Saturday, January 19, 2013

Bad Man, Good Dog

My dog, Buju, in 2010. Photo by Patrick Manning.

~Abandon hope all ye dog-haters who enter this post.~

Dogs have been an extraordinarily momentous force in the lives of humans since we lived in caves. As hunting partners, as lookouts, and as stoic companions, dogs have offered people throughout the ages a special brand of love and attention. As a result, dogs have found a their way into art and literature quite frequently.

In literature, it makes sense that dogs appear as friends (and much less frequently as adversaries) for the novelistic hero and antihero alike. The relationship between a dog and a person is almost universal; because dogs "speak" the same language anywhere, it is possible to translate the relationships characters have with dogs across practically any cultural boundary.

From Argos in Homer's Odyssey to Tock of The Phantom Tollbooth, dogs have been written as utterly loyal friends for their human counterparts, even when the journey proves to be harrowing. But what's more is that dogs will remain loyal to us even when we are wholly undeserving of a dog's silent, reassuring gaze.

Lost World by Patrícia Melo. 2009. 
Patrícia Melo, a contemporary Brazilian author, writes about a relationship between her antihero, Máiquel, and a street dog, amid darkness and violence in her book Lost World. A sequel to her wildly popular The Killer (a novel which has been adapted for the cinema as Man of the Year), the narrative of Lost World follows Máiquel's relentless and coldblooded footsteps as he searches for an ex-girlfriend and the pastor who took her under his wing, so that he can murder them both.

Máiquel's tragedy begins in the first book, The Killer, where he is manipulated by wealthy and corrupt personages of his neighborhood in São Paulo and turned into a contract killer, used to "clean up" the "crime" of the neighborhood's streets. Soon Máiquel goes from being an anonymous guy with a crappy job to a morally bankrupt murderer. In Lost World, Máiquel is a fugitive, a detective, and an impulsive killer attempting to recover the "lost world" of his life before he became a monster.

Along the way, Máiquel hits a dog with his car. The killer is stunned--he feels instant remorse and rushes to save the dog's life. He nurses the dog back to health and names him Tiger. Máiquel decides that the dog is really just an old hippie who took too much acid and turned himself into a dog, humanizing his canine friend.

Tiger silently and without judgement makes his master aware of the barbaric nature of the journey they're on, and that the likely outcomes of such a journey can only be darkness or death. Nevertheless, Tiger remains with the killer, the animal acting as the last thing on earth capable of humanizing Máiquel.

"Look here, you old hippie, I told Tiger, today you're going to suffer. You're going to walk a lot. You're going to get a lot of sun. You're going to see a lot of ugly things. But there's no choice. I can't leave you..."

There is an honesty and a certain tenderness in the way Máiquel relates to this once-stray dog (with whom he seems to have much in common). Tiger doesn't have to "save" his master, he simply needs accompany him, farting and vomiting everywhere they go. The dog's company is the last thread of love in the world to which Máiquel can cling.

Walkin the Dog by Walter Mosely. 1999.
Although Máiquel may consider himself too far gone for salvation, other "bad men" seek the company of feeble dogs on their road to restitution. In Walter Mosley's book Walkin the Dog, Socrates Fortlow is an ex-con living in the infamous Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles. He is constantly harassed by the law and criminals alike, tempting him to return to a violent life he wishes to be rid of after years in prison. He holds down a job at a supermarket and cares for a two-legged dog he's named Killer.

He saved the dog when its back legs were crushed, and the dog's presence in his dingy apartment gives Socrates a reason to go to work in the morning and return home every night. "When he got home Killer was so sick that he couldn't propel himself on his halter to greet his master. ... He took the dog back to the veterinarian who ... told him that he would have to put the dog in a hospital where he'd have to undergo an operation. Socrates had never heard of an animal being operated on but he trusted the doctor and cared more about that dog than he cared for most people."

So there are two literary examples of a "bad man" needing a good dog. And there are plenty more examples of this phenomenon available in novels from around the world. But--- why this combination? Why does it seem natural for sweet, fragile dogs to accompany world-worn, sometimes violent masters?

I proposed that dogs serve as witnesses to human activity. They watch us closely, with a steady, contemplative gaze, registering the range of our affections from love to hate. Without asking for protection, we give it to them, because we need someone to quietly behold our world and remember who we were in it.

Tiger and Killer don't "save" their masters, nor do they seem inclined to consciously do so. Their presence alone offers assurance that there is indeed someone present-- watching, recording, remembering their master, for better or worse.

The Call of the Wild by Jack London. 1903.
We come to think of dogs as completely dependent upon the gifts of their masters, but rarely is a dog depicted asking for protection, entertainment, or more than what it has been given during its life. Perhaps this is because we feel purpose in offering these creatures space in our lives, only expecting their gaze in return; we take comfort in our belief that if we did not pat their heads and dish out food, they would be as lost as we were without them.

Dogs are animals with aggressive instincts, a strong will to survive and a wild history. Though they are domesticated, they retain their own ways and their own world. They reflect our own inherent tension with the civilized, domesticated world... and there is always a small ember of desire, burning to return us to a life of instinct and the freedom of the wilderness. Buck, of Jack London's The Call of the Wild teaches us so much of these fettered (yet ever-present) longings to answer the "call."

Buck is the dog that reminds us how capable these animals are-- how little time it would take for them to take their lives back into their own paws and live free of the messy, self-serving whims of man.

When Buck understands the deep relationship he can have with his wild ancestors (wolves) and with man (Thorton), he does not choose one world or the other-- he is able to remain fully a part of both worlds, living fully for himself and fully for his companion--in life and death.

When a dog chooses to commit himself to witnessing a man's life, then, when he chooses to remain by the side of a "bad man," we can be all the more assured it is more for man's benefit than for the kibble the dog receives as payment.

The ears of a domestic dog will perk at sounds we cannot hear, perhaps turning in the direction of an intrinsic wildness we both long for, but only they can still hear. Their eyes record our adventures and gaze into our hearts as they silently accompany us, as sentries of our souls.

What do you think about bad men and their good dogs? Who are your favorite literary dogs?

Until next time, fair petticoat wearers--keep ruffling!

My dog, Buju. January 1, 2013. 

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Fist City

Loretta Lynn will hurt you. 

There is something about this song that is incredibly satisfying. It is self righteous and powerful, without losing a provocatively cool sweetness, yet it ultimately promises real and possibly ugly violence. In fact, the violence implied by these lyrics is palpable, becoming its own space: "fist city" is a place that you could wind up, a place where Loretta Lynn is going to "grab you by the hair 'a your head and lift you offa the ground..."

I love this song and am a big fan of Loretta Lynn. I think a major element of what makes this particular song so appealing is its ability to invoke a sense of personal power through controlled, justified violence. When we hear a song like this, watch a fight scene in a film, or read a passage in a book that happens to take place in "fist city," we become fascinated by the control with which something scary-- and unpredictable and perhaps uncontrolled-- is being portrayed to us. The feeling we get from this controlled depiction of violence is different than watching, say, an artless bar brawl, which is sloppily uncontrolled and likely not initiated under the auspices of a struggle between Good and Evil.

Growing up on kung fu movies (that my brother watched forward and backward so many times I began learning Mandarin), I have always enjoyed a good fight scene.

This clip from the movie "Kids from Shaolin" has all of the elements of a good fight scene. (How were bullies defeated before the days of Facebook? Flying kicks. Duh.) Those important elements include: an underdog who represents humility and honor, an adversary who thinks they are undefeatable, and a great amount of fighting skill--exhibited by both the bad guy and the good guy--to make it interesting.

Magda says "bring it" in Soulstring by
Midori Snyder
There are so many superb fight scenes in literature to chose from it's a little overwhelming. I immediately think of my favorite heroines, kicking ass in a whole host of different fantastic worlds.

Aerin of The Hero and the Crown (1984) was probably my first love, as I read the book as a child. Making fire-proofing kennet, slaying dragons, saving the day with her blue sword, and having the most dreamy man (Luthe--yes, I had a total crush on him) fall in love with her... I want to cheer just thinking about it!

Then there is Magda of Soulstring (1987) which I read fresh out of high school. She is a complete badass, freeing herself of the forces of an oppressive patriarch (her father), with the tender gaze of her husband --who's been turned into a stag-- to keep her company. There are so many great fight scenes in this little novel-- all of which solicit more cheers from me!

Then in college, I read Tolkien's masterpieces, The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings trilogy with their epic battle scenes, exciting in the novels and brought to life recently on the big screen.

Don Quijote/Windmill painting by
Octavio Ocampo
And finally, as I prepare to take exams this spring on Iberian Golden Age literature, I have the hilarious "fight scene" fresh in my mind between Don Quijote and those ferocious windmills: "Those are giants, and if you are afraid, turn aside and pray whilst I enter into fierce and unequal battle with them." The parody of a fight scene here is like the exception that proves the rule; here there aren't two opposing forces meeting in violence but rather a man too assured of his good will to notice it has turned into senseless aggression.

Fight scenes in literature and film seem to be reflections of our deep desire of witnessing Good prevailing over Evil. It is what makes the violence in these scenes not only tolerable but admirable. Vastly different from scenes of torture or cruelty (in which there is a sense of hopelessness and pervasive darkness), these fight scenes show the forces of oppression meeting the forces of freedom on the battlefield, and the fight itself reveals the weaknesses and strengths of both sides.

Yet these fight scenes are not purely allegorical, they are not simply a metaphor for the victory of light over darkness. If they were meant only as metaphors, then there would be no reason to take pains to write a fight scene--the battle could be a game of chess, or an argument over tea. The violence in these fight scenes is real and necessary, it does not simply point to some other meaning, it has its own meaning.

I believe that the violence of a fight scene demonstrates what, to us humans is the potential of total sacrifice (putting one's life on the line). A willingness to die--and to kill--for the benefit of others is one of the most visceral and controversial of all human instincts. That's why a fight scene is exciting-- not because it is a metaphor-- but because it is really the event in which our very mortality is subjugated by a cause.


What are your favorite fight scenes? Who do you cheer on in books, music, film? ...

Until next time-- keep the petticoats rustling!

Thursday, January 10, 2013

The Importance of Being Stylish

Hats: the spike of life.
 Photo via my Pinterest
Anja Rubick in 2010 Vogue Paris
For those of us who tend to spend most of our time behind a book and the computer screen instead of in front of a camera lens, it may seem odd, even superfluous, to concern ourselves with the composition of our outfits. For the majority of my adult life, I've found fashion to be a vapid pursuit that only succeeded in emptying one's purse for the sake of a (subjectively) pretty thing that was, above all, fleeting.

I believed that fashion photography only depicted women doing useless things like staring blankly off into the distance with her mouth hanging open, or clutching a garish handbag while balancing on insensible shoes or allowing themselves to be draped with exotic animals. To me, these photos represented a collection of tangible evidence of the stupidity and susceptibility of some women (and men). I thought fashion and the pursuit of outward style detracted from the "real" work that being done elsewhere.

Recently, however, I have completely changed my mind about how I view the art of adornment and I've come to view style as an important--if not indispensable-- element of culture.
Collegiate cuties from 1949, Wellesley College.
Life magazine, photos by Nina Leen. 
This reversal in my opinion sprung initially from a basic need for new clothes and evolved rapidly as I became ever more aware of the many details of dressing and the broader implications of fashion in art and literature.

For several years in my early 20s, I amassed a collection of drab, ill-fitting clothing that I thought I needed in order to look "professional" in my job. When I left that job to pursue a Masters degree, one of my first acts was ridding myself of all of those hideous pieces. But, alas! I was now a starving grad student living on student loans and earnings from my part-time Spanish teaching position at the university--how was I to replenish my closet?

I had never given much thought to my style and had no idea what I was going to do about my dismal clothing situation (I couldn't very well go around nude). So I did what any academic would do: I began the process of intensive research.

Initially, my objective was practical: I needed clothes fast and cheap. I began reading personal style blogs, fashion blogs, books on Western fashion history... I scoured the Internet for answers on how to get good quality clothing inexpensively. What I found surprised me.

1940s ladies' fashion
I discovered that I had been missing out on having a personal style, and that I wanted one. I also discovered I loved women's fashion from the 1930-40s and that vintage clothing was, if you knew what you were doing, far cheaper and more durable than most modern clothing. As a bonus, vintage clothing always comes with a story-- some woman before me wore these clothes while she went about, cleaning her house, attending the opera, meeting friends for tea... I wanted those stories! And I wanted the outrageous detail from past eras: hats, pin curls, gloves, brooches, dress clips, shoe clips, earrings and bangles, petticoats (!) and slips, bras that "lift and separate," bed jackets, night bonnets, fur stoles and muffs, pencil skirts, lightly puffed sleeves, handbags without cellphone holders, and oh! LIPSTICK!

1940's ad for ladies' hats - I love how
the shadow of the brims "foreshadows"
the return of the wide brim!
Photo via my Pinterest.
Since discovering the delights of vintage-hunting in thrift stores (ah the thrill of finding something truly unique and beautiful amongst a pile of cast-off, shapeless sacks!), I have begun noticing the importance of style in literature-- both the style of writing and the style each character possesses when we meet them in their world.

For me, some of the most delicious descriptions of fashion come from Raymond Chandler (perhaps because of my love of WWII-era fashion). He constructs a character by attending to the details of their outfits, while showing how they move around in their clothes. He also makes it obvious that what a character is wearing is an important part of the plot-- with their clothes, a character could be attempting to deceive or reveal themselves to Philip Marlowe (and subsequently you)...

"She was worth a stare. She was trouble. She was stretched out on a modernistic chaise-longue with her slippers off, so I stared at her legs in the sheerest silk stockings. They seemed to be arranged to stare at."

Raymond Chandler had style.
Photo from Life magazine. 
"She wore brownish speckled tweeds, a mannish shirt and tie, hand-carved walking shoes. Her stockings were just as sheer as the day before, but she wasn't showing as much of her legs. Her black hair was glossy under a brown Robin Hood hat that might have cost fifty dollars and looked as if you could have made it with one hand out of a desk blotter."

"She was so platinumed that her hair shone like a silver fruit bowl. She wore a green knitted dress with a broad white collar turned over it. There was a sharp-angled glossy bag at her feet."

[All quotes from Chandler's 1939 novel The Big Sleep.]

These moments in literature, in which an author hovers over a character and looks at them, are an essential part of what makes a rich and compelling narrative--and more importantly, it is at the heart of literature's purpose. James Wood remarks on this in his book How Fiction Works (2008): "Literature differs from life in that life is amorphously full of detail, and rarely directs us toward it, whereas literature teaches us to notice..." The act of noticing is crucial in writing and reading literature.

Marlene Dietrich, 1940s.
Photo via my Pinterest.
Visual details in a narrative are not just metaphors for who or how a character is, then, but rather they form part of the overall aesthetic metaphor of a novel as a whole. Ursula K. Le Guin notes in her introduction to her novel The Left Hand of Darkness that a writer is essentially a painter that uses words as their palette: "The artist deals with what cannot be said in words. The artist whose medium is fiction does this in words. The novelist says in words what cannot be said in words." (Sigh. I love her for writing that.) 

So to my formerly-frumpy self, I say may you be forgiven, for you knew not why you dressed. To delight in a style of one's own and the bright possibilities of dressing oneself every morning is not a vapid pursuit, rather it is to participate in an important process of noticing. Furthermore, in literature, noticing provides the method by which a writer can say "in words what cannot be said in words."

Paying attention to the outward details of a real person or a fictional character is an art. I make my own little efforts to notice the styles of others, now, and to for-heaven's-sake match my gloves with my hat, handbag, and brooch.

What is your style? What author writes your favorite descriptions of their characters' style?

This post was partly inspired by the recently opened exhibit of Mexican painter, Frida Kahlo's wardrobe, 58 years after her death. If I could go to Mexico right now and see this exhibit, I would. Instead, I'll content myself for now with this sneak-peak video of the exhibition:

Until next time, my fair petticoat rufflers!

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

The Sins of the Fat Capon: Brazilian Marginal Literature

Ferréz - the Brazilian author of "marginal literature," including his novel Capão Pecado [Sins of the Capon], based on life in the favela Capão Redondo [Fat Capon]. 
The 2002 Brazilian film "Cidade de Deus" ("City of God") depicted an epic drug-gang war in a Rio de Janeiro favela (slum). The narrative was based on the real and violent events that occurred in the favela of the same name during the late 70s and early 80s. Nominated for 4 Oscars and named 6th best action/war film of all time in 2010 by Britain's publication, The Guardian, this film's popularity soared internationally and drew broad interest in Brazilian culture and narrative.

City of God - the movie
Aside from historic events, this film was also heavily influenced by the 1997 novel by Brazilian author, Paulo Lins (also called Cidade de Deus). Lins, as well as several other newer Brazilian authors, make up a burgeoning contemporary group of Marginal Literature authors. These authors, themselves raised in the favelas on the periphery of Brazilian society, write about life in the margins and center their fiction around these "invisible" lives filled with great love and hate, tenderness and violence.

Poet and Founder of Cooperifa, Sergio Vaz.
Photo source
The movement of Brazilian Marginal Literature has picked up steam in the past decade, leading to the inauguration of organizations like Cooperifa, a cooperative of poor and blue collar writers, led by poet and group founder, Sergio Vaz.

This cooperative hosts open mic events in São Paulo during which audience members can share their own original poetry or short fiction as well as recite poems by other authors. Viewed as a way of developing one's own writing/reciting skills and a way of generating interest in literature, this cooperative is only one example of the grassroots initiatives that have sprung up as a result of the marginal literature movement.

In 2004, Alessandro Buzo opened the doors of the first and--thus far-- only bookstore carrying exclusively Brazilian marginal literature. The bookstore, called Suburbano Convicto publishes local authors and regularly hosts events in which these authors do readings from their latest book, promoting themselves as authors or poets and generating interest in literature.

Alessandro Buzo, founder of Suburbano Convicto,
a bookstore in São Paulo that exclusively
sells/publishes marginal literature. Photo source
Beyond this, though, Suburbano Convicto seems interested in promoting an entire subculture around the books it sells: the store also carries locally designed apparel, local music, and local amateur films. Inviting young rap artists to come and be a part of the store links poetry and rap, literature and the community. (Side note: if you read Portuguese, you must read this wonderful article by Brazilian critic, Marcelo Schincariol, in which he shows how a literary adaptation of the practice of "sampling" used in rap music is a major structural feature in Lins' City of God.)

By creating a lifestyle around the literature, those that have decided to dedicate themselves to literature can then also "rep" that decision outwardly: the bookstore's clothing marks them as a poet/rapper/writer just as certain colors can mark gang affiliations in the same neighborhoods.

Cover art for Capão Pecado
Several authors writing marginal literature have gained a good deal of notoriety. As I already mentioned, Paulo Lins' work is now known internationally, due large part to the cinematic adaptation one of his novels. But within Brazil, another author shares the spotlight with Lins: Ferréz. In 1998, Ferréz published his first novel, Capão Pecado [roughly translates to "Sins of the Capon"] a reference to the southern São Paulo favela he grew up in called Capão Redondo [Fat Capon].

The book opens with a free-flowing and rhythmic introduction by Mano Brown, a well-known Brazilian rapper.

This introduction is followed by a page-long, poetic dedication by Ferréz, in which he dedicates the book to the illiterate and those who are too poor to own their own books.

Then the narrative begins, moving through quotidian events of the Capão Redondo favela, following an adolescent boy named Rael, the novel's protagonist. Rael aspires to be a writer, but needs to confront the many "distractions" of the favela, the doubt of his family and friends in the ability of a favela boy to become a writer, and a dangerous conflict he initiates with his former best friend by falling in love with the friend's girlfriend.

As you can imagine, the novel doesn't have a warm-fuzzy ending with everything turning out all right. Justice does not prevail-- rather, what prevails is a sick, twisted vigilante form of justice wielded by the weak over the weaker.

But the novel approaches these subjects delicately and with a great degree of artistry. Making abundant use of the free indirect discourse, the narration successfully provides a kaleidoscope of perspectives. This free indirect style has an unsettling effect on the reader: one finds herself casually accepting circumstances that she would normally be horrified by. Ferréz has been accused of not knowing how to craft a novel, because the narration in his books can shift rapidly between perspectives-- but this seems to me to be the most efficient way to force his readers into the sense of helplessness and confusion often thriving in the favela.

The very title foreshadows the deconstruction of symbolic power that is to come in this book: a capon is a castrated rooster. Normally a symbol of male aggression, violence, and power, the symbolic rooster here is castrated, fattened, and awaiting the drop of the ax.

I have not found any English-language translations yet of Ferréz's books, but the author also happens to be a rapper (!!!) so you can still appreciate the sound of his words, even without understanding them.....
On a final note- I would just like to say that I would absolutely love it if bookstores in this country were as proactive about generating interest in local literature as is Suburbano Convicto. Wouldn't you love to meet up with you neighbors at the bookstore down the street, hear their poetry, listen to their music, and share recite your favorite poems for them?! Who's with me!? ...Or does something like this already exist?

Until next time-- keep those petticoats rustling!!!

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Off the String and Onto the Wall: Northeastern Brazilian Poetic Graffiti

Brazilian graffiti artist, Derlon Almeida, and a work in progress

"Literatura de cordel" or "Stories on a String" refers to a genre of poetry from Northeastern Brazil. 

Image source
This literary tradition has its origins in the European chapbook traditions of the 16th and the beginning of the 17th century, where the“pliegos sueltos” and “literatura de cordel” circulated in Spain, “broadsides” in England and “literatura do cego” in Portugal. Although it is very difficult to trace when the first of these chapbooks arrived in Brazil, it is generally agreed upon that it came as early as the 1500s, along with the first wave of settlers. Over time, the chapbook tradition in Portugal lost its novelty and gradually obtained a reputation for being a poor man’s literature, leading to Charles III of Spain prohibiting the distribution of these pamphlets due to their “harm to public morals”. 

In Brazil, however, this tradition survived through a process of adaptation. Not only were the European plot-lines adjusted to accommodate local interests, but its prose form was changed to poetic form, particularly influenced by the spontaneously composed verses of cantadores and repentistas, an influential element that has been credited with forging many of the unique features of the Brazilian tradition.

Woodblock print, "Moça Roubada" by José Francisco Borges
One of the particularly interesting features of the traditional and contemporary Brazilian manifestation of Literatura de cordel is the now emblematic woodblock print adorning the covers of the newspaper grade paper upon which the poetry is published. These woodblock prints (xilogravuras in Portuguese) served to attract potential buyers with alluring and sometimes perplexing images that usually but not necessarily related to the chapbook’s content.

Along with xilogravura developed a stylized method of reciting or singing the verses in public spaces. Although a musical element was present in the cordel’s literary predecessors of Europe, the Brazilian musical sensibilities that emerged in literatura de cordel's recitation were informed by various types of improvisational lyrical duels. For example, "repente" (literally meaning "suddenly") consisted of two participants, each with guitars, spontaneously composing verses for a traditional melody. Here is a brief example of repentista music style, as it survives today (remember, these guys are making it up as they go along!).

Now-- it is hard to believe that only 7 years ago, YouTube was created by 3 former PayPal employees. Since 2005, the video-sharing website has skyrocketed to popularity around the globe and has allowed people to publish a preponderance of movie clips, short films and home videos... making it possible for us to share in the live aspects of the repente improvisational art form that was once reserved for those that living in or traveling to Brazil. 

As a resource for new material that is constantly being updated, as well as serving as a popular cultural archive, YouTube has created a space in which creativity can build on itself in new and exciting ways. It is not surprising then, that in addition to the footage of cordelistas reciting their poetry online, artists have begun creating animated short films that use the musical tradition, animate the woodblock prints, and recite or sing cordelista poetry. Here is an example.

Debra Castillo notes in her essay, “,” that increased use of the Internet as a literary resource has allowed authors to expand their readership and audiences at an impressive rate: "Writers can get their works out to an ever-larger international community of casual readers, fellow writers, and literary scholars, and do it extremely rapidly and efficiently." This instantaneous distribution to international audiences ushers in a unique cordel expression, one that can be experienced in a completely digitized way that at once preserves and innovates. Castillo remarks: “Writers and critics can engage in dialogues heretofore impossible or exceptionally complicated [...] Through the increasingly pervasive computer network, underrecognized writers [...] can meet and share their works.” 

In another, less technological but equally as public a medium, the cordel aesthetic has been mimicked by several Brazilian graffiti artists. The graffiti is usually figurative, executed in a style that imitates the cordel’s xilogravuras as closely as possible and sometimes offers traces of a narrative.
Piece by Derlon Almeida - in Pernambuco, Recife. Image source

Piece by Derlon Almeida - in Pernambuco, Recife. Image source 

Piece by Derlon Almeida - in Pernambuco, Recife. Image source 

Piece by Derlon Almeida - in Pernambuco, Recife. Image source 
From what I can tell, there is also no official website or online archive dedicated to tracking and archiving these "xilografites." These temporary works of art will disappear eventually, as they are literally “published” on reclaimed ("stolen") public space. This beautifully fits into the literatura de cordel tradition, as the chapbooks were published on cheap paper that was available, without posterity as a first priority. 

So, what can we make of this renewed interest in the cordel aesthetic and its ability to continue to adapt to Internet and graffiti outlets?

I propose that the cordel poetry has always presented itself in a moment in which the framework for a communal narrative has shifted. In a Brazil where travel agencies are shifting the meaning of the Pelourinho--a place where slaves were sold as chattel-- to accommodate the imaginations of tourists who find it charming and may not wish to recognize the space’s troubled, violent past; access to technology spreads; and internationally acclaimed film, prose and rap spring from favelas, the literatura de cordel poetic style has reemerged to construct a new narrative for an as yet unknown future. 

Your thoughts...??? 

Monday, January 7, 2013

Literary Delinquents

Ladies. Gents. My last two posts were a tad verbose... so I'm reining in the voluminous petticoats for now. What can I say-- I get carried away...

But passion for literature is in the air! Just take a look at these photos from a recent Flavorwire article. The photos have been gathered from around the world and feature literary references in graffiti.
 Jean-Paul Sartre's likeness found in Yerevan, Armenia.
Over the past two decades, graffiti has gone from being a rebellious act, carried out by malcontent teenagers, gang members, or adrenaline addicts, to a high form of art, featured in prestigious art galleries near and far. Graffiti writing 20 years ago meant simply stealing public space, not asking permission, and attempting to construct a powerful visual identity from a position of perceived socioeconomic powerlessness. Now, you have graffiti writers developing their art (with permission) in the public sphere, teaching classes, running workshops, selling their work for millions of dollars.

Although more socially accepted, the criminal element of graffiti is still present today. I feel like the content of graffiti pieces has expanded in this new and slightly uncomfortable limbo of acceptance/illegality.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, found in Frankfurt, Germany

Aldous Huxley in Montreal, Canada 
But stealing-- or "reclaiming"-- public space is a major part of what makes graffiti important. Generating a body of visual artwork that is in the public (and not separated by the walls of a museum or gallery) is at the heart of making large mural graffiti pieces like these ones. Furthermore, I think that another element that makes graffiti a particularly beautiful art form is its inherent transient quality. It is here today, eroded by rain or the sun tomorrow, and painted over by another graffiti artist or a city worker tasked with "removing" it.
Pablo Neruda in Santiago, Chile
I love the idea of these eternal denizens of the literary canon now being represented in this way: in stolen/reclaimed space and in a very temporary way-- the public will watch the graffiti fade over time but perhaps will guard the image in their hearts forever, the way the writers depicted are guarded forever in the libraries of the world.... 
A line from Lord Byron's poem "She Walks in Beauty" found in London, England 
See more of these literary graffiti images here and here.

What are your thoughts on the state of graffiti art? Don't you love these images? My favorite is the Lord Byron stencil...

Until next time, fair petticoat wearers!

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Battles in the Desert

Photo source
José Emilio Pacheco is a Mexican poet and author of essays, novels and short stories. In 2009 he was honored with the distinguished Cervantes award, an award that celebrates the life's work of an esteemed author in the Spanish language. But more importantly, the Band of Wild Petticoats accords Pacheco with it's highest honor, which is of course undying love.

I first encountered his writing while completing my undergraduate studies in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. I read his novella Las batallas en el desierto [Battles in the Desert] (1981) and loved it. I read it again today and was struck by the complexities lying beneath the deceptively smooth surface of this story.

This novella is written in first person from the perspective of an adult man recollecting a pivotal moment of his early adolescence: the first time he fell in love. He falls in love with a schoolmate's mother, Mariana, from the moment he lays eyes on her.

Immediately after admitting to himself that he was in love with Mariana, half way through the story, the reader learns the narrator's name for the first time: Carlitos. It is as though his awareness of his ability to love made him suddenly worthy of his name, of his own identity.

Later in the story, Carlitos is compelled professes his love to Mariana. She reacts with a great tenderness but makes it clear that it is an impossible love because of the difference in their ages (she claims to be "ancient" at 28--!). She promises to keep secret his declaration of love, but word eventually gets out and poor Carlitos is taken to a psychiatrist to be analyzed as a pervert, to a priest to confess, and to another school, removed from what his mother perceives to be the riffraff of "lower class" families, negatively influencing her child. (At one point, the narrator cites his mother as saying "Dime con quién andas y te diré quién eres." [Tell me what company you keep and I'll tell you who you are.])

This bildungsroman is made wonderfully complex by the presence of a certain hubris in the voice of the adult-Carlitos as he looks back on his teenaged self.

Miguel Alemán - photo source
An important and recurring theme throughout the story is the political atmosphere of Mexico in the late 40s/ early 50s. Miguel Alemán was president at this time (1946-52) and while he worked to make "progress" the defining feature of his administration, deeply entrenched cronyism and corruption were ultimately the emblems of his legacy. While on the surface there was the appearance of progress, there was also a growing resentment of the government and its power structures.

Pacheco aligns the discontentedness of Mexican society, chaffing under unjust alliances of the ruling class, with the discontentedness of a teenage boy, misunderstood and corralled unnecessarily by parents, teachers, and the unending gossip of the people. At one point, he says: "Me juzgaban según leyes en las que no cabían mis actos." [They judged me according to laws that had nothing to do with my actions.] This beautiful--and yet profoundly melancholic-- convergence of the personal and the political steeps the novel in a sense of lovesickness. That adolescent love is so heavily burdened by the inadequate and intrusive laws of adult reality causes a longing to remain in Carlos' heart, even as a grown man.

This book is awesome and it will only take you one or two hours to read. If you are looking for an English translation, you can find one here. I haven't given away any spoilers and there is much more to this story than I've led you to believe in this lil' ole blog post!

Final rando thought about Pacheco ~
This year, I've been teaching 2nd semester Spanish courses at the university. On the first day of the semester, I pass out a short and lovely poem by José Emilio Pacheco called "Mar eterno." I have students attempt to read it (I know, I'm so cruel!) and ask if they understand it. Most can pick out several words but not comprehend how they are strung together or what they may mean. Then on the last day of the semester, I pull out the poem again and have them attempt to read it once more. I can see little lightbulbs blink on and, hopefully, maybe even the seed of appreciation for this great poet take root....

"Mar eterno"

Digamos que no tiene comienzo el mar
Que comienza donde lo hallas por vez primera
Y te sale al encuentro por todas partes.

"Eternal sea"
Let us say that the sea has no beginning
That it begins where you find it for the first time
And comes out to meet you in all places.

(Please note: all translations in this post are my own.)

"Beira Mar" painting by Emiliano Lake-Herrera
Until next time, my Band of Wild Petticoats-- keep ruffling!

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Black and Blue: Noir, Blues, and Soulfood mourning in Kevin Young

Kevin Young is without a doubt one of my favorite English-language poets of the 21st century. With an economical use of words, he readily opens the unfinished wooden doors of his poems to his readers-- the seemingly simple words of his verses spread in your mind like a strong liquor, doubling and tripling in meaning as you work your way through his books and drink in the uniquely American spectacle of blues, jazz, hardboiled detectives, and soul food. 

Young has the ability to capture these manifestations of Americanness as beautiful, magical, sensual. Yet  he laces the very same lines that celebrate these traditions with a dose of the intense pain and longing which forged them. Through this integration of pain and beauty, Young creates moods and ambiences which bridge the personal and the universal through the sharing of food and drink, music and memory, mourning and loss.

He is a prolific poet, with 7 books of poetry published to date. Of these 7 books, so far I've read Jelly Roll (inspired by the blues), Black Maria (poems that tell a hardboiled detective story, complete with a femme fatale and thugs), Dear Darkness (odes to soul food and the poet's father), and For the Confederate Dead (poems about the painful legacy of American slavery and Jim Crow laws). 

Jelly Roll was his third book of poetry and the first one I read (I actually got to hear the poet read a selection of poems from this book!). Jelly Roll is a collection of verses that draw heavily on the prominent motifs of American blues. Without being derivative or forced, these poems become fully blues in their rhythm and voice-- a sexy and sorrowful melody that feels both past and present at once. 

For example, in his poem "Sorrow Song," Young expresses that traveling lovesickness that causes concern over one's very soul. Young marks the poem with dashes and parenthesis and line breaks that seem to become the breaths and moans in the songs that inspired these verses:

Photo source
"Saying goodbye to the body
her body, to what

we knew or growed
used to--

on the subway
home, her mouth still

on my mouth 
like the gospel

(thick as a cough
or its syrup) hummed

by a woman on the loud
orange seat beside me.

What else besides us
is this? working

down a bone, a bright
hymn--asking, asking."   

Le sigh. See what I mean?! Brilliant. I love this guy. 

In so few words, there is already an atmosphere and a mood established; the fresh memory of love is burdened by a goodbye and the uncertainties of the path one is (not?) taking. The rhythm of the poem holds true to an old blues song, but the subway is such a contemporary image of progress-- here we have cause to sing the blues once more, for even as the world progresses, heartache and doubt can still trouble a man's mind. And the poem provides this sad moan-- the woman beside him humming "thick as a cough/ or its syrup" accompanies his lonely journey home. 

Of the four books of Young's poetry that I have read so far, my favorite is Dear Darkness. This is the first book of poetry that Young wrote after dealing with his father's untimely death. Many of the poems in this book combine descriptions of soul food dishes with the process of remembering and mourning a family member. 

The juxtaposition of these two activities--eating, a life affirming activity, and mourning, an activity directly tied to death--unveils an inherent and lovely strangeness of human experience in which, a meal that lasts only the 10 minutes it takes to be eaten, can contain the continuity of a family's history.  

I am utterly in love with "Ode to Kitchen Grease" and "Ode to Pork"in which Young addresses, in second person, the kitchen grease like a family member ("... Grey/ grandfather, once clear/ your grew cloudy/ with age so we put you/ in a home, & out/ of ours. ...") and pork like a lover ("Your heaven is the only one/ worth wanting--/ you keep me up all night/ cursing your four-/ letter name, the next/ begging for you again.") 

In many of the other odes in this book, Young slips in details about his father or mother or cousin or auntie-- details that link the sensory experiences to very specific people and events and remind the reader that, in spite of the humor Young manages to write into all these poems, they also contain hurt and sadness. 


I cannot recommend Young's poetry enough, and I discovered that last year (2012), he published a non-fiction book of essays called The Grey Album: on the Blackness of Blackness, a book that takes on cultural criticism, and lyrical chorus to illustrate the African American tradition of lying-storytelling, telling tales, fibbing, improvising, 'jazzing,'" according to his website. I also would really like to get a hold of his other books of poetry that I'm missing, including To Repel Ghosts, a collection inspired by the visual artwork of Jean-Michel Basquiat. 

...In the meantime, the Band of Wild Petticoats gallops towards new literature...and new poets. Until next time!

Friday, January 4, 2013

Band of Wild Petticoats: Ruffling skirts and flipping pages since 2013.

Welcome to Band of Wild Petticoats, a blog dedicated to the art and craft of using words. It is my hope that over time this blog will become a place to revel in the rugged beauty of the English language, the lyricism of Romance languages, and wild petticoats.

But first, allow me to introduce myself.
<-- Hey look--there's me!

My name is Taiko and I live in the Rocky Mountains with my one true love and our dog (my other one true love). In these old mountains, it is easy to surround oneself with myth and storytelling. I look for stories everywhere, which has led to a fascination with this landscape, vintage hats, rare books, and secret recipes.

The only credentials I can claim as I set out to author this blog are the desire to broaden my reading tastes and hopefully improve my writing. I intend to review poetry, short fiction, and novels from all over the world (especially the English-, Spanish-, and Portuguese-speaking realms).

I hope that you will find ideas here that inspire you to read and write... and I am most hopeful that you will join the Band of Wild Petticoats by commenting on the posts, emailing me, or sharing what you find here!