Thursday, December 29, 2005

Another Reason to Love Sufjan Stevens

There are many reasons to love Sufjan Stevens. This is another one:

If someone asked, I would say that I was born again. I would look you right in the eye and say it.

I don't know anything about CCM. I'm not an evangelist. I'm a songwriter and a storyteller. If that story happens to be about Christ, then perhaps, in some odd semantic way, the song could be termed 'evangelical'. I gladly accept that. I also sing about divorce. And murder. And adultery. I sing about chickens and war and bathrooms. In my mind, the gospel is not something to pander and pawn off like a diet soda drink. There is no product. There is no selling point.

This is what it means to be born again: to fully and completely disengage with the preconceptions and preoccupations of the adult world and its religions, to dismantle all laws - of physics and society - and yield yourself to the birth canal, and what comes after, in which everything begins to shake and tremble with all senses fully turned to the center of the universe, the creator, God the Father, in whose cultivation we begin to know and understand our true selves, our real selves, as a reflection of God's image, his creation, like newborn babies, full, fresh, suckling, elated and laughing at everything. But honestly, I have no idea how this relates to my music. I hate talking about this stuff.

I'd like to spend less time talking about God and more time being in God's presence. I think that would put an end to this conversation, once and for all.
-- from an interview in Plan B Magazine, Oct. 2005

Wednesday, December 28, 2005


Every December 28th a group of about 50 middle-aged geezers, a few of them now slouching past middle age, meet at a friend’s house to catch up on life. Thirty years ago the geezers were just hippies, and they all lived together in what passes for the ghetto in Columbus, Ohio. They bought a handful of houses on 17th Avenue, crammed husbands and wives and kids and single folks together, along with homeless people off the street and cats and dogs and goats, shared their stuff, pooled their incomes, and set up shop as an official New Testament Church, living in community, guaranteed to get it right this time, correcting the errors of 2,000 years of church history, ministering to the poor and needy, focusing on loving one another and the world around them. I was one of those folks, and spent eight years in their midst. I met my wife in that ghetto. The best man and ushers at my wedding all came from those motley crusaders.

Thirty years later, it’s evident that they got it wrong. And thirty years later, given the sizable turnout that will show up at my friend’s tonight, and given the fact that many of these people will travel great distances to be there, it’s evident that they got a lot right.

It was a silly, naïve notion. “Stupid,” as my friend Jeff told me a couple weeks ago over lunch. Jeff and his family are now firmly established in a nice denominational church. He wears a suit on Sunday mornings, and his hair is short, and he prides himself on being part of a long and vital church tradition. “I look back on those ‘Let’s all hold hands and be the church’ days with some embarrassment,” he tells me.

And I understand. I recall the interminable wrangling over every theological issue imaginable, the need to re-invent every single doctrinal stance and claim it as our own, the inevitable hubris that accompanies any attempt to be “the New Testament Church,” and the underlying disdain for all the poor brothers and sisters who have had it wrong for lo these two millennia. It’s not a shining legacy. And it wasn’t all peace and love. Some of the naïve hippies got robbed at gunpoint; a couple of the women got raped. Camp’s Carryout, across the street from the first apartment I shared with my wife, was held up almost every Saturday night.

It turned out to be a pretty lousy place to raise a family. And the naïve hippies grew up and got married and started having kids, and they figured out pretty quickly that toddlers and crack dealers on street corners weren’t the best combination. One by one, they left. Why? Because they could. Because they had the education and the job skills and the wherewithal to abandon the sinking ship. Four families pulled up stakes and moved out to the country, where to this day they’re still living in community and raising goats and growing grapes for wine. Everybody else scattered, some across the country, some to the relative comfort and safety of Columbus suburbia. The irony isn’t lost on me when I realize that from that tiny house church a suburban megachurch of 7,500 people emerged, and that the massive parking lot is filled with SUVs and minivans. Old hippies never die. They just become Republicans, and put W stickers on the back bumpers of their Beamers.

And so I wonder about the legacy. Is my friend Jeff right? Was it all for naught? Was it all just a silly, idealistic, misty vision that faded once people grew up and got some sense? Did we dabble in radicalism, only to become dreaded Average Americans?

Maybe. But I don’t think so. The fifty people who will show up tonight tell me No. They are doctors, lawyers, professors, engineers, along with those who have never been able to hold down a steady job, and those who have suffered from debilitating mental illness, and those who have lost their marriages, and those who have watched their children walk away from everything good and important and choose addiction and enslavement. Life has a way of battering the shit out of you, even if you are the incarnation of the New Testament Church.

Every one of them will be on equal footing. They will be greeted warmly. They will laugh and remember together. They will be cherished as people who shared a common life together, as friends and brothers and sisters in perhaps the best and most inclusive sense. I would like to think that this is something different from Average America.

I look forward to this time, as I do every year. And I feel challenged, as I do every year, to work through what our common vision now means in middle age, in the midst of a successful career. I desire and pray for the generosity of spirit that characterized those turbulent, wonderful years.

Saturday, December 24, 2005

Unwed Fathers

Fucked up kids havin' fucked up kids havin' fucked up kids ...
Happy Campers, "No Direction"

In an Appalachian Greyhound station
She sits there waiting in a family way
"Goodbye brother, tell Mom I love her
Tell all the others I'll write someday"

From a teenage lover to an unwed mother
Kept undercover like some bad dream
While unwed fathers, they can't be bothered
They run like water through a mountain stream

Just like his mom, my sister, my nephew Nathan dropped out of school midway through high school. He spent a couple years in and out of juvenile detention centers for assorted brushes with the law, and now, at the ripe old age of 19, finds himself the father of a sweet two-year-old little girl named Madison. He lives with my sister in Columbus. Madison's mother, also 19, lives with her mother in a dilapidated trailer outside of Ironton, Ohio, three hours south of Columbus.

Mom and dad met in the most romantic of circumstances; while huffing glue in the stock room of the fast-food restaurant where they both worked. There was no courtship, no flowers, no wooing. There was just quick sex amidst the oversized jars of condiments. There was no thought of marriage. He didn't really love her. For that matter, he didn't even really like her. And she felt the same about him. Both secretly believed that the other was a loser. But then along came Madison nine months later, as babies tend to do, and the arduous ordeal of shared custody began. This year it was Nathan's turn to "get" Madison for Christmas.

Thursday night Madison and my sister showed up at our house for the Christmas celebration. Madison's dad was back home nursing a hangover. Or maybe he was doing Ecstasy. My sister wasn't sure.

In a cold and gray town a nurse says "Lay down"
This ain't no playground, and this ain't no home"
Someone's children out having children
In a gray stone building, all alone

From a teenage lover to an unwed mother
Kept undercover like some bad dream
While unwed fathers, they can't be bothered
They run like water through a mountain stream

Madison was shy at first. She didn't know where she was. But she warmed up quickly. She explored our house, and she led my daughter Rachel around by the hand, pointing at the Christmas decorations, laughing, her eyes sparkling with pleasure. There was something magical happening, and I simply sat back and watched; Rachel with Maddy, both delighting in the other's company.

When it was time to leave Madison cried. She didn't want to go. She grabbed Rachel's hand and pulled her toward the door, as if to lead her out to the car.

On a somewhere else bound Smokey Mountain Greyhound
She bows her head down, hummin' lullabies
'Your daddy never meant to hurt you ever'
He just don't live here, but you've got his eyes'

From a teenage lover to an unwed mother
Kept undercover like some bad dream
While unwed fathers, they can't be bothered
They run like water through a mountain stream
-- John Prine, "Unwed Fathers"

Madison's mom is pregnant again. My nephew is not the father, but it doesn't matter. She won't marry this guy either. But she's eligible for more food stamps this way, and you do what you have to do to get ahead. And in a couple more days Madison will head back to the dilapidated house trailer in Appalachia, where there is no employment, and no books, and no money, and no food, and perhaps no running water. But there is electricity, because there is TV. What will happen to this little girl? How can she possibly escape the same fate? I don't know. But sometimes it's difficult to hold on to hope. I've never met Maddy's mother. I don't know what she looks like. But I know my nephew, and I can picture him, even though he's never around anymore. He has a sweet, innocent little daughter, and she's got his eyes.

Thursday, December 22, 2005

What Kind of Government Are We Again?

Re: the secret wiretapping of American citizens:

"The White House's claim, essentially, is this: The president may do whatever he sees fit in order to keep the country safe. For some, those last seven words justify and legitimize the unlimited powergrab of the first eight. But many of us cannot accept the beginning of that sentence -- "the president may do whatever he sees fit" -- regardless of what follows. Those of us who reject that claim call ourselves "Democrats" or "Republicans" -- words that refer to forms of government in which the leaders are accountable to the people and to the rule of law, and therefore may not simply do whatever they see fit.

"This is a different era, a different war," President Bush said in defending his right to be free of all checks and balances. What he means, clearly, is that this new war and new era also requires a new form of government. Democracy and republicanism, he is arguing, are luxuries we can no longer afford in this new era.

The astonishing thing to me is that only "some" oppose this claim." -- Slacktivist

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Gomer Online

You have to read the biblical book of Hosea to get that. But here she is:

Coming soon to a Christian junk/trinket shop near you ...

Monday, December 19, 2005

Shit, Now He's Talking About Merde

I'll cut the crap eventually, but not today. Today I'm thinking about our incessant mouthing of words like "human rights" and "freedom" and "democracy," and the "legal" wiretapping of American phone lines, and the white phosphorus that may or may not have been used to melt the skin of Iraqi civilians during the battle for Falluja, and the torture of war prisoners that we would never do, okay, yeah, we did, but which we'll never do again. This is one of my favorite quotes, but you should read the entire novel:

"Today is my thirtieth birthday and I sit on the ocean wave in the schoolyard and wait for Kate and think of nothing. Now in the thirty-first year of my dark pilgrimage on this earth and knowing less than I ever knew before, having learned only to recognize merde when I see it, having inherited no more from my father than a good nose for merde, for every species of shit that flies - my only talent - smelling merde from every quarter, living in fact in the very century of merde, the great shithouse of scientific humanism where needs are satisfied, everyone becomes an anyone, a warm and creative person, and prospers like a dung beetle, and one hundred percent of people are humanists and ninety-eight percent believe in God, and men are dead, dead, dead; and the malaise has settled like a fall-out and what people really fear is not that the bomb will fall but that the bomb will not fall - on this my thirtieth birthday, I know nothing and there is nothing left to do but fall prey to desire." -- Walker Percy, from The Moviegoer

The Lion, the Witch, and Beef Carpaccio

Yesterday Kate and I celebrated our 23rd wedding anniversary. Twenty-three years ago this dark-haired babe and this slender (well, as slender as it ever got, given those genes) dude stood before God and man and woman and toddlers and promised to love, honor, and serve one another. Twenty-three years later this silver-haired babe and this balding fat guy worshiped in a church where some of those toddlers are now all grown up, and raising toddlers of their own. It's a different church, with a few more churches in between, and with a lot of joy and sorrow woven throughout. I married Kate for many reasons (the dark-haired babe factor being somewhat prominent), but mainly because she was my best friend. She still is. I hate the term "soul mate." It conjures up images of New Agers and newspaper ads for singles. But I love her beauty and her compassion and her wisdom. She's not the same person she was 23 years ago. Neither am I. But I like to think, and I'm fairly certain that it's true, that if I'm a better person, it's mostly because of her. I tried for a while to get married, went through a succession of girlfriends, and one broken engagement. And I married the right person. I like to think, and I'm fairly certain that it's true, that if that's the case, it's because of God, who knew me better than I knew myself.

We went to see The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe after church. I enjoyed it, although not as much as I'd hoped. I know this story very well, and the movie was actually very faithful to C.S. Lewis' book. Certainly it was better than any of the other film adaptations of the story I've seen (there was a particularly painful PBS version from about ten years ago). But I found myself making comparisons to The Lord of the Rings trilogy throughout, and TLOTR was superior in every way. Battle scenes with no blood? Please. Perhaps because it's a story intended for small children, but I found the story itself to be antiseptic and shallow and about as a subtle as a sledgehammer. The Aslan/Christ parallels are blindingly obvious. And they are in the book as well, of course. In any event, I found myself longing for deeper, more complex characters. But that would have meant a different story, I suppose. I read The Chronicles of Narnia for the first time as an adult, and I had the same complaint. Perhaps I just came to this story too late in life.

Afterwards we headed to Lindey's in German Village. It was snowing. The luminaries were lit. There was a brass band playing Christmas carols on a street corner, and a street vendor roasting chestnuts out in front of the restaurant. It was all quaintly Victorian in the best faux-Dickens sense. God bless us every one. The meal was fabulous, and included Beef Carpaccio -- raw beef with shaved Parmesan cheese and Portobello mushrooms. Mmmm. The carnivore in me still wasn't sated, however, so I went for the New York Strip Steak, while Kate opted for scallops. All in all, it was a great day. And it's a wonderful life. Really. In spite of my depression, it really is.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Favorite Albums of 2005

Is it too early? I say No. We're in the down time when no decent artist or band releases an album. So I'm going to go out on a limb and proclaim that 2005 is unofficially over, and that these are my favorite albums that have been released this year.

The Top 10 (in no particular order)

Sufjan Stevens -- Illinois
There's not much I can say about Sufjan's music that hasn't been said a thousand times. But I will say this: he sounds like no one but himself. I've been avidly following popular music for more than forty years. And during that time, it's amazing how frequently "the next new thing" sounds remarkably like something you've already heard five or ten or fifty times already. But Sufjan's basic building blocks -- banjo, the '70s sensitive folkie vibe, '60s Girl Group/Greek Chorus background singers, trumpet and trombone, and the orchestral minimalism of Philip Glass and Steve Reich -- are utterly wild and unpredictable, and he's managed to do something I didn't think anyone could do anymore: he's truly made new music. I didn't rank these albums. But you can go ahead and call this one my favorite album of 2005.

Caitlin Cary and Thad Cockrell -- Begonias
Country duet singing at its best. Much of the genre is schlock; pure, unadulterated cornpone. This is the real deal, with intelligent songwriting, heartbreaking harmonies, and echoes of Sts. Gram and Emmylou everywhere.

The New Pornographers -- Twin Cinema
Intelligent, quirky power pop. Carl (A.C.) Newman can write superb pop melodies, and although he borrows liberally from every great band from the British Invasion through the New Wave, he still manages to stamp his own identity on these songs. Just when you're ready to play Spot the Influences, he throws a curve ball. Neko Case is the secret weapon, a great singer in her own right who fits in perfectly with this band.

Sigur Ros -- Takk
Pretentious and precious? Sure. But breathtakingly beautiful. There are probably a hundred critical reasons not to like this album, and for anyone who remembers the carnage wrought by Yes and Emerson, Lake, and Palmer, 10-minute nonsensical songs are a good starting place. But then I play the album, and all is forgiven. I have to take my Icelandic knit hat off to any band that so unabashedly pursues beauty. And finds it.

Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane -- Live at Carnegie Hall
Jazz fans, let's fantasize for a moment. Let's imagine that the impossible actually existed, that sitting at the bottom of, say, an unmarked box at the Library of Congress, unnoticed for almost 50 years, was a 1957 concert tape featuring Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane. Let's suppose that the recording was pristine, an impossibility given the ancient recording technology of the time. Let's imagine that Coltrane ripped off a few jaw-dropping solos, and that Monk was at his playful and eccentric best. And let's imagine that this went for about an hour, instead of the three measly studio tracks with which we've been left. And then let's say it all came true.

Congotronics -- Konono #1
I know nothing about Congolese music, wouldn't know a virtuoso likembe (thumb piano) performance from a pedestrian one. But I know a wall of sound when I hear one, and I know that when three likembes are playing through a stack of Marshall amps, it sounds something like Jimi Hendrix in an alternative universe, and that those percussive grooves are enough to get this middle-aged soul off his sorry butt and engaging in what he likes to fondly think of as "dance." But don't tell the wife and kids.

The Clientele -- Strange Geometry
Literate Brit folk rock for a rainy day. There's a bit of the dreamy shoegazer sound of Ride and Slowdive here, some Nick Drake folkie melancholia, the baroque pop psychedelia of The Left Banke and "Eleanor Rigby." Marry that to a lead singer/songwriter who is clearly enamored with Wordsworth and Byron and Keats and you've got one hopelessly romantic musical venture, all dappled sunlight and memories of idyllic youth and present-day heartbreak, alas. But it sure is pretty.

The Decemberists -- Picaresque
Literate Brit folk rock (by way of Portland, Oregon) for librarians and medieval scholars. Colin Meloy writes about obscure Portuguese royalty (“The Infanta”), injured soccer stars (“The Sporting Life”), and somehow incredibly and plausibly compares the U.S. military presence in Iraq to an Academy Awards Oscar ceremony, all while using 4-syllable Ivy League words (okay, mostly three syllables, but where else are you going to hum along with “palanquin,” “rhapsodical,” and “chapparal”?). It’s all delivered in a baroque musical confection that features progressive rock, accordions, and jangly REM guitars, resulting in full-fledged and inestimably beneficent Nerd Rock. I give it a 90. It’s also got a good beat and you can dance to it.

Al Green -- Everything's OK
Al’s 2003 comeback album I Can’t Stop turned out to be just the warm-up. Better in every way than its predecessor, Everything’s OK finds Al in early ‘70s form, pleading, cajoling, and soaring off into that impossibly great falsetto, all the while mixing his earthly and heavenly love metaphors to tremendous effect. This is soul music in all the best senses of the term, and it’s hard to imagine anyone doing it better.

The Deadstring Brothers -- Starving Winter Report
Loud, sloppy rock ‘n roll influenced by The Rolling Stones of Exile on Main Street and Sticky Fingers, a lead singer who has the Mick mannerisms down pat, and propelled by equal doses of slide guitar and pedal steel.

Honorable Mention

Clap Your Hands Say Yeah -- Clap Your Hands Say Yeah
The Pernice Brothers -- Discover a Lovelier You
John Francis -- Strong Wine and Spirits
Danny Cohen -- We're All Gunna Die
Van Morrison -- Magic Time
Bob Dylan -- The Bootleg Series Vol. 7 -- No Direction Home Soundtrack
Kate Bush -- Aerial
Brad Mehldau -- Day is Done
Jose Gonzalez -- Veneer
Bettye LaVette -- I've Got My Own Hell to Raise

Biggest Disappointments (or perhaps simply Most Hyped/Overrated)

Coldplay -- X&Y
Bruce Springsteen -- Devils and Dust
Jamie Cullum -- Catching Tales
Death Cab for Cutie -- Plans
Franz Ferdinand -- You Could Have It So Much Better

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Santa Claus is Back in Town

I like traditional Christmas carols. Really I do. But my favorite Christmas song is an old Lieber and Stoller tune made famous by Elvis Presley in 1956, back when he was still swivelling his hips and inciting the little bobby soxer hormones. No peace on earth or mercy mild about that boy.

To do it right, you have to curl your lip and sneer. For some reason, we never sing this in church.

Well it's Christmastime pretty baby
The snow is fallin' on the ground
Yeah, it's Christmastime pretty baby
The snow is fallin' on the ground
Well you be a real good little baby
Santa Claus is back in town

Got no sleigh with reindeer
No sack on my back
You gonna see me comin'
In a big black Cadillac

Hoah it's Christmastime pretty baby
The snow is fallin' on the ground, hmmmmm
Yeah you be a real good little baby
Santa Claus is back in town, yeah

Hang up your pretty stockings
Put out the light
Santa Claus is comin'
Down your chimney tonight

Hoah it's Christmastime pretty baby
The snow is fallin' on the ground, hmmmm
Yeah, you be a real good little baby
Santa Claus is back in town
Yeah, I said you be a real good little baby
Santa Claus is back in town, yeah, oooh

Yeah. Oooh.

Thursday, December 08, 2005


I am depressed. It’s not a seasonal thing. It’s a life thing, possibly a lifelong thing. The outward circumstances are good on all fronts, and there is no objective reason to feel like I’m standing at the edge of a yawning abyss. But I do. And so I think it’s time to see the doctor again. He will probably prescribe what he has in the past – good ol’ Welbutrin, the little purple pill with the smiley face on it. I don’t like taking little purple pills every day, and I’ve tried to avoid them for a while now, but I am coming to the conclusion that waking up crying at 3:30 in the morning is probably not a normal thing. Or crying at work, which can be embarrassing, particularly when one sits in the midst of stoic computer programmers. Got a problem? Let’s work out a problem-solving algorithm. No, on second thought, let’s reprogram your brain, Mr. Spock, so that you can at least act like the emotive part of your being doesn’t operate based on 0s and 1s. I may be dealing with some latent hostility in addition to depression.

This morning I awoke from a dream at 3:30 a.m. In the dream, Kate and I were shopping together (this is one of the many ways I can distinguish dreams from reality). We were at a mall – The Easton Towne Center, maybe, home of Ye Olde Upper Middle Classe, or perhaps Polaris Fashion Place. In any event, it was one of those places where I feel profoundly uncomfortable and cynical, ready to make snarky comments about the walking mannequins and the dummies with wallets. And we encountered Kate’s former college roommate Molly.

Molly has not been a part of our lives for a long time. She and her husband were close friends for a while, but a messy divorce, and alienated kids, and a remarriage, and too many miles and too many years ended all that. We haven’t seen her or heard from her in more than a decade. But there she was, in my dream, arm in her arm with her new husband, walking through the mall. We greeted her. She looked at us. She recognized us. And she walked on without saying a word. Then I woke up crying.

You Freudians and Jungians can have a field day with that one. But here’s what was most disturbing. It got worse after I woke up. It was full-on existential dread. For you non-philosophers, imagine the sense of general well-being that usually permeates your day-to-day existence – your family, your friends, your health, your career, your accomplishments, whatever it is that provides that general coping/hanging-in-there equilibrium– and then imagine somebody turning on the Soul Vacuum and sucking that right out of you. Or maybe it was just this:

“The creation waits in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.” (Romans 8:19-23)

No shit, St. Sherlock. Paul. Whoever. But I sure get that “groaning inwardly” part. It’s the sucker punch that comes when you are fifty years old and it’s 4:00 in the morning, and you are wide awake, staring at the ceiling, contemplating the wasted years, the endless unnumbered days that now are numbered, the countless times spent bored, high, disengaged, whatever it was that made you not fully present in the moment. And now you find that the moments cannot be recaptured, that there are whole sections of your life that are walled off from the present. But you can still see the trail of ghosts, unreachable, but all too recognizable. And you find that the older you get the longer the trail stretches – best men and ushers at your wedding, ex-friends and former lovers, people with whom you swore your commitment and your passion and your undying allegiance; now moved on or dead, the victims of too many miles and too many years or simple rigor mortis, relationships that were one-of-a-kind gems reduced to a yearly exchange of generic Christmas cards, or nothing at all -- all, every one of them, residents of the Kingdom of Gone.

This is why I am depressed. Nothing lasts. You invest in the good stuff – not stuff at all, it turns out, but people – and still nothing lasts.

“For in this hope we were saved.” (Romans 8:24) Damn you, St. Sherlock, you better be right. I’ve placed all the chips on that statement, let it ride on that one big lucky number. The hope of eternal life, the shaky bet that this world is not the end, that all of the lost relationships will be found, or will be caught up in something, someone, so big and so loving that they will seem irrelevant. Because they don’t seem irrelevant now. They hold the shape and form of those I have loved, but they are holes, empty air. I look and I know those shapes. But there is nothing there.

Poetry Slam II

I’ve been reading Louise’s blog (which is great, by the way), and I came across a statement that I think captures some of the ambivalence and frustration I experienced when listening to Tone’s last poem on Friday night. Louise said:

“There was a time, way back in MFA-land, when I thought I was the only female poet who had not been abused as a child. All these healthy-looking, functioning adults and not a single one of them had loving parent(s)? Wow. And so it began, my experience with female poets who feel

a) if something bad happened to them, they had to write about it
b) they needed to shock with their poem
c) they will get a "better" (read less critical) response with heavy stuff -- the abuse, the rape, the abortion, etc.

I remember sitting there, smallest person in the room in all senses, trying to make out what to say to a woman who just bared her soul about her child abuse in what was at best a mediocre poem. My inner voice said to me: I hate this.

I also remember starting to feel as if I had to write about the crappiest crap in my life just to be validated. This feeling warred with not wanting to be pegged to that topic.

Now, when I'm in poetry-slam-and-spoken-word-land, I see this kind of female poet exists here too. (Not all, mind you, the best of us seem to have range.) I see them get sympathy points in the same events where good poems get real and really earned points. And it really does seem to be a problem for women poets more than men. (Men have their own problems.)
And to those who think their i-hate-you-daddy poem is original, it was Sylvia Plath who first said:
Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I'm through. - written and published in 1962"


First, I’m sorry for anyone who has suffered abuse.

Second, beyond that, I’m not sure what else there is to say. Abuse is obviously traumatic and scarring. I don’t want to downplay that at all. And to the extent that I can know someone in that situation and call them friend, then I want to be supportive. I surely don’t have the magic words to fix any of it, but I will listen, enter in to that person’s pain, and try to be there for that person. That’s what friends do.

But here’s what I wanted to say to Tone: Everybody has his or her story to tell. And it’s okay to tell it through art, but please realize that your story, whatever it is, doesn’t make you much different from anyone else. You are not the most wretched, suffering person on the planet. Of if you are, then so is everybody else. Dysfunction is the norm. I hate to say it, but your traumas and your private hells are both uniquely yours and something you share with just about everyone. So go ahead and share about them. Write about them. But don’t play your traumas as an artistic trump card, don’t play Can U Top This in the Sympathy Sweepstakes, because I’m going to claim that if you do then you’re being cheap and tawdry and ultimately demeaning to your art. It’s confrontational melodrama, but it’s melodrama just the same. And it stinks, not because it’s not real or important, but because it’s bad art, and you’re trying to pawn yourself off as an artist.

There is a fine line here, and I’m not at all saying that art can’t engage social issues. Some of my favorite art does just that. But it is a matter of, umm, Tone. Bob Dylan and Public Enemy write great social protest songs. Steve Earle tries, but then claims that Condoleeza Rice’s problem is that she’s so uptight because she’s not getting anything in bed. One is challenging and uplifting; the other is merely idiotically distasteful and misogynistic. Can you guess which side I think rants about Ritalin and Mountain Dew fall on?

Monday, December 05, 2005

Poetry Slam

The Poetry Slam at the Columbus Music Hall Friday night was pretty great – a lot of attitude, some very nice piano jazz trio accompaniment, and the occasional worthwhile poem. :-)

For those who may not be familiar with the concept, a Poetry Slam is competitive poetry; a combination of T.S. Eliot, performance art, and women’s figure skating judging. Poets recite/perform their poetry, the crowd hoots and hollers at every apt simile, hint of enjambment, end-stop, and iambic foot (or maybe at just what they think is funny), and five judges rate the results on flash cards, using marks ranging from 1 – 10. The highest-ranked poets (four on Friday night) go on to a second round, and the poet with the most points at the end of the night actually ends up with some cash. There’s a definite performance element to this, although it wasn’t clear to me just how much weight was given to the actual poetry vs. the performance of the poetry. My guess is that performance rates higher, given the quality of some of the poetry that made it through to the second round (hi, Jeff! I love you, guy, but enough of the iambic duometer – Birds sing/Phones ring/Bells chime/Poets rhyme). In any event, this was as far from a stuffy “poetry reading” as you can imagine, with the poets exhibiting a flair for the dramatic, and an attitude informed more by hip-hop than by the literary salon. It was, in fact, a lot of fun.

The poetry? A definite mixed bag. There were people who were certainly poets there, and good ones at that. I was particularly impressed by Louise, who performed a poem called “Adopted People” that was real and full of pain and beauty, and Scott, a wise and funny guy (not the same as a wiseguy, for what it’s worth) who ended up winning the competition. Both made it to the second round. So there is some justice in the world. But I have to say that I found some of the judging rather curious. Jeff, I love you, but there is absolutely no way you should have made it to the second round, even with the brilliant kitsch of “Nadia’s Theme” as the musical accompaniment behind you. One “poet” did an improvisational rant about all the Oppressive White Folks who are apparently responsible for dubious cultural detritus such as Ritalin and Mountain Dew. It’s a race thing, or maybe ageism/handicapism, I thought, remembering the Mountain Dew I had to drink at lunch on Friday. Maybe they’re out to kill all the black folks and the middle-aged white balding men with hearing aids. Sigh. Social commentary is great, protest is great, and some of my favorite poetry and music deals with highly charged issues, but I’m still amazed, and not in a good way, by ill-prepared people who incoherently rail against Yellow Dye #5 in Mountain Dew, claim that it’s all part of a dastardly conspiracy to keep the black man down, and then want to pawn it off as poetry. Please. I’ll take iambic duometer over that. No matter what color the skin/Or what shape you’re in/Simple rhyme or deluxe/Racism sucks.

But that was an aberration. I loved the idea that people got together and read and listened to poetry. I loved the jazz accompaniment. I loved the fact that a lot of people turned out. I loved Shaun Barber, Emcee Deluxe, who did not suck. And I look forward to doing it again, soon. Many thanks to Dan Thress and Shaun Barber for organizing the event.

Saturday, December 03, 2005

Have a Sufjan Christmas

Right here: