September 30, 2013
"The Renaissance was the culture of a wealthy and powerful upper class, on the crest of the wave which was whipped up by the storm of new economic forces. The masses who did not share the wealth and power of the ruling group had lost the security of their former status and had become a shapeless mass, to be flattered or to be threatened — but always to be manipulated and exploited by those in power. A new despotism arose side by side with the new individualism. Freedom and tyranny, individuality and disorder, were inextricably interwoven. The Renaissance was not a culture of small shopkeepers and petty bourgeois but of wealthy nobles and burghers. Their economic activity and their wealth gave them a feeling of freedom and a sense of individuality. But at the same time, these same people had lost something: the security and feeling of belonging which the medieval social structure had offered. They were more free, but they were also more alone. They used their power and wealth to squeeze the last ounce of pleasure out of life; but in doing so, they had to use ruthlessly every means, from physical torture to psychological manipulation, to rule over the masses and to check their competitors within their own class. All human relationships were poisoned by this fierce life-and-death struggle for the maintenance of power and wealth. Solidarity with one’s fellow-men — or at least with the members of one’s own class — was replaced by a cynical detached attitude; other individuals were looked upon as "objects" to be used and manipulated, or they were ruthlessly destroyed if it suited one’s ends. The individual was absorbed by a passionate egocentricity, an insatiable greed for power and wealth. As a result of all this, the successful individual’s relation to his own self, his sense of security and confidence were poisoned, too. His own self became as much an object of manipulation to him as other persons had become. We have reasons to doubt whether the powerful masters of Renaissance capitalism were as happy and as secure as they are often pictured. It seems that the new freedom brought two things to them: an increased feeling of strength and at the same time an increased isolation, doubt, scepticism, and — resulting from all these — anxiety. It is the same contradiction that we find in the philosophic writings of the humanists. Side by side with their emphasis on human dignity, individuality, and strength, they exhibited insecurity and despair in their philosophy.
"This underlying insecurity resulting from the position of an isolated individual in a hostile world tends to explain the genesis of a character trait which was, as Burckhardt has pointed out, characteristic of the individual of the Renaissance and not present, at least in the same intensity, in the member of the medieval social structure: his passionate craving for fame. If the meaning of life has become doubtful, if one’s relations to others and to oneself do not offer security, then fame is one means to silence one’s doubts. It has a function to be compared with that of the Egyptian pyramids or the Christian faith in immortality: it elevates one’s individual life from its limitations and instability to the plane of indestructibility."
Erich Fromm, The Fear of Freedom
September 27, 2013
That's "The Master," to you. Motherfucker.
CALL FOR SUBMISSIONS
After too much wine and a night spent listening to a Leonard Cohen tribute album on repeat, Spolia editor Jessa Crispin had the idea for a very special issue of our literary magazine:
The Henry James Tribute Album
We've asked contemporary writers to select a Henry James short story, and write a cover version. And the rest of the literary world must have drinking problems, too, because there was a long line of enthusiastic responses. We're allowing the writers to select how the stories will be covered, whether in fiction, essay, poetry, or, uh, other. (Selfies? Who knows.) Many of our regular writers are on board, as well as a few special guest stars.
But we decided to open this particular issue up to submissions as well. If you'd like to cover a Henry James short story for inclusion in our issue, you should write to me at firstname.lastname@example.org claiming your preferred story.
The following stories have already been claimed by our writers, and so are unavailable:
The Spoils of Poynton
Altar of the Dead
The last chapter of The Ambassadors
Turn of the Screw
Portrait of a Lady
The Jolly Corner
The Private Life
What are we looking for? We are looking for this:
If you want to familiarize yourself with what we're looking for, you can find our issues of Spolia here. (That whole thing that writers do, submitting stories to mags they don't support? And have obviously never even glanced at? We have so very little tolerance for that, let me tell you.)
The deadline at the moment stands at January 1, 2014, with a spring publication date. So get in touch with your proposed story (seriously, "Turn of the Screw" has been taken) and let's fuck up some Henry James.
September 26, 2013
We've just received the second story in our chapbook series back from the printer, and we'll be making our announcements soon. They're beautiful -- illustrated and stamped and so elegant looking. (And we just got the okay from the author of the third in our series, and the rights to a full length book that we'll manage somehow, so we look forward to continuing this into the future.)
In the meantime, we still have copies of our first chapbook available, Daphne Gottlieb's "Bess," illustrated by Austin Carder.
And probably this is foolish to say, because people have long memories and can be petty, but I think it's important to acknowledge that the only reason Spolia exists and works and we're now moving towards publishing our first book is because of you all. We launched Spolia to absolute dead silence from the outside world. The only attention or even a brief tweet of notice came from the people we work with, the people I've met through Bookslut, the people I've supported and the people who have supported me through the ages.
I talk to a lot of writers with the tarot card readings and the Bibliomancer column (which is going to appear sporadically until I finish up this book research travel), and the most distressing part of the whole process is the complete indifference that greets your endeavor. I mean, if you are lucky, someone will say that this thing of beauty you made is a piece of shit. Probably, though, it's crickets. And that's just part of the process and part of writing in this post-publishing world. That doesn't mean that it is easy to bear. That doesn't mean that the best of us don't Google our names and then have to reach for the benzos.
And I'm luckier than most, don't think I don't know that. I'm lucky that the island I exist on is populated and cultivated and has a fresh water supply.
So thank you. Because honestly, you guys are the reason it works. And I don't know why it works! I mean, I know that we have brilliant contributors over on the magazine side, so I get why you go over there. But why, for 11 1/2 years, this blog receives attention and affection and support from so many of you, I'll never know. But I'm grateful.
So on that note, we'll work to bring you more chapbooks and more things to read. Also more foul-mouthed and angry and whatever ranting that goes on here.
September 24, 2013
Image: Woman Holding Mirror, 430 BC
While I love Rebecca Mead, I am less than thrilled that we live in a culture where offhanded, emptyheaded tweets from Lena Dunham must be taken seriously and responded to. Dunham, in an apparent attempt to compare herself to George Eliot, called Eliot ugly and slutty, and then Mead had to write a post about how everyone makes a big deal about whether or not George Eliot was ugly. Her biographers mention it, it comes up in casual remarks when she's being written about, it is noted in her Wikipedia entry.
And yes, it's an alarming double standard that if you're a female writer, even after you are dead people will still be talking about your face as much as your books, even if Balzac's whole large sweaty everything that he has going on there goes without note. Jane Austen is referred to as a spinster, George Eliot is ugly, Edna St. Vincent Millay is a slut, etc.
(At the same time, as a friend and I were noting, if you have the opinion that Lena Dunham's Girls is actually an awful show and her public persona is a narcissistic nightmare, you are immediately accused of hating her because of her body type, that you are uncomfortable with fat girls. There are those people, who hate Lena Dunham because she makes them look at her naked body, and her naked body does not look like... fuck me, I don't know I am so out of touch, Mila Kunis's? Is she still a thing? There are those people. They are horrible people. But I am not one of those people. Girls is just a really bad television show.)
Although honestly, how is that any worse than what is going on right here? A pretty author is fawned over for being so pretty and so talented! And so of course we must be envious and hate her as well as admiring her writing and she's so pretty that any negative reviews are simply a product of envy because I mean look at her, she probably stole that reviewer's boyfriend one time and now this is her revenge. Jonathan Franzen sparks hate because he is a dude laying down a male gaze judgment of a writer a billion times more talented and nuanced than he will ever be (Edith Wharton, in case you missed that whole madhouse, and if you did, man do I envy you), but when women do it, female gaze each other in our little razor blade way, we either don't notice it, or we try to be thoughtful in our responses to it. And while outrage is not an interesting reaction to an example of the unfair world we live in because Jesus we know, a snort of "horseshit!" when you see other women participating in this horseshit is I feel appropriate.
September 23, 2013
The new issue of Spolia, "Medieval," is out now. Get your copy here.
Medieval. The word conjures up all that is backwards, all that is repressed, all that is ignorant, all that has been so very much improved in our modern era of rational thought and streaming Netflix.
Perhaps it was better when we were still calling them the Dark Ages. At least half the burden then was on ourselves -- we simply did not know enough about the era. It was being obscured from us. Rather than now, where the Medieval era is mostly used to illustrate how superstitious and backwards and violent we all were, and so then thank (the nonexistent of course, we're not morons) god the Renaissance happened, it has saved us all.
If we sound a little defensive right off the bat, it's because it's a position Medievalists find themselves in these days. Despite Dante, despite Simone Martini, despite cathedrals and philosophers and the inventiveness of the Ottomans, the Persians, the Japanese, the Medieval era is talked about as a time of moving backwards. It's a time humans should be embarrassed about, not celebrate. John V. Fleming, professor of literature at Princeton who focuses on the Medieval era, explains why he is called upon to "defend" the Medieval era:
At an annual meeting of the Medieval Academia of America some years ago Professor Fred Robinson of Yale, who was in that year Academy President, delivered the annual presidential address. His topic was “Medieval, the Middle Ages,” italicizing the words in such a fashion as to make clear that his business was to be with “the terms medieval and Middle Ages, not with the period itself.” ... Robinson was able to confirm that the adjective medieval as used in contemporary English refers to the actual Middle Ages only infrequently. Medieval “is most often used in Modern English simply as a vague pejorative term meaning ‘outmoded’, ‘hopelessly antiquated’, or even simply ‘bad’."
And so our new issue of Spolia offers not only Fleming's corrective, but also a celebration of the era's art and poetry and medicine and concepts of beauty. And we do not simply dwell in Medieval Europe under its gilded altars and in front of its bejeweled reliquaries. We travel to the Ottoman Empire, to Japan, to Persia, and back. We translate Medieval poetry, which is as dirty and goofy as anything written today, and we present stories set in the present, to show the way the themes of the Medieval era live on in today's human beings. Our circumstances may change, but the humanity at the center remains the same. And so from a new translation of Cantos from Dante's Paradiso to John Biguenet's story "The Other Half," set in the present day, we offer a new way of looking and appreciating this misunderstood part of our history.
We hope you enjoy your trip into the distant past with us.
September 20, 2013
Image: Dante. Because we all know poetry peaked with that guy and has since become totally irrelevant, yes?
In Bookslut’s interview with Stephen Burt, interviewer Rebecca Ariel Porte briefly mentions Burt’s fascinating discussions in other interviews regarding the future of poetry and the role of the poet-critic. For more from Stephen Burt on those subjects, here are some links:
In this paper delivered at conference sponsored by the Poetry Society of America on the purpose of poetry criticism (fellow speakers include Marjorie Perloff and Helen Vendler), Burt discusses the current state of poetry as well as his own thoughts on poetry criticism.
“Poetry Criticism: What Is It For?” by Stephen Burt | Jacket Magazine
Burt’s essay for the Boston Review focuses on changing trends and styles in poetry, as well as the direction he sees it moving towards--a direction he has dubbed the “new thing.”
“The New Thing” by Stephen Burt | Boston Review
For more on poet-critics and the topic of criticism, here are some more essays and articles from around the web:
Mark Oppenheimer’s New York Times profile of Stephen Burt discusses, among other things, his influential role as a critic of boosting the careers of other poets.
“Stephen Burt, Poetry’s Cross-Dressing Kingmaker” by Mark Oppenheimer | NYTimes.com
Daniel Mendelsohn’s thoughtful reflection on the art of criticism delves into some essential questions: what should be the purpose of criticism? What makes a good critic?
“A Critic’s Manifesto” by Daniel Mendelsohn | The New Yorker
Poetry magazine’s review of poet Adam Kirsch’s essay collection has some great insights into the role (and the plight) of the poet-critic.
“The Plight of the Poet-Critic” by Carmine Starnino | Poetry
Bookforum’s Tayt Harlin has a short list of important works from what he considers to be the “golden age” of English poetry criticism, during which famous poets shared their thoughts on poetry in prose so compelling as to be considered literature itself.
"The Golden Age of the English Poet-Critic" by Tayt Harlin | Bookforum
September 18, 2013
So if you think that a) giving your money to someone like Dave Eggers is a totally repulsive idea and that b) smarter people have probably offered better manifestos against the very same things and c) we should maybe listen to the voices of the people who are actually getting fucked over by digital culture rather than some guy who is always trying to tell us how so very important he is but refuses to face up to and admit his own (serious) misjudgments and mistakes, here is an alternative reading list:
Close to the Machine: Technophilia and Its Discontents by Ellen Ullman
The End of San Francisco by Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore
This on repeat:
Image: Joan Snyder "Madly in Love"
There is simultaneous pride and dread when someone you care for writes a book. The dread comes because oh my god, what if you don't like it? Not that the friendship can't survive that moment, but what do you say or do? Do you lie? Do you tell them your honest reaction? (No.) Do you avoid them for the rest of your life, ducking behind dumpsters if you see them approaching you on the street, making up a long string of illnesses to explain why you can't accept any of their invitations? (Yes.)
(So much worse when you are dating a writer. I could never date a writer whose work I didn't think was incredible. And not in that dopey oxytocin-uped kind of way. Those love and affection hormones wane over the course of 350 pages. Which leaves me to date either geniuses or non-writers. Luckily the world has placed a couple geniuses in my path in my romantic history, because what do non-writers even talk about?)
Under the category of a friend who has written an amazing book we can find Charles Blackstone, managing editor of Bookslut. It's Vintage Attraction. Which I have written about before, but we are nearing publication date, and you are just going to have to get used to hearing about the book a lot. Refinery29 just did a write-up of the book. And Charles and I will be doing an event in Chicago this fall together.
But the most remarkable thing about Vintage Attraction to me is its emotional maturity. I have not been exactly quiet about my disappointment with the books that American men have been writing in the last I don't know decade or something. And then here comes Charles, writing a perfectly structured and wise little novel about love and ambition. And I loved it.
While we're here, we should also talk about Lightsey Darst's Dance, because good lord am I so very pleased to be able to publish her Thousandfurs column here every month, and I've also published her over at Spolia. I find her writing to be endlessly surprising and moving, and I'm so very glad she has put another book out into the world. We could use more Lightsey Darst out here. And more Charles Blackstone. I'm honored to be able to work with both of them.
September 16, 2013
This Q&A is so good I am posting it here, too. Mandy Jo Shelton interviewed Laurenn McCubbin about her contribution to Spolia's The Wife issue, and this post originally ran on the Spolia blog last week. Image by Laurenn McCubbin.
In the Wife issue of Spolia, artist Laurenn McCubbin wrote about A Monument to the Risen, her large-scale art installation concerning the lives of sex workers. The piece makes use of video interviews and personal items to immerse the viewer in the world of the sex worker, and served as part of McCubbin’s MFA thesis at Duke University earlier this year. Here, she answers a few questions about the themes in her work.
Some, but not all, of the sex workers you interviewed have trouble with their partners supporting their careers. Do you see this as a violation of intimacy, or is it an extension of what many working women experience in careers outside of sex work?
I do see this as both an issue with intimacy with a partner and a larger issue with women whose jobs might be considered “outside of the norm” in terms of societal expectations. In other words, if you are a woman who makes more money than your partner, or has a job that has an intensity or an intimacy that your partner’s job doesn’t match, it might be an issue. The idea that a woman is going to put her work, her happiness before that of her partner’s – as a society, we freak out at that. Now, you layer sexual contact on top of that, and yeah, some people cannot handle it. It’s not an issue for every sex worker, no, and there are a few high-profile sex workers who have successful relationships (like porn actors Stoya and James Deen).
The things that I found so compelling about Dylan Ryan’s story of how she worked with this issue of intimacy in her personal life was the way that she went from a relationship that could not accept her sex work to one that did and that was not with another sex worker. I mean, it helps that Dylan has a great deal of self-awareness and was able to discuss this issue outside of the circle of friends and family. She had the advantage of going to a therapist who not only didn’t judge her for her profession, but who was able to walk through a really complex emotional question. I also find people’s reaction to Dylan’s calling herself a monogamous person to be really interesting – they either get it and accept it, or they freak out and refuse to believe it. It amazes me the range of people I know, liberals and conservatives alike, who refuse to believe that this works for her and who say that she is just “deluding herself.” It kinda blows my mind, their lack of acceptance of Dylan’s agency in the choices that she makes. One of them even said “Oh she just THINKS she has agency,” which is just… yeah. Wow. Who the fuck are you to make that decision? How are you an expert on someone else’s life?
You write about sex work in the context of our consumer-centered economy, where emotional labor is provided by low-paid workers and often taken for granted. What does it say about us that we degrade and marginalize the people who are paid to connect with us as human beings?
A couple of interesting things that have come up in relationship to this since I first presented this piece are the fast-food workers strike and a recent series of articles on a tipless restaurant run by Jay Porter. Porter’s observations on the relationship between money and power in a retail environment rang really true to me – the men (always men) who confronted him about the lack of tipping in his establishments were angry that the power that they had over their servers had been removed. There is an idea in our culture that service industry jobs are meant to be menial labor reserved for people who can’t do any better. One of the arguments you see against raising the minimum wage for fast food workers is that the low wage is needed to “convince these people to move on from these jobs,” because there is just no fucking WAY that anyone could want to flip burgers for a living, right? Just like there is no fucking way anyone would want to sell sex for a living. There are these things that we as a society demand, like fast food and porn, that we don’t want to take any responsibility for. We want to be able to consume whatever it is we want without thinking about the production of it.
You might think that means I don’t like fast food or porn, which isn’t the case. I just want to see people get paid for their time and treated with respect.
There were issues with the stripper pole in your installation, with people acting on what you call the “impetus to perform.” Did this surprise you? When we see Real Housewives at pole-dancing lessons, are we changing the iconography of the stripper pole?
Ah, the stripper pole, that symbol of libidinous freedom. I knew when I saw Miley Cyrus on a stripper pole at the Teen Choice Awards in 2009, “stripper chic” was hella mainstream. (Oh Miley, you and your appropriating ways. But THAT is a whole other ball of wax.)
The stripper pole is just like the other totems of sex work – something that can be touched upon to evoke the idea of sexuality and danger without the actual “getting naked in front of strangers for money” thing. Lots of people love the idea of the stripper pole, which, hey I totally get – pole dancing is an athletic ability, it’s naked gymnastics set to club music – but not all of these people who “love” pole dancing still don’t love strippers. They still say the same tired bullshit about “daddy issues,” they still look down their noses at them and talk about how you know you’ve failed as a parent if your daughter is on the pole, but they love that Helen Mirren wore a pair of lucite stripper heels to a movie premiere. I mean, which is it? Are we embracing sexy danger and economic realities, or are we just accessorizing with them (see: Cyrus, Miley)?
I think that people want that freedom that they ascribe to strippers, with none of the repercussions. So yeah, they will grab the pole in my installation and swing around, and I made sure that there were plenty of mirrored surfaces for them to see themselves in, to see their body “in the space of sex work.” But they are in a safe place, there is no one expecting them to perform. In my next iteration of this piece, I hope to introduce that element, that expectation of performance. A little bit of discomfort and danger.
The dynamic in discussions of sex work seems to be a question of exploitation versus empowerment. Have you noticed any reaction to your work judged according to that spectrum?
Yeah – it’s the same old struggle of the second wave feminism vs the third wave, sex positivity vs sex panic. Again, it’s the weird idea that, because of what is essentially a Christian idea of sexual behavior being the root of all virtue, you somehow know what people’s experiences mean better than the people who live them.
The truth about sex work is that there is no one truth. Sex work encompasses the reality of both the happy hooker and the sex slave. It is a complex issue that has roots in both patriarchy and feminism, and is more about economics than morality. But that doesn’t sell memoirs, and that doesn’t fund NGOs. Sex work seems to only be able to be discussed in black and white, which is really a shame.
When I talk about sex workers, it is inevitable that people ask me why I am not focusing on trafficking. My answer is usually that I didn’t feel the need to talk about it because it is the dominant media narrative, and I didn’t have anything to add to that conversation. Which is actually a shame, because I bet my work would be getting into a few more shows if I made it about saving hos. People love to see the things they think they already know about sex work reflected back at them. They love to hear about how dangerous and degrading it is, they love all the salacious shit about torture. It’s a little uncomfortable to hear stories like Audacia’s, where she talks about the job as a job, or Madison talking about her family.
I am not trying to ignore or deny the issue of sex trafficking. I am trying to change the narrative from one of extremes to one of inclusion. I am far more interested in hearing these people talking about their own experiences – good, bad and indifferent – than I am in constructing any kind of moral narrative around their stories.
Who is vulnerable to what you refer to as Whore Stigma? You write about how your own teaching career has been affected, but also mention the families of the sex workers. In your experience, have you noticed Whore Stigma becomes magnified when children are involved?
I can’t claim to speak with any authority about Whore Stigma – I can only speak about my own experiences and observations. I lost a job teaching undergrads because the program was worried that parents might google me and see that I did art about sex workers. I was rejected from a museum show (for explicitly non-sex work related art) because the curator was afraid that my work might reference sex work, even after I explained that it wouldn’t, and they do work with middle-school students. She just couldn’t take the chance that I might sneak tits in there, I guess. Listening to this stuff, you might think “oh, no big deal” and really, it isn’t. But it is part of a larger conversation about the way we talk about sex workers, and the way this contributes to them being pushed further to the margins of society. (If you want to read more about the dangers of Whore Stigma, I suggest an excellent article by Laura Augustin.)
People who work in the margins of society are going to have difficulty accessing resources to get help. On top of that, if you are a person of color, if you are trans – it’s going to be that much harder. And yes, if kids are involved, it gets even more intense. Women have lost their kids in custody battles because their partners were able to use past sex work experiences against them – not even current sex work, but just the fact that they had ever been sex workers at all was enough to convince a judge to deny them access to their own children.
Finally, have you seen Lovelace?
No – I am not that interested. It seems like yet another horror story about the porn industry. (But to be honest, I will probably watch it once it’s on Netflix.)
When dealing with a depression the problem is not to bring the depressed person back to normality, to reintegrate behavior in the universal standards of normal social language. The goal is to change the focus of his/her depressive attention, to re-focalize, to deterritorialize the mind and the expressive flow. Depression is based on the hardening of one’s existential refrain, on its obsessive repetition. The depressed person is unable to get out, to leave the repetitive refrain and s/he keeps going back into the labyrinth.
The goal of the schizoanalyst is to give him/her the possibility of seeing other landscapes, to change focus, to open new paths of imagination.
From The Soul at Work: From Alienation to Autonomy by Franco "Bifo" Berardi, a book I so very much love. This was quoted by Some Velvet Morning, which we reminded me this book exists. (And should be read. Immediately.)
September 13, 2013
I recently moved, which means it was time for the great book culling of 2013. It was not as harsh as the great book culling of 2009, where I cut a collection of who even knows but way over 1000 books down to 17 books. How did I do that, you might ask? Charles Blackstone would come over with a bottle of vodka. And the people taking the books away would wait until I was just sitting in a puddle on the floor, having conversations with my framed photograph of W. Somerset Maugham (I chose a very grumpy looking one, from when he was older, so I could really feel his disapproval for my antics every time I looked over), and then they would just start hauling books out. I would wake up on the floor, not really in a state to care, and look around and see a lot fewer books.
That is a good way to do it if you have to get rid of all of your books ever. Another way is what I did this time, because I didn't have time to go back to Berlin to move myself. Because I am doing this incredibly stupid thing called: writing a book. Writing a book that requires research and travel, even so much more stupid than just the sitting at home in your underpants drinking scotch at 2pm version. A friend (whom I paid) took pictures of all of my shelves and I would email her the books that could be tossed.
It's not as shockingly painful as you might expect. In last month's issue of Bookslut, Lightsey Darst wrote about the experience of moving books:
When you move you pack up the books thinking you'll come back to them the same way, feeling the same about each as you lift it from the cardboard box as you do when you put it in -- the same eagerness, apprehension, treasure. But when you arrive it turns out you couldn't care less. The books go on the shelves like strangers. Like strangers, some of them entice and some repulse. And because you've moved a long way, you feel free to shift, to change your "type." Maybe now I like long convoluted sentences written a hundred years ago by unhappy men. Maybe now I like prose poems. Maybe I fall for architecture manuals of the fin de siècle. Maybe now I like women.
Getting rid of all of your books just gives you permission to reset your entire taste and interest. While this book culling was going on, I happened to be in London, and so there were binge shopping trips to the London Review of Bookshop. Or whatever it is called. No sense in you going there to find out, I bought all of the books they had. Forgetting in my giddy excitement that um I would have to carry those books on my person. A lot. Since we are living out of a suitcase without a real home now. Because that is a thing we are doing.
And so now I am on Jersey Island packing for France and trying to determine if there are books here I need to cull. No weight limits on a ferry, but there is still that whole lifting and dragging stuff I'll have to do in the morning. And after I admonished myself harshly for all of the books I bought in London, of course I bought more here in Jersey. Because blank shelves! Theoretical shelves since everything is in boxes in a storage unit, but come on! Future blank shelves.
I bought Fowles, who even knows why. Obviously some sort of petit seizure happened near the F section. I'll regret that one, I'm sure, but also, L P Hartley. L P Hartley forever and ever. In Paris I once met a man and we both started to relay the singing-after-the-victorious-game scene from The Go-Between to each other spontaneously and that is how we knew we'd be in each other's lives until we are dead. And if one of us dies first, there will probably be a haunting scenario.
So I am homeless but not bookless and even if I have to shove a couple paperbacks down my pants, I am probably taking all of the books from Jersey Island with me to France. And really there were not that many here, not exactly a reading place apparently.
Image: Sarajevo Rose by Roger M Richards
"Today, according to our calculations, is an anniversary: one hundred days of solitude. It has been exactly a hundred days since the first shot was fired on a citizen of Sarajevo, when a sniper killed a young girl who was walking across a bridge. Until that day, the bridge was simply a way of crossing a river we shared. Since then, it has become a border, the sign of intolerable division.
I don't know how everyone will remember these hundred days, during which everything has turned upside down, and after which nothing ever be the same again. It's hard to say whether anyone will really want to remember at all. Among other things, now isn't quite the time for remembering: it is, perhaps, a moment to have a close look at what we are today, and what we once were but are no longer.
We no longer live in the same places, we don't have the same neighbors, we no longer speak the same language, and we don't know each other the way we once did. We no longer go to the same bakery or the same newsstand. The hinges of entrance gates no longer squeak the same way, the birds who used to feed off our palms no longer alight on our balconies. Our relatives are no longer buried in the same cemeteries, and we are unable to visit the graves of those who went before them. Who knows if those graves are still there?
We no longer switch the light on in our apartments; no longer use our dinner dishes; the piles of plastic water buckets in the hallways and under our beds (if we still have a bed) no longer bother us. We've forgotten what it was like to be irritated by a television commercial. We don't get angry at the mailman for coming late, because there no longer is a mailman. We would give anything in the world just to get a bill, no matter how big or how small, because it would mean that someone believes we're still alive and capable of paying.
And people have changed. Laughter and tears come in waves, even out of place, uncontrolled, like a hysterical complaint. At times they flow despite clenched jaws. No one minds.
The worst of it is that we have learned to hate. We have become suspicious, and don't trust anyone. We no longer know how to hope. We've become cynical and scornful. Someone told me recently that Bosnians have reached a point beyond hatred. There are times when you are ready to pack it in and leave, if only you could, but we've retained something quite essential -- a nastiness, out of spite, if you will, or plain stupidity, that makes it easier for others to recognize us. This is what keeps us here and will probably cost a lot of us our heads. But what good is a head if its boundaries are set by idiots from the back hills? If there is no space left in it for an ornery remnant?
A hundred days is nothing. A spring we haven't seen, a winter that is constantly upon us. Nevertheless, these hundred days are engraved in our memories as if they had been a hundred years. Of a solitude with and within ourselves, in a convulsive attempt to learn a way of life we have never know. How to get across that wall, as in Jonathan Livingston Seagull, how to gain the speed and altitude that would allow us to escape this solitude? Even if only to find another kind of solitude outside the ring of steel dreamt up by nonpeople to dominate people. Selim, my greengrocer, thought we had a chance. He is no longer with us. Boro, the waiter at the corner cafe, and Dario at the newsstand, both used to say the same thing. Both of them are gone. As is the big oak tree in the park across the street: people with foresight are already cutting off its branches to use as fuel in the winter. What winter? It is already winter, when winter is all around us."
Why on earth is Zlatko Dizdarevic's Sarajevo: A War Journal out of print?
September 12, 2013
Image: Pearl Primus by Gerda Peterich
This month’s Bookslut features a review of Farah Jasmine Griffin’s Harlem Nocturne, which profiles three black women artists from the Jazz Age: dancer and choreographer Pearl Primus, composer and pianist Mary Lou Williams, and writer Ann Petry. For more information on these three remarkable artists, here’s a list of suggested links.
Peggy and Murray Schwartz, authors of Pearl Primus biography The Dance Claimed Me, discuss their book as well as their personal relationship with Primus in this interview for the Yale Press blog:
Mamboso.net has an extensive collection of photographs of Pearl Primus, as well as some useful biographical information:
Pearl Primus | Mamboso.net
Although footage of Pearl Primus’ performances is rare, Jacob’s Pillow Dance Interactive has a brief recording of Pearl Primus’s 1950 performance of Spirituals at dance mecca Jacob’s Pillow.
This 1992 New York Times piece on The Street’s reissue takes a retrospective look at the novel’s lasting impact and the Harlem street it depicts:
An Author’s Look at 1940’s Harlem is Being Reissued | NYTimes.com
Mary Lou Williams
This story from NPR on the Mary Lou Williams centennial digs up the recording of the first Piano Jazz episode in 1978, which features a performance by and interview with Mary Lou Williams:
Mary Lou Williams on Piano Jazz | NPR
For video footage of Mary Lou Williams performing, here are some YouTube gems:
Mary Lou Williams and Milton Suggs on Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood
Mary Lou Williams playing solo jazz piano
September 11, 2013
The following is an excerpt from my essay "The Mistress's Account of the Wife," about the still hated Isabel Burton, widow of Sir Richard Francis Burton. The whole thing can be read here.
“I wish I were a man. If I were I would be Richard Burton; but, being only a woman, I would be Richard Burton’s wife.” — letter from Isabel Burton to her family
The longer I stay in Trieste, the more I am pulled, physically and figuratively, up to the Carso to where the Burtons lived.
Trieste is an unlikely home for Richard Francis Burton, and an even more unlikely location for his deathbed. Here was the great man, after a life of adventure and exploring, of sex and mysticism, a man who fluently spoke 29 languages and named mountains, dying in an Austro-Hungarian outpost while holding down a government job. And here was his wife Isabel, performing last rites on his silent, unprotesting, very un-Catholic body to try to ensure their afterlife reunion, like it’s all just a big magic trick that requires a little sleight of hand with God. (And later, here was his wife tossing his final manuscript into the fire, a manuscript that was rumored to be the greatest accomplishment of Burton’s tremendous career, thus allowing her name to be cursed by Burton scholars and readers for generations, even to this day.)
Trieste held little interest for Burton, but when you spend your life making sure everyone knows you are smarter and better than they are, and you work in government, you will end your days in a place like this, bored and cramped. For just about anyone else, the sea, the opera, the food, and the train system into the continent and the seaport out to North Africa would have been heaven. But not for a man who feels more natural in disguise, on a camel, riding into certain death and laughing his way out of it.
As much as Trieste bored him and he repeatedly applied for leaves of absence from his post, as much as it confined him like a smaller man’s jacket, Richard Francis Burton did his most important work here. This, in a real house with real furniture, living with a wife and not a servant/lover, in a city where he held down a regular job, he translated the Kama Sutra and Arabian Nights. Here, he brought the east to the west and the west called it obscene. And then bought every single copy.
Isabel was a different matter altogether. She was not a feral made domestic, she was a domestic who managed to unearth dormant feral genes. A good and proper member of the penniless aristocracy — one of the 19th century families who were passed down good names and titles and family houses and that is it — her job would have been to restock the family fortunes with a good marriage. Her inheritance, plus her good looks and her in general being a delight by all reports, was enough to draw a great number of suitors. Delightful, but backed up with an obstinate chin. Men flocked to her, but the men bored. She wanted adventure, and being “only a woman,” she decided the only way to get it was through an adventurous husband.
I understand the impulse to be Richard Burton. Who would not want to be that brave, that bold? Who wouldn’t want to be able to take a spear through the face while on an expedition in Somalia, and then have the pride to sit scar-out for every portrait that followed? Who wouldn’t want to let their British colleagues drink their gin and tell the same boring stories for the nth time while you learn the native language and all its corresponding dialects, which you would then use to seduce the local ladyfolk?
But I also understood the impulse to be the wife of Richard Burton — to marry adventure and not have to embody it. To follow with the luggage once the housing had already been set up. To have someone who speaks the language and can take care of all of the day to day interactions in the foreign land, someone who leads your camel after he’s decided the route. It’s much easier to be brave with someone else drawing the map for you.
Which is not to discount Isabel’s bravery. She rode into malaria and tribal conflict and sleeping rough like the best of them, and there were not many women of her time who would have been up for it. Being married to Richard Burton means all of your bravery is in the form of reaction, not action. That has its downsides, like feeling all of your life you are sitting on a small wheeled thing, being pulled by your husband with a bit of string. But her capacity for trust and receptivity must have been enormous. And that makes her more of a mystery to me than Richard.
And let’s not forget: Facing down spinsterhood for the satisfaction of demands is its own kind of bravery.
September 10, 2013
Image: "The Room with View" by Duncan Grant
Having a weird week, so I've been hiding out at the Jersey Archive, where the people are the nicest people in the entire world. Anyway, this letter, from Robin King to Lucy Schwob in August of 1945, was a little glimmer in the darkness. It's the letter of one person who is cracking up trying to comfort another person who is cracking up, and I love it. Random excerpts:
"I too have periods where I felt black and hideous and suicidal. But one must never let it get on top of one. Somehow or other the mind, or the spirit, always transcends the blackest things. It has to: yours can too, but you must relax and stop thinking for a while. No, the best thing is to relax, absolutely, to refuse to think, to just lie in the sun sleeping. I found the way was to drink. I drank for a week and strongly forgot myself. Though I don't recommend it where you are! One can do things in the Desert or in Iraq which one can't do in Jersey...
"Get away from those greedy, plundering, money loving Jersey people. My God, they must be soulless...
"Can't they see that while they still worship money and possessions they are destroying their real, vital selves?...
"My sense of values has completely changed. I feel that trying to live in any set of conventional planes, or any recognizable social strata, with all the prejudices and ties that such lives entail, is fatal and wrong. I don't mind in what strata I live. In a back street in the slums of Polermo or a thatched house in the Pacific! The war has freed me from that awful, dead-weight of a life that we used to lead before the war! It means being outside the herd, outside the light restricted little circles of petty social activity, outside the money dazzled mentality of those who love possessions -- outside it all, but the air is freer!"
September 8, 2013
I had a tarot client this week whose reading seemed to be all about being part of a collective or organization, that her personal success as a writer wouldn't really mean anything if she wasn't using it for a wider group of people. That at the moment her ego was all tied up in, finding attention for her own writing, and it should be, participating in a larger culture. I was trying to fit it into the story of Tesla versus Edison, then remembered this, from de Tocqueville:
"I have shown how it is that, in ages of equality, every man seeks for his opinions within himself: I am now to show how it is that in these same ages, all his feelings are turned towards himself alone. Individualism is a novel expression, to which a novel idea has given birth. Our fathers were only acquainted with egoisme (selfishness). Selfishness is a passionate and exaggerated love of self, which leads a man to connect everything with himself, and to prefer himself to everything in the world. Individualism is a mature and calm feeling, which disposes each member of the community to sever himself from the mass of his fellows, and to draw apart with his family and his friends: so that, after he has thus formed a little circle of his own, he willingly leaves society at large to itself. Selfishness originates in blind instinct: individualism proceeds from erroneous judgment more than from depraved feelings: it originates as much in deficiencies of mind as in perversity of heart.
Selfishness blights the germ of all virtue: individualism, at first, only blights the virtues of public life: but, in the long run, it attacks and destroys all others, and is at length absorbed in downright selfishness. Selfishness is a vice as old as the world, which does not belong to one form of society more than another: individualism is of democratic origin, and it threatens to spread in the same ratio as the equality of condition."
September 6, 2013
God knows I am not one for the Oprah Book Club approach to literature, where we simplify great literature down to how-can-we-use-this-to-solve-me self-help bullshit, but I am all for using the story of Psyche and Eros to solve us. I mean, that is what it is there for. It was a little story told forever and ever to teach the females how to go from girlhood to womanhood. It even gives you a to-do list. A to-do list! Things to check off! Tasks to complete! And then poof, you are a woman and not a sniveling, empty headed little girl anymore. Thank god for that story.
And I'm not the only one crazy about this story, even CS Lewis was obsessed with it and wrote one of his greatest books, Till We Have Faces retelling it. (I could enter a whole digression on people who are retelling myths in a particularly YA kind of way these days, all without seeming to know a goddamn thing about the originals or their evolution or what they were really getting at, and whyyyy is it always fucking Persephone Jesus Christ pick another god already, but I need like two scotches for that, and so far I have had only 1/4 of one.)
At any rate! One of the best parts of the myth, after Psyche has been abandoned by the god of love and she unsuccessfully attempted suicide (one of the most depressing things to fail at, seriously, read "Big Blonde" for more on that particular "Jesus, I can't even..." moment), is her conversation with Pan. And from there, I started to think of the Devil card in the tarot. From my latest Reading the Tarot column:
The Devil card. Just drawing it in a reading makes my skin crawl. As a woman with a problem with anxiety — the kind that spirals upwards endlessly, that leaves me on the floor somehow out of time and place, but not out of body, no, suddenly the body is cramped and small and needs to torn open to increase its capacity because it cannot hold all of this whirl, we will not survive past this moment, we cannot possibly survive past this moment — I know the Devil card.
Does it help to intellectualize the card at all? To think about its origins and its evolution and its imagery? If the Devil is Pan, like it was for those presto-chango early Christians trying to convert pagans, it can’t possibly help. Because Pan lives pre-intellectualism, or maybe post-, or maybe just anti-. He lives where your rational brain cannot possibly help you. He lives where you are an animal and you are scared. And you cannot process the information that this state does not stretch out into eternity, that you are not trapped here forever. But maybe using those moments to strike up a conversation with Pan, to allow him to approach your half-dead body on the bank of a stream that won’t let you take the easy way out, maybe that is what helps.
September 5, 2013
Image: Untitled by Claude Cahun
We've been very busy with our magazines lately.
The September issue of Bookslut is live, and full of words and other things. We have all been going nuts over Natalia Ginzburg lately. Have you read her? Italian essayist from the mid-20th century? We had an "An Attempt" column about her the other month, now we have a feature about her, and we have another piece in the works. So far the Natalia Ginzburg revival of enthusiasm and wild love only seems to be happening in our pages, but god damn it, we'll carry on until someone else notices.
At any rate, A Place to Live is a goddamned gem.
We also do write about authors who are not Natalia Ginzburg (only slightly reluctantly) in this new issue. Stephen Burt talks about poetry and Kermit the Frog, Tim Parrish talks about entrenched racism in America, and Emily Selove talks about Medieval Persian jokes.
Also we are going to have to talk about Kathryn Davis, because The Thin Place is still ranking on my rotating top ten essential novels, and her follow-up Duplex was just released. (AND I DON'T HAVE A COPY because I don't have an address anymore and so my copy went to my friend who is READING IT RIGHT NOW and she is taunting me with this fact over email. Our friendship will never survive.) At any rate, Davis was so lovely to come to the Bookslut party for our 100th issue two years ago and read from Duplex in progress on that full moon and creep the fuck out of everybody. We have a review of Duplex in the new issue, and Davis has made another rabid, ecstatic fan. (There is no other kind for Kathryn Davis. To read The Girl Who Trod on a Loaf is to have your brain rewired specifically for Kathryn Davis contortionist enthusiasm.)
So that is what is going on there.
In Spolia, we now have an excerpt from the utterly eerie story "The Unknown Woman" and an interview with the Julia Allard Daudet translator, Michelle Bailat-Jones, up on the blog. As well as an interview with Kristina Marie Darling (whose book X Marks the Dress is also reviewed in Bookslut this month -- not even planned that way! the Darling-love just runs wide and far), who sent us a selection of poems for our latest issue. I've been running the Spolia tumblr as well, filling your feeds with supplementary materials.
And if you haven't read "The Wife" issue of Spolia, I think you should. I think it is maybe our finest yet.
There is more in store, including a new issue of Spolia in two weeks, and our second chapbook. So catch up now! We can't having you falling behind.
September 3, 2013
I have been coveting and waiting impatiently for the release of Diana Vreeland Memos, because my god, she should just tell us all how to live. The day I was fired from B&N Review, back when I wrote an advice column for them, I went and watched The Eye Has to Travel. I had been told by my editor that while they loved the advice column, no one read it, and so they couldn't continue running it, unless I wanted to do all of this other work for them as well, with probably a deduction in pay all around. But even then, probably no one was going to read it, so yeah. Awkward silence as I still had 3/4 of my coffee left to drink. He didn't even bother ordering one, which is how I knew it was going to be bad. (The archive still exists online, until one day it won't.)
This is when I was trying to sell my book, and I was getting these rejection letters every day: This is beautiful, but no one will ever read this. We think you are a talented writer, but there is no audience for what you want to do. To get knocked on the head with that message from every direction was a bit much. I would just sit on the floor and cry, my arms just hanging there, without even the strength to wipe my face. I was just a fountain of wet.
So I sat in the back of the theater and watched The Eye Has to Travel. And Vreeland is a force. Who turned her own ugliness into striking beauty. Who when she got fired, turned that into a personal revolution. And she constantly made up new stories about her history, about who she was. And just listening to her speak about how the only things that matter are beauty and art... well, I still cried. A lot. Sometimes while watching The Eye Has to Travel for the 8th time on my computer.
It still works for emergency pick-me-ups, you know.
So I'm waiting for the book. The woman was full of zany ideas that just zing through your head. "Don't forget the serpent," she sent out to her staff. "The serpent should be on every finger and all wrists and all everywhere... We cannot get enough of them." Who even knows what she is talking about, and who cares? There is another with her lunch instructions to her secretary. Her lunch should always contain yellow raisins and a bottle of scotch. Yes.
I am going to treat this book like a Bibliomancer, and next time I am on the floor, with the weeping and the rubbery arms, I will open the book at random, and it will tell me to put serpents on every finger. And that will save me.
September 2, 2013
Image: Growing Woman by Elsa Mora
"Well then children, since you have hearts and ears well set, you must know that in the beginning was the earth, an earth all bedecked, with its trees and its mountains, its sun and its moon, its rivers, its stars. But to God it seemed bare, to God it seemed pointless, without the least ornament, and that is why he clad it in men. Then he withdrew again to heaven, in two minds whether to laugh or cry, and he said to himself, 'What's done is done,' and went to sleep. At that very instant the hearts of men leaped up, they lifted their heads and saw a rosy sky, and were happy. But before very long they were different, and many faces were no longer radiant. They became cowards, evildoers, corruptors. Some embodied their vice so perfectly they lost their human form and became avarice itself, malice itself, profiteering itself. Meanwhile the others continued the human line, wept, slaved, looked at a rosy sky and laughed. At that time, when the devil was still a boy, there lived in Fond-Zombi a man called Wvabor Longlegs, a fine fellow the color of burnt sienna, with long sinewy limbs and greenish hair that everyone envied. The more he saw of men the more perverse he found them, and the wickedness he saw in them prevented him from admiring anything whatever. Since men were not good, flowers were not beautiful and the music of the river was nothing but the croaking of toads. He owned land, and a fine stone house that could withstand cyclones, but on all that he looked on with disgust. The only company that pleased him was that of his mare, which he'd named My Two Eyes. He loved the mare above all else, and would let her do anything: she sat in his rocking chair, pranced over his carpets, and ate out of a silver manger. One day, up early and full of yearning, he saw the sun appear on the horizon, and without knowing why he mounted My Two Eyes and rode away. Great pain was in him, he was wretched, and let the horse carry him where it willed. He rode from hill to hill, plain to plain, and nothing had power to cheer him. He saw regions never seen by human eye, pools covered with rare flowers, but he thought only of man and his wickedness, and nothing delighted him. He even ceased dismounting from his horse, and slept, ate, and thought on My Two Eyes' back. One day as he was riding about like this, he saw a woman with serene eyes, loved her, and tried to dismount. But it was too late. The mare started to whinny and kick, and bolted off with him far, far away from the woman, at a frantic gallop he couldn't stop. The animal had become his master."
And stopping for a second time, Grandmother would say slowly, so as to make us feel the gravity of the question:
"Tell me, my little embers -- is man an onion?"
"No, no," we'd answer, very knowledgeable in this field. "Man isn't an onion that can be peeled, not at all."
And she, satisfied, would go on briskly:
"Well, the Man who Tried to Live on Air, up on his mare, one day he was weary of wandering, and he longed for his estate, his house, the song of the rivers. But the horse still carried him away, further and further away. His face drawn, gloomier than death, the man groaned on from town to town, country to country, and then he disappeared. Where to? How? No one knows, but he was never seen again. But this evening, as I was taking in your washing, Telumee, I heard the sound of galloping behind the cabin, just under the clump of bamboo. I turned my head to look, but the beast aimed such a kick at me that I found myself back here, sitting in my rocker telling you this story."
The light of the lamp faded, Grandmother merged into the darkness, and Elie said goodnight nervously, looked out at the dark road, and suddenly took to his heels and fled to Old Abel's shop. We hadn't stirred, Grandmother and I, and her voice grew strange in the shadows as she began to braid my hair. "However tall trouble is, man must make himself taller still, even if it means making stilts." I listened without understanding, and got on her knees, and she would rock me like a baby, at the close of those old far-off Thursdays. "My little ember," she'd whisper, "if you ever get on a horse, keep good hold of the reins so that it's not the horse that rides you." And as I clung to her, breathing in her nutmeg smell, Queen Without a Name would sigh, caress me, and go on, distinctly, as if to engrave her words on my mind: "Behind one pain there is another. Sorrow is a wave without end. But the horse mustn't ride you, you must ride it."
-- From Simone Schwarz-Bart's The Bridge of Beyond
Image: William Blake's illustration from Divine Comedy
This month’s issue of Bookslut features a conversation between translators Frank Wynne and Peter Bush in which they discuss the tricky task of translation and the unique obstacles faced by translators--how to translate slang, for instance, or other words with meanings specific to their cultural contexts. If you’re looking for more perspectives on translation, here are some translation-related articles and essays.
“The Art of Translation” by Vladimir Nabokov | The New Republic
Nabokov’s essay on on the art of translation warns against the dangers of a bad translation. Translators who cut corners, moralize, or condescend are at risk of defaming the original work. He elaborates on the desirable and undesirable qualities of a translator--a good translator must be equal parts scholar, poet, and mimic.
“Howard Goldblatt’s Life in Translation” by Aimee Levitt | Chicago Reader
Chicago Reader’s profile of Howard Goldblatt, translator of contemporary Chinese fiction (perhaps most notably Mo Yan), is a great inside look at the experiences of a literary translator, including the difficulties of translating from a language so distinctly different from English, as well as the trials and rewards of translating the work of a contemporary author.
Joan Acocella writes about the challenges of translating Dante’s The Divine Comedy, and evaluates the results of past attempts.
“What Is a ‘Relevant’ Translation?” by Jacques Derrida (.pdf) | originally published in Critical Inquiry
For an introduction to academic translation theory, Derrida’s essay delves into the problematic, contradictory nature of translation -- “translation is as necessary as it is impossible,” he writes. What does it mean for a translation to be relevant?
“The Politics of Translation” by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (.pdf) | chapter 9 of Outside in the Teaching Machine
Postcolonial critic Gayatri Spivak examines the implications of translation as a political act. For those who might be interested in the power dynamics of translation and translation in relation to multiple isms (imperialism, colonialism, feminism, racism), Spivak’s essay is a somewhat dense but worthy read.
For more on translators and works in translation, check out Asymptote, an online quarterly journal of literary translation.