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Now available from Penguin Books: Absentia by William Stobb. Find it in traditional book form on amazon.com or Barnes & Noble. Also available for mobile devices at iTunes bookstore and google books.

Monday, September 1, 2014

First-year Writing Is Real: Preparing to Engage the Death of Michael Brown and the Ferguson Protests

I remember in '06 and '07, the years after Hurricane Katrina, my sections of first-year college writing were full of young people who had traveled to New Orleans to work in the re-building efforts. Because of their engaged citizenship, my classroom became a site of real public exchange about real human values--individuals' stories, topics of social justice, global warming, civil engineering, American values, jazz, cajun food. At some point it dawned on me that I'm just one teacher at one school in Wisconsin; that same conversation must've been happening in Composition classes all over the United States, and the products of those conversations--essays of all sorts, posters, PowerPoint presentations, and just... moments of insight and exchange--were probably some of the best, most earnest and hopeful public exchanges happening anywhere. They weren't published in the Times, and they weren't anthologized, and in fact I've never seen it publicly acknowledged in any way, but Composition classes were producing "real world" discourse, interactions, conversations, in ways that media outlets and public service organizations could only dream of.

Fast forward to Fall of 2014, and I suspect that there are hundreds of teachers who are, like me, revising their course plans for their sections of freshman English in order to try and address the recent fatal shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, the protests that have followed the event, the police response to those protests, the media coverage of the whole sequence of events, the incredibly complex historical contexts within which Brown's death is embedded, and all the big questions of what Ferguson should mean to us as a nation. Like me, I suspect that many of these teachers feel deeply conflicted about their decision to address Brown's death and Ferguson. They worry about presenting emotional, disturbing, controversial material in a way that is balanced and geared toward understanding. For most instructors, Freshman English is a course about the writing process: inquiry, analysis, critical thinking, and argumentation are often highlighted, practiced, developed, so that students leave the course with a better understanding of how to think for themselves about the claims they encounter in public discourse, and how to make their own claims ethically and effectively. Like me, I suspect that many teachers are wary of the public distrust of college and university instructors, who are often portrayed as indoctrinators, out to change the personal beliefs of students and not just help them expand their intellectual capacities. I suspect that many instructors share my fear that Brown's death and Ferguson are just too heavy to take on--most students are in their first semester of college--sometimes Freshman English is their very first class--and instructors like me often use some lighter media analysis or personal writing to open the semester on a slightly less fraught note.

At the same time, though, I expect that many instructors, like me, want their teaching to respond to our moment, and the shooting of Michael Brown has led to a blossoming of awareness across the nation--a new willingness to address America's long-standing questions of race, class, power, citizenship, the law, due process, civil rights, and responsibilities. To me, the hope of creating a public context for the open discussion of all of these issues, which are so crucial to our past, present, and future as a nation, is worth the attendant risks. I take comfort and courage in thinking about the larger community of First-year Writing classes that will make up one site of real public discourse about Ferguson in the weeks to come.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Call for Applications / Nominations: 2015-2016 Wisconsin Poet Laureate

Contact: Jason A. Smith, Wisconsin Academy communications director, or Bill Stobb, Wisconsin Poet Laureate Commission chair.

Call for 2015–2016 Wisconsin Poet Laureate Opens on August 18

MADISON—The Wisconsin Poet Laureate Commission, in partnership with the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts & Letters, is seeking applications for the new 2015–2016 Wisconsin Poet Laureate.

Beginning August 18, 2014, applications are welcome from individual poets who are seeking the position. Applications may also be submitted by a person who is nominating a poet for the position of Wisconsin Poet Laureate. A complete application package must be sent to the Wisconsin Poet Laureate Commission at wipoetlaureate@gmail.com no later than October 10, 2014. Application instructions and additional information are available at www.wisconsinacademy.org/newpl.

The Wisconsin Poet Laureate is the state’s leading poetic voice and an ambassador for poetry, encouraging the reading and writing of poetry across the state. The Poet Laureate engages a variety of Wisconsin constituencies, enriching the lives of residents by sharing and promoting poetry through conversation, readings, public appearances, workshops and digital and social media.

The Poet Laureate’s term of service is two years. The next term begins on January 1, 2015 and ends on December 31, 2016. The Poet Laureate is awarded a $2,000 stipend per year, which honors the poet’s achievements and helps to defray travel expenses not reimbursed by individual organizations where the Poet Laureate is a guest.

The current Wisconsin Poet Laureate is Max Garland.

The Poet Laureate is expected to contribute to the growth of poetry throughout the state; plan and/or attend statewide literary events and educational programs, including a special project to be supported by the Wisconsin Arts Board; visit each region of the state at least once during the two-year term; promote poetry and the Poet Laureate position via electronic social media; participate in selecting the succeeding Poet Laureate and guide the transition into the role.

The Wisconsin Poet Laureate Commission embraces the diversity of human experience and identity. All applications are welcome, regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, cultural heritage, socio-economic background, or physical ability.

About the Wisconsin Poet Laureate Commission
Created by Wisconsin Governor Tommy Thompson in Executive Order 404 on July 31, 2000, and continued by Governor Jim Doyle, the Wisconsin Poet Laureate Commission conducts the Wisconsin Poet Laureate selection process, assigns responsibilities to the selected Poet Laureate, and assists that individual in performing official duties. In May, 2011 the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts & Letters announced their stewardship of the Wisconsin Poet Laureate program to ensure its survival after Governor Scott Walker eliminated state support for the position. Members of the Commission include representatives from the Council of Wisconsin Writers, the Wisconsin Center for the Book, the Wisconsin Fellowship of Poets, the Wisconsin Humanities Council, the Wisconsin Arts Board, and the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts & Letters, as well as several at-large members.

About the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts & Letters
The nonprofit Wisconsin Academy brings people together at the intersection of the sciences, arts, and letters to inspire discovery, illuminate creative work, and foster civil dialogue on important issues. We connect Wisconsin people and ideas for a better world. Wisconsin Academy programs include the James Watrous Gallery in Overture Center for the Arts, a gallery by and for Wisconsin artists; Wisconsin People & Ideas, our quarterly magazine of Wisconsin thought and culture; Academy Evenings, our statewide series of public talks; our Wisconsin Initiatives, which currently address water issues and climate change impacts in our state; and the Wisconsin Academy Fellows. For more information on our programs, or to become a member of the Wisconsin Academy, visit www.wisconsinacademy.org.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Beautiful Doom: Heizer's "City" and Scott's "Blade Runner"

There’s a striking similarity between Douglas Trumbull and Ridley Scott’s pyramidal design for the “Tyrell Corporation” headquarters in Blade Runner (1982) and the photos I’ve seen of Michael Heizer’s monumental plaza, Complex City, which has been under construction in Garden Valley, Nevada since 1972.  I’ve not seen any evidence that Trumbull & Scott would’ve been influenced by Heizer. I think the resemblance is probably nothing more than some shared archaeological interests. Still, I love the fact of the resemblance, because it really opens up a web of thinking about art and architecture’s relationship to the future. Both works explicitly and implicitly imagine futures, and both works have monumental properties: they commemorate the present for a viewer in distant time.

I want to start by outlining the web of connections, here:
  • Both City and Tyrell Corporation are obviously pyramid structures, and the structures really are similar—it’s as if Heizer’s massive sculpture had been discovered by a future civilization and somehow wired up and inhabited (although, Blade Runner's only set in 2019, so it’s not looking good for that prognostication).
  • Heizer’s original drawings for the “Anaconda Project” are almost even more similar to Tyrell Corporation. Both have


    the high shield wall that protect the inner pyramids. The drawing is compellingly dated, too (1981—just as Blade Runner was going into production), although, again, I see no evidence that Trumbull or Scott were aware of Heizer. Interestingly, Heizer never built the piece drawn here—he seems to have replaced it with “Effigy Tumuli” for his engagement with the Anaconda Mining Company.
  • Heizer’s relationship to architecture and anthropology goes way back. His father, Robert Heizer, was an anthropologist. The “perforated object” he found in a Nevada cave was the inspiration for Michael’s sculpture of the same name.
  • Heizer has specifically discussed the influence of The Burial Vault of Djoser, or Zoser, on his thinking about City. Saqqara, Egypt. 27th Century BC (!!!). “The first pyramid and the first big architecture” (Heizer).
  • In Blade Runner, the Tyrell Corporation pyramids actually become the burial vault for the genius Tyrell himself. Not only does replicant Roy Batty kill Tyrell in his luxurious suite, atop the pyramid, but there’s a strange isolation surrounding Tyrell. Though the pyramid complex he occupies is massive, there’s no evidence of anyone else ever being there—perhaps we’re meant to imply that it’s a busy industrial center, but, other than his mysterious replicant servant, Rachel, there’s never anyone else around. Since Rachel’s fled, I can almost imagine Tyrell’s body simply decaying there, undiscovered for ages.
  • Trumbull’s influences are a little harder to uncover than Heizer’s, though his work history has some interesting connections to architecture and archaeology. Before Blade Runner, Trumbull was working on a studio movie called Pyramid, which was canceled. After Blade Runner, Trumbull worked on several features for the Luxor Hotel Casino in Las Vegas.
  • Both works project primitive futures. In Blade Runner, the future is in decline, and although it’s set in Los Angeles, it’s easy to recall Heizer’s description of living in New York. “It looked like it was decaying.” “The future is old,” says Ridley Scott, himself, in the documentary Dangerous Days: Making Blade Runner
  • Heizer explicitly imagined a post-nuclear future. He positioned Complex One in such a way that it reads as a blast shield. Garden Valley is just north of the Nevada Nuclear Test Site, where aboveground tests took place from 1951-1962 (and belowground tests continued until 1992). Complex One is like a massive berm, a horizontal face toward the test site.
  • Blade Runner’s future is more post-industrial than post-nuclear, it seems to me, but it’s similarly bleak.
  • Heizer’s City complex is something like a mile long. Tyrell Corp, literally, were two miniatures, 8 ft tall, lit 
    microfilaments, and were built “very quickly,” according to Trumbull. To be fair, in the interviews I’ve seen, I get the sense that Trumbull feels pressure to emphasize his efficiency and economy, because he doesn’t want his business reputation associated with the financial mess that Blade Runner became in production.
  • In his interview with Julia Brown, Heizer is very compelling in discussing the relationship of his art to the future. “There’s very little point in making modern art for the ‘contemporary’ audience. Obviously these works are pointed to the future…. In our times there’s a real question about modernity and how far it stretches…. we have returned to a primitive stage…. I work with primordial materials—they’re modern if you agree with the idea that we are not really progressing…. We’re living in a world that’s technological and primordial simultaneously…. the insecurity of society, the frailty of its systems, the dependence upon interdependence.” Heizer sees us “nearing the end of civilization” and is clearly speaking to someone, something beyond us.
I'm sure there are more connections that could be drawn, here. I'm just an enthusiast who enjoys this constellation of thinking, spanning from 27 BC through the end of humanity, as projected by Heizer—a spiraling kind of DNA of influence and imagination and human capability and mortal longing.

I love the world Blade Runner creates—it’s beautiful, gritty, sensual, elegant. The socio-economics of it seem plausible, and Tyrell Industries (“more human than human is our motto”) is fascinating. Maybe our artificial intelligence isn’t quite up to Nexus Six standards, but how has our actual technology re-shaped the meaning of mortality?  And Blade Runner’s philosophical / theological questioning of the maker and the made, the nature of life, consciousness as an engineered thing—I love seeing these interests abide in Scott’s work, and I’m hopeful that a sequel to Promtheus will inspire Scott to a signature moment in his career.

And then there’s the bleakness of the future that City imagines: it’s entwined with the explicit post-nuclear content, its remoteness, its primordial vocabulary—it reminds me of the system of warning signs and instructions that linguists and engineers have worked to design for a nuclear storage facility. How does one communicate to a possible future explorer who, millennia after all traces of our time have been obliterated, stumbles upon the remnants of our industry, still poisonous after 50,000 years?

To me, the temporality of City extends beyond the projections of all our science fiction toward an essential, elemental absence of sentience: a place and time where only forms remain. Even in the vacant, geological future, 20th century formalism will have a proponent.  Of course, there are deeper currents than the aesthetic, aren’t there? We were here. Weren’t we? Is there a little bit of desperation in the gesture? Imagine feeling that you needed to make something that would out-live humanity. Imagine feeling you needed to shout down time itself. Maybe Michael Heizer is simply the most ambitious, persistent formalist ever.

Writing about Heizer in 1974, New York Magazine’s Thomas B. Hess draws some history forward that applies both to the artist in the desert and the fictional Tyrell (who, I think, had been “born” by then through the 1968 Philip K. Dick novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?—the basis for Blade Runner):  “Giantism is a familiar architectural symptom, usually indicating the presence of a powerful ruler who dreams of leaving a mark on eternity (Ozymandian, Hadrian, Hitler)…. Heizer’s ambitions rival theirs…. Complex One crystallizes the arbitrary will of a mad emperor who has everything at his command—except an empire” (from page 102 of Sculpture in Reverse).

The Hitler comparison may apply to Tyrell, but it seems a little cheap, in its application to Heizer. Although it’s true that the artist’s ambitions—the scale and the impact and the cost of his work—have been criticized throughout his career, I’m not sure it’s fair to associate him with the murder of six million people.

Call me Romantic, but I can’t help but believe there’s something more than ego involved. To think of Complex City and the fictional Tyrell Corporatioon merely as monuments to the genius maker, the great ego, seems simplistic. I think of City as a voice into the future, that projects a swath of humanity—some of our ideas and forms, a primal vocabulary. I imagine that, from Heizer’s perepsective, it feels more like a calling that claims his life than it does a gesture of dominance. That’s pure speculation, though, I guess. And Tyrell? Look at the creatures he made—Roy Batty’s incredible poetic consciousness, and his tragic limitations. He gave life, really. He made them: Batty, Pris, Rachel, and, as I read the film, even the Blade Runner, Deckard himself. Their lives were beautiful and burdened.  In all of this thinking, it’s the character of Roy Batty—a replicant in a 20th century novel and movie—that gives me the most hope. We have consciousness, will, a sense of our own power and powerlessness. Batty’s final soliloquy argues for the tragic beauty of our fleeting consciousness in a way that makes poetic witness seem both essential and achingly doomed:

“I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe.
Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion.
I watched c-beams glitter in the dark
near the Tannhauser Gate.
All those moments will be lost in time
like tears in rain.”


Brown, Julia, ed. Michael Heizer: Sculpture in Reverse. Los Angeles: MOCA, 1984.





Wednesday, May 14, 2014

This World: Hunter Bear / Dr. John Salter Jr.

            One of my American Heroes is Hunter Gray, also known as Hunter Bear, whose name was Dr. John Salter, Jr., when he taught a class in social justice that I took at the University of North Dakota.  At the time, I was 19, coming out of a small, Minnesota town, and had never met someone who’d both 1) been a key figure in the national struggle for civil rights, playing a key part in the 1963 Woolrich lunch counter protests in Jackson, Mississippi (that's him being assaulted in the foreground of the photo at left), and also 2) been “abducted” and studied by friendly beings from another planet.  Most students found him really captivating, or at least quirky and interesting, and for me, meeting him was challenging—his life was hard to assimilate.  On the one hand, you had to put your body on the line for causes you believed in; I still have a hard time imagining myself exhibiting the courage that Salter and his companions Anne Moody and Joan Trumpauer displayed in Jackson. Then, on the other hand, you could be driving along the highway one night with your son, and you could experience an episode of mind control that caused you to travel far off of your planned route into the wooded hills of Wisconsin’s “Driftless Region” where you’d be pulled over by friendly aliens who would not only study your body but actually improve it. 
     Over the years, I think John’s stories have stayed with me partly as cautions: at no point should I believe that I’ve got it all figured out. Life’s possibilities are incredibly diverse, and people like myself, who are fortunate, and whose lives are somewhat contained and sheltered, shouldn’t be out there trying to tell anyone how it is.
     Also, I think that John’s abduction story helped me to be open to an experience of contact that I had a few years ago—not with extraterrestrials, but with the spirit of someone who’d died and who, I believe, made contact with me for a brief moment (It’s a story I tell in the poem “Memorial,” part of my 2011 collection Absentia). My availability to that experience is something that connects, when I think about it, to what I valued most about studying with Dr. Salter: his very simple, but profoundly noticeable, attitude of overt kindness and acceptance. He brought it to his lectures and to his individual conversations, and it helped make me more open, less prone to pre-judge an experience.
      Dr. Salter spoke quietly, although he was a large man—maybe 6’2 or 6’3—and with commitment, and he smiled in a distinctly curious, generous way that carried over into his actions. I remember one day a student fell asleep in his class—Dr. Salter’s speaking style was really very relaxing—and when a couple of other students laughed about it (I think the guy might’ve actually snored a little), Dr. Salter noticed.  I remember that he stopped whatever he was saying and spoke even more quietly than usual. “Oh, we shouldn’t wake him,” he said. “Sleep is very important. If any of you feel like you need to sleep during this class, you should absolutely feel welcome to do so. You have to get your sleep.”  This was so incredibly kind I thought—almost to a fault, really, right? I mean… students shouldn’t be sleeping in class, should they? But that factor of disrespect or appropriateness slid completely away from Dr. Salter—no power-based consideration entered his thinking even for a second, it seemed. And it was doubly ironic because one of the ways that the friendly extra-terrestrials had improved Dr. Salter (I think I remember this correctly) manifested itself as an ability to go without sleeping for long periods of time. He could sleep if he wanted to, but he didn’t need to sleep more than an hour or so per day. Still, he realized that the number one thing that particular hung-over late adolescent slacker needed at that moment was to sleep. Everything else could wait.

     Recently, I reached out to him and we exchanged emails. He remembered me and seemed happy that I’d looked him up. He’s about eighty, now, and has had some remarkable experiences in the intervening years.  His website is an incredible chronicle of a life lived with earnest commitment, open-heartedness, wit and moxy.  It honestly reads like some kind of avant-garde novel—remarkable accounts from a singular human. 
      No surprise—he has continued his activism and social justice work. His book on the civil rights struggle, Jackson Mississippi: An American Chronicle of Struggle and Schism, was re-released by the University of Nebraska Press, he’s been honored by national Native American organizations for his commitment, and he continues to write and speak about organization and activism. This, I know, is his real legacy: his unflagging commitment to this world is the most important thing that he has to teach.
      But of course I read the account of his 1988 close encounter with another world, entitled “Friends of the Vast Creation: An Account of the Salter UFO Encounters of March, 1988.” It was a text version of the story he'd told our class that year, inspiring us all to laugh and shake our heads and debate and imagine. Only on this occasion did I realize that I now live just a few miles from where the encounter occurred. Dear friends of mine have a little off-the-grid forest and farm property, nestled in a valley just off the highway where the aliens pulled him over (I wonder if they turned on their sirens…).  When I drive out that way, I think of how a good-sized flying saucer could practically disappear in one of those old coulee crevices remaining from before the last ice age. 

            

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Hybrid: [transported by word and image]

Coming soon to your Madison, Wisconsin Toyota Prius taxi: "Hybrid: [transported by word and image]"--an exhibit of art by Thomas Ferrella matched with a selection of poems co-edited by Ferrella and Sara Parrell. These panels will be installed in 39 new Green Cab Co. hybrid taxis, so that our fine state's hipsters and legislators will have an opportunity to experience the mind-expanding effects of art & verse as they safely bar-hop around Madison. To what new public and private sector developments will this lead?  Time will tell.

The cab installment begins May 3. On May 2, there's a gallery opportunity to see all the panels (which look like the one embedded here, featuring poems by me and by Paula Sergi, with an image by Thomas Ferrella). May 2nd at Winnebago Studios, 2046 Winnebago Street, Madison, 5 pm.

You can also see all the images on the Facebook page for the exhibit.  Click on the "photos" tab to view the individual panels.  Also, an artist's folio of the collection will be printed and available to purchase.  You can learn more about Ferrella's work at his website.

Monday, March 17, 2014

The Pajama Commandments

In 2006, a religious monument was dismantled in a public park in downtown La Crosse, Wisconsin.  Found underneath the monument was a tablet containing strictures regarding the public wearing of pajamas.  The date of the tablet has been estimated as far back as 3,000 BCE, but that estimation was articulated by my buddy Jake, who was drunk.  It's more likely that the tablet was stuck under the religious monument when it was erected in 1998--I mean... it's just a Mead spiral bound tablet, so... those don't usually last 5,000 years.  Suck it, Jake.  Anyway, the tablet is now under lock and key inside my saxophone case downstairs behind the old baby crib. It contains the following decrees, many of which may originate in the Epic of Gilgamesh, who was a big all-day-pajamas guy.

The Pajama Commandments

1.  None of directives apply to you if you don't care.  If you flat out just don't care, you can wear pajamas anytime, anywhere.

2.  If you're not working, you may wear pajamas all day.

3.  You're not a loser for wearing pajamas all day.

4.  You might be a loser, but it's not because you wear pajamas all day.  Your flat front charcoal trousers from Gap only mask the fact that you're a loser for a brief period of time.

5.  You can totally wear fleece pajama bottoms anywhere.  Anywhere!  If they have a partially open fly, you probably want to wear some underwear, and unless you're looking for attention down there, you might want to wear underwear of a similar color to the fleece pajama bottoms.

6.  You probably don't want to wear your pajama top openly.  Unless you've got some awesome Incredible Hulk ring-neck, or Underdog jams, you'll want to throw a windbreaker over that baby. Windbreakers match fleece pajama bottoms.

7.  If you're a male, and if you're in a long-term romantic relationship, and your partner finds out that you wore pajamas in public, just chuckle and shake your head, like "I know, I'm such an idiot."  Odds are that your partner is infantilizing you in numerous ways, and if you don't argue about the appropriateness of your pajama-wearing behavior, the event will just get added to the laundry list of your bungled attempts at human adult-hood.  Next time you do it, your partner will barely notice.

8.  If you're female, and in a long-term romantic relationship, you can take on the beleaguered responsible party role.  The only reason you're out in public in your pajamas is that your partner refuses to clean a toilet, wash a dish, fold a pair of knickers, etc.  You've been driven to this.

9.  If you have a teenage daughter, and she finds out you wore pajamas in public, you might consider starting to act slightly insane in other ways--practice a little wild-eyed grin, make soft barking sounds when she thinks you don't know she's there.  Your unpredictability may inspire a kind of wariness that's probably as close to respect as you're going to get for a while.

10.  It may not be acceptable to wear sexy pajamas in public.  If you're going to do it, though, you'll want to wear some obvious make-up or jewelry so that people know that you're trying to be weirdly trashily sexy on your errand run to Home Depot.  If you live in Las Vegas or Rio or somewhere, you can probably wear sexy pajamas.  I mean, like I said, do whatever you want. This is not a rule.  Be yourself.  Why shouldn't you slut it up a little bit.  More people than you realize have imagined you in your sexy pajamas. Why not just give them something real to look at?  I think you should do it, and if there's a God, my guess is he or she thinks so too.

Amen.


Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Great Ball of Fire

Traditional causes of human suffering are invited to a charity mixer.  All proceeds from the inaugural "Great Ball of Fire" will support the global erosion of empathy, friendliness, and plain old consideration. Join special guests Poverty, Cancer, and Fear for a night of misery and dancing hosted by Ryan Seacrest. All donations of a sob, scream, or self-destructive impulse at the door will be rewarded with a ticket good for one free beverage from our corporate sponsor, Mike’s Hard Lemonade. Door prizes include scary goalie masks and gangrene. In an interview, celebrity spokesperson Kelly Ripa captured the spirit of total impending doom: “when you think of just how awful any one of these causes of suffering can be on its own, it’s truly frightening to think of them all grinding under a disco ball to ‘Asleep’ by The Smiths.” Special discounted tickets are available for Ignorance, Selfishness, and Prejudice. Just show valid ID at the door. 


The event will be held in the Westbury incinerator on Long Island, at midnight, February 12th, 2014. Doors will klink shut behind the last miserable cuss to enter, and as the room gets hotter, causes of suffering are encouraged to ignore the pain and concentrate on Morrissey’s voice—just slowly sway into the bright, bright heat until all is finally forgiven.