Friday, April 24, 2009

Torture Prosecutions + Book Machine + Bullies + Poem: Carl Phillips

I keep trying to remember to wear my glasses when I'm reading or typing on computer screens these days, because if I don't (and sometimes even if I do and my eyes are very tired, like today, because of so much reading), I suffer from increasing strabismus (a word I learned from reading Samuel Delany), and I experience something along the lines of dyslexia, with the words scattering before me, a puzzle to reassemble. The result is all sorts of typos, which I used to be very good at catching, though over the last 7 years, things have worsened. Coming across them makes me think my former days as an editor were nothing but a dream. Oh well--the glasses on are now...but please forgive the rash of typos that now mar far too many of these entries. I am trying to rectify the problem (the glasses are relatively new too), so bear with me.


Eric Holder and Barack ObamaI'm glad President Barack Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder are surely and steadily releasing the previous administration's secret and damning memos which outline the frameworks enabling the W Bush Mafia's sheer disregard for the Constitution and international treaties and laws, its utter criminality concerning the brutal torture of prisoners, illegal spying on Americans, and so much more. It also appears as though more of the long-suppressed photos documenting the torture that occurred will also be released. Though I have minimal faith in our Congress, especially the dysfunctional Senate, perhaps they will find the will, as I hope AG Holder will as well, despite what the president and Rahm Emanuel have to say or the Republicans' individual and collective testeria, to investigate both the lead-up to the war and how it occurred, and the entire system that made the torture system possible, along with the entire chain of command that authorized it, and to prosecute to the fullest extent possible, all who were culpable. Also, if the US Congress or an independent prosecutor feel incapable of doing so, turn these war criminals over to the Hague. Fling back the tarps, dig up the graves, let it all see the light of day so that we can do everything in our power never to let it happen again.


Today I read about Blackwell's new print-on-demand "Espresso Book Machine," which the Guardian Online is labeling a "revolution" in publishing. According to the article, by Alison Flood, the machine has already debuted in the US (since 2007), Canada, Australia, and Egypt, and offers a half-million books, any one of which could be printed and bound on the spot in about 5 minutes. Just imagine! (Where in the US are they? See On Demand Books' site here.) If I had the choice, I think I'd choose one of these books over the digital versions; I haven't handled a Kindle yet, but reading any of the admittedly free Stanza texts on my iPhone is a challenge because the text is so small. And I can remember when reading tiny print wasn't a big deal (I still write very small), but after a while it's a chore. While this new machine, the brainchild of US publisher Jason Epstein, places more power in readers' hands, in a way if it catches on, it--equal to "50 bookstores"--could spell the end of bookstores as we know them, which seems increasingly quite likely given the current changes in the publishing world. Just imagine if Starbucks devises a deal to place them in their stores! On the other hand, if handled right, such a machine could enhance a bookstore's offerings by making available the countless books that are out of print or out of stock, or which aren't physically available at a given store and which have to be ordered from a nearby store or warehouse. Thoughts?


Eric Holder and Barack ObamaOver the last few weeks, there have been several stories about young people who've committed suicide as a result of being bullied and labeled and taunted as "gay." Most recent tragedy of this sort that I know about is the case of 5th grader Jaheem Herrera in DeKalb, Georgia, who hanged himself after being relentlessly harassed and demonized. According to accounts, the school did have policies in place to deal with bullying, but based on the news story it's unclear to me whether anyone, especially any teachers or other authorities, stepped in to stop the harassment. But Herrera is not alone: early this month, Carl Joseph Walker-Hoover, also 10 and black, committed suicide in Springfield, Massachusetts, after being incessantly railed with anti-gay slurs. In the ABCNews account, his mother protested to school officials, but it doesn't appear as if they did anything to stop the problem. Almost a month ago, the parents of deceased Ohio teenager Eric Mohat filed a lawsuit against the school where he'd been bullied, an unaddressed issue that probably led to his suicide in 2007--and, they suggest, the suicides of 3 other students at his school. But the problem of bullying and resulting violence, including suicide, goes beyond the anti-gay problem, as the horrific story of Aquan Lewis, a 5th grader in Evanston, Illinois, suggests. Just blocks south of where I work, this little boy was found hanging, on February 5, 2009, in his elementary school bathroom. In his case, his family is saying that they've heard that bullies might have been involved, and also are questioning the medical examiner's ruling in part because they don't think that the child was physically or logistically capable of hanging himself.

At least one of the above-linked articles states that suicides by children this young are rare, but that bullying may be increasing, though no answers are given as to why. Another article highlighted on the ABCNews page talks about the problems that young people who come out face, not only from peers, but from school officials, who if not hostile can be indifferent and offer little protection or support. Having known bullies and been a victim of bullies, I know how much despair children can feel, especially if they don't think anyone is taking their suffering seriously. But the problem isn't just dealing with bullies; it's multifold and the response needs to be as well. In addition to the anti-bullying systems and procedures, which ought to be standardized across districts if they aren't, that may be in place (and should be if they aren't), school officials at all levels may need better training to ensure that they will know how to respond, and rules to ensure that they will, especiall at the first sign of bullying. I'm not sure about the above cases, but I know from experience that one response teachers may have is that the bullying isn't that serious, that it'll stop, that the problem may be the child being bullied rather than the bully. In the case of the bully's parent(s) or guardian(s), they might not even know it's occurring or see it as a problem. In the case of the bullied child, the parent(s) or guardian(s) might not know about it, especially if the child is too afraid or ashamed to say anything (I felt that way), they may not think it's that serious a problem, or perhaps they may even think that the child will "toughen up." (In my case, I was enrolled in judo classes, and later used them on a neighborhood bully, whose mother then complained to mine!) Comprehensive counseling for the bullies and the bullied children should also be in place, something that was uncommon when I was a child but which is much more common now, and this should include mechanisms to involve the children's families and address any family problems that might be a source of the children's emotional crises, including bullying behavior. Also, comprehensive education about human diversity and sensitivity to difference, including discussions about LGBTQ people, should be part of the curriculum early on. This is perhaps the most controversial issue, but I think it's necessary nowadays. These steps and others might not eradicate the problem, but I imagine that they'd go a long way to helping prevent these and similar tragedies.


Carl PhillipsI've known Carl Phillips (1959-) since shortly before he published his first award-winning book, In the Blood; at that time, he was briefly a member of the Dark Room Collective, and already on his way to his stellar career. He has since published nearly a dozen books of poetry, some of them garnering and many of them nominated for the country's highest awards, and he has trained a number of new poets who've studied with him at Washington University in St. Louis, where's he's a professor, or at other venues like the Bread Loaf Writers Conference, the Provincetown Fine Arts Workshop, or Cave Canem. He is one of the important poets in contemporary American, African American and LGBTQ literature. Anyone who reads a handful of his poems will soon note his distinctive, seductive style, his careful and consistent use of enjambment, hypotaxis, extended metaphor, Classical allusions, metonyms; his impressive control of the line, the pause, the breath, and his command of lyric poetry's many possibilities, particularly its capacity to represent and show human desire's trajectory, its movement and stasis, when it flowers, curdles, or mere pools in anticipation of something unforeseen to come. There is also his wry humor, the deep spirituality in his poems, and his insistent candor in writing about sex; few people can write about sex toys without becoming graphic, but Carl can. Many poets I know have a favorite Carl Phillips line, poem or poems; I have a favorite book, Cortège, his second, which appeared in 1995. I can and have read this book again and again; the title poem alone is worth the price of the book, as are "I See A Man," "The Swain's Invitation," "Kit," "Toys," "Cotillion," "A Mathematics of Breathing," and so many other of the poems, including the exquisite title poem, which I will always think is one of Carl's best. Here's another one of my favorite poems from that volume, "Freeze." Note how it moves, its wistful air, read it aloud to hear his music, enjoy.


The only light in the room,
moonlight, was

gave to his body on the bed
the suggestion of
stone drawn,

in relief, up from the stone
rest of itself,
what art

always wants, to pull somehow
a life from what
isn't. At

the window, the first snow had
begun, early. Watching
its shadow

pass, slow, down his back, in
the same way my hand

does--that unnoticed, that
determined to, anyway,
do it--

I began thinking elsewhere, of
a life from before.
I wondered

if the snow fell there, too.

Copyright © Carl Phillips, from Cortège, Minneapolis: Graywolf Press, 1995. All rights reserved.

1 comment:

  1. Carl Phillips--I still remember the sensation of the first book I read. That elusive beautiful poem that opens Cortege.

    Increasingly, I turn to (back to) poetry to find some kind of refuge from bad (impossibly bad) news from that other of the world I call home.