jeudi 7 juin 2012

New Blog Site

I really haven't lived up to the promises of this blog, but I think that after a few years teaching and writing and doing other things, I'm ready to do stuff Internet-wise again. I doubt that many people still follow this one, but if you are, my writing can now be found at There I've begun blogging and posting poetry and essays. Please follow there to follow me. You can also find me on twitter. I hope to talk with you soon.

lundi 15 août 2011

Syllabus of Errors

Since I started teaching, I seem to have gone inexorably in the direction of pop culture. I first taught courses on mystery novels. Even though it was my first choice among the classes I may teach as part of my grad school requirement, I'd never really been a reader of mysteries. In fact, I'd read just about every genre but, spending most of my undergraduate life reading over serious novels and poems of the literary variety, and most of my life since reading sci fi, fantasy, horror, etc. When I was a teenager I read angsty bildungsromans and Stephen King. The last "literary" novel I've read (that I wasn't teaching) was probably A Prayer for the Dying, by Stuart O'Nan. That novel was set in the 19th century told to (2nd person, y'all) a combo preacher/mortician/sheriff about his town being on the brink of devastation from diphtheria and fire. And though it is certainly literary (it's experimental p.o.v., the lyrical sharpness of its sentences, the depth of characterization, etc), it was more or less a western. A really awesome western. I read it as quickly as I read the latest Harry Dresden novel Ghost Story. Which was really fast.

Other novels I have loved in my adult life: The Brothers Karamazov, White Noise, Confederacy of Dunces, etc. But I don't need to make a case for them. If nothing else, it seems pretty pretentious to list them as my "favorites." And truly, they're not. When I fell in love with reading was when I immersed myself into Midworld of the Dark Tower Series. This was freshmen year of high school, and my life was perfect. I had an older girlfriend, a job in Cocodrie, which is the "exotic" end of the road in Louisiana on the marshy coast of the Gulf of Mexico. This was before I started smoking or even started drinking alcohol. I listened to Nine Inch Nails's The Fragile everyday. I read the Stephen King novels every night and wanted to be a postapocalyptic gunslinger who found himself in a Browning poem. Now, I read George R. R. Martin and Jim Butcher, Kelly Link and Margaret Atwood. Stuff that's speculative and engaging.

When I began writing poetry, I wrote in an ars poetica essay (assigned--I'm not quite that full of myself, not even when I was 19) that talked about how I wanted to create a world that I preferred to the real one. It doesn't have to be one that is full of fantasy, but it has to be good. I'm still looking for a world to believe in. And so I teach worlds.

But what I'm actually teaching, seems to be up for debate. Despite the fact that Buffy was clearly on the syllabus of the class, I was critiqued by a student that I spent valuable class time "gossiping about Buffy." OK, fair observation. We did spend three to four weeks on Buffy. And despite the fact that pop culture texts (and not just Frankfurt school theory) have been taught since at least the 80s (see White Noise), some students still don't recognize the richness of the texts that we navigate everyday. They want the class to be more utilitarian, they want me to be the vendor of a useful sort of knowledge that they can consume and lose once a satisfying final grade is delivered. Well, I'm calling bullshit.

As a writing teacher, I teach that to write, one must be a hungry reader. Surprise! You don't learn to write because of a formula a writing teacher gives you, some handout that reminds you on where to place a thesis sentence, on how to introduce your arguments. I'm guilty of giving handouts like that, but I can't believe in them. Students expect them. As does the department. But do they transform writing from unsophisticated to stellar? Do they give essays or whatever some kind of fire that you can read by?

They don't. And so, I design my course around subjects I'm passionate about, and we discuss that content in the hopes that the students find something that wakes them up to something other than the everyday reality of being an adolescent and a college student. Something that makes them want to be ambitious in their imagination. Along the way, we deal with craft, making sure that students avoid obvious errors so that the wealth of their thoughts actually has a chance to do something, whether it is to tell a story, argue a point, or make some kind of emotional speech act.

And so in my freshmen writing seminars, I teach what I love--pop cultural texts. This fall, I'm teaching Wonder Woman, Promethea, Jean Grey, and, of course, Buffy. The class has the word "superheroines" in the title so maybe there will be no confusion as to what we'll be gossiping about. And hopefully, these characters will inspire my students, not just to live some kind of ideal (though that can be right sometimes), but to write worlds of their own. Ones that might be as simple as their own. The class is an essay class, but an essay class that is all serious can make for some pretty lackluster writing. For me, the main goal of pedagogy is to create a context where students create for themselves, come to realizations on their own, to do for themselves.

vendredi 20 mai 2011

Kingdom of Madness

I just clicked on my computer to discover sad news: Randy "Mach Man" Savage is dead. He died from a car accident, having had a heart attack then losing control of his car. His wife, Lynn, had minor injuries. From all reports, he was happy, having just celebrated his one year anniversary with his wife.

While Hulk Hogan gave wrestling the cross-over appeal in the 1980s to become a global entertainment form, Savage was one of the few wrestlers who kept fans ringside, whether in their homes or at arenas, glued to the action in the ring. He was the technical half of the Superpowers, the man who stole the show the night Hogan slammed Andre in a beautiful match with Ricky "The Dragon" Steamboat. He was Shawn Michaels before Shawn Michaels. He made us believe that a little man could take on all of Hulkamania and hence the world.

While Savage was stellar in the ring, he was the champion of the mic, delivering insane promos that bordered on the poetic. He was a wordsmith as much as he was a matsmith. He taught me the importance of the "larger than life," the creative break with reality, the ambition to chase the dragon of inspiration, to bow down before the kingdom of madness. To say he will be missed will be to say we will miss a part of ourselves, the generation whose childhood hero wore cowboy hats, sunglasses, and entered the arena to "Pomp and Circumstance." He lives on as the part of us that's willing to go beyond the realms of possibility, in art and in life, the part of us that's cocky but loveable, the part of us that will do anything for his lover.

And as you knock on the gates of the kingdom of madness, know that you've left behind a legacy in and out of the squared circle. I hope they crown you prince, for you've done your service, shown each of us how to be a little more mad too. Oh yeah.

jeudi 19 mai 2011

Redemptive Sacrifice and Spoilers.

Lately, everything I watch or read ends in a redemptive sacrifice. After becoming enchanted by the character of Doyle in Angel (my wife and I finished marathoning Buffy and had to move on to something), he throws himself in the mortal-killing light of a machine to save Angel, Cordelia, and a bunch of half-demons. The night before, I watched an episode of Supernatural where Sam's fling had to die because she was a werewolf. This one was more complicated because she chose the death (unlike Oz in BtVS), but Sam also chose to be the man with the gun. So to save others, he killed the woman he loved (at least for the episode), and she, to save others, asked for death. This episode doesn't even touch on how many times the Winchesters sell their soul to save someone or another. And then there's the plot arc of The Astonishing X-Men that ended with, spoiler alert, Kitty Pryde phasing herself into a gigantic missile to save Earth but doom herself to death or worse. At least in that situation, I have the comfort in knowing that in comics, no one really dies.

These instances come after I planned a screenplay that ends in redemptive sacrifice. I certainly had no illusions that this trope is novel. Hell, it started Christianity, right? But the use of the death as a model for redemption sinks its teeth deep into the heart of humankind. Just sitting here, writing this blog, I can name hundreds of narratives that end the hero's journey with a plunge into the abyss, especially one big novel to film adaptation that ends this summer (if you're concerned with not knowing the end of huge narratives that are immensely popular, don't dwell on this sentence!). But many of these, previous sentence and the largest Western religion included, don't actually end in the cemetery, but when the hero triumphs one last time over death. Buffy did it. Twice.

The sacrifices I'm haunted by lately, ones of my own devising included, don't have that I'll be home for Christmas endings. Doyle really died. And he doesn't come back, not even in spectral form. In fact, the actor, Glenn Quinn died a little over two years after his onscreen death from a heroin overdose. When I read that bit of news from 2002 (I'm catching up!), I transfered my emotions concerning Doyle onto Mr. Quinn, and felt doubly the pain of not seeing him banter with Cordelia, of knowing that he'll never have dinner with her, that he'll never save the world again. What this says about the state of literary tropes, I don't know.

But I do know that we invest a lot into our fictional friends. And when they're gone, another kind of abyss opens up and we have no choice but to populate it with more characters. I've become a sort of character junkie lately. And while reality is our nation-wide addiction, I still sentimentally clutch to the moments when someone's scripted behavior moves me. I wonder if it's always been this way, whether in the 19th people were outraged at the, spoiler alert, death of Anna Karenina or even Miss Havisham. Or whether once they'd read the fictional last rites of these people, that they immediately sought to find new books and plays to fill the gap left by the characters the way when my family's dog, Kal, died when I was in 9th grade, we immediately bought another Kal.

I hope they did.

samedi 14 mai 2011

RE: Blogging

Wow. It's been two years. If I had any readers before, they're gone now. But I'm starting afresh, same topics as before: culture, the disintegration thereof and how that can become beautiful too, poetry, pop culture, and the like.

I'm about to finish my second year teaching at Cornell. I'm just waiting on final projects from both my creative and expository students. I'd like to point anyone who arrives here to the blog that my students have been maintaining all semester: Barbaric Poetries. In it, you will find posts about video games, classical art, professional wrestling, Osama bin Laden, Blood Meridian, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, among other topics. The goal of my expository writing class was to explore our relationship to aestheticized violence, and my students did a marvelous job extending that conversation outside the classroom. In the fall, I'm teaching a course on Superheroines and Gendered Violence. In the spring, I'm teaching that course and a course on Contemporary Poetry and Hip Hop. Both of these writing seminars will use Barbaric Poetries to explore different topics that come up.

It's good to see students this way, and I hope other teachers begin to see the value of blogs in pedagogy. Instead of forcing students to comment of subjects they're half-interested in, they have the opportunity to write about what they want to, keeping them interested in a class they chose to sign up for. They're more at ease, more engaged. The best part is that I get to see them in their own element, seeing what interests they have, what preoccupations trouble them. My first summer teaching, while explaining existentialism, a student had said something along the lines of "I don't know what's the deal with all this existentialism, teach. I'm pretty happy with the way things are." That statement and dismissal gave me the false impression that my Cornell students were nothing like me. This blog teaches me that my assumption was wrong, that not only are my students like me, but they are concerned, critical thinkers.

Also, that experience has inspired me to take up the mantle and cowl once more and write in the darkness of a Newark night. Or whatever. But I hope to spew forth my words in this venue for a little while longer.

vendredi 25 septembre 2009

A Few Publications and a Performative

A little updating. The most recent issue of Prick of the Spindle includes two of my poems and a host of edgy, poignant stuff. The poem that mentions Tunguska is a poem that I've revised substantially every two years for about six years. The other one is about the razed St. Thomas housing projects in New Orleans that is now a particularly useless Walmart.

Also, a poem of mine will be forthcoming in The Colorado Review, either this fall or in the spring.

My first essay publication, dealing with my favorite topic--professional wrestling, will appear in this fall's Louisville Review. It mentions suplexes in a swimming pool, the retirement of Ric Flair, and Shawn Michaels at a house show in Baton Rouge.

One interesting thing I've been reading about is the supposedly performative aspect of poetry, a proposition based in reaction to/against Austin and Searle's speech act theory. In Austin's posthumous work, How to Do Things with Words, he describes a number of performative utterances, i. e. words that enact what they say. Examples would include naming ("I hereby name this boat the Mademoiselle Fazie."), loving ("Duh I love you."), and betting ("I bet you that more people will attend a Cajun party than a party in the USA."). One notable act Austin puts aside is poetry. If an apparent speech act arrives in a poem, you can bet that Austin would consider it "false." Searle prefers to call it "pretend." While speech act theory is actually as old as the desert fathers, if not older, Austin's presentation had its value, namely in a type of codifying of the phenomenon and an introduction of the topic to nonCatholic audiences. The ommission of poetry by him and subsequently by Searle, though, is shortsighted.

I propose that poetry itself be considered a type of speech act, albeit one that takes a bit more preparation than either christening or gambling. One thing that it does not need more of is convention. Speech acts are only felicitous or successful, as Austin tells us, when done according to certain socially defined conventions. Likewise, poetry does not operate well too far from conventions, especially if one considers that language is a huge set of historically determined conventions.

What poetry does not do is pretend. As my professor for my Theory of the Lyric course, Jonathan Culler, asks, what would Keats be pretending to do when he addresses the wind in "Ode to the Western Wind?" Although I'm not sure what he is really doing, let alone pretending to do, I can wager a guess. In the act of his poem (whether the reading or presentation of it, and I err on the side of reading here), the poem enacts its own creation, specifically the creation of a world where it is appropriate to apostrophize the wind or exist in surreality or experience the sublime. This might stretch the definition of poetry a bit, but why not?

OK, enough poetics for today. Maybe tomorrow you will get rap.

dimanche 20 septembre 2009

Get Me Out of this Monastery

One interesting thing I can do now that I am in grad school: The other night I had an inconsequential dream which was basically a mirror of a waking wish fantasy. I woke immediately afterwards and told myself, well that's a pretty straightforward dream, wish fulfillment in plain terms and images. And then I reminded myself that that was not what Freud what want me to think! So I re-evaluated my dream in the span of a minute or so, searching for spatial analogies, linguistic slips, condensation, displacement. Afterwards, I completely reinterpreted my dream, not only problematizing the initial wish fantasy but also arriving at a completely unrelated tension. Satisfied with myself, I fell back asleep and forget everything.