Cindy Hochman: “Self-Portrait in a Concave Knife”

When the Big C meets the Big D, all you can do is laugh. At least, that’s where poet Cindy Hochman’s survival instinct takes her. Packed with more puns than a Snickers bar has peanuts, her chapbook The Carcinogenic Bride (Thin Air Media Press, 2011) brings energetic wit to bear on those modern monsters, breast cancer and divorce. She kindly shares a sample poem below. To order a copy ($5.00), email Cindy at Hat tip to Gently Read Literature for bringing this book to my attention.

Self-Portrait in a Concave Knife

Here comes the carcinogenic bride!
Here comes the survivor-in-chief!
Wanna see my balance sheet?
This will be my Checkers Speech!
There goes my stale mate
We once lived in an altared state
He cleaned my slate, I cleaned his plate
Here is love in fission
body in remission, missionary position
Here is my inner elf,
my quirky self, my non-existent wealth,
      in sickness and in health
Here are my hickeys, my hearses, my hoopla,
   my histrionics
Here is my whole hierarchy of hernias
Say some Hail Marys and kenahoras
For tumors come and gone.
Here is the lion’s share, my blonde hair, my thin air,
   my health care.
Ass-kisser, go-getter, phone-dodger, night-
  blogger, flip-flopper, vow-breaker
Here is my Chinese fan
Here is my oil can
Here is my Yes We Can!
Here is my bellyflop, my pet rock, my co-op, my
 writer’s block
     my Last Supper
     my Mea Culpa!
Here are my brittle bones, my mortgage loans
My dulcet tones, my low moans
Here is my picket sign, my witty line, my glass of
  wine (or two . . .)
Here is my income tax, my credit max, my panic attacks
Here is what I’ve held in escrow:
     my pens, my posse, my potbelly
     my strokes and daggers
Here is my handle
Here is my spout
     my gamin face, my apocalyptal pout
cranky bitch with perfect pitch
Here is my tea rose, my stuffy nose, my broken
my spiritual quest, my daily stress, my scarred
Here’s to my every OY,
My utter JOY
There’s my life through a poetic prism
(or maybe just my narcissism)

Reiter’s Block Year in Review, Part 2: Best Fiction

For me, there are two things that take a good story to the next level of greatness: fully human characterization, and a connection to wider moral-philosophical themes. And not just any themes. I want a narrative that is aware of tragedy without being defeated by it. A narrative that values equality and diversity, and hints at how we can move in that direction, without glossing over the contrary impulses in every human heart. Throw in an appreciation of art’s power to undermine dehumanizing ideologies, connect it to God somehow, and you’ve got me hooked. The books below were not only my favorite novels of the year, but will also be favorites for years to come.

Russell Hoban, Riddley Walker (first published in 1980; expanded edition from Indiana University Press, 1998)
Imagine the Bhagavad-Gita as a Punch-and-Judy show. What do the legend of St. Eustace and particle physics have in common? In this unique novel, part mystical treatise and part fantasy-horror fiction, two millennia have passed since a nuclear war knocked Britain back to the Iron Age, and a semi-nomadic civilization has preserved only degraded fragments of our science through oral tradition in the form of puppet shows. Our narrator, 12-year-old Riddley, at first joins forces with a shifting (and shifty) cast of politicos and visionaries who hope to bring the human race back to its former glory by rediscovering the recipe for gunpowder. But soon he’s on the track of bigger game: the nature of reality, and the causes of sin. Which is more fundamental, unity or duality? Why does Punch always want to kill the baby?

Vestal McIntyre, Lake Overturn (Harper, 2009)
This standout first novel paints a tender, comical portrait of an Idaho small town in the 1980s, where a motley collection of trailer-park residents yearn for connection (and sometimes, against all odds, find it) across the barriers of class, sexual orientation, illness, separatist piety, drug abuse, and plain old social ineptness. You’ll want to linger on the luscious writing, but keep turning the pages to find out what happens to the characters who’ve won a place in your heart.

Michael Chabon, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay (Random House, 2000)
This Pulitzer-winning epic novel about the golden age of comic book superheroes is also a love song to New York City Jewish culture in the years surrounding World War II. Two boys, a visionary artist who escaped Nazi-occupied Prague and his fast-talking, closeted cousin from Brooklyn, lead the fantasy fight against Hitler by creating the Escapist, a  superhero who is a cross between Harry Houdini and the Golem of Jewish legend. However, their real-world dilemmas prove resistant to magical solutions, and can only be resolved through humility, maturity, and love.

Diane DiMassa, The Complete Hothead Paisan: Homicidal Lesbian Terrorist (Cleis Press, 1999)
Warning: castration fantasies, uppity women, cruelty to morons, and unapologetic feminist rage at rape culture. But our gal Hothead is about so much more. In her own traumatized, over-caffeinated way, she’s on a quest for healing and love–even if sometimes the only person she can trust is her beloved yoga-practicing cat, Chicken. This graphic novel will win your heart if you stick with it.

A Christmas Thought

Coming home from Midnight Mass last night, as I gazed up at the stars that shone brightly in the crisp cold atmosphere, I had the thought that there were two ways to interpret this sight. Intellectually, I knew that I was seeing immense orbs of fire burning light-years away, dwarfing our little planet, not to mention the quiet street where I stood. Emotionally, though, I felt that the canopy of stars was a cozy and hopeful sign for us down below, a celestial response to our joy.

What a miracle, I thought, that the earth’s atmosphere is made in such a way that we can see these faraway lights. How kind of them to stoop to communicate with us!

So too with the Christ child. God is infinitely powerful and huge, the creator of those stars and galaxies whose scope we cannot imagine. Yet God also comes down to us, offering us a way in, a point of connection that is on the scale of the human heart and mind.

Come, Lord Jesus.

Audre Lorde on the Spiritual Power of Eros

Audre Lorde (1934-1992) was a black feminist lesbian poet and activist whose work continues to inspire creative writers and political movements today. This essay of hers, “The Uses of the Erotic“, was reprinted on the alternative spirituality site

It resonated with me because of my experience of eros in my own writing, and how it led me to greater confidence in a queer-affirming theology. I believe that any ideology that alienates a person from her erotic self must eventually cut her off from personal knowledge of the divine. (I’m not talking about a true vocation to celibacy, but rather the shame-based repression of one’s erotic nature, whether acted upon or not. I would imagine that a healthy celibate person acknowledges and mindfully sublimates desire, without aversion or self-delusion.)

For me, the erotic is where I most completely will myself, commit myself despite risks, and wake up to the consciousness of myself, at the same point where I am also most completely dissolved into an interpersonal connection. To know God, to know the beloved, and to know myself–all these are essentially one.

From the essay:

…As women, we have come to distrust that power which rises from our deepest and nonrational knowledge. We have been warned against it all our lives by the male world, which values this depth of feeling enough to keep women around in order to exercise it in the service of men, but which fears this same depth too much to examine the possibilities of it within themselves. So women are maintained at a distant/inferior position to be psychically milked, much the same way ants maintain colonies of aphids to provide a life-giving substance for their masters.

But the erotic offers a well of replenishing and provocative force to the woman who does not fear its revelation, nor succumb to the belief that sensation is enough.

The erotic has often been misnamed by men and used against women. It has been made into the confused, the trivial, the psychotic, and plasticized sensation. For this reason, we have turned away from the exploration and consideration of the erotic as a source of power and information, confusing it with the pornographic. But pornography is a direct denial of the power of the erotic, for it represents the suppression of true feeling. Pornography emphasizes sensation without feeling.

The erotic is a measure between our sense of self and the chaos of our strongest feelings. It is an internal sense of satisfaction to which, once we have experienced it, we know we can aspire. For having experienced the fullness of this depth of feeling and recognizing its power, in honor and self-respect we can require no less of ourselves.

It is never easy to demand the most from ourselves, from our lives, from our work. To encourage excellence is to go beyond the encouraged mediocrity of our society is to encourage excellence. But giving in to the fear of feeling and working to capacity is a luxury only the unintentional can afford, and the unintentional are those who do not wish to guide their own destinies.

This internal requirement toward excellence which we learn from the erotic must not be misconstrued as demanding the impossible from ourselves nor from others. Such a demand incapacitates everyone in the process. For the erotic is not a question only of what we do; it is a question of how acutely and fully we can feel in the doing. Once we know the extent to which we are capable of feeling that sense of satisfaction and completion, we can then observe which of our various life endeavors bring us closest to that fullness.

The aim of each thing which we do is to make our lives and the lives of our children richer and more possible. Within the celebration of the erotic in all our endeavors, my work becomes a conscious decision – a longed-for bed which I enter gratefully and from which I rise up empowered.

Of course, women so empowered are dangerous. So we are taught to separate the erotic from most vital areas of our lives other than sex. And the lack of concern for the erotic root and satisfactions of our work is felt in our disaffection from so much of what we do. For instance, how often do we truly love our work even at its most difficult?

The principal horror of any system which defines the good in terms of profit rather than in terms of human need, or which defines human need to the exclusion of the psychic and emotional components of that need – the principal horror of such a system is that it robs our work of its erotic value, its erotic power and life appeal and fulfillment. Such a system reduces work to a travesty of necessities, a duty by which we earn bread or oblivion for ourselves and those we love. But this is tantamount to blinding a painter and then telling her to improve her work, and to enjoy the act of painting. It is not only next to impossible, it is also profoundly cruel.

As women, we need to examine the ways in which our world can be truly different. I am speaking here of the necessity for reassessing the quality of all the aspects of our lives and of our work, and of how we move toward and through them.

The very word erotic comes from the Greek word eros, the personification of love in all its aspects – born of Chaos, and personifying creative power and harmony. When I speak of the erotic, then, I speak of it as an assertion of the lifeforce of women; of that creative energy empowered, the knowledge and use of which we are now reclaiming in our language, our history, our dancing, our loving, our work, our lives.

There are frequent attempts to equate pornography and eroticism, two diametrically opposed uses of the sexual. Because of these attempts, it has become fashionable to separate the spiritual (psychic and emotional) from the political, to see them as contradictory or antithetical. “What do you mean, a poetic revolutionary, a meditating gunrunner?” In the same way, we have attempted to separate the spiritual and the political is also false, resulting from an incomplete attention to our erotic knowledge. For the bridge which connects them is formed by the erotic – the sensual – those physical, emotional, and psychic expressions of what is deepest and strongest and richest within each of us, being shared: the passions of love, in its deepest meanings.

Beyond the superficial, the considered phrase, “It feels right to me,” acknowledges the strength of the erotic into a true knowledge, for what that means is the first and most powerful guiding light toward any understanding. And understanding is a handmaiden which can only wait upon, or clarify, that knowledge, deeply born. The erotic is the nurturer or nursemaid of all our deepest knowledge.

The erotic functions for me in several ways, and the first is in providing the power which comes from sharing deeply any pursuit with another person. The sharing of joy, whether physical, emotional, psychic, or intellectual, forms a bridge between the sharers which can be the basis for understanding much of what is not shared between them, and lessens the threat of their difference.

Another important way in which the erotic connection functions is the open and fearless underlining of my capacity for joy, in the way my body stretches to music and opens into response, harkening to its deepest rhythms so every level upon which I sense also opens to the erotically satisfying experience whether it is dancing, building a bookcase, writing a poem, or examining an idea.

That self-connection shared is a measure of the joy which I know myself to be capable of feeling, a reminder of my capacity for feeling. And that deep and irreplaceable knowledge of my capacity for joy comes to demand from all of my life that it be lived within the knowledge that such satisfaction is possible, and does not have to be called marriage, nor god, nor an afterlife.

This is one reason why the erotic is so feared, and so often relegated to the bedroom alone, when it is recognized at all. For once we begin to feel deeply all the aspects of our lives, we begin to demand from ourselves and from our life-pursuits that they feel in accordance with that joy which we know ourselves to be capable of. Our erotic knowledge empowers us, becomes a lens through which we scrutinize all aspects of our existence, forcing us to evaluate those aspects honestly in terms of their relative meaning within our lives. And this is a grave responsibility, projected from within each of us, not to settle for the convenient, the shoddy, the conventionally expected, nor the merely safe.

Read the whole essay here.

Sunday Random Songs: Scrooge Edition

All the forced good cheer and baby Jesus kitsch on the airwaves this time of year grates on my barren little heart. If you agree, you may enjoy these seasonal travesties that you’re not likely to hear in Macy’s anytime soon.

John Denver, “Please Daddy (Don’t Get Drunk This Christmas)
This is not supposed to be funny. But I am a sinner.


South Park, “Christmas Time in Hell”
String up the lights and light up the tree, we’re damned for all eternity!

Kinsey Sicks, “God Bless Ye Femmy Lesbians”
From their hit album, “Oy Vey in a Manger

Suggest your own favorites in the comments box!

Mended Souls, Better Than New

A friend who is a sexual abuse survivor loaned me Renee Fredrickson’s Recovered Memories to help me be a better ally and represent these issues more accurately in my creative writing. I’d like to share these words from the book’s final chapter, as an inspiration to anyone recovering from trauma.

On display in the Freer Museum in Washington, D.C., are ancient Zen ceremonial bowls renowned for their delicate beauty and fine craftsmanship. Over generations of use these lovely porcelain bowls became cracked and chipped, and some had whole pieces missing. Rather than being discarded or devalued because of the damage, the porcelain was repaired with gold. The gold adds strength, beauty, and value to the bowls, and the sacred bowls are marvelously enhanced by the repair process.

So it is with survivors. You were damaged as you grew up, and the more abusively you were handled, the greater the damage. When you undertake to repair this damage, you replace bitterness and sadness with understanding and healing. You become stronger and more resilient when change comes. You grow kinder to yourself and more compassionate toward those you love. You, like the sacred bowls, are enhanced rather than diminished by the repair process. (pg.225)

(See images of repaired Zen bowls here and here.)

Gender-Policing Ron Paul

My best friend from Harvard is gradually winning me over to support Ron Paul’s presidential candidacy over Obama’s. The feisty libertarian is holding his own in the GOP race despite derision from self-styled experts in both parties and some suspicious poll-doctoring by the major news networks. Anyone with so wide a range of ideological enemies is probably putting his finger on some uncomfortable truths about our country’s asset bubble, military over-spending, creeping police state, and substitution of “culture wars” for genuine solutions. The site Ron Paul Myths gives a good overview of his actual positions and how they’ve been misrepresented.

This morning my friend called my attention to this generally favorable Washington Post article, which nonetheless treats the Texas congressman as something of a sideshow act. As Hillary Clinton found, gender-policing is one of the tools that commentators use to undermine a candidate, making it seem ridiculous, even unnatural, for this person to inhabit the office of Big-Daddy-in-Chief. Because we’ve unconsciously imbibed these stereotypes for so long, we don’t even realize the commentary is biased.

From the headline, “Ron Paul’s slight stature and high-pitched passions set him apart at debates”, a suspicion of effeminacy is cast over everything that follows. (Not that I perceive anything wrong with effeminacy, but most readers would.) Though the piece fairly summarizes his positions, and notes that he has the most enthusiastic supporters of all the GOP candidates, we’re told that “experts” have written him off, in part because he doesn’t perform masculinity in the same way as Romney and Gingrich. The article mentions his “high-pitched voice”, “smaller” and “weaker” build, and “excitable hands”. Hello, Dolly!

The reporter, Sarah Kaufman, isn’t actually saying that she thinks these traits make him un-presidential–merely acknowledging that the hypothetical average voter could feel that way. Nonetheless, by pointing out Paul’s image problem without discussing sexism as a factor, the article subtly perpetuates these slurs.

Ron Paul, you just became the queer candidate.

Reiter’s Block Year in Review, Part 1: Best Poetry

Loyal readers, I apologize for the three-week blog hiatus. I was writing 30 poems and poem-like scribblings for the month of November to raise money for The Center for New Americans, a literacy program for immigrants in Western Massachusetts. You can still sponsor me through the end of 2011 here. (I’m still writing poems, just in case.)

This year-end roundup will be posted in several parts since there are so many good reads that I want to highlight. Today, I’ll be recommending a few poetry books that caught my attention.

Lara Glenum and Arielle Greenberg, eds., Gurlesque: The new grrly, grotesque, burlesque poetics (Saturnalia Books, 2010).
Unicorns! Masturbation! Dead cows! As Glenum writes in her introduction to this anthology, “The Gurlesque describes an emerging field of female artists…who, taking a page from the burlesque, perform their femininity in a campy or overtly mocking way. Their work assaults the norms of acceptable female behavior by irreverently deploying gender stereotypes to subversive ends.”

Juliet Cook, Thirteen Designer Vaginas (Hyacinth Girl Press, 2011).
Punning, darkly playful, experimental poems inspired by vaginal reconstructive surgery websites. “They can’t quiver and whimper/if they’re not real, he said, referring to some breasts./We all know they’re implants, not live puppies”. Chapbook cover even has pasted-on fake jewels. What more could you want for $5? Visit Cook’s website for links to other titles, including a free download of Mondo Crampo.

Jason Schossler, Mud Cakes (Bona Fide Books, 2011).
Winner of the 2010 Melissa Lanitis Gregory Poetry Prize, this quietly powerful autobiographical collection chronicles a Midwestern Gen-X boyhood, where exciting dreams of Star Wars and movie monsters give way to the more drab and painful struggles of his parents’ divorce, and the losing battle of his Catholic conscience against teenage lust. Schossler narrates the essential facts of a moment that stands in for an entire relationship, allowing the reader to make the connections that his childhood self couldn’t see.

Nick Demske, Nick Demske (Fence Books, 2010).
Insane sonnets compiled from the data-stream of our decadent culture. Read my blog review here.