Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Third Blogoversary! + Poem: Jay Wright

It's hard to believe that 3 years have passed since I first started this blog. It's in a few key ways since I started it. Originally I blogged almost daily, focused a lot more on literature and less on politics (though my criticisms of the W administration were there early on), and I tried to open the theater to as many of my interests as I could think of. One of the major ones, as any periodic readers of this blog know, is poetry.

The poetry is still here, as are the quotes, the quasi-reviews of films and occasionally books and TV shows, squibs on visual art, Diasporic issues, translations, and many of the other elements from early on, along with YouTube clips, a lot more politics, interviews, chatter about gardening, and my photos, which are always easier to post than prose. The orthographic errors remain (my ability to read computer screens diminishes with each passing day), and I apologize, but I do have less time than ever to revise these entries, which take longer than they did in the past (is my brain shrinking as well?), so my apologies in advance and after the fact (of your reading).

Before I lost my counter (remember when the blog went white as Blogger was transitioning it over to the new system?), I was approaching 100,000 page views, and that blip set me back to about 79,000, but the blog is up to 128,000+ viewers and to all of you and the many bloggers who've posted in the comments and whom I check out regularly, I say:

THANK YOU FOR DROPPING IN! (Yes, that's enthusiastic shouting.)


My very first post focused on poetry, and more specifically, on none other than Jay Wright, who is, as anyone who knows me well, one of my favorite poets and avatars (is that a kosher idea these days?). Among his poetry's many virtues, I love its high lyricism, its carefully thought-out formal structure, its grounding in crosscultural and Diasporic spiritual systems, its thematic and linguistic complexity and range, and its subtle and not infrequent returns, at the least expected times, to the vernacular, to the blues, to the voices heard across the field or fence or through the kitchen's screen door. Its soul: it's soul.

Fitting then that I quote a snippet from one of his two newest books (he has published four in the last year, and not one of them is less than stellar), Polynomials and Pollen: Parables, Proverbs, and Praise for Lois (Dalkey Archive Press, 2008). This is from a sequence called "IMÙLÈ," a Yoruba word meaning "covenant and covenant meal," an important ceremonial and socio-religious element in traditional Yoruba and other societies. The meal is shared by humans and divinities. (Ogungbile, 2001; Awolalu and Dopamu, 1979). I'll be quoting from his other new book, "The Presentable Art of Reading Absence (Dalkey Archive Press, 2008, in a later act. But here's an excerpt from the eponymously alliterative collection:

From "IMÙLÈ"

would worry
the most intrepid soul.
Seven A.M. Teacups
and the plasticity of sleeplessness.
This down,
if you set,
a morning bemused
by the raw presence
that greets you in Dundee,
such confusion
of conversations
concerning caraway and cunning
a dory that cannot dock
in this dream, and
a memory of liquids
and fricatives
given the pleasure place ensures.
All is a hallowed bushing,
undamaged, turbulent tongues.

Copyright © Jay Wright, from Polynomials and Pollen: Parables, Proverbs, and Praise for Lois, Dalkey Archive, 2008, p. 41.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

No More Russert-Williams + Oscar Notes

A modest request to MSNBC: would you please never have Tim Russert or Brian Williams moderate a debate again? Please?

Instead, why not draw up a list of 100 experts in a range of fields, and then have a computer randomly pick 5-10 of them to ask questions at one of these debates? 5-10 average citizens, also randomly selected after submitting questions, could also press the candidates. How much do you want to be that all 10-20 of these people would be more informed and less prone to quoting right-wing websites and asking "gotcha" questions than the dunderhead multimillionaire TV "journalists"?

As for the debate, I challenge anyone who claims Senator Obama doesn't have "concrete plans and he won't state them" to say so now if they watched it. (And please, friends, do not send me mass emails repeating or restating this particular bit of ignorance, I beg of you.) How he's going to pull some of them off remains a question. You and I might not agree with them. But he has "concrete plans" and more than "calls for hope" or whatever the knock is. As for Senator Clinton, she was evidently seething at Odreamy, who was cooler than he's ever been, even during the ridiculous Farrakhan question, throughout the entire event. I won't psychologize her, but it's clear to me that she really felt this was her moment, and it's slipping away. I wonder if she ever asks herself what might have happened if she had chosen the political career and Bill had remained the corporate lawyer, if she'd led Arkansas for several terms, and then attempted to become president, say in 1992, or now? How different might things be? Lots of counterfactuals there, but I wonder if it runs through her mind? She's dazzling smart and does have formidable political skills, but the Clinton baggage, so much of not of even of their making, is weighing her down. I don't think she's out, but from the media stories I read after the debate, they're already writing her epitaph.


I sat through the Academy Awards, after having to turn off my favorite TV show, The Wire, because I've been following C's example and viewing it via On Demand early in the week, and I could not bear seeing Omar Little (played by the inimitable Michael K. Williams), one of the most original and compelling characters ever to grace television, capped in the back of the head by one of Marlo Stanfield's mini minions again. Once was enough. It took me an entire season to get over the death of Stringer Bell (played by Idris Elba), and given how the series' creator David Simon hews to life's contingencies, ironies, and complexities, I knew Omar, as close to a latter-day fiction Robin Hood as you might find on TV, was probably going to get knocked off, but I still wasn't prepared for it. I asked Reggie and Bernie in an email if they thought another of Omar's fans, Mr. Obama, shed a tear as well. None of know, the verdict's out.

So back to the Academy Awards: I was bored to tears. John Stewart wasn't particularly funny, hardly any outrageous people acted or even stood out (except Tilda Swinton and Diablo Cody, see below), all of the actors presenting appeared to be striving really hard to look as bohemian as possible, while the actresses seemed to have been given strict rules about what to wear and how dazed to look when they took the stage, the Halle Berry gag went on too long, and those montages were like visual Lunestas.

One thing I did note, though, was how awful or lackluster so many of the films winning the Best Film award over the years were. The Life of Emile Zola, which won in 1937 over The Awful Truth and Lost Horizon? How Green Was My Valley, which won in 1941 over The Maltese Falcon, The Little Foxes (!), Suspicion (!), and Citizen Kane?? Around the World in Eighty Days, which in 1956 defeated Giant, The Ten Commandments, and The King and I? Of course there were some years, like 1950, where there were multiple great films, like All About Eve, which defeated Born Yesterday, Sunset Boulevard, and Father of the Bride, all excellent films, and the 1950s in general appear to have been a high point, but then you get decades like the 1960s or the 1980s--and the 1990s were the absolute bottom of the barrel, really--when it's as if the Academy had no criteria but box-office take or bluster in awarding the Best Film prize--but then I guess I should add that the nature of and changes in the American and global film industries perhaps is key to understanding how things played out.

Also, why did they leave poor Whoopi Goldberg out of the Oscar winners montage? She's now one of the stars of The View, so they really have got to stop their hating. (Pssst: W is at 19%, and still sinking!)

The show probably would been less of a snoozer if I'd seen more (any) of the movies, but of the two I most thought should get Oscars, the first didn't win (Persepolis!) and the second wasn't even nominated. My brilliant film-scholar colleague told me that the Academy (of Motion Pictures, that is) will be restructing the process for submitting foreign films in part because of what happened to the Romanian film I raved about the other day, 4 Months, though I thought a similar drama a few years ago was supposed to have changed things, but I could be wrong.

The highlight, as I told C, was seeing Cormac McCarthy in the audience. Yes, Cormac McCarthy. The same Cormac McCarthy who for decades has been notably reclusive, rarely giving interviews or readings. There he was, with a child or grandchild, grinning (all the way to the bank, but also with astonishment, joy and pride) at the victory of the Coen brothers' successful film translation of what is arguably his weakest novel. I credit Oprah Winfrey for his presence at the Oscars, because it was Oprah who picked The Road, his reader-friendly recent novel, for her Book Club, ensuring it millions of (new) readers and him millions of dollars, which might be enough of a motivator to get Thomas Pynchon or J.D. Salinger or Gayl Jones to make a public appearance I'm sure. And it's been nothing but great news for McCarthy since. A Pulitzer (two decades after the books that deserved it), lots of public adulation, and now an Oscar-winning film to top it off. (I hear that The Road will be a film soon, but it is too good, save for the ending, to resist butchering, so let's cross our fingers and knock on wood.) And the Coen brothers and the movie's producer, who thanked his male partner (go Hollywood!), paid tribute to McCarthy in their comments.

Speaking of Gayl Jones, an idea: Oprah, please use your considerable influence and wealth to start making movies of major African-American and Black Diasporic literary works of the 20th century. Please. Why not start with Corregidora, then try Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, Things Fall Apart, Dessa Rose, Nervous Conditions, Go Tell It On the Mountain, Vanishing Rooms, Salt, Soul Kiss, The Bride Price, and take your pick from The House Behind the Cedars, The Flagellants, Banjo, White Boy Shuffle, or Oreo? You singlehandedly could have directors like Julie Dash, Charles Burnett, Arthur Jafa, Spike Lee, Kasi Lemons, and so on, and the vast array of actors out there from across the Diaspora really burning up the screen! They'd have to give Oprah a special Oscar if she could pull this off, don't you think?

Back to the Oscars: the Coen brothers fascinate me. Always have. I love how they're continue to be so intensely idiosyncratic, which comes through in their aesthetic, and how they've been able to maintain it, to the extent possible in Hollywood, and get rewarded for it over the years. I also think it would be so cool to have a very smart, interesting, and equally strange sibling who utterly understood and whom you could do all sorts of projects with, over a lifetime. But then I know almost nothing about them and they could be at each others throats, though that wasn't the impression I've gotten whenever I've read about them or seen them on TV. I'd like to spend a week on set with them, just observing how they work together. And then maybe spend time with the Dardenne brothers, and see how they compare. (These two make an Oscar-worthy movie every time they call it a wrap.)

Among the actors receiving awards, I was surprised Julie Christie didn't receive the Oscar for Best Actress, but my colleague, mentioned above, said that Marion Cotillard really shone as Edith Piaf. I haven't seen that film, but her win only confirms my view that the Academy values mimicry and biopics, especially ones about foreign figures, over everything else. It does take talent to play someone else, but then isn't that what acting is in the most general and basic sense? And isn't it harder to realize a totally fictional character than one whose tics and mannerisms you can study? Tilda Swinton, of the boy-toy and menage à trois, received the Best Supporting Actress award, and cut the most unique figure. She often looks like the alien that I and a friend are convinced Nicole Kidman actually is (Tom Cruise, you know, we think is also one). Swinton's comments also had a nice spike, as opposed to the usual rambling and incoherence. If you have any clue you might be nervous, write out those thank yous on a sheet and tuck it. And above all, don't forget the loved one who's stood by you through thick and thin!

Poor Cate Blanchett, all that talent, all those great performances, twice playing Elizabeth I, and still no Oscar. I guess Kate Winslet decided to pass on the proceedings completely, since she's been dissed four times in a row (or is it five?).

I also liked how unnerved, spastic and thoroughly herself Best Screenwriter from an Original Screenplay Diablo Cody appears to be. I'd been repeatedly told that she was a former erotic performer with a distinctive personal voice and vision, and I'd imagined an utterly confident creature taking the stage, but she struck me as a quirky and delightful person who probably spends a lot of time staring at a computer screen and has an imagination that probably encompasses worlds.

I figured they weren't going to let Michael Moore anywhere near the stage, given his outburst a few years ago, but Sicko was one of his stronger efforts.

The rest of it, other than Ruby Dee, who has found the Fountain of Youth and isn't telling anybody, Javier Bardem, who looked so happy he was about to float off into the rafters, and Denzel Washington, who was sporting a hot Quo Vadis and barked out his words as if he was a drill sargent, was a blur. So many pale gowns and upswept hair. So many musical numbers whose singers sounded flat. So, so, so long. I hope they bring back Whoopi Goldberg or Chris Rock back as hosts, or perhaps try out Will Ferrell, Steve Carrell, Tina Fey, or someone along those lines. Dana Carvey. Mo'Nique. Someone with a sense of humor and enough zip to keep things lively.

Maybe the writers just needed a little more time. I'm glad they're back and got a workable deal, though.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Reviews: Persepolis, 4 Weeks, The Longing

I've been meaning to write a review of Persepolis for a week now, so here are few thoughts about most of the films I've seen of late. Reading the archives of this site, I cannot believe how many movies I used to go to or watch in a given week, but then I used to write a lot more and read for pleasure as well....


PersepolisTwo weeks ago, I saw Persepolis (2007, Vincent Paronnaud and Marjanie Satrapi, directors, based on the novels by Satrapi), the very faithful film adaptation of Marjane Satrapi's acclaimed graphic novels, Persepolis 1-4, which appeared from 2000 to 2003 in their original French, and then in translation as Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood (2003) and Persepolis 2: The Story of Return (2004), both from Pantheon. A good friend of mine, Phoebe M., originally recommended the first English translation, and I quickly fell in love with it, incorporating it into a literature course I taught a few years back. The books together narrate the unfolding of Satrapi's childhood and adolescence against the backdrop of political and social upheavals that occurred in her native Iran from the late 1977s, the last years of the Western-oriented and supported, authoritarian Shah, Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, through his fall and exile, which culminated in the Islamic Revolution of 1979-1980, and the subsequent, brutal 8-year Iran-Iraq War, launched by Saddam Hussein with the backing of then US-president Ronald Reagan and VP George H. W. Bush. (Reagan's administration later engaged in an illegal arms trade with Iran to fund the Nicaraguan contras, which exploded as the Iran Contra scandal, but none of this is part of Satrapi's interest or focus.)

In the film as in the book, Satrapi introduces us to her upper-bourgeois progressive, left-leaning family, including her liberated and often funny but deeply wise grandmother, widowed as a result of the Shah's machinations, her politically connected father, her mother, and other family members who initially embraced the Shah's overthrow only to find themselves in the crosshairs of the new regime, which grew increasingly severe, as the external threat (of war) combined with its internal, societal obsession with a puritanical understanding of faith and practice. Satrapi conveys the normalcy she as a upper-middle-class child is able to establish amidst this turmoil, which results in teenage rebellion and resistance fueled, in part, by Western culture in the form of punk rock music. (As a child of privilege (her mother is a descendent of the 19th century Shah, Satrapi naturalizes her own class and subject position, and one of the things I wanted to know about both in the book and the movie was how Iranian women and girls of other classes, especially the working-class and poor, experienced this period.) Eventually, her parents become so worried about her outspokenness that they send her off at age 14 to Vienna, Austria, where she develops tenuous friendships and hungers for the stability of home. She returns, marries, divorces, and then sets off again for Europe, this time wiser and surer of herself and her abilities, but also tempered by a deeper understanding and love of her troubled country. The genius of the graphic novels lies in Satrapi's imagery, which manages to be simultaneously pared down, both in color and formal terms, and richly evocative, in the the skillful narration of what is essentially a straightforward, moving memoir, and, in the seamless melding of the two.

The film, as I note above, almost directly mirrors the books, so the real novelty lies in the black-and-white animation, which removes the competitive and productive tension all graphic novels generate between the words as a conventional narrative text and the imagery, which often tells a parallel and sometimes different story, in favor of what is essentially a superbly rendered animated film for adults. Major French actors, including Catherine Deneuve (Mrs. Satrapi), Chiara Mastroianni (adult Marjane) and Simon Abkarian (Mr. Satrapi) provide the voices, and there's never a moment when the film flags or falters. A colleague who also saw the film mentioned that she wished there'd been something else, new, added, but for me, the transformation, which entailed considerable artistry in maintaining all that was best in the books while translating it into cinematic terms, succeeded tremendously. I'd read that the initial plans to dub the film with English-speaking actors has been dropped, but I hope that it occurs, not because I want to lose La Deneuve's dulcet tones, but because I think an English-language version may be more likely to reach many people in the US who know little to nothing about Iran and fail to see people like Satrapi's family (or Azar Nafisi's, whose Reading Lolita in Tehran offers a similarly personal though divergent take on the same era), whose humanity, whose very being, gets lost in fear-laden political abstractions.


Annamaria MarincaA few nights ago I saw 4 Weeks, 3 Months, 2 Days, the new and heralded film by Romanian director Cristian Mungiu. I'd been told that the film had moments of real horror, which I mistook for a "horror film," but after seeing it, I realized that the horror is ethical in nature, and definitely present, in both the theme and the plot. What's more, this is one of the most truthful and thought-provoking films I've ever seen in a while, and it treats the topic of abortion with the complexity it deserves, rather than the false choices and cop-outs (Juno, Knocked Up, etc.) that Hollywood is so fond of. I'd add that 4 Weeks could stand as one powerful though extremely disturbing response to anyone who wants to ban or severely limit abortions, birth control medications, or RU-486 and similar drugs but has not considered or refuses to consider the implications.

The scenario in brief is this: during the latter days of the Ceaucescu Communist dictatorship in Romania, a female college student, Gabita Dragut (Laura Vasiliu), with the aid of her much more outgoing and self-assured roommate friend, Otilia (Annamaria Marinca, above, seeks an abortion, which is criminalized. Ceaucescu fetishized childbearing and punished both the pregnant woman and the abortionist, as well as anyone assisting them, if they were caught. The pregnant young woman is no icon or heroine, but a passive-aggressive, manipulative, dissembling mess, which becomes quite important when we learn the awful ramifications of her approach to acquiring and then trying to deal with an unspeakably sleazy male abortionist, Viorel "Bebe," aka Mr. Bebe (Vlad Ivanov). Mungiu first presents Bebe as reasonable, almost sympathetic (he takes time to look after his mother, though the scene shows his harsh edges which, to my viewing, only augured trouble) and, given the circumstances, almost professional. But then he makes a shocking demand that only underlines the extreme vulnerability of the young women, and cruelty of the system they're living in and under. Yet from this point forward we witness in Otilia a fierce determination that sits beside an almost unvoiceable disgust and horror, a disgust at what she has been forced to submit to, at what she's allowed to occur, at what her boyfriend, whose snobbish urbane family casually treats her like a country bumpkin, cannot even begin to fathom, despite his obvious love for her. There's also disgust, verging on rage, that merges not with sympathy for, but with empathy--which it can only be, as she is as deeply implicated and involved in what transpires--with Gabita, and the ensuing portion of the film, whose details I cannot reveal, shows Otilia operating almost by sheer force of will, and pushes the notions of ethics and empathy to a near breaking-point. The acting by the leads is excellent, but Marinca especially burns a hole in the screen with her ferocity and determination, while Vasiliu's pusillanimous neediness raises your hackles as it's meant to. This is acting.

At least twice during the latter portion of the film, which pivots on several moments of rising suspense, I sat in uneasy, sometimes stunned silence. There is a moment where Otilia is wandering through the barely-lit streets of Bucharest, on a mission in the most literal sense, and the screen grows so dark it's almost unclear what's going on, and worse, what might happen, which induces a feeling of dread--pending horror--that's almost visceral. The film's conclusion includes a little joke, like a steam gauge quickly opened, that barely relieves all that has come before it, but it and the plate of food that embodying it serve as objective correlatives to what you eventually surmise: people, in this case women, may get by, may get on with their lives, may even still be able to live and hope and love, with a little or, in this case, a lot of help from their friends, after suffering, even under the harshest circumstances.

In this sense, the film was a provocative thematic companion to Persepolis, and I'm glad I saw them. Both films deserved Oscars tonight, but as of this entry, the first lost in its category, and the second was not nominated at all. I'll say it: typical!


SehnsuchtThough only 2 years old at most, my DVD player finally gave out, so I've been watching rented films on my computer, whose screen its on its last flicker. One film I rented recently, daring my computer not to fail, was Jürgen Brüning's 2003 film, The Longing (Saudade-Sehnsucht). I got it because of the Brazilian them, but I would not recommend this horribly acted, poorly plotted, melodramatic and maudlin wreck to anyone, except that it contains one scene that nearly makes up for the entire rest--waste--of the film. But you have to sit through the rest to get to it, and if you're not interested in depictions of Afrobrazilian gay people, then skip the film completely.

To summarize the plot, three 30-ish German guys are staying at an estate in Paraty (the picturesque historical town southwest of Rio de Janeiro, on the way to São Paulo state and city) belonging to the father of one of them, the spoiled and sulking Cyrus (Tarik Qazi), who is seeking his mother. The other two are a former hiphop (!) musician, Tim (Daniel Bätscher) who also mopes about when not blaring his awful raps, and the tragic blond Erik (Hendrik Schneider), who has lost money on the stock market and complains about being broke. To make money, the trio tape themselves having frolicking and broadcast it on the Net. (I'm not making this up.) They collectively treat the Afrobrazilian maid, Maria (naturally, played by Maria Lucia da Silva Ludwig), an adherent of the syncretic spiritualist faith Macumba (naturally), like she's an idiot, though you quickly learn she and a friend, also Afrobrazilian, hold a mutually dim view of these three. And rightly so. Things unravel from here, at least for Erik, who's involved in a deadly accident on the beach after a near rape (!), then, while in his own fit of guilt and pining, falls in love with an Afrobrazilian telenovela actor, Miguel (Aldri d'Anunciação) who just happens to hanging around a park in downtown Paraty, and, implausibilities of implausibilities, is also the brother of the man that dies in the encounter with Erik. At the funeral, Miguel's mother, played by the (very) famous and ageless Afrobrazilian actress Zezé Motta (star of Xica da Silva and other notable films--she was a replacement for Sonia Braga, who had the great sense to stay far away from this debacle), thinks Erik was her late son's friend and...well, it's just not worth going into. Suffice it say that somehow Maria, after taking Cyrus and Tim to a Macumba ceremony, with they both praise and mock, links up the hiphopper manqué links up with a real local hiphop group (his longing), and aids Cyrus in seeking his vanished mother (his longing). She isn't able to do much for Erik, who traipses after Miguel to Rio, where the telenovela is filmed, out of love.

There are more implausibilities, including a plane crash and so forth, but it's in Rio that the truly interesting scene occurs. Somehow or other, Miguel, who blurts out interesting comments about the plight of Afrobrazilians, decides to attend a meeting of a Black gay group. At this meeting, which is, I remember correctly, male and trans, a fiery young group leader, Fabio (Sérgio Menezes), holds forth on the social, political and cultural marginalization of Black Brazilians, gay Brazilians, and then gay Afrobrazilians. His disquisition is transfixing, and immediately made me wonder whether this was a documentary scene in an otherwise fiction film, or a fictional rendering of a real event. I also wondered whether the director, Brüning, had written his words, whether they were extemporaneous, or improvised, and whether such a speech, and moment, had ever been rendered in a Brazilian film. Of course I wanted to see more about this, which could have been its own documentary, short or feature, and which had the only decent acting in the entire film, but it was over in an eyeblink. Also fascinating was the fact that in the audience are identifical twin drag performers, the Dolly-Twins (Márcio and Marcelo Rodrigues), whose ultra-blasé responses and expressions provide a comical dose of irony, though they do keep listening until Fabio finishes and then jointly give him their "beijos" (kisses) before leaving to prepare for their star turn at a local bathhouse later on. The blond beloved shows up, in about as clumsy an irony as is possible, Fabio mildly reads Miguel, the lovers embrace, and the scene is over. We get no context for the scene except that Miguel is already portrayed as politically aware and that, to the extent that it's possible, he's partially out. But I kept thinking, what led Brüning to cram the scene in this film? Was it a desire to color the other narrative, along with familiarity with a similar group, Quimbanda Dudu, which exists in Bahia, and which is affiliated with Bahia's longstanding, activist organization Grupo Gay da Bahia? Have films of any sort been made about either group, or about Rio's gay rights group Arco Íris (Rainbow), or the ones in São Paulo? And given the rarity of representations of out Afrobrazilian LGBTQs, especially politically conscious ones, in documentary or fiction films, doesn't this warrant greater interest? It manages to queer an already queer film in ways I imagine the director never imagined. Nothing I've read about this film addresses this moment, which verges on breaking the diegetic trajectory of the movie.

In the accompanying documentary on the making of the film, Brüning does say that all his films are flawed, thus explaining the majority of what's on the screen, but with this one he wanted to portray something different about Black Brazilians than we usually see. (In the same documentary, Annunciação says that depictions of gays in Brazilian films are rare, though there are some high profile examples, in films such as Madame Satã, Carandiru, etc.) He certainly does that in this one scene, and it's a shame that he didn't decide to scrap the rest of what surrounds it and build on what I'm assuming is a minor cinematic revelation.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Michael Harper Wins Frost Medal

Congratulations go to Michael S. Harper (at right, Tufts University) one of my former teachers and favorite poets, who was awarded the 2008 Robert Frost Medal by the Poetry Society of America. Harper, the Kapstein University Professor at Brown University, and Poet Laureate of Rhode Island, is the author of 10 books of poetry, including the seminal volumes Dear John, Dear Coltrane (1970); History Is Your Heartbeat (1971), winner of the Black Academy of Arts and Letters Award for poetry; Images of Kin (1977), which received the Poetry Society of America's Melville-Cane Award; and Healing Song for the Inner Ear (1985). His most recent volume is Selected Poems (2002). In addition to the title poem "Dear John, Dear Coltrane," and many others, such as "Debridement," "Brother John," "Nightmare Begins Responsibility," Harper's "The Algiers Motel Incident" is a poem I refer to periodically just to study how a great socially and politically engaged poem, a poem so drenched with pain it could possibly implode, looks, unfolds, succeeds. A senior literary scholar once noted to me that many of Michael's poems are "occasional," and I always think of this in the best light: his reflections on history and society, on his family and friends, on himself, provoke a poetry that evokes an era, a moment, a place, words and lyrics themselves with materialist precision, as the poem itself, a dialectic between lyric self and world, enters into conversation with and ascends into the realm of song and myth.

Michael, a major proselytizer for earlier generations of African-American writers, has edited the Collected Poems of Sterling A. Brown (1980) and co-edited other important volumes, including The Vintage Book of African American Poetry (2000) and Every Shut Eye Ain’t Asleep: An Anthology of Poetry by African Americans Since 1945 (1994), both with Anthony Walton; and, with Yale professor Robert B. Stepto, the collection Chant of Saints: A Gathering of Afro-American Literature, Art, and Scholarship (1979), which is one of my favorite anthologies of Black literature. The Frost Medal also honors Michael's long career and impact as a teacher, and I can attest to what a precise and generous reader and guide he is; I know many poets who've studied with him at Brown or at workshops like Cave Canem would say the same. He was the first teacher since high school to require me to memorize a poem, and the poem I learned I still remember, Robert Hayden's "Those Winter Sundays." (This is one of the most beautiful poems in all of American literature.) For a while thereafter I returned to the practice of memorizing poems, which brought to mind those days sitting in Harold Bloom's NYU class on poetry alongside the wonderful poet Nuar Alsadir, as we watched him quote verbatim vast portions of the work of nearly every poet we discussed, as well as many others (from the Anglo-American tradition, of course). It also brought mind the time Galway Kinnell, who taught at NYU then, participated in a memorial reading for the late poet Etheridge Knight, and was able to recite most of one of Etheridge's poems by heart. I can't recall most of these poems nowadays, when my head is full of fiction, and I don't have many opportunities to require my students to memorize poems, I often will think of that process of layering Hayden's poem into my consciousness and what I learned from it, and utilize it in other ways not only when I'm in the classroom, but writing my own work.

Here is Michael's "Dear John, Dear Coltrane," from the eponymous book of that name, one of many testaments to Michael's immense vision and talent:

Dear John, Dear Coltrane

a love supreme, a love supreme
a love supreme, a love supreme

Sex fingers toes
in the marketplace
near your father's church
in Hamlet, North Carolina—
witness to this love
in this calm fallow
of these minds,
there is no substitute for pain:
genitals gone or going,
seed burned out,
you tuck the roots in the earth,
turn back, and move
by river through the swamps,
singing: a love supreme, a love supreme;
what does it all mean?
Loss, so great each black
woman expects your failure
in mute change, the seed gone.
You plod up into the electric city—
your song now crystal and
the blues. You pick up the horn
with some will and blow
into the freezing night:
a love supreme, a love supreme—

Dawn comes and you cook
up the thick sin 'tween
impotence and death, fuel
the tenor sax cannibal
heart, genitals, and sweat
that makes you clean—
a love supreme, a love supreme—

Why you so black?
cause I am
why you so funky?
cause I am
why you so black?
cause I am
why you so sweet?
cause I am
why you so black?
cause I am
a love supreme, a love supreme:

So sick
you couldn't play Naima,
so flat we ached
for song you'd concealed
with your own blood,
your diseased liver gave
out its purity,
the inflated heart
pumps out, the tenor kiss,
tenor love:
a love supreme, a love supreme—
a love supreme, a love supreme—

Michael S. Harper, "Dear John, Dear Coltrane" from Songlines in Michaeltree: New and Collected Poems. Copyright © 2000 by Michael S. Harper. Reprinted with the permission of University of Illinois Press,

Source: Songlines in Michaeltree: New and Collected Poems (2000).

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Upcoming Events + News of the Day

Vincent Woodard Updates: poet and scholar Rachel H wrote in the comment section to say that there'd be a tribute to Vincent tomorrow at the University of Colorado, Boulder.

In a comment at Reggie H's Noctuary, she gives more information:

The University of Colorado at Boulder is holding a memorial service for him, hosted by the English department, at 4pm on Wednesday, February 20th. At the Koenig Alumni Center near the corner of Broadway and University. I'll be there and I hope to post something here after the ceremony.

Andre Lancaster
sent Reggie info about a NYC memorial gathering for Vincent this upcoming weekend. The details:

Sunday, Feb 24 @ 1230 - 130pm
A Celebration of Vincent Woodard (d. 2008)
Brownstone Books
409 Lewis Avenue
Btwn Macdonough and Decatur Streets in Bed Stuy, Brooklyn
A/C to Utica Avenue

There will be small bites and juice. There will be time and space for readings, reflections, and creations to share. Please direct all questions to Andre Lancaster (347) 409 1091.



John Jordan from Phyre sent me the following info, for those in and around the ATL this upcoming weekend:


This Thursday, poets Evie Shockley and Olivier de la Paz will be reading in Brunswick, Maine...but if you can't attend, you can catch them online via the Fishouse (I always want to add the extra "h"):

From the Fishouse is pleased to present a reading by poets Oliver de la Paz & Evie Shockley this Thursday, February 21, at 7:30 p.m., which will be broadcast live on the Web:

Simply visit the above link any time after 7:30 and watch the reading as it happens from the comfort of wherever you may be.

For more information, and to listen to poems by Oliver de la Paz & Evie Shockley, visit From the Fishouse:

Also this Thursday, also on the East coast, in Philadelphia, Dr. Sweat + the Soundscribe:

Temple University Poets & Writers Series -- MENDI & KEITH OBADIKE
February 21 8:00, Room 222, Temple Center City Campus, 1515 Market, Philadelphia.

All events are free and open to the public.


And finally, in today's news:

Fidel Castro removes himself from consideration as president in the upcoming selection process, and his circle will choose a new leader, very likely his younger brother, Raúl. Will the USA restrain itself and not meddle, allowing the Cuban people in Cuba to choose their destiny? Don't bet on it. All 3 US major presidential candidates appear to be locked in the past on the issue.

Pakistan's dictator and W's best bud, ex-General Pervez Musharraf, is now barely hanging onto power after overwhelming legislative victories by the parties of assassinated former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto and banned former Prime Minister Nawaz al-Sharif.

The US Supreme Court rejected the American Civil Liberties Union's suit to sue the federal government over warrantless wiretapping. In a Catch-22 scenario, the 6th Circuit US Court of Appeals said that none of the parties on whose behalf the ACLU was suing could bring suit since they could not prove they had been monitored, because the W administration has classified the information and they have no access to it. The SCOTUS also declined a suite by historically Black institution Xavier University of Louisiana and other plaintiffs challenging denial of benefits by insurance companies, which said their policies did not cover flood damage. The 5th Circuit US Court of Appeals had issued this ruling.

Alain Robbe-Grillet, one of the avatars of the mid-century experimental French literary innovation, the nouveau roman (new novel), passes away at 85. A filmmaker as well, he wrote the screenplay for one of the remarkable films of the French New Wave era, Alain Resnais's 1961 masterpiece, (Dernière Année à Marienbad) Last Year at Marienbad. Not really a regret, but I always wished I'd had the opportunity to take a class with him when I was at NYU.

About 1,000 African-American students from HBCU Prairie View A&M University and their friends in Texas organized a 7.3 mile walk, from their campus to the Waller County, Texas seat, Hempstead, to vote and protest the County commissioners' decision to close nearly all the local early voting sites in favor of only one, in Hempstead. (As some of the comments in the Burnt Orange piece note, this isn't the first time Waller County has tried voter suppression games against Prairie View students.) As a result of this action and pressure from the Feds, more early voting sites will eventually open in Waller County.

And Senator Barack Obama wins his ninth consecutive primary or caucus, Wisconsin, handily, by a margin of 58%-41% (as of this entry). He's winning nearly all demographic groups, except elderly voters, and has cut into Hillary Clinton's key support group of female voters. John McCain has won both Wisconsin and Washington (which already had caucuses for both parties, so go figure.)

Monday, February 18, 2008

Quote: Gayatri Gopinath

Gayatri GopinathThroughout this essay ["Nostalgia, Desire, Diaspora,"] I have attempted to gesture toward the ways in which nation and diaspora are refigured within a queer diasporic imaginary. Nostalgia as deployed by queer diasporic subjects is a means for imagining oneself within those spaces from which one is perpetually excluded or denied existence. If the nation is "the modern Janus," a figure that gazes at a primordial, ideal past subject while at the same time facing a modern future, a queer diaspora instead recognizes the past as a site of intense violence as well as pleasure; it acknowledges the spaces of impossibility within the nation and their translation within the diaspora into new logics of affiliation. The logic of "pigs can't fly" becomes transformed, in the diaspora, into the altetrnative queer logic that allows for two brides in bed together, a marriage without grooms, pigs with wings. In other words, a queer diasporic logic displaces heteronormativity from the realm of natural law and instead launches its critique of hegemonic constructions of both nation and diaspora from the vantage point of an "impossible" subject.
--Gayatri Gopinath, "Nostalgia, Desire, Diaspora," in Theorizing Diaspora, Jana Evans Braziel and Anita Mannur, editors, Oxford: Blackwell, 2003, p. 275.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Obama's "Cult" + Nation of Dunces + Free Kosovo

I was waiting to see what the establishment media unveiled as its new line of attack against Barack Obama, which unsurprisingly runs in sync with what the Republicans are ginning up (Bush-worshiping New York Times reporter Elizabeth Bumiller noted on Chris Matthews's show this morning that the John McCain camp is also trying to spread this around like apple seed): Obama's enthusiastic supporters are a cult. And, what's more, it's "creepy." You got that right; and it wasn't the Republican National Committee, or McCain or Mike Huckabee. It was a CNN reporter. Other elements of the Obamaphobic discourse I wrote about last May are back in play, along with others: "all rhetoric, no policy," "a blank screen," etc. The "creepy" "cult," i.e., enthusiastic voters and campaign members, is one of the most outrageous I've seen yet. Where can they go from here? Oh, I'll recall who also is said to lead a cult, and whose name is similar to Obama's....

Meanwhile, Obama leads in Wisconsin, and may win his native Hawaii's primary as well. Washington State also has a primary, even though it's already held its caucuses, which Obama won handily, and which the GOP party boss there tried to shut down in favor of McCain. I guess a Republican do-over is, least from an ethical standpoint, probably a good idea.

I often read people saying, I like Obama (or I don't like Obama) but I don't know what he stands for. Or, Obama gives great speeches but I don't know what he stands for. Or, everyone says Obama's great but what does he stand for, nobody knows. My first response is: Google. My second is: Go to his website. But here are several links that answer the questions on his policies. I sent the first one, from Obsidian Wings, to my dear Socialist cousin, and he hasn't responded, but I take it that it's addressed his repeated stance that Obama doesn't have any policies to speak of and is an "empty suit." One of the most important things about what this link notes is that, having taught Constitutional law at the University of Chicago, Obama is deeply interested in Constitutional and governance issues, and one of the greatest challenges facing the next president, particularly if it's Obama or Clinton, will be to address the gross Constitutional abuses--such as the unitary executive and fourth branch doctrines and their practical application in signing statements--and crimes--like the warrantless wiretapping since 2001--that have occurred under W's tenure. The establishment media for the most part aren't interested in these issues, but the next president and the incoming Congress will have to be.

On a different note, Obama has some real devotees overseas, in Japan, and in Mexico, among other places.


The Washington Post dedicates part of today's Outlook page to author Susan Jacoby, whose new book, The Age of American Unreason, suggests that, as the voting in the last two presidential elections appears to have suggested to the rest of the world, we're a "nation of dunces." Actually, what Jacoby's article on the site, "The Dumbing of America," argues is that right now, ignorance and anti-intellectualism, and perhaps worse, anti-rationalism, have reached an abysmal level that threatens our standing in the world. Our incuriosity about anything outside our borders, in this age of accelerated globalism, transnationalism and transnational capital, as well as our government's dismissal of science, is negatively affecting our society and the rest of the world, and things could get even worse. Jacoby sites one of the most famous critics to have advanced this argument, historian Richard Hofstadter, whose famous Anti-Intellectualism in American Life is the ne plus ultra text on this topic (and from the right side of the spectrum, there was Allan Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind), and as he persuasively details, this has been a constant complaint about American life since the Colonial era. It's nothing new, and W is not the first president to not only espouse anti-rationalist positions, but promote them via the state. Rather he joins an ignominious line. But back to Hofstadter: he published his study in 1963 and died of leukemia in 1970, and Jacoby wonders what he'd think of the state we're in today, with all kinds of electronic googaws, postmodernism's intellectual fait accomplis, religious antirationalism taking an even deeper hold, and so on, all of which she's convinced is bad enough to merit a book-length jeremiad. Truthiness, anyone?

My regular environments self-select for a bias towards people who are moderately to highly informed, but from what I often see on TV, many people are ill-informed, though less so than some might think. This primary campaign season has shown up some of the pessimistic chatter about the electorate, I think, and the real danger, as has been clear for a while now, are the airhead, overpaid establishment media types, who couldn't parse an argument or provide content analysis if their lives depended on it. Can even one of them break down the FISA battles raging between the House Democrats and W and his partisans without regurgitating wholesale the fearmongering nonsense from the White House? I thought not.

If you have thoughts and questions on the topic, you can pose them to Jacoby directly here. She'll be answering them this week.

Also on the page are psychologist Howard Gardner's discussion of contemporary literacy (and orality), "The End of Literacy? Don't Stop Reading," and a problematic article, by Randy Salzman, about non-readers in a courthouse in Charlottesville, "Not Reading an Iota in America." Yes, I know that reading is in crisis, but this her complete liberal blindness to her class position and her extrapolation of the social contexts and terms of the book she's reading, Azar Nafisi's Reading Lolita in Tehran, raised questions I don't think she's even aware of. Maybe some of those people staring blankly ahead have things on their minds they want to be concentrating on, and reading anything might be a distraction. Just a thought.

Finally, speaking of foreign books, I picked up Robert Bolaño's Nazi Literature in America last weekend and have begun reading it. The wrily humorous work is clearly an early tryout of the narrative experiments he would perfect only a few years later. The clerk who sold me the book looked a little askance at me as he was ringing it up and asked, hesitantly, "Are you familiar...with his other books?" I smiled and told him yes, then rattled on in a vein of Bolañomania that I could see he wasn't expecting. He then confessed to me that he was only 50 pages into The Savage Detectives, and was enjoying it a lot. As for the text he was selling me, we didn't discuss it, but I urged him to pick up By Night in Chile next.


A 'Free Kosovo' banner in TiranaSpeaking of places many US citizens probably couldn't identify on a map, Kosovo is now independent.

Or, Kosova e lire.

Serbia and Russia are very upset, while the US and the EU are coming to Kosovo's defense.

Bill Clinton remains one of the Kosovars' heroes, because of his actions in 1999. He was criticized by Congressional Republicans, one of whom said, speaking of the US's exit strategy, "Everyone wants to know what Plan B is." This same person thinks it might be fine to spend 100 or 1,000 or 10,000 years in Iraq, however. I don't think the media have pressed him on this discrepancy, however, do you?

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Shooting at NIU

Earlier today, while up at the university, I saw this horrific news come over the wire. A gunman at Northern Illinois University, west of Chicago in DeKalb, Illinois, walked into a packed science class, killing 6 people and wounding 15, including the graduate student instructor. I want to express my sympathies for the dead and wounded, and my dismay at yet another school shooting, which remain rare at the college and university level, thankfully, but are not so uncommon in high schools across the country. Just this week, there have been three other high-profile high school shooting incidents....

Happy St. Valentine's Day

A Happy St. Valentine's Day to all!

I thought that I'd post the lyrics to one of my favorite songs, Debra Laws's 1979 hit "Very Special," from the album of the same name. It was one of my favorite songs in high school (10th grade), it's an unforgettable love song, it's Debra Laws's one breakout hit, and it's a perfect St. Valentine's Day anthem. (I also think it's been a wedding standard for years, naturally enough.)

Here's a link to Rhapsody's free version in case you don't know the song.


All my love is all I have
And my dreams are Very Special
All my life I've looked for you
And today my dreams come true
You need me and I need you
Love and us is Very Special
Things you seem to do divine
You looked straight into my eyes
I know our love is meant to be
Cause our souls touched tenderly
Love is life and life is living, it's Very Special

In my heart it was you, only
Love is life, what dreams come true
And even though i can't have you, baby
Desires like these are true for you

All my love is all I have
And my dreams are Very Special
All my life I've looked for you
And today my dreams come true
You need me and I need you
Love and us is Very Special
Things you seem to do divine
You looked straight into my eyes
I know our love is meant to be
Cause our souls touched tenderly
Love is life and life is living, it's Very Special

In my heart it was you, only
Love is life, what dreams come true
And even though i can't have you, baby
Desires like these are true for you

All my love is all i have
And my dreams are very Special
All my life I've looked for you
And today my dreams come true
You need me and I need you
Love and us is Very Special
Things you seem to do divine
You looked straight into my eyes
I know our love was meant to be
Cause our souls touched tenderly
Love is life and life is living, Very Special

Boy ohh yea

Then your love excited me, baby
Days full of joy, love's sweet
Cannot keep this feeling inside, Dearie
Cause a girl like me has realized that

All my love is all I have
And my dreams are Very Special
All my life I've looked for you
And today my dreams come true
You need me and i need you
Love and us is Very Special
Things you seem to do divine
(fade out)

Copyright © Debra Laws, Ronnie Laws, 1980. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Belichick's Cheating

I figured Arlen Specter might be good for something. Pennsylvania's armadillo of a Senator finally got the NFL Commissioner, Roger Goodell, to reveal something some people have long suspected: that New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick (photo at right, has been taping opposing teams' defenses since 2000, when he took over as head coach.

Specter says this is illegal. Goodell disagrees with Belichick's actions and suggests they're not okay (i.e., illegal?), but took no action, at least none that the public knows about, until the Patriots were blatantly caught spying on the sad-sack New York Jets before the first game of this past season, the very season that the Patriots were waltzing through, undefeated, until they ran smack into the New York Giants for a second time, in the Super Bowl. It turns out that the NFL had looked into Belichick's cheating going back to 2002, but said zero about it until this revelation. To Specter.

Belichick, who has more than once demonstrated a lack of class, claims he wasn't doing anything wrong. Since 2000. At any rate, Goodell levied a slap on the wrist and then, unaccountably, destroyed all the evidence from the investigation. The tapes, everything else. He claims it could have gotten into the wrong hands. Like a prosecutors? Specter, who rarely if ever raises a voice of protest about the Bush administration's destruction of evidence (cf. White House emails, etc.) or the Constitution for that matter, did seem to be vexed by these strange and possibly illegal goings on. I doubt anything will come of this, and the sports media, which adore Belichick as one of the greatest coaches ever, have, from what I can tell, mostly been silent.

Most of the articles on this huge revelation I first came across were AP stories, or versions thereof. Or foreign media accounts. The people who've invested so much of their reputations in pumping up Belichick are silent. My questions: Who on the Patriots knew about this, and did anyone on any other teams know about this? Did Patriots owner Robert Kraft know that Belichick was engaging in this activity? How long has the NFL known what Belichick was up to? Will the "genius" and his team be stripped of their Super Bowl championships? Will he be officially sanctioned, if not by the NFL, which appears to have participated in a cover-up, by Specter and Congress? Will the NFL suffer any penalties, such as the loss of its anti-trust exemption? Should I even been wasting energy on this issue, given the 1,000 other pressing issues out there, but also give how our culture has utterly normalized cheating, spying, and unfair advantages?

I think of well-known athletes decried as cheaters, such as Barry Bonds, Marion Jones, etc., and I wonder, will this high profile but incredibly sleazy coach receive relentlessly hellish treatment anywhere near what they've endured? (Cf. Roger Clemens.) I have my doubts.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Obama Sweep + Dems Kowtow + Australia Apologizes + Ronald K. Brown's Moves

ObamaBarack Obama (at right, USA Today, Rick Bowmer, AP) swept all three--the Potomac--primaries today, but most incredible, just incredible to me, was the Obama blowout in Virginia today. It wasn't a caucus, the state has a lower percentage of Black voters than some of the other Southern states (Georgia, Alabama, Louisiana, etc.) that he's won, and while it has trended purple, Virginia is still quite conservative. I know this personally from the years we lived there.

Hillary Clinton's campaign thought she had a chance in the Old Dominion. Yet Obama won Virginia by a huge margin, 63%-37%, basically winning in every region (Northern Virginia, the Tidewater, the Blue Ridge mountains, the border counties with North Carolina, the southeast coastal areas) except the southwest, and also posted these numbers, according to the NBC exit polls: he won among Democrats 59-41, he won among independents 66-33, he won among Republicans (!) voting in the Democratic primary 70-26. He won among White male voters 55%-45%, among Black voters 90%-10%, and among Latinos 55%-45%. Among White women, he lost to Hillary Clinton 42%-58%.

But most remarkably, he received 274,000 more votes than her, and combined, they outpolled all the Republicans on the ballot (McCain and Huckabee, as well as Ron Paul, and the ghosts of Romney, Thompson, Giuliani, etc.) by 479,230 votes. That is nearly half a million more votes, or about the margin by which Gore defeated W in 2000. I think this bodes very well for Obama, very well for the Democrats in general, and ill for McCain, the presumptive nominee, and whomever he picks as his running mate. McCain in fact received yet another scare from Huckabee. Voters are obviously both energized and fed up, and these higher Democratic vote totals (save for Alabama and Georgia, I believe), both in the primaries and in the caucuses, are a harbinger of November's results.

But let me not stint Maryland or DC. In Maryland, as I type this entry (about 75% of the precincts are reporting), Obama is winning by a 60%-37% margin over Clinton, who alone has received nearly as many votes (220,000 vs. 225,000) as all the Republicans combined; Obama is ahead with about 359,700 by himself. One of the best stories out of Maryland is the victory of progressive Democrat Donna Edwards over Albert Wynn, a teddy bearish corporate sellout who had repeatedly voted against his constituents' interests again and again (cf. Bankruptcy Bill, etc.). Nearly two years ago I highlighted her primary run against Wynn, which she lost, but thanks to online supporters, she was again able to compete, and she did it! The House will have won less DINO and one more Democrat whose platform directly addresses the needs and dreams of her constituents.

In DC, Obama defeated Clinton 75% to 24%. I think it's fair to say this was the least surprising outcome of all.

These vote margins have given Obama enough delegates to tie or pass Clinton, depending upon who's counting/how they're counted. The next state up is Wisconsin, which Obama should win, and then it's on to Texas, Ohio and Pennsylvania, the first two of which Clinton is banking on. But I'll save that discussion for another day. For now, once again, congratulations Senator Obama!


Now the bad news: today the Democratic-controlled US Senate capitulated (again) to George W. and Dick Cheney, and voted 68-29 to give the telecommunications industry retroactive immunity as part of a bill vesting the president with expanding powers to spy on American citizens.

(W spokesdissembler Dana Perino even accidentally admitted today that the telecom companies spied on US citizens. Because they were "patriotic.")

It also shuts down pending lawsuits against the telecoms, possibly ensuring that we might never learn what the W administration was up to with its spying, not only after the September 11, 2001 attacks, but, as a trial involving former Qwest executive Joseph Nacchio has shown, as early as a few weeks after W and Cheney took office. In fact, Helen Thomas's question about this earlier spying led to Perino's unplanned candor. (And we should never forget the dramatic Joseph Comey testimony about the administration's attempts to force John Ashcroft, on his sickbed, to sign off on activities so troubling that he refused to do so, and which Comey also refused to do.)

One of the chief toadies this time was Democratic Majority Leader Harry Reid, who all but turned procedural back flips to deny the advancement of the Justice Committee bill, which did not include telecom amnesty was scrapped in favor of the Intelligence Committee bill, which gave the telecoms everything they wanted, and to ensure that any Democratic challenges, led primarily by former presidential candidate Chris Dodd and Wisconsin Senator Russ Feingold, were defeated. The other was the pusillanimous Jay Rockefeller, who, assuming the role of a ventriloquist's dummy, repeatedly recited RNC and Bush administration propaganda on the floor of the Senate, which was apparently persuasive enough (or cover, either way) for Democrats to join in on the "surrender to terror" and give Bush a huge valentine. This bill, as Glenn Greenwald noted today, is so outrageous that it actually empowers Bush the right to ignore its statutory effects if he so deems it necessary.

The Republicans, unsurprisingly, voted in Bush-enabling lockstep (and yes, that includes those "moderates" like John Sununu and Olympia Snowe), as they have done since 2001, while the Democrats could only muster 29 votes in opposition. Nominally, of course, they control the Senate; in reality, they remain marionettes for corporate lobbyists and the W Gang to run ragged as they see fit. Barack Obama voted no, as did his fellow Illinoisan, Dick Durbin, both of New Jersey's Senators, and the handful of other consistently liberal members of the pathetic, phantom majority (Dodd, Feingold, Kennedy, Kerry, Murray, Cantwell, Boxer, Brown, etc.).

Hillary Clinton did not cast a vote.

At this point, this egregious farce will become law unless the House stands firm when the bill goes to conference, as it did not approve telecom amnesty. I should add, not that it matters a dime, that polls have shown a clear majority of Americans do not want the telecoms to be given retroactive immunity. There are laws already on the books protecting them if they act in good faith, but apparently, as we've seen again and again since 2000, the laws of this country do not apply to this president or his cronies. Nevertheless, the folks at Firedoglake are trying to get people to contact their House representatives via petition. Please do go this route, but even better, send a fax or letter to your Representative, telling her that you do not want the telecoms to receive immunity. W's lawlessness, which will probably never be punished, should still be investigated by a court of law.

As for the US Senate, just go here, find your Senators, and praise them or rant by phone, fax or email. (Praise if they've done the right thing for a change always is important too.)


Australia has finally decided to apologize to its Aboriginal peoples for decades of sustained state, individual and symbolic violence, and social, political and cultural discrimination and marginalization. New Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has asked the Australian parliament to approve an apology he will deliver at tomorrow's opening session. The apology states in part that "We [the Australian state] apologize for the laws and policies of successive Parliaments and governments that have inflicted profound grief, suffering and loss on these our fellow Australians." The text is particularly aimed at the "Stolen Generations," those thousands of Aboriginals and mixed-race children who were stolen from their families and raised by whites as part of the state's white supremacist social policy, which, in 1930s Northern Territory "chief protector of the Aborigines" Cecil Cook, aimed to "breed out the color."

Unfortunately, the apology appears to be mostly rhetoric and no action; the Aboriginals will receive no reparations, remuneration, nothing, at least no time soon, beyond the Labour Party's earnest words, which also include a bit about "a future where we harness the determination of all Australians, indigenous and nonindigenous, to close the gap that lies between us in life expectancy, educational achievement and economic opportunity," because, as you might have guessed even if you know nothing about Australia, by every social index measure, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders are worse off than white Australians. Mmm hmmm, sounds familiar.

One thing this news brought to mind was the concept of apologies, what they aim to achieve, especially beyond the symbolic, and why it's so difficult for some people to utter or issue them, or why they think that grudging ones (cf. David Shuster to Hillary Rodham Clinton) or non-apologies are sufficient. Here's an extremely brief piece by Jess Perriam on philosopher Aniello Ianuzzi's discussion of the philosophy of apologies. Ianuzzi says:

"Increasingly in today's society, it's perhaps becoming harder still because in many ways we're becoming a more individualistic society and also in many ways the black and white between right and wrong has become very much blurred."

"Therefore people don't generally believe they're wrong anymore."

Dr Ianuzzi gives this the definition of 'moral relevatism' and explains it like this, "We believe we have the rights and abilities to make our own definitions of right and wrong, and therefore we can impose our views on others."

"The ego gets in the way and then of course, sorry becomes that much harder."


On a happier note, today the New York Times's Felicia Lee (one of my favorite reporters from that paper) focuses on the work of one of the major contemporary choreographers, Ronald K. Brown. Lee provides some history on Ron's company, Evidence Dance Company, which he founded in 1985 at the age of 19, and goes on to talk about the often groundbreaking work he's done over these last 23 years, emphasizing in particular the ways in which the African Diaspora is central to his work. Accompanying Lee's article is a fine photo essay (say what you will about the Times these days, but its photo slide shows rarely fail to catch the eye). Below, Ron, foreground, rehearsing his piece "Upside Down," with members of his troupe. On Tuesday night, Evidence opens its annual New York season at the Joyce Theater. (Photo: Andrea Mohin/The New York Times)

Monday, February 11, 2008

End of Semester + Writer's Strike Over + Bolaño's "The Fabulous Schiaffino Boys"

Last Friday I taught my final Theory and Practice of Fiction class of the semester (or quarter-and-a-half; this and its poetry and creative nonfiction analogues are the only such course in the university's undergraduate college). TPF is the advanced, intensive, first half of a yearlong sequence that all the majors and minors take, and among the requirements, the students must read stories by a number of authors over the summer, and then be ready to discuss and analyze them once school starts in September. This time we read stories by the following 7 authors: Anton Chekhov, Flannery O'Connor, Raymond Carver, Junot Díaz, Z. Z. Packer, Haruki Murakami, and Aimee Bender, with a final glance at James Joyce's "The Dead"). The students also wrote three short stories, two of which they had to revise, before switching over this week to a new professor for another semester (quarter-and-a-half), during which they'll complete a novella. The course is exhausting in terms of the workload, but one of the most fulfilling I get an opportunity to teach, because I get to see all 15 of these amazing young writers develop their distinctive voice (or voices) and styles, and see demonstrable growth not only in their skills as writers, but as critics of each others' work, the pieces by the established writers, and their own stories. This particular group was very lively, had a great collective sense of humor, possessed a penchant for speculative fiction and fantasy texts, and included some hardcore TV and movie fans who got all of Junot Díaz's references during his visit (I kid not), and most of mine. (The film repertoire of the 1970s remains an unexplored trove.) We had a farewell dinner this weekend, and I managed not to get verklempt. But I already miss them. I know they'll be in excellent hands, though, and busier than they ever imagined writing their novellas. I can't wait till our end-of-year senior readings to hear what some of them have come up with, though they'll also have stories they'd be proud to submit anywhere.


The 3 1/2 month Screen Writers Guild's strike over internet residuals and fair compensation is over. Here's a primer on the deal the writers and producers struck. I gather the deal is perfect but it does address some of the chief concerns the writers had, and it can be considered a significant union victory in this new century. On a practical level it'll mean the return of popular series and fewer "reality" shows, though I don't think cable or non-cable channels had yet reached the true abyss of mediated reality awfulness just yet. But they have been on their way.


Nazi Literatures in AmericaSpeaking of writers and fiction, here's "The Fabulous Schiaffino Boys," a Bookforum excerpt from Chris Andrews's new translation of Roberto Bolaño's early (1996) literary encyclopedia-as-novel, Nazi Literature in the Americas. A section of the novel became the important early novella Distant Star (1996), which I have been recommending, along with one of Bolaño's masterpieces, By Night In Chile (2000), and his award-winning novel, The Savage Detectives (1998) since I picked them up. The highly autobiographical, exquisitely pitched stories in Last Evenings on Earth (a 2006 English combo of selections from two of his earlier volumes) are also worth reading, though perhaps more of an acquired taste.

I plan on picking up the new New Directions volume soon, but I'm eagerly waiting on the translation, supposedly forthcoming from Farrar Straus and Giroux (is that right?), of his last and magnum opus, the (nearly finished) mammoth (1,100 pages) novel 2666 (2004) which has been widely acclaimed as one of the major Spanish language works of the last 20 years.

From the online story, a salty sliver:

He began the year 1974 by publishing the collection Iron Youth (fifty mimeographed copies): dense, militaristic poems with march-like rhythms, which, if nothing else, obliged Schiaffino to venture beyond the bounds of his natural thematic domains: soccer and humor. He followed up with a play, The Presidential Summit, or What Can We Do to Turn This Around? In this five-act farce, heads of state and diplomats from various Latin American nations meet in a hotel room somewhere in Germany to discuss options for restoring the natural and traditional supremacy of Latin American soccer, which is under threat from the European total-football approach. The play, which is extremely long, recalls a certain strain of avant-garde theatre, from Adamov, Genet, and Grotowski to Copi and Savary, although it is unlikely (though not impossible) that Fatso ever set foot in the sort of establishment given to the production of such plays. The following are only a few of the scenes: (1) A monologue about the etymologies of the words peace and art delivered by the Venezuelan cultural attaché. (2) The rape of the Nicaraguan ambassador in one of the hotel bathrooms by the presidents of Nicaragua, Colombia, and Haiti. (3) A tango danced by the presidents of Argentina and Chile. (4) The Uruguayan ambassador’s peculiar interpretation of the prophecies of Nostradamus. (5) A masturbation contest organized by the presidents, with three categories: thickness (won by the Ecuadoran ambassador); length (won by the Brazilian ambassador); and, most important, distance covered by semen (won by the Argentine ambassador). (6) The president of Costa Rica’s subsequent irritation and condemnation of such contests as “scatology in the poorest taste.” (7) The arrival of the German whores. (8) All-out brawling, chaos, and exhaustion. (9) The arrival of the dawn, a “pink dawn that intensifies the fatigue of the bigwigs who finally come to understand their defeat.” (10) The president of Argentina’s solitary breakfast (having let off a series of resounding farts, he climbs into bed and falls asleep).

Thursday, February 07, 2008

A Super Tuesday for Hillary and Barack

I meant to blog on the Super Tuesday results, but I had too much on my mind and docket to finish the post I began (I've just posted 2-3 posts I'd partially begun, and the one on the Kara Walker show is coming), but let me congratulate both Senators Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton on their victories two days ago.

What most grabbed my attention was the far larger turnout (was it 14 million vs. 8 million?) for the Democratic primaries and caucuses versus those of the Republicans, and the disparity held not only in the Democratic or Democratic-trending strongholds like California, New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Illinois, and Connecticut, but also in Missouri, Arkansas, Tennessee, and Georgia. In Missouri alone, the Democrats drew 230,000 more voters than the GOP. I see this as an excellent sign for the fall, provided the eventual Democratic nominee (be it Clinton or Obama) can match or exceed these numbers against the likes of McCain, the presumptive Republican nominee.

Another fascinating outcome was that Obama won all of the "caucuses" except New Mexico, and many of the Republican-leaning states in the south and west (save Tennessee), while Clinton won most of the traditional "blue" states on the east and west coasts. The question is, can she win some of the states he did in November, or, if McCain is GOP candidate, can Obama win over enough Latinos in states like California and New Jersey if he's the nominee to sail to victory, and what about any of those southern states, like Arkansas or Georgia? I don't think either candidate has a chance in some of the longtime Republican-leaning spots like Utah (unless Huckabee is on the ticket) or Idaho, but the pair, if they formed a joint ticket, could bring in a number of states the Democrats must win in order to take back the White House. She energizes women voters, working-class voters, Latinos, he excites Black folks, highly educated liberals and moderates, some former Republicans, and lots of young people. I can't see Clinton running as his VP, for a host of reasons, but I also wonder if he'd take the VP slot, which would turn him into even more of a target down the road for the GOP.

The Obama victory and general success for both candidates in Missouri was especially pleasing to me. I'm not even 45, but I thought I'd probably have to make it to 65 to see a black candidate win a primary in my native state, which has its own particularly complicated and often nasty racial history. It entered the union in 1821 as a slave state, was one of the lesser known but bloodiest battlegrounds during the Civil War (and even had Confederate government in exile), tried its best to mimic the Southern states in post-Reconstruction hatefulness, and even gave the US a president who'd served in the Ku Klux Klan (though he also was the very person who integrated the military and turned out to be better on racial issues than many of his predecessors). The state is often more like Arkansas (though larger and richer) than other states it borders, like Illinois and Iowa, and old attitudes have tended to die slowly and hard(ly). In effect Missouri is several different states: a conservative, Catholic-and-Lutheran midwestern agricultural state (northern Missouri), a Bible-belt Southern evangelical state (southern Missouri), a small-town, moderate state with a sizable state university (central Missouri), a state with two large, wealthy and diverse urban-suburban metropolitan centers (Kansas City and St. Louis, and their surrounding counties, which extend into nearby Kansas and Illinois, respectively). Hillary Clinton won all but 7-8 counties in the non-urban parts of the state, but Obama's margins in just St. Louis City, St. Louis County, and Boone County, the home of the University of Missouri-Columbia, were large enough that he was able to win the whole shebang. Together, as I note above, they received 230,000 more votes (many from "independents") than the GOP, which has dominated Missouri politics in recent years. (Cf. the Blunt family, Kit Bond, etc.) Again, I think this is a marvelous sign, though the real test will come when one of them is nominated and must run against the Republican nominee, likely to be John McCain, who barely edged out former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee. He is the one I expected to gallop away with votes, so perhaps the economy, the war, and so on, are affecting Missourians, the proverbial people in the "heartland's" bellwether state, more severely than I thought.

This brings me to my last point: as much as I loathe this most incompetent, corrupt, ignorant, and lawless president in our history, I have to thank him in part because his awfulness has, I think, driven even some of the most willfully resistant people to consider electing someone utterly unlike him and many in his party. Whether his awfulness, which continues every single day he stays in office, will be enough to defeat his ideological soulmate, John McCain, I don't know. But I do know that while Clinton probably could have gotten some traction thus far no matter who the Republican in office was, his sheer horribleness has probably helped people look past the issue of race while in the voting booth, if even temporarily. I'm not saying this is the sole or even a major reason, but I would venture that Bush's record of destruction and disaster has helped, in some ways, to reset people's compasses. Has it been worth the price we've paid, nationally and internationally. I can't say yes. But if there's any good to come out of these last eight years, either Clinton or Obama in the White House, with a more liberal and progressive US Senate willing to push more liberal and progressive legislation, while also finally investigating and punishing the criminals who preceded them, would be optimal.


Speaking of targets, Chris sent me this link to Robin Morgan's blistering piece, "Goodbye to All That (#2)," on the gross misogyny and sexism in the campaign. What do you think?

Afronetizen posts author Uzodinma Iweala's critique of the race, and its (lack of substantive) discussions of the role race (and I'd add gender) is playing, both in the campaigns and in this society. Again, what do you think?