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?"


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.

Jorie Graham Is Hot!

Chicago's annual Printer's Row Book Fair is on Saturday and Sunday--an orgy of readings and performances and book vendors lining downtown streets. Griping about the poetry offerings is a local pastime; there's Li-Young Lee and Ann Lauterbach and not a whole lot else. In fact, the lineup's usually designed to affirm the iron grip of slam poetry on the Chicago scene; even poor little rich Poetry magazine could only manage to send Christian Wiman into the fray.

And what scheduling genius put the biggest-name poet (Lee) head-to-head with the biggest-name fiction writer (Nick Hornby)? Oh, that's right, we poets don't read novels.

Well, if you are looking for some guidance to the world of poetry, here are some words of wisdom from the Poetry Center of Chicago's Kenneth Clarke, quoted in the Trib:

Funny poetry is hot. Humor is definitely something that has been embraced.

Poetry by celebrities is also wildly popular. Also hot are people like Jorie Graham, who is deep, thoughtful, and whose attention to each word is incredible. She's always pushing her readers.

Saturday, June 04, 2005

How My Immigration Interview Might Go

Canadian Immigration Official: Have you ever been associated with a group that used, uses, advocated or advocates the use of armed struggle or violence to reach political, religious, or social objectives?

Me: Yes.

Canadian Immigration Official: What is the name of this group?

Me: The United States of America.