Vanishing and Un-Vanishing: From the Monastery to the Marriott

June 17, 2018 at 2:29 pm | Posted in attention, boredom, no-self, personal | Leave a comment

I spent the summer after my junior year of college living in a Buddhist monastery in Japan. In the last week of the summer, we went on a meditation retreat, in which we took a vow of silence for the week and meditated for eight hours a day. This turns out to have been excellent preparation for being a reader of the AP English Language exam, an ordeal that I am currently undergoing for the first time.

There are, of course, differences: at the monastery, we slept 8 to a room, and we had to earn our keep by doing chores. Here at the Marriott, people clean up after me, and I was once greeted after a long day of reading by a chipper concierge with a free glass of sangria. The monastery was absolutely alcohol-free.

But it turns out that eight hours a day of reading and eight hours a day of meditating are very similar feats. First, the physical challenge: sitting still for that long is difficult, and can be painful. We are lucky that our table readers don’t hit us with sticks when we fidget like the monks sometimes did.

Second, the mental challenge. The kind of meditation that I have been trained in is simple breath-focused meditation. You calm your mind and try to focus simply on the sensation of your breath moving in and out of your body. This is much harder than it sounds. Your mind will come back online again and again, whispering your worries, woes, and wonderings, and again and again you will have to silence it and redirect your attention. I have this experience during the AP reading all the time. I am reading Question 3, which is about the value of exploring the unknown, so the students often write about personal experiences that will remind me of my own — an old boyfriend, a childhood memory — and before I know it I’ll be hitting myself with the metaphorical stick to bring my attention back to the task at hand.

In Buddhism, enlightenment is said to be a state of no-self, and part of the goal of breath-focused meditation is to achieve that temporarily, to erase yourself. The Zen master Shunryu Suzuki wrote that “What we call ‘I’ is just a swinging door which moves when we inhale and when we exhale.” Similarly, as an AP reader, it sometimes seems that part of my job is to vanish, to be just a swinging door between the essay and the rubric. It’s as though my own self and judgments ought not to be part of the equation. But that’s not quite right – it’s more that they are fused with the equation; the rubric is my mind and the mind is the rubric.

Another goal of meditation, though, is to practice the sort of mindfulness and attentiveness to the present moment that can be an aid to compassion. It’s always a little humbling to be holding an essay that has been handwritten just weeks ago by a real live teenager who you will never meet or know apart from their words on the page. The best moments of AP reading are when you un-vanish—when your particularity is called back by the student’s particularity. The best moments are when a human mind at the other end stands up and demands that you notice it, when it breaks through the platitudes and starts to say something real. Sometimes that mind does so with acumen and eloquence, and you are delighted to be able to give the student the gift of a high score. Sometimes that mind speaks their truth with less sophistication, but no less passion, and all you can do is give the student a mental thank you for making you feel like a person again, and a deep mental bow. Namaste, student. The god in me recognizes the god in you.


Closing Time: Reflections on the Broadway Diner

July 21, 2014 at 1:28 pm | Posted in love, music, personal | 2 Comments


This morning, the town of Red Bank, NJ, and everyone who grew up in or near there woke up to the news that the Broadway Diner had closed, suddenly and without warning. There was nothing to be done — one of the owners had died, and that was it. Shock reverberated throughout my social networks. “My youth is officially over,” wrote one friend. “So many good times here, and now it’s gone,” wrote another.

The thing about the Broadway was that it was actually open 24 hours, unlike the majority of establishments that call themselves diners these days. It was always there for you when the bars closed, or whenever your night was winding down — or your day was starting up. It was also one of those classic neon-and-chrome affairs that let you feel like you were in a Tom Waits song, smoking a cigarette with your eggs and toast.

Well, my time went so quickly, I went lickety-splitly
Out to my ol’ ’55
Pulled away slowly, feelin’ so holy
God knows I was feelin’ alive

There hasn’t been a smoking section at the Broadway for years, but it looms large in my memory. In high school, before we were old enough to go to bars, there were three main places to hang out in Red Bank: the 7-11 parking lot, Marine Park, and the Broadway. The basic routine was to get kicked out of each of these places in turn. (Later, we’d get the exciting new Internet Cafe, whose very name is a period piece, but that’s a story for another time.) At the 7-11 or Marine Park, you were definitely loitering. At the Broadway, there was at least the possibility of being a paying customer — a cup of coffee or an order of fries split four ways could buy you some legitimate time. But if you were broke, there was some excellent loitering space out front, as well as the Walk of Shame: a long glass wall that made more or less all its tables visible from the outside. Lore about this name varied: was it more shameful to not know anybody in the diner right now, or to know people in there who hadn’t invited you?

Most of my memories of the Broadway are a blur — it was long ago and far away. But one stands out crystal clear, and that’s the one I’m going to give you today. It was a few years after high school, but I was home for the summer. I had a friend in town visiting, and we’d stayed up all night drinking and talking in my parents’ basement. I was halfway in love with this person, and I don’t remember to what degree I’d told him about it yet, but when 4:30 AM rolled around, neither of us wanted to go to sleep because that would have meant we’d have to stop talking to each other. I was by this time sober enough to drive, so to have an excuse to stay up we decided to go to a diner. First we tried the Middletown Diner, which was very good back then and pretty close to my parents’ house, but it turned out that I was mistaken about its being open 24 hours. Rather than try somewhere else and fail, I pointed the car to Red Bank, where I knew the Broadway would be waiting for us.

And now the sun’s comin’ up
I’m ridin’ with Lady Luck
Freeway cars and trucks
Stars beginning to fade
And I lead the parade

It almost seems impossible in retrospect, but I swear to you that Tom Waits’ “Ol’ 55” came on the radio — it must have been the local community college radio station, some DJ with a poetic sensibility who decided to greet the sunrise with this song. Suddenly everything was perfect — the sky was reddening, the air was cool, and God knows, I was feelin’ alive. There’s something about greeting the sunrise after being up all night that makes you feel free, and holy, and maybe a little sad — it’s a patently irrational choice, a fuck-it choice. We were holding on to our perfect night, even as it was fading into day.

Just a-wishin’ I’d stayed a little longer
Oh Lord, lemme tell you that feeling’s gettin’ stronger

The Broadway was there as it always was, when we arrived at about five in the morning. There was, of course, nobody I recognized along the Walk of Shame. We were the only bedraggled, hungover kids in there — most of the other patrons were men getting coffee and a bagel on their way to construction jobs, or elderly couples sharing orders of pancakes. I ordered eggs and toast and coffee; I did not smoke a cigarette. The diner was a long, slow slide back into real life: the food and coffee made us feel somewhat reluctantly normal, and the people around us were going about their business as though one of the most interesting nights in the world had not just happened. We bought a newspaper, and marveled at what some people thought was newsworthy this morning. By the time we got back into the car, the sun was up, and the night was over.

And it’s six in the mornin’, gave me no warnin’
I had to be on my way
Well, these trucks all a-passin’ and the lights all a-flashin’
I’m on my way home from your place

I know I’m not the only person whom the diner has gently guided back to reality. Things never quite worked out romantically with that guy, and it was for the best that they didn’t, but that night and especially that morning are seared across my memory in brilliant gold. Thank you, Broadway Diner, for your years of service to Red Bank’s lost souls.

And now the sun’s comin’ up
I’m ridin’ with Lady Luck
Freeway cars and trucks
Freeway cars and trucks 
Freeway cars and trucks

“I Don’t Know When You Are Going to Read This”: A Love Letter to My Love Letters

June 19, 2014 at 10:59 am | Posted in love, personal | 1 Comment

Friends, we are so lucky to be loved.

My parents are moving out of the house where I spent my adolescence into the house where they will spend their retirement. This requires me to go through all of the nonsense I left behind when I moved out of their house when I was 18 years old, nearly 15 years ago. This requires going through a lot of tedious bullshit, but it also requires going through my box of old love letters from high school.

Let me be clear: I am engaged to be married to the man without whom I could not imagine myself. It’s not that we “finish each other’s sentences,” it’s that together we form whole thoughts and concepts that are bigger and better and funnier and crazier than anything either of us could have come up with alone.

There is an episode of Friends that I remember vividly, in which the female characters all decide that they need to burn all their mementos of their past boyfriends in order to wish themselves new and better luck on Valentine’s Day, and of course it turns into a minor disaster, and of course the firemen who show up to save them are hunky so it all turns out okay. This episode (“The One With the Candy Hearts” – thanks, Google!) aired in 1995, when I was in 7th grade, and probably influenced the very existence of this box of love letters that I would begin to accumulate in high school. It taught me three things: 1) that a lady saves tokens of affection, 2) that she saves them all together in a big box of affirmation to prop herself up later in life, and 3) that a time might come when it was appropriate to set fire to the contents of that box in order to move on.

So: I’m engaged, my parents want me to clean my shit out of their house, and I have to decide the fate of these letters. Time to get drunk, obviously, and read them.

I went into this task 100% sure that after reading them I would want to burn them, that the only honorable thing to do would be to burn them (or, you know, responsibly recycle them). But I can’t. Because they’re beautiful. I can’t quote them to you; it would sound like bragging, and besides, it’s private. But I can tell you that the honesty with which one sixteen-year-old addresses another with whom they are in love is a force that we need more of in this world.

I’m aware that I’m immensely privileged to have such a record: for one thing, plenty of people don’t find any measure of success in love until much later in life; for another, plenty of people don’t or can’t save much from their teenage years; and for a third, kids these days and their Snapchat; do they even know what it would mean to have a handwritten note to get sentimental about in their thirties?

It’s not that I still love any of the people who wrote these letters—I don’t, in any kind of romantic or possessive way. Nor do I entertain any fantasies that they “still” love me, whatever that could mean this many years removed. But I honor, tremendously, what these letters do: they ask for the pleasure of my company, and they explain simply and frankly how much they enjoy it. Most of them do little more than this. Some of them do it in grand, florid prose; others do it in simple, misspelled sentences.

It’s what they say about why they are so eager to spend time with me that motivates me to tell you about all of this. Some of the letters go through a rigmarole about my looks (false), and my sense of humor (getting warmer), but they pretty much all arrive at a single point: these letter writers were all overjoyed that I seemed so much to enjoy spending time with them. A cynic might say that these boys were just trying to get in my pants, and some of them no doubt were, but most of them could clearly never have imagined that possibility in a million years—their innocence is almost breathtaking. These letters made me remember that the real earth-shattering awe of teenage love is the simple fact of love reciprocated: that after pining and yearning alone for so many years, to find someone who returns your feelings is a real live miracle. And it still is, and it always is.

I know I hit the love lottery. I know a lot of people have a lot of love to give. I know it’s not easy, in the guarded adult world, to do so.

But take a minute to think with me about this box of letters—a box full of people saying, essentially, “I love how much you love me.” Think about what that means. And then tell somebody about how much you love them. Do it fancy, do it simple, avoid the word “love” if that freaks either one of you out. But do it!

Friends, we are so lucky to love!

The Blank Caught Fire

August 7, 2013 at 11:40 am | Posted in personal, poetry | Leave a comment

ImageI realized this morning that I haven’t yet told this blog about my new online poetry project, The Blank Caught FireIt started in April as a National Poetry Month project, and after succeeding at writing 30 poems in 30 days (!), I’ve been continuing it at a more leisurely pace. It’s a collage poetry project, where my source material is my partner’s current online writing project, Sister CIty 73His project is a serial, improvisatory, weirdo novel wherein the plot moves forward through a combination of random chance (literal throws of the dice), bibliomancy (looking back at previous pages for fortuitous juxtapositions), and a fascinating kind of associative logic wherein the figurative images that have been used to describe a character in the past will dictate her present actions. For example, when a character receives a telephone call summoning him into a room full of people he knows are angry at him, he hesitates, but since he has been compared to a dog before, he comes when he’s called. These strings can get much weirder, such as when a character is compared to another character’s teeth, and that character been compared to an actress, “so her teeth / are good and so he is / good which is what Erin / says Superman / does so he’s flying.” You’ll note the reference to myself there; I’m occasionally consulted as an oracle for this piece (along with the dice, the book itself, and the previous images), and some of the author’s day-to-day experience is also woven in. It’s super fun!

So as you’ll notice if you followed any of those links, Sister City 73 is written in columns, and that’s where my collage work comes in. Each of the poems in The Blank Caught Fire is based on a single page of Sister City 73, and is assembled out of the fortuitous phrases that are generated where words rub shoulders with one another due to the columnar format of that project. I’ll post two of my favorite poems below, and if you like them you should consider checking out the project on Tumblr and/or buying the chapbook from Horse Less Press that collects some of the early poems!

romeo’s authentic nest

only pretends to be
something like a room I go to

I puzzle about one
splatter of himself

the Chinese fire
has a wealth of words
in the case of old images

I brush by ten years—
the coin says it’s two:

the next lover’s
sputtering trick birth

don’t bother asking skatespeare

it’ll probably be called
“studies: figurative and then crushed”

my memory back under the stage
with all the repetition
tempts me with accident

the opposite sister
in love with the Shakespearean
who has taken up with his hero
in a plan to redeem his rival

and since her embodiment shows
he lost to her wooden impression—appropriate
in the battle of Frank O’Hara

lucky for him, she’s also the perfect wave

transformation is as fickle
from figurative to literal—ah, Romeo!

Impossible Loves: Essays

December 12, 2011 at 1:35 pm | Posted in personal | 2 Comments


I am delighted to announce the publication of Impossible Loves: Essays. When my friends Heather and Steve started up Rock Paper Tiger Press last year, they proposed that their first book be a collection of essays from this blog, and I was thrilled and honored. The essays have been edited, polished, and a little de-blog-ized for publication, and I hope you’ll like them!

Here’s the copy from the back cover:

To read McNellis’s essays is to find yourself having one of those late-night conversations you always thought awaited you – those conversations where, for two hours before dawn, everything made complete sense. She’s good – very good – on ideas and thinkers, excellent on poets, and she’s miraculous on love. There is a real discursive ease of thinking in the essays, a desire to communicate the difficult joys of being human, and the reader can only hope to reciprocate.

– Dr. Timothy C. Baker, Ph.D., Author of George Mackay Brown and the Philosophy of Community

“Possible loves – are for fools – The wise have – impossible loves,” reads a journal fragment from Christian mystic Simone Weil, whose life and works are examined here amid a seemingly unlikely assortment of topics. An argument for maintaining a reverence for commitment while rejecting a traditional, sentimental embrace of outmoded family structures becomes an inquiry into Weil’s drive toward self-sacrifice. A consideration of what Weil might have had in common with libertine and frequent critic Georges Bataille develops into a discussion of Timothy Treadwell, the tragic, grizzly-bear-enamored subject of Werner Herzog’s Grizzly Man. Later, delving into the tradition of reticence in American poetry is brought into relief against the author’s own experience at Burning Man, where the beat never stops.

Like a long discussion with a sharply intelligent friend, Impossible Loves moves effortlessly from topic to topic without ever losing its focus. “Nearly every paper in my academic career has the secret or not-so-secret message of ‘please, please try to love one another,’ and I think it would not be exaggerating to say that many, if not most, works of art have exactly this message as well,” McNellis writes, admitting in the same essay that “emotions are embarrassing.” Embarrassing, complex, even impossible though it may be, love is still the answer – but that doesn’t make the questions any less interesting.

You can get the book from Amazon, or you can order it through your local bookstore!

For those of you keeping track, I have now finished my Ph.D. in English and am about to stumble across the finish line of my first semester of adjuncting. But I will have a nice long six-week winter break, during which I hope to bring you a slew of new posts on the Occupy movement and on what I’ve been reading. Cheers!

Traffic and Weather Forever

November 16, 2010 at 1:17 am | Posted in attention, boredom, contemporary, excess, personal, poetry, repetition | 4 Comments

I am currently reading Kenneth Goldsmith’s Traffic, a conceptual poetry project consisting of twenty-four hours of traffic reports from New York’s 1010 WINS (available online in its entirety here), and am stunned to find myself moved nearly to tears. Goldsmith, who claims that his transcription projects make him “the most boring writer that has ever lived,” is not thought of as a particularly moving writer, and I was certainly not expecting to react this way. But as soon as I opened the book I was floored; I was transported Proust-style right back into the kitchen of the house where I grew up in suburban New Jersey:

12:01 Well, in conjunction with the big holiday weekend, we start out with the Hudson River horror show right now. Big delays in the Holland Tunnel either way with roadwork, only one lane will be getting by. You’re talking about, at least, twenty to thirty minutes worth of traffic either way, possibly even more than that. Meanwhile the Lincoln Tunnel, not great back to Jersey but still your best option. And the GW Bridge your worst possible option. Thirty to forty minute delays, and that’s just going into town. Lower level closed, upper level all you get. Then back to New Jersey every approach is fouled-up: West Side Highway from the 150’s, the Major Deegan, the Bronx approaches and the Harlem River Drive are all a disaster, the Harlem River Drive could take you an hour, no direct access to the GW Bridge with roadwork. And right now across the East River 59th Street Bridge, you’ve gotta steer clear of that one. Midtown Tunnel, Triboro Bridge, they remain in better shape. Still very slow on the eastbound Southern State Parkway here at the area of the, uh, Meadowbrook there’s a, uh, stalled car there blocking a lane and traffic very slow.

Just about every weekday morning of my life between ages six and eighteen, I listened to traffic reports exactly like this one sputtering out of my father’s battery-powered radio. And I do mean exactly: it was 1010 WINS that he had on every morning, with traffic updates every ten minutes from Pete Tauriello, who is evidently still doing the traffic reports that Goldsmith is transcribing. (Actually, now that I think about it, there was definitely a period where my dad listened to WNEW’s Bloomberg Radio instead — another AM news channel financed, of course, by the man who would eventually become mayor of New York.) But in any case, Goldsmith’s block of text activated neurons I didn’t even remember I had, and it occurred to me that his work is rarely considered in terms of the specific times, places, and communities that it evokes. Critics tend to be concerned with what it means to copy something so banal word-for-word — to be concerned, that is, with the theoretical — and miss that perhaps what he’s trying to get at is the banal itself, rather than the philosophy that leads him to reproduce the banal.

My dad listened to that little battery-powered radio while shaving, and then would bring it with him into the kitchen to make breakfast for himself, me, and my brother. My mother didn’t really eat breakfast; she seemed to subsist on instant coffee and diet Pepsi until noon. When I was very young, I would hang around in the bathroom watching my dad shave and then follow him and the radio out to the kitchen. When I was older, I would endeavor to wake up as late as possible, but I’d still find myself downstairs in the kitchen shoveling cereal or Pop Tarts into my mouth in the cold dark morning while the radio chattered away. This was a decidedly pre-internet age; my dad listened to AM radio every morning so he could get the news efficiently, which I now suddenly recognize as an antiquated practice. I doubt he listens to that radio at all anymore, now that he has an iPhone. Stations like 1010 WINS are on a very short loop — the traffic and weather recur every ten minutes (and each time are just the slightest bit different, as conditions progress) and the material between these reports varies a bit more — sometimes you’ll get financial news, sometimes political news, etc — but even so, you don’t have to listen to the radio for more than twenty or thirty minutes before you start hearing the same stories repeated exactly. So it was always a little bit of a mystery to me why my father let the radio accompany him through his whole morning ritual — he, and I by extension especially when I was young and following him around, would be subjected to not just repeated-with-a-difference content like the traffic, but actually verbatim repeated content.

In addition to being repetitive, a lot of the news on the radio didn’t really affect my dad very much, and it certainly didn’t affect me. My parents had some investments, so I guess the financial news was sort of important, and it’s also how I learned about the stock market myself. (“Dad, what’s a ‘bear market’?”) The traffic reports that came on every ten minutes meant nothing to anybody in my family, since both of my parents had “commutes” that were less than ten minutes long. But listening to the traffic reports every morning taught me a fair amount about local geography — the BQE, the Major Deegan, the Verrazano — these names were burned into my brain before they even really meant anything, and years later when I learned to drive and started navigating the highways myself, I found myself having little a-ha moments every time I crossed a bridge in real life that I had previously only known from Pete Tauriello’s traffic reports.

Now that I think about it, the reason the traffic reports are so burned into my brain is that the one thing I personally was always interested in was the weather report, and these radio stations of course do “traffic and weather together” — so when you started to hear the traffic report, you’d hush everybody up so you could catch the weather. The thing about these news stations is that they operate at a blinding pace — everybody is always speaking very quickly so they can cram as much information as possible into their minute-long slot. The rhythm and diction of the traffic reports that Goldsmith transcribes are at least as evocative for me as the names of the tunnels and bridges. Some phrases the announcer seemed to have by rote — “stalled car blocking a lane,” “only one lane getting by” — these we’d hear several times a morning. “Jackknifed tractor-trailer” was one we’d hear a lot, and I remember being somewhat enamored of the sound of the words as well as slightly alarmed by its frequency given what an enormous disaster a jackknifed tractor trailer in fact is. Sentences in this barrage of information tend to be clipped and lack verbs: “Meanwhile the Lincoln Tunnel, not great back to Jersey but still your best option. And the GW Bridge your worst possible option. Thirty to forty minute delays, and that’s just going into town.” And to make matters worse, the announcers would jump all over the map: “then back to New Jersey every approach is fouled-up.” I remember trying to hold it all in my head, to picture the places they were talking about, and I always found that it was too difficult to follow. On the rare occasions that we did need the traffic report’s wisdom, we found that we’d have to strain to pick out the relevant information from this rapid barrage. But colorful touches like “the Hudson River horror show” remind you that there’s a person and a personality on the other end of this deluge of information that is so particularly stylized. I hadn’t thought about Pete Tauriello in years — in fact, I never really thought about him; I just heard his name a lot — but when Marjorie Perloff mentioned him in her chapter on Traffic in her new book, Unoriginal Genius, I gasped aloud as the “Pete Tauriello” neurons in my brain started firing again more than ten years later.

In retrospect, I think my dad probably just liked the chatter. The radio made us all feel connected to the outside world, whether or not we were paying very close attention to it. Now, of course, we have the internet to fill our lives with chatter and connection — but I think one of the things we can learn from Goldsmith’s Traffic is that not all forms of chatter are alike. Ten years from now, will radio announcers still be clipping their diction and dropping their verbs to fit all the traffic into their one-minute report? Or will news radio wither and die from the internet’s competition? Even if it doesn’t entirely vanish, I’d wager that news radio will reach ever smaller — poorer and older — segments of the population, and that it will no longer be a mainstay of middle-class suburban houses like my parents’.

I think, then, that part of what Goldsmith is getting at in his transcription projects is the power of records of utterly banal minutia to evoke the particular places and times from which they emerge. I doubt that Traffic would have had so powerful an effect on me if I hadn’t moved across the country to southern California, where names like “the BQE” make me feel nostalgic and the very idea of straining to hear the weather report in order to choose appropriate clothing is somewhat quaint. Neither the radio nor even weather itself is much a part of my life these days. But I experience these traffic reports as microcosms of a life I once lived, reflected through something I never particularly paid attention to while I was living it. Traffic reports — and weather reports, and newspapers, subjects of some of Goldsmith’s other transcription projects — are part of the texture of the everyday; they are where we live without noticing that we live there.

The Dogs on Main Street Howl

August 27, 2009 at 10:31 pm | Posted in personal, poetry, travel | 3 Comments

As you have no doubt noticed, I’m having a hard time figuring out what to say to this blog lately, since my academic thoughts are all getting funneled into my dissertation. But two out of my three most recent posts have been collage-poems, so I figure I may as well share with you another poem in order to keep this place from going completely dark. Lately in places other than this blog I have been experimenting with another poetic technique of constraint, wherein I take every Nth letter of an existing, usually rather famous poem, and write a new poem connecting those words in the order that I found them. The best results of this I have been hoarding with the ambition of getting them published someplace, but tonight’s poem hits that place between “potentially publishable” and “do not show to anyone ever” that blogs so happily occupy — and besides, I think it’s kind of fun. Instead of a poem, I used “The Promised Land,” one of my favorite Bruce Springsteen songs, as my source text, because it’s my last night in Jersey until December. Enjoy.

Thirty miles into Utah and the
radio stops working. Barefoot driving
turns me part machine; soon the cops won’t know
who to tell to step out of what. They all said to live
in the moment, like a moment was a place where you could
wipe your feet and hang your hat. I don’t know anymore
what I’ve done, just that I’ve got a long way to go.
Your eyes can’t tell when somebody’s gone cold-hearted, so just
remember this: when you get cut and somebody else bleeds,
the dogs understand. Cut yourself into ribbons,
boy; believe in the dark spaces between them.
I’m heading straight for the twister,
so either you’ve gotta blow apart
your tomorrows or you’ve gotta leave the keys
in the ignition. They all said to live in the moment
like a moment was a goddamn split-level condo.
I believe in starting fires and running
for the horizon.

20 books

March 7, 2009 at 2:42 pm | Posted in personal, poetry | 3 Comments

Here’s a meme I picked up from Ron Silliman’s blog: list the 20 books that caused you to fall in love with poetry. It is, as Ron notes, quite a different proposition from asking you to list the 20 books of poetry most influential on your current thinking. My list is pretty weird, shaped largely by what I happened to come in contact with during high school, and by a particular class I took in college which cemented my certainty that experimental poetry was What I Was Going To Do With My Life. Here’s the list in alphabetical order, with some explanatory notes.

Will Alexander, Asia and Haiti — I decided to write a paper about this in that class because it was the most difficult book we’d read so far. Making that decision made me feel pretty cool.

John Ashbery, Your Name Here — A peculiar choice from Ashbery’s oeuvre, to be sure, but it was the first book of his I ever came across. “The Fortune Cookie Crumbles” remains one of my favorite poems ever.

Karin Boye, Complete Poems, tr. David McDuff — This was sent to me by my cousins in Sweden, and it was exactly what a melodramatic teenager needed. Her poems are a strange marriage of strong viking spirit and burning romance. Here are some lines that stick with me to this day: “Fair, fair is joy, fair also is sorrow. / But fairest is to stand on pain’s battlefield / with stilled mind and see that the sun is shining.”

Reggie Cabico and Todd Swift, eds., Poetry Nation: The North American Anthology of Fusion Poetry — I bought this book at Barnes & Noble when I was about fifteen because I wanted to find out “what people were writing today,” and I was so charmed that I read at least four or five of the poems in here at an event at my high school. I think the major revelation that the book gave me was that poetry could be really fucking funny without being trivial, a fact that would be reinforced by all the experimental stuff I would begin reading once I got to college. A few years ago, Cabico was brought out as a special guest at a poetry reading I’d participated in, and it seemed like I made his year by recognizing him and explaining at great length what his anthology had meant to me.

e.e. cummings, 100 Selected Poems — A friend of mine once said that e.e. cummings is for deep sixteen-year-olds, and I think he’s right, but I think a lot of us are secretly deep sixteen-year-olds at heart. When I was a deep sixteen-year-old in the flesh, I would stay up late and sit on the floor in front of the full-length mirror in my closet and read e.e. cummings out loud to myself. The revelation that cummings was not actually very difficult once you read him out loud was a pretty important one for me.

Emily Dickinson, Selected Poems — A boy gave this to me for my sixteenth birthday, with a bunch of artifacts inside keyed to specific poems — pictures, magazine clippings, a necklace. Most of them are still in there. Years later, I would write a paper about death and the void in Dickinson, and decide that this gifted edition presented a pretty heavily edited view of her work.

Allen Ginsberg, Howl — Sooner or later, every poetry-loving teenager gets ahold of Howl. I was fortunate enough to have access to my mother’s legitimately-70s copy. Later, I would name one of my notebooks “The Sunflower Sutras.”

Joy Harjo, A Map to the Next World — I read this book in college under my favorite tree on one of the first warm days of spring, and cried like I was waking up from a terrible dream. Just a few days ago I was reminded of that experience and I picked the book up again, and I had trouble figuring out what had moved me so deeply. Harjo has some interesting things to say, for sure, and I’ve always been interested in myth, but I think it must have been a confluence of circumstance that made me love this book so much back then.

H.D., Trilogy — I have now written four separate papers on this book for graduate school. Every time I re-read it there’s something new to pay attention to.

Lyn Hejinian, My Life — This is one of the books I wrote my senior honors thesis on, and I read it six million billion times. I circled all the repetitions and keyed them together by page number, I underlined any time she seemed to be saying anything about the composition process, and I came to love parataxis above all other literary devices.

Yusef Komunyakaa, Neon Vernacular — I read “Woman, I Got the Blues” to basically everyone who will let me. You have to yell the “sweet mercy” line pretty loudly and sincerely to get it right.

Mina Loy, The Lost Lunar Bedecker — I was on a date with a guy ten years older and a million times cooler than I was, and I took him to one of my favorite little bookstores in NYC, and he pulled this book off the shelf and said “if you buy this, I guarantee that you’ll be ahead of the game in your next poetry class.” And he was right; Loy was assigned to me just a few weeks later, in a modernist poetry class I took my senior year. I had already read it and fallen in love with “Songs to Joannes,” which remains one of my favorite ambiguous-love poems of all time.

Harryette Mullen, Sleeping with the Dictionary — This was it; this was the book that I was reading when I decided “this, right here, is what I am going to do with my life.”

Pablo Neruda, Selected Poems, A Bilingual Edition, ed. Nathanial Tarn — Really, what I loved the most in this volume was the Viente Poemas de Amor. I read my mother’s copy so many times that the binding fell apart, so she didn’t mind too much when I stole it and brought it to college with me.

Sylvia Plath, Ariel — I am allergic to bees, and hence pretty afraid of them. My most vivid memory of this book is of being so unable to put it down that I took it to the dorm kitchen with me to read while making dinner.

Adrienne Rich, The Fact of a Doorframe — I first encountered Rich through one of her more recent books assigned in class, but it was this “selected poems” volume that really had an effect on me; watching the arc of her career as it developed was incredibly interesting.

Leslie Scalapino, The Public World / Syntactically Impermanence — My most vivid memory of reading this is of lounging around on the quad in the sunshine while a tour group walked by, and thinking to myself, “The scene of me reading here only looks idyllic. If they could see inside my head or even just onto this page, boy howdy would they get a different idea.”

Juliana Spahr, Fuck You – Aloha – I Love You — I read this book at the beginning of a five-hour bus ride, and then I read it again, and then I read it again. It was like watching the same tower be built, unbuilt, and rearranged over and over again.

Gertrude Stein, Tender Buttons — The professor of that landmark poetry class I took in college gave us the first few pages of this on the first day of class, and I thought he was out of his mind. Over the next few weeks, though, I realized that he was right, and this stuff was incredibly interesting. Furthermore, when I read the whole book, I was surprised to find that it was downright hilarious. Now that I’m a teacher myself, I too start my poetry classes with Tender Buttons. (And Shakespeare, and Christian Bök’s aural ravings, and I ask my students whether each of these three objects count as poetry and why.)

Rosmarie Waldrop, Reluctant Gravities
Rosmarie Waldrop, The Reproduction of Profiles
– Waldrop instantly became my favorite living poet when I read these two books, and she remains so today (her other books are great, too). I think she is the only person in the history of the human race who has successfully solved the mind-body problem.

The Cult of Silence, the Heresy of Eloquence, and the Price of Vision

September 9, 2008 at 2:49 pm | Posted in antin, attention, burning man, contemporary, materiality, personal, poetry, reticence, the sacred, travel | 3 Comments

One of the things I seem to keep coming back to in this blog is the question of what can and cannot and should and should not be articulated. In my last post, I invoked the myth of Cupid and Psyche in order to argue that there is a value to keeping dark corners unlit, that certain experiences are impoverished by the telling. Today I’m going to investigate some critiques of that point of view from some experimental poets, and I’m going to connect all of this to a discussion of Burning Man, a yearly festival of art, free expression, and self-reliance in the Nevada desert that I have just returned from for the second time.

The Cult of Silence

Most mainstream US poetry, since at least the 1950s, has organized its emotional economy around a conspicuously absent center. Concrete details point to a an epiphany of resonant silence, where the emotional force of the poem is expressed through its very unexpressableness. Consider, for example, Robert Hass’ poem “Meditations at Lagunitas”. The speaker begins with a sort of critique of Platonism, arguing that concrete instances of things should not be viewed as degraded versions of their ideal forms. Then he turns to words, the bottom of Plato’s hierarchy (because they are imitations of imitations of the Forms), and argues that just “because there is in this world no one thing / to which the bramble of blackberry corresponds,” we should not think that “a word is an elegy to what it signifies.” (It’s tricky, of course, because all this is stated in the positive & not the negative, but the framing of the first few lines makes this criticism apparent.)

At this point, you might think that Hass is rejecting the numinous, vague world of forms — but as the end of the poem makes clear, he is in fact holding it more sacred than anything, so sacred that it cannot be described. The mistake is not believing in something beyond words, but failing to put that thing properly beyond words. As he thinks of his beloved, the speaker is driven to a series of recollections, presented paratactically in a series of concrete details, first about his childhood and then about the woman herself. The gaps in the parataxis point to what cannot be said, and the final chant of “blackberry, blackberry, blackberry” walks a weird line between signifying everything and signifying nothing: the true essence of those afternoons and evenings is safely hidden where attempts to explain it cannot limit or contaminate it.

“Meditations at Lagunitas” is one of my favorite examples of this kind of poem, but as you might guess, the premise that the most important revelations are beyond words can lead to a lot of really dubious poetry. Ron Silliman, probably the most widely-read poetry blogger today, pejoratively calls this tendency in mainstream US poetry the “School of Quietude” — this is the sort of writing more widely known as “workshop lyric” because it’s the kind of poetry that’s generally encouraged by creative writing classes. You know these poems, even if you’ve never heard these terms — this is the poetry of quiet, serene epiphany, often taking place in nature. Poets of this school would agree with the declaration in my last post that “love suffers in the naming” — these are what you might call reticent poems, which rely on evocative concrete detail. Silliman calls this tendency a “school” to emphasize that it’s just one way of making poetry, and should not be thought of as the “normal” from which avant-garde poetry “deviates.” (He claims, furthermore, that every single US Poet Laureate has been a member of the SoQ, with the sole exception of William Carlos Williams, who declined the position due to illness and never served.)

And if running an institutional hegemony that’s been crowding out other styles of writing for the past few decades weren’t enough reason to dislike it, the “School of Quietude” also has plenty of critics of its aesthetic practice. In Self and Sensibility in Contemporary American Poetry (1984), Charles Alteri characterizes this kind of poetry as “the scenic style,” explaining that these poems “achieve closure by a leap from the narrative to the visionary levels, as if sensitive experience reached its climax in moments of resonant silence” and goes on to criticize this approach pretty sternly: “finally, the pursuit of resonant silence may not allow the poet to say enough, may not purchase enough in vision to pay for what it costs poetry in eloquence, especially when a cult of silence makes it easy to luxuriate in vague emotions” (15).

Alteri’s critique gives us an economics of style, where silence is a poverty taken on almost monastically as a prerequisite to visions that may or may not turn out to be worth the sacrifice. But he clearly sees hypocrisy in this “cult,” in which an initial vow of asceticism devolves quickly into complacency — the silence that was supposed to make us all seekers has instead dulled that impulse and made us all either converts to or heretics of a new orthodoxy.

The Heresy of Eloquence

David Antin and Jerome Rothenberg were already heretics in 1965, when they began the poetry magazine some/thing with a manifesto railing against this aesthetics of resonant silence. It’s a problem for much more than poetry, they argue; the cult of silence is diminishing our ability to understand ourselves and others:




Antin and Rothenberg up the ante, then, when they say that the problem is not just the emotional economy of a particular style of poetry, but a general trend in consciousness. Once we start to treat our “most significant” experiences with reverent silence, these experiences start to feel unreal — and consequently become unreal, for what are they but feelings? The quote from Shakespeare’s Henry IV in this context is not about devils, but about emotions: you can name them, but will you feel them? Antin and Rothenberg want to turn this skepticism about the connection between words and experience into a positive force: instead of passing over in silence that which we cannot speak of, we ought to be constructing new ways of speaking.

A tall order, you say. Shall we concoct a new alphabet? Put together new words out of nonsense syllables? No and no: all Antin wants is for people to listen to each other, rather than assuming that the truth of another person is out of reach or, worse, already understood. In a piece entitled “tuning,” he writes,

at this point i think its very important for us to form a new notion of human rapprochement       thats not based on understanding       and i would like to contribute to not understanding       i would like to contribute to human not understanding       i would like to slow down the fantasy and illusion of understanding       so that we could inspect the way and the pace at which we are approaching or leaving other people       and see how far away they are       and whether there is any reason or prospect for reaching them       because one thing thats been promoted endlessly in the world is the fantasy of understanding       the notion that its always possible       desirable       and costs nothing

For Antin, subjectivity is always in motion, a state of affairs belied by our traditional metaphors for understanding, such as “getting,” “grasping,” and “finding common ground.” In “gambling,” a companion piece to “tuning,” Antin says that such metaphors “reinforce the static sense of knowing whereby it seems a kind of standing instead of going” and suggests that “there is another way of talking about all this       because wherever im standing ill only be there for a while.” Antin would like to replace these static notions of understanding with the concept of “tuning,” the process whereby musicians, by alternately sounding and listening, come to a point where their notes match up. He likens it to walking side by side, where the longer-legged person shortens her stride, and the shorter-legged person speeds up a little bit, so that they can move together harmoniously. When we walk we do this more or less unconsciously, but when we talk we ought to know that we are doing it; we ought to be aware that we are coming from different places, and that my words might not mean the same thing to you that they do to me, and we ought to take turns talking and listening until we are both satisfied that we hitting the same — or nearly the same — notes.

The Price of Vision

It’s not news that the Burning Man festival costs a lot of money and time, and hence is only open to a certain, economically privileged section of the population. Problematic as that is, I want to talk about a different kind of price tag. Charles Alteri set up this economy for us earlier when he said that “the pursuit of resonant silence . . . may not purchase enough in vision to pay for what it costs poetry in eloquence.” In the “School of Quietude,” vision is purchased by giving up words, by foregoing the hope that the numinous can be made concrete, by declaring eloquence to be worthless. At Burning Man the numinous is made concrete, again and again and again. At an art installation called CheckPoint DreamYourTopia, visitors were asked to fill out lengthy, complicated forms, endure harassment from border guards, and undergo interrogation by customs agents in order to be granted passports to the “Land of Dreams.” A giant duck with a disco-ball head that shot flames roamed the desert hosting a mobile party. The temple burned, as it does every year, sending the hopes, fears, regrets, prayers, and messages of the thousands of participants who wrote on its wooden walls literally up to the heavens in smoke.

None of these artistic feats could have been accomplished under an ideology of resonant silence. Burning Man has got an ideology of riotous noise, incarnated not only in the thumping electronic music that is audible at all places at all times of the day and night, but in all of the creations, costumes, and events that the participants bring to life. The giant duck you build may not quite be the giant duck of your dreams, but it makes your dream real for thousands of other people, and allows them to live their own dreams. Over and over again, you find yourself saying “fuck it — let’s do that” — let’s climb that tower, let’s swing on those swings, let’s light those lamps, let’s talk to that guy, let’s use that giant mechanical hand to pick up and crush cars. Any possibility that you don’t seize and turn into a reality there, you will eventually regret. (I didn’t bother to wait in line for the giant mechanical hand, and will basically never forgive myself.)

Furthermore, I’ve never been to a place where Davin Antin’s notion of “tuning” was more possible — people at Burning Man are far more open to one another than most people in what burners call “the default world.” One source of this is certainly the sense of camaraderie, the sense that you all share certain fundamental beliefs and inclinations. But I think another source is a heightened sense of subjectivity as something fundamentally in motion, like Antin describes — burners come from all over the world, from all kinds of different backgrounds and walks of life, and share a single bizarre space for a brief time. Moreover, the city is so chaotic and people keep such different hours that the likelihood of you seeing any one person a second time (unless you are camping with them, or try really hard) are pretty slim. All encounters are understood to be momentary crossings of paths: you fall into step with somebody, you talk, you go your separate ways.

I didn’t write on the temple. Part of it was that I didn’t know what to write, and part of it was the pervasive influence of the cult of silence: if I did try to write something personally sacred, wouldn’t I mess it up by writing it wrong, or writing it only partially, or failing to do it justice? This afternoon, David Antin reminded me that “the weakness of representation is also its strength . . . all representations are at the expense of other representations, and the only way to deal with this is to preserve some sense of their provisionality.” This, I think, is what Burning Man does in spades: every year, the man is burned, the temple is burned, and a whole city of 50,000 people vanishes without a trace when the festival is over.

The price of vision, then, is provision. If you want to keep what you hold sacred inviolate and pure, you are going to have to keep it to yourself. But if you want to bring it into the world and share it with others, it’s not going to come out in quite the way you imagined, it’s not going to last forever, and it’s probably going to get a little dusty.

Everything Need Not, Actually, Be Illuminated

April 4, 2008 at 10:09 am | Posted in excess, love, personal, reticence, writing | 8 Comments

Yesterday I had the minorly excruciating and entirely bizarre experience of sitting through three hours of personal introductions on the first day of a nine-person seminar class. The class, which I am considering auditing, is being taught by a Jesuit monk turned professor turned journalist and recently re-turned professor, so perhaps he doesn’t know that most graduate seminars consist of intellectual exchanges between people who, for the most part, don’t know each other very well outside the classroom and form their ideas of one another largely on the basis of how smart they manage to sound when talking about the assigned texts. Most graduate seminars begin with “introductions,” but these take the form of “Hi, I’m Mary, I’m a second year in the English department, and I work on Victorian novels.” This professor, by contrast, demanded that each of us give an account of our relationship to Americanness, to religion, and to poetry (this being a class on American religious poetry), and then proceeded to interrupt each of us numerous times with sincerely interested questions. “Oh, what town in Texas was that?” “Would you say your connection to Catholicism is more cultural, then?” etc. For the nine of us to account for ourselves and answer his questions in sufficient detail took the whole three hours allotted for the seminar, which was on the one hand excruciatingly boring and on the other hand fascinating.

What fascinated me was not the particular details of my colleagues’ stories (though they sometimes were quite interesting), but the process of accounting for myself in this way, and of watching other people do the same thing. My “religion” and my “poetry” stories are both things I have recounted so many times that my telling of them in class today was more like a recitation than a process of self-discovery — but my “American” answer was a little more roughshod, and I ended up feeling dissatisfied with it, like I hadn’t really expressed what I’d wanted to. What happened, actually, was that I recited a couple of things about my parents’ families, but I didn’t really get a chance to think or talk about my own “American” experience, which has far more to do with my growing up in suburban New Jersey than with my mother’s family being Irish potato famine immigrants.

Whether or not it was true, it looked to me that my colleagues’ stories were, for the most part, more “authentic” than my own — they seemed to be answering these questions for the first time, and saying something “real,” rather than just rattling off the stories they’d told to themselves and their friends a billion times before. I realized immediately, even as I was having this thought, that it probably wasn’t true; it was just that since I was hearing their stories for the first time, they seemed more spontaneous.

I began to think, while walking home, that it would be a very interesting exercise to try to write one’s autobiography — or even just bits of it — completely without the help of one’s familiar store of stories about oneself. That is, to try to dig up and put into words the parts of your life that you’d never put into words before, not even to yourself. It may be that I’m an academic and a writer, or it may just be that I’m a human and everybody does this, but I am constantly, constantly telling myself stories about myself. Even as I know that I’m fictionalizing and oversimplifying, it’s helpful and reassuring to be able to trace certain kinds of continuity, to be able to say “I presently feel this way because of these other things that happened in the past” and “I did that terrible thing because I couldn’t help it, that is the kind of thing I have always done, but at least I did it less terribly this time.”

I suspect that, the farther back I tried to reach in my past without the aid of my stories, the less I would find. From my elementary school years, I don’t think there’s a single thing my mind could touch that is not already part of my Grand Narrative. But from middle school, and certainly later, there must be things lurking in my mind that are not crystallized into words in the same way that the more “important” events are.

I recently gave a paper at a conference on excess and obsession, which is one reason why I’ve been driven to think about the above things. In a lot of ways, the most illuminating panel at the conference turned out to be the one I had most snickered about to my friends beforehand: the panel on fandom. What the fandom scholars were able to articulate that the more traditional scholars (myself included) were not was, more or less, that what we are talking about when we are talking about “excess,” in any kind of literary/cultural way, is emotion, and that emotion is embarrassing. When you’re a Trekkie, a Xenaphile, or an emo kid, you are identifying with an emotional attachment that is viewed with skepticism by the rest of society because of its publicness and because of its fervor. It seems to me that we are generally expected, these days, to have our emotions quietly and at home. (And hasn’t this always been the case? With the brief subcultural exception of the Summer of Love?)

Many of the conference participants, in other words, seemed to be coding “excess” as “authentic,” to be buying into the idea that that which is unarticulated is unspoiled in much the same vein as my autobiography speculations above. This was particularly true of the queer theorists, at least two of whom focused on queer reading practice as something that draws on textual possibilities rather than textual actualities to move toward an imagined utopian future that is acknowledged as imagined, and yet still must be imagined.

I found their frankness about possibility very helpful. There probably are parts of my life that I haven’t articulated to myself, but the minute I discover them I begin to articulate them, and they become assimilated into the already-existing Grand Narrative, becoming just more examples of this or that Trend In My Life At That Time. Perhaps the only way these parts of my history can have power is as possibilities, as dark corners that remain dark. One of the keynote speakers at the conference remarked that, as a writer, “one has to hide one’s intent” — when I asked him in the Q&A to elaborate, he more or less said that your intent is not going to sell books; that you have to give readers something they want, and smuggle your “real” message in the back door. I can empathize, of course. Nearly every paper in my academic career has had the secret or not-so-secret message of “please please try to love one another,” and I think I would not be exaggerating to say that many, if not most, enduring works of art have exactly this message as well. But slapping a sticker on the front of Ulysses reading “LOVE IS IN HERE” would not particularly have helped Joyce sell more copies — because, as I said, emotion is embarrassing. You have to give readers something else to tell themselves that they want: the challenge of the experimentation, the pleasure of the text, the possibility of pornography, etc.

Probably the best readings of texts are the ones that leave some of the dark places unlit. Psyche should not have lit her lamp to look on Cupid’s face, and love suffers in the labeling.

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