28 March 2009


In my recent Strange Horizons column about Jack Spicer and Philip K. Dick, I inadvertently credited the editing of My Vocabulary Did This to Me: The Collected Poetry of Jack Spicer to Peter Gizzi only, when it was actually co-edited by Peter Gizzi and Kevin Killian. I'm not sure why I made the mistake, but it was entirely my goof. I've let the folks at SH know, and the column will be fixed eventually, but until it is, I wanted to note here at least that Mr. Killian deserves equal credit for creating this extraordinary book.

23 March 2009

Jack Spicer and PKD

My latest Strange Horizons column has been posted: "Phil and Jack", about the often-overlooked connections between Philip K. Dick and Jack Spicer. I wrote it a few months ago, but various factors out of just about anyone's control caused its publication to be delayed (it's surprisingly difficult to get long lines of poetry to wrap and indent in some types of HTML!).

The column's a little bit scattershot, but that felt appropriate. And let me just say again that if you like poetry and haven't taken a look at My Vocabulary Did This to Me: The Collected Poetry of Jack Spicer, you really owe it to yourself to do so. It's one of my favorite books of recent years.

14 March 2009

Weird Music

When I was a kid, I listened to the "Dr. Demento Show" religiously. It played on the local radio station on Sunday nights. A couple of friends of mine would also listen, and the next morning at school we would compare notes about which songs made us laugh the most, which ones we thought were just stupid, etc. I often taped the shows so I could collect the funniest songs, and I spent hours copying the best songs from each week onto a single tape.

Thus began a certain passion for weird music. Partly, my father is to blame -- he had been a DJ at a couple Massachusetts radio stations in the 1960s, and took home many of the 45's the station didn't want. Some of my earliest musical experiences were with these 45s, and there's some pretty bizarre stuff in there. Just like marijuana leads to heroin, those 45s led me to my current situation -- all sorts of stuff in my iTunes library that is utterly without redeeming social importance.

I was going through some of my father's records last weekend, and discovered the stash of 45s. What I really wanted to find was one that had remained in my memory as just about the worst record I'd ever heard in my life. I couldn't remember the singer, but I knew it was a rendition of "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction" by someone who, I remember my father telling me, was a rabbi trying to get young people to realize that rabbis can be, you know, cool. (Later, I would spend a year teaching at a yeshiva, so got to know plenty of rabbis. Some of them can, indeed, be pretty darn cool.)

I found the record. A 45 with four songs on it sung by Sam Chalpin. It was as hilariously awful as I remembered. Now that we have this internet thing, I decided to see if anybody else had heard of Chalpin, and if the LP mentioned on the 45 (My Father the Pop Singer) actually existed. I also wanted to see if there was an MP3 of the song, because I really wanted some other folks to hear it.

First, the song. An MP3 of it can be found at this extraordinary collection of links -- scroll down to "Oytunes". (And while you're there, check out some of the others. 2 Live Jews! Oh, how I loved them when they were on Dr. D!)

Now to Sam Chalpin. The first thing I discovered with the Google was this article from Spectropop about the making of My Father the Pop Singer -- yes, it does exist as an LP, and the legendary Ahmet Ertegun apparently signed it to Atlantic himself! It's a somewhat sad story, though, of an obnoxious son forcing his unwitting father to make a fool of himself. But some more digging led me to this Batman message board (the album includes Chalpin's rendition of the TV show theme) where Sam Chalpin's grandson says, "As for the album itself, it was recorded as a comedy. A gag. My grandfather believe it or not WAS a good singer. He used to be a cantor for his temple. That album was basically clowning around." Some interesting conversation ensues.

Further googling didn't turn up much, but I did find this excellent collection of strange MP3s, where Sam Sachs is compared to Chalpin (though I don't find him quite as humorous). Don't miss the two songs there by the medical glee club The Four Skins. Really. You can download the whole collection as one big zip file ... and, of course, I did....

13 March 2009

Race and Culture and Writing and Stuff

Those of you who read science fiction blogs already know about the massive discussion of race, "cultural appropriation", etc. that's been going on. I've been watching from the sidelines for the past week or so -- work of various sorts kept me away from blog reading for some time, and I stumbled unwittingly on it all after there had already been thousands of posts and comments made, feelings hurt, bizarre and even reprehensible behavior displayed, and lots of battle lines drawn. For various reasons, I felt shellshocked reading it all, but every now and then would come upon a post that seemed really insightful and helpful, and I want to point to a few of those here.

Not by design, but purely by where my interests seem to lead me, I write a lot about race and gender -- not out of any sense of authority, but rather its opposite. I am attracted to questions of identity because identity is such a compelling question for me: how do we create it, value it, judge it, display it, use it as a tool and a weapon and a curse and a blessing and a scream against all the uncertainties of the universe? I'm a white guy from New Hampshire, so it may seem particularly weird that race, gender, and sexuality interest me so much, but various experiences fairly early in my life made me hyper-aware of my own ignorance, and when, as an adolescent, I first came to grips with my own unwitting racism and sexism and heterosexism (despite my own queerness), and with the systemic racism and sexism and heterosexism of my society, I did so through reading, because it was what I knew best. Once I got to college, I was able to start throwing myself into situations where white people were not in the majority, and I did and said things that seem astoundingly naive to me in retrospect, and I'm sure I did and said things I don't remember that were at best ridiculous but perhaps even offensive to the people around me. Live and learn. I keep trying to.

So when I read Deepad's "I Didn't Dream of Dragons" post, I thought: Wow. Cool. Interesting. Helpful. Well said. This should lead to some great discussion. I followed some links and discovered it had been part of quite a discussion, indeed, though not exactly the one I was hoping to find.

There are now a variety of ways to get summaries of what happened, and some of them are linked to in the first part of Mary Ann Mohanraj's excellent two-part post at John Scalzi's Whatever blog. Here's part one. Here's part two. Follow Mary Ann's links if you're curious, but be sure to read her posts. They are extraordinarily lucid and thoughtful and reader-friendly meditations on what it means to write and read in a multicultural society. There's tons of discussion in the comments, too.

There's much in those posts to highlight, discuss, argue with. I want to add a particular highlight to something Nalo Hopkinson said that Mary Ann quotes:
It’s pretty tough to live in a system and be unaffected by it. That’s like floating in a pool of shit and claiming that you don’t smell. So whenever you have the urge to silence people by shouting, “I’m not racist!” it’s probably a good idea to take a long, hard think and ask yourself how in the world is that possible? Really, it isn’t. Not until a whole lot more about the world changes.
Those words belong on billboards.

At the end of part two, Mary Ann raises a point that may have come up in the immense discussion, but I didn't read enough to come upon it. It's vital:
I’ve encouraged white writers here to write about other cultures, other ethnicities. But sometimes we run into the problem that most, or all, the representations of a culture are coming from outside the culture. It’s so much easier for you or I to get published in America than it is for local Sri Lankan writers to get published, I can’t tell you. The difference of scale between the American publishing industry and Sri Lankan publishing is enormous. There’s only one major Sri Lankan press that I know of, and when they applied for the rights to publish my book in Sri Lanka, they couldn’t afford the $600 HarperCollins asked, because that translated to effectively $6000 in Sri Lanka, which would have destroyed their annual budget. If I’d realized that was the issue at the time (I didn’t figure this all out until much later), I would have paid the damn $600 myself. But that’s a side issue.

The point is, given this discrepancy, I feel that it behooves me, as an American author who benefits from Sri Lankan material, to do everything I can to promote Sri Lankan authors. Primarily, that means buying and reading their books, posting reviews, spreading the word. I also try to help bring the good ones to America to give readings, and put them in touch with my agent, in the hopes that it might help them get published here.
It's easy for those of us who live in places where there is a publishing infrastructure to forget that plenty of writers face nearly insurmountable challenges to finding an audience (Charles Larson's The Ordeal of the African Writer gives useful insight into some of these challenges). The internet has been a big help to some writers who would otherwise have no way to get their work out to people, but it's not a replacement for what an actual publishing industry (and a culture of reading/ community of readers) can provide.

Despite the plethora of posts,there are important questions that still remain to be discussed. Mary Ann did a good job of showing that some of the tension in various discussions came, as it often does, from people using different definitions of words such as "racism". I'd love to see more discussion of other words, as well -- for instance, "culture" and "appropriation" (there may be wonderful posts about this that I am simply unaware of). Strategic essentialism is, I think, vital to combatting a systemically racist, sexist, heterosexist, etc. society, but I'm still such a postmodernist that I'm wary when I see words for vast abstractions used without admitting how vast, abstract, overdetermined, paradoxical, and just plain difficult they can be.

Really, though, all I wanted to do was exhort you to read "I Didn't Dream of Dragons" and Mary Ann's two posts. They're some of the best things I've encountered via the Internet for a while.

06 March 2009

John Leonard, Remembered

In NYC recently, the Imperial City, they remembered John Leonard. Had there been any way to do it, I would have been there, even if I couldn't have gotten inside with all the literati; heck, I would've been happy just to stand in traffic for a bit and get the taxis honking in tribute. But no. I'll rely on reports. Such as this one from Charles Kaiser at CJR:
Family members, former colleagues, important writers, and intimate friends gathered yesterday to praise the critic John Leonard for his “love of the life of the mind,” his “incomparably informed generosity,” his reluctance to “pan books or movies or TV shows or children, except when absolutely necessary”—and his unlikely dependence on just ten words: “tantrum, cathedral, linoleum, moxie, thug, dialectic, splendid, brood, libidinal, and qualm.”
It's a nice piece, and best of all, peppered with Leonard's own words. Here's what he once said about Fran Lebowitz:
To a base of Huck Finn, add some Lenny Bruce and Oscar Wilde and Alexis de Tocqueville, a dash of cab driver, an assortment of puns, minced jargon, and top it off with smarty-pants. Serve without whine. This is the New York style, and I for one am glad that it survives and prospers because otherwise we might as well grow moss in unsurprising Omaha.
"Obviously," Kaiser says, "he had spotted a kindred spirit."

03 March 2009

Flying Round

Ed Champion has put together a round-table discussion of Eric Kraft's trilogy of novels collectively called Flying (and released in a nicely-designed omnibus paperback today). I am a participant, though because I've been finding the book a difficult one to embrace with much passion, I'm not participating as much as the people who are enthusiasts. It's a fun group, and lots of ideas are being thrown around, so I expect it's worth reading even if you're unfamiliar with Kraft's work. Participants include Ed, Sarah Weinman, Brian Francis Slattery, Kathleen Maher, Robert Birnbaum, and more to come in future installments.

Part one is here.

Part two is here.

Part three is here.

Part four is here.

Part five is here.

01 March 2009

"Coetzee in the Promised Land" in The Quarterly Conversation

My essay "Coetzee in the Promised Land" has just been posted in the new issue of The Quarterly Conversation. The whole issue is worth checking out -- it's a particularly rich one, I think.

Also notable: In a nice bit of Best American Fantasy syncronicity, Matt Bell writes about Brian Evenson's new novel Last Days. Brian had a story in the first volume of BAF, Matt has a story in the second volume, and the third volume will be published by Underland Press, which published Last Days. This adds evidence to my hypothesis that The Quarterly Conversation is at the center of the universe. Well, my universe at least...

My own essay is a hybrid/collage of literary analysis, literary historiography, cultural meditation, occasional speculation, semi-educated guesses, and various random ideas that are thrown around with the hope that a few might stick to something. My original intention was to write an essay with a larger scope -- an investigation of South African speculative fiction in the 1970s and 1980s, novels that looked toward a post-apartheid future. But when I discovered Karel Schoeman's Promised Land, I couldn't stop thinking about Coetzee's Disgrace. Over a period of months, the essay began to come together.

I owe special thanks to Scott Esposito at TQC for pestering me to finish the essay -- without his friendly inquiries about how it was coming, I don't know if I would have had the stamina to finish it, and he was an excellent editor when I sent him various drafts.

And while I'm here thanking people, I should also note that I couldn't have written the essay without the help of the excellent staff at Plymouth State University's Lamson Library.