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!

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Composition Experiments List

In the spirit of Charles Bernstein and Bernadette Mayer and their poetic experiments list, this is the beginning of my Composition Experiments List. Feel free to borrow from and add to this list and tell me about it!

*Do an exquisite corpse on the theme of “your experience with college” or another nonfiction topic. Since this is nonfiction, a topic should be chosen to direct the paper.

*If Conceptualist Artists could just write about the art object they intended to make without having to actually make it, what it would mean for them to "not write" a paper.

*Do a research/brainstorming exquisite corpse – write a topic on a piece of paper and pass it around the room, with everyone contributing an idea for that topic.

*Chance operations – bring in a previous paper they have written or a draft of one. Use a chance operation such as a roll of the dice, to determine the order of the paragraphs. How does that change the paper? Does it make a difference what order it is written in? (Encourages rewriting and revisiting a paper.)

*Write with your eyes closed. (Forces you to keep writing and not stop in brainstorming.)

*Spontaneous research: choose a book or an article. Close your eyes and point to a passage. Write that down. Do this repeatedly five or more additional times. String those together to see what you get.

*Pick a short passage from a book or research article and do a 3-5 minute freewrite about it.

*Do an example of the most pretentious writing you can

*Try writing a piece with as many clichés as you can.

*Try writing with predominantly figurative language.

*Try writing straightforward with no figurative language, metaphors, or similes.

*Try writing a thesis sentence or an opening paragraph using text language. (This is good for helping students to see that there are all kinds of grammars that are good in many different settings.)

Friday, December 26, 2014

Surreal Eden: Edward James and Las Pozas

I have done book reviewing for Rain Taxi for over ten years. I have decided to repost some of my older reviews here. I am fortunate in that Rain Taxi gives me books that I request or in areas that I request, so these are all books that I have really liked. I hope you will check some out after reading these.

Surreal Eden: Edward James and Las Pozas
Margaret Hooks

Princeton Architectural Press

As a long time devotee and student of Surrealism, it came as something of a shock to be handed a book on an artist and patron central to the careers of several prominent surrealists that I had never heard of before, Edward James. How was it possible that I had never read his name in any other biography or group history of Surrealism, had seen him in no exhibitions, no bibliographies I had ever encountered? What kind of Surrealist “pedigree” could this person possibly have?

A writer and artist, James’ first novel, The Gardener Who Saw God, received critical acclaim and even went into multiple publications. Despite consistently solid reviews for his work, one negative review, accusing him of attempting to “also buy himself a reputation as a poet” caused James to become discouraged and cease publishing under his own name. “I could have had anything I wanted,” James laments, but because I was rich, no one accepted me or thought of me as a poet.” (36) James focused his energies for a time on other artists. Behind the scenes, he was one among many key players in the production and distribution of Surrealism, underwriting the Surrealist journal Minotaur as well as the Surrealist Pavilion at the 1939 New York World’s Fair. He supported Salvador Dali financially and by helping materially to coordinate exhibitions for Dali as well as for Rene Magritte (whose Le Reproduction Interdite is said to be one of two portraits that Magritte did of James, showing him from the back). Despite James’ involvement with many prominent Surrealists throughout his life, Hooks points out that James never claimed the label for himself, understandably so, given the legendary infighting over the purity of the name Surrealism, held tightly by Andre Breton, and his tendency to “excommunicate” artists, along with James’ own sense of exclusion from the literary world.

From his break with Dali, Hooks takes us briefly through what might be described literally and figuratively as James’ years “in the desert.” He travels through the American southwest, through Taos, New Mexico and Mabel Dodge’s artistic community therein, and ultimately landing in California, where he continued to circulate among artists and intellectuals including Aldous Huxley and Gerald Heard, who introduced James to the Vedantic movement, of which he became a follower. In this time, James also began to travel back and forth to Mexico, and it was during these travels that he found what would become not only his home, but the site of his greatest artistic creation of all, his legacy of a surrealist environment and estate, among the hills, waterfalls, and lush vegetation outside of the small town of Xilitla. From here, the book diverges from the standard artist biography to give us the blow-by-blow history of the creation of Las Pozas.

If Surrealism represents a way of looking at, thinking about, and moving through the world, Las Pozas, James’ Surreal Eden, is a surrealistic world in itself to be lived in. Hooks articulates in detail James’ vision as well as his challenges and triumphs in realizing his works of art. He finds a kindred spirit and lifelong friend in Plutarco Gastelem Esquer, a man who is able to translate James’ ideas and sometimes seemingly impractical sketches into actual objects. James employs many of the people of Xilitla in the building of Las Pozas, not only providing patronage to artists this time, but bringing an economic infusion to the entire town. It is in the project of Las Pozas itself, as well as his friendship with Plutarco, that James finds the society and artistic acceptance the eluded James in his younger days.

If there is one shortcoming to the book, it is possibly not even a problem of the text at all, but with the difficulty in capturing visual and visceral artistic experiences that are so central to this story. Hooks provides photos of and also describes in detail many elaborate and fascinating pieces created by James throughout his life, many of which would be considered installations or even performance art pieces today, from Monkton House in England, with its purple façade and self-designed wallpaper and carpeting to the structures, sculptures, and edifices of Las Pozas. It’s a daunting, if not impossible task, to fully appreciate these pieces without being able to experience them. And perhaps this daunting task also explains, in part, James’ low visibility in the narratives of contemporary art history.

The book’s extensive photographs helps a great deal in this regard, but cannot fully ameliorate the situation. The photos include detailed photos and close ups of many of the pieces from Las Pozas, which hint at the scope of the project. This scope includes not only the size of the pieces and structures themselves, such as the Bamboo Palace the Stairway to the Sky, which completely dwarfs the cabin it stands behind, but also includes the space occupied by Las Pozas itself. Hooks does provide a map that shows the layout and area of Las Pozas, but it is difficult to appreciate on a visual level without being able to see the pieces in relationship to each other or to the larger landscape. Likewise, the book opens with a description of the current city of Xilitla, but we see only one photo of the town, taken in 1940, just before James’ arrival. I found it difficult to not only hold in my mind the building of these amazing works of art, but also to visualize the context in which is was built and now stands, a context and often contrast, which Hooks tries very hard to describe for us.

That said, Surreal Eden does what many good art biographies and histories do: remind us of what gets forgotten and left out of “official” canons. Hers is not the first biography of James, but adds to a body of work that includes two previous biographies as well as James’ own writings. Through these, and through the potential to renew interest in Las Pozas, which still stands today outside of Xilitla, James has the chance he always desired to be taken seriously as an artist in his own right.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Teaching English Composition with Surrealism

This is a paper that I did while at the University of Minnesota. I have been using many of these techniques in my own composition classes with some success and I am also presenting some of this at the SW/TX PCA Conference in Albuquerque this February (2015).

Surrealist Applications for Composition-Related Activities

These are just a few potential applications of Surrealism to composition. These are some that I have produced and practiced myself and some that are classic Surrealist techniques. There are many more.

I. Exquisite Corpse, Group Processes and Brainstorming

The most famous of Surrealist writing techniques is the exquisite corpse, which got its name from a line of poetry. “The exquisite corpse shall drink the new wine.” In the exquisite corpse, a sheet of paper is passed around. Every person contributes to it one line at a time and sees only the line written right before theirs. I have also seen artists contribute to an artistic exquisite corpse, adding to a drawing bit by bit. There are several ways that this could be put to work as a method for brainstorming.
As a brainstorming session or a free write, everyone passes around a sheet of paper, folded or unfolded, writing suggestions on it. Alternatively, each person can take turns putting his or her potential topic in the center of a group and everyone in the group writes down suggestions on that particular topic, and then move on to the next student’s idea. Group work in that case would take on the valence of shared knowledge. Often we tell students during a brainstorming session to write down everything they know about a topic. What if they could be inspired by what their classmates also know about a topic? In this way, brainstorming becomes not a solitary act, but an act of shared knowledge, in which student remind one another of what they already know or help to point one another in various fruitful directions for their research.

II. Chance Operations as a Form of Organization

Is there only one way to organize a paper? Chance operations, most notably rolling dice or drawing cards that relate to certain sections or paragraphs, have been used by a number of writers like William S. Burroughs, musicians like John Cage, and choreographers such as Merce Cunningham. This technique can also work for students of composition, in this case to determine paragraph topic order in their papers. In doing so, it can teach students that there are any number of ways to organize their texts that can produce different results for the reader. Sometimes students organize their papers in the way that is most obvious – such as chronological – but may not be the most effective or even the most interesting. At other times, students may be writing about a series of three subtopics (the most common number in composition) in such a way that it does not matter which one goes first. By playing with the order of their subtopics and paragraphs, they become accustomed to doing rewriting and see it as a form of experimenting with their texts. It also adds an element of play, and therefore of fun, that might encourage more rewriting from students.

III. The Many Uses of Collage Techniques in Writing

A. Collage as Brainstorming and Research

The technique of collage, which the Surrealists borrowed (stole) from the Dadaists, lends itself very well to “spontaneous research.” Having chosen a book or an article to cite, students can close their eyes and point to a passage. Have the student free write on what that passage may mean. Have them do that several times throughout the article or book. Then, to make it a true collage, students may string together what they have written to create a whole, spontaneous text from the day’s class, to see how it all of their writing fits together. This exercise will stimulate their thinking and may also make them more enthusiastic to go back and read the whole article. At the same time, it will help students to generate thoughts and ideas to react to small parts of the text before they respond to the text as a whole. It often helps students if they can jump into a text in the middle, where they might find something that catches their attention, and then go back and read it from the beginning. rather than seeing a book or article as something they have to get through from beginning to end, which may or may not hold any interest for them. In this age of Internet, Twitter, etc., in which most people have very divided attention, it also corresponds to the way that many people actually do read. At the same time, once they respond to a portion of the article, students are encouraged to go back through and see how their understanding of the excerpt that they wrote about corresponds to the overall text, which can also teach them about the pitfalls of quoting part of a text out of context.
B. A Variation on Collage Techniques as a Way to Respond to Texts

This technique can also be used during in-class writings as a way to respond to texts. When a text has been assigned, have everyone point to a passage quickly (don’t think about it) and write for five minutes about that passage. They can do a free association or write directly on the passage. Again the point is for the students to be engaging with what they have read, and also be able to engage with any part of a text.
C. Collage as a Form of Sentence Combining

Many instructors still advocate sentence combining to teach style or to eliminate wordiness. A different form of collage is one where the student/writer literally cuts up a passage and then puts different parts or different sheets of papers together. Beat writer William S. Burroughs is best known for developing this technique as a way to (re)generate texts, but it originated with the Surrealists. This exercise is fun and may give students some energy to do more “traditional” and straightforward sentence-combining to achieve sentence variety. It can also be done with a little more direction, taking a small section of the paper for example, or even cutting apart sentences and then combining them.
A more literal form of artistic collage can also be used, such as cutting apart sentences and then gluing them onto a sheet of paper either in a different order or with sentences overlapping. Theoretically students can do this with a computer, but takes on a different feel and function when it’s done using paper and glue and can shake students out of their usual way of writing and editing. As with a number of other exercises, these can be done as individual or group projects.

The Manifesto as a Form of Argumentation and Group Work

A. The Manifesto Form

In some of my class assignments, I have students work up to writing a research paper by writing a complaint letter, a letter to the editor of a paper, and writing to a the company. This scaffolds learning and teaches the students about writing they do in their everyday life. The manifesto is another form of persuasive writing, a bombastic form of expressing opinions and can be done as a group or individual activity. Mary Ann Caws, in the introduction to Manifesto: A Century of Isms, says that the manifesto “generally proclaims what it wants to oppose to leave, to defend, to change” (xxii). Many students have a strong sense of injustice or at least indignation for what they consider to be unfair. The manifesto, as a form, allows them to express their own opinions, with no need to defend that opinion with research. “Generally the manifesto stands alone, does not need to lean on anything else, demands no other text than itself. Its rules are self-contained, included in its own body” (Caws xxv). As both a text to respond to as well as a text to be produced, it is particularly fruitful in helping students to write their initial ideas out and present them to one another. In addition, the manifesto has a sense of flair unlike any other form of writing and is fun for students to write.

B. The Manifesto as a Step Toward Argumentation

Writing a manifesto can be a good intermediate step, where students think about and state explicitly what their position is on a given subject. Students can then start thinking about social context that this issue fits into. Was this situation merely a one-time slight or oversight, or does it point to a more general problem within society? Having written out their complaint with society or their idea on how things ought to work, students can begin to think about what kind of support they will need down the line for their arguments. Their peers will be able to comment upon their manifestos and argue with them, thereby showing the holes in their arguments through friendly discussion and debate.
C. The Manifesto and Group Work

Generally speaking, manifestos are the expression of a group, although examples can be found of individually-written manifestos, such as those written by the Unabomber or the Discovery Channel Gunman. This can work, then, as either an individual project or as a group project. As a group project, I would recommend small groups of three students, which is a little better than just a pair, but not so big and unwieldy as to create insurmountable problems or disagreements. Ask the students to present potential paper topics to their group and have the group decide on which project they will write a manifesto. If they are really fortunate (or crafty) it might be possible for students to combine their topics of concern into one manifesto. Other techniques described above, like an exquisite corpse or collage techniques, can be used to generate the initial text. D. The Manifesto and Critical Reading

For those who want to teach an aspect of critical reading in their classroom and to introduce alternative texts to students, the manifesto is an outstanding form. Whereas many people think of manifestos in terms of artistic movements, they were also employed extensively by AIDS activists in the 1980s and 1990s as well as those in the environmental movement, the women’s movement, etc. Allowing students to read such texts, to examine the claims made in the texts and the way those claims are embedded and expressed, and to agree or disagree with them encourages them to read critically. Because the manifesto’s style is so “in your face,” manifestos can be good beginning texts to help students begin to examine and test the claims made.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Review of I’m Your Man, a biography of Leonard Cohen, by Sylvie Simmons

I picked up Sylvia Simmons’ I’m Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen because, frankly, I didn’t really know much about Cohen, although many of my poet friends love him and I thought it was time that I learned something about him. So , being a junkie for artist biographies, I thought I would find out a little bit more about this poet, songwriter, and musician.

However, it seems that Simmons book is not for the casual reader. Rather, this ambitious books attempts to cover his entire life in great depth, sparing no detail. And that is the book’s problem as well: it tries to do too much.

I put the book down and picked it back up again several times, thinking that maybe I just had too much on my plate and was impatient to get through it. Try though I may, my impatience with the book did not ever fully vanish.

The book starts off with his upbringing in a Jewish part of Montreal where Cohen started writing and gained some early fame as a writer. This is difficult terrain for any biographer, as it is necessary to give some background into the artist to tell where he came from. It is the rare biographer who manages to make this material interesting. Simmon’s problem isn’t that this material isn’t interesting, but she lingers on it longer than she should. There is much in Cohen’s future that the reader is anxious to get to, and as with any biography, although that material is important, it is not the main event.

I think it might be because Sylvie Simmons has thrown every single detail she apparently came across into the bio, no matter how small and only tangentially related to the narrative. Also, she appears to have places where she has interviewed friends and associates and she loses sight of the focus of the interview. For example, Along with this comes a tendency to repeat details, such as her emphasis that Leonard was not the depressed kind of poet that repelled people, but rather was always funny and kept his depressions to himself (or poured them into his songs.)

All of these things seem like an interruption. So for a reader like me, who doesn’t know much about Cohen and so isn’t in to all of those kinds of details, it can become tedious. It seems like this is a biography more for the die-hard Leonard Cohen fans or for obsessive-compulsives who are into minutiae.

A lot of this information could have been put into appendices and footnotes so that it is there, but it doesn’t bog down the main narrative.

The switches in voice also take some getting used to. We are used to those kinds of abrupt switches in fiction, but we still are not accustomed to it in biographies and other works of non-fiction. This feels like Simmons’ attempts to play with narrative and in doing so, you risk turning off a certain number of readers. As I got more involved in the narrative, these became less bothersome to me, but they also were just less frequent as the book continues.
Along the same lines, there were some odd descriptive phrases. For example:
Although it might not have won an arm-wrestling contest with Greenwich Village, the Montreal folk music scene was thriving.

Again, these attempts to transform the genre of musical biographies are hit and miss. Sometimes they work and sometimes they are puzzling and inadequate and distract from the subject.

This brings us to another aspect of the biography. It is trying to do a little too much. At times it goes back and forth between an ethnography, a cultural history, a personal biography of the artist, and a work of literary criticism as well as of music criticism. To write any one or two of these successfully is hard enough. To try to do all of these at once, switching back and forth between the necessary voices and tones in this book makes it unwieldy to say the least.

Just as bad art is instructive, so is bad writing. This is not a bad biography, but it is distracting enough in the writing of it that it draws more attention to the wizard behind the (biographer’s) curtain that it does to the artist himself in places.

An example of really stellar writing is the chapter A Long time Shaving. This chapter is engaging because you can see Simmons’ own facility in talking about the novel Beatufiul Lovers and her own engagement with other biographers and critics in talking about the book. It is really in the literary/music criticism that Simmons shines.

This book probably speaks to the conditions of publishing today, too, with its greater emphasis in putting out more books with fewer editors. With some editing a paring down and some rearranging to put the less critical details into footnotes and appendices, this ambitious biography could really sing.

Monday, September 01, 2014

Review of The Voice Is All, a biography of Jack Kerouac by Joyce Johnson

This review previously appeared in the Spring 2013 Edition of Rain Taxi.

Normally, when you break up with someone, you cut your losses and move on. If that someone is a writer, you might occasionally read a little bit of their work, usually hoping it’s not very good, reaffirming that you broke up with them because they lack depth, maturity, and talent. Only a few, exceptional, dedicated ex-lovers keep up with everything the other person goes on to do. Novelist and Kerouac biographer Joyce Johnson falls into the last category. Her love affair with Jack was over fifty years ago and he died in 1969, but apparently she is still haunted, or at least intrigued, by his ghostly presence in her life and as well as in American culture, as this is her third book about Kerouac.

Johnson has chosen to write about the beginning of Kerouac’s life, from his very early childhood to his writing of On the Road, roughly until the period when she dated Kerouac. What is immediately striking about the book is that while most biographies of artists are rather dull in the beginning—treating the artist’s early life as something you have to get through in order to get to the heart of the artist that can only be understood by dredging up the past—Johnson’s biography is immediately interesting, probably because so much of Kerouac’s work is autobiographical and begins with his own early childhood experiences. In its best moments, this is a true “literary biography.” It addresses many personal details about Kerouac’s life and relationships, ultimately tying almost everything back to Kerouac’s writing, from the death of his brother in his early childhood to the way people in his life became the characters of his novels and short stories, depicted both sympathetically and acrimoniously.

At worst, like all biographies, it is a collection of names and date that sometimes threatens to overwhelm the overall narrative, telling a tale of Jack that bounces from home to home to adventures—at sea, in New York, and ultimately, on the road—as well as relaying information about the people in his early life and the roles they ultimately ended up playing in his books: the boyhood friends, burgeoning writers, criminals and drug addicts, all powerful influences and characters. It is when Johnson gets into the story underneath the details, trying to get into his psyche, that the book really shines. Using his journals, novels, biographies of Kerouac, and her own personal experience, she attempts to explain some of Jack’s mental states and what motivated him in his life and in his writing. For example, talking about his marriage to Edie Parker, Johnson writes:

Here was another sobering ending in Jack’s life—one of the failures and mistakes he hoped his book would redeem . . . He was in a troubled mood one afternoon in late August after he had spent the previous night looking through a family album . . . in the city, he reflected gloomily, the people he knew felt threated by what a family album represented. (222)

In moments like this, it is easy to see the influence of Joyce Johnson the novelist on her nonfiction: I occasionally found myself stopping to ask, “how does she know what Jack was thinking?” For the most part, though, you don’t question that—you just enjoy the ride, the way you would read a novel without questioning the omniscient narrator. For the more skeptical reader, there is an acknowledgement of the role of Johnson’s assistant in helping her to wade through Jack’s extensive journals and papers, and at the end of the book, of course, there are extensive notes. She has, it would seem, a fairly firm footing into Kerouac’s psyche, both from memory and from research.

Johnson appears to have very genuine affection for Kerouac. She addresses Kerouac’s failings head-on, but does so in a generous and loving manner. Writing about Kerouac’s much-discussed relationship with his mother, Johnson says “his inability to make a commitment to any woman other than his mother took me a while to understand . . .” In this same section, she talks about one factor in the break-up of their relationship being Kerouac’s womanizing, which “went on very openly after he became famous, though he did try not to hurt me (186).” You can see the genuine affection that the two of them maintained for each other throughout their lives, “judging from what he wrote about our time together in Desolation Angels.”

Kerouac is famed for writing the quintessential road novel; On the Road played a large part in establishing the automobile and the road as part of the mythology of America. Yet Johnson talks about his affinity to his French roots throughout his life. He struggled with mastery of writing in English, as opposed to the joual, a primarily spoken form of French, that he grew up with in his early days and that he frequently returned to. Describing it as lacking “layers of subtlety and politeness,” this may in fact, explain some of Jack’s straightforward style of writing, as opposed to the more baroque style of the French writers that he had initially revered. Chapters like “Franco-American Ghosts,” “A Half-American Boyhood” and “White Ambitions” in particular discuss this continuing issue as something Jack struggled with throughout his life, rather than something that was “settled” for him early on.

Working between two languages can result in a split psyche for a writer, and ultimately, you get a sense of Jack’s ambivalence towards most things in his life: his family and personal relationships, as well as his need to be involved with groups, from his boyhood to the Beat Generation writers. Johnson also talks about the way that Jack wrestled with libertinism versus Catholic morality. This is something that Kerouac would struggle with his whole life, particularly towards the end when he had become fairly conservative and seemed to have turned his back on Allen Ginsberg, for example, in his infamous drunken rant on William F. Buckley’s Firing Line. Reading Johnson’s biography, it is easier to see that this was actually a reflection of a lifetime of contradiction between two sides of himself, but also the reflection of a lifetime of feeling pulled in multiple directions.

Avoiding, for the most part, the incessant mythologizing about Kerouac that still pervades Beat studies today, The Voice Is All adds a great deal to our understanding of Kerouac, showing how the writer can be understood by knowing the man.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Roof Camping

I have been unusually studious the past few days, turning off the tv and the computer and going out to Hardees and the coffee shops to work on reading and writing (although thankfully no ‘rithmetic), reading Alice Notley and Joyce Johnson ad Jack Zipes on the roof of my apartment building, which is lovely once you manage to navigate the windows that open outward. The first time I came out I spilled my diet coke, which now sits in undrinkable puddles in roof indentations, evaporating quickly like the leftovers from a rainstorm. Had to leave the house to go to the corner market to get some more, this time bringing the bottle out and then my glass of ice separately. Live and learn, my mother used to say. Like the time my friends and I went camping because I had just bought a pup tent with my newly-minted Sears charge card. We couldn’t figure out how to put the tent up, despite the instructions in Japanese and in French, which I had three years of and could barely speak, and so we just tied the tent strings to the window frames of my car. Then we tried to cook some food on the grill, but the crumbs kept falling off the frozen onion rings that we were turning with melting plastic forks like Dali clocks because I didn’t think to buy actual grilling utensils or actual food, and so the crumbs kept falling through the grill grates. We laughed and laughed at ourselves and ate what crumbs remained on the grill and it turned into a great story.

It’s a little awkward climbing through the window and then standing up, since I am wearing a mini-skirt and a tank top, the lightest pieces of clothing that were nearest my bed and when I bend over, the skirt keeps riding up. But, I think, it’s just an ass. Everybody has one. And then I giggle and think, although not everyone else’s is as fine as mine. The neighbors will just have to scratch their eyes out. They are lucky I have any clothes on at all. But the day is young. And I’m not as young as I used to be/never was, and life is short and mine is getting shorter. So we shall see. It ain’t over til it’s over.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Words in her/my mouth

She was angry at the world on her mother’s behalf. That is to say, I was, if you believe in all this post-modern tooth fairy stuff about the speaker and the subject being the same person and the use of third person just being an artificial way of creating distance from an already fragmented self. But I is such an inelegant and self-absorbed way to start a story, a narrative, or whatever it is called these days, whatever it is that I am writing, just a way of drawing attention to oneself and saying look at me, look at me, and all of my deep thoughts that everyone else has had at one time or another, except that we don’t believe in the universal any more and so I is a way not of saying that but of saying look at me, I’m a writer who wants credit for stringing together all of these words.

And so we, which is to say I, will start again. You can read she when I say I or I if I should forget and lapse into third person because I might need the critical difference distance.

I am bitter on my mother’s behalf and I become more so the longer she is gone. Every relative who ever slighted her without apology, every prophecy she ever made that went fulfilled about someone or other pulling away from her, leaving her for dead.

Every airplane trip evokes every tragedy. Flight numbers given out over the years: Lockerbie 103, American Airlines flights 77, 93 and 11 on a September day, United Airlines 175, Malaysian flight MH17 . . and so on. Do they retire flight numbers like old sports players? With every landing I become the pope all over again.

Every family member now leaves us before their time has come, going to other families, leaving me/her for holidays only, relegated to the adults table, a child of my mother, forgotten except for Christmas cards and empty birthday wishes, my mother calling me, daily telepathy my thoughts I can’t distinguish from hers, my wishes from her voice, so different from mine and yet I put words in her shadow mouth ghost mind. Now she is all smiles and days off from school to take me shopping. Her spectre laughs with me, has no voice to yell with, to scream at me any more. I do not cannot remember her voice raised in my direction, only the sweetness of her dance. I do remember to place in her exquisite corpse mouth drinking the new communion wine.

Landings are easy, welcomed. Better to drop from the sky on purpose, to be headed that way anyway, to be headed anyway that way, to have meant to have done that, than to fall unexpectedly.

I wonder if it is hard now for my father when I come for a visit. My friends say I/she looks exactly like my mother, aunts say that I laugh like her. I hear her living words come out of my mouth. Am I just a painful reminder of all the good and the bad he holds in his memory?

Every flight evoke/invokes/provokes the memory of every other flight. A late night through the dark equals the redeye flight to New York, to LaGuardia, when I/she was five. An attempted landing evokes the time I was flying to Minneapolis and as the landing gear came down, the plane shot back up in the air at a 90 degree angle, near-miss unreported but felt, nonetheless. A slight turbulence is the dreadful flight home from Las Vegas in storms, the sounds of the engines roaring like the set of a disaster movie, wherein I/she had become a nun frantically saying hail marys with her/my eyes closed through the whole flight.

Autobiography is the new big thing. Everything is autobiography. Creative nonfiction, which admits that biography is incomplete and that fiction is really all there is, even when it seems autobiographical. All is creative. Some imagining of who our fragmented selves want to project, to have you believe that we are. We don’t know anyone else. How can we/you know themselves?

My mother once said I still don’t know what I want to do with my life (when I grow up) and now it’s almost over. I can hear the words in my ears, and yet don’t remember now that I/she is writing it down, exactly how it was said. Is that (auto)biography?

I have no alter-ego. This is it. The auto-ego, the author-ego, although I am not much of an author. I start things and then meander around and get bored, never finishing them. No one lives in a book. Books are not “life only better.” They are too disjointed and unruly and the ending is unclear and I never seem to figure out the plot.

What is the thread of our lives so that we know that we are ourselves? Through operations and changed and removed organs, through people forgotten and dead and cut off from us, lives we may never return to, yet something holds us in, keeps everything from falling out in a big mess on the floor in front of us. But what was the moral of the story? How do you know that you/I are still you?

So say it again. I have no alter ego. I/she was never curious about what it was like to be a man, to move through this world as a man with man parts. (Even though he will probably never read this, I feel my father/dad is looking over my shoulder might someday read this. You never know. And now that my mother is not here, I have reverted to my 13 year-old self, embarrassed about certain words.)

I/she was never curious about what it was like to be anyone else but me/her in different situations, some better, some worse, to imagine myself/herself in situations that I/she saw on the news, but to be a third-person she. I realize suddenly that when I talk about my mom, she is a her and not a me and so when I say she/I or me/her, you/the reader might think that I am conflating she and I, rather than just cleverly messing with pronouns, losing my authorial voice, or that I am trying to that part of my authorial voice is hers . Autobiography and creative (non) fiction are suddenly very complicated in this web of fractured identities in which she and I are separate and I start writing about her but as usual end up talking about me.

Besides, she never cared to write, was never compelled to, as the words moved her hand almost involuntarily, illegibly, and so this is me, with my authorial voice.

But to tell you memories her story, I have to is necessarily to tell my memories of her my story/her story but not our story. As one of the letters of the Apostle Paul, that great postmodernist, says, “we know in part and we prophesy in part.” So how can I/she say anything authoritatively with about my mother? To tell you stories about my mother. But everyone tells stories about their mothers. The internet is full of them. Aren’t you/the reader (as) sick of them (as I am). This is the day of telling our stories, not of listening to other people’s stories. Who has time for (this) that (nonsense)?

My mother was ahead of her time, had dozens, maybe hundreds, of pictures of cats and dogs, even before the internet. I have been accused of writing poems with no people in them. (Silly thought process: are there cats because there are no people. Does the absence of people = cats?)

But I am not really all that curious, for a writer, about what it is to be another person. I/she doesn’t even have herself figured out, have the world/word figured out, am/is more interest in the large authorial voice, in the fragmented universal, in the big picture, than she is in pronouns, even though she keeps saying I all the time. How does a culture function without I's, she wonders.

I should tell a story now, perhaps about the way I collect airsickness bags and bus transfers, thinking I will use them, together or separately, in a performance piece or in a work of art, rather than actually having them contribute to my presence on an episode of Hoarders.

Or maybe I should tell you about my mother, before all of this descends into me gazing at her navel, being a narcissus. Perhaps about the time she (my mother, not she/I) drove 25 miles to make sure that the skating rink would be safe for her/her epileptic daughter to go to a birthday party, because that is one of the primary memories of her now that she is gone. I can only remember her in small kindnesses, like pulling me out of school occasionally to go shopping. The skating rink had disco balls and she had to make sure there were no strobe lights. This part is (auto)biography. No creative details were used in this story, just facts from my/her/our lives. Still, as an omniscient author, I cannot actually tell you everything that was in her mind. As her daughter, one who carries her words in my mouth at times, but not every word exact, can only approximate the range of her motivations, which touch me/her more than ever.

The weight of objects from my father’s house on my soul. This was once my mother’s ____________. I lust for every object I need (or not) that was once hers. Threadbare towels, plates I ate from as a child. I want anything she once had. My/her memories are mine/hers.

I am artless. All of this post-modernism leaves me with a headache self-conscious. I just come out and say things. That girl couldn’t find a metaphor with a (map)(compass) anymore. She has lost her way. What right does she have to poetry? She has no authority.

As we land, we become giants among doll houses and toy cars, until like Alice, we consume the cake that makes us smaller, makes other objects larger, and we are back in the real world.

Wednesday, July 02, 2014

Kansas City Fringe Festival July 19 - 26, 2014

Losing Words

Losing Words

I hate losing things. You would think I'd be used to it after all these years, but it never gets easier. I try to be philosophical, to be anarchic and anti-materialistic and shrug it off. I focus on how little it would cost to replace the lost object, if it even needs to be replaced at all. or I treat it like a dying acquaintance, grateful for the short time we've had together. Misplaced, stolen, permanent loan, left in a hotel dresser or on a restaurant table--makes no difference. Keys, jackets, cassette tapes, purses, words . . .

I hate losing words most of all. It's not a problem of losing objects full of words. I keep my notebooks and scribbles closer to me than my wallet. Money can be earned or borrowed. Every dollar bill is interchangeable-- crisp or wrinkled, ripped, laundered in a jeans pocket, with a love note or government conspiracy theory scribbled on the front. I'm no robber baron, industrialist, or fledgling shopkeeper, and one dollar is the same as another, not suitable for framing.

But a lost word is a tragedy. It's a tender moment with a lover that you'll never have again the same way. You'll never get the exact color and combination of touches and whispers. Losing words is worse than having to climb through the back bedroom window without your keys. And most words are lost to sheer callousness, not innocent forgetfulness. They are lost because I am unwilling to stop in my tracks, pull out my notebook and scribble in the middle of the sidewalk. I don't want to be inconvenienced.

I watch parents in Burger King with their five year-olds. The child wanders around, exploring the concept of orange plastic & vinyl furniture, which clearly does not exist at home. She looks out the window, slowly pulling individual french fries out of their small paper sacks, discussing the color of birds, while mom or dad admonish her to "hurry up. We've got to get to the mall."

I never wanted to be that kind of parent. But I am. I won't give my words the time to make mistakes, to take in everything around them. Instead, I drag them down the street without looking behind me to notice that their feet are barely touching the ground. When they run away, I run around looking for them, call the authorities, worry promiscuously, and promise each thought, each infant word, that I will eat more slowly, contemplate orange plastic seats and small brown birds and give them time to nourish themselves. Next time.

Saturday, May 03, 2014

Some short things I have been writing about


The roots of the trees in the part looked like fossilized animals and like heads that could be placed over a mantelpiece on the way. There was a gator poking his head up menacingly out of the water, a tortoise shell at the foot of a tree.


“Maybe downtown is finally coming back.” They have waited their whole lives, 40, 50, 60 years to see the downtown, any part of town, restored to its former glory, a place of shopping, cheap movies, theatre and hotels. They sat on the bus recounting their youths, when their parents, long since dead, had taken them to a quarter movie or to the penny candy counter, a day when you could sit at Woolworth’s and have an ice cream soda.


The mispronunciation of names, it occurred to her, My’ lan for Mil an’ or San Joes for San Jose’, it occurred to her, might come from the dual desire of settlers to start fresh in a new country, but to take some of the comfort of the old country. They knew that this town could never be the same as Milan, so the renamed the name, keeping the spelling to remind them of what they once came from, but remembering it was impossible to go back. And then there were other settlers, from other countries, the so-called melting pot, each coming and finding it difficult to communicate with their neighbors who all spoke strange, different unpronounceable languages. They would have to negotiate as best as they could and My’ lan was the only way that they saw fit. Picturing herself, her parents or her grandparents in this situation, she vowed that she would try neither to snicker under her breath nor to join in with anyone who laughed at these names anymore, but would think about the resilience of people who were trying to start over.

Love Songs Lie

She had to forget about every love song she had ever heard. They were all written by men anyway – about how misunderstood they are and how the right woman could save them and how that was only you – only you understood the real him. Johnny Lee was wrong – just because you heard it in a lo-ove song doesn’t mean it can’t be wrong. In fact, it likely was.

As she went through her day, doing laundry, writing, grading papers, she tried to drown out all of those infernal, misleading lyrics combined with pictures of him and the sound of his laughing voice or his apologies ringing in her ears. All of those were lies. Maybe not intentional lies, but they were certainly not truths to be believed, that much was certain.

The fact that she was still in this relationship at all made her feel worthless and stupid. Stupid most of all. How many other women had she worked with and counseled? She of all people should have known better and here she was falling for all of the apologies that all of the abusive men had been making for decades (since it was only in the past few decades that this was even thought of as abuse) and she had been listening to them for years – since the very beginning of the relationship. What was wrong with her? Why had she put up with this all these years?

She couldn’t bear to admit it to herself – was it because he was one of the few men she had liked and approached that has reciprocated? The first blush of a new relationship had stayed, maybe even been renewed through the constant pattern of fighting and making up. It was as if she had met him all over every time he apologized and was tender. She was embarrassed to think that she had been just as stupid, just as fooled as all those women before her.

Or maybe it was her black and white way of thinking. When she had worked with abused women, she saw only the bruises, the fighting man, not realizing that there had been reasons that the women had fallen in love with the men in the first place and that it was those traits the women saw in the men, just as she had seen his vulnerable, tender side all these years – had seen and even shared in his dreams. She had to let his desires for a new life go, perhaps even more than her own. She laid down her head and cried.

She was not going to see their every moment together as a lie. That kind of denial would not serve her well. But she was going to try not to be taken in anymore. I have loved you and will be glad for that.

Wednesday, January 08, 2014

Defending Millennials


I am so tired of hearing "in the real world . . . " as a way of putting down 18-20 year old students and a way of further saying "I don't get that kind of treatment at my job, why should students think they should get special treatment?" It's petty and ridiculous and I will tell you why I think so.

I am on all kinds of education lists on social media. One day the conversation turned to extra credit as it so often does. Now, there are many reasons for and against extra credit assignments, but of course we eventually got to the usual and inevitable "In the real world, you don't get extra credit . . . ."

The fact is that many people DO receive extra credit in the form of bonuses and promotions and other little perks called "incentives." One person questioned if this was really extra credit, but it is credit given to someone over and above their salary for doing extra work. Sounds like extra credit to me.

And if you want to take the remedial view of extra credit, even if you are not doing well on the job they don't normally just fire you, but give you another chance to prove yourself, ie, extra credit. In the "real world" you don't get grades or write papers either. Your boss does not ask you to pull out a sheet of paper and write 200 words on the value of customer service. There is a difference between the conventions of what one does in the so-called real world and in a college learning situation, and I think that's ok. Students are there to learn and instructors, professors, teachers, etc. are there to teach. No one is there to serve a customer or client, help them to see an improvement in their business, stocks, or home investments just yet. Student and teacher. Student and mentor. Period.

This is all more of a move away from education as instilling the skills needed to be a good citizen and a well-rounded person and towards education as a form of discipline and training for corporate America, which let's face it, has also been a part of education for a very long time as well.

Personally, I am for anything that will make students do a little extra work and think harder. The thing about extra credit is that students rarely take advantage of it. Even if you make it available to them, they rarely have the time or inclination to take you up on it. They seem to just want to know that it's there.


Moreover, I can’t help but feel that this is a form of discriminatory resentment, the suspicion that someone else, in this case another generation rather than another race or class of people, is getting something that you aren't. “These Millennials – they not only get an education (which has been leveled against generations at least since the GI bill if not sooner)(and which they have to go into enormous debt for), but also have all of this technology available to them at an early age and NOW they want EXTRA CREDIT when they are not doing well in their classes. What is with these kids? If I had had the kinds of advantages they have, why I would have aced all of my classes in ½ the time they take to text their friends. What nerve!”

This is the resentment of the very future that was promised to us. Now that the Silent or Greatest Generation, Baby Boomers, and the Atari Wave Gen Xers (see Strauss and Howe, 13th Gen) are too old to enjoy the full promise of the technology of the future, we resent that others have the opportunity to do so. Or perhaps, like George Orwell and Aldous Huxley warned us, the future is here, but it has turned out to be what Irving Howe called an un-utopia is his article The Fiction of Unutopia, what we now talk about as dystopia. Maybe it's not as great as promised. For every GPS that helps us find our location, we also secretly fear a Stephen Spielberg-Minority Report scenario in which our car drives us to work following the pre-programmed GPS route or takes us directly to jail. Maybe we didn't want all this technology anyway, and who are the Millennials to not see this? They are naive and blind to the downsides. Who wants all this technology anyway.


It is not that far from resentment of Millenials and white male resentment towards women and “minorities” for affirmative action. How dare someone else get a piece of the pie? Or as it is now, “there’s not enough pie for me, and now somebody wants my already small piece?” I just saw an article on Facebook that said that white people claim more racism against them than people of color do. Everybody wants to be a victim it seems in this society, to justify their feelings of being left out and falsely blaming young people for being spoiled is another way of pointing to someone and saying “No fair. They got something I didn’t.”

“Adults” love to tell young people that the world isn’t fair, but they are the first to insist that Millennials haven’t “paid their dues” and yet are perceived to have the world as their oyster.

The fact is that people have said that about all of our generations.


The so-called Silent Generation or Greatest Generation was portrayed in popular culture as Beatniks and rebels (without causes) when they were young. They were a threat to the old order and had to be put in their place, which was in the suburbs working newly middle class jobs for the corporations who had been rehabilitated in the wake of America’s defeat over fascism into good corporate citizens offering good jobs to Americans. After all, what is good for Chevrolet is good for America.

Of course, who could have anticipated that the Baby Boomers who came after them would be a bunch of smelly hippies holding sit-ins and teach-ins rather than going the colleges and universities that had only been recently unlocked to them by their parents. What nerve they had, demanding democracy in those very universities, let alone an end to war and a just society. They should just shut up and take their place as the next generation of workers.

Then, when the Baby Boomers took the reins, they criticized the Gen Xers, my generation, for not engaging in mass movement politics as they did. We were all a bunch of apolitical slackers who contributed nothing to society, choosing skateboarding and video games over communes or worse, Alex P. Keatons and Charlie Sheens who had abandoned their parents values altogether in favor of greed. Many of those who did not go that route and chose instead to go their own way rather than working soulless corporate jobs got met with the parents' lament "when are these children going to move out of the house?" I believe that many Millennials are facing a similar lament from their own Baby Boomer and Gen X parents.


Do you see the pattern I am presenting here? The fact of the matter is that the Millennials will find their own way(s). They are dealing with an economy much like the one that I came of age in with little opportunity, but at least 25 or 30 years ago we still had a social contract in place, which appears to be more than we have at this moment in time.

More than that, they have global warming and an America in decline (at least for the moment). Like most young people, they appear to be governed by people who do not share their values. And add to that the fact that many people see them as over-privileged brats. I recently watched a video in which Millennials addressed this perception of them. One person that stands out from the video is the young woman who said she felt so privileged to have to work 4 part-time jobs. I imagine that will also someday be used against her children. “You young people today! When I was your age I had to work 4 part-time jobs!” But let’s hope she has a little more perspective than that.

So as a college instructor, I actually burn when I hear people talk about students and how spoiled they are or how they don’t understand the workings of the “real world.” Of course they don’t. I didn’t either. I asked my teachers for unreasonable things like extensions and extra credit. I cut class. I didn’t understand how the world worked, and I was in the top 15 percent of my high school graduating class and even graduated a year early. I made several embarrassing missteps early on in my working life. I had what adults would call “book smarts” and not “street smarts.” But “street smarts” come from hardship. Don’t we all want our children not to go through excessive hardships?

I can only guess that most “adults” have repressed these memories to protect their own psyches and in order to further protect themselves, they must also vilify all of those lazy, naïve young people that came up after them.


I remember working in a test scoring center. The students had been assigned to write about a time when they had to overcome something. Most of the students wrote about a hard class or a cheerleading tryout. But some had terrible things, like one who had a friend decapitated in car accidents or more frequently, surviving abuse. I remember our scoring director telling us not to discount the cheerleading stories if they were well-written because she said “a cheerleading competition should be the worst thing for a 15 year-old to worry about.”


There is plenty of time to figure out the “real world” and maybe even reshape it in ways that the previous generations could not or did not or to at least leave it a little better. Frankly, this business model doesn’t work for us anyway and maybe businesses should look at how education or non-profits are run and take their cue from that, rather than seeing non-profits or education as a place to retreat from the "real world." The “real world” is overrated and should be shaken up and reshaped anyway.

The fact is that at nearly 50, I still don’t understand the so-called real world and if we were really honest with ourselves, few of us do. Otherwise, there wouldn’t be so much information available on the web about how to get along with one another, how to get jobs, how to buy a house, etc. No one knows how it works. We somehow all suspect that it’s a secret society to which we don’t know the handshake. And so we resent anyone who we perceive as getting just a little bit ahead of us, whether that perception is correct or not.


Are some Millennials spoiled and overprivileged? Sure. Just like there have been spoiled and overprivileged children who grow up into spoiled and overprivileged adults since the beginning of time. I think Cain and Abel could probably be scrunched into that category as well if I were willing to take the time to do so. There were Silents, Baby Boomers, and Gen Xers who were spoiled and overprivileged. And there are those who are smart and conscientious and willing to work hard, and many of those are my students. I have sat by and watched 3 generations of young people vilified by the media all in the same way. I’m not going to listen to or believe it any more.

Tuesday, January 07, 2014

Duck Dynasty: Joke's On Us

I have heard recently it said on Facebook that the members of the “Duck Dynasty” were, in fact, not these rustic types living in the backwoods of Louisiana, but in fact, are clean shaven professional men, yuppies, who saw an opportunity to be on television and took it. Whether or not these yuppies are racist and homophobic is not known, but it would seem that the Duck Dynasty would be bigoted, and so these professionals, actors, decided to play to public perception.

Now, I have not heard anything that makes me think that I can confirm or deny these rumors with any certainty. But it did make me think of Andy Kaufman and the many characters he played, including his baffling performances on Saturday Night Live as well as his wrestling career in which he wrestled women, culminating in a very public feud with wrestler Jerry Lawler in which Andy Kaufman was (supposedly) injured and had threatened to sue Lawler. Now, 30 years later, there is a suspicion that Lawler was in on the joke and that it was a hoax – a very well-acted piece of performance art that neither party ever completely admitted to, but carried it into their public personas, never letting their guard down.

So all of this makes me wonder, what if the joke is on us? What if this is a hoax, a brilliant piece of performance art that doesn’t take sides, rather is to pull the wool over all of our eyes? Perhaps the portrayal of a racist, backwater family with pre-Civil War attitudes is supposed to show the polarization of our society, exploit it, and hold a mirror up to all of us. What if it is a parody of life in the United States, showing the disparity in lifestyles between the two societies we have become, one that holds stubbornly onto the old way of life, resisting social and technological progress and the other presenting itself as moving forward into the 21st century (or as Buzz Lightyear says, to infinity and beyond!)

If this is the intention of the Duck Dynasty, you might argue that it is about 10 years too late to the party. This is well-covered terrain. But there’s another layer involved as well—our willingness to watch and comment upon this type of reality program, to look at “those hillbillies” as a way to feel better about ourselves, whether it’s to watch them as circus freaks or to admire their willingness to endure a harsh way of life for their “values.” In other words, we are so used to viewing people in these kinds of terms, is our outrage perfunctory? Are we outraged because we are used to being outraged, and not out of a genuine kind of surprise any more? And if it is a hoax, then those “values” seem to amount to nothing more than money. If there is no real conviction behind it, is a legitimate hoax in the Kaufman-esque sense of the word, or is it just making a buck?

A&E is one of several channels that have come to specialize in this kind of programming and making a fortune on it. The actors on Seinfeld, when renegotiating their huge salary increases, justified them on the grounds that the network was making an enormous amount of money off of their talents, and so why shouldn’t they. Having been sensitized to stories of actors in the 1950s and 60s who did not receive residuals for their television shows, we bought into it. So why should we now expect that the so-called reality stars are not just in it for a share of the pie, rather than that they truly believe in every word they say. We are at once cynical about reality television, but we are also willing to believe the worst about some characters because it reinforces what we believe and provides us with an outlet and a scapegoat for our rage at the injustices we feel in our society, which are many at the moment.

I don’t know if Duck Dynasty is a hoax or not, but I am becoming more and more taken with the idea that we have all been fooled. Again.