Popsicle #27: LBM Camp for Socially Awkward Storytellers


The other day my daughter and I had a conversation about the event I was hosting at my studio, The Camp For Socially Awkward Storytellers. While she agreed that I’m something of an expert on social-awkwardness, she disputed the notion that I’m a storyteller. “You take pictures and put them into books,” she said, “but they aren’t really stories.”

Her words bruised a bit, but deep down I knew she was right. I know very little about storytelling. If anything, the camp was an elaborate con to get fifteen exceptional artists from around the world to travel to Minnesota to teach me about storytelling. Man, did it work. In five short days I learned more about the possibilities of visual storytelling than I’d probably learn in a year of grad school. But there was another lesson of equal importance: the value of having real encounters with real people in the real world.


I sometimes feel like I’m drowning in digital culture. More and more of my daily life is lived in a virtual space behind the screen of my computer. On Saturday night, this virtual space was turned inside out. Fifteen flesh and blood artists projected images onto a screen in front of a flesh and blood audience. The result was, in a word, alive.


In the last few weeks I’ve expanded my “social network” to include Instagram. As expected, I quickly became caught up in the Pavlovian ego-boost of the ‘like’ count. After Saturday night, I understand why screen actors return to the stage. The sound of people laughing and clapping means more than a million ‘likes.’

For the fourth time in 27 posts, George Saunders:

I began to understand art as a kind of black box the reader enters. He enters in one state of mind and exits in another… The writer… can put whatever he wants in there. What’s important is that something undeniable and nontrivial happens to the reader between entry and exit… The black box is meant to change us.

 A ‘like’ is not a change. Nor is a thousand ‘likes.’ I believe virtual social networks have great creative potential, but it is almost impossible to quantify. Sometimes you just need to climb into the black box with other people.


I’m so grateful to everyone who climbed into that box with me last week. Along with thanking the Soap Factory and their amazing audience, I want to individually thank the camp participants:

Wenxin Zhang, Tara Wray, Caitlin Warner, Jim Reed, Diana Rangel, Bucky Miller, Colin Matthes, Adam Forrester, Brad Farwell, April Dobbins, Elaine Bleakney, Julian Bleecker, Jeff Barnett-Winsby, Horatio Baltz, Delaney Allen.

The visiting artists: Brian Beatty, David Sollie, Vince Leo.

Our interns: Yara Van der VeldenKayla Huett, Phil Bologna.

And the LBM team: Brad Zellar, Carrie Thompson, Hans Seeger, Jason Polan, Ethan Jones, Galen Fletcher.

I truly feel changed.



Popsicle #26: The Adventures of a Photographer

The other day while getting a haircut, the barber asked the dreaded question – what do you do? It’s an easy answer, but the inevitable follow up is deadly – What do you photograph? After my conversation-killing response – lot’s of stuff, it’s hard to explain – I slumped down in the barber chair into the quicksand of self-questioning.

The protagonist of Italo Calvino’s short story ‘The Adventures of a Photographer’ engages in a similar form of oppositional self-definition.

When spring comes, the city’s inhabitants, by the hundreds of thousands, go out on Sundays with leather cases over their shoulders. And they photograph one another…Seeing a good deal of his friends colleagues, Antonion Paraggi, a nonphotographer, sensed a growning isolation. Every week he discovered that the conversations of those who praise the sensitivity of a filter or discourse on the number of DINs were swelled by the voice of yet another to whom he had confided until yesterday, convinced that they were shared, his remarks about an activity that to him seemed so unexciting, so lacking in surprises.

Instead of just continuing to argue against the practice, Antonio experiments with a form of anti-photography. Whenever he’d see a family organizing itself for an impromptu portrait, Antonio offered to take the camera. But in each case he would “make the lens veer to capture the masts of ships or the spires of steeples, or to decapitate grandparents, uncles and aunts.” He insists that his reason for doing this isn’t mean-spirited, but philosophical.

“… Because once you’ve begun,” he would preach, “there is no reason why you should stop. The line between the reality that is photographed because it seems beautiful to us and the reality that seems beautiful because it has been photographed is very narrow. If you take a picture of Pierluca because he’s building a sand castle, there is no reason not to take his picture while he’s crying because the castle has collapsed, and then while the nurse consoles him by helping him find a sea shell in the sand. The minute you start saying “Ah, how beautiful! We must photograph it!” you are already close to the view of the person who think that everything that is not photographed is lost, as if it had never existed, and that therefore, in order to really live, you must photograph as much as you can, and to photograph as much as you can you must either live in the most photographable way possible, or else consider photographable every moment of your life. The first course leads to stupidity; the second to madness.”

Antonio’s argument is as good as any for why I hadn’t joined Instagram. But as the title of Calvino’s story suggests, Antonio eventually does become a photographer. “His antiphotographic polemic could be fought only from within the black box,” writes Calvino.  In a similar spirit, I eventually gave Instagram a try. Just like Antonio, I tried to make photos that were more about ideas than pretty pictures. But then, without irony or conceptual forethought, I felt compelled to post a cute picture of my cat. To make matters worse, this picture received more ‘likes’ than any other picture I’d posted. Just like Antonio, I fell into a philosophical tailspin.

What do you photograph?

The next time I’m asked this question, I’m just going to say my cat.


Popsicle #25: The Autoconstrucción Suites

This week my daughter and I made an unplanned visit to The Walker Art Center. What’s the point of this? Carmen asked when we came across Sherry Levine’s Black Mirror in the permanent collection. I considered giving a clumsy lecture on Duchamp and Ad Reinhart, but just shrugged my shoulders and moved on.

In an exhibition on contemporary abstract painting, we came across a curled sheet of photographic paper by Matt Connors called Lisp (green). Once again Carmen asked for an explanation. Not knowing anything about Connors, and still not wanting to give the Duchamp for Dummies talk, I just said that art doesn’t need to be fancy, that it can be just about anything, even an idea. She gave me her patented I-see-through-your-grown-up-bullshit look.


Next we visited a mid-career survey exhibition of the Mexican artist Abraham Cruzvillegas. Before she was able to ask me any questions, we both read a statement by Cruzvillegas on the wall:

For the first twenty years of my life I watched the slow construction of the house where my family lived; we all took part in the process. Against the background of a mass invasion of immigrants from the countryside, who needs – like housing – were very specific, the construction of my house, of my colonia (district), began in the 1960s, in an area of volcanic rock (Pedregales de Coyoacán) in the south of Mexico City…

Because it was built with no funding and no architectural plan, today the house looks chaotic, almost unusable, yet every detail, every corner has a reason to be where it is…

Buckminster Fuller said that matter should be organized by sympathy, a concept that I apply to my collections of objects, images, and sounds as well as my three-dimensional wok.

Through minimal transformations, with no explanations or stories and possibly without much skill, my work is the proof that I am alive.

The irony is that this wall placard was a story and as such provided a way into the work for Carmen (and her father). Cool, look at that – she said pointing to a very simple sculpture of scarves hanging off bamboo fishing rods. I’m still not sure if Carmen and I were responding to Cruzvillegas’ aesthetic sympathy or to his story, but as we circled the exhibition for a second time, we were utterly charmed.


To try to get a better grip on Cruzvillegas, I purchased the exhibition catalog, The Autoconstrucción Suites. Designed by Dante Carlos and Emmet Byrne, the book masterfully communicates the spirit of Cruzvillegas’ work. The highlight, for me, was the manifesto-like definitions scattered alphabetically throughout the book. Here are some of my favorites

affirmative: All projects to be made out of nothing, considering them both separately and as a whole, as a challenge for doing things as optimistically as possible, even in the worst situation, standing for something, believing.

blind date: Accepting work, art, reality, as a love affair: it can grow or it can collapse.

communal: Sharing, exchanging, bartering as dynamics in projects: information, experience, knowledge, technique, tools, language, are goods for this. It is a capital beyond money. Exhibitions and projects are generous this way as open fields in which individuals wander, finding peers to be with. Exhibitions are archipelagos of solitudes.

definitely unfinished: My identity. Exhibitions are places where nouns and verbs of sentences to be completed are presented. Artworks are only completed – many different ways, even contradictory – through interpretation. They are completed or transformed by people, curators, other animals, other artworks, context.

emotional: I can’t avoid being in love, sad, or angry, and it makes me cry.

fragmentary: Contradictory elements making a whole; there’s no chance for mistakes. Tales are short moments of experience or imagination. Married pieces from clashing contexts make beautiful conversations. A book of tales makes a universe.

generous: Providing things and/or knowledge to oneself is more generous than promising or pretending to give messages to anybody. I think of projects as shares or bits of my life-term research

happy: I’m pregnant.

inefficient: Well done, badly done, undone. Many times it is better to leave things undone, definitely unfinished.

joyful: Inventing the rules of a game to be played every day in different ways. Rules are dictated from specific needs; then it can be played capriciously, with ingenuity and pleasure. If the game can be played collectively, it could be better, depending on the people you invite and on their will to share, learn, and take risks together.

renewed: Renewing commitment and engagement is crucial to keep works and life fresh. Renovating the contract comes from opening the eyes, ears, and heart. Sometimes it’s necessary to conclude instead of renewing. You then renovate yourself, your practice, vocabulary, language, discourse, work. Destruction is not necessarily the opposite of construction: you can construct a new door by hammering a wall.

warm: A warm system means an organic organization of re-arrangeable elements, in which subjectivity, affection, emotion, but mostly needs, rule. An exhibition or a book can be warm systems.

After reading Cruzvillegas’ warm book and exhibition, I felt renewed. I walked outside and gazed upon the dead patches on our lawn (that none of our neighbors have) and my children’s scattered toys (that every other parent picks up), and for once wasn’t annoyed:


Not long after photographing this autoconstrucción, I decided to set aside my long held hostility toward Instagram and gave it a try. Would it be possible, I wondered, to approach this communal and fragmentary medium with the spirit of generosity as Cruzvillegas describes it (providing things and/or knowledge to oneself as shares or bits of life-term research)?

It’s too early to tell. All I can say is I’m Pregnant!


Popsicle #24: Photographic Memory

Since the family album is the progenitor of the photobook, I occasionally collect stranger’s albums to see what I can learn. I recently purchased an album of a Westerner named Frank traveling in Japan in the 1950’s. It is fascinating to try and read the visual clues and piece together his story. Is he a soldier who remained in Japan after the war? Is he on a spiritual quest (there are a number of pictures of a man he simply calls ‘The Priest’)? What is his nationality (he calls his pictures ‘Fotos’)?

In many ways, the lack of information, the freedom to imagine Frank’s story, is what makes the pictures come alive. If Frank were a family member whom I knew everything about, the same book would have an entirely different aesthetic engine.

I thought about Frank and the power of photographic mystery while watching Ross McElwee’s 2011 documentary film, Photographic Memory (available streaming on Netflix). Like all of McElwee’s movies, Photographic Memory is a first person autobiographical film that explores a number of big themes (parenthood, adolescence, creativity). But the central mystery that propels the narrative is this photograph:


This picture is of a woman named Maud who was McElwee’s girlfriend while he was a 20-year-old living abroad in France. McElwee was an aspiring photographer at the time, but he wasn’t the one who made this picture. In fact, he only took two or three pictures of Maud, all from a great distance. But this is the picture that he carried in his wallet for a year after leaving France. McElwee shows this photograph several times throughout the film, as though he is implanting it in the viewer’s own memory.

At the beginning of Photographic Memory, McElwee doesn’t even remember Maud’s last name. But over the course of the film, he returns to France and learns not only who made the picture but also the photographer’s fascinating back-story.

But will McElwee track down Maude? Late into the film, it is uncertain weather or not he will ever find her. Then, when he finally gets her contact information, he’s uncertain whether or not he really wants to see her. Will it destroy the mystery?

Having imprinted the beatific image of the young Maude into the viewer’s mind, the audience is left with a similar mix of curiosity and trepidation. Forty years later, will Maude’s skyward gaze have lost its buoyant, dreamy beauty?

Do you really want to know the story of Maude (or Frank), or do you want to imagine it? That is not only the central question of this film; it is one of the most vexing questions facing photographers and storytellers.

I still can’t tell you much about Frank. But if you want see what Maude looks like now, click here. But are you really sure you want to do it?

Popsicle #23 The Braindead Megaphone

Of the twenty-two Popsicle posts I’ve written this year, my favorite was last week’s post on Reality Hunger. But it was also the longest one I’ve written. I’m certain that very few readers managed to make their way through the whole damn thing.  I was even more certain after reading an article on Slate entitled ‘You Won’t Finish This Article – Why People Online Won’t Read To The End.

I’m as guilty of this as everyone else (I skimmed the Slate article). That is why I need a printed version of everything I want to read seriously. It is the only way I can truly digest the material.

Which brings me back to this quote from George Saunders (for the 3rd time in 23 posts):

I began to understand art as a kind of black box the reader enters. He enters in one state of mind and exits in another… The writer… can put whatever he wants in there. What’s important is that something undeniable and nontrivial happens to the reader between entry and exit… The black box is meant to change us.

After reading Reality Hunger, I was interested to see how Saunders would treat the black box of non-fiction. Unsurprisingly, he’s very good. My favorite essay in the book is about a teenager in India meditating under a tree for months without food or water. The essay is very much in the spirit of Reality Hunger in that it ends up being as much about George Saunders, and the reader, as it is about the boy in India.

I noted two general reactions to the statement Hey, I heard this kid in Nepal has been meditating uninterruptedly in the jungle for the past seven months without any food or water.

One type of American—let’s call them Realists—will react by making a snack-related joke (“So he finally gets up, and turns out he’s sitting on a big pile of Butterfinger wrappers!”) and will then explain that it’s physically impossible to survive even one week without food or water, much less seven months.

A second type—let’s call them Believers—will say, “Wow, that’s amazing,” they wish they could go to Nepal tomorrow, and will then segue into a story about a transparent spiritual being who once appeared on a friend’s pool deck with a message about world peace.

Try it: Go up to the next person you see, and say, Hey, I heard this kid in Nepal has been meditating uninterruptedly in the jungle for the past seven months without any food or water.

 See what they say.

 Or say it to yourself, and see what you say.

 What I said, finally, was: This I have to see.

The thing that drives Saunders’ narrative, the reason we read to the end, is that we’ll eventually get to ‘see’ the boy too, through Saunders’ eyes.

How frustrating, then, to look up the article on GQ online and see a picture of the Buddha Boy at the very top of the page. (DON’T CLICK ON THIS LINK if you have any interest in reading this fantastic story). The picture completely undermines the suspense of the narrative.

In an essay entitled ‘The Perfect Gerbil,’ Saunders talks about storytelling:

When I was a kid I had one of these Hot Wheels devices designed to look like a little gas station. Inside the gas station were two spinning rubber wheels. One’s little car would weakly approach the gas station, then be sent forth by the spinning rubber wheels to take another lap around the track, or more often, fly out and hit one’s sister in the face.

A story can be thought of as a series of these little gas stations. The main point is to get the reader around the track; that is, to the end of the story. Any other pleasures a story may offer (theme, character, moral uplift) are dependent on this…

So if the writer can put together enough gas stations, of sufficient power, distributed at just the right places around the track, he wins: the reader works his way through the full execution of the pattern, and is ready to receive the end of the story.

My primary goal with LBM is to experiment with the combination of photographs and text in book form. Rather than serving as speed-bump illustrations, it is instructive to think of photographs as functioning like little narrative gas stations. Putting the picture of Buddha Boy at the beginning of the story is like putting all of the gas stations at the beginning of a road trip.

Midway through Saunders’ story, the subject of photography comes up when he finally encounters the Buddha Boy:

The young monk says something to Subel, who tells me it’s time to take my photo. My photo? I have a camera but don’t want to risk disturbing the boy with the digital shutter sound. Plus, I don’t know how to turn off the flash, so I will be, at close range, taking a flash photo directly into the boy’s sight line, the one thing explicitly prohibited by that sign back there.

“You have to,” Subel says. “That’s how they know you’re a journalist.”

I hold up my notebook. Maybe I could just take some notes?

“They’re simple people, man,” he says. “You have to take a photo.”

The problem with the GQ website is that they are basically saying the same thing to their audience: “They’re simple people, man.” This is essentially the thesis of the title essay in The Braindead Megaphone. So I’ll end with this gas station:

Mass media’s job is to provide this simulacra of the world, upon which we build our ideas. There’s another name for this simulacra-building: storytelling.

Megaphone Guy is the storyteller, but his stories are not so good. Or rather, his stories are limited. His stories have not had time to gestate ­– they go out too fast and to too broad an audience. Storytelling is a language-rich enterprise, but Megaphone Guy does not have time to generate powerful language. The best stories proceed from a mysterious truth-seeking impulse that narrative has when revised extensively; they are complex and baffling and ambiguous; they tend to make us slower to act, rather than quicker. They make us more humble, cause us to empathize with people we don’t know, because they help us imagine these people, and when we imagine them­–if the storytelling is good enough–we imagine them as being, essentially, like us.

Popsicle #22: Reality Hunger

#1) While browsing in a bookstore for this week’s popsicle, it occurred to me that the act of looking for a book is often as much of a learning experience as the book I eventually read.

#2) On a fruitless search for James Wood’s book, How Fiction Works, I stumbled upon Reality Hunger: A Manifesto by David Shields. Normally any self-proclaimed ‘manifesto’ written after 1960 is something I wouldn’t pick up, but then I got sucked in by the blurbs.

#3) I’ve just finished reading Reality Hunger and I’m lit up by it –astonished, intoxicated, ecstatic, overwhelmed…It really is an urgent book: a piece of art-making itself, a sublime, exciting, outrageous visionary volume. – Johnathan Lethem

#4) Opening the book, I noticed that rather than chapters, Reality Hunger is divided into 618 short sections. I read the first few.

#5) Number Three: An artistic movement, albeit an organic and as-yet-unstated one, is forming. What are its key components? A deliberate unartiness: “raw” material, seemingly unprocessed, unfiltered, uncensored, and unprofessional. (What, in the last half century, has been more influential than Abraham Zapruder’s Super-8 of the Kennedy assassination?) Randomness, openness to accident and serendipity, spontaneity; artistic risk, emotional urgency and intensity, reader/viewer participation; an overly literal tone, as if a reporter were viewing a strange culture; plasticity of form, pointillism; criticism as autobiography; self-reflexivity, self-ethnography, anthropological autobiography; a blurring (to the point of invisibility) of any distinction between fiction and nonfiction: the lure and blur of the real.

#6) I bought the book and devoured it as quickly as I could.

#7) Number Two-Hundred-Thirty-Nine: Living as we perforce do in a manufactured and artificial world, we yearn for the “real,” semblances of the real. We want to pose something nonfictional against all the fabrication–autobiographical frissons or framed or filmed or caught moments that, in their seeming unrehearsedness, possess at least the possibility of breaking through the clutter. More invention, more fabrication aren’t going to do this. I doubt very much that I’m the only person who’s finding it more and more difficult to want to read or write novels.

#8) A lot of what Shield’s talks about made me think about the work I’ve been doing the last few years. He made one remark that might just be the mission statement for my current project, The LBM Dispatch.

#9) Number Five-Hundred-Six (excerpt): Walt Whitman once said, “The true poem is the daily paper.” Not, though, the daily paper as it’s published: both straight-ahead journalism and airtight art are, to me, insufficient; I want instead something teetering excitedly in between.

#10) As much as I enjoyed the book, there was one thing that was nagging at me.

#11) Number Five-Hundred-Fifty-Three: Literary intensity is inseparable from self-indulgence and self-exposure.

#12) James Wood writes about Reality Hunger saying “He [Shields] rants a bit, apparently fearful that if he were quieter we would not believe in his sincerity; hungry for his own reality, certainly, he also mentions himself a great deal.”

#13) Throughout the book, Shields makes reference to Phillip Lopate’s introduction to The Art of the Personal Essay. I tracked down a copy and was struck by one section entitled ‘The Problem of Egotism.’ All personal essayists “have had to wrestle with the stench of the ego,” writes Lopate, “A person can write about himself from angles that are charmed, fond, delightfully nervy; alter the lens just a little and he crosses over into gloating, pettiness, defensiveness, score settling (which includes self-hate), or whining about his victimization.”

#14) As usual, when I read about literature, I think about photography. More often than not this gets me to thinking about Robert Frank. What makes The Americans so great, I think, is that it is the work of a profoundly introspective artist looking outward. The scales are balanced. While I love some of Frank’s later work, much of it looks like it was made by a sixteen year old emo kid drowning in introspection. I wish he’d spent more time after The Americans pushing back out into the world.

#15) My least favorite Popsicle reading thus far was The Unfortunates by B.S. Johnson. I wrote this in my post: “Johnson is adamant that art speak the truth. Though defining himself as a novelist, Johnson was opposed to fiction. “Telling stories is telling lies,” he famously wrote, “The two terms, truth and fiction, are opposites.” Consequently, the pamphlets in The Unfortunates read less like a novel than like artful Facebook status updates from a depressed, self-absorbed acquaintance.”

#16) One of the favorite things I’ve read all year was Jess Walter’s non-fiction essay that closes his book of short stories, We Live in Water. Entitled ‘Statistical Abstract for My Home of Spokane, Washington’ the piece consists of fifty numbered sections. Many of these sections simply consist of factual information about Spokane.

#17) Number Six: On any given day in Spokane, Washington, there are more adult men per capita riding children’s BMX bikes than in any other city in the world.

#18) Intermixed with this data are personal stories and observations by Walter about his hometown.

#19) Number Twenty-Seven: I remember back when I was a newspaper reporter, I covered a hearing filled with South Hill homeowners, men and women from old-money Spokane, vociferously complaining about a group home going into their neighborhood. They were worried about falling property values, rising crime, and “undesirables.” An activist I spoke to called these people NIMBYs. It was the first time I’d heard the term. I thought he meant NAMBLA—the North American Man/Boy Love Association. That seemed a little harsh to me.

#20) I love that Walter balances his own experience with hard data about his hometown. Instead of being lost in the double mirror of solipsism, Walter keeps looking out the window.

#21) My favorite Robert Frank picture is his View From A Hotel Window in Butte, Montana. It is both a picture of Butte and a self-portrait:


#22) I lose Frank when he makes pictures like Sick of Goodby’s (1978)


#23) In 1977 Robert Frank said something in an interview that might just be the mission statement for the entire Little Brown Mushroom enterprise: “If I continued with still photography, I would try to be more honest and direct about why I go out there and do it. And I guess the only way I could do it is with writing. I think that’s one of the hardest things to do—combine words and photographs. But I would certainly try it. It would probably fail; I have never liked what I wrote about my photographs yet. That would be the only way I could justify going out in the streets and photographing again.”

#24) In Lines of My Hand (1972) Robert Frank shows four pictures of smiling high school kids from Port Gibson Mississippi:


#25) The picture is accompanied by the following text:

KIDS: What are you doing here? Are you from New York?
ME: I´m just taking pictures.
KIDS: Why?
ME: For myself – just to see…
KIDS: He must be a communist. He looks like one.
Why don´t you go to the other side of town and watch the niggers play?

#26) Shield’s ends Reality Hunger with a quote from Anne Carson’s book Decreation:

#27) Number Six-Hundred-Eighteen: Part of what I enjoy in documentary is the sense of banditry. To loot someone else’s life or sentences and make off with a point of view, which is called “objective” because one can make anything into an object by treating it this way, is exciting and dangerous. Let us see who controls the danger.   






Popsicle #21: Leaving the Atocha Station

“Once when I was driving through Colorado with a friend, traveling down a narrow mountain pass, we came upon an accident. A pickup truck and a car had collided, and from fifty feet away we could see the blood. We pulled over and ran to help. All the time I was running, all the time I was trying, with my friend’s help, to pry open the door of the car in which a nine-months-pregnant woman had been impaled through the abdomen, I was thinking: I must remember this! I must remember my feelings! How would I describe this? I do not think I behaved less efficiently than my nonliterary friend, who was probably not thinking such thoughts; in fact, I may possibly have behaved more swiftly and efficiently, trying in my mind to create a noble scene. Nonetheless, what I felt above all was disgust at my mind’s detachment, its inhumane fascination with the precise way the blood pumped, the way flesh around a wound becomes instantly proud, that is, puffed up, and so on. I would have been glad at that moment to be a literary innocent.” – John Gardener, On Becoming A Novelist

If Adam Gordon, the poet-protagonist of the poet Ben Lerner’s first novel, Leaving the Atocha Station, were to encounter the grisly accident Gardner describes above, he wouldn’t use it as fodder for a novel. He’d probably just walk away from the scene and begin crafting a poem about his own creative listlessness compared to Gardener. Where Gardener laments the novelist’s detachment, in Leaving the Atocha Station, Lerner laments, and praises, the poet’s double-detachment.

On the third page of Leaving the Atocha Station, Gordon says: “Insofar as I was interested in the arts, I was interested in the disconnect between my experience of actual artworks and the claims made on their behalf; the closest I’d come to having a profound experience of art was probably the experience of this distance, a profound experience of the absence of profundity.”

The closest Gorden comes to a moment of true empathy during his time in Madrid is while instant messaging with his friend Cyrus in Mexico. Cyrus tells a gruesome story about a drowning that he and his girlfriend witnessed. But the focus of Cyrus’s story is the argument that this event created with his girlfriend.

Cyrus: She was shaken up in her way. She said she wished she’d never got in the water. But she also seemed excited. Like we had had a “real” experience.

Me: I guess you had

Cyrus: Yeah but I had this sense – this sense that the whole point of the trip for her – to Mexico – was for something like this, something this “real” to happen. I don’t really believe that, but I felt it, and I said something about how she had got some good material for her novel.

Me: is she writing a novel

Cyrus: Who knows

After finishing this remarkable novel, I read a dozen interviews with Ben Lerner. Like everybody else, I guess I was curious the extent to which Ben Lerner is Adam Gordon. My favorite interview was done by his friend Cyrus Console.

Cyrus: Adam Gordon…is always wondering if he’s capable of having a genuine experience of art. And yet the novel is full of Adam’s profound insights into the arts, especially poetry. I wonder if we could start by discussing this tension or complexity of Adam’s? It strikes me as central to the novel.

Ben: I think you’re right that it’s central. And I think the way a suspicion about and a commitment to the arts can coexist is one of the most interesting things about that domain of practices and experiences we think of as artistic. For the narrator of my novel, the issue isn’t just that there is bad art, or that there is a lot of bullshit in the arts, or bullshit artists, or that people pretend to be moved when they aren’t—what he’s trying to come to terms with is the fact that his interest in poetry, painting, etc., is largely grounded in the distance between the supposed potential of art and actual artworks.

Toward the end of the interview Console and Lerner discuss Lerner’s use of photographs in the book.

Cyrus: How does the novel’s use of images—I mean the photo- graphically reproduced images you’ve included in the book—relate to these concerns about mediation and spectacle?

 Ben: One of the things that interests me about the use of images in a novel is how it complicates the prose’s relationship to what you could call “optical realism,” the way novelistic writing is often given the goal of dissolving itself into an image, a vision of a world. The claim of writing to make you see is interestingly strained, simultaneously restricted and enhanced, by the juxtaposition of prose with actual images, even ambiguous ones: the difference between reading and looking is more acutely felt.

But then Lerner goes on to discuss the unreliability of photography’s supposed “optical realism.”

Ben: There is an image that might be of Teresa, or somebody who looks like Teresa, but it’s a fragment, cropped so as to withhold the eyes, which the novel, as I mentioned, often, but never fully, describes—whatever “fully” would mean. And then there are captions that inflect how we view the images, so that they end up illustrating the problematic nature of the illustrative as much as actually anchoring the prose in a visually intelligible world.

After reading this, I decided to do a Google Image Search on Atocha Station bombings. This is one of the first images I found:


I’ve spent a lot of time looking at this picture and have a bunch of questions:

  • Is the man holding a baby or a jacket? Does it matter?
  • Why is the blood so perfectly covering one side of the man’s face? If the other side were shown, how would it change the picture?
  • Is the woman looking at the photographer, the bloody man, or somewhere else?
  • How is the photographer’s sense of engagement or detachment different from that of the novelist or poet?

Answer: Who knows

Photography, it seems to me, has as hard of a time dealing with the real as novels or poetry. And if the picture above isn’t good enough at “illustrating the problematic nature of the illustrative,” look at the way this picture of Atocha Station was reproduced in two British newspapers:


After looking at these pictures, I decided to track down the John Ashbery poem “Leaving the Atocha Station”  from his 1962 book, The Tennis Court Oath. An excerpt:

Leaving the Atocha Station      steel
infected bumps the screws
          everywhere      wells
abolished top ill-lit
scarecrow falls      Time, progress and good sense
strike of shopkeepers dark blood

I also read the book’s title poem and was struck by the first two lines: What had you been thinking about / the face studiously bloodied

This brought me to a final question/joke/koan: A poet, a novelist and a photographer leave Atocha station after the massacre – which one sees the event more truthfully?

Answer: His girlfriend



Popsicle #20: For the Fighting Spirit of the Walnut

As a teenager, I was a huge fan of John Cage. He seemed more cutting-edge than the coolest rock star.  If it had been possible, I would have papered my bedroom wall with his posters. (I used to have recurring dreams of meeting Cage). But as with most teenage crushes, my enthusiasm waned. Eventually I came to find Cage and the whole Zen-mystique surrounding him almost embarrassing.

But I’ve been thinking about Cage a lot lately. I even pulled out his books from the same basement bookshelf that holds my senior high school yearbook. In Silence, his book of writing and lectures, I read the following story:

After I had been studying with him for two years, Schoenberg said, “In order to write music, you must have a feeling for harmony.” I explained to him that I had no feeling for harmony. He then said that I would always encounter an obstacle, that it would be as though I came to a wall through which I could not pass. I said, “In that case I will devote my life to beating my head against that wall.”

Twenty years after setting Cage aside, I have a whole new admiration for his head banging. Beneath all of the Zen gentleness I can see how hard he fought to push music to new places.


I thought about Cage often while reading For The Fighting Spirit of the Walnut. Originally published in 1982, but translated into English for the first time in 2008, Takashi Hiranide’s writing doesn’t look like traditional poetry. The book is composed of 111 interlinking prose paragraphs that often resemble Cage’s Indeterminacy lectures.

These poems range from the truly prosaic:

(28) I walk along the clear patch of sun that is still too cold for batting. Nevertheless, on the riverbed, the young boys shouting and pelting the abandoned car with stones.

To surreal:

(32) Why not use your fluttering tongue to wipe the sweat off of that starling who is trying to strip off her wings. It’s so distant of you, my arboreal lover on the outskirts of town. From the shadow of the clothes hanging in a thrift shop, a single antelope watches you. Steel-colored eyes of contempt.

To scientific:

(13) The strange insect called scarabaeus skillfully constructs round pellets from the dung of hoofed animals such as sheep, cows, horses, and takes them to an appropriate place to be slowly consumed. For its larvae, special pellets are made by selecting only the dung of sheep, which has the most nutritional value and is easiest to digest.

But many of my favorite “poems” are those which reflect back on the book’s own making:

(44) Verse finds strength in being segmented. Dependent on neither future nor past, it persistently dangles between line space and line space. Like a child who cries all alone in the dark for a long time, it tries to tear itself as far away as possible from the shadows of time. Moreover, they are the ones that are, through segmentation, placed into lines.

(77) I have been organizing fragments for a long time now. Individual cul-de-sacs filling a tote bag are each driven into a form with much less leeway, and before they manage to connect with one another, are left in the hands of yet another display-belt of chance. The longer the work continues, more hands that cross over from one fragment to another change into an intermediate term equivalent to a fragment.

While reading Fighting Spirit of the Walnut, I pictured Hiraide clawing away at the formal limitations of the medium, forcing it to do something it doesn’t normally do. As with Cage, this is achieved as much with silence as with sound. On his website, Hiraide describes himself as “one who writes and erases poems in Japanese.”

Hiraide’s “fighting spirit” ignited my own long-lost teenage obsessions for Cage and quiet boundary pushing. It also led me to crack open that old high school yearbook. For a long time I was embarrassed of my high school ‘Memories,’ but now I’m kind of proud:


Popsicle #19: Wilson by Daniel Clowes

I don’t know if it is the change in altitude or the pollen count in Minnesota, but my normal post-Dispatch funk after traveling to Colorado has reached clinical levels.  The other day it got so bad that I checked webmd.com for the symptoms of depression. One of them was “Loss of interest in activities or hobbies once pleasurable.” I guess that explains why I’ve been avoiding this Popsicle assignment. To get back on track, I made a trip to Barnes and Noble. In hopes of curing my post-Dispatch blues, I first visited the Eastern Religion section. But the various “Tao of” books just made me want to go home and watch more episodes of Burn Notice (another sign of depression?).

Eventually I made my way to the graphic novel section where I found a copy of Wilson by Daniel Clowes. The book is a portrayal of a self-obsessed, misanthropic blowhard named Wilson. After twenty minutes of reading the book, I felt cheered up.


In the middle of the book, Wilson goes to prison. “I actually used to kind-of fantasize about going to prison,” he says, “it seems like a good place to do some serious thinking…collect your thoughts, y’know?” These six panels represent Wilson’s unsuccessful search for enlightenment during his six years in prison:


“To read Wilson is to grapple with some bleak truths about ourselves,” writes Glen Weldon on NPR, “We are self-involved, ungenerous, even cruel.” Here’s the question: why does such nihilism provide comfort? Would I have been better off in the long run if I’d chosen a book from the Eastern Religion section?

It turns out that Wilson eventually finds a bit of Zen wisdom. On the last page of the book, an elderly Wilson stares out the window and has a revelation:




Popsicle #18: The Zebra Storyteller


I’m still on the road in Colorado without much time to read. But the other day in the van Brad made me aware of the storyteller Spencer Holst. As we continue to troll in and out of the Rockies looking for people with interesting stories, finding this little fable by Holst was just about perfect:

The Zebra Storyteller

Once upon a time there was a Siamese cat who pretended to be a lion and spoke inappropriate Zebraic.

That language is whinnied by the race of striped horses in Africa.

Here now: An innocent zebra is walking in a jungle and approaching from another direction is the little cat; they meet.

“Hello there!” says the Siamese cat in perfectly pronounced Zebraic, “It certainly is a pleasant day, isn’t it? The sun is shining, the birds are singing, isn’t the world a lovely place to live today!”

The zebra is so astonished at hearing Siamese cat speaking like a zebra, why—he’s just fit to be tied.

So the little cat quickly ties him up, kills him, and drags the better parts of the carcass back to his den.

The cat successfully hunted zebras many months in this manner, dining on filet mignon of zebra every night, and from the better hides he made bow neckties and wide belts after the fashion of the decadent princes of the Old Siamese court.

He began boasting to his friends he was a lion, and he gave them as proof the fact he hunted zebras.

The delicate noses of the zebras told them there was really no lion in the neighborhood. The zebra deaths caused many to avoid the region. Superstitious, they decided the woods were haunted by the ghost of a lion.

One day the storyteller of the zebras was ambling, and through his mind ran plots for stories to amuse the other zebras, when suddenly his eyes brightened, and he said, “That’s it! I’ll tell a story about a Siamese cat who learns to speak our language! What an idea! That’ll make ’em laugh!”

Just then the Siamese cat appeared before him, and said, “Hello there! Pleasant day today, isn’t it!”

The zebra storyteller wasn’t fit to be tied at hearing a cat speaking his language, because he’d been thinking about that very thing.

He took a good look at the cat, and he didn’t know why, but there was something about his looks he didn’t like, so he kicked him with a hoof and killed him.

That is the function of the storyteller.