The first time that I saw Andy Clausen read poetry was in the summer of 1980, at Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colorado. Andy was scheduled to read one night as part of a three-person bill, along with Allen Ginsberg and Philip Whalen. I had expected that the youngest of the three poets, then 36 years old, would be the opening act, but Allen Ginsberg and Philip Whalen let Andy close the show, symbolically passing along a poetry torch. With his deep oratorical voice, and poetry filled with extraordinary energy, insight, humor, and imagination Andy gave a reading that night which left a lasting impression. The poem that I remember most from that evening was his long poem, “An Open Letter to the Russian People,” with its explorations of the historic hypocrisies and exploitations, sometimes fatal, of both the American and Soviet governments, and its visionary insistence that artists and working people of the U.S. and U.S.S.R. could one day figure out how to put an end to the physically and psychically damaging Cold War: “No more guilt American O Russian / The Freedom to choose Peace—/ Jesus! How badly our governments behave! / Brothers & Sisters / THE GENERAL STRIKE! / NOW!”
Andy Clausen was born in a Belgium bomb shelter in 1943, and moved to Oakland, California at age three, at the end of the Second World War. After graduating from high school, he became a Golden Gloves boxer and, for a brief time, joined the Marines, which he left in 1966 after watching Allen Ginsberg on TV read his anti-Vietnam War poem, "Wichita Vortex Sutra". The line from Allen's poem that caught Andy’s attention and changed the direction of his life was the simple but poignant, humanizing question: "Has anyone looked in the eyes of the dead?"
An old Litkicks friend, Clay "Lightning Rod" January of Texas, died of cancer this week. If you hung around this website during our message board years, there's no doubt that you remember Clay. He was one of the best writers on the website, the owner of a sly and subversive voice.
I interacted often with Clay, especially on the Action Poetry boards, where I would often yell at him to stop posting too often, but he had such a good sense of humor about it that I could never be mad at him long. We met in person several times for poetry readings in Virginia, Washington DC, Maryland and New York, and he was awesome and fun to hang out with. He was an old and very skinny man with long graying hair, and it was clear from his poems that he had done some hard travelling in his years, and had carried a few monkeys on his back.
He liked to call himself Lightning Rod (as a poet and a musician) but insisted to me that Clay January was his real name. I never believed him, but I always believed the truths behind the tall tales he told. He carried himself with a youthful, pixie-ish energy, he never let go of his wide smile, and he gathered friends easily wherever he went. I'm happy to have been one of the friends he gathered.
The life of a writer, musician, artist or celebrity who commits suicide at the height of fame will often assume the stature of legend. All work available before the suicide is suddenly, and then nearly exclusively, viewed through the lens of that final act. Then, invariably, posthumously released work that might not warrant worshipful adulation if the person were to live and continue working attains a power far beyond its intrinsic worth.
And then there is the case of David Foster Wallace, a genuinely gifted, chronically troubled writer who came off, on the page, as an over-caffeinated brainiac for whom language, pagination, even punctuation seemed an impediment to the nonstop whirl of thought. His work was alternately funny, depressing, perceptive, freakishly clear and yet also maddeningly obtuse—even though he went to absurdly great lengths to clarify and qualify everything in footnotes, sidebars, bullet points, boxes, all but leaving his phone number for you to call, if you had any further questions.
Moby Dick has been making the rounds. "There Are Whales Alive Today Who Were Born Before Moby Dick Was Written", says a new article in Smithstonian magazine. That's pretty wild. So is this gorgeous video of a couple of people swimming with a sperm whale.
If you care about gun violence in the United States of America, I think you need to also care about militarism in the USA. We're not going to solve the domestic problem until we solve the global one.
It can't be a coincidence that the most weaponed-up nation in the world also suffers regular epidemics of gun violence in schools, colleges, movie theaters, shopping malls, parking lots. We're talking about gun control and getting nowhere, and this is because we're not discussing the root cause. Domestic gun violence and militarism are co-dependents. They enable each other.
A militaristic sensibility permeates our culture, and this is enthusiastically supported by our federal government. How many people do you know who sincerely believe the United States of America is currently at risk of totalitarian invasion or violent civil war? And how many people do you know who are employed by the US military, or are directly or indirectly supported by it? Militarism permeates our lives, at many levels, in many ways.
Militarism permeates our brains. We soak in it. The current debate in the USA over gun control should be about how Americans co-exist in cities and towns and neighborhoods and communities. Gun control is, or should be, a domestic issue. It's really not about war.
And yet, the popular arguments against gun control often rely on military scenarios -- mainly, the "Red Dawn" scenario in which honest
Romney-voting American citizens are forced to take their Bushmasters and Tec-9s to the streets to fend off swarms of would-be tyrants. It's all too easy to mock these apocalyptic scenarios ... but, unfortunately the hyper-charged ethnic, financial and economic tensions between the USA and various other nations around the world makes these scenarios appear all too normal.
Some truths have a tough time landing. They hover overhead, drifting uncomfortably in the air. People stare up at these truths, squinting. "Yeah, that looks like a truth." "Hope it doesn't get any closer."
One of these truths is hovering heavily over our heads right now, here in the United States of America. Our government spends an incredible, ridiculous, unsupportable amount of money on the military. The chart above (chosen by Andrew Sullivan as the #1 nominee for 2012 chart of the year) shows how much the USA spends compared to the other powerful countries on the planet. This certainly is the #1 chart of the year, and the data point about our overspending is the single most important data point we need to discuss as our Congressional debate over taxation and deficit spending proceeds.
But this truth -- the truth that we spend way too much on preparations for war -- has no home. It's a homeless truth. Andrew Sullivan found the chart in a Mother Jones article aptly titled "And You Wonder Why We're Broke?", and Mother Jones is an excellent liberal/progressive publication that supposedly has some influence within our Democratic party. But our Democratic party establishment won't touch this truth, because proposals to cut military spending will not help win elections and will feed into the damaging misconception that liberals are weak on defense.
There's a big national conversation going on in the USA about gun control and gun violence. We must have been overdue for this conversation, because there seem to be a whole lot of angles to this issue.
A Slate article presents the personal angle of Sons and Other Flammable Objects novelist Parachista Khakpour. Her piece is called Why did Nancy Lanza Love Guns?, and in it the author answers the question by remembering a phase she once went through in which she became attracted to guns and began surrounding herself with them, constructing a new self-image that pleased her and others.
Sadly, due to another terrible shooting disaster, gun control is back in the news. A poster is going around Facebook and the Internet with some amazing statistics:
Last year, handguns killed
48 people in Japan
8 in Great Britain,
34 in Switzerland,
52 in Canada,
58 in Israel,
21 in Sweden,
42 in West Germany,
10,728 in the United States
I support stronger gun laws in the United States of America, and I know many other citizens do. But we all know that gun laws alone won't solve the problem of gun violence (though it would help a lot), and we also know that there is a strong organized resistance to gun control. To solve this standoff, we need to dig deeper. We can start by looking for the roots of our society's gun violence problem.
Jazz pianist Dave Brubeck has died. Recordings of his snappy number Take Five have been flying around the Internet in the past two days, but I like this video even better. Brubeck is playing a small concert in Moscow, and obliges when asked to improvise on a Russian theme. But watch what happens -- especially the surprised (and instantly delighted) look on Dave Brubeck's face when he discovers that a member of the audience has begun playing along on violin. A joyful moment.
I must have been eleven years old when I first snatched a Philip Roth novel from my Mom's bookshelf. This was after I devoured a ribald paperback called Sheila Levine is Dead and Living in New York by Gail Parent, an illicit sex comedy featuring Jewish New Yorkers in various undignified erotic escapades that my Grandma Jeannette had brought up from Miami Beach. This funny book advertised itself on its cover as "the feminine rejoinder to Portnoy's Complaint!", which made no sense to me until I discovered in my mother's bookshelves a slender paperback titled Portnoy's Complaint, with a fluorescent yellow cover, ripe as a banana. Naturally, I grabbed it.
But I didn't enjoy Portnoy's Complaint as well as Sheila Levine. Levine was a cheerful, freewheeling urban sex comedy featuring broad characters like the shleppy but sex-starved title character, and Norman, her affable standby boyfriend, who always wore leisure suits bearing flecks. Portnoy's Complaint was something more nasty, more tormented. Instead of hapless Sheila and safe Norman there was a deeply angry and self-loathing hero named Alex Portnoy, and a sinister, passive-aggressive female predator known as the Monkey, and then a strong woman in Israel whose sexual self-assurance renders the hero impotent. The book's riffs on artful masturbation were funny, but there wasn't much else for an eager 11-year-old like me to relate to. I was also put off by an undertone of hostility to both women and Christians, a heaviness that made this Jewish sex comedy feel more oppressive than liberating, more thorny than horny.