Reading Proust Backwards: Anne Carson at the Geffen

from Media Cake Issue #4/Spring-Summer 2008

Michael Ondaatje describes her as “The most exciting poet writing in English today.”  Susan Sontag admits that if she sees something of hers in a magazine, she “buy[s] it automatically.” Hers is a “new kind of poetry” according toBooklist. It is at once modern but steeped in the classics; experimental yet learned; avant-garde with permission from Sappho, Aeschylus, and Aristophanes. Anti-tradition cloaked in archetypes of the Greek masters. Carson’s impressive resume includes essayist, translator, teacher of classics and comparative literature. She has received the Lannan Literary Award, the Pushcart Prize, a Guggenheim Fellowship, a MacArthur Genius Fellowship, the Griffin Poetry Prize for Men in the Off Hours (Knopf) and the T.S. Eliot Prize for The Beauty of the Husband(Knopf)

First introduced to her work by Terry Wolverton ten years ago, I first read Autobiography of RedA Novel in Verse(Knopf) and was initially turned off by the extensive notes on Stesichorus and his original poem that the book is based on. I skimmed, skipped, and then arrived at the actual narrative. When finished, I urged every poet I knew to read it. Carson’s imagery tore at my insides, made me writhe in my seat. Such imagination, such unabashed bravado in her metaphors, but they worked! And they were always relevant to the narrative, the adolescent love story of two boys, one representing Herakles, the other the monster Geryon with red wings hidden inside his long coat.

I waited almost a decade to finally meet Carson, so when Red Hen Press produced the Poets Move Language series at the Geffen Playhouse on February 28, and her name was on the ticket, I was ecstatic, digging up every book I had bought, even purchasing Glass, Irony and God, again, in a panic, forgetting that I had packed it away in the middle of a move. Peggy Shumacher was also on the bill, reading from her new book Just Breathe Normally(University Press). The conversation was moderated by Elena Karina Byrne, who had the difficult task of interviewing Carson, a reluctant subject at best. When asked, “How did you decide to subvert the voice in your work?” Carson’s response was at once poetic and flippant. “The self is not the same that writes [the poems]….like doing an autopsy on yourself. That’s why I don’t do interviews.” Byrne’s questions were met with questions, as Carson appeared dismissive, confused, or simply unwilling. While Byrne remained professional and plugged away with optimistic curiosity, Carson seemed aloof, her wariness giving way to exasperation. I wasn’t sure if she was simply shy and awkward or arrogant. It was an uncomfortable exchange.

Blessedly, Carson did settle in eventually, expounding on the principles of stacking and the technique of parataxis, the act of placing side by side (a device that favors short, simple sentences, often without the use of conjunctions). In poetry, parataxis is used to juxtapose two images or fragments, usually contrasting ones, without a clear connection. There was more revealed during the Q&A session when one audience member asked the exact question on my mind: “You are very experimental, yet I get a lot of out of your work. There’s a lot of avant-garde poetry that I don’t get anything out of. How do you do it?” Carson’s response was true to form: “Poetry has to make the listener feel like they’ve never heard their own language before, like trying to see the back of your dress in a mirror.”

Carson read from her new work, which the Classic Stage Company, a New York based theatre company, will produce in repertory in their 2008/2009 season. A multi-media work in progress, the piece will be not only accompanied by dancers, sculptors and stacks of objects on stage to illustrate the principle of stacking and restacking things, people, and ideas, but will include the translations of Aeschlyus’ Agamemnon, Sophocles’Electra, and Euripides’ Orestes (as The Oresteia). It isCarson’s opportunity to set her beautiful mind free in the playground of language, history, astrology, psychoanalysis, naming and renaming, and listing.

Despite the discomfort of the interview portion of the reading, Carson’s live reading aptly captured the subtlety of her craft. Words and images leave the room of Carson’s poems through one door, only to enter through a window or side door, and they fit in once again; they are relevant. Words from one poem peek into another poem, a conical amalgam of words on top of words on top of words. Biblical characters are woven in with mundane objects, Eastern Religions, pop culture, corporate machines, lunar bodies of water, Greek myths, and French philosophers. Her work is orderly, yet myriad in it starts and stops, at once whole and wholly undone. Carson admits, “I often start a book in the middle…. Reading in the wrong order is very helpful. Writing in the wrong order actually works well too.” 

Carson’s work is postmodern, fragmented, but, like an algebraic equation, the sum of its parts is what matters. And, if one listens with a discerning ear, they will pick up on the mastery, the skill with which the language marries itself over and over again, dizzying but not redundant, out of order but with a sense of rightness to it. The experience is like reading Proust backwards, which Anne Carson does, apparently, in the morning, while eating her cereal.



Black Rebel Motorcycle Club is (still) Not For Sale

Peter Hayes
Peter Hayes @ The Music Box

An open bar, trendy hors-devours, swag bags and stretch limousines. The red carpet’s long and narrow tongue greets us with cameramen (why are they always men) lined up on our right side. My friend Jen hesitates in front of the intimidating mass, not sure how to proceed. I grab her arm and say, “We’re nobody. They won’t bother us.” So we run by the paparazzi who are checking their batteries and adjusting their lenses, waiting for the beautiful and damned to totter in on their Louboutin heels. Hey, I know my high fashion terminology. My sister works in the god-forsaken industry, after all. It looks like there is one cameraman for every guest, and every other polished attendee is dressed in a faux-weathered leather jacket, as if in standard-issue tough-guy uniform. But we are not here with switchblades and chains, ready for a rumble. The cause is modern-day slavery and the trafficking of humans for sex and forced labor. The Not For Sale campaign has teamed up with All Saints and BRMC to make tonight happen. The numbers are staggering – 30 million in Thailand alone. Women and children kidnapped and sold by manufacturing companies from all over the world, including the United States. Capitalism at its finest, folks!

At the newly-renovated Music Box theater in Hollywood, I score free drinks at an open bar and feel guilty for not having any cash to tip the bartender with for pouring my organic vodka. Meanwhile, President Obama is across the city charging $35,800 a head for a dinner, courting the Hollywood elite, rapidly acquiring a hefty campaign budget in hopes of re-election so that his hair can grey even more rapidly, so that he can continue to chip away at the massive Berlin wall that is our United States Congress. Wall Street is overrun by citizens being brutalized by the NYPD, Turkey is under post-earthquake rubble and bone, Gaddafi’s sodomized corpse is on display in a vegetable crisper and I’m feeling guilty about not tipping with money I don’t have. They don’t take credit here. Cash only. I have been living off credit for a couple of months now after my knee surgery forced me to stay home from work. When Courtney Love screamed, “I got no credit in the straight world,” is this what she meant?

Sarah Ferguson is here supporting the cause, sitting in a VIP booth in the corner while lights and cameras illuminate her fair skin. Remember when she was considered a rebellious, young royal? I was a teenager when she divorced that life and turned her back on Windsor Castle.  Weight-loss ads followed, and now she is here to support anti-slavery while England recovers from their own civil unrest. It is the age of Aquarius, in case you were wondering. It is that time again. Time to unleash the disgruntled masses onto the paved streets, tanks or no tanks. Time to take back our country from the sticky hands of the corporate sharks and crooked money lenders. We want our pound of flesh. But, as Shakespeare made clear, it is not that easy, is it? A pound of flesh to even the score is what Shylock wanted. No more and no less. And the 99% want justice, want criminals on display, want to jail and tax the men who gorged themselves on people’s humble dreams while writing off hookers and blow as business expenses. “Let them eat cake,” is not what we are being told, of course. That would be in bad taste. We would much rather attribute such insensitivity to a woman who was, in her own right, essentially sold by her family in a political transaction. Slavery comes in all shapes. But I digress.

I am here primarily to see Black Rebel Motorcycle Club. I have been following this band for a few years now, and every live show is another dose of sonic dopamine that I have come to crave, and similar to heroin’s effect, post-gig nausea promptly sets in at the stroke of midnight. This is par for the course, along with a few days of tinnitus. It is all worth it.

The band arrived on motorcycles, not in limousines. We know this because we see the cycles lined up in the parking lot. Humble could mean being misconstrued as unsuccessful. This is not the case with BRMC. Their devoted fan base and tireless touring keep their flame lit. Their visit to Cambodia last month after playing in China is a testament to their devotion to the Not For Sale cause, and although they believe in making a difference, they were raised in a home that encouraged it. Robert Been’s mother, who I meet backstage, is an activist in her own right. His father, the late Michael Been, was known for his upstanding morals and spiritual mentorship. Their son is a bi-product of this sincere concern for justice and the welfare of those less fortunate, and thus the reason the band is here tonight.

That said, BRMC does not mingle with the crowd before the show. They don’t pose with models and ex-royalty while their audience gets good and liquored up. They shyly appear one by one at the edge of the stage, peek out to see what’s what and then disappear again. They are skeptical of such glamorous parties, but they are wily enough to understand that tonight might provide a necessary boost in the cause’s visibility and budget. It might also give the band a chance to win over some new fans before the release of their sixth album.

They walk onto the stage without fanfare or warning. The true fans know when they’re about to appear because we know their pre-show playlist: Spiritualized’s “Don’t Go/Stay with Me” followed by The Ronnette’s “Be My Baby”. Peter Hayes and Been saunter out, heads bowed, not even looking at the crowd as Leah Shapiro unassumingly takes her seat behind the drum kit. A hard-working, hard-touring, hard-rocking trio of talented musicians who know a good cause when they see it, BRMC scream “Fuck the US government” into the microphone before their subversive track, “US Government,” ends. Unapologetic dissent. This song is played live sparingly for obvious reasons. And then “Six-Barrel Shotgun” with a chorus that echoes the bitterness of citizens who have been chanting in the streets for over a month now: “We shook hands, and the criminals won.” The words mean a lot to me since I essentially work for the government as a public school teacher by day. Both my government and my union keep chipping away at my modest paycheck, so I am more than happy to spew some bile tonight.

After the show, Peter runs outside for a smoke, and Rob greets fans and friends while leaning against a wall. He’s really good at leaning against walls, that one. James Dean reincarnate, some say. Others feel the spirit of Jeff Buckley in his gentle speech and wry wit. His bass hooks are epic, and that is all that matters to me. He wears his leather jacket tonight, along with all the other trendsetters. But, this specific look is one that the band took on years before motorcycle jackets and boots re-emerged on the catwalk. BRMC’s aesthetic has remained classic black and leather for over a decade now, and they do not wear labels on their clothes, although they do support labels that are politically conscious and ethically sound. Of course the irony in all this is that the less they try to call attention to what they wear, the more the media focuses on just that. No dummies, the band understands that image has its place in rock and roll, but Rob doesn’t miss the opportunity to sarcastically point out the “importance” of fashion when he gets up to the microphone earlier in the evening. He’s been known to mock the couture contingent before, even when agreeing to play during fashion week in Manhattan last year where he donned a black velvet dress and leopard-print coat over his usual jeans and t-shirt.

Peter hangs around for a bit, so naturally I take the opportunity to ask him about the harmonica malfunction and their latest jaunt to China. They (wisely) refrained from playing the incendiary track “US Government” for fear of being jailed or having their audience jailed simply for being there. Peter’s gracious, yet endearingly awkward, conversation is still disarming, even after several encounters with the man. Low key and humble, he responds to our compliments with a shrug and chuckles softly when another fan schools him on how to accept a compliment. When Leah beckons him over for a post-gig hug, he obliges. He is a genuine talent, and like most perfectionists, is hard to please. This quality is what legends are made of, and no matter how many jingle writers cross over to write catchy top-40 hits (Foster the People), I know without having to ask him that he will never stoop to that in order to make a buck. He would rather pump gas for a living, if that job still existed.

BRMC earned its stripes years ago. Dropped by Virgin Records in the middle of touring for their second album, they started their own label and continue to work without an expensive producer in the studio. They do their own writing, mixing and recording. They even put out the acoustic-heavy HOWL knowing that that they might lose fair-weather fans in the process. They have credibility in spades. Now, before you die-hard fans bring up the fact that BRMC has been allowing songs to appear in car commercials and cell-phone ads for a pretty penny, let me refer you to one of my favorite pop-culture critics. Henry Rollins has expertly covered this exact issue for me, so I won’t even bother to put my own spin on it. I refer you instead to the disgruntled and consistently eloquent punk icon instead:

Selling out is making the record you’re told to make instead of making the record you want to make…. Pay them! Pay them double! Pay them now! It’s about fucking time!

Copyright © 2011 Armine Iknadossian. All rights reserved.

Iknadossian Writes Her Poem Letter by Letter

 by Lory Bedikian

Published: Friday March 6, 2009 in Poetry Matters

One of the magical aspects of poetry is that the art form creates the ability to employ the most imaginative moments in condensed and compact language. There are, of course, the followers of Walt Whitman who enjoy the long, operatic lines that reach almost the end of the right side of a page and then turn. There are also readers who want a poem to rhyme, to tell a story, or to simply scatter mismatched words on a page, as a painter would take colors and shapes to compose an abstract painting.

Poets who use the imagination to reveal more than what a poem seems to intend offer much to their readers. One of these poets is Armine Iknadossian, whose poems I have been reading for the past several years. I first heard about her poetry through a friend who had mailed me a poem of hers that was selected as a postcard poem from Writers at Work in Los Angeles. Then through various situations, I had the pleasure of reading more of her poems and this past year read her poem “Mourning Paper” on theArmenian Poetry Project blog by Lola Koundakjian.

Mourning Paper

After a night of weeping
I misread simple words,
mistake dust for lust, overlook
the bloated belly of the letter d.
This morning, every stroke of the alphabet
cringes or folds, hides itself
behind its bitter alter ego.
Today, profession is possession
as two s‘s merge, one selfishly
consuming the other.
Restful inevitably turns resentful.
And love is lose,
a consonant for a consonant,
an eye for an eye.
Satin turns into stain, a dyslexic
anagram, a failed romance.
I want to say more than anything
that kiss does not hiss,
that k‘s outstretched hand is not rejected.

The title itself suggests quite a bit. A play on the phrase “morning paper,” it already asks us to feel several things at once. We recall the feeling of the first words of the day, in our favorite newspaper, and at the same time, the choice of “Mourning” asks us to also consider some sort of lament or sadness. Of course, the first line emphasizes and supports the title’s tone by stating that the speaker experiences several moments of confusion “after a night of weeping.”

The second line of the poem introduces not only the topic of the poem, but also the extended metaphor that the poem will rely on and use with imagination and clever concoctions. The speaker “misread[s] simple words,” which is believable after a night of weeping.

Notice the creative, almost quiet, moments of this poem that build the extended metaphor as well as the tone. Iknadossian uses personification when the speaker “overlook[s] / the bloated belly of the letter d.” The personification is made more complex when we are told every letter of the alphabet “hides itself / behind its bitter alter ego.” Again, diction such as “bloated” and “bitter” follows the tone first established in the title while at the same time presenting the topic in a playful manner. These two opposing feelings side by side, the mourning tone, the playfulness of language, create the tension, and thus the vivacity of the poem.

The list of puns continues, as well as the tone. The speaker tells us “Today, profession is possession / as two s‘s merge, one selfishly / consuming the other.” While a word such as “profession” can connote a sense of freedom, it turns into “possession.” The choice of using “selfishly” further demands the negativity felt. Then, “Restful inevitably turns resentful. / And love is lose.” Iknadossian now masters this game of wordplay, these series of “dyslexic anagram[s].” Although we are informed of “a failed romance,” which may obviously be what the speaker is “mourning,” Iknadossian decides to create a surprise, a turn in the closing lines of the poem by suggesting that the speaker “want[s] to say more than anything / that kiss does not hiss, / that k‘s outstretched hand is not rejected.” Several things happen here at once. The two most important are the internal rhymes of “kiss” and “hiss” which create a musicality in the closing lines, thus changing the tonality, and again personification is used with the letter “k” which creates a pattern we can follow. Since the speaker insists that the letter’s hand is not “rejected,” this sentiment leaves us with a sense of hope instead of despair. In traditional elegies, although the poems mourn someone or some thing, they traditionally end on a symbol of hope. We can say that perhaps Iknadossian’s poem borrows from that tradition – here mourning the loss of love – but ending with a sense of possibility.

Iknadossian received her undergraduate degree with an emphasis in creative writing from UCLA. She earned a graduate degree in poetry from Antioch University. Her first manuscript, “Gnosis,” explores mythology from different female personas. She teaches English, journalism, and poetry recitation and has received two fellowships from Idyllwild Arts. Publications include Ararat Quarterly, Arbutus, Armenian Poetry Project, Backwards City Review, Lit Parlor, Lounge Lit: An Anthology, Media Cake, Poetic Diversity, Poetry Super Highway, Spout, Writers at Work, and Zaum.

I appreciate poems that experiment with language, which make us look at words in a different way. These types of poems don’t merely create word play out of a love for language, but also out of a necessity to communicate something deeper. They are poems that (excuse the pun) don’t “expire,” but “inspire.”