Sunday, March 14, 2010

The 2nd Last Class of Quarter + Split This Rock Festival

Last week marked my second "end of the quarter," because the graduate schools' classes run an extra week, so after saying goodbye to my class of senior undergrads a week ago, I unfortunately had to reprise this on Wednesday with my smart and talented group of graduate fiction students.  This quarter I tried to loosely structure the readings along a trajectory that ran from very short (we began with microfictional stories by Melanie Rae Thon and Amy Hempel) to near-novella-length (our final story was Haruki Murakami's "Honey Pie"), and from realism (cf. Thon and Hempel above) to works that included elements of or were outright SFF (Nalo Hopkinson's long story "Under Glass" represented the culmination of this). For the last two weeks of the quarter I like to have the students read either a novel or a theoretical book, so this year I returned to James Wood's excellent though somewhat prescriptive treatise How Fiction Works (FSG, 2008), which, from what I could tell, the students found beneficial.  Throughout all my classes this quarter I taught the work of a number of authors I've never tried before, and they appeared to go over well. These include Jason Epstein, Percival Everett, Amy Hempel, Cristina Henríquez, Fanny Howe, George Saunders, Muriel Spark, Melanie Rae Thon, and Wells Tower.  Of course teaching new texts equals added work, but part of the joy of assigning new materials is that doing so requires that I must also read and think about different authors, styles, texts, than I've become used to. One of the other benefits of these new works is hearing the students' thoughts on them. The undergraduates' and graduate students' in-class commentary, critical papers and annotations, and creative responses, all served to illuminate these works in new ways for me.  Next quarter I'll be teaching works by authors I haven't before introduced into the classroom, including Vito Acconci, John Cage, Don Delillo, M. NourbeSe Philip, Nathalie Stephens/Nathanël, and Andy Warhol, among others, so I'm looking forward to seeing how it goes over.

I do wish our break was longer, though, because it represents the only time that my mind gets a breather, and I'll have opportunity not only to read a bit for pleasure and leisure, and rejuvenation, but for my own work as well. Writing while teaching multiple fiction classes is always tough, and the abrupt return in January was even tougher than the usual post-summer transition. But such is the teaching life.


I returned early this morning from my short visit to Washington to attend the Split This Rock Poetry Festival: Poems of Provocation of Witness 2010, and I'm very glad I was invited to participate and able to attend.  The festival, first conveived in 2003 by poets opposing the Iraq War, and held for the first time as a full event in 2008, spanned 4 days and included readings, panels and workshops, a book fair, film screenings, and performances, and took place at venues throughout DC's U Street Corridor, including Busboys and Poets bookstore; the Thurgood Marshall Center; and the True Reformer Building; and in the Columbia Heights & Mount Pleasant neighborhoods, including Marx Café, Bell Multicultural High School, and the Dance Institute of Washington.  It even included a public cento, read aloud on Thursday at Upper Senate Park, to call attention to the misuse of public funds for war instead of for public education, health care for all, jobs, and other socially vital uses, that began with lines quoted from Adrienne Rich's  poem, "An Atlas of the Difficult World," from that eponymous collection. One of the things I loved about this conference was its atmosphere of political and social commitment, its very different cross-section of attendees from other poetry conferences (like AWP, for example), and the community-based venues. Also, with the focus not on networking or job-hunting but on social activism, people here (as at Adfempo, for example) related to each other on a very different, more relaxed basis.

My main contribution was contributing to a panel discussion that Reggie H. organized on the theme of Black LGBTQ Literary History and its relation to social activism. Other panel participants included poets Lenelle Moïse and Jericho Brown; Cheryl Clarke, one of the most important black lesbian poets of the last 30 years, was scheduled to join us but wasn't able to make it.  The panel tackled a number of issues, including the politics of our work and our work as political art; the ways in which we saw ourselves engaging in social activism; the question of non-traditional aesthetics and Black/queer literary canons; and dialoguing across boundaries. As part of my commentary, I drafted remarks towards a paper on "Translation as Activism," which I hope to complete and publish somewhere, and in the process of conducting research for it, I learned about the Translation and Activism: First International Conference, which occurred in 2007, at the University of Granada, Spain, and from which came a very important document, the Granada Declaration, concerning the necessity and importance of engaged, ethical, global translation and interpretation practice.

Our panel: Jericho, Lenelle & Reggie (Thomas Sayers Ellis, our photographer, at far right)

Tying the question of translation and/as activism back to Black LGBTQ literary history in particular, I cited the example of queer literary forefather and culture worker Langston Hughes, whose translations included the work of 3 quite significant literary figures during his lifetime: Federico García Lorca's play Bodas de Sangre, in 1933, 3 years before the great, gay Republican Spanish poet would be assassinated by right-wingers; Haitian anti-colonialist writer Jacques Roumain's novel Gouverneurs de la rosee (Masters of the Dew) in 1947, with writer Mercer Cook; and Afro-Cuban poet Nicolás Guillén's work, in the 1948 volume Cuba Libre, with Ben Frederic Carruthers. I went on to point out how in so doing Hughes was extending lines of dialogue and shaping discourse transnationally and transculturally, but also how his translations functioned as forms of social, political and literary activism. I also noted the work of Melvin Dixon, who devoted a great deal of his short life to translating the complete poems of one of the founders of Négritude, the poet, politician and activist Léopold Sédar Senghor, to suggest a more recent example.

Though we were an early panel (9:30am on a Saturday), at Busboys and Poets, an excellent independent bookstore I hadn't visited in years, we had good attendance, with a lively and responsive audience, and the fine fortune of having poet Thomas Sayers Ellis, one of the poets I've known longest, but also an accomplished photographic artist, take our individual and session photos.  Among the stellar roster of folks who came out to hear us were Redbone Press publisher Lisa C. Moore, fellow CCers Tara Betts, Randall Horton and Holly Bass, as well as Dan Vera, and Gretchen Primack, whom I got to talk to at length, a little later, about translation. I was very glad that Reggie conceived the panel and brought us together.  Afterwards, as I had the day before, I got to hang out with my very dear friend artist Victor Hodge, who probably should have been on a panel himself, given the thrust of much of his work.
Alicia Ostriker, Melissa Tuckey, Diana García, and Patricia Smith

After our panel I headed with Reggie and Lisa to hear the reading and discussion by poets affiliated with the brand-new volume Fire and Ink: An Anthology of Social Action Writing. (Despite the title, it has no links to the Fire & Ink Black LGBTQ group, which used this name first, or the three conferences they've organized.) Among the poets in the anthology who read were Patricia Smith, who as always performed a poem, without recourse to a text, that made me go "Wow!"; Martín Espada, whom I've known and admired since my Dark Room Writers Collective days; Alicia Suskin Ostriker, whose name I've heard for years but whom I'd never seen read; Melissa Tuckey; and two of the co-editors, Diana García, the author the American Book Award-winning collection When Living was a Labor Camp; and Frances Payne Adler.  Each read a poem from the book, and then talked about their experiences teaching social action writing, to students of all ages, and in various venues, from prisons to universities. Hearing each of their accounts, what struck me was how their political and social visions strongly shaped not just what they taught, but who and how they taught this material. What I also thought, as I have many times before, about was how the college and university setting is valorized as a site for teaching poetry, but how it constitutes only one of many spaces where dialogues about poetry, and art and its social importance and relevance, should be unfolding. Afterwards we checked out the book fair, where I ran into Chicago poets Toni Asante Lightfoot, and her lovely 2-year-old daughter, and Patricia Spears Jones, whom I hadn't seen (though she regular updates me via email) in a while.

One of the most exciting parts of the weekend was going to hear one of Cuba's greatest living poets, Nancy Morejón, at the Gala Hispanic Center, in the Columbia Heights neighborhood. I'd hoped to meet her when I went to Cuba last spring (around this time), but our schedules did not match up, so I was almost incredulous when I learned that she would be attending the festival. I met up with Reggie, and another friend, Herbert Rogers, a librarian and translator who knows many of Cuba's contemporary literary figures.  Morejón had read on Thursday, before I arrived, but she also had scheduled a public talk (which came to include a reading) on Saturday, so I was able to make it. Fluent in many languages, she graciously delivered her remarks in English, though she also agreed, at the request of audience members, to read several of her poems, including "Círculos de oro" (Circles of Gold), with its rhythmic near-refrain "andar y andar," and one of her most famous, "Mujer negra" (Black Woman), an iconic, haunting poem from the 1970s. Assisting her during the Q&A was Smithsonian Institution scholar James Early, a close friend of hers, and in attendance, it seems, were the head of the Cuban Interest Section (i.e., the ambassador), and a number of Cuban and US scholars and cultural figures who were very familiar with the current situation in the country.
Nancy Morejón, second from left, and James Early, beside her, with other notable figures who were in attendance

Among the people she cited during her remarks, which ranged from her remembrances of her participation in Cuba's very successful early 1960s literacy campaign, to her work as the head of the writers' division at the National Writers and Artists Union (UNEAC) and the challenges facing the new generation of writers, were, unsurprisingly, Nicolás Guillén, about whom she'd written quite a bit over the years, but also Langston Hughes, which felt like an affective and affiliative circle for the day, at the least, coming together.  The Cuban newspaper CubaDebate thoroughly covered the event, and you can read the Spanish account here.

The next Split This Rock festival will be held in 2012, so check out the site for more information about the developing program, how to attend, and other related projects. I hope to be there two years from now!

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