Thursday, February 27, 2014

27 february

[some tens:]

An electric clap, and the sky shuts
down. And pours. My desires, like yours,
are I expect rather simple. Orality, say.
The windows are sheeted, the streets
glazed with water. I do not know
my desires by sight or name, suspect
licking and swallowing and tasting
are involved. We all want
to be loved – they say. Everything
is there for the eating, under the clouds.


Can you feel the muscle hardening?
Is it there? Is it tasty, or visually
satisfying, or moist? Where does it go
afterwards? When someone shuts off
the lights. Clap clap. If this has
a history, it's news to me, but there
are more things I don't know than
things I do. They preened themselves,
evidently, on their visual literacy. Does
it move independently of the joint?


Pretty ballerinas at the barre. At
the bar. I stretched, pirouetted,
and forced my feet into numbered
positions for about three weeks,
then pulled a muscle. Like facets
of a crystal. They twirl and dip
and swoon. Alone, the slim body
curves as with pain, or hunger,
or aspiration. Reach for the stars.
Where did I put my shoes?

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

18 february

Sunday, in a kind of all-day fury of writing, I finished a draft of the paper I'm to deliver later this week in Louisville. I've never been one to put these things off to the very last minute; I know folks who've turned out dazzling papers the night before a conference, or on the plane en route—but I need at least a few days' cushion, especially when there's a question of time. Right now it's at 9 pages, which is a bit long, given my drawly delivery, for a 20-minute paper. So I need a few intense hours of cutting to get it into shape; it'll be where it needs to be before Friday, I know.

Next month is the Fantasy/Sci Fi conference; that paper exists pretty much as a detailed abstract and several thousand words of scattered notes, which will magically coalesce into a 20-minute rhapsody in the week or two before the conference. (Or will be forced into such with a great expense of sweat and blood...) I'm not a great improviser of thought or expression. I know folks who, when asked an out-of-the-way question, or given an unexpected prompt, can come up with a wholly plausible and even interesting argument, right on the spot. That's not me. Everything I write, it seems, is the product of a long process of stewing over a given question or a given text. So even if I write the conference paper in a single concentrated 8-hour session, the resulting document is the boiling-down of many many hours of thought.

Alas, however, the recursive and scattered nature of my thinking is such that what gets boiled down is often no better than nugatory.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

15 february

So here's what I'm thinking about this Valentine's Day weekend: first & most importantly, I took the girls to see The Lego Movie this afternoon. It was okay—despite what the reviewers might say, I thought it was no better than okay. General consensus between the girls was that you had to be a boy really into Lego to entirely enjoy it, but it was okay. Familial reaction to the message of be yourself, don't always build by the rules, etc.: great, girls, but the model soldiers are still off limits until I can trust you to paint horses for me.
I'm finishing up a conference paper—Louisville, in just a few days' time—on Ronald Johnson's ARK and science fiction. I guess this counts as part of my recent hurling of myself into the SF/fantasy field, tho it's also part of my longstanding investment in RJ. (One reader notes that Intricate Thicket seems to contain an entire "short monograph" on RJ.) Baby steps into SF/fantasy, really. I find myself running over genre-defining & genre-defending arguments that most of the more seasoned scholars in the field, alas, would consider painfully old hat.

But then I'm working on another paper, this one for ICFA—a real live SF/fantasy conference—on Michael Moorcock and how he's revised his work over the years. Which means I've been thinking a lot about the mechanics and motivations behind post-publication revision (think Auden, think Wordsworth, think Sir Walter Scott), but I've also been thinking about it in the context of the SF/fantasy field, where reworking one's earlier work, so far as I know, is a rather less common thing for a writer to do.

It's true, I've been feeling lumpish and stupid for a good long while now—that may in part explain why I've done so little towards maintaining this blog-thing—but at times I reflect that the moments when I feel lumpish and stupid are perhaps the moments when I'm most conscious of my ignorance, and am working hardest to allay it: the moments, that is, when I'm learning something.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

13 february

I have trouble writing. No, that's not quite true—when I've gotten going, I write fairly fluently and not particularly slowly. What I have trouble doing is a) screwing myself down into my chair or in front of my notebook/laptop and starting something, and b) writing on a regular basis.

I've been toying with more or less artificial frameworks to keep me at it. One has been a Word document on my desktop called "NOTEPAD," in which I resolved to write at least 500 words a day—500 words on a single, coherent topic, making some kind of significant exploration or intervention. I was doing pretty well; I'd kept it up for the better part of a week with only a single day's break. But I knew that I was going to inevitably "break the chain," as it were, and there was no external monitor that'd chastise me.

Then I remembered the 750 Words website, which I'd joined a couple of years ago and forgotten about over the past year. It's pretty straightforward: you write at least 750 words a day; the site tracks your word count and your diligence; if you keep it up day after day, it rewards you with little doodads and dingbats. There are problems no doubt—there's no way to write in italics, you can download what you've written, but only as txt files, etc.—but for sheer mechanical prodding, I'm finding my return to the site pretty darned useful.

I'm sure there are hundreds of similar things out there. If you know of a better one, let me know.

Monday, February 10, 2014

10 february

In a long aside in his 1977 essay “Sturgeon” (collected in Starboard Wine), Samuel Delany discusses the widespread fan impact of Theodore Sturgeon’s revision of his 1947 story “Maturity,” which was first published in Astounding, then printed in a significantly revised version in an anthology. Apparently, for a scifi author to revise his work was practically unheard of at the time. Delany relates this to  a wider phenomenon: that while writers of literature are apt to place an enormous value on the process of revision, at times even boasting about how many times they have worked and reworked a text before it sees publication (and here their models would seem to be Flaubert and Joyce), SF authors don’t talk much about their writing process, and would even seem to fetishize the production of first-draft publishable work.

Delany teases out two explanations for this: The first, a “synchronic” description of the genre, would have it that the field of science fiction is something like a circus, in which multiple wonders are performed simultaneously, and in which the desired effect of any given piece (ie, story) on an audience is something along the “gosh, wow” line of the audience's response to a particularly good trapeze jump or a particularly good piece of clownery. You do a trick, and then you go on to the next one; to go back and re-do that last tumble, just because it wasn't quite perfect, is pretty much unheard of—just not how it's done under the big top. Literary fiction, on the other hand, places a much greater emphasis on a kind of muted, methodical realism. SF writers, then, are far more likely to stress the ideas and the novums of their work; literary writers, in a kind of compensatory gesture, tell us how much labor and craft went into the making of their far more understated gestures.

Delany’s second explanation is a “diachronic” discussion of the differing fields of “serious” literature and science fiction and their historical development. Drawing on Stanley Fish’s Self-Consuming Artifacts, he argues that serious literature has developed under the aesthetic of the “Good Physician”—that it is meant in some way to be good for you. (This ties in with the general distrust of “reading for pleasure” in academic circles, which he talks about with some subtlety, including an excellent discussion of the sort of concerted work necessary to gain the eventual pleasure of any genre, including science fiction.) Sci fi, on the other hand, is a popular genre, rooted ultimately in the pulps—a kind of writing which is by definition and cultural consensus bad for you. If you are the “good physician,” you can go to some trouble to specify the labor that has gone into the writing that will presumably have a salubrious effect on your audience; if you writing in a genre that corrupts the youth, then to confess to an inordinate interest in craft is to confess yourself not just a scamp but an outright criminal.
This should be tied, I think, to Moorcock’s revisions, and his compositional practices. One of the deepest “seams” in his overall stance is the implicit conflict between being a “popular” writer (MM’s own preferred term; he shies away repeatedly from confessing himself a genre writer) and being a “serious” or literary writer. Perhaps it’s an oversimplifiction to say that his ambition pulls him in one direction—“serious,” sprawling, complexly plotted and thematically “heavy” works like Mother London and the Pyat novels—while his audience, and economic pressures, pull him in another (fantasy, science fiction).

The New Worlds episode is perhaps exemplary, or at least parallel: while MM was editing the magazine, he sought as it were to push the field of writing (speculative fiction, what have you) in a more “serious” direction—to move it away from the adolescent fantasies of Golden Age SF, to incorporate the disjunctions of late modernist fiction (Burroughs especially), to explore not outer space but the human interior (“inner space”). At the same time, in order to keep the magazine afloat and the printers’ bill paid, he was churning out whole strings of fantasy novels, written to precise formulas and produced in a matter of days.

Sunday, February 09, 2014

9 february

I can’t remember the first time I received proofs of a piece of mine that was going to be published (in actual print!), but I do remember that for at least the first few years of my publishing career I did so with a kind of elation. I suspect every young writer feels that way—these are my words, and they will look something like this when they're actually there on the page for people to read!

 It’s been about twenty years or so since I began publishing more or less regularly, and the joy and wonder at receiving proofs has long ago worn off. I think it began to wear off rather rapidly when I was in the process of publishing Upper Limit Music, and fell into a series of conflicts with an officious and rather thick copy editor, conflicts which led me on several occasions to angry phone calls to the Press’s managing editor—going over her head, as it were. That was my worst experience with copy editing, and since then I’ve gone through quite a lot of different editorial hands, ranging from the general hands-off if there’s a problem we hope you’ll catch it of the little magazines, to the roots-to-branch evisceration and sometimes rewriting of Parnassus: Poetry in Review.

 I’m old enough to miss paper proofs, I confess; when I receive page proofs in PDF, I very often print them out, even if I see no errors when I read them over on the screen. I’m not sure I end up catching more errors that way, but it’s just somehow more comfortable, it gives me a surer sense that this particular piece is for real. But truth to tell, I’ve gotten to where I do some of my proofing—for briefer pieces, especially—on the screen alone. I too, like all of us, are being gradually weaned of my paper addiction.

These days, when I’m publishing between a half dozen and a dozen pieces every year, it seems like there’s always something in some stage of needing looking at. Of course, there is the next piece to be written, or in the middle of being written; but more irritatingly, there are all those pieces that have been sent off, and need second-round attention: the (electronically) blue-pencilled drafts, the copy edited manuscripts, full of queries that need to be carefully checked (these are perhaps the most irritating, as they often necessitate pulling books down or heading over to Google Books to check quotations), the sets of proofs to be read.

I’m well aware of the necessity of it all, that my prose and my arguments have often been mightily improved by careful editing, that copy editors have often drawn my attention to really bone-headed errors and omissions, and that carefully reading proof is the best way to avoid looking like an idiot when a piece actually comes out in print. That doesn’t, however, make these secondary tasks any less arduous or tiresome. Or at least that’s how I feel some of the time. At other times—like right now, when I’m going over the copy edited manuscript for a piece for the Cambridge History of American Poetry, and not coincidentally avoiding grading a stack of papers—I can take a positive delight in publication as a social process: something that I’d be entirely missing if my prose were going straight to its readers.

 (NB: connect this to Michael Moorcock’s early career, when he was writing, as he puts it somewhere, not “for an editor but for a printer.” Cautionary tale.)

Saturday, February 08, 2014

7 february

Asked to contribute something to the fifteenth anniversary issue of a journal I was in on the ground floor of, & have watched for the decade and a half since, I cast my eyes over my hard drive. Should I send some of the emerging 10-line poems? They seem too fresh, too raw, not quite ready. Do I have any essays on hand, or books I'd like to review?

Almost by chance, I stumbled on a conference paper on Susan Howe I'd delivered not long ago. I tend, when writing conference papers, to write towards the 20-minute frame—it should begin with a hook, continue in a lively and unexpected manner, and end with a minute or two to spare, in case I want to crack a quick joke along the way. (I have little patience with the old This paper is a part of a longer project, so I'm going to be making cuts on the fly as I read thru it business, which has irritated me from too many of my colleagues.) I also tend to write rather formally in such situations, footnoting my references as I go. I've noticed that Geoffrey Hill, in his Oxford lectures, actually reads out his footnotes, publication dates page numbers and all—but this is purely for my own use.

Which leaves me with a well-turned and (I venture to say) smartish essay on Howe, references and all, that I've just never gotten around to placing. And looking over my CV, I find myself blushing at how many of such nicely-put-together 3000-word pieces I've actually got gathering dust. Enough, if I were to add in fugitive book reviews and a few little uncollected essays, to make another collection the size of Intricate Thicket. I need to get busy.

Thursday, February 06, 2014

6 february

(giving up for the nonce on descriptive titles...)

Two recent publications, accessible online:

•A piece on Robert Duncan's H. D. Book, in the context of a mystical or "gnostic" modernism, courtesy of Ed Foster's Talisman: here.

•A review of Robert Archambeau's The Poet Resigns: Poetry in a Difficult World, from Notre Dame Review: here.


Expect perhaps more silence than usual this spring: the semester is turning out to be a real bear, with a set of teaching assignments that I'm finding more than merely a grind. But I have been writing poems—a series of 10-line things, a trifle less paratactic than the little gristly bits of Torture Garden, but less lax & expansive than the longer poems of Red Arcadia. I'll probably call a halt to this current "sequence" when it hits some sort of talismanic number—maybe 100, or 150, or something; right now I'm somewhere in the 40s, tho I'm not keeping close count.

Two weeks hence I'll be packing to go to Louisville, where I've cooked up something of a mini-celebration of the recent Flood Editions reprint of Ronald Johnson's ARK. Some tasty goings on, I hope. Peter O'Leary, RJ's executor and editor of this lovely new edition, will be there, as will other luminaries, including some very dear old friends. I of course am still sweating over my talk, which will attempt to read ARK as some species of science fiction.

Which has been much on my mind: once again, like last year, I've committed to the International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts. And like last year, I'm trembling in my newish Doc Martens at the prospect of (re-)venturing into the world of SF/Fantasy criticism. Perhaps it's because I've spent a good deal of time learning about the field since last year. I've read a solid lump of criticism, and quite a few novels. I've thought a lot. And the more I think, the more I read, the more I realize I don't know. This isn't simply the jitters of embarking on a new expansion of the "knowledge base," as I did when I set out to come to terms with Ruskin & his surround.

My anxieties about ICFA, and my whole venture into the SF/fantasy field, are tied up with my growing sense of ageing, of getting older. Yes, I’ve gotten to the point in my life and career where I am in the upper middle of the academic demographic; in the wrong half of my 40s I am older than probably half of the people in the profession I meet, and as a tenured full professor with a decent teaching load at a large state university, I have more disciplinary consecration than the vast majority. But the conferences I go to—and ICFA in particular—are dominated by people younger than myself, by graduate students and young scholars; and those younger people, simultaneously, are far more deeply versed in the subject matter.

 It has something I know to do with the intensity of interest we bring to our obsessions in youth. When I was sixteen, I knew more about certain things than anyone else I knew: I knew a particular strain of alternative rock music backwards and forwards; I knew certain fantasy authors (and, to a lesser degree, certain science fiction authors); I knew literature. And I had a kind of endless energy for adding to that knowledge. When I bought a new Moorcock book, I would read it with a passionate intensity, fitting it into the fictive universe he had created, judging how well it dovetailed with the scores of other Moorcock novels I had read. When I bought a new record, I brought it home immediately and shut myself in my room; I listened to intensely, following along with the lyric sheet, probably three times in the first day, and a dozen times over the week to come.

 It’s very hard (imposible?) to replicate that intensity in middle age. When a book comes out by an author I’m deeply invested in, I buy it immediately—but I don’t immediately set aside time to read it, and re-read it. When a new album comes out by a musician I’m interested in, I’ll dutifully download, but there’s no guarantee I’ll listen through it more than once in the first week.

When I was a kid I was a fan, but I was never a member of fandom per se, either for the musicians I liked or the books I read. That, I am beginning to see, has been a great absence in my life, and in some ways continues to be. I’ve never, in any of my substantial endeavours, felt that I’m a part of community—I’ve always been going it along, whether reading Moorcock as a 14-year-old, reading Ruskin as a 40-year-old, or painting model soldiers earlier this year. Fandom provides (especially the young) enthusiast for any given cultural field a social context in which ideas and enthusiasms can be discussed and tested—a community. (The only times I’ve felt a member of an active community, alas, were in the MFA program at Cornell and among the scholar-poets who are interested in the same poets I’ve written about.)

And there is still a very intense atmosphere of fandom in the SF/fantasy community. Perhaps I got off to the wrong start in reading John Clute’s criticism. Clute frankly seems to have read everything in his field, and much of his criticism revolves around how writers fit in in with what has already been done within the field—how the genre has historically developed, that is. It’s quite intimidating to confront this kind of encyclopedic generic knowledge, especially when there’s been something like a twenty-year lapse in my own investment in SF/fantasy, roughly from when I went off to Cornell for grad school to about five years ago, when I started seriously looking back at the books I had so loved in adolescence. The ideal SF/fantasy scholar, I suspect, is someone who began reading the books much as I did—as a maladjusted teenager, intensely and copiously—but who early on formed links with the fan community at large, and who never gave up on their interest.

Which doesn’t mean necessarily that such an ideal scholar goes to grad school to study SF/fantasy, but that she or he doesn’t toss those books aside as I did in favor of “serious” literature. I now find myself back-pedaling, looking back at the SF/f canon to find things I value in the same way I value Joyce and Nabokov and Woolf and so forth, and retooling my critical instruments to think usefully about the sources of value in books that were not written with the evaluative criteria of mundane literature in mind.
Frankly, it does not help matters to be reading A. E. Van Vogt and Ulysses at the same time.