Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Review of Laura Mullen's Enduring Freedom

Check out the new issue of Something on Paper, a lovely online poetics journal filled with amazing writing and thinking by so many great poet writers:

  Something on Paper

Darling on Mullen:

Friday, August 29, 2014

from George Orwell

"Why I Write" I give all this background information because I do not think one can assess a writer's motives without knowing something of his early development. His subject matter will be determined by the age he lives in — at least this is true in tumultuous, revolutionary ages like our own — but before he ever begins to write he will have acquired an emotional attitude from which he will never completely escape. It is his job, no doubt, to discipline his temperament and avoid getting stuck at some immature stage, in some perverse mood; but if he escapes from his early influences altogether, he will have killed his impulse to write. Putting aside the need to earn a living, I think there are four great motives for writing, at any rate for writing prose. They exist in different degrees in every writer, and in any one writer the proportions will vary from time to time, according to the atmosphere in which he is living. They are: (i) Sheer egoism. Desire to seem clever, to be talked about, to be remembered after death, to get your own back on the grown-ups who snubbed you in childhood, etc., etc. It is humbug to pretend this is not a motive, and a strong one. Writers share this characteristic with scientists, artists, politicians, lawyers, soldiers, successful businessmen — in short, with the whole top crust of humanity. The great mass of human beings are not acutely selfish. After the age of about thirty they almost abandon the sense of being individuals at all — and live chiefly for others, or are simply smothered under drudgery. But there is also the minority of gifted, willful people who are determined to live their own lives to the end, and writers belong in this class. Serious writers, I should say, are on the whole more vain and self-centered than journalists, though less interested in money. (ii) Aesthetic enthusiasm. Perception of beauty in the external world, or, on the other hand, in words and their right arrangement. Pleasure in the impact of one sound on another, in the firmness of good prose or the rhythm of a good story. Desire to share an experience which one feels is valuable and ought not to be missed. The aesthetic motive is very feeble in a lot of writers, but even a pamphleteer or writer of textbooks will have pet words and phrases which appeal to him for non-utilitarian reasons; or he may feel strongly about typography, width of margins, etc. Above the level of a railway guide, no book is quite free from aesthetic considerations. (iii) Historical impulse. Desire to see things as they are, to find out true facts and store them up for the use of posterity. (iv) Political purpose. — Using the word ‘political’ in the widest possible sense. Desire to push the world in a certain direction, to alter other peoples’ idea of the kind of society that they should strive after. Once again, no book is genuinely free from political bias. The opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude. It can be seen how these various impulses must war against one another, and how they must fluctuate from person to person and from time to time. By nature — taking your ‘nature’ to be the state you have attained when you are first adult — I am a person in whom the first three motives would outweigh the fourth. In a peaceful age I might have written ornate or merely descriptive books, and might have remained almost unaware of my political loyalties. As it is I have been forced into becoming a sort of pamphleteer. First I spent five years in an unsuitable profession (the Indian Imperial Police, in Burma), and then I underwent poverty and the sense of failure. This increased my natural hatred of authority and made me for the first time fully aware of the existence of the working classes, and the job in Burma had given me some understanding of the nature of imperialism: but these experiences were not enough to give me an accurate political orientation. Then came Hitler, the Spanish Civil War, etc. By the end of 1935 I had still failed to reach a firm decision.

Friday, August 08, 2014


On a day when lyrics have become fluted, like rain, flickering. As if announced, the entertainment portion of the event swallows any serious discussion. A correct calibration of nonsense, humor, desperation. A gentle brush, a silence. We long for anything poignant. Imbibe flattery. This generic unfulfilled wish is like constant flattery, a repetition of a single last hope. I am trying to describe the way that sci-fi captures each fault and promise of something better. In the stars a construction of syllables that equal personal expression and salvation. The intoxicating sound of eyelashes fluttering will lead us all into Nirvana. In the meantime, details shatter. Noise is metallic. We forget to walk through the park. Fashion has become political. We can’t remember yesterday. The pink sky behind industrial jobs blinds us to its pollution. We use the word temporary. Pain is like a weed that flowers by chance, dies off in winter. Only hiding out until the return of spring. We have come so far, a visual sensation narrates progress and the sun rise of each morning. Potential lies under the surface, bubbling. Bare tree branches represent the inconceivable. Hope has feathers you know, little else maybe. Concrete lies against wild nature. Grey and orange mix, become indiscernible. Storms linger. Silence repeats, holds back texture and choreography. A body impulse is more like intoxication, a drunken monologue of manic silence. We create a theory of expression. We claim our spaces. Watch political intention like soap on the box of media saturation. We imbibe the status quo. And we recalculate. In bold colors, against skin, using a thesaurus of words, dictionaries piled like castles, the power of language, we correct your misconceptions. You shatter. You blaspheme, spit nonsense, fake pleasure. We no longer love. We shame you and your deceptions. Our homes may be made of glass but the walls are covered with roses, tinted and peeling, but still scented sweet. We cook stone soup and name it future, an inspired culinary choice. Respect a slower pace. Practice the erosion of monotony. Combat violence in thought and action. We are endeavoring for a sense of meaning. Fill in the edges until the edges are full of power and commitment. We are 99% of the fed up and concerned with alternatives. We want you to give back: our money, our time, our dreams, our integrity. We are embarrassed for you. And we are moving out.

Monday, July 21, 2014

sustain sun in through unexpected listening, a visual sensation narrates.  potential, under the surface, bare tree branches of the inconceivable. hope has feathers you know, little else. concrete array intoned against,  storms lingering. grey orange mix. silent refrain—repeat and hold back—the coloring texture noisy maneuvering. body impulse, intoxication,  monologues of manic silence.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

memory, or this moment, and a camera

I have found and am wearing my overalls from the early 2000s. Loungewear. Summerwear. Feeling like I am still a graduate student. The early 2000s, the early years of creative optimism. The dog relocates sleeping spots, it was thunderstorming just earlier, she's less pestering about a walk, we'll get to it. I am working on focusing myself. Into and out of writing-block. Project-block-due-to-overwhelming nature of too many projects simultaneously. And another new idea. The goal is to focus on one project at a time. The reality is the opposite. Collections of sub-par writing. But I read published collections of sub-par writing all of the time. Or maybe I don't read the whole collections, when it is not great work. Moving work around, revising, deciding. Taking pieces out, putting pieces in. Breaking larger projects into smaller ones. Different submission requirements. How to focus the collections in particular ways and develop further. It is spring. It is not raining like it was forecast just yesterday. I want to write essays like Diane Ackerman:

My infant years might have happened in an aquarium, so silent and full of mixing shapes were they. How strange that a time filled with my own endless wailings, gurglings, and the soothing coos and baby talk of my mother should remain in my memory as a thick, silent dream in which clearer than any sound was the blond varnish on my crib, whose pale streaky gloss I knew like a birthmark, as it was for so many months of my life. (from "In the Memory Mines")

Or like William Vollman, who uses the camera obscura as metaphor and prop for thinking of his own place in the world as journalist, father, and citizen in a complex contemporary culture...

Upon the shallow curved bowl within the camera obscura, the gray sea began to turn. It had been turning before, but until my pupils dilated I saw nothing but darkness. A circular railing protected me from falling into this living picture of organized daylight projected into that concavity. Came the Cliff House, out of focus because it was too near. I might have seen two lovers wandering hand in hand into the Musee Mecanique.

The lens whirls over a map of Afghanistan. We see points of light. These mark the sites where our cruise missiles have struck. Whom did we kill and why? No matter--the lens must move on. What do our new enemies say about us in their capital? Well, we can imagine--or more likely, we can't imaging--and it's time to move on.

Here is Kabul at night: headlights, lanterns within wheeled fruit stands, people in buses packed tightly together like the inmates of mass graves, turbaned Talibs sauntering down the street, lords of all they survey, everything dark and dim, then just dark with snow falling. Women in blue and black burqas are walking home. I hear the rattle of handcarts, and now it's darker and darker. My lens moves on. Have I "understood" Afghanistan? Not by a long shot. But at least I saw it. I didn't just watch it on CNN.

 This essay was originally published in Forbes ASAP, a shoot-off publication focused on writing about technology and digital culture, and that stopped publishing in the early 2000s. I am surprised that this was published there, its formal creativity and non-linear narrative--one might say hybrid--structure. And reprinted in a Best American Essays (2001) which I have, somehow, specifically because it is edited by Kathleen Norris, a prose writer with thoughtful poetic sensibilities. But as a series it is also mainstream in how work is chosen generally from  well-known, mainstream publications (New Yorker, American Scholar, Georgia Review, Harper's...).

I am reading the call for submissions of innovative nonfiction manuscripts at Graywolf Press, which has published a number of books that I love. But I wonder what they mean by innovation in form? and work that pushes the boundaries of literary nonfiction? Eula Bliss's No Man's Land is an amazing merging of cultural critique and personal essay. But does it transgress formal boundaries? It is not like Lia Purpua's On Looking or the hybrid essays so well outside the conventional in D'Agata's edited The Next American Essay. But Vollman's essay was published in Forbes ASAP, not a venue for the innovative in form. Or innovative form is what is unexpected, that grabs you and holds on, the starts with language and then brings you in deeper.

My focusing project thus continues to be multi-directional. To practice innovating prose in quality, writerly ways, and to continue to revise and re-imagine these various collections of work and decide what to do with them. Mostly I feel like all I do is practice, or revise as some kind of practice which doesn't usually feel like it is making the writing stronger. How does one do the writing, and keep it moving in a direction that seems fulfilling?

Lia Purpua:

I shall begin with the chests of drowned men, bound with ropes and diesel-slicked. Their ears sludge-filled. Their legs mud-smeared. Asleep below deck when a freighter hit and the river rose inside their tug. Their lashes white with river silt.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

on The Transformation

Spahr begins The Transformation with an analogy between the natural environment and human society in order to think about naming, categorization, and the ways language is used to construct explanations of natural and social phenomena. She writes: “Flora and fauna grow next to and around each other without names. Humans add the annotation. They catalogue the flora and fauna, divide them up, chart their connections and variations, eventually name them, and as they do this they read into them their own stories” (13). The relationships between colonizer and colonized, native and other, fill a complicated Hawaiian history, and this is evident in language drawn from natural surroundings. She uses the real and metaphorical example of the “huehue haole,” a term used for white outsiders, and explains the origins of the term: “What was called the maracuja, the passiflora, the passionflower, they called the huehue haole. Huehue is the name of a climber native to the islands. Haole is the word that is used to describe some of them in this story, people who arrive from somewhere else. In the world of plants it is also used to describe a particularly noxious and invasive species” (13-14). If so much of Hawaiian culture is articulated through the natural vegetation, environment, and landscapes, Spahr’s narrator understands that in order to tell her story she must also interpret it through the material and metaphorical natural phenomena in which she is now contextualized. She explains: “This is a story of the passiflora and the tree canopy. This is a story of three who moved to an island in the middle of the Pacific together” (14). The story must be told as a Hawaiian story, even while she is trying to come to terms with the complexity of that story—or more accurately the multiple stories that construct “Hawaii” and how her own stories now mingle with those.

The three who move to the island together are individually and collectively referred to as “they” as a way to get around gender identification, though it is made clear that the triad conforms to traditional heterosexual practices of sexual relations. Nonetheless, the gender-neutral pronoun “they” troubles the construct of the heterosexual domestic partnership, even if the narrator refuses to adopt queer terminology to signify “their” situation. The spatial and political inquiry moves between domestic and public space, and is enacted in the form of repeated phrasing and sentence constructions that write “around” meaning, pointing to the inadequacy of language to provide articulate explanations for the layered understandings of self in relation to other. The story that unfolds weaves natural phenomena with the struggle for personal understanding within a context of complex historical and cultural politics, as in the following example:

The minute they got off the plane they realized that the beauty of the island was its own radiant thing full of boths and that they had to begin with these boths. It was an island of both great environmental beauty and of great environmental destruction. And these boths fed each other in a complicated feedback loop . . . . When they looked around most of what they saw among the many things growing, flying, and crawling had been brought onto the island after the whaling ships arrived. It told a story of beauty and a story of mismanagement. It told a story of invasion and of acceptance as if it could tell both of these stories using the same vocabulary. (Spahr 27)

Central to telling the stories and making sense of them is the difficulty of language. How does one make sense of binary oppositions simultaneously? How can a place be beautiful and suffer such consequences of destruction? How can such beauty be so historically mismanaged? The narrator sees the paradox, and the sadness, of a place with such a complicated and layered identity, a place that has been exploited for so long by so many different groups, and its residents, both resistant and resigned, holding on to language, tradition, and stories that often point toward various, different origins. Although Spahr uses the word “both” an important part of her project is to undo the simplicity of binaries; there are never only two sides, but a history of complex issues that cannot be neatly separated. This is apparent in the history and evolution of language and the ways language is used in Hawaii, and Spahr’s attempts to find language to articulate her own questions and analysis. She writes:

despite the expansionist language and all its tools, all the laws and all the imperialism, all the economic dominance, all the military might, all the technologies, and all the entertainments, the language politics of the island remained endlessly complicated. The expansion did not happen overnight and one could point to how the local languages and the languages that were often created by the arrival of the expansionist language to someplace new, the pidgins and creoles, the burrowing languages, the negotiated languages, refused to go away as evidence of how the expansionist language might not be as good at expansion as one might think. (Spahr 95)

Language controls and refuses to give in to control. The history of the uses and mingling of languages in Hawaii reflect the complex cultural history of domination and resistance, of different groups moving in and out, assimilating and fighting back, at various turns. Spahr enacts this on the level of her own language through the use of repetition and listing; in the quote above, the types of languages listed represent the layers of complex history and culture that one must negotiate in order to make sense of the history of language in Hawaii. This list then repeats throughout the chapter, with occasional slight variation. The text does not simply narrate and explain a complex history of relations, but it instead tries to use the density of language in order to present experiences themselves dense in construction. In fact, she seems to ask, what kinds of vocabularies can account for the layers of stories and politics, for beauty and destruction? This anxiety runs through the text; Spahr is asking how language can be used to account for the histories of our relations to one another: colonizer and colonized, self and other. It asks how we can possibly recognize and identify ourselves when we are constantly moving through contexts and languages that are always already constructing and identifying us.