gay strains of a sad waltz

Queer culture is appropriating old poems that use gay to mean happy instead of queer. We have been robbed of so much queer literature, we’re allowed to steal whatever scraps are available. The straights killed Oscar Wilde, they have to give us this.

I’m being facetious, but only sort of. I do read poetry that uses the word gay through an ahistorical gay lens. I can’t help myself. I see that word, and expect to find something that belongs to me, something I belong to. Even when I know that isn’t what the author meant to make me do, it’s a hard instinct to turn off.

I could make an argument about death of the author, and maybe I should, but I feel like the real issue is historicity. I’m putting an anachronistic concept onto the work. It’s the problem of how you can’t really call Alexander the Great gay, even though he totally was, because the idea of sexuality as an identity didn’t exist in his era. I feel much worse about putting gayness into a setting where it didn’t exist as a coherent identity than I do reading homoeroticism in a text where the author didn’t intend it.

(I actually feel really good doing that. The Outsiders has strong homosocial tendencies. The author is dead. Stay gay Ponyboy.)

I’m reading Wallace Stevens for a class right now, and I’m really enjoying it. He uses a lot of gorgeous abstract language, poems that are about the orders of the words and the images they create, not about a thing you can point at easily. So I guess it’s understandable that I was able to read one of his poems entirely anachronistic unintended manner.

Here, you go read it and then keep on with what I have to say.

When I read this, I thought gosh, this would be a wonderful poem to read at the funeral of someone who had died of AIDS in the middle of the crisis. I’ve read so much about these funerals, seen them recreated in fiction, and recorded in documentary. I was too young to remember my godfather’s funeral, I’ve only heard stories. My mother was so upset by the hellfire and damnation offered at the small town they grew up in, that she organized another memorial at our hippy church in the cities. I have to imagine there was lots of singing. I know his mother came down for it. I wonder if my mother sang, she loves being asked to sing at funerals — but maybe she was too busy holding me, or too busy crying.

There was just something very striking in the poem. The repeated line, “Too many waltzes have ended” speaks to the scale of loss. And the lines “Yet the shapes / For which the voices cry, these, too, may be / Modes of desire, modes of revealing desire,” could say something community, that is united in desire, even as it is wracked by tragedy. The stuff about Hoon doesn’t fit anywhere, but that’s alright, having a line that doesn’t fit or make sense just adds to the over all strength of the poem. I don’t want to do a close reading, filling each line with ahistorical significance that I placed there. That isn’t the kind of writing I like spending my time doing, and I feel it will be stronger if you make the connections yourself.

“Sad Strains of a Gay Waltz” could be about just about anything you need it to be. Stevens could not have anticipated my reading. He might not have appreciated it. He was a Republican. But also, he believed in the importance of imagination, so maybe he would have been fine with my appropriation of his words. And if not, the author is dead, he’s dead, and so is my godfather, so are so many. “Too many waltzes have ended.”

Too many poems were not written, a generation of gay writers lost before their time, still falling. Today would have been Oscar Wilde’s 163rd birthday, but he only made it to 46. I can take whatever poem I want and get my dirty gay feelings all over it, and no one can stop me.

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I am going to travel back in time to punch T.S. Eliot in the face

I want to travel back in time and punch T.S. Eliot in the face. I’m not much for physical violence, but I think I could take him.

We spent two weeks in my modern poetry class talking about Eliot, and honestly, it made me hate him? I expect this hate will fade with time, but it is still true and hotly felt. Fuck that guy.

I had to devote two and a half hours of my life to discussing “The Wasteland.” Which, first of all, you can’t understand “The Wasteland” in two and a half hours. And even if you could, do you really want to? Before this class I did not hate “The Wasteland,” it has some fascinating language in it, I appreciated that. But picking it apart is honestly, one of the circles of hell. It is all allusions to other things! He likes using lots of different languages and expecting the reader to follow along. He wrote his own notes to the poem, but didn’t bother to include any translations, why would he want to do that, the elitist fuck.

One of my classmates called “The Wasteland” “perfect.” Which is just… baffling. Important, sure, fascinating even. But also, kind of miserable? Like, intentionally miserable? In a very interesting way! But on a lot of levels it’s a deeply unpleasant poem!

I keep on thinking about how it’s made up of so many allusions, this kind of puzzel box of a poem, where everything is also pointing at something else. And often, I like these things. I kept on thinking about Todd Haynes’s film I’m Not There, and Hal Duncan’s Vellum and Ink. Both of these works are so dense with references, but they aren’t dependant on catching all the allusions to be appreciated.

I’m Not There is steeped in the mythology of Bob Dylan. And yeah, it helps if you know a lot about Dylan. It helps to know that the motorcycle is a sign of coming disaster, it helps to know the story about him visiting Woody Guthrie in the hospital, it helps to know about his relationship with Nico. But you don’t need to know all that to access the movies. I’m not particularly fluent in how Dylan played with the story of Billy the Kid, but that thread of the movie still works for me. It’s still compelling, within itself, and within the whole of the film.

The first time I read Vellum and Ink I was a junior in high school, and I understood, maybe a third of the references? I got the punk rock ones, the gay history, and a fair amount of the Shakespeare, but not most of the politics, and none of the Sumerian mythology. (They’re really weird fucking books, and I love them with my WHOLE HEART.) Despite not understanding so many of the underlying levels, I still fell for these books. I still fell for the language, and the characters, and the SPIRIT of the thing.

It’s true, that it may be unfair to compare novels and a film to a poem, but I don’t think so. These are all texts with very fragmented narratives. That’s something they have in common with “The Wasteland” actually. They have longer fragmented narratives, but that’s the difference between a long poem, a feature film, or a thousand pages of weird speculative fiction. There is more narrative, it’s more a matter of scale than ratio.

think my problem is only like, 40% Eliot, and 50% my opinion that we should let texts breath and be confusing? That poems aren’t things to solve. They’re things to speculate over, with the recognition that you might not get anywhere, and that there will be a multiplicity of readings.

Oh god, is this another one of those situations where the real problems is that I internalized way too much Foucault? I hadn’t even thought of that, but it might be. I should remember, if I have a problem with how something is being done, it is probably because of Foucault, aka the “I’m too queer for this” excuse.

I am going to stop writing about Eliot now, and hopefully forever. I want to leave you with something nice, so here is a poem I encountered, in which a very young T.S. Eliot writes about St Sebastian. I am gay enough for that.

The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin

You know that thing where there’s a book everyone say’s you’re going to love, and you think you’re going to love it, but you’re really scared to read it, because what if it’s a letdown? I had The Dispossessed sitting on my shelf for years before I was ready to risk it. But there was nothing to worry about! It’s about anarchism in space! It’s brilliant! I loved it! If there’s one complaint, I guess I wish the gay best friend had more of an interior life and a love interest of his own, but like, that is a minor complaint, and I loved everything? Anarchism in space! What a cool smart book. This isn’t a good review, just go read it.

The Wind Up Girl by Paulo Bacigalupi

Incredibly world building, not great book. This book is set in Thailand in a future where global warming and food scarcity because of different mutations are the big concerns. It’s a very interesting, conceivable, and frightening future! The world building really is great! On the cover someone compares it to William Gibson, and I don’t disagree. It’s just that maybe men shouldn’t write books? The wind up girl in the title is Emiko, a new person engineered by a Japanese corporation. She was designed to be beautiful and obedient, it’s in her training and in her DNA. She traveled to Thailand as a secretary/sex companion of a Japanese businessman, but was left behind when it cost less for him to upgrade to a newer model than to buy a ticket home for her. Sad. So she’s left to find a new patron, where she’s regularly raped and abused, but can’t do anything because she’s in the country illegally, and also it’s her nature to have a master? And she eventually overcomes her programing and fights back, and gets the happiest ending of anyone in the book really. But it’s just super unnecessary? Like, I think it’s maybe supposed to be a story about a badass woman saving herself, but the fact that it’s written by a man, and the way it’s written, it really didn’t work for me. Maybe if Emiko had more dimensions, or maybe if anyone had more dimensions, or maybe if Bacigalupi was more aware of the casual misogyny instead of just the super messed up stuff? I don’t know, it just didn’t sit well with me at all. The world building sure was great though.

Retromania: Pop Culture’s Addiction to Its Own Past by Simon Reynolds

Folks, I can’t ever remember being this pissed off at a book without knowing exactly what I’m mad about. Reynolds is doing a lot of different things here, and a lot of them are WRONG, and I don’t even know why he felt like this was an argument worth making.

Honestly, I’m not sure if he does either? He wrote the introduction before the body of the book, and it had a lot of questions he was going to poke at, and I don’t think he ever reached a satisfying conclusion. That doesn’t mean the project was a waste of time — he brought up a lot of interesting ideas throughout. But the whole argument is so incredibly flawed I want to chuck the book across the room, or maybe through the screen from my seventh floor window, but it’s a library book, so I’ll stop myself.

I really respect Reynolds as a writer. His book on post-punk is an exhaustive guide to a scattered genre. His book on rave is similarly in depth, to the point where I still haven’t finished it because I kept on finding three new songs I loved and then putting it down for a while. It’s sitting on the floor in my parents house in Minneapolis, and I’ll finish it at some point, I’m sure. I bring up these two books not just to explain why I started reading a book that upset me, but also because I think the movements covered in these books say a lot about Reynold’s perspective as a critic. He grew up listening to post-punk, which responded to punk’s incitement by going in about ten thousand different weird direction. And then he was into rave, which moved very fast, always onto the next thing, always moving. And now he thinks that there isn’t anything new.

That’s WRONG.

There are new things.

I realize this book came out in 2011, and some of my examples are later than that, but not all of them, and the point stands. There are lots of new things.

He doesn’t seem to finds newness in rap music, which is baffling. I guess Kanye West’s more expansive albums came out after this book, but he was still around. Kendrick wasn’t around then, but like. The possibility for him was.

One of my favorite corners of hip-hop is the corner where rap music mixes with indie rock. Reynolds would probably say this isn’t new, because it’s just blending two different genres, but I’d disagree. At their best like Why? or Buck 65 becomes more than the sum of influences, into something new and stunning. I heard “The Hollows” for the first time at an all ages show at a cafe in Hopkins when I was fourteen, and I’d never heard anything quite like it, and it still sounds fresh.

He mentions grime, but dismisses it for not being big enough? Which is a bad reason to dismiss something. Maybe it’s because I’m American, but how can you not think grime sounds new? It takes the basic idea of rap music but transports it into a different culture.

Newness for him seems to be all about sound, not about the people making it, which is the kind of thing a straight white man would say. Perfume Genius sounds fresh to my ears, but also the thoroughly queer perspective makes feels revolutionary. Against Me! are making close to the same kind of punk rock they were making ten years ago, and it wasn’t all that revolutionary then, but having Laura Jane Grace on stage shouting about her journey as a trans woman feels huge.

He doesn’t seem captured by the way music is becoming more global. M.I.A. doesn’t count because she samples things he recognizes? Which seems like bullshit. I don’t know what he’d make of Swet Shop boys, whose last album was one of the freshest things I heard in 2016.

Was there really nothing new like this in 2011? I doubt it.

My major critique of his post-punk book would be the omission of American hardcore, and he seems to still not get that it was a thing, or think that it was all subsumed into college rock that became mainstream after grunge, or mellowed into indie, or something. Or maybe he just doesn’t find it interesting, but the newest sounding rock music I’ve listened to lately has been like, Bomb! The Music Industry and Jeff Rosenstock’s solo stuff, which does expand punk’s palate in certain ways, and also has ideas about how the music business itself should change. That sort of revolutionary spirit stays new.

Reynolds doesn’t understand the scale of fragmentation of culture by the internet. He’s looking for a new mass movement. I’m not sure that’s possible. The internet is full of all these different corners where people are doing new weird little things. There might not be another huge new thing. And honestly that’s fine? I’m a punk, I’m prone to assuming that mass culture is mostly boring. More specifically, I’m an American punk, and punk was never really successfully here, not like it was in England. Sure, it kind of broke through with grunge, and after that Green Day and emo and stuff got big, but punk was not a pivotal split in American music the way he seems to understand it. Maybe it was in England, but not here.

(There is an argument to be made, about whether emo, by taking the bones of pop punk and shining them to a high gloss, is something new. I’d find this particularly intriguing with Panic! at the Disco, and how their first album drew in both dance music and burlesque, but Reynolds would probably disagree.)

This is the kind of book a man writes when he enters middle age and is disappointed by the world not catering to his expectations. Which yes, that can be a very disappointing sensation, all my ships are rare pair ships, and there are not nearly enough space adventures about lesbians. But most people wouldn’t write a four hundred page book complaining about it. (To be fair, maybe a quarter of it is whining, the rest of it a very interesting look at people looking at the past. I liked a lot of the book. Just not the central thesis.)

He just wants to hear something new. It’s all about him. I think that’s a tremendously dull way to think about music.

Everything is new to someone. Simon Reynolds is a music critic, who spends all his time listening to stuff, who has a professional responsibility to be familiar with the classics and keep up with the latest releases. He gets to dedicate a lot of time and money and energy into this. Most people, even people who like music a lot, are not that way. Have a bit of chill dude. Sorry that what people are putting out now are not exciting and future looking enough for you. That’s rough.

The whole book makes him come off as an old curmudgeon who’s disappointed by what young people are doing. He’s also an audiophile, which is a terrible thing to be. Yes, I agree, records sound great, but in giving up sound and presence for accessing all the music I could possibly want a moment’s notice because I have spotify on my phone is a great deal.

I’m trying to come up with a conclusion here, but I’m just so frustrated. This is not a good argument, and it doesn’t even seem like he’s completely convinced himself, and really, I feel bad for the dude. I wish he could enjoy things that aren’t super innovative and futuristic without getting all conflicted and having to write 400 page long books. Like, yeah, the Strokes sound a lot like the Velvet Underground, but they’re good, alright? I enjoy them. Enjoying things that are obviously in debt to the past is not the danger Reynolds seems to be making it into. Not a good argument. I’m just so tired.

The Big Short, book and film

My mother hates this movie so much. We watched it for the first time a year ago, and she decided to give up and go to bed half way through. A friend of her’s had a movie night recently, and this was the feature presentation, and god, she was not excited. How much she hates this movie is honestly hilarious, my mild mannered mother gathering up so much disgust for a film.

I love it. I think it’s brilliant. I tried to write about it right after we watched it, but didn’t know what to say. It’s taken some time and rematching to puzzle things out.

It does so many cool weird filmmaking. The way it plays around with music video style is so much fun. Lots of fast cuts, montages, what is basically a rap video thrown in, a couple of characters singing a Nirvana tune out of the blue. It’s brilliant, and I love it. The little asides where Margot Robbie and Anthony Bourdain explain boring bank things is a great choice to get in necessary information without being dull. It’s a really smart movie that assumes its audience is really smart.

There’s a lot of really good performances. Everyone is great. Everything is great.

I read the book right after watching the movie, and I liked it too. It was informative and well written. It didn’t have the same spark and pizzaz as the movie, limited by being a book, but it was still excellent. The housing crisis is important shit that we should know about. It’s awesome that it’s being presented in an accessible book and incredible movie. I love it.

The Taliban Shuffle, book by Kim Barker, and Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, movie staring Tina Fey

So, I read this book sometime last year, and decided not to post anything until I also saw the movie. Here is what I wrote about the book just after finishing it:

This is a memoir by a journalist who became a foreign correspondent after 9/11, and her adventures in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Barker is a clear writer, and good at presenting the tangled political situation that I think I understood. I learned a lot about the region, and what America was doing there, but what sets this book apart is the personal stories. Barker is covering this hugely important moments, but she’s also a woman with a life, trying to balance career and romance and family. My favorite thing is that she admits she didn’t know what she was walking into, that no one did. It’s obvious that there’s a massive lack of understanding on all levels. The government, the military, the news, all of these different organizations, are all stumbling around, trying to do something huge, but mostly failing.

Basically, it is an alright book, but not great. Having now seen the movie, I can say, it is an alright movie, but not great. The surprising thing is that book and movie had fairly different flaws. Normally weaknesses are consistent through adaptation, but here, not so much.

The weakness of the movie is that it’s sort of clueless, and tries but fails to do a love story. The weakness of the book is mostly that it isn’t very shiny. The movie is possibly too shiny? It is not specific enough. It doesn’t slow down to explain boring but important history or politics. But it also doesn’t go the other way into a more exaggerated world. It’s grounded in a very shallow reality, and that’s a shame. I can imagine a better movie. The book had the makings of a better movie, and the idea of adapting that book to star Tina Fey seemed like a good idea. But then it’s just this. Which is almost boring. Maybe it wouldn’t be if I didn’t know the plot, but I don’t think that’s the problem. I think it’s just sort of dull. Pleasant, but dull.

If you’re only going to do one, I’d pick up the book, but honestly, they’re both skippable unless something about the summary really stands out to you.