Monday, July 21, 2014

On Writing #35 : Charmaine Cadeau

Stupid funny.
Charmaine Cadeau

When I was younger, I used to go fishing. Once, I caught one this big.

I’d shop for lures at the hardware store, jabbing at the gelatinous, stretchy gobs in every shade of neon (like my shoelaces, as this was the ‘80s), mostly careful to avoid the hooks.  I remember eyeing the jigs, trying to imagine what they would look like away from the florescent lights, away from the air and the smell of the key cutting machine and paint and sawdust. Standing there, I’d see them spinning underwater in the kind of warped light I knew from swimming pools, where I’d dare friends to bare-eyed below-the-surface staring contests. I’d wonder if any sock-eyed, steel-mouthed sturgeon would ever fall for them.

Lures are cheap knockoffs of haute couture minnows and insects. They’re prêt-à-porter instruments of war wearing parade day costumes replete with all the razzle dazzle of glittering tails, festoons of acrylic hair, and bulging, unseeing gazes.

Just as a lure designer prepares these creations for terrain alien to his own, so too does a poet engage in an act of translation: precisely seeing the textures and movements of words in both ordinary and extraordinary contexts. The imprecision of language is its joy. Think of how many ways we qualify ‘funny’: funny-sad, funny-strange, funny-stupid, funny-ha ha.

Poetry, like humour, is (name)called subjective: if you don’t like it or get it, it’s not for you. It’s vastly easier to opt out of poetry than to disengage with a mall store clerk. In fact, I’ve been taking notes at the Gap for tips on how advocate strongly in the face of disinterest.

Most poets I know at some point start, “I have an idea for a poem:”

“…I’m going to write about divorce sales on Craigslist—everything half-off. Five hundred for the set, willing to separate the pieces.” Or,

“…I’ve been thinking about an installation piece called “Poetry.” When you walk inside, you’re handed a barista apron, there’s a line out the door, your cell phone starts buzzing and it’s your landlord and your rent is late and your neighbor’s been complaining again about the train of funny people you have over.” 

“…I’m working on an installation piece called “Poetry.” When you walk inside, you’re squeezed into a mock turtleneck, feel a crushing and sudden despair, and ardent desire for black coffee and clove cigarettes.”

“…I’m working on something about how shame is the essential part of dating. Looking at your reflection in the mirror to see yourself as someone else might before heading out to meet that person, and having your internal voice taken over by the cable TV lady who narrates side-effect warnings for anti-depressants with names like Uplivia: ‘Side effects of marrying this person may include never knowing how they really feel.’”

These are the things we say to each other.

When I was a graduate student, my roommate Dave Hickey said, “So many of the poets I know are funny. So many of their poems are not.” He’s right. There are lots of poems about the rapture at finding a dead bird, falling out of love, and sunflowers in various states of erectness. But where is the humor? In my own work, I’ve written about laughing and funny bones, about counterfeiters coining funny money, and I’ve included a joke or two in my recent collection, but it’s not something I do often. Instead of having a gag-reflex of one-liners when reality chokes me up, I am gag-conscious: I don’t like myself as much when I fall for cheekiness or clever language games.

There’s an ugliness I see in jokes (along the lines of Hegel’s discussion of subjective humor) that is at ideological odds to the poetic sublime. Also, some of my resistance to writing jokes is well-placed. I used to be in a comedy troupe that performed for children – that’s not a joke – and my co-actors couldn’t always tell when I was intentionally funny or just stumbling into laughs. I can’t even always tell. Jokes make me uncomfortable because they nudge our center of what’s acceptable, a little this way or that, or broaden the circumference of normalcy—all potentially good things—but most operate by disarming our intellect. 

The most recent joke at my expense was seeing myself in a dressing room mirror designed to shoot back a taller, skinnier version. “Seeing is believing,” the Uplivia lady reassures.

I hate being the object of practical jokes and surprise parties; I love that National Poetry Month kicks off with April Fool’s Day. My father-in-law is a trove of stories about practical jokes in boarding school. One involves a bear skin rug, a coat rack, and reanimation. Lynne Tillman, a writer and person I am wild about, wrote a fantastic story about a joke called “Dear Ollie,” included in Someday This Will Be Funny. A group of roommates play a dinner party prank that tilts on the edge of going too far. Reading it, I was reminded of sitting with friends around a backyard fire pit a few years ago. Egged on by the summer night, the wood smoke, by nostalgia, we’d all told the usual stories of summer camp gone awry, like wrapping cellophane over the toilet bowl, dropping a sleeping friend’s hand into a bowl of warm water, unleashing a garter snake in the salad. That sort of thing. Someone among us began to tell one that started with all of the usual trappings: there was a cabin, they were young and bored, it was nighttime. The boys, and they were boys at the time, waited until one of their cabin-mates fell asleep. They tackled him and dragged him outside on his bunk mattress. I was sure I knew where this was going. There’d be an outhouse, a wedged door. There’d be a girl, or worse yet, group of girls, waiting for him. There’d be drugs or booze and someone left holding the bag.  Even when you’re certain about where something is going, there’s still a lot of possibilities.

They took the boy, duct taped his hands. Duct taped his mouth. Taped him to the mattress. Carried him to a rowboat, dropped him supine (mattress and all) into its bottom, and pushed it off the dock. He was found the next morning.

Think of him there in that boat for hours.

Does the story change if I add that he was found alive?

I am, in fact, working on a poem about these kinds of concerns called “Stupid funny,” but I haven’t told anyone about it. My draft for “Stupid funny” begins with Wittgenstein’s lecture note from 1946: “If people did not sometimes do silly things, nothing intelligent would ever get done.”

Some of “Stupid funny” is based on a game I’ve been playing for years with my husband where we toss out ideas for skits that belonged in the Monty Python and Saturday Night Live episodes of our youth. Some is based on uncomfortable observations, like the fact that most locker room bodies would be less at home in Porky’s, and more at home in Dick Wolfian morgues.

When I wrap it up, I’m going to get to work on an installation piece called “Poetry.” You go inside and when you come out the person next in line says, “So?” And you are speechless. All you can do is point. And sometimes, rarely, laugh.

Charmaine Cadeau was born in Toronto, Canada. Her full-length poetry collections include Placeholder (Brick Books, 2013) and What You Used to Wear (Goose Lane, 2004). She is an assistant professor of English at High Point University where she teaches writing and literature. She is the editor of Apogee Magazine, and co-director of the Community Writing Center in High Point.

Friday, July 11, 2014

On Writing #34 : Beth Follett

On Writing: Born of That Nothing
Beth Follett

It is not the captain declining to be saved
on the sinking ship, who may just want to ride his shame
out of sight. She is at the brink of never being hurt again
but pauses to say, All of us. Every blade of grass.
                                                —Laura Fargas, “Kuan Yin”

Are you familiar with the terror in the night—it's been called Old Hag syndrome, or sleep paralysis— that uncanny hypnogogic event when one hears an intruder, usually a woman, speaking low in the darkened room, and one attempts to rise, to call out, but is unable to do so for the feeling of being held down, bolted to the bed. I have friends in Newfoundland who've repeatedly known The Hag. Artist Michael Pittman painted her, a painting I bought, a painting that gives those that view it the creeps. Two weeks ago The Hag came calling for me.
            Yes, I was frightened, even, for half a minute, terrified. And absolutely, fully alive in that same half minute, alive to what Don McKay and others call wilderness, the thing we can never own. Of such infinite complexity is our living, and at times so utterly terrifying; yet deep in the folds of darker experience, craning toward what is mysterious, frightening and unnamable, language and consciousness will sometimes sharpen, fully desirous. What is happening? What is that?
            I love this capacity of ours, to observe the ten thousand things of the sensual world in their strange fluctuation, to watch as things flicker, ever so lightly, reflected in that house of mirrors we call mind and language, to feel things' expression in that other funhouse we call the body. No matter our fear, no matter the cost, there is within us a complex craning out of semi-darkness, a complex groping for connection, for words.
            Of course we can't attend to everything all the time, can many times lose touch with the words that are being almost constantly generated out of absence into presence, only to fall, unnoticed, once more into absence. And anyway, one needs to rest, to practice a kind of holy indifference to the generative world, to step away from time to time in order to actively empty the mind. But our groping—our listening for, finding and grappling with words—this I love, this is what moves me to write.
            The sheer beauty of the enterprise moves me.
            I was raised in feminism and stand opposed to most systems and constructions of patriarchy. Like George Orwell, in part I write because there is some lie I wish to expose. The socialized Ego generates patriarchy's lies ad nauseum, lies about Women, Men, Nature, Power and Love. It is important for me to distinguish the words formed out of the lies of patriarchy from the words out of the void, out of absence. "The void is not something created by patriarchy, or racism, or capitalism," wrote Adrienne Rich. "It will not fade away with any of them. It is part of every woman. “The dark core,” Virginia Woolf named it, writing of her mother. The dark core. It is beyond personality; beyond who loves us or hates us. . .The void is the creatrix, the matrix. It is not mere hollowness and anarchy. But in women it has been identified with lovelessness, barrenness, sterility. . . We are not supposed to go down into the darkness of the core. Yet, if we can risk it, the something born of that nothing is the beginning of our truth."
            To have the courage to go down repeatedly into the darkness, listening: this is my writing practice, and in truth it has become, with age, my Way.

Josephine Jacobsen

I do what Simon says.
But the voice, quick and muffled,
gives some orders
which are not Simon's.

Simon I try to please.
It is necessary, and right, too, but
there is the doubt if
Simon has said, or has not.

Did Simon say, Do that, or
did that come Simonless
from the quick voice, the soft
instruction? Perhaps a bad mistake.

If Simon has not said it,
what then? Jumbled together: Live. Die;
which was authentic Simon? Go. Come.

Distinguish, Simon says.

Beth Follett [photo credit: Stan Dragland] is the publisher, editor and all of Pedlar Press, acclaimed Canadian literary publishing house now located in St John's NL. Her own publications include Tell It Slant (Coach House Books, 2001), Bone Hinged (paperplates/espresso, 2010), YesNo (a Fieldnotes Chapbook, 2011)  and the forthcoming A Thinking Woman Sleeps With Monsters (Apt.9, 2014). Surely one day she will finish her novel-in-progress, thus far a nine-year labour of love.

Monday, July 07, 2014

Recent Reads: "MITSUMI ELEC. CO. LTD.: keyboard poems" by Eric Schmaltz

Published by above/ground press, 2014.

Every time I flip through Eric Schmaltz’s debut chapbook, I remind myself not to review it. Clearly, this impulse is acting out of self-preservation. I’m borderline illiterate when it comes to the intentions and disciplines of visual poetry but that alone cannot discount the number of times I’ve leafed through MITSUMI ELEC. CO. LTD.: keyboard poems. So, here goes.

Despite the retro-futurist product information and disclaimer that are reprinted on the inside jacket, there’s something endearingly primitive about these keyboard poems. Although composed of symbols and shapes of rigid construction, their inevitably varied ink absorption gives Schmaltz’s stampings a humane texture. Take the cover image, for example, which ekes out a path through minuscule, modulated typeface to create a moving cascade as opposed to a flat grid.

If my description sounds akin to topography, there’s enough evidence on these pages to support it. Keystrokes spatially construct disorder – scenes that handily reimagine Microsoft’s warning of “undesired operations” – in conversation with images of pristine organization. Think the erratic busywork of bees and the diligent geometry of their nests, side by side. My perspective often embraces the bird’s eye view, looking from above at Schmaltz’s architecture and trail-markings. Visually leaping this divide brings to mind descriptors that nations tend to encamp on (civilized, developing), and how these terms attempt to fragment a singular worldview. Even without that runaway stream-of-conscious, I sense abandonment from both terrains:

Aforementioned user text only furthers the case for a lost civilization, obscured within a hand-scrawled grid or visible in stacked windows that tower like condos over Toronto’s waterfront. Perhaps I’m meeting some of these keyboard poems more than halfway, seeing the below example’s words squeezed into a fist of clay and blotted by what looks like slabs of continent. Can you see the faint ink blemishes on the northern hemisphere, like rocky tundra? Maybe you can’t, as it’s entirely possible these vaguely post-apocalyptic signs of desertion reside with me alone. Still, the steady contrast between sterile geometric surveys and these grimier details beg a social commentary next to an aesthetic one.

above/ground press has reproduced these black ink poems stark enough to capture rogue smudges that dab and destabilize from the outer limits of the frame. And although the saturated effect doesn’t lend a deeper sense of narrative, page by page, it does have a serendipitous effect on the chapbook’s sequence, as poems leave a discernible ghost image on the backside, often merging in complimentary ways:

In constructing space, I suspect there’s a parallel between navigating visual poetry and jazz; how placement of concrete expression reverberates the channels of interplay around it. Alas, today I’ll stick to talking about only one art form I shouldn’t. Schmaltz’s poems toy with notions of structure and decay that are readily interpretable and, in some cases, quite frame-able.

Recent Reads: "Fifteen Problems" by Noah Eli Gordon

Fifteen Problems by Noah Eli Gordon
Images by Sommer Browning

Published by above/ground press, 2014.

“First world problems” is a term I’ve never cared for. It might quiet someone’s idle complaints but there’s a sense of entitlement lurking its comic intentions that I’ve never felt comfortable with. What’s worse is hearing my reading voice shout it throughout Noah Eli Gordon’s Fifteen Problems as though obnoxiously summing up a mystery before it's solved.

It isn’t Gordon’s fault. His suite of anecdotes doesn’t condescend privilege so much as call attention to dualistic ways of identifying and nurturing a problem. (Is a situation confusing or in need of a decision? Then it must be a problem!) Each of these fifteen paragraphs unfurl like a mini Rubik’s Cube, endowed with layers that compound, undo or desensitize the perceived importance of a given scenario. As the following example suggests, the problem can be subjective, fickle and perhaps totally illusory, but everything else hinges on finding it:

She writes a stunningly accurate review praising the reclusive novelist’s long-awaited new book. Upon its publication, a key sentence of the review contains an error of omission that, while minor, reverses her intended meaning, rendering the piece as a damning take on the book. Still, there is near universal agreement as to her review’s stunning accuracy. The problem is, as any good narrator knows, accuracy is never stunning.

These tales of situational irony and simple misfortune carry no prescribed form besides succinctness, so it’s a wonder to note the recurring trace of uncertainty – some grey area of impartiality – that these clean sentences harbour. Sometimes I’m convinced “The Problem” is the reader’s to solve, as even the ones I do not fully understand invite an obsessive re-reading. (Those who find themselves stuck can also look for hints in Sommer Browning’s charming sketches.)

That these curious case studies aren't looking to be solved in the conventional sense keeps Fifteen Problems wily and unpredictable. Some aim for remotely clever zingers while others gleefully tangle in the yarn. Let’s take a look at the stakes behind two problems:

He kissed his third cousin once, in the rain, under a canopy of branches and kudzu, on a Wednesday afternoon. Incidentally, today is also Wednesday. I like to think of it as the third day of the week. The problem is it’s the fourth.  


First, there were a lot of gods. Then there was one, but a lot of ones. Can I tell you that what I most admire about the arachnid is the mechanics of so many legs in motion? After a while, the problem adds up to something infinite. And then, then there’s just us counting it.

As with the latter example, I find Fifteen Problems more compelling when it subverts the tangibility of these tribulations to probe deeper habitual thought patterns. Why do we marginalize small dramas from the rest of our daily lives? At what moment does a situation turn into a problem, and how do we react to that labeling? All of Gordon’s discrepancies, as breadcrumbs toward irrelevance or irrelevant in and of themselves, outline “the problem” as a shape-shifting character - like fate. And just like fate, there are moments in Fifteen Problems where the clout of conflict evaporates like a mirage, leaving each reader’s best interpretation of truth.