Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Inauguration (Barack Hussein Obama) Day!

I've had to teach from 11 am to 12:30 pm this morning, so I wasn't able to see or hear any of the Inauguration proceedings after--of all things--Rick Warren's invocation, but I'm reading and trying to catch video of everything (the swearing in, Elizabeth Alexander's poem, the inaugural address, etc.), and will post more later. Nevertheless,


and congratulations once again and a lifetime of thank yous to my fellow Americans, those who voted and those who couldn't but did what they could, to elect these two people to our nation's highest offices!


I'll be posting our new president's sober but moving speech in a new entry.

Some of my favorite ideas and lines include: his call to a duty and service beyond just ourselves or our country, but also to the world; the idea that military power alone is insufficient and doesn't entitle the US to do as it pleases, and that this country must display more humility and restraint; the statement that the market isn't not the ultimate arbiter of the nation's success; how his father could not have eaten at a Washington lunchcounter 60 years ago, and now he, Obama, stands before the nation and world as the new president; his remarks to the Muslim world, to foes, to the world's poor, and to other rich nations, about friendship, alliance, interdependence, and responsibility; the citation of Isaiah 52:1-2, "Arise, and shake off the dust" (which also made me think of Jay-Z's "Dirt Off Your Shoulders"), as we have been in an ever-deepening abyss these last 8 years; and one little echo of Winston Churchill's remarkable 1940 War Speech to the House of Commons, with the citation "that we did not turn our back nor...falter." While my cursory read-through didn't reveal any striking or unforgettable metaphors, rhetorically the few moments of anaphora ("On this day," "For us," "This is the price....This is the source.... This is the meaning") do convey real conviction. I think we can safely say that while this didn't match the poetry of Kennedy's only inaugural address, Franklin Roosevelt's first, or Lincoln's second, it was pretty thorough and pretty good.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Happy MLK Jr. Day

Happy Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day,
or, Happy Pre-Obama-Inauguration Day,
or Happy Last Day of the George Walker Bush Presidency Day!

Really, take your pick, though all three possibilities are conjoined in ironic ways. How fitting that the last day of George W. Bush's brutal, corrupt, destructive disaster of a presidency falls on the late Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s federally-recognized holiday, a day that the departing Vice President, Dick Cheney, and the most recent Republican Presidential hopeful, John McCain, like many in their party, both vigorously opposed up to the point that it became official. How telling also that they are now the contemporary face of the Republican Party, a party now centered in the Deep South, even though its chief founder and first presidential exemplar--before whose Memorial the President-Elect Barack Hussein Obama, our soon-to-be First Lady, Michelle Robinson Obama, his two children, Sasha and Malia, assorted family members, political and artistic stars, and hundreds of thousands of everyday people, celebrated joyously yesterday--stood on behalf of defeating the South's rebellion, its ongoing system, and the nation's division, and embodied a model of leadership and vision that President Obama has shown he will follow.

How fitting also that Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s life and example, his words, his dedication and persistence, his courage and fearlessness, his profound sense of hope, his great love for his people and all people, and above all, his sacrifice, honored today and a beacon for all the world, hover over this inauguration, lead us right into it, and provide another model our new president has avowed, and against which the departing debacle of a president represented the ultimate antithesis.

His, George W. Bush's, was a government, a nation, a society built on lies, on faithlessness and bad faith, on chicanery and con-artistry and complete indifference to and defiance of the rule of law, the Constitution, what this nation supposedly has stood for since its founding, on giving those who had everything more and depriving those who had little anything, on torture and war and renditions and poisoning the environment and funneling tax dollars into the hands of the privileged few, corporations, banks, insurance companies, landowners, on religious fanaticism and provoking religious fanaticism and the misuse and abuse of religion, on finding the least qualified, most dogmatic and well-connected, more doctrinaire people for jobs and giving them a free pass, on destroying institutions not for the sake of reforming them, but out of a repeatedly failed ideology, on division, on sexism and racism and homophobia and classism and ethnocentrism, on tokenism, on domination and hierarchy and luxury for the few and consumerism pressed to an insane degree and fake credit and phantom assets and valueless derivatives and a ghost economy, on so utterly shattering this society and societies across the world, shattering this economy and the global economy, shattering our politics and the global political economy and balance, that a titanic shock-and-awe assault on it might be possible if his party could extend its lease on power and control, except that the result was the election of a pragmatic, center-left, young, charismatic, visionary Black junior Senator from Illinois with an unusual background and a platinum tongue to replace him.

We are complicit in what is passing, and what will come to pass; Bush's failures are our failures, and, as tomorrow promises, our gain.

As I've read it said of Franklin Roosevelt in the comments section of Glenn Greenwald's blog more than once, when visited by a group of supporters early in his tenure, he told them: "I want to do the right thing. Now you have to make me." Let's support our new president, and in the spirit of the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., and all who came before him and after him, let's make sure our new president does the right thing. He wants to, and we have to make him.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Links Hall: Memory as Innovation

I've been a little off the blogging grid of late, primarily because of work-related duties, but also because I've been preparing for a performance (as opposed to the usual reading) that I participated in, with Chris Stackhouse, at Links Hall this weekend. We were one of a number of people that Links Hall Associates Amina Cain and Jen Karmin invited as part of the second week of a four-week festival devoted to the idea of memory.

The first week included readings and performances by Judith Goldman with (my new colleague) John Beer; Nicole LeGette, Jenny Roberts, Timothy Yu; video by Abigail Child; and Lee Ann Brown, with Jeff Harms/A D Jameson/Toni Asante Lightfoot/Sarah Merchlewitz/Anni Rossi/Auroar Tabar/Rachel Tredon, and Roberto Harrison.

The lineup for this weekend was:

Friday, January 16
Patrick Durgin with Jen Hofer, the Seismosis Duo, Laurie Jo Reynolds with Amy Partridge, and video by Temporary Services

Saturday, January 17
Tradeshow, Jen Hofer with Dolores Dorantes, Seismosis Duo otra vez, and Jennifer Karmin with Mars Caulton/Joel Craig/Lisa Fishman/Krista Franklin/Chris Glomski/Daniel Godston/Lily Robert-Foley

Sunday, January 18
Tradeshow, Jen Hofer with Dolores Dorantes, Jennifer Karmin with Kathleen Duffy/Brandi Homan/A D Jameson/Lisa Janssen/Erika Mikkalo/Ira S. Murfin/Timothy Rey, and video by Laurie Jo Reynolds.
Originally Chris and I were going to present a new project, RAM (Revolutionary Access Memory), which we've been talking about and working on for several months, but because he's in NYC and I'm in Chicago, and I didn't have much free time this past fall, we decided to try out a new performative version of Seismosis. While we have co-read and delivered talks (to artists only) on the project, we'd never created a multimedia performance of it, though we'd spoken about this all the way back to the time we began collaborating, so we figured out how we would feature the images and texts, and then created two sets, which we performed on Friday and Saturday.

I'm usually wracked by anxiety over such things, but I have to say that a few years of teaching has done wonders for my shyness, and we were able to sync our readings, the images and projected texts, and stage entrances and exits properly after only a few rehearsals such that things went off without a hitch. (And we stayed pretty much within the requisite 20 minute framework!) The images, which we took from the pdf galleys as opposed to new scans, appeared immense and crisp on the rear white wall, while the texts pixillated a bit, and were probably harder for audience members to read.

We led off the first night, whose highlight I thought was the direct testimony in Lauri Jo's playlet, involving members of the TAMMS YEAR TEN project, by three men who'd served extended solitary confinement--TORTURE--in the horrific TAMMS CMAX "supermax" prison, in southern Illinois. Writer Terri Kapsalis led a talkback after the performance, and by common assent, the three ex-prisoners took the floor and spoke about how their experiences, and those of more than 200 others at TAMMS and countless others across the country, continued to pass under our society's radar. Mustafa Afrika, one of the men testifying as part of the playlet and talkback, eloquently related the experience to Abu Ghraib, and noted that while that international horror shocked the world, similar forms of torture, of US prisoners (one of the men spoke about having been in prison for 29 years, only to be released when the prosecutor and courts realized that they had no case against him), merits almost no commentary, protest or outrage. It was an emotional evening, to put it mildly, but I was glad that we were able to present in conjunction with the other artists and to have a little dialogue with them afterwards.

On the second night, we followed Jen Hofer and Dolores Dorantes, and Jen Karmin's polyphonic performance followed us, with the dancing duo of Tradeshow coming last, so the balance was different, but equally provocative, and got me thinking even more deeply about ideas around and the practice of collaboration, as well as future work to pursue.

As I was preparing for the event, I realized that you can easily movies with the newest version of PowerPoint (who knew?), so below is a short movie featuring images from Friday and Saturday. (There are none of us because I wasn't able to film us, but poet and composer Daniel Godston told me that he has both audio files and still photos, so when I get those I'll post or link to them.)

One of the coolest aspects of the event was the opportunity to experience collaboration in the moment, as we improvised at certain points with some of the texts--like "Geodesy"--while following a stricter set of directions with others ("Analysis I"). I told Chris that all my years of observing other poets freestyle on their own work had taught me some pointers about writing improvisatory possibilities into a work, and it's something I'm aiming to do in at least one new project.

Many thanks to Amina and Jen for inviting us, and thanks to all the wonderful artists we performed with!

Saturday, January 17, 2009

The Amazing Spider-Man

So many stories, and comic book stores, in the naked (windy) city....

Three days and counting!

Loyola University Talk on Collaboration

A few months ago, at the invitation of Joshua Marie Wilkinson, I participated in a poetry presentation-reading at Loyola University of Chicago. I prepared remarks for the event, and here they are in edited form.


Notes on Collaboration

First, I'd like to thank Joshua and Loyola for inviting me, and also say how wonderful it is to be here with all of these exceptional writers. Some of them I know personally and some I'm just meeting for the first time, but I know their work and am honored to have the opportunity to be here with them.

I was invited to speak about collaboration, and so I thought I would speak about several different kinds of collaboration in which I've been engaging in relation to poetry. The first is direct collaboration, which is to say, working directly with another artist, on a specific project. I have wanted to collaborate with other artists since childhood, where collaboration is stressed these days but probably wasn't as much when I was small (though it was to some degree when I was in Montessori pre-school) and I guess I was already doing some of this when I was in high school and served on the literary magazine and did these drawings, based heavily on imagery from GQ—it's so bizarre to think about that now, but I had all these drawings based on the men in GQ, which I guess was telephoning something to everyone around me, though I didn't have a clue—that accompanied my classmates poems, even as I was publishing my horrid poems in the same issue. I also drew for the newspaper and the yearbook, in a kind of collaborative fashion; some of it was illustrative, but a lot of it was in dialogue with the texts others had written. I received no encouragement, and I think what happened by the time I'd graduated from college was my internalization of the idea that you should NOT collaborate in art, but only in office settings. The idea of the lone, heroic artist, preferably straight and male and fluent in his craft, with a decisive style or styles, lives on in our society. So I had this idea that you shouldn't collaborate, and that you were—and are—rewarded for individual effort, and yet I knew there were numerous prior examples, such as one of my favorite works of all time, Sweet Flypaper of Life, which paired texts by Langston Hughes and photos by Roy DeCarava, or the famous collaboration between Aimé Césaire and Pablo Picasso, or Erica Hunt's collaboration with Alison Saar, and outside of visual art with texts, there are other kinds of collaborations, of dually written texts, so Lyn Hejinian and Carla Harryman, writers working with choreographers, composers, and on and on. There are, as we know, collaborative art genres, like theater and architecture, and so forth, and though I don't practice any of them they fascinate me greatly. I should add that I learned a few years ago about the concept and practice of the livre du dialogue in French literary culture, which goes back more than a century, and there are other forms of collaboration, including collaborative books and other texts, etc., which dot the history of literature and, even further, oral culture.

So when I had the opportunity to work with Chris Stackhouse, a poet and visual artist, editor and performer, I leapt on it. What becomes immediately clear when you're collaborating is that you must surrender your ego, or yield, to a greater degree than you might be used to, especially if you are working on equal terms with your collaborator. The word itself spells it out, coming from the Latin cum or co-(with) -laborare (to work) via French's collaborer–working together. Of course it's not a free-for-all, but what Christopher and I did was to push each other, past our limits, aesthetic limits, senses of what constitued a dialogue, what constituted working together, to create our project Seismosis. So what we came up with was probably different than what we would have done if we'd created the texts or the drawings separate from each other; they can stand on their own, we both think, and have been published that way, but they are also very much the product of this active working together, which entailed passing texts and images back and forth, commenting in person and via email and phone, listening to the same kinds of music, reading the same books, looking at the same art. A real project of collaborative looking, thinking, dreaming, making. Which is what poetry is. Now we haven't stopped with Seismosis. We're currently working on a new project, which we've tentatively called RAM (Radical Access Memory), based on the works of various radical political poets from the American literary tradition, and some OuLiPo-oriented techniques. I can't say too much more about it, but we hope to debut some of this in January, and I'm also hoping it works out, but part of collaborating is exploring, and you might not get it right all the time. To add another note to this discussion, I also remember coming across one of W. H. Auden's dicta, which was that "gay men should collaborate." Until recently, I hadn't collaborated with any other queer artists, even on anthologies, though I do have a new project in the works with another poet and a visual artist, who queer, unlike Chris, and we've been working on a different kind of project, which we hope to get to work on soon. Since we're in different cities, we've had to communicate almost completely via email and phone, so that makes it tough, but I hope this winter to get out to see them so that we can advance that project forward too. These collaborative projects have shaped my own practice, in that I am willing to push myself in ways that I might not have had I not collaborated, and I am even more aware of the idea that writing of any kind, all art, involves a collaboration with the viewer, reader, spectator, the person who engages the work, and remakes it as she or he sees fit. As with direct collaboration, translation is a profoundly ethical act.

The second kind of collaboration has been two-fold. One example of this has been my translation work. I've been actively working as a translator—from French, Spanish, and Portuguese primarily, but to a lesser extent Dutch and Italian, two languages I don't really know well but can make my way through—for some years now. In the cases of nearly all the writers I've been translating (Francophone writers like Nicolas Pages from Switzerland; Rachid O from France; Alain Mabanckou from Congo and France; Spanish-language writers like Mateo Morrison from the Dominican Republic and José Balza from Venezuela; and Lusophone writers like Edimilson de Almeida Pereira, Jean Wyllys, and now Horácio Costa and Narlan Teixeira, all from Brazil), I did not know them before I began translating their work, but in some cases, like Edimilson, after I began translating their work and publishing it, both in periodicals and on my blog, I developed a dialogue with him about both his work and my translations of it—and this is something that many translators both hope for and dread, because you always want a certain amount of autonomy from the author but also, of course, to render as best and artfully as you can the other author's work into the target—new—language. But I'm not here to talk about translation theory, which is a vibrant and contentious field right now, so I'll only say that translation, even if you are not in conversation with the writer you're translating, involves a great deal of collaboration. For me to render the work of Mateo Morrison, a Dominican writer, into English, involves my entering into the lifeworld in which he produced his work—and I'm thinking here about his poems in his tiny and beautiful little volume, Dorothy Dandridge, which he published in 2007—and to draw upon that even as I am trying to recreate the poems in an appropriate American idiom. What's also interesting to me with regard to Morrison's project, of course, is how in translating him I am engaging in a generational conversation with another writer, a black writer from outside the United States, and thus, across the African Diaspora, about a particular American and African American icon. So we share certain assumptions about a figure like Dandridge, but then we diverge in other key ways. The same is true for the queer writers I have translated, like Pages, who is about 5 years younger than me and so in the same generation, more or less, but his particular life experiences and so on are in some ways very different from mine, though there are aspects of global queer culture that we both connect in and with. To literalize what Jimmy Santiago Baca once said to me in an interview I conducted with him years ago, "Poetry is what we speak to each other." So I think of translation as a form of collaboration, a dynamic but indirect form, usually, and it has, as translation always does, influenced my own work and how I think about my work. In particular, it has made me especially attentive to language, to English, itself, to the valences of each word and how they are or are not translatable. (I also write fiction and I think fiction writers, especially American fiction writers, think a little less about this and more about story, character, and other technical aspects of their projects.) I should add that recently, two French-speaking writers who also write in English have begun translating some of my work, and they've chosen the most difficult pieces, really, so this involves another kind of collaboration where I am less active as a participant, but a participant nevertheless. As with direct collaboration, translation is a profoundly ethical act.

One final area of collaboration that I've engaged in has been in a few conceptual projects I've done. I'm very interested—obsessed would probably be the right word—in certain areas of contemporary art, and conceptual and abstract art, is one of them. Participatory, language-based, durational, and relational aesthetic forms, projects and activities, from the Dadaists and Duchamp on through Fluxus, Om Kawara, the textual paintings of Lawrence Weiner, Adrian M. S. Piper's performances and creations, on through the now almost passé participatory "events" and activities that are part and parcel of the contemporary artworld: all these things speak to me in a visceral way. One collaborative activity that I've been engaging in since around 2002, which would date it back to early years of this current administration, which was one of the triggers, is what I call my "Emotional Outreach" project. It has entailed creating these cards, which I initially passed out in various venues—I dared myself to do so on the streets of New York, the El, at readings and talks—and then to send to random people, especially around the election of 2004. Now I am a very shy person, and am really interested in but not trained in psychology or performance, or lots of other related areas, but I was curious to see how people would respond to something that permitted them to symbolically manipulate their emotional states. [At this point I read one of the cards, front and back, aloud.] So the emotions were not just positive—"love," "glee," "hope,"—should I add "change"—but also negative, such as "rage," "embarrassment," "hate"—and equivocal, such as "Schadenfreude." Originally, and here my interest in figures like Kant, Wittgenstein, Dewey, Adorno, Deleuze, Debord (who argued against the continued viability of the novel and some other forms that I persist in pursuing), Piper, and others, comes into play in that I was less interested in recording what they did with these cards, which is something that Adrian Piper, for example would be very attentive to, than in offering them in the first place, in the social engagement and relationships that were created, in the collaboration over which I would have no ultimate control. I decided, however, that I would try to do a better job of recording or getting others to record responses, so I opened a call for the cards, prepared little packets, etc., and then sent them out. About 6-7 people, most fellow artists and former students, responded. About a year ago, I think. Since I'm interested in the ideas of duration and indeterminacy, I haven't heard back any of my collaborators or theirs yet, but I set up a new blog to record the responses, and that as of this past Tuesday, I guess now that there are going to be many "joyful" people on the left and across the globe and many "sad" people on the right, and many others who will truly feel a measure of Schadenfreude, there might be some responses yet. And I'll end there. Thank you.

Copyright ©

Monday, January 12, 2009

Lit Reading Rising + Robinson at Inauguration + Burris-Franken + Weekend American Canceled

Reading at RiskI've flagged and flogged the NEA's 2002 Reading at Risk study so many times (yes, I know it has flaws) that I considered carrying a copy with me on my phone (it's on my computer in .pdf form) to show to people whenever I started talking about it. According to Motoko Rich's piece in today's New York Times, "Fiction Reading Increases for Adults," however, it might be time for all writers of imaginative work and publishers to turn grimaces, at least for a moment, into smiles. As Rich notes:

After years of bemoaning the decline of a literary culture in the United States, the National Endowment for the Arts says in a report that it now believes a quarter-century of precipitous decline in fiction reading has reversed.
The report, “Reading on the Rise: A New Chapter in American Literacy,” being released Monday, is based on data from “The Survey of Public Participation in the Arts” conducted by the United States Census Bureau in 2008. Among its chief findings is that for the first time since 1982, when the bureau began collecting such data, the proportion of adults 18 and older who said they had read at least one novel, short story, poem or play in the previous 12 months has risen.

The news comes as the publishing industry struggles with declining sales amid a generally difficult economy.

The report also finds that while readership isn't as high as in 1982 or 1992, it has increased among all groups, including the one that saw the steepest decline, 18-24 year olds. Other findings include: readership has surged the most among latinos, whites have the highest percentage of readers as defined in the survey, the reading of poetry and drama didn't increase as much as fiction, and reading outside of assigned material for school or work has declined slightly. As with the 2002 report, Rich notes, there are skeptics who question the methodology, which did not separate out the quantity of reading material beyond the baseline or the works read (Rich contrasts Proust and Nora Roberts and online fanfic); nor is it clear what sparked the discernible rise, though Dana Gioia, the NEA's head, suggests that community-based reading efforts (city-wide reading programs), Oprah Winfrey's and other book clubs, NEA projects targeting reading, popular series like the Harry Potter and Twilight books, and librarians (love them!), teachers, and others may all be playing a key role in encouraging reading. The article suggests that reading may also be an economical alternative during our current period of financial crisis, and as anyone who's checked for used books online knows, and writers will certain lament, you can often find some pretty good titles, especially hardcovered remained copies, for anywhere between $1-5. Whether Kindles and other new technologies are having an effect hasn't been accounted for yet.

Whether this is a sustainable trend is unclear. In the article, Elizabeth Birr Moie, an education professor at the University of Michigan, stated that this report was only a "blip," and that other studies had shown trends in both directions. The piece reminded me, though, that this quarter, when I asked my introductory fiction writing students on the first day of class to name their favorite books, almost all of them mentioned contemporary works of literary fiction or creative nonfiction--Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Safekeeping, Sabbath's Theater, Cloud Atlas, Atonement, Disgrace, The Girl in the Flammable Skirt, etc.--whereas in some recent years, I have had some students, never a large number but notable, who, though they were very eager to write fiction, said they couldn't name anything, listed a movie instead of a book, offered up works that were probably required class reading (I have assigned at least two of the books above myself), or proffered the Harry Potter series. So perhaps I am witnessing this shift as well, which would be a very good thing. Now, how to keep the trendline moving so that this is more than a blip, and also how to get more people reading more poetry and watching and reading more plays, are some of the next steps.

Speaking of the "new austerity" among the major publishers, here's Rich's account of a vanishing world.

And speaking of new literature, is anyone you know writing one of these?


So we learned today that out gay Episcopal bishop Gene Robinson, from New Hampshire, will offer a prayer at the kickoff inaugural event at the Lincoln Memorial on Sunday. (H/t to Audiologo for this link.) Whoop-dee-do. Lest you assume that this was a response to the extensive criticism of Barack Obama's selection of Rick Warren, the Prop 8-supporting con man whose stupid, hateful statements and beliefs have been well documented, an Obama "official" team wants you to know that no, it wasn't a reaction the "skeptics." It was already in the works, see, because Robinson had been advising Obama and offering useful counsel, blah blah blah. Well, I'm all for inclusivity, trying to get back on the right track, and so on. But why is Warren still involved with the inauguration next Tuesday? BTW, it made me think of Melissa Harris-Lacewell's article, and consider whether or not they might have done an even better thing by picking an out queer female and/or person of color, like, oh, say Rev. Wanda Floyd, the pastor of Imani MCC of Durham, North Carolina? (She has a piece in the anthology Spirited: Affirming the Soul and Black/Gay Identity, G. Winston James and Lisa C. Moore, Eds., Redbone Press, 2007). underline the fact that the LGBTQ community is diverse and growing more so every day.

Meanwhile, in the race for the chairmanship of the Republican National Committee (is there a single woman running?), in addition to Mr. "Magic Negro," there's Ohio's very own Crazy Negro, Ken Blackwell, who apparently is on pope Benedict XVI Ratzinger's tip not just ideologically, but practically as well. A smaller, withered GOP drawn from an increasingly narrow stratum of this country? Sounds great, guys, keep it up!


This has probably been noted elsewhere, but if the Democrats in the Senate hope to pass really progressive legislation, they will be in the best position to do so if they seat Roland Burris, who is probably on the farther end of the liberal-progressive spectrum (except on same-sex marriage), and Al Franken, who appears to have won. And, if Governor David Paterson appoints Caroline Kennedy, or at least someone along similar ideological lines, the Senate will then have an increased core of left-leaning and left-centrist members, like Bernie Sanders, Teddy Kennedy, Barbara Boxer, Sherrod Brown, and John Kerry, on to moderate Democrats like Claire McCaskill, Jim Webb and Mark Warner, who could be persuaded to sign on to more daring legislation, especially on the economic front, than would be possible otherwise. I was thinking of this as I've been reading about the back-and-forth over the new stimulus, and the criticisms, by leading economists such as George Stiglitz and Paul Krugman, that while Obama has properly and impressively diagnosed the problem, his response appears to be a bit too tepid and deferential to Republican aims. (Yes, I know, he is aiming to be post-partisan, etc.). More liberal-progressive membership, however, could help tilt the balance of argumentation and votes.

I don't know what's going to happen with Burris, especially now that the Illinois House has impeached Blago, or with Franken, though. Burris has sent his lawyers to Washington, where the Senate's counsel are deliberating on his eligibility, while Franken's request to be certified and seated was rejected today. In both cases, the GOP will be energized; Burris won't be viewed as legitimate because of his link to Blago, while Franken sends the right-wing into apoplexy. Short term for long(er) term pain?


I was very sorry to learn yesterday that Weekend America, one of my favorite public radio shows, is being canceled, in part as a result of the current economic crisis. One of the highlights of each show was hearing Desiree Cooper, a poet, fiction writer, highly regarded journalist, and fellow CC'er, deliver stories. One of her recent pieces that I particularly liked was part of her "Inside Blackness" series; in it she interviewed another "Cooper," author and journalist Helene Cooper, whose ancestors left the South in the mid-19th century and headed to Liberia. I'll let J's Theater readers check it out, and do look through their archives in general if you've missed this show over the years. I'll certainly miss it.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Pretty Invitation (to Nowhere and Nothing) + Harshaw on Oakland Murder + Cardinals Winning Again

So C calls to say, "Did you check your email," and I hadn't for a few hours, because I was driving through the slush-canyoned streets of Chicago, having dug the car out of yet another sarcophagus of snow, because it has snowed every single day that I've been back, but I stopped into a coffeeshop to check my email, and in the message he was flagging I saw photos of what looked like what we, and many others we know, have been dreaming about: an invitation to the inauguration!

I immediately called him back and as we were speaking, my mind was racing. Congressman Sires or someone had come through at the last minute, despite not answering any of my entreaties, and so I would have to reschedule my classes that Tuesday, figure out how to get to Washington and return for departmental necessities, figure out where we might stay, get my one of my suits altered and cleaned....

But when I returned to the apartment, I looked more carefully at the photos. As C had noted, it clearly stated that it was a "commemorative" invitation. An invitation to attend "public" events, just like anyone else who might happen to be in DC or near one of the trains or buses heading north from Virginia or south from Baltimore that day. There was an accompanying page suggesting that we participate in a "local community" service activity on Martin Luther King Jr. day, just as the President-Elect and VP-Elect would be doing, in Washington, which of course wouldn't be "local" for us. Then there was another note announcing that the inaugural balls would be brought to us, so we need not worry about attending them. Not Oprah's, not the Hollywood Stars', not the Military shindig, not the gig for the People, nada. In addition, as C told me, there were also offers to buy commemorative tchotchkes and so forth, perhaps of a slightly more legitimate provenance than those coins my grandmother spotted on TV and was eager to spend her precious dollars on.

In effect, like C's sister and 1 million other people across the country, we had received the Invitation to Nowhere and Nothing.

It is a pretty souvenir, certainly, and although, I really would have loved to hear Elizabeth Alexander deliver the inaugural poem and Aretha Franklin style her musical selection, thrill to the playing of Yo-Yo Ma and the praying of Joseph Lowery, witness Barack Obama and Joe Biden sworn in live, and listen the poetry that I'm sure will issue from our new president's lips (and hum as Rick Warren poured forth his invocation)--live, right there, not hundreds of thousands of miles away, alas, it won't be so. I will be watching, probably via this or another computer, as the events unfold in Washington, just like many hundreds of millions of other people in this country, like millions across the globe. And to think, if only I'd met that most recent midnight deadline for whatever amount of cash Obama and Biden and Michelle Obama and Hillary Clinton and whoever else were asking for that I don't have, I might have been one of the countless but elated hordes who entered the lottery, as happened on and before election day, at the Grant Park Rally, and nevertheless still not been selected to attend. Been there, done that. Of course in reality there'd be no way I could have gotten to Washington and back in time, and then there are all sorts of other logistical issues involved in pulling off what one of my colleagues will be pulling off, which is attending this landmark historical event that will go down in the annals of history for all time, or at least for the time that human beings remain on this earth and we still have what passes for human civilization. While I'm sure my wonderful students would have understood my rescheduling classes for such an important event, I bet they'll be even happier not to have to worry about the hassle or miss my presence in the classroom. And who's to say that the weather would even have cooperated with me leaving this beautiful, artic center of political corruption and drama on the appointed date?

You're bringing the inaugural balls to us, you say, President Obama and Vice President Biden? I will remember, yes I will.


Tobin Harshaw blogs an engaging, aggregating post in today's New York Times on "Oakland's Tragedy, and Black America's," or more specifically, the cold-blooded killing, captured on video, by White Oakland cop Johannes Mehserle of a prone, unarmed, detained 22-year Black man, Oscar Grant III, on a BART platform, a story I linked to on Thursday. Harshaw blogs about online exchanges involving social critics like conservative Stanley Crouch and progressive Ta-Nehisi Coates, criminal justice scholar James Alan Fox and economist Steven Levitt, and local Oakland bloggers, that explore and contest the statistics on Black-on-Black crime, especially among young Black men, the responses to it among Black communities versus crimes like this one involving a White cop, and who really suffers when riots like the recent one against police violence occur.

One of the things I wrote to a friend just the other day was along these lines: police continue to kill Black folks, but far too many Black folks are still killing Black folks, especially young Black men killing young Black men. It's an unmitigated tragedy, and we have to work to end not only the former, but at the latter as well.


Are the Arizona Cardinals really on the verge of winning two consecutive playoff games? Are they really about to win another one after having won their first home playoff game in 61 years last week, meaning that they hadn't won since they were in Windy City, Chicago (that is, skipping over all the years in the Mound City, St. Louis, when they drove innumerable football Cardinals fans nearly to heart attacks with their inimitable collapses when playoff time came around), all those years ago? If they do win, which appears likely, let me congratulate them, and especially my former 7th grade classmate, Mike Bidwill, who I gather is really running the team these days. You've successfully rejuvenated the career of Kurt Warner. You've made your investment in Edgerrin James pay off. You might even have managed to galvanize your fan base and pay for that glittering new stadium in the desert. The possibility of your getting to the Super Bowl, however, is unlikely, and winning it unlikelier still, but stranger things have happened.

Friday, January 09, 2009

Poem: Charles Reznikoff

ReznikoffThough he might best be known primarily for the style of his poetry, which embodies the concept of Objectivism, Charles Reznikoff's two-volume masterpiece Testimony is a tour-de-force of assembled social documentary, a vast tapestry detailing, in clear, precise and usually prosaic narratives the forgotten history of this country. The litanies in the collection, drawn from court testimony but shorn of the judgments, document, in relentless fashion, the horrors of our shared American reality in a way that few novels, books of poetry, films, or TV shows do. It is in a way like "The Wire" but extended over the entire country, and with only an associative, not plotted, throughline. Here's a poem from Volume 1: the united states (1885-1915) Recitative (Black Sparrow Press, 1978), and specifically from the section Testimony: The United States (1885-1890): The West. I thought of it in relation to yet another report about a Black man being shot by police, even though the race of the victim remains unspoken; it is, in effect, a commentary on the widespread violence that has marked this country from its settlement and founding, a violence, often based on power struggles, economic, political and social domination, and control of resources and thus ultimately of everything that depends upon them, including life itself, that we sometimes want to confine to the margins of memory and history, but that has always been with us, a part of who we are as a society.

Town and Country


The body had been buried face downwards.
Only the skeleton was left,
and it separated in handling
when dug up.
The coat was yellow ducking,
lined with a light-colored blanket;
overalls of yellow ducking, too,
and a patch on the knee:
a belt on the skeleton,
a knife in the pocket,
and a bullet hole
in the back of the skull.

Copyright © Estate of Charles Reznikoff, Black Sparrow Press, 1978. All rights reserved.

Thursday, January 08, 2009

New Year?...Hey, It's January 8th!

For once this does feel to me like a new year. A new and very extremely busy year already (sigh), but fresh all the same. It was wonderful to be home with C for a little bit, and to get away for a hot minute too. (Besotes siempre a Anthony M.) But I did post a New Year's message, and I experienced no airline horrors getting back to Chicago, despite all the grim O'Hare flight news that besieged the holidays and holiday travelers, and so a correspondent wondered where I've been since, and I meant to reply to her as I did to a graduate student that I'm in the "mines" right now, so no or only a little posting.

It's a metaphor I didn't think of several years ago when a younger writer asked what my quarters usually consisted of, but this ought to give some sense of what's up: winter quarter classes have begun (I have two, one an undergraduate introductory creative writing class, one an upper level undergraduate class in literary theory, about which I'll write more soon). I am also supervising the honors theses of 2 undergraduate students (one working on a literary study, one writing a fiction manuscript), the MA/MFA theses of 2-5 students, the doctoral dissertation of one student, and a independent study project of at least 1 undergraduate student. (I hope I haven't forgotten anyone!) And then there's the committee and departmental activities of which I cannot say more. The quarter's over in March. I'm going to try to post a bit more than once per week, but the entries may be thin gruel indeed, and it's not for lack of intent or interest....


Congratulations to CCer Aracelis Girmay, who won the 2009 Great Lakes Colleges Association New Writers Award for her superb book of poems, Teeth (Curbstone Press)!


Today's RedEye (the free, dumbed-down, picture-heavy version of the Chicago Tribune) has on its all-black cover (wink, wink) the question "Is Racism Dead?" Because our 44th president is a black person, you know. (Please do note the images shown in the "Stories" list.)

Why don't we ask him, or him, or him, or them? And those are just the spectacular examples....

(And how could we ever forget this character, who'd like to fill Hillary Clinton's seat. "The Democrats are throwing the election away. And for what? An inadequate black male....Well, I got news for you, McCain will be the next president of the United States!": famous last words, Ms. Christian, famous last words.)

And then there are these buffoons! (And if you're looking for Facebook friends, wackpot and W enabler Ken Blackwell bragged today that he has more Facebook friends than the other contenders. Have you missed out on being part of his online posse?)


Police have arrested the quartet of Latino and Black men who brutally gang-raped a 28-year old Black woman in Richmond, California, on December 13, 2008, because of her sexual orientation. A Facebook group, "Help a Sista Out," has been established here.

If you would like to offer some financial support to her, her partner, and her daughter, you can do so here:

Community Violence Solutions
2101 Van Ness Ave.,
San Pablo, CA 94806
Attn: Mrs. Joanne Douglas

If you would like to send a sympathy card, you may do so here:

Richmond Police Department
Attn: Sgt. Brian Dickerson
1701 Regatta Blvd.
Richmond, CA 94804

I hadn't seen this very on-point post by Professor Melissa Harris-Lacewell, one of Princeton's many brilliant lights, but it's definitely worth reading! (H/t to WOC PhD) I haven't seen Milk yet, but then I also didn't get to Noah's Arc: Jumping the Broom when it was in Chicago for an eyeblink. The DVD will be out in February, I believe I saw in this past week's Windy City Times, so I plan to see it as soon as I can.


The Israel-Hamas War continues, with a new front possibly opening up as of yesterday. The United States is uniquely placed to bring it to a cease-fire. We all know this. If you have not contacted your Senator(s), Congresspeople and the President-Elect and Vice President-Elect, demanding that they do so, please do so now.

While you're politely but firmly demanding they push for a cease-fire, please also let them know that letting all of the people who engaged in warrantless spying on Americans, who organized and authorized torture, extraordinary renditions, and secret prisons, and who kept Guantánamo in business deserve to be brought before a Truth and Reconciliation Commission at the very least, and prosecuted for War Crimes at best. They really should hear this as often as they can. As should our new president, Barack Obama, who appears poised to go the Clintonian route and sweep all the prior crimes under the rug in an effort to "move forward."


Speaking Obama, Illinois, and the junior Senate seat shenanigans, I found myself mentioning Blagojevich in reference to the concept of "tragedy" in my first afternoon class this past Tuesday, which got me to wondering how four major playwrights--William Shakespeare, George Bernard Shaw, August Wilson, and Adrienne Kennedy--would explore the circumstances of his rise (he was elected not only twice to the governorship, but also to Congress in the seat Rahm Emanuel just gave up) and fall.

If I can offer some very potted thoughts, I think Shakespeare would focus on the fatal flaws in Blagojevich's character, and the colorful context and cast that surrounds him. His estranged father-in-law, Alderman Dick Mell, would certainly be a character as would Patrick Fitzgerald and Lisa Madigan. And then there's the ghost of Richard Nixon, whom a young Blago was quite enamored of. (Shouldn't some intrepid reporter have pointed that out to voters before the first election?) Shakespeare probably also would have made much punning on Blago's Kennedyesque affectations; delusions, hubris, grandiosity and denial; and hair. How many allusions to hair do you think Shakespeare would have come up with? Ten? Twenty? Fifty? When speaking before the legislature or to constituents, or when soliloquizing, he would speak in poetry, but in best Shakespearean fashion, when speaking on those tapes, we'd get pure prose (and some clever vulgarities too). The Avon Bard would probably also condense and distill the story so that we got the highlights and lowlights, but in a way quite different from the temporal compressions of contemporary dramas. I think the ghost of Nixon would factor into these. Would it end with impeachment, or just with Blago being marched out of his house by police?

Shaw would probably focus on the malign influence of money, Blago's working-class background, and his desire for greatness fatally undercut by his lack of good faith. I can see one scene including Blago's very public and vocal denunciation of the ever-growing bemoth Bank of America at the Republic Windows and Doors Factory sit-in followed by his very public and shocking arrest right thereafter. One of the key elements of Shaw's treatment would, like Shakespeare's, be the monologues each character delivered. Shaw's Blago would probably have a more gilded tongue than the real governor, and almost convince us spectators of his virtue, just as he conned a majority of Illinois voters before his re-election, despite the fact that the festering pustules of corruption that were eventually to burst would be evident to anyone listening to and watching carefully what was unfolding on the stage. Another key element would be comedy, caustic but effective in getting us to see some absurdity at the base of the tragedy before us. I'm not so sure how Shaw might end the play, except to say that we would probably have a bit more sympathy for Blago, which makes me think that the Burris legerdemain would factor in. Now admit it, didn't you have to give Blago props for his audaciousness in pulling this mess off?

August Wilson would probably also include a ghost, but not Nixon. His ghost might be Martin Luther King Jr., and his focus might be on either Jesse Jackson Jr., who can give a good speech, or Roland Burris, whose ego is Shakespearean, to put it mildly. Barack Obama would certainly be part of this cast. Two of Wilson's greatest strengths as a playwright are his compelling poetry and his gift for encapsulating an epoch in a few gestures, conversations, several acts, so I think if he were to focus on Jackson Jr., we might see a contrast between the dreams and actions of his father and the Civil Rights era, and the contemporary moment, when even a Black person can be as corrupt and connected a player as anyone else. He also might give us some of the hidden family drama unfolding among the Jackson clan: imagine the exchanges Wilson could come up with between Jesse Jackson Sr.; Jesse Jr.; brother Jonathan Jackson, who's allegedly linked to the Blago Senate seat selloff; Jesse Jr.'s wife Sandi, a Chicago City Councilperson; and mother Jacqueline Jackson. If the men ended up wrestling on the floor, while uttering unforgettable lines, would you be surprised? How would Wilson end the play? With Jesse Jr. alone in his Chicago office, watching a TV set on which Burris was being sworn in as Obama stood by (poetic license, you know)?

Adrienne Kennedy, the only one of the playwrights I've invoked who's still alive and writing, would have a field day with this story if she took it up. I could see parallel narratives, one with Blago being sworn in as president of the US, the other of him in jail, telling the story. He might even be represented by various personalities/selves, designated by grotesque masks or grotesquely made up actors, including one who was actually a version of Richard Nixon, one a version of John F. Kennedy, another Richard J. Daley. Or one might be, in outlandish and brilliant Kennedy fashion, a major, tragic female figure from history, like Queen Anne of Great Britain, or Joan of Arc. Given Blago's strong support among Black Chicagoans, one self might be Jean Baptiste Point du Sable! All of them would end up cleverly mixing snippets of Blago's speeches with their own (or invented) words, all undercut by the Blago-in-jail narrator, who would assure us that in fact, the true outcome was that he was elected President, far in the future. I would particularly look forward to the final speech or portion that unraveled or complicated the delusional stance of the governor, and the revelation that the nondescript office was, in effect a jail cell. Kennedy could certainly pull it off.

Thursday, January 01, 2009

Happy New Year 2009!

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

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