Friday, November 23, 2012

Income without work

I've been reading Hannah Arendt's introduction to Walter Benjamin's Illuminations, and while some of it is a little dry and academic for my taste, there is no doubt that Benjamin was a fascinating figure. Particularly interesting to me is his attitude towards money, which was one of almost aristocratic self-entitlement. Arendt traces this back to "the ancient Jewish believe that those who 'learn'...were the true elite of the people and should not be bothered with so vulgar an occupation as making money or working for it." Benjamin saw himself as a kind of "man of letters," one who, surrounded by books, was neither "obliged nor willing to write and read professionally, in order to earn a living. Unlike the class of the intellectuals, who offers their services either to the state as experts, specialists, and officials, or to society for diversion and instruction, the hommes de lettres always strove to keep aloof from both state and society. Their material existence was based on income without work, and their intellectual attitude rested upon their resolute refusal to be integrated politically or socially."

How antithetical to our age such an attitude would seem. It might appear conservative, too, the man of letters holding himself aloof from the rest of society. But Benjamin was not a conservative. He was, in fact, a deeply progressive and forward-looking thinker.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

The body wants to feel inspired

by Alex Gallo-Brown

Blue lights twirl
through bare window,
flicker like laptop screen
pointed towards our face.
The body springs up. The body
will know what to do.
The body 
bangs head against glass,
craning its neck to see.

Downstairs, the neighbor 
against an open door.
There is a body, dead,
lying in the back lot.
No way he will sleep
until it has been removed.
Nothing to say, 
to see, here
for the body.
It does not know
this man.

Upstairs, in the room, 
body flicks laptop up,
presses a button
until it begins to speak.
There is a convention on,
chirping mouths
in quivering heads
to fill our ears
with air.
There is an election on
and we want to feel 

Thursday, September 13, 2012


Gabriel Blackwell interviewed me yesterday for the lit site Big Other about The Language of Grief, Lewis Hyde's The Gift, the gift-giving community some of you were a part of, and more. Have a look.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

The Last Book I Loved

Sorry for the long absence -- I've been in the middle of many moves, changes, etc. I do have a new essay up on The Rumpus, however, about "the last book I loved," which was Tom Bissell's Magic Hours. Have a look, if you feel so inclined.

Saturday, June 23, 2012


I've been reading Tom Bissel's brilliant collection of essays, Magic Hours, and came across this nugget on travel writers:

"Travel writers are seldom scholars. They are, by inclination if not definition, transients and dilettantes. All that can save the travel writer and redeem his or her often inexpert perceptions of foreign people and places is curiosity, a willingness to be uncertain, an essential emotional generosity, and an ability to write."

Sunday, June 3, 2012


I finally have a "real" website, replete with links to my published articles, excerpts from The Language of Grief, a button for ordering the book (which includes a short screed against Amazon), an author's bio, and, perhaps most importantly, a series of photographs courtesy of the noted photographer Jennifer Miran Lobsenz, or, as many of you know her, simply Jenne.

Take a look. I'm quite pleased with the whole thing.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Olives, Vines, and Vices

Before I moved to northeast England, I had no idea about the cultural and geographic divides that abound in the country. I have come to learn, however, that the north, generally, which begins around Manchester, still several more than a hundred miles south of where I live in Durham, identifies more or less in opposition to the south.

The differences are described in the following paragraph from
Road to Wigan PierGeorge Orwell's 1937 account of his trek through English coal-mining country. Orwell himself was a Southerner.

"When you go to the industrial North you are conscious, quite apart from the unfamiliar scenery, of entering a strange country. This is partly because of certain real differences which do exist, but still more because of the North-South antithesis which has been rubbed into us for such a long time past. There exists in England a curious cult of Northerness, sort of [a] Northern snobbishness. A Yorkshireman in the South will always take care to let you know that he regards you as inferior. If you ask him why, he will explain that it is only in the North that life is 'real' life, that the industrial work done in the North is the only 'real' work, that the North is inhabited by 'real' people, the South merely by rentiers and their parasites. The Northerner has 'grit,' he is grim, 'dour,' plucky, warm-hearted, and democratic; the Southerner is snobbish, effeminate, lazy -- that at any rate is the theory."

The theory, according to Orwell, originated thusly:

"[T]he English looked at the map, and, noticing that their island lay very high in the Northern Hemisphere, evolved the pleasing theory that the further north you live the more virtuous you become. The histories I was given when I was a little boy generally started off by explaining in the naivest way that a cold climate made people energetic while a hot one made them lazy, and hence the defeat of the Spanish Armada. This nonsense about the superior energy of the English (actually the laziest people in Europe) has been current for at least a hundred years. 'Better is it for us,' writes a Quarterly Reviewer of 1827, 'to be condemned to labour for our country's good than to luxuriate amid olives, vines, and vices.' 'Olives, vines, and vices' sums up the normal English attitude towards the Latin races."

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

This Must Be The Place

I am probably wrong, but This Must Be the Place, the Paolo Sorrentino movie starring Sean Penn, Frances McDormand, and David Byrne, strikes me as a nearly great movie. A review by the British critic Jonathan Romney articulates adequately my "general sort of" feelings about the film: it is less about the reality of American than an idea of America, as conjured by an Italian cinephile passionate about the Talking Heads. Don't miss it.

Friday, May 4, 2012

A Singer May Be Innocent, but Never the Song

This essay is brilliant -- about the "White Savior Industrial Complex" embodied by figures like Nicholas Kristof -- but in a way, novelist Cole's tweets are pithier and more to the point. There are seven in total; two are reposted below:

"The White Savior Industrial Complex is not about justice. It is about having a big emotional experience that validates privilege."

"I deeply respect American sentimentality, the way one respects a wounded hippo. You must keep an eye on it, for you know it is deadly."

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Face Off

This essay I wrote about race and identity and hipsters and other stuff went live on The Nervous Breakdown today. It's interesting because I wrote the essay before this other piece (authored by another Garfield High School alum, Lindy West) caused a minor Internet shit storm the other day. The aims (and tones) of the two essays are very different, but it's an interesting kind of synchronicity nonetheless...

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Precarious But Gratifying

"Real change needs creativity and action! Using a black marker write suggestive notes on your 'garbage.' Littering in wealthy neighborhoods is precarious but gratifying! Just IMAGINE them reading your used tampon marked US WAR! and puzzling over the message. Make the rich THINK. Or at least make their children think. OIL OIL EVERYWHERE! Write on old shoes, sandwich wrappers, cans, bags, snotty tissues, used condoms, THIS OIL WAR! On an empty bottle of hand lotion OIL THIS WAR! On a cereal box THIS FAGGOT WORLD VICTORIOUS! On a soda bottle YOUR SISSY CHILDREN SAVE THE WORLD FROM YOU! As citizens it is our duty to communicate the temperature of suffering!"

This guy CAConrad is a nut. Watch him read poetry at a laundromat here. Check out his new book from Wave here, which includes nutty, wonderful poetry exercises as well as his own original poems. The above, for example, asks you to litter in wealthy neighborhoods, take notes, and then write stream-of-consciousness for thirty minutes. The result for him was called, "Duck Call for Dead Ducks."

Friday, March 30, 2012

Poetry is where we attend to the mechanics of language

"Poetry is self-conscious language, words that refer to themselves. Reading a poem, one is supposed to be conscious of the materiality of the poem--the fact that it is made of words that shift every time they are read or spoken; words are like boxes that are packed and repacked with associations. One should never quite lose oneself in a poem the way one does in a great movie or novel. One is always participating in poetry by being conscious of how one's own past affects how one defines the words. Poetry is about words and what they refer to second; it's about the phenomenon of referring, the mechanics of words. And this isn't just some mental exercise--it's a deep emotional one. All that allows people to feel less alone, less trapped in the prison of their own incommunicable perceptions, is language, whether verbal or visual or tactile. Poetry is where we attend to the mechanics of language, hence poetry is all and always about loneliness, about the extent to which one is more or less alone because one's words do or don't carry one's perceptions across the divide between self and others.

Prose is very different...In a description of a house, you are meant to imagine a house rather than attend to the words used to describe it."

From an interview with Craig Morgan Teicher over at HTML Giant.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Not in the Service...

"The intelligent man who is proud of his intelligence is like a condemned man who is proud of his large cell."

A quote from a book I am reading about Simone Weil.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

The Poet and the Poker Table

A pretty good illustration of why I don't play poker anymore, from a profile of Joel Dias-Porter, a performance poet turned Atlantic City grinder:

“What’s the joy you get from poker?”

“The same as I get from chess or Scrabble—that you outsmarted your opponent.”

Intelligence not in the service of love is useless at best, and at worst destructive.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Active Love

After years of procrastination, I am finally getting around to reading The Brother's Karamazov. A gem near the beginning:

"Above all, avoid lies, all lies, especially the lie to yourself. Keep watch on your own lie and examine it every hour, every minute. And avoid contempt, both of others and of yourself: what seems bad to you in yourself is purified by the very fact that you have noticed it in yourself. And avoid fear, though fear is simply the consequence of every lie. Never be frightened by your own faint-heartedness in attaining love, and meanwhile do not be very frightened by your own bad acts. I am sorry that I cannot say anything more comforting, for active love is a harsh and fearful thing compared with love in dreams. Love in dreams thirsts for immediate action, quickly performed, and with everyone watching...Whereas active love is labor and perseverance..."

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Announcing: The Language of Grief

"When we think about grief, it is this type of grief that usually comes to mind: the pain that follows the loss of a loved one to death. As these poems testify, however, feelings of loss and grief are much more mundane than that. They occur in all kinds of situations. We can feel grief when we abandon one living situation for another or when a longtime partner leaves us. We can even feel it when we begin a new relationship (grief for our loss of solitude). We can feel grief when we enter a new, clearly delineated life phase, such as when our career path changes or our values blatantly shift (thought in some cultures to occur every seven years, the frequency with which a snake changes its skin or the length of time it took to write this book). But we can also feel it more subtly, such as when our routines are disrupted or our ideals are undermined by the cruelties of experience. We can feel it when something happens in the collective political consciousness, such as after a presidential election, the declaration of a war, or the onset of a recession. On a smaller but no less powerful scale, we can feel it when we are humiliated at work (grief for own lost dignity), when we enter a shopping mall (grief for the commodification of our objects), or after we eat a cheap and nutritionless meal (grief for the poverty of our food). In the America I know, grief is omnipresent."

From the preface to The Language of Grief

Contribute to the Kickstarter here.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Why Amazon is "Dangerous"

"For years, America's upper-middle classes--of all political leanings--have tended to gaze on our political economy with a certain smug self-confidence. Even as our new masters [corporate monopolies like Amazon, Apple, Microsoft, and others] imposed their rule over the market once run by our farmers and small shopkeepers, and smashed the unions that empowered industrial workers and flight attendants to bargain as equals with their bosses, we turned away."

Read an excerpt of the article ["Killing the Competition: How the new monopolies are destroying open markets," by Barry C. Lynn] from Harper's magazine here. It is a fascinating and unflinching depiction of the farce that is economic life in America today. It gives one pause. As it should.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Poem for One Day

"Honor to those who in their lives
demarcate and guard a Thermopylae.
Never swerving from duty,
just and upright in all their acts,
but compassionate and sad nevertheless;
generous when they are rich, when poor 
generous again in small ways,
again rushing to help as much as they can;
always speaking truth
but with no hatred for liars."

From Thermopylae by the Greek poet C.P. Cavafy.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Valediction for Tony Judt

"The result [of three decades of uncomplicated market worship] is a politics of fear: fear of the stranger, fear of falling into the ranks of losers in a dog-eat-dog culture, fear of the future. Which in turn leads to the kind of paralysis that characterizes our national government today...It's decadent to embrace vast spending on the maintenance of a warfare state in order to, among other things, drain off resources that might otherwise be available to a welfare state."

an excellent article in the LA Review of Books on the late, postwar historian Tony Judt.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

This Morning, This Evening, So Soon

I came across this line in a James Baldwin short story the other day which helped me to make sense of some of the response to my article a few weeks ago:

"The habits of public rage and power would have also been our private compulsions, and would have blinded our eyes."

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Our Rancid Capitalist Hearts

"Strip away the circumstantial differences and The Sopranos, The Wire, Breaking Bad, Deadwood, and Weeds are all about the acquisition of capital, territorial expansion, and the liquidation of assets and enemies.

Americans love this story. It's a kind of bootstrap fairytale that exalts the glories of the free market for those willing to unyoke ambition from conscience. We know, in our brains, that Tony Soprano is a gluttonous thug. But in our rancid capitalist hearts we root for him anyway."

Steve Almond writing about Mitt Romney in The Rumpus.

The man has a point.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

The Hardening of Our Hands

It only took me about a year, but a piece I wrote last winter about farming in the American South (I originally called it, "The Hardening of our Hands") went up on Salon last night. Don't read the comments -- they're perhaps predictably puerile and hateful -- but the piece itself is in good shape, I think. It's here.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Real Winners Don't Compete

"From [Finnish education expert's Sahlberg's] point of view, Americans are consistently obsessed with certain questions: How can you keep track of students' performances if you don't test them constantly? How can you improve teaching if you have no accountability [for teachers]...? How do you foster competition and engage the private sector? How do you provide school choice?

The answers Finland provides seem to run counter to just about everything America's school reformers are trying to do.

For starters, Finland has no standardized tests...Instead, the public school's teachers are trained to assess children in classrooms using tests they create themselves...what matters is that in Finland all teachers are given prestige, decent pay, and a lot of responsibility...
And while Americans love to talk about competition, Sahlberg points out that nothing makes Finns more uncomfortable. In his book Sahlberg quotes a line from a Finnish writer named Samuli Puronen: 'Real winners do not compete.'"

The result is some of the best students in the world. Finnish youngsters score way better (ironically, on a standardized test) than their American counterparts. One of the reasons for this is that in Finland there is no such thing as a private school. When everybody in society sends their kids to the same schools, regardless of their money or power, public education becomes a nationwide problem. 

In Finland, at least, they seem to have figured out some answers.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Reading Cheever

The indie lit webzine Bookslut was nice enough to run an essay I wrote about reading John Cheever's novel Bullet Park at my grandmother's old house in Westport, Connecticut. It's here if you want to take a look.