Thoughts . . . by Mark Rich

. . . scribbled . . . scrawled . . . trimmed . . . typewritten . . . grubbed up . . . squeezed from circumstance . . .

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Thoughts on a December 31

This morning I donned black rubber gloves and performed a delicate operation. The manual typewriter I have been using daily has been producing quite light type upon the page; and I needed to address some envelopes. So I changed the nylon ribbon.

This operation would seem ordinary to more people had a formal philosophy arisen, in response to Modern and Age of the Masses excesses, dedicated to understanding concepts of sufficiency and adequacy.

I say this because while changing the typewriter ribbon my mind filled with thoughts relating to some reading I did yesterday evening about catastrophic climate change, and the possibility of its occurrence soon. Our Mass Age already ranks as a geologic moment of mass extinction. With methane eruptions from the sea floor on the increase, a percentage of scientists see no reason to think humankind can avoid attending this particular party.

That old exhortation hits home: "Party till you drop."

I regard the typewriter as a sufficient and adequate tool for part of my daily work. Likewise the pencil—in my hand as I write these words. Later I will use the computer to edit and then post this entry, assuming I deem it worthy. In other words, I am still contributing to the energy-use landslide that has led us, in the end, to methane eruptions. All the same, in this process I have clung to methods that have served me my entire life, as they did prior generations.

My thoughts this morning led me simply to this: that if more people had clung to old tools that are sufficient and adequate, we might have delayed this outcome—by minutes, hours, days, years ...

Corporations, of course, could not allow any such clinging. Small businesses could, back when sufficiency and adequacy registered more readily upon our ethical, moral and pragmatic senses, or outlooks.

At this point anything we can do may be too little. Those of us who have lived small lives—who have ranked among the poor, from the view of greater society—wonder sometimes what more we can do. We already have led lives guided, in part, by principles formed around the notion that society has taken a decided turn toward waste, toward the synthetic, toward the exploitive—toward corporate, not public, health at the expense of the individual, and at the expense of our world. We have felt ourselves surrounded at nearly all times by others who have bought into a way of life created and promoted by corporations.

What we can do to decrease carbon emissions, in terms of changing personal practices, seems trivial compared to what these others might do—if they, for instance, suddenly as a mass rejected feedlot beef. Would they do such a thing, though? No. For too many, the time when it is verifiably too late will arrive as an inconvenience they will feel sure someone will fix.

I write these thoughts (beginning thoughts, late thoughts—take your choice) at a time traditionally observed by the making of resolutions. Happy New Year! A calendar disappears from the wall.

Yet around this time, too, falls the ancient Saturnalia when the poor and powerless symbolically acquire all they lack.

In Van Wyck Brooks's writings I encountered the notion of Pelagian optimism. It sticks in my mind, lately.

Said Pelagius: "If I ought, I can."

I leave it at that.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Notes on Genetic and Poetic Languages

I read the recent news from University of Washington about the discovery that genetic structures use two languages. The previously known language involved "codons." The new one involves "duons," which are dual-use codons.

My first thought? That the corporate drones who have committed genetic manipulation will not bat an eyelash. So they fiddled like children with their building blocks, and never realized those blocks had an alphabet printed on them? What does it matter? They made money and will make yet more. Having done their bit for the dehumanization of agriculture they will sleep like babies.

Ortega y Gasset may have been correct that our scientists are "barbarians"——specialists who know a great deal about one thing. The scientists I have known have tended to be actual scientists in the older sense of being natural philosophers. If not directly engaged in a process of discovery, they at least felt innately drawn to that process, as part of their participation in a tradition of humanism; and they stood apart from the funnel-eyed engineers and technicians required by corporate industry.

Yet funnel-eyed uni-directionalist drones must be in good supply; and our education system seems set on producing even more, to judge from statements I read earlier this year, somewhere, about the end result of the "No Child Left Behind" directive ... disastrous results, to my mind: for this system teaches students that to succeed they must make points, rather than make sense.

Schools now are turning children into the equivalents of those websites that have keywords but no content, except advertisements.

I possess no deep understanding of codons and duons——nor even a shallow understanding, from the point of view of the biologist. Yet the literary ordering of words we call poetry offers me a way of thinking about these notions. For a gene is a thing as well as a type of a thing——and also an expression: for surely even a corporate drone cannot sever a gene from its expression ... not even with that Orwellian-sounding technique that I came across in during random reading recently: that of "silencing" genes. (Next they will be "disappearing" genes.)

Similarly poetry is a thing, and a type of thing——and an expression.

Northrop Frye aptly observes that poetry has two languages: so you might think in terms of two languages being spoken simultaneously by a poem that is "viable"——if you will allow me the botanical word. Frye noted that one reads, hears or understands not only the language of the poet's writing but also the language of poetry itself. You might say the poem gives voice to the poet's creative individuality while also giving voice to poetic tradition. We might take away a particular sense from the first expression, and a universal sense from the second——even though the poet is as much a participant in universal creative process as s/he is a separate individual——and even though our poetic tradition is not at all universal but rather a particular playing ground of interactions between writers and readers ... simply the current moment of ongoing process.

A Second Second, and Product vs. Process

The thought occurs to me that this second "language" of the duons may well itself prove to be a composite of two languages. I think of the language within ourselves that we use in setting our actions or behavior: for I do think we are all like William Dean Howells's character who discovered "that two strains of blood were striving in (him) for mastery ... paternal and maternal." (Brooks has a similar point to make about American character, in terms of conflicting maternal and paternal influences.) Blake knew as well as did Hegel that without conflict there is no growth; and this language of our actions and behaviors seems inextricably tied to our growth.

How can I help but think that this newly identified second genetic language is inextricably tied not to stasis and unchanging form but to action and behavior——and growth?

Of course, that this second duality would be literally maternal and paternal seems reasonably possible.

Yet another way to think of the situation comes also from Frye. He draws a distinction between attitudes: the Aristotelian, which regards literature as product, versus the Longinian, which views literature as process. A product has static and fixed qualities among its attributes. We might think, metaphorically, of codons being related to product. A process, in contrast, must have unstable, changing aspects among its attributes. So we might think of the dual-language codons now called duons as being related to process.

The genetic modifiers (I mean those who modify genes ... although I can think of endless modifiers for these corporate drones——such as "rash," "dangerous," "unthinking," "human-culture-threatening," etc.) would fix the world into a particular set of regulated patterns, so that agriculture could be reduced even further from being a process and toward being production line.

Wilder Thoughts ...

In the absence of those "two strains of blood," expression would seem a one-way street; and in nature how many one-way streets are there?

Think about this carefully. (I insert here a small tribute to late professor of philosophy Scott Crom, who urged on me caution when nearing the specter of determinism.) For what is "expression"? The production of oils from seeds, I suppose is one answer——useful, but not part of the ongoing give-and-take dialog of a conscious being with its universe.

A microcosmic theory will arise eventually that will ascribe consciousness to the gene——and why not? At its scale the gene must exhibit something akin to the complexities of piscine, reptilian, avian or mammalian nervous centers.

And if such a theory should arise then the purveyors of genetically modified organisms, and their hired guns and ill-inspired drones, may well find themselves suddenly ranking alongside slave-dealers of a previous century.

A thought to consider...

Gene expression should be free. If gene expression cannot remain free then human expression cannot remain free.

I pose this without too many hesitations, except for my use of "expression." You may know why: that sense of the non-communicativeness of "expression." So how about this.

Gene communication must remain free. If gene communication cannot remain free, then human communication cannot remain free.

Cheers ...

Saturday, December 14, 2013

An Essay on Women's Speculative Poetry

In the continuing spirit of catching up on matters ...

My lengthy essay "The Transformations of Speculative Poetry: On Wiscon Panels in 2008 and 2013," appears in the September issue of The New York Review of Science Fiction.

The essay has three sections that follow a somewhat logical progression, but that also reflect a sequence of events and memories. It includes as well reflections and reflective discoveries of the sort that move a writer through an essay.

I begin by thinking back to a panel at the 2008 Wiscon. This portion includes thoughts on Minnesota poets and on panel participants Terry Garey and Amal El-Mohtar. Reflecting on Garey's contributions prompted thoughts on a generation divide that is marked by a change in small-press publishing.

I speak then of meeting Kathryn Rantala, and being reminded by her of an aspect of speculative poetry that spoke, and speaks, to both of us. This leads me to explore speculative poetry's place in a larger literary historical order. These thoughts will likely come across as overly condensed to most readers, for they certainly do to me. I do believe, however, I convey my understanding of the form's situation.

I conclude with an account of the panel "Women's Speculative Poetry Now," which took place in May this year. This section draws upon notes I took, based on comments by participants El-Mohtar, Shira Lipkin, Sofia Samatar and Lesley Wheeler.

Please note that I make no mention of the strange conjunction of misunderstanding and personal politics that seems to have taken place at another poetry event at that same Wiscon, of which I was ignorant.

One sentence in the printed version appears in a way that leaves me, at least, thinking it makes no sense. In mid-first-column, page 24, the line should read, "Science fiction, a late Modern form, in the Age of the Masses rejected its Symbolist beginnings and became a literary game ..." Or it could read, "In the Age of the Masses, the late-Modern form of science fiction rejected ..." Or some such. If I punctuated it in my original manuscript the way it appears here, the reader's confusion may be laid at my door.

Weightless Books makes this issue, number 301 (26:1), available. My thanks especially to David G. Hartwell and Kevin J. Maroney.

Cheers ...

Thursday, December 12, 2013

New Essay in Cascadia Subduction Zone

In October an essay of mine appeared that I have been meaning to call to readers' attentions. For me, the topic has importance.

It had disappointed me that after its publication C.M. Kornbluth failed to spur some feminist critic to begin the process of rescuing Cyril Kornbluth from the ill usage he has at times suffered from feminists. In the book I present ample evidence showing that Cyril exhibited a sexually egalitarian attitude; and I show how his writing suffered alterations that reflected poorly on him.

I also presented evidence showing where to place blame for these alterations. Frederik Pohl admitted to them, by and large. To my eyes the changes reflected so chauvinistic an attitude that as a critic I saw no alternative: my observations belonged in my book. I was writing cultural criticism, which combines biography, history and criticism; and to leave out my literary evaluations would have amounted to undermining my own structure.

Thanks to encouragement from Hal Davis to break my silence, and the agreeability of the Wiscon programming committee, I gave a talk in Madison in the spring offering my perspective. (And thanks to Mary Rickert, among others, for taking it in.) I had labored——even at the convention itself, banging away at an old manual typewriter——at shaping my talk to work as an oral presentation: so when Timmi Duchamp expressed interest in publishing it in Cascadia Subduction Zone, she presented me with many questions and suggestions. I ended up re-envisioning it, not just rewriting it, for publication, and truthfully made some important adjustments, and introduced as well one new discovery. As a consequence this published version overshadows the spoken one.

This essay discusses, among other matters, "visibly invisible collaboration," Judith Merril, Mary Byers-Kornbluth, George Barr McCutcheon, and structural feminism in Graustarkian novels. It describes some among Pohl's changes to Kornbluth texts, although without repeating analyses made in CMK, such as the examination of "Trouble in Time." It also discusses a situation that I had somewhat suspected before and confirmed after publication of my book——that the reputation of a novel I consider second-rate, The Space Merchants, rose as high as it did because readers thought it was the same book as the longer and quite Kornbluthian Gravy Planet. (As you might imagine, I deeply rue the fact that the Library of America republished, and in a sense canonized, The Space Merchants.) The new discovery I mention above, by the way, related to Joanna Russ and that worse-than-lackluster Pohl and Kornbluth production, Search the Sky.

My title: "Seeing C.M. Kornbluth as Gender-Egalitarian (For Those Who Have Seen Him as Anything But)." The magazine: The Cascadia Subduction Zone (, October 2013, 3:4. My thanks to Hal, Susan Groppi, Mary, Timmi, and Lew Gilchrist.

Cheers ...

Thoughts Written after Frederik Pohl's Death

(I wrote the following on September 2, 2013. I chose not to post them in my blog at the time. Whatever my opinions of Pohl as a man or a writer, I feel respect and affection for certain members of his extended family——in one case deceased, and in another, living. A long moment of quiet——even if after two years of quiet already, on my part——seemed appropriate.)

The news of Frederik Pohl's death has felt strange, settling in: for I have known it would happen soon——whatever "soon" may be. I have been out of touch with news of Pohl's condition; but the thought kept reappearing in my mind, in recent months, that I should prepare myself with some short essay about him, against the eventuality. Not that I did——perhaps because that same notion had been intruding on my thoughts, now and then, for years.

At the point in writing C.M. Kornbluth when I was ready to speak to Fred, and to see whether or not he would turn me down a second time for an interview about Cyril, I called his house and learned that he was in the hospital, due not to illness but frailty. The family feared death might well come for him. I would have been acting rudely, had I kept calling to see if he had come home: for what frail man would want to answer tough questions about events of half a century past? I left that phone number unused, afterwards. My book focused on Cyril, after all; and I doubted Fred remembered anything that he had not put down in print already that he would feel willing to share with me. I knew in addition that his memory, even before this hospitalization, was unreliable.

The questions being left unasked will remain so, of course. Pohl's comments on matters concerning events in the 1930a, 1940s and 1950s, however, will continue to reverberate——for he has left us correspondence from these times——the archived correspondence that allowed me to write about matters that beforehand I had feared would find no place in my study. As the book's few readers know, it rests upon a sturdy backbone of documentation.

It stands because I based its structure upon fact.

At the time I was finishing CMK, knowing of Pohl's frailty, it did enter my mind that my book, which tells quite a different story from the ones he had told over the years, might affect him to the point of altering the balance between his health and his frailty. I felt it might be best if the book slipped quietly into the world, without my making the normal efforts at publicity that might help make it a success. Pohl, if indeed so frail, might never know the book existed. His protective family might shield him, should the news of publication came out sufficiently quietly.

Two other reasons urged me toward my avoiding publicity. The book's writing had put me into debt: so I had a purely practical reason, nearly a necessity, to avoid even convention appearances. Another reason, however, some might call irrational. To me it carried real weight, all the same. I had lived with it since the mid-1990s, when several senior writers advised me to tread with extreme care around Pohl. He exerted tremendous power within the field in which, at the time, I newly ranked as a professional. Many of my questions even at that time concerned Pohl's actions; and his looming presence made it seem impossible to ask those questions in public. In effect my wariness of Pohl silenced me——and the tensions surrounding those questions, and my being haunted by them, made it nearly impossible for me to continue pursuing the writing career that I had begun to establish. It amounted to madness, to allow such questions to overthrow my fiction career. Yet I did, and they did.

I have written of being at sea for many years——constantly achieving in minor ways, at this, at that——but at sea: and the derailment of my soul from its fiction-writing mode of expressing itself fell at the beginning of that long period. I was haunted. I was insane, even if in the quietest possible manner. One or the other, or both.

The warnings to me about Pohl had been meant genuinely; and in 2010 they proved of more relevance than my fears of causing apoplexy in a frail elder. Pohl, after a time, learned of my book——but grew incensed enough at it that, according to his blog, he never finished reading it. In an e-mail to me he raised the issue of a lawsuit. In his blog he began a campaign against me——effectively, so far as I could see. Quite a number of individuals leapt to his defense, with academics writing "reviews" for professional journals making odd assertions, such as the one that my book contains no literary criticism. Non-academics posted pathetically negative noises on Amazon, while fellow science fiction writers made comments at his blog site, including a surprisingly scatological one, in closing ranks with Pohl against me. Pohl himself used the words "forces of evil," linking this phrase to one of his postings about Mark Rich.

I took this in silence, by and large——even though I had faith that the integrity of my work stood effectively against Pohl's threat of lawsuit. A non-provocatory stance suited the situation, to my mind.

My silence did establish for me, however, a vivid picture of Pohl's power within the field. For no one, to my knowledge, stood up for me, in public, against him.

Some, however, stood up for the book.

Most importantly, the book itself continued standing.

Would I have given so willingly of myself, and so fully, to create it as an edifice, had I meant it to fall? I could remain silent; others would remain silent: yet what I built would continue as I built it.

After a time, Pohl, too, fell silent about the matter——at least in public.

Did his e-mailed threat of a lawsuit still ring in my mind?

Yes. It did.

For all these intervening months.

The night after his death's announcement, the memorial comments began. "Death of a giant." "Last of the greats." "I knew him when."

Many, many will have heartfelt, wonderful thoughts and memories to share, as is fitting and proper. Their Fred Pohl had passed away.

As for me, sometime that night I felt a lightening sensation——a shifting and lifting of a weight I had borne long enough to ignore and nearly forget about.

For a threat made against me was ceasing its constant pressure downwards upon my shoulders.

For my Fred Pohl, too, had passed away.