Thursday, December 06, 2007

Congrats to Tisa & Renee + Johnson Slammed + Shakespeare's Cognitive Art + LGBTT Conf. in Brazil

Since I can barely read computer screens these days or type more than one sentence without a major spelling--which becomes a grammatical--error, I almost thought about using images like the one above, somewhat like what I used in an online piece eons ago. But I'd probably mix those up too. I'm too trifling to get my act together to film it properly, but if I could, I'd film the hibernation I hope to engage in in a little more than a week's time.


Congratulations are in order to two friends, Tisa Bryant, and Renee Gladman, who have just published new books. Tisa's book, Unexplained Presence (Leon Works, headed up by none other than Renee (=fierce)), is a daring hybrid work incorporating literary and film criticism, autobiography, and fiction that opens up an array of reading possibilities and pleasures, and you even get to converse with Othello, Julie Christie, Afro-English-women, and Caribbean and California Negroes, to name just a few.

Renee's new volume, Newcomer Can't Swim (Kelsey Street Press--and yes, her title, like Tisa's, is signifying!), is listed as poetry by Small Press Distribution but like Tisa's text, though in a different way, it deliciously breaks genre wide open and reconstitutes it. I'll be nourishing my neurons with these two texts, and I hope--know!--you'll check them out too.


After having read Denis Johnson's stories in Jesus' Son many times with delight, I decided to start teaching some of them, and for the last few years have been using "Emergency," a horrifyingly compelling tale, in my intro class. It never fails to spark amusement, awe, conversation, and imitation, though the students' personal knowledge one of the story's central elements, mind-altering drugs, is thankfully much more greatly reduced--at least based on what they tell me and what their responses indicate--than would have been the case with students of my generation. I have not read the prolific Johnson's plays, poetry collections, novellas or novels, however, since Fiskadoro, which would have been, well, back when I was the age of my students (yes, that long ago), but I keep saying I'm going to read at least one of his novels published since then, and I recently thought that I'd start with the most recent, Tree of Life, which has received rave reviews and this years's National Book Award.

But there's someone out there who thinks rather differently about Johnson's new novel, and s/he's not mincing words, the one-and-only, which is to say, notorious, R. B. Myers, in this month's Atlantic. You have to read the stunningly waspish "A Bright Shining Lie" to get the full dose, but here's a sting:

Not being religious myself, I do not feel personally insulted by any of this, and lest other tempers flare, let me make clear that free-thinking Skip, the man who wants the truth to wet him, cuts the silliest figure of all. Besides, most of Johnson’s prosethe metaphor of the jungle as screaming mosque, for exampleis too imprecise and empty even to give offense. One closes the book only with a renewed sense of the decline of American literary standards. It would be foolish to demand another Tolstoy, but shouldn’t we expect someone writing about the Vietnam War to have more sense and eloquence than the politicians who prosecuted it?

Those two qualities are linked. There can be no deep thought without the proper use of words, as our current president never fails to demonstrate. This is why it is dangerous to hold up bad English as good and why Philip Roth should know better than to announce that Johnson writes “prose of amazing power and stylishness.” There are people who will take that seriously. Less worrying, because so obviously lunatic, is Jonathan Franzen’s blurb: “The God I want to believe in has a voice and a sense of humor like Denis Johnson’s.” Really? Then God help Jonathan Franzen.


Anyone else want to weigh in on Johnson's new tome? Or least offer a counterweight to Myers's sledgehammer?


On a related note, since I mentioned Shakespeare the other day, I have to post a link to this short piece by Philip Davis, editor of the Reader (?) magazine. He surmised that Shakespeare's verbal artistry might have cognitive effects, and decided to test things out with several brain researchers. His specific experiment examined the effects of what linguists call "functional shifts" or "word-class conversions," which is to say, those moments when Shakespeare substitutes one part of speech for another, with minimal change to the sentence's shape or syntactic arrangement. He cites three examples: in King Lear, "He childed as I fathered" (nouns shifted to verbs); in Troilus and Cressida, "Kingdomed Achilles in commotion rages" (noun converted to adjective); Othello, "To lip a wanton in a secure couch/And to suppose her chaste!"' (noun "lip" to verb; adjective "wanton" to noun). And the result was...well, I'll let you read it, but it's pretty fascinating. One interesting aspect of the piece is that although Davis is an editor and a teacher, he doesn't mention "rhetoric" once in the piece, though the particular effect he's describing is called "anthimeria" and is a form of the rhetorical device of "enallage." Please correct me, Shakespeare readers and scholars, if I'm incorrect, but anthimeria appears frequently in the later plays, which leads me to believe that once the Bard latched onto this wonderful device, like so many others (one of my favorites, which I started noticing in a few of Elizabeth Alexander's poems a few years ago, is epizeuxis) he wasn't going to let it go given its ability to...well, you'll have to read the article! But it appears in other authors, and especially in great frequency in e. e. cummings's poems, where he elevates it to a central aesthetic principal. Think of his famous poem, "anyone lived in a pretty how town," for example. (Does anyone teach cummings any more?) I'm curious to see what other research projects using Shakespeare or other authors Davis undertakes, and what the results are. Meanwhile, start paging your Macbeth...


Recently the Noctuaristocrat Reggie H. (who convinced me to start reading Alex Ross's The Rest is Noise, which I can't put down), forwarded an article about Bahia, Brazil's "Black Rome," becoming a key travel destination for African-American tourists interested in that state's strong and enduring African cultural retentions (shaped, of course, by their development in Brazil over centuries). (João deS. forwarded the same article later that day, so thank you.) Authenticity, baby. I've written a bit on here about this topic, and the post led me to check out, which had another interesting article, on Brazil's first nationwide LGBT conference, which will take place in May 2008 and be sponsored by the Brazilian government, a Latin American first. (Actually, it'll be conference on Lesbians, Gays, Bisexuals, Transvestites and Transgenders.)

Brazil's Socialist president, Lula, is firmly supporting it, and has decreed that it will be held

under the auspices of the Special Secretary of Human Rights of the Presidency of the Republic, with the objectives of 1. proposing the directives for the implementation of public policies and the national plan for promoting the citizenship and human rights of gays, bisexuals, transvestites and transsexuals - GLBT, and 2. evaluate and propose strategies to strengthen the program Brazil Without Homophobia.

How refreshing, and what a stark contrast with US politicians, including many of the supposedly "progressive" presidential candidates, who for the most part still can't help but speak out of both sides of their mouths when it comes to LGBT issues. So consider attending it along with a visit to Bahia; I had to check another site to find out that it's taking place in the post-urban capital Brasília, a city I've never visited, though I hope C and I get to see it one of these days soon.


  1. Tree of Smoke was next, or next-to-next, on my reading list; and then I read that review several days ago on Myer's website. Jesus! I was going to drop the full hardcover price on that book, but who could after that review? He quotes extensively (and damningly) from the text so you don't feel like he's heaping on the vitriol based on nothing. I've never read Jesus's Son, though; and now from you, too, I've heard only unanimous praise of that book, so I'll start there.

    Kai in NYC

  2. Kai, Myers's quotes also stopped me cold; they were more damning than his criticism. I think I'll be holding off on this piece of Johnson's oeuvre for a while...a long while.

  3. Brazil--so many black gay men talk about the country and save up to visit it. Next to Puerto Rico, the country appears to be the top destination for so many of "us."