Independence Day

Writing about America is frustratingly hard and stupidly easy, impossible to get right and impossible to avoid. If you're writing in the U.S. about anything outside yourself, you're writing about the U.S. and it probably makes you a little crazy.

It's a big, messy country, and some poets have managed to write big, messy poems about it; I reread Ginsberg's "America" every July 4th and, though stylistically and temporally removed from me, the poem feels right. It's on the long list of things that I could never have written but really wish I had.

I tend to go the other direction, toward the small and contained, and so I'm always thrilled to find models. This poem by Rich Smith, from an old issue of New Ohio Review (Spring 2016), is probably another piece I couldn't have written, but it has intelligence and empathy in it that manage to both inspire and bemuse. Though so much shorter and tighter, it might say just as much about this country as anything else you're likely to read today.

 

Rich Smith

THE MOST AMERICAN THING I'VE EVER SEEN

 

A man in a rented Mickey Mouse suit

stands on Santa Monica Pier, ready to be photographed

with tourists. Years of sun and industry have damaged

his Mickey Mouse ears, weakened the fabric

so much they won’t stand stiff on their own.

 

He has to hold them up with his cartoon pillow hands.

But he also has to wave at people to advertise his trade.

So he waves. But then his ears flop over.

So he reaches up to right them, to hold them up

until he feels the need to wave again,

 

which he does. But then his ears flop over.

So he reaches up to right his ears again

until he feels the need to wave. Which he does,

with his foot.

Inauguration Day

Like millions of other people, I have been walking around today with a tight clutching ache just below my lungs. It's the feeling you get when you've lost a bad bet and are forced into some terrible dare. It doesn't matter that the bet was shady or that the dare is open-ended and likely to escalate.

I'm not watching the inauguration today, nor am I planning to write through it; I don't find dread that inspiring. Instead, I'll teach. I'll teach tomorrow and the next day, and I'll try to do it with compassion and care. I'll hold my boyfriend's hand and eat foreign foods. This summer, I'll go to my silly German-themed water park and race small kids down the slides. Over the next year, I'll write, even though I know that poetry doesn't have a big effect on most of the world, though the small impact on the very few might be enough. Over the next four years, I will try to be kind and decent. I will try to be better than the future that I fear.

Where Candy Bars Come From

The following is an excerpt from a conference presentation I did on Frank O’Hara’s poem “Ave Maria.” I didn’t get booed off the stage, nor did I accidentally fall off of it, so I thought I’d commemorate the moment by putting this here.


I went on my first date when I was sixteen. I was a gay kid who had recently come out in a small town in rural Michigan, so it’s kind of a miracle that I could get a date at all. Being the romantic kid I was (and which I tragically remain), I had embarrassingly high expectations of my suitor, a boy named Oliver whom I had never met. He was a helpful friend’s gay cousin who lived an hour away, practically next door by Midwestern standards. When he pulled up to the agreed upon meeting place—a pizzeria parking lot— I saw that he was older and odder than he’d been described. He had an early-Beatles bowlcut and drove a very rusty red Mustang that was probably supposed to impress me, but which just made me a bit nervous.

Our plan had been to go to a movie theater in the next county, but the Mustang broke down in a field a couple miles out of town. It simply stopped, somewhat suspiciously. Oliver turned to me with a semi-embarrassed smirk and a nervous swish of his bowlcut, and said, “So here we are.” That’s when I knew the date was going nowhere, literally or otherwise.

As he walked to a farmhouse to call AAA and I started walking the five miles home, I was actually in a really good mood. Of course, I had no way of knowing that this would just be the first in a lifetime of disappointing dates. At that moment, though, I felt like a new creature. I felt like I had briefly stepped through the beaded curtain into the back room of the video store: I had seen the world that I had heard whispered about, that I had been warned against, and in which I knew I belonged.

When I got home, my mother asked where I had been and I made something up. I don’t know why; she knew I was gay and probably would have been relatively okay with the idea of me dating. But it seemed better and, honestly, more exciting to keep it a secret. It was my experience, mine alone, and I felt powerful and adult. Yeah, I could have been kidnapped or assaulted or who knows what, but I wasn’t, so I felt like I had accomplished something, even mastered something. My mother, a smart woman, knew that I was lying, but being a smart woman, she let me have my lie.

It was several years later, in college, that I discovered Frank O’Hara’s “Ave Maria.” Being young and in the full vanity of my own experience, I identified with it completely. I didn’t see the satire in it; I thought it was an honest, earnest exhortation to mothers like mine, telling them to allow their sons and daughters, especially the queer ones like me, to figure out who and what they were in the dark of the movie theater.

I eventually realized that O’Hara’s tongue was somewhere near his cheek when he wrote the poem. From the profane wink of the title to the histrionic guilt trip of the end, O’Hara knew that the mothers of America probably wouldn’t rush to get on board his plan for their kids’ potential sexual awakenings. Even in 1960, before Amber Alerts and Nancy Grace and our culture’s obsession with sexual predation and the vulnerability of children, the argument of “Ave Maria” – that parents acknowledge and accept the sexual agency of their children – would have been beyond the pale. And now? If you were to post this poem on a parenting forum on the internet, you’d have the police called on you.

But beneath the satire and the elegant irony, I think there’s an earnest heart, which can be said about most of O’Hara’s work. Yes, he’s joking, but in that joke, he’s celebrating both the desire and danger that are inherent in probably any teenage sexual experience, but are especially fundamental to the queer life. The gay teenager knows that different rules apply to him or her, and a different life awaits, one that is independent and separate, possibly full of secrets, and purely one’s own. O’Hara, odd optimist that he was, painted that life as gorgeous, gratuitous, Heaven on Earth.

That’s why the mothers must let their kids go to the movies. The poem doesn’t live in the park or the grocery store, but in front of a screen bright with glamorous, far-off places. Fantasy has always been a major part of the queer experience, even now, as reality becomes less hostile than it was. We still want to live in a world better than the world that is. In many ways, “Ave Maria” is a paean to the movie house, temple of the imagination. The mind is where all sex truly starts and where, for better or worse, most of it ends.

Frank O’Hara’s importance to me, and the reason I think he remains relevant, is his way of swimming just below the surface. He is superbly ironic, but always honest, and even surprisingly earnest if you look closely enough. It’s a difficult balance that only the finest poets, now or then, have managed to pull off.

I was shocked when I considered how much of my own work seems to be inspired by “Ave Maria.” I hadn’t realized how thoroughly that poem had gotten into me. Like O’Hara,I’m interested in agency, in how people become themselves, often with the help of actors on screen showing them how. I think that, wherever we’re from, we’re the products of Hollywood: both the Hollywood a few freeways from everywhere, and the weird Hollywood of our hearts, where we make the movies we want to live.

 

Gun Minor

My father loved guns. He owned a gun shop, making his living on the promise of killing animals and the potential for killing people. He was a devoted hunter, an amateur gunsmith, and an unreadable encyclopedia of gun-slinging westerns. Even after he stopped paying his life-insurance premiums, he still payed his NRA dues.

I’ve never liked guns. Too heavy and ominous, too full of expectations. And while I understand how happy they made my dad and many others of his context and circumstances, I don’t think guns belong in our lives. There are certainly too many bullets in the world, and too many people dying from them.

I’ve always dreaded becoming a polemicist. Fusing argument and art is difficult, and the results are so often clumsy and inelegant and easy to ignore. So when I write about the issues that matter to me, like gun control, I try to be subtle, but the results tend to be so subtle as to be useless.  It’s not that I’m worried about offending anybody; one of the goals of art is to offend without resorting to rudeness. It’s just that poems are discrete, limited objects, and forceful arguments sometimes leave little room for nuance, like the joy that firearms brought my father.

I was reading Lighting the Shadow by Rachel Eliza Griffiths, and I came across this passage from “gun minor, or the inconsolable consolation”:

 

The bullets in America are not thoughtful. They do not go missing.

They are not tied to chairs. They are not held captive in mobile homes.

They do not announce revolution. They are a riotous amendment.

They are not walking along the bike road, offering their metal eyes

or hungry flesh to strangers. They do not ask for healthy hot lunch or medicine.

They are not being sold behind the school. They are not playing

games they learned from adults. They do not pray to gods or American idols.

We do not drain lakes or books to save them. They do not bear

their captors’ children in basements. They have rights.

 

It’s not subtle. The argument about social priorities is not new, nor is it really stated in an altogether new way. But it still works. Without overwriting or overburdening the images, the passage ties the debate over gun control to the grim archetypes of disempowered gender, race, and class. It wanders the societal landscape while remaining syntactically rigid, tied to its structure of negations.

I might never learn how to approach my subjects as they deserve, to make a point that might make some difference. I’m glad, though, that other people have figured it out.

First off, thank you all for coming.

I love reading poems to people. I'm not sure if they love being read to, but I'm a poet, so I only consider my audience in the abstract. And in the abstract, my audience is really into my poems. Moreover, they're really into hearing my poems, into feeling those poems thrown over them like hot blankets straight from the dryer, into feeling those hot-blanket poems press down on them in a way that is both comforting and strangely sensual. My abstracted audience writhes under the wool and chenille of my phrasing. The listeners snuggle in, but maybe they sweat a little, too, and when, after several minutes of unexpected intonations and dramatic pauses at key moments, I rip the warm layers of artistry from them, they are shocked by the sudden rush of cold air and a mundane world subtly changed.

That's how it works in my head. So it's always a little strange to look up from the podium and see only a bunch of my politest friends gamely fulfilling their obligations, though perhaps wishing they had grabbed a few more brownie bites before sitting down in those hard folding chairs. That's if I'm lucky, of course; I've had a couple of readings where the audience consisted mainly of homeless men who would much rather have had a literal warm blanket, but were making the best of the situation and the tea crackers.

It doesn't really matter, though. I'm grateful to both my indulgent friends and the indigent, as well as those folks who actually set out to hear a stranger read poetry. I'm just happy to have faces out there looking up at me when I look up from the page. It's what I think about when I write the poems; it's why I write the poems.

My new book is just coming out, and in a few days, I'll be flying to New York City for a launch reading. It's the first of several readings I have booked or planned over the next six months. Some of them, I'm sure, will have audiences that could easily fit into a family sedan. Some, though, will have row upon row of folks ready to listen to me melodramatically intone my silly poems about horror movies and late-night commercials. Either way, I'm grateful. You let me do something I really love, and you let me think I'm good at it.

Enjoy the light refreshments, folks. 

It was now fine music...

Yesterday, I saw about a half-dozen copies of Jewel's collection of poetry, A Night Without Armor, on a bookshop shelf. It sold over a million copies, mostly to well-meaning parents and English teachers, and it's now a fixture at every used-book store in the country. It's often the entirety of the store's poetry section. I haven't read it, so I can't comment on Jewel's skill as a writer, but I'll readily admit that I still love "Who Will Save Your Soul."

Seeing so many copies of her book started me thinking about the relationship between writing lyrics and writing poems. They're basically the same thing, but entirely different. Songs rely mainly on melody and instrumentation for their impact, and the lyrics generally serve to reinforce whatever emotional goals are at play. Lyrics might be gorgeous and profound or not, but it's the guitar hook or bass line that makes you listen, that makes you want to sing along.

Poems must make their own music from the page or the stage. They can't hide inside a string section, and they have to make more direct overtures toward emotional or intellectual meaning. Few poems can succeed on sound alone.

There aren't many songwriters who call themselves poets, preferring to let devoted fans and lazy music critics do that. When a songwriter publishes a book or poetry, as Patti Smith and Leonard Cohen and Billy Corgan have all done, the poems tend to feel like unfinished songs, limp as liner notes, and are generally inferior to what the writer does best and clearly loves better: making music.

More exciting, but rarer, are the poems that start on the page and then get somehow set to music. Hundreds of years worth of religious music has been built this way, but modern and secular examples are relatively few. When it happens, the results are often stuffy or weird, but poems are often stuffy and preferably a little weird, so that's no surprise. Occasionally, though, a poem finds a new life as a song, as with Galway Kinnell's "First Song" when set and performed by Andrew Bird. Kinnell was a pleasant reader of his own work, but Bird's interpretation of the poem seems, somehow, more accurate. So let me just say right now that if anybody wants to make one of my poems into a song, go ahead. I expect a whistling solo, though.

Roman à treble clef

I was going to start this off by saying that I never do those Facebook chain-posts, like the one where someone lists ten albums that have had an impact on them and then tags a bunch of people to do the same. I was going to say that I’ve resisted and resisted until, finally worn down by all of the insistent tagging, I’ve decided to give it a go.

That would be an absolute lie, though. It’s true that I’ve never participated in one of those chains, but it’s mostly because I haven’t been asked to, and I don’t like to look too eager. My carefully cultivated air of disdain makes it hard to jump on an enjoyable bandwagon, even if that wagon is rolling very, very slowly by. So, having finally been very lightly prodded into doing it, I’ve decided to list ten albums that have done a lot for me, in one way or other. So settle in and prepare to judge me and the awkward, incomplete evolution of my taste.


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Tom Waits: The Black Rider

My sister, six years older and marginally cooler than me, left this tape in our living-room entertainment center. I found it in junior high and played the hell out of it, even though I had no idea what was going on. Honestly, I still don’t, though I know it has something to do with a cautionary German folk tale and a lot of oddly tuned brass instruments. It’s the soundtrack to a Robert Wilson play, so there are grotesque story songs, palpitating instrumentals, and a surprising number of sweetly drunken ballads. It sits squarely in the middle of Waits’s career, but it was an amazing and irresistible introduction for me. It was the first album I ever obsessed over, and I still croon some of the songs in the shower.


The Rocky Horror Picture Show Soundtrack

I didn’t have much to rebel against in my early teens—I had a pretty nice thing going, and I knew it. But that didn’t stop me from reveling in the trappings of rebellion. I died my hair several unfortunate shades, wore unflattering thrift-store suits with Easter-colored tuxedo shirts, and spent a lot of time watching Rocky Horror Picture Show. It wasn’t just the euphoria of gender-bending and open sexuality, or even the cachet of enjoying something clearly and gleefully counter-culture. It actually made me feel all sorts of earnest feelings. Looking back, I realize that I didn’t really understand camp and how it turns pathos into bathos. At the time, the ludicrously melodramatic final songs of the musical could actually make me pretty misty-eyed. It was like Tim Curry really understood my soul.  MY SOUL.


PJ Harvey: Rid of Me

Every teenager makes a conscious decision about who his or her favorite musician will be. I’m so glad I chose PJ Harvey over Bush. There was a brief, terrible moment when it could have gone either way.

PJ Harvey was my icon throughout high school, for no particular aesthetic or intellectual reason. I just really liked the force of her songs. They seemed, well, forceful. Perhaps that’s why I’m the only person in the world who prefers her early albums to her later stuff. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve enjoyed everything of hers, but it’s the raw drive of Rid of Me that I still go back to. It makes me feel a pleasant bit of panic, just like it did when I collected her B-sides and demos and Japanese imports. When I listen to Bush now, I just feel kind of awkward. Like a teenager.


David Bowie: The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars

Bowie’s records were oddly common in the Salvation Army stores of central Michigan. Once I started looking, it didn’t take very long before I had all of the early albums. I adored each them. It’s a total small-town-gay cliché, but they held out the promise that a person could be more than the single, small self. With force of will and a bit of craftiness, you could be anyone and anywhere.


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The Magnetic Fields: 69 Love Songs

Despite my carefully cultivated artistic pretension, I only took one art-studio course in college. It was a conceptual-sculpture class (obviously), taught by a hip, adorable young grad student. She could immediately tell that I was and would always remain an untalented dilettante, but she did her best to make sure I would get something out of the class. That something was an introduction to the Magnetic Fields.

69 Love Songs is a masterpiece. Yeah, most of the songs are jokes, but is there anything harder than humor? And tucked between the tongue-in-cheek punk tunes and punned-up ballads are more than a few stunningly earnest love songs, wise and witty, sweeping in their range and undeniably pleasurable.


Kate Bush: The Whole Story

When I was in college, I’d bring a boy back to my place and set the mood by putting Kate Bush’s greatest-hits album on the record player.

And that’s why I spent four years single and celibate.


 

The Hidden Cameras: The Smell of Our Own

The conceit is a simple one: write some very graphic songs about fetishy gay sex and then perform them with string sections and church choirs. The ambitious arrangements are balanced with lo-fi production; the lyrics are unabashedly raunchy at times, but the result is disarmingly heartfelt, even blissful. The opening track is probably the only song about urine that you could play for your mother.

I found this album at an odd and important time in my life. I had just moved to a new city; I was lonely but lightheaded with possibility. I wanted to believe that anything could happen, and could happen beautifully. The Smell of Our Own was weird and more than a little kinky, but absolutely full of joy.

 
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Xiu Xiu: Fabulous Muscles

An aggressive, abrasive album, Fabulous Muscles does a lot of things that are hard to describe. It’s got a lot of beats, so is it dance music? It’s got a lot of feedback and muffling, so is it a noise album? It’s got some confession and abstraction and overly emotional vocals and more than a little pretense, so is it even good? Half of the songs are uncomfortably catchy, and the other half are just uncomfortable. All the same, I haven’t taken the album off my iPod since it came out ten years ago.


The Organ: Grab That Gun

You like The Smiths, right? Well, imagine if The Smiths were all Canadian ladies and one of them played a rock organ. And then imagine the lady-version of Morrissey decided to quit the band so she could become a model in Europe. And that, more or less, would be The Organ.

Grab That Gun, their only full-length album, is annoyingly short: a half hour of muscular and miscellaneous indie rock. All of the songs are good, and some of them are great. “Stephen Smith” and “Brother” are full-throated and uncompromising, and it’s impossible to listen to them without wondering what would have come from a second album.


Neko Case: Fox Confessor Brings the Flood

I once browbeat a music-critic friend into using part of his brief interview with Neko Case to present her with a copy of my first book. How the Losers Love What’s Lost would have been a very different collection if I had never heard Fox Confessor. The songs are lush and grim and gorgeous. Case is not afraid to use the full power of her voice, and she throws it into strange lyrics that, without ever being entirely clear, create rolling narratives of desire and danger. “This is nothing new, no television crew. They don’t even put on the siren,” she sings in “Star Witness,” a song like a punch to the gut. Now that she has my book, I hope Neko notices her influence on my work and is so flattered that she’ll call me up and ask me to be her new best friend. Maybe we can hang out and watch Court TV. Maybe adopt a rooster together. You know, normal buddy stuff.



Mothers of America, let your kids go to the movies!

Moms are weird, right?  Even if they're great mothers, especially if they're great, they're still pretty wacky.  My mom once publicly threatened to beat me with a length of dry sausage.  She seized up with laughter when a police officer mistook the aromatherapy materials she left in my car for drugs and I was handcuffed on the side of the highway.  She always pronounces the "s" in "Illinois."  On a recent trip to Rome, she wanted to see the Travolta Fountain.  "You mean the Trevi Fountain, mom?"  "No, the Travolta Fountain.  The one in all the movies."  This is why I adore her endlessly.

I'm in South Austin, sitting in a coffee shop that's really just a bar with coffee.  Since I got here, the lights have gotten dimmer and the crowd has gotten louder; this is full-tilt nightlife.  That doesn't seem to bother the two young mothers at the next table, who are laughing over their large purses and a table full of glasses.  They are discussing the joys and challenges of motherhood, though only in the abstract: their daughters are turning seven-year-olds' pirouettes in the dark parking lot, unsupervised and out of their mothers' lines of sight.

An honest-to-god Icelandic playground.  It is full of nails, splinters, and fun.

An honest-to-god Icelandic playground.  It is full of nails, splinters, and fun.

I appreciate a good measure of parental aloofness.  In Iceland, babies are left in their prams outside of shops and are almost never stolen; small children bike madly through their neighborhoods all night long.  There are playgrounds built out of rusty construction equipment, with slides and jungle gyms that look like horror-movie props.  Yet the nation seems to survive with most of its limbs intact.

My mother trusted me not to get myself into too much trouble, and I somehow managed to avoid falling down a well or taking up with a crowd of shady aromatherapy dealers.  She gave me independence and the chance to develop some self-reliance, and I'm grateful.  She even let me become a poet; some people might call that negligent indulgence, but it seems more like faith.  Sure, sometimes when I call her, I can tell that she'd rather be watching CSI: Miami than talking to me, but who wouldn't?  I'll still be here at the commercial break, mom, and I'll still love you. 

You are young. You're free.

I´m flying to Berlin tomorrow morning.  I've never been to Germany, but I've been told endlessly how edgy and artistic Berlin is, how gritty and effortlessly cool.  Obviously, I'm looking forward to it.  At the same time, though, I can't quite shake the feeling (hope?) that it's going to be just like this mid-nineties German dance video: thoroughly self-conscious without being at all self-aware.  I'll pack my teddy bear and mesh shirt, just in case.


My summer of insufferable cooking.

I spent the spring semester teaching at a small college in Virginia. One of the perks of the gig was an unlimited meal plan at the university dining hall. That meant that I was entitled to three daily all-I-could-eat buffets of undergraduate fare: pasta and pizza and twenty varieties of breakfast cereal. There was a rotating menu of meatloafs and baked potatoes and unspecified Tex-Mex dishes. The kids went crazy on grilled-cheese day, but their obvious favorite was a meal of tator tots and dino nuggets: chicken compacted into the shape of stegosauruses. The lacrosse team ravaged them like blood-crazed raptors. Most of it tasted good at the time, but made you feel terrible later.

When the semester ended and I went to Iceland, I vowed that I would eat better. As with any vow made during thirty sleepless hours of travel, it was ill-conceived and extreme. I committed myself to a summer spent cooking my way through Allyson Kramer's Great Gluten-Free Vegan Eats From Around the World. Yes, that's right, I'm using a cookbook that eschews meat, cheese, gluten, and anything else that might be delicious. And it's vaguely ethnic, too!  My philosophy has always been that if you're going to do something, you should do it in a way that makes your friends roll their eyes and look for someone else to talk to.

Allyson Kramer is probably a very nice person. She provides a glossary of "global ingredients" (many of which seem to be available only in a few U.S. health-food stores), and she gives both imperial and metric measurements. And, being a nice person, she rarely lies: she doesn't pretend that her recipes are quick or easy, and sometimes she doesn't even claim that they're all that delicious. Her best descriptions are of the tasty, meat- and gluten-filled foods that these dishes are imitating. But the pictures are gorgeous, and I was determined to make a go of it.

I started in Africa, attempting the "Easy One-Pot (Jollof) Rice With Cinnamon and Curry." It tasted like Christmas poverty. Next up was "Peanutty Parnip and Carrot Soup," which was described as a "fusion dish with peanut butter." Imagine a Play-Doh smoothie. The situation improved markedly with "Bulgogi-Style Tofu," which, despite requiring two days and every pan and bowl in the house, was pretty good. I've actually made the "Fiery Gingered Yam Salad" twice now, successfully enough to feel comfortable foisting it upon people who were too polite to refuse.

There have been a few other mild successes, and a couple of abominations, but I don't know if they can be rightly ascribed to the cookbook. The book, despite its in-depth guide to finding the right farmers' market for you, requires a lot of ingredients that just aren't available in Reykjavík. Honestly, I'm not sure I could find fresh galangal, jackfruit, or dulse flakes in Austin, so I think I can be forgiven for making some Icelandic substitutions. I have, so far, resisted the urge to sneak heavy cream or ground lamb or a whole donut into anything, but it's becoming more of a struggle every day.

I'm writing all of this as a pre-emptive apology. Gluten-deprivation is slowly transforming me into a monster, and I fear what I might do. If you see me and I give you a hungry look, it's probably because I'm imagining you as a lightly breaded triceratops. You should probably run. The best-case scenario involves a lecture on sustainable ethnic cuisine and the importance of manganese in your diet, and the possibilities just get worse from there. Happy summer, jerks.

Jessica, the land of fire and ice.

I'm heading back to Iceland in a couple of weeks, and I've been telling everybody about it.  Unfortunately, the Swype keyboard on my phone (on which you drag your thumb quickly across the letters and it figures out what word you're trying to spell) always misreads "Iceland" as "Jessica."  Because of that, I've recently sent the following awkward and inadvertently erotic text messages:

  • "Jessica is gorgeous."
  • "I'm getting pretty excited for Jessica."
  • "I can't wait to be in Jessica again."
  • "Yeah, Jessica is expensive, but it's worth it."
  • "Jessica is always pretty wet, especially around now."
  • "Jessica might not be all that exotic, but the plumbing works perfectly."
  • "Jessica, here I come!"

I feel like this has to mean something... something other than that my phone hates me.  It reminds me that I recently told my students that if they're wrestling with a word in one of their poems, they should try replacing it with its opposite.  "Beautiful" becomes "hideous," "hard" becomes "simple" or "soft," "Iceland" becomes "Jessica."  I've heard this piece of advice attributed to John Ashbery, which explains a lot of his poetry, though it might lead one to wonder which words weren't replaced with their opposites.

Another bit of learned advice, spoken by every writing teacher ever, is to embrace the happy accidents, to be open to the unexpected and to see where it takes you.  So, on my phone's urging, I've decided that my next book will be a series of steamy sonnets about a complicated, capable, classy lady named Jessica: her seaside frolics and glacial adventures, the men and women in her hot tubs, her fish exports.  So mark your calendars for late 2015: Jessica is coming, and she will melt your Kindles.

The Art of Trying Too Hard, or, Teri Garr Wants Erotic Things to Happen.

Is writing supposed to be easy?  There are so many poets (and some fiction writers and playwrights, too) who claim that writing is a compulsion for them, reflexive and almost involuntary, like breathing.  If that were true, then I would be a severe asthmatic.   Composing a poem is a long, unpleasant process of worry and frustration, redeemed only by the great satisfaction of the finished work.  If I had to compare it to a bodily process, I would say it’s more like childbirth than breathing.  I’ve never had a baby, though, and, frankly, I think I’d prefer to  stick with the poetry.

It might just be my writerly mode, of course.  My poems aren’t really known for their gleeful abandon.  I’m more interested in control, in the carefully crafted contraption.  Lately, though, that’s been causing more frustration than usual.  Things have been feeling too forced.  The labor has become belabored.  Some of the drafts just feel like they’re trying too hard.

So I’ve been looking at other art that pushes too hard.  For instance, Francis Ford Coppola’s forgotten 1982 film One from the Heart.  After the madness of Apocalypse Now, Coppola just wanted to make a sweet little love story with a small cast.  But then he set it in Las Vegas, and then he turned it into a musical, and then he decided to film entirely on sound stages with elaborately constructed sets and stylized theatre lighting, and the budget exploded from $2 million to $26 million.  It only made $636,796 at the box office.  If it’s remembered at all, it’s remembered as the film that bankrupted Francis Ford Coppola, who spent the next decade trying to direct his way out of debt.

The movie’s a gorgeous mess.  The sets, vast and profuse with neon, are stunning but feel unnecessary. There are beautiful and talented actors (including Raul Julia and Teri Garr with a terrible perm), but they seem confused, unsure whether to play it straight or as stylized as the painted backdrops.  The dialogue is spastic and the plot is thin, but the emotional underpinning of the movie is affecting.  The film was billed as a musical, but only two characters sing, and only briefly, and the dance numbers are very few and very far between.  The soundtrack, though, is phenomenal; it was written by Tom Waits (who was nominated for an Oscar) and sung by him and Crystal Gayle, Loretta Lynn’s betressed little sister.

Coppola wanted something sweet and easy, but for some people, nothing is easy.  You have to put some force of will into every piece of art; once you start, once you’ve engaged and built up momentum, it can be hard to know how to stop.  Coppola pushed and pushed and his movie rolled away.  I’m keeping this in mind as a poetic cautionary tale: don’t overdo it.  That said, if Tom Waits wants to compose a soundtrack for my next book, he knows where to find me.

Confessions of a cyberpimp.

Reading writers’ capsule biographies and listening to their anecdotes, it becomes clear that at least one quirky or impressive day-job is a prerequisite for a successful career.  Helicopter fireman, merchant marine, shrapnel-riddled war correspondent, apprentice haberdasher, what have you.  A former U.S. Poet Laureate once told me about his college job as a sweat-study subject.  He would be covered in talcum powder and put in a hot room so that deodorant researchers could see how each pore was activated.  It seems that any writer worth his salt must, at some point, earn that salt by toiling in a salt mine as an honest-to-god salt miner.

My job history has mostly been brief office gigs alternating with cute retail jobs.  I like to claim that I was the board-game sommelier at a toy store, but I mostly just rang up bouncy-ball purchases for nine-year-olds.  So, in an attempt to earn some writerly cred and (more importantly) some money, I took a job about a year ago as a ghost writer for an internet dating service.

The job seemed absolutely ideal: I love the internet, I love dates and dating, and I really love putting words in other peoples’ mouths.  And that’s what I did.  Our clients would fill out a questionnaire or sit through an interview, and for about $12 an hour, I would take their responses and make them sexy and irresistible.  I was in charge of the profiles, so I would write all the text for OkCupid, Match.com, PlentyOfFish, and some of the more niche sites: JDate, Elena’s Models, MillionaireMatch.

An actual quote that a client demanded I include in his Match.com profile.

An actual quote that a client demanded I include in his Match.com profile.

The majority of our clients fit a similar mold: a middle-aged white guy who had been successful and divorced, who wanted to get back into “the game” but wasn’t sure if he had the time or creativity to handle it all himself.  There were other types, too.  We worked with a lot of young, techy dudes who felt that if they had automated or outsourced everything else in their lives, romance shouldn’t be any different.  I even had a few female clients, who were always surprisingly confident and attractive and who, everyone agreed, probably didn’t need my help.  But if they could pay, we didn’t turn anybody away.

And what did they pay for?  It depends on what they wanted.  For a relatively low fee, I could rewrite your internet profiles in ways that our company “research” suggested would yield more dates.  I tried never to lie, but I certainly finessed the presentation of the facts.  I always created a witty, confident persona, one that was often a far cry from the stiff and awkward responses in our client interviews.

If they wanted to pay more, we would actually do the messaging for them, too.  I didn’t do this much, but it was actually pretty fun.  It involved blanket-sending form messages to a list of potential matches, and then responding quickly with some fast-paced, semi-personalized flirting.  It turns out that I’m really good at making cheeky comments to women based on the mixed drinks they’re holding in their profile photos.

The premium and executive clients could dictate a minimum number of dates a month, and we would do everything we could to make sure those clients went on those dates.  If we had to wheedle and cajole the women for their phone numbers, if we had to photoshop an ex-wife out of a picture and spray a tan onto the guy, if we had to play the sugar-daddy angle way up, we’d do it.  And the majority of our clients seemed pretty happy with the results.

I stayed with the company for a bit over six months before I buckled under the overwhelming deadlines and the underwhelming pay.  That’s probably not enough time to get a sense of our long-term success.  I always had the fantasy that one of my profiles would lead a client to his dream girl, and that I would be invited to the wedding as the silver-tongued matchmaker who made it all possible.  Of course, the obvious question here is whether or not the client would ever admit that he’d hired a ghostwriter to do something that is, by its very nature, supposed to be an opportunity for self-expression.  The more obvious question is how long it would take the woman to figure out that her date was not the same pun-loving fellow who’d been emailing her over the past week.  You’d think she’d be able to tell right off, right?  I just assumed, though, that so many people feel an inherent shame about internet dating that they willfully forget all communication before the first date.  If they enjoy that face-to-face chat over a macchiato at Starbucks, then that’s how they met, and stylistic inconsistencies cease to matter.  People want to fall in love, and they will always let themselves be fooled for it.

stock_romantic_couple_20_by_shanethemainmanstock.jpg

That job was, at best, ethically dubious.  I was essentially hired to help procure women under false pretenses for the romantic (and sometimes unabashedly erotic) fulfillment of men who were generally older and wealthier.  I created several profiles for men traveling or willing to travel to Eastern Europe; I became part of the sex-tourism and mail-order-bride industries.  I pretended to be someone other than myself, and I turned these men into people other than themselves; I did it for money, they did it for something like love.

Romance is hardly ever an honest thing.  It requires conscious presentation, a clever curating, the limited and intelligent release of information.  Flirting, seduction, poetry—it all requires putting the right word into the world at the proper moment, and keeping everything else back for some other time that might not come.  I know this and I know that trust is built over time and intensity, and I know that there is no real expectation of full forthrightness in an OkCupid profile or a Match.com message.  But I still felt like I was doing a heartless thing.  Worse yet, I was making myself jaded.  I still want to be able to look at some sweet, funny profile on the internet and think, “this could be real, and wonderful, and anything is possible.”

So I quit the job, but I got a quirky line for my bio and a reliable cocktail-party story.  And of course I have the occasional fantasy about writing a novel, presenting myself as an updated version of Cyrano de Bergerac.  In the film, my character, probably played by Paul Giamatti, would quake with rage at his hidden table in the sweet little bistro where he sent Jennifer Lawrence on a first date with his client, the semi-literate self-storage mogul played by Mark Wahlberg.  My character would watch them eat their scallops and chat awkwardly and maybe laugh a little, until Wahlberg would say something like, “I feel like we know each other already,” and she would glow, truly, truly happy.  And the audience would think, “yes, that’s right.”

Anywhere I lay my head...

Writing isn't the most settled career.  Or at least, not if you go about it the way I do, which might well be all wrong.  My strategy since college has been to go where ever I can get a residency, fellowship, graduate degree, or (by the grace of college administrators) a teaching job.  So I move around a lot, leaving friends and belongings n place after place.

For the past six weeks, I've been at a fantastic residency in Nebraska.  I had an apartment and a writing studio in a bizarre faux-Frank-Lloyd-Wright house in a town of 7,000 people.  I got a fair amount of writing done, but I also had a lot of time to wander around the neighborhoods and see how stable everyone seemed.  These were people who were happy to have landed in a place, even if that place was hours away from the nearest Indian restaurant.

I'm at the point where moving around all the time is getting tiresome.  I want to unpack my boxes, get a hound dog named Hopkins, and feel settled.  Though I'm otherwise not that materialistic, I'm utterly powerless against the urge of home ownership.  

I want to renovate an apartment above a drugstore, or I want a cottage with a basement where I can set up a woodshop and worry my friends with potential bandsaw accidents.  Since childhood, I've wanted to build my own house.  I still sketch floorplans and elevations in notebooks, and they're not the different from the treehouse I wanted to build when I was eleven.

I don't need anything big.  In fact, I would prefer something small.  Tiny, even.  I like challenges and I don't need a lot of stuff.  I spend hours looking through blogs and imagining ways that I could hide storage and handmade lighting fixtures.  I drift off to sleep at night with thoughts of different bed-lofting strategies. 

My itinerant lifestyle is unlikely to change soon.  I'm heading back to Austin for a month, and then off to teach in Virginia for just a semester.  I'll be living out of my luggage for the foreseeable future.  Still, though, I dream of putting down roots and hardwood floors.  So if you've got a house or some land and a steady job that you're not using, get in touch.

"Is it right to be watching strangers in a play / in this strangest of theatres?"

The Denver airport is depressingly unremarkable: another odd-shaped starfish of cavernous terminals. The primary distinguishing feature is the occasional balcony spanning the concourse. If you take the escalator up, you'll find yourself at a pleasantly quiet, removed distance from the crowded gates below. It's mostly empty, except for employees on their breaks, and you have your pick of seats overlooking the crush of travelers and rollerbags below.

Sitting up here, you become someone's dead relative, watching the earth with a mixture of judgment and regret. The regret is mild--I really shouldn't have gone with that breakfast salad from Quizno's, and what the hell is a breakfast salad?--and tempered by a pleasant and condescending love of what's going on below. Why are there so many pairs of sweatpants dyed to look like designer jeans? Is there some sort of rhinestone store somewhere in this terminal? How many blond toddlers can that one man have? And that fellow is dressed like a wizard, so, yeah...

It isn't long before you notice the terrified. When you start looking, and from this lofty vantage point, you see that there are more panicked travelers than you'd ever guessed, and certainly more than you'd expect for a Monday morning about as far from a holiday or a vacation as you could get. There are scores of people rushing, flushed, from gate to restroom to restaurant to departure board to unyet-boarding gate. They appear to be in pain, wearing their stress like another layer of bedazzled fake-denim loungewear. The fear is inexplicable but obvious; they stand clenched, as if, in one moment's distraction, the people-mover would carry them right past their gates, out of the terminal and into the cold blue air of disaster: a ten-thousand-foot drop, spinning jet engine, oblivion.

I understand. I really do. Yes, I sit up here on my balcony like a bemused and distant god, but I understand panic. I have spent hours in bed, worrying that my left foot is shrinking (seriously, all of my left shoes feel roomy, and I fear that I will enter middle age with one normal foot and a baby shoe). I have been late, or running late, and told myself that I would change my life, change everything, to just make everything come out alright. Panic beats its wings against my chest.

But now now, and never here. Laidover in another airport, which is every airport, I feel calm enough to sit in my unseasonable sweater and funny hat (one shouldn't judge unless they're willing to invite judgment) and imagine, presumptuous as only a writer can be, what must be boiling in those frantic bodies below.

There are women pressing their boarding passes like bandages against their chests; grandmothers crying into their pets' travel cages; men jogging along with three suitcases while their families struggle to keep up and keep from dropping everything and saying, "No, here, now." What is this? Is it the desire to have some control, some power, even when you have to give everything up to a grand and massive machine? It isn't easy to trust anyone, let alone strangers and their plans and flashing controls. Sure, it's their job, but that makes it routine, and we can't put faith in any routines but our own. And for most people, travel is the disregard of routine, whether for presumed pleasure or under obligation. A terrifying sudden crush of possibility.

I can't stop thinking of Elizabeth Bishop's great poem of the panic-inducing elsewhere, Questions of Travel. Bishop had a well-stamped passport and an understanding of how physical and emotional locations are connected. She understood disconnection, the moment of being unmoored, adrift. She asked, as it is impossible for some people not to ask as they shoulder their ways down escalators, "Should we have stayed at home and thought of here?"

More notes from the abyss...

I've had my new phone number for three months now.  You would think that would be enough time for its previous owner to notify her friends and family, if not her creditors, of the change in her contact info.  But no, Danielle (if that is her real name) has been playing it cagey, letting me deal with those callers and texters that she hasn't yet brought fully on board. 

Here's another sampling of my texts from strangers.  I have yet to reply to any of them, but it's getting pretty tempting.

 

I love horsies!

I love horsies!

How is the crowd tonite

Fresh?
— August 7
Hey ho

What you know
— August 13
What it do? You working?
— August 21
Why are u ignoring me? Bitch
— July 31
Just found it! Thanks for me know!
— August 1
Wanted to say hey :) And sorry ;)
— August 1
Hey its nic… Your guy still there?
— August 2
Hey to you, too!

Hey to you, too!

Pause and Effect: Blondes in Headlights

People are always (never) asking me how I fill the long hours between part-time jobs and flashes of inspiration. While I have lots of fake answers--important books, lengthy explorations of respected museums, Tibetan sand art--but the truth is usually YouTube. 

I'm a restless sort, though, so I'm always pausing videos to grab some applesauce or check to see if anybody has left any comments on my website.  I have an incredible knack for pausing at the least flattering moment.  Of course, what am I to do but take a screenshot?  I have scads of these, so I thought I'd share.  Today's theme: blonde ladies (click on the images to link to the source videos).

 

Do you wanna make more money?  Sure, we all do!

Do you wanna make more money?  Sure, we all do!

Classic Jewel: "I'm hnot drunk... You'hre drunkh..."

Classic Jewel: "I'm hnot drunk... You'hre drunkh..."

Diane Sawyer ain't buyin' none of Jewel's shit.

Diane Sawyer ain't buyin' none of Jewel's shit.

Anna Calvi shows us how horses say "I love you."

Anna Calvi shows us how horses say "I love you."

Woah, Dolly. Woah.

Woah, Dolly. Woah.

Evil Robo-Maria has a secret...

Evil Robo-Maria has a secret...

Okay, so that last one was an intentional pause.  I'm obsessed with Fritz Lang's Metropolis, especially this moment, when the virtuous heroine becomes the cruel robotic sex-fiend.  I'm actually considering using this still as the cover of my next book (I might be able to break into the sci-fi and drag-queen markets).  What do you think?

I've never felt so interesting.

Who doesn't love a text message? Who doesn't pounce on their phone when they hear that thin little chirp telling them that someone has devoted some small amount of attention and thumb strength all to them?  Whether it's from a friend or an enemy or someone really special (yes, Angela Lansbury's website has my number; I'm not ashamed), a text message arrives on the same cloud of exciting possibility as a phone call, but without any of that uncomfortable conversational obligation.

Loving text messages as I do, I'm pretty happy with my new phone number.  I seem to have inherited the digits of someone with a far more exciting life than my own.  I'm not just referring to the daily calls from collection agencies or the overdraw notices from Chase Bank.  I'm talking about important text messages, about important stuff.  Here are a few examples from the past month:

 

Under the birdhouse
— June 14
I can hook you up tomorrow, if you want..
Call me... Mike
Or maybe later tonight...
— June 25
new phone who is this

seriously

nevermind figured it out
— July 3
thinking bout u babe
still have that shoe
— July 12
You never told me about the bed? why?

Your a bitch
— June 18
Going to Js tonight. we should talk.

Promise i wont start shit
— June 27
r u still mad?
about kev?
his car died anywya
— July 7
U still have stamps for sale?
— July 10

It's too hot for a sissy-boy slap-party.

It's been two weeks since I moved back to Texas.  It was 42 degrees in Reykjavik when I left; it's currently 96 degrees in Austin.  Unsurprisingly, I have not yet adjusted.  Whenever I walk some place, I'm so sweat-drenched when I arrive that it looks as if I swam there.   I've had plenty of ice cream and a couple of sno-cones and multiple cold showers every day, but there's just no way of ignoring the heat. 

MyWinnipeg.png

I'm trying to cope by watching and reading cold things, in the theory that imagination trumps environment.  It's not working all that well, of course, but it does give me an excuse to re-watch my favorite movie about an icy city: My Winnipeg.   Director Guy Maddin is probably best known for The Saddest Music in the World, or for his short films, like the brilliantly entertaining Sissy-Boy Slap-Party.  My Winnipeg is Maddin's homage to his hometown; it's an indefinable mixture of documentary and fantasia, simultaneously depressing and hilarious, and completely unique.  Like most of his work, it's shot in the style of silent films and early talkies, which makes the landscape seem both quaint and harmless, but always alien.  Kind of like Texas!

Here's one of my favorite scenes from the movie, which features some unexpectedly affecting animation.  The scene does something that I love to see in poems: the transformation of a horrific, awful image into a lovely, awful image.  Is it gross?  Is it funny?  Is it real?