Friday, February 25, 2011

How to Heal with the World in Shambles: Lynda Barry and Spaghetti Art

It has taken me a really long time to write this essay. I've had a few drafts, and at times, I've been too scared to even try to write. But after reading essays about Ira Glass and Lynda Barry, and reading her books and thinking about her and why I like her, I figured out why. I like her because it seems like she's doing okay. To me, she is like John Cage. Barry and Cage are two of the few artists I can name whose work I admire and is/was doing okay, or seems rather happy. I've always said John Cage seems so content because he convinced himself the entire world was playing his music. (The story goes, basically, that he hated radios, so he decided to start using them in his work, so after that every time he heard someone playing the radio, he figured they were just listening to a song of his). Pretty amazing way to cope with something that drives you absolutely crazy, or makes you depressed, or anxious, or angry, or feel like you're unable to live.

Living can be really hard sometimes, and that's a thing that Lynda Barry has talked about before. I heard her speak at the 2010 Comic Book Fest here in Brooklyn and she told this story about how when she was a kid she'd cut out pictures of food from "women's" magazines, then cut slits into those, and then also cut out pictures of her favorite comic book characters. This is where the genius comes in -- then she'd slowly put the characters through the plate of spaghetti or whatever and so they'd be popping out. She'd make them disappear, and then pop back out again, and just laugh. Not only can living be hard, but it can be absurd. From what I gather, Barry had a pretty rough childhood, which is what the comic about Ira Glass was also about -- repeating those cycles. She says her mother would berate her for doing this -- for doing something she enjoyed, even if it seemed stupid or pointless or absurd. And it is absurd. Why would this help someone? Why would it matter? Now, Lynda Barry says she still does this, but with cut-outs of political figures. And as she says, she just laughs and laughs and laughs.

Sometimes I find it hard to laugh. I feel distant and sometimes I can't even read the news. It hurts to much to even try. Or I find it hard to concentrate because I really can't focus on how bad it really is. I had a dream the world ended, and I was certain that it had, but when I checked the New York Times that morning, it actually did seem sort of close. I am upset about the cuts to funding, obviously. I am upset that they want to redefine rape and call rape victims "accusers", but not anyone else. I am upset about the conditions in Haiti and about hate crimes, and racism, and all the big stuff that makes the news in stories but is really just the condition of living in this world, and sometimes I have no idea what to do about it. Because sometimes there isn't a rally. Sometimes no one wants to go out into the street and scream with me, so screaming doesn't feel as good. Although sometimes it feels really good. Sometimes playing the drums works. Sometimes it doesn't. But there is one thing that never seems to fail for me, and that's art. After hearing Lynda Barry talk I realized once again why art was in my life and what I had to do with it and it makes sense why I find it difficult to not have my politics in my work anymore. How else will I heal from them? Sometimes I write to get it out, but other times I paint. Painting seems to be the most helpful because I love to draw monsters. I see a lot of monsters in this world, but by painting them as harmless or with funny looking teeth, it doesn't seem so bad. I still think I need to find the thing that is like my plate of spaghetti. I still need to think about the absurdity of it sometimes. But that's the thing about Lynda Barry, she is all about not giving up. About not giving up drawing (she continually asks in all of her books why people doodle while on the phone but say they don't draw, or only draw with kids around.) People are scared of the things they have been told not to do (what if Barry had listened to her mom? What would she have to help her to heal?) We need to tell ourselves we're going to do these things anyway, and not listen to the voices inside or outside of our head because the world at large doesn't want us to heal. Most of the time it feels like it wants to keep us silent. I could go on a whole tirade, but I won't, because I don't want to, because this is about art, and healing, and that it's okay sometimes to just laugh. Because you have to.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011


So, it is taking me much much longer to write out those essays than I thought, but I know at least one person is excited / looking forward to reading them, so please hang on as I finish a few other projects.

Right now I am also doing the Fun-A-Day project, which unsurprisingly takes up a bit of time, along with teaching, my volunteer work, my other job, and a zine I just finished about redefining the romantic. If you're interested in that, contact

There are a few other projects in the works, related to doom and tiny houses (separate projects) and also reading, which is my life project, I guess. And staying on top of the litter box, laundry, and making my bed. Basically, it makes me wish there were a few more of me to go around.

I am also thinking that these essays might turn into a zine / chapbook project, so I am also debating if I should wait to post them, and if I post them, if I should do so here or at my tumblr. Either way, stay tuned for something.


Monday, January 24, 2011

Poetics of Politics and the Politics of Poetics

I try to remember what I remember. Like, why do I remember these things I remember, like why I remember a friend of the family telling me not to wear shirts with pockets. Because hey, those are for boys, apparently. I should have asked why, but so few of us are taught that skill when we're young. Mostly, we're told to listen (this reminds me, I want to write about the politics of silence). But this stuff was explored pretty well in the 1970's. & it isn't really what I wanted to say. I wanted to talk about two things I remember fellow poets telling me while I was earning my M.F.A. at Brooklyn College. 1) C.R., on what I think was the first day of class, said she gave up poetry because she found it to be incredibly selfish and instead wanted to concentrate on activism, but then she came back to it. I don't remember why she said she came back to poetry, or how she realized that was what she wanted to do. I could fill in the gaps, but I think I'd only be giving my own reasons. 2) J.C. once told me (while we walked around a somewhat suburban neighborhood of Brooklyn after teaching poetry to high school students) that she thought experimental/avant-garde poets didn't think Langston Hughes was legitimate because he is the voice of a strong black man, telling his story clearly, and loudly. Oh, and people liked him. I remember being resistant at the time. I didn't want to imagine that the poetics I was developing had anything to do with racism. But, now I know she's right. Otherwise we wouldn't have separate books -- the "Norton Anthology of Literature" (very few women, hardly anything queer, and certainly only a few poets who were people of color) & things like "The Oxford Book of Latin American Poetry."

Something fishy is going on here.

Another memory: Right when I started to come out I went to a conference about feminism and poetics. I saw Eileen Myles give a talk & she began to complain about Language poetry, but she didn't say the stuff I was used to hearing. Instead she asked a question: "How could an entire movement, who identified themselves with radical politics, who were also writing during the 1980's, never write about AIDS?" I wasn't well versed in Language poetics, but I was shocked. She was right, of course. She said how alone she felt -- writing politically narrative work. There are still people who I talk to who don't want to take Eileen Myles seriously. I'm all about having different tastes, but why was she being discredited so much? Why was there so much animosity, so much venom? I'll take a guess. 1) She identifies as a woman. 2) She is also a lesbian. 3) People fear stories.

Not just any stories, of course. Certain stories. That come from certain people. I begin to think about the Bechdel test. Do you know it? Alison Bechdel (creator of Fun Home) made it and it asks you to find a movie that 1)Has at least two women in it 2) Who talk to each other and 3) About something besides a man. This test has also been applied to race, and pretty much every group who isn't on the white cis-gendered male spectrum (but we could also talk about masculinity narrative there). So, maybe when the avant-garde & experimental poets go on about the importance of "deconstructing language" because hey, "gender is just a construct" (also, I totally get down with this, but seriously, gender is important to some people, and usually seems very important to the guys who tell me this) and so like, we should totally be over language by now, right?

Easy for some to say. What if certain people's stories are not being told in mainstream media, or even in less mainstream locations, such as the poetry scene I've been mentioning here? What if in certain circles slam poetry is not seen as "legitimate" art? The question becomes what is "good art" and "bad art" and why do you think that? Not to say if you just don't like Langston Hughes that you're a racist. It's much more complicated than that -- I don't want to question personal taste, but how taste becomes a movement. How so many people agree to one way of writing is "legitimate" while another is not. What's going on here? So, it is my goal this week to write once a day, focusing in on avant-garde/experimental poetry and politics, and how the work of an activist (which I see as being incredibly present -- think how hard it is to be a social worker, for example) and an artist (being elsewhere & observant, reflective). & of course this is for obvious selfish reasons, as I try to navigate the space between these two things.

Later this week:
1) George Oppen, Lorine Neidecker & the Objectivists
2)1980's, Language Poetry, and Eileen Myles
3) Mac Wellman and play writing as activism, collectives
4) Using art to heal from the state of the world (Lynda Barry)
5) Lisa Jarnot
6) When artists have "bad" politics
7) Wanda Coleman, CA Conrad -- and the importance of being loud
8) Cecilia Vicuna

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Portable Boog City Reader

The New Boog City Reader features one of my poems (Untitled) and also the work of many of my friends & other writers I admire. Totally worth reading.