The B-Plot: Prufrock in the Age of Social Media

Has it really been four and a half years since I posted on here? It was just before the 2016 election...perhaps it's time to blog again.

T.S. Eliot's “The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock” asks us, even in 2021 (perhaps especially), to consider a murky proposition: if we did not instill life with faux value and platitudes, there would be very little reason to continue living it. And J. Alfred shows us the obverse life of one in service not as a calling, but as detachment, as a place to settle, contributing not by being up front, but providing color to the lives of others. We are, of course, hyper aware of life's repetitiveness now, aware of the ways in which the monotony of existence is felt by everyone in some form, though we must not say so, even if social media displays to us a vision of others’ lives that is dynamic in the hopes of luring us into the belief that our lives can be the same way. Everyone who isn’t you is talking about Michelangelo. 

The strange social media dismissal of Prufrock as incel manifesto ignores the deeper realization at the heart of the poem and is a good way of dismissing the questions the poem asks us to consider: it’s not that J. Alfred is miserable because the lack of a sex life he feels he’s owed (the incel mantra, as nauseating as it is) but rather the realization that his existence is only valuable in relation to those whose lives have been determined valuable due to their success and who have agency around him, even over his own life. The gender/sexual dynamic reading is not without merit by any means: there is, throughout the poem, the unattainable love, here embodied as feminine, but I believe that reading is overly surface, focused directly on the words that Eliot uses rather than what those words I hope were meant to reflect. The women do not ignore Prufrock because they are women and he is (we assume) a man; they ignore him because he is, in whatever embodiment, ignorable, without inherent, tangible value. This is not in any way to dismiss the brilliant poem of Juliana Grey's, which is, if not a reflection on Eliot necessarily, turns the motifs present in the original poem into a reflection of a group of individuals who have strangely (and absurdly) organized in the social media sphere around their own misguided understanding of their suffering.

A 2018 American Conservative article, eyerollingly called “A Generation Of Prufrocks,” reflects on the terrible plight of single men with no direction, strangely taking the incel argument further, but similarly (and not unsurprisingly, given its source), without considering the questions and concerns of Eliot's poem itself further. The author of the article is not entirely wrong but is not drawing out the lens far enough to capture the entire scene, in which dynamics beyond each of us have power over our lives. Of course, for the author and incel alike, this only becomes a problem when it becomes the lives of men. Women’s lives and the lives of minorities have always been the b-plot, that which goes on while the narratives of white men get the most screen time. Prufrock becomes manifesto for sad white boys when they begin to express their struggles as worse than the struggles of others, a blindness not reflected in Eliot’s poem, which I read as attempting to be more universal that merely being written for men or white men. It’s easy, however, to get wrapped up in the gender aspect here, especially because we know much too much about Eliot and his relationship to the women in his life— and there’s much fruit left to pick of this tree. Indeed Eliot’s maleness is overwhelming to us in 2021 because by now many of us have come to recognize immediately how fraught that maleness is, but Prufrock is the embodiment here not only of patriarchy hurting all of us, but of the dynamics of power relations being replicated into every aspect of life, a broader question over value as it is tied to labor and production. It is these dynamics I wish to focus on here and I ask you to come back to Prufrock in the context of social media, which forces us into the false delusion that all of us are the main plot characters when some of us just aren’t.

Prufrock is not merely about sexual inadequacy, but rather about larger social dynamics, one that is easily viewable in our present, life-on-constant-display moment, though these apparitions are manufactured. At the point in time where reality television and social media were growing up together in the early 2000s, Warhol’s adage that everyone would be famous for fifteen minutes went from a reflection of late 1960s pop culture to a present obligation: if you’re not famous for fifteen minutes, you dun goof’d. You’re owed your fifteen minutes. Of course, this is not true— we're not all going to be famous. We're not all going to write a viral tweet or have an Instagram post show up on AC360. It is very unlikely John Green will ever read your poem or care about you. These are not bad things, but an awareness we all have, even if an admission we cannot make aloud. Prufrock is in that moment of realization, that the conversations are going on around him regardless of whether or not they are present. Not every life matters. Social media teaches us our quips and dramas have value. For some they do and for most they don't. However, it is the mechanics of social media, in which we, for free, create content that supports the financial well-being of new media corporations that we are presently struggling to understand.

Capitalism is deep in this disparity daily, the worker who is exploited for the gains of those who control those means of production, who have agency over their own lives because they maintain control over others. Worse, we reproduce this relationship repeatedly in our lives and are in such deep disavowal of it— but we must be in order to continue these power structures because otherwise, we would not. This is the very root of ideology, and Žižek fits it perfectly: we know very well, but nonetheless... We know full well we exist within these dynamics, but that we’re not going to amount to much of anything, but we’re to keep going. In the form of social media, we are both the exploited from and the exploited to. We know our tweets don’t matter, but we were continually for the moment our brilliance or our humor is recognized, for the moment i
t would it have been worth it, after all.

This struggle is in fact the b-plot in a film tangentially related to Eliot's later work, Four Quartets. In A Late Quartet (2012), Robert Gelbart (played wonderfully by the late Phillip Seymour Hoffman) struggles with his position as second violin in a quartet, the attendant lord who has but a line— and has had one for twenty-five years. He is
deferential, glad to be of use,

Politic, cautious, and meticulous;
Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse;
At times, indeed, almost ridiculous—
Almost, at times, the Fool. 

He justifies it, of course, calling the dynamic between first and second non-hierarchical, but of course, even those who maintain the illusion do not believe this to be the truth, merely invested in maintaining their power within the quartet or, it turns out, their personal relationships. Pillar is the true radical of the film, arguing that if the positions are truly not hierarchical, then why can't Robert be first violin? The answer is very simple, but since, up from these depths, no one has yet returned alive, if what I hear is true, I answer without fear of being shamed: he cannot be first violin because he is not first violin. If that answer appears overly tautological, consider further from Prufrock himself: despite his desire to overcome the power dynamics that have placed him in the mechanical reproduction lifestyle, both Prufrock and Robert “have bitten off the matter with a smile...have squeezed the universe into a ball” as means of survival, as means of coping with the deeply known realization that their lives don't really have innate value. At the moment where Julia, his wife (who plays viola in the quartet), acknowledges the hierarchy of the violins, and indeed the power dynamics within the group, the coffee spoons fall to the floor and the realizations come, the acts of treason commence: Robert is, both in marriage and career, useful, there to make others around him look good, to be support, attendant lord, one that will do. No one really loves him, he's just there and this is central to his value, one defined by being adequate as husband, father, violinist and as a member of the quartet, all relationships he is incapable of leading (says Daniel, the leader of the quartet). Even Daniel and Julia’s attempts to placate him (which are mostly successful, if only temporarily) are reflective of the power that other members of the quartet and marriage hold over him. For Robert, in the past, it would have been worth it, after all, for others to merely say that is not what they meant, that is not what they meant at all. Daniel’s closure of the Beethoven Opus 131 score sheet, a nod to Robert’s desire to play the piece without the notes staring back, does not change the power dynamic between them and is meant merely to give Robert what it does: enough of a smile that he keeps playing his part. Julia makes him breakfast after she upset him, not because she was wrong, but to create the illusion of his value by mimicking his own form of subservience back to him. But the moment she realizes she has been betrayed, that Robert has slept with Pillar in his anger and sadness, having removed the veneer of good husband, subservient, the illusion of the marriage falls apart. However, by film’s end, Robert has perhaps come through to the other side, growing old, but realizing the mermaids were never going to sing to him. 

Prufrock, a hundred years early, is a manifestation of these same realizations. There is a heartbreaking truth in one of its most oft-quoted lines: we’re all just a pair of ragged claws, scuttling across the floors of silent seas but constantly existing within a false construction (perpetrated now by an all-powerful social media internet) of meaning in order to squeeze blood of the stone. We have our lines at the edge of the stage, maybe even get a laugh or a moment’s empathy, advise the prince; no doubt, an easy tool. However, the realization need not be heartbreaking, though one hopes one does not fall back into the patterns of disavowal. Prufrock offers no fundamental change based on the series of revelations within the poem: ultimately, the non-entity remains thus, but merely operating under that understanding as they age. There remains hope in disavowal, that maybe eventually it will all have been worthwhile if others find value in the individual who cannot generate value without others needs to be met. We’re constantly in the content creation business, both on social media and off, attempting to locate ourselves within the likes, shares, followers, subscribers that make up modern life, but made up life before, under other names. While social media has changed this dynamic, Prufrock reminds us that this form of valuation is nothing new.


Some Thoughts on the 2016 Presidential Election with Respect to Authority and Perception

Like most things, the election of 2016 comes down to a question of authority and choice, or at least the perception of choice. There is the notion, from both the right and left, that their candidate (however much the American Right wants to co-opt or claim Trump at this point) represents a form of subversion to the dominant authority of American society, a mix of patriarchal structure and mythohistorical structure. While both notions are somewhat misguided, it is the desire to subvert what is believed to be the dominant ideology that more plagues both parties in this election.

Trump is seen as a subversion to the ideology of American political might. While the Republican Party nominee for President in title, Trump has run the ultimate outsider campaign, one designed to subvert each step of the traditional process to which most Americans have grown accustomed throughout the Twentieth Century. He is, as his followers often repeat, not a politician, but a businessperson and, whatever his failures and successes are in that realm, ultimately, in the non-words of Calvin Coolidge, the business of the American people is business.

But it is precisely for this reason that the notion of Trump as subversion to the dominant political machine is false. There is a disavowal among Americans (in a generalized sense) that business is somehow separate from politics, that politics exists as an autonomous structure above and rather controlling the economic forces within the country. This is just wrong. As clearly evidenced within the last fifty years, the economic realm is the dominant force in American society, the structures and ideologies of capitalism playing a much greater role in society than any individual or party or political ideology. For better or for worse, business has been the chief business of this nation in the Twentieth and Twenty-first centuries.

And in that sense, Trump’s ascendency to the top of the Republican ticket is not surprising. In a way, he represents the ultimate acceptance of the American Right of the marriage between politics and business. However, that is hardly a subversion but rather a lean-in on the idea that there is not political structure without the forces of capitalism behind it.

But how is this a question of authority? The answer to that has to do with the perception of who has been leading the country and who will be leading the country. In his invented state as subversion to political structures, Trump’s authority lies in the belief among his followers that capitalist forces are somehow divorced from the political system. This is, obviously, untrue, as profit mechanisms have been the dominating force in American legislative procedure since the end of World War II. Even ideological stances, some religiously-based or otherwise ethically-based, are directed more by forces of capital than they are of other ideology. The persistent myth that the religious or humanitarian forces within society will ever subvert the profit-driven ideology has more to do with the desire to keep these groups at odds with one another, to keep them constantly struggling even when there is no fight that can be won.

However, the left is no less susceptible to this notion of candidate as subversion. While completely accepting of Clinton’s political stances, Wall Street-backing, neoliberal ideologies, the subversion she inhabits is her gender. This breaking with the tradition of all men, in the same way that Obama’s subversion was that he was not white, has little to do with how actual governance occurs but rather has to do with perceptions of the office. This is not in anyway to diminish the amazing step forward for the nation to not only have a woman at the top of the major party ticket— or the major step for women to have such a role model— but rather to say that it is not Clinton's politics which are subversive and rather her identity, which is. There is more or less an acceptance that Clinton’s politics are by no means radical or different and, in many ways, she is more right-leaning that the current President, especially when it comes to military matters and other significant portions of the job.

The difference, however, is this question of what kind of authority makes sense at this time in America. One side is under the misguided belief that business is outside of the political realm while the other side is aware that their candidate’s subversion is one of identity and perception. In this way, the answer is clear: choose the authority that is best known because the other authority is operating under false pretenses. While Clinton’s activities may well be criminal and, at the very least, unethical, her candidacy is not driven by false perceptions of anything other than “business as usual” politics that have dominated the last sixty years. However, the belief that Trump is somehow above that, or apart from that, is misguided, when in reality American politics and forces of capitalism have been working together the entire time.

This false perception about Trump carries with it an indeterminacy and, in many ways, a suicidal urge— a desire merely to see what is going to happen as a result of sociopathic lack of empathy towards the very real outcomes of the election. This is not surprising in a culture where the ideology of some towards gun ownership usurps the very real lives being lost. This too is a lack of empathy in that it is based in a belief that one’s right to arms is greater than another’s right to life.

Ultimately, America will lean in on a form of authority that is acceptable, but not unlike the election of 1964, it will take time for the results to be known. As George Will wrote in 1980, the election of 1980 was really the ascendency of Goldwater’s politics, if not Goldwater himself. In a similar vein, while Clinton will not doubt win this election, at long last becoming the first woman to hold the highest office in the land, it has more to do with Trump’s personality than it has to do with capitalist-driven ideologies and politics. The marriage has happened already and ultimately, there will be a business person President whose charm and temperament will be more in line with the perception of being “Presidential” as it stands today. This time it is not Donald Trump, but eventually, he’ll have won this election, even if he is never President.


Meaning-Making in Fields of Empathetic Production

N.B. There are no spoilers ahead about Mad Men, at least direct ones. Also, this is just an idea, one which I am working on slowly. Nothing here is perfected, either concepts or execution.

In the seventh episode of Mad Men's second season, titled "The Gold Violin," Don Draper's latest secretary, Jane, takes Sal Romano, Harry Crane, and Ken Cosgrove into Bert Cooper's office to see his latest acquisition, a painting by Mark Rothko. Supposedly, Cooper has been asking people about it when they come in to see him, leading to a nervous moment in which Harry asks his co-workers to help him out because he does not know what to say about art. Sal and Ken, however, look upon the Rothko painting with a kind of curiosity and have the following exchange (35 seconds in— for some reason, Blogger will not allow an exact time link):

In this scene, Ken is perhaps a stand-in for Matthew Weiner and Sal a stand-in for the general public, who feel a lack of understanding and see a feel of accessibility to be a form of trauma (Rhetorica in Motion, 74). Ken and Sal do look up on the painting with differing views, however: Sal, the artist who draws and designs advertisements, suggests there ought to be some kind of meaning within Rothko's work. Ken, however, says that the painting is an experience, one which the emotions of the viewer, whatever they are, are the only necessary response. The empathy elicited by a work within the field of cultural production is the goal. Empathy between creator and public, while seemingly intangible, which is to say lacking in economic evidence, is what work of art can provide via experience of it. Whatever the emotional response is, the creator's desire to elicit response is what defines a work within the field of empathetic production.

Because empathetic production has no direct connection to economic capital, meaning is sought to fill the gap— there must be some greater reason behind the existence of a work when its primary function is not to generate economic capital. Economic capital is seen as a desired outcome of any endeavor, not only because it is quantifiable but because it is exchangeable for items which promote a higher status quo. This, of course, leads into Weber and Protestantism, which will be another writing project for another time.

Meanwhile, this meaning-making is not unfamiliar to those who teach creative writing, specifically poetry. There is the idea that a poem must reveal itself to the reader. This leads to a kind of riddle-poem, one which may be acceptably difficult so long as it ultimately produces an "ah ha" moment. This is the natural outgrowth, and part of the process, of a student's development as a writer: as they move away from the immediately accessible, poetic-language based poems, they seek to obscure, to bury some kind of mystery that can be uncovered within their work.

When I talk about language and "acceptable difficulty," it comes with that understanding that language within a poem does not need to be simple— in fact, a non-poetry reading public expect difficult words in poems. People often expect the difficulty in poems to come from the language used but for that language to obfuscate a concept which ultimately must reveal itself in order for the reader to feel like a poem is worthwhile— worth the effort not only to read but produce. The production of a poem only seems worthwhile to a reader if it is ultimately comprehendible. Comprehension is key to the reader because the seemingly language-obfuscated message must ultimately be communicated. Meaning must be delivered.

Let's not kid ourselves: we are meaning-making machines. In virtually all aspects of life, we have sought, invented, and ascribed meaning because an acceptance of not knowing is seemingly dangerous and a challenge to know structural authority. Authority/patriarchy— these words and concepts require a kind of empirical knowledge, an ability to say, to utter with assuredness.

In some ways, it seems we are programmed (enculturated?) against processing experience in the present and poetry can find a space here, a response and coagulation of experiences into text (or non-text, as the case may be). While this idea finds its opposition in Seth Abramson's "first-responder" poetics, it does veer more towards the idea of poetry trying to boil a variety of ideas, experiences, and voices into one space.

To return to Mad Men, I think Weiner has captured many of the ideas about art that interest me as well: by the end of the series, there are no great answers, either for the series or for Draper. Draper's life is not significantly changed by the ending of the series and not necessarily any different than it was from the start. It is the journey of the character, internally, that is of interest. For Draper, it was about gaining a level of experience and understanding over his own mind (something he alludes to in season four with his own journal entries). Weiner, in the clip above, gives us a kind of primer to the series. Ken and Sal's discussion of Rothko is a discussion we could have about Mad Men and indeed ought have about several other forms of empathetic production.

If you continue watching the clip shared above, you will note Cooper's response to the painting: it is an investment, something which is not necessarily problematic, but which should increase in value during his ownership of it, allowing him to profit. This points to a very interesting idea behind the forms of capital generated by empathetic production, one which suggests that so long as someone is generating economic capital, even if it is not the creator of the work, then it is a worthwhile endeavor for viewer, owner, and creator.

Some further reading on this blog:

More on Mad Men's series finale and meaning-making.

Why Do We Expect Meaning from Poems?

Tragipoetics IV: On Seth Abramson's "Last Words for Elliot Rodger," or Timeliness


The Fourth Season of House of Cards (Spoilers Ahead)

As needed, refer to my season three post.

Also, N.B. There are spoilers ahead. If you haven't watched through season four, anything you read below and didn't want to know is your own fault.

Aidan Macallan, hired not only to spy on citizens searches, but also to analyze them, paraphrases to President Frank Underwood something I say often: "When they see (Conway), they see what they want to be. When they see you, they see what they want to become." Of course, this neatly covers a line by Nixon: When they look at him, they see what they want to be. When they look at me, they see what they are. In the fourth season, we see what the Underwoods have become: at its start a bickering, angry couple, but by the end, a couple that realizes, for their mutual benefit, that they must stick together.

I wrote of last season that Underwood is limited by the office of the presidency and, as a result, we are limited as viewers to what he's stuck with. All the intrigue that made the first two seasons binge worthy made season three, where Underwood is President of the United States, feel trapped, locked in. As I wrote then, this was by design. While the outward appearance is that it "sucked," that's ultimately true of the Presidency: we lock someone into it for four or eight years in the hopes that they'll do what we as a group need them to do, what we ourselves are incapable of doing.

In season four, however, Underwood has not changed in any significant ways (even after being shot) but has learned to adapt to the system within which he must exist. Indeed, he and Claire, who had all but broken up at the end of season three, understand now how they must use the system to their benefit, from using a dying woman in Texas to manipulating every aspect of the Democratic Party mechanism in order to make Claire Frank's running mate for the 2016 election.

And indeed, it is impossible to view their 2016 election without the background of our election. Art, as ever, as able to obfuscate, and perhaps parallels are hard to find, but we can see one obvious one: the deceitful Underwood is able to manipulate by seeming to be the most honest, even if in their hearts, the people voting know he isn't. He forms a sort of plausible deniability: we know he's awful, but we didn't know just how awful he was. Could the same not be said of Trump? Of Clinton? 

On the opposite side, though, seems a near protege of Underwood's. The Governor of New York is just as awful, just as willing to do anything in order to get elected. However, whereas Claire Underwood is the Lady MacBeth to Frank's damned anti-hero, Conway's wife is new to this world. She's upset, she says, that Conway would be willing to sell her out. But she learns: she smiles when she realizes she will be First Lady (most likely).

Where season five will go, I have no idea. A deck of cards has fifty-two cards and season five will put us at 53 episodes. The house has not fallen, though it seems poised to. But we know, of course, that Frank will find a way to survive. Frank will never be beaten because he is always ahead. At least we believe it to be so.

Season four is strong. Season four doesn't have the intrigue of seasons one and two, but instead we have quick beats that keep the pace moving along. We are dealing with so many things at once that it hardly seems there is time to consider much at all. Is this not the Presidency in the modern world? As the voices of the two young men who have, in the name of Islam, killed the father of a family, their voices shake. But Frank's does not. Frank is fully in charge, even when things seemed to be failing for him. He's not worried about the dead man: he's worried about Frank Underwood.

Underwood is not someone to root for, I wrote about season three. True: he's despicable. But I'm dying to see how he gets out of it— that's the joy of watching House of Cards. Ultimately, I can't help but wonder if he is marked. He must be. For all his wheeling and dealing, MacBeth could not see his own demise before him until it was too late. Is Underwood doomed to die? Would that not be the proper ending? After all, Urquhart is assassinated at the end of The Final Cut. What will ultimately cut Frank down? I think the answer has been in front of him the whole time.


A Few Thoughts on the Passing of C.D. Wright

From graduation in 2011. I know it's grainy- I'm not thrilled either.
N.B.: I'm going to stumble through this a bit, but I hope it can be forgiven. Apologies for the inevitable typos and things I shouldn't be talking about.

I met C.D. Wright in May of 2009, after I had been accepted via phone call to Brown University and after I foolishly accepted without waiting to hear that they were willing to fly me out to Providence. I had, of course, known her work for some time, which is why I applied there in the first place (that and being a big fan of Forrest’s work as well). Jenn and I walked into the Literary Arts building to have a look around while we were visiting, hoping to find a place to live. C.D., along with Keith Waldrop and other faculty members, were gathered for some kind of meeting. She was wearing a white blouse buttoned up and a kind of studded bracelet. She grabbed my arm and told me she was excited I had decided on Brown.

In the Fall of 2010, we were sitting in her office after she had invited me to meet with her. She was worried, she said, that I was dealing with something or, more accurately, not dealing with it, leading my work in class be inconsistent. She didn’t know that I was just testing myself in workshop, playing and testing. Instead of simply explaining that to her, I instead confessed, telling her everything I was thinking, feeling, and up to in general. For some reason, this was a quality that C.D. had: she had a wonderful way of making you feel like you had a connection to her that no one else had, though I’m quite sure at this point that I’m not the only one that feels this way.

After a few minutes of listening to me, I stopped and there was a silence. She stared at me through the silence, quietly assessing everything I had just expressed and maybe even judging a little, which I didn’t blame her for, certainly.

“We’re too alike,” she said finally. “You’re going to do your thesis with Forrest, right?”

I nodded, having asked Forrest to be my advisor at the end of my first year. “Good,” she said. “We’re too alike.”

At the time, I remember feeling confused and maybe a little hurt, but later came to understand that, due to our temperament, we’d have a hard time working together on my thesis. If we were both having a down day, nothing could happen and the thesis would be a rough road. I didn’t realize at that moment in her office that she was doing me a favor by being honest with me.

C.D. was, in a lot of ways, very open. Like I said, she made you feel as though you had some inner line to her that no one else had. She wrote me once saying she was having a down day and knew I’d understand, which is why she mentioned it. I did, of course, but it also made me feel like her confessor, someone she could say those things to, though I assume now she must have had many folks closer, but at the time, it made me feel special. I assume other students of hers felt this way too.

She was also pretty anti-bullshit, too. She was honest about your work, honest about how she felt about what you were doing. She had some kind words for my MFA thesis, mostly backing up her earlier assertion that she and I would not have done good work together. When I got to Normal, someone called me “experimental” and I remember feeling kind of disgusted of that word, and I remembered that C.D. hated it too. I think at times she hated that Brown’s program was seen at something beyond what others were doing, a humble feeling that goes with the rest of Brown’s persona (he said, tongue-in-cheek). I think she just liked good work, however she saw it working, and it didn’t have to fit a specific aesthetic.

C.D. gave me (I assume not just me?) a copy of Frank Stanford's Field Talk as a graduation gift. This post-it note is still living in it.

Showing a friend tonight the page of notes C.D. sent me towards the end of workshop, he said he was sure he got less feedback in total from his MFA program. This was essential to C.D. and something I have adopted later on myself, making sure I provided my students honest feedback in a coherent form (beyond just notes on the side of a page). She seemed to see her role in workshop as taking a step back, allowing the students to talk and, once in a while, offering a small comment. We learned to read her in this way, but she was never consistent. Her silence didn’t mean she hated your work universally but it also didn’t mean she liked it either.

I’ve taken a lot from C.D., both as writer and instructor. One of the nicest bits of advice I got tonight was good writers teach so that they can move on, so that they can pass away, knowing that their students (whether academy students or even people that read their work) can carry on a lineage. This is the legacy of the artist. I don’t know that I am someone who will adequately carry on that lineage, but I know some of my friends are. We were pretty lucky to have her in what turned out to be the last few years of her life and hopefully we made it at least a little interesting for her too.

There are many more objective things a good obit should say, like anything about her work, her life, her work in maintaining Frank Stanford's legacy while building her own, but I'll leave that elsewhere for now. 


Hotline Bling

As I wrote in my review of Courtney Barnett for The Rumpus last summer, I’m not really up on the new music, the hip things the kids are listening to these days. They ought, quite honestly, get off my lawn, if I had a lawn, which I don't, as I'm part of a dying middle class that will likely never own a home or land. Anyways, to be fair, I wasn’t up on what was new when I was 16 either (and still became a Radiohead fan somehow) so it’s not like I’m doing anything new here in my early 30s. For the record, Matchbox 20 still seems lame to me, though some artists I used to dislike are better than others. When I was 16, it should be said, I was getting into Dylan and whatever stuff was already old at that point so really I’ve always been behind, always uninterested in what is being produced at the moment. This is not the case for poetry for some reason, where I do gravitate towards "new," probably out of some concern for generally falling behind in an industry where I have never been the hippest guy around and probably won't be as my career moves, dare I say it, "forward."

I was behind, speaking of, on the fairly recent...whatever...about Drake’s Hotline Bling video. I don’t know Drake. I mean, I know of Drake, in that I had heard of him before, but I don’t know his music. I’m not against Drake, you understand, or even against whatever genre of music he’s making (maybe we don't even need to define it beyond saying it's what's happening—or maybe it's not what's happening now and I really have no idea what's going on in contemporary music), I just don’t know anything about it or him. I don't know what he was famous for before I heard Hotline Bling, for example, and until someone tells me, I'll live in ignorance. In fact, when someone does tell me, I'll likely react with a "huh." Regardless, Jenn sent me whatever cut up thing people do wherein it looks like President Obama is singing Drake’s song (well more like Sprechgesang with autotune):

This led me down the inevitable path of watching Drake’s video for Hotline Bling. It’s kind of an interesting video, though I did hear that some people were kind of upset about the video, specifically Drake’s dancing and the usage of lights and spaces.

Falling asleep the other night (where this blog post idea came from and was promised to Jenn), I felt that the song was about the singer feeling boxed in and the video represents that. But it’s more than that: the video represents the modern relationship, something simultaneously attempting to exist without definition but also suffering from a lack of boundaries thanks to modern technology. Space that would have previous defined a less serious relationship is now replaced with the ability to text and call quickly. There is no “space,” per say, while at the same time the lack of a definition has led to the seemingly ubiquitous term “hooking up.”

The singer here is trapped between these two understandings, a paradox of sorts: their relationship is not a real thing because there is no true intimacy but their relationship is real because they are able to contact one another and be in rapid touch regardless of distance or time, things that traditionally did keep relationships defined by certain parameters.

I don’t really know much about dance but I almost feel like Drake is moving around like a marionette, guided by strings to do the things he is supposed to do within the confines of the boxes he must remain inside of. I am still perplexed by the stairs, but I might come back to them at some point.

The song has marginally grown on me though not in the same other things have in 2015. Indeed, I am more bothered by other’s feeling Drake has been in a bad video than I am intrigued by the song itself. I think there’s a lot more going on in the video than immediately catches one. Or maybe I’m just reading into it too much but I hope not.


Thinking Through the Yi-Fen Chou Affair

N.B. This is me thinking through this mess. It's not perfect. I'm not perfect. This blog is a place to merely write semi-publicly in order to consider issues and hopefully open a dialogue (impossible when writing in a notebook, etc.). I would prefer you leave a comment taking me to task so that I can better understand these issues as well. 

Also: I say in the main body that I haven't read the poem. I have now read it. It is sectioned off under ***.

Is my work any good? Is this poem inaccessible to such a level as to be unpublishable?

Any artist worth their salt should consider these questions. Doesn't really matter what your answer is nor does it matter particularly what you decide to do based on your answers to these questions but it DOES MATTER if you choose to ask yourself these questions at all. And if instead of asking yourself these questions, your response is to invent a partial identity for yourself which allows that fake person access to something which was not meant for you to begin with, then perhaps you're part of a problem not just within pobiz or art communities but within society in general.

To me, part of the question that I have not yet seen addressed in this mess with Michael Derrick Hudson is what all he has exposed within the publishing industry. OK, you can judge him for his actions, but what does it say about Prairie Schooner or about Best American Poetry that a poem that was not publishable until it had the name of a Chinese woman on it not only got published but also is considered one of the best published poems of the last year? What does it say for the system in which we place our work, in which we seem to have some kind of investment that a poem (which no one is really discussing beyond saying it's "bad") and its author have been moved through a series of hurdles and come to rest on top of an arbitrary, though seemingly-well respected position? Being one of the 75 people published in Best American Poetry doesn't make you one of the 75 best poets in America, true, but there is prestige to it. There is a level of privilege which has now come to pass for those who are published within its pages and, I would argue, for the people who edit and guest edit it each year.

Sherman Alexie said he saw an opportunity, as a minority, to publish the work of another minority and he took it. This is not the problem. I think anyone arguing that brown nepotism is the real issue here is ignoring the fact that there's been plenty of white nepotism that no one has had any trouble with as long as anyone can remember. For Alexie, hope of publishing someone he saw as underprivileged at a point where he perfectly understood his own privilege does not seem beyond the bounds of what anyone else would do. Haven't older white males been publishing older white males without much thought in a variety of anthologies for the history of anthologies? That's basically what anthologies have been.

To say Alexie has been duped, however, might be too far. I am curious what he likes about this poem. From his breakdown on the Best American blog, it seems he has read a fair number of poems (though Brian Henry points out it's not THAT MANY poems). As is often the case, we're discussing the identity issues at play rather than the poem, which seems to be how we in pobiz tend to handle most crises. I wonder how many of us have read Yi-Fen Chou's contribution to Prairie Schooner/BAP. I wonder how many would argue that it does indeed belong, regardless of the identity issues surrounding it, because it is one of the best poems published in the last year (or whatever BAP's cut off is).

Back to my questions at the top: isn't this line of thinking normal for artistic types? Isn't rejection part of our job? I mean, for Michael Derrick Hudson, who has a fair amount of work published under his own name, to say "This poem keeps getting rejected—I should pretend to be a Chinese woman in order to get it published" seems ridiculous to me. Wouldn't you put that poem in a drawer? Did Hudson have in mind some idea of exposing our system of tokenism (the desire of the majority to include a minority for their own benefit, thus not really doing anything for that particular person or group at all)? I mean, that would be nice, but I'm guessing that's not it at all. He took advantage of a system not designed for him— rather, one designed to AVOID privileging people like him— in order to get a work only he seemed to believe in get published. What does that say about his ego? What does that say about older white male privilege in pobiz when he did not consider that perhaps the poem was just bad?

And what does it say that he had to out himself? That the collective "we" of pobiz had not noticed an issue until he chose to out himself? He could easily have continued with the charade but for something within his ego that needed us all to know that it was he who had written the poem that was now being listed as one of the best of the year? No one would have questioned Alexie's choice of Yi-Fen Chou's poem if there really were a woman named Yi-Fen Chou. Indeed- did anyone question Prairie Schooner?

Is the simple answer that no one really read the poem? I haven't read it but I don't subscribe to PS or ever purchase Best American anything. Maybe it got passed along because it fit some requirement, some desire by someone to include such a name in their table of contents. [I read the poem- see below]

It's interesting too: this wasn't someone who had zero access to publication. In fact, he had been published before, has his own page on the Poetry Foundation website, which is more than this grub of a poet can say. This is someone who is not necessarily "small potatoes" as it were, so quite literally for the sake of one poem, he invented what was brilliantly referred to as a Stepford version of a real person, in that she exists with zero characteristics of her own other than the ones absolutely necessary to further Hudson's goal of publishing the poem. What does it say when someone with means via traditional routes towards publication feels it within his power to game the system that is, again, not designed to make sure he is represented? He is already well-represented through various publications under his own name. What made this poem so special? Was it his denial over its quality that led him down this route? Hard to say.


So no one has really posted about the poem, other than the always funny Jim Behrle, so let's talk about the poem:

We have a poem here that seems to take as its direction that of a human's place within nature, an understanding of the relationship between living things while not really grasping how other objections function without the narrator's inclusion. In a way, the poem seems perfectly suited for the situation at hand: Hudson seems to have little understanding of what he has done by co-opting an invented identity which has no artifice beneath it. At least when Kent Johnson invented Araki Yasusada, he invented a life to go with it, a biography with some understanding of the cultural underpinnings. There was an attempt to create more than an outlet, more than an automaton who publishes poems that Johnson could not get published on his own. Here, though, Hudson only invents a front, a bystander who merely functions as a name on a page, bringing with it nothing other than what we as the reader want to read into it. My immediate feeling is that there is some connection between the persona of Yi-Fen Chou and nature, that the world of bees and flowers (signaling sex traditionally) means something to this person who is attempting to understand their place within this world.

In some ways, it falls into every pitfall that we talk to our students about: blue flowers, old engineer- the use of adjectives to prop up nouns which ought to function on their own. "Flowers" always feel a little lazy in a poem to me- as if somehow this is the first poem ever to use flowers either as metaphor or literal object. Is this a move made by Hudson himself or is he writing in a persona here? From all indications (I won't name sources), this would be identified as his own work, so seemingly there is no attempt here to write as someone else, just obfuscate his own identity.

"like Absolute Purpose incarnate." I'm not sure where this is going or, more importantly, where it has been that requires the use of capitalization as if a concrete concept. What is Absolute Purpose supposed to be and how are we, the readers, signaled towards its place in the poem? Is there some universal truth being portrayed in the poem that I am as yet unaware of? Hard to say, again.

I'm a little lost in the title as well. The role in life that we are discussing with bees and flowers seems to parallel Adam & Eve and, tangentially, Jesus, but I'm torn about how these concepts are introduced to me in the poem besides the title itself (or direct mention). What about them, besides a namecheck, does this poem attempt to say/do? Am I tying them together as a reader by design or am I not supposed to be doing so and Hudson's poem is failing in its an attempt to pull me in another direction?

In short, no doubt with some bias in my reading, the poem isn't working for me. What is it doing? Not that every poem must serve some greater purpose but I have to wonder, in context, what makes this better than the tens of thousands of other poems published in the last year. It's not hard to imagine it getting passed up without a biography behind it that draws in a reader. I can't help but feel the poem was rightly rejected all the other times it was submitted and would love to hear what a reader at Prairie Schooner or any initial reader at BAP or Alexie himself thinks of the poem.


A Short Post on Baldness

It is hard to describe what being bald is like. I mean, at once it is the thing people identify you by but you rarely spend much time looking at yourself. That said, you are always hyperaware of it, having to plan accordingly at all times because you lack something others take for granted.

Imagine this: you are on Facebook and come to the post of a friend who has hit some kind of life milestone, be it a marriage, divorce, graduation, matriculation, beating cancer...whatever. They have gone out and, in order to express themselves, they have gotten a haircut to reflect the inner joy/turmoil/ennui/ whatever they have been feeling but now are able to do so externally. Maybe it's a bob or a mohawk or some other fancy do. Either way, it is an expression of who they are in that moment, stronger because they have survived.

In short, baldness fucks you up. Any attempt at vanity is quickly thwarted because the face you present to the world is always usurped by this empty space. And that's just how you feel when bald: empty.

Yes, baldness has changed. Bruce Willis got more badass as he got balder. Jason Stathem made bald cool as well. Women who lose their hair due to cancer proudly sport their scalp for the world. All that is incredible and I am happy there is that touch of support in a group sense. However, I think those things are about pride and regular, boring, non-gun-wielding, non-cancer-fighting baldness is hollow and just flat out devastating.

I am humored by monks who shave their heads hoping to ease themselves from vanity, to separate themselves from all attachments. Great. Good for them. Their hair will grow back for the wanting of it so basically they can go fuck themselves.


Go Ahead, Throw Your Vote Away

My Fellow Americans,

Let's stop living in denial. Let's stop pretending we have done a good job separating politics and business and let's just lean into it. Let's just accept that we live in a capitalist society where money buys influence and where corporations have more rights than we as individuals do. Let's stop pretending that we live in a society governed by laws and accept that it is governed by money and the influence only it can buy. Let's stop pretending there is hope for change. Nothing will change. We are incapable of change on a large scale.

Vote for Donald Trump. Vote for the richest most contemptible person running for President because he never had the milquetoast personality for politics. He tells it like it is and he's insane but hey, at least we can accept that he's super wealthy and that he's not interested in our well-being as individuals. Stop being lied to by politicians and accept this person as the one who doesn't give a shit about any of the things we only pretend to care about in an election.

The reason someone like Donald Trump is doing well is because we just don't care. The best and brightest figured out that government is a mess, that to run for office you have to meet criteria that matter for getting elected but not for the job that has to be done. You have to smile, say the right things and it doesn't matter if you have any intention of doing good. You just have to convince people you're there for a reason that sounds something like "good." And you just have to convince people you won't upset them and agree with them by smiling and nodding and not being too threatening.

In a celebrity obsessed society, Donald Trump is the perfect tabloid President. He's not only rich but also has a personal life we can obsess over while he makes more money for himself. Isn't that really what we want from our politics? At least it's transparent versus wrapped up in ideology that office holders generally fake for our benefit. President Trump won't do that.

Donald Trump is everything that is wrong with America and I think that's exactly why you should vote for him at every opportunity.

Give up. Give in. Vote Trump.


1) I edited the image above from here: http://stopabusecampaign.com/donald-trump-who-is-doing-the-raping/

2) Obviously this is a joke.


A Few Thoughts on Race and Being a Hyphenated American

(There are probably a lot of errors here. I'm not too worried about it, though.)

I have generally not discussed race much throughout my life but I think it should have been something I spent more time thinking about over the years. My situation though, as an Indian-American (a term I really despise, I should add), is an odd one (at least to me) but ultimately, I should spend more time and effort considering my place (and everyone else's place) within modern America.

I realize by posting this on my blog that I am keeping people, in a way, from reading it. It is publicly available, yes, but there is not much traffic here. No matter. I want to use this piece and this space to think through these issues and that is hard to do when considering publication. This has nothing to do with the many wonderful editors I have worked with but more to do with what is the malleable nature of these thoughts.

A quick background: my parents were born in India pre-independence and moved to America in the late 1960s and early 1970s. My brother was born after my father moved to America in September of 1969 but before he and my mother arrived from India in December of 1971. I was born eleven years later in Decatur, GA at Dekalb General Hospital.

This part is hazy, but I will do my best. My family is part of the Brahmin caste in India, otherwise known as the priestly caste. This is, by all accounts, the highest caste one can be born into. Beyond that, my family is from a sub-caste known as “Nagar.” I have no idea what this means or what distinctions there are to define the sub-caste but, again from what I have been told, this is one of the highest statures one can be born into. Beyond that, it breaks down by town and it seems our family was based out of Visnagar at least at some point down the line. I have heard talk of how people are descended from people in other towns and that, once again, Visnagar is a very high status town. Of course, all this could be propaganda that we continue to pass down the generations (sorry, Mom).

So when we discuss privilege, it is perhaps wisest to admit early on that I, a minority in America, am basically the very definition of privilege in India. For generations, Nagars ran Gujarati (my parents are from the West coast state of Gujarat, which I should have mentioned) society, filling its government, banks, schools and all other elite institutions with their family members. Nagars specifically had the power, the prestige and, for much of history, the money.

(It's funny: if I travel to India, I don't quite fit in there either as I'm too "Americanized.")

However, as often happens, things change. The British, by all accounts, loved the caste system. It was a built-in way of managing society and of figuring out the best way to exploit the resources that the British showed up for in the first place. What changed, of course, was independence in 1947. When the British left, not only was there a type of vacuum but there was a desire to dismantle the old structures. Things should be based on merit in a new society and not on the hierarchies created by history. Numbers were, of course, against Brahmins, and the lower castes moved into the various seats of power throughout the country and, ultimately, the backlash of the system that had oppressed so many was felt in turn by those at the top.

My father’s generation of Indians were systematically kept from better jobs, better schools, government and other institutions. As a result, many did the only thing they could do: leave. My father and his older brother came to America. Others went to England, Switzerland, and a variety of other countries. As this has continued the last forty years, upper caste Indians have moved into every corner of the Earth. They moved for economic reasons, yes, but they also moved in the hopes of fulfilling the privilege they grew up with, becoming professionals in nearly every strata of society they could manage.  Many are doctors, others are engineers or other professionals. Of course, members of other castes also came to America and other countries and, finding themselves free of the system in India, got wonderful educations and did what they wanted to do, which was lead comfortable lives with assets they could pass down to their children.

(I should say that I do feel that this backlash was inevitable and, in my ways, necessary. No system of oppression can maintain itself and obviously in the 1950s there was a lot of influence from the Soviet Union. I feel that the caste system should be dismantled, that you should not be born with privilege and that everyone should have mobility within society.)

When we studied the caste system of India in middle school, my classmates laughed. “We don’t have that here,” they’d say, looking at me and laughing.

“You do,” I’d say under my breath, but not because I understood it, but out of spite. How right I was then.

A Washington Post article on June 24, 2015 discusses GOP Presidential candidate Bobby Jindal and his “denial” of his Indian heritage. This is where I come to despise the term “Indian-American” for myself and (gulp) must admit I agree with Governor Jindal. I am, whatever people look at me and see, an American. My parents are from India, yes, but I am from Stone Mountain, GA. We want to draw lines in society because it makes it easier to oppress based on those lines. However, in the hyphenated American realm, I can see the benefit of defining one’s self by background. However, it should be up to each individual to develop and define an identity versus having one placed upon you. For me, I do not like being known as an Indian-American, not because I am in denial of where my parents are from, but because I know where I am from. The systems that applied to my parents do not apply to me in the same way and, as such, I have chosen to define myself the way I want to, not the way others may see me.

Binaries are a tool of oppression inherent in our societal system. If it is not A, then it must be B. We use this in race, sexuality, gender, wealth and everything else we can get our hands on. It is how we work as humans (two of nearly everything on the surface, at least) as thus we seem to have used that to define our society. It is, however, like most things, bullshit. We accept that there is not merely light and dark, that there is a light spectrum, but we seem incapable of understanding that human aspects have a spectrum as well.

I do think, though, that things are changing for the better. We have come to understand better than people are not merely gay or straight, white or black, rich or poor, but there are always those that wish to maintain that system as it allows them to maintain their trajectories in life.

What is clear is that America has its own caste systems. I say systems because there are several Venn diagrams by which we draw lines throughout our society in order to separate ourselves. But these are not separate fights. Race and class and gender and wealth and identity and privilege are all part of one discussion, one monster with many heads. These are all tools to draw lines through society that ought to be erased.

All of this, however, is easier for me to say because my family has always been the ones that had the advantages throughout time. Even though things are changing in Indian society, Nagar Brahmins still enjoy the prestige they have always had. Once, in New England, when someone heard my last name, they asked me to come to dinner at their house. I asked my Mom why this happened and she told me it is a blessing on the houses of the lower castes when a Brahmin eats a meal with them. We were, as it turns out, the ones doing the oppressing, keeping society stratified for our own benefit.

What I mean to say is that it is difficult for me to write about race because, well, in terms of race, we as upper caste Indians are just about as privileged as we can be. Even in the new world, we are not subject to the same levels of oppression and racism that others have been subject to. Yes, there are ethnic slurs, jokes about names and dots and Slurpee machines, but I have very rarely mentioned being Indian and not been met with “My cardiologist is Indian!”

However, Amy King really changed my mind on this. It is up to me to understand my privilege and for me to use that privilege to help others who are being oppressed by the structures of society. Some might argue that one who is privileged using that privilege to help others is in itself an act of oppression. I am not sure how to work around that, but I will do my best.

Of course, like the Nagar Brahmins of India, conservatives in America are hoping to hold onto the system which keeps them in power, allowing them to maintain their lifestyles with no consideration for the lives of others until the desires of those they believe are beneath them come into conflict with their own status quo. This applies not only to gender equality (“women want equal pay and the ability to control their own bodies? But I have that! They can’t have that!”) but pay equity and race. Ultimately, there is some fear inherent in all societies that manifests in allowing others to have rights, as though there are a finite number rights available to society. By fighting for equal rights, people are really hoping to oppress those that did the oppressing for so long.

For me, though, it remains difficult. I have had, despite the color of my skin and funny name, so much more than we allow others to have in this country. My father is a professional who was more or less always able to pay for things in his life, despite nearly a decade without work during the Roaring (19)90s. That, to me, is the very definition of privilege: having a system to fall back on when things go wrong. We (and I lump all of us in, even if we are working to fix it) have maintained a system of oppression that has to go away. It is difficult to change the entrenchments of society, but it should be difficult because there will be a new entrenchment that we want to be as difficult to remove, though we hope no one will want to tear down the newer structures.

My hope for me, though, is to spend more time thinking about race and gender and wealth and privilege. This begins with acknowledging my own but also understanding that I can do good by using that privilege (and my understanding of it) to help others who are oppressed in society.

On a side note, the picture at the top of this post is from the video for Fatlip’s “What’s up, Fatlip?” which includes the rather wonderful line “Yeah, I’m a brother but sometimes I don’t feel black,” a sentiment I understand and resemble in my own way.