ocvictor: ("I've always been bad.")
I think I confuse people sometimes, especially with these past few weeks' worth of blog posts, bopping around from superheroes to poetry, DADT to television, comic books to race. I think, sometimes, other people compartmentalize these things in a way that I don't, that they see these things as unconnected, whereas I see nothing but connections. I see our literature as comprising not just the novels and poetry that our academia tell us are important, but also the populist, the low-end, even the trash. Our literature is house of many mansions, and it has room for Harry Potter and the Paris Review, for comic books and television shows and slam poetry. It's all our literature, and you can't ignore all but a fraction of it and say you have an understanding of how it works. Because it's all connected. It's all representations of how our culture works itself out through language and metaphor. It's the place where we can hold our issues up to the light and examine them in relative safety.

These blog posts have all been an examination of a single metaphor, manifesting itself in myriad forms: the hero. "The Hero With a Thousand Faces," as Joseph Campbell said (and kudos to whomever won the betting pool as to how long it would take for me to bring him into this mess.) But not just any hero. No, I've been trying to come to grips with how the hero manifests now, whether he or she is named Buffy Summers, Harry Potter, Olivia Dunham, Hiro Nakamura, Veronica Mars, Jack Bauer, Deborah Morgan, Jaimie Reyes, Kim Possible, Jack Harkness, Kate Kane, Virgil Hawkins, Renee Montoya, Aang, Stephanie Brown, Malcolm Reynolds, Martha Jones or Ryan Choi. And I think, amid all of this, something's become clear to me: We're still struggling to enter the 21st Century.

You'd think something like that would be as easy as turning a calendar, wouldn't you? But it isn't. The past and the future are siege engines firing back and forth at the present, to steal a line from someone or other (Warren Ellis, maybe?), and we stand somewhere in the fallout. Everything around us changes, and we find ourselves facing questions that seem almost ridiculous, questioning assumptions about race, misogyny, homophobia, war, violence, economics, health care, even the distribution of information. Even the fairness of the platform we move that information around on. It's almost mind-boggling, and I think I can have a modicum of sympathy for people overwhelmed by it all, this idea that some of our basic assumptions of the world need to not only be re-evaluated, but built entirely from the bottom up. I listen to some of the Tea Party fever rage, and I keep hearing the same phrase, over and over again. "I want my country back."

Here's the sharpest, kindest answer: You can't have it. No one ever gets the past back, no matter how badly you think you want it. And really, you probably don't want it anywhere near as much as you think you do. History, for all its hardships, generally does move in the right direction. As a whole, we do become collectively more free, healthier, less violent and more comfortable as we move forward, but it sucks a lot along the way. It, really, really does. Every 80 years or so, American history pretty much takes a nose dive, and spends 10 to 20 years or so rebuilding. We're probably in the middle of that right now, and to tell you the truth, I have no idea what the other side is going to look like. History says it'll probably be a bit better, all around. History lies a lot, to steal another line, and there are still places in this country (never mind the rest of the world) where it still won't look that great. History's a zigzagging line, but the progression, over all, is usually upward.

But the past doesn't go away, either. Sometimes that's a good thing. The Bill of Rights becomes the syntax of our political vocabulary, sometimes holding it up like scripture, sometimes stewing when it gets in the way of what we think we want or need. Sometimes, we struggle over interpretations of what it means, or what it means today. Because we do live in a different world than it was in 1776. That's OK. Women can vote, we don't own slaves and non-property owners can vote. Never mind inoculations against a good many infectious diseases. The world's a better place than it was, and for all our struggles with it sometimes, over free speech and the right to bear arms, and just about any other issue we can conjure, it's still one of the things that makes us better than what we might have otherwise been. And we keep Superman around, too, as dusty and oddly quaint as he often seems. Because it's still, in the end, a good ideal. One worth remembering.

Still, some relics from the past can change. From the end of slavery to women's suffrage, from the Civil Rights Movement to the repeal of DADT, we do get better. We tinker and rebuild things for the future all the time. Stephen Moffat offers a Sherlock Holmes in the 21st Century, detached from others, choosing mostly to communicate via technology, and it works. Grant Morrison gives us a Batman who, rather than fighting a solitary war against crime in one city, turns costumed crime fighting into a franchise (like 7-11, or Al-Qaeda), with decentralized Batman operatives around the world, including a French one who is an Algerian Muslim immigrant, with requisite racist backlash from people who've not actually read the story, but who instead simply balk at any positive portrayal of a Muslim. As if such a large group of people -- about a sixth of the planet -- were all one thing. As if none of them are capable of being heroes. As if Muslim police and firefighters in New York weren't heroes on 9-11, some sacrificing their lives to save others. (But then, we don't always treat those real-life heroes all that well, do we?) Some of it is worth holding onto. It's not perfect, but it can be refitted.

But a lot of it? A lot of it can go. I raised the question earlier of no African-American poets being included in Anis Shivani's roundup of major poets discussing the influences of major poets. To his credit, Shivani responded, and said it wasn't for lack of trying. But that seems beside the point, because as much better as things have gotten, the shadow of history still falls on our literature as much as it does any other aspect of our culture. Writes critic Jordan Davis, "Literary history, at least as far as race in America is concerned, is stuck, and the doctrine of separate but equal has to be overturned again and again, with every book published. If the doctrine were dead, then it would be common knowledge that Robert Hayden is at least as remarkable a poet as Robert Lowell, or that the Hugheses—Ted and Langston—run about even; or that it would be ignorant of a young poet to study Elizabeth Bishop to the exclusion of Rita Dove, or vice versa. It would also finally be possible to assess the claim that Amiri Baraka's work—his early work as LeRoi Jones, anyway—outdoes them all. ...  It can be difficult to be a young black poet now. You're courted by publishers and anthologists, by the halls of academe; yet post-colonial and subaltern and diaspora scholars, who fight turf battles over what to call themselves, tell you what to write and how to write it, questioning your language and your motives (or, worse, applauding them) before you've written a line. Easier, I suspect, to be a young poet everyone is ignoring. Easier for what? To do what? Write a memorable poem that makes everyone around take notice? Then where are all the show-stopping thousands of young ignored poets? Is their game good enough to stand up to some of the best trash talk of our times, talk so dismissive it doesn't even bother with the second person?" (Thanks to Daniel Nester for the reference.)

It's overwhelming, and the smart money's on fighting the exhausting series of small battles, one after the other, because they're the ones that actually add up, over time, to effective change. You can't simply elect a Barack Obama and walk away. He's a change, but not the totality of it. The changes that need to be made burble up from the culture, eventually flowing into some sort of tide. Literature -- fiction, poetry, cinema, theater, comic books -- are where that plays out, and what wins in that arena is what smacks of truth, not which suits an ideology. You can pass a billion bills in Congress, and I'm forced to wonder how much of it adds up to a single comic book page of a teenage girl -- the newest Batgirl, Stephanie Brown -- slapping Batman.

Writes the author of that comic, Bryan Q. Miller, "Stephanie’s journey over the course of the volume leading up to this issue was all about self-awareness.  And about validation.  She had finally started to get some traction regarding being okay with who SHE is/was.  And then this legend, this symbol, shows back up.  This man she probably thought she’d never have to deal with again.  A man who’s approval she’d never truly been able to procure.  But then, as soon as she saw his face, as soon as she realized Bruce was up to his old tricks again, that they were dancing to a very familiar tune, Batgirl realized something - not only did she not want Bruce’s approval… she didn’t NEED it.  And that he would dare to presume to tell her what she did and did not need AND-THEN-SHE-TEA-KETTLED-AND-SLAPPED-HIM!"

It's magic. Sometimes the past -- even the past worth keeping around, in some form -- needs to get slapped, to be reminded that for all the good it's done, no matter how much we may love it, it doesn't own this moment. Because when the culture is dictated by nostalgia and habit, it's the present that gets neglected.  
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In my excitement about DADT (and, admittedly, disappointment about the DREAM act), I've been echoing some of what the DC Women Kicking Ass blogs have been posting, regarding Kate Kane, AKA Batwoman. But they've run a lot of good stuff about female comic book characters there, and it's very worth reading. I found their overviews on Stephanie Brown (Batgirl) and Lois Lane to be particularly relevant in connecting those characters to the culture. Writings like these and Andrew Wheeler's wonderful "No More Mutants" colum for Bleeding Cool do a great job of keeping diversity issues forward in the minds of the creators and fans of pop culture fictions, the groups most likely to be able to influence the continued diversity of the characters.

It almost feels odd explaining why this might be important. They are, after all, simply stories, and in the case of comic books, not particularly widely-read ones, at that. It seems odd to have to explain why a Kate Kane or (to switch to TV) a Capt. Jack Harkness might be extremely relevant to a gay teenager, how being able to see themselves as an action hero is the sort of thing that might actually change the course of someone's life. Moreover, it's almost unbelievable that one needs to point out that seeing diversity reflected in mediums such as film, television and comics goes a long way toward helping the culture sort out and normalize its own issues with a swiftly changing population mix, never mind the strictly commecial concerns that changing landcape presents for media companies looking 10 or 20 years down the road.

No, it would seem self-evident, but it terribly much isn't. The culture gets stuck in tokenism, reverting to type with a shift in the breeze. Take the odd case of the superhero, the Atom. In the midst of a number of relaunches and redesigns, comics writer Grant Morrison (who is,, for my money, the absolute best in the business at reconceiving old superhero concepts, even if reactionary, usually corporate, forces usually undo his best ideas) came up with a new Atom, Ryan Choi, a young Chinese scientist and longtime fan of the preceeding Atom, Ray Palmer. In the hands of writer Gail Simone, his comic was a delicious read. When it changed hands, it disintegrated, and eventually was canceled. Soon after, DC Comics, wanting to return Palmer to the role, killed off the character in a different book. It was brutal and unneccesary, especially when you've got three different white guys running around as the flash. It was hardly DC's only instance of reluctance to part with its Caucasian characters, but it was certainly the most egregious, especially considering just how good the Simone run was.  The fact remains, DC poked at diversifying its characters, but then bolted the moment it was hard. Could they have bolstered him by, say putting him in the Justice League, as they did with the Latino Super hero, Jamie Reyes (The Blue Beetle), whom they put in Teen Titans. Whatever their reasons for doing so, the move was distasteful and reeked of, if not overt racism, then at least a sort of enormous insensitivity.

This is the sort of bias that echoes throughout a culture, its significance snowballing as it moves further from the original slight. Nor is it restricted to "low" culture mediums. Take, for example, Huffington Post poetry critic Anis Shivani, who recently asked 22 poets to name who they believe is the most important contemporary poet and what influence that poet has had on his or her work. In what seems to be the sort of oversight that only the least race-conscious are capable of making -- that is to say, those who believe they are "blind to race," rather than keeping a conscious check on themselves and their own culturally inherited biases -- the list of poets queried seems to be devoid entirely of African-American writers. It's diverse, certainly -- there are Latino writers, and at least one Arab writer -- but unless I'm mis-identifying a writer's background, none of them are black. Moreover, although I do not recognize every poet that was named as influential in the article and so couldn't say for certain, but it appears that the only black poet named as being "influential" to contemporary poetry was Aimé Césaire. Forgive me if I'm wrong about that. I didn't recognize every name listed. But I recognized most, and it became clear fairly quickly that most of the poets interviewed selected those whose work and background was, quite understandably, most like their own.

But because of the initial act of bias (intentional or otherwise), an entire generation of highly influential black American poets was excluded from the list. Nikki Giovanni? Lucille Clifton? Sekou Sundiata? Quincy Troupe? These are poets that almost everyone who works the "live" (slam, coffeehouse, whatever) side of poetry has a direct debt to, not just African-American poets, but by positioning the focus of the lens where he did, Shivani manages to exclude the work of black American poets entirely. And that's a problem, especially when you have a forum and a readership. It's not just irresponsible, it creates an incomplete and misleading picture, one that echoes out and has ramifications beyond the initial mistake.

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There's a mistaken assumption -- probably driven by the retail mentality that pervades art -- that the role of the critic is to separate what is good from what is bad in art, when really, that's only the merest shadow of the job. Yes, the role of the critic is to put art into a context for its potential audience, to aid them in the course of making their own decisions.

But more than that, it is the role of the critic to make the case of what, from the morass of art, is to survive. It is far too simple to make the case for art that should not survive. One need only leave one's house and point in random directions to accomplish that. But to champion art ... that's an act that takes conviction. It's an act that takes passion.

In the final analysis, it is an insufficient act of criticism to point to any art form, any genre or movement, and to simply stand in condemnation. Criticism is a beast of particulars, not broad strokes. Wherever the creative impulse exists, and more importantly, wherever it ricochets from mind to mind, there will almost inevitably be some gem worth preserving, and in all likelihood, many.

All art is an abyss, filled with shabby pretenders and ill-prepared novices. To be distracted by them is a failure of criticism, and to waste much time with them is not a worthwhile endeavor, and indeed, reduces the critic to snob at best, and at worst, to a schoolyard bully. Moreover, a preoccupation with seeing one's self as standing in some sort of judgment dulls the critic's senses, leaves them closed to new experiences and perceptions. Before long, the abyss is all the critic sees.

But to keep one's mind open amid the atrocities of failed art? That is the only way to discover anything new and valuable, something which will, inevitably, need to be nurtured and guarded so it can flourish.


Jan. 8th, 2006 09:27 pm
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Just got back from the Java Hut -- Good feature from Christa Bell to a fairly low-energy room. Still, she made it work -- up to and including dragging one of the kids in the audience to beat box behind one of her poems (a rocking little piece about women and hip-hop. Lots of power and rage. Good stuff.)

It was nice to hear more from her than what I'd heard at iWPS -- seriously enjoyed her set.


Very little progress on the manuscript today -- not really been up to focusing, although I got some cleaning done, so it wasn't a complete wash.

Thoughts are starting to coalesce about Paul being dead. It's a hard thought to come to grips with, the loss of someone you'd lost contact with. Except I didn't lose contact with him, evidently. We'd been back in contact up to what had to have been mere weeks or months before he died. We'd even talked on the phone. I'd wondered why I hadn't heard from him when I dropped him an e-mail to tell him I was going to be in Los Angeles, but he bopped around a lot, changed e-mails a couple times. I figured he'd bop around eventually. Like I'd said earlier, we'd been here before. It didn't particularly bother me.

Paul and I met at Arundel in 1991. He was one of those people that was born to be on student council -- was student body president almost the day he stepped onto the campus. He was also stage manager for a couple of the plays I produced. He's the guy in the story I tell too often that gave me my first cigarette (actually second, I'd tried a few drags once before) when a scene for the play I was directing -- "God's Favorite," by Neil Simon -- was falling to pieces. He was smoking, the people on the sidelines were smoking. I didn't smoke.

"Paul," I said, "Give me a cigarette."
"You don't smoke, Victor"
"Paul, give me a cigarette."

He gave me a cigarette.

"Paul. Give me a light."
"Are you sure..."

I lit the cigarette and inhaled on the first try. Everyone stopped.

"Keep. Going."

And they nailed the scene.

Stupid little memory, and yet, it was one of those moments that crystallized my persona, particularly as an artist -- a strange little moment that shaped how I present myself to the world. Odd, how the small things add up to define us. Seems so long ago that I almost think it happened to someone else.

Paul's gone now. He was a good guy, and I'm sure he's in a better place.

It all sounds kind of empty when you put it like that.


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Victor David Infante

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