Wednesday, July 27, 2011

The House is a Nest for Dreaming: Singing Bowl with Sage

“…the house is a nest for dreaming, a shelter for imagining…”

--From the forward to the 1994 addition of The Poetics of Space by Gaston Bachelard

This is a short series on images of home. If you are interested in contributing an image from your home along with a brief prose piece about it, please email me:

One: Singing Bowl with Sage—

The rooms of my homes are filled with objects that keep company and communion with me. For the past ten years I’ve moved almost every year. How this happens I’m not sure. Does it have something to do with me, or is it just the luck I’ve had? Again I find myself in an apartment that I plan to leave. Though across the street there’s a park overlooking the lake, the apartment’s too small, there’s no backyard, and the traffic is loud.

This morning I could smell the earthy wetness of the lake in the breeze as I walked up the front steps. The scent invigorated me with both the memory of my childhood home on a lake in Minnesota and my secret future in the woods by a stream: a cabin in the woods and silence.

Philip Graham once told me that the objects in our homes reflect our psychological interior, something he wrote about in his collection of short stories, Interior Design. My husband gave me the singing bowl four years ago when we were dating. We burned the sage in the bowl at our wedding to cleanse our union. I don’t use the singing bowl or the sage, but it reminds of my desire for inner serenity. When I used to smoke I’d sometimes sneak cigarettes in the kitchen and burn the sage afterwards. No one was home but me. I always felt guilty burning the wedding sage to cover up the scent of my secret smoking. But if felt so me to do it.

If the objects of our homes reflect our inner states, is it the way we hope to be or the way we are that these objects are mirroring? It would be impossible to clear our homes of all the objects we felt didn’t properly reflect our interiors. The overflowing basket of shoes, the ugly handbag you can’t part with, a childhood toy you keep around for reasons you haven’t addressed, a stuffed bear your father sent you, the painting of squares your best friend made for you in her adult education painting class, your self-help books, the necklace your lover gave you that just isn’t quite right…

The rooms of all my many homes fade in and out. There are places I’d prefer not to remember and places I indulge in reverie over. The colors of the walls—red, turquoise blue, peach, golden yellow, sky blue—make a patch work of lost selfhood. These walls hold me in, safely store my memories, my desires, my grief and joy; they give comfort me with the solace of a space that is all my own. Bachelard would say the house frees us to dream and to remember.

I dream of the cabin in the woods by the brook, the small vegetable garden, the budding apple orchard, and the children. I dream of a small place, silent and serene, where all my objects come to rest, each in its proper place, reflecting my interior design.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

"The Minimal Limits of Identity": Is Bret Easton Ellis Worth Reading/Watching?

Bret Easton Ellis
Credit: Robert Gauthier, LA Times
Numéro Cinq's recent post “IN HELL WE WILL ALL BURN BRIGHTLY : Bret Easton Ellis’s Empire vs. Post-Empire”, By Brianna Berbenuik made me a bit uncomfortable as it started a course of thinking about how writers and artists go about the buisness of critiquing their culture. Berbenuik reviews Ellis's novel Imperial Bedrooms (Pub. June 2010--funny they thought it'd make a good summer read) a sequel to his 1985 novel Less Than Zero, highlighting the books’ theme of Empire and Post-Empire. This whole concept--though I may be misreading it--started to amuse and please me. Berbenuik writes:

"Ellis places Empire America circa 1945-2005. Empire is essentially complete delusion: misguided ideas and inordinate investment in the power of celebrity; patronizing political correctness that actually covers up insidious oppression and hides truly damaging opinions. An overall denial of the ultimate frailty and delicateness of human existence. An attitude of self-righteousness and indestructibility, hiding behind politically correct outrage.”

“The Empire is collapsing."

Berbenuik writes:

"Post-Empire is a new kind of realism. Calling bullshit as it is, stripping celebrity of its bulletproof myths, candidness, breakdowns, testing “politically correct” boundaries, irony, offensiveness in the face of a reserved attitude that hides insidious cultural uptightness for the last 60 years."

the Kardashians

"You may have noticed recently the internet exploding with “socially conscious youth” calling out establishments previously thought of as benevolent and beneficial as inherently racist and oppressive horseshit. This is Post Empire. Really believing “Multiculturalism” actually means colourblindess and equality is so very Empire.”

Have I noticed an explosion of socially conscious youth? In some ways, but it seems to me Empire and P-Empire have more to do with economic frailty in America, and then I suppose, yes, the outrageous lie of the American Dream, or at least the feeling that after being liberally educated I do know that certain people (which I confess I don't put myself in this category) have no access to the American Dream. In the P-Empire, if we believe in some version of it, not that we are meant to not that we need to, but in a way don't we long to, the outrageous lies of infallibility fall away....the American Dream is a form of comic relief.

Yet daily I hear the strangest news: politicians so severely stunted by bigotry becoming front-runners for the GOP (is this P-Empire or Empire?), corporate news moguls getting publicly pied (definitely P-Empire)...I dream of seeing the day when the rich fall, the wealthy and greedy and socially cruel are sent away to a place I don't have to think about...but such things would most likely be accompanied by severe poverty and devastation, a world where basic survival returned as our most pressing need. And why am I so angry at the rich the greedy the powerful? Are you?

The more I research this book and its author the less I want to enter the dark shrouded-ness of either one.
Carolyn Kellogg at the LA Times wrote in a June 13, 2010 review of Ellis' book, going through a history of post-publishing of Less Than Zero, "Then "American Psycho" was dropped before publication by Simon & Schuster — a strong move against an established author — for its graphic, misogynistic violence. The book, released in 1991 by Vintage, was lambasted by Gloria Steinem and boycotted by other feminist leaders."

The line between promoting and condoning misogyny and critiquing it in the world of art, writing, film, is sometimes blurred.

Allison Kelly at the Observer writes of "American Psycho," "At the same time, critics rave about it, academics revel in its transgressive and postmodern qualities, and for all the angry charges of misogyny, it has prominent female defenders, including Fay Weldon, who called it "beautiful, careful, important" and (no arguing with this one) "seminal"."

Post and Non-Post Empire are sort of a pop-culturized form of Modernism and Post-Modernism and it is funny to try and point out what is what. However, Kelly insists that Ellis is going for deeper philosophical underpinnings:

 “… like it or not, the novel dabbles in philosophical waters. The thriller-style hints   and foreshadowings also form part of a metaphysical investigation. Here, as in Less Than Zero, Ellis is plumbing the depths of human nature, exposing it at its worst. His writing is existentialist to the extent that it confronts the minimal limits of identity. What does it take for a person to become subhuman, to die inside – for the self to disappear? Answering this question involves believing the evidence in front of you. A lesson to be learned equally by characters and readers (driven home by a pattern of facial references) is to take people at face value. Past actions hold the key to future behaviour: "You have a history of this, don't you?", a member of Clay's circle comments. Forget change, growth, self-reinvention: in Ellis's LA jungle the leopards never change their spots.”

What are the “minimal limits of identity”? Does a person really become “subhuman” or “die inside”? Is there a force of evil in the world or would we be crazy to even consider such a concept? I for one have been trained to view humanity through a psychological and sociological lens that has no room for “evil,” but I confess, not everything (perhaps even most of it) I learned in school, has over the course of the past decade stood up to the truth of lived experience.

American Psycho

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

I Digress... The World of the Essay

I notice while writing essays my mind enters fully, another landscape. I am not talking about essay, essays—but the true essay, or personal essay, as Montaigne would have it, the essay as an attempt, a try. “I am myself the matter of my book,” he said. And, oh, let me digress…

I notice my mind is filled with thought—as though in trance—sky, bird, cloud, nothing. Rhythm. Silence is selected above all noise. Digress, digress, which is to wander amid the lines as they pile up, as I attempt to get at something, I don’t know yet what. This is essay. Let’s essay, Patrick Madden said during one of his lectures at VCFA, perhaps his first, perhaps it wasn’t even him, but none of this is about the facts, all of it is about experience, existing, being, and the way the work of writing can envelop us so completely that we forget we are merely crafting essays, finding meaning from the layers of our lives, we feel instead like we are more alive somehow, like we are poetic beings floating over summer streets, drifting amid the scents of greasy diner food, Chinese, hot-dog stand and the odd wafting sugary smell blasting out of the Ben & Jerry’s like a fog machine of scent.

Oh, I digress.

Ben & Jerry

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Jess Row, "Dear Yale," and "Workshop-safe Writing": VCFA Summer Res 2011 Comes to a Close

In an interview with Guernica, Jess Row talks about the politics of elite American universities (in response to his story Dear Yale)....I admit I'm impressed with this under-40-something guy, particularly his politics and place as faculty at VCFA, thus my share. Here's a quote from the interview:

"Don’t get me wrong: I love universities. I loved my time in college. Before I went to Yale I had no idea what it meant to have an intellectual life. I tried, to the best of my abilities at the time, to make use of its immense, unbelievable resources. At the same time, I was deeply lazy and complacent. I took it for granted that because I was a Yalie certain things would come naturally to me—for example, that, without any training at all, I would be able to teach English grammar to speakers of Chinese. I lived under the sway of that immense collective narcissism until I graduated and it burst, and,  then I had, for all intents and purposes, a nervous breakdown. Which is not at all uncommon."

The interview ends with an important point about how we teach writing in contemporary American workshops and why we need, as writers, to continually question the walls and rules we accept and apply to our work. A rather poignant read as our 10-day Vermont College Writers Residency comes to a close and we return to our homes and families, our jobs and pets....I for one am interested in pushing the limits of my work to a place that is less than cozy.

"I think it’s also important to say—and maybe I didn’t make this clear enough in the Rumpus interview—that of course American fiction is full of fearsomely intellectual and cerebral writers, David Foster Wallace and William T. Vollmann being two obvious examples. But I think some writing workshop instructors would like to pretend that those writers don’t exist, because they are relatively hard to teach, and their methods (and, to be frank, their interests and intellectual range) are so far beyond the reach of many beginning writers. As a writing teacher, I’ve been trying steadily to raise the bar for my students over the years—to expose them to the full range of possibilities in contemporary prose, and ask them to participate in that universe. But it’s not easy. There is such a thing as workshop-safe writing, and many students (and teachers) want to cleave to it and not let go."

Happy writing....