I reviewed philosopher Susan Neiman's fine nonfiction book Why Grow Up? for the Sunday Philadelphia Inquirer. Have a look here. (Susan was kind enough to comment on the review on this blog, under the post "Go Forth," to which I have responded.) Neiman's book is a kind of critique of our youth-obsessed culture, with several of the main ideas of the Enlightenment explained in plain English and illustrated with personal and contemporary examples. Highly recommended, especially to anyone who sometimes suspects that growing up is synonymous with giving up.
My interview with my pen-pal and friend Sacha Mardou is up on The Believer magazine's blog today. She's so interesting to talk to. As the interview went on we started to have a side conversation about herbalism, among other things that weren't quite fitting for the interview, which was about comics and music, mostly. Ya know, art. But we enjoyed having that other conversation so much that we've decided to keep on having it and turn that into a zine. I'm excited for the results of that collaboration; the projects she and I have worked on together are always things I'm especially proud of. Meantime, give Go Forth: An Interview with Comics Artist Sacha Mardou a look!
I went to sleep last night clutching Ann Beattie's new book of short stories (The State We're In), with the sound of fireworks popping loudly outside the window behind my bed. When I woke up I finished the first story, "What Magical Realism Would Be." It wasn't bad. On the surface, it's about a "troubled" teenager who's trying to write a story for a summer school program, and the girl has to include elements of magical realism, which she thinks is stupid. (I've never especially cared for magical realism myself.) What the story is really about is how strange life can be, even without any added fictional weirdness. I reflected on the story over my morning coffee and realized that this, actually, is what I like best about short fiction, as opposed to novels, which so often seem to me to be weighed down with unnecessary detail and "story." With a shorter piece, every descriptive word matters. Something about providing just a few vivid details--like a loud storm of broken glass that rains down after some teenagers throw tons of beer bottles out the window of their moving car, which is the scene that ends this particular story--and necessarily leaving out a lot of the more mundane stuff due to the form's shorter length, serves to highlight how eerie, surprising, or odd life can seem. And as a way of looking at things, this makes sense to me. I enjoy the quieter domestic details of a Tessa Hadley novel too, but sometimes what I want is a piece of fiction that really crackles with life, and wastes no time in getting to the good stuff--the broken glass glittering like stars in an upside-down night sky--the beauty that's everywhere around us, if you let yourself look at it the right way.
Eighty-eight thousand six-hundreddifferent species in North America. In the trees, the grasses around us. Maybe more, maybe several million on each acre of earth. This one as well as any other. Where you are standing at dusk. Where the moon appears to be climbing the eastern sky. Where the wind seems to be traveling through the trees, and the frogs are content in their black ponds or else why do they sing? Where you feel a power that is not you but flows into you like a river. Where you lie down and breathe the sweet honey of the grass and count the stars; where you fall asleep listening to the simple chords repeated, repeated. Where, resting, you feel the perfection, the rising, the happiness of their dark wings.
Found this in a book of poems by Mary Oliver that I took out of the library last week when I was feeling blue. The volume is called Twelve Moons, which I liked for its witchy sound. And the poems are as witchy as Mary Oliver's poems ever are, which is to say--fairly witchy, in the most earthy, natural sense of the word.
I'm sitting at my kitchen table as I write this little blog post. It's my favorite place to sit in the whole house, in any house. We have a small kitchen but it's big enough, with two huge windows and a back door onto the yard. The windows have deep sills that I have crammed with houseplants in pots: a snake plant (Sansevieria trifasciata), with its sharp, shapely long leaves; a sprig of the huge begonia, stuck into black dirt, that broke off when I repotted it the other day; an African violet with tiny white flowers, a housewarming gift from my mother-in-law that I potted in a polished-ceramic pot that a former tenant left behind in the basement when they moved out. I have two cactuses and several cuttings from a rich purple Setcreasea pallida plant (Purple Heart) that I've had for years. I remember seeing it growing wild in Mexico last summer and feeling the thrill of recognition: I never knew where it came from! There's a paddle plant too, and a palm of some kind that I bought when it was only about 8 inches high and is now so tall and full it has to sit on the floor in a great big pot.
We have a small yard, also big enough. Through the windows, behind my houseplants, I can see the herb garden I'm growing in pots. Short and bushy oregano, tall and bouncy basil, fluffy dill stalks that were temporarily tamped down by last night's freak hail storm. As I looked out just now to describe it, I saw the lady cardinal on the fence, her beak bright orange as ever. She's one half of the cardinal couple that lives in the back of our yard somewhere. Joe identified them as a couple and as permanent residents, and now we love to spot them, probably because we're a couple too, recently married and still new to setting up a household this way.
Dozens of tiny praying mantises were born out back a few weeks ago, and now one of them lives in this kitchen. Yesterday in the morning it was standing upside down on the ceiling, next to a ladybug--both good-luck insects. Later, I found a penny on the street, heads-up.
I get restless this time of year, as well as at any other time that I feel sad. I'm not sad right this moment though, just full of squirmy energy (and good luck, I guess). I want to go swimming in the secret swimming hole in the creek near here, but I hear it's too polluted to go in anymore. I want to put on my old sneakers and tramp through the woods or, like I did yesterday, walk five miles through the city, over broken sidewalks and ducking under kudzu and pricker bushes that no one's cut back. It's wild everywhere in July, even in the city. Especially in the city, because it's people-wild here too. Everyone is restless and no one wants to work. I think I'll try to finish my chores/jobs/tasks by early afternoon so I can go roaming around again, and see what I can see.
Tonight it's the full moon, the full buck moon--lowest full moon of the calendar year. I need to get drunk on wine, play my music loud, prowl around the streets. Break something, climb something, make something. There's a good place to swim in a state park outside of Philly; if I can wait till Friday, Joe will take me there, and we can pretend to be ten years old again, the age I return to every summer. I can let the power that is not me, flow into me like a river.
That's right. Nothing. I made this pretty little poetry book last year, and I would like to share it with you. It's a collection of poems I'd written over the last several years that, for the most part, hadn't really seen the light of day; my hubby J laid the book out and together we designed the rad cover, and by designed it together I mean I sat and looked over his shoulder and pointed at the computer screen while he made it, but truly, some of the better design details are ALL ME.
I woke up this morning thinking about poetry, and how important it can be at certain times. There are things in life that are too hard to talk about using a normal string of words. You need the weird grammar of poetry instead, the way it bends and buckles and opens into sinkholes, so you can find another way in. Yesterday I felt incredibly lousy, as I had for the last several days, but I forced myself to get out of the house anyway, to take the bus to the library and look at poetry books. I'm planning a reading that will take place one day soon, and sometimes when I do those I also like to share a poem that someone else wrote. Poems are made to be shared and I think reading them aloud is probably the best way to do that. So I went to the library and poked around and see if I could find a good poem to share.
I went to the huge main branch of Philly's public library downtown, which is housed in an old Beaux Arts building that's so preposterously gorgeous it occasionally makes me feel weird, like: I just took the bus through North Philly. Why am I in the Paris Opera House all of a sudden? I went to the literature room and marched to the back, where the sign said POETRY AND POETS or whatever, but i was odd, the only things they had were old, like Shakespeare and Spenser and Yeats. The poets were old and the books themselves were old, too. They weren't what I wanted, but I looked anyway, in case I found something that would be useful to me. I gave up after a while and was on my way out of the room when I spotted the other poetry shelves, which were crammed with contemporary poetry. Yippee! Kay Ryan, Mary Oliver, W.S. Merwin, Eileen Myles. I took a few of those books home with me and read through them, and woke up this morning thinking about a poem called "Writing" from Skies, a book Myles published with Black Sparrow about 15 years ago. I read it and something stirred in my chest and I smiled to myself, which was what I needed—the stirring and the smiling—and what I couldn't get any other way. Do yourself a favor and find and read the fucking thing. She is incredible.
I am much, much less of a poet than Eileen Myles is, but I'm not terrible, either. Would you like a copy of my little zine-book? Leave a comment below within the next week, and on June 3rd a robot will choose a winner at random, and then I'll contact that person privately to get their mailing address. Sound good? Good.
Since none of the, like, five books I have out from the library have been interesting me much, I dug out my copy of John Lydon's autobiography, Rotten, as I do every few years, to try to extract some of the good stuff from that book (an up-close history of a musical moment I find fascinating, gross-out humor, vivid portraits of the Irish in London), while skimming over the bad (wordiness, seemingly no editorial guidance whatever, cringe-inducing self-aggrandizement). I say this last with great affection for John Lydon, who I really do admire. It's just that these men brag about themselves so much. Have you tried reading Richard Hell's memoir, I Dreamed I Was a Very Clean Tramp? Such a great title, but yeesh. Unreadable. So yeah, it's not a perfect book, but I'm enjoying picking through it a little again. Last night as I read by my mushroom-shaped nightlight so as not to disturb my husband sleeping next to me, I found a line I'd underlined years ago. I mean, I must have underlined it myself because I bought the book new, but I don't remember doing this and now I can't think why I would have.
"At the time, what we had wasn't a gang as much as a collection of extremely bored people."
Ha! Did I think this was funny? Did it put me to mind of myself when I was in school? Was I trying to remind myself to do something useful—like start a band or, you know, a cultural revolution—whenever I felt bored? I'll have to give it some thought.
It doesn't come out for another few months, but the artist and critic Gary Indiana has written a memoir, and it is glorious. I think he's not as well known as he should be, at least in my circles. I keep trying to talk about the book with people I know, and they all frown and say, "The name sounds familiar," not getting the joke of it or, therefore, why it sounds familiar to them. I probably shouldn't quote from the book publicly yet, but I'm just going to leave this here for now, in case anyone needs it: "The audience was as much the show as the music, raw sound that drilled into the brain and was less important than what the players wore, what they did with their bodies on stage. Everyone competed for the most fucked-up reputations, the most suicidal carelessness with drugs, the most gratuitously hostile behavior. Yet punk musicians and followers I got to know personally were touchingly sweet, highly intelligent, and un-materialistic to a utopian degree. Damaged in one way or another, but who isn't?"
He's writing here, of course, about punk, which he experienced when it came to Los Angeles in the late 70s. Before that, he lived in a crumbling hippie mansion in Haight Ashbury. He's also lived in Cuba on and off for many years. So far, he's had a kind of extraordinary life, and he is so fucking smart and funny—his writing voice is wonderful company.
(The book's back matter describes him as caustic, but I don't see that. He probably wrote the back matter himself because the book's author usually does, I think, so maybe he's the one who thinks of himself that way. He comes across as far too thoughtful in his analysis of things to be caustic. He is breath-takingly direct though, I'll give him that. He doesn't seem to flinch at all when he has to say something difficult, or unflattering; his descriptions of his family are priceless. But there's a tiny, chest-ripping tenderness that telegraphs across every mention of the stray cats he sees on the street in Havana or in L.A., even though he usually doesn't do much more than notice them and describe their looks. But you can't fool me, Gary Indiana. If you love lost, scrappy little animals, then you love everything that's good.)
So my husband and I have decided to organize our large personal zine collection a bit better, display it nicely, and open up our home about once a month as a zine reading room. We are dorks, and we are very excited about this. Figuring out the best way to arrange the zines was a challenge though. Between us we've collected around 500 zines over the last several years, and even though they're usually much smaller than books, they do take up some space. I thought maybe the zines should be placed in magazine holders of some kind, but Joe wanted them to be out in the open, footloose and fancy-free. Fine, except that the zines can't be lined up on a bookshelf the way books are, since they don't really have spines. We decided to display them facing out, so that people could easily see and flip through them, like records in a record store. (This is the method used and written about by Julie Bartel in her book, From A to Zine: Building a Winning Zine Collection in Your Library, according to an uncredited article I found online. Download it here. I have heard about Bartel's book for years but have never read it. Maybe it's time!)
But zines are also much more varied in size than books tend to be, so it quickly became apparent that, if they were stacked facing outward, the small ones would be lost behind the taller ones. Our solution was to arrange them by size, and alphabetically by title within those size categories. On the top shelf are the quarter-sized zines, on the second shelf are the half-sized ones, and on the bottom shelf are half-legal sized (which are both large and square-shaped). The magazine-sized zines we put in a cool old magazine rack that used to belong to Joe's grandparents. (It's metal and has some kind of battle scene in relief on the front of it; the thing looks like it was forged during the Civil War.) The matchbook-sized and otherwise teensy zines went on the top of the bookcase, in cigar boxes.
We also had to find a way to containerize the zines once they were facing outward, so we went to the hardware store and bought plywood, which we painted with that cool chalkboard paint and nailed to the front of the bookcase, one across each shelf. We used colorful chalk to write the alphabet under each row so that folks can easily locate zines by their title.
Have a look!
And for fun (as if all this weren't the most fun ever), I'll be posting capsule reviews of zines from our collection over the next few days. Here's the first:
Captcha is a gorgeous and imaginative sci-fi comic zine series by Jo-Jo Sherrow, and here we have book #7. Jo-Jo's drawings are intensely charming, depicting humanoid girls whose clothes and haircuts you will definitely covet, but the comic covers deep, mind-bending subjects. This one focuses on psychic self-defense methods of different kinds.
I've been interviewing someone for a magazine, and it was an unusual interview to conduct because the person I talked to is my friend and longtime pen-pal, Sacha Mardou. She's a comics artist—she draws under the name Mardou—whose work has lately gotten some good critical attention. Interviewing her this way was interesting for me for a few reasons. First, because she's interesting, and we found ourselves talking about lots of different things, including 90s indie bands, the idea of "acting" in comics, Neil Diamond, the Woody Allen story "The Whore of Mensa," and the way Sacha discovered comics—through music magazines, like Jamie Hewlett's Tank Girl on the cover of the UK's now-defunct Deadline magazine. These topics kept us in an engaged conversation for over a week. It was nice for me to get to know my friend better this way.
But what was most useful to me, I think, was what this experience taught me about interviewing—or, if not taught, encouraged me to consider. I have always found interviewing people to be inherently awkward, and I don't think I'm very good at it. It's an unnatural set-up. This isn't how conversations are supposed to work, with one person interrogating the other, and both people pretending to find the whole thing pleasant and ordinary. There's a huge power imbalance too, because the interviewer has made the interviewee vulnerable, which is easy to forget when you're the one conducting the interview. (This became much clearer to me once I'd been on the other side of the table, so to speak, and had my first experience of being interviewed. It's too bad every journalist isn't forced to play that role at some point.) As the interviewer, you've got your list of questions, things you want—and in some cases, need—to know in order to write the article. But they're not always easy questions to ask, and many times they're things that would violate all ordinary rules of politeness if you asked them in any other social situation. As a person who possesses politeness at a molecular level, this was a big hurdle for me to get over. But honestly, the thing that bugs me the most is the falseness of the interview process. It's supposed to look like a conversation—and indeed it works much, much better the more like a conversation it goes—but it's not a conversation, not really.
Turns out, interviewing a friend is a conversation. What a treat! Sacha and I blathered back and forth, and I didn't feel obliged to hold back my own commentary the way I would in a more formal interview with a stranger, and this made things flow a lot more smoothly. Anything extraneous, or that went too far into the realm of the personal, I simply left out of the finished piece. (The interview will run as a straight question-and-answer format.)
I have a feeling that this is closer to how I should conduct all my interviews, but I wonder if that's possible. How comfortable and chatty can you be with someone you've just met? If the person is an artist, having an encyclopedic knowledge of their work is a necessary first step—it's as close to knowing that stranger as you're going to get. I knew a great deal about Sacha's work and artistic background before I started the interview, but that was from knowing her personally. And as she hasn't been interviewed a ton, I don't think I could have found much of this out through research alone. So it's tough. Maybe we arts journalists should only ever interview people we know. Maybe it's like the idea I gleaned from The Wild Braid, a book of interviews with the poet Stanley Kunitz (which was published the year he turned 100!): In order to deeply understand a poem you must know something of the poet's life and circumstances. I can't remember exactly what he said now but this is the gist I got, anyway, and I felt confused by it and disagreed with it at the time. But now I'm reconsidering it. How useful is my opinion of Sacha's art if I know nothing about her as a person? It might be good enough for me as a casual viewer, but it's surely not enough for an article on the work that offers any real insight on it at all.
I'll post a link to the interview when it runs.
There's a wonderful speech at the end of Paris is Burning, Jennie Livingston's stirring documentary film about the drag ball culture created by gay and transgender black and brown folks in NYC during the 80s. Dorian Corey delivers it, while she looks into the mirror and pats on layer upon layer of makeup, which is the way she conducted much of her interview. Several people were interviewed at length for the film, but she's probably the oldest (and eldest, if you will), and her interview is the backbone of the movie in a way, which leads to her serving as a kind of narrator. To sum up her life as a drag performer, she says:
"I always had hopes of being a big star. But as you get older, you aim a little lower. Everybody wants to make an impression, some mark upon the world. Then you think, you've made a mark on the world if you just get through it, and a few people remember your name. Then you've left a mark. You don't have to bend the whole world. I think it's better to just enjoy it. Pay your dues, and just enjoy it."
I've watched this movie a couple dozen times and plan to keep on watching it whenever the mood strikes; it's made a huge impression on me, with its lessons about what it means to survive and thrive and give a name to whatever it is that you are. This speech in particular is touching because it's really, ya know, positive, despite the fact that it was delivered by a person who seems, in addition to being funny and intelligent and unceasingly dignified, pretty sad and embittered. (I've left out the more famous final line, which—breathtaking as it is—casts the rest of the quotation in a different, darker light. Look it up if you want.)
To a very young person, Corey's speech probably sounds like resignation (especially that bit about aiming a little lower), and this view is completely supported by the culture we live in, which idealizes youth and considers mature a bad, embarrassing word. (In talking about all this with my husband he reminded me of the New Yorker cartoon we saw recently, in which one child says to another, "What do you want to be when you give up?") But realizing that you don't have to bend the world, but that you probably ought to work to make it better in your own small way, could be considered the essence of adulthood, the true definition of maturity, at least according to the philosopher Susan Neiman, whose new book, Why Grow Up? I've just started reading (and will try to read double-time, since it's been out for two weeks and I'd like to review it). It's interesting to me to note that I tend to consider this the essence not of maturity but of punk, at least the iteration of punk that my friends and I have adopted for ourselves, which talks about never giving up on your ideals while also refusing to blindly believe in dogma, which kind of inevitably leads you to conclude that the best thing you can do is use your life to make the world a little bit better and more beautiful for the people in it. And yeah, enjoy it, too.
Neiman is a philosopher and the director of the Einstein Forum in Potsdam, which hosts lectures and other programs to engage "the public" with important thinkers—to take their ideas out of the academy and share them with the rest of us. Unsurprisingly then, her book is easy to understand and serves as an introduction to some of the major themes of the Enlightenment, with a special focus on Kant and his ideas about reason and experience and the importance of both. I look forward to digging into this book further because it's already making me feel fired up—in a somewhat punky sort of way, actually. In her introduction she paraphrases Paul Goodman in his 1960 book Growing Up Absurd: "When consuming goods rather than satisfying work becomes the focus of our culture, we have created (or acquiesced in) a society of permanent adolescents." Which is as relevant now as it was 55 years ago.
Microcosm, the independent press that published my first two books, interviewed me recently for their blog, and they included this Polaroid of me holding a giant library card, in which I look happier than I have looked in any picture since the "first day of school with braided pigtails on the front porch" one was taken. Here's the interview, have a look!
I love the library, and I love thinking and reading about the library, too. This week I've been enjoying Tessa Hadley's novel, The London Train, and this morning I encountered this perfect depiction of the exchange between librarian and patron in a public library:
At first she had thought it might be her duty to encourage the borrowers, talking to them about the books they were choosing, but she quickly learned that they looked at her with shocked faces if she tried, as if their reading was a private place she'd intruded into. The whole point of her role was to be neutral, she realised, not engaged or committed. The hand-to-hand exchange at the issue desk—taking the books, opening them, date-stamping them, handing them back—was a soothing ritual of community. Even when she was helping the asylum seekers who came in to research information on the Internet in support of their appeals, she never discussed the content of what they were looking for; they only strove together through the process of finding it. This exemption from the effort of relationship seemed to her to be a relief to them both.
I've been reviewing books for newspapers and magazines for a while now—something like 13 or 14 years, when I stop to think of it, which is about as long as I've been writing professionally at all. In that time, the newspaper business has changed a lot. It's a change I've been hearing was coming since I was the editor of my high school newspaper in the '90s, all Max Fischer-serious with my personal projects and extracurriculars, busy burnishing aspirations of going into the business. Everyone knew that the Internet (and "desktop publishing," as it was called back then) were about to change the media landscape in some major way, but we didn't know exactly what form it would take. It's a change I've watched unfold with an almost magical swiftness in the 15 years since then, and I'm amazed and excited by what it means for people who wish to make their own media. To become the media, as Jello Biafra famously phrased it. I still write for newspapers—and some folks still read 'em—but there are limitations to the media that a blog doesn't have. I'm looking forward to stretching my legs a little here. I plan to use this as a place to share my thoughts on everything I'm reading—not just the books I've been assigned to review—and to do so in a more casual, colloquial, and occasionally profane way than I'm able to do in print and on someone else's dime. So here you have it—notes on books from the little house in Philadelphia where I live, my contribution to the Books Blogosphere. In the coming weeks I look forward to talking about an interview I'm working on with a comics artist I admire, the novel I just checked out of the library, and Philly's Bloomsday celebration, which I look forward to every year and never miss. Hope to see you around, and please feel free to say hello and share your comments.