Monthly Archives: February 2011


I’ve decided to start working on a little zine collection, just of all the writing I’ve done in my writing class for the past year. I just want it to be a fun collection for my own personal memories that I will give to friends. Plus, it will FINALLY give me an excuse to go to the IPRC!

So I’ve been going through notebooks and picking stuff I like–not always, like, the most polished stuff, i.e. the stuff I would most be interested in seeing published somewhere else some day. (Keep in mind all the works from my writing class are written in a free-write style, so trust me, as-is means it is about as unpolished as it gets!) Instead I’m picking stuff that feels important to me, or pieces that people enjoyed when I read them aloud. It feels like a good little project, good for my soul. It is also good flipping through all the little fragments and feeling good about how a lot of them will never go anywhere, maybe. Florence on a hiking trek in South America, discovering her boyfriend’s marriage certificate (to another woman) crumpled and stained at the bottom of his hiking bag. The Indonesian basketball player (now that was a plot that never went anywhere). All those weird, crazy 1-page alien or apocalyptic fables I wrote in January.

I feel like I’m really good at creating characters, and scenarios, and dialogue, but it is really difficult for me to execute plot. I know, right? Plot’s supposed to be easy? A to B to C? The Hero’s Journey? I remember my English teacher, bless her, drawing the concept of plot in the whiteboard as it relates to Macbeth: it reminded me of a roller coaster, all those sharp rises and abrupt descents. More depressing was my Popular Culture class one summer at Nerd Camp, in which I read a paper about movie plots that stated that all plots are the same, and that it is impossible to say or to create anything new (talk about an intense message to throw at a 12-year-old aspiring novelist!). “What does your character want,” I remember my professors asking me, again and again, but to me it always sounded like, What do you want them to want? And then my answer was always, “I don’t know, I’m not sure, I thought that was why I was in this class, so that I could, like, learn how to answer those questions?” And then, like the narrator in the wonderful “How to Be A Writer” story by Lorrie Moore, my characters would get into gory automobile accidents on the M-19 and the incest issue between the mother and son (reminiscent of Addie Bundren and Jewel from Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, of course!) would never be resolved.

I guess for now I am content to leave these plotless, unfinished scraps sheltered between the pages of my notebook. It is heartening to flip through the pages, read a piece, think, “Man, this one really didn’t come out as I envisioned,” flip some more, and then find one that really bangs me in the head. It’s a good feeling. It’s like you have to write a lot of quirky weird B-sides before you can get to the somewhat good song that could maybe fit well on an album. “Daisy Dead Petals” has its place of honor on the setlist among bigger hits and classics such as “Spark,” after all.

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Today D’Angelo asked me for a bearhug. “Bearhug!” is what he said, raising his arms up, waiting patiently while I struggled to put the rest of the Lego blocks and battered board games away in the closet. His mother was close by, combing through the damp smelling piles of sweatshirts in the Lost and Found metal shopping cart.

Finally I turned to face him and raised my arms up like an enemy surrendering. “Killer Bear Hug!” he said, smooshing his face into my chest, even though he’s only in 3rd grade.

Tall skinny D’Angelo, that’s D-apostrophe-Angelo, in his hot pink pants that his sister Caroline sometimes wears, as well as that crazy colorful sweatshirt of his, covered in anime cartoon characters that all the other kids covet desperately. “Can I have a turn wearing it? Please?” they ask, their skinny fingers extending pleadingly towards it.

He’ll leave it in a lump on the kickball court or the basketball pole with the peeling paint without a second’s thought. Once from I distance I saw it there, crumpled up on the blacktop, and I thought it was a kid, collapsed, hunched face –down on the ground.

D’Angelo and Caroline, brother and sister, Jade their half-sister (her dad needs to have their aunt present every time he visits because of the court order), and their kindergarten-aged cousin Constantinople, who looks Alaskan-Cambodian, running around in his red plastic fireman’s rainjacket.

All four of them live in their aunt’s house across the street from the school. I park my car in the gap between the tree out front and their blue plastic recycling bins.

We played hide and seek for an hour yesterday, running and racing and shrieking to make it back to homebase (the soccer goal post) before we were tagged out. Looking for them in the concrete savannah, in the hollow tubes of the slides, behind building corners, in the brick doorframes, always that little flicker of fear in my chest, that maybe this time it would really be it; this time, I would have really lost them, lost them all.

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Poetry Slam

On Sunday night I went to a poetry slam at the local hip coffee show downtown, the Backspace. I believe it was my first ever poetry slam, unless I attended one in college that has completely escaped my memory. It was definitely not my first time at the Backspace, though: the first time I went there with a friend and the guy she was dating at the time, who had a tattooed face and believed (yes, genuinely believed) himself to be an alien. It was a very Portland experience, to say the least. 

Sunday night also felt like the quintessential Portland experience. No wonder there’s a TV show documenting this kind of culture and dress and attitude. I always miss it when I’m gone: the alternative hairstyles, the black-framed glasses, the secondhand T-shirts that are so soft from having been washed so may times.

It’s fun to do things for the first time, though. I enjoyed the poetry very much. The Amherst Writer’s and Artist’s Method made me feel weird about the whole “voting” for the better poem (an awkwardness that to his credit the MC acknowledged), but it’s a slam, so I guess having a winner is point. I liked the guy with the vaguely British-sounding accent, whose last poem ended with the line “Sometimes I wish my face was your bicycle seat.” I also liked the very first guy, whose poem was about streets and asphalt, comparing them to warm-blooded creatures, and called street lamps “gargoyles.”

I liked the MC's Valentine's Day T-shirt.

The poetry slam made me think about poetry as a combination of both literature and performance. When a particular piece was well-received by the audience, it wasn’t just about how well-written the work was, it was also very important how well read and performed it was. Some people recited theirs by memory, but this didn’t seem to be the defining quality of what made the performance exceptional or not, as the two finalists (the British guy and a girl who made me think of an Anime character, with a super cute haircut and black-framed glasses) both read theirs, from either long thin white slips of paper or a red hardcover journal respectively.

It was this “performance” aspect of it that made me feel nervous about the potential scenario of me ever reading work in public. I still think of myself as a relatively shy person (despite having two jobs that involve speaking in front of large groups of people a lot of the time!), have definitely never participated in theater. I don’t know. I definitely like the idea of SHARING pieces.

The appreciative audience

I haven’t been to that many performances in my lifetime. When I think about truly exceptional performers I have seen, the first person who comes to mind is Tori Amos. That woman really knows how to put on a show for her fans, which makes sense—she’s been performing since she was 9, for goodness’ sake! She has all these little moments: flipping the bird during “Father Lucifer,” the crotch grab in “Precious Things,” the piano slapping in “Take to the Sky” that fans like me come to both expect and look forward to. She is truly a seasoned and well-honed professional performer in every sense of the word.

Apart from the poetry slam things have been pretty fine. I am very tired right now. On Sunday night I was up until 2AM re-reading Kazuo Ishiguro’s truly excellent novel Never Let Me Go, and I still haven’t been able to catch up on my sleep. It was totally worth it, though. What a great book. I definitely appreciated it a lot more this time around than when I first read it, back in 2005. I was very moved by how poetry and painting was used by the teachers as the way to prove that the cloned students had “souls.” It made me think of that ineffable, inexplicable quality of art, and how it is often discussed in the context of being “good” for us, in the sense of it being good for our souls, as somehow being something that proves we are “human” (whatever THAT means!).

I was so moved by the image of the plastic bag caught in the barbed wire at the end, I very nearly cried. I kept re-reading that passage over and over again. There’s just something so sad about how that image is connected to what one of the other characters said earlier, about how they’re modeled “on trash,” cloned from the dregs of society. There was also something just so eerily prophetic about the headmistress’s comment, about how the image she gets from the song “Never Let me Go” is of a little girl facing the new world that was emerging, an efficient but cruel world, and asking the old world not to let her go. It makes me think about technology and the rise of social media. Like my sister said in a recent conversation, ” i want to be like george orwell and go back to the time of the shire with little brooks and rivers.” But until then, I guess we have blogs to update, emails to answer. At least we have art and poetry. But like another one of the teacher characters says near the novel’s end, if the students had known 100% clearly from the very beginning their purpose in life (to provide organs and just die), none of them would have bothered with the painting or the writing, because “it would have seemed pointless.” But then this is refuted when the male character, Tommy, continues drawing his weird cartoon animals despite knowing that they’re not going to help him escape from his situation. So. I wonder what this book is ultimately saying about poetry and art and its relationship to the human soul. Is it hopeful? Defeatist? Resigned? Does writing poems and performing them at a poetry slam help us cope with all the brutal ugly things in life, or is it a petty distraction, an escapist illusion, a bougy fantasy?

This book was just tragic in general, but extremely bloody well-written.

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Books Read in January, a Recap

The Girl on the Fridge (Etgar Keret)

I enjoyed this book quite a bit. It was a good, fast, neat clean read. It reminded me a lot of Kafka; that is, a 21st-century Kafka who listens to MGMT and wears lots of bright colors. I like how only one of the stories in this collection are more than 4 pages long. My favorites are “The Real Winner of the Preliminary Games,” the title story, “Cheerful Colors,” “So Good,” “The Summer of ’76”. Some of the stories are a little cutesy (“The Night the Buses Died,” “Monkey Say, Monkey Do”) and read a little too much like they sprouted from a “What-If” exercise in a writing workshop, but overall none of them were annoying. Other stories are disturbing (“Vacuum Seal”), some are just plain WTF weird (“Not Human Beings,” which totally explodes in the last page into hardcore social commentary on Israelis-Arab relations ). I never got the feeling like Keret was trying to show off how clever he is, even at his most experimental (“Alternative,” “Cramps”). Overall these stories remind me of the 2-4 page summaries I write in my journal sometimes when I’m trying to remember what I dreamed last night, due to that trippy, surreal, brief quality. My Abandonment (Peter Rock)

Liked this one too, a good solid read. Attacked it in one sitting, one rainy afternoon. Written by a former creative writing professor of mine. It was pretty fun reading a book in which I recognized the majority of the settings–Forest Park, Goose Hollow, downtown Portland. Reminded me of “Into the Wild”. Google-fu in search of the original Oregonian articles describing the true-life story on which this novel is based instead led me to this interesting interview that definitely made me rethink of a couple of things I thought about the book, especially conceiving it as a YA novel. I also liked his comments about writing, especially about the “practice” novels. This interview also made me curious to read more in the Pete Rock canon, since apparently there is overlap with characters in different novels. How very Onettian! Super Sad True Love Story (Gary Shteyngart)

I liked this book. Reminded me of Kurt Vonnegut. Didn’t find the love story totally credible though, and Eunice (the main female character) never felt as fully developed to me as Lenny (the main male character). Even though I understand the purpose of her character and personality, she still rankled me a little bit, kind of like the brother’s slave-like girlfriend in Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom. Still, can’t complain too much. The book reminded me of Jennifer Egan’s Goon Squad lots of commentary on the overuse of technology here. Twit, twit, twittering away. I liked how the characters were obsessed with using their “apparati” (what a great word) and ranking their own and others’ “fuckability” scales. Totally credible. My mom loved reading the summary inside the bookjacket; she laughed aloud with glee as she read the sentences about the Chinese creditors seizing America. I definitely thought the ending of this book would be a lot more apocalyptic than it actually was. Still, this is a book that seeks to both entertain and to provide relevant social commentary, a satire in the best sense of the term. So yeah, like I said before, can’t complain too much. I looked forward to reading this every time I picked it up, which also says a lot. I was definitely upset when I misplaced it for two weeks (especially since it’s my sister’s Xmas present copy!!), and thrilled when I found it again (in my backpack–who’d have thought, especially when I’d emptied it and shaken everything out various times?) Wittgenstein’s Mistress (David Markson)

This is the kind of book where I enjoyed its ideas more than the actual act of reading it. In fact, the more days that pass after having finished this book, the more I like it, even though I really didn’t enjoy the physical act of reading it too much. Snuggled under blankets in the guest bed of my grandmother’s house, I had to force myself to turn off The Dark Knight or Cupcake Wars so that I could tackle another 20-40 pages of declarative sentences about Homer and German philosophers. The idea of “enjoying” is a funny one, especially when used in reference to avant-garde, experimental fiction. Can you “enjoy” Beckett, or do you just appreciate the experience? I know for a fact that I enjoyed DFW’s “Girl With Curious Hair” (and DFW was apparently a HUGE fan of Markson!) so I guess I’m not a completely hopeless case…!

I definitely feel like I don’t know enough about Wittgenstein to fullyappreciate this novel. I do love that quote of his that was used throughout Respiracion articificial: “What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence.” So I guess one of the big themes in this book is Language, and How Do We Use It, and How Is It Possible to Communicate. This question of communication is made especially complicated in the novel, considering that the narrator is the only person left in the world. As far as this genre of girl-left-alone-in-post-apocalyptic-world goes, Z for Zachariah still takes the cake for me, but this book is really not trying to be a post-apocalyptic novel at all. Instead it’s interested in exploring big ideas about Language, which here seem to be very deeply related to culture. Basically all that Kate (the main narrator) seems capable of talking about anymore is about Books, and Art, and Philosophers. Her son and lovers are briefly mentioned, but forget about knowing exactly what happened to them. Or what was going on when she was “mad,” as she calls it. Is she still mad? Is that what this whole book is supposed to reprent, the stream of consciousness ramblings of a madwoman?

……………. this book really should have its own post, maybe. Let me just say that I really love the first sentence, and have found myself repeating it to the myself, under my breath, during unexpected moments throughout my day: “In the beginning, sometimes I left messages in the street.” I don’t know, this whole novel feels like a sort of message in the street for me. A message in the sand. Maybe that’s all that culture and art is, messages in the sand that will eventually be swept away. Oh, my. A Heart So White (Javier Marias)

My first Javier Marias book, a Spanish author oh so critically accalimed in the literary blogging sphere. I sure wish I had read this in Spanish, but I’m so lazy about going to my alma mater’s library (the easiest and most convenient place for me to get books in Spanish, since the Multnomah County library’s system is pretty lacking). Wow, I liked this book a lot. It was pretty intense. It had lots of great underlying themes and motifs. I loved how the narrator and his wife were translators for a living. “Translators”–there’s just so much you can do with that, as a metaphor. Translators as interpreters, as manipulators of language, as filters, etc. The first chapter, describing a suicide (the central mystery around which the book rotates), is one of the most captivating openings I’ve ever read. I really like Javier Maria’s structuring of the book: every chapter doesn’t seem like it would be connected to the one that came before, but believe me, they are. An anecdote about listening to a couple’s fight through the thin hotel walls in Cuba is connected to a crippled woman’s search for love via personal ads in New York. It felt very honest and true to life for me. I also really liked how Marias never really tried to judge, explain or analyze any of his characters. It feels like a very “classic novel” stance, in the sense that the novel is purely there to Depict and Observe, not to Moralize or Prosethylize. Marias and the wonderful Umberto Eco have a very interesting conversation discussing this conception of the novel as something that must deliver a “message” in this interesting interview. I am definitely going to read more of Marias in the future. Maybe that way I will get through writing a review without accidentally writing his name every single time as “Javier Bardem” (another top-ranked favorite Spanish man of mine!).


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