What a weekend it was, or wasn't. I was excited that C was going to be visiting, but the airline shenanigans I've been encountering regularly for the last two years struck again, this time effectively grounding his flight and causing him to have to postpone his trip by a week. This time, Continental cited "thunderstorms," though I later learned that there had been tornado warnings, which should have disappeared by 8 pm at the latest, because by then the evening sky over much of Chicago, though cloudy, was rainless and by just an hour later it had turned into a cool and lovely early autumn night. Oh well. One of my students sent me a frantic email last week to say that she had missed class because she was delayed in Newark, and I totally sympathized; I'm not sure what the airports' and airlines' excuses were then (the usual "wind" I get as a response whenever I'm stuck at O'Hare or Newark Liberty seemed utterly improbable), but I am going to start tallying the excuses the airline personnel come up with and then try to verify it against official weather forecasts. I guess "poor logistics" and "overbooked runways" and "general incompetence" wouldn't sound as definitive or satisfying.
My computer is up and running again, thanks to the incredible work of computer repairman Mark at Nabih's, Inc. in Evanston. So far, although I've had a problem with every Mac laptop I've used, I've received exemplary repair service, both from Apple and the Apple Store (which replaced a dead machine last year), and from the authorized repair people. I will say to all J's Theater readers what you've heard more than a few times: back up your hard drive, print out documents after you've revised them, and don't hesitate to use email services like Yahoo!, Gmail and others to send yourself documents that could possibly be lost. Better that they're sitting on a server somewhere than lost forever.
I have been meaning to post a better photograph of Seismosis's cover, so here it is. We actually tossed several different versions around, including one that had fewer images, but in the end this was the one we and the publisher settled on. I love how Chris's drawings play off each other and appear to be undergoing a pictorial transformation, which is one of the themes the book itself explores. One of the books this one directly engages in a conversation with is Erica Hunt's and Alison Saar's Local History, which I found at St. Mark's Bookshop some years ago, and puzzled over with delight in my initial reading. Erica's texts were a bit more uniform in style than mine are here (as I wanted to enter the realm of the concrete, so to speak, in some of them, and nearly do), and Saar's drawings were expressionist representations reminiscent of her sculptures and mixed media constructions, while Chris's drawings are almost like the ghostly string impressions of his more representational drawings and paintings, but the spirit is similar, and we definitely hope that anyone interested in contemporary American and African-American poetry and visual art pick the book up, step into it any point (though it does have a thematic and conceptual arc), and puzzle--with delight.
I unfortunately won't be able to attend, but I urge everyone who's in New York to attend two great readings coming up at the Poetry Project at St. Mark's Church. Tonight, Patricia Spears Jones, whose new book Femme du Monde came out this summer, will be reading with Dara Wier. Patricia is an old friend of mine and a gifted poet who always leaves her listeners with some lyric treats. On Wednesday, two poets I've looked up to since my youth, fellow St. Louisan Quincy Troupe, and Victor Hernández Cruz, will be reading from their work. Listing them among the major poets of the last 40 years hardly does either justice. Both were important figures in the development of the New York poetry scene in the 1960s, and Quincy later went on to enrich San Diego's literary and cultural life in numerous ways, while Victor provided the foundations on which several generations of Puerto Rican and Nuyorican, Afrolatino, and Latino poets in general have constructed poetic homes and a canon. If you have the time, don't miss them.
I've been meaning to give props to my former professor Kamau Brathwaite for winning the 2006 Griffin Poetry Prize, one of Canada's highest literary awards and one of the leading international poetry prizes. His newest volume, Born to Slow Horses, published by Wesleyan University Press in 2005, merited the honor. (The finalist list was impressive, and included American poet Michael Palmer, German poet Durs Grünbein, and the Iraqi poet Dunya Mikhail.) Like his most of his work of the last few decades, Born to Slow Horses employs his innovative Sycorax (Dub) version form(at) in lyrics that explore his constant themes: islands and exile, travel and home(lessness), roots and Diaspora, and the constant voyaging he (the spirit, the soul) undertakes between them. I've only had a chance to skim the volume, but specific, recent concerns, including the trauma of 9/11, are present here.
Today is the 100th anniversary of Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich's birth; he died in 1975. Miles Hoffman argues in today's Los Angeles Times that of the European classical composers active 1950, Shostakovich is one of the few whose music will stand the test of time, and that the focus should be on his art and not on the broader question of politics. Shostakovich's superficially accessible, often complex, and frequently emotionally affecting compositions do have a toehold in the contemporary orchestral repertoire. Of the 15 symphonies, several of the ones that were popular in his lifetime (the 1st, 5th and 7th) and several he had to suppress or treadily warily around (the 2nd, 4th, 6th, 9th, 13th) are among the small pool of works that break the spell that the German-Austrian Baroque-to-Romantic tradition still appallingly casts over most American orchestras. His various concertos, choral pieces, string quartets, and incidental music for films and ballets also appear regularly on program lists. The issue with Shostakovich hasn't tended to be so much the music, which is often catchy and mostly devoid of the the formal experimentalism that so vexes contemporary classical music critics just as it sent Joseph Stalin and his cronies in apoplexy, as the politics surrounding it; was he an adherent to the Soviet regime or wasn't he, do the music's intermittently ironic, strident, sarcastic, vulgar, and ridiculous moments reflect an extraverbalized critique of the regime or are they just aesthetic idiosyncrasies of the author? Should we believe the infamous Volkov volume or should we take it with a grain of salt? I tend not to give these questions undue attention, thinking of Shostakovich within the context of his life and times. His torturous, shifting position, it seems, had as much to do with self preservation as it did with preserving the conditions in which he could create his music and have it performed. Upsetting Stalin was a matter of life and death, and Shostakovich knew this, thus public groveling; but then why after Stalin's death did he formally join the Communist Party (in 1960) or produce a ostentatiously patriotic, bombastic work like the 12th Symphony, "The Year 1917," which I once read a music critic describe online as "shoddy" and a mess? (Was Shostakovich intentionally subverting the theme in the work's construction?) On the other hand, he could create a work like the 9th Symphony, or the 13th, which were official slaps in the face to the guiding political and aesthetic orthodoxies of the Soviet state, the "Babi Yar" poems by Yevtushenko and the plaintive tone of the symphonic chorus capturing and mirroring something quite painful and profound of that era and preceding ones. I'm not sure I agree that all that should matter is the "art," which seems like a dangerous aestheticist position if there ever were one; the context of the music remains important, especially at a time when authoritarianism is growing in our own society. Also, the music, however beautiful, is intellectually incoherent without the full context. I do agree, however, that 100 years from now, if if the world hasn't been blown to smithereens or fried in an atmosphere that's akin to a pressure cooker, if anyone's still listening to music from the European classical tradition, Shostakovich's frequently thrilling, sometimes exasperating oeuvre will be among it.
Senator George Felix Macaca Allen just digs a deeper and deeper hole. In addition to the uproar he created when he viciously insulted a young opposition campaign worker of Indian descent named S. R. Sidarth (he initially claimed the unusual term he used, "macaca," a known slur against North African people of color that's also used by US skinheads and others, came from "mohawk," then that he'd made the term "macaca" up, then he admitted to right-winger Marvin Olasky that he'd heard it from his mother, only it meant "clown," etc.), he's since come under fire for outrageous statements and a testerical response to a reporter's query about of his Jewish ancestry during a debate a few days ago. In particular he claimed that a reporter's clumsy question (following on his repeated citation of his grandfather Felix Lumbroso's having been imprisoned in a Nazi concentration camp--perhaps he genuinely didn't know why, though I doubt it) about his grandfather's having been Jewish equalled the casting of an "aspersion" (huh?)--then the self-loathing racist scumbag announced that he'd eaten "ham sandwiches" and his mother, who had told him about her Jewish faith, had cooked "pork chops" while he was growing up (I'm just quoting him), and tried to claim that he knew what minorities experienced, etc. Yeah, sure. Now three former teammates from his days on the University of Virginia's (go Wa-hoos!) football team have emerged from the woodpile to assert to a Salon reporter that Allen, a California native, regularly used the "N" word; one of them, Dr. Ken Shelton, who's been willing to go on the record, also says that Allen once stuck a severed doe's head into a Black family's mailbox. (Allen's sister has previously gone on the record about the noose-hanging, Confederate flag-philic Senator's sadism and cruelty towards animals.) All of the hyper-Confederophilia and association with the white supremacist Conservative Citizens Council now makes much more sense. I said years ago when he was running for the governorship of Virginia that he shouldn't be elected to any office (and ironically enough, dog catcher would be one of those), but I especially hope that these new revelations (and whatever other ones seep out) push Virginians on the fence to pick the lesser of two not especially appetizing choices; Allen's opponent, former Republican Jim Webb, has made ignorant, idiotic statements about women in the military and can't seem to figure out where he stands on affirmative action (he seems to support it for African Americans only, or rather he supports a class-based system, or rather it should be abolished completely, or rather...), but he would still be a better option, by several orders of 10, than Senator "Ethnic Rally"....
Lastly, my friend Dave and I were chatting on Saturday, and apropos of a discussion of Hillary Clinton's runaway race in New York and her future plans, he mentioned that he thought the potential Republican ticket in 2008 would consist of John McCain, who just capitulated on writing violations of the Geneva Convention into US law as part of the Senate GOP "Gang of Three's" agreement with the Bush administration, and current Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Dave thinks this will be a tough tandem to defeat, especially given how much the media laps up the "maverick" right-winger McCain, and how regularly Rice skirts any substantive criticism despite her disastrous record as National Security Advisor and now chief shill for the Bush administration's incoherent and inept foreign policies. We both agreed that the only person who could defeat Hillary in a primary would probably be Al Gore, which led us both to propose that his running mate be Senator Dreamboat himself, Barack Obama, as he's the only candidate we can see who'd neutralize whatever strengths Rice added to McCain's electoral chances. (I think this should be the ticket anyway, but the Democrats will probably work their damnedest to field Bland and Blander to lose a third straight election). With Obama on the ticket, Gore would probably do no worse than he did in 2000, while winning a few more states (though maybe only 1 or 2 in the South, like Arkansas and Tennessee). We also agreed that the highlight of the election season would be the debate between Rice and Obama--unlike the kabuki pairing of Republican Lieberman and Republican Cheney in 2000, or the snoozefest in 2004 (John Edwards's earnestness vs. Dick Cheney's growling lies)--this one would probably offer a substantive contest of ideas and some rhetorical fireworks. I've already agreed to host a viewing party should this become an eventuality. Were Gore and Obama to be elected and were a Democratic Senate in place, I'd say one of the first orders of business, if Senator Clinton agreed, would be to appoint her to the Supreme Court. That would be the act that would provoke nightmares among the Karl Roves and Phyllis Schlaflys of the world for years to come, and would ensure a powerful, symbolic counterweight to the rightists who now dominate. On SCOTUS, Hillary wouldn't have any reason to perform her usual "balancing" act, and she could let loose as she once did, before the media and her opponents came after her with guns drawn. And after her? I'd love to see Associate Justices Kimberle Crenshaw, Elana Kagan, Paul Butler, Enrique Moreno, Kendall Thomas....