Saturday, September 27, 2008

Signal On + Memorials + Debate #1 + Brazilian Poets in Chicago

I'm back in the Chi, classes are underway. This fall's load looks to be a little lighter than the past few years, since I'm teaching only a graduate workshop and an undergraduate honors seminar, and I'm supervising just a few undergraduates and graduates, all of whom are sharp and talented as they come, so it should be an enjoyable quarter.


In the time since I last posted, nearly a month ago, so much has happened on many fronts out there in the wide world, but I do want to note a few things, starting with the passing of a few important people: the first is Reginald Shepherd, a poet I knew, though not well, but whose poetry and criticism I grew to appreciate a great deal. His early and untimely death still shocks me. On the CC list I wrote the following:

I remember his essay, "On Not Being White," in Joseph Beam's anthology In the Life, which annoyed me for a good while until I reread it and made an effort to understand where he was coming from.* I also remember when Reginald's first book came out and all the buzz around it, and how I excited I was to meet him for the first time back at one of the old OutWrite conferences in Boston, in the late 1990s.

He could be, to use Shakespeare's and everybody else's phrase, a piece of work, but he was certainly a brilliant poet and a lively critic. His passing is a real loss for Black, Black LGBTQ, and American poetry, but I hope he finds real peace.
His lyrical facility, the deep and relentless exploration of desire and yearning for love and acceptance that surged through his stanzas, his skill with metaphor and a particularly deft gift for the music of rhyme are all hallmarks I register when I think of his work. Without hesitation I can say that Reginald was easily one of the most important Black/gay poets to emerge over the last 25 years, and I'm very sorry that we have lost his voice. He was only 45, and leaves his partner, Robert Philen, and many family members.

Also, Edgardo Vega Yunqué, the Puerto Rican/Nuyorican author, also passed away earlier this month. I met him once, at a reading featuring some of New York's important Latino writers that I helped coordinate at one of my former jobs. I wasn't at all familiar with his work, but hearing Vega Yunqué read and talk about his life and work, he struck me as a real treasure. Original, funny, feisty, cantankerous, and like so many, deserving of greater honors and attention than he ever received. After the reading I went and found some of his work, which reminded me in many ways of Ishmael Reed, not least in its caustic humor and social criticism. Like Ishmael, Vega Yunqué was a social activist, and played a key role in building and nurturing Puerto Rican/Nuyorican/Latino letters and arts in New York; he was one of the founders of the vital arts center Clemente Soto Vélez Cultural Center on the Lower East Side. He was 72.

Then there was the news of the tragic death of one of the most celebrated writers of the contemporary era, David Foster Wallace. I've taught his work a few times over the years, and consider his story "The Girl With Curious Hair" to be a comic masterpiece. I'm less a fan of his novel, Infinite Jest, which I admit I advanced only about 300 pages into, but whatever my thoughts about that work, I must say that Wallace was blindingly talented and offered one of the most influential, ironic takes on our society to be found in recent literature. A huge loss.

And then yesterday I read about the passing of one of the consistently superb actors--and activists--of the last half of the 20th century, Paul Newman, at 83. Very sad.


I watched the debate between Senators Barack Obama and John McCain last night. My own thoughts about the contest aren't important, because it appears that Obama achieved what was most necessary: positive reviews by many in the influential establishment media, and very positive reviews by independent voters and in quick post-debate polls. While I will definitely be watching the Vice Presidential debate between Joe Biden and the walking disaster known as Sarah Palin, I'm not sure if I can bear another Obama-McCain talkfest, especially if Obama, however successful his tactics, refuses to challenge McCain more and if McCain's rage and contempt have him seething like an old and overheating radiator.


One highlight of this week was the series of readings in Chicago by four noteworthy contemporary Brazilian poets, Maria Esther Maciel, Virna Teixeira, Paulo Henriques Britto, and Sérgio Medeiros. The poets, from Belo Horizonte, Fortaleza by way of São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, and Matto Grosso do Sul via Florianópolis respectively, all appeared in the Brooklyn-based literary journal Aufgabe's issue no. 7 (2007), which featured a special section on Brazilian writing, edited by poet and translator Ray Bianchi. Ray also organized the readings, with Aufgabe editor E. Tracy Grinnell, and they took place at three different venues across Chicagoland: the university, the University of Chicago, and at Chicago's main branch Harold Washington Library in the Loop. Colleagues at the university, along with Litmus Press, the Chicago Poetry Project, and the Consulate General of Brazil in Chicago, all sponsored the events.

I attended the first reading, at the university, which my colleague, prodigious author and translator Reg Gibbons, had helped to coordinate and which he introduced. All four of the poets read either excerpts from longer work or a few short poems in Portuguese, and either they or Ray followed with English translations. One of the things that intrigued me was that two of the poets, Henriques Britto and Teixeira, both wrote in English as well as Portuguese; for Henriques Britto it resulted from his having spent part of his youth in Washington, DC, and he later told me that his first poetic language was English. Teixeira told me that she wrote in English when she was living for several years in Scotland, though now she wrote almost always in Portuguese. In the case of both poets, the English was idiomatic and lyrical, with Henriques Britto's more discursive and assured in its handling of rhyme, and Teixeira's grounded in concise and evocative imagery.

With regard to their Portuguese texts, I noted and asked about the differences during the question and answer session. Medeiros, who told me about a new language melding Portuguese, Spanish and Guaraní that was developing in southern Brazil (where he lives), read from a long poem that was both fragmentary and composed along the lines of what I would identify as the Language poetry movement's "new sentence." Maciel's briefer poems drew upon the rich homophonic, rhyming polysemous possibilities of Portuguese, which she contrasted with a few visually grounded prose poems. Teixeira's short poems moved from image to image, and, as became clear soon enough, were often inspired by works of art. The fourth poet, Henriques Britto, read poems in fixed forms: sonnets, a half-sestina, and a full villanelle. They sounded as adroit and nimble in Portuguese as in English.

When the writers spoke about influences, they listed many of the best known names in 20th century Brazilian poetry: Carlos Drummond de Andrade, João Cabral de Melo Neto, the two de Campos brothers, Augusto and Haroldo, and Cecília Meireles. They also mentioned English-language authors such as Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson, and the great modernists Wallace Stevens and, from a later generation, Elizabeth Bishop. In reading the poetry in the special section, I wondered about more recent national and international trends and influences, because a number of the writers are in conversation with them. Other questions during the Q&A touched upon the contemporary literary landscape in Brazil, national vs. regional trends there today, the presence and influence of literary journals (which Ray does touch upon in his introduction to the special section), and the problem of a readership for poetry. Three of the writers, I believe, are also university professors, though I didn't gather that any of them taught creative writing per se; that is, it seems, a peculiarity thus far of the English-speaking world (mainly the US, Britain, Canada, and Australia). Teixeira mentioned that she was a medical doctor, and the precision of her work, in retrospect, bore this out.

I attended a second round today at the Harold Washington Library, and got to hear all the writers read more of their work. Maciel read one of my favorite poems from the special section, a poem consisting only of a litany of single words separated by commas, which ends with "palavra" (word). It was titled "Palavras preferidas" in Portuguese, and "Favorite Words" in English. The translator managed to capture some of the richness of the original's sonorities and playfulness, but there is nothing like hearing "ferrugem" (iron) or "ruido" (noise) or "arara" (arara!) pronounced by a native Portuguese speaker, Brazilian or from Europe or Africa. It's almost as if paper's crinkling in the mouth as a song emerges. Lovely: amável!

The event was heartening on many levels, but I also hope it's a signal that more such events will be possible in the future.

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