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.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Tweet Tweet




I find Twitter kind of overwhelming. I am wondering if that’s how I felt when I started using Facebook. I know I didn’t really like FB, often don’t like FB, but use it anyhow. Sometimes the benefits seem to outweigh. Twitter has some advantages that might outweigh, or I think it needs to be put in more complicated terms. If possible, a conversation. But Twitter is not about conversation. It is about bites of text all appearing simultaneously. There is so much information on my Twitter feed. I have links to AFT and other union feeds, some other news sources, a bunch of public radio programs like Tell Me More and others, a couple of links related to academia and contingent labor, and some other stuff including individual people who I know. There must be some links to celebrities, because I am so curious... what can they be tweeting all of the time and who has the time to read what they have to say? Or not say, but tweet. There are short things that people post full of abbreviations and hash tags, most of which I cannot make sense of. There are links to articles, some or many of which are interesting, useful, and relevant to my varied interests. But there are new posts constantly. And so if I read Twitter for more than ten minutes at time, and read the articles and additional linked information, that seems like it could take up my whole day. It is like FB but more dense and packed more full in some way, there is less space for pictures (posts have a short visible part and then you have to click to see more, see the links and images and the whatnot, but of course you know this because  who isn’t on Twitter now?). I use FB to see what people I know are doing (or actually, to see what they are posting) but also to read and share articles about higher education, education issues in general, contingent labor issues, food and local events and the miscellaneous etcetera. It is helpful because a number of other people I am FB Friends with post articles that are thoughtful and relevant. And being in southeast Michigan, there are a lot of articles and info on the state of Detroit…there are statistics and opinions and interviews and studies and local and national reports on every aspect of the city that is at once stuck in some kinds of tradition and history, and also changing so fast it has become impossible to keep up. I suppose lots of people are posting articles on Twitter too but I have only just started Twittering and the topic of Detroit in general is a little quieter right now than it was just a few months ago. 

And then, I think, my life is a Twitter feed. I get up and spend one to three hours working on projects like writing or submissions or job applications. I scroll through FB or Twitter and read and repost articles. I think about the huge number of possible essay topics that I want to write about and then I think, where could I possible publish those. And I research and make lists of publications for various kinds of writing. And then I read articles about academia and the impossibility of either getting a tenure-line job or the extreme challenges of being treated like a professional as a contingent laborer and I think about more essays in more kinds of publications. And then I have to get ready and go teach. I cram lesson planning and writing and assignments, clarifying the schedule and keeping students on track so they don’t feel as unfocused and lost from one moment to the next as I feel. And then I finish teaching and have to decide what to do next. Usually I have ten ideas or things that need to be done (planning or follow up from teaching to prepare for next time, dog walking, dishes, dinner, yoga, union meetings, shoveling the snow as is the case in this most wintery of winters) and then I only get to one or none of the things that need to be done after the teaching ends before the day is ending and I am good for little else than sitting on the couch or in the bed. Click scroll click scroll. Is this what we have come to? 

I want to interview students, ask them about their Twitter activities, give me some examples of their tweets and what other feeds they follow, and what people write on those. They tell me Twitter is the new Facebook. Everyone’s on Twitter. To many it is necessary (good) and discouraging (bad). What happens on Twitter if you are 20? Do you read the articles that are linked in the tweets? What kinds of articles, information, news, relevance to critical and thoughtful living show up on your Twitter feed? Do your friends write posts about their changing feelings from moment to moment? Do they post thoughtful and relevant links and information? Do you?

What’s on Twitter today?

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Monday, March 17, 2014

on failure or whatnot



In art/aesthetic practice and production we talk about necessary or productive failure. In the business world or the world of inventions (Thomas Edison) we see how many tries they made, how many times they “failed” before they became resounding successes. Is this different for a scientist who does experiments? Is there a disconnect between what many know to be necessary or productive failure and this American eliding of the word itself?  We use the word success more often and in combination with more dynamic or positive adjectives (study: resounding vs government or military failure) and we don’t talk about failure. It seems a personal failure to admit failure. People talk about success and leave out the many failures before the success (or necessary to the success) and the rest of us feel inadequate or stupid because we are not similarly successful. Or we think when we do something we will be successful because that’s how it works, having missed the necessary parts of the narrative about the relevance of failure. And then we are not prepared for the inevitable failure. And then we take this failure personally and we judge ourselves and maybe we judge each other as if failing makes us less, instead of making us stronger and better equipped for the next round in which we will know more, have more experience, and better negotiate whatever terms are before us. In some way it would be useful to eliminate the terminology altogether, or change the use of the words failure and success. Our attachment to the ways these words ascribe personal value and judgment, and vulnerability and feelings of inadequacy are not useful or productive. Certainly it is true that many people “fail” and are thereby motivated to strive for more or better or get up and do it again knowing more in order to eventually “succeed.” But why not call this process something else. Like process, or working toward or working through, or production… or something that is language that shows more than tells. Failure is a noun and a judgment. I experienced failure. I am a failure. I could instead say I am working toward, working through; I am producing, I am productive, I am in production; I am interested in process, process is important to production, process is as or more important than the product.