Saturday, April 30, 2005

Rick Moody on the NY Times and the 2004 National Book Awards

In lieu of a critique, I'm linking to a provocative article, "Crimes against the Reader," in the current issue of the The Believer by Rick Moody, author of Garden State, The Ice Storm, and Demonology (my favorite), among many other works. Moody's piece discusses the New York Times's inane and egregious treatment*, in the full sense of this word, of the 2004 National Book Awards finalists in fiction, its misreading of the judging process and the judges themselves, and the vapid, consumerist values it was advancing. I found myself strongly agreeing with Moody's appraisal of the paper's response, though I think he could have gone much further in his criticism. (I should add that I read only one of the books that was nominated, Christine Schutt's Florida, which is a sharply observed and book, and inestimably better than some of the more elaborately praised dreck out (cf. JSF) there. )

Had Moody pushed more deeply into the awards controversy, he might have focused on the severely shrunken generic and intellectual scope of the contemporary National Book Awards (NBA). This past fall, the National Book Foundation gave prizes in only 4 categories, fiction, poetry, young-people's fiction, and the catchall nonfiction. 23 years ago, in 1983, there were 18 awards, for hardcover and paperback autobiography/biography; hardcover and paperback children's fiction; hardcover and paperback children's picture books; hardcover and paperback fiction; first novel; hardcover and paperback nonfiction; hardcover and paperback history; original paperback; poetry; hardcover and paperback science; and translation! Astonishing, really! Books on science being honored? A mainstream award for translation, which is almost unthinkable nowadays, given that the number of foreign creative works being published in the United States has fallen considerably over the last two decades. In fact, by the end of the 1980s, the period of conservative retrenchment under Raygun and Bush I, the NBA was doling out only 1-2 awards, before expanding in the 1990s to the 4 current ones; it's not hard to imagine that there are people out there who think that even this wizened number is too great.

In fact, 1983 was a momentous year, because not only did Alice Walker receive a (harcover) NBA in the hardcover fiction category for The Color Purple (which then went on to win the Pulitzer Prize and butchery by Steven Spielberg), but Gloria Naylor was honored in the "first novel" category for The Women of Brewster Place, a rare instance where more than one non-white person, and in this case, two black women, received top honors in a competition or awards program not specifically geared towards non-white candidates. Once upon a time, there were even NBAs for religious/philosophical books; in my most cynical mood, I could imagine them bringing this category back, especially since the two are again conflated in the popular consciousness, though not in the Platonic sense, but the Bushian/Dobsonian (or Ratzingerian) one.

Perhaps Moody, an influential figure in the contemporary American literary world, will pursue this discussion, though he may want to win an NBA himself (he has the talent to do so), and criticizing those in power, while necessary, is also dangerous. But someone of influence should ask why other genres, which have been vital to the intellectual life of this country, are no longer honored in such a mainstream competition, and what this says about our culture. André Schiffrin, former head of Pantheon and The New Press editor-in-chief,
discusses this from the publishing standpoint in his excellent memoir-critique, The Business of Books, and a companion piece, by a highly placed writer-judge, would be useful too.

The Pulitzer Prize--also known as "The People's Prize" (the people, of course, being very powerful and well-appointed)--as I've noted elsewhere on this blog, remains a bastion of conservatism and seems incapable of reform, not even when, as in the music category it's been announced. The third major book prize for American writing is (or was) the National Book Critics Circle Award, which gives no monetary prize. Several years ago, the judges decided to open up the award to non-American work--to the "finest" work "published in English." While I appreciate the global Anglophone sentiment, I seriously doubt writing issuing from the Caribbean, Anglophone Africa, or even Canada and Australia will be given full evaluation, and the choices this past cycle were in line with the other two major awards and not especially daring or revelatory, even if the selected books were deserving. At least the Swedish Academy can right claim that it has brought to world attention such brilliant but not widely known choices as Vicente Aleixandre, Kenzaburo Oe, José Saramago, and Wislawa Szymborska, though its own early record is dreadful, and how can they ever explain away Jaroslav Seifert, when in the last 30 years Wilson Harris, Maryse Condé, Adonis, Pramoedya Ananta Toer, John Ashbery, Yves Bonnefoy, Kamau Brathwaite, Assia Djébar, Rachel de Queiroz, Christine Brooke-Rose, and numerous other deserving authors have so far been overlooked?

At any rate, Moody's article is worth checking out. I recently wrote Jerry Saltz in response to his recent Village Voice column on the glamification of the art world--yes, he meant that it had gone beyond where it's been, if one can imagine that--and offered up the term "commodesthetics" as a name for what he was describing. I'm not sure it fits what Moody's talking about, though, since "commodesthetics" posits the artist-as-commodity as the highest value and chief criterion, while the critique of Moody centers on something else--the pure reification of market success and "popular" acclaim, purged of nearly all the old (western and non-western) aesthetic values....
*Here is an example I don't think Moody cites directly, Deborah Solomon's NY Times Magazine interview with Schutt, which manages to be uninformed, petty and prudish in the space of a single page.

Friday, April 29, 2005

Poems Memorized

Usually when I ask my undergraduate students if they've ever had to memorize poems at any stage in their education before they take one of my classes, without hesitation they answer, "No." Not in kindergarten (though they may recall nursery rhymes), not in grade school, not in junior high, not in high school. They are required to engage in close, critical reading in my university's introductory poetry class, but I've never taught it, so I'm not sure if there are any mnemonic exercises. I usually don't require them to do so either in my fiction writing or literature classes, since there's no pedagogical need, though if and when I teach a poetry writing or theory class again I will require this since I do believe memorization of poems has many benefits, one of which is the necessity to engage with those aspects of poems that are mnemonic, thus tying us to poetry's past and our oral antecedents (when a key element of all poems and spoken forms was that they could be recalled). The few graduate students I've worked with have almost all been fiction writers or future literary scholars (or both), and when the demand to memorize poems for their oral exams arises, they also tell me this is a novel (and scary) challenge for them.

I did have to learn poems by heart from childhood on. I have already posted one, "A Dream Deferred" (also known as "Harlem") by Langston Hughes, for a public performance before a black cultural group when I was about 11. In my various English (and foreign language) classes I had to memorize poems, or at least familiarize myself with sections of them; one test question almost surely drew upon the ability to recognize a given poet's lines and style. I always had teachers who knew poems by heart, in part because they all came from the generation (born before the 1960s) where this was still part of the curriculum. In addition, both my parents and grandparents, who attended segregrated schools in the South and Midwest, had to learn "classic" poems by heart for school, while for church they learned to recite the Psalms and other religious texts. (Anyone who attends Catholic school for more than a few years and has to attend Masses regularly eventually internalizes the basic liturgy, the Lord's Prayer, the Hail Mary, and various religious songs, such as the Magnificat and "Oh Come All Ye Faithful," so I don't count any of these.)

In college and graduate school, I also had professors who were able to cite whole sections of poems (and novels, speeches, etc.), almost error-free, without referring to the printed texts, often to the amazement of the class. At one point I audited a class with critic and schlar Harold Bloom, who, as is well known, has committed much of the Anglo-American poetic canon to memory, and supposedly can recite Paradise Lost backwards. I found Bloom's knowledge a bit unnerving--he would sometimes shift from Stevens to Whitman to Keats to Yeats to Shakespeare without so much as a stumble. Of course I never heard him recite authors outside the Western tradition (big surprise!), and I didn't always have the poem he was reciting in front of me to check it against his version, but in general I believe he was very close to perfect, and his performances were, among other things, impressive.

One might argue that memorization can have a conservative effect, in that the memorized model becomes not only a point of reference or a starting point, but a straitjacket--I don't deny this possibility, but I think the risk is worth it. On the other hand, having a sense of poetry's possibilities can also be very useful, and the attention to language and what makes poems memorable sediment in one's consciousness, which can prove to be useful later on when writing new ones. As an adult, I was again required to memorize a poem, by my workshop leader Michael S. Harper, a fantastic poet. It was a fun exercise. (Once on a train from Philadelphia a young brotha asked me to recite some of my poems, and I couldn't, so then he popped off two of his, which were essentially raps, and suggested that as a poet I have some of my own ready just in case--of what?) I've since set as a challenge to memorize a number of poems, including some of my own, and I won't go into how successful I've been, though some have stuck better than others, and there are even some postmodern, non-formalist, non-song lyric poems, which bombastic critics like Camille Paglia deride as "unmemorable," among them.

Here in any case are five of the many poems I've had to memorize over the last four decades, all essential traditional and canonical in certain ways, though all are extraordinary poems as well; in each, the poet draws upon the traditional resources of poetry (form, meter, rhyme, etc.) such that an imprint isn't so difficult after a bit of focus. The last is the most recent one I had to learn, Hayden's "Those Winter Sundays," one of the best and most-moving poems in the English language. (Did I type them all out from memory--what do you think? Echoing my students, "No." [cue stage laughter] Believe me, my memory these days is shot; I can recall minor details of student work, but you know, after looking at over 50 student stories and novellas in the span of nine months, not even Funes would be able to keep up.) I sometimes think, thought, that this could be either an art project or a "Tonight Show" bit--"Do you know a poem by heart? By whom? Why/when did you memorize it? Recite it."


by John Keats

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eaves run;
To bend with apples the moss'd cottage-trees,
And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease;
For Summer has o'erbrimm'd their clammy cells.

Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store?
Sometimes whoever seeks abroad may find
Thee sitting careless on a granary floor,
Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind;
Or on a half-reap'd furrow sound asleep,
Drowsed with the fume of poppies, while thy hook
Spares the next swath and all its twinèd flowers:
And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep
Steady thy laden head across a brook;
Or by a cyder-press, with patient look,
Thou watchest the last oozings, hours by hours.

Where are the songs of Spring? Ay, where are they?
Think not of them, thou hast thy music too,—
While barrèd clouds bloom the soft-dying day
And touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue;
Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn
Among the river-sallows, borne aloft
Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;
And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourne;
Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft
The redbreast whistles from a garden-croft;
And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.

:: :: ::

by William Butler Yeats

I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made:
Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honey-bee;
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.

And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight's all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet's wings.

I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,
I hear it in the deep heart's core.

:: :: ::

by W. H. Auden

About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position; how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer's horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.
In Brueghel's Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

:: :: ::

by William Carlos Williams

I have eaten
the plums
that were in
the icebox

and which
you were probably
for breakfast

Forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold

:: :: ::

by Robert Hayden

Sundays too my father got up early
and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold,
then with cracked hands that ached
from labor in the weekday weather made
banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.

I'd wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking.
When the rooms were warm, he'd call,
and slowly I would rise and dress,
fearing the chronic angers of that house,

speaking indifferently to him,
who had driven out the cold
and polished my good shoes as well.
What did I know, what did I know
of love's austere and lonely offices?

Thursday, April 28, 2005

Antonioni's L'Eclisse (1962)

L'EclisseLast week, thanks to the Criterion Collection and Netflix, I finally watched a movie I'd wanted to see for some time, Michelangelo Antonioni's L'Eclisse (1962). The third film in his revolutionary early 1960s trilogy that began with the remarkable L'Avventura (1960) and La Notte (1961), L'Eclisse (The Eclipse) sparked commentary at the time of its premiere primarily for its ending, which--I won't reveal it, see it!--breaks the chief conventions of filmmaking up to the moment it was made (and few mainstream films would dare try such a thing now).

Truthfully, the rest of the film breaks rules left and right too. Its pace is glacial; it has no plot whatsoever and just meanders; it begins at what is really an endpoint and ends...well, I already went there; it basically has no single, guiding theme (there is the symbolic resonance of the title, and the larger theme of social alienation); its main characters aren't really likeable personalities (though they are extremely attractive); it has almost no soundtrack beyond dialogue, natural and ambient sounds; it lingers on moments that in other films would appear at the very least strange; and it contains a scene that some viewers might find offensive (because of its treatment of racism; it surprised me, but I have to admit I've seen far worse in other films I enjoy), and yet...I found the movie magnetic, riveting. I watched it two times in a row. Then I listened to Richard Peña's commentary, which I rarely do with DVDs. In fact, I think it is one of the most interesting movies I've seen in years, and I rank it almost equal L'Avventura, an astonishing work of art that is often considered with Blow Up (1966) to be one of Antonioni's masterpieces. I would place L'Eclisse right up there, perhaps at the very top, though I have not yet seen Red Desert (1964), which is also highly praised.

As I watched this film, I realized that I had to mature to be able to appreciate Antonioni's advanced and powerful art, which at its best both draws you utterly in as it defamiliarizes everything you're viewing. When I was younger Blow Up excited me, but I must confess, I really didn't get it. There were other directors whose oeuvre I was much fonder of (off the top of my head, Waters, Burnett, Buñuel, Bergman, Fassbinder, Welles, Cukor, Wilder, Roeg, Sembene, Scorsese, Godard, Truffaut, Lynch, Resnais, Altman, Lee, Schlesinger, Gunn, Russell, Wiseman, Fellini, Renoir, Herzog, Cassavetes, Kurosawa, Ray, etc.), a list which has increasingly expanded (Dash, Tarkovsky, Wong, Cissé, Tsai, Denis, Oshima, Ozon, Parajanov, Assayas, Hou, Akerman, Varda, Leigh, Moore, Jia, Maysles, Sokurov, Solondz, Miike, Ruiz, von Trier, Kitano, Hanneke, the Dardennes, Kiarostami, Jonze, etc.). But a blind spot long remained for Antonioni, in part because the other film of his that I saw, Zabriskie Point (1970), struck me as a pretentious take on late 1960s alienation, with unappealing actors. I thought, totally overrated.

But hadn't Susan Sontag praised him as an exemplar of the new art in "Against Interpretation," as one of the paradigmatic creative figures of that era? And weren't other critics of that period, and later, always listing Antonioni as one of the major post-war filmmakers, and certainly of the stature and vision of Italy's other great contributors to world cinema, Fellini, Visconti and de Sica, let alone Bertolucci, Wertmüller and Zeffirelli? I couldn't square all this praise with the two films I saw. And then, last summer, when L'Avventura was released on DVD, I rented it from TLA Video (in NYC)...and was blown away. This, I realized, what where all the hubbub originated. A film about a young woman who disappears, that then veers off into a completely different film altogether, languorous as chilled molasses, lyric, exquisitely shot, superbly acted, a galvanic testimony to an original vision, and a landmark, I realized, in cinema. It immediately made me reformulate my estimation of Godard, one of my then avatars, who, I saw, had imported elements of Antonioni's work into his own films of the period, though his high moral seriousness, social criticism, and formal experimentation, were much more obvious, less seamless than his Italian counterpart's. Next, I watched La Notte, the least of the trio, though still quite lovely. It extended the exploration of alienation, this time to a more contained domestic and temporal frame, but Antonioni's poetic impulses were still evident....

Then, I saw or read a short blurb praising L'Eclisse, which only recently was issued on DVD, and the burst of praise sufficed to raise it in my Netflix queue. So what I can say? It represents, I think, one of the best examples of what cinematic art is and can do. Antonioni's direction of Monica Vitti, for example, in this and other films deserved an Oscar; we see her profound dissatisfaction, often only through her eyes and gaze, her facial expressions, her gestures--dissatisfaction and alienation expressed, performed, without a word being uttered, an alienation and self-distancing from the new, burgeoning, bourgeois world around her, a middle-class, capitalist and increasingly consumerist world embodied by the scenes in Rome's streets and in its Stock Market, and by the almost alien landscape of the newish suburb of Eur, with its space-ship like tower looming through the window and dominating the vista. Vitti's character appears happiest--or perhaps, just happy--when she finds an anchor of some sort, dancing to the African drumbeats (though she later quietly and ironically undercuts the harshly racist comments of the Italian ex-settler neighbor), or when chasing her neighbor's black poodle through the crepuscular nightscape, or when she is soaring high above the city, as yet another neighbor's husband transports a plane across the country to Milan (I think it's Milan); and sure enough, oh irony, when she lands and strolls over to the tiny terminal, there are two Africans sitting outside, and Vitti's character, like the camera, takes a moment to study and observe them, before passing amid this more hospitable environment, brief as the experience is).

As I said earlier, the film has no plot, and in fact doesn't really move forward, but rather sideways; it comprises a series of events that cohere into a narrative. The frame creates, the style cements, and the themes, in the sense Ricoeur has described elsewhere, constitute a plot, though not in the traditional literary or filmic sense. This lack of progression, and the ruptures and temporal leaps, of course, mirror and embody the psychology and existential trajectories of the main characters; a semiosis of their narcissism and drift is everywhere apparent. Cinematographically, scene after scene arrests the viewer's eye and consciousness, but not simply because of the dazzling use of composition and mise en scène, framing, lighting, and so on, but also because of how Antonioni manages to portray time flowing through and in the images themselves, particularly in the senses of speed and duration, the latter of which becomes especially clear at the end, when we enter a moment that seems to portray the passage of time as purely as possible, and that also steps outside of (the movie's) time frame altogether. Deleuze wrote of the "time-image," or the image that shifts between actual and virtual time, between a present experience and memory itself, and this notion is certainly exemplified here. Moreover, in terms of time I couldn't recall how long the film was, thinking it was much longer (2.5 or more hours?) than it actually was (118 minutes).

Finally, there are the characters themselves. Francisco Rabal's Riccardo, the writer Vitti's Vittoria leaves at the beginning, offers little to the viewer, in part because we see him so briefly and because we feel Vittoria's estrangement from him. There is Piero, played by an eye-catching young Alain Delon; he wants to be a financial player, a person of significance and importance, as well as a real roué, but his limitations soon dawn on us, and we, like Vittoria, find ourselves drifting away. He is great to look at (and I'm not usually into his type), but his bourgieness, his shallowness and his insistence in getting into Vitti's panties don't make for a heroism, or a counter-protagonist. The other characters--Vitti's self-absorbed mother, who loses her hat in the stock crash; the racist ex-colonialist neighbor; the married neighbor and her husband; the wealthy, fat stock investor; the stern boss of Piero's firm; the silly drunk who steals Piero's car and...--not one of these characters, in fact, captures us. In fact, they seem designed to repel, or at least leave us cold. There is, in fact, despite the summer setting, a coldness about this world, an indelible anomie. And then there is Vitti's Vittoria herself, a walking vessel of angst and detachment, whom, we imagine, may never find satisfaction, at least not if she stays in Rome and its environs. A psychological and spiritual hunger to satisfy a version of Forster's dictum, "only connect," torments her, and yet it's clear to us that what she connects to, something deeper and more profound that the material comforts her society increasingly abounds in, lies outside this society, lies only within her and simultaneously outside any interior space. I almost wanted to buy her a one-way ticket to Rabat, or Rio....

Slowly but surely, Antonioni prepares us for the ending, for which, of course, there can be no real preparation. When that "FINE" appeared, with the first strains the minor-key music, I sat there a bit stunned, and knew I had to watch it again, just as I watched L'Avventura again. And I also knew I'd have to tell friends about this film. Both movies are paramount examples of what Sontag, in her 1996 essay "The Decay of Cinema," labeled "cinema as art." With L'Eclisse, Antonioni created his second masterpiece, and perhaps his greatest film ever. It is a work that demands a great deal of its viewer, but it rewards every time you return to it, because you perceive and thus receive, something new. Sadly, films of this caliber are rarely made any more, particularly in the United States; its beauty, style and profundity eclipse most (all?) of what is turned (or churned) out by Hollywood and even indie movie studios and directors (including auteurs) today.

Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Arturo Lindsay, North Coast Congos and el Taller Portobello

Last Friday, artist, scholar and social activist Arturo Lindsay (pictured below) delivered a lecture at the university on his artwork and research interests in ethnography, and how this scholarship intersected with his work at the Taller Portobello (Portobello Workshop), established in 1970 by Panamanian artist Sandra Eleta in the Caribbean coastal town of the same name in Panama. Lindsay, a Panamanian native who teaches at Spelman College, focused his remarks on the Congo "living art traditions" of Portobello, which were for a long time, he noted, perceived as a "marginal" aspect of the Panamian population. "Who are these Congos?": this was the question he asked himself when he first began exploring their traditions, and the key one that opened his talk.

LindsayHe proceeded to discuss his particular methodology as an art historian and ethnographer by pointing out his emphasis on "culturalism," rather than the other common approaches of formalism, Marxism or feminism; his use of experimental phenomenological methods, by which I took him to mean proceeding from essential qualities and attempting to describe them first, before defining , interpreting and judging; and the Ecker-Kaelin system of aesthetic inquiry, which privileges experience of the object or event first, after which analysis and meta-analysis, and then theorization and meta-theorization, follow. This direct experience of and engagement with the artwork, provides the chief route towards deeper knowledge and understanding. Doing so has been especially important for the kind of ethnography Lindsay has explored with the Congo traditions of Portobello--rather than simply popping in and expounding, he felt it was important to live among the people, experience their traditions firsthand and in particular their performance of Carnival and other rituals, and then base his knowledge on these experiences as well as related research.

Some of the more fascinating aspects of his lecture, I thought, were the historical, symbolic and metaphysical-spiritual registers embodied and performed through the various Congo figures and the living rituals of the celebration and performances. Underlying the Congo version of the tradition and its performances is the basic fact of the Congos' status as the spiritual and cultural inheritors of the cimarrones (maroons) and the palenques (fortified villages) they established, which have parallels across the African Diaspora in the Americas. Related to this is are numerous trans-Diasporic cultural and performative matrices, including that of Carnival/Carnaval; the Congos had been viewed in the past as enacting a kind of buffoonery, but Lindsay explained how this was, as in other Diasporic contexts of masquerade, spiritual play and celebration, a means of subterfuge and resistance; in fact, I immediately thought, clowning, legerdemain, acting (out) and other kinds of ironic play were forms and methods of self-determination and self-empowerment across the Diaspora.

The Congo performance begins on January 20th, with the raising of a black-and-white flag, and ends on Ash Wednesday. Among the chief Congo performative figures he enumerated through slides and his discussion were:
  • the Pajarito (Little Bird), a messenger between the spirits and the participants, and a trickster figure (Eleggua);
  • the Árcangel (Arch Angel), clad in white frocks based on the Spanish colonial imagery and literally tied, by string to male figures representing the ánimas (spirits)--I think he said there are 7 spirits but I may have this wrong;
  • the Diablo Maior (Chief Devil), who is masked, wears red and is the chief embodiment of evil (Satan obviously, but also the Spaniard).

He then showed photos of the other diablos, some played by children and younger people and representing evil spirits, who come out in public on Ash Wednesday and are whipped, then "baptized," a form of ritual public expiation for the coming Easter holiday but obviously also a mimetic recreation of the enslaved ancestors' experiences. Lindsay pointed out that the diablos too represented the embodiment of the material and spiritual evil of the Spaniards during the colonial period, and so I read their whippings also a particularly powerful, ritualized transhistorical response. He went on to say that the Diablo Maior every year is captured, blessed and sold, after which he is unmasked, revealing his true face and freeing him of evil; but the process obviously also represents the experience of the enslaved ancestors. In fact, the space where much of this takes place becomes known during Carnival as the Tierra de Guiné (Guinea Land), a ritualized space invoking another historical and transtemporal, ancestral memory and matrix.

All of these Carnival performers, he stated, are male, because the Congos lived in a very gender-specific community, and yet he also said that community in general was women-centric. The Congada musical celebration comprised male drummers and female singers, led by a cantalante who initiated an antiphonal/call and response performance. Though I did not get the opportunity, I wanted to ask him more about the gendering of the figures and performances, and also about his brief mention of the transgender aspects of various ritual performances and experiences, particularly given the parallels in other syncretic religious traditions (Santería, about which Lindsay has written, and Candomblé, for example), particular Congo-descended and derived historical figures (in colonial Brazil, for example), and the real-world, contemporary embodiers of this form of spiritual practice in southern, south-western and south-central Africa (the source, of course, of enslaved Congo peoples throughout the Diaspora) that have been discussed in works like Murray and Roscoe's Boy-Wives and Female Husbands: Studies of African Homosexualities.

Lindsay concluded his talk with a focus on the Taller Portobello and his own work. One of the points he concentrated on was the community-based, collaborative nature of the artistic practice that occurs at the Taller, which sits right near the port and which, he said, was in part a tribute to those who didn't get off or make it off the boats. He showed slides of the work by affiliated local painters (all of them male), and of his Spelman and other female students who were in residence at the Spelman Summer College Art Colony he established at the Taller. A number of the paintings featured mythic-spiritual Carnivalesque figures (including the Pajarito) and historical heroic cimarrón images, in portrait (or really quasi-iconic) form. (I wanted to ask about this particular mixed formal approach, particularly the iconic depictions, which Lindsay himself has engaged in, but didn't have the chance to). One effect of the exchange for the residents of Portobello, he noted, was the recuperation and recirculation of historical antecedents and cultural fragments that the Spaniards and scholars outside the community had recorded or noted, but which were to some extent lost by the residents; this was an interesting point, and reminded me of Lorand Matory's discussion of the dynamic exchange between the Yoruba in Brazil and Nigeria, and how circulation created new traditions while reshaping, reinforcing or transforming old ones.

Rey BayanoI was very familiar with Lindsay's work from a tiny show he'd been part of that I helped organize (with artist and scholar Adrienne Klein), years before, through New York University's Faculty Resource Network, at the Cinqué Gallery in SoHo, but I enjoyed seeing it again and hearing him talk about it. He showed a number of the ritual artifacts (such as cajas de ánimas [spirit boxes], thrones, ships, and tent-like structures) and the related spaces he created. For some of the boxes he asked that people select the name of a child or adult who might have been lost during the Middle Passage or later, and that child's native home. (Adewale/Ifé, for example, or Kwesi/Accra). Other slides featured his performance as an emissary (and trickster), returning and bringing the ancestral spirits back home through the Door of No Return on Gorée Island, Senegal, and pictures of the canvases invoking some of the chief cimarrón leaders (such as el Negro Madagascar, Luis de Mozambique, Rey Bayano (at right), and Juan de Díos--I would love to spend time just exploring the sources and meanings of each of these names), with the concomitant spiritual reliquaries and artifacts (including offerings of food, beads, and so on). Some fruitful questions and answers followed his talk, and I left with the strong desire to visit the Taller and his own Taller Arturo Lindsay, now under development as well as Panama in general (which Reggie H. and others have recommended). I also wanted to view more of Arturo's artwork and vowed to read more of his criticism (including his edited volume Santería Aesthetics). And I wanted to think more deeply about what he'd said and produce artwork born of that process.

I also appreciated hearing him underline a practice I try to emphasize periodically in these entries--our ancestors and loved ones live in part because, he pointed out, we call their names....

Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Poems: Ginsberg's "America," "To Aunt Rose," and "Please Master"

GinsbergTime, where does it go? Since I didn't finish an entry I was working on, here are three Allen Ginsberg (1926-1997) poems, each of which I feel are appropriate for the times we're living in. I first fell in love with his voice back in junior high when my class read "To Aunt Rose," the famous poem (that appears in Kaddish, I think, another masterpiece) about a late aunt who was a progressive Spanish Republican supporter. It elegizes the passing of the Leftist idealism and activism that characterized the generation of Ginsberg's parents (and which would, of course, reblossom, under a different guise, in Ginsberg's poetry of the 1960s). I found the poem revolutionary and revelatory on so many levels, and though I didn't have the language for it at the time, I was especially fascinated by Ginsberg's overt politics, his play with gender, and his queering of the lyric voice. In fact, I returned to the phrase "I an ignorant girl of family silence on the thin pedestal" about 1o or 15 times, reciting it aloud in amazement; it was, I think, one of my first moments of self-recognition, of reading a poem by a gay poet and realizing that he was probably gay and so was I.

Some years later, while an undergraduate, I came across "America" when I was reading up on Allen Ginsberg's poetry in preparation for his visit to campus, and a few days after that I chanced upon "Please Master," which I found electrifying in its explicitness, and incantatory, awful beauty. I was hoping he'd read that one aloud, but he was on best (or at least better) behavior, and sang some newer poems, to the accompaniment of a young male accordionist. He also autographed my datebook with an impromptu three-line poem; I later tore it out and it now sits on my desk upstairs (I'm too lazy to go quote it). That on the spot poetizing (which Yusef Komunyakaa also used to do), along with these three poems and others (such as "Howl," "A Supermarket in California," "At Apollinaire's Grave," "Sunflower Sutra," etc.) cemented my Ginsbergophilia, which has since waned quite a bit, though I still occasionally return to his work, always finding something new in it and always learning how a poet of talent creates something original that also profoundly engages with past traditions and with the issues of his (her) day. Here they are:


by Allen Ginsberg

America I've given you all and now I'm nothing.
America two dollars and twentyseven cents January
17, 1956.
I can't stand my own mind.
America when will we end the human war?
Go fuck yourself with your atom bomb.
I don't feel good don't bother me.
I won't write my poem till I'm in my right mind.
America when will you be angelic?
When will you take off your clothes?
When will you look at yourself through the grave?
When will you be worthy of your million Trotskyites?
America why are your libraries full of tears?
America when will you send your eggs to India?
I'm sick of your insane demands.
When can I go into the supermarket and buy what I
need with my good looks?
America after all it is you and I who are perfect not
the next world.
Your machinery is too much for me.
You made me want to be a saint.
There must be some other way to settle this argument.
Burroughs is in Tangiers I don't think he'll come back
it's sinister.
Are you being sinister or is this some form of practical
I'm trying to come to the point.
I refuse to give up my obsession.
America stop pushing I know what I'm doing.
America the plum blossoms are falling.
I haven't read the newspapers for months, everyday
somebody goes on trial for murder.
America I feel sentimental about the Wobblies.
America I used to be a communist when I was a kid
I'm not sorry.
I smoke marijuana every chance I get.
I sit in my house for days on end and stare at the roses
in the closet.
When I go to Chinatown I get drunk and never get laid.
My mind is made up there's going to be trouble.
You should have seen me reading Marx.
My psychoanalyst thinks I'm perfectly right.
I won't say the Lord's Prayer.
I have mystical visions and cosmic vibrations.
America I still haven't told you what you did to Uncle
Max after he came over from Russia.

I'm addressing you.
Are you going to let your emotional life be run by
Time Magazine?
I'm obsessed by Time Magazine.
I read it every week.
Its cover stares at me every time I slink past the corner
I read it in the basement of the Berkeley Public Library.
It's always telling me about responsibility. Business-
men are serious. Movie producers are serious.
Everybody's serious but me.
It occurs to me that I am America.
I am talking to myself again.

Asia is rising against me.
I haven't got a chinaman's chance.
I'd better consider my national resources.
My national resources consist of two joints of
marijuana millions of genitals an unpublishable
private literature that goes 1400 miles an hour
and twenty-five-thousand mental institutions.
I say nothing about my prisons nor the millions of
underprivileged who live in my flowerpots
under the light of five hundred suns.
I have abolished the whorehouses of France, Tangiers
is the next to go.
My ambition is to be President despite the fact that
I'm a Catholic.
America how can I write a holy litany in your silly
I will continue like Henry Ford my strophes are as
individual as his automobiles more so they're
all different sexes.
America I will sell you strophes $2500 apiece $500
down on your old strophe
America free Tom Mooney
America save the Spanish Loyalists
America Sacco & Vanzetti must not die
America I am the Scottsboro boys.
America when I was seven momma took me to Com-
munist Cell meetings they sold us garbanzos a
handful per ticket a ticket costs a nickel and the
speeches were free everybody was angelic and
sentimental about the workers it was all so sin-
cere you have no idea what a good thing the
party was in 1835 Scott Nearing was a grand
old man a real mensch Mother Bloor made me
cry I once saw Israel Amter plain. Everybody
must have been a spy.
America you don't really want to go to war.
America it's them bad Russians.
Them Russians them Russians and them Chinamen.
And them Russians.
The Russia wants to eat us alive. The Russia's power
mad. She wants to take our cars from out our garages.
Her wants to grab Chicago. Her needs a Red Readers'
Digest. Her wants our auto plants in Siberia.
Him big bureaucracy running our fillingstations.
That no good. Ugh. Him make Indians learn read.
Him need big black niggers. Hah. Her make us
all work sixteen hours a day. Help.
America this is quite serious.
America this is the impression I get from looking in
the television set.
America is this correct?
I'd better get right down to the job.
It's true I don't want to join the Army or turn lathes
in precision parts factories, I'm nearsighted and
psychopathic anyway.
America I'm putting my queer shoulder to the wheel.

Copyright © the Estate of Allen Ginsberg


Aunt Rose-now-might I see you
with your thin face and buck tooth smile and pain

of rheumatism-and a long black heavy shoe
for your bony left leg

limping down the long hall in Newark on the running carpet

past the black grand piano
in the day room
where the parties were and I sang Spanish loyalist songs
in a high squeaky voice
(hysterical) the committee listening while you limped around the room
collected the money-

Aunt Honey, Uncle Sam, a stranger with a cloth arm

in his pocket
and huge young bald head
of Abraham Lincoln Brigade

-your long sad face

your tears of sexual frustration
(what smothered sobs and bony hips
under the pillows of Osborne Terrace)

-the time I stood on the toilet seat naked

and you powdered my thighs with calamine
against the poison ivy-my tender
and shamed first black curled hairs what were you thinking in secret heart then
knowing me a man already-

and I an ignorant girl of family silence on the thin pedestal

of my legs in the bathroom-Museum of Newark.

Aunt Rose

Hitler is dead, Hitler is in Eternity; Hitler is with
Tamburlane and Emily Bronte

Though I see you walking still, a ghost on Osborne Terrace

down the long dark hall to the front door limping a little with a pinched smile
in what must have been a silken
flower dress

welcoming my father, the Poet, on his visit to Newark

-see you arriving in the living room
dancing on your crippled leg and clapping hands his book
had been accepted by Liveright

Hitler is dead and Liveright's gone out of business
The Attic of the Past and Everlasting Minute are out of print

Uncle Harry sold his last silk stocking Claire quit interpretive dancing school
Buba sits a wrinkled monument in Old
Ladies Home blinking at new babies

last time I saw you was the hospital

pale skull protruding under ashen skin
blue veined unconscious girl
in an oxygen tent the war in Spain has ended long ago
Aunt Rose

Copyright © the Estate of Allen Ginsberg


Please master can I touch your cheek
please master can I kneel at your feet
please master can I loosen your blue pants
please master can I gaze at your golden haired belly
please master can I gently take down your shorts
please master can I have your thighs bare to my eyes
please master can I take off your clothes below your chair
please master can I kiss your ankles and soul
please master can I touch lips to your muscle hairless thigh
please master can I lay my ear pressed to your stomach
please master can I wrap my arms around your white ass
please master can I lick your groin curled with soft blond fur
please master can I touch my tongue to your rosy asshole
please master may I pass my face to your ball,s
please master, please look into my eyes,
please master order me down on the floor,
please master tell me to lick your thick shaft
please master put your rough hands on my bald hairy skull
please master press my mouth to your prick-heart
please master press my face into your belly, pull me slowly strong thumbed
till your dumb hardness fills my throat to the base
till I swallow and taste your delicate flesh-hot prick barrel veined Please
Master push my shoulders away and stare into my eye, & make me bend over the table
please master grab my thighs and lift my ass to your waist
please master your rough hand's stroke on my neck your palm down my backside
please master push me up, my feet on chairs, till my hole feels the breath of your spit and your thumb stroke
please master make me say Please Master Fuck me now Please
Master grease my balls and hairmouth with sweet vaselines
please master stroke your shaft with white creams
please master touch your cock head to my wrinkled self-hole
please master push it in gently, your elbows enwrapped around my breast
your arms passing down to my belly, my penis you touch w/ your little fingers
please master shove it in me a little, a little, a little,
please master sink your droor thing down my behind
& please master make me wiggle my rear to eat up the prick trunk
till my asshalfs cuddle your thighs, my back bent over
till I'm alone sticking out your sword stuck throbbing in me
please master pull out and slowly roll into the bottom
please master lunge it again, and withdraw to the tip
please please master fuck me again with your self, please fuck me Please
Master drive it down till it hurts me the softness the
Softness please master make love to my ass, give body to center & fuck me for good like a girl,
tenderly clasp me please master I take me to thee,
& drive in my belly your selfsame sweet heat-rood
your fingered in solitude Denver or Brooklyn or fucked in a maiden in Paris carlots
please master drive me thy vehicle, body of love drops, sweat fuck
body of tenderness, Give me your dog fuck faster
please master make me go moan on the table
Go moan O please master do fuck me like that
in your rhythm thrill-plunge and pull-back bounce & push down
till I loosen my asshole a dog on the table yelping with terror delight to be loved
Please master call me a dog, an ass beast, a wet asshole
& fuck me more violent, my eyes hid with your palms round my skull
& plunge down in a brutal hard lash thru soft drip-fish
& throb thru five seconds to spurt out your semen heat
over & over, bamming it in while I cry out your name I do love you
please Master.

Copyright © the Estate of Allen Ginsberg

Monday, April 25, 2005

Teaching/Reading Poetry + On Communication and Difficulty in Poetry

Back in February, I added my responses, on the Cave Canem listserve, to a series of posts by poets Christopher Stackhouse, Reggie Harris, Mendi Lewis Obadike, Evie Shockley, Jarvis Q. DeBerry and others concerning communication and difficulty in poetry, which arose after Reggie posted an interview with the poet G. E. "Gar" Patterson.

What sparked the exchange was Gar's (very Deweyan and Bourdieuvan) statement that

Accessibility is so often an issue of education—of being educated to believe that you don’t have what it takes to experience or appreciate a work of art. Or of being educated to believe that someone else will be unable to experience or appreciate a work of art. Perhaps the whole issue is turned around. Perhaps we should be asking if people are open to the work of art, if the reader/listener/viewer is accessible. Being open is not effortless.
to which Christopher responded with

.....yeah, like how do you avoid the tyranny of the "closed"? And like, how do you use form without being used by form? How does a reader/viewer learn to come to work without preconceived notions at the fore of their present experience? He's discussing a set of terms that are (re?) defining the role of contemporary poetry, or rather a way to comprehend something important about it.
Mendi talked about approaching poetry in her teaching, and Reggie noted that a student and his mother at the Pratt Library's Humanities department was struggling to understand Cummings's poem "somewhere i have never travelled,gladly beyond," and later cited a line ("Star circle me an axe") in a poem, "Love in the Weather's Bells" by Jay Wright, a poet often labeled as "difficult" and consequently less frequently read, that he did not comprehend. Jarvis, who expressed openness to different kinds of poems, suggested that poems should communicate ideas and experiences clearly, in language that we all could understand (which is to say, with simplicity), and stated, "Too few writers -- be they novelists, poets, essayists or journalists--write with clarity. And I'm not convinced they even want to write with clarity because it might subject their piece to being understood."

This is something I have been grappling with for years (in part because of my aesthetic leanings and desire to understand how language works, which is what I imagine most writers at some level do), and my brief response below hardly captures much of what I think; in fact, last fall, when I was teaching my undergraduate aesthetics course, I spent nine weeks guiding my students through a number of theoretical and critical approaches (chief among them for this discussion Plato, Aristotle, Kant, Pater, Dewey, Heidegger, Adorno, Wittgenstein, Sontag, Lyotard, Bourdieu, and Lorde, among others) for understanding the linguistic, structural and performative "difficulty," as well as communicative systems, of poems by such poets as Shakespeare, Mallarmé, Gertrude Stein, Harryette Mullen, and Franz Wright.

But in the responses below (which I've adapted for the sake of coherence) I wanted to respond with comparative brevity while also using as little theory as possible. Why? Because I think it's possible to explain what's going on in poems without theory (as we usually think of it), though it can be useful for an expanded argument. The best poems, in fact, by their very nature argue on their own behalf quite well. Here then are my two takes, the first concerning one particular experience teaching/and/reading poetry and the second on communication and difficulty in poetry.

On Teaching [and] Reading Poetry

Reggie, Mendi and Evie, I agree with you that showing vulnerability, your own struggle with a poem, or short story, or theoretical concept, is important--the students should have an opportunity to see you working through things, putting them together, figuring them out, and there ought to be a dialogue, a conversation. The idea of the conversation, the practice, the process, I've found, helps to open doors, for the teacher and student. Some people are more resistant than others, and we often have an idea of what we like, and yet, there are ways to reach each other, to open those closed doors. But they may not be quick or easy.

Reggie, concerning the Cummings poem:
Though I teach a lot more fictional, cross-genre and theoretical texts than poetry, as I mentioned to Christopher and you, right now I'm working with a graduate student whose field is contemporary literature. The student is brilliant and knows the works in other genres, as well her critical and theoretical texts more so than I do...but poetry presents a barrier. So what we do, and this is very old-fashioned, I know, is to read selected poems together, poems she has to have under her belt for her doctoral exams. To read them aloud. To reread them, slowly and then at what we think is the normal speed at which we'd read aloud, trying to see and hear and feel and understand what is going on. What we miss when we scan a poem on a page and say, "I got it." Or, "I like it." Or "I don't get it."

Or, "this is a poem presents a feminist reading of X/is a post-industrial critique of Y, etc." Or this poem is a pantoum/villanelle/free verse, is it a pastoral, an eclogue, etc.

All those elements are important and we engage them as well, but we try to look at every aspect, to let the poems steep before rushing into preset ways of understanding and seeing. We try to take the whole in and also break it down. What does the poem's form, its music embody? (This is so crucial.) Whom does it echo for you? What things--not just one thing--is this poet saying here? How is she or he saying it? Why is that important? What choices does the poet make and why? What is on the page and what do we bring to it? How is this making something happen and what is happening? What is clear is that any work of literature is replete with multiple meanings, not simply one, and accessing or understanding all those meanings is rarely easy. This is as true of Shakespeare or Donne or Keats as it is of Baraka or Lorde or Clifton.

Then we look at related issues, like biography, critical and theoretical ways of reading the poem's statements, and so on. Our answers are rarely the same, and we both learn from our responses.

I've found that as we do this, and discuss the poems, whole new vistas have opened up for me as well. It's very possible to do in a larger class, and could be more of a challenge with student work than work by authors you've had a chance to read and think about, but it is possible, and the conversations that result are invaluable.

Re: Rap/hiphop--another discussion, but how much of this has to do with what Walter J. Ong talks about in terms of orality and the importance of certain kinds of aural abstractions, pre-set formulae, cliches, and community-based understandings of oral forms, narratives and poems that do not work as well on the page, that brook different expectations, in terms of aurality, memory, transmission and comprehension?

Copyright © John Keene, 2005.

Then, in response to subsequent responses, particularly Jarvis's comment that

If a stroke took away your ability to read, you could still enjoy the sunset, Miles Davis' "So What?" or a hug from a friend. But you couldn't feel a poem, no matter how long or hard you looked at it. It's an intellectual pursuit. And as such, our intellects desire that poems mean something, not necessarily at the expense of them making us feel something. But if you write it, I assume that there's an attempt at communication, and as such I want to know what the message is.

I posted:

On Communication and Difficulty in Poetry

"Love is a word, another kind of open." (Lorde)

I'm going to wade in here to say there are many ways a poem can "communicate"--it need not offer a set transparent message that can be reduced to a simple semantically reducible and coherent statement, which is to say, a logical statement. "If X then y" or "X+Y=Z." Some poems do but many, perhaps most, do not. Many poems do in most parts but most not in all parts, not even those in the simplest forms and language, such as haiku. Didn't someone once write that poetry was "violence done to everyday language?" Isn't poetry, by at least several definitions, an expressive form of language that emphasizes language's aesthetic, musical and figurative aspects beyond the semantic and denotative? Poetry isn't speech, or an essay or a billboard, etc., though it may mirror all of them. A poem, like a novel, can communicate, as does music or the experience of dancing, etc., through feeling, AS feeling. That can be the primary means of communication, though we derive something else in and from it. And what it communicates to us might be quite different from what the author intended, as you know. The poet might not even realize the meanings the poem communicates. That is fine too--because the poem is ultimately autonomous even as it is embedded in the broader context, the social framework, the linguistic system in which it was created, in which it exists.

By feeling, I thought Christopher Stackhouse and others didn't mean mere sensation, which is what a kiss involves in one sense (touch, taste, possibly smell and sound), but psychological and emotional feeling, that is, responses that both are involuntary (hardwired in us) but which also entail and require intellection, thought. Isn't this the case, doesn't emotion provoke and involve thought? Don't works of art, including literature, provoke immediate emotional responses at times that we simultaneously try to process in that moment as well as later? The structure of music is intricately tied to mathematics, which is perhaps the most purely formal of all the sciences, isn't it, and no musician worth her or his salt would deny that at varying levels, they make choices in how they play, what they play--they think about what they're doing, because they're not automata, robots, mere processing systems or mere vessels of feeling (though some may actually claim to be no more than the latter).

"i do not sit in your mouth / to take your beauty." (Roberson)

Reggie (Harris), you may puzzle over that line in the Jay Wright poem "Love in the Weather's Bells," but really, do we understand every line in every poem we read? Let's review one of the most memorable stanzas from Gwendolyn Brooks's remarkable, brief poem "We Real Cool":

"We / Jazz June."

What exactly does that mean? We think we know but do we really know? Did Brooks? It is one of my favorite lines in any poem I've ever read, and not just because I love jazz and was born in June. But as a child that's what I thought it meant--something directly about my life. I have ideas about what it means and suggest them to students, but are they same as Brooks's? Do they need to be? Isn't the sheer beauty of this formulation--we [break] jazz june--enough, at least at first, for a while? Does it describe a verbal action (we jazz--do something jazz-like to--June)? A metaphorical equation (we are [like] jazz june)? Is it an apostrophe (we [are] like jazz, June!) Can these three words really be fully reduced? Do we want to do so? I wish I could write a line like that, beyond transparent meaning, so unforgettable, unselfconsciously--don't we all?

I think we probably hope we understand every word and line in every poem we write, but in fact, we do have the experience of writing things that may make us ask, "How did I come up with that?" "We / thin gin." It wasn't conscious, though we were conscious when we were writing (and not high or half-asleep or drunk). We organized the words in such a way that they created something eluding our immediately rational grasp; such is creativity. Sometimes too, the poet may want to create a moment, a sensation, of orality/aurality, as music, of images that operate at the level of undecodable figuration (metaphors, similes, etc.), that spark instant allegorical recognition, and so on. "We / strike straight." I don't think Wright goes as far as Stephane Mallarme or later poets (Hart Crane, H.D., Melvin B. Tolson, Russell Atkins, Norman Pritchard, etc.) who wrote poetry that pressed beyond conventional semantic or rational meaning, but in so many great poems, even ones that appear to be transparent formally and in terms of content, there are moments that are not easily assimilable or understandable. Is the highest goal transparency, or something else? We both like Amiri Baraka's poetry; now seriously, can you tell me that on your first or even fifteenth reading, you know exactly what "An Agony. As Now." or "Letter to E. Franklin Frazier" fully means? As with Hendrix or Ella Fitzgerald's scats or Eddie Jefferson's verbalizations, is it always necessary to know, or rather, to know exactly?

"We want to cease. No, we want the body / to cease." (Hamer)

Jarvis (DeBerry), if a person--let's hope no one among the Cave Canem family--experienced a stroke, depending on which lobe or area in the brain was stricken, that person very well might not be able to "enjoy the sunset, Miles Davis's 'So What?' or a hug from a friend." You might be able to still read, or process language, or hear poetry, etc., even though you can no longer hear; or see; or lose a sense of touch or taste.

Finally, a poem is not an instruction manual, though a poem can take that form, and a poet can write a poem that seeks to work in that way. (Even still, the language of the poem may elude or outstrip his intention.) One task of any reader--any reader who cares at all--is to experience the poem not only on the reader's terms (which in any case never fixed), but on the poem's terms as well. Looking at Cummings's or Hughes's or Sanchez's or Schuyler's works as if they could be read like a cookbook or a car manual *is* troubling, but this would be true of any poem, unless the poet specifically wrote the poems to have this function--though we'd also assume, at least from the perspective of poems as poetry, that such a poem would have other functions and convey other kinds of meanings and pleasures as well.

Isn't there more going on in this poem than just what it appears to say; because cummings's poem, like any good work of art, has layers of meaning. Cummings's layers may be more evident than works that appear to be formally and thematically transparent--works that might lead us to read them simplistically, to simply "feel" them, which is perfectly fine, depending on what you want out of a work of art.

"What did I know, what did I know / of love's austere and lonely offices?" (Hayden)

Copyright © John Keene, 2005.

Sunday, April 24, 2005

Poems: Hughes + Knight

Here are two of the better known works in the African American and American literary canons, Langston Hughes's (1902-1967) poem "Dream Deferred," and Etheridge Knight's (1931-1991) "Hard Rock Returns to Prison from the Hospital for the Criminal Insane."

I thought of posting them after skimming an early-posted New York Times April 25, 2005 article, Nation's Inmate Population Increased 2.3 Percent Last Year. According to the AP, despite the drop in crime over the past decade, the number of people being incarcerated is still outpacing the number released. What the article doesn't mention, but what Frederick Douglass pointed out over 125 years ago, is that Black people are disproportionately affected. (One figure I recall is that at any given moment nowadays, 1 out of every 4 African American men are somehow involved in or touched by some aspect of the penal system.)

Although Hughes's poem doesn't refer directly this crisis, it does aptly capture, in its unforgettable lyric the psychic and spiritual condition of so many who've passed through the defunct public educational system, who are politically, economically and socially marginalized, and who've been subjected to American in-justice through the prison industrial complex. In turn Knight, who actually was imprisoned for a while, writes directly from the inside, from this imprisoned interior space, in many of his works, especially the Hard Rock poems. Angela Davis and numerous other intellectuals and activists have called attention to the need for reforming the justice system in this country, and these two poems contribute to that vitally important appeal.


by Langston Hughes

What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
Like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore--
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over--
like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?

Copyright © Estate of Langston Hughes.


by Etheridge Knight

Hard Rock / was / "known not to take no shit
From nobody," and he had the scars to prove it:
Split purple lips, lumbed ears, welts above
His yellow eyes, and one long scar that cut
Across his temple and plowed through a thick
Canopy of kinky hair.

The WORD / was / that Hard Rock wasn't a mean nigger
Anymore, that the doctors had bored a hole in his head,
Cut out part of his brain, and shot electricity
Through the rest. When they brought Hard Rock back,
Handcuffed and chained, he was turned loose,
Like a freshly gelded stallion, to try his new status.
And we all waited and watched, like a herd of sheep,
To see if the WORD was true.

As we waited we wrapped ourselves in the cloak
Of his exploits: "Man, the last time, it took eight
Screws to put him in the Hole." "Yeah, remember when he
Smacked the captain with his dinner tray?" "He set
The record for time in the Hole--67 straight days!"
"Ol Hard Rock! man, that's one crazy nigger."
And then the jewel of a myth that Hard Rock had once bit
A screw on the thumb and poisoned him with syphilitic spit.

The testing came, to see if Hard Rock was really tame.
A hillbilly called him a black son of a bitch
And didn't lose his teeth, a screw who knew Hard Rock
From before shook him down and barked in his face.
And Hard Rock did nothing. Just grinned and looked silly,
His eyes empty like knot holes in a fence.

And even after we discovered that it took Hard Rock
Exactly 3 minutes to tell you his first name,
We told ourselves that he had just wised up,
Was being cool; but we could not fool ourselves for long,
And we turned away, our eyes on the ground. Crushed.
He had been our Destroyer, the doer of things
We dreamed of doing but could not bring ourselves to do,
The fears of years, like a biting whip,
Had cut deep bloody grooves
Across our backs.

Copyright © Estate of Etheridge Knight.

Saturday, April 23, 2005

Blackbirds-Alternate Adress [sic]

Today in my e-mail box I got the following post-poem from David Rosenmann-Heilig, who may or may not be the Valencian word-daemon also known as Isaak Calderón, a/k/a NovaLux a/k/a Dolcísima (Tagoror). In fact, IC has so many aliases, alter egos and noms de plume et de cacher issuing torrents of verbiage I can barely keep up. Some of his Spanish compatriots have thrown up (at) their keyboards in despair. At any rate, I think DRH and IC are the same (or closely linked) because among the fifty plus posts I've gotten from him in the last few months, a number have invoked the name and theme of blackbirds (los mirlos), directed both playfully and cuttingly at both Francisco Mejía (who's Dominican-American) and me. To school him on the subtleties of blackbirdery I sent Stevens's "Thirteen Ways," and intend to e-mail him Thylias Moss's and Raymond Patterson's takes on black(bird)ness, as well as Hayden's "A Plague of Starlings," when I have them handy.

Here's the most recent missive (all orthography is his), as usual in multiple languages, with snippets of song and rap lyrics, broken meter, references to the European literary and philosophical tradition, and a constructed metaphysics that obsesses him:

BLACKBIRDS - Alternate Adress

Da eight inmortals of the blood cup.
Here we are.
I´m singing from the moon to the noon.
Después mezclaré: necesito que hagamos músika.
Poemas cantados, claro. Yo lo que mejor sé hacer es bailar
cantar, componer y tocar cuerda. ¡ Tonoi !
Un abrazo. Prefiero yahoo: perdonad por lo de hotmail,
pero es que recibo millones de ataques por segundo a todas mis cuentas.
No sé por qué será: yo sólo quiero cantar, reír & amar.
Días de vino y rosas sagradísimas.
Repito: Ist nicht heilig mein herz, schöneren lebens voll, seit ich liebe?

Sometimes if the posts are interesting enough I save them, but many I just delete. Today I decided to toss off a response to Rosenmann-Heilig/Calderón. I gave myself exactly ten minutes (plus revisions), and said I'd use at least one language other than German and write as lyrically as possible, without aiming for sense. A remix.

BLACKBIRDS Alternate Remix

by JK (Mirlíssimo)

Are we da eight blackbirds of the cup of blood?
Does the octagonal pen still guide us towards nightfall?
After mixing, what funky samples linger on the threshold?
If the fingers on the LP are cold, who will elevate the singer?
Are we the fate of the black flight of brotherhood?
What's it mean to remix if not even the heart is listening?
Misturamos de novo mas já ficamos sob os lénçois branqueados.
Poderemos cantar como mirlo pero sin amago, sin amargor.
Cantantes poetizadas, claro, que pueden bailarlo.
Prefiero la música de las palavras negras sobre el grito del silencio blanco.
Noches de corazones y garrafas hablantes sentidísimas.
With each new song the world learns to live in us.
No sé por qué passará: yo sólo quiero pensar, vivir y amar.
My heart fills with toxic rivers and SUVs, but it spins
and soars towards the blackest and most distant stars.

Nope, it doesn't make (that much) sense, but it was fun to pen. I'm interested to see what he writes back. The bit about the mixing and bleaching and the toxic rivers and SUVs, though, are, as we all know, a little too real to be completely dismissed.

Friday, April 22, 2005

Brathwaite Update + Films+ Anzi Props + Poems

KamauA week or two ago I posted "Cowpastor Vandal," about the Bajan writer, scholar and activist Kamau Brathwaite's struggle to preserve the open, common land near his home, CowPastor, in Barbados, which is now being transformed by what I take to be real estate development interests. His original plea, written in his inimitable style, has now circulated far and wide, and many people have responded with e-mails of support and encouragement. I personally responded to Kamau and learned from him that things have actually worsened since the original "grito," as he called it, but he also sent me list of contacts whom I and others could press about what was happening there.

Responding to that original "grito," the poet Tom Raworth has set up a site specifically to aid Kamau's appeal, and the poet Jordan Stempleman has posted an updated list of the contacts Kamau sent around. I urge everyone to read the original letter, and consider writing a note to the various authorities (cc'ing Kamau in the process) letting them know how important it is to preserve Barbados's common lands, and how valued Kamau is, as a wordsmith, teacher and visionary.

FaulconMufasa T. has forwarded information about a new film, titled Strange Fruit, that is making the rounds of national and international festivals. Directed by Kyle Schickner, whose previous films include the porn spoof Full Frontal (not the Soderberg film!) and produced by Schickner's Fencesitter Films, it stars the handsome actor Kent Faulcon (at right) as William Boyals, a Black, gay/sgl New York-based lawyer who returns to his native rural Louisiana to investigate the death of a gay friend from his youth, only to find himself confronting his own and the town's many demons. According to its press release, the film explicitly tackles racism and homophobia. I haven't seen Strange Fruit yet, but it looks captivating, and by any measure it's the kind of scenario, especially starring a predominantly-Black cast and set in the rural South, that we rarely see coming out of Hollywood.

The movie's Website features a trailer and lists some of the festivals where it has played or will screen, but no information on whether it's going to be nationally distributed in theaters yet. I hope it will be, even if in a limited run, and that it also will be broadcast on cable (Sundance I or II, perhaps? IFC? BET Starz?) so that a broader viewership can see it.

Fellow blogger, Web savant and old friend Donald A. Agarrat recently learned that he was selected as one of 10 winners in the jen bekman gallery's spring photography competition "Hey, Hot Shot!" This is wonderful news and a well deserved honor for Donald's photographic work, which I fell in love with some time ago. The jen bekman gallery (at 6 Spring Street in SoHo) will be hosting a show for the winners, with the vernissage slated for the evening of Thursday, May 5, 2005.

I particularly love Donald's multiple exposure shots, my favorite of which is viewable on Steven G. Fullwood's site (he loves it too!). Congratulations, Donald!

Recently McDonald's, which was founded in Chicago more than half a century ago, erected a new River North (600 N. Clark) restaurant that is the talk of architectural circles both in and outside the city. The new behemoth (and it is huge!), which was designed by Daniel Wohlfeil, McDonald's director of worldwide development, appears to take the notion of supersizing to its literal, material conclusions. It's "Mickey Ds on steroids," to quote Chicago Tribune architectural critic Blair Kamin's April 17, 2005 article.

Apparently a trio of noted architects were invited to design this building, but McDonald's corporate hierarchy scrapped their plans, some of which are online, and went with Wohlfeil's inverted pyramidal box. D'oh! I plan to check it out this evening, which should be Happy Meal enough!


I can only go so many days without posting poems, you know. Here's two: the first is by Karlo Mila (1974-), a Tongan-Pilagi-Samoan poet living in New Zealand; the second is by Ray A. Young Bear (1951-), a Meskwakie Indian poet whose work I had the pleasure of publishing about a decade ago.


by Karlo Mila

the poet told us
there was a beach
but a hurricane came
and swallowed it up

there was also a nation of people
but a New Zealand sponsored
just as hungry
swept away people like grains of sand

with the help of
longremembered newfound family
he finds the old foundations
where hibiscus trees grow wild
with memories of his mother

using a new machete
he follows the old tracks

to a not so distant past
meeting his ancestors along the way
capturing them on canvas
mapping out their stories
so they will
never be lost

and his own children
will be able to find them

Copyright © 2005, Karlo Mila, all rights reserved.


by Ray A. Young Bear

An immature black eagle walks assuredly
across a prairie meadow. He pauses in mid-step
with one talon over the wet snow to turn
around and see.

Imprinted in the tall grass behind him
are the shadows of his tracks,
claws instead of talons, the kind
that belong to a massive bear.
And he goes by that name:
Ma kwi so ta.

And so this aegis looms against the last
spring blizzard. We discover he's concerned
and the white feathers of his spotted hat
flicker, signalling this.

With outstretched wings he tests the sutures.
Even he is subject to physical wounds and human
tragedy, he tells us.

The eyes of the Bear-King radiate through
the thick, falling snow. He meditates the loss
of my younger brother--and by custom
suppresses his emotions.

Copyright © 1996 by Ray A. Young Bear

Thursday, April 21, 2005

Asian American Studies Conference + Yoruba

AA Strike PhotoThis past weekend at the Asian American Studies Conference (Activism, Ethnic Studies, Diaspora, and Beyond: Commemorating the 1995 Hunger Strike for Asian American Studies), I got to hear and spend a little time with some writers who are leaders in advancing new possibilities for what poetry, and the arts in general, can do, including Tan Lin (whom I mentioned a few columns ago), Mei-Mei Berssenbrugge (whom I hadn't seen read since I was an undergraduate, back in the late 1980s), and Brian Kim Stefans (someone had left one of his chapbooks lying on a table with discarded programs, so I after asking around, I took it as a gift!). A revelation was Max Yeh, who wrote Beginning of the East (a singular work that he calls "history," but which has been marketed by his publishers as "fiction") and read from an unpublished manuscript that explored the letters that the Emperor of China exchanged with Miguel de Cervantes (who knew?).

Other writers present whom I got to break bread with included Ed Roberson (who gave one of the best readings we hosted all year during the winter quarter with Cecil Giscombe) and Stephanie Strickland (a visiting writer at Columbia College who, like Tan and Brian, also has created a range of digital and online projects).

My colleague Dorothy Wang, who played a major role in organizing the conference and inviting these writers, deserves mega props. (She powerfully framed what these writers were doing, which is to say, writing outside the assumed and expected racial, ethnic and cultural markers, using multivalent forms and structures, while still functioning within and through subjectivities and subject positions shaped by their being Asian Americans. This is hard enough for people to grasp when addressing Black experimental writing, and it's no less difficult when discussing parallel work by Asian Americans.)

Some of the quotes I took down included:
  • "A poem is just a machine for words" (Lin)
  • "All poems should be written over and over" (Lin)
  • "things they love becoming weapons they love" (Lin--from Ambient Stylistics, his sampled novel)
  • "Palindrome in Chinese is shen ji tu, or "spinning mirrors" (Yeh)--he also mentioned that because of its structure (being not a grapholexic language), Chinese actually has an 840-character palindrome! [My extemporaneous (on Saturday, that is) palindrome: "O beat it, I tae-bo." (I know it's really bad, but....)] This led him to comment that in fact Chinese "isn't a language," at least not as we think of language in the West. Max also talked about the Chinese practice of extensive borrowing from previous sources, which led me to mention to him Benjamin's brief and seductive mention of the Chinese scholar's practice of this in One Way Street, which I've subjected some of my students to over the years.) He also spoke of the difficulties inherent in Chinese for political organizing, since it is a language that functions, to a great degree, in vagueness (no tenses, a very different sense of how nouns, adjectives, etc. function, and so on)--and this got us to talking about the inherent possibilities in a language like English, which can be both precise and vague, or German, and so on, and how this has borne out over history. It got me to thinking about Ong's discussion of oral language vs. grapholects, though I haven't formulated a clear enough thought on it to make any pronouncements.
  • "[The poem or novel] is a supplement to history" (David Eng, scholar and Rutgers prof)

One writer present especially important to me that I got to hang with for a short bit was Ishmael Reed, who gave one of his ferocious and intellectually provocative talks. He even called himself a "conservative," though he was, as always, quite critical of what passes for right-wing (and simplistic left-wing) critical thought in this society. I always think of him as a "conservator," in a way--not backwards looking, but someone whose career at many points, not only as a writer, but as an artistic and social activist, has been to create and conserve spaces for creativity that challenge the dangerous assumptions that emanate from what passes as the "mainstream." Berssenbrugge, literary pioneer Frank Chin, and Lawson Fusao Inada (author of Legends from Camp) were among the Asian American writers Ishmael was publishing when few others were; and as he noted, in his 19 Necromancers from Now, in adddition to Chin, he also included Victor Hernández Cruz, the noted Puerto Rican writer and author of Snaps and Red Beans, at a time when many anthologies were closing ranks around racial and ethnic essentialities (and non-whites in general were still being excluded, as now, from the mainstream ones).

FiguresI'll say more about Ishmael's comments at another point, but before the reading on Saturday, he, Brian Kim Stefans and I were chatting about learning languages outside the lecture hall. Brian was telling us that he was currently learning Korean, and Ishmael was discussing how he'd recently been to Japan, where his last novel, Japanese by Spring, which was tepidly received in this country, was still being celebrated. Though Japanese is one focus of that book, Yoruba is another, and he said that he thought Yoruba was even harder than Japanese. (I've tried to teach myself Yoruba, and I must say, it was very difficult going, so I bagged off it for a while.) As we were talking, I silently vowed to myself that I'd go back to Yoruba at some point to refamiliarize myself with it, but I also recalled a site that I came across a few months ago: Yoruba, a celebration of Yoruba Culture.

It's a cool but very simple Webspace, with information on the Yoruba, a gallery of Yoruba artworks, a fun poetry generator and visual prompts, and activity sheets you could use in school classrooms.

Here's one of the poems created by the "Poetry in Motion" generator:

this black paper
plays like a
child and
jumps like
the night

It's not a masterpiece, but a charged little kernel of simile and, like haiku, concrete imagery. Check out the links to the various poets' works and the Yoruba Culture site.

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Mendi + Keith Obadike's 4-1-9 + Soucouyant's Props

Mendi + Keith Obadike are two of the most exciting younger artists I know. Working in and across forms and formal strategies, separately (Mendi/mlo is also an exceptional poet and the author of the award-winning collection Flesh and Armor, and Keith is a sound and virtual artificer) and together, they have created a number of projects that expand our notions of what conceptual, online, musical-dramatic-operatic, sculptural, language, and performance art, which is to say, contemporary art, can be. Under the blogroll to the right, you can find mlo's readings of the world via the Sweat links, and more of her and Keith's individual projects are available via the Mendi + Keith link.

Their newest project is called "4-1-9, OR YOU CAN'T VIEW A MASQUERADE BY STANDING IN ONE PLACE." One aspect of it, a reprogrammed ATM (!), is on display (performance?) through June 9, at the New Museum of Contemporary Art, in Chelsea. However there is an online component which you can access via this link (it worked best on my Mac in Safari, rather than Firefox). They'll be performing some of the songs based on the letters live later this month, so if you're in NYC, check them out. This project, to say the least, initiates a new aesthetic economy.

Here's what Mendi has to say about the project:

Hi guys, Just sending this note to let you know about a new work about "Nigerian" email scams. A few months ago I mentioned in an offhand way that trying to purchase an ATM was connected to defining "ars poetica" in my world. That was a reference to some new things I am trying to figure out about (1) found language (i was going to say found poetry, but i am thinking about what it is before it is encountered as a poem) and (2) sculptural objects and poetry. The latest project is a moment in this exploration.

The website has songs, an online game, and an interactive form, which I hope some of you will fill out. We're making songs from the responses and will perform some of them in late May. There's more below.

More Info:


musical suite based on email scams. 4-1-9 is the name for a fund
transfer scam or con commonly believed to originate from Nigeria. Each
email tells the story of a modern African tragedy in fewer than five
hundred words. These letters are actually created around the world.
However, they often use names and locations that are particular to
Nigeria or other parts of Africa. What idea of Africa do the composers
of these letters hope to invoke?

Housed in an ATM machine at the New Museum of Contemporary Art, the
project explores the structure of tragedy, archetypal African
identities on the web, and the notion of scams. At the website, you can
listen to songs based on the letters, use our form to create your own
4-1-9 letter, and play the online game, BALANCE.

WHAT: Airborne, an exhibition about wireless communication
WHERE: New Museum of Contemporary Art
556 West 22nd Street (at 11th Avenue) NYC 10011
PHONE: 212-219-1222

An excerpt of songs from this collection will be performed
on May 19, 7pm, 133 Beekman St., New York
for the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council

I tried it out and left re-evaluating my responses to the river of flow of spam I receive, particularly from the "surviving" relatives of the late Nigerian dictator Ibrahim Babangida or the "children" of one of the various leading factions in Liberia's horrific war. I also played the Pong-like game BALANCE, and listened to the audio files, which I amplified so they created atmospherics in my Chi living room/study.

Also, I wanted to give props to Ms. Soucouyant (can I mention your name?), who won a prestigious NYFA grant for her poetry!

As her blog makes clear, she is a fabulous writer and person, maintaining her determination and composure despite her vicissitudes in the NYC public school system. I have to add that Ms. Soucouyant also is one of the most natural talents I've ever seen behind a microphone. When she's performing, she has complete command of your attention and the performative space. (Just imagine her posted dialogues and recounts of The L Word live!) She's already produced some great work, and this grant will only help her create much more. Congratulations!