Monday, August 31, 2009


The David Foster Wallace story in the new issue of Tin House is an old one--his first published story, in fact, written while still an undergraduate at Amherst College. Perhaps the closest thing we have these days to the voice of a generation, Wallace committed suicide in September, at the age of 46. His death was a tragic development, but hardly a shocking one: he had tried to kill himself several times before. Suicide was also a recurring theme in his fiction.

This new old story, entitled "The Planet Trillaphon as it Stands in Relation to The Bad Thing," is being republished, ostensibly--there is no editor's note*--to shed some light on his suicide. In the story, "the planet Trillaphon" refers to the condition of being on antidepressants, "the Bad Thing" to the protagonist's clinical depression. Wallace notably went off his meds--meds he had been swallowing regularly for two decades--just a few months before he died.

"I've been on antidepressants for, what, about a year now, and I suppose I feel as if I'm pretty qualified to tell what they're like," the story begins. "They're fine, really, but they're fine in the same way that, say, living on another planet that was warm and comfortable and had food and fresh water would be fine: it would be fine, but it wouldn't be good old Earth, obviously. I haven't been on Earth now for almost a year, because I wasn't doing very well on Earth. I've been doing somewhat better where I am now, on the planet Trillaphon, which I suppose is good news for everyone involved."

Later, the character describes his depression--the Bad Thing--this way, "Everything in you is sick and grotesque. And since your only acquaintance with the whole world is through parts of you--like your sense organs and your mind, etc.--and since these parts are sick as hell, the whole world as you perceive it and know it and are in it comes at you through this filter of bad sickness and becomes bad. As everything bad becomes bad in you, all the good goes out of the world like air out of a big broken balloon. There's nothing in this world you know but horrible rotten smells, sad and grotesque and lurid pastel sights, raucous or deadly-sad sounds, intolerable open-ended situations lined on a continuum with just no end at all...

And then all of a sudden it sort of dawns on you...the Bad Thing is able to do this to you because you're the Bad Thing yourself! The Bad Thing is you. Nothing else: no bacteriological infection or having gotten conked on the head with a board or a mallet when you were little, or any other excuse; you are the sickness yourself. It is what "defines" you, especially after a little while has gone by. You realize all this, here. And that, I guess, is when if you're all glib you realize that there is no surface to the water, or then you bonk your nose on the jar's glass and realize you're trapped, or when you look at the black hole and it's wearing your face. That's when the Bad Thing just absolutely eats you up, or rather when you eat yourself up. When you kill yourself. All this business about people committing suicide when they're "severely depressed," we say, "Holy Cow, we must do something to stop them from killing themselves." That's wrong. Because all these people have, you see, by this time already killed themselves, where it really counts...When they "commit suicide," they're just being orderly. They're just giving external form to an event the substance of which already exists and has existed in them over time."

If you haven't read Wallace's Kenyon College commencement speech from 2005, you can find it here. It's hard to overstate the piece's brilliance. Wallace writes like someone trying to convince himself--and thus you--that living is ultimately worthwhile.

* UPDATE: Rob Spillman actually did write, in the Editor's Note for the entire issue: "Our premiere issue featured a story by David Foster Wallace, whom we miss. In the spirit of coming full circle, we present a story written in the budding stage of his brilliant career, previously seen only in his college literary magazine and published here with the blessing of Wallace's widow." Oops.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

The Art of Noticing

How Fiction Works, by James Wood:

"Literature differs from life in that life is amorphously full of detail, and rarely directs us toward it, whereas literature teaches us to notice...

This tutoring is dialectical. Literature makes us better noticers of life; we get to practice on life itself; which in turn makes us better reader of details in literature; which in turn makes us better of readers of life. And so on and on."

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Short Short: A Good Deed

By Charles Smyth

We were half-way through our third drink when the old guy at the end of the bar toppled off his stool onto the floor. He lay there for several minutes, his face turning gray. No one helped him. So we called nine one one. The ambulance arrived quickly, and two EMTs loaded the guy onto a stretcher and carted him off.

An hour and a half later, he walked back into the bar and said something to the bartender, who pointed at us. He nodded and headed our way.

"Probably wants to buy us a drink," I said to my friend.

"Next time," the old guy told us. "Mind your own fucking business."

Wednesday, August 26, 2009


There is a really great article
in the new issue (print only, unless you subscribe) of Harper's Magazine by Mark Slouka that elucidates how the education system in America has bowed to Big Business to such an extent that we are now producing a generation of future employees instead of citizens. Consider the language affected by such institutions: "Preparing America's Youth to Compete in the Global Marketplace," etc, etc. Private colleges, especially, seem to be first mechanisms for making money, second institutions for higher learning.

Or, as Slouka points out, institutions committed to a certain kind of higher learning--namely math and science at the expense of the humanities. After all, scientists and mathematicians are of great use to the capitalists, whereas people schooled in the humanities, in literature and history and art, are potential threats to such orthodoxy. As Slouka writes, "Real debate can be short-circuited through orthodoxy, and whether that orthodoxy is enforced through the barrel of a gun or backed by the power of unexamined assumption, the result is the same." The unexamined assumption, of course, is that there is only one system of value that holds any merit, one that puts economic concerns ahead of all else.

Slouka continues, "In our time, orthodoxy is economic. Popular culture fetishizes it, our entertainments salaam to it (how many millions for sinking that putt, for accepting that trade?), our artists are ranked and revered by it. There is no institution wholly apart. Everything submits; everything must, sooner or later, pay fealty to the market; thus cost-benefit analyses on raising children, on cancer medications, on clean water, on the survival of species, including--in the last, last analysis--our own. If humankind has suffered under a more impoverishing delusion, I am not aware of it."

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Call Max Baucus, Senator Scumbag Extraordinaire!

If you aren't aware already, Max Baucus is a conservative Democrat from Montana who just happens to be the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee--
which just happens to be the most important committee in Congress when it comes to passing health care reform. (Basically, he's the guy who has to sign off on the funds for the reform.) To date, Baucus has received almost $3 million in campaign contributions from the health insurance industry--more than any other member of Congress--and so it is unsurprising that of all the Democrats, it is he who has been the most obstructionist when it comes to the public option. One example is that he has brought more Republicans into the committee--the so-called Gang of Six--than are required, under the deceptive name of "bipartisanship." Apparently, that tests better with focus groups than "blatant corruption."

I normally don't get too outraged about this sort of thing--it just doesn't seem worth the energy--but in the case of Baucus, and in the case of healthcare, the outrage is plenty healthy. The idea that a man whose entire constituency equals about two percent of the number of people in this country currently without healthcare is holding up the most important piece of legislation in our lifetimes is enough to make one's stomach turn. Or one's blood boil. Mine certainly is.

I've been calling Senator
Baucus' office to let them know what I think about what he's doing, and I suggest you do the same. The number is (
202) 224-2651.

Norman Mailer on Craft

The Spooky Art: Thoughts on Writing

"By now, I'm a bit cynical about craft. I think there's a natural mystique in the novel that is more important. One is trying, after all, to capture reality, and that is extraordinarily and exceptionally difficult. Craft is merely a series of way stations. I think of it as being like a Saint Bernard with a little bottle of brandy under his neck. Whenever you get into trouble, craft can keep you warm long enough to be rescued. Of course, this is exactly what keeps good novelists from becoming great novelists...Craft protects one from facing endless expanding realities--the terror, let us say, of losing your novel in the depths of philosophical insights you are not ready to live with. I think this sort of terror so depresses us that we throw up evasions--such as craft. Indeed, I think this adoration of craft makes a church of literature for that vast number of writers who are somewhere on the bell-shaped curve between talent and mediocrity."

Monday, August 24, 2009

Poem: Chacala

by Alex Gallo-Brown

Where the sun setting
can still stop
a human cold

Where the waves
lap against the beach
like a cop making his rounds

Where the sky springs pink
like the cotton candy of childhood

and on the shore the people stand in silence
watching the sea and the sun

and the dogs at peace with their fleas

Where the blowfish wash up dying
or already dead

Where the vultures are greasy black
and hesitant

and the greasy, hesitant vultures
come to snack on the dead blowfish

Where the waves never quit

Where the mosquitoes come to visit at night
like old friends
leave with a little blood like
old friends

Where the geckos cackle high in the walls
the snakes keep to themselves
the rats drown in the toilets
and the wasps always wake
on the wrong side of the nest

Where the scorpions skitter along the rocks, scared
to be captured, turned into keychains

Where the Mexicans drain whales of beer

and the Americans tongue strings of cheese
dangling from their chips

Where things are always changing
the waves keep up their work
and the children are never alone

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Why Stephen Elliott Writes

I recently became aware of an interesting webzine called The Rumpus, edited by Stephen Elliott. Elliott is the author of a number of books, but the one I know the best, "My Girlfriend Comes to the City and Beats Me Up."

Two years ago, while I was living in Brooklyn, I stumbled in on Elliott and Nick Flynn, poet and author of "Another Bullshit Night in Suck City," giving a reading together at the Strand. I had come to see Flynn, whose poetry I still like a lot, but it was Elliott who made the stronger impression with his semi-fictional accounts of an abusive ex-lover from "Girlfriend."

More recently, Elliott has posted an essay on his webzine called, "Why I Write." It is worth checking out: among other things, it details his abusive childhood and time spent in youth homes and mental hospitals, and the unorthodox route he took to becoming a published author.

Most interestingly for me, though, are the parts of the essay that address writers and money. Elliott is one of those rare novelists who is able to make a living off his art--at the age of 37, he has published something like seven books, many of them critically acclaimed--and yet he makes only about $30,000 a year and shares his rent-controlled San Francisco apartment with a "young hipster roommate."

Elliott's final thought?

"We're lucky to be writers. Nobody owes us anything."

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Definition: Baseball in 150 Words or Less

by Alex Gallo-Brown

Kid, just make sure you know in advance:
basically, baseball is a game of waiting.
You dredge up your own entertainment:
the drudgery you combat with imagination,
the monotony you attack with anticipation.
Imagine: standing in a field, the ball snug
inside your pitcher's glove while he stalks
the mound, upset with the umpire's call.
The dirt beneath your feet gray, slippery;
the sky above you all billowing wind.
It is a cold that is singular--essential, even--to baseball,
one which will endure in your memory for far longer
than any individual at bat, any fielded fly.
Soon, the pitcher will sling the ball towards the plate,
and maybe the ensuing hit will come your way,
though probably not.
But that moment before he throws the ball:
that moment is baseball.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Wave Books and Maggie Nelson's Bluets

"Suppose I were to begin by saying that I had fallen in love with a color. Suppose I were to speak this as though it were a confession; suppose I shredded my napkin as I spoke. It began slowly. An appreciation, an affinity. Then, one day, it became more serious. Then (looking into an empty teacup, its bottom stained with thin brown excrement coiled into the shape of a sea horse) it became somehow personal."

So begins Maggie Nelson's Bluets, a new book of essays investigating the color blue forthcoming from Wave Books. Wave, a Seattle-based small press, hosted a three day poetry festival at the Henry Art Gallery in Seattle this weekend, and Nelson was in town, as were Eileen Myles, Joshua Beckman, Matthew Zapruder, Mary Ruefle, Noelle Kocot, and many others. (You can see the full roster here.)

I was familiar with the work of most of the poets listed above--although not all of them; Jon Woodward, Geoffrey Nutter and Rachel Zucker, for example, surprised me in very positive ways--but I had never heard of Nelson. No matter. After spending a few minutes between the covers of Bluets, I was hooked. Her writing is funny, sad, erotic (sometimes viciously so), poetic, inquisitive, personal and philosophical--and often in the same paragraph. (Or, as she calls them, "propositions"; the 95 page book is comprised of 240 of these.)

In other Wave Books-related news, Eileen Myles has responded to a critical review of State of the Union, Wave's anthology of political poems published last year, on her regular blog over at Poetry.

And Tim Appelo has a breathless article about Wave in general and the poetry festival more specifically in the newest issue of Seattle City Arts.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Photograph: Tres Guatemaltecos

by Noah Gallo-Brown


Everyone and anyone interested in photography is invited to celebrate an exhibit of 30 photographs taken in Central America by Noah Gallo-Brown 

The exhibition will take place on August 14th at Ravenna Eckstein Community Center between 6:15 and 8:30 pm

Seattle, WA, July 2009 – Seattle native Noah Gallo-Brown returns from the depths of Central America to present his first photo show ever. The show will consist of 30 photographs Gallo-Brown took while working in rural, impoverished communities throughout Central America. His goal is to share his photos, experiences, and insights with the public—a cause deemed worthy of funding by Seattle’s Office of Arts and Cultural Affairs. 

The show will be held August 14th from 6:15-8:30 P.M. Gallo-Brown is scheduled to give a talk about his experiences during which he will provide information about the communities and the volunteer organization that he worked for. In addition, there will be captions accompanying the photos that will provide further information about the photographs' subjects. The show is open to the public; everyone is invited--cordially, of course. 

Over the course of six months, Gallo-Brown taught reading, writing, math and art in elementary schools in impoverished areas in Central America through the volunteer organization Global Vision International (GVI). During this time, he photographed his students and their families. He hopes the photographs will shine a light on the extreme poverty which is so difficult to comprehend in our culture of abundance, but so common throughout Central America. 

Seattle’s Office of Cultural Arts and Affairs believes in Gallo-Brown and has decided to stand behind him in his mission to raise awareness about poverty.

“There are thousands upon thousands of communities like the ones where I worked that exist in a continuous state of need,” says Gallo-Brown. “Inspiring sensitivity and compassion through art--and awareness--is immensely important.” 

 "He’s on a mission,” says mother Laurie Brown, “this [photo show] is a passion project, all right.” 

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Poem: Speed Demons

by Alex Gallo-Brown

I remember, once, flying
with you down this highway,
two demons, darting through
sky, grim, impassive,
past trees pretty
in their way.

I could not remember--
that day in the car with you--
this moment now,
driving with a girl
I have only begun to know,
a girl who you will never.
Memory, it turns out, works
another way, like an imperfect
tape recorder, burping back sound.

But now, I can remember you
then, caffeinated and strong,
chattering while you drove.
Me scatterbrained, withdrawn.
And the map, I can remember,
the map we didn't have.
You said without a map,
we would be like ants,
scurrying blindly along.
But I convinced you.
I said, what good is a map when
our location is always changing,
like the ground beneath
these wheels, like the odometer
of your car, like everything.
And you drove on.

I remember little else about that day,
not the way the landscape looked,
nor some loose, locating smell.
But I bet it was just like this one.
That same grim sky, the same pretty trees.
No girl then, or a different girl.
Just me and you, and we were flying.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Tuesday, August 11, 2009


A quote from the Spanish poet, Antonio Machado, which speaks, eloquently, I think, to what it is to be a poet, and how easy it to lose one's creative voice:

"When the poet doubts that the center of the universe lies in his own heart, that his spirit is an overflowing fountain, a focus which irradiates energy, capable of transforming and even deforming the world around him, then the spirit of the poet wanders disoriented again among objects."

I first became aware of Machado's quote through a very interesting book called Poetry As Survival, by Gregory Orr. I'll write more about that book later.

Monday, August 10, 2009

The Christening

I will admit preemptively that I am not really sure how to do this. I have proudly resisted the idea of starting a blog in the past, for the simple reason that I am skeptical of screens--suspicious of a technology as powerful and sophisticated as ours has become, a technology the possesses such a limitless potential for abuse. The abuse of one's time, and the abuse of one's spirit. There is something, to my mind, intrinsically anti-social about the internet despite all of the supposed sociability that it facilitates.

That said, I find myself, this morning, setting aside the books I have been reading, the poems I have been revising, to start a blog. The prospect of having a regular forum to express my thoughts and ideas, and to connect with other people's thoughts and ideas, excites me. Of course, it also worries me, for I am prone to addiction, and to an addict that which is exciting is also dangerous.

Leaving aside this caveat, however, I am attracted to the idea of creating a community forum for literature: for mine as well as other people's. In fact, I own a poem box. It is a small wooden box, bought in a thrift shop in Portland, Oregon, which currently holds fifty of my most finished poems. Two weeks ago, at the Last Thursday Alberta Street Fair in Portland, I carried the box around with me, performing poems for anyone who asked--they simply reached into the box and pulled a poem out at random. In this way, I hoped to engage with people--to render my poems manifest.

I christen this blog in the same spirit. In the next few days or weeks, I will post some of my poems here. I encourage anyone who wants to engage, to share, to contribute, to animate their work in some way, to be in touch.