Category Archives

Obsessions

Obsessions: Our Solitary Fancy

The poem "A Supermarket in California" appeared in Allen Ginsberg's "Howl"

The poem “A Supermarket in California” appeared in Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl”

Who wasn’t obsessed by the Beat Generation in high school? Okay, it was just unbearable punks like me. In Jack Kerouac, I saw a reflection of my ineloquent angst. I used to be able to recite entire paragraphs of On the Road, but I’ve since blocked all of it from my memory. I was particularly interested in Allen Ginsberg because, like me, he was unpretentiously pretentious—or at least we both tried to be. He might allude to a Greek myth in a poem written on acid. A surfer boy reeking of weed, I used polysyllables that made my classmates’ eyes roll. And, like Ginsberg, I’m queer. One night, I rewrote his poem “A Supermarket in California” as if my life depended on it. I called it a “A Health Food Store in California” and scrawled it with a speed that brings to mind Truman Capote’s vicious comment on Kerouac: “That’s not writing at all—it’s typing.”

I rewrote by substitution. Because I made them so fast, I wasn’t sure how seriously to consider the individual changes. I used to think the fact I rewrote the poem was more significant than the specific alterations. In “A Supermarket,” the speaker, who I’ll call Ginsberg, imagines following Walt Whitman around “the neon fruit supermarket.” I imagine following Ginsberg around “the quiet health food store.” Many of the later substitutions riff off this first deviation. Whitman eyes grocery boys in the supermarket. Ginsberg eyes dreadlocked grocery boys in the health food store. Ginsberg wanders “in and out of the brilliant stacks of cans.” I wander “in and out of the brilliant stacks of Kombucha.” These easy jokes reveal little. Things start to get interesting when I exchange the hetero families of the supermarket: “Aisles full of husbands! Wives in the avocados, babies in the tomatoes!” But what’s this? A gay surprise among produce: “—and you García Lorca, what were you doing down by / the watermelons?”[i] In the health food store I find “Hoards of / hipsters shopping at night! Aisles full of Doc Martens! Anarcha- / feminists in the avocados, young idealists in the tomatoes!—and you, / O’Hara, what were you doing down by the sprouts?” (At long red lights, I reached for my copy of O’Hara’s Meditations in an Emergency I had stashed underneath the driver’s seat of my car.)

Continue reading

Posted in Obsessions | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Obsessions: Angel Olsen

“Obsessions” is our web-only essay series that asks emerging West Coast writers to examine the books, poems, songs, television shows, images, or whatever else that has been dominating their attentions lately. We continue with a piece on musician Angel Olsen by Danielle Truppi. Truppi is pursuing an MFA in Fiction at San Francisco State University and has written for Write Club SF and Oatmeal Magazine. She is currently working on a series of stories about insects.

Angel Olsen tried to put the radio show host at ease. She told NPR’s Bob Boilen that her new song “Intern” is “such a lie,” that her next album would not be a synth album, that the song’s trailer video was meant to test her fans. Yes: it’s about performance, expectations: “people are anticipating something, and so you give them a song all about them anticipating something.”

I am a fan feverishly anticipating Olsen’s new album, and have listened to “Intern” upwards of fifty times. I was disappointed Bob Boilen didn’t trust her.

I became acquainted with Angel Olsen two years ago when a man I loved moved away from me the first time. He made me a mix CD with the song “Iota” on it, a devastating song that left me supine and puffy-eyed. On its surface, the song is a list of regrets, of hypothetical conditions that would bring about an elusive happy ending. But the conditions described are not entirely reasonable and the ending not entirely happy. The song hurts you so much because it has unanticipated barbs buried in its tangle of melancholy. It is mournful, but sarcastic, too—“if only all our memories were one,” “if only all our hopes were to be here.” If only things weren’t so complicated, things wouldn’t be complicated. If only this one little thing—this bleak, nebulous thing—then we could settle down. If only we stayed still, we could rot away together.

It was this tonal complexity that had me hooked. I bought Burn Your Fire For No Witness (2014) and found myself playing it again and again, a heavy, vintage coat of sadness I never wanted to take off. The album both cradled and scorned me for my broken heart. It told me it’s all important and real and deep, this pain you are feeling, but you are all you actually have and you need to understand that. The song “White Fire” begins with “Everything is tragic, it all just falls apart,” a statement so huge and simply stated it risks seeming ridiculous. Olsen’s beautiful, quavering vocals invite you to sing along, but unlike, say, Adele or Sarah McLaughlin, it is an experience that is broader than catharsis. Olsen’s songs aren’t songs you belt into your hairbrush because love hurts; they are songs you warble along to because other things hurt, too, like condescension and the labor of communication.

Continue reading

Posted in Obsessions | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Obsessions: ‘Liked to Date: 2,836 Posts’

“Obsessions” is our web-only essay series that asks emerging West Coast writers to examine the books, poems, songs, television shows, images, or whatever else that has been dominating their attentions lately. We begin with “Liked to Date: 2,836 Posts,” a piece from Shokoofeh Rajabzadeh, a Ph.D. candidate in English Language & Literature at the University of California at Berkeley. Rajabzadeh’s poetry has appeared in Poetry Northwest and Modern Poetry in Translation, and she is currently working on a series of essays about immigrating to the United States and growing up Muslim, post-9/11.

She’s closed her Instagram account again. I’ve checked three times in the past hour. I always forget how obsessed I am with her until she closes her account. Last time she shut us out, she had broken up with her fiance. For just a few days before she left, after she had posted the photo of her slender finger with the simple, diamond ring, I thought to myself, “Finally, someone has brought this woman well-deserved happiness.” But then, when she reopened her account, I was met with a slew of photos, self-portraits—sometimes close-ups, sometimes of her solemn face in the mirror—with captions about the darkness that had consumed her. And at nights, I wondered, “Did she end things? Is she just that broken? Or did he end them? Why would he do that to her? Hasn’t she already been through enough?”

I am spellbound by her account—the story of a poet, humanities PhD in exile. I generally do not like following lives. The practice overwhelms me, frustrates me, injects me with envy when photos portray extreme happiness; and when they are melancholy, they surround me in despair. For this reason, I do not have a Facebook account. I am, however, arrested, engrossed, mesmerized by her life.

Continue reading

Posted in Obsessions | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment