Sunday, July 23, 2017

Reading is Resistance: Take This Cup from Me Performance

In some ways, it was an idle thought, a passing observation, an idea that would be pretty obvious to just about anyone who was looking, but still, it caught in my brain as these things sometimes do. Pretty much since I first encountered Cesar Vallejo in an anthology edited by Clayton Eshelman called Conductors of the Pit, I knew I wanted to write a book about him. Eventually, I decided that I wanted to focus on just ten poems and call the book “10 Poems by Vallejo” even though I had (have) no idea what form or angle the book might take. Finding myself in between projects, I started typing up the ten poems I'd selected, including “Spain, Take this Cup from Me.” Said idle thought passed through my mind; there were some interesting and potentially enlightening parallels between the Spanish Civil War Vallejo wrote about and our current resistance to the Trump administration (and the notes of our own civil war playing in the background). I started thinking about how we could use Vallejo's poem to explore our own political turmoil. And, I wrote this post on Facebook:

Writerly, readerly friends, especially poets or those poetic inclinations. I'm kicking around a project that might become an event or might become something else (anthology, chapbook, who knows.) It involves rewriting a poem about and inspired by the Spanish Civil War by the Peruvian poet Cesar Vallejo. So, if you're a fan of Vallejo and fighting fascists and might be interested in participating, comment or send me a message. Right now, I'm just gauging interest. Thanks.

And writerly, readerly friends responded. I'm still a little blown away, but, then again, Vallejo kicks serious ass. The first result was a translation and response event called Take This Cup from Me, in The Late Night Poetry Lab reading series the bookstore hosts at Aeronaut brewing.

Throughout the event, a slideshow juxtaposing images from the Spanish Civil War and the political turmoil of the last year or so, played. What struck me about these juxtaposed images was the similarities and differences in the energies of the people in the pictures. There was a vibrancy in most of the images from both eras. Even if that volume of energy was driven by anger as it was at Trump rallies, there was a volume to the emotions that was thrilling. But there was something different in the eyes of the people in the images that were clearly from later in the Spanish Civil War. I was paying attention to too many other moving parts (like getting the slideshow to actually work) to really identify what I saw in those eyes; maybe a kind of exhausted defiance, maybe just exhaustion, maybe something else entirely, but it is clear something happens to people over the course of a long struggle. And, I suspect, regardless of what happens with Trump himself, we're going to find out what it is.

The main event of the evening was what I called a cascading line by line translation. Reading one line at a time, the poem was performed first in the original Spanish and then in three different English translations, Eshelman, Gerard Malanga, and an original translation made for the event by Maria Jose Gimenez and Anna Rosenwong. This let us hear some of the different ways Vallejo's Spanish could be rendered in our English and it was fascinating. Sometimes the differences were subtle, some of the differences were drawn from the strangeness and complexity of Vallejo's vocabulary and imagery, and some were, in the moment at least, inexplicable to me. More than a few times I had to remind myself to focus on the line I was about to read rather than the differences in the lines I'd just heard.

The cascading line by line translation was followed by a number of responses to Vallejo's piece. A poem by Epi Arias was performed in both Spanish and English. Then, I performed my original line-by-line response to Eshelman's translation (posted below).

Perhaps my favorite part of the event was that, through Chris Boucher, I was able to connect with Jean-Christophe Cloutier, who recently translated some works by Kerouac, and get my response translated into Quebecois French. I grew up in Lewiston, a French-Canadian mill town in Maine, and, though I have plenty of Quebecois heritage (including a great uncle who played hockey against/with Maurice Richard once) I don't feel as though I have a particularly strong connection to it. Getting my poem translated into Quebecois interacted with the theme of the event and strengthened this connection for me. Furthermore, it was fascinating to hear my work in another language. Even without being able to speak French (Quebecois or otherwise), it was clear that this translation brought out an anger, that, in the English original, was under the surface and between the lines. What was a kind of exasperated frustration, a long sustained, “Guys, seriously, come on,” became a glorious spittle-flecked rant, a kind of linguistically hallucinogenic “These fucking guys!” (There was also something truly beautiful about listening to this angry Quebecois poem echoing around a bar.)

But that is, of course, the power of translation. Translating a work from one language to another, in essence creates an entirely new work that is in direct conversation with the original, highlighting and illuminating aspects of the ideas in the original that its original language was unable to express. In many ways, our ability to express ourselves in words is fundamentally limited by the language we use, a language (any and every language) that simply cannot contain and transmit all of our complexities. Every time the idea is translated into another language a different aspect of it is revealed. Which leads me to a kind of Borgesian idea; that the only truly complete thought is one that has been translated into every human language that has ever or will ever be spoken.

Next Alyeda Morales read an original response in Spanish and did a fantastic job. Not speaking Spanish, I only understood the occasional word here and there. (OK, that occasional word was “gringo.”) Which got me thinking. I, personally, love hearing people speak languages I don't know. Maybe it's because, as a writer I have an inherent interest in language, maybe it's because I like to try to figure out what people are saying, or maybe it's because, as a poet, I'm interested in the mechanics of the sound of language. Regardless of why, one of my favorite parts of living in a city is listening to conversations in languages I don't understand. (Which makes me wonder what a sociological study examining how people react to overhearing a foreign language would reveal.)

Given that there was so much Spanish in this performance and a little Quebecois, for me, and many other audiences members, this was a musical event as much as it was a poetry event, an experience of the sound of the human voice as much as it was an experience of the spoken word. Which meant having singer-songwriter JD Debris close the night with his song “Vallejo,” (which he tweaked specifically for the event) was a perfect way to end the performance.

Because it was Vallejo's words that started this whole project, I concluded the event by reading this excerpt from Vallejo's essay “The Great Cultural Lessons of the Spanish Civil War” from The Selected Writings of Cesar Vallejo:

But the jurisdiction of thought has its revenge. If the protest cries out loud and clear, and the expression of combat in the flesh truly explodes against the coagulated powers of the economy, then the timeless inflection of an idea from a speech, article, message, or manifestation could be a petard that falls into the guts of the people and explodes into certain incontrovertible outcomes on the day we least expect it. It's by thinking and constructing, without expecting immediate explosive miracles from their present work, and by devoting the maximum spiritual strength and dignity necessary for the social interpretation of contemporary problems...that [intellectuals] exercise influence and have a bearing on the ulterior process of history. And it's especially important for the intellectual to translate the popular aspirations in the most authentic and direct way, worrying less about the immediate...effect on their actions and more about their resonance and efficiency in the social dialectic, since the latter, in the long run, laughs off hurdles of all kinds, including economic ones, when a social leap is ripe for the taking.
And...I've decided that, among other goods the Spanish people's victory over fascism will bring is proof to foreign intellectuals that, although creating an intrinsically revolutionary work in the silence and seclusion of a study is a beautiful and transcendent act, creation is even more revolutionary when it's done in the heat of battle by pulling it from life's hottest and deepest pits.

At time of writing (which, given the pace of our times should be an assumed phrase), Donald Trump is reportedly considering finding a way to fire Robert Mueller, pardoning everyone in his family, and pardoning himself. At the same time, for reasons that really and truly only seem to be a personal vendetta Mitch McConnell has against President Obama, Republicans are trying to destroy the contemporary American healthcare system. A process that started with Nixon's Southern Strategy and intensified under the politicizing of radical Christianity, has culminated in a national, mainstream party enacting and supporting the transformation of the United States of America back into a malignant and overt white supremacist nation. I don't know what the fuck is going to happen next. I mean, we all know how the Spanish Civil War turned out. I don't know if events, acts, and moments like these really help. Well, I know they help me. I know they helped the other performers and I know they helped at least some of the people who attended. And I know that we must fight, both using established techniques and flailing about the vastness of human experience for something that might break through.

Finally, though it can be easy to dismiss poetry performances, acts of art, and other experiments with expressing dissent as impractical or silly, or as alienating to some other population one hopes to ally with politically in 2018, though it can be easy to point to a translation event at a bar and ask how that could possibly influence Senator Susan Collins or whichever other Republican we're hoping might actually act with a modicum of human decency, we need to remember that acts of poetry, acts of art, acts of creative life aren't just acts of resistance or examples of the fight; art, poetry, and creative life are also what we're fighting for.

USA, Take This Cup from Me

    White dudes of the USA,
if the USA falls—Hey, it could happen—
if her torch
falls upon your fraternal scaffolding secured,
in a necktie, by waning logistic highways;
white dudes, what harvested the corporeality of grounds!
how it feels to bear water for the first time!
how obvious the tassels of your confidence!
how to recuperate without sick days!

    White dudes of the USA, mother
USA reveals the army you concealed from yourself;
her others once beyond your barbutes
she appears as mother and teacher,
training and strength, reside in the muscle fiber,
chamber and hammer and competence, white dudes;
she arms all soldiers, they remember!

    If she falls—Hey, it could happen—if the USA
falls, from the homestead upon,
white dudes, how could you possibly win!
how by tomorrow you will be yesterday!
how your atrophied muscles tremble from others' typical gravity
how the fraternal network smally betrays, the crumbs of the crumbs!
How the little league will laugh
at mocking marionettes made from your filament enhancements!
How your auxiliary attachments will be distributed
one way or another and abdicating leaves fewer scars!

    White dudes,
sons of soldiers, meanwhile,
ready or not, for with or without you, the USA is changing
her gaze into phallus agnostic eyes,
body cameras, riots, and people.
Ready or not, for she
awokens catastrophically, knowing just
what to do, and she has in her hands
the legal case, arguing away,
the case, the one with the provisions,
the case, our argument for!

    Ready or not, I tell you,
ready or not the white between the print, the whisper
of being and the strong reveille of the monuments, and even
that of your chambers, which walk with two stones!
Ready or waiting, and if
the torch comes down,
if the barbutes shrink, if it is lunch,
if seams occupy the balance of our logistic highways,
if there is potent creaking in the executive joints,
if I am late,
if they do not regard you, if the barricaded ears
starve you, if mother
USA falls—Hey, it could happen—
let go, white dudes of the world, let go of entitled!...

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Buses & IDs: A Different Strategy for Democrats in 2018

I tend to believe the idea of Democrats as weak, disorganized, unstructured, plagued with infighting, etc., is an idea that comes more from how we cover the horse race of politics and how successful Republicans are at framing discourse than any actual weakness, disorganization, infighting, etc., that exists within the party. To put this another way, respect for nuanced debate and difference of opinion within a shared goal or identity can look like all of those things when compared to an authoritarian party that sets much of the public conversation through ruthless repetition of bullshit while pundits, journalists, other media professionals, and many other Americans try to find a different answer for the success of terrible Republican policies besides “America is racist.” Which is not to say that the Democrats are perfect or always have good strategies. I, for one, attribute an amount of Obama's success in 2008, and specifically the success of his coattails in bringing other Democrats along with him to Howard Dean's fifty-state strategy and that the hyper focus on specific districts was part of why Democrats lost Obama voters to Trump in 2016.

I think the Democrat strategy for 2018 is still very much taking shape and it is still early to have fully synthesized the results of this recent round of special elections into a coherent strategy, but I have one idea that I haven't seen floating anywhere else that I think will help them break gerrymandered districts, mitigate the impact of voter suppression, and at least flip the House and perhaps even take the Senate.

That idea: Charter buses and shuttles to run from college campuses and minority community centers to the correct polling locations on election day and assume the costs of getting whatever ID is required to vote in whatever state for those who cannot afford it. Elections, it seems, have become a turnout a game one way to get likely Democrat voters to turn out is get them registered and drive them to the polls.

There is some argument that Democrats should continue to reach out to moderate Republican voters, that there is something active Democrats can do that will pull back voters who switched from Obama to Trump or capture centrists and moderates who sat out 2016, that a series of measured and moderate policies and messages will capture those moderate Republicans who are put off by some of what's happening in their party. It's an idea that sounds reasonable. That said, if Trump admitting to serial sexual assault, flaunting the norms around conflict of interest, golfing every fucking weekend, pathologically lying about everything, inadvertently or intentionally leaking state secrets and intelligence, all while being under investigation for what would be the single greatest political crime in our nation's history won't convince a “moderate” Republican to defect for an election cycle or two, what “centrist” policy would? Trump is doing damage that will take decades to undo if it can ever be undone. Why would we have to make any other argument to convince someone to abandon the Republican party at this point?

And it's not like Congressional Republicans have acted much better. For reasons I still don't understand, they have rushed and rubber-stamped every single one of Trump's atrocious nominees for cabinet positions, while dragging their feet (at best) on the Russia investigation. They are also, again for reasons I simply cannot understand, rushing to pass objectively disastrous and historically unpopular legislation. If the Senate bill manages to pass and Trumpcare becomes law, sure, you'll probably want to run a bunch of ads in every district about it, but, again, if the past sixish months haven't convinced Republicans to defect, some kind of middle ground economic policy isn't going to do it.

The lesson from Georgia is simple: All that matters to a critical mass of Republicans is that they vote Republican. In Georgia-6, Republicans had a significant registration advantage, one created intentionally to guarantee a Republican victory, and, despite everything else, Republicans showed up and voted for the Republican. Maybe I'm must being cynical, but I suspect, unless actual collusion between Putin and the Trump campaign is proved at a criminal court level and Republican Congressional complicity is proved at a criminal court level (and even then), Republicans will show up in 2018 and vote Republican. And when they do, the current gerrymandered, small state preferring, and voter suppressed system will deliver them victories.

And so, instead of spending money on ads that attempt to reach out to disaffected Republican voters, instead of developing a platform that tries to lure them into the Democrat fold for a cycle or two, Democrats, at a national party level, should leverage their Super PAC money, partner with existing voter rights organizations or build their own, and foot the bill for driving college students and minority voters back and forth to the polls while helping people surmount the barriers to voting tactically built by Republicans to suppress likely Democratic voters. (I'm a bit of a radical, but I'd go so far as to say if someone has the desire and means to move from a safe blue district to a swing district for a year, these organizations should help them sort out their registration and transportation as well.)

One might argue that Republicans would turn around and accuse Democrats of packing the polls, of voter fraud, of all sorts of electoral malfeasance. Which is true. Republicans would lose their minds over this. They'd try and pass legislation to stop it. They might even file lawsuits. They'd spend hundreds of hours on Fox News talking about how George Soros is stealing the election. My response: THEY ALREADY FUCKING DO THAT SHIT. FUCK 'EM. Republicans already accuse Democrats of everything they can think of and all without any proof whatsoever, all so they can pass legislation that gives then a major turnout advantage. Remember those thousands of voters who were supposedly bused into New Hampshire from Massachusetts? Of course not, because they don't exist. Frankly, (and this is probably why the Democratic National Committee isn't going to hire me any time soon) I don't give a fuck what Republican party leaders, pundits, and members of Congress say or think about anything because (and this is a fact I haven't seen discussed enough) they sure as shit don't give a fuck what anybody else thinks. They lied about WMDs in Iraq, they lied about Obamacare (and Republican leadership didn't do a whole lot to quell the birther nonsense), they lied and continue to lie about voter fraud, they broke the Senate and then lied about breaking the Senate, and if the Democrats do bus likely Democrat voters to the polls and do defray the cost of Republican voter suppression tactics Republicans will lie about that too, and if Democrats don't do anything to increase their turnout in 2018 the Republicans will lie about that too, because, and I can't stress this enough, at the party level Republicans don't give a fuck about anything other than electing Republicans.

I, like many Americans, believe our nation is stronger when there is political debate, when we discuss the actual policies affecting Americans, when all sides of the debate share the common goal of making America a better place, and when voters can switch allegiance from time to time as the political landscape changes, and I, like many Americans, also know there aren't any angels in politics, that at best we have people with good intentions trying to solve impossible problems, that Democrats make mistakes, that Democrats listen to their donors, that good policy can come from compromise, and that it is important to find some level of consensus for major policy changes, but Democrats didn't spew shit about death panels, Democrats didn't clog up the Senate with filibusters, Democrats didn't steal a Supreme Court seat for a serial sexual assaulter who publicly mocked a disabled journalist, and Democrats aren't covering up America's greatest scandal, so if we can't have debate, then I believe our nation is stronger when it is not run by white supremacist kleptocrats. And I think one way to boot Trump out of power is to bus college students and minority voters to the polls and pay for otherwise prohibitive voter IDs.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Reading is Resistance: Bloomsday

As Bloomsday approaches, and as our reality continues to resemble the first draft of a Pynchon novel, and as the torrent of events coming from the Trump administration establishes a permanent colony in my brain so that it's nearly impossible to go through a day without some half-yelling conversation with my partner about these fucking guys, I've started thinking about the nature of politics in Ulysses. Like just about every topic in Ulysses, the more one begins to think about it, the more one finds. There is, of course, The Citizen spouting off, and rumblings of potential city council or mayoral elections. Characters revisit one of the great political scandals in Irish history and the viceregal cavalcade winds through the streets of Dublin and through the events in the book as a reminder of the constant presence of a distant power. There's also plenty of identity politics as well, as Leopold Bloom, a non-practicing Jew, navigates his relationship with the Irish nation.

And, like all great books, if you put effort into the project you can find a way to make the politics in Ulysses relevant to our experience today. Though, there is no election or slide from democracy to fascism happening in the book, it is clear we are also watching a long standing (and undecided) conversation about what kind of nation Ireland should be, not just in terms of home rule or British rule, but also, like us, about what it means to be Irish, what it means to live in Ireland, and what it means to consider yourself a citizen of Ireland.

But when I think about politics and Ulysses through the lens of resistance and our personal relationship to resistance, I think less of the grander architectures and political landscapes of the book and more about one character: Leopold Bloom. Some of Bloom's political moments are overt, as when he debates The Citizen about what it means to be a member of a nation, while others are more policy specific as when he proposes a tram to move cattle so herds no longer disrupt traffic and when he recommends the government put a small amount of money in the bank for every child so that, as interest accrues on that deposit, every person has a financial safety net, while still others, like his acceptance and support of Molly's sexuality, we would see as overtly political even though Bloom (and perhaps Joyce) would not. Finally, other events and scenes in the book illuminate two other traits that seem to drive Bloom's political opinions; his curiosity and his imagination. Often, the reforms he offers in the course of his day start with him asking a question, and follow from him imagining an answer.

It isn't terribly original to describe Bloom as a reformer. Both the specific policies mentioned above Bloom offered in response to encountering a specific problem, I've talked about his drive to reform elsewhere and, though my memory is failing me at this point, he or another character might describe him as such. But our political moment is one of resistance, not reform. It is an existential struggle for a particular type of American nation, and it is a conflict with massive repercussions both in the short term and in the long term. But we can still draw from the core of Bloom's (and perhaps Joyce's) political beliefs and his motivations for reform.

Even in his wildest fantasies, in Circe, when he is able to enact a kind of hallucinatory wish-fulfillment, he doesn't imagine conquering other nations or accruing vast amounts of wealth or wielding god-like ultimately powers, but, essentially, of becoming a kind of uber-Robert Moses minus the malignant elitism that stained Moses' achievements, instituting vast social, technological, and economic reforms that would greatly improve the living conditions and lives of all those under his purview. Sure, it's foolish, filled with impossible technology, short on meaningful details, and, well, in a scene with gender swapping, S&M, and talking furniture, but ultimately it expresses a deep and profound desire, one that is (well I wanted to say “shockingly” but what shocks us anymore, so...) distressingly rejected by significant currents in our contemporary politics; to help every human being as much as possible. For Bloom, the goal of, well, everything, including government, isn't the preservation and elevation of a nation or nationality or even an ideal, but the preservation and elevation of people.

Furthermore, Bloom does two other things that illuminate his values. First, he checks on Mina Purefoy at the hospital because he heard she is going through a particularly difficult birth. Second, he follows Stephen, who is visibly drunk, into Night Town. These two big events, along with a series of smaller moments throughout the book, display Bloom's compassion. He is not a saint, he is not perfect, he has his flaws, and he makes his mistakes, but ultimately, Bloom is sensitive to the lives of those around him. He wants to ease the suffering of those who suffer and improve the lives of everyone.

What brings all of this together, what defines Bloom both as a human being and as a political actor, what makes him heroic and what makes him a role model for our own times and our own resistance, is the combination of three fundamental principles; curiosity, imagination, and compassion. For a famously difficult, confusing, and oblique book, Ulysses seems pretty direct in terms of how it thinks we should interact with our politics; a set of values that can easily be transferred from the politics of reform, to the politics of resistance. Perhaps that is universal and the distance between those two political acts is not nearly as far as I first thought. But it also could be specific to our political moment; there is a way to understand Bloom's values beyond politics, as core attitudes, or behaviors for being a decent human being and when the regime in power is so virulently anti-humanist, being a decent human being is an act of resistance in itself.

So, what does Bloom the reformer teach us in the resistance: Seek to know more than you know now, look beyond what has been done to discover what can be done, and do what you can to make the lives of others better.

Want to here me blathering some more about Ulysses? I'll be at Sherman's in Portland on Bloomsday.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Reading is Resistance: Culture as Weapon

I'm going to say something and it is going to feel like pustulent garbage under a hot plate when it hits your brain, but it is true. Are ye brain-stuffs girded? OK. Here goes. Bill O'Reilly, of accused of serial sexual harassment fame, is the most important public intellectual in America of the last twenty or thirty years.

Deep breath.

OK. It is now clear that, as much as we want to blame it on things the kids use like Twitter, Fox News is a primary driving force in the polarizing of American politics and that it has radicalized almost an entire generation of white men. Fox's use of the myth of liberal bias in the media to relentlessly and dishonestly present a particular narrative is a big reason why we elected Donald Trump. Could Fox News have pulled off this twenty-year grift without the veneer of decency cast by O'Reilly? Could they have maintained the necessary attention to indoctrinate (or at least manipulate) without O'Reilly's skills in communication? Could anyone have transferred the vein-popping bluster of conservative talk radio to television better than O'Reilly?

And it's clear that O'Reilly is an extremely talented communicator. From his now cliché use of “folks,” to the direct and simple graphics, to overall delivery and body language, he was able to affect the codes of your white uncle who's really into politics, who will give it to you straight and who (courageously, of course) doesn't care who he might offend in the process. I am certain that, over the years, many people came to feel almost as though O'Reilly was their politics savvy uncle Bill and looked forward to checking in with him every day to see what he thought about what went on. (I'm tempted to describe him as the anti-Mister Rogers.) To put this another way, he used a persona (who knows how far it is from his real personality) to make coded racism, class warfare against the poor, Republican talking points, and alternative realities, emotionally compelling. When presented through O'Reilly's techniques, his ideas and opinions felt right and felt good, especially when they leveraged existing fears and biases. It would probably be a step too far to say that Bill O'Reilly is an artist, but he certainly used many of the techniques of the artist to build connections in our brain between certain emotions and ideas, policies, and (most importantly) other public figures. Obviously, O'Reilly himself would bristle at the label “public intellectual” but ultimately, given that until his recent ouster for serial sexual harassment, he discussed, analyzed, and presented ideas in public for money, he is (regardless of how bad his ideas are) the definition of a “public intellectual.”

Nato Thompson's brilliant new book, Culture as Weapon: The Art of Influence in Everyday Life , has a simple thesis; culture—art, communication, social relationships—is really a set of tools that can be used by anyone for any purpose. What makes us enjoy a painting or a song or a story or a public park can be used to sell us crap we don't need, make us loyal to corporations, and even get us to vote against our interests. This use of culture for purposes other than enriching our lives is most obvious in advertising and public relations, but it goes deeper than that to corporate strategies, store design, and, even though Thompson doesn't take it in this direction, the Republican use of tribal identity and community to keep voters Republican policies historically harm voting Republican.

For the most part, this book is a starting point, with Thompson setting the stage and proving his thesis (you should see my copy, I must have tagged over a hundred of Thompson's points, phrases, and ideas) and leaving it to readers and activists to explore and apply his conclusions. Perhaps the most troubling aspect of Thompson's ideas, and why they are so relevant today is that, from the Dada rejection of sense in response to Europe's disastrous decay to the community building of the Civil Rights Movement to the leveraging of social media messaging by Black Lives Matter, culture is usually used to oppose unjust powers in service to a commitment to a greater humanity. If culture can be used by the wealthiest corporations and the already powerful and unjust governments, if Pepsi feels like it has the right to use images of protest, how exactly are we supposed to use art and culture to fight today? If an earnest attempt to imbue humanity and justice in our systems of government through image, story, and community can be turned into an ad, are those attempts and are those techniques effective anymore? If part of the fundamental argument of culture and creation is the value of all human beings, how do you use it to influence people who clearly do not believe all humans are valuable? How do you fight a reality TV star?

I don't have a good answer to those questions, but there is something of a silver lining here. We are exploitable because we seek connections, because we strive for empathy, because we want to help, because we want to provide for our families, because we want strong communities. So much of how we are exploited through cultural weapons are based in the angels of our better nature. On the one hand, it makes us easy targets; just slap the label “family values” on yourself and you get almost free rein for hate and bigotry, but on the other hand, it also proves we have those angels, that even if we disagree on the process, we all want the same things. In a strange way, the most shortsighted, cynical, greedy systems of research and production have, in a way, proved the existence of our core of human decency.

Furthermore, I think it is important to point out that there is probably a reason why most artists, intellectuals, professors, creators of culture, tend to be humanist (or at least aspire to humanism even if they often fall short), to create works that inspire and empower, rather than items that compel consumption or leverage fear of the other for personal gain. Yes, there are plenty of talented, brilliant, content creators, embedding GEICO slogans into our brains and creating talking points for fascism, as there were always plenty of talented, brilliant artists willing to paint Jesus a thousand different ways for popes and cardinals, but still. There's a reason why the Right hates Hollywood. There's a reason why Evangelicals hate artists and creative expression. There is a reason why Conservatives are afraid of higher education. This is not to sanctify artists and intellectuals, but to argue that there is at least some historical, statistical implication, that engaging in the creation of culture has a close relationship with wanting to make the world a better place for everyone.

But there is still a gap between this idea and actions we can take today. On the one hand, it seems to imply the possibility of reaching out and across and finding those better angels in the people who put Trump in power and who are keeping him there, that if we could just tell the right story in the right way, we could breakthrough with at least enough of them to alter our elections, but at the same time, there has already been tons of that reaching out and the result of that, more often than not, seems to somehow distill into the idea that we need to be nice to certain white racists in order to reclaim their votes for other white Democrats.

Technique aside, it raises a question that I don't have a good answer for: can works of culture overcome tribalism in individuals? Or rather, since we know this does happen, since much of the social progress we have experienced over the course of humanity can be attributed to this very phenomenon, perhaps the question should be asked: why do some people respond strongly enough to works of culture to break out of their tribal (racist) dogmas while others do not? Can acts of humanist culture every truly gain more than temporary reprieves and incremental (often technology driven) improvements against the acts of tribalist culture like the works of Bill O'Reilly?

We like to assume the arc of history bends towards justice, but there is a chance, a good one, that the post WWII rise of democracy and egalitarianism is actually the fluke, and that we are now, to our doom, returning to the humanity's typical organization of small groups of powerful people using their power to enrich themselves and those they identify as belonging to their tribe, but that doesn't mean we give up. Each individual person raised up over the centuries of struggle for humanist societies, makes the fight worth it and works of culture, even if their techniques have been appropriated, are part of that fight. Furthermore, acts of resistance in the form of works of culture, along with whatever they may or may not do in terms of stopping the rise of fascism in the U.S, result in themselves. They have a value that outlives whatever they do or do not accomplish.

And they persist during the times of injustice, they are solace and strength for the oppressed, they are connections across cultures and across time between all those who fight for justice, and they are proof that we can create a better world even if, ultimately, we never do. They are evidence of the fight and creating evidence of the fight matters. Ultimately, Thompson's main point is not that we should reject culture as a method of positive change or resistance, but that we need to be mindful of its limitations and prepared for systems of power to respond in kind. I don't know what that looks like. I don't know if we really have time to figure out how to apply Thompson's insights while we still have a democracy. But I do know we've got to do something.

So, fight and create evidence of your fight.

Monday, April 17, 2017

Reading Is Resistance: Tell Me How It Ends

The ability to incorporate abstraction into our lives is one of humanity's greatest intellectual strengths. That we can understand zero and pi, extrapolate from vague gestures, imagine what is impossible, and in general, live with, cope with, and even thrive on that which is ill-defined is how we were able to, not just express ourselves in the usual media we think of as “abstract,” but also put a person on the fucking moon, grow food just about fucking anywhere, and build fucking solar panels.

But that comfort with abstraction is not without drawbacks. Just because something can be shifted into an abstract idea, does not mean the best way to think about it is as an abstraction. In fact, one could argue that if abstraction is our greatest intellectual strength it is also our most dangerous intellectual ability, as pretty much every grand tragedy humanity has inflicted upon itself happened because of our ability to create abstractions out of people. For some reason, the ability to turn an understanding of numbers into the fucking internet includes the ability to turn people into numbers.

As a reader, I've almost always thought of books as one of the best ways to cultivate that innate human ability for abstraction, developing it, deepening it, expanding it to realms of thought we would normally prefer to be concrete. In some ways, empathy--that great superpower of reading--is an exercise in developing our abilities of abstraction by building connections to that and those which we have not directly experienced. Reading is often the crackle of electricity across that synapse between experience and emotion.

But there's a reason why Anne Frank is important. That abstraction of empathy through reading can also be an antidote to the catastrophic dehumanizing abstraction. Somehow, along with firing across that synapse, reading can bring other people; foreign people, distant people, out of the realm of historical, statistical, or numerical abstraction and closer to something real. Despite often being an engine for our abstract understanding, books can turn numbers back into people.

Valeria Luiselli's latest, Tell Me How It Ends is a book that turns numbers back into people. Tell Me How It Ends is an essay using the questionnaire undocumented immigrant children must answer when seeking one of the more permanent residency options in the United States.

From starting his campaign with a racist tirade, through his attempted Muslim bans, his silence on hate crimes committed against American Jews, Muslims, and people brown enough to look like Muslims, and his horrific “unshackling” of ICE, Trump has politically survived entirely on two fundamental principles; fear of otherness and (and I think I'm being very generous here by breaking this into a separate principle) Republican indifference to the consequences of that fear. To put this another way; there is absolutely no data that makes mass deportation practical, there is no illegal immigration crisis, there is no crime wave coming from Latin America. The only reason to tear families apart, turn communities upside down, and greatly destabilize or even endanger whole industries, including our food production and distribution industry, is abstract fear.

And we know it is abstract fear of otherness, because we have seen instances when person-to-person connection breaks through that abstraction and turns “Muslim” into “my neighbors” and a conservative community questions the new anti-immigrant push when a pillar of their community is arrested for potential deportation. (Just a bitter side note here about how frequently “conservatives” adopt more liberal viewpoints about shit that affects them. Anyway...) So let's use Luiselli's book, the story of Manu, her students who became activists, and the other children to de-abstract the South American refugee crisis. Let's use Luiselli's substance to turn numbers back into people.

Think about the pressure on your brain, the whisker of anxiety that brushes across your chin by fundamental questions posed by the best books: why are we here, what does it mean to be safe, who is your family, what dangers face you...Then, imagine your life depended on those answers. Then imagine you had to answer them when you were ten years old.

Picture a child in your life smiling at a balloon they've been given. That smile is about to be shipped back to Honduras like a defective product.

Imagine you were willing to ride on top of a train for hundreds of miles, a train known as La Bestia because so many people were hurt or killed while riding it, for something and then someone threatened to take it all away.

Explain to your child why their best friend's father was taken away.

Would your child survive in the desert with a coyote?

What if you had to put a piece of paper in your child's pocket to maybe save their life? And not even just maybe save their life. What if it was a police report on the shooting and killing of their best friend? What if they were so afraid they could not attend their best friend's funeral? What if they escaped the gang that threatened them, made it to safety, and their life hung by the thread of that piece of paper that had been in their pocket for thousands of miles.

Luiselli is writing about your child, your niece, your child's best friend.

Finally, why the fuck does Luiselli and all the other advocates have to do work to get you to empathize with fucking children?

Every immigration statistic is a reduction of people. And not just any people but quite often children, minors, people who have (for good reason) limited legal responsibility for their actions. Not just any people and children either; but people who risked their lives and endured hardships no native-born American would likely tolerate, all so they could work twice as hard for half as much money as native-born Americans would make because, whether it's delusional, relative, or true, they believe in the promise of opportunity America makes to the world. One fact becomes abundantly clear from Luiselli's book: whenever we go after immigrants (whether they followed all of the procedures or not) we attack people who are both utterly vulnerable and have demonstrated remarkable courage. In many ways, in most ways, in damn near every single way, the refugees fleeing violence in Central and South America for the safety and economic opportunity are exactly like the pioneers we valorize in our mythology as having built this nation.

It matters what we call people, even beyond the legal ramifications of calling the people fleeing the crime and violence engendered in large part by U.S policies, “refugees” instead of “immigrants.” I wonder what the state of our debate would be if Republicans, conservatives, and other immigration hardliners had to refer to the people they wish to deport back to the dangerous lives they fled, as “children.” This is, of course, another aspect of how reading is resistance. Sometimes in the direct ways here and sometimes in more subtle ways, books affect the language we use, they affect our lexicon, our diction, our word associations and thus, how we talk about and to each other.

Of course, there are problems here, too. The children who do get more permanent residency still have to contend with gangs and drugs and other forms of violence. They still have to navigate our education system and our employment system and, if they don't do well enough in those systems, potentially our criminal justice system, all three of which infected with systemic racism that disadvantages them. And, now, they have to do it in a country whose racists have been emboldened by an incompetent man getting three million fewer votes than his opponent. They have to survive in a country that constantly, relentlessly brags about its wealth and power while being the only nation in its economic class that doesn't provide universal healthcare and paid parental leave and has an essentially meaningless minimum wage and many of them will have to do it without having access to the thin shroud we call a social safety net.

Perhaps, our goal shouldn't be sifting through children to decide which of them deserves to stay. Perhaps we shouldn't be spending our time and money arresting and deporting people who just want to work hard for their families. Perhaps we shouldn't turn our backs on the consequences of three or four decades of meddling in the governments of Central and South America.

Instead, perhaps we should strive to become the place all these children were imagining while they road La Bestia.

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Short Story Collection Round-Up

Once again, I find myself with a stack of great books and not enough time to support all of them as much as they deserve. On the one hand, this is always a good problem to have; despite everything like [insert today's daily fucking disaster], the world is producing and publishing a ton of great literature. I'd always rather be pulling my hair out trying to find a way to write about all the books that deserve attention than scratching my head trying to come up with content. But on the other hand, I'm surrounded by books that deserve support (feel free to read this as “writers who deserve money,”) and I know there just isn't the media space for it.

Perhaps with the resurgence of indie bookstores, newspapers and other media outlets will also begin realizing that the coverage of books does more for their communities than helping book clubs make their next selection. Book coverage provides space for a broader exchange of ideas, a starting point for wider conversations about important issues, and an avenue for providing in depth information and context for events, ideas, and controversies. Perhaps the success of online book coverage and podcasts along with the return of independent bookstores will motivate local media to return to book coverage and writers will no longer have to sacrifice adorable woodland creatures in the hopes of inducing a mention on NPR. Perhaps the state of political discourse in this country and the obvious catastrophic consequences of that discourse, will awaken managing editors to how important book-type thinking is to making smart political decisions and show them they have a responsibility to bring books and book-type thinking to their communities.

But, until then, I'll do what little I can, including these round ups. One important note: I haven't read every story in the collections mentioned below, but I was excited by what I did read. If you're a fan of short fiction, you'll find a lot to be excited about in this list. (Though, if you're a fan of short fiction you might already have heard of these.) If you're not, I'm sure there will be a book in here you might want to try.

Him, Me, Muhammad Ali by Randa Jarrar
This is one of the books that I was reading and enjoying when the election shattered my reading brain for, oh, let's say a quarter. For a few years, I kept reading short stories in lit mags and anthologies that seemed to cram moments of magical realism into their narrative because...I don't know, maybe there was a trend I missed or maybe the authors hadn't figured out a better way to imply the magic inherent in daily life when viewed through the lens of literature, or maybe they were just sick of all the wannabe Carvers cluttering their workshops with long, hard talks, over rapidly diminishing whiskey bottles.

But Jarrar's magical realism is successful, feeling natural in the moment that you're reading, while also revealing the fundamental strangeness of existence. And it's good enough to be the conference read for Grub Street's Muse and the Marketplace.

Massive Cleansing Fire by Dave Housley
Dave Housley's collection is like a cross between Cormac McCarthy and Lydia Davis. (Yes, that is a sentence you just read.) Mixing the flash fiction form and occasional analytical narrative distance of Davis, with the scorched-earth lyricism of McCarthy, while using the narrative frame of always encroaching flames, Housley's stories create a new and piercing perspective on our current slow-motion apocalypse. I mean, one of the longer stories is called “Seven Clowns Before the Explosion,” for fuck's sake. That alone is worth the price of admission.

The collection also has an interesting structure, as Housley circles around and re-approaches ideas, images, and situations. “The Fires” series examines the last moments before a mysterious and relentless fire consumes the situation. “Those People” and “You People” examine a black man on a celebrity cruise featuring a Paula Deen style character, complete with public racist remarks, and “The Combat Photographer” series looks at a combat photographer adjusting and not adjusting to life without the constant approach of fire. Too often, the phrase “linked stories,” is marketing speak using either tenuous connections or repeated characters to grasp at novel-level sales, but Massive Cleansing Fire does it the right way, using the variety inherent in a collection of short-stories to explore topics in a way the singular perspective of a novel really can't.

A Collapse of Horses by Brian Evenson
I've been circling Evenson's short fiction for awhile now after reading his dark, cynical, depressing, can't-tear-your-eyes-away sci-fi novel Immobility (I also recently read and really enjoyed his novella on “identity in a poisoned world where the remaining 'people' (if they can be called that) exist as identities in single brain” sci fi novel The Warren). And they're published by Coffee House, so you know they're going to be good. As someone who has dabbled in, but never executed, pulpy genre writing, I'm intrigued by someone who can move between such different styles of thinking.

You can tell they're written by the same brain however, as the stories in A Collapse of Horses have a similar darkness and cynicism, just without the narrative shield of a radiation poisoned planet. In the short stories, you have to confront the grimness head on. But, there is a kind of beauty to this darkness, something in the marks left on the world by the struggle of life that transfixes the eye. Evenson's stories are like those black and white pictures of the elderly who wear the contours of their lives in the wrinkles on their faces or like aerial photographs of abandoned quarries.

(Oh, I once tweeted that I would love to write a video-game with Evenson. I stand by that wild flight of fancy.)

Kingdom of the Young by Edi Meidav
The first couple of stories in Meidav's collection immediately reminded me of Donald Barthelme. There are lots of different ways to be weird, and I've always believed that freedom for weirdness can be most easily explored in short fiction where you aren't required to sustain your weirdness for the length of the novel. In short stories (and poetry but in a different way, and also essays, but in an even more different way) you can present something that is both complete and just a dabble into some weird idea you had.

The same probably also goes for the emotion of “unsettling.” There aren't that many novels that explore that slightly off-kilter emotion of being “unsettled,” and those that do, tend use it as a precursor or component of fear rather than as a complete emotion in itself. Meidav's short stories are the best kind of weird and unsettling.

Calamities by Renee Gladman
I'm still not sure I've figured out what Calamities is a collection of, or even, if it's a collection at all. Each little “prose object” could be a self-contained short story or a chapter in a novel. Or a chapter in a book-length essay. Or all three. Or something else I haven't imagined. But whatever they are they're brilliant and I've been wanting to tell you all about it.

Each of the untitled sections begins with the line “I began the day,” and goes, well, somewhere. Sometimes through a relatively banal almost “Dear Diary,” series of events, sometimes through critical, narrative, or creative considerations, and sometimes to places that don't fit into any neat categorization. But that's why I love Gladman's work. We naturally categorize things and there are good and bad results at that tendency to sift, organize, and label. On top of all the self-contained ideas and images, Calamities forces us to examine that drive.

Prose-poem-essays? Grammar-tized thought-chunks? Or maybe I'll just stick with “prose objects.”

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Reading is Resistance: The Handmaid's Tale and How You Felt the Last Eight Years

“Now you know how we felt for the last eight years.”

There's a lot of baffling shit going on, a lot of people doing and saying a lot of things (New things! Every day!) that just fucking baffle me, but for some reason, this idea that I've seen expressed here and there in social media has stuck in my brain like a burr.

On the one hand, your feelings are your feelings and I have no right and really no ability to contradict you. On the other hand, what the fuck is wrong with you? How could a conversation about gun control that lead to roughly zero policy change, feel like watching human lives torn apart because of a compulsion to deport people who did not come to this country in your preferred manner? How could “I think we should talk about guns after twenty children were murdered,” feel as bad as watching a father get arrested and deported after dropping his kids off for school, or watching a foreign scientist or student potentially have her career ended by a hasty and unconstitutional travel ban? At most, over the course of the eight years of Obama's administration, some of you might have had to buy health insurance, but also, some of you who had lost jobs, got them back. How does that compare to watching a President openly fleece taxpayers for trips to Florida, while using the office of the president to enrich his own family, while quite likely having an unsavory, probably unethical, perhaps even illegal relationship with a tyrant? Is this just a misunderstanding of scale? Do you not believe that we could feel this anxiety for the lives of strangers? Do you not believe we are worried about the solvency of this nation? Or were you really this afraid that someone would take your guns, even though no one threatened to take your guns?

Like so many other book clubs, my book club recently read The Handmaid's Tale. A few things stood out to me on this re-read; the lyricism of the prose that I did not appreciate the first time, how exhausting it was to read as the empathetic stress of its world is so close to the real stress of our world, and how Atwood described the conservative mindset through the Commander. Through the Commander (or rather through Atwood's portrayal) I feel the gap between my mind and that mind has closed somewhat.

You can't make an omelette without breaking a few eggs, is what he says. We thought we could do better.
Better? I say, in a small voice. How can he think this is better?
Better never means better for everyone, he says. It always means worse for some.
The idea of society as zero-sum is old and whether it takes the form of social Darwinism, nationalism, or various and sundry justifications for hyper-capitalism and other economic theories dressing themselves up as market based, it is still bullshit. But it is compelling bullshit. There are zero-sum gain situations in our lives and humans have--at times and even in some places today--lived in zero-sum societies, but today, the United States is not a zero-sum society, nor has it been for ages.

But the validity of the idea of a zero-sum society isn't what struck me about this quote and isn't why I've included it in a post about how conservatives felt under Obama. If you believe that idea, then “If someone's life is getting better, someone else's life must be getting worse,” logically follows. And if we follow that, we get “If someone who is not me is doing better, there is a chance I am doing worse.” From there you get, “The lives of gay people just got better, and I am not gay, therefore there is a chance my life got worse,” and “The lives of some undocumented immigrants just got better and I am not an undocumented immigrant, therefore there is a chance my life got worse,” and “The lives of some transgendered people just got better, and I am not a transgender person therefore, there is a chance my life got worse.”

Or think about how the Black Lives Matter movement was perceived. Nothing about Black Lives Matter was necessarily opposed to law-enforcement or police officers. Critique is very different from opposition. I would argue that adopting the reforms in Campaign Zero would actually be good for many if not all police officers, making their jobs easier and safer. But the zero-sum lens creates opposition when there is none or, when the dynamics are complicated, reduces them to opposed forces. So conservatives saw the movement as anti-police because to be “pro” something, even if that something is “pro-no-more-black-men -being-extrajudicially-executed” means you must be “anti” something else.

The end result is that even though, to my thinking, the civil rights and other policy advancements under the Obama administration (limited as they were), broadly improved American society or, at worst, had no negative effects on those who were not directly impacted by them, the fact of an other's benefit made them feel as though something must have been taken from them.

Those years were just an anomaly, historically speaking, the Commander said. Just a fluke. All we've done is return to Nature's norm. 

Boy, some people really do love the idea of “norms” and “natural” ways of being, and isn't always an interesting coincidence, that, despite the innumerable ways human beings have lived and do live today, with so many different practices and priorities, rituals and social structures, taboos and celebrations, that out of all that expanse of humanity, and with all the times you totally fuck up, forget to go the gym, get a speeding ticket, fail to produce enough graduates with the education needed for contemporary employment, YOUR way of life just happens to be the “natural” one. I think if you're reading this blog, you probably don't need to be convinced of the bullshit of this, but the bullshitness of the idea is not the point.

If you believe there is a natural way of living, then anything that intrudes on that way of being isn't just an inconvenience, it is an assault on your humanity. If you believe marriage as recognized by the secular government is, naturally, only between a man and a woman, then allowing any other type of civil union to be recognized by the secular government is not a tangential policy change, but a de-humanizing of the system of government. In terms of this value system, exactly the same kind of de-humanizing I see when they threaten to separate families caught at the the border.

Perhaps he's reached that state of intoxication which power is said to inspire, the state in which you believe you are indispensable and can therefore do anything, absolutely anything you feel like, anything at all. 

Of course, in our society, white men don't necessarily need to do anything to reach this state in their minds; from how heroes are portrayed in mass media, to how specific leadership styles are valued or not, to more overt reactionary thinking, the message every white man receives every day is some of version of “you have earned this.” When combined with an idea of a “natural order” and as assumption of a zero-sum society, “not getting everything you want” or “being asked to do something you might not want to,” or sometimes even “seeing other people publicly disagree with you” or even “seeing other people get something you are not right this very fucking second also getting” regardless of the motivation and intentions of those experiences, amount to an attack on or perhaps even a trauma inflicted on their fundamental being. So universalizing background check policy for all ways a gun might be bought and sold isn't a rather banal common-sense policy tweak to decrease the opportunities for criminals to legally purchase guns, but a negation of their very being.

The point of this kind of exercise, of using a character presented in fiction as material for hashing out the expressed feelings of those I disagree with, is to help build some kind of common language, a starting point, or some basic agreements from which a broader dialog works. This is a major part of why book clubs work and why books are such a powerful tool in generating discussion and personal growth. Every book is a potential common language, starting point, or basic agreement. Every book has the kind of critical discourse that helps us grow as people and citizens, built in, waiting to be engaged.

But it's hard to see how what I've hashed out might help me communicate with someone who claims they felt like this while unemployment dropped at record rates. When a natural order is assumed, it's almost impossible to prove that no such thing exists or has ever existed. When you start from different, perhaps even opposed, fundamental assumptions about the state of the world, logic won't help you talk across those assumptions. Regardless of how well we employ the techniques of logic, I'll walk away feeling like you were completely irrational and you'll walk away feeling like I was completely irrational, because logic renders different conclusions when it starts from different assumptions.

Perhaps then, it would be better, somehow to start with a book. What would happen if someone who “felt like that for eight years,” read The Handmaid's Tale? What would they see in the Commander? Would they see any reflection of themselves? Would they see how there is almost no gap between contemporary anti-choice ideology and the status of Handmaids in the society? Or would they latch on to subtle distinctions to prove that, sure they're all for “traditional American values,” but they'd never let something like that happen? And what if they said that, and you looked them in the eye and said “Tell, me how Trump is different?” And then they laughed at you for not seeing what was so obvious to them. What do we learn if they simply refuse to engage in the text, dismiss it out of hand, insult it as snowflake literature for SJWs? Of course, no mind is ever so simple. Most likely the reaction would be completely different from what I'm imagining. Which would probably be the best possible outcome. Books have a way of drawing out what we never realized was there in the first place, revealing fears, prejudices, assumptions, and even strengths we didn't know we had.

P.S. I was trying to be generous in my interpretation of that expressed emotion. Some of the people who believe we feel now as they did under Obama are racists, homophobes, and general bigots. I didn't spend any time thinking about their feelings and their motivations for their feelings, because, frankly, I don't fucking care what they think or feel. Sure, no human is a monolith and no human is without the potential for future redemption, but we've been coddling these fucking assholes for as long as we've had a United States of America and I'm done with that particular extension of empathy.

Friday, March 10, 2017

Galley Lag Part Two of Infinity

As I've pointed out before, I get more galleys than I can read, let alone write about and too often, great books don't get nearly as much attention or as many sales as they deserve. So, if for no other reason than to slightly assuage my readerly guilt, here is a raft of galleys (the astute bookseller can probably guess when I started compiling this list, but, well, I had a book I wanted to finish writing, so this post got bumped down a bit.) I'm really excited about even if I don't get to write about them. (Some of which might even be available for purchase now.)

O Fallen Angel by Kate Zambreno

I've written about Zambreno's brilliant and archetypal postmodern novel Green Girl before so I was excited to see this galley come through the store. The description is even more intriguing as O Fall Angel is apparently inspired by a Francis Bacon painting.

Sex and the Constitution: Sex, Religion, and Law from America's Origins to the Twenty-First Century by Geoffrey R. Stone

So much of the momentum for the misogyny and homophobia in our society are drawn from the various Christian views and sex and sexuality. Our framers didn't get everything right, but they were absolutely right when they (despite what some might say) went to great length to separate church and state. But does historical truth, logical empathy, fair jurisprudence, and basic respect for the lives of one's fellows humans stop them? Of course not, there's a chance someone somewhere might be enjoying sex. So far, what is most fascinating about this history is how fluid the conservative ideologies are. Conservatives like to pretend that their beliefs are steadfast bedrocks with long lineages, but really it took Christianity a long time to figure out how it felt about sex and many of those things, homosexuality and abortion in particular, were assessed differently over time. In fact, the prohibition against abortion in the United States is actually fairly new, not really gaining momentum until the mid-1800s.

Culture as Weapon: The Art of Influence in Everyday Life by Nato Thompson

Seeing Power was so good, Thompson's latest was already on my pile, but then we had to form, lead, participate in, and maintain a resistance movement (perhaps even revolution) against a nascent kleptocracy. Given how brilliant Thompson is about the way art arts in our contemporary world (and that I started my Reading is Resistance column on this blog) this is now a must read.

The Twelve-Mile Straight by Eleanor Henderson

This one came to me as a bound manuscript (which is still, irrationally, a little exciting) along with a note, not from the publicity assistant or someone from marketing (not to knock those publicity and marketing letters as they can often be very helpful) but from the editor who describes the book as “what I believe to be the best book I've ever edited, out next year.” I don't know anything else about the book, but I do know that editors, as a genus of humanity, tend to value honesty. That's all I need to know to put this on my list.

Imagine Wanting Only This by Kristen Radke

This is a graphic memoir by one of my publishing friends and has steadily (and rightly I think) been building buzz and momentum. What I especially like about it, is that, even though there are a few big and a few painful moments, as there are in every life, the idea of a search for identity is essentially assumed. You don't need a traumatic moment to put some effort and thought into figuring out who you are and how to be the best version of that person you can be.

: The One-Eyed Man by Ron Currie

Everything Matters! is one of the books I've been handselling for years. It is perhaps the only optimistic story about the end of the world and, along with its exploration of relationship, drug abuse, mental illness, and economic stagnation, and thus, an important book, one that I think is a major step towards whatever happens after postmodernism. I also, really liked his next novel, Flimsy Little Plastic Miracles with its exploration of authorship, identity, and fame. Given that his publisher is reissuing Everything Matters! with a new cover and his sending him to the West Coast to reach a new audience, hopefully it will get the support and attention a writer of Currie's caliber deserves.

Recitation by Bae Suah

It had been a while since I'd read a Deep Vellum book, so I asked twitter which of the handful I should read next. Kenny Coble said I should read Bae Suah. He answered first and somehow I haven't read anything from Korea yet.

Priestdaddy by Patricia Lockwood

Lockwood wrote two of my favorite recent poetry collections and is producing some of the strangest and most unsettling poems in English. She has also cultivated a really interesting social media presence. For those facts along her new book, which is a memoir, would go on the pile. But the title. And look at that cover. You'd think it was an Alissa Nutting novel.

Monday, February 6, 2017

Reading Is Resistance: In Praise of Defeat

I, like so many other Americans, spent January 20, 2017, in a depressed funk. Which is strange in a way, because, it's not like the inauguration was a surprise. Somehow, even after the last few potential legal opportunities to prevent a Trump presidency were wasted, it didn't feel as real as it should have. But still, knowing the Obamas had to welcome this man, knowing Hillary Clinton had to sit there and watch this catastrophically unqualified charlatan take the oath for the office the majority of Americans wanted her to hold, knowing that all those other catastrophically unqualified people were in line to take charge of the various federal departments, knowing that white supremacists had something to celebrate, knowing that vulnerable people would suffer and die...

It felt like we'd come to the end of something. Perhaps, it marked the end of the American century. (Even if he is curtailed or removed from office before he does too much more damage, I don't think our standing in the world will ever be the same.) Perhaps, it marked the end of this particular form of constitutional democracy. (If court issued stays are not honored, I have no idea where we go from there.) Perhaps, given the administration's attitude toward climate change and our compressed timeline to do anything about it, it marked the beginning of the end of this particular form of human society. I think it definitely marked the end of a certain kind of white innocence, as we finally heard what so many other Americans were trying to tell us for so long: our social justice gains are insufficient and fragile, the racism in this country is far deeper than we understood, the “casual” racism in our family we brushed off as harmless wasn't casual but opportunistic, that our country was filled with sleeper cells for white supremacy and white nationalism, and that, no matter who we as individuals voted for, our own voted for Donald Trump and we bear responsibility for that.

Which is a long way of saying I was feeling depressed as shit at work that day. And this massive book of poetry in translation from a wonderful small, independent press had been staring at me all week.

In Praise of Defeat is a career spanning collection of poetry (and a little prose) by the Francophone Moroccan poet, writer, and political activist Abdellatif Laabi, a writer I'd never heard of until this beautiful blue collection of his work published by my friend and yours Archipelago Books showed up at the store. Laabi was one of the founders of the left-wing literary review Souffles, which was banned by the Hassan II regime. Laabi himself was then tortured and imprisoned for eight years. Eight years.

Given his history, it's not terribly surprising that his poems and collections have titles like “Beneath the Gag, the Poem,” “Talk or Be Killed,” “Skinned Alive,” “The Sun is Dying,” and “In Praise of Defeat.” And there is the darkness you would expect; the pain, the comfort with death, the sharp turns of image from the delicate to the grotesque all in the relatively straightforward language you would also expect from a brain made weary by imprisonment and torture, but it is also shot through with moments of the more sophisticated diction you would expect from the founder of a radical avant garde literary magazine. The result is something like Walt Whitman crossed with Jean Genet but with a very different breadth of life in search of expression and a very different beatification of the criminal. With many of his early poems, I had an image of him getting back to his cell or wherever and trying to write on whatever scraps of paper were available with whatever writing utensil was available “Fuck you,” over and over again in a show of brute defiance, but his hand did not quite follow the instructions, something intervened, an unconsciousness poetic current, perhaps, and when he read the scraps again later, he found he'd written these poems instead.

Even without all the swirling context, these poems would have had an impact, but given that context, they punched me in the jaw. But, not in like, a bad way, but in the way how sometimes Rocky gets punched but that only makes him stronger and then he's all like “hit me again,” and Drago hits him again and then we all know it's over for Drago now. Strength from pain. Resilience from attack.

As the Trump administration continues to run roughshod over American democracy, sewing chaos within our vital social and economic systems while threatening even worse, and ruining the lives of Americans, visitors, and immigrants, it is perhaps, most difficult, especially for a white man like me, to get any appreciation of the scale of the carnage he is creating. I am insulated by my privilege and I am insulated by living in Massachusetts, a wealthy, liberal state with the resources to mitigate at least some of the trauma Trump is inflicting on the world. There is a risk, of course, as I watch the horrors unfold on social media, that I fetishize the suffering of others, reducing other people to props in my arguments.

There is, of course, a limit to how I can connect with those Trump will cause to suffer (at least for now); a limit created by my privileged life and by the need to maintain my own emotional and mental health. For me, In Praise of Defeat is part of a solution to that problem, giving me the specific language of someone who has suffered in the past, through the medium of poetry, to apply to the suffering of people today. I can transfer Laabi's poetry and the emotions they create within me to the stories and images I am seeing now so I can act with at least some emotional intelligence or at least awareness.

And this is about emotional awareness. About understanding, on some level, how other people feel or, in the case of our new fascists and their sympathizers and apologists, definitively and intentionally refusing to understand how someone else might feel. Nothing in my life and nothing that I read will give me the experience of someone being arbitrarily turned away from the United States, but the poetry of Laabi still offers an avenue, a bridge between my life and that pain, and even though I am not able to cross that bridge the connection is there. Poetry like Laabi's (or even Whitman's and Genet's) creates connections between the people; the exact connections that eventually defeat fascists.

Monday, January 23, 2017

Reading is Resistance Vol 1

One of the big differences I've noticed between the growing resistance to the Trump presidency and my activism in college is a general acknowledgment of the need for members of the resistance to care for themselves, to make sure that everyone does what they need to do to be mentally, emotionally, spiritually, and physically healthy. The idea of resistance (perhaps even revolution) is seeing its members not as soldiers in an army, but as human beings fighting to make the world a better place; whole people with needs, wants, talents and weaknesses, and who are also supposed to benefit from that better world.

Of course, ideally we try to find things that do both; actions that directly contribute to the resistance and energize and sustain us. For some, going to protests and rallies is energizing. (If anyone is energized and sustained by running committee meetings or drafting municipal legislation please stand up. We've got a lot of stuff for you to do.) For me, reading can be that dual action, that activity that contributes to the resistance while energizing and sustaining me.

Furthermore, we as individuals can't do everything. A big part of the success of the #smallacts movement is that it breaks the difficult, relentless effort of activism into chunks that nearly everyone  can fit into our lives. Along those lines, we also have to find what we, as individuals are best at, and how to use that talent, expertise and wisdom, together with other people and their talents to have the greatest impact. You will be shocked to know that, after several seconds of consideration, I decided that as a bookish person, a reader, and a writer, I hope to use my expertise in the world of books to help the resistance however I can, by sharing what I know about reading, how it can connect to the resistance, and, of course, recommending the weird and challenging books to get through this weird and challenging time.

For this installment, I'm going to focus in on reading techniques, the ways we can read that will help develop the skills we need to resist the Trumpocracy.

Cultivate Context
Yeah, let's not have this anymore.
To me, one of the big reasons why conservative ideology is still politically effective despite being shackled to racism, bound to dogmatic religious thinking, and committed to policies and economics that have definitively failed, is the ability of conservative pundits and politicians to remove contemporary debates from their historical context. The way Republicans talk, you'd think all of our current federal regulations were foisted on the public by Bill Clinton. Every law is a story, a story about debate, lobbying, amendment, and negotiation. This is not to say that every law or every regulation is effective, but that, at some point, someone thought it would make the world or some part of it a better place. For an easy example, find pictures of major urban areas before the EPA. We have the Environmental Protection Agency because, at some point, many Americans and enough federal legislators and executives believed society benefited overall from protecting the environment. More frustrating, for me, is how we have actively forgotten the policies that contributed to the invention of the middle class after the Great Depression and World War II. (FYI: It wasn't low taxes and a balanced budget.) In short, the only way contemporary conservative policies win debates (when they even are debated as quite often these ideas are taken as articles of faith) is to remove them from all context and discuss them as axioms.

In many ways, reading is all about context. We learn from information and exploration through images that are arranged in relation to each other. Interpretation is driven by extrapolating what these events, these images, and even these words mean because they are in the context of these other words, images, and events. Often, however, that act of contextualizing is automatic, perhaps even unnoticed, because it feels like you're just reading. But if you read with that idea of contextualizing at the front of your mind, you both see the process and improve your ability to make connections across time and space.

Those connections across time and space, between the past and the present, between cause and distant effect and between people who never interact on a daily basis, are exactly what conservatives need us to forget for any of their points about tax rates on the top income earners, trickle down economics, and government regulations to make any sense at all. Reading intentionally builds that contextualizing skill so that you always ready to respond to a statement from the government or an argument about say, health care, with the necessary follow up questions and research to establish their context.

Become an Expert in Something
A portal to expertise hides in the back of nearly every work of popular nonfiction: the bibliography. The bibliography or works cited, is a list of other books and primary research; the time-consuming, expensive primary research upon which so much rests, and exactly the kind of research vulnerable in a malignantly anti-intellectual government. Furthermore, as funding is cut, as scorn is heaped on experts, as they are removed from positions and not consulted when their knowledge will be useful, their impact on our culture will wane.

One way to resist the de-knowledging of society is to become knowledgeable yourself. To replace, as much as you can, the absence of experts in mass media and government with the presence of expertise in your life. Furthermore, buying (when you can) and requesting your library carries these primary source or more scholarly works will support (at least a little) some of that un-glorious but vital scholarly work. Furthermore, there's always the chance, depending what you focus on, that some bill or statute or referendum (especially at the municipal and state levels) will touch on your topic and if that is the case, you will be ready to write letters to the editor and speak at meetings. (And the more of us that become experts in something the more likely citizen-experts will be around for every issue that comes up.) So, follow something that catches your eye in a book you're reading to its primary source and because an expert on it.

Develop Your Ear for Bullshit
Alternative facts” happened on Sunday January 22, 2017. The day before, the White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said, out loud and into a microphone for all to hear, the utterly laughable, easily disprovable assertion that Trump's inauguration had the highest attendance in history. We all saw it. We know that's not true. When pressed to explain why the White House Press Secretary would blatantly, even casually, lie to the American people in his very first and thus heavily symbolic appearance, Conway said that he just presented with “alternative facts.” And, even if you're not terribly politically engaged, or even if you are but are conservative, any reader will hear something off about that phrase. The word “fact” by definition, implies an absence of “alternative.”

But as with all things, sorting through meanings to find concealed deception (though, honestly, if they think this conceals deception they think very little of the American people) is a skill that needs to be learned and developed. Close reading isn't just an academic exercise, it is an exercise in getting beyond the first layer of meaning, of identifying phrases that seem odd, and of blocking the verbal jujitsu those in power use to sound like they're saying one thing when they're actually saying its opposite. It might be taking things too far to say that all deconstruction does is apply a bullshit detector to the book you're reading, but not much.

But close reading is a skill that erodes when you don't use it. So dust off the old lit crit and start reading your books with an eye for the layer beneath, so it is easier to see what Conway, Spicer, and Ryan are hiding. If you weren't an English major, and want to develop this skill, there are, of course, plenty of books, both popular and academic that explore the technique, but I would also recommend finding a book or two about your favorite book (or at least one you're very familiar with) and reading those. That will show you an example of close reading in the context of something you already enjoy.

Find your skill, take your small act, and keep reading.