"The apple is the menstruation of the apple tree," and other gems from famed poet Judy Grahn, in my latest LA Review of Books piece.
I will now be posting links to my feminist poetry column in the Los Angeles Review of Books here on Sister Arts. My hope is that this will make it easier for those who want to follow the column to keep up. You can sign up for my RSS feed, which will deliver a message to your e-mail in box when I post a new link, at the lower right of this page. And thanks for reading!
My first column was about poetry and feminist theory, and was called, of course, "Sister Arts: On Adrienne Rich, Audre Lorde, and Others."
The second one is called "The Dream of A Common Bookstore."
After a long blog silence, I have decided to shut down the Sister Arts blog. For about a year I had a wonderful time writing this and really appreciate all the virtual and real-life conversations and opportunities it engendered. But over the last six months my writing time has been taken up with trying to write better poems. I'm so obsessed with that lifelong quest that I've decided to retire as a blogger for now.
If you're interested, you can find some of my poems in Lavender Review, Sinister Wisdom 83, Broadsided, and The Museum of Fine Arts-Houston. I also have a couple forthcoming in Megan Volpert's anthology, This Assigment is So Gay.
Thanks for reading!
Mark Scroggin's poems are whiplashing back and forth inside my skull. He calls them, in his new book, Torture Garden, "Naked City Pastorelles." (Buy Mark's book here, via Small Press Distribution.) They are perfectly shaped, formally elegant little explosions of violence, despair, wit, and observation, each contained within a strict stanza of seven four-to-six beat lines. The idiom within each poem ranges from overheard conversation to French philosophy, from feces and spit to classical music. This strategy, in which dark, energetic expression is confined within strict bounds, alludes to Naked City, John Zorn's experimental jazz/thrashcore band from the early 1990s,
especially their album Torture Garden.
The "hardcore miniatures" on this album are, like Scroggins' poems (with whom they share many titles), tiny explosions of chaos, some only 30 seconds long, combining genres as disparate as jazz, classical, country, grindcore and punk. In this the Naked City album is itself paying homage to an earlier Torture Garden, an 1899 French Decadent novel by Octave Mirbeau. A satirical attack on the Dreyfus Affair, the book combines found text from several different sources and features a sadist/hysteric named Clara who achieves orgasm by watching scenes of torture in a beautiful garden. Allegory, bien sûr:
"Ah, yes! the Torture Garden! Passions, appetites, greed, hatred, and lies; law, social institutions, justice, love, glory, heroism, and religion: these are its monstrous flowers and its hideous instruments of eternal human suffering."
This is a tradition that's all about pushing the limits, shocking us out of sentimental illusion into Enlightenment forms of disappointed knowledge. Scroggins turns the screw one more time by calling his poems "pastorelles:" "A pastourelle is a simple poem set in a rustic scene, graceful and trifling in tone, describing the meeting of a man of culture and an ingenue, generally a shepherdess." See the shepherdess on the cover of the Naked City album? Yes, that's her: "The motif of the young girl scolded or beaten by her parents...on account of her lover is most frequent in the pastourelle." To Scroggins' credit he avoids reproducing the misogyny of this tradition in his own poems, but he takes energy from its violent flouting of conventions of innocence, symbolized for him by the garden:
Luminous the division and joining
bone remains sliding screens of
landscape blanched alphabets les lumières
history revealed by pathology blesséd
art thou annunciation arrowheads catching
eyes vertical shaping water love
perdures contingencies of perception endured.
This erudite mash-up of Enlightenment ("lumière") wisdom, Christian pietism, and garden design (vertical shaping water) testifies to the failure of any of these to console us for the losses (perdures) that can only be endured. Art such as this that pulls away the curtain of artifice to reveal the powerless spectre behind it rides a fine paradoxical line; of course the careful "shaping" of the poem itself gives us a kind of pleasure, perhaps a painful one as its purposeful obscurity assaults our ignorance and its rapidly shifting linguistic registers knock us on one side of the head and then the other like an anvil dropped on Wile E. Coyote. (Naked City was inspired by the composer of many of the Warner Brothers cartoons, and the cartoon violence is apparent in Scroggins' volume as well.) Despite their attention to ugliness these poems can't help being beautiful. The final stanza in this astonishingly accomplished volume could serve as its ars poetica:
"Gob of Spit"
Repeat flip rinse fist smear
shout move twist shift grimace
wince scrub dilate disarrange dismember
ravel translate offload unravel tear
stroke penetrate gesture finger retrace
retract gesticulate lick scale gut
retrace ejaculate rage respond repeat.
Valuable feedback from Jacob McMurray of EMP, upon whose probity I cast risible doubt in my last post. In coming up with a picture of Captain Kirk's command chair from the Starship Enterprise to illustrate the claim that said chair formed the core of Paul Allen's sci-fi collection at the EMP Museum, I ran across the google-gossip that the chair was actually owned by Christian Slater. Jacob e-mailed me to say:
"On the Captain Kirk’s chair thing, Paul Allen does definitely own Kirk’s chair from the Enterprise. I know that there is at least 1 other one, and maybe more – often they would make duplicate props. So that could be what Christian Slater owns."
Thanks for reading, Jacob!
Here are the gentleman in question: actor Christian Slater
and Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen:
I have to say Christian Slater seems to have taken his fandom a little too far, what with the outfit AND the hairdo. Or maybe there's a plausible explanation for that too.
I was in Seattle this weekend as part of the great annual migration of literature professors known as the Modern Language Association. This year the convention organizers planned a couple of outings to local places of interest--a first, as far as I can remember. I've always been a fan of convention tourism--I've skipped unmemorable panels for memorable visits to a swamp garden in Charleston, shopping in San Francisco, and the Art Institute in Chicago among many others--so I jumped on the shuttle bus to EMP, the Experience Music Project, a relatively new Seattle institution that is a museum like no other.
To start with there's the stunning Frank Gehry-designed 140,000-sq-ft building, a destination in itself. Moving through the museum is like being inside a sci-fi seashell. The MLA had arranged for us to hear presentations by Jacob McMurray, senior curator and director of the museum's Oral History Project, and Lincoln Ballard, director of its Education Department. McMurray, sporting a jazzman fedora and indie-band workshirt, has been with the Experience Music Project since 1993, when it was just an organization collecting oral histories related to Jimi Hendrix.
McMurray told us that EMP was started when Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, a huge Hendrix fan, began looking for a place to donate his collection of memorabilia from the life and career of the Seattle-born musician.
The project started with interviews of those who had known Hendrix, either in Seattle or later in his career. Ultimately the building was commissioned and EMP opened initially as a museum focusing on Hendrix (The Experience, get it?) as well as the music of the Pacific Northwest more generally. This, of course, is when EMP started collecting materials about Nirvana. As McMurray, who is quite the raconteur, tells it, around 2005 Paul Allen said to the museum's board of directors, "You know what else I really like? Sci-fi. And I just bought Captain Kirk's command chair from the Starship Enterprise. Let's put that in the museum too."
(That's what McMurray said, but according to the interwebs, Christian Slater actually owns the chair. Sorting this one out is above my pay grade so I will simply let the mystery be.) Anyway, there is no doubt that Allen had a huge collection of sci-fi memorabilia as well, since it's now all in the EMP. In order to smooth over the giant semantic chasm between these two collections, the museum recently re-launched as EMP: Music + Sci Fi + Popular Culture. Yeah, that makes it less weird.
Under this broader rubric, McMurray says (if we can believe him after that Christian Slater thing) that the museum now has almost a thousand oral histories on video. He showed us fascinating clips of his conversations with horror director Roger Corman, Chris Squire of Yes (about opening for Hendrix), and Megan Jasper of Sub Pop Records, the label that first signed Nirvana. Then he led us into the galleries for a guided tour, which I had been quite excited about. We started in the Nirvana exhibition and I was immediately drawn so far into it that I never saw the tour again and had to be kicked out when the museum closed hours later.
I owned Nevermind in the 90s like everyone else, and have enjoyed belting out "Smells Like Teen Spirit" at karaoke bars, but I would not consider myself an especially knowledgeable Nirvana, punk or grunge fan. Perhaps for that very reason, I thoroughly enjoyed learning more about that history from this fabulous exhibition (organized, BTW, by Jacob McMurray). The exhibition makes the case that the American music scene was transformed in the 1980s when idiosyncratic local scenes from Athens to Boise edged out the monopoly of the big record labels. Punk's DIY aesthetic meant that the bands, often formed from inexperienced musicians who were still teenagers, not only developed their own sounds in isolation from the commercial mainstream, but also booked their own shows (often in unsanctioned venues, often closed down by the police), were their own roadies, did their own cover art, distributed their own tapes and albums, and had a direct relationship with their fans based on a mutual identification as outsiders. As one commentator (from the band Minor Threat) said in an oral history that's part of the exhibition: "We didn't cross over to the mainstream. The mainstream came to us."
I probably spent an hour in front of one exhibit, a map of the United States that showed the locations of the punk and indie bands that shaped this transformation. Each location had numbers associated with it, each number represented a band or album, and you could listen to a short intro and three songs from each one. One song led to another in what turned out to be a dizzying variety. Who knew the Pixies were from D.C.? What did R.E.M. have to do with punk? The Butthole Surfers--right, they were still performing when I moved to Austin in 1991.
Many thanks to Feminema, who just nominated me for the Versatile Blogger Awards alongside such icons as Comradde PhysioProffe, Historiann, and The Ms. Education of Shelby Knox. It's an honor to be in their company.
The conditions of the award, to which I happily submit, are as follows:
My blogroll at right directs you to some of my favorite blogs, but this award gives me a chance to say something about the ones that delight and sustain me.
1. I never miss the humane and sometimes hilarious posts on Ask Mormon Girl. Joanna Brooks is an English professor, feminist, mother of two kick-ass daughters, and gay rights activist who treasures her Mormon heritage. Her wisdom extends beyond religion and politics to relationships, sexuality, and parenting, and her crew of commenters lets me listen in on (and occasionally even contribute to) a deep and often moving conversation inside and outside her own faith tradition. Mormon Girl is my rock.
2. My next-most-frequently-consulted blog would have to be the now-classic Tenured Radical, who just moved her business over to the Chronicle of Higher Education. Claire Potter, long a history professor at Wesleyan and now in a new position at the New School, posts priceless polemics on the academic job market, administration vs. teaching vs. scholarship, how to be a good mentor, college sports (about which I don't care a bit except when Tenured Radical writes about it), and holiday flashmobs. I rely on TR.
3. The Feminist Spectator by Princeton professor Jill Dolan is always a delight. Her blog is named after her widely-read 1991 book, The Feminist Spectator as Critic, which is foundational in the field of feminist performance studies. Along with her partner in life and criticism Stacy Wolf, Jill sees more New York, national, and international theater of every kind than seems humanly possible, and she watches and writes about TV and movies too. Accessible, political, and funny, Jill's reviews are from a distinctly left-lesbian-Jewish perspective that addresses everyone.
4. Did you swoon over Allison Bechdel's stunning graphic novel-memoir Fun Home, after loving her series Dykes to Watch Out For like a family member for twenty years? If so, you probably already follow her DTWOF blog. With her characteristic modest charm, Allison posts on art, politics, and what keeps me coming back for more, the progress of her new memoir about her mother. Her photographs of the woods and animals outside her Vermont cabin are always refreshing as well.
5. A sister English professor posts hilarious reviews and stories about things like shopping for Missoni at Target under the nom de blog Elitist Academic. Delicious, bite-sized mouthfuls of satire and cultural criticism from a Chicana feminist perspective.
6. A frequent inspiration for my own posts on my Mueller neighborhoods' gardens and landscapes is Steve Schwartzman's Portraits of Wildflowers blog. Steve is a widely-known art photographer who happens to live in my neighborhood and photograph the same scenes I enjoy while walking my dog. His site includes a brilliant (and generous) list of tips for photographing flowers.
7. Another English-professor blog I always check is Moonraking, a series of ruminations on popular music, concerts, books, movies, and anything else Prof. Moonraking is thinking about. These posts combine erudition with rock-critic brio. Be warned: following his links can eat up your day. But it will be a day well spent.
8. I'm always refreshed by the fierce feminist poets at Delirious Hem. It's a place to go to discover new poets that will become your favorites, get a thoughtful perspective on current poetry-biz controversies, and be inspired by the sheer quality and magnitude of the work produced by your sister poets.
Whew! I think I am going to have to defer numbers 9-15 for another time. In the meantime, thanks again to Feminema, and for a good time, follow the links above.
As for seven random things about me....since this blog consists of nothing but random things about me, I'll keep this brief.
1. I did my undergrad at Queen's University in Kingston, Canada, where the band wore tartan and our fight song was in Gaelic. Cha geill!
2. My family has a ranch in Alberta where I grew up riding, hiking, fixing fence, poisoning gophers, checking to see if cattle were in heat, branding, canoeing, and learning about birds and flowers. At the time all I wanted to do was stay inside with a book, but I appreciate it more now:
3. I'm in Richard Linklater's 2001 film Waking Life, talking about Benedict Anderson. Animated me:
4. I was also in a my wife Madge's production of the unactable Percy Shelley Romantic drama, Prometheus Unbound. (I doubt she would cast me now but she knew this would seal the deal back in 1998.) I doubled as a spirit and a fury in Act I and was a professor in Act IV.
5. My dad is an equine veterinarian.
6. My first horse was named Lady.
7. After fourteen years and two children, Madge and I got legally married in Alberta last summer with Max and Milo, our kids, in attendance. The horse is my parents' lovely Badger.
I wrote last month about the road trip I took with some friends to visit the Museum of Fine Arts Houston and participate in the ArtLines Juried Competition. This week I've been working on those poems. Here are three of them, along with the works that inspired them.
Wrapped in the trunk of a Sapele tree
I heard an elephant bathing in
the rainforest bai. Light poured down through the leafy
canopy; every beam sugared carbon
strings into mahogany heartwood. This
was before the sawmills, the tree
hewn by hand, bush cricket my first music.
Forged copper scraped me a hollow body,
elegant neck, elongated head achieved
by binding the infant skull. The sharpest
blade cut me a mouth. The green mantis
folded its arms and prayed. I was made to be
African elsewhere. I never learned
Mangbetu language, its voiced and unvoiced
trill. I speak only with a mouth carved shut.
This is my blade hand, cutting through
on my way to you.
Before it can fade, hand over
the cheek slap
what’s in your wallet
and I’ll keep it safe for you.
This jade hand-shaped pendant, look at it
ripple like ocean waves
stiff with regal power
empty to the gods
now drilled with holes, waving at you.
ALLEGORY OF EUROPE
It’s a gamble, a gaming
purse tossed on the floor
and open for business.
Blue velvet and the ace
of spades, space available
in another place not here.
Riches by chance, bitches!
Advance token, pass go,
past those other monkeys.
Keys to the city withheld,
meld Igbo and Bantu pell-
mell into Africa. Scramble.
This week's project (already past deadline!) is to write a book proposal for a new edition of poems by Anna Seward. Here's an excerpt, followed by one of my favorite poems by the writer who made her small English city famous in the eighteenth century as "The Swan of Litchfield."
Seward (1742-1809) was one of the most popular and prolific poets of the early Romantic period. So high was her reputation that none other than Sir Walter Scott edited the standard edition of her poems, the three-volume The Poetical Works of Anna Seward, in 1810. Among other achievements, Seward was admired for renovating the sonnet form in English. Arguably the dominant form in Renaissance English verse, the sonnet had gone into eclipse during the eighteenth century in favor of more public forms such as epic and satire. Seward, along with two other important women poets, Mary Robinson and Charlotte Smith, initiated a renewed interest in the form, which then became a prominent aspect of nineteenth-century poetics.
Seward was admired by canonical first-generation Romantic poets such as Wordsworth and Coleridge, but her reputation went into decline with the emergence of the bardic role of the poet in later Romanticism. Shelley, Keats and Byron, as famous for their athletic and sexual exploits as for their poetry, emphatically masculinized the image of the poet, and for the first time the term used to refer to women poets became the denigrating “poetess.” The formative role of late eighteenth-century women poets in the emergence of Romanticism was obscured in literary history until the last thirty years of feminist scholarship. Following on two decades of archival recovery work, the 1990s saw the publication of new editions of the work of Smith and Robinson (Oxford, 1993, ed. Curran; Broadview, 2000, ed. Pascoe). What is missing is the third leg of the stool of the early Romantic sonnet revival: a new edition of the poems of Anna Seward.
I first became interested in Seward as a poet of love between women. In my book Sister Arts, which includes a chapter on Seward, I describe the trope of "lesbian death wish elegy" in which the poet writes about the loss of her beloved after marriage, mourning it as if it were a death. Here's one of Seward's notable contributions to the tradition. It's addressed, as were many of her poems, to a beautiful younger woman, Honora Sneyd:
Chlll'd by unkind HONORA's alter'd eye,
"Why droops my heart with pining woe forlorn,"
Thankless for much of good?-what thousands, born
To ceaseless toll beneath this wintry sky,
Or to brave deathful oceans surging high,
Or fell Disease's fever'd rage to mourn,
How blest to them would seem my destiny!
How dear the comforts my rash sorrows scorn!-
Affection is repaid by causeless hate!
A plighted love is changed to cold disdain!
Yet suffer not thy wrongs to shroud thy fate,
But turn, my soul, to blessings which remain;
And let this truth the wise resolve create,
The Heart estranged no anguish can regain.