Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Times, temperatures

I steal the title from the lovely Banno's blog. (Somewhere by an abandoned swimming pool, Andrew Scott screams, "That is what people DO, Sherlock!" Writers, maybe; poets, certainly.)

Times, temperatures. I want the days to slow down so they can last and last. You'd think I'd be mediating the whole experience, camera held to my face all the time, wouldn't you? But no. Instead, I sit on the bench by the river, notebook, book and a clutch of pens and stare at the sky and the water. People have been to the Draco Farm for a dose of repraried Mid-West but for me, this is all the rural I need.

Time to read (or, indeed, write) has to be wrested from the day. Our calendars arrive in our mailboxes and under our doors every Sunday and we lurch from meeting to reading to salon to screening. It's all good, but I've read one book since I arrived. Before I left, I was averaging one book every other day.

I have JJ: Some Jottings on interlibrary loan from Chicago. I feel like crowing at the possibility of this; the ability to request something from my room, walk over to pick it up, and all the while some complicated journey has brought this book that is now out of print in India, to me.

And the best part? I get to participate in this semi-academic life without any of the responsibilities that come with it. This is the addiction of residencies: the temporary leave of absence from adulthood, in order to create in as child-like a state as is commensurate with an independent life.

This is why it is completely unsurprising that at the same time as we sit on this same bench talking about whether we have hierarchical notions about what poetry is (the questions remain variations of what they have always been. It is the answers that shift like water), someone is arranging to have cars driven by ex-Writers Workshop writers, take us on a grocery run.

The bench now. It is like a book cover. No, that's not a gratuitous simile like the one in the previous paragraph. Wait. See for yourself.

So: JJ and Red Doc>. It makes for a strange switch of...temperatures? Emotional registers. I have introduced my friend Patricia, from Portugal (why is this still necessary to say? We seem to flaunt our global diversity as if it was its own kind of passport, though to what I'm not yet sure) to Carson. I'd like, equally, to introduce her - and others - to Su Raa, only that kind of transfer seems to happen with less ease.

Kofi Awoonor died in the Nairobi mall seige (what was it? Seige? Shootout? Attack?). I didn't know him or his poetry, but the IWP mentioned that he was at Iowa at some point. It seemed somewhat outrageous that as writers, we - some of us - had a sense of loss when Heaney died but felt nothing about the death of Awoonor. Any man's death diminishes me, but we keep defining 'man' and 'human' and 'woman' in such exclusive terms. At the fiction discussion yesterday (that I butted into, not uninvited, I hasten to add), this led to some minor kerfuffle of opinions.

I am struggling with two things: how to continue to interact outside my comfort zone of hanging out with people with whom I have a lot in common; and how to deal with the frustration of being surrounded by people who know nearly nothing about the writing from my part of the world without becoming an Ancient Mariner about it. (At the same time, I don't demand that other writers give me a synopsis of their literatures; and it's not as if I've read very much - if anything - from some of these countries. Maybe they feel a similar frustration at my apparent lack of curiosity.)

What this amounts to is a state of mind in which I feel off balance a lot of the time. Things appear to run along familiar lines of debate and discussion and then suddenly they don't. Then there's a lot of think about. Every writer's reading and introduction of themselves and their work in class has been a revelation. Who are all these talented people? How did I get to be put ina  hotel with them for 10 weeks?

This is why, when I feel off-balance - as I frequently do - I find myself on the bench. Bench time we call it. We is the smokers, though I don't smoke. But this is where they gather and I, like Clinton, don't inhale; but we sit, we talk, gossip. We're lizards in the mild sunshine. (Yes, km, I'm sorry. I said lizards. This is what happens when you don't answer your phone).

It's time for breakfast, followed by bench time. Later, I will have to gather myself enough in order to finish a paper I've been putting off for the last five days. Today. Absolutely, today. Because Sunday, we leave for New Orleans and I must create the vacuum that can contain those other stories.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Sometimes all it takes is a fragment

Sometimes all it takes is a fragment to lift your mood, your day, your thoughts out of the morass they've been buried in for the last few hours.

" I like people, no love people, who take looking and being looked at this seriously."

I don't even bother to read the rest of it, though everything Subashini writes must be read. (Yes, must. Directive. Il faut).


Writing is practice. I forget how often I need to remind myself. Begin, and the words move past sense to flow. They become well-exercised muscle, a desirable end in itself.

The writers at the IWP this year have, of their own accord, wanted to meet to discuss things, in larger or smaller groups, that interest them or occupy their thoughts. Monday was the first of what is somewhat cheeky-pretentiously called our Salon gatherings.

Shandana Minhas began with a kick-ass presentation about Pakistan. Mark Angeles spoke about samizdat poetry in the Philippines. Patricia Portella wanted to talk about Deleuze and ghost literature (the idea that our 'reality', such as it is, is a fiction in and of itself, constructed of several ghost-written narratives. Personally, I'm nost sure - being unversed in theory - what Deleuze had to do with it, but that's a deficiency in my own reading).

Me, I have spent the last three weeks being on a high of conversation with the writers. But I may have reached a point when I have to ask myself: who do I talk to and about what?

That is to say, do I at any point step out of my conversation comfort zone? Can I talk to people who are not like me, who don't already share certain views and ideas about literature in general and writing in particular?

I suspect not. This is not to say that I don't, or don't want to try. But it's hard. It's hard, even in such a small group, when conversations can take place in ones and twos, to comprehend what place any given writer occupies and what makes them write, and what common ground we share or how to arrive at an understanding of what we don't have in common.

It would take a lifetime.

Maybe this is why I sat with Subashini's words this morning after my coffee, in a room into which the cold is beginning to seep, and thought about what looking seriously at my fellow writers would mean. Not metaphorically, even.

Except in the first couple of days, when we'reactually looking at people and assessing them while trying not to be looked at, we don't look at anyone anymore, once we think we know who they are. Most of the time, when we say we know who people are, we mean we can put a face to a name.

I can't say I've looked at anyone recently. Not seriously. Complacence is superbly easy; unlike writing, it is never unexercised.

Monday, September 16, 2013

The Act of Killing

Watched Joshua Oppemheimer's film The Act of Killing last night. I'd recently read something about it before leaving for Iowa; something about how many people who made the film were identified in the titles as only Anonymous. And this is true.

Image from here

I still feel, as I often do after documentaties that cut deep, unable to write coherently about the film. So associative thoughts, rather than proper review, follows:


The film had to have been shot in a linear manner. There is a significant change in the main character(s) over the course of the film that is fundamentally Greek tragedy in its catharsis-seeking structure. There is unspeakable crime (what we'd call war crime, but which terminology one character refuses to acknowledge as applying to him. 'The winners write history,' he says. 'I am a winner. One day we will throw out the Geneva Convention and there will be a Jakarata Convention.'*

So war crimes. And when the filmmakers ask a few of those involved in the hunting down of and killing of communists back in the late 60's, two of the men, Anwar Congo among them, agree to re-enact some of the atrocities they committed. The go looking for actors: women, children. At first the people laugh, as does the audience. But this is massacre, rape, arson and garotting we're talking about. The laughter turns uncomfortable. We feel complicit.

Anwar and his friends are 'gangsters' which the film frequently glosses as meaning 'free men'. Their heroes are other filmic gangsters, heroes of the old Westerns, beacons of machismo. They watch films after selling tickets in black and then go and kill a few commies.

Anwar enacts the garottings. He dances, says he used to dance after. He watches himself in the scene that's just been filmed and remarks, 'I would never have worn white trousers to a killing. I look like I'm going to a picnic.'

As film buffs, Anwar and his friend declare that this film has to be entertaining, otherwise no one will watch. So there are these strange sequences that could have come straight out of a del Toro film or a Herzog. The girls in pink coming out of the mouth of a rusty fish by the seashore, the waterfall - they're pure Fitzcarraldo or Fata Morgana. I felt prescient thinking that, because I found later that Werner Herzog was indeed one of the producers of the film.

There were so many things that made me squirm, remember other films about genocide: Final Solution, Father, Son and Holy War. I thought of Resnais' Night and Fog and the impossibility - the undesirability, even - of re-enactment. I thought of the necessity of remembering while avoiding the pornography of consuming such horror.

But because the filmmakers (and here I credit more than the director, for reasons I will come to soon) chose both a classical approach while undercutting it with the bizarre, the film does not feel at any point like a gratuitous massaging of the conscience. There is remorse and horror at the end, and I briefly wondered if it was necessary. I think it was, it is. It is a genuine loss of self and recovery of conscience to which one possible reponse - I don't know what other there can be - is compassion.

As for the many, many anonymous people who participated in the making of this film - their courage is as remarkable as (I am afraid) it might be futile. The other paramilitary men, those who took part in the filming and then had doubts about how this will look and what it will say about them - they may not know the crew by name, but they know faces and they know how to find out about people and where they live and so on. I wonder what use their witholding of a name is and I wonder what they've had to do to remain under the radar.

Towards the end, after Congo puts himself int he position of the victim and is shattered by the experience, he asks to watch the scene in his home. 'I know what it feels like to be a victim,' he says. 'Did they feel what I felt?' Someone from behind the camera says, 'No. They knew they were being killed. You were just acting in a scene.'

These other filmmakers. The ones whose names stay boldly theirs in the end credits - they can leave. They can watch from elsewhere. They can appear at screenings in other countries. These anonymous people, though, must live where they always have. I wonder what that story is and how it will play out.

*These sentences are not continuous in the film, though they happen in the same scene. They're also slight paraphrases.

Sunday, September 15, 2013


This is a pleasant memory.

This is welcome reality.

It's raining. It's getting chilly.
(I am trying not to pepper this post with exclamation marks, though the heat of it will be welcome).

Hello, fall.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

View (Point of)

Exhausted. There aren't enough hours in the day, there isn't enough sleep in the night.

Yet I feel I'm learning more than I have in the last two years. As if I am being awakened and therefore I long for sleep, for the comfort and familiarity of it.

Defense mechanism. Or automatic knitting machine. It all depends on how you look on it*.

*I need to sleep on it before I can decide.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Pandrogyne: at the Warhol Museum

Veena said to go to the Warhol Museum while in Pittsburgh, so that was the first thing on my agenda the minute I had some free time.

We had the whole of Friday and Saturday morning (sort of) off, so Friday I went off to the Warhol Museum, with my host's museum card. I began, as recommended, on the 7th floor after I was issued statutory warnings about the disturbing nature of the content.

I'd been told the previous evening about Breyer P-orridge and about this current exhibit on at the Museum. I didn't know what to think; I might have already had a slight feeling of scornful queasiness. Surgeries, voluntary or otherwise can still give me heebie-jeebies.

But I went anyway because I'm intrepid like that. The first thing you see as you turn in is a screen with a film running. I waited for the loop to begin again and while I did, I read the basic stuff about Breyer P-Orridge: who they were and what their art was about. When The Pandrogyny Manifesto began again (you can see it in two parts here and here ) I watched it through and felt both moved and very disturbed. To make your entire body - not just the skin or the surface of it - your canvas, to reshape it and be your own creator-in-collaboration seemed like such an extreme expression of both art and love, that I didn't think I could watch any more.

But I went in anyway, and watched the images, the bricolage and the installations. I continued to be disturbed but I also felt stimulated and engaged and in a state of - what shall I call it - receptivity. The collaborations with Warhol's polaroids; the earlier work of Genesis when s/he was in Britain, the sigil to Derek Jarman who'd asked for help on the last film he was making before he died; all these expanded the subject of their art and gave a context to the work of two people who attempted to not just become one person, but to have a third always beside them who was both the sum of their parts and at the same time a new being.

The gods themselves.


All the same, I felt very antsy after the left the 7th floor. I walked dutifully down each floor, caught brief moments with some iconic Warhol stuff. In a room full of his films, I stood in a spot from where I could simultaneously catch Screen Test, Kiss, Blow Job and a film in which a man beats up another one in a bar while people just watch impassively and then the man goes away and another one picks him up as if he was a rag doll and just jerks him around a bit while a girl watches and smiles from screen right.


I'd had enough. I was about to leave but I needed the loo so on one floor I walked towards where I knew the loo should be. But it was the wrong floor and instead of the signs I was looking for, I saw a silver thing peeping out of a room. An attendant desultorily kicked it back into the room. Curious, I went to have a look.

It was called Silver Clouds. I watched it for a moment and the attendant watched me. Finally she said, 'You can go in if you want.'

So I went in. Helium filled balloon drifted around me and I stood right in the centre of the room, as still as I could. Pillow clouds nudged me along, attacked me half-heartedly, rubbed against my ankles like cats wanting to be scratched. One pillow stayed stuck up near the ceiling and I waiting for it to be dislodged like I'd wait for a lava lamp to begin its proper convectional journey from down to up and back again.

I thought about anthropomorphising gas-filled objects. I thought about what kind of morphism P-Orridge had embarked on and what the continuation of the project in light of the death of one of the partners meant for self-hood and otherness.

But mostly, I felt calm. I wanted to feel calm and I wondered why my steady state wants to be undisturbed, especially when the act of disturbing produced so many reflections I didn't have the necessary speed with which to process them.


Finally I visited the museum store and then left for rehearsal*.


*About which more later.

Saturday, September 07, 2013

All! Live! : Live from Pittsburgh, Live from Prarie Lights

Just returned from rehearsal with Oliver Lake, the other musicians and poets (for the Pittsburgh Jazz Poetry Concert tomorrow )and am noth buzzed and exhausted at the same time; anybody with a kid hopped up on sugar will know what I mean, only I'm better behaved than an eight year old, I promise.

This is my period of unrelived but welcome stress. I don't think I've run on adrenalin since...well, less happy times.

So tomorrow evening is the Jazz Poetry Concert (check the website linked above for a livestream at 7.45pm EST); then we leave early in the morning and arrive in Iowa City at around 2pm.

At 4pm, I read at Prarie Lights. This is also livestreamed, if you feel inclined to tune in.

Thing is, I am a nervous wreck. Sleep is a distant dream and I left my poems - both for here and for Prarie Lights - back in my room. I am more than usually scatty these days; what can I tell you?

For instance, I wish I could post photos from the rehearsal this evening, but I can't because I left my phone usb cable behind in Iowa and I didn't have my proper camera with me because I thought I'd be too busy.


*end girlish excitement*

She was amazing and if you want to know how amazing, catch the livestream tomorrow.

Anyway. Links done, photos not done, this is me saying good night and good luck.

(The Jazz Poetry event will be archived, as will the Prarie Lights reading. I think. So catch it whenever.)

Monday, September 02, 2013

Food is where the heart is

A week or so before I was to leave for Iowa, a lot of my mother's veteran families-in-the-US friends asked me if I was going to take pickles, podis and things. I laughed and said I'd be fine. In my head, I thought, I can adapt to the food; I don't need to have sambar and rasam and find the nearest temple for food from home.

I'm still not going to be looking for a temple any time soon, but one week in and it's become clear that all of us are suffering from some sort of food homesickness. We have a microwave, a mini fridge and a coffee maker in our room. For those who need tea, the coffee maker is useless and the microwave a travesty.

We bought an electric kettle and we have that in our common room for anyone to heat water for their tea.

But what to do about rice, about actual hot, cooked food? (Leave rotis out of the equation entirely. This is not going to happen.)

Before coming here, I checked out how to make rice in the microwave. I have never owned or used a microwave so it was always going to be a challenge. But for the last two days, I've been thinking of spices, of oil, of soaking the rice, cooking times.

Yesterday was a beautiful day. It was warm but with a cooling breeze and the promise of a sharper bite in the days to come. There were pretty, puffy clouds in the sky and a green river to sit by. I lay down on a bench and read, looked at the clouds and had a brief nap.

There was so much contentment in that: in not having to worry about who will look at me while I'm pretending the entire outdoors is my own private domain. There was so much freedom in the ability take that nap under the patchwork clouds and sun.

Later that afternoon, after the first Prarie Lights readings featuring IWP writers, I felt restless. The day had to have a different end than an indifferently consumed meal at a pub. We got talking about cooking and a few of us decided to pick up some supplies and head back to my room, where I had a menu shaping in my head: pulau, cucumber raita and salad.

It wasn't that hard. Not having a cutting board slowed things up a bit, but we did it. There was no nimbu for the salad but we squeezed tomatoes. Erez made a mean dessert with berries, mascarpone and dark chocolate.

Here is the evidence.

Pulau, Raita, Salad
All the sinfulness!
And here's the river and the sky.

Sunday, September 01, 2013

A matter of perspective

I had to be at Shambaugh House for a meeting. I had a few minutes before I needed to go up so I read poems, looked out the window and quite out of the blue, decided to sketch all the lines and squares I was seeing. I'm the world's worst artist, and there wasn't much time, but later it occurred to me that it would be fun to go back and take a photgraph from the exact same spot and see what the two images looked like together.

So here they are. 

Shambaugh House, from the 2nd floor landing. (Hasty) pen sketch.

Shambaugh House, from the 2nd floor landing.