Thursday, March 15, 2018

Cross-Posting: Song of Myself (Linda Norton)

Below is a reply that author, blogger and educator Linda Norton sent back in January 2018 via the FRSGA Yahoo account, in response to one of the vouchers I posted in December, which Karen Cantrell had previously responded to. The card read:

Here is her full response (note the references to an array of artists):

Song of Myself

Filmmaker, star, a doctor examining the culture—me on a walk. On the pavement, I notice an electric-blue Post-It from that batch I stole when I quit my job: “taylor * negritude * milk and you” – My dirty to-do list. I must have walked this way last week and dropped it.

In December sun, I hurry past the cathedral like it might get me. Then I saunter, Thoreau-like, sans-terre in California, and again I’m everything—the spinsters Thoreau disparaged, the turtles he saw copulating and tried to separate, the mother who saves him from civilization. Open to alms. My loneliness is like a poem by Fanny.

By this time my parka is off. In the co-op bakery when I get to the counter, the cashier is dazzled for a minute. “You look like Elizabeth Taylor.” But then he wonders if he’s right not to offer me the senior discount yet. “That’s right. Not yet.”

--Linda Norton; a response to a prompt on John Keene’s “Emotional Outreach” blog, 12/2017

Many thanks to Linda for her collaboration, and I will post most responses as they come in. Any readers of this blog should feel free to respond to the instructions above, and write a response along the lines of Linda's and forward it directly to fieldresearchgroup[AT], or center your QR reader app and utilize the QR code below.

"Song of Myself," Copyright © Linda Norton, shared by permission with the Emotional Outreach/FRSGA blog, 2018.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Shakespeare & Co. To Open New Stores in NYC, Philly

The old Shakespeare & Co.
on Broadway (via Yelp)
Independent bookstores in New York City and elsewhere experienced a fatal period from the late 1990s through the early 2010s. A number of the iconic (Gotham Book Mart, A Different Light,  St. Marks Bookshop, Left Bank Books, Coloseum, Barnes & Noble flagship, etc.) and less well known indies and mini-chains (Posmans, Bent Pages, 12th Street Books, New York Bound Books, Revolution Books, Book Court, etc.) in the city shuttered their doors, sometimes with the promise or at least hope of reopening, and, as was the case with St. Mark's, eventually doing so only to close their doors permanently. Between the assault by larger chains, the exorbitant rental prices, the dip in readers, and other problems, the once bookstore-rich has become a comparative desert over the last 25 years, though some indie bookshops, like McNally-Jackson and Greenlight Books, and chains, like the financially precarious Barnes & Noble have hung on.

One survivor, now under new ownership, that is now on the verge of expanding is Shakespeare & Company. After having shrunk to a single store, its 939 Lexington Avenue space next to Hunter College on the Upper East Side, the holding company that took over the lease for the remaining store and bought its trademark in 2015 now plans to open two new Manhattan stores, one on the Upper West Side at 2020 Broadway (between 69th and 70th Streets), and a new one in the West Village, at 450 6th Avenue, near 11th Street, in what was the old Jefferson Market. Both have planned openings in the fall of 2018. Alongside these new stores, S&Co. also will open a café right outside the Hunter-68th Street 4/5/6 (Green line) train station, at Lexington Ave. and 68th Street. As the press release notes, the UWS store is a homecoming, since the first Shakespeare & Company opened in that neighborhood in 1982 and closed in 1996, but the West Village store will also be a significant return for the bookseller, since its Broadway storefront next to NYU's campus also had a major following up through its closing in 2014. (Other branches, in Brooklyn and on 23rd Street, had also disappeared.)

That branch was one of the first to carry my first book, Annotations, and it also is where I met the Canadian poet, director and intellectual James Oscar Jr., now in Montréal. He worked there, and we used to have long, illuminating conversations about literature, life and everything else. One other significant component of that old Broadway branch was its section featuring British imprints, which it updated and sold at reasonable prices. This is hardly a big deal today, when you can order books from almost everywhere in the world and get them in a reasonable amount of time, but in the mid-to-late 1990s, it was tough to find any bookstores, including most in NYC, that had British versions of US-published books, as well as rare finds that weren't available anywhere else, on the bookshelf. I can think of a number of volumes, including editions of novels by J. G. Ballard, Will Self and Peter Kalu, and several anthologies, that I found there and nowhere else.
The old Shakespeare & Co. on
Broadway, in Manhattan (via Yelp)
In addition to the New York openings, S&Co. plans to open a Philadelphia branch as well, in the Rittenhouse Square area of Center City, at 1632 Walnut Street. This will be the company's first store outside Manhattan. All the stores will have an Espresso Book Machine, which are produced by On Demand Books, a sister subsidiary to Shakespeare & Co. headed by CEO Dane NellerMcNally-Jackson currently has an Espresso Book Machine, which allows visitors not only to print published books on demand, but also self-publish books as well. S&Co. is already experimenting with customizable children's books, and will feature some of the self-published works near the Espresso Book Machines. I've watched books being printed up and have done so once myself at McNally-Jackson, and I find the process and machinery spell-binding. I think it may be a possible way to get Seismosis, now completely sold out and thus out of print, back into readers' hands (at far less than the $50-$100+ it now sells for online.)

One worrisome note is S&Co. CEO Dane Neller's comment that "My vision for Shakespeare & Co. has always been to create the biggest little bookshop in the world." (You can find a longer interview with Publishers Weekly here.) I understand the expansive dreams, but haven't we seen this before, with disastrous results on multiple levels? I immediately think of Barnes & Noble, which became a behemoth and drove many smaller chains and indie stores out of business, only to fall prey itself to an even more massive beast, Amazon, which has undercut bookstores and retailers of all sorts and continues to grow with abandon. Perhaps I'm reading too much into Neller's comments, but I sincerely hope that as the company grows, it takes into account the broader publishing and literary ecology. Jeremiah's Vanishing New York, which covered the closing of the Broadway store, features a brief, positive interview with Neller about the new stores.  My fingers are crossed that this will all work out!

Monday, March 12, 2018

AWP Presentation: Notes on Literary Style in Fiction

Yesterday I mentioned that I would post my remarks for the AWP 2018 panel "Profundity as Purpose: Thoughts on Sentences, Vocabulary and Style," organized by writer and critic Christian Kiefer. Other panelists included Coffee House Press editor Caroline Casey; acclaimed writers Kim O'Neill and Christine Schutt. I should note that I slightly modified the introduction below when I read it aloud, and also read only a portion of the full set of notes, to which I added a few quotations, by panelists O'Neill and Schutt, based on their remarks and readings. Many thanks to Christian, Caroline, Kim, Christine, and everyone who attended the panel, which was held at 9 am on Saturday, and drew a full house. Many thanks to Christian and my fellow panelists, and to all who attended the event!

(I should also note that at the panel Caroline and I offered the name of some living authors whose styles exemplified what Christian, others on the panel, and I were talking about--ourselves included--but I decided not to list them here, because there are so many great fiction writers, and I do mention but a few of the many I admire and regularly read with enthusiasm in my notes. I encourage J's Theater readers to add names of distinctive living fiction stylists they admire in the comments, if you'd like, and I'll aim to post them at some point soon if there are more than a handful.)

Lastly, I also want to note another highlight of this year's AWP, which was attending the Jack Jones Literary Arts' welcome event at the Columbia Cafe in Tampa! Many thanks to Kima Jones and Allison Conner, and it was so much fun to meet everyone on Jack Jones' roster--which includes yours truly--and its fans!



I want to begin by thanking Christian for organizing this panel, and thank all of my fellow panelists for their thoughts on this topic, I initially thought I would write a short essay, but instead I decided to draft a series of provisional notes on the topic of literary style in fiction, interlaced with quotations on the topic by various writers of note. (You can find a number of these quotes online, as well as on the website "Some Literary Criticism Quotes," which is where I culled them.) Unless otherwise noted, however, the comments and thoughts are mine.


Associated Writing Programs Annual Conference
Tampa, Florida, March 2018

Literary style is the material articulation, in whatever genre and form, of an author's attempt to record their vision, sensibility, and apperception of the world. The more fluid or less fixed the vision, sensibility and apperception, the more fluid and less fixed the style. No style stands outside the history in which it emerges, or outside the political, social and cultural context in which the author deploys it. The further outside history and context we perceive a style to be, the more likely we are to call it antiquated, anachronistic, unusual, unique, alienated, a failure, forward-looking. No style is solely the product of a given author, but a conversation with and response to a vast network of styles that preceded, parallel and follow that of the author. The author is not dead, pace Barthes, but no author ever truly writes alone.


Individual style is a personal watermark. Even when you write against your usual tendencies, the imprint, however faint, may press through.


"The touchstone is emotion, not reason. We judge a work of art by its effect on our sincere and vital emotion, and nothing else. All the critical twiddle-twaddle about style and form, all this pseudoscientific classifying and analyzing of books in an imitation-botanical fashion, is mere impertinence and mostly dull jargon."--D.H. Lawrence, The Phoenix


When I first began writing as an adult, although one of my major literary spurs to attempting to put words on the page was Alice Walker's fiction, I found myself more drawn to the style of John Edgar Wideman. In fact, one of my first published stories heavily mimics his style, particularly his use of clauses connected by commas. The effect beyond sinuous sentences, is to knit a narrative net, to create a capacious space in which all sorts of things, voices, shifts in tone, actions, are visible and can emerge. In the hands of a pro, as he was then and still is, the style can be evocative and effective. In my hands, the results perhaps were cloudier. When I submitted the story to an anthology, the editor, assuming my commas errors, or perhaps attuned less to what I was attempting and more to his own training and aesthetics as a writer, changed a number of them to periods. The result was a transformed story. I got very upset. But eventually, rereading the story, I grasped why he might have reacted the way he did, and worked to ensure that the style did not precede or occlude the content. At least, to the extent that I could.


Conversations overheard from infancy on. Kitchen (table) talk, telephone conversations. Banter, indoors and out. Schoolyard back-and-forth. Books, comics, newspapers, magazines, films, TV shows, the radio, records. Jazz, R&B, rock & roll, pop, hip hop, punk, House, classical and art musics. Studies in Latin, French, Greek, German. Later self-taught Esperanto, Portuguese and Spanish, other languages, snippets, texts in other languages. Translating other languages. Imaginary and invented languages, mine and others. Texts I cannot read but pore over nevertheless. Archival documents. The sounds and shapes of nature and the body itself, technologies human and otherwise. Silence.


"The difference between prose and poetry no longer derives from issues of quantity or technique, but of quality: the style is in fact perceived as a sproduct of a particular and unrepeatable sensibility)"--Fiorenza Lipparini, "L'oscurità nella poesia moderna," in Lettere Italiane, LXI, N.2, 2009


I may once have read and heard someone say, apropos of fiction--though never of poetry or drama---something along the lines of one's style should not be "intrusive" or "obtrusive." But a few of the fiction writers I deeply admire have or had demonstrative styles: Laurence Sterne, Gustave Flaubert, Henry James, Marcel Proust, William Faulkner, Virginia Woolf, Ernest Hemingway, James Baldwin, Yasunari Kawabata, Thomas Bernhard, José Lezama Lima, R. K. Narayanan, Manuel Puig, Ernest Gaines, Wilson Harris, Raymond Carver, Alexander Kluge, Muriel Spark, Clarice Lispector, James McCourt, C. E. Morgan, Dennis Cooper, Laszlo Krasznahorkai, Jeffery Renard Allen. In each case the style for me is synonymous with the writer. Yet I also profoundly admire and return to writers for whom style, while noteworthy, polished and accomplished, is sometimes less obvious or overt, at times shifting and recalibrating within and across texts, according to the demands of the story at hand: Willa Cather, Toni Morrison, Angela Carter, Toni Cade Bambara, Paule Marshall, Ursula K. Le Guin, Leslie Marmon-Silko, Juan Goytisolo, Julia Álvarez, Maryse Condé, Christine Brooke-Rose, J. M. Coetzee, Gish Jen, Jayne Anne Phillips, Samuel R. Delany, Alice Munro, Sarah Schulman, Edwidge Danticat, Tayari Jones, and Bhanu Kapil, to name a few. Interestingly, to me at least, the first group are nearly all male writers, the second mostly women, including many women of color.


Vivid literary style that overpowers content is a plain metal coat rack heavily festooned with several bags and closets-full of holiday ornaments; powerful content with inadequate style is a giant evergreen onto which someone has attached a few strands of Mardi Gras beads, strips of paper, and random Post-Its. In both cases, we are still compelled to look, even if momentarily.


"To emphasize style is to slight content, or to introduce an attitude which is neutral with respect to content."--Susan Sontag, A Susan Sontag Reader


Style is not just the clothing in which we place the body of the text, but the body itself fitted, as well or poorly as we imagine and sew them, to that body.


At a reception after the American Book Awards two years ago, Ishmael Reed, my former professor and a writer whose poetry had inspired me when I was very young, noted to me in passing amidst the clamor that while the generation of Black writers who emerged in the late 1950s and 1960s had given up the influence of William Faulkner and similar modernists, in favor of a more direct style. He didn't say "simpler," did he? Now, he continued, in part under the influence of James Baldwin, they were returning to more florid styles. Or did he say something else, though I know I heard Baldwin invoked, with me mishearing the rest of his statement. I believe I nodded and planned to ask him more about this, but people approached both of us, and I made a mental note to contact him about it. I don't think he was being critical as much as make a comment about a shift in styles he noticed. I had mentioned to him how I found his most recent novel Juice profoundly influenced by the blogging he had undertaken for a while, giving it a different and distinct flow from some of his previous work (though Mumbo Jumbo anticipates a blogging sensibility by many decades). At some point, perhaps on Facebook, I do hope to take up the questions of Faulkner, Baldwin and stylistic changes over the decades with him.


"And in truth ambiguity may often add strength. An idea suggested is more weighty: simplicity of statement excites contempt."--Demetrius, "On Style"


The history of literary styles in Western literature is the history of the West, with all that this entails: not just a succession of historical, aesthetic and cultural movements, from the Dark Ages through today, but the long history of Western colonialism, imperialism, capitalism, and the exploitation and domination of vast swathes of the globe. This history is encoded in the DNA of literary styles in every Western society, as well as of many others across the globe, because of this history and genealogy, and the uneven circulation of literature and culture, though we may not be aware of it. No style is free of politics, just as no aesthetics is. What does it mean to be aware of this history, and to write both in the wake of it, and, depending upon the writer, against or through it? How do minoritarian and oppressed writers decolonize their style? The immediate answer is that we should study the many writers who, over decades, have taken steps and shown us many ways to do this.


My style is--or should I say styles are--shaped in part by modernism and its capacity not just to depict, but capture the flow of and embody consciousness, and yet I can say about all my writing that, like our contemporary society, it is also the product of postmodernism, with its emphasis on portraying overlapping and at times seemingly incommensurate realities. If modernism ushered in access to a grasp of human psychology that prior prose authors lacked--yet many nevertheless figured out how to represent the human mind and its complexities to readers--postmodernism and its heirs have opened a window onto the complex ontologies in which we live and move today.


"You can’t think the same way after you read a certain voice."--Toni Morrison, "Interview with Angela Davis"


When I was younger, some years before I published my first book, Annotations, I struggled against unwritten stylistic expectations I had internalized over the years. I thought my prose had to sound a certain way, and could not sound or read in the ways that it eventually took. I felt like there was a particular set of styles that were acceptable, and not only did I not want to conform to them, I found it hard to do so even when I tried. While it did not lead to silence, it did provoke me to constant experimentation, extensive reading and modeling of the work of writers I found to be counter-examples to the dominant styles, and, ultimately, to the path I have found myself pursuing.


Is there an ethics of style? How might we talk about it? What happens when we consider how then template for the now-dominant litaery styles, emphasizing craft and de-emphasizing politics, that taught in many--most?--MFA and undegraduate programs may have their possible origins in the CIA-funded programs instituted at Iowa and Stanford, as Eric Bennett reminds us in his 2015 scholarly study Workshops of Empire? Even setting this particular history to the side, as usually occurs in most creative writing programs, doesn't every artistic act require some level of ethical inquiry? Are there styles and stylistic approaches we might label more ethical or less, and if so, why? Or might another way to speak of the ethics of style be to raise questions not just of historicity and genealogy, but also of the truth(fulness) of representations in relation to a given narrative? What role or roles do the larger social, political, economic, and cultural contexts hold in this line of questioning?


"In order to find his voice he must first have mastered style"--A. Alvarez, The Writer's Voice


Prose (fiction) should not be musical; this is the province of poetry. ("Poetry is music set to words"--Dennis O'Driscoll.) This is another dictum I have always worked under, and to some degree, because of my inner and innate sensibility, against. Yet so much of the most memorable prose, not just poetry, appears to aspire to, as the old phrase goes, and often achieves the condition of music. What lines in prose fiction do you most readily recall? Even the ideas and statements that engrave themselves on your consciousness do so not just because of their aptness and timeliness, but because of how they were written, how they unfold, almost like lyrics or lyric, as prose.


L'écriture feminine, yes, but how else is style gendered? How is it raced or racialized? How is it classed? How does one think of these concepts in relation to literary style? I mused earlier about whether and by what means minoritarian and oppressed writers might decolonize their style, but can the direct heirs of the colonizers, the imperialists decolonize? What are some of the ways their new style might look and sound like? How does one queer style, open it up? Certainly the critic, in assessing and apprising style, should think about such questions in the act of reading and appraising. Where is the intersectionality in style? What does it mean when you address and answer these questions in the work itself, in and as its style?


"The closer language comes to coinciding with [thought], the finer the result ... one might almost establish the axiom that there is no such thing as subject - style in itself being an absolute manner of seeing things"-- Gustave Flaubert


The ear and eye, yes, but every memorable style possesses as tactility as well. You can hear it as you read it, see it unfolding on the page, but you can also imagine touching its materiality, holding it, turning it around in your head and hands, which is often how you might proceed if you were to describe it.


Superlative, beguiling, enchanting style can carry a writer far, perhaps over the span of a short story. In fact, in a story of a paragraph or a few pages, it can be everything. In the absence of or with a deficit in the other major components of fiction, style alone is usually not enough for a work longer than 100 pages. Poor style, or even incompetence in prose, however, can survive if the subject matter, the plotting, a character or characters, or any combination of these elements gains and holds the reader's sway.


"What's the best advice anyone ever gave you?" - Find a poet whose style you like, emulate that style, then deal with things you know about. Don't waste your time looking for your own style."--John Cooper Clarke


Style, along with tone, can be one of the most difficult things to translate from one language into another. When I was translating Hilda Hilst's Letters from a Seducer (Cartas de um sedutor) from Portuguese into English, not only did her vocabulary and rapid shifts between linguistic registers pose countless questions, but her style--or multiplicity of styles--raised the highest hurdles. Hilst was drawing upon multiple traditions, which manifest themselves in this text, as I have written about elsewhere. As a translator, I think I only captured a small portion of her stylistic genius, which is to say, I failed, and yet I also believe the reader nevertheless can gain a compelling sense of who Hilst is by reading my translation. Not the fullest sense, but a rich one, nevertheless.


The simpler a literary style in any other language, the easier it is to render into English--unless the style involves linguistically and culturally specific particularity, polysemy, or radical condensation; on the other hand, Fernando Namora, for whom one word has multiple resonances; on the other, Paul Celan. In other cases, a sociocultural asynchrony with the dominant styles in the Anglophone world can present challenges, making the work sound stilted and out of fashion, even though it was written just yesterday. The easier any literary style is to carry over into English, the more likely it is to be read globally, and perhaps translated into other languages from English, a realization some writers working in other languages have taken to heart. Yet what about English-language writers themselves, or those writers in other languages who see the unique resources of their native tongues and their national and cultural literary and oral traditions as a source of strength, artistry, and innovation, as well as the fount of their distinctive styles?


"To understand a literary style, consider what it omits"--Mason Cooley


Within any given society, in given eras, certain styles become established, which many, though not all writers, adapt to--or are compelled, for various reasons and by various means, to. In democratic societies, it is usually by internalization, pedagogy and the push of capitalism; in authoritarian and totalitarian societies, it is by force--of law, or worse. In the case of the former example, I am thinking, for example, of literary minimalism and its diffusion throughout American literary culture in the 1980s and 1990s. What were its origins and its effects? It would take at least an essay to trace them out, but literary minimalism fit the political, economic, technological, and cultural shifts of the time. It had powerful, well-placed champions, and some brilliant exemplars. Yet even during literary minimalism's heyday, there were writers penning in the opposite direction: ample, expansive, baroque. No style works for everyone, though the further you are from the accepted style or styles, the more likely you are to be viewed as behind the times, or, in some cases, ahead of them.


If effusive, overwrought prose is purple, what is parched, sere prose? Gray? Ash? Bone?


"Style; sensibility and technique distinctively brought together, frees the writer from the weight of her own personality, gives to her an incandescence of personality, so that what she can express is more than, other than, what she is." -- Jeanette Winterson, Art Objects


Not all great writers are great stylists, but we remember the distinctive stylists among the greats, and the stylists among the not-so-greats. We sometimes forget those whose greatness lay in other literary strengths, though we also may be as likely to remember specific works by them, because of the subject matter. One immediately thinks of Theodore Dreiser. But even if we can describe those works in summary fashion, can we describe their style? Probably not, though does it matter? Or does it?


Simplicity and efficiency. These are the touchstones for today. Pare down the modifiers, simplify the syntax, make it easy to read, i.e., consume. Avoid rhetoric. Shorter sentences, briefer paragraphs. In this neoliberal age, the time of Twitter and Facebook and similar social media, in an arena in which words in print are yielding to a vast, mirrored ever-expanding hall of imagery, what does it mean to defy these trends, even if they are not dictates? ("Don’t use three words when one will do, we are told, and yet in many ways I’d rather use six words than three or, in contrast, no words at all, to leave gaps in the narrative, fissures where the reader might live."--Christian Kiefer) If readers cannot skim or merely view, will most of them struggle too much and give up? And even with the seemingly simplest styles, if there is too ambiguity, too little explanation, will they prove too much of a challenge? Are we internalizing these aesthetics and cultural shifts nevertheless?


"I just want the music."--Christine Schutt


There are degrees of literary style, styles that operate at the micro-level up through the macro-level of sentences and paragraphs. Sometimes style is in the service of form, sometimes it becomes it. Sometimes a writer's style is evident no matter what form they employ; I am thinking of how, no matter what book of his I pick up, now matter how formally innovative, philosophically engaged, and different, and he is a master of invention, I can always tell once I start diving into the sentences that the work is by Percival Everett.


Can a simple style capture a density of ideas? On his eponymously named blog, Michael Dalvean has argued that since the Middle Ages, "idea density" has fallen, and cites a paper, "Idea Density--A Potentially Informative Characteristic of Retrieved Documents," by Michael Covington, at the Institute of Artificial Intelligence at the University of Georgia, to make his case. The basic algorithm for idea density, a concept long established in psycholinguistics, is "number of propositions ÷ number of words." Two examples Covington gives are: "The mare is old, the mare is gray" (idea density=2.500, very low); "The gray mare is very slightly older than..." (idea density=0.625, very high). Covington is clear to note that "idea density" does not correlate with the now famous Flesch-Kincaid reading level metric, nor with vocabulary size. Dalvean argues that as idea density has fallen, cognitive phenomena and effects associated with literature have disappeared as well. To put it another way, the effects of reading more "literary" vs. "popular" works are measurable in terms of testable responses after doing so. What do we lose with a plainer, less dense style, fewer modifiers, a simpler storyline? Or do we gain readers?


"The sentence is the frame."--Kim O'Neill


Can we teach style in high school and college classrooms? Shouldn't we? Don't many writers do this for themselves by reading on their own? To paraphrase Walter Benjamin's account in One Way Street, the old tradition of learning to write involved repeatedly copying out the best texts of the past. This was part of the method that a colleague developed for the undergraduate majors and minors at Northwestern University, where I taught for a decade. My fellow creative writing teachers and I, teaching in the three genres of fiction, poetry and creative nonfiction, would select several model writers and texts that the students would then strongly emulate. I tried always to create a provocative mix of writers and texts that would give my students a sense of possible options, not just in terms of style, but subject matter, form, and so on. Certain models proved very influential: George Saunders, Amy Bender, Haruki Murakami, Junot Díaz, ZZ Packer. Other strong influences, like David Foster Wallace and Roberto Bolaño, even when I was not teaching them but during their periods of great popularity, also made appearances. Students who had strong individual literary compasses often brushed the influences off, intentionally or not, and their voices and styles were soon apparent. But many students fell under the spell of certain stylists, and wrote stories as if in the atelier of Saunders, say, or Murakami. What I came to realize, however, was that when they kept writing, and reading, and writing some more, eventually their own stylistic tendencies, shaped and trained by the established figures, would emerge. They had models to draw upon, and were on their way to becoming writers.


Is erudition in terms of style a marker of class privilege? Perhaps, and perhaps especially today, when many basic components of literary history and style probably are not being taught in many elementary and secondary schools. Can most students situate authors, texts and styles in relation to a historical or political chronology? I often find that I have to define what I mean when I use terms like "modernism" or "post-modernism," let alone "Romanticism" or "the Renaissance" and "Early Modernism," while also anchoring them for my students in a multilayered timeline. Rhetoric as a subject has long gone the way of the dodo bird, for some defensible and indefensible reasons. But literary style is not the province of the elite, even though certain styles now, as in the past, are privileged and championed over others. I think, for example, of Olaudah Equiano's gripping narrative, or Harriet Wilson's Our Nig, or the stories and novels of Frances E. W. Harper, or the oeuvre of Donald Goins, none of whom ever set foot in anyone's college, but whose styles live with me even today. What are we talking about when we talk about style in relation to privilege? What are the aims of critics of style today, and do they articulate them fully for their readers? How might we make the history of literary styles--and by extension, literary history and histories themselves--more accessible to a wider array of readers?


"Taken as a whole, literature in democratic ages can never present, as it does in periods of aristocracy, an aspect of order, regularity, science and art ... Style will frequently be fantastic, incorrect, overburdened, and loose ... The object of authors will be to astonish rather than to please, and to stir the passions more than to charm the taste." -- Tocqueville, Democracy in America


Literary style can disclose the inner tensions between a writer and her subject matter, between a writer and her peers, between a writer and her time. The style, like every other aspect of the work, may reveal truths the writer only subconciously grapples towards.


Write enough, and your stylistic tendencies will eventually make themselves visible, like water finding its level. This is both your promise, and your challenge.


"You write in order to change the world ... if you alter, even by a millimeter, the way people look at reality, then you can change it."--James Baldwin

Our styles are one way we do this.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

AWP Reading: Letters to the Future: Black WOMEN/Radical WRITING + Poem: Evie Shockley

I'm back from a few days at this year's annual Associated Writing Programs (AWP) conference, which was held over the last week in an unseasonably cool Tampa, Florida. AWP has grown considerably since I first attended it years ago, with several generations of new writers and students now attending, and though I find the sheer number of people and events overwhelming at times, I once again found it an enjoyable and invigorating event to attend since it provides an opportunity to see so many friends that I otherwise would not run into, and meet, hear and learn about the work of so many writers I was not already familiar with, or only knew in print and not in person. C joined me, and we had a great time over all.

R. Erica Doyle
I participated on two panels, one that I moderated, titled "Translating Blackness," sparked in part by my 2016 Poetry Foundation essay. It included translators and authors Aaron Coleman, Kristin Dykstra, Tiffany Higgins, and Lawrence Schimel; the second focused on style, and included Christian Kiefer (organizer and moderator), Caroline Casey, Kim O'Neill, and Christine Schutt. Both were full houses, I was happy to see, and I plan to post my notes for the second within the next few days. In lieu of the kinds of reports I've posted on this blog in the past, I thought I'd feature a few photos, and poem, from one of the events I attended, a reading and pre-launch of the forthcoming must-read anthology Letters to the Future: Black WOMEN/Radical WRITING, edited by Erica Hunt and Dawn Lundy Martin, and on bookshelves in June from Kore Press.

L-r: Ruth Ellen Kocher, Dawn Lundy
Martin, and Erica Hunt

According to its description on Kore Press's site, the collection

celebrates temporal, spatial, formal, and linguistically innovative literature. The anthology will collect late-modern and contemporary work by Black women from the United States, England, Canada, and the Caribbean—work that challenges readers to participate in meaning making. Because one contextual framework for the collection is “art as a form of epistemology,” we envision the writing in the anthology will be the kind of work driven by the writer’s desire to radically present, uncovering what she knows and does not know, as well as critically addressing the future.
It continues:

This anthology will help re-write the misnomer that innovative writing is white writing and do it with a particularly interest in gender. Is it a coincidence that #blacklivesmatter was coined and put into action by black queer women in the same moment that there is a proliferation of black women writing experimental work? We don’t think so. This anthology is part of our means of investigation, or of simply looking at, what we are doing together to re-write the future world as unfamiliar. Indeed, it is the familiar, the well-worn racial and racist past that is killing us.
The audience
The reading, on International Women's Day, took place at the Floridan Palace hotel, in downtown Tampa, and featured a handful of writers whose work appears in the collection, including LaTasha N. Nevada Diggs, R. Erica Doyle, Duriel Harris, Ruth Ellen Kocher, Tracie Morris, Evie Shockley, and giovanni singleton. Given this lineup, every poet's performance sparkled, and made a very strong case for getting a copy of the anthology, which will be perfect not just for reading from cover to cover, but in a wide array of courses.

Dawn Lundy Martin and Evie Shockley reading
Below is one of my Rutgers colleague Evie Shockley's poems, "What's Not to Liken," from the anthology, which I found especially moving, and a few photos from the event. The poem also appears in Evie's most recent collection, semiautomatic, Wesleyan University Press, 2017, is definitely one to add to your bookshelf. You can pre-order the anthology at Kore Press's site, or via Small Press Distributors.

Copyright © Evie Shockley, from semiautomatic,
Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 2017

Wednesday, March 07, 2018

Poem: Lucie Brock-Broido (RIP)

Lucie Brock-Broido
(Concord Poetry Center)
The award-winning poet Lucie Brock-Broido (1956-2018) passed away yesterday at the age of 61.

The Washington Post offers a brief obituary, with an overview of her work. The Poetry Foundation, which has links to a number of her poems, shares a deeper picture of her life and career.

Some years ago, when her collection The Master Letters, invoking her--and our--ancestral American poet Emily Dickinson, appeared in 1995, Brock-Broido, already praised for her distinctive voice, became one of the most highly regarded poets of her generation. She was, as many online testimonies underline, a beloved, rigorous teacher, and a crucial mentor for many.

In 2013, critic and poet Dan Chiasson thoughtfully discussed her collection Stay, Illusion, in The New Yorker; a good deal of his praise in that essay could stand for all of her work. is one of her poems, so many of which have unforgettable titles: "The Supernatural Is Only The Natural, Disclosed," from Ploughshares, Vol. 17, No. 2/3, Twentieth Anniversary Issue, Fall 1991, pp. 137-38.

May she rest and write in peace.

Tuesday, March 06, 2018

Around the Horn (Other Bloggers & Blogs)

It has been eons since I posted links to what other blogs and bloggers on my blogroll are up to, so here are some links to current blogs J's Theater readers might want to check out.

At Gukira: Without Predicate, Keguro reminds us that this year marks the 50th anniversary of Paulo Freire's landmark text The Pedagogy of the Oppressed, and notes that he will be blogging about it roughly once a month for the rest of the year. Anything Keguro blogs about is worth reading--and his essays on New Inquiry are no less brilliant--so I highly recommend checking back as he thinks through and theorizes, with the deepest and deftest touch, in relation to contemporary education in Kenya.

In The Public Gardens: Poems and History, writer Linda Norton shares excerpts from her forthcoming work Wite-Out. Here's a tiny quote:
In New York for a reading of Pressed Wafer authors. Went up to 125th and bought a black slip at H&M and had an over-priced lunch at a place where the eggs tasted like disinfectant. Then on to the Schomburg where, years ago, I worked on the Marcus Garvey papers. I visited an exhibit of WPA photos and eavesdropped. I left as it was getting dark. I’d heard that Harlem had become gentrified and white, but I saw very few white people up there. The trees were bare and I had all the haunting feelings about architecture and oncoming winter that I had when I lived here. Feelings I don’t have in California.
Definitely check out the rest of Linda's new project.

EJ Flavors, a blogger I've been following since before this blog existed (he was on it back in 2002), has a February mix (Cupid's Hunt) that you can download and listen to, if you want a little (more) love in the air.

coldhearted scientist وداد has an eyeblink of a post on labor, linked to another, that will become a collaborative article for the Academe blog.

Poet Mom is blogging again, and I'm glad she is.

Poet Harmony Holiday, at nonstophome, features a poem about Al Sharpton, among other treats.

Shigekuni is someone I learned about via that often deafening public forum known as Twitter; I immediately found his tweets intriguing, and he doesn't disappoint. Writing in several languages (German, English, among others), blogging about literature and the arts, brimming with engaging quotes, it's a blog I make a point to visit especially around Nobel Prize time. (I still have not written my post about this past year's Nobel laureate, Briton Kazuo Ishiguro.) His most recent post takes a peak at a 1967 dictionary of American slang. "The Mokers"....

Poet Guillermo Parra translates a prose poem by Antonia Palacios, from her 1989 collection Ficciones y affliciones.

At Heatstrings, the blog by poet and scholar Aldon Nielsen, you can find photos from the recent Louisville Conference on Literature and Culture after 1900. I have heard this is a conference to attend, so perhaps I will figure out a way to be there one of these upcoming years. As Aldon's photos show, some pretty superb writers and thinkers (I see Nourbese Philip, Nathaniel Mackey, etc.) did make the trip.

Edward Winkleman, whose blog appears under my Art Blogs links, writes about virtual reality and augmented reality/mixed reality, touching upon artists who are now using in their work. (I have a secret fear that eventually masses of us will be lying in dark rooms, immobilized by VR and a soma-like drug, as the overlords run amok--or even more so than they already are.)

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

"Words" on Academy of American Poets' Poem-A-Day

Today Twitter (naturally) brought some very good news: one of my poems, "Words," which the brilliant poet and critic Dawn Lundy Martin selected for the Academy of American Poet's "poem-a-day,was featured today on the last day in February and thus Black History Month. Many, many thanks to Dawn for contacting me about new poems, and thanks also to Mary Gannon and Maya Phillips at the Academy of American Poets for their work in publishing it on the site!

Though I have been writing and publishing poems for over 25 years, and though I have several books of poetry (two in collaboration with wonderful artists), I have never had any of my poetry featured on any of the US's major poetry organization sites (beyond Cave Canem). Essays? Yes. Biographical notes? Yes. References to my fiction? Yes. But poetry? No such luck. So this is a first and again, many thanks to Dawn, Mary and Maya.

The Academy's site also includes an audio track of me reading the poem, and my brief statement about it:

“I initially conceived this poem while participating in the Vulnerable Rumble, an amazing reading-performance organized by Laura Goldstein, Jennifer Karmin, and Laura Mullen, as part of the Red Rover Series at OuterSpace Studios in Chicago in January 2014. In the midst of the excellent poetry everyone was reading, I thought carefully about where the United States was in 2014 and where we might be heading. I started to mull over how we have been struggling to communicate with and understand one another—even at the level of basic language and art-making. We have misvalued and disvalued the power of words and their social, political, and economic meanings and effects. From this kernel I drafted the poem and, learning quite a bit from an Italian translator’s attempts to wrangle it into that language, I have revised it over the last couple of years.”

It feels especially appropriate for where we are today. I should add that the Vulnerable Rumble ranks amongthe most singular and thrilling readings I have ever participated in, and I wrote it up on this blog shortly after participating. I highly recommend that post and will share this paragraph:

Indication by raising the hand or shaking one's head. Duets and choral readings. Self-halting and disabling. Strategies to encourage reader time. Failure. What principles, and I say that without irony. Oh, if only more poets would internalize many of these! What became clear as the evening proceeded was that many of us did, and rather quickly; there were some who read briefly, some who leapt in and then out, some who paired up more than once but never too long, some who added a theatrical or performative element to change the reading dynamics, and a few who seemed to step right back into the usual holding-of-the-floor at length, as if any other approach would not do. But, as Jennifer [Karmin] said and underlined, even failure at these "codes" was acceptable, so anything went.
Out of that event came "Words"--and more.

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

J's Theater's 13th Blogiversary

A screenshot of my very
first post, from February
27, 2005 (Copyright © J's Theater)
On this date thirteen years ago, I started blogging at J's Theater. I've previously commemorated the date and written about why I began writing on this platform. In those and other posts, I discussed how my approach has changed over the years, and I've also commented a number of times about the fluctuation in the regularity of my posts. In brief: my teaching, mentoring and advising, and, in more recent years, administrative duties have sometimes led to sizable hiatuses or periods of silence. I've nevertheless tried to keep the blog going, in part because I enjoy blogging and it provides me with one of the few places to regularly and publicly share interests I have, especially if they fall outside the mainstream. What sometimes astonishes me is how much ground I've covered over the years, which includes posts I've completely forgotten about only to happen upon them when Googling some topic or other, and find that the blog is among the top links that appear.

From time to time, I with meet or speak with someone who speaks about the blog as primarily political, but rereading my posts since 2005, what stands out to me is the emphasis on culture, with cultural politics usually part of the equation. During my first year of blogging, which included 305 posts, I ranged widely, touching upon not only poetry and poets but artists, but also drawings and photos (many via Flickr, or from the web, so they're no longer visible); reviews of films, dancing performances, art shows, CDs and online audio sites, TV shows, plays; sports (primarily baseball, reports on the literary world and publishing industry; interviews, with domestic and international figures; numerous translations, by many others as well as my own original attempts; meta-commentaries on other bloggers and blogs; announcements of upcoming local and national events; obituaries and tributes; countless quotes by notable figures; random photos (always a popular feature here); and yes, discussions of politics. I've tried to maintain many of these foci over the years, the combinations changing in relation to my life at the time, while adding new ones. I probably do write less about TV and popular culture than I once did, and many of my favorite bloggers unfortunately have put their efforts to pasture or are no longer with us. There have also been strange occurrences, such as other blogs basically plagiarizing my posts and featuring them under other names; the specifics of the entries, however, makes the theft a bit nonsensical, but when has that ever stopped thieves?

What also continues to amaze me is how many people have visited the blog. According to the stat counter (which I had to reinstall when transferring J's Theater to Blogger's new platform) 745,059 people have visited the blog over the years. Blogger's analytics tell me, however, that there have been 1,061,061 (!) viewers over the lifetime of the blog. Last month, there were 29,566. The all-time most popular post remains the Julia de Burgos poem page (61,822 views), followed by my post about Vanessa Place and conceptual poetics (12,475); an entry on Allen Ginsberg (6,340); the 2007 Rugby World Cup (5,264); and my review of Christophe Honoré's film Homme au bain (4,147). Over this last week, the most read posts remain the one about de Burgos and Place, as well as one on William Butler Yeats and Federico García Lorca; the post about the new Locke biography and the Richard T. Greener statue, and my review of Inxeba (The Wound). Over the life of the blog, the most visitors have come from the US (556,277), Russia (92,407), Germany (54,849), France, Great Britain, Ukraine, Canada, China, Brazil, and the Netherlands, in descending order; over the last month, the visitors have primarily come from the same countries, with Italy, Estonia and Poland replacing Canada, China and Brazil. In sum, visitors from across the globe are checking out the new posts and some very old ones, which is heartening to see.

I intend to continue blogging for as long as it remains of interest and I have the time and energy to do so. At some point I probably should see if I can hire an assistant to cull through the posts and draw up a list categorizing and indexing them by date, subject, and so on. I am not sure how many translations of my own I've posted on here, but I often find ones I'd completely forgotten, including an entry featuring a poem by the late Dominican-immigrant writer Carlos Rodríguez (1951-2001). To my surprise, someone commented on the post this past January 16, under the title "Escritor de la nada," to say that there's an anthology out featuring 4-5 poems by Rodríguez was now out. They did not leave a name, but I have put on my list of books to seek out.


It's also a little surprising, at least to me, to note that blogging as we know it is roughly only 21 years old. I noted the 10th anniversary of the platform and genre back in 2007. Perhaps it was around this time or not long after that some pundits began declaring blogging over and done, and yet just a few years after that, it had come back with such force that reality shows were touting the fact the some of their stars' occupations included "blogger." "The blogs" even became an epithet of sorts. Blogging has morphed several times since, with platforms like Tumblr including blogs with almost no words at all. There are still many wordsmiths still toiling out there, and, in the case of publications like The New York Review of Books, some of their more vital, relevant writing is appearing on their blog, NYR Daily.

In 2005, I also wrote about one of the important proto-bloggers, Clarice Lispector, whose formally inventive and topically expansive newspaper Crônicas are more like blogposts and less like the conventional opinion pieces one usually finds in contemporary US journalism. New Directions plans to publish one her most difficult and personal books, The Chandelier, later this spring.

Thursday, February 22, 2018

New Alain Locke Biography + Greener Honored at University of South Carolina

When most people think of the Harlem Renaissance, they probably summon the names of its major literary and visual atists--Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Claude McKay, Aaron Douglas, etc.--and even may note figures who were linked to but critical of some of its aspects, like W. E. B. DuBois. They also may recall the cultural shift under which it unfolded, "The New Negro Movement." But they may not know the name of the man who popularized the term "The New Negro," in a famous essay and in, perhaps most lastingly, in the title of his 1925 famous anthology, and who provided the intellectual foundation, and cultivated the networks out of which the Harlem Renaissance developed.

That man was Alain Leroy Locke (1885-1954), a Philadelphia native who attended Harvard College (AB 1907), became the first African American Rhodes Scholar, studied at the University of Berlin, and subsequently returned to Harvard to receive his Ph.D. in philosophy in 1918. Black, gay, physically unimposing, an adherent of the Bahá'í faith, and a gifted and productive thinker and writer, Locke not only provided the intellectual framework for the New Negro Movement and the Harlem Renaissance, through his championing of Black art and culture, and the idea of the Diaspora and its links to Africa, but he taught at Howard University from 1918 to 1925, when he was temporarily dismissed for teaching a course on race relations, and then, after reinstatement in 1928, until 1953, training generations of students, including Toni Morrison.

Jeffrey C. Stewart, a professor in the Department of Black Studies at University of California-Santa Barbara has just published a new, thorough biography of Locke, a scholar, critic, and cultural worker, situating him with the intellectual, social, political, and cultural contexts in which he lived. Titled The New Negro: The Life of Alain Locke (Oxford University Press, 2018), Stewart's study draws upon previously unavailable primary source material and interviews with Locke's colleagues, friends and associates. Divided into three sections, the first focusing on Locke's youth and eduction, the second on Locke's involvement with the Harlem Renaissance and his advancement of ideas of Black beauty and aesthetics, and the third exploring the latter portion of Locke's rich and fascinating life, Stewart's exploration of Locke's life and mind looks like it also will provide a richer illumination of the intellectual foundations of and complex relationships among members of the Harlem Renaissance and its many cultural legacies.

I have ordered a copy of Stewart's biography, which has received starred reviews from Kirkus and Booklist and a laudatory review in The New York Times, and am looking forward to reading it. (If I can, I may post a review on here.) I especially enjoyed listening to Professor Stewart discuss it on Midday in New York; you can hear that podcast here. You can also read Eugene Holley's excellent overview of Stewart's book on Publishers Weekly's website. Stewart's previous work includes several edited volumes about Locke, as well as the biography Paul Robeson: Artist and Citizen and 1001 Things Everyone Should Know About African American History, a text that, like the Locke biography, strikes me as particularly appropriate for our current moment.


The unveiling of the Richard T. Greener
statue, University of South Carolina
( © Tracy Glantz

Nearly half a century before Alain Locke graduated from Harvard, the first African American to enroll and successful receive a Harvard College degree left his name on the university's rolls, and proceeded to a remarkable life that, like Locke's, is now almost completely forgotten. Richard T. Greener, whom I'd previously blogged about when a contractor discovered a trunk of his belongings in a run-down Chicago home, was that first graduate (A.B. 1870), and, as part of his extraordinary journey, received a law degree from the University of South Carolina in 1876, during that brief period of post-Civil War Reconstruction, which meant a brief interlude of integration. From 1873 to 1877, Greener served as a professor at South Carolina, becoming the first African American professor there, and, once Reconstruction ended and white retrenchment and segregation resumed their hold, he moved to Howard University, where he would serve as the dean of the law school, before eventually entering government service as an agent in Vladivostok, Russia.

Democratic Congressman James Clyburn, at the unveiling
( © Tracy Glantz
Yesterday, the University of South Carolina unveiled a 9-foot tall statue honoring Greener as one its pioneering figures. Speakers, including Democratic Congressman and Minority Whip James Clyburn, praised his numerous contributions during his brief stay at the university, which included serving as professor of philosophy, while also teaching the classics, mathematics, and constitutional history and serving as USC's first librarian. The statue, by Jon Hair, stands next to the Thomas Cooper Library, which he led. While teaching Greener simultaneously enrolled in South Carolina's law school, graduating with honors, and was admitted to South Carolina's bar in 1876 and the DC bar in 1877. An advocate for racial equality, journalist, and secondary school educator as well, Greener later moved to DC, beginning his career at Howard in 1879, where he taught until 1881.

Evelyn Bausman, a grand-daughter
of Richard T. Greener, poses with
a statue of Greener that was
unveiled at The University of South Carolina.
( © Tracy Glantz

He would go on to open his own law practice, and later, after serving as US Consul to Bombay, India, became the first black US diplomat to a predominantly white country and the first American to hold his Russian post. Throughout, Greener kept writing and advocating on behalf of African Americans; ironically, his daughter, Belle da Costa Greene, would pass as a white woman in New York, and gained the confidence of and great influence with banker J. P. Morgan, becoming his chief manuscript advisor and eventually the first director of the Morgan Library. At a time when US municipalities, public and private institutions, and corporations are rethinking monuments to problematic historical figures and eras, like the Confederacy, the USC unveiling offers and enshrines a powerful and necessary counternarrative.

Richard T. Greener
(photo courtesy of Harvard
University Library)

In 2001, while celebrating its centenary, USC commissioned and staged a play, The White Problem, by Jon Tuttle, about Greener's time on campus. Then in 2013, the centenary of Greener's arrival at South Carolina, the university honored him by reintroducing him to the campus, complete with a ceremony (see below) on his behalf. Among the events to celebrate him, there was an official presentation of his law diploma and law license, which USC purchased from the Chicago trove. As for his first alma mater, Harvard installed a portrait of Greener in   its Annenberg Hall, located in its famous Memorial Hall (opened the year of Greener's graduation). In addition, the Cambridge Historical Commission mounted a plaque commemorating him on College House, in Harvard Square, at 1430 Massachusetts Avenue. You can learn more about Greener's life in Katherine Reynolds Chaddock's biography Uncompromising Activist: Richard Greener, First Black Graduate of Harvard College (Johns Hopkins, 2017).

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Annotations, Soon In Portuguese

Annotations, my first book, appeared 23 years ago, when New Directions published it in the fall of 1995. In the intervening years, the brief, dense, lyrical novel--or poetic memoir, if you like--has, I'm thankful to say, attracted a steady readership and remains in print. Until recently, however, neither the book nor any portion of it has ever been translated into another language, as my other work has. An attempt shortly after the book was published in the US failed because the foreign publisher felt Annotations was perhaps too culturally specific. For my part, based on my own experience as a reader and translator, I have long wondered if the dense web of allusions, and the intricate, often lilting quality of the prose was the barrier. But unless you hear from the publisher and potential translators, you may never know what is or was going on.

A few years ago, however, I learned that a planned publication of Annotations in Portuguese, or Anotações, was going to go forward. The publisher is A Bolha Editora, who co-published my translation into English of Brazilian writer Hilda Hilst's novel Letters from a Seducer in 2014 with Nightboat Books. Guided by writer, editor and genius Rachel Gontijo Araújo, A Bolha Editora is one of Brazil's exciting small presses, publishing both domestic and international authors, and have been based in the downtown Botafogo neighborhood of Rio de Janeiro since their founding (though I believe they may have recently moved to Brasília, the federal capital). Among the other authors and artists on A Bolha's roster are a number of prose and poetic experimentalists, including Claude Cahun, Kammal João, Bhanu Kapil, Tove Jansson, Douglas A. Martin, Adriano Motta, Jesse Moynihan, Nathanaël, Virgílio NetoGail Scott, and Studs Turkel.

Anotações' translator is Daniel Lühmann, originally from Poço de Caldas, Minas Gerais, Brazil, and now living in Lisbon. Daniel has previously translated the noted graphic novel, Snowpiercer (A Perfura de Neve) by Jacques Lob, Benjamin LeGrand and Jean-Marc Rochette, and Philip K. Dick's A Scanner Darkly (Um Reflexão na Escuridão), into Portuguese, and also makes intriguing performance videos, under the title "Pasarela" (Catwalk), which you can view on YouTube. If you read Portuguese, you can enjoy Mayra Azzi's short, informative profile of him on Revista Trip (the same site that featured the Thiago Borba images) going about his morning routine, with accompanying photos. Or if you are feeling especially tl;dr, you can see Azzi's photo series "Despertando com Daniel Lühmann" (Waking Up with Daniel Lühmann) at Cargo Collective.

Anotações, from A Bolha
Editora (image © A Bolha Editora
and Rodrigo Martins)
In terms of the translation process, he was a pleasure to work with, possessing not just a fine ear but a subtle eye, and we resolved some thorny issues involving vernacular terms and syntax, assonant, consonant and rhyming prose, and obscure references that American readers might be able to guess but Brazilians probably could not. (As was the case with the original version, it will have a glossary, though much expanded from the one I provided at the request of James Laughlin.)

Daniel even devised a solution to "Scaredy cat, scaredy cat, too scared to know where your shadow's at" that mirrors but is hardly an echo of the original. In the process, he even reminded me that I'd invented a few words in that text. His version will be of incalculable help to anyone translating Annotations into any other language, and, like the best translations, he creates a music akin to the original, but distinctively (Brazilian) Portuguese. To him, publisher, author and visionary Rachel Gontijo Araújo, and everyone at A Bolha Editora, I offer my deepest abraços e obrigadões.

The volume is slated to be out later this year, I think, and I think it's OK to show part of one of the covers (there may be two), which uses a original painting by Rio native Rodrigo Martins (cf. above).

Monday, February 19, 2018

Black Panther, Cinematic Milestone


This weekend brought the debut of Ryan Coogler's newest directorial triumph, Black Panther,  a Marvel Studios production distributed by Walt Disney Studios. Based on the eponymous Marvel Comics character, Black Panther, which features a black director and a nearly all-black diasporic cast, raised incalculable expectations for black moviegoers, comics fans, critics and the film industry, and, having seen it yesterday, I can say hesitation that it more than satisfies them. It manages to be a thrilling fantasy movie based on a comics foundation, a visually arresting and movingly acted wok of cinema, and a politically aware, multilayered film that keeps the viewer thinking even after the final credits and post-credit clip have rolled.

The film's plot mirrors similar superhero tales, but is, as has been widely remarked, anchored in and deeply informed by an African(ist) futurist aesthetic. The story's hero must assume the mantle of his father, and shoulder the profound responsibilities for his people, but the script, by Coogler and John Robert Cole includes twists, include two villains, one far more significant than the other, and a tale of familial revenge, linked to differing ideas of cultural socialization (African vs. African-American) and liberation, that I cannot say I have ever seen in any other superhero film. (One sees echoes of this, however, in a TV show like Black Lightning, which I wrote about last week.) Indeed, the deeper conflict in the film, rooted in the idea of family, now underpinned by the DNA testing industries and genealogical research, about the relationship between those in the Diaspora and those, like the Wakandans, who have remained in the African homeland, may pass over some moviegoers' heads, but to me was one of the most stirring aspects of the film. Another was the film's baseline feminist perspective; Wakanda may be presided over by a king, and Black Panther may be a cis-heterosexual male, but this is no patriarchy, and women are equals--as warriors and citizens--to the men, the ruler notwithstanding. As a template for the new century, and for black children and children of all races, this is a powerful model to internalize.
Lupita Nyong'o, Chadwick
Boseman, & Danai Gurira
What underlines this portrait is the fictional Wakanda's almost singular status as an uncolonized and unconquered country; it and its people, the comics' and films' writers tell us, avoided the fate of almost every other non-Western country in the world. (Watching the film, I immediately thought of its closest African model, Ethiopia, a site of ancient knowledge and civilization, a religious center, the home of a proto-Enlightenment preceding that of Europe, and more, which nearly withstood all attempts at subjugation, until Benito Mussolini's firepower briefly won control of its territory (1936-1941).) What if Ethiopia, in addition to all of its advances, had possessed an element so powerful it might transform the world? Another analogue I thought of is the contemporary Republic of Congo, whose lands contain a host of precious and invaluable resources now used in the high tech industries. Centuries of slavery, colonialism and empire, however, have created tremendous challenges for the people of Congo, and other resource-rich African nations, to pursue their destinies to the fullest, though a cursory glimpse at the economic, political and social developments in contemporary sub-Saharan Africa underline that advancements of all kinds are underway.

To give just a glimpse of the plot, Black Panther unfolds with a quick prologue, set several centuries back. In a world parallel to our own, a meteor bearing the fictional metal vibranium, the rarest and most powerful element known to humankind, strikes central Africa. As five tribes wage war over the magical resource, a member of one of the tribes ingests a "heart-shaped bulb" that has been transformed by the vibranium, giving him special powers that lead him to become the first Black Panther. He unites four of the five tribes as the nation of Wakanda, with the fifth, the Jabari, remaining semi-independent in a loose confederation in the snowy mountains above. (A scene later in the film gives us a mini-tour of this aerie-perched nation; what was not clear was where most its women were, as if it were a kind of black Sparta in the clouds.) Rather than exploiting this remarkable resource, Wakanda chooses to guard it, presenting itself to the outside world as an impoverished, sleepy "Third World" member of the international community, while inside its borders, it is a technological powerhouse.
Lupita Nyong'o and
Letitia Williams
The film's real action opens in 1992, in an apartment in a housing project in Oakland, California (where the original Black Panther Party was established in 1966). Outside, a group of black boys are playing basketball. Inside the apartment, two young black men, whom we think are African Americans, appear to be plotting a revolution, stockpiling firearms. We soon learn that one of them, royal Prince N'jobu (Sterling K. Brown), really a Wakandan with aims of arming oppressed black people worldwide, is the brother of Wakanda's King, T'Chaka (Atandwa Kani), has arrived to bring his brother back for violating one of Wakanda's chief tenets: betraying the country by working with an outsider, arms dealer Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis, exuding malevolence), who has stolen a cache of vibranium from Wakanda. N'jobu's co-conspirator Zuri (Denzel Whitaker, related directly to neither of his namesakes!) turns out to be a fellow Wakandan and spy who has ratted him out. When N'jobu attempts to kill Zuri for snitching, the King slays his brother, and departs with Zuri for Wakanda. As their airship zooms away, one of the boys on the playground looks up at the apartment, and notes the fleeing spacecraft.

We flash forward to the current moment, which includes references to our contemporary world, in which the noble Prince T'Challa (Chadwick Boseman) is set to assume the Wakandan throne after the assassination of his father, T'Challa (now played by veteran South African actor John Kani). We meet his younger sister, Shuri (Letitia Wright), Wakanda's resident tech genius; his mother, the grieving Queen Ramonda (a suitably regal Angela Bassett); and the head of the Dora Milaje, the Wakandan state's all female guard,  General Okoye (Danai Gurira, embodying an electrifying blend of brilliance and ferocity). Before T'Challa's coronation begins, he and Okoye retrieve his ex, Nakia (a radiant Lupita Nyong'o), now a deep operative in Nigeria, the sparks still evident between them. As part of his ritual installment, before a royal audience outdoors, above waterfalls, and presided over by a much older Zuri (Forest Whitaker), T'Challa must face a challenger from any of Wakanda's tribes, all of whom, including his best friend, W'Kabi (Daniel Kaluuya), beg off. The Jabari tribe's head, the strapping (6'5" and stoutly built) M'Baku (Winston Duke), does raise a challenge, only to eventually tap out after being subdued by T'Challa. This is one of several rituals the viewer witnesses, giving a sense of the depth of the culture and the reverence with which power is transferred.
T'Challa (Chadwick Boseman) facing off
against Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan, at right)
The plot then moves first to South Korea, where the trio of T'Challa, Nakia and Okoye seek out Klaue (and Black Panther's creator, the legendary Stan Lee, makes a brief cameo), with a brief detour in London, before returning to the familiar confines of Wakanda. In the British capital, in a museum displaying African artifacts, we encounter another of the film's major characters, the oddly named but cinematically galvanizing Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), who devours the screen every time he is on it. In fact, he moves through the script as a literal antithesis to Boseman's T'Challa. Where the new king is restrained, dignified, almost placid, personality traits Boseman portrays effortlessly, Jordan's Killmonger is all confident swagger, a mental and physical paragon (he nearly scorches the screen when he takes off his shirt for battle), pulsating with rage born of vengeance and, the viewer eventually learns, a sense of profound abandonment. Why, he asks, was he--like Black America--left to fend for himself, a question that the film suggests is the question of the entire Diaspora; yet, as we know, Africa itself has had a centuries-long battle on its hands too. When Killmonger reaches Wakanda, he upsets the social and political cassava cart, a civil war included, and the heart of the movie turns on whether his vision of the world, or T'Challa's, will prevail. (No spoilers!) As I noted above, their senses of duty are parallel; each seeks to rule, but in the service of an idea, and communities, beyond themselves. For Killmonger, is is black and other oppressed people of color across the globe; for T'Challa, it is his birthright, Wakanda. In the end, we see how the visions merge.

The acting is uniformly strong, and the viewer gets the sense that everyone in the film is enjoying themselves. Winston Duke and Letitia Wright are among the many breakout stars, if there are rolls for them down the road, and it was invigorating to see Boseman, Jordan, Nyong'o, and Gurira in roles other than biopics, historical narratives or realist tragedies, important and necessary as such films are. In 2006 and again in 2012 I wrote about the increasingly Diasporic cast of black Hollywood, and this film fully represents that shift, drawing its talent from across the globe, while bringing together venerable figures like Kani, Academy Award winners like the senior Whitaker, and beginners like the younger Whitaker. As other commenters have noted, the films is that rare Hollywood product that also seems not beholden to colorism, particularly for its leading actresses. How rare--and needed!--to see dark-skinned women not relegated to the background, but in the forefront of a story, yet this felt organic, not forced, like most of what the film offers its viewers. Cinematographer Rachel Morrison deserves praise for the rich imagery and her skillful blending of realism and CGI, and the score, by Ludwig Göransson, with contributions by Kendrick Lamar, and others, complements and enlivens what the viewer sees.
Michael B. Jordan, as Erik
Killmonger; Daniel Kaluuya,
as W'Kabi at right
I have so far not commented much on any of the film's white characters; in addition to Klaue, who functions mainly as a plot feint and device, there is another, CIA agent Everett K. Ross, played by Martin Freeman, who occupies a pivotal place in the plot. Ross appears in the original comics as a fairly timid, low-key character, I believe, but the filmmakers expanded his role and pumped up his personality, making him not just essential to what unfolds, but memorable as well. (It paints the CIA in a favorable light, despite the agency's less than honorable history in advancing US neocolonial, imperial and capitalist aims in Africa and elsewhere.) As a thought experiment, I asked myself, what if he had been played by a Latinx actor, say, or, given China's growing role in Africa, by a major Chinese-American or Chinese star? Would Hollywood ever have allowed that?

I then wondered about future iterations of Black Panther, which because of its box office success (like $200 million earned over the opening weekend, with receipts set to keep rising, and a fan base that dots the globe); will the original comics' template, and Hollywood's desire for viable white stars, shape the storylines, or will the films' directors and screenwriters delve a little more deeply into other parts of the world, considering South Korea, for example, not just as a scenic backdrop, but Korean and Korean-American actors--and other Asian American and Asian actors, actors from Latin America, and so on--for key roles? What would a big budget but decolonized, Afro-futurist and Diasporic, plural cinema look like? Would Disney, let alone Marvel Comics, allow it? Black Panther certainly provokes the question.
T'Challa (Boseman) again
facing off against Killmonger (Jordan)
I will end this review am not familiar enough with all of the past iterations of Black Panther to know which Coogler and Cole drew from, but I believe in one of the newer versions, Okoye, in addition to being womynist, is a lesbian. In this film, her love interest is W'Kabi, however. (They generate little heat on camera, unlike T'Challa and Nakia.) Will queer Wakandans make an appearance in future iterations of the film, or will wariness on the issue win out? Also, and this is just a minor quibble, but there is a patriarchal, pro-monarchist ideological strain in the film, connected to a quite different but related notion of Afrocentricity--"we are descendants of kings and queens"-- that I found a little unsettling. Of course some of us are descended, however distantly, from royals, and African Americans may find, upon receiving their DNA results, that our royal roots go in multiple directions (Africa, Europe, etc.), but the reality for most of us is that we come from the people who did the work to build most societies and cultures up, that is, from the bottom up, and there is nothing in this to be ashamed about. Patriarchy under any guise is problematic.

Moreover, at a time when democracy feels especially precarious, in the US, in the Americas, in Europe, in Africa, and across the globe, I hope that the writers of Black Panther's sequels can figure out a way to weave a vibrant representative democracy and republican structure into their portrayal of Wakanda's government.  I have nothing against noble black kings and queens, but everyone needs to see decent, dedicated politicians, black and of every hue, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, race, nationality, religion, etc., taking the right and judicious steps, on behalf of the people they represent and the globe, which may include not only keeping each other, but kings--and presidents--on the just path.