Good Art Break for a God-Awful Day

Wow, what a horrendous 24 hours. We had a hostage siege in Sydney that left the gunman plus two women dead. Then, at virtually the same time, there was news from Pennsburg, Pennsylvania, of an ex-marine who killed his ex-wife and five other members of her extended family (including a 14-year-old girl) and fled the area. (The shooter, Bradley Stone, was found dead in the woods today of an apparent suicide.) Then this morning, there’s news about the Taliban raid on a school in Peshawar, Pakistan, in which nine staff members and 132 children were killed. (A further 3 staff members and 121 students were injured, in case you wanted a larger helping of awful with your sandwich of unbelievable horror.) Note that I’m not even talking about the case of Jessica Chambers, the 19-year-old Mississippi woman who died on December 6th because someone poured flammable liquid into her nose and down her throat and set her on fire. (Her death is making news this week because the group Anonymous as well as other bloggers and Internet trolls are leaking information about her case and spreading claims that Chambers was the victim of “gang activity” [read: African Americans], a black boyfriend [although so far there’s no evidence she had a boyfriend at all], and/or Ali Alsanai, the brown-skinned guy who runs the gas station where Chambers spent some of her final moments.) Note I’m also not talking about the report, published yesterday in The Smoking Gun, that details how the star grand jury witness who said she saw Michael Brown act aggressively before being shot down, in fact, lied on the stand and has a history of mental illness and making false statements to police.

For a year that’s boasted some astonishingly heinous, ghastly, and terrifying news, the headlines from today and yesterday are almost too far over the top at being bad. At this point, I’m so exhausted and disheartened and stunned by everything happening in the world that I’m even starting to deplete my thesaurus of synonyms for the word “bad.”

So here’s a little balm to take our collective minds off of the dark, ugly, unutterable badness out there. First, some art:

Yes, we all need rest. Especially me. (My meds have been shot to hell because of some surprise dental surgery I had last week. As in, “Surprise! Your tooth is coming apart!” And let me tell ya, you really know you’re aging when you find yourself discussing your dental surgery on the Internet.) If that rest can occur on a bed of butterflies, please make it happen.

Next, a couple of lovely pieces of writing that I just discovered in Twitterland: “Warriors,” a spare, mythic poem by Thato Angela Chuma; and “Seventh Day of the Seventh Moon,” a short-story by Ken Liu that combines an ancient legend of lost love with a modern tale of two teenage lovers soon to be parted–AND manages to be surprising, real, surreal, and gorgeous in the execution of both elements. (And I’m VERY hard to surprise.)

How about some science and philosophy with that art? Here, courtesy of Salon.com and created by Kurzgesagt, a German design studio, is a video discussing how life and death may all be the same thing:

And, in case you’d just like some good old-fashioned goofy comedy antics, here’s a skit (also posted on Salon.com) that was cut out of SNL this past weekend. The topic? Santa traps!

Stay safe and happy and peaceful tonight, everyone! Hopefully, tomorrow will look just a teensy bit brighter.

 

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Good Writing Break: In Memory of Michael Brown (and Justice)

For everyone sickened by the decision not to indict Darren Wilson, the police officer who shot and killed Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, there’s a powerful and poignant poem by Jason McCall up on Rattle‘s Poets Respond page. Here’s a taste:

It will happen,
an honest mistake
in a hot August classroom.
.
Someone will blink
at the name and swear this
“Michael Brown” can’t be
.
that “Michael Brown.” Or someone
will be too busy with her head down
finishing syllabi to look up and see the flash
.
grenades and tear
gas.
This piece was written the week that Michael Brown was killed, but it still resonates today when Brown’s absence–and the absence of justice in Ferguson–is so keenly felt.

Good Writing Break: Help, I’m Trapped in an MFA Workshop Story!

I’ve seen some pretty good stuff in The Toast, but Sarah Marshall’s “How to Tell If You’re in an MFA Workshop Story” so far takes the cake. Highlights include:

Bullies ruined your Halloween costume.

The world is baroque in its cruelty.

 

Her laugh was like the jangle of a charm bracelet, or like the wind whispering in the branches of an aspen, or like waves crashing on the beach, or like something else that doesn’t really sound at all like laughter, or even any sound a human can make, to be honest.

 

There is an ethnic person nearby, but they are dispensing with excellent advice.

The “ethnic person” passage is an especially nice bit of satire. You can completely see a host of white, upper-middle-class MFA students patting themselves on the back for including a Person of Non-Caucasian Descent in their stories about how white, upper-middle-class protagonists have Epiphanies about Life, courtesy of the Wise Brown Guru speaking in bastardized dialect.

Also, I had no idea so many things in my life are metaphors.

This piece is one in a series of stories where one can test if one is in a certain type of artistic genre. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve gotta find out if my whole life is actually a scene from lesbian pulp fiction…

(Oh, yeah, and for the record? I’ve totally written crappy, overly flowery descriptions of the sky. And many other things I’d rather forget about.)

Good Multimedia Break: Wonder Woman Edition

You know, there’s a lot of good writing out there. So much, in fact, that often as a reader I feel inundated. Long ago I’ve given up catching up in the writing world (okay, I have a twinge of jealousy every now and again, but then my body craps out on me and I sleep for three days). But reading, hey–I can do that with hardly any effort, right?

Hah! says the Internet. Hahahahahahaha–I think I just peed my Virtual Pants a little bit. And we’re not even talking about the laff riot that printed books, ebooks, and Amazon are having, individually and as a loosely affiliated media conglomerate.

Okay, so reading all the good stuff out there is Nigh Unto Impossible, probably even more Nigh than keeping up with the accomplishments of writers that clamber like ants all over the face of the world. Every once in a while, though, you do get to read a piece that is mind-blowing (in a humbling sense, not in the typical Internet content-mill sense of “40 Ways Toasting Bread Will Blow Your Mind). These are works that not only open eyes but crack open the universe. And, I’m pleased to report, that today’s stunning piece of writing takes as its subject that most dreadfully neglected of superheroes, Wonder Woman.

Now, I gotta admit, I myself have been a tad irked by Wonder Woman in the past. I grew up in the 1970s watching Lynda Carter play Wonder Woman on TV, and I loved her, loved Diana, loved dressing up in my Wonder Woman Underoos with a piece of sparkly rope and a Burger King cardstock crown that my mom cut up to resemble Wonder Woman’s tiara. (Yes, I have pictures of me in my Wonder Woman “costume.” No, you can’t see them.) I loved Wonder Woman with the innocent narcissism of a little middle-class white girl who looked at Carter and thought, “Yes! The only girl superhero on TV isn’t a blonde! Brown hair rules!!!” And yet later, when I started understanding a little more about the way women are portrayed in the media, and I took a closer look at Wonder Woman’s magic jewelry, skimpy outfit, truth lasso (the hell??), and crummy villains made for a “girl” to fight (yeah, that Egg Fu, what man apart from all of them could crack him open), I became, shall we say, disenchanted with the crime fighter from Paradise Island. She became an embarrassment, yet another vision of the perfect woman created by men, a cause of that queasy feeling you only get in the presence of something once adored by a younger, half-rejected version of yourself.

I will also admit that recently I’ve been coming to terms with my feelings for Wonder Woman. A terrific geek-girl band (yes, world, geek girls DO exist!!!) called the Doubleclicks came out with a tribute song called “Wonder” that always brings a tear to my eye, so perfectly does the song capture the superhero sentimentality that Five for Fighting and Crash Test Dummies, among others, gave to Superman.

And now, we have Jill Lepore’s article “The Last Amazon”.

Man, does this piece of reporting deliver.

Not only does Lepore examine Wonder Woman’s unusual beginnings in the mind of a polyamorous, women’s-rights-espousing male psychologist in the 1940s, not only does Lepore follow the line of inspiration back to famous first-wave feminists like Margaret Sanger, Lepore manages to work in little nuggets of pure-gold irony like this:

Last December, Warner Bros. announced that Wonder Woman would have a role in an upcoming Superman-and-Batman film, and that, in a three-movie deal, Gal Gadot, a lithe Israeli model, had signed on to play the part. There followed a flurry of comments about her anatomical insufficiency for the role.

“It’s been said that you’re too skinny,” an interviewer told Gadot on Israeli television. “Wonder Woman is large-breasted.”

“Wonder Woman is Amazonian,” Gadot said, smiling coyly. “And historically accurate Amazonian women actually had only one breast.” (They cut off the other one, the better to wield a bow.)

And this:

The modern woman, Crystal Eastman explained in The Nation, “wants some means of self-expression, perhaps, some way of satisfying her personal ambitions. But she wants a husband, home and children, too. How to reconcile these two desires in real life, that is the question.” You can find more or less the very same article in almost any magazine today—think of Anne-Marie Slaughter’s 2012 essay, “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All”—which is a measure of just how poorly this question has been addressed. A century ago, though, it was new. Between 1910 and 1920, Virginia MacMakin Collier reported in 1926, in “Marriage and Careers,” the percentage of married women working had nearly doubled, and the number of married women in the professions had risen by forty per cent. “The question, therefore, is no longer, should women combine marriage with careers, but how?”

Here’s how. Marston [Wonder Woman’s creator] would have two wives. Holloway could have her career. Byrne would raise the children. No one else need ever know.

And this:

In the spring of 1942, Gaines [publisher of Wonder Woman] included a one-page questionnaire in All-Star Comics. “Should WONDER WOMAN be allowed, even though a woman, to become a member of the Justice Society?” Of the first eighteen hundred and one questionnaires returned, twelve hundred and sixty-five boys and three hundred and thirty-three girls said yes; a hundred and ninety-seven boys, and just six girls, said no. Wonder Woman joined the Justice Society. She was the only woman. Gardner Fox, who wrote the Justice Society stories, made her the society’s secretary. In the summer of 1942, when all the male superheroes head off to war, Wonder Woman stays behind to answer the mail. “Good luck boys,” she calls out to them. “I wish I could be going with you!” Marston was furious.

And, oh, yeah, this:

Marston died in 1947. “Hire me,” Holloway [Marston’s official wife] wrote to DC Comics. Instead, DC hired Robert Kanigher, and Wonder Woman followed the hundreds of thousands of American women workers who, when peace came, were told that their labor threatened the stability of the nation. Kanigher made Wonder Woman a babysitter, a fashion model, and a movie star. She gave advice to the lovelorn, as the author of a lonely-hearts newspaper advice column. Her new writer also abandoned a regular feature, “The Wonder Women of History”—a four-page centerfold in every issue, containing a biography of a woman of achievement. He replaced it with a series about weddings, called “Marriage à la Mode.”

“The Last Amazon” is a long article, but an important one. Read it before the Subscription techies at the New Yorker stuff it behind a firewall. Afterward, feel free to get all nostalgic for the gains in women’s lives that were dreamed of but never happened, or that happened but didn’t stick. Then listen to the Doubleclicks and remember to hang on to a little of that queasy, kid-like hope, that awe for the marvelous being who, every once in a while, resembles you.

Good Writing Break: Laura Maylene Walter

A girl walks into a book of fairy tales and is eaten by the wolf in fifteen different ways.

 

Having just worked on an interview with Laura, I can tell you she’s a writer after my own heart: by turns quirky and humble and visionary and powerful. Not many writers enter an MFA program with a prize-winning short story collection already sparkling on their CVs. This might have had me tangled in Envy Snarls at one point in my life, but I really can’t get all up at arms when I know I couldn’t go into a writing workshop and come out with a piece nearly as good as “A Girl Walks into a Page,” which just came out in Smokelong Quarterly. Bravo, Laura! Best Envy with a shot of tequila!

 

Good Writing Break: Lizzie Borden Edition

[UPDATE: Fixed broken link to Carter’s short story.]

Hey, all you Fickle Readers! Here’s a ghoulish holiday perfect for the doldrums of August: Lizzie Borden Murder Day!  Today in 1892, at around 11:00 in the morning, Abby and Andrew Borden were found with their heads hacked to pieces in their home in Fall River, Massachusetts.  Andrew’s daughter, Lizzie, was basically the only person who could have committed the crime, and yet a year later she was tried and acquitted.  After the trial, she bought herself a big, new house in a shi-shi part of town, named it Maplecroft, earned the eternal condemnation of her friends and acquaintances for being so presumptuous as to give her house a name, and eventually lived to the ripe old age of 66.  How’s that for good ol’ Yankee justice?  To the end, she insisted she wasn’t the one who killed her father and stepmother, and many Lizzie boosters have argued in defense of her innocence.  But don’t believe the hype.  What freed her was a botched police investigation, sympathetic judges, an amazing team of lawyers who managed to get key evidence thrown out, and a jury of 12 men who were short on imagination.  The only way I personally get any satisfaction out of this historical moment is by stating the obvious in the face of all those dead and living souls who just couldn’t/can’t wrap their brains around the image of a good Christian woman bashing in the heads of her family. She did it, she did it, she did it. As for the Good Writing part of this Break, take a look at an early version of Angela Carter’s “The Fall River Axe Murders,” here in its first incarnation called “Mise-en-Scene for a Parricide” (Here’s the full URL: http://www.lrb.co.uk/v03/n16/angela-carter/mise-en-scene-for-a-parricide.)  A fabulous short story from one of the masters, the high priestess of the modern fairy tale.  Carter includes all the important historical details of the case: the oppressive heat, the house with no hallways, the slop buckets, the pigeons, the pear tree.  And, even more amazingly, she manages to write a riveting piece that’s entirely backstory. Technically, all she does it set the scene.  Yet by the end, you’re immersed in the Bordens’ world, and in your gut you can sense the immanent explosion. On a side note, if you happen to be hanging out near Fall River, Massachusetts today, you can catch a performance of the Pear Players as they present their yearly reenactment of the murders at the Lizzie Borden Bed & Breakfast Museum.  Why is this of special interest?  Because the Lizzie Borden Bed & Breakfast Museum is the Borden murder house.  And yes, you can book a room there, or the entire house.  (Although judging by their calendar, August looks to be a bit busy.) If the idea of a bed & breakfast murder house is hard to wrap your brain around, try reading this nice little essay by Nicole Cliffe.  It should set you straight. ETA: Wait, really?  Percy Bysshe Shelley, Romantic poet and radical, inspirer of “Frankenstein,” writer of “Ozymandias,” was born 100 years to the day before Lizzie went on her hatchet spree?  Dang, that’s quite a double-header. Little known fact: Shelley wrote a tragedy called The Cenci about a woman driven to parricide.  The circumstances, however, were much different: in the play, Beatrice is raped by her lascivious father.  Nothing definitive is known about Lizzie’s motives, although most of the evidence points to money, a stifling (yet not abusive) household, and anger directed at her stepmother.  The Cenci was way ahead of its time in terms of dealing with the realities of rape and sexual abuse.  If you haven’t read it, you should.  It’s free online here and here.

Good Writing Break: Poems by Jeffrey Skinner and Thomas Sayers Ellis

I just got through reading Dave Cullen’s Columbine.  An excellent book, packed with information about the event I didn’t know, how investigators painstakingly pieced together what happened inside the school, how the media completely misinterpreted the motives behind the tragedy (with the help of a few dumbass officials with access to the press), and how certain details about the police response were (surprise, surprise!) covered up.  Despite how good it is, or maybe because of it, the experience of reading Cullen’s book left sore spots on my psyche.  Surprised as I am that this happened, I had nightmares.  I don’t remember the last time a book has affected me in my sleep.

Keeping in mind my emotions have been raw as hamburger meat lately, I wanted to highlight a couple of beautiful, soul-mending poems I stumbled across in the past week.  The text of the first one I quote in full from this essay on “expansive poetry”; the piece itself is from Jeffrey Skinner’s sequence “Sonnets to My Daughters, 20 Years into the Future” (published in A Guide to Forgetting, 1988).  Tragically, the problems the speaker struggles with are as relevant now as they were 26 years ago:

In the news today, a woman in fatigues
let loose an automatic rifle in a shopping mall.
Three dead, seven wounded. By now you’ll
know, have seen a thousand images of disease,
cruelty, death in rags and formal dress,
failed negotiations, husband, child, wife beatings–
the endless catalog of humans who’ve so lost
the way, they tease evil in, thinking it unboring.
It is boring. Weil, Merton, a few others
were right–good is the only real surprise.
Do you love movies? I do, especially comedies.
One favorite moment: a bum in a Marx Brothers
film asks for a dime to buy a cup of coffee.
Harpo opens his coat, pulls out a cup, steaming.

There’s so much chaos in this sonnet, it’s hard to see the structure.  But structure is there (14 lines, slant end-rhymes, the volta), and it makes the pieces of the shattered form all the more meaningful.  (“Weil, Merton, a few others / were right–good is the only real surprise.”  Turns out, in the end, it is.  Hallelujah.)*

The second poem, “Vernacular Owl,” by Thomas Sayers Ellis, is an epic elegy, if there is such a thing.  (Whatever the case, I’m sure the poet doesn’t care.)

(Full disclosure: I took a workshop with Ellis in 2006.  His poetic genius is like nothing I’ve ever seen.)

“Vernacular Owl” is featured in Poetry magazine’s July/August 2014 issue, which is part of the ultra-prestigious poetryfoundation.org web site.  When I pulled up Ellis’s piece, a Poetry Foundation widget appeared beside the text, encouraging me to browse the archives for (and this is 100% true) “Poems about Pets.”  A portrait of Shakespeare (oh, dear God…) is emblazoned over the category heading.

Ellis’s poem is a tribute to Amiri Bakara.

I recommend pondering the complete and utter inappropriateness of the Poetry Foundation’s browsing “suggestion” later, because Ellis’s work is way too good to miss.  His lines are musical, playful, iconoclastic, and inspired.  They masterfully convey Bakara and say more than that as well.  The framing story is of life aboard Noah’s ark, and the long poem’s refrain, “Somebody had to clean that shit up,” is priceless.  I’m thinking about sewing it into a decorative sampler and giving it to my mother for her next birthday.  Seriously.  (Those of you who know my mom know how serious I am.)

I could go on for several more pages and not do this poem justice.  So just go read it and see what I’m talking about.  You won’t be disappointed.

*Thanks to Karen Craigo, formerly the poetry editor of Mid-American Review, for introducing me to Jeffrey Skinner’s work!