Monday, November 10, 2008

Monday Notes

Many thanks to Joshua Marie Wilkinson and his colleagues at Loyola University of Chicago who hosted the talks + reading that I was fortunate to participate in last Friday. Joshua, who opened the event by reading one of Barack Obama's poems, invited six of us to speak about poetry and something else we were doing that inflected our work, and my co-speakers offered great remarks. Jennifer Karmin spoke about poetry and activism; Robyn Schiff (I miss her!) spoke about poetry and publishing; Abraham Smith spoke about poetry and performance; Quraysh Ali Lansana (Q!) spoke about poetry and history; and Lisa Fishman spoke about poetry and farming. I read some remarks on collaboration in relation to my work, extending it to my translation projects (another form of collaboration, and one in which this blog has played a great part), and some art stuff. (Dear collaborators...hint, hint....)

After a delicious lunch, we all read briefly, and then I had to go catch a plane, missing what was billed as a "snow storm." I was very glad to see so many local poets and students there (a group from the university came down), and to see them really getting into the poetry as well.


Rapturous reviews of Roberto Bolaño's final, unfinished magnum opus 2666 (FSG, 2008) have been appearing over the past week. The persnickety Adam Kirsch says that it has the "confident strangeness of a masterpiece." (Francisco Goldman's summer 2007 review of a portion of Bolaño's collective oeuvre, including the Spanish version of 2666, can be found here.) The Spanish version graced my carrel at the library this summer, though I wasn't able to get far in it. Would that there were a parallel vein of time.... But the English translation, by Natasha Wimmer, who deserves an award, is out, and although I have only grazed a few pages, I can say, as I did in an email to Reggie H., that it confirms for me that Bolaño will join that cadre of exception writers since 1900--Rilke, Proust, Tolstoy, Hughes, etc.--who are among the finest in the literary tradition but never received the Nobel Prize. You can get the book in one hardcover volume or a boxed three-volume set; I bought the box. Bolaño originally suggested five volumes, but his heirs and executors wisely, it seems, kept the entire work (mostly) together.

Also receiving rhapsodic treatment is Toni Morrison's new novella, A Mercy (Alfred A. Knopf, 2008). Reviewer after reviewer discusses its exploration of slavery's early form and praises its poetic language, tautness, haunting qualities, and links it to Morrison's masterwork, Beloved (1987). Even the nation's toughest critic, who hasn't spared Morrison harsh criticism in the past, is jumping on the bandwagon. If you missed her reading selections from it on NPR, you can hear it here. It's on my list, for the winter break...

One of the books that recently crossed my desk is Asher Ghaffar's Wasps in a Golden Hum Dream a Strange Music (ECW Press, 2008). It looks gorgeous, from cover to cover, and I've also added it to my list!


Family membersOne of the most dismaying bits of recent news was the horrific school collapse in Pétionville, Haiti, just outside the capital, Port-au-Prince. More than 94 children and adults have died, and the international search and rescue effort, which did pull 4 surviving children from the rubble on Saturday, will now likely turn to a recovery of bodies. Up to 250-300 people were thought to be in the building at the time of its collapse. (Above left, a woman in anguish for her missing child is assisted by relatives at the site of the collapsed the church-run school, La Promesse, in Petion-ville, Haiti on November 10, 2008, AFP/Getty Images.)

It now appears that the school's owner, Pastor Fortune (Fortin?) Augustin, who had voluntarily turned himself in, is being charged with involuntary manslaughter; when the building collapsed, workers were adding an additional floor, and the pastor is alleged to have constructed the building without engineering help. Haiti is still trying to recover from the quartet of devastating storms which have battered the Caribbean islands since the late summer. Haiti lost 2/3rds of its crops and entire neighborhoods still remain under water.

If you are able to, you can contribute relief funds here or here.


I'm not going to speculate on President-Elect Barack Obama's transition team or his putative cabinet picks, though I found this short New York Times piece on Valerie Jarrett quite illuminating. Really, I think we should just wait and watch. Despite the right's claims that he was the second coming of V. I. Lenin (yeah, right!), and the desire among some in Washington for the second coming of Dwight Eisenhower (whom the contemporary Republicans have banished from their roster, along with other decent Republican presidents like Teddy Roosevelt and Calvin Coolidge, who was Ronald Reagan's favorite), he has mostly been a center-left legislator, both in the Illinois State Senate and the US Senate. This maps closely onto what I read as his ideological orientation, which is center-left, with the emphasis on the center. Obama isn't and hasn't ever been a left radical, though he often announces leftist intentions and demonstrates progressive tendencies. But he will likely govern from the center-left, perhaps further to the left, because he received a greater popular vote mandate, than any of his previous three predecessors. He is, nevertheless, going to appoint DLC-prototype folks like Rahm Emanuel and his ilk to high posts, bring in a host of Clintonistas, and draw upon the University of Chicago braintrust he hung with for quite some time, and not just the progressive ones.

Some of the early news we're getting, such as his team's careful review of Bush's executive orders and his plan to reverse many of them and his intention to close the abomination at Guantánamo Bay, more than balance out his accommodating stance towards someone like Connecticut's independent senator, Joe Lieberman. Uggh!

Now, can anyone scare up some inauguration tickets for C, me, and family members? (Former!)


Speaking of Obama, poet John Murillo sent along a link to an article noting the President-Elect was recently spotted carrying a copy of Derek Walcott's Selected Poems (Edward Baugh, ed., FSG, 2007) as he was dropping his daughters off at school. I noted to the CC folks that "So much marvelous work in this collection that I'm sure hits Obama at a very deep level," and posted the poem I'd posted on here a month ago, "As John to Patmos." Given that he's already alluded to Langston, Alice Walker (tell me you knew that!), and others, I thought that we might hear snippets of Walcott and many others from our literature in his speeches, including his inaugural. Get your ears and eyes ready!


One of the greats to remember and honor: Miriam Makeba. Singer, actress, activist-fighter, visionary, "Mama Africa": beautiful. She was 76.


  1. John:
    You are correct that the RePubs have eliminated Ike from their honor roll...but you may have noticed mentions of Teddy Roosevelt during their convention, as McCain Palin attempted to link themselves to "The Original Maverick" of their party. Of course that got dropped VERY quickly once the economy tanked, since TR was one of the fathers of government regulation in the US! McCain did invoke him during his concession speech, noting how TR had Booker T Washington to the White House for lunch -- and received virulent abuse afterward for doing so.

    BTW: I have to wonder what the (I'm sure) mainly black and 'coloured' long term staff thinks of the new occupants of 1600 Penn Ave!:)

  2. Reggie, very true; and while I have serious disagreements with Roosevelt's imperialism and warmongering, and Euro-Americo-centric and sometimes racist approach to the world, as a president and government leader his emphasis on reform and particular progressive issues continue to be admirable. He is one of those figures who was adopted and then rhetorically jettisoned, I think, because the contemporary GOP has boxed itself into such an ideological corner that it has very few icons it can extol. Lincoln and Washington (not a Republican, of course), who are trans-ideological in a way (and dehistoricized), and then Reagan. George H. W. Bush wasn't even sufficiently right-wing enough for them, and from a tactical standpoint Nixon is one of their models, but they can't really claim him for obvious reasons. As I said, I'm surprised they don't latch onto Coolidge, as Reagan did, because he was the epitome of a competent, laissez-faire Republican, with an iconic anti-labor, law-and-order module in his past, and comparatively little racist taint. But then you'd have to read a bit more history and also tamp down ideology a bit to accept someone like him if you were a contemporary Republican, no?