Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Last week I attended my third ever &Now conference. Past conferences have been held in Boulder and San Diego [also Paris and Buffalo, but I didn't attend those]. This year's conference was at Cal Arts in Valencia, about 30 minutes from LA, which made me realize how perfect an art school is as an &Now conference space.
The walls of CalArts feel like the walls of a high school and the walls of an outdoor urban space combined. There are stickers and fliers, advertisements for events, advertisements for who knows what. There's always something to see. There were posters of Michael Brown's face with the handwritten hashtag #blacklivesmatter everywhere. There were many signs regarding where "pets" and "animals" can and cannot go. It was hard to tell the difference between official school document and student project. Maybe there isn't a difference. It made me wish I'd gone to art school.

It was hot. Really hot. Far from the ocean breeze. Each day, there was a food truck and too many people lining up to eat at it.

There was, as always, the bookfair, with all its beautiful books written by presenters and artists attending the conference. My friends' books were there.

I bought a couple beautiful things. One is this small, strange book by Doug Rice called Dream Memoirs of a Fabulist, which is described on Copilot Press's website this way: 
"In his first book in nearly ten years, Doug Rice moves against the silence of paper and dreams in a meditation on desire, a memoir told and untold somewhere between image and word. Undeveloped photographs. Bodies abandoned by reflections. Mirrors gone ecstatic with wanting.  
Dream Memoirs of a Fabulist becomes memory for a time that never was. The book itself is book as exposure. Cover falls away, single sentences drip themselves across multiple pages, windows pull the gaze forward then back then down in a tactile interaction with reading. You find things here, literally, tucked between the pages. This book is for play. This is a book built for pleasure."

On Friday afternoon, I moderated and participated in a panel I called (Dis)Embodiment: Digital Performance Remix. The panel was composed of me, my friends Raphael and Matt who are/were PhD creative writing students in my program at the University of Utah, and Raphael's friend Amber, who he met while doing a writer's residency in Mexico recently.

Our panel engaged with embodiment and disembodiment through a series of performances, readings, and screenings that made use of bodies both as the form and the content of our projects, and that presented these bodies (or lack thereof) as remixed in conjunction with digital/video "texts." The panel followed a narrative arc from complete absence of body to full embodiment via the following presentations:

I screened my film remix of personal footage of the desert spanning seven years and thousands of miles. Footage completely absent of humans, accompanied by a disembodied voice over. The project considers how a body disappears into the desert to become nothing but a combination of text fragments appropriated from the love letters of other bodies, other writers, remixed in their absence. I recently wrote about the process of creating this project. Each of the letters addressed to "R," signed by "S," are composed out of a series of sentences I borrowed from the letters of modernist writers like Lorine Niedecker, Samuel Beckett, F. Scott & Zelda Fitzgerald, Ezra Pound, Ernest Hemingway, &c &c &c.

Matt Kirkpatrick read from his newest manuscript, a collection of title cards for imagined paintings. The narrator of the title cards slowly reveals his persona through his descriptions of the various completely absent paintings, which Matt presented via powerpoint wherein there were no actual images, just artist names and painting titles. The piece reads dry like title cards do, but has sense of humor and intrigue as the narrator is snarky and obsessed with a ghost.

Raphael Dagold's piece was a combination of fractured photographic self-portraits, personal essay, reading, and disrupted video display of the essay text. His reading/performance explored what a body experiences in alcohol-induced blackout, and considered the consequences for that body’s memory and sense of self. The text form of the project was recently the nonfiction contest winner at The American Literary Review and is called "Blackout."

Amber Bemak’s performance employed her own body as textual surface. Raphael and I spent the morning writing on Amber's body the answers to a survey she sent out about love, sex, and loneliness. Most of what we wrote on her was highly pornographic in nature. We covered her entire body, including her face. She then stripped off her clothes for the panel and held a videocamera that projected live footage onto the screen behind her of audience members reading off of her body. I thought Amber's project was brilliant. It was her first time experimenting with this specific idea, and every single audience member participated. No one knew what kind of text they'd find. No one knew they'd be reading about hard dicks and raw nipples. There were also passages about dancing in Mexico. About not being lonely because one can find solace in talking about ideas with close friends. The project seemed at first to be about reading and the gaze and the female body, but became almost entirely about the audience, as Amber's body became a text witnessing its own consumption. I'm still thinking through all of this, but it was by far my favorite piece at the conference.

You drive by those janky hotels off the side of the highway and you wonder who stays there and why and what goes on in those not quite motel not quite hotel rooms. And on Friday morning, from 10am till 1pm, what went on was two people writing the sexual fantasies of other people on another person in sharpie. [Don't worry, Amber has given me her full permission to post these photos on various social media.]

My favorite panel at the conference was the panel on Feminist Poetics & The Internet. Kate Durbin, who I am completely obsessed with for her brilliance and all the gorgeous outfits and wigs she wears and the way she walks through the world always performing and always deeply aware of that performance. She presented her project, Hello Selfie, which she talks about in detail here. She took selfies while speaking on the panel. As many of you know, I am a lover and taker of selfies and find criticism about the selfie as narcissistic or vain to be just another method of policing the female body, so I found this performance especially engaging and important.

Stephanie Young presented stuff on the Anti-Surveillance Feminist Hair & Make-Up Party. I'm very interested in anti-surveillance tactics, and some people have turned to make up that disrupts facial recognition software, but as Stephanie mentioned in her presentation, often times that make up is so drastic that it calls attention to the person wearing it in real life, sometimes putting that person, especially if she is queer and/or female, in danger. She talked about her experience being harassed by men at a bar while wearing the make up. 

Stephanie Strickland gave a great talk about women in game culture, but I only caught the tail end of it because the previous panel I attended ended early, so I won't try to summarize it here. 

Monica McClure presented via this thoughtful, nuanced, super smart video discussing radical boredom, avant-garde poetics and race [referencing the recent discussions around conceptual poetics and Kenny Goldsmith's reading of Michael Brown's autopsy report], and the cam girl in porn, how she's alone, in a room looking out at the invisible bodies looking in. She talked about exploding the canon and her own confusion and place in that canon. Really, take 16 minutes of your day and watch this: 
Who am I to tell someone they are colonized, and yet I am someone who can say that. So here I am feeling called by the rhetoric by both sides, as I'm sure many people are as well.

And Becca Klaver talked about her experiment Women Poets Wearing Sweatpants, the critiques it received and why, the ways in which it was serious and not serious, empowering and problematic. 

On a different panel, I got to see Amaranth Borsuk and Kate Durbin perform as Abra as they discussed their co-authored work by the same name along with one of their collaborators, Ian Hatcher. I have been waiting for Abra to be released into the world for over a year now. It is always growing, but I am particularly excited for the book from 1913 Press and for Ian's iPad app, which accompanies the book as the iPad rests in the back of the codex where the reader can eventually see its screen as she turns the pages.

Work like Amaranth's, Kate's, Stephanie's, and Monica's is exactly what I'm writing about for my dissertation. Work that utilizes digital technology to expand what we mean by books, literature, poetry, narrative, community, feminism, identity. To me, what good is all this internet and software if we can't use it to disrupt the narratives of power and oppression that script us into roles, marginalize us, teach us about ourselves in ways that limit our potential to destroy the controlling narratives of the white capitalist heteropatriarchy. 

So much of what I love about &Now is how at each conference I see artists using different tools to attempt something different, to build a different idea of academia, conference, presentation. Though, I think there's a way, too, in which the anti-canon resolidifies as its own kind of canon. The canon of the avant-garde, which often still only incorporates the straight white experimental male writers of past and present and continues to exclude voices of women, queers, and people of color. If we trace a certain kind of experimental writing back to Joyce and Beckett, yes, that is doing something important and different, but in so many ways, it's doing the same thing as the canon it's rejecting. And I worry at times that folks have clung to &Now as the anti-academia, the anti-narrative, the anti-writing, the anti-whatever space of production and presentation, but built into each of those words is the thing they're purporting to reject. &Now isn't anti-academia. It is still very much academia. It caters to a niche audience of highly educated artists and writers. And that's fine. I don't think we need to frame this conference with the rhetoric of negativity and opposition. This isn't the anti-AWP. We aren't anti-scholars. &Now is just a space that is less confined than those spaces, that [I think at least] is very conscious of issues of identity and inclusiveness. I hope &Now and its participants aren't interested in building a canon of the contemporary avant-garde. I hope &Now continues to offer people the space to voice themselves in a way that is open to change and critique but that is still safe. I hope we don't start trying to define what qualifies as "experimental" and what qualifies as "writing."

I find that my biggest annoyance at &Now and AWP is when people ask me, "oh, so do you write fiction or poetry?" And I say neither. And they say "what do you write?" And I say nothing. Very late last Friday night, I was sitting around a table in the courtyard of the conference hotel with a friend and a group of older writers and professors and they asked me this question while we shared dessert. And I said, "I write tweets and instagram captions and I take photos and I guess I write criticism?" My friend joked that I'm going to need to solidify things more than that when on the job market, and he's right. But actually I know exactly what I do. That is, I know the ideas I care about, I know what I write and talk and make things about. It's just that I don't have one consistent medium. And part of me feels like that's because I'm afraid I'm not really good enough at any of them to commit to one, but another part of me feels like I don't want to commit to one because I don't want to exclude the others. Or rather, that I don't see things in the boxes and spaces of genre defined by people I don't know and will never care about. I write words, I make things with images. Sometimes I write these words linearly and with a kind of academic rhetoric on something like MS Word and then I print those words out on my shitty HP Photowhatever printer. Sometimes I make photos and I write captions and people ask me what my instagram means and explaining it doesn't make sense to me. Sometimes I write here, in this box on my blog about my work or my life, which are the same. Sometimes I write 20 tweets in a row, stream of consciousness, not fact-checkable, initials to represent people, metaphors to represent people. Sometimes I write emoji sentences. Sometimes I cut some sounds and images together in Adobe software and sometimes I photoshop things and sometimes I wear clothes to communicate something or I don't wear clothes to communicate something else. I don't know if I can't tell you what I do because I do nothing or because I do everything. And I don't know if I do nothing or everything well or poorly, but I just do it. Them. I do them. The things. Whatever they are. Whatever I am called upon to do by colleagues, professors, students, myself, something else, the universe. 

I don't know if there's a job for me. My dissertation is not going to be a 250 page manuscript I write in MS Word. It is not going to be an eBook. It is not going to be fiction or criticism. None of the examples or guidelines people give me about preparing a prospectus or job market materials make sense to me because I can't fit myself or my work inside those materials. Do I even have work? I must, because here I am five years into grad school and still doing something. What I like about &Now is that it lets me be the whatever I am. I've moderated a panel about the digital vs. the analog, I've presented a hypertext essay I wrote in Flash about the failures of digital literary criticism to engage with electronic literature and art effectively, I've presented a video I made with iPhone footage I shot from planes and cars and bikes and feet. Whatever I am doing at any given moment, I know &Now will give me a place to speak that, be that, show that. And I won't be told it's not "humanities" enough or it's not "academic" enough or "rigorous" enough or "experimental" enough. 

Also, let's not pretend my favorite part of &Now is anything other than getting to see my friends, who are now spread far and wide across the continent. I get to see them read and perform, I get to go to dinner with them and have snacks with them outside in the sun.
Once upon a time I got to go to a suburban mall with them and eat vegan food and drink juice made of cucumber and other green things. 

I went to a panel that was a circle of people sitting on the ground where Ronaldo Wilson threw pebbles in the air and moved his body and spoke words about trash and detritus and TC Tolbert read the names of murdered trans people while we all sat with our hands open in our laps, eyes closed, trembling. It was hard and gorgeous and other things that don't have words.

There was a ghost podium one morning. One night, there were collaborative performances. One was augmented reality and maps and trash and Judd Morrissey and another was sound poetry theater yelling and so much noises.

I wish I had a thoughtful critique to provide you for every performance and reading and interaction and experience, but I am in the two weeks between my field exams and my qualifying exams, and language is a thing I've already overused that now hates me and is on the run. 

In the end, I was exhausted. I didn't get to attend nearly anything close to everything I wanted to attend. Sometimes the body wins. My back hurt. I was hungry and dehydrated and my throat was sore from talking to all the people I never get to talk to when it's not [&]Now.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Around two and a half years into my English PhD program this past fall, I started reading for field exams. Each PhD program runs their exams differently. For us, we have two sets of exams: Fields and Quals. For fields, we choose three areas of study for which we devise a list of 20-30 texts per field.

My fields are Comparative Media Analysis, Post WWII Deserts of the American West, and 18th Century Narratology. We had general field areas we could choose from, and I, like everyone does, made of my fields specific in conjunction with the profs heading each one. Comparative Media Analysis is nice because it's sort of the precursor for my quals and eventually for my dissertation. (My main focus in my program is comparative media, particularly in the context of narratology [hence my third field]). I had to choose a pre-1900 area, so I went with the long 18th century because I wanted to do a narratology field, and the 1800's with all its first attempts at novels seemed the appropriate time period. The desert field is simply something that interests me that is unrelated to my other work. It perfectly coincides with the honors writing seminar I designed and am teaching this semester on the same subject. I don't write about the desert in academic settings, but I do make art about the desert, whatever that means, and it is my main obsession and travel destination, so I figured this would be a fun field, and it has been. I've learned so much that truly enhances my perspective of a place that's always intuitively meant so much to me.

Here, pretty much, are my lists (not in MLA format because I am lazy):

We read our 20-30 texts per field and at the end, which for me is right now, we have ten days to write an essay responding to a question posed by the professor we're working with in each field. We help formulate the question, so we have some knowledge of what's coming. We have to choose anywhere between three and six texts to write about for each essay. Here are my choices:
Comparative Media Analysis
Post WWII Deserts of the American West
18th Century Narratology

It's actually been an ok seven days so far. I chose to do my ten day exam period over spring break so that I wouldn't have to balance this with teaching duties or anything else. All semester I've been reading to the point of headaches and eye pain, I've been drafting and redrafting both a fellowship research proposal and a dissertation prospectus, I've made a digital remix film for a conference I'm presenting at next week, and I've been teaching this class on the desert. So I'm usually doing a million things at once, but for these ten days, all I have to do is write. And I'm realizing how much I've missed writing. I've been so busy consuming everyone else's ideas, it's nice to remember I have my own ideas. For each field, I spend one day planning and pulling quotes, one day drafting, and one day revising. That will leave one day at the end to revise again, proofread, and format. I do the first day of each essay inside with my stack of books, I do the drafting day outside with Malta on my front porch, and the third day is a combination of inside and outside.

When I'm done with Field Exams, I move on to Qualifying Exams. For quals I have to submit a dissertation prospectus and bibliography, sit for a three hour in-house written exam, and do an oral defense of my prospectus. Because of this, I've been in a prospectus writing workshop all semester with some of my peers who are also at the quals stage. Oh and I had to do a translation exam to prove advanced competency in another language, so I did that this semester when I translated a few pages of an article about Juan Rulfo into English.

I'm writing all this because my friends in academia want the specifics and my friends and family outside academia want to know why I'm being such an elusive, grumpy asshole lately. So here you go. Here's all of it. Hypothetically my oral defense for quals will be on April 17th. After that point, if I pass, which is the plan, I will be free of all responsibilities for the semester other than finishing my class and grading final seminar papers. I would then spend the next two years in my program writing my dissertation and applying for jobs. Some of this, however, is contingent on the fellowship I applied for. If I don't get it, I won't have to do quals this semester, which means I'll do them next semester, and I'll reapply for the fellowship, which might add a year to my progress, but that's all somewhere in the future.