Eileen Myles @ the Nourse

One of my favorite living writers was on stage at the Nourse tonight, an otherwise stunning performance marred by the subpar pairing with a Berkeley English professor who bumbled his way through the conversation, not seeming to know much about Myles or her work. She read a few of her pieces, including her memorable Acceptance Speech given in the run up to the 2016 election, celebrating Zoe Leonard’s “I Want a President” piece which was written in 1992 to mark Myles’ run for the presidency.

Best moment for me was the full body slam smackdown she put on the guy who asked her to explain what’s so great about Gertrude Stein. Oh you know, only the most important thing to happen to American writing besides New Narrative. (Myles stuck in a jab at Hemingway, too, “We used to care a lot about him but not so much anymore, but he learned how to write from Stein.”) Her favorite Stein, like mine, is Lectures in America.

Random jottings I captured in the dark:

  • Weird is the real deal. She used to claim to be on the fringe of poetry, but that assumes there is a center of normal somewhere.
  • By anticipating, you find readers. You don’t get small because people might not be listening to you; you stay as big as possible so they can find you.
  • Before the internet discovered cats and you made sure the world knew what your cat looks like, people had to be sleeping with you to know what your cat looked like.
  • None of her books are memoirs although the book people insist on calling them that because of her named character, Eileen Myles. “I would never write a memoir… so sentimental.” Later she joked, “Bound to Fail. If I ever wrote a memoir, that would be the title.”
  • “The obscenity of using your own name for a character.”
  • What’s great about form is that it leads you to spaces you can’t imagine.
  • If you don’t know where to put something, put it at the beginning.
  • Allow the reader to watch the act of invention. Put faith in the act of making art.
  • She had puppets she made as a kid, soon to be featured in a movie about driving from Marfa to Alpine in the back of the truck. (Mentioned Pull My Daisy, a movie about the Beats I hadn’t heard of, written & narrated by Kerouac)
  • What’s New Narrative? The secret, influential writing style that was a reaction to theory’s constraints, the post-poets turned to prose in late 1970s San Francisco (Bob Gluck, Dodie Bellamy, Kevin Killian, etc.).
  • Hitchhiking prepares you for a life in writing, making up stories and lies, becoming different characters.
  • Just like dinosaurs became birds, so did vaudeville turn to radio to TV to performance art.
  • A poet’s impulse to inventory sounds and sights.
  • Found freedom to write the stories as postcards to herself from another time. Follow the visuals, follow how it looks. A story happens right in front of her.
  • Every time she figured out how to do something in prose she got excited.
  • Fame was the only way to survive. “I always imagined I would be known.”
  • Where does she get inspiration? Life is interesting, literature, so much art to see. Turned on by other’s work. There’s always a hole, a yearning to get something done but not entirely. Lots of things in motion, uncomplete. Have 3 or 4 things going, a mess. Always things to do. Defiance is still inspiration. Have to make up projects that no one wants b/c then she’s being bad (instead of working on the book projects she has grants and contracts for).
  • Books are like yoga classes, you do one pose and then you want to do the opposite stretch. Use the energy, change it up, figure out how to make it energetically readable. Keep it moving forward, don’t block the flow. People should know where they are—you can go anywhere in the universe as long as there’s a clear landing.

Later: I’m just realizing the context of the “Are you Robert De Niro, actor? I’m Eileen Myles, poet” comment that Eileen made to De Niro in the 1980s—De Niro was probably introducing himself like that because his dad was Robert De Niro, artist, to that group of people. When reading Ninth Street Women, I came across De Niro (Sr) a few times and was super confused. In reading Grace Hartigan’s journals just now, a footnote explains that the elder was one of the abstract expressionists of the 1950s. YES! Love it when things fall into place in my brain.

Wherein Amazon ups its creepiness rating

Hey Amazon, did you get what you were snooping around my blog for?

It looks like a bot or someone from Amazon’s Virginia offices discovered my content-rich site and decided to slurp it up, probably for nefarious purposes judging from their corporate behavior in other areas.

 

When tech bros bloviate; or: George Orwell on the Uber investor letter

Have you laughed at the ridiculous letter an Uber investor wrote yet? It’s below in full (“liberating multitudes of drivers from the shackles of servitude to iniquitous taxi cartels,” “unholy alliance of perfidious greed devolving rapidly into the audacity of vituperative unparalleled predatory rapacity,” among other bloviated gems).

Normally I’d just smirk and move on, but I happened to read George Orwell’s Politics and the English Language essay a day later and was amused by the coincidence. The Uber letter reeks of all the faults laid out in Orwell’s essay: dying metaphors, verbal false limbs, pretentious diction, meaningless words. Orwell says, “The whole tendency of modern prose is away from concreteness… modern writing at its worst does not consist in picking out words for the sake of their meaning and inventing images in order to make the meaning clearer. It consists in gumming together long strips of words which have already been set in order by someone else, and making the results presentable by sheer humbug.”

Orwell later notes that when “the general atmosphere is bad, language must suffer.” We all know the toxic atmosphere steaming up the Uber headquarters and seeping through the corridors of Silicon Valley, so this letter is unsurprising. From his 1946 perch, Orwell cautions us to recognize “that the present political chaos is connected with the decay of language” and offers us rules which Pishevar would be wise to swallow:

  1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech you frequently see
  2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
  3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
  5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
  6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

The bloviation of Uber investor, Shervin Pishevar, in full:

Let us take this pause in this moment, when we find ourselves swimming in the crucible of one of the grandest business and moral battles of our generation, and find strength in each stroke of our proverbial digital pens, that we wrote with the indelible, eternal and permanent ink of righteousness. We write with the souls of thousands of lives saved, the lives of millions of jobs created liberating multitudes of drivers from the shackles of servitude to iniquitous taxi cartels of corrupt cabals that choked cities with their pollution of air and morals. We write with the spirit of Bonnie Kalanick, who raised her son with deep unconditional love and unfading faith in his ability to do good for the world. Whose tragic and untimely death was used against her son at his most vulnerable, unspeakable time of pain. They chose to strike at a moment of a devoted son’s retreat and leave of absence to mourn the absence of the inviolable love of his mother. In doing so, they joined the very corruption her son had devoted such fervent passion to fight. In her memory, we devote our actions to a just cause; to defend what is right and to protect the interest of not only shareholders but most importantly the far more important stakeholders of employees, drivers and customers whose lives have been forever altered by the abiding faith and fervent hard work of Travis Kalanick and the Uber team. Their allegiance was met by this unholy alliance of perfidious greed devolving rapidly into the audacity of vituperative unparalleled predatory rapacity.

Let us strike tomorrow with the full and fulsome courage of our convictions. Let our just cause give pause to those who would ever dream of ever emulating the shameful shenanigans of these sanctimonious hypocrites who fling filings and letters de haut en bas; when it is we who have the higher moral ground and our letters and filing will hail down upon their platforms, exposing them as bitterly barren barons of moral turpitude. And as the summer sets, we let us be steward of truth who in unison proclaim: fiat justitia ruat caelum.

-Shervin Pishevar

 

I can’t resist raging against dumb tech ideas about reading

As I’m sipping my coffee and perusing this morning’s SF Chronicle, I nearly spit out my drink after reaching this article on page 1 of the business section.

I’m a huge Melville fan, and every fiber in my body rejected the mangling of the headline. Maybe Thadani thought she was being clever by upgrading “Call me Ishmael” to “text me, Ishmael” but synapses in my brain roared in protest. Most egregious is the incorrect upgrade of “call me” to “text me.” In the book, Ishmael is inviting readers to call him by that name, not to phone him on a non-existent 1850s-era telephone. And why add a comma into this pseudo-modernized phrase? ARGH!

They had my attention, albeit with veins pulsating out of my forehead with distaste. Continuing to read the article, I think that perhaps I’ll be pacified, that this duo really is concerned with reading:

Seeing children grow up with phones in their hands, Prerna Gupta and husband Parag Chordia were worried that Generation Z — the “Snapchat generation,” as they call it — was missing out on the novelty of a good book.

Yes, I agree! This attention-starved generation must be eroding their ability to consume an old fashioned book when their focus is eviscerated with competing screens and bloops and beeps from their phones. Ah, but what’s this?

But instead of trying to persuade the younger generation to read paperbacks, they instead decided to bring stories to them on the medium they know best: texting. In December, the couple released Hooked, an app that presents stories in the form of text messages.

What the actual hell? This is by far one of the worst ideas for engaging people in the meaningful effort of reading that I’ve ever encountered. For one thing, I’m highly suspicious that using Chat to move a story forward through dialog is feasible. Can you imagine being on the receiving end of a text from Mr. Micawber?

Mr. Micawber, one of my favorite Dickens characters, gets the text treatment

The larger issue is that the books being spoon-fed through chat are obviously not high quality. No one is taking the time to carve up the classics into tiny morsels that fit into a text screen. Instead, they’re patting themselves on the back for getting teens to read this kind of “book”:

Slap me silly and burn my library card, I guess I’ll just give up reading printed books and start reading terrible YA fiction on my phone! But seriously, don’t Twitterbots take care of this already? Here’s one you can follow to have Joyce’s Ulysses tweeted at you. This account tweeted out Alice in Wonderland and Moby Dick. (This account randomizes text from Moby Dick if you’re more into serendipity.)

Here’s an idea for an app, feel free to steal it—an app that sends electric shocks into the hands of the phone-holder if they spend more than 10 minutes a day cradling it, cooing over it, completely losing the ability to interact with the real world. Get a library card, read a book.

 

Bay Area Book Fest

I’m not sure how I previously missed this book festival in my backyard, now in its third year. But newly aware, I hopped on the train today and headed east to rub elbows with the literati of the Bay Area. Whenever I emerge into Berkeley, I fall in love with it all over again, and today was no exception—sun shining, book nerds coalescing, scrappy jazz band playing clarinet/upright piano/trombone/trumpet in the street while families gather in a line for free ice cream samples.

The festival itself is a combo of lots of free outdoor events plus lots of ticketed (or wristband-accessible) events to hear authors indoors. An amazing assortment of booths lined the square behind City Hall, all catering to book lovers—local bookstores, authors, and all sorts of tempting treats for people in love with the written word. I picked up a magnificent magnet with Virginia Woolf’s portrait and a fabulous “holster” for my pen to attach to a moleskin notebook. Also a free copy of the Koran and pamphlets about Muslim women—what a fantastic idea, we’re all so curious about this religion that’s causing panic on the right, and what better idea than to staff a booth with a friendly guy answering question and handing out free copies of their book?!

I bought priority tickets to see Roxane Gay in conversation with Rafia Zakaria and Masha Gessen in conversation with Orville Schell, so after enjoying the upright piano/clarinet/trumpet/trombone magic on the street of John Brothers Piano Company I headed to Freight and Salvage and was overwhelmed by the huge crowd of women waiting to get in for Roxane, who was up first.

Notes from Roxane Gay’s interview:

  • “After Sandy Hook, I stopped believing in institutions.” We can no longer rely on institutions to make things right.
  • Best way for white people to help? Stop calling yourself an ally, which puts a barrier between you & the problem. Start feeling the oppression. “Make the oppression your own. That racial oppression is mine. That transgender oppression is mine. Disabled oppression is mine.”
  • References to Who Gets to Be Angry (NYTimes, June 2016), the Nov 10 interview with Kamau Bell on Politically Re-Active that I’m listening to right now.
  • Difference between rage and anger? Anger is more focused, rage is collective.
  • How to respond to someone who says “you sound angry” — they’re being lazy. Are they reachable? If not, fuck ’em.
  • “I don’t have low self-esteem about my writing.” (Hell yeah!) When she writes a good paragraph, she feels a “rush of energy beneath my skin” (this in response to an audience question, does she feel blown away when she reads the stuff she writes).
  • Re: hope. “If we don’t have hope, what are we fighting for?”
  • Living in the flyover states, she sees plenty of rage, but it’s “rage born of entitlement… ‘I did not get the white dream, I am really angry.'” We need to educate these folks about their real oppressor, rich white men.
  • Hilarious comment about LA, where you think everyone is just thin (Roxane has a book coming out about her struggles with weight): “People in LA are so self-absorbed that they’re not worried about you.” e.g. you’re overlooked, you get a pass.
  • What she’s reading? An American Marriage by Tayari Jones and Ellen Pao’s upcoming memoir. 
  • She hasn’t tweeted in 9 days, what’s up? Roxane mentioned having given a talk at Twitter HQ yesterday, but said she’d taking a break b/c she isn’t paid for the emotional effort she puts into fighting the trolls on Twitter—it isn’t worth it, she needs time off. Fuck you Twitter, fix your system.

Notes from Masha Gessen interview on Truth, Lies and Totalitarianism in Russia and the U.S.

  • Damn, I wish I was as smart and well-spoken as Masha Gessen. Her eloquence and intelligence will haunt me to the end of my days.
  • Of course the conversation turns to what she thinks about the current political climate in the U.S. She’s “not surprised, but always shocked.”
  • She moved to the U.S. at age 14 in 1981 before Gorbachev had unleashed perestroika & glasnost onto the world—her emigrant family wanted to believe the worst to justify their fleeing the Soviet Union.
  • Totalitarianism is all about the destruction of the fabric of society, of shared experiences. The huge absence of these things makes it impossible to recover from the big boot stamp of totalitarianism.
  • Rise happening now? The West lost the cautionary tale that existed in the Soviet Union. (THIS IS HUGE) Western democracies have steadily become less democratic since.
  • She doesn’t believe history has a direction, but rather believes in the “mess and idiocy narrative.”
  • Tim Snyder of NYRB said it best, that Putin is the person that Trump plays on TV. Trump sees Putin’s power and popularity and wants it.
  • Estonia is “one of the best places in the world.” !!!
  • The story around her article, Autocracy: Rules for survival, was fantastic. Apparently, she’d been tapped to write the reaction essay for Russia’s reaction to Hillary Clinton’s win for the NYT. “They did not have a plan B.” The A-team had gone home and Gessen emailed the on-call editor suggesting that she write rules for survival instead of a reaction piece. The junior editor nixed the idea, and Gessen offered it to NYRB. It was so successful it broke her smartwatch because it overheated after getting so many notifications about the piece.
  • We have a real problem of imagination. We couldn’t imagine Trump would get the R nom. We couldn’t imagine he’d be president. “The present defies imagination.” Thus we use crutches like, “Russia interfered!” instead of digging into the icky reason why millions voted for the Cheeto in Chief. We also immediately grabbed at straws thinking that he’d be “presidential” or maybe the electors would step in to not cast their votes for him.
  • Probably the most shocking comment was when she was asked her opinion of Russia, her home country. “Hopeless. Layers and layers of tragedy and awfulness.” After laying out this bleakness, she revealed that some of her friends have moved from big picture projects to small projects—small charities like an orphanage to handle disabled kids instead of tackling the whole system of orphanages. Moving to changing the world via one life at a time, which we know is somewhat futile.
  • The view of the world as “basically rotten” is the fascist view, and one that is being peddled mightily by the right. As a society, we need to return to talking about ideals.
  • Will America be able to resist totalitarianism? There is no such thing as American exceptionalism. The force that oversimplifies and says it can put all fears to rest is hard to resist. We will succumb.
  • Question about what the person-on-the-street likes best about Putin, what changes he’s made to their day-to-day life. Putin has not done anything to improve their particular life, but he projects a strong image that people like. He made Russia great again. This public vs. private self– public self identifies with strong country, likes that. Private self feels like it is always getting screwed by government, always being defrauded. Bifurcation of identity.
  • The U.S.’s Reichstag moment was 9/11. !!!
  • Wikileaks involvement in election: Julian Assange is “his own agent of destruction.” (Masha recommends watching Laura Poitras’s Risk, but I couldn’t take the inflated ego of Assange on display, which is her point.)  Ultimately, the NYT and WaPo share some blame for forging ahead with the material gained from the poisoned tree. Perhaps this will start a conversation about how the media does function as political actors. You can’t just shrug and say, it was out there, and publish it.