Thursday, July 22, 2010

man-womanly, woman-manly...?

Currently I'm reading Mating by Norman Rush, a novel set in Botswana in the 1980s. Thus far, it is a fantastic read. I'm especially impressed by how believable and intriguing the female narrator is. It's pretty rare that I can lose myself in the narrative, trusting completely that the particular woman relating the tale is "real." Too often, I feel as though a scrim separates such narrators from their audiences, as though the authorial eye/I had swaddled the speaking subject in a type of low-level radiation discernible only to members of the gender/class/race/type supposedly "speaking." I guess you could call it the authenticity meter, though that phrase feels a little presumptuous--in spite of my ardor for Chaka Khan, I am not every woman.

But I am ONE woman. A woman who can tell you that the way women narrators written by men narrate their bodies generally is the first bleep on the radar scren. "Sweat trickles between my breasts," or something of that ilk, pops up in the narrative. BEEEEEEEEEP.

I couldn't tell you the number of times I've thought of my breasts as "breasts," because it hasn't been that often. Generally it's when someone else's gaze or hands are involved in increasing my awareness of their existence. In other words, largely in sexual, or sexually-charged, situations. Because, somehow, the word "breast," when not applied to chickens or followed by "cancer" or "feeding", has been sexualized in my mind. (Yes, I do blame society.) The fact of having breasts is not very interesting to me. If I were a narrator, I can guarantee you that their existence would only be interesting when their involvement in the plot of my life was interesting. Namely, during sex, or breast feeding, or getting any sort of medical test performed on them. Definitely while shopping. Most of those actions have plot value. The fact that the breasts, in themselves, exist does not.

It's not (obviously) that my daily activities of bathing, dressing, working out, et. al. somehow are performed independently of them. It's just that I don't think of them as plot-movers. "The king died, and the queen died of grief." What happens if that shortest plot read: "The king died, and the well-stacked queen died of grief." Who cares?

Well, if the queen trudged through a desert in her elaborate costume, and chronicled the discomforts of her trip...perhaps what happened to her breasts would be interesting. Both to her and her readers. Say her whalebone stays caused her discomfort. What language would she use to tell you about this? Would the sweat "trickle?"

"Trickling." If I'm sweaty, I might deign to say I'm "sweating," in spite of the old saw about women not being horses and glowing (or something). "Trickling" is a word that sensualizes the experience of sweating. It adds a writerly sort of drama that living day-to-day with a female body, I can assure you, hardly resembles. It is its own plot, and it has nothing to do with the narrator.

So, if the shoe is put on the other foot....what happens if a female writer creates a male narrator, and this narrator is to have a fight scene that escalates in the men's room when (say) his arch enemy is espied via a mirror as he stands at the urinal?

Do men narrate to themselves when they visit a urinal any more than a woman narrates her trickling sweat? (And if the sweat were near another body part...say the armpit...would that author choose the word trickle? Food for thought.)

I imagine not. Though, to be honest, I'm sort of intrigued about how I would narrate that moment. How could I make it real? How could I make it feel real without falling back on trying to feel up my narrator vicariously? Without objectifying his experience of his own body?

I suppose the first step would be to write about using the loo as I do, then changing the verb "sat" to "stood." Then important plot-driving details like, "scrutinized the etchings on the back of the stall door" to "noticed in the half-mirror a jagged scab on the side of my nostril. Fucking hotel razors."

Could it be that simple?

Writing gender interests me not just in terms of character study, but in terms of how a writer writes embodiment via an "I" speaker, especially if that "I" speaker is of a different gender. What could be a more challenging exercise than trying to realistically narrate the thought-process of a character in an intimate moment with the self—especially an intimate moment as routine, and thus half-consciously dealt with, as using the bathroom? It would be hard for me to not want to talk about the mechanics of it, because it would be necessary for me to imagine the mechanics in order to try to get into that place. And then, it's really hard to think about the mechanics and not write about them, if only because the mechanics are INTERESTING. I'm not a dude. Urinals ARE interesting to me, in as far as they are unknown territory frequented by half the population.

Circling back to Rush's narrator in Mating...thus far, I believe the unnamed protaganist's narration of her physical experience. One way Rush makes that work is by delivering an overwhelmingly self-aware narrator who's interest in anthropology and the position of the audience is rivaled only perhaps by her creator's. Another way is by avoiding letting his own interest (whatever that may be) in women and their bodies hijack the speaker's narration. Her descriptions are only as writerly as she herself is writerly (which is very) and they only wax garrulous on topics that interest her.

We are given a cursory description of her physicality, but even then the details are delivered in a straightfoward, unromantic fashion, with little time spent extrapolating on the details of those deatils. I still have no idea what color her eyes are. Why would I? This character isn't interested in what her eye color means to others, and it hasn't come up as a pertinent plot point yet. No villager has told her she looks like a ghost because she has blue eyes, for example. This is the kind of moment when this narrator would deliver that kind of information. Otherwise, it's not important to her.

Which isn't to say her body, and its effects or non-effects on the people around her, are not interesting to her. But while the narrator clearly is able to objectify (or could we say objectively view) herself within her milieu, her ruminations on her body, and its actions, only appear in ways that advance the plot and add contour to her character. As a result (and a big plus, in my book) we do not suffer a writer's interest in his character's, er, formal properties, at the expense of the work as a whole.

P.S. The post title is not in reference to the picture. That is one gorgeous lady. You know...unless she's a man, of course.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

negative capability

Wow. If I had a nickel for every time someone said "negative capability" in grad school, I might not be working a day job. And yet, it's a phrase that I would have a perversely difficult time defining if a random stranger were to ask me what it meant. I absolutely have to sit and mull over it for a few minutes, and parse jargon, before I remember. Then I usually laugh, because it's pretty funny for my brain to be continually in doubt about a concept that revolves around....continuing in doubt.

When I wrote my last post on unicorns, the subtext seems to have been my struggle with negative capability. More Wordsworth and Coleridge than Keats, I suppose, my usual process with a poem is to start with some sort of image, event or idea that makes me want to know more. KNOWING is, or has been, immensely important in my life. If I'm depressed, I want to dig around and try to find the "cause," or "problem." If a poem isn't working, my old instinct was to always analyze sound, meter or image to find what didn't "click" into place. In other words, the "problem."

Last month I was following a series of articles on the New York Time's Opinionator blog by Errol Morris entitled "The Anosognosic's Dilemma: Something's Wrong, and You'll Never Know What It Is." The series loosely, but fascinatingly, explored the idea of the human mind's ability to know unknowns, or to seem to not know (or unknow) phenomenon considered by other sources to be knowns. One of Morris' dominant metaphors is that of anosognosia, an affliction where a person with paralysis does not appear to know he or she is paralyzed. Another riveting anecdotal example involves a man who is told wiping lemon juice on his face will make him invisible to cameras. He then tries to rob a bank, and is shocked when he is arrested after being identified from footage taken by a security camera.

I mention these articles because they touch on the issue of the perceived "problem" of not knowing something. Morris briefly discusses Surrealism, and automatic writing, as well as the hysterics documented in Salpétrière, as examples of allowing the brain to show the self something that self doesn't "know" it knows. I imagine Keats would have said to Morris, "yes, my dear sir, you have described states of negative capability quite nicely, except for the part where you keep pursuing knowns!"

A problem wants a solution, in the same way that a question wants an least, according to our habitual practice of syntax in conversation and composition (I'm thinking here of essay more than poetry). When habitual syntax goes out out the window, what are we left with? Some might say a truth or knowledge that we don't even know we don't know yet.

If in a cluster of grapes there are no two alike, why do you want me to describe this grape by the other, by all the others . . . ? Our brains are dulled by the incurable mania of wanting to make the unknown known, classifiable . . . It is pointless to add that experience itself has found itself increasingly circumscribed. It paces back and forth in a cage from which it is more and more difficult to make it emerge . . . Forbidden is any kind of search for truth that is not in conformance with accepted practices . . .
I quote Morris' excerpt of André Breton, because it is an excellent way to tie together the idea of creative "problems" and negative capability. A teacher of mine used to get VERY annoyed when I referred to poems or groups of poems as "projects." I think she felt that "project" implied that the poem—the flashes of the previously unknown or unseen that appear in poetry, appearing to surprise even the poet herself—already existed, leaving the poet's task to one of excavating and arranging....not unlike the way academic scholars or thinkers like Morris excavate and arrange information in order to reveal something previously unknown to their audiences.

And yet, I believe that scholarly pursuits are just as much guided by negative capability—an example Morris' series makes quite nicely. At no point reading his essays did I get the sense that we started with a clear map of his "project," then proceeded down the outline to the conclusion he had identified from the outset. Rather, there is a creative meandering in the essays that takes us from cultural artifact to cultural artifact—mirroring, I imagine, the process by which his thoughts on anosognosia and knowing unknowns were stimulated. (He makes a point in his notes to mention that the whole idea started when he Twittered a definition of a stupid person.) In other words, accepting that the end of the fifth installment of the essay might even end without any solution to the "problems" of "self-deception" and anosognosia...but rather an acknowledgment of a few of the mysteries surrounding us.

It is, of course, at times, deflating to be faced with so many unknowables when one has spent thirty-plus years being goaded to "know." Believing that the pursuit of knowledge was the good fight, and that knowing is the half of the battle that prepares you to win the war. (Sorry, G.I. Joe. You are indeed an American hero.) How many years were spent trying to know the wrong thing—trying to know what I never knew I didn't—and perhaps couldn't!—know?

With this in mind, I am grateful for John Keats' poems and letters in a way I never suspected I would be—grateful to finally begin to understand (and next time someone asks me about negative capability, I think I'll know how to respond!) that understanding isn't the point of a poem. A poem can teach you things you didn't know, and it can share facts. It can be knowledgeable, in the way that we understand that word, and it can inspire one to gain more knowledge (I'm thinking in particular of Pound here). But at the end, if there isn't a relinquishment of intellectual knowing (i.e. mastery) in favor of imagining or intuiting our way to spheres of experience greater than our "accepted practices" have deigned show us (a state Fanny Howe might call bewilderment)....I'm just not sure it's the kind of poem I want to write.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

the unicorn

Years ago, a friend told me she had been invited to be a unicorn at a private party that moved around the city, expressly for the purpose of letting moneyed couples explore their swinger /exhibitionist inclinations. You might ask, as I did, what a "unicorn" is, in this sense. She replied, "A unicorn is a single woman who cruises parties for multiple partners. They are rumored to exist, but no one has ever seen one in nature."

More recently, my friend, poet and writer Colie Hoffman, also got me thinking about unicorns. They appear in some of her magically surreal prose poems that I had the chance to read when we were at Hunter. I vaguely remember a scenario that involved unicorns playing baseball. In this scenario, unicorns in humanoid postures seem to suggest humans can attain an idealized form by elevating a mundane pastime (apologies to those who pray at the batted altar) to one of mystical meaning. Or, that our human hunger to believe our fantasies and ideals can somehow form a transcendent logic that is at home in this world.

As some of you know, I have the privilege of working a day job in advertising that magically doesn't eat up all 12 hours of daylight. I also have what I consider to be the privilege of working in design. Even when my job is boring, there is the satisfaction of making things orderly, pretty, or functional, and most usually some combination of all three. I like organizing closets and making collages. I like type and colors. I like ordering information. So, all in all, this works out remarkably well.

Recently a printer contacted me about submitting one of my designs to a contest. This happens on occasion, and is always flattering, even exciting. Since I've been focusing on my writing over the past few years, the energy I'd been pouring into design took a hit. These moments of reflection help stoke my flame that still burns for design, and reminds me that I might, after all, have the touch. That maybe there is hope for me yet at being more of a William Blake or Robert Bringhurst than a poor man's Wallace Stevens, toiling behind the scrim of a gray flannel suit.

However, these moments also pose uncomfortable questions....have I made the right decision to spread my energies around, in this day of increased specialization? Am I wasting time trying to do too much, be too much? What IS that Most Important Thing? Could it be design for consumer markets, when I thought it was Art?

This spiral continues, and the cheap seats begin to bark tips at the unicorns on the field:

You can't eat poetry.
Advertising is a career for the masses, art for the few.
You're still "creative," even if you're not an artist.
There're more benefits in being an art director than a poet.
Why don't you write something like "Twilight"?
Good luck with all that, kid. You'll never buy a house.

But I'm not a kid, really, and I don't believe in unicorns. When models are hired to circulate at parties in various states of undress, either selling vodka or just the illusion of sexual availability, I don't believe the illusion they are selling. (Of course, I'm not the target market.) And I believe, Pollyanna-ish as it seems, that most members of said target market also don't believe in what they are being sold...they're buying into how safe the idea is when it's divorced from the threat of reality.

My friend who "performed" as a unicorn at the aforementioned underground parties told me that her job really was to talk to people, and to wander around. I'm not going to pretend that her experience was in any way bound by the monogamous heterosexist narrative this comment implies. This was her take-away from the experience--that the unicorn was a unicorn because the unicorn wasn't real. The unicorn was extra-human, a figment of the imagination. And if she did choose to engage with break down the line between fantasy and reality...well, she never shared that with me. I suspect that might be because the reality of the event (so many arms and legs, the impossibility of three-way eye contact) made the pre-game illusion much more interesting.

When I saw the first window ad for Diesel's "Be Stupid" campaign months ago, the line I'm shuffling toward drawing in the sand between Teams Unicorn (where the teams are consumer design and poetry/non-consumer art) got a little clearer. This campaign represents exactly the kind of work I could be doing. I could be manipulating rhetoric, cultural symbols and psychological motifs into profitable advertising ventures. I even think I might be able to be good at making that kind of unicorn--the type that touches on some of our basest human desires and raises those desires to the level of an ideal. The desire that substitutes "creative" for "stupid," and counts on a society's anti-intellectual terrors to fill in the blanks. Or the desire that substitutes luxury goods with self-worth. That appeals to aspirational identity, and uses said rhetoric and motifs to make that identity emotionally fulfilling. The unicorn who frolics in sweet meadows, backlit by soft spring sunshine, silken mane buffeted by the wind as a chance ray of light reflects off the horn that springs from her forehead like an aesthetic messenger of Zeus.

Then there is the unicorn in the baseball uniform. Is this unicorn ever really safe? This unicorn that stands on two legs, one hip stuck out as she throws a baseball into her glove (somehow), and glares at the competitors. This unicorn whose mane is stained with sweat and clay. Who, by playing a human game, reveals us to ourselves--our human ways suddenly absurd, for what could be more ridiculous than believing any of our logics can be transcendent, or that any of our ideals can be perfection?

And yet, that's what we do over and over again, and that's the unicorn I want to chase. The unicorn that pulls humanity, in all its absurdities and beauties, into high relief. Not the unicorn that clicks shut like a box, a cipher of a desire that, while also all-too-human, somehow seems to push me further from becoming more human and further into a mountain of consumer goods.

It's not that I don't love my consumer feelings are certainly ambivalent here, as I'm ever-so-much part of the machine I critique. It's really that my life project is to explore what makes us human in a way that brings me closer to humanity, within myself and (perhaps aspirationally!) within others...not to study how to push human buttons from behind a curtain.

There....line drawn. Imperfectly, and certainly with logic flaws. Inconsistent. Contradictory. Perhaps even ephemerally delightful, like a unicorn playing baseball.

Batter up.