Stranded (selections)

Remember how I lost my notebook two years ago? Well it was found! and mailed back to me! and only a little bit rained on! I’ll tell y’allbout it soon, with pictures. But first, here’s a transcribed and slightly revised bit of scribbling from the notebook, one of many pieces I had given up for lost. Context: I worked at the Strand bookstore in New York for two months in the fall of 2010, and these are my field notes.

STRANDED #1) Why would a classicist in his mid thirties wearing a grey tweed coat & glasses low on his nose looking every inch the up & coming columbia chair of Greek studies sell his entire collection of Loeb editions to the Strand?

#2) The difference between being in the strand as a customer & being in the strand as an employee is in what is visible. As a customer, only books, not people, are visible. As an employee books are invisible and people are everywhere.

#3) There’s a lot to say about the strand’s use of keys to manage employee bathroom trips. For now: this afternoon, shortly before my lunch break, I dashed to grab a key when one appeared on the hook behind the managers’ desk and made for the north bathroom to scrib note #1 above. When I came out, the sad classicist was still selling. But I only went to write, not to go #1 or #2 (aside: writing is #3) The question when I arrived at the commode was, if I’m only here to scribble, & not to eliminate the more regular kind of bodily waste, do I bother to drop my drawers or do I sit on the lidless toilet seat fully jeaned and belted? I resolved to stand & lay my notebook on the flat top of the toilet-paper dispenser.

#4) A man could go mad at the lack of scribopportunity when a worthy thought drops into the sky of his mind like a peregrine going for the kill. But when that man is me and I am on Greeting duty from 5:15 to 6:15, the eyes upon my back—ownerless eyes, but real enough to keep my notebook & pen firmly in my pocket as the falcon dissolves into a gray puddle of feathers and fishbones—Naturally I want to keep it alive, that thought, that seed to be scribbed & so I start to chant a silent mnemonic in my head:
EARS. CANNED RESPONSES. EARS. CANNED RESPONSES. EARS. CANNED RESPONSES. So much to the point that more than a few times, instead of the obligatory “Hi, welcome to the Strand” I may have burst out “EARS. CANNED RESPONSES.” Here concludes STRANDED #4 & I don’t remember what those two mnemonics were supposed to preserve.

#5) Everyone has a list. As in, “Have you read ANDROID KARINA?” (sic.)—“It’s on my LYST”

#6) He or She who designed the metal shelves with L-shaped corner supports did not have bookstores in mind. Who was responsible for their use in the strand clearly did not, either. IRONY

#8) I was late this morning so I’m staying till 6:40 to make up the time and I’m hiding it out in the bathroom Tee hee!

#9) In kindergarten, we used the drinking fountain: “Can I get a 1-2-3 drink, Mrs. Spoor?” we would wheedle. The idea being that the drink limited to a count of 3 for each child meant the line moved efficiently, fair shares were understood, & time wasn’t wasted. “It’s not a 1-2-3-4 drink,” the kid behind you would snap if you overslurped your 3 by the tiniest fraction. And sometimes even the entire line would count in unison “One…two…three.” (Next.) “One…two…three.” And so for each drinker, in a dwindling chorus, a sextet, then a quintet, a quartet, increasingly awkward to be counting aloud as comrades disappeared & the awful truth emerged, that you were in that cold place where no child ever wanted to be: last in line. The “caboose.” To this day, I count in my head while drinking from a fountain but I never stop at 3, especially at work. Because the lesson I really learned from this is what an excellent waste of time it can be to take many trips to the water fountain and drink to a count of 20, 25, 37. The more you drink, the more bathroom breaks you must take (making sure to take a 20-count drink before & after each pee), during which you scribble STRANDEDs in your notebook & best of all, you’re super-hydrated all day!

#12) A bookstore called The String? Might as well call it the yarn, the thread, the floss, the twine, the strand, the fiber.

#13) Poetry bleeds through Mystery from Richard Aaron to Dick Francis

#14) A vociferous pigeon lives in the wall by the Mystery section or perhaps inside one of the two enormous vents, great gray square boxes with filthy red-bladed fans & crumbling fanbelts, remnants from the building’s past life as a factory

#15) The day is easier to swallow when I’m holed up in Mystery all morning. As I shelve Aaron through Francis I pick up random poetry that has bled through from the other side of the shelf—but I only permit myself one poem at a time, two if they are very short. For word has it that reading in this bookstore is highly discouraged.

#16) Greeting: a scripted drama. I, leading male, have a single speech, HI WELCOME TO THE STRAND. The ensemble has a variety of responses depending on the actor. We get THE TRIPLE TAKE, the CANNED RESPONSE, and THE SUNNY DAY most frequently. Yesterday we discovered after a unique performance featuring a visit from my ladylove that this drama’s audience is THE CASHIERS.

#17) The Cashiers are usually audible all over the entire main floor—in Mystery, the vociferous pigeon harmonizes to “NEXT PERSON IN LINE!” KA-CHING

#18) The drinking fountain snatches my nametag (hung from a red lanyard looped around my neck) & doesn’t let go—then the Strand really has me by the throat.

#21) STRANDED, strung-up, threadbare, roped-in, twine shine crine-in-the-rine.

#23) Note the gradual takeover of the Strand by “merchandise.” Display cases of rare books are being replaced by kitten mugs and model MTA trains and Air Forks One. When did bookselling become chotchkieselling?

#24) Today at lunch I walked to the NYPL at Jefferson Market ate half my sandwich on the way there wrote a poem & walked back eating the 2nd half. Dad used to walk to Tower Records during his lunch hour when he worked at Denny’s in Sacramento, my Dad about the same age I am now. Speaking of lonely: time to go Greet.

#25) Me: Hi, welcome to the Strand.
Woman: [cynical laugh] THANK you! for that SINCERE greeting!

#26) Sometimes while Greeting I take a close look at the bits of flesh attached to the sides of people’s heads to make sure they are ears

#27) I need caffeine

#28) Shelving tonight=walking around with 1 or 2 books for a few minutes, placing them back on the carts, picking up 1 or 2 other books, repeat

10/30/10—entirely unStranded:
residue in a drained drinking glass, residue pools again at the bottom of the glass no matter how well you drain it

THE STRING: Sometimes I wonder would I not rather be the string curled up lying utterly disregarded but warm in the quiet gently rocking darkness of a hip pocket where I can hardly distinguish myself as a string, the string apart from all these woven strings or fibers threads that make the pocket wall. Just as the string must wonder, would it not rather be me with hands to touch & voice & words to profess love for any warm beautiful being that comes in smelling range? I love you, string. I know. I love you too.

STRANDED #29) Remember the woman who complained that the Strand moves things around every time she comes in—with such urgency that you’d think she comes in twice a week to find each time the whole store all done over—when in fact I’ve been here a whole month and so far nothing much’s changed except the rising chotchkies. Good to keep in mind that this job is just one drop in a very large bucket.

#31) A 60-year-old dried out sunfaded dust jacket splits at the creases over the boards of a clothbound book so covered in dust (the ancient powdered skin of so many neglectful owners) that its silver-boss lettering is simply gray… Brittle paper shatters like the dry skin of onions

#32) Remember, the dust I wipe off the books with a blue rag is mostly powdered human skin. Do they ever wash those blue rags? The dust from the rag gets on my hands & in my nose, I sneeze it, inhale it, ingest it. Human skin in my stomach, my nose, under my fingernails. Skin of how many humans?

#33) To the woman who gave me a triple take upon entering the Strand while I stood Greeting at the door: In almost less time than it took you to push open the door and take three steps down the front aisle of the sales floor no less than thrice have you dismissed me. The first look might have been accidental: your eyes slid across me like searchlights over an empty yard. Then snapped back those eyes for a second dip in the bucket that is me: IS IT HUMAN? those eyes cried, and I hurl my line like a javelin into your heart HI WELCOME TO THE STRAND! But your eyes have already marbled along the wall by the time I reach the third word, I couldn’t even hold your attention for the THE, what kind of orator am I? none to speak of
But then for no apparent reason you pause you go out of your way to stop and give me the third, a brief silent frown

#34) Tonight I need to give NOTICE.

#35) I’ve Given Notice but I’m still stranded until the 25th (the 24th my last day) that means 12 more work days, 3 more paychecks, 96 more hours of my life

#36) The theatrics of Greeting
#37) The biomechanics of buyback, receiving, sorting, shelving
#38) Where fictionS End
#39) How many non-fictions?
#40) Have they ears? Are they all ears?

#41) Lines spoken out of turn:
- “You’re welcome.”
- “Thank you.”

stranded pagesample
Typical two-page spread of the regained notebook. Things to note: water marks; overuse of capitals; fantasy floorplan (in which I imagined my apartment’s common area to be 3 times its actual size).

#43) Music falls from the ceiling: selections from the TimeLife 100 Classical piano tunes vol. 1 (that banging Tchaikovsky concerto, etc) as well as Gershwin’s Rhapsody (one of those NEW YORK tunes)

#44) Never go to the Union Square Trader Joe’s on a sunday evening—Becca & I tried it & were vanquished by the line & knocked a green apple AND a green bunch of bananas on the floor and did not pick them up

#45) I see books misshelved & lying on the floor and I do not pick them up

#52) The answer to the most often-asked question: Second floor, back-left corner by the children’s section (keep my seat!)

#53) I was an hour late this morning

#54) I am, again, “using a key,” as they say. Going #3. Having opted as I often do to sit on the pot, unbelted, jeans piled on top of my shoes, nothing coming out of my body but these scribbles.

#55) My last lunch was supposed to be an occasion to treat myself, so I’m eating at the university restaurant. This is the first time I’ve ever sat at a diner counter. I ordered from the cook!
Two months ago I ate here with David Chandler. It was raining as I waited for him under the scaffold in front of the Strand. I didn’t work there yet.
I know exactly where I left that umbrella.
I was sitting on a barstool holding the umbrella (red) collapsed,
unbundled because it was still dripping
I dropped it on the floor next to my feet—the floor was black
but maybe only because it was dark in the place, the way painted lips turn black in black & white movies
I have no idea where it was, the stool beneath which I left the umbrella

#56) How fitting that my last Strand should be directly under the cruel condescension of Fred Bass. Neil’s is a limitless impatience. Richard’s is a cold disdain. John’s is a disgruntled indifference. These four my taskmasters these two months.

#58) How to get paid for my last hour at the Strand without working for it:
* Hide in the bathroom
* Walk around with handfuls of books pretending to shelve
* Hide in Mystery and read Rimbaud
* Stand next to a customer and pretend to be helping
* Simply stop
* Take my 15 minute break at 4:55 to avoid being called up to cover Trevor’s lunch at the buyback desk
Ready? GO

#59) It’s 6:10pm on 11/24/10 & this will be the last time I write in the employee bathroom at Strand & I have nothing else of interest to scrib

Scribbling after surgery

About six weeks ago my dad drove me to an oral surgeon in Rochester to have my wisdom teeth taken out under moderate sedation. A few days before that, my mom had had knee replacement surgery at Noyes Hospital in Dansville, and she was settling in to the rehab facility in Mt. Morris just as the oral surgeon got cracking on my mandibles. After the procedure, Dad and I stopped in Mt. Morris to visit Mom before heading home. My brain was still soggy and struggling to stay afloat when, at Dad’s suggestion, I took the following notes.


Wisdom teeth out today 6/22
I have them in a bag
riding home with dad stopped
at Mt. Morris nursing home
rehab to visit mom, she
was lying down wearing a blue
listening to Hauschka
I don’t remember getting up from
the chair after it was done
keep trying to swallow
the clouds were puffy
I told mom my new bike
was arrived

Home now

Mt. Morris rehab/nursing home like a
castle remember the walk out
to the car, & views
down around the castle and so on
the woman interviewing mom did she
what did she want for meals
she sent me home then, take
this boy home she has a grabber
claw for picking up objects
not in reach

Dad suggested I write some stuff down
before I fall asleep
just waiting for the pain to
settle in new tenants no
sublettors in my four vacancies

He had to by all accounts take away
bits of bone with the teeth
At some point on the drive I realized
that we would not be stopping
for any smoothies

Well on our way to

My eyes are closing down any
final remarks to store in the
newfound a newfound cavern
of the jaws where cave
paintings viewed by flickering
firelight the oldest
earliest form of animation

I’m chewing on gross gauze &
my first saltwater rinse is coming
but there were clouds
we we we we were
looking at them
The oral surgeon said my cysts
were storing up
NUTS for the winter squirrels
German music will come at you
hard & fast from one or the other
side it’ll be like
bo glar goat

Just when I think I’m at my
up to my most
at the top of my cat’s
jammy dance
Then I discover my eyes have
been closed for who knows
how many minutes
Can spinach be made with smoothies?
I wanted to remember that
way mom looked at the
Rehab place & wanted
she looked a whole lot better
than at Noyes & wanted
her to come home to take
care of me mee meet me
in montauk

Robert Walser’s THE WALK

Three Percent just posted my latest review, of Robert Walser’s The Walk. Despite appearances, I do occasionally read and even write about books not published by New Directions, though I will admit I have been mildly obsessed with the publisher ever since I was an intern there in 2009. Here’s an amusing factoid: James Laughlin started the press in the ’30s following the career advice of Ezra Pound, who, finding Laughlin a mediocre poet, told him to “do something useful” with himself. Pound may have been pleased to have inspired a publisher who would forever keep his own work in print. He was less enthused by Laughlin’s choice of a name, which Pound lampooned by shifting the space between “New” and “Directions” one letter to the right. (Say it out loud.) James Longenbach told me that story, who’s an expert in such matters (Pound and Modernism, that is).

Here’s the beginning of my review:

For the narrator of Robert Walser’s The Walk, walking is the better part of writing. Shortly before declaring his arrival at “something like the peak” of this 90-page Pearl from New Directions (translated by Christopher Middleton and Susan Bernofsky—more on that in a second), Walser’s narrator delivers a brilliant defense of the writer’s habit of walking, which looks to too many observers like idleness but is, he declares, a vital part of his technique. “Do you realize that I am working obstinately and tenaciously with my brain,” he explains to a tax collector, “when I present the appearance of a simultaneously heedless and out-of-work, negligent, dreamy, idle pickpocket, lost out in the blue . . . ?” He goes on—and on; Walser did not write dialogue. His characters declaim, often through bizarre turns:

Mysterious there prowl at the walker’s heels all kinds of thoughts and notions, such as make him stand in his ardent and regardless tracks and listen, because, again and again confused by curious impressions, by spirit power, he suddenly has the bewitching feeling that he is sinking into the earth, for an abyss has opened before the dazzled, bewildered eyes of the thinker and poet. His head wants to fall off. His otherwise so lively arms and legs are as benumbed. Countryside and people, sounds and colors, faces and farms, clouds and sunlight swirl all around him like diagrams; he asks himself: ‘Where am I?’

Click here to read the entire review.

in which Form is actually Transform: ANTIGONICK’s physical poetics


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Antigonick (New Directions) is Anne Carson’s latest anachronistic rendition of a classic legend. With her choice of Sophokles’s Antigone, Carson dwells on the theme of mourning a sibling which was the impetus for Nox, but more interestingly to me, Antigonick is also like Nox in that it is much more than a literary text: it incorporates illustrations (by Bianca Stone) and a unique design (by Robert Currie) which go beyond decor to become aspects of Antigonick‘s poetic form.

In an illustrated book, the images usually contribute to or clarify the meaning of the text and vice versa. Antigonick demonstrates that illustrations and text can also interfere with one another in a codex, in which the turning of pages from right to left is the basic physical mechanism of reading. The heavily-inked black and red lettering of Carson’s text is as visually arresting as Stone’s drawings, which are printed on translucent vellum paper “to overlay the text” (to quote the copyright page). The lettering, in Carson’s hand, is irregular and smudgy, not simply difficult to read but contributing to the book’s difficult visual and physical poetics.

Stone’s ink-and-watercolor drawings include frigid landscapes, cozy rooms, a spool of thread, solemn men and women with cinderblocks instead of heads–none of which explicitly correspond to characters or scenes. Pictures and text alike are printed only on the recto side (appearing on the right-hand page). When a drawing’s vellum lies flat against the opaque paper beneath it, the text shines through the drawing. The words and the drawing interrupt and confuse one another halfway to being fully read. The lexical promise of a phrase wins my attention over the incomprehensibility of a man wrestling with a horse, for instance (click the images below to enlarge), so I turn the vellum over in order to read the page of text without the wrestlers’ interference. Now the image appears in reverse on the left, clear but somewhat dimmed through the fog of the vellum’s verso side. Seeking the best possible view of the picture before reading on, I turn back to the recto side of the vellum page and hold it just an inch above the pages beneath. The vellum now blurs out the text so that the image is clear and sharp.

This is an awkward interruption of ordinary page-turning. I could look at an individual page more comfortably if I were to tear it out and lay it flat on the table. But that would be to admit defeat and destroy the form rather than try to experience the form as the creators have offered it.

Again, it isn’t just for prettiness’ sake, all this complexity; the sum of these deliberate parts is a unique poetics in codex form. Carson uses line and spacing in dramatic and surprising ways, demonstrating that the white space between words and lines can actually be heard, can be deafening or delicate or anything in between, when deployed by a capable poet. There is a particular moment in the book which demonstrates, uncomplicated by drawings, Carson’s deliberate incorporation of page-turning as a poetic tool much like the poet’s line- or stanza-ending. Sadly I can’t give you a page number because the book doesn’t have them. The Chorus’s third speech begins at the top of a page and continues to the bottom:


It’s a bleak sentiment with the page ends. Turning, the next page contains only this:


The outlook is brightening–quickly, turn the page again–to a lonely line:


This double reversal from despair to hope to disillusionment, contrasted with the forward march of page-turning, is similar to the experience of classical tragedy: there are moments of hope, even when we already know that the ending will be dismal. In every re-reading there’s a thrill when Tiresias enters, a fleeting thought that just maybe he will have arrived in the nick of time to set Kreon straight and prevent an avalanche of suicides. Perhaps it is the persistence of this thrill despite our tacit awareness of impending death that Carson means to represent by the mute part, Nick, who is always measuring. I think that is part of it. It will be tough to know more about Nick without trying to put Antigonick on stage. More in this vein in a moment.

That there is a physical poetics in a book’s form is increasingly obvious. The e-book vs. print book discussion (clearly a hot topic with me) is evidence enough; I know that fascinating things are happening in digital bookmaking, but I’m always hanging out in brick-and-mortar bookstores, where one finds lots of cool print experiments to be excited about. Visual Editions is a fairly new British publisher to keep an eye on, though I think the qualification “Visual” is a bit too narrow; their books incorporate structurally as well as visually esoteric printing and binding techniques. Their first book, a new Tristram Shandy, aspires to Sterne’s original spirit of typographical experimentation. VE next published Jonathan Safran Foer’s infamous Tree of Codes. One dismissive reviewer compared Foer’s book to A Humument, saying that Foer did nothing that Tom Phillips hadn’t already done (and did it worse), but I disagree. Tree of Codes, like Antigonick, creates the possibility of looking at and through pages at the same time, resulting in the thrill and frustration of fragmented bits of text that interrupt each other. A Humument overlays text with color and line, a quality it too shares with Antigonick, but all three of these books negotiate the line between visual and textual experiences in radically different ways. The success of each is another question, not for me to try to answer here.

Speaking (above) of the page torn free of its binding, VE’s next book was Composition no. 1 by Marc Saporta, which can be read “in any order” because its pages are unbound loose sheets of paper in a box. (New Directions published a similar project a few years ago, B.S. Johnson’s The Unfortunates, which has 27 chapters, 25 of which are to be rearranged at random.) VE’s latest, Kapow! by Adam Thirlwell, looks like it will have the reader spinning the book around page by page to read lines of text that go in all directions. Other interesting non-digital experiments in typography and bookbinding that I know of are House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski, many issues of McSweeney’s (I especially like issue 36 which comes in a Head), and Benjamin Stein’s The Canvas (coming out in September from Open Letter). I haven’t read enough of these to elaborate on this idea of the physical poetics of the book, but there seems to be plenty of subject matter for the makings of a theory.

The discussion of Antigonick‘s poetics must also strike out in a nearly diametrically opposed direction, because, lest we forget, Antigone is one of the greatest of classical tragedies. Antigonick does pose a few challenges to being read as a play. Unfortunately, some of the early returns I’ve encountered on the web write this off as a weakness of Carson’s work (and many of them all but ignore that of Stone and Currie). Take for instance this excerpt from the closing paragraph of a review that I find fairly unimaginative, even if I like the author’s use of the word “detonates”: “Though Carson, unlike Fagles and other translators, declines to parse the play’s ancient Greek into lines of English verse, a compact poetic violence nevertheless detonates in speech after speech. At the expense of stageability, she drives toward maximal intensity of expression.”

It’s true that the experience of Antigonick is largely dependent on the visual and physical aspects of the book which I’ve been detailing at length, and that these cannot be transported to the theatre intact. Before I offer my rebuttal, listen to Carson’s language:




This is undeniably dialogue with which a pair of capable actors would have a field day. Difficult, no doubt, but for serious theatre artists, stageability is a non-issue when the language is truly at a “maximal intensity of expression,” so the point is hardly valid. To a serious theatre artist, anything can be stageable provided there’s a desire to stage it, and challenge combined with intensity of expression can result in as powerful a desire for staging as could be.

What the reviewer quoted above and others seem not to appreciate is that staging is to transform a text into a cooperative and communal human experience. A performance and a text are distinct forms occupying different ranges of experience, and the relationship between them is by transformation only. A company gathers resources from the text like language, characters, story, emotion; subjects them to the rehearsal process; invites an audience; and the text is left in the book on the shelf at home. But when you are at home reading the text, if you understand it to be a play, you are probably trying to imagine how the stage might look in this particular scene, and how the actor playing Tiresias will sound when he says to Kreon,


Antigonick is incomplete in book form because it also wants to be a play: needing human assistance to become a play, the text implicitly directs the reader to take to the stage. A thought-experiment isn’t enough to discover the emotional impact of the mute part Nick, with whom Antigone shares the title of this play. Nick presents a staging challenge, to be sure, and strange experiments will have to be conducted in the rehearsal room and on the stage if the performers and the audience are to make sense of him. I eagerly await the day I can be part of such experiments.

Lost Notebook Philosophy


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I wrote this essay about a year ago for a closed audience of fellow amateur bloggers. I rediscovered it last week and thought I’d polish it up to celebrate my move to WordPress. Enjoy, and feedback is welcome!  – p.w.

Over the last couple of years, I’ve developed a healthy scribbling habit. Scribbling is a term I borrow from William Carlos Williams, who wrote that “Isolation…permits a fair interval for thought. That is, what I call thinking, which is mainly scribbling. It has always been during the act of scribbling that I have gotten most of my satisfactions.” The isolation he’s referring to Williams fashioned for himself by settling in Rutherford, New Jersey instead of a more trafficked metropolis. But whereas isolation enabled his scribbling, for me, it is in scribbling that I have been able to fashion a comfortable isolation, which is hard to come by these days, when one has at all-hours instantaneous access to a world of digitally mediated people and their addictive, quotidian news. By continually scribbling I’ve found a place to vent my spleen where no one but me is privy. It fits in my pocket, it has an elastic strap to keep its covers neatly bound, and it doesn’t ever ring.

Sadly notebooks, like all pocket-sized possessions with a modicum of personal value, have a way of getting lost. And when that happens, one can’t help but imagine that anyone in the world might be reading one’s private ramblings. Or (worse?) no one in the world might be reading them. When Pezzettino disappeared on March 6, 2011 (I name my notebooks for reference purposes), I grieved for lost reading lists, notes, casual observations, ideas, and hilarious doodles. But it also made me think, a lot, about the boundaries between writing and reading, and the nature of forms and methods (e-book, codex, handwriting, typing) and how we use them.

I was shelving my way through a regular Sunday afternoon shift at BookCulture, where I was in the habit of noting down titles that interested me. I distinctly remember the last time I made such a note in Pezzettino: I was in the Cinema section, though I can’t remember what the book was. Later on in a different section, perhaps Philosophy, I reached for my pocket thinking to jot down another title or author, and the notebook wasn’t there. “Perhaps it’s time for a technology upgrade,” my boss sneered at me when I told him I’d lost my personal notebook somewhere in the store. I put a note on the shift clock to alert my coworkers, describing the lost notebook and the sticker on its cover, which featured a black and white drawing of an accordionness with the legend PEZZETTINO, hence the notebook’s name.

A month later I got laid off (hard times in the book business, yes, we know) and the notebook hadn’t turned up. There are countless things I had written in it which I recall in abstract but not in particular and I do wish I had typed them up at some point. On several occasions I had transferred from notebook to screen a few scrawled lines that felt worthy of being taken to the next level, whatever that is; but, in almost every case, whatever spark had inspired me was instantly extinguished upon typing. As became clear, my greatest pleasure was in the physicality of the scrawl and the crossing-out, the motion of the subway car recorded forever in the wobbly letters. Reading your own scrawl you can remember the discomfort of the train’s hard seat-back as you wrote, the smell of the homeless man nearby, the sound of the buskers on the platform. Typing it up, you lose these rich sensory associations and have to confront the weakness of your writing itself. So, usually, I let my scribbles remain just that.


Working in an independent bookstore, one is particularly exposed to opinions as to the advantages and disadvantages of new forms of reading (for example, e-readers) over traditional ones (the bound-paper codex). One particularly indignant senior citizen shopping in BookCulture one afternoon exclaimed that she could not understand why anyone would want to read a book on a screen. “There’s something about the feeling of turning pages,” she said, “I don’t want to say orgasmic, but….”

The physical form of the thing does make and always has made a difference. In The Case for Books, a fine collection of essays I was reading right around the time Pezzettino disappeared, Robert Darnton refers to the invention of the codex in Medieval Europe as the cause of a radical transformation in the way human beings interacted with texts, which before the codex existed primarily as scrolls. The page is a distinct unit of meaning. When reading a codex, unless radically alter its physical form by disassembling the signatures and spreading out the leaves before you, you cannot possibly experience more than the two-page spread at once. In order to look at more text, you have to simultaneously look at less. This tension between recto and verso is felt as the suspense of turning pages. In e-readers, pages are no longer a fixed quantity. Since font sizes are adjustable (certainly an advantage to one’s personal reading comfort), two people reading the same book might turn “pages” at very different rates even if they read at the same speed.

A notebook, too, is a codex, and even its blank pages are units of meaning, if only potentially so. When I turn to a new page while scribbling, even if I’m mid-sentence in a flurry of philosophy or private vituperation, I pause, hesitant to blot this clean white field with my ongoing and constantly frustrating attempt at articulation. Then I summon my courage and blot away.

To write in an “e-notebook,” say, to type on a smartphone or tablet, would be an altogether different activity from scribbling. (I currently own neither smartphone nor tablet, so I can only speak here hypothetically.) When writing with pen or pencil, emphasis can be achieved by gesture; it is a far more bodily expressive way of writing than typing can ever be. Furthermore, it is technologically far simpler and more convenient. To return to Darnton, he likewise points out the convenience of the codex as a technology: no need to charge its batteries, it’s extremely durable, and it doesn’t require system updates.

But this is not to argue against e-books: quite the contrary. Darnton merely acknowledges the differences between these technologies, including their different uses. He suggests that the e-book may offer a viable solution for the ailing academic publishing industry, by proposing a model of academic e-book that is a multimedia “pyramid” of deepening layers of text, notes, illustrations, documentary materials, et cetera, organized by a system of hyperlinks. According to this Jan. 4 interview with Darnton–which I recommend for further reading on these and related issues–a few publishers have now released such pyramid-structured e-books, including editions of The Waste Land and On the Road with a variety of such appendix material. As the President of Harvard University’s Library system, Darnton is one for whom understanding the history and future of books as information technology is of utmost importance. As his essays demonstrate, new forms of reading merely force us to ask again what reading is, and to appreciate that different forms of reading may suit different purposes.


So, too, I ask what scribbling is. As I mentioned before, one of my first thoughts was “Anyone might be out there reading my personal rants and notions!” And, hopefully, “Will they have the humanity to send the notebook back to me?” (Which had actually happened before–a man named Arnold once called and said he’d found a notebook of mine before I’d even noticed it was missing.) And, somewhat wistfully, “Why do I care? They were just casual notes, barely coherent at best.” And, with despair, “What will they think of me?” And then, philosophically, “Who did I write them for in the first place?” Ultimately I had to make a hypothesis. What does it mean, “to write?”–I think that to write is to intend, assume, and desire that there will be at least one reader. Or, where X is a piece of writing, To write X is to intend, assume, and desire that X will be read by at least one person.

First, I intend these writings for a reader, even if it’s just myself. I’ll write down a thought so that I can see how it looks on the page. In more frankly communicative cases one calls the intended reader the audience, the addressee. Second, I assume a reader because I must, or I would never begin writing. In any case, there already is a reader: me. I’m reading this as I write it. Right?

That doesn’t quite work, because my desire for a reader is not satisfied by the reader in myself. Those who make of writing a way of life will probably understand this. I mean beyond the pedestrian “making a living”—obviously, one would have a hard time getting paid for writings that have no audience but oneself. I mean writing as a way of understanding and enjoying life and its puzzles and pleasures. Furthermore, as Anne Carson succinctly puts it in her brilliant book on ancient Greek love poetry, Eros the Bittersweet, desire is lack: if we feel that we desire a reader, we must not yet have one, or else we are unsatisfied with the one(s) we do have.

So if all writing stems in part from a desire that it be read by someone not ourselves, then all writing is, on some level, correspondence, aimed at sharing something–a thought, an experience–with another person. But what does that make my notebook? Who is it a correspondence with? The me that is not myself? A future me? A memory me? If someone does send me back my lost notebook in an envelope with my address on it, does that make me the addressee of my own writings? If so, is the sender implicated, does he in some way become their author? I have been told that this last is a stretch. Point is, I write in these notebooks every day for the sheer and frustrating pleasure of it, and I must admit that most of the time I don’t really know what I am doing.

A parting thought: “Fuck them is what I say. I hate those e-books. They cannot be the future. They may well be. I will be dead. I won’t give a shit.” – Maurice Sendak. (He will be missed. More of his finer statements here.)

Cartoon: The New Yorker, May 7, 2012

The Human Microphone



My first post in over 18 months. It’s good to be back–here’s hoping this time I stay a while longer. Please comment!

I joined in the May Day demonstrations mainly to see what it was all about, but also pay homage to my various ineffable dissatisfactions with The Way Things Are. (My favorite sign of the day, the one that articulated my sentiments best, was in simple black Sharpie scrawled on white posterboard: “I’m so angry I decided to make this sign.”) I’m no activist, and I balk at most political conversation. I’d usually rather talk about language and its uses and means, be they literary or social. That evening I experienced first hand the Human Microphone in action on a vast scale, and it is quite unlike any use of language I have ever seen or heard.

The Human Microphone is a kind of social medium, a means by which an individual user can quickly send a message to a large network of other willing users. But unlike other social media, which are signal-based (text, image, audio, video, and combinations), the H.M. is highly theatrical, in that it is utterly of the body, or rather, of bodies. As a means of conveying speech it depends on a collaboration between the speaker and the listeners resulting in the action which constitutes that means. The conversation via H.M. begins when the participants have come together, and a speaker and an audience are identified. At an ideal General Assembly, a huge number of people have gathered outdoors (probably at least a thousand participated in the one at the New York Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial on Tuesday night). One of them wants to speak, and the others want to listen. City law forbids the use of amplified sound without a permit; the H.M. is the Assembly’s alternative. The first speaker says a few words of her speech, and the listeners nearest to her shout those words in unison, turning outward to spread the speech further. If the crowd is especially large, the group agrees on a number of “waves,” relaying each phrase two or three times for the benefit of listeners further and further out.

May 1 General Assembly, around 9pm, NYC. Photo: Robert Stolarik for the NYTimes

The Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial is a large semicircular amphitheatre, with a tiled wall serving as a backdrop across the stage, wedged between two skyscrapers that are home to a couple of financial giants. At the center of the amphitheatre is a small reflecting pool. Full dark had fallen when the crowd was settled there; the artful lighting on and around the plaza is soft yellow and cold blue, and the stone and glass all around boxed in the echoes of hundreds of people shouting in unison–all of which heightened the drama of an already innately theatrical experience. Each wave of H.M.-speech might be louder than the one before it as increasing numbers of people register and repeat the phrase. Individual voices are lost in crowd-voice.

If you contribute your voice to the execution of the H.M., are you still a pure and simple listener? The listener relaying the speech via H.M. is allowing the speech of another–a stranger–to occupy his voice (excuse the pun) rent-free and unassessed. He is embodying with his own voice fragmented statements whose full meaning, as intended by the speaker, is not yet revealed to him, though he may hope and expect it will be. Is he endorsing those statements by repeating them? (This needs clarification. For instance, Rachel Maddow’s Twitter profile states, “Re-tweets do not imply endorsement.”) A microphone is a relay, a vessel for sound; mechanical amplification itself does not comment on or change the meaning of the words; or does it? The Human Microphone raises the question since it is a medium, not simply an amplifier, but as an amplifier it is a human not a mechanical one, part of a body which also contains an impressionable mind. As I am repeating a phrase my body is internalizing the language as, or even before, I can assess the entire statement. We learn language by repetition, by producing the sounds with our bodies. Critical understanding comes later.

I was reminded of this:

People, we know, are all too happy to take up a chant without being critical of the words, with too often disastrous outcomes. But I am less inclined to put all the blame on humanity’s failure to think critically and independently. Another thing is partly responsible, simply that humans take enormous pleasure in the sound of language, and that pleasure is accessed through repetition.

For literate, conversational adults, under a constant bombardment of language, meaning is usually primary, sound secondary. But repetition reverses this effect. If I take any word–say, “people”–and say it out loud to myself five or six times, I start to doubt whether the word really means what I think it means, whether I’m saying it correctly. That is, in foregrounding sound, meaning falls away. In Human Microphone-amplified speech, if you’re sitting close enough to hear the initiating speaker, you will hear each phrase two or three times. Meaning gradually dissolves with each wave, and then the speaker releases the next phrase and meaning is provisionally restored.

The pleasure we take in the sound of language is the reason we write, read and listen to poetry and song lyrics, and repetition is a vital part of that pleasure. That is, in my understanding of it, poetry is the access of pleasure in sound through repetition of language. Repetition and recurrence take a variety of forms in poetry–rhyme, meter, assonance, refrain, line, stanza and so on. The tension between meaning and sound is not only inevitable, it adds to the pleasure. Theatre combines poetry with spectacle and human beings working together–another source of enormous pleasure, as we like being part of a team. A good audience wants the play to succeed and does everything in its power (it too has a more or less scripted role to perform) to make that happen.

In the hour or so that I listened to the May 1 General Assembly at the Vietnam Memorial Park, I heard five or six speeches; it takes a long time to say anything in old Entish via the Human Microphone. The first two or three speakers explained the rules governing the H.M. and the General Assembly as practiced by Occupy groups across the country. Once the “stack” (the queue of speakers) was established, a few people delivered news and requested support for various causes around the city. I don’t remember the particulars–I wish I had taken notes. But, to me, the content impressed me less than the fact that here were thousands of people sitting together who had worked out a way to share words en masse using only their voices and ears. I was enjoying a theatrical success in the moment of its execution. Whether the movement itself will be a social success remains to be seen.

I have tried to imagine putting on an explicitly theatrical performance by Human Microphone. I highly doubt it could be done on such a scale–imagine trying to attract a thousand people to a strictly theatrical performance where audience participation is required. This highlights the difference between theatre and a gathering of a populist movement; art will probably never have quite the same draw as the promise of social empowerment. Not that this is a bad thing–art and politics have never mixed well. (N.B. Yeats told Pound, roughly, “Do not become a senator of your country…” and then, of course, Pound had his own political mixups.)

For further reading, check out this Boston Globe article from last November about the Hand Signals used to facilitate General Assembly discussion.

LCD Soundsystem live in Philadelphia, Sept. 24, 2010


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In 2006, I celebrated my 18th birthday by throwing a huge dance party in the basement of my childhood home with all my high school friends. In preparation for the bash I spent a few hours the day before cleaning: I scoured the walls, excavated years of dust and cobwebs from the corners, and stuffed homeless junk behind the furnace, all to the tune of LCD Soundsystem’s self-titled 2005 debut album.

Now, I remember this epic clean every time I listen to that album, but especially “Yeah (Crass Version)”, because when that particular song came on as I was cleaning, I dropped my dustrag and had my own private rager all over the basement. I danced so hard that my ankles still felt a twinge the next day when the real party started. It was a time when I was still too self-conscious to really let loose on the dance floor, but I was blissfully alone in that basement, and the only thing that kept me from throwing myself in the air as high as I could was the low, nail-studded, splintery ceiling.

But at the Philadelphia Naval Yard on Friday night, when LCD ended their main set with “Yeah”–sustaining that climactic noisejam of bells and static we know and love so much, through green fog and strobelights and James Murphy’s shrilly chest-popping affirmatives (yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah-yeah-yeah-yeah, yeah)–lets just say it’s a good thing everyone around me was as ecstatically transported out of body as I, because I think I came crashing down on more than few toes in my jumps for joy.

Which makes me think of this guy near us at the beginning of the show. I can’t remember his name, but I should, because he was introducing himself to everyone around him. We’ll call him Oscar. Oscar told us all how happy he was we were all here together, that LCD Soundsystem was his favorite band, and so on. He was definitely on drugs, but his giddiness was contagious. When the band finally dribbled onstage one by one to start laying down the slow bongos, bells, handclaps, and the steady thud of an alternating major third bassbeat that opens “Dance Yrself Clean”, this dude starting apologizing in advance for any injuries caused by his impending loss of control: “When the beat drops, I’m gonna go nuts,” he said.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen a more perfect opener at a live show than this song–that aforementioned drop is so agonizingly delayed (3:08 in the album version) that the entire venue couldn’t help but go totally bananas when it did. Our friend Oscar needn’t have worried about the casualties of his own wayward limbs in that free-for-all.

“Dance Yrself Clean” is the first song on the most recent album, This Is Happening. LCD followed up with “Drunk Girls,” also a new track, then “Get Innocuous” from 2007′s Sound of Silver. I was totally jazzed by all this, but starting to worry they might leave older tunes aside to please an audience drawn from a newer fanbase. This worry was promptly dispelled, however, when they followed “Get Innocuous” with “Yr City’s a Sucker”. My assumption about the crowd seemed accurate, though, as there appeared to be a disappointing lack of audience recognition for the song, and hence of singing (i.e., shrieking–”a career in the HA HA HA HA!”) along.

Still, the band and its beats know how to take a crowd of indie-rock kids to that ecstasy I mentioned. By the time they got to “All My Friends” a few tunes later, it was like James Murphy et al (the band that evening included Patrick Mahoney, Gavin Russom, and others whose names I can’t recall) had taken us all to a green dimension composed purely of party energy and noise, where a drunk twenty-something might land on your head and you just don’t care. And to be sure it wasn’t just the songs they chose to play that took us there, but the order in which they were played: Murphy’s talents as a DJ and record-producer were evident in spades in the way the set rolled out one bombshell after another. Each song seemed perfectly chosen to follow the one before it, sometimes beat-matching when it worked perfectly (“You Wanted a Hit” into “Tribulations” was a seamless, delightful surprise), sometimes just bringing it down a notch when the crowd had to catch its breath a little (e.g. “I Can Change” after “Daft Punk Is Playing At My House”).

The one thing that continues to surprise me–to no end of pleasure when I think about it, which I’ve spent a lot of time doing since Friday night–is that “Yeah”, which I’ve long held to be the greatest dance song in the world, was topped for sheer glee-inducing awesomeness by “Losing My Edge” in middle of the three-song encore. With James Murphy standing up there in a metallic white spotlight, hair graying, gone a little paunchy, sounding off his record collection and telling us about those better looking, more talented people who are really, really nice, I couldn’t help but thinking I was looking at the coolest person that ever lived.

LCD Soundsystem at Making Time 10th Anniversary Celebration
Philadelphia Naval Yard
September 24, 2010

dance yrself clean
drunk girls
get innocuous
yr city’s a sucker
daft punk is playing at my house
i can change
all my friends
you wanted a hit

someone great
losing my edge

Women, Birds, Miro: We just don’t know what they are



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Dear Grammarians,
Please excuse the long untoward silence. I break it now with some thoughts on a painting by Joan Miro I saw yesterday at the Met.
I have never written on art before. I know very, very little of art history. The way I look at and talk about paintings is informed by my studies of poetry, particularly of modern poetry. I subscribe to the theory (which I’ve learned from James Longenbach, Ellen Bryant Voigt, Frank Bidart, and Robert Pinsky, primarily) that all art, literature, and music works by pattern and variation. A pattern is established, then a slight (or not so slight) addition, subtraction, fragmentation, or otherwise disruption of the pattern surprises the viewer/reader/listener, and this gives him enormous pleasure. This is to preface (excuse) the following naïve attempt at art criticism.
The Met has some great paintings by Joan Miro on the first floor of the Modern Art section, including this one.
The title is “Women, Birds, and a Star.” Miro has other paintings of women and birds. I try not to look at titlecards until after I take a good long look at the work. Usually I don’t find museum titlecards very helpful, but in this case the card quoted the artist, who said: “It might be a dog, a woman, or whatever. I don’t really care. Of course, while I am painting, I see a woman or a bird in my mind, indeed very tangibly a woman or a bird. Afterward, it’s up to you. 
Which are the women, and which the birds, in this painting? It’s even hard to determine how many individual figures there are. Are some or all of the women also birds and vice versa?
Look at the title again: “Women, Birds, and a Star.” A Star! Even indefinite, the article tells you there is ONE star—something definite and knowable somewhere among these diaphanous birdladies. So I look for it, and I find it without difficulty. There it is, top-right. Finding it is such a relief.
But this relief is extremely fleeting. Three dark, mostly-straight lines crossed to form the lonely star near the top of the canvas, tossed in almost like a doodle in the margin, an afterthought. 
So why should it concern us? There it is. A star. No question. In other words, not that interesting. Instead let’s get back to the women/birds question, which, because there seems to be no answer, can occupy us endlessly. But an endless argument over whether the thing before you is a woman or a bird can be exhausting, not to mention depressing. What the hell am I doing spending all this energy sorting out birds from women? What exactly am I accomplishing, here? These things look nothing like birds or women. What makes them so? Miro’s word? What am I, crazy? 
Wait, where did that star go? At least I know that’s a star. Oh, there it is—yep. That’s a star, all right. But what about these other things? . . . and so on.
I love this painting because in it, as in all the great art I’ve discovered, I recognize my life. An endless back-and-forth between two states of being: on the one hand, expending vast amounts of energy and time grappling with huge, ultimately unanswerable questions that can feel at times like a whole lot of nothing. On the other hand, fleeing from the big questions to find the concrete, knowable things around me—taking pleasure in the repetitive labor of my bookstore job, or the same subway ride I take every day, or the meditative joy of doing dishes. But the big questions draw me back in, because it’s through asking them and struggling with them that I define myself.
My friends and I are 22, just out of college, and trying to start our careers in theater here in New York. We’re working more than full time combining low-paying odd jobs with whatever unpaid theater work we can get. We can look forward to several years of this, at least, before we build up the connections and experience enough to get paying gigs in theater and even then, for years to come—as some of the older professionals we’ve met have told us—we’ll most likely struggle to pay the bills.
But we’re doing it not only because we love it—which we do—but because it’s who we are. We’re theater kids. And I for one could not tell you with any certainty what theater is, if you asked me (a topic for a later post, perhaps), but we’re asking the question and trying to answer it every day. We just need to take a break to play bananagrams once in a while.

addendum: Love and Imagination (and Javier Marias)

Wow! How thrilling it is when you read something that addresses EXACTLY the complex notion you’d been so recently grappling with! Yesterday I spent an hour walking in the sunbaked stillness of Riverside Park and reading Spanish writer Javier Marias’s beautiful short novel, The Man of Feeling. The following is from his afterword (with emphases added):

The Man of Feeling is a love story in which love is neither seen nor experienced, but announced and remembered. Can such a thing happen? Can something as urgent and unpostponable as love, which requires both presence and immediate consummation or consumption, be announced when it does not yet exist or truly remembered if it no longer exists? Or does the announcement itself and mere memory–now and still respectively–form part of that love? I don’t know, but I do believe that love is based in large measure on its anticipation and on its recollection. It is the feeling that requires the largest dose of imagination, not only when one senses its presence, when one sees it coming, and not only when the person who has experienced and lost love feels a need to explain it to him or herself, but also while that love is evolving and is in full flow. Let us say it is a feeling which always demands an element of fiction beyond that afforded by reality. In other words, love always has an imaginary side to it, however tangible or real we believe it to be at any given moment. It is always about to be fulfilled, it is the realm of what might be. Or, rather, what might have been.”

Somewhat related: I’ve been thinking about the idea of Platonic love and how incredibly confusing that idea is. I think it’s only employed by the utterly confused as an attempt to feel better about all the confusion (I’ve wholeheartedly used it myself in precisely those circumstances). What does it MEAN? I consulted Wikipedia, like you do for the most important matters. This is as far as I got (with an ironic sense of satisfaction):

“This article may be confusing or unclear to readers.”

Back to the thinking board, folks. And I most highly recommend The Man of Feeling or any other Marias if you can get your hands on him–New Directions publishes about eight or nine of his titles.


A long discussion with Sam last night about many things, including God, magic, and imagination: Agreeing, among other things, that imagination is the most powerful force in human experience, powerful enough that it creates “Gods,” which in turn are purported to create everything else, and that its (imagination’s) manifestation in “reality” is often so inexplicable yet so undeniable a force as to be deemed no less than “magic.”

(Another form of magic, we agreed, is love: as we would both define “magic” as a force or forces that are inexplicable, yet undeniable.)

Perhaps a counterpoint to this notion of imagination as magic–the other side of the same coin? or the yin to magic’s yang, the cheese to its macaroni?–is belief. Belief in imagined concepts–whether imagined by oneself or by another and borrowed–is itself a powerful act of the imagination. Belief undercuts the need for “rational” (i.e., scientific) explanation: In the words of the Judeo-Christian God, “I am that I am.” Zeus is king of Olympus because he is king of Olympus.

Sam and I are both insatiable readers of Wallace Stevens, whose utterly atheist philosophy nevertheless celebrates Gods, so long as they are acknowledged to be products of human imagination:

“The final belief is to believe in a fiction, which you know to be a fiction, there being nothing else. The exquisite truth is to know that it is a fiction and that you believe in it willingly” (Adagia).

Stevens described the imagination as a form of self-defense. To illustrate what that means exactly, I think of imagination as wish-fulfillment. When the willful, terrified human being cannot possibly discover the answer to a vitally important question such as, “what shall become of me when I die?” there are two choices: suicide, thus to find out first-hand, or else to invent the best possible (wishful) answer. But having done so, it must live its life in such a way that accords with that answer–and thus we have religiosity, penitence, prayer, virtue, and faith–all that good stuff. If the being’s imagination is strong enough, it connects it’s day-to-day life practice as evidence to support its imagined answer, and the being is at peace. (This is borrowing a bit from what I recall about asceticism from Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, which I read in Modern Social Theory last fall).

If the imagination is not strong enough, it seeks outside assistance–in other words, someone else who might lend their stronger imagination to the cause. Thus, belief becomes a thing that is shared. The power of communicated, shared, belief is incredible, as we know–the driving force of civilizations and genocides.

What if everyone, each human being, were able to imagine their own wish-fulfillment, without requiring the justification and support of a community of co-believers? What if belief were utterly individual? Can you IMAGINE such a species?–would they be better off, more advanced, than us–or would they lack community?


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