Friday, March 30, 2007

Hither and Thither

Back, but not exactly into the swing, more like a swizzle. I've been struggling to reorient myself to Central Time, so I've been walking around--or sitting around--feeling wiped and sluggish when not under the iffy weather. I heard that it'd been sunny and warm in Chicago, but since I've gotten back, it's been mostly mild and rainy, as if the city isn't sure whether or not to look forward, to spring, or back. If the rain ceases and it warms up this weekend, I plan to visit the lakeshore....

Yesterday, I did pull myself together to head down to Columbia College Chicago and chat, alongside Ed Roberson, with Crystal Williams's poetry classes. The topic was ekphrasis, a poetic mode I've long been interested in, with an emphasis on Seismosis, and the discussion was fruitful. The student poets posed sharp questions, and when in a later discussion on poems by several well-known writers, they expressed special enthusiasm for a Claudia Rankine prose poem--on Mahalia Jackson, from Don't Let Me Be Lonely--I almost felt like dancing around the tables. Of course I knew that under Crystal's guidance they'd be a very good group, and they were. Ed was, as always, profound. In addition to reading one of his poems, he found apt and succinct ways to make unforgettable points, such as when ekphrasis began. He suggested--and I'm probably screwing it up somewhat--that it was when the poet saw and felt and entered the artist's hand (or eye, or sense of the camera's lens, etc.) as it began to move and act on the image, the idea, the concept from which the work being explored originated. A version of this, in more mystificatory form, flows through Seismosis. At any rate, I'm very excited because Ed'll be in residence next fall at the university, benefitting both the students and the rest of us, and I look forward to being able to hang out with him more often.

But back to the sluggishness: I do plan to write a few impressions on our brief but enjoyable trip; C's version, with photos, is here.

The week before we traveled, a young scholar, Noura Wedell, delivered a presentation on Seismosis, among several other texts, at a conference, "Lyricisme et littérature," at the Centre d'études poétiques at the École nationale supérieure (ENS) Lyon. She was interested in several issues in particular, including genre, and the relation of the texts, as poems specifically, to the drawings; the politics of citation in the text, both obvious and more subtle (and the text is, specifically, a homage/hommage, to two important and little known figures, William White and Norman Pritchard, among others); and what sort of production the text "wills" itself to be, which is an open(-ended) question. I'd have loved to have been there, having only passed through Lyon with C. many years ago.

On other topics, I never watch the Oprah Winfrey Show (any more), but I intend to find out when she'll be interviewing the extremely reclusive author Cormac McCarthy (at right, from whose new novel, The Road, she selected for her Book Club. This is, I think, a major event in the annals of recent American literary culture, primarily because Oprah is again selecting contemporary fiction for the Book Club, after the Franzen flap and several years' hiatus, and because McCarthy, for the readers who may not be familiar with him, is one of the most reclusive and best living American fiction writers. I keep wondering what led him to agree to the interview, and how it'll proceed; he supposedly praised Oprah highly through his spokesman, but would admiration and respect for her and her book advocacy really be enough? He supposedly hasn't given more than 2 interviews in the last 40 years, and although not as extreme as Thomas Pynchon, has tended to shun the publicity circus that constitutes our broader literary scene. When I think of his works, I automatically summon up their highly poetic and fascinatingly arcane language, their consistency in terms of setting (usually the Southern Appalachia or Southwest) and plot (usually an outcast male character or characters are on the run or in pursuit of someone), the texts' relentless, forward-moving action (and comparative lack of interior characterization), and their often stomach-turning violence. McCarthy's novels--at least the several that I've read--are among the most insistently violent in American literature. Blood Meridian, or the Evening Redness in the West (1985), his masterpiece, has scenes of violence possessing the power not only to provoke horror and astonishment, but awe. (A female writer I know refused, when we were in graduate school, to read his work because it was so violent.) Suttree (1979) comes close. All The Pretty Horses (1992), another of his best works, is less violent and also more straightforward and transparent in terms of its prose style; it's probably his best known work, and the sole one to win one of the three major US literary awards (so far), the National Book Award, in 1992. But back to the interview: I would bet that Oprah will send him a list of questions in advance, they'll perhaps go back and forth so that it's well scripted, and he'll be pleasant and polite, while she'll interview in total pro mode. If she has read any of his prior books, however, she might benefit readers everywhere by pressing him on the topic of extreme violence in his work, particularly in texts such as Child of God and Blood Meridian, as well as on his rendering of female characters, his larger, apparently very bleak vision of the world, the effect of his interactions at and with the Sante Fe Institute on his writing, and his thoughts on the Coen brothers' film version of his weakest novel, This Is No Country for Old Men. Really, he ought to answer any questions she poses, since after having his work selected by her, he'll sell more copies than he ever has before.

I saw that the Tuskegee Airmen were honored yesterday in Washington. On the one hand, I don't put much stock in official events like this, which are tend to be more about the spectacle and less about the substance, and yet given what these heroes and others like them had to endure, I had to ask yet again: why did it take so damned long? Their story is one I heard often growing up. Several of the airmen were native St. Louisans, and one, Wendell O. Pruitt (at right, receiving a handshake from fellow pilot John F. Briggs, photo from ALLSTAR Learning Laboratory's Blacks in Aviation page) who died in 1945, was a legend. (The infamous Pruitt-Igoe housing project was named in part after him, as is a relative of mine.) The Preznit managed to stumble over his words, as always, and Republican Congressional leader John Boehner (Ohio) couldn't pronounce "Tuskegee" correctly to save his life, but that didn't diminish either the ceremony or its significance. As one of the airmen I heard on NPR say, their resolve, courage and remarkable record was central to the integration of the Army and US military in general, and they appreciated the government's recognition, however belated.

Tonight I had the opportunity to see three of graduate students I've taught, Rosemary Harp, Andrea Uptmor, and Heather Dewar, read with author Tara Ison, a former Blattner Fellow and visiting professor at a university-sponsored reading at the Chopin Theater in Chicago. I'm posting photos from the event, and I have to say I was beaming with pride and delight all the way through, because I had such a great time working with all of them, and their work tonight was so polished and engaging. I also enjoyed hearing the excerpt from Tara's new racy new novel, The List, about a couple's break-up, and purchased a copy. Once I get around to reading it, I'll probably add it to the list of recommended books.

Heather Dewar

Rosemary Harp

Andrea Uptmor

Tara Ison (the photo is terribly blurred)

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Baseball Anyone?

This Sunday, at 8:05 pm, the 2007 Major League Baseball seasons opens, with Albert Pujols leading the World Series champion St. Louis Cardinals against the New York Mets in St. Louis. Chris Carpenter will start for the Cardinals, while future Hall of Famer Tom Glavine takes the mound for the Mets. A dream start to what ought to be an exciting season....

Friday, March 23, 2007

Celerity Nascent Charter School Teachers' Firing and Reinstatement

Though I'm away, I thought I'd post the following petition, which I urge all J's Theater readers to review and sign. I'm also posting poet Marilyn Nelson's response, which is a model of how to respond to this kind of situation.

First, the story as reported by the Los Angeles Times, which poet and scholar Evie Shockley forwarded and brought to my and many others' attentions (thanks, Evie)!


Not the lesson they intended
Two L.A. charter school teachers lose their jobs over a planned Black
History Month presentation.
By Carla Rivera
Times Staff Writer

March 19, 2007

Administrators at a Los Angeles charter school forbade students from reciting a poem about civil rights icon Emmett Till during a Black History Month program recently, saying his story was unsuitable for an assembly of young children.

Teachers and students said the administration suggested that the Till case in which the teenager was beaten to death in Mississippi after allegedly whistling at a white woman ˜ was not fitting for a program intended to be celebratory, and that Till's actions could be viewed as sexual harassment.

The decision by Celerity Nascent Charter School leaders roiled the southwest Los Angeles campus and led to the firing of seventh-grade teacher Marisol Alba and math teacher Sean Strauss, who had signed one of several letters of protest written by the students.

The incident highlights the tenuous job security for mostly nonunion teachers in charter schools, which are publicly financed but independently run. California has more than 600 charter schools, and their ranks continue to swell. According to the California Teachers Assn., staff at fewer than 10% of charter schools are represented by unions.

"I never thought it would come to this," said Alba, who helped her students prepare the Till presentation, in which they were going to read a poem and lay flowers in a circle. "I thought the most that would happen to me [after the event was canceled] is that I'd get talked to and it would be turned into a learning and teaching experience."

School officials refused to discuss the particulars of the teachers' firings but said the issue highlights the difficulty of providing positive images for students who are often bombarded by negative cultural stereotypes.

"Our whole goal is how do we get these kids to not look at all of the bad things that could happen to them and instead focus on the process of how do we become the next surgeon or the next politician," said Celerity co-founder and Executive Director Vielka McFarlane. "We don't want to focus on how the history of the country has been checkered but on how do we dress for success, walk proud and celebrate all the accomplishments we've made."

McFarlane said details of the Till case were too graphic for an assembly that included kindergartners. The principal, Grace Canada, could not be reached for comment. McFarlane, speaking for the school, said her review of the incident did not support the teachers' allegations that Canada had used the term sexual harassment to describe Till's behavior.

But Alba said that when the principal informed the class that they could not recite their poem, she gave the example of a construction worker whistling at her as she walked down the street.

"She said that she would be offended by that and that what Emmett Till did could be considered sexual harassment," said Alba. "She used the phrase a couple of times and when I objected, she said 'OK, inappropriately whistled at a woman.' "

Many parents said their children affirmed that account. Marcia Alston, mother of a seventh-grader, called the school to say she was appalled at its interpretation of history and the treatment of the teachers. She said that in the conversation, the principal used the term "rude" to describe Till's actions.

"Mr. Strauss and Ms. Alba were excellent teachers," said Alston. "The fact that they and the students had signed a letter, I thought, was good; it was something they were passionate about and it could be used as a learning tool."

Verna Hampton, whose daughter was in Alba's homeroom and signed a letter, said she was especially offended that the incident occurred during Black History Month. Hampton said her daughter told her there was nothing offensive in the letter she signed.

"Those teachers should not have lost their jobs for standing up for what they felt was right; that sends the wrong message," Hampton said. "The kids didn't even get a chance to say goodbye."

Alba, 30, began teaching at Celerity when it opened in the fall of 2005 shortly after she received her credential. She taught social studies and science and is now looking for another job. She is writing to the school's board of trustees to request a hearing, and Strauss has drafted a letter to the board complaining that his firing was unjustified. Under the
contract signed by the teachers, they can be fired with or without cause.

In the letter terminating his employment, dated March 6, Strauss was said to have been "disparaging the school to students and parents and authorizing by physical signature a nonsupportive message to the administrative staff."

According to Alba and Strauss, individual students wrote 10 to 15 protest letters, some of which were signed by other students. Neither the teachers nor the students made copies, they said.

"The kids felt strongly about this, and because these are my students, I felt one of my jobs was to pay attention to them," said Strauss, who is earning a credential at Cal State Dominguez Hills. "It's important anywhere a teacher works that the employer be willing to listen and keep an open mind and maybe even be willing to change their mind if they learn something new."

Frank Wells, a spokesman for the California Teachers Assn., said the Celerity incident highlights the importance his group has placed on organizing charter school teachers statewide.

"This points out the vulnerability of teachers in some charters where they don't have safeguards and can be fired for any or no reason," Wells said.

Celerity Nascent (the name is derived from words meaning swift or accelerated development) opened in the Jefferson Park area last school year as a K-6 charter campus with about 330 students. Seventh grade was added this year, and there are plans to add eighth grade next year.

Of its nearly 500 students, 80% are African American and about 19% are Latino. McFarlane, who is black, said 65% of the staff members live in the neighborhood and that part of the school's mission is to create jobs in the community.

Most students are below grade level in reading when they enroll, and many have behavioral problems, school officials said. McFarlane, who worked for 14 years as a teacher and principal in the Los Angeles Unified School District, said that with its focus on project-based, "culturally responsive" learning, student achievement is rising and parents are more involved in their children's learning.

Gary L. Larson, a spokesman for the California Charter Schools Assn., said Celerity is well-run and its administrators highly regarded. He defended the school's right to judge the appropriateness of the Till presentation and to dismiss teachers.

"If they felt that it was too sensitive in nature, and as long as they are following approved procedures, they have the authority," Larson said.

Many parents agreed with the school's decision to omit the Till presentation. During February's Black History Month program, the seventh-graders' poem, based on the book "A Wreath for Emmett Till," was replaced by a reading on the civil rights struggle as a whole.

"There's no celebration in the Emmett Till story," said Stephen Weathers, president of the school's parent organization. "He was beaten for whistling at a white woman, and I don't want my daughter to know that in the fourth grade. I don't think a celebration of Black History Month is a forum for that story. It's important, but that wasn't the stage for it."

Scot Brown, associate professor of history and African American studies at UCLA, said it was unfortunate that school officials and the teachers did not find common ground.

"I'm surprised that the teachers and principal could not work out a way for students to do this presentation in a way that highlights the significance and importance of Emmett Till's loss to the larger black freedom struggle," said Brown. "It's much bigger than the acts of violence you don't want kids exposed to."

"It sounds to me that by laying a wreath and saying a poem, the students and teachers were working through the meaning of his sacrifice to the black freedom struggle, and that's very important."


Re-instate Celerity Nascent Charter School Teachers' Position

In March 2007, the administration of the Celerity Nascent Charter School in Los Angeles fired
seventh grade teacher Marisol Alba and math teacher Sean Strauss for their participation in events planned for the school's Black History Month program.

The school also forbade its students to read a poem, "A Wreath for Emmit Till," written by Marilyn Nelson, or to lay a wreath of flowers as part of its memorial to the slain youth.

According to an article in the L.A. Times, school officials felt that the details of Till's murder were "too graphic"* for its younger students.
The article quoted Celerity co-founder and Executive Director Vielka McFarlane as saying:

We don't want to focus on how the history of the country has been checkered but on how do we dress for success, walk proud and celebrate all the accomplishments we've made.

Marisol Alba had helped her students plan the Black History Month program and was dismissed for her activity. Fellow teacher Sean Strauss signed a letter of protest drafted by the students after the program was cancelled. He was dismissed for doing so.

In 1955, Emmit Till, a 14-year old
Chicago native, was visiting the town of Money, Mississippi when he allegedly whistled at a white woman. Till was African-American. The boy was abducted by two white men, pistol-whipped, shot in the head and weighted down with a 74-pound gin fan before being dumped in a nearby river. The men were acquitted by an all-white male jury. Both of his killers publicly admitted their guilt in a national article in Look magazine. The savage murder and the trial received worldwide attention and galvanized the civil rights movement in the United States.

To sign the petition, please go to:

Re-Instate Celerity Nascent Charter School Teachers Petition

*I would not that McFarlane also repeatedly suggested that Till's actions might have constituted sexual harassment, thus completely misunderstanding the history of racial and racist power relations in this country, and in particular during Mississippi and the former Confederate states during the period when he and so many others were brutally killed.


Marilyn Nelson's Response

From award-winning poet Marilyn Nelson, via poet Tony Hegamin, the Program Director of the Soul Mountain Retreat:

March 20, 2007

Dear Ms. McFarlane and Ms. Canada:

It has come to my attention that controversy apparently related to my book, A Wreath for Emmett Till, has led to the firing of two of your teachers. I feel compelled to defend Marisol Alba and Sean Strauss, who were fired because they had signed one of several letters written by students to protest the summary cancellation of the seventh grade's contribution to the Black History Month program at Celerity Nascent Charter School.

From what I understand the seventh graders had planned to read a poem and create a wreath of white flowers in memory of Emmett Till, who was lynched when he was their age, for allegedly whistling at a white woman. I cannot tell from the newspaper article exactly why the seventh grade‚s wreath for Emmett Till was deemed "unfitting for a program intended to be celebratory." But one might argue that the lifelong courage of Mamie Till Mobley, Emmett's mother, who spent nearly fifty years campaigning against lynching, is well worth celebrating. One might celebrate Emmett Till's contribution to the then nascent Civil Rights Movement. One might celebrate how far we have come since the year of his death. One might--as was apparently the point of the program--celebrate Black History.

But the news coverage indicates something more troubling than a failure to honor our painful history and its triumphs. I am shocked to learn that there may truly be African American women who would consider what happened to initiate the chain of events leading to Emmett Till‚s murder in any way related to "sexual harassment." May I remind you that fifty years ago, and perhaps still now, what happened, -- if it DID happen -- was not that a man whistled at a woman, but that a BLACK man (or, actually, a 14-year old boy with a bad stutter, on the first day of his first trip without his parents, hundreds of miles from home, in a Mississippi town which surely his mother would have warned him about) allegedly whistled at a WHITE woman. I am deeply concerned that an educational administrator and the president of the P.T.A. of a school whose student body is 80% African American would so completely miss the point; that you hope to teach children to "dress for success, walk proud, and celebrate accomplishments," yet choose not to teach such a pivotal moment in our history of upward striving. Your decision to cancel the seventh grade's part of the Black History Month program suggests that you know or care little about Black History: Do you allow the students of Celerity Nascent Charter School to know that slavery existed?

Even more troubling than that initial decision, however, is your deciding, in a school in which, according to the Los Angeles Times, "most students are below grade level in reading when they enroll, and many have behavioral problems" to fire two teachers who have turned things around to such an extent that seventh graders (a notoriously difficult age to teach) are so committed to their project that they wrote letters of protest. This whole incident reminds me of a scene in Ralph Ellison's great novel, Invisible Man, in which the protagonist, standing in front of the statue which symbolizes the school's mission, wonders whether the teacher who is holding a veil over the head of a kneeling slave is raising the veil, or lowering it. Ms. McFarlane and Ms. Canada, might it be that you have fired teachers who were raising the veil? Might it be that you are lowering it?

I suggest, Ms. Canada and Ms. McFarlane, that your firing Ms. Alba and Mr. Strauss has taught the students of Celerity Nascent Charter School one of the most important lessons to be learned from the study of Black history: that people in power often wield that power unjustly and unwisely, and that it is our responsibility to speak truth to power and to resist injustice. Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, and Mamie Till Mobley would have been proud of your students‚ passionate and clear view of your decision to cancel their program. They would have signed the students' letters of protest, too. You have accelerated the original injustice by firing teachers who encourage your students to think. Thus you commit injustice against both teachers and students.

I encourage you to reinstate Marisol Alba and Sean Strauss. With all celerity.

Yours truly,
Marilyn Nelson
East Haddam, CT

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Introduction for Yvette Christiansë's Reading from Unconfessed

Cover ImageI'm off on a trip with C, so I thought I'd post something I'd prepared not too long ago. These are the remarks I delivered when I introduced poet, fiction writer and scholar Yvette Christiansë, who came to campus to read from her new and superb novel, Unconfessed. The remarks, which are still in a fairly rough state, hardly do justice to this remarkable woman or novel, nor do they reflect even in the slightest the stunning performance--because that's what it was--Christiansë delivered as her reading. It's not an easy book, but one that I strongly recommend exploring.


Yvette Christiansë's Unconfessed

Writing fiction entails the creation and transformation of reality; this is a commonplace that we all acknowledge. Yet this aspect of fiction takes on particular resonance, I think, when the reality under question has been hidden or buried, forgotten or omitted, erased, as it were, from the ledgers of history. In our own society and in societies around the world, we can attest to the power that this literary genre can play and has played in illuminating the dark spaces and corridors not only of our present—and of our possible future—but also of our past. I am not talking about historical fiction, per se, but about fiction that engages in a conversation, an argument, a struggle, with history and the historical, especially when that history has not entered the records, official or otherwise; when it exists at the margins of what a society understands and accepts—passes on as—its history, its past, its stories. This engagement and struggle are what Yvette Christiansë has undertaken so effectively and remarkably in her début novel, Unconfessed, which we are going to hear her read from today.

One may assert in response that historical study and historiography have this engagement as their chief task; so what is fiction's role? The historian John H. Arnold, in his concise little book History: A Very Short Introduction, offers one response: in his introductory chapter, he contrasts two different versions of Sojourner Truth's famous 1851 address to the Ohio Woman's Rights Convention to suggest that in fact what we have in both cases are representations, versions of Truth's address, that bring us no closer to her interiority, her mentalité, as he calls it, or the inner lives of other African Americans, enslaved and free, of that era. History, being a possible instrument and technology of truth-telling, is like truth itself complex and difficult, and we could assert that no historical account could fully provide this missing aspect of (Sojourner) Truth's story and her or any historical moment. But this historian suggests, however, ironically enough, that a fictional account might show us the way: it might get us closer to a truth whose material grasp, always elusive, as Walter Benjamin suggests, might nevertheless profoundly shape our present and future actions. Arnold ends by quoting the fiction writer Tim O'Brien, who writes: "But this is true too: stories can save us." Fiction, and fiction that engages in a struggle with history, can thus ultimately be viewed as cultural product functioning as a weapon of struggle, but it is a necessary weapon and a necessary struggle—a struggle Yvette Christiansë has undertaken in Unconfessed.

This idea has met with resistance, though. To give one example, South African Nobel Laureate Nadine Gordimer, in her essay "Three in a Bed: Fiction, Morals, and Politics," challenges the position arguing that in contemporary South Africa—or we might say, more broadly, as she suggests, in any situation marked by the concept of the "post-" (post-Apartheid, in her case)—that writers refrain if even temporarily from the notion of "culture [as] a weapon of struggle": "There are some writers who have been—I adapt Seamus Heaney's definition to my own context—'guerillas of the imagination': in their fiction serving the struggle for freedom by refusing any imposed orthodoxy of subject and treatment, but attempting to take unfettered creative grasp of the complex 'state of things' in which, all through people's lives, directly and indirectly, in dark places and neon light, that struggle has taken place."

In her new novel, Unconfessed, Yvette Christiansë serves as a guerilla of the imagination. Based on actual court records, Unconfessed tells the fictionalized account of Sila van den Kaap, a 19th century African slave woman living in the Cape Colony of South Africa, who was sentenced to death in April 1823 by the Dutch for the murder of her own child. But because it is a time of political upheaval in the country, Sila is sent to spend a lifetime at Robben Island, the prison where Nelson Mandela and numerous other opponents a century later of the apartheid government were held, instead. Through the vivid and complex unfolding Sila’s voice the reader is introduced to the often painful and unforgettable portrait of this enslaved woman’s life, her subjectivity, and her humanity in the South African hinterlands of the early 19th century.

Yvette Christiansë, a guerilla of the imagination, is a poet and fiction writer, and an associate professor at Fordham University, where she teach African American literature and postcolonial studies. She was reared in South Africa under apartheid and emigrated to Australia via Swaziland with her parents, and then on to the United States. She is the author of the poetry collection Castaways, and the novel Unconfessed. Through her academic articles on the present-day repercussions of apartheid, she remains an active observer and commentator upon South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation project.

It is with both honor and delight that we welcome Yvette Christiansë back to our campus!

Copyright © John Keene, 2007.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Quote: João Guimarães Rosa

Guimaraes Rosa"I speak: Portuguese, German, French, English, Spanish, Italian, Esperanto, some Russian; I read: Swedish, Dutch, Latin and Greek (but with the dictionary right next to me); I understand some German dialects; I studied the grammar of: Hungarian, Arabic, Sanskrit, Lithuanian, Polish, Tupi, Hebrew, Japanese, Czech, Finnish, Danish; I dabbled in others. But all at a very basic level. And I think that studying the spirit and the mechanism of other languages helps a great deal in the deeper understanding of the national language [of Brazil]. In general, however, I studied for pleasure, desire, distraction."
--João Guimarães Rosa, one of my avatars, and one of Brazil's greatest novelists and author of the untranslatable masterpiece Grande Sertão: Veredas (Devil to Pay in the Backlands), from a 1966 interview with Lenice Guimarães de Paula Pitanguy

Monday, March 19, 2007

A Few Musings

There's been so much going on that I've wanted to blog about, but the pace of political and other events has been so relentless that there's no way I can keep up. As I sat reading stories this morning, I had NPR (WNYC) on the background, and heard Queens DA Richard Brown's press conference announcing the indictments of three of the officers who fired 50 rounds into Sean Bell's car in Queens last fall. Then I heard Reverend Al Sharpton express disappointment that all of the officers who fired into Bell's car, killing the prospective groom and wounding his two friends, Trent Benefield and Joseph Guzman, all three of whom were unarmed, were not indicted. He also demanded that the case not be moved from Queens. Facing the most serious charges, of first and second degree manslaughter and reckless endangerment, are Detective Michael Oliver, who fired 31 shots, and Detective Gescard Isnora, who fired 11. Detective Marc Cooper, fired 4 times, and faces only a reckless endangerment charge, while the other officers were not charged. Isnora and Cooper are both Black, and Oliver is White, facts that underlined for me that despite all the changes between the Giuliani and Bloomberg administrations there's still a disturbing line of continuity, and more broadly, across the country and world, the essential vector of power continues to move asymmetrically between the police and other agents of the state, and poor and working class people of color, especially Black men. When this tragedy first occurred I heard apologists for the police offer excuses for why they would have fired into the car (and into a nearby train station, etc.), but no one has credibly explained the 50 rounds (just think of that--FIFTY bullets, which could only mean you wanted to kill whoever or whatever you were facing dead as the deadest thing you could imagine), and they can't, because it defies reason. It also reminds me that no matter how far the crime rate or levels drop, I feel we never can fully let our guards up; poor and working class people, and especially Black people, will continue to be targets, because really no one places any value on our lives and existence, including far too many of us.

When I first began this blog, I decided that I would post a bit less frequently than many blogs on overtly political topics--not the political aspects of the world, but on politics per se. But I realized pretty quickly that doing so wasn't feasible, and that I had to sound off now and again. The runaway train of failed ideology, incompetence, and scandal that is the Bush Administration never ceases to provide fodder. Today it's the Attorney General purge scandal--AG-gate? I can't keep up--in which blogs like Greg Marshall's Talking Points Memo systematically uncovered how W, Karl Rove, Harriet Miers (Lord, remember when W proposed foisting this creature upon the Supreme Court, as deft a move as possible to get his two extreme right-wing picks confirmed), Alberto Gonzales, Kyle Sampson, Senator Pete Dominici, Congresspeople Heather Wilson, and many more, worked to purge non-loyalists from the AG roles beginning in 2005, ultimately settling on 8 AGs, after which Alberto, a complete idiot, began lying about it publicly, and later under sworn oath before Congress. As economist and NY Times columnist Paul Krugman and others have noted, the fired AGs probably represent only the tip of iceberg. He noted that before the 2006 election, a Bush pioneer and New Jersey AG, trumpeted an investigation of Senator Bob Menendez (to whom the stench of scandals of many types has long clung), only to drop all pretense, including any investigation whatsoever, after the election, which Menendez won handily. My general approach with the W Gang is that everything we see is only the tip of the iceberg, and what they're really up to is considerably worse and more destructive, meaning that whoever takes office after they leave will spend at least a full year simply trying to uncover the extent of the damage. With this current imbroglio, I am much more interested in seeing Karl Rove testify before Pat Leahy and other Democratic committees than in Gonzales's canning, though it is sure to come, and he is truly a disaster. But in the W scheme of things, which is to say, after 9/11, the Afghan and Iraqi Wars, Hurricane Katrina, Jack Abramoff, and so on, does "disaster" apropos of the W criminal syndicate really have any meaning any more?

Speaking of Iraq, today marks the 5th anniversary of the start of the Afghan War and the subsequent debacle I tend to call Iraqmire. This morning I listened (briefly) to W plead and babble about what essentially amounts to staying his course, which is to say, committing more troops from the US's broken Army and billions more borrowed dollars, which China is underwriting, to continue his folly. The Democrats in Congress are dithering; the progressives want out, the centrists do too but are afraid to go that far, and the Blue Dogs sort of want to act like moderate Republicans, despite the fact that a polled majority of Americans think the policy's a failure and favor troop withdrawals ranging from a timetable to immediately. We keep being told that were we to withdraw troops the country would be primed for Al Qaeda and so forth, but my take is that the sectarian bloodbath would continue unabated for a good while, especially in Baghdad, Anbar, and cities in the north like Kirkuk and Mosul, and then nationalists, Shiite and Sunni, with the complicity of Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Syria, as well as other nations like Russia and China, would establish some sort of political equilibrium that would eventually quell the violence. Terrorist pockets would exist, but this is what W's folly released from the vault; there's no going back. The surrounding countries would find it immediately to their interest to insure that the mass exodus of Iraqis slowed, and that the violence didn't spill over the borders. The rubicon has been crossed in terms of Shiite rule, especially with Iran now comparatively so powerful, but Saudi Arabia and Syria (and Kuwait, Egypt, etc.) would not allow the wholesale extermination of Sunnis. As for the Kurds, who run a de facto independent country right now, they would take up their quarrel with Turkey. But all of this is going to happen anyways, whether US troops are there or not. I've never heard W or Rice or any of their gang articulate anything even vaguely coherent or convincing about the state of things over there, what the real aftermath of US troop pullouts might be, and why the troops are there now and what they hope for them to accomplish. So why are they still there? Beyond the "investment" Rice brayed about a few months ago and helping to ensure the passage of the "Oil Law"? Why don't the Democrats find the spine to force W's hand?

Below's an image that a Cave Canem poet, Curtis Crisler, forwarded to the group listserve. It's a composite of some of the 3,200+ US soldiers who've died in this conflict, their faces forming what's I think of as a quasi-death mask for the dreams and practice of proto-fascism that have flourished under the self-styled Decider. The next one could form W's face in more of a Munchian scream, though as we all know, we'd never see that in public. There will be no penance extensive enough, even if he and his gang began tomorrow....

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Back from the (Blogging) Dead

It's been nearly a month since I last posted, but it feels like a year. The last three weeks have coincided with the final stretch of one of the toughest quarters I've ever had, a marathon of reading (with one graduate and two undergraduate fiction workshops, and more reading, since I had honors students in several genres, and still more reading, since we were hiring in two areas, I was on an admissions committee, etc., to the extent that I got one of my severe multiday headaches a week or so ago, right after classes ended, and had to return to wearing my glasses whenever I get close to a text or computer screen). But tomorrow marks the last hurdle or so, because grades will be due and I'll be done (at least for a week or so). I've taught three classes in a quarter before (though as far as I remember they weren't all fiction reading and writing classes), but I'd never had so many administrative duties to juggle on top of everything else. I've been making my way slowly through the 40 or so final revisions (and some tardy exercises, annotations, and so forth) for days now.

With each successive quarter, I realize more and more than 10 weeks is simply not enough time* for undergraduate fiction writing courses in which students are expected to read several stories by published writers each week, produce 4-5 exercises, and complete two short stories (even though a revision of only one is required by the end of the quarter), and how remarkable our students' productiveness really is. But you work with the constraints you have, and I thought all three workshop classes went well, though both the students (especially the undergraduates) and I were exhausted by early March. A number of the manuscripts show real progress, underlining yet again for me what all the grueling work, by my students and me, has ultimately been for. I'll definitely appreciate this break more than in previous years....

*A few years ago, I was admitted to and participated in a year-long university teaching improvement program, and the lengths of instruction periods did arise. I cannot remember the exact figures, but I think it took students something like 4-5 weeks even to begin to fully grasp the materials they'd been taught, and so 13-15 week terms (i.e., semesters) were probably closer to the optimal length.


Here are a few pictures from the last three weeks. I was able to get to a few events, including the "Out of Sight: New World Slavery and the Visual Imagination" conference that my colleagues Huey Copeland and Krista Thompson organized with Wayne Modest, Director of Museums at the Institute of Jamaica, a few weeks ago; an exhibit at the Around the Coyote Gallery featuring one of Audiologo's sound pieces; a Cave Canem 10th Anniversary weekend event at Notre Dame University in South Bend; and Toni Asante Lightfoot's reading from her manuscript in progress at Naïeveté Studios. I didn't get any photos of Yvette Christiansë's reading at the university, nor of talks by Jean Franco and Edwin Hill, which were also highlights, but if I find the time to blog about them, I will.

Poet Heather McHugh, who was visiting poet-in-residence for the spring quarter

At Around the Coyote Gallery in Chicago, for the GeoPhonoBox opening

Audiologo's piece, "Interior Chorus/Chorography for the ATL" (2007)

Another piece, featuring sounds from the Golden Gate bridge

Audiologo, Mendi and Keith listening to sound pieces

The university library's exhibit focusing on 50 years of African independence

A vitrine featuring the invitations for the inauguration of Ghana's first president, Kwame Nkrumah (Ghana gained its independence from Britain in 1957)

Keith and Mendi Obadike presenting their work at the "Out of Sight: Slavery and Visual Culture" conference

Other participants listening to Keith (at right): from left: Keith Piper, Fred Wilson, unidentified person, Barnor Hesse

The final panel at the "Out of Sight: Slavery and Visual Culture" conference, from left: Keith and Mendi Obadike, Hank Willis, Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw, the student discussant, and Barnor Hesse

I-90, heading south towards downtown Chicago (I had a giant bolt in my rear tire and had to pull over shortly after taking this photo), as I was driving to South Bend

Cornelius Eady, co-founder of Cave Canem, welcoming everyone to the mini 10th Anniversary program he hosted at the University of Notre Dame

Arnold Rampersad, who delivered a marvelous, informal keynote talk

Toi Derricotte, Cave Canem co-founder, introducing Rampersad

Rampersad delivering his keynote

Some of the extraordinary Cave Canem poets: from left, Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon, Ross Gay, and A. Van Jordan

At the legacy panel: interviewer Ivy Wilson, and Cave Canem co-founders Toi Derricotte and Cornelius Eady

At Naïeveté Studios in Chicago, Toni Asante Lightfoot reading from her manuscript-in-progress on Moms Mabley (as people say, she had "been in the lab"!)

In New York City, the rising real estate prices have driven out one of my favorite spots, TLA Video (this is also where I first met poet and publisher Zach Barocas)

And more casualties: for decades the spot for affordable and distinctive shoes, 8th Street in general has been feeling the effects of rising real estate values. Many of the shoe stores are being pushed out, for who-knows-what--more Starbuckses and CVSes and McDonaldses?....