Tuesday, September 30, 2008

No I.D. Required

I admit it: I am a Gossip Girl fan. The show appeals to all the worst in me--the insecure teenager, the label whore, the voyeur, the city snob--and allows me to indulge each week in a little scandal without having to actually deal with anything. What could be better? Television is, after all, an escapist medium and, when done right, we are allowed to do just that.

Gossip Girl is a particular kind of escape, however. Focusing on the elite, supremely rich minority in a time of economic crisis is akin to an Elizabethan serf reveling in the historical dramas of Shakespeare. We don't get to be those people, so we love it when their life goes terribly, terribly wrong. Just think how satisfying it must have been to watch King Richard go mad up on stage. Now we can watch the disgustingly wealthy get drunk and drop out of school.

But all snarky satisfaction aside, there's one thing I can't quite swallow about this show. Even though they are supposed to be teenagers, they are somehow able to get into and drink at the most exclusive bars in New York. Really? Last time I was in the big city, at the tender age of 19, it was pretty much impossible for anyone underage, soclialite or not, to get into a bar. Has the drinking age since been lowered for those living off of trust funds? This may be a case of selective memory, but even the rich lovelies of the original 90210 had trouble getting their hands on alcohol.

Private jets, outlandish vacations, and million-dollar wardrobes I can wrap my head around. Even the sex, scandal, and betrayal I get. But teenagers in a bar? Sorry, I don't believe it. Perhaps I am naive, or wistful for a time when teenagers had to break into their parents' liquor cabinet if they wanted to get drunk...and sure, the actors on Gossip Girl look like they could get into a bar, because in real life they could. Some people have amazing worlds opened to them because of their wealth. But the wealthy aren't above the law...at least I hope they aren't.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Driving the Barrens

We recently made the drive between Las Vegas and Reno for the first time. The desert we drove through was high and dry, punctuated here and there with small towns like Mina and Goldfield..towns that were mostly empty or populated by the type of people who collect racially inappropriate memorabilia and plumbing components. Here, traditional diners do business next to mini-casinos, and those structures built into the side of the mountain could be Indian ruins or military bunkers. It is a strange world of extremity--those looking for ultimate freedom from most laws living with those operating under...and enforcing...the strictest of laws.

Both extremes coexist in the unlikeliest of roadside attractions: the legal brothels. Here, it is legal to buy and sell sex, and the normally scandalous, from drug use to kink, are either ignored or embraced. But the prostitutes are highly regulated and the johns are closely watched, as described in Brothel, by Alexa Albert. This piece of non-fiction is part scholarly research, part memoir of her time spent interviewing workers at Mustang Ranch, a now-defunct brothel. The book is fascinating, both for Albert's nonjudgmental scope of all players in the legalized prostitution game, as well as her honesty regarding her own experience. Something like sex work is a hard subject for a woman to write about without falling into the realm of proseletyzing or politicizing, but Albert walks that edge with care.

Her experience, while centralized at one brothel, could have occured anywhere in the barrens of Nevada. Even the names of the facilities we passed--Chicken Ranch, Wildcat Ranch, etc.--were interchangable. But one can't lump the brothels' employees into a stereotype; each woman has her own reason for going into the business, and each woman's experience is different. This I learned from Albert, and I am willing to keep an open mind...admittedly much easier in an environment with such big skies and vast deserts. The Nevada desert is truly individual in its location, its Wild West mentality, and its inhabitants. It offers us all the possibilty to be our true selves...or to transform into someone new.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Wash, Rinse, Repeat

The use of repetition in poetry is a tricky endeavor. Though it has historical context--most traditional forms employ some type of repetition--when overused or used improperly, it can sound lazy, redundant, or weak. I like to think of a dessert (because I am a poet and we think in metaphor). Imagine a rich, decadent chocolate cake. You can probably only eat a few bites, but man, you will remember what it tastes like. Now go back to your childhood. Remember those grocery store cakes, tasteless and airy with too much frosting? You could probably eat a whole piece--maybe two--but the taste is completely forgettable. Repetition, when done wrong, is just as bad as a grocery store cake.

On the other hand, repetition can be a very powerful emotional tool. In blues poetry, for instance, the first and second lines of a poem are often the same, mirroring a blues song lyric. But when you get to that second line, the emphasis is different, the emotional charge is heightened somewhat. A reader says to herself: There must be something important, some dire message in this line that I am supposed to get. Take this verse:

Cooking drunk and naked is a bad idea.
I said, cooking drunk and naked is a bad idea.
When the hot oil pops, better get out of here.

DId you place extra emphasis on the second "bad?" Good, you were supposed to. Urgency, pressure, and extremity can be conveyed through a careful use of repetition.

Which leads me, inevitably, to the political race. Or, I should say, all political races. Because if there is any arena, besides bad poetry, where repetition can be dangerous, it's in a political campaign. Some repetition is, of course, necessary to solidify a candidate's message, create unity across the scope of a campaign, and facilitate communication without launching into a long speech. Some of those repeated slogans are even immortalized--anyone out there still like Ike?

But repetition can make a candidate look lazy and uninformed. When you repeat the same sentiments over and over, without regard to the event or the audience, we have to wonder if that's all you have to say. Some may criticize when a candidate makes changes, but in Rhetoric, that's called Knowing Your Audience. If you don't take your audience into consideration, they numb out, drift off; you might as well be another cookie-cutter sitcom character on T.V. These cadidates must learn that in politics, as in poetry, repetition is not always O.K. It must be handled with skill and care. Do I have to repeat myself?

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Above and Beyond

People hate prepositions. Just mention the word to a classroom of kids, and you have the chance of hearing everything from groans to screams, sighs of sadness, even a sarcastic laugh or two. I can understand why--the word "preposition" is scary and unfamiliar. We never learn prepositions the way we learn nouns or adjectives. There are no "preposition" blanks in Mad Libs.

Just relax. Prepositions are really quite easy. Let's start by re-hearing, or re-interpreting the word. That is, stop pronouncing it "prep-o-sition," and say instead "pre-position." You hear that hidden word, position? That's the key to understanding. A preposition is a word that indicates the position of something...no more, no less.

So, what is the coffee's position in relation to the mug? Unless there has been some scalding accident, the coffee is probably IN the mug. How about butter's relationship to toast? That's right, the butter is ON the toast. Birds are IN trees, dogs are ON porches, and bees are, hopefully, ABOVE me in their hive, not landing ON me.

These tangible or physical positions are easy to see, and therefore easy to grasp. In fact, Dr. Seuss was the king of the preposition, and should be required reading in grammar class--everyone knows The Cat in the Hat. But what about the more intangible uses of prepositions? Well, here is where we get into the land of metaphor.

What, exactly, does it look like to be "under the weather?" Do you see a runny nose, or a person with a raincloud hanging over her head? For that matter, how about that big decision or credit card debt hanging "over" you? Lots of us know what that feels like. But because sickness, debt and decisions are not physical things, prepositions help to make them more understandable--sometimes even easier to deal with. I don't know about you, but I'd rather picture my debt as a big, cartoon anvil levitating above me than the very real monetary amount. Perhaps, like Wile E. Coyote, I'll bounce right back when it inevitably falls ON my head.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Listen Close to Me...

I was in second grade in 1988. My little sister had just been born and it was my turn at Super Star Week. I brought in my mom’s homemade cookies for Snack Day, and carted over my porcelain dolls for Collection Day. However, I didn’t really have a good talent for Talent Day. I didn’t twirl batons or have a black belt in Karate--all I did was read books. So that’s what I decided to do. When Talent Day arrived, I stood in front of a room of snotty, restless second graders and, clutching my worn copy of Where the Sidewalk Ends, gave my first poetry reading.

This book, written by a scary-looking bearded man with big feet named Shel Silverstein, is the reason why I am a poet today. It was the first book to teach me about rhythm, meter, image, and metaphor. It taught me to love not just the story, but the words that make the story as well. It was the first book that offered me a new way of viewing the world, a poet’s way. It challenged me to imagine what sky would taste like mixed in soup, or what would happen if you never took the garbage out, or what it must be like in that place where the sidewalk finally ends.

It’s not often we meet kindred spirits—people who get us right away, who we don’t have to explain ourselves to—but what a wonderful feeling, to finally be alright. Though I never met the man, I feel like Shel got me. There are probably hundreds, maybe even thousands of kids out there who felt the same way reading his books. And this makes me wonder: was Mr. Silverstein some kind of minor god? Was he tapped into the great Overmind? Or, was he just very, very good and speaking to kids without speaking down to them? In the end, I think that is all little Katie, quiet and shy in the back of the class, really wanted.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

It Hurts so Good

Words are powerful. There is a reason that magic spells have incantations, that prayer is often spoken aloud, that meditation is accompanied with a mantra. Words name, collect, and contain all that is in our world, and all that we can imagine. They allow us to connect, explain, and wonder. They interpret, inspire, and, most powerfully, cause action. For instance, a recipe says to add three cups of flour, so what do you do? I’ll bet it involves a measuring cup and some flour.

Now, the debate over a word’s power to cause extreme action has been long and repetitive—today’s Marilyn Manson/school violence connection is last decade’s Catcher in the Rye/assassination. But should our words be censored, or even taken away, to prevent possible violence? This is the essential question in Quills, directed by Philip Kaufman and starring Geoffrey Rush as the Marquis de Sade.

One would expect eroticism and violence from a movie about Sade. After all, the term “sadism” is a tribute to his writings, which featured extreme erotic sadomasochism and led to his psychological commitment. This is where the movie begins, with the Marquis rather comfortably imprisoned in a sanitarium and reliant upon a laundry-maid (Kate Winslet) to smuggle his stories out. In the beginning, most of the eroticism is heard through voice-over rather than seen, and any violence is inflicted upon the Marquis himself, in conjunction with the discovery of his continued writing.

As the movie progresses, Sade is stripped of everything: writing instruments, paper, desk—even bed sheets, when it is discovered he has written his latest piece on them with a chicken bone dipped in wine. Eventually, even his body is stripped bare, after using a sliver of mirror and his own blood to write on his clothes.

And here the violence takes hold of the movie. Because the Marquis won’t stop writing, and his final story, whispered to his disturbed neighbors, leads to a total destruction of life, morality, and love.

Yet despite this final annihilation, I find myself cheering on the Marquis. He is a champion for free speech, fighting for the right to express himself. He is a realist who asserts the existence of a dark side in everyone, even the young priest (Joaquin Phoenix). But most of all, he is a writer, enthralled with the power of language, unable to silence himself despite the knowledge that his own words will lead to his downfall. For Sade, no act, however violent or erotic, can equal the written story. The true power of words, then, is that they transcend the act they chronicle, as well as any act they may cause, because they endure—as the Marquis will endure, both through this movie and his work.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Sweet Sweetback

Tattoos as art? How about live pigs? The definition of art is a hard one to nail down, but I have come to learn that it has more to do with the process and less with the finished product. That is, an artist starts with a thought, a theory or a practice, and sees how far he or she can stretch it.

The NPR show All Things Considered recently aired a show about Belgian artist Wim Delvoye who incorporates tattooing into his art pieces. Two of his works discussed were a back piece on a live man—a sort of compendium of tattoo’s history—and some tattooed pigs, now forever studded with Disney characters and Louis Vuitton logos. The pigs are an apparent anti-consumerist message, though they were removed from the Shanghai show for not being “art.” The gentleman with the back piece, however, was considered art, and now sits in galleries taking off his shirt.

What may be most shocking is that the piece has been bought by a collector. When this man dies, his back skin will be cut off, stretched onto a canvas, and framed. The collector must wait patiently for his expensive purchase until then.

Morbid? Yes (though much great art possesses a tinge of morbidity). Kinda gross? Maybe. The thought of a human-skin canvas can conjure some pretty horrific images. I keep thinking of the Necronomicon from Evil Dead. It also conjures some questions. What are the moral ramifications of such a piece? Is it cannibalism—or recycling? And finally, is it art?

I know people who have had stunning tattoo work done. But somehow I can’t see swatches of their bodies being sold off for hundreds of thousands of dollars. Delvoye answers that his piece is art particularly because it has sold for that kind of sum—a dangerous sentiment, I believe, that turns art into a commodity, much like the Louis Vuitton handbags Delvoye himself mocks.

Art pieces may be bought and sold for large sums of money, but art is something beyond price. A piece created out of thought, performed with care and talent, that communicates something new to its audience, can be considered art whether it costs millions or nothing at all. Let’s keep that in mind before we start selling off our skin.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

For Those About to Rock...

I know a thing or two about struggling for my art. I have spent precious hours compiling submissions, writing cover letters, and addressing SASE’s for poems that are sometimes accepted, often rejected, and just as often disappear. It’s more than a little frustrating, but I do it anyway. I do it because, as a poet, I have no choice.

It feels sometimes like poets are on the bottom rung of the artistic ladder in terms of respect and opportunity, even though we work hard to get our voices heard. We don’t get the same kind of star treatment as, say, Jewel or Billy Corgan (both of whom have written horrendous books of poetry). There’s no America’s Next Top Poet for the likes of us. And if there were, who would watch? Episodes consisting entirely of people writing? Not exactly entertaining.

But in each of us there lives a little dream that we will make it, we will be stars, we will change the way others see poetry. Can’t you see it? The packed stadium, cell phone cameras pointed towards the stage where Ani DiFranco (another star with a book of poems, this one not so bad) has just performed an opening act. The spotlights swing towards center stage, fireworks shoot off, and she enters through a cloud of fog to take her place at the solitary mike: Katie C., the rock-n-roll poet. The crowd roars, screams. Tears flow. She smiles and takes a breath. Well, that’s how it plays out in my head. A girl can dream, right?

Which is why I am excited to see the current D.I.Y. trend in the music industry. No longer do musicians or bands have to be “big-label” to earn respect or get exposure. Anyone can have a big fan base, courtesy of social networking sites. Songs can be purchased directly from ITunes, and the money goes straight to the artist. And the publicity, whether it’s a fan’s Myspace song choice, a Twitter message from a concert, or a simple email, is free.

Some musicians can grumble that Mp3’s and file-sharing will lead to the death of the music industry. I say bring it on. We poets have been D.I.Y.ers from the beginning, and we applaud the creative freedom and innovation that comes with such a culture. Also, the quicker the big-label dreams die for musicians, the faster they’ll get me up on stage.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Whoa, Man

A common misconception of modern poetry is that is has to be serious, depressing, and dark. A good poem should make you cry, or feel really down, right? Wrong! Memorable poetry can be fun, light, and playful. Writers like e.e. cummings and James Tate have proven that. And so has Charlie, Mike Myers’ character in So I Married an Axe Murderer.

Charlie’s poetry is, admittedly, a send-up of the coffee house culture of the early 90’s. As soon as the humongous cappuccino engulfs the frame, you know that all seriousness has gone out the window. And his performance, complete with lit cigarette, votive candle, and jazz band accompaniment, mocks the x-generation’s worship of all that was Beat.

His writing isn’t exactly innovative or artistic either. Charlie over-uses alliteration the way an ad exec would, “Harriet, Harriet, hard-hearted harbinger of haggis.” He also employs one of Shakespeare’s most lamentable poetic tactics, namely, if a word doesn’t fit the meter, change its stresses. Bemused becomes “bemuséd,” therefore, and Harriet becomes “Hárriét.” These techniques, taken out of context, are enough to make a seasoned poet shudder.

But listen to the poet that reads before Charlie. He takes himself way too seriously, and his poem suffers. Charlie’s poetry, however, is engaging particularly because he knows it’s ridiculous. That endearing self-deprecation is what has drawn millions into the fold of David Sedaris’ sardonic voice. In my opinion, modern poetry needs a voice like Charlie, a poet who isn’t afraid to have some fun.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Infinite Sadness

I was living in a city where I knew no one. It was my birthday. It was raining. I had spent all day at the art museum…alone of course. Wandering through huge white rooms full of masterpieces I would never be able to match. They were beautiful and intimidating. Maybe the way great art should be.

On my way home, I stopped at a bookstore. A birthday present, I thought, I’ll buy myself a really big, thick book for a birthday present. I didn’t have a television, friends, or a reliable cell network, and the choice was to return to the empty apartment empty-handed, or come home with something substantial. And there it was, in the last row of Fiction, the thickest, most intimidating book on the shelf. Infinite Jest.

Now, if I were a writer like David Foster Wallace, this is the point where I’d jump into the narrative and explain that all the best eulogies were really stories about the eulogist. Like the best book reviews. Perhaps I’d put this in a footnote on page one thousand and fifty three. Writers writing about another writer have a compulsion to insert themselves into the text somehow. So, hello out there.

I had read other books by Wallace before. I sneaked sections of A Girl with Curious Hair while shelving books at my summer bookstore job. A Broom of the System introduced me to meta-fiction at exactly the right time in my life—I was 17 and hyper-aware of how truly ridiculous everything was. And someone somewhere had bought me A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again.

But this book was different. For one thing, it took me three months to read. Now remember, this was without a T.V. or a full-time job. Probably the longest book I’ve ever read. The other difference was the emotional dial was turned up on these characters. While the characters in ABOTS were sort of silly, Infinite Jest was populated with the truly tragic and infinitely sad.

I could imagine Wallace, his handkerchiefed head bent over his manuscript, rubbing his three-day stubble in concern over these people he’d created, but which he could do nothing for. Everything doomed from the beginning. Like all of us, David? Infinite jest, indeed.

Sometimes you read a book at the wrong time. The Great Gatsby, for instance, should not be read by high school freshmen. And sometimes, you read it at exactly the right time. This book was meant to be read by lonely people living alone, by someone who lives too much in their head, perhaps, or at least by someone in an empty, white room. His books may be masterpieces, suitable for the most austere museum, but they are also mirrors to the most banal, frivolous, and low in each of us. This is a good thing. Others may lament Wallace’s passing as the loss of a genius, or of an artistic innovator. I’d rather pay homage to the sad, tragic soul who reached me in that lonely city.

David, you will be missed.

Monday, September 15, 2008

The Big Bad They

Pronouns—we don’t think about them too often, though we use them profusely. Without them, however, the previous sentence might look something like this: Pronouns—Katie C. and the readers of Katie C. don’t think about pronouns too often, though Katie C. and the readers of Katie C. use pronouns profusely. Sure, this second sentence has a compelling rhythm, and some poets might laud the use of repetition, but it’s not practical. For brevity’s sake, pronouns are necessary.

So, why should we think about pronouns? In this age of sound bytes, texting, and political strife, context and precision become more and more important. A recent interview aired on NPR included audio of a woman lamenting how “they” would keep a close watch on Barack Obama if he were to be elected president. Now, who could this mysterious “they” be? The Republicans? The religious right? The Iranian government? In The X-Files, “they” are aliens. In James Bond movies, “they” are usually Russians. And if we’re talking about indie bands from the late-80’s, well, “They” Might be Giants.

Context becomes key to unlocking this pronoun. If I told you this woman was an African-American, that info might help. And if I included the story of her experience as a member of the only black family in a newly-integrated, racially hostile white suburb during the early 60’s, you would be much closer to the answer. So what if I added previous audio, where a white gentleman insisted that his race afforded him no privileges and a white woman insisted she just couldn’t trust Obama? Think you know it now?

Serious mistakes can be made when a pronoun is taken out of its context. The wrong person can be insulted or blamed, whether in an intimate text from one friend to another, or in a larger public arena, such as political races or reality T.V. shows. Of course, it is not practical to forgo the use of pronouns altogether—this has backfired more than it has helped. Remember President Clinton insisting that he did not have sex with “that woman, Monica Lewinsky”? To paraphrase Shakespeare, the president doth protest too much.

Pronoun use is both natural and necessary. Without it, we would sound silly, stilted, and maybe even untrustworthy. But we must remember to read a pronoun in its proper context. Otherwise, we face the possibility of misinterpretation. That woman on NPR, for instance—when asked who “they” were, she named “the white system.” Without context, “they” could have been anyone: the right, the Russians, even the black community. Let’s insist on context for our pronouns, let’s demand the full story. Without precision, we will remain in the dark. With it, we will gain knowledge, understanding, and the power to thwart those manipulators of language and minions of misinformation that threaten to corrupt the pronoun.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Thoughts on Fur

As a poet who has lectured on the creative process, I am very aware that it is a phenomenon not easily explainable. What happens when a piece of art is created? Where does it come from? How does it evolve? It is nearly impossible to answer these questions analytically or come up with a logical, step-by-step process. In fact, these questions are only satisfactorily answered with another piece of art.

That is what director Steven Shainberg and screenwriter Erin Cressida Wilson have done in Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus. This movie is not a biopic, but rather the translation of Arbus’ creative process into film. When we watch Arbus (Nicole Kidman) fall for her neighbor, Lionel (Robert Downey, Jr.), we are really watching the artist fall in love with her subject. What is art, after all, but an obsessive re-creation, or re-imagination, of that which we love? The icon-painters create out of a love for God. Poets worship language. Architects fall head over heels with the way light enters a building at a certain time of the day. Shainberg is equally infatuated with scenes—individual bricks of imagery and sound which he uses to build this movie. By eschewing a traditional plot-driven tactic, he has created scenes memorable for their visual and emotional effects.

But this is not an “emotional” movie. Emotion-dependent movies (think Beaches or Steel Magnolias) tend to encourage a self-centered reaction. That’s not Barbara Hershey or Julia Roberts dying on screen, that’s my best friend/mother/neighbor/little girl. This movie, however, encourages a loss of self. The lesson for artists is clear: by stepping out of our selves we can create with love a work both stunning and true.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Drowning the Field: a Note on the Title of this Blog

I live in a small town by a river. We are known as a delta region, a place where multiple waterways converge on their way to the ocean. Because of this formation, many people live on islands among these rivers--islands that would be part of the river itself, if not for the levees keeping them dry.

Like bowls of land in which farmers plant their crops, these islands make it easy to irrigate the fields. Water pumps placed strategically around the perimeter of the island make it possible to bring in as much or as little water as needed. And once a year, in the winter, these fields are flooded, or drowned.

This drowning is a necessary task. It packs the plant material remaining from harvest down into the earth, strengthening the integrity of the island and adding nutrients to the dirt. Much in the same way the mythical Phoenix is renewed after a necessary burning, the islands that shouldn't be are stronger and more rich after their near-death.

I'd like to do something similar here--that is, I'd like to add my own voice to the rest already strengthening our culture, from pop to high, and everything in between. So, welcome, and thank you for reading. Here's to necessary drowning and future harvests.