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!

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Chapter 8 of My Accursed Novel


Maureen sat down on what passed for the beach and stared into the enormous lake. ignoring behind her the sculpted paved path on which joggers and elderly couples wandered by chatting, and glancing only occasionally into the lake.

Four birds stood just at the edge of the water, with round heads, duck bills, grey feathers and white breasts. Three of them stood to the left, tittered and ran backwards from the lapping waves coming to the shore. The fourth, just in front of her, stood still, unfraid of the water rush its spindly legs. Maureen and the bird stayed still, hunkered down against the breeze, staring into the water.

Maureen suddenly wanted to feel wild. Her skin itched to touch the sand. She wanted nothing more than to take off her tshirt and roll barebreasted through the sand. The solitary bird toddled off in front of her, not quite fully up to the others, always keeping a little distance before it finally and slowly joined its friends. One of the birds began to suqll, its head pointed upward, neck pumping up and down like a calliope, and they spread their wings out across the water, no form, no V, no leader, just an agreed upon path.

Maureen felt so peaceful that she began to feel restless. She should be doing something. She wouldn’t be able to sit here forever, so it became difficult to sit at all. How long should she stay here? She looked around behind her and noticed a small alcove further down the beach, which looked somewhat secluded. She picked up her bag and walked toward it.

Once there, she settled into the stones. The fit her perfectly. Crossing her legs into a perfect lotus, her back straight and the waves rolling toward her. She sat with her eyes closed, facing the lake and feeling the red warmth of the sun on her eyelids, smiling, and sunning herself like a lizard praying on the rock.

Maureen looked around. She could see almost no one. Just a few people on the walkway, but they were probably too far away to see her. She looked around one more time and removed her t-shirt and leaned back against the rock. She felt the stone beneath her shoulders and the wind and warmth of the sun on her breasts, which were rarely afforded such sensuous luxuries. She wondered if the people on the barge about a half mile out on the lake could see her. She pulled her tshirt in front of her breasts. She tried not to feel self-conscious, but to focus on the feeling of the sun on her shoulders. She titled her head toward her shoulder and closed her eyes as the wind blew up the nape of her neck like a lover planting a kiss. She wished Clark were there with her to sit and listen to the rolling waves, to cradle her like the stones did. She wanted to kiss him here on the shore, lie together in the sand. She wanted to call him up and beg him to come join her -- find a graduate student to teach his summer classes and sit here with her on the beach. She knew that Clark would never just walk away from his work like that.

The waves jumped up at her in a game of tag, never quite making it to the tip of her show or the leg of her pants. One large wave came close and she started, giggling. She became fixed on the tide going simultaneously in and out and the way the wind generated a cross breeze across the water, creating wrinkles, as if plastic wrap had been spread over the lake. Finally, she took her shirt down again, lay on her back in the sand, and fell asleep to the warmth of the sun and the sound of the waves.

Friday, March 22, 2013

The Liberation of the Imagination: From “Feminine Writing” to Revolutionary Poetry (Part II)

It has to be said, lest it sound like I am proscribing something equally restrictive and repressive . . . I am not arguing against any type of poetry per se. I do not want to create a monolith of styles, themes, as restrictive as a Marxist-Leninist insistence on social realism. I do oppose the stilted reification that much slam work has fallen into, both stylistically and thematically. There is a certain sound that poetry slam audiences and judges have come to expect, a rhythm to the words that isn’t necessarily organic to the poem and therefore it becomes a contest of style rather than of performance, of doing justice to the words.

Also, it is a time worn cliché now that a slam poem needs to be about either the poet herself (her deep feelings, a break-up that he just went through, a situation that the poet is confronting) or about a social condition (a homeless mother and child, a junkie, someone that the poet knew of and/or read about), or both (about the poet’s identity as a woman, as a Puerto Rican, an Asian, a gay man or a lesbian, a Latina lesbian, etc. etc.). When I competed in poetry slams, it was always what I call my “bitch feminist” poems that won rounds, not my more interesting and complex poems that I had worked on to perform well as well as to craft in the first place.

In 1986, I was at a writer’s conference in Illinois and I heard several poets, including Carlos Cumplian, talking about these poetry contests in which people showed up in costume and performed poetry and I realized about 10 years ago that what he was talking about where the early days of poetry slam. This is a far cry from the sense of “authenticity” and the singular voice of the poet with the poem itself that I have heard poetry slam participants talk about today. In the initial days of the slam, as described by poets working in Chicago in 1986, it was merely about providing a sense of excitement to the audience and performing the poem as best as you could.

At around the same time, I heard other poetry slams in the Quad Cities, about 3 hours from Chicago on the Iowa/Illinois border. There, slam was already becoming entrenched as a style, with the poets reading their poems very fast, almost like a race to poetry. Yet there were no set themes to the poems. It had not yet merged with rap music to develop the style and had not yet merged with identity politics, which had not really become widespread, moving out of the academy, until the early 1990s when activists and artists around the country started to pick up on that aspect.

I do want to honor and acknowledge the word of identity formation, community building, and progressive values that many forms of poetry can participate in. I do want to acknowledge the role that poetry slams have played in building an audience for poetry. From their inception, they sought to bring the excitement of sport to poetry, a spirit of fun and of not taking oneself as a “Poet” so seriously. All of these things are good things. But poetry slam has been around officially for a quarter of a century and is now an institution.

I want to ask, then what? NOW what? Where do we go? After at least a century of searching actively for a revolutionary function of poetry, (why) have we given up? (why) have we abandoned the incomplete experiments of the past? Where and how can poetry function uniquely, in other words, what are the unique functions of poetry, as a revolutionary practice? And how can poetry slam fit into this without providing a known form, which is antithetical to the imagination that it should be releasing?

If the term avant garde, where avant garde falls into elitism, is in its very accepted (if perhaps unofficial, naturalized) definition that the avant garde is ahead of, “anticipates” and in many ways, is therefore, more advanced and “better” than mainstream art, culture, society and art, culture, and society need only to “catch up,” then of course, in the catching up, the mainstream has then co-opted the avant garde, misusing it for commerce or entertainment, for style, failing to recognize the true substance, the original intent (as contemporary Surrealists are and were famously wont to lament).

I prefer instead to think of the avant garde as the “first wave,” the ground work of consciousness, preparing the field. The change of consciousness, overused and virtually emptied of meaning as that idea may have become, is what necessarily must predate genuine social change. It is not up to poets (or even activists, politicians or “leaders”) to proscribe where that change needs to go, but to empower the imaginations around us to imagine something new, to dream our way out of the current world, which works only for a very few people. And this means that the avant-garde will always be the avant-garde, will always be changing. Even as we feel that we “know” surrealism, that is because surrealism has been associated with a style, which can be painted, written, and then put away in a box, rather than being a “technique” for opening the imagination, which it can do over and over again, without repeating itself, for each iteration of the surrealist techniques for getting to the imagination will yield different results, different images, different juxtapositions, especially with literature, which was a field that Andre Breton, the so-called “pope” of Surrealism, contended.

Education is the watchword and it has a very important role to play, but as an instrument of “instruction” and propaganda, it is subject to the same pitfalls that all other forms of discourse and communication fall pretty to. Religious missionaries often (almost always) accompanied or came fast upon the heels of conquerors to ensure that hears and spirits were converted while trying to enforce a new culture and a new rule upon the conquered. Poets must see themselves as missionaries of the imagination, not as propagandists.

To restructure language is to restructure thought, to restructure possibilities. To scramble, if not permanently, which is impractical and will not lead to the world we want, but temporarily, the world as we (think) we know it, the language that binds us to the now, to put new ideas, new juxtapositions into play, new planets into orbit. This is the revolutionary work of the poet.

To then take this and bring it to the people is what poetry slam can do -- to take literature off the page and bring it to those who would not normally pick up a book of poetry, for example, or to bring that alive with performance, to reach a larger audience that is hungry for something real, something surreal, something unknown. This is the lure of science fiction and it could also be the lure to poetry. Not to write science fiction into poetry, but to perform possibilities never before imagined. Some people who know me think that I am especially hard on poetry slam and perhaps I am, but only because I think there are so many more possibilities that poetry slam can bring to the world, rather than giving it simply a different type of institutionalized, reified poetry.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

The Liberation of the Imagination: From “Feminine Writing” to Revolutionary Poetry (Part I)

The Liberation of the Imagination: From “Feminine Writing” to Revolutionary Poetry

In the introduction to Feminist Critique of Language, editor Deborah Cameron cites a quote by Shoshona Feldman on language that particularly resonates with me and my work on poetry, language and liberation.

Shoshona Feldman (1975)

“The challenge facing women today is nothing less than to reinvent language . . . to speak not only against but outside the structure . . . to establish a discourse the status of which would no longer be defined by the phallacy of male meaning.” (In Feminist Critique of Language, ed. Deborah Cameron, p. 8)

Cameron elaborates further upon Feldman’s idea, discussing briefly the work of French Feminists such as Luce Irigaray and Helene Cixous and a search for a “feminine writing” and “women’s language.” (By the way, I highly recomment Cixous. I have not delved much into Irigaray, but to me her work seems very much grounded in some rather complicated Freudian and psychoanalytic theory. Cixous is lively and quite readable.) Cameron also raises the other side of the debate, citing Elaine Showalter’s position that the issue for women is not so much a male-based “prisonhouse of language” (props to Jameson) but the very fact of access and entitlement for women to speak. The issue is not the inadequacy of language, or as Judith Butler would point to, the way in which language performs, enacts, speaks into being our condition (from the moment the declaration is made, “It’s a girl” Butler tells us, a whole universe of implications is set in motion.). Others reject an essentialist strain that says that women need different language than men to express their lives, their realities, their psyches, their thoughts, etc.

To me the core issue here is that all marginalized, disempowered people, need access to a language of imagination. Not a replacement language per se, but a paralanguage, a language that works, functions on a completely different level than the ordinary, the quotidian, the banal, the mundane, and (consequently) the hegemonic uses of language. The language as it is now practiced, even if it is not inherently structured to protect and maintain power, it has certainly been subverted to that use, propagated in contemporary life, by the constant onslaught of mainstream media—advertising, news, the normative values promoted by almost all television programming and many movies (look at the glorification of the police not only through shows like Cops, but through shows like CSI that glamorize police work, or the nuclear-family centered values of most sitcoms, etc.). In insidious ways we are constantly being told what to believe, what to buy, how to act, how to be moral, how to be patriotic, how to look a certain way, how to fit in and belong in American society, etc. etc. How is one to rethink the world, remake the world, the government, the neighborhood, the culture, the communities we come from and live in, our own very daily existence, among the onslaught of images that perpetuate someone else’s vision and serve up to us only the world as we already (think) we know it?

Resistance is possible through the remaking of language, of finding new, creative, imaginative linguistic practices to sustain us, to help us move toward our visions, to help us have visions we never even thought possible. I am talking here about a language that speaks outside of the dominant discourse, whether racialized, patriarchal, class-based, etc., an un-discourses or non-discourse, a paradiscourse, that brings with it the chance to step outside, run alongside, that does not attempt to use the tools of power that already exist, but to forge new tools that could create new structures, new edifices not previously imagined. The techne, the tool, in many ways proscribes what can be built. We know that with new technology new ways of thinking emerge. So why would we not want new mental and imaginative linguistic tools of our own? As Sol Lewitt says, rational thoughts repeat rational thoughts. The way we think perpetuates itself, we continue to think only in the ways we’ve always thought. I’m not looking then for a feminine language per se, except insofar as it might offer a resistive language, a paralanguage that we can frolic in and search for something unknown, a Dada language a non-sense that leads to sense a zaum a de-formed formalism that will birth new forms.

(To be continued . . . .)

Monday, March 18, 2013

The Function of Poetry as Painting et al

We now take a break from my accursed novel to bring you the following reflection upon poetry:

Once upon a time poetry was pretty much the only literary medium. All theatre was written in poetic forms, there were no novels or journalism, etc. There was only poetry. In those days, it was important for you poetry to say things, to speak truth, whether literally or poetically through image. Over the centuries, new forms have opened up--prose in the form of fiction and non-fiction, creative non-fiction, and drama. So with all forms and genres, we have to continually ask ourselves, what is the function of the genre we are writing in at this time.

I believe that poetry, more than any other written form, has the power to open up the imagination to altogether new realities that we could not have otherwise imagined and in my mind, the best way to do so is by experimenting with language, scrambling reason and reading, and yes, to be a literary form of visual art.

Bryon Gysin has said that poetry is 50 years behind painting. Poetry can and should embrace the image in all forms by being abstract in meaning and form as well as by presenting us with literal and literary pictures of things.

I tell the students in my poetry class that things like metaphor and simile exist to explain what we do not know in terms of what we do know. With medical students, I use the metaphorical example of "the human body is like a machine . . ." because that is a simile that they have heard so much they don't even think of it as a poetic sentence. All of those things that are not tangible -- love, freedom, justice -- must be represented in terms of something that we do know and can visualize.

In the same way, we can strive towards things -- emotions, conditions (like freedom), even social structures -- without having them all thought out, but by describing them to people in terms both strange and knowable, that will make readers want them too. Poetry, rather than being proscriptive, can encourage people to desire something and then think for themselves about what that might look like.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Chapter 7 of My Accursed Novel

CHAPTER: Mo gets on the bus, after stepping out of a hostel

The day was full of promise. It was the first warm day of the winter season. Not just one of those December days that are warmer than they should be, but a day that carried with it the smell and promise of spring. It was episodes like these, the hint of what was around the corner, that had made her come to love living in the Midwest. It was your reward for surviving the winter. It was the kind of day that made you carelessly run outside with no coat on, even though you knew that tomorrow you would suffer with a sore throat and a red stuffy nose. It didn't matter. It was a small price to pay for hope. That, to her, was what the seasons were all about. Hope. Keeping a promise. Cycles that would move on and change. Seasons allowed no complacency. You had to enjoy them while you could.

No matter how beautiful the spring day, with the sun warming the top of your head and the smell of lilacs in the air, and the soft, green grass between your toes on those first few days you dared to go barefoot again, it would soon turn into summer. The grass would turn brown in the 100 degree temperatures and sweat would run down your back as if you were standing, fully clothed, in a shower. Sometimes the nights were so hot, you would toss and turn for hours trying to get cool enough to sleep. But at least the crickets would sing to you while you lie awake staring out the window. And those starry nights, when you could look out into the universe and see everything! Who would want to sleep anyway? Even that, too, would soon give way to the crisp crackling of colorful autumn leaves beneath your feet and the comfort of cool evenings warmed by blankets and bonfires. Childhood memories of leaping into a high pile of leaves returned each time she passed a sour-faced boy or older man, taking the rake to his yard as if it were a great chore that mother nature had assigned. It was virtually impossible for autumn to come and go without her remembering high school football games and homecoming festivities, bundled up under blankets in the stadium. And even though high school had not by any means been a highlight of her life, these were good memories that warmed her and made her eager to greet the fall. Even that first snowfall of winter was a delight. She was still not too old to go outside and make snow angels on that first big blizzard.

While others griped and complained when too much snow make them housebound, or caused them to miss work, she still remembered the childish delight of a snowday. She never passed up an opportunity to sit at the window with a cup of cocoa, or to go outside and dance while the snowflakes fell. And she loved those endless "white nights" where the sky was lit up from the impending snow clouds, and you could walk outside even if the street lights were not on, and feel as if you were walking in the dawn. And now, even after the harshest days of winter, with its ice storms and cold winds that made you turn your head away as if you had just been slapped in the face, she was delighted with the promise of the season. Delighted that old man winter had let his fair daughter come out and play for the day. Many of Maureen's friends had moved south or west after graduation, and whenever they called, they made it a point to ask what the temperature was there, and to remind her that there had been a cold spell--75 degrees--the other day. She laughed good-naturedly and reminded them that she did not mind the cold weather. That soon enough, it would be so hot, she would miss the snowy days and the ice storms. Only once, when the wind chill fell to 25 below did she envy them.

And for her faithfulness, she was now rewarded with a glimpse of spring.

Wednesday, March 06, 2013

Chapter 6 of My Accursed Novel

First phone conversation with her parents:

“Clark has forwarded your mail to us.”

“Oh?” Maureen’s stomach knotted. Only gone a few weeks and he’s already clearing her out of his life.

“I guess he thought we’d make sure everything got to you. You know, that the bills got paid and everything.”

But if he loved me, if we were really a “we”, wouldn’t he keep paying our bills, she thought?

“He kept your clothes and books and things . . . for now, he said. You know, honey, I was never . . . well, I never approved of this thing with Clark. I mean, for God’s sake, he’s fifteen years older than you.”

“Twelve. And is there a point to this, Dad?”

“Well, still, don’t you think you owe him the decency . . . You should really call him, honey. He’s very upset. It sounds like you haven’t called or spoken to him at all. If you want to have a relationship with someone his age, you need to act like more of an adult.”

“I’ll drop him a card. I’m not ready to talk to anyone else just yet.”

“Is there anything we should know about it? He didn’t beat you up or anything, did he?”

“No . . . no. It’s not that.” Maureen became distracted picturing Clark puttering around the house, watching the door, running for the phone. Tears slipped from her eyes. “I’m just not ready to be found yet. Tell him I love him.”

“I’m not telling him that. You tell him.”

“I love you, too.” She hung up the phone and hoisted her backpack higher onto ther shoulder, stumbling down the sidewalk and back to the greyhound station. Her pass expired tomorrow. She would have to pick a far off destination, a 2 or 3 day trip to somewhere she could settle and work for a while to scare up a few bucks for the next leg of the trip.