Friday, April 29, 2011

RIP: Joanna Russ

I can't add too much to the fine encomium that Todd wrote; I'll just say that bringing The Female Man to a bunch of students at UHD, while definitely a challenge, offered a real eye-opening (and mind-expanding) experience to them as well. I've been talking about Russ a lot lately with folks in the romance field, but it seems she doesn't have the same cachet with the spec fic audience that other elder statesmen have. Just too hard to pigeon-hole. For that I have always admired her: a true iconoclast. If you haven't read her, do. I highly recommend How to Suppress Women's Writing as well. As I have spent my afternoon with some particularly awful academic writing, I appreciate once again Russ's clear-sighted ability to convey complex ideas with verve and style. She refused to be anything but herself in every way: a very out lesbian and an unapologetic feminist. Raise a glass to her name: more importantly, take her books off the shelf, read them and talk about them.

Update: The Locus obit (thanks, Todd).

Thursday, April 28, 2011

The Passing of Poly Styrene

Or as Brazill suggested, "Poly Gone."

The Passing of Poly Styrene

By K.A. Laity

Punk icon Poly Styrene (given name Marianne Joan Elliott-Said) has died at the far too young age of 53 after battling advanced breast cancer. She'd been on Twitter for weeks getting the word out about her new album Generation Indigo with its catchy single "Virtual Boyfriend." With the too-early death of The Slits' Ari Up still fresh in mind it's beginning to feel as if some contagion of the poisonous years of Thatcher and Reagan worked its way into their very flesh and given them cancer.
The raucous saxophone of X-Ray Spex and its iconoclast singer inspired many during the formative days of punk. From the braces on her teeth to her unconventional looks and wild attire, she found a freedom in the wildness of punk rock that changed her life. But like most revolutionary movements, it quickly became regimented and stylized into fossil-hard rules.
As Billy Bragg wrote on Facebook...

Read more:

Knee deep in deadlines. Coming up for air after the first, I swear. I got my ticket for Britain -- yay! Trying to restrain myself from buying tickets for everything I want to see. I don't want to come back broke.


Monday, April 25, 2011

Snapshots of Pop Culture

Here's a little taste of the trip to the Popular Culture Association Conference: we stayed at the Marriott Rivercenter which is a combination mall and canal, chock full of tourists and cheap Texas trash, er, souvenirs. I lived in that state for three years, eleven months, six days, five hours and fifteen minutes and I never understood the arrogant Texas chauvinism. I lost count of the number of Tejas tattoos I saw. I don't think I've ever seen anyone with Connecticut tattooed on their skin.

I had to take a picture of this because I couldn't decide if it was genius or the most horrible thing ever; I wish I'd taken a picture of the guy who was in it with his two tiny daughters. Scarred for life or prepared for the worst? In case you're wondering, it costs $2 for a "ride" in the machine.

We spent most of our time in panels seeing papers on all kinds of topics. Of course what everyone really looks forward to is chatting in the bar which is far more relaxed (though often just as thoughtful). Miss Wendy and Paul and I started things off on the right foot the first night.

It was my last year as chair of the Medieval Popular Culture area: we're combining with the Arthurian area (strength in numbers), so next year I have no responsibilities but writing my own paper. Naturally I've already come up with an idea for a special panel: anyone interested in a Romance & Comics, let me know. I attended the open forum on  Romance scholarship which was quite interesting: not surprisingly, there were only two men there. You gotta admire the chutzpah of a guy who'd bring this cup to that room full of women (or maybe it was just obliviousness):

PCA is a rather laid back conference, but there are still moments that people find stressful. Someone must have been trying to encourage a friend with this note that first appeared in one of the elevators, then on a painting in the hallway where I snapped it:

Saturday Miss Wendy wanted to wander around a little and see the sights after she gave her awesome presentation on Moto Hagio. Last time we were in San Antonio, the only touristy thing we did was the Ripley's Believe it or Not! "museum" which was amusing at least. So we headed over to the Alamo which is now classified as (no, I'm not kidding) "The Shrine to Texas Liberty."

I liked this shirt and the lotteria paintings in this store, but everything they had was unbelievably expensive, so I didn't feel too tempted to add to my belongings as I'm continuing to divest myself of things.

I'm always intrigued by weird stuff that other people don't seem to find interesting. I have odd tastes, I guess. But I loved the way electricity was anthropomorphised in this sign. It looks deliberately malevolent.

I was lucky on my flight out: after the unexpected overnight stay in Chicago a week ago, I was pleased to find that because my flight was overbooked, they bribed me to change flights with $400 in travel coupons -- and I didn't have to go to Chicago (Atlanta instead) and got there only an hour later than I would have anyway. On the way back, not so lucky, but that's okay. I had plenty of time to check out the new trends according to W:

What's more "punk" than an airbrushed model in a corset? Sigh. And I'm hoping the rumours that punk rocker Poly Styrene has died are just that, though she has been battling cancer for a while. I've been following her on Twitter and the new album is getting a lot of good press. I hope it's not true. [Sadly it is true: requiescat in pace, Marianne].

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

On the Road Again

Assuming all goes well, by the time this posts, I ought to be on a plane from Chicago to San Antonio. We shall hope for there to be no prolonged visit like Friday. If I had time to actually see the city, it would be different. I have many potential duties to accomplish in Chicago. But they are for a planned visit, not an accidental touristing. Best of all, the other end of this journey should reunite me with Miss Wendy and the AbFab duo will be on the rampage again. Much fun us anticipated.

One of the lovely things that has made travel much nicer lately is the advent of curated art in airports. In the Albany airport, there are exhibits from many of the museums in the region, including my fave EMPAC, to give you an idea what's at each museum.

You can step into Van Gogh's bedroom and other sights at O'Hare (if you know where to find them). Anything to make the experience less ugly is appreciated.

More anon!

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Converting Monks with Slides in San Antonio

I was hoping to have time to write up the NT Live Frankensteins I saw for Tuesday's Overlooked A/V but I'm still working on my presentation for PCA, so it's unlikely to happen. I did upload a version of my speech with the Powerpoint slides embedded (very hastily, so it's a bit clunky) so they will make a little more sense in context.

Converting Monks Into Friars With Slides

Monday, April 18, 2011

Converting Monks into Friars in Iowa

So, the trip to Iowa included an unscheduled night in Chicago. A bit irritating to spend all those hours in O'Hare, but the truth is the seasoned traveler needs to be prepared for this kind of inconvenience. I had books to read, things to write and social media at my fingertips where I could complain to my friends. I'd have rather been in Iowa having dinner with folks as planned, but there are worse things than the quiet solitude of an anonymous hotel room. I love hotels. I think it would be terrific to live in a hotel in London with room service and the whole city before me.

More later, but here's the Powerpoint slides from my talk.Consider them an attempt to intrigue you. Forthcoming: the paper with these images embedded and a video of the images with the narration recorded there (assuming it sounds okay). Time's tight: I'm off to PCA in San Antonio on Wednesday. Much to do, so I'm writing this while my students are watching a film. Multi-tasking is the word du jour.

Converting Monks into Friars

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Powerpoint is Evil

I used Tufte's piece in my own PPT presentation, which as folks on Twitter know, has almost 80 slides. I've described it as being sort of like "The Word" on The Colbert Report. Will this work? Who knows. Still tweaking. But I printed my boarding passes. If you're on Facebook, I'm now having a contest to guess how many gratuitous pop culture references I make in the forty minute speech. Go on, have a guess.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Euro Punks Exhibit

Wednesday already?! Eek! Madness -- this entire week has been, will be, is. Yesterday after the Glass Ceiling talk organized by the Women's Initiative, I jumped in the car and headed down to Kingston for a reading of a new play at the Arts Society of Kingston. The play was on the life of Margaret Fuller and has a lot of potential: the audience offered a lot of good feedback. I hope I'll get a lot of the same on my play.

Two panic moments after the play: first, being horrified to find that my car was missing, afraid it had been towed. No, I had simply walked two blocks past where it was. Can we say distracted? Driving to Bertie's for dinner I had an owl fly right over my hood on the backroads, which initially made me gasp in alarm and then think, "wow, how cool was that?" Great dinner (of course) and then back home again (after midnight).

Finishing the slides for the talk; tomorrow is polishing both. Out with friends Thursday night, on my way to Iowa Friday. Phew! And then next week is PCA. I can relax for a day on the 25th. >_< At last, here's the photos from the Euro Punks Exhibit at the Villa Medici in Rome. A lot of them are awful, but I was snapping away hastily, having fun. At least you get a flavour of the exhibit. If you want to see better pictures, take a look at the catalogue. I know a certain punk rock DJ who might let you take a look at his copy...

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

April Fools Broad Pod

Okay, well not so much April fools as April fun! The April Broad Pod is up -- that's the podcast from Broad Universe, the organization that supports women in speculative fiction and has a wealth of fabulous people including me! Go on, give it a listen.

Today I'm participating in a talk on "The Glass Ceiling" on campus, put together by the young go-getters of the Women's Initiative. Then I'm running down to Kingston for another play reading at the Arts Society of Kingston. It will give me a chance to chat more with the folks there about my own reading of Lumottu, which will be on May 31st (save the date!).

It's Tuesday, so don't forget to check out this week's Overlooked A/V over at Todd's blog.

Rush, rush, rush! The theme of the week. Here's my first word cloud for the talk: still tweaking to do.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Carnival of the Animals

Image via Sokoblovsky Farms,

The CSR Camerata concert went very well (not just saying that; read the review :-). I had a lot of fun reading Nash's poems and listening to my fabulous colleagues play. We all went out to The Point afterward, which is always lovely, too. I am consequently brainstorming more ways to combine the written word and music. Who wouldn't want to add beautiful music to an academic presentation? Wonderful.

A hectic week ahead which culminates in leaving Friday for Iowa to give the keynote speech at the Craft/Critique/Culture Conference. Let's hope by the time I get on that plane I am happy with the talk and the Powerpoint presentation, so I can relax and read something fun rather than continue tinkering with it all.

Not there yet. Argh -- at least not Sunday afternoon as I type this, though perhaps Monday morning when it posts was supposed to post [d'oh!]. Because I've got events all day Monday, Tuesday and Thursday, so there's precious little time left.


Friday, April 08, 2011

Carnival & FFB: Skeem Life

Tonight! The Saint Rose Camerata plays Camille Saint-Saëns' Carnival of the Animals. I will read some Ogden Nash poems between the songs. Unfortunately not among them is one of the tiny number of poems I can recite by heart (which includes Lewis Carroll's Jabberwocky and Dorothy Parker's Résumé):

The wombat lives across the seas
Among the far Antipodes.
He may exist on nuts and berries
Or then again, on missionaries.
His distant habitat precludes
Conclusive knowledge of his moods,
But I would not engage the wombat
In any form of mortal combat.

Wise words!

Get the full round up of Friday's Forgotten Books over at Patti Abbot's blog. I'm stretching the definition of FFB to cover a book that hasn't had much exposure and should: SKEEM LIFE by Gary Robertson. I met Gary on Twitter, first because of his band The Cundeez -- probably because I was touting the Punk Rock Juke Box with Marko (every Thu 12-3 and Fri 11-2 Eastern). Good stuff! As we got to talking, we discovered we both wrote and chatted about plays and books. Gary sent me a lovely package with Skeem Life and his book of poetry, Pure Dundee, and his historical study Gangs of Dundee. You're sensing a theme, eh? He also sent me The Cundeez CDs and a DVD of a performance of his play The Berries.

Well, you know that I'm usually quite good with languages and accents, but I have to admit while I had little trouble reading Dundeez, I have had to listen very closely while watching the play! I'm going to have to watch it again after reading and assimilating the books, but it's a very funny and often rather touching account of a day's work picking berries. Apparently buses would take people out from the city to pick berries during the height of the season, a welcome addition to their often meagre incomes during the tough times, but also a kind of break from the usual routine.

As Robertson puts it in "McGonagall's Disciples" (a reference to the legendary Scottish poet),

We are thi Dundee lihterahti
Ejicated on thi streetz an a but bren scatty

and they speak

Wi language az rough az a rhino's erse
Oary Dundonian in poetic verse
Itz oor tongue, oor dialect, itz how wi converse

You get acclimated quickly. And the stories in Skeem Life are often hilarious though also often relating dangerous events and somewhat scandalous situations, but the matter-of-fact spirit and unflagging sense of fun triumph. It's a hard life, but there's never any self-pity. Great stuff.

Check out the music, poetry and books, and be sure to keep it oary!

Thursday, April 07, 2011

Epiphanies and Inspiration

No column today: I'm not writing any this month as I'm just too swamped. Tonight's the dress rehearsal for the Camerata's production of Saint-Saëns' Carnival of the Animals with me as narrator. Do join us tomorrow night for the performance if you can at 7:30 in the Picotte Recital Hall of the Massry Center. It will be lovely -- we have some amazing performers.

From Rome

I had a little epiphany this morning: Modern publishing is like science, extracting genre from organic story like chemicals from herbs. The best stories straddle genre. I already knew the falseness of marketing to strict genres; what I hadn't realised was its similarity to how medical science has sought to isolate the "effective" chemical and extract it from the plant. What they've been discovering of course is that all the seemingly extraneous elements play important roles in absorption and so forth.

Over at UAlbany they had John Patrick Shanley visiting. I went to the afternoon seminar, as always hoping to hear something that will kick my brain back into high gear. I loved his story about how Cyrano de Bergerac inspired him as young teen in the Bronx, being both tough, smart and a freak -- and getting all his friends pastries with just the power of his words. "That's what I do." He has a very direct (and funny) way of talking, as befits an ex-Marine from a rough part of New York. You can see it when he mentions telling a critique partner in exasperation, "I don't know why you're alive," because his script was full of "lies" and bad writing. But he also says how much he hungers to have the ultimate romantic connection. A lot easier for an ex-Marine to say that and be taken seriously, but you see within the snappy patter the guy who wrote Moonstruck. The image that gave birth to that film was his mother's face and the sky that he saw as a child and then she was gone and what was in the sky? The moon.

He got a little impatient with one guy who seemed to want to pump him for the secrets to success and repeated exactly what I have always believed: writing has shamanic power. You're not writing for yourself, you're writing for your tribe (and sometimes, to find your tribe). All I need, he said, is a torch in the dark telling my stories before a circle of people. "The problem with a lot of bad writing is all the subtext, I'm sick of subtext." People speak less when they tell the truth, Shanley said, because it always costs them something.

Things to keep in mind as I keep working on the talk. Trying not to think about Lucky Jim too much. Be truthful. Offer something real. Tell my tribe what I know.

Wednesday, April 06, 2011

The Little Video of Calm

In the midst of the mad swirl of our lives, we all need a little moment of calm. Lacking The Little Book of Calm, I try to conjure up soothing images of relaxing situations. Because I love mudlarking along the Thames, I took this video to remind me of those moments of calm.

Of course sometimes I try to relieve stress by simply doing very silly things. Recently YouTube introduced new programs where you can make animation of whatever you like. Yes, if this sounds rather like the video I made for the Women's League of Ale Drinkers, well, it is very much like that. In an idle moment, I decided to animate the lyrics to The Fall's "Dice Man" [based on the cult novel and NOT that crap 'comedian'] and it looks like this:

Silly: but sometimes that's just what you need, right? Well, sure -- some people write poetry -- but I seem to only be able to write asinine poetry. In the meanwhile, I find there is so little time, so much to do.

Tuesday, April 05, 2011

Review: Vision: From the Life of Hildegard of Bingen

See all of Tuesday's Overlooked Films (and other media) over at Todd Mason's blog.

There's a short BBC film on the life of Hildegard von Bingen that I show to my classes starring the fantastic Patricia Routledge as the visionary healer. Despite its creaky low-budget ambience I prefer it to this one despite its beauties. But I'm all for more films (and plays and books) about one of the many influential women of the Middle Ages. Despite what my students have sometimes told me, there are not only women in medieval times (yes, I have had students say that "there were no women in Anglo-Saxon England" which makes one wonder how there were any men...) but a surprising number were well known at the time not just in retrospect.

Hildegard is one and this film conveys some of the reasons why. Her visions hold center stage here, which is a shame because her music should share that stage. The music is there, but it's as if filmmaker Margarethe von Trotta assumes you already know about the music from the start. Eventually -- and rather gloriously -- the music gets it moment, embodied in a very pagan-looking production of the Ordo Virtutum which releases the nuns from their habits and wimples to look absolutely golden with grace.

But a lot of the film seems unable to see Hildegard's piety except from an anachronistic modernity. There's the gruesome revelation of her spiritual mother's cilice upon her death, where the metal prongs have to be peeled away from her rotting flesh. Hildegard's combativeness against the masculine discipline seems to be the simple misogyny of individuals rather than the more complicated hierarchical world that evolves from a patriarchal structure; after all, Hildegard proves able to negotiate that imposing edifice with skill and insight, circumventing control with targeted appeals to the right ears. The importance of an authoritative endorsement of her work at the Synod of Trier and her correspondence with popes and leaders demonstrates the significant power this "humble vessel" attained.

Of course modern filmmakers can only see the relationships between the women, especially Hildegard's connection to her acolyte Richardis, as a barely concealed sexual attraction, which trivialises the depth and complexity of the lives of women in cloistered world. Hildegard's faith gave her authority and power; it infused her life and her outlook. The visions -- which von Trotta's film suggests are as often put on for show as for genuine insight -- were amazingly complex works that crystalised complex notions into a single multifaceted image. She turned a medical condition that plagued her into a gift that allowed her to interpret and explain in an unprecedented way: true genius.

Nonetheless, there is much to enjoy in the film. Barbara Sukowa makes an arresting Hildegard and the film provides a gorgeous view of medieval life that isn't all leeches and mud. The gardens in particular are lovely: Hildegard as a healer (and the author of Physica and Causae et Curae) also gets short shrift in the film, though we do see her teaching the novices herbs. The film has a leisurely pace, so don't go expecting action/adventure. A good introduction for folks who know nothing about this remarkable woman: with luck, it will inspire you to look further.

Monday, April 04, 2011

Handling Rejection

[I wrote this for another site, but I think it's worth reprinting here.]

This is not a book that should be tossed lightly aside.
It should be hurled with great force.

– Dorothy Parker
From Rome

I write for BitchBuzz, the global women’s lifestyle network and my column for this week dealt with — among other things — the most spectacular writer meltdown in some time. You may have heard of or even participated in the Greek Seaman Incident as I like to call it (who can resist that name?). I liked Sally Quillford‘s take on the whole situation and how — bad as the author behaved — the need to pile on her after the point was made showed the worst in humans and especially writers and wannabe writers.

The truth is we all have to deal with rejection and the way you do that tells the world a lot about what kind of person you are — and tells publishers, editors and agents what kind of person you are to work with. It’s a rare person who can take criticism without some bitterness. Throughout the ages writers have taken exception to those who found their work wanting:

What a blessed thing it is that nature, when she invented, manufactured and patented her authors, contrived to make critics out of the chips that were left!
— Oliver Wendell Holmes

Writing is an occupation in which you have to keep proving your talent to those who have none. — Jules Renard

There is probably no hell for authors in the next world – they suffer so much from critics and publishers in this. — C. N. Bovee

You need to be able to take criticism in stride. That can be especially hard for new writers and particularly for women because we are taught to seek approval and often take it to heart when someone coldly rejects the manuscript we’ve been working on for days, months or years. Fear of rejection keeps far too many authors from getting their words out where they belong. I know — I used to be one of them. I’d write and write and write — and put it all in a drawer.


Like everything else in life, the more you do it, the easier it gets. Bradbury rule: start something, finish it, send it off, start something else. When the story comes back with a rejection, send it somewhere else and keep writing! You have to learn to take rejection not as an indication of personal failing but as a wrong address. Think of these wise words:

This manuscript of yours that has just come back from another editor is a precious package. Don’t consider it rejected. Consider that you’ve addressed it ‘to the editor who can appreciate my work’ and it has simply come back stamped ‘Not at this address’. Just keep looking for the right address. — Barbara Kingsolver

And rejection doesn’t end with publication. No matter how well you write, you will get critics who do not like your work. Sometimes they will teach you useful things about your writing. Sometimes it will simply be a matter of taste. You can’t always know the difference. Save your snark for your friends; don’t complain on the ‘net because the world is watching.

I decided some time ago that while I could be Elizabeth Bennet in private, I needed to be Jane in public. Be gracious in your dealings with people especially when they don’t deserve it. You will impress everyone (though I can’t guarantee you a Bingley). And just get on with your writing. That’s what you need to do.

Pay no attention to what the critics say; no statue has ever been erected to a critic.
– Jean Sibelius

[Why am I scrambling this Monday morning? Because I ran off yesterday to have lunch in NoHo with the QoE and May -- totally worth it :-)]

Saturday, April 02, 2011

BitchBuzz: Exploding on the Internet

So, yeah -- it's a bit late. The column I usually send in on Wednesday to appear on Thursday was there, unsent, Thursday late. I would say I can't believe I did that, but it's all too believable with the hectic way things are. I take it as a reminder to slow down and pay attention. Never a bad idea.

Rebecca Black, Fame, & Exploding in Public

By K.A. Laity

"Fame is a bee. / It has a song / It has a sting / Ah, too, it has a wing." - Emily Dickinson

There have been a couple of instructive internet memes this past week: Rebecca Black and The Greek Seaman. The former is a 13-year-old with well-to-do parents who paid for a professionally recorded music video, the latter a novice writer who attacked a reviewer who did not like her book. The two are seemingly unrelated but for the internet sensation they became, but if we dig a little further we will find some unsettling parallels.

You may count yourself lucky if you didn't get a friend on Facebook linking to "The Worst Music Video Ever" and asking for you to watch it and agree. First, it's not the worst ever (there is so much competition, but a rough internet agreement seems to have settled on Armi &Danni's "I Wanna Love you Tender"). Further, it's surely not any more (or less) annoying that Justin Bieber or a host of other teen sensations. I quizzed my students on why they thought Black was so much worse than any other but they simply shrugged and put it down to fatigue with Autotuned pop music. A valid point, but I think that's a tipping point we reached some time ago...

Read the rest at BBHQ.

Friday, April 01, 2011

Friday's Forgotten Books: The Pillow Book of Eleanor Bron

I'm glad to put the March madness behind me, but as it's April Fools' Day, I'll not trust that things are any less insane. No column yesterday because as I discovered last night, I forgot to send it -- d'oh! Maybe it'll be up later today. That's just how it's been. Some of the madness is good: keep your fingers crossed.

Publication: Check out my faux Lear in the April issue of Asinine Poetry and "like" it if so inclined. See also my "hack" bio. The editor writes:

Ms. K.A. Laity is capable as few poets are of a nubile, incessant verse that wears its pants lightly. Her poetics do not hold to some center, but instead bounce around the space in a vain effort to catch the laser point of reason.

High praise, eh -- er, something...

Don't forget to peruse the other offerings of overlooked books at Patti Abbott's blog.


First, massive thanks to Todd for getting me this. We had nearly given up on it arriving and then at last it did. It's a hard to find book, which is a travesty. You doubtless know Bron if only from my mentions of her with my idol Peter Cook or in the Beatles' Help! or of course as Patsy's mother in AbFab.

What you may not know is that she is a crisply intelligent observer and witty self-deflating writer. Working with lionized men like Cook, Moore, Miller and Bennett in Beyond the Fringe and of course, The Beatles, Bron often finds herself on the fringes of the excitement and ignored. Yet she never seems resentful although frequently amused and always sharply observant. Here she is on flying to Nassau with the Fab Four to film the tropical sections of Help!:

I was not prepared for the noise when we walked out onto the tarmac. It was Trafalgar Square with the volume up, beyond imagination -- the sound of millions of starlings startled into the air, But the starlings were girls, when I looked back, very very young ones, who covered the airport buildings. Wherever you could see, wherever they could see, wherever they were allowed, and elsewhere, oozing and easing themselves in where they were not; waving banners and arms, pushing and heaving, in great danger I imagine of falling over edges, wriggling and ceaselessly squealing -- a high sighing hopeless poignant sound, unrequitable.

She reprints a letter from EM Forster who says he's looking forward to seeing her in the dramatic adaptation of Howard's End. Bron makes little lists, "poignant things" or "disappointing things" or "remarkable things":

-- my mother's total lack of vanity
-- my father's sense of fairness

The glamourous world of show business, which she seems nonplussed to find herself immersed in, gets treated with an explorer's eye of discovery and sometimes a dazzled look of amazement. The whole of this book is delightful and I long to sit down to tea with Bron and just talk for hours. Sigh.