Coding, swimming, biergarten, chocolate

A really nice day. I worked on my game nearly all day and the time just flew. I’m feeling deeply obsessed! Danny is obsessed with Lisp and Scheme so we are just quietly muttering to ourselves like toddlers doing parallel play.

Yatima took me swimming at the JCC and I did some real laps. First time in a long time too. It’s good going with someone else, it’s just more motivating and feels like nice social time rather than a boring lonely chore. The JCC is pretty nice, especially the locker room which has a sauna and steam room. I steamed, then saunaed. Sauna is my favorite, getting into a sort of dead horse pose with my legs going up the wall, feels great on my ankles.

Then Danny and I went off to Biergarten to hang out with friends and I let all the kids (maybe 8-11 year olds? ) try my powerchair and they were all taking turns zooming around (the bold ones) or cautiously spinning on speed 1 (the shyer ones) It’s fun to see how their faces light up and they are like OMG I’M DRIVING! I’M A ROBOT! WHEEEEE! at 4 miles an hour, which is pretty much how I feel in the chair as well. They were going around the little park there on Octavia and even took it over to get ice cream. Anyway, I thought it was super fun (always have) and it is sort of normalizing disability & mobility stuff and they’re not going to harm anything… they were reasonably cautious and didn’t run anyone over. Really… is there anything nicer than the feeling of indulging children, especially when it is a crowd of benevolent adults looking on all sharing that feeling.

Then Cory taught me a 1 minute physical therapy exercise to detach your nerve fibers from the fascia or something like that, sounds great, fucking bring it because my leg nerve is horrible. Fuck a fascia, fuck a leg nerve, fuck a sciatica, etc. Also every tendon. So we did a weird little leg kicking ankle flexing dance sitting on the picnic table with me going Ow! fuck! ow!!!!! and then notching down my flexing ambitions even for the 1 minute thing. I will be giving it a try (adding it to my pantheon of other one minute exercises which I can invoke while feeling restless or painful). Cannot tell if it just helped or if the buzzing feeling now is OMINOUS and means doom. Always hard to correlate but time will tell.

Home again to deeply contemplate how I can modify the “implicitly pass through other barriers rule” so that my wheelchairs and elevators in the game work together correctly. Danny is in the process of maybe realizing that using gnu stow may do what he was about to write in Lisp. He sounds a little sad about this.

On the bus on the way home I was chatting with a guy in the front of the bus with me (also in a powerchair) and we were like both eyeing each others gear. He and his friend were from Ireland. Then he was like do you like chocolate? Being kind of high (I wasn’t while I was at the bar, but then, figured why not make the bus ride more tolerable…Vape in my pocket…. what the heck) I was like “Oh ummm well yeah, why, is my face covered in ice cream because I was actually just eating chocolate ice cream”. No it was not but he gave me a fancy chocolate bar from Dandelion. As pickup lines go this is a pretty good one and I did not know how to refuse the badass chocolate bar. I mean. Also, he complimented my sexy wheels and told me to share the chocolate with someone I love and I was like Um like maybe my husband who is sitting right there LOL. Now I have this awesome chocolate and we need to be friends but I was too stoned to do anything clever like exchange social media names or whatever, instead, staring at the chocolate bar like a doofus and mumbling. The end!

Oh but one more thing. This flyer from yesterday’ event for Public Domain Day at the Internet Archive, of things created in 1923 newly (re)entering the public domain. It’s a nicely printed large yellow poster or broadsheet by queer.archive.work, with a photo of a sculpture by Nancy Elizabeth Prophet, with a poem by Jean Toomer handwritten over it:

Within this black hive to-night
There swarm a million bees;
Bees passing in and out the moon,
Bees escaping out the moon,
Bees returning through the moon,
Silver bees intently buzzing,
Silver honey dripping from the swarm of bees
Earth is a waxen cell of the world comb,
And I, a drone,
Lying on my back,
Lipping honey,
Getting drunk with that silver honey,
Wish that I might fly out past the moon
And curl forever in some far-off farmyard flower.

I have that book somewhere. It’s a good one!

Random encounter – Yeats and the City

Today’s random encounter. I was in a work meeting and noticed a man with a clipboard examining my house and the neighbors’. Figuring this was about our neighbors whose fence was falling over last week because their goats (!) were climbing up it, after the meeting I popped out to ask if he needed anything. The goat fence is now repaired but with a forbidding row of nails facing outward which turns out to be against city codes because if firefighters need to climb the fence it’s dangerous for them, not to mention if there were an earthquake and the fence fell over someone on the sidewalk could be impaled by a row of giant nails. We gossiped a bit about everyone’s fences and I got out my laptop for him to figure out the addresses for the neighbors (whose official addresses are on the street behind). In the process we figured out that his name is O’Brien, my partners’ name is O’Brien, and the neighbor immediately to the east is also an O’Brien.

He said there was a joke there to which I replied (I believe correctly) that we were all descended from kings. Underneath his clipboard drawing of the houses and streets we then had a spontaneously drawn map of Ireland showing County Clare, the river Shannon, O’Brien castle where he used to play as a child and nearby Thomond, and so on. Built in the 16th century (I cannot figure out now which castle this would be – O’Brien Tower was 1835), some discussion of history, were they all involved in the Troubles, the continuing Troubles touched on lightly…. Proud rebels… Then I mentioned that I had been to Sligo in the 80s and he said he had plans to go there to see some Yeats things and about his grave. Oh to be sure! I have been there!

FINALLY my useless knowledge became useful in life as I was able to quote, “Under bare Ben Bulben’s head / In Drumcliffe churchyard Yeats is laid” and could not remember the middle but as I floundered, my new City Inspector friend/relative by marriage finished it off with “Cast a cold eye / on life, on death / Horseman, pass by!

Really…. I just love people!

Poetry for the People – free class at City College SF

My friend is teaching a class at City College this coming semester! Poetry for the People! Free! There are still spots open for the class and the deadline to sign up is Wednesday. There will be some translation practice in the class, which I highly recommend – it’s fun and mindblowing to do! Tehmina has also taught with the Poetry Inside Out program which brings translation workshops to schools. Don’t miss this cool class,

Immerse yourself in the power of poetry!
Poetry for the People at CCSF
with poet Tehmina Khan

We will read from global poetic traditions, practice literary translation, write our own poems, and take poetry beyond the classroom.

Tuesday Evenings from 6:10 – 9:00
CRN 36653
Ocean Campus, Batmale 203
(January 15 – May 19)
Free for San Francisco Residents
Register at https://ccsf.edu

For more info, please contact Tehmina at tkhan@ccsf.edu
More description here as well, https://www.ccsf.edu/Schedule/CD/IDST%2036.htm

Fiction about kids who write poetry

Found this in my old drafts folder from …. well, more than 10 years ago! I clearly meant to expand on these thoughts with examples from the books but never got it together. Fun anyway though!

>>>>>

I re-read The Boyhood of Grace Jones the other day and loved it for its mid 20th century genderqueer “tomboy” protagonist, but most of all for her surety that she could choose and make herself. All the kids and adults around her were clueless, insisting that there was a binary choice between heredity and environment – every aspect of a person was controlled by those factors. Grace Jones insisted there was another thing everyone had inside that let them create themselves how they wanted to be! I loved that.

I owe several posts on ETech and SXSWi and SexTech, but I’m going to write about this first!

Grace Jones goes through a lot, but her most intense realization comes when she writes a couple of poems and then doesn’t know what to do next. She is stunned by the realization that these big ideas were in her and she was able to put them out. Then what! Children don’t have much outlet for big ideas or poetry. I found myself contrasting Grace’s, and Anastasia Krupnik’s, fictional-character poems with the ones from girls’ books from earlier generations, like Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm’s poem she gives to Mr. Ladd (Spoiler: she grows up and marries him.) It is very twee and is sort of about God, and she breathlessly awaits his judgment of whether she could be a “real writer” someday. That happens a lot in girls’ books, doesn’t it?

Note from 2018: Not sure I was remembering this correctly – Rebecca shows her poem to Miss Maxwell first –

This ingenuous remark confirmed Miss Maxwell’s opinion of Rebecca as a girl who could hear the truth and profit by it.

“Well, my child,” she said smilingly, “your friends were wrong and you were right; judged by the proper tests, they are pretty bad.”

“Then I must give up all hope of ever being a writer!” sighed Rebecca, who was tasting the bitterness of hemlock and wondering if she could keep the tears back until the interview was over.

“Don’t go so fast,” interrupted Miss Maxwell. “Though they don’t amount to anything as poetry, they show a good deal of promise in certain directions. You almost never make a mistake in rhyme or metre, and this shows you have a natural sense of what is right; a ‘sense of form,’ poets would call it. When you grow older, have a little more experience,—in fact, when you have something to say, I think you may write very good verses. Poetry needs knowledge and vision, experience and imagination, Rebecca. You have not the first three yet, but I rather think you have a touch of the last.”

“Must I never try any more poetry, not even to amuse myself?”

“Certainly you may; it will only help you to write better prose.

I could only find this bit of Rebecca’s poem:

Then come what will of weal or woe
(Since all gold hath alloy),
Thou ‘lt bloom unwithered in this heart,
My Rose of Joy!

Maybe the scene with Mr. Ladd is in the sequel, which I also remember being mostly about Rebecca agonizing about whether she could ever be a “real writer”.

Laura Ingalls’ poem, on a more frivolous note, but one that shows Laura’s realization of the dangers of verse composition for a popular audience:

Going to school is lots of fun,
From laughing we have gained a ton,
We laugh until we have a pain,
At Lazy, Lousy, Lizy Jane.

I don’t have Grace Jones’s poems handy but remember her reciting Kubla Khan to herself.

Remembering Louise Fitzhugh’s wonderful character, Harriet the Spy’s poem experience as she goes through every letter of the alphabet trying to find words to rhyme with “pain”. Her thought process during this poem was just amazing to me (when I was a kid who thought similarly) and I love her.

And finally, Anastasia Krupnik’s poem. (Which I also don’t have handy but which I recall being in all lower case and about undersea creatures and just a little embarrassing, but good)

Anastasia notably falls off the top of the rope climbing thing in gym class & breaks her arm while triumphantly reciting a poem by Edna St. Vincent Millay. (O world! I could not hold thee close enough!) Her dad is a poet and professor and a kind of cool, dorky dude. We get an updated version of the old scene of a nervous girl clutching sheaf of poems to her chest as she hands them to the newspaper editor. Anastasia explains to him in outrage how she practiced her poem and read it very fancily to her class and teacher, who didn’t get it. He’s supportive and proud! But the best thing about the scene is that Anastasia is already sure that she did something amazing.

I think it is interesting to consider poetics, and writing, as an important point of resistance to patriarchy, especially for young girls and women. There are just a zillion other examples of women writing about young girls and young women who are trying out being a writer, and what other people tell them, and how they react…. Surely there are also a ton of academic papers about this!

Specificity in poems and songs

Rambling a bit about songs. The other day someone giggled when I referred to a “mix tape” and I barely even meant “mix CD”, I believe it was a constructed playlist that I’d made. But in my mind and language a personally edited collection of music will always be a mix tape, probably made clunkily from breathless moments trying to catch the beginning of a song from the radio to cassette tape (on a modern gramophone or victrola) without getting a DJ talking, and maybe going from that tape to a second tape for even worse quality sound.

I was thinking about how it is disconcerting in songs when there is a very specific reference clearly personal to the singer. I’ll be happily singing along, or adding the song to a MIX TAPE meant to convey a mood, and then I get jarred by the singer’s reference to their friends or girlfriend or some private joke of the band’s. Sometimes I just edit it out mentally, bracketing the specifics that I will never know about and trying to see it as a charming instance of the mood of the song.

It is a bit like the iconic quality of comics or images that Scott McCloud describes in Understanding Comics. The more generic the image of a person, the easier it is for us to imagine ourselves into that artwork, in some ways. We might encounter the specifics as alienating or difficult as readers or listeners.

Sometimes I like the specifics and sometimes I edit them out when reading or listening. Or when writing.

Other times these details are the entire point especially if that point is the unknowability of the details of another person’s experience. Or, if part of the point is to make you wonder and work to figure those details out, to find them out.

This year I am aiming to put my old poetry books and anthologies from 10-20 years ago up as ebooks or reprint them in paperback. A few of them are up already. The one that led me down this path of thought is Woodbird Jazzophone, which is basically me from 2003 or so rambling in a notebook about lying in a forest meadow watching the birds at a sort of poets’ retreat in a beautiful redwood cabin somewhere probably in Marin. I re-printed it without re-reading it closely, but it does have some obscure specifics that will never merit footnotes – about the history of the cabin that one of the neighbors in the woods explained. Even when I can’t remember those details, I remember the mood of that time.

Echoes in the poem that would not be immediately apparent – I spent long hours wrapped up in blankets on the front porch, in a lot of pain, watching the fog come off the redwoods in the Santa Cruz mountains some years before that, and watching acorn woodpeckers fly around putting acorns into holes in the trees. They share their caches of acorns, pretty cool cooperative birds. I couldn’t get around very well, and the sound of the neighborhood, birds waking up in the grey morning, people in cars leaving for school and commute, acorns and jays and hawks doing their thing, then cars coming back as people came home. It was an entertaining part of the day, a soundscape to go with the lightscape. I was thinking of those times and the good but bitter memories that can come from physical impairments and pain. Another echo from the woodpeckers goes back to my happy years in cooperative housing. I don’t think any of that would be apparent in the poem, which comes off like someone rambling free form about an afternoon in the woods.

The song earworming me as I write this is Always Give Your Love Away by Twang Twang Shock-a-Boom, an Austin band from the late 80s/early 90s that does that specificity trick pretty well. Though I think that song stays general.

Getting back on the horse

Not heroin but blogging more rather than leaning on Facebook and Slack for all my casual writing, diary, and conversation online. Never mind maneuvers, blog straight at em. The other thing stopping me is a totally mundane task to twiddle the theme of this blog and restore all the images which were lost in a previous theme change early in 2017. Somehow, there is never time!

I started off the holiday break at the end of 2017 working over my vacation. Then spent a few days speed-publishing part of my book backlog to ebook formats, starting with very tiny poetry books from 2000 to about 2005, firing up my most recent press/imprint, Burn This Press. There are more coming – both more tiny books and bigger books and anthologies that didn’t have a wide distribution and never made it to a digital format.

Many other ambitions like traveling for a vacation, or visiting every museum in the San Francisco Bay Area, were shelved for when I feel more mobile and have less pressure at work. I still did some fun things in December though!

Among them, 2 christmases: Fakemas which we hold before the actual holiday, since both kids tend to go on trips to or with other family for Dec. 25. And then actual Christmas with my sister’s family.

Here’s a cute picture of Milo home from university and putting ornaments on our tiny, tiny tree — against a background of bookshelves! It’s on a small end table that’s a solid, heavy tree stump carved and painted to look like a pile of giant books.

putting ornaments on the tree

Background reading for poeting

Leisurely reading in progress of Rilke’s book about Rodin, to fill my mind with good context for some poems I’m writing about Alice Sheppard and Laurel Lawson’s dance piece, Descent from Beauty. Also in the works: Ovid (for Andromeda’s story), the Homeric Hymns to Aphrodite, and a visit to Stanford’s Rodin sculpture garden. I haven’t been there for years and always seem to be sick when the peninsula poets go at midsummer for a reading at the Gates of Hell in that garden.

I have much more to say about the version that I saw of this performance (work in progress seen earlier this year in San Francisco)!
Rilke’s glorious bullshit on Rodin’s use of gesture,

Movement has cast off sleep and is gathering force; right on the top, on th eapex of the brain where there is solitude, it prepares for its task, the task of centuries, limitless and without end. And in the right foot the first step waits.

One might describe this movement by saying that it rests enclosed in a tight bud. Let thought be set on fire, let the will be swept by tempest, and it will open.

This reminds me of two things immediately, one, my poem “The Envoy” about the envoy taking her first step from the spaceship (vaguely rewriting/regendering Genly Ai). Trying to capture the infinities in the first step’s motion as I think about the motion of walking, which I’m very familiar with from years of on and off bouts of rehab where you re-learn to do your gait correctly after limping, the step for mankind on the Moon, and the step that is still to come (for those of us who are not quite included in “mankind”).

The second thing is the irreverent “science fiction tai chi/qi gong” moves I was making up the other night as I explained to Danny how much nicer the senior tai chi class is when the moves have some imaginative language to go with them. Blue dragon, green dragon, picking a pepper, eat the pepper, oh it’s hot, dragon shakes its tail. I don’t have any clue whether this is something people make up on the spot or whether it is an age old tradition but in the privacy of one’s bedroom it is fun to open the pod bay doors, launch, extend your solar panels and turn them to the sun, enter geosynchronous orbit, the spice must flow, and so on. I recommend this practice for your amusement.

 

(Background reading for poeting
originally Posted on March 21, 2017 by Liz Henry – pics lost but restoring slowly from backup)

 

 

Rebecca West kick, and some poetry

In the last week or so I’ve read a lot of novels by Rebecca West. I tried to read her nonfiction about Mexico but couldn’t stomach her archness. Maybe later. But I loved The Birds Fall Down, and The Saga of the Century, enjoyed bits of Return of the Soldier (seeing the promise of Saga of the Century in it, thought it made me angry) and The Judge. There must be good biographies of Rebecca West, surely!? Her work ought to keep me going through the holidays, or lead me somewhere else just as good.

rebecca west

This morning I read a little zine or booklet from my poetry shelves called New Work by Corrina Bain. It might have come from a zine library, or from the poet if we met at a reading, or from the free box at a bookstore like the excellent poetry bookstore near Harvard with the steps and the very kind lady who brought out some boxes from the back of beautiful old “chapbooks” (a word I loathe because it sounds like chapstick, greasy and cheap, and trivializing) The poems are a little prosy for my taste (like a memoir told in verses) And there are some poems of the style of bald statements pounding one after the other to form a sort of holograph. Bain has a good sense of line breaks, so that even when I am protesting internally about the prose bits (which most people like and which speak well at poetry slams; it is only me who bridles at them…) I see her mastery of art and am pleased. The stories are of gender(queerness) and the City; the densest one is called “Uterine”. I would read more!

Nixon in China: That is your cue!

Last night I saw the opera Nixon in China and was blown away completely by its complexity and beauty and most especially for how it spoke to me as a feminist. I adore Alice Goodman‘s libretto and like to picture her fervent research and immersion process! I took notes in my lap. Her poetry is fucking awesome. It’s subtle even when she’s basically punching you in the face. Also… in general, the staging from the San Francisco Opera was gorgeous! I could go see it again and be very happy! Read on for a synopsis. Buried somewhere in there will be my reaction to Jiang Qing’s part!

The opera opens with a group of grey-coated cadres waiting for Nixon’s plane to arrive. The plane is projected on screen through mist. As the group sings The Three Main Rules of Discipline and The Eight Points of Attention, gauzy curtains lift and the mist blows away; the people become more clear, strongly declaiming “The people are the heroes now”. It was very moving. A staircase rolls up, Nixon emerges, and there is a scene of rather dull greetings and handshakes prolonged for the crew of a giant old fashioned TV camera which is wheeled around during many scene (and which I loved as a reminder of the events’ conscious political theater). Everyone goes away. Pat Nixon is doing an awesome job of faculty-wifing in her bright red dress. (Her outfits were to die for the whole time…) Did she really wear red? I want to know! It is so significant! Nixon, in “News! News!” imagines his ideal audience, his patriotic vision of small town wholesome America doing stuff while the TV shows his actions on all channels and the blue glow pours out from the curtains to the lawns and streets beyond. He recaps his important handshakes, singing passionately about history and mystery.

News has a kind of mystery;
When I shook hands with Chou En-lai
On this bare field outside Peking
Just now, the whole world was listening.

Then he utterly freaks out, bad-tripping with the brilliant “The rats begin to chew the sheets!” bit where surly, scruffy reporters give him bad press. Oh noes! Nixon! Don’t get all paranoid now! The rats song is extremely catchy.

The scene changes to Mao’s living room where he is attended by a bunch of people, three secretaries who take notes on (& echo) his every word, and Zhou En-Lai. Kissinger and Nixon come in. Nixon totally fails to understand any of the cryptic things Mao says but tries to clumsily work in some references to Chinese culture and history. There is a brief interlude where Pat and Dick are in maybe her dressing room getting ready for the upcoming banquet. She gets in a lot of “yes, dear” but also her theme of “more snow before the spring” begins to develop. Then a fabulous operatic drinking song sequence set at a dull state banquet. There is a good interplay between Nixon and Pat as he sings “I was wrong” and she does a smug little 50’s wifely chortle. I loved the waiters coming in and out (and often stopping to listen to the speeches) and the use of the airplane jetway (modified) for the ridiculously tall podium. The scene and act end with people dancing on the tables. Gambei!! Cheers!!! I love a jolly drinking scene! I wished my son were there to see the choreography of the crowd!

In Act II Pat Nixon gets a lot of further development. She tours Beijing — gets a glass elephant, pets a pig, admires children at play. “It’s Christmas every day!”, she sings, and I thought “A lot of women got ECT trying to achieve your ideal womanhood, and failed”. Pat then happily suggests a picnic in a beautiful park. That last bit was one of my favorite moments of the opera as Pat admires the park (maybe meant to be the Summer Palace?) and the cadres with her fall silent. They react quite badly to her burbling; they describe the oppression that created that beauty. When they see this aesthetic landscape they see graves, starvation, torment. “It’s almost like you knew them” Pat falters. She doesn’t get it. She is sincere but terribly innocent & clueless. She doesn’t understand why they want to dwell on negative things, why they are harsh, upset, angry; why they are so steely. She doesn’t understand why their revolution needs defending, and that they are still in a war and for many good reasons. This scene had me wanting to stand up and cheer.

Pat Nixon sings a long solo aria about how this visit is prophetic. Or maybe it was the snow falling and then clearing. I loved this solo and thought the singer was amazing. A projection of her face was superimposed on a backdrop of waving U.S. flags; I was so grateful to be able to see the details of her perfect acting & emotion. I felt inspired with real respect for the real-world Pat Nixon and her wisdom, insight, delicacy.

Then we cut to a staged performance of Jiang Qing’s version of The Red Detachment of Women. I love that this opera shows her as fierce and uncompromising, shows her attraction rather than simplifying her as a villain. Anyway, we get this completely amazing Hating Tyranny ballet interlude in which a young beautiful peasant girl is being raped and beaten to death by tyrants and foreign oppressors. Very movingly danced. Suddenly Kissinger leaps up from the on-stage audience of diplomats and becomes one of the characters who is raping and whipping the girl (Ching-hua). Now while I am not sure what is going on there I liked that it was blurring the line of art and spectacle with participation in oppression and that the lines of real and play broke down. (Meanwhile I was having other meta-ish thoughts about how many stories I have read in which the real action took place during an opera but in the boxes of the important people… above our heads.) I thought during the first part of the ballet, of the ways in which revolutions including mine want to make art about the experience of oppression from the oppressed’s point of view. And how that is sneered at aesthetically by the dominant culture.

Then, from the stage-audience, Pat Nixon freaks out and tries to save Ching-hua, held back by Nixon. Oh, tender white woman’s tears! Then there was a point where the soldier guy ballet-marches up all sprightly and fresh to save her. I kept thinking, and then fiercely muttering, “Give her the gun. GIVE HER THE GUN. He’s NOT GOING TO GIVE HER THE GUN. Oh my god. FUCK. TAKE THE GUN” knowing that in these things I always mutter that — and she never gets the gun! Instead they dance a romantic little duet which made me want to spit in frustration! Oh! Take the gun, sister! Though I do love the happy-wheelbarrows-rah-rah elements in this bit and others.

Then this, Ching-hua’s song though i think it was sung by a chorus. I scribbled down the bit about the silent gun warms in my hand salving the wound made by man, and looked it up, so here:

It seems so strange
To take revenge
After so long
To find the wrong
Can be undone.
The silent gun
Warms in my hand
Salving the wound
Made by the men
It will gun down
All in good time
I shall kill them
Yes, every one
Revenge is mine.

Yeah!!! You can imagine that gave me shivers.

Now at this point my memory is jumbled as there was a scene of Jiang pressing the gun on Ching-hua (who is hanging out with the new crop of foreign oppressors now) and screaming THAT IS YOUR CUE, looking disappointed Ching-hua does not shoot. She is singing “THAT IS YOUR CUE!” to Ching-hua in frustration. I can’t remember if Jiang or Ching-hua finally shot the cringing rapist foreign oppressor (Kissinger in Mandarin costume). As I looked it up from previous stagings, they seemed quite different from what I remember! I think the San Francisco director did something very interesting! I’d like to see it again or in video. But for me it was amazing either way. Jiang stomping and strutting around so bravely and fiercely! Popping up in her handsome tailored suit like a projection from my own News! News! images of myself that I carry! I raise the weak above the strong! Okay, so, someone shot the rapist and then the Cultural Revolution was ballet danced while Jiang shakes her fist at the world and screams THE BOOK THE BOOK THE BOOK and I thought grim terrible self criticisms of my love of texts and the pitfalls of vengeance and power. (Muttering meanwhile, “Goddammit… fuck this… fuck The Book… Write my own fucking book…. “) Let me be a grain of sand! Every girl is a riot grrrl! Kill rock stars! Either way, it is a criticism of personal vengeance, which is so relevant to criticisms of Jiang… I would also like to say that when Jiang gave her the gun, I noticed a woman in front of me a few rows who had funny colored hair and was with someone my age with dreadlocks, cheered out loud and Danny says I did too. At the opera’s end the singer who played Jiang got a huge cheer from the women in the audience – it was very markedly us cheering her… Which was interesting.

I am the wife of Mao Tse-tung Who raised the weak above the strong When I appear the people hang
Upon my words, and for his sake
Whose wreaths are heavy round my neck
I speak according to the book.
When did the Chinese people last
Expose its daughters? At the breast
Of history I sucked and pissed,
Thoughtless and heartless, red and blind,
I cut my teeth upon the land
And when I walked my feet were bound
On revolution. Let me be
A grain of sand in heaven’s eye
and I shall taste eternal joy.

Food for thought there. I will continue thinking about what Alice Goodman meant in Jiang’s aria. I get that Jiang’s defense of herself at trial was that she was Mao’s dog executing his orders (or his book) But I think Goodman means more in a sort of simulteneity of ways Jiang may have seen herself and her works. As the opera is about a brief event, but stretches backwards and forwards in time and history and the future over an holistic geography; and also how its characters speak about particular things but with the librettist’s knowledge that the audience is listening in a particular way with their own knowledge — I think that much of this is about gender and women as well as Vietnam. That is to say that is what Goodman projects to be in the mind of the audience’s viewing. We don’t have to hear “Vietnam” (though we do, once) to know it is simmering in the audience’s mind as the characters sing about war and peace, as Nixon reminisces about his wartime near-death experiences and ecstasies. Best time of his life, war, but not the best time of the war right then or the war scarred listeners when the opera was written (and not in our minds either today.) Similiarly, Goodman is speaking through Pat Nixon and Jiang to the women in the audience in a way I rarely experience in any performed artwork. It was as if the opera passed the Bechdel test on some meta level. I found that satisfying yet tantalizing. Obviously the Bechdel-test-passing fanfic scene between Pat and Jiang with the secretaries in chorus still needs to be written.

I cannot remember where in the sequence of the opera there was the “burn the books” scene but it was when Nixon says (so awkwardly! so embarrassing!) “Confucius!” and Mao is like “NO!!!” and giant scrolls come down from the ceiling. We get a Koyanisqatsii sort of projectsion of bustling cityscape with neon and traffic projected onto those now-veiled scrolls which become skyscrapers as Mao speaks. I wished he (Mao) could see the present. I have also left out how much I enjoyed Nixon’s singing loudly and jovially about telecommunications satellites! That was beautiful.

About the music, I’m not the world’s biggest music critic, but I like it. A lot of bits remind me of Phillip Glass. Some of the songs are melodic and singable and catchy, while some wander around in the way opera dialogue often does. I had many moments of awe and wonder, thinking not only “this is what poetry is *for*” but also being in awe that what I was hearing was made of human voices. Truly amazing. I love the long contemplative arc of opera and the long thoughts I have during it.

During the third act the two couples reminisce about the trip and their lives in general. Pat gets in a lot more wifely Stepford agreements to Nixon’s rambling about the war with barbed intelligence behind it but some ambiguous bits on how when she read his letters she was doing her hair or cooking some chicken. I interpreted that as part commentary on her bougie-ness but partly her own frustration or criticism of being relegated to that realm of life, the domestic “trivialities” she rejects in Act Two, reading Dick’s letters from the Pacific Theatre. She seems touchingly aware of his PTSD, his being damaged by the war, in a way he isn’t able to know or articulate. Mao and Jiang talk over their lives interspersed with Pat and Dick, with the stage a pastiche of the events and scenes of the opera and their Chinese and U.S. landscapes, memory and present — present as in 1972 but I am pretty sure some of the projected scenes were of times afterward. Mao is tired. Jiang is still jumping around fiercely full of energy and sureness. He thinks the revolution is over and was for boys. (Boys!!) Jiang is like, “No! The revolution will not end!” Or maybe “must not end”. Both the Nixons’ and Mao and JIang’s interchanges are of failed communication. They completely fail to hear each other across gender, just as Mao and Nixon missed communication — and yet in both those situations, something happened and some relationship is possible.

Chou En-lai gets a great pensive monologue at the end. He has been stalking gravely about the stage during all the more florid action of the opera, thoughtful and alert. Now he emerges and steps forward as the future. He is the one who now will frame events. He frets and is a bit neurotic in a good way. How much of what we did was good? (A good companion question to the classic one of “What is to be done?” By having Chou ask this question for this visit as well as for all the events before and after it — we meaning all the characters in the play — Goodman is carefully asserting that SOME of what was done was good, is not buying into a total rejection of either the U.S.’s actions, China’s in general, or the Cultural Revolution. I appreciate that complexity.

Unruly Islands will blow your mind, so buy it

If you don’t really like poetry because it usually sucks and is embarrassing, buy my latest book of poems, Unruly Islands. Buy some extra copies for your friends and one for your giant robot. It goes well in hackerspaces! Poems about the moon landing, modem noises, the dotcom crash, seasteading, surly teenage embezzlers, San Francisco alternate future geographies, and the history of utopianism from the Whole Earth Catalog through Riot Grrrl to Burning Man.

Also fits perfectly into your #Occupy library tent! Or — donate one to your local library for mega subversive pleasure!

Buy Unruly Islands from Aqueduct Press directly if you like supporting small, incredibly intellectual feminist science fiction publishers. Or buy Unruly Islands Amazon.com. it’s $12.00 and 96 pages of a weird trip through my brain.

The book has a gorgeous cover by an artist and hacker I met at Noisebridge, Meredith Scheff aka ladycartoonist.

Book cover for Unruly Islands

Here’s the book description and fabulous blurbs.

Unruly Islands collects 36 poems suffused with science fiction, revolution, and digital life on the edge.

Annalee Newitz, editor of i09, says of the collection: ”Liz Henry’s poetry is always moving, funny, and weird, regardless of whether she’s flying us on a rocketship through a science-fictional social revolution or telling us a wry story about being an adolescent embezzler. This collection is like a monster cyborg mashup of Walt Whitman, Joanna Russ, and the internet. Which is to say: Fuck yeah!”

Daphne Gottlieb, author of 15 Ways to Stay Alive, Why Things Burn, and Final Girl, writes: ”With all the awe and shiny of Barbarella, the breathless curiosity of Robert Hayden’s American Journal, and the dismal, too-real fluorescent sheen of the corner store, Liz Henry takes the world (and the otherword) and makes it ours in all of its signal and noise, its glorious classwar and cussmouth. She takes the unknowable along with the familiar and shows us how, incontrovertibly, the future is here, and the future is us.”

And Maureen Owen, author of Imaginary Income and Zombie Notes, observes, ”Liz Henry’s protean, phantasmagorical images slingshot us out and boomerang us back simultaneously over multiple plains in all directions. Immediate, futuristic, subliminal. An intimate, wild ride through a surrealistic mind field.”

Photo of Liz Henry

I’ll be reading this month in San Francisco at Writers With Drinks on May 12, Red Hill Books in Bernal Heights May 18, and at the feminist science fiction convention in Madiscon, Wisconsin, WisCon later in May.