Sunday, May 31, 2009

Four Electric Ghosts + Italian Poets + On Tiller Murder

A few weeks ago, I caught the last show of Mendi + Keith Obadike's astonishing new opera-masquerade, Four Electric Ghosts, at The Kitchen in New York City. These two never cease to amaze me. For this show, which also included breakout performances by poets-performers Natasha Latasha Diggs, Karma Mayet Johnson, an incredible band, and four of the flyest dancers I've seen in a while, Mendi + Keith started with Nigerian novelist Amos Tutuola's My Life in the Bush of Ghosts and combined it playfully with their take on Pac-Man, the iconic videogame (everyone remembers this, right?) to create a profound and joyful experimental, experientially multimedia extravanganza. They even beckoned people out of their seats to dance at the end, making the event truly interactive.* The opera-masquerade's narrative, essentially an updated fable, involved the three singer-sayers, Mendi, Natasha and Karma, bounteously afroed and futuristically and funkily attired, relating by text and song the story of four sisters, played by the four superbly lithe dancers, who were schooled by their mother and who died after a lightning strike, sending them to the Land of Ghosts, from which each eventually ventured out, thus generating the narrative. Blessed with knowledge, gifts and protective chalk, each Ghost sister, bearing a differently colored series of metallic stripes across her suit, encountered a scenario in which she dealt with a dangerous "mortal" and forgot, temporalily, or failed to register the mother-lessons of her previous life, and had to return home chastened but also recharged by the experience and revitalized by the recognition of what she'd previously learned. It's difficult to convey how seamlessly this all flowed together: the narrating and singing, the dancing, the light displays and projections on the back wall, the musicians' riffs, the complex weave that just keep pulsing with energy and brilliance and depth in a way that I, no huge afficionado of theater and musical performance but no stranger to them either, rarely have witnessed. And it was so grounded in a range of black cultural traditions while also feeling so new.

In addition to the Mendi + Keith and the singer-speakers I mentioned, other collaborators included Angela’s Pulse Performance Projects, comprising choreographer Paloma McGregor, stage director Patricia McGregor, and dancers Maria Bauman, Catherine Denecy, Marjani Forte and Keisha Turner, and design by Kate Cusack (costumes), Yuki Nakajima (animation/projection), Alexandre Delaunay (scenery), and S. Ryan Schmidt (lighting). After the performance Keith introduced me to bassist and producer Melvin Gibbs, with whom he, Mendi and musician Guillermo E. Brown had composed the music, which Keith, Brown, pianist Shoko Naga, and bassist Keith Witty performed live.

In addition to the unforgettable orchestration, songs and singing-saying (though not Sprechstimme), and choreography and dancing, what powerfully struck me was how Mendi + Keith had rethought and tinkered with Tutuola's powerful story and its implications for our current post-modern, hyperwired, digital moment, making it as much a vision about new ways of thinking about living and learning and a vivid, veritable (afro-diasporic-)futurist parable, grounded in the stories of these women--the ghosts and the singer-speakers--as a rereading and renovating of the past. I know they were recording it (and it was also simulcast via the Web, I believe), so I hope that it's available for many more people to see soon, and I also hope that Mendi + Keith follow their precedent of issuing the tracks online in mp3/CD/DVD form. I'm telling you, these tracks were hot, and while I know Mendi is bursting with talent and have heard both Natasha and Karma sing, working with Keith and his combo in songs with richly remixed R&B, house, Afropop, electronica, rock, and hiphop flavor, they set it off individually and as a trio. You have to hear them. I certainly want to again, because this was one of the freshest and most interesting performances I've caught in years (and that includes another recent favorite, Passing Strange).

*(I was fortunate enough not only to leave my seat, but to be bopping with Tracie Morris (I swear!), while Myronn Hardy and others were stepping only a few feet away. As George Lewis watched from the front row. Where else are you going to have an experience like this?)

Here are a few (blurry--my apologies) photos from the event:
3 Singer-Sayers, Four Electric Ghosts
The three Singer-Sayers, Natasha Latasha Diggs, Karma Mayet Johnson, and Mendi Lewis Obadike (left to right)
Scene from Four Electric Ghosts
The Electric House
At the end of Four Electric Ghosts
At the end of Four Electric Ghosts, Mendi at left, Karma at center
Curtain call, Four Electric Ghosts
Curtain call
Mendi Lewis Obadike, co-author Four Electric Ghosts
Mendi after the performance


Though I was feeling down and crappy earlier in the day, on Friday evening I dragged myself out to a reading by four major established and emerging Italian poets, Maria Attanasio, Giovanna Frene, Marco Giovenale and Milli Graffi, at Think Art gallery in Wicker Park. Poet, critic and translator Jennifer Scappettone organized this event, part of a two-city, four event Italian Poetry Festival, in conjunction with Litmus Press and its wonderful journal Aufgabe--whose issue #7 included a special section on contemporary Italian poetry edited by Jennifer, entitled "Embargoed Voices: Poesia Ultima/Italian Poetry Now--and the Poetry Center's Francesco Levato and UIC's Chris Glomski. (Other sponsors include Poets House, the Italian Cultural Institute of New York, St. Mark's Poetry Project, University of Chicago Arts Council and Departments of Romance Languages and Creative Writing, and the Northwestern University Department of French and Italian.) Each of the poets read in Italian, with Jennifer reading hers and others translations, presenting work that was often striking in its innovation and political engagement, after which they engaged in a conversation led by Jennifer that touched upon questions of the poets' respective "generations," politics and Silvio Berlusconi, and American vs. European aesthetic influence. One of the highlights was the exchange in which Milli Graffi suggested that whereas she had been surer of her place in the literary world in the past she now felt "lost," and suggested that Marco Giovenale's generation--1968 to 1978, as he defined was, in Gertrude Stein's famous comment to Ernest Hemingway, also a "lost generation," a appraisal to which both he and Giovana Frene, also a young poet, challenged vigorously. Afterward I had an opportunity to meet all the poets and chat about contemporary literature, and even show Maria Attanasio and her husband my poetry month blog featuring her, for which Jennifer supplied me with the requisite Italian. Now I need to learn enough to read her book, Il falsario di Caltagirone, which I think means The Forger of Caltagirone, and which has merited considerable praise. I also got to chat with Marco Giovenale and picked up several of his books, including CDK, which is a Flarf-inspired text. Ah yes, even in Italy, they're Flarfing! When I got home, I felt 1,000 times better....

As always, a few photos:
Italian poets reading, Think Art Gallery
Jennifer and Giovanna Frene (R) reading in sequence
Italian poets reading, Think Art Gallery
In conversation, from left: Maria Attanasio, translator and U. of Chicago doctoral student Rafaello Palumbo, Jennifer Scappettone, Giovanna Frene, Maro Giovenale, and Milli Graffi.
Group Portrait w/ Italian Poets
Group portrait with the poets, their loved ones and friends


Last night I briefly dropped by the Rogers Park salon that Loyolaites Charles Gabel and his compatriots stage every month or so to hear Lily Brown, Lisa Goldstein, and Nathanaël read their work. It was lively, to put it simply. The evidence:
Lily Brown reading
Lily L. Brown reading her poems
Nathanaël reading from Absence Where As
Nathanaël reading from Absence Where As


I've been noting how much the rhetoric surrounding abortion and women's reproductive rights has been heating up crazily of late. It bubbled up into a full scale imbroglio surrounding President Barack Obama's invitation to receive an honorary degree at the University of Notre Dame. (As we all know by now, Notre Dame thankfully didn't rescind its invitation; the President spoke; and according to polls and despite some of the browbeating bishops, most Roman Catholics in the country, Indiana, and at Notre Dame supported the invitation; yet the media couldn't stop itself from stoking the controversy and extrapolating broader Roman Catholic opinion from the likes of the odoriferous Bill Donahue). In fact, the strident tenor of the abortion discussion has been reminding me of the period in the late 1980s and 1990s when anti-abortion fanatics, led by Operation Rescue and similar organizations, staged wide-scale public protests and took to targeting and killing doctors who performed abortions. Nevertheless, it was still surprising and horrifying to hear today about the murder in Wichita, Kansas of Dr. George Tiller, 67, a women's reproductive health specialist who was one of the few doctors across the country providing late-term abortions. Tiller was shot dead as he was serving as an usher in the foyer of his church, Reformation Lutheran Church. Authorities have apprehended the suspect, an anti-abortion fanatic named Scott Roeder, 51, from a Kansas City suburb. This wasn't the first attack on Tiller; his clinic was firebombed in 1985 and he survived a shooting, in both arms, in 1993. In addition to increasing security at his clinic he frequently wore a bullet-proof vest. He also had survived repeated legal attempts to close down his clinic.

President Obama quickly issued a statement saying that he was "shocked and outraged" by the murder and condemning the turn to "heinous violence," and Operation Rescue has reportedly denounced it, as have some other high-profile anti-abortion commentators. But former Operation Rescue head Randall Terry responded by calling Tiller a "mass murderer," and on some right-wing message boards, posters have been celebrating what amounts to an assassination. Why do I call it that? Because while I don't watch Fox News Channel if I can help it, you can trace a line of authorization and legitimation of this horrific act back right-wing social agitator Bill O'Reilly. He actually authored and uttered the following statement: "If we allow Dr. George Tiller and his acolytes to continue, we can no longer pass judgment on any behavior by anybody. What Tiller is doing is that bad. And that's the Memo." [H/t to comments on Brad Blog.] That verges on incitement to me. O'Reilly's comments aren't the only ones of this sort, and he may not have directly urged Roeder to act, his and others' extremist rhetoric has played a role in fomenting rage and raising the stakes among right wingers; the nutcase who went on a murderous rampage in Knoxville last year had cited a guest on O'Reilly's show as an inspiration, and he wasn't the only one. It will be interesting to see whether Fox News addresses this issue (doubtful) or if the legacy media, who have in the past used right-wing frames ("pro-life" etc.) and repeated conservative cant on abortion without any apparent awareness of what the affects of doing so might be, addresses the stridency of the anti-abortionist rhetoric and their role, even if inadvertent, in advancing it.

It's important also to note that this murder occurs at a time when safe, legal and affordable abortions for women across the country are far less available than they were 25 years ago. Under both Republican and Democratic administrations and Congresses, we've witnessed a steady assault on Roe v. Wade and a steady erosion in unimpeded access to clinics. The days of Bill Baird centers or public hospitals performing abortions are long gone. Federal and state laws have made it harder for women in some parts of the country to get an abortion at all. These assaults have occurred alongside the increasing lack of universal, affordable health care for all and the relentless promotion and inculcation of failed "abstinence education" in elementary schools and public health programs, both domestically and abroad. (Bristol Palin is the most recent high-profile poster-child for the last issue.) Yet for doctrinaire anti-abortionists, whose behavior points both to sexism in its desire to control, restrict and limit women's rights and classism in its desire to control, restrict and limit poor and working class women's rights to knowledge, information and access (upper-middle-class and rich women can undergo abortions whenever they see fit), this sorry state of affairs is still unacceptable. They are determined to control and limit women's reproductive rights--not just the "choice" to have an abortion but basic and free access to knowledge and information about human sexuality, as well as to contraception and abortion--and personal autonomy, autonomy over their own bodies, even further, and they evidently so fear the new administration's babysteps around, as opposed to back from, this present dreadful state of affairs that some of their adherents are resorting to the sorts of terrorist attacks the country witnessed two decades ago. While I applaud the Attorney General's decision tonight to post federal marshalls at some reproductive health clinics that provide abortions, far more important will be for the administration, the media and entertainment industry--which has been complicit in where we've ended up, since mainstream films and TV shows have tended not to deal truthfully or candidly with human sexuality, unplanned and unwanted pregnancies, and abortion--along with the rest of us addressing the broader problems of which this murder is only a terrifying symptom.

UPDATE: from The American Prospect: Ann Friedman's take: "Why Clinic Violence Is Obama's Problem"

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Bad News/Good News/Crazy News/Great News

Supreme Court JusticesBy now the dreadful news from California is widely known: by a vote of 6-1, the California Supreme Court upheld the will of last fall's voters who enacted Proposition 8, an initiative which amended California's state constitution to declare that marriage could only legally exist between a man and a woman. The Prop 8 vote, which passed by a margin of 52% to 48% and which has sparked tremendous commentary and opposition, including public protests all over the country. The California Attorney General, former California governor and Oakland mayor Jerry Brown then challenged by the vote, leading to yesterday's eagerly awaited decision. The decision did include the following semi-positive note: the 18,000 same-sex couples who had gotten married before Prop 8 were legally recognized, thus negating the initiative's potentially retroactive power. Yet the overall result is newly denied rights for countless Californians and a court ruling that suggests that the California Constitution does not equally apply to all residents of that state.

To put it another way, for thousands of couples in California, there are no options for legal marriage at the present time beyond leaving the state. The California legislature has twice passed same-sex marriage bills, only to have them vetoed by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who will be out of office in a year, so there is some possibility that with enough of a push, California voters could get the legislature to once again pass a same-sex marriage bill that would be signed into office by a new, progressive governor. At the same time, the threat of yet another referendum always looms, which suggests that the initiative process might perhaps be the better route: a popular referendum, organized by a much broader and more proactive coalition, with specific outreach to non-LGBTQ people of all to overturn Prop 8, written in such a way as to ensure its validity against a range of challenges.

Both of these options, as well as the current financial crisis and political gridlock in California, point to another pressing issue, which is the need for a new state constitution, which might include a limit on popular referenda and the power of such initiatives to make and change laws, including amending the state constitution. (I use to think that splitting the huge state into two smaller states, a Northern California, geographically larger in size but smaller in population, liberal state and a Southern California, geographically smaller in size, larger in population, and slightly more centrist, would be a good option and make both more governable, but both would constitutions that improved on California's current one if they came into being.)

While there have been peaceful protests since the panel's decision, I sincerely hope, however, those some of those in California supporting Prop 8 have come to realize the damage it has done and those opposing it recognize how crucial it is to have an effective, appealing and relentless, broad-based campaign that cuts across racial, ethnic, gender, orientation, and class lines. Here the politics of representation are important. It is not enough any more to follow the popular LGBTQ media's usual modus operandi of depicting only upper-middle-class white couples, especially in a minority-majority state, nor will it work to bury the issue of homosexuality and avoid using controversial terms like "gay" and "lesbian"; showing the true diversity and breadth of those who would benefit from having equal rights in the state and speaking with candor about how people's lives will be positively affected by repealing this odious constitutional amendment will go a long way towards ensuring a better situation for all there and, I predict, in all the other states that still have not enacted or do not permit same-sex marriage.


Somewhat counterbalancing this awful news was the announcement yesterday morning of President Barack Obama's first nomination for the Supreme Court, 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals judge Sonia Sotomayor. (Photo at left, Lynn Schultze/CNN) If approved by the Democratic-controlled US Senate, which is very likely, Justice Sotomayor would be the first Latina, the first Puerto Rican, and only the third woman to join the nation's highest court. I admit to getting choked up as I listened to her life story yesterday on the radio. The daughter of Puerto Ricans who came to the US mainland in the 1950s, she was born and grew up in the South Bronx. Her father had a third-grade education and passed away when she was 9; her mother then sometimes worked multiple jobs to ensure that she and her two siblings received the best education and lives possible. Justice Sotomayor, who is 54 and has lived with diabetes for most of her life, graduated from Cardinal Spellman High School, Princeton University summa cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa (and second in her class!), and Yale Law School, where she served as an editor of the Yale Law Review. This is one obviously brilliant woman. She went on to serve an Assistant District Attorney in Manhattan under Robert Morgenthau, before serving in private practice as an international corporate litigator. Nominated in 1992 by the first President Bush (ugh!) to the District Court of the Southern District of New York, she was then nominated in 1998 by President Bill Clinton and confirmed to the 2nd District Court position she now holds. She's written hundreds of opinions, some of which are summarized by The New York Times here.

Before Obama even selected Sotomayor, the GOP had begun gunning for whomever he picked, and, with the help of "liberals" like Jeffrey Rosen and the media, began smearing her. Rosen in particular deserves to be called out, because he launched a campaign in the New Republic against her using anonymous sources, which both the right-wing and the mainstream media (cf. Gwen Ifill's question on last night's News Hour with Jim Lehrer about Sotomayor's "temperament") latched onto. Mike Tomasky and Glenn Greenwald have written about this mess perhaps as thoroughly and persuasively as anyone. So it redounds to Obama that he did not allow this waxing, toxic Beltway consensus to sway his selection, which is a smart tactical move any way you assess it. It's an history-making gesture, it affirms the importance of Obama's Latino and female supporters (why on earth in 2009 is there only one woman on the US Supreme Court?), it replaces an unexpectedly moderate liberal with an expectedly centrist-liberal, and it creates a difficult challenge for the GOP and the numerous Congressional conserva-Dems.

In fact, despite the GOP's and media's characterizations, Obama apparently has chosen a judge who is truly centrist-liberal in her adjudication (as opposed to a progressive-leftist, unfortunately), It's likely she will vote and write rulings along the lines of the person she's replacing, Associate Justice David H. Souter, though some of her views, on issues such as executive branch power, abortion and same-sex marriage, are unknown. As current commentary about her judicial record shows, she generally has written rulings generally in the liberal vein, but has occasionally sided with businesses or the government against plaintiffs, including plaintiffs of color. While a few of her statements, such as the 2005 comment about appellate courts being the place where "policy is made" (which she immediately retracted) or her ethnic background and gender providing her with a powerful lens to understand the effects of the law in the everyday world will certainly spark conservative concerns, her overall profile strikes me as quite uncontroversial. (Nevertheless, Republicans are already uttering their usual extremely offensive, racist claptrap.) I hope that she moves further to the left the longer she's on the court, though having left-leaning allies, as opposed to the strong right-wing quartet now in place, might help this along. If the President gets another opportunity to appoint a justice, and I hope he will (2-4 would be great), I would love for his next nominee to be a solid progressive or even a liberal visionary, someone whose ideas and writings could serve as an intellectual and foundational counterweight to the likes of Antonin Scalia and John Roberts, Jr. Anyone got any names to send forward?


And then there's the bizarre. By which I mean the "furore," to use the British form of that the word, surrounding the Professor of Poetry position at Oxford University. If you're a not a literary person or somehow happened to have missed this, here's a recap. Three poets--Nobel Laureate Derek Walcott, 79, British poet Ruth Padel, 63, and Indian poet Arvind Krishna Mehrotra, 62--were finalists for the prestigious but low-paying 5-year position that requires its holder to do little but give 3 talks a year and be a poet at Oxford. Prior holders of the chair include W. H. Auden, Seamus Heaney, Paul Muldoon, Matthew Arnold, and Cecil Day-Lewis. Shortly before Oxford graduates and academic staff were scheduled to vote up a winner a few weeks ago, a number of them living in and around the university received anonymously mailed photocopies of a book excerpt from The Lecherous Professor: Sexual Harassment on Campus, by Billie Wright Dziech and Linda Weiner, detailing a 1982 claim of sexual harrassment against Walcott by a female Harvard College student. (This occurred the year before I started my freshman year, at which point Walcott had moved across the Charles River to Boston University, where in 1996 he was sued for harassment by a female graduate student; that case was settled out of court. I should note that I did meet him several times many years later when he read at the Dark Room Writer's Collective, and several other times after that.)

Once this anonymous campaign came to light, Walcott withdrew his candidacy, stating that
I am disappointed that such low tactics have been used in this election, and I do not want to get into a race for a post where it causes embarrassment to those who have chosen to support me for the role, or to myself....
and went to say that
I already have a great many work commitments, and while I was happy to be put forward for the post, if it has degenerated into a low and degrading attempt at character assassination, I do not want to be part of it.
Hermione Lee, head of Oxford's Wolfson College and a Walcott supporter, urged Padel to dissociate herself from the sleazy campaign, as did others, and Padel did so, stating that she was not involved in the shenanigans and praising Walcott's work.

And then Padel, facing only Mehrotra, was duly elected, becoming the first woman to hold the post since it was created in 1708, and replacing critic Christopher Ricks. And then...the news emerged the other day that in fact, Padel had contacted two reporters via email last month to highlight Walcott's past transgressions. When confronted with the news, Padel had the gall to blame an anonymous student for pushing her to do it, before finally resigning from the post on Monday. The chair is thus empty. Supposedly Oxford will enter a period of reflection, before finding someone else to hold this now radioactive position.

I think it was perfectly fine for Padel and anyone else to publicly express concerns about Walcott's behavior. He is, without a doubt, one of the finest living poets and, as everyone knows, a Nobel Laureate, but his past record concerning the harassment charges do provoke legitimate questions and concerns. I imagine that Padel didn't just openly voice her concerns for fear that in doing so, she would appear spiteful, petty and competitive; yet such commentary did arise among some critics at the time that Walcott received the Nobel Prize in Literature, which in any case has gone to several writers with serious personal foibles (T. S. Eliot, Elias Canetti, etc.). Yet the subterfuge of Padel's actions is digusting, on top of being unethical and, worst of all, amateurish. There was no way that she was going to get away with this, so her actions also reflect badly and baldly on her judgment. Are there really people out there today who do not grasp that if you send someone an email, particularly someone in the media, it's easily traceable? To top things off, what ever led her to think she could trust the British media, who are known for their volubility and scandal-mongering? (On the Times of London online site, the uproar was described as a "sex row.")

I have to ask, is such a position really worth this level of skullduggery? I understand the prestige and any poet's desire for the acclaim it might bring (though if I had my druthers I would much more like to be appointed to the Collège de France), and the fact that the competitive element was already part of the process, but really, it is worth destroying one's reputation to get it? But I know that answer to that; I seriously doubt Padel is the first to have engaged in such behavior, which have surely occurred in the past and in other fields, and she won't be the last.


Alice MunroOn a better literary note, congratulations certainly must go to a writer whom it required maturity for me to appreciate, Alice Munro. During my late high school and undergraduate years I would see her name and stories, and for whatever reason, did not read them, and when I found little to interest me; the plots, the characters, the structures, the language of the stories themselves simply did not stick. Around the time I was deciding about going to graduate school, I started to read her work again, and it was if I'd pulled back a heavy curtain. Now her deft portrayal of characters, her ability to push plots to places I didn't anticipate, her careful and often unexpected play with time, and her seemingly simple but apt and often subtle use of language all drew me in. I haven't ever looked back, and have joined the legions of Alice Munro fans out there. She is without question one of the major living short story writers in English, and one of the finest short fiction artists ever. Yesterday she was awarded the Man Booker International Prize for Lifetime Achievement in Fiction, earning about $95,000 and further international acclaim, and joining an august list that includes Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe and Albanian fiction writer Ismail Kadare. She certainly deserves it.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Cuba's Gay Rights March + Writers' Collaboration & Resistance in Vichy

Slowly and assuredly the academic year clanks to its end. I'm pretty much dragging myself around at this point, which is one of the reasons for the absence of posts. The other has been my bouncing around between cities; that too will end when mid-June rolls around. But back to academe, so far I've learned that both of my seniors honors project advisees, fiction writer and foodie Taylor Dearr, and literature student, singer and poet Harris Sockel, were both approved for departmental honors, and pending the college's decision, both will receive them when they graduate in a few short weeks. So congratulations to Taylor and Harris! Congratulations as well to all of the university's creative writing (all of whom I worked with this fall as honors director) and literature honors students who will be receiving departmental honors this year. (Once the school year's complete, I'll be posting congratulatory sentiments for all the undergraduate and graduate students.)


Mariela CastroOften I'll come across something in one of the papers I regularly scan and note it for a future blog post on here, only to not get around to it because of one thing or another, but I can always count on Reggie to buzz me with an email that gets me thinking. He recently sent links to two articles I'd seen, on Cuba's first Gay Pride March, which Cuban National Assembly head Ricardo Alarcón opened with a welcoming addressed. The event was organized and staged last Saturday under the aegis of the National Center for Sex Education [Centro Nacional de Educación Sexual (CENESEX)], headed by Mariela Castro, the visionary daughter of President Raúl Castro. Mariela Castro, who led a conga line at the event, has become a leading force for LGBTQ equality in Cuba, and has been pressing the Cuban National Assembly to pass one of the most far-reaching LGBTQ rights bills in the world; it would recognize same-sex unions, including inheritance rights, and also allow easy gender changes on the government's ID cards whether or not trans people underwent trans surgery, which became free after a 2008 law that she championed. It does not, however, allow same-sex couples or gay people to adopt children, nor does it use the word "marriage" in relation to same-sex unions. Currently Cuba does not permit any national LGBTQ organizations, and as recently as 2004 the police were still conducting raids on and harassing gay venues, though this has abated of late. (Historically, in a number of Communist states homosexuality has been viewed as a bourgeois activity and counter-revolutionary, and in the post-Revolutionary period not only did Raúl Castro and others allegedly kill gays, but the government under Fidel instituted a policy of "re-education" camps, which were disbanded by the late 1960s.) The bill will be considered later this year and possibility of its passage is unclear, but Mariela Castro does have her father's ear and support and apparently Alarcón's as well.

Here's an interview she gave to a Russian TV station. I still mean to post my fourth set of notes about Cuba, which will include my thoughts and experiences concerning LGBTQ issues during my trip.


A week ago I went to see the "Between Collaboration and Resistance: French Literary Life Under Nazi Occupation," at the New York Public Library," which Edward Rothstein reviewed last month in the New York Times, and it got me thinking about the other notion of collaboration, the perjorative one, which this exhibit presented in vivid material form. I found myself mulling not only the trajectories of the many figures who belonged to or participated in the official Resistance or engaged in unofficial resistances, but also reflecting on odious figures like Maurice Barrès and Robert Brasillach, who openly embraced the Germans, fascism and anti-Semitic, and tragic cases like that of Irène Nemirovsky, a brilliant Russian-French Jewish writer whose work not only included notorious pre-War anti-Semitic portraits but who attempted to save herself by publishing her work in anti-Semitic magazines and pleading her case to Marshall Henri Pétain himself (both she and her husband died at Auschwitz). One of the most remarkable pieces in the exhibit is the original manuscript of her two novellas that constitute Suite Française, which her daughter did not find stored in a trunk until many years later; its publication met with almost universal praise.

What the exhibit demonstrates is that the reality was not black-and-white; there were writers who actively fought not only the French regime but the German one; figures whose perspective shifted during the war years; writers who worked clandestinely while overtly giving little to no sense of their opposition; and others, like Jean Cocteau, who accommodated the Vichy regime and were able to work productively without great censure (during the Vichy years Cocteau produced two books of poetry, a novel, a screenplay, three plays, and a book of criticism on El Greco, giving lie to his reputation as the "Frivolous Prince"). A bit surprising and upsetting were the expressions of excitement, by otherwise non-right-wing figures like Paul Valéry, at France's defeat, and the possibility of "something new," mirroring the belief in an awakening and renewal that some notorious German figures (Martin Heidegger comes to mind) felt upon the Nazi takeover of the German government. My thoughts echo Rothstein's; as I walked through the exhibit I found myself thinking especially about when the valences and ethics of silence in the face of the world's horrors, and when silence could not be chalked up as anything but a form of collaboration, which is to say; how writers and other creative figures have subverted officialdom and registered resistance and protest, sometimes in very subtle ways; the dangers of ever allying fully with any politicians (as opposed to being skeptical and critical even when they share ideological affinities) or political movements; and how the events of of this period, and the lessons we might draw from them, are still applicable today.

The entrance exhibit

The exhibit (one of Valéry's daybooks is on the left)

Christian Dotrement, "Postcard to Paul Eluard"

Thursday, May 07, 2009

Recent Readings & Talks in Chi

Note: A link to information on poet Craig Arnold, who was on a creative fellowship in Japan, and has disappeared.


A few recent events I've attended have included readings by Zimbabwean novelist and filmmaker Tsitsi Dangarembga, who spoke at the university as part of the Program in African Studies' 60th anniversary; authors Thomas Glave and Dorothy Allison, who presented new work at Women & Children First bookstore; and anthropologist and leading scholar of Afro-Atlantic religions J. Lorand Matory, who spoke on his new book project as part of DePaul University's African Diasporic studies series. Photos below.

Tsitsi Dangarembga visited the university as part of the Program in African Studies' yearlong celebration of its 60th anniversary. (I believe it's the oldest in the United States.) I found myself delivering an impromptu introduction for Dangarembga, which was an honor to do as I've been a fan of her work for some time, and have repeatedly taught her first novel Nervous Conditions, which I imagine is probably one of the best known novels outside Africa by a late 20th century African woman writer. Dangarembga, whose name I pronounced correctly phonetically (though the accented syllable was wrong--I think she pronounced it Dahng-GAHRM-gah) read from that book, and its sequels, The Book of Not (Oxford: Ayebia Clark) and the third in the trilogy, Bira (sp.?), which cumulatively explore the life trajectory of her protagonist, Tambudzai, as she grows up in pre- and post-revolutionary Rhodesia, which became Zimbabwe, whose current sad fortunes the world is quite familiar with. The excerpt from the third, not-yet-published book in the trilogy was particularly disturbing; in it, Tambudzai, whom society has molded into an utterly alienated quasi-person, not only witnesses, but cheers on a violent attack against a coquettish young woman who fails to show proper decorum, in behavior and clothing, at a bus station. Dangarembga talked about all three books, her filmmaking career (the university screened two of her films, which I unfortunately wasn't able to catch), and the difficulties, especially economic, of life in Zimbabwe today. In response to one graduate student's query, she discussed writing in English, which she feels most comfortable working in and which has allowed her to reach a wide audience, alongside Ngugi's dictum to write in an African language, which in her case would be Shona. One of the problems for anyone writing in Shona, as opposed to English (the colonizers' language, of course), or some other African languages like Yoruba or Gikuyu, is the lack of any mechanism of standardization for Shona. When I mentioned this to a Zimbabwean student at the university, he agreed, and said it was an issue under debate back home.

Tsitsi Dangarembga at the university

Writers Thomas Glave and Dorothy Allison read this past weekend at Womens' and Children's Books, in Andersonville. I hadn't seen Thomas since he was last at the university about 4 years ago reading from his collection of essays, Words To Our Now, and hadn't seen Dorothy since one of those early 1990s OutWrites, I think (how I miss those days!), but both were in sharp form. Thomas read excerpts from two stories: first he offered up a sliver of his new collection, The Torturer's Wife's, final story, "Out There," which is set in Jamaica and explores the consciousness of a married man, Aston, who witnessed and then returns to the ruins of the country house where his one close friend and fellow lover of men, Carlton, was burned alive by the local townspeople. The excerpt touched upon Aston's desire for a local fisherman, Solomon, also known as "Brattie," whose presence assumes mythic proportions as Aston reckons with the tragedy and trauma of his late friend's and his lives. Then Thomas shifted to the horrifying ending of the title story, in which the eponymous wife, who has been witnessing vaginas and other body parts, very likely from the young women her husband tortured and murdered, decides to take action into her own nearly disembodied hands. Now don't those descriptions make you want to read the stories? Dorothy Allison read a new story, whose narrative engine was the well-modulated voice of a teenager in Sonoma County (where she lives), who imagines what will happen if he's kidnapped and thus becomes famous. It sounds almost trite to describe it as touching, but the story was, even as it was also often hilarious. Allison knows how to get into character via the technique of voice, while also sketching, from the inside out, an entire (working-class) world. Afterwards I got to hang out a little with Thomas and filmmaker Jason Tompkins, a fellow St. Louisan.

Thomas Glave reading from his collection The Torturer's Wife at Women & Children First

Thomas and Dorothy Allison answering questions

Yesterday I headed down to DePaul University to hear J. Lorand Matory, one of the leading anthropologists studying Afro-Atlantic religions, from Nigerian Òyó Yoruba religion (which led to his acclaimed first book Sex and the Empire That Is No More: Gender and the Politics of Metaphor in Òyó Yoruba Religion [Minnesota, 1994]) to Brazilian Candomblé (about which he's written an important book, Black Atlantic Religion: Tradition, Transnationalism and Matriarchy in the Afro-Brazilian Candomblé [Princeton, 2005], which received the Melville J. Herskovitz Award from the African Studies Association) to transnational Santería. His talk, which was part of DePaul's African Diasporic Studies series, was originally titled "Afro-Atlantic Ontology and the Problems of Transnationalisms," the title of an essay he's writing for a forthcoming edited volume and part of a new project, but he shifted the focus of the talk to a discussion of the signs of citizenship and spirituality, with an emphasis on how sign systems worked in relation to the nation-state in the former, and to transnational spiritual systems in the latter. The resultant title was "Sacred Double-Consciousness: The Signs of Citizenship and of Spirit Possession in the New World," and while I won't try to recap the talk-performance, because Matory really did perform the talk in a way I rarely see scholars do, engaging us in talk, song, dance and, above all, in a show-and-tell session utilizing not only slides but numerous sacred objects that he passed around, I will say that he offered what to me was an expanded way of thinking about "being" itself when he talked about how many Afro-Atlantic religions equate human beings as vessels of multiple spirits and spiritual systems, and discussed the transnational aspects of these spirits. To put it another way, we might think of our bodies and ourselves as "ensembles of being."

As I noted, he displayed actual vessels (soup tureens, cauldrons, etc.), flags, banners, crowns, horns, knives, cane hooks, and so on (some of which are shown below), that are affiliated with particular Afro-Atlantic syncretic deities and divinities, and discussed their relation to several other tenets that are reformulated in Afro-Atlantic religious practices, such as the person as vessel and crossroads, and the notions of royalty and slavery. Part of what also emerged was a rethinking of the terms of nation-state citizenship and its signs, along with a different way of considering the role and understanding of hierarchies, power, slavery, and political economy more broadly. One of the things I was trying to do throughout the talk was to connect his ideas to others I've been mulling about in relation to festival time and space, and questions of time more generally, and I thought I had an aperçu or two, though after I chatted with him, I realized I probably should work these ideas out a bit more, and in dramatized form, as I've been trying to do for some time. Also present at the talk was fellow Chicago poet and healer Abegunde Hamilton Bispo, with whom I hashed out some thoughts during our drive back north. It was only a 2-hour event, but it was definitely a brain workout.

J. Lorand Matory displaying a crucifix at his DePaul University's African Diaspora series talk

Matory makes a point while holding an beaded and cowried garabato (cane hook) for Elegguá

Some of the ritual objects Matory displayed and discussed at his talk

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.