Poetry Means Making: The Empathy Machine

A Process Essay

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In working on “The Empathy Machine”, a visual essay on poetics recently published by Cleaver Magazine, I wrote and drew part 1 in the summer of 2015, and finished part 2 on the kitchen table over a snowy January weekend. Part two was much longer than part 1, which had CleaverFaceIssue-13-Front-500-px-1been subtitled A Visual Narrative on the Poetics of Kenneth Goldsmith. Part 2 expanded on those musings into something that took the form of an ars poetica. (You can read part 2 here.) For a long time, the ideas had been stewing in my imagination and coming to life in my sketchpad. But there comes a point when you have to pull it all together, even if that means doing so with tools as simple as glue sticks, a watercolor set, and some Faber Castell artist pens.

 

IMG_4877What appeared as part 1 in issue #11 of Cleaver started off as a series of New Yorker-style cartoons calling out poet Kenneth Goldsmith’s for his insensitivity in turning the autopsy report of Michael Brown into a performance piece. I was angry. I was MAD. I cmadouldn’t understand how the “material” Goldsmith was performing and the poetry I was writing could all supposedly fall into the same genre. Other people were outraged, too, and when Vanessa Place, Michael Derrick Hudson, and Sherman Alexie entered the equation it all built to a critical mass. (It didn’t hurt that Goldsmith, with his penchant for wild suits and his long beard, was a fun figure to draw.) The anger and energy I felt proved to be a vehicle for me to look outward and inward, a way to ask myself questions to guide me in terms of future art-making, whether that be in words or pictures (or the two combined). Karen Rile, Editor-in-Chief, and Raymond Rorke, Art Editor, would prove invaluable to me along the way in terms of critical feedback.

Goldsmith cartoon-McQuain-draft 1

 

 

As new ideas came to me, I found that working in a  “New Yorker” style wasn’t going to cut it. The project was opening up into an essay, stretching its shoulders, wanting more space.

My thoughts tend to bounce around in a ricochet, one idea playing off another. I decided my method needed to be old school (literally “cut and paste”) as well as very personal: a journal style to match my journey. I’m a huge fan of cartoonist Lynda Barry, and I’ve followed her work for years, even reviewing some of her early comic strip collections. Using legal pads — which Barry did in What It Is, her fantastic meditation on image-making — proved extremely liberating. Cheap paper gave me a freedom with the material aspect of the project. More color began to enter the drawings as I dug out the paints and Prismacolor pencils I had accumulated over the years. Why hadn’t I been using them? What had I been saving them for? For this?

Over Christmas, through a New Year’s Day plagued with a head cold, and well into a January snowstorm, I made steady progress toward the end of the project. My partner and I did not eat at the kitchen table for weeks.

As I was working on the project, David Bowie died. I loved Bowie, a grand statesman of the ’80s British Invasion that I loved, and so much more. Bowie became another of the visual homages that the narrative called for. Others included Keith Haring’s pop art from the 1980s, haringPulloutwhich seemed to be everywhere back when I was coming out (and is long overdue for a resurgence in popularity). Another inspiration was the current  plight of the honeybee in the face of colony collapse disorder. The list goes on: GaMonsterPullOutnesh and Cthulhu and Superman; Calvin & Hobbes cartoons; the art of activist Rini Templeton, whose brilliant drawings I happily discovered by way of Christopher Soto’s poetry book, Sad Girl Poems (Sibling Rivalry Press). Templeton’s image suggested connectivity and transformation to me, and were ripe to combine with the image of a mermaid, a sometimes-symbol of the trans community as well as a symbol of the connection between humankind and nature. Other allusions included The Great Wave off Kanagawa, a woodblock print by Katsushika Hokusai, which I smermaidPulloutaw once in the Michener collection at the Honolulu Museum in Hawai’i. Most importantly, I relied on a sketchbook filled with faces of the inspirational people I met during the summer of 2015 at the Crosstalk, Color, Composition conference, the Lambda Literary Writers Retreat for Emerging LGBTQ Voices, and the Sewanee Writers’ Conference. To those  amazing people and their inspiring words, I am grateful. I am changed.

In terms of negative inspirations, I’ve been bothered by this era’s bad habit of people anonymously attacking one another through social media channels when they disagree, and how if anyone critiques that practice he or she is quickly accused of toGoldsmithPulloutne-policing or censorship. I understand that anonymity is an appealing veil when one fears for personal safety, but we also diminish our nobility on occasions when we don’t fight fair. If you ask me, there is enough micro-aggression going around these days that it all very quickly adds up to full-sized aggression. Such tactics should be used with caution. That might sound funny coming from someone who has taken a number of shots at Goldsmith and Place, but I also believe in the power of satire as a vehicle for critique and an instrument for social change. Certainly there are voices that get too often heard, and certainly we need new platforms to raise up those voices needing better representation. Yet every time I see a dialogue opportunity get crushed, I hear the creak of more minds closing.

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Poetry is essentially about making. It’s a messy process, and one often feels pulled in different directions at once, torn by competing ideologies.

What did I learn about image making? Poems and visual art rely on images, and these images are not always seen with our eyes but with our mind. Ezra Pound described an image as an “interpretative metaphor” or “an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time”.  I think sometimes images can be sounds. Or smells. Or things we touch or things that touch us. These images take us on a journey that at times feels circular and difficult, an uneasy game–but that path is not without purpose. 
EmpathyProcessOn a practical level, I found it useful to lay my pages out on the floor in order to get a sense of narrative flow and design. l was reminded how easily paper crinkles when watercolor is added, and that sometimes you need to make your better half gently iron pages the way Carson the butler irons the Earl of Grantham’s newspaper on Downton Abbey. I learned that there are probably better glue sticks out there than the ones Staples sells, and that there is great  joy to be found in the smudge-proof nib of a good Faber Castell drawing pen.

I learned that even with ironing it is best to have heavy books on hand to continue flattening your pages prior to scanning. I combined the weight of an atlas, Chip Kidd’s Batman Collected, and a collection of nude studies by photographer George Platt Lynes for a little extra frisson.

In my work, I’ve often felt pulled in many directions at once, that my different art-making impulses compete with each other. This has often left me frustrated. In teasing out the reasons why I think art-making should be viewed as an empathy machine, I learned that what I’ve feared can also be a strength. That the mistakes of others can teach us almost as much as the mistakes we make on our own. I’ve learned that hybrid, ekphrastic constructs bring great satisfaction. Along the way, I developed an Empathy Credo to guide my future making. It might not be the same approach as yours, and my own credo might change and evolve over time. Most of all, this project reminded me that poetry—and all art—is in the making, that the key to overcoming obstacles can be found in the words “try” and “do”.

Now I need to go get busy. What about you?

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How Do We Pollinate Identity? The Empathy Machine, Part 2

MonsterPullOutGanesh, Cthulhu, Keats and honeybees! Sherman Alexie, Kenneth Goldsmith, Vanessa Place, and the Muppets!  What can this strange mash-up teach us about the pitfalls and triumphs of poetry and art-making? Part two of my comix essay, The Empathy Machine, is out now. Click here! It’s a hybrid graphic narrative I’ve worked on for Cleaver Magazine, a meditation on art-making, poetics, identity and appropriation. There’s even a board game you can play. You can read last fall’s part 1 of the project at the link below if you missed it (the Cleaver editors nominated it to Best American Essays!)
Make sure to link to the cartoon version. Cleaver published a text version as well for the visually impaired and for search engines that can’t (yet?) read comix.

Be Worried: Dangerous Poetics

What do Oscar Wilde, Horace, CA Conrad, Kenneth Goldsmith, Vanessa Place, Ted Hash-Berryman and Alfred E. Newman all have in common? Cleaver Magazine is featuring my visual essay on MOMA poet Kenneth Goldsmith and the strange state of American poetics as a back-to-school essay in their new issue. Read The Empathy Machine here and get the low-down.

A direct link to the art and text is here. Find out what makes me MAD.

Crosstalk–What can a canceled Berkeley Poetry Conference learn from San Francisco’s theater scene?

…or, You Won’t Believe What She Reveals About Clickbait at the End!
#BerkeleyPoetryConference
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En route to the Lambda Literary Retreat in LA, it was only thirty bucks more to add an open-jaw ticket through San Francisco, and when you have friends willing to host you a side trip is a no-brainer. Especially since the Berkeley Poetry Conference was slated for this week, a commemoration of the 1965 Berkeley conference fifty years ago that featured Allen Ginsburg, Jack Spicer, et al.

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But then add one controversial experimental poet (Vanessa Place), subtract three-quarters of the other speakers, who pulled out in protest, and what you have is a big mess of pain and political correctness blowing up in your face. Regardless of your take on the related issues, what’s been happening at Berkeley is a sure sign that the poetry world is in a state of flux and change equally as pressing to what occurred a half century ago. Conference kaput!

But then last week, thanks to the hard work of a handful of Berkeley organizers, a phoenix rose from the ashes: Crosstalk, Color, Composition: A[n all new! all different!] Berkeley Poetry Conference.

A Brief Pause for Sound Bites (and Thought Bites) Heard Today at Crosstalk
(in no particular order)

“Armed Cell” “economic crisis”
“it’s a question of competing archives”
“colonization theory” “colonize” “decolonize”
“what is the human condition?”
“I felt policed as a young poet”
“I don’t need someone to say to me I have meta-concerns and concerns”
(–a blighted redwood being chainsawed; a blighted redwood falling alongside the creek that runs through campus–)
“I feel like there are bodies all over the floor”
“it’s like you’re a theory translator!”
“poetry offers the space to be nimble”
–are we _really_ post-crisis?–
“everyone has a spam poem–even Ron Silliman”
“what do we lose when the impulse to take on the socio-political overwhelms the poem as creative artifact?”
“I felt profoundly devastated, and I was rescued by you all”

Today I went to Brian Ang’s Post-Crisis Poetics workshop, as well as to the wrap-up discussion covering the last four days. Picture a circle of wooden chairs in stately Wheeler Hall, poets of all stripes and ages sitting around as if in group therapy (and perhaps it was). Laura, a professor from Sierra Nevada College, would later describe it to me as akin to “the Quaker meetings [she] grew up with.”

Coming from Philly, I find the comparison quite apt.

In the formal discussions there was a lot of jargon and academic gobbledygook tossed around–people being very, very careful not to offend. I got the sense that the organizers were still stinging from last month’s protests and that the participants were treading carefully (and quite politely) in their comments.

The role of social justice in poetics is an important and timely consideration. Yet I couldn’t help thinking it’s not an easy thing to discuss, especially in an age when we have to look over our shoulders to make sure some anonymous #HashtagWarrior isn’t stabbing us in the back.

That’s not to say the conference wasn’t valuable. For me, the value came mostly in the little moments, the more-intimate discussions with strangers at lunch when people’s guard came down and they spoke to communicate rather than to lecture or publicly perform. (Like the Australian grad student who told me about her LA research project. Or the Filipino guy from Oakland who joked about his misgivings identifying as a poet. These were moments of real connection.) Later too there were moving confessionals in the official wrap-up. These brought sympathetic nods (and tears) to many.

My time at the conference was brief but valuable. As one woman said, conferences like these can provide the “leap between the local and the global”. An irony, then, is that those of us traveling from outside of Berkeley to attend the conference (Philly, LA, Nevada–even Sydney) had such trouble getting details about what was happening until last week. One organizer confessed that this “conference 2.0” purposefully stayed off social media in planning and disseminating the updates out of fear of potential protests. Which begs the question: how do you create a “global” coalition when you’re not a part of the Berkeley phone tree?

I guess that’s a question for another conference. I don’t know if any of the initial protesters came, or if what sprang up in the original conference’s place would have pleased them. I can say I was very much impressed by the good intentions of the organizers, as well as the spirit and statements of the participants. These people are my tribe, no matter their race, their age, their gender or nationality. No matter if they are actually strangers.

And yet I worry. If we continue to fight so stridently amongst ourselves, to pick each other apart through social media, then maybe the machinery of the one percent has already defeated us. Their socio-economic machinery, their war-industrial machinery. In my dark hours I imagine a cabal of one percenters herding us, with our iPads and cell phones and endless media channels, into an ADD stupor of distraction. If we fight among ourselves, how do we fight them? Are the very tools that empower us fundamental to our undoing?

#HashtagWarrior: Kristina Wong?

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Which makes me want to mention last night’s totally-unrelated-except-in-a-zeitgeist-sort-of-way premier performance of Kristina Wong’s “Wong Street Journal” here in San Francisco. Wong, a performance artist based in LA, hits on some of these very topics: how do we fight for social justice from our armchairs and our iPads? She has much to say about privilege and ‪first-world #‎HashtagWarriors‬ who vie for social change so long as it adds to their tally of “likes” and “retweets”.

She also skewers Western notions of race.

The show centers largely on three weeks Wong spent in what she initially calls “the country of Africa”. She was actually sent to Uganda to help a charitable organization micro-fund business opportunities for local women. Bizarrely, however, she ends up getting roped into managing the career of an aspiring Ugandan rapper. From the moment she steps off the plane, Wong’s identification as a person of color gets turned on its head. As she tells BlogHer.com:

“I had been told to expect that I’d be a Mzungu (or ‘white person’) over there, but I didn’t realize how white I would feel. There are several incidents that I humorously recount in the show about what ‘white guilt’ made me succumb to.”

Though a bit uneven, Wong’s show asks some very provocative questions: How real are our values in an age where we capitalize on them as clickbait? It’s as true a question for performance artists as it is for poets.

#LoveAndInformation

Which brings me to tonight… and another show. This time at the Strand Theater, a newly rehabbed bright spot in San Francisco’s Tenderloin district. (When your host is an arts and entertainment writer, you truly luck out with free tickets). “Love and Information” by Caryl Churchill is the American Conservatory Theater’s inaugural production in their new home. The play is a series of vignettes centering on love and (dis)connection in the Information Age.

Each segment functions almost like a visual tweet, a short textual and synaptic burst, non-lineal but connected in a layered way. In one, a pair of young girls compete over who knows the most facts about their shared celebrity crush. In another, first-date talk goes deliciously wrong as a researcher describes slicing chicken brains into slides to study how memories form. In another, ontological issues are debated between a true-believer and an atheist.

Throughout the show information is shared both interpersonally (secrets divulged; suspicions confirmed) and through numerous technological devices (cell phones, laptops). A giant media screen hovers above the stage to periodically interact with live actors, who are racially diverse and play a multitude of roles. Segments accrue meaning by lapping against each other like waves.

Churchill’s writing is elliptical. Characters finish each other’s sentences; what is left out of an exchange is often more important what what is put in. In the playbill, a sample of the script is provided. There are no character names, no stage directions. On the page, “Love and Information” reads like a prose poem or an interior monologue between opposing parts of one’s brain. On stage, under the deft, inventive direction of Casey Stangl, it’s a kinetic mashup of human wants and desires, a careful contemplation of how technology assists and impedes our efforts to make connection, often at the same time.

It’s the kind of play I’d like my poet friends to see.

In a time of online petitions and protests against poets and ideas we do not like, Wong and Churchill remind us with humor and invention that sometimes the best social critiques are the ones made manifest in art. Theirs is the kind of socially-engaged art-making today’s poets ought to be doing. No doubt today’s best poets already are.

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