Wednesday, March 31, 2010

In neither taste nor precision

Publishing friends, have you heard of this coinage? Muphry's Law states

(a) if you write anything criticizing editing or proofreading, there will be a fault of some kind in what you have written;
(b) if an author thanks you in a book for your editing or proofreading, there will be mistakes in the book;
(c) the stronger the sentiment expressed in (a) and (b), the greater the fault;
(d) any book devoted to editing or style will be internally inconsistent.

It goes on to say:

Muphry's Law also dictates that, if a mistake is as plain as the nose on your face, everyone can see it but you. Your readers will always notice errors in a title, in headings, in the first paragraph of anything, and in the top lines of a new page. These are the very places where authors, editors and proofreaders are most likely to make mistakes.

I make enough honest mistakes (my recent favorite-- claiming that I want a brewpup some day, and I do! but that's not what I meant at the time) to avoid making one ironically to end this post.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Tom do this. Tom do that. Tom, don't do that.

Are linguists the hipsters of language? (What do you think, the answer is no?)

This question arose from the following logic fun:

I'm going to write about descriptive vs prescriptive theories of language as a follow-up to a previous post.

This is a pet debate among linguists.

I hate linguists.

Linguists like things I like, such as thinking about language and culture.

Hipsters like things I like, such as records and thrift stores.

I hate hipsters.

Therefore... (I skipped a number of steps in this syllogism but I assure you they exist and cohere.)

The relationship of each to their art is... positional... as is their choice of art-- superiority to subject is essential, as is the ubiquity of the subject. Language and pop culture are natural choices with nearly everyone participant in each, allowing the lording of said superiority over the largest number of people possible. This superiority is demonstrated in the usual ways, the invention and proliferation of extremely complex and preferably ever-changing jargon, fierce and intractable Balkanization (poor Balkans! Don't worry, I love you!), and, it must be said, a wealth of accurate & detailed information.

Viola! You've just been shown that your love of language or music is unexamined and founded on sand, and moreover, your love of it leads you into political error, as it cannot be as easily discarded as interest and presumes advocacy of an actual thing! (radiohead, western shirts, subject-verb agreement) rather than your position to it.

For instance, I found that orthography rant on a blog run by linguists who proceeded to point out its obvious and intended inconsistencies and accuse it of loathsome Prescriptivism-- Oh, but first I should define the debate shouldn't I?

People who say you should use words rather than letters that happen to sound like words and use words that mean what you intend instead of words that mean something else are Prescriptivist. As are people belonging to subcultures that more or less knowingly defy these mainstream rulez, totally, like teen gurlz and ppl who are po' an stuff. :) Many of us playfully engage both.

People who say you cannot advocate any usage of language because it makes you racist and classist and ageist and besides you don't even know your ablative from your absolute social deixis from a hole in the ground are linguists.

Generally the insurgent category of Prescriptivists is used as a poniard against the first category but this is not, as they suggest, because Linguists are Friends to the Downtrodden, but actually because the powerless are not a threat to their authority, whereas the dictionary and style-guide people, old hand at authority, are. For instance, there are whole languages dying at this very moment and Linguistics doesn't really care. (Some linguists do, of course and hooray! for them) One language isn't really better than another language, and more languages aren't really better than fewer, so how can one get involved without being intellectually compromised?

Linguists seek to create a new, ultimate authority, one that undermines the fortresses of its enemies while offering no citadel of its own for attack. Linguistics does not build, does not create, does not rule. It merely sees and knows all.

Luckily this delegitimatizes the language of oppression!

But also the language of struggle.

So, um, who do you think wins this now silent battle?

I could rant for a very long time I am now realizing, so I will wrap this up with some good old fashioned name calling.

Dear (certain) Linguists,

You're not fooling anyone. You're not good enough at math to make it in Science (no, Linguistics is not a Science) and not word-gifted or human-loving enough to create anything useful or beautiful with language. You are bean counters but not so honest. Your basic inferiority, from laziness, inability, or cowardice, in genuine mental pursuits led you to participate in this mongrel study. You are opportunistic, disingenuous, and bullying. You are not dignified by your willingness to look down on everyone. Expression is craft. I, for one, wish I had been taught it better. But I also wish I wasn't taught this colonist tongue, but spoke instead a language rooted in my geography, genetic or accidental, Gaelic or Kaw, but you offer me nothing; you offer us nothing. You parse and squabble a pile of fingernail clippings as if it were the man.


All this comes down to something very simple. Well, two things. 1) I have been out of writing for a week or more and this is like priming the pump. Dirty water out! Clean water to come. 2) Fundamentalism is always annoying. Just as annoying the antagonist in the joke that ends "Can you tell me where the library is at, asshole?" as the mocking hipster who disdains all that is not fashion.

Take us home, Tom. Take us home.

Well I don't mind working
cause I used to be jerkin off
most of my time in the bars
I been a cabbie and a stock clerk
and a soda fountain jock jerk
and a manic mechanic on cars
It's nice work if you can get it
now who the hell said it
I got money to spend on my gal
but the work never stops
and I'll be busting my chops
working for Joe and Sal.

And I can't wait to get off work
and see my baby
she said she'd leave the porch lite
on for me
I'm disheveled I'm disdainful
and I'm distracted and it's painful
but this job sweeping up here is
is gainfully employing me tonight

Tom do this Tom do that
Tom, don't do that
count the cash, clean the oven
dump the trash oh your lovin
is a rare and a copasetic gift
and I'm a moonlight watchmanic
it's hard to be romantic
(sweeping up over by the
cigarette machine
sweeping up over by the cigarette machine...)

I can't wait to get off work
and see my baby
she'll be waiting up with a magazine for me
clean the bathrooms, clean um good
oh your lovin I wish you would
come down here and sweepameoffmyfeet
this broom'll have to be my baby
if I hurry, I just might
get off before the dawns early light.

The great and terrible infant

Happy Birthday, Large Hadron Collider!

Today the world's largest atom smasher came fully online and conducted its first high speed proton collision.

Some people say these experiments might cause black holes that could destroy earth. Most people say 'Sure, there might be black holes, but they'll be really wee and collapse before any damage is done.'

Me? I don't care. Either new discoveries are made in particle physics or Earth is the punchline of some cosmic joke. I think it's the best way to destroy the planet I have heard of so far.

Mazel tov!

front lines of the language war

It is sad that things have come this far. It's a humorous curse-laden multi-font letterpress-y rant against common (sigh) uncaring abuses of English.

Some people would say that this is not safe for work, but those people are cowards. Or they have jobs.

Friday, March 26, 2010

velvet knickerbockers

My mood has shifted somewhat, and some interesting things have happened.

Firstly, Olga has been offered (and has accepted) a wonderful summer internship in Trieste at the International Center for Theoretical Physics which I think is sexy as hell.

She'll be there for two months in the summer, and I plan to visit and travel with her to Venice, through Slovenia, etc when her tour of duty is up.

Just this afternoon, she also had an interview with The Stowers Institute, which is in Kansas City and would almost perfectly suit out plans to move back on excellent terms. They like her, but would like to see some freelance work from her before proceeding with a job offer. Naturally she's going to turn out a couple great articles for them and I think it is very likely that something great could come from it.

I also figured out some problematic formal questions concerning my most recent attempts at a prose poem and am excited by the direction it is heading. Much work needs done, however, and more discipline (took me three times to spell that right-- not a good sign) to live daily.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010


It's always a bad sign when a writer quotes a Persian mystic on the uselessness of language. A long silence is usually brooding to bear down.

I haven't been completely useless, but I have lost a certain spark. I've been researching Paul Morphy (Murphy, via Spain and her colonies) a strange New Orleans chess player born two centuries ago.

Research doesn't sit well with me, though I am happy about this project. In truth, I don't know what the great bother is.

I am largely happy with the progress of these prose poems. I am working on my novel again but that is not going well. Belief seems to have deserted me. So much of my life is (has been) geared towards an apprehension of what was wanted. And novels and poems are by definition unwanted. So that's part of it.

It is the first time I have been unemployed and in such money trouble. I can't gauge how much this bothers me endemically, as sometimes I feel like hanging myself and sometimes I feel as though this time is a great gift. But if it is a great gift, I must make the most of it and so frequently I know that I am not. Also the flatness of the tone of my life, resonance coming only from engagement with other people or familiar places, bothers me and I rarely have the energy to keep up with my dear friends as I should, even though every message or visit is like a star in my sky.

And then there is the persistent unreality of this life. My mind has always been prone to such speedy abstraction that it thereby distorts sensation-- and suddenly I am crushed by the weight and noise of the world around me, a room full of people suddenly overcrowded with each person's fears and desires and secrets, every conversation lambent in what should be pitch black noise, grain through the mill, every action impossible, and then when taken, farcical.

We're the punchline but not the joke.

False sounds, false smells, the touch of no one, memories not mine, litanies of despair that live like idols within me, and Time a tangle, events without agency or context, little by little an acquaintance with Evil-- tangible, agile, discreet.

Everything running to the finish. It is the final sprint. I guess I ran cross country so that I might recognize it better.

Which I hated. Torment is not its own reward. To endure is the curse of this life, not its highest aim. Our efforts must be twained with their infinite betters. We must barter our lives for that which will outlive us.

So that's how I'm doing-- stuck at an intersection waiting for the goddamned light to change, more than a little suspicious that I'm in the wrong lane and a few hours late.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

3 from Herbert


Mr Cogito
decided to return
to the stony lap
of his fatherland

the decision was dramatic
he will regret it greatly

he can however no longer
stand the colloquial turns
--comment allez-vous
--wei geht's
--how are you

questions apparently simple
require convoluted answers

Mr Cogito will rip off
bandages of kind indifference
he has lost all faith in progress
he cares about his own wound

displays of abundance
fill him with boredom

he grew fond only
of a Doric column
a church in San Clemente
a portrait of a certain lady
a book he never finished
and a few other little items

so he returns
he now sees
the border
a plowed field
murderous watchtowers
a thicket of barbed wire

without a whisper
a bulletproof door
closes slowly behind him

he is
in the treasure house
of all misfortune


so why does he return
he is asked by friends
from the better world

he might stay here
somehow settle in

entrust his wound
to the dry cleaner

leave it out in the lounge
of an enormous airport

so why does he return

--to childhood waters
--to his tangled roots
--to memory's embrace
--to the hand the face
burned on time's grate

questions apparently simple
require convoluted answers

perhaps Mr Cogito returns
to give an answer

to promptings of terror
to impossible happiness
to a blow out of the blue
to a treacherous question



Because you are a king and I'm only a prince
without a country
with a people who trust in me
I wander sleepless at night

And you are a king and look on me as a friend
worryingly--how long can you drag yourself
through the world

--A long time Yehuda To the very end

Even our gestures differ-- gestures of mercy
of scorn of understanding
--I want from you nothing but understanding

I fall asleep at a fire with my head on my hand
when night burns out dogs howl and guards go
to and fro in the mountains



The cold blue sky like a stone on which angels
sublime and quite unearthly sharpen their wings
moving on rungs of radiance on crags of shadow
they gradually sink into the imaginary heavens
but in a moment they emerge even paler
on the other side of the sky the other side of the eye
Don't say that it's not true that there are no angels
you immersed in the pool of your indolent body
you who see everything in the color of your eyes
and stand sated with the world-- at your lashes edge

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

after an evil night

This world hurts my head with its answers,
wine filling my hand, not my glass.
If I could wake completely, I would say without speaking
why I'm ashamed of using words.


Monday, March 1, 2010

sucking up to Nabokov

Hey Jeremy

Just thought I'd toss off a few reactions to the writing advice post from the Guardian. Like you, I don't take it too seriously, but that doesn't mean certain advices don't boggle or annoy or that I won't waste a couple hours thinking about them.

Such as: PD James beginning her exhortation to respect 'words' and the English Language with "Increase your word power." Jesus F-ing Christ. Bad writing IS contageous.

It occurs to me that the only interesting advice comes from people who are playing with the notion and form of advice-giving and are not taking themselves or the format too seriously. Margaret Atwood and Jeanette Winterson being two favorites, and also, not surprisingly, two writers I admire (both of whom, however, I have some advice for: write less!). Atwood is wryly pragmatic:

"1 Take a pencil to write with on aeroplanes. Pens leak. But if the pencil breaks, you can't sharpen it on the plane, because you can't take knives with you. Therefore: take two pencils.

2 If both pencils break, you can do a rough sharpening job with a nail file of the metal or glass type.

3 Take something to write on. Paper is good. In a pinch, pieces of wood or your arm will do."

Winterson is just friendly:

"8 Be ambitious for the work and not for the reward.

9 Trust your creativity.

10 Enjoy this work!"

Everyone who seems really excited, or exaggeratedly unexcited, to tell us (presumably in need of their advice) how things work provides terrible advice in usually appalling language, like this from Hilary Mantel:

"Concentrate your narrative energy on the point of change. This is especially important for historical fiction. When your character is new to a place, or things alter around them, that's the point to step back and fill in the details of their world. People don't notice their everyday surroundings and daily routine, so when writers describe them it can sound as if they're trying too hard to instruct the reader."

As opposed to the spoon-feeding she suggests? Not to mention the devastating assertion that human beings are incapable of paying attention to the world around them, or the fact that she finds-- not duty-- but expediency in leaving this supposed blindness unchallenged.

Of course, she poisons her advice for me with her rule number 1, hateful in tone, content, and underlying socio-politi-aesthetic assumptions: "Are you serious about this? Then get an accountant." That and the fact that I hated Wolf Hall.

Or this from the extremely long-winded Sarah Waters who apparently ironically believes one should:

"Cut like crazy. Less is more. I've ­often read manuscripts – including my own – where I've got to the beginning of, say, chapter two and have thought: "This is where the novel should actually start." A huge amount of information about character and backstory can be conveyed through small detail. The emotional attachment you feel to a scene or a chapter will fade as you move on to other stories. Be business-like about it. In fact . . ."

and also:

"Don't overwrite. Avoid the redundant phrases, the distracting adjectives, the unnecessary adverbs. Beginners, especially, seem to think that writing fiction needs a special kind of flowery prose, completely unlike any sort of language one might encounter in day-to-day life. This is a misapprehension about how the effects of fiction are produced, and can be dispelled by obeying Rule 1. To read some of the work of Colm Tóibín or Cormac McCarthy, for example, is to discover how a deliberately limited vocabulary can produce an astonishing emotional punch."

Or maybe Waters is only talking about fiction and not, of course, the writing of writing advice or writing generally. Has anyone written writing advice for writers of writing advice? Someone should (maybe I am?).

A surprising amount of name-dropping is going on (see Waters) as well, from the wonderful:

"Don't be one of those writers who sentence themselves to a lifetime of sucking up to Nabokov." (Geoff Dyer)

to the disarming: "Find an author you admire (mine was Conrad) and copy their plots and characters in order to tell your own story, just as people learn to draw and paint by copying the masters." (the very unfortunately named Michael Moorcock)

to the obnoxious yet baffling: "If you fear that taking care of your children and household will damage your writing, think of JG Ballard." (Helen Dunmore) who follows up with
"Don't worry about posterity – as Larkin (no sentimentalist) observed "What will survive of us is love"," which, aside from being extremely sentimental, is also plainly false. Luckily for us, we carry our love with us to the grave and leave behind, instead, words on paper and material goods.

Among the many simply unhelpful or too personal or simply silly pieces of advice, or non-advice such as:

"The first 12 years are the worst." (Anne Enright)

"Don't write letters to the editor. (No one cares.)" (Richard Ford)

"Interesting verbs are seldom very interesting." (Jonathan Franzen)

this, though charming, is my vote for LEAST helpful piece of advice as it requires use of a time machine and may result in a universe-destroying paradox: "When still a child, make sure you read a lot of books. Spend more time doing this than anything else." (Zadie Smith) I would further like to point out that her advice, if able to be taken, means that your adult self (reading these sage words) should spend more time making sure your child-self is reading than doing anything else, including writing.

The invited writing rules from anonymous commenters were slightly less stupid than most online comments for a second before devolving into off-topic inanity. Things I liked...

"6. A celebratory cigarette after every really good passage is probably not a good idea."

Or this, which rightly calls attention to the fact that few people want writing advice that is not also publishing advice.

1. Learn to kiss gatekeeper arse; kiss it early and often
2. Pick the creative writing program best positioned in the school best positioned in the part of the country best positioned in the country best positioned in the hemisphere best positioned to maximize access to gatekeepers' arses
3. Identify your Target-Audience by matching your hypothetical jacket photo with the jacket photos of successful authors already catering to said Target Audience
4. Identify the needs of your Target-Audience by watching lots of the same Television programs your Target Audience watches (your "style" will flow naturally from total immersion in this resource)
5. Cater to the Target Audience's needs by A) giving the reader the impression that he/she is The Best and that B) everything, somehow, eventually, is Gonna Be Alright (if not for the characters in your Product, then certainly for The Reader)

Thanks for this-- a lively distraction from writing! I think I'm due for a celebratory cigarette!