Saturday, December 10, 2011


First things first: you should buy this book:

If you are anti-Amazon, it's also available from Alibris or from Sibling Rivalry Press.

Second things second: you should buy this book because buying books of poetry is not difficult, helps the universal purpose of poetry (to communicate), and also keeps the economy healthy. Thus, it's patriotic.

Third things third: you should encourage other people to buy this book because then you can discuss the poems. It will give you something important to talk about aside from your pointless existences or the new ailments and sufferings of your life. 

Fourth things fourth: While you can read the rest of this post without reading Saeed Jones's book, the post will make a little more sense if you've read the poems. Plus, I can't just quote the whole damn thing here; it wouldn't be fair.

"I've heard that some men can survive / on dust mites alone for weeks at a time. // There's a magnifying glass on the night stand, / in case it comes to that." -- "Sleeping Arrangement"

Now, to the point:

I have a general issue with poetry -- I don't think it's a waste of time and ink; that's not a valid critique generally or in this case, even if I believe that the role of poetry has been marginalized in our visual- and narrative-demanding culture. But I tend to see poetry as highly personal and highly personal things like poetry and song lyrics often need to be decoded in ways that cannot always be done successfully, especially if the poet would prefer NOT to let us in. Sylvia Plath, for instance, writes poems that are highly coded. She wants us to experience the poems as poems, not as cliched windows into her soul. "Daddy" has a beautiful rhythm and sound, and it rises to a climax that can be felt when she closes with "I'm through." There's no denying the aesthetic beauty of that poem. 

But once you know that Plath didn't hate her father, that her father taught German at a university, that her father wasn't a Nazi, etc, "Daddy" takes on a new and more complex meaning outside of how beautiful it sounds. No longer is this a "poem about daddy issues." It's now a poem about grief and loss. And grief is so much more profound (in my opinion). How would we know that meaning aside from decoding things? 

Basically, I cannot see a work outside of its time and place or disconnected from its author. This doesn't mean I must know an author's biography to enjoy the beauty of language; it just means that I tend to look for these things to enhance my understanding of the poetry as whole. That jerk TS Eliot would of course scoff and call me a ninny. Fair enough, but he's dead and also willingly spent time with Ezra Pound so I don't really have to worry about him. 
TS Eliot: poet, jerk.

And yet, even if I look at WHEN THE ONLY LIGHT AS FIRE as simply a text, in the way that total dick T.S. Eliot would suggest, I don't miss out on the emotional power of a line like: "And if I ever strangled sparrows / it was only because I dreamed / of better songs." 

Sure I can celebrate that line metrically, but there's a human voice there, a human mind. A mind that is not mine, does not have my background, and yet has succeeded in communicating across the differences of race and class and age to punch me in the gut. I don't need to be Jones or to know him intimately to know that he is a specific, profound human being and that the speaker of this poem (Saeed? Someone else?) has felt something concentrated, unique, and real. TS Eliot wasn't denying that emotions needed to be at the center of poems; it's just the natural outcome of trying to experience art through only an aesthetic lens. Eliot would suggest that there are no barriers between a reader and a piece of art as long as the reader is looking at things aesthetically. I can't know the artist and even if I did, I might not know the artwork any better if armed with knowledge. So, I get what Eliot is saying. I just don't like to think that art lacks blood and fiery synapses.

There are, of course, specific barriers between me and Saeed Jones. I'm a white guy from New Jersey. Jones is an African American born in Tennessee, raised in Texas, who lives in New York City. I'm straight, he's gay. I'm this, he's that. We both wear shoes, we both have eyes, we both write. To paraphrase Tim O'Brien: everything is true if you generalize enough.

Saeed Jones: poet, not a jerk.
But, really, none of this is a true barrier unless I make it one. It would be easy for me as a straight white guy to only read poetry by straight white poets. From New Jersey. Easy, and perhaps not nearly as dull as one might expect. (Seriously, BJ Ward is an excellent poet. So is William Carlos Williams.) But  those labels on bookstore shelves or on Amazon ("Gay/Lesbian Literature" or "Gay/Lesbian Poetry") signal things that can act as barriers even though they do not have to.

Put simply, I don't need to be a gay black man to like Saeed Jones poetry. Just like I don't need to be a British actor to like Shakespeare or a baseball player to root for the Phillies. And yet, the labels can make it easy for me to dismiss a text. 

Think of it outside of poetry for a second. If my wife tells my she wants to see a film that's called a Romantic Comedy I might balk at seeing the film with her. I don't think I need to belabor the point or even suggest certain movies that are "romantic comedies" and yet don't feel like romantic comedies, right? 

Right. So as a straight guy I can read these poems. And as a great poet, Saeed can write about anything he wants without losing the power that he has as a great poet -- the power to wrestle/shape/control/unleash words. He does not have to (and does not) write only about the topics determined by labels. 

Because the labels are guides but they are not the writer. Sure, some writers might be happy to hang onto a label and give their readers exactly what they expect -- that is essentially how genre fiction works, how erotica, thrillers, action movies work. But if we assume that all labeled things are only what their label says, then wouldn't we be seeing the entire world as genre'd? And then we'd see less and less of the world.

"I don't read young adult books."
"I don't read memoirs."
"I don't read books with male/female narrators."
"I don't read gay or lesbian poetry."
"I don't read literary fiction."
"I don't read fantasy novels."
"I don't read."

I can read this:
"After his gasp and god damn / grunt, after his zipper closes its teeth, his tongue leaves / its shadows, leaves me / alone"

and feel a certain kind of loneliness. I don't need to be Jones or the speaker to know that feeling. I don't need to have ever had that loneliness to know that loneliness.

Isn't that what self-professed book nerds love? To feel things we've never felt? May never feel? Isn't that how stories and poems get all wrapped up in the concepts of compassion and empathy? 

True, the labels we are given or adopt (or both) can help draw in people who may understand us before we even speak, who already have expectations about us. Labels help filter the world so if we want to read something by a blonde Latino writer of High Fantasy Novels narrated by dragons, we can find such a thing. But those labels can be trouble -- they can give people excuses not to spend time with our words when our words might be exactly what they need. 

How lonely is that feeling? 

See the world in genres then start cutting out entire genres. See what you're left with: flavorless mush. Worse, the inability to connect to others about stories. 

Worse worse: you write blog posts condemning the very thing you've been guilty of a thousand times; but hopefully you (I) will change.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

On exoskeletism

So, here's a blog post about postmodernism. As such, you should know what makes something postmodern:
  1. distracting self-awareness
  2. the potential for resolution cancelled out by a gerbil wheel of perpetual-ness*
  3. constant wordplay that calls attention to language and the author's wit**
  4. the understanding that truth doesn't exist but a yearning that makes one look for it constantly
  5. a fervent belief that language cannot truly capture reality***
  6. a layered feeling whereby the reader seeks out answers to questions but only finds new questions (call this this "Lot 49" aspect.)
  7. Footnotes****
The Crying of Lot 49 is a very very very fine book.
 *(See: Finnegan's Wake which begins in mid-sentence and ends with the beginning of that opening sentence)
**Note that this behavior is not new for postmodernists, but is simply dredged back up from prior movements, such as the metaphysical poets who loved to flaunt their wit, much like monkey's who fling their shit while laughing. 
*** Example: how do the words -- or even the sounds made by the words "My dog is a fat, lazy animal" really capture the truth of her fatness and laziness?

Sable in all her fat, lazy glory.
Now, there are other postmodern traits I could mention, but suffice it to say that the movement as it regards literature is very focused on language and truth. It's the literature of distrust. The stories abound in conspiracy, fueled by the erosion of faith in politics, religion, the family unit, and the human mind as a knowable, reliable, and delightful thing. Basically, when the bombs dropped on Japan in WWII, life and humanity became a joke. Why not laugh at absurdity, there's clearly no god here to keep us in line, right? I see a bumper sticker that says No God, No Peace; Know God, Know Peace and have to laugh. 

But, more to the point, there's the issue of form and how it can overwhelm story when put in the hands of the postmodernist. The postmodernist champions form based on the foundation setup by the modernists. To quote that cat-loving anti-semite T.S. Eliot "Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality."

More precisely, he ends the landmark essay "Tradition and the Individual Talent" with:

"To divert interest from the poet to the poetry is a laudable aim: for it would conduce to a juster estimation of actual poetry, good and bad. There are many people who appreciate the expression of sincere emotion in verse, and there is a smaller number of people who can appreciate technical excellence. But very few know when there is expression of significant emotion, emotion which has its life in the poem and not in the history of the poet. The emotion of art is impersonal. And the poet cannot reach this impersonality without surrendering himself wholly to the work to be done."

Emphasis mine, of course. This essay places form over the poet/writer. But the postmodernists end up, in some high-profile cases, placing form over story or character. Think about it this way: if traditional storytelling emphasizes the emotional components of characters and choices (and those choices are plot) then form is the skeleton. In literature prior to postmodernism, the stories are flesh covering bone. 

But in postmodernism, the stories are flesh covered by exoskeleton. Take away the exoskeleton and you're left with a puddle of mush. But who cares about the mush when the exoskeleton is so alien, so wonderful, so not human. ah, and that's the crux of my little analogy -- postmodern stories can feel cold and inhuman.
The postmodernist delights in how stories are told, how narrators may "smile and smile and still be a villain," how details are less meaningful than the delivery. Consider the work of Thomas Pynchon -- an author that writes tangled, conspiracy-laden novels (many of them massive). It's hard to hold on to a particular character in, say, Vineland, but not in The Crying of Lot 49. Oedipa Maas has an unusual name and gets herself lost in conspiracy upon conspiracy, but she's still there, at the center of it all, as the novel ends. While I would have no problem accepting that Oedipa is not an emotionally engaging character, she's at least memorable. Buuuut, her story does not necessarily hinge upon an emotionally engaging quest.

But now consider the great postmodern short story collection The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien, who is not just the author but also the main character. (how meta!) Basic summary: O'Brien gets drafted to serve in Vietnam, debates running away to Canada, sees some terrible things, kills someone, hits rock bottom, and then discusses why he's a writer. Throughout, he interrupts his story arc to discuss the process of storytelling and how soldiers cope with the idea of death.

At a few particularly postmodern points, O'Brien declares that a true war story may not be factually true. It may be 100% fiction and yet truer than a story that is 100% factually accurate. He says that story-truth is more true than happening-truth. Put simply, there is some kernel of meaning at the heart of a story -- don't call it a moral, call it a close replication of the feelings the storyteller desperately wants to transfer from him or herself to the audience. "I want you to feel what I felt," O'Brien says throughout the book. It's the only truth left -- the truth of what someone felt in a particular moment. we tell the story to share that feeling (and to bring the dead back to life). It's impossible for language to make a reader/listener feel exactly the same feeling, but with story-truth one can get close.

Now, there's no joking around here. O'Brien believes storytelling saves his life (Vietnam mucked him up, to understate it). Storytelling is a game, but it's not play without consequences. There's delight in storytelling but that delight is part of the medicine. and it's part of the entire story collection. Most importantly, the collection completes the emotional arc of Tim O'Brien the character. It is human postmodernism.

Maybe we can just call it a good book instead of having to label it.
Personally, I have no inherent issue with either "type" of postmodern fiction. I delight in the formal games sometimes and also delight in stories. I have no problem enjoying Pynchon or Don DeLillo (two classic "idea" novelists often accused of writing non-characters). I have no problem enjoying Tim O'Brien or Toni Morrison (two authors credited with emotionally driven novels).

But I understand the objection to the exoskeletonism of certain postmodern texts. And this is where I stop typing even though there seems to be more I could say.
Shout out to Andrew Panebianco for discussing what he calls the "preciousness of postmodernism" and being a co-thinker on the idea of exoskeletism.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Ladies and Gentlemen, we are floating in space....

I spend too much time thinking about my music collection. I have over 13000 songs, some belonging to my wife (but not statistically significant enough to parse out the numbers here). It's 1100+ albums. It's 40 days of music. Not too bad, though I've certainly had more than that total -- some albums haven't made the long journey into my 30s. (Metal Church, I loved your screechy vocals and silly, Satanic lyrics, but I don't need you on my hard drive anymore. Though, I will look you up on Spotify and deal with the embarrassment of it posting to my Facebook wall later.)

One thing I've been thinking about recently is the way certain albums open. Not the opening songs per se (though I have a Spotify list of great opening songs that you're free to enjoy). I'm also not really talking about the opening chords or riffs.

No -- I've been thinking about great opening moments. The stuff that happens on some albums before the opening song itself starts. For instance, the gloomy-sounding woman's voice that declares "Ladies and gentlemen, we are floating in space" at the start of Spiritualized's nearly perfect album from -- eek! -- 1997. The hypnotic, pulsing, overlapping vocals and music of the title track that follows this quote bursts forth with the same monotony that colors the woman's voice. It's masterful and I think of that quote almost as often as I think of my favorite moments on the rest of the album. It's a fun thing to say, but would it be as fun lost in the middle of a song or between songs? Strange, that question, but compelling.

It seems like an out-of-touch, old-man type complaint that iPods ruined the album (something I think is only partially true), but the fact that I listened to most music on cassette tapes for the first few, key years of my music-loving life may have a lot to do with my interest in albums as cohesive experiences that sometimes kick off with standout, nearly non-music moments. CDs made skipping things easier, but it seems like I had already been programmed to start albums at their beginnings by the time I was financially capable of buying CDs and a portable CD player. In fact, portable CD listening emphasized the opening moments and tracks even more because the memory function on players didn't come along until later. (at least not at my price point.) Thus, I often heard the opening tracks of CDs more than other songs. On tapes that wasn't the case, but something else required me to start most of my tapes at the first sone on side 1 no matter what. (I did a bunch of rewinding and fast-forwarding in those days, a skill that translated to nothing else in my life, sadly.)

I guess this post could become one of two things, then: a minor rant about how music that isn't in a physical format lacks a sense of cohesion or just a call to appreciate and share those opening moments of albums that are not simply about the opening song, but of the first sounds one hears when embarking on a musical journey.

Dean Venture learning about the links between science geniuses and Prog-rock before he unwittingly falls into a Floyd-hole. 

Here are some great album-opening things (Are they moments? pulses? sounds? None of those seem right. Let's go with moments just cuz.) In no order:

Sepultura's classic album Chaos A.D. starts with a recording of the in-utero heartbeat of the drummer's son; the volume rises on the heartbeat like a little, fetal coronary is happening -- and then it is replaced (and almost matched) by the rapid, frantic drumming of the opening track, "Refuse/Resist." Not a bad way to exploit your kid.

Alice in Chains classic album Dirt -- about the fun of being a heroin addict (note the sarcasm there, kids) --  doesn't even have a lead-in pulse. The deceased Layne Staley shouts at us with his raspy, Texan "Ah!" -- there's no time to sink into this album, and yet as it progresses the songs excrete the kind of rusty, muddy, grimy feeling that you'd expect a junky to sing about. Those opening shouts can easily be of joy or the shock of being pricked with a needle. It works in terms of theme and energy.

Badly Drawn Boy's Mercury Prize-winning debut, The Hour of Bewilderbeast, begins with a lovely violin and horn piece that sets the mood for the album. It's about a minute and twenty seconds and then gets taken over by a slightly peppier guitar before the lead singer's semi-husky voice comes in. "The Shining" might be the greatest song Badly Drawn Boy will ever write. Which is both a compliment and a sad-but-true comment about how I feel about the rest of his output.

The Beastie Boys know the power of starting with something odd -- while Check Your Head has the mocking quote: "This next one... is the first song on our new album" to kick off the song "Jimmy James" it's the dog bark/howl that kicks off  Ill Communication that I tend to remember more often. Something about that canine noise shifting right into "Sure Shot" works too well to be something created by humans.

On When Your Heartstrings Break, the now-defunct Beulah start things with a coin dropping into a machine. I assume it's a jukebox because "Score from Augusta" has a beach-inspiried, pop-rock feel to it, though they probably deserved to earn a few more coins during their brief career.

Björk's excellent Post has that strange machanical-comet-descending-from-the-heavens to kick off "Army of Me." It leads right into a fuzzy-bass sounding riff that shouldn't go with her voice at all. And yet, Björk!

Pink Floyd's haunting, wind-howling "One of These Days" on Meddle cannot be described except to say that if you sync the song with the opening of Kubrick's horror classic The Shining, it's nearly better than the already awesome music Kubrick has in the movie. (Also, "Echoes" syncs with the last 25 minutes of the movie. Trippy Pink Floyd + hedge maze + snow + ax-wielding Jack Nicholson yelling "Dannnnnnyyyy!" = holy crap.)

System of a Down (to get back on the heavy metal tip) starts their album Toxicity off with a hard shot to the drums and then lets the anticipation boil over before kicking into the song proper. It's almost like the drummer accidentally started playing and then everyone else had to get ready; but that's the point.

Vision Thing by Sisters of Mercy has a weird metallic cough at the start, which I think matches the very treble-friendly mix of this otherwise awesome goth-after-dark rock album. "It's a small world and it smells bad." Yes it is and yes it does, Andrew Eldritch.

Anyone that knows me is simply waiting for a Radiohead comment, so here it is: The Bends. That opening was both awesome and maddening to me. As a metal-head transitioning into a wider scene of music (i.e., not heavy metal), I always found myself interested in 1 of 2 types of songs in the mornings before school. Either really fast, loud music or very slow ballads with awesome guitar solos (see: Pantera's "Mouth for War" for the former or Testament's "Return to Serenity" for the latter). But "Planet Telex" has this mysterious, etherial, computer-y sound that starts the album and, of course, hints at the greater sonic but still commercially friendly playing around the band would release on Ok Computer. When I think of opening moments on Radiohead albums, this one comes up first because I used to skip the song to get to the title track or "Just" because they were more immediately appealing. Eventually I would grow to love those opening noises and the song where Thom Yorke wails: "Everything is....broken. Everyone is....broken." Delicious melancholy replaces the rage of the metal head.

One of the other reasons I thought about this strange, seemingly pointless topic, is Pearl Jam's debut album, which opens (and closes) with a slow, squeeze-box fade-in of drums and ghost-guitar noises and Eddie Vedder moan-mumbling. Who doesn't love the jarring juxtaposing of the out-of-the-ether intro with the scratchy kick-off of Stone Gossard attacking guitar chords to kick the song off. Just as the band's singer seemingly came out of nowhere, the album comes out of the misty sounds of nowhere. Perfect.

Is this just weird to pay attention to this stuff? Probably. Let me know if you notice these things too!

Monday, October 31, 2011

Why I don't publish negative reviews online....

I have a guest post over at Alice Ozma's blog that you should check out! Alice is a former literature student of mine whose book The Reading Promise can be found, amongst other places, here.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Why Writers Act Rudely (or: The Interruptor)

Last week I was in my local writing hangout/coffeeshop, enjoying my day. The friendly barista*, whom I hadn't seen in a week or two, asked for an update about my writing. I happily gave her a brief update, mainly because I was (am!) still buzzed about getting a literary agent. I felt this was a reasonable victory worth bragging about. Note, though, that I did not just walk up to her and say "Hey, I got a literary agent! Make me a drink, coffee-wench!" While that may have been hilarious, it is not exactly the most polite way to announce good news.**

After answering a few of her questions about agent-searching and why my agent is so awesome, I asked how she had been and how her work was going (she is a film editor). But rather than discuss that work, she began to describe how a recent desire to write a hard sci-fi novel had overcome her. As a writer, but also someone who had read plenty of sci-fi as a teenager, I was intrigued. She answered my questions with the level of detail I enjoy in conversations like these -- i.e., enough to get the point and share in the enthusiasm, but not enough to make me wish I had somewhere else to be. I also liked hearing her describe the precise kind of sci-fi she enjoyed reading because she does not seem like someone who would prefer epic sci-fi novels. So, a fun discussion was being had.
Teenage-Evan's sci-fi book of choice.

As the barista spoke to me, a guy at a nearby table kept turning around and listening and then finally got up, stood next to us, and interrupted: "I'm writing a novel."

The friendly barista -- mid-sentence -- gave him a quick glance and finished her thought. I shot him a glance but did not engage him either.

People -- especially people who write or paint or take photographs -- love to talk about their work. And writers love to know that there are other writers out there. (It's probably not just those with artistic temperaments: parents love to talk about their kids; sports fans love to talk about their teams -- both could easily interrupt conversations whenever they sense room to promote their preferences).

Basically, there's always an urge to connect; but some of us project that urge too forcefully. Too desperately, even.


"My child also has a wonderful vocabulary."
"I have always wanted to write a novel."
"I like to take pictures, too."
"I really enjoy films."
"My band is working on our first album with the bassist from Creed."
Creed bassist Brian Marshall "also co-owns a bed and breakfast called Mango Moon in Costa Rica"
where he makes this face 24/7.

There's something about that emphasis -- it's not always in the same part of the sentence -- but it carries with it a desperate need to connect to someone with similar projects/goals and, just slightly, suggests a superiority.

"I'm writing a novel."
is easily meant to be:
"You aren't the only one writing a novel."

The interruptor quickly returned to his table, where he said to his friend, intentionally loud, "I guess no one wants to hear about my book." His friend replied: "Shake it off, man. It's not a big deal."

His friend was right -- it wasn't a big deal. He wasn't actually being ignored because we had no interest in hearing about his book. We just didn't have an interest at that moment. His request to be noticed caused him to forget basic social etiquette. Seems pretty obvious, right?

The real point here, is, that I totally get it. I understand the feeling this guy had. Writers spend lots of time in their heads, speaking in random voices, exploring moral and ethical quandaries, pretending, etc. It's quite fun, but also lonely and usually results in lots of rejection. It's easy to say that writers (more than musicians, perhaps less than painters) spend a lot of time alone.

But it's not simply the loneliness that causes us to have the urge to tell everyone that we're writers -- I think it's the rejections that turns the urge into an act. As a writer I spend time writing and then I have to spend twice as much time asking people to read what I wrote. Sure, Facebook and Twitter let me reach more people, but it also lets me know how many people just ignore the request (oh the lack of comments and likes! Oh the lack of shared links!) And when I fail to get people interested, I feel like I've failed as a writer. Really, though, I've done nothing wrong as a writer; I'm just expecting too much (and, perhaps, failing as a self-promoter).

So, this interrupter just wanted someone -- particularly two strangers -- to be interested. And he figured we would be interested because we were talking about writing. And as someone who queried agents for two years and received over 160 rejections and non-responses for 2 projects -- I know that rejection can make one look for acceptance in any place at any time -- even in the middle of someone else's conversation.

I considered going over to the guy and asking him about his book. I also considered how I might best explain why he had been so easily ignored. Just a little advice from someone who knew what he was feeling but also knew that writers are a crotchety, gossipy bunch ready to turn someone's faux pas into a short story or, worse, a blog topic.

But he left with his friend before I decided whether I should be the holier-than-thou author with no interest, the guy with social advice, or the nice writer interested in another writer's work. I hope he went home to write because it's the only time and place to be somewhat happy between all the rejections big and small.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Anxiety, NYC, & quality sausages

Dear New York City,

Today I took a trip via NJ Transit (the transportation of Kings!) up to visit you. You are the city that never sleeps. Or showers, apparently. It was a sweaty day -- the kind where everyone trudging sadly down 8th avenue looked homeless. Strangers growled at each other. My bottled water tasted corrupt. My hair got greasy. Your Penn Station bathroom was out of order just to make me have to walk more and test my bladder. I hate you. I hate you so much.

I'm sorry, New York. I don't hate you. You're great. It's not you; it's totally me. I'm just lashing out because you make me anxious.

I'm not sure why. I've had a bunch of fun times with you, dating back to a visit to Yankees stadium to see my childhood sports idol Don Mattingly. There's a picture of me with an ill-fitting Yankees hat and a big grin. I think I was 7. The Yankees lost, as they did for much of my time as a young fan, but I had a fine time. (I contend that the ease with which I adopted the Phillies as my new team was directly linked to the struggles the Yankees had in the 80s.) It would be my last family organized visit to Yankee Stadium, as my grandmother, great uncle, and parents were not keen on the cursing and drunkenness. oh, the drunkenness.

My dad also took my sister and I to visit you, NY, to watch the July 4th fireworks a few times. This is the same idea that thousands of other people had, so there are no pictures, just memories rooted deep in my body of being jostled. When I hear the word jostle I immediately think of fireworks . This should not suggest a negative memory. We always loved seeing the your river-barge-launched fireworks up close. I just didn't like the idea that I could -- at any moment -- be separated from my dad and sister, lost forever.

Oh island of Manahatta (as Whitman calls it), you host many musical acts. I venture, rarely, into your embrace to see them. I remember Pantera & Tori Amos (Tori Amos opened for Pantera at Madison Square Garden. It was magical.)*

*this is obviously not true.

I saw a Pink Floyd cover band once. On a date. I spent most of the concert worrying that my car would be stolen or worse: used as a toilet. Pink Floyd cover bands are, as you can probably imagine, bad. (though not all are this bad).

I saw Radiohead at Liberty State Park in late August of 2001. Scenic view of Manahatta. Towers, liberty, ferries, etc. But that's technically in NJ.

I could do the thing where I blame 9/11 for my anxiety. Seems easy enough. I was in Manhattan a week before. Got to the Guggenheim. Took tons of pictures of which only four were any good. Ate a deli sandwich. A fine time. But it's not the same to be there a week before and then project back. "What if it had happened on 9/4?" Not the same as "I was supposed to fly that day..." stories.

But NY, I was not with you for 9/11. That is not why you make me anxious. There seems to be no reason -- even when I am anxious to visit.

Consider this: a few years ago my wife had to drive me to see Don DeLillo -- my favorite author -- read at the 92nd Street Y. I spent much of the "scenic" NJ Turnpike telling her to turn around -- we would be late; I had to get up early; we hadn't eaten dinner; we would get lost. She refused, pitied me and dismissed my lame excuses. Of course, I had a magical time; got DeLillo's autograph. Still, I buzzed with panic until we returned home.

So, whether I take the train or drive or have someone drive me, I am anxious.

Perhaps there's no reason. Perhaps you and I are just not meant to be around one another. Let's just agree to remain apart except in those rare instances where I get to visit and maybe even eat one of the best portabella mushroom sandwiches I've ever had.


Here are two things that happened, neither of which made me anxious:

While sitting in a health food lunch place eating delicious almonds, a hippy-hobo came in, checked out the various yogurts, and then proceeded to scream at a woman for stealing from his backpack. "I know you went into my bag!" He yelled "Fucking pickpocket!" he spat. He might have been crazy; he might have done it to disguise the fact that he'd stolen something. But no one paid attention. The hippy-hobo left. The woman left. It was like a little play.

On a corner on 8th ave, I heard a man tell a woman: "I'm gonna report you. You were on that corner twice and now you're here. You're not supposed to be here or there on the corners. I've told you. I shouldn't have to tell you." I would like a pamphlet from the secret organization that polices the corners.

Also, this:

Friday, September 16, 2011

On Boredom and English Majors

I decided to take a stand against boredom this semester. "I just think it's boring" is not a great way to get conversations moving and yet, sadly, it's sometimes the only thing a student might say all semester.
Now, I'm lucky. I teach literature courses for undergraduates at Rowan University where I, too, was an English undergraduate. I love the campus. The English department is in an old building with huge windows and lots of light. I don't get to teach in that building often because fire codes don't mesh with the large classes our department must accommodate (English is very popular amongst Elementary and Secondary education majors).
My students sometimes feel unlucky. Because I teach literature courses that allow me to teach Joseph Conrad's wonderful, uplifting, optimistic, and all-around hilarious novella Heart of Darkness. Okay, it's not any of those things, but it is one of my favorite texts to teach. It's flawed, troublesome, filled with fog and mud, metaphor and meandering sentences. I think it's a text that should be taught because it's these things. In fact, I think the issues of race, famously highlighted and chastised by Chinea Achebe, make the text one to look at MORE not LESS.
I've found my undergraduates are often slow to love Conrad's tale, but many of them do learn to love it. Or at least appreciate it. I won't lie and say I want them all to love it. My philosophy in the classroom has been to always try to help my students to understand a text. Loving it is optional and sometimes not possible as I have to sometimes teach texts I do not love.
But what I recently realized is that there's another problem with Heart of Darkness. Many students think it's boring. There's not enough dialogue to break up the massive paragraphs. Marlow's meandering narration can feel like 3 am college freshmen philosophizing. The plot -- despite being based on a perilous journey up the Congo river -- involves more waiting and talking about death than actual threats of death. I love it, but for my students it's certainly no Twilight or Harry Potter (the texts of choice of the last couple of years of readers and non-readers alike).
So, here's a slightly modified version of what I told my class before we began discussing Heart of Darkness:
I want to say something about boredom. Boredom is not something that is inherent to the text you're reading. It's not an inherent quality. I know that plenty of philosophers and critics would argue that beauty can be said to be an inherent quality in a piece of art, but I'm going to stop short of allowing anyone to say that a text contains boredom. I need to point out -- gently -- that boredom is, well, your fault. I don't mean that you are flawed. But I want you to consider that if you are bored when you're reading something it's not the text's fault. Look inside yourself and try to figure out why you are bored. I can suggest a few reasons.
  • Sometimes you have to read things that are given no context. You are not told when the book was written or why it was written at that time. You don't know anything about the world of the author and thus the world of the characters might seem just as strange. 
  • Perhaps there's a problem of focus -- maybe so much is contained in the text that you have no idea where to look closely. And, especially on the first read, your mind may prefer to wander off than to try to highlight everything as important. 
  • Perhaps, in a different way, boredom is a sign that the book just isn't for you. And when you are reading for pleasure, that's fine. I fully support people passing on a book that bores them if they got the book to be entertained. 
But as English majors -- as people who choose to study literature not simply "read" -- we have to use our boredom as a means to learn something, to be enlightened, to dive deeper into the text. Because, as book nerds, we love reading, but as English majors we love words, so we should use every opportunity to learn what the words are doing, why they work and, in some cases, why they don't. If the words don't work, if the sentences don't work, then if you sit there, you can't just stare at the page and say "This is not interesting to me. I'm bored." Instead use that moment to ask hard questions. The questions that start out in a negative place -- even one of judgment and rejection -- can lead to understanding. You may not end up loving the book. But if you can get past boredom, you've taken a step as a student of literature.
So, I cleaned some of that up and made the end more profound, but that was basically it. My attempt to try and start conversations that lead somewhere, not to engage in one where the judgment of boredom has been made and thus other inquiries rejected (because students stop thinking and caring if they are bored) I'm not sure if it was the greatest idea, the most inspiring speech, or if it ended up making some students more hesitant to speak up in class. But I gave it a shot.
Plus, I got an email from a student at the end of class that said "Just wanted to say that I never thought about the content of books, stories, and movies, like the way you described in the beginning of class. I'm one of those people who would normally say how boring the book or movie is, but I agree with what you said, it isn't the book that's boring, it's something in us that makes it boring. I had to re-read some parts [of Heart of Darkness] several times to make sure i understood. At no point was I ever 100% sure with what was going on or with what I was thinking. But I do think the story is interesting, in a very weird and uncommon fashion. I'm typing this as everyone leaves, and I just want to add that today's discussion indeed did help me understand some parts."
So, at least one person walked out thinking more positively!