Wednesday, May 06, 2009

May Thoughts

It's 6 days into May and I've only managed to update my May book selections, but I guess that's better than nothing. The final poetry posts for April are still in draft form, but by the end of this week I should be over the (reading) mountain and able to post a bit more frequently. I think. I have been reading for pleasure and edification a bit more, and not just online articles, blog pieces and news stories as happens when I'm bogged down in work-related reading. I'm nearly finished with Thomas Glave's new collection of stories, The Torturer's Wife (City Lights, 2008) and had the pleasure of hearing him read from the title story and the final, arresting final one (set in Jamaica), and I've also gotten about halfway through Forrest Gander's first novel, As a Friend (New Directions, 2009), whose chapter that can only be described as a poetic tour-de-force. Written by an accomplished poet, no less. One thing I love about books of stories (and publishers really could do more to emphasize this) is that you can dip in and read 1-2 at a time, or, if you're really motivated, read as many as you like, though some authors' short fictions require breaks (Alice Munro, Haruki Murakami, etc.) to process even one piece, and Thomas's work is like that. You really have to let what you've just read steep a little. Short novels and novellas, the queer fish of American publishing, are also a blessing. Forrest's prose slows your reading and requires focus, and yet the book is still short and tight enough that you can get through it fairly quickly. I've got such a huge stack following these two that I may have to pick up the/my speed, though.


Speaking of reading, I haven't gotten to Colson Whitehead's new novel, Sag Harbor, but Reggie H. forwarded the link to Touré's New York Times review, in which he launches provocatively on a bit about "post-blackness" as if his take on it is a settled matter. I'm not a big fan of Touré's work (though when I met him years ago at Bread Loaf, before his ascendant fame, he was pretty cool), and I feel like his whole "post-black" prologue is trying to mark out some sort of conceptual space for reframing Touré's work rather than offering anything insightful to say about Whitehead's novel, which Reggie H. tells me is quite good. (Whitehead is a very talented novel, and wrote one of the freshest novels of the last 25 years, The Intuitionist.) It's as if he never heard or read any critiques about the term and is unfamiliar with Trey Ellis's "The New Black Aesthetic" essay, which animated conversations at the Dark Room more than 20 years ago.

What I also wrote on the CC list, where a lively series of responses ensued, was this (or some of it):

I'm glad Brian [Gilmore, a lawyer, poet and journalist] mentioned Trey Ellis's famous essay,which caused (and is still causing a stir) when it first appeared, just as Thelma Golden's term set it off too and is still provoking discussion. But then Kyle listed Hughes's "The Racial Artist and the Negro Mountain" on his syllabus, and Hughes's is making an argument heading in this direction at the end of that essay, and also challenging DuBois's "Criteria of Negro Art" and other prescriptive, racially responsible-focused readings of black art and blackness, so perhaps the conversation, the contestation, is a longstanding one.

I wonder if the issue isn't really that post-black is supposed to equal post-essential(ist).

As others have noted, blackness DOES mean many things, always has, with tremendous complexity, in the realm of ideas and in the world. Blackness has conceptual, discursive and ontological power and meaning, and isn't just an empty signifier, just as whiteness isn't. Blackness (and whiteness) have been central organizing principles and tropes for modernity broadly, as [Paul] Gilroy notes for European and American modernities in particular, and as [Toni] Morrison and others have pointed out, for American society, politics, economics, and culture. Randall [Horton]'s citation of various sources is great, and perhaps a course on post-blackness would look at theoretical discussions of race, racism, racial production, blackness as concept, idea, performance, and so on, in order to pivot into a discussion of what "post-blackness" might look like and how it is produced discursively and in other ways, what its effects are, and so on.

In terms of Toure, I won't get personal, but I do wonder if he's not just trying to position himself, as [Tyehimba] Jess says, in a vanguard of some sort, since his work continually fails to do that for him. I'm suspicious of the people who keep labeling [President Barack] Obama and his administration "post-black," or talking about the "post-racial" society we now live in especially given the frequent racist outbursts we've witnessed since January, but also the continued non-spectacular displays and systems of racism that continue. Just look at who's suffering the worst from the economic crisis; the housing crisis; the employment decline. Who still fills our jails? Who's being targeted for attacks because of this current flu outbreak? I can assure it ain't the industrial meat industry.

And I added, responding to a specific point by Reggie:

As for Michael Steele, I think he's quite happy to be black; it gives him a unique space in which to perform his buffoonery. Shelby Steele is the one who has always struck me as trying to flee blackness, but both would do well to listen to Claude Steele, who's the one who got all the smarts.
Really, if we do have to hear from one of these Steeles, let's push for it to be Dr. Claude, okay? And let's stop calling Obama "post-black," at least people who're informed about such things and have good sense, anyway.


I also want to highlight two bits of good news about colleagues and friends. Sarah Schulman received the 2009 Kessler Award, which means that she has been selected to deliver the David Kessler Lecture this upcoming fall by the Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies (CLAGS) at the City University of New York Graduate Center. This is a huge honor, as the Kessler lecturer is always someone who has made a major contribution to LGBTQ studies and cultures, and previous Kessler lecturers have included such renowned figures as Samuel R. Delany, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Cherrie Moraga, Judith Butler, Monique Wittig, Barbara Smith, Joan Nestle, John D'Emilio, and Esther Newton, among others. Sarah's important and pioneering work, which continues to combine a powerful, original and vital imagination with an unremitting activist vision and an ethnographer's attentiveness to lived experience, has helped to create the space in which several generations of creative writers and scholars have done their work, especially at the intersection of feminism, discussions of economics and class, and lesbian and anti-racist writing and studies. She has also been a mentor to a number of younger writers, especially women and writers of color, and has put her career on the line more than once to advance causes that benefit countless others, including her recent efforts to address the ongoing paucity of work by female playwrights on New York stages. She is the real deal. Congratulations, Sarah!

Also, congratulations to my colleague Reg Gibbons, who recently received the from the Texas Institute of Letters' Soeurette Diehl Fraser Award for Literary Translation for his exceptional volume of translations, Sophocles' Selected Poems: Odes and Fragments (Princeton, 2008). Reg, you may remember, received a 2008 National Book Award nomination for his beautiful collection Creatures of a Day (LSU Press, 2007), which includes a number of fine short lyrics and a moving long poem, "Fern-Texts," that draws from and converses with Samuel Taylor Coleridge's notebooks. His other translations include such texts as Sophocles' Antigone and, with the late classicist Charles Segal, The Bakkhai (Bacchae), as well as Spanish and Mexican (Luis Cernuda and Jorge Guillén, among others) and Russian poets (Ilya Kutik--these are on their way, I believe). The last set of translations has also seeded, in part, a series of sparkling and profound essays in The American Poetry, on such topics as rhyme's cognitive power and effects, and I hope these become a book as well, very soon. Somehow he does and did all this while teaching full time, producing many volumes of highly regarded poetry and fiction, and, for many years serving as an literary magazine editor, before later serving as department chair (how!?) and now director of a literary center. The prodigiousness deserves an award all its own. Congratulations, Reg!


I'll end on the sad note that a good friend, Larry Knight, a brother in spirit, really, passed away earlier this week. It's tough to think and talk about , but let me just say that may his memory live long, may he rest in peace, and may his surviving partner Roberto V.'s sorrow be lifted soon.

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