Monday, July 09, 2007

Moore on CNN + Murakami's Jazz + Audiologo on BGMLF(iction)

A few short hits: I've yet to catch Michael Moore's extensively heralded and praised new film, Sicko, but since I watch far too much (local) TV I have seen more than one backhanded review of it. (Intuition tells me it's even better than Fahrenheit 911.) One of the things that I like about Michael Moore is that when he's dealing with media hacks, he stands up for himself and challenges their premises and frames. In fact, in this recent CNN appearance, he strips the guff from Wolf Blitzer like turpentine on old varnish. At one point Blitzer, who gallantly defends CNN "fact-checker" Dr. Sanjay Gupta against Moore's criticisms, does concede that CNN has not answered for its deplorable journalism, or lack up it, leading up to the Iraq War. Maybe we can pen Sickoin for this weekend--or very soon at least.


Over the last few years, one of the writers who's become a constant in my advanced and graduate fiction writing curricula is Haruki Murakami. For a while I was using just one story, "The Elephant Vanishes" (one of my all-time favorites), and then I incorporated the eponymous short fiction collection in my undergraduate theory and practice course and some of his New Yorker stories in my graduate classes. (In both cases, I gathered that the students enjoyed his work tremendously and found it helpful in undertaking their own narrative experiments.) This past academic year I incorporated several of the long, strange and enthralling stories from After the Quake, the 2002 collection that takes the devastating 1995 Kobe earthquake as a guiding theme, trope and metaphor. I've never had the opportunity to teach one or more of his novels, though if I could, I'd probably contrast a straightforward realist one like the charming, romantic Norwegian Wood with the far more complex and dazzling quasi-fantastic yet politically engaged construction, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (whose origins lie in a story of almost the same name that first appears in The Elephant Vanishes and Other Stories). In so much of Murakami's work, the narrative progression, in terms of the plot, of characterizations, of incident, of even time itself, feels improvisatory, yet rightly so; he is usually able to make even the most bizarre scenarios (little people living under a house, people robbing a fast-food restaurant, elephants completely vanishing, giant frogs appearing out of nowhere, etc.) work, while also juxtaposing them with scenes of plangent, mimetic emotional resonance. His touch is often so deft that if you're analyzing the text you have to carefully retrace sentence by sentence, or figure by figure, to pinpoint out how he pulled it off. "Ruby, My Dear," indeed.

It's no wonder, then, that jazz is a great influence on his work, and in this past Sunday's New York Times, he published an article about this influence, entitled "Jazz Messenger." It's worth checking out. Here's a snippet:

Whether in music or in fiction, the most basic thing is rhythm. Your style needs to have good, natural, steady rhythm, or people won’t keep reading your work. I learned the importance of rhythm from music — and mainly from jazz. Next comes melody — which, in literature, means the appropriate arrangement of the words to match the rhythm. If the way the words fit the rhythm is smooth and beautiful, you can’t ask for anything more. Next is harmony — the internal mental sounds that support the words. Then comes the part I like best: free improvisation. Through some special channel, the story comes welling out freely from inside. All I have to do is get into the flow. Finally comes what may be the most important thing: that high you experience upon completing a work — upon ending your “performance” and feeling you have succeeded in reaching a place that is new and meaningful. And if all goes well, you get to share that sense of elevation with your readers (your audience). That is a marvelous culmination that can be achieved in no other way.


I love it that some civil rights folks are engaging our communities in relevant conceptual practice. I'd have loved to have caught this ceremony in Detroit. Did any J's Theater readers stage their own burials? If the word's still so vibrant, though, isn't that called vivisepulture? (And haven't we also learned enough by now about the return of the repressed to perhaps try a different strategy?)


Finally, here's a brilliant reply that Audiologo sent a few days ago concerning the prior posts on Black gay male literary fiction. She's given me permission to post it. Thoughts?

I thought about your comments on the Southgate article. I've heard a few odd things about sistergirl in relationship to racial dynamics and publishing, so it was interesting to read her article and its focus on "chocolate in the buttermilk." My thoughts ended up being kind of long for a blog comment; I thought I'd send you an email to read instead if you have the time.

I too wondered about her assessment of those publishing parties, and was glad to read your experiences have been different.

My sense of the lack of literary fiction from black gay men, as someone who became acquainted with writers from Other Countries while in college: hmm, my first thought was to ask how much different was it from women who stole bits of time to write poetry, and found that bits of time were more conducive to writing poetry than longer forms such as short stories and novels. There is so arguably much more to understand about the work of fiction, in order to write it, than poetry. I say that advisedly because I know that poetry has considerably more distinct forms than narrative fiction for a writer to explore. But with fiction one needs to be able to create a narrative arc, understand about character development, creating dialogue, chosing narrative voice (omiscient, 3rd person, first person, etc), chosing the tense, creating tension and using narrative devices--without understanding those (whether you use them or subvert them) you can't write a novel. I think this is why memoir is so popular. The story is already there, and the job is to whittle it down or flesh it out, not build it from scratch.

But for the aspiring writer who doesn't know about meter, or the sonnet, acrostic, ballad/e, quatrain, sestina, villanelle, etc and looks at a poem by Gwendolyn Brooks, Kevin Young, or A. Van Jordan, Ed Roberson (admittedly more difficult), Sonia Sanchez, Essex Hemphill, or Craig Harris, the realization of similar work may seem possible. If people look at Seismosis or other examples of black gay experimental work, that's when questions of form become more tangible, and I would posit that is also when the medium can become less accessible. The reason for this is not the inaccessibility of the work, because of its intellectual sophistication. Frankly I find "woman womb, waves splashing, my sister, my sister" poems inaccessible because of their unmitigated celebration of a myopic view of black (queer) womanhood. They are dissonant to my sense of the real, and as a result don't feed me and strike me as only celebrating an inverted (shameful) silence (but that's another story).

The experimental becomes inaccessible because of the larger issue of educational lack in this country. I would not wholly agree with Kai in NYC's assertion that there is a pervasive belief that writing a novel is something that "any bloke off the street can do." I think there is a general lack of reading in this culture, that coupled with a burning desire to "tell, tell, tell it on the mountain" means that some people are making an uninformed choice between the time it takes to become well-read and the time it takes to write--not understanding that the former directly informs the latter.

I also wonder at how solitary novel writing is. Arguably, for some people, especially those with an eye towards performance, writing poetry, at least the end result, offers the possibility of sharing the work in public with greater frequency, and as a consequence creating community.

When I was writing what I thought was going to be a novel, I never read it out except when I was participating in the Voices of All Our Nations Arts Workshops. That was once a year. When I joined a writing group my work was read by other black women every other month until those groups dissipated, which each of them sadly has. If, as Southgate has argued in her addendum, writing itself is a brave act for the heterosexual, though unnamed as such, black writer, how difficult is it for the queer man of of African descent to write as who he is? I don't mean to take the tortured soul route of interpretation, but I keep thinking of Richard Rodriguez' Hunger of Memory, how seemingly in the brave act of writing he actually reinscribed his own silence as a gay Chicano man, and in so doing prescribed a parallel silence for first and second generation Mexican American children in the U.S. public school system. That's fear made manifest.

Both the movement towards performance poetry, and the rush to "share it on the mountain" before the story has been determined to have legs, stems, I think, from an urgency to be seen, to heard, and to be affirmed. (I've been thinking about HIV/AIDS and black folks recently, and have been seeing parallels to questions of communication, self-love, consciousness, prioritization.) It's possible to be a writer because one is compelled to bear witness, and be witnessed doing do, just as it is possible to pursue this vocation because of a love of literature and the craft of creating it. Those two impetuses may overlap, but I sense one may be stronger than the other.

It is also my sense that, ironically, it may be easier for those who have a burning passion to "tell it" to finish a novel (though they may--like filmmaker Matty Rich--have only one tale in them), than for those who love the literary form to give themselves permission to consistently devote the substantive time to writing (and revising) that work. For those in the latter group, to take themselves seriously, to be willing to prioritize their craft, and to take time from other aspects of their life (job, relationship/marriage, family, childrearing, friends, sleep) to manifest that work may be considerably more daunting. Then to blindly feel one's way into a world, publishing, about which one knows little or nothing except that it's predominantly white, and it's unlikely anyone will be waiting to great you at the door. One has to keep committing to the importance of that work, and
negotiate whatever unease may accompany that pursuit in the present U.S. literary arena. (see Sarah Schulman & Bridgett Davis' comments re: Martha Southgate's addendum on Tayari Jones' blog).

I remember the deep unease of colleagues of color in graduate school who worried about the value of their scholarly work to their families--would their parents be able to understand it, would they feel abandonned by it? And I think some of my colleagues wondered if they would finish in time to save enough money to take care of parents when that was needed (dang, should've become a lawyer). And that's a field that back in the day, kinda like the army, was supposed to guarantee you a job after you finished your training.

OK, that may have sounded cynical, but that wasn't my intention. I greatly admire the black folk who create in the literary field. I do think institutionalized spaces and legacies such as Cave Canem are the future. I wish there was a similar place for those who are not working within poetry. However, I do wonder if poetry had the publishing cachet of literary fiction if the U.S. literary arena would be as comfortable with Cave Canem's ascendency.

Just my $.02

Peace, audiologo

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