Thence to a Lightness: the Madness of English 201

February 15th, 2013

I teach at a community college in Lower Manhattan. Whatever, it’s fine. Really. This isn’t going to be a post about grade inflation, or political correctness, or how the kids come out of high school not knowing anything. For the most part, the only disadvantage to teaching at a school full of inner-city kids when compared with the schools I’ve taught at full of suburban kids is that I can’t explain everything with Simpsons references. Admittedly, that took a lot of getting used to, but it’s my problem, not theirs.

Mostly, I teach English 201—the required intro lit class. The one where everyone has to write research papers about literature. I love teaching that class. My only complaint about it is the fact that it shouldn’t exist.

Seriously. Why should a bunch of people who want to be nurses or mechanics or EMTs have to write 15-page research papers on Shakespeare or Joyce? And I’m not stereotyping them when I say those are the jobs they want to have. I know because I asked them, and they told me. And then I busted them all for plagiarism, because my job revolves around forcing them to do something they are not capable of doing and then acting surprised when they can’t.

Hang on. I’m not saying Great Literature is useless, or elitist, or whatever. I agree that they should have to read these books, and I’m the first one to say that they’re all capable of understanding and liking them. No-one should graduate from college without being able to name at least one poem that they love, or being able to exit a party in embarrassment and then make themselves laugh by saying “Gazing up into the darkness I saw myself as a creature driven and derided by vanity, and my eyes burned with anguish and anger.” Reading literature really does enrich everyone’s life, no matter what the person in question wants to do for the rest of that life. Writing about literature, however, is not the same thing as reading it. Not everyone needs to know how to do that. In fact, almost no-one does. We don’t make people who want to be professors learn how to take apart and rebuild an engine, so why do we make people who want to be mechanics learn how to review a body of scholarship, pick out relevant quotations, and format them properly as citations and sources in support of an argumentative thesis?

Yes, I know that everyone has opinions, and that it is a duty of education to train people to make sure their opinions are well-supported and develop a sense of where those opinions fit in along a continuum of the opinions of experts on the subject. But there is already a class where we teach people to do that—it’s called English 101 (at most schools). We already make freshman take a class where they write research papers about sociopolitical issues (abortion, gay marriage, the death penalty, legalization of marijuana, etc.) and have to incorporate and format quotations from authorities in support of their opinion. That’s fine. But then—for some reason—there’s almost always another required course right after that one where we make them do the exact same thing all over again, but this time with literature.

And that, in my opinion, is pointless for everyone who doesn’t want to be an academic.

The reason we’ve never stopped to consider this is that, deep down, we think that everybody secretly wants to be an academic. But they don’t, and for perfectly good reasons. All things considered, we’re the crazy ones, not them. And we need to let go of the egotistical idea that what we are trying to do here is “rescue” people from having to have jobs where they get their hands dirty. Lots of people want to have those jobs, the same way we wanted to be English professors. We’ve been acting on the assumption that everyone really wants to have our job, and that anyone who doesn’t end up with it has been screwed over by society. But that’s simply not the case. The vast majority of people, working-class or otherwise, would rather have a poke in the eye with a sharp stick than our job. It’s like the old joke where the reason the Boy Scout took so long to help the little old lady across the street is because she didn’t want to go.

Let’s take a step back here, and examine how we got into this mess.

1. We want to make people read literature.
2. In order to make them, there has to be a class where we make them.
3. If there’s a class where we make them, there has to be a way to grade them.
4. In order to have a way to grade them, we need to make them write papers.

The first idea is good, but by the time you get up to step four, what’s going on isn’t good anymore. We need to go back to the drawing board and figure out a way to accomplish Step 1 without ending up at the lunacy of Step 4.

When I say this is a tragedy, I mean that literally. That’s what a tragedy is: the beginning is normal, the end is horrible, and you got from the beginning to the end by a series of small steps that all seemed like a perfectly good idea at the time.

I keeping telling my students that literature isn’t a secret code that they have to figure out—that the only point is to enjoy it, the same way you do with a movie or a song that you like. The problem with that is, the way I have to grade their papers makes a liar out of me, because a paper that says “I really enjoyed this story by Raymond Carver or Isabel Allende” inevitably gets a lower grade than one that says “I figured out all the hidden references in this story by James Joyce or all the philosophical stuff in this one by Jorge Luis Borges.” So while you may not have to regard the study of literature as an exercise in code-breaking to have a favorite book, the students who do gravitate towards seeing it that way usually end up getting the best grades. I know, because that’s what I did as a student, and now I’m an English professor. But not everyone is like me. If everyone were like me, the world would be an utterly insufferable place in which to live, no matter how many great books there were.

And our attempts at inclusiveness have just made matters worse. Somewhere ’round about the 90s, we decided that required intro courses should reward directions-following instead of (or at least, more so than) rewarding talent. So instead of handing out good grades based on brilliant theses or eloquent prose, we started handing out good grades based on thorough research and correct formatting. That may be a fairer shake for people who weren’t born with big fat literature centers in their brains, but the problem is, it’s also utter madness. Because at this point, what you’ve got on your hands is a required course where the majority of a student’s final grade is based on their adherence to a set of skills that absolutely no-one besides an academic would never need—and the double irony is, anyone who is actually going to become an academic probably placed out of the course to begin with.

So all this accomplished was to significantly augment the craziness of the first series of steps, because now it looks like this:

1. We want to make people read literature.
2. In order to make them, there has to be a class where we make them.
3. If there’s a class where we make them, there has to be a way to grade them.
4. In order to have a way to grade them, we need to make them write papers.
5. If we grade the papers based on talent, it’s not fair.
6. So instead, we grade them based on adherence to a template that is useless to everyone but academics, which these students are never going to be.

I once taught at a college where, instead of a paper, the final for the required intro lit-based comp course was an exam—standardized across the sections, and required by the department—that obligated the students to memorize citation format. That’s right—memorize it. A sample question would look something like “Below is all the publication/copyright information for a piece of microfilm. How would you format an in-text citation to this piece of microfilm in MLA standards? How would you do it by APA standards?” No-one who isn’t an academic would ever need to know how to do this, and besides, anyone who is an academic could just look up how to do it in about ten seconds. There’s absolutely no need for anyone, including academics, to memorize it. But anyone who failed this exam failed the course, which they then had to take over and over again until they passed in order to graduate. Oh, and did I mention that this college was a hospitality trade school for people who want to be chefs and hotel managers?

How in the world did we get from “it is good for people to read books” to this?

Oh, well—we have no choice, right? Like hell we don’t. You know what I think we should do instead? Keep having a required intro lit course where we make people read books, but don’t make them write any papers. Base the entire grade on participation in class discussion. If some students want to write papers for extra credit, they can, but they don’t have to be research papers. That’s it. We read great short stories and poems, plus a play or a novel, and we all show up and talk about them, and no-one has to write a god damned thing. If you think that sounds too easy, and like a “joke” class, just remember why we’re in this business. We became English professors in the first place because we think it’s vitally important for everyone to read literature, right? Well, if that’s really what we believe, then why should we feel like a class where that’s all we make anybody do would be a joke?

Everyone would still be reading great works, they’d still have to prove they read them by talking in class, they’d get to read more of them because every day would be a discussion on a text with no days lost to technical lessons about how to write papers, and they could still be graded based on participation. The only difference would be that the students would actually have a chance of enjoying the texts, because they’d be reading them for pleasure instead of in terror over what grade they’re going to get on the writings they’d eventually have to do about them.

Oh, and we wouldn’t have to grade papers. Ever.

Dating While Poet #4: First Day of Spring

March 20th, 2012

Much like myself, this post isn’t really going anywhere but contains valuable information. You will likely find it of more usefulness than my other posts in the “Dating While Poet” series, because this one isn’t about me actually going on a date and therefore offers something beyond examples of what not to do that, although amusing, fail to be instructive because, unless you’re me, you already knew not to do those things anyway. (And if you are me, Chris, stop reading your own blog and do something constructive with your day.) As I’ve said, this post isn’t about me going on a date. It does, however, involve a beautiful woman asking for my number. Unfortunately, this was only so she could enter it into the computer at the bookstore and call me when the book I’d ordered arrived. In all fairness, I would like quickly to clarify that this was a book I’d already planned on buying when I walked into the bookstore, and that I wasn’t just ordering it because the girl at the Information desk was pretty. Although, in further fairness, I was just ordering it because the author of the book is pretty. I’m going to change the subject now.

It’s the first day of Spring and I woke up in a good mood, knowing perfectly well that you’re only supposed to capitalize the name of a season if it’s a poem and you’re addressing it, but not caring at all. That was how good I felt. Like with most people, when I find myself in a good mood I want to make it even better by doing something crazy that I don’t normally do. Unlike with most people, going outside in the daytime for a reason besides work counts for me as one of those things. I decided to walk to a bookstore and purchase comedienne Kristen Schaal’s The Sexy Book of Sexy Sex, which I’ve been meaning to buy because it has funny stuff on the inside and a picture of Kristen Schaal in her underwear on the cover. It’s been out for a year and a half, and I would have bought it sooner, but I had to wait until I was having a really good day so the funniness of the book wouldn’t be negated by my depression over the fact that I’m never going to marry Kristen Schaal, despite the fact that I’m an adventurous yet soulful lover and spell her name right more than half of the time.

      My idea of an unattainable Love Goddess

I felt so unstoppable that instead of walking all the way up to the Barnes & Noble in Union Square, I decided to throw caution to Zephyrus and go to the bookstore three blocks from my apartment that I usually avoid because everyone who hangs out there is so much cooler than me. Yes, I walked right into that cool bookstore with my head held high, and I kept it that way. There was a woman drinking coffee while wearing the biggest pair of sunglasses I’ve ever seen, and I didn’t start crying even a little. It was like there was some kind of cool forcefield around me, which I attributed to the fact that I was wearing my pants with the dried paint on them. I got them at Salvation Army, so there was already paint on them when I bought them, rather than the paint being on them because I was actually painting something myself, but I had spent the walk to the bookstore mentally preparing to lie about that if anyone asked.

The logical guess was that the book would be in the Humor section, except for the fact that it’s probably actually funny and no books in the Humor section of a bookstore are ever actually even a little bit funny. It wasn’t in the Sexuality section either, so I went over to the Information desk to ask. I did notice on my way over that the woman sitting behind the Information desk was gorgeous, but I made up my mind that this was definitely not going to ruin my day and force me to go home and write something about it. If you’re wondering why a professional writer would consider a day ruined if it results in him doing his job, don’t worry, I’m seeing my therapist tomorrow and I’m going to open with that.

When I say that the woman behind the information desk was gorgeous, I’m not exaggerating for effect. She was probably a model. Normally that’s just an expression, but when you’re talking about a startlingly tall and skinny woman who’s dressed uncommonly stylishly while working a part-time job at a trendy store in SoHo, it’s not. I mean she was literally almost certainly a model. And if that usage of literally made sense to you despite the fact that there’s no way for someone to figuratively almost certainly be a model, shame on you, you’re what’s wrong with America.

I’m not going to describe the woman beyond stating the fact that she was gorgeous, because if somehow she ends up reading this, the odds that she would be flattered are infinitesimal compared to the odds that I would get banned from that bookstore. So if you’re her, and you are reading this, don’t worry, I’m talking about a different woman in a different bookstore in the same neighborhood that I ordered the same book from on the first day of Spr—  fuck.

The problem with being in a good mood is, it doesn’t take much to screw it up. That’s why in general I advise strongly against it. The literal model explained that they were out of The Sexy Book of Sexy Sex but that she could order it for me and it would arrive tomorrow, and I managed to get through the conversation and give her my information to enter into her special model computer that probably does weird secret model stuff that normal computers don’t do without looking at the floor and mumbling so quietly that she had to ask me everything twice. I did somehow manage to forget what I normally do with my arms when I’m standing still, but that’s to be expected. It won’t ever happen again, though, because this time I made a mental note to notice what I do with my arms the next time I’m talking to an ugly girl and remember. So look out, pretty girls, because the next time you have a 30-second conversation with this guy, you’re not even going to believe how natural his arm movements seem.

Anyway, remember that useful information I promised you at the beginning? Here it is. Obviously, I wanted to keep talking to this woman. Also obviously, I couldn’t think of a plausible reason to do so and just left. And because of this, I finally figured out the correct answer to the age-old question of whether beautiful women like jerks. The answer is that technically they don’t, but it comes to the same thing. And here’s why.

Now, the reason you always hear people say that beautiful women like jerks is because beautiful women keep ending up with jerks, so you can’t really blame people for concluding this. But in reality, concluding that beautiful women are especially attracted to jerks is like concluding that lightning is especially attracted to golfers. It’s true that golfers are the ones who always end up getting hit by lightning, but there’s no inherent quality golfers possess that causes this. Lightning is equally attracted to all human beings, because our bodies are all mostly water and lightning is attracted to water. And even though, all things considered, it’s unlikely that you’re going to be struck by lightning no matter where you are, being on a golf course makes it considerably more likely than being anywhere else. And golfers are exponentially more likely than non-golfers to be on a golf course.

In other words, in order for me to end up dating this woman, I would have had to keep talking to her. It’s unlikely that I would have ended up dating her even if I had kept talking to her, of course—but it’s impossible that I would have ended up dating her if I didn’t, and unlikely outranks impossible. Since I had no valid reason to keep talking to her other than that I found her attractive, I would have had to make up some phony bullshit reason to keep talking to her on the spot. And in order to be capable of doing that, I would have had to believe at least one of the following two things:

A) She is so stupid she’s not going to figure out that my reason for continuing to talk to her is a phony bullshit one, or
B) I am so awesome she’s not going to care that my reason for continuing to talk to her is a phony bullshit one.

And in order to believe either of those things, I would have to be a jerk. Remember, I’m not saying I would have to be a jerk to believe that anyone would be interested in me. I would have no trouble believing that a woman who’s read my poetry book or sat through one of my brilliant lectures on Frankenstein would want to date me. To be perfectly honest, I would think she was crazy if she didn’t. But here, we’re talking about a woman I talked to for half a minute and who knew absolutely nothing about me. And for that matter, I knew absolutely nothing about her. So in order for either of criteria A and B to be met, I would have to be walking around in a constant state of thinking either that all women are stupid or that all women find me awesome based on absolutely nothing. And walking around in a constant state of believing either of those things is the definition of a jerk.

So, in conclusion, this is why all jerks play golf. No wait, that’s not it. But hey, isn’t it weird how that’s also true?

Dating While Poet #3: The Meatpacking District

January 2nd, 2012

I met a girl at a product-testing study for a hangover remedy. They rented the top floor of a bar, got us all really drunk, then gave some of us the product and some of us a placebo and told us to fill out a questionnaire about how we felt the next day. They also gave us free cans of the product on our way out, which obviously everyone drank as soon as they left, including the people who’d been given the placebo. I kind of suspect the officiators did not know how to conduct a study properly. Anyway, I got her number and asked her to meet me for a drink the next night at a place I like in the East Village. She texted back and asked me to pick a place in the Meatpacking District instead. I called Danny and asked him for the name of a bar in the Meatpacking District that wouldn’t give me a panic attack. He said there was only one of those. I texted the girl the name of that bar and met her there. I was five minutes early and she was half an hour late. Actually, she was only ten minutes late, but then stood outside the bar talking on her phone for twenty minutes before she came in, which I know because I could plainly see her through the window. I spent that time pretending to do things with my phone, which was difficult because my phone can’t really do anything. I just held it up in the air and pressed the screen over and over with my thumb while trying to look engrossed. It wasn’t even unlocked. Luckily, no-one was sitting behind me. Then she came in and this happened.

Me: Everything okay?
Date: Yeah, why wouldn’t it be?
Me: No reason.
Date: Oh my God, I was so drunk last night.
Me: Me too. I guess that was kind of the point.
Date: That was weird. Wasn’t that weird? We were like rats in a cage.
Me: I don’t know. If someone’s going to get me drunk for free all night and all I have to do is send them an e-mail the next day about whether I have a headache—
Date: RATS IN A CAGE. So what do you do again?
Me: I’m an English teacher. You?
Date: I’m the [I can’t write this part accurately because her job made no sense. I think she’s someone’s assistant or something]. And I love it! But really, I can’t even drink tonight. I’m just going to stick with white wine.
Waitress: What can I get you?
Date: Vodka tonic.
Me: Citrus martini. What were you up to today?
Date: I’ve been running around like crazy trying to find a dress for New Year’s Eve. I finally found this one, it has ruching, and [edited for length, but it took about twenty minutes, so this may well be the same story she was telling someone on the phone outside the bar]. So yeah, it has ruching. Sorry, do you know what that is?
Me: Yeah, I know what ruching is.
Date: Oh my God, really? Are you bi?
Me: I think in theory everyone is, but no, not actively.
Date: Then why do you know what ruching means?
Me: Well, I’m an English teacher, so I guess I know what it means because it’s a word.
Date: That’s funny. You’re funny!
Me: Thank you.
Date: So you’ve never made out with another guy?
Me: Well, yes, I have, but just in those situations where two girls say they’re going to make out, but only if two guys make out first.
Date: Uh-oh. You’re not poly, are you?
Me: No, not really. But I’ve had girlfriends who were, so I guess I was at those times.
Date: Because that is a dealbreaker for me.
Me: It’s not what I’m looking for either, at this point. But when you’re in your twenties, if you’re dating some girl who’s like “We’re going to have a bunch of threesomes!”, you’re going to be like “Okay, sure.”
Date: (blank stare)
Me: Uh… right?
Date: So you’ve had threesomes?
Me: Well, yeah, I have.
Date: Oh. What was that like?
Me: Not a big deal, actually. I mean, when you’re growing up, you think if you ever had a threesome you’d be happy every day for the rest of your life, but then it happens and your life doesn’t really change at all. It’s like how before I published a book, I thought—
Date: No way! You wrote a book? What’s it about?
Me: Well, it’s poetry, so I guess it’s not about anything.
Date: I write poems! (rustles around in purse; produces phone; shows me poem she posted on Facebook)
Me: Well, that certainly… rhymes.
Date: Can I hear one of your poems?
Me: Uh… sure. (recites poem)
Date: You’re really intense. You remind me of Vince Vaughn in Wedding Crashers.
Me: I knew I shouldn’t have gotten a short haircut.
Date: Well, there’s no way I’d be on a date with you if you had long hair.
Me: Uh-huh.
Date: So what are the five questions you would need to ask someone to determine whether you could ever be serious with them?
Me: You mean like, if I was going to marry someone?
Date: Yeah. You can ask me your five, and then I’ll ask you my five.
Me: Okay. Let’s see… Do you believe in God?*
*(Okay, I was the one who brought this up, so technically everything that happens afterwards is my fault, but she tricked me.)
Date: Yes! Absolutely. I unequivocally believe in God.
Me: Okay… So, what does that mean to you? I mean, do you believe literally in one of the Gods from the major religions, or just…?
Date: No! Religion, no way. I’m just spiritual.
Me: Oh, good, okay. So that means believing that…?
Date: That everything happens for a reason.
Me: Well, sure, in the sense that effects have causes, but where does God come into it?
Date: I believe that everything is destined to happen, and God is what’s doing that.
Me: Doesn’t belief in a constant state of all-encompassing divine intervention go considerably beyond what is generally meant by “spirituality?” That sounds like a fairly hardline religious doctrine.
Date: Okay, how about you? Do you believe in God?
Me: I’m a theological noncognitivist.
Date: What’s that?
Me: It means I don’t think the term “God” has a definition, so I can’t answer the question.
Date: So you’re an atheist.
Me: Not exactly. An atheist’s answer to the question “Do you believe in God?” is “no,” an agnostic’s answer is either “we don’t know” or “we can’t know,” depending on whether they’re an agnostic-temporary or an agnostic-in-principle, and a theological noncognitivist’s answer is “what do you mean by ‘God’?”
Date: So does that make you an atheist or an agnostic?
Me: Neither. It’s its own thing. I guess it’s similar to the position of the agnostic-in-principle, except theological noncognitivism doesn’t mandate the impossibility of reaching a definition of God, as far as I know. On the other hand, I guess I would call myself an atheist if I were talking to a fundamentalist who is asking me specifically about their definition of God, since I am an atheist with respect to that definition.
Waitress: Another?
Date: Yes.
Me: Yes.
Date: Okay, have you ever almost died?
Me: Yeah, actually. One summer during junior high, me and my friends built a zipline in the woods, and when I went on it, the pulley broke. I fell pretty far, but I landed on my back in some bushes and was fine. Then I looked to my right and saw there was this jagged stump from where we’d cut down this one tree. I was almost impaled. I missed it by like six inches.
Date: Aha! So what do you call that?
Me: What do you mean, what do I call it?
Date: I mean you could have been impaled, but you weren’t. You landed in some bushes. What do you attribute that to?
Me: Well, the bushes were directly below me, so… gravity, I guess?
Date: Really? Gravity, that’s it? You don’t think that was God saving you?
Me: If God wanted to save me, why did I fall in the first place? He could have just made the pulley not break. Plus if it was “destined” to happen that way, then he didn’t technically “save” me.

Date: Okay, well, you can choose to believe that, but why wouldn’t you choose to believe it was God?
Me: Wouldn’t that be kind of obnoxious of me? I mean, people die all the time. Someone probably just died in a car accident within a few miles of here while we were having this conversation. Six million Jews died in the Holocaust. I’m supposed to believe that God let all those people die, but I’m so great that he intervened to save me?
Date: Okay, well, you know, fine, whatever, we can just call this whatever and go dutch and keep talking as friends, but seriously, like, when it comes to dating, if I’m going to say that I’m on a date with someone, then it’s really important to me that that person be an optimist.
Me: Does someone really need to believe that the world revolves around them in order to count as an optimist?
Date: What’s your second question?
Me: Okay, um… What’s your favorite song?
Date: It’s [some song I’ve never heard of and don’t remember]. What’s yours?
Me: It changes a lot, but right now I’d have to say that my official favorite song is “Don’t Worry Baby” by the Beach Boys.
Date: Really? Wow, I wouldn’t have expected you to have such an upbeat favorite song!
Me: (defensively) That song’s not upbeat! It’s a bittersweet ballad.
Date: Okay, but why do you consider it an insult to be called upbeat?
Me: I guess you’ve got me there.
Date: It’s because you’re an atheist.
Me: Theological noncognitivist.
Date: So what does that mean again? Is that like an atheist or an agnostic?
Me: I told you, it’s a distinct third thing. An atheist’s answer to the question “Do you believe in God?” is “no,” an agnostic’s is—
Date: So then do you believe in Jesus?
Me: In what sense? I mean, I believe that there was such a person as Jesus, and if the records of what he said and taught are basically accurate, then I think he was a really good person and I respect him highly as a philosopher. I don’t think he rose from the dead or walked on water, but I don’t think Gandhi or Martin Luther King did those things either and I still respect them. I think of Jesus basically the same way I think of those people.
Date: Oh, good! So you believe Jesus existed?
Me: Yeah, I would say so. We don’t know for certain that he did, but we don’t know for certain that Socrates or Homer existed either, and I’m still perfectly happy to make reference to such-and-such a thing having been said or written by Socrates or Homer.
Date: But you said you were like an atheist?
Me: Well, I said I was a theological noncognitivist, but then you asked me to dumb it down. In any case, most atheists believe in a historical Jesus anyway. A few don’t, and have gotten into the whole “Jesus didn’t exist” thing, but I see that as a bad strategy and just an arbitrary selective application of the general level of doubt that we could be said to have about any number of figures from that long ago.
Date: Oh, okay. I just wanted to make sure, because some people believe in, you know, the Big Bang or whatever.
Me: (in confusion/terror) Uh… What? I believe in the Big Bang, but the Big Bang is about how the universe came into being. It has nothing to do with the existence of Jesus. I guess it could sort of conflict with the existence of God, but it doesn’t necessarily have to. You could just say God caused the Big Bang.
Date: But wasn’t the person who came up with the Big Bang trying to say there was no Jesus?
Me: Probably not, because the person who came up with the Big Bang was actually a Catholic priest. His name was Georges Lemaître, and he was a Jesuit who—
Date: I’m going to run to the bathroom real quick.
Me: You do that.
Other Girl: Are you on a first date with a girl in a spangly top?
Me: Yeah.
Other Girl: I just saw her in the bathroom. She said she was on a weird first date. Good Luck.
Me: I have no idea whether that was a good sign or a bad sign.
Date: So like I said, I’m not religious, I’m spiritual.
Me: How is belief in the divinity of Jesus “spirituality” rather than specifically Christianity?
Date: You believe in spirituality, right?
Me: Sure I believe in spirituality. Spirituality is an emotion people feel, so therefore it exists. Freud called it “the oceanic feeling.” (aside, to myself) Fuck! That’s why it was the name of the airline! Those assholes! God, fuck that show!
Date: What?
Me: Nothing.
Date: So you really think that’s all it is, an emotion?
Me: Well, sure. I guess I’m using the term “emotion” loosely, but it goes on inside people as opposed to being an external force. If people didn’t exist, spirituality wouldn’t exist.
Date: But your heart beating and your blood pumping go on inside you too. Are those emotions?
Me: No, those are autonomic processes governed by the medulla. Spirituality is something we consciously experience and think and talk about, an idea we’ve created to describe how we feel, so that would be happening in the cerebrum. I guess we can’t say there’s a specific part of the brain that—
Date: (sarcastic voice) Oh, yeah, okay!
Me: I don’t… So does that mean you agree with me, or you don’t, or…?
Date: Like I said, we could let this turn into an argument, or—
Me: Well, technically it’s already an argument. An argument is anytime someone says what they believe and gives reasons for it. It doesn’t mean the person has to be angry.
Date: I kind of want nachos.
Me: Yeah, we can get some nachos.
Waitress: More drinks with your nachos?
Me: Yes.
Date: Yes.
Bro at Next Table: Did you say you were an atheist? I’m an atheist.
Me: Um… Okay.
Date: I’m going to go smoke a cigarette. (leaves; bro follows her outside)
Me: Okay.
Me: (to wall) Wall, do you find it odd that she scolded me about being an atheist for over an hour but then immediately went outside to smoke a cigarette with a bro who interrupted our conversation to announce that he was an atheist?
Wall:
Me: Yeah, me too. And what’s really weird is that she didn’t even have any cigarettes, but somehow magically knew that the bro would follow her and that she could bum one off him.
Wall:
Me: I should probably leave.
Wall: What about the nachos?
Me: Oh, right, there’s nachos coming. Thanks, Wall.
Wall: You’re going to pick up the whole check, aren’t you?
Me: Yeah, probably.
Wall: There’s really no reason to punish yourself like that.
Me: Why stop now?

The Conversation

November 25th, 2011

I just had the conversation again. I know, I know, it happens to all of us, and it’s not my fault. But still, I’m sitting here feeling like I did something wrong. Something cruel, even. It’s happened to me a thousand times, and probably you too, and it’s going to happen to us many more thousands of times, because as far as we can tell there’s just no other logical thing to say. I’m talking, of course, about those four seemingly innocent words that we all keep saying, and almost always end up feeling bad about ourselves for saying.

Someone told me they like poetry, and I asked “Who do you read?”

Obviously, I don’t need to tell you what happened next. The person’s face drained of color, her jaw dropped, and she started frantically making eye contact with the other people in the room, who were all staring at me as if I’d just asked her which religion she thinks is the most evil or what shape she shaves her pubes into. She looked at the floor and mumbled something that did not involve stating the actual names of any specific poets, and then I got embarrassed and changed the subject.

Since I’ve said that this happens to me over and over, you’d think I would have learned by now to just never ask someone what poets they read, no matter how much they say they like poetry. But I don’t stop, simply because I can’t believe I keep meeting so many people who say they like poetry—who bring it up themselves first—and then act totally blindsided and put out when I ask them who their favorite poets are. I don’t meet musicians who freak out when I ask who their favorite band is. I don’t meet aspiring actors or directors who crap themselves upon being asked to list a few of their favorite movies. Hell, it’s not even a quiz—this is the most obvious way that you would make conversation with someone who has just stated an affinity for a particular art form. Why is it only ever a problem when the art form being discussed is poetry?

I concede that maybe “Who are your favorite poets?” is a weird question to ask an eight-year old. But this person wasn’t an eight-year old. Like most of the people I end up inadvertently freaking out with this question, she was a college graduate who had studied writing and started a conversation about poetry with me. Was it not totally sensible of me to expect her to have an answer to this question? Fine, I realize she didn’t go to graduate school for poetry, but I wasn’t asking something so complicated that advanced study would be a prerequisite to having an opinion. I didn’t hand her a blue book and ask her to write an essay about how contemporary female poets under 40 are using the plain-speech surrealism of Ashbery as a springboard to inject the trappings of feminist literary theory with humor while recentering their discourse around a renewed belief in the power of a flesh-and-blood selfhood borrowed from the Confessionals, linking all this to the supposed “death of irony” effected by the September 11th attacks. I just asked her who she likes. That is a pretty open-ended question, and I wasn’t going to judge her on whether her answer was sufficiently outré. My favorite poet is Lord Byron, for pete’s sake; that’s not exactly obscure.

You don’t even necessarily have to respond with a ranked list. Any comment having to do with poetry is a perfectly acceptable response. “I think early Eliot is charming but late Eliot is a chore.” “I don’t understand why Edna St. Vincent Millay isn’t as popular with teens as Sylvia Plath.” “In my heart I know Ginsberg was bullshitting 90% of the time but I still love him.” “I really dug that book Louise Glück put out a few years ago with all the poems about Persephone in it.” All of these responses are fine. Like with any other conversation, all you really have to do at this point is say something next, which can take pretty much any form at all other than looking at the floor and implying that I am a dick for asking you this question.

If “who are your favorite poets” isn’t what you expect to be asked next when you tell a poet that you like poetry, then what do you expect to be asked next? I honestly can’t think of another way to move the conversation forward from that point. Seriously, if you say “I like poetry,” but you can’t name any actual poets, then what do you even mean when you say that? That you like the idea of the existence of poetry, as a concept? I guess it’s fine if that’s what you meant. I suppose I’m glad that you are in favor of the fact that poetry is a thing that exists. After all, it’s better than being against it. But Jesus Christ, at the end of the day, what the hell, just what the hell?

Why I Didn’t Go to Occupy Wall Street

November 20th, 2011

Since so many poets have been involved that it is basically a poetry issue, many readers of this blog might have expected me to write something about the Occupy movement. I did, but it’s over on my political site instead of here.

Here’s a link to it.

Dating While Poet #2: on Having Short Hair

November 6th, 2011

Last summer I got into a bar fight. As bar fights go, it was unimpressive—I didn’t break a chair over anyone’s back, and I didn’t grab a guy’s collar and slide him down the bar and out the window—but it was enough for me to get tossed. Since I like to pretend my life is important enough that I have to “atone” for things, I stopped drinking for 30 days afterwards, plus when I got home that night I took an electric trimmer and buzzed off my hair. It just seemed like the thing to do—kind of a visual reminder that I was rethinking my life, or at least pretending to. It certainly wasn’t supposed to look good—if anything, it was supposed to look bad—but my roommate at the time, an attractive woman who goes to clubs I’ve never heard of and couldn’t get into even if I had, told me it did. That struck me as odd, but I figured she just liked a very different type of guy (obviously, since she wouldn’t have been my roommate if she were even processing me as a sexual being).

But then another girl told me my hair looked good short. And then another, and another. In fact, pretty much 100% of girls said that my hair looked better short than it did when it was long. I wasn’t keeping score or anything (okay, yes I was), but I don’t recall even one woman ever saying that my hair was better long and that I should grow it back. I realize that people pretty much always tell you it looks good when you get a haircut just out of politeness, but this was a fairly radical change on my part. I’d had long hair every second of my life since about the fourth grade (except for that time in 1997 when I got a buzzcut because Bono did, but I’ve put that out of my mind, and I’d appreciate it if you would too). When someone makes a change that big, people don’t just reflexively compliment it. I looked different enough that some people didn’t even recognize me—a lot of my coworkers thought I was new. But the approval was so ubiquitous that when my hair started growing back out, I cut it short again, and then again. At this point, it’s been nearly five months, so I guess I just officially have short hair now.

And it’s really starting to freak me out.

For a while, when I met new people, I would find a way to work the fact that I had long hair until very recently into the conversation—like how you do right after you change jobs or move to a different neighborhood. But at this point, the social statute of limitations on mentioning that is pretty much expired. I am no longer in the state of having “just gotten” a short haircut—I just have a short haircut. I realize everyone thinks I look better this way, but to be honest, that’s what’s bothering me. Never in my wildest dreams did I ever imagine that I would work better as—or even be able to “pass” for—a short-haired man. Long hair was much more accurately indicative of everything about my personality: I’m a poet, I play the guitar, I hate sports, I’m sad all the time. Sporting “the Kurt Cobain” wasn’t just something I did all those years because I thought it framed my face well—it was the uniform of the team I played for. For a lot of guys, hair length is like what hair color is for a lot of women. If a brunette dyes her hair blonde for a Halloween costume or a role in a play, and then everyone tells her she works better as a blonde, she’d probably wonder why. And she might not want or feel prepared for all the changes that would come with being a blonde permanently.

Case in point: I met this girl I ended up dating for a while at the end of the summer when she came up and started talking to me in a bar. Already this was weird, because that never happens to me, or at least it never happened to me when I had long hair. On top of it, she tried to have a conversation with me about sports. When I said I didn’t care about sports, she was shocked, and I was shocked that she was shocked. Another night a few weeks later in the same bar, some girl I didn’t know just straight-up walked over and started feeling me and said she liked my muscles. Granted she was drunk, but it’s not like I’d never been in the same room as a drunk girl before. I was in the same rooms as drunk girls for fifteen years and they never did that, and I still had muscles. I just also had “the Kurt Cobain.”

Maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised? After all, the first thing a male acquaintance said to me the day after I first cut my hair was that the new look would open me up to “a whole new range of pussy.” But at the time, the only thing I took away from that comment was that I must apparently now look like the type of guy around whom other guys are comfortable using expressions like “a whole new range of pussy.” And frankly, I don’t want to look like that type of guy. This was another virtue of “the Kurt Cobain”—it wasn’t just a signal to girls that you’re sensitive, but also a signal to other guys that you’re probably not the type of guy it’s safe to say douchey things around. Short hair still feels like I’m in disguise as someone from another world, like when I used to work construction and occasionally another worker would see me from behind and start talking to me in Spanish, and then when I turned around we’d both be embarrassed.

Sure, there are other ways to mark yourself as a sensitive guy besides having long hair. Academics grow beards. Hipsters are really skinny. But long hair was the only way that worked on me. I wouldn’t look right with a beard, and have never tried (except for that time in 1998 when I had a goatee, because everyone was required to have one, because it was 1998). And my body doesn’t do the David Bowie “really skinny guy” thing. I have a wrestler build—I can either work out and have muscles, or not work out and be totally physically unremarkable, so I choose to work out. This was always fine in the past, because I also had long hair to offset the muscles. But now I have both muscles and short hair—in other words, I now look like the type of guy that other guys think won’t bat an eyelash if they casually use “pussy” as a collective noun for all women. But I’m not. Yes, I opened this article by mentioning that I got into a bar fight, but it was because someone was yelling out the answers at trivia night, so I’m pretty sure I still don’t count as a badass.

The other day I told a girl I’m currently dating that I wished I still had long hair. She asked why, and (of course) told me she thought I looked better with short hair. I really had to think about my answer. Long hair just feels like who I am for so many reasons, but I was having trouble putting it into words. The first thing that came out of my mouth was that short hair keeps making people think I like sports—which, I have to admit, sounded ridiculous even to me when I heard myself saying it. She asked why it bothered me if people thought I liked sports, and said that the type of person I am is still obvious once someone starts talking to me.

But the thing is, only a small fraction of the people who see you ever actually talk to you. I told her that I had a bad time of it in high school, and that even though I’m not there anymore, I don’t like the idea of looking like the people who made it a bad time. I don’t like knowing that other people who had a bad time of it in high school and pass me on the street now perceive me as someone who would have been mean to them. They’d know I wasn’t if I talked to them, but I can’t talk to everybody—and the people I’m talking about are precisely the least likely to talk to someone they don’t know who has big muscles and short hair. Sure, I may be more attractive this way, but I suspect I’m the wrong kind of attractive. A friend once told me that muscles “disqualify” me socially in the types of bars where intellectuals hang out, the same way that having giant fake boobs might disqualify a woman—and short hair is just sealing the deal. Yes, in other types of bars it’s making women who wouldn’t have talked to me before come up and talk to me—or even start randomly groping me—but I have to wonder, how many people whom I would have liked better is it causing to not come talk to me?

It’s easy to say “Who cares what strangers think?”, but deep down we all know that’s a cop-out. If I asked you to walk down the street wearing a Nazi armband, or a KKK hood, or a t-shirt that said “John Grisham is better than Shakespeare,” you wouldn’t do it. There are some things that are so offensive, we couldn’t stand to have anyone associate them with us, even strangers we’ll never see again. I know it shouldn’t, but short hair feels that way to me. Everyone likes it, so I guess I’m wrong, but still.

It’s also easy to say “Well, what do you like better?”, but that’s a cop-out too. Everyone says we should dress for ourselves instead of others, but if anybody really believed that, then we would all wear sweatpants every day. What does it matter what I like better? I’m not trying to have sex with myself. I can do that no matter what haircut I have.

I knew it would be crazy to go back to long hair if everyone likes the short hair better. But I still needed to find a way to deal with it. And eventually, I found one: I started wearing my glasses all the time, even though I never thought I’d do that either. As important as it was to me to look sensitive, for some reason I was always terrified to wear my glasses in public. I now think this was because the long hair plus the glasses was overkill, like wearing a pin with the name of a band you like pinned onto a t-shirt for the same band. But the glasses with the short hair kind of works. People are sometimes a little surprised when I say I don’t like sports, but not too surprised. Plus, feeling like I can’t project my personality visually anymore has caused me to start talking to people more often. When I went to the same bar I got tossed from for yet another trivia night—wearing my glasses into a bar for the first time—I walked up and joined a team of people I didn’t know. When I asked if they were any good, they joked that they weren’t as good as that buff guy who was there last week and knew everything. When I said that was me, they were surprised.

Apparently, the glasses are just as good a disguise as the long hair was. So maybe Lois Lane isn’t as stupid as everyone says. I mean, how could she be? She’s a brunette.

Closing the Door, You Leave the World Behind: Genevieve Kaplan’s “In The Ice House”

September 17th, 2011

Genevieve Kaplan’s “In the Ice House” won the 2009 To The Lighthouse Prize, awarded yearly by the A Room Of Her Own Foundation to the best poetry manuscript by a woman. (Tangent for one second: I confess I’m not sure why there need to be women-only poetry prizes, considering the vast majority of people who write poetry, read poetry, enter poetry prizes, and apply to MFA programs in this country are currently women. I realize women are a marginalized demographic in other fields, but they already dominate in this one without any help—so thinking women need an artificial boost in poetry is kind of like thinking Jewish people need an artificial boost in stand-up comedy. Case in point: the most recent issue of Poets & Writers, with a feature article about the “MFA Nation,” has a cover photo that shows almost exclusively women, with no apparent explanation or sense that this is unusual.)

I can still see five dudes in the back! Quick, someone endow a prize they can't enter!

When I received Kaplan’s book, I was optimistic for two reasons. One, it’s the only recent volume of poetry I can think of besides my own that has a photo of a sexy woman on the cover (this may not sound unusual as far as other types of book are concerned, but the norm in poetry is for the cover art to be some sort of incomprehensible collage, and so the same sort of sexy-girl cover that would be pedestrian in other genres seems refreshingly unpretentious on a book of poetry). And two, “The Ice House” was once upon a time the nickname of my apartment in Iowa City, as it was always stocked with Icehouse beer and the bong was always filled with crushed ice. Kaplan was a year behind me in the program and I don’t remember her ever hanging out in the Ice House, but I thought perhaps the legend had persisted. If Kaplan wanted to associate herself with me, I was prepared to be gracious about it—certainly more gracious than certain people were about the fact that I use ampersands.

I should have expected it, as ampersands have been cursed ever since Krist Novoselic’s self-induced face-bassing at the 1992 VMAs.

But it turns out the book just contains a surprisingly high number of poems about ice. About a quarter of the poems are entitled simply “The Ice Storm,” and another quarter are entitled simply “The Landscape,” so before you even get past the table of contents you know that Kaplan is doing some sort of thing. I realize that’s a bit vague, but if you’re used to academic poetry you know exactly the kind of thing I mean. It’s hard to explain, but suffice to say it’s unlikely that a book laid out that way will contain formalism or car chases.

The first poem looks like this:

1. Cruelty in the new west, like cruelty
in the old, begins at home (with the) misuse
of lightbulbs, wedding rings, microwaves. There’s no
telling.

       County lines shift over time but we’re
not so fragile. Quaint enough we’re allowed
to be a part of it. Facing the musty window (fingerprints, creases,
barbarism)—how many miss it?

2. The mirror in my mouth, I hope, won’t betray a thing.

3. There’s a danger in beauty, a net in the sea, a kit in the sky, a bird in the tree.

Okay, I like this poem. The beginning reminds me of the opening of Hass’s “Meditation at Lagunitas,” which I won’t quote, so you know you’re reading a smart blog that expects you to know it already and can feel all proud of yourself. As strings of objects go, I think “lightbulbs, wedding rings, microwaves” is a good one (maybe could have subbed out “lightbulbs,” since lightbulbs and microwaves are both appliancey and microwaves is better, but whatever). I think “there’s no / telling” is a great hard break and stop-short surprise, like expecting there to be one more step after you’ve reached the floor. And I think the last line is a fine mix of bold and reticent, and I like the surprise of a childlike rhyme at the end of a sparse, grownuppy poem.

But why the numbered sections in a short poem that would feel very much like one thing without them? Why the parentheses? (I have an odd relationship with parentheses: contemporary poets toss them around like confetti in theory-influenced poems, but Byron uses them to set off his tangential wisecracks within his hilariously long sentences, so if someone tells me a book of poetry has lots of parentheses in it, I’m probably going to either really like it or really not.) Why even the “cruelty” opening a poem that immediately stops feeling like it has anything to do with cruelty? All this seems, frankly, like stuff someone adds who has written a perfectly good poem but knows it’s being sent to a prize and thinks “I’d better academic it up a little bit.” A sharp move pragmatically, perhaps, but it’s too bad. I like this poem, but ditch the numbers, the parentheses, and the easy politics of vague shout-outs to “cruelty” and “barbarism” and I love it.

The next run of poems feels a bit like Bishop (whom I get, but don’t love), with their household objects and precious precision: “night goes on / unencountered / by the spatula, not squelched by a murmur”… “Inside the glass a pressed / leaf. / Like counting to zero”… And as with Bishop, this is, to me, nice but not great. I see why it takes talent to do, but don’t know what I’m supposed to feel. I’ve hung out with Genevieve Kaplan a few times, and in person she’s funny and bold. So why aren’t these poems? Because umpresumtpive whispers are how you win a poetry prize for women? Okay, but what is the point of a prize designed to augment women’s voices if a woman has to whisper to win it?

The reason, it becomes clear, for having multiple poems called “The Ice Storm,” “The Landscape,” etc., is that none of those poems is exactly a poem by itself. They all feel like sections of a longer poem. Williams’s red wheelbarrow is all well and good, but as I see it, we only needed one poem like that, and that was it. And Stevens realized you need at least thirteen of those things—one way of looking at a blackbird wouldn’t be a poem; it would just be looking at a blackbird, which nobody needs a poem’s help to do.

I don’t think I’m simply faulting Kaplan for writing poetry that isn’t my kind of poetry. On the contrary, I can sometimes feel that these poems would like to be doing something a bit more exciting. Take this one:

Begin By Counting Sheep, White Buds On The Plant As They Appear

Small, white flowers will appear and so we wait for them.
The sky is calm today, the air watchful.

It’s nobody’s business at all, they say.
We’ll keep silent what we want.

I’ve gotten rid of my old messages,
My old love letters flying through the air.

The road is never quiet.
It doesn’t matter no one stops by.

I think I would like something gaudy.

The second I turn away—
The moment I sit back down I must get up again.

I must sit down again.

The wind comes, there is never a time
We don’t hear the cars brushing past, the pushing air.

And you are tired. The upholstery comes up easily
In my hands, there is so much to replace.

There is no way to flaunt any of it.
It all comes in a run and I remember everything.

I know how this poem feels, because I would also like something gaudy. At least, more than I would like this. I get that it is a poem about not saying anything, but is it so passé to think poems that say something are more interesting than poems that don’t? Yes, I’ve been to grad school and heard people say things like “utterance is impossible.” You know what happened next? The people who say things like “utterance is impossible” read some of their poems and I fell asleep. Then when I woke up, those people had tenure. That was a good joke on me, but the fact is, there are actually a bunch of really cool ways to flaunt any of it if you just try a little. Fine, I get that “silence” is political. But why, as poets, do we have to make symbolic silence our problem, when all of the other art forms are free to be enjoyable? Nobody gives women directors a special prize for making movies where nothing happens as a political statement. Alright, maybe they do at some weird festival, but there is also such a thing as real movies, whereas all poetry has at this point is the weird festival. Yes, there’s also slam, but I don’t own a White Sox hat, and even if I did I wouldn’t wear it sideways.

I don’t dislike the above poem. I like it okay. I would just like it a lot more if it said and did the stuff it’s about not saying and doing instead of being about not saying or doing it. I don’t mean to pick on Kaplan. Lots of poetry pulls this move, and Kaplan’s book is better than many of them. But why does so much poetry pull this move?! If we’re silenced out there in the big mean rest of the world, and then create a space where it’s just us listening to one another, why continue to be silent as a gesture even when nobody’s here to make us? That’s like going all the way home to smoke weed in your apartment because you don’t want to get busted smoking on the street, but then when you get to your apartment you put a sign in the window that says “We’re smoking weed in here.”

There are a bunch of lines in these poems that have wit and guts and that made me jealous—“Hey, young love, I query, over here” for example, or “If anyone dares to go out, it is you, / the fantastic one. A glowing system to be admired”—but the rest of the book, and even the other parts of the poems in which they appear, seem to be apologizing for them. Why? The academic monkey on Kaplan’s back seems to be making her think she has to make up for every line with real blood in its veins by writing ten lifeless so-whats like “It is never the heat that remains” or “Float and lie and weave and have / no other contact than the wind” (that last one is an entire poem, by the way). These aren’t “bad” lines in the same way that a freshman’s posturing suicide-and-cigarettes bullshit is bad lines—in fact, they may have the opposite problem of being too fine and too mature. But the fact remains that when I think about them, they don’t mean anything. At least the posturing freshman is trying to excite people. But in our frantic escape from him, contemporary poets have started writing lines that are indistinguishable from someone who hates contemporary poetry making fun of it. Maybe I’m alone here, but I regard becoming indistinguishable from parody as a problem, and a rather big one.

I could, I suppose, have shrugged my shoulders here and simply echoed Abraham Lincoln’s immortal assessment “People who like this sort of thing will find this the sort of thing they like.” But I chose not to, because I believe that deep down, nobody actually likes this sort of thing, including the (many, many) people who are choosing to write it. Honestly half the poems in this book are three or four lines long and about a bird not doing anything. Granted, they are impeccably described birds-not-doing-anything, but what is the point of impeccably describing something utterly boring?

Now THIS bird is doing something!

To be fair, here is a poem I really like:

Last Night, You Said, Wait Here

So that’s the danger, my day, and that’s my night and my tree.
Because what’s in the house, behind this tree? My measured
pace as I walk the sidewalk, leave the station, pack in hand.

So to be here, in the nighttime, not the daylight, admitting
there’s very little to be done, noticing that rain
will not fall here, tonight (but hoping), asking for nothing
but a piece of the next world, and where are the words for that?
Hold on, you said, wait wait. It was never,
will never be, the first time.

This is a charming poem, with lines in it I will remember. In another book, it would be one of the little ones that creep up on you. But in the context of “In The Ice House,” it can legitimately be described as action-packed. The presence of an actual human being who actually feels something is such a rarity here that it comes across as a fireworks display. So once and for all, why are we doing this to ourselves? I have every confidence that if Genevieve Kaplan wanted to write a book of poems that I would call awesome, she could do so. But she is choosing not to, and so are the majority of people who are currently writing poetry.

That’s it. I hereby order Genevieve Kaplan to put at least one poem in her second book about getting into a knife fight at a taxi-dance bar. If she wants there to be an ice-covered branch in the bar, fine, but somebody had better get stabbed. She probably should have saved the sexy naked-woman cover for that book.

You know, it didn’t occur to me at first, but the sexy naked woman on the cover of Kaplan’s book has her eyes closed. Isn’t that just like contemporary poetry? You go to all the trouble of getting naked, and then don’t even look at yourself. Probably because academia told you that looking at yourself is impossible. And maybe looking at all of yourself is. But that doesn’t mean you can’t see enough interesting parts to make it worth opening your eyes.

New Poetry Video!

August 15th, 2011

I made another poetry video, for my poem “Non, Je Ne Joue Pas au Tennis.” Yes, it’s in English. I just like that title, because I never understood why introductory French was so inexplicably tennis-based. Oh, and the hot naked woman in the video is French too.

Dating While Poet

August 9th, 2011

About six weeks ago, I had a first date that I was really excited about, with a cute young actress. Unlike most things I get really excited about, it went great. I picked the perfect spot, I didn’t get too drunk and, being something of an animation buff herself, she seemed to understand my lifelong desire to get married at the foot of a firefly-infested waterfall so as to perfectly recreate the love scene from Disney’s Robin Hood, if not necessarily to be totally on board with it right away. As I walked her to the train afterwards, we passed a little theater that she’d always loved, and I said I’d buy it for her if I won on Jeopardy!, conveniently forgetting that even if I won as many games as Ken Jennings, this would still take more than half the money. I kissed her, but didn’t try for more than that, and headed home feeling for once like I had spectacularly aced a first date.

When I got home, I sent her a goodnight text. No response. That’s cool, I thought. She’s probably still on the train. Or furiously masturbating. Or furiously masturbating on the train. Or she lost or broke her phone somehow, probably while furiously masturbating. I thought nothing of it, furiously masturbated, and went to sleep.

The next morning I texted again to wish her good luck at an audition she had in the morning—an audition, I might add, that was definitely totally real and that she had in no way made up as an excuse not to go home with me. Would a girl give an excuse like that to a man who had started crying eight minutes into the date while telling a story about the time he put out a mousetrap to catch a mouse but instead of being killed the mouse was only paralyzed and when he came into the kitchen after hearing the mousetrap noise the paralyzed mouse was being tearfully comforted by a little mouse friend (or possibly spouse) and saying in mouse language “No, go on, leave me, and don’t look back, I don’t want you to remember me this way?” Of course not.

This time, there was a response. She texted back “Thank you.” I’d have preferred to see “Thank you from the bottom of my sodden pink panties,” but at least it was a response. I texted back something that I’m sure was too long, too soon, and not badass enough, because that’s how I roll.

Then I heard nothing back for a week. The pattern of “three texts from me equals nothing for three days and then one short, noncommittal text back” continued for a while. Eventually, I asked her point blank if she wanted to go out again. She said yes, but then reverted right back to the “I don’t text you back until you’re halfway home from the noose store, and even then it is three words if you’re lucky” M.O., so I naturally figured that the “yes” was just politeness and I was supposed to “take the hint” here, so as not to become that guy who keeps texting a girl who doesn’t want to see him again that you occasionally hear about every single time you talk to a girl, ever.

So, all things considered, I emerged with dignity intact. I never did anything dishonorable, and I knew when it was time to cut my losses and give up before making a fool of myself. Well played.

Then five weeks later, she texts to tell me I’m a fucking asshole for “disappearing.”

This confused me. I mean, I did pick up the valuable piece of information that when a woman ends a text message with “That’s all I wanted to say,” it means there are seven more texts coming in the next five minutes, but other than that I was confused. I mean, I was supposed to stop contacting this girl because she clearly didn’t like me.

…Right?

I asked a couple of my female friends about it. They told me she was crazy, and unanimously voted down my plan to write back to her and offer to ritually scar myself in some way. This made me feel 100% better right away. Or it would have, if “she’s crazy” were not the only answer anyone ever gets when they ask a woman about another woman. So it actually didn’t help at all, but hey, my fault for asking. If you don’t want to get told that the answer is in the Bible, don’t ask the Pope, and if you don’t want to just get told “she’s crazy,” then don’t ask a woman about another woman (who is thin).

Speaking of the Pope, although I am a nonbeliever, I have nonetheless had a longstanding agreement with the Catholic Church that absolutely everything is my fault, so I decided that this was too. Since girls tend not to text guys they weren’t the slightest bit interested in after half the summer has passed to curse them out for breaking contact, it must have been the case that this girl actually did like me at least a little bit. And that’s when I got really worried, on account of the fact that “dropping out of contact because the girl obviously didn’t like me” is something I’ve ended up doing approximately… always.

I quickly fired off a message to a girl I’d been out with a few times since I gave up on the other girl, but hadn’t contacted in over a week because… well, you know. But I was sure that this girl didn’t like me, and so I phrased my message accordingly: “It’s obvious you’re not interested in seeing me again, and that’s cool, but just for the sake of self-improvement, I was wondering what I did wrong,” etc.

Imagine my chagrin when she wrote back befuddledly wondering what I was talking about, asking whether she’d missed a message from me or something, and clarifying that she would love to see me again.

It probably sounds at this point like I just give up all the time because I don’t know anything about women. But that isn’t it. I mean, it can’t be it. Somehow, I’d always had a girlfriend—and a hot one, at that—virtually every second from late college until my early 30s. So how could it be the case that I suddenly didn’t know anything about women?

And that’s when it hit me. The problem isn’t that the women I’ve been seeing recently are crazy. On the contrary—the problem is that they aren’t crazy enough.

Until recently, virtually every girlfriend I’ve ever had, I met in school, be it in college, in grad school, or as a teacher. A few of them were other poets that I met through, you know, poetry stuff, but like everything to do with poetry, that still basically counts as school. So even though I’ve always had girlfriends, I’ve also met them all in a bubble that ensured all of them would be other writers. It’s only in the last year that I’ve tried dating women I met in normal grown-up ways—bars, dating websites—that have nothing to do with studying or teaching writing.

In other words, I’ve never dated a normal person before.

Sure, like anyone else, while growing up I’d heard references made to things like “playing hard to get,” “occasionally not being drunk,” and “having a first date where neither person proposes stealing a car and driving all night to get married in Vegas,” but I just figured those customs were relics of a bygone era. After all, they never came up in my undergraduate poetry concentration, or my graduate school for poets, or my subsequent jobs where I only met other poets.

If you’ve ever known any poets, then you already know we’re bad at two things: quitting smoking, and not randomly marrying each other. I went to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, for Christ’s sake—every time I snuck out of the bar to go home and take a dump, when I came back someone was married. Then by the time someone inevitably punched the bartender for refusing to sell us a take-home after closing, they were divorced. More of us got married than got fired from teaching positions for sleeping with students or showing up drunk, and that happened to all of us, so the first thing shouldn’t even be mathematically possible. Once a week we all got together to praise Ross from Friends for how infrequently he got married.

So by the time I entered my last relationship of any duration, with a girl who said “I love you” on our first date and then sang me Regina Spektor songs at the top of her voice in a crowded sushi restaurant, the problem wasn’t so much that this seemed normal to me—it was that anything less than this made it seem like the girl would be happy to see me step in front of a bus.

And you know who does less than that on a first date, even if she really likes you? Every woman who is not ovaries-to-the-wall out of her skull, that’s who.

But I’ve never dated any of those women. And at this rate, I never will, not as long as I keep expecting every encounter with a woman who feels the slightest bit of human emotion for me to end with the two of us strewn with garlands of psychoactive mushrooms, rutting in an abandoned field by the light of a church we just set on fire, while seventeen of our closest friends sing Anglo-Saxon translations of Gilbert & Sullivan songs, spattered with uncooperative bartender blood.

It’s not just that I’ve never been around women who pretend not to like you. I’ve never even been around people who are remotely psychologically capable of pretending not to like anything that they like, regardless of the consequences. When a poet likes you, you know it. How? Because you’re either not also a poet, in which case you’ve already called the police, or you are, in which case you’re already married.

But that’s just not what normal women do. Normal women pretend not to like you, and then flip out on you when you believe them. Apparently.

Fuck that. I’m reapplying in fiction. Who wants to get married?

Oh Say Can You Twee? : Heather Christle’s “The Difficult Farm”

May 22nd, 2011

Heather Christle

If The Difficult Farm were a human girl, it would have bangs and roller skates and carry a lunchbox as a purse. But that’s not to say that this book is hipstery. It doesn’t come off as hipstery in the slightest. It’s just twee—you know, “aggressively cute.” But I say that in neither an insulting nor a dismissive way. In fact, I think it is a strike against other MTV-Generation poetry that it has so far not succeeded in being quite this balls-to-the-wall twee. Twee has been a defining attribute of the Other Arts for the past decade, and poetry has been out of the loop. At least, until now, because The Difficult Farm is as twee as a remake of Juno in which every part is played by one of the Ditty Bops. It’s like the unholy love child of Zooey Deschanel and a LOLcat. Why is this a compliment again? Because The Difficult Farm is one of the only contemporary books of poetry I’ve read that feels like the time it is from, to the same extent that music and movies do.

I’d like to try it again. You give me
your native handbag collection, and I will give you
my lilac soap. Later we can get carried away
and perhaps even employ a tombola. I will not,
I cannot remain in charge of prizes. Please,
you must look quickly at our fellow citizens
and tell me, do they not seem unwell? I feel so
concerned.
        —from “Pale Lemon Square”

You could show these poems in 20 years to someone who has never seen them before, and they would be like, “Wow, these poems feel like that time in the late Aughties and early Teenies when everybody wore those glasses and every movie trailer had that one part from that Arcade Fire song that’s like Oohhh-OOHHH-Oh-OH-Oh-OH-OOOOHHHH.” But don’t worry—it’s not an ironic, calculated twee like the Progressive Insurance Girl. It’s more an organic, slightly unhinged twee like those Sony Ericsson commercials with Kristen Schaal.

It bears mentioning that I saw Ms. Christle read, at Bushwick’s Poetry Time series, before I ever read any of her work. I bought her book immediately and enthusiastically after the reading, which is rare for me (and no, it wasn’t because of Ms. Christle’s looks, although she probably thought it was, because someone probably told her that, so whoever told her that, thanks a lot, ASSHOLE). I bring up the reading for two reasons. One, in order to mention that Christle is a phenomenal reader, with possibly the best stage presence I’ve observed in a poet of my generation; it’s obvious that she has put a deal of thought not only into developing a vocal persona that suits the work, but even into the business of commanding a room and playing with and off of an audience, decidedly a rarity in living American poets (before one poem, she entreated the audience to stand and spin around for 30 seconds, as she felt the poem was best appreciated while dizzy). If you have the opportunity to see Heather Christle read, make it a top priority to do so, even if it requires travel.

The second reason I bring it up is that, as a result of experiencing the reading before the work on the page, I was powerless during The Difficult Farm not to hear the poems in Christle’s unforgettable stage voice. This was very much a good thing, but it begs the question: would I have enjoyed the book as much if I had never heard the poet read? I believe so, but as a point of honor I must admit that I can never know. I suppose it also begs the question of whether this is even a problem: if I like poems more because the poet is a good reader, then—provided that I feel no disappointment when left alone with the page, which I definitely did not in this case—why should anyone feel that this is problematic? I think the question makes us uncomfortable because it cuts to the heart of how we fancy poets distinguish ourselves not only from slam poets, but from more popular arts generally: one cannot be accused of sliding by on personality if one has no personality, so many contemporary poets simply get rid of their personalities—especially while reading, during which they. Just. Stare. Straight. Ahead. And. Talk. Like. This. Until. You. Want. To. Punch. Them. (I have addressed this before.) I must get back to discussing Christle’s book, but be aware that this question is only going to get louder. The internet, with its rich multimedia opportunities, is indisputably the friend of the rising generation of poets, and the stronger that friendship gets, the fainter the distinction between our words and our voices is going to become.

Readers of this blog are probably sick of hearing me say that people are influenced by Dean Young, but I tend to review poets of my generation who are good, and poets of my generation who are good tend to be influenced by Dean Young. Examine these lines from Christle’s “Variations on an Animal Kingdom”—

People love to come up to me and say
Hello, you enormous, vibrating bird,
but they are just confusing me
with my invention, an invention
I regret. Yesterday a whole tree
emptied itself at once and my garden
was large, sad and full of evidence.
You can do so many bad things
and it is so easy. It takes only
a little research and 90% perspiration.
It takes funding and love for the thrush.
People like to say that when I issue
apologies like this it only teaches
others how to modify birds
to their liking. I say very little
for the most part because I am
shaking and very hungry all the time.
It’s like there is an actual alarm clock
in my ribcage. It’s like an angry harp.

The difference, to me—and it is an important one—is that unlike Young, with his affinity for the French surrealists, Christle does not seem to be trying to subvert anything. As vibrant and fun as Young’s poems are, he is of the academic generation, and his corpus is inseparable from literary theory—this is, to his credit, largely because he looks down upon and mocks literary theory, but the fact remains. The rising generation of American poets seems largely to be characterized by having absorbed the dissociativeness and stark irony of the Academic Era, but jettisoned the self-important political origins and reprogrammed the robot as homo ludens. In short, fun is a priority for American poets under 40—especially, I am happy to say, the ladies, who are gleefully torching their gender’s association with 80s/90s academic humorlessness—and Christle is a fabulous example (Matthea Harvey is another). Mark my words: the poets of the MTV Generation who end up with their faces on the cover of the anthology are going to be the ones who put the most work into obliterating the art’s thralldom to inside-baseball post-structuralist tenure-battle nitpicking, and those who allow themselves to backslide into the dead marshes of Theory do so at the utmost peril to their legacies.

The overall tone of TDF is one of little-girl-lost imperiled earnestness tenuously constructed out of hilarious observations that upon closer inspection may not be hilarious and upon even closer inspection may not even be observations—it’s like if Christina Rosetti got extremely, extremely high.

Troll 2

                                      So is 'Troll 2'

At one point, while reading The Difficult Farm, I lost my place because I actually squealed and bounced up and down in my seat and clapped. I forget where. It may have been here:

The article said it helps to look for one thing,
as a way of accidentally discovering something else.
I picked bears. I was looking for bears.

I didn’t work. I mean,
All I ever got was bears.

The secretary at the elementary school
which had recently seceded
from the Governor Wentworth District
was a bear, and also a steamboat enthusiast.
        —from “The Avalanche Club”

The above, like any number of other poems in TDF, expertly walks the line between being an ironic appropriation of childlike attitudes and imagery in a complex poem for adults and being something that would, you have to admit, work perfectly well as an actual children’s poem if someone decided to give it to some actual children. This, I’ll point out again, is another compliment, as evidenced by the fact that the assessment applies equally to a goodly bulk of Wordsworth, Blake, Frost, Dickinson, Yeats, Roethke, and the Shakespeare of the Comedies and Romances, among others. All told, there have probably been fewer poets who would not consider it high praise to be informed that children would enjoy their work (Pope and Pound spring to mind, though I love them dear, as do any number of living poets, though I do not).

This is not to say that TDF is merely pleasant. Far from it. In fact, one of the chief advantages of a childlike (as distinct from childish) voice—especially in women poets—is that it allows you to express rage in a sympathetic fashion. Consider:

Democracy stinks. My classmates
elected the hamster. Teacher
doesn’t vote and can’t change
anything. Hamsters die all the time
for good reasons. Once I was
a hamster who loved waterparks
but nobody ever knew. Secrets
are also for presidents.
Teacher knows very little.
        —from “Five Poems for America”

The poems in TDF are allegorical but not, sexual but not, psychedelic but not, cutesy but not, and of course, about nature but not. How can a poetics be about nature when it has to spend all its time just figuring out what does or does not constitute nature in the world in keeps finding itself waking up in? And that’s how poems so indisputably fun locate their imperilment: this voice desperately wants to know what’s going on, and why it isn’t surprising anyone else. It’s been denatured out of everything save its own bright-girl-in-the-front-row wryness, like Lisa Simpson Through the Looking Glass. The only thing that keeps you from falling in love is the sneaking suspicion that once you do, the joke will be on you.

You should buy Heather Christle’s The Difficult Farm. It came out over a year ago but I’ve been writing this review for that long because I liked it so much that I couldn’t think of what to say. Then there was a thing with my computer and I lost the original review and had to start over. I can’t guarantee that the poems in it will make you feel better or that they are even intended to, but they will make you angry that you not only didn’t write them but can’t even figure out how to write poems like them after you’ve read them. They will make you say everyone wants to hold these poems but in a respectful way so maybe I should go around acting like these poems. They will make the things around you, buildings mostly, and ideas, easier to deal with, to bend; matter more and matter less. You should buy Heather Christle’s The Difficult Farm. It runs around proving that all sorts of things are surprising and a great time.