Monday, December 20, 2010

Where Young People Go to Retire

Not sure if this is exactly the city I live in -- I couldn't help but notice that every person in the video was white, for starters -- but this is a pretty accurate (and hilarious) portrayal of certain pockets of the city, for sure:

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Every Book A Solitude

From Paul Auster's The Invention of Solitude:

"Every book is an image of solitude. It is a tangible object that one can pick up, put down, open, and close, and its words represent many months, if not years, of one man's solitude, so that with each word one reads in a book one might say to himself that he is confronting a particle of that solitude. A man sits alone in a room and writes. Whether the book speaks of loneliness and companionship, it is necessarily a product of solitude. A. sits down in his own room to translate another man's book, and it is though he were entering that man's solitude and making it his own. But surely that is impossible. For once a solitude has been breached, once a solitude has been taken on by another, it is no longer solitude, but a kind of companionship."

Auster's book itself is very much an image of solitude, and a powerful examination of grief and life, writing and art and fatherhood. It is at bottom a search for meaning--even if in his "braver moments [he] embraces meaninglessness as the first principle"--and for truth, and for story.


My review of Misadventure, by Millard Kaufman, is in the new issue of Rain Taxi Review of Books. You can't get it online, but the table of contents is here.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Stop 'Messaging' and Start Meeting

An article
in The Nation about how to make unions relevant again--a vital component to the Left itself becoming relevant again.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

He Liberates Us

"Orwell, by reason of the quality that permits us to say of him that he was a virtuous man, is a figure in our lives. He was not a genius, and this is one of the remarkable things about him. His not being a genius is an element of the quality that makes him what I am calling a figure.

[I]f we ask what it is that he stands for, what he is the figure of, the answer is: the virtue of not being a genius, of fronting the world with nothing more than one's simple, direct, undeceived intelligence, and a respect for the powers one does have, and the work one undertakes to do. We admire geniuses, we love them, but they discourage us. They are great concentrations of intellect and emotion, we feel that they have soaked up all the available power, monopolizing it and leaving none for us. We feel that if we cannot be as they, we can be nothing...

[Orwell] is not a genius--what a relief! What an encouragement. For he communicates to us the sense that what he has done, any one of us can do. Or could do if we but made up our minds to do it, if we but surrendered a little of the cant that comforts us, if for a few weeks we paid no attention to the little group with which we habitually exchange opinions, if we took our chance of being wrong or inadequate, if we looked at things simply and directly, having only in mind our intention of finding out what they really are, not the prestige of our great intellectual act of looking at them.

He liberates us."

From the introduction to Orwell's
Homage to Catalonia by Lionel Trilling.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

The Jolly Rogers is the Appropriate Course of Action

In honor of Chanukah, a clip from one of my favorite movies from the past few years:

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Photograph: This Good Earth

by Jennifer Lobsenz

The Economics of Writing

"MFA programs today serve less as hotbeds of fierce stylistic inculcation, or finishing workshops for almost-ready writers (in the way of, say, Iowa in the '70s) and more as ingenious partial solutions to an eminent American problem: how to extend our already protracted adolescence past 22 towards 30, in order to cope with an oversupplied labor market."

Chad Harbach over at Slate, via N + 1, on the divide between MFA programs and the New York publishing industry.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Marry or Burn

went to see Seattle actor Megan Cole read from my friend Valerie Trueblood's book, Marry or Burn, last night at Elliott Bay. The book is great; if you like unflinching literary fiction, I highly recommend you pick it up. It was a pleasure to watch Cole perform as well.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Wilding Review

The Collagist
has published my review of Benjamin Percy's The Wilding. Have a look.

The Tea Party and History

A brilliant article by Corey Robin in the new Harper's places the Tea Party in the context of the conservative tradition:

"People on the left often fail to realize this, but conservatism does indeed speak to and for people who have lost something. The loss may be as material as a portion of one's income or as ethereal as a sense of standing. It may be of something that was never legitimately owned in the first place. Even so, nothing is ever so cherished as that which we no longer possess...The chief aim of the loser is not preservation or protection but recovery and restoration, and that is the secret of conservatism's success. Because his losses are recent, the conservative can credibly claim that his goals are practical and achievable. Whereas the left's program of redistribution raises the question of whether its beneficiaries are truly prepared to wield the powers they seek, the conservative project of restoration suffers from no such problem. Unlike the revolutionary, moreover, who faces the nearly impossible task of empowering the powerless, the conservative asks his followers to do more of what they have always done."

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Stephen Elliott Interview

An interesting interview with Stephen Elliott over at 12th Street about the genesis of The Rumpus, the relative badness of most web publications, and why the world doesn't need billionaires.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Reasons to Be Optimistic About the Midterm Election

For weeks now--maybe even months--the media narrative has been that the Democrats are going to get destroyed in the midterm election. I've been skeptical, for a variety of reasons (ranging from my own hardheadedness to the
Republican party's apparent repugnance). But I've also been skeptical of lopsided polls (such as this one that put Republicans up more than ten points), since I figured they were probably heavily skewed towards older people with landlines, who, as a whole, tend to vote much more conservative than their younger counterparts.

Now Nate Silver, the election oracle over at Five Thirty Eight, has cited "the cellphone effect" as the number one reason why Democrats might do better than pundits are expecting. A study by the Pew Research center concludes that a failure to include cell phone users--who are typically younger, more urban, and less white--could "bias the polls" by 4 percent or more. Which could be the difference in any number of close races.

I remain optimistic. The Republicans might win the House, but it won't be nearly as bad as everyone has been predicting. I just wish Silver had written this article a week ago.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Article on Woofing

The Vancouver (B.C.) Sun has published a short article I wrote about the Woofing trip Jenne and I took this summer. The online version has a few typos. Please disregard.

UPDATE: The print version with pictures:

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Rally to Restore Fear

In an attack on conventional wisdom, Timothy Noah over at Slate urges Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert to stay home October 30, the date of their conjoined satirical rallies. Noah seems to think the spectacle of privileged young people poking fun of Tea Partiers will ultimately damage the Democrats' prospects in the upcoming midterms. I disagree--contemporary elections, in my admittedly inexpert view, seem to hinge on whose base is more enthusiastic, and I think Stewart and Colbert will succeed in rallying the Democratic rank-and-file--but I thought that Noah was his usual incisive self when parsing "Stewart-Colbertism."

"[It} scorns extremism of all types, but especially conservative extremism, and most especially conservative extremism driven by ignorance or religious extremism. It is mildly critical of liberalism, but mainly for failing to combat conservative bombast more effectively. It endorses, implicitly, whatever liberal consensus has managed to survive these past thirty years, but isn't terribly interested in the details."

I think this is mostly right. (Although a recent, cringe-inducing segment lambasting labor unions was more than mildly critical of a leftist stalwart.) I appreciate Stewart's satire of extremism. I regret that he can't be bothered by the details.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Christine vs. Beulah

In a recurring segment, we juxtapose crazy right wingers...

with characters from great dramas...

(Okay, so I can't find the video online, in which case we'll have to make do with the transcript)

BEULAH: Your husband plowed under his corn and built a baseball field. The weirdo.

ANNIE: At least he is not a book-burner, you Nazi cow.

BEULAH: At least I'm not married to the biggest horse's ass in three counties.

ANNIE: All right, Beulah, do you want to step outside?


Yes, I am suggesting Christine O'Donnell bears a striking resemblance to Beulah from Field of Dreams.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Paulie v. Paladino

To be a person of mixed Jewish-Italian descent and watch this...

As far as crazy Italians go, I prefer Paulie:

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Fiction Reading in the Internet Age

A rather 
poignant essay by Kevin Hartnett over at The Millions about the challenges of reading fiction in a life caught in the Inter-web. 

"A yen for fiction," writes Hartnett, "is something like my canary in the coal mine, an early indication, when it ebbs, that something else is wrong." He also writes that "there's something intrinsically optimistic about the process by which tragedy and frailty are turned into art," and that "the more I'm engaged with life--and particularly with other people--the more I want to read fiction."

I spend a fair amount of time both reading fiction and going through periods where a story or novel can't seem to hold my attention, and I often wonder about the combination of environmental, behavioral, and psychological factors which produce such impatience, such inability to focus. Hartnett's essay seems to me a good start at teasing apart some of this complexity.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Aesthetic Ethics

I was trying to explain to a friend today why I thought a particular short story was bad (doesn't matter which one; all right, if you must know
it's this one by James Franco, the actor turned...[I can't bring myself to type word "writer"]) and then I read this startlingly thoughtful essay by Matthew Zapruder over at The Rumpus in which he writes:

"'Bad' is a moral judgment masquerading as an aesthetic preference. We reserve the term for art that doesn't just bore or displease, but somehow offends...these poems are 'bad' because they are unethical. And they are unethical because they are dishonest."

Which is what I wish I had been able to say to my friend.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Getting Closer

Two blocks away from my Portland apartment, there is a wonderful secondhand store with a wonderful name: Rerun. Beyond the eclectic array of inexpensive knickknacks, it maintains a respectable books section, too. A few days ago, I bought two hardback memoirs—Jamaica Kincaid's My Garden (Book) and William Kittredge's A Hole in the Sky—for a total price of $3.75.

I wasn't familiar with Kincaid's testimonial to gardening—I was mostly interested in the subject matter—but I had read an excerpt from A Hole in the Sky several years before, and had wanted to read it ever since. Since picking it back up, I've been far from disappointed.

An excerpt:

"I want this to be a story about the way a sense of connection to the energies of everything can sweep over us; and why I think that sense of connection is supremely valuable.

Through all of this I am most concerned to examine the possibility that I may come to die and feel myself slipping back into everything. I hope I may feel that such slipping back into things is proper while it is happening. I hope I will be happy in the going, though sometimes that seems only like another way of saying I'm frightened and furious. I want to be like the child for whom it was so simple to let himself go into affection for what we are. He loved it as we seem to in the beginning, on the doorstep of life, with a future so thick in second chances.

What a release it might be, falling back into the world as if through some gate that was reopened, into that time in which we felt ourselves seamlessly wedded to every thing, and every other thing, getting closer."

Thursday, September 2, 2010


I have not yet read Jonathan Franzen's new novel which seems to be all the rage, but I did recently read the review by New York Times Book Review editor Sam Tanenhaus, who calls it "a masterpiece of American fiction." It is a brilliant, dynamic, sweeping essay that might be called a masterpiece of American criticism. Two quotes stuck with me, which I would like to reproduce here:

1). "Franzen grasps that the central paradox of modern American liberalism inheres not in its doctrines but in the unstated presumptions that govern its daily habits. Liberals, no less than conservatives — and for that matter revolutionaries and reactionaries; in other words, all of us — believe some modes of existence are superior to others. But only the liberal, committed to a vision of harmonious communal pluralism, is unsettled by this truth."

2). "Franzen makes us see, as the best writers always have, that the only pathway to freedom runs through the maze of the interior life."

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

As a Career, I Don't Want to Do That

There's a new New York Times Magazine article making the rounds this week called "The Post-Adolescent, Pre-Adult, Not-Quite Decided Life Stage." In it, author Robin Marantz Henig examines twenty somethings—you know, those self-indulgent, irresponsible young adults who like to smoke pot and eat Doritos and hang around their parents’ basements. Henig is primarily interested in promoting the work of developmental psychologist Jeffrey Arnett, who believes that "emerging adulthood"—the stage of life confronted by people in their twenties—should be thought of as a distinct developmental stage, much like childhood, adolescence, and (regular) adulthood. The article seems to hold up Arnett on the one hand, with his touchy-feeling encouragement of arrested development, and a fictive parental figure, impatient with their child's wandering, on the other. Henig ultimately sides with Arnett. Yes, she acknowledges, twenty somethings are irresponsible and self-indulgent. But they are doing so only in the service of their later lives. She closes with a quote from Arnett: "Emerging adults [in the process of dicking around] develop skills for daily living, gain a better understanding of who they are and what they want from life and begin to build a foundation for their adult lives."

Bollocks! cries author Anya Kamenetz over at the Huffington Post. She prefers to view the twenty something malaise from the simple, and simplistic, point of view of an economist. Kamentez argues that the real story of our generation is one of debt (appropriately, she published a book called "Generation Debt"). According to Kamenetz, young people are smoking pot and eating Doritos in their parents’ basement not because they're feckless, or free-spirited, but because there are fewer and fewer jobs in an intensely competitive marketplace.

Nathan Heller, an editor at Slate, has put forth a theory—well, it’s more of a premise than a theory—that I found much more compelling. Helling argues that twenty somethings, far from being the wayward layabouts portrayed by Selig, are actually conservative compared to their parents. According to Heller, twenty somethings have internalized the values of the baby-boomers—which, after an ancient flirtation with free love and LSD, has basically boiled down to career, family, and cable TV—but, in the midst of a tumbling economy, are failing to actualize such lives for themselves. They are stuck in a "limbo-state caused by fixed-values systems and pervasive risk evasion." Not only are we conservative, according to Heller, but we lack imagination and oppose taking risks.

Now we're getting somewhere!

Personally, whenever an adult—as opposed to an emerging adult—asks me what I plan to "do" with my life, I quote from the film,
Say Anything:

"I don't want to sell anything, buy anything, or process anything as a career. I don't want to sell anything bought or processed, or buy anything sold or processed, or process anything sold, bought, or processed, or repair anything sold, bought, or processed. You know, as a career, I don't want to do that."

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Harper's and the Mail

continues to amaze me. At least one or two articles each month impels me out of my chair to share what I've just read with someone close to me, or to scan the pages into my computer to e-mail them far away. In the current issue alone, Jeff Sharlet's terrifying yet somehow lyrical piece on Ugandan homophobia--a current bill up for debate would make it a crime punishable by life in prison, and in some cases death, to be gay--was one of those. As was Garret Keizer's short piece on the American Post Office--or the Postal Service, I should say, a change, he informs us, which was made in 1970, the same year the Service was required to operate as a solvent business.

Keizer takes the familiar GOP talking point about the inefficiencies of the mail (and by proxy, government) and turns it on its proverbial head, arguing instead that "indispensable and eminently reliable post offices" have reinforced his faith in socialism. He then goes on to analyze American acrimony towards the mail and its carriers, citing everything from our need for speed to resentment over mail worker's pensions. And then he gets metaphysical: "What is our lust for speed if not the desire to abandon our own bodies, to shake off their mortal subservience to the laws of time and space?" As for Keizer, he doesn't "want to be a seraph or a sunbeam but a citizen, that is, to live in a physical body and geographical community, bounded by time and space."

To subscribe to Harper's only costs something like $17 a year. I highly recommend it. It even comes in the mail.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Poem Box Returns

Hello, Poem Box readers...I am now back home after two months working on farms, and am getting tentatively back to blogging. My hope, in the future, is to post less frequently but more regularly, something like once or twice per week. I would also prefer to post other people's art (as opposed to, say, my own philosophical musings or random links to magazine articles ). Which means that I will need you to send me work. Pronto!

In the meantime, check out a couple of essays of mine recently published in Bunker Hill. The first is an essay on author Stephen Elliott, the second a review of Nick Flynn's most recent memoir. Enjoy.

Monday, May 31, 2010

Basking in the Sunlight of Overwhelming Gratitude for Life and Art

Sadly (happily?), Poem Box will be taking a break for June and July.

I leave you with a hilarious "
essay" on "Seattleby literary provocateur Tao Lin.

An excerpt:

"When I make myself think concretely about Seattle, I get an image of a 12-year-old Native American boy reading a Sherman Alexie story collection in a Starbucks and it's raining outside...But if I think abstractly about Seattle, I feel a strange emotion like I'm currently living in a clean, well-furnished house with expensive electronic equipment in Tennessee in May by a small river on a green hill with no other houses nearby and that I have a steady cash flow and am working on multiple projects each day with a lot of excitement and no obligations...So 'Seattle' abstractly means to me something like 'basking in the sunlight of overwhelming gratitude for life and art' but concretely to me something like 'feeling like there's no possible routes for escaping a life of poverty and alcoholism while staring at sentences written by Sherman Alexie in an environment of people shouting things like 'quadruple soy latte.' I don't know. I feel 'tricked.'"

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Pollan on Food

worthwhile essay in the New York Review of Books by Michael Pollan (The Omnivore's Dilemma, In Defense of Food).

Friday, May 21, 2010

Poem: The Counterwoman

by Alex Gallo-Brown

Have a nice night, the counterwoman sings,

in perfect unison with her own voice
from just moments ago.
The inflection is dead on.
She has herself down.

I can't see her from where I sit--

another person behind another counter--
but I know from experience
her economy with her eye contact.
To me, she has never sung.

I am not entitled to her eyes, 

nor deserving of her breath.

Like her, I will spend my night

behind the counter.
And I, like her,
labor under no delusions
it will be nice.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Just Want to be Free

best, most comprehensive article I've read yet on the Tea Partiers.

University of Chicago professor Mark Lilla, writing in the New York Review of Books, argues that the Tea Party movement fuses the anarchic impulses of the Sixties counterculture with the economic individualism of the Reagan Eighties. "[The Tea Party movement] is estranged, aimless, and as juvenile as our new century," he writes. "It appeals to petulant individuals convinced that they can do everything themselves if they are only left alone, and that others are conspiring to keep them from doing just that."

Fundamentally, Lilla concludes, the Tea Partiers just want to be free: "free from government agencies that protect their health, wealth, and well-being; free from problems and policies too difficult to understand; free from parties and coalitions; free from experts who think they know better than they do; free from politicians who don’t talk or look like they do (and Barack Obama certainly doesn’t). They want to say what they have to say without fear of contradiction, and then hear someone on television tell them they’re right. They don’t want the rule of the people, though that’s what they say. They want to be people without rules—and, who knows, they may succeed. This is America, where wishes come true. And where no one remembers the adage 'Beware what you wish for.'"

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Where Are The Black Novelists?

I went to Powell's last night to see
Thomas Chatterton Williams read from his new memoir, Losing My Cool. Williams is young (29) and black (like Obama, he is of demonstrable mixed race descent, and, like Obama, he identifies primarily as black). The book was billed as an attack on hip-hop by one of its own. "Williams," its product description reads, "is the first of his generation to measure the seductive power of hip-hop against its restrictive worldview, which ultimately leaves those who live it powerless."

No full-frontal attack, however, ever emerged in the passages Williams read. Instead, I heard repeated homages to Williams' father--an undoubtedly impressive man; he escaped the repression of Jim Crow-era Texas for a liberating adulthood of literature, eventually coming to own nearly 15,000 books--and a series of reflections on Williams own struggle to overcome the "narrowness" of his hip-hop adolescence. Interesting stuff, but I left feeling underwhelmed.

At home, however, I came across an article Williams wrote a few years back for
N + 1 (a magazine I genuinely respect). Entitled "What Have We Who Are Slaves and Black To Do with Art?" (a question originally posed by W.E.B. Dubois in 1926), the piece begins as a review of the biography of author Ralph Ellison, then departs into a discussion of black culture at large. I found the piece much more compelling--and much more subtle--than what I heard at Powell's. Williams' critique seems to be less about hip-hop and more about materialism, acknowledging, as many of hip-hop's critics don't, that the chauvinism, casual violence, and overt greed so often found in rap music have their analogues (and antecedents) in mainstream white culture, as well.

The difference, William argues, is that "whereas white America has produced its William Faulkners, Frank Lloyd Wrights, [and] Ralph Waldo serve as hefty counterbalances to the Lindsay Lohans, Donald Trumps, and John D. America is all too skewed in the direction of P Diddy and the vulgar, without the benefit of adequate opposing forces."

More than attacking rap, Williams seems to be arguing for more black novelists, more black poets, more black painters. Which sounds good to me.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Subvert the Paradigm

"'Subvert the paradigm'; so goes the bumper sticker, which has passed now into cultural cliche. In so many ways, though, he has showed me how to do exactly that: to question received wisdom, to insist on my own angle, to view language as a playground, and a playground as bliss. He showed me how to love the words from my mouth and from my typewriter, how to love being in my own body, how to love being in my own skin and not some other skin."

David Shields writing about his father. The book, called The thing about life is that one day you'll be dead, is worth reading in its entirety. It manages to be both perversely informative (it provides biological data for every stage of human life) and intermittently beautiful (it mingles narrative memoir in with the science).

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Pure Oxygen

I recently unearthed an old collection of Jim Harrison essays that includes, "Poetry as Survival" (not to be confused with Gregory Orr's book of the same name). In this rambling, moving testimony to poetry (of Native American poet Simon Ortiz, he writes, "It is the kind of poetry that reaffirms your decision to stay alive"), Harrison admits that he sometimes "regretted the problems I've  caused my family and myself for refusing to be a poet-teacher: the shuddering economic elevator of the self-employed to whom the words boom and bust are euphemisms; the writer as farm laborer, block layer, journalist, novelist, screenwriter, but still thinking of himself as poet...At the very least the life I have chosen, although it always lacked a safety net, made up for the lack with pure oxygen." 

Harrison is, of course, describing the poet's perpetual problem, which is how best to make a living? And, to teach or not to teach?

I think I agree with photographer Robert Adams when he writes that, "Part of the cruelty in George Bernard Shaw's famous aphorism--'Those who can do, and those who can't teach'--is that it fails to distinguish between those without a gift to do something else, and those without the money."

Ultimately, I suspect the decision to find a day job or a teaching job--to join the academy or the market--is often based less on innate artistic talent than simple personal preference. Some people thrive as day laborers while making great art at night. Others who find satisfaction in teaching produce great artworks, too. These are questions that seem to have few universal answers, only specificities.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Poem: Not too Proud to Officiate

by Alex Gallo-Brown

I am not too proud
to officiate kickball

to preside over colorful young professionals
booting their way through
a Sunday afternoon

Twelve bucks a pop they pay me
to call balls and strikes,
and to arbitrate a series of other
overly complex rules

The teams, some of them, summon
a seriousness those Sundays,
a fierceness, a fervor
that can discomfit.

But others convey an Absurdist take.
Grown up children
or childish adults,
playing the game as it was intended.

The Somberists, on the other foot,
approach the game like full-fledged adults,
strategizing and scolding,
employing sarcasm and stomping around.
Like playground bullies, they revel 
in their anger, their meanness,
they thrive on meaningless conflict.

Meanwhile, behind the plate, 
I narrate the balls and strikes,
hollering into the day
for a little bit of cash,
trying to confine my judgments to the rule book
instead of the players' characters.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Monday, April 19, 2010

There Are Things We Have To Do To Stay Alive

The first of a ten part (eighty plus minute) interview with David Foster Wallace, filmed for a German television program in 2003. As always, I find Wallace fascinating. Also, is it just me or does the author resemble Portland Trail Blazers' point guard, Andre Miller?

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Loving Tax Day

Five reasons why you should love tax day, from author Steve Almond.

Whiteness Losing Power?

In a wide-ranging essay on race in the recent New Yorker, Kelefa Sanneh tackles three new books (Searching for Whitopia, The History of White People, How Race Survived U.S. History), an Academy Award-winning movie ("The Blind Side"), and the musings of Glenn Beck. We learn that, according to U.S. law, Arabians are considered white; that there is "something particularly fraught about the whiteness of Italian-Americans, which has been contested for centuries"; that Hispanics, while, too, technically white, represent the greatest potential threat to "the white majority"; and that, "In the Obama era--the Tea Party era--whiteness is easier to see than ever before, which means...if invisibility is power, than whiteness is a little less powerful than it used to be."

You should really read the whole thing.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Review: Bluets

New Los Angeles-based magazine Bunker Hill has published, and posted, a review I wrote of Maggie Nelson's Bluets. You can find it here.

Monday, April 12, 2010

But I, too, wanted to be a poet

I have been reading the selected poems of Fanny Howe, and came across this gem I thought too beautiful not to pass along:

But I, too, wanted to be a poet
to erase from my days
confusion & poverty
fiction & a sharp tongue

To sing again
with the tones of adolescence
demanding vengeance
against my enemies, with words
clear & austere

To end this tumultuous quest
for reasonable solutions
to situations mysterious & sore

To have the height to view
myself as I view others
with lenience & love

To be free of the need
to make a waste of money
when my passion,
first and last,
is for the ecstatic lash
of the poetic line

and no visible recompense

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Weathering Through

"Writing and reading allow one consciousness to find and take shelter in another," asserts author Tom Bissell in a recent article in The Guardian. "When the minds of the reader and writer perfectly and inimitably connect, objects, events and emotions become doubly vivid -- more real, somehow, than real things...Today, however, the pleasures of literary connection seem leftover and familiar."

I think everyone who revels in the pleasure of literary connection also occasionally inhabit moments of freefall -- when the possibility of having such an experience seems absurd on its face. Let us hope, though, in those moments one does not turn, as Bissell did, to copious amounts of cocaine and video games, but simply weathers through.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Friday, March 12, 2010

Poem: A Certain Inhuman Fragrance

by Alex Gallo-Brown

after Thoreau

A breeze wafts through the window,
slowly spelling the afternoon heat.
With it comes the odor of seawater,
preserved in a pair of swimming shorts
hanging on the balcony rail.

Little by little, the room fills
with this fragrance,
a musky, familiar scent,
almost human, almost animal,
certainly wild.
It is a smell not of sex,
although it does conjure it,
the kind which may occur outside
of love, though not necessarily
outside of like.

I sip quietly at this stink
while the breeze exhausts itself
and the heat returns,
listening to the sea
invisible beyond the window
thud against the surf.

Monday, March 8, 2010

An Interview with Vincent Harding

The following conversation took place on March 6, 2010, via telephone. Vincent Harding, 78, is a renowned black historian known for his work with Martin Luther King. Noah Gallo-Brown, 20, is an artist and student at Colorado College in Colorado Springs, Colorado.

Noah Gallo-Brown:
 In your article
Black Power and the American Christ, which came out in 1967, you write that “Black power is a religious reality more faithful to our own experience.” Could you expand on that statement?

Vincent Harding: Every since the children of Africa were brought to this country and came in touch with the Christian religion, we had to figure out some way to come to terms with what white Christians were teaching about religion and what they were doing in their social, economic, and political lives. It was clear to many African Americans at the very outset that the Christianity they were being taught could not be accepted on the terms that slave owners were presenting it because slavery itself was a contradiction to Jesus’ call to love each other as we love ourselves. When I spoke of black religion or black theology as being more faithful to our own experience, I was simply referring to the fact that the religion presented by the slave owners could not possibly be accepted by the slaves. 

We were in two very different social, economic, and political places. It was important to see the religious picture from [the perspective of] those who were enslaved, those who were powerless...It would be like asking the Jewish people to receive a religion that was developed by Nazis without making any changes.

NGB: In the same article, there is one passage that stuck me as particularly powerful. You write, “We know your Christ and his attitude toward Africa. We remember how his white missionaries warned against Africa’s darkness and heathenism, against its savagery and naked jungle heart. We are tired of all that. This Africa that you love and hate, but mostly fear—this is our homeland. We saw you exchange your bibles for our land. We watched you pass our tracts and take in gold. We heard you teach hymns to get our diamonds. You control them still. If this is what your Christ taught you, he is sharp, baby, he is shrewd; but he’s no savior of ours.” I was wondering if this is still what you believe or if your opinion has changed since then.

VH: Well, first of all, I was merely using a rhetorical device to articulate the stance of Black Power leaders.

NGB: Did you agree with such Black Power leaders? What was your stance on this issue?

VH: Well, as I mentioned to you at the outset, there was a great deal of logic to [being] critical of the mainstream white Christian position, because the white Christian mainstream did not take seriously its responsibility to speak on behalf of the poor and on behalf of the endangered. So I saw that as a very logical position for many people to develop.

Friday, March 5, 2010

A Poker Review

The Brooklyn Rail
has published my review of "Cowboys Full," James McManus' history of poker. You can find it here.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Macklemore's Town

A nice glimpse of Seattle via local hip-hop artist Macklemore:


Thursday, February 18, 2010

Poem: Warehouse of Defeat

by Alex Gallo-Brown

The casino was dead air today.
No breath, a warehouse of defeat.
I admit, I joined
them in their weakness. 
I think I needed to feel less whole.
Or it might have been
about dispersing myself
through those slender circles.
In any case, I played, was fruitfully scattered.
When as I was leaving, the security guard smiled
at me, her face tender yet distraught.
I wondered whose face that was.
Were all of us so transparent in our vacancy?
Outside I gulped air, a kind of reverse weeping.
There were casinos for miles and miles.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

On Electronic Media

George Packer, writing on his regular New Yorker blog a couple of weeks ago, offered a reasonable (and, in my view, necessary) critique of our culture's obsession with electronic media. At one point, he compared Twitter to crack cocaine. "Who doesn't want to be taken out of the boredom or sameness or pain of the present at any given moment? That's what drugs are for, and that's why people become addicted to them," he wrote. "Twitter is crack for media addicts. It scares me, not because I'm morally superior to it, but because I don't think I could handle it." 

The blogosphere predictably erupted, prompting Packer to protest, in a follow-up post, that "techno-worship is a triumphalist and intolerant cult that doesn't like to be asked questions."

Yowza. Anyway, somewhere along the way I wound up on the blog of a person named Laryssa Wirstiuk, who describes herself, with no apparent irony, as a "24 year-old creative writer and entrepreneur." She had written a snarky, mean-spirited piece of satire that implied Packer was elitist, pretentious, self-aggrandizing, and more. I wrote in the comments section that I didn't feel like she had added anything to the discussion, and that the tone of her piece "exemplified everything I despised about my generation." She wrote me wanting to know why.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Poem: Sheridan

by Alex Gallo-Brown

Telephone wires drawn tight

against a weary sky,
sky spangled with squares
of blue light—borrowed, perhaps,
from some other sky—I drift
through dreary towns,
driving the car my dad used to,
looking past the chains.
Dairy Queen, Wal-Mart, KFC,
you know nothing of
what I am about to say.

Cars can mean something
says my teenage self,
waiting on the curb after school
for the big white sedan to show.
Drizzle hovering like a shroud,
I searched the car-saturated street,
imagining the jets of heat,
the shout of radio,
my dad’s face broken
by his grin.

In Sheridan, I park by the side of a road,
finish my lukewarm tea,
and watch a woman deliver the mail.
Watch her fight her own body 
just to exit her car.
In the city where I live, where I will always live,
the mailmen drive state-issued vehicles.
But in Sheridan, they drive their own.
Hers is a weathered maroon SUV
with a sign strapped to its roof that says US Mail.
Above her, a flag surges west in the wind.
Tree branches droop toward the ground.
I have no idea what I am about to say.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

What Chris Matthews Really Forgot

After Obama's State of the Union address Wednesday night, Chris Matthews claimed that he "forgot" Obama was black. Ta-Nehisi Coates, in at The Atlantic, argues that Matthews actually suffered temporary amnesia regarding his own race.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Obama's Biggest Failure

Junot Diaz, author of the beautifully minimalist short story collection,
Drown, and the buoyantly baroque novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, writes in The New Yorker this week that Obama's biggest failure thus far has been as storyteller. I tend to agree. Nobody expected Obama to solve the ingrained problems of America in a single year. The challenges we faced, and continue to face, are far too severe. But we did expect him to continue that which he did so well during his historic presidential campaign: to make sense of the mess that is our American experiment: to provide coherence and clarity in the midst of a crisis. This, as Diaz maintains, is the work of poets, not policy wonks. One used to think Obama encompassed both; a year into his presidency, one begins have second thoughts.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Essay: Alone in the Belly of the American Beast

by Alex Gallo-Brown

Author's Note: The following was written in the days after the inauguration of President Barack Obama, which took place one year ago today.

We Are One. That is the title—and presumable theme—of the free concert held at Lincoln Memorial two days before the Inauguration of President Barack Obama. The list of musicians scheduled to perform spans genre, culture, and generation: Bruce Springsteen, John Legend, and Sheryl Crow are just a few of the featured stars. The start time is pegged at 2:30 pm, but the morning newspaper advises arriving closer to 8 am, when the gates will first open. I decide to chance it—not least because the same newspaper predicts an afternoon temperature of 25 degrees—and head down to the National Mall just after noon.

I have no map, but it isn’t difficult after I exit the Metro to discern which way to go. A human stream, decked out in Obama headbands and beanies, sweatshirts and scarves, flows toward the Capitol.

Twenty minutes later, I reach the edge of the Mall. The people converge onto the winter-yellowed grass from every conceivable direction, Let It Shine blaring from the giant speakers, an image of an American flag fluttering over the giant screens. The Washington Monument, staggeringly tall, juts skyward in the distance. The sky is like marble—layers of blue and gray and then blue again.

As I near the Memorial, a line begins to form—more of a sprawling mass than any kind of organized procession. Our shepherds alternate from civilian volunteers crowned with red beanies to police officers wearing blue uniforms to military personnel clad in camouflage; the irony is that no one seems to be in charge. We stall, start, then stall again. Around me, the crowd radiates a low-key, affable acceptance. I hear the guy next to me say to his girlfriend, his voice betraying the faintest hint of hope, “Maybe there’ll be a stampede.”

The gridlock offers me the opportunity to pause, to look around. The people here are myriad in every sense of the word, their skin tones ranging from dark brown to near-translucent, their ages spanning from infancy to the elderly, their styles of clothing varying from the bright and the jarring to the mundane and unobtrusive. For me, considering such human disorder is nearly painful, like staring into the sun. Or perhaps the opposite of that.

Instead, I concentrate on a row of trees clustered beyond the far fence. Scraggly and leafless, the branches seem to strain upward towards the marbled sky. I find something reassuring in the trees, something vulnerable and appealing, as though the branches’ desire, usually hidden behind the cover of canopy, has for a moment been laid bare, and by nothing more uncommon than the changing of season. I have just a few minutes to admire them before we begin to move again. We make it a dozen yards down the path before the line halts—just far enough that we are out of sight of the trees.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Thursday, January 7, 2010

The GMNs vs. the GSPs

Katie Roiphe, in a
wide-ranging essay from the most recent issue of the New York Times Book Review, pits a clique of American authors once labeled by David Foster Wallace as the Great Male Narcissists (Philip Roth, Norman Mailer, John Updike, and Saul Bellow) against a clique of more contemporary authors that a friend of mine has cleverly titled the Great Sexless Paranoiacs (Wallace, Dave Eggers, Jonathan Safran Foer, Jonathan Franzen, and Benjamin Kunkel).

Steve Almond rebuts less than satisfactorily here.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

A Poker Poem

by Alex Gallo-Brown

Pockets Poker Club, Portland, Oregon.
I sit around the corner,
picking poppy seeds out of a muffin
and savoring the sharpness
of my black, black coffee.
Just now
in order to remember the name of the club,
in order to begin this poem,
I had to check my cell phone,
where I had the number saved.
You know, swarmed by impending joy,
the function of memory blurs.
Swimming in an ooze of pleasure,
the mind necessarily dims and retracts,
even as it understands
all too clearly
the temporary nature
of the ooze.
Understanding more than it knows,
the mind moves toward the game,
reveling in the content of no context,
in a present detached from its history.