Archive for the ‘poetry’ Tag

Twitter fix

Dear Loyal Readers:

You’ve probably noticed a slower pace in this space recently; I’ve been immersed in a couple of projects, including getting MediaBugs off the ground. But if you’re on Twitter, you know how easy it is these days to keep the conversation going, at least 140 characters at a time, and indeed I’ve found it to be the best channel for sharing thoughts and links of interest in the interim. (I plan to return to more active blogging again soon.) Several times daily (on most days) you can follow my finger on the digital pulse here.

If you’re a Twitter user you also know how easy it is to miss a million things in the collective news stream you’ve let flow; to try to take in everything would be like drinking from a fire hose all day long. You may not even realize your own effect on the flow, and it can be illuminating to take a look back over your collective contribution. The sum of the parts can almost start to take on a flarf-like quality. Here are some recent bits from my adventures in micro-blogging, with lots of links for your browsing delight and/or distraction…


well, there goes another “entire copy desk” at a major newspaper about 3 hours ago

“The daily activity most injurious to happiness is commuting” about 4 hours ago

Seder at the White House sounds pretty cool about 5 hours ago

Jesus was way hungry 12:23 PM Mar 29th

war gaming Iran. Conclusion? Not a great idea. 11:33 AM Mar 29th

vivid Jim Marshall photos: Jimi … and Johnny 10:09 PM Mar 25th

the dark side of nanotech? 5:43 PM Mar 24th

global warming upshot: ocean swallows disputed island in Bay of Bengal 4:21 PM Mar 24th

uh, not just anyone can hope to dodge home foreclosure with the help of PETA 4:13 PM Mar 24th

some say blogging is dead, respected bloggers included. @scottros says not so fast 4:03 PM Mar 24th

you are watching your TV and surfing the Web at the same time, aren’t you. 11:09 AM Mar 22nd

finally got up the nerve to watch “The Cove” last night. Extraordinary film. Check it out, spread the word. 10:02 AM Mar 22nd

7 years of war in Iraq today. Consider the names & faces of the dead: 9:18 AM Mar 19th

Ailes to Fox staff unhappy w/insane Glenn Beck: “We prefer people in the tent not dumping on other people in the tent” 11:22 AM Mar 18th

RIP Alex Chilton 12:42 AM Mar 18th

from the dystopian California files: more than 23,000 school teachers get pink slipped 6:00 PM Mar 15th

think twice before doing crimes at your keyboard 12:55 PM Mar 15th

French bread was spiked with LSD in CIA experiment: 8:48 AM Mar 12th

Congrats to Haida artist Robert Davidson for receiving the 2010 Governor General’s Awards in Visual and Media Arts 1:43 PM Mar 11th

the ultimate crime deterrent: San Quentin reviewed on Yelp (Indeed, the food apparently is “horrible”) 1:49 PM Feb 23rd

how many Tweets per day now? Oh, about 50 million. That is, 600 *every second*… (via @robinsloan) 12:56 PM Feb 22nd


Go here to drink more from the fire hose!


The world according to Flarf

After I posted about the strange poetry of search yesterday, I was happy to receive an email from my friend Alex Davis, a poet and former classmate in the MFA program at University of San Francisco, with some clarification about the realm into which I had stumbled. Turns out there is a whole literary “movement” built on search engine detritus. (Of course there is.) It’s known as Flarf. It dates all the way back to the beginning of the millennium.

Apparently the method of the flarfists “was to mine the Internet with odd search terms and then distill the results into often hilarious and sometimes disturbing poems, plays, and other texts.” This was hardly a new artistic impulse. But its digital extension — a kind of Cut-up 2.0, if you will — certainly seemed to capture the tenor of these times. According to flarf’s Wikipedia entry, “Early or ‘old-school’ flarf is marked by a certain distinctive tonal ‘dialect’: it is often peppered with phrases like ‘aw YEEEAHH,’ intentional typos, mildly offensive language (e.g., childish references to bodily functions), oblique political ‘statements,’ and incongruous animal imagery.”

Indeed. Or, as one early practitioner put it, the dominant tenor of flarf could be described as “a kind of corrosive, cute, or cloying awfulness. Wrong. Un-P.C. Out of control. ‘Not okay.'”

(Lordy, I don’t really even want to touch the later breaking phenomenon of Twitter poetry: “Situations of stimulation often climax I just cant handle your seed Love is held like hidden treasure – 3:41 PM Aug 16th from web”)

"Eventual Slide" (SwBk, issue 3)But let us leap from the realm of theory. Back in 2006, issue 3 of Switchback, the fine literary publication from USF, featured “The Ways to Switchback,” which made flarfingly grand use of phrases that people had entered into search engines to reach the publication’s site. (The image to the left, featured in that issue, is “Eventual Slide,” by artist Jeremiah Stansbury.) See such points of departure as “japanese toilet noise disguise” and “addicted to picking ear wax” and the essay-inspiring “does a chimpanzee dream?”

The strange poetry of search, host of this site, has a pretty handy stats tool for tracking how denizens of the World Wide Web find their way to one’s little corner of cyberspace. It includes a daily rundown of search terms used to get there. On one level, this seems to provide a certain poetic measure of one’s blogging orbit. On another, it provides a peek into the human psyche of the digital age: Late at night, in the privacy of their homes, what do folks really go looking for when they type a few words into Google’s search box and click? (OK, beyond the most obvious.)

Here are a few odd favorites, a stanza of phrases that apparently led readers here recently. What it says about this blog and/or the people navigating to it, I’m not exactly sure.

air strike on own street address
tallest wave ever
of course i am sexual
caught smuggling weapons into mexico
computer damage marks
winter park beetlekill
journalism future truth
shi tzus no canada
images of torture of the grave
aerial marijuana national forest
unmarked s.u.v. at michael jacksons home
big english street signs
mumbai international airport pics
future cruise ships
hot mexicans
political power in the usa

Postcard from Wyoming

Did Joe Biden just give Israel the green light to attack Iran? Is Sarah Palin completely cuckoo? Have we reached the saturation point on Michael Jackson yet?

Apologies, dear readers, but I don’t have a lot to say about current affairs at the moment. (Anyway, Palin’s baffling resignation speech more than speaks for itself.) What I do have are a few photos I took during recent travels with friends in the great state of Wyoming. Enjoy…


July 4th festivities in the town of Saratoga:



At the bar inside the Hotel Wolf:

Twilight commemoration involving ignition:



Thunderstorm approaching over Laramie:

At the base of Medicine Bow peak:


This is your senator on Twitter

In a column last weekend Matt Bai argued that Capitol Hill’s growing infatuation with the micro-blogging service is the last thing D.C. needs. His analysis in terms of the political culture is persuasive. But poke around on a few politicians’ Twitter pages and there’s a simple reason the trend deserves to be voted down posthaste: Washington’s minute-by-minute musings are, for the most part, epically dull.

mccaskill mccain issa twitterbird palin

A universe more than 140 characters has been typed about the greater Twitter phenomenon. At this late date the triviality of bazillions of “tweets” is no secret. But additionally there’s even something micro-insulting about the daily minutiae dispatched by elected officials. It purports to be about transparency, or even intimacy, but essentially it’s a ceaseless stream of micro-campaigning. Even if it’s utterly uninteresting:

Sen. Chris Dodd:
Holding an Executive Session in the Banking Committee to vote on a few HUD, Treasury, and Export-Import Bank nominations.
7:17 AM Apr 28th from txt

Sen. Chuck Grassley:
4hr healthcare mtg turned into 6 hr mtg. Took up all day. Watch my cable show tonight on mediacom. 630pm CST. U can ask questions.
3:50 PM Apr 29th from txt

Rep. Steve Israel:
Heading to DC. This week’s legislative schedule: hate crimes bill and credit card consumer protections.
12:17 PM Apr 27th from twitterrific

Rep. Darrell Issa:
On the way home to San Diego sunshine (fingers crossed…but we need the rain!)
about 3 hours ago from TweetDeck

As a member of the opposition party, at least Issa is willing to add a tad of zing:
Had fun watching the staff photoshop. Let’s just say Obama could’ve saved us a cool million using that instead of buzzing manhattan in AF1!
2:42 PM Apr 28th from TweetDeck

There is indeed a certain awkwardness to some of it given the pretense of informal and personal. See John McCain, in an oddly self-aggrandizing moment:
Sec. Napolitano confirmed Swine Flu has spread to 4 new states including AZ. I call on the Admin to do more to prevent further outbreaks!
08:42 AM Apr 29

Of course, staffers are probably behind much of the messaging. Though apparently not in Claire McCaskill’s case:
I have strict policy. I write every tweet and tumblr blog. These are my thoughts and my words. Really. For good or for bad……
5:06 AM Apr 28th from web

For good or for bad, or, as Bai noted, for her fast food faves:
I get old style crunchy taco, and a chicken burrito supreme & Diet Coke at Taco Bell. Miss those tostados.
2:06 PM Mar 12th from web

snoopIt seems Twitter functions much more effectively as a portal into the world of celebrity entertainment. There must be a good reason that CNN is locked in a popularity showdown with Ashton Kutcher. Or that Snoop Dogg has 195,862 followers:

been 4 dayz since been of here. Happy 420 ma twizzles may all your smokn dreams come true!! yeezzzziiirr!!
1:25 PM Apr 20th from web

Fa shizzle.

At times Twitter has proven strikingly useful as a tool for disseminating information; its profile shot up per a role in covering major news events such as when terrorists struck in Mumbai and when a jetliner ditched into the Hudson River. As an additional tool for journalists — or for anyone seeking to report or share information quickly — its potential is undeniable.

If you’re at a loss, though, to find much that’s culturally meaningful about the Tweet-geist at this point — I confess that I am, still preferring my short-form poetry on the page or in person — New York Magazine appears eager to help with its freshly posted Twitter Approval Matrix. Apparently not many pols have made the cut. Meanwhile, you’d think that someone commanding as much attention as Sarah Palin — who just jumped into the Twitter fray this week — might give the lot a boost. As of this post, her first six tweets aren’t even interestingly banal enough to quote.

You can find your favorite lawmaker’s latest by way of Tweet Congress.
Don’t all click at once.

Google, Kindle and The Library of Babel

Technological innovation seems almost strangely commonplace these days, from say, contact lenses that could layer data directly onto your view of the world to robots fighting far-flung wars to computer systems perhaps smart enough to compete on “Jeopardy!” All astonishing developments in their own right, and yet the most profound change of our times may yet be purely informative in nature: The digitization of all that we read.

At the University of San Francisco on Sunday I participated in a symposium on “Life after the MFA” for students graduating the writing program. Unsurprisingly, the technological upending of books, magazines and newspapers was a particular focus. Fellow panelist Patrick Dunagan, a poet who works as a specialist at the USF library, spoke with some alarm about the rate at which books and print periodicals there are going the way of the dodo. The idea is that many are being replaced digitally. I expressed a bit of surprise to him about this afterward, whereby he asked me when I last conducted any research in a library. Point taken. If only Borges were still hanging around and could rejoin the discussion.


One theme I hoped to suggest in my part of the talk was that print vs. digital isn’t a zero-sum equation. We can still love books and newspapers while getting charged about the possibilities of digital publishing. In many ways the latter remains a Wild West — and without a doubt has blown holes in some old ways of doing business. But in my view the rising digital infosphere is far more expansive and generative than it is destructive.

In a recent essay published in the Wall Street Journal, author Steven Johnson explores both the thrill and potential chill of electronic books, a fast-growing realm thanks to Amazon’s innovative e-book reader, the Kindle, and Google’s Book Search service, home to approximately 10 million scanned titles and counting. One exciting aspect Johnson flags with regard to ideas and research:

Before too long, you’ll be able to create a kind of shadow version of your entire library, including every book you’ve ever read — as a child, as a teenager, as a college student, as an adult. Every word in that library will be searchable. It is hard to overstate the impact that this kind of shift will have on scholarship. Entirely new forms of discovery will be possible. Imagine a software tool that scans through the bibliographies of the 20 books you’ve read on a specific topic, and comes up with the most-cited work in those bibliographies that you haven’t encountered yet.

But there will be pitfalls, too, especially with respect to evolving market forces. The all-powerful search engine that is Google, and the ways in which it guides users to digital content of all sorts, could impact how books actually get written:

Writers and publishers will begin to think about how individual pages or chapters might rank in Google’s results, crafting sections explicitly in the hopes that they will draw in that steady stream of search visitors.

Individual paragraphs will be accompanied by descriptive tags to orient potential searchers; chapter titles will be tested to determine how well they rank. Just as Web sites try to adjust their content to move as high as possible on the Google search results, so will authors and publishers try to adjust their books to move up the list.

What will this mean for the books themselves? Perhaps nothing more than a few strategically placed words or paragraphs. Perhaps entire books written with search engines in mind. We’ll have to see.

A strength of Johnson’s essay is that he doesn’t pass judgment on these possibilities; he concentrates on laying out in lucid terms what he sees coming. (Another recent piece of his, on how the web’s information ecosystem changes how we get our news, is also well worth reading.)

The latter segment above, under the subhead “Writing for Google,” got me thinking about a worn adage heard in MFA programs everywhere: “Write what you know.” If that advice translates fundamentally to writing from a place of experience and passion, it could take on fresh meaning in the digital future — when the suggestion to “Write what you can search engine optimize” may well become a growing temptation.

UPDATE: Some wonder if Google already has too much sway with its Book Search service, including the U.S. Department of Justice.

This is David Foster Wallace

On Tuesday, Little, Brown and Company publishes a book version of “This Is Water: Some Thoughts, Delivered on a Significant Occasion, about Living a Compassionate Life,” the celebrated commencement speech David Foster Wallace gave to the 2005 graduating class at Kenyon College. The pocket-sized book breaks up the nearly 4,000-word speech into digestible pieces on the page, some as brief as a single phrase. It’s an intriguing approach: In one sense, practical to publishing the essay in book form while drawing out its epigrammatic layers. At the same time, it seems rather un-DFW — contrary to the hyper-digressive, cascading prose for which he is so well-known.

Wallace giving a reading in 2006 in San Francisco. (Wikimedia Commons.)

Wallace giving a reading in 2006 in San Francisco. (Wikimedia Commons.)

Whether Wallace would approve of the presentation we probably can’t know. But it highlights a radiant directness that was often in danger of obscuring beneath his towering intellect. (It’s worth noting that there are some subtle differences to be found in other versions of the commencement speech floating out there; I contacted the publisher seeking clarification on how the text was prepared, but a publicist responded that Wallace’s longtime editor, Michael Pietsch, was declining to be interviewed about the book.)

Wallace’s focus was on the far from easy task of living life consciously in the adult world. He begins with a “didactic little parable-ish story,” as he puts it, about young fish who are oblivious to the environs through which they swim. More than just challenging the conventions of the commencement genre, Wallace makes use of them with a fierce sincerity: “I submit that this is what the real, no-bullshit value of your liberal arts education is supposed to be about: How to keep from going through your comfortable, prosperous, respectable adult life dead, unconscious, a slave to your head and to your natural default setting of being uniquely, completely, imperially alone, day in and day out.”

Segments like these carry an added poignancy in the wake of Wallace’s death by suicide last fall at the age of 46. Rather than a matter of morality or religion or the afterlife, he went on to tell the young graduates, “the capital-T Truth is about life before death. It is about making it to thirty, or maybe even fifty, without wanting to shoot yourself in the head.”

More striking, though, is his evocative insight and humor. If the students really do learn how to think and pay attention in life, he tells them, “It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, hot, slow, consumer-hell-type situation as not only meaningful, but sacred, on fire with the same force that made the stars — compassion, love, the subsurface unity of all things. Not that that mystical stuff’s necessarily true: The only thing that’s capital-T True is that you get to decide how you’re going to try to see it.”

The pleasure of experiencing Wallace’s speech again underscored a realization I had when reading D.T. Max’s lengthy look back at Wallace’s life: The world deserves a published collection of David Foster Wallace’s correspondences, too. Various bits of it appearing in the recent New Yorker article — with fellow writer Jonathan Franzen, his literary agent Bonnie Nadell and others — cast additional light on Wallace’s humanity and highly emotive lexicon.

While I’ve admired some of his fiction, I’ve always thought Wallace was at his best with essays and literary journalism; as I wrote about here recently, gems found in his private correspondences show how the epistolary form (actual letters as well as email) brought out a more direct spirit of his, too.

The back cover of “This Is Water” asserts that the essay was Wallace’s answer to “the challenge of collecting all he believed about life and lasting fulfillment into a brief talk.” The inflated language of marketing copy, it would seem — Wallace’s prolific, restive consciousness probably could never be so perfectly distilled. A deeper look at his personal correspondences, meanwhile, could only add to the picture of a life and work tragically cut short and revered by so many.

Precisely the poet we needed

Kay Ryan was in town for a reading on Friday night at the San Francisco Center for the Book. It was packed. It occurred to me it was absolutely right she’d become our U.S. Poet Laureate in a time of so much turmoil near and far. The universe has a way of balancing itself, even when it seems barely to be standing on one foot. Some comic concision to cut through all the gloomy cacophony—just the thing.

jamjarI’ve been an admirer for years of Ryan’s pithy assessments. They seem even more necessary right now, and not just for their luminous resuscitation of dead language and reanimation of cliché. As she put it on Friday, one of her interests has been considering extremity and trying to “cool things down” a bit. Claims found in “Ripley’s Believe it or Not!” became the source for her latest collection The Jam Jar Lifeboat & Other Novelties Exposed. The poem “Murder at Midnight” departs from Ripley’s assertion that “If everyone who was told about it told two other people within 12 minutes, everybody on earth would know about it before morning.” Determines Ryan:

But people would begin getting it
a little bit wrong. Long before daylight,
the ‘murder at midnight’ would be
‘sugar stolen outright.’ The fate
of the dead man would not extend
beyond his gate. Only those
right now missing his little habits,
his footfall, his sleeping noises,
will know, and they can’t really tell;
news doesn’t really travel very well.

Whether Ripley’s math quite holds up under scrutiny I can’t say, but no matter. This morning a friend from a group of old high school buddies emailed to suggest that we all start using the trendy messaging service Twitter to banter and keep in touch on a more frequent basis. With three email accounts, IM, Facebook and a blog already running me apace on the digital information wheel, I’m thinking I’ll gently decline for now, and refer him to Sasha Cagen’s fine essay posted yesterday, This Is Your Brain on Twitter.

Nothing to fear but everything itself?

With the stock market sitting at half the level it did a decade ago, and with new surveys showing carnage in consumer confidence and housing, I’m struck by the saturated language of the national nightmare. (It’s not just the apocalyptic headlines driving us to despair.) This story from the Associated Press today gathers the poetry of the pain — after its lead sentence announcing that American confidence went into “free fall” in February, the relatively short dispatch uses each of the following terms at least twice:

fear (2)homer_thescream
decline (2)
plummet (2)
plunge (2)
collapse (2)
severe (2)
slash (2)
shrinking (2)
battered (2)
suffer (3)
drop (4)
sink/sank (4)
worried (4)
low (6)

Superlative phrases in the story include “massive job cuts,” “driven to their lowest level ever” (consumer expectations) and “the largest drop in its 21-year history” (a national home price index).

Recently a friend sent me an email wondering why President Obama hasn’t done more to talk up confidence as he’s traveled around promoting his economic recovery plan. The answer probably lies most in the calculus of Capitol Hill, and the political pressure apparently needed to pass his legislative agenda. There’s also Obama’s admirable position that he won’t sugarcoat the truth about our troubles the way the administration before him did to such disastrous effect.

But it’s a daunting balancing act with perception at this point. You don’t have to be an economist to sense how the downward spiral of fear could itself become deeply damaging. (If it hasn’t already — as Robert Shiller warned in a recent column, a Great Depression narrative “could easily end up as a self-fulfilling prophecy.”) And Obama’s political opponents increasingly are able to agitate using raw emotional appeal: Last night CNN’s in-house ideologue Lou Dobbs hammered at Obama’s “fear mongering” and accused him of repeatedly talking down the markets and economy. In the New York Times today David Brooks feigns sympathy for the president while suggesting that Team Obama is in way over its head. (“I hope the president succeeds even though he probably won’t!” is the message.)

Many will be watching intently tonight when Obama addresses a joint session of Congress for the first time. The only positive polling in sight shows that he’s still got the thumbs-up on job approval from a decisive majority of the public. It’s a remarkable measure of confidence floating on a tide of ugly numbers — Americans believe Obama will sail us in the right direction, even with no horizon in view.