Book Review — Technomodern Poetics: The American Literary Avant-Garde at the Start of the Information Age

The digital humanities risk becoming just an extension of the corporate-driven technocracy endemic to neoliberalism. 
~ Alan Liu

Technomodern Poetics: The American Literary Avant-Garde at the Start of the Information Age by Todd T Tietchen is the examination of the change of American poetry in the post-WWII period. Tietchen is associate professor of English at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell. He is the author of The Cubalogues: Beat Writers in Revolutionary Havana. He holds a Ph.D. in English from the University of Washington.

I find poetics to be a difficult subject but love poetry. Poetry is like watching the night sky and taking it all in. One does not need to understand astrophysics to enjoy the night sky. Poetics is the astrophysics of poetry. It is the reason and the why of poetry. It is why poetry is written in the form that it is in. My experience with poetics has not been very successful. I decided to give it a try again with a period that I am familiar with in other ways.

Charles Olson’s “The Kingfishers” is used to set Tietchen’s thesis. It is a poem that breaks the conservative mold of American poetry. It ignores traditional rhyme, line length, and creates packets of information for the reader. He presents the failings or the collapse of Western civilization. The poem closes with:

 I pose you your question:
shall you uncover honey / where maggots are?
           I hunt among stones

Civilization has rotted away and the Olson the “archeologist of morning” uses words as tools to move things. Morning could mean the new day or more probably its homonym.

What caused the sudden change in American poetry. No doubt mechanized warfare of the WWII and the atomic bomb being dropped on Japan had a role in the shift. Also, technology also presented a different way as ENIAC was used to study artillery trajectory and used to explore the possibility of the hydrogen bomb. Technology had taken a dark turn. Throughout the book, Tietchen builds on the idea of intrusive technology and associates it with fascism. People were expected to fit into a neat mold much like traditional American poetry. Kerouac’s short story “cityCityCITY” is also used as an example of the coming dystopia.

If one thinks the ideas presented may be far-fetched one just needs to look elsewhere in society at the time. Science fiction and horror movies of the 1950s tended to make a hero out of the strong individual and a villain of the collective. In Cold War politics, the Soviet Union was the machine and its people simply cogs in that machine.  America and the West were about the individual unless he or she caused waves or moved outside the lines.  The illusion or freedom or comparative freedom was the ideal.  Today cell phones can track your position anywhere there is cell service, yet people happily volunteer and pay for this potential loss of privacy.  The internet opened a world of information to the public, but everything you look at or read can be tracked.  Your library searches can also be monitored.  You are free to look, but if you look at some things, you might have to answer a few questions.

Technomodern Poetics examine the roots of dystopia through technology.  Earlier writers wrote on paper and typed out their final copies.  In the postmodernist age, the typewriter became the primary tool.  Kerouac typed directly to a scroll to create a primitive instantaneous recording of the author’s thoughts. O’Hara wrote his poems on lunch walks. There was an attempt to instantly capture the ideas of the writer.  Poet’s at the time moved outside of the lines. Ginsberg and Lenore Kandel would face obscenity trials for their work.  Technology could be used to create and to control.  Today writers are free to self-publish their works. Reviewers can criticize and review works but are trapped inside of lines.

What I type here are my thoughts and work and can reach an unlimited audience, but I do not have control of the information. If I stay within rules established by WordPress, if I do not violate the terms of service with my internet provider, if I do not break any laws or advocate the overthrow of the government, if I color between the established lines I am free to do what I want.  If the lines remain wide, we do not notice the cage around us. Technology, in commerce and politics, is what can close those lines.  The poets and artists of the post-war period saw this, and it scared them; today we seem to be numb to it.   One must remember the words of Michel Foucault, “There are forms of oppression and domination which become invisible – the new normal.”

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Book Review — Forgotten Soldiers of World War I: America’s Immigrant Doughboys

Forgotten Soldiers of World War I: America’s Immigrant Doughboys by Alexander F Barnes is an overview of immigrant soldiers who were drafted or volunteered for service in WWI. Barnes is an Army civilian at Fort Lee, Virginia. He served in the Marine Corps and Army National Guard, retiring as CW4. He has a master’s degree in Anthropology and authored In a Strange Land; The American Occupation of Germany 1918-1923.

World War I was the first worldwide war as belligerents pooled soldiers from their colonies and commonwealths. America was different and at the same time was the most internationally diverse army involved in the war. The massive immigration in the late eighteenth century up until the start of the war lead to the influx of Central, Eastern, and Southern Europeans. The Anglo-Irish immigration of the past was being overtaken by non-English speaking people. Immigrants formed communities people with like heritages and languages; many never learned to speak English.

On May 18, 1917, Wilson signed the Selective Service Act into law the required all males to register for the draft. This included immigrants and African Americans (although they would not be integrated into the army and would serve in segregated units). America’s attempt to grow an army from its small defense force would be a challenge on many levels. First, the draft notices needed to be published in a variety of languages. Second, many showed up for training without understanding English. The army was also struggling to find enough leaders to train new recruits. Camps were set up in the south for training south and cantonments in the north — the difference being camps had tents and cantonments had barracks.

Immigrants played a significant role in the war, and that created another problem for the United States. German immigration peaked between 1880-1889 making many of draft age. How would German immigrants react to being drafted to fight their former countrymen? Barnes reflects the Italian presence in the American army was quite large as well as pockets of others of European heritage. Asian immigrants were also drafted an served in the regular army although the registration papers only listed white and colored; yellow or Japanese was penned in by clerks. Carribean immigrants found themselves in segregated camps with African-Americans.

Barnes adds personal stories and experiences of immigrants that served as well as some short biographies.  The book is also illustrated with photographs of some of the soldiers giving the book a personal touch. It is truly remarkable that the army was able to field a capable fighting force.  There were so many possible points of failure.  Even something as simple as Albania caused confusion since it was a newly independent country in 1913.  Birthplaces were listed as Albania, Italy; Albania, Greece; Albania, Turkey; or Albania, Albania.   Twenty percent of those serving in the US army in WWI were foreign-born. There is no count on the first generation Americans raised in immigrant households.  Immigrants played a decisive role in America’s entry on the world stage.  The United States Army represented the most diverse force in the war.  Forgotten Soldiers represents the sacrifice of those who fought for their adopted country.

Image result for americans All poster WWI

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Poetry Review — Pan Tadeusz: The Last Forray Into Lithuania

Lithuania! My homeland! You are health alone.
Your worth can only ever be known by one
Who’s lost you. Today I see and tell anew
Your lovely beauty, as I long for you.

Pan Tadeusz by Adam Mickiewicz

Pan Tadeusz: The Last Forray Into Lithuania by Adam Mickiewicz and the new translation by Bill Johnston is an epic poem about the divided Poland and Lithuania. Mickiewicz was a Polish poet, dramatist, essayist, publicist, translator, professor of Slavic literature, and political activist. He is regarded as the national poet in Poland, Lithuania, and Belarus. Johnston is a prolific Polish language literary translator and Professor of comparative literature at Indiana University. His work has helped to expose English-speaking readers to classic and contemporary Polish poetry and fiction.

Pan Tadeusz is a poem for those interested in Polish/Lithuanian history or heritage. Most Americans would know little of Polish history except for the opening of World War II. Those who remember the Cold War will recall, despite Gerald Ford’s assertion, that Poland was under Communist control and the US does not recognize the incorporation of Lithuania into the USSR. Poland has lived a rather quiet history as a nation for those living today. Poland was a historically a cultural and military territory. Part of the problem also comes with what is Poland. Its size has varied, and it ceased to exist as a nation more than once. My great grandmother’s immigration papers said she was born in Russian occupied Poland claiming Polish as her nationality. With borders that changed so often, it is not hard to imagine how one person could be the national poet of three different countries.

Pan Tadeusz is a rather long poem covering five days in 1811 and two days in 1812. It contains a bit of a Shakespeare theme (Romeo and Juliet) and a bit of Les Miserables’ to the barricades. Johnston provides a detailed introduction which helps clarify regional realities of the time and a translation that remains true to the original intent including the humor. The verse flows well, and much of the rhyme remains in place, not every line rhymes, but there is enough to keep the read locked into the rhythm of the poetry. There does not seem to be any forced wording in the translation; it is easily readable.

Johnston’s translation of Pan Tadeusz brings the Polish classic in an enjoyable form to the English language readers without losing the original intention and form. Both the author and translator include notes characters, locations, as well as translations where words don’t seem to have a word for word replacement. An exceptionally well done original work and rendering.

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Book Review — A History of America in Ten Strikes

A History of America in Ten Strikes by Erik Loomis

A History of America in Ten Strikes by Erik Loomis is a study of American history told through the labor movement. Loomis is an assistant professor of history at the University of Rhode Island. He blogs at Lawyers, Guns, and Money on labor and environmental issues past and present. His work has also appeared in AlterNet, Truthout, and Salon.

History is long, and memory is short. Three generations ago organized labor and collective bargaining were celebrated and credited with the growth of the middle class. Living wages and the benefit of buying American made goods drove the popularity of unions. Today unions are generally demonized and blamed for sending jobs overseas. Earlier unions were identified with early twentieth-century communism. On the Waterfront (1954) left moviegoers cheering for Brando as the dock workers banded together. Workers once united could negotiate for fair wages and benefits. Organization made workers something more than replaceable cogs in the machine.

In examining strikes in their context of history Loomis demonstrates the validity of certain strikes and the rise and fall of unions in America. Two strikes that I recall are covered in the book. The Air Traffic Controllers strike and the Lordstown Strike. Growing up in Cleveland strikes were part of the regular news from local steel strikes to auto worker strikes. Somewhere in the late 1970s, organized labor began to fail. Japan and Europe recovered from WWII and union demands came to be perceived as too high as demand for American goods shrank. Today most strikes that make the news are teacher’s unions and generally looked down upon even though these are the people teaching the next generation of Americans and American workers.

The history of organized labor in America is an interesting struggle of workers trying to get a fair wage for their effort. Six day work weeks and 100 hours of labor was not replaced with the ten hour day until the mid-nineteenth century. By the mid 20th century Americans were working a five day work week of 8 hour days. Unions drove for benefits like medical, holidays, and paid vacations. Today America works harder and longer for less and the middle class is rapidly shrinking.

Loomis gives a detailed history of the rise and fall of American labor.  It’s a seemingly permanent struggle to represent workers as a whole from the Wobblies to mine workers to the UAW against big business and at many times the government too. The struggle of American workers is more relevant when put into historical context than when it is captured with sound bites and demagoguery.  A well-done documentation of an under-represented sector of American history.

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Book Review — Suicidal: Why We Kill Ourselves

Suicidal: Why We Kill Ourselves by Jesse Bering is a study of suicide and with explanations and theories. Bering is an award-winning science writer specializing in evolutionary psychology and human behavior. His “Bering in Mind” column at Scientific American was a 2010 Webby Award Honoree for the Blog-Cultural category by The International Academy of Digital Arts and Sciences. Bering’s first book, The Belief Instinct (2011), was included on the American Library Association’s Top 25 Books of the Year. This was followed by a collection of his previously published essays, Why Is the Penis Shaped Like That? (2012), and Perv (2013), a taboo-breaking work that received widespread critical acclaim and was named as a New York Times Editor’s Choice.

Bering holds a Ph.D. in behavioral psychology and uses his expertise and personal experience to create a very readable and informative book on the topic of suicide. Real-world examples as well as theory lift the taboo from the subject. Humans are the only animals that commit suicide (animal “suicide” is explained in the book). When did suicide become a human action? How far back does one have to go to find the first suicide? Dawkins brings up the point of suicide in primitive man and relates it to an artificial action of society. Suicide is new and seems to be a side effect of civilization. Every animal’s primary instinct is to live to reproduce as often as possible. Colony insects offer a challenge on the basis that they will die for the colony but, there, in the case of ants the workers are essentially clones of each other and do not reproduce.

Bering does not include assisted suicide for those with terminal illnesses in the book but looks at phenomena of suicide contagion, the internet, and societal shame. The methods and evolution of suicide throughout history and the differences between the sexes are covered. Suicide among the religions is briefly discussed, and interestingly the Bible says little on the subject except that several people from Saul to Judas committed suicide without much backlash. When and how did suicide become a sin is discussed as well as how religion plays a role in the act –a religious couple dies together so they can go to a better place together.

Bering provides a detailed and informative study of suicide. Having thought of taking his own life, he is in a unique position to offer opinion and insight. Suicidal is a societal and theoretical look at suicide rather than a clinical study.  Despite the subject matter, it is not a depressing read, but rather informative. One cannot help but wonder how taking man out of the wild and creating civilization might have been the genesis of suicide.

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Book Review — Metaphysical Graffiti: Rock’s Most Mind-Bending Questions

Metaphysical Graffiti: Rock’s Most Mind-Bending Questions by Seth Kaufman is a light look at rock music and bands. Kaufman is a recovering musician Seth Kaufman grew up overseas, in Kenya and India, the son of a foreign correspondent. He ran a popular online music store where he sold so many copies of Kenny G records he should be tried at The Hague. Kaufman’s own biography sets the tone for the book.

Well, I disagree quite a bit with Kaufman throughout the book, but his manner is not mean or without a good laugh. He opens with probably the most asked question in rock — Beatles or Stones? A lengthy discussion, with the option of it being a trick question and the real answer is Led Zeppelin, ends in — we like what we are brought up with his choice. That was when I knew I would agree with him, but having a beer was with him was definitely an option. He did put the nail in his own coffin with his Billy Joel chapter, but I did get his point.

A variety of topics are covered including air guitar and the Grateful Dead neither of which I gave much thought to throughout my life. On the subject of covers how can one not mention Janis Joplin’s cover of “Me and Bobby McGee” or Elvis Costello’s cover of “Peace, Love, and Understanding.” Under “Does Rush Suck,” Laufman makes a lot of good points. On the topic of drummers is a fun list of jokes and musings.

Kaufman gives a good mixture of praise and condemnation of some of rocks biggest names. No one will walk away in 100% agreement or 100% discord. He offers enough for the reader to agree with and just enough bad to get under your skin. This is a book that the reader will love and hate and thoroughly enjoy.

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Book Review — Best Small Fictions 2018

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Best Small Fictions 2018 is the fourth annual anthology of small fictions.  The series editor is Sherrie Flick. Flick is the author of the novel Reconsidering Happiness (University of Nebraska Press), the flash fiction chapbook I Call This Flirting (Flume Press), and two short story collections with Autumn House Press: Whiskey, Etc. (2016) and Thank Your Lucky Stars (Fall 2018). Her nonfiction has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Creative Nonfiction, Pittsburgh Quarterly, and Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. The guest editor is Aimee Bender. Bender is the author of five books: The Girl in the Flammable Skirt (1998) which was a NY Times Notable Book, An Invisible Sign of My Own (2000) which was an L.A. Times pick of the year, Willful Creatures(2005) which was nominated by The Believer as one of the best books of the year.

This is the fourth collection of small fictions in the series and the first without founder Tara Masih.  I have been lucky enough to review the first three editions and honored to be asked to continue with the fourth edition.  The tradition of great small fictions continues in the 2018 edition.  Opening the collection is Kathy Fish, perhaps the godmother of small fictions. Her “Collective Nouns for Humans in the Wild” is poem-like and assigns new collective nouns for groups of humans.  There is an “enlightenment” of librarians, and a “raft” of social workers, a “grace” of hospice workers, and her list continues.  Once the reader is locked into the feel-good nature of the work, it quickly changes in assigning new and time appropriate names the innocent of our society.  Bud Smith follows up with an almost an inverse of Animal Farm with wolves adapting to urban sprawl in story “Wolves.”

The collection provides a great variety of subjects and morals.  Audra Kerr Brown’s “The Way of the Woods” shows how we make alternative realities to hide what is truly gruesome.  Ashley Hutson’s “I Will Use This Story to Tell Another Story” follows a crowd on the shore watching a man and dog drown and what actions they each take.  A very modern and honestly cynical portrayal of what is done and what could be done, and what is done.  Steven Dunn’s “Happy Little Trees” strikes one as weird during the first read but perhaps is meant to distinguish between talent and supplies.  Eric Blix reintroduced me to triptych in his contribution for the second time this week and the second time since Catholic grade school.

Denise Tolan’s “Because You are Dead” is a touching story of the loss and remembrance. Likewise, Jessica Walker’s “Ex-Utero” describes a different kind of loss.   The series ends with Gwen E. Kirby’s “Shit Cassandra Saw That She Didn’t Tell the Trojans Because at that Point Fuck Them Anyway.”  Although a bit darkly ironic in the Cassandra story, there is one prediction of the future that makes her smile as she is being ripped away from the temple of Athena. The future of Trojan will be far different than anyone then could imagine.

The 2018 edition of Best Small Fictions lives up to the standard of the previous versions.  There is a different feeling in this edition in the number and kind of narratives presented.  There are various animals portrayed in stories and human babies too, alive and dead.  Settings from a volcano to the Trojan War all have a place in this year’s collection. Fifty-one authors present fifty-three of the best small fictions of 2018. A wide-ranging and very well written collection of this year’s best of small fiction.

Comming soon

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