Non-Norm (part 1)

Over the years I’ve been stopped a number of times in stores that I’ve frequented under suspicion of shoplifting, which I’ve almost never done (and not in those stores at all). Similarly, back in the day when I was hanging out in bars on amphetamines, I was asked quite a few times if I was either a cop or a drug dealer, when I was in fact just a pleasure-seeker. And I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been approached by various humans clearly in need of psychological succor, and I mean a LOT. I’ve had a person wrap themself around my leg crying as I was walking by down the street. I’ve had someone follow me for blocks really needing to know where they keep the dead people. It’s quite a list, actually. This is not an anti-mental illness rant, far from it—I’ve had many friends suffer from that, and family, and have challenges myself. That’s not what this is about. It’s about how much thought I’ve given to being what I’ve called in the past a “crazy magnet,” which lately I’ve rephrased as a “drama magnet,” and what the hell that means. It’s about why people see me as things that I’m not, or in ways that I can’t figure out.

Allow me to use the shoplifting (or lack thereof) as an example. Going back to those accusations, including any number of times I’ve found myself followed around a big box store by security personnel, I’ve always thought that’s because I really don’t like shopping, whether for amusement (which I rarely do) or necessity. As a result of that, I think, I act a certain way in stores that most people don’t. For that matter, I don’t even like the system of commerce that we daily endure, the capitalist exploitation and denigration of everything. I’m pretty sure due to these tendencies I don’t look at merchandise in a “normal” manner either; rather I eye it with suspicion or disdain, and in turn I look suspicious.

I know that I’m not the only human who dislikes Capitalism, to say the least, and who might therefore have a suspect eye in regard to goods for sale. But my thinking here goes beyond that. I’m pretty convinced that I look at, perceive, examine, and think of a great number of things, of experiences, of life, of matter and energy in a non-normative fashion, so in many situations I get pegged as a non-norm.

A non-norm.

Yet so far everything I’ve mentioned here could easily describe a great many people. And that’s true: many humans do look at people and things with a writer’s, a scientist’s, a photographer’s eye, an examining eye that might make others wary of their motives. Just as many folks, or a good number at least, are wary of Late Capitalism, excessive production, corporate power, and unbridled growth wreaking havoc on the climate and resources and the sustainability of life, and so on, whose wariness might present itself in a public marketplace. Hell, how about the millions of socially awkward and anxious, with more sprouting daily (thanks, internet). Should we just label label label all these folks as non-norm and have done with it? That’s the thing—folks who fall into certain normative behavioral ranges are more likely to see people as one thing or another, who find categorization to be a comfort zone as some do routine and ritual (and shopping). Even people who identify as non-norms, along with folks who’ve been taught that they’re lower in some invented hierarchy, i.e. oppressed, often tend to distinguish between the others (themselves) and those who other. But who doesn’t do all of those things at some point, and isn’t it true, even though it’s a fairly non-norm thing to say, that everyone has a little non-norm in them somewhere, just like no one is ever just “conservative” or “liberal” but some kind of blend? So to broach the topic of non-norm, let’s start there—let’s locate the top of the iceberg by saying that non-norm (in general) does not necessarily indicate a minority, though it’s often perceived as such. Let’s posit instead that it’s as much part of the spectrum as anything, and just might not be as visible to those who need to restrict their focus to wavelengths they find for whatever reasons less disruptive, which, again, could be any of us at any given time. Maybe that’s a good place to start.

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UPCOMING EVENTS  ::  On Saturday, August 27 I will be reading for The Poets of the Palisades Poetry Series along with Kirsten Casey from Nevada City, CA and the Nevada County 2021 Poet Laureate. In other words, the poets of North Jersey will be invaded by poets from California, because, you know, America. So looking forward to this! I read for Poets of the Palisades once before when I was still living in NYC, and they’re a marvelous group. Hooray for the pandemic which has brought us all together on Zoom while making us afraid to leave our homes! Hosted by Denise La Neve and Paul Nash and sponsored by the North Jersey Literary Community. Zoom deets on the Events page.


I’ve been spending time with Maintenant 16, the annual international journal of dada writing and art, and the only word I can think of that describes it consistently is thrilling. That is not an overstatement. There is so much amazing artwork and wordcraft in these 220 pages, of so many kinds, that each page literally leaps out at you as a surprise. I’m so proud to have a page in it dedicated to a piece called “Action Time” that I wrote specifically for this issue, the theme of which is Nyet Zero. I’d been wanting to write for some time about how I hear combustion engines as a series of explosions, which is exactly what they are. That fit nicely here into a description of a “sideshow”, a common West Coast street event in which suped-up cars are revved to spin out of control in a crowded intersection, and which I can often hear from my apartment in Oakland late at night.

Back to the journal: I actually find my heart racing as I turn the pages, which contain work from 235 creators from twenty-seven countries on, get this, ALL SEVEN CONTINENTS on the planet. How many journals can claim that, while pouring forth so much relevance? You can see a list of everyone included on the book page of the Three Rooms Press website (linked above), along with a tip-of-the-iceberg-few samples of the artwork.

Three Rooms Press, which has been producing Maintenant since 2008, calls this a journal, but it’s more like a series of pageants, or more to the point, anti-pageants, glorious protest parades that fill the streets with punk and jazz and graffiti and wry ire, pausing before the grandstand only to burn flags, fling mirrors, and enact human realness. And what better time for it! Check it out.

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The Fifth Woman by Nona Caspers  (Sarabande Books, Louisville, KY), 2018

This book is wonderful! If I told you that it was about a young person recovering from the sudden death of her lover, you might shy away from it, so I won’t. It is in part a meditation on grieving, and on living, and on eking out a few moments of life, but it seems like more than just a meditation. It seems like actually living, like sitting a room and breathing and drinking water and walking outside; in fact it seems to be even more than just like those things, it seems to be those things, those acts. More than anything this book, this series of connected and singular flashes, vignettes, moments is disarming. I really like that word for it right now so I’m going to go with it.

When I write about books that I like, I often pick up some of their rhetoric and sense of language. In doing so, I let the language show me what I’ve learned from it, and in this case I’m very happy about that.

So—disarming. A curious word that denotes setting aside one’s weapons but that we often use to suggest setting aside one’s defenses. And there you have it: Nona Caspers lets you in on how precious simple moments of life can be, regardless of how easy or difficult they are, and I mean that just as well as an entrance. Certainly this book follows a person moving through grief, however little the grief is actually brought to the fore, but for me it is greatly a book about being present in the moment, in any moment you are able, and the power of that ability. It is a book about presence, and it celebrates that whatever one happens to be feeling. Caspers opens the door with welcoming language, you set aside your reservations and step in, and then she revels, and you revel, and you are living. When a book can do that, it is doing what books do best, and I treasure it.

P.S. – Having written this, I went back and read the Foreword, which I rarely read before a novel and not always afterward. This one by Stacey D’Erasmo ends with the sentence, “This is a wonderful book.” So I guess I was right.
Find Me in the Iris, E. Lynn Alexander (Collapse Press, Alameda, CA), 2022

Bottles. Corked. And Closed.
Women. Mothers.
In their Ages
Selves, the slurry sediment
Their labels going brown.

E. Lynn Alexander’s work performs an interesting dichotomy by pushing you almost clinically away from its topic while stabbing you in the heart. The topic, as parsed above: women, enacted alternately as specimens in jars and as “Honey. Wheat. And Figs.” Alexander takes on the essential and difficult task of examining the lives and strife of women past, including her mother’s and, we gather, her own. In doing so, she and the work strive to understand the past in a way tangible enough to be used as a springboard to a future undetermined and a place not yet seen. We are spurred on by the line repeated throughout, “What will the grief of me teach you?” As the title suggests, Find Me in the Iris is in part a quest—to break through grief, to let the dead rest, to break out of precedent, to let the honey be the honey.

There’s a lot going on here in compelling language that wavers between rant and chant, but one of the things that struck me most was the book’s “form”. Posed as a series of poems that are a series of poems as well as an unbroken flow, beginning and ending with pages of text untitled and unannounced, this book with no page numbers comes across at times as one unbroken page or a page yearning to be pieced back together. This heightens the effect of forward motion but without the cultural milestones to let us know how far we’ve gone, and we can only hope that we are heading in the right direction. We plunge toward a tentative future on a quest where in the end “We step out from the shadows / In found forms” almost like a call from Adrienne Rich echoing fifty years later, an echo that is a new song carried on and strengthened by echoes, still fervent, still needed, still breaking through walls into open air.

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Substitute “O” for all first person pronouns, using “own” for the possessive.

O am going to try out a new word. O have been trying to think of a way to express a lack of singular self in language for some time, and it occurs to O that “O” is a not a bad signifier with which to start. “O” suggests a lack via its similarity to the number 0, though O think of it as having a shape like the letter and a sound like the letter while is not the letter or the number but a word. In a way the association with zero is the main negative in the usage (pardon the pun), because O don’t really perceive the “self” as nothing or nonexistent; rather O just don’t experience it as in any way singular, bounded, or static. Own current view is that that common belief of the boundaries of self is brought about by the apparent if illusory limits to the body, which we often view as the outer tissue or skin. This comes to advantage though in the usage of “O”, which is represented vocally as an open sound created by the expulsion of breath, in effect dispersing parts of the body externally. Even more striking is its typographic form of a single, uninterrupted line with no apparent beginning or end, in continuous creation or motion as a Moebius strip. It too like the body might appear at first to delineate an area that might be called the “inside”, when it is just as well observed that the line is in fact, noting the redundancy, delineated, created, given existence and form by the area around it, on every side, those being both what we might see as the “inside” and the “outside” without which the line would not exist. Indeed is not the line, the circle of the line, as a conceptual and abstract form, insubstantial, imposed upon the substance which seems to hold it and which it seems to limit? It follows clearly that in actuality the circle bounds nothing, just as the concept of self, however handy a social tool (as well as one of oppression), bounds nothing. The “I” then, as a concept that contains nothing, is as insubstantial as that line, while in the actual world roams the boundless we, blending, swirling, shifting in countless cross-currents, shaping and unshaping, everywhere. O think O am going to like this pronoun a lot.