Surrealist Doodle

Surrealist Doodle
This was used as the cover of Karawane in 2006 and I have included it in on a number of bags and postcards over the years. Someone on the subway asked me if it was a Miro. I was very flattered!

Saturday, April 28, 2007

noise and silence / cage and fascism

I’m sitting waiting for the bus on a busy avenue. I’m in my head, working on papers for school that are due next week—one in about 3 days or so. I’m not sure why I’m always so resistant to sit down and start writing, because once I do start digging in to research, it’s fascinating, energizing, and on a good day, creative as well. I think it’s the difficulty of capturing the perfect sentence – the thought that forms in your head and lingers, hovers there, only to disappear as you dig for the paper, as you pull out the pen, as other thoughts, like scrambling starlets looking for their own exposure, their own moments of fame, come crowding out at you as well, stampeding their way onto the page, destroying, crowding out, the jewel you were trying to keep your eye on.

It’s an 80 degree day and speeding along come several motorcycles with very loud engines. Loud enough that my ear is still ringing from one of them, shattering my silence, scaring away all hovering thoughts, the superstars and understudies alike. And I start to think, as I always do, about motorcycles as a masculine form of transportation, as the one vehicle still allowed to make that level of noise, as men needing to make noise in the world. And then I think of Italian Futurism, the early 20th century avant garde with its love of noise and machine. Of course Futurism was a fascist movement as well in Italy. Pro-war, pro-nation, and overtly, not hyperbolically, aligned with fascism. So that begs the question—is noise pollution, noise that crowds out all other sounds, noise that invades your very mind, inherently fascist?

And then it begs the question of John Cage and 4:33, his piece that is comprised of silence. Of course we’ve talked about it as musical and as challenging the notions of what is or isn’t music, of allowing the environment into musicality, of a framing device that causes you to pay attention to the other noises around you in the moment. But could 4:33 also be anti-fascist? Consider that when he performed the piece in Italy there was a riot at the concert hall. Of course it’s been said that this is due to Italy’s classical musical tradition, its golden ages of art and music (including a long operatic tradition), and the expectations of Italians coming to a music recital. But it’s also worth asking—what does it mean to perform not only a silent piece, a non-musical piece in a recital, but an anti-noise piece 20-25 year after World War II, after the defeat of Fascism which was supported by an artistic movement that was at once patriotic, seeking to create a new modern glorious era of Italian art, jettisoning the classical, ancient, dead traditions, dead intellectual and artistic weight, and which championed noise and the machine as part of that new tradition. Bruitism, the art of noise to elicit a reaction, was a “musical” theory among Futurism and Dada alike. Was 4:33ism then the art of non-noise, the art of silence, to elicit a reaction as well?

Cage has described his own experiments in attempting to work in a “noiseless” chamber, but what he discovered is that there is no such thing as a lack of noise, ever. There is no such thing as complete silence. Even alone in a “sound proof” room, there is still the beating of your own heart, the blood inside your own eardrums. As long as there is life in a body, there is noise to be perceived.

Cage was initially performing this piece decades before this current zenith of our oversaturated, over mediatized, overly noisy world. But as Guy Debord anticipated the excessive mediatization of this world, as Andy Warhol foresaw the realization of our most narcissistic dreams, could Cage perhaps have also in some small way been reading the impending explosion of noisism of our culture (noisism also being a movement or tendency of its own) and proposing a “music” that would bring us back to ourselves, to the sound of our own heartbeats, the blood in our own ears, the silence that drowns out fascism.

Monday, April 23, 2007

My belated two cents on the whole Imus thing

Yeah I know--it took me a while to get to it.

Sometimes stupidity is just too overwhelming to even address. Sometimes I just get too angry to sit down and write. As my mother likes to say "so angry I can't see straight."

Let me get beyond the racism of nappy-haired and beyond the sexism of ho's for the moment, beyond the words themselves. What is truly sexist about this comment, in my eyes, is that it was uttered at all.

In what universe, for what reason, would you insult a team that just won the national championship? Why would it even occur to you? It's not like there were reports that they were running amok or causing trouble or rioting after their win (unlike many other sports teams and fans . . . . hmmmmm....) They won. They took their trophy. They went home to proud friends and family and classmates and behaved themselves with dignity.

Obviously these bitches needed to be taken down a peg.

Unlike male collegiate sports, women who play sports are not given special privileges in the classroom. These are not women skating by in easy classes, their professors being told by Vivian Stringer to pass these girls or else.

There's the old saw that Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did, but backwards and in high heels. This is exactly what women athletes are up against. They have to actually work hard and study and pass their courses AND be great athletes on top of it. There's not the kind of free ride, automobiles, cash and ho's that are provided to male students.

And yet, would Don Imus--or any pundit--have gone out of their way to make fun of a men's basketball team that had just won a national title? There are those who might say "sure, Imus is a racist and would have done it either way," but I highly doubt it.

The words used in the slur are beside the point to me. It's not that they don't hurt. But that they were uttered at all is the most grievious element.

On the other side, the coverage in the national media was fascinating and the way in which the white media's biases and anxieties came out and I would like to highlight just a couple of points:

1. Paula Zahn on CNN asking about why black people are allowed to make racial jokes and why white people aren't. Hmmmmm . . . a sticky wicket that one, isn't it? Were there a lot of African Americans running around Rutgers yelling "Yo go, you nappy-haired ho's." "We love our nappy-haired bitches."

2. Hannity -- is that the one?-- on Fox News saying to Reverend Sharpton "white America doesn't see what the big deal is. I mean, red states just don't understand the uproar over this." FOR REAL?? You don't understand why someone who just won a national sports title and should be really excited and celebrating would be upset at being called names? And don't f---ing speak for me. I'm white and it's this shit I don't get.

3. Anderson Cooper -- CNN -- the titles along the bottom tell me that this show is about the Imus Controversy and the Rutgers women's basketball team. Yet the two African American men on the show at the moment I get there are being asked by AC about young black men and why they wear their pants down around their knees. What does this have to do with these women??

Which is to say of course that the problem isn't entirely Imus. This situation became a lightning rod, an opportunity for "white America," the "red states" and the white media to air all of their anxiety about race at the feet of these women athletes. They have to stand in and speak for all African American youth. For all African American women. For all women. They will never be unhyphenated athletes. They can only be "black" and "female" and then athletes.

Is Poetry Therapy?

Is Poetry Therapy?

Obviously Not

Today I had a conversation with several undergraduate students who are working with me as actors in a play about the nature of poetry and in particular, my favorite straw man, poetry slam. Ultimately the question came around to, “but isn’t there some validity to poetry as therapeutic for the writer?” Unfortunately, I feel that too much poetry is about therapy for the writer. In an era of reality tv in which everyone’s “life” or some version or construction of it is trotted out as entertainment, in which we have wall-to-wall coverage of the pain and suffering of every victim of the Virginia Tech tragedy, to be quickly replaced with whatever tragedy unfortunately comes along next week or next month, what is the role of poetry as a vehicle for someone to express their personal pain or grievances onstage? The immediate impulse might be to say “but oh, isn’t it cathartic? Doesn’t it help the person to purge all of that so they can move on?”

Obviously not.

The shooter in the Virginia Tech case took creative writing classes, with Nikki Giovanni no less, one of the great living poets of our time. He “expressed himself” and obviously that was not enough to cure his demons.

The role model for all depressed young women who want to write poetry and are between the ages of 13 and 30 is Sylvia Plath. And if you’re really hardcore, you move on to Anne Sexton. Was poetry therapeutic for these women?

Obviously not.

It’s one of the clich├ęs that hits the open mic circuit periodically. The depressed Sylvia Plath wannabe shouting look at my pain. It’s not therapy. It’s a cry for therapy. It’s the sign and not the thing itself.

I’m not saying that there is not a place for people—all people, but especially young people who are working out some vision of the world and their place in it—to execute these explorations in the space of writing. Everyone who knows me or has read a single word I’ve ever written knows that I believe in the power of imagination. But true imagination involves getting over yourself. How can you find your place in the world when you only know about yourself and not the world? Art as therapy or self-expression may tell the world about your pain, but it does nothing to help you empathize with others. It carries you further and further into yourself and out of the world. The best poetry comes from people who can look outward, look at the world around them. The romantic notion of the artist as one who suffers carries with it a nearly Christian idea of martyrdom. Or perhaps something shamanistic. The martyred suffering sensitive artist will take on all of our pain for us, will look deep within and show us his naked tortured soul through which we will all be healed.

Obviously not.

This is not to criticize Nikki Giovanni or the creative writing program at VT. From what I read, she too, said that Cho’s work was a rant and had nothing of the qualities of poetry, which she also described as outward looking. But among the many ideas that we lay to rest each time something like this happens, we as writers have a unique opportunity to take a look at one of our most cherished assumptions about ourselves. Our mediatized world is becoming increasingly solipsistic. We watch other people’s pain and measure our own against it. Or we crave the opportunity to display our own pain, to gain the world’s sympathy for our own unfortunately all-too-common plights. Could our overemphasis on bearing our own wounds to the world even actually be a contributing factor—one among many—in the increasing neuroticization of the world and even inadvertently to situations like this.

I know. Now I sound like a Republican. Help me.

I was set to teach a poetry workshop to high school students last fall, which lasted about a day or two. I made the mistake of tipping my hand and telling them that we were going to delve into some experimental and Dadaistic work and they wanted no part of that. But I was struck by one of the girls who kept saying over and over to people “just write what you feel.” Is that what high school kids are being taught by English teachers that don’t know how they are supposed to teach concepts like “creativity” and “self-expression”? “Just write what you feel.” It was like a mantra and she said it over and over again. Cho, the VT shooter wrote what he felt. And it came out in angry rants. His plays were wish fulfillments about people that wronged him. Did this serve him in any palpable way?

I tried to jump in, to make a subtle amendment. “Write what you see,” I told my short-lived poetry class. I sent the students off on a sort of scavenger hunt throughout the building to write down descriptions of what they saw. Colors, textures, cars, sky, walls, tables, murals. Description. When I shared my own newly-written piece with the group, the “write what you feel” student was surprised. “You wrote that just now?” she asked, wide-eyed?

What if our hurt, angry, self-obsessed shooter were with us now, forced to write what he saw inside of a classroom full of dead bodies, blood and bullets mixed among chalk and the first smells of spring coming in through an open window? What if he had found a way, or been led to a way, to get outside of himself, outside of his own head, to look at the students around him? By the time he got to Virginia Tech it was obviously too late. The teachers who worked with him and his fellow students report being unable to get past his self-imposed silence.

I have no idea what things happened to this young man in his life. He obviously needed actual therapy and I’m not in any way suggesting that poetry could have saved him. But neither can we look at this instance and continue to insist that poetry is therapy, that adding one more layer of solipsistic self-absorption to the saturated simulacrum of our pain-obsessed society, is helping any of us or moving any of us forward.