Monday, December 26, 2011

A New Year's Anti-Resolution

So. These are my last few days in Paris. How amazing is it that they've been over the holidays?

It's been a busy time here, what with all those Jungle Bells ringing, all the frantic packing as I get books and clothes ready to ship back home, all the while acting as host for out-of-town friends and being very very sick. And not just averagely very very sick, but the kind of sick in which you are hurling yourself at the bathroom every 20 minutes, hoping that someone with a bottle of Jack Daniels and a harpoon gun will finally come in and put you out of your misery. 

This illness is of course not helped by the fact that I have been living in France's Worst Apartment, hunched over France's Most Antiquated Pull Chain Toilet, which has--over the course of this weeklong and possibly cheese-related gastroinestinal distress--developed the particular charming plumbing tic of both flushing down AND spraying back up the contents of the bowl in one carooming, Niagra-like rush, thus sending forth a fine spray of fecal mist over the toilet seat and bathroom floor that--besides seeping down through the many already mold-felted cracks in the bathroom's linoleum--is also likely being absorbed through the pores of my face.

As I spent part of this week stumbling from visitor, to bed, to toilet, to visitor, to toilet, to bed, I couldn't help but be thankful for the small fact that, no matter how horrible this apartment is, no matter how unsanitary the bathroom, how pervasive the ceiling mold, how mortally dangerous the wiring and how uselessly dyspeptic the radiator, at least--AT LEAST--there were no rodents.

Which is when I discovered the rat.

"Oh, no!" soothed the manager, trying to put me at ease. "It is not possible for there to be a rat here."

"WHY?" I demanded, looking wild-eyed around this decaying box in which I'd been installed the last four months. "WHY WOULD THAT NOT BE POSSIBLE?"

"It is not big enough for you both," he replied.

So that is why, my last few days of Paris, I am sitting inside a literal circle of rodent traps, all my luggage zipped tight and stored high on the top of the wardrobe, googling articles on whether poisonous molds really did kill off Brittany Murphy and her husband.

And yet, weirdly, I still can't stand the thought of leaving. I just love it here so much.

Maybe it's all these beautiful holiday shop windows. I mean, how can you not love a town that every year decides to turn its every store into a greeting card for the city?

And how can you not love the fact that one of these greeting cards involves an entire display of DANCING KARL LAGERFELDS?

Maybe it's the fact I've spent so many hours pounding the pavement here. So many in fact, that the brand-new boots I bought for this trip have been literally worn away at the seams.

Or maybe it was the weird one-man dance performance I saw the other night, in which the dancer "danced" by stalking onto the stage to "Every Breath You Take" and staring, intensely, at various members of the audience.

Maybe it's because I found my very trip through these last four months echoed in the Printemps' holiday window display.

Maybe it's the fact that every time I go to the cheap but excellent restaurant by my apartment ("The Passage", right near Metro Ledru Rollin, check it out) I keep getting served things like pig's intestines and sheep brains because I never check my dictionary to confirm what it is I've so confidently ordered. And each time, the waiter discreetly pretends not to notice my dismay when the plate arrives.

Maybe it's because when the little French child upstairs cries, he sobs, "Ooooh LA LAAAAA!"

Maybe it's because I can't bear to leave a place so clearly devoted to the needs of the obsessive compulsive among us. What other city is STOCKED with whole avenues of stores devoted only to antique children's games, or antique radios, or children's books, or large glass jars filled with candy-coated flowers and plant leaves?

Maybe it's because of the homeless crazy man who sits outside the shoe shop and high fives me wildly each time I pass.

Maybe it's because my gym offers its members chocolate truffles after their workouts. (Only for the holidays, they told me. They don't want us to get too fat.)

Maybe it's because my apartment, horrible as it is, still has its little graces. Last night, there was another scrabbling in the wall by the refrigerator, then the sound of something electrical popping, a sudden rodenty shriek as something ("Not a rat, nooooo!" soothes the apartment manager) scurried away. "HA!" I yelled at the wall. "DIDN'T READ THE NOTES ABOUT THE WIRING DID YOU, YOU LITTLE FUCKER?"

Maybe it's because Jacque Brel's girlfriend seems to have been dumped. Instead of epic love-making sessions now, I hear a lot of Joni Mitchell, and sometimes crying.

Maybe it's because I'll never see my tiny nuns again. And because our last day in French class together, Rose, along with the Nepalese nun Sushma, gave me some pain d'epice for the holidays.

Or maybe I don't want to leave this city because it took me so long to love it. Strange as this may sound, I didn't want to enjoy myself too much because I felt guilty: guilty for Sean's not being happy about me being in this city, guilty for my dogs being left with my parents for so long, guilty for having so much free time to write. It is not, let me assure you, something that anyone--least of all my dogs--have insisted that I feel. Guilt, to me, is like oxygen for you: evidently I need it to survive, which is sad, because if there's one thing this award was supposed to do, it was to allow me to experience some measure of unmitigated pleasure. But this--it turns out--is probably the hardest thing in the world for me to do.

Maybe you're one of those people who sinks into delight without a backward glance. If so, please go fuck yourself. I mean this politely. For me, I was raised on the belief that any pleasure has to be earned or, if not earned per se, then be entirely innocent of any possibility of putting someone else out in the pursuit of it. The hardest thing about the past few months has been learning to accept the fact that there are no limitations on my time. It may sound easy, but in fact it is quite difficult when you've spent so much of your life training yourself to believe that limitations on one's time are a measure of success. You need your time limited: it's called a job. It's called a relationship. It's called a book deadline. It's called a family life. If you have no limitations of time, you have--in some sense--almost no identity at all.

Added to that are the often contradictory ideas I had about what I was supposed to be feeling. When I talked to Sean, I felt I was supposed to be sad and miserable because we are apart. But when talking with strangers, explaining what I was doing here, I was supposed to be ecstatic. The fact is, I am moving between all these states: the same person who gets paid to spend a whole year to do nothing but wonder what she would like to put next into her brain or her mouth is also the same person pining for her husband while hunched on the floor of her bathroom, mopping up spilled shit-water around an antiquated toilet.  

And on top of that is the fact that I am supposed to be constantly inspired to write. (That's the point, right? To be constantly inspired? Interestingly, there was a psychology journal article I read recently about whether there was actually a basis for this belief that travel inspires more creativity. Evidently, it's not just my mother who suspects that this whole year is an elaborate ruse. Still, after weighing all the evidence, the academics had to admit--grudgingly--there seemed to be something to travel after all.) However, I am not as immediately inspired as you might think I'd be. There's a lot of creativity expended in just getting by in a foreign country. Sometimes I think the most beautiful sentence I've written yet is an email in French asking for more rat traps. So while I'm also looking at some of the finest pieces of work ever produced in Western art, I'm also kicking myself for not producing something--if not equivalent--at least worthy of me being in the presence of so much art. 

After awhile, however, I understood that I was missing the point of this whole thing. Instead of thinking about this year as something that is supposed to be about money or travel or status or happiness or time or insipiration, perhaps the point was simply the removal of limitation--the idea of limitation--from my life for a time.  I thought this year was about what I was supposed to do. But it's not nearly anything as concrete as that. With no pressing personal, financial, or job-related reasons to do anything, it's about what I'd like to think.

It struck me then that I had, to a certain extent, misspent a large portion of my energy here. I was too busy berating myself for not knowing French, for leaving Sean, for sleeping in too often, for staying up too late, for seeing too many movies, for writing so many bad drafts of poems or for not writing more poems, for missing this show or reading or taking in only that one.  I had esentially begun to impose all these other limitations based on objective "achievement" upon my thinking, thus mitigating the possibility of enjoying this place for what it was. But if the award was offering me the opportunity to live without such limitations, the very least I could do is try to offer myself such freedom in return.

Spending the day yesterday talking to one of my oldest friends in the world--a woman who has spent the last few years working as a stay-at-home mother--something struck me. My friend, who has raised two cool kids, feels she's supposed to see herself as a failure for not continuing to work outside the home. She feels that people judge her success primarily on whether it has any objective financial value attached to it. For my part, I admitted to her that I felt like success had become a goal post that kept moving, maybe an inch, maybe a mile, further away the closer I got to it.
Here's something we agreed upon: the ways we are asked to see ourselves as failures are legion, but the ways in which we are allowed to see ourselves as successes are miniscule.

That was an interesting discussion to have. And I would have loved to continue it a moment longer, only just then I had to run like a maniac for the bathroom.

So. This is my newest goal for the year: to have no goals at all. I'll see what I want to, or what you suggest for me (Brian: I saw the math show at the Fondation Cartier! It was awesome! And so were the Richard Serras at the Gagosian Gallery! No pictures! They weren't allowed! Jennifer: Will be working my way down your excellent list in Istanbul next week! Thank you!), and I'll write or I won't. Fuck it. Before I left, I'd bought my plane tickets to France, Istanbul, then to Vietnam, but then I got overwhelmed and stopped planning. I'm glad I did: I love that my tickets dead-end on January 9th in Hanoi, with a little less than half the year finished. I'm now going to take advantage of this year fully and hold myself to absolutely no expectations.  Gone the brow-beating, the guilt, the relentless planning, all self-enforced suffering. Banished the thought of deadlines. Forever removed from the diet anything unpasteurized or completely raw. Sunday, I'm off to Istanbul. To do whatever. Then on to Vietnam. For however long. To live wherever. To live in a hotel, maybe, on a beach, in a hut. To go somewhere else. Maybe. Maybe not. To just hang out, with as few limitations--with as little self--as I can possibly manage.


How awesome is that? 

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Happy Birthday, Po Po

The story goes that my mother went into labor mid-morning, while standing in the kitchen at her parent's house, making my grandmother Po Po's coconut birthday cake. 

I wasn't terribly early, but I was a surprise, and so my parents piled into the car and drove to Group Health, leaving the cake unfrosted on the counter, and Po Po and Gung Gung to deal with the birthday party that would now have to be abandoned, as troupes of family members would now be visiting the hospital.

That was the first of our shared birthdays, and our annual, mutual celebrations lasted almost without break--only one year when I was stuck in a castle in Sintra, Portugal, out of money and eating liverwurst out of a can--until our final shared birthday, seven years ago. Every year today, I would call Po Po up in the morning to wish her happy birthday and she'd laugh, tell me the same thing, say that she was making us something special, which was code for custard. My mother would drive us over to my grandparents', and together we'd go down to Remo Borraccini's on Martin Luther King Way to get some horrifically sugary slab of a cake, spotted with yellow lilies and pink irises and blue roses in wheels of frosting, the cake inside gooey with jams. Dinner was roast beef, Chinese food on the side, cake, ice cream, and bowls of custard.

It's a strange thing to say that you were once very close to a woman you hardly knew, but that was the case for Po Po and me. Almost every weekend and holiday of my young life I spent with her, and I grew up hearing the familiar strains of her bickering at Gung Gung in Chinese. Po Po also spoke a melange of Chinese and English to everyone; in fact, it wasn't until later that I realized there was a real difference in the languages--being spoken seamlessly together seemed to suggest an essential connection; Chinese was just the other side of the English coin, I thought, a mistake likely reinforced by the fact that Po Po, unlike Gung Gung, didn't have an accent when she spoke English. Also, Po Po had been born in American--in Ellensburg, WA, actually--and had spent her childhood in Seattle before leaving for China along with her mother and ailing father. The other children in the family were sent to live with one relative or another; why Po Po was chosen to accompany her parents back to Canton was a mystery never to be solved.

There were a lot of mysteries never to be solved, actually, such as whether my great-grandfather had to leave because he was sick or because he was being targeted in a tong war, and whether Po Po's sister, Ruby, had been sent down to Mississippi to live in a normal or a very, very bad marriage. Regardless, Po Po stayed in Canton until her father died, and then her mother sent her back to the States at age 18 to become a hair dresser, after which she worked in an Alaska cannery, later collecting Ruby from Mississippi and the possibly bad or not husband to live together in Seattle.

These are the rudimentary facts of her life, and though whole days would pass in her company--learning to knit, or making Dohng Tay, or playing Chinese checkers with Gung Gung while she watched those eternal Chinese soap operas--I learned almost nothing about how she felt about them, what she herself remembered outside these details, whether or not she even liked those soap operas.

Probably like a lot of legal or not so legal immigrants, Po Po and Gung Gung had a tendency to keep secrets. Or to pass down secrets when you got older, and deserved them, like your first piece of gold jewelry. Then you also got to find out that Uncle X was actually a bigamist, and maybe so-and-so's name wasn't his legal one, and Auntie Z never had that many children biologically: that's just how they got those other people over. Po Po worked as a translator for the Chinese community, accompanying the newest immigrant down to City Hall or the court house or to the doctor's for treatment, so she was likely privvy to a LOT of other people's secrets, too, none of which--to my knowledge--she ever spilled.

Because the reason she never spilled is, I think, connected to the reason she would never talk about her life, such as how she met Gung Gung or what she thought about getting married, or what it was like to watch your Japanese neighbors get marched off to the internment camps (Actually, she did say something about that. She said, "I never liked the Japanese."), and what it was like to be the first Chinese American hairdresser in Seattle, which she was. She never had any answer for these questions, or no answer beside the same ones, which were, "Not much happened" or "I don't remember." Which were all the same ways of saying, "I will never tell you anything."

Po Po's reluctance to discuss her life verged even into the willingness to outright lie, which sometimes got her into trouble. Like the time we all got stuck at the US/ Canada border for three hours because Po Po told the customs officer we'd bought nothing in Vancouver, especially not food products, when the car trunk was literally jam-packed with groceries and gifts we'd bought in Chinatown. 

My mother--with whom Po Po had a famously combative relationship--always thought it was very Chinese, this reticence: outside of it being a crafty way to get around the law, the consistent refusal to discuss oneself or to express one's opinion was good manners. To do otherwise was vanity. 

So you can imagine what Po Po would think of this blog.

It was also, I think, dangerous. Not just socially, but emotionally. If one were to focus on the downsides of life--of which, for any recent immigrant, there are likely to be many--one might not prosper in the difficult times. So I also think this reticence was a survival tactic. This was confirmed in part for me when I was 18, and the Wing Luke Museum assigned a bunch of us to interview members of the Chinese American community, starting with our own relatives. By that time, Gung Gung was dead (Gung Gung, unlike Po Po, was a talker: he would have given me the dirt), so I called up Po Po, took the bus over to her house, and got to work.

The museum had given us a sheet to use as a guide. On it were all sorts of touchy-feely questions like, "Describe your first impressions of Chinatown," and "Did you experience any racism from the outside community?," "What did you think about your children's marriages?," "When did you first feel like an American?" and "Which politicians did you vote for?" Po Po's answers were, "Can't remember," or "Never" for everything. I went down the sheet. There were 50 questions in total. It was, as you can imagine, sheer agony.

Clearly, it was likely that Po Po had experienced racism at one point or time in her life. Clearly, she had complicated ideas of what it might mean to be an American, having spent significant amounts of time in China. Po Po had also tried to forbid my mother to marry my father, hating the idea of interracial marriage, especially after one of her sons married a white woman and had a child that came out red-haired, pale-skinned and blue-eyed. Obviously she should have one or two thoughts about her children's marriages. And clearly, Po Po's work with the Chinese community, and her own father's socially checkered past, would have given her some sense of the political landscape. But no. She would admit to none of it.

"Nothing," she said. "I can't remember anything like that."

Exhausted, I was about to give up, when I got to the final question. "What was the best day of your life?" I sighed, and practically threw the paper to the floor.

To my shock, Po Po began, very quietly, crying. "The day Kingsley came home from Vietnam," she said, referring to my uncle, her youngest, who had received the Purple Heart.

Po Po never made it a secret that Kingsley was her favorite. Still, I was surprised by the depth, the immediacy of her feelings. Here it was, all over again for her, the sight of her youngest boy, drained and shaky, sitting in her living room. The war--for him, and for her, too, now--over.

Sadly, that moment didn't make it into print. It couldn't carry on the page because the interview overall lacked the sense of who she was: one long, relentless self-negation. But here she'd slipped. And for a moment, I could really see my grandmother.

I thought about this again when Po Po got too frail to live on her own, and moved in for a time first with my parents, then with Uncle King's family. By that time, Po Po was in her 90's and had outlived her husband, her siblings, most of our extended family, all her friends from the community. Now she was living with her fractious daughter and the big white man whose name she could barely remember. I would come home for visits and holidays to find her, head slumped on her arms as she sat at the kitchen table, disoriented and depressed, unable to take interest in the soap operas I sat and watched with her.

"You know," she said one day. "I remember how I met your father."

I turned down All My Children and turned to her, but she was already drifting off. "Those long days in the canneries, " she said. "And he could play such good tennis. He's a very good tennis player. You should ask him now to teach you."

It was Gung Gung she was talking about. I'd seen the pictures of him, handsome in long pants and a t-shirt, clutching a tennis racket.

"Gung Gung is the one who played tennis," I told her. "Not my father."

She paused, then plunged on again. "And Ruby, what happened at church. You know how sick she is with diabetes."

"Auntie Ruby is dead, Po Po."

"She's 60!"

"You're 93," I told her. "She would have been almost the same age as you are."

Po Po got quiet, trying to process this. Finally, she turned back to the t.v. We sat together in silence, watching two blonde women yelling at each other at a cocktail party. A few minutes more, then Po Po put her head back down on the table. All those years of repressed memories had begun to crumble inside her, leaving the urge to speak to take hold, but her memory was gone, and along with it any ability to make a consistent narrative. All she had were fragments, and even these--the longer I talked to her, prodding tentatively--proved inconsistent. By the time she was willing to give the interview our family longed for, she--the real Po Po--was gone, and there was no one left to answer.

What would I have asked that day, if she'd still had her memory?

I took very few personal mementos with me for my trip around the world, but one thing I did was an old black-and-white picture of Po Po. She's on the deck of a ship steaming back home to Seattle, or away from it toward Alaska, maybe just going up to Vancouver for a visit. She's young, with long hair, her marceled curls whipped loose by the wind, her thick stockings white under a leather coat. She's looking away from the camera, but smiling, just a little. Still, it's the most enthusiastic I've ever seen her appear in a photograph. There is no date on the backside of the paper, no names to indicate who might have taken it, and when or why, if the camera was owned by my grandfather or a stranger or by a girlfriend whose name she long ago would have erased from memory. I keep the photo in my wallet, where I sometimes forget it, pulling it out in the hope that it's money. But it's only my grandmother, her long hair and thick coat, that shy, unusual smile. I concentrate on the wind whipping her hair as the boat sails ever onward, back from--or maybe ever toward--some place I can't imagine. 

Friday, December 16, 2011

Why I Hate National Poetry Month

Trolling around Paris during its rainy days on the metro, I've begun to notice things that remind me of home.

I saw these posters, and I couldn't help it: bile started, just a little, to rise in my mouth.

It's not that the poems I was seeing in the subway were particularly bad (except for the one in the voice of the marionette. I HATE that poem). In fact, I enjoyed doing a little extra translation over the course of my commute. What I didn't enjoy is how much they reminded me of National Poetry Month.

Though it's many months off in the distance, I've always despised National Poetry Month. The fact that poetry gets a month at all in the nation's "cultural calendar" is clearly a dismal sign. If you want to see where you truly stand in the world or in America, look to this calendar to see how much time has been allotted us all to celebrate your particularly "unique" social impoverishment. Novels, for instance, are not given a month, not even a week, and I don't even think they get a day, as people still read them and seem to care when they get published. Screenwriting, too, gets nada, though, weirdly, Copywriting, as do Towels, gets a day. African Americans are given a month, as is Black Music, the Earth and Women's History. Actually, women rack up a huge number of days, thus closing in on or possibly surpassing African Americans, as there are all sorts of other weeks and days that clearly have some sad affiliation with being female, such as Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation Day (and what a fun day THAT is to celebrate), Human Trafficking Day, Eating Disorders Awareness Week, Rape Awareness Week, and of course the International Day for Women. GLBT Awareness gets a month, most mental health disorders are given a week, and Asian American history too gets a week.  (Though with all those news stories breaking about how Asian Americans are having a tough time getting into Ivy League schools because their test scores and GPA's are good enough they could fill every place in each entering class, perhaps this scheduled event will change. If I'm correct about the link between perceived lack of cultural power and "cultural awareness," then Asian American History will now probably shrink from a week to a day, maybe less. Something like "Asian American Smoking Break" perhaps.)

To put this in perspective, National Poetry Month shares the same dates during which we are also urged to make ourselves aware of the horrors of Irritable Bowel Syndrome.

Basically, anything that our nation has pathologized or continues to pathologize, whether rightly or wrongly, is given pride of place in this calendar of regrets (to steal a beautiful title from my colleague, Lance Olsen). Thus what we are telling each other, annually, is that poetry is our Special Olympics of literature, established not so much out of any personal joy we might collectively get out of a vigorous rondelle (fnah, fnah), but out of the dismal fear that this previously renowned and ancient art (equivalent to lace tatting, perhaps, or building Christmas ornaments out of pinecones) might one day disappear entirely, when the last of its practitioners, out of cultural indifference, expires.

So you can see why I might hate this. Why, perhaps, most poets I know sneer at National Poetry Month, even as we all dutifully sign on to all its enriching activities to promote cultural awareness of blahblahblahlbahoh my god I just fell asleep writing this sentence.

Because why DOES poetry need a month, exactly? Why is it being pathologized (implicitly, in this fashion) at all?

Because this crap doesn't make any money. 

This, to me, is the sad reason it has a month. America feel sorry for poets, and poetry, because the work isn't lucrative. In that, it lacks that particular cultural caché. So we do what we think will boost its national sales, which is have a few radio programs devoted to it, print up some tote bags, find a few nice haiku and slap them all over the back end of a bus.

Because if people can trust the back end of a bus to help them find their DUI lawyer, OF COURSE they're going to rely on it for their next poetry book-of-the-month.

To me, this is all less about getting people to like or enjoy poetry as it is to make them feel as if they are suddenly users of poetry: that because they are in poetry's proximity, they are being enriched by the experience. The bus is enriched by the poetry, the commute is enriched by the poetry, we are all--as humans--made better by presence of poetry in our lives.

This may be the case, and perhaps I'm just being a snob about this whole thing, but actually I don't want my commute to be tainted with the expectation of moral or cultural improvement. I don't think that's what poetry is for, and I think that the way that poetry generally gets used during National Poetry Month carries with it this faintest whiff of intellectual bullying. Something like: Read this cute little fragment of a poem, you sloth-brained train monkey, because poetry is GOOD for you, it's GOOD for you, you cultural skid-mark!

I may be overreacting. Obviously, it's better to have some art somewhere than no art anywhere, and if this is the best we can do then, well, SIGH, sign me up for some bumper stickers. But it saddens me to think that the vicious cycle of why we don't tend to like poetry is being continued via National Poetry Month: that is, what drives people away from poetry is the preciousness with which poetry is presented to them, the vague sense so many people have leaving poetry that they should FEEL SOMETHING DEEPER than perhaps what they really feel, that poetry isn't something so much to be read but to be measured--as a literate human--against. Poetry is intimidating, I think, for these very reasons. Poetry, in the classroom, can sometimes be treated a bit like a religious cult, with the same cultish need for conformity, the same sense of disappointment waiting to attend a student's lack of enthusiasm for a particular poem's style, period or author. I know: I've made this mistake too as a teacher. Which may be why a large number of readers have such a knee-jerk reaction to why some poems are "good" or "bad" to begin with, and treat cultural figures like Shakespeare with kid gloves. They already know what they're supposed to feel. But that's not the same thing as actually feeling it.

So on the surface then it might seem that putting a poem up next to a bunch of ads for nasal sprays would relax that particular context: it's Modernism at Work, guys, high art mixed with low, just like Eliot liked it. But in this case, I don't think it really blurs the distinction between the categories, but instead widens the chasm, because now there's that vaguely insulting insinuation that perhaps the reader of this poem would and could ONLY find a poem if it were on a train, a bus, a billboard. It's different finding the "low" art in the poem in the published volume: that, weirdly, might be a welcoming gesture, as the world of the reader gets to coexist also in the world of the poem. The poet acknowledges the existence of this world, thus the reader; the poet, in her own world, blurs that line, too. But on the bus, because it's there for a week or a month or maybe for as long as a year, it's a deliberate interruption. It's been brought here, like some low-ranking but chipper colonel in the English army, to help you rearrange your Elvis mug collection. For me, it doesn't erase boundaries of "high" and "low", it makes them more evident that the person who put that poem on a bus believes there IS, in fact, a "high" and "low" order of language, along with "high" and "low" orders of literacy, and you, chipmunk, are on the low end of the spectrum.

However, if I really probe the dark underbelly of why I don't like National Poetry Month, I have to admit also that I actually like that poetry doesn't get a lot of readers. It doesn't bother me so much that people aren't standing in line at midnight to buy the next edition that Faber and Faber puts out. In fact, though I've clucked publicly about how important it is for people to read poetry and think about poetry and buy poetry, in reality I don't really care. Part of this is due to my firm belief that poetry has always existed and will always exist: it didn't matter before that no one was signing a 6-figure book contract for a poetry collection; why should it now? Too, I just thrive on a certain kind of dark absence. Like a mold, perhaps, or a really poisonous mushroom. One of the things I love so much about poetry is how it walks that line between public speech and private utterance, and for me, I've always felt that there were certain things I couldn't say if I knew they were being read widely. That's how I knew those subjects were poems. Prose: I could care less who reads it. (Clearly. Look at this blog.) But poetry--especially poetry as it is seen in America, if this calendar is any indication--offers both writer and reader a deeply private space, one with minimal interruptions, and that, I've come to find, is something to be guarded and cherished.

Maybe that's what bothers the calendar makers: it's not the economy of poetry, stupid, it's the privacy, which in these trying days may be a far more powerful economy even than money.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

An Incipient Au Revoir

There are certain times when you want to kill Parisians. Say, like Wednesday. Or anytime you have to go to the Monoprix between 5 and 7:30.

Really, just anytime Parisians are on their best Parisian behavior. Which seems to include being as politely but snottily indifferent as possible to those engaged in the basic human plight of co-existing in a city as overwhelming as this one. These are the times you might like to do some physical damage to someone, something that might involve a pantless Monoprix clerk bent over a desk, say, with a thick French-English dictionary and a day-old baguette at your disposal.

But you don't, because by the time you would have finished trying to express this particular revenge fantasy to the offending person in French, his eyes would have rolled back in his head as he dropped off into a bad French syntax-induced coma.

Before I left Paris, I admit it: I was getting overwhelmed. So much human traffic in and out of the metro, so much crowding and jostling on the streets, so much shouting and swearing and whining loudly on cell phones, so many cigarettes nearly catching one's coat on fire, so many people bleeding from the scalp outside the McDonald's. (I have no idea why; all I can say is that a day that passes without an ambulance dropping by it seems like a minor miracle. Random attacks by roving gangs of gourmands?) So many polite ways of being snide, so many ways to make "Thank you" sound like a pretty little dagger shoved under the ribs. 

In short, it was time to get out of town.

Perhaps I should admit that living in Paris was not, actually, my first idea. I had previously planned on spending these months in Berlin, based on the recommendations of several friends who had already visited there, and of course on Cabaret, which I watched over and over (along with The Goodbye Girl) with my mother when I was 12.

But alas, Berlin was not to be. Weirdly, considering how cheap Berlin is, I couldn't find an apartment as cheap as the one I found (online) in Paris.

And we all know how that turned out.

At first, my impressions of Berlin (shown in photos below) made me acutely regret my decision. Look at all this space! Look at all this modernist architecture! Even the train stations are pretty!

And there were Christmas markets everywhere! I love a Christmas market!

I loved the museums, the neighborhoods, the enormous portion sizes. Who knew how much you could achieve with head-sized schnitzel! Who could have guessed how many sausages a single ethnicity could consume! 

On top of this, Berlin was filled with art! There was such interesting graffiti! 

And then, of course, there was this:

Even the rail system--as discombobulating as if first seemed--was so sweet, as it never seemed to require you to ACTUALLY PURCHASE A TICKET! Also, you could ALWAYS find a seat! Compare this to Paris, where half the time your ride is standing up, and with surprising regularity you'll find some young, lithe, teenage punk slithering up behind you in the turnstile so he can sneak in on your ticket (a sassy, "D'accord, madame? S'il vous plait?" thrown in for good measure, accompanied by the wild batting of eyes) while ALSO copping a feel. Berlin, in contrast, is full of personal space! No one gropes you! No one tries to talk to you on the subways! The men you speak to don't seem to think that any conversation over 5 minutes is an obvious prelude to the possibility of sex! No one plays the electronic version of La Bamba for money! No one begs for money to help support a mini-farm of three miniature lop-eared rabbits and two chickens! (When you see a homeless person with three chickens, two rabbits and a "Money, please, I'm hungry" sign, it's hard not to suggest that her problem might have a quick--though, yes, sadly temporary--solution.) No one smokes in Berlin or, if they do, there's so much room between you and the smoker in question, it's as if the cigarette itself doesn't even exist! There's no traffic! You can cross the street practically blind-folded! 

Really, is it so bad to love a city based solely on the fact no one else seems to be living in it?

I loved the art as well: fresh and contemporary, inside museums that were fantastically devoid of human life. You could walk right up to major works of art without a thousand and one crazed tourists, all wearing the same backwards-facing baseball cap and Broncos down jacket, pushing in front of you, photographing everything so wildly you leave the building in a haze of sunspots. 

Vienna was the same.

Again, charming Christmas markets! Empty pathways! Capacious restaurants! Gluhwein flowing in the streets!

But after over a week of traveling around these two cities, I began to suspect something was, well, missing.

While Berlin was fabulous, and Vienna was almost MORE charming, even, than Berlin as its architecture seemed eerily Paris-like (All the best of Paris with none of the downsides! I thought to myself), I started to feel, um, a little bored. In both cities.

I know: this is how disgustingly spoiled I've become. BORED? Bored in BERLIN AND VIENNA? What the hell was wrong with me?

Perhaps, I thought, it was the fact I couldn't speak German. Or perhaps it was because I was so transient: I had no reason to get more "comfortable" or even excited by the city at hand. 

But the more I kept wandering around, I felt that the beautiful architecture, the fancy shops, the amazong graffiti and art and all the very lovely restaurants were kind of, um, dead.

Even the fancy Korean-fusion restaurant, Kim-Hock, I managed to stumble into at Vienna's Nauchsmarket ("This is one of the best chefs in all of Austria," the elegant woman beside me at the long communal table told me, nodding sagely, her 2-carat diamond ring sparkling on her finger. "This is one of our very important restaurants.") wasn't very good. (I think the Korean-Austrian chef might have been a little too Austrian in her spice habits now to make the Korean dishes really fly.) Had I been corrupted by Paris? Was I just numbed from all the traveling?

After a few days, I felt like I was just going through the motions. Getting up, going to museums, walking around town, photographing things, getting a headache from too much gluhwein, eating various large parts of flattened cow.

Had travel ruined me?

I found my answer in the teary reception I reserved for this little guy:

A space invader! 

MON FRÉRE! I felt like throwing my arms around it. After all those invaders found on my walks throughout Paris, all those little cheerful faces secretly adhered to the sides of buildings, just out of sight, on the corners of bridges or tucked away on a jutting alcove. How had he gotten to Vienna? Was it the same group of artists from Paris? Different ones? Did it matter? I felt like how you might feel when you run into the guy from your neighborhood grocery--the one you would never, ever talk to at home--standing in a cocktail line at the same deserted bar in Fiji. Suddenly, you are best friends. You are SOULMATES. You are now with the person who most understands, and appreciates you, in your whole life. 

And he just happens to be made out of dozens of tiny, grimy little mosaics.

Anyway, this is when I realized that what I was missing was, in fact, all the pressing, crowding, sneezing, puking, pushing, smoking, yelling and bleeding. I was missing Paris. I was missing, gasp, Parisians.

I mean, who else was going to be that mean to me?

Upon my arrival home, I immediately got trapped in a subway car packed slaughterhouse-full of end-of-work commuters. Someone with an accordion wormed his way in and began his soul-grinding snippet of La Bamba. I got off to fall in with a crowd of screaming teenagers. Some 20 year-old, seeing my rolling luggage, took the opportunity to press tight against my back in the turnstile ("Oh, mademoiselle," batting eyes, squeezing waist, "s'il vous plait, ça marche?"). Outside my metro stop, the homeless woman greeted me in cheeerful Romany, one less chicken nestled on her mattress. The Monoprix clerk wouldn't meet my eyes as she swiped my card, snarled, told me I was in the "caisse livraison" line, and if I "didn't want something delivered, madame, then why are you standing in front of me?" I got home to find the mold stench in the apartment had grown to near-overpowering dimensions. The screw holding the showerhead clipped to the shower fell off. The heater died. A shower of sparks ignited when I plugged in Ling Ling. At French class the next day, the tiny nuns gave a cheer at my return and Rose practically threw herself into my arms. "Please," she gasped in English, thrusting a sheaf of eraser-grimed homework at me. "Please, please explain to me what I have been learning!" Walking home, a crowd nearly shoved me into a puddle,  someone ashed on my shoes, a couple got into a high-pitched "we are not screaming at each other yet but 
BY GOD we are close!" fight uncomfortably close beside me.  The owner of the gym yelled at me to bring a towel. The two biggest gay guys wouldn't share the handweights. I went home sweaty, towel-less, exhausted, the sounds of an ambulance wailing past me towards the McDonald's. 

I was utterly, utterly happy.

My God, I love this city. How am I ever going to leave it in a month?

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Berlin: Some Thoughts on Form

Living in Paris sometimes makes you forget about this.

Or these.

Living in Paris makes you long for streets like this one, in Prenzlauerberg, which conform better to the Parisian's ideas of an elegant building facade.

But walking around Berlin, I had to remind myself that I wasn't in the Paris space of hyper-aestheticized nostalgia anymore. If being a tourist in Paris is being a tourist of the romantic past, then being a tourist in Berlin is being a tourist of war. District by district, I was struck time and again by this fact. War was everywhere, not only in the many museums I went to, almost all of which dealt either explicitly or implicitly with WWII, but also in three-quarters of the buildings I saw across the city.  The city's midcentury modern aesthetic was, I'm guessing, the necessary by-product of bombings and occupation and a period of frantic rebuilding. I was thinking a lot about this architecture, in large part because of my time in Paris, interestingly also a city that was itself razed and rebuilt after a period of war, and because many of the art galleries and museums I went to in Berlin also seemed particularly fascinated with architecture.

These were from a Tomas Saraceno show at the Hamburger Banhoff museum, which specializes in contemporary art. Saraceno's show on architectural utopias was in a large wing devoted particularly to the architectural arts, whose most interesting display (not shown here; the images don't do it justice) was by a woman named Andrea Pinchl. She created an installation called "double blind" which showed a standard East Berlin housing project apartment she'd constructed out of plywood  (scaled down to fit the display's confines, of course) and onto which she projected images of housing projects in Dublin, Paris, the GDR and Tashkent.  The photos weren't labeled by city; viewers had to guess which cities constructed which housing projects. What was striking, of course, was how similar the housing projects were in their essential design: almost as if there were a universal political model for how the poor should be housed. There were slight variations on the theme--better materials in the wealthier cities, better execution of design--but the forms themselves were almost identical.

Which made me wonder: do we think that poor people like, or perhaps need, certain housing structures, or do we give them these structures in part to signal their poverty? Or does the similarity of these structures begin to take on its own meaning in the end, becoming one of the visual symbols of poverty?

Another thing that struck me was how the museum itself becomesnth interesting architectural space, one not just of beams and bricks and plaster, but of words.

These were taken from the underground museum that accompanied the city's Memorial for the Deportation of European Jews. Let me just say right now how impressed I am by the Germans' commitment to display--freely!--all the particular horrors their country unleashed on the world during the war. Not only was this museum free, but the Topography of Terrors was free, as well as anything having to do with Nazism, the rise and fall of the SS, the Holocaust and the concentration camps. Imagine for a moment what it would be like if the US had a museum devoted SOLELY to its use of slavery and that this museum was located right on the Washington mall, maybe just a stone's throw away from the White House. 

Hard to imagine this happening, right?

Anyway, what got me most about the architecture of museum language was how moments of the memorial reminded me very strongly of Charles Reznikoff's book of poetry Holocaust. If you know the book, or you know his work, you know all of the language in it was taken from court testimony, in particular the Eichmann trials in Israel. Reznikoff wrote the book in the mid 70's, distant enough from the Holocaust enough for him to be wary of the "kitsch" value of Holocaust art and popular narratives. ("Kitsch" is his word, by the way, not mine.) So Reznikoff worked hard to undercut all the normal narrative structures that he felt would, wrongly, give the reader a sense of catharsis. He took away the protagonist figure. He took away any kind of language that could be construed as sentimental or even judgmental, preferring the most objective, reportorial language possible to describe the events. He took away first person pronouns. He blurred stories together, so that one person's narrative became another and another's without any sense of resolution being achieved for any of these individuals, which had the effect of also taking away the victims' individuality.

In short, Reznikoff stripped everything down to facts, creating a series of poems that refused to allow the reader to identify with the victims of the Holocaust.

It's a bold move, one I felt that the museum was making, too. The bulk of the exhibit used the same reportorial language. No attempt was made to shift the blame or contextualize the Germans' involvement in the genocide. Individuals mentioned on the museum placards would crop up only to disappear again, with no attempt to find a narrative ending. Some families' stories ended with a person surviving, others with no one surviving. Even the hall in which the known victims' names were recited, in both German and English, began with a brief history first of what happened to the Jews in the area in which the individual was known to be living. There was no speculation as to the personal belief, feelings, character or history of the individual who was killed.

And yet, I was struck by how this language was also extremely inadequate at times, at others hauntingly poetic or pointed. For instance, what is the diffence, really, between "murdered" and "died" when the person is a victim of the Holocaust? And by focusing on the essential randomness of survival, by insisting on the language of reportage and fragmentation throughout the museum--a fragmentation that becomes, in its slippages, increasingly lyric in feeling--don't we acccidentally make it poetic?

And if it does become poetic, thus playing into certain authorial anxieties about a reader's "kitschy" or sentimental identification with a subject, is that always bad?

At that point, I began to wonder about poetic language and elegy. In particular, what the markers of the poetic elegiac form might be now, beyond its early conventional or prosodic definitions. For instance, have the Objectivists and WC Williams worked their way so deeply into our language that we no longer have the ability, the poetic wherewithal, to express feeling outside of the fragmented, the colloquial, the reportorial? Have fragmentation and ellipsis become our elegaic meter? Are there really now forms that "feel" to us even before the words themselves begin to "mean"? 

And if so, have we begun to use these forms predictably?

Finally, are all these things "felt" by us basically as a response to deeply ingrained convention? The way, perhaps, that the architecture of housing projects all, depressingly, begins to look the same? Have we  created a form that signals something to be "appropriately" felt, that allow us to mourn in recognizably correct language those who have died, even those who may be socially, if not actually, dead to us?

I don't know. I think I may be considering these things because I have finished a book that is essentially a 200 page elegy that also relies on several of these strategies, and it's on the verge of being published. Sometimes it seems that the fragments of fiction, nonfiction and poetry I used throughout it was inevitable, but then I make myself step back and remember how highly, frankly excruciatingly, conscious each decision became, and how once one decision was made, it necessarily cut off other avenues. And opened different ones.   The book began solely as poems. And ended up being a mix of everything. I don't know if these were the best avenues to have gone down, either, and maybe won't ever know. Maybe knowing isn't the point. Right now, I have too much time to think more about this, as the photographic copyright/reproduction quality problems are delaying publication another couple of months. Regardless, I think we talk a lot about the "organic" qualities of form, rather than admitting that artistic convention plays a healthy part in our acceptance of something as "natural" or "organic." One thing that I keep trying to remind myself about writing: every decision made is not necessarily the right, or wrong, one. It's just another decision, out of which others will come. Each possibility is another poem.

Perhaps: each possibility--taken or not, conscious or not--is the poem.

So. This is one of the things Berlin got me thinking about. 

It's a pretty great city.