e-mail me at billdeg@umich.edu


The Police - Landlord (Beat Club 1978)

Rumor has it that The Police are going to reform and tour the world this year. They'll probably charge a fortune for tickets and play mostly their big singles from the 80s.

Here's hoping they at least leave the synthesizers back at Sting's mansion. Remember the new version of "Don't Stand So Close to Me?" they put on their greatest hits record in 1986? Ouch.

Instead, how about exploiting the simplicity of the three-piece rock band? Those early songs like "Landlord" and "Nothing's Achieving" showed that musicianship and punk ethos weren't mutually exclusive.

They were like the british version of Television: literary allusions and difficult chord progressions juxtaposed with ripped t-shirts and two-minute songs.

Personally, a reunion of The Smiths would excite me a whole lot more, but nonetheless I'll probably end up getting my nostlgia fix via this tour.


visiting writers

I don't know why I haven't hosted more guest writers in my classes. What a useful way to offer different perspectives to students. I find myself using a certain vocabulary for talking about writing, for example, and bringing in someone who uses a different vocabulary seems like a way to reach toward students who may not be responding to how I frame things. Readings, obviously, can go a long way toward diversifying points-of-view, but there's something about a fresh face.

This afternoon Steve Climer was visiting writer in my creative writing class (thanks for coming Steve!). Talking about his own fiction, he really championed the idea of divorcing the creative process from deliberate or forced emphasis on rhetorical elements like theme. He's all about telling a character's story without getting lost in other matters. We looked at a story of Steve's called "High Lonesome Road," a neat southern gothic tale about a little boy who is a victim of racism until a surreal encounter with the ghosts of a group of civil war soldiers and the woman who cooks for them.

Some of what Steve said echoed things I've emphasized during the past few weeks, but he used a different lingo and described these processes with ideas that sometimes ran counter to my own. The language and the concepts bounced around and I think students left the room thinking they had to find their own lingo, their own set of writerly values. Not a bad day.


visual rhetoric

Yesterday's protest in D.C. and the subsequent all-night bus ride have left me exhausted, but I wanted to represent here some of the visuals on display on capital hill and the mall. Press coverage of the event has been particularly weak, with lowball estimates of attendance and too much emphasis on Sean Penn's presence. Okay, exciting that Jeff Spicoli is here, but how about the hundreds of thousands of everyday veterans, grandmothers, and college students from across the country?

Anyway, some visual rhetoric:



This afternoon en route to appointment across town, I caught much of Terry Gross' interview with Guillermo del Toro, who was talking about his incredible new film Pan's Labyrinth. del Toro spoke of the heroism of the film's young protagonist Ofelia, who refuses to spill blood, explaining that she's the only person in the film's fantastic universe who declines to respond to her violent world with violence. No matter how high the stakes. This is why Ofelia's the heroine. This decision is what marks her as heroic. Make no mistake, Pan's Labyrinith is full of violent visions. Horror genre violence. Comic book (clearly one of del Toro's prime influences) violence. Sadistic violence. But none of the violence is at all admirable.

del Toro also referenced in the interview his Christian upbringing in Mexico--the grandmother who performed makeshift exorcisms on him when he refused to stop drawing pictures of monsters, the bottle caps he wore in his shoes as corporal mortification. (He suggests that his affinity for Alfred Hitchcock grows from their both being fat, Catholic, and repressed.) I got the sense that del Toro sees this element of his background as being "violent" on various levels. The violence done to him by family members. The violence of religious justifications for attempting to squelch his artistic vision. I kept thinking of that scene with Ofelia refusing Pan's orders to spill the blood of an innocent in contrast to the biblical scene of Abraham's *willingness* to spill Isaac's blood, that biblical moment that provided endless ethical debate back in ninth grade religion class. A vision that seems to justify violence. And a vision that condemns violence.

I've got no conclusions. No insights. Just two visions that are inescapable. Clearly del Toro is a provocative and insightful commentator. I just wish he had clearer answers to the problematics he introduces.



Two rounds of revision to the working-class poetics article. Both rounds involved adding further material. Explain this point further. Provide another example. Incorporate a discussion of this particular text you had overlooked. Give some more context. The article is almost there, almost there, almost there...

And you find yourself WAY over the journal's word limit. Some 2,500 words over. Cut out this particular tangent. Edit for brevity. Eliminate a couple endnotes that now seem off topic. Cut out another tangent. Almost there...

I always bristle when students say things like "I don't understand what you want me to do on this paper." It's your paper. Make decisions. Have some ownership over your ideas. Don't do what I want you to do.

But then I find myself following advice of reviewers, making changes they suggest, losing ownership, asking those same questions that student ask: "What do you want me to do?," and wanting to be finished.


pan's labyrinth

Guillermo del Toro's new film Pan's Labyrinth weaves together fantasy, fairy tale, brutal violence, and political intrigue. Part of the action involves the Spanish Civil War. It's 1944 and a cruel fascist military leader working for Franco is fighting leftist guerillas in the Spanish forest. The young step-daughter of the facist may or may not be an immortal princess and she is presented with a series of fantastic challenges that test her mettle--challenges involving a dyspeptic giant frog and a blind monster who, if the paintings on his wall are accurate, has a history of disposing of children who invade his lair. Twelve-year-old Ivana Baquero plays the young princess as a curious, good-hearted, and bookish-but-brave believer in fantasy.

Pan's Labyrinth in many ways hops from genre to genre. At times a sadistic horror film, as Capitan Vidal uses any means available to find the traitors in his house. At times a comic book come to life, complete with bizarre creatures and villains and of course the heroine Ofelia. What an original vision.



One of the great 1960s rockers has lost his home to a fire. The man who legally changed his name to "?" and who has long claimed to be a martian also lost four of his dogs and most of the belongings that were in the house outside Clio, Michigan.

Born Rudy Martinez, ? led The Mysterians out of a garage in Flint, Michigan, and into frat houses, school dances, and rock and roll infamy. Along with bands like The Sonics and the 13th Floor Elevators, ? and the Mysterians are often credited with inventing punk rock. At least four or five years before The Stooges, the band foregrounded Brash simplicity. And an ear for great pop music. Who can resist the organ line in "96 Tears"?


going once, going twice...

Auctions are odd affairs. I'm not thinking of expensive (Sotheby's) or specialty (art) auctions, or ebay. I speak of the consignment auction. Growing up in Youngstown, auctions were popular, albeit subcultural, attractions. When I taught at Miami U., I learned that auctions were also common in southwest Ohio, and Nicole and I regularly attended them. Here in Detroit, I don't know of any auctions, aside from car auctions and the now ubiquitous real-estate auctions that follow foreclosure.

Visiting Youngstown this past weekend, we went to two auctions and I realized that one of the things I miss about Ohio (either of the two opposite sides of the state where I've spent time living) is the auction.

Auctions and the people who attend them for fun and profit exist in a parallel universe. There's a class dynamic, as attendees lean toward working class. Both sub/urban working class and rural working class. There's also a broader cultural dynamic that relates to class but transcends class. Auction-goers resist many of the whims and fads of mass culture. They seem to fetishize objects and artifacts just as intensely, or moreso, but the objects and artifacts of attention vear further from the mainstream. Milk bottles. Pottery from occupied Japan. Sheet music from 1970s singer-songwriters.

I don't mean to draw some kind of broad and inaccurate dichotomy. Certainly many (most?) auction-goers collect antiquities by day and then go home and watch Lost or listen to music on an i-pod. (And certainly Yuppies attend auctions, although there are fewer and fewer middle-class folks in Youngstown or Hamilton.)

But I get the sense that many auction afficionados resist at least some elements of the mainstream. Dick Hebdidge writes that "subordinate groups...express obliquely, in style" a challenge to hegemony. Folks at auctions, to use Hebdidge's language, have style. They are subculture. Rooted in kitsch and retro, their cultural practices threaten the mainstream. For example, buying a crate of records for five bucks doesn't feed the economy the way dropping $50 at Best Buy does.

But is there political praxis? Certainly, and sadly, reactionary politics has a presence. Confederate flag bumper stickers (and this is Youngstown, hundreds of miles north of the Mason-Dixon), for example. I get the sense that auction-goers may be dissatisfied with the current trajectory of free-market capitalism ("Buy American" bumper stickers, too). Buying goods at an auction may or may not be a legitimate resistance to that trajectory. There's a sense at the auction that stuff from the mall is tainted by free trade, sullied by globalism. Maybe old stuff at an auction expresses a nostalgia, not only for a previous lifestyle (listening to music on vinyl, eating off a set of china from the '20s) but also for earlier, happier moments on capitalism's timeline (roaring 20s, baby boom, etc.).



This a.m. I joined a UM-Dearborn and Henry Ford Community College contingent at Cass Community Social Services on Woodrow Wilson, part of the schools' joint commemoration of Martin Luther King. Groups composed of students, faculty, and staff perform community service at sites around Detroit, providing an opportunity for students and teachers to interact and learn more, together, about the place where we live and work. CCSS serves over 20,000 meals a week, provides transitional housing services, and coordinates a massive roving homeless shelter during the winter months.

We made 1,200 turkey and cheese sandwiches for prisoners in lock-up around Detroit. The police buy the sandwiches from CCSS each day to feed prisoners, helping to subsidize the various services Cass provides. Ever make hundreds and hundreds of sandwiches all at once? Here's an effective technique: cover table with stacks of two pieces of bread; add turkey and cheese to each stack; pile five or six sandwiches on top of one another and then bring the bottom slice to the top of that tall stack. That last step, which saves the time time involved in moving one piece of bread to the top of each sandwich, almost blew our minds. Very slick. Hats off to 'Shorty' at CCSS for developing this method.


those technology gremlins

First day of class this morning, Composition II. The automatic door timers locks don't unlock the classroom and I must scurry off to find someone with a passkey. Barely get into the room before the official start time...there goes my plans to have all the necessary windows open on the teacher's station computer ahead of time so I can casually circulate while students are trickling in. The sound system won't work, mucking up the effectiveness of the youtube video we were going to use as a writing prompt. Blogger's website is down, making it impossible to set up our class blogs, per my plans. Thank the stars for chalk, back-up plans, and the fact that most students still carry around pens.


momofuku ando

The inventor of ramen noodles has died. Who in the U.S. (and throughout Asia, apparently) hasn't tried ramen noodles? A hot lunch for twenty cents. The cheap(er) brands surely must be the most godawful food products on the market, with their pasty consistency, total absence of flavor, and massive amount of salt. Who would have thought you could get a third of your daily recommended fat and salt in about 150 calories?

The slightly more expensive Asian brands, while no healthier, taste a bit better. "Mama Noodles" were a staple when I was in the high school seminary. About half the student body consisted of kids from Vietnam who hated the American food served at the school--it was pretty bad--and filled their lockers with cases and cases of Mama noodles. I can remember when food in the cafeteria got particularly awful (inexplicably, the hot dogs were green), kids would pay up to a buck for a package of Mama noodles. Enterprising seminarians stocked lockers full of Mama noodles and Marlboro Lights and made a killing, in fact.


"...so this is the new year..."

And what strange weather we're having in the motor city. Rain, rain, and more rain. Several days have seen temperatures climb into the low 50s. Like March.

Classes start tomorrow. In the fall I was spoiled with a course release but this term it's back to three classes (two sections of composition and one section of creative writing) which still leaves plenty of time to write. 2 days of teaching+1 day of meetings and paper grading+2 days of writing = a good work life.

Blogging has been sporadic and unfocused over the break but effective tomorrow I'm back. I'm revising an article for jac (the old "revise and resubmit") on intersectional identity politics and getting started in earnest on a "response essay" for an edited collection on social movement rhetoric some friends from grad school are doing. The latter is a conclusion of sorts for their book that puts the essays in conversation with one another and offers some Springer-esque final thoughts. Oh, and the "Who Says?" book comes out in a few weeks. So, much academic stuff to blog about.

Cliche to whine about break coming to a close, and kind of ridiculous since most of my friends netted only two or three days off work, so instead I'll say that the time away from campus was enjoyable. I wrote most of a short story that needs a lotta work but that I'm happy with so far (thanks to Caribou Coffee for the beverages and atmosphere), spent much time with family, did loads of cooking, and saw a whole slew of films. "Volver" was beautiful and ought to earn Penelope Cruz an Oscar nod. Thanks to Netflix--I'm new to Netflix but I've gotten my money's worth as of late--I enjoyed at home "Wordplay" (slow at times but fun), "Little Miss Sunshine" (very, very well-written, and great to see Alan Arkin in a comedic role again), "Palindromes" (odd, provocative, not Todd Solondz's best work, but interesting), and "No Direction Home" (worth it for all the priceless performance footage alone, and for all the miscelaneous characters who show up long enough to claim Dylan stole records from them).


Tillie Olsen

Tillie Olsen possessed an enormous amount of conviction. Her writing, her activism, her work raising her family were all part of a life of conviction. Olsen died on New Year's Day at the age of 94.

Many know Olsen's great short story "I Stand Here Ironing," a lulling work of fiction in which a working-class woman reflects on the circumstances surrounding her imperfect mothering and hopes her daughter might somehow thrive. Few, unfortunately, have read the rest of Olsen's compelling, often sobering, body of work. Yonnondio, her only novel and a work of grim realism, recounts the suffering of the Holbrook family attempting to survive the Great Depression. In the novel Olsen doesn't hesitate to represent all forms of abuse and dehumanization as by-products of injustice. "I Want You Women Up North to Know," a topical poem about sweatshop labor, begins with the emphatic

i want you women up north to know
how those dainty children's dresses you buy
at macy's, wannamakers, gimbels, marshall fields,
are dyed in blood, are stitched in wasting flesh,
down in San Antonio, "where sunshine spends the winter."

I want you women up north to see
the obsequious smile, the salesladies trill
"exquisite work, madame, exquisite pleats"
vanish into a bloated face, ordering more dresses,
gouging the wages down,
dissolve into maria, ambrosa, catalina,
stitching these dresses from dawn to night,
in blood, in wasting flesh.
The poem closes with the radical threat:

Women up north, I want you to know,
I tell you this can't last forever.

I swear it won't.

I met Olsen in 1997 when she spoke at Youngstown State's Working-Class Studies Conference. She visited a graduate seminar at YSU devoted to her work and I was lucky enough to be a student in that class. In tears she recounted a story of being arrested for civil disobedience and separated at the jailhouse from her husband. In cells on two different floors, they sang to one another through heating ducts. I shook Olsen's hand after the class and she told me to never leave home without a copy of the U.N. Declaration of Human Rights and to never stop demanding the rights and freedoms the document outlines. Shaky with old age even a decade ago, her voice as she gave that advice was unwavering and defiant. The same voice as the voice of the closing lines of her poem.