Tag Archives: writing

Descriptious #1

Descriptious #1

Descriptious #1: softcover, 20 pp, $25


I recently designed a book for my friend, the writer Ruth Coppens. It’s a book of quotations, of an unusual kind, and it is best described in her own words:

“One of author Elmore Leonard’s rules for good writing was: ‘Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.’ By this he almost certainly meant descriptions, especially of place. Leonard was a fine writer, but this rule ignores a simple fact: some of us love the parts that other people skip… I collect writers who are good at this kind of thing; they can be found in most genres, but what they all have in common is an ability to unite specificity of observation with a strong emotional valence. Here I am sharing some of my favorites among what are loosely termed nature writers.”

She includes in this book extracts by well-known writers like Terry Tempest Williams, Willa Cather, and Aldo Leopold, but for me its real value was in introducing me to obscure or somewhat forgotten writers like Rumer Godden, Henry Beston, and Edward Thomas. The accompanying images are photographs she has collected that resonate with particular descriptions. The perfect gift for a compulsive reader. descriptious-spread

Posted in 2014, books, latest | Also tagged , , |

revisiting Encyclopedia Britannica

misinforming-nationSomewhere along the line I acquired a copy of the 11th edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica. It’s not in very good shape, but I’ve held on to it for years, not only because it is often spoken of as a high-water mark for excellence in encyclopedia writing but also because—having been published in 1910—it is out of copyright, meaning that everything in it, including the sparse but excellent illustrations, can be used as raw material for art projects without anxiety. Recently I was looking into it for a new project and I stumbled on the entry on American Literature. Although I’ve read a lot of American literature—it formed part of my college major—I didn’t recall ever having read the Britannica entry, so I sat down to take a look at what their editors thought of our literature at the turn of the last century.

In the end, I had to read it twice because the first time through I got thoroughly distracted by scorekeeping the ins and the outs. In: all three Mathers—Richard, Increase, and Cotton—who remembers there were three? Out: Emily Dickinson (really??), Kate Chopin, and Ambrose Bierce. Bronson Alcott in; Louisa May Alcott out. Joel Chandler Harris’s Uncle Remus stories in; Frederick Douglass out. Although books published as late as 1890 are mentioned, the editors seem to have set a cutoff for births around 1860 as there is no mention of anyone born after 1858. This excludes such important late 19th and early 20th century writers as Edith Wharton, Stephen Crane, Theodore Dreiser, Frank Norris, Jack London, and Booth Tarkington. (There is some tension between the literature entry and entries on individual authors: Crane, although excluded from American literature proper, is given a brief entry under his own name.)

I was most curious to find out which women (if any) were included in the entry, which runs to nearly 11 full pages. Initially, I was surprised at how many of them there were: beginning with the poet Anne Bradstreet and ending with the novelist Mary Noailles Murfree (who wrote under the pen name Charles Egbert Craddock), about 20 women are mentioned. But as these stand next to some 180 men, they represent just about 10% of all the American writers named. (It should be noted that the authorship of literature, as construed in this entry, embraces not only novelists, playwrights, and poets, but historians, scholars, ministers, orators, politicians, and humorists—professions mostly closed to women at that time.)

It was only on a second reading that I grasped this entry’s full peculiarity. It is signed “G.E.W.,” which the volume index identifies as the initials of George Edward Woodberry, professor of comparative literature at Columbia University between 1891 and 1904 and author of a book on Edgar Allan Poe. Woodberry evinces a deep disdain for the literature of his own country; so much so that I was astonished when I looked him up and discovered that he was not British, as I assumed, but American, born in Beverly, Massachusetts, and educated at Harvard University. Oh, a few writers do merit his praise: he writes at length and for the most part approvingly on Washington Irvine, James Fenimore Cooper, and William Cullen Bryant (his first holy trinity), on Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (his second holy trinity), and—no surprise—Poe. But even here there are barbs: although the Irvine-Cooper-Bryant trinity rates one and a half of the 11 pages, Woodberry does slap down Irving for being a humorist and Cooper for being clumsy. Irving: “The excellence of his work lies rather in the treatment then the substance.” Cooper: “He wrote voluminously and with great unevenness. His literary defects, both of surface and construction, are patent.” (p. 834). And Woodberry goes out of his way to praise both Poe and Henry James for their un-American qualities: Poe for taking his cues from English writers (“He had no American origins, but only American conditions of life,” p. 836) and James for being a “cosmopolitan writer [who] has no other connexion with America than the accident of birth” (p. 840).

Most of the time, though, it is impossible for Woodberry to discuss any individual American writer, movement, period, tendency, or genre without putting it down. Often this is done subtly, as in the Irving example above; Woodberry is a master of damning with faint praise, backhanded compliments, litotes, and other forms of polite derision. A few examples (italics mine):

“The older clergy were not inferior in power or learning to the leaders of their own communion in England” (p. 831).

“The first books of true excellence were experiments; they seem almost accidents” (p. 833).

“American Romanticism and thus began with these three writers [Irving, Cooper, and Bryant], who gave it characterization after all by only a few simple traits” (p. 835).

Individually, these are not so bad, but in their relentless march down the page, they add up to an overall verdict of dismissal. And it is the women who fare worst. Early on, he writes of two now largely forgotten writers, “Fiction had been earlier attempted by Mrs. Susanna Haswell Rowson, whose Charlotte Temple (1790) is remembered, and contemporaneously by Mrs. Hannah Webster Foster in The Coquette (1797)” (p. 833; italics mine). “Attempted by” suggests a failed attempt, and “is remembered” is weak, signaling evasion of a judgment—remembered for what?—that could not have been good.

Some other examples (italics mine):

In the course of writing off much of the first half of the 19th century, which Woodberry terms a period of “sentimentality”, he mentions Lydia Sigourney as “a prolific writer” and Maria Gowan Brooks as “a more ambitious aspirant” (p. 835).

The novelist Catharine Maria Sedgwick is said to have written “the best current fiction which was not to be incorporated in literature” (p. 836).

The historian Sarah Margaret Fuller (whose life was cut short at the age of 40 when the ship she was traveling on sank off Fire Island) is given as “a woman of extraordinary qualities and much usefulness, who is best remembered by her Woman in the Nineteenth Century (1844), but contributed no permanent work to literature” (p. 838).

Lydia Maria Child is tagged as one of a “line of notable American women who served their generation in literary ways” (p. 838).

A small flood of women— Harriet Beecher Stowe, Sarah Orne Jewett, Mary Eleanor Wilkins, Mary Hallock Foote, Mary Noailles Murfree—are subsumed under this categorization: “The principal minor product of the novel lay in the provincial tale” (p. 840).

Julia Ward Howe is brought in as one of the 19th century’s “minor poets of less distinction” (p. 840).

My point here is not to champion these women as writers—there are many people much more versed in this material than I am who are doing the hard work of reassessment—but that the many male writers mentioned don’t draw anywhere near the same degree of head-patting even when Woodberry treats them as minor or peripheral figures. Woodberry has established a clear hierarchy here: among writers, women rank below men, and American men rank below the British (and Europeans more generally). America is criticized for having moved away from European culture while at the same failing to produce a literature from within itself. After all this, it comes as no surprise to read Woodberry’s cruel summary of the state of American literature ca. 1910: “The imaginative life is feeble, and when felt is crude; the poetic pulse is imperceptible” (p. 840).

Addendum: After I finished the first draft of this post and was looking further into the history of the 1910 edition—trying to get a grasp on why Woodberry, of all people, was chosen to write this entry—I stumbled on a very early critique of the 1910 Britannica by the writer Willard Huntington Wright, better known today as the author of the Philo Vance detective novels under the pseudonym S.S. Van Dyne. In 1917, Wright published the book Misinforming a Nation, a scathing 222-page dissection of the Britannica’s errors of prejudice, bias, omission, misstatement, misdirection, and misjudgment.  I recommend Wright’s book as an excellent introduction to thinking about what an encyclopedia should be, by way of what it should not be. A pertinent sample from Chapter 2:

“The importance of English writers is constantly exaggerated at the expense of foreign authors….in the majority of cases outside of England, criticism, when offered at all, is cool and circumscribed and not seldom adverse…. When we come to the American literary division of the Britannica however, prejudice and neglect reach their highest point. Never have I seen a better example of the contemptuous attitude of England toward American literature than the Encyclopædia’s treatment of the novelists of the United States” (pp. 24-51).

I’m cheered by the thought that it’s not just 100 years of hindsight that makes the 1910 Britannica entry on American literature so hair-raising; its defects were evident to at least some contemporary readers.


Note: All quotes are from volume 1 of the 11th edition of Encyclopedia Britannica.
Posted in 2013, latest | Also tagged , |

somewhere else

New York windowBack in December, I went to New York to visit my friend Beatriz da Costa. Walking from the Metropolitan Museum back downtown to my guest digs one evening, I passed this store window with its enormous, multi-monitor video display showing the waves breaking, live, on Huntington Beach, just a few miles south of where I live in the greater Los Angeles basin. It was that cool, enchanted December of New York, with Christmas lights netted over bushes and twining along the bare branches of every second tree. In drizzle and sparkle, a much-needed change from the unseasonable balminess of southern Calfornia. So it was odd to come suddenly upon what I had flown three thousand miles to leave behind, a through-the-looking-glass moment. But of course it made sense that our dreams should be reciprocal, I drawn to the magic city of the east even as its inhabitants longed for my mundane Pacific shore.


Posted in 2013, latest | Also tagged , , |

first anniversary

word cloud, genreated July 2011

second word cloud, July 2011

This blog is now a year old. When I started it last summer, I wasn’t sure I’d make it this far. But now that I have, I intend to keep going.

Early on, I wrote a post in which I offered a ‘word cloud’ generated from a bunch of old texts, with the idea of giving a visual impression of my general interests. The unstated implication was that it might also give an idea of what territory the blog could be expected to explore. That first word cloud  (shown below right) led off with ‘performance’ and roamed around through technology, role play, media, forgery, identity, narrative and a bunch of other subjects that were related, at least in my own mind.

word cloud 1

first word cloud, July 2010

I wrote then that I planned to generate a new word cloud after the blog had been up for a year, so I offer it here (above left), as promised. Like the first one, it was created by uploading a slew of texts—in this case, blog texts—to wordle.net, which presumably runs some kind of frequency alogorithm in order to generate the resulting image.

The differences are pretty obvious: much more of an emphasis on the working life of an artist (materials, book, camera, design, show…) and much less on performance and the net ( impersonation, improvisation, avatars, online…). I’m a little surprised that the word ‘technology’ has disappeared from the cloud, since I think I’ve talked about the technologies of art in quite a lot of my posts. Perhaps I’ve been focusing more on the specifics of technologies and less on technology as a general subject.

And I’m certain this word cloud reflects the blog’s general tendencies better than a snapshot of the most-used tags (below left). Useful though tags are, they are highly subject to my whims and assumptions. When I remember to use them at all (!), I tend to focus on two things: (1) terms that I think visitors might search for if they were trying to find ‘that post on X’, and (2) terms that might usefully help with Google page rankings. The operate phrase there is “I think” since I could easily be wrong on both counts.

blog tags, July 2011

blog tags, July 2011

The most puzzling aspect of the new cloud, of course, is the keyword ‘one’, crowned as pre-eminent by wordle’s algorithm. One what? Have I been using the third-person singular neutral pronoun more than I thought? Starting too many sentences off with “One day…”? (One sits scratching one’s head and wondering if one day it will all become clear.)

What I like most about the new cloud is this: that the three most prominent words, taken as a phrase (and overlooking the small matter of punctuation), amount to a concise statement of the blog’s central subject and reason for existing: one artist’s work. I’ll take that as a good sign for the second year.


Posted in 2011, latest | Also tagged , , |

The Saga of Chuck Beau de Liar

Saga of Chuck Beau de LiarSometime around 1980, a friend gave me a copy of Flann O’Brien‘s The Third Policeman and I was instantly hooked on one of the 20th century’s great manic minds (I later became even more enamored of At Swim-Two-Birds, which I wrote about as part of a longer article on the improvisational meta-fictions of the internet). Then an anthology, The Best of Myles, introduced me to his newspaper columns written under the pseudonym Myles na Gopaleen, among which I was especially amused by his punning anecdotes about the poets Keats and Chapman. No one has ever tortured a premise to more comic ends (and the takedowns of literary pretension are a bit of sweet icing).

I know that most sane people consider puns a terrible vice, but I’m pretty sure it’s genetic.  I come from a family of shameless punsters, so I won’t be held responsible for liking them.

One day that autumn I was hiking in the Sierra Nevada with a group of artists and I had wandered off by myself for a bit. On the spur of the moment, I decided to pay homage to O’Brien with a storylet about one Chuck Beau de Liar and his pal Marcel Proust. I had been sitting on a redwood stump staring at another stump, and it occurred to me that it would entirely appropriate to the whim to inscribe my anecdote right there, on a substrate of not-yet-paper where it would have a half-life of maybe a month (if no rain). It turned out that all I had with me was a red ballpoint pen, so that is what I used to write my story into the tree stumps, fanwise, using the the tree rings as guides. On the first tree stump:

Continuing the Saga of Chuck Beau de Liar

(Well, that was a lie, since I wasn’t continuing anything, unless you are willing to count ‘continuing’ as a synonym for ‘beginning’.)

Calling one day at the digs of his friend Marcel Proust, Chuck found the happy-go-lucky author still in his pj’s. “Get dressed,” he said. “We’re going for a ride.” “What’s up?” queried Marcel as he wrestled with a recalcitrant toothpaste tube. Helping himself to a cold fried egg, Chuck explained that there had been rumors of a UFO sighting some miles outside of Paris, & they were going to investigate. Soon the hare-brained duo were on their way. Arriving in the vicinity of the sighting, they found the locals unwilling to talk to city folks, so they struck out on their own. Suddenly Marcel cried, “Yow! What’s that?”

At this distance of time, I make no apologies for the outright silliness of this impromptu pastiche, but I do appreciate that despite lack of either forethought or editing—not many editors hang out their shingles in the redwood groves of the Sierra Nevada unless they’re moonlighting as Bigfoot—I managed to work a cliffhanger into my dendritic graffiti. And now for the thrilling conclusion, on stump two:

Skidding to a halt, they silently surveyed the scene at hand. Caught in the lower branches of a sugar pine and twisting violently in the fresh morning breeze was a full-length mink cape. “This must be it,” said the sage Marcel. “Be enuf to scare the dickens (Charles) out of me on a moonlit night.” Nodding his basketball-shaped head, Chuck spun the wheel on his Bugatti and they whizzed back the way they had come. Within a mile or so they were hailed by a group of the locals somewhat surprised to see them alive. “What did you see?” they inquired. “Oh, nothing much,” responded the affable Marcel. “You probably wouldn’t want to go down there yourselves,” added the courteous Chuck. “It’s a fur piece down the road.” And they roared off towards Paris for a mid-morning rendezvous with absinthe.
The End.

Saga of Chuck Beau de LiarI recently came across the two documentary photos I took of the Continuing Saga (which in fact ended as it began that same day, for a series total of one item). They reminded me that what captivated me at the time was not the text itself but the idea of writing for an unknown and unlikely audience and publishing in an absurd format. It was both a mild protest at prescribed forms and a celebration of the ad hoc. I was then in the midst of sidewindering from broken writer to unassembled artist (batteries not included), and what I had at my disposal that day was a red pen, O’Brien on the brain, and a superabundance of ligneous substances.

And a camera: the photos were an afterthought. I’m not sorry I have them; when I remember that afternoon, I see in my mind’s eye that patch of woods as from a distance—a hushed unpeopled scene in true Romantic form—but with those two truncated trees squatting side by side, primed to snag any passerby. But the photos—inadequate as they are—reground the experience in actuality: the way the ballpoint pen created an intaglio in the soft wood of the tree stumps; the idiosyncratic red-green-brown-gray of lightly weathered redwood; the musty-sharp smell of decay; the puniness of my intervention in the life of the forest. And in the photos I see also the germ of a larger project to turn a clear-cut acre or two of such stumps into a set of in-situ woodblocks for an enormous print. It’s one of the many ideas I know I’ll never get around to… but someone else might.

Posted in 2011, latest | Also tagged , |

best blog EVER!

blog adviceI chose this headline because it was the most blatant one I could think of that captured what seems to be a current zeitgeist of the blogosphere. As I’ve been setting up this blog, I’ve poked around a good deal for technical advice on various topics, and I keep stumbling over lists of what you have to do to be a ‘successful’ blogger these days. Mostly these seem to be written by people who used to work in advertising or PR, as their  consensus regarding indispensable elements includes all of these:

  • have a well-defined topic and stick to it
  • be friendly and personable
  • write zippy prose and catchy headers
  • be ultra positive or insanely negative, nothing in between
  • relentlessly promote your blog on other sites

I can’t tell you how insulting I find this kind of advice, both as a writer and as a reader. Here are some people who’d never have been able to start a blog under this regime if they’d been alive today: Franz Kafka, Emily Dickinson, Marcel Duchamp, James Joyce, Flannery O’Connor, Jonathan Swift… oh why bother? this list could go on forever. The people I enjoy reading write about all kinds of things and are neither friendly nor zippy in their approach to the experience of language.

Correction; I did just find Kafka’s new blog, iloveamerika, with this current entry:

“As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect. If this has happened to you, too, don’t panic! Remember, there are others just like you who have found ways to cope. You can take charge of your life with the following simple steps:

  • Switch to an insect-friendly diet that features meat, like the Atkins diet. (You’ll need to get used to leaving the meat out for a day or two before eating it.)
  • Join the campaign for a cure by contributing to the National Insectoid Society.
  • Find a support group in your area by calling 1-800-GIGANTIC. Family members can get help and advice at 1-800-KINSECT.

Your life will likely be short, so don’t let worry about being squashed stop you from enjoying it to the hilt. Remember, you are not a pest, you are not vermin. Most of all, you are not your disease. You are an alternately enabled life form and deserve as much respect and love as everyone else.”

Perhaps I should have titled this post worst blog EVER!

But I can see that I may need that header sometime in the future.

Posted in 2010, latest | Also tagged , |


txtI recently came across a form of Japanese poetry known as renga or renku. It has developed over the centuries into a number of specialized subforms and spinoffs (one of which is haiku), and some of these have begun catching on in the U.S. in the last couple of decades. But the main forms of renga all share a few key characteristics: they are made up of alternating 2- and 3-line stanzas with a specified number of syllables or beats per line; they are written collaboratively by a group of authors; and they are written to a predetermined length within a given time (usually a few hours). They may have a set theme, and the most traditional forms include a large number of conventions about the deployment of certain subject matter, such as words referring directly or obliquely to the seasons.

But their true distinctiveness, in my opinion, springs from a rule of thumb known as ‘link and shift’ that provides the guiding impulse of movement from one stanza to the next. As the phrase suggests, each stanza should link back semantically or syntactically to the preceding stanza, but at the same time should shift the subject, voice, setting, action, and/or mood as radically as possible. For example, here are a pair of stanzas from a 2005 renga entitled “On the Road to Basra“:

rumors of a heat wave
in the Sea of Serenity

someone explains
the difference between friendly
and unfriendly fire.

One link between the stanzas is the concept pair heat/fire; another is the antonymic pair serenity/war. The shifts include changes of subject, implied person, and tone.

What principally struck me about renga is how much they have in common, formally, with the online textual improvisations I generated with my performance group the Plaintext Players, starting back in 1994. Our texts were also created collaboratively—improvised on the spot—and they were grounded in a set topic. They also followed a link-and-shift structure, although this operated somewhat differently from renga. In the online environments where we worked, the linking sprang mostly from the collaborators’ shared aesthetic of responsiveness to each others’ thoughts, while the abrupt shifts were often accidental, resulting as much from the overlapping nature of online chat as from any desire to change the subject. In both cases, the text owes a great deal to the way a gamelike structure (rules, a challenge, a goal) will set loose the impulse to group play.

Here, for example, are a few lines from one of our online improvisations. Originally entitled “Babbalog” (from The Roman Forum Project 2003), it’s been slightly edited to accommodate the renga format:

“Columbia Lost!”
“Last Message from Shuttle:
Roger, and Then Silence.”

I wanted to be an astronaut.
There were bits on ebay within hours.

We think we can fight a war without casualties.
No one wants to talk about the economy
when they can talk about war instead.

We are all waiting.
Waiting to live through this.

One evident difference is that there is much more repetition in the online improvisations than I’ve seen in the handful of renga I’ve read. That undoubtedly has a good deal to do with the frenetic speed of our improvisations, as compared to the more deliberate pace at which renga are composed. Another difference is that whereas renga are created by authors writing poems, the Plaintext Players texts result from performers enacting roles. But it’s not these kinds of details that really interest me here—it’s the fact that in the same period of time (the last decade or so) an impulse to collaborative, ad hoc textual improvisation surfaced as two different practices in two different circles of American culture. What is the lack being answered in such varying ways, by one set of people sitting in a circle writing poems on paper, and another set of people sitting at far-flung terminals role-playing in cyberspace?

Note: For more about renga, check out the articles on this site (which has a particularly clear article on the history of renga) and this one.


Posted in 2010, latest | Also tagged , , , , , , |