Thursday, March 26, 2009

A CONEY ISLAND OF THE MIND, by Lawrence Ferlinghetti

My reading swerves off into another direction, yet again. From the awkward, plain-spoken tones of Ellen Kennedy, to Lawrence Ferlinghetti at his most exuberant. This book originally hit paper more than fifty years ago, just three years after Allen Ginsberg's HOWL--and its subsequent obscenity trial--brought the Beat Generation into mainstream consciousness, but it doesn't feel particularly aged or particularly "beatnik" in the cliche sense of the word (spacey poets dressed in black, with berets and goatees and Bebop jazz accompaniment). In fact, Ferlinghetti seemed aware of the cliches even then, and mocked them in the language used in poem "5": "[...] a kind of carpenter/from some square-type place/like Galilee/and he starts wailing/and claiming he is hep". The rest of the poems are written in language little different from what we use today (with the exception of "9," which sort of mixes beat-speak with prohibition-mobster snideness), and they focus on topics we still worry about, especially America's incredibly rapid growth, development, consumerism, and the burdens of assimilation and conformity such development entails for the people. You get it right from the get go, with the first poem in the book, "1":

They are the same people
only further from home
on freeways fifty lanes wide
on a concrete continent
spaced with bland billboards
illustrating imbecile illusions of happiness
The scene shows fewer tumbrils
but more maimed citizens
in painted cars
and they have strange license plates
and engines
that devour America

Another aspect of Ferlinghetti's poetry shown in the above sample is his use of alliteration (concrete continent, illustrating imbecile illusions), and other sound-based techniques. These poems are designed to be read aloud, and when you do so you tap into an energy and exhilaration that might be missed if you silently read words on a page. One of the ways that Ferlinghetti provokes that energy, that sense of desperation and exhilaration, is by masterfully controlling line lengths. We get plenty of lines that are stripped of punctuation or internal pauses, lines that race us along by tacking clauses together with 'and'. And then, every once in a while, the poem brings us to a crashing stop, as it does here in poem 11 from the book's third section:

Yes the world is the best place of all
for a lot of such things as
making the fun scene
and making the love scene
and making the sad scene
and singing low songs and having inspirations
and walking around
looking at everything
and smelling flowers
and goosing statues
and even thinking
and kissing people and
making babies and wearing pants
and waving hats and
and going swimming in rivers
on picnics
in the middle of summer
and just generally
'living it up'

but then right in the middle of it
comes the smiling

One of the interesting visual results of Ferlinghetti's vocal approach to poetry is the way the lines appear on the page. (Unfortunately, I'm incapable of demonstrating such line placement with Blogger, but you can see it for yourself by clicking here and then scrolling down.) Instead of being all left justified (with every line starting at the left side of the page), Ferlinghetti scatters the lines all over the place. I'm guessing that he does this because of the way it affects the reader's pace--if you finish one line and then drop down directly to the next line immediately below it, instead of having to crank your eyes back over to the left side of the page, it eliminates the momentary pause entailed by cranking your eyes back. The motion of the eyes might seem fast enough for this to be a trivial difference, but it has a definite effect, and the effect becomes more pronounced as it compounds.

In the end, a lot of these things I'm mentioning (the racing pace, the focus on sound, the tones of exuberance and concern, even the subject matter itself) had another significant effect on me: they made the book a lot of fun. I especially liked the first section, and I'd recommend giving it a go.

Monday, March 16, 2009


Another story up, this one on Pequin. It's one of the last things I wrote while at college. Pequin pairs a story with a picture, and they've published some beautiful work. Check out their archives.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009


Sometimes My Heart Pushes My Ribs
Because I feel that book reviews should focus on the book being reviewed, I'm going to try not to write very much about Muumuu House (the publishing company behind this book) or Tao Lin (the founder of Muumuu House). Having said that, I must admit that writing about SOMETIMES MY HEART PUSHES MY RIBS without focusing on Muumuu House or Tao Lin seems like a daunting task for two reasons: first of all, the significance of this book being Muumuu House's first release outweighs, in my opinion, the significance of the book itself; and secondly, the writing that appears in SOMETIMES MY HEART PUSHES MY RIBS often feels thoroughly colonized by, or blatantly derivative of, Tao Lin's own style.

If you're wondering who Tao Lin is, I encourage you to go to his blog and read some of what appears there. For the purpose of this review, all you really need to know is that I--the person writing this review--consider Tao Lin a significant author because I think he's developed an original voice that has the capacity to "speak" for a population (that population being Gen Y hipsters). Muumuu House's significance, in my own biased mind, reflects Tao Lin's significance because he's running it and because it could possibly become a sort of venue for a vanguard group in a new literary movement, a movement comprised of Gen Y hipsters who write about social-awkwardness and loneliness in a plain-spoken, nearly autistic tone that further emphasizes their themes of social-awkwardness and loneliness. Unfortunately, in the case of SOMETIMES MY HEART PUSHES MY RIBS, it's hard to tell if Ellen Kennedy really has a voice of her own to add to that group, or if she's just a 2nd rate Tao Lin.

Probably the best way to further flesh out the above ideas, and also to get started on an actual review of the book itself, is to give you a sample of Kennedy's writing. Here's a paragraph from the first piece in the book, titled "Eoody Mobby":

Woody Allen lies down on the bed. Ned Vizzini lies down next to Woody Allen. Woody Allen's room has white walls. There aren't any posters or pictures hung on the wall. Woody Allen kisses Ned Vizzini's mouth. Ned Vizzini pushes his tongue into Woody Allen's mouth and licks Woody Allen's tongue. Ned Vizzini licks Woody Allen's teeth. Woody Allen pushes his hand against Ned Vizzini's crotch. Ned Vizzini does the same. Ned Vizzini unbuttons Woody Allen's dress while Woody Allen touches Ned Vizzini's face and looks at his eyes and his nose. Ned Vizzini takes off Woody Allen's underwear with his foot and then takes off his pants. Woody Allen unbuttons Ned Vizzini's shirt and touches his chest. Ned Vizzini has sex with Woody Allen. They make noises but are quieter than most couples Woody Allen thinks. Woody Allen is sometimes louder than Ned Vizzini.

Immediately obvious is Kennedy's conspicuous inclusion of cult-status celebrities (Tao Lin does the same in his works; his forthcoming novel, for example, is titled RICHARD YATES). In this instance the celebrities are represented only by name--the characters in the piece are not intended to be Woody Allen and Ned Vizzini; the names are used only as pseudonyms. In the last piece in the book Kennedy writes about Norm Macdonald, and the celebrity himself serves as the actual character. In both cases the use of celebrity names adds an element of absurdity (why would Woody Allen be wearing a blue dress, kissing Ned Vizzini's mouth?). This element of absurdity is also cultivated in other ways: random desires (like Ned Vizzini's desire for a "small yellow apple" later in the story), bizarre thoughts (like Woody Allen's feeling of being "safe like a walnut" that a "squirrel buries [...] but not too deep in the soil so the possibility of escaping to avoid being buried alive is still there."), and out-of-the-blue occurrences (like a bear headbutting the author's window in the poem "I Want to Write a Poem With You"--and doesn't Tao Lin feature out-of-the-blue bears in some of his own works, like EEEEE EEE EEEE?).

Also apparent in the above passage is the awkward, nearly autistic (in its impaired emotional comprehension) tone Kennedy employs, which is in itself reminiscent of Tao Lin. And Kennedy uses a lot of Tao Lin techniques to provoke that awkward tone. She almost never uses pronouns, instead repeatedly referring to characters by their full names (Woody Allen, Ned Vizzini--rarely "him" or "her" or even just "Woody"). She diverts the readers attention away from what most people would focus on (as above, when she sets up the sex scene between Woody Allen and Ned Vizzini, and then detours into a sentence describing Woody's blank walls when what we're expecting is a focus on the characters' actions). She describes things in a plain-spoken way that feels especially incongruent with generally emotional moments (such as sex-scenes) and emotional states (especially loneliness and depression--she uses Tao Lin terms like "neutral facial expression" for that sort of stuff). She also describes things so literally that what we think is familiar (a kiss) feels foreign ("Ned Vizzini licks Woody Allen's teeth.")

It's true that this awkward tone works well in its illumination of isolated, socially-awkward individuals. Kennedy introduces us to people who are more apt to stand in each others' rooms and stare at things than engage in conversation, people for whom even intimate moments of connection with others (like sex) feel strange and uncomfortable, people who are more likely to think about shallowly buried walnuts than to tell each other how they feel. She does a good job of actualizing that mindset. But the flipside of her intimacy with this "lack of human intimacy" is a shallowness of characterization. The only personality that approaches roundness is that isolated, socially awkward individual that serves as the protagonist in every story. When another character is given any mind-time, they come across as nearly identical to that protagonist. Any distinctions in lesser characters are shallow and limited--a cranky mother, a less-socially-awkward friend. Not exactly a rich palette.

The same tones that come across in the three prose pieces in the book are also apparent in the poetry, but where the prose has elements of plot, the poetry concerns itself more with craft. Kennedy's poetry isn't much like the lyrical, sound-oriented poetry I've reviewed recently (like HALF LIFE OF MEMORY, by Lizz Huerta)--it's closer to the other end of the spectrum, and a lot of the sentences in the poems would probably feel pretty at home in prose (no conspicuous meters, rhythms, alliteration or other sound play to make them harder to blend in to a story). But it's distinct from her fiction because of its use of line breaks, its greater variety of sentence types, and (perhaps most importantly) its occasional moments in which the socially-awkward, emotionally autistic tone (which feels so Tao Lin-like) gives way to another voice.

Those first two distinctions (line breaks and sentence types) are well illustrated in Kennedy's poem "I Want to Write a Poem With You". Here's the first half:

I cried three times today

One time I was with a group of people and one of the people was so quiet and sad that when I went home I cried in bed

I tapped my fingers on my pillow and pretended that a stampede of wild hamsters was coming to destroy everything I own

A bear headbutted my window and its head broke through and I went in the kitchen and got antiseptic and went to the bear with the antiseptic and the bear bit my hand and I went back to my bed and stared at the bear

I used my bloody hand to draw a picture of a salmon on my sheets to attract the bear but my tears ruined the picture and the lines ran together and then the bear lost interest and walked away and then my cry elevated to a more sob-like heaving

The first sentence is a simple, short, declarative sentence that stands on its own line. Each sentence from there on also exists as a separate stanza, and each stanza grows in length and pace and pressure, using "and" to tie together more and more clauses. By the end the pace runs along with an effect reminiscent of a breathless child telling some sort of story, and then it comes to an abrupt stop, jamming two sentences together on one line. It's a fun little trick.

In other poems Kennedy uses line breaks in other ways, sometimes stretching one sentence out over several lines. You can see it here in the first half of her poem "Poem":

I'm violently stuffing
the void in my life
with cute toys
from fifty-cent machines

The shorter lines create an emphasis on the accented syllables (I'm VI-lently STUFF-ing/the VOID in my LIFE) which adds a ponderous weight and violence to the words, which lends an emotional quality to the poem that makes it stand out from a lot of the rest of the book. Instead of the declarative, unpassionate tone (which sounds so much like Tao Lin) that Kennedy uses to talk ironically about depression and hopelessness, this poem actually feels angry and hopeless. There are a few other poems in the book which also take on this distinctly emotional voice (though the emotions aren't usually as fierce as what we see here--"How to Hold a Person" feels more wistful; another piece, also titled "Poem," touches on vulnerability as it relates to body images, and it really does feel vulnerable), and these are the poems that interested me most in the book. I'm not sure if this more emotionally poignant perspective comes from a time before she encountered, and was so influenced by, Tao Lin, or if these poems are the result of her developing craft, her exploration of new terrain that can be more uniquely her own. My hope is, of course, that the latter is the case.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Fogged Clarity

Ben Evans runs an internet literary journal called Fogged Clarity, and he's featuring a story of mine in this month's issue. Go on over and check it out.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009


My first impression was this: Some of the hardest-edged "love" poetry I've read. On second and third reads I became more aware of the tender moments, but the first read felt a bit like an eloquent punch in the guts. Lizz Huerta writes about subjects common to verse--such as love and femininity--and she uses lyrical language that recalls a classic approach, but the tones of these poems are often cynical, sometimes even savage: "hate-fuck me in the morning so I am reminded the rest of the day/ suck the knuckle lover, we'll lick the blade clean" (from "love like a dirty, dirty switchblade"). Read the second line aloud and you'll notice the way it inhabits the mouth, the exaggerated way it animates your tongue and your lips. The words are brutal, but they also carry a sensuous sonic-resonance. It's an interesting juxtaposition that comes up again and again throughout the course of the chapbook.

A nameless ex-lover often serves as the focus, as if the poems are being directed at him in a chronicle of memory, but rarely is he the recipient of the narrator's harshness. In fact, Huerta's tenderness (which I noticed more the second time around) is often offered to those who have jilted her. Sometimes the tenderness is pure: "I would note the shape of your mouth as you slept and knew// knowing as I did the intricacies of your distaste, what bells were ringing/ what the day would bring, and woman as I have been and cunning// would place my body into our mouth to bring about forget, turn you suckling" (from "pacifier"). Sometimes the tenderness is coupled with a wry twist: "Despite these reasons and the others we adhere ourselves to I ask that you/ stay well knowing that even when another is in my mouth, you are in my heart" (from "the new fidelity"). In either case, it's remarkable to go from scathing to gentle states so rapidly, so completely, and yet to have both tones feel at home in one volume.

And how is it that the book manages both tones, and others as well? I think it might come, in part, from a certain rejection of cliches. Huerta writes "not so long ago I was done so hard that when I stood up all of the romance fell out/ of my body and because of all the blood, I never noticed." (from "little song for dissatisfaction"). It's a revealing statement of lost innocence, or lost naivete. But people who reject the romantic side of love sometimes drift into other cliches, and other over-simplifications. Huerta also resists that path. For example, Huerta often portrays her sexual self as acquiescent ("my place, it seems, is beneath you," also from "little song for dissatisfaction"). By the end of the chapbook the reader might feel like they've got her figured out. And then, in the second to last poem ("antediluvian") we read: "see it there, at the edge, how her hand beckons like a fist, curled into a gesture/ that at a glance, looks submissive."

Too quick to judge her as one thing--submissive--we might fail to notice she's actually getting ready to knock us on our asses. With good writing, things are seldom as simple as they seem.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

EREMITE, by Scott Cairns (from Poetry, January 2009)

Thirteen years ago, when I first became interested in writing as an art, it was poetry that drew me in. At the time I responded most to poems focusing on ideas and poems that had plot. I read a lot of Bukowski. Eventually those same interests--expression of ideas, storytelling--lead me into prose, and for a long time the only 'poetry' I paid attention to was hip hop, especially the verse of emcees like Mr Lif and Jus Allah:

Headline: Bush steals the presidency
He needs the backing of the media what could the remedy be?
The country's headed for recession reminiscent of the Great Depression
Are lives worth a world of power? Easy question
Planes hit the towers and the Pentagon
Killing those the government wasn't dependent on
It's easy to control the scared so they keep us in fear
With their favorite Middle Eastern demon named Bin Laden this year
--Mr Lif

The power that I hold in my hand
could fold a frying pan,
the air and sand do as I command.
And if I want the night to last,
across the sky mass
clouds don't even allow light to pass.
--Jus Allah

I even wrote some of my own rhymes. But for the most part, my writing focused on prose--initially memoir and eventually fiction. The fiction writing reached a peak about a year ago, when I began work on a novel. I wrote about 25,000 words, which I estimated as a third of what I'd need to tell the story, and then I became overwhelmed by the mass of the work. I didn't know how to move ahead. It felt like too much weight to carry. And I didn't want to work on any other fiction because I didn't want to abandon the novel. I spent several months without writing much creative work at all.

And then I started looking at poetry again. A few words would come to me, and I'd feel fascinated by the way they fit together, the rhythms produced by accented and unaccented syllables, the way repeated sounds can bend the speaker's mouth. I became intrigued by the challenge of fitting meaning into such a sonic form, and I started jotting down little word-compositions in a notebook. I could focus on the minuscule, an entire piece comprised of less than two dozen lines. It served as an excellent antidote to the poison my novel had become for me. I was writing again. Poetry.

On a whim I decided I'd try to read a bit more poetry, to see what other people where doing with it. The January 2009 issue of Poetry Magazine, which is shown above, was one of the first things I picked up. I bought it because it was cheap (less than $4), because I'd heard of it before, and because I recognized some of the contributor's names.

So far, the poem that set the deepest hook in me is EREMITE, by Scott Cairns (on page 309). Here's the first half:

The cave itself is pleasantly austere,
with little clutter--nothing save
a narrow slab, a threadbare woolen wrap,
and in the chipped-out recess here
three sooty icons lit by oil lamp.
Just beyond the dim cave's aperture,
a blackened kettle rests among the coals,
whereby, each afternoon, a grip
of wild greens is boiled to a tender mess.

The rhythms, and especially the sounds, strike me as beautiful, and I am especially intrigued by the clever usage of internal rhyme.

I went to the POETRY magazine website, and saw that they're offering a valentine's special subscription rate: something like $17.50 for a year (11 issues). I signed up for it. It's the first literary journal I've ever subscribed to.

Friday, February 6, 2009


The San Francisco State University Creative Writing Department runs an annual fiction chapbook competition, and prints the winner in a limited run. The results range from good (THE TILT, by Robin Romm) to not so good (DESERT STORIES, by Coby Hoffman). In the case of THE GAP IN THE LETTER C, by Kate Small, I'd say the results are pretty close to excellent. (At least so far. I've only gotten a quarter of the way through.)

A lot of the intrigue inherent in C comes from the way Small cultivates disjunction. Here's an example, from the first story in the book: "five full immersions".

I pull back from the regional manager but there's nowhere to go. He steps forward. We freeze, his name tag tangles in mine. It's awkward, like something happening to shy people at a party. I turn my face to the side, my ear pressed to some fake woodgrain on a cupboard. I think of Heng-Jin's statue of the Virgin next to Trung's plug-in Buddha, maybe two feet away from my head on the other side of the wall. Heng-Jin used to light candles, Trung used to give them oranges. I hear my breath come out in squishes; I see parts of me, a hip, an elbow...

I've seen other authors use this sort of thing before, usually in tense moments, to heighten the sense of a character's confusion, to reveal the way the mind scatters its thoughts, focusing on disconnected details here and there. Kate Small does it all the time, in moments of stress and moments of relative calm. The result is a world seen through a prism, each cell of which is a close-up on one feeling, one visual detail, one thought or sound. Instead of a panoramic, in which the reader is given a wider view, Small compels us to piece together the larger picture from its smaller parts. And the parts she gives us don't fit together easily, or in a familiar way--we have to read between the lines, to interpret, to deduce. Small makes the reader an active participant, instead of a passive observer.

In my ever-evolving definition of "literature," I often include a clause relating to the idea that it rewards extended involvement, it continues to give something on the second and third read. Small's writing achieves this by giving clarity in fragments, and asking the reader to take part in the assemblage of story. It's an enjoyable process. It merits participation.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Black Gods

We were seated in what looked like a stadium for one of those dolphin/porpoise shows, but the seats were in the water, instead of up above it. The water had that vibrant blue color that's closer to sky than ocean. Two young white girls, dressed in full body wetsuits, came riding into the area in front of us. They wore their hair in pulled-back ponytails; their teeth glowed pure white. They rode on giant figures like Hellenic statues, but with hair and eyes and skin all onyx black. Living statues of ancient gods, each large enough to carry a girl on one shoulder, or cradle a girl's torso in the palm of a hand. As they neared the crowd, each black god pushing white froth before it, I looked up and saw another, larger giant reaching down from the sky--this one so big that a single finger matched an average human's size. A vaporous cloud blocked the behemoth's face, but I remember its massive hand reaching down. I remember the ridges of its finger prints, and the skin as dark as a tar-dyed corpse.