29 May 2010

Lonesome Rangers of Excessive Candour: Scores of Post-Toasties New World Hip-Hop (An Imaginary Free Jazz Session of Cult Studs, with a Touch of Story, Too!)

Hitting this parenthetical, I knew I was in the wonderful Land of Clute:
--Ajvaz has made it clear he does not want the reader to be reminded of Magic Realism in his work, that his texts do not valorize any hero bearer of sigils out of the swamp nor any origin tale at the heart of the delta of tales untold--
Since the death of John Leonard, I've come to cherish Clute more than ever. I've always had an admiration for Clute -- for though my ability to embrace his ideas has often been tempered by my (quasi-irrational?) antipathy to taxonomy vs. his career of it, I love his rhythms and diction, and more than that, I love his willingness to follow the words into a realm more of sound than sense, something Shakespeare did now and then, and all the best poets, and John Leonard, too, who was nearly unique in offering that quality as a book reviewer.

Nearly unique. I think of Leonard and Clute as the Jazz Johns of Bookchat. I wish they'd had the chance to play a session together. Imagine what it might sound like--
The sky's falling and so's the yen. Suddenly the jaws of Story shut cleanly on him. And he realizes he's been holding his breath even on those occasions -- under a tent at Caramoor, once in a cathedral -- to which he's been invited as a designated partisan, after which he's guaranteed a standing ovation because, of course, he's followed by the Laureate, who reads from her novel-in-progress, which begins: "They shoot the white girl first."
Shouting, farting, swearing, grinding his intimates into stricken silence but also lifting them high, shitting himself so hard he blasts a hole in his own peritoneum, arguing, staggering from the ring of truths so great the world shouts God in his ear, he is a stunning creation, a histrion utterly real to the eye, a porridge of sensation who turns on a dime into icon.  Old son, you're nicked.  From sea to shining sea: long-distance loneliness ... Deer slayers, cow punchers, whaling captains and raft river rats ... Greedheads, gun nuts, and religious crazies ... Carpetbaggers, claims jumpers, con men, dead redskins, despised coolies, fugitive slaves, and No Irish Need Apply ... Land grabs, lynching bees, and Love Canals ... Lone Rangers, private eyes, serial killers, and cyberpunks. Not exactly the ideal social space for a radical Johnny Appleseed to plant his dream beans.
All in all, though, it is a structure into which a thousand tales could nestle, each nudzhing its niche, each transacting furiously. So superior are these sentences to the churlishness that passes for criticism elsewhere in our culture -- the exorcism, the vampire bite, the vanity production, the body-snatching and the sperm-sucking -- so generous and wise, that they seem to belong to an entirely different realm of discourse, where the liberal arts meet something like transubstantiation. It is the outside of the inside of the data of the dance. It is a shape for the knowing we're going to need.

28 May 2010

Work in Progress

While many of my friends (particularly the ones with Twitter and Facebook accounts) have been at BEA or heading to WisCon, I've spent the week spent doing little other than grading student work and then in the evening, when the brain had fizzled, watching various cable TV shows or movies like Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life and Stargate. I've spent 12 years telling myself that during the next term I will figure out some way to create more simple, clear, and efficient methods of grading. And each term, I've failed; indeed, each term, I seem to increase the grading burden on myself.  I have seen the enemy, and it is me.

More than most terms, I noticed some of my students' creativity. For instance, one wrote of a gospel song called "Go Down Mosses". Another wrote that, "Without a patriarchal society, women could have voted from the gecko."

Their creativity, and my brain's fizzlement, seems have had an effect on me. I spent the morning today working on a new short story about a hapless man who gives a lecture about colonial New Hampshire history, a subject about which he knows little. It includes these paragraphs...
The Indians weren't nearly as good at agriculture as the Europeans would eventually prove to be, so they had to move around a lot. One day, while moving around, the Indians saw some strange white-skinned creatures. The white-skinned creatures made weird sounds with their mouths and smelled funny. They seemed pretty helpless, frankly.

Looks can be deceiving, as they say. (The Europeans say. I don't know if Indians ever said, "Looks can be deceiving." The very British W.S. Gilbert once wrote, "Things are seldom what they seem. Skim milk masquerades as cream." I doubt the Indians were very concerned with whether their skim milk was pretending to be cream or not. It was a big deal for the British, who once, in 1859, were on the verge of war because of it, but by that point most of the Indians had been killed, and any Indian you found probably would have been perfectly happy with either skim milk or cream, or anything else with a few calories or a bit of nourishment. It wasn't like the dairy farms of New England were owned by an Indian cartel. It wasn't like anything in New England was owned by Indians. They don't actually believe in owning things, which was very convenient for the Europeans, who did believe in owning things, and so they came here to a place where nothing was owned, and they staked their claim. And so the Indians couldn't own New England. And we see that in the, to descend into academic jargon for a moment, nomenclature. Lakes and mountains and rivers were given Indian names, but New England is New England.)

In the beginning, the British European people were very nice to the people who were already here. They introduced the Indians to tea and cricket and the BBC and other jolly good things. They said "tut tut" and "pip pip" and "cheerio" and the Indians thought they were very funny, even droll. The Indians decided the British European people had been sent as entertainment, and perhaps what they did was float around the world in their giant wooden contraptions and amuse folks who had more difficult lives. The British said things like, "You know, old boy, it's a good thing we're not Flemish. The Flems have gone a bit overboard in some of their encounters with heathens. Take the Congo for instance. Nasty business, that. Chopping off hands. Decapitation. No, it won't do. Very good you got us, I'd say. Oh no no no, old boy -- put the milk into the cup first, then pour the tea."

Most of the Indians couldn't speak English, and so what they heard were just funny noises -- so funny, in fact, that the Indians laughed too hard and spilled their tea and the British were forced to kill them.

Thus, the Indians learned not to laugh. You can see the legacy of this lesson if you visit a cigar store, where the Indian doorman never laughs.

21 May 2010

Thought for the Day

You can tell you're early in the evolution of a society's acceptance of a minority group when most of its movies about that subculture star people from the dominant culture, focusing on how their eyes are opened or their lives enriched by their contact with someone from the minority.

Looking Back on an Intro to Film Class

Back in December, I wrote a couple posts about designing an Introduction to Film class for the first time, and now that we've come to the end of the term, I thought I'd procrastinate grading look back on the things I wrote in those early posts to bring it all up to date.

The movies that we watched in their entirety during a weekly screening period were:
  1. Citizen Kane
  2. Manhunter
  3. Vertigo
  4. Zodiac
  5. 400 Blows
  6. Badlands
  7. Cabaret
  8. The Haunting
  9. The Shining
  10. Do the Right Thing
  11. The Living End
  12. Orlando
  13. Synecdoche, NY
Plus one optional film on the very first day of classes, Sullivan's Travels, and two films short enough to fit into our 75-minute class period: I Walked with a Zombie and Le Noir De... (Black Girl). If you're curious for even more detail of what we did, the course schedule is here.

19 May 2010

Susan B. Anthony, Abortion, and Sarah Palin

Ann Gordon and Lynn Sheer respond to Sarah Palin and the Susan B. Anthony List's fabrication of history:
For nearly 30 years, both of us have been immersed in Susan B. Anthony's words -- Ann as the editor of Anthony's papers, Lynn as the author of a biography. We have read every single word that this very voluble -- and endlessly political -- woman left behind. Our conclusion: Anthony spent no time on the politics of abortion. It was of no interest to her, despite living in a society (and a family) where women aborted unwanted pregnancies.

The [Susan B. Anthony] List's mission statement proclaims, "Although [Anthony] is known for helping women win the right to vote, it is often untold in history that she and most early feminists were strongly pro-life." There's a good reason it's "untold:" historians and good journalists rely on evidence. Of which there is none.
via Ta-Nehisi Coates

18 May 2010

Pep Talks

From Elspeth Huxley: A Biography by C.S. Nicholls (2002):
[David Waruhiu] was a padre at the huge Athi River Mau Mau detainee camp, run on Moral Rearmament lines. The MRA was influential in Kenya, Nell Cole and Tuppence Hill-Williams being among its original members, and had created the Torchbearers, an inter-racial society. At the Athi River camp, where Tuppence was in charge of five hundred women, Elspeth found the MRA workers very sincere and devoted, although she doubted whether they cuold really change black hearts. The inmates were rather fat, because they were fed on Geneva Convention rations four times as heavy as the normal Kikuyu diet. At intervals they were given pep talks and called to God.
From Imperial Reckoning: The Untold Story of Britain's Gulag in Kenya by Caroline Elkins (2005):
Former detainees scarcely recall Athi River as a site of spiritual awakening, perhaps because they were cycled through an endless regime of physical and psychological coercion. [Alan] Knight [leader of the MRA in Kenya and camp commandant at Athi River] himself insisted, "Rigid discipine is the keynote of Athi, and hard work the basis of everything....A man whose body is disciplined and subject to control, will be more open to subjecting his mind to control." Detainees were forced to work, and if they refused, their rations were reduced. They might spend days with no food and then, half starved and dehydrated, they could be subjected to hours of preaching and lectures on Christian ethics and the virtues of Britain's civilizing mission. Camp officials also imported scores of Home Guards from the Kikuyu districts, who took to the camp broadcasting system, denouncing the Mau Mau and publicly dividing detainees into "murderers, thugs, leaders, and fellow travelers," according to Father Colleton. Screening teams, led by Mtoto wa [David] Waruhiu, himself an ardent MRA convert, worked the detainees over as well, interrogating them incessantly.
Elkins quotes a man who was held at Athi River for over a year:
Waruhiu would stand outside of a compound and shout, "People who killed my father, you come with me." The person singled out would then be taken for screening. When my turn came, they beat me with kicks, a hose, and anything else they could get their hands on. They jumped on me, while Waruhiu would demand to know what I knew, telling me to confess. The whole time making fun of me and laughing at my suffering. After that I urinated blood for several days. Because I refused to talk, I was again forced out to work, which I did so they would feed me.

17 May 2010

Crowdsource: Favorite Film about the Creative Process?

Dear denizens of the internet,

While I'm busy over here grading mounds of student work, perhaps you could help me out with a question I've got:
What's your favorite movie that depicts the creative process?
How you define "depicts" and "creative process" is up to you.  And if you want to mention more than one movie, I won't stop you.

Many thanks,
Mr. Mumpsimus

I'll be back to posting things of substance sometime in the coming weeks...

16 May 2010

The Danger of a Single Story

I think I might show this beautiful speech by Chimimanda Ngozi Adichie on the first day of my Outsider course in the fall -- it's 18 minutes well spent.
Stories matter. Many stories matter. Stories have been used to dispossess and to malign. But stories can also be used to empower, and to humanize. Stories can break the dignity of a people. But stories can also repair that broken dignity.

15 May 2010

The Return of Jeff Ford, Blogger

Once upon a time, Jeff Ford was one of my favorite bloggers.  He posted stories, rants, photos, etc. on a Livejournal site charmingly called 14 The Ditch.  It's now only available in fragments on the Wayback Machine, alas.  Mr. Ford quit halfway through his first term decided to focus more of his time writing award-winning stories and novels, and further recovering from once collaborating with a schmuck, the lowest moment of his career.  He opened a Facebook account and spent most of his time posting cute pictures of cats and the occasional status message such as, "Jeffrey Ford has decided to accept the offer to write 10 books in the Left Behind series.  Important to have an eclectic career if you want to survive these days as a writer."

Thankfully, Mr. Ford has decided to return to the land of blogging with a new Livejournal site, Crackpot Palace.  No more cute cat pictures, he promises.  And he's given up Left Behind for the Predator series.  His first such novel, Predator: Another Bullshit Night in Newark is nearly complete.  I'm sure there will be plenty of updates via the blog, so be sure to add it to your daily reading!

07 May 2010

2010 National Book Award Judges Include Samuel Delany

Here's some fun news for the day: Samuel Delany is one of the five judges for the National Book Award in the Fiction category for 2010.

The entire panel is interesting: in addition to Delany, it includes Andrei Codrescu, Sabina Murray, Joanna Scott, and Carolyn See.

Oh, to be a fly on the wall for the discussions amongst such a group!

01 May 2010

"Your work is to take care of the spiritual interior of the language": Bill Moyers and Barry Lopez

I'm not writing about nature. I'm writing about humanity. And if I have a subject, it is justice. And the rediscovery of the manifold way in which our lives can be shaped by the recovery of a sense of reverence for life.
--Barry Lopez
The final guest on the final episode of Bill Moyers Journal was Barry Lopez, and it's half an hour of riveting, inspiring conversation.  The video is here.

Ten years ago this summer, I attended the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference and Barry Lopez was my workshop leader.  Those were some of the most powerful and invigorating days of my life, because Lopez was exactly the person I needed to work with at that particular moment, a moment when I doubted the purpose of writing and felt that I had wasted the countless time I had spent in the activity of writing stories and plays and essays, almost none of which at that point had been read by anyone other than my friends and teachers.  I went to Bread Loaf because it felt like a last chance, and I went in cynical.  I left with the tools with which to build a stronger, less avaricious, more personal sense of purpose.  I still have a fraught, conflicted relationship to the idea of writing for an audience, and writing remains the most vexing activity in my life, but Barry Lopez gave me ways to work through the vexation, a way to use the despair that resides in the chasm between words and things, between writer and reader.