Overheard (Misheard?) #4

Two high school kids, seemingly not unintelligent, arguing by the catalog terminals in the public library of a small New England town with a healthy tax base. (Note: this is paraphrased, since I was trying to figure out what the hell they were talking about, rather than trying to remember what they were saying, but the gist of their conversation, I believe, remains intact.)

A: She wanted us to find something that’s common knowledge. What’s common knowledge?

B: Okay. You know how there’s entire books you can get that are online, that started out as, like, regular books?

A: Yeah.

B: And those are, like, ebooks?

A: Yeah.

B: And how there’s this massive nationwide effort to do that?

A: Yeah.

B: That’s common knowledge.

My guess is that the “she” they were talking about was their teacher. As for what appears to be a giant mental muddle of the nature of United States copyright law, the concept of the public domain, and how these apply to digital information—with, perhaps, a small trickle-down dose of the Google Print project thrown in for good measure—your despairing guess is as good as mine.

The Slush Pile and the World

I recommend Sven Birkerts’s introductory essay, “Finding Traction,” in the new issue of AGNI, issue #63. He starts with the daily tackling of submissions to the magazine:

When I sit down with a huge stack of envelopes, each one containing some hard-won, deliberated expression, I am not the tabula rasa—the fantasied clean slate—that I perhaps ought to be. No, I am a man of my time, a besieged reader, creating a specific occasion within what is, day in and day out, for me as for most everyone, a near-constant agitation of stimuli, an enfolding environment of aggressively competing signs and meanings. And my attitude, when I remove a clump of print-covered pages from their envelope, is not “Send me more and more new information” but “Reach me, convince me that this news is different, that this is the news I need.”

And he somehow works his way from there, from the speed with which he’s able to make his way through the slush pile each morning, to a consideration of the enormous changes that have taken place in the culture in the past ten years, in which, if I understand him correctly, we have all become robots. Or maybe it’s that we’re all still human, but our flesh and blood has been mold-injected into the invisible husks of robots. No wait, it’s like we all now have little tiny microscopic robots that squat in our frontal lobes, dug in like a first assault, like a world-wide brain tissue Oklahoma land rush. Or maybe it’s just that AGNI refuses to publish stories and poems written by robots, even though robots pretending to be humans are submitting to the journal all the time, but they give themselves away, because robots always use Tyvek envelopes, and their manuscripts are covered in little metal shavings, the residue of their tears.

“The Samoan Assassin Calls It Quits”

…is in the current issue of One Story. (As some of you reading this will know already, since you linked here from there. Quite a few of you, actually. Like, more visitors than have ever come from any other Web site to this one. Except for maybe from the Web site of the amazing Maud Newton.)

Q&A is live, at the moment, on the current story page; permanent link, here.

Reading May 22

I will be representing the most excellent journal Quick Fiction in LITERARY DEATH MATCH III, the third installment of a new, competitive reading series, presented by Opium Magazine. I will be going head to head in a furious, violent, heady, orgiastic scrum of letters with representatives of McSweeney’s, Nerve, and Me Three. I am thirsty for blood, and I will take no prisoners.

The reading starts at 8:00pm on Monday. It’s at The Back Room, 102 Norfolk Street (between Delancey and Rivington). This horrifying, chilling spectacle, not for the faint of heart, is free.

More information, for the moment, is available at Sweet Fancy Moses, which, at the moment, refers to me a Thomas Hopkins representative. Which I’d like to think I am, always. Although if I think about it too much, I might have to start referring to myself in the third person, or the first person plural, or both, depending on context.

We at Thomas Hopkins would be delighted to see you there.

Kafka Was the Rage

“The competition was friendly, laced with admiration and respect, but it was as fierce as only a match between close friends can be, and it brought out the best in them […] It was, in fact, competition as much as collaboration that linked Ashbery and O’Hara and Schuyler and Koch so tightly that they acquired a group identity with a collective force. ‘Collaboration, a direct extension of O’Hara’s mode of living, is a good metaphor for the manner of his relationships–an intimate competition in which each participant goads the other toward being at his best,’ the poet and art critic Peter Schjeldahl perceptively noted. Or as Koch advised the young poets who came to him for instruction at Columbia, ‘Have some friends who are so good it scares you.'”

–from David Lehman’s The Last Avant-Garde: The Making of the New York School of Poets, p. 71 (in chapter two, “Band of Rivals”)

Note also, in the author interviews on the One Story site, Andrew Foster Altschul‘s answer to the question on writing advice and the importance of having friends who are also writers, as well as Kelly Link‘s answer to the same question, about the importance of having friends who are not writers (or rather, friends whose lives are melodramatic; I’m jumping to the conclusion that writing and melodrama are mutually exclusive, which was certainly not the case with the New York School).

Red-County Tourism

On a day trip to Buffalo, at one of the stores we visited—I can’t remember exactly which one, it might have been the glass shop—the proprietress asked us where we were from. Brooklyn, we said. She visibly shuddered, either an enormous unconscious tic of revulsion, or a conscious and theatrical desire to communicate her disgust. She had her eyes turned down, looking at the counter, wrapping something, I think, when I swear I heard her mutter under her breath: “All those people.” Which is not a polite reaction anywhere, but you’d think that someone in a town with a big tourist economy—where every store on the main drag, regardless of its stated purpose (hardware, cigars, knitting, etc.), has some kind of cowboy tchotchke or other for sale up front—would keep it to herself.

It reminded me of this old, hare-brained idea I had for red county tourism. Remember the amazing maps that a Princeton engineering professor made of the county-by-county breakdown of the 2004 election results (“Purple America“)? And how one of the interpretations of those maps (fuck if I can find where I read this originally, though) was essentially that at places where people interact with people who are not like themselves, such as big cities, ports, rivers, borders, tourist towns—i.e., heterogeneous intersections of human commerce—the citizenry tended to vote Democratic, whereas in isolated counties, remote towns, places that are insulated from the outside world, buffered by other counties—homogeneous places that no one visits much—people tended to vote Republican?

Thus, red county tourism. What if the French, say, bypassed New York City and chose to explore the wonders of Garfield County, Montana, instead? Perhaps they could check out the Hell Creek Fossil Area. What if the Dutch vacationed in Sioux County, Iowa? If Luxembourgians and Belgians made a faddish destination of the U.S. Sheep Experimental Station of Clark County, Idaho? What if New Yorkers, for that matter, all decided that the latest thing was camping out on the banks of the Draw River in Glasscock County, Texas, or Stinking Water Creek in Hays County, Nebraska?

As a New Yorker, I like to think that all the world would be a better place if people could just meet, and buy lots of crap from, people different from themselves. I’d like to think that the minds of the shuddering glass shop ladies of the world might be opened. I suppose the only way to know for sure, though, is to put my money where my mouth is. Utah Field House of Natural History State Park, here I come!

Saturday Night Minutiae

When I finished reading the last sentence of my story, I took my two pages, which I’d folded over two or three times to fit in my back pocket, and I smacked the lectern with the vertical crease, as if to indicate “the end,” or “I am done reading now.” I smacked on impulse, not thinking about it. It felt appropriate, although the gesture might have been so small as to not even be noticeable to the audience. I don’t know.

Immediately after, as I squatted next to the bar, my hands still shaking, I thought about Will Ferrell’s line from Old School: “That’s the way you do it! That’s the way you debate!” Maybe some variant on that, I thought, would be the best way to end a reading.

It could certainly be beneficial to writers facing the conundrum of having brought their serious material to a almost entirely humorous event.

Or it could turn the whole proceedings into something not unlike kabuki?

Which, in the world of readings, would not necessarily be a bad thing.

Accidental Ohio

For anyone reading this who lives in Columbus, Ohio—or, for that matter, anyone within two days’ drive of Columbus—you really, really should go see Accidental Nostalgia at the Wexner Center this weekend. Have you seen the show yet? Do you realize how good it is? You know it won a Bessie, right? In addition to my sister’s first Bessie, as well as her two Obies? (If you can’t make it to the show, you should 1) e-mail all your Ohio friends about it, and 2) buy the album, if you don’t own it already, because holy crap, it’s so damn good. I’m biased, but I’m not kidding. Apologies to those of you who’ve been listening to me ask this question over and over again for the past six years, but how do you let people know about something that’s so damn good in a room of people screaming about so-damn-goodness? This is something I’ve never quite figured out.)