Review by Turner Canty, Omnidawn Features Writer
Who: Nate Lippens, Lorna Dee Cervantes, Miranda Mellis, Eileen Myles. Hosted by Michelle Tea
What: RADAR’s Spring Extravaganza
Where: San Francisco Public Library, 100 Larkin St. (near Civic Center BART).
When: March 8th 2012 (occurs monthly).
Poems from each reader follow the review.
Having been to a raucous Sister Spit event a year or two ago (RADAR production’s other popular reading/performance program: a nationally touring showcase of LGBT, punk, and the unusual) I was surprised to find myself in the quiet basement of the San Francisco Public Library for the latest installment of RADAR’s venerable reading series. Thankfully it was a calming atmosphere, which served well to direct the audience’s focus to the readers.
First to read was Nate Lippens, of Seattle, who is completing a manuscript confrontationally entitled You Know Who You Are. Nate read an excerpt from the manuscript centering on a man struggling with familial loss and disillusionment. Lippens admitted that his protagonist wasn’t dissimilar from himself, and this certainly showed as the character’s struggle sunk deeper and deeper into spiky humor and sarcasm–reminding me a little of David Sedaris at his grumpier moments. Lippen’s tale took us to a bar in which the protagonist happily drinks in the afternoon, unburdened with schedules, before being prompted to return to the aid of his family, who he can scarcely seem to relate to. The Midwest loomed largely in the story, especially as the character drives down I-90 (through what section we don’t know) contemplating his choice of surroundings, and his own mixed intentions within them.
Lorna Dee Cervantes followed. I think this was the second or third event Cervantes had read for in the past two days (one of which was the new reading series Alley Cat Poets in the Mission, which she curates). However, Cervantes showed no signs of fatigue or distraction. Her voice was sharp and unmistakably Californian, and she was visibly excited about sharing with us her new series of poems. Her chosen form couldn’t be more original. For her new book Ciento (Wings Press, 2011), Cervantes chose one hundred words or short phrases at random (or maybe a little less than random) and wrote a one hundred word love poem about each. Cervantes described them as “Tarot cards,” dealt from a hundred-word deck, and invited the audience to shout out numbers to be chosen from the book. Consonance and rhythmic enjambments dominated Cervantes’ delivery of her often strange and ecstatic phrases. At times, it was hard to determine if the speaker in the poem was directing its praise to the chosen word, or instead to some other figure. The one hundred-word limit of the poems only added to their enigmatic and exciting quality. Juxtaposition came readily to the format in lines such as “Salami to my Denim,” and “faces for calla lilies like a dog with an egg in her mouth.” Cervantes chose to close her portion of the reading with an homage to the word “vibrate,” which proved to be more than simply suggestive.
Next to read was Miranda Mellis, professor of writing at California College of the Arts, who has been quite prolific this year already with a novella The Spokes (Solid Objects, forthcoming in May 2012), and a story collection, None of this is Real (Sidebrow Press, 2012), just out this April. Tonight she chose to read from the title story of None of this is Real, which quickly showed itself to be a staggering and complex work. The story follows the title character “O,” as he cycles through his shifting and hostile world. O is a very anxious character, surrounded by others who unpredictably want to assist him or take advantage of him. He has lost his girlfriend (a therapist who had helped O “find his position”) and has booked a weekend trip to visit his Mother, Sonia, who is on a massive regiment of anti-depressives. Mellis’ vision of decrepit America does contain many typical tropes of dysfunctional suburban melodrama (anti-depressives, obsessive behavior, isolation, agricultural apocalypse, etc). However, where Mellis’ captivates is in her non-linear and carefully organized narrative voice that brims with descriptive imagination. O’s story could just be one clever postmodern joke after another but Mellis finds time to be emotionally varied and sincere when it counts. “[Y]our worries enclose my worries like a fence around a fence” O’s Mother tells him, right after O relates that “[f]actual records looked like frightening art when the tide went out on patriarchy, God, and war.” Hard-to-forget passages like these kept Mellis’ reading engrossing, and showed off her strength of emotional expression. Much like O’s oblong life in her story, Mellis’ turn seemed to be over before it began, leaving many listeners to later buy the book from her directly.
Last to the podium was Eileen Myles, who is by now one of the most influential and widely read authors in America. She is also a former resident of California, which gave this reading some interesting context. Myles’ recent work has been so varied and prolific it is hard to contain it all in this paragraph, except to say that it includes a book of essays: The Importance of Being Iceland (Semiotext(e), 2009), a novel Inferno: a Poet’s Novel (OR books, 2010), and two new collections of poetry released in one volume: Snow-Flake: New Poems, and Different Streets: Newer Poems (Wave Books, 2012). For RADAR, Myles chose to read from the new collections, one of which, Snow-Flake, was written, appropriately, in California. The other, Different Streets, was written after Myles had fallen in love. In these poems, Myles drives through parking lots, moves chairs, reluctantly cooks dinner, and in general, promotes the mundane with such colorful and exalting language that each poem seems somehow more important and exciting than the last. Poems like “Perfect Faceless Fish” and “No California” served this function with the closing lines “swinging light the door approach and everything moves close,” and “so I want to call someone in California but I’m there.” Myles’ poems build their color and humor with direct and speedy idiomatic language, working in an assemblage of everyday statements and constant self-referential confusion. With sharp jab-like statements, Myles often increases the pace of her thoughts to a peak before letting go. The effect is like a saw, jaggedly cutting a path for Myles to proceed with more exciting and unlikely poetry.
RADAR and its reading series are definitely providing the Bay with another immensely positive literary and cultural outlet. The homespun feel, and starkly original stylistic ideas presented at the reading was proof of this. I don’t think I’ve ever seen such an incongruent but equally exciting group of writers. As Myles said, it was a wonderfully bizarre “casserole.” The Q and A was accompanied by Pillsbury treats, made by Michelle Tea herself, although I’m not sure if an endorsement deal is in the works yet or not. Still, as noted by Tea, RADAR is now nine years old, and has hosted hundreds of authors, both emerging and established: a feat which deserves much congratulation. Tea will be taking RADAR on the road starting in April with a new installment of the Sister Spit tour, which is something you don’t want miss if it comes anywhere near your town.
Lorna Dee Cervantes
100 Words To A Pixellated & Pixilated You
If 100 words is all
it takes to write me
back to you, I say,
bring on the fractures, new
fissures, the tiny breaks in
the heart, all the on
and off in the mathematics
of we two–wee bits
of light catching the fold.
I say, say it simple,
keep it close to chest.
One switch puts it all
in play–this television drama
splicing us together or apart.
I say, this spring season
watch all the episodes with
me. Dance across the screen.
Let me knead you to
your final conclusion. Let’s laugh,
a fractal imagining, and love.
(courtesy of Wings Press, 2011)
The only time I
was at 19
and if that kid
also had a kid
at 19, that at
38 I’d be a
And if that
kid, next year,
also had a kid
I’d be a great grandmother.
so I want
but I’m there.
(courtesy of WAVE books, 2012)
None of this is Real
When O had first conceived the idea of relocating, his only reference was the town his grandmother Alteria had lived and died in, three states away. He decided to move there. He found a cheap apartment. He took a part-time job as a page at a library. He called his mother more often than either of them would have predicted. He continued to aspire to write an unprecedented, encyclopedic, world-historical novel. But it was increasingly apparent –– though he tried to ignore this oppressive knowledge –– that new techniques in climate change adaptations, urban agriculture, toxic waste mitigation, soil remediation, foreclosure opportunism, oil spill cleanup, sex, self-defense, clairvoyance, and air and water filtration were considered more pressing than literary innovation. Climate change in particular gave him nightmares. The only answer he could think of was to re-evolve, or devolve, archaic equipment to tolerate heat and breathe underwater.
Thick skins, gills, and fins. Animal adaptation seemed more promising than human politics anyway, though natural selection was known for taking its time. Rather than trying to fix the environment, he wondered if genetic engineers shouldn’t focus on turning humans back into fish. Or perhaps forward into machines? He wrote a letter proposing his ideas. He didn’t know where to send it. He addressed it To Whom it May Concern. occasionally he would dream about these things. He dreamt of breathing underwater his skin thick and smooth as a dolphin’s. Or he could see in the dark, his eyes secreting light.
When he later learned that mass extinctions from the greenhouse effect would not include his species, which had brought it about, he was even more horrified by the injustice of cause and effect.
He barely earned a living at the library, but he bided his time and tried to outline his book. The outlines were always eroding and changing, like seashores or minds. Money came in small amounts and denominations. Bills were like a seasonal predator for him. Regularly the total absence of money threatened to do him in. He was grateful for the library job because it kept the predator outside the gates. He also imagined that the constant proximity to books would be a prod. He’d glean something new every day for what he called his “unbearable correspondences” file. For instance each of the 6 billion people on Earth used an average of 3.5 pound of wood daily, which came to nearly 4 billion tons per year. But he never used wood. He understood, however, that he would always be implicated within the mathematical category of the “average” no matter what he did or refrained from doing. He read that in France, during the Reign of Terror, the executioner would show the just-decapitated head its own body so that, in its last seconds, consciousness was forced to comprehend itself irreversibly cleaved. The anonymity of the executioner was maintained so that everyone would be implicated as consenting perpetrators of capital punishment, for if nothing else, one always belonged to the state. By the time the monstrous share reached the individual, however, it hardly bore weight at all. In fact, for some, the sate weighed les than a feather, while others it crushed. O knew, however, that no matter whether he himself disagreed with capital punishment of never used wood, he was complicit in both executions and the destruction of habitats. This knowledge was important to his novel, he intuited, though he wasn’t sure how.
Unfortunately, being surrounded by pages had not so far made him produce very many. Furthermore, his job as a page required that he continuously touch, asymptotically peruse, and numerically vet printed matter. Naturally, on his days off, he was given to contemplating his yawning refection in a convex spoon (the distortions of which, he felt, improved his appearance).
O collected several folders’ worth of materials he considered relevant towards the novel he intended to write, which he conceived of as a post-political social-realist novel (he found no contradiction in the terms), a transnational, literary, neoteric, polyphonic Salt of the Earth, or a revamped, reflexive, more rounded Life in the Iron Mills, complicatedly dramatizing individual stories behind global struggles to reclaim life’s basic necessities which, down to genetic material, were being increasingly privatized. He wore his Yoda shirt to work. “Do or do not. There is no try.” Pop rhetoric and ancient ideas were processed and denatured by industries just like any other raw material. But if mining, refining, and manufacturing were the doom of living things, at least decontextualized slogans and faces grafted ornamentally onto commodities weren’t in and of themselves liked to cancer.
O’s files, strictly contemporaneous, included occasional bright episodes such as articles that described farmers resisting corporate seed and plant gene patents. Or homemade oyster mushroom and hair mats, invented by a barber to absorb oil roiling up on various shores and tangled riverbanks, where locals defied “security details” –– guarding catastrophes like property –– to fight for the right to clean up industrial waste. But such reports appeared to be far outnumbered by repetitive clips on domestic abuse, fratricide, matricide, patricide, gendercide, island massacres, city bombings, school shootings, gang wars, piracy, and other forms of local and daily violence on land and at sea –– quotidian wars in miniature, mimicking the psychoses of militarized globalism, dominating, self-righteous, exclusionary, and retaliatory. If only people relied on physical positions, O thought as he read, instead of ideological ones.
His “unbearable correspondences” dossier allowed O to emotionally modulate his experience. He imagined the perpetrators and victims in the stories he read with their heads hooded, their individuality filed away. He did this in order to study the average of power and its exercises.
He would read until headaches made it impossible or until his eyes burned and he felt a sizzle behind his sternum, the sound of his heart’s little fire going out. His dossier was called Apocalypse Forever. Compiling a file wasn’t difficult. Organization came naturally. As a child he had loved to play office, preferring stapling to scissoring, arrange to ripping, gluing to wrecking, and folding to shooting.
His files were always in order. However, he became depressed and skeptical when it came time to use them –– in short, when it came time to write. He was paralyzed by the messy, sorrowful wilderness of all that content and he could not get over the feeling that the documents spoke best for themselves, like geological strata, or the ephemera under glass at his library; they only asked to be interpreted and studied. How could he improve upon storied truth? The problem was a grass trap every which way he turned: what was the good of imagining reality? And if there was no such thing as time or progress, why keep recapitulating those falsehoods in the form of chronologies? He had learned that women could legally own property and practice surgery thousands of years ago, while as recently as a hundred they could do neither. The moderns were surely older than the ancients. Knowledge came and went like the tides. Diachronic history was chronic; retrospection moved forward; information zigzagged like a dying cowboy. Time itself moved like water. Factual records looked like frightening art when the tide went out on patriarchy, God, and war. You worry too much, his mother would say; your worries enclose my worries, like a fence around a fence.
(courtesy of Sidebrow Press, 2012)