Tuesday, March 2, 2010

A literary conversation with Sei Shonagon

The first time I dipped into The Pillow Book, written by eleventh-century Japanese courtier Sei Shonagon, I was amazed at the freshness of her writing and social commentary, still razor sharp 10 centuries later.

Sei's voice reminded me of my own aunts, particularly one who I used to call Aunt Beautiful, in its cattiness and sharp wit. And her constant poetic lists were both fresh and beautiful. In the fragment, "Things that Give one a Clean Feeling," she lists:

"An earthen cup. A new metal bowl.
A rush mat.
The play of the light on water as it pours into a vessel.
A new wooden chest."

The delicacy of her observations and her obsession with the layers of silk robes each courtier wore also hold a depth of feeling embedded in the courtly and high-stakes game of love, played out in a background of symbolic branches, poems and gifts. In the fragment "On the Day after a Fierce Autumn Wind" she writes:

"On the day after a fierce autumn wind, everything moves one more deeply. The garden is in a pitiful state with all the bamboo and lattice fence knocked over and lying next to each other on the ground. It is bad enough if the branches of one of the great trees have been broken by the wind; but it is really painful surprise to find that the tree itself has fallen down and is now lying flat over the bush-clover and the valerians. "

After falling in love with The Pillow Book, I read through several histories of the Heian court, hoping to find echoes of her voice in other writers. But the literary trail went dead. No one I knew had read Sei Shonagon, nor loved her writing as deeply as I did. That is, until I discovered Sarah Micklem's Firethorn fantasy series.

The series follows a dreamer, Firethorn, in an alternative world that suggests the British Isles and France in the early part of the Middle Ages. While the plot of the novel has Firethorn leaving her small village and following a knight to war, the first two books are poetically stitched together by a series of "true dreams" where Firethorn gains access to knowledge of her past, as a war orphan, to the mythic understanding of shadows and seeing, and to a depth of herbal knowledge that allows her to find a role in a traveling war party.

The first novel draws primarily on Celtic myth and African American herbal knowledge, suggesting books like Ntozake Shange's Sassafrass, Cypress & Indigo in their connection to pre-literate knowledge of land and healing. In the second book of the series, Wildfire, Firethorn journeys to a land where the wealthy are consumed with elaborate banquets and political rivalries and Firethorn is taken under the wing of a courtesan, Aghazal, who attempts to educate her in the literary and erotic arts of their profession.

This section is one of the most pure literary conversations I've ever encountered with the spirit of Sei Shonagon. Micklem plays with the Heian court's obsession with lists -- everything is catalogued including types of hopeless love, reasons for duels and erotic positions -- bodily purity, poetic contests, and sensation -- banquets begin with a course based purely on smell and only later move to taste. She also creates, in Aghazal, a character who is both earthy and intelligent, independent, sharp-witted and loving, capturing the community of women Aghazal supports with her earnings, as well as her own obsession with "Lightning Love," even as she works as a geisha.

Wildfire is literary homage in its best form -- clever and evocative, a conversation across centuries that evokes Sei's keen intelligence in new form.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

St. Paul slams hard

It's a truism among reporters that journalism is the first draft of history. But it's not always the most vivid one. In fact, as all reporters know, often the best stories stay in your notebook.

I went to the first poetry slam of the season at the Artists' Quarter and saw two seriously talented poets -- Sierra DeMulder and Khary Jackson -- who had just gotten back from winning nationals with the 2009 St. Paul team. I'd seen a clip of Khary Jackson performing his "Jimi Christ" poem, which I still think is one of his best pieces. The clip starts with a song intro by Jasper Lepack, who describes Jackson as a "hip-hop mystic/clever cynic/with voice and rhythm," the pithiest description I've heard of him:

Then Sierra DeMulder got up and performed the poem "Apocalypse" and followed it up with the even more stunning "Static," a piece about the Columbine Massacre from the point of view of the shooters:

And my poetry circuits were blown out. Later I wrote this first draft of my own poetic history: "Sierra DeMulder standing short before the mic with a Tiny-Fey-does-Sarah-Palin lisp. Words explode out of her like hammers tender and powerful, like land mines, like poetic destruction, the body parts in the wake of her apocalyptic vision are tenderness, are myth-making, are monsters contained, she is grappling with her deepest fears, harnessing tornadoes, wrestling them down to earth with nasal punctuation of her verse and when she steps off the stage there is a cone of stunned emotion and the room erupts. These are not expected poems. Not easy poems. Precise from beginning to end, she hits the room like a smart bomb, like a bunker buster drilling down, taking sharp right angles/honing in on the soul."

And later still, I interviewed Khary and Sierra for the Pioneer Press. The final story published in the paper had only a hint of the poetry that inspired it in this brief exchange:

Q: How have you influenced each other as teammates?

Sierra: I won't go into theatrics — everyone knows his stage presence is unbeatable. Khary has an amazing way to crescendo his poems and drop it to the most soft and intimate voice, and we're still with him 100 percent. Not everyone can hold an audience by speaking softly. That is something I'm totally trying to acquire.

Khary: Sierra makes me feel less alone in terms of being a dark poet. To go there and do it well.

Sierra: And to not exploit things.

Khary: I really love her literary approach to slam. That is a reinforcer for me to feel comfortable that even though this particular poem might be poet-y or literary, it won't go over people's heads. Like, when she was first telling us this idea about a poem from the point of view of Jeffrey Dahmer's mother.

Sierra: You all laughed at me!

Khary: She made it work.

Both of them will be slamming all year at the Artists' Quarter and Kieran's Pub. And, this coming August, the 2010 nationals are coming to St. Paul -- bringing 400 of the country's top slam poets along with it.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Rereading, reinventing: Michael Chabon and Maxine Hong Kingston

A stray comment by the teacher of my pedagogy class nudged me to pick up Maxine Hong Kingston's "Woman Warrior" for the first time since my undergrad days. Back then, I found the book baffling and nonlinear. This time, I was immediately struck by the ferociousness of the narrative, from the very first story of a woman who throws herself down a well after becoming pregnant out of wedlock.

These are not easy stories to tell, or easy to hear. Kingston is excavating a painful legacy. I picked up the book to reread the story of Fa Mulan, the woman warrior, the kind of hero I sought in my own foundational texts (ironically, I read today in an interview that two of Kingston's own favorites are Walt Whitman's poetry and Virginia Woolf's "Orlando"). But the deeper I reread into the narrative, the more I'm drawn by the narrative of ghosts, the conversation between past and present, the contained explosion Kingston gets in the text from the ferocious humor in stories about her mother. Like this encounter between her mother at medical school and a Sitting Ghost in a haunted dorm room:

"I do not give in," she said. "There is no pain you can inflict that I cannot endure. You're wrong if you think I'm afraid of you. You're not mystery to me. I've heard of you Sitting Ghosts before. Yes, people have lived to tell about you. You kill babies, you cowards. You have no power over a strong woman. You are no more dangerous than a nesting cat. My dog sits on my feet more heavily than you can. You think this is suffering? I can make my ears ring louder by taking aspirin. Are these all the tricks you have, Ghost? Sitting and ringing? That is nothing. A Broom Ghost can do better. You cannot even assume an interesting shape. Merely a boulder. A hairy butt boulder. ... Yes, when I get my oil, I will fry you for breakfast."

And I loved this quote, on the power of words: "The idioms for revenge are "report a crime" and "report to five families." The reporting of the vengeance--not the beheading, not the gutting, but the words."

Also this week, I heard this excellent interview on Fresh Air with author Michael Chabon. The whole hour is packed with chewy quotes about writing. But he would agree with Kingston on the need to dig into the painful parts of the soul:

"That's the stuff you make writing out of, whether you fictionalize it or whether you present it as nonfiction ... the stuff that you know for sure is working, is gonna connect, is going to make somebody want to keep reading, (is) the stuff that makes you feel uncomfortable in your writing. Always. The ultimate sign to me that I’m onto something is if I’m squirming a little bit and feeling uncomfortable. I feel like I’m verging on things that make me nervous."

On the role of fiction as an escape from the prison of the self, he quotes David Foster Wallace: "I guess a big part of serious fiction's purpose is to give the reader, who like all of us is marooned in their own skull, to give her imaginative access to other selves."


Friday, October 2, 2009

Sonnets to Ebonics

Finally got my hands on Alex Hinton's homohop documentary Pick Up the Mic. The performers are a mix, from in-your-face outrageous egos to serious poets. Two of the most wide-ranging interviews are with Juba Kalamka and Tim'm T. West of the now-defunct San Francisco hip-hop group DDC. Kalamka and West use socially progressive hip-hop, filtered through the gospel/Black Arts/ jazzoetry/blues/Langston Hughes tradition, to create a complex critique of race, queerness, masculinity and hip-hop.

The result is fantastic poetry and performance. A sample:

"I am
I am a blackman
I am a blackman you scared to clap for
I am a blackman who likes metaphor
I am a blackman who's antiwar
I am I
and the blackman that I am is quite sure
I am not pure
African fruits mixed with Cherokee juice
I am a black man with red clay roots
Arkansas I am
blackman speaking my I am truth
I am not trying to recruit
youth for nothing but revolution
solutions to overstand the I am
they be, unlike me
I am a man, and I am as unique
as you
I am the I who will stand for my truth
I am a blackman educating our youth
Sonnets to Ebonics
Othello in the East O
I am, the sum total of your hope
I am a blackman who sometime can't cope
with haters who hate on knowledge
I am a blackman who says go to college
ignorance should be abolished
but the greatest teacher is a preacher
whose mirror smiles and says to him ..."

Read the rest of the poem here. And see a video of the DD song "For Colored Boys," which brings together their musical and poetic style, here.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

The Second Person and Other Stories

You baffle me, Ali Smith.

Loved your first novel, "Like." I wasn't fazed at all by the parallel plots. It was clear, even in the beginning, that Ash and Amy would collide, that you were colluding to put these two particles in motion. That they had a future together. Fantastic. Literary. Satisfying.

But then, I blundered into "The Accidental." I floundered in the shallows of your experimentalism. Of your stream-of-consciousness internal dialogue. Of your nonplot. Of characters who did not speak to me.

Your short stories -- "The Whole Story and Other Stories," "Other Stories and Other Stories," "The First Person and Other Stories" -- were a refuge.

Experimental in name only, they are full of your playfulness. They are, across three collections, one story. A conversation between "I" and "you." Two women, in daily life with each other, testing the boundaries of their imagination. And their affection. Every time "you" returns, I know I'm in good hands. I know I'm getting another small piece of a twenty-year affair.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

How do I love Aaron Shurin?

Let me count the ways

1. His prose in "King of Shadows," tiny essays of jeweled perfection.

2. His seamless transitions of unrelated ideas: a visit to the ballet blossoming into a meditation on Turgenev's "The Singers."

3. An entire essay inspired by the word "abattoir."

4. His generous love of his adolescent self in the chapter "In the Bars of Heaven and Hell." The way he maps San Francisco in the late 1960s onto his teenage desire. The hidden terror and enormous suppressed joy as he takes the bus to a backroom college student gay bar. The way he's forced to hide his "shtetl hair" through an elaborate straightening regimen that is almost undone by the winds whipping through the city's financial district.

5. "The hair. I will tell you about the hair."

6. The way the chapter begins, random, staticky, invocation of the muse: "A series of false starts, holes, memory in junk mode, flashing signs that won't hold, missing letters: wet pain for wet paint, urn for turn, trance for entrance ... "

7. Nostalgia thick as reduced wine. Sadness, joy, wisdom and late foolishness.

8. "I could grow old in this hammock; I have grown old. I'm not who I meant to be, but not not."