Re: Are Poets Bad Motherfuckers?

That’s what Olena Kalytiak Davis asked when she blogged for the Poetry Foundation last September. So, are poets bad motherfuckers? Are they different from anybody else? Call me an optimist, but I think we all have our “poetry.” We all have our thing that we are intrinsically interested and invested in. And by that definition, rhetoricians are bad motherfuckers too. We’re all bad motherfuckers. As long as we invest ourselves in exploring the things that truly interest us, hell, geek out on those things, then we are some bad motherfuckers.

But poetry specifically. Let’s talk about that. Olena (oh yes, I’m going with the first name [attribute it to being a bad motherf______–my mother doesn’t like it when I say that word]) asks in her post, “are we living our lives differently? better? or are we just making stupid poetry ‘moves’?.”

Is it not those “stupid poetry moves” that contain the persuasiveness of poetry? James Longenbach writes in his book, The Resistance To Poetry:

[T]he marginality of poetry is in many ways the source of its power, a power contingent on poetry’s capacity to resist itself more strenuously than it is resisted by the culture at large.

Throughout this entire book, Longenbach emphasizes that the audience of poetry interacts with that particular genre because we find enjoyment in the challenge. Yes, poetry can be difficult, but, to quote Tom Hanks in A League of Their Own, “the hard is what makes it great.” (Heck yeah, I just dropped an eighteen year old movie reference on you.)

So, aren’t those poetry moves absolutely pertinent to poetry? If poets stopped choosing to persuade their audience in the way that they do, then, at that moment, wouldn’t they stop being bad motherfuckers?

the e-reading experience

This past weekend I found myself participating in a lively (and at times heated) discussion about the future of the book and the value of the written word on paper vs. online.  The characters nestled around the table at which the discussion ensued included a professor of medieval literature, a poet/writing teacher, a fiction writer/rare book salesperson, an aspiring writer, and a college composition teacher (myself).

The discussion began when the medieval literature professor said she was troubled by students asking if they could read ebook versions of the assigned texts in her course.  She knew her answer to the students was no, but she said she also knew she had to think more about why that was her immediate answer.  Certainly, she said, it’s important for literature students to read the specific edition she chose (because she chose it for a particular purpose), and certainly students need shared editions so when the class performs a close reading of a particular passage, they are all looking at the same text and can easily find it with the same pagination.  But she knew there was another reason she said no to ebooks and it was more about the value of reading printed texts as opposed to etexts–about the different reading experiences students would have whether they read the text in print or online.

I quickly snapped in points about the cost of books and how ebooks could cut down on students’ expenses (a good thing, I believe) and also the changing nature of our students’ reading experiences and processes.  Many of our students are now growing up reading online and reading etexts, so I tried to argue perhaps students could have valuable reading experiences reading online the same texts we first encountered in a hardbound book.

The medievalist and the poet disagreed, and the poet added that she will not submit her poems to a publication that exists only online.  She doesn’t want her poems read in an electronic version, she said.  She wants them read on paper.

And this got me thinking about Harlot, and about our readers’ reading experiences.  All of us sitting around the table agreed that online publications can contain multi-media texts that can’t be reproduced in print journals, but a few at the table insisted that the same written text printed in an online publication could not possible be read the same way as it could be on paper.  Agreeing that the reading experiences would certainly be different (as of course the reading experience depends on so many factors, not just the form in which it appears), I was a bit concerned by the undertone of a value judgment being attached to those differences.  The woman who works in the rare books department of a well-known book store added to the conversation the issue of how “valuable texts” can only be bought by those with the proper resources, and how hard it is for her to observe people buying rare books solely for the purpose of owning them, rather than for an appreciation of the text itself.

All this is to say that I’d like to participate in and hear more discussion of people’s reading experiences with publications like Harlot. What do our readers gain and lose by experiencing our submissions solely online?

Sarah Palin Book Signing

Okay, so how many of you out there have seen this footage by New Left Media at a Sarah Palin book signing?

This was filmed November 20th, 2009 at a Borders down the street from me. For the record, I don’t recall seeing this long line of people. Perhaps I just wasn’t out and about in that area that day. It is likely.

Anywho, I want to talk about this video, specifically, because this kind of representation makes me nervous. Or uncomfortable. I see the humor in it. I see the idea that these particular interviewees don’t appear to give insightful answers about the questions they are asked when they are supposed to be very strong supporters of this person and these issues. Yes, irony. Wonderful. If it were on Jon Stewart, I’d laugh. But, it’s not.

My issue is that it comes from New Left Media, which is not about comedy. They are about supporting issues that are traditionally liberal and my uncomfortableness is not with the organization specifically; it’s that this video uses techniques that are so polarizing. The anti-Palins will point, laugh, and say that was their point all along. Pro-Palins will say that the video is edited to cater to the anti-Palins and doesn’t reflect a true Palin audience, even though New Left Media adamantly denies “cherry picking.” They went on to say:

As for accusations of cherry picking, which are commonly thrown at interview-based videos, it simply isn’t what we did.  We interviewed only a few more people than ended up in the video, not hundreds, and what was cut was done for time purposes.  The people were selected at random–some offered to be interviewed–and we were only there for 90 mins (it gets dark early and fast in Ohio right now).  What didn’t make it into the video was just more footage of people talking about taxes/spending, drilling, and abortion, and we constructed blocks in the piece to represent those issues.  Of course the piece was edited to be entertaining (this is YouTube, after all, where the currency is cat videos) but we don’t believe we misrepresented the attitudes of the people at that signing in any way.

I question the positive impact that this video has. Yes, it has had an effect of some kind–it has more than a million views and more than twenty-one thousand comments, but reading those comments is painful. It’s a major flame war. This kind of framing doesn’t foster dialogue or conversation where opposing groups can speak thoughtfully about a subject. It degrades and mocks one group, which automatically puts them on the defense.

I will say this, the video is clever. It is, but I wonder how the video might have changed if the interviewer asked specific questions about specific policies. I wonder if there might have been more detailed answers or at least made the interviewee start thinking about her specific policies. Of course, don’t me wrong, there are some just plain atrocious answers in there (seriously, Russia across the street?), but by marking the interviewees as idiotic without responding to their actual concerns, then no real progress is made. No one feels heard or understood, which does not make them more willing to concede to the other person’s point.

Perhaps, I’m just an idealist. Or maybe I’m a bit too tender-hearted, but I believe that real, intelligent, thoughtful conversations are possible and that we all can disagree with compassion. That’s part of what Harlot‘s about. That’s part of what I want to support.

My ideas on this aren’t solidified yet (because I also understand that witty commentary–no matter how offensive–also has its place) and I doubt that I’ll ever have an absolutely concrete stance, but I do wish that I’d have the opportunity to see whether a more compassionate and empathetic conversation would have a positive impact. At the moment, there just aren’t many of those types conversations happening.

A Culture of Loss

Someone that I trust very much once wrote to me the following:

This has given me the greatest trouble and still does: to realize that what things are called is incomparably more important than what they are.  The reputation, name, and appearance, the usual measure and weight of a thing, what it counts for–originally almost always wrong and arbitrary, thrown over things like a dress and altogether foreign to their nature and even to their skin–all this grows from generation unto generation, merely because people believe in it, until it gradually grows to be a part of the thing and turns into its very body.  What at first was appearance becomes in the end, almost invariably, the essence–and is effective as such.  How foolish it would be to suppose that one only needs to point out this origin and this misty shroud of delusion in order to destroy the world that “counts” for real, so-called “reality.”

We can destroy only as creators.  But let us not forget this either: it is enough to create new names and estimations and probabilities in order to create in the long run new “things.”

My friend, Fred, knows quite a bit about the relationship between epistemology and rhetoric.  He’s studied both in a thorough, indeed, obsessive manner.  I’ve learned a great deal from him about what contemporary rhetoricians call epistemic rhetoric–the concept that knowledge is not just shaped by persuasive forces, but constituted through it.

Most days I’m energized by this.  Probably because I identify myself as a rhetorician.  But today I’m feeling overwhelmed by the power of words that have reified, creating realities for so many.  To be more specific, two words are sticking with me today and generating equal parts despondency and rage:  habitat loss.  All-too ubiquitous of a phrase.  Revoltingly repetitive in our mediascape.

I don’t know what triggered today’s mental spiraling, but it might have been this article from the BBC, posted last week:

Loss of forest?  It’s lost?  You mean, as in, misplaced?

(The United States has less than 4% of its original forests.)

If you can get past the sickening anthropocentrism that frames the article (the ongoing loss is affecting human well-being?!), the article had plenty of memorable phrases, such as: “species extinctions [are] running at about 1,000 times the ‘natural’ or ‘background’ rate, [and] some biologists contend that we are in the middle of the Earth’s sixth great extinction.”

But it’s tough to tell if it was this article that triggered my tears and fists, or one of the many others that say the exact same thing.

How we discuss this collective murder (and by extension, suicide) structures the way we perceive it.  So let’s consider just for a moment this language, starting with Derrick Jensen’s take on it:

The very day we wrote the final words of this book, scientists declared that yet another subspecies of tiger had gone extinct in the wild (with only captives remaining, so discouraged they’re dosed with Viagra to try and make them breed).

Gone extinct. Such a passive way to put it, as though we know no cause, can assign no responsibility. It’s almost as though we were to say that victims of murder passed away, or that victims of arson decided to move.

It is a language of unaccountability.  It is a language that diverts attention away from those who are stealing land, toxifying the soil and our bodies, and murdering all forms of species.  Consider another instance of this rhetoric of unaccountability, in a different article from the BBC:

Are they just “moving toward” extinction, or being driven there involuntarily and ruthlessly?

Are they “swimming into trouble,” or are they being caught and slaughtered en masse?

Who’s responsible for the over-fishing that has taken 90% of the ocean’s large fish? Who’s responsible for the murder-to-point-of-extinction of sharks? The fishing companies? The corporations that own them? The corporations that buy from them? The large-scale stores that support the sale of anything that can have a price tag put on it “legally”? The consumer? The culture industry for portraying sharks as ruthless human hunters? (Think Jaws, then consider that the rate of shark attacks on humans to human attacks on sharks is about 1 to 20,000.)

None of these questions arise, because the language is neutral and passive.  Nothing in this rhetoric invites any inquiry toward responsibility.

A rhetoric that diffuses.  Diverts.  Attenuates.  Deflects.  Veils.  Distracts.

Take another look at that population index chart.  Then repeat to yourself the fact that the planet’s species are undergoing extinction at a rate 1,000 times greater than before industrial civilization.  Then–please–ask yourself if the seriousness of the situation necessitates an equally serious resistance movement.

Seriously, now’s the time to ask.

Unlike Fred, I do not think that “it is enough to create new names” for this particular situation.  Much more must be done.  Much, much more.  Anything and everything that will stop the murder of the planet must be considered.

But “new names” is indeed a part of this equation.  So today I recommend a reframing of the term “extinction.”  Instead of thinking of it as the death of a species, think of as the end of birth.

It’s 2010 and You’re Fat.

Well, that’s what you’d think by watching anything on TV lately. If there’s remotely any down time then Jillian what’s-her-face or P90X is telling you how to get in shape. I understand that some people make resolutions (I’ve never really taken that kind of thing too seriously) and I also understand that losing weight is one of those top resolutions. So, naturally comes the barrage of work-out commercials in the beginning year. Strike while the iron’s hot!

Let’s have a bit of fun breaking some down, eh?

(Disclaimer: I am all for being fit and healthy. I just think most exercise commercials are cheesy as all get out. So, yes, look out for your nutrition and exercise regime, but have some fun with these commercial critiques too.)

(By the way, I tried looking for some youtube videos of these commercials and the first ones I got were all for funny exercise commercials. I suppose our ideal workout is to laugh our butts off.)


Sooo, yeah. The photos are fantastic, aren’t they? But, uh, none of those people looked particularly bad to start off with, do they? Just average sized people who consequently get crazy ripped by using this system. So, I guess you know who their audience is, eh? Perhaps, average sized people who fantasize about being crazy ripped? The thing that always makes me chuckle at P90X is how they glance over their Nutrition Plan. They have one and it comes with the DVDs, but they always stress the workout, which is kinda funny, because no matter how much muscle someone builds up, if they’re eating in a particularly bad way, then there will always be fat over top that muscle. So, the nutrition aspect is important, but apparently not important enough to point that out.

Jillian Michaels

I couldn’t find a video for this, so you’ll have to trust me on this one. From what I’ve seen, she’s marketing the “Jillian Michaels QuickStart and Detox & Cleanse Combo™” right now. In this commercial, Ms. Michaels stands next to a picture of her product and assures us that this product will give us a great start to our diet. It’s absolutely, positively dependent on credibility. We should listen to Jillian Michaels, because she’s that lady who helps people lose weight on The Biggest Loser. She is a professional trainer, but by using the product she won’t personally yell at you. Hooray.

Wii Fit

Oh yes. I’m including this game, because it’s taking advantage of this time of year just like everybody else. I actually like this for its “get off your butt while playing a video game” quality and their marketing strategy? Fun. Everyone looks so happy! And it’s a family thing! Dutch Angles! Whoo!

Your Shape featuring Jenny McCarthy

My guess for picking her specifically is because there are still men out there who fantasize about Jenny McCarthy circa Singled Out era. She might also be that representative Mom figure to reach the women folk. I know that it’s been nice to see her mature just a little bit in the recent years as she focused more on the well being of her child and less on, you know, fart jokes.

Total Gym

Chuck Norris. Need I say more? (When the Boogeyman goes to sleep every night, he checks his closet for Chuck Norris.)

Alright, I can’t think of any more, but I know they’re out there. Plus, there’s a load of diets and diet machinery being advertised as well. ‘Tis the season. Hmm, I wonder. Are any of these decidedly better than others? For me, I’d probably be most persuaded by Wii Fit. Why not? It’s a game, right? 😉

Mashup Culture Runs into Gaming Culture

By this point, I think most of us are familiar with the mashup. The most notable mashups that come up usually involve music or film.

i.e. Girl Talk:

i.e. Kate’s last post about Buffy and Twilight or, one of my favorites, “40 Inspirational Speeches in 2 Minutes:”

But! Check this out. Now, people are mashing together different kinds of video games. Seriously, go play Tuper Tario Tros. This flash game combines Mario Bros. and Tetris (both personal nostalgic favorites) into one game, where it is necessary to switch back and forth between the two in order to win the game. I find this particularly interesting, because instead of the mashup living in the traditional static manner, this forces the consumer to interact with the mashup and to decide when to switch from one to the other. It’s a new era of mashup.

Other video games like DJ Hero have similar vibes, but a player cannot independently decide when to switch over. The challenge there is to follow what is already constructed. Plus, it’s still jazzing off the the same music mash idea, but Tuper Tario Tros doesn’t and it’s totally up to the player to decide when to switch over. If the player thinks that they can get Mario to make a jump, then they can stay in Mario Bros. mode, but if they’d like the extra help of some blocks, then they can switch over to Tetris mode to build up a bridge or something. It gives the player choice.

If we want to analyze this youngerish generation as being a remix culture, then this creation of choice is crazy pertinent. Doesn’t this indicate that in this progressing remix culture, it’s not only important to be able to bring our multiple resources together, but to choose when we do so and to choose how we interact with it. Ooooo, I’m looking forward to seeing where this goes.

(Tuper Tario Tros link via facebook.)

Buffy the Twilight Slayer

I’m still working on that digital media syllabus, so… playing around on YouTube. (Work is hard.) And there I stumbled upon this little gem from artist-activist Jonathan McIntosh:

It made me so happy, for a couple of reasons:

As a longtime Buffy fan (not to mention feminist), I can’t get on board with the Twilight phenomenon. Last year a student of mine wrote a rhetorical analysis of the first novel. She choose the text because although she really enjoyed the books, she felt kind of uncomfortable about the idealized relationship between Edward and Bella. And rightfully so: Her astute analysis finally led her to the conclusion that Edward fits the Harvard psychological profile of an abusiver stalker, and that Meyer’s version of love and abstinence disempowers her predominantly young, female fan base. (For more, see Christine Seifert’s “Bite Me (or Don’t)” or Anita Sarkeesian’s “The Real Reason Guys Should Hate Twilight,” among innumerable others.) This remix does a great job, I think, of humorously highlighting just those problems–and the comparative awesomeness of Buffy.

From another angle, I can’t wait to use more of McIntosh’s work in the classroom. The digital media course, which I’m centering around narrative genre(s), has me thinking a lot about fair use, remix, and how everyday composers can engage in public conversations about the texts that affect them and their culture. And this sleek, smart, and legal film works to demonstrate how effective and fun such rhetorical narratives can be.

For more from McIntosh about this remix, see his guest blog post on WIMN’s Voices. And definitely check out his other works at Rebellious Pixels.