Wednesday, February 29, 2012

7th Blogiversary + Poems: giovanni singleton

Two days ago, in fact, marked the seventh anniversary, or blogiversary (or is it blogaversary?), of J's Theater. There are times, usually during the summers, which are always more vivid to me than any other season or part of the year, when 2005, and February 2005 specifically, doesn't seem that distant, and other times when it feels as far away as the summit of K2. I still recall who and what motivated me to start this blog; Bernie Tarver's blogging about sports and life and politics was one spur, and Charles Stephens's accounts of his and his friends' lives was another.

There were many other blogs that I was reading with pleasure too and which inspired me. Some are still around, others are long gone, and there have been more than a few times that I thought this blog would join them in the byteheap of history (save for the ministrations of the Wayback Machine).  Throughout the life of this blog, I have tried to focus mostly on arts and letters, and the political implications of both, and originally I tried to away from big-"P" politics in particular, since so many other blogs were covering that ground.  But that changed in short order, though I have tried to return as often as possible to original emphases of this blog.

I began by blogging by writing a short note about one of my favorite poets, Jay Wright (1935-), always underheralded, extraordinary though he is, and followed shortly upon it with posts about other poets and literary arts, the visual arts, and, also part of the early mix, popular culture.  To that end, I will post two poems by a poet I have known for many years, and whose first book, Ascenscion (Counterpath, 2012), is now available for purchase: giovanni singleton.

giovanni is an editor (her journal nocturnes (re)view of the literary arts has been a pacesetter in terms of publishing innovative writing); a teacher; an administrator; and a poet of sly and powerful wit, who knows who to turn a phrase on its end, and then turn it again. I cannot forget her unforgettable performance of her deceptively simple, deeply erotic little poem "chair" one year at Cave Canem's summer workshops. I swear I couldn't think about chairs the same for weeks after that. So here are two poems by giovanni, from the Woodland Pattern website, which offers a full(er) biography of her.  (Should you ever get to Milwaukee, please do visit Woodland Pattern, which is one of the best bookstores in the country.)

giovanni singleton (Photo by Sarah Collins)
(You can read a conversation between giovanni and poet D. Scott Miller here. You can hear a conversation between giovanni and E. Ethelbert Miller here.)


sitting in a darkened hallway. salt water bodies rock steady. muffled pounding.
the door of no return. is closed and closer. under measured reconstruction.
living seeps through in echoes. stillness outside in. a collective breath persists
without apology. mud stained spoons undulate from shore to distant shore.
then one day walk as if rowing a boat.


        after beauford delaney

dark blue to gold abstraction
patterned figurations
scattered light

        as if you would marry me

abstraction in red
blue light abstraction
abstract of black and gold

        as if we could marry someday

streaked light
cool blue green
red gold black abstracted

        as if we could amaze

Copyright © giovanni singleton, 2011, 2012. All rights reserved.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Palabra Pura: Migrant Bodies/Cuerpos Migrantes

Curator and MC, Rey Andújar

Two Wednesday ago, on February 15th, back I caught an evening of the Guild Complex's "Palabra Pura" reading series (h/t to my colleague Reg Gibbons who reminded me it was taking place), titled "Migrant Bodies/Cuerpos Migrantes," at La Bruqueña restaurant and bar on the West Side. I especially wanted to catch it because Rey Andújar, about whom I've written before, was serving as the curator and MC. I had no idea, until a few months ago, that this blazing light of Dominican/Latino/Spanish language literary arts and culture (he writes poetry, fiction, plays, and as you'll see below, scorches the stage), was living in Chicago. The last time I'd checked, he was mounting productions in San Juan.

Also on the program were his pana, the hilarious Juan Dicent (whose little book Summertime I picked up back in 2006 during a trip down to DR), and Jorge Frisancho, a native of Spain who grew up in Peru.  Both Dicent and Frisancho did their thing, and I arrived just after Andújar had concluded what Reg said was his marvelous intro, but the Guild Complex was taping the event, so you can see what I missed and as well as a snippet of each of the other two talented writers whom I did get an opportunity to hear and enjoy. Take note that Andújar's intro includes some singing and is in Spanish, so if you don't speak the language, just listen and let the music of the words, the rhythms and speed and sonorities, light a fire in your ear.  Here they are (¡mucho disfrute!):

Rey Andújar

Juan Dicent

Jorge Frisancho

Friday, February 24, 2012

Carnaval/Carnival/Mardi Gras 2012

Last night and today, more snow, more cold, more winter here in Chicago. The quarter has only a month or so to go; so too, and sooner, I hope, this season and its weather.

Short of being here:

Colgate sign, shoreline, Jersey City (Ellis Island in background)
I wouldn't mind being here:

Beija-Flor samba school revelers
in the 1st night of the Rio 2012 Carnaval parade
in the Sambodrome (Ricardo Moraes/Reuters)

Portela samba school revelers
in the 1st night of the Rio 2012 Carnaval parade
in the Sambodrome (Nacho Doce/Reuters)
Porto da Pedra samba school revelers
in the 1st night of the Rio 2012 Carnaval parade
in the Sambodrome (Ricardo Moraes/Reuters)
Vila Isabela samba school revelers
in the 1st night of the Rio 2012 Carnaval parade
in the Sambodrome (Ricardo Moraes/Reuters)
Or here:
15th edição do Concurso de fantasia Gay 2012
Salvador da Bahia, Brazil (Photo from Dois Terços)
Scholar and activist Dr. Luiz R. B. Mott
15th edição do Concurso de fantasia Gay 2012
Salvador da Bahia, Brazil (Photo from Dois Terços)
15th edição do Concurso de fantasia Gay 2012
Salvador da Bahia, Brazil (Photo from Dois Terços)
Carnaval do Salvador da Bahia 2012, Brazil
(Photo from Dois Terços)
Or here:

Noite Para os Tambores Silenciosos
Carnaval de Olinda 2012, Brazil
(Passarinho/Preifeitura Olinda)
7th Running of the Bonecas Gigantes
Carnaval de Olinda 2012, Brazil
(Luiz Fabiano/Preifeitura Olinda)
Noite Para os Tambores Silenciosos
Carnaval de Olinda 2012, Brazil
(Passarinho/Preifeitura Olinda)
Carnaval de Olinda 2012, Brazil
(Ádria de Souza/Preifeitura Olinda)
Or here:
Second Sunday, Carnaval Vegano 2012
La Vega, Dominican Republic
Second Sunday, Carnaval Vegano 2012
La Vega, Dominican Republic
Second Sunday, Carnaval Vegano 2012
La Vega, Dominican Republic
Second Sunday
Carnaval 2012, La Vega, Dominican Republic
(Carnival Vegano)

Or here:

Queen of Carnival Chariss Bovell's
"Mother of Humanity - The Weeping Madonna"
Trinidad & Tobago Carnival 2012
King of Carnival Roland St. George's Ralliez-Vouz A Mon Panache Blanc
Trinidad & Tobago Carnival 2012
Gerard Weekes portrays "Malak Yahweh - The Praying Mantis"
Trinidad & Tobago Carnival 2012
Rose Marie Kuru Jagessar's "Wachiwi-I Dream of a Bustle Dancer"
Trinidad & Tobago Carnival 2012
Or here:

Gran Parada de la Vía 40
Carnaval de Baranquilla, Colombia 2012
Gran Parada de la Vía 40
Carnaval de Baranquilla, Colombia 2012
Gran Parada Carlos Franco
Carnaval de Baranquilla, Colombia 2012
Gran Parada Carlos Franco
Carnaval de Baranquilla, Colombia 2012

Or here:

Zulu Social Aid & Pleasure Club
2012 New Orleans Mardi Gras Parade
(Kim Welsh/
Mayor Mitch Landrieu (at right)
Zulu Social Aid & Pleasure Club
2012 New Orleans Mardi Gras Parade
(Kim Welsh/
Former New Orleans Mayor Marc Morial (l)
and UN Ambassador Andrew Young (r)
Zulu Social Aid & Pleasure Club
2012 Mardi Gras Parade
(Kim Welsh/
Krewe de Vieux
2012 New Orleans Mardi Gras Parade
(Kim Welsh/

I'd even take here, though it doesn't appear to have been that much warmer. But the beads, beats and free-flowing beer do make up for the chill, and they do appear to be having fun, probably even more so than what I remember from years ago.  Chicago, time to get on it....

Soulard Mardi Gras 2012 Celebration
St. Louis, Missouri
(Steve Truesdell/Riverfront Times)
Soulard Mardi Gras 2012 Celebration
St. Louis, Missouri
(Megan Gilliland/Riverfront Times)
Soulard Mardi Gras 2012 Parade
St. Louis, Missouri
(Steve Truesdell/Riverfront Times)
Men in heels race
Soulard Mardi Gras 2012 Celebration
St. Louis, Missouri
(Bryan Sutter/Riverfront Times)

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Excerpt: Noam Chomsky

An excerpt from: Noam Chomsky's "'Losing' the World": American Decline in Perspective, Part 1,, February 14, 2012

"There are important lessons in all this for today, even apart from another reminder that only the weak and defeated are called to account for their crimes. One lesson is that to understand what is happening we should attend not only to critical events of the real world, often dismissed from history, but also to what leaders and elite opinion believe, however tinged with fantasy. Another lesson is that alongside the flights of fancy concocted to terrify and mobilize the public (and perhaps believed by some who are trapped in their own rhetoric), there is also geostrategic planning based on principles that are rational and stable over long periods because they are rooted in stable institutions and their concerns. That is true in the case of Vietnam as well. I will return to that, only stressing here that the persistent factors in state action are generally well concealed.

"The Iraq war is an instructive case. It was marketed to a terrified public on the usual grounds of self-defense against an awesome threat to survival: the “single question,” George W. Bush and Tony Blair declared, was whether Saddam Hussein would end his programs of developing weapons of mass destruction. When the single question received the wrong answer, government rhetoric shifted effortlessly to our “yearning for democracy,” and educated opinion duly followed course; all routine.

"Later, as the scale of the U.S. defeat in Iraq was becoming difficult to suppress, the government quietly conceded what had been clear all along. In 2007-2008, the administration officially announced that a final settlement must grant the U.S. military bases and the right of combat operations, and must privilege U.S. investors in the rich energy system -- demands later reluctantly abandoned in the face of Iraqi resistance. And all well kept from the general population."

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Jeremy Lin(sanity)!


Jeremy Lin [林書豪], born in 1988 to parents from Taiwan.

–A graduate of Palo Alto High School, where he captained his team to a 32-1 record, winning the California Interscholastic Federation (CIF) Division II state title, yet he received no athletic scholarships, and was guaranteed a spot only on the squads of Harvard and Brown.

Lin, leading the Knicks
–AB, Economics, Harvard College (Go Crimson!), 2010, All-Ivy First Team in his junior and senior years, first Ivy Player ever to amass 1,450 points (1,483), 450 rebounds (487), 400 assists (406) and 200 steals (225), and undrafted by the National Basketball Association.

Jeremy Lin (The Canadian Press)
–2010-2011: Golden State Warriors and Reno Bighorns (D-League)

–2011-2012: Erie Bay Hawks and the New York Knicks


with Lin in the game,

vs. New Jersey Nets, Knicks win 99-92, Lin scores 25 pts.
vs. Utah Jazz, Knicks win 99-88, Lin scores 28 pts.
vs. Washington Wizzards, Knicks win 107-93, Lin scores 23 pts.
vs. Los Angeles Lakers, Knicks win 92-85, Lin scores 38 pts.
vs. Minnesota Timberwolves, Knicks win 100-98, Lin scores 20 pts.

New York Times: "With 38 Points, the Legend Grows"

How long he can keep this up or whether he'll be allowed to continue starting once the Knicks' stars return, who knows, but what a great story, and after the lockout, it's just what the NBA needs.

Add caption

Saturday, February 11, 2012

RIP Whitney Houston

Whitney Houston in 2009 (AP/Evan Evangelisti)

Whitney Houston (1963-2012)

Whitney Houston, "The Greatest Love of All"

I almost cannot believe this news, but this afternoon, but singer and actress Whitney Houston was found dead in her room at the Beverly Hilton hotel in Beverly Hills, California.  One of the finest and most talented singers of her or any generation, with an extraordinarily powerful voice grounded in the gospel tradition, Whitney Houston could have sung almost any kind of music, but primarily made her mark in rhythm & blues and pop. (Yet as she showed on the many times she sang the "Star-Spangled Banner," she could make it sound like you'd never heard it before, and later sang with a 35-piece gospel choir on The Preacher's Wife: Original Soundtrack Album.) The Newark-born daughter of gospel singer Cissy Houston, the cousin of icon Dionne Warwick, and the goddaughter of the musical goddess Aretha Franklin, this beautiful and poised singer, blessed with a once-in-a-lifetime vocal instrument, debuted her first album, the eponymous Whitney Houston in February 1985, and the hits came right away.  They continued well into the 1990s, with perhaps her apogee being her rendition of Dolly Parton's "I Will Always Love Young," from the popular movie The Bodyguard, whose soundtrack won a Grammy award, one of numerous awards Whitney collected over the years.

Whitney Houston, turning out Chaka Khan's hit "I'm Every Woman" (one of my favorite songs of hers)

I have listened to her music since her debut in 1985, and I rushed out to buy her first and subsequents not long after they appeared. Without question her many LPs and CDs have formed part of the soundtrack of my adult life. I'm even old enough to recall staying up to catch her on Byron Allen's old late night show, so enthralled was I by her music and her.  It's hard to put into words how sorrowful her decline over the last 15 years has been to witness, and how saddened I am by today's new. It was clear by 2001 how bad off she was, but I remember how when C and watched her reality show with her then-husband, Bobby Brown, there was no doubt that she had hit rock-bottom, and perhaps was even on the rock and rocks as the cameras rolled. Yet in 2009 it appeared that Whitney Houston had turned things around, but the struggles that she faced are never easy to win and, whatever happened today, it was clear that her many trials had taken their toll.  It is so very tragic, and so inadequate are these words, but as she sang, I will always love her music and her. RIP, Whitney Houston.

Whitney Houston, "I Will Always Love You"

Here, apparently and tragically, is her last performance, last night, at Kelly Price's pre-Grammy party.

Thursday, February 09, 2012

English 394: The Switchover

Monday marked a major milestone in my academic calendar: it was the final meeting of the first half of English 394: Theory and Practice of Fiction, the semester-long, initial portion of the full-year sequence that all undergraduate creative writing majors and (non-cross-genre) minors must take. As I've noted in previous years, this course breaks the college's quarter system, running past one into the second, at which point the professors change, and the second half of the course runs until the academic year's end, in mid-June.  In the first half the students work in shorter forms (short stories for the fiction track; weekly poems for the poetry track; and assorted forms of the creative nonfiction track), but in the second half they complete a long-form project (a novella for the fiction track; a 125-line long poem for the poetry track; and a long personal or research essay or lyric prose text for the creative nonfiction track).

With the handoff, my teaching load drops to 2 courses (the intro fiction and LGBTQ literature classes) this quarter from 3 (only the creative writing faculty have this load), and my volume of reading and emending student prose will also fall, though only after they hand in their final revisions next week.  It's hard to express how intense, how rigorous, and how energizing the sequence class has been.  I was again able to guide and watch 15 smart and enthusiastic young writers harness their talents and develop their skills as they wrote three short stories and subsequently revised two of them (though some will eventually rework all three), using as their guides the established writers we read and discussed in depth, and several works exploring theories and technical fundamentals of fiction writing. This year I chose stories by Anton Chekhov, Flannery O'Connor, Raymond Carver, Jhumpa Lahiri, ZZ Packer, Lorrie Moore, and George Saunders, and the students drew from all of them to varying degrees, creating narratives that often were unlike anything any of these writers might attempt but also unlike anything they, the student writers, have ever undertaken before.  Their stories ranged from very autobiographical realist narratives to highly speculative, dystopian fantasies. Our discussions and the essays each of the students wrote analyzing the assigned stories by each of these writers did allow for deep investigation into the technical means and thematic aspects of each established author.

Working closely with students for six months means that I have gotten to know not only their work but them as people, their personalities, their senses of humor, their voices, on and off the page, and so the switchover on Monday was not easy. As much work as the class required of me (15 students x 3 stories (at between 8-20 pages) x 2 versions of 2 of the stories, + 15 4-page essays, alongside other classes' work), I deeply enjoyed it, and I can say I already miss heading down the stairs of University Hall every Monday and Wednesday at midday and launching into our discussions. (I feel this way about all my classes, but the length and high-level intensity of the sequence always makes it distinct from all my other classes, and I can say that at no other institution have I ever taught a class quite like either its first or second halves.)

Below is the cake we savored as we concluded our final discussion, on the novella in general and on theirs, still in the prospective state, specifically. Congratulations to them, and as I told them, I am wishing them the best and cannot wait to read what they produce in the novella half of the course!

Let me also thank Ish Harris-Wolff, a SFF writer and MFA graduate student who under the auspices of the university's MA/MFA program, served in the experimental capacity of Teaching Assistant--she was and is the first, I believe, to do so!--and who also read the stories and provided the students with valuable advice and guidance. I think of her as my co-pilot for the journey! Thanks so much, Ish!

Cake to celebrate the end of the first half of English 394

Wednesday, February 08, 2012

Nathanaël & Ronaldo V. Wilson at "Queer(ing) Poetics"

Nathanaël and Ronaldo Wilson
Nathanaël and Ronaldo V. Wilson

On Monday and Tuesday, under the auspices of the university's Poetry and Poetics Colloquium, writers Nathanaël and Ronaldo V. Wilson came to campus to participate in a two-day event, entitled "Queer(ing) Poetics." On Monday evening they gave dynamic readings before a full audience, and on Tuesday afternoon, they offered statements on their poetics and participated in a conversation with faculty members and students on a range of topics, including translation, phenomenology, autobiography, filiation, and their relation to the term queer itself. I have heard both of them read many times, but never together, and was delighted finally to be able to see them together in conversation, and to hear and consider the points of intersections between their distinct and amazing bodies of work.

Here is the brief introduction I offered for their reading, which I have altered slightly.

I would like to welcome everyone to tonight's reading by Nathanaël and Ronaldo V. Wilson, which is sponsored by the Northwestern University Poetry and Poetics Colloquium, the Gender Studies Program, and the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences Course Enhancement Program. To all of our sponsors, thank you very much.

I begin with a brief introduction of both writers together, and then will ask each of them take the floor in succession.

"Queer," the scholar, critic and poet Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick wrote in her landmark essay "Queer and Now," can refer to: "the open mesh of possibilities, gaps, overlaps, dissonances and resonances, lapses and excesses of meaning when the constituent elements of anyone's gender, of anyone's sexuality are made (or can't be made) to signify monolithically." She continued by noting "the experimental linguistic, epistemological, representation, political adventures attaching to the very many of us who may at times be moved to describe ourselves" in many different ways, including as well "people able to learn from, or identify with such." In this essay Sedgwick goes on to decouple "queer" from gender and sexuality per se, to suggest that other concepts and categories of identifications, such as race and class, might be "queer" or "queered," suggesting that "'queer' seems to hinge much more radically and explicitly on a person's undertaking particular, performative acts of experimental self-perception and filitation."

The work of both of today's visitors exemplifies these and many other aspects of what we might term "queer" poetics. In the work of Nathanaël and Ronaldo V. Wilson, we can see an open mesh of possibilities being continuously woven; at the levels of words and syntax, and at the levels of form and genres themselves.  Both writers create texts that function constitutively entre-genre, to use a term of Nathanaël's, which is to say, between genre—and as the French suggests, between gender, queering the concept of genre and forms themselves to engender new forms, new excesses and surpluses of meaning.

Indeed Nathanaël often works in the interstices of language(s) themselves, French and English, translating—and carrying over the living and dead body of—prior discourse, lyric, narrative, her own and others, poetry into essay into philosophy into history into song, pressing forth and producing texts that elude any single language or easy understanding of signification, even as their meanings take shape before our eyes and crystallize. Indeed, in Nathanaël's work one must work to re-orient oneself—for queering the phenomenological is part of Nathanaël's practice and praxis—within and to the text, recalibrating one's eye and ear, to read and listen, carefully: only then can one engage with their insistent spirit of inquiry, and find where their answers lie.

In Ronaldo V. Wilson's work, the desiring and desired brown body, objectified, speaks back. In his first book, which hovers between lyric and narrative, fiction and poem, the reader enters the brown boy's house of thought, of wonders, and wanders around there uneasily, the form, the content, the language itself enstranging one as the boy's own perceptions become enstranged and simultaneously ever more familiar. In his second book, the black object under examination engages in the very kinds of experimental self-perception and self-fashioning, filiation and affiliation, that Sedgwick suggests, improvising what Michel Foucault called an "art of life." In both books Wilson pushes language to its limits—for woven within and beneath his texts are other texts, other languages, black tongues and Tagalog, the discourse of middle-class life and the academy, the discourse of theory and of various poetic traditions, creating a brilliant net from which emerges work like little other, poetic or otherwise: reorient yourself, and enter.

Nathanaël writes l'entre-genre in English and French, with nearly a score of books, including We Press Ourselves Plainly (Nightboat Books, 2010); Absence Where As (Claude Cahun And The Unopened Book) (Nighboat Books, 2009), which received the Prix Alain-Grandbois; At Alberta (BookThug, 2008); The Sorrow And The Fast Of It (Nightboat Books, 2007); Touch To Affliction (Coach House, 2006); Je Nathanaël (l'Hexagone, 2003), which exists in English self-translation (BookThug, 2006); and L'Injure (l'Hexagone, 2004). Other work exists in Basque and Slovene with book-length translations in Bulgarian (Paradox Publishing, 2007) and Portuguese. In addition to self-translation, Nathanaël has translated works by Catherine Mavrikakis, Gail Scott, Bhanu Kapil, and Sina Queyras.
Ronaldo V. Wilson is the author of Narrative of the Life of the Brown Boy and the White Man (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2008), winner of the 2007 Cave Canem Poetry Prize, and Poems of the Black Object (Futurepoem Books, 2009), winner of Publishing Triangle's 2010 Thom Gunn Award. He has held fellowships at the Provincetown Fine Arts Work Center, the Vermont Studio Center, The Anderson Center for the Arts, Squaw Valley Community of Writers, Cave Canem, Kundiman, Djerassi Resident Artists Program, the Yaddo Corporation, and has had four poems nominated for a Pushcart Prize. He currently teaches at the University of California, Santa Cruz.
A Medill student interviewing Ronaldo V. Wilson
Ronaldo V. Wilson (r), being interviewed by a Medill student

Saturday, February 04, 2012

"...does it get better?" Panel

On Thursday night at the invitation of one of my students, Ryan L., I participated in "...does it get better?," a panel discussion examining the widely known It Gets Better series of videos and sponsored by Project ShoutOUT, an undergraduate student group. The panel also included Tony Alvarado-Rivera, former director of the mentorship program at the Broadway Youth Center in Chicago; and Bonnie Wade and Malaundja Gayles, both community organizers from the Uhlich Children's Advantage Network Home Host Program.

"...does it get better" panel, sponsored by Shout Out, at NU 

The university's student newspaper, The Daily Northwestern, covered the event quite well, so I'll only note that the all of the panelists pressed the question of whether it "gets better," and for whom, and how, especially given the multiple challenges many LGBTQ people, especially young, working-class and poor, gender variant and queer, and geographically and cultural isolated young people, may face. The other three panelists spoke primarily about their experiences working with young people, and they emphasized the necessity of listening to them and taking into account their needs rather than imposing or predesigning systems and structures into which they might be fit. We all called into question the American myth of individualism, the ethnocentrism and hidden classism, and the myth of a particularly narrow kind of adolescence that the "It Gets Better" videos promote. For my part I read a version of the piece I wrote and posted on this blog back in October 2010, in which I suggested how people might grow stronger, and thus perhaps things might get better. The questions from the students and faculty in the audience were thoughtful and productive, and it cheered me to see how many of them really do want to make the world a better place for all of us.

Let me offer my deep thanks to the organizers and my fellow panelists, as well as to all the students who showed up to listen to and engage us in a conversation. 

Friday, February 03, 2012

RIP & Poem: Wislawa Szymborska

Not much blogging thus far this month; I am mainly trying to keep my head above water amidst the onrushing rapids of winter quarter teaching, mentoring, advising and committee work. In a few days, as per schedule, I will be handing off one of my three courses, the semester-long (it cuts across the quarter system, and a similar course exists in poetry and creative nonfiction) fiction sequence for the undergraduate creative writing majors and minors, to my dear colleague, who, as I have done in the past, will guide them through the labyrinth of novella-reading and writing. I'll say more about this in a few days, but suffice it to say that if I had little time for blogging before, it's been minimal of late.

Wislawa Szymborska (PAP/Jacek Bednarczyk)
I did not want to let go unmentioned the passing, yesterday, of one of the major poets of the 20th century, the ever-modest, ever-incandescent Wislawa Szymborska (1923-2012), two of whose poems I blogged earlier this year, and whom I've mentioned many times on this site. I won't restate what I said before except to note that you could do yourself a favor if, in the absence of something to read and seeking a book to provoke you to think and feel, you purchased or checked out of the library a translated volume of her poems. Szymborska had the gift of writing poetry that often appears utterly simple or narrowly focused, yet it frequently opens up into some of the central questions of life and its resonances are often profound. This derives from her constant investigation of experience itself, of language, of our human negotiation of and between the two. My colleague Clare Cavanaugh has, with Stanislaw Baranczak, translated a large number of her poems. You can find some of them here.

Here is one of her poems, "Some Like Poetry," in two translations, the first by Regina Grol, the second by Joanna Maria Trzeciak. It's a poem about poetry, and thus about its value to Szymborska and about her own art and practice. Her final, ironic verdict, while it won't satisfy some (professors, critics or poets), is as honest an answer as I can think of: "But I don't know and I don't know and clutch on to it/as to a saving bannister."

(UPDATE: You can listen to a discussion of Szymborska, and archival recordings of her reading, at News from Poland's site.)


Some -
thus not all. Not even the majority of all but the minority.
Not counting schools, where one has to,
and the poets themselves,
there might be two people per thousand.

Like -
but one also likes chicken soup with noodles,
one likes compliments and the color blue,
one likes an old scarf,
one likes having the upper hand,
one likes stroking a dog.

Poetry -
but what is poetry.
Many shaky answers
have been given to this question.
But I don't know and don't know and hold on to it
like to a sustaining railing.

Wislawa Szymborska © 2012, translated by Regina Grol, all rights reserved.


that means not all.
Not even the majority of all but the minority.
Not counting the schools, where one must,
and the poets themselves, there will be perhaps two in a thousand.

but one also likes chicken noodle soup,
one likes compliments and the color blue, one likes an old scarf,
one likes to prove one's point,
one likes to pet a dog.

but what sort of thing is poetry?
More than one shaky answer
has been given to this question.
But I do not know and do not know and clutch on to it,
as to a saving bannister.

Wislawa Szymborska © 2012, translated by Joanna Maria Trzeciak, all rights reserved.

Wednesday, February 01, 2012

Langston Hughes Day (Black History Month Begins)

Pastel drawing of Hughes
by Winhold Reiss
Today is the first day of Black History Month, one of many gifts that Carter G. Woodson gave to the United States. I've said before that every month should be black history month, and latino history month, and women's history month, and lgbtq history month, and so on; we should always be acknowledging the diverse and plural contributions of everyone who has created the world we live in, but unfortunately, as I need not detail, the reality is quite different, so this month still has an important role to play.

Today is also Langston Hughes's birthday. Born James Mercer Langston Hughes in 1902 in Joplin, Missouri, he went on to become one of the greatest poets in the American and African American traditions, dying in 1967.  Perhaps half a decade ago, I read and reread a large selection of Hughes' poetry with a student who was preparing for graduate oral exams, and what struck me in a way I had forgotten was not just the thematic wealth and formal breadth of Hughes's poetry, but its political ferocity, its consistent statement of resistance, its capacity for wresting beauty out of some of the ugliest moments in history, while still making sure that readers did not forget that ugliness.  Years ago when I taught junior and high school students, Hughes was one of the poets they most readily responded to. He would, I can imagine, have been proud that he was reaching young people and also helping to pave a graduate student's road to a doctorate.

Hughes's poetry well suited for today, even though the historical moment in which most of it was written is now past. The next time I participate in a Human Micropoem event I intend to read one or two of his poems, which are well suited for the public repetition style the Human Mic requires. But it's also the case that his poetry remains so salient and so relevant because so much of what it portrays, describes, invokes, and evokes, sometimes with lacerating grace, is still with us, has not yet fully passed. The struggles for bread and equality here, for freedom and democracy overseas, for communities bridging the numerous barriers that divide us, have hardly ceased. We have a ways to go. Hughes was aware of that. His poetry is aware of this and can make us aware of this. His aegis is one that poets and politicians and everyone else today would do well to acknowledge.

Hughes with students in Atlanta
during Negro History Week 1947
(Photo: Griffith J. Davis)

Here are several very short Hughes poems, which still pack a punch:


The past has been a mint
Of blood and sorrow.
That must not be
True of tomorrow.


It would be nice
In any case,
To someday meet you
Face to face
Walking down
The road to hell...
As I come up
feeling swell.

Go Slow

Go slow, they say-
while the bite
Of the dog is fast.
Go slow, I hear-
While they tell me
You can't eat here!
You can't live here!
You can't work here!
Don't Demonstrate! Wait!-
While they lock the gate.
Am I supposed to be God,
Or an angel with wings
And a halo on my head
While jobless I starve to dead?
Am I supposed to forgive
And meekly live
Going slow, slow, slow,
Slow, slow, slow,
Slow, slow,

All poems Copyright © The Estate of Langston Hughes, 2011. All rights reserved.