Archive for the ‘life’ Category

Rane, everywhere

February 9, 2011

The only event of AWP that I, and the g/f,  felt was a necessity for us to attend was the tribute to Rane Arroyo. He wasn’t in our lives long. She met him in a class in her fall semester, where Rane had to miss a couple of weeks and was covered by his partner Glen. I met him a couple of semesters later in another class where, about three-quarters of the way through the semester, he pulled me off to the side during the ten minute break and encouraged me to go after an MFA. It’s a piece of advice, and a belief in me, that I still carry around.

Before talking about the tribute itself, I feel like I need to mention that Rane seemed to pop up throughout the conference in some way. Maybe we were just looking for him, but I don’t think so. I bought at least one book of poetry because of their resemblance to his Roswell poems. At another table, we received a free copy of Water Stone Review and found Rane’s name on the back among the contributors. We ran into other people who knew Rane throughout the conference. And there was a distinct feeling that maybe we wouldn’t have been there at all if it wasn’t for him. For us, at least, the place reverberated with his presence, with the possibility he had instilled in us, with what I can only think of as the sheer elastic joy of him.

The tribute was put together by Glenn Sheldon and consisted of twenty or so readers, each reading one poem of Rane’s that touched them, that impacted them, or reading a poem about him, remembering. It was touching, it was painful, I think I cried a couple of times. It was good to hear Rane’s words spoken aloud.  It’s something I may never hear again, at least in this type of setting and it’s something I needed.

For the event, Glenn produced a tribute chapbook with remembrances by the readers along with re-prints of the poems they read. Interspersed throughout the book are sketches, drawings and photos of and by Rane. I hate to pick favorites from it, they are all beautiful, but I found the poem by Luis Alberto Urrea to be particularly heart rending.

On the back of the chapbook is a picture of Rane, with that little Rane smile, that smile that’s trying to be straight faced but is bent with that elastic joy. At the end, Glenn stood up and said that something Rane said was, “cry, but the tears are not for me, they are for you. Afterward, when you laugh, that will be for me.” I laugh occasionally, but I’m not quite past the crying stage yet. I miss him and the world is a bit worse off for his having departed it. But somewhere got a good deal brighter with him having arrived. Rest in peace, my friend, knowing that I am one of many who still carry you around.

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what I wish was a drunken conversation in a McDonald’s at AWP

February 8, 2011

The g/f and I went to one off-site event while we were at AWP, at The Asylum, where we watched some poets read, munched some vegan appetizers (which were incredible, despite their non-animalness)(not awesome enough to make me give up my animal tasty treats for good, though) and where I got the beginnings of a headache and tired of some personal space intrusion. This was still at the time I was having to do a TON of grading for the courses I teach, so I wasn’t in the best mood to begin with.

So, we left after the readings and struck out for the convention again, hoping to catch the last bit of the Jhumpa Lahiri keynote address. Instead, we wandered into a basement McDonald’s and griped about the state of poetry and the faint of heart, spotlight shunning writers who just don’t stomp the terra firma, to borrow and, likely, butcher a quote from Hunter Thompson.

First, I should say, I’m not a huge poetry fan right now. There just isn’t a lot out there that interests me and a lot of it sounds pretty similar. This isn’t to say it’s not good, I just don’t find a lot of it catching or interesting. It seems a lot of what is said is said to work in a slam environment though not necessarily on the page or even in your own head. Again, this isn’t to say it’s not good, it just feels like everyone is doing the same thing right now. And none of them really say a whole helluva lot.

And part of the problem seems to be this odd anti-intellectualism that permeates poetry (and, truth be told, fiction). This isn’t to say they’re dumb, or ignorant, just that I have continually witnessed an aversion to research and reading something that isn’t fiction or poetry.  I’ve griped before about this idea that the work is sparked by some muse and comes from on-high, which is another way of saying what I often heard repeated, that “you don’t think about it, you just write it and it’s THERE.” Which I disagree with too a fair extent, despite how many well written poems I’ve read that chronicle the depths of your despair in the eyes of a puppy on a sunny day.

Which, in a roundabout but perfectly logical (at the time) way, took me to Allen Ginsberg and my declaration that he was the last poet that I could genuinely respect and admire as a Great (capital G) Poet (capital P) because he not only wrote great poetry but, by all appearances, had a meaning and purpose behind what and how he was writing. I’ve liked poets since him, sure, I really enjoy Bukowski, but respect him as a writer? As an artist? Maybe not so much.

And what sort of disgusted myself with this declaration is that it’s sort of like bringing Hitler or the Nazis into an internet argument – it’s just so over the top inarguable, that it’s pointless to bring it up. I mean, is there anyone who is going to argue that there was a bigger, more influential and flat out better poet after Ginsberg in the last half of the Twentieth century? I couldn’t, and wouldn’t, unless we begin pulling in guys like Bob Dylan into the argument, or try to argue that filmmakers are poets in a visual medium.

And what disgusts me a bit now is that I know, and have known, other poets who are very good, who are dedicated to their craft, and who I stupidly insulted. But, at the same time, I still have this nagging feeling of having still been right, to a certain degree. There have been poets since Ginsberg who entered our social consciousness, who found themselves or made themselves part of our national fabric, but none of them have carried the weight of Ginsberg, none of them have cast his shadow. None of them have stomped the land.

Anyway, that’s my off-handed gripe/post. Take it with the grain of salt it was written with.

Don’t call me a critic – I’m an analyst!

January 24, 2011

I have a confession. I have never, ever, liked the idea of being a critic. It’s one of those weird, little hang-ups people get over time, they hear a word, they put an image to it, and their nose scrunches up as they say, “ewwwwwwwwwww.” For me, critic has always been synonymous with someone who bleeds everything enjoyable out of whatever they’re critiquing and destroys something rather than adding anything worthwhile to it.

Is this fair? of course it’s not. There are a tremendous number of very good critics who truly do add something to the work they’re looking at, who are a treat to read, and who don’t thoroughly kill the joy from whatever their eyes fall upon.  I’ve read a number of critics that I enjoy, I have friends in the field who I believe do an unbelievably thorough, engaging and, yes, even entertaining job at working through their critiques.

Still…that image remains. Ewwwwwwwwwwww.

Then I ran across a line in the book I’m using in my 7 week short story course this winter. The book is How to Read Literature Like a Professor by Thomas Foster, and it is a book I wish I had came across years ago. If any instructors happen by this page, I fully endorse this book as an entry level reader for getting undergrads into the mode of reading and criticizing literature. It’s not only thorough, but accessible! Also, it’s cheap, so they won’t hate you for making them blow $80 on a book they’ll never use again.

But back to the line I ran across. It’s been a few days, so I can’t pinpoint where it was exactly, but Foster was talking about criticism in general when he makes a reference to deconstruction, a form he clearly isn’t a big fan of, and which he responds to by saying, “I prefer to enjoy what I analyze.”

And there was the golden word. Analyze. Not only does it have pleasant connotations with some entirely forgettable Robert DeNiro-Billy Crystal movies, but it’s also associated with the American all-positive view of business. Stock analysts. News analysts. Business analysts. Analysts, analysts, analysts. We love them. We embrace them. They are all cute and cuddly like Glen Beck at a gun rally.

And so it struck me. I’m not a critic. I don’t criticize. I don’t do quick 900 or so word critiques of novels and short stories, I do short 900 or so word analysis’s of stories. Suddenly, I feel cuter. Cuddlier. I’m okay with the idea of what I do around here -at times, anyway. Also, I feel like a more productive member of society. After all, a critic only criticizes. An analyst is in the trenches, examining trends and making flow charts. They get things done. So universities should be more willing to better fund their literature departments if a move towards re-categorizing ourselves becomes vogue. We’re not longer sitting on the sidelines, criticizing everything, we’re helping out. We’re analyzing.

What’s the point? There isn’t one.

January 6, 2011

Over at Fictionbitch, there are the beginnings of a discussion about writing; the why, the how, the teaching of it, etc.  Instead of throwing my thoughts messily around their comment section, partially because I’m somewhat of a negative ninny about this but also because my thoughts are all over the place on this, I figured I’d just throw it up here.

I don’t think there is a point to writing, or a reason for it, or anything else. It seems that with anything artistic, there is a bizarre need to justify its being done. Why do you paint? Why do you sculpt? Why do you write Elizabethan sonnets on postcards of the Virgin Mary? Well, why do you go in and do your accounting work? Why do you play basketball? Why do you habitually watch every incarnation of Law and Order, even the odd foreign versions that have to be subtitled?

At some point, we just need to say we do it because we do it. Some of us get paid to do it, and I think it would be a damn dirty lie to not admit a paycheck is also a wonderful motivator for continuing something. Hell, Stephen King wouldn’t have become Stephen King if he hadn’t sold Carrie and his wife had to tell him to get back to work so they could pay the bills and keep the kids fed. A paycheck is a powerful motivator and enabler. As a quick aside, it also leads into one of my favorite Harlan Ellison rants, “Pay the writer!” (the youtube clip is here, or you can watch the entire documentary it’s from, Dreams with Sharp Teeth).  At some point, though, after talking about how it’s a part of your life, how you love sharing the experience with others, etc. etc. etc, it has to be said that there would be a lot fewer writers if they didn’t get paid to do it in some capacity.

Which comes to teaching. It has to. That’s how a lot of us writers find a way to get a paycheck – we teach, somewhere, at some level, some subject. Creative writing courses themselves, I’m not too thrilled about. I know other people have found them very helpful, very informative, very constructive. Frankly, I haven’t.  But that doesn’t mean they aren’t needed. There is at least one response over at Fictionbitch that I agree with, though: there’s no reason there shouldn’t be a closer tie between creative writing and composition. A lot of the same rules apply to each: you need good grammar/spelling, you need good structure, you need to have some idea what you’re writing about and why AND you need to communicate this to your readers. The skills you hone while learning one can go a long way toward honing your skills at the other. My g/f teaches her composition classes this way, mixing in heavy doses of creative writing, and she has large, enthusiastic responses to it. Since I don’t want to incur her wrath and interrupt what she’s working on right now, I’ll try to pluck the right name from memory and say that, I think, it’s a professor named Dinty More (yes, like the stew) who pushes this method but I might be wrong. Also, by making the creative writing process more closely tied with the composition courses, maybe it could increase their importance in university English departments, something that is never a bad thing as people look to federally fund universities less and less every year.

Now do I feel that good writing, at least good beyond basic grammar and spelling good, can be taught? Not really, no. But I do think the process of going through the workshops, getting peer reviewed, getting feed back, etc. can be a good thing. But I also thing there is a justified worry about a bit of group think setting in and pieces getting overworked.  In other words, it’s a mixed bag and depends just as much on the individual taking part as the courses and university.

And why do I write? Because I do. Now go back to Law and Order.

Is it morning yet?

November 1, 2010

Not lit related but I had to share this somewhere. Every night, I get my son up so that he can go to the restroom and stand a (slightly) better shot at making it through the night. Tonight is like any other night. I get him up, he wanders into the bathroom, I sort his bed out a bit and wander back out to the computer. A few minutes go by. I hear a thud that might be a flush so I get up and start walking so that I can lift him up and into his loft bed.

Except he’s not in the bathroom. The light is on. The toilet seat is down (that was the thud, apparently, and I had missed the flush altogether). And his pajamas are strung out along the floor.

I walk down the hall a bit, wondering what’s going on, thinking that maybe he’s hiding so that he can jump out and “scare” me, which is when I walk past his room. His light, which I am sure I turned off when I left earlier, is now on. He’s fishing some clothes out of the dresser. I’m thinking he was a bit wet and I’m getting ready to go down to the hall closet and grab out another overnighter (it’s what we call’em) but first I ask him what’s going on. He tells me he’s getting dressed. I ask him where his PJs are. They’re in the bathroom. Okay, why aren’t you wearing them? He looks at me. I look at him. It’s not morning I say.

Then it clicks home. He chucks the shorts back into the dresser and walks to the bathroom. He starts to apologize for something, I don’t know what, and I quickly tell him it’s fine, and I shut the bathroom door while he changes. I stand down the hall and wait. He comes out and I lift him into his bed. So this was my midnight thing? he asks. I smile, try not to laugh. I nod. He goes to bed and I come back to the computer. I wonder how he could possibly think it’s morning when it’s the middle of the night. But he’s a kid. It’s probably easier for him than I can imagine. It’s just one of those times, one  of  the strange moments of raising a child.

You might want an emerald…

September 16, 2010

but if you dig up an onyx, you just have to go with it.

Thinking a bit about writing today. I don’t want to say that I’ve hit a wall, because I’m still reading through a second draft and jotting down notes, I’m still working on the research for another project, I finished one poem and wrote another, I have continued reading (and putting off grading and at least one review to write and some cleanup on a previous review…) but my enthusiasm for what I’m currently re-writing (well, editing/re-reading right now) has ebbed a bit.

It’s not entirely what I had expected, or wanted, it to be. Part of it comes from a sheer lack of skill when I first started putting the whole thing together. Part of it was from lack of preparation. But mostly I think it was from not entirely knowing what the hell I was doing.

This isn’t to say that I think it is bad. It is readable. It gets the pages turned. But it also feels a little light, it lacks a certain critical weight. And this saddens me a bit because I think there was space in there for that. It had some soil that was fertile enough to sprout some insightful/clever/whatever things. But I just didn’t get it tilled enough or I didn’t water it enough or maybe I just didn’t spread enough shit on it.

So it doesn’t appear that I have pulled from the earth of creativity the precious stone that I had envisioned. But I did pull something out, and it’s shiny, it’s nice, and I still like it. And I am trying to make it the best whatever it is that I can.

A Rant in First Person

June 7, 2010

I was in Half Price Books a few weeks ago when I ran across a book that looked interesting. However, instead of just grabbing the thing and going to the checkout like I normally do, I decided to check it out of the library instead and it was a great decision.  I really don’t want to go on about how much I didn’t like the thing. I’ve had to write a couple of negative reviews and it’s not something I enjoy. Further, I also didn’t want to finish the thing. It’s a collection of short stories, I got roughly 80 pages into its total of 120-ish pages, and I just don’t have it in me to finish the thing. Not when I had ceased caring about what I was reading and not when I knew that to finish it only meant I would come here to write a negative review of the thing.

I think part of the problem is that I’m just tired of the whiny first person narrative. It’s been one of a number of current works that I have read lately where the story (or stories) are told from the perspective of someone needlessly whiny, where nothing goes right and where life is just oh so unnecessarily hard and they don’t know why. Wah wah wah.

It would be one thing if these narratives had anything more to them, if there was a reason for the character to be so pathetic and thoroughly uninteresting, regardless of what shenanigans the character is up to and what situations they find themselves in but I think I am becoming convinced that the stories of these characters are without meaning because the writers are writing about themselves and they are without meaning. More and more, literature (especially American) reads as if the authors read works from the Beat Generation, got the fact they were writing about themselves, and took nothing else from their works.

And so we have a mountain of writers armed with the simple mantra of writing about themselves and churning out all sorts of creative non-fictional fiction that is just out and out empty and bad. The writer of the stories of which I read 80 pages of went so far as to admit that a few works had been originally published as non-fiction pieces and that the rest of the collection was more memoir than fiction. Except it’s a memoir that read like the most pathetic headlines found in the magazines collected in grocery store checkout aisles.

I remember reading once an author’s reply about why they write and they replied that they live to write. Too much fiction today seems to be a bastardization of this. People lead lives for the express purpose of chronicling themselves rather than just living their lives. At some point your life is no longer your own but just whatever you think will make the next best chapter. You’re not there for yourself, you’re notliving for yourself, you’re living for…what? I, honestly, can’t even imagine except I’m tired of reading the dead, soulless meanderings of it.

This isn’t to say that all first person narratives are bad, even if they are autobiographical. It can be done well. It still is done well. But it also seems like the Ready-Made Section of literature. It’s writing without the heavy lifting, like renovating a kitchen with pre-manufactured countertops and cabinets. It can look alright, plucking these things off the shelf at Lowe’s but they also stand out for being the same basic mediocre things that they are.

Alright, the rant is over. I also just finished a wonderful short story collection called The Lost TIki Palaces of Detroit, it’s something I want to write about but am deciding the form (review the whole thing or story by story? something in-between?). the frustration from the other reading was just overwhelming, though. On to better things.

Rane Arroyo – RIP

May 11, 2010

Just learned today that I lost a friend of mine early Friday morning to a cerebral hemorrhage. I met Rane Arroyo during my stint at UT. I was pursuing an MA in English Literature and had an opportunity to take a class I figured I would enjoy for a change, a creative writing/poetry class, and jumped at it. Rane was a wonderful professor. He cared about all of hsi students. He would do anything to help nudge them down the road of becoming better writers. He gave. He gave a lot. He gave of himself, he gave his time, he gave his friendship, he gave his joy. He was a joyful person despite all of the crap he had to go through and I only knew a fraction of that crap.

The immediate reaction is to, in some way, quantify the loss. One Rane Arroyo is equivalent to X amount of sorrow. Rane was unquantifiable. He was too young to go and the world is the worst off for losing him. If you get a chance, check out his stuff.  Donate some time/money to your local humane society or animal shelter. Laugh. Be joyful. Rane was joy.

My Mom is My Hero

March 17, 2010

Alright, it’s corny, but it’s true. And it’s all because my mom can be a A Level Bitch when she needs to be. She’s always had this quality of being able to stand up for herself against anyone and relentlessly argue a point if she feels she is in the right. Granted, it’s something that has dimmed a bit with age but once in awhile the embers are given a quick puff of air and the flames alight anew. And last night she saved her mother, my grandmother, from death.

Yesterday afternoon my grandmother was taken to the hospital. My mom left work (and might actually be punished for having left work for this by being given a “point”) to be there, as nearly any child would if they knew their mother was being taken to a hospital. Once there the attending physician in the ER aid there were two possible diagnoses. One was cellulitis and the other was a blood clot, as they have similar symptoms.

My grandmother has had cellulitis before. Two christmases ago, my uncle died from complications from cellullitis because an emergency room didn’t recognize how ill he was and sent him home. Last night, the attending physician tried to send my grandmother home. He said he had seen worst cases of cellulitis. That she’d be fine. That modern antibiotics were very strong and would fight it off just as easily there as in the hospital.

Then my mom became a bitch. She argued with the doctor until he finally gave in. they admitted my grandmother. They ran blood cultures. This morning they found that her leg was beginning to go septic. When I say her leg went septic, it means there was bacteria in her blood, or she was beginning to suffer from blood poisoning.  This is what killed my uncle in less than twenty-four hours. Sending my grandmother home last night would have been a death sentence.

What my mom does isn’t in everybody. I don’t know if it’s in me. But I hope that if or when the time comes that I can step up and be a son-of-a-bitch when I’m needed to be.

For more information on cellulitis, here’s the google.health page for it. It says its common but, from the experience with two members of my family, it can be an insidiously dangerous and deadly disease.

Dean Haspiel is Talking About Me

March 17, 2010

And it really isn’t very nice.

Upon first reading this, I went back and wanted to edit in some sort of clarification to my Quitter review.  Then part of me wanted to defend myself on his journal but I can’t because I don’t have a live.journal ID and, frankly, I don’t want another ID to keep track of. I even thought of emailing him but, honestly, he probably doesn’t care by now and, if I slept on it, I’d probably just blow it off by morning, too.

But after re-re-reading my review, I think I am clear enough in my calling not Haspiel personally out for his credibility, but the possible credibility of one of the narrators, either the illustrator or the writer. Put another way, it is a question of reliability. Much like how you gradually come to know that Humbert Humbert isn’t to be trusted as a narrator in Lolita, I wondered if the reader wasn’t given reason to not trust one of the interpretations of “Quitter,” either that of the illustrations or that of the words. Here’s the block of text from the review that I think caused the problem:

Considering the visual nature of comics, I wonder if this doesn’t take away from the credibility of one of the narrators, either the writer or the illustrator. The text matches up well with the illustration, but considering the effect small things from facial expressions to stances to shading can affect how a panel is viewed and interpreted, there is a clear possibility for one to provide an interpretation of the story that might be different from the intended interpretation the other half of the story telling might desire to communicate.

Now, I admit, it’s not exactly William Faulkner. But it’s not horrible. And I think the credibility (or reliability) of one of the narrators is fair game. Maybe I was entirely wrong but I thought there was a certain disagreement, at times, between what the illustrations depicted and what Pekar’s words depicted. And that this disagreement could mean that one was slightly more or less reliable than the other. And that such a thing might be entirely purposeful by the writer/illustrator. The idea of two narrators telling the same story but in different ways, at the same time, seems like an intriguing idea to me. Something that makes me think of Last Year at Marienbad, for instance.

I also do not believe his examples of a director/screenplay and singer/lyrics are really fair comparisons. First, they can’t be referred to as “narrators” in the same way the writer/illustrator can (and must necessarily be) referred to as “narrators” in their respective forms. It isn’t a question about the credibility of the artist as a person. It’s simply not, and I think that’s clear. The credibility that is being questioned is the narrative truthfulness of the illustrator versus the writer. they’re telling the same story in different mediums. Each is, essentially, a narrator. If the interpretation of the text ever differs significantly from the interpretation of the images, I think the credibility of one of the narrators has to be called into question.

Just as you question the narrative credibility of Humbert Humbert in Lolita. It’s not a question of Nabokov’s credibility as a writer but of his creation.