Wednesday, December 15, 2010

What Makes A Child Creative?

I WAS SURPRISED TO learn that one of the measurements for admitting students to gifted and talented programs in schools is a high score on what's called the Torrance Tests of Creative Thinking.  In my mind, accelerated programs foreground product over process,and conformity over creativity.  But the Torrance test, used around the world, is supposed to chart how well a student is able to create new ideas and solutions--not merely recite old ones.  

So, it was heartening news to discover that "divergent thinking" plays a big role in admittance to gifted programs.  What is disheartening is the following: since 1990 scores on the test for American students have been dropping. Steadily.

Today's Wall Street Journal ran a fairly thorough story on what it means to be creative and how parents can foster creativity.  The piece also features sample questions and model creative answers to those questions.  It's pretty interesting stuff.

According to the article, researchers blame computers, gadgets, television, and video games for the decreased levels of divergent thinking.   One might lump in to that group very specific, overly realistic toys that leave no room for imagination.   The article also hints at a growing intolerance for kids and students to be "wrong," a trend I've noticed myself.  An over-determined emphasis on correctness might yield the appropriate answer but it can, over time, leave little room for experimentation and trial-and-error. 

Our culture--and Capitalism in general--is all about efficiency.  As our lives and our parenting becomes more and more mechanized, our patience for long, laborious, even circuitous problem solving seems to have gone the way of the rotary phone.  

Professors talk about this new phenomenon quite often now.  For us, it is a student's inability to do high-level work without direction. Nothing paralyzes my students more than an open-ended writing assignment. 

While I'm encouraged that researchers place creative problem solving so highly and that people are keeping an eye on the creativity for the next generations, I do worry that the unbelievable inventiveness that has spawned the iPhone, the iPad, my new Evo, the flat screen TV, Slingbox, YouTube, and Facebook is actually causing an entire generation of kids to be less so.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Is Hip-Hop Poetry?

City Brights
FOR TWR'S 150TH POST, I double-dip.

I know, it's so lazy.

But, I didn't want to detract from my inaugural column for the San Francisco Chronicle's City Brights section.  So, go here, if you want to read what I have to say about the relationship between hip-hop and poetry.

Monday, November 29, 2010

On Terrance Hayes

BY NOW, MOST FOLKS who read or claim they read poetry know that Terrance Hayes won the 2010 National Book Award for poetry for his fantastic fourth book Lighthead.  2010 has been a phenomenal year for poetry, especially considering all of the collected/selected poems that have appeared.  Compedia by heavy-hitters such as Kay Ryan, Edward Hirsch, Gerald Stern, Robert Hass, James Schuyler, and Maxine Kumin, plus new books by Charles Wright, C. K. Williams, Bob Hicok, Tony Hoagland have already made overlapping "Best Of" lists nearly impossible.

Even more unlikely is that amidst all of these great books--even books that span a lifetime of poetry--Hayes captured the coveted NBA with a book that thumps both high and hip-hop culture with an odd but alluring backbeat of pecha kuchaLighthead made my top 5 books of poetry for 2010, and it really is like nothing else out there.

Sure, Hayes addresses race, and yes, motifs of light and dark illuminate the collection here are there, but what is particularly enjoyable about the book is the near-perfect marriage of voice and form.  Hayes plays with poetic form in pretty cool ways, but it's never gimmicky, and even though his voice modulates to fit the form, it always sounds like Hayes' voice. 

In 2008, I was an early advocate for Hayes to be President Obama's Inaugural Poet, and as I say in my forthcoming piece in The San Francisco Chronicle, when Obama gets re-elected, I hope this time he taps Hayes for that honor.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Of Thee I Sing: A Semiotic Review by Scott Andrews

Scott Andrews has been so gracious so many times as a guest poster on The Weekly Rader, that we are considering renaming the blog The Bi-Weekly Andrews  Or, perhaps, the Don't Dread Scott.  We'll work on that and get back to you.

In our ongoing interest in the intersection of politics and early childhood education, we feature a particularly smart review of President Barack Obama's new children's book. In keeping with the focus of TWR, Andrews also considers the semiotics of this text.

President Barack Obama’s new book for children, Of Thee I Sing:  A Letter to My Daughters, made headlines lately – it is more accurate to say that the Fox News headline made headlines.  His book briefly discusses several famous figures from American history, presenting them as heroes.  Among those featured is Sitting Bull, the famous leader of the Lakota.  Fox News caught a good round of criticism for its “fair and balanced” headline about the book: “Obama Praises Indian Chief Who Killed U.S. General.”

When it was pointed out that Sitting Bull did not kill General Custer, Fox News revised the headline to say “Obama Praises Indian Chief Who Defeated U.S. General.”  Never mind that Sitting Bull was too old to participate in the Battle of Little Big Horn. 

There was much snickering from the Left at the contortions Fox News is capable of in finding ways to criticize Obama.  What I haven’t heard yet is discussion of the image accompanying the passage about Sitting Bull.

Illustrator Loren Long portrays Abraham Lincoln and Billie Holiday in a fashion reminiscent of Thomas Hart Benton, in warm colors and with curved, stylized figures.  We see Lincoln and Holiday among other humans, doing things they are famous for – speaking and singing.  We see Jackie Robinson swinging a bat.  We see Albert Einstein staring into the heavens.  We see Cesar Chavez speaking to migrant workers.

However, Sitting Bull is literally the Earth itself.  His cheeks and nose are hills.  His eyes are two bison.  His eyebrows are trees.  His forehead is an orange sunset.  Although Sitting Bull is described as healing the “broken hearts and broken promises” of his people, we do not see any Indians.

Seeing the image of Sitting Bull as Real Estate is surprising in this context.  A book like Of Thee I Sing is intended to remind us of famous, admirable people from American history – to make them visible to us again.  It is odd, then, that in this act of remembrance, Sitting Bull is not present.  In the book’s time machine, we travel back to see Abraham Lincoln speaking to his fellow Americans.  In the time machine of our imagination, the book takes us back to see Billie Holiday singing, perhaps in a night club, among musicians.  It is unclear that we have entered the time machine to visit Sitting Bull.  Are we looking at his spirit in today’s landscape?  Or have we traveled back to the western Plains in the 1800s?  If so, where is Sitting Bull?  Where are the people he led and healed?

This image is created in the tradition of “The Vanishing Indian.”  American mythology has been deeply conflicted about the original inhabitants of the continent since Day One of Contact.  Americans have hated Indians and they have loved Indians.  But, strangely, in both cases the Indian disappears from view.

The side of the American psyche that hated Indians wanted to clear them out of the way of westward expansion, even if that meant killing them all.  Thus the Indian became, for many decades, the ubiquitous villain of American popular fiction and Hollywood Westerns.  In contrast to the bloodthirsty savage, the American hero could look that much more heroic – and could be justified in killing Indians. 

The side of the American psyche that loved Indians romanticized and envied them, and yet still imagined the Indians absent from the path of westward expansion.  In American literature, sometimes the Indians disappeared voluntarily, because they did not want to live like their new neighbors.  Sometimes the Indians disappeared tragically, perhaps from disease or even from hearts broken by the damage done to their communities.  This passing was lamented by some Americans, and it was sometimes used to critique the American greed or violence or prejudice that so harassed Indians.  But hardly ever in the American imagination did this critique result in the Indian not disappearing.

Sometimes what the American psyche hated about the Indian was also what it loved.  The Indian Hater oftentimes justified his hatred by seeing the American as civilized and the Indian as savage.  The task of transforming the landscape into European-style agricultural and urban landscapes was seen as a process of conquering nature.  Since the original inhabitants of the land needed to be removed before the land could be transformed, the Haters equated Indians with the land or nature.  Both needed to be conquered.  They were not merely obstacles to expansion, but as “nature” they were the opposite of “civilization.”  In his survey of Indians in American literature, Savagism and Civilization Roy Harvey Pearce says that the Indian became an important symbol “for what he showed civilized men they were not and must not be” (5). 

Meantime, the Indian Lover also equated Indians with the land or nature, but this time that was seen as a good thing.  Many times the Indian Lover had grown tired of his own society.  Like the Hater, the Lover associated “civilization” with European-style society, but unlike the Hater he saw “civilization” as corrupt or decadent.  Pearce describes this as a type of “primitivism -- the belief that other, simpler societies were somehow happier than one’s own” (136).  The Indian Lover saw “nature” as the opposite of “civilization,” as pure and noble.  He saw the Indian as the Noble Savage, and in so doing he also equated the Indian with nature.

However, despite his admiration for Indians, the Lover could not bring himself to live with them permanently or imagine a role for them in his society.  Apparently, just because you love something doesn’t mean you want to live with it.  And so even those writers who loved Indians rarely ever ended a story with the Indian characters still around – they either died or faded into the landscape, headed further West, making room for the tide of Americans.

I do not know Loren Long, but I imagine he really likes Indians, or at least the idea of Indians.  And I bet he is a very nice man and a talented artist.  But depicting Sitting Bull not as a human talking to other humans (like Lincoln) or singing with other musicians (like Holiday) has implications beyond the artist’s intent.  It potentially relieves Long or his audience of depicting an uncomfortable truth – drawing the bodies of Indians whom we can guess will suffer and possibly die at the hands of American soldiers, who will become the victims of those “broken hearts and broken promises.”  The words beneath the image beg the question: Broken by whom?  As written and drawn, the audience gets to avoid uncomfortable answers.

Such an illustration also traps Sitting Bull in a non-human dimension. Unlike Lincoln or Holiday, Sitting Bull (and possibly by association every Indian) becomes a transcendent, supernatural being.  Not a human.

Of course, it is better to have an Indian in the book than not.  But it would be nice to have an Indian who lives on the ground like a human rather than in the ground like a specter or ghost.

Scott Andrews is an enrolled member of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, and he teaches American and American Indian literatures at California State University, Northridge.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

On Childhood Education

LAST WEEK, MY SON turned two.  As some of the readers of TWR know, I blog about him occasionally over at 52 Gavins (well, I don't know if it's really about him per se.  It's more like of him).  Part of my interest in that project was in what we might call the semiotics of baby-ness; which is to say, the image of the baby.  But, now that he's two, he's no longer a baby.

His birthday corresponds with another sign of his passage from babyhood into boyhood--the preschool tour. So far, we have been on a dizzying number of preschool tours, and there are more to come. All of the preschools share some commonalities but all are just a little different.  When we are with friends who have children of similar age, schools and preschools are among the most common topics of conversation.  

And yet, I have no idea what makes a good preschool.

As an educator, I'm often asked what kind of educational approach I like best, and, of course, I have strong opinions about this at the undergraduate level but, I have learned that I know next to nothing about early childhood education.  I knew I knew very little, but now I know just how little I know.

But, that's about to change.

With all of the emphasis on Head Start, No Child Left Behind, the failing Los Angeles and New York Public schools, the increased focus on the importance of early learning, the push for diversity and equal access for the best preschools, it seems to me that early learning is not just an important educational issue but an important political issue.  

So, one of the topics of The Weekly Rader over the next couple of years is going to be the intersection of early childhood education, politics, culture, race, and class. I'll be blogging about our preschool search, how we are thinking about preschools, books and resources we find helpful, and the kinds of things you might want to avoid.

Almost no educational project out there has so many divergent opinions about approaches and importance.  Some very smart people will tell you that parents shouldn't worry about preschools at all, that they don't really matter.  Others will claim, as former Georgia Governor Zell Miller did, that preschool is "the most important grade."

I don't really know what I'll find, but I'm fairly certain that the more I look into access to good preschools for the underprivileged and the underrepresented, the more depressed I'll become.  Even in a city like San Francisco, where there are some excellent preschools, there is also a number of really smart parents vying for those few spots.  Even at this age, the stratification already begins, driving home a larger point about democracy, education, and American values.

Sunday, November 7, 2010


This week, I'm blogging over at The Best American Poetry Blog.

Stop by for a beer or to leave a comment--positive or negative.  If it's negative, have two beers.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Adventures in Heidireality - A Guest Post by Scott Andrews

OUR MOST FREQUENT CONTRIBUTOR, Scott Andrews, is back again with another provocative guest post.  This time, he's talking about boobs.  Why don't we feature him more often, you ask?  Excellent question.  Perhaps now we will.  What we like about Scott's essays is his uncanny ability to apply high minded theoretical ideas to the poppiest aspects of pop culture.  Here, he merges the ideas of the Italian semiotician Umberto Eco and Heidi Montag's breasts.  And you thought about quitting TWR . . .

Adventures in Heidireality - A Guest Post by Scott Andrews

I have been thinking about Heidi Montag’s breasts lately.
Cultural criticism is hard work, isn’t it?
She is famous for a variety of reasons (none of which involves talent).  One reason she is famous is her participation in an MTV reality series known as The Hills, which followed the life of several trendy young women in Los Angeles.  Two other reasons for her fame are her G-cup breast implants.
Ms. Montag was recently in the news when she announced she would be reducing her breasts to perhaps a humble D or double-D.  It seems these Marmadukes (you can’t call them “puppies”) cause her some discomfort and require her to buy custom-made clothing.  Also, the G-cups are no longer necessary now that she is off The Hills.

This last bit of news, scanned from the cover of a tabloid magazine at the supermarket, made me interested in her breasts.  Honest.  Before that, I hadn’t given them much thought.  Honest. 
I was struck by the irony of Ms. Montag needing fake breasts in order to be on a reality TV show.
Looking at Ms. Montag’s picture on the tabloid cover, my mind turned immediately to Umberto Eco.  Honest.
Eco is the author of a famous essay from 1975 titled “Travels in Hyperreality,” which discusses his visit to several tourist attractions in the United States.  Each of these attractions involved the imitation of reality, ranging from wax museums to Main Street USA at Disneyland.  He was fascinated by the desire to create duplicates of real-world objects, such as a wax museum’s replication in 3D of Leonardo da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa.”  He was more fascinated by the extension of that desire into creating duplicates that an audience feels improves upon the real-world objects and eventually prefers over the real-world object.  That is, when the fake becomes the new real.  The hyperreal.
Eco links this desire for a real that surpasses reality to American consumerism and a desire for excess, for what he calls “insane abundance.”  That may help explain why breast implants so often are used to make breasts larger rather than to alter simply their shape, especially when those breasts are going to become a sort of commodity sold to an audience. 
In other words, Ms. Montag has been “super-sized.”
The hyperreality that Eco describes also involves the awareness that the fake is a fake.  The audience marvels at its creator’s ability to make such a wonderful fake, a fake that seems perfect, because what is not reproduced are the flaws of the original.
In this sense, there is a difference between the counterfeit and the fake.  The counterfeit is designed to be mistaken for the original, and therefore it must recreate the flaws in the original to fool an audience.  The hyperreal, on the other hand, calls attention to itself as a spectacular fake, as realer than real.
For example, who wants to watch a reality TV show that faithfully recreates our real, BORING lives?  (It started all started with a show called, ironically enough, The Real World.) No, we want a show is that real but somehow better than real.
We cannot say that using breast implants to enhance a Hollywood career is anything new.  Pamela Anderson has altered the size of her “talents” several times, sometimes up, sometimes down.  What has changed, though, is the recent advent of talking openly about the surgeries, which Ms. Montag has done.  A lot.
In fact, there are reality TV shows about cosmetic surgery, such as Dr. 90210.  It is about the various cosmetic surgeries performed for women who are pursuing some type of ideal body.  Women are shown in every episode talking about the various procedures they desire, and the audience sees many “before” and “after” images.  The women are obviously proud of the results, and having those results attained through surgery is a source of pride as well.
Cosmetic surgery has become a type of conspicuous consumption.  The women in the show want the physical “enhancements,” but it is important that people know their new bodies have been purchased.  The wealthy can have their imperfect, natural bodies made perfect with a master surgeon and a MasterCard -- but why spend all that money if no one knows you spent it?
There was a time when breast implants were kept quiet, because the desire was to make people think one’s breasts were “natural.”  There was some potential stigma attached to having had cosmetic surgery.  It was a sign of conceit or a lack of self-esteem.  That is not true now. 
So, there is Heidi Montag on the cover of a tabloid magazine discussing the size and shape of the breasts she had purchased and those she plans to buy for the future.  (I wonder if there is trade-in value for implants?  Is there treadwear on silicon?)  Everyone knows her breasts are artificially enhanced.  Their fakeness is part of their attraction to the people watching The Hills, looking for her next appearance on TMZ, or visiting her new website (hyper and cyber were made for each other).  In fact, the audience possibly prefers her fake breasts over the real, over those she had been born with.  It is as if her surgically enlarged breasts are saying, as Eco imagines a wax museum saying, “We are giving you the reproduction so you will no longer feel any need for the original.”

Scott Andrews, who contributes to The Weekly Rader from time to time, has published book reviews, essays, fiction, and poetry.  He teaches American and American Indian literatures at California State University, Northridge.  He has never watched an episode of The Hills.  Honest.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

The Juan Williams Saga: An Interview with Jonathan Silverman

WE'VE BEEN FOLLOWING THE Juan Williams firing closely here at TWR, and we've remained profoundly interested in how various groups are responding to and spinning his termination from National Public Radio and his subsequent hiring by Fox News.  We were curious how journalists and students around the country were reacting to this weird turn of events, so, we decided to contact our friend Jonathan Silverman, a journalism professor at the University of Massachusetts-Lowell and author of the recently released Nine Choices: Johnny Cash and American Culture.  Silverman also curates the Media/News section of The World Is A Text.   

Jonathan Silverman

Juan Williams
TWR: Have you talked with your journalism classes about the Juan Williams saga?

Silverman: Not yet. We're in a wonky writing phase in the classroom.

TWR: Oh, maybe we should just stop right here and watch The World Series.  No wait, another question. What would you say to them?

Silverman: I probably would ask them what they thought of the issue, but I don't think it's a big deal one way or the other.

TWR: There are a number of issues wrapped up into one big controversy.  The first involves Williams working as a reporter for National Public Radio and as a commentator for Fox News.  In your mind, is this a violation of basic journalistic notions of objectivity? The NPR Ombudsman sure thinks so.
Silverman: I'm not sure I would call Juan Williams a reporter any more--a commentator perhaps, though he certainly has written very well. I really loved his Thurgood Marshall biography in particular. But he has mostly been a type of down-the-middle commentator for NPR for a while. And while I respect NPR immensely, I found him and Cokie Roberts to be increasingly insular in their opinions. As someone who reads a lot of thought-provoking political material, I find conventional wisdom tiresome.

And I don't believe in objectivity anyway. I think the objective voice can be useful at times in describing things like fires and car accidents and recounting lots of details about a particular subject. But in politics, without a strong sense of truth seeking, trying to be objective, to see "both sides" when there are many, seems like a fool’s errand. Bill Kovach and Tom Rosensteil's The Elements of Journalism and Jay Rosen's work--in which he calls the objective voice and Washington savvy as practiced by commentators like Juan Williams "The View from Nowhere"--absolutely shapes my ideas here.


TWR: The other issue is whether Williams should have been fired from NPR for being honest about boarding a plane when he sees passengers in "Muslim garb."  Do you think that was an offense that deserved termination?
Silverman: I don't think it violated any standards of objectivity. But jobs at places like NPR require  a pretty conservative way of speaking about issues as a way of maintaining moderate respectability, and I think Williams violated that, as did Helen Thomas for her remarks on Israel not long ago. If people think you are a journalist, it's important to couch almost all your speech in a type of neutral distance that does not betray personal thoughts or ideas. I don't think it's right necessarily, but journalism is a type of game--as is any profession--that requires its practioners to play by rules that have been established over time.


TWR: A few days later, the NPR CEO admitted that Williams' termination was handled poorly.  That someone should have just told William that his work for Fox was not going down smoothly for the NPR Folks and that he should choose: Fox or NPR.  That suggests the real cause of his termination was not his comments but rather his work for Fox.   However, NPR seemed to need something obviously transgressive to fire him for, and after a couple of days of deliberation, NPR decided this was it.  What do you make of that?

Silverman: That account wouldn't surprise me.


TWR: I guess me either but it annoys me. The most troubling aspect of this as far as TWR is concerned is that Fox, somehow, comes off looking like the real defenders of Free Speech. Does this anger you?
Silverman: Fox News has consistently used the rules practiced by journalists as a way of thumbing its nose at them. For a while now, Fox has used "fair and balanced" as a deliberate comment on journalistic concepts such as objectivity, fairness, and balance to make political reporters resort to the "View from Nowhere," reporting without actually determining what is true and not true (or as close to as it gets). So it becomes Democrats say this, and Republicans say this, and the casual observer might not know what to think. Fox always wins these battles because it understands the game while not playing it the same way the other networks and media outlets do.

Though I’m not sure how I feel about Juan Williams being fired, I do think that free speech as a concept is not outside the journalistic marketplace; in other words, you can say what you want as long as you don't care about being employed (or who employs you).


TWR: If Steve Inskeep and Bill O'Reilly got into a fistfight, who would win?

Silverman: You? :)

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Poetry & Pop Culture: An Interview with Todd Swift

ONE OF OUR FAVORITE blogs is the British project Eyewear. It was one of the first blogs to explore the intersection of poetry and popular culture, and it remains the best.  The founder, Todd Swift, is a particularly interesting guy.  Poet, professor, blogger, and cultural critic, Swift makes poetry available and accessible.  His blog posts on the The Best American Poetry Blog are always smart and funny.  So, we sat down, sort of, with Swift and asked him about Eyewear.

TWR: You started Eyewear 2005.  How has blogging changed for you since then?

SWIFT: I think blogging is dying out, as a mass fad, replaced by social networking, and other briefer fast-paced systems, like Tweeting or whatsit, but better blogs, that supply excellent content, are actually improving.

TWR: Along with Mike Chasar's site, yours is pretty much the only blog that looks at the intersection of poetry, politics, and popular culture.  How do you see these three forces intersecting at this point in history?

SWIFT: I wish there was more intersection.  Where is the poetry magazine like Entertainment Weekly, or Vanity Fair, showcasing the glamorous lives of poets?  Seriously, though, the ways that film and music now inspire poets as much as literature once did demands more engaged intertextual readings of our culture.  As for politics, that discourse has been shockingly cheapened of late in America, and to a degree, in the UK, by interventionist-media like Fox.

TWR: Though the feeble reach of The Weekly Rader extends across the pond, most of its readers tend to be bored Americans.  What's it like writing about poetry, politics, and popular culture in England? What would surprise American readers?

SWIFT: England is awash with pop culture, of course: fashion, pop and rock, movies, TV, radio.  What I find astonishing is that British people are really like their comedies, in a way that Americans aren't.  By this I mean, British people really do tend to have those accents, and drop highly ironic and acidic comments all the time.  Substance abuse, sex, and atheism are quite normal in the UK (what people aspire to, the celebrity life), so there is less piety than in American culture - only the Queen and the troops are sacred.  There is a resistance to sentiment, and also to sincere expression of emotionality, so the poetry, and TV, here, is far less filled with gestures of hope or transcendence.  Love poems are more likely to end with a gag than a rose.  Also surprising would be, I think, the high esteem American TV is held in, and the low esteem Americans themselves are, including most poets.

TWR: Who are some of your favorite British poets?  Who are some folks Americans may not know about?

Giles Goodland
SWIFT: Too many to really reel off.  The best experimental mid-career poet is  Giles Goodland.  The wittiest younger poets would include Luke Kennard, Joe Dunthorne, Emily Berry and Lorraine Mariner, whose styles are becoming hugely formative.  Keston Sutherland and Andrea Brady are the leading avant-garde poets from the Cambridge school.  Older excellent poets would include Anthony Thwaite (now 80), and Sheila Hillier.  But I have many favorites.

TWR: What's the strangest reaction you've received to one of your blog posts?

SWIFT: Some weirdo posted a comment about my anniversary, suggesting my wife was a closet lesbian and I was gay.  I mean, wonderful if true, but, since not - why go so far to attack?  I assume it was an attack.

TWR: I'm glad you never found out that was me. How close have you come to bagging-or is it sacking-the whole sodding blog project?  What keeps you going?

SWIFT: Every day I plan to quit.  Having over 240 followers, and tens of thousands of hits a months keep me going.  I feel obliged to do this.  No other blog over here so fearlessly takes on the vested interests. But it has its costs.

TWR: In what way do you wish the discourse of American poetry was more like that in Britain? And, in what way to you wish the discourse of British poetry was more like that in the Colonies?

SWIFT: I like how British poets all know each other. How they still like form,  and admire poets like Thomas Hardy.  How tone still matters, and very fine nuance.  I wish British poetry was more open to radical forms, and more shifting levels of diction and discourse, away from ordinary language and plain narrative.  There is a great fear of high language now in the UK, most mainstream poems are written in some version of middle-class or working class colloquial speech.

TWR: If Geoffrey Hill and John Ashbery got into a fistfight, who would win?

SWIFT: They're both on the same side - they both come out of late, high Forties modernism, via FT Prince and Terence Tiller.  They both understand intelligence and eloquence and surprise in poems.

TWR: What American writer would you most like to make a cross-country road trip with?

SWIFT: Nicole Blackman.  Read with her before. She is the coolest.  Least want to - Franzen.  He bores me silly.

TWR: What question do you wish I had asked? And, what would your answer have been?

SWIFT: My greatest desire in poetry.  To have a Selected stateside, in hardcover. And yes, I am an eyewear fetishist.

Friday, October 15, 2010

On The Recent Book Awards

OKAY, SO WE WERE wrong about the Nobel.  So what?  Mario Vargas Llosa!  Exciting.  I remember when I was teaching one of his novels back in the early 90s, he had recently mounted a bid for the presidency of Peru as a member of the neoliberal Frente Democratico party.  Never a conservative, Vargas Llosa and his politics--if not his literary style--have, nevertheless, inched to the right.

But, he's a deserving winner of the prize, especially since the Nobel committee has been rather forthright about their barometer for literary merit.  Less about aesthetic and more about "the big dialogue of literature," the Nobel Prize has, ironically, gone the opposite direction of Vargas Llosa and made a move to the left.  Citing his "trenchant images of the individual’s resistance, revolt and defeat," the Nobel Prize Committee, yet again, advances theme over craft

This is not to say that Vargas Llosa is not a fine writer.  He is.  But, His style, his literary technique, his project of prose, was less interesting to the committee than his thematic trajectory.

In a bizarre moment, humorous on many levels, Bill Maher suggests that Vargas Llosa's victory indicates that the name of the prize should officially be changed:

On other book prize fronts, there was shock and awe and surprise and disgust and glee when it was announced that Jonathan Franzen's overly celebrated fourth novel, Freedom, was not a finalist for the National Book Award.  Is it reverse discrimination?  A punishment for two back-to-back glowing articles in The New York Times? A backlash against being hailed as the greatest American novelist?

Meanwhile, no one was upset by the poetry finalists, though Kay Ryan's collected poems, The Best of It is a notable absence.  Personally, I'm rooting for Terrance Hayes (who I thought would have been a really exciting inaugural poet). 

On a positive note, I was encouraged to see two books I love--Dan Beachy-Quick's The Nest, Swift Passerine and Rachel Loden's The Dick of the Dead named as finalists for the PEN USA Prize.

Lastly, a call for submissions: I'm looking for short posts 200-300 words on who you think the next poet to win the Nobel Prize should be. Email me ( with queries and suggestions.  We'll post the best ones later in the year.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Handicapping the Nobel Prize for Literature

Cormac McCarthy
Tomas Transtromer


NO AMERICAN POET HAS won the Nobel Prize for literature.  If you think of Eliot as American or his poetry as American, you might be able to quibble with my brash opening hook, but otherwise, not.  Eliot had already been a British citizen for 30 years when he won the Nobel in 1948, making "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" over 30 years old and the even creakier The Wasteland a Twenty-Something.

Chances are, an American poet will not win the 2010 prize, despite some impressive candidates.  Oddsmakers are bullish on South Korean Poet Ko-Un, the Sweedish poet Tomas Transtromer, and the American novelist Cormac McCarthy.  All are good choices, though, I think the smart money might go on Ko-Un.  I mean, who can say no to that smile?

Why impressive American poets like W. S. Merwin, John Ashbery, Jorie Graham, and Charles Wright get lower seeds in the March Madness of the Literature Nobels remains somewhat of a mystery.   And yet not.

In 2008, Horace Engdahl, the secretary of the Nobel prize jury, wagged his finger at American writing for its American-centric-ness. "The US is too isolated, too insular. They don't translate enough and don't really participate in the big dialogue of literature," Engdahl said. "That ignorance is restraining."

Merwin, in particular, obviates Engdahl's claim.  He has translated countless authors, though, agreeably, most are rather obscure: Pablo Neruda, for example, Osip Mandelstam, Jean Follain, Antonio Porchia, Roberto Juarroz, oh, and, like, Dante.  His work has always carried heavy political water, and recently, he's become particularly active as a poet of and a voice for environmental awareness--in particular the rain forests of Hawaii.  He's won the Pulitzer Prize and just about every other award, and he's the current Poet Laureate.

But, even so, I wonder if Mr. Engdahl and perhaps the entire Swedish academy defines "big dialogue" as "externally political."  For someone like Charles Wright, the big dialogue is "landscape, language, and the idea of God," which, I think, is pretty big.  Graham and Ashbery both are legendary for taking on complex issues about knowledge, language, communication, history, and the self in finely-tuned language that forces the reader to reorient how she sees the world and his place in it.

American poets, even Eliot--especially Eliot--have generally excavated the universal in the particular.  They locate the public deep within the private. Think Emily Dickinson or Wallace Stevens.  And, they often help translate America's Americanness--perhaps the world's most complex text--for the rest of the world.

I'm always happy when writers whose work I don't know win major awards like the Nobel, but I would also like to see some of this country's best voices be given a chance to articulate what they are working through here on the world's biggest stage.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Tarantino's Real Co-Author Dies--A Sally Menke Tribute

ONE OF MY FAVORITE films to teach is Pulp Fiction.  I like to screen it in writing classes when I'm talking about editing and/or authorship.  Who, I ask the students, is the author of Pulp Fiction

Sure, Quentin Tarantino is the director, and he co-wrote the screenplay with Roger Avary, but the most enduring authorial detail of that movie is the editing.  There is not a slow moment in the entire picture; the pacing is flawless.  The funky camera angles, the quick edits, the long shots, even the animated square Mia Wallace draws involve directing of course, but how they work in relation to each other, how they fit together to form the puzzle of Pulp Fiction is all editing.

Tarantino has acknowledged that his editing partnership with Sally Menke was a true collaboration.  He said it was impossible to know whose ideas were whose and who is responsible for what decision.  They worked closely on all of his films, but her work on Pulp Fiction is legendary.

Menke's body was found Wednesday at the bottom of a ravine in Griffith Canyon, likely the result of a fatal fall or a heatstroke.  It was around 113 degrees.

Nominated for an Oscar for her work on Pulp Fiction, Menke was loved by pretty much everyone.  In the "Extras" section of some of Tarantino's DVDs, one can find "Hi Sally" montages, where cast members look into the camera and greet the famed editor.

Editors of novels rarely get the props they deserve, except from the authors themselves.  Film editors may have it slightly better, but not much.  The star actor and the star director get so much attention, there is really none left over for the editor. 

In the case of Menke and Pulp Fiction, though, Menke's editing work functions not simply as a form of narrative but as its own kind of genre.  In addition to "dialogue," and "plot" and "character," one must, when viewing Pulp Fiction, consider the degree to which the editing actually makes the magic of the movie happen.  The editing becomes the movie's grammar; its mode of communication.  

I would argue, then, that the Tarantino style, the Tarantino voice, the Tarantino signature, is really less Tarantino and more Menke.

When Michael Dorris committed suicide, readers of his and Louise Erdrich wondered if Erdrich's novels would read any differently.  Both were up front about co-authoring everything.  One wonders now about future Tarantino films.  Will the death of Menke mean the death of Tarantino's Tarantinoness?

I doubt it, but I also fear that some of the best work in Tarantino films was not done by Tarantino.

Monday, September 13, 2010

From Punk to President to Pulpit: A Guest Post by Scott Andrews

Scott Andrews is one of TWR's most frequent contributors.  He has published poetry, criticism, and essays in a number of journals. He is on the faculty at California State, Northridge. 
Few images have gone “viral” as quickly as Shepard Fairey’s poster of Obama created for the 2008 election.   Everyone has seen it.  What everyone may not know is that its creator first broke into the spotlight with his guerilla art campaign that mocked such iconic imagery.

Fairey gained notoriety in 1989 with his “Obey” posters that were plastered on walls in the middle of the night.  They featured the very stylized face of Andre the Giant (it is recognizable as him only after one has been told it is him), who seems to be staring at the viewer.  Beneath the face is one word: OBEY.

His poster was inspired by John Carpenter’s 1988 movie They Live, which imagined that humans were being subliminally controlled by an alien race through advertising and the news media.  When rebellious humans put on special sunglasses, they could read the messages behind the messages.   For instance, with the glasses one could see that the true message of various billboards was CONSUME or OBEY, etc.  (You can read more about Fairey’s poster here.)

Fairey has said his poster shared a message with that movie:  “… people have no idea how manipulated they are.”  The “Obey” posters and stickers were designed to make people question rather than obey.  It was designed to encourage people to see behind the messages that bombard them every day. Fairey said, “Obey.  It’s such a compelling word.   When told what to do, my instinct is to do the opposite.”

Fairey seems an odd choice, then, to design a political campaign poster.  An artist who seems dedicated to challenging advertising’s manipulative power was called upon to create a campaign poster designed, at least in part, to get us to trust the figure depicted.

Of course, “Hope” is different from “Obey.”  And Obama is looking up, suggesting inspiration, rather than at the viewer, suggesting authority or even domination – yikes, it’s a giant!

The poster proved effective possibly because it was so simple.  One image that was highly stylized and therefore short on detail.  One word that could inspire positive feelings in a voter without making promises of anything specific.  Hope for what?  Well, anything you hope for.  That is, the poster was short on content and so the viewer was free to supply that.

 In semiotic terms, this can be deemed a “floating signifier.”  A website devoted to the ways humans communicate with signs, Semiotics for Beginners, states this: “Such signifiers mean different things to different people: they may stand for many or even any signifieds; they may mean whatever their interpreters want them to mean.”

Perhaps this helps explain why Fairey’s “Hope” poster was so easily parodied.  It quickly spawned all sorts of farcical imitations.  You could get an image of The Dude from The Big Lebowski.  Or perhaps Futurama’s Hypnotoad with the caption of “Obey.”  Industrious folks quickly created applications whereby any image could be “Obama-fied.” 

What relation is there between these various parodies and the original?  Hardly any at all.  They are not commenting upon the “Hope” poster.  They are merely copying its style.  (Though perhaps that is a commentary on the floatiness of the floating signifier.)  One parody comes close, though: Alfred E. Newman above the caption “Hopeless.”  But this image does not blend the image of Obama with Alfred’s.  The poster may not be saying that Obama is like Mad Magazine’s mascot.  But then again it might.

The “Hope” poster’s lack of specificity not only makes it easy to parody, that lack also makes it easy to appropriate, to undermine and deploy for purposes in direct opposition to the original’s.

This came to mind when I saw images created for Glenn Beck’s campaign to reform America’s moral code according to his understanding of Christian ethics.  His staff Obama-fied three profiles of famous Americans: John Adams, George Washington, and Benjamin Franklin.  Beneath Adams is one word, “Faith.”  Beneath Washington is “Hope.”  And beneath Franklin is “Charity.”  Few people would argue that these are not worthy values or virtues.  One of them is even the word featured in the Obama poster.  But Beck seems to be hoping for something rather different from what Obama’s voters hoped for.  As he unveiled the images, he accused Obama of attacking these three things. 

Reminiscent of that John Carpenter movie, Beck suggested that the people assisting Obama were part of a hidden conspiracy to control and destroy America.  He echoed Fairey’s goal for the original “Obey” posters, which was to show people how they were being manipulated.  Beck said, “And radical progressives are infecting America by deceiving unsuspecting people on their true intentions.”

Man, I got to get a pair of those sunglasses so I can know who to trust.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

On Burning the Quran: Why It's Really about Semiotics

BY NOW, MOST AMERICANS have learned of Rev. Terry Jones' decision to host a special pageant at his church in Gainesville, Florida.  His "Burn a Koran Day," (really more like "Burn a Koran Rush Hour") is scheduled to light up at 6 pm sharp on September 11.  According to Jones, he and some of his congregation plan to set fire to copies of the Quran to symbolize that Islam is "of the devil."

There are many questions to ask here, like, what happens at 9:01?  And, will there be smores?  And, what happens if no one shows up?  And, isn't it hot enough in Florida the way it is?

But, even more pressing issues frame this event.  Bizarrely, it's become a wildly controversial project.

Much of the controversy surrounding this commemorative event centers on the rightness or wrongness of burning the Islamic holy book, whether it violates the constitution, whether it is anti-Christian or even Anti-American.

In addition to the moral and ethical issues, there also appear to be questions of national security.  The top U. S. commander, General David Petraeus sent an email to the Associated Press claiming that "images of the burning of a Quran would undoubtedly be used by extremists in Afghanistan — and around the world — to inflame public opinion and incite violence."

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and White House spokesman Robert Gibbs joined Petraeus in condemning plans to set fire to the book that almost 1/4 of the world believes to be holy.  Clinton called it "disgraceful" and Gibbs went even further, noting that any kind of "activity that puts our troops in harm's way would be a concern to this administration."

Of course, burning the Quran is legal, as it should be.  Burning The Bible must be legal. Same goes for burning the flag, burning photos of Barack Obama, burning copies of the Constitution, burning all Jethro Tull albums. These are important freedoms, and they must be protected.

The great irony is that burning sacred texts is not anti-American; it's wholly American.

The freedom to symbolically destroy another symbol is, in part, what makes America itself a symbol worth attacking.

In reality, there is no actual danger in burning pages of a book.  But, as General Petraeus notes, it is the image of Americans burning Qurans that concerns him.  The danger, then, lies in the semiotic realm.  

In all religions, fire carries with it a purgative and a punitive signification.  For Rev. Jones, watching the Quran burn in the flames of denunciation is in concert, symbolically, with his claim that Islam is of the Devil.  

Americans are, again, misguided if they obsess about this proposed burning on legal or moral grounds. That's not where the real meaning is made.  True meaning, real consequences take place in the semiotic, the symbolic, the cultural realm, and it is in that realm where discussions about the wisdom of such actions need to take place.

My prediction is that this is a stunt and that the Rev. Jones will bow to the pressure of other ministers, the president, the military, and even local law enforcement (who denied his application for a permit for an open burn) and call things off.  

Because, once you've earned it, it is very, very hard to shake the universal symbol of jackass.

Friday, September 3, 2010

The True Blood Rolling Stone: Revisiting the Naked Photo Cover

I LIKE THE NAKED blood-Pollacked bodies on the cover of the most recent Rolling Stone.  In fact, it's made me rethink my stance on this season's True Blood.  Things in season three are starting to feel a little like they did toward the end of Buffy, when all manner of demon, wolf, devil, and nether-creature found their way to Sunnydale.  Similarly with all of the werewolves, werepanthers, demons, fairies, and vampires, Bon Temps is lousy with weirdos. 

This cover is crowded, too, but in a good way.  Bill, Sookie, and Eric wear each other as well as the blood.  It's violent and erotic, and it made me think of all of the Rolling Stone covers where people are naked and  a few other covers where the nakedness actually becomes a kind of clothing.

Maybe it's because Bill is cupping Sookie's breast, but this first reminded me of the infamous 1993 Janet Jackson cover when she was more fastidious about potential wardrobe malfunctions.
This was sort of a shocking cover, as much for the unbuttoned jeans and the hidden male body as for the nude top.  Who is that behind her?  And, how many shots did they do?  Is she ticklish?  Any chance it's Woody Allen back there?

I know with Sookie's raised leg and all I should have immediately gone to the Yoko/John cover, but in retrospect, that shot feels dated and by no means transgressive.  I know, I know, it was at the time.  And, it has much in common with the True Blood cover in that it celebrates romance and sexuality.  It's about a relationship.  It's also much sweeter than either of the other two images, and that also makes it more forgettable.

The nearly-nude Russel Brand is more like the Janet Jackson cover than any of the others.  It's a funny shot that would have been funnier if someone else had been covering some of his body parts of if he was sporting tighty whities.

 And then there are the famous nude pregnancy photos, such as those by Demi Moore and Claudia Schiffer.  These celebrate the body, the female body, which, I suppose the Russel Brand shot does as well. Granted, these are not on Rolling Stone, but we get the reference.

I think my favorite nude cover of the past few years is the hardly discussed shot of the Dixie Chicks.  This 2003 cover was just one in a series of controversial moves that positioned the country trio as more progressive and more political than many of their listeners liked or expected.  

It's not particularly surprising that any of the folks in these images undressed for the camera or that they agreed to participate in artful neo-nudity.  But, I think most people were both surprised (even shocked) when Martie Maguire, Emily Robinson, and Natalie Maines went commando on the cover of Entertainment Weekly

What makes this cover particularly interesting is its lack of overt sexuality.  This particular image is much more about politics than the politics of the body.  Sure, it's an alluring photo and you find yourself looking closely at their bodies but it's to read what's been written on them.  You want to see how they have been marked.  The True Blooders are also marked but in a different way--ironically, even though they are bloody, it's less violent.

There is a defiance in this shot that dares the viewer to look at the women solely through an erotic lens.  The women then author their own bodies.  They tell us how to read them.  Rather than celebrating violence and eroticism like the True Blood cover it redirects that violence.  If you criticized them, it's on you.