A Tragicomical, Unsophisticated Blog about the Weird, the Absurd, and the Banal

Saturday, January 28, 2012


Today I finished reading Seamus Heaney's translation of Beowulf. Maybe my expectations were too High, but I was hoping that by reading this text I would be seized with some sort of poetic, ancestral blood lust. Yes! Now, I will write epics that will survive centuries! Gold! Monsters! Mead!

No such luck.

I was glad for the change of pace, though. I had just finished reading Plato's Republic. Guilt has dictated my reading list over the past few months. You see, I managed to get a BA in English without having read any of the Seminal Texts. Sure, I've read some Shakespeare, but I never got through the whole Bible or Canterbury Tales and I've only read excerpts of The Iliad and The Odyssey. I have read the Epic of Gilgamesh, though.

I know all of these stories by reputation. Because of this I have very high expectations, tracing this lineage of Inspiration back a few thousand years.

The Repbulic was boring.

Beowulf, on the other hand, was like reading a comic book. Seriously. It's a heroic story with vengeance, drinking, fighting, dragons, terrible monsters, episodic ordeals. Who wouldn't want to read this?

Maybe I'm jaded, or perhaps I've read too many deconstructive texts, but all I could think about while reading Beowulf was Alan Moore's The Watchmen. A critic wrote about that epic something to the effect of, "The Watchmen is Alan Moore's admonishment to anyone who ever wanted a hero to save them." And isn't this a fitting parallel? Beowulf ends foreshadowing of the complete destruction of Goetaland from invaders. Because Beowulf won't be there to Save them.

Two days ago my friends and I were sitting around drinking whiskey and talking about Andy Warhol. Yes, we do that sometimes. We tried to discuss his art and his commentaries, but again and again we came back to talking about the man himself. We concluded that he was an asshole and one M pointed out that he was probably sitting up in some ostentatiously flamboyant afterlife laughing at us.

Warhol. Andy Warhol. No matter how you feel about the man, you cannot escape him. Can you? His work is Everywhere. I have no idea what he did to the discussion about Art (and Visual Art in particular), but he certainly did Something Permanent to it.

Kind of like Samuel Beckett.

A few years ago I took a digital poetics class from Dee Morris. In discussing the lineage of digital poetics, she said, "And this all comes back to the great Samuel Beckett." Dee never prefaced any other person with "the great" and it carried the same weight as the Old Man speaking of "the great DiMaggio."

I don't like Beckett. But I can't stop reading him. This goes beyond my desire to familiarize myself with the Canon (just so that I can say, "Yes, I know goddamn canon."). Samuel Beckett Haunts me. Even if his work confuses, frustrates, and bores the hell out of me, I keep coming back to it. Isn't that the best relationship to have with the Greats? To loath and to worship.

My hero, Samuel Beckett. And, in that critic's estimation, he's the best hero I could choose, because I have no wish or expectation for Samuel Beckett to come and save me (though, wouldn't that be awesome?).

If I'm ever reincarnated, I wish I could come back as Samuel Beckett's fingertips.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Genre Wars, Part I

A few days ago I read "Why Isn't Literary Fiction Getting More Attention," a guest-post on Jane Friedman's blog by writer and teacher April Line. The gist of it is self explanatory. Normally I'm irked by people trashing my aesthetic, but this one just confused me.

Line draws a pretty obvious initial line in the sand between the people who prefer "... Amy Hempel or John McNally or Joan Didion than Stephanie Meyer or Nora Roberts or John Grisham." The former three, I suppose, are "literary authors" and the latter are "genre."

Okay, fine, I'll walk with you. I take exception to her straw-manning the concept of genre by not naming authors who carry the same critical baggage as her "literary" short list (like Madeleine L'Engle; or ... I've got nothing for romance, but that's because I'm not well read there; or Jonathan Lethem), but whatever.

However, next she sites a little-known book, Ron Currie Jr.'s God is Dead, as a good example of fine literary writing. This is where she lost me. I have never read God Is Dead, but the reviews say that it is a collection of short stories begins with "the death of God, who, disguised as a Sudanese woman, dies in Darfur." Bookslut and Line herself use the phrase "post-apocalyptic" to describe it.

But, in fact, that is a genre. My friends and I all it "post-apocalyptic fiction."

I'm honestly not sure if April Line would place God Is Dead in the same genus as The Day of the Triffids or The Road or The Stand, but I would. I have no idea if I would place God Is Dead in the same category as Amy Hempel, since I have not read the former. But I tend to think of Joan Didion as an apocalyptic writer. That's just my opinion.

That's where we all get stuck: personal opinion. Personally, I think the only place the word "genre" belongs is in academia - where, if we didn't have such fine words to argue about we'd have nothing to do - and secret, underground, publishers' marketing rooms where the purpose is to figure out how to get the most people to actually buy their books (or, in a less cynical view, get the books to the people who like them).

Basically, I don't think that Line is angry that "genre books" are selling better than "literature." She's upset that not enough people are reading her favorite books.

There's no reason to fault anyone for that, though. We don't choose what we love. I just don't take kindly to the attitude, It's not that what I like is bad, it's that you aren't sophisticated enough appreciate it. The real difference between genre and literature is the speaker's ego. And, yes, I realize the irony in my making a fuss about it.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

The Lonely Art

A few months ago I wrote a post, "Thoughts on the Iowa City Book Festival" and spent a while talking about a panel discussion about teaching writing. The panelists were Camille T. Dungy and Ibtisam Barakat. There was a tangential point that Barakat made that I didn't write about because I wasn't entirely sure what to Do with it.

Writing is a lonely art, she said, but it's essentially a means to an end. She elaborated that sharing ones writing and participating in a community of writers is one way to do what we're essentially all trying to do, the Human Endeavor: to not be Lonely.

I have been finding it difficult to write, lately. Working in AmeriCorps in a city far from home, living and working with people who are far from home, I am a captive participant in an ad hoc community. It's not a bad thing. The real problem is that saying "No" is treason and you begin to think of everything in absolutes. If I don't go out this evening, this opportunity may never come again.

A former writing teacher, Sean Christopher Lewis, said that one of the greatest challenges for a writer is to say to your friends, "Sorry, guys, I can't go out tonight. I'm going to hang out with these people I made up."

I agree with Barakat, though. Everything we do is to somehow weave our lives in and around Others and some of us find that the act of locking ourselves up with a computer or a notebook is the most expedient way of doing so. One of the most honest answer's I've ever heard to the question, "Why do you write?" was from Eric "Pogi" Sumangil who said, "I write for the same reason I do everything -- to impress women."

This observation doesn't really boil down to writing advice. Or, if it does, I suppose it helps put this habit in the context of Human Endeavors. I stay in and write because, in the end, writing will help me bridge a gap, which is the whole point of communication: to commune with other people.

Anyway, enough of this. How about a prompt?

Prompt: Write an Ad

Introducing: Nothing.

The average American is exposed to Want over 5,000 times a month.  We literally spend our lives bombarded with Inadequacy and pulled down by the desire for Things and Stuff. Don't you think you deserve better? We do.

We think you're perfect the way you are. That's why we're giving you Nothing.

With the scientifically proven power of Nothing, you'll lead a happier, more successful life. You'll earn more money, get that job you always wanted, have a great sex life, see the number of friends you have quintuple, never have a dull night, and find that Everything is just that easy.

We guarantee that Nothing is your solution.

Go to your local Big Box, give the manger the balance in your savings account, and get Nothing today!

Saturday, January 7, 2012

No! I Refuse! I… I… I’m Going to Grad School!

Honestly, I never quite understood the Urgency of the desire to go to grad school is until I got an eight-to-five Job.

Maybe I just haven’t learned the knack of living with such intractable constraints. But, I honestly can’t figure out how other people balance work and family and hobbies all in 24 hours.

That is the greatest obstacle to Resolutions.

Usually, resolving to do things is easy. I could promise to do anything. But suddenly I have limitations. And my job has brought out the cynic and pessimist in me. Suddenly, I rarely think about aspirations and dreams so much as processes and the clearly attainable.

Since becoming a grant writer, I have become obsessed with budgets and strategic plans.

But, I will not let that stop me now. I shall make promises and keep them this year because, really, it’s the End of the World, and so I need to make this one count.

Anyway, the aspirations are divided up into writing goals and life goals, because that’s the only distinction I make on a day-to-day basis.

Writing Goals:
1.  Keep writing at least once a week in Scribbler’s Doorless Room. Make at least one post every month about writing. Do a book review every two months. That sounds manageable.
2.  At some point, write a story/essay/play/poem every day for a week and post it in Scribbler’s Doorless Room. If that works, go for a month. If that works, keep going until exhaustion takes hold.
3.  Write one new story/essay/play/poem and revise one old story/essay/play/poem every month.
4.  Submit my “finished” plays to more competitions.
5.  Film “The Fear of”.

Life Goals:
1.  Be a better grant writer and copywriter. … And figure out what that means. Getting more money, I suppose. That works for me.
2.  Get into grad school. Or reapply.
3.  Or get a Fulbright. Or reapply.
4.  Or get a job teaching English abroad. Or reapply.
5.  Or get a salaried job writing copy or grants. Or reapply.
6.  Or get a job with AmeriCorps and do good work.
7.  Read at least a book a week.
8.  Laugh and smile more often, so as to confuse my enemies.