Sunday, April 30, 2006

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

MTV's Yo Momma's Racism + Vishwanathan Flap

Speaking of TV, I'm not sure if any of Jstheater's regular or periodic readers have caught the MTV show Yo Momma, hosted and produced by former That 70s Show star Wilmer Valderrama (photo at left, in center, with co-hosts Jason on the left, Sam on the right).

If you haven't you aren't missing anything of note, but if you have watched the show, I have to ask if you're as disturbed as I am by how this show, piggybacking on the current Nick Cannon-inspired vogue of using what has historically been an important form of African-American cultural performance--known as "joning," "signifying," "snapping," "the dozens," trash-talking, etc.--employs this insult-trading to supposedly witty and comic ends but with the ultimate result of regularly reinforcing extremely hateful, racist and white supremacist notions about Blackness. In particular, many of the insults traffic in the most negative, deprecatorily retrograde ideas about skin color, sub-Saharan African-descended facial physiognomy and hair and body traits. To put it more simply, if you're black--dark-skinned--on this show, you betta get back, because there's nothing worse or more insulting--here cast as humorous--that anyone can toss out.

The fall-back insult for many of the comedic winners, who're cheered on by their home crews and selected by Valderrama and his judging partners, is often a degrading comment about nappy hair ("the back of your head looks like pubic hair"), dark skin ("Yo mama so dark I couldn't see her"), a broad or wide nose or big lips, etc. Black is the (new, old) abject. The few times I have caught the show the final contestants have usually been two Black people trading these insults, and it is particularly in these instances that the troubling color and physiognomical (word?) hierarchies come to the fore. It's hardly an insight to note the ongoing power of colorism and color fetish, in Black or other communities (including White ones) in the US or across the globe, or the inhering power of white skin privilege and racial supremacy in the mass media; but this show, which is sometimes truly funny, appears to be a perfectly dangerous vehicle to reinforce and reinscribe them, especially for younger viewers. (Dave Chappelle's skit in which he plays a (badly white-faced) White judge who contemptuously labels a black defendent a "big-lipped beast" runs through my mind every time one of the comics snaps off a piece of her or his opponent in this way.)

Neither Valderrama nor his assistants ever steps in--as that would defeat the purpose of the show. The celebrity guests also say nothing, though ironically I did see Houston rapper Mike Jones's eyes widen to cyclone size after one set of exchanges. Several of the competitors have tried "You so _(signifier other than black)_" jokes, but it's clear that the subtext is that, unless the participant is identifiably not Black and tired stereotypes for her or his group can be trotted out (and this has happened with Latinos and Asians), Blackness, especially racially marked, physically represented Blackness, becomes the ultimate, negative limit of signification. I won't be watching the show again, though I almost feel like with programs of this sort, someone needs to be monitoring it, as it's of a course with a subtle racial backsliding and use of psychic, symbolic violence that masquerades as the product of a new liberalness and progressiveness.

I actually received an email about this, though the writer's focus was on the White participants who were using the "You're so Black" formula and the "N" word. As problematic as both are, the general acceptance of retrograde racist and hierarchically colorist assumptions about beauty, physiognomy and so on, in the name of "humor" and "wit" are far more troubling to me. As has so often been the case with the TV media over the last few decades, I think, MTV may be leading the way.


VishwanathanIt all sounded so...novelistic. Kaavya Viswanathan (at right, photo from a rising Harvard sophomore, secured a $500,000 two-book contract at age 17, and a Dream Works option, for her first novel How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life*, an autobiographically based narrative about a smart but too-narrowly-focused young Indian-American high school student whose father strategizes to get her into...guess where...Harvard! When I mentioned what I'd heard of Viswanathan's book deal to my graduate fiction class this past winter, they all groaned. All were older than 21 and thus beyond the age of "boy/girl wonderdom" that the publishing industry so fetishizes, and none were at Harvard, the institution whose very name alone sends the New York Times, still one of the major arbiters of (high) literary culture in this country, into sustained paroxysms.

Unfortunately, it appears that Viswanathan borrowed passages, almost wholesale, from author Megan McCafferty's novel Sloppy Firsts (and another, Second Helpings?) without attribution. Or her "book packaging" company did. (Say what?) A reader alerted McCafferty and her publisher, the Harvard Crimson newspaper got on the case, as did other media outlets, and thus the brouhaha began. Whatever the case may be, Vishwanathan's selections appear to be clearcut cases of plagiarism. If you use exact or near exact phrases and don't give credit, it's a problem. Viswanathan, apologizing, says that she "internalized" Megan McCafferty's work. Random House, McCafferty's publisher, however, isn't accepting the excuse for now. McCafferty, for her part, suggested that young novelists find "their own voice." This sometimes is a long process, of course, and overlooks the fact that it was once common practice for beginning authors to write out and copy the work of predecessors, or to use them as guides. It also passes over the point that a number of well-known authors have "borrowed," sometimes with little or no attribution, texts, phrases, plots, and more, of peers or antecedents. Guy Davenport, a sublimely inventive fiction writer and thinker, reprinted a section of Robert Louis Stevenson's Robinson Crusoe, with slight modifications, I believe, and labeled it "Home." The late writer Kathy Acker openly admitted that she plagiarized as a critical strategy and in several of her works--her version of Great Expectations comes to mind--raised the technique to an art.

Then there is that issue of "cryptomnesia," or unconscious borrowing or theft, though perhaps that deserves more extensive discussion if the case goes to court.

Harvard meanwhile is looking into the matter seriously as Viswanathan is making media rounds, appearing this morning on the Today Show, to defend herself. She says she will change the passages completely in the next edition. (Hint: get yours before the first are completely sold out.) The Crimson editorial staff opines, and its verdict on the Harvard undergrad isn't pleasant. The New York Times asks the question I'm most curious about, which is: what on earth was the role of the "book packager"?
*This has to be one of the worst novel titles I've ever heard of. Too long, too trite, too close to Terry McMillan's blockbuster, and utterly grating on the ear. Please, Ms. Viswanathan and Little Brown, don't just change the passages in the book, change its title!

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Quote: Edgardo Rodríguez Juliá

Clemente"The extraordinary appearance of [Roberto] Clemente always helped him to reach those heroic dimensions. He was born as much for baseball as for photographs, busts and statues. That aspect was accentuated with an aristocratic gravity that convinced one as if it were another feature, more than his virile and Apollonian beauty. While the smile of Peruchín ([the Little Bull] Orlando Cepeda) always insinuated that easy-going confidence like my homeboy that went back to his origins in Santurce, back there in the space of the saoco* and Sunoco, Clemente even when he was smiling didn't lower his guard, in his persistence to prove himself, as a Black Puerto Rican baseball player, worthy of the greatest respect. In him there was something tense and fateful, as he hit those three thousand unstoppable balls; it was the Apollonian Kabbalah, the one of an ambition in which no excess fits, neither more nor les. He was a man touched by perfection. Peruchín, by comparison, is pure Dionysian exaltation."
--Edgardo Rodríguez Juliá, from Peloteros (San Juan: Editorial de la Universidad de Puerto Rico, 1997), p. 37. (My translation)
*Saoco is a drink that mixes rum and coconut milk.

In this past weekend's Newark Star-Ledger, sportswriter Allen Barra strongly praises David Maraniss's new biography, Roberto Clemente: The Passion and Grace of Baseball's Last Hero. Clemente was more than just one of the finest batters and fielders, and a widely praised humanitarian; according to Barra's account of Maraniss's book, he was also a pathblazer in other notable ways, including being one of the first players on this team to join the union and, as Rodríguez Juliá notes in the passage above, outspoken against racial or ethnic prejudice.

Monday, April 24, 2006

Nubian on Quitting Blogging + Mendi on Duke Mess

Nubian has a great post I've only belatedly come across, about her and similar blogs' lack of recognition, marginalization, cooption (in terms of their ideas), and so on. More than once I've felt the same way, though for me it has little to do with recognition and more to do with a desire for dialogue and engagement, which has only periodically come. I take this is part of being neither fully insect nor fowl, not showing enough flesh or sharing personal information, not mentioning celebrities frequently enough nor tapping out interesting enough philosophical or political posts in advance of their broader discussion on the net. I also don't remain within a few obvious constituencies though I do return to regular concerns. All in all, I don't expect a lot of readers and would imagine that most blogs that are regularly posting certain kinds of material yet who don't have natural or particularized constituencies wouldn't have them. So what does a blogger who wants to contribute and shape certain types of discourses do? Nubian poses this importan question. Check out what she has to say.


Mendi O. of Sweat has a very brief but important piece up on the "disaster at Duke," as she terms it. It quotes scholar Wahneemia Lubiano on the need for ways to present the everydayness, the prosaicness, the regularity and routine, of racism, racial, sexual, class and gendered hierarchies and violence. I strongly agree and can attest that we all live it. It's in our blood, our bodies, our bones, the streets we walk and drive, the school rooms and cubicles we inhabit, the images and sounds that are integral to our lifeworld. There is everything that precedes and follows the spectacle, that doesn't pass unnoticed, to all of us, even as it allegedly, seemingly does....

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Why Wilbur? + Shawn Crawford Back on the Track

WilburI saw yesterday that 85-year-old poet Richard Wilbur had received the Poetry Foundation's $100,000 Ruth Lilly Prize. Wilbur is a former US Poet Laureate and two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize in 1957, for Things of this World, which appeared the same year as Howl, Some Trees, and other notable books of poetry, and in 1989, for his New and Collected Poems, which edged out volumes by Donald Hall and Garrett Hongo. (No Asian-American or Latino-American poet has ever received the Pulitzer Prize in the poetry category.) The editor of Poetry magazine, a former colleague of mine whom I respect quite a bit, Christian Wiman, remarked of the winner that "If you had to put all your money on one living poet whose work will be read in a hundred years, Richard Wilbur would be a good bet." I have been thinking about this repeatedly since I read it, and have to disagree. Strongly. Do (m)any poets nowadays read Richard Wilbur's work? Did they do so 20 years ago? 40? Can anyone--any reader out there, without looking one up--name a book of Richard Wilbur's poems (The Beautiful Changes, his first volume, comes to mind)? Does anyone teach his work? Who would these potential readers 100 years on be?

At one point in a John Ashbery interview I came across years ago he remarked that back when he began publishing his work in the 1950s, Wilbur already was considered somewhat old-fashioned, and in light of the achievements of the American Modernist poets, the writers of the Harlem Renaissance, the Projectivists, the the Beat Poets and the writers of the San Francisco Renaissance poets, the Black Mountain School, the New York School poets, the writers gathered around Russell Atkins in Detroit, Lowell's dawning confessionalism and Plath's early work, and many other groups and individual figures who emerged by the late 1950s, one would have to conclude that Wilbur's formalist verse, while accomplished and graceful, was (and is) somewhat old-fashioned even half a century ago. I can recall a moment during a brief stay a few years ago that I had at Yaddo, the writer's colony up in Saratoga Springs, when I came across a book of Wilbur's poetry and found one poem, about bats, that enchanted me a bit. When I mentioned it to the poets at my dinner table, they scoffed, though gently, and took my enthusiasm as not unsurprising given that I was supposedly engaged in writing fiction. I found Wilbur's skillfulness with meter and rhyme instructive, but I wasn't intending to write a poem like it and when I do encounter a poem like, I usually skip right over it.

In fact, I would much rather read Wallace Stevens's poems than Wilbur's; the latter's early work shows the strong influence of the Connecticut versifier, but lacks Stevens's moments of inscrutability, silliness, rebarbartiveness, opacity--his strangeness and uniqueness that, at their best, make his poetry among the most important ever written by an American. From what I know of Wilbur's person politics (and attitudes towards Blacks and other people of color and women), I'll take them over Stevens's any day, but as for their poetry.... Donald Hall is quoted on the Modern American Poetry site saying back in 1961 that "The typical ghastly poem of the fifties was a Wilbur poem not written by Wilbur...a poem with tired wit and obvious comparisons and nothing to keep the mind or the ear occupied." It notes that "Hall added presciently: 'It wasn’t Wilbur’s fault, though I expect he will be asked to suffer for it.'" The article itself includes near its end the following appraisal: "Even though he is an outstanding example, he excels in a debased category. Among minor poets he is allowed to be most major, but among major poets he is not even considered the most minor."

Here's a Richard Wilbur poem, from, the Academy of American Poets' site:


by Richard Wilbur

Your voice, with clear location of June days,
Called me outside the window. You were there,
Light yet composed, as in the just soft stare
Of uncontested summer all things raise
Plainly their seeming into seamless air.

Then your love looked as simple and entire
As that picked pear you tossed me, and your face
As legible as pearskin's fleck and trace,
Which promise always wine, by mottled fire
More fatal fleshed than ever human grace.

And your gay gift—Oh when I saw it fall
Into my hands, through all that naïve light,
It seemed as blessed with truth and new delight
As must have been the first great gift of all.

"June Light" represents a fine example of a poem that deploys a 14-line, sonnet-like form, with an conventional meter (iambic pentameter with variations) and rhyme scheme, and that also skillfully presents a progression
of imagery and metaphoric language within a small frame. Wilbur demonstrates skill both with its surface and with the statement it contains--but there is an air of mustiness about this poem that all its linguistic beauty cannot dispel. "Pearskin's fleck and trace?" "Fatal fleshed?" "Mottled fire?" "Gay gift?" Interestingly enough, I do think that many poets who work regularly with rhyme could learn something from Wilbur, but beyond its instructiveness, who is going to turn to this poem first? Or even tenth? Today?

All of which is to say, what would lead Wiman to his assessment? Stepping outside the particular politics or aesthetic affinities of Poetry today, aren't there at least 50 living poets, especially poets alive from the late 20th century, including poets who Poetry publishes, who readers of 100 years from now, if there are poetry readers 100 years from now (and I think there will be), would be reading? If you look back to the work of most of the non-Modernist Establishment poets who were acclaimed in the 1940s and 1950s, who remembers them or reads their work? Who even teaches it? (Peter Viereck, who received the Pulitzer Prize in 1949 and is now 90 years old, is probably better known as a historian and influential conservative than a noted poet.) Even accounting as well for academic interests and the rehabilitation of lost or forgotten poets, will Wilbur's poetry be what future readers turn to, readily, willingly, easily? I don't think I'd bet my money on it.


Some readers may remember US Olympic sprinter Shawn Crawford (at right, photo Nick Krug), who'd made his name back in 2003 when he participated in a neo-Darwinian era race (racial) spectacle for Fox's (surprise!) "Man vs. Beast" TV show (I'm not making this up) against a giraffe and a zebra (he beat the first and lost to the second), received the silver medal in the 100 (after a bit of showboating in a prelim) and 4x100 meter races, and the gold in the 200 at the 2004 Athens Summer Olympics. (Al Campanis could be heard jumping up and down in his grave.)

Last year was tough for the stunning South Carolina native and Clemson alumnus. He suffered from injuries to both feet, and as a result had a sub-par year, but he's back on the track and as he told the Lawrence Journal-World and 6 News, "I’m just trying to get back up on the pedestal, getting in running shape and being at that elite level again." He races this weekend in the 100 m at the Kansas Relays. I can't wait for the track and field season to start up in earnest!

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Poem: Mei-Mei Berssenbrugge

BerssenbruggeHere's a poem by a poet, Mei-Mei Berssenbrugge, whom I first encountered as an undergraduate (thanks to Ishmael Reed, who invited her to campus and urged us all to go hear her read). I think I said hello, but was too shy to say much else beyond offering praise for poems, which were unlike anything I'd seen up to that point.

Her sensuous, prismatic collection The Heat Bird (Burning Deck) was one of the first books of poetry I bought to read for pleasure as an adult, rather than for a class, and though I enjoyed it almost immediately, it took me years to fathom what was going on in it, to decipher--as Sylvia Wynter would say--what it was doing, rather than to interpret it as I'd been trained to do.

I finally got to chat with Berssenbrugge at length last year when she came to read at the university, and got to spend a little time with her and another colleague, Dorothy Wang, just talking about poetry. She wanted to see the lake (Michigan), so Dorothy and I walked with her towards the shore in Evanston, and it was then that I learned that she was married to one of the artists she'd collaborated with in the past, Richard Tuttle. I've nabbed the poem excerpt below from the Dia Center for the Art's poetry pages, though it also appears on this wonderful page, Intercapillary Space (from which I've borrowed the photo of Berssenbrugge above), which has lots of great links on her and her work. She has a new book out, entitled I Love Artists (California), which I am going to get as soon as I can.



I tried to complete a life circumstance like a building, loose in space on
used land.

I made a shape against sky on flat land like a cut in the weeds, but I got
bored and didn't finish.

Concrete surfaces need support, and my illness made calculations difficult,
shadows fell like hinges on erasures.

This site is riddled with plastic wood panelling, plastic ducks and
discarded coach lamps.

The iconography doesn't ethically correspond to its cut up and eroded

I make something which as it changes and falls apart, offers no clues to
itself before, as if all shots were mobility frames.

Small daisies grow in the cut, preserving the shape.

Physical significance becomes an area lacking objects, a changing surface
as limit, like the surface and mass of a lake.

Nothing was completed, but there are a lot of sketches.

Actually, I designed two bungalows: the gold leaf, and one later, because
I had missed something.

Gilding was decoration, irrelevant to her private space.

Now, when my work expresses loss or failure, I no longer say, get rid of

© 1999

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Black Gay Men's Campaign + Ireland on Iraqi Gays' Crisis + Juan Goytisolo Profile + Pulitzer Winners

Yesterday evening I received the following info in an email from Bernie of Bejata. It's taking place this evening in New York City:

The Campaign for Black Gay Men's Lives

Invites you
to join others who are concerned about
the lives of Black Gay/SGL Men

We will be working together to:

  • Respond to the city-wide silence concerning the lives of Black Gay Men
  • Challenge homophobia in Black Communities
  • Build community awareness on issues impacting Black Gay Men
Campaign Kick-Off Meeting
Tuesday, April 18th, 2006
6 pm - 9 pm

RSVP at: or 212.828.9393 x137

Refreshments and light foods will be available

119 West 24th Street (btw 7th & 6th aves)
New York, NY 10011
Rooms 610/615 on 6th floor


Iraq & SistaniDoug Ireland of Direland was one of the first US journalists to focus on the dire (no pun intended) situation for LGBTs in Iran under that country's fanatical, defiant president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, against whom the US may or may not have already initiated a war. Ireland has continued his fine and important reportage on this part of the world, concentrating most recently on the terrible situation gays in Iraq face. Most American reporting on the US has covered the daily bombings, the US military casualties, the nascent (or ongoing, depending upon whose perspective is taken) civil war between the Sunnis and Shiites, or among the Shiite faction, and the overall success or failure of George W. Bush's aims and plans. The situation for LGBT people in Iraq, as for Christians and other minorities, has gotten lost in the media's muddle.

Ireland, however, has for the last month been discussing the close links between the grave situation for gays in Iran and Iraq, which derive from the longstanding ties between Iraq's governing Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) coalition and the Iranian mullahs. (This has long been an issue the US media dance around. In effect, US and coalition soldiers have been fighting and dying to install an Islamicist Shiite government in power in Iraq that's closely linked to Iran, thus strategically empowering Iran even more than it was before the fall of Saddam Hussein, an eventuality that as far as I can tell was never on the carousel of rationales given by Bush, PNAC or any of the neocons.) Ireland's March 23, 2006 article in GayCityNews, "Shia Death Squads Target Iraqi Gays," was the first story in the US press to lay out the crises Iraqi gays now face.

Ireland's post yesterday praises the BBC as the "first major news" outlet to cover this topic, and he opens with quotes from Martin McDonough's article:

"I don't want to be gay anymore. When I go out to buy bread, I'm afraid. When the doorbell rings, I think that they have come for me." That is the fear that haunts Hussein, and other gay men in Iraq. They say that since the US-led invasion, gays are being killed because of their sexual orientation.

They blame the increase in violence on the growing influence of religious figures and militia groups in Iraq since Saddam Hussein was ousted. Islam considers homosexuality sinful. A website published in the name of Ayatollah Sistani, Iraq's most revered Shia cleric, says gays should be put to death. "Those who commit sodomy must be killed in the harshest way," says a section of the website dealing with questions of morality. The statement appears on the Arabic section of the website, which is published in the Iranian city of Qom, but not in the English section.

The BBC asked Mr Sistani's representative, Seyed Kashmiri, to explain the ruling. "Homosexuals and lesbians are not killed for practising their inclinations for the first time," Mr Kashmiri said in a response sent via email. "There are certain conditions drawn out by jurists before this punishment can be implemented, which is perhaps similar to the punishment meted out by other heavenly religions." Mr Kashmiri added: "Some rulings that are drawn out by jurists are done so on a theoretical basis. Not everything that is said is implemented."

Yet he also points out that

The BBC failed to note the relationship between the killings of Iraqi gays and the lethal anti-gay pogrom in Iran -- it does not mention that Ayatollah al-Sistani is himself an Iranian, that SCIRI (Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq) is backed by Iran -- its headquarters were in Tehran for more than 20 years during the Saddam Hussein dictatorship -- and that the Badr Corps is financed by Iran. This is common knowlege in Iraq -- indeed, in an important February 17 interview with Le Monde that was ignored by the English-language press, the fact that the salaries of the soldiers of the Badr Corps -- whose death squads are carrying out the "sexual cleansing" campaign of murder of gay Iraqis -- are paid by Iran, was confirmed by Ali Debbagh, a counselor to Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, a member of the Iraqi parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee, and a university professor specializing in religious political parties. And while the BBC report did mention that "there are widespread concerns that large parts of Iraq's police force are under the control of such groups," it omitted the fact that Badr Corps members in Baghdad and elsewhere wear the uniforms of the official police under the control of the Interior Ministry.
The current Iraqi Interior Ministry has come under increasingly withering criticism, both within Iraq and without, for its role in torture and assassinations of Sunnis and some Shiites.

Some of Ireland's previous articles, going back to last summer, on the problems in Iran, include: July 21, 2005 -- Iran Executes Two Gay Teenagers (Updated); August 12 -- Two New Gay Executions Scheduled in Iran, Says Iranian Exile Group; August 17 -- Iran's Deadly Anti-Gay Crackdown: With Two More Executions Scheduled, the Pace of Repression Steps Up. August 25 -- Iran's Anti-Gay Purge Grows: Reports of New Executions. September 8 -- Iran and the Death of Gay Activism. September 20 -- "They'll Kill Me" -- A Gay Iranian Torture Victim Speaks of His Ordeal ; September 29 -- Iranian Gays Urgently Appeal for Help; October 6 -- Canada Introduces UN Resolution Condemning Iran's Human Rights Record; January 27, 2006 -- "A Call to Solidarity: U.S. Gay Groups Must End Their Isolationism. (There are more articles, so definitely check out his site.)

Ireland also has written about the uproar surrounding the announced deportation of gay Iranian refugees by a member of the Netherlands' rightist government, and links to Rob Anderson's November 10, 2005 New Republic article, "How America's Gay Rights Establishment is Failing Gay Iranians."

Although there is so much to criticize concerning Iraqmire, we should not overlook this aspect of the mess, which Bush and Co. helped to create.


Goytisolo"¿Quién sabe donde?" This was the title of a talk I once heard Juan Goytisolo (at right, El give at New York University several years ago. I listened attentively, though I understood only a sliver of it, as I have trouble comprehending the Castilian accent and my grasp of the Spanish idiom was even more rudimentary then than it is today, but what was most important to me was the opportunity to hear a lecture by a writer whose work had played a key role in my intellectual development. (He actually taught during the 1973-74 academic year at NYU, but became regular annual visitor again in the late 1990s to the university's King Juan Carlos I of Spain Center.)

Goytisolo, who like another of my favorite writers, Toni Morrison, turns 75 this year, is one of the most important novelists in the Spanish language and one of the most highly acclaimed formally experimental writers in the world. A native of Barcelona, he lived for much of his adult life in exile in Paris because of the Franco regime, against which he was a harsh critic, but he also been an unwavering critic of the Eurocentric and racist strains in Spanish and European life in general, with some of his most blistering and sublime critiques crystalized in the superb novel Count Julian (La reinvindicación del Conde Julián, 1970), the second in his excellent trilogy that began with Marks of Identity (Señas de identidad, 1969) and concluded with Juan the Landless (Juan sin tierra, 1975). For these three novels alone, I have always thought he deserved the Nobel Prize in Literature.

After completing the trilogy, Goytisolo has gone on to write many other important novels, publish literary criticism and memoirs and, resuming an aspect of his early career, has also penned journalistic several outstanding journalistic pieces. His later fiction includes the highlights Makbara (1980), Landscapes after the Battle (Paisajes después de la batalla, 1982), Quarantine (Quarantina, 1991), and The Garden of Secrets (Las semanas del jardín, 2002), which is comparable to Raymond Queneau's Exercises in Style (Exercises de style, 1947) as a lively, well-written, idiosyncratic manual on the art of storytelling.

What led me to mention Goytisolo today was noted author Fernanda Eberstadt's profile of him in this past Sunday's New York Times Magazine. Entitled "The Anti-Orientalist," Eberstadt's article explores Goytisolo's life and career, with a particular emphasis on his long residence in Morocco, which she relates to his presiding interest in Islamic North Africa and its central role in Spain's history and culture. She also touches upon his enduring political engagement and ideological unorthodoxy, his complex views of (his own) sexuality and his relationship with his late wife, French author Monique Lange, and his ongoing personal and public self-fashioning, which includes his fascinatingly constructed "family" in Marrakesh.

One quote from the opening page of the article:

Yet [Goytisolo] has remained all but unknown in the United States. This oversight may be explained in part by the difficulty of his fiction. He has continued to write in a densely allusive, high-Modernist style, which makes few concessions to the reader. In happier times, Goytisolo's preoccupation with medieval Islam's impact on Western civilization or the plight of Muslim immigrants in contemporary Europe might have made his work seem arcane to American readers. But in the post-9/11 world, this alternative vision often looks prescient. In "Landscapes of War," a collection of essays on the Muslim world that were first published in El País in the 90's, Goytisolo warns repeatedly that radical Islam is mobilizing a generation that has been impoverished and disenfranchised by the disastrous experiments of Arab governments with nationalism and secular socialism, which merely masked the military dictatorships that underpinned them. As for more theocratic regimes like Saudi Arabia's, Goytisolo compares it with Spain's in the centuries following Ferdinand and Isabella's Reconquista: a society characterized by "intransigent homogeneity," "autistic self-absorption and inquisitorial vigilance," whose New World gold (read oil wealth) is spent not on development or reform but on hounding dissidents and quarantining the nobility and clergy in ever more grandiose palaces.

The West is criticized no less starkly. Goytisolo regards Bush's invasion of Iraq, which he described in a recent essay as "the illegitimate war of an illegitimate president," as the crowning catastrophe in a series of American blunders in the Muslim world, extending from U.S. backing in the 80's of both Saddam Hussein and the Taliban to U.S. support of deeply unpopular and repressive regimes in Egypt, North Africa and the gulf states.

There is so more in the piece, which I recommend whether you're familiar with Goytisolo and modern Spanish(-language) literature or not.


Yesterday, the Pulitzer Prize Foundation announced the 2006 recipients of its prizes in journalism, and letters and drama. I want to offer congratulations to a winner and two nominees:

Jarvis DeBerry, a member of the Cave Canem poetry community, was one of the very talented corps of writers at the New Orleans Times-Picayune newspaper whose heroic coverage of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina received the Pulitzer Prize in Journalism in the category of Public Service.

The citation read: "For its heroic, multi-faceted coverage of Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath, making exceptional use of the newspaper's resources to serve an inundated city even after evacuation of the newspaper plant."

In poetry, poet Claudia Emerson received the Pulitzer Prize for her collection, Late Wife (Louisiana State University Press, 2005), though Elizabeth Alexander, one of the outstanding contemporary American poets and a member of the Cave Canem poetry community, was nominated for her fourth book, American Sublime (Graywolf, 2005). Even though she didn't win this time, I think this is a terrific honor for Elizabeth, and can imagine that she will be duly lauded at some point in the (near) future.

In fiction, author Geraldine Brooks received the Pulitzer Prize for her novel, March (Viking, 2005), which treats the fictional experiences of the eponymous character [Mr.] March from Louisa May Alcott's classic 1868 novel Little Women. Also nominated in this category, ironically enough, was E. L. Doctorow's The March, which received the National Book Award and National Book Critics Circle Awards. I was hoping that Doctorow, one of my former professors and a writer whose work I've admired for years, would finally be honored by the Pulitzer committee, but not, it appears, this time through.


Happy Birthday, Victor!

Monday, April 17, 2006

Who Reads Poetry? + The Sinking of Kiribati

Who reads poetry?

This is a question I've pondered quite often, though mainly in terms of who outside the poetry-focused circles I spend a great deal of my time reads poetry. I've often felt I have a better sense of who writes and performs poetry than who reads it, particularly chapbooks, pamphlets, journals, anthologies and books of it.

Some other questions I've also posed to friends, fellow poets and not, my classes and myself include: Why do some people read and listen to poetry throughout their lifetimes? How do people in general perceive poetry, poets, and poetry readers? What prevents people without a strong interest in poetry from reading or listening to it? What steps might be taken to broaden the audience for poetry in the United States? The Poetry Foundation, based in Chicago, actually contracted with the highly regarded Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago to get some answers, some of which were mentioned in Dinitia Smith's article last week, "Arts Briefly: Who Reads Poetry?" (now a costly Times Select/archived article, unfortunately) and the full report, "Who Cares about Poetry? 90% of American Readers, New Study Shows," was posted on the Poetry Foundation's site a week later.

The researchers polled 1,023 self-identified readers. According to Smith:

Seventy-six percent of the total said they read poetry. Overall, the highest percentage of people who read poetry are educated white women. ''But if you look just at the percentage of African-Americans,'' said Norman Bradburn, a senior fellow at the center and a professor emeritus at the University of Chicago, who supervised the study, ''as compared to the percentage of whites, a higher percentage of African-Americans--85 percent of those sampled --are likely to read poetry than of whites.''

She continued:

If you like poetry, according to the study, no matter what your race, there is a better chance that you're athletic, too, and enjoy the company of others. And there isn't necessarily a correlation between having a college degree and being a poetry reader. ''Fifty-six percent of poetry readers have less than a college degree,'' Mr. Bradburn noted.

The first point parallels though differs from the "Reading at Risk" findings that regular readers have higher levels of civic participation. Some other points, straight from the Poetry Foundation's site:

  • Most poetry readers (80 percent) first encounter poetry as children, at home or in school. 77 percent of all readers were read nursery rhymes as children; 45 percent of current poetry readers also had other forms of poetry read to them as children.
  • Poetry readers believe that poetry provides insights into the world around them, keeps the mind sharp, helps them understand themselves and others, and provides comfort and solace.
  • Readers turn to a variety of sources to find poetry: single-author books (77 percent), anthologies (58 percent), television (48 percent), radio (41 percent), the Internet (36 percent), poetry readings (29 percent), poetry magazines (20 percent), reviews/commentaries about poetry (19 percent), poetry slams (12 percent).
  • When people encounter poetry in unexpected places such as newspapers, general-interest magazines, and public events, even non-poetry readers read or listen to it: 99 percent of all adult readers indicated that they have incidentally encountered poetry, and 81 percent reported that they read or listened to the poem when they encountered it.
  • Approximately two-thirds of the respondents thought that both poets and poetry readers are people who are generally respected; 70 percent would like to meet poets, and 66 percent would like to meet poetry readers.
  • Among the most frequently cited reasons that people don't read poetry are lack of time, loss of interest, lack of access, and the perception that poetry is difficult and irrelevant.
  • While more than 80 percent of former poetry readers find poetry difficult to understand, only 2 percent of respondents don't read poetry because they feel it is "too hard."
The full report has even more interesting and enlightening information and presents a more positive portrait of the state of poetry in the US than even many poets might imagine. The question of poetry's miniscule publishing might, in sheer dollar terms, is an important question that isn't fully addressed, however.

I do wonder, however, about the small sample size, and the fact that it comprised only self-identified readers. What about people who don't consider themselves "readers" or read often, which is to say, the sorts of people who were included in the NEA's "Reading at Risk" study. Nevertheless, it's definitely great news for National Poetry Month.


Do you want to get a sense of what life in certain parts of the world may be like if the environmental degradation caused by global warming steadily worsens? Andrew Selverston's article on the Pacific island nation of Kiribati, which is south of Hawai'i, presents one chilling example.


Now that we know what we're doing to the earth and our climate, we proceed blindly at our own peril. Our current course is unsustainable. Kiribati, like New Orleans and the Gulf Coast after Katrina, or the midwestern states hit by storms, or the Caribbean countries battered by increasing hurricanes, or the slowly disappearing coastline of Bangladesh, or the creeping desert in northern Africa, won't be the only or last places affected by our folly....

Friday, April 14, 2006

Memoirs like Hotcakes + Adidas's Racist Sneakers + Nigeria's Harsh Anti-Gay Law

Do you have an interesting personal story? Can you make up one? Publishers, fresh off the Frey, LeRoy and Nasdijj controversies, are pushing for and publishing more memoirs. Novels, critic Robert Hughes of the Wall Street Journal points out, aren't "hot" and aren't selling (as well), so publishers are upping the ante with this personal nonfiction genre. Says Hughes:

This spring sees memoirs by a transvestite art director (buttoned-down nerd by day, drag queen by night), a tell-all from the Beatles' publicist; a book about the year in the life of a Catholic seminarian; a cartoon memoir about surviving cancer; Helen "I Am Woman" Reddy on life as a feminist icon; and a memoir by "Maude" daughter and horror queen Adrienne Barbeau.
From left, new memoirs by horror queen Adrienne Barbeau, taboo-breaking novelist Erica Jong, and writer Augusten Burroughs.

Publishers say the controversy surrounding James Frey's memoir "A Million Little Pieces" -- which turned out to be filled with fiction about his purported life as a drug addict -- hasn't dimmed interest in the form. Mr. Frey's book, after all, sold more than four million copies and continued to sell even after Oprah Winfrey, who had earlier endorsed the book, denounced it on TV.

Hughes attributes the current memoir moment to related trends in American culture, including the fascination with reality TV and pop psychology. I would add that the American public's desire for authenticity and recognition right now, as well as our nationwide self-absorption, narcissicism and passivity also are playing a role.

Hughes historicizes his discussion by noting that memoirs have a distant provenance and were quite popular in the 19th century. Ulysses S. Grant's famous memoirs, which he completed just before he died, became a posthumous bestseller and helped to pull his survivors out of debt. I wonder how long this trend will go on, especially now that more and more institutions of higher learning, including the university where I teach, now offer courses and writing tracks, both at the undergraduate and graduate levels, in creative nonfiction.


SneakersAdidas, it seems, is hell-bent on shedding customers as quickly as it can. Customers, that is, who are unwilling to support a company that thinks it's okay to put racist depictions of Asians on its premium "Yellow Series" sneakers. (I'm not making that "yellow" bit up.) But wait, you're saying, the artist who created the graphic is half-Chinese, and the images originally appeared in his graffiti works, and it's all just a joke, so.... It's still racist.

Michael Tunison writes in today's Washington Post:

A new, limited-edition shoe from Adidas-Salomon AG, part of the "Yellow Series" and decorated with the face of a character who has buck teeth, a bowl haircut and slanted eyes, has provoked a heated debate about the lines dividing racism, art and commerce.

The character on the shoe is the creation of a San Francisco graffiti artist, Barry McGee, who is half Chinese. McGee, who calls the character Ray Fong after an uncle who died, said the image is based on how the artist looked as an 8-year-old.

"You have to look at it as a piece of artwork," said McGee, 40, who used Ray Fong as a graffiti tag in the late 1990s and later in art installations and catalogue covers. "The way we put it all together, it becomes a collectible as art."

The shoe was released April 1, with 1,000 pairs on sale at a dozen boutiques in San Francisco, New York, Los Angeles, Paris, London, Tokyo, Hamburg and Denmark. It retails for $250 and comes with a graffiti art fanzine.

Since then, several blogs and message boards have been consumed with fervid debate over the shoe, and Asian American organizations have said it evokes damaging and long-standing stereotypes.

Tunison notes the hullabaloo that attended Abercrombie and Fitch's similar imagery and slogans on T-shirts back in 2002. That retailer, which has been involved in multiple controversies and lawsuits surrounding its racist practices and imagery, eventually withdrew the T-shirts from sale. But Tunison also addresses how McGee's mixed racial background, his career as a graffiti artist, and the imagery's original artistic context complicate the issue. When an image, sign or discourse that might be ironic or oppositional or that might contain ironic and oppositional potential in one context is transferred to another, can its original range of meanings possibly inhere and be understood, especially if there is a larger contextual field in which similar imagery has functioned and developed very problematic meanings? No sign operates in a void, as McGee and Adidas surely know, and racist and stereotypical depictions of Asians and Asian-Americans continue to circulate in this society, so the shoes' images function within this larger semiotic economy whether Adidas likes it or not.

But then perhaps this was all a cleverly cynical strategy anyways; at $250, if these sneakers are pulled off the market, they will surely go up in value, to the delight of collectors, McGee, Adidas, and whoever bought a pair and is hawking them on the web. "All day I dream about suckers..."


Obasanjo and BushNigeria is proposing a law that would make anti-gay fanatics in the US and elsewhere (like Jamaica, as Rod 2.0 points out today) jump for joy: in addition criminalizing gay marriage with a five-year prison term, the law, which president Olusegun Obasanjo proposed and which is expected to pass, would also anyone criminalize attendance at a gay wedding, public same-sexual affection or membership in any LGBT organization, and would apply not only to Nigerian citizens, but to foreigners living on Nigerian soil.'s article says

The legislation is regarded as the most repressive gay measure in the world.

Last month, before the additional prohibitions were included, and in advance of a state visit to the US by President Obasanjo human rights organizations called for the bill's withdrawal. (story)

In an open letter to Obasanjo the groups, including the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission and Human Rights Watch, said the proposed law contravenes international law, the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights and undermines Nigeria’s struggle to combat the spread of HIV/AIDS.

As in parts of the Caribbean and Asia, the legacy of Britain's harsh colonial-era anti-sodomy laws unfortunately lives on. I also imagine that the law is Obasanjo's sop to religious and political extremists (especially since homosexuality is proscribed by the Shari'a law that Obasanjo permitted in the country's Muslim north). Since he isn't really addressing the multiple and worsening divisions in the oil-rich but economically challenged country, why not offer up a diversion that will certainly stir up passions and identify an easy scapegoat? No wonder he and President Pretzelcoatl were grinning so fulsomely when he came to visit last month....

Thursday, April 13, 2006

Poem & Note: Derek Walcott

The people one runs into at the bank in New York City: here's a poet, a very famous one, I spotted on Tuesday. I told the young customer assistance representative who was helping me that sitting just a few feet away from where we were conversing was one of the greatest living poets. After I told the young man who this was--he'd never heard of this poet--he went and Googled him, and came back smilling. I said hello to this poet, whom I've met several times, and he sort of nodded vaguely (he wouldn't know me from Eve), and then I attempted to snap a surreptitious picture. The photo succeeded, only my flash went off (once again, it wasn't set on manual!), which led to a mini-scolding by the customer assistance who was sitting at the desk, as well as the person helping the poet. Ah well--I think of it as one of my US Weekly moments, only for the Academy of American Poets set.

Here's one of his gems.


Schizophrenic, wrenched by two styles,
one a hack's hired prose, I earn
me exile. I trudge this sickle, moonlit beach for miles,

tan, burn
to slough off
this live of ocean that's self-love.

To change your language you must change your life.

I cannot right old wrongs.
Waves tire of horizon and return.
Gulls screech with rusty tongues

Above the beached, rotting pirogues,
they were a venomous beaked cloud at Charlotteville.

One I thought love of country was enough,
now, even if I chose, there is no room at the trough.

I watch the best minds rot like dogs
for scraps of flavour.
I am nearing middle
age, burnt skin
peels from my hand like paper, onion-thin,
like Peer Gynt's riddle.

At heart there is nothing, not the dread
of death. I know to many dead.
They're all familiar, all in character,

even how they died. On fire,
the flesh no longer fears that furnace mouth
of earth,

that kiln or ashpit of the sun,
nor this clouding, unclouding sickle moon
withering this beach again like a blank page.

All its indifference is a different rage.

Copyright © Derek Walcott, from bonvibre's Phat American Poetry Book.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Mendes da Rocha wins Pritzker + Poem: Régis Bonvicino

Mendes da RochaThe Hyatt Foundation, which awards the annual Pritzker Architecture Prize, has named Brazilian architect Paulo Mendes da Rocha (right) its 2006 laureate. Thomas Pritzker, chairman of the Hyatt Foundation, said that the 77-year-old São Paulo resident "has shown a deep understanding of space and scale through the great variety of buildings he has designed, from private residences, housing complexes, a church, museums and sports stadia to urban plans for public space. While few of his buildings were realized outside of Brazil, the lessons to be learned from his work, both as a practicing architect and a teacher, are universal.”

Lord Palumbo, chair of the prize committed, noted "the joyful lilt of Brazil [he brings] to his work...[Mendes da Rocha is] never afraid of innovation or of taking risks...indeed, a worthy choice," while Rice University architecture and prize juror Carlos Jiménez said that "he builds with exceptional economy to achieve an architecture of profound social engagement, an architecture that transcends the limits of construction to dazzle with poetic rigor and imagination." The jury's citation also mentioned his skillful restoration and renovation projects. Mendes da Rocha will receive his bronze prize medal and a $100,000 grant on May 30, 2006 in Istanbul, Turkey. He's the second Brazilian to win the Pritzker; Oscar Niemeyer, the designer of the futuristic capital of Brasília and other modernist landmarks in Brazil and elsewhere, received it in 1988.

I've never seen any of Mendes da Rocha's buildings in person, but from the photographs, they do appear to combine conventional industrial building materials--concrete, stone, glass--to noteworthy effect, sometimes by means of ingenious features, imaginative, lyric geometries, and well-thought out site design. They also exceed many of the limitations of the "Brutalist" style with which he made his mark, beginning in the 1950s. Below are a few of the images Land + Living features on his work.

Guaimbê Residential Building
The Guaimbê Residential Building, São Paulo, Brazil, 1964 (Photo by José Moscardi)
Paulistano Athletic Club
Paulistano Athletic Club, 1958 (Photo by José Moscardi)
Paulistano Athletic Club
Paulistano Athletic Club, 1958 (Photo by José Moscardi)
Forma Store
Forma Store, São Paulo, 1987 (Photo by José Moscardi)
Mario Mosetti House
Private home for Mario Mosetti, Cabreuva, São Paulo State, 1995 (Photo by José Moscardi)


Here's a poem by a contemporary Brazilian poet, Régis Bonvicino (1955-), a São Paulo native whose poetry captures the variegated spaces and places of that vast and expanding metropolis. The poem below, "Garbpoem," translated by Odile Cisneros, is taken from Chicago Postmodern Poetry. An interview with Bonvicino is available here.


Her teeth could merchandize
though they merchandize Colgate
droplet earrings hang from her earlobes

to sell or vender
her feet don't tread on false ground
and stride barefoot
in a clip or a film

her feet advertise
incorruptible plastic sandals
b(p)rutish Venus
drinks any old drink, backstage,

now at times looks
like a transvestite
now Hollywood is at her feet

she poses, full of herself
she shows off her silicon breasts
she wears coats, in winter, from otter's fur
or from some other species

her head is full of hidden cocaine
she admits to having hobbies among which
her favorite one: performing blow jobs
it's more aseptic, under control,

and saves her clitoris
keeping the smell of cosmetics
on her body and clothes
on her lips, botox

her nose advertises an allegorical scent
from her long and wavy hair,
blind letters fall, they occasionally
flash back, she wears a choker

she cleans her own tongue
mainly the back side
with a new product
to freshen her breath

she sells no clothes
she sells her lips
the lips sell her mouth
a cornucopia of herself

she listens to techno and hip hop
she fingers the white lines
She can't read or write
Anything but her name

Copyright © Régis Bonvicino, copyright © Translation by Odile Cisneros

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Festival of African Rap

FestivalSince April 9, the Festival de Rap Africain has been taking place since this past weekend in Conakry, Guinea (Guinée). This is the festival's fifth year, and the theme for 2006 is "Let's Record Our Children."

I'm not familiar with many of the groups (well, none other than Neg' Marrons [see below]), but I would love to see and hear how hiphop is developing and transforming as a musical form and practice in sub-Saharan Africa, especially now that hiphop and rap have become a vital mode of cultural, political and social production across the globe.

(Interestingly this festival does appear to be focused specifically on Francophone Western African; there are no groups from North, Central or Southern Africa, or from non-Francophone countries on the roster. I also wonder if the rappers rap in French and French-derived idioms, or if they mix in African languages, English, and languages, and how this sounds over beats. What is their flow like?)

If anyone has any information on or links to audiofiles or CDs for any of these musicians and groups, please do post them in the comment section.

Musique festival 09/04/2006 > 16/04/2006
Conakry Guinée
Le Rap aussi - Festival de Rap africain
5e édition avec pour thème « Enregistrons nos enfants »

Programmation (Programming)

Dimanche 09 avril 2006 Palais du Peuple

Idéal Black Girls (Guinée)
Silatigui (Guinée)
Masta G (Guinée)
Fac Alliance (Guinée)

Samedi 15 avril 2006 Centre culturel franco-guinée

Neg'MarronsNeg Marrons (France)
Deeg J Force III (Guinée)
Nix (Sénégal)
Silatigui (Guinée)
Masta G (Guinée)

Dimanche 16 avril 2006 Stade du 28 septembre - Conakry

Daara J (Sénégal)
Deeg J Force III (Guinée)
Bill de Sam (Guinée)
Methodic (Guinée)
Secta’a (Gabon)
Kajemm (Côte d’Ivoire)
Légitime défense (Guinée)
Sista Fa (Sénégal)

Stages de formation du 10 au 15 avril 2006

En management Luc Mayitoukou (Africa Fête) – Lotère Gomis (Awadi) Babacar Ndiaye (Psicd) – Riyad Chaloub (BGDA)
Danse Hip Hop Eric Mézino
Technique de DJ D.J. Moses
Mao Condel B
Ecriture de texte Mohamed Salif Keita et les Rappeurs

Monday, April 10, 2006

Thoughts on the Current Immigration Discussion

Today, over 1 million immigrants and their supporters rallied across the country, in cities from Atlanta to New York (the photo at left is from the Washington rally, Evan Vucci/AP). My own thoughts on the immigration issue are simple and may be naïve, but here they are:

1) All of the immigrants who are already here should be offered a simple and clear path to naturalization. The INS (or whatever it's called now) should address the problem of anyone who has serious criminal convictions (and I don't mean traffic violations or marijuana possession) here or in their native country, but in general, everyone else should be given a clear and realizable opportunity to become a citizen. All. Of. Them. The last I looked, all of the nativist Republicans in the House or Senate who were pushing for draconian penalties against the immigrants (Sensenbrenner, Tancredo, etc.) were descended from European immigrants, some of whom arrived no more than a century ago (and in many cases were given all kinds of opportunities at the expense of Native Americans and African-Americans), and some of whose ancestors were the objects of harsh anti-immigration sentiment and actions. How quickly and completely they forget.

2) If most Americans are concerned with the economic impact of uncontrolled immigration, and studies on the issue are mixed, though it does appear that adult American citizens who did not graduate from high school are most negatively affected (and this would include white, black American natives, and latinos), then the criticism and penalties should be laid at the doorstep of US businesses that flout the laws and continue to employ undocumented workers, which does depress wages in specific industries while increasing profits. On almost every other measure, immigrants benefit the economy. So long as the US economy keeps growing and businesses keep employing undocumented workers in large numbers without penalty, immigrants seeking jobs will try to get here. The economics seem clear to me, though I could be quite wrong in this.

3) The guest-worker program is a long-term mess waiting to happen. The guest workers will be counted for voting purposes, like Native Americans, African-American enslaved people and women once were, without voting rights and few other civil rights. This is already happening with undocumented workers, and the guest-worker program would write it into law. Again. Employers will continue to employ undocumented workers despite the numerical limits (of 400,000--is this supposed to be a cruel joke?). None of the guest workers will want to go home unless things improve in their home countries or they earn enough to create a viable life back there. Their children, if they have any on US soil, will be American citizens, further tying them to the US. Nothing will be solved. The German and other European models for this sort of program should give everyone pause, though the president, with his negative capital, was hoping that his lackeys in Congress would pass it, though they had another plan altogether in mind.

4) Since the US government, both the White House and Congress, claims to to take national and border security seriously, it needs to show that this is more than rhetoric and shadowplay. I'm not sure what's going on with the multimillion-dollar boondoggle that we call the Department of Homeland Security, but four years after 9/11, it doesn't appear that there's any real or concerted effort to control the flow of people into the country, unless they are baseball players from Cuba or a European Islamic scholar against whom the current administration has a particular ideological animus. If people can enter the country freely, legally or otherwise, they will, especially if there are available jobs here. For those immigrants who are looking for work, this is a no-brainer.

5) The US needs to revisit the NAFTA agreements and any other pro-free market international trade programs that have devastated particular sectors of treaty members' economies. Mexico's agricultural sector suffered terribly after NAFTA went into effect, and continues to suffer. Neither "free trade" nor the "free market" are "free," despite the neoconservative and neoliberal orthodoxies that the Republican party and much of the Democratic party, especially the DLC wing, subscribe to. Planned, closed economies cannot be the countermeasure, but every US "free-trade," "free market" program needs to be revisited and reworked carefully, particularly if it's only benefitting corporations and shareholders, while millions of working-age people no longer have any realistic employment options. Citizens across Latin America have woken up to the failures of neoliberalism, and Americans need to open our eyes as well.

6) Much of the hysteria involving the immigration issue is focused on Latinos, and in particular, on Mexicans. I'm sure there's no one out there who doesn't already know this, but almost the entire Southwest was under Spanish control, and then was part of Mexico, before it became US territory. Mexicans and people of Mexican heritage have lived in parts of the West and Southwest for centuries. As I pointed out about a month or two ago, Herbert Hoover oversaw the mass deportation of Mexican immigrants and Mexican-Americans, i.e., US citizens, during the Depression, and only recently was there any apology or acknowledgment of this. This is not to imply that the current Mexican immigration is a kind of karmic payback, but I do want to note that Mexicans in particular have longstanding historical, cultural and social ties to the US. Mexicans, like Canadians and the citizens of other countries that are geographically or historically linked to the US are going to come to the US for job opportunities if they're here, as will people from elsewhere in the world. How many undocumented Canadian citizens are there in the US? I don't see any outcry against Canadians, because most Canadian immigrants to the US are, I would imagine, white.

In fact, there is almost no outcry against undocumented immigrants from Europe (and it's as if the immigrants from Africa, the Caribbean [except for Cuba] and Asia are not acknowledged at all), even though our major cities, and many industries, are full of them. The men working on the lot next to our home in New Jersey are from Eastern Europe. Are they documented? Before I bought my car, half of the cab-drivers I encountered in Chicago were from Romania. Were they documented? Yes, the majority of immigrants to US come from Mexico, but this shouldn't surprise anyone, because the US and Mexico are historically and economically linked and many Mexicans have long had ties to the US. There are numerous immigrants from other countries--in my neighborhood and throughout Chicago, I regularly come across immigrants and refugees from Nigeria, Sudan, Haiti, El Salvador, Dominican Republic, Poland, Romania, Russia, and so on. In fact, from 1990 to now, as I reported before, more immigrants from Africa came to this country than all the Africans brought to the US during the period of the slave trade. The immigration issue is not a Mexican or even Latino issue--even if most of the immigrants are from Latin American countries--but a human rights issue.

6) The nativists fail to look at another issue that we should be talking about, which is that if the ideology of neoliberalism and free market globalization are what they are going to keep pushing, they need to rethink issues of nationalism, national sovereignty, citizenship, and the concept of borders altogether. We are quite far from a situation of Kantian perpetual peace pervading a united, one-nation state, yet economic free-trade ideologues seem to believe that goods and services can and should cross borders at will, but fail to acknowledge the real-world national and local issues and crises that arise when real people do so. What do national sovereignty, nationalism, citizenship, constitutionally guaranteed rights, and borders of all sorts mean in an age of globalization, transnationalization, and global and transnational capital?

7) Criminalizing anyone who assists undocument workers is wrong. Building a 700-mile wall is ridiculous. Changing the law to eliminate birth-citizenship is outrageous. Expelling 12-20 million people is absurd and would be impossible anyway even if it weren't.

8) Finally, African Americans individually and as a whole really ought to be thinking carefully about the current immigration situation and its effects on this country. In most of the largest waves of immigration prior to 1965, immigrants of African descent were in the minority, and in places where there was a sizable African-American population, whether Boston, Philadelphia, Savannah, Charleston, New York, etc., African Americans were usually been pushed to the back of the line in favor of the new, mostly European immigrants. Immigrants of African descent usually blended into the African-American population within a generation or two. With the arrival over the last three decades of millions of Africans and people of African descent from Latin America, as well as millions of other Latinos, Asians, Arabs and European people (of all races), I think that we need to revisit and challenge static views of racial prerogatives, race and racial authenticity as they've has traditionally functioned in the US. I also hope the recent waves of immigration provoke a rethinking among African Americans about how we stage racial and ethnic identities in the economic, political and social spheres. Who is black and how do we speak about blackness, and race in general? What is authentic blackness? What is the black real today? How do we and can we represent it? Must one history or set of historical narratives, or racial, national or ethnic (or any other, for that matter) identity or identification trump or cancel out another, or mustn't we begin to think with complexity about who we are? (And this is the case not only for African Americans, but all Americans.) Barack Obama is us. I also hope it will provoke active coalition building to address a number of crucial issues the country faces, and in particular, that African Americans and black people in general face. White supremacy is not going anywhere anytime soon, so thinking of ways to promote countersocialization and counter-processes of identity formation and identification that do not yet again make and reify African Americans as the absolute negative Other, and that foster dynamic cross-racial alliances and means of identification across and within ontological racial boundaries with replicating the current racialized social hierarchies, are some of our current major challenges.

Sunday, April 09, 2006

Interview in Stop Smiling Magazine + E-Voting 2006 Crisis

A terrific student of Ron Shavers' and mine, Michael Moreci, chatted about books and art with me a few months ago in a Chicago cafe, and the result, "John Keene to the Genre Police: You've Just Been Made, My Sons," is up at Stop Smiling Magazine. Thanks, Michael, thanks to this past year's and the year before's English 392 classes (if any of you read the piece you'll see your imprints all over it), and thanks also to Ron!


There are many excellent, highly informative notices, essays and articles across the web on the problems with our voting systems. Here's a very recent one I found by John Gideon of VotersUnite.Org and VoteTrustUSA.Org, on The Brad Blog, which regularly reports on the disaster that we call our US voting system. Yes, it has always been problematic. Yes, the article is alarmist. Yes, we should take it as seriously as possible and be as active in our local communities as possible to ensure that uncertified, flawed or otherwise screwed up voting systems (from the striking of people from the voting rolls to the disenfranchisement of former convicted felons to undercounts and miscounts in areas with large numbers of poor and working-class voters to harassment, intimidation and electioneering, etc.) and machinery (easily hackable, non-robust, no paper trails, etc.) are not in place. There are have extensively documented problems with every major election since 2000, including the ones last year and earlier this year.

The Brad Blog: 'E-Voting 2006: the Approaching Train Wreck"

An excerpt:

Normally this space is taken with my ideas of what are the "Top 5" voting news stories for the week. Today I am going to use this space to talk about what I see as the beginning of a disaster in the making with our elections. This isn't the election fraud that some point to when they talk about the vendors and some elections officials. It's not about recounts or audits. This is a real, get your hands around it, happening problem that will disrupt our election process if we do not do something about it now. While we have been involved in all of our issues about Direct Recording Electronic (DRE or "touch-screen") voting machines or paper ballots the electronic voting machine vendors have been wreaking complete havoc across the country.

So far this year two states have conducted primary elections. In Texas there is at least one candidate who has stepped forward and has challenged the election because of anomalies in vote counts and known voting machine failures. One county's machines counted some votes up to 6 times which resulted in approximately 100,000 more votes being counted than were cast. Though the vendor, Hart Intercivic, initially blamed the problem on human error, they finally had to admit that it was a programming error and not poll workers or voters who had erred. In Illinois some county officials are threatening to withhold final payment of funds on contracts with Sequoia Voting Systems because of failures with their machines that ended with results in the primary not being known for over a week after the voters went to the polls. In both states the involved vendors were very successful in the media with deflecting the blame from their machines to "human errors" or "glitches". However, when you listen to people who were there and who saw and worked through the problems you get a very different picture...

Saturday, April 08, 2006

Friday Night and Saturday Afternoon

After leaving the John Ashbery reading last night, David and I walked over to the IFC Film Center (at right, formerly the Waverly, now swanked out with an adjoining bar), to see the newest Matthew Barney film, Drawing Restraint 9. We'd gone together to see the final entry in Barney's Cremaster films Cremaster 3 (the one starring sculptor Richard Serra, which also included a giant, lots of Celtic imagery, a car destruction derby in the Chrysler Building, and one of the most ennervating, interminable scores I've ever sat through) a few years back at Film Forum, and I'd concluded that Barney's dreamlike narratives and images were interesting and technical prowess and determination to realize them remarkable, he seemed like someone who was being praised because the critics really didn't understand what the hell he was up to but didn't want to end being on the wrong side of critical history. He also struck me as someone who had access to way too much money. Still, I think some of the Cremaster films, especially Cremaster 4, which stars Ursula Andress, is brilliant, and the idiosyncratic symbolism in the service of a sustained personal mythology that opens out to public interpretation and as a device to link the films together intrigues me quite a bit. So I'm not writing off or hating on Barney by any means.

The new film is a collaboration between him and his wife, the Icelandic singer and actress Björk. It's received a lot of praise from the usual quarters, including the New York Times. It is an arresting film, though I was troubled by what seemed to me to be yet another, highly elaborated strain of Orientalism, in the form of a 21st century avant-Japanoiserie, that at least one critic, Steven Holden, is reading as an enlightened East-West encounter (cf. his Times review). Hmm. Is my compass set to always detect or misdetect misreadings and misrepresentations of the Other? What would a better, non-Eurocentric cinematic encounter with Japanese life and customs look like, and would I know it if I saw it? Am I missing Barney's irony, his comparison of the "frivolity" of one kind of ritual, to another? Might not a real(istic) attempt to come to terms with the incomprehensibility and incommensurability of the other result in just this sort of film, so perhaps am I not giving him enough credit? These are things I've been thinking about.

In the film, Barney and Björk play these (very fashionably accoutered) attractive westerners who get on launches, then board a Japanese whaling ship, where they perform an elaborate Shinto marriage-tea ceremony (as imagined by Barney), which requires them to shave off facial hair, wear octopus undergarments, and in the case of Barney, faun-like horns, and then remain in the tea-ceremony room, which slowly fills with liquified petroleum jelly, which is Barney's preferred sculptural medium. As the room slicks up with the viscous amber fluid, the two lovers perform a horrifying (too mild a word, really) self-transformation. Meanwhile, the crew of the whaling ship sees and seizes a giant piece of ambergris (fake ambergris, or whale vomit, since the real stuff would be astronomically expensive, and not even Barney has those kinds of of millions), and then places it in a huge congealed petroleum sculpture, which is in the form of the "drawing restraint" emblem that Barney has been developing since he was in art school. The more I think about it the more it starts to make sense, at least the inner logic of the film, though the description, as I reread it, sounds almost nonsensical. At any rate, after the transformation, the two lovers have united with nature, and there's a charming shot of two whales following the whaling ship, which was both ironic and almost a bit naive, cutesy and sentimental. Björk in Kennedy's Times piece describes the film as representative of her aim of rejoining with nature, and this comes through, yet any real sense of a non anthropocentric engagement with nature, whales, or, to get back to what the Times was championing, a centrifugal exploration of Japanese culture, anthrological, zoological or otherwise, seemed to be missing, but then with Barney's work, I don't think that's the point. It's all about his (interior) vision, though this time, it's also fused with Björk's.

After the film, I felt utterly drained. Part of it was that it was 135 minutes, but it felt like 300 and at times moved glacially. This seemed appropriate during the run-up to and during the tea ceremony, but at times the longueur was just that--and too long. Then there was the wrenching "transformation" scene in the oily tea room. Let me not forget the music. While Drawing Restraint's score was often haunting and memorable, and nothing like Cremaster 3's score, which included unbearable bagpiping and grating metal--it was enough to make a person go completely insane--the repetitiveness and loudness of the music also took their toll. I can take throat-singing in small doses, and Björk's singing and songwriting in large ones, but this film overdid both. One of the best musical bits was the lower octave brass bursts that announced the whaling ship's approach to the ambergris and the beginning of (exciting) action. David concurred in feeling drained--and dazed. We walked around the neighborhood a little bit afterwards to get our bearings back, but as we walked up Hudson St., I felt almost as if I were rising from a very deep and heavy REM sleep. Seeing this film did make me want to see more video art, though, as well as find out what Barney was going to do next with this "restraint" theme.

On Saturday, I decided to venture back over to the City catch the reading of Ashbery's rarely performed play (farce?) The Heroes at the Bowery Poetry Club, mainly because Patricia Spears Jones (at left) and Chris Stackhouse were in it. Unfortunately, it took me so long to get over to the Bowery that by the time I arrived, the staged reading was over. I did get to see Patricia, who said that the performance had gone off with aplomb, and mentioned that her new book is coming out in May (wonderful news!). She also was kind enough to introduce me to two writers whose names and works I'm quite familiar with but had never met, Dara Wier and Vincent Katz. Since I missed the play, I figured I'd catch Ashbery read his long, two-columned poem "Litany," which was originally published in As We Know and which I've always thought of as an experiment that didn't exactly work out, with poet Ann Lauterbach. I'd forgotten our camera at home, so I used my cell-phone camera, which requires the kind of steady hand I lack, but which does take video, so I actually have three micro-clips of Lauterbach and Ashbery reading this work that achieves what Satie aimed for with his music, and which Tan Lin is aiming for with some of his pro(s)etic work, like Blip.Soak: lyric background noise or aural furniture.

Only Lauterbach and Ashbery (at right) both have expressive voices (and Wier and James Tate were also sitting at the tables and I guess were going to spell the two lead voices at some point), and the combination made me think not only of Thomas Glave's, Samuel Delany's and Chris Mazza's double-columned fictions, but of a really amazing fictional piece that one of my most brilliant honors students, Tai L, wrote a year-and-half ago, based on a technique that was used in a youth mental treatment facility. It involved piping two distinct dialogues into different earphones that a young patient had to wear, to supposedly therapeutic effect (I think I'm getting this correct), but as I immediately said to Tai when she told me about it and I read her rendering of it, I thought it might have the opposite effect (especially, now that I think of it, depending upon the content of the texts and the sound and pitch of the voices, etc.). When she performed it with another wonderful former student of mine, Eileen K, the effect was derangingly mesmerizing. The competing voices, combined with the simple lyricism, created a feeling of simultaneous confusion and bemusement. I have written texts of this sort myself, with the aim of creating the very sensations I felt as I heard Tai's and Ashbery's texts, though I hadn't known about Tai's rationale and justification at the time; Ashbery's was one I was quite familiar with.

Patricia left to get some food, and after a little while, Chris and I decided to head uptown to an opening in Chelsea. The abstract painter Ed Clark, a New Orleans native, was showing new paintings in his "Rebirth" exhibit at the G. R. N'Namdi Gallery at 526 W. 26th St. On the C train heading up there, we ran into poet and critic Geoffrey Jacques (in the center of the image below, Chris is at left) who was also on his way to the show. At left is a general scene at the opening.

As the N'Namdi Gallery's exhibition notes say:

Clark has always been an inventive and creative artist, experimenting with techniques--his innovative use of the push broom, for example, and his method of working on paper with dry pigment, inspired by the "pouring sand" technique of the Pueblo tribe of the American Southwest.

Because of Clark's technique, the canvases give the effect of the acrylic's horizontal movement in space, and where there were patches of impasto or layering, vertical mobility. The almost glamorous quality of the beauty created by his choice of colors yields develops greater depth through the visible marks of the painter's action in creating them. Chris mentioned the abstractionist Richard Mayhew; Mayhew's images, if I'm recalling them correctly, float and hover more, and offer a sense of stillness, whereas Clark's seem as if they're heading somewhere, drawing my eye right towards the edges and off the canvas. I thought and could see moods, and music, and movement. I plan to revisit the gallery soon to look at the works again.

The painter Ed Clark, at left, speaking with two unID'd women