Monday, May 31, 2004

I Am Now Civilized
for Alli Warren

It is no longer possible for anything to happen. Wall jump. On the scoreboard each bulb is lit in succession until they are indistinguishable from crying, a stain spreading from my pocket. Each boss has a weakness. Turn the corner and poppies bloom, newsprint scattered everywhere.

Then it’s time for sharing with those who are with us. Vowels are shiny and so is the right side of the space bar. We can help with that. Despite our best intentions we have become housewares, piled up like a shrine in the corner. Now turn to face the wall.

My hands spread open and does a dove come out, or do I tear a dollar bill in pieces and then extract it whole from my mouth? Hairy or furry. Would you agree that pornography is a victimless crime? Come and lie down, agog. Flash flood. This is a whole row of nothing but meaning.

Wednesday, May 26, 2004

The Pursuit of the Scientific Life
for Alli Warren

Without a medium through which to propagate. Cream sodas. She married into a grateful man, carrying cardboard boxes down to the train station. We are willing to stipulate bones. Fingers for probing clogged drains.

What to say about fire and water, each theory bent back on itself like skin. Reverse lookup. This is a sentence about belief not perception.

At each ten-second interval you will feel a small shock delivered through the soles of the feet. Would you describe this as a) burning b) tingling c) aching d) stabbing? This sentence has no truth value. See loop detail.

My old lady’s expecting me so I turn the knob all the way to the right. Steady state. I am the smallest possible unit of meaning. If you have reached this message I am likely already surrounded, overstocked with ash.
This week's New Yorker has a Talk of the Town piece on bloggers with book contracts, a periodic source of fascination/jealousy/hysteria online and off. I guess it's because that's the primary way the print media's been able to understand the blogging phenomenon--as raw material, apprenticeship for novel- or memoir-writing (for autobiographical or gossip blogs) or for columned punditry (for political bloggers). It's hard for me to imagine a poetry/poetics blog having that kind of relationship to print, perhaps simply because there isn't any incentive for poetry publisher to go trolling for talent in that way, or perhaps because poetry blogs seem more ends in themselves rather than straining to emerge as something else.

Well, the piece isn't really particularly interesting except for this last comment by the agent scouting bloggers:

"Anyway, I've started working wiht a couple of graduates of the Iowa Writers' Workshop. It's very exciting. They're interesting witers--with training, and degrees to show for it."

Take that, you untrained bloggers.

There's also an awestruck profile of Illinois Senate candidate Barack Obama that should strike terror into the hearts of the right; this guy is good. At one point, an Illinois congresswoman goes into a meeting with George W. Bush sporting a campaign button:

On her way out, she said, President Bush noticed her "OBAMA" button. "He jumped back, almost literally...And I knew what he was thinking. So I reassured him it was Obama, with a 'b'. And I explained who he was. The President said, 'Well, I don't know him.' So I just said, 'You will.'"
I'd like to think that the major TV networks' declining to carry President Bush's "major" speech on Iraq on Monday was some kind of turning point, a gradual and groggy waking-up from a previously abject fealty to the Bush agenda. An outraged Trib column this morning reminded me how shocking this really ought to be: that a prime-time address by a president (especially one who almost never speaks to the media) during a time of war on the conduct of that war would not be deemed worthy of live broadcast.

Maybe the networks were just realizing what a growing majority of Americans already know: Bush has nothing new to say on Iraq. No ideas, no answers, no apologies, no solutions. His much-vaunted "plan" was simply a rehashing of things that we're either already supposed to be doing (the June 30th "transfer" of sovereignty to a powerless Iraqi government) or should have done already (the rebuilding of basic infrastructure).

Some pundits note that it's the end of sweeps season and the networks didn't want to disrupt their big-ticket programming. But maybe even more telling is the fact that the White House didn't even bother to ask for the time, which the networks probably would have felt obligated to provide. I think this is a sign that even the administration realizes that Bush's rhetoric--once held up as an exemplar of force and moral clarity--is become a liability, as it's becoming clear that the administration has no idea how to handle the complexities of rebuilidng Iraq, or even of managing its own forces there. Better to make a lot of noise about Bush making a "major" policy address--no shallow thinker, he!--and then make sure that no one actually sees it.
Robin's students were agog at the American Idol T-shirt she was wearing under her blazer in class today. None of them would admit to watching it, of course (I'm guessing U of C undergrads are above television), but they did ask her whether she had gotten the shirt by auditioning. She was polite enough not to point out that we're far beyond the show's permissible age range.

Tuesday, May 25, 2004

Okay, looks like I'll be back in the Bay Area in about two weeks--June 10-14--in order to don a big goofy red-and-black gown with huge down-to-my-knees sleeves and a hexagonal hat with a gold tassel on top so I can sit in a football stadium for two hours to listen to Sandra Day O'Connor and then maybe they will hand me an envelope that probably has nothing in it and maybe then they will even give me a sandwich. You're all invited.

There's no way I'll top Robin's commencement performance last year, though. When she arrived to line up for the procession she was one of the first ones there and it turned out the flag-bearer for the School of Humanities and Sciences hadn't shown. So when the grad students come out there's Robin leading the way into the stadium with an enormous flag in a holster strapped around her waist. Not to mention which the bizarrely designed Stanford Ph.D. gowns are open in the front, showing off the fact that Robin was wearing a quite short Stanford-red satin dress with matching and very tall stacked-heel sandals, marching right across the dewy grass.

It's my first time back since December and I'm a little nervous; don't know what to do with all those clear skies and sun and traffic. (I actually had a brief moment of nostalgia--seriously--about driving down 280 the other day. Has anyone ever seen that sign claiming it's the "world's most beautiful highway"? I saw it like once but could never find it again.) I'll assume everything still in order. Oh, wait, didn't y'all fall into the ocean or something? No, sorry, that was a movie. (If anyone's been under the threat of natural disaster it's us--daily tornado watches and severe thunderstorm warnings and floods and what have you, crazy temperature swings from the high 80s to the mid-40s.)

Strangest of all is that I'm coming back to officially sever the last of my ties to the Bay Area--surrender the keys to the English department and my library carrel. I think this year-long goodbye's been easier in a lot of ways--a gradual attenuation that hasn't been as painful as I'd feared, in part because Chicago's proved to be more than absorbing, in part because other matters have left little time for nostalgia. Cassie's departure, too, proving there's life after San Francisco.

But hey: it's five days. Crazy poetry weekend, anyone?

Monday, May 24, 2004

We Spit Into Each Other
for Alli Warren

Your service is unimpressive. Bone fragments, a layer of ash. He is cradling his son in his arms as I rearrange the houseplants in the shape of intestines. You’ll feel a stick, then hopefully nothing.

Imagine that it is Wednesday, unless you are imagining that it is Thursday, in which case please check this box.

Today, thanks to surgery, I am a wide-eyed redhead. But when we spit into each other it’s like Christmas with sand between our toes. No, I’ll unzip you, please. Places don’t have names but they feel like pink.

Around my throat is an enormous bowtie, breathing and loosening. It makes me want to hug everyone to a new chest. Something like cough. This opportunity is smeared with chocolate. As the acrobat falls to her death the clowns leap into the ring ,showing their underpants.

Sunday, May 23, 2004

Here's your Sunday Right-Wing Chicago Trib Watch:

--A gleeful front-page prediction that Kerry's strategy of playing up his Vietnam service will backfire; an opinion piece obviously commissioned to support this idea goes so far as to call Kerry's service "unimpressive". (I also note that the Trib has swallowed the right's line about the emergence of a voting bloc of "NASCAR dads," a category obviously made up by Republican strategists because they can't get any soccer moms to vote for them anymore.)

--The latest paean to white Africa by correspondent Laurie Goering, whose recent gems include a piece blaming South Africa's social ills on affirmative action; today's article laments the advent of land reform in Namibia, a lament sounded almost entirely from the perspective of Namibia's white farmers, who currently own over 80% of agricultural land. The only farmer quoted in the article is a white rancher, who's portrayed as a victim of reforms that are "wrecking the future of this country," while Namibia's president is slammed for his "fiery rhetoric" against "neocolonialism and underdevelopment." The article is headlined "Namibians fret about land reform," but the article's own evidence suggests that it's only whites who are doing the fretting.

--An article on gay weddings in Provincetown that describes a T-shirt bearing the slogan "Marriage is a human right, not a heterosexual privilege" as "strident."

--A front-page Perspective piece (by a Chicago-area Muslim doctor) that dismisses the thousands of photos of abuse of Iraqi prisoners by declaring, "To judge every American by these is patently unfair and unjust." Yes, I''m sure all of Iraq weeps for us. The piece makes the truly bizarre argument that judging the U.S. occupation of Iraq by these photos is akin to post-9/11 racism against American Muslims, because "the generalization of anyone is wrong." Except that as far as I can tell the 9/11 attackers didn't wear a nation's military uniforms and act under the direction of that nation's elected leaders.

Oh, and this just in: New AP video shows footage of the wedding celebration at which some 40 Iraqis were later killed by U.S. bombs. The U.S military's response? "Bad people have celebrations too."

Saturday, May 22, 2004

My Supple Spot
for Alli Warren

Kind of like incisors, clenched through meat. Strappy sandals. Our friends become successful and then we’re running deep under them, rattling their hardwood floors. Gabby, as in idiot, or decline to state. Dear Daddy, I am moving upward through my pink-toothed dress and then it is like being chewed by something when I am very thick and sticky.

Before my first book I was a dialect. Words drifted two letters to the right or left, like a sieve. The leavings formed a glossary, soon published to general acclaim.

When you touch my supple spot it feels worse than it looks. Ping-sized hail. You could spread tired with a trowel. Press here to enunciate.

I raise questions but my fingers have been removed at the joint. It’s a perfect binding, wrapped around both wrists and cupping the genitals. The books are packed so tightly that pulling one out leaves no space at all. Your assent would be helpful but is not required.

Friday, May 21, 2004

Ron Silliman on the Free Radicals anthology, observing, among other things, that "a 150-page collection by Del Ray Cross would be a Major Event indeed." Hear hear!

I haven't seen the anthology, but I admit to having been a little weirded out by the subtitle, "American Poets Before Their First Books." The title suggests a catch-them-while-you-can, next-big-thing tone to the project, a tone Ron generally adopts himself. But--as came up in Ron's comment boxes--does this make too much of the holy grail that is the First Book?

A number of the poets in the anthology--Jim and Del, and I'm sure most of the others--certainly do have books, and sometimes more than one. I have some of them. But however good they are, I guess these are only chapbooks and not Books.

So what does the latter mean? Perfect binding? More than 50 pages? Publication by a prestigious press with access to major distributors?

What makes the First Book, perhaps, is its role as the first major milestone in the Career, its announcement of arrival. I wonder, though, whether this model still makes sense--or, more modestly, whether it makes sense for everyone. In a poetry world that's mostly networked and localized (as opposed to public and national) does everyone have to have "ambition" in the old-fashioned sense, or does ambition always have to find expression in high-profile book publication? Might not all these insignificant web publications and chapbooks and blogs be not just stepping stones but other ways of getting something done? Are people going to be disappointed with the folks in Free Radicals if they don't come out with a book from Knopf or Graywolf or Fence in the next two years?

I don't presume to speak for the actual intentions or ambitions of any of the poets in an anthology I haven't read. But I do wonder if the way the anthology's framed imposes an arc of the Career that might be stifiling to what some of them might be trying to do.

Thursday, May 20, 2004

Picked up David St. John's The Face and Marjorie Perloff's new memoir, The Vienna Paradox, at the Co-op this morning. I'm already halfway through Marjorie's book and it's a delight: as much cultural criticism as autobiography, a careful reconstruction of the culture and intellectual life of the Vienna of her childhood, before her family fled the Nazis in 1938.

The "paradox" is, in part, that of assimilated Austrian Jews who claimed Viennese high culture as their own ("German by the grace of Goethe," as one chapter heading puts it) even as that culture turned against them; Marjorie cites the example of her own grandfather, a high official in the Austrian government who remained after the Anschluss, believing he would be protected and expecting to secure his pension, finally able to escape to Italy only because of his diplomatic acquaintance with Mussolini.

But above all, distinguished blurbs from John Ashbery and Guy Davenport report themselves at the mercy of the plucky little girl in pigtails who smiles out from the book's cover, who could already write at age seven of her flight from Vienna in her American school notebook:

On the train, we went to sleep right away. But my cousins, as is typical of them, complained they didn't sleep all night. In Innsbruck, we had to get out and go to the police station where they unpacked all our luggage and my poor Mommy had to repack everything. There was such a mob and we had to wait so long that Mommy said she would unpack a book and I sat down on our hatbox and read. When we finished, we went to the station restaurant where we had ham rolls that tasted very good. And as I was sitting in this restaurant, I didn't yet have any idea that later in America I would write a book. Well, I hadn't experienced much yet but, just wait, there will be much more!

Haven't cracked open the David St. John book yet; I've only read a few scattered pieces of his in the Boston Review, which I enjoyed. Was also tempted by Fanny Howe's Tis of Thee--perhaps another day.
Woo-hoo! Dodie's in town in August...

MYOPIC POETRY SERIES -- a weekly series of readings and poets' talks

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

Sunday May 23 – April Sheridan and Simon Pettet

Upcoming Events

May 30 - Dana Ward

June 6 - Larry Sawyer and Lina Ramona
June 13 - Jen Besemer
June 20 - Amina Cain and Luba Halicki
June 27 - "aaaaaaaaaaalice" - Jennifer Karmin performing with Kathleen Duffy and Kelly Jackson

July 4 - no reading scheduled
July 11 - Gene Tanta & Ramona Mirela Ciupag
July 18 - P.F. Potvin
July 25 - Crayon #4 Release Reading

August 8 - Dodie Bellamy
Thick as Nickel
for Alli Warren

I have taken a vow of chastity, keeping me from doing anything but holding the camera. Waiting-room watercolor. Unsure what to make of the fact of real estate, the taste of charcoal. When I look into your eyes there is a speaking of underpants.

My grandmother is unrolling her sleeve. Inside there is a wad of cash or a trowel or an orange.

I am flung at nothing in particular. Flared nostrils of the columnists. I am saying, doctor, it’s more than I can bear. He says, bear.

The two-way crackles and then passes through the frame. In the sketches what will be dots are strokes. When we say underpants we mean hair or teeth, worn at a rakish angle.

Sunday, May 16, 2004

Softening Up
for Alli Warren

The house is held together by an editorial board. When they pull away the drywall we come walking out on all four legs. It’s like being able to see through a fogged-up window or a double fold. I contain vague. Continuing over the right half of the brain, we observe dark cul-de-sacs of meat ready for extraction. There is a persistent smell of dogwood or urine.

Someone arrives here. After eighteen minutes in the reversibles we are able to write a message on the car door from right to left.

Half a gasp has to be half something else. It might be falling like stairs or falling like eyes. Which is me. You have gotten pretty good at weather. You still crave underpants but we leave that to one side.

When the diagram is projected onto the green screen all notation is lost, so we are left with only the outlines of rooms with no way of knowing their dimensions or functions. I label this den, this parlor, this carry-on. You may disagree but are forced to recognize the usefulness of at least having a start. You blur lines to indicate windows, erase them entirely for doors. Several of your markings resemble ears of pigs or corn. These arrows are passages for inhalation and come to an end in the linen closet.
Ron Silliman on Foetry, Fence, and external validation, which is, I think, along the same lines as my post on Foetry last month.

The jousting that's been going on in Ron's comment boxes--a battle, remarkably enough, that has even drawn in the top editors at Fence itself--really only illustrates the futility of carrying on this debate at the level of poetic friendships or cronyism. While I'm not crazy about the nameless critic who's been "outing" Iowa MFAs (and I'm especially not crazy about anonymous commenting--who are you hiding from, really?), I'm even more bemused/dismayed by the responses from Rebecca Wolff and Max Winter, whose mixture of moral indignation and petty dismissiveness kind of makes you wonder why they got involved in the discussion in the first place. Why should they feel so threatened by such attacks?

Anyway, the larger point is that with any literary institution, critics will always be able to point to a social network that seems to underlie ostensibly aesthetic choices, while the institution can defend itself by pointing to ostensibly objective procedures designed to guarantee fairness. Neither perspective acknowledges the profound link of the social and the aesthetic; styles get attached to institutions and communities in ways that go far beyond arguments over who knows whom.

I do feel--especially given the kind of work they tend to publish--the Fence folks ought to know better on some of these issues than to simply say that Iowa grads have "more ambition" than other poets (Winter) or that the process is just evidence that the Iowa admissions committee knows what it's doing (Wolff). The experimental aesthetic that Fence supports has had a long struggle for recognition over the past few decades, and it's certainly by no means necessarily true that fifteen or twenty years ago Iowa or other well-known literary institutions could have supported the kind of work that now appears in Fence and elsewhere. In fact, such work was generally suppressed by appeals to the same standards that Wolff and Winter now use to defend their own publication--those of quality, objective judgment, and institutional ratification.

That Wolff and Winter can now make such appeals certainly shows how much the landscape has shifted; Fence itself is now viewed as a site of power, in which external judges have to be brought in to ensure the fair distribution of its resources. Perhaps the best evidence for this is that neither editor feels able to make the most obvious and unapologetic response to cries of favoritism: "Yes; that's right; I pick whatever the hell I please because I like it." That's pretty much the standard prinicple of any small-press endeavor, because what other justification could there be for investing all that effort with no prospect of return? That Wolff and Winter can't appeal to this principle demonstrates the extent to which Fence has departed from this model to become an old-fashioned literary institution, with editorial boards and external referees and procedures to distribute what is now seen as a valuable resource: publication by Fence.

There's plenty of reason to greet this with great enthusiasm. Fence has, by and large, produced good work and brought it to an increasingly wide audience. Good for them. But the persistence of the signifier "Iowa" as a symbol of literary power--and as a target for resentment--suggests that something like Fence represents less a revolution in American poetry than a continuation of roughly the same structures of power with a different face, something that its editors could be a bit more circumspect about.

Thursday, May 13, 2004

Just Like Us, But Thicker
for Alli Warren

The photograph of the Golden Gate Bridge has been retouched so that a football crowd rises out of the fog. Each foam hand grips a McDonald’s Adult Happy Meal. The crawl says MEAT PEOPLE. I turn the page and there she is, the old one in the yellow polyester coat, grinning and pointing. Pornographic reveal. We can’t pretend anymore that the air isn’t full of little vortices turning with locked-in teeth: as if it could have been empty? Preserves lined up in tiny jars extend to the horizon. The sign has nothing to do with anything else and thus is allowed to refer to reality.

I was embarrassed to have been caught reading poetry over your shoulder, when in fact I was reading your shoulder.

Jail is a future heirloom. There’s nothing left to steal so we had to make something up and post a copy on every door. It’s inevitable that someone would come along and try to make sense of what we’d written, while we watched from a remote location. Fried egg eyes, chicken nose, bacon smile.

This would be the ideal place for a bumper sticker. Each one has no thickness but if you stack enough of them they will.
Good one, Reen.

Wednesday, May 12, 2004

Eileen on the dangers of being an Asian American general.

I've heard some Asian Americans argue that the Bush Administration has been good for Asian Americans because it has a few Asian American cabinet officials (Norman Mineta, Elaine Chao). Eileen's post is a good reminder of the cynical calculations behind such appearances: put a few faces of color (Colin Powell, Gen. Shinseki) out there to boost the administration's credibility and provide cover for racist policies, then brush such figures aside when they turn out to have minds of their own.

Tuesday, May 11, 2004

The technique of suddenly ending
for Alli Warren

with an as-yet-unnamed dog like shading
with fuck-me boots
with a "happy birthday blog"
with something soft spattered on the windshield
with fog no fog doesn’t look that dirty smog
with a broomstick or a chemical light
with an approved device
with thicker
with black assigned a number out of the set of numbers
with a medium drink
with profound apologies for all those who might have been humiliated
with a head in the bag
The Sun-Times asks: Can rockers be poets?
Check out the lovely new cover for Pinoy Poetics. (Thanks Eileen!)

Monday, May 10, 2004

So it seems the new Blogger interface just really doesn't like Netscape. (Well, in fact, Blogger software in general doesn't like Macs, which I don't get.) Working in Internet Explorer is a little better. But part of what's been so appealing about Blogger to me (and, I imagine, to a lot of people) is that it's been relatively low-tech and hence relatively idiot-proof; I have the energy to blog, just barely, but not the energy to figure out precisely how my blogging software works.

Blogger proudly proclaims that its new software is "100% geek-ified", which just depresses me; all these poets' clumsy and faintly ugly and definitely amateurish Blogger blogs have felt to me like a kind of tech beachhead--content, ironically enough, trumping form.

Or maybe I just fear change.

Anyway, all of this is probably going to accelerate my abandonment of Blogger in favor of blogging at my own site somewhere; I know that would be at some level more work, but at least I would have a bit more control over the means of production.
My verdict: this new Blogger interface really stinks.
I'm surprised that in the coverage of prisoner abuse in Iraq I haven't heard any discussion of the infamous Zimbardo prison experiment, in which students assigned to play the role of prison guards became so abusive and violent toward their "prisoners" that the experiment had to be aborted.
We're flipping channels the other night and come across a news channel discussing abuse of Iraqi prisoners with the headline: "Who's to Blame?" To me, the answer seems obvious: "Bush." But Robin points out that while Bush might be responsible for all manner of things, maybe we can't hold him directly responsible for the conditions inside one Iraqi prison.

At first this seems reasonable to me; indeed, it's the same logic that the Bush administration is using to protect the president and Donald Rumsfeld, laying the blame squarely on a few low-level, bad-apple soldiers (and on a reserve general who was the only woman to hold a command in Iraq). But the more I think about it, the more I think my first instinct was right. We have no one but Bush to thank that the major achievement of the "war on terror" has been a culture of lawlessness, from the Patriot Act to secret detentions to "unlawful combatants" denied even the most basic of human rights.

The Bush administration's idea of a response to the abuse scandal is to put Abu Ghraib prison under the command of a general whose previous assignment was Guantanamo Bay, where no one is allowed to see what's going on, prisoners are explicitly denied any legal rights, and those who try to talk about the place are charged with espionage. In fact, it was this general's idea to place military police in the service of intelligence-gathering interrogators--a decision, it's becoming clear, that is heavily to blame in allowing abuse of prisoners to become so widespread, so casual.

A lot of people are saying Bush should fire Rumsfeld. Sure. There's no doubt Rumsfeld knew about abuse of prisoners and not only did nothing, but didn't give a damn. But Rumsfeld's departure would almost certainly mean at least the temporary installation of deputy secretary Paul Wolfowitz as defense secretary--and if anybody could be worse, Wolfowitz would be. Rumsfeld, for all his arrogance and bluster, is at base a soulless, tunnel-vision technocrat, one who's so wedded to his vision of a "smaller" (read: understaffed, underprepared, undersupported, and misguided) military that he's willing to sacrifice thousands of American lives and destabilize the whole Middle East to prove his point. (The overwhelmed and untrained reservists who perpetrated the known abuse are the poster children for Rumsfeld's Army.) But Wolfowitz is a real fanatic--set from day one on the invasion of Iraq and a sweeping vision of American empire in the Middle East--and would likely prove impervious to even the limited kind of embarrassment that Rumsfeld's experiencing right now. Hit one weasel in this administration and a bigger one pops up.

Saturday, May 08, 2004

Nor are poets excepted from the Chicago distinction of "retro" vs. "metro."

Q: You always seem so not Chicago, with this I mean you are not a beefy sports fan type how do you reconcile Chicago aesthetics with your work?

A: People often think I'm from the east coast. I guess it's because I'm in touch with my feminine side. Have you seen my hair lately?

Thursday, May 06, 2004

Keep hearing "Hugh Jackman" as "Huge Ackmen."
I got an email from Jason Chin, the "retrosexual" pictured on the second page of Sunday's Trib story (not the trendy Asian guy pictured on the story's first page). (Chin's quoted as saying: "All of my friends dress like bums...We dress up when we need to, kind of like firemen around a firehouse waiting for the bell to go off...I buy whatever shampoo is on sale at Walgreens.") He tells me that he was interviewed and photographed nearly two months ago, which casts doubt on my suggestion that his photo was chosen to counteract suspicions that portraying an Asian guy as the "metrosexual" might be racist.

But I don't know if that changes the basic fact that the cover image puts a questionable racial stereotype into play. There was still a conscious decision on someone's part to make the "retrosexual" (who's associated with totally secure Midwestern masculinity) a white guy and the "metrosexual" (who's associated with questionable masculinity and sexuality) an Asian--a choice that also speaks to me about the desire Chicago continues to have to see itself as a white city, since the "metrosexual" is portrayed as an L.A./NYC phenomenon.

Meanwhile, Chicago says: "I am so straight that it hurts."

Wednesday, May 05, 2004

Air America Radio seems to be off the air in Chicago for the time being. My first inkling that there was a problem came a couple of weeks ago when I flipped on the radio to 950 AM and heard what sounded like Cantonese talk radio coming out of the speaker. Apparently a financial dispute led the station's owner to pull the plug; a court injunction put the station back on the air through April 30, but now it's gone for good.

Monday, May 03, 2004

Just when I convince myself that Chicago isn't the cultural backwater that people say it is, the Sunday Trib comes along and knocks my block off. This can usually be accomplished through just a glance at the front page of the Perspective section (I can't usually bring myself to look further than that), which has recently featured such gems as a slew of defenses of "traditional marriage"; this week there was a self-congratulatory editorial about how the victory of African American state senator Barack Obama in the Democratic primary shows how Illinoisans have all gotten "beyond race", which seems to mean that white Illinoisans no longer hate blacks so much that white voters would automatically oppose a black candidate. (This in contrast to the "bad" old days of the '80s and Chicago's first black mayor, Harold Washington, when the City Council divided essentially along racial lines--old-guard white Democrats against black Democrats and a handful of white "lakefront liberals" who backed Washington.)

That's pretty indicative of how the Chicago press has responded to Obama; even though both the Trib and the Sun-Times endorsed him, the Sun-Times felt obligated to declare that its endorsement was not "a gratuitous nod to [Obama's] race"--as if the assumption would be that an endorsement of a black candidate could only be motivated by political correctness, and that any such candidate would be presumed underqualified. Thus the papers get to score points by praising the "right" kind of African American candidate (Harvard education, university professor), while still holding him at arm's length, and then get to use it as a club against other African American leaders. I'm sure that the Trib's colorblindness won't prevent it from endorsing Obama's lightweight (white) Republican opponent, Jack Ryan, in the general election, or from unleashing nasty attacks on Obama in the months to come.

This Sunday, though, the evidence was in a cover story trumpeting the Chicago man's rejection of the fashion-conscious, well-groomed "metrosexual" in favor of the "retrosexual" , with the latter being the guy who is "clean but not coifed, 'put together' but not cutting-edge. He spends weekends at sports bars, avoids malls, is in shape but not ready for the cover of Men's Health. He watches sports, not E! channel red-carpet coverage of the Oscars."

The real kicker was the illustration; the "retrosexual" was a blond-haired white guy wearing a blue button-down shirt and khakis, while the "metrosexual" was a guy in a colorful striped shirt and nice slacks--who just happened to be Asian. (That somebody on the Trib must have worried about racism was clear from the photo on an inside page that showed a "retro" Asian guy dressed just like the white guy on the cover.)

Trust Chicago to take embattled white hetero masculinity (and homophobia, and racial stereotype) and turn it into some kind of fashion statement.

And the Asian guy's stripey shirt looks familiar. Oh, damn. I think it's hanging in my closet.

Saturday, May 01, 2004

Two years ago, a friend I'd known since junior high went missing while visiting friends in Ohio. His car was found abandoned along a rural highway, but there was no sign of him. Earlier this week the police found some bones about a quarter mile from where his car was found, and they've just been identified as his. Because it had been so long--and they were not able to find most of the skeleton--the local authorities say they will not be able to determine the cause of death.

A few months ago a former girlfriend of his thought she spotted him in a Chicago restaurant; she saw a man who seemed to have gestures and expressions that were identical to his. She left the restaurant and called another friend of ours who rushed over to the restaurant, but by that time the man was gone and the restaurant's staff had no memory of his being there.
And while we're on the topic of bland eclecticism, here's another relevant Poggioli tidbit:

"A period having many styles has none...[M]ass cultures...take their styles where they find them--from cultures and societies different from theirs. In short, the absence of a style of its own is not exclusive to capitalism or socialism, but happens in any democratic society, whether it is liberal or not; in any 'quantitative' civilization, which is technical and industrial.

"Precisely by being styleless, this type of civilization prefers an eclectic style, where what is technical ability in an aesthetic sense joins with technical ability in a practical sense...The artist in our time, precisely because he knows how to imitate effortlessly all techniques, ancient or modern, scientific or artistic...refuses to accept as his own style what has now become a purely mechanical production, what is thus a true negation of style...This tolerance is naturally only a purely negative reality and as such, provokes, in turn, the artist's intolerance...[T]he modern writer has no choice but to assume an attitude of absolute intransigence in the face of the indistinct multitude of his readers, an undifferentiated antagonism." (124-6)
Hey Eileen: So I'm wading through Renato Poggioli's Theory of the Avant-Garde (yes, still) and I come across, believe it or not, a reference to Jose Garcia Villa! Okay, not a very nice one, but I thought you might be interested.

"To the illusion that the arts were interchangeable and mutually corresponded, there was often added a childish belief that a transformation which was not formal and organic, but external and mechanical, could have a final and absolute value, rather than a merely instrumental and relative one. As an extreme example, suffice it to cite the so-called comma poems of the young Philippine-American poet José Garcia Villa, in which the space between each word is occupied by that punctuation mark: a purely arbitrary graphic novelty in which the poet claimed to see a literary equivalent of…Seurat’s pointillistic paintings!" (134)