Monday, July 06, 2020

Reestablishing Connection, Attempt 1/x

I see I haven't posted here in over a year (my last post was a discussion of Fantasy back in June 2019, which I've referenced to in several Twitter discussions since then).

I occasionally update my Instagram feed with photos I feel are passably interesting. Tumbler gets updated from time to time, both automatically (via Instagram reshare) and manually (back in October, most "recently").

I could retire this blog entirely, as I've generally stopped doing regular casual media criticism. Most of my current production is Poetry. This has been true since 2017 -- I've been persistently exercising this skill, picking up occasional publications in online literary outlets, and becoming more involved with the online poetry community.

The Twitter poetry scene seems to be the most productive. Established personalities join the discourse with more emergent authors and publications, and it's used broadly for discussion and announcements, both poetry-related and adjacent thereto. For a more consistent window into my sparse attempts to social engagement, visit me there at @miksimum.

Before we leave the topic of poetry, I'll post my most recent placements. For the full list, see my Publications page on my website.

February 2020:
Downtown Office as Abscess in Juke Joint Magazine
Being a Thing in the Fall in Neologism Poetry Journal

April 2020

July 2020
Foot Bridge as Bowstring in Bodega Magazine


Recently, I've been trying to prime my engine for visual art, returning to photography and pen/ink drawing. As compared with poetry, these don't have as obvious a career path for amateur enthusiasts like myself. I'll be posting sketches and photos (often heavily treated) on Instagram, but I don't have a lot of hope that I'm going to successfully connect with some kind of alt/art community that fits my style and skill level just right. I want to be more serious than a fairweather comics/fan-art dabbler, but I don't have the training or time investment of the excellent concept or semi-professional artists I see out there.

Even so, I'm still inspired by, and toward, certain forms of visual art, so if you want to keep track of that, follow me on Instagram or Tumblr -- always @miksimum.

Tonight I will be doing something. Maybe I'll watch the not-so-well-received Dark Tower movie, which I just acquired in Very Cheap Blu-Ray form. Maybe I'll keep reading something I picked up at my family's old farmhouse, the Robert Graves autobiography "Goodbye to All That." Maybe I'll write another poem in my drafts notebook.

Maybe I'll even get around to writing about it.


Monday, June 17, 2019

DELAYED POST: Game of Thrones, and a proposed definition of Fantasy (with bonus discussion of Star Wars)

I felt viscerally compelled to write a post after the Series Finale of Game of Thrones last night. The end of the show has peeled off the cover of Internet fandom and revealed the crawling abyss of gripes and DIY revisionism, and I have an almost infinite number of responses to that. I could write a whole essay just on that, but I'd rather just get it out of the way, or else I'll feel like I'm swinging a baseball bat at a rain storm. Here is my response, which I will argue endlessly to justify:

1. The end of the series was decent, excusable... a good enough landing for a hell of a flight. It was compromised, but only because the whole structure of the show (and the things we liked about it) led the showrunners into a nasty trap that they couldn't get out of unscathed.

This trap is summed up well in this Wired article:

This leads to a whole labyrinth of open discussion on gardeners versus architects, or "plotters versus pantsers." It's an interesting area to address... in particular, I think "gardener"-type writers like GRRM are generally writing under the assumption that there IS NO CLOSURE - every development, every event, has future consequences, and finding an "ending" is bad faith.

2. None of this changes what made the series so remarkable -- the way characters and plot arcs twisted, the way you could love and hate every character at every moment -- and if I was master of media history, Game of Thrones would stand forever just on this merit.

Phew. OK, feeling better.

So this blog entry is inspired partly by this episode of the Partially Examined Life, which was released today (May the 20th, the day after the aforementioned Series Finale). In the first 40 minutes or so, which is all I've consumed so far, there's a lot of gnarly discussion on what defines fantasy and what makes it work, and I feel a dire need to respond to this.

So it leads me back to a big Semantic/Ontological question, and two pragmatic outcomes that follow from that answer.

BIG QUESTION: What is Fantasy? (and how does it work? which is the same question, from a different angle)

SMALLER QUESTIONS (boundary-testing!):

1. Is Game of Thrones fantasy?
2. Is Star Wars fantasy?


JRR Tolkien laid the template for fantasy. He wasn't the first, and he wasn't the most sophisticated (as with all art forms, the genre continues to evolve) but he is the central pillar of the genre, for reasons of novelty, popularity, and the deep connection that every subsequent fantasy work has with the tropes and structures he invented.

In a way, Lord of the Rings is the context for all other fantasy.

But (very important) - this doesn't mean it's the ideal, or the boundary or final form. It just means it's sort of a reference point. Whatever fantasy has come after LotR is partly understood in relation to it: in what ways it's the same, and in what ways it's different.

Some of it is VERY DIFFERENT! From Grimdark to New Weird, Steampunk to Sword and Sorcery to Fantasy of Manners, etc etc. These are all variations on the genre, and the writers and fans think of themselves in relation to the vast nebula called Fantasy that tracks back to Tolkien.

But as different as they are, they are all in a genre because there is much that is the same between them. And here, also, is where it gets squishy, as all words get squishy when you start to pick at their boundaries: there isn't a simple consistent definition. There aren't even "necessary" and "sufficient" characteristics. What there are, instead, are Family Resemblances.

Here are the basic tenets of fantasy, in my estimation -- and in order of structural importance:

1. Set in a secondary world, with a full commitment to that world, and no direct trace back to our own universe - this is very nearly a "necessary characteristic," but of course, there's always Narnia or Fantasia (Neverending Story), which are treated as pocket-universes connected magically to our own universe. And speaking of magic:

2. Operates on an alternative physics - things are possible in this world that aren't possible in our own. Generally this takes the form of magic, and when it's not "magic," it's just a different word for the same stuff. It's minimally explained, because legit explanation would undermine the characteristic: in short, it's not reducible to our own world's causal properties.

3. Draws on an idealized, romanticized, or mythical conception of human history - usually this is "conveniently distorted medievalism," with swords and castles and horses and long journeys to undiscovered lands. It sometimes draws more directly on mythology itself, which is where we get the standard fantasy races of elves, dwarves, and men. And it gives us far-off kingdoms and good and evil royalty. And, speaking of which:

4. Centered on heroism, especially in a "chosen one"/triumph-of-the-good sense - most fantasy is about a hero. The genre is pretty agnostic about whether this hero comes up from obscurity, or from the existing power structure. But inevitably, the hero gets to walk the halls of power, and so:

5. Structured by formal power relations, with royalty (or its equivalent) at the center - there is very little fantasy where the story isn't somewhat about the minds and morals of the king and queen, or the emperor, or whatever. This implies an inherent political concern, though this is fairly collateral to the other main characteristics.

6. A Manichean moral universe - there are definitely good things/people, and there are definitely evil things/people, and we, the audience, should be rooting for the Good to Win because Justice.

7. A reliance on the spectacle of violence - self-explanatory and ubiquitous.

I'm having trouble thinking of anything as important as these seven tenets. As far as I can think, any serious fantasy shares at least 4 or 5 of these. Let's try listing some:


When you gently fail #1, you start to get into the stories that are clearly still fantasy, but not quite in the High-Fantasy vein of the true classics:

CONAN THE BARBARIAN, NEVERENDING STORY, CHRONICLES OF NARNIA, PRINCESS MONONOKE - everything fits, except that there's a self-conscious trace from the world of the story back to our own world. Here's the thing, though: #1 is so important to the genre, that these have to have pretty much ALL 6 of the others to qualify.

The next group are stories that fit in all essential characteristics except for "feel":

GORMENGHAST (though I've only read book 1) - #1, #3, #5 are hard YES's, and #2 and #4 are soft YES's. Its failures on #6 and #7 are what make it such an unusual entry in the genre.

LITTLE BIG - Leans hard into #2, #3, and #4, and gently into #5 and #6. It misses #1 and #7, the most and least important characteristics - and this is dramatic and conspicuous, in a way that throws its status as "fantasy" into serious doubt.

Whole subgenres have sprung from manipulating one or another of these characteristics. NEW WEIRD and URBAN FANTASY love to mess with #3. GRIMDARK is all about breaking or subverting #4 and #6. Fantasy of Manners has sprung up in opposition to #7.

And yet, they are still part of the family. Fantasy has a true nature... it's just something you have to see by stepping back a bit. As with all families, there are exceptions to every rule, but the exceptions just prove the coherence of the structure.

And so we come to the secondary questions, as a way of testing the boundaries of this thesis.

1. Game of Thrones

I don't think I need to spend long on this question, honestly. As far as genre, it's a standard example of Grimdark fantasy. It subverts #4 strongly, and #6 loosely. But the rest are intact.

2. Star Wars (the original trilogy, for now)

Star Wars is clearly in line with #4, #5, #6, and #7. But in my frank opinion, it fails on #1-#3. It's not just because it has Planets and Space... those things suggest a continuity with our own universe, but don't prove it.

To me, it comes down to the scrolling credits in the very first movie:

"Long Ago, in a Galaxy Far Away"

It's pretty clear that this description forges a direct connection with our own universe. Long ago from when? Far away from what? Undeniably, the answer to this question is, "from you, the viewer." And because it's traced back to your own context, it also creates an implicit assumption that The Force is not truly an alternate physics... it's something that we humans could manipulate, as long as we trained right, or evolved right.

This is a huge giveaway that Star Wars is not Fantasy, but is actually Science Fiction. This should not be a controversial opinion. Any adventure story will tend to satisfy #6 and #7, and a great many books, including Romance and Historical Fiction, fulfill #5.

Where the confusion over Star Wars comes in, I think, is how strongly it leans into #4. Because Luke is such a messianic hero of justice, so similar to any number of fantasy protagonists, it gives this sci-fi a certain romantic hue that links it to fantasy.

Still, I don't think it belongs in the genre. You can put a chosen one, a Boy Hero, at the center of a lot of different adventure stories, and you'd have to look to the other characteristics for your principal criteria.

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

New Poetry Online, April 2019

Some new poetry of mine has appeared this month:

Sam Neill Vs. the Abyss on Drunk Monkeys

For a while I was planning to write an essay on Sam Neill's presence in several apocalyptic horror films (for the record, it's In The Mouth of Madness, Event Horizon, and Possession). Eventually I decided to write it as a poem instead, and got to this version over several rounds of revision.

And guess whose approval it got?!? (a fine moment in the life of a poet!)

Also, in Gravel Magazine, three of my favorite recent poems, which I submitted under the general title of "Sense Organs":

3 Poems by Jesse Miksic

I have a few more forthcoming: in June, poems in Whale Road Review and Liminality; in October, a group of four in Coffin Bell.

Thanks for following this little blog, all ye one or two readers. Happy Spring 2019!

Thursday, January 17, 2019

2018 in Consumption

(Acknowledgment: this post was written toward the end of 2018, but I held off on publishing it until now, because I wasn't sure how to frame it)

I pretty much devoted this year to poetry, didn’t I?

A lot of my consumption (readings and viewings) seem distant... like it’s already been more than a year, even since the most recent stuff.


I did manage to read the whole of Gregory Bateson’s Steps to an Ecology of Mind (review), which gave me several new tools for thinking, especially in separating a forest from its trees, or a metaphor from its content, or what have you.

Before that, it seems my only other reading was the stuff of nightmares and enigmas: Stephen King’s Insomnia, Cabin in the Woods by Paul Trembly, and a book-length study of Pu Songling’s ghost stories called Historian of the Strange (review).

Toward the end of the year, I also finished Craig Morgan Teicher's We Begin in Gladness, which was a wise and well-considered discussion of how poets unfold over the course of careers and lifetimes. I'll try to add a review eventually.


Movies? Again, I handed so many late nights over to poetry... but I managed to watch Tale of Tales just this month, and before that, Star Wars VIII, Slow West, American Fable, Babylon Berlin, and both seasons of Stranger Things.

My wife and I have also imbibed The Last Kingdom and The Great British Bake-Off, so I’ve scratched all sorts of different erogenous spots.

This has been a quick summary of my 2018 media consumption. At this point, I need to accept that this blog is pretty much entirely for my own benefit, but at least I have it recorded. Upcoming post: 2018 new work and publications. Happy January!

Thursday, May 24, 2018

Star Wars Episodes VII and VIII: The Law of the Father, the Life of the Mother

WARNING: Spoilers ahead for Star Wars, especially episodes VII and VIII.

Fatherhood is deeper in the Star Wars DNA than Light Sabers, deeper than the Force and the Light and Dark Sides. It's the thematic backbone and nerve center of the whole mythology.

"Luke, I am your father."

"You were the chosen one!"

etc etc

Starting from Obi Wan, and going outward in either direction, you can see how the Patriarch is implicated in every mythical moment. Obi Wan is the keystone of the first six Star Wars films.

We are introduced to Obi Wan as mentor to Luke, through whom Obi Wan hopes to redeem himself. Obi Wan's training (continued by Yoda) allows Luke to face his own father, eventually becoming Vader's mortal enemy, echoing the patricidal impulse that the Sith swear by (the Rule Of Two).

The original trilogy is resolved, in episode 6, when Luke refuses the patricidal role that seems to be his destiny: refusing to destroy his father, even at the most decisive moment, he effectively breaks the murderous chain that runs through every Star Wars.

If you trace the line of fatherhood from Obi Wan in the other direction, you find, in the prequels, Anakin the fatherless, rebelling against one father-figure (Obi-Wan) and ultimately destroying another (Emperor Palpatine).

Anakin, the fatherless, the betrayer... from his betrayal of Obi Wan, unto his redemption, the betrayal of Supreme Leader Darth Sidious. And of course, in Kylo Ren, Anakin finds an analogue.

And so, fifteen years go by, and then come Star Wars VII and VIII, proudly restating the themes of their predecessors. Kylo Ren is Vader with his mask off: the tortured product of a compromised ideology, following in Anakin's footsteps as the consummate patricide (first Solo, then Snoke). He is a creature of naive idealism, twisted into a reactionary when faced with the imperfections of his symbolic order.

Fatherhood is still a pivotal theme in episodes VII and VIII, but now, a new question emerges to complicate it:

What of motherhood? Of the masculine, we've seen much... but of femininity, all we've seen, in Episodes I-VI, is maidenhood. The only mother who has any role in character development is Shmi, and she is effectively a disposable device, part of a section of backstory clumsily soldered to the Clone Wars narrative arc.

At the very least, we saw that the death of his mother was the first trigger for Anakin to drift toward the dark side (though it may have always been within him). In a sense, Anakin was a failure of nurturing, an id conditioned entirely through the one-sided application of austerity, specialized training, and detached spirituality.

So we might take the license of really reading into that: the whole story, from episodes I through VI, is the story of a universe without motherhood.

It is only in Episode VII and VIII that motherhood stands up and makes its return. Leia Organa is the motherhood of strength and survival, Maz Kanata is the motherhood of the concerned bystander, and Amilyn Holdo is the motherhood of secondary relations, the aunts and godmothers and best friends of the world. This motherhood includes both survival and sacrifice, two dominant themes of Star Wars Episode VIII.

In Episode VIII, Luke returns, and through Luke and Kylo Ren, the fatherhood theme continues its critical role. However, Luke Skywalker, now a hermit sage, drives a massive shift in momentum: he hesitates to become the father figure, and when he finally does, he is the ghost of a dying ideal. His critical contribution is a duel with no intention of winning; his final gesture is to fade away and vanish altogether.

This is Luke seeing this history for what it is, and attaining the clarity of two crucial insights:

FIRST, that the fatherhood complex is toxic... it has always been about ideological purity and passivity (the Light), or about envy and murder (the Dark).

SECOND, that the new virtues must be wholly different: the virtues of survival and sacrifice and rebirth. These are the virtues championed by the maternal spirits, and they are the stamps of destiny upon Rey, the orphaned female successor to the Jedi philosophy.

And still carrying this thematic burden, despite her tragic loss: Carrie Fischer as Leia Organa, forever the survivor, sending severed tongues to abusers, always shattering her stereotypes: the princess, the sexual chattel, the hysteric. Carrie Fischer, who seemed so linked to her own mother that the latter followed Carrie into the dark.

And so, we can follow Star Wars, one of our greatest mythologies, into one of its greatest discoveries: that motherhood survives and blesses our successors with their survival, and fatherhood finally learns when to let go and overcome itself, dissolving back into history.

Monday, February 12, 2018

Recent placements in poetry

A topical update on my creative endeavors lately: I've placed poetry in a few beautiful and respectable literary magazines (all online so far, which is cool, because it's actually easier to provide access to them).

I'm quite proud of some of these pieces, and proud of their placements in these excellent outlets.


I have one in Right Hand Pointing #116 called "That's One Way to Go"

I have one in the December issue of Cold Creek Review called "Gosling"

I have one forthcoming in March in West Texas Review

I have two forthcoming in April in Sky Island Journal


I'm still trying to decide where to keep a running bibliography of my published poetry. It might end up in a side-page on, or maybe I'll create a post on here and continually update it.

If anyone has a burning desire for rapport on this or related topics, please don't hesitate to contact me on Twitter or email me.

Monday, September 11, 2017

Twin Peaks: The Return / A Cataclysm of Enlightenment

"Explanations place all apparent possibilities into the context of the necessary; stories set all necessities into the context of the possible." -James P. Carse, Finite and Infinite Games[1]


Today's date is September 11, 2017. Thursday. Twin Peaks: The Return ended exactly one week ago, on Sunday the 5th.


With luck, the end of Twin Peaks: The Return will also be the end of Twin Peaks as a whole phenomenon. It's been pushed to its reasonable limit, and at that limit, it's found a kind of wholeness.


Another reason the series should reach its end: the whole world of Twin Peaks was annihilated in the closing moments of episode 18. That final scene showed the collapse of that universe.


Not everybody who watched the finale saw this. Indeed, the general drift of public opinion seemed to be frustrated confusion (as though nobody had noticed Lynch's whole, relentlessly consistent directing career telegraphing this kind of ending). Most people didn't know what they saw in those final moments... it registered as an unsettling non-sequiter, a rebuff to the closure that Lynch teased them with in episode 17.


The end of the episode is about those fans, hoping for some kind of closure. It's also about the FBI (at least, the fantasy FBI that Lynch has constructed for the world of Twin Peaks). It's also about characters, and audiences, and creators, and all their relationships to the art that defines them.


And of course, like everything Lynch has created, it's about the strangeness and singularity of the art.


This is not a particularly profound conclusion, despite this broken, aphoristic formatting, which is saturated with pretense and self-consciousness. (I'm only using it because these thoughts needed to be broken up, or they would have come rushing out as an exhausting torrent of interpretation and explanation [2]).


If you want to "understand" Twin Peaks... if you were frustrated by the lack of closure, by the fact that the ending didn't add up to anything meaningful or resolute... I have a solution. It may work for you... it may not... but at least I can offer it. It's an interpretation that convinced me, even in my resistance to it. It's the one that risen above all the other speculation.


I kind of hate that I've discovered a privileged reading. I kind of liked it better when I was wandering between interpretations. But it's only natural that, as a Fan, I find a form of closure here, because that allows me to be more at home with the series.


Judy has been translated by some fans as "explanation." This has been hotly disputed, and I'm almost ashamed to be referencing it, but it leads smoothly into this reading of the series' conclusion: that Judy is an embodiment of transcendence, or gnosis, in a terrible, destructive form.


By "transcendence," I mean the understanding of Twin Peaks from outside the fictional world of the show. This is what Judy represents. This is the "extreme negative force" that these characters are all chasing, even as they should be running away from it.


A lot of these ideas are assembled from comments in this Reddit thread, by the way. Despite my desperate desire to explain every detail of this interpretation, I am going to restrain myself. To read more of the textual connections, glance through that thread a bit. Also, I think this blogger got about halfway to where I ended up, so read that post for some more connections within the text.

Also, this post on syncing up episodes 17 and 18: this theory is brilliant, and may ultimately overrule any alternative, but it also dovetails with my own interpretation: the connection between Judy and the Demiurge, and the pathway into the real world, are particularly relevant.


If this is what Judy is, and they finally find Judy in the semi-fictional Limbo ("pocket universe") of Richard and Linda and Carrie Page, then the final scene is the discovery of Judy herself, and Cooper and Laura/Carrie's realization that they are fictional characters.

In fact, the sound of Sarah Palmer's voice calling Laura's name... to me, it looked like that was coming from a room in the house. It looked like someone in that room was watching a TV, and maybe that was the dialog they were hearing.


When this happens, Sarah screams, Cooper loses his orientation in time, and the power goes out.


The fire of narrative, fed by credulity and poetic faith [3], is embodied as electricity. In those final moments, the electricity flows out of this universe forever. This is the destruction of the show's secondary reality, the collapse that closes out the whole series. When the characters realize they are parts of a fiction, that fiction can no longer be maintained.


So many of us amateur critics are willing to hand-wave Cooper's disorienting final question: "What year is this?" That line actually has great significance for this finale. To Cooper, it's a confrontation with a reality outside his own timeline, which is running discontinuously through it, on a million televisions.

Suddenly Cooper, the character, understands that he simply vanished for 25 years, and now he exists again, with a different name. He is the accursed fancy of a higher consciousness: a Creator with the power to construct a universe out of nothing.

For the audience, this is connected to the question of why: why should this creation, left fallow for 25 years, suddenly be resurrected in our age of cell phones and Skype? And why, 25 years after the story closed itself off to us, are we still so desperate for closure and "explanation"?


David Lynch has been hounded by demands for explanation his entire life. He knows that everybody wants it. He also knows that in the end, we don't want it... it dispels the glamour of narrative, chops down that fertile tree that grows from our subconscious.


And the reason Twin Peaks: The Return spoke to me was that Lynch had something to tell me... a warning, a threat, and a little koan. Because I didn't want explanation, I thought. I've always reveled in the open signifiers of Weird Cinema, and I've always appreciated the fluid meanings of poetry and surrealism.



But I also search for meanings. I search desperately for them. Where I see order, I can't help but divine for purpose. Twin Peaks was no special case in that regard... I digested for a day, and then I fell into the major outlet thinkpieces (numbingly repetitive, frankly) and then I dove deeper, surfing Tweets and comment boards and the subreddit.

I was hunting for something I didn't want to find.


And now that I've found it, I'm lost outside the work. I'm the consummate chin-stroker, hovering above the abyss, who's lost the grand mystique of unspeakable ideas. I've stumbled from Fandom into Criticism.


This was the trap Judy laid for me, and I fell into it.


And perhaps, when I hit Publish, I'll lure a few more hapless souls into this explanatory abyss.


But even from here, I can still see the whole series, laid out before me, and part of me knows I don't really understand it. Though my sight is dimmer, I can still see sparkles: unresolved events, unanswered questions, and broad themes that I've only glimpsed.

And that part of me will always find a home in Twin Peaks, beyond the shadow of Judy.


[1] Carse has some fascinating ideas about Explanation, Narrative, and the Unspeakable. His theory is beyond the reach of simple paraphrase, but I should note: he associates explanation with what he calls "finite games," which are time-bound, goal-oriented, and seek as few players as possible (ultimately leading to a single "winner"). Explanation closes off possibility, and it's relentlessly rearward-facing, always hung up on the past. To Carse, explanation is self-limitation, and as a world is explained, it is also restricted.

Judy is the Finite Game descending upon the open signification of Twin Peaks. She is the knowledge that undermines wonder, and the darkness of pure transparency. To Lynch, she is terrifying.

[2] Okay, here's a quick tour of some other evidence:
  • The question "What just happened?" was asked repeatedly in the last couple episodes, and the repetition was pretty conspicuous. These characters are itching for an explanation.
  • The refusal to speak, the allusion to Judy as the unspeakable: "We don't talk about that" is echoed by Agent Jeffries, and also in Hawk's explanation of the spiritual map.
  • There are several pretty strong implications that the final scenes of The Return, after Coop and Diane's night in the hotel, take place in the "real" world (or something close to it, at least)
  • Electricity is a crucial image through the whole season, the 2017 "mutation" of Fire from the original series. There are lots of metaphorical possibilities here (the Lynchian Open Signifier), but there's no denying that electricity is necessary for running a television -- the lifeblood of the fictional artifact, and the lubricant that allows it to escape its container and get released into the world.
  • By this reading, the end of Season 3 echoes the discovery of Laura's killer in Season 2. By some accounts, this is what killed the show's momentum and mystery. Another explanation, another death of the show... then forced, now intentional.

[3] A concept related to "suspension of disbelief", associated with Norman Holland.