Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Words and Things

Next time I'm having a panic attack, please remind me not to blog. A) It didn't help at all. B) I probably caused people much undue worry. Though I still have the same amount of work and the same amount of time (less, actually) in which to do it, I'm feeling nowhere near as upset about it. In fact, I think I have a handle on it, for the most part. Thank you for all the kind text messages/emails/Facebook messages that helped keep me grounded.

For the past several days a prospective MFA poet stayed with me while she checked out UNLV and Las Vegas in general. It was interesting being on the other end of things, remembering what it was like when I first came to decide if I could live in Vegas almost exactly one year ago. It reminded me just how happy I am living here, how glad I am that I came. My life is certainly different than it was, and I've had to work hard, not only at school, but simply to reestablish some sense of security. Nevertheless, this program has been more than worth it.

I hope the aforementioned prospective poet does come here. I thought she was lovely.

Speaking of poetry, I was up again in workshop today, and it went SO WELL. I was especially nervous because I put a great deal of effort in to this one, and I actually liked the result. You may think poetry workshop shouldn't matter to me, since I'm here to write fiction, but it does. First, it's still writing with my name on it. For that reason alone I want it to be not awful, at the very least. Furthermore, so many of my best friends here are poets, and I love them, and I respect them, and I don't want to waste their time with a terrible poem. Also, since I am required to do cross-genre work anyway, I may as well take advantage of the situation to develop this skill as much as I can. I know there are plenty of writers around the world who would sacrifice a great deal for the opportunity.

It did go phenomenally well, though. I was (overjoyed) surprised. Some of the language was quite playful, far more so than in any other poem I've written, and I was afraid that it wasn't working how I was hoping it would, but I guess it (mostly) was. I feel, however, that I should give credit where credit is due; I may have written the thing, but I wouldn't have been able to revise it to its current state were it not for Jamison. I sent him my poem and he literally made a book for me, by hand, full of his comments and various poems that he recommended I read based on how I was writing. As you know from all my January posts, I am not well-read in poetry, nor do I have any experience writing it, so to have that much feedback tailored to my own needs was invaluable. That is why Jamison is currently winning my ongoing "best human ever" contest. The best of luck to other competitors.

If you're wondering about the title of this post, it's related to this week's theory class. We were reading Foucault's The Order of Things, but that's actually the translated title. In French it's Les Mots et Les Choses--literally, "words and things." I suppose they had to change it in the English version because it sounds so silly, but I think it's silly in a delightful way.

And now that I have procrastinated, let the drudgery of grading begin. Until next time...

Thursday, March 20, 2014

The Bare Minimum

I don't have time to blog right now, but if I don't I might cry.

I haven't explained this to anyone yet, besides the usual response to questions regarding my well-being: "I'm fine. Just busy."

The thing is, I'm busy. So busy that it's making me sad.

Perhaps it's just knowing that I'm technically on Spring Break that's bringing the melancholy to the forefront, but it's hitting me hard today. I feel like I'm so consumed by grad school that I'm missing out on grad school. On any given day I'm trying to fit in reading, writing, grading, exercising, second-job work, going to class if it's Monday-Wednesday, teaching class if it's Tuesday or Thursday, not to mention applying for internships over the summer, reading for Witness, reading for the Emerging Writers Series, or, god forbid, having something resembling a social life. This kind of schedule requires that I do only the bare minimum for everything, and therefore I don't feel adequately immersed in anything.

Case in point: last week we read certain passages from Barthes' Mythologies for theory class. I read only what was assigned, but I really enjoyed what I read. I would have liked to read more. I meant to read more, in fact. But I didn't have time. Everything else got in the way. This happens virtually every week. I've been switching off weeks reading less than what is required for my Poetry Forms class and my Theory class; one week I'll do the assigned reading for one class and skim for the other, and the next week I'll switch. I know I can get by doing this, but I don't want to get by. I want to do well. I'm afraid I won't do well in either class because I don't have the time necessary to do well.

I haven't written anything new since January. I've edited some of my writing, but the only new content I have produced is for All Together Now and my poems for workshop. Robert Coover is coming to workshop with us next month. That's a big deal. Too bad I'll have nothing to workshop. Last night I took some time to submit one of my stories to some journals, and I felt guilty about it. I should have been grading. Or reading. Or planning my paper for theory class. I felt even more guilty when I was at the MFA picnic for a few hours. I should have been enjoying myself, but I was so stressed.

Occasionally I watch mindless television. Then I feel extra guilty. But I only do that either when I'm eating, and it would be hard to do other work then anyway, or if I'm going to bed, when I also wouldn't be doing other work. 

The obvious solution is to cut back on something. But what? I have to do my schoolwork or I'll fail. It'd be pretty damn hard to live on this stipend without the extra money I get from my second job. If I don't exercise I'll get fat and die. Witness and EWS are both valuable experience. Most people would recommend cutting back on teaching as much as possible. It does take a long time--an hour & a half to two hours to plan a class, usually, and I can typically grade only 5-6 papers an hour. However, I can't seem to forget my obligation to my students. It's not their fault they got an overworked grad student as a teacher. Why should their education suffer?

Writing is what gets cut out, and that was the whole point.

Sorry for complaining. I know I'm not the only one with these problems. Just needed to vent.

Okay. Time to write something about Mina Loy. Something...

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Cosmic Writer

Post title inspired by the dreamy T. Rex classic.

Last night I finally watched the first episode of Neil deGrasse Tyson's rebooted Cosmos. (Technically I watched it on Sunday night when it originally aired, but I couldn't hear it thanks to drunk 40-somethings and their terrible taste in music. Long story.) It was everything I hoped it would be. I knew Tyson would be the perfect host; his Twitter feed has long been one of my favorites, and I follow his online/television presence closely. The obviously-expensive graphics were appropriately awe-inspiring--the new animated sequences were beautifully done as well--and it paid homage to the original Carl-Sagan-hosted series without copying it verbatim. It's up on Hulu. I highly recommend that you watch it.

One reason I enjoy the Cosmos series so much is that it fills me with a sense of wonder--far more so than any religious experience ever did. I was raised Catholic, and not for one second in a Mass have I ever been so inspired and amazed as I have--well, maybe not while watching Cosmos, but at least while considering the cosmos seriously. We are so small, we are a speck of almost-nothingness in the immensity of the known universe (not to mention the unknown universe--or universes), and yet we exist, and we have consciousness. How crazy is that? It gives me the stomach-droppy feeling. I like the stomach-droppy feeling.

There are several reasons why religion does not give me the stomach-droppy feeling, but I will only detail the two most important here. First, religion wants us to be ashamed of ourselves. Rather than celebrating the miracle, the sheer unlikelihood that is our existence, religion tells us that we're all wrong. That we're sinners, that we must be redeemed, that our existence isn't a miracle at all--some being up in heaven got bored and made us one day. I realize that I'm generalizing; I'm using the word "religion" rather than the perhaps more appropriate "Catholicism/Other-Christianity-to-which-I-was-exposed-growing-up." Unfortunately, there isn't enough space in this blog post to adequately examine each world religion. Furthermore, "religion" is shorter and easier to type.

My other problem with religion is that it is hypocritical. Jesus says "love your neighbor"--except for gay people. Oh, I'm sorry--we can love gay people, we just can't let them have sex. Jesus hung out with women--prostitutes, even--but women certainly can't be priests. And by the way, ladies, if you get raped it's probably your fault for being immodest. And then there's the child molestation. I'm not even going to go into that. Nor will I go into all the horrific wars that have been fought in the name of religion, all the "righteous" killings that have occurred, the forced conversions, the forced ignorance. Even the nicest religious practitioners don't ask questions. Religion discourages asking questions.

We can ask all the questions we want of the cosmos. The cosmos does not hate, and the cosmos cannot be hypocritical. It can be confusing and paradoxical at times, but it never promised it wouldn't be. And as part of the cosmos, we are just as amazing as every other part of the cosmos. There is nothing inherently wrong with us.

However, Neil deGrasse Tyson said one thing on Cosmos the other night that bothered me. I can't remember the quote exactly, but it was something to the effect that the cosmos is more wondrous than anything we humans could ever imagine.

Is that true? If so, it undermines the entire profession to which I aspire. I am a writer--a professional imaginer. Why can't I imagine something bigger than the universe, or even the potential multiverse? Just because you haven't imagined it, Neil deGrasse Tyson, doesn't mean I can't. What I imagine may not be provable or even true, but that doesn't mean it isn't real. For me, the imagination is tangible. If I make something up and write it down, it may not be true, but it is real.

Here's something that is true: Harry Potter* has more deeply impacted my life than contemplating the cosmos ever has. Harry. Potter. A fictional person in a fictional world with fictional powers. Harry Potter would fail any scientific test, he cannot be proven, but for me he is real and he has altered me. Harry Potter gives me a bigger stomach-droppy feeling, albeit a more familiar one.

Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real? 

On Sunday's episode of Cosmos they profiled Giordano Bruno, a 16th century Italian monk who was excommunicated for preaching that the universe was infinite and that Earth revolved around the Sun. Bruno's beliefs about the universe were based on a vision; he had no scientific evidence for his beliefs whatsoever--as the writers of Cosmos rightly pointed out. If Bruno could imagine an infinite universe, something far more wondrous than any knowledge at that time could prove, why couldn't someone imagine something more wondrous than the universe we know now? Why couldn't that person be correct?

Why shouldn't I find literature and art just as wondrous, if not more so, than the cosmos? After all, they share some positive traits. For instance, art and literature frequently ask us to question what we know. Art and literature can be confusing and paradoxical, but they never said they wouldn't be.

There's just one problem: art and literature can also demand that we don't question. Art and literature can demand that people hate. For every Harry Potter there's a Mein Kampf. Art and literature are created by hypocritical people.

Am I wrong, then, to worship art and literature more than the cosmos? Should I be having an art-and-literature-crisis-of-faith? I would say that I worship art and literature on the cosmic level--on the basis of the miracle that they came out of the human brain, all of which was a happy accident--but I'd be lying. Such a claim would ignore the words, and the words are the important part. The words are what changed me, and continue to change me.

I'm not certain how to resolve this. It's certainly an interesting conundrum, though. I'd be glad to hear your thoughts on the subject. Yeah, you.

*I chose Harry Potter here because the series was particularly special to my life; however, I mean for it to stand in for all literature and art that has affected me in such a way.

EDIT: Reading this over again, I would like to point out that I absolutely believe myself to be a flawed and hypocritical person. However, that doesn't mean I aspire to flaws and hypocrisy, if that makes sense.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

ELVIS

You guys. I have graded so many papers today. I don't even want to talk about it.

Instead I will talk about an important milestone in my Vegas life that occurred last night.

A few of us went to karaoke at Champagne's, a local dive bar. We were singing and drinking $2 PBRs and having a lovely time, when who should walk in, but--AN ELVIS IMPERSONATOR!

Believe it or not, this is the first Elvis impersonator I have actually seen in the city, though I am certain he will be far from the last. Quite frankly, I'm surprised it's taken me this long to run into one. He was old and Asian and wearing a fabulously tacky red jumpsuit. We all thought it was funny, until he started singing "Can't Help Falling in Love"--he was great! Brought the house down. 

Vegas is so weird.

Several of my fellow MFA-ers went to Reno this weekend to present at a conference, and I am so glad that I didn't. I desperately need this weekend to recover from AWP and to catch up on all my work. I have to:
  • finish grading papers
  • read Cane
  • write a 2-3 page paper on Cane
  • read Mina Loy
  • read Roland Barthes
  • plan my class for Tuesday
  • clean the hell out of my apartment before my family comes on Thursday
It'll be fine. I'm used to the lack of sleep at this point. 

And on that note, I should stop using this blog to procrastinate. 

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Adventures at AWP

I flew back to Vegas from Seattle on Sunday night, and I haven't had time to write since. The conference was great, but playing catch-up isn't so much fun.

I don't know if I should describe the conference as "great," actually. It was certainly good, but the truly great thing about the trip was Seattle itself. What a city! Until the last day, when it rained and rained and rained, I thought maybe everybody there had just been lying about the weather to discourage visitors. Most of the time it was around 50 degrees and sunny; we even spent lots of evenings on bar patios. I guess the writer gods were pleased with the convergence of scribes in the city and wanted to reward us. The Capitol Hill neighborhood seems to be WHERE IT'S AT, and by it I mean everything. Culture, fun, etc. Each night I'd book it uphill from my hostel on 1st and Pike to go to one of many offsite readings or to meet some of my fellow MFA-ers' local friends. I kind of loved the hills, honestly. I would have a great ass if I lived in Seattle.

Places you must visit if you ever find yourself in the Capitol Hill area: 
  • Elliott Bay Book Company--gorgeous bookstore, à la Denver's Tattered Cover. Enjoy a cup of jasmine tea while perusing a book from the bargain table. The whole week there was a single copy of Best European Fiction 2013 staring me in the face, and when it was still there on Sunday, I decided I was meant to have it.
  • Montana--chill bar. Comfortable. Cocktails on tap, if you're into that. Tried a pickle back here, which is apparently something one must do in Seattle: a shot of whiskey followed by a shot of pickle juice. Surprisingly better than it sounds.
  • Linda's Tavern--supposedly the last place Kurt Cobain was seen alive. Spooky? Not really, but it has a killer patio.
As I mentioned, my hostel was downhill at 1st and Pike, right near the uber-touristy Pike Place Market and the waterfront. Just because Pike Place Market was touristy doesn't mean it wasn't fun, however. I stuffed myself full of fresh fish all week and my tummy was pretty damn happy about it. Didn't spend as much time hanging out in this area, but I'd highly recommend Seattle Coffee Works. I can't vouch for the coffee itself, as I don't drink it, but the atmosphere is great and the chai tea is delicious.

One of my favorite parts of the trip was when Austin, Joleen, Denise, and I took a ferry to Bainbridge Island. I love the desert landscape of Vegas, but I must admit that the sight of pine trees mingling with the cloud-covered mountains was stunning. We didn't spend long on the island--just went to a coffee shop and worked--but it was worth it to escape the hubbub of the city for a while.

Of course, in between all this I was attending the largest writing conference in the country. The best part of AWP itself was probably the bookfair. Thousands and thousands of publishers and MFA programs and literary magazines, all selling their wares (BOOKSOMGSOMANYOFTHEMSOMANYBOOKSJOY), all looking for submissions. I knew that if I wasn't careful I'd buy everything, so I developed a process: the first few days I just wandered around and talked to people. I finally made my purchases on Saturday, the last day of the conference, based mostly on who I thought had seemed the nicest. (This turned out to be a smart move anyway--most of the merchandise was discounted by then.) I did make one impulse purchase earlier on: an issue of The American Reader because it had a poem called "Gloomerang" in it, and I'm a sucker for a good portmanteau. I also bought a tote bag that says "Word Counts are Oppressive" because I feel it expresses my beliefs with great accuracy. Best of all, I now have so many new options for submitting my work. That will have to start happening soon...

I also attended some panels. They tended to be hit-or-miss--often they talked a lot about very little, or the topic of the panel was more interesting than the conversation about the topic turned out to be. My favorites were the double-header I did on Friday: "Women Writing Violence" (featuring Alissa Nutting, whose work I love because it is so wonderfully creepy), and "Unlikeable Women in Fiction." The panels sort of spoke to each other regarding several feminist issues. Why are women who write violence judged so much more harshly than men who write violence? Why do people assume that violence always comes from women's experience, whereas they assume that men are capable of making it up? Why do people sexualize female violence? Why do audiences always demand that female characters be "likeable," when that's simply not the case for famous male characters? And so on. Nice food for thought.

So many random things happened throughout the week that I'll never be able to write them all down. Joe's amazing homemade Camera Fantastica that turned us all into ghosts. (#!) Running into my barista from Borders when I was in high school. "Poetry Brothel" in a suite at the Sheraton. Madness, I tell you. Rest assured, it was a wonderful trip. I'll have to go back to Seattle someday--didn't even get to do the Space Needle!  Now if I could only find the time to make up all the work I missed while I was there. Wish me luck.