Adam Ash

Your daily entertainment scout. Whatever is happening out there, you'll find the best writing about it in here.

Monday, January 31, 2005

Sex rears its yummy head 1

I’m amazed it’s taken me this long to write anything about sex. Perhaps it’s because I’m finally in a non-cheating relationship.

Back in my salad days of loose sex, in my twenties and thirties, I cheated all the time. One good thing about it: I was always quick to forgive anyone who cheated on me, and never thought that cheating was any reason to break up, have a fight, or resent the one you love.

I remember one thing vividly: that I always felt really guilty cheating on someone I was breaking up with. Much guiltier than cheating on someone with whom I was having a stable relationship.

Was it because it’s tough to cheat when you’re hurting – or because you have the hottest sex when you’re breaking up?

I’m know why I’m not cheating anymore, but do you? Do you stop cheating because:

1) You’re too in love to cheat? (Never understood this - what's the connection?)
2) Your sexuality is totally used up by your lover?
3) You’re getting to old to cheat?
4) Condom-less sex with your lover is so much better than the condom sex you’re obliged to have when you're cheating?

What do you think? If it’s too much hassle to post a comment here, email me at and I’ll post your comment anonymously for you.

Sunday, January 30, 2005

Thanks to a fan

Poet Lynne Procope enjoys my blog serial novel ALL THE PEOPLE YOU CAN EAT so much, she’s forwarding it to people. Her much-appreciated enthusiasm inspires me to offer this free service: hey, I can email you a new chapter every Saturday. Just email a request to

Friday, January 28, 2005

Seymour Hersh: "We've been taken over by a cult"

Just when I thought I couldn't get more freaked out about Iraq, along comes reporter Seymour Hersh (he of the 40-years-apart double whammy -- he exposed Abu-Graib and My Lai) and blows my mind in a talk at a New York synagogue. If you don't want to be freaked out, don't click this link.

Election Jitters in Baghdad

A guy in Baghdad tells what's really going on there before the election.

Can a bad man be a good poet?

Article in Poetry about Philip Larkin, whose collected poetry once went to the top of the best-seller list in England (the guy who wrote: "families, they fuck you up" and said sex started in 1963 or somewhere). Link courtesy of Tingle Alley.

So Blue In My Red State: Political Post 1

I promised myself I would not comment on President Bush for the rest of my life, but I’m about to break it because of his inauguration speech about the job of the U.S. being to spread freedom around the world. (Freedom from the barrel of a gun, so to speak.)

Bush might’ve mentioned the incredibly repressive Uzbekistan. In 2002, Muzafar Avazov, an opposition leader, was boiled alive for refusing to abandon his religious convictions and attempting to practice religious rites in prison. A UN report says torture in the country is “pervasive and persistent… throughout the investigation process.” In February 2004 Donald Rumsfeld visited the country's dictator, Islam Karimov and said: "The relationship [between our countries] is strong and growing stronger. We look forward to strengthening our political and economic relations."

Uzbekistan gets around $90m a year in aid from us. Why? Because Uzbekistan, with an estimated 10,000 political prisoners, hosts a US military base that offers easy access to Afghanistan and the rest of the region.

At her confirmation hearings, Condi Rice named six countries as "outposts of tyranny" that would get special attention from the U.S. in the next four years: Cuba, Myanmar, North Korea, Iran, Belarus and Zimbabwe. She could as easily mentioned six allies — Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Russia, Kuwait, Egypt and Uzbekistan. They’re equally undemocratic, and they’ve done more to increase global terrorism than Rice's baddies.

So, should this make us miserable? No. Maybe you haven’t noticed, but our citizens are mobilizing. The alternative, progressive, internet-based media such as,, and flourish. Progressive political groups like MoveOn (, Center for American Progress (, and Campaign for America’s Future ( prosper. Progressive media watchdog groups like Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (, Center for Media and Democracy (, and Media Matters for America ( also experience rapid growth, as does progressive sites such as and Check them out.

And there are many timely and excellent videos available directly and inexpensively over the Internet for citizen education, empowerment, and action. Titles like “Uncovered: The Whole Truth About the Iraq War,” “Unconstitutional: The War on Our Civil Liberties,” and “Hijacking Catastrophe: 9/11, Fear & the Selling of American Empire” are but a few of many. Michael Moore’s “Fahrenheit 9/11” and “Bowling for Columbine,” served a similar function first in theaters, and now in living rooms, across the country. His next one will be about Big Pharma.

Thursday, January 27, 2005


Here comes Chapter 3. Click for chapters 1 and 2 here if you need to catch up first.

Tiara fidgeted with the caviar on her plate as she cradled the phone. She was lying on mauve silk sheets in her big Versailles bed, propped up against giant pillows of Victorian lace. One resculpted breast peeked over the organdy frills of her nightdress by Armani.

“The little cocksucker sent me a Henry Moore. I’ve got him running scared.”

“Go easy on him, Tiara,” said Spriggy. “He’s the most talented fag of us all.”

“Talent is no excuse for temperament, sweetie.”

“But it is, Tiara. Look at you.”

“You can’t generalize from me. I’m the exception to all the rules.”

“Sometimes you and Domino are quite alike.”

“No way. I’ve never let anyone bonk me in the butt except my third husband, and that was six years ago.”

“Rumor has it that Domino is a top, not a bottom, my dear.”

“How would you know?” asked Tiara.

“I rest my case.”

“You did not.”

“My lips are sealed.”

“Say it isn’t so, Spriggy.”

“It was a soufflé. Not an affair by any means. He was really very sweet. We flew to Bombay. The villa was full of my favorite flowers. There’s a tender side to him nobody knows.”

“Don’t try to soften my heart. I intend to punish him this time. I raised him from the gutter. I can send him back there.”

“You’re so Greek.”

“My spies tell me his empire is tottering again.”

“He is not without his resources,” said Spriggy.

“Let it be a duel to the finish then. My immune system could do with a good fight.”

“You’re serious about this, Tiara?”

“I am.”

“My God. I don’t believe it. This will be the biggest war the fashion business has ever seen.”

“And you, my sweet mahogany bottom, will help me.”

There was a pause whose pregnancy belied its infancy.

Spriggy broke the silence. Instantly he cast his mind back over years of competing loyalties. He had no more than a moment to weigh one of those existential decisions about his future in the business he loved (a business which had allowed him, an outcast from Mississippi, not only to apply his Nubian queenliness to great personal profit, but also to flaunt its portly charm across three continents), a decision on which he could spend not even a split second of hesitation – Tiara would judge even the slightest pause – a decision which he had to wear as lightly as pixie dust, and which sped him to the most crucial of crossroads: where his bread was buttered. His voice found the right words with the silken ease of the practiced acolyte.

“So what’s your first move, Empress?” Spriggy asked.

Norman Mailer on jealousy, Iraq, America, Dems

A pity about Normal Mailer. The best of minds, but never found a good place to put it, like in a truly great novel. Still, read this interesting piece.

60th Anniversary of Liberation of Auschwitz 2

Read this beautiful NY Times Op-Ed piece on Auschwitz by the novelist Aharon Appelfeld.

And from Chris Mitchell at splinters these words:

"Despite the retreating Nazis' destruction of the camp in order to try and conceal what had occurred, the remains of Auschwitz are a tangible and horrific memorial to the death of over one and half million people within its grounds. Auschwitz was divided into more than 40 camps - Auschwitz itself was a penal colony and the administrative centre. Today it houses a Holocaust museum and cinema, which shows the truly terrifying film made by the Russians when they first liberated Auschwitz.

"The other camps were used to house those people used for slave labour, with the exception of Auschwitz-Birkenau: this was the extermination camp. The remains of the four gas chambers, each one purpose-built to kill 1500 men, women and children at a time, are still clearly evident, as are the railtracks which delivered Jews from all over Europe to their death.

"Primo Levi, a survivor of Auschwitz, wrote in his book The Drowned And The Saved: 'In no other place and time has one seen a phenomenon so unexpected and so complex: never were so many human lives extinguished in so short a time, and with so lucid a combination of technological ingenuity, fanaticism and cruelty.'

"My friend Paul once said you didn't need to go to Auschwitz to understand the Holocaust; and therefore it should be allowed to disintegrate and disappear. But for me personally, I did need to see Auschwitz, its physical dimensions, to make the numerous books I read connect with something beyond those self same books. I agree with Paul - you don't need to go to Auschwitz to understand the Holocaust. But it cannot harm that understanding to do so. And once we let the camps disappear, we let, if not memory, but focus, go with it. We lose something around which to anchor and concentrate our thoughts. That, to me, is perhaps why going there was so important."

I went to Auschwitz, too, where I stepped into one of the rough bunkhouses, and laid myself down on one of the wooden bunks on which any number of gassed Jews had slept. It's an awe-inspiring place to visit, the awe of Manufactured Mass Death. Something of the hushed aura of a great cathedral. Hiroshima has something of that aura, too, although not as heart-breaking as Auschwitz. I imagine one would experience something similar in the Hut of Zomai at Ouidah in Benin, a major slave port in Africa. "Light was not allowed in. The captors needed to acclimate their captives to the conditions on the ships. So they made sure hundreds of people were packed in that hut together. They relieved themselves in that hut, they slept and ate in that hut. The only time they were allowed to leave was to be branded or taken to the tree of no return."

Oddest book title of 2004: “Bombproof Your Horse”

"Bombproof Your Horse" was today hailed as runaway winner of the prize for the oddest book title of the past year, followed by runners-up "Detecting Foreign Bodies in Food" and "The Aesthetics of the Japanese Lunchbox."

The British-based Diagram prize is a magnum of champagne awarded by the Bookseller since 1978, and reflects the magazine's unceasing bafflement and delight at the highly specialised titles which some of its members in Britain and further afield produce.

The winner's dustjacket says it teaches riders how to stop horses bucking, baulking, bolting or wheeling around when sudden noises or sights frighten them. Regarded as a "solid" title selling about 400 copies a month, it is published by the US equestrian publisher JA Allen.

The Bookseller discloses that another JA Allen title advertised before publication, "When Horses Reveal Themselves," was a likely contender for glory. Sadly, at the last minute, the title was changed to the slightly less odd What Horses Reveal.

"Bombproof Your Horse" joins a gallery of past winners which ranges from "Proceedings of the Second International Workshop on Nude Mice," "Oral Sadism and the Vegetarian Personality," "How to Avoid Huge Ships," and "227 Secrets Your Snake Wants You to Know."

With nominations from all over the world, the contest is so popular that publishers have started choosing titles in the hope of winning it. The magazine rebukes them with the words, "There were too many self-consciously titled entries - presumably in a bid to emulate the 2003 champion, Big Book of Lesbian Horse Stories".

See Guardian Books for full story.

Kill your grandmother?

At Buzz, Balls and Hype, M.J. Rose asks: “What won't you do to be a successful writer? I'd love to hear stories of authors who decided not to do something to sell their books. Please write me at Anonymous responses accepted.” I think I would have killed my grandmother to be a successful writer, and my father, but I would have stopped short at my mother and my siblings.

Our own Booker Prize?

Despite the Pulitzer and the National Book Awards, the U.S. does not have a book competition as big, known and debated as Britain’s Man Booker Prize. Now comes The Quills Awards.

It’s easy to sneer at its mercantile pretensions, as one of my favorite book sites, the Literary Saloon, does. But I believe this could be the start of something that’ll give our writers a much-needed boost in prestige and sales. I like the fact that its mission is written in a business-plan style – see below -- a style that may put off literary snobs, but warms my plain-spoken heart.

I also like that it has a prize for Best Book to Film, recognizing what every writer hopes for (the big extra paycheck and, if the film gets made and works, the extra book sales).

Most of all, I like that it’s produced by two hard-headed businesses: (a) Reed Business International, who issues Publishers Weekly, Variety, Library Journal and has more than 75 Web sites, and (b) NBC Universal Television Stations.

This is what this new award says of itself.

“Books -- the most valuable and important vehicles for storytelling and educating -- are generally not celebrated in the way television and movies are heralded.

"That fact inspired the Quills Awards, a consumer-driven celebration of the written word created to inspire reading while promoting literacy.

"The Quills will be awarded in October in a number of categories, including Book of the Year, Children's Book of the Year and 16 other categories, at a ceremony in New York City in October 2005.

"The goals of the Quills are to celebrate excellence in writing and publishing, recognize the creators of important books and great literature, drive revenue for publishers and circulation for libraries, act as a bellwether for literacy initiatives, and create benefits for The Quills Literacy Foundation.

"The Categories are Book of the Year, Rookie of the Year, Book Club Award, Children's Book of the Year, Best Book to Film, Graphic Novel of the Year, Design, Literary Fiction, Suspense/Mystery or Thriller, Science Fiction/Fantasy or Horror, Romance, Biography/Memoir, Religion/Spirituality, Science, Health/Self Improvement, Sports, Business, History/Current Events/Politics.”

What’s not to like?

More comments here.

Tuesday, January 25, 2005

Chapter 3 of weekly serial novel coming Friday

Get ready for chapter 3 of the weekly serial novel "All The People You Can Eat." Alfred the photographer arrives at U.S. Customs with a beautiful black model from Africa who can't speak a word of English. Meanwhile, catch up with Chapters 1 and 2 of this funny tale by clicking here.

Bizarro movie pitches

Need a laugh? Click on frequent updates of crazy movie pitches.

Slampoets extolled as "amplified bards"

Just came across this nice article about poetry in The Nation, "Difficult Loves" by John Palattella, from Oct issue last year (quoted here in full to save you from The Nation's irritating registration process).

Books under review:
1. Disappearing Ink: Poetry at the End of Print Culture by Dana Gioia
2. The Resistance to Poetry by James Longenbach
3. A Defense of Ardor by Adam Zagajewski; Clare Cavanagh, trans.
4. Coin of the Realm: Essays on the Life and Art of Poetry by Carl Phillips

It wasn't until 1996, when President Bill Clinton declared April to be National Poetry Month, that the eminent translator and poet Richard Howard truly grasped the significance of the opening words of T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land, "April is the cruelest month."

"At last we have succeeded in wreaking on poetry what the worst excesses of Progressive Education and the Palmer Method were helpless to effect: We have ghettoized a millennial human expression previously conceived as a pervasive part of conscious life," Howard declared at a PEN awards ceremony that May. "If we are to save poetry," he insisted, we must restore it "to that status of seclusion and even secrecy that characterizes only our authentic pleasures and identifies only our intimately valued actions."

Robert Pinsky, then the poet laureate of the United States, disagreed. "Poetry is part of our shared communal life, as surely as is the Internet," Pinsky wrote in a defense of National Poetry Month published in the New York Times.

Pinsky's observation is true, although with the adjective "shared" he seemed to want to draw a veil over some pesky questions. If poetry is integral to communal life, why must we be reminded of that fact every April, with all the labored cheerleading and hectic marketing of a big church holiday? Is poetry meaningfully involved in cultural life only if it preoccupies us in the same way as the Internet? Pinsky's genial tone of accommodation softened Howard's abrasiveness, but not the force of Howard's point.

Dana Gioia, the chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), has pitched his tent in Pinsky's camp. In Disappearing Ink, Gioia laments that no American poet today has achieved the kind of fame and influence with a popular audience that Henry Wadsworth Longfellow enjoyed in the nineteenth century. The work of most contemporary poets is culturally marginal, and for Gioia marginality is an artistic dead end.

But poets can return to public prominence and revitalize their art, Gioia claims in his book's title essay, if they follow the lead of rappers, cowboy poets and poetry slammers. The emergence of electronic media like television and the Internet, he says, borrowing heavily from Marshall McLuhan's theories about media, has "slightly readjust[ed] the contemporary sensibility in favor of sound and orality." Rappers and slammers embody this readjusted sensibility because they compose for the ear and transmit their verse through performance. Roland Barthes reveled in the death of the author; Gioia rejoices in the death of the text. "American culture conditioned by electronic media and a celebrity culture based on personalities has given birth to a new kind of author," he proclaims: "the amplified bard."

In July the NEA released "Reading at Risk," a report lamenting the precipitate decline of literary reading in the face of electronic media over the past two decades. Why, then, in Disappearing Ink would its chairman extol poets and audiences who forgo the book for the amp? Equally perplexing is Gioia's claim that the popularity of poetry readings among "literary" poets who still compose for the page signals the emergence of a vibrant oral culture.

There's a more persuasive claim to be made about such literary readings: They are less an oral alternative to print culture than a commercial adjunct of it, a way for poets to promote new books in a marketplace where reviews and advertisements of poetry are rare. Nor is there a lock-and-key fit between the Internet and orality, as Gioia implies. For the past few years some poets have approached Google as a détournement machine, using the search function as a phrase generator and assembling the results into cut-up poems. (In some circles the method and poems go by the name of "flarf.") As bewildering or irritating as spam, this work is defiantly typographic and can be downright impossible to read aloud, amplified or not.

But what do I know? I'm the kind of critic who Gioia complains is ill equipped to assess innovations in contemporary poetry because my tastes are based in part on the "antiquarian assumptions" of Modernism, which "reflect a culture without radio, talking films, television, videocassettes, computers, cell phones, satellite dishes, and the Internet." If media harmony between a critic's era and that of his subject is the basis of critical judgment, then Gioia's enthusiasm in Disappearing Ink for Robert Frost, Elizabeth Bishop and Jack Spicer, all of whom made do with pens or typewriters, is peculiar indeed.

Such contradictions pile up in Gioia's essays because Gioia is a critic who needs antagonisms to justify his enthusiasms. His preferred approach is the American Kulturkampf of the people clashing with a treacherous elite.

In Disappearing Ink, Gioia worries that because of the lingering influence of literary poetry's elite and antiquated conventions, which favor composition for the page instead of the stage, poetry risks being crushed by more popular media like the Internet. Similarly, more than ten years ago in the title piece of Can Poetry Matter? Gioia claimed that poetry was no longer part of the mainstream of artistic and intellectual life, a state of affairs he attributed to the elitism of creative writing programs.

In that same book, however, he recycled the argument of Edmund Wilson's 1934 essay "Is Verse a Dying Technique?," in which Wilson contends that since the late eighteenth century the refinement of the lyric has led poets to forsake history and satire as suitable subjects, thereby diminishing poetry's popular appeal. If that's true, then those elite creative writing programs are not the cause but merely the most recent symptom of a rot that set in more than two centuries ago.

In both Can Poetry Matter? and Disappearing Ink, a tendency to offer foregone conclusions instead of genuine arguments makes it easier for Gioia to reassure readers that poetry can regain its cultural prominence if it escapes the clutches of writing programs or absorbs the oral characteristics of electronic media. This style of argumentation is aided by Gioia's polite but pushy essayistic style, one that, for all its apparent specificity, is essentially general and vague.

Such are the tricks critics contrive when they try to exaggerate poetry's cultural prominence. In his intelligent, elegant and valuable defense of poetry, James Longenbach emphasizes what poets gain by not being subject to the pressures of a high-stakes market or mediascape.

"It's difficult to complain about poetry's expanding audience," Longenbach says, taking up Richard Howard's argument without his caustic tone, "but it's more difficult to ask what a culture that wants poetry to be popular wants poetry to be. The audience has by and large been purchased at the cost of poetry's inwardness: its strangeness, its propensity to defeat its own expectations."

In Gioia's eyes, a poet who avoids a mass audience is almost by definition arrogant, but for Longenbach such avoidance "could also be liberating--the creation of a space in which a poem may be pushed to extremes the culture wouldn't know how to purchase or ignore." After all, it is because Emily Dickinson refused to cleanse her poems of their unorthodox rhythms and rhymes, thereby preserving a "status of seclusion and secrecy," that she and her poems are now so well-known. Poems claim our attention, Longenbach argues, inasmuch as they effectively resist it.

In nine lucid chapters written in a style often as supple as the poems discussed, Longenbach examines what he calls techniques of poetic self-resistance: the formal tool kit (line, syntax, metaphor, voice, disjunction) that poets use to question their own convictions, working by glimmers and glints instead of tidy sums.

Longenbach's approach is deceptively simple. He scrutinizes poetry's formal qualities, but he is not a formalist in the conventional sense of being ahistorical. Discussing a wide range of work but focusing mostly on modern poems, Longenbach is careful to explain how a poem's omission of historical content is not necessarily a repression of historical knowledge. The historical texture of a poem may be measured by its formal dynamics more than the weight of its content, as in Michael Palmer's "Seven Poems Within a Matrix of War," a sequence of poems concerning the first Gulf War, or Wallace Stevens's "Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction," written during the early years of the Second World War.

Equally provocative is Longenbach's defense of poetic language. In order to promote poetry in an indifferent culture, champions of poetry often try to define the mystical difference of poetic language from ordinary language. Longenbach does the opposite, stressing what the two languages have in common. Poems exploit rather than suppress the slippages of ordinary language, he explains, and what demands our attention is how a poet makes the ineradicable ambiguities of ordinary language uniquely adequate to the subject a poem must express.

Or, to borrow a notion from Peter Gizzi's "Ding Repair," what demands our attention is how poetic language unfolds into meaning, ordinary and rare each time:

A hummingbird at the scarlet bell works the vine.
Even as adults we hope to witness ordinary spectacle
evolve into meaning, ordinary and rare each time
the ribbon, the wave--all bent.
For if those memos, phone calls, holidays
were to accrue then where would we be?

Longenbach says that the resistance to poetry is the wonder of poetry, "the reinvention of humility," a formulation that calls to mind the romantic poet John Keats's description of negative capability as the ability of a poet to be "in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason."

But Longenbach's wonder more closely resembles Adam Zagajewski's notion of ardor. The fourth essay collection by Zagajewski to be translated into English, A Defense of Ardor contains appreciations of and quarrels with writers, painters and philosophers.

Written with his characteristic delicacy, gravity and wit, the book is notable for the acute, thoughtful way that the Polish poet frames and examines literary and intellectual issues.

Zagajewski craves ardor after reading Tzvetan Todorov's essay on Dutch still-life painting, In Praise of the Quotidian, which Zagajewski attacks for suggesting that artists must become "deft miniaturists" immune to moments of experience that are "incomprehensible and piercing, both extravagant and absolutely fundamental." Yet Zagajewski also craves ardor after reading E.M. Cioran's Notebooks, an "uncommonly irritating" work in which Cioran's extreme narcissism fuels scabrous rants against quotidian life. Zagajewski finds the residue of ardor in Plato's concept of metaxu, the state of being "incurably en route," and he finds ardor flourishing in the climate of thought cultivated by the painter Jozef Czapski and the poets Czeslaw Milosz and Zbigniew Herbert, who "answered history's menace in universal, not provincial ways. And they touched profound hopes while shunning easy consolations."

Longenbach also thinks wonder arises from shunning easy consolations, but the roots of his notion of wonder stretch deeply into a uniquely American and pragmatic source, one running from Emily Dickinson ("In insecurity to lie/is Joy's insuring quality") through Wallace Stevens and George Oppen to John Ashbery. These are poets who love flux, who build elaborate metaphors while simultaneously warning of their collapse, whose poems ride on linguistic sliding, whose voices speak because they are shattered. They are playfully serious poets who work hard to foreground the infinitely repeatable work of interpretation and knowing.

And their work isn't without hazards. "If the resistance to poetry is the wonder of poetry," Longenbach asks, "how do we prevent resistance from becoming a fetish, something with which we are merely fascinated?" By reminding ourselves constantly that "the power of a poem inheres in the realization that we cannot count on it." No matter how graceful its language, no matter how resourcefully it mines the ambiguities of ordinary language, a poem can never obviate the pressures of the ordinary world because a poem's consolation, knitted from figurative language, will unravel and slip away. Or not.

Early in his book Longenbach invokes the example of Callimachus, the ancient Greek poet who refused the Homeric challenge of writing an epic, preferring instead to write love poems and elegies. Callimachus was scorned by his peers for ignoring his civic duties and thereby diminishing the possibilities for poetry.

Longenbach draws a different lesson from Callimachus's choice: It was only because Callimachus was acutely suspicious about the nature of poetic ambition that he could force his best discoveries against the walls of his own ambition's limitations. That example informs the most incisive essays of Carl Phillips's Coin of the Realm as well, although the straw men that shamble through the book sometimes elbow Callimachus aside. Phillips has a tendency to carp about younger poets' suspicions about exercising authority without explaining exactly what he means, and his single-mindedness about this issue cuts deeply against the poetics he elaborates in his book.

The ghost of Callimachus enters the picture when Phillips discusses the poetry of the seventeenth-century Protestant pastor George Herbert, who chose to wrestle with an epic subject, the perplexing ways of God to man ("why affliction?--why, inevitably, our suffering?"), in the narrow confines of the intricate lyric poems of The Temple.

"Herbert persuades by the very thing with which his poems are so frequently ill at ease: his flawed self," Phillips claims. "It is not so much that he admits to flaw...but that he brings flaw into view as instructive example."

Phillips is a poet with seven books to his name, and the relentless deliberation he finds in Herbert's lyrics quickens his own work too. "Phillips is not discouraged but enthralled by this state of perpetually suspended rediscovery," Longenbach writes in The Resistance to Poetry. "He wants the world to be difficult to see because our understanding leaps too quickly from the choice to the chosen, from what is findable to what is found." But what's different about Phillips's portrait of Herbert's deliberation is its spiritual hue. Without relentless deliberation, Phillips implies, there can be no desire and surrender; without desire and surrender there can be no faith; and without faith there can be no relentless deliberation.

The poems of Herbert's that Phillips discusses were composed as a private confession of the desire for an incomprehensible and piercing kind of knowledge. That gesture of inwardness is about as far as one can get from the very public arena of the Internet--or, to use Gioia's lingo, from today's auditory avant-garde.

Not unlike Herbert's poems, Longenbach's and Zagajewski's defenses of poetry, along with Phillips's best essays, are rich and rewarding proof that the will to believe passionately in the fictions of poetry is not always hostage to the salvation schemes of the overchurched and the intellectually naïve.

Stephen Burt on Frank O'Hara's "Personism"

O’Hara’s best-known and most tongue-in-cheek manifesto "Personism" consisted of the smitten O’Hara’s realization that love poems might not differ in intention, nor in effect, from phone calls: "I realized that if I wanted to I could use the telephone instead of writing the poem, and so Personism was born." Poems, in other words, are only one kind of intimate communication, and ought to be at least as impressive, at least as personal perhaps, as the others (even if their forms differ). Every poem is or could be a "Personal Poem" (an O’Hara title), with an "I" and a "you," and a hope, not that Heaven will favor the poet, but that "one person out of the 8,000,000 is / thinking of me."

60th Anniversary of Liberation of Auschwitz

Today the German Chancellor reminds the German people that ordinary Germans by the hundreds of thousands took part in the extermination of the Jews (even more in the killing of Slavic people). It's not only savage SS Nazis who did the dirty work.

One thing that death camp survivors don't talk about – cannibalism. One way to survive in Auschwitz was to eat the corpses of dead Jews, of which there were many.

Did the world learn a lesson from the Holocaust, the single most defining event in human history? No. The world let the genocides of Cambodia, Rwanda and now Darfur happen. The U.S. especially is to blame. We backed Pol Pot against Vietnam (where we sacrificed 50,000 of our own to kill a million and a half Vietnamese), and blocked intervention in Rwanda, where in a hundred days 800,000 Tsutsis were macheted to death -- such hard work that the killers often simply cut the Achilles heels of their victims so they couldn’t run away before the killers returned the next day to continue their work.

But we did intervene in ethnic cleansing in the former Yugoslavia. After all, they were white Europeans.

If you’re interested in this sort of thing (I am, and will write a novel about Auschwitz soon) there are two books besides Primo Levi’s accounts that are essential reading:
1.Reading the Holocaust by Inga Clendinnen , the best book on the Holocaust.
2. The best book from the Holocaust is a first-person account of serving on the Sonderkommando at Auschwitz, the body of specially selected inmates whose job it was to work with the corpses. Nothing takes you there like
Eyewitness Auschwitz: Three Years in the Gas Chambers by Flip Muller.

Further proof that your kids will be learning Chinese

It's not just that most things you buy have a "Made in China" label on them, or that Chinese actresses are popping up in Hollywood movies. It's this: today 80% of the world's cranes are operating in Shanghai, and the consumption of bourbon whisky in China is surpassing America's.

Monday, January 24, 2005

Dave Barry on why regular people don't like classical music

The best humor columnist of all time? Dave Barry. Here's proof (I quote the piece instead of supplying the link to save you from the Miami Herald's unbelievably long registration process):

Why don't regular people like classical music? This is the question that was posed to me recently in a letter from Timothy W. Muffitt, the music director of the University of Texas Symphony Orchestra, which has gained international acclaim for its rendition of ''Achy Breaky Heart.''

No, I'm sure it's a fine orchestra that plays a serious program of classical music featuring numerous notes, sharps, flats, clefs, bassoons, deceased audience members, etc.

Anyway, Mr. Muffitt states that he has been asked to conduct a series of concerts for the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra. The goal is ''to get people into the concert hall other than those who usually come.''

He asks: ''What would get the average Joe into the concert hall? Do you go to classical music concerts? Why or why not?''

Our first task is to define exactly what we mean by ''classical music.'' When I look in volume ''M'' of my son's World Book Encyclopedia, I find, on pages 838-9, the following statement: 'Mosses grow and reproduce in two phases 'sexual' and 'asexual.' ''Not only that, but during the ''sexual'' phase, the moss develops ''special organs,'' and when the time is ripe, ''they burst and release hundreds of sperm cells.''

Do you believe it? MOSS! Growing organs! Having sex! Probably smoking little one-celled cigarettes afterward! Parents, this could be going on in your community. I think we should alert the Rev. Pat Robertson.

But we also need to define ''classical music.'' A little farther on in the World Book, we come to the section on music, which states: ''There are two chief kinds of Western music, classical and popular.'' Thus we see that ''classical music'' is defined, technically, as ''music that is not popular.'' This could be one reason why the ''average Joe'' does not care for it.

I myself am not a big fan. I will go to a classical concert only under very special circumstances, such as that I have been told to make a ransom payment there. But until I got this letter from Mr. Muffitt, I never knew why I felt this way. I've been thinking about it, and I have come up with what I believe are the three main problems with classical music:

1. IT'S CONFUSING. With ''popular'' music, you understand what's happening. For example, in the song, ''Long Tall Sally,'' when Little Richard sings, ''Long Tall Sally, she's built for speed,'' you can be certain that the next line is going to follow logically (''She got everything that Uncle John need''), and then there will be the chorus, or, as it is known technically, 'the 'Ooh baby' part.'' Whereas in classical music, you never know WHAT will happen next. Sometimes the musicians stop completely in the middle of the song, thereby causing the average Joe, who is hoping that the song is over, to start clapping, whereupon the deceased audience members come back to life and give him dirty looks, and he feels like a big dope. It would help if there were an electronic basketball-style clock hanging from the conductor's back, indicating how much time is left in the song. Speaking of which:

2. IT TAKES TOO LONG. The Shangri-Las, performing ''Leader of the Pack,'' take only about four minutes to tell a dramatic and moving story -- including a motorcycle crash. A classical orchestra can take five times that long just to sit down. There needs to be more of an emphasis on speed. There could be Symphony Sprints, wherein two orchestras would compete head-to-head to see who could get through a given piece of music the fastest. There could even be defense, wherein, for example, the trombone players would void their spit valves at the opposing violin section. This would be good, because:

3. IT NEEDS MORE ACTION. When I was in college, I saw the great blues harmonica player James Cotton give a performance of 'Rockin' Robin'' wherein he stuck his harmonica into his mouth, held his arms out sideways like an airplane, and toppled headfirst off of an 8-foot stage into the crowd, where he landed safely on a cushion of college students and completed the song in the prone position.

That same year -- I did not see this personally, but I have friends who did -- the great blues guitarist Buddy Guy gave a club performance wherein, while taking a solo, he went into the men's room (he had a long guitar cord), closed the door, apparently relieved himself, flushed, reopened the door and came back out and never stopped playing.

You do not forget musical experiences such as those.

I'm not saying that classical musicians should do these things. It would be difficult to get, say, a harp into a restroom stall. I'm just saying, Mr. Muffitt, that until the average Joe can expect this level of entertainment from classical music, he is probably going to stay home watching TV, stuck to his sofa like moss on a rock. But with less of a sex life.

Friday, January 21, 2005

Favorite Books of All Time: 1. Middlemarch

Middlemarch by George Eliot is quite simply the finest novel ever written. If I had to take one book to a desert island, this would be it. It's both broad and deep -- the highly populated canvas of an entire world seen from top to bottom. Also extremely witty. First sentence: "Miss Brooke had that kind of beauty which seems to be thrown into relief by poor dress." Read it before you die. And check out a great way to read it in this New York Times appreciation.

Thursday, January 20, 2005

Urban Lore: Poo Pranksters

POLICE HOPING TO RED-FLAG 'POO PRANKSTERS" (another laugh courtesy of Splinters)

Berlin - German police have their hands full - pranksters in Berlin have been sticking miniature American flags into piles of dog poop in public parks.

The series of incidents was originally thought to be in protest against the United States-led invasion of Iraq.

But then it continued through US President George Bush's re-election.

Police say they are completely baffled by these events, which have been going on for a year.

"We have sent out extra patrols to try to catch whoever is doing this in the act," said police spokesperson Reiner Kuechler.

"But frankly, we don't know what we would do if we caught them red-handed."

Josef Oettl, parks administrator for Bayreuth, said: "This has been going on for about a year now, and there must be 2 000 to 3 000 piles of excrement that have been claimed during that time."

Legal experts say there is no law against using faeces as a flag stand and the federal constitution is vague on the issue. -

Excellent Bile: SpongeBob And The Scumfucks Of Hate

I quote this in full from one of my favorite bookmarked sites, Splinters, a Brit blog at Spike Magazine. Sometimes it's very soothing to just sit back and listen to the righteous sound of fury.

SpongeBob And The Scumfucks Of Hate

I'm going to die soon. I'm going to die soon because my blood pressure will soon be so high it's going to puke out of my neck with the fragments of my cranium doing a jig of despair atop its frothy glugging. And what will be the cause of my fountainous demise? The hatred and bigotry that fuels these scumlicking conservative shitfucks who have nothing better to do than wank their obsessive, paranoid, utterly wrong opinions into the faces of a media that seems all too happy to lap up and report their merest brainfart on any subject. How is it that we get this dreadful shit thrust down our throats everyday? Why does anyone pay them attention? I was already feeling apoplectic with rage after reading Gary's spot-on summary of the murderous behaviour of the so called Christian Voice, when I then choked with disbelief at this BBC story about the US right attacking SpongeBob because he regularly holds hands with his sidekick Patrick. "We see the video as an insidious means by which the organisation is manipulating and potentially brainwashing kids", says Paul Batura of right wing Christian group Focus on the Family. Holding hands equals "Brainwashing kids"? The pressure on my skull is all too great already.

I think all the real Christians in the world, the ones that actually believe in Jesus Christ and understand his teachings, rather than pervert everything in the Bible into an excuse to spew shit-streaked, inflammatory hate propaganda, should get together, go round to Mr Batura's house and beat the shit out of him. Better still, nail him to a fucking cross. He can be a martyr for my sins. OK, fair enough, real Christians wouldn't do that. Can't we just ship all these insane right wing fucks out to Fallujah and bring the Iraqi civilians back to the States and let the US wipe up its own mess for once under the cleansing power of napalm? The world would be no poorer for their absence.

Clearly tolerance is not on my agenda today. Lord, you have made me a channel of your incredulity that people can be so stupid. But, sweet Lord, why do so many cretinous people take your name in vain? Why can't they channel all that hatred and aggression into doing something worthwhile, like raising money for the tsunami victims, or their local homeless, or just rearranging their tie collection? Why can't you arrange some righteous smiting for the 21st century? There was carpet bombing on the Road to Damascus, true, but that's not quite what I meant. I would give anything, anything, for the Second Coming to actually occur in my lifetime just so I could watch Jesus, live on CNN, chucking some thunderbolts around at Mr Paul Batura and his ilk. Because if there is truly any celestial justice, they will be the first to go to hell.

Wednesday, January 19, 2005

Serial Novel: All The People You Can Eat, Chapter 2: On the Dark Continent

Alfred came to fame with his hunger series. He’d photographed all the major eighties artists nude, had done portraits of all the Native American chiefs, all the sex workers in Washington and Hollywood, all the AIDS victims in New York, all the drag queens of Harlem, and all the midgets of Brooklyn, including a series of his mother’s double mastectomy and her subsequent death from Asian flu, but nothing had caused greater controversy than the hunger series. Milton Stummer called it “pornography of the soul.” Dieter Sheldull wrote that “Alfred Stereo confidently skirts the edge between pimp and parasite.” Musin Montag stigmatized it as “a puff of arriviste air from the bowels of post-modernism.” Arturo Dansca decried it as “the most compromised vision since Hitler’s watercolors.”

Domino immediately signed Alfred to an exclusive fashion contract, an unprecedented move on two counts. Number one, nobody had ever signed a photographer to an exclusive contract, and number two, Alfred wasn’t even a fashion photographer.

“Tell him we will educate her so she speaks English.”

Alfred, who’d once talked his way into the hospital room of a Newport heiress dying of anorexia, was having problems with Sokse’s father. Sokse was the most beautiful woman he had ever seen. He had already called Xavier about her.

“Her father says you can screw her here in the village. So why take her away across the water?” Alfred was sure the interpreter was twisting his words in translation, but what could he do?

“Tell him I don’t want to screw her, I want to photograph her.”

“He doesn’t understand.”

Alfred lifted his Nikon and clicked at the gigantic beauty. Her features broke his heart every time he pointed his lens at her.

“I want to do this with her.” Click, click.

“He doesn’t understand how you can screw in this way.”

“Tell him I don’t want to screw her, I’m a photographer.”

“He still doesn’t understand.”

Alfred sighed. “OK, tell him I want to screw her. And then tell him I want to screw her in New York because that’s where my bed is.”

The patriarch, surrounded by his four wives and twenty-seven children, smiled.

“Now he understands.”

“How much does he want?”

“He says the loss of his favorite daughter gives him a lot of pain that no money on earth can relieve.”

“Tell him I understand a father’s pain and in these circumstances money can be no compensation, but we have to start somewhere.”

“Two hundred dollars.”

“Two hundred dollars!”

“Hundred and fifty dollars.”

“Deal.” Ever after Alfred would be plagued with the thought of how low Mr. Ntsohluvubuhu was prepared to go. Fifty bucks? Five? A quarter?

As a man burdened by a social conscience, Alfred arranged for a borehole driller to visit the hamlet of Ukululu to sink a well under the big tree, and spare the women the six-mile walk to the river. He debated about ruining the village aesthetic –- the ladies looked so splendid with those calabashes on their heads –- but decided that in this case, charity beat out beauty.

Saturday, January 15, 2005

Bizarro movie pitches

Need a laugh? Click on frequent updates of amazingly and/or stupidly crazy movie pitches. Courtesy splinters.

2,000 words

See the before tsunami pic, then click on the after. Gasp.

Friday, January 14, 2005

Adventures on the Road to Getting Published 1

This is the first in a series of posts on getting published. I've just finished a novel that I hope to sell this year. Its chances are better than any of the previous six unpublished books I've written, because it has a strong topical slant. I'll report on all the curious goings-on in order to enlighten other writers.

I have an agent, so that particular adventure is over. How to get an agent? Meet other writers and get signed by their agents.

My agent is the fifth in a series, so there were quite a few adventures on that particular road.

One of my agents sent a satirical novel, ALL THE PEOPLE YOU CAN EAT (a weekly serial in this blog), to 18 publishers before she gave up. We got warm, enthusiastic rejection letters. "We all laughed loud and long." "The new Terry Southern." But no bites. Probably too tough to make money on a first-time satirical novelist.

One of my agents was very powerful. Plain sailing, I thought. He suggested I have the manuscript, HOLLY'S URGE, edited before he read it. I paid an editor $1,000. Good job. But then I had a hard time maintaining any contact with this famous agent. I later surmised the novel (highbrow, literary chick lit) was too loaded with sex for his taste -- but he never told me. Beware. No news is bad news.

Agent #5 really believes in me, and says so. I never had this before. Sure helps. On the other hand, a writer I know has told me that the relationship between you and your agent should be strictly business, not at all personal. Pick your preference.

Last night, inspired by a panel discussion on authors taking charge of their publishing destinies, I wrote a marketing document about my novel. It may be difficult for the solitary, literary scribe to think about how to market her book, but I strongly suggest you give it a whirl. If anything, it will improve your party pitch when someone asks you what you do.

Questions asked by publishers:

1) What is the author's platform? If you're a celeb, or an expert in the field, or have done something extraordinary, that's easy. But if you're not, what do you say? I thought hard about this, and then decided you need a story that connects you personally to your "material." (Pardon the marketing jargon in a book-lovers blog.)

So I hit on this as my story: "The author grew up in apartheid South Africa under a regime that, in defense of its policies, loudly proclaimed its Christianity. The author exiled himself in protest. The current U.S. administration follows the same script. The author wrote his novel in protest." Now the publisher has something to talk about. So do you. Remember, you're the main salesperson. That's how the publisher sees you. If you're shy or awkward about hawking your wares, take an acting class.

2) What is the book's market? Define your readers as narrowly as you can. This will give you an idea of how to go after them. If, for example, you define your readers as the kind of people who read The Village Voice (write down what that means), you have a vehicle for your marketing right there.

3) How can you reach this market? Think of novel ways to reach potential readers, besides readings. One novelist I met had a rap song recorded about her book.

This might sound too dreadfully mercantile and prescriptive, but if all you do is sit tight in your garret and your book sells badly, your publisher might not give you a second chance. Think how dreadful that will be.

I will report again when my agent has read my novel and makes her comments. Tip: have a friend read your book. I did. She found a confusing plot point. A promise: If I do get published, I'll blog my marketing document for all to see.

The Revolution in African-American Publishing

Went to a panel discussion on African-American publishing last night organized by the Women's National Book Association.

Publishing vet Earl Cox said there was a revolution in African-American publishing, from which everyone could learn. Self-publishing is a big thing in this market, where many of the new urban novelists start by selling their books on the streets. They can move 40,000 books a year. And they get to keep all the money.

Agent Manie Barron remarked: "They keep their car on the street, and their books in their garage. They have to recoup not only their money, but also their space." He counted fifteen book vendors on a three-block stretch on 125th Street in Harlem. He once saw a group of women and children gathered around a book-seller in the middle of nowhere, who said he was an ex-convict who had written a book about prison life; he was selling his book to these women who were going to visit inmates. Talk about targeting your market.

Novelist Leslie Banks ( started in the romance genre. On a suggestion from her agent, she began a vampire series that's now translated into Russian. She said she divides herself 50/50 between marketer and writer; sometimes 80/20. The writer has to take charge of marketing.

It was all very inspiring. In the end, Karen Thomas, the founding editor of Dafina Books at Kensington Publishing, reminded us that "it all starts with a good book." Her example: The Color of Water: A Black Man's Tribute to his White Mother by James McBride.

Thursday, January 13, 2005

Examples of Torture

See this New York Times review of two new books on torture in America. The citing of specific physical examples makes grim reading. America has crossed a fundamental border into moral horror. We are now behaving like any other despicable, ghastly regime.

Wednesday, January 12, 2005

Great lit blog: Maud Newton

Maud Newton is the name of a lady who runs my favorite lit blog. I've met her, she's great. If you love seriously good books, check in with her.

Eurotrash on drugs

Enlightened and non-hypocritical piece about drug use. Was free and easy about this myself, until a family member had a brief turn as a drug dealer. (Thanks to Maud Newton for intro to Eurotrash.)

Cloud of Torture over America (Immigrant Thoughts)

In 1979 I left my country, South Africa, a pariah nation, to come to America, the bastion of freedom and morality.

Carter was the president that year. He was the first president to put human rights on the foreign policy agenda. I admired a nation who believed in fundamental moral values to that extent.

Many wonderful things happened in the years that followed. The Berlin Wall came down. Vaclav Havel, a man who loves Frank Zappa, became president of Czechoslovakia. Nelson Mandela was freed; all South Africans voted in our first free election. America stopped its wholesale interference in the lives of South Americans. Along with South Africa, newly democratic countries there established Truth and Reconciliation Commissions to expose the torture and murder of former

"The moral arc of the universe is long," said Dr. King, "but it bends towards justice."

Our moral arc was bending towards justice.

Then came 9/11. "We are all Americans now," wrote Le Monde. Young Muslims in Iran held candle-lit vigils for us. America, the bastion of freedom, had been attacked. Never was our moral authority higher. It was a moment to be seized. A moment that cried out for the words and actions of a Churchill, a Ghandi, a Mandela, a Dr. King.

But somehow this challenge to our moral authority overwhelmed us. Maybe we'd been hurt too much. Maybe all we could do in our shock and pain was feel rage.

We may not have seized the moment like a Ghandi or a Mandela would have, but we did some things right. Our President warned us not to blame American Muslims for what other Muslims had done. A proper American thing to say.

For myself, I felt two things. One, exorbitant rage. As a New Yorker, I wanted to go to Afghanistan, bomb the Taliban into oblivion, and put their women in charge over their men. Two, a grim self-critique. This terrible thing had happened in the context of U.S. foreign policy choices that had caused people in other countries immense pain.

I found many people agreeing with me on the first feeling. On the second, few. None in the media. Except for Susan Sontag. Here is an edited excerpt from what she wrote in the week after the tragedy:

"The disconnect between last Tuesday's monstrous dose of reality and the self-righteous drivel and outright deceptions being peddled by public figures and TV commentators is startling, depressing. The voices licensed to follow the event seem to have joined together in a campaign to infantilize the public. Where is the acknowledgment that this was not an attack on "civilization" or "liberty" or "humanity" or "the free world" but an attack on the world's self-proclaimed superpower,
undertaken as a consequence of specific American alliances and actions?

"Our leaders are bent on convincing us that everything is O.K. But everything is not O.K. A wide spectrum of public figures, in and out of office, who are strongly opposed to the policies being pursued abroad by this Administration, apparently feel free to say nothing more than that they stand united behind President Bush. A lot of thinking needs to be done, and perhaps is being done in Washington and elsewhere, about the ineptitude of American intelligence and counter-intelligence, about options available to American foreign policy, particularly in the Middle East, and about what constitutes a smart program of military defense. But the public is not being asked to bear much of the burden of reality.

"Those in public office have let us know that they consider their task to be a manipulative one: confidence-building and grief management. Politics, the politics of a democracy -- which entails disagreement, which promotes candor -- has been replaced by psychotherapy.

"Let's by all means grieve together. But let's not be stupid together. A few shreds of historical awareness might help us understand what has just happened, and what may continue to happen. 'Our country is strong,' we are told again and again. I for one don't find this entirely consoling. Who doubts that America is strong? But that's not all America has to be."

I thought she was right. But our politicians did not have the same moral clarity. In their moral obfuscation, they insisted the attack happened because our enemies hate our freedoms. Not much self-examination going on there. Still, superficial bromides are the currency of politicians. And in a moment of national pain and rage, self-examination might've been political suicide. Our politicians were attuned to what the nation could bear.

But if our national rhetoric lacked Sontag's insight, or Mandela's wisdom, or Churchill's vocabulary, we did some things right. We went after Bin Laden in Afghanistan. In the end, I was more upset about our rhetoric than our actions. I still felt proud to be American. In time, I believed, we'd be able to reflect on what had happened with more appropriate rhetoric. The good heart of America, that made human rights part of its foreign policy, would prevail. And in the years that followed, many of the matters mentioned by Sontag were widely discussed.

Yet today I am suddenly struck with a great uncertainty. Why? I'm not talking about those things that disturb so many. You know them. Our leaders wanted military bases in the heart of the Middle East to ensure control of oil supplies, and went to war for it, giving a range of reasons that had nothing to do with the real ones. Ken Lay, a poster child for saving his own ass while stabbing his employees in the back, is not in jail. For their breath-taking incompetence, George Tenet and Paul Bremer were awarded Presidential Medals of Freedom.

The list is endless. And disturbing. But not all that unexpected. Ripping off people, including your own employees, comes naturally to many business elites. Reasons for war are rarely rational or true. Business as usual, one might say. Given the shock and awe of 9/11, perhaps even predictable.

But there is something else I would not have predicted.

When I lived in South Africa, I grew up as a child disappointed in my people. My people were the Afrikaners, who were overrun by the British at the turn of the last century. We Afrikaners were herded into the first concentration camps ever established on our planet. A third of Afrikaner women and children died in them. In our pain over this (much
like the Israelis with the Palestinians today), we ended up punishing South Africa's blacks in a cheap-labor system called apartheid. Because of this, I was not proud to be an Afrikaner. But I did not reject my nation. I spoke and lived Afrikaans.

Then one day in my teen years, I read a newspaper article that said our police were torturing people in jail. Systematically.

I'll never forget what I felt then. I could not believe it. Sure, Afrikaners could be misguided. Sure, we could be cruel. Sure, we could be blind. But we were not the kind of people who would torture others on a face-to-face, one-on-one, person-to-person basis. We were Christians. We went to church every Sunday. There was a depth of human depravity -- inflicting pain on another human to the point of screams, letting people lie suffering in their own excrement -- below which we could not sink. We were not barbarians. We were not medieval. We were not the Inquisition. We were not beyond all moral reprieve.

Now America has Abu Graib. Guantanamo. Business as usual perhaps. Prison is not a picnic. Abuses happen.

But we also have something else. In the face of a proud tradition -- of wanting the world to look to us for moral leadership -- we have instructions from on high exhorting our soldiers to employ "aggressive" interrogation techniques. We have accountability that stops at Lyndie England.

We've built ourselves a slope, and we are slipping down it with breezy equanimity. We have memos from our officials about narrowing the definition of torture down to exclude everything except pain "of an intensity akin to that which accompanies serious physical injury such as death or organ failure." Presumably, that leaves many "techniques" -- from drowning torture to cutting off fingers -- outside the definition of torture.

These are things that we can hardly bear to look at as fiction when they're depicted in a movie.

So imagine the fact. Imagine a country where the job of top cop goes to a man who trafficked in these suppositions, a man who says about the torture memo, "I don't recall today whether or not I was in agreement with all of the analysis." Imagine a country where the slip down the slope is so greasy, the country's leadership votes overwhelmingly for this man's appointment. What country is that? Apartheid South Africa? Chile under Pinochet? Russia under Stalin?

Imagine that country, and tell me whether that country has anything to do with America.

This is a big problem for me. I ended up rejecting my first nation, the Afrikaners, over this.

Look, I'm just another whiny New York liberal, I know. Just another no-account immigrant. But I felt great pride in choosing America as my second nation. Now I have a question to ask my new people: in all humility, given my sensitivity about this issue, tell me why I shouldn't, at this point, reject you too?

Recommended Recent Read

Winner of the Impac prize.
A novel based on true events. The King of Morocco imprisoned a number of rebels for more than a decade out in the desert in underground prisons measuring six by three feet, so they couldn’t stand. This novel is based on one prisoner’s experience, who was interviewed by the author.
Takes you deep into another world. Short chapters make it an easy read, as the prisoner remembers his life and devises strategies for staying alive and, more important, sane. Something of a self-help manual to help you make it through your own days of bile and roses.


In the tradition of 19th century novelists (Dickens et al), ALL THE PEOPLE YOU CAN EAT will appear in weekly instalments on this blog.

It’s a satirical novel featuring a sublimely arrogant fashion designer in his fifties with a truly heroic intake of drugs. The story is set in New York in the 90s. You will laugh throughout. Warning: not for the faint-hearted. It makes fun of everything. (Everything: even genital mutilation.)

In the first chapter, we meet the designer, Domino; his soon-to-be nemesis, the socialite Tiara Blaine; and Domino’s long-suffering partner, Xavier.


“I’m not an avocado,” said Tiara.

Domino pinned the bow over her derriere, smoothed the shimmering fabric, and admired the fit. “When I said you looked ripe, I meant like a fruit, not a vegetable.”

“I’m not a fruit.”

“You’re a flower, Tiara.”

“I’m not a flower, Dominodella.” He hated it when she fooled with his name. “I’m too rich to be a flower. I’m a castle.”

“You are a castle, yes. But this creation turns you into a revolution.”

“I adore revolutions. But this revolution looks too full over my butt.”

“It’s the line, dear. You cannot argue with the line. Even I, Domino, do not argue with the line. The line is my Mussolini.”

“All I see is butt city. If this is a revolution, it won’t overthrow a car pool.”

Tiara could be cranky, but this was a little over the top, Domino thought. Even if her precious butt was at stake. These rich society ladies were all the same; you had to stand over them with a whip to make them behave.

“May I remind you, Tiara dear, that this gown is a creation that sprang straight from my brain in Paris, where revolutions have been born for centuries.”

“May I suggest, Dominorini dearest, that you overnight your brain from Paris to this room in New York, where we eat revolutions for breakfast and spit them out before noon.”

“May I remind you, Tiara, my magnificent tulip, that I allowed you to jump the queue ahead of Alana, Taffeta and Urbana to wear this creation.”

“May I remind you, my dear sweet Dominobambi, that I was the first one who bought a dress from you when you were still whoring your way through the foothills of Tuscany.”

“May I remind you, Tiara, my glorious rhododendron, that you had the taste of a ski instructor before I took pity on you.”

“May I remind you, Dominobella baby, that I own this hotel, and that you might find yourself flung into the street in ten seconds.”

It was never clearly established who slapped whom. Later, lawyers for both parties claimed the other had initiated the violence. Privately, of course, Tiara told her friends that not only had she slapped the famed couturier, she had also kneed him in the groin, while Domino let it be known that he had smacked Tiara so hard her wig went flying, revealing the unflattering effect of her recent bout with chemotherapy.

Poor Xavier.

To him fell the burden of repairing the rift.

Xavier was Domino’s ex-lover, factotum, and business partner. Among a select circle of cognoscenti, they were known as the Tristan and Isolde of fashion. Domino, sublime in matters of concept and taste, instinctively knew how to intimidate rich patrons. Xavier, the hard-nosed strategist, had the expertise to shuffle deals and finance with flinty-eyed brinkmanship. He’d miraculously engineered the House of Domino through three near-bankruptcies, and launched it into its current eminence, where the name Domino was synonymous with safely outrageous fashion, emblematized by Domino’s signature use of zippers in all shapes, sizes, colors and styles.

“I fertilize, you retain,” Domino was fond of saying. “I am the penis who spills. You are the anus who holds. Creativity and discipline. Our enterprise needs both.”

Their fragrance business, spearheaded by the fabulously successful DOA, was a textbook example of their teamwork. Domino came up with the concept, a twisted bottle adorned with blood-red splatters, while Xavier closed those lucrative contracts with Japan, Germany, and Argentina. The incredibly successful skin cream Sperma (“Every ounce contains a drop of the gift of life, gently harvested from young goatherds in the Urals”) wouldn’t have been profitable if Xavier hadn’t persuaded those Arab potentates to order it by the oil-tanker for their harems. Even the underwear business would never have taken off if Xavier hadn’t refined Domino’s concept. Admittedly, Domino was the one who wanted porn stars in his underwear ads (“They must be thick and juicy, I want that slut look that men have in America”), but Xavier came up with the master stroke of having the silhouettes of their organs appear dimly in shadow play. His was the bass to Domino’s tenor, the jug to Domino’s wine, the logos to Domino’s free-flowing eros.

“You went too far with that Tiara cow, Domino. I’ve sent her a roomful of flowers and a small Picasso, but she sent the Picasso back. Kept the flowers. Now what are we going to do?”

Domino knocked back his vodka, neat in a shot glass. He filled it again.

“Let her rot in her cancer. May it metastasize into facial disfigurement before finishing her off with months of pain no drug can relieve.”

“We can’t let her rot. She has the lease on the Fifth Avenue space where we have your fall collection coming up.”

“I shit on her.” Domino finished rolling a joint, and sucked half of it away in one long fluid breath.

“You can shit on her, but your excrement will fall on a loss of eight million dollars and ten years of goodwill with all the big department stores here.”

“I shit on eight million dollars and a century of goodwill.”

“Something tells me you need to get back to Milan to start work on your ready-to-wear spring collection.”

“I want to fuck. I have been here three days and who is there to fuck?”

“A beautiful boy from Kansas has arrived.”

“I fuck too many boys from Kansas. I am sick with Kansas.”

“I’ll talk to Gargosm.”


“Your New York art dealer. You bought the Henry Moore from him. And the boy from Mississippi.”

“You mean Gargoyle.”

“His name is Gargosm.”

“He likes them too thin. I want the solid meat. Steak, not fish.” Domino laid out two lines of cocaine, and after Xavier declined, snorted up both in the blink of an eyelid.

“I will find you a fish.”

“Not a fish. A steak.”

“I will find you a steak.”

“That cow has us over the barrel. What do we do about her?”

“She is the big sucker for Henry Moore.”

“Xavier, you want me to give up the Henry Moore piece for the vulgar cow on Central Park East?” Domino washed down four Quaaludes with a vodka.

“It will be an inferior piece.”

“She knows the difference. She sucked me dry like the lemon. What do you think of this piece, Domino? This is an important piece, isn’t it, Domino? Pulling my knowledge out of me like the tick gorging itself on the deer’s anus. I shit on her and her cancer.”

“A Henry Moore will soften her up.”

“By the way, which Picasso was it that you sent to her?” Domino stuck his nose in a piece of paper and sniffed out every last puff of heroin.

“A big drawing.”

“Xavier, you are a fool. A slut like that, you have to stick canvas up her hole, not paper. You don’t know the first thing about my customers.” Domino swallowed the corner of a blotter of LSD.

“You don’t know the first thing about your business.”

“I have the instincts. You have the negotiating. I shit on the negotiating.”

“If it weren’t for my negotiating, you’d have no place to shit.”

Domino sighed. “Take the Henry Moore off the mantelpiece. I am filled with the pain. It is a key work, as they say in this country where the population is as tasteless as the food.”

“Thank you. Alfred’s been calling. He’s found another supermodel. Nobody asked him to find one, but you know Alfred. He is Alfred.”

“Supermodel. How boring. Another pretty funnel for the drugs.” Domino took a hit of angel dust, two capsules of Ecstasy, and swallowed three mushrooms without chewing. He followed it with two quick vodkas.

“Maybe we should consider this. We need a new face for your collection. A new angle for the press. And this one’s cheap. She’s also very different.”

“She’s a cripple, maybe? A beautiful cripple? We have overlooked them too long. Let us seize the hour for handicapped chic.”

“No. She’s six foot six and black. The most beautiful woman in the world. And she doesn’t even speak English.”

“What does she speak?” Suddenly worried that the drugs might slow him down a bit, Domino gulped a fistful of amphetamine pills. He jammed them into his mouth. Two or three fell on the floor but he hunted them down.

“Swavimbi. She’s from Ungungu.”

“Where’s Ungungu?”

“Somewhere in Africa.”

“She’s bald, yes?”

“Of course.”

“Just what we need. Another Michael Jordan with tits.”

Check in next week, when we go to Ungungu, and meet the photographer and his extraordinary model.