Tuesday, December 16, 2008

The Largest Locomotive on Earth

Holly Iglesias is the winner of the 2008 Kore Press First Book Award. She is a poet and translator whose work has appeared in Prairie Schooner, The Prose Poem, Arts & Letters, Barrow Street, Margie, Crab Orchard Review, Massachusetts Review and Spoon River Poetry Review. She has been awarded fellowships by the Massachusetts Cultural Council and the Edward Albee Foundation. She is the author of two chapbooks, Hands-on Saint and Good Long Enough, winner of Thorngate Road’s Frank O’Hara Prize. A critical work, Boxing Inside the Box: Women's Prose Poetry, was published by Quale Press. She teaches at University of North Carolina-Asheville and at Warren Wilson College.

Souvenirs of a Shrunken World is being taught in poet Kim Garcia’s Core Lit class at Boston College this semester, and it appears that her students connected with the poems right from the start. As the instructor, Kim passed along their first set of questions, curiosities and comments to me and invited me to respond. I was shocked at the amount of questions they generated about the first poem alone, “Running for the Fair: a Stereoscope.” Now I eagerly await their response to the book as a whole, as well as their reaction to footnotes posted on the Kore Press website that enhance understanding of the Fair and its historical context.

It goes without saying that it’s an honor and a rare opportunity to have such a chance to engage with engaged readers, and I share my response to them below.


You've brought in a great deal of curiosity, energy and insight to the reading of the first poem of Souvenirs of a Shrunken World. It's an incredible thrill to think of you reading my work and an honor to consider your questions. I trust you know that you as readers take part in making meaning of any poem by bringing your own associations to the words and experiences. This way the poem has a life of its own and continues to grow even after the author has let it go.

A few responses to the issues and ideas you raised:

A stereoscope is an image that you see in a three-dimensional way by looking at it on a special holder, which presents two of the same photograph but from a left-eye and a right-eye point of view, which provides depth. Stereoscopes were very popular around the turn of the 20th century.

My book is very much concerned with point of view, framing and the power of images, both still and moving pictures (thus the strobe). Around this time (1904) Kodak cameras became affordable so regular people could take snapshots pretty easily; also motion pictures had begun to be viewed by a general audience. In a WiFi, You-Tube world, we take such things for granted, but at that time such innovations were mind-boggling and really effected people's attitudes.

Another thing: the Fair took four years to build and then it was demolished, razed to the ground in a few months. People knew this would happen from the start and so were nostalgic about it even before the buildings were gone. Thus, the importance of souvenirs, particularly photographs--the only mementos, or traces, of an awe-inspiring, life-changing experience.

So, back to the boy and girl, whose poem comes before all the rest. I wanted to set up the importance of young people--young country, young people, young century--and how impressionable they are and what kind of influence something as enormous and thrilling as the Fair would have on them. These young people would live out their lives in the 20th century and would take these influences and ideas forward, so we need to keep an eye on the impressions being made on them. They could easily have been my grandfather or grandmother, who were in their teens at the time and who, as recent immigrants, were new Americans and trying to learn how to be a Real American, which the Fair tried to demonstrate.

So: yes, young people in the country, lots of chores, remnants of old-fashioned life soon to be extinct (slop pot, cheese cloth, home-made sausage, etc.) due to rapid population shifts and technological advances. These are kids who have no experience with electricity, radios, automobiles, or telephones!

There were many hoboes wandering the country, riding the trains and living in shanty towns. While the notion of hoboes was also romanticized, the ugly truth of it was that they were part of the huge upheaval and displacement that came about as industry and commerce became centralized in large cities and people left small-town and rural life. A time of economic boom and bust, and thus insecurity and crime and labor unrest. So, that rumbling train doesn't merely symbolize an escape to the bright lights of the city (where the Fair is held), but also offers a foreboding of things being run down, of the danger inherent in too much "progress" too fast.

The past and future at this cusp-y time were neck and neck; we as a nation could've stayed as we'd been, or been more deliberative and patient, or barreled ahead and worried about the consequences later. You know which way it went. That's part of the over-arching metaphor of the Fair--it celebrates a century of progress since the Louisiana Purchase, but that progress and that hugeness and that speed came at a price. Hopefully by the end of the book, you'll be able to see some of the cost of that progress, not just to its "victims" but to the perpetrators as well. Treating humans inhumanely or with disdain injures both the giver and receiver of disrespect. Plus it's dangerous, planting seeds of future divisions.

Boy and girl: traditional roles: he's gets to indulge his adventures, she watches the train pass by. And the cars rolling by, strobing the cornfields, suggests not only the flickering images of movies, but also the fragmentation of families, communities, fields of vision, the human family that is coming down the tracks.

The largest locomotive on earth was on display at the Palace of Transportation at the Fair. It was on a turnstile; the wheels spun in place; and its enormous headlight slashed the walls of the enormous building. The name of the locomotive? It was called the Twentieth Century, I kid you not. So, there's nothing subtle in my mind about the image of a huge iron behemoth barreling down the tracks and the dangers of getting in its path.

Warning! Here comes the 20th Century! This caution lies beneath the entire collection of poems. Everything—and I mean every single thing—that came to characterize the 20th century, in all its glory and all its atrocity, is evident at the 1904 World's Fair in St. Louis. And these two young people are racing to see it, yearning to take it all in, running to catch the train that will take them there. Young people, a relatively young nation—each full of energy and optimism, as well as ignorance and naivetĂ©.

Friday, November 07, 2008

Why We Published Powder

Lisa Bowden is the Publisher of Kore Press and the poetry editor of Powder.

Shannon Cain is the Fiction Editor of Kore Press and the prose editor of Powder.

Powder: Writing by Women in the Ranks, from Vietnam to Iraq

At a writers’ conference in Georgia in the summer of 2005, an American veteran of the war in Iraq stood at the podium and read a personal essay about his time as a soldier. Overcome with emotion and using language both beautiful and stark, he told about the mutilations he’d seen, the bloody losses, his struggle with self-hatred upon returning home, and the profound mistrust he now harbored for his commander in chief. The room went silent with respect for his service and horror for his pain.

That day in Georgia, a thought arose: what about the women who have served? Where is their perspective? Who will publish their words? Thus the idea for this anthology was born.

We put out a call. We asked women in the ranks, especially those who had served after September 11, 2001, to send us their writing. We waited for the flood of responses. Only a few pieces arrived. They were excellent, but not enough to assemble a book-length collection. Then, an email from a soldier who told us of the repercussions, formal and informal, that the military imposes upon those who speak their minds while on active duty.

We reissued our call to military women, farther and wider, and expanded the scope. We asked women who had served anywhere, at any time, to tell their stories. And now the essays and poetry arrived. The writing blew our minds, broke our hearts and gave us hope. And suddenly we found ourselves putting forth a new rendering of American history.

Here was writing that gave us the full scope of the military experience, including a range of ideas about what it means to be a patriot. As advocates for peace and justice, we went into the project determined to publish a book that would somehow help end the war in Iraq. In the process we found ourselves expanded, and in awe. We saw immediately the necessity of setting aside any agenda. We offer this poetry and this memoir edited but not manipulated, selected but not filtered. In so doing we amplify these voices, and we insist upon their place in a long and nuanced literature of war and peace.

Former Navy Sonar Technician Khadijah Queen understands poetry as “a necessary reaction” to the death of her colleagues. Army Reserve officer Victoria Hudson, who has been mobilized five times in her thirty years of service, says she wrote about what she saw in Bosnia and Iraq in order to “integrate those experiences into memory.” Air Force jet engine mechanic K.G. Schneider says she writes to express her gratitude, “so that they who served with me can be remembered.”

The writers here are divided on the question of whether they would re-enlist. Marine Corps Officer Charlotte Brock has “never regretted joining,” but notes “if you asked me that question at various times over the last six years, I would have given a different answer.” Former Army Communications Officer Terry Hurley would not hesitate to join again, and is especially drawn to the idea of training new recruits. Arabic linguist Rachel Vigil has “no desire to serve the current administration’s objectives,” and says “nothing would talk me into joining again.”

Former Air Force medic Deborah Fries looks back at her service during the Vietnam era and realizes if she had it to do over, she “would have marched for peace rather than for a base commander.” Bobbie Dykema Katsanis, who served in the Army National Guard Band, finds the culture of the military “anti-intellectual, sexist, and subliminally violent,” and has had to work hard to leave it behind. Former Air Force traffic controller Christy Clothier discovered that the military demanded “silent passivity” and is still in the process of rediscovering her voice. Navy administrative officer Donna Dean reports she endured “denigration and open hostility throughout her active duty career” and more than 25 years after her discharge still struggles every day with the effects of post traumatic stress disorder.

But Ohio National Guardsman Sharon Allen, who served as a petroleum supply specialist in Iraq and Afghanistan, says that the military gave her a “confidence unrivaled by civilian training.” R.O.T.C. student Cameron Beattie reports that her experience in Airborne School has changed her forever: “If I can jump out of an airplane, I can do anything.” Navy Religious Programs Specialist Dhana Marie Branton believes she wouldn’t be the writer she is today without her military background. “I became myself,” she says, “rather than the person others expected me to be. I learned to own my mind.”

“The military is a group of diverse human beings like any other,” Dykema Katsanis wrote to us in an email. “Some of us are politically liberal or progressive; many of us are against the war and oppose the current administration’s foreign policy. Often these voices are squelched in American public discourse.”

Regardless of our contributors’ divergent views on the war and on the necessity of service, every one of them comes together on one point: it’s damn tough to be a woman in the military. Brock, whose essay “Hymn” appears in these pages, says “why is there no national debate on the fact that women are subject to institutional discrimination in the military? Nowhere else in this country are women so blatantly prohibited from certain jobs solely on the basis of gender. The American public should know what military women have achieved.”


In the science fiction movie Contact, an astronomer/astronaut played by Jodie Foster is launched into space at the invitation of a benign race of extraterrestrial beings. Wide-eyed at what she encounters, she says, “We should have sent a poet.”

Indeed we must send poets and writers to places both heavenly and hellish so they can return to describe what the rest of us are incapable of seeing. When we send women to war, they bear witness in ways that men cannot. The memoirists and poets in this volume have stood wide-eyed at the border between war and peace, and in these pages they gift us with a record of what really happened there.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Why I Write

Kimi Eisele, co-director of The Invisible City project, is a writer, dancer/choreographer, and educator. She serves as the Special Projects Director for NEW ARTiculations Dance Theatre where she directed “RE:Configurations: an evening of dance and stories about lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender relationships” in 2007 and “We Are What We Eat: Dance and Stories about the Food We Eat and the Systems that Feed Us” in collaboration with the Community Food Bank in 2008. She is currently trying to finish a novel about America in the post-apocalypse before the economy really does collapse.

1. Proclamation

I went once with a friend to a wildlife refuge on the Delaware Bay. It was one of those beautiful Mid-Atlantic winter days before the snow falls. The ground was brown and brittle, the trees nude, the sky interminably gray. We got out of the car and pointed the binoculars toward the edge of a tidal pool to look at snow geese. Thousands of them. Roused from their roost, they lifted into the air like a cloth billowed by a wind. On the ground again, they squawked incessantly, the sound hovering above them like a shadow of their flight. What were the geese saying? I wondered. “They’re just checking in with each other,” my friend said. Are you still there? Yes, I’m still here. And again: Are you still there? Yup, I’m here. And on and on.

I understand the snow geese. I understand the squawked question and its response. Both comprise the foundation of why I write. I write to announce my place in the world. One bird among millions. I am here. Are you there?

2. The Thrill of Words

When I was growing up, my parents were close friends with a couple from New York who invited us to visit them at their New Jersey beach house every summer. She was a teacher, he was a writer, and both of them loved words. Every night after dinner, we’d play a game called anagrams. Each player tried to spell six words using the small, wooden letters (much like Scrabble pieces) placed on the table. We could steal someone else’s words by adding letters and anagramming it (“bird” could become “bride,” or “over” could become “hover”). On those summer evenings, as the sea air sputtered against the screens and Billie Holiday’s blues spilled from the tape player, I would sit sandwiched between the adults, transfixed by the letters in front of me. Amidst the laughter and exclamation, I learned that words were fun. They created connection, experiences, and memories.

I still believe words are fun. Whether I’m writing email messages, letters, poems, essays, or stories, I like the sounds and the spellings. I like stringing words together to form sentences. I like using words as tools to say what I want to say. I like, too, that words have roots and histories and lives contained within them, and that they can be re-arranged and borrowed and re-invented. And that all of that magic can happen in silence, but for the sound of breathing, or somewhere perhaps, the distant churn of the surf.

3. Possibility

I wrote my first story when I was five. It was based on a prompt—“But oh, how she wished she had green curls…” In it a blond, straight-haired girl (not unlike myself at the time) wishes desperately for new hair. She finds a magic wand, gets her wish, and lives the rest of her life with green curls. I remember the story for its silliness and for what it reveals about my earliest desire as a writer—to make the impossible possible.

Common advice to new writers says, “Write what you know.” I say also, “Write what you don’t know.” Because that means summoning the imagination. With imagination, the unknown becomes knowable, the unattainable slides closer into reach. It’s not necessarily magic, just a practice. Pretty soon I’m granting wishes, conversing with quirky strangers, traveling across continents, and dreaming up new societies much kinder than my own.

But my imagination is not simply a way for me to escape reality. By strengthening my powers of observation, my imagination helps place me more firmly in reality. As Salman Rushdie recently said in a June 2006 interview with Bill Moyers, “What writers can offer better than journalists, better than philosophers, is that they can use their imaginations to look at the world and what's happening in it.” Imagination allows us “to get into the skin of the other,” Rushdie said, which can then lead to greater understanding and acceptance. I believe this is a critical message for our times. It is also what has long propelled me to the page.

In nonfiction, I have written about 19th century pioneer women on the overland trails, fishing communities on the coast of Ecuador, Cubans at the end of the 20th century, children and families on the U.S.-Mexico border, and asthmatic children living in U.S. cities. This writing has helped me understand and honor those whose lives are different from my own. More recently, I have been “getting into the skin” of the characters in my novel in order to move them through a future where the current economic and technological luxuries we know today no longer exist. The work has given me the opportunity to ask “What if?” The answers I have come up with have given me new ways to think about my everyday life, my family, my community, and the world.

When I write, I hold hands with possibility. I stumble upon magic wands. I hone in on my senses. I wake up to the world and observe things I hadn’t noticed before. Several weeks ago, I walked into a diner and ordered a slice of pie, for instance. There was something odd about my waitress. When she brought me my pie, I looked again. She had bright green curls.

4. Coherence

A few years ago, at age 33, I began asking the question, should I or shouldn’t I have a child? Behind my question lingered the belief that as a woman I am supposed to give birth, that my body was designed for it. But I didn’t want to simply fall into a prescribed biological role. I wanted make a conscious choice. First, however, I had make sense of my options. So I went to my desk. I wrote about my college years when I was belligerent about a woman’s right to choose. I wrote about the “mother club” some of my friends have been joining. I wrote about the ridiculous mountains of plastic baby gear piled up in their living rooms. I wrote about the “body snatcher” that had invaded my body, making me ogle at babies and want to have sex. I wrote about the ticking sound. I wrote and re-wrote. I turned the questions over and over. Eventually, an answer began to emerge.

Writing helps me collect and order my thoughts and clarify the workings of my mind. I write to make sense of complicated issues—motherhood, U.S.-Mexico border policy, being an American in a time of global conflict. My current project is helping me wrestle with a set of questions and confusions about what it might mean to live in a country that is no longer the richest, most powerful in the world. I write to know where I stand. I write for coherence. I do not always achieve it, but in my attempt, I understand more fully myself and how I live in the world.

5. Connection

Nearly 15 years ago, when my college roommate and I moved out of the shoebox-sized dorm room we called home, we conducted the self-important act of writing letters to its future residents. We pasted the letters inside the dressers, imagining that two women like us would someday find them, brittle and yellowed, and read our words with reverent interest. Of course, it’s possible that our letters didn’t survive at all, that they were tossed out following week when the custodial staff cleared out the rooms. Nonetheless, we wrote because we wanted to connect.

I am not the same person I was when I was 20 but I still write out of a longing to connect. There are things that I see or hear or feel that I must share—either because they explode with beauty or because the horror of them would be immoral to keep secret. When I write, I am calling out across the tidal pool, checking in with my flock. I am thinking about what connects me to humanity. I am thinking about my readers. Who are you? I ask, adding my own stories, ideas, and interpretations to the formation of the fleet.

By writing them, my exclamations and ideas do not dissipate on the wind; they become immutable. This might be the greatest quality of the written word—it endures. Because of that, I can have relationships with writers long gone—Zora Neale Hurston, Leo Tolstoy, Willa Cather, Italo Calvino. I can also know something of the lives and imaginations of Wislawa Szymborska, Eduardo Galeano, and Orhan Pamuk, writers whose thoughts can reach me across the oceans.

This passage of words forward or backward or laterally in time or place seems to me an extraordinary leap of faith, the most insistent form of silence. It is a correspondence that makes me feel connected to the past, hopeful for the future, and completely alive in the present.

6. Redemption

Some days the thought of going to my desk gives me a stomachache. I’ll wish instead that I worked for an insurance broker in some cramped, carpeted office. At least then I’d know what to do. Because sometimes I arrive at my desk and sit there in the doldrums, nowhere to go and no way to get there. If I scream for help, my voice comes out tiny and insignificant; no one at all hears it. When this happens, I can stay away for a few days, a few weeks, months even. Thinking of my work makes my stomach tighten, my heart rate accelerate. Nothing moves. I sigh a lot.

But then I’ll see something—the edge of light behind a cactus, a grapefruit on a park bench, a forgotten dog on a chain. Or I’ll hear something—the bees in the pepper tree, the slap of rain on the desert pavement, a news story about yet another Mexican migrant dead of overexposure. And a split-second of breeze will blow over me. It will nudge me closer to the horrific or the beautiful and remind me that there are things that must be said. I will recall the elegant swoop and curve of the letters, the gentle rock of sentences in a paragraph. The images and the sounds and their urgency will lift me up and carry me back to my desk.

Are you there? I’ll ask, settling in. The answer might flutter up right away. Or maybe it will drift in slowly: I. Am. Here. Either way, I’ll hang on the words as if my life depended on it.

Because it does.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Historical Moments

Rena J. Mosteirin is the winner of the 2008 Kore Press Short Fiction Award for her novella, Nick Trail's Thumb, which will hit stores this fall. This month, read about her take on the thoughts and anxieties of a newly published writer.

I wake up one morning in my apartment on the South Side of Chicago and Shannon Cain calls me to tell me that Lydia Davis picked my novella “Nick Trail’s Thumb” as the winner of the Short Fiction Chapbook contest and Kore Press is going to publish it. I sit down on the floor. I jump up. Shannon says things. I say things. I hang up and jump around my apartment causing the squirrels on the fire escape to scramble and my neighbors to complain by turning up their music. I sing along to my neighbor’s music. I throw open the door and beam at the squirrels who take this as an act of hostility. I wave at Pops, the homeless man who is finding treasures in the trash bins. He smiles.

I call up my fiancĂ© who is just leaving a seminar at the University of Chicago. I won. I won. I won. I call my brother who teaches elementary school music in Brooklyn. He picks up the phone even though he’s at an assembly. I won. My mom is headed out to class at Queens College, where she has bravely taken up undergraduate study after fifteen years as a homemaker. She is an English Major. I won. My father says he knew it all along. Knew I was a winner. I hang up the phone and dance around some more.

I get dressed for work and skip down the street. I skip past the bar on the corner named Jimmy’s. I won. Past the playground where recess is in session and all these kids are running around and screaming and I wave at them like a queen. I won!

Fast forward to this morning: I wake up knowing that the final draft, copyedits and all, were sent to Shannon yesterday. During the months of drafts going back and forth between us I doubted everything I had once admired in the story. I was terrified that it was really bad writing and that it was picked by mistake. I worked through it, struggled through the anxiety, and yes, had the occasional banana split when the endless outpouring of reassurance, support, and love from my significant other just weren’t enough.

This morning I feel good about the novella again. Nervous too. But good. I’ve been telling everyone I know about the novella getting published, but now I wonder how it will feel to see it on my mother’s coffee table. Are the people at work going to look at me differently?

This blog posting should be about the upcoming election. I should be expressing my firm belief that Sarah Palin’s vice presidential nomination is nothing more than a dirty trick. The Republican Party has totally missed the mark if they think they can swindle the votes of Hillary supporters with such deceit. Furthermore, I am outraged at the blatantly sexist terms used to berate Palin, terms I am hearing more frequently now. These words tend to catch the breath in my throat and have the power to make me feel alienated from the speaker. This political “historical moment” has been fraught with hate speech and frequent belittling of women.

Still, I love the idea that we all have our own historical moments. That morning in Chicago was one for me. Others include when I finally convinced my mother to give college a shot and when I proposed to Jed Dobson, nervously, and he said yes. I can’t wait to hold “Nick Trail’s Thumb” in my hands, to slide it onto the bookshelf, to read aloud from it. Because I love the interactive potential of blogs, I’d like to suggest that other readers share some of their own historical moments in the comments section here. From the political to the personal, for better or for worse, tell us what rocked your world!

Thursday, August 07, 2008

Words of the World

Fourteen-year-old Aida Villarreal-Licona blogged for the young feminist magazine New Moon about her experiences at the Women's World Congress in Madrid. This month, read her entries in full! (Click on a link and scroll down to see the complete entry.)

Tuesday, July 8: "My name is Aida, and for the next week or so I'm going to be reporting from the 2008 Women's World Congress (Mundo de Mujeres) in Madrid, Spain. You may be wondering what exactly that is. The Women's World Congress is a meeting that brings together women and girls from all over the world to discuss issues that involve them." Read more.

Wednesday, July 9: "Beside me sat seven year-old Mbabazi [pictured above.] Mbabazi was lying on the steps, drawing pictures. She told me that she lives in Uganda with her mom, dad, and brother. I met her mother who is the Head of the Gender Mainstreaming Division in Kampala, Uganda." Read more.

Thursday, July 10: "Madrid has a lot of character. [...] People pose as statues, which you may have seen in other cities. There are flamenco dancers, musicians of all kinds, magicians, shops, and so many people. You can buy something like a waffle cone dipped in chocolate with whipped cream while you wander the cobblestone streets." Read more.

Tuesday, July 15: "Somaly Mam is an activist from Cambodia. Her work is to speak out against modern day slavery and the trafficking of human beings. She has experienced being sold herself, but she got free and has devoted her life to speaking out against this injustice." Read more.

Monday, June 23, 2008

The dark labyrinth of conceptual poetries...

Barbara Henning is the author of two novels (Black Lace and You, Me and the Insects) and a number of poetry collections, including Love Makes Thinking Dark, Detective Sentences and a series of sonnets titled My Autobiography. She currently teaches workshops at the University of Arizona's Poetry Center. The following is an excerpt from Barbara Henning's blog.

Learn the language of mathematics . . . or wander
in vain through a dark labyrinth. (Galileo, Opere V1232)

A week or so ago I attended about half of a poetry conference at the Poetry Center in Tucson curated by the critic Marjorie Perloff. Following various links from the Poetry Center's website for the conference, one is bound to locate an anthology of conceptual writing by Craig Dworkin and Kenneth Goldsmith (UBU). Throughout the conference participants seemed to be responding to the definition of conceptual poetry on this UBU site, and to differentiate it from other poetry movements or approaches in the past. The term conceptual has been used in the past for art and writing, but not as the name of a poetry movement. That and the addition of multi media possibilities seems the only major difference between the 70-80's work and now. Wikipedia, my somewhat democratic mostly reliable sometimes not website offers a simple description of conceptual art.

art in which the concept(s) or idea(s) involved in the work take precedence over traditional aesthetic and material concerns. . . . ' The idea becomes a machine that makes the art' (Sol LeWitt). . . . The inception of the term in the 1960s referred to a strict and focused practice of idea-based art that often defied traditional visual criteria associated with the visual arts in its presentation as text.

In the early nineties I edited a journal with a conceptual artist, Miranda Maher (and also with contributing editors Sally Young, Lewis Warsh, Chris Tysh, Don David, Michael Pelias and Tyrone Williams). In Long News: In the Short Century, we published conceptual-based art and writing mostly from the New York and Language schools. See:

I was surprised when I read the introduction to the UBU anthology to find that their description was very close to what Miranda Maher and I had written as the philosophy for our journal seventeen years earlier—non-expressive, not led by emotion, a direct presentation of language, using procedures like appropriation, collage, erasure, oulipian constraints, making poetry new, etc. Writing that is off-center, non-mainstream mostly non-referential, idea-generated writing. (With time passing, I've revised my interests to include autobiographical and emotive language and description as it is or reconfigured and re-examined with various conceptual frames and experiments.)

I just emailed Miranda and asked her what she thought of the wiki definition. (To see Miranda's work, go to

Hi Barb,

I would say that is a very good working definition. Love Wikipedia. Sol LeWitt was the big daddy of conceptual art. . . . Also, it might be helpful to be aware of some subtle (and not-so-subtle) visual art world distinctions.. 'Conceptually-based' is separate from 'conceptual'. My work is usually described as conceptually-based, rather than conceptual. I think this is because I am interested in what is conveyed by aesthetics and materials and they also play a role in my work. A lot of conceptual visual art is anti-aesthetic... meaning they add nothing that is not about the concept -- some even strip down existing objects/systems to their non-material/aesthetic idea-core.

Another undertone is that "pure" conceptual work tends to valorize the (ego) intellect. Especially the early (60s) work sometimes implied that it is possible to set up a premise and follow it through unsullied by human emotion, subjective foibles etc. Also, the early artists were predominantly white and male. Probably because their working idea of "intellect" was the white/male in power version. For me, the "pure conceptual" still seems to have that going on (either actual white males or women who are exceedingly male-identified). This is rarely spoken of however. Seems to be non-PC. Another under-cover association is that conceptual is the highest art form and all other approaches would be conceptual if they could (but aren't good enough). Many practitioners are heavily invested in that hierarchy. I'd be interested to know if this sort of B.S. has translated into the poetry community...

It's not that I dislike conceptual art -- the rigor of well-executed conceptual art is gorgeous. And when done right it has an austere, intellectual beauty similar to the beauty of pure mathmatics (not that I can understand pure mathmatics). The B.S. comes into it in attitude and personal interaction. . . Perhaps there is a fundamental, internal contradiction . . . . -- Conceptual Art carries an implication of rigor not only in the structure of the work, but also in the makers' self-examination and self-awareness. But artificial, self-soothing hierarchies such as "my art-camp is better than your art-camp" would be the first to go if we were really being thorough in our thinking.

Ironically, it seems to me that truly strict rigor will always (eventually) dismantle hierarchies and lead to compassion.

I hope this helps.


Read more here.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

A Writer's Afterworld

Gisela Telis is the Kore Press office manager, and an award-winning freelance writer and photographer whose work centers around science, the environment and sustainable living. She has reported for
Audubon, Science, High Country News and National Public Radio, among others.

On an April afternoon I sat talking to a prominent scientist, a woman who’d overcome tremendous odds to become a tenured professor, a leader in her field and a mentor to many younger researchers. She confessed she’d noticed a pattern over the years: her female students were usually more capable than they thought, and her male students were almost never as capable as they believed. It wasn’t that one bested the other, she said—she’d worked with equal numbers of brilliant men and women—but that the women doubted themselves more.

This didn’t surprise her, as it likely won’t surprise any of you. A stranger on a plane asks Tayari Jones if she has a problem with men and she will walk away kicking herself for reassuring him. He will forget the exchange, and she will mull it, write an essay about it. Robin Black has won awards that other writers covet, but still questions whether she has something to say. My friend hears, “Why are you always like this?” from her lover and instead of saying there is no “always” in how I live my life, she wonders if it’s really true, because he was so convincing when he said it.

I think of Persephone and her annual reemergence from the afterworld. For the purposes of living, it doesn’t matter that society’s to blame, that prizing independence and decisive action in boys while teaching girls to be “good sports” conditions us to need permission and approval, to think too much and too long, to more often say, “I don’t care – whatever you want, dear.” We didn’t choose our world; therefore we often absolve ourselves of the requirement to be truthful, to act and speak honestly in spite of our “what if … ?” We live in another sort of afterworld, where we are stymied in the present by anticipating the after. What matters is that every time we give in anew, every time we silence and dismiss ourselves, we give others permission to silence and dismiss us.

Let’s just talk about writing. I was going to start this paragraph with “Although writers of both genders struggle with self-doubt, and despite the real need for precision—the appropriate tone, the exact word—in our craft …” But there I go, qualifying again, thinking I have to say perfectly what I mean and will always mean, even in a necessarily wild and undisciplined first draft, putting precision before impact when I needn’t, at least not yet, putting the audience before my own voice when the likes of Wallace Stegner have insisted no writer ever should.

Instead I’ll tell you this: I have the start of a story sitting on my computer somewhere. In it, a woman walks along a coast, between a string of dunes and the ocean, and though a storm is coming she doesn’t take shelter. I knew what I was seeing when the image first came to me: the Big Sur coast in California, footprints in sand, a woman willing to die. But when I put my voice to it, I put my doubts to it too—where is the storm coming from, who do I want her to be, can I write her and who am I to try? If I’d taken a page from the men’s rulebook and felt entitled to whatever comes out of my head, if I’d followed my voice with conviction, I might already have finished something beautiful, and not abandoned something promising.

Let’s take up arms against our conditioning, our self-defeat. Let’s promise that the next time we write about the wind that crests the coastal dune, we will not stop ourselves with what color the dune, and from where the wind, and am I really a writer in the first place, but will fly with it instead, because that’s what will let us write as we wish to—the trust and courage it takes to speak your mind even if you change it five minutes from now. Let’s consider that despite our every doubt, our voices deserve to be heard and that they will, like Persephone’s, emerge intact and essential from the afterworld.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Sand, Sweat and Gunpowder

This month's blog features an essay from the forthcoming Kore Press anthology of essays and poetry by military women.

Heather Paxton (center) was an Army Reserve Specialist in the 418th Civil Affairs Battalion stationed in Tikrit, Iraq from 2003-2004. Upon her return she graduated from the University of Missouri-Columbia with a B.A. in English Literature. She and her husband live in Columbia, Missouri.

Hussein stood by himself that morning, lurking in the corner of the guard shack. I pulled the HUMVEE up to the designated parking spot, grabbed my M-16, and walked to the front gate. Before he said hello, he handed me a box wrapped in a cheap blue plastic bag. I stared at the bag, not quite sure what to do with it.

I shielded my eyes from the never-ending sun in the clear Iraqi sky. “What’s this?”

“A present. Perfume. Women should smell like women, not men.” On his face was a mischievous grin.

“You need to think of me as a soldier, not a woman.” I said. This wasn’t the first time he had given me a gift, and I was torn between feeling flattered and horrified. His crush on me only seemed to get worse as time went by. His two wives didn’t approve, and neither did my commander.

Hussein was the local Sheik’s first-born son, and a critical asset in catching insurgents and gunrunners in Diyala province. One day it would fall to him to run his tribe and keep his people safe. My job required that I transport him every day from the front gate to the operations center to meet with my superiors. This made my attempts to ignore him difficult.

“I can’t accept this, and you know it.” I thrust the bag back into his hands.

The smirk on his face vanished, and he stared at me with his dark eyes. “Why? You not accept my gift because you a soldier, not a woman? Take it. You a woman too. You make me happy if take gift.”

I snatched the bag from his outstretched hands. “Get in the vehicle.” I barked, “We’re running late.”

After I dropped him off with my superiors, I stole away for a moment to my room. I untied the knot in the plastic bag and took out the box containing the perfume. Inside was a beautiful oblong glass bottle, a mixture of clear and smooth, milky and rough, like fine sandpaper. It was topped with a white cap shaped like a fresh budding blossom. A gold pendant hung from the neck of the bottle: Parfum D’Or.

The only scents I’d smelled for the past four months were sand, sweat, gunpowder and the overpowering cologne that our Iraq interpreters poured on everyday. I pressed the pump and a spray of perfume shot out, saturating the air around me. I savored its spicy bouquet. My heart ached for the world I left behind. I was tired of the stench of fear that clung to every pore of my body. I dreamed, just for a moment, that the fragrance of the perfume could bring me back home, back where I was safe. But no amount of perfume could cover my fear. So I put the bottle into my trunk, washed my face, and went back to work.

Two months later, Hussein was dead. Shot in the chest five times while driving home from work. The day I learned of his death, I took the perfume bottle out of my trunk. I pictured his mangled body on the side of the highway. I pulled the cap off and inhaled, trying to recapture the joy his present gave me, but it only deepened my grief. When he gave it to me, I felt normal, like a woman and not only a soldier. Its scent brought me to my own home, away from bombs and guns and death. Inhaling now, I was sorry I’d never thanked him. He’d given me a sense of home, where I felt safe and where I was loved.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Trying on My Dude Suit

Janice Erlbaum is the author of GIRLBOMB: A Halfway Homeless Memoir (Villard, March '06), and HAVE YOU FOUND HER: A Memoir (Villard, Feb. '08). She was a contributor to BUST magazine from 1994 through 2007. She lives in her native New York City with her domestic partner, Bill Scurry, and their three cats.

I once did drag as a guy. It was for a gag beauty pageant called the Mr. Lower East Side Contest, put on by some friends of mine in a grotty, underheated theater in that once-bohemian neighborhood in New York City. I bound my chest with an Ace bandage, stuffed my pants with a pair of socks, and spirit-gummed on a beard, moustache, and sideburns. I called myself “Ray Pissed,” a terrible pun, but one that summed up how I felt about a lot of men at the time.

Ray Pissed was an asshole. He shoved the other contestants, snorted and spat on the floor, tried to shove his tongue down the female host’s throat. He kept flexing his biceps and roaring unintelligibly, chest bumping people, heckling, and belching. He was everything I find

 abhorrent in stereotypical male behavior. I had an amazing time as Ray.

Then I went back to being a woman. Which is great, you know; I love being female. I’m secretly a huge sexist who suspects that women may in fact be emotionally (and

 therefore spiritually and morally) superior to men; I wouldn’t trade my gender for all the male privilege in the world. I had a friend in grad school who confessed that she was transgendered, and hoping to transition to a male identity, and while I tried to be sensitive to her inner truth, in

 my head, I was like, “Ugh! What the fuck do you want to become a guy for?”

(This is the part of the essay where I feel obligated to point

 out that I love men, I love all

 humanity, I’m domestically partnered to a wonderful guy, blah blah blah, I’m not one of those “man-hating lesbians” you’ve heard about [which…do those really exist? Or are they a figment of the popular imagination? I mean, what do lesbians know about hating men, anyway? You want to know about hating some men, ask a straight girl. I kind of think you have to

 date ‘em to hate ‘em. But I digress.])

So, yeah. I went back to being a hairy-legged mostly heterosexual feminist woman. I wro

te a memoir about my female experiences as a young female person, with the sex and the drugs and the domestic violence and the self-esteem issues, and my publisher called it Girlbomb and slapped a pink cover on it. I continued writing my column about politics for BUST magazine, covering the rape/abortion/birth control/constant political disenfranchisement beat. That’s me – all woman, and loving it!

Then, last summer, I had an idea. I was sitting around playing sudoku and brooding ab

out this fight I had with a female friend of mine, and I realized that her boyfriend and my domestic partner had really liked each other’s company. Now that she and I were estranged, the guys’ friendship had been interrupted, which seemed kind of sad and unfair. But what if they were to go behind our backs and have some sort of non-sexual friend-affair?

I felt the thrill of a really rich premise rippling through me. A first line popped into my head – “What can I say? He did a great Schwarzenegger.” I put down the sudoku and went

 for my laptop. By that night, I’d written five pages.

It was terrific fun, writing as a guy. I felt at liberty to pontificate about

 everything, to stop the action and just blow hard about meaningless details, to unabashedly quote movies in the middle of scenes. My character never had to think about what he was doing; he just 

acted, often in a manner that was inconsistent with his goals. Through his eyes, I was merciless with my female characters – “We hate the girlfriend,” said my (all-female) writers’ group, unanimously. “She’s so unlikeable.”

“I know,” I gloated. “She’s based on me.”

But as I was wrapping up the first draft, I started to wonder if I was really doing justice to the male voice. I asked Bill, my beloved domestic partner, for some advice.

Of course, he quoted a movie in his answer. “Remember As Good As It Gets, when someone asks Jack Nicholson how he writes such true-to-life female characters? And he goes, ‘I think of a man, and I take away reason and accountability?’ Well, I think you should write as a woman, and take away all the emotional awareness.”

“Ah,” I nodded. Sage advice, that.

So I went back, and cut a 40 page story down to 20 pages. It was terse, it was funny, it was completely without emotional context. Which is not to say that my narrator didn’t feel, he just didn’t think about how he felt, or why. I was ready for Judd Apatow to make it into a movie.

And then I sat on it for a few weeks, as I am wont to do with second drafts. When I reread it, I was annoyed. I’d loved my narrator in the first draft; now I couldn’t stand him. And the poor girlfriend – so unfairly maligned! Who were these two-dimensional paper doll characters, and why did they act so stupidly? I sat at my laptop, cutting and pasting, trying to reinstate all the material I’d excised. But it was too late – the body rejected the transplants, and the story died.

Now I think it was probably vain of me to think that I could write from a guy’s point of view. Men have their unique ways of experiencing the world, same as women do; slapping on a fake beard, or a fake obtuse-ness, didn’t make me privy to the realities of living as a man. But I keep thinking I’ll go back to the story one of these days, and see if I can’t revive it. I still love the premise; I even love my narrator again. Hapless, clueless, struggling to be whole, unable to express his needs and wants in a mature or productive fashion – in short, a human being.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

So You Have a Problem with Men?

Tayari Jones is the author of two novels, The Untelling (2005), which won the Lillian C. Smith Award for New Voices, and Leaving Atlanta (2002), which received the Hurston/Wright Award for Debut Fiction. Essence magazine has called Jones "a writer to watch." Jones is a graduate of Spelman College, The University of Iowa, and Arizona State University. She is an Assistant Professor in the MFA program at Rutgers-Newark University. Visit her site at

A few months ago, before the media coverage of Clinton/Obama contest pressured black women to decide if we are "women" before we are "black," I sat beside a black man on an airplane. Since such close quarters lend themselves to small talk, he asked me what I do for a living.

“I’m a writer,” I said.

“Oh,” he said. “What do you write? Romances?”


He gave me a sideways glance. “So you have a problem with men?”

Though I was completely aware of the inanity of his question—of both his questions—I found myself working hard to allay his fears. “Oh no,” I said. “I have no problem with brothers!” Once I had disembarked from the plane, claimed my bags, and settled myself in a taxi cab, I recalled my own voice, treakly sweet with an edge of desperation.

What the hell was that all about?

The man on the plane was about the same age as I am—37 this year. We both came to understand the tradition of African American women’s writing in the context of the maelstrom surrounding Alice Walker, Ntozake Shange, and Gloria Naylor. And though these women writers came to public prominence because of their talents, they also achieved infamy in the African American community because they were charged with being anti-man.

Perhaps the most biting of the attacks was Ishmael Reed’s claim that “the same charges that Alice Walker makes against black men were made about the Jews in Germany.” Sadly, Reed was not alone; the vicious castigation of Alice Walker was performed on talk shows, in English Departments, in magazines, barbershops, and any other place black folks gathered.

As my own novels have been published, I have been fortunate enough to meet the writers whose work guided me, not only as a craftsperson, but as a thinker. In October of last year, Cheryl Clarke, whose work appears in the Black Feminist Anthology Homegirls, remarked that Ntozake Shange gave the women of her generation permission to “tell a black woman’s story.” Squirming in my seat, I envied her this moment of experiencing the debut of “For Colored Girls,” to be enthralled by the language, the performance, and the narrative, without being frightened by the controversy that would follow.

In her memoir, The Same River Twice: Honoring The Difficult, Alice Walker relates her experiences following backlash to the publication of The Color Purple and to the release of the movie adaptation:

It was said that I hated men, black men in particular; that my work was injurious to black male and female relationships; that my ideas of equality were harmful, even destructive to the black community. … It was a curious experience that always left me feeling as if I had injested poison. (22-23)

It was a curious experience for me as well. As a tender young writer-to-be, I was very much like a small girl who witnesses domestic violence and sexual terrorism between her parents. As I have set my own pen to the page, I recall the experience of Alice Walker. I understand what she meant when she said that the criticism “prevented my working at the depth of thought at which I feel most productive.” So fearful was I of being “unfair” to my male characters, that I relied on my older brother to vet my manuscripts. When he was unwilling to help me with my second novel, he unwittingly forced me to trust my own sense of just representation. For this, I will ways be grateful.

In her famous essay, “Looking For Zora,” Walker writes that she had limited exposure to Black women writers as she was coming of age as a writer herself. Gloria Naylor has remarked that before she went to Yale, she didn’t know that black women wrote books. I sometimes wonder if this was not a mixed blessing as they created their art without fear of being forced out of the circle.

So this brings me back to my experience on the airplane. My seatmate’s question-So you have a problem with (black) men- was really a demand that I establish my loyalty to the Race. Although we engage in philosophical discussion about what “blackness” is, there is no doubt that—whatever it is-- it involves an uncritical appreciation for its men. The consequences of being pronounced a race-traitor are cultural isolation, crippling for a person already marginalized. Of course, the flip side of this is that proving my allegiance requires a toxic silence.

I am a feminist, and I do not resist the label. I didn’t mention this to my seatmate although this is probably the real answer to the question, “What do you write about?” I would not be honest here if I didn’t confess to a secret desire to please this man, for him to tell me that I am still a member of the fold.

But I am veering away from my experience on the plane. Perhaps I can’t stay on task because I am embarrassed by own response, that I didn’t take the high road, seeing this as a “teaching moment.” Or maybe I could have taken the low road and given him a piece of my mind. Perhaps I can’t stay on task because I am ashamed to remember so clearly the moment, to have been so rattled, to feel the need to confess here my reticence.

The antidote, of course, is to return to the substance of the texts that convinced me that a black woman’s story is a story that must be told, that must be passed down. Black women writers of my generation must have a bravery that exceeds that of the women who went before us. Although they are said to have paved the way, I think a better metaphor is that they cleared away the brush. The road down which the next generation will travel is still in need of pavement. There is molten tar to be mixed and spread. The work will be difficult, dangerous, and essential.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Take this Job and Love It

Evelyn C. White took ten years to research and write her authorized biography of Alice Walker. She has published articles, essays and reviews on issues relating to women of African descent in The Vancouver Sun, Smithsonian, Essence, Ms., Wall Street Journal, San Francisco Chronicle, Philadelphia Enquirer, Seattle Times and The Washington Post. She graduated from Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and earned a Master's degree in public administration from Harvard University. White edited The Black Women's Health Book: Speaking For Ourselves (Seal Press, 1994).

The blood snaked toward my left eyebrow. Not wanting to get sent home, I walked calmly to the employee lunchroom. There, I twisted an ice cube from a tray in the fridge, placed it over the gash on my forehead and pulled down my black, woolen ski cap. Reaching for a mailing label that had slipped to the floor, I’d smashed my head on the warehouse conveyor belt, but now the damage was concealed. Back at my work station, I blissfully continued to pack boxes.

Along with the praise of my subject, the shiny dent on my forehead remains the most rewarding gift of my journey with Alice Walker: A Life (2004). Injured after I’d missed the contracted deadline for my book (four years late!), the scar holds special meaning because the warehouse packing job that gave rise to the blemish proved to be my salvation. Although my advance had dwindled, money was not the reason I secured a packing job during a past holiday season. Trained as a reporter who was loathe to miss a deadline, I determined my writing block was best vanquished by adding manual labor to the daily walking regimen that has been the cornerstone of my creative life.

I also needed to counter the cocoon of solitude and silence that is vital for authors but that can also lead to isolation and yes, I’ll say it, insanity. On that note, I also utilized the services of a suicide crisis line, a 1-800 prayer line and, a peer counselor, as I struggled to complete my book. It was not lost on me why legions of writers succumb to alcohol and other mind-altering substances to soothe the stress, strain, self-doubt and paranoia of our profession.

Initially dubious of my 16-hour per week warehouse stint ("it will only take you away from the biography"), my partner soon came to appreciate the healing effects of the job. To be sure, I awoke exhilarated on work days, eager to pack my lunch (carrot sticks, sardine sandwich, apple) and don the mismatched fleece and corduroy ensemble that diminished the chill in the drafty warehouse. Pushing my metal cart through a maze of inventory, I gathered jogging bras, exercise tights, and other women's sporting apparel that I later packed and loaded on the conveyor belt for dispatch around the world.

Conversation during my half-hour lunch break centered on recipes for the delectable homemade tamales, lumpia and samosas that my co-workers, pitying of my damp sardine sandwich, generously shared with me. Deadlines? Those were the dates by which a rising mountain of packages had to be shipped to guarantee delivery by December 25.

After work, I'd prepare dinner, draw a hot bath and descend into near surgical sleep. Mentally refreshed, I was soon able to craft and polish the needed ending for my book. Having clocked six weeks on the job, I gave notice shortly after our warehouse holiday party. In loving affirmation of my labor (on both fronts), my partner gifted me with a Homer Simpson lunch box.

In relinquishing my packing job, I was also mindful of the multitudes who toil in low-wage positions as a means of survival. Their employment options limited by lack of education, language barriers and inadequate training, such workers deserve increased opportunities to improve their lives.

Later, during a chat with Alice Walker, I shared insights I'd gained about creativity and commitment while packing boxes. Author of The Color Purple and other works that have brought her wealth and fame, Walker took my hand and declared: “Honey, I know exactly what you mean. Let me know if there are any other openings at the warehouse.”