Sunday, March 09, 2008

The Wire: Finis + Travels & Brain Camp

The Wire: is it really over? What a finale! I know folks who haven't yet seen all the prior four seasons, so I'll keep my thoughts to a minimum, but what a series of climaxes and denouements, with narrative braiding and unexpected twists superior to many a novel out there. Another of the strongest and most appealing aspects of the show for me was the way that David Simon, his writers and producers, and his cast, maintained a consistency and depth of characterization over multiple seasons; the only character whose motivation was least clear to me this season was Kima, which I attribute to the writers' inability to find the right character to take the potentially devastating steps she did. Who else could have done it? The characterizations of the newsroom people, save Gus Johnson, were also shallower than what Simon and company served up in previous seasons, and I attributed this to the lack of narrative space and time to fill them out. 10 shows simply were not enough. I cannot figure out what drove the yuppy reporter to his unethical actions, because even his early statement and demonstration of his ambition rang more than a little hollow--and I can't attribute it solely to bad acting--and yet his behavior, reflecting the many journalistic scandals over the last ten years, was all too plausible.

My favorite final notes tonight included the utterly cynical and predictable take on the newspaper industry, with the racial and gender critiques woven in without being uttered; the ridiculously random yet perfect resolution to the "homeless killer" plotline, with its manifold ramifications for all involved; Marlo Stanfield's return, replete with a bit of streetfighting, to the only thing he truly knows; Daniels' final demonstration of an inner ethical compass, despite the consequences, as a counterstatement to the cynicism filling the air of nearly every other space in the show; and little Michael's figurative and literal reprise of the series' anti-hero, Omar, with a hooded accomplice in tow. (Bernie, Reggie and I had broached a possible reading of this after a domestic scene early this scene.) The show's culmination also represented one of the best multi-season explorations of local and state politics that I can recall. I told C that given how close the show sometimes hewed to reality down there I imagine Maryland's governor, the former Baltimore mayor Martin O'Malley, is probably more relieved than almost anyone else that it's finally ended. Then again, I think the most relieved party may be the Baltimore Sun.


This past week was like brain camp! I want to go back! (Photos coming soon....)

After getting an opportunity to spend some time at home, on Tuesday evening I participated in a Poets House-sponsored panel, The Harlem Renaissance Revisited, which included the marvelous scholar-poet Evie Shockley, who inimitably brought to light the work of poet Anne Spencer, and the amazing multitalented duo Mendi + Keith Obadike, who spoke about the influence of several Harlem Renaissance-era musicians and poets on their own work. I offered some remarks on a longtime hero, Richard Bruce Nugent, whose life and works, such as "Smoke, Lilies and Jade," like other pathbreaking texts from this period and group I see as being integral, in key ways not only to the subsequent development of Black queer literary and cultural production, but also to Black avant-garde and American avant-garde traditions. Amiri Baraka drawing from the notebooks of Nugent and Hughes, Hurston and Spencer: can you picture it? Before the panel, I met with several Borough of Manhattan Community College classes, and answered their questions on the Harlem Renaissance, which ranged from the paucity of high profile female poets, to why Langston Hughes got so many props, to when exactly the Harlem/New Negro Renaissance ended and why. Great questions, and many thanks to the professors and students, one of whom was analyzing a Langston Hughes poem as we walked to the auditorium--you gotta love it!

I was so glad that friends like Tisa, Patricia Spears Jones, and Kaemanje were present, and it was also a pleasure to see Tom Wirth, who edited the Nugent omnibus volume, Gay Rebel of the Harlem Renaissance (Duke) several years ago, and passed on a copy of Nugent's posthumous roman à clef, Gentleman Jigger, which he edited and I am reading now and cannot put down! Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Countee Cullen, Carl Van Vechten, Aaron Douglas, Alain Locke, W.E.B. DuBois, A'Lelia Bundles, and many other high-profile Harlem Renaissancers make their appearances herein, sometimes to shocking effect. Had he published this back when he wrote it, he not only might have provoked Wallace Thurman--a central figure ("Rusty") in the text and the foil of Nugent's alter ego, "James 'Stuartt' Brennan"--whose Infants of the Spring is like a mirror of this text (Nugent calls the Thurman character a "plagiarist" in the book, though Wirth's introduction argues that the matter remains unresolved), to an even earlier death, but he might have found himself exiled from New York permanently. I recommend it, and if I hadn't already crammed my spring course with reading material (how on earth is that going to work?), I'd be adding it to the list. Thanks to Stephen Motika of Poets House, and Alison Meyers of Cave Canem, among many others, for making this event possible.

On Wednesday I flew out to Indiana University to participate in a reading with Evie Shockley; our host was the gentle, brilliant, beautiful poet-scholar Ross Gay, along with poet Cathy Bowman, who heads the Creative Writing Program, and Margo Crawford, one of the smartest people I have met. (Margo's mind moves like subatomic particles, and I'm not kidding.) The reading was lots of fun: I read a new story, and Evie TORE IT UP with her poems! I had never heard her read more than a poet or two from her collection, A Half Red Sea--in fact, I don't think I'd ever heard Evie read outside of a CC reading, incredibly enough--so this opportunity was platinum. She also read newer poems whose concision, subtlety and punch could serve as models for any poet, and three final pieces which closed out the evening perfectly. Along the way she invoked Ella Fitzgerald, Henry Bibb, Gwendolyn Brooks, mathematics, Nappyphilia, and countless other things in utter congruence in that way that only Evie can. If only I could figure out a way to bring her and Ross to the university, at least for a day! I will only add that Ross's introductions set the bar high, and you know you gotta bring it when he sets the standard. Later we all hung out, and I got to chat with Cathy and Margo, and Ross and Evie, and another colleague of theirs, who wrote an award-winning bio of Nella Larsen, and had the sort of conversation I often dream would or could occur regularly in these parts. The next day we met with some of the graduate writing students, and Ross, Margo and they all posed excellent questions, with Evie supplying her customary super brain power, and some of which I didn't think of the answers to until I was on the plane back to O'Hare, but what can you do? I still ran my mouth. Oh--and the "non-objective" was part of the philosophical underpinnings of the Black Arts Movement, referring back to the central African principle of muntu. If only I'd have thought of that definition a few days ago. As I said, what can I do? Nevertheless, I felt like my head had expanded from all I learned and I was in one of the best moods I could imagine in Chicago in a long time, even after I got on the road and nearly destroyed my axle on a pothole the size of Lake Michigan.

Then it was back to grind, but Friday provided a LOT more brain-nourishment when, after meeting with highly accomplished prospective graduate students to the English department, and a very talented young person who's been admitted to the African American Studies program, I went to hear Gayatri Spivak give a talk on "Rethinking Comparativisms." One of the most eminent of my colleagues and her former graduate school classmate at Cornell, Samuel Weber, introduced her, and then he let her do her thing. I have seen Spivak talk before, and I place her in the avatar category, so it was a thrilling ride she took me and everyone else on, not only in the lecture, which was supposed to include clips from Sissoko's film Bamako (Keguro, I thought of you!)--only no one could figure out how to work them in that "smart" lecture hall, which meant that Spivak had to act them out! Just imagine that!--but also in the question and answer period. Afterwards, I was able to attend a dinner with Spivak, whom I didn't get to speak to until the very end, as she was departing, but I did meet some new colleagues in the German and Comparative Literature departments, with whom I gabbed about several figures we were mutually interested in (Yannis Ritsos, Alexander Kluge, Immanuel Kant, Walter Benjamin, etc.), I learned a strange new fact about how many Enlightenment philosophers and mathematicians made their keep, and I got to chat at length with a colleague I rarely see on campus, Jillana Enteen, who had some perceptive and enlightening takes on the talk.

One aspect of the talk that most interested me was Spivak's reading of Pascale Casanova's The World Republic of Letters, a book of the month pic on here years ago and also the subject of a short post; I even taught a little of the book a few years ago, to the bafflement of my students, in part because Casanova's theorization was only tangentially germane, though useful I thought, to the subject matter at hand. But Spivak's breakdown of the terms of Casanova's premise, concerning minor literatures' relations to the hegemonic languages and their literatures, as well as the larger global field of literary production and publishing, caught my attention, I only wished she'd have said more about this, though it was clear that her argument's aims were different: "policy," as she put it. And not policy regarding the question of global literary production, reputation-making and historicization, which are Casanova's, as I read them. For that's for another day, of course; perhaps when Casanova returns to the university to speak, since I unaccountably missed her talk here a month ago.

Then on Saturday evening, I went to see Toni Asante Lightfoot participate in a dance performance at Link's Hall in Boystown: Choreographing Coalitions: Dancing the Other in the Self's first show, which included dances by Darrell Jones, Gesel Mason and David Roussève. I'm nobody's dance critic, so I'll keep it brief: Gesel performed two works, the first a brief, smooth piece "No Less Black" (2000), with a text she'd originally written in 1998 or so, which Toni read in accompaniment. After a video interlude, the second startled me beyond speech: called "Jumping the Broom" (2005), it was one of David Roussève's pieces, and linked the horrors encountered by two enslaved people who dared marry to the battles facing many LGBTQ people who want to marry nowadays. As it was a Roussève piece and given Gesel's performance, which was visceral in the pain and struggles it portrayed (she was bound wrist and ankle, crawled and dragged herself across the floor, and wrenched the text out of her core), the equivalence (the subject of Spivak's critique) came off as fitting. After a short break, during which I wasn't sure where my emotions were, a group of five very fabulous young people, four gorgeous young people (Darrell Jones, Damon Demarcus Greene, JSun Howard, and Awilda Rodriguez Lora, accompanied I'm told by a member of the House of Avant-Garde who was wearing a gas mask and white jumpsuit!) began practicing for their piece, excerpts from third Swan from the end (2007), which was perhaps the blackest, gayest dance performance I've seen that wasn't in a club or at a spot like the old, pre-Giuliani West Side Piers. Evoking all manner of black gay public and private (dance) performance and gesture, from keekeeing to vogueing to strutting to runway walking to bodily reads, all to a House soundtrack, these four dancers turned it out (serve!), and even managed to include a hilarious bit that C and I had witnessed live years ago at the Octagon, a performance of one of Oprah's bits from The Color Purple! (Darrell Jones told me afterwards that he indeed gotten it from there!) Had they included Harmonica Sunbeam/Sheila Noxzema's Spiderman hustle, which C and I also saw live years ago (and which I hope appears in a film somewhere someday), I swear I would have jumped through the roof in astonishment or joined them myself. As it was, it was hard not to stay in my seat. Part of what made it all so much fun was that Krista, Abegunde, Toni (after her performance), and Toni's husband Setondji were there, and did our own keekeeing. Thank you Gesel, thank you Darrell and your crew, and thank you Toni, for always coming up with ways to make Chicago feel like one of the most exciting cities in the world!

Tonight I finished an introduction that has been needling me for weeks, to another author's book, and my brain is tired, which means back to the grindstone!


  1. ENVY!!!

    Yes, I admit it, perfectly envious!

    I did Nugent for my job talk, describing him as a theorist of diaspora in "Smoke, Lilies, and Jade." But that's another conversation. I would love to see a full-scale conference on him, especially devoted to his art, which continually refuses my attempts to make sense of it. We'll see what I can do with/at my new institution.

    Job talk done. Job acquired. Diss revision in process. Life moves at the pace of commas.

  2. Envy about...what, exactly? You know you're fierce. I'd love to see/hear your Nugent paper. I'm thinking of that work and can see some diasporic threads, though I think it right now in terms of its exploration of performativities of dandyism and bohemianism, tracing them all the way back to the likes of Baudelaire and Poe, via Wilde and Beardsley, two of his "decadent avatars," which stand right at the fore of Gentleman Jigger. His alter ego "Stuartt Brennan" is so deliciously outrageous, pompous, lazy, and superior--and tenuously "Negro"--that I want to shriek half the time after he has uttered his newest outrage or put someone or other in her or his place. His slipperiness around sexuality is also delicious. One fascinating side note is that Nugent may actually be related to Phyllis Schlafly, of all people! Can you imagine that? Only in the United States!

    Congrats on the new job (yes?), the diss and all this good news! Pray tell, where is it? And are we going to edit a volume of papers on Nugent? Wouldn't that be fun?

  3. Spivak is only, like, my favorite theorist in the world. Not that I understand a word she writes, but I like to try. Plus the movement through poetry, theory, performance really is a queer dream come true. (Perhaps my dreams are more modest than they should be.)

    Nugent is in process. It will be published shortly. As for editing his papers, bestill my heart! Dream come true. I still have dreams of getting a large enough grant to reissue Adrian Stanford's volume of poetry, which I've had much fun writing about, and Hemphill's Conditions and Earth Life, if only because I fetishize individual volumes and, much as I like Ceremonies, I think it loses something valuable. And, of course, Dixon's Change of Territory (too lazy to italicize). Perhaps in a future life I'll start working toward getting some really vital, and foundational, black gay texts of the 70s and 80s back in print (if only people will buy them!)

    Job, Maryland, College Park. Apparently I have a knack for choosing schools with impossibly long names. At least it's easier to say than Urbana-Champaign. And thanks on the congrats. Still doesn't feel real.

    Fierce? Not really. Trudging toward somewhat less than naive, with the mostly firm conviction that I can distinguish simile from metaphor

    Be careful. I might rope you in for a planned project on Nugent's art, life, relationship to Victorianism, aestheticism, modernism, and the HR. It will be the "big" Nugent conference, once I catch my breath, of course.

  4. what's good J!
    this is baraka de soleil sending u a shout out from Brooklyn...
    am curating a series at links hall upcoming in the fall of 08 - studies n black- and was peeping out who was in the chi-town area that i could vibe with around this series...
    in the cosmos of the world web i came across you bruh!
    indeed am blessed with your words and knowledge....hope to connect with you wherever u may be...hit me up - check out and may the force be wit ya!