Tuesday, March 27, 2012

AWP 2012 roundup! (Part 1)

The desk as a portal to the underworld.

I picked up some excellent books this spring (mostly at AWP).  I wanted to talk about Heather Christle’s What Is Amazing first, but I can’t seem to find it.  I know it’s around here someplace, but you know how someplace tends to wander.  I’ll find it, I’m sure. 

In the meanwhile, here’s an excellent book I was able to locate.  (Many more to follow, including Andrew Grace’s excellent SANCTA, also pictured above.) 

The essay-poem, or the hybrid of essay and poem, or maybe just “mixed genre” has always interested me, and so I was intrigued to see Srikanth Reddy’s new chapbook from Omnidawn, Readings In World Literature.  I was instantly taken with it.  It’s an explosive exploration/ meditation on death, the underworld, teaching, and family.  I can’t say enough how much I loved it.  I had that feeling at the end that I rarely get, that feeling of “No! Don’t say it’s over!”  So, then, a standing ovation from me. 


RWL 1100.  Introduction to the Underworld.  [Cross-listed with Comp Lit].  In this course, students will be ferried across the river of sorrow, subsist on a diet of clay, weigh their hearts against a feather on the infernal balance, and ascend a viewing pagoda in order to gaze upon their homelands until emptied of all emotion.  Texts will include the Egyptian Book of the Dead, the Tibetan Book of the Dead, the Mayan Book of the Dead, the Ethiopian Book of the Dead, and Muriel Rukeyser’s Book of the Dead.  The goals of the course are to acquaint students with the posthumous regimes which entrench the division of humankind in perpetuity, and to help them develop the communication skills that are crucial for success in today’s global marketplace. 

All readings in English.  Requirements include the death of the student, an oral presentation, and a 20-page final paper. 


It is always never a good time for a full medical report on Antigone.  She is continually displaying new symptoms, new costumes, new customs, new systems.  To begin with, there is the lost Antigone of Euripides.  All that remains of her is a few scraps of text quoted by Aristophanes in The Frogs.  Later comes Hölderlin’s Antigonä with her mouth like a floodlight.  Then Brecht’s, with her mouth like a floodlight whose bulb has burned out.  In Japan, Antigone after Antigone sprung up after the bomb.  A Turkish Antigone speaks out for exploited cobalt miners.  The Yoruban Tegonni makes masks herself.  All these Antigones, however, suffer from the same burial disorder.  They cannot tolerate the thought of the dead among the living.  Hence the corpse sprinkled with dust at such great expense.  Also, they cannot live among the dead.  Thus the noose in the cave. 

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Jaded Ibis Has a Different Idea

No One Told Me I Was Going to Disappear

In case you haven’t seen, from last year:


From the Forbes introduction to the interview:

“Moving text from paper to screen: there’s the bulk of technology’s effect on mainstream literature so far. If a 21st Century equivalent of the Lost Generation’s Paris exists — a hotpoint where the novel is undergoing radical transformation to reflect its time — it seems to be lost in its own right. Maybe it doesn’t exist on a map, or maybe a site map.

Or maybe it’s Seattle, where Jaded Ibis Productions is developing novels that founder Debra Diblasi calls an “evolution” – hypertext, soundtracks, fake advertisements, crossword puzzles as commentary, editions that cost anywhere from $10 to thousands of dollars. But it was a collaboration between Jaded Ibis and indy music producer Chris Richards that really got me wondering what was going on.

In this wide-ranging email interview, Di Blasi and Richards explain the mashup novel, what’s gone wrong with mainstream publishers and record producers and why the wealthy aren’t carrying their aesthetic weight anymore.”

And now that it's 2012, you can see for yourself what they’re doing:


One of the things that intrigues me is that they ask musicians make songs to go along with their books.


In a time many people are saying is empty of new ideas, this is certainly a new idea.

So, since it appears I’m not writing poetry these days, Debra let me do a song for one of their books. It was a lot of fun.

No One Told Me I Was Going to Disappear

And then, because I was interested in doing another, I did one just for fun from Your Father on the Train of Ghosts. Don’t tell G.C., whatever you do.

Your Father’s on the Train of Ghosts

Tricky work. I had to hit PLAY with my pinky so I wouldn't drop the pick.

I like this idea of books of poetry becoming these other things. Videos. Songs. Visual art. We should do a panel on it at AWP next year.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Gatza and the NEA and Fiction and Your Brain

Two things. Three things, really. First, I’m not posting much these days. What’s happened is I just don’t think of anything to post. I’m sure I could think of things, I just don’t’ seem to. There was AWP. There were the books I bought (some very good ones, too). I hope that whatever’s happening blows over. I like posting. I like—or I guess I used to like—thinking about what I would post next. Mostly all I do now is work and worry about work and home things and play the guitar. We wax we wane, I suppose.

But here are two honest-to-goodness things to post on. First, I saw this on facebook, and then I got an email about it, so I thought I might as well jump on:

Just when it seemed Blaze-VOX was on the mend from the bad publicity of 2011, we get the NEA over-reaction of 2012!


Geoffrey Gatza, a computer, and some nice plates.

“Since then, the reputation of Gatza’s press—already a nationally respected outfit with an impressive roster of authors—had been slowly on the mend. That is, until last week, when the National Endowment for the Arts announced that poets applying for its fellowships could no longer use Blaze-VOX publications in their applications.”

I hope that all works out. He's published some very good books.

And then second, I saw this in The New York Times (well, the Internet version of the NYT), and then again (again!) on facebook, so, once again, if I get it twice in one day, it must be something. What I find mildly bothersome is that most of what these studies focused on which is now being used to sell us on reading more fiction (& drama) would seem to me to be just as linked to (more linked to, even) the reading of poetry. But oh well. We soldier on. "The novel, of course, is an unequaled medium for the exploration of human social and emotional life," Paul writes. So there we have it. 


Here’s most of it. Decide for yourself!

Your Brain on Fiction
Published: March 17, 2012

AMID the squawks and pings of our digital devices, the old-fashioned virtues of reading novels can seem faded, even futile. But new support for the value of fiction is arriving from an unexpected quarter: neuroscience.

Researchers have long known that the “classical” language regions, like Broca’s area and Wernicke’s area, are involved in how the brain interprets written words. What scientists have come to realize in the last few years is that narratives activate many other parts of our brains as well, suggesting why the experience of reading can feel so alive. Words like “lavender,” “cinnamon” and “soap,” for example, elicit a response not only from the language-processing areas of our brains, but also those devoted to dealing with smells.

In a 2006 study published in the journal NeuroImage, researchers in Spain asked participants to read words with strong odor associations, along with neutral words, while their brains were being scanned by a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machine. When subjects looked at the Spanish words for “perfume” and “coffee,” their primary olfactory cortex lit up; when they saw the words that mean “chair” and “key,” this region remained dark. The way the brain handles metaphors has also received extensive study; some scientists have contended that figures of speech like “a rough day” are so familiar that they are treated simply as words and no more. Last month, however, a team of researchers from Emory University reported in Brain & Language that when subjects in their laboratory read a metaphor involving texture, the sensory cortex, responsible for perceiving texture through touch, became active. Metaphors like “The singer had a velvet voice” and “He had leathery hands” roused the sensory cortex, while phrases matched for meaning, like “The singer had a pleasing voice” and “He had strong hands,” did not.

Researchers have discovered that words describing motion also stimulate regions of the brain distinct from language-processing areas. In a study led by the cognitive scientist Véronique Boulenger, of the Laboratory of Language Dynamics in France, the brains of participants were scanned as they read sentences like “John grasped the object” and “Pablo kicked the ball.” The scans revealed activity in the motor cortex, which coordinates the body’s movements. What’s more, this activity was concentrated in one part of the motor cortex when the movement described was arm-related and in another part when the movement concerned the leg.

The brain, it seems, does not make much of a distinction between reading about an experience and encountering it in real life; in each case, the same neurological regions are stimulated. Keith Oatley, an emeritus professor of cognitive psychology at the University of Toronto (and a published novelist), has proposed that reading produces a vivid simulation of reality, one that “runs on minds of readers just as computer simulations run on computers.” Fiction — with its redolent details, imaginative metaphors and attentive descriptions of people and their actions — offers an especially rich replica. Indeed, in one respect novels go beyond simulating reality to give readers an experience unavailable off the page: the opportunity to enter fully into other people’s thoughts and feelings.

The novel, of course, is an unequaled medium for the exploration of human social and emotional life. And there is evidence that just as the brain responds to depictions of smells and textures and movements as if they were the real thing, so it treats the interactions among fictional characters as something like real-life social encounters.

Raymond Mar, a psychologist at York University in Canada, performed an analysis of 86 fMRI studies, published last year in the Annual Review of Psychology, and concluded that there was substantial overlap in the brain networks used to understand stories and the networks used to navigate interactions with other individuals — in particular, interactions in which we’re trying to figure out the thoughts and feelings of others. Scientists call this capacity of the brain to construct a map of other people’s intentions “theory of mind.” Narratives offer a unique opportunity to engage this capacity, as we identify with characters’ longings and frustrations, guess at their hidden motives and track their encounters with friends and enemies, neighbors and lovers.

It is an exercise that hones our real-life social skills, another body of research suggests. Dr. Oatley and Dr. Mar, in collaboration with several other scientists, reported in two studies, published in 2006 and 2009, that individuals who frequently read fiction seem to be better able to understand other people, empathize with them and see the world from their perspective. This relationship persisted even after the researchers accounted for the possibility that more empathetic individuals might prefer reading novels. A 2010 study by Dr. Mar found a similar result in preschool-age children: the more stories they had read to them, the keener their theory of mind — an effect that was also produced by watching movies but, curiously, not by watching television. (Dr. Mar has conjectured that because children often watch TV alone, but go to the movies with their parents, they may experience more “parent-children conversations about mental states” when it comes to films.)

Fiction, Dr. Oatley notes, “is a particularly useful simulation because negotiating the social world effectively is extremely tricky, requiring us to weigh up myriad interacting instances of cause and effect. Just as computer simulations can help us get to grips with complex problems such as flying a plane or forecasting the weather, so novels, stories and dramas can help us understand the complexities of social life.”

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Weren’t we supposed to be the arch, I-don’t-really-mean-it, ironic, “caring is creepy,” generation? What happened?

The new issue of APR has an interesting symposium/email exchange.  It was conducted by Hannah Gamble (who has some poems coming out in the next issue of The Laurel Review).  I’m going to concentrate on some things from the poets in the symposium: Matthew Zapruder, Ange Mlinko, Timothy Donnelly. 

These three poets are at what I would consider the very center of the American Skittery Poetry World.  Personally, I don’t really think there is such a thing, but as it’s been said many times that there is, I’ve decided that if it could possibly be true, or truthy, then these poets fit as well as any as its center. 

The reason I’m bothering to make this point is that the world these poets have been seen to stand for—especially Zapruder and Donnelly—has been accused of obscurantism, willful meaninglessness, and various diseases plaguing graduate programs and the poetry-publishing industry. 

What struck me in this email symposium is just how earnest, sincere, and, well, “traditional,” these poets seem when answering Gamble’s question regarding the standards of good and bad writing.  I like that, as it speaks to the shifting weight of history on the production of art, not to a shift in the basic contract between artist and world.  Art, in other worlds, continues to do what it’s always done.  The times change, so art changes.  Sometimes at the forefront of that change, sometimes lagging behind.  But still, it changes. 

Here are some snippets.  (Some slightly reorganized.)

Timothy Donnelly: I’m not drawn to moderate art.  I don’t understand the impulse behind it, really.  I see why moderation is a useful principle, at times, in life, of course, but in art, I just don’t get it.  Art should provoke us to rethink things, destabilize us, not secure us in the sweet center of what we already want to believe.  I think art that doesn’t reach beyond its grasp or go for broke or break out of its safety zone and dismantle its cozy frame of reference is like a tiger confined to a studio apartment.  It will atrophy, or fatten.  [. . .]  In certain contemporary communities these might be the poems devoid of any sensual pleasure or original insight but thoroughly adept at announcing how their author holds all the right ethical, political, and intellectual commitments.  Worst of all might be the poems that are full of genuine feeling and only enough artistry to hold it all together, not so much that you’d ever notice.  These poems are especially unappealing to me when their feelings have to do with stays in Continental villas or the play of light in Renaissance paintings. 

[ . . . ]

I worry that our wildness gets beaten out of us, or that we temper our imaginations, conform them to the norm—and even in our poetry, where we should be least willing to compromise. 

Matthew Zapruder: It seems like maybe the implication, unfashionable as it may be, is that there is something ethical about reaching out to the reader?  I’m really not sure how I feel about this, immediately when I say that I think of all the gorgeous private mysteries of the surrealists or Tomaž Šalamun that attracted me to poetry in the first place.  Things I couldn’t quite “understand,” but I really did understand. 

[. . .]

I feel as a poet that I am constantly trying, through my work as a poet and editor and teacher, to counteract a very well-entrenched idea that poetry is “hard to understand” and not relevant to daily life. I believe, hokey as it might sound, in the necessity of poetry.  As far as complexity, I am trying very hard to say things as simply as possible: it’s just that sometimes what I’m saying is complicated, so the poem can be too. So I don’t mind when something is hard to understand because it’s hard to understand, but I really mind when something is confusing to cover up an essential vacuity.  I believe Emerson was right when he wrote all language is fossil poetry: language is the repository of ancient truths, and writers work instinctively with this material, language, to bring forth those truths again for our time.

[. . .]

If a poem does not somewhere, even in a very subtle way, feel as if it was written by a person who is aware of what I think are the basic actual things about being human, I just do not feel connected.

Ange Mlinko:  Fanny Howe said, in The Winter Sun, “Why write if not to align yourself with time and space?  Better to wash the bottoms of the ill or dying.”  Maybe we’re doing that and maybe we’re not.  Certainly when I was changing diapers, I knew what my job was and that it was necessary.  I didn’t for a minute lack access to strong, even overwhelming, feelings.  So why even bother with the “writing poems” thing?  For me, it has to do not with feeling more deeply, or the privilege of talking with people about poems and life (though I’m all for that!)—it has to do with propitiation and thanksgiving, which is bound up with rehearsing a perfection in art you can’t have in life.  This is fundamentally transcendental.  It’s also life-affirming [. . .]: the poet helps people live their lives.  But it can’t be just about feeling; people kill from too much feeling too, you know.  It has to be about ennoblement, and the reassurance that there’s another order of experience than the one we’re normally given access to. Surely the belief in that order of experience has kept many people alive who would otherwise despair.


See what I mean?  These positions, these things they say here could have been said a hundred years ago—were being said a hundred years ago.  This is not a criticism of what they're saying.  We’re all just part of the river.  We float and talk about our floating.  The river continues to be the river. 

There are things these poets say about the art of poetry that I wouldn’t say, but that’s due mostly to my temperament; I make art and I go to art mostly just because I’m amazed that there is such a thing.  What a good thing it is that we don’t have to be without art, or, to be more precise: what a good thing it is that we don’t have to be flat, or that we don’t have to have only simply entertaining art.  What a good thing. 

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Sometimes, it helps to consider irrelevant information.

Be sleepy. Be drunk. Be creative?

So, in looking around at other pieces by Jonah Lehrer on creativity, I came across this, from his blog. It’s regarding a couple studies that suggest not being able to properly focus and pay attention can improve one’s ability to solve creative problems. Being sleepy or drunk, in this scenario, is a good thing.

“Yikes” is the proper response. But it does directly link to the way a lot of artists and writers, etc, have used drugs as a creative crutch. Still, I refuse to lose sleep over it or pick up drinking.

In the first study, he poses a couple brain teaser questions. The first is one that 92 percent of people are able to quickly answer. As well, nearly 90 percent of those with brain damage to the prefrontal lobes—leaving them with “severe attentional deficits, unable to control their mental spotlight—are also able to find the answer.”

The second problem he shows is a similar arithmetic brain teaser, but one that requires a bit of insight or creative thinking rather than more derivative thinking. In this case, only 43 percent of normal subjects are able to solve it, but 82 percent of those who “couldn’t pay attention” were able to.

Here are the two problems (you must move a single line to make them valid math statements):

IV = III + III (Easy)

III = III + III (Difficult)

I’ll give it over to him to mull the issue:



What accounts for this bizarre result? Why does brain damage dramatically improve performance on a hard creative task? The explanation is rooted in the unexpected nature of the solution. . . . The reason this puzzle is so difficult, at least for people without brain damage, has to do with the standard constraints of math problems. Because we’re not used to thinking about the operator, most people quickly fix their attention on the roman numerals. But that’s a dead end. The patients with a severe cognitive deficit, in contrast, can’t restrict their search. They are forced by their brain injury to consider a much wider range of possible answers. And this is why they’re nearly twice as likely to have a breakthrough.

Of course, this doesn’t mean you should take a hammer to your frontal lobes. Being able to direct the spotlight of attention is a crucial talent. However, the creative upside of brain damage — the unexpected benefits of not being able to focus — does reveal something important about the imagination. Sometimes, it helps to consider irrelevant information, to eavesdrop on all the stray associations unfolding in the far reaches of the brain. We are more likely to find the answer because we have less control over where we look.

This helps explain a new study led by Mareike Wieth at Albion College. The scientists surveyed 428 undergrads about their circadian habits, asking them whether they were more productive and alert in the morning or evening. As expected, the overwhelming majority were night owls, which is why they studiously avoided 9 a.m. classes. Then, the scientists gave the students a series of problem-solving tasks. Half of these tasks were creative insight puzzles, in which the answer arrives suddenly and seemingly out of nowhere.

[ . . . ]

The other half of the problems given to the students were standard analytic problems, such as long-division and pre-algebra equations. These questions don’t require insights. Instead, they benefit from ordinary focus, as people grind out the answer and check to make sure it’s right. The subjects were given four minutes to solve each problem. Half of them were tested early in the morning (8:30 a.m.) and half were tested in the late afternoon (around 5 p.m.).

The results are a testament to the creative virtues of grogginess. When people were tested during their “least optimal time of day” — think of that night owl stumbling into the lab in the early morning — they were significantly more effective at solving insight puzzles. (On one problem, their performance increased by nearly 50 percent.) Performance on the analytic problems, meanwhile, was unaffected by the clock.

The larger lesson is that those sleepy students, like a brain-damaged patient, benefit from the inability to focus. Their minds are drowsy and disorganized, humming with associations that they’d normally ignore. When we need an insight, of course, those stray associations are the source of the answer.

One last piece of evidence: A brand-new study by scientists at the University of Illinois at Chicago compared performance on insight puzzles between sober and drunk students. (They were aiming for real intoxication, giving students enough booze to achieve a blood alcohol level of 0.075.) Once the students achieved “peak intoxication” the scientists gave them a battery of word problems – they’re known as remote associate tests – that are often solved in a moment of insight.

[ . . . ]

According to the data, drunk students solved more of these word problems in less time. They also were much more likely to perceive their solutions as the result of a sudden insight. And the differences were dramatic: The alcohol made subjects nearly 30 percent more likely to find the unexpected solution.

Once again, the explanation for this effect returns us to the benefits of not being able to pay attention. The stupor of alcohol, like the haze of the early morning, makes it harder for us to ignore those unlikely thoughts and remote associations that are such important elements of the imagination.


And an interesting conversation regarding creativity, then, is how to foster this non-attention attention. Because I like a good night sleep, you see. And I have some sort of problem with alcohol where I instantly get a headache. And drugs just scare me.
A short-term good idea, a long-term disaster.

Thursday, March 08, 2012

The Importance of Criticism

Read the whole essay in The New Yorker:

The following is my favorite bit from the Jonah Lehrer’s essay “Groupthink.” I’ve never much cared for group work and group “brainstorming” sessions, so there’s that, but there’s also a bit here about the importance of criticism—the importance of having to defend one’s point of view—that I believe has ramifications for artists who don’t get honest responses to their work.  It’s pedagogical, then, yes, and has to do with “Creative Writing Workshop,” but it also has ramifications for the social system surrounding the production of poetry in general, I believe (the friends who don’t want to say what they really think of each other’s work, for example.).  So anyway, here it is:


In 2003, Charlan Nemeth, a professor of psychology at the University of California at Berkeley, divided two hundred and sixty-five female undergraduates into teams of five. She gave all the teams the same problem—“How can traffic congestion be reduced in the San Francisco Bay Area?”—and assigned each team one of three conditions. The first set of teams got the standard brainstorming spiel, including the no-criticism ground rules. Other teams—assigned what Nemeth called the “debate” condition—were told, “Most research and advice suggest that the best way to come up with good solutions is to come up with many solutions. Freewheeling is welcome; don’t be afraid to say anything that comes to mind. However, in addition, most studies suggest that you should debate and even criticize each other’s ideas.” The rest received no further instructions, leaving them free to collaborate however they wanted. All the teams had twenty minutes to come up with as many good solutions as possible.

The results were telling. The brainstorming groups slightly outperformed the groups given no instructions, but teams given the debate condition were the most creative by far. On average, they generated nearly twenty per cent more ideas. And, after the teams disbanded, another interesting result became apparent. Researchers asked each subject individually if she had any more ideas about traffic. The brainstormers and the people given no guidelines produced an average of three additional ideas; the debaters produced seven.

Nemeth’s studies suggest that the ineffectiveness of brainstorming stems from the very thing that Osborn thought was most important. As Nemeth puts it, “While the instruction ‘Do not criticize’ is often cited as the important instruction in brainstorming, this appears to be a counterproductive strategy. Our findings show that debate and criticism do not inhibit ideas but, rather, stimulate them relative to every other condition.” Osborn thought that imagination is inhibited by the merest hint of criticism, but Nemeth’s work and a number of other studies have demonstrated that it can thrive on conflict.

According to Nemeth, dissent stimulates new ideas because it encourages us to engage more fully with the work of others and to reassess our viewpoints. “There’s this Pollyannaish notion that the most important thing to do when working together is stay positive and get along, to not hurt anyone’s feelings,” she says. “Well, that’s just wrong. Maybe debate is going to be less pleasant, but it will always be more productive. True creativity requires some trade-offs.”

Another of her experiments has demonstrated that exposure to unfamiliar perspectives can foster creativity. The experiment focussed on a staple of the brainstorming orthodoxy—free association. A long-standing problem with free association is that people aren’t very good at it. In the early nineteen-sixties, two psychologists, David Palermo and James Jenkins, began amassing a huge table of word associations, the first thoughts that come to mind when people are asked to reflect on a particular word. (They interviewed more than forty-five hundred subjects.) Palermo and Jenkins soon discovered that the vast majority of these associations were utterly predictable. For instance, when people are asked to free-associate about the word “blue,” the most likely first answer is “green,” followed by “sky” and “ocean.” When asked to free-associate about “green,” nearly everyone says “grass.” “Even the most creative people are still going to come up with many mundane associations,” Nemeth says. “If you want to be original, then you have to get past this first layer of predictability.”

Nemeth’s experiment devised a way of escaping this trap. Pairs of subjects were shown a series of color slides in various shades of blue and asked to identify the colors. Sometimes one of the pair was actually a lab assistant instructed by Nemeth to provide a wrong answer. After a few minutes, the pairs were asked to free-associate about the colors they had seen. People who had been exposed to inaccurate descriptions came up with associations that were far more original. Instead of saying that “blue” reminded them of “sky,” they came up with “jazz” and “berry pie.” The obvious answer had stopped being their only answer. Even when alternative views are clearly wrong, being exposed to them still expands our creative potential. In a way, the power of dissent is the power of surprise. After hearing someone shout out an errant answer, we work to understand it, which causes us to reassess our initial assumptions and try out new perspectives. “Authentic dissent can be difficult, but it’s always invigorating,” Nemeth says. “It wakes us right up.”

Criticism allows people to dig below the surface of the imagination and come up with collective ideas that aren’t predictable. And recognizing the importance of conflicting perspectives in a group raises the issue of what kinds of people will work together best.