Chimera Song Mosaic
Friday, May 30, 2003
Am slowly resurfacing after being out of commission for at least three days. The homecoming was wonderful, but somewhere between the all night karaoke session and the museum trips and the fab restaurant visits, there was also a blistering family fight, a slight sunburn, an acne flare up, major sinus problems, a bout of severe nausea, and a 24-hour period of cerebral grogginess. Of course, all of this happened to me, and in about this order. Self-centered? Yes! I have disrupted the harmony of my childhood home. Now that I have left, everything is back to normal.

Self-Flagellation & Some Horn-Tooting

Okay, so I’m back—sort of. I have to admit that even though I know I owe this blog some major literary effort, I am reluctant to come through with it. Why do I feel such anxiety? Months before I started the blog I debated over whether to commit or no, knowing that (knowing me) I might regard it as a chore and therefore shirk it. I can’t believe I am such a baby! But I know myself, so yes, of course I can.

The whole time I was at home, I kept sneaking off to check my email, and they kept asking me, “Oh, are you going to go blog?” “Are you blogging right now?” Maddening.

I must also admit that instead of devoting myself to the blog, I have been sneaking off today and writing an essay instead! Yes—a half-cocked, half-anthropological, poorly informed, unreferenced, epistemological essay about writing, of course. I am belittling my efforts, but of course I am proud. I will post it as soon as my sister okays it—maybe I’ll add in a few references if I’m not too lazy. Don’t get excited; it’s really too long to read. I will post it as soon as it’s not too much of an embarrassment.

Anyway, I am proud of this use of my time, say, the past four or so hours. Proud to be writing and thinking. Why am I so obsessed with intellectual activity? I accused my family of anti-intellectual activity, sort of a reverse McCarthyism. It’s kind of a joke.

The Important Bit

Anyway, the intelligent thing that I wanted to say last time (but was too tired and sunburned to do so) was that I find talking about fiction and well, any kind of prose, to be so—refreshing. Don’t get me wrong, I am all poet, hard-core, but sometimes I just run out of things to say about poetry. What can you say about poetry? It works; it doesn’t work. It should be more narrative or less narrative. It should contain more images and attention to sounds (this is the only sure-fire comment that will probably work for any fledging poem by a fledgling poet—and I suggest you advise them of this as often as possible. Okay, I’m getting glib now, but you get what I’m saying about poetry, right? Who can say?). After logging many hours of poetic thought and discussion in various workshops and lit classes, I have only now come to realize how hard this task of talking about poetry actually is. (Uh, not writing about poetry; that’s a breeze. You can always stop analyzing and start interpreting. I think it’s much easier to write a literary analysis/interpretation about a poem than prose work. I tell my students this, and they seldom listen.)

Teaching Creative Writing

I taught my first creative writing class this semester. It was oodles of fun to organize the poetry part, and poetry had the lion’s share of the workload. All poetry before spring break, all the other stuff afterward. The other stuff consisted of fiction workshops primarily, with a session on screen writing (lead by the famous Kim Henkel (I hope Kim doesn't kick my butt for providing this link, but hey--it's a good picture, Kim!), original co-creator of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre! You didn’t know such celebrity taught at my college, but well, now you do!). Some of the students groaned at the beginning of the semester (because of the poetry), but I just said, “Too bad. I love poetry, and so will you.” (This is my fantasy Ms. Nelson is Missing voice and not my actual response to my students.)

Well, we slogged through weeks of student poetry, and I loved every minute of it, but I could see the students struggling with comments, and to be honest, I was struggling, too. Just like I struggled in graduate school and my undergrad poetry workshops. Just like I struggle in my current weekly workshop outside of school. Struggling for a motor mouth like me is actually not having anything to say for minutes at a time. In normal, less competitive talkers, this manifests as silence.

Then when we transitioned over into fiction, the class blossomed. They wouldn’t shut up, and I could barely get a word in (did I mention that I consider myself to be a professional chatterbox?). The students had plenty to say—good, substantial comments. They judged the realism of dialogue and character motivation and paid attention to plot and thematic development. I was like, “Whoo-hoo!” So why didn’t we have this party with poetry?

The Best Bit

Some of the success of the fiction workshop could be contributed to the community feel as it developed in the class; more specifically, they were used to each other and more readily commented on each other’s work. But that’s not totally it. In my weekly workshop with three other colleagues, we switch from poetry to fiction to essays from week to week, and there is always a notable silence where poetry is involved. My theory is that this phenomenon has less to do with poetry and more to do with fiction; there is something very communal and known about a work of fiction. In short, it is telling a story, and narratives are around us and within us all the time.

So, you might argue, is music—and music is not such a stretch from poetry. In fact, many literary historians posit that western literature grew from mnemonically friendly songs that lengthened into extended narratives in verse form that eventually transformed into fictions. The best bards were the ones that could maintain the narratives for the longest stretch and delight and inform and horrify and entertain along the way. Thus the tradition of power in storytelling--whoever tells the story has the power.

If we are so familiar with nursery rhymes and pop music and jump rope and hip hop rhythms, then why do we turn away from poetry? Maybe because these kinds of poetry evoke the social response that narratives evoke, but today’s poetry—with its inaccessibility, non-playful language play, and abstractions—does not. I can’t explain why I like modern poetry, but I do. I really, really like it. But if I can’t explain why I like it, then how can I expect someone with less exposure to it and other kinds of poetry to offer any kind of valid response?

More About Me

For one thing, I am the first to admit that I am a lazy reader of poetry. I either like it or I don’t; I don’t even care what it means. I am hardly interested in figuring out what my favorite poems mean; I just read them over and over and delight in their complex sounds and images. Is this the kind of person who should teach a creative writing class?

P&W Conundrum

The real question is: should anybody be teaching anybody how to write poetry? I’m not even going to go there. This question has been posed a dozen times or more in recent editions of Poets & Writers. I do hope people continue to think that there is some worth to a poetry workshop so that I can continue to try to teach it, as difficult as it may be. But I don’t just have myself in mind; even though I question whether a person can be taught poetry (or any kind of writing for that matter), I certainly recognize the value of discussing it, of exposure to many different types of poetry, even of hearing the poet attempt to explain what he or she was trying to accomplish with the poem (although most workshops frown on this kind of authorial defense).

A Last Ditch Plea for Understanding

Finally, I hope I have not in any way offended fiction writers by the suggestion that theirs is a more simplistic craft; no, no, no—I would have to be a fool to think that. I am merely observing people’s responses to these similar but different genres and speculating as to what might account for these different responses. If anything, this might mean that people like fiction better than poetry. Some poets might be sad about this. Some might be joyful in their elitism. Everyone is entitled to his or her opinion about this; please send me yours!

Sunday, May 25, 2003
Good morning! I hope everyone (who is local) goes to Richard's reading tonight . . . he is my workshop buddy (I think he followed me into every single workshop while we were in school . . . or was I stalking him?). Richard couldn't believe that I got a B in graduate school . . . it happens. But this should be about him . . . I hope he doesn't read to music, and I wonder if he brought CATrina with him! (I never know if I'm spelling that right.) Anyway, Richard is going to turn this mutha out. Tell him I said hi.
Saturday, May 24, 2003
My Mom’s ferret, Violet, is such a tease; she won’t let me pet her except sometimes. She flashes her fuzzy face and then hops away. So tempting! She might not like me because every time I come home, she poops next to my shoes. Definite rejection. Also, this morning she wouldn’t eat in front of me; she grabbed a ferret pellet and ran into the closet to crunch it. What a shy Violet. But when I’m in the shower, she pokes her head in, looking for soap. This prompts me to spontaneously blurt out Ferret opera, although today I couldn’t muster much more than a few strains of “More than a ferret . . . more than a ferret should be . . .”

I’m not sure why I keep writing about things like this as opposed to writing about writing. The last few nights, I have had too-much-disclosure anxiety dreams. I wonder if others have felt this way: have I said too much on my blog? What is strange is that I feel more comfortable writing about myself than about writing. Maybe I’m worried that I won’t say the right thing—or have nothing to say.

Gotta go now—my sister has printed out her notes to the Houston Natural History Museum and amended these notes: “Genomes!” and “Egypt!” I’ll be sure to have something to write about (poetry wise) after this.

Friday, May 23, 2003
Do not try to listen to karaoke CDs on a very long drive. You might think it’s a good idea—to get in some “practice”—but it’s sort of like listening to elevator music—with performance anxiety. There are no visual cues, you really have to know the song, and your voice is dwarfed by the noise of the motor, passing cars, asphalt—just noise! And it’s not like singing in the shower because there you can control the play speed. Singing in the shower is just so right; this is just so wrong.

Got there and was rewarded with the four dogs and their stiff, but silly, social behavior. My two dogs and my Mom’s dogs were raised together, but after a two-week separation, they act like they don’t even know each other. Actually, my dog, Lucy, knows my Mom’s dogs’ names. When you say, “Termite!” or “Zed!” she swivels her cute head in all kinds of silly ways.

Lucy’s chief cuteness is her poolside behavior: she wallows like a fuzzy black hippo. She ran straight for the pool today and dunked herself for a good 30 minutes. She lounges by the pool on hot days (not today), sitting up straight with one leg stretched out to the side.

My other dog, Lars, is an 11-year-old bully. He and Zed are old adversaries, but now that everyone is sterilized, they are mostly silly together. Lars likes to ambush people and other dogs—he “hides” behind something—like a pole or a tuft of grass—and waits until he can’t stand it any longer, and he charges out, barking and bouncing. When no one wants to play, he pushes bricks around with his nose.

Zed has a couple of charming behaviors—he makes a very cute cooing noise when greeting people (it sounds like, “AwwwEEEaaWWWAA!”). He must have something in his mouth while he does this, so he just picks up whatever’s handy—usually a dead leaf.

Termite is my Mom’s other dog, and unfortunately, she has little charm. She’s pushy, demanding, and she sheds a lot. She’s OCD over tennis balls and other things, so I guess that’s pretty cute. Guess where she got her name?

I don’t know why I am writing about these dogs. I guess I just like dogs. They help me write poems.

Thursday, May 22, 2003
Catherine asked on May 8 if it is possible to write a poem of violence by way of beauty, and I think the answer is yes; you have already answered this with your reference to Plath's "Lady Lazarus." I often desire to be back in that place where anger informed my writing--I used to think I was past that, but no--I can remember thinking to myself, "Now that I am unbearably happy, I have written my last angry poem." Yeah, right! It's a cycle! Tap whatever energy you can find--exploit yourself! (Although strangely enough, Plath said that she couldn't abide poems that are "cries from the heart." They must be informed by something and disciplined in some way. Not bad for a "confessional" poet, eh?)

Plus I must say that I hope one day Catherine and I can read together but read each other's poems, and I hope I get to read My Wicked Ferryman, My Pet, My Dear Question,

I just realized that I haven't given a very objective portrait of Houston. Here goes: My favorite thing and the thing I miss the most is the rain--the thunderstorms in Houston are magnificent and humbling. I don't like dithering, peckish rain; I like rain that can flay you alive--stinging, cathartic rain that can last for days. For a likewise biased view of Houston, check out fellow Houstonian Christopher Kelty's stunning and illuminating photographic essay "Oil on Water: Houston" in the Summer '02 edition of Crowd Magazine, issue 2.
Dialogue of the Happenings in Grolier Poetry Book Shop, Inc., Cambridge, Massachusetts, on March 18, 2003:

Me: Hi. Do you have Anne Carson's Autobiography of Red?
Shop mistress: Everything is listed alphabetically.
Me (to Lance, husband): Can you see the top of that shelf?
Lance (to me): You're crazy. The ceiling is 14 feet high. {pause} You have 11 more minutes.
{I panic and run to the French language section, not looking for French language texts, but not wanting to look like I can’t find my way around an excessively tall closet stocked to the gills with poetry of the fairest, of the rarest . . . if closets can be said to have gills.}
SM (in a crabby voice): Did you want something in French?
Me: No, thanks! {I spaz out and start grabbing things off the shelf that look recognizable. I spy a copy of Timothy Donnelly's Twenty-seven Props for a Production of Eine Lebenszeit.}
Me: Hey, I have been looking for this.
SM (snatching it away): You can't have this. Someone special ordered it; it's the last one I have. {she goes back to sleep.}
Lance (whispering): Let's get out of here . . . she is freaking me out.
Me (in a timid voice): Can I get these? {fanning some books out for the Shop mistress's approval}
SM: Uggh. {she takes each book one at a time and slowly keys them into her register. When she is finished, she looks up and speaks to L.}
SM: It looks like your friend has something in his pockets.
Me (thinking she means me): Oh, no, it's just a guidebook. {shows Time Out! Boston}
SM: I said your friend.
Lance: I don't have anything. Look. {empties his pockets}
SM: Looks like you passed something to your friend while you were looking in the French section.
Me: I wasn't looking in the French section! I was looking for . . . {gives up}
SM: I saw you looking for something in the French section. It looks like you passed it to your friend.
Me (panicking): I don't read French!
Lance: You have a video monitor. Why don't we just rewind it to a few minutes ago and look at it?
SM: Uggh. {gets up and walks to monitor VCR thing. Presses rewind. All silently watch what happened one minute ago, when D. throws her hands up in a non-French gesture.}
{SM presses rewind again, and all watch while L. empties his pockets.}
{All watch while D. shows copy of Time Out! Boston.}
{All watch while SM keys books into her register.}
{D. hands books to SM}
{SM snatches copy of Timothy Donnelly's Twenty-seven Props for a Production of Eine Lebenszeit from D.'s hands}
{rewind, rewind, rewind}
{Man enters looking suspiciously like "Famous" Seamus Heaney. The date has changed to March 14, 2003.}
{rewind, rewind . . .}
Lance (gently): You've gone too far.
SM (looking at him, surprised): This is how you do it. But this machine never shows me what I want to look at. {presses more buttons}
{All watch themselves watching themselves watch the video surveillance television.}
{L. has a mini-stroke of impatience}
Me (in an ice-breaking way): Do you have John Yau?
SM: Yes--middle shelf--right there. Where have you heard him read?
Me: I haven't. I'm looking for a poem called, 'Castor & Pollux.'
SM: You don't know which book it's in? Radiant Silhouette? The Sleepless Night of Eugene Delacroix? Borrowed Love Poems?
Me: I don't know. Maybe Borrowed Love Poems.
SM: Doesn't sound like it. Try Genghis Chan: Private Eye.
{L. is itching to get his hands on the VCR}
SM: I wish I could show you that part in the tape. It really looked like you passed something to your friend while you were in the French section.
{D. is frantically reading the table of contents in all 9 of the John Yau books}
SM: You'd be surprised at how often people try to steal things. They will steal things they don't even want.
Lance (can’t take his eyes off the VCR): I know; it's crazy.
SM: He comes in here from time to time.
Lance: Who?
SM: John Yau.
Lance: Uggh.
SM: How did you hear about that poem?
Me: In a workshop. In graduate school.
SM: Oh? Where did you go to school?
Me: The University of Montana. I have an MFA in poetry.
SM: Oh, yes. Did you find what you are looking for? {she approaches shelf}
Me: No. But I think I'll get one. Which one should I get?
SM: Let me see . . . {her finger skims the spines of several alphabetically ordered books. It lites on a book published by Black Sparrow Press. She unshelves it and hands it to D.}
SM: Here you go. You kids have fun now.
Me: Thanks!
Lance: Bye!
SM: Goodbye. I'm sorry I couldn’t show you the place on the tape where it looked like your friend passed you a book.
Lance: That's okay. Goodbye!
Me: Goodbye! Thanks for your help!
SM (smiles): Uggh.
{L. and D. pass through the door to the Grolier Poetry Book Shop, Inc., and head out into the chilly Cambridge evening. They duck into a restroom on campus and then head off to the Plough and Stars to look for Seamus Heaney.}

Tomorrow I’m going to Houston to visit my sister, Reagan, and my cousin, Lisa (and her daughter, Sintia) and spend memorial day ensconced in my mother’s house with those four women. My sister and I have ambitious plans to continue our museum tours, but Lisa’s infectious, post-PhD-work attitude will most likely compel us to lounge by the pool. (Maybe I should have just said laziness?)

But the last time I was in Houston, my sister and I went to the Menil Collection, which is my favorite museum in the world (barring the Musee D’Orsay, of course). It’s not even really a museum—more the rotating private collection of John & Dominique De Menil, which features an emphasis on Surrealist works (some fabulous Magrittes) and stuff collected by the Surrealists, such as “primitive,” Oceanic art—“souvenirs & fakes”—etc. I go to the Menil Collection as much as possible and even once thought it would inform an entire manuscript—each poem was to be titled by an object collected by a Surrealist, such as “Janus Fly Whisk,” “Rattle in the Form of a Mythic Raven,” “Coconut Seed Resembling a Buttocks”—you no doubt get the attraction, but I was largely disappointed in the poems produced by this project (although one, “Praxinoscope,” is going to appear in an upcoming issue of Indiana Review), and decided to more or less give it up. Perhaps I was overwhelmed by the task—or maybe some of the titles were just too great by themselves. My favorite one: “Anthropomorphic Bullroarer.” How do you improve on that? Anyway, maybe this will entice somebody. I am kind of getting excited writing about it.

The best thing about going to museums with Reagan is that you don’t need to read the descriptions or rent one of those ear-things. She correctly identified every earth goddess deity on display (she tripped out over the Cycladic ones) and even knew some comparative time periods. I would check the tags for accuracy and say things like, “Hey, this one’s from Paros! I’ve been there.” And Reagan would say, “Yes; it’s Cycladic,” but she’s never been to Paros. Between the two of us, we would actually amount to one smart and well-traveled person.

The time before that we got about halfway through the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (in its brand-spanking new building) and saw Paris in the Age of Impressionism: Masterworks from the Musée d´Orsay (kind of disappointing next to the real thing) and lots of gorgeous sculptures by Rodin. Reagan wants to go back and complete our tour this weekend; we’ll see how that goes.

About a month ago, I made the 6 hour drive from Mission (where I live in the RGV) to Houston for an explicit reason: to go to the Kevin Young / Joyelle McSweeney reading. I got an email from Fence and had a hankering for a reading of elevated, experimental—how shall I describe this?—quality. It was some effort to get there by 7:00 PM on Friday (hey, I do have to work—but not much!), but it was worth it. Ms. McSweeney made it worth it with her coy and dimply reading and her response when asked: “What do you think of Russell Simmons’s Def Poetry Jam, and what is it doing to poetry?” And McSweeney said, “I think it’s great. That people are listening to poetry—any kind. And the fact that you bring this up as a point of contention between these two different poetic sensibilities proves that poetry is not dead—that people are willing to discuss it and argue over it.” This is primarily a paraphrase, but I hope Ms. McSweeney won’t mind because her message is so good. She may have gone to Iowa, but she’s no snob. ;)

I was excited to see Kevin Young because I had been flirting with the idea of purchasing his new book online for some time. I am slobbering over the title in more ways than one: Jellyroll: A Blues. His reading was humble, also dimply, and shyly sexy. People who are familiar with blues rhythms will be rocked and/or rolled by this collection. I can’t resist including a line from Nina Simone’s “Jellyroll” here:
“I could go for a ride on your sweet jellyroll
but I wouldn’t get nothin’ for my juicy, juicy soul.”

After these two great personas read, I couldn’t resist buying some titles and standing in line like a groupie. I was a little awh-shucky. The place was packed; each writer must have sold 75 copies of his and her books. Which is why I want to briefly pause and give snaps to Brazos Bookstore of Houston. It is a wonderful store that hosts readings frequently (and does them up right) and has a great selection of POETRY! I like to test bookstores I visit while traveling. This one passed. I found every hip title I was looking for, including some oldies. I picked up Timothy Donnelly’s Twenty-seven Props for a Production of Eine Lebenszeit (which I narrowly missed purchasing in Cambridge’s Grolier Poetry Book Shop—that’s actually a good story. I was accused of stealing. On my birthday). --I just got really sidetracked--

Oh yeah! I love this bookstore. I will be back for more. Oh yes. But for now, H-town, bye-bye—see you manana.

More from Eugene Onegin:

“oh, quit your stale and tedious quacking,
and your alas-ing and alack-ing
about what’s buried in the past:
sing about something else at last!” (4.32.5-8).

Pushkin told me to write odes, so’s I do what he says:

Ode on My Mama-San

At first, you might think it corny
for one such as me—
an international Mini-Mogul
to write an ode to my Mama-San,

but she’s so hot & me’s so horny,
& all the rest of this blithering world
can just go blow their nattering
nay-bobs of negativism right out their asses,

‘cause me & my Mama-San got it right,
and there’s no one in this whole wide world
who can interfere with us tonight—
no child labor laws, no Baptist upbringing,

no sisters of the worldwide organization
of Rosalynn Carter—
‘cause I am a man
out in the wide world

of post-colonial sentiment.
I am a man
far from home.
I get what I own—I make it my own.

Don’t try to hold me down;
don’t hold me back;
I have gone Native, I have
utterly, literarily gone.

Ode to Industrial Pollution

Whether the world is able to funnel its decadence
into an hourglass shaped like a virus
and is able to complete a request
for an upgrade to a hatchback;
or whether the world is able to humble its misery
into a paper bag, or a landfill, or a maxi pad;
and whether we, as its inhabitants, will be able to call
forth the chivalry and Marianismo that will render
us suitable to stuff a goose with cranberry goodness—
or to pick what’s left of the scraps of desalination
and celebrity; and make of this good again,
and make of this whole again, and make of this
pornography a meat table we can be proud of,
and make of this chandelier, a denizen--What of it, then?

Ode to Sweet Simon

Pepe le Peu has got nothing on you, Sweet Simon.
Heir to the truckloads of produce, smack packets,
& Hoffa’s legacy of pickets & whodunits.
Facile mystery, you seem to me like a smoky
cloud of rubber muscles, festooned by buxom
party girl silhouettes & shrugging off ropes
& roads of tire treads.

You bad-assed, big boy, prodigal skunk,
you owe the highways your pheromone & your funk,
chasing tail & leaving heaven in your aftermath.

Ode on an Apple-Core
for Caeli

Baltimore’s lonely this time of year
when trees lean to the seasons
is the chief reason the lonely give up their pocketbooks
it doesn’t fall far from the tree you know
when love is stuffed it doesn’t ask for an overcoat
doesn’t quibble like this: “You say dressing /
I say stuffing” over a blue-eyed breakfast
in Texas the Mockingbird upstarts
in a series of painful mocks blunt reminders
you too have lost one egg to the series
a casement of geraniums delicious
and holy and garnished by that eggshell
that fragility that regret
revealing that rip in the sofa
where you once hid your heart

I just found myself explaining to Ms. Colleen (MFA, poetry, Montana, 2000) why I started a blog: “Because I missed talking about poetry and wanted to join a writing community, however dispersed and dysfunctional.” Yo, me!
Wednesday, May 21, 2003
Ya Doo Right is making me want to sing out:

"Cause I'm a do-right papa . . . I got a home everywhere I goes" --Jimmy Rodgers

So creepy . . . Sister Catherine is actually a live link, and when I misspelled blogspot, I went to Aaron's Bible Sales. . .
And a big cyberwink goes out to Jim Behrle & Stephanie Young! Thanks, you two!

And . . . a huge, sloppy, real-time kiss to Sister Catherine, who is just back from NYC and is breakin' my heart . . . stay away from the Big E . . . BFF, okay, Chica?

Throw a spanner in the works!
Wow, this is interesting. I was just thinking about the potential problem of posting something about someone who didn’t want to be written about, and I found this struggle between a 16-year old and her family, who plan to sue her for slander. Go to Sparkling Pain and look at “Immaturity Strikes Again” and follow the droplets for the whole story. Poor Kid!
A couple of things to remember when going to the gynecologist: you might be focused on taking care of that and forget to consider your feet—under no circumstances should you paint your toenails some remarkable color because you are sure to hear a remark. In fact, be sure to remember to wear shoes with socks, even if it is in the heat of the summer, because you want your own socks to be cushioning your heals in the stirrups (also they will cover up that fatalistic, blood red polish). The second thing that you must remember is to cover up your tattoos—the last thing you want to hear is, “Look at your lovely silver nail polish!” or “Hey! That’s a great tattoo!” It will scare the life out of you. Get my drift? Give them nothing to notice, except the obvious.
Not my end-of-the week: I just found out that I did not get any love from The Writers’ League of Texas (née The Austin Writers’ League), and I have to go to the gyne tomorrow. Double rats!
Tuesday, May 20, 2003
The Ballad of the Ranacuata

There must be at least a million tadpoles in my pond. They are fascinating to watch. I could watch them all day, except that it is devilishly hot outside. I know they are actually toad-poles because I caught her one night climbing out of the pond after just depositing her eggs (she froze in the beam of my flashlight). Well, winding her eggs is a better way to describe it. Or perhaps unraveling. Her eggs were fixed in a clear tape—almost exactly like that stuff you tear off the edges of old-timey printouts (you know, with the holes in it. I forgot what it is called). This tape was tightly wound around and through some underwater plants. Crisscrossing, binding, synthetic looking. It looked almost exactly like the printer stuff except that it was clear—and instead of the little perforations along the tape, it had little, evenly spaced and perfectly round black dots. The future toads locked into the commitment of being born & of becoming.

The next day, the tape had obscured, gone all fuzzy. It continued to dissolve, and I felt lucky to have witnessed its first occurrence as the perfect film. Like a film, it had some kind of reaction with the water, or perhaps was set on its own chemical vocation. It kept fading and blurring for about three days. I did not see the mother toad anymore, although I must have heard her mates—they honk and bellow outside my window at night and make the most inexcusable racket.

Then my pond was swimming with millions of tadpoles (ranacuatas in Spanish—which literary means frog-twins).

They boil the water with their constant flagellations. They look like mouse turds with a single flagellum. They practice random, ritualistic behavior. My three small koi ignore them and don’t try to eat them (I think koi are vegetarian). Who is going to eat them? Is my small pond going to bear the burden of so many toads?

The last time my pond was so taxed, it was with bullfrog and pond frog tadpoles from my mother’s pond in Houston (where bullfrogs are native). These tadpoles had heads the size of gumballs before they began their metamorphosis. At one point, I had about 30 of these tadpoles, which resulted in about 14 small baby frogs, which, unfortunately, only grew to 5 medium sized frogs, then at last to 1 preteen bullfrog (the size of my palm) & 1 adult pond frog (smaller). I used to worry about my bullfrog finding a mate since he is not native to South Texas. I used to worry about how I would catch my frogs and transport them if I moved away. But I haven’t seen my adult frogs in weeks since I cleaned my pond. Where would they have gone? There is no water nearby. The loss of them is inexplicable and makes me lonely.

But now I have all of these native South Texan toad-poles, and they make pleasurable water ballet before shuttling off to a deeper part of the pond. I throw in some koi pellets, which my new koi skittishly and nervously peck off the surface (all my old fish died because I didn’t clean my pond properly in the fall, and these are new fish, unused to me). My last survivors, the two gargantuan plecostoma that I have had all along are not shy as they prehistorically gum the pellets floating on the surface with their fleshy gray mouths open like orchids. The toad-poles have found the pellets, which are larger than their own bodies, and six have formed a symmetrical cluster around one, star anise-like. These toad-poles have a strong, individual impetus to survive, and I wonder what and when and how many and why.

Monday, May 19, 2003
After pillaging links from various blogs, I am newly obsessed with the fascinating interior life of The Babelicious Sonatas! Thanks, Eeksy-Peeksy (most humbly, you are my current favorite blog)!
I just realized the answer to that nagging question, what is your favorite number?

The answer is always 3; of course it is 3.

The timeless question: What came first, the chicken or the egg?

The postmodern, post-colonial answer: Indonesia.

Okay, I am in heaven because I just found the freakiest, most altruistic form of evangelical stalking available—and it fits my aesthetic. This from the people who make it all happen. I hope I am picked!

"Today, art is a stuck in a circle, where groups of the converted preach to one another in small circles while everyone else flicks through 500 channels of crap. The Mail Art project is a random act of kindness that reaches out to people who otherwise may never have been exposed to The 365 Project, attempting to restore the currency of imagination one person at a time."

Incidentally, this first part rather accurately describes the art & literary scene in the Valley; it is not open to newcomers, which I think is a shame.

My husband’s pen doesn’t know it yet, but it’s about to fulfill its destiny as my middle of the night poetry writing instrument (none of the above sentence is written in code). Why? Because it is the coolest pen in the world. He got it at a golf tournament, and it has “fbconnection” written down the side of it (which I take to be some kind of cryptic message, and even though I could probably very easily figure out which company produced this promotion, I would rather remain ignorant of its origins and allow it to become part of my primitive mythology. Everyone should have a mythology or two).

It is the coolest pen in the world because it emits a cool & soothing blue light that is seductive & friendly at the same time it is potent & scary. It looks radioactive & provides just enough light to illuminate a page—just enough for those late in the night inspirational seizures.

I just finished up one of the last in my struggling series of postcard poems to Catherine. I am months late but determined to finish. This is my second attempt at the project because the first time around I goofed & didn’t know the rules and wrote the poems out in various places, tidied them up on my computer, shrank them to a minuscule font, and pasted them to the postcard before sending them. Here’s no. 27 of issue no. 2 (written, of course, with the pen!):

Pleasures & Poisonous

The copper-lined shoulders are faced-down at the rushes—
merge of hymn & moon & sanctity. This this
this the burden I have hedged from all my life,
the rendering of muscle & proximity.
Meat that can last you through the sermon & ontil the next
era of light flown in from her surfaces, light stripped
of her half-light, light that burns of mercury & of legionnaires,
light that entombs the murderous
memory of nations & the cock’s own remembrance
of mornings & their aftermath. Do you know where chickens
came from?
That is news alone to spread like deafness
across the land—a meat that after you eat it
you want for sustenance.

I hear you, Brother Josh--testify!
If only I knew myself as deeply as the speaker knows his subject in Geoffrey Hill's "Mercian Hymns"

King of the perennial holly-groves, the riven sand-
stone: overlord of the M5: architect of the his-
storic rampart and ditch, the citadel at Tamworth,
the summer hermitage at Holy Cross: guardian of
the Welsh Bridge and the Iron Bridge: contractor
to the desirable new estates: saltmaster: money-
changer: commisioner for oaths: martyrologist:
the friend of Charlemagne.

'I liked that,' said Offa, 'sing it again' (1.1-9).

I just got back from a very long meeting with the Foreign Film Association. We made a lot of “executive” decisions about summer activities (none) and fall showings (3 on campus, 3 at the beautifully restored, historic Cine El Rey ). Our mission is to research films this summer (not loll on the beach) and report back before the beginning of the fall semester. If anyone has any good suggestions of films to show, send them my way.

Actually, the meeting wasn’t that long; Marisa and I decided to lurk around in Barnes & Noble for a while. We wanted to spy on one of the members of our group, but he caught on and left right away. I should explain that I like to like to loiter in various aisles (such as “Self-Help”) and find out what people are reading. I once spent an entire afternoon lounging at a table, sipping caramel-flavored coffee, with my elbow propped on a very large sourcebook called Infectious Diseases. How thrilling!

Perhaps I should also explain our attraction to Barnes & Noble. (This will not need to be explained if you are from or have ever lived in the Valley.) When all the intellectuals heard we were getting a Barnes & Noble last year, it was all the buzz. And not (just) for Starbucks (personally, I like Seattle’s Best & Tim Horton’s!). We have very few places to “hang out,” chat, or browse here in the Valley. In fact, we have very few places to read. This lack of a specialty coffee shop/bookstore supercombo has led to some pretty peculiar anomalies, such as an excellent independent coffee shop (Moonbeans) and a freakishly well-stocked and helpful Walden’s at the mall. Alas, such things are seldom frequented now that we have our B&N. Some might mock our devotion to it. But it was a long time in the coming.

Some might mock our lack of amenities in many areas. With just at 500,000 people on this side and over a million on the Mexican side, the Rio Grande Valley is huge. But much of this has grown up very recently, and we seem slow to draw the kinds of things that make city life bearable. Besides, many Valleyites live in what can only be described as the country, and we are used to small town ways.

As a native Houstonian, this has been somewhat hard to adjust to, but there are many perks. For example, independent businesses seem to have more of a chance here because we have yet to attract all of the major chains. So we actually have locally owned, one of a kind restaurants and shops and beauty salons and barbershops (those are the best!). And these aren’t the kind that crop up in areas that have undergone gentrification—the kind that stoically resist the megasize and the multipurpose communities of Wal-Mart. I see these businesses as innocent and naïve—unaware of the inevitable encroachment of Big Lots. Yes, I know I am offering a highly romanticized and possibly erroneous portrait of the Valley from an outsider’s perspective, but as so many people see the need to justify their choice of living in Paris, New York, or San Francisco (all equally qualified with comments such as “This is the greatest city on earth!”), I feel the need to answer this question: “Why would you live in the Valley, or in Texas, for that matter?” Others don’t feel the need to answer this question; they live here because they have family here, or jobs, or simply because they are from here (that often overlooked justification that is insensitively tossed aside; of course people like where they come from!).

Anyway, I do have two examples to offer as evidence to support my romanticized version of the Valley: 1) This is the only place I have ever been to where Hollywood Video has outperformed Blockbuster. I can’t stand Blockbuster, and will avoid supporting it if possible (for many reasons—lack of selection is one). Hollywood Video is also a chain, but one that attempts to meet the needs of its customers (foreign film aficionados, too!), and Valleyites have seemed to ignore the corporate glossiness of Blockbuster and have made a service-based choice.
2) Taco Bell refuses to stay open in the Valley. Every time one opens up, it promptly shuts down. We will chase away all the fake Tex-Mex (the Valley’s Tex-Mex is very different from the rest of Texas’—in fact, I don’t think Valleyites know or like Tex-Mex at all. Go to Houston or West Texas for good Tex-Mex). Instead, we have our own Mexican fast food; it’s a scrumptious chain called El Pato. (By the way, I don’t dislike Taco Bell; in fact, it was my mainstay in the Tex-Mex vacuum of Montana.)

Okay, that’s enough about that. I am getting hungry. More on the job search:
Marisa is my partner in crime. We do most of our spying together. She has her MFA in fiction from the University of Montana (like me—but poetry), and she also teaches at the same community college. Today we decided to look for a book on the public service exam, or whatever it is called, and we found some fascinating information.

First, we took a practice test. They had some really interesting questions. We balked at ones that sounded like, “If country A imports 2,400,00 lbs. of blah, and then you send a note to your Aunt Ute in Denmark . . . which intersection on this graph represents a balanced trade deficit—AH, AI, HO, or DE?” Okay, this is not an accurate representation of the question, but that’s what it sounded like to us. We went straight for the literature-based questions, which we aced, along with the grammar and punctuation stuff, which we rocked. Actually, it was pretty hard. We said, “Gosh, and we are English teachers! Think how badly everyone else fails this portion of the test!” We thought about that a while and snickered.

We loved the questions that had little maps attatched to them without the names of the countries on them. They had little numbers so you had to guess the name of each country. Of course, we went beyond that. As soon as we sighted a new map, Marisa correctly identified the continent: “That’s Asia!” Then we started filling in the numbers with the names of the countries, and then we got to the questions. Here’s a sample:
Which two of these countries share the same religion and ethnicity but were appropriately separated in the 20th century for geographic and political reasons?
The answer, of course, is 10 & 11—Pakistan & Bangladesh. We got that one. (I learned that from reading Salman Rushdie’s Shame.)

So the test is pretty general like that—they don’t give anyway too much information—no dates and few proper names. The questions forced you to draw on many different bits of knowledge to answer them (like you didn’t get a list of countries—you had to come up with those on your own). But the best part was the multiple-choice psychological evaluation. It had questions like this one:
Which of the following adjectives is that last word your friends would use to describe you—helpful, judgmental, brusque, active, obsessive?
Hmm . . .
Also, we found this one:
What were you doing during the summers while you were in college—attending summer school, traveling, working, volunteering, or resting?

I had to laugh out loud at this one. As Marisa sees it, one of the chief benefits of teaching at a college is that you get to go home and take naps during the day. So I said, “Well, for me, that’s traveling. I did that as much as possible during the summer. But look, Marisa! You can put resting! I can’t believe they have an example that is so perfect for you!”

And she said, “Deb, I worked at the DMV every summer I was home from school. But I am beginning to worry about how you will look on paper. You said you would mark ‘late—frequently,’ ‘absent—a lot,’ and ‘did your parents pay for your undergraduate degree—yes.’ And now this traveling thing! You have done a lot of stuff, but it doesn’t show up on paper.”

So this test is designed to make you reflect on your life goals, your laziness, and your lack of incentive. “I hope you don’t have to take this test right before you take the real exam. We would be walking blobs of insecurity,” I said.

Anyway, we got even more suspicious when we read things like,
Were you ever in a leadership position in any of your extracurricular activities in college? The answers were: yes, frequently; yes, more than once; yes, once; no, but I was involved in various groups; I was not involved in any extra curricular activity of any kind.
I thought this last response was really defensive. I guess they are screening for belligerents and slackers. I was a psychology major as an undergrad, and by the end of my undergrad career, I was noticeably more paranoid. I thought I could be in a double blind psychological experiment at any moment. That’s sort of how I felt when we were taking the test.

Then we discussed our possible goals in life and how we wished we could do school all over again. We thought about different decisions we could have made that would render us: a) happier b) wealthier c) less busy or d) less frustrated by not having time to write. We threw a lot of possible occupations around, including: medic for Doctors without Borders; human rights activist for Amnesty International; lawyer (either greedy and phat ambulance chaser or public defender); diplomat (we ultimately thought we could weather the smarmy, Pro-Bush civil servant persona in exchange for the diplomatic pouch!); weather girl J; pathologist; speech writer; international teacher in Japan; famous singer; famous writer.

Marisa said, “Do you know who they brought to my mom’s school the other day for career day? A florist from H-E-B, a Chinese food chef from H-E-B, a border patrol agent, and a manager from H-E-B. They didn’t plan very well and just brought whoever they could find!”

This is a problem because that’s not exactly representing the kinds of options available to kids. It’s not exactly giving them the information they need about how to develop their career paths; it’s not stressing the importance of making good decisions now that can mold the rest of their lives. Of course, people need to fill these jobs, realistically, but isn’t hope still part of the American Dream?
Of course, that’s a dream that I have just recently awakened from. I spent so much of my young life insisting that I become a famous person—an actress, a singer, whatever—that I ignored any of the potentially wonderful occupations that may have been introduced at my school. When you really think about, all of the above occupations pale in comparison to being a celebrity. Which brings me to the painful theory that Marisa and I share:

The Theory of the Quan

Marisa and I have realized that we don’t want to work hard or deserve our success (as writers, presumably)—we just want the Quan. If you’ve seen Jerry McGuire, you know what I mean. Cuba Gooding, Jr.’s character just wanted the glory and money associated with being a star athlete, but he didn’t want to do the necessary work to get there. As Tom Cruise’s character points out, this is a very poor (and likely to be damning) attitude. He knows this because he himself previously suffered from a poor attitude. What can we learn from this?

I learned (am learning) that I need to devote myself to writing if I ever expect to get anything out of it. The whining is getting to be extreme (as I’m sure, if you are still reading this, you are beginning to note). The Quan is a hollow demon! The Demon of the Quan will never be satisfied!

Presumably, I think making up some mythology to explain my problem will gain me a measure of control. Whatever! Now that I have identified my problem, I have to fix it. Or I have to fail.

Maybe we don’t need new jobs. Maybe we should just stick with what we got to and what we are good at. This is the thing that I care the most about in the world (writing), and if I fail, it will hurt the most, but if I succeed, it will feel the most like a homecoming.

Sunday, May 18, 2003
Where is my little Mengster? Catherine, do yourself a favor and go to Blue Ribbon Sushi, 119 Sullivan St. (between Prince & Spring Sts. in SoHo). It will rock your world!
This is going to be my summer of the Russian novelists (my brother is going to help me with the lit although he doesn't have much of a head for it, although he did like The Music of Chance and All Quiet on the Western Front). Before I begin, I have to figure out why the Russians adore Pushkin so much, hence my references (you'll begin to notice that I am very transparent like this). I'll end with this additional excerpt from Eugene Onegin, this time the 43rd section in its entirety (and for all you writers out there, this is meant to be inspirational):

You too, prime beauties in your flower
who late at night are whirled away
by drozhkies jaunting at full power
over the Petersburg pave--
he ended even your employment;
and in retreat from all enjoyment
locked himslef up inside his den
and with a yawn took up his pen,
and tried to write, but a hard session
of work made him feel sick, and still
no word came flowing from his quill;
he failed to join that sharp profession
which I myself won't praise or blame
since I'm a memeber of the same. (43.1-14)

(Oh! I just realized he is writing in sonnets! Not too snappy, am I?)

There better be spell-check on this puppy! I am a horrible speller.

But I am very good at editing, punctuation, etc. (Even if you see something that indicates the contrary to this on this blog--I am lazy too and forgetful!)

I LOVE foreign films.

I am able to empathize almost to a fault.

I just found out that these qualities render me perfect for a job as a diplomat. Let me explain: I went to my brother's (Brother Louie's) graduation ceremony last weekend (he graduted with a BS in Petroleum Engineering and a minor in Russian from Texas A & M University (Whoop!)--this will come up later), and I talked to his high school buddy, Ben, who just graduated from B.Y.U. after spending two years in Taiwan (he's Mormon), and Ben told me that he had just taken the public service exam for potential diplomats. When he told me what was on the exam, I flipped out becuase it is the perfect exam for me! He said he was graded on his grammar, punctuation, and clarity of writing. Then he was asked whether the United States should be involved in nation building or other international endeavors--why or why not? (Hello! Humanitarian efforts!) Then he was asked how many foriegn films he had seen in the past year. Well, Ben hadn't seen many, but I am a complete foreign film addict and have started The Foreign Film Association here at my community college (we show films for free to students and the community). Ben said that speaking Chinese (which he does) is an asset, but speaking Spanish, Russian, or Arabic is better. My Spanish is okay, and, okay--I don't speak Arabic, but I have been wanting to learn. There was other stuff, but 3 out of 4 is not bad!

Why am I telling you this? Because there is a good chance that, if you are reading this post, you have an MFA degree in writing, and you might be languishing in a community college, pouring lots of effort into your teaching but almost none into your writing. And this could be the job for you! Think about it: "diplomatic immunity / in every ghetto community" (Hill).

Okay, but then I said to Ben, "Hey! Do you have to agree with the President?" And Ben said, "Well, you cannot publicly disagree with the President's policies. You have your orders."

This is going to be a problem. ;)

I saw two great movies last weekend, both rented (we don't get independent films here in the Valley, except ones in Spanish): The Believer & El Crimen de Padre Amaro (okay, I could have gotten off my lazy butt and watched this one at the local theaters).

I saw these both in the same night. El Crimen is wonderfully agonizing--I almost stopped watching it twice, mostly because I am a feminist and an atheist, but don't let that stop you because the film is well worth it. It is potentially offensive to many different people on many different levels, but that can be the *hallmark* (stop exploiting your workers in the maquilladoras!) of a great film (see Happiness for more examples of this. A pedophile is one of the protagonists. Amazing!). Ultimately, I beleive the film to be both pro-Catholic and basically tolerant of corruption (which is an attractive, realistic/cycnical perspective). Not that corruption is inherent in Catholicism, but it is pro-Catholic in the sense that it witnesses corruption in all aspects of humanity; we cannot escape from it. I'm not totally convinced, but it is an interesting theory. See it and you decide.

The Believer is a mind-warp and an analyst's (the literary, not the psychological kind--but that too) wet dream. I think everybody who went to grad school loves to analyze things; I like to over-analyze them. There are planty of opportunities for this in The Believer, and the characters join in on every level. This film has the gimmicky basis of being about a Jewish Neo-Nazi. It is disgusting in a lot of ways and hard to get through the first 20 minutes or so. But this film essentially ends up being pro-Jewish--not just anti- Neo-Nazi (please, that's so obvious--and I don't mean this with any sarcasm; I am simply saying that being a Neo-Nazi or even a Fascist--voluntarily--is completely beyond my undertsanding). I don't know much about Judaism, and I question the idea of learning anything about it through a film such as this one (or any film), but in some ways, learning is what happens to the viewer. I guess that one can approach learning by way of a logical mind through the breaking down of and rejection of stereotypes, and this is what happens in this film, in a way. This is becoming too painful and too dangerous to talk about. This is a dangerous film. But not in the way you might expect.

Anyway, it was a profound experience to watch these two religious films in one evening. I wouldn't recommend it. They take time to digest (see them one at a time), and as you can see, I am not finished.

But I guess I can offer these tentative conclusions: El Crimen de Padre Amaro is an immoral film, and The Believer is a moral one. Not that morality necessarily has anything to do with cinema, and not that it should.

I am afraid of them out there: the "champing" masses who would judge me. I can't belive I'm doing this. This is so not like me. Wait a minute--I am absolutely egotisical. Of course I am doing this. Besides, what masses? Sound out if you are reading this blog: email me.
Still tumbling, devil, snake and Cupid
on stage are thumping without cease;
[ . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . ]
the audience still is busy stamping,
still coughing, hissing, clapping, champing (22.1-2, 5-6).

I'm including this quote from Pushkin's Eugene Onegin (translation Charles Johnston) because it occurs to me how stange & disciplined the process of observing, of being an audience. It's much more active than it sounds, and requires much more effort than we might think. Of course, we all know, & are used to it. Few of us are Britney Spears and see it from the angle of being watched. Anyway, this voyeurism is so diffiuclt for the audience, made up of blood-strong, intelligent, active people--viewers who are just as alive and bursting with ideas and passions and philosophies as their entertainers or tutors. So why do we remain in the audience? What is keeping us there--social decorum, shame, and a healthy dose of rigidity, intractability, paralysis? What can we learn from them, and they from us? A teacher is just a frustrated actor. I can't take credit for this idea; it was hoisted on me during a job interview. I am so transparent.

Thought I could wait two more weeks for the offical start of the summer before beginning this blogger, but I couldn't. Two days ago, it was hotter than any other day last year in the Rio Grande Valley. Yesterday I attended graduation with 1,500 students on the baking hot asphalt of our old parking lot in front of the new edition to our library. I have been squelching ideas for the last month as I finished grading stacks of essays. But that's over now. For Pete's sake, could I be any more dramatic about this? Why do I feel the need to explain my neglect of this blog when it hasn't yet begun? Being an English instructor at a community college with so many students is emotionally and mentally draining. But that is, happily, over now--for the summer. I am taking this summer off to write and read--and travel as little as possible. And I plan to write about teaching as little as possible.

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