Cartoon: Checking The News


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The worse physical pain I ever felt in my life was a mysterious pain in my left forearm, searing and throbbing at the same time. This was many years ago; at the time, I had no primary care physician, and that was very bad, because there was no one who would just say “hey, let’s giving his arm a cortisone injection.”

(The week or week and a half of this pain is very blurry in my memory. Did I go to the E.R.? Surely I must have, and apparently they didn’t help me. But I have no memory).

Anyway, I finally managed to get an appointment with my brand-spankin’-new primary care physician, and he gave me a cortisone injection, and an hour later the pain was magically gone.

And now I can’t remember the pain at all. I remember the fact that I was in pain, but the pain itself is beyond recollection.

I wonder if the current political moment will be like that. Decades from now, we’ll remember the fact that it happened, but it’ll be hard to really remember how it felt. Or for people who were born after this moment to understand.

So this cartoon – which, unlike most of my cartoons, isn’t issue-oriented – is my attempt to capture, in gag cartoon form, something of the way things feel to me right now – of the feeling that the world is in a state of perpetual crisis, and yet perpetual crisis has become our new normal.


TRANSCRIPT OF CARTOON

This cartoon has four panels.

PANEL 1

A woman with glasses and dark, shortish hair, sits at a desk, an open laptop on the desk in front of her. She’s turned her head away from the laptop, and is responding to an off-panel voice.

OFF-PANEL VOICE: What’s going on in the world?
WOMAN: I’ll check the news.

PANEL 2

The woman checks her laptop.

PANEL 3

An enormous, violent blast of bright force shoots out of her laptop screen, pushing her so hard her hair streams out behind her.

PANEL 4

The woman again turns back to speak to the off-panel voice, but her head is now just a skull, still smoking from the blast.

OFF-PANEL VOICE: Anything going on?
WOMAN: The usual.

Posted in Cartooning & comics, Uncategorized | 1 Comment  

Cartoon: HE would never do that!


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TRANSCRIPT OF CARTOON

This cartoon has four panels, plus an additional tiny “kicker” panel below the bottom of the cartoon.

PANEL 1

Three people – a dark-haired woman in a skirt and blouse, a bald man with a tie, and a somewhat hipster-looking guy with a largish beard but no mustache, are walking through a park. The woman is in front; the two men are talking to each other.

NECKTIE: Maybe she’s bitter because he didn’t call her the next day.
BEARD: She could be saying it for attention.

PANEL 2
The same three people walking; we can see the woman looks annoyed as she listens to the two men talk. Necktie is looking up into the air a bit and scratching his chin thoughtfully; Beard is enthusiastic.

NECKTIE: Maybe she was drunk and imagined the whole thing.
BEARD: Yes! She could be delusional.

PANEL 3
In the foreground, a tire swing hangs from a tree branch, and there’s a stream. In the background, the same three people continue their walk. Teh woman looks really annoyed now; Necktie is holding his arms out in a declaratory fashion as he makes his point; Beard is holding up a forefinger to make a point.

NECKTIE: Maybe she made the whole thing up in a jealous rage!
BEARD: It could be a conspiracy.

PANEL 4
The woman has stopped walking and turned back to address the two men. The two men are infuriated, yelling, Necktie actually jumping up and pointing.

WOMAN: Maybe he raped her.
NECKTIE: HOW DARE YOU!?!
BEARD: THAT’S COMPLETELY IMPLAUSIBLE!

KICKER PANEL
A small panel below the bottom the strip shows the three of them; the woman is rolling her eyes, Necktie is speaking a bit angrily, and Beard, looking a bit smug, makes a point.

NECKTIE: It’s wrong to ruin someone’s life with unproven smears!
BEARD: Unless that someone is a woman.

Posted in Cartooning & comics, Feminism, sexism, etc, Rape, intimate violence, & related issues | 35 Comments  

Open Thread and Link Farm, Trapped Inside This Rotting Building Edition

I Am Part of the Resistance Inside Nyarlathotep’s Death Cult – McSweeney’s Internet Tendency
Thanks to Grace for the link!

Demanding an End to ‘Modern Day Slavery,’ Prisoners Launch Multi-Day Nationwide Strike | Portside
Includes a list of the prisoners’ demands.

Julia Serano: Everything You Need to Know About Rapid Onset Gender Dysphoria

ECHIDNE OF THE SNAKES: Do 20% of Men “Get” 80% Of All Heterosexual Sex?
Spoiler: No.

Bank of America freezes account after asking proof of residency | The Sacramento Bee

Social science replication crisis: studies in top journals keep failing to replicate – Vox
There’s some interesting discussion here of what this could mean for researchers going forward.

‘Alley Oop’ Comic Strip May Be Going The Way Of The Dinosaurs | Deadline
My first reaction was, “Alley Oop is still running?” Turns out the strip has been running over 80 years, but is now in reruns. It has about 600 papers, however, so I bet the syndicate will find someone to keep it going. Cartoonists with Ally Oop ideas, now may be the time to send in your pitches!

The Great Chinese Art Heist | GQ
This could be the basis of an awesome heist movie. Or a reverse “Indiana Jones.”

Opinion | YouTube, the Great Radicalizer – The New York Times
YouTube’s algorithms are biased to showing us more and more extreme videos, apparently because that keeps the most people watching longest, bringing in more ad dollars. Interestingly, this is literally the opposite of the expected outcome of the “an open marketplace of free speech will lead to the truth succeeding” arguments. Alternate link.

Is sex work still the most dangerous profession? The data suggests so

The Country’s First Climate Change Casualties? – Pacific Standard
“Scientists predict Tangier Island could be uninhabitable within 25 years. This is the story of the people willing to go down with it—and why they’ve risked it all on Donald Trump to keep them afloat.” The population of Tangier Island is less than 1,000; would it make more sense to give up on saving the island and instead offer the residents who are willing to relocate generous grants?

Mel Gibson set the pattern for a #MeToo comeback. Others will follow it. – Vox
Unfortunately, this isn’t the way I’d like to see things go; Gibson mainly got to come back by staying below the radar for a while and refusing to talk about it, while his friends sometimes told the media that he’d gotten a bum rap. My preference would be for celebs in need of rehabilitation to undergo a restorative justice process with their victims, if the victims are willing.

‘Virtue-signalling’ – the putdown that has passed its sell-by date | David Shariatmadari | Opinion | The Guardian

Victorian Doctors Didn’t Treat Women With Orgasms, Say Historians – The Atlantic

For Older Voters, Getting The Right ID Can Be Especially Tough : NPR

Against Identity Politics | Francis Fukuyama
This is one of the better attacks on identity politics I’ve seen, not least because he doesn’t dismiss the problems identity politics addresses. But I still think he makes his case by leaving a lot out. It’s not obvious that the zero-sum game Fukuyama posits – that if we concentrate on (for example) racism, then the left won’t also concentrate on economic ideas – is actually true. The support for a basic income has recently been shooting up on the left; ditto for medicare-for-all.

The New Science of Seeing Around Corners | Quanta Magazine
Really neat stuff that I don’t fully understand. “…the computer vision scientist Antonio Torralba noticed stray shadows on the wall of his hotel room that didn’t seem to have been cast by anything.”

Why We Should Lower the Voting Age in America – Rolling Stone

Is a glass of wine a day really unsafe? A new alcohol study, explained. – Vox
The answer is “no.” But this fuss is indicative of a larger problem in how food and health is reported. Reading this article made me think of this brilliant Funny or Die sketch.

The Living Wall by Nikita Nomerz | Bored Panda“Russian street artist Nikita Nomerz travels around various cities in his homeland to find abandoned structures and bring them back to life.”

Posted in Link farms | 22 Comments  

Cartoon: Incels

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Have you noticed that the more misogynistic someone is, the more likely he is to use “females” in sentences where most people would say “women”? I have no idea why they do that. (Well, I do have an idea – the effect is to dehumanize women a little. But I don’t know if they’re doing that consciously or unconsciously).

I probably wouldn’t have done a comic about “incels” a year ago, because too few people would know what that word means. Since then, tragically, an incel terrorist ran down a bunch of people in Toronto, and incels were suddenly in the news.

Of course, the overwhelming majority of incels are not mass-murderers. But the misogyny is so much more extreme than I’m used to, even on right-wing forums.

You don’t have to read an Incel forum for long to realize that the guys divide into two categories. Category one: those who write about “females” with white-hot rage and over-the-top contempt. Category two: those who choose to spend time in a forum filled with guys from category one.

“Incels” stands for “Involuntary Celibites,” a termed coined by “Alana,” a queer woman, back in 1993. She now says, “I can’t uninvent this word, nor restrict it to the nicer people who need it.”

When Alana created the first Involuntary Celibate forum, it was a needed support group for people dealing with a real problem. As someone who has gone years between romances, I relate to that problem. Loneliness and lack of connection are painful; lack of physical affection is painful; and a better society would have institutions to help people feel less alone.

Alana intended to create something like that back in 1993. Over the years, however, incels has become a group exclusively for bitter, misogynistic men to marinate in each other’s hate, to let it soak in even deeper. (We really need a new word, meaning “involuntary celibates who aren’t super misogynistic.”)

The gag in this cartoon is pretty obvious, I admit, but I haven’t seen it done yet in cartoon form, and I don’t mind doing old gags if I can try to do them well.

Of course, many incels would answer the question in panel four by saying that they don’t wonder why they aren’t getting laid. Rather, they believe they know why; they believe that they themselves are so ugly – physically, that is – that no woman would ever have them. (Or at least, no woman they’re willing to have back; many incels seem to think they have a moral right to sex with 21 year old women, and that sex with a woman in her thirties or older is a moral affront. Have I mentioned that these guys are really unpleasant?)

They’re wrong about why they’re not getting laid; most of the incels I’ve seen photos of are ordinary looking guys, and often pretty good-looking guys (Elliot Rodger, for instance). Furthermore, I was a wedding coordinator for over a decade, and in that time I attended over a thousand weddings. From that experience, I can tell you: People with all sorts of looks, including conventionally unattractive people, have been able to find love.

It’s not your looks, incels. It’s you.

I want to acknowledge that this cartoon was influenced by Jia Tolentino’s excellent New Yorker article, which was also the source of the quote I used in panel 3.


TRANSCRIPT OF CARTOON

This cartoon has four panels, plus a small “kicker” panel under the bottom of the cartoon.

PANEL 1
The panel is a close-up of a smartphone, behind held in someone’s hand. On the screen, a friendly-looking young man waves and smiles, speaking to the camera. He’s wearing a button-up shirt with white pinstripes. A caption below him on the screen says “I.C.K. Livestream.”

MAN: Welcome to the online conference of the Involuntary Celibates of Kansas – AKA “Incels!” Today we’ll discuss two main topics…

PANEL 2
A shot of the same man, no longer on a cell phone screen; he is seated in front of a desk, speaking at the laptop on his desk. His hand is in his fist and he has an intense, almost angry expression.

MAN: Topic One: Females! We incels realize that females are spoiled children who are handed the world on a platter.

PANEL 3
Another shot of the same man, this time looking at him from behind his laptop. He’s waving his hands as he speaks.

MAN: Society has become a place for worship of females. And htat’s so #$%*ing wrong! Females aren’t gods. They’re just #$%*ing cum-dumpsters.

The man’s dialog in this panel has a footnote. The footnote says “actual quote.”

PANEL 4
Like panel 1, this is a close-up of the smartphone being held by a hand. On the smartphone, the man who has been speaking now looks hurt and puzzled. He is shrugging.

MAN: Topic Two: Why can’t we get laid?

KICKER PANEL BELOW BOTTOM OF STRIP
The same man is speaking angrily at Barry the Cartoonist. Barry is rolling his eyes.

MAN: You only drew this cartoon to get laid!
BARRY: Yeah, because that’s how getting laid works.

Posted in Cartooning & comics, Feminism, sexism, etc | 97 Comments  

Cartoon: The Easiest Job In The World

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I worked for a while as a temp secretary on Wall Street, including a memorable stint working on a high executive floor of the J.P. Morgan building. (I may have been the worst employee they ever had who wasn’t actually an embezzler). So I got to work with some incredibly highly paid people.

And you know what? They did work hard. They (mostly) cared about their work. Many of them worked long hours.

But they’re not working harder than many minimum wage workers work. And the conditions they’re working in – and the respect they’re given by their co-workers and their superiors – are miles above what most minimum wage workers experience. Nor do any of them really seem to be working any harder than a typical McDonalds worker rushing to get the next drive through order out.

Which brings us to this cartoon.

This one required drawing a lot of backgrounds, which isn’t my favorite thing – but for several of the panels, location was essential.

Drawing those detailed fast food settings also forced me to draw the characters with more ordinary human proportions, rather than doing the big head characters. Why? Because those characters looked just ridiculous behind a fast food counter. :-) Those weird Peanutsesque proportions just aren’t made for interacting with real workplaces.

Despite those problems, I’m pretty pleased with how this cartoon came out. (My favorite thing is the worker’s pained expression in panel 2).

Researching this cartoon was too easy; I just googled for fast food workers talking about their least liked job experiences.


TRANSCRIPT OF CARTOON

This cartoon has six panels.

PANEL 1
A fast food worker, standing behind a big counter of burger patties and ingredients, looks anxious. Right behind her, a manager-man wearing a white shirt and necktie is yelling at her.
MANAGER: This is drive-through! You have to work faster! FASTER!

PANEL 2
A different fast food worker clutches his forearm, which has a big red streak throbbing with pain, an agonized expression on his face. The same manager as panel 1 is offering him some little condiment packets.
MANAGER: It’s only a hot grease burn. No need for the E.R… Just put these condiment packets on it.
CAPTION: True story!

PANEL 3
At a fast food counter, a customer yells at a worker.
CUSTOMER: Are you #%@*ing stupid? I said NO PICKLES!
WORKER: But you didn’t say…
CUSTOMER: GET THE MANAGER!

PANEL 4
A worker is struggling to drag an enormous black bag of garbage out a door into what looks like a back alley, towards a garbage dumpster.
WORKER (thought): Maybe if I take three showers tonight the smell will come out of my hair…

PANEL 5
A fast food employee wearing a peaked paper hat and rubber gloves is kneeling by a toilet, cleaning the gross-looking insides of the toilet with a toilet scrubber. The manager yells at him from off-panel.

MANAGER (off-panel): FASTER!

PANEL 6
A customer and worker at a fast food counter. The worker, looking a bit annoyed, is holding a bag of food out towards the customer for her to take. Seh’s talking on her cell phone and not noticing the proffered bag of food at all.
CUSTOMER (on cell phone): Can you believe fast food workers are asking for raises? Gotta be the easiest job in the world.

Posted in Cartooning & comics, Class, poverty, labor, & related issues | 23 Comments  

Cartoon: The Brave Truth-Teller

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I’ve met this guy dozens of times – the (typically) white (typically) male guy who seems to be constantly patting himself on the back for his own bravitude in stating forbidden views that, somehow, despite being forbidden and despite the iron grip that “political correctness” has on our national dialog, people are in fact saying all the time.

Some of these folks – Jordon Peterson comes to mind – have really built a brand on this silliness. Arguably, Donald Trump was elected president on this silliness.

Speaking of which, this comic originally had a different kicker, which I had actually drawn before trading it for the one I used.

As my mom pointed out to me, the Trump comparison is so obvious that it pretty much goes without saying, so why even say it? (Also, looking at it now, “massive” might be taken as a fat joke, which certainly wasn’t my intent.)

This one took FOREVER to draw! In my original layout, panel 3 pretty much looked like panel 2, except with a crowd gathered in front of the main character. But repeating the layout like that just seemed so boring… So I decided to use this bird’s eye perspective instead.

It was an interesting challenge, I had fun drawing it, and in the end there were 36 (I think) people visible in that panel. See above re: Taking forever. I hope y’all enjoyed looking at it!

In panel 2, if you look in the far background on the right, you can see a tiny figure way in the distance, also waving his arms and yelling. That was my little (literally) nod to how these folks, despite their worship of their own individuality, are really a common type one runs into again and again.

For the final panel, I tried to make it look just a bit more “real”; more detailed coloring and shading, and populating his room with some details (an open book, sneakers kicked off on the floor, etc), to contrast with the character’s daydream.


TRANSCRIPT OF CARTOON

PANEL 1
A white man with an exaggerated “fashy” haircut – shaved close on the sides, longer and neatly combed on top – stands on top of a hill, one hand raised, declaiming. He’s wearing a blue polo shirt. Cumulus clouds cross the sky behind him. He is speaking loudly with a stern expression.

BTT: I am the Brave Truth-Teller!
BTT: I speak the truths that ordinary people are too cowed to say!
BTT: Come hear my incredible courage!

PANEL 2
The same scene, but the “camera” has backed up a bit, and in the foreground a couple more white people – a man and a woman – are looking at the Brave Truth-Teller in delighted surprise. Waaay in the background, we can see a tiny figure on a distant hill, who also seems to be declaiming.

BTT: I’m the only one who dares to say:
BTT: I will not used your “preferred pronoun!”
BTT: Men are the real victims of sexism!
BTT: Whites are the real victims of racism!
BTT: Fat people are objectively gross!
MAN: Gasp! That man! He’s speaking the truth!
WOMAN: Is that allowed? He is so BRAVE!

PANEL 3
The “camera” is now straight above the Brave Truth-Teller, pointing down at him as he goes on. He is now surrounded by a big crowd of smiling admirers. They seem to be almost all white people.

BTT: Hitler was a lefty!
BTT: Liberals are totalitarians!
SOMEONE IN CROWD: Brave Truth-Teller! May I put you on TV?
SOMEONE IN CROWD: May I give you a million dollars?
SOMEONE IN CROWD: May I give you a book contract?
SOMEONE IN CROWD: May I have sex with you?
SOMEONE IN CROWD: Me too!
SOMEONE IN CROWD: You should run for office!

Instead of having a bottom panel border, panel 3 turns into a thought balloon at the bottom. The thought balloon leads to…

PANEL 4
The Brave Truth-Teller is sitting in an ordinary looking home. He’s in a plaid armchair, with a laptop on his lap. There’s a non-matching ottoman in front of the chair. Next to the chair is a little round table holding a lamp, a coffee mug, a pencil, and an open copy of “12 Rules For Life” by Jordan Peterson. His sneakers lie on the floor nearby. There’s a window, through which we can see a bush and a tree outside, and a dresser with some books on top and a half-open drawer. The colors in this panel are a bit more naturalistic than in the previous panels.

The previous panel’s art is in a thought balloon, leading to the BTT’s head.

BTT (thought): Someday…

SMALL KICKER PANEL UNDER THE CARTOON
The BTT, smiling, is speaking with Barry the Cartoonist, who isn’t smiling.

BTT: Until then, I’ve got my own youtube channel.
BARRY: Of course you do.

Posted in Cartooning & comics | 115 Comments  

Open Thread and Link Farm, Leap Of Little Faith Edition

  1. Crossing the Line – The Nib – Medium
    A well-done short comic about Americans being racially profiled by the Border Patrol while returning to the USA.
  2. The Pros and Cons of Kink-Shaming | Noah Berlatsky on Patreon
    The problem with going after a white supremacist for having bigfoot porn on his Instagram.
  3. “BUT BLACKS COMMIT MORE CRIMES”: Scholars discuss conservative logic – Sociology Toolbox
    An interesting discussion between some professors.
  4. Florida Couple Gets to Keep Home’s ‘Starry’ Paint Job; Mayor Must Publicly Apologize for $10,000 Fine – Hit & Run : Reason.com
    Damn straight. I hope that mayor loses his next election, too.
  5. Video: Iranian women are protesting against the arrest of Maedeh Hojabri by dancing on the streets
    And on the internet.
  6. Blow Hard 2: Blowing Really Hard Now – Dead Philosophers in Heaven
    Aristotle explained what he really meant about the flute.
  7. The Tired Trope of Blaming Trump on ‘Liberal Smugness’ | FAIR
  8. Income inequality: The difference between the US and Europe, in one chart – Vox
    Basically, it’s remained steady in Europe at the same time it’s become much more extreme in the US.
  9. How The Media Paints A False Picture of VA Health Care
    By always comparing the VA’s results to an imaginary perfect alternative, rather than comparing the results to the private sector. “… by failing to compare it to other health care systems, journalists can present a distorted impression that plays into ongoing efforts to privatize an agency that outperforms the rest of the U.S. health care system on most metrics.”
  10. The Simple Algorithm That Ants Use to Build Bridges | Quanta Magazine
  11. MRI costs: why this surgeon is challenging NC’s certificate of need law – Vox
    He wants to buy and MRI machine and offer relatively cheap MRIs, but a North Carolina law effectively gives hospitals a monopoly on owning MRIs. Sometimes libertarians are right about over regulation.
  12. Modern art was CIA ‘weapon’ | The Independent
    In the 1950s, the CIA secretly funded abstract impressionism in order to contrast the US’s freedom and sophistication with the rigid art from the Soviet Union. No, really, this happened.
  13. Now the Trump administration wants to limit citizenship for legal immigrants
    Wait, haven’t I been told again and again that conservatives have nothing against legal immigrants?
  14. Aurora parents fighting to stop legally adopted 4-year-old daughter from being deported | FOX31 Denver
    Well, obviously this four-year-old is some sort of criminal.
  15. The lawsuit between Canadian millionaire Harold Peerenboom and Marvel Comics billionaire Ike Perlmutter is super bizarre. Both of them have homes in a gated community in Palm Beach, and there was a dispute over the contract with the tennis pro which blew up, and up, and up.
  16. The Shadow Rulers of the VA — ProPublica
    The same Ike Perlmutter is also a close friend of Donald Trump’s, and has been shadow running the VA, despite having no official position and no accountability.
  17. Various right-wing sites are gloating over the horrific murder of two lefty American tourists who were biking in Tajikistan. (Sample headlines: “Death By Entitlement” and “Universal Love Theory Tested And Disproved.”) Tajikistan is considered a safe area for tourists; this attack was apparently an anomaly. I’m reminded of the disgusting comments from some leftists about Otto Warmbier.
  18. Agnes Scott vs. Princeton College Bowl: the biggest upset in quiz show history.
    I find it interesting that the kind of very tough quiz show still popular in Britain, was once popular in the U.S.. Why did difficult quiz shows stop being popular in the U.S.? Was it due to the quiz show scandals of the 50s?
  19. A linguist discusses gender-marked words and “guys”
    “I would argue that women are appropriating ‘guys’ and its ilk, not to be seen as masculine, but to be included in the category of ‘the general’.” (Thanks to Mandolin for this link.)
  20. We Are All Scutoids: A Brand-New Shape, Explained | The New Yorker
    “What matters is that mathematicians had never before conceived of the scutoid, much less given it a name. What matters even more is that scutoids turn out to be everywhere, especially in living things.” This video may be helpful for trying to picture a scutoid.
  21. California Court Says Starbucks Must Pay for Off-the-Clock Work. The Fallout Could Affect ‘A Lot of Jobs.’ – Rewire.News
    It’s about the couple of minutes of work performed after clocking out (locking up, turning the alarm on, etc.) It’s a small amount of work, but over years it adds up, and I don’t see why people shouldn’t be paid for it.
  22. Comic: Lab Rats Discuss Their Options
    I really enjoyed this short comic about a couple of lab rats chatting. It’s nine pages long, but not much dialog per page so it’s a very quick read.

Posted in Link farms | 94 Comments  

Relearning The Value of Patience in Assembling a Book of Poems

It’s the middle of August, which means summer is almost over and I have to start preparing in earnest to go back into the classroom. This is the first summer in many years–at least fifteen, I think–that I’ve been off since the spring semester ended in May. I certainly could’ve used the extra money I would’ve earned teaching my usual two summer classes, which didn’t fill because of low enrollment, but I’m also not complaining. I was able to make very productive use the extra time. I finished a first draft of my next book of poems! It’s more a framework for a draft, actually, nowhere near ready to share with the world, and so many of the poems are still in flux—even some that have been published in journals (here and here, if you’re interested)—that I am relearning a lesson each of the previous two manuscripts I have published taught me: patience.

CavanKerry Press, for example, rejected two or three different and substantial revisions of the manuscript that became my second book, Words for What Those Men Have Done, for reasons that boiled down to my not being able to get out of my own way within my own poems. (I was, to put it differently, trying too hard and too self-consciously to make the poems do what I wanted them to do, turning them more into poeticized editorials than works of art.) It wasn’t till I realized that I had fallen too much in love with the formal concept I had for the book as a whole, which was connected to ideas about chamber music and string quartets—ideas that would take too long to explain here—that I was able to hunker down with the language and take the time necessary to transform the manuscript into something worth publishing.

One reason I had such a hard time seeing this problem in the first place was that Words For What Those Men Have Done is so deeply personal. It deals far more explicitly than The Silence of Men with my experience as a survivor of childhood sexual violence, and it was, therefore, correspondingly more difficult and painful to write. The formal scheme I’d come up with for organizing the book–four or five long poems divided into four or five movements each–had been my way of making that pain and difficulty manageable, establishing the boundaries that would give it structure and meaning. I hadn’t understood that this structure’s purpose was, in reality, to enable me to generate the poetic material I needed. To turn that material into successful poems, enough of them to fill a book, I needed to allow the structures that would hold those poems to emerge organically–and that required patience.

Now that I have completed a first draft of this new manuscript—the working title is This Sentence Is A Metaphor For Bridge—I realize that I have been through more or less the same process. I just didn’t need to have the manuscript rejected three times for me to figure it out. After I finished Words for What Those Men Have Done, I was, quite frankly, tired of talking about myself. It wasn’t just that I didn’t want to go back yet again to the violence of my childhood, or the intimate questions about manhood and masculinity that my poems sometimes explore, or the issues of my Jewish identity, or my marriage. I just didn’t think I had anything new to say, at least not in poetry. I wanted to write something that would take me out of myself, that would force me to focus more on the poem as a self-consciously constructed linguistic object, and so I set myself what I thought at first would be a purely formal exercise, sort of like playing scales on the piano. I decided to write sonnets, a form I have always loved, that would not only follow as strictly as possible the rules of the form, but that would also adhere to a set of guidelines meant to take me–my autobiographical self–out of the the poems as much as possible. These are all the rules I created:

  • I would write in strict iambic pentameter
  • All rhymes would be full rhymes (a rule I ended up having to break only once)
  • While I would not hold myself strictly to the Shakespearean or Petrarchan rhetorical structures, the rhyme schemes would adhere absolutely to one or the other of those forms (a rule I broke a couple of times)
  • I would not use the first person singular pronoun, I, unless it was spoken in direct speech by a character in the poem
  • As much as possible, rather than relying on narrative or logical momentum to move the poem forward, I would rely on the music of the language

I rarely set aside “writing time”” to work on these poems. Rather, I composed them piecemeal, usually on my phone, while I was riding the train or standing in line at the supermarket–pretty much anywhere but at my desk. If I got stuck or interrupted mid-line, as I often did, I just put the poem aside until I could pick it up again. When I did, though, instead of reading through all the lines I’d written previously, I looked only at the line that had been interrupted, and maybe the line before it, finding a way to continue based on the music—the rhythm, the sound patterning—of that bit of language. I didn’t give these sonnets titles, only numbers, and once a sonnet was done, I did not look at it again. I just moved on to the next one. Continue reading

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Figuring Out Why A Poem Doesn’t Work For Me

A book I’ve been making my way through this summer is Calling A Wolf A Wolf, Iranian-American poet Kaveh Akbar’s first full length collection. I say “making my way through” because, while there have been lines, phrases, stanzas, and occasionally entire poems that have made me catch my breath, no matter how hard I’ve tried, I just cannot muster the enthusiasm for the book, for the experience of reading it, that the hype surrounding it suggests I ought to feel. In part, this may be due to the fact that no work of art ever lives up to the hype surrounding it, but I’ve been reading and writing poetry for long enough to recognize the difference between a clearly not successful, or just plain bad, book that I’ve picked up because of the hype and a book that I really want to like as much as the hype says I should, because I can truly see from the work itself where the hype is coming from, but can’t. Calling A Wolf A Wolf is in the latter category.

Why two different people might have very different responses to whether a poem (or book of poems) is successful is a really interesting question, so I decided to go back through as much of the book as I’ve read, about 50 pages, to see if I could figure out what keeps getting in my way. This is what I discovered: In many of the poems—I did not count because I’m not interested in what that kind of quantification would signify, but in enough of them that a pattern of my reading experience presented itself to me—there were lines, phrases, sometimes whole sections, that took me out of the poem, or, to be more precise, out of what I will call the music of emotion that the poem had drawn me into. (I’m not exactly sure what I mean by “music of emotion,” but I wanted an expression that would include both the music of language, without which there is no poetry, and the flow of emotion—including the emotions connected with intellection—without which there is no point.)

When I looked more closely at these disruptive moments, I found that they almost always involved instances where the speaker starts explaining things, telling me what I am supposed to understand—saying, in essence, what the poem already says, but in plain and straightforward terms that ultimately undermine, for me, whatever power the poem had. By way of example, I want to talk about Akbar’s poem called “Prayer,” which is on page 40 of the book. (Please forgive errors in spacing.)

again i am thinking of self-love     filled with self-love     the stomach
of the girl who ate only hair was filled with hair     they cut
it out when she died     it formed a mold of her stomach     reducing
a life to its most grotesque artifact     my gurgling internal devotion
to myself     a jaw half-formed     there are words
I will not say     the muscle of my face smeared
with clay     I am more than the worry I make     I choose
my words carefully     we now know some angels are more terrifying
than others     our enemies are replaceable     the stones behind their teeth
glow in moonlight     compared to even a small star
the moon is tiny     it is not God but the flower behind God I treasure

I want to start with the poem’s last sentence–“it is not God but the flower behind God I treasure”–because this is one of those lines that made me sit back and take notice, not only for its meaning, about which more in a moment, but also for its economy of language and the way it is crafted. Two examples:

  • Leaving out before “I treasure” the relative pronoun that, the grammatical referent for which would have been flower. Had the phrase read “the flower behind God that I treasure,” in other words, the language would have directed the reader’s attention back to the flower as the object of the speaker’s adoration and away from where Akbar clearly wants it, on the speaker as the subject of the verb treasure, which calls back in an interesting way to the idea of self-love and self-involvement that the poem explores in its beginning lines.
  • The two spondees (two consecutive stressed syllables)–“not God” and “behind God”–are like stakes driven into the ground of the line, around which the rhythm of the rest of the line organizes itself. They also serve to emphasize the line’s negation or denial of, or at least the speaker’s desire to set aside the traditional notion of God in favor of the actual flower you find if you can see past that tradition. There is, in other words, a tension in the line between being a self that desires to get “behind God,” whatever that means, and the fact that, as long as this self remains a self, as long as it remains a consciousness that can treasure what is behind God, that is conscious of God, then God will always remain in the way.

This tension and the quest to resolve it—and I am guessing, since Akbar is Iranian-American, that this is no accident—in some ways defines Sufism, a way of practicing Islam that plays a central role in Iran’s history. Sufism is also central to the work of some of Iran’s, and the world’s, greatest poets, the most famous being Rumi, but there’s also Attar, Hafez, and Saadi.1 Indeed, Akbar’s reference to the flower behind God, alludes, whether he intended it or not, to a passage from what is generally cited as Saadi’s most important work, his Gulistan, or Rose Garden. The passage I am thinking about–this is my rendition of it–is this:

A man of God immersed himself in meditation. When he emerged from the vision that was granted him, a smiling companion welcomed him back, “What beautiful gift have you brought us from the garden in which you were walking?”

The holy man replied, “I walked until I reached the rosebush, where I gathered up the skirts of my robe to hold the roses so I could present them to my friends, but the scent of the petals so intoxicated me that I let everything fall from my hands.”

The “flower behind God,” in other words, can only be experienced directly, wordlessly, not shared, and not “treasured” as an object that you can possess.

Certainly, you don’t need to know about Sufism or Saadi’s Gulistan in order to appreciate the artistry in the line from “Prayer” that I’m talking about. I’ve laid all this out here, and tried to indicate some of its complexity, to underscore the fact that, whether Akbar consciously intended it or not, the line did not turn out the way it did by accident—if by “accident” we mean a completely random happenstance. On the other hand, if by “accident” we mean—and I am badly paraphrasing here something I read a long time ago in an essay I cannot now find by Hayden Carruth—the kind of thing that starts to happen “naturally,” without conscious forethought, after serious study, rigorous practice, and a deep immersion in craft and subject matter, then you start to see why I think this line (along with much else in Calling A Wolf A Wolf) is evidence of Akbar’s skill as a poet.

This skill is also evident in the two primary images Akbar crafts to set up the resonance that leads to the final line: “the stomach/of the girl who ate only hair was filled with hair” and “the stones behind [our enemies’] teeth/glow in moonlight.” In each of these images, an objectification of the self—the stomach filled with hair, the stones behind the enemies’ teeth—also represents, or symbolizes, how loving the self as an object ultimately destroys the self that is so loved. There is a progression in those two images as well, from an object that represents complete self-absorption, the hair, to one that starts to resemble “the flower behind God,” the stones behind the enemies’ teeth. This is how Akbar sets up the tension in the last line that I wrote about above, between the desire for direct experience of the flower behind God and the speaker’s inability to give up the desiring self. Continue reading

  1. A note to those who might be interested in looking up the work of some of these poets: While Coleman Barks and Daniel Ladinsky have produced the most popular versions of Rumi and Hafez, respectively, in the United States, if not in English in general, I would not recommend those versions as entrees into understanding the place those two poets occupy in either Persian or world literature. I wrote a blog post about Barks and Rumi—and I would also recommend reading the article by Rozina Ali that I reference there—and Aria Fani wrote a post on the Ajam Media Collective’s blog about translating Hafez that contains a good critique of people who work like Ladinsky. Murat Nemet-Nejat also wrote a critique of Ladinsky that’s worth reading. Dick Davis’ translation of Attar’s The Conference of the Birds is the best known translation of Attar’s work into English, but there is also a new translation by Sholeh Wolpe, which I haven’t read yet. If you’re interested in getting a taste of something else that Attar wrote, I co-translated parts of Elahi Nameh, or The Book of God, one of which—along with an introductory essay—I published in Modern Language Studies. You can get a copy here. As for Saadi, while I refer above to my own version of passages from Gulistan, it’s worth knowing that there is a recent translation of the complete text—the first one in more than a century—by W. M. Thackston. As far as I know, though, my Selections from Saadi’s Bustan is the only recent, non-religious and literary translation of that text that is easily available, since you can get it directly from me. []
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Cartoon: Picking Their Battles


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TRANSCRIPT OF CARTOON

This cartoon has four panels, all of which show two men chatting as they walk. One man is Black with short springy hair, stubble, and round glasses; he is looking at a large smartphone as he walks. The other man is white; he is bald with a van dyke beard.

PANEL 1
The two men, not facing each other, are walking on a sidewalk single file; there are a couple of houses and a tree behind them. GLASSES is reading off his smartphone, while BEARD is holding out his hands in a mild “oh, come on!” gesture.
GLASSES: Someone called 911 on a Black pedestrian for walking on a sidewalk!
BEARD: They might have called for a white pedestrian too.

PANEL 2
They’re still on the sidewalk, but Glasses has come to a stop, pointing at something particularly outrageous on his phone. Behind him, Beard has is arms folded and has a condescending expression, although he’s speaking calmly.
GLASSES: Republicans have purged tens of thousands of legitimate Black voters from the voter rolls!
BEARD: They could vote if they tried harder.

PANEL 3
Glasses is flat-out yelling now, as the two of them walk single file down a hillside in some sort of hilly park. Beard looks up into the sky a bit, his hands shoved into his pants pockets, and responds calmly.
GLASSES: Another unarmed Black man has been shot by the cops!
BEARD: Two sides to every story…

PANEL 4
Glasses has stopped and turned back, and is reading from his phone with an amused expression. Beard is freaking out, yelling, one hand to his face and the other hand over his heart, eyes super big.
GLASSES: Heh – someone on twitter wrote “white people are trash” four years ago.
BEARD: SUCH RACISM! OH THE HUMANITY!

Posted in Cartooning & comics, Race, racism and related issues | 83 Comments