Monday, April 30, 2007

New Anti-Gay Attack in Jamaica + Poem: Audre Lorde

I don't have time to post anything original tonight, but today I received the following email from Colin Robinson about yet another vicious anti-gay attack in Jamaica, and it's worth reading.

By now most of you have heard of the mob attack on a drag queen in Falmouth, Jamaica Friday morning. Or maybe you haven't and are confusing it with any of the three similar attacks you may have heard of in the past 11 weeks, in greater Kingston (Feb. 14), Montego Bay (Apr. 2) and near Mandeville (Apr. 8). This time there is a photo and video. There have been no public announcements of arrests in any of the incidents. Please circulate widely to bring broad attention to the specific dangers gay/Trans folks in Jamaica face, on top of a climate of general violence and murder, and the general inattention of the police and government. In response to the attacks, Jamaica's public defender (the chief constitutional ombudsman and anti-discrimination official) recently publicly suggested that gay men recognise that "tolerance has its limits," not be so "brazen", and "confine their activities to their bed chambers."

Thanks for your actions!! So many of you showed tremendous leadership in protesting recent dancehall peformances in New York; this is so much more serious. Please let those at the Jamaica Forum for Lesbians, All-Sexuals and Gays (J-FLAG) know what you are planning and how they can work with you.

News story: Jamaican Daily Gleaner

Video: YouTube (just a forewarning: the video is extremely disturbing)

The incomparable Rod 2.0 has background information on the homophobic warning given to Jamaican gay men by public defender (the irony isn't mine alone) Earl Witter....

In tribute to the people who have been attacked simply for trying to live their lives as they see fit, as they want and need to, the final poem for this poetry month will be by none other than Audre Lorde (1934-199x), whose artistry and vision have made it possible for countless poets to write the poems they want and need to write, and countless people to live the lives they want and need--must--live. Here is one of her most important poems, from The Black Unicorn


For those of us who live at the shoreline
standing upon the constant edges of decision
crucial and alone
for those of us who cannot indulge
the passing dreams of choice
who love in doorways coming and going
in the hours between dawns
looking inward and outward
at once before and after
seeking a now that can breed
like bread in our children's mouths
so their dreams will not reflect
the death of ours:

For those of us
who were imprinted with fear
like a faint line in the center of our foreheads
learning to be afraid with our mother's milk
for by this weapon
this illusion of some safety to be found
the heavy-footed hoped to silence us
For all of us
this instant and this triumph
We were never meant to survive.

And when the sun rises we are afraid
it might not remain
when the sun sets we are afraid
it might not rise in the morning
when our stomachs are full we are afraid
of indigestion
when our stomachs are empty we are afraid
we may never eat again
when we are loved we are afraid
love will vanish
when we are alone we are afraid
love will never return
and when we speak we are afraid
our words will not be heard
nor welcomed
but when we are silent
we are still afraid

So it is better to speak
we were never meant to survive

Copyright © 1995, Audre Lorde, from The Black Unicorn, New York: W. W. Norton Co.

Sunday, April 29, 2007

RIP: Josh Hancock & David Halberstam + Rogers's Prize + Poem: Daniil Kharms

I am very sorry to hear about the tragic death of Saint Louis Cardinals pitcher Josh Hancock, who was killed early this morning when he drove into a tow truck parked in the left lane on one of St. Louis's main highways. He was 29 years old. Last season, he appeared in 62 games for the World Series winners, and posted decent numbers up until the championship series. Previously he'd pitched for Cincinnati, Boston, and Philadelphia. This is the second time in the last few years that the Cardinals have lost a pitcher to untimely death; starter Darryl Kile, only 33 years old, died in his sleep of a heart attack during the 2002 season. I imagine that the team is in a state of shock right now, and will play the rest of the season under the cloud of this loss and thus in memory of Hancock, who was so integral to last year's success and to this year's squad. My thoughts are with them.

Reggie has a great long post on the recent passing of journalist and author David Halberstam, who also died in a tragic car crash this week, and was everything that so many of the "mainstream" journalists, especially the ones given to punditizing, are not.

A great quote from him:

"If you're a reporter, the easiest thing in the world is to get a story. The hardest thing is to verify. The old sins were about getting something wrong, that was a cardinal sin. The new sin is to be boring."

Journalists, are you taking note(s)?


I realized I hadn't written anything about Richard Rogers's Pritzker Prize yet (and now another month is almost over!). Hurray for him! I managed to snap a number of shots of one of his masterpieces, which is also one of my favorite museums in the world, the Centre Georges Pompidou, which is one of the true visual icons of contemporary Paris. He is also designing the addition to fellow Pritzker Prize winner I. M. Pei's hideous Jacob Javits Center in New York, which probably could have used a lot more color, a livelier external carapace, or something, but we all make mistakes, some of them monumental. Rogers's addition certainly can't hurt. The Millennium Dome isn't ugly, it just didn't draw as many visitors as the British government would have liked. Many of his other buildings are up to the Pompidou level--like the Lloyd's Tower in London, or the brightly colored Minami Yamashiro School in Tokyo. I always think Santiago Calatrava is next in line for this award, but I'm sure his time is coming. Meanwhile, enjoy the Pompidou.

Its front plaza

From the rear

Inside, behind the Samuel Beckett exhibit

People on the front plaza, from high up, on the escalator


Apropos of nothing that I've just written about (or perhaps it was the Pompidou and Beckett, if I work backwards) here's a "poem" by one of Russia's least known but important 20th century avant-garde authors, Daniil Kharms (the pen name of Daniil Ivanovich Yuvachov, 1905-1942), who ran afoul of the Soviet authorities, was exiled to Kursk, and then died of starvation while in prison during World War II. In the late 1930s, Kharms, who had co-founded the left-leaning Oberiu literary group in 1927 with his close friend Aleksandr Vvedensky (1900-1941) and poet Nikolay Zabolotsky (1903-1958), found that he could neither perform nor publish his formally experimental, socially provocative work for adults, so he took to writing children's books, which worked out until he crossed an imaginary line of provocation in 1937. During the last decade or so of his life, he wrote a number of absurdist prose works, which he kept hidden from the authorities' view, and which were not published until the period of the Krushchev "thaw" in the 1960s. Many of his short prose pieces are ironic to the point of absurdity in theme and thrust, and include moments of meaningless violence, reflective, I would venture, of the increasingly brutal, totalitarian society he found himself in during the inter-war period. Ironically, the Party figures and censors could brook little overt irony or absurdity as each increased, in real, material terms.

Here is "Sonnet"--from the collection Incidents (c. 1930)--which is anything but.


A surprising thing happened to me: I suddenly forgot which comes first -- 7 or 8.
I went off to the neighbours and asked them what they thought on the subject.
Just imagine their and my surprise when they suddenly discovered that they too couldn't recall how to count: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6 they remembered, but they'd forgotten what followed.
We all went to the overpriced food shop, the Gastronom on the corner of Znamenskaya and Basseynaya street, and put our quandary to the cashier. The cashier smiled sadly, pulled a small hammer out of her mouth and, twitching her nose a bit, said -- I should think seven comes after eight whenever eight comes after seven.
We thanked the cashier and joyfully ran out of the shop. But then, having thought about the cashier's words, we got depressed again, since her words seemed to us to be devoid of any sense.
What were we to do? We went to the Summer Garden and started counting the trees there. But, getting as far as 6, we stopped and began to argue: in the opinion of some, 7 came next, and in the opinion of others -- 8.
We would have argued for ages, but fortunately then some child fell off a park bench and broke both his jaw-bones. This distracted us from our argument.
And then we dispersed homewards.

Copyright © 1930, 2007, Daniil Kharms, translation by Serge Winitzki.

Saturday, April 28, 2007

Rambles + 2 Pieces on Novels + Poem: Masayo Keike

Finally, a little spring--Spring--in Chicago. It's actually been here already, but only when I'm back in New Jersey. I always associate favorable weather in Chicago with the slim period just before classes start or as they're winding down, which is to say, early September or May and early June (though we always lurch onwards up to my birthday, in June, by which time I am convinced anyone and everyone in our hemisphere not enrolled in summer courses should have a little break from a classroom). When I think of Chicago springs I immediately envision the sun-bleached lakeshore and the lake's churning surface, with the blue bolt of sky crumpling above it, before anything else. Yet most of the time I only see it in passing, from the window of my car as I'm heading to or from Evanston or downtown. I think I'll have to head over there soon just to remind myself what the real thing looks like.


I have too many books on my current bookshelf. I read 20 pages into one and then start another. And it's not as if I don't have countless other things for work to read. But I feel like I'm finally now recovering from last quarter's reading marathon (though I cannot look at a computer screen without wearing my glasses, or my strabismus immediately kicks in), but one result is that I have so many things I want to read and not enough time to read them. Fully, that is. I hate to skim books (and most good novels or books of poetry, let alone scholarly texts, cannot be skimmed), so I'm now in the sifting and gleaning period. One of my colleagues is always nevertheless urging slow reading, and while I take her point, I cannot imagine any time soon when I'll have the opportunity to read anything except at breakneck speed (students' manuscripts, the many many many of them, notwithstanding). There is just not enough time to do so and have a life, at least the life I envision even if I'm not living it right now.


Which brings me to this article, in the London Times Online, on Orion Books's decision to published abridged versions of the "classics," because, well, people don't have time to read--read: slog--through the countless longeuers of so many of the great(est) novels. According to Arts Reporter Ben Hoyle, Orion will soon issue its first six Compact Editions, which it's billing as "great reads 'in half the time'." The outrageousness of this plan is a marketer's dream: short of the late author herself or himself, or an editor deeply immersed in the author's life, work and thought, how could anyone else presume to know what to trim from these longer works? And once they've been so damaged, are we even talking about the same work at all?

Here is how Hoyle reports on the origins of this plan:

Malcolm Edwards, publisher of Orion Group, said that the idea had developed from a game of “humiliation”, in which office staff confessed to the most embarrassing gaps in their reading. He admitted that he had never read Middlemarch and had tried but failed to get through Moby Dick several times, while a colleague owned up to skipping Vanity Fair.

What was more, he said: “We realised that life is too short to read all the books you want to and we never were going to read these ones.”

Research confirmed that “many regular readers think of the classics as long, slow and, to be frank, boring. You’re not supposed to say this but I think that one of the reasons Jane Austen always does so well in reader polls is that her books aren’t that long”.

The first six titles in the Compact Editions series, all priced at £6.99, are Anna Karenina, Vanity Fair, David Copperfield, The Mill on the Floss, Moby Dick and Wives and Daughters.

Bleak House, Middlemarch, Jane Eyre, The Count of Monte Cristo, North and South and The Portrait of a Lady will follow in September.

Each has been whittled down to about 400 pages by cutting 30 to 40 per cent of the text. Words, sentences, paragraphs and, in a few cases, chapters have been removed.

!!! Chapters??!! I almost thought I was reading an Onion (Orion, hmmm...) article at first. Edwards's assessment of why Austen always does so well also struck; even if you concede him the point about the relative concision of her work, he appears to have misses all its other aspects, such as the gracefulness and wit of her writing, the novels' focus on bourgeois domesticity and their lively, female protagonists, the engaging plots, and the underlying moral frameworks, which still resonate with countless readers. (The fact that her works have also repeatedly been translated into film and TV versions also doesn't hurt.)

But the essential question of whether or not a book--especially Moby Dick and Middlemarch, for example, or any of the Dickens texts--is seriously damaged by truncation of this sort (chapters!), and whether it should even be called by the same name--whether it can be considered the same work at all--does not appear to register. It's stories like this that confirm my suppositions, fortified by André Schiffrin's and others' accounts, that there are people in the publishing industry who really do not like literature at all. Yes, I know, old news. Selling books, they enjoy; but actually taking account of what may be in some them, not so much. (This reminds me that Byways, the supposedly excellent lyric memoir by my first publisher, James Laughlin, have been out for two years, and I need to pick it up.)

Anyways, I laughed at the Times's examples of super-condensed novels, which reminded me of Linh Dinh's and Kenneth Koch's poems along the same lines:

Very compact

As Orion Books decides there is a market in creating cut-down classics The Times shrinks them further.

Anna Karenina

The problem is, thought Anna — her aristocratic brow furrowing slightly under a fabulous new hat — men look so irresistible in uniform! Ditto boots, billowing shirts and moustaches! Hangmarriage. Hang motherhood. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got a train to catch.

Vanity Fair

At Vauxhall, Posh and Becky were toying with their parasols and nibbling macaroons. Becky was singing, in a voice not unlike her poor dead mother’s, “Sometimes it’s hard to be a woman. Giving all your love to just several men”; when she spotted young George Osborne coming towards them.“Oops!” she said, as her friend fell into the boating lake.

David Copperfield

I am Born . . . I am Sent Away from Home . . . I Have a Memorable Birthday . . . I Become Neglected and Am Provided For . . . I Make Another Beginning . . . Somebody Turns Up . . . I Fall into Captivity . . . Depression . . . Enthusiasm . . . Dora’s Aunts . . . Mischief . . . Mr Dick Fulfils my Aunt's Predictions . . . I am Involved in Mystery . . . Tempest . . . Absence . . . Return . . . Agnes!

So now, as an exercise, try to reduce any of the following to paragraphs (or just imagine being the editor who decided to lop off whole sections): The Last of the Mohicans, Typee, Sister Carrie, USA, Finnegan's Wake, Babbitt, The Man Without Qualities, The Death of Virgil, My Ántonia, Ship of Fools, Doktor Faustus, The Book of the Dead, The Third Life of Grange Copeland, Mumbo Jumbo, The Sot-Weed Factor, Beloved, Rabbit Redux, Infinite Jest, Mason & Dixon, The Tunnel, The Gold-Bug Variations, Cryptonomicon....


Which brings me to my next post, on Hermione Lee's refreshing but perhaps not exploratory enough paean, posing as a review, to the novel, in all its formlessness and relative length, breadth and girth, in the current New York Review of Books. What is the novel, and what good is it? She looks at Milan Kundera's The Curtain: An Essay in Seven Parts, Jane Smiley's Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel, Auden scholar Edward Mendelson's The Things That Matter: What Seven Classic Novels Have to Say About the Stages of Life, John Mullan's How Novels Work, John Sutherland's How to Read a Novel: A User's Guide, Franco Moretti's two-volume study of the novel, The Novel, Volume 1: History, Geography and Culture and The Novel, Volume 2: Forms and Themes, and Patrick Parrinder's Nation & Novel: The English Novel from Its Origins to the Present Day, in order to assess what she terms "storms over the novel," or in other words, what this long, often ungainly and endlessly characterized and decried form is, does, and, what its value is . She begins

What good is the novel, the long story told in prose? Hegel called the contingent, the everyday, the mutable, "the prose of the world," as opposed to "the spiritual, the transcendent, the poetic." "Prosaic" can mean plain, ordinary, commonplace, even dull. Prose fiction, historians of the novel tell us, has had to struggle against the sense of being a second-rate genre. Heidegger said that "novelists squander ignobly the reader's precious time." In late-eighteenth-century Britain, when large numbers of badly written popular novels were being published, "only when entertainment was combined with useful instruction might the novel escape charges of insignificance or depravity."

In pre-modern China, Japan, and Korea, the general word for fictional writing was xiaoshuo (in Chinese), meaning "trivial discourse." Socialist critics of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries have accused the novel of bourgeois frivolity. By contrast, aestheticians of the novel, like Flaubert, proposed the ideal novel as "a book about nothing," or, like Joyce, as a game which would turn the everyday world into the most concentrated and highly designed prose possible. Moral writers of novels like George Eliot or D.H. Lawrence believed in the novel as the book of truth, teaching us how to live and understand our lives and those of others.

The novel's entanglement in "the prose of the world" can also be its justification and its pride. The novel's virtue, it has often been argued, lies in its egalitarianism, its very commonplaceness. And the novel's everydayness need not be an enemy to its aesthetic integrity. In his wise, deep, and witty essay on the novel, The Curtain, Milan Kundera, a follower of Flaubert in his critique and practice of the European novel, celebrates "the everyday" ("it is not merely ennui, pointlessness, repetition, triviality; it is beauty as well") while writing in praise of the novel's essential self-sufficiency:

It...refuses to exist as illustration of an historical era, as description of a society, as defense of an ideology, and instead puts itself exclusively at the service of "what only the novel can say."

Well, perhaps quite a few novels do this, but quite a few others do seek to exist as "illustrations of an historical era, as descriptions of a society, as defenses of an ideology," even if they're not sure what that ideology is or how it functions. But such is the broader history of literature and of literary texts, as opposed to the specific set of works and the literary body they constitute that Kundera is extolling, and I'm willing to accept his argument based on the library he refers to, which I imagine is similar to the one he drew from in The Art of the Novel, a work I love but which I also love repeating endlessly that my students found boring and pretentious. It is not full of longueurs, asides, set pieces, passages of tedious description, and many of the other things that can be found in the works of such authors as Balzac, Zola, Melville, Henry James, John Steinbeck, and countless others. Rather, it's a original and artful defense of Kundera's idea of the novel, which is markedly different, at least on the surface and also in terms of models and aims, from most of the examples of this form that one currently finds being churned out in the United States. I nevertheless think it's an indispensible book, and I intend to read his new one to see.

At any rate, I especially like the idea of the novel's heterogeneity, its undefinability, and, following Bakhtin, who can never be cited too much, or Auerbach, its prosaicness, even when it is highly poetical and lyrical. So much of daily life is unexciting, dull, a bit of drudgery; there are our routines, our mere comings and goings which never merit being described, our mere presence in and movement through time, our innumerable patterns, remarkable primarily to psychologists and applied mathematicians, that we not even be aware of. So much of this has continued to make its way into the novel, against the desires of those who'd leave it all out and give us only action, and larger-than-life character, and of course what results from and converse guides the combination of these two things, plot, but the quotidianity of life itself is essentially plotless, which makes me wonder if the many meandering and divagating bits--words, phrases, sentences, paragraphs, chapters!--that Orion Books plans to lop off to create fast and fan-ready books aren't part of the very moments in these texts that embody the essentially prosaic quality of our human existence?


And now, after all this chatter about prose, and particularly the novel, here's a poem, by the Japanese poet Masayo Keike (1959-), entitled "Falling Star."

I only know a few Japanese phrases and cannot read the language at all, so perhaps a J's Theater reader who knows Japanese can tell me how accurate this translation is. (The poem and its translation are both from Poetry International Web.) I love how the Japanese poetry looks on the page, and so I'm reproducing the .jpg image of the entire poem.

Coypright © 2001, Masayo Koike
From: Ameotoko, Yamaotoko, Mame o hiku otoko
Publisher: Shinchosha, Tokyo, 2001
ISBN: 4-10-450901


Above our head
A star fell
A strong bluish star

Like the moment when for the first time
A man uses his instrument dripping with ink
The star swiftly disappears a blur into the sky

During then
All we could do was
To forget to wish
Just surprised, as if for the first time

The night air as if enveloping in a sphere
The void after it was lost to sight

(Among the night trees a solemn sound grown by the rhythm)

Ah, what a
Daring wheel-track traced by the star!

It was
Like a stake silently driven into us
Remain on the earth and live!
Live, said the star!

© Translation: 2006, Leith Morton
From: Masayo Koike: Selected Poems
Publisher: Vagabond Press, Sydney, 2006
ISBN: 0 97 515 06

Friday, April 27, 2007

Poems: Amiri Baraka

I could not let this National Poetry Month posting period pass without a poem by Amiri Baraka (1936-), who, despite my multiple disagreements with many of his positions, actions, statements, and ideological shifts, remains a poet whose life and work were incredibly important to my own formation. (I've met him more than once, and have found him to be far more reasonable in person than in print.) The following poems remain one of my favorites; I initially read the first one in a poetry anthology while in junior high, and I imagine that, as was the case then, while Baraka's appears in anthologies, it probably isn't taught that often, though it's useful to any understanding of the seismic aesthetic and political shifts in American and African-American poetry that occurred during the 1950s and 1960s. The second comes from Baraka's Black Nationalist period and marks his break with the White avant-garde and his White wife and children; his critique of a certain sphere of the Black bourgeoisie (really the Black middle-class here) is acid--though without the violent rhetoric of "A POEM SOME PEOPLE WILL HAVE TO UNDERSTAND" or the landmark "Black Art"--but as the tone makes clear, it's also tinged with sadness. The Clay of Dutchman who only erupts after repeatedly provocations here is fully cast aside; the air that remains is funereal, though in other poems, like "SOS," in which Baraka is "calling all Black people," a new, more joyful tone and statement appear. Both poems are about love, and disillusionment, and in an ironic, the nostalgias that Baraka describes in each, though quite different, are intimately linked.


Who has ever stopped to think of the divinity of Lamont Cranston?
(Only Jack Kerouac, that I know of: & me.
The rest of you probably had on WCBS and Kate Smith,
Or something equally unattractive.)

What can I say?
It is better to have loved and lost
Than to put lineoleum in your living rooms?

Am I a sage or something?
Mandrake's hypnotic gesture of the week?
(Remember, I do not have the healing powers of Oral Roberts . . .
I cannot, like F. J. Sheen, tell you how to get saved & rich!
I cannot even order you to gaschamber satori like Hitler or Goody Knight

& Love is an evil word.
Turn it backwards/see, see what I mean?
An evol word. & besides
who understands it?
I certainly wouldn't like to go out on that kind of limb.

Saturday mornings we listened to Red Lantern & his undersea folk.
At 11, Let's Pretend/& we did/& I, the poet, still do, Thank God!

What was it he used to say (after the transformation, when he was safe
& invisible & the unbelievers couldn't throw stones?) "Heh, heh, heh,
Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? The Shadow knows."

O, yes he does
O, yes he does.
An evil word it is,
This Love.

Copyright © 1961, 1991, LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka, from Preface to a Twenty-Volume Suicide Note, in The LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka Reader, New York: Thunder's Mouth Press.


Those days when it was all right
to be a criminal, or die, a postman's son,
full of hallways and garbage, behind the hotdog store
or in the parking lots of the beautiful beer factory.

Those days I rose through the smoke of chilling Saturdays
hiding my eyes from the shine boys, my mouth and my flesh
from their sisters. I walked quickly and always alone
watching the cheap city like I thought it would swell
and explode, and only my crooked breath could put it together again.

By the projects and small banks of my time. Counting my steps
on tar or new pavement, following the sun like a park. I imagined
a life, that was realer than speech, or the city's anonymous
fish markets. Shuddering at dusk, with a mile or so up the hill

to get home. Who did you love
then, Mussolini? What were you thinking,
Lady Day? A literal riddle of image
was me, and my smell was a continent
of familiar poetry. Walking the long way,
always the long way, and up the steep hill.

Those days like one drawn-out song, monotonously
promising. The quick step, the watchful march march,
All were leading here, to this room, where memory
stifles the present. And the future, my man, is long
time gone.

Copyright © 1969, 1991, LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka, from Black Magic, in The LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka Reader, New York: Thunder's Mouth Press.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Poem: Alain Mabanckou

I haven't featured any of my translations during this run of poetry, so here is one, by the poet Alain Mabanckou (1966-), about whom I've written before. (His newly translated novel African Psycho, published by Soft Skull Press of Brooklyn, is now on bookstore shelves, and it'll be one of the J's Theater book picks for next month.) Mabanckou, as I'd previously noted, is an award-winning fiction writer, but he's also a talented--and award-winning--poet, and began his career with several books of poems before turning primarily to prose. Of Congolese ancestry, he now lives in the United States and has taught at the University of Michigan and the University of California-San Diego. He was just at the Pen World Voices Festival this past week (did anyone catch him or the festival?).

The following poem, in its brevity and pessimism, captures the feelings, I would unfortunately suggest, of a sizable number of people across the globe.


à J. Dipongo, la disparue

Jour nouveau
Promesse de lumière
Fleurs écloses
Joie de vivre
La Terre est un jardin de mille-feuilles
mais aussi
une masure à louer
avec vue sur la Mort…


to J. Dipongo, the vanished one

New day
Promise of light
Flowers blooming
Joy of living
Earth is a thousand-leaved garden
but also
a dump for rent
with Death-front views...

Copyright © 1995, 2007, Alain Mabanckou, from L'Usure des Lendemains, Ivry: Éditions Nouvelles du Sud, all rights reserved.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Poem: Juan José Arreola

Rain, cold...another of those days. So here's a prose poem by the highly inventive and innovative Mexican author Juan José Arreola (1918-), who was quite influential for several generations of younger Mexican authors and received most of his country's major literary prizes, but remains little known, I would imagine, to most English speakers. The poem below reminds me of Jorge Luis Borges's prose poetry, though somewhat more gentle in its paradoxes, while other of his pieces strongly resemble those of Francis Jammes.


Wherever there is a duel I shall be on the side of the man who falls, hero
or villain.
I am tied by the neck to the theory of slaves sculptured in the most ancient
stele. I am the dying warrior beneath Hasurbanipal's chariot, the charred bone in
the Dachau ovens.
Hector and Menelaus, France and Germany, and the two drunks breaking each
other's noses in the tavern oppress me with their discord. Wherever I turn my
eyes an immense tapestry with the face of Good getting the worst of it covers the
world's landscape.
An involuntary spectator, I see the contenders start fighting and I don't want
to be on anybody's side. Because I am both the one who strikes and the one who
receives the blows. Man against man. Does anyone wish to take a bet?
Ladies and gentlemen: There is no salvation. We are losing the match. The
Devil is now playing with the white pieces.

Copyright © 1964, Juan José Arreola, translated by George D. Schade, from Confabulario, in Confabulario and Other Inventions, Austin: University of Texas Press.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Why J's Theater + Rambles + Poem: Erik B. and Rakim

Last year, a colleague asked me why I blogged. My immediate response focused on the discipline of blogging--which was an explicit aspect of my first year of blogging, as I'd set the task of blogging every day if possible for one straight year, and nearly made it--and as another, immediate means of personal expression, and left it at that. But really, when I think about why I continue to blog, it's really because I want to initiate conversations, thoughts, responses, of the sort that I rarely enjoy these days outside my classes.

When I entered academe as a teacher, one of the things I was really hoping for was to engage in conversations not only with my students, undergraduate and graduate, which do occur and are very productive, but with colleagues, both in the areas I'm directly interested in and outside it. I do occasionally have opportunities to chat with some of my colleagues, but when we are not all zooming back and forth with work like drones (because the university likes to keep us very, very busy, for most of the year), so many of our conversations revolve around university business--bureaucratic issues, administration, and so on--and don't touch upon any of the countless other topics I'd love to talk about, especially creative or intellectual ones.

It was this desire for a different kind of intellectual experience that once led me to propose to Ronaldo Wilson that we found a school, and that was an exciting idea--and one of my friends of college, Miguel Herrera, tried a few years ago to get me to work with him on something a lot more informal, but I couldn't swing the fact that I'm in Chicago most of the year and he's in New York--so these kinds of things probably aren't going to happen anytime soon. I am still on one or two listserves--far fewer than years ago--with people who affiliated with particular organizations like Cave Canem or Fire & Ink, or animated by specific topics like sports and so on, but I envisioned this space--a theater, in the oldest sense--as forum for exchanges that crossed the usual boundaries, barriers and dividing lines. (Is that a mixed metaphor?) Or a crossroads, to put it another way, where I'm sort of sitting in the somewhere near the center, and people steadily come through, stop and stay for a little bit--and keep coming back.

I've greatly appreciated the responses I've gotten (and since February, a month in which I simply could not post because I was daily trying to dig myself out of an ever-towering cave of fiction manuscripts, it's been two years), and I do hope readers keep reading and keep posting. Which depends on my continuing to post--and post interesting things. I really do value the responses a lot, as I hope I make clear.

Now, back to the unscheduled programming:

Earlier this evening I saw the rapper Akon on BET (yes, I do watch it) talking about the differences between growing up in Africa and the United States. But only yesterday I learned, to my surprise, that while he is of Senegalese ancestry, he's also a native of St. Louis--Missouri, not Senegal. And grew up Jersey City! Go figure. I guess there was a reason I was able to get past the whininess in his voice. He appeared to be implying that he grew up, however, on the other side of the Atlantic, but then he was suitably vague, so I guess he was speaking in general terms about this particular contrast (which perhaps shouldn't be so easily generalized, given the vastness and diversity of Africa, a continent, vs. the huge and diverse US, a country) than about his own experience.

Speaking of BET, has anyone else been watching Season 4 of College Hill? Why, oh why can't these young Black people act like they have (any) good sense? Why do they have to keep segregating themselves into the Cali (California) and VI (Virgin Islands) camps? Why are thye so hot in the pants and never seem to have a book nearby (yes, I know this is to a great deal a result of the editing, but still--wouldn't they and BET do everyone a service by showing these young people actually in classes and studying)? Why did two of the young women, Vanessa and Krystal, have to have a throwdown (which included Krystal beating Vanessa with a pump)? Why did Krystal have to list Osama bin Laden and Hitler as people who didn't deserved to be attacked as part of her utterly jawdropping response? (Double Hunh??) Why are nearly all of them (except the athlete "Chicki") behaving half the time as if they're auditioning for a very bad minstrel show? And to top it off, why does BET have to run The Players Club, which I think is some programmer at that station's favorite movie, so often, and especially before College Hill? Yes, I know, I sound like someone's grandparent!

Speaking of rap and the recent Imus controversy, I thought Kelefa Sanneh's article, "Don't Blame Hip Hop," in today's New York Times offered a useful summary of the brouhaha, a discussion of Russell Simmons's proposal to snuff out the problematic awful words, and some real insight, particularly on the issue of widespread media focus and displacement of criticism on hiphop without any real discussion of some of the most popular current hip hop artists and the specific language and discourse of their raps (cf. Akon, but also Huey, Crime Mob, Mims--and I'd add Nas, DJ Khaled, Lupe Fiasco, Dem Franchise Boyz, T.I., etc.). Can I add once again that in addition to the first statement by Imus that everyone has fixed and fixated on, his executive producer, Bernard McGuirk, also used the highly offensive term "j" word, which I cannot recall anyone in hip hop bandying about, but perhaps my knowledge of hip hop really is as limited as I imagine it is, so please do enlighten me. At any rate, I'm some what amazed by the collective media erasure of this second offensive term, as if by simply ignoring it--and writing it out of the record--it would disappear, and thus enable the shifting and shifty critiques of everyone and everything but Imus himself that have followed. Strange.

On a completely different note, I want to publicly thank Deborah Hoffman, who responded to my post last year (or was it two years ago), about Vladimir Sorokin's Goluboe Salo (Lavender Lard--she suggests that "lavender" is a more appropriate translation than "blue") by kindly sending the first few pages of an English translation of the novel that she worked on and a paper that she wrote with Nadezhda Korchagina, which appeared in Ohio Slavic Papers (8, 131-148, 2006), entitled "Notes Towards a Postmodern Translation: 'Translating' Sorokin's Goluboe Salo." I've only had an opportunity to skim the paper, but after reading the first few pages of the translation--and then looking at the Russian text again today at the university library--I really wonder whether the right-wing protesters whom this text so vexed actually read the book. Because seriously, it looks like a doozy, as in, a real challenge to make one's way through. By comparison, Houellebecq's perverse post-modern fantasy, The Possibility of an Island, is as transparent and limpid as New York tap water. In the opening three pages of Lavender Lard (which I saw in French translation as Le lard bleu while in Paris), Sorokin's "Russian" includes words and phrases in English, Chinese, French, Sanskrit, and an invented lexicon--and I had to reread it repeatedly to get even a hint of its gist. Hoffman and Korchagina point out in their paper that the opening pages are parts of letters that a gay scientist, Boris Glogger is writing to his lover, letting him know that he's working on a top secret project that entails the cloning of famous writers--Akhmatova ("Akhmatova-5" and "AAA"), Nabokov ("Nabokov-7"), etc.--with the clones producing the infamous lavender lard process as a result of their writing. The texts they produce are "useless byproduct[s]," permitting Sorokin to draft parodies of these noted Russians' styles. None of this seems to have set off the right-wing nationalists, though; it was the scene of sadomasochistic sex involving a clone of Stalin and a clone of Kruschchev that led them to file a criminal complaint that he was promoting homosexuality and pornography.

(Let me note that Hoffman and Korchagina go on to talk quite productively about the relationship between translation, cloning, and postmodernism, Sorokin's parodic play on and in forms, styles and discourse, and the cultural offense he risks, as well as the untranslatability of (so) much of it, among other things, while posing necessary questions about the challenges they faced as they worked their way through the text: here is one example from the text, the first translation by Hoffman, the second by Korchagina:

Your ribs that shone through your skin, your birthmark shaped like a monk, your pro-tattoo that leaves no taste in my mouth, your gray hair, your secret tsin tsi, your dirty whispering, "Kiss me on my STARS."

Your ribs under transparent skin, your monk's birthmark, your tasteless tattoo-pro, your gray hair, your secret tsintsi, your dirty whisper, kiss me on the STARS.)

Mmm hmm. But again, I wonder, did the Moving Together protesters really read all the way through to that moment in the text, or did they just fly off the handle, like right-wingers over here do after not reading a text or attending an art exhibit, after hearing someone else describe the scene?

For those in New York or Austin, you will be able to see Mr. Sorokin in the flesh, because he (and Alain Mabanckou, and quite a few others) will be participating in this year's PEN World Voices festival):

Wednesday, April 25
Columbia University
Altschul Auditorium in the School of International and Public Affairs

420 W. 118th St. at Amsterdam Ave.
4th floor, Room 417.
Event Start Time, 6PM

Thursday, April 26
From Page to Stage (PEN World Voices)
Time: 1 p.m.-2:30 p.m.
Location: The Segal Theater, CUNY
Participants: Abla Farhoud, Dorota Masłowska, José Luís Peixoto, Vladimir Sorokin

Saturday, April 28
Austin, Texas
Event Start Time: 6PM

Sunday, April 29
Literary Thrillers (PEN World Voices)
Time: 5 p.m.-6:30 p.m.
Location: The Bowery Ballroom
Participants: Jean Echenoz, Alicia Gimenez-Bartlett, Vladimir Sorokin; moderated by S.J. Rozan
Ticketing: $5 at the door/members free
Proper government-issued photo id required. 21+

Since I've mentioned hip hop, here's a piece that I've always thought was poetry, "My Melody," from Erik B. and Rakim's first album, Paid in Full (1987), one of my favorite rap albums of all time. Those around during that era may remember it well for the meteor (see, I'm keeping with Sorokin theme, but turning it on its head!) that it was. "The melody that I'm stylin, smooth as a violin / Rough enough to break New York from Long Island...." Yes, indeed. Oh, and no mention of the "h" word, the "n" word(s), or the "j" word, by the way.


Verse One:

Turn up the bass, check out my melody, hand out a cigar
I'm lettin knowledge be born, and my name's the R
A-k-i-m not like the rest of them, I'm not on a list
That's what I'm sayin, I drop science like a scientist
My melody's in a code, the very next episode
Has the mic often distortin, ready to explode
I keep the mic in Fahrenheit, freeze MC's and make em colder
The listener's system is kickin like solar
As I memorize, advertise, like a poet
Keep you goin when I'm flowin, smooth enough, you know it
But rough that's why the middle of my story I tell E.B.
Nobody beats the "R", check out my melody...

Verse Two:

So what if I'm a microphone fiend addicted soon as I sing
One of these for MC's so they don't have to scream
I couldn't wait to take the mic, flow into it to test
Then let my melody play, and then the record suggest
That I'm droppin bombs, but I stay peace and calm
Any MC that disagree with me just wave your arm
And I'll break, when I'm through breakin I'll leave you broke
Drop the mic when I'm finished and watch it smoke
So stand back, you wanna rap? All of that can wait
I won't push, I won't beat around the bush
I wanna break upon those who are not supposed to
You might try but you can't get close to
Because I'm number one, competition is none
I'm measured with the heat that's made by sun
Whether playin ball or bobbin in the hall
I just writin my name in graffiti on the wall
You shouldn't have told me you said you control me
So now a contest is what you owe me
Pull out your money, pull out your cut
Pull up a chair, and I'ma tear shit up
My name is Rakim Allah, and R & A stands for "Ra"
Switch it around, but still comes out "R"
So easily will I e-m-c-e-e
My repetition of words is "check out my melody"
Some bass and treble is moist, scratchin and cuttin a voice
And when it's mine that's when the rhyme is always choice
I wouldn't have came to ?set? my name ?around the? same weak shit
Puttin blurs and slurs and words that don't fit
In a rhyme, why waste time on the microphone
I take this more serious than just a poem
Rockin party to party, backyard to yard
Now tear it up, y'all, and bless the mic for the gods

Verse Three:

The rhyme is rugged, at the same time sharp
I can swing off anything even a string of a harp
Just turn it on and start rockin, mind no introduction
Til I finish droppin science, no interruption
When I approach I exercise like a coach
Usin a melody and add numerous notes
With the mic and the R-a-k-i-m
It's a task, like a match I will strike again
Rhymes are poetically kept and alphabetically stepped
Put in order to pursue with the momentum except
I say one rhyme and I order a longer rhyme shorter
A pause, but don't stop the tape recorder

Verse Four:

I'm not a regular competitor, first rhyme editor
Melody arranger, poet, etcetera
Extra events, the grand finale like bonus
I am the man they call the microphonist
With wisdom which means wise words bein spoken
Too many at one time watch the mic start smokin
I came to express the rap I manifest
Stand in my way and I'll lead a --- words protest
MC's that wanna be dissed they're gonna
Be dissed if they don't get from in fronta
All they can go get is me a glass of Moet
A hard time, sip your juice and watch a smooth poet
I take 7 MC's put em in a line
And add 7 more brothas who think they can rhyme
Well, it'll take 7 more before I go for mine
And that's 21 MC's ate up at the same time
Easy does it, do it easy, that's what I'm doin
No fessin, no messin around, no chewin
No robbin, no buyin, bitin, why bother
This slob'll stop tryin fightin to follow
My unusual style will confuse you a while
If I was water, I flow in the Nile
So many rhymes you won't have time to go for your's
Just because of a cause I have to pause
Right after tonight is when I prepare
To catch another sucka duck MC out there
Cos my strategy has to be tragedy, catastrophe
And after this you'll call me your majesty
My melody...

Verse Five:

Marley Marl synthesized it, I memorize it
Eric B made a cut and advertised it
My melody's created for MC's in the place
Who try to listen cos I'm dissin ???
?Take off your necklace, you try to detect my pace?
?Now? you're ?buggin? over ??? off my rhyme like bass
The melody that I'm stylin, smooth as a violin
Rough enough to break New York from Long Island
My wisdom is swift, no matter if
My momentum is slow, MC's still stand stiff
I'm genuine like leather, don't try to be clever
MC's you'll beat the "R", I'll say "Oh never"
So Eric B cut it easily
And check out my melody....

Copyright © 1987, 2005, Erik B. and Rakim, from Paid in Full (Island Records).

Monday, April 23, 2007

Poem: Wanda Coleman

Soooo much reading, always....

Today 9 US soldiers were killed by a suicide bomber in Diyala Province in Iraq, more than 20 were wounded, as were a number of Iraqis. Every day, scores of Iraqis are slain, many more injured. The war inn Afghanistan continues as well. Just as many people took time out to remember the students who were slaughtered at Virginia Tech, we should take time out to remember those killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. We should also thank the politicians who are serious about getting our troops out of the former quagmire.

To see's VideoVets Project, which presents the stories of Iraq veterans and their families in their voices, click here.

My brain is tired, so instead of something more thoughtful about the troop deaths, the war, the Gonzales-Rove Attorneygate crisis, the reappearance of Abramoffia, the disappearance of the honeybees, the ongoing massacres in Darfur, sun in Jersey City or rain in Chicago, Rep. Juanita Millender-McDonald's, Boris Yeltsin's or David Halberstam's deaths, or the voting mess that marked Nigeria's recent elections, or the first round of the presidential vote in France, which portends a Sarkozy victory in the second round, here's a brief poem, by Wanda Coleman, a Los Angeles-based poet one should read periodically because of what she can do with form, voices, and daily experience. Once I received a mysterious mailing urging me to buy several of her books--but I already had the ones on the sheet. I wondered if Coleman had sent it to me herself, and thought I should write her back and initiate a correspondence. But I didn't. I keep thinking that I'll meet her at some point and hear her read her work live and finally express my appreciation in person and talk with her. Some day. Fate, get to work.

--After Robert Duncan

my earliest dreams linger/wronged spirits
who will not rest/dusky crows astride
the sweetbriar seek to fly the
orchard's sky. is this the world i loved?
groves of perfect oranges and streets of stars
where the sad eyes of my youth
wander the atomic-age paradise


the blood of a stark and wounded puberty?
o what years ago? rapture lost in white
heat of skin/walls that patina my heart's
despair? what fear disturbs my quiet
night's grazing? stampedes my soul?

o memory. i sweat the eternal weight of graves

from American Sonnets © 1994 by Wanda Coleman, Woodland Pattern Book Center and Light and Dusk Books, Wisconsin

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Earth Day Poem: Emily Dickinson

Here's a poem for Earth Day, "'Nature' Is What We See," by the incomparable Emily Dickinson (1830-1886).

For information on Earth Day itself, you can go to the EarthDayNetwork, which has pages of information, portals and links to participating organizations and sites focused on environmental awareness, conservation of our planet and natural environment, and reversing the current worsening global warming trends.

I spent most of the day in the garden, after waiting through weeks of cold and rain, as well as being able to get back from Chicago. I planted a few flowering shrubs (creeping phlox, with periwinkle-type flowers), lots of herbs (lemon balm, two or three different types of sage, more rosemary, arugula, English thyme, African purple basil), a few vegetables (red cabbage, spinach, brussel sprouts), a blueberry bush (alongside the rapidly spread blackberry plants), and a fig tree. I can still feel the workout. The cold appears to have killed off some of the plants, like the Spanish lavender, but the other lavender plant has returned, and the regular and alpine strawberries are already leafy and sending out shoots. The other plants--the azaleas, the roses, the honeysuckles, the hyacinths (which are now blooming), and the lilac bush, are also thriving. Please let the weather stay sunny and mild for a while!

At the very back of the yard, we have a saucer magnolia tree, which I originally thought was a tulip tree, except that when I looked that tree up, the flowers and fruit were different. (There's a twin saucer magnolia in our neighbor's yard, and shoots have started to rise from the base of the main trunk.) The saucer magnolia (Magnolia x soulangiana) has beautiful, highly distinctive leaves, which flower in spring and leave a thick carpet of petals after a few weeks. The first photo below shows the flowers, which the wind was steadily shaking from the tree, leaving a bit of a mess, so I won't post any pictures of the new plantings just yet. Instead, the second photo shows both trees in flower (and the new plantings along the fence).

The flowers

The saucer magnolias themselves (alongside the compost heap; the raked petals have already filled lots of bags)


"Nature" is what we see—
The Hill—the Afternoon—
Squirrel—Eclipse—the Bumble bee—
Nay—Nature is Heaven—
Nature is what we hear—
The Bobolink—the Sea—
Thunder—the Cricket—
Nay—Nature is Harmony—
Nature is what we know—
Yet have no art to say—
So impotent Our Wisdom is
To her Simplicity.

Poem by Emily Dickinson

Friday, April 20, 2007

On Naps + Notes on Paris I + Poem: Giovanny Gómez

I've studiously avoided writing about the Imus controversy because so many other blogs and commentators (including bloviators) covered it, and my initial responses, to friends, to a cousin, to a fellow sports fan on a listserve, were categorical in their condemnation of his racism, sexism, misogyny, and cruelty, his long history of offensive (including homophobic, anti-Semitic, classist, etc.) dehumanizing statements and commentary (this man and his sideshow were causing an uproar back in 1996!), and the media punditocracy's (or is that punditocrisy?) and politicians' atrocious abetting of his and similar offenders' behavior. BECAUSE HE WAS THEIR MEAL TICKET.

All of the meta-commentary about the offensive discourse in hip hop, the diversionary critiques of Jackson and Sharpton, and Imus's essential "goodness" deserved to be cast into the wind. I strongly supported people boycotting his show and its sponsors, as well as some sort of disciplinary action, but I was surprised that MSNBC dropped his simulcast and then CBS fired him, given the influential audience base he cultivated and attracted. The frightened sponsors, it seems, left them no choice. I also thought that Vivian Stringer, the Rutgers women's basketball coach, and her team of dignified young women, responded in the finest fashion, exacting an apology, and then talking no more about the matter, especially given that he'd been flushed. More power to them, and I congratulate on their considerable success in the NCAA tournament, a fact that got lost in the brouhaha.

The tiny point I want to touch upon--and perhaps others have brought this up, so if they have, my apologies--is one aspect of his comments, the "nappy headed" part. (I'm sure many others have discussed the "hos" and the "j*gaboos" parts.) Like most people in this society, and many Black people around the globe, I grew up having pounded into my nappy head that "nappy hair"--that coarse, kinky, thick, coiled, corkscrewy hair that millions of us are born with--was somehow less beautiful, less desirable, less attractive, just less--than straight hair, or, as folks also (problematically) say, "good hair." (And such terms are as common among folks outside the US as in it.) I grew up hearing "nappy headed" occasionally used as an epithet (though not in my home), and this was after the period when afros and other natural hair styles not only became popular but were valorized as the do of choice. Alongside Ron O'Neal's flowing locks, which were de rigueur for the burgeoning pimp style of the 1970s, Angela Davis, Jim Kelly, Jim Brown, Pam Grier, Tamara Dobson, Richard Roundtree, Reggie Jackson, the Commodores, Earth Wind & Fire, Bootsy Collins, and countless other folks showed the way and beauty of the 'fro, making the nap the basis of an enduring symbol of racial and cultural solidarity and self-affirmation.

0White supremacy and self-hate die hard, though. During the 1980s, a new version of the old-time conk became popular--the curl, as in Jheri curls, S curls, all kinds of curls, some of them (truly) sc[ary]'urls. This hairstyle, which even I sported back in the day, had its brief moment of charm, being yet another mode for self-fashioning, and eventually gave way to fades and flattops and braids--the naps return!--alongside the Jordanesque return of the shaved head, once known as the Quo Vadis--and then to the neo-fros and twists and locks again and the array of styles folks now sport, including megafros, carifros, eurofros and rows, and whatever else people can think of (though unfortunately the liqui-curl still linger). The curl was, you might say, a mass-marketed and temporarily successful attempt to suppress the nap, though few people with them ever ended looking like they came out of the womb with those greasy, glistening tresses--and they certainly left their mark, on countless couches, headrests, seatbacks. Count it the revenge of the nap. With afros, naturals, blowouts, etc., the nap--which is to say, sub-Saharan Africa--flowers in its full glory. Cornrows and dreadlocks don't subdue the nap, they draw on its power. But artificial curls, like conks and permanents, want to force the nap to complete surrender, to subjugate or eliminate it. Yet even with the thickest, heaviest curl juice, of course, or the most perfectly straightened perm, all it takes is a little water, and like a lightning bolt....

All of which is to say, echoing Carolivia Herron, Evette Collins, and numerous others (like the site), I think we ought to work on shedding any lingering shame or inferiority we might have about (our) naps. The nap is as beautiful as any strand of straight, stringy hair, and it should long ago have ceased being a negative attribute, on male or female heads. Nappy is as straight does--embrace the beauty, embrace the nap!


For weeks I've been meaning to write some entries based on my impressions from our recent, too brief trip to Paris, but I keep tripping over false starts, so here are some thoughts in somewhat random fashion, and perhaps if I can find the time and focus, I'll clean them up.

Paris Ramblings, Part 1

I'm going to start with French hip hop, because the French presidential election is tomorrow, and the political implications of the music were as clear to me as the Eiffel Tower on a summer day. During our travels, C and I always flip on the TV to see what the local media have to offer. This time, we happened upon a channel I don't think we'd ever seen before, that showed basically two programs. The first was "'Zik," the French slang for "musique": from early morning to 10 pm on the dot (at which point it switched over to porn so graphic and hardcore that in the US you'd probably only find it after paying a fee on the Internet or going to a videostore), it showed nonstop French rap videos--along with a few clips of dancehall, US hiphop and some European house--that were so scorching they could easily have peeled the paint off the the hotel room's walls.

After watching just a few of these, I thought to myself, the people running for the presidency--right-winger Nicolas Sarkozy, who is on record as having referred to the young Black and Arab protesters as "racaille" (or "scum") in 2005, while also threatening to "kärcheriser" (flush them out with high-powered Kärcher waterhoses); Ségolène Royal, the glamorous but appallingly vapid Socialist candidate, who as of a few days ago appeared not to have realized that the Taliban were no longer in power in Afghanistan!, and who has proposed nothing more concrete than pieties and platitudes to address the country's social and economic problems; François Bayrou, the rural-born, English-speaking, self-described "Clintonian," who actually has repeatedly traveled to the banlieues, but is still running in third place; and Jean-Marie LePen, whose anti-immigrant, racialist commentary is well known--sure better be taking note, or they were going to have to deal with far worse social explosions than anything France witnessed in 2005 or before. From all I can tell, the two front-runners, Sarkozy and Royal, especially, are not, so I will not be surprised if reprises of the sort of public uprising that occurred in the Gare du Nord station (through which we'd passed) just days after we got back begin, particularly after a Sarkozy win. He has made his contempt quite apparent.

Abd al Malik concert poster in the Métro, alongside an ad for Gazoline

This 'Zik show transfixed me. The videos, many of which managed to dynamically combine aspects of gangsta rap (including one rap that literally referenced the "West Coast"), New York hiphop of the early 1990s (especially appeals to racial solidarity), and political and social militancy that would make the Black Panthers proud. Rapper after rapper, either of sub-Saharan African ancestry, French Caribbean ancestry, North African Arab ancestry, or some combo of the above pounded the airwaves with their grievances. We're not talking about MC Solaar, who for a while was the best known French rapper over here. They also were not all male; there were at least two women, both of them out-front aggressives, keeping pace with the men. Unlike MC Solaar's raps, too, these rappers tossed in English words (and Arabic, and I imagine other languages), without hesitation; some of them had American-sounding tags, English-language titles for their songs, and, based on their outfits, their hairstyles (cornrows, afros, fades, etc.), their entire self-presentation, could easily have been mistaken for New Yorkers, Chicagoans or Angelenos. (I even told one brotha in a clothing shop in Les Halles that he could easily pass for a New Yorker, and he took it as a huge compliment.)

Some of the names I wrote down, which may be familiar to hiphop afficionados but were totally unfamiliar to me, included MC Arabic; Les Sales Blancs; Chico Run; Rachid Wallas; DJ BLG; Stress; Griot; Grodash; Konwell (his rap was "Ghetto à la Congolaise"); Sefyu ("Va Avec" and "La vie qui va avec"); Mac Tyer aka Sokrate ("93 tu peux"); Kamelancien ("Grand mechant loup"); Diomay; Ramon; Abass ("Abass Mon F*cka"); Keny Arkana; Despo'Rutti ("Bolide"); CH3/Timony ("Long Time"); Faty; Dontcha ("Le rap criminel"); Abd Al Malik, one of whose rap songs was entitled "September 12, 2001," and Casey, a very butch female rapper from the French Caribbean, who just kept breaking it down--these folks were tired of being shat up, marginalized, ignored, and they showed little identification with the symbols or standard social signs of la belle France, which is to say, la France blanche, and instead with the Maghreb, the Bronx and Compton, with those aspects of current French reality that France's vaunted, anti-multicultural, "egalitarian" system and society refuse to acknowledge. There was one video that had an Arab version of Marianne, the female symbol of France, debating a rapper, but most of the videos were much more confrontational, full of frustration, reverse-disdain, rage. After watching a few in succession, we'd turn them off and hit the streets, but whenever we were back in the room, we'd periodically check them out (and using our camera I even recorded a few, which I've yet to post to YouTube or a similar site).

I also kept wondering if any of these rappers had, like many of the dancehall stars and even some of the reggetonistas, had had any direct contact with major current US hip hop figures, whose styles, poses, forms they had assimilated and reformulated, but whose message of hyperconsumption had only partly taken hold. The language barrier, at least on Americans' part, has probably meant little contact, but I could clearly see a dialogue and continuum going on between their work, even if the emphases were sometimes strikingly different. I almost wished there were more of the political awareness and vehemence--of the Dead Prez or Public Enemy or Mos Def/Black Star kind--especially given our present political and social problems--but I'm sure those who know hip hop a lot better than me can point me in the right direction. In the bookstore I did spot a theoretical book on French hip hop, but was immediately curious about whether someone on these shores was writing on these particular cross-national and cultural connections, because certainly others who've traveled over there and vice versa have taken similar note, I'm sure.


The first time C and I went to Paris, back in 1990, people were able to tell just from our outfits that we were Americans. We were clocked at one point right in front of the Pompidou Center back then, based on C's baseball cap, our jackets (or maybe it was just my jacket), and our sneakers. Very few people we encountered outside the hotels where we stayed spoke any English, and if they did, it was with hesitation (and a little annoyance). On the flipside, they seemed tickled to hear us speak French, however shaky, and I came back thinking, the French are certainly not as bad as so many people had warned me. In fact, they were easily more friendly and polite and welcoming than the people we encountered in Spain (where we had the wonderful experience of being stared at on the subway!) or Portugal (I won't go into those stories again, but I'm sure they're a lot, uh, nicer these days). On that first trip to Paris, while we did see quite a few people of color, I remember thinking (wrongly, I'm sure) that Paris perhaps wasn't as racially and ethnically diverse as New York or Chicago, or London--or Madrid, where we met friendly Egyptians who we thought were Latinos, and I exchanged drawings with them, or Lisbon, where Angolans and Mozambicans, hundreds of them, thronged a downtown square. (I was sure we'd stepped through a portal into Luanda.) After a few more trips, my views on Paris's obvious diversity changed, but this time, I can declare that the Black, Asian, Arab and mixed populations in Paris now appear to have doubled or tripled, and C and I certainly no longer stood out. At all. I wondered, were all these folks infants, little children, the not-yet-born or not-yet-immigrated-from-distant-parts 17 years ago? At times, such as when were in the maze of Les Halles, it was hard to tell if we were in Paris or Brooklyn, which I found quite comforting.

Like the most obvious touriste in the world, posing with a faux Didier Drogba

For the most part, no one was recognizing us immediately as Americans or non-residents, and unless we spoke English first, we were addressed in French and assumed to be...French-speaking, from somewhere, anywhere, but not immediately the US. Even my Chicago-influenced fashion sense did not stick out, as far as I could tell. On the other hand, nearly everyone we encountered spoke English, most fluently. The guy that I said looked like a New Yorker told us, after playing with C as if he didn't speak a word of English, that he'd learned it in school and from TV. His English was practically flawless. In nearly every shop, whenever we'd politely ask, "Parlez-vous anglais?" the response was, "Un peu" or "a leetle," and then the person would proceed to speak English rapidly and without hardly a pause.

At a multilevel men's clothing store

As for speaking the hotel we stayed at, one of the night deskmen, a African Frenchman, snappily corrected my French; I said the equivalent of sixty-ten-and-one, instead of sixty-eleven, which is to say, seventy-one, and he wasn't having it. That put me on guard not to think I could get away with a few mistakes, as in the past. I still spoke French, but found that often times people were ready, almost eager, to speak English, with far less annoyance than on prior visits, and when I did speak French, they did not seem in the slightest impressed either way. That is, except at the airport, where I was searched quite thoroughly and had a security person hold up my rubber exercise rope and ask me, a mocking tone in her voice, if it was a weapon and if I was a terrorist. She even showed it to her superior. When she learned that I spoke French, she wasn't about to speak another word of English, she or any of the other security people nearby. They had a good laugh with the exercise rope, even brandishing it as if it were dangerous, and then, after they'd decided to find another person to torment, sent me packing. These antagonists were, by the way, Black French women.


In terms of fashion, Paris mirrors New York, except the badly dressed people aren't visible. (Of course this is an exaggeration.) But as the Sartorialist has amply documented, Parisians--from the children to the elderly, are some of the most sharply (ac)coutured people running around. The shoes! I've noted this every time we've gone there, and the people I saw this time, like during previous trips, were turning the simplest outfits out. From variations on the BCBG style to versions of hiphop fashion, punk and beyond, these Parisians were setting a casual but very stylish pace. Not even rainy March weather could soak or sink their fashion senses.

On a street in the Marais

At dinner on evening

Men and women well into their 70s and possibly 80s were featuring hats, shoes, coats, ensembles out of magazines. And considering the euro-laden prices of everything (oh, for the days when the dollar was strong and France still used the franc) and the fact that the country has had such a high unemployment and underemployment rate, I kept wondering, how were they able to afford it. (The vast majority of people were also thin or lean, so perhaps they were skipping meals to keep those outfits tight.) Less facetiously, on the other hand, we did see several tangible examples of the economic crisis: in addition to the homeless people we came across both on the Left and Right Banks (though more on the Right Bank--and parts of the Left Bank, along and off St. Germain des Prés, had really gentrified, to the point of glitz, than I recalled), there was a small tent city along an embankment on one of the highways leading into Paris, and a long soup line outside one of the churches (Saint-Eustache?) on the edge of the Les Halles area, just a stone's throw from some of the tony shops. I know la Soupe Saint-Eustache has been around for more than 20 years, but the contrast with the temples of commerce right near it, and below it in the caverns of Les Halles, was an eye-opener....

The soup line outside Saint-Eustache

And I'll end there for now, and post more soon.


And today's poem is by Giovanny Gómez, a 28-year-old Colombian poet who has been gaining considerable acclaim over the last few years. He won Colombia's National Poetry Prize María Mercedes Carranza for his first book, Casa de humo (House of Smoke), which will be published later this year, and has been traveling to poetry festivals in South America to read his work. Here is one of his prayer-like poems, translated by Nicolás Suescún, from Poetry International Web:


Señor dame una palabra
que tenga la forma de un barco
un barco de velas inextinguibles
donde pueda ir a conocer el mar

Dame esta palabra por casa
por vestido por amante
deja que ella sea mi soledad
mi alimento y no pueda sobrevivirla

Aquí estoy tan vacío de formas
y silencio . . .

Toda mi inspiración semeja
el ruido de unas manos atadas
necesito un barco por cuerpo
y el amor por mar

Escúchame por estas alucinaciones
y la vastedad de las cosas que vuelven
a su lugar

Copyright © 2006, Giovanny Gómez, from: Casa de humo


Oh Lord give me a word
that has the form of a ship
a ship of inextinguishable sails
in which I can sail to know the sea

Give me this word for a house
for a garment for a lover
let it be my solitude my sustenance
let me be unable to survive it

Here I am so devoid of forms
and of silence . . .

All of my inspiration resembles
the noise of a pair of tied hands
I need a ship for a body
and a love for the sea

Listen to me through these hallucinations
and the vastness of things that come back
to their place

Copyright © Translation: 2007, Nicolás Suescún

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Poems: Dunya Mikhail

Here are two poems from the 2005 collection The War Works Hard, which gathers selections from three volumes of poems by the young (1965-) and very talented Iraqi poet Dunya Mikhail. I chose two of the shortest poems, which give some hints of her ability to capture the gravity, with the simplest materials, of both the tenuous humanity and the continuously unfolding tragedy that has marked her native country since the most recent war began, but I strongly recommend the full collection, which gives a fuller view of her gifts as a poet; the sarcastic, sad, moving title poem is one that should be read and entered into the record at the next press conference that our Disaster-in-Chief deigns to deliver. Mikhail now lives is the Detroit area, so I hope that we can bring her to the university at some point in the near(er) future.


When they came,
the aunt was still there
on the rocking chair.
For thirty years
she rocked...
that death has asked for her hand,
she has departed
without a word,
leaving the chair


I want to return
repeated the parrot
in the room where
her owner had left her
to repeat:
return . . .

Copyright © Dunya Mikhail, from The War Works Hard, 2005. All rights reserved, New Directions Publishing Corporation.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Some Thoughts + Poem: Robert Frost

More news has come out about the student who went on the murderous rampage at Virginia Tech, much of it very upsetting. One of the first things I thought when I heard he'd been an English major and creative writing student was that he'd studied with Nikki Giovanni, who is the senior poet in that department, and it turns out that not only was that the case, but that Giovanni and her students had been so disturbed by his work--she has spoken of how "mean" it was--that she threatened to quit the institution if the university didn't removed from her class. (For a tenured professor, and one of the most distinguished faculty members at the institution, to make such a demand it should have sent up a thousand red flags.) The professor who tutored him after his removal from that class, writer and program director Lucinda Roy, also noted his obvious emotional problems, stating that he appeared to be the "loneliest person" she had ever come across, and repeatedly urged him to seek psychological help, even offering to walk him to the university's counseling center herself. She also reported him to several different university authorities, and it turns out that he did finally receive a psychological evaluation stating that he was "mentally ill" before he was then released, after a subsequent evaluation. Roy is on record as saying that she now wonders if she could have done more--she has said that if she could have carried him to the counseling center she would have--but all of the accounts I've read lead me to believe that she, Giovanni, and the English department did what they were supposed to, and what they could. As news accounts have repeatedly stated, there are many legal and procedural limits on what faculty members, administrators, and colleges and universities as well can and may do.

Today, on NPR, I heard several discussions about how faculty members, and in particular, creative writing teachers, might respond when they noted signs of psychological and emotional turmoil, as well as potentially serious disturbances, in the students' work. I won't go in to the university's procedures, but I will say that over the decade or so that I've been teaching college-level creative writing and literary studies, from graduate school onwards, at different institutions, I've encountered several instances where I've had to discern, based initially on the student's work and then on discussions with the student, whether I was facing merely an overcharged, somewhat scary imagination, or something more serious. Only once, I believe, did the situation warrant my speaking to someone in a senior administrative position and handing over a copy of the student's work, and that occurred some years ago when I received a two-page parodic piece--neither poetry nor fiction--that was a multi-page, relentlessly racist rant. The other students in the class were so upset by it that they could barely comment on it, and it worried me enough that I did show it to the director of the program in which I was teaching. He reassured me that I'd done the right thing, and that the program at least would be on notice concerning this student. I didn't, however, consider the student was violent and I made a point of engaging him and the rest of the class in a discussion on the theme of racist and offensive writing, the writer's responsibilities and ethics, and how to deal with such kinds of work.

He did seem to register that it was offensive, though he did not apologize, and later approached me as if he'd done nothing wrong. In other cases, when I've received very troubling work--such as a story about a violent, avenging aborted fetus, or a story about a white man who elaborately and cruelly castrates a black man over a white woman, etc.--I have tended to go ahead and discuss the works in class, while also making sure to speak directly with the students on a one-to-one basis. I keep in mind that we live in a violent and violence-saturated culture, and that students' experiences reflect this in various ways; they may also have been subjected to personally violent traumas and abuses, and I do always consider my classes spaces where they can write about anything they're motivated to explore, with the aim of learning the craft of writing and how to become better readers and editors. I periodically encounter stories that include scenes of violence (or drug use, for example), some of it graphic, but I do not make the simple equation that the student is troubled or a danger to herself or others. At the same time, if I ever do have a situation that I think may be potentially dangerous, I will use the various channels the university makes available to address them, and as the director of an undergraduate creative writing program now, I have conveyed this to my colleagues.

In the radio discussions today, one of the NPR hosts asked where teachers drew the line. I tended to agree with the responses I heard, and I'd add a few: if a student's work frequently described suicides or ended with one, that would provoke immediate concern. If the violence in a story seemed out of proportion with the narrative, or the characters, that would provoke concern. If the student's work was consistently violent and offensive, or luxuriated in descriptions of abuse, torture, and so on, that would provoke concern. If a student's work appeared to be a personal attack against another student in the class, that would provoke concern. And then there were many other possible flags that could arise. At the same time, I strive not to mistake students' imaginations and imaginative works for mirror reflections of the mimetic realities of their lives (I do not teach creative nonfiction), and I am quite aware that, as I say above, they and we all live in a violent and violence-drenched society. It has always been thus (as Richard Slotkin and other scholars have persuasively argued). There are more than a few literary works--and countless films, video games, TV shows, etc.--that students might encounter in classes, or in their own travels through literature, that contain quite horrific violence, graphic and stomach churning scenes of sexual violation and abuse, racially, ethnically, anti-Semitic, gender-based, homophobic, and other kinds of offensive discourse, and so on. (I can vividly recall the trauma of having to sit through class discussions Huckleberry Finn in high school, as some of my classmates took delight in repeating the N* word over and over, or, in another class, reading Faulkner's brilliant but very nerve-wracking short stories "A Dry September" and "That Evening Sun," the latter of which includes the looming threat of chilling violence and almost a page of the N* word. I loathed the former book for years, while I think I've always been able to deal with Faulkner.)

In cases where I've taught works that might fall into the above categories, such as J.G. Ballard's The Atrocity Exhibition, or Kathy Acker's Great Expectations (I have never dared to teach Isaac Babel's remarkable short story "Crossing into Poland," which a professor introduced me to in grad school), I've always tried to prepare the students in advance, provide a context for the works' content and the writer's aims, and examine specific and broader ethical, political, and social issues. As I noted in a prior blog entry, some works, like Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian, for example, are so blood-drenched that I've known people who refuse to read them, and I understand why. (I have never had cause to teach that or any of his books, though I might do so next year.) J.M. Coetzee, as is well known, dedicates an entire chapter of his novel Elizabeth Costello to the very topic, and has the eponymous character "confront"--literally, as the novel does also in a philosophical manner--the writer Paul West, whose novel The Very Rich Hours of Count von Stauffenberg, includes a wrench description of the brutal death of the eponymous aristocrat and military leader who attempted and failed to assassinate Adolf Hitler. (He also authored a book about Jack the Ripper that is not for the delicate of heart.) In the cases of most literature, the violence in the work did and does not correlate with any personal tendency in the author for violence; a number of Shakespeare's plays, especially the tragedies, contain violent scene after violent scene, such as Macbeth (Duncan being murdered in his bed, for example), Hamlet (poisoning that raises boils, a stabbing, etc.), Lear (eyes gouged out, etc.), Othello (the strangling and the suicide, etc.), the attestably gory Titus Andronicus, and so on, and few suggest that all this violence reflected something warped in the author himself (though he was living at a time when the state was waging wars and killing Catholics and dissidents without hesitation). I am not suggesting that student's drafts of whatever sort and Shakespeare or McCarthy are equivalent, but I am underlining the fact that one cannot so easily jump to conclusions, which seems to be what some in the media and blogosphere are doing. In addition, there are disturbed authors whose works do suggest something deeply amiss, but in a number of cases the suggestive material doesn't consist of such obvious signs. I have never read Slobodan Milosevic's poetry, but I doubt that it contains strophe after strophe of killing ethnic Albanians and other Muslims, Croats, Slovenes, and anyone not a Serb, but I could be quite wrong.

I also thought back to one of my earliest college-level teaching gigs, in New York. I had a student who wrote short fiction pieces, and at least one short story that freaked some of the other students out. We reached an impasse at one point when the student's dismissive comments upset some of the students, and I ended up having to send him out of the room to talk with him, letting him know if he didn't get his act together, he couldn't return. He did shape up, and came back. He was also, by a long shot, one of the most talented students I have ever taught; he could write quite impressive poets, deeply grounded in images and striking metaphors, without trying, and had a natural skill at figurative language in general that most of the other students could not grasp. He just needed to grow up, and he did. But today I thought, if he'd threatened me or used some of the rhetoric in his work outside it, I probably would have needed to take more serious steps. And I realized, I didn't have any guidance at all about what those steps should be. So one of the things I hope that comes out of the Virginia Tech tragedy is that institutions clarify what options faculty members, students and staff have when they think something may be seriously wrong.


Poems, poems. Here is a poem from the last century that strikes a different note, a Frostian paradox, I suppose; it is among other things a hymn to beauty and to nature, and to our capacity to conceive of the former, both in art (the poem) and nature, our capacity only to partially grasp the latter, and the relation between the two. It also includes a perfect example of the rhetorical device of paradiostole (another form of polysyndeton, or construction with conjunctions), which the poem's title and theme, you will notice, call for; the man really knew what he was doing. It originally appeared in Harper's Magazine in 1920:


WHY make so much of fragmentary blue
In here and there a bird, or butterfly,
Or flower, or wearing-stone, or open eye,
When heaven presents in sheets the solid hue?

Since earth is earth, perhaps, not heaven (as yet)—
Though some savants make earth include the sky;
And blue so far above us comes so high,
It only gives our wish for blue a whet.