Wednesday, November 30, 2011

What Is a Publisher? or, Changes in Scholarly Publishing

Work, and not post-turkey recovery keeps me from these pages. We're now in reading week, which means conferences with the undergraduates, honors and theses manuscripts and other program and departmental materials to read, and final preparation for next quarter, which begins January 3, 2012. Brief indeed will be my break.  I am trying to complete a syllabus for a new course, one of three I'll be teaching come January, which falls under the department's theory rubric, in post-Stonewall American LGBTQ literature, and though I have taught some of the theoretical and creative texts I'm considering for it, I'm still trying to figure out how best to map some of the theoretical texts onto the rough 40-year historical timeline I've conceptualized. Book orders need to be in by tomorrow, so I will certainly figure it out soon!


As he always does, Reggie H. forwarded along a very important link the other day that I have not yet been able to stop thinking about. In Monday's Chronicle of Higher Education, in the Prof. Hacker section, which offers tips on teaching, technology and productivity, Adeline Koh, a professor of literature at Richard Stockton College, New Jersey discusses her experiences at THATCamp Publishing in Baltimore. Koh, whose scholarly interests include postcolonial theory and literatures, 20th century British literature, African and Southeast Asian literature, global feminist theory, and the digital humanities, describes THATCamp (The Humanities and Technology Camp) Publishing as an "'unconference'" that explored the salient issues around contemporary academic publishing, including, as she breaks them down

  1. Who should publish digital scholarly research?
  2. Should digital academic research be published by the university press, or the university library?
  3. How should the process of peer review change?
  4. And finally, who should provide the work that goes into producing a publication—editing, peer review, administration and graphics?
As she continues

THATCamp Publishing provided a forum for three stakeholders in this changing industry: traditional academic publishers, libraries-as-publishers, and faculty. While traditional publishers are interested in the bottom line, libraries-as-publishers are focused on the problem of access. Faculty, on the other hand, are concerned with how their publications will lead to promotion, tenure, and the advancement of knowledge. THATCamp Publishing highlighted how the evaporation of funding for scholarly publishing and the rise of the Internet as a low-cost, easy-access means of dissemination are radically changing the nature of this industry, and the inter-relationships of these three stakeholders.
On a more fundamental level, you could perhaps say the central question of the conference was and is, Who and what is a publisher? Beside this question we might ask, Who can (afford to, these days) and should publish scholarly journals and books? Koh focuses on university libraries, but I would say that small, independent academic e-publishers could step into the breach, but the problems of funding, revenues and humanpower remain. What happens when the technological infrastructure and conditions make publishing easier yet undercut the financial model that has supported scholarly book publishing up to today? What happens when the revenue and funding streams, even after structural reconfiguration, no longer exist, and what might counterbalance this financial loss? How do these changes and challenges effect future scholars, those emerging from graduate school, those already holding tenure-track positions, and those already tenured?  And, perhaps most pressing to me, are academic institutions and faculties, especially hiring and tenure committees, taking into account these technological, structural and economic changes?

My questions, which aren't rhetorical, exceed in some cases Koh's focus, though they're linked. She homes in on the issue of scholarly journals and their financial and structural relationship to monographs.  As she points out, at many presses, the scholarly journal subscriptions have subsidized the scholarly monographs, which often do not sell well enough to avoid balance-sheet losses. When the journals go online, however, cutting the revenue stream and making the subsidy structure no longer viable, what happens to the monographs? 

She goes on to talk about open access journals and asks about peer review in light of these changes. For many peer review scenarios, anonymity, which allows referees to speak their minds freely, is key; in the absence of anonymity will referees be as candid? Will they pay a price for their candor? Koh also asks how open can journals be in permitting commentary, and what about trolls or people seeking primarily to be nasty and flippant? Even controlling for these challenges, what about the academic and possible financial capital that referees gain from engaging in this (now anonymous) process? For faculty members at every stage of their career, serving as outside referees and peer reviewers is an important responsibility, but if it becomes a free-for-all in the future, how much weight will doing so carry?

There is the even more pressing issue of underwriting the work associated with producing journals and scholarly books. Where is the money to come from? As things stand, many colleges and universities may provide subvention funds, from various sources, which go to publishers to help scholars publish worthy books that will not result in sufficient sales. But subvention funds to cover publishing costs is one thing; as Koh says, "Upon signing a contract with a traditional publisher, authors and editors generally expect that the publisher will be responsible for work like copyediting, administration, finding peer reviewers, graphic design, and marketing." University libraries, which Koh points out have gotten into the game of publishing, do not, like some smaller presses, provide such activities, but see themselves as offering "publishing support services." I think it's inarguable to say that they cannot afford the complete roster of services traditional university publishers could, and as Koh goes on to point out, their relationship to the university presses with which some of them may be affiliated remains unclear and "in flux." Again, where is the necessary funding to come from?

It is 2011 and we are not, however, going to turn back the clock. E-publishing is here to stay. I was thus happy to learn that these issues, which I have broached in relation to mainstream publishing (and to a lesser degree, academic publishing) in my Situation of Writing class and also bring up in other courses, are part of lively cross-institutional discussions and wish I could have attended THATCamp.  Yet given how much these changes are upon us, I must note that I have not heard more than a passing discussion, in my department at least, of any of this in the 9 years I have been at the university. It is as if it does not exist, or is occurring in some off-stage realm that does not directly concern humanities--literature--scholars, at a time when the role, place and teaching of humanities in higher education are themselves, like the current university model, facing economic and existential threats.

In my email response to Reggie H. and others in our email circle, I pointed out that at the university, the library oversees the press, so that a version of the library-as-publisher model is already underway, down to the library and the university requiring that the press minimize losses, with the result that everything, from editing to marketing, operates on a shoestring, and financial subvention is required for certain types of publications. Also, it's the case that some journals have faced closure because of costs. This isn't theoretical, but the reality, and has been thus for some years now. On the other hand, let me be clear that, as far as I know, the library is not itself yet directly publishing journals, or books. 

I also stated that, in my experience, some humanities faculty members of previous generations who are still teaching may not be sure how to evaluate any scholarly work that does not appear in a major cross-field journal, in a well-known specific sub-field journal, in a new journal from major journal publisher, or that, in the absence of any of these, does not have a major scholarly name or institution associated with it. E-versions of these journals would probably pass muster, but new open access options would be a problem. They respond the same way with book manuscripts; they must come from one of the major presses for academic books, or from one of the chief press known to be theoretically or methodologically progressive, or from a press known for expertise in a particular field or subfield. I have sat through more than a few meetings where issues concerning a given publishing house, contracts and so forth, have arisen.

My question to Reggie H and others is: what will change this attitude given that in increasingly more humanities fields, there is minimal readership for and no publishing money to issue the books--monographs based on dissertations--that graduate students are still producing and must produce? In some fields that continue to grow, or where scholars, with a second or successive books, feel able to write for broader audiences, there may be broader readerships out there who will mean a loss is less likely. But how many people even in certain fields can get through some of the admittedly valid and important scholarly works being produced, and if publishers are saying they cannot afford to produce because the former economic model has vanished as a result of technological changes, what is going to happen and when will faculties make the shift?  Will we return to the point where a first or in the cases of certain institutions, a second book, is less important? Will only those who manage to produce books be tenurable, and how will this affect what's studied? Will online and open access books be taken seriously sooner rather than later as things change? Which publishers will be considered valid?

These questions are valid for the publishing industry as a whole, as e-publishing increasingly takes hold. Many creative writers and authors of other sorts are coming to terms with the changes and trying to stay apace if they cannot get out front of what's going on, as are literary agents, mainstream publishers, libraries, the bookselling industry, and so forth. I think universities are also doing so, but I do think that there should be more discussion in departments and among scholars of these shifts, which are happening right now and aren't going to change. I thus thank Adeline Koh, THATCamp, and the Chronicle for putting them front and center, and would love to hear J's Theater's readers' thoughts on how this all is unfolding.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Happy Thanksgiving!

A happy Thanksgiving Day to all, and I wish the best to all J's Theater readers. Wherever you are, whatever you are doing, try to take time out to consider what you have to be thankful for, as tiny or tremendous as it is, and also consider how you might help someone else out there who might be struggling in some aspect of life.

For those who are preparing holiday meals, if you want a thorough and easy-to-read guide to holiday cooking with a soulful edge, consider C's Holiday Kitchen, which is now available as an ebook on the Amazon Kindle, B&N Nook and iTunes stores.

There's also an iPhone/iPad app version as well.

I can attest to the deliciousness of every dish in this book. But don't just take my admittedly biased advice: as Maggie Da Silva writes in her review,  the author

is no snob and helps us out with painless instructions for turkey roasting, “one of the easiest meals to prepare,” he writes. “Try it!”  He also provides simple recipes for dishes I had assumed were beyond my reach – like lemon curd! Who knew it was a snap? In fact, most of the recipes in this delectable ebook reveal what all experienced cooks know: food doesn’t have to be complicated to be great.

So true!

I am going to make an apple pie, so if it turns out okay, I'll post a photo of it!

Update: The apple pie! It turned out well, and everything about it, from the crust to the filling, is homemade!

Apple pie I baked for Thanksgiving Day

Monday, November 21, 2011

Chicago Book Expo in Uptown

Chicago Book Expo posterThis weekend I popped by the pop-up Chicago Book Expo, sponsored by the Chicago Writers' House, which took place in what was once a book-filled Borders' store, and the building across the street (the Uptown Broadway Building) and the Goldblatt's Building, in Chicago's Uptown neighborhood. As with most things occurring in this city, I didn't hear about the event until the last minute, when the university, seeking to staff a table, put out a call for MA/MFA students willing to volunteer. (I also had never heard of the Chicago Writers' House, but such is my tiny little lot in the Windy City.)

The event took place on Saturday and Sunday, and for a quick-turnaround, ephemeral gathering, it appeared to be well-organized and attended, with small (Anobium), medium (Haymarket Books) and large (University of Chicago) presses present. A number of local authors and artists active in publishing were also there, so I got to catch up with people I hadn't seen in a while, and it also was possible to peep new issues of journals like ACM (Another Chicago Magazine), MAKE and Lift, while also discovering some I was unfamiliar with, like Chicago IRL, a fairly new queer joint featuring the work of many local creative souls. Jen Karmin, not unknown to this blog, made the smart decision to perform collaborative public selections from her sound-text collection Aaaaaaaaaaalice (Flim Forum Press), garlanding the air with poetry, adding another, aural layer to the literary cast of the space.

I left with a few books (including newly minted National Book Award for Fiction-winner Jesmyn Ward's first book, Where the Line Bleeds (Agate, 2008) and many cards and flyers in hand, and fragments of Aaaaaaaaaaalice in mind. I hope more such events pop up--and more diversity in terms of the people present and presenting would be good, just as I hope to hear about them and can attend--down the road.

The flyer for the event

At the Chicago Book Expo
One of the tables

At the Chicago Book Expo
Some of the tables (NU's is at left)

Jen Karmin, and a colleague
Jen Karmin, and a colleague

Chicago Book Expo
Make and other publishers

A zine table (I didn't get the name)
One of the zine tables (I didn't get the name)

Haymarket Book table
Haymarket Books table

Chicago Book Expo
Book-assembly section

A great book display
A great simple but effective book display

Towards the end of the Chicago Book Expo
As the evening was winding down

Saturday, November 19, 2011

The Music of Roberto Sierra

Roberto Sierra
Earlier this year I came across a contemporary classical music composer whose music I wasn't previously familiar with but which I've been returning to of late, Roberto Sierra (1953-).  Born in 1953 in Vega Baja, Puerto Rico, Sierra studied composition in Puerto Rico and in Europe, including at the Hochschule für Musik in Hamburg with György Ligeti. Sierra has since gone on to compose in a range of forms, including opera (El mensajero de plata), works for full orchestra (Missa Latina, Júbilo, Sinfonias 1-4, Concierto Barroco), chamber orchestra (Doce Bagatelas for String Orchestra, El éxtasis de Santa Teresa for soprano and Chamber Orchestra), chamber pieces (Flower Pieces, Concierto de Cámera), and works for solo performers (Ritmorro for clarinet, Bongo O for bongo), and orchestras all over the world have both played and commissioned his music.

His Missa Latina, premiering in 2006 at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC, with Leonard Slatkin conducting the National Symphony Orchestra, garnered tremendous praise, and he's received a range of awards, including the 2004 Kenneth Davenport Competition for Orchestral Works, for his Sinfonia No. 1, commissioned by the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, and Albany Records received the Serge and Olga Koussevitzky International Recording Award (KIRA), for its recording of his Sinfonia No. 3, "La Salsa."  I like the way Sierra's music synthesizes many different influences, ranging from the Spanish, Indian and African of his native Puerto Rico, to contemporary Spanish and European, and American art music, to jazz. In the Sinfonia No. 3, "La Salsa," or the Fandangos, one can hear links with popular Puerto Rican and Caribbean music, and the musical currents of predecessors like Joaquín Rodrigo, Isaac Albéniz and Enrique Granados. He wrote several of his most recent compositions, the Concerto for Saxophones and Orchestra and Caribbean Rhapsody, for the saxophonist James Carter. Like nearly all classical composers these days, he also teaches, and is professor of music at Cornell University.

You can find Sierra's music on labels such as Naxos, EMI, New World Records, Albany Records, Koch, New Albion, Koss Classics, BMG, Fleur de Son, and others. I often listen to the few offerings directly available on the Naxos site, which I subscribe to, and have purchased some of his CDs and selected works from iTunes too. Most are available on the iTunes store. If you are a practicing musician and want to play his works, you can get them directly from Subito Music Publishing, G. Schirmer, or Editions Orphee depending upon the piece.

Here are a few videos from YouTube featuring excerpts of Sierra's work. Enjoy!

Piano Trio #3, 4th movement, played by Trio Arbós
Mambo 7/16, played by Cuarteto Latinoamericano

Concierto Barroco (part 2), guitar soloist, Rémi Barrette, with orchestra

Tumbao, from Sinfonia No. 3, "La salsa," performed by the Eastman Wind Ensemble
Fandangos (excerpt), Robert Franz, conductor, Mansfield Symphony

Flower Pieces (excerpts), Valerie Potter, flute, and Anne Eisfeller, harp
Concierto de Cámera (premiere), Imani Winds, Miami String Quartet

Bongo o

Occupy: Images Worth 99% of 300 Million's Words

"A picture shows me at a glance what it takes dozens of pages of a book to expound." - Ivan Turgenev, Fathers and Sons, 1862

Tuesday, Police assault on Zuccotti Park

Yesterday, Police attack on peaceful students at the University of California, Davis

UC Campus Police pepper-spraying peaceful students
UC Campus Police Pepper-spraying peaceful students

Today, Newt Gingrich: "Go get a job right after you take a bath."

Why are people protesting? Why can't they "get a job," Newtie?

Jesse LaGreca, on This Week, with Christiane Amanpour

In case they still don't get it, some facts:

Friday, November 18, 2011

Resurfacing + More Brown & Black Brazilians + DR to Change Racial ID Categories + Rita Indiana's "Da Po La Do"

Surfacing finally and temporarily, from the bogs or thickets or trenches, or whatever is lined with pages and pages of prose! Today was the first day where I could actually take a long, deep breath and inhale the now chilly Chicago air. Over the next few days I'll try to finish the few stubs I began over the last few weeks, on many different topics, ranging from Christian Bök's visit to the university, to the most recent gathering of the Human Micropoem at Occupy Chicago.  And I'll try to finish my posts on some other thoughts as well.


Brazilian actor Lázaro Ramos
I saw today, on, of all places, a link to this BBC article announcing that in Brazil, based on 2010 census numbers, a majority of the population now defines itself as either Pardo (brown/mixed) or Preto (black), which is a remarkable milestone given that country's (like most of the hemisphere's) centuries-long history of racist-inflected racial formation.  Reggie H. sent me another link, from AtlanticCities, on the same news. Out of 190 million Brazilians, 91 million self-identified as white, 82 million as mixed race and 15 million as black. "Whites fell from 53.7% of the population in 2000 to 47.7% last year," while the number of people self-identifying as "black" rose from 6.2% to 7.6%, while the number self-identifying mixed-race people rose from 38.5% to 43.1%.  As the Atlantic's Nate Berg writes
Race campaigners welcomed the growing number of self-declared African-Brazilians, but the census also underlined how the vast social divide between Brazil's white and non-white populations persists.

The 2010 census – a massive operation which involved about 190,000 census takers visiting 58m homes – found that in major cities white inhabitants were earning about 2.4 times more than their black counterparts.
(I'm not sure what a "race campaigner" is, but consider the source.)

In Brazil, which has the largest numerical black population outside Africa, unlike the US, there was more open racial and ethnic mixing from the initial arrival of the Portuguese and other Europeans in 1500, and over subsequent decades wealth, social status and a wider array of racial classifications allowed people to escape the US's hypodescent (one-drop) rule.  Central to this system was a process of not just physiological but cultural embranqueamento (or whitening) long held sway, alongside a national ideology of Brazil as a "racial democracy," thus blunting attempts by black and brown Brazilians to counter racist and white supremacist discourse, or organize nationally around anti-racism in the ways that black people in the United States (or Haiti, during its colonial period), with its apartheid Jim Crow system, could.

Brazil has long had black and brown activists working to challenge the racism there, and as I noted this past May, one of its major 20th century figures, Abdias do Nascimento, passed away this year after a lifetime of battling the dominant overt and casual racism there.  As I wrote to some friends today, I wonder how much Brazil's national affirmative action policies, which have proved controversial but have gained acceptance, have played a role, but also how much the sustained civil rights and equality efforts by Afrobrazilians have affected self-identification. It also made me think about Henry Louis Gates, Jr.'s PBS series, Black in Latin America, which I also covered in May. He barely touched on the shifts in self-recognition, making me wonder whether when he was down there for his series, did no one apprise him of these changes, even in the absence of hard census figures?  Had he known of this shift, I wonder how different his Brazil episode might have looked. He did, however, explore the economic disparities which continue there, as they do here and elsewhere across the hemisphere.


This news about Brazil, and Gates's reading of that country also reminded me of his treatment of race and blackness in the Dominican Republic.  While I won't gainsay his reading overall, I felt it could have been much more nuanced, based both on my readings of works on that country by Dominicans and Dominican Americans, but also on my experiences there. One thing I remember saying to myself after having gotten to know some Dominicans in the US was that I would never go down to DR and impose American views of anything on people there (I hold this view for every country), but also I would never expect people there to view themselves as "black" in the ways that black Americans do, especially given DR's agonistic and antagonistic history with Haiti. Yet having held to this view, more than once while in DR I have learned about the multiple and complex ways in which Dominicans there understand, address, perform, and inflect the concept of blackness. It is far more complex than Gates's or the standard readings and understandings of it, which tend to be static and often seem to overlook popular conceptions and formations concerning blackness.

One issue that Gates talked about--and fascinatingly to me, he seemed to act as if this were not an active discourse among black Americans--was the presence of the indio, or "Indian/Native American" racial-ethnic category.  According to the Dominican newspaper Listín Diario, however, the DR's Central Electoral Board (JCE) has sought "to classify Dominicans as mulattoes, blacks and whites, eliminating the traditional 'Indian' category." To achieve this shift, specialists from the Organization of American States and the JCE drew up a bill to reform Electoral Law 275-97, which will be presented for approval to the general assembly of the judges of the JCE prior to sending it to Congress. On their cédulas, or ID cards, Dominicans would have three categories--"white" (blanco), "mulatto/mixed race" (mulato), and "black" (negro)--to chose from.

I think it will be interesting to see the breakdowns if and when this policy goes into effect, since it involves racial/ethnic self-identification, but I told a friend who lives down there that no matter what, I think the last category will be the smallest. I am especially curious to see what the breakdown's are among younger Dominicans (and I see this with many of the younger Dominican baseball players in the Major Leagues, as with younger writers, musicians, etc. down there).


Finally, speaking of DR, I was also reminded of Rita Indiana's video, for her new song "Da Pa Lo Do," that Anthony M. posted on his Monaga blog a month or so ago. Rita Indiana, a talented, out young poet, author, songwriter and musician, explores the idea of DR's border with Haiti, brotherhood and connection, and Hispaniola's insoluble roots. The video, which she made with her girlfriend and frequent collaborator Noelia Quintero, is quite beautiful, and do watch it if you can all the way to the end.

da pa lo do from Engel Leonardo on Vimeo.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

National Book Award Winners Announced!

Last night, the National Book Award Foundation announced the winners of the 2011 awards in poetry, fiction, nonfiction, and young people's literature, while also honoring poet John Ashbery, who received the National Book Award in 1976 for his masterpiece, Self Portrait in a Convex Mirror, with the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, and Mitch Kaplan, founder of the Miami Book Festival, with the Literarian Award for Outstanding Service to the American Literary Community.  Actor John Lithgow served as the evening's MC.  For the second year in a row, the winners represented the diversity of American letters, a counterpoint to 2009's all-male, monochrome ceremony.  This year amazingly saw three women of color, two African Americans and an Asian American, take three of the top prizes.

Nikky Finney, a Cave Canem faculty member and professor at the University of Kentucky, received the National Book Award in Poetry for her powerful collection Head Off & Split, which was published by TriQuarterly, an imprint of Northwestern University Press. I have met and adore Nikky Finney and her work, and am incredibly happy for her, as I am for poet Parneshia Jones, who oversees the NUP poetry series and for the TriQuarterly imprint. Finney is the third African-American woman and the first out African-American lesbian to win the National Book Award for Poetry, and her acceptance speech noted not only her own trajectory as a poet and thinker, but the larger history in which she and all black writers in this country work. The finalists included a number of amazing writers, any of whom could also have been honored: Yusef Komunyakaa, Carl Phillips, Adrienne Rich (who received the award in 1974 for her landmark collection Diving Into the Wreck: Poems 1971-1972), and Bruce Smith.

Jesmyn Ward received the National Book Award for Fiction, for her beautiful second novel, Salvage the Bones, published by Bloomsbury USA. Ward's novel spans a 12-day period in which a Katrina-like hurricane is gathering over the Gulf of Mexico, and follows the experiences of a quartet of near-parentless children in Mississippi. In her acceptance speech, Ward spoke about why she began writing, and how her experiences have nurtured her work. She is a past Stegner Fellow at Stanford University, and this year is the John and Renée Grisham Visiting Writer in Residence at the University of Mississippi. She is also professor of creative writing at the University of South Alabama in Mobile. This year's other finalists were: Andrew Krivak, Julie Otsuka, Téa Obreht, and Edith Pearlman.

Stephen Greenblatt, one of the most acclaimed living Shakespearean and Renaissance scholars, the John Cogan University Professor at Harvard University, and one of the intellectual pioneers of "the New Historicism," received the National Book Award for Nonfiction for his critical book The Swerve: How the World Became Modern, published by W. W. Norton & Company. In this work, Greenblatt explores how Poggio Brancciolini's fortuitous discovery on a library shelf of Lucretius's De rerum naturum (On the Nature of Things) helped to precipitate the European Renaissance, and went on to inspire creative minds ranging from Galileo to Charles Darwin to Sigmund Freud.   Finalists included the late Manning Marable, Mary Gabriel, Lauren Redniss, and Deborah Baker.

In the Young People's Literature category, my former New York University classmate Thanhha Lai won for her young adult novel Inside Out and Back Again, published by Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.  In this poetic, autobiographical work of fiction, Lai tells the story of Hà, a young girl growing up in Vietnam who with her family must flee their native Saigon as the country falls to the North Vietnamese forces, and settle in Alabama, which feels like a foreign country within the new foreign country to which she slowly acclimates. Lai teaches at Parsons School of Design, at the New School.  Finalists included Franny Billingsley, Debbie Dahl Edwardson, Albert Marrin, and Gary D. Schmidt.

You can see the awards here, at I highly recommend the various acceptance speeches, especially Finney's, which is woven as artfully as one of her poems. As she concludes, "I am speechless." For true!

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Recipe: Acorn Squash Curry

One of the things I've begun to do since becoming a vegetarian that I used not to is more cooking integrating multiple vegetables at once, creating dishes that taste delicious and last for several days, rather than my old approach, which I grew up with, which entails cooking several different things separately and then putting them on the plate. The old pattern entailed cooking a piece of meat (say a lamb chop), a vegetable (say, spinach), and a starch (say brown rice).  This is how my mother cooked and still does; my late maternal grandparents, both of them very good cooks, would make more integrated dishes, perhaps based on their experiences growing up in the South before and during the Great Depression and its aftermath, when putting whatever you had into a pot was the preferable way to go.

C and I, or alone, would then have these meat+starch+vegetable with bread (homemade over the last few years). Pasta dishes were an obvious exception; in those I sometimes combined multiple vegetables (onions, mushrooms; vegetarian lasagna involved spinach, zucchini, yellow squash, etc.), or vegetables and meat.  Occasionally I would cook stews or soups--which are extremely easy, and my friend Phoebe M. used to recommend them many years ago, but the idea of making a soup, for whatever reason, left me cold--or other dishes entailing combinations, but these were comparative rare. I'd go to the store and plan things around the meat I was buying. What would go with these chicken legs? What would go with these pork chops? And so on.

When I first shifted to vegetarianism, I would do something similar, cooking 2-3 vegetables (beets, broccoli, etc.) separately, adding the brown rice or couscous, and then have a slice of bread with it. But learning to combine several different vegetables in dishes has been a boon. It saves lots of money; the dishes last for days, whether I'm eating them by myself or with C; and when they work, they are delicious. Another thing I've learned to do is improvise: if I have certain spices in the kitchen, I can now figure out different kinds of curries, for example, and create something that has a different flavor depending upon the vegetable at hand. Also, having certain types of beans, lentils, and varieties of rice makes variations on certain dishes possible.

Here is a winter dish that I created--of course others have created something very similar and you can find recipes online--the other day that is perfect for winter meals. It incorporates acorn squash, which I almost always used to roast or cook in a pan of water, but which here becomes the basis for a filling and incredibly tasty meal.  Its natural sweetness, amplified by the carrots, and hardiness is such that I didn't even need to add chutney, and the potato adds a contrasting flavor but similar texture.  The curry I use below is improvised; you can change some of the ingredients, thus varying its flavor, but the basic cumin + coriander + turmeric + ginger + cinnamon + cayenne + clove combo seems to produce a delicious flavor, and obviates the need to buy pre-made curry powders, which you still may want to have for other dishes where a particular (red Madras, say, or milder curry) is what you're seeking.  Making this sort of curry means a fragrant kitchen, and less need to try to figure out how to incorporate vital herbs and spices into your diet.


2 TB olive oil
1 medium-sized or large acorn squash, cut into 1 inch chunks
1/2 large or 1 small brown potato, chunked
1-2 carrots diced
1/2 large yellow onion, diced
3 cloves garlic diced (or equivalent)
2 TB fresh ground ginger
1 tsp ground cumin
1 tsp ground coriander
1 tsp ground cardamom (optional)
1 tsp ground cayenne pepper (optional)
1 tsp turmeric
2 cloves
1 cinnamon stick (or ground equivalent)
1/2 can of unsalted tomato paste
1 cup of water or vegetable stock* + extra water while cooking
salt & black pepper to taste

Start by adding chunking and dicing all your vegetables. Wash the skin of your acorn squash before you chunk it. Using a sharp knife and being very careful, pierce the skin of the squash and cut it in half.  Then, after removing the very tough ends and the seeds, slowly cut it into small chunks. Go slowly, because acorn squash skins can be tough, and you don't want to...well, you want to keep all your fingers! (Let me add that I like the texture of the softened acorn skin, but if you want it softer, you might microwave the diced chunks for 2 minutes to soften them up.)

Next add the olive to in a cooking pot. Let it heat on low, and add diced onion and garlic. (I highly recommend using real onions and not onion powder, both for flavor and texture.) When the onions have begun to break down, add the acorn squash and the carrots, to let them soften. Turn the heat to medium. Add salt and pepper. Stir frequently. Once the squash has begun to soften, add the potato chunks, the spices (including the ginger), the tomato paste, and the cup of stock or water. Let it boil for a bit, then simmer for 30 minutes, stirring and adding a little water periodically to ensure that the potatoes don't burn.

(If you want some protein, about 20 minutes before you're done you can add 1/2 cup of red lentils + 1/2 cup of more water to cover them or cook up some curried lentils (1/2 cup lentils + 1 cup of water + salt, pepper, curry powder, cooked till lentils are soft) to go with this dish and brown rice.)

The squash and squash skin should be soft before you serve. Also, remove the cloves & cinnamon stick if you are serving to guests, who may not be so found of these hard bursts of flavor.

Serve over brown rice (2 1/2 cups of vegetable stock or water + 1 cup of brown rice + tsp of olive oil), with fresh homebread bread, and there you go!

*I learned how to make vegetable stock from watching and (probably misremembering!) Chef Jacques Pepin's show on how to make really scrumptious, practical dishes, but here goes, and you can freeze it so it's always available: 2 cups of water + 1/2 onion + 1 stalk of celery diced + 1-2 carrots diced + pinch of salt and pepper --> boil for 20 minutes et voilà, you have basic vegetable stock!

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Human Micropoem 2 @ OccupyChicago

The Human Micropoets met up again, this past Friday, on Veterans Day, for another round of HUMAN MICROPOEM public poetry recitation, in support of the Occupy Chicago and Occupy Together movements.  This time the organizers aimed to convene performers during rush hour, in part to reach the large number of workers finishing their day near and those commuting past the base site.  The crowd was, unsurprisingly, larger, and as before, passersby did stop and listen, watch, and sometimes participate in the "mic checking" collaborative poetry recitations.  I read/recited Robert Hayden's "Those Winter Sundays," which sounds quite different in call-and-response, choral fashion. "What did I know, what did I know / of love's austere and lonely offices?" What did we know, what did we know, of the bravery and resolve of hundreds of thousands of Americans and people all over the globe, to stand up to the economic, political and social thuggery to which we've been subjected for decades?

Afterwards, a number of the participants marched with the Occupy Chicagoans on a silent vigil to the Vietnam Veteran Memorial Site, on Wacker Drive, to show respect for and pay tribute to all US veterans being honored on Friday.  The walk, with candles, to the site, was moving, and afterwards I chatted a bit with poet Dan Godston, before heading off to catch up with a friend who was visiting town. I look forward to more such gatherings, and to poetry's and the arts' active interconnection with these incredibly important and vital nodes of resistance to the dominant ideology of today, which has caused and continues to wreak so much destruction in this country and across the globe.

A performer at the Human Micropoem event
A performer at the Human Micropoem event @ OccupyChicago
A performer at the Human Micropoem event
A performer at the Human Micropoem event @ OccupyChicago
At the Human Micropoem event, Veterans Day
Organizer Jen Karmin, in plum hat and wearing sign
At the Human Micropoem event
After the Human Micropoem event @ OccupyChicago
At the Human Micropoem event
A photographer capturing a resistor, with sign, @ OccupyChicago
After the Human Micropoem event, @ Occupy Chicago
People before the silent candlelight march began
The silent march, on Veterans Day
The first portion of silent marchers
The silent march, on Veterans Day
Marchers on Wacker Drive

The silent march, on Veterans Day
Downtown Chicago and the Chicago River
Glittering downtown Chicago and the Chicago River
At the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, in Chicago, after the silent, candlelight march
Gathering at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial
A veteran
A veteran
At the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, in Chicago, after the silent, candlelight march
At the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, in Chicago, after the silent, candlelight march
The candles lined up in tribute, at march's end

Friday, November 04, 2011

Christian Bök Reading/Xenotext @ Northwestern

As part of its exhibit Tango with Cows: Book Art of the Russian Avant-Garde, 1910-1917 (September 23-December 11, 2011), the Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art at Northwestern University hosted "Beyonsense," a reading of early 20th century and contemporary Russian and trans-linguistic sound poetry.  The university's Poetry and Poetics Colloquium and the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures served as co-sponsors, and the event featured poet, translator and Northwestern professor Ilya Kutik, and Christian Bök, a pioneer in the field of conceptual writing and professor at the University of Calgary. Northwestern's contemporary Russian literature scholar Nina Gourianova introduced the reading.

After Nina's brief, crisp and informative walk through the historical moment in which this art blossomed, Ilya and Christian took turns respectively reading the Russian and English translations, mostly by Paul Schmidt--or the aural experiments of what gestured towards and beyond the grasp of both languages--of poems by Alexei Kruchenykh (1886-1969), Velimir Khlebnikov (1885-1922), Vladimir Mayakovsky (1893-1930), and David Burliuk (1882-1967), among others.  A good deal of this poetic art falls under the rubric of zaum (заумь), a portmanteau word coined in 1913 by Kruchenykh from the roots za-, meaning "beyond, behind" and the noun um, meaning "mind, nous," thus giving the new word the connotation of "transsense" or "beyondsense." As both Ilya and Christian expertly delivered them, these sonic experiments gave you the feeling of something thrilling but ultimately elusive, which, I imagine, was the authors' intention.  Ilya noted before many of his readings how famous and well known many of these poems were among Russians, and I tried to think of some equivalent, among experimental poetry, for English speakers, and couldn't find one other than nursery rhymes and some song and rap lyrics. There are few schools, certainly few elementary or secondary ones, where experimental poetry of any sort, let alone this kind, might be taught.

Ball's "Karawane"
Once he'd finished reading the work of others, Ilya recited part of one of his poems, and I'd never heard him read before, so I wish he'd read more. Christian followed with performances of several famous sound poems, including Hugo Ball's (1886-1927) "Karawane" (Caravan), written in 1916, which Ball infamously delivered at the Cabaret Voltaire in a giant metallic lobster suit. (Ball also issued the landmark "Dada Manifesto" that same year, introducing to the public that major early 20th century artistic movement.) Christian then performed some of his own work, including a libretto based in part on his Xenotext project, about which I'll say more below.  He has a real gift for transforming his mouth, throat and body--because to present and perform these poems it requires the whole body--into the kinds of instruments need to present such works, and he did not flag. 

Afterwards one of my colleagues asked Christian if he used a score of some sort, and he said that he did not, though it appeared as though he had assimilated an internal score, based on careful study and practice, of how these works might be presented to an audience. (I thought he might have drawn up a conceptual score, of the sort Morton Feldman or Cornelius Cardew, were known for, but on the pages were the words alone.) Were any of the Russian predecessors invoked to begin the evening listening on some distant plane, I can only imagine they were impressed as those of us in the audience.

Ilya Kutik (l) and Christian Bök performing
Ilya Kutik and Christian Bök performing
Images of famous Russian avant-garde book art
Kasimir Malevich, front and back covers for 2nd edition of Game in Hell, from 1914, by Alexei Kruchenykh and Velimir Khlebnikov, lithograph with pencil, Collection of Museum of Modern Art. Image of a famous Russian avant-garde book  
Tango with Cows, from 1914 (Vasily Kamensky and Vladimir Burliuk, wallpaper and letterpress, Collection of Getty Research Institute
Scholar Nina Gourianova 
Nina Gourianova, introducting the event

Christian Bök performing, from the Block's Youtube Channel

The next day, Christian spoke to the Poetry and Poetics Colloquium about his Xenotext Experiment, an extraordinary, multiyear effort, in which--and here I am being reductive in the extreme--he inserted a poem that could, with great difficulty, be transformed into genetic code, into a bacterium, such that the bacterium would organically express (translate, as an exact reverse) as opposed to merely carry, the poem, within itself. Thus would be born a self-replicating poem that, if it survived, would continue to self-replicate, as biological material does, ad aeturnam. Among the challenges he has faced are the difficult of writing a poem in English that could not only be translated into the language of proteins but which the proteins could then express as a linguistically coherent poem in the process, and then of designing and folding a protein such that the bacterium would not, as it has done, destroy the poem.  He did engineer the bacterium to bioluminesce (light up) when the expression occurred, and it did, for the time the poem existed; that is as far as things have gotten. 

That he has even reached this marker is remarkable; that he eventually will, with the aid of computers and perhaps an online community of protein folding gamers, solve the problem of finding the most elegant biological arrangement possible, I am sure. As it was, though, I have rarely seen such a daring artistic project laid out so clearly and cogently. Afterwards I asked him about the ethics of authorship in relationship to this project given his founding role with conceptual writing and its disregard for originality, intentionality, and even relevance, and he admitted that once he'd written up a book, anyone could put his or her name to it--but then again, he'd only be writing up a book about the project, while the bacteria themselves would be, if and when things finally do work, writing the poem, from now until forever. Bacteria, do your work!
At the Poetry and Poetics Colloquium workshop for Christian Bök 
Christian Bök giving his talk on his Xenotext Experiment.
Christian Bök explaining his Xenotext project
Christian showing the QR code formed by the proteins

Christian Bök explaining his Xenotext Experiment, from YouTube