unsparing gaze:
After my father left, there was no longer simple day. There were boys and girls. There
were teachers. There were mothers. Relatedness and its opposite, as life developed
architecture.

I would see lines between trees, like power lines, to feel optimistic.
The embrace of dailiness, the risking of sentimentality, the lacing of autobiography with irony: these might be seen as New York School qualities, and in a way SHAMPOO, like so much other contemporary work, could be seen as part of the long project of processing and purging the NYS legacy in American writing. But that's really far too limiting a way to look at what it's doing. The best work in SHAMPOO is doing something much more synthetic--or maybe something much more basic, getting down to the simplest forms of language we use and showing how rich and strange they are, rather than focusing attention on a brilliant surface. That's what Del means by "fun":
this weekend
I had
a lot of fun

presently
I am also
enjoying myself

this weekend
I will have
so much fun

Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Starbucks Doesn't Think I'm Sexy (IV)

A few weeks ago I posted a few comments about a Starbucks Frappuccino commercial in which an Asian man is transformed into white singer Michael Buble, with follow-up posts here and here. Since then I've received a truly ridiculous amount of traffic from folks searching for information on the commercial--a motley group of advertising geeks, Buble fans, and even one guy who has a crush on the blonde woman who's the commercial's star.

A few of these visitors have taken a moment to deposit invective in my comment box, mostly along the lines of how I'm (guess what) "overreacting" or "reading way too much into it," etc. A few people have linked to me and described my position as, "This guy says the commercial is racist." That word, of course, never appeared in my posts. It's remarkable to me that, in an online and media world where venom and epithets flow so freely, the one thing you are not allowed to call someone is "racist": the label is so fearsome that people imagine you're saying it even when you're not.

I haven't seen much need to respond to these comments, although thanks to the magic of Blogger's comment notification they land in my inbox every couple of days. And to be fair, people have made positive comments as well. But this comment, which appeared yesterday, did seem worthy of response:
I was involved in producing the commericial. I wanna say that everyone turns into MB, not just the asian man. and he was supposed to be fashionable--not nerdy. the asian man just happened to outperform the rest of the auditioners and got the bigger role.

it's sad that we fought to get a racially balanced cast and because of comments like yours big companies are actually more hypersensitive about casting so-called "minorities." now companies will just be more likely to avoid the issue by avoiding casting non- caucasians. no joke. that's the fallout from this kind of stuff.
Well. Since the comment was posted anonymously (I say again: who the heck are all you anons hiding from?) I have no way of confirming if this person was really involved in the making of the commercial. But let's take this at face value for the moment.

The idea that multinational corporations and their advertising agencies make decisions based on what I, a blogger with maybe a hundred readers per day, and maybe one or two other bloggers, say, would be laughable if this person didn't seem to take it so seriously. I've seen no great tidal wave of protest against the ad: it's continued to run (indeed, you can now view it at the Starbucks website), and people are still obviously watching it with such relish they are coming to my site in droves looking for "Starbucks commercial hot blonde woman."

What's more interesting, though, is that what I would think of as a progressive position (a critique of racial stereotypes in the media) is being attacked in the name of another progressive position (the desire to have a "racially balanced" cast). In the producer's view, my remarks will actually have a reactionary effect; they will make advertisers afraid to put any people of color on TV at all, lest they be attacked by Asian American militants like myself. Really, I'm setting back the cause of racial equality.

Did you follow that? I think the logic here is worth untangling, because it's a perfect example of the way corporate "diversity" gets used as a cudgel against the "diverse" themselves.

1. The producer is proud of his/her efforts to create a "racially balanced" cast. Where on earth did the idea that this is a good thing come from, if not from remarks like mine--remarks that point out the way race is, or is not, represented in the media? You can't have it both ways: you can't take credit for putting people of color on TV and then turn around and say race on TV doesn't mean anything.

2. All representations are not created equal; mere inclusion is not enough. Would it be a good thing for Asian Americans if every show on television included an Asian playing the role of Charlie Chan, Suzie Wong, or Long Duk Dong?

3. Pardon me, but I don't think the producer understands his/her own commercial. The whole point of the bottled Frappuccino campaign--and the commercials' locations in offices--is the way the drink (surreally) transforms an otherwise dull environment. In other commercials that's taken the form of bands trailing an employee around and pushing away harassing coworkers; in this commercial it takes the form of nondescript coworkers being replaced by an ostensibly romantic figure (Buble). If the coworkers were all meant to be fashionable and appealing, the commerical just wouldn't make any sense. The commercial depends on the contrast between Buble and workaday dullness, whose racial representative would seem to be the Asian.

The producer also claims (as do several other commenters) that "everyone turns into Buble" in the commercial. Not true: only the Asian man is shown directly transformed into Buble (we see the Asian guy, he's hidden behind a door, then Buble appears wearing his clothes and glasses). The woman then proceeds through the office, which is now completely populated by Bubles, but no one else is shown directly turning into him. At the end, Buble is replaced by a white delivery guy.

4. If Starbucks advertising places such a premium on racial diversity, why is every single protagonist in every vignette that makes up the bottled-coffee campaign white? To put it differently: if the Asian American actor was really that good in the audition--if the commercial's casting was really purely meritocratic, as the producer suggests--why wasn't he chosen to be the star?

The simple answer is that it's still unthinkable for an Asian American--in particular, an Asian American man--to appear in the media as an object of identification or desire. Some of the bottled-coffee ads have starred a young white man urged on by a band or cheering section as he begins to climb the corporate ladder; others feature a young white woman whose drinking of a Frappuccino insulates her from the pressures of her workplace (often depicted as sexual: in the "Stacey" ad the protagonist is shown spurning the advances of a coworker, while the current ad does the reverse--infuses a desexualized workplace with romance). These are the people viewers are supposed to identify with (the young male striver) or desire (the woman in the current commerical variously described as "blonde chick" and "hot librarian" throughout cyberspace).

But not the Asian. Nor, for that matter, people of other races. The "racially balanced" cast, in practice, merely means creating a "colorful" background. Think again of the "Stacey" ad: the white female protagonist is followed around her office by a doo-wop group composed of four black men. So don't tell me the producers of these ads aren't thinking very, very carefully about how race signifies.

In looking at the Frappuccino commercial again--the first time I've seen it since my initial viewing--I have noticed one other detail: Just before he disappears, the Asian man is also drinking a Frappuccino. You've been warned.

Friday, June 17, 2005

Death to Reviews! (II)

The reviewing thread seems to have turned largely to a discussion of ethics/back-scratching, which I think is okay but, come on. This is a small world; nobody's going to review us poets but us poets. The marketing value of any review is that it mentions the name and title of a book and gives maybe some sense of what it's about and whether I should bother with it; a nasty review can do this as well as a good one. The number of outlets that review poetry where column-inches are such a precious commodity that we should get upset about it is laughably few.

I'm sorry to hear that Simon DeDeo has decided to quit over this discussion (and I'm no stranger to melodramatic departures), but I rather wish his farewell hadn't had the tone of a kiss-off. I've been thinking on and off over the course of the day whether I should even say anything about it, and I probably shouldn't, but it's been bugging me. Perhaps it is because I do occasionally write about underpants.

Hey, we're all "shouting into a void." It's taken me two-and-a-half years of fairly regular blogging to become what DeDeo calls one of the "usual suspects," and I doubt I have that many more readers than he does. Don't throw in the towel after six months because the Great Public hasn't found you yet. If you believe in the work you're doing, and it's productive for you and those who read you, keep doing it. For God's sake don't do it as a public service.

I suspect DeDeo's frustrated because his blog is an example of what he, and many others, would call real reviewing, not the diaristic fluff the rest of us produce. DeDeo says his blog has been about the actual practice of poetry, perhaps a cousin of the "actual poems" some wished we would return to about a month ago. Well, there's more than one way to skin that cat.

DeDeo missed the unspoken assumption of this discussion, which is precisely that blogs are not best seen as repositories of reviews. From Jordan's perspective, that's why we need a "paper of record," a print forum for the more formal work of evaluation and filtering that reviews do. From my perspective, blogs represent a shift away from the culture of print reviewing as the primary way to sift through contemporary writing--a shift that simply reflects real changes in the way poetry is produced and read. That isn't to say reviews aren't still important. I write them too. But for me they're closer to my academic work, written when I have something that I think is reasonably interesting to say about a book that seems important.

And the blog is something else again. I realize that DeDeo's comments aren't directed at me: you'll never find out what kind of underpants I'm wearing. But they are directed at some of the blogs I think are important, which do have precisely that mix of the critical, creative, and diaristic. It's odd to demand that one of the few forums in which poets and critics freely talk to each other (and in which that endangered species, the poet-critic, seems to have new life) live up to a standard of critical decorum.

Okay, Simon, I'm off my high horse. Just blogger to blogger: you've done good work and developed an audience, which is all any of us can do.

Thursday, June 16, 2005

Pamela Lu Has Arrived in Blogland

But we had banded together to begin with out of a common knowledge and desire, and we would work this commonality to the ends of the earth, if there were in fact anything to be had there, and we would shape our work as the collective autobiography that it could only be, outside of the invasions and ambushes that throttled history.
And she kicks ass.

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Death to Reviews!

Jordan wonders if we need a new "poetry paper of record," one that would do the job the NYT and Poetry aren't capable of doing anymore. "The issue is that there is no robust national discussion of poetry."

True enough. But is the antidote more reviews? Is the culture of reviewing relevant anymore to the culture of poetry?

Reviews and print culture were born together: the emergence of something like a mass market for books required the rise of a class of gatekeepers who could sort through things, pass judgment, tell the bourgeois reader what was worth buying and what not. The reviewing culture we're left with is a vestige of that, evaluating books of general interest for the mythical general reader. But a quick glance at the NYTBR or its ilk, with their focus on "serious" fiction, big biographies, and academic popularizations, shows how powerless reviews are these days to sort through even a fraction of current book production, much less to find everything that is important.

The much-ballyhooed decline of poetry reviewing in the major journals has nothing at all to do with declining readership; if anything, more poetry books are sold today than ever before. Instead, the review itself, as a form, has proven incapable of coping with what American poetry culture looks like now: a culture that's now able to support a vast variety of activity, but which increasingly has no obvious center of gravity, no three or four writers you can point to as The Only Ones Who Matter.

This is why every poetry review in a "major" journal sounds like an ax-grinding: it has to do enormous work just to position itself within the highly contested field of contemporary poetry, if it's going to have any credibility with poetry readers. Yet such gestures make poetry reviews increasingly useless, both to non-poetry readers and to poetry readers who don't share the reviewer's aesthetic.

It seems like Poetry is trying to make over its image by provoking precisely the kind of robust discussion Jordan's calling for. The results are embarrassing because Poetry doesn't know what the hell it's about, so it can only pose its questions in the broadest, most banal terms. In this atmosphere of the general, all judgments will look petulant and arbitrary to most readers, because there is no shared context, and debate is reduced to name-calling. (Poetry does, of course, have an aesthetic, but it's the aesthetic that dare not speak its own name.)

For better or worse, U.S. poetry has become largely a community of participant-observers. Poetry's current readers don't need gatekeepers who will pick out a few gems from an undifferentiated mass of work; what they want out of a review is less a thumbs-up-or-down evaluation than a response that keeps a certain aesthetic conversation going, and that expands their own sense of what poetry can do.

Don't get me wrong. I'm totally sympathetic to Jordan's aims. But I think the pitfalls of Poetry would happen to any poetry review that aimed too squarely at the general. Boston Review and Rain Taxi, when they work, work because they know their audience and speak intelligently to it; and the work there, I would guess, is more useful even to someone who doesn't share its aesthetic, because it doesn't need to spend time dynamiting the ground ahead of it.

I'm guessing that the desire for a new poetry review is also a desire for the kind of "impact" and influence that a mag like Poetry has, or was once thought to have. But, to borrow a phrase, does Poetry matter? It's a magazine that has never had more than a few thousand subscribers; Ron Silliman gets that many reads on a bad day. It's been coasting on Ezra Pound for almost a century. Now that it's unthinkably wealthy, it shows no signs of doing anything different, of being any more ambitious. It is central only in the mind of its editors and contributors, and only as long as we (among the few readers who could possibly care about it) continue to make it central.

The day when we could have a poetry paper of record--or when that would have been a desirable goal--is likely over. But that longed-for robust discussion, that conversation, is, I think, going on all around us, although maybe not in the traditional form of the review.
So what is this discussion like, who is doing the discussing? I'd imagine it would be a mixture of the known and unknown, practicing poets next to concerned citizens next to faculty (some overlap in each case, I'd guess). It would be ideal for the roster to be fifty-fifty women and men.
Welcome to blogland.

Printers Row Book Fair Report; or, Li-Young Lee's Big Suit

It didn't start well. I busted my butt to get downtown in time for Ann Lauterbach's 11 a.m. reading--an absolutely uncivilized time. Apparently Lauterbach agreed: she didn't show.

Oh well. I meandered over to the fair itself, set up along Dearborn Street in the South Loop. Summer is festival season in Chicago: just block off a street, throw up some canvas tents and you're good to go.

The fair's vendors are mostly used booksellers, interspersed with stages for readings, music, and cooking demonstrations. The booksellers are in the middle of the blocked-off street; tables along the sidewalks are largely occupied by small presses, though mostly of the type that some guy started to publish his memoirs.

I stopped off at the booth for the Poetry Center of Chicago, which was sponsoring several of the day's readings. This may have been the first time someone's ever given me something for free just for being a blogger: I was handed a copy of reVerse, a CD on which I can hear Li-Young Lee and Lou Reed. Cool. I duly promised to review it. Then I bought a copy of Lee's Book of My Nights to assuage my guilt.

After picking up John Dos Passos's Manhattan Transfer for $2, I found the booth of Third World Press, the Chicago-based publisher of Gwendolyn Brooks and other major African American poets; I leafed through a copy of Amiri Baraka's Wise, Why's, Y's that I regret not getting. From there I stumbled upon a table staffed by three languid and attractive employees of Poetry magazine, who casually encouraged me to take any issues I wanted for free; that seemed like a fair price, so I assented. I see that they've altered the cover format for the first time in decades. ("We've got $100 million! What do we do now?" "Hire a graphic designer!")

After consuming what was mysteriously described as a "kid's burger," I made my way back to the blissfully air-conditioned room where the poetry readings were taking place. As I entered the nearly full room, a festival employee stopped me and asked me if I had seen Li-Young Lee. Um, no, I hadn't. Puzzled, I wandered up to the front of the room and paused, looking for a seat. As I stood there near the podium, members of the audience began looking up at me expectantly. Oh my God, I thought. They think I'm Li-Young Lee.

I toyed with the idea of pulling Lee's book out of my bag and beginning to read from it. But, alas, good sense got the better of me and I found my way to a seat. People were still looking at me funny. I think.

Admirably enough, Lee actually arrived early, and gave the most efficient reading I've ever seen: done in 20 minutes, giving him plenty of time to sign books and get out before the next scheduled reader. He had his hair pulled back in a little ponytail--a look I must confess to have sported myself in college--and was wearing a big blue blazer and even bigger white pants, for a vaguely Stop Making Sense effect.

I've always liked Lee; he's one of the more talented and self-aware poets of the '80s generation, and certainly a beacon of intelligence and humility among the Asian American poets of that cohort. While I don't think anyone would confuse Lee with an avant-gardist, he does share that sense of the poem in process, of a work constantly under revision. He began by reading a poem called "Live On," which he described as work in progress; after concluding he paused and said, "There's something wrong with that." For a moment he seemed as if he wouldn't be able to continue; finally he said something like "well, I can't fix it now" and moved on.

One thing that's attractive about Lee's poetry--and which pushes it beyond mere confession or memoir--is his depiction of memory as a struggle, one that he loses more often than he wins. Lines chosen at random from his reading: "I've forgotten where I'm from"; "I'm through with memory"; "Is any looking back a waste of time?" So his poetry's in part the attempt to fill those gaps in memory, with an ironic awareness of the task's impossibility and even its absurdity. "Live On" created a kind of fantastic ancestry, imagining that "turning away was a survival skill my predecessors acquired" and remarking that "my name suggests a country in which bells were decorated." Lee said of another poem: "I can't tell whether this one is called 'Immigrant Blues' or 'Self-Pity.'"

Still, I wonder if in his recent work Lee isn't floundering a bit. Book of My Nights seems to find him repeating the same gestures of self-doubt and self-questioning, less ritualistically than obsessively, in poems that seem increasingly abstract. Religion has always had a role in Lee's work (his father was a minister), but what I feel at times in these poems in the consciousness of someone who feels he should aspire to religious insight but whose bent is really toward the earthly and erotic.

After the reading ended I joined the crowd of autograph-seekers. I'm pretty sure I was the only other Asian man in the room, and I wondered if Lee would register this. He did. We had the following profound conversation:

"Are you Chinese?"

"Yes, I am."

"Do you speak Chinese?"

"No, unfortunately, I don't."

"Do you write poetry?"

"Yes."

He signed, with a kind inscription.

Friday, June 10, 2005

Bernstein's Blog

Since when does Charles Bernstein have a blog?

And is it a blog? I'm not really sure. It says "Web Log" at the top but it's organized more like a traditional "what's new" page, with categories like "video," "essays," "reviews," etc. No daily entries telling us what readings Bernstein went to last night or how many papers he has left to grade or what he thinks of Star Wars Episode III.

Which is to say: c'mon, Charles, let out your inner blogger. Seriously. I'd read it.

(Thanks to Mme Chatelaine for the pointer.)

Thursday, June 09, 2005

Smells Like Chinese

From "Stinky Town," in this week's New Yorker:
Later, after driving through crowded Chinatown streets with his window down ("Smell it! Smell the air!"), Anderson parked near the Manhattan Bridge..."This is where at night everyone--if you're going to put it in the paper--urinates," he said...

"A fishy smell, the smell of Chinese food, garbage, street, stagnant water, urine," he went on. "Everything mixes together."

Monday, June 06, 2005

The Book Sale

I've spent much of the last two days at the Brandeis Book Sale, often billed as the world's largest used book sale. I can believe it: the sale occupies several massive tents sprawling across a mall parking lot a few blocks away from my parents' house. Almost nothing is more than $5; most paperbacks are $1 or $2; on the final day everything is 50 cents.

I went all the time when I was a kid; I'd guess that something like 60-70% of the books in my parents' house came from the sale, including nearly all of the novels. In the final hours of the sale they used to let you fill a grocery bag with books for a buck or two, which I took full advantage of. Looking at the shelves in my old room now you can see the results. Not knowing much, I grabbed up armfuls of books that looked impressive and had the names of authors who sounded vaguely famous but I didn't know much about; which explains my collections of the complete novels of Thomas Wolfe and Robert Penn Warren.

One could, I imagine, do some kind of massive cultural study of the kinds of books that tend to pop up en masse at book sales, rummage sales, garage sales; books that everybody seemed to have at one time but never really read, and that at a certain time seem to have exhausted their cultural cachet. When I frequented the sale in the '80s you could find innumerable copies of Joseph Heller's Something Happened and God Knows (but never Catch-22) and usually the complete works of Kurt Vonnegut several times over. And enough copies of Stephen Vincent Benet's John Brown's Body to carpet a football field. This weekend I saw lots of copies of A.S. Byatt's Possession, Primary Colors, and Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections--along with, of course, any book ever selected for Oprah's Book Club.

The poetry sections at used book sales are an especially strange zone, populated by old college textbooks, beat-up collected editions of Wordsworth or Browning printed in double columns, and two-decade-old copies of Poetry. And you can usually find the complete works of that bard of the '70s, Rod McKuen. That usually kind of depresses me, but perhaps McKuen is making a comeback; a very excited young woman browsing the poetry section called someone on her cell phone to say that the had found a bunch of books by "that '70s poet I like." I did make some interesting finds, though: Jorie Graham's Erosion, which at first glance had a certain restraint and rhythm that surprised me; some James Tate and Allen Grossman books; and a little edition of Andre Breton whose lurid pink cover I couldn't resist.