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Tuesday, May 11, 2004

Despite years of training, the first thing that caught my attention in my experience with Ben Greenman’s Superworse was the cover; it is not every book that flaunts a striking, black-and-white photograph of two naked women wrestling in a ring. Making that fundamental error, I imagined that the read ahead of me would be just as shocking, humorous, inventive, and structurally balanced as the cover. Having read the book cover to cover, I have proved my initial judgment correct, and experienced a joyride of short fiction.
Superworse accomplishes several impressive writing tasks, and each of them made the collection of short stories a fantastic read. Firstly, the characters created in each of the very short stories are incredibly vivid; even in just a few paragraphs, Greenman is able to create character after character—busloads of them—that, however alien they may seem to the reader, they become close acquaintances that the reader can identify with. I found it most impressive that through his writing, Greenman allowed me to identify with an Italian poet from the 1300s, a tree in the forest, a member of a centuries-old Russian court, and a villain from the Fifth Dimension. Furthermore, through my entire reading I never questioned why such a bizarre crowd of characters would be lumped together in this collection.
This brings me to the next great thing about Superworse: the seemingly random organization, but the hidden meaning in its structure. Throughout the first half of the book, the randomness and lack of connections among the stories continually shocked me, like a punch in the gut every time a new story began; that is to say I was surprised by the order, not that I did not enjoy what seemed to be the chaos of it all. All of this held true—until I reached the “midword,” an excellently entertaining halfway point written by the book’s editor, and the author’s former professor, Laurence Onge. Usually I am one to despise notes from the editor, to skip the preface, and ignore the prologue; I experienced quite the contrary reading this book. Onge’s midword, whether correct or not, explained the mystery of the structure—that Greenman had really laid out a complicated, symmetric map of his stories in the book, and everything had a reason. Hidden in several pieces, the book’s stories mirror each other before and after the midword; in “Notes to Paper You Wouldn’t Understand,” the secret to the structure of the book is clandestinely shared with the intuitive reader. The Russia-pieces are in the same position in the two halves of the books, as are the Italy-pieces, and others mirror each other as well. Greenman’s book takes a reader on a journey into randomness that ends up being a clear, organized mapped-out trail.
Each one of Greenman’s short fictions was different, and each fully entertaining and enjoyable. There are two that stand out for me, and both seem to do so due to their inventive structures. In “Blurb,” Greenman is ten steps ahead of the critics, and fourteen comments about that very section, a piece of writing called “Blurbs.” In it, he takes on the personas of such renowned newspapers as The New York Times and The Washington Post. It is the humor of this satire of literary critique as well as the fact that he is commenting on something never written that makes this piece stand out. The last piece in the book also stands out as a favorite; “What 100 People, Real and Fake, Believe about Dolores” is a piece of pure indirect dialogue about one woman, who the reader learns about through the eyes of her friends, her boyfriends’ friends, and famous people. The humor in this piece is nearly overwhelming; chiming in among Dolores’ mother, boyfriend, ex-boyfriend and friend are Sigmund Freud, Superman, Don Quixote, Captain Ahab, Lyndon B. Johnson, Andy Warhol and other famous figures. This piece combines the believable premise of a relationship with the fantastic input of these celebrities, both living and dead; not only do the comments about Dolores seem real, but the twist at the end is unexpected, leaving the reader thinking about not only that story, but the rest of the fiction in the book.
Ben Greenman proves himself an extremely talented writer in Superworse. The characters are well-developed, the structure is well-planned, the stories inventive. It would be a good idea, for writers and non-writers alike, to stay on the lookout for this writer and read as much of his writing as possible. Encore.

Monday, May 10, 2004

Home for the weekend for a family event and missing the company of college students, I headed downtown to spend a riveting evening with some friends at NYU. Coming from Ithaca, any part of the NYU nightlife would probably have felt somewhat alien and bizarre to me, but nothing could have prepared me for what I was to experience that Saturday night. I arrived at the dorm at eight, after a subway ride and a two-block walk east of Union Square. Far from the frat parties I was accustomed to, my friends told me to put away the shot glasses and relax; we were going to a poetry reading.
The first thought that went through my mind was a mix of astonished bewilderment and pure confusion; not even the bars? I thought to myself. The second thought that went through my mind finally came after a few seconds-- like when the flame finally appears after you've been clicking your thumb on a lighter for minutes; perfect, I thought to myself: not only a fun weekend activity, but a requirement for class.
We arrived at a small café a few blocks South. There were weird-looking rugs and weird-looking people. Life outside the Ithaca bubble was just starkly weird—everything about it. But in we went, and my friends all took what seemed to be their “usual” seats in their “usual” corner of the café. A small stage at the other end of the narrow room was home to a microphone on a stand, a coffee table with a paper cup full of water, and a comfortable-looking, plush, armchair. After taking off our coats and adjusting our bodies to fit the cushions of the chairs, suddenly the lights in the café went out and the lights on the stage appeared. A thin, young-looking girl came up to the stage and announced the first reader, at which point a very familiar-looking college student came to the mike. And he began to recite what may be the most intense poem I have ever heard. This was not just a poem, this was this poet’s heart spilling out of his mouth and into this small café. Every word came from his mouth accompanied by a movement of his body, so much that you could feel the energy coming from him. Everyone was silent through his reading, and when he was done the place exploded. Exploded.
Abe finished reading his poem 15 minutes later. This was an epic for me-- I'd never heard a poem past 15 seconds if it wasn't a Shakesepearean play. I talked to him, and found out that this incredible poet was the chubby kid in the back of my Hebrew school class growing up. And now? A poet.

I'm sitting here perplexed. One eyebrow is raised, the other hunched over like a little old lady laying sideways over my eye. There are complex words shuffling through my brain, ideas being sent around on conveyor belts, passing quickly without much comprehension. What I think I am sure of is that Donna Harraway has just told me something about cyborgs and machines being smarter than humans, and it’s beginning to scare me.
My thoughts on humans and machines have always been a little contradictory and slightly paradoxical. If we’re that smart that we’ve created a machine that can function as a genius, then we should be smart enough to control it without the world turning into some science fiction blockbuster where robots and computers rule an electrically-dominated earth. And just the way humans have glitches like the occasional sore throat, whooping cough or runny nose, a computer can malfunction just the same; viruses attack people and machines alike, without discrimination. There is no doubt that comparisons exist between the two. There is no doubt that the world we live in is undergoing a massive computerization (a new word that seems perfect for this description). But there are doubts that this is, I indeed, a negative thing. Humans have been around—in one form or another—for way too long to be annihilated by something of their own creation; thousands of years of history can’t be erased by a being that functions with an on/off switch.

Since the day they appeared mythically on the blackboard in the front of our prison-like classroom, the words melopoeia, phanopoeia and logopoeia have haunted me like the ghost of Ezra Pound past. Every time I think I can finally declare which one I identify with most and which one I'd rather let sink to the bottom of the ocean, my mind deceives me and my opinions change faster than what's in style on Paris runways.
So here I am. End of the semester. Those three words still hovering, clouding my existence as a successful English student.
If I was standing on a gauntlet, forced either to decide among these modes . . . Well here goes. Melopoeia troubles me; I find it difficult to base a poem solely on the way the words sound. I tried that once, and ended up with something that seemed reminiscent of reading only the last words out of a Shel Silverstein poem—it was like a monsoon of rhyme and alliteration. It seems that whenever a poem is based solely on melopoeia the meaning disappears and the oddness sets in like a thick, white, fog. It just seems so random.
Somewhere a little closer to home lies phanopoiea, and it seems to be a destination I can find. It seems natural for words to be used to create images, like primitive paintbrushes. No matter what the connections (that menacing foe, logopoeia) seem to be, any string of words can easily create any picture for a writer and a reader, and that seems to be the simplest way to do it. So for now, while I write at Ezra Cornell's institution, I'll keep trying to understand Ezra Pound's methods; I predict a continuing forecast of challenge.

Saturday, April 24, 2004

Harriet had long, brown hair. So did Fred. My parents were still in school, both at Columbia; my mother was bralessly studying business, and my father was studying law in an effort to one day set the record straight and return justice to America. Having recently recovered from the black spot on America that was Dick Nixon, my parents protested straight through Ford's administration, smiled contently for Carter, then bit their tongues and swallowed their pride when Reagan came to office. That was my curse, they told me-- to be born during Reagan's regime. There were scandals in the government, and my parents fought back. There were wars going on, and my parents protested.
My parents like to say that their lives started in 1982. I think it's more like a regeneration. My sister was born in June, and those two crazy kids became parents. Big plastic eyeglasses frames accompanied diapers, new jobs, corporate America and the promise to avoid arrest due to protest for the rest of their lives.
But I'm sitting here now wondering how people think they can just change their lives. We can't change history; it's in the past, it's done, it happened. I don't think they did that, either. But can you shape your future? Can you consciously make the decision to become a different person? Not so sure. I was too interested in chewing on toys and spitting on pureed fruits to notice what my parents were like when I was a baby. All I know is my parents now, and it's hard to picture my father in bellbottoms and my mother smoking pot but that's their history, and that's how I came to be.
I always used to hesitate before calling Larchmont "my" town. The other place was my town, the place that came before; the street with the house on the corner where my crib sat in my parents' bedroom, where my playhouse stood in the backyard, and where I spent a decade making memories. Then we moved. So "my" town changed; I have spent my second decade in Larchmont, so I guess by now that makes it my town.
Apparently education about the history of the town was given in elementary school, before I got there; so all I ever learned about the history of Larchmont were stale, rotting pieces of stories that my friends remembered when they were young. For what it's worth, this is what I know.
Larchmont is old. Right up the water from Manhattan, the oldest house in Larchmont was a plantation-like mansion that looked out on the water-- it would have had an excellent view of the city skyline, had it existed in the late 1600s. They called it the Manor House-- and still do-- and the entire area is the Manor. All the big houses by the water are in the Manor, on streets named for different trees, with perfectly manicured lawns and parallel sidewalks.
There's a plaque on Weaver Street that says something about some war, but nobody really knows what it's from. We all got fives on the AP American History Exam, but none of us could tell you that the plaque commemorates a site where we fought against the British for independence. Funny, how I say we. We weren't there. But it's our war. And it's my town.
There's a section of Larchmont developed in each decade. All you have to do is take a walking tour and you can see the old colonials from the 1700s that have since been restored. You see the gorgeous Victorians with their wrap-around porches from the late 1800s. You see the tudors that went up in the 1930's, when, for some reason, the people who built them still had money. In corners of the town you find the split-levels of the 50s and 60s, and every now and then popping out from someone else's backyard there's a new house. Those are hard to come by.
But do I identify with this history? Not much more than I identify with the little man with the glasses and top-hat from Monopoly. It's just property to me. I'm sure there's a story behind it, but it's not my story. My story is across the Long Island Sound in Brooklyn. My story is across the Atlantic Ocean in Europe. The history that's shaped my life isn't of my town, but rather how we came to live in my town, because generations ago we would have never predicted it. And I say we, not because I was there, not because I remember, but because it's my history.

Saturday, April 03, 2004

When the only impression you get of someone is formed by the few times she's spoken up in class, the one sample of her writing you've read, and that one time you saw her outside of The Classroom, it's often surprising to discover that there are certain aspects of that person that seem inconsistent with the persona you've created. Or-- to lift the veil of the second-person point of view and relapse into first-person honesty-- that I've created. In order to spare both this person's happiness and self-image, as well as in a sincere attempt to prevent this person from regarding me as a conclusion-making, dismissive bitch, I will spare the use of her real name, and use the pseudonym Haruna (who, coincidentally, was my best friend in third grade, until she returned to Japan and ceased any communication beyond sending me a sheet of anime stickers for my tenth birthday).
So, as it were, Haruna (the current classmate and purveyor of seriously humorous blog entries) seemed a little BLAH to me. I'd see her come and go, I'd nod my head to her well-spoken in-class commentary, but beyond that I hadn't expected much more.
In order to make my blog-reading a fully un-biased experience, I had a friend choose one entry and copy it into Microsoft Word. That Ctrl + C and Ctrl + V combination is truly ingenious. So I read Haruna's blog, more than once interrupting the normative silence of a work environment with laughter. Haruna's writing was identifiable. Entertaining. Comical. Casual. It turned my image of her from CLASSMATE into RATHER FUNNY, WELL-OPINIONATED, LIVING, BREATHING, (and, as it seemed) SMILING WRITER. Everything about what I had read (posted, just for the sake of truth and formality, on the nineteenth day of March) was enjoyable. Even the grammatical mistakes were endearing in this circumstance (and this is a great achievement coming from me, the crazy coed who corrects the grammar of messages people leave on the whiteboard that hangs on my door).
In this small number of words Haruna (and yes, I am beginning now to feel foolish calling her that) redeemed herself in my over-judging eyes. That, I must admit, is a job well done.
I always find it difficult to focus on one particular work of art in a museum. Why restrict your gaze to one canvas when you can see them all? It's kind of like how buffets are much more entertaining dining experiences than being seated directly in front of a stark white plate containing nothing more than one solitary, monotonous piece of chicken and a few lonely vegetables. All of this holds true until your waiter tells you the specials and one very special dish finds its way to your table, and you're finally content to be alone with it. I found myself satisfied while standing several feet in front of Lauren Greenfield's photographs (my chosen one in particular). Just when I thought I had figured it all out-- that I, merely an amateur in the world of artistic detective work-- had discovered the meaning, captured the emotion, and identified with the photograph, something would happen. My camera angle would change and my interpretation moved along with it. I'm convinced that somewhere in the Johnson museum there is a door marked "STAFF ONLY" that leads to an impressively complex control room, where one little man's one little finger presses a switch connected to the master electrical system that causes museum-goers to see things in a new light. That's what it was like in front of this photograph-- my mind kept reinventing the truth to the point of exhaustion, at which point I went home and took a nap.
Writing must be the same way. But the man in his suspiciously marked room is camping out somewhere in the wilderness of my psyche. My eyes may see a flash of light, my ears my hear a pitch of sound, but it's that guy in his tent in my head who allows me to describe it in so many ways at once. This right here is a literary shout-out, a sincere thank-you to that little guy, to whom I am forever indebted.

Sunday, March 14, 2004

“It was not only that conversation is best expressed in conversation . . . No, nor that conversation begets and gives birth only to conversation. It is rather that in conversation we not only understand each other—although we both understand and misunderstand—but that in conversation we come into being.” – Horsfield & Vicuña (112)

This excerpt came to me twice in my short experience with Chain, which also happened to be my first experience with any literary magazine (nod your heads in disapproval, it’s true.) First it came to me as I read it on the one-hundred twelfth page of the book; it came to me a second time while I was perusing the website listening to the dialogues through my computer speakers. By the second time I read it I understood it, and I think that is precisely the moment when I started to understand the purpose, the goals, and the accomplishments of Chain.
Every edition that Chain publishes has a different focus, and this—the ninth—is completely devoted to dialogue. Just staring at the front cover, before I even opened to the first page, I imagined monotonous chatter between two characters only, probably in the form of a short story, but with less narrative. I was wrong. The pieces are all very different, and there is a range of style, form, and content throughout. The collection includes dialogues in the form of: email exchanges; written letters; taped conversations, which are later transcribed; informal, scribbled notes found on the street, on bathroom walls, in book margins; cartoons and comics; and free form poetry and prose written about the concept of dialogue. Chain publishes pieces that are conversations whose content is sharp and biting, like a shrewd literary polemic; topics of exchange include terrorism, war, technology, racism, and current events. The unusual form of the pieces makes these topics more interesting; what the reader would usually experience as forced narrative (which can seem like the writer is imposing his views) is experienced here as merely the opinions of a speaker, which affects the reader just the same, but without a dominating feeling.
Yet while the subject of the entire edition is dialogue, is it this very institution that is questioned throughout the book. Shelly Berc explains that “when you get down to it there is no such thing as dialogue,” and she urges the reader to “throw out dialogue” (51). This seems rather contradictory. The idea of dialogue itself is further trashed in a poem in which two writers used what they call “an old Surrealist mode of dialogue,” (94) in which every night for a month at the same exact time, one person would compose a question and the other an answer, while remaining completely unaware of each other’s writing. This seems like it takes dialogue and flips it upside-down; dialogue is supposed to be about communication, which is completely lacking in this piece. What is created is strangely beautiful discourse, which is defined in this poem as “a needle torquing slant-wise in a groove of wax” (93).
The pieces in Chain play with our concept of dialogue, our beliefs in norms, and our preconceived notions of what conversation is. It is able to produce communication without understanding in some places, and understanding without communication in others. And at the end of both reading the pages and listening to the pieces online, the reader experiences a distinct sensation of having overheard—or even been part of—a conversation so unique that it will be treasured forever.
Truth is like technology. Everybody wants an ipod, right? Well the first ipod that the technology-gods came up with seemed brilliant; it was the hot thing, worth the months' salaries to go out to Best Buy and get one. But the ipod doesn't stop there-- better ones came out, smaller, more colorful, more unique, new and improved . . . And still everybody had to have one. But new versions keep coming out. And your original ipod isn't gonna cut it anymore. Because apparently new is better.
The truth starts out real-- truth is just a label for "what really happened," after all. As truth gets passed on, though, from friend to friend, generation to generation, book to book-- it changes. It's an unavoidable syndrome. A predestined disorder. I pass my truth on to her, and she adds her own truth to it; she passes this conglomerated truth on to him, and he personalizes it with his own truth-addendums. This cycle inevitably continues until the once-truth has morphed into an aggregate-truth that is as different from the original as the thumbnail-sized translucent ipod bound to hit the consumer market in 2020.
The problem is that what's truth to me may not be truth to you, and we all add on our own bits of truth to the original, like some massive papier mâche creation that changes form as layers are added. But maybe that's okay. Does truth have to be factually correct to be deemed valid? Or can truth be subjective? There must be different kinds of truth, then. The strand of truth that we look for to shape ourselves-- the truth of our emotions, of our experiences . . .That'ss subjective truth. The only truth that matters is what we make of it, and we're the ones who decide what's true and what's not. But there's an entire other realm of truth created by everyone else; what he said, what they did, how that happened-- everything that happens without our being there to create the truth ourselves. In that case, I've come to a two-pronged, nonsensical conclusion. And that's the truth.

Sunday, March 07, 2004

Major. Why can't it be called "focus of studies" or "subject in which student takes many classes" or "area of interest" or even just "cool"? I had this vague idea that once I could answer the questions "where are you applying to college?" and "where are you going to college?" that my interrogation session would be complete; apparently I was quite mistaken. I'm like an orphan in the academic sphere; like a child with no parents I'm a student with no major, hoping that one day my major will choose me, sign all the right papers, bring me home and call me baby. If college was a restaurant, in my world I wouldn't have to choose one entree; these four years would be an ongoing all-you-can-eat buffet, and I would keep going back for more heaping plates full of, well, everything. A little bit of government, for the lawyer-to-be in me. Some spoonfuls of psychology to satisfy the MSW to come. A serving of Spanish, because isn't that helpful in today's society? Yet just the way I feel a little embarrassed when I'm walking back to my table with a tray full of food, I always lower my chin when I answer that dreaded question with a stark, barren "undecided."
But why not? Why not get as much of everything as I possibly can? One day some guy behind a desk is gonna force me to circle one subject and call it my major. Okay. Until then? I'm just going to taste whatever appeals to me. I'm going to sample everything, and I'm going to love it all.
Everything about it screams normal. The tree-lined road leading towards the rocky shore shouts average from its perfectly-painted double yellow lines. Every house is surrounded by its well-groomed, bright green grassy lawn, a sort of twentieth century moat for upper-middle-class suburbia. The hilly roads with their inclines and declines pose as enemies for the occasional bikers, and sport for many-a-sports-car. Walking these hills, as a mode of transportation, is reserved exclusively for those still attending junior high school-- those not-quite-adults who are too old to be driven in their mother's lexuses, yet too young to have their own cars keys. Like Rome, all roads lead to "town," that three-block strip of colorful awnings, decorated windows, competing coffeeshops and overpriced boutiques. The screen above the bank on the corner-- at the bottom of the hill-- always flashes the time and the temperature to the errand-runners, pizza-eaters and town-strollers, who, depending on the time of year, are scantily clad in minimal clothing on their way home from the beach club, or bundled in layers yearning for a cup of hot coffee.
It's easy to get lost from season to season. In the summertime people could swear it's a hot beach oasis, an easy place to melt from the sun, a great place to dip your feet in the water to cool off. Fast forward months later, and people are quite sure it's the middle of New England, with cars sliding down the icy roads and children sledding down the golf-course hills. Whatever it may be—Caribbean heat, Arctic cold—whenever I’m there it feels like home; it’s that ability to drive with your eyes closed, to recognize that lady on the corner, to be able to traverse the entire town before the clock in town can count fifteen minutes—that makes it home, no matter where I live, no matter where I am, no matter when I return.

Monday, February 16, 2004

Having lived, slept, worked, eaten, cried, and laughed in it for five months, I can confidently proclaim that my bed is anything but normal, less than perfect, yet better than the best. Analyzed from the inside out, it has many layers. Its tall, wooden, lanky frame is lofted high above my dresser. Cold, dark, brown metal branches out from the wood, bridging the gap between headboard and footboard. A weak, old mattress is supplemented by an invisible foamy eggcrate layer, whose valleys and peaks unconsciously massage my grateful body. Above the bumpiness lies fluffy down padding; spread unevenly throughout the mattress, it creates mounds and crevices that cradle me to sleep. A soft, off-white, worn-out flat sheet wraps all of these layers completely, encompassing then within its elastic corners. Above the beige rests a coral, green, and white gingham sheet, whose ends are crumpled from my nightly grip. Finely covering all of these layers is my comforter, a two-sided masterpiece of greens, corals and creams arranged into flowers and stripes sits majestically covered in war-wounds of black pen, neon highlighter, salsa stains and spilled hand-lotion. Patiently awaiting use at the end of the bed, a veteran, dirty, white fleece blanket lies folded with shed hair and cookie crumbs becoming part of its fiber. Atop it sits the newcomer to the ensemble, a ten-dollar bargain green down throw from Target, constantly unfolded and refolded, used and discarded, enslaved and liberated from employment. A melancholy teddy-bear wearing a hat and scarf indoors reluctantly shares the bed with his new companion, a giant, out-of-place, bright blue Carebear. More often than not I find myself on this bed, celebrating its lumps, rejoicing in its stains, and honoring its uniqueness. In its unmade, wrinkly, quite-dirty state, it remains anything but normal, less than perfect, yet better than the best.

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