What madness is this – Azareen Van Der Vliet Oloomi’s Fra Keeler

I just read Fra Keeler by Azareen Van Der Vliet Oloomi, a short novel I’m planning on teaching in my upper division Contemporary Forms class this fall, a lit class for creative writers that investigates notions of “the contemporary.” I’m still figuring out the thrust of the class, though I know we’ll be using Foucault’s Archaeology of Knowledge as a way into the novels and poetry collections we’ll be reading throughout the semester.

I’m not alone in comparing Oloomi to Robbe-Grillet, but I’m struck by how (as in Robbe-Grillet’s Jealousy) Oloomi leaves so much out of the novel–motivation, for example, and back story, and how what’s absent doesn’t prevent the narrator’s manic, paranoid investigation into the death of Fra Keeler to not only move forward, but to spiral and plummet. Despite what’s missing, the novel (at around 120 pages) still feels at once immediate and energetic while at the same time heavy and fraught. Fra Keeler is a detective novel where it seems that we only know half of the story, that what we’re left with–the narrator’s obsessive investigation (in the strangest sense of the word)–is all the narrator’s left with, too.

Here’s a great passage:

“My mind was as vast and infinite as the sky above, as though the sky had doubled itself inside my head. We are what we see, surely, I thought, that must be the case. Because now that I see the sky, I thought, my mind is another sky alongside it.” (pg. 79)

So much of the novel is concerned with what the narrator perceives, what he sees, and how he connects (or doesn’t connect those things) and the madness of signs. That’s probably where we’ll start our discussion this fall. A great, unexpected novel.

Here are a few more in-depth reviews of Fra Keeler:

LA Times


The Millions

Buy Fra Keeler at the publisher’s website.

Buy it at Powell’s.

Buy it at Amazon.



Unconventional Creative Writing: Yoko Ono’s Grapefruit

In thinking about new approaches to teaching creative writing, approaches that don’t rely so much on the idea of “craft” (more on this in another post) as they do on exploration, close reading, and method (or practice), I thought I’d take a look at Yoko Ono’s Grapefruit. Known as conceptual art, this collection of “event scores,” instructions for art, or events, rather than the art itself, might seem like a ridiculous thing to use in a creative writing class, but I think it offers a few different possibilities.

The most obvious way to use this book is as an introduction to conceptualism (and Fluxus). An exercise in imitation might ask students to imitate the style, method, and form of the event scores in the book by creating similar impossible (or improbable) artworks by describing them. Pretty straightforward, but what’s the goal of such an experiment? As an experiment in form and creativity, the experiment asks students to imagine something they couldn’t or wouldn’t normally do. For example, in “HIDE-AND-SEEK PIECE” Ono asks readers to “Hide until everybody goes home./Hide until everybody forgets about you./Hide until everybody dies.” Not something anybody is likely to actually do, but by imagining situations, or events, students are pushed away from the usual way of thinking about poetry and fiction. At least that’s the idea.

A second thought is to use these as prompts–what would a story generated by “HIDE-AND-SEEK PIECE” look like? Taken a step further, could students devise scores for experiments they might actually perform, and then write about (or not). Maybe these scores would start to look like CAConrad’s somatic experiments. I’m thinking about the more “doable” pieces in Grapefruit. For example, using “PAINTING TO EXIST ONLY WHEN IT’S COPIED OR PHOTOGRAPHED” (“Let People copy or photograph your/paintings./Destroy the originals.”) students might exchange detailed descriptions of locations and/or people and then copy each other’s work, letting the original serve as inspiration for a distorted, degraded, or enhanced “copy” of another piece of writing. What would a “copy” of a photograph in writing look like? While not a lot of the experiments in Grapefruit lend themselves to this sort of thing, plenty do. I’m thinking about using a combination of these experiments in my class this fall.

Buy Grapefruit at Amazon

Buy Grapefruit at Powell’s

Buy Acorn (Ono’s Sequel to Grapefruit) at Amazon

Buy Acorn at Powell’s


Further Investigation:
The Fluxus Performance Workbook

A 2009 performance of George Brecht’s “Event Score” (1966) 

CAConrad’s ECODEVIANCE: (Soma)tics for the Future Wilderness

Yoko Ono – Eyeblink (1966) – via UbuWeb

Eero Saarinen’s General Motors Technical Center

Photographs by Balthazar Korab via the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Online Catalog. Check it out here, including more photos of the GM Technical Center and Saarinen’s other projects. Here’s the wikipedia page and a short article linking Saarinen to the rise of the corporate campus.

Credit: Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, Balthazar Korab Archive at the Library of Congress LC-KRB00- 36, LC-KRB00- 47, LC-KRB00- 58, LC-KRB00- 65, LC-KRB00- 89, LC-KRB00- 72, LC-KRB00- 97, LC-KRB00- 101, LC-KRB00- 104, LC-KRB00- 117, LC-KRB00- 114, LC-KRB00- 16

Notes from a Backwards Chair: The Life Lessons We Learned and How We Got Real

The following is the text of a lecture I gave on May 13th at North Central College’s Sigma Tau Delta (English Honor Society) induction ceremony.

Thank you for inviting me to speak this afternoon. I hope you don’t regret asking me. I’ve never spoken at an occult ceremony, so this is very special for me.

As many of you know, I’m leaving North Central College and it’s a real honor to be able to speak with you on this day of excellence—I say that sincerely, even though there’s a lot of sarcasm to wade through in the talk I’m about to give. There’s some sincerity here, too. I thank you, my audience, for listening to me. I appreciate and value every minute of my time at North Central, so I thank you for giving me this opportunity.

When I talk to former students after they’ve graduated and moved on with their lives, the first thing they usually tell me is how much, even though they didn’t know it then, they’ve come to value the times in the classroom where we gathered in a circle, flipped our chairs around, and got real. I call these sessions ‘rap sessions’ and during these rap sessions, we put our books away and take a good, hard look at ourselves. All of my current students know what I’m talking about.

“Hey teach,” they tell me, “I didn’t believe you at the time about the life lessons we would learn, but now that I’m living my life, I think about the impact you and your wisdom have on me every day. I hear your voice everywhere. Like you’re following me.” I’m usually not following my former students, but it’s at those moments when I know I’ve done my job.
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The Silent Numbers

“The Silent Numbers” combines audio collage with original text and text appropriated from an e-mail group devoted to recording and transcribing numbers stations. Numbers stations are shortwave radio broadcasts of human and machine-read numbers and letters probably used in espionage to communicate with field agents.

Best viewed using the Chrome browser. The audio for The Silent Numbers was built with GarageBand using audio recordings of numbers stations. The visual portion of the text was built using PHP, Javascript, HTML, and CSS.

View and listen here.