Thursday, June 30, 2011

Film Review: Incendies

As I watched the Academy Award-nominated film Incendies (2010) last month, which my friend writer and translator N. had recommended, the impression I began to feel taking shaping was that I was observing the sort of movie Costa-Gavras or Gilles Pontecorvo might make if either had spent half his life watching telenovelas. I invoke the popular TV form, though without question you could go much further back in time and art to find plots turning on lurid, almost implausible revelations by such greats as Sophocles and Euripides, or, moving forward by many centuries, William Shakespeare, who like his predecessors traced out the seemingly coincidentally monstrous not only in the world at large, but within families themselves. The genius of each of these writers with such material lies in part in their skilfulness in taking what in lesser hands might come off as meretricious and elevating it to the level of the highest art, through mastery of the form of tragedy, through depth of characterization, through language itself. Incendies' director, Denis Villeneuve, who adapted the screenplay with script consultant Valérie Beaugrand-Champagne from an original play by Wajdi Mouawad, is no Shakespeare—and who is or needs be?--and he also but he does show considerable adroitness wedding the political and the melodramatic successfully in this film, which unfolds like an informative and disturbing puzzle that you cannot pull yourself away from.

Set in Canada and an unnamed country that bears more than a few resemblances to Lebanon, Incendies tracks the story of fraternal Arab-Canadian twins, sister Jeanne Marwan (Mélissa Desormeaux-Poulin), a promising mathematics graduate student, and brother Simon Marwan (Maxim Gaudette), a surly laborer, who have recently lost their emotionally remote but loving mother, Nawal Marwan (Lubna Azabal), and whom Jean Lebel (Rémy Girard), a sober white notary for whom Nawal worked for many years, have summoned to his offices for the reading of their mother's will. Both siblings expect little in the way of an estate from their former parent, the only one they have ever known, particularly because of the catatonia she entered at the end of her life, but Notary Lebel presents each with an envelope that Nawal dictated to him on her deathbed, and has a third that can only be opened once each addresses the requests in their respective envelopes. For Jeanne, the request is to give the letter to their brother, while for Simon, it is to give the letter to their father, both especially difficult requests because Nawal has never spoken of another child, let alone a son, or given the children any information about their father, at all.

Despite their grief, anger and misgivings, first Jeanne and then the formerly indifferent Simon head off for their mother's unnamed homeland, where, after a series of revelations and immersion in a lifeworld that Nawal, for reasons that become evident, hid from them, they encounter not only the truth of her past, but their own, in the history of her country, their country too, it turns out, what has been riven by civil war, sectarian war. Through a deftly braided narrative, Jeanne and Simon learn of that the sectarianism tore open not only the soil beneath their feet and the families around them, but the very mind, body and soul of their mother. By the film's end, they also understand not only their mother in ways that were inconceivable before, but themselves as well, and I mean this not in the clichéd sense, but corporeally and psychologically. What sends their mother into silence are truths that societies have for centuries, rightly I would argue under the circumstances, kept buried beyond the grasp of the speakable.
Lubna Azabal as Nawal Marwan

I shall avoid spoilers, but it should suffice to say that the horrors of Incendies derive not only from the sorts of murders and torture that occur in a war, but from the backdrop of inhumanity, anti-humanity really, that ideologies, religious, political, and so forth, can and sadly far too often do provoke. Nawal is a Christian, and as in Lebanon, the country cleaved on multiple ideological lines. Like Costa-Gavras, Villeneuve is able both to depict the political conflicts both with enough clarity to allow us to grasp them, but also with the murkiness that even those involved in them might feel. He shows, rather than explains, a crucial and effective choice here, and in so doing forces us out of any easy identification, while also making us to experience a bit of the confusion and frustration that the political crises depicted demands. The actress Lubna Azabal inhabits Nawal as fully as is humanly possible, taking us from the traumas of her youth, when she sought to defy custom and elope with a Muslim, her first trangression against tribalism, conformism and orthodoxy, for which we see she and all around her will have to pay a high price, to her last breaths, sparing us none of the drama in between. Azabal impresses through her overall expressivity and physicality in every filmic moment in which she appears. At a certain unforgettable moment, when she saves her own life but fails to rescue a fellow bus passenger, Azabal's face becomes the scene of that unbearable, shattering loss within the larger scene of loss unfolding around her. At another point, when she is about to be subjected to an act so horrifying I could barely bear to think about it, Azabal beams out a quality diamondlike in its resolve, and broken though she may be, we grasp how she could have gone on to create a new life thousands of miles away.

As good, though perhaps with a less expressive facial range, is Desormeaux-Poulin, who plays Jeanne. The story comes to feel as much hers as her mothers. Gaudette, who plays Simon, is passable at best, and perhaps Villeneuve realized that given the plot, this had to be more the mother's and daughter's story—these women's stories—than those of the son(s), of men, even though it is men who create the grounds of terror through which all the characters must pass. Though he appears only a few times, Abdelghafour Elaaziz, as Abou Tarek, achieves unforgettable menace. Another of the film's triumphs is its cinematography; André Turpin captures the mutedness of the characters' emotional states in the colors used to render the Canada scenes, while the external scenes, such as during the busride through the mountain pass in the unnamed Muslim country, blaze out of the cinematic frame, and the interior scenes appeared, at least to me, to harbor innumerable shadows. When I left the darkened cinema, those shadows lingered, and though I know Incendies neither means embers or ashes, these metaphors respectively capture the the hopefulness of the film's ending, and the multiple tragedies the film often unbearably dramatizes.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

J's Theater Now An iPhone/iPad App!

With immeasurable thanks to my partner C and his company CAC Digital Arts, I can now invite J's Theater readers who want to dip into the site on their iPhones or iPads to download the new, free J's Theater iPhone/iPad app!

Everything you'll find on here is now available on the app version, along with direct links to the J's Theater Twitter feeds and easy-to-use sharing options for Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, GoogleReader, Instapaper, and other social networking sites. On the iPhone or iPad, you can view the articles in article view or full-page view, which simulates the view you see on the laptop. By double clicking on my J's Theater banner, you can also scroll through recent entries in full-page view too!

And did I say, it's free? Of course the app version means I'll need to post with a frequency closer to that of my first and second years as a blogger (2005-6, cf. the links on the right), but the spur is a good one!  If you have an iPhone or iPad, please be among the first to download the app, and please urge others to do so as well! Also do check out CAC Digital Arts' other apps and its first e-book, Maggie da Silva's The Real Family Camping Cookbook, and enjoy!

Some screenshots of the app!

Monday, June 27, 2011

Quote: Alphonso Lingis

"When the scale of a human presence scattered across vast spaces seems unconceptualizable, as also the utter simplicity of certain gestures and movements seems undiagrammable, we have before a human body a sense of the sublime. The sublimity of a body departing into the unmeasurable spaces make the ideas we form of the superhuman and the divine seem like second-rate fictions. The sentiment of the sublime is a disarray in the vision, a turmoil in the touch that seeks to hold it, a vortex in our sensibility that makes us ecstatically crave to sacrifice all that we have and are to it.

"Human warmth in the winds, tears and sweat left in our hands, carnal colors that glow briefly before the day fades, dreams in the night, patterns decomposing in memory, sending our way momentary illuminations: bodies of others that touch us by dismembering. The unconceptualizable forces that break up the pleasing forms of human beauty and break into the pain and exultation of the sublime are also delirium and decomposition. Not sublimity in the midst of abjection: sublime disintegration, sickness, madness. The exultation before the sublime is also contamination. Porous bodies exhaling microbes, spasmodically spreading deliriums, viruses, pollutions, toxins."
--from "After the Sambódromo," in Alphonso Lingis, Abuses, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994, pp. 138-139.

(This book and a handful more e-books are available free as digital files at the University of California Press's website)

(More on Alphonso Lingis, who is not without controversy....)

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Book Review: Jaron Lanier, "You Are Not a Gadget"

Jaron Lanier (Wikipedia)
If I were to summarize Jaron Lanier's You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2010), in a sentence, it might be: Freedom is more than the freedom to post your current meal on Facebook. To be fair, Lanier's book is a far more complex and nuanced reading of the contemporary digital world and social communications media than my epigram implies, but at the same time, it epitomizes at least part of his argument, which is that as computer hardware and software develop and advance, and social communications media grow ever more omnipresent, we are increasingly surrendering key aspects of our humanity, often without recognizing that we are doing so and far too often without resistance. Or, to put it another way, Lanier, one of the pioneering computer scientists of the late 20th century and a major figure in the field of virtual reality (VR), suggests that an anti-humanist perspective, which he does identifies as integral to the open culture/free internet ethos and cloud computing/hive mind approaches, has increasingly taken hold, to that extent that we are conforming ourselves to the whims of computers and computer software—and anti-humanist designs and perspectives—rather than the other way around.  We do not have to be gadgets or be unduly influenced by them, in other words.  Yet computers and social media are shaping us more so than vice versa, and Lanier, who takes frequent pains to note that he is not only not a Luddite or technophobe, but deeply embedded and implicated in the digital world's development, stresses repeatedly: this is a very serious problem.

One analogy Lanier gives for this is the development of the MIDI technology, which has revolutionized musical production over the last 30 years. It would be hard to imagine the digital music we listen to today without MIDI's foundation, yet Lanier suggests that this program, which developed based on the limitations of the piano keyboard, which is to say, a particular percussive instrument, cannot capture the auditory and sonic shadings of a violin, let alone a human voice, and it is hard to imagine the digital and digitized music that might be possible if MIDI had not become "locked in" as the dominant musical technology when it did.  The dangers of lock-in, not just in technological terms, but in social, political and economic terms, which are all intimately interlinked, underpins Lanier's larger argument. We are told constantly that Net's democratizing power is good thing, as it has opened up possibilities for far more people than ever to express themselves in ways they could not before to audiences they could not reach before. This undoubtedly is true. Lanier returns to the notion of the lock-in, however, in suggesting that as certain technologies—like Facebook, say, or Twitter or Wikipedia—become dominant, the alternative forms die off, standardizing, systematizing and normalizing certain types of expression in favor of others. The announcement earlier this year that blogging was falling off might provide an example, in that some creative bloggers had forsaken the expressive possibilities of that form for the more succinct—and standardized, and also firewall-privatized—spaces provided by Facebook, or even less text-heavy and more image-dominant blogging formats like Tumblr. Lanier, as a hortatory counterweight, presents a short list of recommendations that in one sense might serve to challenge the trends above, but at a more basic level imply a perhaps naïve, but I think necessary, spur towards a humanity that at times appears to be vanishing before our eyes.

The issue is not so much users—which is to say, consumers—as it is the people and corporations behind the cloud/free/open culture approach. Lanier offers series of cautionary thought experiments, beginning with the Turing Test, which I would boil down to our mistaken belief that computers can be human, or that we might not be able to tell the difference between the two—and MIT's Sherry Turkle, a longtime advocate of computer technology, has begun to sound warning bells of late about this very issue—and moves into related areas, invoking Franz Kafka and others, to argue that the cloud approach may appear superior to more individualistic and autonomous approaches, but history and reality suggests the converse. The cloud/hive mind, he points out, despite all its advocates' rhetoric, cannot resolve certain problems better than collective efforts led by skilled and talented individuals. Though he does not cite them, I thought immediately of countless literary works that no hive production could create (see again Kafka's "A Report to the Academy"), as well as triumphs like Andrew Wiles' solution of Fermat's Last Theorem or Grigori Perelman's brilliant proof of the Poincaré conjecture, which is not to say that computers cannot carry out calculations that it would take humans centuries to solve, but that the most powerful computers still cannot equal the human brain or human brains in concerted but structured effort. It also results, he suggests, in the sort of intellectually and philosophically muddled discourse of Wikipedia, which has become the preponderant online encyclopedia resource.

In its worst guises, Lanier argues the hive mind approach can spur or provide the conditions for the sort of anonymous contumely and cyberbullying that many critics have decried. Alongside these problems, the open culture approach taken to its extreme has resulted in the sort of piracy and demonetization of, and thus devastation of certain fields, some of which, like the music industry, have provided vital entertainment for decades, though others, like journalism, are key to our democracy and civic culture. At the same time, nostalgic reappropriation and recycling predominate over original aesthetic invention. In other words, as the open culture approach has negatively affected middle-class employment, we have increasingly rationalized theft and plagiarism, as well as artistic mediocrity, and, as we cede more information and individuality to the cloud and the corporations and wealthy, fortunate individuals who control them, we cede more social, economic and political power as well. The private has become public and privatized.

More than once Lanier describes the hardcore advocates of cloud and open culture approaches as "Maoist," which marked one of the places I most took issue with his argument. This line of argument arises out of his 2006 Edge article, "Digital Maoism," which critiqued the authority of collective wisdom and the erasure of individuality. On the one hand, he argues that a certain kind of Utopianism, though not exclusively leftist, has underpinned the conceptualizations of what we call the Internet and Web. On the other hand, however, he repeatedly discusses the role of corporations and their capacity to concentrate wealth, which is to say, capitalism, in the determining how we ultimately have come to experience the Net and Web. To Lanier the dogmatism of many key open culture advocates resembles Maoism, but as I read the almost continuous merging of the corporate and the individual, the commodification of every aspect of our lives and of our subjectivities, the reduction or transformation of our humanity into bytes geared primarily to be monetized on behalf of a very few, I think of something more along the lines of technofascism. What does it mean when corporations and the government are fused and working in cahoots to extract more and more information from us to convert it into greater powers both of surveillance and capitalization, the latter not to our individual or even collective benefit?

Lanier's fear is the old one of collectivization, whose multiple meanings he unfortunately fails to disarticulate. This leads him to push for political and economic approaches that would counter the trendlines we are now on, but it strikes me that many of these, such as Net neutrality and government support for and regulation of monetization, are progressive, rather than conservative or neoliberal. I wonder sometimes if we have gone too far, if it is ever going to be possible to, say, remonetize the net and regulate net use at a level that would make it truly affordable to everyone, prevent monopolization via cloud control by a few corporations or corporate-government entities, preserve privacy while also ending the worst aspects of anonymity, and champion the range of expressive, and most importantly, aesthetic, social and political possibilities, that the net promises. Lanier's book provides more than a few suggestions and thus marks a crucial starting point which all our government policy makers, as well as corporate net titans, should reference, and from which they should proceed.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Other Countries: Black Gay Expression's 25th Anniversary Celebration at Summer Solstice

Gordon Easley @ Other Countries Reading
Gordon Easley
Tonight I was fortunate enough to be able to attend what I consider to be one of the more important and exciting events occurring during this historic New York LGBTQ Pride week and weekend, Other Countries: Black Gay Expression's 25th Anniversary Celebration at Summer Solstice. It was particular important for me because Other Countries,  a Black gay male writing collective founded in 1986, played a key role in my own development as a writer and artist.  For those who have never heard of the organization, the celebration program's description, which quotes the collective's first anthology, Other Countries: Black Gay Voices (1988), sums it up perfectly:

Other Countries is an embodiment of the passionate belief that the lives, voices and visions of Gay Men of African heritage are inherently valuable. It is founded from the desire to create opportunities for our precious visions to be developed and shared with each other and with the rest of our communities...As our name intends, Other Countries is a celebration of the importance of difference. Not only the difference we share, but our internal diversity as a community; the many voices we speak with, the different pasts and consciousness we bring to our commonality as Gays, as Men, and as people of African descent.

There had been previous Black gay male writing collectives in New York and other cities, including New York's Blackheart Collective, some of whose members would go on to participate in Other Countries. Other Countries built upon this legacy, which included the foundations laid by the Civil Rights, Women's Rights and Lesbian and Gay Rights movements, and more broadly leftist collective and community-oriented self-organization, as well as prior artistic and cultural legacies such as the Harlem Renaissance, whose core comprised many Black gay and bisexual people, and adapted the title of Black queer icon James Baldwin's (1924-1987) novel Another Country (1962) to capture the themes articulated above.

At the center of the Other Countries collective was and continues to be the weekly writing workshops, which initially occurred and continue to take place at the old and now completely renovated Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Community Center, which is still on West 13th Street, just off 7th Avenue. At the workshops participants have presented and critiqued writings across genres, while also reading critical and theoretical texts, discussing politics and social issues, and trying to develop a language through and about which to write their lives, to bring themselves into language.  Out of these extra-institutional critical sessions have come three anthologies, the first listed above; the second, Sojourner: Black Gay Voices in the Age of AIDS (1993); and Voices Rising: Celebrating 20 Years of Black, Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Writing (2007).  Many members of the group, including those still writing, those who have ceased to do so, and those who passed away, also published their work in periodicals and anthologies and as chapbooks and books, and also have presented their work over the years at a range of venues.

Kevin McGruder @ Other Countries Reading
Kevin McGruder
I first saw some members of Other Countries perform in Cambridge, Massachusetts, shortly after I'd become affiliated with the Dark Room Writers Collective (which was also inspired by James Baldwin's passing), and almost simultaneously got to know several of the members personally, especially Roy Gonsalves, a superb young poet who'd moved back to Boston at the end of his life.  It is hard to describe the impact first of reading these writers' work, and then of seeing them read and perform it. (Or, as I was very fortunate to experience, reading alongside some of them, like Donald Woods.)  They were not just writing about being black and same-gender-loving, but striving to assert their humanity, to record their existences in all their complexities, at and in an epoch and society that sought at best to ignore them, at worst to erase them.

Len Richardson @ Other Countries Reading
Len Richardson
We have recently been living through such a terrible decade that it sometimes seems, at least to me, to render almost benign by comparison what it was like to live under the Reagan-Bush regime, which also marked the emergence of a scourge that is still with us, HIV/AIDS, though in reality, and as a great deal of the early Other Countries writing underlines, for all time to come, its ravages were far more severe during the moment when Other Countries began.  AIDS felled Roy, Donald Woods, and a number of other Other Countries-affiliated writers, as it slew many other major black gay figures of that period: Essex Hemphill, Melvin Dixon, Joseph Beam, Assotto Saint, Marlon Riggs.... The losses are incalculable, but AIDS did not silence these figures, because their words and work, in addition to having produced a vital public and literary discourse about and around black sgl/gay male life and life with HIV/AIDS, are still with us, just as AIDS and the many other challenges its members have faced have not silenced Other Countries as an organization. As a result today, two-and-a-half decades on, the collective continues to meet, continues to nurture black sgl/queer writing and art in many genres, from music to film, selections of which were on display tonight.

G. Winston James @ Other Countries Reading
G. Winston James
Gordon Easley served as Master of Ceremonies, and introduced each portion of the program, which was divided into Past, Present and Future section.  As part of the "Past" section, historian and longtime Other Countries member Kevin McGruder opened the program by offering an overview of the collective's past.  Filmmaker and writer Robert E. Penn, another longtime member, showed a video that brought together old photographs, video clips of interviews with longtime members, tributes of others who had inspired the group, and more recent events, like the 2007 anthology launch. He also showed book titles born out of or inspired by Other Countries' vital work. Len Richardson offered the presentation in the "Past" section by reading his short story from the first anthology. I didn't tell him this, but as I read, I could remember reading that story several times over.  For the "Present" section, musician Nhojj sang one of his many stirring songs, playing an acoustic guitar as accompaniment, and the poet Dadland Maye followed him and roused everyone with a poetic performance that for me brought back memories of the first Other Countries performance I saw.

Allen Wright @ Other Countries Reading
Allen Wright
The final portion of the evening was the Open Mike, and many longtime members and admirers of Other Countries, including founding member Allen Wright, poet G. Winston James, author and editor Charles Rice-Gonzalez, and playwright and performer Reverend Jeffrey Haskins (who closed out the evening by reading one of Donald Woods's poems), and yours truly read. It was a particular honor for me to read a poem in that, as I noted to the audience, all of my work has in some way been in conversation with and in debt and tribute to Other Countries.  Someday I hope, as Roberto Bolaño did in Distant Star to write into a text a specific tribute, so that it will be clear for all to see.  Although I have never been able to participate directly with Other Countries, I also hope to continue my conversation with its members, living and those who have passed on, and, as I also said, I hope it has many more decades of nurturing creativity among its members and the wider world.

Rev. Jeffrey Haskins @ Other Countries Reading
Rev. Jeff Haskins

Friday, June 24, 2011

St. Mark's Bookshop In Trouble + e-Book Spamistry

If this summer you 1) happen through New York City, 2) are anywhere near the East Village or West Village, and 3) seek a book, particularly a work of distinctive poetry, fiction, creative nonfiction, philosophy, literary or cultural theory, or magazines, zines, art books, and so on, please consider dropping by and shopping at St. Mark's Bookshop, on Third Avenue near E. 9th St., one of the best independent bookstores in the city, and one of the survivors in what was once a city brimming with indie booksellers.  Though old standbyes like Shakespeare & Co. still exist and newer bookstores like McNally-Jackson and Idlewild Books offer great selections, St. Mark's storehouse of zines, obscure critical books, and poetry titles, to name but three of their strengths, remains among the best New York has to offer, at least in my experience. It was at St. Mark's that I first came across Will Alexander's work, after months of buzz from friends about it; where I found maga/zines like Butt before any other non-Christopher St.-area bookstores were carrying them; where I used to grab my copies of Linda Simpson's My Comrade, Sister whenever I visited the City from Boston; and where my own first book initially appeared--before it showed up in any other bookstores.  The staff, though perhaps a bit saturnine as a whole, has tended in my experience to be far more knowledgeable than that of many other bookstores I've come across over the last 10 years.

In previous blogposts I've written about the 2007 closure of stores like the extraordinary Gotham Book Mart, and, I'm sad to say, St. Mark's appears to be teetering on the brink. The overall grim economic situation, the rise of online and e-book sales, problems with publishers, and New York City's exorbitant rental market are proving lethal, so St. Mark's needs every sale it can get. According to Gothamist, last October the bookstore had to lay off all of its part-time staff and reduce the hours of its full-timers, but anemic sales and an unyielding landlord have meant that the store continues to struggle financially. Mark Russo, one of the bookstore's managers, is quoted in Aidan Gardiner's June 23, 2011 article in The Villager stating the case as: "We were in a precarious position and when you add what happened with the economy in general — there you go...We’re particularly vulnerable to that because of the price of our real estate. It’s people turning to e-readers and that sort of thing."

Russo doesn't foresee closing St. Mark's Bookshop anytime soon, but the store is currently on an IV drip at best. One problem, which I admit I've exacerbated in recent years, is that nowadays customers will not buy a book if it's not in stock; waiting even 24 hours for an order to arrive, thus necessitating a return to the store to pick the book up, has become too long a wait in the era of overnight shipping of books directly to your doorstep.  Quoting Russo, "'E-book sellers have changed what people’s perception of service is and what is legitimate to expect in a short period of time....If you say to them that you’ll have to order it, a lot of people have a strange idea of what ‘right away’ means.'" Gardiner's article adds, however, that despite the panoply of challenges, New York booksellers have not suffered as badly as their peers in other cities and regions; a report by the American Booksellers Association in conjunction with Civic Economics says that New York is the "twelfth-best independent-bookstore business market" out of 363 in the US (I'm surprised it's not in the top 10). That said, the article also states that New York-area independent booksellers have noticed a "dip" in their business, though nothing as severe as St. Mark's.

The fate of the independents, once threatened by the megachains but now by online selling and e-books, once again looks bleak, so it's up to readers to do our part. If you're in or around St. Mark's or any other bookstore, especially an independent, please buy a book or several if you can afford to!


Afternoon coffeeNot all that glimmers from an e-book screen is worth reading, or even a book as we know it. I am a fan of electronic books--though I keep buying and reading codex ones, and just finished Jennifer Egan's superb, Pulitzer Prize-winning A Visit from the Goon Squad (Anchor, 2010--which I bought it at The Strand, an independent bookstore!), but C, an e-book publisher now, forwarded me several cautionary articles about e-books, Amazon and its popular Kindle reader that I recommend. For example, I had no idea that Kindle-targeted "spam" e-books were "clogging" Amazon's store. But, says the LA Times, they are:

Thousands of digital books, called e-books, are being published through Amazon's self-publishing system each month. Many are not written in the traditional sense.

Instead, they are built using something known as Private Label Rights, or PLR content, which is information that can be bought very cheaply online then reformatted into a digital book.

These e-books are listed for sale — often at 99 cents — alongside more traditional books on Amazon's website, forcing readers to plow through many more titles to find what they want. Aspiring spammers can even buy a DVD box set called Autopilot Kindle Cash that claims to teach people how to publish 10 to 20 new Kindle books a day without writing a word.
So now, as with emails featuring hot movie stars or porn actors or emergency appeals or credit card offers in their subject lines, you must be wary of ultraeconomical e-books that will plant worms and Trojan horses on your computer or e-reader. In Salon, Laura Miller offers her witty, informative take on the Spam situation:

Most PLR texts seem to be the product of content farms, quickly-written, work-for-hire informational material cranked out by underpaid writers with little more than a passing knowledge of their subjects. It's the same sort of stuff you'll find on The content packages are filled out with public domain material, usually available elsewhere for free, such as old junior league-style cookbooks ("Cat Head Biscuits And Garlic Fried Chicken") and self-help manuals ("Nice Guys, Shy Guys & Good Guys"). Some e-book spammers publish reformatted classic literature that's gone out of copyright, passing themselves off as the "editor."

One of the first to observe this phenomenon is British marketer Mike Essex, who found, in the Kindle store, nearly 3,000 99-cent e-books "created" by one Manuel Ortiz Braschi. Braschi is purportedly the author of "Canvas Painting 101," "40 Ways to Prevent or Get Rid of Stretch Marks," and "Seven Days to Profitable Blogging," among many, many others. When he's not providing this invaluable guidance to the public, Mr. Braschi somehow finds the time to offer his editorial assistance to such authors as D.H. Lawrence, Leo Tolstoy and Georgette Heyer. (Though how he reconciles publishing both "St. Michael The Archangel -- The Prince Of Angels!" and "Lady Chatterly's Lover" is an interesting question.) Since Braschi's oeuvre first came to Essex's attention in March, this authorial dynamo has added nearly 1000 new titles to his oeuvre.

Braschi's customers are, for the most part, unimpressed. "The book isn't formatted for the Kindle and states specifically that it has been downloaded from a public domain," complained one typical review. "It lists a website for free software that doesn't exist ... It's atrocious."
Beware anything published by Mr. Braschi!  Then, as the LA Times article notes, there are other interlinked problems: plagiarism and theft:
Some of these books appear to be outright copies of other work. Earlier this year, Shayne Parkinson, a New Zealander who writes historical novels, discovered her debut "Sentence of Marriage" was on sale on Amazon under another author's name.

For Amazon, the wave of e-book spam hitting the Kindle could undermine its push into self-publishing and tarnish the Kindle brand, which is set to account for some 10% of the company's 2012 revenue, according to Barclays Capital estimates.
The article points out that these the spamming and plagiary combine in some cases in which a program can rename a top-selling e-book in order to market it to a different demographic. It also states that while the Kindle, with the largest market share among e-readers, has been a target, Barnes & Noble's increasingly popular Nook has not, and makes no mention of the iPad, perhaps because although you can acquire a Kindle reader app for Apple's product, selling anything through its iTunes store, as C has attested, requires running an obstacle course of sorts.  It is anything but simple, straightforward or self-evident.

Finally, author Rahma Krambo, in posting about the issues above, links to possible solutions, including empowering readers to flag spam texts on Amazon, thus filtering out at least some of the bad results (though how can you tell before viewing them which editions of John Milton's Paradise Lost, say, which is a public-domain text, are legitimate republications by scrupulous small publishers and which are spam texts?), but he also suggests a social-networking solution that would involve recommendations by friends. Another idea is for Amazon to charge to upload texts, which would deter at least some of the greediest spammers, especially those churning out crap at no financial or social cost whatsoever to themselves; perhaps some combination of these first and last options might work best. (I say keep Facebook, etc. out of it.) Krambo ends by offering links to a great tool, Plagiarisma.Net, which you may find very useful.  Let me just say that I have utilized this with student papers, thankfully with no upsetting results, and have put some of my own published work through it, again, with no negative results (Amazon's and Google Books' entries were what popped up).

That said, I have found someone appropriating--stealing--content from this blog, down to the photos at times. (And not just from J's Theater.) Who? TITDILAPA.  I'm still not sure how to get Blogger to do anything about this; flagging the spam site doesn't seem to work, and Blogger's (Google's!) language about lawsuits is terrifying. Terrifying, that is, to the one requesting that such sites be taken down. So the other blog, like the spam e-books, remains online....

New York State Senate Passes Marriage Equality Bill!

Photo: James Keivom/News
It's official, and on Gay Pride Weekend, no less!

New York State's Senate has just passed the marriage equality bill 33-29, ratifying the earlier affirmative New York State Assembly vote, and now it awaits Governor Andrew Cuomo's promised signature, which will make New York the sixth (joining Iowa, Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Hampshire, and the District of Columbia), and by far the largest state by population, and by gay population, to legalize same-sex marriage. New York, the site of the 1969 Stonewall Inn Riots, also becomes the first state to pass a same-sex marriage bill through a legislature with differing parties controlling the two houses.

Cuomo had championed the cause of marriage equality from his campaign forward, even presenting an earlier version of the bill to the legislature, and repeatedly urged legislators of both parties to sign it.  He also directed a top aide to coordinate the efforts of a number of state gay-rights organizations and helped to lead a TV and radio campaign on its behalf. The logjam remained in the Senate, which flipped from tenuous Democratic control in 2010. Although 29 of the 30 Senate Democrats (including all the African Americans and all but one Latino legislator) signaled support, only 2 Republicans were officially on board. Then tonight, after the Senate President Dean Skelos (R-Long Island) finally brought the bill up for a vote, two more Republicans, Stephen M. Saland (R-Poughkeepsie) and Mark Grisanti (R-Buffalo), who had run against same-sex marriage in his campaign last year, shifted from on the fence to yes, and that was it.  A religious institutions exceptions amendment, sought by Republicans, passed 36-26.  Once Governor Cuomo signs the legislation, same-sex couples will be able to marry in 30 days.

Now, 44 more states to go, including both New Jersey and Illinois, the two states in which I spend most of my waking life. Just as important, many more states also need civil protections for LGBTQ people. The struggles continue, but what a major historic victory tonight for New Yorkers and all Americans!

UPDATE: Governor Cuomo has signed the legislation, so same-sex marriage is now official legal in New York State!


Here's another perspective, by Columbia University professor Katherine Franke, suggesting that we should not foreclose other partnership possibilities, even as she champions the necessity of equality under the law.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Quote: Quintilian

"While moderate and timely use of Metaphor brightens our style, frequent use of it leads to obscurity and tedium, while its continuous application ends up as Allegory and Enigma. Some Metaphors are also low--like the "rocky wart" I mentioned above--and some coarse. If Cicero was right to talk about the 'sink of the state,' meaning the foul ways of certain people, I am not therefore minded to approve the old orator's 'you have lanced the state's abcesses.' Cicero did well to point out the need to guard against an ugly metaphor (like 'the state was neutered by Africanus' death' or 'Glaucia, the excrement of the Senate,' to quote his own examples), and against one which is too grand or (as happens more often) inadequate and unlike. Once alerted to the fact that these are faults, one will find instances of them only too often. Excessive amounts of metaphor, especially of the same species, are also a fault. So too are harsh metaphors, that is to say those derived from distant resemblances, like 'the snows of the head' or
Jove spat white snow upon the wintry Alps.
The biggest mistake however is made by those who believe that everything is appropriate in prose which is permitted to the poets, whose only standard is pleasure and who are often forced into Tropes by the necessities of metre. Personally, I would not say 'shepherd of the people,' on Homer's authority, in a speech, nor speak of birds' 'swimming' through the air, though Vergil uses this very beautifully for the bees and for Daedalus. Metaphor ought either to occupy a vacant space or, if it replaces something else, to be more effective than the word it banishes.
-from "Metaphor," Book 8.6, Quintilian, The Orator's Education, IV, Books 6-8 (Loeb Classical Library No. 127), Cambridge: Loeb Classical Library, 2002.

Signs of the Strange Times (1 & 2) + Tim Parks on Translation

I always worry about being a Cassandra, I really do. I have to stop myself from photographing empty storefronts, going on about the unsustainability of the current low-tax safety-net-slashing agenda of both major parties, tweeting about every new revelation concerning how utterly the previous and current administrations have shredded the US Constitution (cf. Jane Mayer's extremely upsetting but revelatory New Yorker article on NSA whistleblower Thomas Drake, etc.). I learned during the 2002-2003 period that few people wanted to hear about what were to me clearly evident lies about the anthrax attacks, WMDs, Saddam Hussein's links to Al Qaeda, etc. emanating from the Bush administration; and a year or so later not to ask everyone I knew, WHO is buying all these houses and condos and HOW are they doing this? even though the entire "Flip It"/real estate mania simply did not make any sense to me at all. But I realized I was starting to sound like a deranged person by bringing these things up, so I stopped doing so and channeled them towards other outlets (like this blog).

But I cannot keep my eyes and mouth closed. I have been back in New Jersey and New York for approximately two weeks now. I daily visit the New York Public Library, where I am trying to complete a large project. On my way to and from the library in just these two weeks I have noticed and noted many things, some good, some bad, some uncategorizable, but one of the most disturbing has been seeing young women with children begging on the streets and subways. At least 5 times now in just two weeks, I have seen women, with a small child in their lap or beside them, seated on the sidewalk or in the subway (twice in the 42nd St. station), with little cardboard placards, asking for change and help. FIVE TIMES. IN TWO WEEKS. They are all different women and children. Perhaps full-time New Yorkers have been seeing this deeply saddening and upsetting human manifestation of poverty and it no longer raises eyebrows. Perhaps others have sounded the alarm and continue to. Perhaps this is so widespread and no one any longer takes notice. Perhaps people are blogging about (because I haven't seen it mentioned in any newspaper), but to me, this betokens how truly economically grave things are right now.

I am old enough to recall the legions of homeless people who populated New York's streets in the 1980s and early 1990s. I can also recall Chicago's (and Evanston's) homeless crisis, which only moderately abated during the past decade's fake "boom" years.  Remembering New York during its down years (which were, I should add, not its worst, as during that era I grew up in another city which was plummeting towards its nadir), I knew there were numerous homeless women and children, and that there still are, but I cannot recall seeing, in such a short period of time, so many on the street begging and pleading (one woman was singing) for money. Perhaps I did not notice back then; perhaps this was much more common during the last economic disaster I can recall, which was in any case nowhere as severe as the current one, though it paralleled it in some key ways.  One difference between then and now was that the wealth gap, though growing, was not as large then as it is today, and New York was much less excessive in its glitz. Though it had its superrich, it was still the New York of squeegee men, of the potholed West Side Highway, of the too-dangerous-to-wander-through-at-night Central Park. The Meatpacking District was a meatpacking district. You could rent an apartment in the East Village or Washington Heights for $500. Tom Wolfe's Bonfire of the Vanities captured it quite well. New York today is something else; parallel, increasingly incommensurate worlds. Each world is growing unavailable, beyond glimpses, to the other. The world of women singing for change, begging for change, pleading in Spanish for change, as their children hover beside them, as passersby don't blink and eye and those with means slide by via car service, oblivious, is a tragic one indeed.  I know it's not only New York, I know there are millions of homes under foreclosure and people are sleeping in cars and tents and on the streets all over the country, but this is what I'm seeing now, repeatedly.

I could not stop myself from taking pictures today. We have to do something; the broken record of austerity and fiscal contraction to preserve the rich's bounty isn't working, and I don't know that many people will keep taking this. We can be tranquilized only so long before we wake up, or we don't.
Mother & child begging
Near Madison Square
Woman child begging
Near Herald Square


On a related note, though this has perhaps less to do with economics and more to do with cultural expression, I have been noticing more and more people running around in pajamas. Not children, but adults. Not pajama-like clothing, which is to say, loose-fitting, wide-legged pants or slacks, perhaps in cotton or silk, and so on. No. I mean plaid pajama pants and tops, housecoats, slippers and houseshoes. I thought I was hallucinating this in Chicago, and said I would start making a mental note, but then the end of the academic year rolled around and I stopped paying attention--to this phenomenon at least. Then I returned to Jersey City and lo, here we go with the pajamas. What is up with that?

I have some suppositions, but I'm curious to know if any J's Theater readers have noticed this. I must say that I have not noticed it so much in New York City (Manhattan), but in Jersey City, particularly right up to last week, I've seen pajamaists intermittently. As I disembarked from the light rail this evening I spotted one young man with pajama pants on! He was the only one, though, at least that I noted.  I have not, thankfully, seen anyone in a nightgown (well, that's not true--I saw a man wearing one last week), a nightshirt, a union suit, or, gods forbid, teddies or similar lingerie. But those plaid pajama pants...were they giving them away at Old Navy or H & M or something?

What also pushed me think of this is the story of Deshon Marman, the 20-year-old University of New Mexico football player who was pulled from US Airways flight 488 and arrested, jailed and released on $11,000 bond--I am not making this up--after allegedly failing to pull up his sagging sweatpants, which, in a video giving his side of the story, I believe I hear him calling them "pajamas." The issue of "saggers" and "sagging" is not one I'm going to debate here, though I will say that arresting anyone for sagging is insane, and jailing him or her is unconscionable.  But what is up with the--a grown man, no less, not an infant or toddler--wearing pajamas pants on a flight, a short flight no less, not one in which, say, he'd be in the air for 7-12 hours and might want to stretch out and sleep? I fly a bit more than I'd want to, but I fortunately haven't seen this that much; 1-2 times in the last few years, usually teens or 20-something, but is it now more common than I imagine?

I understand the desire to be comfortable and the increasing casualness of clothing in our society. I grasp that underwear has become outerwear, and a big business as such. I am all for self-expression, creative expression, free expression.  Truly. But I wonder whether we moving to the point where there is no line between what one wears in the streets or on a plane (or anywhere outside one's house) and then comes home and plops between one's sheets?  Or vice versa?  And yes, I know that W. H. Auden was known to scoot through the streets of New York in a housecoat and slippers, etc., but one brilliant Anglo-American eccentric decades ago doesn't justify or explain this...well, I hope it's not a trend.

Deshon Marman gives his side of the story

On a very different note, I wanted to point to Tim Parks's very recent New York Review of Books article "Your English Is Showing," on translation and the linguistic effects of English as a lingua franca. A response to a May 11, 2011 post entitled "Franzen's Ugly Americans Abroad," on European reception of Franzen's most recent work and the global literary marketplace, Parks's newer essay takes a different tack, one explored by not a few contemporary scholars of comparative literature and translation--I can think almost immediately of a talk poet and critic Mónica de la Torre gave several years ago on the literary strategies of Brazilian Concretists, part, I believe, of her dissertation--but refracted through his own experience. To summarize, he suggests that rather than non-Anglophone writers (and I would say that it's the case for Anglophone native writers too) choosing to write in the current global literary language of English, though some do (Bahian poet and fiction writer Valdeck Almeida de Jesus, for whom I've written two introductions, is one example), they have begun to internalize a particular more easily-translatable English grammar and prose style that is reshaping their prose in their native tongues. This is different, I gather Parks suggesting, from those South American writers who were heavily influenced by the American rhythms, in translation even, of William Faulkner, say; or from bilingual or multilingual writers, like Jorge Luis Borges or Oe Kenzaburo, who internalized the rhythms of English and French respectively, thus shaping their prose in particular ways; or even of Thomas Wyatt taking the Italian sonnet form and rethinking it, reshaping it, towards his own ends. What Parks is interested in links up with the ideas of critics like Pascale Casanova and Franco Moretti in interesting ways--though he doesn't mention either in this piece.  What he does say is:

Of course as soon as one has excited oneself with an idea, one finds confirmation of it everywhere. As I said in my recent blog post, Peter Stamm very much fits this description, likewise the German Siegfried Lenz, and many other French and Italian authors. So strong is the flavor of English in the Italian of the bestselling thriller writer Giorgio Faletti that a number of readers suggested it was actually translated into Italian from an English original written by someone else. At my own university, IULM, in Milan, we have a project GLINT (Global Literature and Translation) of which one area involves studying the extent to which Italian syntax has shifted toward English models over the last fifty years. There is no shortage of evidence. Contemporary Italian more frequently puts the adjective before the noun, more frequently uses possessives for parts of the body, more frequently introduces a pronoun subject, all changes that suggest an influence from English.

So that is the intuition. The idea is not so much the old polemic that English is simply dominant and dangerous; but rather that there is a spirit abroad, especially in the world of fiction, that is seeking maximum communicability and that has fastened onto the world’s present lingua franca as something that can be absorbed and built into other vernaculars so that they can continue to exist while becoming more easily translated into each other.

As I noted above, he's asserting something that goes beyond particular writers or national language, and suggesting, rightly I think, what's happening in a broader sense. As I noted above, I think it affects Anglophone writers as well; simpler and more straightforward prose fiction has a better chance not only of being published, of traveling and of being publicly acclaimed and rewarded than more complex, linguistically oriented work, but it's more like to be read by a wider array of people, including those whose native language is English and those whose isn't.

This is even more true for writers working in almost any other language. I think of the fine but relatively straightforward prose of Roberto Bolaño and compare it to the experimental style of Juan Goytisolo or the extroardinarily complex texts of Julián Ríos, for example. I set them in opposition not to establish a hierarchy of value (I think all have their merits and are great writers), but to suggest that by its very nature the prose of Bolaño has received and will continue to receive greater attention than those of the other two Spanish-language writers, in part because he is translatable in ways they are not (and Ríos's Poundemonium, say, is less translatable than Goytisolo's Makbara, though both have been well translated).

As to the effects on the prose styles in the languages themselves, and of English's direct influence, how incredibly fascinating. I will have to read much more carefully. The last few non-English works I've read, however, show little of English's, particularly American literary and spoken English's effects....

Monday, June 20, 2011

RIP Taylor Siluwé + Armond White on Green Lantern & Stereotypes

Earlier today via Rod McCullom's (@RodMcCullom, Rod 2.0) Twitter feed, I learned of the passing of Taylor Siluwé, a fellow blogger, writer, NYU alum and Jersey City resident. A native of New Jersey's second city, he was 45. I think I met Taylor in person only once, a few years back, but I do have a copy of one of his erotic novels, Dancing with the Devil (SGL Café Press), had read his articles in publications like Out IN New Jersey and FlavaLIFE over the years, and I would periodically check in on his blog, SGL Café, which offered a lively mix of news, commentary, and celebration of black same-gender-loving/gay life.  I must admit that I haven't looked at it in a while, and so I was unaware that he had been diagnosed with Stage 4 lung cancer in May and was dealing with it right up to this past Sunday. He had even begun to photoblog and write in detail about his struggle. Rod's summary of his cancer ordeal and of his work encapsulates so much. I'd only add that the signature "Taylor Siluwé," which I'd come across on many a blog, always underlined a passionate, thoughtful comment. William Johnson's obituary at Lambda Literary is here. You can read a snippet of his young adult work Something about Sin at Scribd here. Fare thee well, brother....


I haven't seen any of this summer's blockbusters, which would include the comics-to-films barrage that Hollywood has latched onto for some years now, but I do periodically read Armond White's reviews in The New York Press, and I have to say, I think I've spared myself nearly $40 (or whatever movies + a soda + popcorn, etc. cost these days) and my usual frustration and disgust at racist stereotypes by skipping Thor, X-Men: First Class, or Green LanternMy patience after 46 years has really grown thin. From what I gather from "Mean Green," a June 18, 2011 review of Green Lantern by Mr. White, a brilliant, incendiary critic who never stints on calling things what they are, or scanning through to their core, these portrayals (by Idris Elba, Edi Gathegi, and Michael Clarke Duncan respectively) are not as hideous as past depictions, but they remain locked in a stereotypical social and cultural logic that really should have disappeared with the last century.  I should note that Ta-Nehisi Coates had already and powerfully broken down Green Lantern's racial obtuseness in his New York Times opinion column debut several weeks ago. Since films are global nowadays, these tiresome, racist depictions don't just warp the minds of children in Chicago and Chattanooga, but like all the products of America travel here and there, doing their wretched work. Unfortunately so long as they're making money there's no way to stop them, and all the complaining in the world--my complaining, which I've done for years--isn't going to change anything, I now realize, not that I'm about to stop it. I guess I should be thankful that I'm not required to watch them, either because of a job (like White) or young ones (like Coates). Still, as White says at the end of his piece

Green Lantern should be better than it is but improvement would begin with sustained enlightened casting and characterization. What’s happened in comics movies this year has not improved on the casting in 1930s Hollywood serials. Actress Sanaa Lathan (star of Alien Vs. Predator) recently snapped “Nothing has changed!” when describing her role as an embittered 1930s black film actress in Lynn Nottage’s current play Meet Vera Stark. Lathan and Nottage’s collaboration is more meaningful and entertaining than all the comic-book franchises—or any other Hollywood movie—so far this year. Stereotyping has gotten so bad that smart viewers have come to expect the insult. They know beforehand that if it’s an action movie and there’s a black guy in it, his doom is certain—the ultimate spoiler.

In 2011, no less! That says it all.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

46! + Riding the Roosevelt Island Tram

That annual day has arrived!
Birthday cake!
The delicious strawberry shortcake C made for my birthday!
Birthday cake!
The cake, with candles
Me blowing out the cake!
Me blowing out the candles!


For my birthday I was trying to think of touristy places I'd never visited or things I'd never done (up to a reasonable point, of course) in New York City, and realized that I had done most of the things that would come to mind. I've visited all five boroughs, ridden every subway line, been to City Island, Coney Island, Liberty Island, Ellis Island (which is in New Jersey, of course), and the various beaches, to the two stadiums (the old ones, not the new ones, yet), watched several matches at the National Tennis Center, seen exhibits all the major museums and many of the art galleries, attended many a Broadway, Off-Broadway and Off-Off Broadway play, musical and art performance, viewed the City from the Empire State Building and even from the now-gone World Trade Center's observation floor, and I'd even seen (last year!) a dance performance on the site of the former Fresh Kills Land Fill in Staten Island, which meant taking the Staten Island Ferry, always a delight (it's free!) and on and on, but I realized that one thing I've never done is ride the Roosevelt Island Tramway.

Since childhood I've seen it in many a film, had classmates in grad school who took it regularly to teach in the poetry program at Goldwater Hospital, and have wanted to ride it, though I have to admit desire curdled a bit into dread not only after 9/11 but when the tram got stuck in the fall of 2005, and then again in the spring of 2006.  The last place I want to be is suspended for hours, with little reprieve or answers, above the East River. The tram, however, was completely renovated last year, and has been operating quite smoothly, so I thought, why not try it today?  And I did! It's a brief ride, no more than 4 minutes or so--thankfully!--at about 18 mph, so it's almost over before it begins, but when it ascends to its apex, about 250 ft above the East River, with the Queensborough Bridge  to the south and Roosevelt Island and in the distance Queens far below, it feels as if you're climbing into the clouds, and exhilaration mixes with terror--perhaps sublimity is too strong a word--and even time slows, if only for a few minutes.

I actually did feel a bit of nerves as we powered towards the top of the highest tower, but taking photographs brought instant relief.  Seeing and walking around Roosevelt Island was also enjoyable, and the views of the east side of Manhattan outdo any postcard.  Below are some of my snapshots. The view of the East River must be experienced live, so if you're in New York and have a half-hour or so (the coming, the going, etc.), it's only $2.25 or a standard MetroCard ride. Soar away!
The Queensborough Bridge and the Tram from Manhattan
Before the Roosevelt Island tram leaves
Before the Roosevelt Island Tram leaves Manhattan
Waiting for the tram to depart
The East River from the Roosevelt Island Tram
The East River, looking north
On Roosevelt Island
On Roosevelt Island
A barge on the East River
East River barge
East River and the Upper East Side
Looking north, to the Upper West Side, from Roosevelt Island
The East River and Manhattan's West Side
The East River looking south, from Roosevelt Avenue
Boarding the tram on Roosevelt Island
Boarding the tram on Roosevelt Avenue
The East River from the tram
The East River from the tram
Manhattan from the tram
Approaching Manhattan
Manhattan from the tram
The east side of Manhattan
The Queensborough roadway from the Roosevelt Ave. tram
Queensborough Bridge on-ramp and the east side of Manhattan
York Ave. from the tram
York Avenue, seen from the tram
Queensborough Bridge
The Queensborough Bridge
Queensborough Bridge entrance from the tram
Cars entering the Queensborough Bridge
2nd Ave. from the air
2nd Avenue from the air

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Bloomsday + Congrats to 2011 Grads!

It's Bloomsday!

I have in mind, as I begin this entry, the President's recent visit to his ancestral homeland (one of them), Eire, and Mrs. Obama's sipping of real Irish stout in Moneygall.  


"Terence O'Ryan heard him and straightaway brought him a crystal cup full of the foaming ebon ale which the noble twin brothers Bungiveagh and Bungardilaun brew ever in their divine alevats, cunning as the sons of the deathless Leda. For they garner the succulent berries of the hop and mass and sift and bruise and brew them and they mix therewith sour juices and bring the must to the sacred fire and cease not night or day from their toil, those cunning brothers, lords of the vat.
    Then did you, chivalrous Terence, hand forth, as to the manner born, that nectarous beverage and you offered the crystal cup to him that thirsted, the soul of chilvalry, in beauty akin to the immortals." --from James Joyce, Ulysses (corrected version), New York: Vintage, 1961, p. 299.

(As I wrote last year, you can find the entire, remarkable novel, Ulysses, one of the greatest ever written in the English or any other language, here.) You can hear Joyce himself reading from it here, at Bedeutung Blog.

The Irish Times on local Bloomsday events.

The Washington Post on local 2011 Bloomsday happenings.

The Huffington Post on global Bloomsday doings.


As I noted last week, the university's academic year was not yet over, but final grades are now in, and, though graduation doesn't occur until this weekend, but:


My senior fiction students, soon to graduate!
Some of the graduating senior fiction undergraduates, after our bowling match
Senior Bowling!

Congratulations to everyone graduating this spring all over the country, and a special congratulations to Kortney Ziegler, who becomes the first doctoral graduate from the university's African American Studies Department PhD program!

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

The Waste Land App

Screen shot of Fiona Shaw performing on the Waste Land appWhither publishing today, in this era of e-books and apps, and whither especially poetry publishing, which faces its own set of genre-specific issues? As Reggie H. (naturally) alerted me this morning by sending along the Guardian UK I cite below, the venerable British publishing firm Faber & Faber, in conjunction with Touch Press, an app development/publishing company, suggests through its extraordinary new offering one likely direction for the future, with its Waste Land app. I kid not.

Touch Press takes one of the landmark works of 20th century Anglo-American and world literature, T. S. Eliot's (1880-1964) 1922 long poem, The Waste Land, and, using apps' multiple electronic and digital resources and the iPad's display capabilities, brings Eliot's poem to life in a strikingly refreshing and enthralling way. It's no gimmick, I assure you. Here's the Guardian UK's video report on it, which describes how the app came about.

Not long after Reggie sent me the link to the Guardian piece, I came across Laura Miller's Slate article on the new app, "The Waste Land": T.S. Eliot takes the app store," which walks readers through the app and argues that it represents the best example of how to make a "digital book." So what does the app comprise?

You get, in very easy-to-navigate format
  1. The poem, in full published text version, laid out as it would be in codex book form;
  2. The poem, read by Eliot himself, in 2 different versions (1931, 1947), as well as by Alec Guinness, Ted Hughes, Viggo Mortenson (?), and the remarkable Irish performer Fiona Shaw;
  3. The poem performed by Fiona Shaw, in a Dublin house--I have watched this several times now, and I don't think I've ever heard Eliot's language enlivened, embodied, like this;
  4. Videotaped perspectives, by Seamus Heaney (who needs no intro), Paul Keegan (Poetry Editor at Faber & Faber since 1999), Jim McCue (a leading Eliot expert and publisher), Craig Raine (the poet and critic), Fiona Shaw, Frank Turner (a musician heavily influenced by Eliot), and Jeanette Winterson (the fiction writer and critic), which play alongside selected sections of The Waste Land;
  5. A facsimile of Eliot's original manuscript, edited by Ezra Pound, which you can view page by page, or, by sliding the screen in one direction, interspersed with the final version;
  6. Annotations and other notes explicating the text, in addition to the ones Eliot (in)famous provided;
  7. A gallery of photographs and images linked directly or indirectly to the text; these range from a photo of Eliot's native Saint Louis in the early 20th century to Pablo Picasso's Les demoiselles d'Avignon to a photo of Vivien Eliot, the writer's tragic first wife, to two (why?) photos of Bob Dylan (one would have sufficed).
Eliot, Corbis
This list barely captures the true interactivity of the app, which allows you even with all the gewgaws to, if you please, read the text straight through, as you would in book form, but also, you can, as I've done, read along as Fiona Shaw performs it or even just watch Shaw do her thing. As I said, the text, considered to this day a forbidding work of Modernism, comes alive in ways I'd not considered before. What Faber & Faber and Touch Press have created is perfect for the classroom, but also for anyone interested in poetry, especially Anglo-American poetry.  What also makes it work is the depth of Eliot's masterpiece; it can stand up to all the digital treatment and doesn't suffer from nor is overshadowed by it. The poem has many layers, as scholars have shown since it first appeared and as Eliot's peers quickly recognized, to peel away, savor, mull, return to. A lesser work might not hold up so well, and a work written directly for this sort of publication would probably come off differently, but Eliot's text suggests that masterworks of this kind--I think immediately of Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass, or Herman Melville's Moby Dick, or Jean Toomer's Cane, or, going further back, any of William Shakespeare's plays, or Dante's Divine Comedy, as being possible options, and see this as the leading edge for the future. (Imagine Erich Auerbach's famous discussion of the Divine Comedy, for example, alongside a number of others being woven into an edition of that book.)  Another option might be Abraham Lincoln's or Frederick Douglass's speeches, if those don't already exist, or a work constellating a range of texts--like The New York Times's Disunion series around the US Civil War. For an enterprising publisher with the resources and interest to work with a work in the public domain, there's no limit. It also suggests to me--as I'm sure it will to others--another and exciting possibility in terms of scholarly editing and publication. This might be what scholarly editions look like, at least to some extent, down the road.

As I mentioned to Reggie, after watching the Guardian piece and reading Miller's report, I had to purchase the app, which is $15 (not cheap, of course, especially given the usual app range of .99-$10), and I'm glad I did. Here are some screenshots of it.

Screen shot of the Waste Land app
A screenshot of the facsimile pages
Screen shot of the Waste Land app
A screenshot of one of the most famous of Pound's emended pages of Eliot's text (note the "B_ll_s")
Screen shot of Fiona Shaw performing on Waste Land app
A screenshot of Shaw performing alongside the scrolling text (the lines she speaks and performs automatically highlight in blue)
Screen shot of Wild Party app
A screenshot of the app with the notes/annotations at left
Screen shot of Fiona Shaw performing on the Waste Land app
A screenshot of Fiona Shaw performing the poem

This is not the first time someone has adapted The Waste Land for new technologies. An older example is this hyperlinked version, which would have been pretty advanced 15 years ago, and which still represents a heightened and very useful option for exploring Eliot's poem. My own introduction to The Waste Land after high school--and I admit to having been somewhat obsessed with Eliot as a teenager--came in my freshman year, when I conned my way into Joel Porte's "American Modernist Thought," most of which went over my head, at least the theoretical parts, but I do vividly remember the marvelous facsimile version of The Waste Land that we read, and I was shocked by all of Pound's excisions. He was, as Eliot rightly noted, at least in this effort, il miglior fabbro, the dedication he added in 1925.  I will be returning to this app again and again, I think, and hope that other publishers, along with Touch, keep producing works of this sort.

It just might get more people reading and thinking about not just poetry, but literature and the arts and humanities in general.