Wednesday, January 29, 2014

The Tao of Columbo

Just one more thing, right?!
One of the most interesting parts about Columbo are the murderers themselves. Anyone who is anyone that watches TV knows that in Columbo, the viewers follow the murderers, when they, well, murder. But there's more to it than that. Columbo, first airing in the sixties, came on in a time when TV procedurals were common. The murderers themselves are aware of murder mysteries, television and film tropes and expectations, and many of them work against them or even use those tropes to their advantage. In one of the most brilliant episodes, Jack Cassidy's character (he played a murderer in three Columbo episodes, this one was called "Publish or Perish") concocts a murder plot that frames himself for a murder he actually committed.

And we know it, the audience and the murderer are in on the scheme. Detective Columbo, our frazzled, forgetful detective, always has to catch up.

Jack Cassidy and Peter Falk meet again
The thing about Columbo is that I have a difficult time explaining exactly why I love the show as much as I do. It certainly isn't because I want to figure out how Columbo puts it all together. Many times Columbo proves the murder in ways that I could never fathom or even cheats the murderer into revealing their guilt (I'm not even sure some of the cases would hold up in court). It's not even fun to guess when Columbo figures out who the murderer is because many times I get the impression that somehow he knows from the very start. And while the endings are very satisfying and dramatic (see video just below to be spoiled of great endings), I don't really think that's the reason I enjoy the show as much as I do.

Let's look at Columbo, friends. He hardly ever judges, rarely yells, shows no pretension, exhibits very little ego. He is calm, he is patient, but mostly, he is kind, even to the murderers he's pursuing, even when they're finally caught.

Columbo goes with the flow, doesn't fight against the current, and somehow, almost too easily, he gets his way by doing so.

Observe the episode "Negative Reaction" (I call these episodes though to be more accurate I should refer to them as tele-films, because each show serves as its own TV movie, but still). He tries to find a witness at a homeless shelter and is mistaken, because of his attire, as destitute himself. Though he tries to correct the sister, she is so aggressive that he can't get a word in, and, in response, he shrugs it off, takes the soup, and converses with the witness. When the sister finally figures out that he is a detective, she assumes he's undercover, and Columbo does nothing to change her mind.

Columbo often finds himself underestimated by the murderers he investigates, and he uses their own egos to lure them into a sense of calm, waiting for them to slip up.

It's almost odd, for me, to have more interest in Columbo for its social interactions than its criminal elements, in how the murderers treat Columbo and react to him as either an incompetent cop or as a annoying nuisance. I believe in the maxim: You know people by how they treat people. In Columbo, I don't learn the characters from their crime, from their desperation, not fully at least. I learn about them by how they perceive Columbo.

But what, my dear friends, do we learn from Columbo with how he lets himself be perceived? Is there something duplicitous in his nature? Something sinister in his kindness? Is there something cruel in tricking desperate criminals to feel at ease?

The great Peter Falk saw Columbo as a very average guy who just happens to be the greatest detective ever to live.

And I mostly side with that interpertation. He's working class through and through and he takes on the very rich and influential. Takes them down a peg, and more. Is it too much to view Columbo as a metaphor for class warfare? Or to suppose that he gets some satisfaction, being "average," at bringing down the very most powerful?


But by the character interactions alone, Columbo can be interperted in many different ways. I think that's what makes it interesting, though maybe not the reason I enjoy the show, not just, at least.

When it comes down to it, I think I love the show maybe for the same reason my mother loves the show and used to watch it with me during cool summer days, when episodes were played frequently at noon on A&E.

Columbo is just so damn nice.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Asian Artist Profile: Michelle Chan Brown

Michelle Chan Brown’s Double Agent was the winner of the 2012 Kore First Book Award, judged by Bhanu Kapil. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Cimarron Review, Linebreak, The Missouri Review, Quarterly West, Sycamore Review, Witness and others.
Michelle received her MFA from the University of Michigan, where she was a Rackham Fellow. A Kundiman fellow, Michelle has received scholarships from the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, the Vermont Studio Center and the Wesleyan Writers’ Conference. Her chapbook, The Clever Decoys, is available from LATR Editions. She lives with her husband, the musician Paul Erik Lipp, in Washington DC, where she teaches, writes, and edits Drunken Boat and co-curates the Cafe Muse series. Find her online at

1. From reading your collection, Double Agent, I was struck by wide range of your poems. You have poems about family, about race, power structures, culture, there’s even a poem, "Apollo 11”, which makes reference to the space race. Can you talk about what interests you as a poet? Is there a main theme that you find yourself gravitating towards? 

Thanks for your insightful distillation of my obsessions. I would also add the boundaries, borders, alliances, permissions, addictions, rituals, compulsions - between the self and the other, the self in relation to itself, and the individual to the institution. The outsider stance is de rigueur for writers, of course, but I don't feel authentic positioning myself as the artist on the periphery, observing and digesting, and detached. I'm always looking for ways to place myself inside, and find myself baffled/fascinated/anxious in that process.

Insinuation is how I'd describe my relationship to language and writing poems, as well; some say they feel "in control" or "themselves" on the page, but I see it more as a series of negotiations with words; I want the music of the line to dominate me as much as I want to conquer it.

Lately, I've been trying to move away from "Michelle" or the "I" as subject, which puts far too much value on the Poet in Solitary, liberating the riches from the palace of their mind or whatever. I moved to DC a year and a half ago and the city - strange, stagnant, picturesque, where dissembling is a high art - is in a lot of my newer work.

2. You’re the poetry editor at Drunken Boat! In the latest issue, #18, you’ve put together a folio of poems on Debt. What’s was the process like for putting this together? Is it different for every issue?  

I'm very proud of the work in Debt. Many of the poems were solicited, but the open call generated a host of wonderful responses. More themed folios are to come.

3. Can you talk a bit about your experience at Kundiman’s Workshop Retreat?

Kundiman is a fellowship of Asian American poets; they host an annual three-day retreat in New York that's emotionally and intellectually intense - in all the right ways. Kundiman is a powerful reminder of necessity of community, friendship, other humans, a cause bigger than the self. Given that poetry is not, well, a product that has much of a market edge, one would think that there'd be a sense of "we're all in this together" for poets when they're not in solitude. That's not always the case, of course, which is why the time at Kundiman retreat, talking and writing with poets with dazzling and aesthetically varied work felt so novel, inspiring, fulfilling, etc. I encourage all Asian-American poets to apply.

4. How has being an Asian American influenced your writing? 

That's a difficult question to answer for two reason - one, because I don't see Asian-Americanness as a fixed identity, and two, because, being mixed, I rarely thought of myself as a Real Asian-American.

And yet there's a thread through my poems, be they about sex or Russia or mill towns or Republicans or the nanny culture, that engages with dual selves, dueling...

What it means to me now is committing myself to promoting and supporting other writers of color.

5. You have the “Honey Badger’s Don’t Give a B**k Tour” upcoming! What writers will be touring with you? How did this come about?  


Eugenia Leigh, Blood, Sparrows and Sparrows (Four Way Books, 2014), Tarfia Faizullah, Seam (Southern Illinois University Press, 2014), Cathy Linh CheSplit (Alice James Books, 2014), and Sally Wen Mao, Mad Honey Symposium (Alice James Books, 2014). Asian-American female poets with prize-winning first books. In a car. For a month (July-August). Across America.

Friday, January 3, 2014

How I Saved an Old Lady in the Most Ridiculous Way Possible at the Sea-Tac Airport or My Winter Vacation in Seven Parts

I. Fear of Flying

We don't feel much turbulence, but when we do I feel like we're going to crash. I'm afraid of flying and even though I end up flying at least twice a year I'll never get used to it. Bump, bump, goes the plane and I buy TV time (a new feature on United flights) to get my mind off of my impending annihilation. I watch A Good Day to Die Hard because I can pretend the turbulence is film related. In this movie, John McClane and his son survive everything. They jump out of buildings, get shot at by men with AK 47's, fight a helicopter, a tank (all while crashing into hundreds of cars in a ridiculous chase sequence that, no matter how one likes to fall into movie logic, would have killed a thousand innocent people), all while John McClane, complains, "This is supposed to be my vacation," even though it's not really even his vacation. But this is my vacation. Like John McClane and his son, I too will live.

II. Parent's Anniversary

III. Impatience

There's a meanness to me now that I didn't notice until I arrived in Washington. I have no patience whatsoever. I get annoyed when someone takes too long at the cash register, if they strike up a conversation as I wait to order my coffee. Or if someone slow gets in my way at the Wal-Mart. Like anyone needs to be in a rush at Wal-Mart. I blame the city. But here's when I realize that something is wrong with me: right at the airport. I've just landed. I'm with my parents and we just picked up my baggage. I'm trying to rush to the escalator but it's too late, an older couple gets in front of us, and there's no way now to walk up the escalator like I always am want to do. I'm not even on the escalator yet but I'm annoyed that they're going to be in front of us. I roll my eyes because I foresee having to remain stationary. Then I think: "What the fuck is wrong with me?" Then I think, "Is that old lady falling?" And the old lady falls.

IV. Everything Lost, Returns Eventually

So, so much Korean food. Every day, three meals a day. Every pound I've lost in 2013, I've regained. I'm eating and I can't stop. "When was the last time I had a full meal?" I wonder, as I glut myself. Koreans love food, and I love being Korean and being able to have easy access to that food. My mother is spoiling me and I love that. But, still. I've regained significant weight. Everything returns, eventually.

V. New Years... 

...Is my favorite holiday (Halloween is a close second). In life, there are few real beginnings or endings, so even the illusion of a narrative is comforting. New Years Day always recharges me. I can look back at the past year and compartmentalize it, saying, "Last year was about this." For me, 2013 was about the temporary. Yes, I was a temp for many months. And I'm currently in an adjunct position that is anything but permanent. But, even more than that, I've come to terms with the fact that every single thing in life, jobs, people, homes, even parts of the self, is temporary. In flux. Changing, or dying. 

VI. Smartphones (Dumbphones?)

My sister, bless her heart, buys me a smartphone. The Moto X. When I take it home, I get stupid. I start an Instagram account. A Vine. I tweet pics and post on Facebook and basically kill my phone in under three hours. When I charge it, I lean against the wall and play YouTube videos, even though my tablet is nearer and better at playing YouTube videos. Social Media is dumb, I realize. But it's also fun. So fun. Too fun. I spend the whole day releasing years of pent-up smartphone desire. It's an explosion of social media that startles my friends, and probably has created new enemies, but I haven't had this much fun with a device since I played Final Fantasy VII for the first time, all of those years ago. Is this bad? Is fun bad?

VII. Rescue(d) 

So, the old lady on the escalator can't get her footing and she falls. The old man screams. She screams and falls. Slow motion. Or maybe everything for someone old is slow. I'm not on the escalator yet, I'm still annoyed, but since she's falling so slow I have the chance to grab her. I run up and catch her by the shoulders, cushioning her fall. Or so I hoped. I lose my footing and I fall too, slowly. She's on top of me, not as small as she looked from afar. The thing about escalators is that the steps, as you must know, continue escalating. Because of this, no matter how much we tumble down, we never reach the bottom. In theory, if no one else was there and there were no emergency shutdowns, we could be falling perpetually. My feet get scraped, the old lady is panicking as I hug her to me. I'm not scared, I'm embarrassed. And we keep falling, until my Dad, behind me, grabs hold of me, stopping our descent, and the emergency shutdown commences, and I am saved, all of us, today, will live.