Tuesday, June 28, 2011

A Question About TV

I've been on the westeros.org forums a lot lately, looking for news on A Dance With Dragons. While doing so, I came across somebody asking for advice on good TV shows to watch. People gave their recs. The kicker?

Most of the shows were produced in the last ten years.

TV gets a horrible rap as a form of entertainment. Most of it is junk food, it makes people docile, it contributes to social conditioning. A bastion for repetitive, comfortable garbage like the various Law&Order spin-offs and talent shows. This doesn't change the fact that, since The Sopranos came out in 1999, television has increasingly become a format for visual serialized novels that tell compelling stories. In the forum I was reading, The Wire was held up as the gold standard, as it should be. Its one of the seminal works of American literature, a five-part Greek tragedy about the very nature of this country. Television's finest moment. Other recs: Mad Men, Rome, Boardwalk Empire, The Killing, Deadwood, new Battlestar Galactica, The Shield, Carnivale. All shows that tell/told long-term, adult stories. For my dark horse, I would add Futurama to the list, particularly when you consider its well-developed mythology.

Which makes me wonder: did television only get good in 1999?

When I was a boy, I really loved Homicide. It was gritty and intelligent, compelling most of the time, but did not have the nuance and long-term planning that made The Wire a classic, even though it dealt with many of the same themes. Were there any shows prior to The Sopranos that could hold a candle to the best of these serialized novels? Hill Street Blues? St. Elsewhere? The Prisoner? The Twilight Zone? First eight seasons of The Simpsons? I'm really curious to know. For years I was led to believe that Lucy stuffing chocolates in her mouth, Carol O'Connor ranting about Mexicans and the "Chuckles the Clown" episode of Mary Tyler Moore were the height of the genre. I can't see how they compare in quality to a show like Mad Men. God knows there's been plenty of garbage on the tube, from tolerable to Green Acres level awful, but are there any older shows that can be enjoyed on an intellectual level? Or is TV a storytelling artform that finally came to adulthood after a 50-year infancy?

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Chapter 57: In Which I Discuss Life as I Know it

So I've been reading up lately about all the unmanned drones taking out civilians in Libya. And how Obama has gone through no means of Congressional approval for this new war. Needless to say, it's a disgraceful and cowardly reaction to the popular unrest in the Middle East and North Africa. And it gets me thinking about the future.

We continue to get embroiled in wars, getting further in debt through the defense budget. Meanwhile, no corporate oversight, no attempts to balance the budget, economy keeps going under.

Either Obama wins this next election or he doesn't. The result is the same. Having a Republican in office would just mean a return to unilateral approval of presidential policy like in the Bush years, as opposed to this thing where the GOP naysays Obama all the time just to do it.

Back in 2003, I was out protesting the Iraq War along with the rest of the world, for reasons that have been stated by numerous people over the last decade. As evil as it was back then, I didn't get the full tragedy of these wars until now. We've killed enough Arabs to fill a nation with their bones. These wars aren't just homicidal. They're suicidal. Life just gets worse for the majority in this country and the government keeps putting up smokescreens. And killing a lot of people on the way down, as empires tend to do in their death-throes. 65 years ago we laughed at Japanese suicide pilots whose whole goal was to take their enemies with them (admittedly, we laughed from somewhere other the Pacific, where they scared us shitless). Now it seems our whole nation's gone kamikaze.

It's the world's most pathetic joke.


So, tour is over. A wonderful time was had by Kim and myself. I would first like to thank the Cascadia region. As I stated, the Pacific Northwest is utterly beautiful. From Portland to Boise was rolling foothills and farmlands. Boise to Seattle was endless vistas of evergreens, driving through the clouds atop snow-capped peaks. To see such an area is indescribable.

If last year was the super energetic tour, this tour was more like a samurai movie. Peaceful, thoughtful, somewhat elegiac. A lot of it had to do with those long drives through the mountains, letting the scenery soak in while some sad music played on Kim's IPod. A lot of it had to do with the company. I spent less time getting drunk and more time listening to people's stories. Like Nisi Shawl, fresh off her stint as WisCon GOH, telling me about her friendship with Octavia Butler. Or Cat Rambo (who is awesome, and gave us a place to stay in Seattle) telling me about the shenanigans that go on at the Locus Awards. Or that elderly Scottish woman in Portland I met while trying to crawl through the window of my friend's house, who talked with me at length about her artistic projects. She regularly stops by Ursula le Guin's place just to chat, and encouraged me to do so, but I figured that would be presumptuous on my part. And there was the retired coal miner we stayed with in Boise, who had much to say about the Western Pennsylvania coal industry from back in the day. Everything was pretty mellow. This tour was a gamble in a lot of ways, not just financially. I know I grew as a reader, with my pacing getting better as the tour went on. I think I won't know my real growth until further down the line. Anyways, the whole trip was just very thoughtful, very Kurosawa.

A funny coincidence: after my Seattle reading, I was talking with Nisi about music, and how she used to be in a band. I was telling her how I want to have more musical accompaniment for my work, which is crazy, because the very first featured reading I ever did had musical accompaniment, and I'd ran into the guy who played that accompaniment that very afternoon, in Seattle. Me and Kim were walking around that famous downtown market where they have all the fish and I randomly see Bryan Depuy, my old friend who played electric guitar for "Safe Space" back in 2008. He lives there now. It's so strange how life works out like that. I mean, completely illogical odds.

The venues were super accomodating for the most part. Only at Red and Black Cafe did we run into that annoyance where nobody's there to bottomline the event, and your only support are some baristas who don't give a shit. The folks at Last Word Books were super nice. My reading at University Bookstore was bottomlined by a really cool young lady who promised to give George R.R. Martin a hug for me when he rolled through next month (maybe she was joking). The books didn't arrive in time due to the usual postal incompetence, but they rolled with it and I was able to sell my own tour copies. Jem Wierenga at Hyde Park Books is just a lovely guy, and gave us our best venue and best promotion. (The best part of Boise was the young couple who asked me to sign a napkin for their 16-month-old son. That was very humbling.)There's probably other people to give shout-outs to, but y'all already know I love you.

Naturally, I need to thank Kim Vodicka. She's fun to tour with, and had fun on our trip. Just a great person and an original voice.

One thing I'd like to mention: Olympia was insane. Between the oogles there for the Rainbow Gathering, the cops profiling them, and the swarms of recently unleashed Evergreen undergrads, it just had crazy, dangerous energy. There were literally so many traveler kids on the sidewalk you couldn't get through. Oh, yeah, and it was Pride Weekend. Sensory overload x10. And we ended up sleeping in the car. I met a really nice traveler guy who talked to me about Rainbow Gathering. It sounds like a great time, and its going to be huge this year. The only "gathering" I've ever been to was the now-defunct Crimethinc Convergence (yes, FBI, I was at the Crimethinc convergence), which I enjoyed even if I don't agree with the group's MO. But I've already done my traveling, so I'll probably skip Rainbow, even if half the hippies at my house are going.

Next tour probably won't be until next year. Which brings me to...

The New Book

I've been working a lot on my dos-a-dos project. It's clocking in around 300 pages. Hasn't been easy. The first 100 still needs some polishing, then there's another 100 I still have to write from scratch, then a climax I need to revise. I have a problem as a writer: I can't be stylistic and plot-driven at the same time. There's all sorts of scenes I'm writing just to get the characters from point A to point B, and the writing is so pedestrian. I can go and spruce it up later, but at the time it really does feel like I'm writing boring plot points, "He did this...", "She said that..." And some of my plot points still aren't firm, which is stressful for the deadline I'm working under. Anyway, I'm hoping to workshop it a lot over the summer. I'm in tentative talks with Six Gallery to publish it, and if all works it will be out next May. Just in time to have release parties! I always wanted to have one of those launch parties at Balticon. Maybe that can happen. Then I'm going on tour! Touring where? The whole world, if possible!

More updates soon. If I don't get distracted by the new season of True Blood.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Back, and still a Nerd

I'm reading some viewer reactions to tonight's episode of Game of Thrones. A lot of sadness and anger. It's cool to see how George Martin's strong characterization and unpredictable plot twists translate to a wider audience. It's uncool to think how much could be accomplished if these people got as upset when actual human beings die. Hell, Ned's public execution is pretty much the fictional equivalent of what happened to Oscar Grant.

Fuck it. I'm going to bed before I start making a bunch of stream-of-consciousness Twitter-sized posts like these last two. Goodnight, America. Scary dark-skinned crimininal rapist who deserves to get shot in the back signing out.


Just got back from tour today. I'm going to need a bit of processing time before doing a detailed post on it. I have a housemate named Shun who brings pizza and coffee to the house. I walked in the kitchen this morning and saw both Shun-pizza and Shun-coffee waiting for me on the table. It is true that, no matter how great it is to travel, the return is always the sweetest part.

Found out just now there's a protest downtown because that scum--oh, I'm sorry, I mean noble knight who protects us from those leeching welfare thug-monsters in the ghetto--who murdered Oscar Grant got released today. I'm sure he's already got a six figure job lined up at some security firm. Nothing says "vacation over" like institutionalized racism slapping me in the face.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Quail Bell profile

From my partner-in-crime Christine Stoddard at Quail Bell Magazine: the first non-dumpster diving-related interview with Elwin Cotman:


Chapter 56: In Which I Discuss My Roots

So last weekend was Memorial Day weekend. A lot of Americans forget the purpose of this four-day-long holiday: to commemorate soldiers who have died in American wars over the last 200-some years. It's not a holiday I celebrate, because I have no investment in military culture. I would never join the army and inflict the same imperialist agony that's been done to me on other brown-skinned people. Being a young black man, I still get approached by army recruiters thinking I'm a dumb 18-year-old who wants to blow shit up. No, not interested. I've been hearing "these people die for your freedom" pretty much since the day I was born, and I've had a hard time connecting the murder and rape of children, or the acquisition of oil wells, to any freedom that I personally enjoy. I feel more of a kinship with black slaves turned guerilla fighters in the Americas than anybody who willingly signed up for the US army. I have one uncle who served in Vietnam (my father and his other brothers dodged the draft any way they could, and for that I honor them). He didn't want to go, and was left permanently traumatized by the experience. So I don't celebrate Memorial Day, since I am not a soldier and have no direct relation to the military other than anger that they fucked up my uncle. To celebrate such a holiday would be disingenuous.

I do, however, feel strongly about honoring the dead. I live in a society where the mainstream media constantly tells me that my own history is unimportant. It should be forgotten, as the remembrance of it makes certain people uncomfortable. So I have always made a point to write about black history and honor traditional black art forms, to make certain that these things are not lost. As long as I breathe, my ancestors are with me.

In addition to my obvious blackness, it is less obvious at first sight that I am a fantasy writer. It is my favorite school of writing. I exalt when it is good, I ache when it is bad, and I never stop seeing its potential to tell the truth of the world. That's how this latest tour comes in. Over Memorial Day weekend, I read at Baycon. One such reading involved Diana Paxson, who, unbeknownst to me at the time, was Marion Zimmer Bradley's co-writer and successor on the Avalon series. It's worth noting that she was part of a large pagan presence at the convention, which was pretty cool. She read a poem she did in tribute to her friend, the science fiction great Poul Anderson. I'm not going to tell the story she told about his last days, because I don't want to say anything incorrectly and dishonor it, but it was very lovely. Everyone, if they are lucky enough to know the general time period in which they will die, gets an opportunity at life review. Her talk of Anderson's was deeply affecting to me.

Later, I did a reading with urban fantasy/crime writer Chaz Brenchley. It was an interesting pairing: a debut author and a well-established one. During Q&A, someone asked us about our influences. Brenchley told a story about how he loved Lord of the Rings as a kid. One day, when he was a boy studying at Oxford, his class did a production of "Farmer Giles of Ham." Lo and behold, who walks into the dressing room but JRR Tolkien. Brenchley says he cannot remember what the elderly don said to him during their five-minute conversation; he just remembers being awestruck. Brenchley went on to write fantasy that is about as far from LOTR as you can get, but he always keeps those influences in mind.

As stated, I am not a Tolkien fan. His style of writing does not appeal to me. He is still a great, and as a fantasy worldbuiler is unparalleled more than 50 years after his trilogy came out. It is amazingly cool to think that I am a generation removed from him, or Marion Zimmer Bradley, or Poul Anderson. I am feeling a great pride in being a fantasy writer. That I can see my connections to the ancestors, even talk to those who walked with them at conventions, is an absolute gift.

Tour update

Accomplishment of the day: downloading Open Office. I can't believe I went so long without knowing of this wonderful free software. I was pissed off at the scam Microsoft runs where they let you use Word on your new PC for a few weeks and then cut it off, forcing you to go out and buy the program. So pissed I refused to buy Word, and went without a word processing program on my laptop for months. Now that school is closed, I was close to caving in before I found out about Open Office. Let the typing commence.

Touring is the weirdest thing. You never know where you will end up. If somebody had told me even a day ago that I would be spending the night at some house in suburban Portland, passed out on some dude's little sister's bed...well, they'd have been correct (for the record, the little sister is in college and no longer lived there). The night before we stayed at a hippie house. Two nights before that we stayed at a hotel with a continental breakfast. Where will we be tomorrow? Reading stories to rodents under a train bridge? A mansion in eastern idaho? Who the hell knows?

Last night we did Space Art Collective, a pretty rad little spot in Vancouver, WA. Apparently they've had all kinds of different events there, including marionette shows. The crowd was mostly the organizers and people who came to see the bands who went on after us. More Kim's crowd than mine, but everybody was cool people. Faced with a crowd that I was pretty sure didn't come to see us, I pondered which story to read. I settled on a chapter from "Assistant," the Jim Crow-era horror novella that ends the book. It went well, even if my reading capabilities are a bit rusty. I have found, no matter what crowd you read before, the worst thing to do is pander. Reading stories about things people are already familiar with is a first-class ticket to a bored audience. Reading about Jim Crow to Pacific Northwest musicians might educate some people, so that's what I did.

Kim absolutely killed, by the way. One of the guys at the space filmed our reading, and I'll be sure to link to it whenever they post it somewhere.

I've noticed how I've been using the mic. All artists have different ways they relate to this strange, phallic piece of sound equipment. For instance, Kim never touches it. She sits or stands right in front of the mic, with her mouth close to it. Usually when I read, I hold it with my right hand, while holding the book in the left. I always lean way too close to the thing. I think I can trace this mic-holding habit back to my poet friend Heather Hong, who always held the top of the mic when reading. I thought that looked cool. It gives the impression of intimacy between the reader and the object that conveys their words. I remember, in previous readings, I did not hold the mic so much. I would veer away from it sometimes, start projecting my voice, move into the audience, or take it off the stand and get mobile with it. It's probably some level of insecurity over my rust that is making me content to stand there, holding the mic to anchor myself. On the positive side, I've been working on my storytelling voice and my pacing. Simply reading the story into the microphone, and gauging audience reaction to the words with minimal physical gesture, is a good way to work on storytelling dynamics. Blah blah blah boring artist stuff blah blah blah.

So that went well. Did the reading. Saw some bands. Slept in little sister's bed. The night before was the 1000 Words reading at the Waypost. Kim remarked that she was glad she chose not to do that one, as many people brought their children and her poetry is not suited for delicate ears. The format was that five readers get four weekly prompts, in which they have to include certain words and a certain phrase. From there, everybody writes whatever they feel like. I wrote a prose poem that mixed my love of San Francisco with my love of pulp novels. My personal favorite piece was the hilarious "guidance counselor" segments, but everybody's was amazing. I didn't sell any books, though I did trade books for some CDs and a chicken dinner.

Kim and I have some pictures. We'll upload them soon.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Tour updates

Look ma! Still no agent! And no need for one.

I told myself I would update every day. Pretty much impossible when you're on the road, in Redding, California, with no internet access, furiously typing at the Starbucks until they close and you have to go to Safeway to use their wifi until they close. So these updates will be every few days.

Oh my God, northern California is beautiful. I had no concept hills could be so green, or lakes so blue, or mountains so high, or there could be whole stretches of land so unmolested by human touch. There were times I felt like I was driving through a George Martin novel, expecting to see the Eyrie perched on one of those snow-capped peaks. That alone made the rainy, gloomy, 8-hour, treacherously winding drive worth it. I'm in Portland right now, typing from a hippie house that a friend of Kim's lives at. Today I'll do the 1000 Words reading at the Waypost. I think we're going to check out Powell's, too, do the tourist thing. It's pretty much a mini-vacation in PDX until we head to Boise.

Tour more or less began on Friday, when Kim and I read at Cafe International. The host was a seriously nice guy, even if he did butcher Kim's last name. Also a weird set-up: the cafe is a long room, with the microphone at the far wall and most of the customers sitting by the door. I felt like I was yelling down a hall at them. Since the crowd was small, we went early. I tend to get experimental when playing to smaller crowds, trying out new things, because, you know, why not? One of the acoustic guitarists at the mic accompanied me on "When the Law Come," and it all flowed together so well. I believe his name was Bolovo. Such a good musician, with a mellow style that works with the story's meandering narrative. People were into it.

After my set, I stuck around a little. This extremely high black dude did a 10-minute standup routine (seriously, MCs, enforce the time rules) in which he rambled on about how white people need to discipline their kids, and how he steals shit from the cash register at work, and made jokes for three minutes about some guy in the back of the cafe who wasn't even listening to him, and something about Voltron coming over your house to chill. He also said "motherfucker/bitch/nigga" every other word. This was some BET Comicview level shit. I was not really offended. More like shocked by the fact that we still do that kind of comedy. Seriously? "Black people and white people do things differently" jokes? Can we please stop that?

That guy's routine wasn't the highlight of the night. The highlight was reading my piece, seeing the customers come in, and that they were getting it and enjoying it. After that I caught up with some old friends. Perfect start to the tour.

This is as good a time as any to point out that Kim Vodicka is a seriously good poet. She does all her work from memory, and has a focus on wordplay that you know comes from hours of careful thought. I feel so honored to tour with her. She's told me that she's more interested in music production nowadays (the lady has an encyclopedic knowledge of musicians) but I really hope she keeps writing poetry. It's that good.
Seven hours sitting in an airport waiting to pick up my rental car. I have no idea why San Francisco closes their subway around midnight, forcing me to do such things. This is a major city connected to at least one other major city (Oakland). Is 24-hour BART service out of the question? So I went to the airport and picked up the Budget car. It was a Chevy Cruz, the nicest car I've been in for a while. On the way to Santa Clara, I reacquainted myself with pop radio. Heard "Forever My Lady" by Jodeci and cranked that newfangled volume control to 100. The trees in that area are majestic, shaped like arrowheads pointed at the sky.

Baycon was awesome. Nothing beats a huge crowd of genre enthusiasts getting together. I didn't stay long, unfortunately. I did my two readings, and caught the Mary Robinette Kowal puppet workshop. The morning poetry reading was a laidback bardic circle arrangement. Chaz Brenchley and I had a very enjoyable reading followed by Q&A. I'd never met him before, but he's published 50-some books and he's a lovely bloke. The best part was getting to talk with people about the urban fantasy genre, what sparked my interest in it, giving and receiving recommendations.

I feel somewhat strange doing conventions. For instance, I recently checked out the list of 2011 Hugo nominees. In the last five months, I have sold a book to one of the nominees for "Best Novella," did a panel with the husband of a "Best Semiprozine" nom, and handed a puppet back to a nominee for "Best Short Story." Last week I read with Brenchley and Diana Paxson, who literally have decades of experience in the field. I feel like there is this universe of fantasy masters that I am circling around in my own transient, con-going, yakking-about-literature way. I haven't made a lot of concrete connections at these things. I am not good at schmoozing, and have zero desire to kiss anybody's ass. However, I have been given the opportunity to connect with world-class artists, and I don't feel I've taken full advantage of this. These are the exact kinds of writers I can learn from. I've learned from them just by sitting with them on hour-long panels.

That is not to be self-effacing. I'm not an amateur at this; I'm a journeyman, one with a vast knowledge of genre fiction and huge talent. I am on every panel I'm on because I've earned the spot. It just feels interesting to be a close observer, yet outsider, to this World Of Highly Successful Fantasy Writers Who Are All Preparing For The Big Con In Reno That I Will Probably Not Attend Because I'll Be In School And It's Expensive And Last Time I Checked I Haven't Been Nominated For A Hugo. Will I ever be a part of this world? Eh. I'll focus on the craft and see where that leads me. I do think it is important to rap with other fantasists, especially those with more experience than myself, and that has been a great part of attending cons.

I left for Santa Cruz right after the urban fantasy reading. Almost didn't make it. On the way to Route 101 my rental car stopped accelerating. It wouldn't go over 40. I called Budget's emergency road service and asked what to do, assuming I pushed a wrong button. The useless person who picked up told me, after several minutes of muzak, to drive my crippled car on the highway to the San Jose airport and pick up a new one for my reading in an hour. I told her this would not work. Luckily, the person who she patched me through to at the airport told me it was just a case of pushing a wrong button, then I pushed the right one and I was good. Is it too much to ask that roadside service know the controls on the car? I guess it wouldn't be tour without some near-disaster. I made it to Santa Cruz exactly at 7, walked into SubRosa, where everybody was in the middle of a Weezer dance party. Naturally, I danced. "When in Rome" and all that.
Santa Cruz was a very fun reading. Gabriella, who set it up, was just super nice and accomodating. Kim didn't do Santa Cruz, instead opting to do her friend's reading series in Berkeley. I read with a poet named Laura, and a bearded dude named London who absolutely BROUGHT IT. He has this sort of stream-of-conscious, very humorous, rambling poetry that he does to beats. Very animated and expressive. At several points he ended up on the floor. I know he did a poem about aliens, and one about a temple crushing him, and a very poignant one about spinal surgery he had when he was a baby (he showed the scar). It's the kind of performance that seems off-the-cuff, but you can tell there's a ton of choreography involved in making it seem that way. Amazing.

Having no plans for what to read, I opened it up to the audience, who deliberated noncomittally until a homebum in the back said "Just read the book, man!" So I read "Dead Teenagers." I feel very confident in my skills as a storyteller, especially seeing how people pay attention. What was interesting to me was how somber the crowd was. "Dead Teenagers" is sometimes a laugh riot when read out loud, with people chuckling over the pop culture references. The crowd at SubRosa reacted most to the uncomfortable and sad parts. I was very happy to see those aspects of the story were moving for people. Eventually, the goth culture/late '90s stuff will be antiquated window dressing for readers, but the meat of the story is its emotional resonance.

I stayed the night at Gabriella's. We ate dinner and drank tea. I listened to "Forever My Lady" about ten more times on Youtube. There were all sorts of fun things happening at the con that night, like a belly dance circle, a DJ-ed dance, masquerade, room parties. By then, I was running on fumes, so I just crashed. Next year I'd like to do Baycon for real.

More updates soon.