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Saturday, May 15, 2004

Super Flat Times
By Matthew Derby

The first really good science fiction book that I read was called Invitation To The Game, by Monica Hughes; I was in fifth grade at the time. Really good science fiction seems to be hard to come by, at least for me. Orwell’s 1984 is second on my list of good sci fi and is the closest thing to Derby’s book that I have ever read. Except that Super Flat Times is very different from other science fiction books that I have read, even from most other books that I have read.

The most striking difference is in the format; Derby employed a unique approach to writing about the future, and really to writing a story in general. Many people write stories in journal form, but not so many choose to write a journal with each entry being from a different person. Although the first chapter that serves as an introduction made mention that the following chapters were memories from different people and incomplete at best, I forgot about that once I had started reading and thus was briefly confused until I realized that each chapter was supposed to have been written by a different person. Granted I suppose that I could have been thinking a little harder when I started reading, but at the same time I think that for this strategy to be effective a reader should be able to tell that different people are talking without too much effort. The problem is that all of the characters, both male and female spoke or should I say wrote in the same way, with a similar voice, so that there was no change between individuals in terms of voice, though the characters were very much individuals. Luckily I don’t think that anyone could go too far without getting confused enough to refer back to the beginning to try to figure out what’s going on. The story is just interesting enough that I wanted to figure it out.

The storyline is rather vague, partly as a result of the format of each entry/chapter being from another person and in another year. It effectively conveyed an idea of rapidly changing times and unstable times, however I’m still undecided as to whether or not the vagueness of description of the surroundings, of the physical world adds to or detracts from the story. He sets up the vagueness of description when he introduced the book, specifically that the super flat times were to so terrible that they had to be censored. The chapters were supposed to be entries going in chronological order, but not starting at the beginning of or ending with the end of these super flat times. It was hard to say exactly what these super flat times were or how they got started or how they ended. It was really interesting how he integrated some of the most mundane aspects of modern life today with these far fetched ideas about this future time period. The characters were more real because they were described in modern terms, but the only time I really felt myself connecting with the characters was when they were dealing with not being allowed to have children. Somehow that struggle was the only real aspect of their lives that I seemed to be able to meaningfully identify with, the only thing that moved me to feel anything for the characters.

While pondering the future and what possibly could lie ahead, he turns our expectations about and what we know about families and everyday life in a very cutting and at times witty manner that at times had me laughing out loud. The fact that there was so much vagueness in nearly every aspect of the story and I still was nearly moved to tears and laughed out loud is a testament to the quality of the story and Matthew Derby’s creativity and writing.

I was struck by the first line of “From Postmodernism and Consumer Society” by Frederic Jameson because he mentions that the concept of postmodernism is neither widely accepted nor understood. I realized that I had been going along this semester reading readings from these two anthologies that have the word postmodern in them without really stopping to consider what postmodern really means or what postmodernism is, though I believe that we touched lightly on the subject in class.

Jameson describes postmodernism as both a reaction against established forms of high modernism such as the things of museums and universities, and as abolishing the boundaries between high culture and so-called mass or popular culture. It is this second distinction that seems to at least partially trouble Jameson, from “academic standpoint,” because, “difficult and complex skills of reading, listening [are no longer required and thus postmodernism has the effect of no longer promoting work in this manner].” He

He cautions that postmodernism is not just another word for the description of a particular style. In his understanding, postmodernism “correlates the new formal features in culture with the emergence of a new type of social life and a new economic order- modernism, postindustrial or consumer society, the society of the media or the spectacle or multinational capitalism,” and that “postmodernism expresses the inner truth of the newly emergent social order of late capitalism.” He then stated that postmodernism has two significant features, pastiche and schizophrenia and that descriptions of these would, “give us a chance to sense the specificity of the postmodernist experience of space and time respectively.”

This pastiche interested me. “Pistiche involves imitation or better still the mimicry of other styles and particularly of the mannerisms and stylistic twitches of other styles.” This got me thinking about the writing that we did in class and the writing that I do in general. I am probably not aware of even a small fraction of all of the influences on my writing. It also got me thinking more about our class discussion of whether anything we do is ever original. He also discusses this dilemma of originality as being central to postmodernism; “postmodernism has taken the place of classical modernism because of a new component generally called the “death of the subject” or the end of individualism as such.” He says that the strivings of classical modernisms were built on the “invention of a personal, private style as unmistakable as your fingerprint.” He says that it has been found that this individualism is a thing of the past.

He notes that there are two supporting views, one that says that, “in this world today of corporate capitalism, of bureaucracies in business as well as in the state that the older bourgeois individual subject no longer exists. The second position, the more radical of the two says that not only is the bourgeois individual subject a thing of the past, it is also a myth, it never really existed and there have never been autonomous subjects of that type. Rather this construct is merely a philosophical and cultural mystification which sought to persuade people of course one must also that they had individual subjects and possessed this unique personal identity.”

He says that the important question is not which of these two view is correct, but rather the following dilemma; “if the experience and the ideology of the unique self, and experience and ideology which informed the stylistic practice of classical modernism, is over and done with, then it is no longer clear what the artists and writers of the present period are supposed to be doing. There is another sense in which the writers and artists of the present day will no longer be able to invent new styles and worlds-they’ve already been invented; only a limited number of combinations are possible; the most unique ones have been thought of already.” He spends the next part of the essay building up to the end where he addresses the issues of whether, in light of everything he has said about postmodernism, we really need it as a title to what is going on in art today. He replies in this way, “until the present day, those things have been secondary or minor features of modernist art, marginal rather than central and that we have something new when the become the central features of cultural production.” He cleared up what he meant by this I think by noting that artists like Picasso are no longer weird or repulsive but are rather classics. And also that today there is, “very little either in form or content of contemporary art that contemporary society finds intolerable and scandalous unlike the productions of the older high modernism.”

He concludes by noting that there is, “some agreement that the older modernism functioned against its society in ways which are variously descried as critical, negative and contestatory, subversive, oppositional and the like, can anything of the sort be affirmed about post modernism and its social moment? We have seen that there is a way in which postmodernism replicates or reproduces-reinforces-the logic of consumer capitalism; the more significant question is whether there is also a way in which it resists that logic.” Overall, From Postmodernism and Consumer Society” is a very interesting and thought provoking essay, though lacking somewhat in clarity in places.

Monday, May 10, 2004

I think that I came into this class thinking that my strength lay in what I can now refer to as phanopoeia after my short introduction to Pound. I still struggle most with trying to create that extra something that makes readers forget that they are reading and instead transports them away, that in my mind is musicality or melopoeia. I think however that if I were to take some more risks as a writer and open up more that I might find that my strength actually lies in logopoeia. I love words; I actually enjoyed memorizing words for my SATs. I think that I have a pretty decent sized vocabulary but that I don’t really use it in my writing. I think that I’m somewhat afraid of using words in unique ways. I think I’m afraid people won’t know what I’m talking about, won’t get it or something. As far as my work in this class, when I feel that I have been able to intensify it, it has been in the manner of phanopoeia. I say this because the pieces that I have written for this class that I have actually liked have been those in which I have explored the use of phanopoeia, when I have described things. I don’t know if I actually achieved bringing any images to life in my work in class, but if I came close to actually employing any of Pound’s modes of intensification of language I feel that I probably came closest to using phanopoeia.

Tuesday, April 27, 2004

I was born on September 26, 1983. I have done a little research and picked out the events of 1973 that I found most interesting or important because nothing too important seems to have happened on the actual date of my birth 10 years prior to the occasion. Here is what I found out; a ceasefire was signed that ended involvement of American ground troops in the Vietnam War. Nixon accepted responsibility, but not blame for Watergate. The US Supreme Court ruled on Roe v. Wade. The cost of a first class stamp was 8 cents. Some well known movies came out, including American Graffiti and the Exorcist. The first American space station was launched. Pearl S. Buck and Pablo Picasso died.
Contrary to popular belief, there was no “war at Valley Forge.” Washington and his troops spent the winter of 1777 on the site of what is now Valley Forge National Park. My house is located on a hill, called Valley Forge Mountain, which is surrounded on three sides by the park grounds. The name of the hill was changed from that given to it by Washington which was “Mount Misery” because the builders didn’t think the houses would sell very well if they didn’t.

Valley Forge is located just about 20 minutes outside the city of Philadelphia which is a very historically rich city. The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were drafted, signed, and adopted in Independence Hall in Center City. The Liberty Bell is also located in the city.

As for how this history had affected me, I guess that I have to say that living where I do I am very aware of our country’s early history. I think that these days that everyone has a heightened appreciation for the freedoms that we have as American citizens, but I think that to some degree the history surrounding me has always kept these notions somewhat towards the front of my mind.

Monday, April 19, 2004

To complete my live reading requirement I attended the most entertaining live reading that I have been to at Cornell. I went with Jill, so I will be interested to read what she thought of it and got out of it, though I can safely say that we both really really enjoyed it! It was a beautiful sunny afternoon, and there was food and drinks, and when I say drinks I mean Smirnoff ice and beer….don’t really know what was up with that…..it seemed to be a pretty grad studentish audience though…it was a nice size crowd, probably somewhere around 20ish people.

This was the second to last reading in the English department’s lounge reading series. Three people read, and they passed around an open reading signup, but no one signed up. Anyway, I want to discuss the second speaker, jecca hutcheson. She spoke well, clearly and confidently and knew just how to deliver every line, every word to get a reaction from the audience. Listening reminded me of how much I loved going to story hour at my local public library and at the nature center near my house when I was in nursery school. Although I can definitely say that no stories like this one were every told at any of my childhood story hours.

Jecca told a story called, “Free Love in the Regan Years,” in which she spoke from the point of view of a young woman named Sugar who was the daughter of a free-spirited hippie. The story was clever, touching, sarcastic, shocking at times, and so engaging and enjoyable. I didn’t want it to end. I would be remiss in my report here if I did not note that at least for me it was sometimes difficult to notice when the story changed from present to past, especially when she was describing the commune in which Sugar grew up and in which her mother still lives. My favorite aspect of the story was most definitely the characters, as they were unique, but so vividly real. Two emphatic thumbs up!!

In discussing the readings and the workshop pieces in class I find out who shares my opinions on the readings and writings, but not really much about who shares my experiences or who else I might have other stuff in common with. I made it successfully though many classes here at Cornell without learning much about the other students, but having the blogs and being able to learn a little more about my classmates has been pretty neat! It’s really interesting to be able to compare everyone’s responses to the assigned topics because I have found that the ways in which people choose to respond as well as the contents of the responses are quite revealing.

Having just decided a few days ago that I am declaring Biopsychology as my major, I decided to read back through people’s major blogs and refresh my memory as to what the rest of the class is up to major-wise. Of the blogs posted to day, Julia’s blog resonated most strongly with me. I love how she described what it’s like to be without a major, how those of us with very broad academic interests think, “I'm like an orphan in the academic sphere; like a child with no parents I'm a student with no major, hoping that one day my major will choose me, sign all the right papers, bring me home and call me baby. If college was a restaurant, in my world I wouldn't have to choose one entree; these four years would be an ongoing all-you-can-eat buffet, and I would keep going back for more heaping plates full of, well, everything. A little bit of government, for the lawyer-to-be in me. Some spoonfuls of psychology to satisfy the MSW to come. A serving of Spanish, because isn't that helpful in today's society? Yet just the way I feel a little embarrassed when I'm walking back to my table with a tray full of food, I always lower my chin when I answer that dreaded question with a stark, barren "undecided." This is my second year and I’ve been getting the feeling that I’m supposed to have settled down, and saying that I’m “undecided” is getting really old. When applying for jobs, internships and research positions, they want to know what you are studying and I’m getting tired of saying something different in each situation for fun, I would really like to be strong and committed to a major. I am hoping that I have found this in biopsych.

Julia also wrote, “But why not? Why not get as much of everything as I possibly can? One day some guy behind a desk is gonna force me to circle one subject and call it my major. Okay. Until then? I'm just going to taste whatever appeals to me. I'm going to sample everything, and I'm going to love it all.” To that I just want to say that one of the best things about these past two years is that I have had the freedom to do just that, really try things out. The chance to fly free is something that I don’t think nearly enough students get to try and I consider myself very lucky for having had and taken the opportunity. It was awesome to find someone else who seems to understand this!

Tuesday, April 13, 2004

I loved Hilda Morley’s poem, “For Elaine de Kooning.” There is nothing awkward about it; one idea flows to the next, each word to the next. I loved the character of Elaine and how the Morley translated Elaine’s words into a mental painting. I particularly liked the building of energy peaking in the last line. I also liked Frank O’Hara’s poem, “Why I am Not a Painter,” for the simple reason that it made me laugh. I also liked the idea of his collection of poems called oranges and the glimpse into the artistic process we get by learning of the steps along the way to the final projects of both artists. I also really liked Robert Duncan’s poem, “A Poem Beginning with a Line by Pindar,” though a bit on the long side, it was enjoyable and well worth the read. The story by Maxine Hong Kingston, “from Tripmaster Monkey: His Fake Book” was really strange, though it raised some interesting ideas and points. I liked Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s poem, “In Goya’s greatest scenes we seem to see,” because it responded to written art as opposed to the others which were more about other forms or art and this aspect made the poem stand out to me. I was not however such a big fan of Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s, “ Monet’s Lilies Shuddering,” maybe I need to know something about the John Cage performance of ‘Cello with Melody-driven electronics’ at the University of Chicago that mentioned in the poem, then maybe I would understand the last line and how the poem fits together. I had the same problem of lacking information when it came to reading Robert Creeley’s, “Bresson’s Movies,” seeing as I’ve yet to see even one that I am aware of….though class discussion on Friday helped with this one.

Wednesday, March 31, 2004

Aside from some cool paintings on the upper floors, I found the Johnson’s current exhibits to be rather uninteresting….except for one exhibit, Lauren Greenfield “Girl Culture.” One of my friends who is currently taking a gender and equality class told me about the exhibit because she had to write a paper on it, and so I knew basically what I was going to see when I went to see it. Lauren Greenfield has put together a book of photographs of young girls and women along with statements by many of the women photographed. Some select photos have been enlarged and currently grace the walls of a room in the Johnson in the form of an art exhibit. The subjects range in age and activities from small children playing dress-up, to adolescents getting ready for proms, to adult exotic dancers, to girls at fat camp, girls getting plastic surgery and female athletes. The exhibit illustrated that girls and women in America today have their self-worth tied up in their physical appearances.

There were some cute pictures, some beautiful pictures, some not so attractive pictures and some really sad ones. However on some level I found ugliness and beauty in all of the pictures. For example, beauty in women who although are probably too thin are nonetheless gorgeous but at the same time ugliness in their slender appearances because of why they are the way they are and what they have to go through to be that way.

What do I think this exhibit had to teach me about my writing? It’s hard to say really. I think it has something to do with honesty. It is easy to want to portray oneself in the best light possible. The women and girls who posed for the photos were very candid and open in many of their statements and in allowing the pictures to be taken of them. It is possible that some of them may have been seeking fame by participating, but even so it had to take courage to be honest about what it is like to be a girl in America. Not only are girls supposed to be thin, beautiful and smart, girls are supposed to manage be appear to be all of these things with out apparent effort. The exhibit pulled the lid off and exposed the insides of pretty packages wherein it can be more easily seen that it is not easy being a girl in America today. The freedom and opportunities that I have as a girl in America today floor me and bring forth a true joy in living in me, but the hazards of being a girl in America today that I have dealt with have left and continue to leave invisible scars that hurt just as much today as ever. What this exhibit has emphasized for me in terms of my writing is something about why it is so difficult to write about personal experiences that are painful and experiences that I am not necessarily proud of. Getting over the hump, allowing myself to be open is far more easily said than done. I think that this fear of taking the plunge stems not only from the anxiety of exposure but also and perhaps more importantly from a fear that words won’t do justice to the story, that something will be lost in translation from experience, emotions and impressions into words.

Tuesday, March 30, 2004

Exquisite Corpse
www.exquisitecorpse.org
Winter 2003 Issue (the most current cyber issue....i think this magazine is in print as well in some form, but I'm only concerning myself with what's online)

I picked this literary magazine because of its name; I wanted to know what kind of writing would find its place in something called “Exquisite Corpse.” I thought that I was able to make a preliminary connection between the name and the magazine’s contents upon looking at the homepage. This issue contains several categories that each have a name hinting at what kinds of information you might find if you click, and behind the title of each section is the image of a body part or internal organ. I still needed to figure out the connection between the titles of each section and their associated body parts. But before trying to figure out the nuances of the structure of the magazine I decided that first things were first and that the first thing I needed to do was get a handle on the writing, and so I started reading. The first thing that I noticed is that the Corpse includes much more than poetry, welcoming submissions of fiction and music and basically any type of writing fits what the Corpse is looking for. But the writing, both fiction and poetry seemed too diverse for me to get a good reading on just what exactly it is that they look for. So I cheated and went hunting for some kind of mission statement and after reading something from the editors and flipping through past issues, I realized that I really didn’t get it. Turns out this whole body part for each section thing is for this issue only and that each issue is quite different in format, even having different sections. To conserve space I’ve stolen a description of this issue written by the editor: (I’ve put the names of each section of the magazine in bold). (Also, I hope I don’t get in trouble because I don’t know what the deal is with copying stuff from websites and citing sources and stuff when it comes to blogs….).

“Behold the new Corpse! sayeth the editors, standing in the gigantic shadow of this body chock-full of concerned organs. There is heart here (The Art of Marriage), liver (Hedonism: theory and practice), scheming mind (Money Talk and Art), social conscience lips (The Clash of Civilizations), animals for its gentle and rough hands (Pets and Beasts) and of course, Poetry Features, poetry cartoons, letters and glossalalia, music, art: our pungent skin, a mix of pheronomes and intelligence, as alluring as the Havana Airport and as classy as Marlena Dietrich’s USO tours.” (there are also other sections for some reason not mentioned here: zounds (music/sound submissions), money talk, stage, gallery, ec chair, all poetry and nothing but.

So I decided to give up my investigation of the format completely and focus on the writing. I found a very diverse collection writing covering a wide spectrum, with poetry that I can make no sense of on one end to fascinating short stories on the other. The only theme that really stood out to me was an absence of anything particularly pleasant or easy reading, meaning that the writing seemed charged to me in a way that a stereotypical love poem is not if that makes any sense. I can’t help but have a reaction to most of the writing; I doubt that most people would be able read this stuff passively is what I guess I’m trying to say. The writing that is comprehensible to me is for the most part, sharp, witty at times, intelligent at times and quite often dark and/or disturbing. I was pleasantly surprised to find more than poetry because I am quite picky when it comes to poetry, it really has to speak to me or I don’t have the patience for it. I must admit though that some of the poetry was rather good actually. Authors seem to include both well established writers as well as lesser known writers.

To see if I was on the right track in terms of the content I followed a link called, “Submissions” and found that they, “accept submissions in poetry, fiction, letters, essays, travel-writing, news, drama, mixed genre media, news, art, music/sound, and more.” I had figured that much out but still needed to know what tied these media together and found that I was sort of on target in my above assessment, “We prefer works of language genius, provocation, malignant brilliance, practical utopianism, profound terror, sexual delirium, and resolute enmity against commonplace, cliché, and convention. Would-be contributors should look up previous issues of Exquisite Corpse for an idea of how we cause damage and promote health.” (again, I hope I don’t get in trouble for quoting).

That’s about enough about the magazine, it’s now time to zoom in on a specific piece of writing from the Corpse. I have chosen the fourth piece I read simply because four is my favorite number. It is a short story from the section entitled “money talk & art.” The story is by a man named Lee Vilensky and is called, “buy low, sell twice.” The reactions that I had to the writing result more from the content than the writing, though the writing is what made them so vivid. A basic synopsis: two boys are friends, one has a retarded sister named Judy whom he beats and the narrator likes to watch this. The two boys decide to go into business recycling bottles. However, they soon run out of bottles to recycle and start stealing them back from the store they return them to and re-return them. The owner gets suspicious and the boy who beats his sister is caught, but luckily for the narrator he didn’t “go to work” that day and so goes free. He decides to stay away from his friend to give him time to cool off and in the meantime finds a new friend and states that, “life without Judy crawled forward.”

Clearly the story is quite disturbing, but there are aspects of the actual writing that I liked. First I felt the thoughts, ideas, sexual curiosity of the characters to be appropriate for their ages. Children do things because they don’t know any better, they don’t understand what it means to be retarded or even what it means to be beat someone and this story captures this in a way that does not shy away from the brutality of the truth. There is nothing that happens in this story that probably hasn’t happened in reality at some point somewhere and this adds to the story’s impact. The language is of someone older reflecting on the past with hindsight with just a hint of humor. The perspective is one that would not have been available to the narrator at the time of the events. An example is of the use of vocabulary and descriptions of the boys actions as if they were in a real grown up business in the grownup world. The story gets its momentum right in the beginning from the fact that it starts out as a seemingly innocent slightly humorous story about boys growing up that then veers right off the tracks in the middle of the second sentence.

In conclusion, while I can think of many things I would rather read than this particular literary magazine, for the most part I enjoyed what I read. The majority of the writing is very good in my opinion, but it’s heavy and a lot to take in at once. I would recommend that people at least check it out and I’ve already sent links to a few of the pieces contained in this issue of the magazine to friends. I’m pretty indifferent to this magazine as a whole (though not to much of the writing); I’m neither in love with it or opposed to it. I definitely don’t feel like I wasted any time by reading it, quite the contrary actually, and this is generally a good thing in my opinion.

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