Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Napolean's racism fix

What was to be done so that these peoples, so different, might live in good intelligence? … Napolean [thought that] men [sh]ould each marry two women of different color. Then the children of this double marriage would be raised together and, in spite of the difference in color, they would become accustomed to living together and would consider themselves equal.

Actually that's what happened in practice wherever slavery was an institution, masters begetting children from more than one woman and of more than one color. However, because the mothers were not considered equal the children were not considered equal. The kids may have played together, but they were raised on two tracks. Kind of like boys and girls, you know? O Napolean, keep thinking!

The quote is from Jean Descola's Les Messagers de l'Independence as it appears in an endnote of German Arciniegas's America in Europe: a history of the New World in reverse.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

The Best Poems of 2012

These were the poems I read in 2012 that I did not want to leave behind. I copied each out by hand and added it to a loose leaf notebook. The notion that there is any such thing as an objective "best" is dubious, but that shouldn't stop you from judging and declaring. I say, you know what's best! I read these all in 2012 so they're the best of what I read that year, what worked for me "best" of all; I expect them to continue to reward in years to come.

I read through more than 57 sources. Books, mostly. Some magazines. I can't keep track of everything. If I happen upon a poem online or pick up a book and sample, but the poem doesn't win me, that "source" is not going to be noted. 40 of the 57 sources are not represented by a poem in this list. I read anthologies, literary magazines, and the collections of individual poets. In 2012 I read through Denise Levertov. I have a poem or two of hers in an earlier list. Whenever I've come across Levertov's poems I've thought well of them so I looked forward to a full read. I expected I would copy out more than the two I did. Reading Levertov was worthwhile but I don't think I need to do it again.

The source from which I took more poems (10) than any other was an anthology of haiku. That's happened before. I like haiku and haiku anthologies contain a lot of individual poems. I don't know that, as a proportion of poems read, I copy out more haiku than poems in longer forms. Can't say that I've not made much of an effort to quantify that, though.

I thought I'd already posted this list, I try to get my "Best" list posted in the new year, but thinking so didn't make it so. Some people like lists like this. I'm not a big list maker, but the list is already made. I here expose it.

Ernesto Cardenal ….. "Prayer for Marilyn Monroe"
Chisoku ….. "The Dragonfly"
Bernard Dadie ….. "A Wreath for Africa"
Connie Deanovich ….. "Porno Stars with Tuberculosis"
Paul Guest ….. "Melancholia"
Gyodai ….. "Autumn"
Issa ….. 4 haiku
Dale Jensen ….. "In the Beginning"
Dale Jensen ….. "Its Elegant Steel Cage"
Daniel Jones ….. "A Cold Ear of Corn"
Daniel Jones ….. "Fried Chicken"
Roberto Juarroz ….. "Life Draws a Tree …"
Orhan Veli Kanik ….. "The Guest"
Koyo ….. "The Good Neighbor"
Denise Levertov ….. "For a Child"
Denise Levertov ….. "Souvenir d'amitie"
Majid Naficy ….. "Night"
Onitsura ….. "Onitsura's First Poems (age 8)"
Rebecca Radner ….. "So there he was in the freezer"
Rebecca Radner ….. "There's nothing that wrong with me"
Juan Ramon Jimenez ….. "Oceans"
Shiki ….. 2 haiku
Alastair Reid ….. "Lo Que Se Pierde / What Gets Lost"
Kenneth Rexroth ….. "Autumn Rain"
Tomas Santos ….. "A Wish" *
Shinkei ….. 2 haiku
Nishiyama Soin ….. "Composed for a memorial service"
Tchicaya U Tam'si ….. "Agony"
Tchicaya U Tam'si ….. "The Scorner"
John Yau ….. "Footfall"
John Yau ….. "Medusa"
John Yau ….. 4 selections from "One Hundred Poems"
John Yau ….. section 3 from "Scenes from the Life of Boullee"

* the Tomas Santos poem was copied out in 2013 and misfiled, so I've crossed it out here; look for it in the 2013 list

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Notes toward an autobiography by others, part 14

I often copy a poem I particularly like, getting it into my fingers and thus, in a small way, into my body. Memorizing is the true way to get a poem into the body, but I'm poor at it.

That's Cynthia MacDonald, from what she shared of her notebooks in The Poet's Notebook: excerpts from the notebooks of contemporary American poets edited by Stephen Kuuisto, Deborah Tall, David Weiss.

Every time I do up a post about the poems I've copied out in a year I talk about the impetus and the method, so today's post has a redundant feel. I was just checking to see what I said this year about "The Best Poems of 2012," and surprised myself by discovering I'd said nothing! I didn't do a post about 2012? Really? I guess that's my next task. Let me quote what I said last year:

I keep a stack of placemarks ready whenever I’m reading poetry. If a poem strikes me just right, I pop a placemark into the book so I can revisit. If, after several rereadings, I decide it’s a poem I don’t want to leave behind, I hand copy the poem and slip it into a 3-ring binder. I’ve been doing this for about 24 years so I’ve got some fat binders.

Cynthia MacDonald emphasizes the physical nature of the poem - getting it into the fingers, getting it into the body. When she gets it into her mind, lodges the poem there via memorization, that, for her, is physical, too. Mind as part of the body, mind as more "true" body than fingers!

The first of my teachers who put body and poem together for me was Richard Speakes. I'd always thought of poetry as word play - sort of out of body - but Richard talked about getting blood in the poem, talked about the poem's meaty nature, how we feel what the poem is trying out inside us. I think this idea helped my poetry.

At UC Berkeley Robert Hass talked about a poem as breath sculpture, the poet directing the shapes and actions of our vocal cords, lungs, the way one uses air.

Cynthia MacDonald's notion that copying a poem out by hand intensifies the connection with the poem by making the poem not just intellect but motion - dance? - is different but not dissimilar to thoughts I've had about the process of handcopying.

The first poems I copied out I typed. I wanted the poems to look good, as they might appear in a publication. But they didn't look good, and the typing was no pleasure. Rarely was I able to produce a page that escaped splotches of correcting fluid. I switched to handcopying and instantly felt a greater connection to the poems. These weren't just poems that I liked, these were poems I claimed. I was writing them myself! I was physically incorporating them into my body of work. When I reread them it was clear I had written them; after all, I really had. I don't manage flawless copying. Sometimes I crumple up the page and start over. But even when I make a little correction it feels more acceptable than when I have to correct a machine version. It's still in my handwriting, just like an original poem from one of my notebooks.

I've read that one of the excuses plagiarists use is that they didn't realize that what they found in their own handwriting in their own notebook wasn't originally written by them. They will claim that they did a lot of research and occasionally made the mistake of not being clear enough in their process which thoughts were found elsewhere. "I wrote it," they will say. "It was in my handwriting." (Not sure I buy it. But I have a certain sympathy.)

I have made efforts to memorize poems. I still have chunks of Blake's "The Tyger" in my head, and Coleridge's "Xanadu." I can't quite get the whole poem out in the right order these days, but the lines are fun. I don't know that, per MacDonald, memorizing is any truer than any other way of taking a poem in. But I will say that I have read and reread the poems I've copied out and have come very close to memorizing many of them just through familiarity.

Now I better work on writing up "The Best Poems of 2012."

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

"a hole and silence"

Two quotes from The Poet's Notebook:

Mary Oliver: "Language, the tool of consciousness."

Charles Simic: "To be bilingual is to realize that the name and the thing are not bound intrinsically. It is possible to find oneself in a dark hole between languages. I experience this now when I speak Serbian, which I no longer speak fluently. I go expecting to find a word, knowing that there was a word there once, and find instead a hole and silence."

Language is not thought. We use language to translate thought to ourselves and others. All translation is fraught with error, yet we get our thoughts and needs communicated pretty well. It may be that we do this somewhat better than all other species and that relative success may be why we are currently the planet's dominant life form. On the other hand, there was a great expanse of ages in which humans used languages well and managed not to become Earth's dominant life form, an expanse of ages far greater than that occupied by what we call civilization. Maybe our victory is pyrrhic. The end of the (human) world has been predicted regularly over the millennia. One day one of those predictions will be spot on?

I haven't enough facility in a language other than English to evaluate Simic's particular kind of "hole and silence," but I encounter similar geography. My own searches are most obvious when I'm trying to pull up the name of a celebrity. When the blankness stymies, I start naming a star's movies in hopes whoever I'm talking with will be able to get to the name before me - or that this circling will reveal the name from a new angle.

source: The Poet's Notebook: excerpts from the notebooks of contemporary American poets edited by Stephen Kuuisto, Deborah Tall, David Weiss

Wednesday, October 09, 2013

a lot and a little

Only 2,050 of the 97,751 albums released in 2009, or 2.1 percent, sold over 5,000 copies.

That's David Byrne in his book How Music Works. He got the numbers from "SoundScan via Billboard," he says.

Byrne is discussing the economics of recording and how many copies of an album you have to sell in order to earn back what you spend on making it. There are cheap lo-fi methods - like playing a guitar and singing into a boombox, which is the way some people have done it - and John Darnielle, for one, says, "[I]t sounds great … I look at it more like food: You can't say there's a best food. Foods taste different …" If you go with something like that you won't need to sell a million copies - or even 5,000 - but if you want your album sales to pay your rent - or if you want to hire a sound engineer or pay somebody to play alongside you - or maybe just want to earn enough to get started on a new recording, well, it ain't gonna be easy.

97,751 albums were released in 2009. That's a lot. Isn't it? I wonder what that number includes. Church choir recordings? Poetry readings?

A lot of books are published each year, too. Few authors sell enough copies to say they're making money off their work. That's the way it is. I shouldn't have been surprised to see the same thing in album sales. We don't hear that many songs on the radio, do we? We hear a handful and we hear that small batch over and over, especially as the years go by and only so many hits of the 60s, 70s, 80s, can shoulder open their three minutes on the oldies stations.

I gave three readings this summer and fall, trying to promote my new book, FACT. Over those three readings I sold a total of ONE copy of the book. It's not expensive. I got several compliments on my reading style. I do enjoy performance and it's nice to be praised. But nobody had to pay admission to the readings; it would've been nicest if the appreciation shown included buying a book. I haven't set a goal of breaking even. I tried to, once upon a time, but I learned that that's not going to happen. Not with what I write - what I like to write - what I will continue to write because it rewards me - that the rewards are not money is what it is.

Saturday, October 05, 2013

you complete me

"Yours is not to complete
the work, but neither are you
free to abstain from it."

-- Rabbi Tarphon from the Pirket Avot (2:21), via Joel Lewis

as found in the Anselm Hollo section of The Poet's Notebook: excerpts from the notebooks of contemporary American poets edited by Stephen Kuusisto, Deborah Tal and David Weiss

I've come across this quote three times recently. The first time I copied it into my own notebook. The second time I researched it a little to get the context and found it less interesting. There are different translations on the web. According to Joseph I. Gorfinkle's Sayings of the Jewish Fathers, the most complete version I found, Rabbi Tarfon says, "It is not thy duty to complete the work, but neither art thou free to desist from it; if thou hast studied much Torah, much reward will be given thee; and faithful is thy Employer to pay thee the reward of thy labor; and know that the grant of reward unto the righteous will be in the time to come.”

The shorter (& more popular) version of Tarfon/Tarphon's words has resonance for the non-Jew in that it places the individual in the context of a community, a communal effort, acknowledging the effort that is not decisive, but admonishing the worker not to give up just because the completion of the task (if there ever will be such) may fall to another. It assumes there will be continuity, posterity. It tells you that you are not alone in your efforts and that success does not depend solely upon you. I found the sentiment touching, reassuring.

Though I have no particular thoughts on the labor over Torah or rewards in the "time to come," I do find the shorter quote worth attention. There is not much we complete, really. Even when a finite object, like a car or a beautiful vase, is the goal, something that seems as capable of completion as anything can be, the goal achieved becomes but one point in an ongoing process. We are not complete in ourselves. We are processes, we are phenomena. We do not exist but in the midst of others, a world both human and not. This may be less true of a car or vase, which, once set, does not grow and change but without its context neither has a purpose. We took on tasks left incomplete by others. People who will take on our tasks will likewise help give meaning to the work already done, continue it, and, in a way perhaps, complete it.

Thursday, October 03, 2013

Podkayne on Oz

I'd heard that Robert Heinlein was an Oz fan but it still surprised me when I came across such an extended take on that fairyland as this passage in Heinlein's novel Podkayne of Mars:

It occurs to me that my most vivid conceptions of Earth come from the Oz series - and when you come right down to it, I suppose that isn't too reliable a source. I mean, Dorothy's conversations with the Wizard are instructive - but about what? When I was a child I believed every word of my Oz tapes; but now I am no longer a child and I do not truly suppose that a whirlwind is a reliable means of transportation, nor that one is likely to encounter a Tin Woodman on a road of yellow brick.

Tik-Tok, yes - because we have Tik-Toks in Marsopolis for the simpler and more tedious work. Not precisely like Tik-Tok of Oz, of course, and not called "Tik-Toks" by anyone but children, but near enough, near enough, quite sufficient to show that the Oz stories are founded on fact if not precisely historical.

And I believe in the Hungry Tiger, too, in the most practical way possible, because there was one in the municipal zoo when I was a child … It had always looked at me as if it were sizing me up as an appetizer.

Heinlein writes in the voice of Podkayne, a teenage girl, born and raised on Mars, as she is looking forward to her first visit to the planet Earth.

The Oz books are still doing just fine, 50 years after Robert Heinlein wrote those words. The other day I saw two girls at the library where I work, checking out Oz books. "Good choice," I almost said.

Heinlein's book reads well, too. I would recommend it. In one scene, presciently, a character telephones another, then pockets his phone, while in a later scene Poddy's younger brother resorts to a slide rule to make orbital calculations. A pocket-sized phone but not a pocket-sized calculator? Well, I guess the pocket-sized phone suggests Podkayne of Mars is "founded on fact," while the persistence of the slide rule suggests it is "not precisely historical."

Classic science fiction tends to have the sexual politics of 1950s America - something that rather puts me off. Podkayne expects to be a professional, like her mother, but by the end the novel has cast some aspersions on that choice for a woman. The book is not an anti-career woman screed, and I found Podkayne a convincing version of teenage girl, from her ambitions to her doubts to her chatty storytelling, but Heinlein ends up just shy of sounding feminist.

Before I wrap this up I want to highlight one other Oz mention. In a scene set on Venus Podkayne is exhilarated at being courted by a rich local: "I felt like Ozma just after she stops being Tip and is Ozma again."

That's a provocative (sexual) transformation to refer to.

Wednesday, October 02, 2013

does your language sound like a cat fight?

Robert A. Heinlein:

German sounds like a man being choked to death, French sounds like a cat fight, while Spanish sounds like molasses gurgling gently out of a jug, Cantonese - well, think of a man trying to vocalize Bach who doesn't like Bach very much to start with.

That's Heinlein writing in the voice of his character Podkayne in the novel Podkayne of Mars.

Now and then I think about how one might go about creating a course in recognizing languages. What does a language sound like to a person who understands none of it?

I hadn't thought of characterizing languages in quite Poddy's way. But it might provide a way to get students going. Maybe on the first day of class play snippets of each of several languages and ask the students to come up with metaphors to describe them.