Tuesday, May 28, 2013

_What Should We Do With Our Brain?_ : Philip, Catherine Malabou, & my new book on Alzheimer's

                                                 [Philip, post-surgery]

Last week, Lori Yancura (my co-instructor of a course on dementia/Alzheimer's last semester) and I took her dog Philip to the Hi`olani Alzheimer's Care Center in Honolulu. A group of residents sat in a circle in the common area, the parrot "Sweetie" squawking on occasion, or punching his beak against the glass, making a clicking sound. Each resident wore a cream-colored anklet, lest he or she wander away from the unit (the elevator requires a code, and the Alzheimer's wing is not on the ground floor).  Lori let Philip off his leash; he greeted each resident in turn, eliciting reactions from joy to "he's going to bite me," or even "he's going to bite my pussy," as one woman said with Alzheimer's inappropriateness. For an hour he earned treats for his tours around the inner circle. One woman said repeatedly, "let me try!"and then, "What's his name?" She had "had a dog in her past," a phrase that sounded familiar to me from a communication I once got about my mother. Another woman said, "I'm not an animal person," to which another said, "me either." But, for the most part, the hour was happy. Only one woman ate the treat that was intended for Philip, after asking for a glass of water so that (one gathered) she could "take it."


In her short book, What Should We Do With Our Brain?, Catherine Malabou writes: "An Alzheimer's patient is the nemesis of connectionist society, the counter-model of flexibility. He is presented as a disaffiliated person: errant, without memory, asocial, without recourse. One observes in his brain a thinning of connections, the accumulation of fibrils inside neurons, and the presence of senile plaques--all factors contributing to rigidification and loss of suppleness, which, paradoxically, lead to a chaotic wandering." She relates the image of the Alzheimer's wanderer with that of homeless, illegal immigrant, or unemployed persons. "In fact," she continues, it is no longer possible to distinguish rigorously on an ideological level between those suffering a neurodegenerative disorder and those with major social handicaps." Her paragraph moves with typical Malabou-ian speed, leaping synapses as a hiker might rocks in a narrow stream bed in advance of a rainstorm. Malabou tries throughout to separate the notion of "flexibility" (inherently passive, operating on workers to make them do the bidding of global capital) and "plasticity" (active, resistant, involved in recreating identity by way of creative destruction--plastique being the French word for explosive).She finds plasticity even in the early stages of Alzheimer's, as I would too in noting the artistic richness of that phase of the illness.


My high school English teacher passed me a copy of Proust, said, "read a page of this." I had never seen anything like it, the looping sentences, meditations wrapped inside the barest cocoon of plot, a memory obsession so much like my own. That obsession dates back as long as I can remember, as if an obsession with memory pre-dates memory itself. The loss of a stuffed animal that so haunted me when I was four was probably just the conscious manifestation of a sense that had originally had no language involved in it.  Language and memory cannot exist without each other, can they? I'll be teaching "Combray" (at least) in a class in the Fall, if I get enough Honors students. So I'm reading Proust now, finding those madeleines and cobblestones in the text: "oh, I remember this," having almost always to do with a moment Marcel recollects his past, suddenly, accidentally. After eating his mother's madeleine, Marcel writes of "this all-powerful joy . . . connected with the taste of the tea and the cake . . . Where did it come from? What did it mean? How could I seize and apprehend it?" (60).


That "all-powerful joy" reminds me of the joy expressed by Alzheimer's patients--those who can still feel it--in the presence of a dog or a flower. Whether or not the patient had a dog or flower in her past, what is triggered is not memory but presence. A presence the rest of us interpret as memory, perhaps. When does memory simply become another mode of presence? How can I reconcile, bind together, what I learn from Malabou's dialectical mode of thinking and the Buddhist texts, like Norman Fischer's new book on Lojong, which call the very notion of identity into question? Where does a notion of resistance, so important to Malabou, fruitfully work together with a notion of non-resistance, crucial to Fischer and other Buddhists?  Perhaps it is in this moment where recovering memory so resembles being in the present, where history emerges as something stronger than it had been when it was. 


My new book is out from Singing Horse Press.  It's an extended meditation on my mother's Alzheimer's and on her illness, its social and cultural effects, as well as on ways in which to write the disease without appropriating it (taking oneself as the center of the story, not the person who is ill, in other words). It is the second volume of my Dementia Blog, but stands apart from it, is more playful that it was, more various.  It's as if the accelerated diminishment of my mother's condition, her fall into silence, obliged a formal excess.  A plasticity, not a flexibility, I hope.  Here are the books' covers, and also a link to the press and to Small Press Distribution. I wish I'd had Malabou's thinking on plasticity as I wrote these books, her sense that even in its destruction, the brain/mind creates itself anew.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Dead Jack at the Hawai`i Book & Music Festival, May 18-19

After years of nothing to do at the annual festival, the jackpot (so to speak) seemed to find me this year, when I moderated a panel on documentary poetry and participated in a reading by Jack London is Dead authors. Then I spoke on a panel whose working title, "The Right to Write," was perhaps more accurate than the final title, something to do with one place and many voices. Some notes on the path I wore around the Honolulu Hale area:

The Documentary Poetry panel: Gary Pak, Amalia Bueno, Wing Tek Lum.

Wing Tek Lum's new Bamboo Ridge book is out, called The Nanjing Massacre: Poems.
Don't let the flowery cover fool you. This book joins the genealogy of Charles Reznikoff's Holocaust, which comes almost directly out of Nuremberg Trial testimony about Nazi atrocities. It also comes out of the work of Iris Chang, who was scheduled to come to Hawai`i just months before her suicide in 2004. Lum has worked on the project for fifteen years, researching, re-imagining, traveling to China, writing down the details of massacres and rapes and pillage. As moderator of the panel he was on, I had a good view of the audience. At some point during his reading, I saw heads bow, bodies turn as if away from the words being used as blunt instruments. Lum has never been a poet of anything other than plain speech. In these poems, such speech becomes a kind of weapon.  "It's a great work against war," one woman said. There's an element of massacre porn to it, too, one that makes me uncomfortable, but  this book demands attention in ways that most books do not, cannot.

Jack London is Dead: Contemporary Euro-American Poetry of Hawai`i (and some stories): Saturday

The reading for the book was sparsely attended, but the reception was warm.  Afterwards, Neal Milner, emeritus professor of Political Science and local actor (originally from Milwaukee, Wisconsin), offered us a story.  He said he once performed at a senior center alongside a local Asian storyteller; his story was about being a Jewish storyteller in Hawai`i (where there are very few Jews).  At the end of the story, a tiny old woman, about 80 pounds, asked if he would come to meet her church group to explain Jews.  He said no, he could not, but recommended someone who might be able to talk about Judaism.  You know, the old woman said, looking a the other storyteller, there are two kinds of Jews, ones like him (Neal) and those who killed Christ. The incident came so out of context to how Neal had always imagined anti-semitism--the woman was too old, too frail, and this was Hawai`i, after all--that he couldn't get angry.

That's a parable about Hawai`i, by the way.

On Sunday, I joined the panel about writing in this place, who can, who should not, and how they ought to do it. This kind of conversation always invites in the "ought/should/must" verbs in ways that make me nervous. The panel was organized by Craig Howes and included Brandy Nalani McDougall, Puakea Nogelmeier, myself, and Jean Toyama.  To over-simplify the matter and to anticipate Ruth Hsu's question about how we define our identities, Brandy spoke about Hawaiian literature, how it was suppressed like the Hawaiian language for many decades, about efforts to revive it; Puakea, who comes originally from Minnesota but is an authority on Hawaiian language and culture, addressed the issue with his usual wit (I confess to being too anxious to listen accurately). I talked about the Jack London is Dead anthology, namely about being a Euro-American writer in Hawai`i, and then Jean Toyama talked about the linked poems she's written with three other woman, published by Bamboo Ridge Press.

I hadn't known how Craig Howes would frame the panel, exactly.  He bobbed and weaved when I asked. But he began our hour by alluding to a mythical (and also real, alas) character who was much talked about in the 1990s in our department, the "747-poet." This is the poet who flies to Hawai`i (on a now out-of-date airplane), sits in Waikiki for a week, then returns home to write The Authoritative Poem about Hawai`i. I remember running into one of these in the American Book Review once. It was by a poet who had spent more than a week here, maybe a semester even, but his poem was about sitting in Waikiki realizing why people in Hawai`i can't think.  Too sunny.  Too warm.  I remember feeling sick about it. So I asked the audience to visualize this interloper poet.  What's his gender? (male!) and what's his race? (white!).  There you have it. The problem, I suggested, is that this stereotype carries over to writers who've lived here for decades, have families here, sometimes grew up in Hawai`i. (How long you've lived here, your family's lived here, matters always.) But, because they're "haole," their work is often not thought to honor the place, but to appropriate from its traditions.  This led me into a version of my Jack London is Dead spiel about trying to find an audience for work if you are not local (a category developed in opposition to haole) or Hawaiian (a category more recently developed in opposition to haole and to local Asian). I talked about Mason Donald's poem about growing up in Hilo and being told he should write about potatoes (he ate rice). Judging by the faces of the audience members, the reception was mixed.

Since then, I've been talking to other members of the dead Jack group.  Is that what we might call ourselves? Some issues have come up, including a persistent discomfort with category, the question of how long one needs to live here before one is permitted a voice, and the question of audience.  Here was my response (someone amended) to the category issue:

--I'm with you on the dangers of category, and I fought with myself over doing the anthology in the first place because of that feeling, and because Tinfish has always been about creating conversations between poets who might not know of each other, not those who seem alike in some immediate way.  But I've also come to think that there ought to be a place for "us" to think about our position here,  as well as a foundation for talking to other people about what we do, who we are. We may think we are our own selves, but we are also the selves others demand that we be. If we do not like those constructions, or if we simply want to think through those constructions, we need a space in which to do it.  The reactions I get seem to assume that white writers are dead and still appropriating this place, or that they are dead but that it's great they existed so they could influence indigenous Pacific writers.  It's worth pointing out (despite the wicked obviousness of it) that we exist.

On the fact that I spoke at length without using the word "haole," as one woman noted in the Q&A and another dead Jack poet picked up on:

--Yes, I told the woman who asked me how I'd managed to talk for so long without using the h-word and I explained (in part) that the term "Euro-American" reintroduces culture into the equation.  Whites and haole are seen as being without culture--except insofar as they appropriate it--and that's simply not the case.  What I didn't say is that my husband grew up here, and so hates the h-word that I hardly ever utter it in the house.

[Tom Gammarino, front, Julia Wieting, Eric Paul Schaffer, Evan Nagle, Jaimie Gusman, authors]

On the question of not having an audience here, to a poet much younger than myself:

-- I have found that issue so dispiriting over many years.  In most literary communities there are gifts and then reciprocal gifts, exchanges, thoughts.  I have found here (and too often in my publishing practice) that the gift is taken and there's no response (or worse).  This is not to say I expect grand gifts in return, but I do expect to be treated with respect.  So I know where you're coming from on that.  Just keep sending work out.  Your audience will find you. The conversation will happen.

I want, now, to move past this particular conversation, which has replayed itself over and again since well before my time here, 1990-. There's a horrible seductiveness to thinking about it incessantly, as if the possibility that one does NOT belong holds the key to whatever ails the place, or oneself. But of course that's seduction, not love. Love is what keeps many of us here, despite the difficulties, sometimes because of them. Not having such conversations is hardly a remedy for having them awkwardly. Which reminds me, I need to pick up my daughter from soccer practice now. Tomorrow morning we go hiking in Ka`a`awa with her grandfather Brad.

For a fun take on the "747-poem," see Pam Brown's Wild Honey chapbook: here.


As I left my panel, having talked at length about the need to make a place for Euro-American writers in Hawai`i, I turned the corner and found this woman's teeshirt staring me in the face.  I asked if I could took her picture, and she said yes. I hereby appropriate it, and add irony, because that's the wisdom of my--and her--tradition.

Friday, May 17, 2013

What to expect when you're expecting a poetry book, or, how to talk to a poet about her new publication

There are many kinds of conversations that nearly no one knows how to have.  What to say about a friend's or family member's adoption?  What to say about a miscarriage?  What to say about a death in the family? And, perhaps surprisingly, what to say about a friend's or family member's new book of poems?

As someone who has gone through all of these life-altering events, I can assure you that such conversations usually go badly.  It's not that people are cruel or unusual, just that they don't know what to say. Schools, however rigorous, do not give credits for "kind speech." I count myself among the category "people," by the way. Sorry scripts get repeated in all of these situations, scripts that we might do well to forget.

I'll skip the clichés about the healing process and the getting over it and the it's nature's way and why didn't you adopt an American baby and how much did it all cost and at least you have other children and the weather's really nice just enjoy it and don't look so down just suck it up it's been a couple of weeks and there's always next time and you mean he's still on the answering machine and the rest of it and concentrate here on the least among these conversations, namely what we talk about when we talk about new poetry books.

Here is what the new poet sees and hears when she hands her new book over to friends and family:

--a face that begins to change shape, and eyes that begin to dilate with impulses of fight or flight;

--a voice that hesitates, sounds confused, and then erupts into the certainty of phrases like: "you know I don't understand poetry"; "you know I never did well in English in school"; "wow, that's a lovely cover, but I'm sure I won't get it"; "do you write for other poets?"; "you know I read some of the poems twice and still didn't get it"; "I just don't know what these poems mean";

--or, occasionally, a tell-tale blurt of "I hate poetry." Though, truth be told, that's usually from the kids.

The biologist who was on Colbert last night said that one bodily function that belongs exclusively to humans is perspiration. We sweat.  Well, poets know this well, because not only do poets sweat when they read in public, but they see sweat everywhere around them when they show off their new book. I just found a definition of this sweaty state of terror, here.  Metrophobia, or the fear of poems. And oh my, here's another from the Huffington Post.

Or they hear nothing at all.

Because poets are gifted with great imaginations, they tend to take these responses with utmost seriousness.  They come to feel like the dart board, flinching as each dart (who knew there were so many?) achieves its mark. They are not ever-fixèd marks, but simply targets for the unpracticed rhetoricians they love the most. Having worked for years to perfect the art of communication, or at least years of doing things with words, they find themselves assured that yes, the book's very pretty, but no, they're busy on the evening of the launch. And what does it all mean?

So, in the interest of preventing some of these difficult conversations, I have unsolicited advice for both partner in this unhappy dance.  To the poet I say, expect as much and do not return sweat with more sweat. Don't sweat it. Remember that people are scared of poetry, as scared as they are of death and dismemberment, that what first comes out of their mouths often tends not to sound kind.

To the non-poet, confronted by a book of poems that causes sweat to form on brow and upper lip, for whom poetry has always inspired fear, who feels that he or she ought to love poetry but simply does not, and who, in that not loving, feels something more akin to hatred or aversion than to appreciation, who yearns to understand meaning but cannot find it anywhere in poems. whose high school teacher told her she was stupid for what she said about Keats and whose college professor gave her Z's and scrawled insults on her feeble poems: take a deep breath, and then ask some questions of the poet before you:

--why do you write poems?

--please read one of your poems to me and then tell me where you were when you wrote it, why you wrote it, and what you'd like a reader to get from it.

--do you follow a pattern when you write?  Why?

--why do you think the designer made the book the size and shape she did?  Why the cover design?  Why the font size, letter shape?

And practice some exercises in appreciation that have nothing to do with meaning:

--I like the sound of that poem.

--There's an image here I really love.

--I can hear your sense of humor in this poem.

I hear someone say that last phrase to me about my kids.  We adopted them, so they aren't spitting images of us.  But our senses of humor and theirs are similar, and it's nice when someone notices. Poems are never spitting images of us, either, which is one reason they're so confusing to other people. But consider that poems are the poet's children, that to ask after them is to aim an endorphin-laden dart at their heart and to put everyone at ease.

After-thought: I do have a new book out, but what inspired me to write this blog blurt was a friend with her first book out. She doesn't yet have the appropriate armor.  Try this on for size!