Sunday, October 29, 2006

Things and Such

Fall Is Here
"Season of mist and mellow fruitfulness / close bosom-friend of the maturing sun," John Keats's "Ode to Autumn" begins, but I've never been particularly enthusiastic about the fall. My favorite seasons are summer, by an overwheming margin (sun, sun, and more sun!), and then spring (breezes, rains, flowers, truly mellow temperatures), and I've always seen the fall, with its colorful, nudescent trees, its waning hours of daylight, and its rising chill, as the first step to those months I most dislike--frigid, freezing-rainy, sleety, snowy, dim December, January and February. The early evenings, like the cold winds (especially in Chicago) and graying skies take a psychological toll that not even a periodic trip to the nearby beaches, where the steel waves endlessly hammer against the shore before a sunlit horizon, can fully dispel. t also seems as though over the last few years, various personal tragedies involving those close to me have occurred during the fall, though this year, like last, has thankfully so far not taken that turn. (And then there is the fact that I'm away from C and home--and sometimes the distance seems like a continent instead of just half of one.) One fall sensory experience I do cherish, in addition to the sight of Halloween pumpkins and costumes and the flavors of Thanksgiving meals is the taste of cider and its aroma when warmed and mulled, with the right amount of cinnamon, cloves, brown sugar and lemon zest. I bought some cider today at the store, and I'll be mulling it on those evenings when the thermometer begins to drop below the mid 40s and the stacks of work-related materials start to touch the ceiling. I can already taste it now.

Tipton-Palmer Reading and the Gwendolyn Brooks Conference on Black Literature and Writing Keynote
Since we had a visiting fiction writer-in-residence at the university all week, I was unable to attend the 16th Annual Gwendolyn Brooks Conference on Black Literature and Writing at Chicago State University--which is all the way on the other side of the immense nation of Chicago--until yesterday. (Even by car it is quite a trip.) This year's keynote speaker was Walter Mosley; other honored writers at the event included Quincy Troupe and Louise Merriweather. I've seen all of the writers speak and read before, and even had the great fortune to be in an unforgettable Cave Canem workshop class led by Elizabeth Alexander at which Walter Mosley was present and sitting right beside me, drawing and offering gentle critiques and generally effervescing in that lowkey way of his (which led to me writing a poem on the spot that was, for all purposes, complete, a first for me), but I did want to catch at least some of the event, so I made my way down in time for the reception and

Walter's remarks, which, as were the case with prior ones he's delivered there and elsewhere, provocative, incisive and unwilling to let the audience off the hook. The gist of his comments last night were that we are to blame for the state of things; we don't speak up or out enough, and we should hold ourselves and those we call our leaders to far greater task for failures to address the crises of humanity, not only over here (Katrina, the prison population, etc.) but across the globe (Darfur, Iraq, the slave-labor camps in China, and elsewhere). We must be the instruments of action and change. It sounds pretty simplistic, but Walter wove in a great symbolic story about a man who isn't sure what's wrong with him but seeks a diagnosis, and can't deal with the physician's thorough examination to get to the root of the problem, to illustrate his point, and I thought as he wound towards his conclusion that his point hit home especially as we approach national elections that in so many cases are leaving us with few options except the better of two unappealing choices. The other highlight of every Gwendolyn Brooks Conference is seeing, talking with and spending time with all the great people who come through, especially writers I know. This year I got to chat briefly with the person who runs the conference, fellow CCer Quraysh Ali Lansana, meet and get Bayo Ojituku to sign my copy of his new, highly praised Chicago novel 47th Street Black; and hang out late into the night with poets Ruth Ellen Kocher, Matthew Shenoda, Gregory Pardlo, Delisia Daniels, Delana Damron, and the dynamic Chicago duo Toni Asante Lightfoot and Krista Franklin, and a few other of the other attendees and panelists. (How to get them up to Evanston, that is the question.) We even had the experience of witnessing a moment of live, contemporary minstrelsy, at the attendees' hotel in Oak Lawn (a couple dressed as a "Rastafarian" and a "Gypsy," with the man in brown makeup, no less), but I'll say more about that when I get the photos.

Earlier in the day, on my way south, I'd stopped in at the Harold Washington Library Center (one of the great treasures in Chicago) downtown to catch poets John Tipton and Michael Palmer inaugurate the 2006-7 Chicago Poetry Series. I'd never heard Tipton read before. Both were on form, and some of Tipton's work, in particular the final poem from his collection Surfaces, which drew from a theoretical concept by Noam Chomsky as well as the mathematician Richard Dedekind, was a revelation. (Come to think of it, I'd really only seen smaller pieces that had appeared on various online sights or in emails.) Palmer read from The Promises of Glass, The Company of Moths, and a new, gathering collection, introducing the poems with wit and a light touch, even as some of their thematic material had a sharp edge. I'd been babbling only the day before about how I try to will poets to read my favorites of their poems, and Palmer didn't disappoint, as he included his poem "Untitled," dedicated I believe to Pura López Colome, among his selections. (He did not read another of my favorites, the anaphoric gem "I Do Not Want," however.) At the risk of sounding like a poetry social diarist, I will note that among the attendees were my university colleagues, Reg Gibbons and Ilya Kutik (whom I'd never met before); one of the poets I most admire, Ed Roberson; organizer Margaret Sloan; and a host of younger Chicago-area poets, including my colleague Robyn Schiff, Erica Bernheim, Srikanth Reddy, Sarah Lang, and John O'Leary (I think I got his name right). I only got an opportunity to speak with both Tipton and Palmer briefly, but the reading put several bees in my ear for future university events.

Brazil's Incumbent Wins Again
Brazil's incumbent President, Luiz Inácio "Lula" da Silva (below center, Caio Guatelli/Folha Imagem) won reelection to the presidency of Latin America's largest nation, defeating former São Paulo state governor and physician Geraldo Alckmin in a 61-39% runoff blowout. Despite a series of scandals involving his party, the leftist-socialist Workers Party (Partido de Trabalhadores), that wracked his first term, Lula was strongly ahead in the polls leading up to the October 1 first round of federal voting (which also included balloting for Brazil's congressional lower house, one-third of the seats for its upper house, and the state governorships). Then, yet another spectacular new scandal, involving Workers Party members' alleged attempts to pay $770,000 (packed into a briefcase, no less) for dirt on Alckmin, exploded in September, leading enough voters across Brazil to back off Lula to deny him the absolute majority (51%) needed to win outright.
Lula venceu
In the month since, he has campaigned furiously, and used the allegation that Alckmin would privatize industries and cut off a popular program, Family Allowances, that underwrites food and other necessities for some 11 million families across Brazil, to regain popularity. According to the Folha de São Paulo, Alckmin did win the most populous and richest state, his native São Paulo, as well as the three wealthy southern states and three others, but Lula racked up wins across the rest of Brazil. Since he took office four years ago, Lula has been far from the fiery socialist he was during his previous four failed attempts at the presidency. He has generally pursued neoliberal economic policies, helping to bring inflation down, thus lowering the cost of goods, but has not enacted land reform or many of the other policies his party and its allies championed. Overall his success at creating decent wage jobs for Brazil's educated middle-class, as well as its undereducated poor, has been middling. In fact, he has governed more like the moderate leftist leaders of Chile and Uruguay than Argentina's Nestor Kirchner, Venezuela's Hugo Chávez, or Bolivia's Evo Morales, with whose country Brazil has been engaged in a dispute over gas shipments. One ongoing problem for Lula, which looks to worsen, is Brazil's problematic congressional system, which permits a wide array of parties to gain seats, thus requiring the president and his party (if they don't have an absolute majority, which they don't) to form alliances and coalitions, almost in parliamentry fashion, except that there is no prime minister. Lula will probably have to establish coalitions with parties to the far left as well as center-right to pass legislation (and some of the scandals of his first term involved payments by Workers' Party operatives to gain the support of the opposition), though it is more likely that he will encounter stalemates until he and his party clear a series of prosecutorial hurdles, which will certainly arise over the next four years. Unsurprisingly, he has promised dialogue with the opposition and political reform as his first orders of business.

One little-discussed change during his tenure has been the advent of affirmative action quota programs at various Brazilian universities. The University of Brasília (in the capital city and district) was the first to institute quotas, in the second semester of 2004, and after a period of public debate and then a hullabaloo that arose over the use of photographs to assess racial qualification, the program has generated much less controversy. (Similar programs are now operational at other federal universities, such as those in the state capital cities of Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo and Bahia, which have sizable to predominant populations of people of African descent.) I am not really aware of Lula's position beyond general support for the quotas, so I can't attribute their implementation to him; on other issues pertinent to Afro-Brazilians, he has made an effort to establish stronger ties not only with the Lusophone African nations such as Mozambique and Angola, but also with Nigeria, and has appointed at least one high-profile cabinet minister, musician Gilberto Gil. He has not, as far as I can ascertain, been particularly proactive on any other fronts in this regard.

Plane Crash in Nigeria

I read today about the terrible plane crash in Nigeria, in which over 100 people are thought to have died shortly after takeoff from the capital, Abuja. Among them were the chief spiritual leader of Nigeria's Muslims and several politicians. Usually I do not comment on here about tragedies of this sort (or post all the obits that catch my eye) because there always so many and I don't want the blog to become a repository for the macabre, but the scale of these losses is so awful and saddening....

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