Thursday, January 31, 2008

51 Birch Street

51 Birch Street (see web site) is a documentary by New York filmmaker Doug Block about his parents. I rented it from Netflix thinking it sounded interesting, and within minutes of sliding it into the DVD player was hooked. At first it's simply a documentary of an ordinary Long Island family. For posterity, the son decides to record some footage of his parents, who are in their seventies, his mom decidedly better preserved than Mike, his dad. At first, the camera is mostly on Mina, the mom. The son has always felt closer to her, and she has an engaging, voluble manner, as opposed to his dad who was "another story." A cirumspect, introspective engineer who escaped to his cluttered basement shop and seldom interacted with his kids, the father (a "fifties dad") has always been hard to get close to. The filmmaker and his two sisters, who are frequently on camera, agree on the remoteness of their father.
The camera freqently flashes back to photos and film footage of earlier days. It's obviously a well-documented family. And then, rather suddenly, his mom develops pneumonia and within three weeks is dead. This sends him into a tailspin which is complicated not long afterward when his dad becomes engaged to a former secretary who has been living in Florida. Immediately, there are suspicions that his dad has had an ongoing affair with Kitty, who comes to Long Island to help Mike pack up, sell the family house, and move to Florida.
When the family comes across Mina's voluminous diaries and Doug, after some hesitation, begins to read through them, he and his sisters have to revise their assumptions about their parents' marriage. And the the unexpected result is an unprecedented closeness to his dad, who ultimately does move to Florida with Kitty. It's a gripping film, though it's about ordinary middle-class people who spent most of their lives in an ordinary middle-class community. It's finally a commentary on the hidden lives some (perhaps all of us to some extent) live while trying to make everything work out right. This film made several lists of the ten best films of the year.

K. Silem Mohammed's useful discussion of School of Quietude vs. Post-Avantism

She was born into music,
and now her disheveled hair
hovers above a keyboard
in a room lit by a computer
screen’s glow, jagged
horizontal lines sounding
out six parts: voice,
background guitar, bass,
lead guitar, snare, high hat.
It comes together
in the phones that cup
her ears like muffs.
She nods to the pounding
beat of the road,
its ravages and bliss.


Saturday, January 26, 2008

Two 4-Letter Films

Marketa Irglova and Glenn Hansard in Once
I ordered Once from Netflix and watched it last night. It's a wonderful Irish movie about a street busker (Glen Hansard) who works in his father's Hoover repair shop and meets a young Czech woman (Marketa Irglova) who peddles flowers and lives in a crummy apartment with her mother and her child. He discovers that she too is a musician, a pianist, and they agree to write songs together. The two of them actually did happen to meet in life and wrote the wonderful and unusual songs that form the movie's soundtrack. One of them,"Falling Slowly," has been deservedly nominated for an Academy Award. The acting is so unassuming and natural, their attraction for one another so gradual, convincing, and understated, the ending so perfect, that I could easily have watched it through again.

Tonight, Janne and I went out to see Juno, also a pitch-perfect movie with a great soundtrack--not exactly a love story, but something close to it. Ellen Page is phenomenal as a 16-year-old kid who gets pregnant, is never at a loss for words, and from start to finish embraces her own immaturity while proving herself at least as ready for life as the adults around her. J.T. Simmons and Allison Janney are great as her working class dad and dog-loving step-mom. Michael Sera is convincingly gawky as the clueless but surprisingly sensitive father of her kid. The youthful patter comes thick and fast, usually from the smart-ass mouth of Juno herself. As with Once, I just didn't see any false moves. There's some real tension and angst toward the end, and then the outcome feels just right. I'm tempted to buy the soundtracks for both of these gem-like films.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Chelsea Again

Chelsea Clinton, backed by America Ferrara, Amber Tamblyn, and Keyshawn Johnson

The Grille, a student eatery on our campus, was packed with students, faculty members, and a few townies, including the mayor, when Chelsea Clinton and her entourage arrived a little before 10 a.m. Tuesday for a surprisingly long session for Hillary. The supporting cast included actors America Ferrara (Ugly Betty), Amber Tamblyn (Joan of Arcadia), and Keyshawn Johnson (NFL veteran). Chelsea held the floor longest, asking for questions following brief introductory remarks. She was poised and articulate, thoroughly briefed on her mother's positions. When someone asked about an issue (such as health benefits for illegal immigrants) she wasn't intimately familiar with, she went ahead and said, "We haven't discussed that, but I think what my mom would say is...."--and she proceeded with a perfectly reasonable response. The most interesting comments came after personal questions: "What did the three of you talk about at the White House dinner table?" or "What secret can you tell us about your mother?" Her response to the latter was to tell how obsessed with "Gray's Anatomy" both of her parents are. They never want to miss it. I was surprised at Chelsea's wisdom and maturity, but then I remind myself that she's now (like her father) a graduate of Oxford University and is a 27-year-old financial analyst in New York. So she's not exactly a shy and gawky first daughter any more. My colleague, political scientist Alissa Warters, has written about presidential children and so was especially interested in meeting Chelsea. Alissa sat on the front row for the rally, but I don't know whether she broached the idea of an interview. An hour or so after the Clinton rally, Chris Tucker was on campus speaking for Barack Obama; I had to miss his lively talk because of a class. It's a shame when teaching stands in the way of our education at Francis Marion University. The South Carolina Democratic primary is Saturday, so this season's string of visiting politicians and surrogates now ends, and the candidates (those few still in the race) move on to Florida or to the states holding primaries on Super Tuesday (Feb. 5).


Friday, January 18, 2008

South Carolina Primary Season

Chelsea to stump for Hillary on campus next week

As my previous post on Michelle Obama suggests, the state of South Carolina is crawling with presidential hopefuls in anticipation of tomorrow's Republican primary and, a week later, the Democratic contest. I have yet to see a credible argument for why the primaries are held on separate dates. Voters may cast ballots in one or the other but not both.

In an effort to plunge my English 112 composition class into the fray, I'm requiring my students to take the candidate quiz sponsored by Minnesota Public Radio, determining which candidate's views best match their own. (Of course, over half of the original candidates are no longer contenders.) Then, I ask students to select one issue mentioned in the quiz and write a position paper in which they explain and document two candidates' positions and then go on to clarify their own view, whether or not it matches that of either candidate.

So far, class discussion indicates that immigration is drawing the most interest (just as it is in among state legislators this term), with health care, education, and social security also attracting some students. Interestingly, only one or two plan to write on Iraq. This seems to reflect the waning of this as a campaign issue in recent weeks. The relative success of the "surge" has, at least for now, quieted critics of the war and taken suicide bombings out of the headlines.

I'm not requiring my students to divulge their presidential choices, but as we continue to talk about the issues in class, I imagine some of their loyalties will surface. Mainly, I just want to urge them to inform themselves, engage in dialogue, and vote in the primary races. Too few college students register and vote.

Rumor has it that Chelsea Clinton and America Ferrara will be on our campus Tuesday on behalf of Hillary.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Michelle Obama

Through some odd blogging convergence, Barak Obama's sketch was the final one uploaded in my last posting (Jan. 5), and now I turn to his wife Michelle, who happened to visit our campus this morning, speaking in the commons area of the Student Center. Pretty close to the announced hour of 10 a.m. one of my former students, a soft-spoken but articulate Katrina refugee from New Orleans named Nadiyah, introduced Obama, and she came striding out like a statuesque fashion model in a shimmering cerulean blue blouse and dark skirt. She introduced her brother (visible above to her left in a lavender shirt) and Barak's sister (to his left) and then spoke with passion and power for about 30 minutes. She didn't miss a beat. I had the impression she was focusing carefully on this audience, half students and faculty, half adults from the community. The crowd was probably at least half African-American. She had much to say about education, the rising cost of college and how not so long ago she and her husband had just finished paying off their loans. She was highly critical of No Child Left Behind, a theme that had a lot of audience support.
She laid out the Obama position on the war, noting that despite the sacrifice of our soldiers and many Iraqis, most of us in the the U.S. haven't been asked to sacrifice a thing. Instead, we've been urged to "keep on shopping." She said that her husband's call for change means not only that government should change but that the thinking of all of us (toward the world, toward the economy, toward the environment) should change. She emphasized her husband's background, his decision to turn away from lucrative job possibilities after graduating from Harvard law and instead to work for social causes in Chicago, his adherence to his principles from the outset. Several times she called up the phrase: "To whom much is given, much is expected." She said, "True, my husband is cute. But his ideas are even cuter."
She makes a terrific spokesman for her husband. Michelle Obama is relaxed, firm, self-assured, and gracious. I can't help but think what a wonderful first lady she'd be. In fact, after her talk, I'm about ready to vote for her. A presidential spouse/attorney with her own drive and ambition? Imagine that.
Mitt Romney will be on campus Wednesday, and John McCain will make a return visit before long. (See McCain on my posting for March 2, 2007.) We're working up to the Republican primary Saturday and the Democratic primary a week afterward. It's a good time to be a political junkie in South Carolina.

Saturday, January 05, 2008

Recent Sketches

Recent Sketches (Point and click for enlargements.)
"Subprime" is linguists' word of the year. But I like "googleganger." (See my blog for 11/12/06.)
I've just discovered, a site for organizing photo slide shows and creatively presenting them to others. Here's a brief show featuring family Christmas shots: Christmas 2007. First watch the 7 slides, the click on "original view" to get the "gallery view," an "old movie" version of the slides. Numerous other presentation styles are available.
Challenge: Write a poem in which each word starts with the final two letters of the previous word. The poem’s final word must return to the poem’s opening word.

Take kettle’s essence cents
Tsavo votive vessel elbow
owner errata table lease see
eel elevate terribly lying
Nguyen entreat at Attila’s
aspirin intake keep epiphonic
ice center errata.

Friday, January 04, 2008


A couple days ago the local newspaper carried a story about the growing interest in "green burial," where a body is buried in a simple cardboard or wooden box that will decompose quickly. The grave markers are very simple, such as a stone flush with the ground. But even green burials take up space. Although cremation uses energy, that is my preferred final end, and I've already told my daughters Nell and Tess that I don't want to be stashed in a columbarium or kept on someone's mantle in an urn. I want my ashes scattered somewhere in the open, free and unconfined. This seems the most ecological, it relieves my survivors of paying for or maintaining any sort of burial site, and it suggests that my family can best remember me as I was in life and through whatever useful or attractive artifacts I've left behind.

Ever since Janne and I traveled in France a few years ago, exploring Autrey-les-Gray, the rural town near Dijon where the Autrey family originated (and left, cast out as Huguenots), I've said that I wanted my ashes scattered beneath the Eiffel Tower. Recently Nell asked me why I kept insisting on this, and I responded with 10 reasons:

1. The Eiffel Tower is near the Autrey ancestral homeland.
2. I prefer a gray instead of a green burial.
3. It's so crowded there that no one would notice you scattering ashes.
4. Every time you see the tower, you'll think of me.
5. We can't afford a plot in Pere La Chaise Cemetery in Paris (where Jim Morrison and Balzac and other notables are buried).
6. No one else has claimed the Eiffel Tower as a memorial. It might as well be me.
7. It will still be there long after anyone who has ever heard of me is dead and gone.
8. It's a beautiful monument, and you can climb to the top of it and get a great view. I can't think of any other burial monument you can say that about.
9. Scattering my ashes there will provide at least you and Tess (and any other family members who care to go along) with a chance to have a good time while mourning my passing.
10. The burial plot won't cost a thing, but I plan to set aside $10,000 to defray travel expenses at least for you girls.
Ultimately, though, I told Nell that such a trans-Atlantic ceremony wouldn't be necessary. I agree with her that it would be preferable for us all to travel to Paris before, rather than after, I die. So, we'll have to plan for that. And my ashes can just be dumped in a nice field somewhere.
World Hum (online travel writing): most popular stories of 2007
"Zen and the Art of Poetry," an interview with Jane Hirschfield in Agni
164 scientists answer the question, "What have you changed your mind about?"--from Edge

Thursday, January 03, 2008

Entry #100

This is my 100th entry in this experiment in blogging which I began 14 months ago with the intention of focusing loosely on my reading, writing, and teaching and how those three endeavors interact. As the presidential election year of 2008 starts up, I'm thinking about how this process of intermittent online journaling is going, what I've learned, and how I might want to proceed differently in the future. First, although the site meter tells me that I get occasional hits from around the country and the globe, most of those visitors linger only a few minutes at most and are directed to my blog through a search for some topic I've addressed. I have no regular readers as far as I can tell, and I get only occasional online comments--so far all of these from friends who know I'm blogging. So, this project only makes sense if it serves a good purpose for me. Certainly it has helped me keep track of online items that interest me and that I may want to return to.

Also, my work has prompted me to pay more attention to what other bloggers, especially those interested in poetry, are doing. Some, such as Bill Knott, use their sites as (among other functions) a way of making their work available online. Others, such as my former colleague Matt Schmeer in "The Great American Pinup" use the blog primarily to write about contemporary poetry. The most comprehensive blog I'm aware of is maintained by the incredible Ron Silliman; little wonder that he gets a half million or so hits per year. I've come to rely on Silliman's insights and his compendium of web links about writing and film. I'm responsible for a good number of those half million hits. I like being able to maintain an online list of blogs and web sites that I want to regularly check out.

I continue to grapple with how tightly thematic I want my blog to be. Although I generally focus on my professional concern with writing and reading, sometimes family observations and photos intervene, and I'm sure that will continue. Occasionally I like to write about film, visual arts, and other fields indirectly allied to my teaching, research, and writing interests. The blog does require time, which I could spend writing poetry, planning lessons, working on an article. But this regular commitment (an average of a couple entries per week) doesn't seem too onerous, and it is consistent with my longstanding interest in diaries, journals, daybooks, notebooks, sketchbooks--all of these forms of exploratory personal record-keeping and idea-gathering. In addition to this blog, I keep a more personal journal, as well as a sketchbook. When I'm traveling the journal and sketchbook run together, a single book serving dual purposes.


Poets face the necessity "of reinventing a voice, the possibility of a voice, beginning with one's own solitude, one's own isolation, one's own difficulty. And with marginality, too: one's own and that of peotry and poetic language."
--Fabio Pusterla, translated by Geoffry Brock in Poetry (12/07) special section on contemporary Italian poetry


The Turning

To the drumbeat of dropping leaves,
I stash my savings
in the bank of December.

What difference does water make
when the trees have shed
their best hues in darkness?

Under turbulent fish
I swim the techtonic gale
breathing in winter rhythms..

The orchestra’s coral rhapsody
hastens my oak desire,
spins the world into hope.


Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Carver, Orleans, and others

Raymond Carver's collaboration with Gordon Lish from The New Yorker
The New York Times Carver archives
Interview with Susan Orlean from Writing on the Edge
Kahlil Gibran, third best-selling poet after Shakespeare and Lao tzu
Index to Poets and Writers profiles
136 Vietnamese Proverbs