4.26.2017

The Poses of Prose: On Writing, Yoga, and Embodiment


I recently had a realization about yoga thanks to the incredible genius of my teacher, Kia Meaux. I always thought yoga was about these very precise poses, more or less discrete, that could be strung together into a routine to stretch the body, its muscles and ligaments and the like. But, as Kia has taught me, yoga is a practice that's not about stretching per se: it's about becoming embodied. (She likes to say that she can show you all of yoga in one pose. I love that.)

That's an incredibly complex idea: to become an embodied body. At first, it sounds absurd. After all, aren't we already embodied? Isn't that what all this — this flesh, these fingers, these farts  — is? Isn't this my embodiment?

Sure, in some sense. But in another sense, we are actually rarely in and of and with our bodies. I, for one, certainly am not. I imagine myself as a nose on a stick that emits words while ideas flow and ricochet around me. So when I've tried to do yoga, I spend all this time listening to what the teacher says then trying to contort my body into some pose that looks like what she's doing. All my attention is on understanding while my body is only tangentially involved. The result is not pretty.

Kia made me stop all that. A pose, for her, is a set of possibilities. It is a way that discloses as many ways as there are bodies. I start contorting my body and ask: Is this right? She replies: How does it feel? Which is to say, there is no absolute pose. There is a way of sitting with one's body that draws more or less attention to this or that part — the hamstrings, the spine, the shoulders. It's about experiencing that part of the body, not necessarily stretching it. The pose — and its stretch — is a way, not an end: it's a way to being present with the world as oneself.

As I consider her question — How does it feel? — my mind folds into my flesh. My attention is on my body, in my body, and when it all feels as it feels (even if hurts a bit), my attention becomes my body. The pose-that's-not-a-pose is an exercise in being present with my body in the world — feeling gravity's embrace, feeling the muscle extend, feeling the pleasure and sometimes a little pain. The end result is not a limber body or hot ass; those are by-products. The end result is living well with the world.

After a few lessons, I tell Kia: I can't believe the way you move so fluidly in your body, your understanding, your teaching. To which she replies, more or less: That's how I feel about you and your writing.  

This was an incredible moment for me as I suddenly saw writing as a kind of yoga practice. We often imagine writing as disembodied, an abstraction from the world. But, for me, writing is leaning in with my whole self, my body and mind and senses. Writing is a practice of going with ideas, language, moods, and sensations. It's rarely if ever about expressing a pre-formed idea and having it fit perfectly with the words. Writing is not a pose. It's a way.

Now, I've often compared writing to surfing — another thing I have never done and, in this case, something I will never do as I don't even know how to swim. But what I love about surfing is that in order to move, you have to lean into the wave. And then, once there, you have to remain poised. Lean too far back or too far forward and you're gone. It's a constant negotiation of forces, adjustments being made on the fly with the tumult of the ocean. The figure that ties writing to surfing and yoga is the demand of embodiment. But I don't want to conflate all these things; so now I'm gonna stick to yoga.

When I write, I'm looking for a flow — a flow of words, of ideas, of revelations, of affect, and of myself with those elements. I'm not sitting back and composing; I am performing, practicing, on the screen, with the keyboard, with my fingers, with my thoughts, with the thoughts of others, with tangents and dreams, with wisps of notions and fleeting sensations, with all the vicissitudes of language and its grammar and sounds and shapes. As in a yoga routine, I am moving the energy from there to there to there, feeling my way through — for a word, for the stretch of an idea, for an energy, for a flow that, uh, flows. And noting it all. Heeding it all. Experiencing it all. (Well, maybe not always all. But a lot! Or much! Or, sometimes, some!) Writing is not a standing back but an immersion.

For me, writing is not about delivering an answer. As in yoga, there is no telos; there is only flow (of course, your writing teachers may disagree and fail you). The goal of writing — for me as well as for my readers, few and insane as they may be — is not to have a goal but to attain a certain enlivening, a certain waking up, a taking notice, a being present. One might say that the endpoint-which-is-not-an-endpoint of writing is a kind of embodiment: a moving with the world (rather than a taking leave of the world through abstraction, anxiety, fear, ego, and the like). Oh, when in that groove, the words stream, the ideas stretch, my mind and loins and gut all working as a little engine with language and the weight and contours of ideas and sensations to forge....this.

But doesn't writing inherently have an audience in a way yoga does not? Well, that depends on how you look at it. For me, writing is personal. I'd write with or without publishing it as writing is the act, is the making sense, is the stretch: is the embodiment. But, that aside, yoga has an audience, too. When you're moving your energy about, flexing your ass with your downward facing dog and such, you're writing on and with the body. Your flesh, as well as your spirit or whatever you want to call it, is your screen. You are the page, the words, the ideas, the affect, the flow: you are the essay.

Like yoga, writing has a grammar (nifty move there, eh?). Yoga has poses and movements between poses, a vocabulary and a grammar that turns around hips, breath, spine, neck, balance (not knowing much, I'll stop there). What are the poses in writing? As in yoga, there are thousands if not infinite: there are as many poses as there are writing bodies.

For instance, there is the circle: tying the beginning into the end. I use this pose often. In my last post, for instance, I begin with the pleasure of distinction and end with a call to more distinctions. That's a shape, like child's pose, in which there is a lot of flexibility, a lot of give (oy! "give" as a noun is downright fantastic!).

There's the related tangent which, if you think about it, is a sideways stretch. For example, above, I talked about surfing while talking about yoga. 

The non-sequitur — that is, talking about something completely unrelated — is under appreciated as schools systematically beat it out of us. What does this have to do with anything? they scribble madly in the margins (they was often I). But I've come to really like the understated cool of the band, Suicide. 


The failed attempt is a great performative pose. A friend of mine just sent me a great example of this. He was writing about his art, trying to explain it this way and that, but each effort came up short. So he shifts and addresses the nature of the coming up short. 

Alliteration and other forms of mouth filling are great go-tos (note the title of this meandering post. Oh! Meander! That's a great figure for the form of essays in general). While this is often what we imagine as being writerly, it is not something taught in composition classes: the way words fill the mouth, even when silently read. (When I taught comp, I had students read Allen Ginsberg's "Howl" out loud in class. We'd go around the room, everyone taking a stanza — who got busted in their pubic beards returning through Laredo with a belt of marijuana for New York/ who ate fire in paint hotels or drank turpentine in Paradise Alley, death, or purgatoried their torsos night after night/ with dreams, with drugs, with waking nightmares, alcohol and cock and endless balls....)I fear if I did that today, I'd be fired, sued, and molested on social media). The written word, after all, is never totally silent. Such is the nature of a phonetic alphabet — the words slither from the page across your tongue and down your throat. Nabokov loved to fill the mouth, almost suffocating you with confection: 

Hammock and honey: eighty years later he could still recall with the young pang of the original joy his falling in love with Ada. Memory met imagination halfway in the hammock of his boyhood’s dawns. At ninety-four he liked retracing that first amorous summer not as a dream he had just had but as a recapitulation of consciousness to sustain him in the small gray hours between shallow sleep and the first pill of the day. Take over, dear, for a little while. Pill, pillow, billow, billions. Go on from here, Ada, please! (From Ada). 

I could go on and on. The shift of address: suddenly address your reader directly. The reversal: take a claim everyone assumes and flip it — belief in god is...nihilism! There are so many prose poses. But none of that matters. The point is to move with. To  keep the flow flowing, feeling good and right or, perhaps, just flowing: if it gets too contrived, change positions. Start over. Shake it off. 

The point is not to think of writing as having a point. It's not about expressing an idea from my body to yours. Writing is a doing. It demands you being present.How does that feel? How about that? And that? It's all a stretch but the stretch is not the endpoint. The goal-which-is-not-a-goal is to feel with the world. It's to notice. To experience. To be embodied.

Oh, here's another amazing thing to realize about writing, a realization akin to what Kia taught me: there are no hard and fast rules. You can split infinitives, end in prepositions, not use sentences. Just ask yourself: How does it feel?

4.03.2017

On Kink and Perversion

I've always been a fan of the keen distinction. For instance, simple and easy. It's quite simple to stop smoking: you simply don't smoke. But that doesn't make it easy. I find such a sensual pleasure in feeling those words and ideas, which are so readily conflated, differentiated. A distinction makes many where there was once one. There's a great joy in such a will to distinguish, an affirmation of life in all its difference.

Here's another distinction that was introduced to me of late by a here-unnamed genius: kink and perversion. In public discourse, these words are bandied about — when they are in fact bandied about which, to be fair, may be more common in San Francisco than elsewhere —anyway, when casually referring to sexual proclivities, one may find oneself conflating kinky and pervy when, in fact, the two could not be more different.

Kink is territorial. It often has a space — a dungeon, a "doctor's office," a boudoir. Of course, this is not a requirement but it is of note that the world of kink often claims a territory, even if only temporarily. And once inside that space, there are all kinds of rules. Behavior is rigorously controlled. Of course, within those controls, there may be plenty of opportunity for exploration and expression. Still, the kink is defined by the fact that it has definition, both spatial and regulatory stipulation.

The non-kink world — let's call it the vanilla world — has space and rules, too. It has the bedroom and, sometimes, the couch. It has unstated rules of behavior: we'll kiss for a while, touch, lick, then do it. During the act, there may be flourishes of surprise — an ass spanked, a throat grabbed, a thigh bitten. But any serious deviation is not tolerated.

The difference between vanilla and kink, then, is not immediately obvious. But the way I see it, the distinction lies in the word kink itself: rather than a straight line, there is a coiled, spiraling, kinky line — more fusilli than spaghetti. Or what Lucretius refers to as clinamen, the curve in the flow of atoms. If vanilla finds the erotic within the blindness of established rules — there is nothing natural per se about vanilla or kink; they are both contrivances and both expressions of the erotic — kink finds the erotic in other places, in other ways, in other rules. (It is, without a doubt, more complex than this; I am less interested in the psychology of it than in the social and semantic distinctions.)

Perversion is something else entirely. Perversion operates without any territory. In the words of Michel de Certeau, perverts poach. They find their pleasure in the territory of others. The pervert is, in some sense, a rhetorician always seeking erotic kairos — or is it kairotic eros? — within the everyday.

Let's take a subway ride. It is a common space in which there are all kinds of  rules, legal and social. For example, we don't sit on someone else's lap (unless it's a parent and child or, sometimes, two lovers). In fact, we usually respect a certain distance between our fellow travelers. This space is not dictated by state law but it is surely dictated and different country to country, culture to culture. We all know these rules.

On this subway, on this common conveyance, we go about our way, dressed for work or galavanting or what have you. And there, on the subway, is our pervert. Let's make it a she just for the goof. Her eyes scan the car looking for that opportunity, a crack in the everyday edifice through which eros flows — a look in someone's eye, a smile, a sandaled foot, and then....an exposed knee. Gulp! Her eyes trace the knee, linger over the bend, drift over the calf, perhaps explore to see if there's a thigh.

There are, of course, such cracks all the time. The doctor's office, for instance: it's a strange place in which being naked in front of a near-stranger is not illegal or even frowned upon. It's even demanded! This is ripe territory for a pervert. Now take all the sandals and skirts, all the exposed shoulders, all the shorts and yoga pants, all the eyes and smiles and scents and suddenly the world brims with erotic possibility, cracks through which eros — a profound and relentless force — can flow.


What makes the pervert so reviled is she doesn't ask permission: she searches, she looks, she finds her pleasure in that social crack (as it were) all without asking. Kink is all about permission. Kink loves contracts and safe words: Chattanooga! and everything comes to a halt — the ball gag comes out, the whip relents, the electrodes stop flowing.

The pervert, however, never asks for permission. For some perverts, this not asking may very well be the source of erotic delight — a kind of rape, even if only with eyes. When we think of perversion, we think of the man in an overcoat, flashing unsuspecting people on the street or the subway. It's icky, for sure. But, ethical judgment aside, what defines perversion is an exploitation of a moment within the everyday without asking for permission.

But this doesn't mean all perverts are criminals or are even icky. After all, how else are we to meet each other, find pleasure in new people, if we didn't take advantage of those propitious moments of, and within, the erotic? We used to approach people in caf├ęs and bars because we were attracted to them, because we felt the tug and pull of eros within the everyday. Is it perverse to note this then act on it? Of course not.

What distinguishes the pervert is that the tug and pull may very well be the limit of the play; she has no desire to ask out the knee. This, here and now, this gaze, the intersection of eye and knee, this play of energy, is itself the erotic moment. It's not foreplay; it's not an initiation. It is an act unto itself.

So let's imagine an ethical pervert, someone who finds the erotic within the everyday but doesn't want to be icky, doesn't want to be criminal, doesn't want to offend. She wants a kind of permission. But the very possibility of perversion is not having that permission. And so begins a complex negotiation of eyes and energies, a complex rhetorical reckoning within the delirious space of the erotic. Perhaps she lingers on that knee but when the person whose knee it is suddenly becomes uncomfortable, she turns her gaze — and her erotic energy — away. But maybe, just maybe, the knee enjoys that gaze. And maybe, just maybe, that knee begins to flirt back with those eyes and now there is an erotic transaction — silent, perhaps, but no less real, no less profound, no less erotic for it.

The ethical pervert has a hard time, for sure. The risks are enormous. There are legal risks — arrest and such — and then social risks: unspeakable humiliation. But perhaps the rewards are equally enormous. Perhaps riding eros flowing through the banal drift of everyday life is a delight worth the risk.

I, for one, have been known to be a social pervert (avec and sans eros). I like to disrupt the unspoken everyday order of things, usually out of boredom. For instance, when I step into an elevator, rather than turn my back and quietly regard the ascending or descending numbers, I face the crowd. It's so simple but it really throws people off. Which eases my own anxiety about being part of the herd. And maybe suggests, however slightly, that there are unspoken rules everywhere and we can break these rules.

For Marshall McLuhan, art is a kind of perversion that seeks to expose the terms of the environment — or what we might call the Matrix, all those invisible but insidious terms that define how we are to behave with each other and ourselves.

Perversion of a sort, then, is a revolutionary act precisely because it never asks for permission. Kink, meanwhile, tends towards the conservative in its will to rules. It may be way outside the everyday matrix but, to the pervert, it's just the new boss, same as the old boss. The pervert seeks to disrupt any terms, regardless of the rules. Of course, the flasher and frotteurist isn't a revolutionary. He's pretty icky. So maybe calling all of this perversion conflates too many unlike things. Perhaps we need more distinctions.