Monday, December 31, 2007

Happy New Year!

Happy New Year
Bonne année
Próspero año nuevo
Próspero Ano Novo
كل عام وانتم بخير
Dewenati
Glückliches neues Jahr

Gelukkige nuwejaar

šťastlivý nový rok
Manigong bagong taon
С Новым Годом
Kung hé fat tsoi
Subho nababarsho
Arahaba tratry ny taona
Feliç Any Nou!
Kali chronia
Felix sit annus novus
Hauoli makahiki hou
สวัสดีปีใหม
Selamat tahun baru
Rogüerohory año nuévo-re
Szczęśliwego Nowego Roku
Seh heh bok mani bat uh seyo
Yeni yiliniz kutlu olsun
Chúc Mừng Nǎm Mới
Boldog Új Évet!
Nav varsh ki subhkamna

Felice anno nuovo
ש� ה טובה
Felicxan novan jaron

(Some international greetings courtesy of Freelang, AppliedLanguage.com, and UniLangWiki!)

Sunday, December 30, 2007

This and That

I'm not sure if it's a particularly tenacious virus, a severe cold, exhaustion from this past quarter, or some combo of all of the above, but I'm still battling the tail end of a severe cold/the flu, which has included a sore throat, a cough that felt like someone was grating bricks in my chest, and, over the last few days, an earache (which I haven't had in years), which explains the lack of posts over the last week. I've felt too horrible to do much of anything except taking lots of medicine and drinking lots of tea, paying bills, reading books and essays I hadn't managed to finish during the quarter, venturing out only when necessary, answering necessary emails, and, for those students and friends who may have been wondering, sending off recommendations. I haven't been able to focus enough even to post some unfinished prior posts, memorializing Vèvè Clark and others (Jane Rule, Karlheinz Stockhausen, St. Clair Bourne, Oscar Peterson) who've passed, but I'll try to do so soon.

So here's a belated best wishes for the holidays--Merry Christmas and Happy Kwanzaa (Habari Gani)--to people dropping in here, and I'll try to post a timely New Year's Day message.

***

A belated congratulations to Byron and Richard, whose commitment ceremony took place on Christmas Day in Santo Domingo. Felicidades, and here's to a lifetime of love and joy between them.

***

I don't have anything to add to the spate of online commentary about the horrific assassination of Benazir Bhutto the other day beyond my sadness at this turn of events, though I do want to note one minor point: I've been noting that few online commentators, and certainly none of the mainstream media talking heads, have discussed the stated politics of her Pakistan's People's Party, which is socialist in its vision, if not in name. That is, the current right-wing administration had brokered a deal to install a socialist-leaning party in power as a way of maintaining--if not legitimizing--the authoritarian rule of dictator Pervez Busharraf Musharraf, but then I no longer doubt that the W Gang has any clue as to the ramifications of its actions. As my cousin Lowell Denny pointed out to me in an email the party's stated principles, viewable on its website, include: "Socialism is our economics." You can't be clearer than that. I'm not sure how much Bhutto intended to hold to this transparent notion, but considering Pakistan's current economic problems and widespread poverty, and considering this administration's overt hostility towards avowed socialist governments (socialist-lite, like Brazil or Chile, is much more palatable), I wonder how far Bhutto and the PPP would have gotten with even modest socialist-leaning economic "reforms" before the US began actively trying to destabilize her government. It appears their close ally wasn't going to take any chances.

Random Photo

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Taser Humor + Steroids 'R Us + One Laptop Per Child

Watching TV today as a way of diverting my attention from this cough that is drilling straight up through my throat, I had to turn off CNN, after watching correspondent Fredricka Whitfield giggling like a teenager on whippets over a video clip of University of Florida student Andrew Meyer screaming out the phrase "Don't Tase me, Bro!" just before out of control security guards Tasered him this past September 17. His transgression, you may remember, was pressing that hapless boob Senator John Kerry at a university forum. Anchor T. J. Holmes had initially responded to the Meyer cry clip, which he announced had been named the year's most memorable quote by the Yale Book of Quotations, by pitying the rambling, incoherent reply Miss Teen South Carolina, Caitlin Upton, gave at this past year's Miss Teen America competition. But he quickly joined in the giggling as well. Last night, I saw WPIX anchors Lolita Lopez and Jim Watkins chuckling heartily over the same clip. Assuming these people are not all psychopaths, is watching someone being violently assaulted by cops wielding a potentially lethal electrical device that funny? Are these people that jaded and desensitized, is Tasering people that passé? Yes, I know that we're living in a time in which not only police brutality, but state-sanctioned brutality and torture, have become so normalized they barely merit public comment, let alone outrage, but still, the drollery disturbed the hell out of me. Which makes me wonder: am I being too sensitive, serious? Or is it that the detached, zombified, overpaid media bobbleheads emblematic of so much that's wrong with our media and our society?

UPDATE: Digby notes another appalling CNN moment, this time involving anchor Kyra Phillips, who indifferently described and downplayed the fact that police were attacking the people protesting the Department of Housing and Urban Development's plans to demolish several longstanding housing projects in New Orleans. She then slanted her on-air riff to openly defend the police, using tortured and disengaged language to describe the assaults on the protesters. (I should add that my great uncle has worked for HUD for many years, and is none too fond of the clown now running it, the scandal-plagued Alphonso Jackson, the other Black person in W's Cabinet of Horrors.) One of the commenters in the Digby thread points out that the New York Times's architecture critic Nicolai Ouroussoff recently penned an excellent piece criticizing HUD's terrible plans. Ourousoff argues that HUD is failing not only to recognize the value of the architecture it seeks to destroy and replace with shoddier, less hurricane-worthy housing in a misguided fantasy of suburbanizing the city, but also to acknowledge the symbolic and social violence of the plans as well. He writes:

The agency refuses to make distinctions between the worst of the housing projects and those, like Lafitte, that could be at least partly salvaged. Nor will it acknowledge the trauma it causes by boarding up and then eradicating entire communities in a reeling city.

In an eerie echo of the slum clearance projects of the 1960s, government officials are once again denying that these projects and communities can be salvaged through a human, incremental approach to planning. For them, only demolition will do.

The difference between then and now is what will exist once the land is cleared. If the urban renewal projects of the 1960s replaced decaying historic neighborhoods with vast warehouses for the poor, HUD’s vision would yield saccharine, suburban-style houses. And the situation is likely to get worse. The government has identified some other historically important public buildings for demolition as part of its push for privatization. Charity Hospital, an Art Deco structure built downtown in the late 1930s, was abandoned after Hurricane Katrina, and its fate is uncertain.

I cannot say it enough, but the crimes against the city and people of New Orleans embody everything that is wrong with this administration and this country we're living in.

{{{

Sammy Sosa and sonsI've passed on commenting on Major League Baseball's very flawed Mitchell Report, which despite its flawed methodology has revealed that a far wider array of major league baseball players than previously assumed were using various kinds of performance enhancement drugs, while the owners, the players union and other players, and the MLB hierarchy looked the other way. One immediate effect of this news, and subsequent reports, should be that fanatical sportswriters need to issue a collective, stentorian apology to Barry Bonds, who has been crucified in the media for denying being a roider, and then to Sammy Sosa (at right, from the Monaga Blog) who until the most recent news about pitcher Jason Grimsley's affidavit, had not been tied conclusively to any performance enhancement drug use.

The false shock and piety, which is to say, sanctimony, from people in the baseball world, including former baseball owner and public welfare maven George W., was totally predictable. What I'm still waiting for some of these folks to admit is how much baseball benefitted from the bulked up stats, and the fact that players began earning outsized salaries compared to other professions in the early 1980s if they made the major leagues and could sustain even a modest career, so there was every incentive to juice up. There still is. For hitting a ball around a field or getting it over the plate, baseball players earn more than most CEOs, who are grossly overpaid as it is. The truth is, an entire era, up through now, will have to be viewed with "enhancements" as the norm, rather than the exceptions. This new realization must be taken into account with all of the stats and records set or none of them. Before steroids there were amphetamines, which still exist, and who knows what someone is cooking up in a laboratory even as I type these words. "Clear" was out there for a while before track and field's authorities discovered it, and only they did so as quickly as they did only with the help of whistleblowers. So long as the financial incentives exist to cheat, people will do so. My question is, who really believes that baseball is the only sport where this is a serious problem? What about the NFL, the NBA, the NHL, and every other sport where chemical enhancement gives athletes an edge? Could the Beijing Olympics possibly be clean? I doubt it.

Which leads me to this link, from the Dallas Morning News: "More professionals, students using brain performance enhancing drugs." Business people, musicians, professional gamers, students...it's definitely not just pro athletes, but our society in general that needs to undergo more thorough self-analysis and critique....

}}}

Yesterday brought a pleasant surprise: an XO computer arrived in the mail, though I'd hardly expected to see it anytime soon. The computer is the result of my participation in the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) program, the brainchild of visionary MIT professor and Media Laboratory founder and former head Nicholas Negroponte, who decided to develop affordable, networkable computers to empower children in the developing world. The original prototype, which I blogged about here two years ago, has been modified to some extent, but the model I received is a robust, fully loaded little portable machine containing an easy-to-figure, Graphical User Interface (GUI) atop a Linux platform. The software includes a browser, a writing program, several layers of music-making software (which I sampled right away), a recording studio with a camera (for photos, videos and audio--that's me, at left, on screen, photographing myself photographing myself), lots of games, a basic programming tutorial, and the means for children to network with others very easily, either in class or outside it. In fact, I could see children getting started on these machines swiftly and learning not only to write, but to create group projects, make music and visual art projects, create mathematical and statistical programs, write software programs, and even learn to repair their computers and troubleshoot hardware problems.

The XO has great Wifi capability (in fact, its literature say it's a fulltime wireless router), and after C added its MAC address to the base stations here, I was on the Net...in less than 5 minutes. It also easily links to local networks and fosters their creation. It has ports for a microphone (in), headphones (out), and USB-connective devices, a slot for memory upgrades, no harddrive, and only two internal cables--and it saves all projects unless you delete them. The computer's CPU suspends its CPU operation selective, allowing it amazing power savings, or about 1/10th of what a standard laptop consumes. This aspect of the computer mirrors its battery, which lasts between 6-8 hours with average use and can be recharged using a variable energy powercord, as well as via a crank or a solar or wind-powered source, to facilitate use in the many countries where electricity is a premium. The screen rotates so that it can function as an e-book, and the overall machine is compact enough that it can fit in a backpack and appears to be fairly robust, though real world use will probably assist its manufacturers in making it even more so. The only drawback I can see so far is the tiny keyboard, which is perfect for children but a challenge for anyone with larger fingers--but that's the point, this is a computer for children, though I can foresee someone down the road creating something along these lines, affordable and very robust, for adults as well. I certainly hope someone does, because the XO is a sweet little machine.

All in all I think Negroponte's idea was a remarkable one, and I'm very interested to see how the OLPC program unfolds. So far, from what I can tell, it has worked out pretty well where it's been implemented. The computers have been piloted in Nigeria, Brazil, Thailand, Peru, Uruguay, and India, and I sincerely hope that they can be offered to children in many more countries. Here's a quote from one child in Nigeria:

“I use my computer very carefully so that it will not spoil. I use it to type, I use it to write, I use it to draw, I use it to play games... I'm using my computer at home to type assignments.” — T. (Primary 4), Galadima School, Abuja, Nigeria

If you'd like to learn more, you can click on the link above, and if you think you'd like to contribute to the program, donate a computer or volunteer your time and services, click here. If you know of people who write open source, educationally-oriented software that might children can use, please urge them to contact OPLC as well.×

Friday, December 21, 2007

Fin del semestre + Travels + Picano as Publisher

Nearly a week has elapsed, but this past Monday was E-Day, as in End of Quarter Day! Tonight I'm sitting at my computer, nursing a chest cold that I picked up while on vacation--a geographical but not mental and physical vacation, that is, because I was, naturally, reading student work and addressing administrative issues--but even a persistent runny nose and hacking cough can't diminish my feeling of relief that this quarter is finally, finally over. Finally. Over. The daze lingers but the days, thankfully do not. As is always the case, the classes themselves, and the students, were a pleasure; it was clear to me that by the end of the quarter the introductory students were conversant in the principles of good fiction writing and their final submissions demonstrated this, the advanced sequence students were really hitting their stride with their second stories, and many of the revisions were superb; and the graduate students produced submissions that were among the strongest I've seen at that level. The two graduate fiction students with whom I've been working closely are really advancing, and the doctoral student on whose committee I sit produced a thesis chapter that is much closer to completion than before. In terms of the classes themselves, I believe all three proceeded pretty well, I think, though I often felt mentally exhausted from the sheer amount of reading at what can only be described as an insane pace. A colleague once suggested that students should learn to and be encouraged to read slowly, a suggestion which I strongly agree with, though I see the reality of our society, and particularly the high-powered sectors in which most of them hope to operate, demanding that they--and we--be able to assimilate and process information, in textual and other forms, at a dizzying pace. ("I want to be a machine."--Andy Warhol) If you cannot keep up.... But I did, and though I am still feeling a bit of mental whiplash, I'm glad to have had to the opportunity to work with these three sets of students. I hope to see some of the intro students as majors down the road, and I am looking forward to continuing on with the advanced sequence students into the new year, when I'll hand them off to my colleague who teaches the novella-reading and writing portion of the course. Before then we'll be reading Haruki Murakami and Aimee Bender stories (perhaps with stories by Edward P. Jones, William Faulkner, and Alice Munro in the mix), and I personally will try to resume work on several different projects that I had to shutter when I simply could not muster the brainpower to look at them. The novel, stories, a new book of poetry, translations, and several talks I'm supposed to be giving will need attention pronto. But that's for then; for now, finally....

***

We did get away, leaving the snow and ice of Chicago (at left) and the New York area for a very mild few days of Caribbean December (at right). I was surprised at how breezy it was, because C and I have traveled to the tropics during the winter months and wished we'd brought along a portable air conditioner. But this time, after the luases and loas and orishas and saints and every other intercessor drove Hurricane Olga out in a period of days, our good friend Victor and we were able to spend a little time sightseeing and relaxing and catching up with old and new friends, not least among them Anthony Montgomery, whose birthday, and birthday celebration, marvelously fell just before we left. It was a joy spending time with him, as always, and I will say this again: he is one of the best oral storytellers I have ever come across. Child know he need to have his own TV show!

We also got to spend time with Bernard, who joined us on an ear-popping trip up to Bonao, in the south Cibao valley province of Monseñor Nouel, where our wonderful and absolutely adorable tourguide, Henry Acosta (below, left, at the Balneario--click on the photo to see Henry in his full glory), recommended by Anthony, took us on a scenic tour of the vibrant, maze-like little city and environs, which included a riverside disco, the Disco Balneario "El Camellon" (though during the day, so though we heard and were breathing to the beat of Omega's infectious "Si no me amas" [*Note: Do not listen to this song if you do not want to become spellbound] by the time we got there we didn't fit in a dance) and a youth boxing match. (Anyone who goes to the Dominican Republic--or Brazil or anywhere else--and doesn't venture outside the resorts is really missing out in a huge way.) I even stuck my hand in the water, though I--none of us--was ready to "take a bath" (as Henry described it) in what looked like perfect rapids for whitewater rafting. Henry assured us, however, that he, Anthony, photographer Paul Culver, and a host of other beauties had marched 10 kms up the river and crisscrossed it for the purposes of art, but we were perfectly willing to experience his and Anthony's riverine experiences vicariously.

I did not keep a journal during the trip or even post anything here (I started to see online radesheets in quadruplicate and kept my screen viewing to a minimum), so at the risk of leaving out someone, let me say that it was fun once again see and to hang out with Byron, Richard, Patricio, José, Kenny, Gerard, Ruddy, Amauri, and Ruskin, and meet Edward, Merrick, Vicky, Michael, Mike, Natja, David, Rafael, Rey, Johane (more on her soon), and Terrance, a fellow writer from the US. I even talked up the university's graduate writing program. And it was truly exciting to finally drive a car in another country, which I've never done (is that true?--no, not even Canada or Mexico), though I was glad that C was behind the wheel when the ominous sounds kept issuing from the area of the rear wheels and the axle, because I knew he would be able to keep us moving forward at just the right speed so that the SUV would not disintegrate in the middle of the carretera and we'd get to the airport on time.

Y, por los luases, we did!

***

As I said, I was reading student work intently through Monday, so for lighter reading I picked up Felice Picano's history-cum-memoir, Sex and Art in Greenwich Village: Gay Literary Life After Stonewall (Carroll & Graf, 2007) just before we left, and finished it during the trip. It's a thorough, entertaining review of one of the most important segments of the gay literary scene, and by extension, of the development of LGBT mainstream culture, from the late 1960s through the early years of the AIDS pandemic, which killed off a number of the figures in the book and marked both an end-point and a beginning, as the mainstreaming of LGBT culture was rapidly underway. Picano was a noteworthy and rising young author and a member of the Violet Quill writers group--which included Edmund White, Robert Ferro, Michael Grumley, Christopher Cox, Andrew Holleran, and George Whitmore--when he decided to start SeaHorse Press in 1977. It was, according to Picano, the second "gay press" after Winston Leyland's Gay Sunshine Press--I'm assuming he meant gay-male-owned and operated--and it and its two brother presses, which banded together to become Gay Presses of New York, published not only fiction, but poetry, essays, and works in other genres over the years, including poetry and fiction by Picano, as well the first books of Dennis Cooper and Brad Gooch, the poems of Rudy Kikel and Gavin Dillard, Robert Glück's "new narrative" landmark Jack the Modernist, the only novel of Guy Hocquenghem's to have been translated into English, the then-little known Harvey Fierstein's bestselling Torch Song Trilogy, two groundbreaking lesbian anthologies, and the hilarious anti-clone The Butch Manual.

Picano's narrative is as much a social history as a memoir. With a liberal and generous touch, he describes many of intersecting queer literary and social narratives of that era, though his particular network consisted, at least from what this book suggests and from other things I've read about it, of a primarily middle and upper-middle-class, educated and professional, 20-to-40-something, urban (or "metronormative") white male cohort. Picano does note his own more nuanced class origins and his strong connections with lesbians, yet he often reads his social group as "the gays" of that era, and, more troublingly, voices what sounded to me like a somewhat skewed understanding of the historical trajectory of radical lesbianism and lesbian separatism, but then I'm not an expert on LGBT or gender studies and perhaps I have the chronologies and figures wrong. His rendering of Adrienne Rich's positions and work, however, do seem problematic. Picano does note in a few places the monocultural and monocolor aspects of the world in which he ran, but too often it's taken as a given; gay equals white and male of a certain class. Yet he also situates his story within the more fluid context of that era's particular historical moment, which itself offered spaces of fluidity and exchange, in terms of race, ethnicity, gender, and class, particularly around sex (as others such as Samuel Delany, never once mentioned in this book, have detailed elsewhere), more so than what immediately followed or what passes for the LGBT mainstream today. Still, the absence of almost any significant queer writers of color in the narrative speaks volumes, and led me to appreciate even more some of the women's presses that did publish writers of color, Barbara Smith's, Gloria Anzaldua's and Cherrie Moraga's pioneering efforts, and Sasha Alyson, who, for whatever the reasons and whatever one may say about his press and its aesthetics, was by the mid-to-late 1980s publishing books like the invaluable anthologies Black Men and White Men Together, In the Life, Brother to Brother, as well as individual works by authors from Steven Corbin to James Earl Hardy. I also remembered Robert Ferro's how encouraging Robert Ferro, who makes several appearances in Picano's book, was to me the one time I met him, not concerning my desire to become a writer--I hadn't completed more than a few verse or a short story draft since college at that point--and as a potential publisher, a career I haven't taken up, though I am glad dynamic visionaries like Lisa Moore and Renee Gladman have.

Along the way Picano dishes quite a bit, providing delicious anecdotes about the dottiness of Gore Vidal, whose Myra Breckinridge nearly appeared under a GPNY imprint; how he managed to publish Charles Henri Ford's famous early co-written novel, which allows him divagations on the emotional and financial vicissitudes of gay figures from earlier eras; his pas de deux with James Purdy, which did not pan out; his near-miss with one of my favorite poets, the charming, sadly overlooked Edward Field; and his contretemps with John Preston, who considered Picano and his gilded cohort as gay literature establishment (they were and are), among others. One of the best stories revolves around Harvey Fierstein, who now receives routine voice work but whose bass rasp, in his early onstage (and later onscreen) appearances, most certainly sent a lightning bolt through viewers. Among the many new and fascinating tidbits I picked up was how Richard Schechner, whom I'd worked with closely at NYU during my days at the Faculty Resource Network, actually came to New York; I'd had no idea of The Drama Review's peripatetic history, or the extent of Schechner's bravado, which he demonstrated when he and a handful of colleagues led a revolt against Tulane's conservatism and quit, bound for New York, leaving that southern institution bereft of its best theater and performance scholars, and endowing the City with some of the liveliest young minds in the field, with repercussions for decades to come.

The easy and frequent sex of the title suffuses the story, as Picano details the square-dance of boyfriends and partners that many of the figures he's writing about, including himself, enjoyed, but what he makes clear is that sex was not just a means of pleasure, but an important step in developing social bonds that fostered the blossoming of what is now a historical fact, early post-Stonewall gay life, and especially its artistic triumphs. Art, in fact, was the aim of so many of these (mostly) male lovers, and one of the saddest and most tragic aspects of the story, which I've noted on this blog in the past when speaking about some of the Other Countries writers, or heroes of mine like Melvin Dixon, was how AIDS stilled their eyes and hands and dreams prematurely. A deep river of suffering and sorrow runs beneath this text, though Picano takes pains, it seems to me, not to belabor the grieving or the losses. He also doesn't hold back on discussing the pernicious homophobia and sexism that is now sometimes swept under the rug even by LGBT spokespeople who are too callow, indifferent or ignorant of fairly recent history. One frequent target is the mainstream media, particular the New York Times, which I can recall suffered several fainting spells before it could even print the word "gay" without qualification, yet now publishes same-sex wedding announcements as readily as all the straight bourgeoisie's banns. The Gray Gentleman comes out in an unflattering light. But then that's hardly a surprise these days, especially on the political front.

Overall, I would recommend the book to anyone who's interested in understanding how "gay" literature, or at least a good portion of it, became mainstream, now just another niche for the publishing industry, another shelf for the bookselling conglomerates, but more importantly, for anyone who's interested in a good story about a particularly fascinating moment in New York history and (gay) American culture.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Support the Writers' Strike + James Watson, Nobelist, Octaroon

I rarely am watching TV these days, save for The Amazing Race and Project Runway, but I do support the Writers Guild of America strike. If you support the writers, here's a great way (from Firedoglake) to demonstrate it: you can click on the link and let the producers of your favorite shows (or just all the shows, which would be even better) know that you want them to stop digging in and negotiate better terms with the writers. All the other staff people who're being laid off or fired will also appreciate the gesture. Ah, the Internets!
Support the Writers

&&&

One of the first stories I saw this morning made me fall out of my chair. But of course Nobel Laureate and confirmed sexist and racist boor James Watson's genome would reveal that, in fact, his ancestry contained more than 1/6th African heritage (16%), meaning that short of one Black great-grandparent, there was some mixing of various sorts along the line, and that he has 16 times more genetic material than "most people" of European descent (though I wonder if this changes for people from the Mediterranean, for example, or those many British descendents of the urban Blacks of the 16th-19th centuries, who were at least numerous enough that Elizabeth I called twice, I believe, for them to be expelled).

But then anyone who reads more than a little on how these texts works as well as a little US history knows that Watson isn't the only one with more direct African ancestry than he thinks. Adrian M. S. Piper made this point around two decades ago, even incorporating it into a performance piece that caused a stir. Let me be clear that I'm not suggesting that Watson is Black or anything of that sort, "one-drop" rule (which in any case has always been more complicated than it's popularly portrayed) be damned, just that it's about as fitting an irony as one could envision. Also of interest are the genetic risk percentages his genome shows.

Watson's offensive comments from earlier this year meet their match, however, in the ignorance-laden sewer of comments after the Times UK article, and are the kind of discourse that regularly turns up in comment sections, and which underlines that the vast majority of us are lot less intelligent than we might care to admit.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

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



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

***

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

Ouch!

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

***

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

***

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

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

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


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

Monday, December 03, 2007

Last Day of Classes + Brother to Brother + Winter

Today marked the final meeting of my classes for the fall quarter; the undergraduate fiction writing classes ended last Friday, and this week I'll be holding conference and office hours for students in those classes, while the graduate fiction writing class met for the last time tonight. As in all my past years, the students were a joy and though I'll see many of them this week and receive their revised short stories next Monday, I already miss working with them. But this was probably the toughest quarter I've had since I came to the university. It often felt like tunneling through an immense iceberg with a blunt spoon, while also trying to direct traffic behind me. The greatest difficult, in addition to the whirlwind schedule and the isolation has been the sheer amount of material to be read thoroughly; because other university duties don't cease I've more than once come close to (crossed) my physical and mental limits in terms my ability to process everything, though I'm glad to say that as in past extremely rough years, I haven't stinted an iota with the students' work, but it's been rough. I realized a few weeks ago that I could barely type out a blog post after one particularly brutal week, and even reading things online--whether emails, articles and the news, or the many blogs I link to and love to read--has been difficult. Now I find I have to wear my eyeglasses (which I probably need a new prescription for) or I start seeing double when I look at computer screens and get severe headaches, though I'm hoping that the break will clear this up a bit.

Still, as I said, I'll definitely miss the students, whom I eagerly looked forward to seeing (my hands bearing marked up manuscripts, as they can attest) every week, and whose individual voices really have been coming through in their stories. Since all three classes wrote and submitted at least two stories or novel/novella chapters (for a total of around 70 total, plus the two from my graduate fiction thesis advisees, which were about 5-7 each), I've had an opportunity to witness the development, in the case of the introductory students, of individual voices and styles; in the case of the advanced undergraduate students, of much more complex, inventive and rich narratives that approach graduate-level work; and in the case of my graduate students, of mature manuscripts of short stories and novels beginning taking shape.

A few things I learned from this recent triad of fiction classes and from discussions with the other graduate advisees:
  1. More students are interested in and willing to try writing novels, and a few have already written them by the time they start college (and have even contacted publishers and agents, I've learned) or before they're required to in the novella portion of the fiction major advanced sequence;
  2. Raymond Carver remains the most beloved and most influential of the writers we read, while stories by Hemingway, Faulkner, Flannery O'Connor, and Donald Barthelme also remain perennial favorites;
  3. Stories by contemporary writers like Susan Minot, Jhumpha Lahiri, Junot Díaz, Haruki Murakami, and Victor Pelevin are also very popular, and students are able to take them apart and discuss them with considerable sophistication; and, for the first time in one of my classes, a student said that Toni Cade Bambara's "The Lesson" was the most useful story she read in the class (yea!);
  4. I've read stories about ninjas, "care bears," a conscious, inflatable male doll, many characters living in the cities of or suburbs near Chicago, Los Angeles and New York, and a several people with multiple personalities or personae, as well as several stories told backwards, and one revolving around the concept of the double helix;
  5. While the intro students were not so fond of Chekhov's "The Kiss," the advanced undergrads, who read a number of his stories, appeared to get quite a bit out of reading his work, and I personally enjoyed reading all the Chekhov stories and could do so again and again, because every time I do so more nuances come through;
  6. Reggie H.'s suggestion to use Z. Z. Packer's stories in Drinking Black Coffee Elsewhere in the advanced sequence was one of the best I've received in a while, and after I reread the collection this summer, I've finally become a fan;
  7. Many students have already discussed topics such as religion, sexuality, and so on while in high school, so they generate less controversy than they once did, though race continues to be a tricky subject;
  8. Junot Díaz was one of the most galvanizing visitors I've ever had a hand in bringing to campus (thank you, JD!), in part because he really doesn't brook any BS, and knows how to get right to the heart of topics, like a lightning bolt;
  9. Among the intro fiction students, the status of fiction vs. (creative) nonfiction remains contentious, and the issues of truth and authenticity in fiction, and fiction's relation to nonfiction writing, require continual discussion;
  10. 10) Lots of students, like people everywhere, go to Wikipedia first, since that's where Google often sends them, so perhaps scholars and creative folks should do our best to ensure that the entries there are as accurate as possible;
  11. You should think twice about referring to films as analogies from any period before 1995, unless you're talking about pop extravanganzas or Hollywood blockbusters, since undergrad students today were born, well, between 1990 and 1994-5. Even films like Mulholland Drive, The English Patient, and The Silence of the Lambs, which all seem so recent to me, came out when they were still pretty much in infancy or very small, and there's no guarantee they've seen them, let alone read about them. Star Trek, Stars Wars, The Lord of the Rings, The Matrix, and any similar films exist in a separate, well-known and deeply traveled realm (but then I felt the same way when my professors referred to films from the "classic" era of Hollywood studio filmmaking, and I didn't come to love some of those films until I was in my mid-20s);
  12. Students at every level to do not shrink from more formally or thematically experimental stories, so they should be part of the curriculum;
  13. For once several students were less fond of one of my favorite stories, Octavia Butler's "Bloodchild," so I'll have to find a new Butler story as a substitute, since I always want to include a SF story or two, especially one by her, in the mix;
  14. Having an online course site, with a dynamic discussion component, remains a useful element of fiction writing courses, though mimetic realism remains far and away the dominant mode, other than SF, in which students write stories;
  15. Most students who are interested in majoring or minoring in writing, whatever their other majors or interests (be they drama students, mathematicians, future doctors, lawyers, engineers, teachers, you name it), still love to read, particularly love to read novels, and not only gravitate to the various long-championed works in the American literary canon, from 17th century poetry through, yes, the likes of the Roths and Updikes (though students continue to cite Toni Morrison, Margaret Atwood, Virginia Woolf, J.K. Rowling, etc. as favorites), despite what right-wingers like to claim, but also...Shakespeare! T'is true, they read Shakespeare, they can talk authoritatively about Shakespeare's plays, they thronged last year's events centered on the One Book One University-selected Othello, and they take courses in Renaissance literature, which means they read, analyze and write papers on non-contemporary British literature written by authors other than Shakespeare, etc.....

In the spring I'll be teaching a huge lecture course, which ought to be interesting. Which reminds me, I need to start preparing for it pretty soon....

***

Brother to BrotherI'm delighted that Lisa Moore's RedBone Press has reissued the landmark anthology Brother to Brother, which Joseph Beam, the editor of In the Life, conceived before he passed away, and which the late Essex Hemphill edited. Originally published by Sasha Alyson's Alyson Publications before it went out of print, Brother to Brother gathers together work by an array of writers (and some artists) from the mid-to-late 1980s, one of the seminal periods in Black gay male writing, and remains one of the central texts of Black queer male literature, just as it's an important work in late 20th century African-American and American literature. It heralds an era when AIDS struck so many silent, when "identity" was not a bad word, when queer had yet to gain currency and "gay" was still uttered in hushed tones, and when a new generation of Black queer male writers, empowered by literary and activist predecessors from the Harlem Renaissance to Malcolm X and James Baldwin, from Phillis Wheatley to Fannie Lou Hamer and Audre Lorde, were willing--daring, really--to sing their--our--own songs.

I say "our" because it was also a crucial book for me, since I published my second short story ever, and first anthologized piece, "Adelphus King," in its pages, and had the greatest fortune to witness Essex at work as an editor, firm, visionary and gentle, before he died. It's an experience I learned a great deal from and will never forget. The new edition has an introduction by Dr. Jafari Sinclaire Allen (hey Jafari!) and an afterword by Blackstripe founder Chuck Tarver (hey Chuck!). Lisa and RedBone have been publishing a number of books I've recommended on this blog, from Ernest Hardy's award-winning Blood Beats: Vol 1, Demos, Remixes & Extended Versions, to Ana-Maurine Lara's remarkable first novel Erzulie's Skirt, and it's exciting to be able to recommend another volume from this little publisher, whose vision, determination, and activism really give me and quite a few others out there tremendous hope. If you don't have a copy of this book, buy one, and urge your library to get purchase one as well. And above all, enjoy it!

***

Winter's definitely here. This past Saturday morning it snowed here in Chicago, and by the evening it was a slushy mess. My car went from being covered with leaves, because the trees didn't turn until the last minute (and some are only now fully golden or orange) to being covered with snow, then with ice. Most of the snow and all the ice melted yesterday, thankfully, because this afternoon it was freezing, though when I came out class tonight another front had rolled in, and it was a little warmer, though still very cold. I wanted to walk over to the beach to see what the lake looked like, but I ran out of time and couldn't manage it. I haven't seen the sun in days; I often feel like living in Chicago in every season other than summer would be great preparation for living on the moon. Tomorrow, a student noted, we're supposed to get more snow. I hope it bypasses us, though that doesn't seem likely. I've been carrying environmentally friendly salt, a scraper, a can of lock de-icer, and a shovel in my car, though, since last winter, just in case.

Saturday, December 01, 2007

World AIDS Day 2007

AIDS Ribbon
World AIDS Day, which began in 1988, is one of the few days--perhaps the only day--out of the year when the world focuses on the 27+ year-old pandemic that now has killed killed millions of people and continues to be a global public health issue. According to UNAIDS's estimates, about 33 million people are living with HIV across the globe, 2.5 million of these PWAs being children. About half of the people who become HIV-positive are 25 or younger, and die from AIDS before they reach 35. HIV and AIDS are threats to people all over the globe--though the countries of southern Africa have suffered and continue to suffer the worst from the pandemic, HIV and AIDS are threats on every continent, in every country.

About seven years ago, I heard someone state rather authoritatively that we were in a post-AIDS era; I understand the theoretical formulation, in that the "crisis" mode of the AIDS epidemic in the US had waned dramatically, but the reality is that HIV seroconversions and deaths form AIDS continue in the US, with the largest impact still felt by African Americans and the poor. We are hardly in a post-AIDS era. Not just today but every day we ought to challenge the denial, complacency, indifference, false hope, demonization, and ignorance, just to name a few of the culprits, in the ongoing spread of HIV. If you haven't checked out any of the Worlds AIDS Day sites or read up recently about HIV and AIDS, please take today or one day this upcoming week to do so. This year's World AIDS Day theme is "Stop AIDS; Keep the Promise - Leadership." Educate yourself, and most importantly, take the lead in helping to educate others.

From Alert's World AIDS Day site's section on the United States:

HIV and AIDS affect all sectors of American society – men and women, young and old, black and white, gay and straight, rich and poor. The impact of AIDS has nevertheless been more serious among some groups than others. In the early years of the epidemic, the most commonly identified ‘vulnerable groups’ in America were men who have sex with men, injecting drug users, haemophiliacs and Haitians.

Today, AIDS continues to infect thousands of gay and bisexual men and injecting drugs users every year, but it has also become a serious problem among heterosexual African Americans, and the Latino population is increasingly affected too. The table below shows how the burden of AIDS among various ethnic groups compares to the percentage of the population that each ethnic group represents. Further statistics can be found on our African American HIV and AIDS statistics page.

Discussion of the current epidemic in the black community can be found on our HIV/AIDS and African Americans page.

There are also variations in the geographical distribution of AIDS cases across the USA. Once an epidemic that was concentrated mainly in the gay populations on the East and West coasts, AIDS has also now taken hold within Black and Latino communities in many Southern states. The map on the right shows how AIDS cases were distributed across the US in 2005.

More AIDS statistics for the USA are available in our HIV statistics section.


***

And on a related note, here are two articles, one a report summary, the other a news article, discussing some of the pressing issues confronting US AIDS prevention efforts and the discussion of public health issues in two of the nation's urban centers:

Kaiser Family Foundation: Washington, DC, Releases New Data on HIV/AIDS

New York Times
: "In a Progressive State, a City Where Gay Life Hangs by a Thread," on Newark, New Jersey.