December 22, 2009
December 16, 2009
Date: Fri, 11 Dec 2009 12:10:25 +0000
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December 13, 2009
Book Club Discussion Questions - a story
by A. Publisher
1. Describe the structure of the story. Why does the author open with Hans moving to New York City and then quickly jump into the future with Chuck's death and then jump back? Do you think these flashbacks and forward leaps relate to the narrative arc of the story? Is this simply how we tell stories? When you tell a story do you tell it chronologically? Why?
2. Childhood often slips into the story - that of both Hans and Chuck. Early on in the story, Hans mentions that he doesn't connect to himself as a child ("I, however, seem given to self-estrangement"), then proceeds to produce numerous memories of his childhood and of his mother. How is this reconnecting with his heritage and his past important to the story? How is Chuck often the catalyst for these memories?
3. Chuck is more connected to his heritage than Hans. He socializes with others from the West Indies; he's married to a woman from his birth country, etc. How do flashbacks to his childhood differ from Hans's and how do they affect the story as a whole?
4. How does nostalgia play into the story? Who is nostalgic and for what? Why does the storyteller open the novel with someone being nostalgic for New York City?
5. Discuss the title. What does it mean and what do you think it refers to?
6. Chuck's motto is "Think fantastic." How does this both help and hinder him? Can you create an appropriate motto for Hans? How about for yourself?
7. What does the United States represent for Hans and Chuck? How are their relationships with their new country similar, and also polar opposites?
8. How are both Han's and Chuck's experiences typical of American dream of immigrant stories? Compare the story to other stories of the immigrant experience or to what you imagine immigrating to a new country to be like.
9. Is the American Dream the same after 9/11? How are Americans both united and divided after 9/11? How is the world of the story particular to the United States after 9/11?
10. Describe the narrator's voice. Do you trust and like Hans as a narrator? Do you sympatize with him and understand his motives? Do you identify with him?
11. Describe the Chelsea Hotel when Hans lives. How is it a character in the novel? How are the various inhabitants and the oddness of the place appealing and comforting to Hans?
12. Discuss the scene in which the author and his protagonist engage in "fisting." What is metafiction? Does it feel good?
13. What is Han's relationship with his mother? How does the relationship continue to affect him after his mother's death? How does it affect his being a father?
14. Discuss the theme of male friendship in the novel and its connection to sports.
15. This story is also the story of a marriage. Why is Hans and Rachel's marriage falling apart? What brings them together again in the end?
16. Discuss the theme of betrayal and forgiveness in the story. How do both Rachel and Hans betray each other and why? What about Chuck? Do the characters ever lead themselves astray and betray themselves? Does America betray both Chuck and Hans in the end?
December 2, 2009
A. It was less of a surprise than a reminder: how unabashedly comfortable many of the writers are to engage with literary forms that would be perceived as experimental or avant-garde here. In turn, I was reminded how deeply conservative contemporary American literature is in terms of form. And that conservative bent is a recent development, I believe. The European form flexibility is not a consequence of some snotty, elitist aesthetic but rather of the fact that there are many stories to be told and many traditions to draw from.
November 6, 2009
November 4, 2009
November 1, 2009
Jeffrey Side: You’ve been critical of what you perceive as a tendency towards careerism in US avant-garde poetic circles, can you tell me more about this?
Kent Johnson: I’ve spoken about this in other places, and my comments haven’t always been too popular, I suppose. Let me answer this one in a somewhat unusual way, maybe allegorically, if that’s the word, answering your question by quoting myself from a somewhat fanciful post I wrote for Digital Emunction blog—just yesterday, in fact. I’ve been writing at DE (the cabinet of curiosities of the lit blogs, I believe) the past few weeks, as you know. The post was rejected by the blog editor, Bobby Baird, who felt the points raised were “old news.” Maybe… Though “old news,” if so, of the kind that hasn’t been sufficiently discussed, I’d propose. But the reader can judge. I had titled the post “The Clinking Sound of the Avant-Garde: A Short Story”:
In the 1980s, Language poetry was at its apogee. Its most prominent figure was Charles Bernstein. The most coherent and ambitious left-wing avant-garde formation in the history of American poetry was then under sustained attack from the literary establishment; the Language poets, with analyses of “Official Verse Culture” and its fraught complicities in the Ideological State Apparatuses of Literature and the Academy, countered the attacks with trenchant, withering critique.
This was during the reign of the Reagan Administration, which ended twenty years back. Soon after, the Berlin Wall collapsed and the First Iraq War began. Coincidentally (though perhaps not entirely), it was around this time that the first major studies of Language poetry began to appear in the most prestigious scholarly journals, and prominent figures associated with the group could be found interviewing for jobs at the MLA.
When Bernstein was editing (with Bruce Andrews) The L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Book and writing some of the brilliant, anti-Institutional essays later collected in Content’s Dream (1986), Donald T. Regan was Ronald Reagan’s Secretary of the Treasury and Chief of Staff, a central figure in the Administration’s murderous policies in Central America and the related sideshow scandal of the Iran-Contra affair. Bernstein would of course still vehemently repudiate those policies, but a little more than two decades thence, he is Donald T. Regan Professor of English at a major Ivy League School. His books are now published by Harvard, and his work is included in the Norton.
Language poetry, in general, is well down the road as a welcomed and apparently pleased fellow traveler of the Canon. Like Bernstein, numerous of the original members now profess at elite universities, industriously partaking in (indeed, often openly arguing for) the fuller legitimation of their work. A growing tenure industry of secondary critics occupies itself around study of the group’s theory and writing. Versions of abstract or “hybrid” lyric, genetically descended from the textual experimentalism of Language poetry, rule the roost in MFA programs across the land. The AWP and the MLA are now homes to “radically formal” poetry, and the Young Turks who write it make annual pilgrimage to these institutions’ gatherings, to network, read, present, and interview for academic position. All the major journals are open to such work. Even Poetry and the New Yorker now feature it.
All of this has happened very quickly, with a speed to awe the most visionary Futurist. Earlier this year, celebrating its 100th anniversary, Charles Bernstein declaimed Felippo Marinetti’s Futurist Manifesto, angrily hitting, as he did, a hammer against a metal lectern. This was at the MoMA. There among the Picassos and the Matisses, the implement made a repeating clinking sound. A kind of death knell for things, one might say, though the gathered crowd of poets that applauded and cheered did not quite seem to see it that way.
It’s perhaps time, I’d propose, to think extra hard about the irony and velocity of this denouement, which is very much the “ontological” surround of the subculture we in the “post-avant” inhabit. Though as we do, we must grant that none of what’s transpired is a matter of ill-intent: In truth, the path that’s been taken is, and has always been, the “way” of the “avant-garde.” It’s nobody’s fault, and nobody, personally, need be blamed. And thank goodness, of course, for professors and scholars.
But to ask, if awkwardly, as this short story ends: Is this it, this seemingly natural “Where We Now Are”? Is this where we’re more or less to remain? Or is there an elsewhere, as it were, and how would we begin to imagine it, if so?
Well, in his rejection email to me, Baird, who is former editor of the Chicago Review and has an acute mind, to be sure, chastened me with the following good questions:
What do you, Kent, take to be the significance of the Langpos capitulation to the powers they once abhorred? Is it that Langpo (and its anti-OVC stance) was a sham from the start? Is it that Langpo wasn't a sham but was sold out by morally soft people like CB? Is it that the whole business of literary movements is just a game that we shouldn't get in a tizzy about?
Do you think there's a need for an avant-garde right now? Why? What should it do? What's it for? What's it against? Why is an a-g poetics better equipped to do what you want it to do than a non a-g poetics like [Michael] Robbins's or Josh Clover's?
I have some opinions, of course, on factors that frame and enable the processes of cultural “recuperation” that Baird alludes to. But I don’t think it has much to do with anyone being “morally soft.” Younger poets can acknowledge a significant debt to the earlier thought and work of the Language poets, for example, even honor their important contributions, and still reflect honestly on their “sociological” transformation as a literary formation. So Baird’s questions to me in his “rejection” email are actually quite in sync with the ones I proffer, there, at the end. I ask them sincerely, because I don’t claim to have any easy answers.
But speaking in broad terms, that the relocation of “experimental,” “oppositional” poetry to an academic habitus has had deep, denaturing effects on radical poetic impetus seems fairly clear to me. I'm aware that back in the eighties the Academy seemed for some an important site of contention and that this has been explicitly argued in defense of the "institutional turn" taken back then. But the novelty's long over, the pacts have been made, and a protocol of polite irascibility has well settled in.
There are admirable exceptions, of course, but the U.S. “post-avant” is fundamentally a professional phenomenon now, and the bulk of its verse, aesthetically impressive as it can sometimes be, is in no way culturally oppositional in our moment. For the most part it doesn’t even claim to be, despite humorously poignant declarations by someone like Ron Silliman, every now and then. It is a near-fully integrated formalist phenomenon, essentially vacated of any sense of resistant, agonistic drive or mission. And it stands to reason that this would be so.
full interview here.
Baird's response here.
October 29, 2009
October 16, 2009
Renew the Legacy of John Brown
If the task of the nineteenth century was to overthrow slavery, and the task of the twentieth century was to end legal segregation, the key to solving this country's problems in the twenty-first century is to abolish the white race as a social category - in other words, eradicate white supremacy entirely.
John Brown represents the abolitionist cause. Nominally white, he made war against slavery, working closely with black people. Those who think it saner to collaborate with evil than to resist it have labeled him a madman, but it was not for his madness that he was hanged; no, it was for obeying the biblical injunction to remember them that are in bonds as bound with them. For those who suffer directly from white supremacy, John Brown is a high point in a centuries-long history of resistance; for so-called whites he is the hope that they can step outside of their color and take part in building a new human community.
John Brown's body lies a-mould'rin' in the grave, but his soul calls out to the living. He is buried alongside family members and comrades-at-arms near North Elba, New York, in the beautiful Adirondack Mountains, which he often said had been placed there to serve the emancipation of the American slave. For many years African Americans and others celebrated May 9th, the anniversary of his birth, by gathering at his gravesite. We call upon those who share the vision of a country without racial walls to join hands there in 1999 (his one hundred and ninety-ninth year) to honor his memory and the memory of the others, black and white, who fought alongside him, and to rededicate ourselves to the fulfillment of the tasks for which they laid down their lives.
Russell Banks, Derrick Bell, John Bracey, Robin D.G. Kelley, Martin Espada, Herbert Hill, Barbara Kingsolver, Toni Morrison, Theresa Perry, Ishmael Reed, David Roediger, Sapphire, Pete Seeger, Dorothy Sterling, Cornel West, Howard Zinn, and the editors of RACE TRAITOR.
October 7, 2009
"Not once does it make use of the time-honoured traditions of conventional science fiction. Creating its own conventions from scratch, it triumphantly succeeds where science fiction invariably fails."
October 6, 2009
Rilke, who had described the same phenomenon in the episode of the coverlet from Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, observed, with a revealing expression, that the ‘relations of men and things have created confusion in the latter’. The bad human conscience with respect to commodified objects is expressed in the mise-en-scène of this phantasmagorical conspiracy. The degeneration implicit in the transformation of the artisanal object into the mass-produced article is constantly manifest to modern man in the loss of his own self-possession with respect to things. The degradation of objects is matched by human clumsiness, that is, the fear of their possible revenge . . ."
—Giorgio Agamben, Stanzas: Word and Phantasm in Western Culture (1977)
October 1, 2009
When I read that one of my favorite publications, the ineffably weird and wonderful Sein und Werden, was planning an upcoming issue on the theme of “All Things Move Towards Their End,” I thought to myself, “Gosh, I have the perfect story for that!” (Actually what I thought was “Jesus fuck!” but I like to avoid profanity on my blog).
My story, “The Scythian Idol,” I had an enormous fondness for, not least because in it I thought I had come closer than in any of my other works to the ideal of “lightness” that Italo Calvino speaks of so eloquently in his Six Memos for the Next Millennium. I sent it to many publications, only to see its splendid fleetness waved off time and again by heavy editorial hands. But I kept faith, and finally Neddal Ayad, one of the guest editors (along with Nicole Votta) of the “All Things Move Towards Their End” issue, sent me a note which indicated, in a few pithy words, his intelligence, taste, wit, aesthetic acumen, discerning eye, good looks, and courage. In short, he accepted the story, and I can think of no better place for it, at least on this terrestrial plane, where
In this issue my humble story has the privilege of the following company:
(Thanks are also due to Rachel Kendall.)
September 29, 2009
September 26, 2009
K E N N E T H G O L D S M I T H
Bruce Andrews [L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poet]: “Oh, I generally would. I mean, certainly, if you are talking about poetry. Other genres of literature would be even more ridiculous and moribund, the idea of narrative or fiction, the idea of creating verisimilitude based on characters and plot situations - completely hokey Victorian notion. The creative writing people are generally, you know, total, total hacks. You know, they are living in another, that are living in some previous century, or living in some previous planet. They’re still involved with this therapeutic, crappy ideology about letting students express their inner selves and these little epiphanies of lyric blubble, you know, I mean, it’s a joke, it’s a terrible joke.”
(via bright stupid confetti)
September 20, 2009
1969, 10 min, silent, b&w
"The anti-illusionist project engaged by Clouds is that of dialectic materialism. There is virtually nothing on screen, in the sense of in screen. Obsessive repetition as materialist practice not psychoanalytical indulgence." - Peter Gidal, November, 1975. (via UbuWeb)
September 8, 2009
Today I went to the bookstore. I went knowing I wanted a book, but not which book. I was willing to be surprised.
I wanted a book because all of the books on my shelves at home seemed dull and stale, even the ones I hadn’t read. Especially the ones I hadn’t read.
I went to Brookline Booksmith because it was within walking distance. I was about to write “the only bookstore” within walking distance, but then I realized that this was relative. A real walker, for instance, might easily have chosen to go a little further and browse the used books at the Boston Book Annex, or a little further still to peruse the remainders at Symposium Books in Kendall Square, whereas a very elderly person or just someone even lazier than I am would have to make do with the rack of commercial paperbacks in the CVS across the street. I was somewhere in the middle, and so I walked to the Brookline Booksmith.
I went downstairs to the used section but was unable to find anything that didn’t seem dull and stale, like the books on my shelves at home, especially the ones I hadn’t read. I went back upstairs and paced back and forth along the wall devoted to paperback fiction. I picked up this book, that book, scanned a few pages, put them all back.
Then this one caught my eye:
Today I Wrote Nothing: The Selected Writings of Daniil Kharms. It is edited and translated by Matvei Yankelevich, who is also the founder and director of Ugly Duckling Presse (although this book was published by Overlook) and a poet in his own right.
The book caught my eye because it sat so strangely on the shelf. There between Marian Keyes’s Rachel’s Holiday (“Irresistibly funny,” Seattle Times) and Chip Kidd’s The Learners (which both Newsweek and Entertainment Weekly acclaim for its similarity to the cable-TV show Mad Men), it somehow looked like it didn’t quite belong.
A trade paperback, but slightly wider and just a hair taller than the average trade paperback – perhaps it had to be that size in order to accommodate Kharms’s extra-large head on the front cover. On the back cover, in very small print, winked the price, $15.95, also just slightly more expensive than the average fiction trade paperback. Add to this the nature of the contents themselves – “Selected Writings.” It wasn’t exactly a novel or a collection of short stories, a “classic” or a work of contemporary “literary fiction” like its fellows – if indeed they were its fellows – on the shelves. It gave off the vibe of having an editorial apparatus, which put it distinctly at odds with the volumes on either side of it. And yet it also seemed to promise – if I would only pick it up – to wear this apparatus lightly. I flipped through the pages. It featured a mix of poetry and prose, but it didn’t look like it would have fit any better in the Brookline Booksmith poetry section, either.
I continued stalking back and forth along the fiction wall. After a while I noticed that I still had the book in my hand, so I took it up the checkout counter for the salesclerk to ring up.
While I got my wallet out the salesclerk scanned the barcode with the scanner and the computerized register made several beeps. The salesclerk frowned, looked at the book, looked at something on his screen, re-scanned the book, frowned again. He punched a number of keys very quickly – he certainly knew his way around that register – while looking back and forth from the book to screen. Finally he squinted over my head into the recesses of the store. He didn’t have to stand on tip-toes because in the Brookline Booksmith there is a raised platform behind the counter.
“Where did you get this?” he said.
I said the fiction section and pointed to the proper wall.
“Well, it’s not in our computer.” He opened the cover to see if by chance there was a price penciled at the top corner of the title page, indicating a used book.
“So in a sense,” I ventured, “you don’t have this book.”
“Hmm,” he said. The corner was blank.
“I mean, in contemporary terms, if you think about it,” I went on, “if it's not in the computer, it doesn’t really exist.”
He manipulated the book several ways in his hands as if trying to get it into some kind of focus and then settled for scrutinizing the back cover again. Behind me a customer cleared her throat.
“It’s off the grid,” I said.
For the first time we made eye contact.
“Yeah,” he said finally, considering. “It’s off the grid.”