Wednesday, May 10, 2017

155. Author of } museums.

Yesterday, in the Chicago Tribune: “American Writers Museum sneak peek: far-reaching, dramatic”; and in The New York Times: “An Everyman Museum to Celebrate American Writers”—the museum is the American Writers Museum. It opens next week. More from the Times
…Mr. [Malcolm] O’Hagan incorporated a nonprofit dedicated to the project. He soon hired Mr. Anway, founder of the Boston-based firm Amaze Design, who organized brainstorming sessions with writers, publishers, scholars, teachers and booksellers in various cities.
I’m one of the “writers, publishers, scholars” hired by Mr. Anway. I wrote thirty-four author stories, twenty-five for the “85-foot long interactive wall [that] highlights 100 notable writers…” and nine for the Chicago authors room. The Times quoted from one of my texts, about Vladimir Nabokov: 
Those who skip Ms. [Maureen] Corrigan’s video commentary on literary experimentalism, for example, may not realize that “Lolita” is more than a novel that “hinges on a road trip — a classic American genre — and riffs on motel and teen culture,” as the brief wall text dedicated to Vladimir Nabokov puts it.
Note the use of dashes—a mark of my prose, for sure.

It was a challenge to write lives of famous authors in 100 – 190 words. What do you choose to say about Melville? About Hemingway? About Cather? I was meanly grateful Flannery O’Conner died when she was 39. Some of my favorites to write were the (slightly) lesser-knowns. Here's my bio for Margaret Wise Brown:
Is “In the great green room,” as famous a first line as “Call me Ishmael”? Quite possibly. Margaret Wise Brown wrote dozens of children's books, including The Runaway Bunny (1942) and Goodnight Moon (1946). Brown’s stories are about the everyday life of children (often represented by animals), written in a subtle—but instantly recognizable—verse that lends itself to being read aloud. Brown’s whimsy extended to the home she refurbished for herself on an island off the coast of Maine; she called it “The Only House,” though it was not.
Though it was not. Though it was not! Put that on my placard when you add me to your museum.

[The Times piece included photographs of the museum taken by Whitten Sabbatini; pictured above is the 85-foot long interactive wall where much of my work appears.]

Friday, May 5, 2017

154. Of our studies } impossible to speak.

W. Scott Poole speculates in his book about H.P. Lovecraft In The Mountains of Madness (sent to me by the publisher, Soft Skull Press) that “the classic stories ‘The Call of Cthulu,’ ‘The Shadow Over Innsmouth,’ ‘The Haunter of the Dark,’ and ‘The Colour Out of Space’… will not be the horrific things baristas and bartenders of the next generation… will want to talk about with middle-aged patrons pondering over Lovecraft books….” He proposes that “more readers will begin to discover the haunting vision quests [Lovecraft] wrote between 1918 and 1923.”

After Poole identifies the “haunting vision quests” he means (“Celephais,” “Polaris,” “The Quest of Iranon,” “The Doom that Came to Sarnath” “The Nameless City,” and “Hypnos”), he writes, “I wonder, and worry, that ‘Hypnos’ might even become a standard college reading for the hip classroom.”

Why worry? He explains:

If this occurs, maybe the idea of “Hypnos” being on a college syllabus will acquire the same outré patina as reading Naked Lunch in the 1970s, or seem as exciting as Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” in the 1990s. Maybe its reputation will say to future college students what it says to them today when they read a David Foster Wallace essay or check out one of Chuck Klosterman’s more incisive and less opaque essays. An adult who “gets you” has given you this VERY RELEVANT work that will change your life and open the gates of perception. 
I say I worry as well as wonder about this because canonizing means domesticating and containing the power of such texts and their histories.

Oh my. Where to begin? Poole is a college professor (see his faculty page here). As a professor, he can’t really believe that canonization = domestication. If he does, he’s failed to understand that there’s a difference between the belief that you know a work and actually knowing a work. A work may seem domesticated because it’s well-known, but when readers cast aside what they think they know and pay attention, that perception dies.

A student might assume a canonized work is by definition stale. That’s why you put a professor in the room—because the professor knows otherwise.

Canonization does nothing to the power of a great text.

And to what canon does Poole refer? The imaginary canon that includes Burroughs, Gilman, Wallace, and Klosterman? Maybe he means a more conventional canon? Say, the Norton Anthology of American Literature? Is there a poem or an essay or a novel in the Norton Anthology of American Literature that’s domesticated and contained? And if you think so, ask yourself: when did you last pay attention to that work?

Poole adds (specifically regarding “Hypnos”), “It’s a tale that deserves something better than such a fate. Hopefully, to quote Stephen King writing about Lovecraft, ‘the chickenshit academics’ won’t get their tenured mitts on this one.” It’s easy to understand why King might bear animus toward academics, but why does Poole? He is an academic. To what end does Poole perpetuate trite clichés about intellectually timid professors? Is this a manifestation of self-hatred?

What kind of professor hopes a text stays out of the classroom?

Monday, April 24, 2017

153. What’s about } totally wrong?

David Shields invited me to watch I Think You’re Totally Wrong (2017*), directed by James Franco. It’s an adaptation of an argument between David Shields and Caleb Powell. Its subject, ostensibly, is a life dedicated to art (Shields’) vs. a life dedicated to living (Powell’s). That’s a dumb argument, and it’s quickly apparent Shields and Powell aren’t really arguing art vs. life, but success vs. failure and who is a better man. James Franco’s appearance in the film radically distorts those arguments—Shields and Powell and their discussions are utterly dwarfed by Franco’s larger-than-life presence.

After I watched the film, I sent Shields my comments; I asked if it was okay to post said comments. He said he’d be “honored.” What follows is a selection from my comments.

Why “white guys bullshit”? Are there no books and films in which two black guys bullshit? Two Pakistani women? Is it difficult to recognize when people from a culture not your own are bullshitting? Why “bullshit?" and not dialogue? Dialogue can't be too rarefied if what follows “white guys bullshit” is “Apollonian and Dionysian.”

David explains why Caleb. Caleb does not explain himself. David wants to be questioned; Caleb want to have a good time (according to David).

[Un-focus my eyes and see thru Caleb.]

Conversation about homosexuality—Caleb's—“you trying to Mark me?” Caleb’s wife's privacy.

Broken leg. Coma. How do you avoid the tendency to always have a reply anecdote? To one-up? 

David: "Here's are chance to reanimate both your art and my life." [Is this line scripted? Rehearsed? Previously articulated?]

Caleb has four-wheel drive, snow chains, he helped build the deck, he did some roofing. Blue collar work. David lights a fire in the fireplace. “I'm Bertrand Russell who couldn't even start—who couldn't even boil water.” Caleb doubts this anecdote. Good on Caleb--how could you not? Russell's teapot. Caleb suggests maybe Russell didn't boil water. More plausible, but still not likely. The kind of anecdote artists perpetuate about other artists and themselves. What does that anecdote admire?

Knight to Death: “You play chess, don't you?” (The Seventh Seal, 1957.)

Caleb: “You can't just play to play.” According to David, Caleb's work lacks an “x-factor.” “It's not making any meaning.” “Your work stands next to the world.” Chess = a game, a competition, intellectualism. Caleb drinks beer, David, water.

David and Caleb do not look alike, tho it would be easy to reduce them to two bald, white middle-aged men. Collapse the split screen.

How does a non-artist relate to this film? Is this film for the “10,000 people who have MFAs”? “I want everyone...,” Caleb says. 10,000 people? That would be a fucking amazing crowd. How many audiences of two have I traveled three hundred miles for? About 10,000.

Why is it making the world better vs. art? Is the only way to make the world better to directly engage with some kind of politics? Another false dichotomy: the “real world” vs. the academic world. Is David strictly an academic, or is he an academic and a practicing artist? The real world = changing tires.

David: “ gotta start with the chaos of life whereas in a way I always want to start with the cathedral of art.” [Scripted? Rehearsed? Previously articulated?]

Genius. Get to the bottom of talent. A work of amazing power vs. a work that helps everyone. A real dilemma. A work of amazing power might help people. How does art help? (Let's ignore art therapy, etc.) Let's put dresser drawers in a bust of Venus.


Caleb has never earned more than $20,000 in a year. David earns approximately $170,000 a year. What does James Franco earn per year? How much is changing a tire worth?

Caleb twice has had sexual encounters with men he thought were women. Is this humiliating? Might it make his wife nervous? Does it ultimately seem as trivial as having never changed a tire? Is a bad stutter or is feeling like a “walking dead man” or “you have a high-pitched voice” less of a cross to bear than a blowjob from a transexual? Is this about manhood? James challenges David: “...if you don't have any material to man-up....”

What James is interested in is being an artist. And being an artist, for James, is taking risk. He uses the word “stake"—as in, what's at stake. A very writers' workshop term. [In the voice of my least favorite professor: But, Adam, what exactly is at stake here?]

I like James' presence is this film a lot. It's so bizarre. He walks among us.

Expression in this film. When Caleb describes Waltz with Bashir, he becomes visibly upset. David, in response to this, sits up—he knows it's no longer appropriate to lay sprawled on the couch. David is a performer—he's a professor! Caleb appears not to perform. Caleb becomes emotional when describing a work of art, not when discussing his family, or being overseas—i.e., his life.

That art causes Caleb to choke up is the big twist David suggests a film needs.

It goes without saying that James is an actor too. James also writes fiction—David sees fiction as a “veil.” “The moment it was fiction, it was dead. The Moment it was nonfiction, our nerves jangled.” Maybe fiction creates a space between author and material so author can breathe, but the author is always held accountable. 

Caleb “confesses” he took photos of David asleep. Did he? James' shadow follows Caleb and David to the car.

[ *IMDb states that the films release date is 2014. I asked David about this; David asked Oliver Ike, president & founder of First Pond Entertainment, if that date could be changed. Ike wrote, “The year listing cannot be changed. They go by production year.” Why would IMDb do that? Obviously the date we want is the release date. ]

Saturday, April 22, 2017

152. Love is old } love is new.

There’s a note on the Wiki entry “Because (Beatles song)” that claims, “In 2016, the Beatles’ Anthology 3 version [of “Because”] was featured in the trailer for Luc Besson’s film Valerian and the City of A Thousand Planets. That trailer (published on YouTube Nov. 16, 2016) does feature “Because,” with the Beatles’ vocal track high in the mix, but it’s not clear to me it’s the Anthology 3 “version,”—which is, simply, “the exquisite vocal harmonies recorded by John Lennon, Paul McCartney, and George Harrison for John’s song Because…” with the instrumentation “stripped away to reveal the… voices.” CinemaBlend (“one of the web’s most popular entertainment sites” according to themselves, but really a platform for ads decorated with light entertainment journalism) reports that, “…the preview's use of ‘Because’ by The Beatles is the first time that a master recording from the band has been featured in a film advertisement.” Valerian also strips the song of its original instrumentation, but adds a new instrumental performance.

Whatever. Who cares? I once was anxious about how Beatles songs were used—“Good Day Sun Chips,” the Nike ad with “Revolution” (another with Lennon’s “Instant Karma”), etc. It’s a kind of protectiveness I’ve let go of—Beatles is not who I am, Beatles is not sacred. What’s more, the Beatles I love can’t be destroyed by commodification. What’s more, I like Luc Besson's giddy science fiction films and I like how he uses “Because” in the Valerian trailers. 

“Because” is lyrically simple—and very like Lennon in that period. “Because the wind is high / it blows my mind”—word play quite like “Got to be good looking / ‘cause he's so hard to see” (“Come Together”); and plays with opposites the way Beatles lyrics often do “Love is old, love is new”—“I want a short haired girl / who sometimes wears it twice as long” (“Old Brown Shoe”); and with simple causality “There's nothing you can do that can't be done / nothing you can sing that can't be sung” (“All You Need Is Love”). “Because” is, too, musically simple—simple in the complex way “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” is simple—it repeats with variations, rather than repeating the way most songs do: verse, verse, chorus, verse, chorus, verse, chorus….

For Abbey Road, “Because” is gateway from the “song side”—which extends to side B with “Here Comes the Sun”—and the medley that dominates side B. Or: “Because” is like an incomplete sentence, lyrically and musically, completed by what follows.

The second “official trailer” for Valerian (published on YouTube Mar. 29, 2017) uses “Because” differently than the Nov. trailer. After a 32-second action sequence on a sun-bright desert planet, we arrive in space, at the “City of a Thousand Planets” and then we hear the “ah-a” of the Beatles’ “Because.” A gate from one world to another and an expression of awe.

Pre-Anthology, a recording of “Because” stripped of its instrumentation was a prized bootleg. Aside from the beauty of the three-part harmony, the empty spaces between the vocals were what made it such an extraordinary alternate version. The emptiness reverberates—can I hear Abbey Road studio 3?

But “Because” is not an example of a perfectly good song that’s been over-produced. George Martin’s performance on the spinet electric harpsichord and George Harrison’s Moog synthesizer performance perfectly marry old and new.

Saturday, April 1, 2017

151. Shirley Jackson’s } Tragic Kingdom.

If we can overlook publication dates—Shirley Jackson’s novel We Have Always Lived in the Castle, 1962; No Doubt’s song “Sunday Morning,” 1995—it becomes clear that Jackson’s last novel was influenced—nay, transposed—from Gwen Stefani’s lyrics.

This, from chapter four of We Have Always Lived in the Castle:
It was really too late, although I did not know it then; he was already on his way to the house. … All Jonas and I knew then was that we were hungry, and we ran together back to the house, and came with the breeze into the kitchen.
And this, the chorus of “Sunday Morning”:
You sure have changed since yesterday
without any warning
I thought I knew you
I thought I knew you
I thought I knew you well, oh well
Essentially, all Jackson did was take Stefani’s lyrics and reverse their order. Compare: Jackson, “Although I did not know it then”; with Stefani, “I thought I knew you well, oh well.” Most damning, Jackson took Stefani’s “You came in with the breeze” and retouched it: “…and came with the breeze….

Jackson’s detail “the kitchen” is also lifted from No Doubt, and this is her most insidious act of plagiarism. The video for “Sunday Morning” very clearly shows the band in a kitchen.

Surely this revelation will invigorate scholarly investigation into No Doubt's influence on the American literature that preceded the band's formation.  Specifically, it points to the grotesque robbery of ideas perpetrated by Shirley Jackson. I am currently using the most advanced comparative techniques available to determine once and for all if No Doubt’s Hella Good” produced Jackson's Haunting of Hill House.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

150. Survival } into a Rubble Age.

Asked to write 500 words “…for SPR about what written thing… you most loved this year”; I did here. What follows is addendum.

During the early fall, I attended two house readings. I wrote about the first at SPR; the next was hosted by Kate Colby. I brought my right-arm, Fatima. I was sorry I’d not brought my eldest—there was a child her age in the audience. John Cotter was there. Scared the bejeezus out of Cole Swenson’s husband when the entire houseI kid you not—tilted. I mean, not just a little bit! Fortunately, I was braced in a doorway. Darcie Dennigan and Elisa Gabbert read. My favorite moment: Elisa read, “…outside the glass is green…,” paused and read the line as she wrote it. Darcie Dennigan read from a group of poems that I grew convinced was part of the libretto she read at Ada Books earlier in the year. I was wrong.

On Election Day, Darcie read for my contemporary literature class. One student asked if the nude featured on the cover of Madame X—painted by Darcie’s husband—was Darcie.

Bella Bravo also read for my class from her collection The Unpositioned Parts (pictured). I didn’t include her collection in my SPR essay, but it's one my favorite written things. I admired it so much, I proposed to interview Bella for Drunken Boat—she and I are now conducting an interview by postcard. It’s a slow process.

If I’d had more that 500 words, I would’ve included the Fantagraphics English translation of The Eternaut, too. It’s an Argentinian work of 50s sci-fi with a political subtext—largely lost on me. My one complaint is that it’s grossly sexist—women are gorgeous housewives or gorgeous betrayers, largely ineffectual on both counts. There are barely any women in the book at all; if you include the Eternaut’s very young daughter, there are three women in the book, and fifty pages will go by without a woman in sight. Nonetheless, a diverting read in an absolutely beautiful package.

Right around the election I read John Darnielle’s Master of Reality, which was fantastic. I was especially taken by a scene in the second half of the book when the narrator, who is the manager of a restaurant, operates a huge burger-patty-making machine, and, while listening to Black Sabbath on a boom box, revels in the noise of the machine and the texture of the ground beef. I listened to a lot of Sabbath in November. And Philip Glass, while I read his methodical autobiography Words Without Music.

And Christopher Isherwood’s A Single Man. Here’s a passage that struck me as extraordinary and ties in neatly with my previous post:
These experts say that it doesn't really matter if there's a war, because enough people will survive to run the country with. Of course, the people who survive will tend to be those with money and influence, because they'll have the better type of shelter, not the leaky death traps which a lot of crooks have been offering at bargain prices. When you get your shelter built, say the experts, you should go to at least three different contractors, so nobody will know what it is you're building; because if the word gets around that you have a better type shelter, you'll be mobbed at the first emergency. For the same reason, you ought to be realistic and buy a submachine gun. This is no time for false sentiment. George laughs in an appropriately sardonic manner, since this is what Grant expects of him. But this gallows humor sickens his heart. In all those old crises if the twenties, the thirties, the war--each one of them has left its traces upon George, like an illness--what was terrible was the fear of annihilation. Now we have with us a far more terrible fear, the fear of survival. Survival into a Rubble Age , in which it will be quite natural for Mr. Strunk to gun down Grant and his wife and three children, because Grant has neglected to lay in sufficient stores of food and they are starving and may therefore possibly become dangerous and this is no time for sentiment. 

Thursday, December 22, 2016

149. “Carolers are singing } underneath the mushroom cloud.”

“Weird Al” Yankovic’s “Christmas At Ground Zero” is penultimate on Dr. Demento Presents the Greatest Novelty Records of All-Time Vol. VI: Christmas (1985) and ultimate on Polka Party (1986), the nadir of Al’s commercial success. I don’t know on which I first heard the song, but my father is certainly responsible, as he bought both LPs. He didn’t like the song. At the time I assumed he found it sacrilegious, but in retrospect I realize what troubled him was the song’s manic despair.

“Everywhere the atom bombs are dropping / it’s the end of all humanity / no more time for last-minute shopping / it’s time to face your final destiny”

I like the song. It’s better than Al’s “The Night Santa Went Crazy” (1996), in which Santa Claus goes postal in the North Pole—this sounds stupid, but among its other weaknesses, “The Night Santa Went Crazy” lacks depth.

“It’s Christmas at ground zero / just seconds left to go / I’ll duck and cover / with my yuletide lover / underneath the mistletoe”

The reference to “duck and cover,” to the emergency broadcast “that let us know / that this is not a test,” the inclusion of a Christmas message from Ronald Reagan (“Well, the big day’s only a few hours away now, I’m sure you’re all looking forward to it as much as we are”), and the air-raid siren that finishes the track grounds the song in political reality. “Christmas At Ground Zero” is punk rock.

As a kid, anxiety about the bomb seemed a concern of the past. Mention of Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative—“Star Wars”—only irksome because it wasn’t about the real Star Wars. A little older, I worried more about the “hole” in the ozone layer. Gradually, I discovered I was anxious about the bomb, but it was a familiar anxiety, low-grade, constant, maintained by news of plutonium 239 smuggled out of a collapsed U.S.S.R., of North Korean missile tests, of Iran’s nuclear program, etc. Now, our commander-in-chief-elect Trump.

My father is not easily shocked. Maybe “Christmas At Ground Zero” was too flip for a man who watched “Duck and Cover” as a school boy, or who followed the news as Kennedy blundered through the Cuban Missile Crisis. Maybe it just troubled him to see me, at 10, blithely bopping my head to a song so utterly nihilistic.