Monday, August 17, 2009

Cloud Microbes

I just read a cool science news story from Natural History magazine by Robert R. Dunn: "A head in the clouds: do the microorganisms that circulate in the atmosphere get there by chance or by contrivance?"

I had honestly not thought much about clouds, much less clouds as active biotic realms. Apparently, there are microbes that secrete a variety of chemicals to escape the sea, play a role in creating clouds, and induce rain or snow to escape back to sea or earth. According to the article, the key research question now isn't whether microbes do such things, but whether the microbes have been naturally selected to do this (i.e.whether they do this "on purpose") or whether the chemical processes are byproducts of other microbial activities. In any case, I'll be looking at clouds a bit differently from now on.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Cover Tunes

I’ve been thinking about cover tunes. Some of my favorite versions of songs are cover versions. The versions of cover songs I tend to dislike are those that are completely expected, singers or bands playing songs by similar artists in essentially identical fashion. Usually, the main reaction I have to such covers is a reminder of how much I like or dislike the original version of the song.

Like many people, the cover songs I enjoy most are those that bring a new dimension to the song, in the process bringing new appreciation to the song itself and to the now multiple versions of it.

I often find that the cover songs that succeed most brilliantly or fail most spectacularly are those with the most incongruent matching of cover artist with original artist and song. There’s an obvious reason for this (and thus, I make no claims here to profundity, but am simply sharing something I’ve been thinking about today) – the greater the distance between expectations of different artists, the more likely some previously unheard dimension or aspect of the song will come to light. When the Sex Pistols did their version of “My Way,” there was no way it was not going to bring something new to the song, for good or bad. In that particular case, I think it’s one of the better examples of an incongruous cover that works. (In fact, some decades on, the Sex Pistols’ version is probably the iconic version for kids raised on rock. I know for myself, it was the version of the song I first came to know, even if I knew right off it was an intentionally ironic cover, and whenever I listen to Frank Sinatra’s version, I sometimes find myself waiting for the verse about killing a cat my way.)

Some cover songs are more socially incongruous than musically incongruous. That is, given common stereotypical expectations of cultural others, some cover versions can seem more incongruous than they probably should, or than they actually are on musical terms. Covers like Guinean singer Sekouba Bambino’s cover of James Brown’s “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World” or Algerian rock singer Rachid Taha’s “Rock El Casbah” version of the Clash song will strike many western listeners as unexpected, though on further reflection, an Algerian rock singer covering “Rock the Casbah” is immanently congruous. (In his recent and hilarious novel, Osama Van Halen, Michael Muhammad Knight several times brilliantly skewers such cross-cultural expectations.) In some cases, both sorts of incongruity coexist. An example is Brazilian singer Caetano Veloso’s version of Nirvana’s “Come As You Are.” What’s incongruous musically here is the crossing of musical genres (something not at all incongruous with Taha’s cover, though present to some extent with Sekouba Bambino’s cover of Brown).

There are obviously many, many incongruous cover tunes, but here’s a short list of ten highly incongruous covers, in no particular order, without any claims to comprehensiveness, and without separating those that are great music from those that are spectacularly bad, but all of which I greatly enjoy for one reason or another.

1. The Sex Pistols’ version of “My Way.”

2. Caetano Veloso’s cover of Nirvana’s “Come As You Are” (admittedly part of a growing cottage industry of jazz and/or “pop standards” versions of Nirvana songs, that also includes covers by artists like Herbie Hancock, Rachel Z, the Josh Roseman Unit, and the Bad Plus)

3. Duran Duran’s cover of Public Enemy’s “911 Is A Joke”

4. Megadeth’s version of Nancy Sinatra’s “These Boots Are Made For Walking”

5. Scissor Sisters’ cover of Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb”

6. Pet Shop Boys’ cover of Willie Nelson’s “Always On My Mind”

7. Tom Jones’ and the Cardigans’ version of the Talking Heads’ “Burning Down The House” (granted not so incongruous on the Cardigans’ part)

8. A Perfect Circle’s version of John Lennon’s “Imagine”

9. The Sex Pistols’ disco choir remake of their own song “God Save The Queen”

10. Diana Ross and the Supremes’ version of “Ode To Billie Joe”

Wednesday, June 3, 2009


Last night I watched Renaissance, an animated film from 2006. It’s one of the more visually striking films I’ve seen in a while, and worth taking a look at for that reason alone. As I watched it, though, I gradually became more and more irritated and eventually a bit offended by the message of the film.

It’s near future, dystopic science fiction set in mid-21st Century Paris. As we eventually find out, a scientist has discovered a method of maintaining life indefinitely, effectively producing immortality. The secret will be exploited by the evil cosmetics/life science corporation she works for so that the company will have power over life and death. The protagonist, a postmodern Harry Callahan from the Casbah type cop, puts an end to the threat posed by the scientist’s research by putting a bullet in her head. (She does eventually come across as arrogant, though only in a scene that’s out of character with her presentation throughout the rest of the movie, and the fact that she’s presented as someone who needs a bullet put in her head by an aggressive male cop when her main sin seems to have been being a bit arrogant was part of what disturbed me, though not the aspect of what disturbed me that I’m mainly writing about here.)

The movie confuses and conflates two messages, that a single entity monopolizing immortality would be bad (to which I’d agree), and that immortality per se would be bad. If anything, it’s the second message that’s ultimately emphasized. The key message of the movie is “Without death, life is meaningless.” That’s not my abstraction from the film, but a direct quote from a pivotal moment, which is then replayed in flashback form a bit later (right before the bullet in the head) in case anyone didn’t get the take away point.

I realize that my taking offense is probably an overreaction on my part based in the fact that I lost my own partner, Reginald, to cancer so recently. Still, that sentiment that death is what makes life meaningful seems at best to rationalize the inevitable as virtue or wisdom. Personally, I don’t want to live forever, but that’s because I don’t want to live forever without Reginald. I also wouldn’t want to live forever in pain or in an invalid state, but if I could live forever, healthily, with Reginald, I would very much like that.

(The idea that death is what makes life meaningful, in addition to being a rationalization [if we’ve got to die, then that’s a good thing] seems perhaps a misapplication of market thinking where it doesn’t really apply. Death makes life and our days scarce, and scarce things are more valuable. But that sort of supply and demand thinking only really works well for tradable items, like gold. We can’t trade our days, and supply, demand, scarcity, and so forth apply to life and death only in vague and inexact ways at best.)

In any case, if death is what gives your life meaning, that’s just sad. I certainly didn’t need death to enter the picture for life with my partner to have meaning.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Thoughts on Allusion, Quotation, Remixing, and Poetry

Both on this blog and on “Reginald Shepherd’s Blog” (which I’ve been maintaining since his death), I recently posted a piece called “Reginald and the Muses” (Follow this link for the piece on this blog, or this link for the post on Reginald’s blog). The post discussed both Reginald’s views on the nature of poetic inspiration and production and a poetic fragment he had written while he was in the intensive care unit in the hospital last year.

On Reginald’s blog, a former student of his, Deanna, wrote to ask, “how do you feel about poets using the fragments in order to create new poems in dedication to him?”

I wrote the following in response to Deanna’s question. It’s fairly substantive for a simple reply, so I thought I’d post it here in addition to placing it in the discussion section of the previous post on Reginald’s blog.

It’s taken me a few days to formulate a response to this question. I was initially struck with a mix of emotions and thoughts that took me a while to disentangle. I think my feelings on the issue of others working with this particular fragment or other poetic works of Reginald’s are related to two distinct sets of issues – the quality of the work produced and the nature of what’s being done with another’s material.

Regarding quality, in general I prefer good art to mediocre. Poets and artists of other sorts draw upon, allude to, or incorporate elements of the works of others all the time – it’s a normal part of artistic production, and there are a number of perfectly legitimate ways in which this can be done. Here, too, I’d prefer that the products of the use of the work of others be good art. (What constitutes “good art” is, of course, a thoroughly complicated matter – one that I’m not addressing here, because it would take me on a long tangential trajectory in a case where it’s been difficult enough for me to disentangle and articulate what I think on the issue. It’s a topic that Reginald addressed at great length in many of his posts on his blog or in his essay collections.)

In principle, I feel that my feelings about how others might draw upon Reginald’s work in their own poetry shouldn’t be any different from my feelings regarding the use of anyone else’s poetry. Realistically, though, that’s not the case, especially regarding this issue of quality. Part of the mixed bag of emotions I initially felt upon reading this question was fear and wariness. There’s a big part of me that for purely emotional but very strongly felt reasons doesn’t want anyone mucking around with Reginald’s work. What I’ve done with this fragment was uncomfortable enough, but I’m ultimately happy with the result and the process of producing it, where what I did was to distill what was legible in his fragment, but where all the content is his. I wouldn’t be comfortable adding significant content to it, and I’m certainly not comfortable with anyone else doing so.

That said, I also recognize art isn’t always comfortable.

There are a number of ways in which poets or other artists quote, allude to, borrow from, or otherwise use or incorporate the work of others. That’s normal, natural, and one of the things that creates vibrant connections between different artists and works. While I may be uncomfortable about the idea of others drawing upon Reginald’s work – which is frankly a worry that I won’t like what’s done, or that I’ll think the result inferior or unworthy of him – I also realize that one of the ways an artist’s work continues to live is through the refractions of it in the works of others. As such and despite my wariness, I’m not opposed in principle to work that utilizes Reginald’s work, though with some important caveats, which constitute much of the rest of this reply.

One basic way in which the work of others is utilized is through artistic quotation or allusion (where quotation and allusion are not the same thing, but where quotation may be seen as a specific form of allusion). In the case of quotation, in general, I’d prefer credit be given (especially with borrowings from my Reginald). At the same time, I realize that, so long as things stay within the spirit of fair use (or for that matter the letter of fair use, for there can be intellectual property issues at stake), there are many cases of legitimate quotation or drawings upon the works of others through allusion without explicit attribution – for example, Shostakovich’s quotation of the “Lone Ranger” phrase of Rossini’s William Tell Overture in his 15th symphony, or Reginald’s drawing upon the imagery of a Manet painting in his poem “Kinds of Camouflage” (which I commented on in “Comments on ‘Kinds of Camouflage’”). There are many examples of poets borrowing a few words, a phrase, a line from another’s poem. Again, so long as it stays within the realm of fair use, the main difference I see between this and drawing upon phrases one encounters on roadside signs or that simply pop into one’s head is that the practice of drawing upon the poetry of others contributes to the intertextuality of poems.

There are instances of drawing upon another’s work that are more systematic or extensive than allusion or quotation of a small part of the work, cases where there is utilization of a whole work, or significant portions thereof, with a reworking of the material and/or incorporation alongside added material. The most obvious example of this in contemporary art is remixing of music, where for lack of a better term, I think we could speak also of remixing in other artistic genres, including poetry. My perspective here is that remixing is acceptable if credit is given and permission gotten. (Since remixing involves reworking significant portions of another’s work, “fair use” doesn’t cut it. Remixing without credit or permission is in the territory of Vanilla-Ice-ripping-off-Davd-Bowie-and-Queen-for-lack-of-decent-material-of-one’s-own.) Beyond legal or moral acceptability, remixing, of music or poetry, can be done well or badly. A good remix is both an original work of art and something that forces a rethinking and brings a new appreciation of a familiar work. At best, a bad remix reminds one of how much better the original work is and makes one want to return to it.

While I’d be fine with (or at least not opposed to) someone quoting or alluding to this or other works of Reginald (preferably with explicit credit, definitely within the framework of fair use or with permission gotten), and while I’d be fine with a “remix” (preferably well done, and definitely with credit and permission given [with a further caveat that for poems published in collections, that even as literary executor, I may not be the sole person needing to give permission]), one thing I definitely would not want to see done with this fragment is for someone to add to it in an attempt to “finish” it, and certainly not to add to it and present it as a finished Reginald Shepherd poem. The reason I’m strongly opposed to that is because even if well intentioned, it strikes me as active misrepresentation, if not a lie.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Reginald and the Muses

In the few months since Reginald’s death, I’ve revisited and reread most all of his writing, poetry and prose, a time or two, mostly as a way of coping with his loss and staying in touch with his ideas, though also because in my capacity as his literary executor, I’ve also been collecting together and editing a variety of his works for publication. One piece I’ve recently returned to is his short essay, “Taking Dictation from a Martian Muse,” in which he treats the notion of poetry as derived from the muses in a variety of guises, though focusing especially on Jack Spicer’s notion of poetry as dictation.

Reginald was largely skeptical of the idea of poetry as dictation or as derived from Muses or as transmissions from the ghost radio:

“Interesting and even inspiring though Spicer’s notion of dictation is, with its promise of escaping what he calls "the big lie of the personal," I wonder if it’s not simply the mirror image of romantic inspiration. Instead of coming from deep within one, from one’s soul or innermost self, the poem comes from outside one, from the Martians or the spooks. In either case, the poet is passive, and abdicates thought and responsibility...Spicer’s Martians seem to be the Muses dressed up in space suits, another way to preserve the romantic (small “r”) notion of the poet as a specially inspired individual with access to the transcendent…”

This is not at all to say that Reginald rejected the notion of poetry as inspired through something like a muse (whether one thinks of that in terms of Martians dictating, ghost radios, the workings of the subconscious mind, or possession by muses):

“I like the idea of poetry as dictation, because writing does feel like that sometimes. I’ve had at least one poem that was literally dictated to me—I woke up and the poem was reciting itself in my head, though I had to come up with my own ending. Don't we all? In that sense Spicer conveys what it often feels like to do poetry.”

I’d say it’s more that Reginald felt that while muses may be involved in the process of writing poetry, they are not sufficient, for the poem requires the active working by the poet upon potentially poetic material, wherever that may have come from:

“The poem, when it is at its best, when we are at our best, is a kind of agon between the poet and the language, and the poet has to bring all his or her resources to bear, or it’s not a real struggle at all, just a performance.”

Reginald’s penultimate poem (if it may be called that – more on that below) is a good example of the relation between muses and poetry, both in the sense of its writing being clearly of something other than his fully conscious, cogent mind, and in the sense that it’s obviously not fully formed poetry.

As many who knew him or follow his writing know, in mid-April last year, several months before he did die in September, Reginald almost died as a result of a perforated intestine, followed by massive abdominal infection and blood poisoning. He was unconscious for ten days in the Intensive Care Unit, with a ventilator down his throat, alongside many other tubes, lines, and pieces of equipment. Even when he regained consciousness, he was completely unable to talk until the ventilator tube was removed, and barely able to talk after that because of lack of strength. For a few days after regaining consciousness and having the ventilator tube removed, he had frequent hallucinations (the result of both the sedatives he had been on and his sickness) and slipped easily in and out of fully cogent consciousness even when I don’t think he was hallucinating.

During the period of a few days during which he was in and out of consciousness but was largely unable to talk, Reginald communicated to me or to his ICU nurses by writing on a clipboard. Much of this writing is completely illegible, as he didn’t have good motor control in his arms at that point. Much of what is legible is lacking in cogency (he was frequently hallucinating at the time, after all). Most of what is legible and cogent is fairly prosaic – parts of simple conversations I remember having with him (or that he had with one of the nurses), such as a short list of food items (grapes, juice, peeled apples, plums, jello) he wanted after I had asked him if there was anything he wanted me to bring him.

But a few weeks ago, while looking through those papers (I hadn’t looked through them much before, because they were too painful), I encountered this, written sometime the day after he regained consciousness, but when he was still frequently suffering powerful hallucinations and was only fully cogent for short moments:

for month and years [,the?] […etary?] [fruits?]
and [to end?] her [battle?] many of other
[toward?] [b.. the?] [history?]
[into ...?]
the single step and [lags?] distance
every [curve follows, linking to above word]
between [L..mbe..g?] and [ ]

a palmful of Persian peaches

the world is[s] a work of wish and

human circumstance

this history of being rusted, being burned
rusting, being burned

the [alval?] [bag ?] of of years burned up ,not down

burned off [to?] the for night

The first part in particular is virtually impossible to decipher as a result of the quality of the handwriting, which improves over the course of the page – as if gaining strength and confidence as he wrote. (I would like to acknowledge the help of Brad Richard in attempts to fully decipher the text, to the extent that Reginald’s handwritten page can be deciphered.) Nonetheless, as fragmentary as the text is, as indecipherable as parts of it unfortunately are, the form and elements of a poem are there on the page, and if this isn’t dictation from a muse, I’m not sure what would be.

Overall, it’s clear from his body of work that Reginald was extraordinarily sensitive to potential poetic material. Some of the material of his poetry consisted of linguistic “found objects,” his noticing poetic uses of language whether they occurred in casual conversations or on roadside signs, but most of his material came to him as though from the muses, with the important notation that he constantly took note of poetic material that occurred to him, such that he was constantly jotting things down in one little notebook or another. Maybe that’s all that having a muse is – being attentive to powerful language as it occurs, or maybe Reginald was taking dictation from Martians, channeling transmissions from the ghost radio, or being periodically possessed by Muses. In any case, that was only the start. Regardless of the source of poetic material, he still had to engage in attentive work to create poems. In the process of creating his art, there really were multiple and largely distinct facets to Reginald Shepherd as poet – the medium channeling inspiration and/or careful observer of language (in some cases he had whole lines and more “dictated” from somewhere that he had to write down quickly or lose them forever; in other cases [and more with those linguistic “found objects”] he was more like a particularly astute detective of language), and the artisan or craftsman who skillfully transformed raw poetic material into finished poetry.

In any case, it’s difficult to figure out what to do with this penultimate poem of his (and as literary executor, it is something I have to figure out). It’s tempting to call it a poetic fragment and leave it as is, though with the caveat that this is a fragment in a different sense from textual fragments like Petronius’ Satyricon, a completed text of which only fragments remain, whereas these are fragments of potentiality, artifacts of a poem never made, and it’s precisely for that reason that I don’t think Reginald would ultimately want the fragment left as is. It’s also tempting to me to suppress it as an unfinished work (too late for that now, I suppose), but I don’t think Reginald would want that either. There were works of his that he had chosen not to publish. He had a file titled “Poems not suitable for publication.” Most of the poems in this file are quite good, just poems he didn’t consider his best and/or poems he intended to go back and work more with if he had time, such that it was really the case that he considered them poems not suitable for publication yet. Still, he didn’t want those poems suppressed (something I know because I asked him about this specifically and explicitly on several occasions) – only not published until such point as there was no possibility of his working on them more. This “poem,” written under such extraordinary circumstances, is more fragmentary than those other poems (which actually aren’t fragmentary at all), but I don’t think he’d want it suppressed, and in any case, I find it impossible to suppress lines like “a palmful of Persian peaches,” (hence part of the motivation for this post). Finally, it’s tempting to work these fragments, engage in the agon between poet and language – a prospect I find daunting to say the least, though at least in this case, there is a legible and coherent core to the fragmentary text that with only minor editing and excision (rather than addition coming from me rather than Reginald) functions as a poem in its own right. Something like:

A palmful of Persian peaches,
the world is a work of wish and
human circumstance,
this history of being rusted, being burned
rusting, being burned
years burned up, not down
burned off to the night

I’m not sure what Reginald would have ultimately done with his fragmentary text, given the chance, but I am confident of what his approach would have been – to have recognized it as materia from the Muses that he would have further agonized with to create a poem.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Things I Miss, 8

I miss Reginald’s passion and joy in living. Despite the hard life he had (see Hard Knocks Life: Things I Miss, 7), Reginald loved life like no other person I’ve known.

A number of people who knew him well have shared their memories of him since he died. One description that has recurred in several people’s memories was that Reginald was always “on.” You couldn’t be bored around him, and you couldn’t not be continually stimulated, because Reginald was constantly engaging with the world and with the people around him in a deep way. You also couldn’t ever be lazy in your thinking around him, because he tended to presume others were deeply engaged in the topic at hand and to expect nothing less.

He really wasn’t very good at relaxing or at being “low key” (if anything, trying to relax tended to stress him out and to be unrelaxing); he constantly wanted to see what there was to see. (Given the elaborate and active quality of his dreams, I think his mind was probably “on” and going full bore even when he was asleep.)

I miss also his specific passions. He loved the arts, poetry and music most of all, though his tastes were both deep and precise. For example, while he could certainly be described as an opera fan, it wasn’t opera in general that he liked. It was a small number of specific operas that he loved, but those that he loved, he was deeply passionate about. I’ve just mentioned opera, but the same could be said about his tastes regarding a variety of musical or other art genres, with a deep interest in specific or precise works of art. I suppose in some sense the same is true for most anyone who is interested in art of other things, but the extent of his passion for those things he liked was remarkable. For example, he didn’t just like Tristan und Isolde; he had to have every distinct recording available of it. And when he listened to music, it was an all consuming experience for him, as was reading poetry, or anything else that he thought worth doing. Again, whatever he was doing, he was focused and “on.”

Further, he tended to identify very strongly with those works of art (with again this being most especially the case with music) which he did care about. Or perhaps I have that backwards. Perhaps it was those works and things that he identified that he in turn felt so passionate about.

In any case, I profoundly miss the way in which he so deeply, passionately cared about the music he listened to, the books he read, the food he ate, the conversations he had, and about living life.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Hard Knocks Life: Things I Miss, 7

Reginald had a hard time going through this world – this world he didn’t survive, to echo a line from one of his poems.

I’m not just referring to the more apparent biographic facts of his hard knocks life (a song, by the way, that he much enjoyed both in Annie and in the Jay Z rendition), though I am in part referring to those:

Growing up as the child of a single mother in the 1960s (he told me once that he identified fiercely with the Supremes’ song “Love Child” when he was a child).

Growing up living in public housing tenements in the Bronx.

Losing his mother when he was fifteen.

Dealing with the same tribulations that most every gay man in this culture deals with in coming to terms with that gayness.

Living with HIV for well over a decade.

Living with and dying from cancer and the horrible pains it brought.

Dealing with a host of “lesser” medical issues, like the osteoporosis (possibly a side effect from HIV meds) that led to fractures in his hip and at least one rib.

None of these made it easy to walk through life.

I’m also referring, though, to the combination of innocence and a strong sense of justice with which he continually encountered this unjust world.

One thing the two of us shared was a sense of how we thought the world should be, fair and equitable, with thought and beauty in all its forms valued.

But he combined this with a sort of innocence. He kept expecting the world to be fair and just, for people to be thoughtful and to value reflection rather than ignorance, and as a result he was often disappointed about the state of the world, but one of his most charming traits, that I miss so, was that he kept on presuming the best of people.

Some who knew us, but not in depth, thought I was the optimist and he the pessimist of the couple. They were wrong. In reality, I’m much more likely to view the world through a deeply cynical and pessimistic lens, with one consequence being that I can almost always envision things being even worse than they are. I may become angry, upset, or feel loathing towards aspects of the state of the world, but rarely are my expectations disappointed when people or things are stupid, hateful, vile, or otherwise bad. It’s more that I’m pleasantly surprised when things are good and beautiful.

Though it meant he often bumped up against disjuncture between his expectations and the state of the world, his sense of justice combined with optimistic innocence was a part of his charm that I sorely miss, and that I feel unbalanced without.