Thursday, May 31, 2007

Yikes, I've Been Tagged!

Daphne Ven Der Meulen has tagged me for a meme, and a meme is the cultural equivalent of a gene; it’s an idea passed from one generation to the next. Daphne is a Dutch painter, architect, and designer. I dream of one day purchasing one of her original jewelry designs: The Potato Ring. She is also my neighbor.

She tagged me.

Once I have been tagged, I am supposed to reveal seven random things about myself. I’m not sure I quite understand this dimension of the meme custom, but I’ll play along because this kind of thing, in my mind, is associated with the old “Chain Letter” custom. Remember that? For the Chain Letter, if you didn’t participate in that strange fun of copying that letter seven times and sending it out to seven different friends, you were supposed to have a curse put on you and your family for nine generations in the future. So, in the spirit of avoiding curse, I will take part in this meme deal and reveal seven random facts about myself.

1. I am pregnant.

2. I play an unusual instrument called a Hang Drum, also called a UFO.

3. I am waiting for a delivery man to deliver an air conditioning unit, and he is late.

4. I will see a film tonight: “The Picture of Dorian Gray.”

5. I have a dear friend who is a Chocolateur.

6. I speak Mandarin Chinese fluently.

7. When I write by hand, I use a Mont Blanc Bohème cartridge fountain pen whose retractable 14 K gold nib has platinum inlay; the barrel and cap are made of black precious resin inlaid with the Mont Blanc white star, gold-plated rings, and a clip set with a ruby gem stone. The Bohème proves a fine tool for a writer, and she forces me to mind whatever I write; my hand-written words must equal her elegance because if I should ever write prose that does not rival the Bohème’s richness, well, then I am just not worthy.

The other part of the meme deal is that I am supposed to tag others. I don’t know what it means for those I tag: You’re IT? Freeze? No tag-backs? Whatever it means, I am tagging Matt, Almond Princess, Rob, Rocketboom, Frances, Bud, and Tom.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Questionnaire: Are You an Adult?

If you would like to determine whether or not you qualify as an adult, regardless of your age, you need only take the six-question test below. This exam is like a driving test or a test to enter the military, but in this test all your answers should be written in an eloquent essay form. Think. Whether you are a real adult or not all depends on the clarity and reach of your expression.

1. Describe ten reliable resources you feel you could turn to if you were in serious financial trouble.

2. Explain several ways you go about manipulating other people.

3. Elaborate on which one of the following you yearn for most: power, sex, peer-approval, accomplishment?

4. On a scale from one to ten—one being intolerant and ten being relaxed—how do you feel when another driver cuts you off on the highway? And generally, how do you cope with the joyous rage of being alive?

5. Who do you prefer: Billie Holiday, Cindy Lauper, Judy Garland, Britney Spears, Édith Piaf, or Janis Joplin? Why? Of these women, who would you want to be? Who would you want to undress?

6. If you have good reason to suspect that someone is hatching a terrorist plot that could hurt lots of people, and you also know that The Authorities follow a strict official policy to torture any suspected terrorist until he or she reveals every detail about the plot and exposes all who are involved, would you turn that person in to the torturous Authorities? Explain.

After taking this test, you can telepathically send your answers to the dead Doctor Seuss, and he’ll be sure to get back to you. He’ll send you a dream message assessing whether or not you are a true adult. If you’re under the age of eighteen and the good rhyming Doctor tells you that you pass the test, then you should feel free to tell your parents that you transcend the artificial status of childhood or adolescence; move straight into adulthood with all its benefits—no bedtime, drink alcohol, and have all the sex you want—because everyone knows what a privileged and thrilling experience it is to be grown-up.

Monday, May 21, 2007

The Whore's Throat

Just because she refused to star in anymore Judeo-Christian porn films, the Morality Board wanted her rubbed out. Just because she didn’t eat red meat, the Lower Manhattan Construction Crew wouldn’t hire her. She was too loose to enlist in the army, they’d said. She was too eccentric for stuffy academia, too fat to be a model, too crooked for the CIA, and too tall to be the First Lady. Out of desperation, she sold her body. Wouldn’t you know it? Her first john was a cop who screwed her and then threw the book at her. She shivered for countless years in an unmarked prison cell; she’d failed at everything. The day she was released, the estranged brother who met her at the prison gates noticed all the bruises around her neck.

“What happened to you?” Those were the first words he spoke to her.

“Oh this?” She felt her hands around her neck. “I often stripped and tied my prison clothes together to try to strangle or hang myself. God only knows why they never failed to stop me. These are just the marks from all my failed suicide attempts.”

“Well, you should be grateful,” her brother lectured, “some years ago, people finally realized that Success is completely overrated. Failure is the new in thing these days. Nowadays, people like you get their own TV shows.”

And without another word, they drove off into the sunset.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Ask a TV Expert

On public radio, a talk show host once interviewed a cultural critic who knew everything about what makes good television. He was contemplating the question of how to make the college loan issue everyone was ignoring into a television drama that Americans would want to watch, one that would receive high ratings because for the networks it’s all about the ratings. The talk show host speculated that such a show should start with a dead body of a college loan officer, then an over-achieving and anti-social student, who was in the wrong place at the wrong time, would be charged with the crime followed by a courtroom drama and then revelation that the murderer was actually a girlfriend of the loan officer who had been sleeping with the guy in order to get a sweet deal on student loans. The cultural critic added, “And there should be an explosion during the last episode of the drama; it should always end with an explosion.” Cheryl—a bald, bohemian city girl—was listening to this radio show because she didn’t own a television but liked hearing radio chatter while alone and eating her potato pancakes for dinner; when she heard about the loan officer saga, she thought to herself, ‘that’s funny; that TV synopsis is exactly like my real life story in a nutshell; she shrugged and thought ‘Never figured my life would make good television drama.’ Cheryl lived out the rest of her life—into her early nineties—always refusing, or forgetting, to buy a television and always fearing that at any moment she was going to be the victim of some gruesome explosion. Fortunately, she never had to worry over going gray.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Listening Steps Through Central Park

The poem below was written after a meditative listening walk through Central Park, guided by the poet and teacher Jonathan Skinner.

Listen, Mister Acoustic Tunnel, Listen to
demolition drill men: dtt dtt dtt dtt dtt dtt dtt,
basketball boys: b aw p b aw p b aw p,
all the belch bounce beep busy bull noise

Gather noisemakers to this
sound space slam clamor whirl dance party.

Honored guests Jonathan, Gale, Stephen, and Rebecca
Display the hip, new Listening Step

Zen left, Breathe right:
Moved by city soundscape,
let your
nose, lungs, and diaphragm become ears.
Scratched-at dog tags mimic shaking key rings.
Here, Chinese Er Hu players and live rock musicians fracas.
a beggar’s lament, a cell phone buzz, and the blowing of balloons,
the squirt from a bottle of sunscreen, and feet shuffling in the grass.

Inhale, exhale, and wonder
What would all this sound like from within Sad Clown’s red balloon?

She blew up an acoustic balloon around these walking companions.
She heard Stephen exhale relief shifting the bag on his shoulder.
She heard the even corduroy swish of Jonathan’s trousers.
She heard Gale clear her throat.

Welcome birds, flies, and squirrels; noises inflate us; welcome The Voices, cabs, subway trains, volleyballs, basketballs, roller blades, and carriage rides.

Breathe right, Zen left
expand universe; resound: balloon-call-bird-burst...
echo Infinity; explosive whisper: grass-falls-water-blades...

Thursday, May 03, 2007

The Devil Reads Dada

Clarissa orders her nervous assistant to “Lay it all out on my bed. Carefully!”

Tonight, Clarissa will attend the single most important cultural event of the year: The Dada Legacy Poetry Reading. The assistant must not mishandle the posh party clothes of this fashion icon of belles-lettres. If she does, the girl can kiss her enviable career goodbye.

Tonight, Clarissa will wear a Duchamp ribbon dress: black, slinky, and corseted with a Marcel Janco fox fur shoulder wrap. She will wear her silver Man Ray stiletto heels, carry her Emmy Hemmings clutch, and adorn her ears with platinum, anti-war teardrops designed by Tristan Tzara.

The dress lacks a hole through which to put one’s head. The shoulder wrap is long enough to wrap around the world. The silver shoes have claws that sprout out like those of a cat in after-nap stretch. The clutch purse doubles as a cell phone. The platinum earrings turn into real wet teardrops after midnight, and they fall to form silver puddles on the floor. Clarissa’s is the prefect outfit for such a high-profile, surrealist poetry function. The paparazzi will go wild!

But if the outfit should be torn, wrinkled, or mishandled in the slightest way, Clarissa will pee on her assistant and then, horror of horrors, she might loose this great job as assistant to the famous Clarissa Holloway.

Lucky for this assistant, she performs this task to perfection. So, afterward, Clarissa gives her a more impossible task. “After you’ve finished cleaning up after the poodles, get on the phone and book the Cabaret Voltaire for my daughter’s Sweet Sixteen.”

“But the Cabaret Voltaire doesn’t do Sweet Sixteen Parties.”

“I don’t care. Tell them she’s a boy, and we’re throwing a Bar Mitzvah.”

“But…?” Before the assistant could say anymore, Clarissa had already given her a sharp, dismissive look and turned away. That was all.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Book Review of As You Were Saying: American Writers Respond to Their French Contemporaries; Dalkey Archive Press, 2007; 73 pages.

Attending PEN World Voices events comes with special charms of hearing extraordinary writers from the world over offer their on-the-spot insights on various great questions, such as what is Dutch humor? What dangers revolve around writing about sex? What is the next big taboo subject to confront in literature? What was it like to return to Iraq after living as an exiled Iraqi poet for 28 years? As precious as the conversation is, dealing with these kinds of questions in panel discussions is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the kind of reach and influence PEN World Voices may be having on the world’s literary scene. More than a mere conversation, we are beginning to see the possibilities and visions for cross-cultural, literary collaboration.

Anyone who attended any PEN event last week received the free gift of a small book called As You Were Saying: American Writers Respond to Their French Contemporaries. The idea behind this tiny anthology is very simple: seven of France’s most talented contemporary writers were asked to write short stories that were then translated and sent to seven equally talented American writers; the American writers were asked to write some kind of story in response to the French author’s story. The collection contains such collaborations between Marie Darrieussecq and Rick Moody, Camille Laurens and Robert Olen Butler, Jacques Roubaud and Raymond Federman, and four other pairs.

The idea of this project charmed me to the bone. I read the whole collection several times in a few short hours and felt it such a pity that more collaborations like it don’t seem to exist. I am surely hungry for more of this kind of thing.

Fabrice Rozié, Esther Allen, and Guy Walter edited the 73-page collection, and Esther Allen wrote an introduction that discusses the idea out of which this book emerged. Allen admits that the editing team thought that the idea “was startling, audacious, and, on first contemplation, almost entirely unworkable.” Rozié, Allen, and Walter feared that no one would go along with such a stunt because they assumed a kind of animosity between Americans and French. But when they pitched the ideas to the writers, they loved it. A collection of writers, translators, and editors birthed As You Were Saying, and every story proves not only a satisfying read but also a fresh and engaging exchange of ideas.

I am deeply in love with the idea of literary collaboration, especially across cultures and even regions within the same culture. I have been searching all my writing life for the proper outlet to explore my own funky ideas about collective authorship, but haven’t yet found willing or receptive partners for these ideas. In China, during the Ming dynasty, a huge novel was written called Jin Ping Mei Ci Hua or The Plum in the Golden Vase. Many scholars are confident that this multiple-volume novel was written, not by one author, but by many authors who circulated manuscripts among the literati and added stories, details, scenes, and characters as they saw fit. The result became one of China’s greatest classics. There are so many writers in the world, why insist on sitting alone behind a keyboard? Why not, once in a while, collaborate? I know that we prize individuality in our society, but when one author responds to another, they play with each other through a fictional medium, that is not compromising individuality but seeing it thrive.

In As You Were Saying, check out what happens when Rick Moody shifts perspectives from Marie Darrieussecq’s story of a man who gets the first-ever face transplant; enjoy the thoroughly chilling effects of surprise in Camille Laurens and Robert Olen Butler’s “She Had Waited For This;” notice the one or two words Raymond Federman uses to respond to Jacques Roubaud’s gory story “The Josephus Problem” about suicidal gladiators. You will want to read this volume over again because the stories are compelling, but also because of the delightful undercurrent exchange of ideas, the conversation, the writer-to-writer respect that becomes such an important layer in the reading experience.

I hope another collaborative volume emerges real soon of more world writers engaging one another on this level. It’s a fabulous idea and deserves international celebration. Cheers!