Thursday, January 29, 2009

I have not forgotten about the blog!

I'm making good progress on the novel, so I haven't been able to write many short things, or really much of anything else. I have an interesting post coming up on creativity,'ll see!

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Weighing in on Elizabeth Alexander's Inauguration Poem

While I lay here, recovering from a bout of InaugurationSARS, I figure that I should probably record my two cents on the poetry that attempted to kick-start this historic presidency. I should comment on the poetry (and the poet) chosen to commemorate what was, no doubt, one of the biggest days in America's lifelong struggle with political, racial, and social identity.

What you may not know about me is that in my other life, when not scribbling down scraps of fiction, working on my novel, or just plain working for a living, I'm a poetry scholar. If I'd continued with my graduate school journey, I probably would have ended up writing my dissertation on some topic in 21st century American poetry/poetics.

To add to that, I was there to hear this thing (hence the InaugurationSARS). Here are my photos.

As a result, I feel uniquely qualified to comment on this poem (transcript courtesy of the New York Times).

Here's the deal, folks: it was terrible.

The Guardian's books blog characterized the poem as "too prosy" but that's not the real problem with it. That same blog suggested that Alexander's idea of using African praise song form was a good one, but that she lacked follow-through. That's getting closer to the crux of the problem.

The biggest problem with this poem, in my humble opinion, was that the poem completely lacked lyricism. She must not have fully understood the magnitude of her task: not only was she setting the tone for a historic presidency on an amazing day, but she was also supposed to set the tone for Obama's continuing engagement with the fine arts as a person and as President. Whoops. Not much art went into the writing of that poem. It's like she didn't read it aloud to herself while she was writing it, and the first time it was ever spoken was on the 20th.

The poem's title "Praise Song for the Day" would have been great, for a poem that was actually about The Day, or for something that actually resembled a praise song, in form. Check out the example of praise song that the Encyclopedia Britannica gives.

When I read this, I see nobility, power, beauty. Even in translation, this praise song has a lyricism to it (no doubt a credit to the translator's skill). There is music in the words, and the praise soars so high it nearly reaches godhead. Let's see what Elizabeth Alexander wrote:

Each day we go about our business, walking past each other, catching each others' eyes or not, about to speak or speaking. All about us is noise. All about us is noise and bramble, thorn and din, each one of our ancestors on our tongues. Someone is stitching up a hem, darning a hole in a uniform, patching a tire, repairing the things in need of repair.

Someone is trying to make music somewhere with a pair of wooden spoons on an oil drum with cello, boom box, harmonica, voice.

A woman and her son wait for the bus.

A farmer considers the changing sky; A teacher says, "Take out your pencils. Begin."

We encounter each other in words, words spiny or smooth, whispered or declaimed; words to consider, reconsider.

I don't even have to read past the first line to realize that she has it all wrong: "catching each others' eyes or not, about to speak or speaking." The line is clever, sure, but what does it really mean? It means, of course, that we make the noise that is around us. That we don't ever truly listen. Is that really what she wants to say to us at a moment when we have just devoured the words of our new President as though we'd been starving for wisdom? Yikes.

"Someone is[...] repairing the things in need of repair." Oh, really? So it's all taken care of? Great! What did we want this Obama guy to do, again? I know she was trying to raise our consciousness about the importance of the little things, the simple things. By raising our consciousness, she hoped to glorify those small acts. That's why she chose the uniform, and the tire. These things have connotations: service, utility. I'm certain that's what she was going for. It was a nice try, but who, standing on the mall or glued to their CNN, was really going to take that extra step? Also, why is there no music here?

Of course, there's no music here because someone is trying to make it somewhere else, with an eclectic collection of instruments, and is apparently failing miserably at it. The list of instruments itself has no music. It almost hurt to hear her awkwardly rattle them off: "a pair of wooden spoons on an oil drum with cello, boom box, harmonica, voice." Look at the syllables of the last four instruments: 2, 2, 4, 1. The consonants are unyielding and there's no rhythm to the words. I'm sure she considered her choice of items carefully, but it's clear that she didn't think about the words at all.

I can barely even describe how infuriating the next bit is, to me. It's everything that everyone who hates poetry hates about poetry. She thinks she is doing the world a service by elevating the mundane, but it comes off as nothing more than a laundry list of observations. There is absolutely nothing in the text (nor was there anything in her delivery) that signals that these were simple acts made glorious. Below, I will link you to a poem in which the poet glorifies a trip to the coffee shop, even while contrasting it with the wonders of a trip abroad. It's possible to do exactly what Elizabeth Alexander wanted to do--just, not like this.

"We encounter each other in words," to your detriment, Ms. Alexander. She later goes on to say that in the sparkle of the day, anything is possible, and that we walk forward to see what lies ahead, which as far as I can tell is just a brief paraphrase of every stump speech Obama gave during his campaign. She also throws in something about "figuring it out at kitchen tables," which I can only assume is her one-line homage to Joe Biden's stump speeches.

Combined with Alexander's lackluster delivery, this poem was quite clearly a clunker. If it had been a car, I wouldn't have been able to drive it off the lot without something crucial falling off of it.

It's a damn shame that Gwendolyn Brooks did not survive to write this poem, because I know she would have known exactly how to do it.

President Obama managed to get superstars to cover every other aspect of his Inaugural festivities, especially the music: Aretha Franklin, Yo-Yo Ma, Itzhak Perlman. Why not a superstar of poetry? And, if the idea was to accentuate the glory of the mundane, why not choose a superstar poet whose entire oeuvre is based on that very idea? I'm thinking, of course, of former poet laureate Billy Collins. As you can see from the linked item, Billy Collins is the biggest superstar in popular poetry for good reason. This man creates the idea of home for Americans like no other poet alive today. He's not Gwendolyn Brooks, but he would have gotten the job done.

For more analysis of the poem (line by line, very thorough) please see the University Diaries blog:

Now that I've spouted off on the subject, let me know what you thought of the inaugural poem. Yea or nay?

Friday, January 16, 2009

A Blast of Writing From The Past

I Googled myself today, just for shits and giggles. Something interesting usually pops up whenever I do this, and this time was no exception. The first thing I found was the headline:

Dishonest scholar deserves punishment

Now, why would I ever have written about that? The most probable explanation is that my friend was an editor for our high school paper and desperately needed to fill some column inches on the op-ed page, way back in October 1998. (This very same friend just defended her Ph.D. thesis this morning, by the way. Congratulations, Dr. Courtney!)

When I stumbled upon the article, I couldn't imagine having written something so banal. I must have been trying to pad my journalistic portfolio or something. But as I read it, I recognized more and more of myself in it. I was most certainly a dramatic young lady, as you will see from the article, provided below:

Lon "L.T." Grammer was a model student. He had a 3.91 GPA and brilliant recommendations from his former teachers at Cuesta Community College in California. He was a perfect candidate for transfer to Yale University in the fall of 1994. So why would such a shining political science student copy a take-home exam? And why would he choose to copy an exam that was clearly no better than an F paper? These were the valid questions that led Grammer’s professors and Yale authorities to begin investigating Grammer’s character.

What they found was startling: Grammer had falsified his transcript, raising his GPA from 2.077 to 3.91, and forged the recommendations of several fictitious teachers. Grammer had also created information for his driver’s license applications in both New Hampshire and Connecticut. He is currently fighting a court battle with the town of Meriden, and another with Yale is yet to come.

However, a court case is not a strict enough punishment for this deviant from the system. Many high school seniors work themselves ragged to get into educational institutions like Yale. These honest students agree that someone who repeatedly broke the law, falsified his entire transcript and has a C- grade point average should be thrown out of the school, prosecuted to the fullest, and embarrassed thoroughly.

Grammer should be blushing already; he was caught because he cheated off of someone of near-equal academic standing. Yale should make an example of him, maybe by testifying against him in his court cases for driver’s license fraud, just to make sure he gets the punishment he deserves. Perhaps he should be sentenced to repeat twelfth grade, or maybe he should be blacklisted from the top 25 undergraduate schools in the nation. Yale should teach Grammer to work his way up from nothing by leaving him alone with the aftermath of his self-destruction.


"aftermath of his self-destruction" --> that's how I knew it was mine. The bit about being sentenced to repeat the twelfth grade, as I was embarking upon my own senior year experience, was a dig at high school. I was probably mad at some administrator for censoring something with genuine artistic merit (I spent a good portion of my junior and senior years that way). This flimsy opinion piece, which I probably didn't even care much about, is written such that it is able to remind me of exactly who I was at the time, even 10+ years later.

Do you ever go back and read things you've written in the past? Do they stand the test of time? Is there a voice that you recognize as "you," and has it changed in the interim?

Monday, January 12, 2009

Like the Great Flood, but with "aliens"

It's like we're flying along in our spaceship, minding our own business, and suddenly, aliens hail us and tell us to prepare to be boarded. That's how Washington, DC, feels right now. We know they're coming, but we have no idea how many and we're not sure exactly when. They may already be here, among us. Spying on us. Learning our ways. Paying through the nose at our hotels.

The intersection nearest to my office had a pile of cement barricades on each corner, ready and waiting. I looked at them, puzzled. As anyone who has ever lived as a pedestrian in a city with an underground train system can tell you, riding the Metro tends to make you compartmentalize the city in your mind. Bits of city only exist around their correlating Metro stations. My office is a mere 1.3 miles away from the White House, but I never really think about it that way because the White House is on a completely different Metro line. (Yes, I did look up that distance on Google Maps.) The barricades, I realized, are waiting here because there's going to be an official inaugural ball in the beautiful museum across the street from my office. Of course.

I'm used to seeing soldiers in fatigues: we have a branch of the Army headquartered on the fourth floor of my building. But this morning, I saw a soldier in full dress uniform, carrying an important-looking silver briefcase. He saluted a man in fatigues who was entering my building in front of me, and both men turned and looked over their shoulders to share a decidedly un-militaristic smile. I like to think that they smiled because they're prepared to be boarded. And perhaps, they smiled because the word on the street is that when all the aliens leave, we'll have something new. Things will be different, maybe even better.

Things are gonna change, I can feel it.

Thursday, January 08, 2009

Under pressure

Click here for 40 Inspirational Speeches in Two Minutes.

How do you get motivated to create? If it were easy, everyone would do it. Creativity is hard work, and it takes time. I started this blog because I wanted to make time for my creative work. That's the same reason why I did NaNoWriMo.

Having completed NaNoWriMo for three years running, and having worked in deadline-driven publishing environments for four years, I have determined that I work extremely well with deadlines. NaNoWriMo's deadline may be somewhat arbitrary, but it works for me.

The blog that I linked to at the top is run by this guy I went to high school with and his friends from college (he made the video!). The blog ran a contest in September/October for a movie script with strong female characters. I ended up writing what I consider to be a comic book-type movie, for the teens-and-early-twenties-comic-book-fangirl set (is that too specific? Probably!). I actually didn't finish by their deadline, and consequently, didn't submit it. However, because of the deadline, I now have more than 100 pages of screenplay to my name. That's 100 pages more than I had in August. It's amazing what a little bit of deadline pressure can do!

Do deadlines work for you? Do you set them for yourself, or do you let others set them? And if deadlines aren't your thing, what is it that drives you to create?

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Happy New Year, Internet!

The secret is out: I have a giant crush on Wil Wheaton's writing. He loves it and he works hard at making a vocation of it, which I admire. A discerning reader can tell that his writing has been carefully crafted, but his voice is strong and refreshing, and he always makes sure that the reader is rewarded (usually emotionally, but sometimes intellectually as well) for the time spent reading. The truest indicator of his skill is my ability to follow his posts on gaming, a subject in which I have little to no interest.

Anyway, I'm telling you about this because a recent post of his on the demise of Ficlets has brought a couple of Internet "writing opportunities" (for lack of a better term) to my attention. A commenter there suggested that he check out quillpill, which is a Twitter-esque noveling site. When I poked the Internet a bit more, I came up with textnovel, a similar app but without the character limit. These two programs are apparently the U.S. versions of the Japanese "Magic Island," which is a platform that has allowed angsty Japanese girls with cell-phones to hit the best-seller list. According to the New Yorker article, 4 out of the top 5 literary fiction books in Japan were cell-phone novels.

Cell-phone novels! Novels written by and for the age of mobile technology! For once, I sort of don't feel as though I am behind the curve. I've updated this fiction blog from my mobile device more than once or twice. When I am riding in a car and we go past something that makes me think, that puts a phrase in my head that I can't stop hearing, I love having the ability to write it up on my BlackBerry and e-mail it straight to this blog. But I'd be curious to see one of these published cell-phone novels in person. They sound like picture-less manga, more or less. Too bad my Japanese was never very good and is rusty now, otherwise I'd try to order one.

Cell-phone noveling: is it something I should look into? Would you be interested in reading/writing that type of literature? Why or why not? And do you think it even counts as literature?