Monday, November 29, 2004

A Sense of Sensibility


I’ve been blessed with a head cold and so am home and resting and have time to finally respond to one of your very early responses (A Minor Distraction to the American Election) to an early post of mine (Midwinter Day). Reading your latest post it still seems that “Is it enough?” is the question. When I doubted my “taste” in “Midwinter Day” it was not that I really doubted my taste. Let me explain. What I meant in that post is that I find myself taking pleasure in things, though I would never champion them as art, as “literature” or “film.” There is a division between something entertaining and something truly artful. I have been and will be entertained by crap until I die. I use the term “crap” loosely and affectionately. Though, I believe, as I know you do, art, too, has to be entertaining. But not crappy. But just because I enjoy David Sedaris on airplanes doesn’t mean that I think he is writing literature. And I love the goofy comic melodrama of the movie “The Wedding Singer.” But I am damn sure neither is art. And it’s not because I don’t think comedy can be art. I have a great respect for stand-up comedians. Margaret Cho’s “I’m the One that I Want” is an extremely powerful piece that is hysterical and political and is 100% stand-up. She knows her form, her medium, and pushes it to its full range of possibility. That show makes performance art look like a haven for 2nd rate comedians. So what’s the difference between Cho’s piece and Sedaris or anything else that my brother and I laugh at while stuck in NJ visiting the parental unit? Probably the range. The number of things a certain form can accomplish. Sedaris for me is nothing more than funny. Sometimes very funny. Cho makes you laugh and suddenly you find yourself knee deep in a very dark place and you realize if she hadn’t steered you there through laughter and sarcasm you would have dismissed the story as melodramatic. You wouldn’t have been able to hear it as openly as you now find yourself hearing it. Her medium -- the comedy -- makes you see the darkness of her tale. The comedy has the effect of producing an affect in the audience? I am playing around now with words because I think what we are both looking for is a term. It seems that we are trying to pin the tail on the aesthetic donkey from different sides. I am saying “entertaining” is not enough and you are saying “intellectual” is not enough. I agree with you whole-heartedly on the dreaded intellectual. It does lack intelligence in that it is one-sided. The term to me denies the sensual which I for some reason tie to the emotional. Perhaps because both are physical in some way. I think your original term “sensibility” is exactly what we are talking about. It implies an intellect engaged in the sensual world. Perhaps we should start using the word in everyday speech. After a reading we can say “Her work has sensibility.” It would be an entirely different assessment from “I respect the intelligence in her work.” The first judgment expresses satisfaction. The second is a back-handed compliment. It expresses a lack of something by naming what was actually found in the work. OK. Tomorrow I will discuss my favorite piece of art and why. It will go nicely with the current thread.

Good Night.


Sunday, November 28, 2004

After seeing Chris N. by chance on Elizabeth Street

What do I want to know? I want to know what Edwin Denby knew.

Sitting in a used bookstore tonight browsing his dance writings, that’s what I wanted; but what he “knew” was something beyond “Dance” in particular. There was some groundwork in the senses, in the affective brain, that preceded history and technique.

There’s something Pedro Almodovar knows beyond “filmmaking” too, and “Bad Education” made me think that if poetry—someone, anyone’s poetry—can’t do what that film did, then I don’t want to write poetry anymore. It didn’t break my heart the way “Talk to Her” did, but it dove into complexity and dashed itself to pieces and surfaced whole. As an intellectual feat, that’s more than “experimental” American filmmakers seem capable of. (Spike Jonz, I’m looking at you.)

An offhand comment at the beginning (“There’s nothing less erotic than an actor looking for work”) seems to have nothing to do with the story that transpires, then evolves into the secret key to a cautionary tale about artistic ambition. That’s the satisfying part; it’s also the unsatisfying part, since the motives of the characters spring from will not love. In “Talk to Her,” a radiant beauty is restored to life, and possibly innocence, after a violation that ends in the suicide—keenly felt—of someone we’re supposed to despise, and can’t; this welter of contradictory emotion works with the cerebral satisfaction of good cinematic technique to cause, finally, the selfsame tears for two intense pleasures. How now, poetry?

Edwin Denby is sympathetic toward the “anti-intellectual” view of ballet; in a way, isn’t it enough that beautiful bodies, male and female, are set in motion amidst fine music and backdrops and glamorous audience? Isn’t that what draws one in, and didn’t Denby himself read Shelley’s “Adonais” with rapt pleasure as a child before he could understand the meaning of the words? Rather than anti-intellectual, why can't we call it pre- or meta- or sensory-intellectual?

What would a really great anti-intellectual poetry entail anyway -- what thrills, what voluptuousness, what blind risk-taking? Wouldn't YOU read it?

(Was Zahara singing “Quizas” a kiss blown to Wong Kar-wai? It plays over the long montage in “In the Mood for Love” where the lovers part, almost meet, and miss each other over and over. It is a light, even slight, song. Perfect cover for devastation.)

Wednesday, November 24, 2004

Do Dogs Count?

Dear Readers,

I apologize for my absence. I am wondering what Ron Silliman thinks happens to women's writing after they acquire their first middle-aged blind dog. Certainly if the last two weeks are any indication, my future as a literary artist is in jeopardy.

I have a parallel story to add to Ange's fecal one. Percy, my new old dog, after spending two days alone at my house with Kate and me, was introduced to Kate's roommate's dog, Cody. Percy began barking for the first time and when I went to pet Cody to keep her calm, Percy promptly pissed on my shoe. Kate said he wanted me to know I was his bitch. I guess I am.

I plan to stop reading solely about natural dog diets in the next few days and return here with something real to say. I still want to respond to one of Ange's pre-election posts.

Happy Thanksgiving.


Wednesday, November 17, 2004

Primal Self-Expression

I saw Drew Gardner in passing tonight, at Peter Gizzi’s reading at the Project, and he thought I should share the story of how I almost didn’t make it out of the apartment. Not an hour before I expected to be on my way, I was seated at my computer and felt a familiar pair of small hands on my leg. When I looked down there was my son wiping his hands on my pants and—they were covered in, how can I say it, he was cleaning shit off his hands with my pants. Phoebus Apollo! (Exeunt; roar of a bath and howls of the offended child, not to mention the howls of the offended mother.) How did that happen? Later his father asked him, “Jake, did you take a poo?” and he boldly stuck his hand down the back of his diaper. There was my answer.

At least he spared the sofa, already a sour sponge of dried milk and peanut butter; in fact from a housekeeping point of view cleaning himself on me was the least worst option. From the psychoanalytic point of view … well, Mr. Gardner seemed to find a wealth of metaphor in this little tale, which I don’t wish to overburden with analysis.

Monday, November 15, 2004

Going to Sleep with Quandariness

John Ashbery’s new Selected Prose is stacked high at St. Mark’s Bookshop, and my quandary is this—do I pack my 25-lb. boy in his 8-lb. stroller and brave the stairwells of the subway to buy this book today? It’s like running an obstacle course. It is no exaggeration to say that I’ll spend half the day fretting about this book, which I desperately want, but being unable to bring myself to leave the neighborhood to get it. It is no exaggeration to say I rarely leave Park Slope. Having a child in New York City is punishing, and the subway is only one of many reasons.

Park Slope is one of the few habitable neighborhoods of New York, and it has the virtue of bookstores and independent record stores in a concentrated area. But none of the bookstores seem to have Ashbery’s Selected Prose. It is a neighborhood renowned for its literariness, but it is the literariness of novelists, not poets. Or it is the literariness of the New York Review of Books, where real poets are certified by British or Irish accents.

Apropos an earlier post, I learn from my Raymond Williams’ Keywords that there is a history between “intelligent” and “intellectual” that stretches back to the early 19th century, and uses a quote of Byron’s to exemplify an unfavorable view of the “intellectual.”

Past the halfway mark in Schuyler’s letters, I’ve learned quite a bit about what to see in Rome, gardening, baking brownies, gossip, painting, and of course how to be a poet. He confirms what I already thought: Read everything and be otherwise as daydream-lazy as possible.

Friday, November 12, 2004

Shall We Gather at the River?

All advice from slav grandparents boils down to “guard your health” I think.

In my copy of Benjamin’s Moscow Diary there is a photo of a homeless child from 1926. He or she is huddled on a stoop, sleeping. Regarding begging in that post-revolutionary period WB wrote: “One rarely sees anybody give. Begging has lost its most powerful base, the guilty social conscience that opens purses far wider than pity.” In that year my grandmother (in Minsk) was 4 years old; at age 9 she would lose her father to pneumonia, and then when her mother came down with pneumonia also, she almost lost her mind at the thought that she and her three younger siblings would be orphaned: they’d be put out on the street, she said.

Well, Antonina survived the pneumonia—luckily her children were grown when she was disappeared by the Stalinist police—and the little 9 year old, sent off to earn a living picking potatoes, survived the war and famine of the German refugee camps and bad childbirths and so on, but still lives in a row home in Philadelphia, where she dispenses this advice: “Guard your health.” And then something like “Pray to God.” So every year on Easter I call her up and give her the standard Orthodox greeting in Russian: “Christ has risen.” And she: “Indeed he has risen!”

This is not a “Be Grateful for What You Have” message of the day, but perhaps an “Indestructible Slav Woman” message of the day, if you like. May our poetry be as tough as our barge-heaving ancestors.

Wednesday, November 10, 2004

Words of Wisdom from Grandpa Z

My grandfather sent me this email after learning that I wasn't doing so well after the election. He survived both life under the Nazis and the Soviets, so he knows plenty about being oppressed. He lost his father to the Stalinists and his entire family fortune, and the Nazis used him as forced labor in his teens. Here's the original Polish message with a translation following.

Hi Maguni,nie wiem czy dostalas E-mail czy wiadomosc telefonicznie-u nas po staremu,wyborami nie powinnasc sie przejmowac to jak loterja jednym razem wygrywa ten albo inny,szkoda Twojego zdrowia.W Polsce za komunistow tego problemu nie bylo bo byl tylko jeden kandynat i zawsze mial 99% glosow.Jak Ci sie powodzi z praca i jak tam ksiazka no i zdrowie? Babcia sie martwi bo nie moze sie dodzwonic do Ciebie,tym malym tekefonem bo moglaby rozmawiac godzinami bo my go prawie nie uzywamy.Masz duzego buziaka od Babci i od Dziadka.Od Pawla nie mamy nic.PA PA PA

Hi Maggie (strange dimunitive form of my name because there is no "Maggie" in Polish), I don't know if you got my email or phone messages, but everything's the same here, don't pay any mind to election it's like a lottery this time one guy or the other wins, it's a waste of your good health. In Poland under the Communist there wasn't this problem because there was only one candidate and he always had 99% of the vote. How are things at work and how's your book and of course your health? Grandma's worried because she can't get in touch with you by phone, with this small phone (cell phone) she could talk to you for hours because we hardly ever use it. You have a big kiss from Grandma and Grandpa. From Paul we haven't heard anything. Bye Bye.

Tuesday, November 09, 2004

Taking Inventory

Dear Peoples,

So nice to be part of this conversation, but the election has finally invaded my body in the form of literal nausea that woke me from disturbed sleep on Saturday after reading several election analyses before bed. I must return to my base for personal grounding. That means a trip to the MOMA tomorrow and nothing but art this week. No news. No more discussions. I don't want to give the enemy any more of me.
Thanks for all your perspectives.


Sunday, November 07, 2004

A final post on the election (for me)

Several bloggers have already linked to Alan Sondheim's dry and dead-on analysis:

and so will I. He gets the sincerity and power of Christianity as it was used in this election, and has the guts to say what I didn't in my earlier post: Islamist fundamentalism helped call this forth. He's right.


Saturday, November 06, 2004

Things to be cherished like the thought of heaven

I was starting to feel straight guilt until I remembered that the anti-gay marriage referendum goes hand-in-hand with the ambition to conscript my womb — and after abortion is illegal, what about contraceptives? If society isn’t ready to ban contraception a la Catholic doctrine, we could certainly see health plans dropping it from their coverage. And as someone who has paid $30-40 a month for the pill when I was making $7/hour as a bookstore clerk, I recognize it as a tax on women.

Anyway, I got a physical reaction to the election—my eyes flared with conjunctivitis on Wednesday and Thursday. It’s going away now. But it felt like stigmata.

I wish I could do justice to my anger and your despair, Maggie, without sounding like a condescending liberal. But I am a condescending liberal. I think religion closes down the mind. I think reading the Bible when you could be reading Melville, Whitman, Stevens, et al., is just nonsensical. I think arguing for Creationism when science is full of fascinating facts and theories, is retarded. Didn’t the Greeks have a word to describe the pleasure of intellectual discovery or reason? (Homework question.)

For the record, my evangelical in-laws feel just as persecuted and oppressed as we do. That’s the irony. Remember all those rightwingnuts who actually object to the Patriot Act on the grounds that “the Christians are next”? I’m sure I do my part to foment these fears when I visit with the only grandchild that won’t grow up some kind of Christian. And we’re the only ones who live in NYC and the only ones who went to the Ivy League ... well, color me a demographic cliche! But I’m not making nice. I’m a poet; the future of my art depends on there being people who get intellectual pleasure from words and ideas that aren’t God-centered. I need to feel that there will be a future constituency for Melville and Dickinson, the difficult ones, the outsiders and the ones railing at God with their fists shaking at Heaven, or alternately, “this dividing and indifferent blue.” You know. The sky, repository of all ineffable ideals.

So, I repeat: I’m not making nice.

Friday, November 05, 2004

Response to Suzanne's Comment

Dear Suzanne,

I think there is an enemy. Karl Rove and the like...all the people who have been engineering this cultural divide for so many years. I don't disagree with you at all. I don't want to be a condescending liberal. But Rove is a genius. He manipulated the vote by getting gay marriage proposals on the ballots. A lot of people hate gays. I really KNOW that. As a gay person I don't know if I'm willing to live in the midwest. I've never been physically attacked. But I've been verbally attacked on the street. And once almost physically attacked but the situation was de-escalated. And that was all in New England. And I grew up in a house where some of my parents' friends equated homosexuals to nazis (how I don't know, I just heard him say it) and child molesters, and to be perfectly honest I don't think I am emotionally strong enough to live in a place where I would be under assault like that again. It is a small but constant assault. It's hard not to internalize that kind of hatred. So nix for me on moving to the Mid-west. I've spent a long time trying to get to San Francisco. You straight lefties go first. I'll be glad to visit. But the hatred feels extremely personal to me and terrifies me. Last night Kate and I lay in bed saying "why do they hate us?" And it's a very real question for us. To know that a majority of the people would rather stop us from getting married than stop 100,000 dead civilians in an unjust war.

But it seems that everyone is having the same reaction: we have to figure out how to bridge this cultural gap. I'd like to hear about any possible actions we can take, a sustained activism. But I think you're wrong to think there is no enemy. There is and it's the people who profit from sustaining this divide.


PS: I might move to an artists commune in the midwest if all my friends go. But it would have to be like 50 people who sustain me already.

Address to Minor Americans Everywhere

My Fellow Minor Americans,

It’s been difficult to get out of bed these past few days. It’s easier to sleep in a haze of strange, slightly disturbing dreams than to read The Times where the President says he’s finally earned the “political capital” and he’s going “to spend it.” It was easier when the presidency was stolen.

Yesterday I wrote an address to you but the bloggers were blogging so much, no doubt in despair, that my entry was swallowed by the server and never seen again. I can’t write the same entry today. Yesterday I was very upset. I was worried that somehow I was responsible for the outcome of this election, given the fact that I was overjoyed to see gay marriage at City Hall here in SF this year. But I don’t get it today. How is killing 100,000 civilians and letting 1000 of our young, poor people die in Iraq where there are no WMDs, where there was no Al Quada until our occupation less moral than banning gay marriage? I can’t answer that question. I don’t understand the tiny majority that put this delusional Christian into office. Last I heard Jesus didn’t dig tax cuts for the rich or war.

What’s important to remember is that only a tiny majority put this fucker back in. And it was fear that got them to the polls. What’s important to remember is that the cultural divide that everyone is talking about isn’t just separating the blue coast from the red middle. The red middle is divided in itself. There were very few huge wins in the red states. There are people there that feel more alienated than we do. Kate Pringle, Brandon Brown and the rest of Stacy Doris’ and Chet Wieners’ graduate classes at State went to Florida for the election. The counties they canvassed got the largest Democratic turnouts in history. What Kate tells me is that the people there are poor and know who the enemy is. Children followed her and Brandon down the street, threatening to beat up Bush and cheering for Kerry. One little girl claimed that Kerry had taken her to Pizza Hut for her birthday last week. They know what’s up more than us privileged blogging fucks on the coasts. They feel it in their belly.

I am angry at the Democrats. This coup has been in the works for twenty years. The slow take over of the media. The slow building of the base. What’s the Democrats plan? Where’s the build-up of their infrastructure? Why didn’t they see it coming? Where’s our Karl Rove?
I’ve been criticized for being so excited about the Democratic ticket this year, but given the low numbers Nader got, I’m not the only one who knew we shouldn’t split the vote. And I don’t feel safe working for the Green party or any other third party that is more progressive than the Democrats right now. There’s too much at stake. The Democrats need to realize that they have a progressive base and cater to it the way that the Republicans cater to the evangelicals. That’s the activism I want to be a part of right now.

But I think it’s really important that we all volunteer efforts during the next four years in whatever way we see fit. It’s important that we take time now and figure out where we feel most needed and dedicate a little time all the time to that cause. The nature of our country is at stake. We need to have the plan and the commitment that the red evil doers have. This is our country. We don’t need to be Minor Americans much longer.


Monday, November 01, 2004

A Minor Distraction from the American Election

“...was it fair for me to believe that I didn’t think something was good writing even if I let myself like it?”

Maggie: I know poets who don’t really like poetry, though they love the idea of *great* poetry. I don’t think that’s what your doubts imply. After all, this blog celebrates the minor poet: we’re not eating a steady diet of Wallace Stevens here (“There are not leaves enough to crown,/To cover, to crown, to cover—let it go—”). (Then again, rereading “The United Dames of America” before a crisis election does take the top of my head off.)

To quote one trustworthy poet on this question: “But he has exactly what’s missing in ‘the poetry should be written as carefully as prose’ poets: sensibility and heart.” Quoth James Schuyler, quoted of Hart Crane, quote quoting Ezra Pound.

To be steeped in Schuyler’s letters—just published—is to find one’s own world suddenly wearing his colors; and it is a more marvelous world for being all heart, sensibility, *and* well-written. It overflows with references to books, movies, and music. It conjures a world where people want to give one another pleasure, especially verbal pleasure. It is, finally, a lost world, and one measure of how far we’ve fallen is the recent shrinkage of what’s intelligent to what’s intellectual.

“Anti-intellectual” is a word much bandied about. Even I implied, in my post on Mayer, that that she was intellectually correct by introducing Barthes, et al., to Poetry Project workshops.

But Schuyler’s letters—a window into his friendships with Fairfield Porter, Jane Freilicher, Ashbery, O’Hara, and Koch—aren’t even proto-Barthesesque. What theory was for poets in the 1970s-90s, novels, music and art was for them. They educated their sensibility (feelings + mind), not just their mind.

This sort of poetic training is, I think, being massively repressed by the post-avant critics of our generation. Is it intellectually correct, or simply emotionally arrested, to speak of New York School poets—lovers of Balanchine and Hollywood, Firbank and Pasternak—as political poets, say? By what pretzel logic does one recuperate O’Hara, let alone Schuyler, for an Adorno-steeped post-Language critical agenda? I’ll tell you where to begin, actually—begin by completely ignoring what the poets actually thought and wrote about, for example O’Hara’s essay on Dr. Zhivago. No contemporary poet who wants to be properly “intellectual” would dream of making an entire poetics from their love of Dr. Zhivago.

So let me backtrack and say it’s not the critics’ fault poets are scrambling to seem narrowly intellectual. It’s our own fault for buying into it. I have no quarrel with poets reading Wittgenstein, Heidegger, Adorno. Poets should read *everything*. I do have a quarrel with how far intelligent has become equated with intellectual, how loosely the invective anti-intellectual gets thrown around, how capital accrues around scholarship at the expense of poets’ unique perspectives. (Even Ashbery’s Other Traditions, it seems to me, got short shrift by the post-avant scene.)

So to bring this back around to your question, Maggie—which is, to paraphrase: “Can I trust my taste?” There’s something about our educations that has made us skeptical to everything, even (or especially) ourselves. (Self-interrogation, comrades!) Let’s reclaim what we have lost. Nobody else can tell us what’s good. What do we believe in? Good writing for its own sake? Heart and sensibility? Or do we judge primarily by political relevance and belief in Hegelian historical necessity (avant-garde progressivism?). This is one issue a good poet can’t afford to muddle.