Friday, June 29, 2007

Putting down "Taproot"

I've been asked to contribute a poem and an essay on the writing of the poem. The sale of the anthology would help raise funds for UK Cancer Research. I'm posting a draft here for comment. Where do the ideas and the language need clarification or tightening? The poem will probably come before the essay.


Putting Down "Taproot"


For some reason I thought I should imbibe some science while feasting on graduate writing workshops. At informal weekly seminars, in the spirit of continuous learning, the science faculty was giving brief talks on a subject out of their field of specialization. The talks were open to all. They attracted a modest but devoted audience, not a bad showing for a small liberal arts college. The free pizza might have helped too.

Was it a physicist or a chemist who spoke about the spotted knapweed? I don’t remember. It was a woman who found a new weed while gardening, and went online to find out more. I followed her lead.


My research turned up university and state department websites aimed at American farmers. The websites, with titles like Idaho’s Noxious Weeds or Invasive Plants of Wisconsin, were similarly organized: Description, Prevention, Management. Having just arrived in the States, and hoping to find love and work here, I was sensitive to the characterization of the spotted knapweed as an alien threat to native plants. The language of the description, so eerily similar on the sites, started me thinking about what makes a plant a weed, and what makes it a crop. Human needs, yes, food, clothing, shelter. But also cultivation, which necessarily implies human culture. The difference between weed and crop is, in a significant sense, a cultural distinction.

As I was writing at that time a series of historical persona poems, I tried to stuff the knapweed into the mouth of a straw man, the first three stanzas of which went like this:


An Immigration Official Speaks on Pest Control

The spotted knapweed has dispersed from ten
counties to three hundred and twenty-six,
reducing the bluebunch wheat
grass and re-routing the elks.
Thirty-five states index it an invader.

You can identify it by its pink
to purple flowers, at times white, settling in stiff,
black-mottled bracts
on tips of terminal stems.
It winters in a rosette of deeply lobed leaves.

From central Europe, Russia and western Siberia,
this Eurasian weed arrived in discarded soil
used as ship ballast.
Riding on undercarriages,
it migrates along highways, railway tracks, utility lines.


Overrun by the weed of excitement, I took the draft to my writing class, as well as submit it for critique @ Poetry-Free-For-All, an online poetry workshop. The draft was justly torn apart. Neither dramatic nor a monologue, it was, as Ted from PFFA nailed it, “a book report.” Its polemic was self-righteous and unimaginative; it does not question itself.

A PFFA exercise stimulated an overhaul. Challenged to write a poem with a mixture of different styles, I thought of weaving a personal narrative through the knapweed rhetoric, in alternate stanzas. I did not merely want to put a face to the debate, as immigration advocates would say, I wanted to speak of my desires—to write, to love, to take root—fierce desires that seemed to justify anti-immigration fears.

A narrative would also give a shape, a momentum to the poem, in this instance, the shape and momentum of a journey through lower Manhattan that climaxes in a reversal of stereotypes, in an Asian penetrating a white man. I was only vaguely aware of what I know now: the men I want to fuck are men I really like, and so, the apparent act of possession is, for me, also one of surrender. The clues to this lay in the last three stanzas of my next big draft:


In the train’s electric lighting, he searches for Matt
in the young white men and loves each one. The train sings.
33rd Street. He comes up for air, and wades
to the tower block. Stopped by a dark-suit,
he scribbles his name, number and address at the front desk.

Small populations can be uprooted. If not, spray Picloram
but not near streams. Experiments are on-going to determine if
bio-agents work. A species of seed-head attack flies seems promising.


He sees Matt hunkered down in his trench. He pulls
the fighter out of his chair, out of the white office, out of
sight, into the bathroom, and closes his sphincter-
mouth on his mouth. He works Matt’s belt loose and turns him
round. Matt puts a leg up on the china bowl. He grips
the shaft of Matt’s torso and plants his rice. This is also his farm.


The writing was still rough, but the two different styles, underlined by different stanza sizes, played off each other nicely, as Harry, Searcher and Autumn @ PFFA helpfully confirmed. Harry also suggested replacing “seed-head attack flies” with “seed-head gallflies” to lower the noise volume, a suggestion I accepted immediately.

Having banged down the slats of the narrative, I examined the selection of details in the poem. The knapweed stanzas still felt too prosaic and choked. I did not think of writing them in prose; the next thing that overran my field of attention was Auden’s “The Shield of Achilles.” Also a poem that deploys two different styles, it accentuates the distinction through different line lengths.


xxxxxShe looked over his shoulder
xxxxxxxxFor vines and olive trees,
xxxxxMarble well-governed cities,
xxxxxxxxAnd shapes upon untamed seas,
xxxxxBut there on the shining metal
xxxxxxxxHis hands had put instead
xxxxxAn artificial wilderness
xxxxxxxxAnd a sky like lead.

A plain without a feature, bare and brown,
xxxNo blade of grass, no sign of neighborhood,
Nothing to eat and nowhere to sit down,
xxxYet, congregated on its blankness, stood
xxxAn unintelligible multitude,
A million eyes, a million boots in line,
Without expression, waiting for a sign.

(from the opening of “The Shield of Achilles”)


The song measure orchestrates phrase and line, giving the story of Thetis and Hephaestos the appropriate classical grace and gravity. Though my poem was non-metrical, I thought I could lighten the knapweed stanzas by using shorter lines. Shortening the lines required weeding the stanzas, a very good thing as it turned out. I reworked the 3-line stanzas into quatrains, with one phrase to each line, and with a shift in the middle of the quatrain, like that of Auden’s octet. For instance, the first two knapweed stanzas:


The spotted knapweed has migrated to three hundred
and twenty-six counties, reducing the bluebunch wheat
grass and re-routing the elks. Forty states index it an invader.

The weed winters in a rosette of deeply lobed leaves.
You can identify it in summer by its pink to purple
blooms in stiff, black mottled bracts on stem tips.



became in the revision:


The spotted knapweed migrates fast,
decimating the bluebunch wheat grass.
You can identify it by its pink blooms
in black-mottled bracts on stem tips.



The stanza moves more quickly, at a speed more suggestive of the weed’s dispersal, and of the speaker’s panic. When I posted the revised poem @ PFFA, romac agreed with Lola Two’s assessment that “the italicized conceit is carefully phrased (it could easily have lapsed into textbook prose) and effective. An excellent example of ironic illustration.”

And yet. And yet. What if prose is the right form for the knapweed material which, after all, is written that way on all those university and state department websites? What if my revision of the knapweed stanzas was based on the wrong diagnosis of the problem? What if my creative writing teacher was right, the knapweed stanzas are overly intellectualized and emotionally manipulative, and should be removed? The field of possibilities. To turn once more to the conceit, how does one distinguish between crop and weed? The published poem once fed, clothed and sheltered me. It will not do now, but perhaps it may for someone else. Pizza, anyone?

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Last Night's PWP Launch Party

Many readers last night, whose books have been published or will be published by Poets Wear Prada this summer. I was the last to read. I read "My father doesn't know Zeus from Zeno" and "May good flowers always bloom for you" from the chapbook, and then read "Hungry Ghosts" and "There Is No Safety in Distance" from my Mermen manuscript. Winston was there, and John Marcus. (Thanks, guys, for the support!) Met Richard Weinraub for the first time, a brief but very pleasant introduction. George Held, of The Ledge, also liked my reading a lot. Sold three more books, to Laura Vookles, Alex Bleecker, and Patricia Carragon. The last two said they would get me to read at their series. All to the good. But now, in a stew of self-pity, as gooey as this New York City morning, I sigh, why can't I get my manuscript published?

*

June 27, 2007 (Wednesday) featuring PETER CHELNIK, SUSAN MAURER, SHERYL H. SIMLER, JEE LEONG KOH, IRIS BERMAN, BOB HEMAN, EFRAYIM LEVENSON, ALEX O. BLEECKER, RICKI STUART, BRANT LYON, LAURA VOOKLES, AUSTIN ALEXIS @ The Cornelia Street Café 29 Cornelia Street, NYC 10014. Hosted by Publishers/Editors: Roxanne Hoffman & Herbert Fuerst.

"New press, great authors, a publisher who is one miracle short of sainthood." -Angelo Verga

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

A. E. Houseman's letter to Moses Jackson

from Robert Douglas-Fairhurst's TLS review of The Letters of A. E. Housman edited by Archie Burnett:

Only once does the mask slip, in the sole surviving letter to Moses Jackson, the Oxford contemporary to whom Housman devoted himself, but from whom, in Laurence Housman's carefully chosen words, "there was no response in kind". Forty years on, with Jackson dying of stomach cancer, A. E. Housman sent him a copy of Last Poems with what came as close as he ever dared to writing a love letter, just as his nickname for Moses, "Mo", stopped tantalizingly short of being a confession of love, "Amo".

It is now 11 o'clock in the morning, and I hear that the Cambridge shops are sold out. Please to realise therefore, with fear and respect, that I am an eminent bloke; though I would rather have followed you round the world and blacked your boots.

The desperate blokeishness of this suggests how raw Housman's wounds still were, but the little dabs of alliteration ("bloke...blacked...boots") also hint at an attempt to find a healing pattern in his grief, so it is entirely fitting that Housman was reworking an earlier attempt to make sense of their star-crossed relationship, in a draft of A Shropshire Lad IX, which dreams of "shoes I'd liefer black than most/ That walk upon the land".

Teacher Unaccountably Dismissed in Singapore

Alfian Sa'at, an acclaimed Singaporean playwright and poet, who is Malay and gay, was recently dismissed from his substitute teaching job by the Ministry of Education, without being given any reason. Considering this, as well as other relevant situations, Yawning Bread argues for a Freedom of Information Act in Singapore. I think such an act will go a long way in opening up the government for scrutiny, which is why the government will never agree to it. So much for the mask of fairness and transparency Singapore puts on in front of foreign investors.

Fetishes

I have a thing for white frat boys.
They don’t have a thing
for me, therefore, what furious joys
I sing, I sing, I sing.

*

To the man who praised my ditty
but questioned the use of soul,
for unlike arse, leg and titty,
it gives the mind no hold,

I wish I’d said it sure isn’t gritty
to versify the soul,
but someone, though the job’s shitty,
got to watch the gloryhole.

*

You love the feel of leather, thin
rubbery sheath your chest and hips breathe in.
It makes me really hard to think
that is your kink. Mine is the smell of ink.


A note.

Swamp, Trickle, Blood

I want my body to be a river.
I fear it is a swamp.
I want to surge and sing and shiver,
and not to be damp.

Cleo in her Egyptian barge
flashes fire and ice.
Anthony, general and large,
doesn't step in the same river twice.

But a swamp in the tropics! How it sticks
to the conqueror's leather boots,
and croaks, "Be sympathetic!"
while the owl hoots.

*

This water streams between the banks
of a subterranean track.
It cannot carry pulp or foam
nor shrug them off its back.

I've waded in the muddy Nile
and walked with Eliot's Thames,
dreamt by carp-bellied Singapore,
delivering gurgling names.

Sure, this foul trickle does not grow
from glaciers or from glades,
but from the fractured concrete cast
silently cascades,

still it descends from the same sky
as the Ganges and the Styx,
elementary the water
a rat, fat with babies, sips.

*

I know I'm made of water.
Of water made I am,
one third mucus, three quarters
(ahem!) phlegm.

I knew I'm made of water.
Today I've proven it.
Two thirds vomit, one quarter
liquid shit.

I've always known I'm made of water,
gulping down the flood,
three thirds semen and four quarters
feverish blood.


A note.

Small Enough to Fit

After thinking, consciously and not so consciously, about monkey's response to my idea of compiling a chapbook of all my songs, I've decided to keep "There Is No Safety in Distance" as a sequence on its own. I've been moving the other songs around, seeing them in different permutations, flattering myself that I'm doing the same as Matisse with his scraps of colored paper when composing "The Dance" (1931-3, Paris version).



So how do I know when to stop moving things around? Matisse shows the way: "In his mid-seventies he felt himself approaching the clarity, power and purpose evoked by Paul Valery in a passage Camoin copied out for Matisse at the end of 1945: "Perhaps what we call perfection in art...is no more than the sense of wanting or finding in a human work that certainty of execution, that inner necessity, that indissoluble, reciprocal union between design and matter, which I find in the humblest seashell" (Spurling, Matisse the Master, p. 431)."

So these combinations are what I have so far: "Small Enough to Fit," "Swamp, Trickle, Blood," and "Fetishes." A very few other songs are strong or individual enough to stand by themselves: "Don't Ask me More Than I Can Give," "I Want to Live with a Beautiful Man," and "Perpetual Movements."


Small Enough to Fit

Stevie is my heroine.
Stevie loves a song.
Stevie loves sad people
who get life wrong.

Stevie wants to blame God
if there is one to blame.
Stevie thinks there's no one left
who goes by the name.

Stevie wonders what to do with sin
and with redemption too.
She can't keep returning panties,
pretending they are new.

*

I was deceived by Augustine,
without knowing him,
into believing that the soul
is more than a meme;

believing that a given body
should substantiate
through crotch and crucifix
godhood and love and hate;

believing that forgiven body
amounts to a proof
a body does not hate a body
nor a body love.

*

What can I purchase with my body,
this gift certificate,
yellowing but not invalid
till the expiry date?

Pay for me,
commands the trophy
in the twinkling mall.
Leave with me, sighs the token,
outside the capital.

I long to hear what the grave speaks
for tokens or for trophies.
It has already spoken what
the body certifies.

*

How hard it is to be honest
and think well of myself,
hard to decide which ornament
to secure for the shelf.

One owns the virtue of diamond
cut to make it shine.
The other, fired earthenware,
is a vase I may call mine.

But I, much too poor to be proud,
much too weak to be good,
must leave the old shelf empty,
standing where it has stood.

*

This voice you hear is not my voice
stuttering on the phone,
snapping at the ghostliest slight,
or sighing all alone.

This voice you hear sings on the branch
of my pelvic bone.
It sings the song of love and death.
It sings of the unknown.

It sings a sweet, repeating phrase
that flies after what’s flown.
This voice is small enough to fit
the span of a headstone.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

NYC Pride 2007

The grand marshals for the March this year were Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum and Reverend Dr. Troy Perry. The religious contingents marched at the head, unlike in previous years. I've mixed feelings about this emphasis on religion. I appreciate the political statement such a move makes, especially in the current fight against religious fundamentalism and literalism. I also support the ideal of inclusiveness, which must embrace religious groups as well as secular movements. But I think this move raises the profile of organized religion too much. The answer to fundamentalist homophobia lies in some version of human rights, equality and liberty, some universally valid vision, and not "God is also on our side." But the latter answer makes for better TV, I guess.

A cheeky placard held up by one such contingent quotes Paul, "It is not what enters the mouth that makes one unclean."

Pride should be a carnival as much as a political statement. I was happy to see so much flesh, feathers and fur. To mark Pride, I am resurrecting an old poem, with a slight revision in the last line.

Biology

Don’t lecture me on man and maid
as lock and key, as sheath and blade,
Statesmen or Sales, or Singers.

A ring, gold band, is Body’s goal;
the men cavort around the pole.
The women? Hot gun-slingers.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Impressionist and Early Modern Paintings: The Clark Brothers Collect



From the Met website:
More than 65 celebrated masterpieces owned by rival brother collectors—Robert Sterling Clark (1877–1956), founder of the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts, and Stephen Carlton Clark (1882–1960), a former trustee and illustrious donor to The Metropolitan Museum of Art—are featured in this unprecedented exhibition.

Renoir holds pride of place in this exhibition. Both Clark brothers thought highly of him and collected him avidly. Whereas Sterling, the older brother, drew a line at the Post-impressionists, Stephen collected Matisse, Bonnard, Picasso and Braque too. Stephen even hanged Matisse's "The White Plumes" (1919) over his fireplace.



Looking at Matisse's "Odalisque with Grey Pants" and Cezanne's "Still Life with a Ginger Pot and Eggplants" makes me think that Matisse paints patterns whereas Cezanne paints planes. Fabrics in Matisse often appear as wall hangings or floor carpets, and their flatness distorts traditional perspectives. In the Cezanne still life, the cloth is all angles, giving a sense of how it is both soft and sharp.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Drumming in Sullivan's Room

The drummer boy at Sullivan's Room last night was an artist. His improvisations on the club's deep house sounds were creative and strongly felt. In the basement space, with exposed stone and brick interior, and pseudo-classical wall frescoes, at different times and in thrilling variations, the drums accented, attacked, sang, and danced around the pillars of the beat.

The comparison that leapt to mind was metrical poetry. Meter is the house beat, whereas rhythm is the drumming. Meter is familiar and collective; rhythm is surprising and individual. Rhythm is not only a matter of timing, it is also volume and pitch. Regardless of its content, a line of perfect iambic pentameter has a different volume and pitch depending on its position in a poem. This is most obvious in forms with repetends, like the triolet or the villanelle, but it applies to all poems. Like the drummer tapping, stroking or striking his different drums--bongo, kettle, snare--the poet's rhythmic devices can croon, whisper and shout.

The loss of meter is a great loss. Pound's formula for the replacement of meter--poetic structure depends on (at least) one constant and (at least) one variable, but the constant needs not be meter--frees modern poetry to be experimental and improvisatory, but it also takes away its traditional supports. Without the familiar and collective beat, a poem must establish and vary its measure within its own body, a task easier in a long poem, like Whitman's. Or else a poet must rely on a reader's familiarity with his corpus of work, also like Whitman. A new poetry is based on a new sound, I think, never on a new image.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Richard Marx Weinraub's Full Review of "Payday Loans"

Weinraub's review in A Gathering of the Tribes: "While reading Jee Leong Koh’s first book of poems, Payday Loans, I felt I was encountering an important new poet...."

Norah Vincent's "Self-Made Man"

I'm taking the lazy way out and, instead of giving my own plot summary, quote from the book's back cover. The book is more serious, more subtle, than the language of this publisher's blurb may suggest.

With an ever-present five o'clock shadow, a crew-cut, wire-rimmed glasses, and her own size 11 1/2 shoes, Norah Vincent spent a year and a half as her male alter ego, Ned, and reported back what she observed incognito. Narrating her journey with exquisite insight, empathy, and humor, Norah ponders the many remarkable mysteries of gender identity as she explores firsthand who men really are when women aren't around. As Ned, she joins a bowling team, takes a high-octane sales job, goes on date with women (and men), visits strip clubs, and even manages to infiltrate a monastery and a men's therapy group.

The best chapters describe her experiences in the competitive bowling league ("Friendship"), the monastery ("Life") and the Robert Bly-type men's group ("Self"). In those chapters, Vincent is perceptive and thoughtful about the substance and limits of male relationships, and about the burden of men's gender role. I am most impressed by her ability to steer clear of academic orthodoxy, simplifications, and jargon, in order to see with her own eyes, and to write with her own words. The ability is that of a gifted reporter. She named George Orwell as one of her heroes.

In comparison with the other chapters, the ones on the strip clubs and the sales jobs were one-dimensional and unsurprising, though still well-written and witty. The theme of "Sex" is the humiliation of both men and women in the unsavory strip joints Vincent frequented. In "Work," the focus is on how the salemen saw their jobs as an extension of their dicks, or, as Vincent puts it, "Making the sales was like getting the panties, and losing it was taking it up the ass."

More surprising is her sympathetic, though not uncritical, take on the men's movement. It would have been easy to mock the rituals and activities of the men's weekend retreat in the woods, a program that culminated in a "spirit dance." But Vincent saw past those externals to the real struggles expressed by the men in trying to be man.

That chapter ends with a nuanced and bold reflection on contemporary gender relations that strikes me as true.

Manhood is a leaden mythology riding on the shoulders of every man.

True enough. But what to do about it? I can hardly write these words and defend them. Men's liberation isn't a platform you can run on, even if it is the last frontier of new age rehabilitation: the oppresser as oppressed. In our age we feel no political sympathy for "man," because he has been the conqueror, the rapist, the armonger, the plutocrat, the collective nightmare sitting on our chest. Right? Right. "Boo hoo," we say in the face of his complaint. "The tyrant weeps." When the bellowing image of the Great Oz turns out to be the befuddled homunculus pulling levers behind a curtain, we are understandably lacking in sympathy.

Yet, as Paul, who has spent years in the men's movement trying to defend it to angry feminists, once put it to me, "It is women who are paying the highest price for men's dysfunction. We are not in opposition to them at all." And he's right. Men's healing is in women's interest, though for women that healing will mean accepting on some level not only that men are--and here is the dreaded word--victims of the patriarchy too, but (and this will be the hardest part to swallow) that women have been codeterminers in the system, at times as invested and active as men themselves in making and keeping men in their role. From the feminist point of view this sounds at best like an abdication of responsibility, an easy out for the inventor, and at worst, an infuriating instance of blaming the true victim. But from Paul's point of view it means that men and women are finally agreeing on something: the system sucks.

The last chapter, "Journey's End," is particularly acute about the relationship between men's constrictive gender role and homophobia.

Somebody is always evaluating your manhood. Whether it's other men, other women, even children. And everyone is always on the lookout for your weakness or your inadequacy, as if it's some kind of plague they're terrified of catching, or, more importantly, of other men catching. If you don't make the right move, put your eyes in the right place at any given moment, in the eyes of the culture at large that threatenes the whole structure. Consequently, somebody has always got to be there kicking you under the table, redirecting, making, or keeping you a real man.

And that, I learned very quickly, is the straitjacket of the male role, and one that is no less constrictive than its feminine counterpart. You're not allowed to be a complete human bring. Intead you get to be a coached jumble of stoic poses. You get to be what's expected of you.

The worst of this scrutiny came from being perceived as an effeminate guy. Other guys, it turned out, were hypervigilant about the rules of manhood, an they were disconcerted, sometimes deeply so, by my failure to observe those rules. They could be obtuse as hell aout all kinds of other signals, especially emotional ones, but boy were they attuned to the masculinity quotient. So much so that it really does justify the term homophobia--and I've certainly never been a fan of that word. But it felt to me as if most men were genuinely afraid, almost desperately afraid sometimes of the spectral fag in their midst. It's hard to explain it otherwise. Only fear could make they spy that much on another man's signals, espcially when so much else in masculine interaction goes unremarked.

Again, this explanation of homophobia--a term I've never been shy to use--rings true. It explains its deep-seated and persistent nature, especially in cultures and historical periods that reify masculinity as invulnerability. It explains its virulence in straight men against gay men, and its opposite in straight women for lesbians. Straight men who fear and loathe homosexuals are not necessarily closeted homosexuals themselves, but they are very likely to be insecure about their masculinity. In Vincent's words, they are afraid of "the spectral fag" in themselves.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Ten Ways of Looking at Gay Poetry

Christopher Hennessy is an associate editor at Gay and Lesbian Review Worldwide. An interesting post from his blog:

Our best and brightest poets hold forth on what makes them tick
(published originally in the Gay and Lesbian Review-Worldwide)

RECENTLY, a first-of-its-kind book, Outside the Lines: Talking with Contemporary Gay Poets was published by the University of Michigan Press, a collection of interviews with some of the most prominent poets alive who also happen to be gay. On the occasion of the book's release last June, The Gay & Lesbian Review asked interviewer Christopher Hennessy to invite all of the poets who appear in the book to write a paragraph about how their artistic sensibilities have been shaped by their identity as gay men....


The poets are Frank Bidart, Rafael Campo, Henri Cole, Alfred Corn, Mark Doty, Timothy Liu, J. D. McClatchy, Carl Phillips, Reginald Shepherd and David Trinidad.

The poets agree that their outsider status as gay men influences them to be more questioning and subversive in their writing. Not a surprising or new idea. Their paragraphs say the same thing in slightly different ways, though the poets write such different kinds of poetry. I like best Henri Cole's brief response: "I think my love of simile is connected to homosexuality. Nothing is ever exactly itself, like me. Unexpectedly, I see this now as a gift to the poet."

The black poets also say something about race, but not Timothy Liu, and not the white poets. I wonder how lesbian poets would respond to the same question. Would they consider, or even emphasize, their similarities with straight woman writers? Would they question the focus on having a "distinctive" voice? I am not asking rhetorical questions. If there's a lesbian counterpart to Hennessy's book, I'd like to know of it.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Short Shorts

Before flash fiction, there were short shorts. Irving Howe and Ilana Wiener Howe published their anthology of "the shortest stories" in 1982, with the title of this post. In his introduction, Howe describes the editors' excitement over reading Mishima's "Swaddling Clothes," and then their observation that his story seemed different from the usual kind of short story.

How so? It is fiercely condensed, almost like a lyric poem; it explodes in a burst of revelation or illumination; it confines itself to a single, overpowering incident; it bears symbolic weight.

The Mishima story is a miniature masterpiece, as Howe points out. The image of the nurse's newborn wrapped in newspaper is as unforgettable to me as it is to Toshiko, the nurse's mistress, to her tragedy. The gem, however, is flawed. How could Toshiko's husband, in deciding to employ the nurse for his own newborn, have been naive enough to accept her explanation of her huge stomach as gastric dilation? Even if the husband is an insensitive, unobservant, egotistical man, as subtly suggested in the story, how could Toshiko, who has just given birth, not have seen the nurse's pregnancy for what it is?

A few of the short shorts pack the same punch as Mishama's. Sherwood Anderson's "The Untold Lie," a Winesburg, Ohio story, is deeply humane. "News from the World," by Paula Fox, frames an intense love affair with a public event, and thus gains psychological weight and universal significance. Joao Guimaraes Rosa, a Brazilian writer, is a discovery for me. "The Third Bank of the River" speaks deeply of a mystery in a father's relationship with his family. Giovanni Verga's "The Wolf" is about obsession and temptation, twin themes that are very close to my heart.

Some stories read before in other collections bear re-reading very well: Joyce's "Eveline," Hemingway's "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place," Paz's "The Blue Bouquet." I found myself resisting stories that seem too bent on giving a message: Tolstoy's "The Three Hermits," I. L. Peretz's "If Not Higher," Kafka's "The Hunter Gracchus," Luisa Valenzuela's "The Censors."

The anthology is a good read. I am a little surprised that I was not knocked into a heap more often.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

LGBT Publishing

The purpose of the Publishing Triangle is to further the publication of books and other materials written by lesbian and gay authors or with lesbian and gay themes...

Lambda Literary Foundation: Our mission is to celebrate LGBT literature and provide resources for writers, readers, booksellers, publishers, and librarians – the whole literary community...

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Visiting the Frick Again

The last time I visited the Frick was to view the tiny and exquisite Memling exhibition. This time I saw his "Portrait of a Man" again, and still loved it as much. (I have the postcard of the Man stuck to the inside of my locker in school.) It gripped me far more than the Holbein, Gainsborough and Whistler portraits in the same collection. The other portrait that exercised comparable power over me was an Ingres, some noble woman or another, looking pert yet pensive. The mirror behind her displayed the care with which her hair was tied up with ribbon.

The highlights of this visit were the Turners: "Antwerp" and "Cologne." The colors are irridescent, whether they are the white surf of waves, or the golden-green sheen of sunlight hitting a river. No wonder the Impressionists pissed their pants when they saw his paintings. But even his calmest paintings convey the force of restrained power, whereas the Impressionists still motion in dabs of paint.

The Vermeers were not as captivating as before. They struck me as, dare I say it, formulaic. Windows on the left letting in light that bathes dark interiors with an unearthly shine. The one that held my attention this time was "Mistress and Maid." We see only a sliver of the mistress' face since it is turned towards the maid behind her. The maid's face, however, is seen fully, as she hands a letter to her mistress. I liked the irony in the amount of face given to mistress and maid.



The Cezanne, "Apples and Pitcher," was powerful; Fragonnard's love series was essentially frivolous. After reading about Matisse's reaction against the Venetians when visiting Italy, I could not help but see the materialism in the Titians and Veroneses, the lack of spiritual intensity for which Matisse condemned them.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

On Using Modifiers in Poetry

kellylynn, in PFFA, asks:
Ok, in light of critiques I have received, threads I have read and general observations on modern poetry, I would like to know why good poetry has to be sparse [sic]. Why is the use of relevant, thoughtful modifiers that sharpen an image or clarify a thought a bad thing if they are not turning a poem into a prose piece? I am probably dense, but isn't there a place for rich language usage if it doesn't go overboard?

The responses are here. My comment tries to make the point that modifiers are not exactly the same as adjectives and adverbs, that modifiers are a bigger concept and open up more questions for a poet to consider than the narrow one of overmodification in writing poetry.

Sarah Polley's "Away from Her"

The film's ostensible subject is Alzheimer's disease, but its real theme is that of the marital bond tested by different kinds of infidelity. Julie Christie and Gordon Pinsent are powerful, but Olympia Dukakis stole my heart through her utterly convincing portrayal of a disillusioned wife whose husband falls in love with Christie's character in the nursing home. The film redeems the suffering of Christie's and Pinsent's characters with a vision of love. But what about the wife who confesses that the only reason she stays with her mentally ill husband is to hold on to the house?

Reading Biographies

I don't read many biographies because I am not curious enough about other people's lives. A very few biographies matter to me, and they matter to me because they touch my own life at crucial points. Andrew Motion's biography of Philip Larkin explained to me, before I came out as gay, that unfulfilment can be a source of artistic power; it developed that theme like a novel. In Richard Davenport-Hines' biography of Auden, I saw my own flight from country, orchestrated like an opera. And now Hilary Spurling's biography of Matisse grips me with a familiar power: in its depiction of the artist's struggles, of his wife's devotion to his art, of his artistic breakthroughs, it beguiles like a Romance.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Poetic Language

My one design on poetic language is to make "fuck" the most beautiful word in it.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Reading at the Shooting Star

The Shooting Star is the homeground of the Montauk Theater Productions. It is a long room, with chairs arranged in rows of five, and a narrow side-aisle. It feels much more formal than Cornelia Street Cafe, and the audience, both at my reading and the one before me, was polite and restrained. Unlike at Cornelia, no one applauded the open-mikers when their names were announced, and so readers walked in deafening silence up to the mike. The sound system was excellent.

Since only 6 signed up for the open-mic, Nemo asked me to read first. I read four poems from Payday Loans, the ones about my parents, and then spent the rest of my feature reading from my series-in-progress, The Book of the Body. The latter choice was a little naughty of me because not only does it swear quite a bit, it is non-metrical. Written in quatrains, with an end-rhyme in each last quatrain, it is certainly formal. But not metrical. Features are a good time for me to test out a sequence of poems on an audience; open-mics are too brief for such an exercise. The audience seemed to like the reading. Nemo was especially warm in his response.

During the open-mic, readers solemnly announced the form before reading the poem: sonnets, sapphics, rhyming couplets. Robert Donoghue read a likeable sonnet about a Bible-themed recreational park. Nemo read, among other poems, a moving villanelle about death and a garden growing behind him. Roxanne Hoffman, my publisher, read a narrative-poem in rhyming couplets about a woman who married soon after her husband died. Anna Evans (first met on-line at PFFA as Sestina) read two witty sonnets, one of which, "As You Like It," is consummately crafted.

Another PFFA participant, Rachel Bunting, came with Anna. Meeting them was a pleasure alloyed with the dross of reality. A voice on the page, or on the computer screen, is ethereal; it is always disconcerting to hear that voice coming from an earthly body. We moved to a cafe next-door after the reading. Anna was disarmingly frank and opinionated. Rachel was eager but less self-assured. Glad that Ray and Rick was carrying the burden of conversation with the two women, I was quiet, mostly.

I had a lycee martini and a very good shrimp po boy. Roxanne paid for it. I sold two books, one to Anna, and another to a guy whom I've heard twice at Cornelia Street Cafe. He was there last Friday when I gave out the flyers.

Saturday, June 09, 2007

Sally Tittman's Show--A Response



The graphite-on-paper drawings look simple until I give them the attention they deserve. What appear to be stones also look like balls of plasticine, or peaches. Or even meteorites, as Sally writes in her website, because no scale is given. Though they all float on paper, they convey their various weights according to their different heights from the ledge of the sheet. The graphite gives them a rough surface, but the roughness is not uniform. They appear bumpy, and these bumps make them individually real.

If bumps give spheres their charm, joints give limbs their pathos and grandeur. The limbs of the three wooden sculptures do not hide their joints; more, their arrangement presents their joints for examination. The first piece--spine and seven limbs--lies flat on the floor. It has been laid low, it has fallen, one of the limbs lying on top of another. But it also resembles tree roots, and so, has the potential to give life. The crossed limbs may be read, in a witty way, as fingers crossed.

The fourteen limbs of the second piece struggle to get up, pushing their spine against the wall to help themselves, raising the spine to slightly below waist height. The limbs tense and totter in various positions, their joints both fulcrums and stress points ; it is simultaneously plant and animal. The work is a most original depiction of effort. What detracts from the artistic illusion is the presence of four short stakes holding up the spine. Though they are placed discreetly against the wall, and though a sculptural support is an accepted convention, the stakes drain artistic force from the limbs.

In the third piece, the spine has left the wall and now walks on five limbs, waving five bones of a bony plate, like that of a stegosaurus. The other two limbs have become the head and tail of the animal. The found lumber (same as that used in the first two sculptures) gives the impression of serendipity, and the screwed joints give the sense of improvisation to this depiction of prehistoric and present joy.

Friday, June 08, 2007

Sally Tittmann's Show

I'm going for the opening reception of Sally's show tonight. The sculptures and drawings are developed during her year-long residency at the New York Studio School.

Sally Tittmann
Opening Reception: Friday, June 8 6-9
Open Hours: Sat., Sun. June 9, 10 2-6 or by appt. June 11-14

NYSS Dumbo Studios
20 Jay Street, #307 Brooklyn, NY
F Train to York Street, 3 blocks downhill

sallytittmann@yahoo.com 646-285-1970


This is an earlier work (picture from her website)



Installation (Three Columns), 2005, papier mache, each column 124" x approx 12" diam.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Park Slope Poetry Project

This evening I went for the first time to the monthly Park Slope Poetry Project reading, to hear Thomas Fucaloro's feature. The reading was held in St. John-St. Matthew Emmanuel Lutheran Church, in its basement canteen with tables covered in green plastic sheets. Sarah Sarai was visiting for the first time too, and I really liked the poem she read, which has just been published in The Threepenny Review. Bill (or William Duke) played two lovely country songs he had composed. I read two sonnets from my chapbook, as well as "Heads" and "Roof of the Mouth" from my book of the body series.

Monday, June 04, 2007

My Books in Singapore's National Library

A friend forwarded a link to the shelf number of Payday Loans in the Reference Section of the National Library. A search for my name on the library's online catalogue brought up another book I've forgotten writing. This is Distinction: A Profile of Pioneers, co-written with Lo Mun Hou, when we were both serving our national service. Distinction is a book commemorating the 2nd Singapore Infantry Brigade's 25th anniversary.

I remember the great fun--and frustration--Mun Hou and I had, writing this book. Both text and pictures had to celebrate the Brigade but we managed to inject some postmodernist puns and ambiguities into the text, detectable only by the observant reader. The book title, for instance, not only has the meaning of "excellence," but also that of "difference." The last I heard of Mun Hou was that he was pursuing his PhD in Comparative Lit somewhere in the USA.

Ben, the graphic designer, was full of whacky ideas (including changing the book format to a set of glossy postcards, enveloped in corrugated cardboard held together by steel screws), and it was up to me, the lieutenant on the project, to rein him in. I can't remember the photographer's name. His training was in fashion photography, and I was fascinated by his sessions with the top brass of the brigade, the way he got his shots while respecting the military hierarchy. He was only a first-class private then.

Those months were the most glamorous months of my national service. The rest of the time was grim, grim, grim.

"Brother" published in The Ledge

The Ledge Poetry & Fiction Magazine, No. 30, Fall-Winter 2007 issue arrived today. My poem comes third in the perfect bound book, after the prize-winning poem "My Aunt's Horse" by Melody Lacina, and "Moetotolo" by Gabriel Ramos-Rocchi Huertas (Moetotolo means sleep-crawler in Samoan, and is perhaps a trope in the poem for a homosexual lover.)

Some information from the magazine's website about the journal and its upcoming poetry and fiction contests:

We are proud to announce the arrival of our very latest issue, Number 30! This new issue is filled with over 200 pages of engaging and intriguing poems and stories, and we are pleased to offer it here for sale, for your reading pleasure. The Ledge is also quickly approaching a major milestone within the realm of literary magazine and small press publishing, too, as our next issue will be our twentieth anniversary issue! We invite those who haven't had the occasion to enjoy The Ledge to order a copy today (shipping is still FREE)! We are a fully independent, small press publisher of contemporary poetry and fiction, and we truly appreciate each and every order we receive and thank everyone for their support of the magazine over the years....

The Ledge Poetry & Fiction Magazine is published annually, usually in late spring or early summer.... The Ledge is also nationally distributed to bookstores and fine magazine shops by Bernhard DeBoer, Inc., and our present circulation is 1,500 copies per issue.

The Ledge also sponsors annual fiction and poetry awards competitions, and an annual poetry chapbook competition. For complete guidelines to any or all of these competitions, please click on the "Upcoming Contests" link at the top of this page.

Sunday, June 03, 2007

Richard Marx Weinraub on "Payday Loans"

Whee! My second review. (The first is here.) And it's a positive one. I'm reviewed alongside Richard Howard and Rachel Hadas. What a kick!

Cezanne on Line and Color

"Line and colour are not distinct.... When colour is at its richest, form takes on its fullest expression." Cezanne's words gave Matisse the courage to break decisively with the old pictorial language when the latter was painting in Collioure in 1905, the summer before the fauve exhibition.

Another rejection slip from POETRY magazine. They did not like the four parts from my book of the body series: "Roof the Mouth, Jaws and the Jaw-hinges," "Eyes," "Finger-nails," and "Nose."

Introducing a Lover to Parents

My parents arrived in New York City yesterday morning, met at JFK by me and my sister who drove them to Virginia today to live with her for the next four months. Since this was their first visit to the USA, I showed off the city to them, those sights that I thought would impress them: Grand Central Station, Empire State Building, Chinatown, and Battery Park at Manhattan's toe, where one can see the Statue greenish-blue in the distance.

Instead of being favorably impressed, they remarked, when driven by my brother-in-law in his SUV, on the potholes in the road, and, when strolling the busy sidewalks, on the unevenness and cracks that wobbled the stroller in which my two-year-old niece slept. I had anticipated comments on the filthy subway stations, but not these. The imperfections that spoke to me of charming idiosyncrasy, spoke to them of inconvenience and, worse, of negligence. The roads and sidewalks in Singapore, like a discredited theory, are flat, of course.

Then, they found out things about the city of which I knew nothing. My mother discovered in a Chinatown shop dried red dates for boiling soups for my sister's family. Today my father pointed out an office block we passed by the day before, an anonymous building that had already acquired the significance of a landmark for him. I was surprised that I resented them for knowing these things, as much as I had resented their earlier disparaging comments.

If we resent those who do not see our lover's perfections, we also resent them for seeing the perfections we have not seen. Love is a form of judgment, and we hate them who call our judgment into question.

Friday, June 01, 2007

EVC Benefit Screening

The Educational Video Center teaches documentary video production skills to young people from underserved high schools in NYC. At last night's benefit, I watched snippets from three student docs.

Still Standing, the first film, told the story of Mrs. Gertrude whose house was destroyed by Katrina. Her insurance claim was still not paid seven months after the hurricane. Evacuated to Houston, Texas, she returned one day to the neighborhood to find that the city had demolished the house without her permission. She suspected that the predominantly white neighborhood wanted her out of there. The city sent her a bill for the demolition job.

Are You Game? is about the videogaming craze. Technically it is more sophisticated than the first, but the narrative loses its way among the interviews of various people: game designers, gamers, parents. The last film, Losing Ground: The New Face of Homelessness, focuses on the plight of families who have lost their homes, and taken refuge in the city's shelter system. The cut I saw also makes reference to gay teens thrown out of homes because of their homosexuality.

I chatted with one of the filmmakers during reception; she was a lesbian (a pretty girl friend stood by her side). The issue of gay homelessness is close to her heart, and she intends to pursue it in a video project of her own after school in EVC is over. That kind of passion is a testament to the work of EVC. The EVC is looking for volunteers and donations.