I am not busy. I am the laziest ambitious person I know. Like most writers, I feel like a reprobate who does not deserve to live on any day that I do not write, but I also feel that four or five hours is enough to earn my stay on the planet for one more day.
Tim Kreider’s article on being busy in the New York Times opinion pages a couple days ago struck a chord with a lot of people and I saw it all over my twitter feeds and Facebook pages. He makes a good point about our general state of disrepair when it comes to the amount of activities we fill our lives with. That said, I think he does other “idle” employees (namely, writers) a disservice by over-romanticizing what happens in the down time between writing time.
First, it’s interesting to note the sharp contrast between the definition as proposed by the OED, that we are “actively engaged, doing something that engrosses the attention” and the way Kreider’s identifies “busy”:
It’s almost always people whose lamented busyness is purely self-imposed: work and obligations they’ve taken on voluntarily, classes and activities they’ve “encouraged” their kids to participate in. They’re busy because of their own ambition or drive or anxiety, because they’re addicted to busyness and dread what they might have to face in its absence.
Absolutely four or five hours of “actively engaged” writing that “engrosses the attention” is markedly better than eight hours of distracted, annoying, or unwanted busy time that stresses me out. In the summer, after four hours of productivity I may as well go get a “rum bucket” with friends at the Harbor Shack in Rock Hall, MD. The difference, perhaps, between me and Krieder, is that I don’t at all feel like a “reprobate” if I go kayaking or engage in spontaneous outings with friends instead, or even if I take an entire day to watch end-on-end episodes of some long-ago TV show from my youth (seriously, what else were we supposed to do during this stretch of 100+ degree heat?). Continue reading
Before I jump right into the reason for this entry’s title, I’ll need some set-up first. I write this entry a day after returning from the Conference on College Composition and Communication (CCCCs, or 4Cs). As always after a conference I am finding myself energized and exhausted at the same time. The dominant themes at work during this CCCCs (or, at least the things I sought out, and found valuable for my current thinking and work as a composition instructor and Writing Center administrator) seemed to be genre, transfer, and meta-cognition (awareness and understanding of one’s own thought process), and (of course) the relationships between these concepts.
There were two panels I found most powerful on these subjects, in part because they served to validate the work we’ve been doing in our Writing Theory and Pedagogy (peer tutor preparation) course, and in part because it has helped me to think more fully about my intentions in my own Composition and Literature (English 101) course (that’s where the “nonce” idea comes into play… but more on that later). [Specifics and my eventual point/observations after the jump]
There’s a great article by Janaka Stucky over at The Poetry Foundation called “How to Survive in the Age of Amazon: If indie bookstores can’t beat the online giant’s prices, what can they do?” on independent bookstores and the battle against Amazon. The article is persuasive not only because Stucky (editor of the popular indie press Black Ocean) outlines how Amazon actually affects presses and authors, but because his pitch to independent bookstores (and consumers and visitors of independent bookstores) to cater to a poetry-reading audience offers not only advice to these shops in how to be prominent culture-bearers for local communities but a compelling rationale (and for once a not-so-dismal approach) for the state of poetry and poetry-readers in the digital age. He writes: Continue reading
This holiday break I read Nicholson Baker’s VOX, a novella entirely comprised of the dialogue between two people who have called an adult phone service. The conceit is impressive — Baker holds the reader in the position of the eavesdropper. The only context we get for either character is that which is provided through the conversation. I first came to Baker through another novella, The Mezzanine, which is almost entirely composed in lengthy footnotes. Rather than supplemental information, the footnotes serve as a diversion, parallel to the diversions the main character inserts into his own pattern of thought to distract himself from handling any genuine emotional turmoil.
Baker’s texts are appealing to me in that they offer a form of constraint for the reader that thoroughly impacts the way in which we are capable of reading the text. I, as the reader, am both intimately involved and seriously distant from the two conversationalists who explore their mental and sexual selves with each other. I am only given what I am given. Inference is a necessity. I have the same burning desire to know more that the characters do.
In poetry of constraint it is often the system that is contained — a specific process (Christian Bok’s EUNOIA is the perfect example — he had to find all of the words that only contained single vowels and sort them into chapters to establish his lexicon before he could even begin to put those words together into a narrative). Baker’s projects present a constrained product but not process as a specific intention for the audience. The system allows for surprise and wilderness in the result, the product allows for the audience to feel placed at a specific point of access to the narrative unfolding. I find both compelling — I wonder if it is the element of plot or narrative movement that feels so energized by what is left out?
Like many people this holiday season, I went to see James Cameron’s film Avatar. I even went to see it at midnight the week before Christmas, after a long evening in DC at Cheryl’s Gone (which featured Sally Keith, Karen Anderson, Casey Smith, and musician Maureen Andary, and was AMAZING!) Afterwards we went to have drinks with Sally and friends at Nellie’s, and then I ran into traffic and turned myself around in DC (big surprise), and I STILL managed to make it back to Fairfax for the film. Although the reading was wonderful, I’d had a bit of a tough day personally (lots of things going on and logistical nightmares trying to plan for holiday traveling, etc. etc. I won’t bore you with details) and had definitely reached many different limits… so even though most of myself was recommending I just go home and sleep it off, I was feeling as though seeing a beautiful Cameron film with good friends might just do the trick to release it all.
So there I was, exhausted, 3D glasses on, ready to be thrilled… and thrilled I was, visually… and in the escapist sense.
As a reader and writer, I always enjoy being gifted other worlds to occupy for a time. My poems, for now, are so deeply rooted in this world, but I so often appreciate reading texts and experiencing films that offer a world unto themselves where we are offered a language that operates on its own unique system, and which offers a slightly different spin on things. I enjoy being taught how to experience the world I’m offered, how to live inside it, how to feel free from the constraints of my own world’s limitations. Inevitably, if done well, I emerge more aware of the world I understand as my own. Think Gabriel Garcia Marquez, George Orwell, Don Delillo, or poetry by William Blake… we witness our world anew because of what these writers offer as an alternative, even if it’s only turned around only slightly from the reality we recognize as our own. The revised world order is either an offering of what we might subscribe to, or what we should be weary of (most often the latter).
Utopias and dystopias as offered through the exaggerated realms of fantasy and science fiction are often presented as warnings… take Gulliver’s Travels and the plight of colonialism, Orwell’s 1984 with Big Brother, Mary Shelley’s monster in Frankenstein, or films like Metropolis, and Blade Runner where technological advances threaten our very humanity… I could go on with numerous other beloved examples.
While visually stunning, Avatar falls short of the great science fiction or fantasy texts in that we’re offered a world we’re not trusted to inhabit because it is pure artifice… our world is not at all recognizable in Pandora, exept perhaps a previous version we will never be able to revert to. We’re offered “natives” whose spiritual connection with the earth requires a more “primitive” lifestyle of sleeping in tree limbs and wearing sparse clothing. The biggest question I’ve been turning around in my mind since the film is why the “natives” had to be shown as the “noble savage”? Why not offer us a society which is technologically advanced AND environmentally conscious and connected? As Ross Douthat offers in his op-ed in the New York Times, “Pantheism offers a different sort of solution: a downward exit, an abandonment of our tragic self-consciousness, a re-merger with the natural world our ancestors half-escaped millennia ago. /But except as dust and ashes, Nature cannot take us back.”
Lately, with the threat of global warming and depletion of our world’s resources, the sci fi and fantasy texts which refer to environmental concerns are particularly resonant. The resurgence of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy and Peter Jackson’s treatment of them in their film counterparts are apt examples. Tolkien’s books and Jackson’s films do not hit us over the head with the ruling philosophy that our treatment of each other and our natural world is destructive. We are trusted to come to this conclusion without (extreme) cheesy dialogue or didactic platitudes… the preference is always to be visually stimulated as an audience member, but also to be trusted to make inferences and arrive at conclusions through contemplation of what we are offered. I, personally, do not want the complete package where we enter a viewing experience and exit with the prime lesson stamped securely on our foreheads, the end.
The staying power of Avatar is in the visual spectacle, which is something I’ll happily admire in and of itself. Cameron did so completely imagine Pandora, and it’s a pleasure to escape to and inhabit and be visually stimulated for a time… but the visceral pleasure of this is fleeting. What residue is meant to linger in Cameron’s film is instead slippage, and doesn’t stick. I was hopeful Cameron might offer a sense of the avatar separate from the digital alter egos the digital age has inspired, a more human self we could imagine ourselves into… but, alas, Cameron’s alternative is reversion, not revision, and is thus (sadly) impossible outside of the digital realm.
As anyone bothering to read this blog likely knows, my first manuscript is a project-based collection of poems wherein I make use of the prose works of Frederick Law Olmsted as the primary source. For the most part, this means quoting or collaging Olmsted’s language into my poems. Collage as poetic method simply means to lift language from another source and let it become material, language you can construct with, combine, or merge with other language (your own or otherwise). Susany Tichy, a professor at George Mason where I am pursuing my MFA, talks about collaged language as texture. “If you could run your hand over it,” she says, “you would feel it as different.” This, she argues, is true even when you do not visually cite the collaged language by some typographical indicators like italics, bold, or quotations. This is completely true. Olmsted’s mid-19th century prose is certainly different from my 21st century speaker.
Olmsted’s language in this project, however, is also a source. Think of an academic essay, where an author’s language is lifted out of its original context due to the importance of their ideas, and cited directly because paraphrasing seems to sell the idea short. I am committed to honoring Olmsted’s ideas as much as I am interested in his use of language aesthetically, or as different from my own lyric musings. Then the lifted language becomes something the lines in my poems can interact with, revise, adjust, rebut, or find kinship with. Olmsted and I converse in the poems. I maintain his “voice” with single quotation marks ( ‘ ) to indicate his text where this dialogue is present. I hesitate to use the term “voice” in regards to verse. Although poetry has its roots in oral and song tradition, mine is not a voice-based aesthetic. Colloquialisms or speech sounds that mimic the voice I might use on the street is material, one form of language I can insert into the line.
But then, I’ve also pretty much fallen in love with Olmsted’s language, and this might be problemmatic. I very viscerally love it. I turn his phrases around in my head as I am walking. I see a shadow and think of him. I feel him holding my hand when I am standing in a park of his design. This is not Olmsted’s biography I feel so clearly, it is his language and the ideas he presents with it. I know little of his social graces, but everything about his tendency to present verbs in their noun forms. I am often so in love with his sentences I have to force myself to break them for the sake of my line. I often quote more than I collage – I can’t strip the author from the phrse and make the text communal. It is not mine to steal, it is mine to honor. But what do you do when you love something so completely it is difficult to use?
The poet Elizabeth Willis has said devoutly of the source material that makes its way into her work, as researched background or otherwise, that what we read becomes as much of who we are as our families or regional or cultural heritage, if not moreso. I think this might help with this syndrome I feel I am developing. I’ve internalized the source, and from it extends this broader body. I could have used the more probable definition for the title of this post: source (n): A work, etc., supplying information or evidence (esp. of an original or primary character) as to some fact, event, or series of these. Also, a person supplying information, an informant, a spokesman, but not only is the “spring” more poetic, it is more apt. Olmsted is the place from which a flow of [thinking, of lyric, of investigation, of being] takes its beginning.
The question I keep asking myself–the same question I keep getting asked by Sally Keith, my director–is, of course, why? I became interested in architecture and its relationship to poetry in so far as they are both arts so clearly dependent on construction to achieve their aesthetic ends. Landscape architecture, in particular, like poems, eventually becomes out of reach of its origins. Both the poem and the park are designed, have visual elements, but also wilderness, resist stasis, and change across individual experience. I think the poems are something about that… and that might be enough.