Perusing Poetics: You Don’t Know What You’ve Got ’til it’s Gone

“A degree from UC Berkeley will never change the fact that I cannot understand my grandfather when he asks for more coffee” – Esther G. Belin

This isn’t actually a quote from the direct reading this week, which was selections from Genocide of the Mind, but its the one that connects most directly to what I want to talk about, so here we go!

I’ve discussed before that I’m a grandchild of immigrant grandparents. They came from Germany after World War II. They had two daughters at the time, but my dad was born after they landed in New Jersey. He grew up speaking German, but he didn’t live in the country himself. I’m told his New Jersey-German accent was something to behold, though. (He sadly doesn’t have that anymore. Now he just can’t say “Mississippi” right.)

Actual things I did in “school”

My mom’s family was also of German descent, but a way long time ago. She was still super into the culture, though, and I’m pretty sure she’s actually the reason me and my brothers have such super German names and also were put into a Waldorf school to, among other things, learn German.

I grew up being babysat by my Omi and Opa, and as a result my German teachers would tell me I didn’t have an American accent. I had started saying the guttural German sounds so young that they came naturally and I didn’t have to reshape my mouth for them. I spoke German pretty okay for a while, but then I had to switch schools and got put into Spanish–and stopped learning German. I lost a lot of the ability I had learned to string together my own sentences. I had the sounds but not the speech.

Now, right here this story could take an uplifting turn where I say, “And in order to honor my Omi (read: make her stop yelling at me about forgetting my heritage), I picked up German again and am now fluent,” but it doesn’t. But the important thing is that it COULD. The fact that I don’t speak German is self-inflicted, not societally inflicted.

That is what struck me so strongly about the Genocide of the Mind readings. It’s never comfortable to be reminded of your own privilege, but it’s a damn good thing. My Omi is still with me, but when she isn’t, German won’t be lost to be. It will be there, accessible to me, in as many different forms as I want it. I can watch German films, listen to German music, read German books. I CAN.

No, I’m not saying anything that isn’t common sense. I know that. But that’s also why I consistently am staggered by comments like Carol Snow Moon Bachofner being told that her Native American recuperation attempts is her “little Native American project” (146). It well and truly is a “cultural genocide” that not many people see besides those that are being gutted from the inside out (146). It will not be seen until someone realizes some profit is being lost unless things are radically changed.

They need to be changed.

Perusing Poetics: Say Nothing, See Nothing

I promise that this week’s post will be an actual intellectual piece of reading material. I promise. Read on and see.

This week we read two really awesome things, and I had so many things to say about both of them. First we read excerpts from Book of Rhymes: The Poetics of Hip Hop by Adam Bradley, and then we read an essay by Jerome Rothenberg from The Politics of Poetic Form: Poetry and Public Policy. My initial reaction was, “Oh yeah totally doing something from Bradley because the only thing that Rothenberg’s got going is A REALLY ANNOYING USE OF THE AMPERSAND AGAIN AND AGAIN” but actually … I was wrong.

If you’re into Bradley’s book, I do highly recommend it. But my rant about persona and Truth and all that jazz got sidelined when Rothenberg gave me this little quote:

“The hypothesis would be: I see through language. And its corollary: without language, I am blind” (13).

Now, the quote that I instantly connected to before this one was “‘a new language must be found’ … not only for the sake of speaking but of seeing, knowing” and I was like “YEAH THAT SOUNDS AWESOME” (12). Then the one in block quotes came around a few sentences later and then I was like, “Hang on. What?”

At first, I took a step back and said, “Uh, no.” Because what sense does seeing with language make outside of reading? (I should probably have explained that a lot of Rothenberg’s focus is on “‘wordless’ oral poetries” [14].) My immediate reaction is that when I see a red flower, it doesn’t matter if the person next to me can communicate our shared vision or not because we’re both looking at the same red flower. (Also, I am aware I am working under the assumption we are both in possession of our sight. That is not a slight against those with blindness but rather I simply relating my own thought process given my privileged of having my sight mostly intact.)

Now let me back up a little bit. You may or may not know that I was abroad last year. Though I lived in London, I traveled in Europe a lot. The favorite question for people to ask when I came back is which place I went was my favorite. I always hedged this question by replying that I loved everywhere I went, but I was just more comfortable in places where I could adequately communicate, like Ireland and Scotland. When I traveled to Paris, Barcelona and Italy, I always had at least one travel buddy who spoke the language we needed. It is this experience that I drew on to refine this “hypothesis and corollary” in my own mind.

See, when traveling to new country where you don’t speak the language, the inability to communicate does feel like a type of blindness and a sense of invisibility all at the same time. Especially on public transportation, you feel removed from reality in a sense. There is all this chatter happening around you, but you can’t understand a word of it. You can’t overhear a funny story someone is telling or engage with a shopkeeper about buying a silly souvenir. Sure, you can get by with pointing and playing charades, but it is the most physical feeling of living in an alternate reality that I have ever had.

This is especially potent when someone you’re traveling with DOES speak the language. They end up ordering for the group at dinner or getting directions or navigating the public transportation. This isn’t a bad thing; I’m forever thankful for my friends for this. I might have died from anxiety otherwise. But when someone else can jump into a dialogue before you can, the muzzling effect is deafening. Perhaps this is just me, being someone who is not accustomed to taking a backseat for extended periods of time–and really wanting to be in complete control of every situation–but that is the deepest truth I can admit about traveling in those countries.

Again, I don’t regret those travels. They were some of the most amazing experiences of my life. But this was also certainly a part of my experience. It just wasn’t something I connected with the act of seeing until Rothenberg said it. I think of the five senses as five separates. But the truth is, as with much of the human experience, nothing is separate. Everything we do or don’t do feeds into something else with simple cause and effect.

Perusing Poetics: What Happens When I Break (Dance)

Alright, so here’s the thing, folks. I’m not having the best brain week. It’s Wednesday and I’m already shot to all hell. So this is what happens when I break down/dance.

Let me back up here. For class this week we read an article by Susan Stewart about “Graffiti as Crime and Art” and also this fabulous documentary called Style Wars. (You can watch it on YouTube here.) These are both fabulous–especially Style Wars–and deserve more than I’m going to give them, but hey. I haven’t collapsed once this semester (unlike last spring) and I’d like to keep it that way. Anyways. Here’s the quote from Steward that interested me for this blog post:

“…we should note that the function of individuation, stylization, and uniqueness would also seem to be served by the appropriation of the metaphor of the robot in both graffiti and it’s sister art, break dancing.”

Stewart here makes reference to the “freeze-frame stopping found in break dancing” and the “mixture of body movement and the imitation of mechanical action.”

The former dancer that I am, I departed entirely from the focus on graffiti (whoops) to the mentions of break dancing in both the article and the documentary. When I presented on this homework in class (for forty five effing minutes, why did no one stop me) I may or may not have used videos from the Step Up movie franchise to illustrate the relationship of body movement and machinery, as well as the commercialization of hip hop culture. In particular, I used this dance from Step Up All In:

I also, however, showed the final dance from the original Step Up movie in comparison, and was shocked at the stark contrast between the way that the two of them looked. I began to look at other dances from throughout the five movies, and realized that the more commercial the movies got, the more obvious the connection to machinery and robotics. More fascinatingly, a lot of this connection ceased to show up specifically in the dancing. Like a lot of other representations of hip hop cultures in the movies, the connection was bastardized and linked to something other than body movement–something Aristotle would call “spectacle.” It really strikes me sometimes, in the later movies, the emphasis really isn’t on dancing in these so-called dance movies at all.

Want to see what I’m talking about? WAIT NO MORE.

1. When the most technical thing in the movie was the fact that the music was supplied by a pit orchestra AND synthesizers and people actually danced: Step Up

2. Look! They used technology to record DANCING: Step Up 2: The Streets

3. THE MOVIE IN WHICH TECHNOLOGY F*CKED UP EVERYTHING (by which I mean they made this one in 3D and everything is 3D vision fodder but specifically check out those suits at 8:45): Step Up 3D

4. The movie that did this awesome thing by using robotic dance styles to characterize the corporate world but also like totally copped out in its finale dance by using cheap contraptions with trampolines and harnesses for wow effect: Step Up 4 Revolution

5. The movie that had earlier dances as non-dancy as the first one I showed and yet also had this steam-punk themed ending with some dancing but also crazy effects, fire and other nonsense: Step Up 5 All In

Personally, in movie quality, I felt like it’s all downhill from 1-3 and then 4 and 5 make an attempt to be better. It directly correlates to what I’ve just laid out about the dances. Coincidence? Perhaps. But only if you believe in such a thing.

I hope you have enjoyed this blog post brain break. I did!

Perusing Poetics: You Write What You Know, Even if You Don’t Know You’re Doing It

So, I’m usually not a fan of big block quotes. They’re clunky, take up space and it’s REALLY HARD to dissect them properly. For this week’s post, however, I might have to make an exception. This is potentially just what happens when you’re quoting Toni Morrison. The following is from her book on literary criticism, Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination

“Writers are among the most sensitive, the most intellectually anarchic, most representative, most probing of artists. The ability of writers to imagine what is not the self, to familiarize the strange and mystify the familiar, is the test of their power. The languages they use and the social and historical context in which these languages signify are indirect and direct revelations of that power and its limitations” (15).

Morrison herself is speaking specifically about why she is looking at white literature to discover the effect of the constructed idea of African-Americans on the world at the time. If you’ve been following these blog posts, you might already see where I’m going with this post … in which case I hope you stick around to read this for my sheer sparkling personality.

First off, look at that. Writers with power. Just look at how she describes writers. Isn’t that beautiful? Okay, so Morrison herself is a writer and that might make her biased, but I don’t think that makes it any less true. (I am also a writer and I admit my own bias.) But just think about it. Why do we read at all? It isn’t to read the same story again and again (unless you have fallen into guilty love with some YA trend). We read to find some exciting story that at once captures our imaginations and yet also catches our heart. To be exciting, it must be new, but to capture our hearts it must be filled with some kind of emotion we recognize. Otherwise we’d just be confused.

Secondly, look at what she wants us to look at: languages used and social and historical context. This is SO IMPORTANT. Anyone who says that they can look at just the text and only the text and get the full meaning is a liar. Looking at just the text gives you ONE meaning–also, a one dimensional reading. If you remember back to my post about Whorf, I went on and on about how we understand our world and also how we construct it. These constructions don’t just exist in our lives. A writer constructs worlds, but no matter how fantastical they always reach back to something they know or at least believe in.

Morrison has some really great examples in her book about how white writers were writing about African-Americans and what it says–more about the writer than the actual constructed character. Ernest Hemingway makes such an effort to deny the black sailor in To Have and Have Not agency or speech that he writes this grammatically disastrous line: “I looked and saw [the black sailor] had seen a patch of flying fish burst out ahead” (qtd 72).

Love him or hate him, you cannot tell me that Hemingway looked at that line in editing and thought, “Yes, this makes grammatical sense.” He made the choice to leave it there, instead of allowing the black sailor to even shout a few words.

Does this mean Hemingway is a racist? No. It’s one quote from one novel and conclusions drawn from that would be factually inaccurate. But what it DOES say is that Hemingway felt that he had to write the scene and the character that way. It could be his choice, it could not be. After all, you can’t tell me that every YA author believes that every story should have a love triangle shoehorned in. But there they are, because they believe that’s what people want to read. (Hint, they are not but for some reason they sell.)

Yes, that’s a shallow example to compare to all the centuries of silenced African-American characters and writers, but my point here is not to enter into race politics. My point is that we can look at the way certain things are written and extrapolate massive amounts of information in the way that language is shaped and what it says about writing in the social and historical context of the writer. The difficulty of writing is that it must be both exciting and familiar, and people must also want to read it. Even in the most fantastical of settings, the human experience must resemble the majority of the readership or no one will read it, love it or understand it.

As a final note, if you’re ever looking for enjoyable, interesting and easy-to-read literary criticism, go pick up Morrison’s book. You won’t be disappointed.

Perusing Poetics: Why I Write and Other Passionate Rants

If you’ve been reading these posts for a while, you know a couple of things–I hope. The thing pertinent to this discussion, however, is that I have no problem trashing the readings that I do for this class a lot of the time. So when I say I enjoyed William Carlos Williams’ Spring and All, you know I’m telling the truth.

This is an entire long work, so there were a lot of things that spoke to me in here. However, one thing that I want to talk about is this quote right here:

“Complete lack of imagination would be the same at the cost of intelligence, complete.” (28)

This is one of many things that Williams says about the relationship between intelligence and imagination–one of the more succinct and easier to understand without context. However, the basic gist of the idea is that intelligence cannot exist without the imagination. If you have no imagination, you can’t get smarter.

Right about here, I put the book down and smiled.

See, the thing about being a Writing and English double major is that you get a lot of flack–especially with the Writing portion. At least when I say English people say, “So you’re going to try to be a teacher before you start collecting unemployment.” When I say writing? Hahahahahaha that’s funny.

Before I go any further, I need to clarify what I’m not saying. I’m NOT saying that if you are in some kind of technical field you have no imagination. I’ve seen my brother building a computer and I know that would be IMPOSSIBLE without imagination. Scientists have to be able to dream, etc. But what I AM saying is that I’m sick and tired of being told that because I have an overactive imagination, I’m not smart.

Perhaps one of the biggest things I’ve learned in my readings so far (relating to my own personal life; the scholastic portion is gigantic) is that people have spent THOUSANDS of years recognizing the power of the storyteller and then tearing them down. Thanks, Plato. You can’t say “writer” and have people recognize that you sit there and create up realistic people who are not real who, in their plots, can explain something about humanity to you or illicit some kind of emotional response. No, you say “writer” and people just think “…oh.”

So when Williams says that intelligence depends on imagination, I feel just a little bit more justified. I have another set of quotes for my quiver of arrows to shoot against Those-Who-Need-To-Shut-Up. When ever Plato is scared of storytellers, you should know something’s up anyways, but sometimes people forget that. People write “apologies” and justify their craft and don’t stop to think for a second, “Hey. Plato banished poets because of how much power they had. That’s pretty damn cool.”

I’m not saying that I write to change the world. I’m not saying that you could. What I am saying is that if you deny the talent and the intelligence of a writer, you’re denying a human tradition. You’re denying how our stories are what connect us and explain our humanity. You deny your own personal story.

So maybe I, as a writer, will never make as much money as a neurosurgeon (sadly). I didn’t become a writer to do that. I also didn’t become a writer because I wasn’t smart enough to do anything else.

I became a writer to tell our stories.

Perusing Poetics: All the World is Speech (and Humans are Really Strange Creatures)

When I was born, my parents got one of those dumb baby book things. Under family resemblances, my father wrote “Worf from Star Trek.” I HAVE A BIG FOREHEAD, OKAY?

This has absolutely nothing to do with this blog post, except for the fact that this week I’m talking about Benjamin Lee Whorf’s Language, Thought,and Reality and I keep thinking of Whorf from Star Trek instead of this really smart linguist. So now you know something really weird about me.

How I arrived at my topic for this week’s post is also kind of weird. It’s a convergence of three things, really. Firstly, there’s Whorf. One of his essays in this collection is titled “On the Connection of Ideas,” and it’s basically him writing to this compiler of psychological terminology asking for a better term for connected words and ideas than “association,” which he finds lacking for a multitude of reasons. The takeaway here is that he, a linguist, is asking for help not from another linguist, but a psychologist. Kind of weird, right? (Not to me, as you’re about to see.) Then, there’s this craft class I had today with poet Li-Young Lee. He said today that he thinks that art is really just another version of psychology, since all art comes from an inner psyche. Finally, there’s me, and my now three-year-long maintaining that if I wasn’t an English and Writing major, I’d be a psychology major.

When I first had a little wonder, as a freshman, if I should major in psychology (preferably educational), I threw it out of hand almost instantly. “I’m not science-y!” I said. “I’d never survive. The connection makes no sense!” So I continued on my merry English-and-Writing way. And I’m glad for it.

Me. Doing science.

But the thing is that there is a major connection between art and psychology. A BIG ONE. I’m going to focus on writing here, because I can’t art in any other way, but I’m sure an artist or musician–for example–would probably have a connection to make as well. What is a writer, but a creator of character? When you’re in a writing class, one of the major things you are told you have to figure out is “What do your characters want?” Writing–especially, for me personally, fiction–is simply accessible psychology. (The good stuff, anyways.) You sit down, you read a story, and you understand step by step why a person or a group of people do what they do within the story. You learn how people change, grow, fail or succeed through story arcs. To me, it’s pretty bloody magical. It’s why I write. The human brain fascinates me. Psychology is only one access point to the crazy questions humanity poses about WHY. Writing is another.

Whorf, however, is a linguist, so we have to break this down a little bit further. Sure, the connection between stories and psychology might make sense, but Whorf is operating on the word level. He’s seeing a connection to humanity through not just whole stories but single words and syllables. He suggests this hypothesis about how someone’s language is a major part of how they understand reality and behave within it. This collection basically admits that this hasn’t been proven, but it hasn’t been disproved.

To me, what he’s saying just makes sense. (Okay, well, not some of the time. But what I can understand from him, I like.)

It’s why I still wish I’d gone into psychology sometimes. It’s why I want to find some way to get a PhD where I can explore the links that Whorf talks about, between language, society, culture, etc. It’s because when I engage in my area of specialty (the young adult book world), I see the connection between cultural norms, young adult reception of these stories, and society at large. YA novels work in massive trends, but it’s fascinating how the slightest shift in language can make or break one vampire novel to the next.

At the reading by Li-Young that I attended tonight, he said that he was currently engaged in a massive back and forth with a minister friend of his because Li-Young is trying to convince him that all the world is speech. Well, that’s the world I choose to see, too.

speech-bubbles-world-map-vector-306917

Perusing Poetics: Sadly, You Didn’t Get Murdered Like You Wanted

This blog is going to be a combination of that title, the Futurist Movement and my trip to Italy last semester. (Specifically, Venice. Read more about that here.) How, you might ask? Hang on to your hat!

First, our poetical beginnings. This week in class we were reading about the Futurists and their CRAZY AS HELL movement of art. If you want to know how crazy, go ahead and look up the Manifesto as written by F.T. Marinetti. That’s what I’ll be quoting from.

These guys had a lot of crazy, cool, and crazy-cool ideas kicking around. Among the stranger ones was their desire to destroy “museums, libraries, [and] academies of every kind” (22). This is not to mention “moralism, feminism, [and] every opportunistic or utilitarian cowardice”, but that’s another blog post for another time (22).

I want to focus on the word “museums” here, but first a little bit of context. One, this manifesto was written in 1909. These young men were glorifying war and violence, among other things, but they probably had no idea about what was coming around the corner for all of Europe. Second point of interest–and where I got my blog post title from–was that they were so into new ideas that they hoped that “other, younger and stronger men” would come around when they were forty or so and “hurtle to kill” them so as to become their “successors” (23).

So there’s your picture. Young, frenzied men in 1909 with a lot of wild ideas that actually go on to have a lot of impact on the world. They want to knock down every old edifice that remains in the world and make it new. They look forward to being destroyed by their successors.

It’s funny what they got and what they didn’t. A lot of their thinkers would be killed in the war that was to come, but not in the way that they wanted. A lot of old things would be destroyed and made new after the war, for better or for worse. Successors would arise and carry on some of their ideas, but not in the way they would have preferred if they all lived.

How can I say that? Well, when I visited the Peggy Guggenheim Museum in Venice, their special exhibition was on Futurist art. Some of the most famous pieces of their movement were there.

Futurism Art1

In a museum.

Futurism Art4

Photo credit: Samantha Guter

On display.

Futurism Art3

Photo credit: Samantha Guter

Sure, The Peggy Guggenheim is a modern art museum. There are no dusty Greek or Roman pieces there, but rather Dali, Pollock and Ernst. Yet, as far as the Futurists were concerned, anything past was old. Even their work, now, is “old” because it isn’t now. Hanging that art there, exhibiting it like that … all those artists were probably turning over in their graves.

It’s just fascinating how the world picks and chooses what it wants to remember about movements and ideas and people. There are plenty of Futurist ideals that many artists still carry, like themes of destroying the old or violence in art, but this one they forgot. The Futurists were murdered, all right, but the radical movement they hoped would continue on after them did not–or it would not be the pieces of Marinetti’s contemporaries on the walls, but rather those young, vicious murderers for which they prayed. Now the only violence they can enact is the one which Marienetti lambasted museums for containing: where “absurd abattoirs of painters and sculptors ferociously [slaughter] each other with colour-blows and line-blows, the length of the fought-over walls!” (22).