“Because poets and artists, despite marginalization and poverty, will not attack the wealthy, but instead make nice things for them.”
1. [x] is for writers and artists who don’t suck.
2. We seek work that is beautiful, shocking, intense and memorable.
When I was a freshman or sophomore in high school, I read JT LeRoy’s The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things and did not like it very much. Looking back, I think was too young and incredibly naïve, and that combination made it a very bad book to encounter at a time when I was mostly reading early-20th century Americana and John Irving. But things from that book stuck with me, particularly its depiction of desperation and how that desperation could drive a narrator to do things the reader can never, ever experience or even particularly empathize with. So while I still would never consider it a book I have any fondness for, I do think it left an indelible mark on me (even if that mark was mostly one of confusion and alienation).
In January, my friend Alice read Jeff Jackson’s acclaimed 2013 novel Mira Corpora in a single afternoon and promptly recommended it to me. “There are psychic teens in it,” she promised as she lent me her copy. But some residual Heart Is Deceitful fear lingered in me, and the synopses I read of Jackson’s novel reignited that fear. Would this be too miserable for me? Would it be alienating and confusing and painful? I worried that a story about a homeless boy might trigger too many flashbacks to all kinds of similar books that I had encountered and read in those early days of YA’s building prominence, when most of the characters in those books had hardscrabble lives and were written with almost no pretense of style.
But of course, and as usual when it comes to books people recommend to me, I was wrong, wrong. I loved Mira Corpora. It is unlike anything else I have ever read, and the combination of its slightness and absorbing style meant I finished it in just a couple hours. With my teaching and writing duties being so time-consuming lately, most of my reading is done on the sly: I grab a few minutes here and there when I can, meaning I am constantly jumping in and out of narratives, not getting caught up the way I used to when I read. But I forgot how much of that is due to the actual book’s ability to hold my attention. Mira Corpora reminded me that when the story and writing are good, then I will always find a way to get hooked and lose time in the narrative.
“Can text alone comment on the increasingly complex issues created by a society that is transforming before our eyes, in an ever-accelerating media blur? … We believe that the written word alone possesses a relatively narrow bandwidth for such an endeavor and present many limitations.” – Patrick Lighty & Jonathan S. Epstein
Is the page alone enough any longer? It isn’t just the explosion of visual excess brought on by high speed connections and ever-increasing bandwidths, but it’s the basic art of interconnection and interactive design that’s lost on our contemporary literary journals. For example, Anne Boyer’s The 2000s (available here but not quite in the form I’m going to talk about) was available on her blog sometime in mid-2008. The poems found in the PDF were posted on her blog, and parts of lines and words would link out to various images, sites, and videos. The poems were full of black holes of potential hypermediated images and links. Each sentence, each word, had its own branching image and voice attached to it, making the experience of reading The 2000s visual, oral, auditory, interactive, and exponential. You could crawl through each poem and end up spending hours on one sentence, following its path into Youtube videos and moving further from there. Once you’re linked out of the blog, there’s no controlling what you click and where you wander. Actually, that’s the whole point of it. You can fill your work with potential simply by linking to a place with more links, each click another step out from the original but still infected by the original’s push. It’s that same feeling you get when you start scrolling through Twitter or Tumblr and suddenly you lift your head and hours have gone by. One poem contains a vast hoard of information by simply linking places. This is maybe the most simple of all multimedia internet practices, and has been done many times before, but at least it’s trying to play with the medium. Otherwise, it’s just text sitting on a screen. That’s what frustrates me about the current version of The 2000s. The writing is great, but I didn’t love it for great writing. I loved it for the weird offshoot and links which expanded the original text into this massively bloated media-corpse. What you see in that PDF is a shadow of the original because it was stripped of possibility and made to fit into the narrow confines of the traditional PDF publishing platform.
But planted in our flesh these valleys stand,
everywhere we begin to know the illness,
are forced up, and our times confirm us all.
- - Muriel Rukeyser, “The Book of the Dead”
The rhetoric of working class life revolves heavily around death: “dead-end job,” “worked to death,” “killing yourself to live.” We associate this type of death language with certain types of places, too: “dead-end towns,” “dying towns,” et cetera. Often, these are places associated with the working class. These are the industrial cities scattered across the Rust Belt, the mining towns with fast-leaving populations, the Midwestern towns dissipating along abandoned rail lines. Why is it that we use bodily or natural terms – death, decay – when speaking of places made of steel and plywood and brick? How do our unnatural, created landscapes become body?
I have long argued that what many people consider working-class poetry might be better called place poetry. After all, place is so closely associated with its populations. So for Philip Levine to write about the people in Detroit means he is writing about Detroit. If Seamus Heaney writes about the bogs, then he is, knowingly or not, writing about the people who make the bogs their homes and their work. When constructing my ideas about what working-class poetry might actually mean, I have often had trouble pulling apart distinctly working-class poetry from the larger concerns of place poetry. This is made even more difficult by my own affinity for place poetry, which is the genre my own work falls into. I have a tendency to see place everywhere in poetry. Place informs language, structures, forms, topic, rhetorical moves. Place is a determiner.
In the early 1990s, Mondo 2000 (m2k) was a cyberpunk/new-age, drug induced haze of a magazine. It took aspects of the 60s/70s counterculture, namely its drug use, spiritual enlightenment, mind expansion, and utopian idealism and mixed it with contemporary cutting edge technology, futurism, singularity theory, and cybernetics. It was a sort of cybergnostic blend of idealism and science. “Gnostic insight is associated both with ‘deconditioning’ and with controlling technologies, and tied to each understanding of gnosis is a different image of the way in which a conventional society obstructs gnosis.” In other words, the Internet provided a highly inter-connected and complex alternative to mainstream society, and was seen as a way to “decondition” certain mainstream ideological assumptions, much the same way that LSD was said to be able to expand one’s consciousness into higher realms of being. M2k was at the forefront of this movement, mixing articles on psychtropic drugs and networking. It’s this consciousness expansion that many technologists argue is waiting for us in the singularity. Complexity and chaos are still large parts of our contemporary distrust of information technologies, but it’s precisely these things that the cybergnostics believe will raise us our of the muck of the logical, humdrum day to day existence we experience. M2k wanted to embrace the chaotic mess networking provided while at the same time felt tech would somehow master and reign in that complexity for their own purposes. Our illusions of control can be usurped by the extremely networked and branching rhizomatic shapes of the Internet, they believe, and it’s this strange place between drugs, culture, religion, and technology that Mondo 2000 seemed to thrive.
M2k was originally founded by Ken Goffman, aka R. U. Sirius, along with Alison Kennedy, aka Queen Mu, and was based in San Francisco. It lasted from 1989 to 1998, though its peak was between 1991 and 1993, when R.U. Sirius left the magazine. It’s a bizarre early cultural artifact of a pre-AOL age (or, at least, pre-AOL’s dominance, considering AOL had been around since the 80s in one form or another) where the World Wide Web was just beginning to take hold and nobody really understood what this thing could become. The sheer amount of optimism and utopianist thinking is startling considering how much of what they predicted (for example, Virtual Reality; this is just becoming a vague possibility with the purchase of Oculus by Facebook in the past few days) has not actually happened. This was an Internet dominated by a privileged group of tech-savvy insiders who were able to set up and explore these systems without the dumbing-down consumerist products usually provide. It looks a few years before computers were really accessible for the mainstream human; still, before all of this, there was m2k, the natural evolution of the counterculture movement of the 60s and 70s, grown up to embrace tech as another form of augmentation (along drugs, as mentioned above). In her thesis on the New Edge (which is what this new age spirituality meets cyberspace movement was being called), Dorien Zandbergen says that the mix of tech and spiritualism worked because “the immaterial sphere of cyberspace seems to fulfill the alleged gnostic dualistic desire to obtain immaterial salvation.” This vein of the early adopter’s optimism has been all but beat out of contemporary consumers. There is still a relatively mainstream movement for life extension in the form of tracking health data (quantified self) and, to a lesser degree, Cryogenics, but the overall conversation shifted away from a mind-expanding, anti-mainstream deprogramming and toward a more socially networked framework.
Emphasizing the materiality of thought draws our attention to networks of transport or how ideas circulate throughout the world and encourages us to develop strategies to enhance the possibility of those ideas circulating broadly, thereby maximizing the transformative effects they might have. - Levi Bryant
When we post poems online, we divorce ourselves from hundreds of years of tradition. Before that, the first poets to write anything down divorced themselves from hundreds of years of tradition. And before that, and so on, until each new rupture creates a seemingly separate space which then continues to bleed onward as it is rethought and recreated continually in new media. Now, the page doesn’t bind the poem, just like the voice before it. But we still write poems as if they are meant to be printed, despite how few poems make it to paper. The online journal is a thing completely unlike anything before it; there are no rules, no boundaries, no existing spheres of influence or aesthetic theories save for those we’ve made for books. Which is why the online journal, by and large, looks remarkably like books do, or at least they function the same way. They have tables of contents, they have discrete pages, they have nice neat containers for each new piece. Nothing bleeds or mixes or breaks itself. Everything is static and page-like. That’s not to say that all online journals follow this form, but even some of the most experimental fall back into it. Skeuomorphism is the design practice of taking real world objects and giving them a simulacrum in a digital environment. Think about a lined note pad page on your notes application. I want to present a new idea: the way we design and think about online literary journals are, by and large, skeuomorphic. They do nothing but lag behind, maybe in interesting ways, but eventually we need to cut them loose.
Take, for example, the most recent edition of The Claudius App (probably my favorite online journal right now). TCA IV starts out with an oldschool simcity flash screen which mimics Brooklyn. Eventually, Brooklyn burns down, and we’re left with a TOC screen that mimics a DOS command prompt. While all of this design work is interesting and plays with the way our computer aesthetics have radically shifted along with capability, it still follows the typical pattern of a list of authors, titles, and discrete pages for each work. On the other hand, TCA issue III was much more interesting: instead of a TOC page, it just presented screen shot images of the discrete pages themselves. Those images stand in for themselves, a sort of link humunculus. I don’t say this to necessarily criticize The Claudius App, because they’re doing much more interesting things with the medium than most other online magazines. Instead, I use even a radical journal to show how our thinking is still stuck in the pre-computer book age.
As another example, take Octopus Magazine. Octopus has been around for awhile (10 years! that’s forever in internet years) and I really love it. Octopus was one of the first magazines that really got me interested in online literature. But it still does all of the old things books do. Yes, it is flash heavy, maybe to a fault, and yes, that sort of dynamic design is not something a paperback could do. Still, the names are laid out in a grid pattern, and each author has his or her own little white page. It’s still a page, a word we still use on the web to describe various sites. That is in itself a skeuomorphic aspect of our lexicon (like cyberspace, folders, desktop, etc). It also affects how we build and look at websites. If we keep thinking of these discrete units as pages, pages like a page in a book, then we completely miss the point. There is no such thing as a page on the internet, because a page is intrinsically a static entity. It doesn’t allow for interaction, dynamism, scale, bleed and break. It doesn’t allow for the things that make the internet worth creating art on. There’s nothing actually wrong with the way Octopus, and most other online journals, lay out their sites. But they don’t allow for the kind of radical break with print culture that we’re beginning to experience.
I have read so much young adult fiction lately that it has begun to wear me down. Recently, I decided to take a break from reading YA so that I could come back to it with fresh eyes in a few months. But of course, Andrew Smith’s Grasshopper Jungle had to come along and ruin everything.
Last fall, I read and quite liked Andrew Smith’s Winger, which was funny and emotionally engaging. Reading that story – which, despite some flights of fancy, was relatively realistic – I was unprepared for how strange and delightful Smith’s new novel, Grasshopper Jungle, would be. John Corey Whaley, another YA writer I love, compared Smith’s new novel to the work of Kurt Vonnegut, and while I am deeply skeptical of anyone coming close to Vonnegut, Grasshopper Jungle does share some definite DNA with Vonnegut’s work, particularly in the way it uses the science fiction genre to explore how humans treat each other.
There are two things that make Grasshopper Jungle unlike anything I’ve ever encountered in YA or any other type of literature. One is the way it uses B-movie plot devices and story structures. The other is its treatment of fluctuating sexuality. The genre-inspired end-of-the-world plot works as a vehicle for the human relationships, but it never feels like the book does a disservice to its own weird premise by focusing on less-weird ideas of friendship and love. Grasshopper Jungle is about how the end of the world begins in a small, economically-depressed town in Iowa. Giant preying-mantis-like “unstoppable soldiers” take over people’s bodies, all because of a series of events set into motion decades earlier by morally-challenged scientists. Like a lot of B-movie-style genre work, Grasshopper Jungle is interested in how terrible concepts – ecological disasters, lack of ethical thought, war and military power – can be reflected in terrible products. In this case, those products include giant bugs and genetically-modified corn that melts adolescent boys’ genitals. The only antidote is one human’s blood, and neither the narrator nor the author is interested in sacrificing one human for the whole world. Rather, the problem has already spun out of control. A single person can no longer be the answer.
But even the use of these sci-fi cinematic devices is not nearly as interesting as the book’s treatment of sexuality. I encounter quite a few LGBT characters in YA literature, but rarely does the depiction of sexuality feel both so lived-in and ambiguous as it does here. This is a book without romantic answers. The main character, Austin Szerba, is in love with both his girlfriend, Shann, and his best friend, Robby Brees. And by the end of the book, there are no made decisions, no clean answers about who Austin loves most. I had not realized how defined sexual orientations are in the fiction I usually read until I finished this book. To see sexuality remain so undefined, so fluid, by the end of a nearly 400-page book is refreshing and revolutionary both.
On its surface, Grasshopper Jungle is a simple science-fiction/coming-of-age mash-up about friendship and love. But its real stories – how history and the future are always tied together but also blind to each other, how sexuality works in our daily lives, how one’s affection for others does not always provide the necessary salves to fix everything – are far more interesting than its admittedly entertaining trappings. What I found so fascinating about Grasshopper Jungle was its lack of answers. The last 50 pages genuinely surprised me, a rarity for me – especially in YA, which I tend to love because of its predictabilities. Smith refuses to play by genre rules here. He tears down genre boundaries and sexual boundaries and historical boundaries, and then he leaves the reader to just deal with it, all while being funny and exciting. It’s an ambitious project and one that works spectacularly.
“SHE WAS ALREADY THE BIRD I WOULD HAVE TO BECOME” – from “SOBEK”
When I first started reading poetry seriously in college, I immediately gravitated towards elegies. This is because I am a very morbid person. But over time, I have realized that my love for elegies actually has very little to do with death. Rather, it is the self-absorption, the guilty grief for what the speaker has lost (rather than what the subject loses in death) that appeals to me. In the end, grief and mourning is incredibly selfish. We hurt for what and who we lost; we do not grieve because the person who has passed can no longer eat ice cream or read a good book. We grieve because we can not ever again eat ice cream with them; we can no longer discuss that book. All grief is inherently selfish, as it should be.
It has been some time since I read a book or poem that was intended as an elegy. There is, of course, my old argument that all poems and books are elegies by their very existence of using language to speak of gone moments. So while I have read a great deal of “elegies” lately, they were not doing the work of grief that makes elegies themselves a specific genre. When I heard of Lucas de Lima’s Wet Land, of how it works as an elegy, I knew I needed to check it out. And I am glad I read it because it asked a lot of me as a reader and writer at a time when I myself was experiencing a profound loss.
I read Wet Land in the week between when my only grandfather, who was a very important part of my life, suffered a massive stroke and when he actually passed away. While he was in a hospital in Florida, I was stuck in Indiana, teaching and watching my parent’s house and being very, very alone – partly because of circumstance, partly by preference. All this background is just to say that Wet Land meant very much to me while I read it because it somehow both mirrored my own grief and constantly turned me away from it. It spurned me and supported me both, and I could not quite get it out of my head after finishing it in only an hour or so between classes on a Tuesday afternoon.
Tyler Gobble’s chapbook Other People’s Poems was released recently by Radioactive Moat Press and is free to download. Yesterday, my fellow Actuarian Evan wrote a short email to me and Beth bringing the book to our attention. The gist of the email was: what is going on here?
For me, there are a few things going on. It seems to be a book written in multiple voices. Gobble apparently took the styles and voices of other small press contemporary writers and wrote poems as if he were them. As far as I can tell, each poem is written entirely by Gobble himself, and only the voice/register is borrowed from the poets. That conceptual conceit was the most interesting part of this body of work. It brings up some interesting abstract and academic issues, which I’ll discuss more below. One large part of this piece of writing is knowing who these writers are and how these poems emulate their stlylistic quirks. Not knowing them, then, makes absorbing the full impact of the collection difficult. As poems divorced from the conceit of mimicry/imitation/homage, I found them mediocre at best. But, taken as a piece of conceptualism, Gobble’s collection does raise some pretty interesting issues.
For example, is Gobble imitating these poets or is he rewriting them? What does it mean to adopt someone else’s voice? And, for that matter, is it plagiarism when you adopt someone else’s voice? “Find Your Voice” is the entry level workshop standard for most forms of writing, but I’ve never been sure what that actually means. Our voice is never actually our voice; if it were, we wouldn’t have to work so hard to develop it. Instead, our voice is a deep creepy amalgamation of everything we’ve read and everything we’ve retained and everything we’ve actively destroyed. We can’t really have much claim to our voice, since it’s only ever a pastiche of every other voice we’ve stolen from and every other voice we’ve actively negated. More than that, it’s a combination of all of our experiences. Because of the huge number of constantly shifting variables, voice creation is an incredibly complex and evolving event, one which couldn’t be so easily diagrammed or mapped despite how rudimentary I’m going to make it seem below. Even still, it isn’t some magical form of muse-inspiration. When Gobble takes on the voice of these poets, is he creating a soulless doll, an empty imitation? I would argue yes and no. Yes, in the sense that his form of that voice is always slightly off. Gobble’s adopted voices are always echoes and not the shout because he can’t recreate the specific events and moments which lead to a particular poem. In this there is the suggestion that voice is just an illusion brought on by repeatedly similar thematic elements in a relatively large number of poems, but I’m not going to develop that. On the other hand, it’s also no, because not even those first writers have any shred of originality. It’s always a lego block castle growing on top of the bones of those before us.