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,
1978

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?),
Chelsea
Street work, Chelsea

Monday, July 21, 2014

St. Mark's Bookshop Reopens

The last of the old shop

Since 1977 St. Mark's Bookshop has been a cornerstone independent bookseller in the East Village. The global economic crisis in 2008, coupled with a dizzying rent increase (to $23,500 per month) by its landlord, The Cooper Union (embroiled in its own institutional dramas), imperiled its existence at its two-decades-old home at 3rd Avenue between 8th and 9th Streets, leading to several online campaigns to keep the store afloat and, most recently, to ensure it could find a new location in Manhattan. After a hunt the owners found that new location, signing a lease in May for a storefront space at 3rd St. and Avenue A, just a few blocks south of Tompkins Square Park and so, as of this past weekend, St. Mark's Bookshop has reopened.


The new location, under construction
A few weeks ago I met up with a friend, Tisa B., who was visiting from California, and we dropped by the old St. Mark's, which was in the process of being dismantled, shelf by shelf. I stood and watched for a while, wistfully, remembering how often I'd visited the store over the years. It was, I can recall, the first store to stock copies of my first book. It also became, along with the now shuttered Nikos', an indispensable spot to find unusual journals and zines. Though I never read there, I attended a number of readings and talks there over the years, and more often than not would run into friends and acquaintances I hadn't seen in some time. Tisa and I thought the new location had already opened, but instead we found them still under constructed. We were too early, but it was clear the new space would be inviting.

The new location's façade
On E. 3rd Street
The new St. Mark's is considerably smaller (by half), though with a cleaner, airy design. The size is deceptive, though, because there's more room than I expected in the back. White, curving shelves beneath a black ceiling line the shop, a modular unit in the front of the store holds journals, and the book sections are all easier to find by sight. The stock, however, remains on the leaner side (except, strangely enough, for works by Karl Ove Knausgaard), though nowhere near as threadbare as several years ago, when St. Mark's barren appearance suggested the store might not survive. I've never found the staff particularly friendly, and this has carried over into the new store, but the one of the owners was in the day I dropped in, and we had a pleasant chat about St. Mark's carrying the Hilst translations (not there), among other things. Other books I was looking for were not in stock either, but I bought several books I did not already have, and look forward to returning later this year, when they're more fully up and running.

The new space
The front of the store

Monday, June 23, 2014

"Mannahatta" Cited in HuffPost + Colleagues' & Students' Honors

A contemporary illustration showing Juan Rodriguez (holding pan)
establishing a trading post with Native Americans
on Manhattan Island in 1613. (Copyright © 
Charles Lilly Art
 and Artifacts Division, New York Public Library,
Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture)
You never know what may appear in your email inbox, but unexpected good news is, at least for me, always welcome. I recently received some when Sandi Wisenberg, longtime co-director of Northwestern's graduate MA/MFA program, and literary advisor to TriQuarterly, wrote to say that my story "Mannahatta," which appears in Triquarterly'Issue 145, Winter/Spring 2014, was selected by Maddie Crum, for her Huffington Post list, "Read 15 Amazing Works of Fiction in Less Than 30 Minutes." With all the stories she quotes the opening line, and all are brief enough to take in, well, under half an hour. I'm always glad when my work merits some public acknowledgement, but I'm doubly happy that this story was name-checked, because I wrote it last fall, in the midst of demanding teaching (the writing-and-reading intensive undergraduate "Introduction to Literary Studies") and administrative duties (as acting Chair of African American and African Studies), and because it tells a far too little known story, about the histories of the African Diaspora and of New York.

When I read the story at Rutgers-Newark last winter during an event with my colleague Rigoberto González, I noted that doing so represented a personal and public 400th anniversary tribute to the story's protagonist, Juan (Jan) Rodríguez (Rodrigues). I hope the story whets readers' appetites for the rest of the collection, and for learning more about the rich and complex histories of our country; as was the case with Juan Rodríguez's story, "Mannahatta" is but the beginning.

UPDATE: I just saw on Facebook that Entropy, "a new website featuring literary & non-literary content," selected the translation of Hilda Hilst's Letters from a Seducer for its "Ultimate Summer Reading List." It's a wild ride, that will definitely take you places you usually don't venture in contemporary American literature! Definitely check out their list of other summer must-reads, by writers such as Hugo Ball (translated by Catherine Schelbert), Anne Carson, Joshua Corey, Hervé Guibert (translated by Nathanaël), Ray JohnsonDouglas Kearney, Kevin Killian, Édouard Levé (translated by Jan Steyn), Fred Moten, Sawako Nakayasu, Alejandra Pizarnik (translated by Yvette Siegert), and others.

***

I work with truly extraordinary people who regularly receive honors of all kinds, so I thought I'd mention a few of the literary awards and citations they've received (this is not comprehensive and I surely will be missing something). Rigoberto, whom I mentioned above, received this year's Lambda Literary Award for Best Gay Poetry, for his collection Unpeopled Eden (Four Way Books, 2013). His beautiful collection was in one of the tightest competitions, with poetry books by Frank Bidart, Rafael Campo, David Groff, Randall Mann, Carl Phillips, and Brian Teare all in the running. Rigoberto also was a finalist for the Publishing Triangle's Thom Gunn Award for Best Gay Poetry for Unpeopled Eden, and was just named a full Professor of English.

Tayari Jones was one of the writers selected by Edwidge Danticat for Elle Magazine's "12 Great Female Authors Recommend Their 40 Favorite Female Authors," and O, The Oprah Magazine, chose her 2011 novel Silver Sparrow as one of its 2014 Summer Reads. Underlining these selections, back in April Flavorwire picked Silver Sparrow as one of its "50 Best Southern Novels Ever Written."

Akhil Sharma recently published his second book, Family Life (W. W. Norton, 2014), and it has received consistently high praise, including being featured on the front page of the New York Times Book Review.

RN MFA Program Director, Jayne Anne Phillips, whose stories in Black Tickets I first remember reading with excitement around the time I joined the Dark Room Collective, saw her 2013 novel Quiet Dell (Scribner), which has received stellar reviews, named one of the "Top 10 Fiction Books of 2013" by the Wall Street Journal, one of the Best Books of 2013 by the notoriously tough Kirkus Reviews, and one of last year's best books by The Saint Louis Post-Dispatch.

Finally among my colleagues--and I probably have left out something--one of the newest arrives with a particularly high honor: A. Van Jordan, a poet I've known and admired for many years and a fellow Cave Canem Graduate Fellow, will be RN's first Henry Rutgers Presidential Professor, joining the English department and MFA Program in Creative Writing this fall.

Among my students, one who received his RN MFA last year, Vincent Toro, and another whom I had the great pleasure of teaching a few years ago during her undergraduate study in creative writing, Jeannie Vanasco, received 2014 Poets House Emerging Poets Residencies. I was away so I was unable to attend their residency reading earlier this month, but both are writers to watch, and not just for their poetry. Vincent is an accomplished playwright whose plays have been staged around the New York-New Jersey metropolitan area, and Jeannie is a talented nonfiction writer who is currently working on a book that I can foresee garnering a good deal of acclaim.

Lastly, Drew Ciccolo, who received his RN MFA this year and who will begin the RN PhD program in American Studies this fall, has won Talking/Writing's Nonfiction Contest with his very fine piece "Paige." Drew was also one of 10 MFA students from across the US who had a story--"The Behemoth"--selected as a finalist by The Masters Review.

A hearty congratulations to all of them!

Friday, June 20, 2014

Word for Word Lunch Poems at Bryant Park + Jeffery Renard Allen at Powerhouse

Among the many treasures New York City offers year-round is the weekly Word for Word series at the outdoor Bryant Park Reading Room, right behind the New York Public Library's Schwarzman Research Branch. Organized by Paul Romero, the poetry readings occur on Tuesdays (and some Wednesdays) in the evening and Thursdays at lunch time from January through the late fall, , except on major holidays, and feature a diverse range of readers. This year's lunchtime readings have been organized around specific presses and poetry organizations and groups, so poets published by Coffee House Press, Song Cave Press, WordTech Communications, and affiliated with CUNY and Blue Flower Arts have read so far.

Yesterday, as part of a summer-long tribute to the 50th Anniversary of the publication of Frank O'Hara's (1926-1966) legendary Lunch Poems (City Lights Books), Patricia Spears Jones invited four fellow poets to read poems inspired by O'Hara book and work, and one of his central figures and themes, New York City. Poets Lydia Cortes, Sharan Strange, Jocelyn Lieu, and Jessica Greenbaum, as well as Patricia, each read a poem by O'Hara--including some of my favorites, like "A Step Away from Them" and "Steps"--followed by their own. O'Hara's casual tone, his engagement with the everyday, his often breezy treatment of desire and love, his incisive humor, and his urbanity, all surfaced in the poems of each poet. 

Cortes read several poems that dealt with her Puerto Rican heritage; Strange also explored city life, including a poem that mentioned another poet who was present, Thomas Sayers Ellis, snapping photos throughout, and ended with an unforgettable tribute to her mother; Lieu read a series of "Hard Times Haikus" that weren't exactly haikus but distilled experience, with concision and wit, as effectively as that form can; Jessica Greenbaum invoked Florence Nightingale; and Patricia, accompanied by rain, and then by an umbrella-bearing Paul Romero, brought Paris, philosophers, Ellis (again), curses, and Freedom Summer into the mix. Though I headed off to lunch with another poet friend who attended the reading, the poems, O'Hara's and everyone elses, were satisfyingly filling all by themselves.

Lydia Cortes
Jessica Greenbaum
Jocelyn Lieu
Sharan Strange
Paul Romero, and Patricia Spears Jones
***

Later that evening, at the Powerhouse Arena in Dumbo, Brooklyn, poet, fiction writer and professor Jeffery Renard Allen read from his acclaimed new novel The Song of the Shank, which fictionalizes the life of Thomas Green "Blind Tom" Wiggins (1849-1908), a 19th century enslaved African American whose piano performances were legendary in their day. Jeff began the reading by talking how an Oliver Sacks article he read years first hipped him to Blind Tom's story; he noted his particular fascination with Sacks's discussion of the "autistic sublime," which he attempted to depict in his text. Other aspects of Blind Tom's life, such as his performances on behalf of the Confederacy, and his refusal, after a certain point, to perform, required a complex rendering that Jeff, as the author, had to negotiate.

He then described how he transformed Wiggins's troubling story into a novel, which took him a decade to write and which involved several false starts. His ultimate discovery entailed eliding certain historical specificities, staying aslant of Blind Tom's interiority, pushing the boundaries of realism, and taking a few other authorial liberties to bring the story to life. He also learned a few things he did not know before, such as that "the blind can cry." (I didn't know this either, but I won't forget it.) Although there are no recordings of Blind Tom's music, a Brooklyn-based performer, John Davis, has reconstructed some of them, but Allen relied primarily on his imagination. The stellar reviews he has received so far strongly affirm his approach.

After Jeff finished reading and answering questions, performer Genovis Albright accompanied him, performing one of Blind Tom's infamous tunes, "The Battle of Manassas," which sounded a lot like "Dixie." One of Blind Tom's performance techniques was to play multiple tunes--sometimes three at once--simultaneously, and Albright appeared to do this briefly, which immediately brought to mind the music of Charles Ives. I asked Albright about this, specifically mentioning his symphonies, but he wasn't sure what I meant, and afterwards I sent Jeff a note thanking him for the reading but also rhetorically wondering whether any Ives scholars had investigated whether he heard Blind Tom's performances. Given that both may have lived in and around New York at the same time, it would not be inconceivable, would it? Jeff's reading deeply sparked my interest, and The Song of the Shank is at the top of my list of summer reads.

Jeffery Renard Allen
Genovis Albright

Monday, June 16, 2014

2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil

A demonstrator holds a banner during an anti-World Cup
 demonstration in São Paulo, Brazil, on January 25, 2014.
(PressTV.com)
The 2014 staging of the FIFA World Cup of soccer--football to the rest of the world--is now underway in Brazil, having begun last Thursday. Yet despite the fact that this international tournament of the world's top national soccer teams is taking place in the country most widely considered the sport's powerhouse, having won the most World Cup championships (five), produced the the greatest soccer player of all time, Pelé and originated a unique and highly regarded style of playing, known as o jogo bonito (the beautiful game), Brazil's version of the event has experienced extensive problems and sustained controversy even before its official start date.

This year's World Cup unfolds within the context of a sputtering national economy after years of an economic surge and the glimmers of success in lifting many of Brazil's lower middle classes and poor up a few notches under previous president Luiz Inácio "Lula" da Silva. As a result, for over a year there have been public protests across Brazil against the country's federal and state governments' exorbitant expenditures--well over $11 billion and counting, making this the most expensive World Cup in history--on construction and renovation of stadiums and of public infrastructure, both in conjunction with the soccer tournament and with the Olympics, which are set to open in Rio de Janeiro in 2016. In some places, as in São Paulo, workers have died during the construction and renovation process; there and in others, the stadiums were barely finished by the time the matches were set to begin; and in many, such as Brasília's Estadio Nacional, costs have run far over budget (3 times the estimate in the capital's case), for structures that, as is in the case in the Brasília stadium or the one in the interior Amazonian city of Manaus, very well could become future white elephants very soon.

Other infrastructure projects that were supposed to have been completed, like Salvador da Bahia's subway system, have ground to a halt, with little explanation or accounting. Many middle and working class Brazilians want to know why the country has been so profligate at a time when pressing needs like new hospitals, schools, housing, transportation upgrades, and so forth, go unmet. Some affordable tickets are available, but it would take a very person to be able to afford flying all over the country to follow the matches of any given national team, and the already inflated prices of Brazilian goods and services are witnessing increased inflation as a result of the World Cup and Olympics. Alongside all of this, the ongoing crisis of corruption, which plagued the tenure of the prior popular Workers' Party government of Lula, which still hangs over that of his successor, Dilma Rousseff, colors perceptions of the government's and corporations' actions.
World Cup participants

On top of the financial issues, the Brazilian government undertook a "pacification" scheme to address the violence affecting some of its poorest communities, particularly the favelas of Rio de Janeiro and other cities, without addressing the continued, evident problems of racial discrimination, poverty and wealth inequality, joblessness and underemployment, precarious housing and health care, under-education, and so on.

As numerous reports have made clear, the government approach has tended to be brutal and counterproductive, leading to the deaths of numerous favela residents, as well as of the police themselves. In the immediate lead up to the World Cup government forces have occupied favelas and evicted people from their homes in several of these communities, such as Mare and Telerj; violently expelled the newly homeless who in response occupied the city's Prefecture; and killed innocent people, including a well-known, 25-year-old TV dancer, Douglas Rafael da Silva Pereira in Pavão-Pavãozinho favela, near Copacabana Beach.

Any thought that the start of the World Cup and the arrival of the international media would quell dissent has foundered on the shoals of reality; in São Paulo right before the start of the opening game between Brazil and Croatia, people gathered at the gates of the barely completed renovation of Corinthians Stadium to denounce the cost of and corruption linked the public spending, and protests continue there, in Rio, and in other cities. In addition just yesterday at least two policemen are alleged to have fired live bullets at protesters in Rio. Opposition to the World Cup appears likely to continue through the championship game, which the host country is not only favored, but expected to win. Should Brazil win its sixth championship, a respite might temporarily ensue. Should it lose or not even make it to the finals, things could grow even more restive as the nation's coffers continue to shell out funds for the Olympics in two years' time.

This is the background against which the first match, pitting Group A teams, took place. Brazil won with strong but not especially sharp play, posting a 3-1 tally. Racist ugliness, however, marred the victory, as Brazilian defender Marcelo (pictured at right) accidentally scored an own goal, the game's first, momentarily putting Croatia in the lead, which provoked racist and homophobic invective against him and black Brazilians ("Tinha que ser preto," which translates as "It had to be a black person," as well as comments about his "cabelo ruim," or "bad hair"--ugh!) on social media sites like Twitter. Though self-identified black and brown Brazilians are the now numerical and demographic majority at over 50% of the population, they still face a landscape of overt and veiled personal and structural racism and white supremacy, often couched in discourse suggesting that Brazil's acknowledged mixed racial makeup means there is no racism there. Some Afro-Brazilians smartly countered the slur with their own repurposing of the negative term, but it was nevertheless an ignominious way for things to commence.

Subsequent matches among the 32 national participants in eight groups have included unsurprising outcomes as well as shockers. On Friday, Group B's Chile beat Australia 3-1, and Group A's Mexico squeaked past Cameroon 1-0, but the first major upset occurred in another Group B match when a sharp Netherlands squad walloped the defending champion Spanish team 5-1. Even accounting for the Dutch team's evident talent, this was a stunning turn of events. On Saturday, which included four contests, Group C's Colombia beat Greece thoroughly 3-0, Group D's England, always heralded as a potential champion or finalist, lost to a better Italian team 2-1, Group's C's Côte d'Ivoire beat Japan 2-1, and in another surprising turn, Group D's Costa Rica, expected to have a middling tournament, shut down Uruguay, hyped as a possible contender, 3-1. Yesterday, Group E's Switzerland beat Ecuador 2-1, Group E's France, last seen in South African in 2010 in the midst of a public meltdown, apparently got its act together with a younger crew of players and put on a clinic with Honduras, winning 3-0, and Group F's Argentina, another highly regarded squad, defeated Bosnia and Herzegovina 2-1.

I have yet to mention the US team, which is in one of the most difficult groups, G, truly a group of death, and which played its first game today in the far northern Brazilian capital of Natal, in Rio Grande do Norte. The clearly dominant team among the four is three-time World Cup champion Germany, which played with control and precision today against the other team thought to be a strong entrant for the Cup, Portugal. Instead, Portugal looked scattered and sloppy, meriting a red card and losing badly to Germany 4-0. Should the Portuguese squad's play not improve, the US could advance on more than a prayer to the second round, since the Americans beat the Black Lions of Ghana 2-1, defeating a team that has sent them home in each of the previous World Cups. American forward Clint Dempsey struck early, in the first minute, catching Ghana off guard with a shot to the net that put the US ahead 1-0. Ghana, however, took charge of the ball for the majority (59% to 41%) of the match, with 21 shots vs. 8 from the US side, and evened things in the 82nd minute when midfielder Andre Ayew caught the US's usually porous defense off guard. (Weak defenses have often proved the US's Achilles heel.) US midfielder Graham Zusi's corner kick led to a successful set-piece header by substitute defender John Brooks, putting the US up 2-1, which they held onto until the final whistle blew.
John Brooks, after his goal

To advance the US will have to control the ball more and take more shots and chances; today they were lucky and caught several breaks, while also making the best of rare scoring opportunities. They are going to have to have every bit of luck in the world to get past Germany, but they need only defeat Portugal now to advance, and that does not seem as impossible as it did before the tournament began. Today's final match pitted Iran and Nigeria, who played to a 0-0 draw, which was a positive for Iran and less so for Nigeria. Tomorrow Belgium will play Algeria at noon EST, Brazil and Mexico will each try to win their second games at 3 pm, and Russia will play South Korea at 6 pm. I'm most curious about that Brazil-Mexico match up. The host country should win easily, but if they don't, it's could be a sign that this tournament is Germany's, or someone else's (the Netherlands? France?) to walk away with. Meanwhile, outside the stadiums, the public rallies and marches critiquing what these games truly signify will continue.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Charles Wright Named US Poet Laureate + Poem

Charles Wright
Congratulations are in order to the newest Poet Laureate of the United States, Charles Wright (1935-), now Souder Family Professor Emeritus at the University of Virginia, and one of the most important American lyric poets of his generation. Wright, a native of Pickwick Dam, Tennessee, is the author of more than two dozen volumes of poetry, beginning with The Grave of the Right Hand (Wesleyan University Press, 1970), and including Country Music: Selected Early Poems (Wesleyan University Press, 1982), which received the National Book Award for Poetry; Black Zodiac (FSG, 1997), which received the 1998 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry; Scar Tissue (FSG, 2006), which received the 2007 Griffin International Prize for Poetry; and Bye-and-Bye: Selected Late Poems (FSG, 2012), which received the 2013 Bollingen Prize.

Charles Wright found his subject matter and method as a poet in the 1980s with Southern Cross, and has, since then, circled around a series of themes, references, and related styles, which bring together meditations about human and natural existence, often with a gently philosophical tone; judicious use of figuration and imagery drawn from the natural, especially that of the various places he has lived over the years, and in particular, his native South and Charlottesville; citations and elaborations on the work of Dante, Tu Fu, and other figures from the past; and careful use of poetry's rhetorical and musical resources, to produce verse that is indelibly Charles's and yet which bears the ring of the universal.

Given the vibrant public engagement of our most recent US Poet Laureate, Natasha Trethewey, I am curious to see in which direction Charles takes this post. He is a warm, generous person--that has been my experience with him, going back to my two-year stint at U.Va.--but also somewhat quiet and publicity-shy. And, like several recent poet laureates, he is an elder and may not choose (or even be able to sustain) the peripatetic approach that some other poet laureates, such as Rita Dove, Robert Hass, Billy Collins, and Natasha have undertaken. Any vocal, public advocacy for poetry would be wonderful, though, as will the fact that through this appointment, more readers will come to know about Charles Wright's poetry.

Here is one of his poems borrowed from the Academy of American Poets' website. It is the quintessence, at least to me, of what Charles Wright's work looks and sounds like. Read it aloud and it will reveal even more.

***

Body and Soul II

(for Coleman Hawkins)

The structure of landscape is infinitesimal,
Like the structure of music,
                            seamless, invisible.
Even the rain has larger sutures.
What holds the landscape together, and what holds music together,
Is faith, it appears--faith of the eye, faith of the ear.
Nothing like that in language,
However, clouds chugging from west to east like blossoms
Blown by the wind.
                 April, and anything’s possible.

Here is the story of Hsuan Tsang.
A Buddhist monk, he went from Xian to southern India
And back--on horseback, on camel-back, on elephant-back, and on 
                                                               foot.
Ten thousand miles it took him, from 629 to 645, 
Mountains and deserts, 
In search of the Truth,
                    the heart of the heart of Reality,
The Law that would help him escape it,
And all its attendant and inescapable suffering.
                                               And he found it.

These days, I look at things, not through them,
And sit down low, as far away from the sky as I can get.
The reef of the weeping cherry flourishes coral,
The neighbor’s back porch light bulbs glow like anemones.
Squid-eyed Venus floats forth overhead.
This is the half hour, half-light, half-dark,
                            when everything starts to shine out,
And aphorisms skulk in the trees,
Their wings folded, their heads bowed.

Every true poem is a spark,
              and aspires to the condition of the original fire
Arising out of the emptiness.
It is that same emptiness it wants to reignite.
It is that same engendering it wants to be re-engendered by.
Shooting stars.
April’s identical,
             celestial, wordless, burning down.
Its light is the light we commune by.
Its destination’s our own, its hope is the hope we live with.

Wang Wei, on the other hand, 
Before he was 30 years old bought his famous estate on the Wang River 
Just east of the east end of the Southern Mountains,
                                                     and lived there,
Off and on, for the rest of his life.
He never travelled the landscape, but stayed inside it,
A part of nature himself, he thought.
And who would say no
To someone so bound up in solitude,
                           in failure, he thought, and suffering.

Afternoon sky the color of Cream of Wheat, a small 
Dollop of butter hazily at the western edge.
Getting too old and lazy to write poems,
                                      I watch the snowfall
From the apple trees.
Landscape, as Wang Wei says, softens the sharp edges of isolation.

Excerpted from A Short History of the Shadow by Charles Wright. Copyright © 2002 by Charles Wright. Reprinted by permission of Farrar, Straus, and Giroux. All rights reserved

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Visiting the Château d'If

Completing the tourist's circle that I began on Sunday, I concluded my stay in Marseille with a visit to the infamous Château d'If, the former fortress and island prison on the island of If, now known the world over because of its mention in Alexandre Dumas( père)'s The Count of Monte Cristo, and later William Friedkin's 1971 thriller The French Connection. I debated about whether to see it or find some other way to spend my final afternoon in Marseille, but once I was able to find a post office to mail back books (having been told it did not open until 2 pm, which sparked my curiosity about the limited hours, only to find that in fact, it was open, the people I dealt with were very friendly and helpful, and my books and postcards should be back in New Jersey in one piece, and soon), I decided, why not, I have the time, the walk to the Old Port isn't far, the boat ride isn't long and should be relaxing, and it probably will not be as much of a tourist trap as I think.

The highest tower at the Château d'If
It wasn't. Today being Tuesday, the line for tickets and onto the boat flowed briskly, the trip over was pleasant, and...once I got there, I had an almost unearthly feeling, as if there were unsettled spirits roaming around the place. I actually felt my arms to make sure I wasn't having a panic attack (???), but as I walked around the main building where prisoners were held (and burned to death, tortured, etc.), I really started to get the creeps, feeling lightheaded and thinking, I'm about to faint. I crept back to the entrance of the building, amidst the loudly cawing gulls, which apparently were in mating season (though my friend Trasi mentioned that they were doing this when she was there, and she also got a strange vibe, leading her to write a story about the experience), and their racket did not help matters. It was almost Poe-esque in its eeriness. 

I decided to go inside anyway, and am glad I did. Once you enter the main fortress building immediate to the right, past the gift shop was a very thorough, respectful exhibit on Dumas père, with timelines, a biography, descriptions of his work, especially The Count of Monte Cristo, and a video of his interral in the Panthéon, in 2002, as one of France's immortals. The exhibit also included his famous quote, which he gave when asked whether he knew any blacks--which was supposed to rankle him--to which he famously replied, "My father was a mulatto, my grandfather was a Negro, and my great-grandfather was a monkey. You see, Sir, my family begins where yours ends." I'm not so sure about that "monkey" bit but I get the context, what he was dealing with and where he was coming from.

In addition to the Dumas exhibit and lots of Marseille and Château d'If tchotchkes in the gift shop, there were all sorts of plaques commemorating various moments, often horrifying, in French history, ranging from the slaughter of the Huguenots, some 3,500 of whom were held in this prison (how?), to the murder of a member of the French commune in 1871. Topping it off were the rooms in which the "Man in the Iron Mask" was allegedly kept, which I did explore, and the chamber where, as I said, someone was burned alive. That, thankfully, was locked. (Mostly likely Mark Twain introduced the tale about the "Man in the Iron Mask" having been held here in Innocents Abroad, and the myth has continued since that time, not only because of him, but it's doubtful whether he was ever held here.) All in all, touring a transformed prison renowned for its notoriety made me think about our own horrific prison industrial complex in the USA, and how we too are industrializing the racially, ethnically and class-based disparate incarceration of our fellow human beings, warehousing them in horrific conditions, some amounting to torture, and, as if most were in a castle a bay or sea away, we say and do nothing about this. And then there's the monstrous prison at Guantánamo Bay....

Having ascended several towers over the last few days I left the Château's highest one to my imagination, instead touring most of the open rooms, none of which I would want to be left in after dark. Some of the rooms had incongruously modern furniture, and others had up-to-date video materials, so I got the impression that whoever was running it wasn't exactly sure how to kit it up for visitors, but the history itself was nevertheless omnipresent. From the main roof area the views of the city and the Frioul Archipelago were beyond believable, and I took quite a lot of pictures, but also just looked out at the water and thought about all the people who'd made the passage along these byways, as well as the many who'd been stuck in this fortress or tossed to their death, weights around their ankles or bullets in their chest, from its heights. We sailed back after a short stop at one of the Frioul Islands, and I was glad to say I saw the Château d'If, but I am not sure I would want to go back there, though I recommend seeing it at least once if you find yourself in Marseille for a few days and haven't already visited it.

Queuing for the boat to take us to If 
Seagull chicks, which I'd
never seen before
Fisherman, on the If dock
A view from the fortress 
Heading up into the fortress area 
Some of the walls, which were
never challenged by invaders
Two more modern buildings
(relatively speaking) on If
The Château's high tower 
The building housing offices 
In the Château's inner courtyard
M. Alexandre Dumas père
One the larger windows,
which would have been in a cell
for one of the wealthier or
more aristocratic prisoners
(the poor were kept in windowless
cells below)
The main doorway, looking
out toward Marseille
(I almost want to say that
Notred Dame is visible if you squint)
The cell in which a prisoner
was burned alive 
The room housing the Man
in the Iron Mask (myth, but....)
The tower to the roof 
In one of the upper room cells 
The island plan as you enter 
One of the Frioul islands, Ratonneau,
where we briefly stopped 
Newer and older (ruins) buildings
on Ratonneau, a Frioul island
Marseille's new port, with
its lighthouse, Joliette port, and
CMA CGM Tower in the distance