Saturday, January 28, 2012

Poets Theater Piece Live on Seven Corners + Ryan Lizza on Obama and Governance

Seven Corners: Kenning Poets Theater Performance
In December 2010, at the invitation Patrick Durgin, a poet and the publisher of Kenning Editions, I participated with five other writers (Daniel Borzutzky, Duriel Harris, Jacob Saenz, Leila Wilson, and Tim Yu) in a weekend poets' theater experiment in Chicago to launch The Kenning Anthology of Poets Theater: 1945-1985, edited by Kevin Killian and David Brazil. I wrote up the very exciting event in a blog post, which involved us collaboratively creating a play that fit the genre of "poets' theater." One of the attendees, poet Steve Halle, editor of Seven Corners, a literary blog-journal (litblournal? litjourg?) decided thereafter to publish it.

Steve, innovative in form in his own work, drew upon his talents and skills to create what has to be, to my eye, one of the most inventive presentations of a dramatic-poetic text I've seen. (A screen capture is visible above.) Using Prezi software, he has laid the piece out in dynamic format, so that you can watch it from start to finish, in flowchart fashion, dive into particular segments, and zoom in and out at will. (To access the control panel, drag your cursor all the way to the frame's or, if you're in page view, the screen's rightmost edge, and it will appear.) The presentation doesn't include any audio material; the Oracle Theater did post a video (which I downloaded, but it is too large to upload to YouTube), and in my earlier post I showed some screenshots of it, but Steve's version still provides a strong sense of how all the sections connect and the piece as a whole unfolded. Imagine Lorenzo Thomas's poetic playlet being read to open and close the event, and you will be transported most of the way there.

My playlet, "Assange Goes to the Mosque," is visible on the left-most edge. The non-English text (which might be Persian) comes from Kathy Acker's play in the anthology, "Death of a Poet," and Duriel read it simultaneously as I read the English, with Jacob and Leila, as the "Americans," reading their Bruce Andrews-inspired parts. It's hard to convey the simultaneity outside of performance, but it was central to the piece.  It do want to note that my citation of "Assange" was not exactly Julian Assange, since I imagined more an Assange-like figure (who could, as the stage directions say, be played by a woman or a person of any race or ethnicity), and, though I do not know the particulars of what occurred between Assange and the women who have accused him of rape in Sweden I strongly condemn rape or violence, especially women, of any sort, but at the same time, it strikes me how salient some of the underlying discourse, involving Assange, Islam, Iran, the United States, Wikileaks, orality, simultaneity and (a lack of) hearing and understanding, submission, all of it, still is. Perhaps even more so right now.

I highly recommend the Kenning Anthology, and am really grateful I not only was able to participate in its launch but also to work with these other superlative writers. I also thank Steve for doing such a great job translating work from beneath the proscenium to the screen!


I just finished reading Ryan Lizza's New Yorker report, entitled "The Obama Memos," on the President Barack Obama's education in the difficulties with Congressional bipartisanship, one of the central premises of his 2008 candidacy, and it made me pay attention.  Using a slew administration memos, annotated by Obama and his advisors and aides, Lizza builds a convincing case, in a way I have yet to see before, for understanding how the president has governed the way he has, which seems to me to elude most people outside his inner circle, confounding independents, frustrating liberals and progressives, and sending conservatives into apoplexy.  Central to Lizza's piece is the basic truth that Obama has struggled to grasp the opposition's intransigence (and Lizza does note, as I often have privately, how closely Obama's struggles mirror Bill Clinton's), and thus had to step away from his post-partisan ethos in order to work more closely with his party to pass what, as Lizza notes, is, despite valid criticisms of some of its specifics, a slate of legislation second to none. From the Affordable Care Act to the Dodd-Frank financial reform bill, to the inadequate but still invaluable stimulus, Obama has achieved quite a bit. He is hardly the "loser," as the right-wing commentator Peggy Noonan, Lizza says, derides him. Yet he also has not been half as liberal as many of his supporters hoped, or as effective a spokesman for his successes as they imagined.

Among the more revelatory aspects of the article, at least to me, was how rigid his opposition has been, and how gun-shy his advisors became as a result. One quote, by the ultraconservative Republican Tea Party darling South Carolina US Senator Jim DeMint, was especially telling.  According to Lizza, DeMint labeled the stimulus bill "the worst piece of economic legislation Congress has considered in a hundred years...[not since the creation of the income tax] has the United States seriously entertained a policy so comprehensively hostile to economic freedom, or so arrogantly indifferent to economic reality." Now, if you are dead set against the 16th Amendment to the United States Constitution, which is to say, an income tax, and you think this is the "worst piece of economic legislation Congress has considered in a hundred years," how on earth is someone trying to follow even the most basic laws of mathematics and economics supposed to get through to you? (South Carolina, incidentally, was the third state to ratify the Amendment, in December 1910). Though he wanted a bipartisan bill, Obama had originally noted on a memo that he would consider the expedited "Reconciliation" process, requiring a simple majority, and it turned out that this ultimately was required, as all the Republicans voted against the bill, while the 56 Democrats voted in favor of it.

The same approach turned out to be the case with the Affordable Care Act; the GOP almost unanimously rejected it, in both chambers of Congress, forcing the Democrats to pass it alone. Lizza points out that in fact despite all the chatter to the contrary, this has been the modus operandi for Democrats for decades. John F. Kennedy's legislative initiatives suffered because of Republican intractability as did Lyndon Johnson's after Congress changed hands in 1966. I can vividly remember how Clinton readily adopted Republican policy after Republican policy--as Obama in fact has done too, with the Affordable Care Act, to give one example, or the Cap and Trade policy, long touted as a market-based approach by conservatives--only to pass bills with GOP support and then still be slammed by them, and by liberals (I was one, though I did vote for Clinton both times, and even worked to elect him in 1992). The disillusionment this produces among liberals and even independents tends to be understated, but, as Lizza suggests, Obama's supporters don't really grasp how difficult the choices are that he's had to make or that he has made choices that fall on the side of center-left priorities rather than focusing on the far less effective--impossible with the GOP as it stands--reform/post-partisan agenda.  Lizza says almost nothing about Obama's civil liberties issues and his apparent enthrallment by the military and CIA, nor does he speak in detail about Timothy Geithner's role heading the Treasury Department, but he does explore a range of Obama's actions on his domestic policies, and with each year the severity of the political constraints, which I simply had not grasped despite recognizing their existence, becomes clearer.  Accomplishing anything even vaguely liberal in aim or scope with the opposition in power is, for Democratic presidents at least, almost futile.

Lizza's article also suggests something I've told friends several times in relation to hypothetical contrasts with an administration headed by Hillary Clinton. Lizza notes how one of Obama's criticisms of Clinton was that she would find herself in a constantly antagonistic relationship with the GOP, while he would be able to avoid that, and we know how that turns out. But as I think about the often vicious attacks both on Bill and Hillary Clinton in the 1990s--certainly I'm not the only one who recalls them, am I?--it's clear that she probably would have faced what Obama is dealing with, only instead of being attacked as "Kenyan," she'd be linked to the endlessly ginned-up corruption tales launched against her husband; instead of racist attacks she'd be subjected to sexist and misogynistic ones; instead of Obama's lack of "business" experience we'd hear how Clinton had been a "trial lawyer"; and we'd probably have other "scandals" dwarfing the Solyndra brouhaha in the news media on a daily basis. Above all, instead of the groundless attacks on Michelle Obama, there'd be a daily round of obsessive chatter about Bill Clinton and whether or not his pants were on. At the same time, Clinton's legislative record would probably be similar to Obama's, in that she would have probably been a bit more forceful on some issues, but less on others. Would she have even dared try to pass a health care bill after the debacle early in her husband's first term? Would she have pushed more forcefully for a larger stimulus given the likelihood she'd have been tagged as a big-spending New York (as opposed to "Chicago") liberal?  Certainly she showed no hesitation in war making, and might even still have the country in Iraq. Taking Lizza's analysis to mind, I think that whether Obama or Clinton, we'd be pretty much where we are today.

Among the many other points I took from Lizza's piece is that it is essential, despite the seeming ideological unity of the two parties, that people realize how far apart they are in terms of legislative policies, and that if voters want real changes and support Obama's agenda, as modest as it has become, it is crucial that we vote in people who will vote with him or push him further to the left.  This is especially the case in the US Senate. There are almost no liberal Republicans left, since Arlen Specter switched parties and then was ousted in a primary, and of the four who might even be called "moderate," as Lizza says, both Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins are still to the right of the most conservative Senate Democrat, Ben Nelson, who also is stepping down and will be replaced by a Republican if former Senator Bob Kerrey decides not to run. Of the other two, Mark Kirk of Illinois, is now incapacitated by a stroke, and may not be voting for some time, and Scott Brown could and probably will be replaced by a truly progressive Democrat, Elizabeth Warren. Should a raft of new Republicans of the order of Mike Lee of Utah or Roy Blount of Missouri gain control of the Senate, it will become nearly impossible for Obama to pass any legislation of the sort he has proposed the last three years; it will in fact be a steady diet of vetoes until such a GOP majority were sent back into minority status, and even then, as was the case when the Democrats had 59 votes, it will still be difficult. But difficult is better than impossible, and Lizza certainly opened my eyes. I will still carp when I think Obama and the Democrats are flying off the rails, but with a greater appreciation of just how tough things are in Washington these days.

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