Monday, February 23, 2009


Beauty and the brain, women use more than men

By RANDOLPH E. SCHMID (AP Science Writer)
From Associated Press
February 23, 2009 6:05 PM EST

WASHINGTON - Beauty is in the brain of the beholder. Go to any museum and there will be men and women admiring paintings and sculpture. But it turns out they are thinking about the sight differently. Men process beauty on the right side of their brains, while women use their whole brain to do the job, researchers report in Tuesday's electronic edition of Proceedings of the National Academy of Science.

They even explain it differently.

Novelist Margaret Wolfe Hungerford: "Beauty is in the eye of the beholder."

Essayist David Hume: "Beauty in things exist merely in the mind which contemplates them."

Researchers were surprised by the finding.

"It is well known that there are differences between brain activity in women and men in cognitive tasks," said researcher Camilo J. Cela-Conde of the University of Baleares in Palma de Mallorca, Spain. "However, why should this kind of difference appear in the case of appreciation of beauty?"

The answer seems to be that when women consider a visual object they link it to language while men concentrate on the spatial aspects of the object, Cela-Conde said in an interview by e-mail.

He noted, however, that this doesn't explain why - and how - the human capacity to appreciate beauty evolved.

"The differences that we have found might relate to the different social roles that, hypothetically, men and women had during human evolution." he said.

The researchers tested 10 men and 10 women, showing them paintings and photos of urban scenes and landscapes, asking them to rate each scene as either "beautiful" or "not beautiful."

At the same time the scientists looked at images of the magnetic fields produced by electrical currents in the brains of the men and women.

For the first 300 milliseconds, there was no difference between male and female brains, and from 300 to 700 milliseconds activity was greater for objects that were rated as beautiful than for those that were not beautiful.

For both sexes the most active region was the parietal lobe that deals with visual perception, spatial orientation and information processing, but it was focused on the right side of the brain in men while both sides participated in women.

While there are differences between people as to what is beautiful and what isn't, Cela-Conde said they did not find identifiable differences related to sex.

"Any person can find beautiful a landscape, a building or a canvas that some others will find awful. But sex has little to do with those differences. Perhaps they relate with other variables, such as age or education." he said.

"It is curious that, using different neural networks, the final result is very similar in women and men. But this seems to be the case," Cela-Conde said.

He added: "Human nature is complex and difficult to study and understand. Nevertheless, thanks to scientific tools we are starting to know a bit more about some very important aspects of our nature."


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Tuesday, February 17, 2009


We've been fighting the creepy crud around here, in the cold rain no less. Who was it that said that southern California was a Mediterranean climate? Bah humbug.

Today we're headed back to Arizona. It's been nearly a year, and I'm a bit worried about how much I'll miss the high desert when I see it. We can't stay at the ranch because we have a caretaker living there now, but we need to be in town in any case, as my sister's arriving from Montana to open a show at a local Prescott gallery--the ostensible reason for our trip. For her show, she collected wishbones and wrapped them with her hair. They're then mounted on her "text dust"--dictionary cuttings. And then she does prints of the mixed media.

As for entertainment, the hotel has an indoor pool, which should satisfy the little one. And we should get snow there, which means she gets to make her snowman this year.


Thursday, February 12, 2009

Poetry as Cultural Touchstone?

Skimming the LA Times's "Calendar" section the other day at breakfast, I note that poetry has now become synonymous not with high art, per se, but with an even more amorphous cultural currency: authenticity. To be a poet--or, in the least, to appreciate poetry--is apparently to plumb the depths of one's authentic core. Despite having been relegated to the dusty half of bookshelves everywhere, poetry nonetheless acquires cultural valence as having--or, rather, as denoting--substance:
In the end, the big reveal of ["The Real Housewives of Orange County" (Bravo)] is that there is no big reveal, beyond the news flash that money does not make you happy or nice or even very interesting. This is 2009. There is no poetry in the suburbs, no art to be gleaned from the battle between society and the individual. Society won, pal, and what's wrong with that?
No one in these suburbs is secretly yearning to live in Paris or be a painter, and if there is any self-doubt, it's buried under the silt of professionally prescribed pharmaceuticals and the belief that looking straight at the camera makes you seem more serious. Hedda Gabler left the building years ago; these heroines are tragic only in their lack of conciousness . . .
It's hard not to worry, just a little, that given the tanking economy, the wives and their gated communities may soon be stormed by disgruntled O.C. peasants bearing pitchforks and tiki torches. But even if "Real Housewives" does make it through the lean times, these women will no doubt remain right where we all want them to be: trapped in the fabulous shabbiness of their lives, having conversations that run back and forth like trained rats along dim and narrow mazes of the mundane.
Which is precisely why we will always need our poets. Now more than ever, no one more so than those housewives down in the O.C.
("Decay at play in the O.C.," Critic's Notebook, Mary McNamara, 2-10-09)
While I appreciate the endorsement, I am suspicious. If what we've set up is a continuum of lived experience and of understanding that imagines rote laboratory experiments at one extreme and an appreciation of poetry at the other, haven't we just basically tapped the last nail into poetry's coffin?

By the way, I have been known to watch an episode or two of Real Housewives. Not that I'm in any way endorsing it.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

If there were no limits, where would you like to wake up?

By the way, the location where the question was asked is London. That's not necessarily the answer. Although it might be.

Fifty People, One Question: London from Fifty People, One Question on Vimeo.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Completely Tickled. On My Chinny-Chin-Chin.

So, yesterday I entered this.

And, today, I humbly--and here I think of Wilbur--accept my award: one pound of Bristol Farms very best butcher counter bacon, hand-delivered by the contest's gracious host.

Woohoo! I'm having a bacon party!

I've never quite won an award like this for my poetry. I can't wait to inform my long-suffering husband that--despite his protestations to the contrary--my chosen career path can indeed bring home the bacon.

Thank you!

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Always Up for a Challenge.

I just came across this challenge today as I was surfing some blogs of folks who are actually local to me, and I thought, why not?

The fact that I've never written a poem about bacon before--or, in fact, about any meat product whatsoever--does not deter me. I heart bacon, after all.

BLTS (and their southern Californian sidekick, BLATS) are always on my list of the Top Five Foods You Would Take With You To A Desert Island--the others being raspberries, sushi, pesto, salt bagels, and the crab dip my mother used to make at Christmas.

Oh. Yeah. That's six. *Sigh.* Food, I can do. Math, not so much.

Anyway. The rules are this: "You have one week to post something that will appeal to the masses' love of bacon." I am squeaking in under the wire, which I believe is 8:54 PM tonight.

Here is my entry into the The Great Bacon Caper, which requires one to know something of this other poem by Ezra Pound.

On the Stove in the Kitchen
(after Pound)

The anticipation of this bacon in the pan;
Pastries for a salt-tooth girl.

After I jotted down the poem, I got hungry. Then I re-read the title of the challenge and thought I should have included something about capers. 'Cause they're like #6 on my list of Food I Would Take With Me To A Desert Island. Just ahead of black olives.

Language and Its Devices.

So, my three-year-old has taken to calling us--both of us--"Ma-Da." As in, "Mama-Dada." "Mommy-Daddy."

Oh, she knows the difference between the two words. She knows how to apply them and has been doing so 'correctly' for the entire time I've known her.

So, does this bespeak of laziness? efficiency? radical linguistic hybridity?

I'm not sure what to do with being called Mada.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Pimp the Poem.

Whatever you may have thought about Elizabeth Alexander's poem at the Presidential Inauguration a few weeks back, you should definitely check out Carolyn Kellogg's blog, Jacket Copy (the absolutely au courant and often hilarious book blog of the LA Times), in which she highlights the project to re-make, revise, and re-imagine "Praise Song for the Day." (And she's right--the abecedarian version moves.)

So there's that.

And, also, the whole project brings up the issue of appropriation, for me--not at all because I have a problem with appropriation--but because other folks apparently seem to. Take a look at the two images reproduced on that site. To me, this particular controversy is ridiculous. The photograph is a photograph. The painting is a painting. It is not an exact copy. It is even rendered in an alternate genre, a different artistic medium. It is categorically and compositionally distinct. It is visionally distinct.

I don't even think this counts as an act of sampling the original photo in the painting.

And, yet, the AP is claiming copyright infringement.

Here is the legal ruling that I think best speaks to the issue of creative appropriation:

"[In] truth, in literature, in science and in art, there are, and can be, few, if any, things, which in an abstract sense, are strictly new and original throughout. Every book in literature, science and art, borrows, and must necessarily borrow, and use much which was well known and used before." Emerson v. Davies,8 F.Cas. 615, 619 (No. 4,436) (CCD Mass. 1845)

Hence, we end up with the anxiety of influence, with Shakespeare's observation that "there is nothing new under the sun"--but we don't really end up with plagiarism.

In my poetry manuscript, which is based on objects, I included a couple of examples of oulipos because they represent the type of poetic process that emphasizes "words as objects" more than just about any other. I chose the so-called "N + 7" technique, in which you choose a famous poem that people already know; identify the nouns in the poem; and, using a dictionary of your choosing, count seven nouns ahead in the dictionary from the occurrence of the original noun, substituting the new word in the place of the old. The results are often obtuse, rarely brilliant. The point of choosing the famous poem is so that readers of the new work "recognize" it through the veil of the odd nouns since you don't change any other parts of speech. You just simply switch out one noun for another, based on an equation not on artistic genius, as if the nouns were objects on a table.

One of the readers at my press objected (no pun intended!) to my use of a Mary Oliver poem as an oulipo--"Wild Geese" became "Wild Geisha." And so forth. She worried it would offend fans of Oliver's--that they would "take umbrage" at someone messing with (mocking? parodying?) the original. Perhaps because I'm such a huge fan of Oliver's, or perhaps because the notion of sacrosanctity is something I regularly scratch my head over, this reaction hadn't occurred to me.

It's true, "Wild Geisha" is not an exceptional poem. It did have one knockout line that resulted from the exercise, the last line, in which Oliver's "the family of things" became "the fancy of thinking." That's a pretty brilliant convergence of nouns for being such a random act.

Of course, being exceptional isn't the point. Writing a "great oulipo," it seems to me, is nearly an oxymoron. But the nice benefit for poets is that you don't get bent when someone doesn't like the piece. Your "hand" really isn't in it. It's dependent on a formula, which rather lets you off the creative hook.

But, when it comes to pimping art, I obviously don't have any objection to it. In fact, I can't imagine life without it. Neither could Thomas Jefferson, Andy Warhol, or the Beatles, for that matter.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Bits of Blue Wind.

The wind is picking up ahead of a three-day storm, and as I just now looked up through the window, the Western bluebirds are suddenly everywhere in the deodars and on the lawn. As birds, they are relentlessly unstill. They toss and regroup and--who knew?--harbinge. It isn't the first time they've arrived just in front of the rains.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Time and Space.

Yesterday, I received my Alumnae Quarterly magazine, and it featured one of my college classmates' new books, Spiral Jetta (Erin E. Hogan). In it, she traces her road trip in her VW Jetta to see land art installations (think: Robert Smithson and Andy Goldsworthy) of the American west. She originally went because she was "'really interested in the way that land art transforms your sense of space'." But what she discovered instead was that "'[i]t didn't have as much to do with space but [instead] with time'."

My sister is an artist who has done land art projects and made similar observations. About her work, River Print, in which she reproduced her thumbprint in rocks in the middle of a river island, she says: "I was watching time (the river) and timelessness (the unchanging mark of my thumbprint) intersecting."

What spoke to me most in all this insight, however, was the observation that Hogan made about her own self in relation to the land art objects: "she once again realized that the work was not about objects in space but 'time and change and having a fixed place that the universe revolves around. I had always thought [the fixed place] was me; but these works were that fixed place'."

As a poet writing about objects, I am aware of the criticism that the descriptive image and the poetic list of objects is merely an opportunity for the artist to project self onto the concrete world, into the written word. So I am interested in the loss of self experienced by Hogan when faced with an object-in-time. The way that time interacts with an object, alters it, transforms it, entirely independent of the self--although dependent on the poet's eye to bring that to the page, which may mean that no loss of self is possible after all.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Middle March.

Because this is not my first blog (it's technically #5), I don't really feel compelled to start at the beginning. I am rather in the mood for starting in medias res. Some of you (most of you?) will have followed me here from other online communities, in any case, and will know a bit of the backstory. Or one or two of the backstories, at the least.

This blog is about the poetry. Mine. Yours. Others. Having said that, I suspect some of the other parts of the story will sneak in here from time to time since we don't exist exclusively in the compartments we build for ourselves. We tend to bleed and bolt.

Why Selvage? "In a woven fabric, the selvage (or selvedge) is the uncut edge of the fabric which is on the right- and left-hand edges as it comes out of the loom. As such it is 'finished' and will not fray because the weft threads double back on themselves. The term also refers to the unfinished but structurally sound edges of flat knitted textiles." (Wiki)

Poetry differentiates itself from prose most evidently at its edges. Line breaks finish off the poem's edges. Even when they're ragged, they do not fray, as the lines either hard stop or enjamb back to more lines--and sometimes they have to search for their next landing spot on the page. Yet this fringe is a made thing. It has a purpose and a craft. Despite the fact that poems often challenge our understanding of standard grammar, they are nonetheless built out of "structurally sound edges" that define this particular fabric and not another.

Thanks for joining me.