aesthetics and hateration

When you hate on a woman for her pointy-toed shoes, skinniness, hairstyle, cheerleaderiness… you are participating in a misogynist system just as if you hated on her for being fat and not shaving her legs. You’re trying to comment on patriarchy, but on the way, you’re doing some woman hating. I’m hearing and reading it all week from 25 year old women on myspace, tech guys, radical feminists, friends, and my own brain.

Fembots and ‘basement cupcakes’ – – – model-thin, dressed wrong, identical – – It’s equally hateration whether it comes out of the mouth of a man or a woman.

Everyone loves hating on the Bejanes. Again, if you’ve been doing this and that was your first reaction, I’m not pointing and yelling “You’re sexist!” We’re all sexist. Look at your gut reaction of hate towards the outfits, chirpy voices, “identicalness”, hair, and shoes of the two women on stage, and think about why that reaction is so violent and powerful. What are you hating? Why did it come out in that kind of language that dehumanizes the two women from Microsoft? Sit with that for a while. Who else is “like that”? I would even challenge you to free associate a list of similarly hateable qualities.

Mixed in with the misogyny there is some fine criticism of Microsoft and of the very idea of the commercial break.

All anyone has to do is describe these women physically (very thin) and maybe say the word “fembot” and “we” think we know what’s being talked about. We hear a type – not a person. We hear qualities of femininity, which of course are understood to be despised. If we’re women talking this hate talk, we’re saying “I am not that.” If we’re men, we’re also delineating, “I am not that.”

This kind of talk is why I play with femininity at all. I am that. And I’m still your sister and I still have a brain. I am not a fembot. Talk to me like I’m a human being. Respect, y’all.

You know how people were making fun of some of us for worrying about “what to wear to BlogHer”? This is why. A good bit of the criticism directed at Microsoft drives home that where they erred is in sending women who wore the wrong thing.

I want people to dig around in their minds for a while and think about why that’s fundamentally messed up. You can be wrong. It’s okay. I think we all have internalized sexism, racism, classism – it is called hegemony. Pointing it out is not divisive – it’s helpful, and gets that stuff out into the open so we can give it a little analysis.

If you are a woman hating on another woman for big hair, makeup, pointy toed high heels, and chirpiness, and being thin, you are hating her for what you perceive as her buying into the system of patriarchal aesthetics. It signifies that she is willing to give a significant amount of her time and energy to men. We think that fembot, consciously or unconsciouly is sucking up to The Man, and getting privilege for it. That perception of privilege (which I’d argue is largely wrong) creates a lot of divisive resentment. That’s why we think we can talk smack about “plastic actresses with boob jobs in Los Angeles” and think that it’s okay to dehumanize them in our thoughts and language. It’s not right to hate a Bejane or an Uncle Tom. Isn’t bejaning yourself presented to us women as a survival skill? Isn’t it the way to be loved? To be non threatening? Then why is it also a ticket to hate? Because – coding yourself with feminine qualities is a way to signify inferiority. So we bitterly hate the ones who can and do code themselves extremely well according to patriarchal standards.

I don’t accept that entire system although I live in it and it is more powerful than I am as an individual. I see no escape from it, and so I play with it. I have the luxury of my sense of self worth, my job, my relationships, not depending on my conforming to feminine requirements.

Oh, and p.s. Yes – I do feel annoyed and uncomfortable at condescending men in hardware stores, whether I’m in a dress or in jeans and work boots. Yes I can go buy a hammer, but I still notice the sexism. The sexism is worse if I’m in a dress and it’s especially worse if I’m in a sexy feminine dress. Because I have a lot of privilege, I can mostly ignore that sexism. Many women don’t have the kind of privilege I enjoy.

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lenses and filters


firedancers 008
Originally uploaded by jenijen.

The firedancing and poi last night at the geek dinner were great, but I noticed that they were even better through my camera lens, and especially through Jen’s camera lens. I wanted to watch it all through her camera and not through my own eyes. Not for the first or last time, I thought of Paul Feyerabend’s “Against Method” in which he lays out the history of our perceptions of reality and how science and epistemology considered lenses. In other words, when telescopes and microscopes were new, it was controversial to treat whatever you saw through them as an empirical fact. Now we take this for granted – that what we see through an electron microscope is real and true.

I like having glasses (rather than getting eye surgery to correct my vision) because it is a constant reminder that my reality (as judged by what I see) can change easily and abruptly. Well, I suppose that being able to open and close one’s eyes could serve as the same reminder. But my vision of a face can be blurry if I peek over my glasses – so blurry that I realize much of my recognition of a person is not in their face but is in their posture and movement.

How does this relate to books, writing, poetics? Can we adopt different visions of a text, and think, “With these glasses on, the book or poem reads this way. Without them, it’s another way.” Yes. The trick would be articulating what kinds of lenses we’re using at particular moments.

Another trick: this blog is a filter or a lens exposed to public view. I was thinking all this quite clearly while standing on the porch last night, but it’s hard to kick the conversation up to this level in person while it’s happening – it could potentially bore people or be a monologue hard to absorb. So it becomes less socially offensive on paper or blog. It gets to be a snapshot of a moving thought just like the snapshot of the moving fire makes a beautiful pattern not visible in the moment as we experience moments linearly. Possibly I’ve just had a dumb epiphany about the wonders of the paragraph.


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More on process and poems

Again relating to Quickmuse. Man, this is the sort of neoformalist stick-up-the-butt work that makes me crazy, even when I also kind of like it. It makes me crazy how same-same it all is. They all sound like each other, and like they’re tallking only to each other in the same melancholy formal register. How can people write like that all the time and not be aware of the profound unoriginality of voice? And consider that the only path to “quality”? Where is the newness? What’s getting broken and remade? (Nothing big, that’s for sure.) It’s like watching someone in a box extend a tiny feeler outside the box and wave it around in an elaborate encoded handsignal. Even if I understand the meannig of the handsignal and its beauty and the history of the tentacle-waving from inside a box art form, I’m so dissatisfied! Yes, there is a place for the muted expression of things… I can’t put my finger on what makes me so FRUSTRATED when I read poems like this. It’s like being a volcano and having someone try to make you sit down and listen to a reasoned argument about how you need to brush your teeth. They are right, and it’s fine for them to expect you to listen quietly, but when their speech is over, you’re still a fucking volcano. I want big poems, and I want to be surprised, and mind-fucked, and taken on a trip, and pleased by something that goes somewhere I don’t expect. I want MORE.

Ideally, I suppose, watching someone else’s process makes one frustrated, and just frustrated enough to run off and write a BETTER poem. Just like retranslation, where you love a work, and respect a translation of it or have special nostalgia for it, but it does not match your own vision and so becomes a constant pebble in your shoe until you do it your own way. Inspiration by way of annoyance. God, people! Get out of the box! Would rather see something, anything that isn’t like everything else, and definitely that isn’t “workshopped” or “polished”.

Maybe the toothbrushing is not quite the right example. They’re like small, perfect, formal gardens. I like them, but I want fucking terraforming — that’s big and vulnerable.

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Quickmuse and process

This looks nifty: QuickMuse, a poetry jam site that exposes writing process. You can see the finished poem and then do a playback of the writer compsing the poem, writing and deleting and shuffling things around. The interface, well, I could wish for it to be more like a video where you can slide a bar and speed it up or pause. But I love the idea. Poems on assignment or on a subject have always made me yawn – even assignments I try to give myself. But how interesting it would be to capture the natural process of writing… not always, but occasionally. I have a moment between when i’m rambling and casting about, and then suddenly get in the groove, get my vision, and know what I’m doing. I can stay in that state of mind for hours, then drop out, exhausted emotionally. My paper notebooks have those few first lines and “casting” maybe pages of rambling or clumsy lines that I know aren’t “it”. It seems to me that part of inspiration is knowing what is not it, but knowing you have to go through creating Not-It anyway.

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Ejaculation and translation

I was poking around in violently engulfing Steiner’s book “After Babel” the other day and imagining my parody regendering of some of his more ridiculous passages. All the bits where he writes about translation as penetration and ejaculation and most particularly the “onanism” sections about how when men masturbate there’s “more” ejaculate (than what other times? haha, what?) and therefore translation, which is like sex, is less powerful than solo authoring, which is guys wanking off.

If anyone were to write… seriously… as a work of scholarly theory… something similar about women masturbating being a bold semiotic act, can you just picture the outraged backlash?

I’m going to write the nastiest, most pornographic parody…

Anyway, Steiner is a total nutjob. I prefer the lunacy of Mary Daly if I’m going to read some far-out mind-bending theory.

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genre or movement?

I was challenged to explain what I mean by “genre” and how it’s different from a “literary movement”. So, is modernismo a genre? A movement? Or what? Some theorists talk about genre as form – as poetry, drama, prose; elegy, epic, lyric. Then there’s another way of talking about genre or subgenre, or “historical genres”: science fiction, gothic romance, realist painting. And if a literary movement is some people copying each other to do something a new way, or a particular way, and create a different frame of reference of aesthetic judgement, how is that different from inventing a genre — a body of work that shares some particular characteristics?

Or, think of it this way… a sonnet is a form, not a genre. But we could talk about a historical genre of “courtly love poetry” which often uses sonnet form. Or one could talk about a genre of writing about “courtly love” which would include various form-genres like poetry and exchanges of letters.

So am I way off base in using that word to talk about modernismo as a genre? And suggesting a countergenre? “Movement” doesn’t fit, and I’m trying to talk about the beginnings of decisions about canonicity… though I suppose you can talk about being canonical within a particular movement. But how critics/poets decide who’s in the movement and who isn’t is quite suspect. So if a movement depends on traceable connections between writers, and I’m reframing rather than proving connections, I don’t feel like “movement” is the right word. Plus – it makes me think of going to the bathroom.

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Gender and genre

As I continue reading Latin American literary criticism from the 20s and 30s onward, I keep noticing that critics often decide that women poets missed the genre bus. A critic will launch into a discussion of modernismo, and then mention at the end of the chapter that some women were writing, but they are really Romanticists who came to the party years too late. That in 1910, no respectable poet would still be writing in a Romanticist tradition; poetry has evolved beyond that. And then later, that in 1930, no respectable poet would still be writing in a modernismo tradition, because now the new thing is different.

As if only one genre could exist at a time, and as if there were a model of evolutionary progress. Literary Darwinism. And as if there weren’t fuzzy boundaries, as if even a single poem didn’t have multiple traditions feeding it – not to mention the entire body of work of a poet who might write in many genres, many styles.

But then, in a strange twist; the same critics lament that there was never a great woman Romanticist poet, never a real one who was Romanticist to the core; never a true poet of modernimso.

I see the same thing in science fiction. Oh, it’s too bad women don’t really fit “the genre” — don’t write “hard sf”. (Despite all the ones who did, and still do.) But then when they do… Well, of course when women start doing it, they’ve missed the bus; they’re out of date, they’re stuck in the past, they’re no longer the cutting edge. We men have already plumbed that genre to its depths and discarded it and we have our Great examples. We’ve gone somewhere else to redefine the center of power, now that you women have come.

And I begin to believe the same is true of the “where are the masterworks” argument. (Which is now happening, heatedly, on the WOMPO list.) Where are the masterworks by women throughout history? Where is our female Dante, Homer, Shakespeare? This question always asked as if there could be no possible answer except pity that the terribly sexist conditions of the past precluded women ever acheiving something great. How inassailably logical! Always, we are on the cusp of Now; because of the recent advances in women’s rights and education, we might, someday, hope to acheive a masterwork; the problem is, this arguement has been around for hundreds of years at least. It’s always almost. It’s always as if the problem were new and the carrot were just out of reach. And … this is a big fat lie. And women, if you buy into that lure of Now Almost Maybe and it might be you who surfs the new thing into the open arms of important history; well you’re actually screwing over the women of the past in order to eliminate some competition, you’re elbowing other women out of the way in a roller derby you aren’t going to win, because that token position is a shaky one. Be careful what you’re buying into.

It is very instructive to look at the ratio (As Beth Miller does in her essay “El sexismo en los antologías”) of women to men in anthologies over a long time period. We need more studies like this, with charts and data analysis… To make the patterns and process more obvious to everyone.

I remain convinced that not only are the masterworks out there (one small example – I’d put the Heptameron up against Boccacio any day) but there is something wrong with you definition of masterwork if you think they aren’t.

And I’m also convinced that one solution is to redefine genres. I like my idea of maenidismo as a genre. It fits so well. Redefine and recreate genres in which women’s work is central, is the core. In science fiction, we have some of that with the push to define a canon for feminist speculative fiction. But I’d like to see more thought and discussion; more genres invented. Perhaps the beginning is to take the work by women, and put it all together, and look for patterns, create groupings, look for movements and feedback loops. Then define the genre. THEN look and see if there’s any work by men that might half-way begin to fit in that genre.

I wonder if anyone else has used this approach? Probably; but it’s a new thought to me and I’ve been developing it for many years. It goes beyond the creation of women’s anthologies and studying work by women only. Create genres and traditions, and then let in men’s work halfway, as tokens. This avoids pure separatism, and the ghettoization that seems to accompany it. Even if this doesn’t “work”, with the ripple effects of power that I’d like to see, well, then it ends up functioning like other gender identity-based efforts and anthologies; as pockets for information and women’s work to be preserved for future rediscovery by people like me, which is maybe the best we can hope for.

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Protector of the Small

Here’s some small and beautiful books that I have around the house:

This Is Important by F.A. Nettelbeck.
Half a sheet of letter paper, xeroxed, cut the long way and folded accordion-style. Tiny poems.

WHEN

you travel for
a distance and you
don’t see any bones,
you worry, because
then you are lost.

Okay, not my favorite poem in the world, but I like the idea of these little scraps floating around the world! Nettlebeck’s work is often amazing. This Is Important looks to have come from the 80s in Santa Cruz. Last year I saw Nettelbeck read at Art 21 in Palo Alto – he came out from Arizona or Colorado or somewhere on a visit – and he blew me away. It was like a scruffy, stinking, roaring tiger at a Persian cat show. He came complete with drunken shit-kicker girlfriend who heckled everyone and asked them if they were dead. (As it is generally a lovely yet WASPy crowd, quiet and solemn as church.) Meanwhile Nettelbeck was ranting from his novel with sort of time travelling scungy teenagers and reminiscings of the 70s Santa Cruz poetry scene and the bones of Ginsberg. There is something to ephemeral slips of paper and to experiences like that mad, mad reading in the art gallery!

Inevitable – writings by Sabrina C.
Letter paper, halved the short way, folded, and stapled on the short edge handout not booklet style, xerox.

Roller blade fire mama, spandex short and legs hard with gleaming muscle, the shine shifting, blinding ants for a second…

Sabrina tries hard to capture each moment, each person passed in the street, the blinding sweat rollerblade beauty and the “lonely aluminum wolves”, “how they cross and uncross streets in nervous jittered unlacings”. Strong fierce lovely poems… I like the roughness of the work and of the book. My favorite of her poems I’ve seen so far is the long one in Inevitable that starts:

Now the key has to be ready and accessible between fingers three and four by the time I’ve even rounded my block
right hand in my right pocket, I’ve got the lock down of my mental security in check.

She describes how she pictures the locks and the sequence of actions necessary to get into her apartment’s gates and doors; in the middle of the imagining and unlocking, she describes her enemy. It’s eerie for me to read, as I also wrote a long poem about this very thing.

I know the way they look in the sun
their eyes downcast and watching
their sideways following heet whispers as they warm you up for their licking shadows

I know the way that they plan their sentences to follow my passing like a scent
and their lingering desires that catch me like ghosts of stink perfume

I know the rooms they live in
boxes of heated sheets
stained with the imprints of their turning night bodies
their hands praying to crucifixes
while creating the beads of rosaries
in cream and liquid testimonies of faith

they are praying to something they will never get
and though I am nameless, I am it

That’s quite powerful. Do you see the roughness, but the power of the roughness? I think the power would disappear if smoothed. I saw John Lee Hooker play once, and it was like that, rough, smoky, crackling, noisy, with extra bits. It had noise in the signal.

Nonce by Cid Corman.
Small and thin. Japanese striped paper jacket. printed & stapled, 1965. 500 copies printed. The jacket goes over the staples to hide them.

As the sun
lights mountains
the child’s hand

lifts to its
grandmother’s
thoughtlessly.

I’m on a roll with the poems about babies and sunbeams.

Thunder
shower! As
if I couldnt
go out,
if I wished!

Aw yeah. Should tattoo that on myself, for when the revolution comes. Why wait for the revolution? It’s a good motto anytime. Thunder shower! Hah! It expresses such affection and boldness, an intimate relationship with the world. Like he’s saying, “Oh, you!” and patting the storm on its head. Or anything that makes a Big Noise to scare you. You don’t have to be scared – says Cid. And it’s conveyed in so few words! Go ahead and try to do that.

I’m a sucker for this poem:

Someone will
sweep the fallen
petals away

away. I know,
I know. Weight of
red shadows.

I feel oldfashioned for liking Corman so much. I’m not sure how much of my liking is in the poems and how much is in his little books and his philosophies. I’m sad that he died a couple of years ago and I didn’t even know. We were writing letters for a while, and he gave me permission to reprint his translation of Lu Chi’s Wen Fu, a work on writers and writing.

He was the sort of person who delighted in writing to everyone, sending off little paper doves, emitting poems and interesting thoughts to anyone who might find them. Whole chunks of the letters would repeat themselves sometimes. As if he wanted to make sure it got through to someone, like repeated coded messages from a submarine… He would have had a lovely blog.

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Cheap thrills, writing hangovers, long poems

Have you ever written – and published – a line that later gives you a hot blush of shame? For me it’s always some cheap trick of rhetoric that seemed like a good idea when it spewed off my fingertips into TexEdit, some utterly dorktastic 9th grade journalism thing, a throwaway bit of demogoguery that mixes the trite and pompous. I can think of two of them right now that I’d love, love, love, to delete from the face of the earth.

Other lines I’ve written stick in my head more pleasantly. I’m in love with them despite their technical flaws, and I don’t want to abandon their imperfections.

This happened to me today. I was driving along, thinking about poetry. A poem I wrote 10 years ago, “White Horse,” started running through my head. I haven’t thought of it or looked at it for quite a while, though I tried reading it aloud at a poetry slam in San Jose once – my first and only poetry slam, and it was the wrong kind of poem and I hadn’t memorized it.

Things bothered me about this poem: I kept plonking back and forth between prosy explaining-language that embarrasses me, like:

her children fight, complain, scream,
her mother and sisters bicker
far into the night, chainsmoking,

and dense stuff that I approve of still, like:

Resignation bright as a trumpet, victim-shiny,

It became completely obvious to me how I wanted to fix the poem and save it from my own clumsiness. Because it’s good, really, especially the very end:

Your hands, Diana, pull the life
from his warm animal eyes, his skin
collapses, the bones protruding
unwind, unwrap themselves into crackling
mummy bandages, deeds to property, car
registrations, proof of insurance, diplomas,
credit reports, all fluttering up and around your hands
like paper doves, and the moon dissolves into its own
beams. My wet puddle self is drawn up in the same
life-line, into the horse’s skin, which,
reanimate, boneless, sways to accept her weight,
all fluid and alert, and we are together
rollicking off into the moonless night.

“Off into” bothers me, and yet I don’t want to abandon it, for its trueness to my own speech patterns and for its rhythm and emphasis.

There’s other poems I know I can’t rewrite. I have to start over, and start somewhere else.

At that time 10 years ago my poetics were focused around narrative movement. I wanted each poem, without being prose, to have something happen. The mood and images had to be in a story, and that story had to be something beyond “Oooo, look, I just had a vague epiphany.” I wrestled with that one for a while.

But later, I spouted off thusly, in one of my “Hot Air” essays. I think this one was in Caesura magazine:

Poetry swirls and leaps and turns in on itself. It should be dense, rich, layered. Dense poetry rewards study and thought. It should not pace – not even long narrative poetry. It changes state. It boils and sublimates.

A prose poem is something different; a vignette, or a collage, not an excerpt from a novel.

Look at the poem. If it can be written out as a paragraph – with a paragraph’s pacing and sensibility – then make it so.

(You see what I mean about my tendency to bombast… But I was trying to say something steely-eyed about Bad Poetry, without citing any actual examples of bad poetry, those ones I’d been hearing that were driving me crazy…)

And then suddenly I moved on to writing very long poems, listening to the structure of long poems. I love how certain poems move in and out of a subject, returning to touch base and then spinning out into the distance, never quite letting you go – but you have to pay attention! But no, actually, you don’t. The long poem allows space for spacing out. You can listen to it, and as in listening to baroque music, your mind can spin out into some fascinating direction and then be reeled or yanked back in, back into the present of the poet’s voice. At readings at Waverley Writers, and then later at Art21, and the Saturday Poets, I heard Steve Arntson recite his long, long poems about the coast of Oregon and Kirk and Spock and the Wizard of Oz, and immediately classed him with Kerouac, Ginsberg, Grahn, in his mastery of the form of the long poem. It was instructive for me. I have his CD, “Poem Dreams with Imaginary Companions” and another huge audio tape with the oregon poems.

At the time I was translating a poem that takes 20 minutes to read aloud, that is all in rhymed couplets and mean to be sung: “Florentino y el Diablo.” Now, I am translating Nestor Perlongher’s long poem “Cadáveres”, which spins off in baroque fashion and “yanks” you back with repetition. Each verse – and the lengths and rhythms vary – ends with the words, “Hay Cadáveres”. In a way I felt… Oh, this is so rude … but I’m a snob and I love the clusterfuck density of Perlongher’s shorter, more cryptic poems where many things happen at once, like a 10-dimensional cryptogram, and I remember first reading “Cadáveres” and thinking “Ha. That’s a cheap trick. Here’s his popular poem.” But really I love that poem.

Believe it or not, I have a point I’m winding up to make. Recently I was talking to someone, I think Serene who does the Nomad Cafe reading series, about our love of “that 70s thing” that is sort of like beat poets, or like the next generation of poets who obviously love the beats but who are not quite beats, and we think of ourselves as continuing in that vein. I am about ready to declare that whole Thing to be part of what Cuban and Argentinian critics call the neobarroque. At some point last year, Hilary Kaplan turned me on to her translation of Alexei Bueno‘s amazing long poem, “The Decomposition of Johann Sebastian Bach”, so there’s a Brazilian neobarroco writer for you…. Once I started reading about neobarroco, I realized that’s what I’m doing. For a year I’ve been thinking of my own poetics as part of the neobaroque, but it’s been a private process of consideration. I should write this up more thoroughly, with examples.

It is like the beautiful moment during Quetzalcoatl’s version of “El Gabán y el gavilán” where the song is interrupted by the harp spiralling off into something hesitant, like a haze of a chain of thought that’s almost broken…

Anyway, I really hate it when people call me a language poet. I’m a neobaroque poet. And in the best of my nascent traditions, I will promise to write about all this tomorrow. Then tomorrow, I’ll have a new and shinier thought.

I will also promise to discuss Steve Arntson’s work in detail. It’s astonishing to me when I’m in a room full of people who seem not to realize that whenever he reads it’s a Momentous Occasion. If I ever help to get his poems published or collected or recorded I will be very, very happy. The world is missing out and I can’t stand for his work to disappear into the fog of memory.

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