Story, via the Body

 

Narrative should be sensitive to the ways in which telling a story, believing a story, seeing yourself in a story—all that depends on an ability that can be hard to maintain when your body is changing, brain fogged, pain deep

 

–Zach Savich,  “Body Map: Memoirs of the Sick

Well said, Zach.  Couldn’t agree more.

On Writing and the Will

Here’s something Thomas Carlyle said about Coleridge:

 

His cardinal sin is that he wants will. He has no resolution. He shrinks from pain or labour in any of its shapes. …He would do with all his heart, but he knows he dares not. The conversation of the man is much as I anticipated — a forest of thoughts, some true, many false, more part dubious, all of them ingenious in some degree, often in a high degree. But there is no method in his talk; he wanders like a man sailing among many currents, whithersoever his lazy mind directs him; … I reckon him a man of great and useless genius: a strange, not at all a great man.

According to Wikiquote (yeah, I know, it’s Wiki, Font of Accuracy it ain’t), Carlyle wrote this in a letter to his brother on June 24, 1824.  (Hey, that’s 190 years ago today!  No wonder someone posted this on Twitter!  Har!  I iz genius cat!)  So this is a private meditation on Coleridge’s personality, not a book blurb–not something Coleridge would have found in a review of one of his books, not what he would have chanced across in a magazine and smiled a quiet, bitter smile at and muttered, “Thanks, Tom,” after he inhaled to suck up his own drool.  (That’s another happy detail that Carlyle noted: Coleridge, constantly fighting to keep spit inside his mouth.)  But still, wow, what a cutting, merciless summation of a person’s existence.  What would drive one author to say this about another?  Is it a young man tearing down the idolatry surrounding an older man?  (In 1824, Coleridge would have been 52, and Carlyle, 29.)  Is it the vicious drumbeat of Carlyle’s Great Man theory, twenty years before he officially formulated it, bearing down on the philosopher’s mind, compelling him to devalue any thinker who doesn’t dominate or colonize, influence or convert by force?  Yeah, I’d love to jump into readers’ minds, too, grab them by the brain stem and yank until they start paying attention to me.  Constraint is such an easy way to gain notoriety, but then, don’t you also need magic powers or a white face or money or the muzzle of a gun?

Words and ideas are such slippery creatures, Mr. Carlyle.  How is one supposed to know what a Great Idea is, unless the definition is tethered to the model of the Great Man?  Frankly, I don’t consider drifting among many currents to be laziness.  Fickleness, maybe, but the unfocused urges of the unconscious are nothing to be sneezed at.  True, Coleridge’s fame came to him in large part because of abandoned poems he decided to publish as “fragments”–purposefully incomplete, like newly constructed ruins.  And yet that aesthetic sleight-of-hand (which I think is one of the greatest cons in Western poetry–think of it! being able to collect the scraps of old pieces and get them in print as if you completely meant to do it) introduced stunning images and words and lines that still ferment in the minds of writers.  Know what I can recite off the top of my head? “In Xanadu did Kubla Khan / A stately pleasure dome decree.”  In Seattle a few years ago, I saw an African-American spoken-word poet named Christabel.  I can still hear her intoning her own name in one of her pieces…Om….Om…Om Christabel.  Om Christabel.  Artists feel empowered by the imaginings of Coleridge’s “lazy” mind.  Yours?  Not so much.

Want to know what I remember about you, Thomas Carlyle?

Great Man Theory.

That’s not even a sentence.  How useless.

Those Fickle Dreams from Fairyland…

Had a dream last night that I was in a pastor in charge of a small children’s Halloween party.  I was obsessed with writing down party instructions on every possible surface, including the passenger door of my car.  DO NOT forget a flashlight! I kept scrawling over and over in fluorescent yellow marker.  Suddenly I realized I probably shouldn’t write the private details of my life on my car.  I started erasing words and lines and then whole sentences, and discovered that if I erased in one place the same words disappeared everywhere else.  But erasing anything also took away the car’s identity.  The chrome letters that spelled out make and model vanished.  What was that information again?  Where did I get this car?  Was it my grandmother’s Buick, the one with the mushy steering that my friends and I had navigated through a snowstorm?  The old man’s Chrysler, acquired through my father, that had its stereo stolen twice and then was spirited away whole one night, only to wind up totaled in another part of the city?  I couldn’t tell.  Both cars were boxy and a sort of brownish maroon, like the covers of 1950s encyclopedias.  They were hand-me-downs that I never wanted, but I learned to make do.  The words, though.  The words kept adding up and blowing away and I could never tell what was important and what wasn’t.

So what does this mean?  Is it an anxiety dream about writing in general?  About the “vehicle” that sends my work out into the world?  Is it just my Mommy side unable to quiet itself, continuously generating lists for my son’s teachers to consult?  I’m not sure.  I will say, though, that this dream filled me with unspeakable dread, and I’d love to know where that awful feeling of terror came from.

Ideas?  Insights?  Analysis?  Want to share a dream of your own?  The comments page awaits…

Good Writing Break: Post-Summer Solstice Edition

Hey, fickle readers!   I’ve been involved with end-of-the-school-year festivities. (Yeah, they kept Little Fickle in school till Friday.  This is what happens when it snows the entire month of February.  Friggin’ winter.) But now I’m back to cheer about great writing and whine and gnash my teeth about everything else.  (Okay, sometimes good writing makes me do that, too.  But never mind.)  So let’s get things started…

Hey, didya know it’s summer?

Woo-hoo!  Sweat and socklessness for at least two months!  All hail the Goddess of Skin and Warm Weather!!!!

First, a new poetry venue: Tinderbox Poetry Journal, which not only has an attractive site (layout counts–right, Editors of the World?), it also has an impressive lineup of work in its debut issue.  For me, standouts are “In the Cottonwoods,” a contemporary twist on Romantic naturalism from Ray Gonzalez (note a hint of “Ode to a Nightingale” in the second stanza); “The Schooner,” Ed Bok Lee’s brutal, visionary “meta-translation” so brilliant it makes me want to put my head through a wall (seriously, I took a look at the poem “The Schooner” is based on and found it so beyond my skill level I couldn’t even bring myself to bury my self-pity in a pint of Ben and Jerry’s); “News,” Emily Yoon’s gorgeous elegy for the South Korean ferry that sunk on April 16, 2014; and “After the Death of a Friend, I Feel Enlightened for Approximately Three Days,” yet another amazing piece from the thoroughly wonderful Kelli Russell Agodon.  (That title alone should earn her a standing ovation.)  There’s quite a bit more to explore at this site, and I must say (in a very high-Edwardian manner) that if this first issue is indicative of the future of Tinderbox, then I shall surely be following the publication’s further endeavors with great anticipation.  Bravo, editors!

Next, an old favorite of mine, inkscrawl, has just brought out its seventh issue.  This particular journal focuses on short speculative poems (10 lines or less) and is like a breath of fresh air, especially when you’re writing long, involved prose or just generally find your brain engorged with the usual crap the world tends to wallow in.  Try Sonya Taafe’s “Facilior,” Jonel Abellanosa’s “Nonfiction,” Kendall Evans’s “Down the Black Sky,” and Noel Sloboda’s “My To Undo List.”  To describe each poem in detail would have me typing a week’s worth of posts (and my posts ain’t short), but all of these pieces manage to take their respective corners of the speculative–myth, magic, space and time–and nudge those boundaries outward with elegance and wit.  If you crave a mental dip in the pool or a short getaway to someplace totally unfamiliar, inkscrawl is a great place to find those much-needed exit doors.

And one last bonus site!  Roxane Gay’s Tumblr blog is a little piece of writing heaven.  There are few writers out there these days who can so effortlessly chronicle the meanderings of the human psyche.  At least one recent post contains material from an article of hers that got bumped, which is reason enough to follow her blog, but she’s also something of a multimedia artist, posting pics of what she discovered during the day and what she’s cooking for dinner.  Everything coalesces like some transcendent mosaic of the mind, and it’s all right there, for everyone, on the Internet.  Let me tell ya, there’s a reason why random strangers that follow Gay on Twitter want to cook her pancakes the second she asks.  She’s beyond amazing.  I want more.

Good Website Break: The ARE YOU FREAKIN’ KIDDING ME??? Edition

Okay, I admit the title of this post is a bit of a tease.  There are two parts, really.  The Good Website part and the Part That Will Cause Reasonable People’s Heads to Explode.

Everybody ready?  Great.

First, the Good Website stuff:  I just recently discovered this website (which, like everything I find out about in my old age, has actually been around for a while) called People of Color in European Art History.  (Actually, what I just linked is the original Tumblr site; there is also medievalpoc.org now, which boasts better searching capabilities and a cleaner look.)  The blogger behind the medievalpoc project began with a simple goal: to create an online collection of European visual art depicting people of color.  Pieces featured on the blog date from the fall of the Roman empire through the eighteenth century, with some ancient works from Greece, Egypt, and Celtic cultures thrown in.  The most common type of post on medievalpoc contains a photo of a painting, sculpture, or other type of art; information on the title, artist, and approximate date of the piece; and links to related scholarly sources.

That’s basically all there is to the site–art plus information.  But what an impact art plus information makes.  The medievalpoc blogrunner says that she wants to challenge the traditional perspectives on art history that created (and continue to create) a vision of an all-white Europe before the Enlightenment.  She points to the destructive power that modern racism has had over media portrayals of race in European countries and seeks to revise such a distorted image–and fantasy versions of that image, where all-white casts of characters are the norm–with a historically accurate visual narrative.

“Visual narrative” is, I think, a good way to describe the experience of visiting the site.  Certainly, that’s what I sense when I scroll through image after image and see brown-skinned angels, Black Madonnas, South Asian nobility, and others I’m surprised to see in European contexts.  At medievalpoc, not only are you presented with an easily accessible online resource about works of art that often are left off art history syllabi, you absorb a whole story told in faces, clothing, positions, and gestures, an account of medieval society that fills in the countless gaps left in the written record because of poverty, illiteracy, and oppression.

Go spend a while on this site.  The break from the same-old, age-old, narrow representations of Western culture is definitely worth it.

 

And now…

 

…ugh…

 

…on to the second part:

 

You know how I said medievalpoc is a blog of art plus information?

How do you think some people have responded?

 

Take a guess!  I’ll wait.

So what do you think?

 

If you said, “with slander, pornographic emails, breaches of privacy, and death threats,” you’re right!

Yes, the medievalpoc blogrunner reports that in the past six to eight weeks, Internet trolls, stalkers, and members of white supremacist groups have been systematically harassing her and her family and friends over the content of her blog.  Which, as I’ve said already, is art plus information.

Art plus information made these pathetic, hateful, cowardly shitbags even try to organize a confrontation at a convention where the woman behind medievalpoc was scheduled to appear.  (Luckily, the security on hand at the con was enough to prevent anything from happening.)

Christ.

To all those pathetic, hateful, cowardly shitbags out there, I say this: You do realize, don’t you, that Western scholarship has known for a long, LONG time that non-white Europeans existed in the Middle Ages?  Hell, anyone who’s ever read Shakespeare (not that I’m accusing you Internet vermin of that) know that Europe had people of color.

Here are five names I can rattle off the top of my head without even trying: Othello, Aaron, the Prince of Morocco, Sycorax, and Caliban.  All characters that Shakespeare wrote about.  All characters who are non-white.

And ANYONE who has even the teensiest familiarity with the history of Spain would know that Muslims from North Africa controlled most of the country during the Middle Ages.

North African Muslims = not white people.

So what the hell, Internet stalkers???  We’ve already had the War on Scientific Facts, on Cultural Facts, on Political Facts, and even on Historical Facts.  Do we have to have a War on Artifacts, too?

It’s ART, for Christ’s sake!!!  It’s THERE!!  Do you see it?  If you don’t want to gaze upon something that defies your precious, imaginary vision of a golden age of whiteness, TURN YOUR FRIGGIN’ COMPUTERS OFF!!!

For once, do everyone in the world a favor.

And, for everyone else out there in Internetland: please support medievalpoc.  Don’t let the Dumbass Posse for Ignorance,  Bigotry and Censorship let a fellow online citizen get bullied out of doing this vastly important work.

Fun with Shakespeare and the World Cup!

Mya Gosling, creator of goodticklebrain.com, has come up with yet another ingenious way to squeeze Shakespeare into pop culture: match teams in the World Cup to Shakespeare’s plays!  I have no knowledge of the World Cup, but I still say it’s brilliant.  Study the handy Shakespeare-team key here, and then move on to her further analysis in the group posts.  I’m rooting for Bosnia and Herzegovina, because the Windsor Falstaff always gets shit for not being quite as dignified (!) as the Lancastrian Falstaff.  Plus The Merry Wives of Windsor features smart, kick-ass, plot-hatching matrons.  Go, middle aged women of Windsor!

Mighty Tiny Bill would be proud of you, Mya!  Except that he’s still languishing away in his Original Packaging.  And he’s not coming out until he stops calling me a stinking stewed prune.  (Really, he’s just mad that it’s hotter than his buck-basket in here today.  But a girl has to defend herself against accusations of prunehood…)

Good Writing Break: Stuff that Astounds Me, and Stuff I Don’t Get But I’m Still Loving

I gotta say, despite the fact that I’m an old coot and often put my foot in my mouth in the worst way possible, this Twitter thing has been pointing me toward a lot of good writing.  For example: poet and prose author Sofia Samatar tweeted some links to a journal she edits called Interfictions Online , which publishes genre-breaching work that, according to their indiegogo page, “confuses the critics because they love it but don’t know what to call it.”

And wouldn’t you know it?  That’s exactly what I felt like when I read this piece by Anil Menon, called “The Jaguar’s Wife.”  I have no idea what happens in this story.  As far as I can tell, the piece reimagines zombies as a sub-species of humans, and explores the boundaries between human and “beast” and how we treat those we see as less than human.  Still, I think I’d have to spend a month or so teasing out all the brilliant details and allusions in the text to get a clear picture of what the story is about.  (Although maybe the point isn’t to get a clear picture in the first place.)  Anyway, bottom line is: I would give my left pinkie toe to be able to write like Menon.  Excellent, excellent stuff.

Another piece I found in Interfictions and absolutely adored is Isabel Yap’s “Life Is Not a Shoujo Manga.”  This is an all-round beautiful essay I just wanted to curl up in and enjoy.  I should say, though, the one thing I was not crazy about was the final paragraph–or, really, the final word.  But, the rest of the piece was so elegant and insightful, so in tune with the dictates of genre and how they interweave with real life, I’m willing to overlook a single word that I don’t care for, or concede that it could just be my pet peeve about this certain type of ending getting in the way (no spoilers; you’ll have to see for yourself what I’m talking about), or understand it could be an in joke about manga, which I know very little about, or…

Well, just read it.  It’s excellent.

(And, if you can, support Interfictions Online.)

Third on the list is a poem, TJ Jarrett’s “At the Repast.”  Now I have to confess a certain oversized dislike of the magazine Poetry, where Jarrett’s piece was published.  In my experience, the journal’s editors tend to focus on Big Names and other forms of hype. Many of the poems I’ve chanced upon in the pages of Poetry have been dull or dry or overly academic or stuff that I’ve seen a million times before.  (Do we really need yet another poem about a heterosexual couple having sex, from the man’s point of view, even if this time they’re doing it against a tree?)  Also–and this probably colors my opinion of Poetry more than anything else–despite the fact that Poetry and their new project, the Poetry Foundation, have an enormous endowment, they still write letters begging for money from unknown poets (me, for instance) even though they wouldn’t touch their work with a ten-foot pole.  (Ironically, they wouldn’t publish Ruth Lilly, either, who gave them their fortune, so maybe they think this is a viable business model.)

Anyway, I found Jarrett’s poem through a link on Twitter, and I gotta say, this is the stuff Poetry should have been publishing 20 years ago.  Jarrett’s piece is the real deal: powerful, profound, and gorgeous.  So Poetry gets a Redemption Point from me.  More important, I found Jarrett’s work, and it is amazing.

Enjoy!

Reading Elliot Rodger, Part 4: A Plea to Responsible Gun Owners

Anyone out there who’s been looking at my analysis of Isla Vista murderer Elliot Rodger’s “manifesto” might be saying to themselves, “Hey, what happened to part 3?”  Well, here’s the deal: since I started examining Rodger’s writing in the hopes of finding something useful to say about mass shooters, we’ve had three more eruptions of gun violence.  Yup, that’s right: three since May 23rd.  The latest just happened today, at an Oregon high school.  Two were killed: the gunman plus one student.  Remember Richard Martinez’s call for “not one more”?  We’ve had seven more since then, and that’s just counting the deaths.  It hasn’t even been a month since Martinez spoke out.

Typically, the NRA goes silent for a while after a mass shooting, before they come roaring back and claim the answer to gun violence is more guns.  At this rate, the NRA won’t be able to trot out a statement at all.  What will they do if we keep having a shooting or more per week?  Will they call for more guns, even as well-intentioned good guys with guns without crisis training get killed because they bravely try to intervene when a mass murderer shows up?

Right now, I don’t care about Elliot Rodger.  I don’t think digging around in Rodger’s psyche is going to help much, beyond showing what narcissism does to insecure egos.  (Yeah, that was my minimally knowledgeable bottom line on Rodger.  The narcissism underlying his misogyny.  Still important, but not so much right now.)

Right now, my prescription for dealing with Rodger and other mass murderers with guns: better gun legislation.

Here’s a little story from my own life:

I spent every Sunday with my mother’s family–my grandparents, my great-grandparents, my aunt and two cousins–in the little mountain village where my mom grew up.  Most of the men in town, including my grandfather, were hunters.  They owned rifles locked away in gun cabinets.  My grandfather was also a World War II vet.  He fought in the Pacific and was part of the force that occupied Tokyo after the war.  He was also a wonderful, loving, and highly protective father and grandfather.  My cousin Jake and I played in his bedroom (Pap was a snorer, so he and my grandmother slept in separate rooms), loved jumping on Pap’s bed, collapsing on it, chasing monsters, and all the other stuff you do when you’re four and your cousin is six.

Pap also slept with a loaded .357 magnum under his pillow.  It was to protect his family from intruders.  Jake loved to talk about Pap’s gun, and how tough Pap was, and how much damage the gun could do to a bad guy.

One Sunday, Jake and I were rolling around on Pap’s bed.  I’m guessing we were playing lava monsters or magic carpet or something like that.  I reached under the pillow and felt a hard object with a strange, bumpy surface.  I slid it out.  I could tell before I had uncovered it completely that I was holding the handle of Pap’s .357, tucked in its leather holster.  Immediately, I let go.

After that, there’s a gap in my memory.

What happened next, my mom filled in, much later in my life: she came to check on us kids (age four and six, remember), and found Jake, gun in hand, playing.  I was in the room, too.  Immediately, my mother made Jake give her the gun, took the gun down to the living room where Pap was reading the newspaper, and told him we were leaving and would never come back until Pap put the gun away for good.  Pap was horrified.  He teared up, he agreed to lock the gun away.  He knew that in an instant, Jake could have been dead.  I could have been dead.  My mother, his darling baby girl that he’d raised through serious illness, could have been dead.  He’d already lost his only son to a childhood accident (not gun-related).  Pap barely lived through that loss.

So Pap locked the gun away with the rifles in his cabinet.

My point is this: I know responsible gun owners.  I know there is such a thing.  I also know that, when the situation warrants it, responsible gun owners put their guns away.  Right now, we aren’t just leaving our guns under a pillow.  We practically have a Take-a-Gun, Leave-a-Gun tray sitting on our front lawns.

And I have something else to say to all the responsible gun owners out there: it’s not the murderous, women-hating, cop-hating, spree-shooting assholes that are making you look bad.  You’re clearly not one of them.  It’s the NRA that’s making you look bad.  The NRA is friend to no one but gun manufacturers who want to make money.  They want to take your money and put it in their pockets.  If they have to terrify you into thinking any gun law is going to take away your guns and your constitutional right, so be it.  There are ways of enacting gun laws that only hurt the people who are murdering us.  You, responsible gun owners, know how to handle guns, know gun safety better than any of us.  We need you to contribute to new gun laws in this country so we don’t live our lives waiting for the next mass shooting every week.

Please help.

Good Writing Break: Celeste Rita Baker

I feel like I ought to remedy something.  A while back, I posted a long rumination on Celeste Rita Baker’s “Name Calling,” a spec lit short story in Abyss & Apex that sparked a wide-ranging discussion on the use of dialect in fiction.  If you’re interested in exploring the debate, I would recommend Googling other people’s blog posts and not reading my own, because I don’t think I did a particularly good job, and my thinking on the whole thing has evolved since then.  (Hey, if the President’s beliefs can evolve, so can mine.)

What I most regret about my post, with all of its angst and hand-wringing, is the fact that I don’t think I fully expressed how strong Baker’s story is.  The plot is tight, the fantasy elements are well realized and woven into the characters’ lives in the best tradition of magic realism, and the descriptions of the main character’s physical disintegration–indeed, the images of bodies and their frailties–are some of the most poignant and realistic I’ve ever seen.

Here’s the link to Baker’s story.  Don’t read it because of the controversy surrounding it.  Read it because it’s excellent.

“Name Calling”

(I should note that there are two versions of the story posted at this link.  The first is edited so that the Caribbean patois is toned down somewhat; the second is the original version.  I recommend, as others have, that you scroll down to the original and read it first.  If you have difficulty with the language in places you can refer to the edited/clarified version, but the energy and spirit of the piece, at least for me, lies in the original.)