Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Over that is over and over

"Having surpassed the time for comprehending the moment of concluding,
it is the moment for concluding the time for comprehending. Otherwise,
this time would lose its meaning."
--Jacques Lacan

they are aware
made intelligible, small town

of the singular
mind in the hooded concrete
and the swept floors

the generic
workman bones, but with a feeling
of the timeless


and a fine black thread
stone love stone

they appear
to emerge, talked for an hour

with copies
of the absolute, talked
of the blank page

they recited
gathered and dismembered
clusters of Ur-speech

and Hegel whispering
in their ears

spoke of the voiceless

value, attached to the surface
of a missing limb
they tried to disguise

on the threshold

credulous people

their blue-shirt
the brain-swinging

in which they clump

measured by rightness
a world of sense
the pure form

of this conception
neither recognized

nor defineable

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

4/20: International Smoke a Joint Day

With so many domestic and international political issues to be concerned about these days, it almost seems frivolous to take a stand against the prohibition of marijuana. Unless, of course, you look at a few facts:

  • At current rates, more than 760,000 people in the U.S. will be arrested for minor possession in 2011
  • Having this arrest on your record can severely affect job and housing opportunities, financial aid, and custody disputes
  • Arrest rates for marijuana possession are hugely discriminatory, focusing primarily on black and Latino communities--even though white people buy and sell at similar rates
  • The price tag for this "war on drugs"--at state and federal levels alone--is $51 billion per year
  • In 2010, New York City spent $75 million arresting 50,000 people on possession charges
  • The bloody war on drugs in Mexico speaks for itself--37,000 deaths since Calderon's crack-down began in 2006

I grabbed these stats from an article at Alternet: 4/20: Time to Have Fun--and to End Marijuana Prohibition. In recent years, I've heard politicians declare that casual users of marijuana are responsible for drug violence in America and abroad. In other words, if there wasn't a market for the stuff, then there wouldn't be any violence. To which I say (emphatically), BULLSHIT.

The market exists, period, and prohibition has done nothing to diminish demand. If we were to end the prohibition on marijuana, we would broaden the market for production, distribution, and regulation in such a way that all this violence--and the needless expense of ensuring its continued escalation--would end. On top of that, we'd also address the very costly issues of discriminatory arrest, imprisonment, and social marginalization that accompanies current policy.

In short, it would be far more accurate to say prohibition creates conditions that lead to violence, not the casual users who create a demand.

Is that an overly simplistic analysis? Maybe. But how many people have been imprisoned for liquor violations in recent years? How many have been killed over "turf wars"? And--if you disregard the social impact of prohibition laws--how many lives are ruined by marijuana use as compared to liquor use every year? Not many. I don't think these two categories even compare, but one is legal and the other is not.

The human consumption of mind-altering substances has a long history. There has been serious speculation that the cultivation of grain in Mesopotamia (i.e. a major factor in the rise of civilization) was developed primarily for the production of beer. Marijuana use goes back, at the very least, to the Scythians in the second millenium B.C. Ritual use of psychotropic substances in the western hemisphere was well-established long before the European invasion. Making such usage illegal in the Western world--and dedicating resources toward prohibition--is a much more recent phenomenon that perhaps accompanies the modern spread of recreational usage. But why?

Has legal prohibition ever been a successful means of eliminating the popular use of mind-altering substances in a Western nation? Not really. Is the recreational use of marijuana a major problem in this country that needs to be eradicated, regardless of expense? I think that's debatable.

My own opinion is biased, but if you disagree, take a look at this fact sheet. And then consider this 1988 statement from DEA administrative law judge Francis Young:
"In strict medical terms marijuana is far safer than many foods we commonly consume. For example, eating 10 raw potatoes can result in a toxic response. By comparison, it is physically impossible to eat enough marijuana to induce death. Marijuana in its natural form is one of the safest therapeutically active substances known to man."
But, to fight this supposed danger, we dedicate billions of dollars annually to support the prohibition of marijuana? Regardless of the resulting violence and the growing cost of imprisonment? Even when enforcement follows demonstrably racist patterns?

That sounds foolish to me--and horribly unjust.

As Tony Newman states in his Alternet article, "Marijuana use doesn't discriminate, but our marijuana policies do." I couldn't agree more.

Monday, April 18, 2011

My Brilliant Career

Last night I wrote a screenplay
     not knowing how to write
     not owning a pen
I wrote and uncovered
     a midget in tights
     ... wrote 3 acts on this one midget

Then I fell by some bottles on the floor
     and slept with the dog
     ... thrilled with my new career

[apologies to Gregory Corso, Gillian Armstrong, & little people everywhere ...]

Friday, April 15, 2011

Michael Jacobson - Mynd Eraser

I just swiped this from the "international exchange for poetic invention" blog, along with the following note:

Book trailer for Michael Jacobson's MYND ERASER, an asemic kinetic work-in-progress blog novel (blovel). Excerpts have been published in such online journals/blogs as Gone Lawn ( http://gonelawn.net ), Red Lightbulbs ( http://redlightbulbs.net ), and Cormac McCarthy's Dead Typewriter ( http://cormac-mccarthys-dead-typewriter.blogspot.com ). Read the full novel and follow its progress at http://mynderaser.blogspot.com . 
Music is "71410A," a Harsh Noise Wall by the artist My Lovely Figment. Check him out at http://mylovelyfigment.blogspot.com .

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Trout Mask Replica

Last Monday I read in the paper that Captain Beefheart's acid-drenched double album Trout Mask Replica was added to the U.S. National Recording Registry by the Library of Congress. Which I thought was pretty amazing.

Here are a few songs from that record--"She's too much for my mirror" and "Human gets me blues"

But I like this one better:

Frankly, in the thirty years since I first bought Trout Mask Replica, I've probably listened to the whole thing--beginning to end--no more than a dozen times. And I don't know if it really was "acid-drenched" in its production (probably not) but that was both my impression and the state of mind from which I enjoyed it most .

In the end, I'm just happy something like this is in the national archive. But it makes me chuckle.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Three poems by Adrienne Su

When I started this blog, my intent was to focus primarily on contemporary poetry, its relatively unknown writers, and the internet journals that publish some of their work. Unfortunately, while attempting numerous drafts toward this goal, I’ve been dissatisfied with my inability to write the kind of reviews I have in mind. The reason for this is pretty simple: thoughts outpace my ability to clearly express the complicated dynamics of the poems I like best. In other words, I don’t always know how to say what I mean, but I still want to say it. And a lot of the poetry I've been reading lately is deceptively complex.

Which brings me to Adrienne Su.  While I haven’t read any of her three books, there are a few poems available online that I particularly enjoy—three of which I’ve highlighted below. In each of these, I was impressed by the way Su develops an ambiguous rhetorical structure that repeatedly draws me back for additional reads. But it isn’t just a matter of puzzling out what a poem means that draws me back. Instead, it's the way these poems gradually unfold into rich tapestries of unspoken consequence and complexity that makes subsequent reads so rewarding. She creates an experience of poetry that is difficult to describe or explain.

Of course, that's usually what I’m hoping for: a poem that generates a sense of experience—aesthetic or conceptual—that defies easy explanation as to its creation. More simply, I enjoy poetry that integrates every element of a compositional structure into a greater whole that speaks beyond its words. And, despite recent reports of poetry's supposed demise in contemporary Western culture, I have no trouble finding poets whose work satisfies this desire. Adrienne Su is no exception.

Of her online poems, "The Re-education of the Intellectuals" is one of my favorites. Beginning with a prosaic title that suggests Mao’s cultural revolution (or the Khmer Rouge), Su’s opening lines surprised me by beginning in a gentle, pastoral tone that eventually unfolds, stanza by stanza, into a humanized portrait of the suffering and sorrow experienced by political prisoners in agrarian labor camps. Eliciting a powerful sense of emotional and intellectual loss, Su’s use of nuanced language (and interrelated meanings) creates a poetic context from which the complexity of cultural experience is richly inferred. Even the title plays a role—beyond its literal meaning—by reflexively demonstrating the dry voice of an ideology that is effectively blind to the prophetic consequences of the poem’s final stanzas.

Another poem, "Adolescence,” is equally effective, using precise language that builds ambiguously from its reflection on particular images and thoughts to a sense of universal meaning that refuses to be tied down to a singular perspective. Written in the past tense, this is a beautiful poem that begins with an allusion to personal adolescence, but then transforms into something far larger (and more meaningful) than the ego-oriented surface of individual experience. More pointedly, Su's use of an ambiguous time-frame in this poem's structure (looking to the future from the past tense while implying a present tense voice) opens the canyon of her primary metaphor to create shades of nuanced meaning for each of the particular images and thoughts that anchor her poem in tangible experience and practical concerns. Su’s masterful use of grammatical tense as a device in creating this impression seems to enact the metaphor while also developing shades of meaning that transcend the practicality of her final lines.

A third poem I enjoyed was "Things Chinese". Speaking in the first person, Su examines the borders we personally erect—almost unconsciously—when it comes to understanding and expressing our subjective experience of the world. Focusing on the details of personal experience, this poem begins as a casual form of self-analysis, but as it proceeds to the final lines, the poem’s analytic voice transforms into a strikingly insightful recognition of subjective limitation and the reflexive role it plays in creating the circumstances that shape experience. Relying on negation as a means of expressing the unspoken consequence of its recollected experience, “Things Chinese”—like the other two poems mentioned above—focuses on the sometimes conflicting roles of socialization and family heritage that form individual concepts of self and society.

How we awaken to the realizations developed in these poems—and the role played by cultural differences—seems to be at the heart of Adrienne Su's poetics. What makes these poems really speak, though, is the complex, detailed attention to craft, heritage, and personal experience that Su brings to her work. On reflection, each of these poems reveal interrelated meanings that complicate any simplified discussion of their creation. In the end, all you can really do is point someone in the direction of a poem and ask them to read. Which, I suppose (in a round about way), I've just done.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Your brain on ... perceptible patterns?

I just read this short article, "Your Brain on Music" by Valerie Ross, in the latest issue of Discover Magazine. Here are a few excerpts:

If listening to your favorite song feels as satisfying as a good meal or a romp in the hay, that's because it probably is. According to a study published in January by neuroscientist Valorie Salimpoor at the Montreal Neurological Institute, music can activate the same reward circuits in the brain as food and sex.
[PET and fMRI scans of study participants] showed that just before feeling enjoyable chills in response to the music, listeners experienced a dopamine rush near the frontal striatum, a brain region associated with anticipating rewards, followed by a flood of dopamine in the rear striatum, the brain's pleasure center. "It's like you're craving the next note," Salimpoor says. That cycle of craving and fulfillment may be what keeps music lovers coming back for more.

The article goes on to explain the distinguishing characteristics of exceptional music, focusing on the masterful use of repetition and redundancy to form a composition that, according to Biologist Nick Hudson, "sounds complex but is actually built on a foundation of simple patterns."

A few pages later in the same issue, I found an ad from The Great Courses about a lecture series entitled "Building Great Sentences." The list of lecture titles offers a glimpse at all the compelling ways in which verbal and semantic patterns can be incorporated (and varied) throughout the structure of a written work:

1. A Sequence of Words
2. Grammar and Rhetoric
3. Proposition and Meaning
4. How Sentences Grow
5. Adjectival Steps
6. The Rhythm of Cumulative Syntax
7. Direction of Modification
8. Coordinate, Subordinate, and Mixed Patterns
9. Coordinate Cumulative Sentences
10. Subordinate and Mixed Cumulatives
11. Prompts of Comparison
12. Prompts of Explanation
13. The Riddle of Prose Rhythm
14. Cumulative Syntax to Create Suspense
15. Degrees of Suspensiveness
16. The Mechanics of Delay
17. Prefab Patterns for Suspense
18. Balanced Sentences and Balanced Form
19. The Rhythm of Twos
20. The Rhythm of Threes
21. Balanced Series and Serial Balances
22. Master Sentences
23. Sentences in Sequence
24. Sentences and Prose Style

I don't think it's a stretch to relate our perception of music to that of language, or to recognize these phenomena as related aspect of human cognition and the experience of pleasure. In fact, when I was studying Kant's ideas on aesthetic judgement, I couldn't get away from the notion that aesthetic experience boils down to a cognitive perception of discernible patterns and a resulting experience of pleasure. Even the degree to which we are conscious or unconscious of this phenomena seems to matter only in terms of explanation.

Further, it seems to me that conceptualist varieties of art (and poetry) instigate a type of aesthetic experience even when sensual considerations of aesthetic norms (e.g. Marcel Duchamp's definition of "retinal art") are necessarily discarded as a means of activating a conceptual (supposedly non-aesthetic) experience of art. Which is to say, the perception of patterns--even in highly abstract forms of thought--can generate an aesthetic (i.e. pleasurable) response that relies on sensory input only as an instigating stimulus.


I could probably go on and on ... but won't. Not today, anyhow.

Sunday, April 3, 2011


He puts his ear to the page and listens for a voice
Nothing is heard or even hinted at
He peels the page, skin by skin, as one would peel the skin of an onion
Not realizing that the voice is merely silent
As if in contemplation
And it never occurs to him to engage the silence
To touch each skin as if it were a revelation
An inexpressible hymn to beauty
That would bring tears to his eyes if he could only hear it

Friday, April 1, 2011

A Sure-fire Cure for Writer's Block

Do you want to know what it is? QUIT WRITING. As far as I'm concerned the only way to avoid writer's block is to stop writing altogether. As in, stop being a writer.

But that's a poor solution, isn't it? Others might say to give it a rest, take the self-imposed pressure off yourself and relax until you're in a better state of mind. Pure wisdom, I'm sure. But I rarely follow that advice, and, when I do, it doesn't work for me. Particularly with poetry--when I take an extended break it becomes even more difficult to get back into a productive groove.

So, here's my experience (as if it matters):

Writer's block, for me, is more like an inability-to-write-well block. I'm rarely at a loss for ideas, either as a poet or a would-be essayist. Instead, my ability to develop an idea--or even finish a sentence--dries up completely. My vocabulary withers; my grammar becomes convoluted; my use of syntax becomes hopelessly stale. I find that I can't even express the simplest of thoughts. Creating verbal imagery becomes impossible.

But do I ever quit writing, even for short periods? No. Instead, I torture myself and continue to write hopeless crap. That's why I started a blog: to give myself another excuse to write crap. But what's the point? Well, to become a better writer. And to become a better writer, you have to seriously critique your current abilities. Even to the point of hating your limitations and working through them.

It's all about drive--and the ability to stop worrying about writing crap. When it comes to poetry, I just keep chugging away, deleting one draft after another, exploring new approaches, reading other poets (preferably from a wide range of styles, eras, and nationalities), pulling my hair out, feeling hopeless. It's an endless cycle. But in the long run, it's strangely productive--particularly when I begin to absorb the work of other poets. New horizons appear and start to develop. I grow as a writer. The process continues.

I have a strange way of reading poetry, though, focusing primarily on the effects of language--how these effects are generated, what they imply, how they build a contextual environment in which every individual element of a poem carries more weight than a brief reading might indicate. Probably the last thing I pay attention to (or ferret out) is what a poem means. I'm looking for a generated experience of poetry, and I want to know how other poets have solved the problem of creating it. And then I want to learn how to incorporate their solutions into my own "tool kit" as a writer.

Essays, on the other hand, seem like an entirely different matter. First, I'm not very good at writing them, so I'm aware that continued efforts to write--successful or not--help me to recognize (and discard) bad habits while also developing better skills. The same principle applies to poetry, of course, but the skill set is different. I read an awful lot essays--always about topics that interest me--but when I read them I tend to follow the concepts, not the technical details of clear writing. I'm interested in how a topic is developed (and complicated) in a good essay, but I fail to pick up on the concise organizational abilities that make the process efficient. Perhaps this will change as I gain experience, but for now "inefficiency" is my middle name. I'm hopelessly disorganized when it comes to writing prose.

In both cases, however, you learn to be your own worst critic. Even a merciless critic. As I told my wife last week (drawing from a lyric by Regina Spektor), "I can write but I can't edit." And that's where I feel the strongest, most debilitating pressure when it comes to writing: how can I finish something when my abilities as an editor have completely dried up? Because editing is not a separate domain: it's still writing. And it's where most of my "inspiration" happens to occur. When I can't edit, I can't finish writing anything.

Which leads right back to writer's block: when everything you write looks like crap, it becomes difficult to even finish a sentence. Editing choices become an exercise in overkill; self-criticism becomes detrimental; your ability to develop an idea shrivels. But, if you acknowledge the fact that this is a temporary condition, you then work through it and eventually write something that is satisfying, even "good."

Incidentally, I'm only writing this post as an excuse to work through my own current blockages. Ex-lax, if you will.

So, my "sure-fire cure for writer's block"? Just keep writing. Stop giving a damn about "success" and just do it. Because if you want to be better at what you do, you have to 1) keep doing it; and 2) recognize, and correct, your own weaknesses. Stop worrying about the frustration. Developing your abilities as a writer is a life-long process, and writer's block is an integral part of that process. It means you're paying attention, that you care. Despite all the hair-pulling, I wouldn't have it any other way.

Though, to be honest, I wish I could.