Thursday, October 14, 2021

Abdulrazak Gurnah Wins Nobel Prize in Literature

Abdulrazak Gurnah on Gravel Heart

I haven't blogged much this year, for a variety of reasons, but I did want to post a brief item about this year's Nobel Laureate in Literature, Abdulrazak Gurnah. A native of Zanzibar (now a constituent part of Tanzania) who emigrated to the UK in his teens, Gurnah (1948-) is a fiction writer, critic and emeritus professor of English and Postcolonial Literatures at the University of Kent. The Swedish Academy praised Gurnah for his "for his uncompromising and compassionate penetration of the effects of colonialism and the fates of the refugee in the gulf between cultures and continents," which is an excellent and concisely encompassing description of Gurnah's short fiction and ten novels, which include his debut, Memory of Departure (1987), the highly acclaimed Paradise (1994), By the Sea, which was listed for the Booker Prize and the Los Angeles Book Prize), Desertion (2005), and his most recent, Afterlives (2020). 

In being named Nobel Laureate last week Gurnah becomes the first Black Nobelist in Literature of the 21st century, the Black literature prize winner first since Toni Morrison in 1993, and only the sixth African writer over all to receive the Literature Prize. He also is the first ever native of what is now Tanzania to receive a Nobel Prize. Congratulations, Abdulrazak Gurnah!

As some J's Theater readers may recall, in the lead-up to each year's Nobel Prize in Literature I used to post my thoughts, speculations, critiques, etc., but after the award to Bob Dylan back in 2016 and the scandals that led to the temporary cessation of the award a few years later, I thought to myself, why bother? Clearly the Academy, which was and perhaps still riven by internal issues, remains Eurocentric in its outlook, has made some dodgy selections in recent years (cf. the last two laureates (2019 and 2020)), is determined to go its own route, whatever the damage the public's feelings about its legitimacy and judgment. 

The Gurnah choice seems like a very good decision on the merits and in light of the recent flubs, and while there are numerous other figures, not least Ngugi wa Thiong'o, whom I might have selected first, I believe Gurnah is an important and vital writer and critic--one of the greatest of his generation--and gilds the Nobel Prize with his receipt of this international honor.

More writeups about Gurnah's Nobel honor:

Guardian UK: Abdulrazak Gurnah wins the 2021 Nobel Prize in Literature

NY Times: Abdulrazak Gurnah is awarded the Nobel Prize in literature

All Africa: Tanzania: Nobel Prize Winner Abdulrazak Gurnah: An Introduction to the Man and his Writing

PBS: Watch Abdulrazak Gurnah wins Nobel Prize in literature

The Standard: Gurnah's win of the Nobel Prize raises hope for African writers

Publishers Weekly: Abdulrazak wins 2021 Nobel Prize in Literature

Cape Talk/MSN: Novelist Abdulrazak Gurnah opens up about his books and 2021 Nobel Prize win

Brittle Paper: 10 novels by Abdulrazak Gurnah

The Complete Review's writeup on Abdulrazak Gurnah's Nobel Prize

Friday, September 24, 2021

Translation: Jesús Cos Causse (on's Poem-a-Day)

Today, thanks to poet, translator and critic Rosa Alcalá, who curated the poems appearing on The Academy of American Poets' September "Poem-a-Day" roster, you can read my translation of the late and truly great Afro-Cuban poet Jesús Cos Causse's poem "Mirando Fotos," or "Looking at Photos." 

I will say as little as possible here, beyond thanking Rosa, as well as Kristin DykstraHerbert Rogers and Prof. Jerome Branche, who were invaluable in helping me get in touch with Cos Causse's son Camilo, who provided permission to run the translation, and to MR Daniel, who sent me the poem many years ago (2007), and which I posted on this blog.

It took me 14 years but finally, here is the translation, with short notes about the poem itself and about Cos Causse, as well as me reading it in both English and Spanish (forgive me, Spanish speakers).  

You can find all of this at the link above or here.


Saturday, February 27, 2021

16th Blogiversary

The Translation Project's Black
History Month tweet, from February 21, 2021,
 highlighting my essay "Translating Poetry,
Translating Blackness"

Happy Black History Month and Happy Almost-End-of-February 2021. We are almost a year into the Covid-19 pandemic, and it has been over a year since I posted on this blog. It sometimes amazes me that more than a decade and a half has passed since I first began blogging, back in 2005, during what was a decidedly different time in the online world. Social media platforms as we know them barely existed; blogging was still a somewhat new and exciting activity, though the bloggers who inspired me had been blogging for several years; and people read and commented on blogs, including this one. I have over 2,000 non-spam comments attesting to that. 

16 years later, blogs and blogging do still exist, and the term "the blogs" is often bandied about on reality shows as a catch-all for any site, blog or not. This is the case despite that period perhaps ten years ago when some in the media trumpeted blogging's demise, and despite the proliferation of quasi-blog-like sites, like Tumblr and Instagram, the former of which has done away with words altogether, and both of which are now part of many peoples' daily consumption, even if blogs as they once existed--as they existed in 2005--seldom are. I won't rehearse my blogging history, which is available via a search of this prior blogiversary posts on blog (I started off blogging about poetry and the arts, etc.), but blogging here was, at least for that first year, and certainly for the next decade or so, a vital experience for pondering the sometimes imponderable, conveying some of my enthusiasms and interests, especially across the arts, posting translations, sharing photographs (from daily life, events I attended, my random walks through NYC, Chicago and elsewhere), and just having a scratchpad to play, in written form.

Things began to change demonstrably, I think, in 2014-2015 when I began chairing a department. My free time increasingly disappeared, which meant that that I had to rearrange my priorities, with some things suffering more than others, among them blogging. (A colleague queried whether I had In 2013, my second year at Rutgers-Newark (I was acting chair for part of that year) I blogged 140 times; by 2014 it had fallen to 59. I made an effort over the next few years to blog a bit more and got up to 78 and 71 blog posts, successively, in 2015 and 2016, but my entries plummeted in 2017. In 2018, I again made a strong push to blog, and nearly reached 100 posts, but most of them that year appeared during National Poetry Month, and by the end of the year, I was down to a 1-a-month trickle. Two years ago I only managed six posts, a miracle I sometimes think, in that I had one of my busiest and most draining years in academe, and I think I consciously tried to post something, though the results were, as the total underscores, paltry. 

This past year, the Covid-19 pandemic, which is still very much with us, didn't result in a flood of posts, but rather a feeling of PTSD-style wordlessness, at least in terms of blogging, that I am still trying to process. I had a few blog stubs I began, and I will try to finish some of them, even if they consist mostly of links and images, but I also feel like the silence--the absence of posts--is testimony to what has transpired over these last 17 months (since February of 2020). Most of the people who were blogging when I began or who started during the last 16 no longer do so, at least regularly, though Gukira bucks that trend, with entries that are always rich, subtle, lyrical, and distinctive, however brief. This month he continues his readings of Dionne Brand's remarkable 2018 collection The Blue Clerk. I keep thinking that I will again be able to find the time and focus to blog, but I also increasingly feel, as I pointed out in a blog several years back, reading itself appears  fallen by the wayside, and videos, whether on Youtube or IG's stories--which Facebook, tellingly, has adopted, even though it owns Instagram--or TikTok, accompanied by music and each with its own distinctive set of active participants, have become increasingly predominant, so perhaps even occasional posts, as loose and free as possible, might be the thing to aim for.

One of the many types of blog posts I tried to include over the years entailed reviews, of films, series videos, and books of course, and I feel proudest of some of those, which still hold up. One of my most read posts (4,100 views) is a short review of Christopher Honoré's 2010 feature film Homme au bain, starring the writer Dennis Cooper and the porn star François Sagat. Perhaps its stars drew more readers than most of my other posts, though I think it provided a helpful introduction to the film, the best I have seen by Honoré. I also have been able to write about more recent offerings like Terence Nance's 2018 Afrofuturist masterpiece series Random Acts of Flyness (one of the strangest and most original things I have ever seen on TV), Boots Riley's 2018 film Sorry to Bother You (I dream of more films like this!), and John Trengove's 2018 film Inxeba (Wound), which also spurred a series of typically, thoughtfully dazzling responses from Gukira (Ke'guro). One of my favorite films, which I haven't seen in years, is Tsai Ming-Liang's slow, astonishing Goodbye, Dragon Inn. I remember watching it and thinking, the viewership for a film like this is probably very small, but I most certainly am one of those cineastic people, yet in reviewing it, I tried to make it legible for a wider array of potential viewers. Perhaps if and when I find the opportunity I'll try a few more reviews this year, so keep an eye out.

I'll wind down here, and say that I feel like I've accomplished something just by posting something on this blog today. (I also deleted a slew of spam comments, which also felt like an achievement!) I am still chairing and teaching (including a graduate novel workshop this semester) and supervising theses, all via Zoom (like everyone else), every day of every week feels even more busy than usual (each seems to be triple-booked at a minimum in terms of Zoom meetings, calls, etc.), and my stack of required reading grows and grows, but it feels invigorating even to have gotten this far in this post. It is here. It is done. & I am going to try to post more.

Friday, January 01, 2021

Happy New Year (2021)!

At the Oculus, WTC, NYC
May this year bring us all much better tidings than the relentless, Covid-19-ridden horrorshow of 2020! Health, prosperity, healing, hope, love & real change!

Happy New Year!

Feliz año nuevo
Feliz Ano Novo
Bonne année
Buon Anno e tanti auguri
Kull 'aam wa-antum bikhayr
Aliheli'sdi Itse Udetiyvasadisv
Na MwakaMweru wi Gikeno
Feliĉan novan jaron
聖誕快樂 新年快樂 [圣诞快乐 新年快乐]
Bliain úr faoi shéan is faoi mise duit
Nava Varsh Ki Haardik Shubh Kaamnaayen
Ein gesundes neues Jahr
Mwaka Mwena
Pudhu Varusha Vaazhthukkal
Afe nhyia pa
Ufaaveri aa ahareh
Er sala we pîroz be
سال نو
С наступающим Новым Годом
šťastný nový rok
Manigong Bagong Taon sa inyong lahat
Feliç Any Nou
Yeni yılınızı kutlar, sağlık ve başarılar dileriz
نايا سال مبارک هو
Emnandi Nonyaka Omtsha Ozele Iintsikelelo
Subha Aluth Awrudhak Vewa
Chronia polla
Szczesliwego Nowego Roku
Kia pai te Tau Hou e heke mai nei
Shinnen omedeto goziamasu (クリスマスと新年おめでとうございます)
IHozhi Naghai
a manuia le Tausaga Fou
Paglaun Ukiutchiaq
Naya Saal Mubarak Ho

(International greetings courtesy of Omniglot and Jennifer's Polyglot Links; please note a few of the phrases may also contain Christmas greetings)

Thursday, November 12, 2020

Joe Biden & Kamala Harris Have Won

President-Elect Joe Biden Jr.
& Vice President-Elect Kamala Harris

This has been a nightmarish year on so many levels, from the deadly Covid-19 pandemic, to the Ahmed Arbery, George Floyd, and Breonna Taylor murders, as well as many others, at the hands of police and extrajudicial forces, to the current economic crisis (the second major one in less than two decades, yet again under an inept Republican administration) and ballooning wealth and resource inequality, to the devastating effects of climate change (hurricanes and tropical storms, wildfires, etc.), and on and on, but if I can identify one possible ray of light, troubled though it may be, it would be the Joe Biden's and Kamala Harris's historical and groundbreaking defeat of Donald Trump and Mike Pence in the recent presidential election. Four years of malign incompetence, brazen criminality, incoherent domestic and external policies all keyed to and driven by the narcissistically warped vision thankfully met with a major NO MORE from US voters, and now Biden and Harris are the President-Elect and Vice President-Elect of the US, and will, attempted coups by Trump and the GOP notwithstanding, assume office on January 20, 2021.

They defeated Trump despite the Covid-19 pandemic (or, more likely, as a result of his catastrophically horrendous response to it), which meant markedly reduced in person campaigning and canvassing by Democrats; evident and relentless voter suppression across the US; threats of continued Russian interference; Trump's seeming attempts to destroy the United States Post Office by appointing as Postmaster General his supporter Louis DeJoy, who gutted branches all over the US by removing sorting machines and reducing hours; and a steady drumbeat of disinformation, misinformation, and anti-voting rhetoric from the President, his supporters, various other agents of disruption, and at times the legacy media, which amplified--rather than countering--Trump's message of a "rigged election" and "voter fraud." (We very well may look back and find that in fact he was, as usual, projecting about his own attempts to steal the election this year.)

In the end, Biden and Harris received more than 80+ million total votes, the most ever, 7 million more than Trump and Pence's 73+ million, and 306 electoral votes, the exact total Trump received in 2016, when, despite losing the popular vote to Hillary Clinton and Tim Kaine, he labeled his victory a "landslide." The Biden-Harris combo won back three states-Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania--that Barack Obama had won in 2008 and 2012, but which Clinton lost in 2016 by slender margins, while also winning two more, Arizona and Georgia, that a Democratic presidential candidate had not won since Bill Clinton in the 1990s. They make history with Harris becoming the first woman Vice President, first Black woman VP, and the first Asian American VP.  She also is the first graduate of an Historically Black College or University (HBCU) to serve as VP, and the first member of a Black sorority to hold that office as well. She will be the second VP not to be White (Charles Curtis was the first) and the second in an interracial marriage. Biden will be the oldest man elected to the presidency, and the second Roman Catholic president, and a decidedly devout one, after JFK. 

The next President and Vice President
of the United States of America

Ideologically Biden has tended to be a conservative to moderate Democrat, with a problematic legislative history, especially during his Senate tenure, of support for racist, pro-corporate policies, while Harris, at least in the US Senate, is considered one of the most liberal US Senators based on her voting record, though her records while California's and San Francisco's Attorneys General were more mixed, sometimes quite progressive and at other times conservative (pro-police). (I should note that in the Democratic Presidential primary I again voted for Bernie Sanders, but have contributed the campaigns of both Harris and Biden.) Both have expressed support for and voted for neoliberal economic and social policies in the past, and during the primary campaign, neither would consistently commit to programs that progressive and Democratic Socialist branches of the party endorsed, like Medicare for All or Single Payer health insurance, or the comprehensive Green New Deal. That does not mean, however, that they cannot be pushed towards more comprehensive, popular, paradigm-shifting policies, but their political backgrounds, especially Biden's suggest moderate rather than radical changes. But I am going into the next four years with clear eyes, and have set my expectations low. The first tests of this will be how they deal with this pandemic, which has worsened as Trump's malignant time in office winds toward its close.

Whatever they do achieve will depend in significant part on which party controls the US Senate, whose fate hangs in the balance as Georgia's two Senate seats head to runoffs, but also will hinge on the Democrats' ability to retain their control of the House, where their margins for error plummeted as Republicans regained a number of the seats they lost in the 2018 midtarms. How Biden will govern given the challenges, which mount daily, facing the country and his administration, remains to be seen, but if he can take any lessons from Trump's four years, and the eight Biden served as VP under Obama, they might include grasping the nature of the contemporary zombie Republican Party and its overriding goal of nihilistically holding power; the appeal of economically populist policies and politics and the effect of government largess for the 99% (remember 2012?) vs. the abject failure of neoliberal capitalist orthodoxy and libertarianism, especially amidst a pandemic and its aftermath; the importance of transparency, openness and regular communication with the nation; liberal interventionism in foreign policy should be a dead letter from now on; and the absolutely fundamental concept of not forgetting and ignoring your base voters, as Obama frequently seemed to and Trump never did, which, in Biden's case, comprises Black and other BIPOC voters, especially Black women, young people (Gen Z and millennials), seniors, urbanites and many suburbanites, educated middle class voters, and working-class and poor voters, even if and as he works to expand his coalition. 

It is one thing to clean house when it comes to Trump's lawlessness, recklessness and incompetence, but replicating the worst aspects of the Obama years will imperil not only Biden's tenure and doom Democrats but the nation and the globe. I cannot predict how the next four years will turn out, but it will be refreshing to have Trump out of the White House, whatever damage he attempts as a private citizen, and, as when Obama was president, we will have to press Biden and Harris, as FDR said, to do what is needed; in fact, echoing FDR, we will need to make him (them) do it.

Thursday, January 02, 2020

My 2019 (Semi-)Hiatus

A photo from our contract rally at
Rutgers-Newark, April 2019
As J's Theater readers--if there still are any!--may have noted, last year (2019) was a very lean one in terms of my presence here. I believe I managed six entries (with perhaps double that still in draft mode), and that was pushing it. One, which I only recently published, featured a review I undertook for Art in America on last year's Whitney Biennial, which I found fascinating on multiple levels, in contrast to many mainstream critics, including one who summed it for me at lunch late in the year, as "predictable." As it turns out, it was anything but--and, as I argued in that piece, really multiple Biennials, including one transformed by the protests that not only the Biennial's artists, but outside activists, supporters and artists, and the Museum's staff, launched. To be able to watch it unfold and write about it was a pleasure, but alas, I had almost no time to focus on it here.  I also had no real time--or rather no time to focus--to complete memorials to figures who have been incredible important to me, whom we lost in 2019, and I am thinking in particular of Toni Morrison, Paule Marshall (who was one of my favorite teachers in grad school), and Ernest J. Gaines, among many others. They are but a few of the people who left this human plane last year, and perhaps at some point I can either finish my mini-tributes and turn those live or write new ones this year. We will see.

My day jobs are, as readers know, a writer, and a professor of English and African American and African Studies (AAAS). Over the last six years (roughly since 2013), however, I've also served first as Acting Chair and then full-time Chair of AAAS, a post I have enjoyed deeply, but which also has entailed a very different level and kind of time commitment, since chair duties, I had to learn quickly, run every day of the week and all year long, and involve all kinds of matters, from curricula to student needs and concerns to staff and faculty personnel issues to other kinds of university service to general administration to tasks defying categorization. 

What I also learned was that there often is little training, except on the job, for the challenges that present themselves. Soliciting the advice of one's peers, especially other chairs or former chairs, and colleagues, listening to them carefully, addressing pressing and longer-term issues, and encouraging and engaging not only in an ethos but a practice of collaboration are all key, but administrative duties can be very stressful, and run along timelines parallel to but different from those of the academic year. Add this to my regular (teaching, mentoring, advising, my own life and writing) and irregular duties (letters of recommendation, tenure, judging panels, etc.), and it's fair to say that my blogging has been one major area to suffer some of the the greatest blows as a result.

This past fall was also a particular challenge because, on top of everything else, I was serving on four search committees. Serving on one search committee is a high hurdle; four is almost impossible to describe, though I grasped why I was asked to serve, and was cognizant throughout of what my presence could help to effect and why I committed to each. I can say, breaking no confidences, that each went quite well, and 2020 should bring good news to my institution and some excellent people who, I hope, will be wonderful leaders in their various ways and invaluable colleagues. That, as all such work tends to be, is the hope and goal, making people, programs and departments, the institution itself, better and stronger than they were before, with added benefits not yet foreseen but which will redound and resonate long after the moment of the work has ended. That is the core of so much of what we do in life, though, isn't it, or at least hope to?

2020 brings a competitive leave sabbatical--courtesy of several fellowships I received in 2018--so I hope to be able to post here more often. I have been thinking quite a bit about how blogging has changed in the 14 (soon to be 15!) years since I began this blog, and though I am ever more convinced that we live in an increasingly post-literate, let alone post-post-modern world, where the power of the regime of images grows ever stronger, the role of the oral has become more central and dominant, public prose is transforming into a shadow of itself, and social media's forces and forms are reshaping not only language as an exterior medium but our interiorities in ways we have not fully recognized or reckoned with,  I do believe there is a place for this blog and others, even if it ends up looking somewhat different than it did in the past, so I will strive to post semi-regularly here, even if, as I have at times, primarily with quotes and notices from others, including citations of and links to blogs I still follow, like Keguro Macharia's, to name one of my favorites and one of the very best. (And speaking of which, his remarkable study Frottage: Frictions of Intimacy Across the Black Diaspora is now out from NYU Press!)

So, here's to 2020, more blogging (I hope), and the excitement to come!

Wednesday, January 01, 2020

Happy New Year / 2020

At the American Academy of Arts and Letters
Manhattan, NY (photo @ C)

Happy New Year!

Feliz año nuevo
Feliz Ano Novo
Bonne année
Buon Anno e tanti auguri
Kull 'aam wa-antum bikhayr
Aliheli'sdi Itse Udetiyvasadisv
Na MwakaMweru wi Gikeno
Feliĉan novan jaron
聖誕快樂 新年快樂 [圣诞快乐 新年快乐]
Bliain úr faoi shéan is faoi mise duit
Nava Varsh Ki Haardik Shubh Kaamnaayen
Ein gesundes neues Jahr
Mwaka Mwena
Pudhu Varusha Vaazhthukkal
Afe nhyia pa
Ufaaveri aa ahareh
Er sala we pîroz be
سال نو
С наступающим Новым Годом
šťastný nový rok
Manigong Bagong Taon sa inyong lahat
Feliç Any Nou
Yeni yılınızı kutlar, sağlık ve başarılar dileriz
نايا سال مبارک هو
Emnandi Nonyaka Omtsha Ozele Iintsikelelo
Subha Aluth Awrudhak Vewa
Chronia polla
Szczesliwego Nowego Roku
Kia pai te Tau Hou e heke mai nei
Shinnen omedeto goziamasu (クリスマスと新年おめでとうございます)
IHozhi Naghai
a manuia le Tausaga Fou
Paglaun Ukiutchiaq
Naya Saal Mubarak Ho

(International greetings courtesy of Omniglot and Jennifer's Polyglot Links; please note a few of the phrases may also contain Christmas greetings)

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

A Tale of Two Exhibitions: The 2019 Whitney Biennial

Earlier this summer, I had the immense pleasure of viewing the 2019 Whitney Biennial, which is still running, for a few more weeks (until September 22, 2019), at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. It was not only a better show than the 2017 installment, I thought, but in essence two different exhibits in one, I ultimately argued, in a review now out for Art in America. The second of the two exhibits became possible, however, only after the Whitney resolved a festering crisis that had underpinned the exhibit--and the institution itself as a whole. In fact, the revolt that occurred, creating the new exhibition, necessitated that I rewrite the laudatory first review I'd drafted.

The qualitative differences between the two exhibits, whether visually evident or not, resonate throughout the work on display, throughout the museum's spaces itself, as a shift in ethos and an aura, however temporary. I won't replay my entire essay, which underwent a great deal of editorial distilling (so many thanks to Will Ratik and his editorial team at Art in America), so here is the link to the full essay, "The Whitney Biennial: A Tale of Two Exhibitions," and a paragraph from it, in which I argue for further action by the exhibits artists and, I would assert, artists working in all media, including literature.

I believe we are at the moment when the artists should be encouraged to actively trouble the “circuits of valorization,” as prior generations of artists have done. I say trouble rather than disrupt, since the latter term has taken on particular connotations in the language of neoliberal capitalism, particularly in Silicon Valley and Wall Street. But what might the effects be of such a troubling on the lives and careers of today’s artists, especially those who, like many of this year’s biennial participants, come from groups, intersectionally understood, that have been traditionally excluded from participation in exhibitions such as this, as well as from elite art schools and institutions, and from the global gallery, art fair, and auction networks? What would more extensive rethinking, dismantling, and transformation of those circuits look like? How much energy and effort can and ought they expend in understanding and critiquing the ecosystem in which they are working? From an ethical standpoint, can they forgo such an undertaking, whatever the cost?
If you can, please see the exhibit before it goes, and do leave your thoughts on the Biennial and my review in the comments section if you'd like.

Thursday, June 13, 2019

American Academy of Arts & Letters Ceremonial 2019 & Award

Six years ago, back in 2013, I blogged about attending the American Academy of Arts & Letters' annual Ceremonial award celebration. I was the guest of a friend and colleague, Dorothy Wang, who was a guest of an award-winner, the poet Joanna Klink, and though I had seen some of its award winners and awards I'd seen listed over the years, I had no idea about the organization or where it headquarters were located, let alone about its awards. In fact, I often mistook it for the American Academy of Arts & Sciences, which is located in Cambridge, not New York; they are two similar but distinct organizations. The latter encompasses the sciences and is more of a scholarly honors organization, while the latter primarily focuses, as its name suggests, on arts and letters.

Aububon Terrace (photo by C)
In my previous post, I gave a potted history of the AAAL:
It's an august institution too: a closed honor society of 250 members selected and elected by standing members without outside nomination, it grew out of the National Institute of Arts and Letters, founded in 1898, consisting eventually of 200 members, from which the American Academy of Arts and Letters, a smaller and more elite sub-organization of 50 of the most eminent figures in their fields, emerged in 1904. US President William Howard Taft signed a Congressional act that incorporated the Institute of Arts and Letters in 1907, and the Academy in 1916. In 1976 the two organizations merged, and in 1993, all 250 members merged into one entity now known as the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
I also mentioned some of its members and the day's award-winners, a few like my former graduate school professor and thesis advisor E. L. Doctorow no longer with us, so won't recapitulate that earlier blog post, but I will say that uncanny pleasure of once again attending a Ceremonial up at Audubon Terrace in Washington Heights, this year, as a recipient, having received the Harold T. Vursell Award in Fiction. This award is given to a writer specifically based on the quality of their prose. (!) J's Theater readers will note my often baroque stylings (and typos, forgive me) here, and perhaps ponder why I was designated a recipient of this prize, but it was primarily for Counternarratives, in which my rhetorical and syntactic play was, I think it fair to say, at its most daring, and so I took the honor as an affirmation of what I attempted in that book, though I also think it's probably not wrong to suggest that all of my published books have in them some sort of experimentation when it comes to prose or verse, and that when it works, it is at least distinctive if nothing else.

As an award recipient, I was invited to a pre-Ceremonial reception and luncheon, which C attended with me, as did my New Directions editor and publisher, Barbara Epler, and I had the opportunity there to tell Jamaica Kincaid once again how much of a fan I was and am. Her prose, as well as her inventiveness as a storyteller and novelist, have been among many powerful influences on my own work. I also had the opportunity to chat with a few fellow award winners or new members, including poets Aracelis Girmay, fellow former Dark Room member Natasha TretheweyMarilyn Chin, Claudia Rankine, and Grace Schulman, and fiction writers Alice Hoffman, Lorrie Moore and my collegue Jayne Anne Phillips, who was elected to the AAAL a few years ago. After the luncheon, as before it, C and I viewed some of the art and literary materials, by members and recipients on display.

One of the more fascinating rooms featured the photos of all the prior and present members, lined up in rows in stall-like spaces. The original members were, unsurprisingly, all white men, a great many of them legendary names in American culture, which got me wondering who had not been a member yet produced work that today we hold in high esteem (F. Scott Fitzgerald, to name one, Ernest Hemingway to name another); on the other hand, many of the names would not register at all to contemporary sensibilities. At a certain point, a few white women's faces pop up, and then, slowly, the further we progressed into the 20th century, there were more white women, a few black writers, like W. E. B. DuBois (was he the first?) and Langston Hughes, and then black classical composers and jazz musicians, Asian American, Latinx, and Native American writers' portraits appear (see the photos below). The Academy's members still strongly reflect the upper reaches of the preponderantly New York-and-northeastern based world of architecture, visual arts, literature, and European-American art music, but the awardees have begun to diversify somewhat more, or so I was told. Certainly this year's winners were more racially and generationally diverse than I recall from 2013.

In one of the rooms featuring paintings
bequeathed by American Impressionist
F. Childe Hassam (photo by C)
One of the rooms in the American Academy
 headquarters  (photo by C)
Members and honorees assembling on stage
 (photo by C)
Once the Ceremonial began, I took my numbered seat on the stage, between Jamaica Kincaid and poet D. A. Powell, also a prize recipient; to his left sat our presenter and a member of the committee that selected us, poet Henri Cole. A row behind me sat Eileen Myles, among others. A number of illustrious members, like sculptors Martin Puryear and Richard Hunt, whom I mentioned in my prior post, and honorees like Meredith Monk and Thelma Golden, were seated in the front row.  This year's recipient of the Gold Medal for Literature, the Academy's highest honor, Toni Morrison, and the Gold Medal for Art, Lee Bontecou, were unable to attend, and so were fulsomely lauded by their presenters. One highlight of this year was the Blashfield Lecture by Pulitzer Prize-winning composer David Del Tredici, once a controversial figure in the American classical music world and now a venerable and venerated elder. Del Tredici's lecture, "The Task of Gayness," explored his coming into his own in his field, and out as a gay man, with humor and concision. Were he to write a memoir, I'd most certainly buy it.

A photo of me walking to receive
my award from Henri Cole (photo by C)
Receiving my award from Henri Cole
(Photo by C)
At the conclusion of the awards ceremony, which ran roughly an hour, another reception unfolded, on a bright and sunny but thankfully not hot afternoon, which afforded us an opportunity to speak with more writers, editors, artists, and others in attendance. It was, all in all, a lovely afternoon, and many thanks to the Academy jury for the award!

Saturday, March 30, 2019

My Appearance on State of the Arts NJ

Last fall, Susan Wallner of the wonderful TV program State of the Arts New Jersey contacted me about possibly producing a short clip about my work and me. I am always a bit wary about such efforts, as I would always rather have my work do the speaking for me, but since there was a possibility that SOANJ would feature my students, teaching and Rutgers-Newark, I thought I'd go along with it. The filming occurred in early November, and again in late February, and I can say without hesitation that Susan and her crew were a pleasure to work with, from start to finish.

Many, many thanks to them and everyone at State of the Arts New Jersey who made this possible. Many thanks also to superb critic and writer Julian Lucas, and to Poet Laureate of the US, Princeton professor, poet extraordinaire, and my former Dark Room Collective compatriot Tracy K. Smith for their kind, insightful comments on my work and me. Also a very hearty thank you to my MFA students, who agreed to be filmed, and sparkled (as they always do) on camera, and to everyone at Rutgers-Newark who greenlighted the filming. 

I am so shy and self-conscious I could not initially bear to look at it (I needed but did not get a haircut before the February filming), but C told me it came out very well, and pointed out that Susan and her team had even threaded a Bob Cole tune through the video, a lovely touch, of course, and tribute to one of the artistic figures I explore in Counternarratives. The show aired last week, and though we've been DVRing the episodes and keeping an eye out for it, we also missed its debut airing! Here, for those who do not regularly watch State of the Arts New Jersey, is the short video. Enjoy!

Wednesday, February 27, 2019

14th Blogiversary

Photo by Rachel Eliza Griffiths

Fourteen years ago, on February 27, 2005, I began blogging at J's Theater. I was regularly reading the blogs of friends and writers, artists, political commentators, and others I'd never met but felt a desire to be in conversation with, and so I started this blog. I viewed it as a creative and cultural space, with far less emphasis on politics and responsive to the news cycle--which has sped up incalculably more these days now that Facebook and Twitter have taken off--than it has assumed at various points. More than anything, however I wanted it to be a site where I could try thoughts and ideas out, imperfect as they might be, without the usual concern of perfection or even the struggle, customary as well, to get them into print. (My entire writing career has entailed a struggle to get my work into print.)

From writing about poetry and poets, like Jay Wright, as I did in my first post, to my life and experiences at the university (which has become a new university over the years I've blogged), to reviews of books and films, to snippets about Black history, art and culture, and history, art and culture over all, to translations from Portuguese, Spanish, French, and, I sometimes am amazed to admit, Dutch and German, to posts about rugby, track and field and other less popular (in the US imagination, at least) sports, my iPhone and iPad sketches, and on and on, J's Theater has provided an ideal space for me to explore, (mostly--haha!) pressure-free, as I see fit. It also has served as a site of documentation at times for cultural activities, and especially was so during my decade in Chicago, which wasn't even a decade ago but feels like a lifetime has passed between then and now.

I've repeatedly debated whether to keep blogging or to quit. One great frustration after the earliest years (2005-2008 or so) was the sharp drop off in comments, which were for a while replaced by spam, which disappeared (thanks, Blogger?), only to reappear in recent years with a vengeance. It thankfully is very easy to delete these days, but that requires its own dedicated attention. Far more pressing were my academic responsibilities, which have grown to include 12-month administrative duties that devour more mental space and energy than I ever imagined. I don't think it's any surprise that before this year, 2014, the first year I became a department chair (acting during that year) and 2017, just before my last sabbatical, saw the fewest posts. It was not for lack of interest, but time and vigor.

Not so long ago, we were told that blogging was dead. No one blogged, everyone had moved to YouTube, Facebook and Twitter. And Tumblr, which was and is a blogging platform that in essence mostly deprioritized words. (It also has banned not just pornography, but nudity in general, that's another matter.) And Instagram, which is all pictures (for the most part). And Snapchat, of course. Now there's Tiktok, and other walled gardens. One thing I loved and still do about blogging (though to its credit, Twitter also is almost fully public) via Blogger, WordPress and similar sites is that whatever you published was and remains visible to all; a private company does own this platform, but the blog remains more a public square-style venue than many other options out there. For good and ill, of course. The dazzlingly brilliant Kegur'o M, who continues to blog at Gukira: Without Predicates, is a stellar example of the good that can come from a blogger at the top of their game.

But that public aspect is one that I cherish, and one reason I hope to continue blogging. I also wish some of my old blogging friends, many listed on the blogroll to the right, and other bloggers I never interacted with but who've given up blogging, would start up again. No shade against Medium, but before ideas are fully polished, why not bounce them off readers on a blog? You can always--well, so far--revise as you go.

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Random Photos

It has been a while since I posted anything beyond holiday greetings; the end of last year was particularly busy and the new one is turning out to be even more so. Nevertheless, here are some photos from the end of 2018, and, I hope, a sign of more new posts to come.

"Little Favela": Graffiti on a construction barrier
 surrounding part of NYU's campus,
Silver Towers in the background
In the downstairs sanctum (I got permission before taking the photos)
at James Laughlin's home in Norfolk, CT, with first
editions of countless New Directions Books
(Daniel Javitch, a longtime NYU professor and Laughlin's
son-in-law, is the on the right)
"All Those Ships That Never Sailed," one of
my favorite Bob Kaufman poems, which I recited
many years ago at a remarkable tribute to Kaufman
that the Dark Room Collective held for him in
Cambridge; this was the first poem he recited
after ending his multiyear vow of silence
"My heart is in my / pocket
pocket, it is Poems by Pierre Reverdy,
from Frank O'Hara, "A Step Away
from Them," Lunch Poem (New
Directions, 1954)--probably the
edition depicted here
The beautiful Norfolk, CT public library's interior
The Richardsonian Romanesque exterior of the
Norfolk Public Library
Construction in Jersey City, or Can They
Fit Yet Another Glass Tower into a Tiny Footprint?
At Newark Airport (when the metaphor
becomes the objective correlative, just saying)
On the campus of the University of Virginia,
where I read in the fall, and where I spent
two eventful years in the early 1990s
Workers spiffing up the walkway
on the Lawn dorms, University of Virginia
Updating the Lawn walkways to make them
The walkway into my former workplace
building at U.Va., Bryant Hall (the English
Department has since moved to a newer,
larger building)
The rear of Bryant Hall, where, on my first day back in 1993,
the professor in the office next to mine learned I was
the new employee and loudly proclaimed, "It's Hell!"
There are signs and warnings that we should always
pay attention to, and that most certainly is one....
A fascinating exhibit on a historical homesite owned by
free African Americans in the very area near where
part of U.Va.'s campus now sits
More images from the exhibit about this
free Black family
Artifacts from the era
More about the history of the area,
racial relations, and the University of
Virginia in the exhibit, U.Va.
Sculpture in front of the New Orleans
Museum of Art
Mercer Street, West Village
Workers, at night
The fields and treeline near
Meadow House, James Laughlin's
estate, in Norfolk, CT
through a windowscreen
At the new World Trade Center
 stop on the 1 (I think), with its graphic
white wall
A talk at the New Orleans Museum of Art,
during the ASAP/10 Conference, New Orleans
One of the striking art works on exhibit,
"Eleventh," 2018, by Lina Iris Viktor, 24 carat gold,
acrylic, ink, gouache, copolymer resin,
print on matte canvas,
New Orleans Museum of Art
With my formers Northwestern colleagues, Brian
Edwards, now a dean at LSU, and Andrew Leong,
now at the University of California-Berkeley
Some of the books on display at the
ASAP Conference
Daphne Brooks delivering her keynote
at the ASAP Conference in New Orleans
In Brooklyn, near Pratt Institiute
C, in Manhattan
Outside the Leslie-Lohman Gallery,
The Trump balloon sculpture at the Downtown for
Democracy Protest Factory event, at
Jeffrey Deitch in SoHo

Dale Peck, reading at the Downtown for
Democracy Protest Factory event he organized, at
Jeffrey Deitch in SoHo
The deflated Trump balloon
Remember the 2018 elections?
They turned out pretty well,
all things considered.
Tisa Bryant, delivering the Leslie Scalapino Lecture
in Innovative Poetics, "In Search of a Free
State: Black Womanhood in the Archive
of Dreams," at Pratt Institute

At the University of Iowa, participating
in a conversation on translation with Bruna
Dantas Lobato and Katrina Dodson
(amazing translators!)
So bizarre; New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd was on
my flight to Newark but it turned out she was headed
to Anaheim (or somewhere near there in southern California),
yet for some strange reason she was allowed to
board our plane, and had to be escorted off when
she realized she was headed in the wrong,
completely opposition direction
Eric M. B. Becker of Words Without Borders
in conversation with Brazilian journalist Isabel Lucas
on her multi-genre book Journey to the Heart
of the American Dream: America By the Book
at the Pessoa International Festival, NYC
Signing the Swedish contract for
Counternarratives (the translation
will soon be done!)
At the Fire Ball 2018: "Wakanda Forever," in Newark

On the 1 Train, with a "Respect" sign
honoring Aretha Franklin, at Franklin Street
With the fellows in the 2018-19 Lower Manhattan
Cultural Council program, where I gave a talk
on the Emotional Outreach Project
In the studio of the one of the artists
n the Lower Manhattan
Cultural Council's fellowship program
The Oculus and atrium,
at the World Trade Center, NYC
Lower Manhattan, with One World Trade Center,
with seagulls in the foreground, in Hoboken
Robert DeNiro, introducing Angie
Thomas's The Hate U Give
People feeding the gulls and other seabirds,
at the Hoboken Station

A homeless encampment (under that black
cloth), downtown Jersey City
(luxury towers are just steps away)
Late winter Washington Square Park
piano performance
Scrumptious homemade butternut
squash soup (with lots of grated cheese!)
for cold December
C making pasta at home (it
was absolutely delicious)