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.