Saturday, July 31, 2010

Savannah at the Carnegie Library Sunday Poetry and Reading Series

Thanks to the wonderful poet Renee Alberts (who also works at Carnegie Library), I'll be part of the Sunday Poetry and Reading Series on October 17, 2010. While I'll be announcing this again closer to the event, I wanted to post the flier here now. There's a fantastic line-up, beginning in mid-August.
Check it here:

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Doings, Washington Irving, and W. Somerset Maugham

Right now, I am sitting at my kitchen table, looking out onto the back garden, which is a riot of sunflowers and vining morning glories. I'm waiting for a chocloate beet cake to come out of the oven. I have made it to celebrate my imminent release from grading and class prep purgatory. Tomorrow is my last day of summer classes, and this morning, I have finished grading the last collection of research papers. Just two more batches of tests to grade, grades to calculate, and I am a free little birdie for two weeks.

IN THE PICTURE ABOVE: W. Somerset Maugham at his desk.
So, let's discuss what's been happening of late:

I have a review of the Fiberarts International 2010 show at Pittsburgh City Paper this week. Also, did I mention the review of the Mattress Factory's "Nothing is Impossible" that appeared a few weeks ago? Next stop on the art review train? Wood Street Galleries for this. I'll be heading there next week.

Library Journal has June's Reference Short Takes up, and July's should be appearing online soon.

It's canning season here, once again, and as I mentioned pictorially in a previous post, we are hard at it, making pickles, canning beans and pickling beets.
Etsy, too, has been doing us proud. Check out the store at the link below. If you are in the area of Bethany College in Bethany, WV on the last Saturday of August, stop by the Bethany Open Air Country Market. Savannah Guz Vintage will be selling all sorts of vintage goodies.

Now, what am I reading? Currently, a little bit of Washington Irving, since my parents (who have been traveling) recently sent me photos of his lovely cottage-turned-estate, pictured below. Moreover, harvest time makes me think of Washington Irving, even if it is a little early for headless men galloping around with pumpkins under their arms.

At an auction I attended a few weeks ago, in addition to getting this, I also got a box of books: a two-volume set of O. Henry, an Ann Marrow Lindbergh, and two books by W. Somerset Maugham. I just finished Cakes and Ale: Or a Skeleton in the Cupboard, which is purported to be a thinly veiled biography of Thomas Hardy and Hugh Walpole. And currently, I am dead in the middle of The Razor's Edge, which deals with a young man, who, on returning to America from WWI, is strong enough to defy the frowning dismay of his fiance and her family. He goes his own way. The young man, named Larry, has been rocked by the death of a fellow airman, and Irishman killed even after he saved Larry's life. Interestingly, Maugham deftly sketches the ways in which Larry's fiance Isabell has been conditioned to expect luxury and privledge, both of which have nothing to do with genuine wealth. Her foppish, meddling uncle, who has ingratiated his way into the aristocracy as a young man and orchestrates Isabell's life (as well as everyone else's) pays too much attention to social station and material circumstance, while Larry is interested in knowledge, the life of the mind and the state of his spirit. The war has changed him, and I would say for the better. Interesting things to think about. We'll see how things turn out for him.
IN THE PICTURE: a view of Washington Irving's home along the Hudson. (Photo: Marvin Schroll)

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Soon Back to Writing and Chris Hedges Saves the Day

Ah, kids, classes are almost done, and for this I am very glad. I enjoy teaching very much, but the prep and the grading keeps me away from writing. I've been sneaking in writing here and there, but there hasn't been the usual sustained effort, as I enjoyed in the spring semester, when
I had Saturday classes. Just this week and next left, along with the insanity of final papers and exams, and then I can tuck back into my strange little world of words and images, where I am most at home.

I'm extremely happy to report that I've got several stories that will appear soon. In addition to the story at JMWW, about whose genesis I previously wrote here, I also have a story, "A Skunk Named Darnell" that will appear in the August issue of the excellent journal decomP, and two other flash pieces based in part on my life, "Zurch, 1989" and "The Only Thing That You Will Ever Give Birth To" at LitSnack and Foundling Review, respectively. I'm excited to have my work in all these wonderful journals, which feature some truly amazing writing.

Also, I was carping about the folks at my favorite site Truthdig, about how some of their articles fail to support understanding or use objective language, a fault I find in many mainstream media sources. Chris Hedges, one of my favorite columnists (and favorite critical minds) there (and author of an excellent book, Empire of Illusion, which analyzes the bread-and-circuses nature of the contemporary American culture), has, as usual, restored my faith in alternative news sources like Truthdig. His article on global warming uses scientific fact, logical analysis, and intellectual rigor to make his point.....I spoke, and he somehow heard (now, believe me, I operate under no illusions that Chris Hedges even knows who I am, let alone listens to a thing I say, but I read and found exactly what the previous article was missing. A beautiful thing. Lots to think about, at that.
Over and out, kids....tomorrow, like our lovely Louise Brooks above, I will be gunning for some writing time--cocking my ideas like pistoles fully loaded with words.

Friday, July 9, 2010

All Attitude, No Substance

Today, I found something that's truly dissection-worthy. It's related to politics, contemporary communication, and the content of today's persuasive writing. I wonder, too, if current editorial methods--even as they are possibly unconscious actions to the writers themselves--don't reveal something deeper about our continued and ever more obvious inability to achieve understanding and make progress in larger issues.

First, a note on where I'm coming from. I generally try to keep most of my specific political views to myself. Sure, I write fiction about the government coercing the masses through either intimidation or the furtive administraton of placating drugs, but when I feel the urge to respond loudly about something, I usually save my loudest editorializing to comments made on our living room sofa in response to news stories or to evidence of commentators' overtly biased (translation: presenting only one side of an issue does not constitute objective or fair reporting) vantage points.

I teach a rhetoric class, and having had to actually express for others the impact of tone, voice, audience, and purpose (not to mention argument formats) for students, I find that the shape of contemporary editorials (which are, essentially, arguments--debates in written form) are becoming increasingly combative, snarky, even insulting. This approach has begun to show up in student essays, along with the general attitude that research and evidence is optional. The following is an example. Potential thesis: "We should legalize marijuana." Okay. Let's discuss the reasons why it would be beneficial to legalizing it. Answer: "Because you're really uptight if you don't think it should be legalized."

Wait. What? How is that going to persuade anyone besides a thirteen year old subject to peer pressure? They can't do anything about legalizing it. The government can, so should we be providing compelling evidence to them?

What are writers attempting to do when they write essays? Most often, persuade, sometimes educate. Tell someone they're uptight for not wanting to legalize something is not evidence. It's a gentler form of malignant manipulation. Certainly evidence can be used for malignant manipulation but here, we've received no evidence at all, only an unpleasant name tag: "Hello, my name is Up Tight." Meet my friends Anal Retentive and High Strung. We have been wallflowers most of our lives, but we try to take it in our stride. (I, by the way, don't give a rip whether marijuana is legalized or not, but I get a paper arguing for its legalization every semester.)

Anyway, back to purpose. What is every writer's purpose (even if they are educating, which, as a writer, you are always doing in one way or another)? Persuade. Persuade me to see your point of view. Make me understand where you're coming from. Don't cause me to turn my back with an inappropriate tone. You want me to understand you? Don't cast stones. Talk to me as an adult. Don't throw your sand toys or jeer and shout epithets at opponents. Instead, tell me your opinion with a neutral tone, verifiable facts, and other supporting evidence like testimonies. I want to understand where you're coming from. However, I'll tell you, you'll lose me if you don't provide substantial facts or if you take an inappropriately angry tack.

Moreover, don't categorize me if I disagree with you. Sure, categorizing is an easy way to understand information--it flattens complex details, allows for overall comprehension. But rigid categories are too limiting, too general, often too negative. While I am not a Democrat, I am also not a Republican. I lean neither left nor right. I do lean towards individual accountability, personal empowerment, and individual freedom (which is itself progressive and liberal, by their original definitions). I believe that both my government and my neighbor should not meddle in the minutiae of my life, since it is my life to live. However, I certainly qualify this statement with the understanding that some people must have guidance to follow, boundaries to respect, and reasonable penalties to fear because complete freedom allows them too much latitude for mistakes that harm others. This is why I am not an anarchist. I usually declare myself to be a Libertarian, but as soon as I say this, people calculate my stance on issues based on Libertarian ideals alone. I operate outside ideology. I openly declare these details here so that upon reading my estimation of the following, I am not automatically categorized as anti-progressive. I believe in critical thinking, in questioning, in sitting down and using intelligent, rational ideas to find some common ground.

Usually, I dig Truthdig. But in some of their current essays, I find they seem to be more an example of the larger impediments to genuine understanding, the kind of understanding that allows forward motion to be made. If you throw stones and offer snarky appraisals, of course, opponents might run away, but have you brought them any closer to understanding, so you can achieve some common ground that allows you to solve massive problems? It causes me to question whether we really need "alternate news" sources. They are not inspiring constructive debate or getting people to truly think about issue ramifications. Instead, they are stirring the frothy pot of anger, polarizing sides in their definition of news stories. Here, we are told who is good and who is bad (or who is perpetrator and who is victim), rather than giving us the information we need to make informed choices or simply understand a hotly debated issue.

For example, in Eugene Robinson's "Heat Wave Silences Climate Skeptics" , the Washington Post writer offers some thoughts on the heat wave and taunts global warming skeptics, whom he now believes are conspicuously silent in light of the 100+ degree temps. He closes his first paragraph with the line, "What's the matter? Heat stroke?"

The metaphorical curling of the lips that comes with Robinson's apparent joke sets the tone for the rest of the essay. He remains sarcastic, provocative, even condescending, and while he offers the idea that temperatures are warmer then they ever have been, we get no specifics so that we can see the details for ourselves.

By comparison, my local weather man often makes comparisons during his forecasts, saying that the last time it was this hot on a particular date in the Ohio Valley, it was 1988. Now, that says something valuable to me. So then, what if we were to track this trend on a broader scale, widening the parameters beyond day and region? By year, what was the temperature range along the East Coast compared to that same region's temperatures in 1910? After that, let's compare how hot things were before the Industrial Revolution, which marks the alleged genesis of extensive carbon emissions. Is there some chart that can support the tacit (and sometimes not so unspoken) statement that skeptics are ignoring the clear evidence? Often, it seems that in the media as a whole, we are not given a clear picture of the data, only the subtext that those who do not automatically agree with the idea that the earth is warming (and perhaps it is, I certainly do not discount this belief) are backward-looking idiots. But someone, anyone give me the data to look at. Show me hard evidence--data--from a reliable source or authority with a field specialist's credentials. Moreover, do not lob insults at me. They hurt. They will cause me to stop listening to you. Most likely, if you insist on implicitly telling me I am stupid, I will ignore you because what reader wants to be abused?

In the act of persuasion, tone, remember, is only slightly less important than evidence, although evidence is the most compelling and valuable component of any argument. Still, all the evidence in the world can't get over a wall of defense that has been put up because the argument's tone is insulting.

In the comments that followed Robinson's article, there was a post by "tropicgirl," whose icon was Obama dressed as Mussolini. I saw that her response post was studded with quotations and never seemed to devolve into the type of angry rant that other contributions in post-story comment boards tend towards. Instead, she provides a fascinating, authority-studded history lesson, supporting the argument that global warming is merely a method of persuasive control...a kinder, gentler form of terrorism, better known as coercion. I can get behind this because she finesses us logically through the idea by using authority testimony. I am more inclined to believe her side of the argument than I am to believe veteran journalist Eugene Robinson. Why? Because she does not insult; she presents and supports.

And here is the comment, so you can see it, too:

“In a 1962 speech at UC Berkeley, Aldous Huxley spoke about the real world
becoming the ‘Brave New World’ nightmare he envisaged. Huxley spoke
primarily of the ‘Ultimate Revolution’ that focuses on ‘behavioural controls’ of
people. Huxley said of the ‘Ultimate Revolution’:

'Today, we are faced, I think, with the approach of what may be called the
‘Ultimate Revolution’ – the ‘Final Revolution’ – where man can act directly on
the mind-body of his fellows. The techniques of terrorism have been known
from time immemorial, and people have employed them with more-or-less
ingenuity, sometimes with utmost crudity, sometimes with a good deal of skill
acquired with a process of trial and error – finding out what the best ways of
using torture, imprisonments, constraints of various kinds . . .

(But) If you are going to control any population for any length of time, you must
have some measure of consent. It’s exceedingly difficult to see how pure
terrorism can function indefinitely, it can function for a fairly long time; but
sooner or later you have to bring in an element of persuasion, an element of
getting people to consent to what is happening to them.

This is the ultimate in malevolent revolution…

I am inclined to think that the scientific dictatorships of the future – and I think
there are going to be scientific dictatorships in many parts of the world – will
be probably a good deal nearer to the Brave New World pattern than to the
1984 pattern.

They will be a good deal nearer, not because of any humanitarian qualms in
the scientific dictators, but simply because the ‘brave new world’ pattern is
probably a good deal more efficient than the other. (Fascism is quite efficient).

In 1961, President Eisenhower delivered his farewell address to the nation in
which he warned of the dangers to democracy posed by the military-industrial
complex: the interconnected web of industry, the military, and politics creating
the conditions for constant war. In that same speech, Eisenhower warned
America and the world of another important change in society:

“Today, the solitary inventor, tinkering in his shop, has been overshadowed by
task forces of scientists in laboratories and testing fields. In the same fashion,
the free university, historically the fountainhead of free ideas and scientific
discovery, has experienced a revolution in the conduct of research. Partly
because of the huge costs involved, a government contract becomes virtually a
substitute for intellectual curiosity. For every old blackboard there are now
hundreds of new electronic computers.

The prospect of domination of the nation’s scholars by Federal employment,
project allocations, and the power of money is ever present – and is gravely to
be regarded.

Yet, in holding scientific research and discovery in respect, as we should, we
must also be alert to the equal and opposite danger that public policy could
itself become the captive of a scientific-technological elite.”

In 1970, Zbigniew Brzezinski wrote about “the gradual appearance of a more
controlled and directed society,” in the “technetronic revolution”; explaining:
Such a society would be dominated by an elite whose claim to political power
would rest on allegedly superior scientific know-how. Unhindered by the
restraints of traditional liberal values, this elite would not hesitate to achieve its
political ends by using the latest modern techniques for influencing public
behavior and keeping society under close surveillance and control. Under such
circumstances, the scientific and technological momentum of the country
would not be reversed but would actually feed on the situation it exploits.”“”

To me this explains a lot.

And yet, it inspired this response from someone named "robertaustin":

"In response to tropic girl:
By invoking Aldous Huxley, your statement is stoked by a lot of intellectual fire power, however I’m not sure I get your point. You seem to be suggesting that a scientific elite is using fear of climate catastrophe to control the masses. However, that does not explain what is actually happening - that a lot of loudmouthed, right wing, dumb shits are successfully manipulating the public to help them raise their ratings and maintain the existing power structure."

Having read this, I wonder if RobertAustin has possibly missed the point. Is it truly "a lot of loudmouthed, right wing, dumb shits [who] are successfully manipulating the public to help them raise their ratings and maintain the existing power structure"? It seems that a great deal of loudmouthed, insulting behavior is coming from robertaustin. Let's engage some critical thinking skills and look for evidence. First, what constitutes the right? It's an easy term to use, but too broad to communicate any real meaning--who specifically? Rush? Beck? And if they want to maintain the existing power structure will this benefit them? They're no longer in power, if by "right wing" he means "Republican." There are too many undefined variables here, so that what robertaustin says makes little sense when closely analyzed. I'm not attacking the poster, but his method of reasoning. It seems to prove "tropicgirl"'s point: he's been conditioned to use these divisive terms, to repeat a kind of blind situation assessment. His post proves it.

At the heart of everything lately, there's only attitude, not substance. And this is scary.

It makes me wonder, what will happen to our society if its citizens can only throw stones and cease to understand how to think critically and to effectively reason?

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

An initial post on Brendan Connell's Metrophilias

I've just finished Brendan Connell's delicious book Metrophilias, released this past May by my favorite indie press Better Non Sequitur.

While the book deals with individuals and their obsessions--some of which are deep and Stygian and nearly all of them sexual in nature--each of the thirty-six stories also speak to the anatomy of desire and the secret, fully aberrant drives of humanity. Understand, this is no conventional erotica anthology. It is a delight for the brain rather than the body and offers a dose of psychological revelation.

Since I plan to do the book justice, I will write about it at length in a future post. In the meantime, a word about the prose: Brendan is highly gifted at creating atmosphere and capturing characters, all while deftly playing with the language that communicates it (sticking out in my mind now? The expression "...eyes wormed with carnation..." can be understood as bloodshot eye whites. But to me, the choice of the word 'wormy' over "shot through" or "threaded" perfectly parallels the psychological deterioration of the principal character. And anyone who has lingered for more than a few minutes in the painting aisle of Benjamin Franklin store may understand that the oil pigment 'carnation' is no gentle baby pink, but an aggressive crimson. So, to use a phrase like this not only defies tired expressions, it transmits associations that are simultaneously mystifying and infinitely pleasurable: I see the early paintings of Edvard Munch, the absinthe-colored gas light on the faces of Toulouse Lautrec's actresses and prostitutes, even the vein-threaded bluish skin of Otto Dix's corpses.

There's some amazing work here in Metrophilias, and I plan to write more about it shortly. Unfortunately, right now, duty calls...I have a mound of Comp I papers to grade. More on this in the next post!

Friday, July 2, 2010

New story at JMWW!

I've been working on class prep and grading papers a-plenty this week, so my blog posts have been scant. However, I'm back, and I'm excited to have a new story at JMWW, which has a wonderful collection of flash in its summer issue. Truly some excellent company to be in.

The story, which I titled "The World's Most Famous Debutante" is loosely based on the life of heiress Brenda Duff Frazier, who appears with her mother in the picture above. It was snapped around the time Frazier was officially launched into society.
I originally read Frazier's profile in a 2-volume reference set, titled Icons of Beauty, which I reviewed in the April 2010 issue of Library Journal. In Frazier's entry, the image of the aging woman below was also included. Brenda, who enjoyed international acclaim before and during her formal entry into society, eventually became a painfully thin, drug-addicted recluse, who (while still incredibly rich) was never particularly happy. In fact, if you look closely, you will notice that-- although she is fully made up and in a opulent fur-collared dressing gown--she has not left her bed.
In the story, I characterized Frazier's mother in a similar way, as a thin, egocentric chain-smoker. However, I don't really know much about Frazier's mother, and the image above does not offer the same impression of jealous connivance that I give in the story. In "The World's Most Famous Debutante," Beverly's mother is a willowy, fashion-conscious anorexic, prone to drinking and jealous of her daughter's fame, which is the very kind of success she herself failed to achieve.
Here is an excerpt from the story, which details the hasty marriage between Beverly's father and mother. Again, this is entirely fictionalized. I know very little, if anything about Brenda Frazier's family.
"And then suddenly, before he truly knew what was happening—a matter of weeks only, maybe even days, he couldn't remember—David was watching this girl, named Louisa Edwards, walking towards him over a carpet covered with rose petals as he stood waiting at a grand white altar. She was wearing an engagement ring he'd never even seen, an engagement ring sent by his father as a token of David's "sincere affection" and "intentions," as the accompanying note, typed by his father's secretary, had indicated. David saw the girl just once before the engagement, during a tea set up by his father, and it had been an awkward affair, as the pair had absolutely nothing to say to one another. She waited for him to speak, and his mind was racing so fast with panic—sheer animal panic—that he couldn't latch onto a single worthwhile thought to utter. He saw her little pearl-colored teeth, her curls as perfect as a china doll's, her baby pink fingernails filed to unsettlingly sharp, if stylish, points. She smiled at him and gamely lowered her eyes, knowing this was the mark of a good girl. But this was not for him. He went to the lavatory once, with the desperate idea of fleeing. But duty to his father led him back to the table, where he sweated through another half hour of discomfort."

Read the whole story, "The World's Most Famous Debutante".