Saturday, October 04, 2014

Fall Classes Underway + Congratulations All Around

UPDATE: The Edward Baugh reading, scheduled for October 31, 2014 at Rutgers-Newark, has been canceled. I send Dr. Baugh my very best wishes for a swift recovery.


A few weeks month (!) ago I had a wonderful lunch with a senior colleague who was visiting the New York area. He teaches on the quarter system and so has had not yet begun his own fall schedule, and he asked how my classes were thus far, which made me realize that unlike in previous years, I haven't posted on or around the first day about the term's classes. As I noted a few posts ago, I have had a health challenge this summer that spilled into September, but I am feeling increasingly better, and do hope to post more regularly.

I am again serving as the Acting Chair of African American and African Studies, an enjoyable post, and having undertaken this post once, it is a lot easier and smoother the second time around. On of my favorite aspects of it involves planning events for the upcoming year, and thus far we have several events on the schedule, including the visit of the great Jamaican poet and scholar Edward Baugh on October 31 (it's Halloween, yes, but it worked best for his overall travel plans to the US), and next semester, scholar, poet and performer Rosamond  S. King on February 4 and the Kùlú Mèlé Dance & Drum Ensemble on February 11, 2015.

My course for the fall is my first graduate fiction workshop at Rutgers-Newark; thus far I have only taught undergraduate and graduate literature, reading and writing, and African American studies courses, so it is exciting to again be working directly with the MFA writing students, who are sharp, talented and hard-working. Each will be writing four stories, so I've geared my eyes up for a lot of reading. Our class discussion focus will be on short-story cycles/novels-in-stories/composite novels, so we're perusing stories, chapters and excerpts by a wide range of authors that include Sherwood Anderson, Sandra CisnerosJ. M. Coetzee, Jennifer Egan, Louise ErdrichKarl Taro Greenfield, Ayana Mathis, David MitchellGloria Naylor, and Nami Mun, to name just a few. It took me a few years to internalize all the novella reading-and-writing, so perhaps a novel-in-stories will be a possibility in the future, who knows?


Congratulations are in order to so many colleagues and friends on recent awards. I probably will be missing someone, so forgive me in advance.

Congratulations to my Rutgers-Newark colleague Rigoberto González on winning the Academy of American Poets' 2014 Lenore Marshall Prize for his highly praised and belauded collection Unpeopled Eden (Four Way Books, 2013).

Congratulations to my fellow Dark Room Collective member, Tracy K. Smith, on receiving the Academy of American Poets' 2014 Fellowship in poetry, adding her to a distinguished list of major American poets.

Congratulations to fellow CC poet Terrance Hayes on receiving a 2014 John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation "Genius" Fellowship for his acclaimed poetry and future promise.

Congratulations to fellow CC poet Ruth Ellen Kocher on being one of two winners of the 2014 PEN Open Book Award for her collection domina Un/blued (Tupelo Press, 2013); Nina McConaghy also won for her book Cowboys and East Indians (FiveChapters Books).

Congratulations to fellow CC poet Rickey Laurentiis on becoming the newest winner of the Cave Canem Poetry Prize; his collection Boy with Thorn was selected by Terrance and will be published in 2015 by the University of Pittsburgh Press.

and for two awards in which I had a hand:

Congratulations to poet Ed Pavlić, whose powerful manuscript Let's Let That Are Not Yet: Inferno I selected for the 2014 National Poetry Series, to be published in 2015 by Fence Books.

A belated congratulations to fellow CC poet and Chicagoan Ladan Osman, who received this year's Sillerman First Book Prize for African Poets from the African Poetry Book Fund. Her beautiful début collection The Kitchen Dweller's Testimony will be published by the University of Nebraska Press and Amalion Press in Senegal.

Congratulations also to poets Fred Moten and Claudia Rankine for making the National Book Award in Poetry long list! I'm sure there'll be many more congratulations for these and other friends soon!

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Random Photos

Lying down in the street,
literally, in Chelsea
Waffles and coffee, on 32nd Street
A plea from the gutter
Tranquility, in Chelsea
Street typist, Williamsburg
Painting an awning, Chelsea
Street festival, Grove St., Jersey City 
Afropunk Festival flyers #standforsomething 

Outside the luxe new "Art House" development,
Jersey City 
Bright plumage, PATH station 
Street backdrop, Midtown
Poster (in Brooklyn?)
Poster (in Brooklyn?) 
Street string sculpture, Williamsburg 
Locals playing a board game,
LaGuardia Park, Williamsburg
Another tower going up
amidst (older) Williamsburg 
Filming, Chelsea 
String sculpture on fence,
Jersey City 
Street art for sale,
Something I often do,
photographing a building site
Impromptu corner
Urbanworld Film Festival, Chelsea
Jersey City

Saturday, September 13, 2014

On Jeff Koons at the Whitney Museum

What is art? What is "good" art? What do we mean by "good" when we speak of art? Does "good" here equate with quality, if we consider the roots of the concept of art in the West lying in the concept of techne? Is this even a relevant question any more, in 2014? Who determines what is good and not good? Or beautiful, or resonant, or sublime, or, conversely, bad, horrible, not worth expending even an epithet on? Are these characterizations a matter of a work of art's holistic aesthetics? Sociopolitical relevance? Technical virtuosity and mastery? Does the fact that a particular institution or an institutional field assigns such values make them valid? Does it matter that their decisions may be based not only on personal views drawn from expertise in the history of and criticism about art, but other institutional values, broader historically, politically, economically, and socially discourses about art, and contemporary market values? How much should any viewer know or factor in that there are immense financial stakes for collectors and connoisseurs?Is that what we mean today by the sensus communis? Does such a term have any meaning at all in the wake of the multiple stratifications and atomizations of the society in which we live? Does the sensus communis perhaps primarily and most aptly apply today to the artistry of Beyoncé Knowles, say, or Seinfeld during its heyday, or the current HBO hit Orange Is The New Black, rather than anything produced by some of the artists who now occupy the upper reaches of the contemporary US and global artworlds?  How important are these issues in thinking about art, about beauty, about aesthetic value?

What is it "good" art for? What makes it worth viewing? Is there any correlation between its aesthetic value and its market value? What do we even mean by "aesthetic value" today? Or use value for that matter? Do any of the additional aesthetic qualities proposed by critics like Sianne Ngai in books like Our Aesthetic Categories: Zany, Cute, Interesting (Harvard University Press, 2012), such as "zaniness" or "cuteness" or "interestingness" factor in at all in terms of this idea of "goodness" and its purpose? Does purposiveness? Does placing a work of art or multiple ones, by the same artist or different ones, within a given context like a gallery or museum, especially one of the major ones in the world, (not) legitimate an artwork and its author? Does it validate them and her? Are legitimation and validation the same thing? Can market value, which is now the primary value in contemporary art, be the only significant value an artwork possesses? What is or are relations between the acceptance of aesthetic and personal commodification and works of art's non-financial values? What do we say about artists who view themselves and their artwork not simply as commodities, which could be said to every degree about every artist creating today who is conscious of the world in which she lives, but as financial instruments? Can such artists ever again be said to approach their art with disinterest, and thus isn't that a category which might be jettisoned today? Which is to say beyond a basic barter system, can a painting or a sculpture also be considered as form of currency, or a derivative? What happens when we speak of works of art as derivatives or financial instruments? What does one call exchange value that is now so inflected? Is there a new name for this contemporary state of aesthetics, and would be be an(ti)aesthetics, commodesthetics, financesthetics, or something else?

Does such value (do such values or non-values) invalidate at a basic level the question of aesthetic, political, social or any other form of "goodness," "beauty," and so on? What is the relationship between this way of thinking, and Duchamp's readymades? Should we assign the the start of this thinking at the doorstep of Duchamp--or perhaps in more recent decades, Andy Warhol--or go back to Plato's ideas about second and third orders of artmaking, or Kant's formalism, as well as the aesthetic writings of Karl Marx? Does it unfairly raise the significance of a work of art and its author that I or anyone invokes such names? Is there a danger in doing so, and how does this relate to legitimation and validation? Does doing so also help to increase the "values" of certain works of art, even if I think they do not deserve it? Does it matter that an artist may or may not be aware of such questions? Or that, even if aware, she neither understands them or even cares?

Can't an artist focused primarily on making money make good art? Why does Jeff Koons make art other than to make money and make things? Does Jeff Koons know what "good" art is? Does Jeff Koons care? Should Jeff Koons care if a museum like the Whitney apparently does not? Does Jeff Koons' background as a Wall Street commodities broker as well as a graduate of an art school factor to a greater degree in the way in which his work appears often to be primarily a financial instrument or derivative? Isn't it fair to use the term "derivative" in relation to Jeff Koons's work, given that he was a broker, and, based on his show at the Whitney Museum, he, like many other artists, "derived" his early practice heavily from the work of Marcel Duchamp? Is it fair to say that Jeff Koons had a significant or noteworthy conceptual understanding of art, and of Duchamp's work, even at the start of his career? Has he had one since? Why does so much of Jeff Koons' work, its technical mastery excepted, look like something that might merit a harsh critique at an art school? Is technical mastery enough?

How do we speak of art that is at one level hard to look at and at another to turn away from, like Koons'? Does the monumentality of so much of Koons' work endow it with a significance it might lack if it were smaller in scale? Would we want to look at a golden balloon dog in cast metal if it were the size of one might find at a children's party rather than larger than a Cadillac Escalade? What about a heap of Play-Dough? What about a room or six or five floors of such work? Do such questions even matter? Would Jeff Koons have the career he has if he were not an educated white man from a middle-class middle-American background? Would such artwork be possible for someone not from such a background? What does this say about the roles of power, privilege and possibility in the contemporary art world, or in our society in general? Does it matter that in asking these questions so far I have not even broached questions of labor, production, and who in fact produces this art that has garned Jeff Koons such incredible fame and wealth?

Has the shift to a digital world of images, a world not of artworks but of platforms, as David Joselit has noted in his book After Art (Princeton, 2012), rendered Jeff Koons's work, especially his pornographic images with his ex-wife*, Ilona Staller, La Cicciolina, say, more or less valid? Are there words in the English language to capture my unpleasant physical response to see Jeff Koons naked and simulating or having sex? Is it not, however, a virtue, that works of art can make a viewer like me laugh out loud repeatedly, though not with the artwork's intended meanings, but in spite of and against them? Can an artwork, even in the age of mechanical and now digital reproducibility and infinite expansion and transformation, be said, when viewed either in person or online, to have no aura, and why does this seem to hold for so many (most?) of Jeff Koons' works?

Conversely, does not the possibility of infinite digital reproducibility render certain Koons' works even more auratic? Isn't it perhaps better, to put it another way, to see them on the Internet or some other digital space, as opposed to up close? Isn't there an aura of ratchetness (wretchedness) in contemporary American life to which more than a few aspire? Isn't this a negative aesthetics but a very different one from what Theodor Adorno proposed? Isn't this ratchet auratics a poetics that suffuses so much current popular culture and American culture more broadly? In identifying it am I not also implicating myself in my enjoyment in certain forms (such as reality shows, say) and examples ( of it? What happens when one places Real Housewives of New Jersey alongside Jeff Koons? Hasn't someone already done this? Why did the Whitney choose Jeff Koons' as its final show in its Marcel Breuer space, and what does this say about the Whitney Museum and its role and place in contemporary American and global art? Can any fields but cultural criticism and the history of art account for such an occurrence? Is Jeff Koons not the perfect artist for contemporary America, and if the answer is affirmative, doesn't this answer all the preceding questions?

* Many thanks to Andrew Blackley for correcting this error; Ilona Staller was Jeff Koons' wife, not just his girlfriend, which raises a number of related issues that Andrew also pointed out, such as: 

The degree and orientation of both of their agencies shifts within their marriage - regardless of personal respect(s) or equality of sorts or means individually in that there is a more or less an ideological "fair use" clause to the body of the other, and the inability (or difficulty) of protesting against or working counter to the other or the union as a whole ( say, in court.)

Is she the porn star girlfriend (working, or knowing how to work with and through her body) or is she the wife "at work," under an established consent between the two of them as people or "at work" under and as part of an institutional allowance?

And, if the above: what does that say about Jeff Koons and the rest of his "collaborations" with any number of cultur

Saturday, August 30, 2014

"Pensées" in Recours au Poème

UPDATE: Daily Telegraph art critic Alistair Sooke writes on the August 28, 2014 site about Yves Klein's successful development of the ultramarine pigment that cemented his fame: "Yves Klein: The Man Who Invented a Color."

One of the chief reasons I translate writing by non-Anglophone writers is to make their work available to readers who would otherwise have no access to it. However imperfect and faulty my translations I always do hope they offer a glimpse into the work of the translated writers and the worlds from which they come. As a writer myself I always appreciate the opportunity to be translated; it has happened several times, and the most recent instance is one of the best, because the translator is one of the best, a poet in all senses of that word, with a philosophically inclined mind such that she is able to convey multiple layers in every text she carries across languages, including her own. I am speaking with tremendous gratitude about Nathanaël, whom I was incredibly fortunate to have translate one of my very recent poems, "Pensées (After Yves Klein)," a tribute in part to the great, problematic French conceptual artist whose work has haunted me since I first saw it years ago.

Years ago through my job at NYU's Faculty Resource Network I met an artist-scientist, Dr. Adrienne Klein, also a fan of Yves Klein's, and our shared moments of Kleinophilia led in part to the poem "Klein Bottle," which references yet another Klein, the German mathematician Christian Felix Klein (1849-1925), whose non-orientable surface, a staple of topology, the poem invokes. That was an oblique reference to Klein (Yves)--and of course Adrienne and Felix Klein, and mathematics and science--but "Pensées (After Yves Klein)" is more direct. Klein also was one of the intellectual spurs behind one of the most enjoyable classes I ever taught, "Topics in Creative Writing: Conceptual Writing/Art," in 2010. (I fantasize about teaching an updated version of that course at Rutgers-Newark!) I want to say that until that same year, as a result of a mini-exhibit of Klein's work at the Art Institute of Chicago I had never seen any of his paintings or sculptures in person, but this is not correct; a little retrospection reminds me that I certainly did see Klein's work in other museums, including the Guggenheim Museum, which owns several of his works, and MoMA. Encountering Klein's "Blue Sponge Relief" (pictured above) and other images at the Art Institute back in 2010 laid a deep anchor, though, and recently, as I was writing poems about artists and artworks, the "Pensées" emerged.

Since they were about a French artist I sent them to Recours au poème's founding editor, poet and critic Matthieu Baumier, with whom I'd exchanged some emails around the time the online site first began publishing, and did not hear anything back, so it was a surprise and pleasure to learn that Nathanaël would be the translator (she had previously translated some of the poems from Seismosis and succeeded in bringing into French the English rhythms yet also creating a similar, novel music in French), and that she also was preparing a short introductory essay, "Arraisonner le vide" (roughly "Investigating the Void") which manages to encapsulate in a paragraph much of the conceptual richness I was seeking to convey. She also discusses some challenges in translating between the two languages that English in particular produces. I had not thought about it when writing these "Pensées," which are haiku-like in their brevity, but Nathanaël astutely identifies in so many words English's parallel vocabularies, which I drew on. "White" (from English's Germanic roots) and "blank" (from its Norman-Latin ones) are the same word in French, blanc; the same is true with "emptiness" (from Old English) and "void" (from Norman and Latin), which translates as vide. In addition, Nathanaël finds not just an equivalent, but a convincing French music for the English, even as she stays very close to the English syntax. That is quite an accomplishment.

You can find the essay and the entire poem in translation at the Recours au poème site, which if you read French is a bonanza of contemporary Francophone poetry, and I highly recommend it. My former colleague Reginald Gibbons has a series of poems, also beautifully translated by Nathanaël, on the site. Below is a snippet of my poem. Now I just need to find a place to publish the English original!


From "Pensées (After Yves Klein)"

une couleur,


un accord, puis silence:
une symphonie.


Je signe le ciel
J’assigne au ciel
un sens nouveau.

Copyright © John Keene, translation by Nathanaël, 2014. All rights reserved.

Monday, August 25, 2014

"No Angel" (Poem for Michael Brown)

Though the motivation often arises in me, especially when certain types of major events occur, I seldom am able to write immediate occasional or topical poems. Today after reading New York Times African American (!?) reporter John Eligon's piece "Michael Brown Spent Last Weeks Grappling With Problems and Promise," however, in which he includes the following paragraph--

Michael Brown, 18, due to be buried on Monday, was no angel, with public records and interviews with friends and family revealing both problems and promise in his young life. Shortly before his encounter with Officer Wilson, the police say he was caught on a security camera stealing a box of cigars, pushing the clerk of a convenience store into a display case. He lived in a community that had rough patches, and he dabbled in drugs and alcohol. He had taken to rapping in recent months, producing lyrics that were by turns contemplative and vulgar. He got into at least one scuffle with a neighbor.

--and in particular, the unnecessary and noxious "Michael Brown...was no angel," subjectively singling out this teenager, whose life was tragically cut short when he was shot dead by policeman Darren Wilson in cold blood, in a way I have almost never see or read for any other major public figures with any life issues, including long histories of drug use, criminal activity, and worse, I became enraged. Yet rather than just stifling or sublimating it (and Eligon's piece provoked a brouhaha, including considerable backlash, all across social and traditional media), I stopped what I was doing at the New York Public Library and wrote out a poem directly on Twitter, titled "No Angel."

Since not all of J's Theater's readers are on Twitter, I am sharing the poem here, edited and with an additional stanza). It is a tribute in and of the moment, to Brown, but I think it works on its own, and the relationships between and among the chain of metaphors and metonyms, as well as the ironies contained within, should be clear enough. (I have removed the final "**** that paper of no record.) To his memory and many others: RIP.

No angel
no god
no prince
no fellow
no child
no baby
no youngster
no boy
no saint
no deity
no divinity
no son
no cherub
no seraph
no holiness
no lord
no master
no idol
no numen
no icon

no king
no polemarch
no paragon
no demon

no somebody
no character
no creature
no nobody
no noble
no superior
no individual
no mortal
no man
no person
no sovereign
no human

RIP Michael Brown
© 2014

Copyright © John Keene, 2014. All rights reserved.

Friday, August 15, 2014

On Michael Brown, St. Louis & Ferguson, & Black Disposability

On Saturday, August 9, 2014, in Ferguson, a predominantly black, inner-ring suburb in Saint Louis County, Missouri, under circumstances that remain murky but for which there are non-police witnesses who have spoken on the record, Michael Brown, an unarmed 18-year-old recent high school graduate who was heading to Vatterott College, was gunned down by a policeman. The Ferguson police force, which is predominantly white (50 of 53 officers), have alleged that Brown was shot repeatedly after a struggle with a white officer, whose name the police force initially would not release (It since has: Darren Wilson).

According to the Saint Louis County police chief, Joe Belmar, around noon on Saturday, after an alleged tussle in and beside Darren Wilson's police cruiser, during which Brown supposedly attempted to grab the policeman's gun, Brown was shot, several of the shots occurring over three feet from the police car. Several witnesses, including one, Dorian Johnson, who was with Brown right before the shooting, have disputed the police's account, however, attesting that Brown had his hands up when he was initially shot. After he was killed, Brown lay in the street for hours, as shocked local residents watched and photographed it, until his body was finally collected and taken to the morgue, where an autopsy on Sunday showed that he died from multiple gunshot wounds.

Brown's grieving parents retained attorney Benjamin Crump, who represented the parents of Trayvon Martin, the Florida teenager who was shot to death on February 26, 2012 by George Zimmerman after a scuffle in the gated community where Martin's parents lived. Brown's killing would been horrible enough, but following his death, which has both followed and preceded other widely reported killings by police forces of unarmed black people in the US, including Staten Islander Eric Garner's death by stranglehold on July 17, 2014, Ferguson residents and others in the St. Louis metropolitan area decided to hold a candlelight vigil.  The Sunday evening event then turned violent when some people, who may not even have been vigil participants, began attacking and looting local stores in Ferguson and a neighboring suburb, which resulted in over 30 arrests and injuries to two officers. For a number of US media outlets this turn of events became the focus, and not the tragic, unexplained murder of Brown, the fumbling response of the Ferguson police, or the specific and larger contexts in which Brown's death occurred.

On Monday protesters showed up outside the Ferguson police department to demand a full investigation of Brown's death, and shortly thereafter at a press conference Brown's parents, mother Lesley McSpadden and stepfather Louis Head, publicly called for an end to the violence, while also imploring local officials for justice for their deceased son; alongside the Ferguson police department's efforts the FBI announced that it would launch a parallel investigation to that of the St. Louis County Police Department. Monday evening the NAACP held a prayer meeting that brought together local leaders and residents. Afterwards, in a turn of events that caught the attention of a global audience, a subsequent peaceful vigil on West Florissant Avenue, one of the main strips through Ferguson, was met by the terrifying response of the militarized Saint Louis County police force, supplementing Ferguson's officers. The county forces, like an occupying army, used tear gas to disperse local residents, shooting canisters into front yards, and included snipers, officers on tanks, and machine guns that matched or exceeded the sophistication of weaponry used in the US's wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Vigil participants were captured in photo after photo holding up both hands, as Brown was said to have done before being shot, with the police forces training their war-ready weapons upon them.

On Tuesday, justice seekers rallied in front of the Saint Louis County Police Department, in the county seat of Clayton (where Washington University is located), and the Rev. Al Sharpton arrived in Ferguson to meet with Brown's family and spark further national attention for the tragedy. It was also on Tuesday that President Barack Obama offered public comments on Brown's death, that the US Department of Justice announced it would launch a federal civil rights investigation, and that Missouri's Democratic governor, Jay Nixon, met with St. Louis City mayor Tom Slay and other local leaders to discuss the ongoing crisis. Yet the evening standoffs between the protesters and the hyper-armed police force continued. Because of these, on Wednesday morning Ferguson called for an end to evening vigils; when people sought to remember Brown's death peacefully at the end of the day, the police again responded violently, shooting rubber bullets and wooden plugs into the crowd, firing tear gas at them as well as reporters from Al-Jazeera covering the event, and going so far as to arrest a St. Louis City alderman, Antonio French, and two reporters, one from the Washington Post, Wesley Lowery, another from the Huffington Post, Ryan Reilly, after rousting them from a local McDonald's restaurant.

Finally, yesterday evening, Missouri's Democratic governor, Jay Nixon, having previously called for calm but without taking any concrete steps to ensure it, had the Missouri State Highway Patrol take over the policing of Ferguson's protests.  The person now in charge, Highway Patrol Captain Ron Johnson, a Ferguson native and resident of nearby Florissant, not only de-escalated the police response, but marched with protesters. One wonders what would have happened had this been the response five or even two days earlier. President Obama also delivered a public address on the crisis in Ferguson from his vacation redoubt, though he added little to the discourse beyond calling for the local police to be "open and transparent" in their investigation. Across the US and globe, silent rallies and marches, beginning at 7 pm and organized under the social media hashtag #NOMS1, took place; in New York, vigil participants filled Union Square and marched through Times Square.

Today, the Ferguson police released information that Brown had participated in the theft of cigars from a local convenience store; Dorian Johnson's attorney has acknowledged that Johnson was with Brown in the commission of this crime. If this is true, Johnson should and will be prosecuted, as Brown should have been; Missouri is not now nor has ever been known for letting black people alleged of criminal behavior, however light the crimes, off the hook. But even with this new information, the fact remains that Brown, like Garner, like Ramarley Graham in the Bronx, like Rekia Boyd in Chicago, like far too many black people, whether accused of a crime or not, did not deserve to be summarily shot dead. There is a structure, a system, and multiple well-defined processes for adjudicating alleged criminal behavior; vigilante state murder by "peace officers" is none of these.


As is probably well known to anyone who has read my work, let alone who knows me, I was born in the city of Saint Louis and spent roughly half my life up through the age of 18 in St. Louis County, in the suburb of Webster Groves. (It is the same suburb that Jonathan Franzen grew up in, and the home of two institutions of higher education, the Protestant Eden Theological Seminary and Roman Catholic Webster University). Webster Groves, like Ferguson and many Saint Louis suburbs, was and is divided geographically by race; north Webster, where we lived, was predominantly black, while south Webster was predominantly white (and much wealthier). In fact, one can draw a line through the middle of fan-shaped St. Louis City and the collar-like county, and quite reliably predict the race of who lives where. North of the city line is black; south is white, and the same holds true for the suburbs: north are the formerly white and integrated suburbs, some of which, like Ferguson, white flight has transformed into predominantly black suburban towns, and south are the mostly white suburbs, which are less wealthy. Fanning out westward are the wealthier suburbs, with larger non-white populations closer to the city, and smaller ones the further west you go. To put it simply, it is the case that over the last four decades as black people have moved from St. Louis City into its suburbs, white people have moved--fled?--further and further west, or south, or north, taking jobs and wealth with them, and have only recently returned to a revitalizing, gentrifying downtown area of the once-hollowed out core city.

One can find mirrors of this process all over the US (in Chicago, Detroit, Boston, Atlanta, Los Angeles, etc.), as well as analogues to the internal racial and spatial divisions. In St. Louis County as in suburban New York or New Jersey or Boston or Birmingham, or in many parts of the county, one can usually point not just to which suburbs are more or less white, but where in a given suburban area, as in the core cities, the races live. As has widely been reported, Ferguson's demographics have changed, but its power structure, the mayor, the city council, the police chief and department, and so forth, remain mostly white. Perhaps this reality predicted that at some point Ferguson would blow up, but I would imagine that if you asked most St. Louis-area residents where in the region what we have all witnessed over the last week would take place, Ferguson would not be high on the list. The City of St. Louis might be readily named, because St. Louis City has seen its share of violence over its 250-year-history, though it was spared the uprisings of the late 1960s (its sibling in Illinois, East St. Louis, was not so lucky, then or before). Perhaps you might hear people name some of the poorer suburban towns in North County, or some of the towns in the south suburbs where overt racism is not unknown. But, despite the problematic indicators, not Ferguson.

Our larger public discourse and visual culture still too seldom reflect the diversity, or the demographic shifts and attendant sociopolitical shifts, which have transformed American suburbs over the last four decades. Indeed, the images of Ferguson before and after Brown's murder belie the visual narratives we usually encounter; American suburbs have increasingly browned since the 1970s. My own family participated in this demographic shift, as have millions of African Americans and other people of color. In some places the John Cheever-John Updike-Richard Yates-A.M. Homes suburban world may still exist, but there are now many more Fergusons out there, as the last US Census made clear, than our news media or Hollywood ever deign to depict.

This conceptual blindness and indifference is particularly dangerous not only because it promotes ignorance about the reality of American life, but also because it helps to increase the possibility that what happened in Ferguson could happen all over the US; police beatings and killings of black Americans have sparked uprisings repeatedly through US history, as has been the case with numerous riots (1969, 1983, 1984, 1989, 1992!) in Miami, or the Los Angeles Uprisings after the videotaped beating of Rodney King in 1992, but suburbs could as easily become flashpoints as the urban areas that are now under economic and political contestation as gentrification and economic and social displacement work the perverse counter-magic of racial and ethnic partitioning and cleansing. Our political and social fabric in cities and suburbs across the US, well into the second term of President Obama, remains tinder for enraged responses by people who are still treated as second-class, not-fully-human, semi-citizens; who are viewed as superfluous, whose lives we still see daily are thought to have less value and importance; who have long been denied full participation in American, full access to humanity, in this society; who must move through their daily lives with the added tax and burden of racism and white supremacy underpinning every aspect of the world around them; who are not viewed as integral to what the country has ever claimed to mean by the word "Americans"; who are viewed, to invoke Keguro Macharia, and other theorists, as completely and utterly disposable.


You do not shoot someone in the back and let his body lie in the summer sun, no matter what he has done, unless you view him, and others like him, as disposable. You do not choke a person to death, when he is crying out that he cannot breathe, unless you view him as disposable. You do not empty your handgun's magazine twice, issuing more than thirty shots, into three men who are not armed. You do not mis-or-undereducate millions of people; you do not disinvest in and thereby eliminate opportunities for gainful employment from millions of people, starving them through incalculable, invisible legerdemains of austerity and greed; you do not provide zero or sub-standard health care to millions of people, and use their poor health to impoverish them further; you do not poison and destroy the environment in which millions of people live and work, again using this as a tool to extract every thing you can out of them; you do not perform a false pantomime of justice and equality, in courts of law, in places of employment, in stores, in the pews, everywhere, before millions of people for whom you do not want real justice and quality ever to be possible; you do not warehouse millions of people, whom you view as nothing more than commodities to provide jobs for others in whom you have disinvested, and mere bodies for cheap labor to enrich the bottom lines of privatized prison corporations, unless you view them as disposable.

You do not demonize and dehumanize an entire race people, through language and images, persistently and consistently for hundreds of years, changing the surface code and semantics as needed to maintain your power, and then appeal to your innocence and pretend that you have not. Indeed, you cannot appeal to any category of the human or human rights because you have systemically denied the humanity of the people all around you. You do not arm a police force as if it is an occupying army ready to slaughter everyone in its crosshairs, and train it on people living in your midst (or on other people across the globe, for that matter). Much of what I describe here applies not only to black people in this country, but to anyone who is not (considered fully) white, and to white people as well, especially poor ones. But the fact since before this country's founding is that black people bear the brunt of this logic of disposability, we are the ne plus ultra on which this logic, concomitant with anti-black racism and white supremacy, was established and perfected, and until this logic is completely overturned and dispelled,  so long as we remain here, and we will remain here, we will remain the most disposable of all.

This is the world Michael Brown and others like him, live in. This is the world that I, who have several degrees and teach at a university and have published and translated books, live in. This is the world that our President, the leader of the "free world," lives in. Until the economic, political, social, and juridical foundations on which this society has built its entire edifice truly and fully change, until we extirpate the structural and systemic racism and white supremacy that underpins everything, the kind of murder and the crazed response by state forces that we witnessed in Ferguson very well will continue to occur.

It was horrifying, but hardly a surprise.

It was a tragedy, but not unforeseen.

It will inspire some brilliant activism in a multiplicity of forms, as similar tragedies have; some introspection and soul-searching, among people who want things to change; some changes in the law, as we now see with Congressional efforts to demilitarize the police, and perhaps a prosecution or two;

But very likely almost nothing, beyond rhetoric and shadowplay, will transpire among those with real power, who have a vested interest in keeping things as they are.

We should feel disgust and horror at what has occurred in Ferguson, and Staten Island, and Beavercreek, Ohio, and Los Angeles, and Harlem, and everywhere a scenario like this unfolds.  But that is not enough. What must also occur, in as many ways as are possible, is to change the structures of this society so that the groundwork for what we have witnessed and continue to witness is not already laid, that this tragedy is not again foreordained. We cannot change our past, but we can reshape our future. NONE OF US is disposable. I know this will not be the last time I write about a tragedy of this sort, and I certainly will not forget Michael Brown, or Eric Garner, or John Crawford, or Ezell Ford, or Dante Parker, or Rekia Boyd, or Tarika Wilson, or Gabriella Nevarez, or Tyisha Miller, or Yvette Smith, or Ramarley Graham, or Oscar Grant, or Sean Bell, or Ousmane Zongo, or Amadou Diallo, or Eleanor Bumpurs...or Trayvon Martin. But what I do hope happens this time, as with every prior time, is we make even firmer our commitment, at every level, but especially as a society, to ensure that we will not have to relive a version of this story, with only the particulars changed, once again.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Blog Tour

Gesina ter Borch, "Study of a Young Boy,"
Holland (1654), Rijksmuseum Collection
Now that I have reached a peak, planted my flag and am now descending in preparation for another one--okay, instead of analogizing, I can say that weeks ago I handed in the edited short fiction (which includes about two novellas, so "short" is a relative term) manuscript to the publisher, and if all goes according to plan, it should be in print next year!--I can respond to a fun invitation that two great fellow writers who are students at Rutgers-Newark, Serena Lin and Safia Jama, extended back in June.

I rarely write about my writing process, since I have long taken to heart Samuel R. Delany's suggestion that it is perhaps not a good idea to speak extensively about what you're working on (unless you have to), the effect of chatting about an unfinished project being or becoming a jinx; on the other hand, I do admire writers who are able to do so, who do so consistently, and who write engagingly about their current writing. I read them and acknowledge here that they give me a charge to keep pushing on. So here, then, is my contribution.

So how this work is: each invitee joins the virtual blog tour and addresses the issue of her or his or their or thyr Writing Process. We answer four questions, then select two further writers who blog (and who may or may not agree to continue the project!) exactly one week later, and then that's it. Here we go:

1) What are you working on?

I recently finished editing a manuscript of short stories entitled Counternarratives. It will, I believe, be published next year. Although I had written the bulk of the collection (13 stories, some as brief as one or two pages, two novella-length) over the last decade (or rather rewritten, since I lost the drafts to about five of them when my laptop in Chicago crashed back in 2004), including six, I had a few more stories I wanted to include. As a result, amid my winter-spring teaching and mentoring duties, life, and all else, I wrote a few more stories, and in general I am very happy with the results.

I also am very happy that the publisher likes it very much, and did not make me change the title, since we are badly in need of counternarratives to the dominant discourses and narratives. In terms of current projects, I have several that I am working on, and will receive a sabbatical next spring to wrap at least one of them up, but I can say now, since I have either published excerpts or read from the works of fiction, and have published many of the poems, that I have two novels underway, one entitled Palimpsests, and the other entitled Wound, as well as a book of poetry tentatively titled How to Draw a Bunny.

Originally I thought Bunny might be two books of poetry, one titled Sissies, and I just may repackage poems that were supposed to be part of an older collection that would fit under that title and see if I can publish those together. I have this fantasy that someone will publish a book of all these poems that can be read from both ends if you flip the book over, with a poem in the middle joining them, and maybe this will happen. But for now, Bunny gathers, as bunnies do.

Oscar Murillo, 1 1/2 (lessons in aesthetics
& productivity)
, 2014, Marian Goodman Gallery, Paris)

2) How does your work differ from others' work in the same genre?

The answer to this question has its strongest response in the texts themselves, and also finds itself undermined by my work, which challenges the fixed understanding of "genre," but I will repeat what a professor of mine in graduate school, a writer I admire very deeply, said about my work: you are interested in history, and you are drawn to experimental forms. Usually these things don't go together but you find ways to make them work. Not all of my work deals with history--though everything we produce becomes historical at the moment of its production, no?--and my work is often formally experimental in some way, as well as in in terms of its content.

But it is the case that my work does often have some element that could be termed "experimental," depending upon how you define that term, and my first two books both manage to defy genres, though Annotations often is called a "novel," when it could be viewed as a book of poetry or a memoir; and Seismosis often is called a book of "poetry," when it could be viewed as a book of lyric essays (with some texts tending very strongly toward what our eyes would immediately define as verse) or art criticism.

Another writer I deeply admire, a Canadian author whose work is quite important to me, once noted that I do not repeat myself. I always think about this because I have more than once advised my students to write a variation of the same book twice; use the first one to explore what it is you're trying to do, and then repeat it to perfect it. (Some writers write variations of the same book twenty times, and very well, so I'm not being snarky.) As a result you get two books out of one, you look much more productive, and of course, if you are paying attention to what you're doing, you do sharpen your tools and refine your art. I bore quickly of repeating the same thing consciously, though, and have tended to write slowly, so I unfortunately haven't been able to do this in the past, but I have picked up my pace considerably in the last few years, so we'll see.

In any case, most of the texts in Counternarratives do look and read like fictional stories, have lively  protagonists and vivid plots (think Madonna's distilled description of her work as centered on "sex, religion and death," and including battle scenes, escapes in the middle of the night, drownings, acrobatic performances, and more), and do unfold as stories usually do, except that with almost every one, something else intrudes, at the level of genre, discourse, characterization, plotting, the sentences themselves. One way of describing it might best draw upon a lecture I once heard Jahan Ramazani give at Northwestern, in which he was talking about the incorporation into poetry of non-poetic discourses, such as legal discourse, etc. I do this in Seismosis with the language of mathematics (topology, to be exact, which I think only one person has ever mentioned to me--and he was a mathematician on my tenure committee at Northwestern!) and geology, as well as philosophy, art criticism, architecture, etc., but with these stories history often intrudes.

Langston Hughes, Arna Bontemps,
Harold Jackman, 1942,
photo by Carl Van Vechten

I can now say that a few years ago, I applied for a fellowship and a panel of fiction writers turned me down with comments about the fiction submission, expressing their bafflement at what it was. One very prescriptively (and proscriptively) said that if it was supposed to be history, fine, but if it was fiction, then I need to do XYZ. But given the long history of fiction writing in the US, let alone in English or any other language, wasn't this person attempting to impose her (or his) aesthetic standards on what I was up to? So it was a bit of vindication that in addition to individual stories being published in various periodicals and journals, they also will be published together in book form.

I'll end by saying that once this collection was already underway I realized I was unconsciously addressing a larger aesthetic problem a fellow fiction writer I greatly admire, Dan Chaon, pointed out many years ago when he came to speak as the writer-in-residence at Northwestern (where he was an alumnus), and which was only just resurrected, for the thousandth time, in a review of new works by another fellow writer I tremendously admire, my former colleague, the extraordinary Stuart Dybek; that was the particular forms and content of the contemporary American short story, which has evolved in such a way that it does not do many of the things that short stories in this country once did, one of which is have much if any plotting at all. Many of the stories in this collection do have plots, and I tried to allow myself great latitude in letting the plots unfold as they must.

3) Why do you write what you do? 

In brief: in part to see the stories I cannot find on bookshelves, as Toni Morrison once said, and also because of a deep inner compulsion.

4) How does your writing process work?

I write drafts of everything, sometimes many, read them aloud, share them with a few trusted friends who I know will offer helpful critiques, and then go back and try to be as ruthless an editor as I can. That doesn't always work, but I find that I catch things now that I used to let slip. If an editor for a publication suggests changes that I think will improve the work, I follow them. I have been quite fortunate in that regard.

I also like to write fiction in places where it's very quiet. I can write poetry or other kinds of prose elsewhere, but for fiction, I need something akin to silence or white noise (as in a cafe where there's no music beyond human voices) to enter deeply into my head. TV is a bane for drafting anything except email.

Stories may begin with a line written in pen or pencil, notes, a phrase that comes to me, a name. Or something I've read or overheard and recorded. I write poems both by hand and on my computer. Often after I have sent a draft to a fellow poet, I see something I need to change. So I have multiple drafts of poems and say on a daily basis--and I mean this!--that I'm going to once again put them in spiral binders (I have a printer, a hole punch, etc.) so that I can keep them in order. This summer!

Charles W. Gaines, Faces, Set #4:
Stephen W. Walls,

For my next two writers, I am going to choose Reggie Harris and David Barclay Moore.

Reggie is an award-winning poet, fiction writer and blogger himself, as well as a librarian, curator of ideas and books, and one of the tech-savviest authors I know.

David is a talented photographer, author, screen-writer, and man about town, New York, his native St. Louis and elsewhere, who always seems to be in the center of exciting cultural spaces.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Random Photos

A few photos from the last two months (I'll post more photos under topic-specific blogposts); the humidity and heat have mostly kept me indoors (think heat-induced kidney stones), but when I've gotten out, I have tried to snap photos. I should probably just start taking my camera with me in addition to my phone, since it seems to take 3 times as long to turn on and open my camera app as it once did....

Man with a parrot (he asked me spe-
cifically not to photograph his face,
only the bird's, which is why his is obscured)
Street-discarded treat
Avoiding germs on the subway
Literary World Cup
at the Mid-Manhattan Library
Mass yoga session,
Bryant Park
Man with his "pet" bee,
L train to Williamsburg
Uh huh...the "pet" bee
Cover of Ernest Montgomery's
new sumptuous collection of photos,
Dominicanos (Bruno Gmünder, 2014)
Grand opening of H&M
flagship, on Fifth Avenue
A frolic at Grove Street,
Jersey City
Painted man, after a musical
performance, Grove Street,
Jersey City
The rear of Jeff Koons' massive
arboreal Split-Rocker, at
Rockefeller Center 
Split-Rocker, from the front
Desperate living (read the sign)
Giant roll of paper (or tissue?),
Street work, Chelsea