25 February 2009

I Think I Know What Hell Is

Seriously. Hell is the confluence of events all conspiring to make you miserable, like say, my WD external hard drive, when it just stops showing up on my desktop one steamy day, where I happen to store all 9,000 of my iTunes songs to clear up space in the hard drive of my MacBook. And then I read my inbox and I have 2 rejections from 2 literary journals in the course of 20 seconds, one of them very flattering (which is actually more upsetting in a way because it means you were close). Then my upstairs neighbor blasts possibly the worst music I've ever heard from his stereo, one crappy song after another, as if the name of his playlist was The One Crappy Hit After Another Playlist. He went from really bad Anthem techno to Ryan Adam's "Wherever you Go," the theme song of "Robin Hood" and then to Foreigner's "I Want to Know What Love Is." Wait, you don't know that song? Let me repeat the brilliant chorus for you, tweaking just one word:

I wanna know what HELL is
I want you to show me
I wanna feel what HELL is
I know you can show me

Now, I have absolutely no problem with people loving their music because I'm a musician and an audiophile myself, and I get the joy of playing music loud sometimes. But save it for a fucking fiesta dude, or 80's retronight at the boliche. At the very least, don't subject us to your unhealthy appetite of rock love ballads. For several hours, the music was so loud, I couldn't think straight. I'm serious. And what does this have to do with my external hard drive? Well, I can't even plug my headphones into my laptop and listen to good music because right now my computer isn't acknowledging that I have an external drive. Poof! 9,000 songs, all gone. Evaporating like Argentine pensions.

I'm telling you, hell is a fucking conspiracy. And we all know how much argentinos love a good teoría conspirativa.


leigh said...

damn. that is a bad day. I have been collecting some of mine own recently. Let's band together and refuse any more.
right now.


JACKSON BLISS 水と魂 said...

Agreed Leigh! No more shitty days, at least until 2010. Miss you.

Devin said...

Oh Jackson-so agree -for the first time in my 43 (almost 44 years) I received an audit notice from our version of the gestapo-well of course until Homeland Insecurity came along!! never mind that i do not have tax records for year requested -all in all with this however i think I am gonne 'get lucky' so to speak with a small penalty-of course knowing that the IRS is a completely unconstitutional and illegal institition makes it no better! And an 'X' that I thought hopefully and happily had long forgotten about me (all in the same day) is trying to weasel his way back into my life-I need him like I need a bad case of the clap right now-havent even called back yet -if I talk to him I am going to tell him Nando and me are gettin hitched and fleeing the country (which is what I wish we really could do)agree about the Foreigner song-hehe what do you think about "We Built This City" from Starship-another example of when good or great bands go horribly wrong:-) best as always to you and LB and your families-everything considered I do so wish I were in S America-I dunno anywhere but here!

Lover of Nature said...

I like Foreigner once in a while but tha doesn't mean I have crappy taste in music, mostly I grew up with this music back in the 80s.

JACKSON BLISS 水と魂 said...


I don't mind some foreigner either, but:

1. Not THAT song
2. It's different when you're being forced to listen to it.
3. Contextually, when you hear even an all right song after fifteen other songs that bite your ass, they all start to upset you after awhile
4. I'm sure you don't have bad taste in music.
5. Objectively, some 80's music is better written melodically than other music. I'm a huge fan of 80's music too, though I admit that it's chorus-heavy, and also, lyrically, probably weaker than the 70's or the 90's. I prefer not to analyze the lyrics whenever possible, and just enjoy the beat. But I think that song is just BAD.

Jole said...

To change this lonely life
I wanna know what love iiiiiiis
I want you to show meeeeeeeeeee!!!!!

Apfel said...

Oh yeah... we love "teorías conspirativas".

Did you read "Hitler Won the War?". Look for it... ^^

And yes... people just love bad music. I even wrote about that in my blog. How people just don't realize how bad a band is, no matter what.
It's just nonsense that people listens to stuff like pop music, and consider it good kind of music, while Frank Zappa is probably going crazy six feet under.


Alan Schamber

JACKSON BLISS 水と魂 said...

Word Alan,

I totally know what you mean. I don't have a problem dancing to crappy music, but I do have a problem listening to it all the time. At least give us a balance to create contrast.

Peace, Blessings.

Fito said...

And you would define "good music" as?
Just curios of what´s your authoritative criteria (being a musician?) You are entainly not a famous one... at leats not as famous as the guys from Foreigner..

JACKSON BLISS 水と魂 said...

Jeje. True Fito, that's def. true. But fame doesn't mean quality either. I mean, look at Paris Hilton + Britney Spears. As some Porteño posters have correctly pointed out, both have albums, massive racks, mega bucks, large houses, but I don't like their music at all. Not one bit. Ditto with Vanilla Ice: famous but terrible.

I guess I would define good music as:

1. Above all else, MELODIC. I like smart rifs, catchy choruses, string arrangements, awesome bass hooks. In other words, I like musicality, not formulaic pop-songs with vapid lyrics. I like people who can create their own style too. Also, there's a lot of music that doesn't even have a melody for fuck's sake. It's just drumbeats and some talking. Or, the melody is supermonotonous. Even worse, it's totally desultory. And this isn't a diss on rap, because some of the hip-hop out there is fantastic, but this will be discussed later. A good melody is contagious. It's beautiful. It makes you happy, makes you want to kick someone's ass. It builds, leads to a chorus, it's powerful. It doesn't just pass through you like a lot of this top 40 shit out there.

2. Harmony. Personally, I like harmony that is balanced and not overdone.

3. Lyrical intergrity. For me, good songs have good lyrics, meaning, they're not completely laden with cliches. There's something fresh, poetic, beautiful, clever, funny, smart, fascinating, powerful, insightful about. The lyrics don't have be amazing all the time. In fact, they can just avoid being lame sometimes, I'm even okay with that now and then. But I appreciate songs that are beautiful AND that have great lyrics.

Good hip-hop, because it is first and foremost spoken word with break beats, I think, has to be even better than the lyrics in a song. At least with a song, even if the lyrics aren't profound, you're willing to give the band some leeway because the song is so pretty. That's why some groups write defensive lyrics that aren't deep but also don't bite, and I get it. With hip-hop, the lyrics HAVE to be smart for me to really respect them. Sadly, a lot aren't. To illustrate this point, compare 2 of my fave Chi hip-hop artists:

Kanye West + Common.

Kanye has the hooks, the fantastic samples, and decent lyrics. I really enjoy his music. But the music samples aren't his own, and his lyrics aren't fantastic by any means, so I like him less than Common. I think Common's lyrics are more intelligent, well-though out, sometimes flat out deep. He makes social, racial, political and cultural observations in his songs. Like Kanye, he uses samples, but he uses samples that give respect to Jazz. And though Common is less known than Kanye because the latter write really catchy songs that people in clubs love, I'd argue that Common is a better rapper by virtue of being smarter, deeper and more politically and culturally aware.

4. Build-up. I like songs that take you someplace, that know how to travel. I don't have to have a chorus, but I like it when a song builds to a chorus, and even better when the song has two distinct but related themes in it, both of which are beautiful and not codependent on each other, melodically.

5. Variety. I really appreciate bands that write more than one type of song, and they can evolve their style over time.

If you want examples of music that fulfills part of all of the above criteria, please check out some of the bands in my profile. They're just a few, but I can think of hundreds of brilliant indie groups in the USA, the UK, France, Mali, all over the planet.

That, in a nutshell, is what I think good music is. But it's not an inclusive list. Just some of the more basic elements.

ASmeltz said...

Jackson, now that I've found your blog: equal love! Foreigner and that song in particular could easily cause the strangulation of the creative impulse in a person.

I must admit my jealousy: I have no idea how I would sustain myself in Argentina, or I would already be there. A mi, dejé mi corazón en Perú hasta algunos años. Pero pasarme en cualquier lugar en el sur me haría tan feliz!

400 rejections and 5 prints. Love those numbers. But your doggedness is clear and encourages me to be as persistent. Yes, I think I am tacking up every rejection letter from these MFA programs to my bulletin board. Grist for the driven writer's mill.

The best thing I may have heard in this entire two-year process is that a perfect stranger gets the feeling that I'm a "tough poet."
I get the feeling you're an open and wise one. Cheers, man.

Que todo le vaya bien...especialmente este tiempo tan nervioso.

JACKSON BLISS 水と魂 said...


Welcome to my hood. It's great hearing from you, and thanks for the compliment. I only wish I had the word economy to be a poet, but I don't sadly.

Peru huh? I was just there in February 2008. My g/f is Peruvian-American and she has a large family in Lima. So, right after I gave my first public reading from my novel, we flew two days later, kicked it in Lima for a couple weeks, and then went to Nasca, Arequipa, and Cusco. And of course we went to Machu Picchu. Every person should at least once. Someday I'd like to go with my brother. . . Where did you go in Peru?

Yeah, 400 submissions for 5 print pub's (and around 10 online one). Statistically, it sucks ass, but I'm cool with it. Well, most of the time. I'm just creating my own momentum. Just like you are. That's what we have to do: put ourselves out there and create momentum. A lot of writers give up eventually, sublimating their sadness into their teaching, or criticism. I'm going to do both inshallah.

I wanna tell you one story that's kinda sad in a way, but typical I think of our industry. When I was an undergrad at Oberlin College, they wouldn't even let me in the CW program because I was a junior. And after I left Yale as a grad student after a year and a half because I was too poor to finish (I was living on the money I earned working in their library), I moved to Seattle with this girl I was dating then. And right after I'd been accepted as a Post-Bac student at U-Dub, the prof in the intermediate fiction class told me I had to take introductory fiction writing first. He made it explicitly clear he didn't want me in his class! Can you believe that shit?

But the thing is, I knew I was a good writer. I just had a lot to learn technically. So I kept at it, took my first CW class in Portland, moved back to Chicago and did Americorps for a year, I asked the universe to help me get into programs in exchange for a year of volunteer service. And then I got into Notre Dame + IU for fiction, both of them, offering me full rides. And that's how I got my MFA.

And you know someday, I'm going to give a reading at U Dub from one of my published books of the future, and afterwards, that teacher is going to talk to me real glib and smooth in tones of respect and "mutual" competence, and I'm gonna say, yo, thank you for being such a dickhead because I needed to learn that lesson early, and I needed someone to tell me I couldn't be a writer, to inspire me to work my ass off, just so I could prove you wrong with my art.

Anyway, I have this feeling that ultimately you will get what you want because you understand language and you're tough, exactly the qualities you need to flourish someday. Gambatte.

Y gracias por tu commentario, ha sido un verdadero placer.


ASmeltz said...

Thanks for the story of painful bs from people within the industry. It reminds me of the two-sentence email that Boston U sent me to let me know I wasn't in last year: "Our program is very small and highly selective, so we can only accept the poets of highest caliber. I can tell you that you are not one of them."
I actually laughed at that one; bizarre. And it does motivate me. It's sickos like us that function out of the I-will-prove-you-wrong motive who I believe will see their efforts repaid. At least, as long as we have significant talent and luck to go with it.

Dah, super super enviosa of your time in Peru, and of your gf's ties there! I would kill to get back there... I'd teach, I'd wait tables, I'd nanny, I'm serious. Anything.
I spent two summers there, once when I was sixteen, and once when I was nineteen. (So it's been seven years! Too long!) I spent a lot of time in Lima, saw Arequipa and Cusco - Machu Picchu at sunset made me weep - and actually spent a lot of time in the small river city of Pucallpa because of the translation, social/medical work I was helping with. Lots of time on the river Ucayali.

So yes. Peru. Perhaps I need simply need to date a wonderful Peruano-Americano myself...

You already have an MFA and are applying to programs again? What are your thoughts on that?

JACKSON BLISS 水と魂 said...

I can't believe BU has a rejection letter like that. Is that verbatim? That's possibly the most obnoxious rejection letter I've ever heard of, and I've heard some bad ones. I though Berkeley's Ph.D rejection letter was bad "You have NOT been accepted into the Comparative Literature PhD Program at the University of California at Berkeley," but yours is actually worse. I mean, I love Jhumpa Lahiri too, but no program should have rejections like that. That's so fucked up it's funny--you're right about that.

Your summer volunteer/translation gigs in Peru sound amazing actually. Good for you. I'm so glad you've had some amazing experiences. It's funny because when we went to Machu Picchu, our guiá wouldn't stop talking. He just rambled on and on, and finally LB + I just walked away and starting exploring things on our own, and it was only once I put in my earphones and put on some music (I'm sure it was something cheesy that I loved like Deep Forest or some shit like that) that I was able to drown out all the people talking. And then I turned my head up to the sky, and I almost lost it. It was so beautiful, the air was practically humming.

In terms of the MFA thing. Yeah, it's ironic because when I was in my program, I was like "yo, this is the last fucking workshop I'm ever going to take and I'm so goddamn happy about that." I had some punks in my workshop that would say really unconstructive shit like "I really don't like these characters at all" and "I just feel like Jackson's showing off again." I mean, what do you do with comments like that? I def. got something out of workshop, but one of my professors just let people say whatever they wanted, which is usually a bad idea. And pretty soon I felt like my short story was just a pretext for a bunch of passive-aggressive psychoanalysis. One simple example will suffice: one of the biggest dicks in my WS, was this guy who'd had the hots for my g/f at the time. And he was merciless with me. But what shocked me, it was so transparent! I almost shouted once "dude, you're not talking about my character at all and we both know it." Then I got home, and I'd read his marginalia, and he'd said that my story was a driveling, pretentious, inaccurate, contradictory piece of vomit soup. That is ALMOST a verbatim quote, by the way. It was so fucked up I laughed!

So, you know, I made sure my next submission was even better than the first one. And I think that's how I know I'm slowly evolving, you know? I transferred by disbelief, frustration and sometimes even anger, into my manuscript, and made sure it was blazing. So in a way, I should thank these people.

But fuck, I'm digressing. So, in answer to your question: here's the thing, you can't predict what your class is going to be like. Sometimes you get tons of talented writers who are supercool + chill, and sometimes you get party kids, graduated hipsters and alcoholic misanthropes who don't believe anything they didn't write. And you can't control/predict that. FORTUNATELY, what you get is that precious commodity we all want: time to write. And since I was one of the older students, I wrote all the fucking time because I knew what I wanted. I knew what a goddamn privilege it was--just like you do--and my first love, was writing. I didn't care about popularity, though I def. hung out with people. But I was there to write my ass off and not look back. I was being paid to read great lit and write, and that's a goddamn privilege. Some of my classmates knew it, others frankly didn't.

So, by the time I was almost done with my MFA, I was stoked to get away from department politics, you know? Also, I won this thing we have at ND called the Sparks Prize in Fiction. It's basically 25k to the winner who is decided by an outside judge from another school (it rotates each year), and I got a whole year to write, so I kinda got a 3rd MFA year unofficially. Again, I knew how damn lucky I was. I mean, my talent brought it home, but I was lucky because that judge happened to be from NYU, and he was very urban, and all my chapters were about a culture jammer in NYC and a Senegalese-American living in BK Heights. If I'd gotten the super-realist from WMU who loves coming of age stories of boys in small towns, I wouldn't have even placed that year. . .

Damn, I keep digressing. I'm really sorry. Finally, so after spending about a year in Buenos Aires, which I do love for many reasons, I realized a bunch of things:

1. Being a near-vegan in BsAs is possible, but only if you're a machine and you're willing to live on electricity because you can only eat the same 3 dishes so many times.

2. I want cleaner air

3. Though I was making enough money for both of us to live on by teaching English, when I came home, I was WAY too tired to write. And I tried. I mean, I had 3.5 hours to kick it with my g/f, read email (since I didn't have access to it during the day), eat dinner, get prepped for the next day's lesson, and write. It just wasn't a fair contest.

4. I don't know why I'm still numbering it anymore. Anyway, I talked to my thesis adviser from ND, and I just asked her "Do you think it's crazy that I wanna go back to have more time to write, publish, learn + network?" And she was like: no, go, it's your best best. So I applied to 2 phd programs and 2 ma's. And to be honest, I def. prefer going to FSU or USC, but if it's between UC-Davis and flipping burgers (okay, melodramatic example: working at some crappy bookstore where people think they're professorial just cuz they've read Descartes and David Foster Wallace), then you know, fuck, I'd rather get another Masters, spend more time workshopping stories, submitting, publishing, spending time with prominent writers, making connections, living and breathing writing, that kinda shit.

So I guess that's it in a nutshell. It's crazy because I know many people who are going back: people with CW MA's that are applying to MFA programs and vice versa. And I know that PhD applications have exploded because a lot of writers either can't give it up, they want a buffer during a moment of economic stagnation, they're scared of a real job, or they're like us and they just want the opportunity to write, learn, evolve, share for as long as they can.

Okay. Now, I will exhale. . .

ASmeltz said...

Ah, Argentina, land of charcuterie and steak. Yeah, your diet at least would be better off in Thailand or Tibet.

You know, I think what hurts so much about not getting into the MFA programs (again) is how effing hungry I am for the writing community, you know? It's being surrounded by like-minded, capable people, as you mentioned, and sitting under gifted practitioners of the art, even if I do have to suffer some serious douchebags in the process.

I am deeply concerned about my ability to hone my craft while I work full-time doing something else. Moreover, I'm in relative isolation without some fellow writers with whom to talk and share my stuff. That's what I'm willing to pay for... honestly, I was ready to drop the $40k on Columbia this year even though I knew it would cripple me financially. I want that precious time and environment just that badly. (Sparks prize, ps - fantastic. You really must have a knack.)

So when you mention how teaching kept you from actually writing, well... yeah, I worry about that. A lot. I would go for an MFA and a PhD?MA too if it meant more sharing, more learning, precious time for the craft.

As to BU's email, yes, that is verbatim, but it was a personal email from someone low-ranking in the department, not the formal rejection letter. I got the official notice - which was far more civil, if curt - about three weeks later. I'd gone seeking information from the wrong person on the wrong day, it seems. Or the people at BU are just total and complete jerks, which I sincerely hope is not the case, since I worship the ground Robert Pinsky walks on. Jhumpa Lahiri's alright, I s'pose. I actually found Interpreter of Maladies to be... I don't know, sort of flat on the page. Everything fit - characters, scenes, details - but none of it rang very deeply within me. Maybe that's just me, and no fault of her own.

Lahiri's short stories were certainly not "vomit soup," though, and I'm sure your fiction isn't either. I don't think an artist - a writer - can truly be one if they pursue their work for any reason but their true love and true need for it. Sounds like the asshat kids in your workshop needed to reassess their priorities. I'd probably have clocked them in the face immediately after class' dismissal, but then, I'm terrible at maintaining Zen.

Have you ever read Edward Hirsch? He has a book called How To Read A Poem (And Fall In Love With Poetry) that was a bestseller a few years back. I really like this guy and his work, especially because he is deeply devoted to the idea that writers need to have a moral system, values, guts - not just talent, not just capacity with words. Or, he says, writing ends up mere clever craft, which is, in the end, fleeting and not true art. Popularity-grubbing party kids and alcoholic misanthropes rarely hit that mark, methinks.

I bring Hirsch up because from what little I've read of your words in the virtual sphere, I think you'd appreciate his line of thought. I know I love him.

Anyway, thanks for letting me continue to address you on myriad subjects - I know nobody else who's pursuing this world and it's great to have even a stranger discuss some of this stuff while I face rejection again. Bracing. Thanks.

Oh, and Davis isn't so bad. It might be a college town, but take it from someone who works professionally in the wine world: you can find some ridiculously gorgeous mountain drives and some seriously tasty vino in that part of the world. Frisco's just a short drive away. Anything's better than workin' with Descartes-lovers.


ASmeltz said...

also, Deep Forest.
ahhahaha. Awesome. I had two of their albums until I decided about four years later that god, I love ambient music but these are terrible.

JACKSON BLISS 水と魂 said...


Just out of curiosity, where do you live anyway? I have 2 hometowns, that's why I'm asking, but I'm just curious to know where you call home. I didn't know that you worked in the wine industry. Are you in Sonoma/Napa Valley? I hear that area is beautiful. I've been to San Fran/ Oakland/Marin/ Berkeley several times but never ventured into the valley's quite yet. One of my friends got her license in viticulture from one of the big vineyards there, and she still coos about California wines, even though she's in New Orleans right now.

No, I'd never heard of Edward Hirsch, or his book, but I will ABSOLUTELY check it out once we're back in the chi for the summer. I have this sort of a priori feeling that I'm gonna love it.

There was an essay published in Pleiades by Anis Shivani About the Current state of Fiction Writing that I found really interesting, not to mention spot on. He writes about how it's become taboo to believe in anything in writing anymore, how the instant a writer is political, ideological, too ambitious, or possesses his own cultural, aesthetic or moral ethos, he's banned + rejected. When you get a second, check it out at:


I don't agree with everything he writes, but my god, sometimes he really hits it right on. This essay bluntly points out what's wrong with the publishing industry, and more to the point, what we're up against. But instead of making you depressed, hopefully it will make you want to put pen to paper and fight your fight in only the way you can fight it. That's how it made me felt, not to mention, that is placated me a little to realize the insane forces of corporate homogeneity that we're actively fighting against. In a fucked up sort of way, it's good counsel because it makes me realize why it's so hard to get into this industry. At first, for the first 2-3 years I submitted stories to journals, I was (necessarily) idealistic: I thought, someone who has an objective eye for a great story is going to pick this up. And I got nothing but rejections, sometimes reading shit in the same journals that had rejected me and feeling that I was reading something of comparable quality as the story they rejected. Later on, I sort of realized that I almost have to force journals to accept me, because really, a lot of editors publish stories from writers they already know and respect, and then maybe they throw in 1-2 stories a year that make their way through the slush pile. But a lot of the readers for journals are MFA students, and a lot of them don't actually know what's publishable, that's one of the reasons they're IN a MFA program. . .

Anyway, back to you. You know, I've been thinking about your situation and for what little it's worth, if for some ridiculous reason, you don't get in (or get enough funding), I hope you'll use that as motivation to force some of these poets to acknowledge your talent, because they will ultimately, but sometimes, only when they have to. I think you're tough, and you'll get there eventually. I have this very strong feeling, but you'll need strategy too. For example, you could take a summer workshop at a really good program, even for a week (tin house at reed college, bread loaf conference, iowa, IU, nebraska), gain tons of insight, becomes a star pupil with 1-2 important poets/teachers of each workshop, feed off of the energy of your classmates, keep their emails so you can send each other your manuscripts, and suddenly, you've already changed your profile, the next time you apply. Also, form your own poet workshop in your hometown (this way, you can filter out some of the posers); find out where your fave poets are, and then just write them, and ask them simple questions you have. Eventually, they'll remember you. Some of them will be prima donna punks, but some will have a weakness for your honesty, enthusiasm and love of poetry. And submit like crazy to journals (print + electronic--there are great journals in both mediums, check out www.newpages.com if you haven't already), and if you get 10-15 rejections for the same poem, go back to it. You'll almost always find 5-10 things you could tighten, change, improve. At least I found that to be true with my own stuff.

Anyway, I apologize for the unsolicited advice, I just want you to succeed. And this is just an idea of a back-up plan in the worst case scenario--I did something similar. I wrote a terrible 400 page novel that took me 8 year to finish, and a much better collection of character sketches, just to learn how to write, just to prove to myself that I was a writer. I know it can be discouraging getting a rejection, and I deeply hope that you get into a program this year. But if not, you're still a poet because you can't help NOT writing, because you're devoted to language, because you have a sensitivity to language. That's how you know. Talent alone isn't enough, you have to have guts, discipline, and some luck. You've got the first three, now put yourself out there in the next weeks and months and years to come so that you have the quartet.

I'm looking forward to seeing your name in journals in the years to come. For real.

I wish you tons of luck, and I hope you'll drop by and say hi sometime.

Besos, Peace, Blessings,