Monday, July 6, 2009

To You, RE: "Seven Days in the Art World"

I read Sarah Thornton's "Seven Days in the Art World" for a book group meeting at MOCA in North Miami.

It's a breezy read--and a good introduction to the contemporary art world as far as I can tell--but I don't feel the need to spend the time necessary to write Ms. Thornton a personal letter.

One note however: I wonder why publishers and writers don't make longer versions of "accessible" books available online. "Seven Days" was clearly meant to hit the "general reader" (in the words of Futurama: "An idea that frankly I find preposterous") and subsequently clearly suffers from over-editing. Or underwriting, as the case may be, but, based on Thornton's interview list and bibliography, I'd guess the former. Oftentimes, just as she was about to delve into an interview subject or a scene with the appropriate depth, the paragraph would break and we'd be on to something else.

A perfect example is the chapter on the class at Cal-Arts. In contrast to how she handles the blow-by-blow account of the announcement of the Turner Prize, Thornton rarely lets us hear the dialogue in the class as it was said. Rather, she prefers to summarize the action for us, and, from what I can tell from the little dialogue she does let us hear, misrepresents the students as some weird combination of bored, ambitious, and mean. (Whenever one of them talks in the book, the result is pretty impressive--the student sounds hyper-intelligent, self-aware, and very dedicated. If you took out these quotes though, you'd hate these kids.)

So can us "non-general readers" get the X-rated version, please? :)

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

To Peter Cole, RE: "Things on Which I've Stumbled"

Your book has four parts, but actually two. One, the first, (and represented by the first section), preoccupies itself with the passion of translation, with words themselves, and this section slowly bleeds into the second half of the book, which, as it moves towards the fourth and final section, is more and more about Israel as a political entity. That age-old question, "What does it mean to be Jew?" gets recast as "What is Israel?"

As a translator, you fall squarely on the side of Israel's cultural heritage--it (Israel) is its language, its religion (which I think you'd say are one and the same), as embodied in the long tradition of midrashim (and of which I see you taking part via the secular gap-filling of poetry). You have no respect for fences, for aggression, for justice, security, etc. (And I use those words as loaded terms, as you yourself go to lengths to point out in the poems--that other process of "translating" that governments do in order to justify their actions: Justice will be / their diversion--a presence / leading up from the mouth / of malice, which has no defense // without it). You're not shy about your politics. You've lived in Jerusalem for a long time now, wrestling with every aspect of Hebraic culture, so these are arguments into which you've "stumbled", in the sense that, living where you live, doing what you do, they are unavoidable. In a city so sharply divided, one must have a clear sense of where one stands--or one cannot make a living out of being precise with his diction.

But, true to my non-political nature and my B.A. in religious studies (most of which was spent taking courses in Judaism), I'm more interested in the words ("Letters are things, not pictures of things." - Eric Gill----thank you for this quote), specifically how well you channel that Biblical, rabbinic voice, while still filtering it through a contemporary one:

Lord, goes the prayer, increase my bewilderment,
which really means allow me to question
everything, but not be lost within that
stance to the small flowers of common sense
in season. Increase, Lord, my discontent.

Sometimes your penchant for rhyme goes too far--I'm sensitive to this sin--but most of the time it's just right:

The army has nearly written a poem:
You'll now need a permit just to stay home.

Or in "Israel Is", reproduced here in its entirety. (Some poems are much too whole to be excerpted from):

Israel is he, or she, who wrestles
with God--call him what you will,

not some goon (with a rabbi and gun)
in a pre-fab home on a biblical hill.


...A municipal mess and the Western wind. Promising land. Almond blossoms over axons, dispersing a sweetness high in the brain. Worms turning beneath the garden. An ethic rotting. Oils brushed-up in my walking: hyssop, sage, anise, thyme. Herbs crushed. Shifting nouns. Canaan. Sion.

[The first three times I read that passage I read "ethnic" for "ethic" and "mind" for "wind."]

Abraham, refusing plunder,
swore that from a sandal strap
for a thread, he'd take not a thing;
for which he was given the thought of heaven
This is what, they say is given

as being's foundation, by which we exist:
Through the merit of men in a quarrel
able to render themselves as nothing--
by this alone, the world subsists...

[Italics yours. You seem pretty consistent about italics always meaning that the words were translated from somewhere else, so I assume that's true here as well.][I wonder about that line, "able to render themselves as nothing" though. It could be interpreted as mere charity, subsuming the ego, or it could be read as suicide bombing.]

The thought of you comes and I die--
and then I revive;
and thus it is I've died so often
I've lived a thousand lives.

What good is thinking that one keeps within?
What valve does it have, until it finds
expression, until it bodies forth as
action, events informing work and feeling--
as wisdom is joined to pleasure once again?

To Ben Greenman, RE: "Please Step Back"

I reviewed your book at the paper. Not as personal, but hopefully fair and worth reading.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

To David Foster Wallace, RE: "Brief Interviews with Hideous Men"

I'm gradually making my way through everything you wrote, hopefully in time to read your posthumous novel (when it comes out) with all the other books behind me. Not sure if I'll get there, especially with Infinite Jest looming, but I'm trying.

It's hard not to read "Brief Interviews" without reading the biographical knowledge of what we now know about your psychic history into it--the 20-some years of clinical depression, endless therapy, experimentation with every medication that ever hit the market (quoting from "The Depressed Person": Paxil, Zoloft, Prozac, Tofranil, Welbutrin, Elavil, Metrazol in combination with unilateral ECT (during a two-week voluntary in-patient course of treatment at a regional Mood Disorders Clinic), Parnate both with and without lithium salts, Nardil both with and without Xanax. None had delivered any significant relief from the pain and feelings of emotional isolation that rendered the depressed person's every waking hour an indescribable hell on earth...). (Nardil was the one, if I'm remembering the New Yorker article correctly, that you were using up until you went off them altogether.) So it's easy to read stories like "The Depressed Person" and "Suicide as a Sort of Present" as thinly-disguised memoirs, purposefully written with female protagonists to throw off the reader's scent, i.e. female protagonist as cowardice, fiction as cry for help.

But I don't read them that way (at least in total). I think you were much too smart (and much too well read) to believe that such a plan would work (or succeed). And there's too much nuance in the stories, too much that sounds like your mind at work for the sake of art (and not for the sake of DFW) for them to be simply memoirs by slight of hand. I think the idea of memoir by slight of hand would have been sickening to you, and even if you wanted to do it (which you probably did), you wouldn't have been able to, and this one of your qualities that I admire so deeply: (and which will sound cheesy, no way around it) your commitment to your art in spite of yourself. (Or put another way, in an adjective, "Excellence.") The range of formal skill, imagination, and emotional daring in "Brief Interviews" would be sullied by the presence of a flat piece of memoir, even one that exposed with total candor the amount of pain your illness was causing you. And what would it really have gotten you, in the end? I think the outpouring of sympathy would have been utterly despicable to you, and would have only magnified the self-loathing. Like, I'm so weak I actually wrote down my request for your sympathy. No, to do so would have been much more terrible than keeping it all silent, bearing the weight alone and with close family.

And because you couldn't simply write a first-person memoir, you had to write fiction, and if it were fiction, well then it had to be good fiction, which means it had to access all of your abilities, which means it had to be imaginative, which means it couldn't be any sort of simulacrum. Even if the emotional core of it was what the Old School (and me) calls "True." Even if all of the twisting, self-flagellating thought depicted therein was, at one time or another, enacted in your own personal life. Because I didn't know you, it's difficult for me to be sad about you being gone, but you as an artist (who I'm becoming more and more familiar with) being gone I am very sad about, and if the function of an artist is to define and magnify the human, well then I guess I am sad about you being gone. Very sad. Sadder with each book.

[I had something more to say about how the story "On his deathbed, holding your hand, the acclaimed new young off-Broadway playwright's father begs a boon" can be read as a play written by the new young off-Broadway playwright himself, and thus as a fiction within a fiction that calls into doubt all of the father's sentiments--or solidifies them--but I don't have the energy. Plus it's possible I just said all I had to say.]

"You are, unfortunately, a fiction writer."

"There are right and fruitful ways to try to 'empathize' with the reader, but having to try to imagine yourself as the reader is not one of them; in fact it's perilously close to the dreaded trap of trying to anticipate whether the reader will 'like' something you're working on, and both you and the very few other fiction writers you're friends with know that there is no quicker way to tie yourself in knots and kill any human urgency in the thing you're working on than to try to calculate ahead of time whether that thing will be 'liked.' It's just lethal."
-is there better writing advise out there than this?

"She said the best way to describe focus to a person who hadn't undertaken what were apparently her domination's involved and time-consuming series of lessons and exercises was to envision focus as intense concentration further sharpened and intensified to a single sharp point, to envision a kind of needle of concentrated attention whose extreme thinness and fragility were also, of course, its capacity to penetrate..."

" was as if my mind was having a garage sale..."

To Animal Collective, RE: Your June 9 Show at the Culture Room in Ft. Lauderdale, FL

I hadn't heard much of you previous to going to the show--a couple of older songs my friend Ryan had given me (and that I'd never really responded to) and My Girls (oh, and Comfy in Nautica which I guess counts but struck me as "Beach Boys Lite")--so I downloaded (and paid for! I'm old) "Merriweather Post Pavilion", listening to most of it on the way up. And liking it but also anticipating that the live show would persuade me one way or the other, as it always has with other bands.

But two days later, I'm still not sure how I feel about it.

Our freelance blogger at the New Times was pretty effusive about the show, comparing your sound to Terry Riley, which is an apt comparison if we're talking about "In C" but not for something like Music for the Gift or Birds of Paradise. And really, if a writer's going to go in that direction, he could throw out any number of post-WWII minimalist composers and find at least one recording that sticks: Reich's Piano Phase or Music for 18 Musicians, parts of Stockhausen's Stimmung, Philip Glass (pre-film score), Adams' Shaker Loops, etc. But he could also probably say Aphex Twin or Brian Eno, or hell, the Grateful Dead if he's referring to the way you guys chunk parts of different songs into greater medleys.

And certainly, not many of the teenagers--and the crowd was definitively under 21--had no such reference point for what they were hearing. All of the lush transitions were lost on the crowd. I scanned the faces around me pretty frequently, and unless you were hitting the hook of one of your songs, I saw a lot of yawning, or determined scowls trying desperately to access what was happening on stage. Which was the part I liked. And what made me happy that your band has become this juggernaut with a teflon-resistance to all criticism. Those kids came for a rock show, but what they got was closer to an AMM-style free jazz performance with snippets of rock songs.

And the kids did rock out when you let them. Whenever Noah Lennox played the drums, it was on. There were ecstatic moments of hands in the hair, jumping, etc., but for a band as desperately adored by the younger set as you guys are, reaching those moments is the easy part. It's much harder to get those kids to enjoy the endless looping. Did they? I'm sure they'll say they did. It was a small show so even getting to go was something of a privilege, and everyone likes to say, "I saw so-and-so in a 200 person club on blah, blah, blah, and it was [insert generic high praise]." But I think a lot of them were a little confounded.

Of course, there's the possibility that it was only me who was slightly confounded. Me who didn't even recognize the hooks of the songs (save for the afore mentioned My Girls, which was played within the first ten minutes of the show--I remember thinking, OK, that was my moment), me who is possibly too old to be a true fan. I was listening to a lecture by playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney recently (who is 28) in which he talked about not begrudging the next generation a different set of aesthetic preferences, so I concede if I'm too square or too uninformed.

But if our blogger's correct, and you're actually jumping off from a piece of music composed in 1964, then I should be able to access it right? Especially if I'm quite familiar with that music. Yet I think what separates your live show from, say, "In C", is that you're not building off of one loop; you're jumping around, starting and stopping, still mostly in the mode of a standard rock show. And the sound felt in between to me. Whereas "In C" is very sharp, your electronic sounds came off a little bit dull--hammers as opposed to knives. A rock show. But one in which we're not exactly allowed to rock. One in which we spend most of the time admiring the Top Chef-like skill which all three of you display running back and forth between different instruments (also reminiscent of John Cage's Water Walk). A performance, in other words, I'd like to hear with much more clarity, and decidedly less volume, especially in such an intimate space.

It might be like Bob Dylan going electric, but I'd like to see you guys go back to acoustic. Either way, I was impressed enough with your abilities as musicians (utterly undeniable) that I'd see you again.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

To Keith Gessen, RE: "All the Sad Young Literary Men"

I was definitely prepared to dislike your book, Keith. Not because of n+1, but in spite of n+1. Basically, I hate the title. "All the Sad Young Literary Men" is both a terrible, terrible title, and also a very fitting one for the book you've written, which I did like very much. How these two things are compatible I'm not sure. I mean, after I finished the book, I understood the tone in which the title was composed in--tongue-in-cheek, poking fun at the earnestness of the protagonists' struggles, recognizing, in the overall scheme of things, that those "struggles" are minor. In some ways, I think you underplayed your hand with the title. I think it apologizes for the book in a way it doesn't need to. I think the title says, "Read this book if you want, but if sadness, and irony, and youth, and maleness don't interest you, by all means, keep browsing." Which is short-changing the whole for an inventory of the sum of its parts. And not even all the parts. How many novels deal head-on, and in entirely convincing fashion, with the Israeli-Palestinian question? How many look coldly and calculatedly at their literary heroes? How many deal with sentimental issues like divorce and young love and Al Gore's daughter without a trace of sentimentality? (or least, I bought the sentiment) And the fact that the title's a Fitzgerald pastiche only makes it worse, not better. And by the way, I went to a party at Harvard with Sarah Gore, and since reading the book, I've been wondering if you were there. It wasn't a very large party--25 people tops. The guy's apartment had a fake photo essay about the uni-bomber done in poloroids--very funny as I recall. It was hanging in the kitchen.

Anyway, I really liked your book (which I didn't buy, sorry; I work at a Village Voice-affiliated newspaper and it came in the company mail) so I hope you take more time out from n+1 to write fiction. That same common sense that the journal dishes out is present in your fictional voice, and even if what you're saying at each moment is not true, it feels true, like you're clearing away all the intellectual cob-webs. It's a pleasurable feeling. Just ask Jonathan Lethem or someone to title it for you.

"...This is why it's so important to meet your heroes while you are young, so they can tell you. When I met Morris Binkel I wanted merely for him to say: Yes. I see it in you. You can do with it what you will, but you've got it. You can be like me, if that's what you want."

"Four hours later he was in the Syracuse bus station. It was--here was the joke--the cleanest, most modern, best-lit and comfortable bus station he'd ever been in. It gave you the wrong idea about Syracuse, boy. Of course, that's what bus stations were supposed to do, throughout history. Give travellers the wrong idea."

To Roberto Bolano, RE: 2666

You swallowed my month of May. April, too actually because I finished you in April, but I was so exhausted from reading 2666 that for awhile I was only capable of reading articles here and there, poems here and there, etc., not an actual book [though, I did read two books-more on those in the next two posts]. Exhausted and exhilarated, too--a post marathon feeling. A marathon in which I also got married mid-run. And finished in the top ten.

I've probably written enough to you on this blog in the five months it's existed, and I'm far enough away from the last page of 2666 that my thoughts/impressions of it--other than a general awe, appreciation of its skill, and gratitude for the chance to read it--have faded. So I'll give way to the passages that made it into my notebook. [Truthfully, there should be many more. Often times I'd be caught reading it without my notebook open and lament that I was passing by a passage that I wanted to save and knew, if I didn't get up that instant and write it down, that it'd be lost, but I didn't because I wanted to retain my forward momentum in the text. So these are lost. Someday I hope to re-read this book. I very much look forward to that day.]

"...dazzled by the shine of their own virtue, a shine that might not last (since virtue, once recognized in a flash, has no shine and makes its home in a dark cave amid cave dwellers, some dangerous indeed)..."
[I have no idea what this means btw]

"Morini was about to shout again and wave when he sensed someone at his back. Two things were instantly certain: the thing was evil and it wanted Morini to turn around and see its face."

"Coincidence, on the other hand, is total freedom. Our natural destiny. Coincidence obeys no laws and if it does we don't know what they are. Coincidence, if you'll permit me the simile, is like the manifestation of God at every moment on our planet. A senseless God making senseless gestures at his senseless creatures. In that hurricane, in that osseous implosion, we find communion. The communion of coincidence and effect and the communion of effect with us."

El Cerdo's hierarchical system of four different business cards: the "A" card has his home phone number; the "B" card has his office phone number; the "C" card has his secretary's phone number; and "There's nothing on the D card, it's blank, just my name, that's all."

"Or at the German embassy in Moscow, in a Chanel suit, with two Russians in her retinue, declaiming on Bulgakov and the (incomparable) beauty of Russian rivers in the fall, before the winter frosts."

The entire section on pages 128-9 that describes the city of Santa Teresa is breathtaking, but too long to reproduce the whole thing. Here's a chunk:
"To the south they discovered rail lines and slum soccer fields surrounded by shacks, and the even watched a match, without getting out of the car, between a team of the terminally ill and a team of the starving to death, and there were two highways that led out of the city, and a gully that had become a garbage dump, and neighborhoods that had grown up lame or mutilated or blind, and, sometimes, in the distance, the silhouettes of industrial warehouses, the horizon of the maquiladoras. The city, like all cities, was endless."

"The sky, at sunset, looked like a carniverous flower."

"So miracles were possible, after all. The internet bookstores worked."

"Sometimes Pelletier was by the pool, in a sweater or wrapped in a towel, sipping whiskey. Other times Espinoza found him in a room presided over by an enormous border landscape, painted, one could see instantly, by someone who had never been to the border: there was more wishfulness than realism in the industriousness and harmony of the landscape."

"The University of Santa Teresa was like a cemetary that suddenly begins to think, in vain. It was also like an empty dance club."
[my favorite couplet in the book]

"Anyway, these ideas or feelings or ramblings had their satisfaction. They turned the pain of others into memories of one's own. They turned pain, which is natural, enduring, and eternally triumphant, into personal memory, which is human, brief, and eternally elusive. They turned a brutal story of injustice and abuse, an incoherent howl with no beginning or end, into a neatly structured story in which suicide was always held out as a possibility."
[I take this as your own description of the book inside the book itself]

"Calm is the one thing that will never let us down."

"When they got home it was dark but the shadow of Dieste's book hanging from the clothesline was clearer, steadier, more reasonable, thought Amalfitano, than anything they'd see on the outskirts of Santa Teresa or in the city itself, images with no handhold, images freighted with all the orphanhood in the world, fragements, fragments."

"He wrote an essay on the future of literature, which began and ended with the word nothing."

"As if all the Germans cared about was reading and food, which was wasn't true but sometimes seemed to be, especially in Cologne."

"They talked about books, about poetry (Ingeborg asked Reiter why he didn't write poetry and he answered that all poetry, of any style, was contained or could be contained in fiction)..."

"You may say that literature doesn't consist solely of masterpieces, but rather is populated by so-called minor works. I believed that, too. Literature is a vast forest and the masterpieces are the lakes, the towering trees or strange trees, the lovely, eloquent flowers, the hidden caves, but a forest is also made up of ordinary trees, patches of grass, puddles, clinging vines, mushrooms, and little wildflowers. I was wrong. There's actually no such thing as minor work. I mean: the author of the minor work isn't Mr. X or Mr. Y. Mr. X and Mr. Y. do exist, there's no question about that, and they struggle and toil and publish in newspapers and magazines and sometimes they even come out with a book that isn't unworthy of the paper its printed on, but those books and articles, if you pay close attention, are not written by them.
Every minor work has a secret author and every secret author is, by definition, a writer of masterpieces. Who writes the minor work? A minor writer, or so it appears. The poor man's wife can attest to that, she's seen him sitting at the table, bent over the blank pages, restless in his chair, his pen racing over the paper. The evidence would seem to be incontrovertible. But what she's seen is only the outside, the shell of literature, a semblance...The person who really writes the minor work is a secret writer who accepts only the dictates of a masterpiece...if his wife had x-ray vision she would see that instead of being present at an exercise of literary creation, she's witnessing a session of hypnosis. There's nothing inside the man who sits there writing. Nothing of himself I mean."

"Few are the writers who give up."

"In a word, experiene is best. I won't say you can't get experience by hanging around libraries, but libraries are second to experience."

"The day came when I decided to give up literature. I gave it up. This was in no way traumatic but rather liberating. Between you and me, I'll confess that it was like losing my virginity. What a relief to give up literature, to give up writing and simply read!"

"...Archimboldi had a view of literature (though the word view is too grand) as something divided into three compartments, each connected only tenuously to the others: in the first were the books he read and reread and considered magnificent and sometimes monstrous, like the fiction of Doblin, who was still one of his favorite authors, or Kafka's complete works. In the second compartment were the books of the epigones and authors he called the Horde, who he essentially saw as his enemies. In the third compartment were his own books and his plans for future books, which he saw as a game and also as a business, a game insofar as he derived pleasure from writing, a pleasure similar to that of the detective on the heels of the killer, and a business insofar as the publication of his books helped to augment, however modestly, his doorman's pay."

"...and a little gravel path that crunched underfoot, a noise that set one's nerves or nervelets on edge."

" of the anxiety of time, because now they had more than enough time, which is perhaps what distinguishes a democracy, spare time, surplus time, time to read and time to think..."

Saturday, April 18, 2009

To Abraham Lincoln Issue #4

You're highly entertaining, Abe--hilarious and lyrically dense at times; at others, merely amusing. (Rarer still, flatly ironic.) I like a journal low on production cost but still attractive, with the focus squarely placed on the poetry. I'm a little wary of the similarity of voice inside you, as if the poets solicited wrote their pieces with an aim to please you. I've read other work by Sandra Simonds for example and it sounds a little different from the work of hers featured in here. Is it legitimate to criticize you for Orville Redenbachering? ("Do one thing and do it better than anyone else.") Perhaps not.

Highlights: Mel Nichols' pantoum, "Confessions of a Pioneer Woman"; Jennifer Garcia's "B=R=E=A=T=H+E"; Elizabeth Bachinsky's "Bonus!"; Kendra Grant Malone's "It Meant the World to Me Really"; and of course, PANEL's "The Unknown Flarfist".

"I have a rule about putting Scooby's doo on my tongue
to which I rarely make exceptions." -Mel Nichols

"...Where did all
these fucking trees come from?" - Jennifer Garcia

"Music makes you feel things, and
poop." - Jennifer Garcia

"I saw you behind the cake's largest whitecap." - Sandra Simonds

"...the stars in the arms of the trees." - Sharon Mesmer

"Crap on eagles. Crap on them all." - Bruce Andrews

"Actually the Harpy Eagle is just giving the sloth transport to another part of the rainforest. The sloth just climbed up that limb so the eagle could get to him easier, kinda like hailing for a taxi cab." - Bruce Andrews

Saturday, April 11, 2009

To the Dublin Review, RE: Issue #34

You are worth every single shilling it takes to get you across the ocean and into my garage in Miami. I may even--and I so rarely do this--renew my subscription.

"As I'm leaving the poetry reading a colleague tells me that I have the air of someone always about to leave. Which strikes me as possibly being true. It's maybe the beard. And the pockets stuffed with books and sweets, and pens. And the little suitcase. And the overcoat."
-Ian Sansom, "Diary of 2008"

abibliophobia - "fear of running out of books"

"The Greek word skandalizein comes from a verb that means "to limp." What does a lame person resemble? To someone following a person limping it appears that the person continually collides with his or her own shadow."
-from Rene Girard's "I See Satan Fall Like Lightning", quoted by Sansom

"Ice cream is a good indicator of happiness."

"I have forgotten to cancel the milk."
-Ian Sansom [They still have milk delivered in Northern Ireland - Ed.]

Thursday 21 August: Daughter says, apropos of nothing, 'I have a fagina.' Younger son, inspired by the Olympics, stands on chair with pants and trousers off and says, 'The Willy Olympics!'
-Ian Sansom

"For me, a signal frustration in trying to read Kafka with college students is that it is next to impossible to get them to see that Kafka is funny. Nor to appreciate the way funniness is bound up with the power of his stories. Because, of course, great short stories and great jokes have a lot in common. Both depend on what communications theorists sometimes call exfomation, which is a certain quantity of vital information removed from but evoked by a communication in such a way as to cause a kind of explosion of associative connections within the recipient. This is probably why the effect of both short stories and jokes often feels sudden and percussive, like the venting of a long-stuck valve."
-David Foster Wallace, quoted by Ian Sansom

This poem can name only ten
famous Belgians--Herge, Simenon,
Jacques Brel, Django Reinhardt,
Eddie Merckx, Magritte,
Audrey Hepburn, Kim Clijsters,
Justine Henin, and Adolphe Sax...
-Ian Sansom

"Younger son says, on going to bed, 'I'm having puberty early.' He's 9."

BTW: 3/4 of the way down with "2666". Can see the finish line...

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

To Charlie Coté, RE: "Flying for the Window"

I really admire the stance your book takes, Charlie; how it asserts the known in the face of grief, a.k.a. the unknown. In your son's absence, you've examined other things more closely--crabapples, oak trees, birds--and let them be as they are, rather than investing them with more meaning than they're capable of handling. I learned much more about you than about Charlie, Jr., and that's a major component of the sadness of the book--that there was much about your son that was a mystery to you, too, a fact which the poems communicate with heart-aching precision. All of us are mysteries even to the people who love us and know us best, I think, and especially the young, who often seem to possess some kind of wisdom we've forgotten, even while they're in a state of major flux, the people they'll become waiting in the future. The sheer admiration you have for your son's gifts, so completely absent of jealousy or anger, breathes into the poems a voluminous warmth. Some grief poems rage, threatening to take the house with them; others, like yours, crackle in place, last longer.

True to your title, there is a sense of freedom in the poems, a sense of release and openness:

The world above worlds is a prairie
of clouds and sun glare.
Below, the smoldering hearths
shed smoke like irradiated hair.

I admire how unwilling this poem is (there's more of it, to those of you reading who aren't Charlie) to assert an afterlife. The speaker wants to, but cannot. He can only assert the things he sees, hence why heaven in the lines above sounds like a description from an airplane window. He is mortal, specific, subject to time and space, and by pointing out his mortality, he renders his son's mortality much more tangible. And the poem ends not with a question, but with a simple assertion of fact: "I play his red guitar." These are not philosophical musings, theories, conjectures, polemical argumentations, aesthetic stances, experiments--they are records of a man's experience, and if there is questioning, the questioning itself is part of that record, one person flummoxed/awed/disappointed/saddened by life--something he can't possibly hope to weave into a cogent answer, so he does the next best thing, he copies down the few things he can account for.

In other words, these are poems.

Sunday, March 29, 2009


"Poetry is the one thing that isn't contaminated, the one thing that isn't part of the game....Only poetry--and let me be clear, only some of it--is good for you, only poetry isn't shit."
-Roberto Bolano, 2666

Friday, February 27, 2009

To Charles Bernstein, RE: disfrutes

I bought your book online, at a site specializing in small presses, because they were having a big sale. (I think Kasey Mohammad's blog alerted me to this...) And since you're one of the giants of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E, and as a poet, I feel like I need to have some kind of understanding of every major 20th Century movement, I bought "disfrutes". Which I don't understand, except for as a L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E book and in design terms, as a very handsome little volume that will look awesome on my new book shelf (above). Though let me say that I did "enjoy" (nice pun for you Spanish speakers out there) the book--how much space is utilized on the pages--and I especially enjoyed the pages that had a sonic beauty that could at least, possibly, carry some sort of meaning in terms of conventional usage (even though I know that's not the point). Here are two examples (these are the entire pages and the type is always set right in the middle, in a Courier or similar font, though FYI, the spacing of the words, other than the line-breaks, has been ruined by blogger):


kept and


(as if

half loaved

and then the very last page, which, in its regularity, creates closure:

(and then)



Which is funny if it's language or poetry that's getting the spittle.

To Gerald Stern, RE: Lucky Life

What can I say to you that you don't already know? I envy the 50 years you had to yourself before publishing, your years in Paris with Jack Gilbert (Of all the romantic friendships in the world in all the romantic times, I might choose this one over all of them), and I envy your age, as you, I'm sure, envy mine. "Lucky Life" is so far--and by far--my favorite book of yours. That plain-spokenness of yours, made out of pure Anglo-Saxon as if you'd translated the English into German without our knowing it, is at its height. I love all the names of flowers and animals, the attention paid to the non-human, the fierce sense of justice, particularly in the name of the weak and the small, the greater sense of the cyclical nature of things perhaps gained from having spent so much time walking in circles, taking note of whatever you passed by, and the humor:

…I sat there
discussing the simple pleasures, beekeeping
and massage, poker and ice-cream making,
as well as the more serious matters
such as divorce and bladder infection…

I don't want to pick favorites but "Four Sad Poems on the Delaware" was the one that first sucked me into the book, and the last poem, "Something New" made me glad that I still have so much your work ahead of me, even if the majority of it is behind you. Can we play poker sometime?

While I have been flooding myself with black coffee

More and more I go into the dark
sighing for what I leave behind me
instead of caring for what lies ahead.

If I grow a little arrogan, or a little sleepy,
it is because of the stone I am lying under
and the river I always drag around behind me.

Dear waves, what will you do for me this year?

Thursday, February 26, 2009

To Nam Le, RE: "The Boat"

My favorite and least favorite aspect of your book was its ambition. I love, perhaps adore, the first and last stories (especially the first, which I first read in Zoetrope by accident and was struck dumb by it), and I love how they interconnect: the story the protagonist writes for his workshop becomes the last story (“The Boat”), and despite the fact that it’s destroyed, we get to read it (or something like it). And having the courage to write a story about an MFA student—when you’re unpublished—is admirable, and the results speak for themselves. “Love and Honor and Pity…” will be taught and read for a long time, I think.

The best part of your writing is the pacing. Even in the middle five stories, which on the whole I didn’t like as much, your narratives have precise internal clocks. As someone who tends to rush when writing fiction, I’m very jealous of this ability. The one exception is “Tehran Calling”, but as that was by far my least story, perhaps I’m not fit to judge it.

And I guess here I should explain what I meant about ambition being negative. I have no problem with the “global” aspect of the five middle stories, no problem with you writing as a Columbian sicatrise, a Hiroshima victim, a girl visiting Iran, but for some reason, when you depart to these more foreign locales, your stories become more conventional in construction. “Hiroshima” for instance takes on that lit fiction trope of a first-person speaker who has some sort of poetic pidgeon English (symbolic of translation, displacement, difference, etc.), Uzo’s “Beast of No Nation” is an example, and relies on this conceit to bypass experiential detail. Conversely, “Tehran Calling” has plenty of emotional realism, but I couldn’t help feeling that, in all the flashbacks, you were constantly trying to figure out what the story was really about. The problem with choosing Tehran during Asura as a locale is that when you flash back to Portland, Maine, we get bored. Besides the fact that I didn’t think I needed to go back to the U.S. at all—I didn’t need to didactically understand all of Sarah’s feelings, in other words.

But I think that’s enough of what I didn’t like, because you’re too good a writer. And I can tell by the way you write that you want to be capital “G” great (back to David Orr!) and I think you will be.

Monday, February 23, 2009

To David Orr, RE: "The Great(ness) Game" in the NYT Book Review, 2/22/09

I would have loved to have substituted you as author of this article, David, with someone like Anthony Lane. In other words, someone who would enjoy poking fun at an establishment that openly frets at its potential "greatness", instead of asserting that "poetry needs greatness" and then defining "greatness" in large part as a costume party, as you do in this essay, without so much as a wink. No one in our community but you I think has a conception of Elizabeth Bishop as anything other than capital G "Great." And "Great" defined as: she left behind a fairly thick collection of Great poems. The rest of us, David, have left behind the other ridiculous boys-club criteria--hence why those of us who never met Robert Lowell are underwhelmed by everything he did after "Life Studies." Are we still an undemocratic "guild"? Absolutely. Do we still tend to favor interesting biographical notes over the work itself? Of course, and even more reason to write a satirical piece about us, from someone very much on the inside, instead of making yourself sound ridiculous by asserting that if "you simply look back and forth fast enough between [Lowell and Bishop] while squinting, it's possible to see a single Great Poet staring back at you." Is there any irony in that assertion? I hope so, but as someone who loves and appreciates irony, I wasn't getting a very strong reading.

And even worse, this article ends in some kind of "boo hoo" about contemporary American poets lionizing foreign poets. In the words of Seth Meyer, "Really, David?" That's what keeps you up at night vis-a-vis American poetry? That we worship foreign language poets too much? Really? That's our problem?

And what is this obsession of American poets to fix American poetry? Am I the only one who doesn't think it's broken?

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

To Susan Sontag, RE: "Against Interpretation"

I read this in college and read it again today, and one part felt close to the way I see things at the moment, close enough to copy it down here: "...interpretation is the revenge of the intellect upon art. Even more. It is the revenge of the intellect upon the world. To interpret is to impoverish, to deplete the world--in order to set up a shadow world of 'meanings.' It is to turn the world into this world. ("This world"! As if there were any other.)

I could say more but I have some fiction to write. Nam Le's "The Boat" will be next. I have two stories left in the collection to read.

Friday, January 30, 2009

To: Michael Robbins, RE: "Alien vs. Predator", Poem in The New Yorker, Jan. 12, 2009


Someone told me about your poem when I was running a workshop on "Inscrutability in Poetry" at the Palm Beach Poetry Festival last week. At that point, I'd seen the title in the table of contents but hadn't read it--I have a subscription but with the festival coming up I'd fallen behind in reading it. I loved the title; I mean, how can a poem called "Alien vs. Predator" be bad? and made a mental note to read it, but again forgot about it until I came across your comment on Kenny's G. "it's always a bad time for poetry" thread in Harriet.

So now I've read it--several times in fact. I even printed it out and put it into a notebook I keep of poems that I think will be useful for teaching because I think the publishing of your poem represents a notable shift in the art-form. It's not that I think "AvP" is radically new or successfully performs any unheard of poetic operation (though I think it carves out a nice niche for itself somewhere under the wings of Mattea Harvey, Dean Young, and K. Silem Mohammad), nor do I think the poem's notably fantastic (though I really admire the music from "I fight the comets" to "I sleep on meat."). It's a good poem, one I feel lucky to have gotten to share with you, and one that made me want to try to get a little more "avantish" (as you refer to it) in my own work, even though I know that's probably not going to happen. I think, in the end, our poems choose us rather than the other way around, and experimental/conceptual poetry (which I think your poem harkens towards but doesn't--admirably--go all the way) knows that I don't love it enough to write it. For instance, I really appreciate what Kenny G. does, and I think it's important and necessary, but I know that I'll never become a vessel for language to the degree that he dictates. Or should I say I think of myself as a different kind of vessel. Or should I say that I want to risk cliche and sentimentality. Or should I say that I believe poets like Gerald Stern and Martin Espada when they claim to be "truth-tellers." How old fashioned, but when I heard them say it, I believed them, and like Stanley Fish says, "Theories are something you can have, but beliefs have you."

I wondered reading "AvP" what beliefs you have and what theories? (And I don't pose that question in any argumentive sense, as if I already had some pat answer like, "None, I bet!" or "Whatever your graduate professors gave you!") I read the poem almost like a list of likes/dislikes, as in "Rilke, Tibetans, Buju Banton, staying up all night, pop culture = good" and "Bible, Nature imagery, animal world = bad". And in that sense, your poem was an ars poetica that dovetailed with what you've said in your interviews, and it dovetails with a lot of contemporary poetry that seeks to overcome the tired subject matters of our high school anthologies. And (here's one of my main points) it is decidely NOT the kind of poem that the New Yorker publishes. Or should I say, had published until Paul Muldoon came around. And this is where I think your poem represents a shift.

You're a young poet, with no published full-lenth manuscript, writing in an ultra-modern diction, so when the Establishment (New Yorker) taps you, it's tapping your entire ethos/zeitgest/demographic, etc. which I think in the future will become a water-mark for when poetry shifted wholly out of the 20th Century. (Let me also say I don't believe in these linear narratives of poetry, especially not now, when poetry's more diverse than ever, but linear narratives of the art form will continue to be constructed anyway and that's what I'm commenting on). And here's my question: did you mean to do that? Or did you just dictate what the poem was telling you to do?

To Anne Carson, RE: "MOLY: Variations on the Right to Remain Silent", an article in the journal "A Public Space", Issue No. 7

Ms. Carson,

Thank you for this essay, which, like most of your poetry, is violently direct even while tackling subject matter that is inherently indirect. Your writing style invokes mystery while retaining clarity, and I guess that's why you're so good at writing about the ineffable.

“In his tower overlooking the river Neckar, Hölderlin had a piano that he sometimes played so hard he broke the keys. But there were quiet days when he would just play and tilt back his head and sing. Those who heard said they could not tell, though they listened, what language it was.” -Anne Carson

“Often enough I tried language, often enough I tried song, but they didn’t hear you.”
- Hölderlin

“After all what else is one’s own language but a gigantic cacophonous cliché. Nothing has not been said before. The templates are set. Adam long ago named all the creatures. Reality is in chains.” -AC

“When Francis Bacon approaches a white canvas its empty surface is already filled with the whole history of painting up to that moment, it is a compaction of all the cliches of representation already extant in the painter’s world…” -AC

“…the place inside a word where it falls silent in its own presence.” –AC

“Thousands of words went back and forth between Joan [of Arc] and her judges during the months of her inquisition; many of them are available to us in some form. But Joan herself was illiterate. She spoke Middle French at her trial, whose minutes were transcribed by a notary and later translated into Latin by one of her judges. This process involved not only the transposition of Joan’s direct responses into indirect speech and of her French idioms into the Latin of juridical protocol but also deliberate falsification of some of her answers in such a way as to justify her condemnation (this was revealed at the retrial twenty-five years after her death). Yet these many layers of official distance separating us from what Joan said are just an aftereffect of the one big original distance that separates Joan herself from her sentences.” -AC

“….when he invokes the language of the gods Homer usually tells you the mortal translation too. Here he does not. He wants this word to fall silent. Here are four letters of the alphabet, you can pronounce them but you cannot define, possess, or make use of them.” -AC

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

To: Cesar Aira, RE: "An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter"

Mr. Aira,

Books like this rarely get written in the United States, I think perhaps due to our literary obsession with some fictional thing called "The Great American Novel", one of the stupidest concepts my country has come up with. I Googled the phrase "book with 87 pages" and these are the titles that came up: "Mormonism and Masonry" by E. Cecil McGavin, "Sculpture" by David Smith (a book of photography), "Learning and Doing Mathematics: Using Polya's Problem Solving Methods for Learning and Teaching" by John Mason, "How to Build a Bugproof Room" by Angus Glas, "Denim Redesign" by some organization called "Indigo Junction", "The German Aircraft Power Against English Naval Power" no author and in Romanian, and "The Embroidery of Roses", also with no author. None of these sounds like a memorable read. (Though "Angus Glas" is a name I may appropriate for a character someday, and I am a little bit interested in the connection between Mormonism and Masonry...) Perhaps my search function was crude, but I think my conclusion is sound. Anything under 150 pages inevitably gets thrown into some kind of larger collection of stories, and that novella length (90 pgs I was taught in high school, perhaps around the time I read "Billy Budd"), at least to me, has been generally discouraged. I also can't see my fiction professors approving your story arc: basic background information on the painter Rugendas, followed by poetic descriptions of his horseback trip through the Cordilleras, an in-depth depiction of him being struck twice by lighting, his recovery and disfigurement, and ending with his painting of an Indian raid. True, the lightning strike changes Rugendas, falls almost exactly at the middle of the story, and divides his youth from his adulthood--beautiful symmetry; but nothing is resolved about Rugendas, or his relationship with Krause. The story, as the title explains, is an episode, though I imagined if it were part of a serialized TV show about Rugendas, it would be split into two episodes: Lightning, Indians. And it would be expensive to produce, if any effort were made to reproduce the descriptions you provide of both (1) the "real" landscape and (2) Rugendas' depiction of it; in fact, one of the points you made to me is that there is no difference between the two. At various points, the painters feel that what they're seeing is too fantastic to be considered "realistic" once transferred to canvas, and they opt to almost dumb down their paintings. "We should draw it, they said. But who would believe it?" (p. 15)

There's a real vitality to the descriptions that is anti-Hemingway: "The company of volcanos gave the sky interiors. Dawn and dusk were vast optical explosions, drawn out by the silence. Slingshots and gunshots of sunlight rebounded into every recess. Grey expanses hung out to dry forever in colossal silence; airshafts voluminous as oceans." (p. 14) With some books I have trouble really envisioning the places being described. Instead, I simply graft them onto something I already know. For instance, in Tom Perrotta's "Little Children", I kept imagining the playground scenes happening in the South End in Boston, at the playground closest to my sister's home. All the images I had reading your book were utterly new to me, and that's an amazing gift. I'll end with some other passages of yours I couldn't help jotting down:

"What the world was saying was the world." (78)
"They wondered at the assembly of silences and air." (?)
"The morning was truly glorious, perfect for a raid." (60)
"As for the landscape, it remained indifferent. The catastrophe simply came in one side and went out the other." (77)

Monday, January 26, 2009

To K. Silem Mohammad, RE: "Breathalyzer"


I discovered your blog {LIME TREE} via Linh Dinh on the Harriet blog and was impressed with it so I bought your book, "Breathalyzer" (link to the book in the title). In the middle of reading it, I was interning at the Palm Beach Poetry Festival and got into an extended discussion about inscrutability in contemporary poetry (a dead horse probably but we enjoyed it) and I showed everyone your poem "Working Class Bambi Fragmentation" which I said falls into the "scrutable" category because the reader knows from the outset that the poem is a collection of fragments and so reads it that way, mining it for whatever nuggets s/he can get. Other poems also struck me as being composed of fragments, too, but since they were presented as if joined by syntax, I felt I had to try to make meaningful connections between them (like reading Berrigan's "Sonnets") and wasn't always able to. During the festival, Dara Wier said, before reading a section of her book-length poem Reverse Rapture, that we shouldn't worry about losing the thread, that the poem was like water so if we feel like we're drowning, don't worry, we'll resurface. Is that the way you feel about your poetry? My guess is "No", but I also got the sense that, unlike a lot of poets, you don't take ownership over the words themselves, only their organization. Thus, we're in the realm of persona poetry, but instead of listening to, say, Herbert White, we're listening to the collective/collected language of the anonymous internet poster, who is in a sense, all of us. Is that your project? Sort of like a Whitmanic "Leaves of {Gr}ass" for the 21st Century? I also get the sense that you're somewhat disgusted with the level of discourse you're reverting to, but feel some sort of need to throw the feces back at the monkeys (so to speak). If so, is it in the name of justice? ("you get what you pay attention to") Or just to provide some sort of mirror? (I'm thinking now of the 'dagguerreotype' poem) Obviously, you can have more than one reason, and one of them is obviously humor b/c so many of the lines are hilarious:

"the way T.S. Eliot's poetry is 'about women's basketball'"
"I'm that eight-hundred pound / gorilla in your mist"

or beautifully weird:

"history a crab crushing a nude female in its claws"
"now darkness swims its last leg of mutton"

I also detected a rebuke of sorts towards poets who insist on beauty/truth (in the Keatsian sense) as the one and only aesthetic:

"Esperanto isn't trying to create a culture-free environment
in the face of overwhelming pressure from outside
we are"


"I want to have a journal but only special people get to dream
all you little faggots that run around drawing anarchy signs
on shit, just let me say that you are a pussy
whoever you are wherever you are
you all stink something awful
nothing gold can stay"

And in other poems you directly address poesy on behalf (it seems) of Flarf in the same way that other marginalized groups addressed the mainstream, daring it to keep them out. Is that fair to say?

Anyway, I enjoyed reading the book and obviously, it got me thinking, so thanks.

TO: Palm Beach Poetry Festival 2009

Saturday, January 17, 2009

To Poets, RE: Flarf

Poets or Literature buffs,

I don't have anything particular to say about it--I'm new to it and the speakers involved have the angles well covered--but if you're at all interested in movements in contemporary poetry, start following K. Silem Mohammad's blog {LIME TREE}, especially the frequent posts about the Flarf collective he's one of the founders of.

To Robert Bolaño, RE: "Nazi Literature in the Americas"


What would I say to you if you could really hear it? I'm not sure. I always tell myself not to be too effusive towards my literary idols, but I always break my promise--sending juvenile, unfinished poems with quaint dedications, like the one I sent to Kevin Young, "Ode to the Curator", written on a tram in Basel, but then later edited into something a little worse. He politely glossed over it in our subsequent correspondence, though, to be honest, I don't regret sending it. I wouldn't like to be the kind of writer who didn't worship other writers, and I think you may have agreed, even though the boys at n+1, who certainly understand your work much better than I ever will, seem to believe that for you, "literature is a helpless, undignified, and not especially pleasant compulsion, like smoking." Which makes sense to me (Smokers are intensely loyal to their brands, right? (I don't smoke.)) and you describe one of the writers in "Nazi Lit of the Americas" in similar terms: "Both reading and humiliation were to be constant features of his life." Your characters all seem resigned to their compulsion to write as if it were an addiction, an addiction that doesn't have any ameliorating effect on them as people, rather the opposite in fact, since for many, it's literature itself that leads them to fascism. "At one point you started and now you can't stop," n+1 goes on to say, and that's certainly true for me, though if you truly believed "lit = smoking" I don't think you would have produced such enabling material. Even in translation, I find your books irresistable, something akin to a narcotic for young writers. Who could not, after reading "The Savage Detectives", not want to be a 17-year-old poet in Mexico City? "The basic Bolaño aporia--literature is all that matters, literature doesn't matter at all..." - n+1. But if it already matters to you, to discover someone who creates characters who would die without it--how can I not want to be one of them also? To wish I'd been born early enough to be inside one of those tangential comparisons you make--"...he was accused of copying Eguren, Salazar Bondy, and Saint-John Perse..."--which, taken together, create not a canon but an entire universe that to be shut out of is almost like never existing. (I mean, if you, the definition of a compulsive reader, didn't see fit to mention a contemporary, what then?) The note n+1 concludes their piece with is sad, but I'm pretty sure you would agree with it: "People read less and less; worse yet, they're right to. It's clear that, besides the occasional small or large check, most writers--ourselves included--write out of vanity and compulsion. One believes in being a writer more it seems than in writing. What is it, again, you once had to say? And who supposedly wanted to hear it?" I have a slightly different take. I think you knew we needed to read these books, that somehow, literature was arriving quickly at its present state of atrophy, and those of us still hanging onto book culture would need a true believer, spefically a true believer who paints, as you do in this book, portraits of other (flawed) true believers. To show us that the life itself is worth living, even if it produces nothing more than its own rituals and rhythms, and may even, possibly, ruin our individual chances at happiness. I'll let you have the last words.

"And in the third novel, The Mute Girl, the major cities of Brazil are like enormous skeletons, while the villages are like little children's skeletons, and sometimes even the words are transformed into bones."

"Death found him composing the posthumous works of his heteronyms."

"Why are so many Nazis still alive? Take Hess, for example, who would have made it to a hundred if he hadn't committed suicide. What makes them live so long? What makes them almost immortal? The blood they spilled? The flight of the Book? A new level of consciousness? The Charismatic Church of California went underground. A labyrinth where Ernst and Leni went on fucking, unable to uncouple, like a pair of dogs on fire in a valley of sheep."

"He once wrote that penitentiaries and jail cells had been his Mississippi."

"...a day in 1973, fading irretrievably. And during the night Emilio Stevens gets up like a sleepwalker, perhaps he has slept with Maria Venegas, perhaps not, at any rate he gets up without hesitation, like a sleepwalker, and goes to the aunt's room, hearing the motor of a car approaching the house, and then he cuts the aunt's throat, no, he stabs her in the heart, it's cleaner, quicker; he covers her mouth and plunges the knife into her heart, then he goes down and opens the door, and two men come into the house that belongs to the stars of Juan Cherniakovski's poetry workshop, and the fucked-up night comes into the house and then it goes out again, almost straight away, the night comes in, and out it goes, swift and efficient."

Tuesday, January 13, 2009


Just realized my last post on Mark Strand is a "blizzard of hyperbole". I'll try to avoid that in the future, but the book is really very lovely. (oops...)

Monday, January 12, 2009

"A Blizzard of One" - Mark Strand

Because I believe that form and meaning are inseparable, I'll just talk about the form: a loose iambic meter that doesn’t break syllabically or accentually but by phrase. Comes from years of writing iambic pentameter, then letting out the reins a little. Except of course for the villanelles, the second of which is sublime. “Some Last Words” = sublime. Only poem I don’t like is the one for Joseph Brodsky—the stuff about “where the self goes” is pretty uninteresting. Love the Delirium Waltz pantoums, especially the first one. And in the last one, the way he makes the phrases interact/interconnect is amazing.

Rand Report on Contemporary Art

Highlights from the Rand Contemporary Report on Contemporary Art (2004):

-75% of American art museums were founded after World War II, yet a majority of the artists shown in them were dead before the end of World War II

-“indirect government support for the arts through tax policies provides considerably more funding for the arts than does direct funding.”

-“Because judgments of aesthetic quality are increasingly esoteric, aestheticism has dramatically limited the fraction of the population that takes part in the arts discourse.”

-“According to recent estimates, there are 700-800 galleries and museums in New York City today” {4 some years later, I wonder if there are more?}

-“And for all the talk about ‘supercollectors’ like Charles Saatchi, who can shape entire arts market segments, no collector today comes close to the spending power of royal patrons and early capitalist tycoons”
-400,000 serious collectors worldwide who spend at least $10,000/yr on art
-250-350 very serious collectors (collection worth worth at least $1million)
-Sotheby’s has 100,000 serious private clients
-but only 20 to 30 people who buy $5 million paintings and 10 to 15 for those over $10 million

-65% of living artists are designers
-3/4 of all profressional artists hold non-arts jobs at least part of the time
-median annual income from art of $718
-only 5% earn over $10K from art

-“California passed a law requiring artists to receive a percentage of subsequent sales of their work, but it is rarely if ever enforced.” [!]

Monday, January 5, 2009

Like You'd Understand, Anyway - by Jim Shepard

Reminded me that the verb “to be” and all of its iterations is entirely pleasant, wholly useful, and utterly welcome in prose. In a more macro sense, the grammatical structure of the sentences of this book puts an emphasis on clarity, and thus you see an overabundance of subject-verb construction; long, sinuous trains of clauses are rare. Why is this? I think it’s because these stories are so data-heavy that they require a grammar that gets out of the way. Shephard lists at least 50 non-fiction books in his Acknowledgements, but it seems like more in the stories. Here are the settings of the stories, in the order they appear: Chernobyl disaster, Connecticut semi-present day, Roman occupied Briton circa 400 C.E., South Texas present-day, Tibet in the 30’s, Alaska 1958, Australia 1848, Greco-Persian wars, Russian space program 1963, Summer camp in New England circa 1960’s, and Paris during the French Revolution. And all of them contain the kind of micro-detail we associate with literary fiction, like this from “Hadrien’s Wall”, describing a clerk working on a cold day: “The peat fire barely warms itself. The other clerk and I continually blow on our hands, and the papyrus cracks from the chill if one presses too hard.” Of course, there’s nothing spectacular about these two sentences, except that no one who hadn’t read several books about life on Hadrien’s Wall in 400 C.E. could have written them. Who even knew there were clerks working at Hadrien’s Wall? The stories never feel didactic though, as every narrator (there’s a protagonist in every one speaking in the first-person) has some compulsion for detail, as well as his or her share of familial issues. Most of the blurbs for the book mention this in one way or another (when they’re not spouting effusive praise that is as general and bland as the book itself is specific and exciting): “These wildly diverse stories share a fascination with the inevitable cost of famlilial obligation and the inescabale fallout from disaster, both natural and man-made” – Los Angeles Times Book Review. Well, yes, but the “cost” of familial obligation is only explored in one story, the final one, titled “Sans Farine” and concerning the fortunes of an executioner during the French Revolution (more on that in a second); the rest explore different aspects of familial relationships. There is a preoccuption with disaster, but here’s what’s interesting about it: it’s not tied to the familial conflict, even metophorically. I remember seeing “Lost in Space” (with Heather Graham, William Hurt, and that guy who played Joey in Friends) in a theater in Mexico and thinking that the disasters that befall the family in space are all nothing more than extended metaphors for their own internal conflict. Shepard’s disasters aren’t like that. They happen concurrently with family conflict sometimes but don’t reveal anything about them meaning-wise, and the protagonists deal with them in addition to (but usually separately from) whatever brother-father-wife problems they’re having. The only relation is that both are happening to the protagonist; otherwise, there’s no relation. And that treatment strikes me as exceedingly realistic, and therefore valuable in the sense of literature enacting common human difficulties and producing a sense of pathos in the reader. Is that old-fashioned?
One more note (and this entry is already much longer than I planned) on the final story “Sans Farine”. Is it the BEST story in the collection? Not sure that I could choose, but I’m mentioning it because besides being a great depiction of a marriage falling apart, it seemed to have a lot to say about the American Empire during the Bush years. Other stories did too, as they often entered the inner lives of characters in positions of power (Nazi’s, soldiers in the employ of the Roman Empire, Australian adventurers), but the main character of “Sans Farine,” as an unenthusiastic executioner during the fall of a monarchy, the Reign of Terror and the rise of the Republic, has more to say than others. “It was a busy time for the executioner,” the narrator says, almost echoing that Kung-Fu intro to GZA’s “Liquid Swords.” And then this, which sounds like it could have come from the head of any thoughtful American citizen circa 2005: “We both remembered a time…when I’d been of a sudden possessed by an ungovernable rage with all of those in power who had brought our nation to her present catastrophe, and had resolved to leave Paris…But my passion had subsided, and I’d understood just a bit of what such a decision would involve. Was everyone to abandon his post every time the country took a turn for the worse? Was it left to each servant of the state to decide which laws he would carry out, and which he would not? Did anyone but the highest ministers have sufficient information on which to base their opinions?”
Here are a few more that seemed drenched in their contemporary atmosphere:
“…he fell victim to that belief of monarchs that expenditure should not be governed by revenue, but revenue instead by expenditure.”
“That nation was in peril, and what constitutional safeguards remained had to make way for emergency measures.”
“The Law of Suspects was a reminder to the populace that a nation at war might have to exterminate liberty in order to save it.”
“Histrionic patriotism was the only requisite for public speaking”
“I envision new laws abolishing the accused’s right to any defense; the frightened seeking to outpace one another with the zeal and homicidal efficiency of their patiotism; and prisoners condemned in groups, identities muddled in the confusion, as sons die in the names of fathers, alongside entire families decimated by misspellings and clerical errors.” (That last part very reminiscent of the mistakes I’ve read about on the terrorist watch list.)
Am I reading too much into it? Perhaps.