Sunday, December 26, 2010

Happy Kwanzaa + East Coast Blizzard

HAPPY KWANZAA! Habari gani.
Photo courtesy of the Official Kwanzaa website.

Kwanzaa, which has been around since I was a year old or so, is not a holiday I've regularly celebrated, though occasionally I have participated in friends' and community-based Kwanzaa observations in the past. More than anything I try to take its seven principles (the Nguzo Saba) to heart, and not just during the designated holiday week. The principles are ones I remember memorizing as a child: Umoja (unity), Kujichagulia (self-determination), Ujima (collective work and responsibility), Ujamaa (cooperative economics), Nia (purpose), Kuumba (creativity), and Imani (faith).
These were concepts I not only memorized, but steeped in growing up in the 1970s, an era when various strands of political and social "liberation," collective economic principles, and cultural nationalism and resistence were in the air.

While this new decade marks a distinctly different moment, I continue to believe that many of these principles remain aluable not only for African Americans and for black people across the globe, but also for people of all races throughout this and other societies, especially now that we face sustained economic, political and cultural assaults particularly from those who already have most of the power and money.  Even if you don't celebrate Kwanzaa, do consider how these principles might apply to you and how you can apply them in your life and to the communities you belong to.

For a bit of comedy (or outrage, depending) around Kwanzaa, there's always Food Network star Sandra Lee's (in)famous Kwanzaa cake (which food writer Denise Vivaldo apparently created out of the air), in all its awfulness (and yet I'm strangely drawn to it):


I've been scoffing about the hoopla surrounding the current East Coast blizzard, since Chicago has already received multiple snowstorms, including a severe one that delayed my return a few weeks ago, but it really is coming down here in Jersey City. And it's cold, almost Chicago cold. Earlier today it was 24°F and now it's 21°F. It was a comparatively balmy 27°F in Chicago.

When I peeked out back, I saw easily over a foot of snow, and a view from the front door confirms the same.  According to the news, over 14 inches have fallen not too far south of here.  All of the local airports are closed, as are Amtrak from Maine to New York, and the Long Island Railroad also has been shut down.  The Philadelphia Eagles even canceled tonight's game against the Green Bay Packers, though I seem to remember teams playing in blizzards in past years, and even played in snow myself as a teenager, but perhaps the winds truly were too strong, and players, who make a lot more than they once did, have it in their contracts that they won't play in snow bowls if they can help it.

The trains that allow people to ride "in a hole in the ground," the MTA subway, are running, however, as are New York City's buses, but people all across the metro area have gotten stranded in snowdrifts. (I assume the PATH trains are still running, perhaps on the reduced schedule that the New Jersey Transit trains are.)  As I finish this entry, it's still snowing and the snowfall is forecast to continue until tomorrow morning, which means a day of digging out. Since early December, I've more than enough practice.

East Coast snowstorm, at night
Snow in Jersey City, tonight
East Coast snowstorm, at night
Snow in Jersey City, tonight
East Coast snowstorm, by day
Snow in Jersey City, late this afternoon
East Coast snowstorm, by day
Snow in Jersey City, late this afternoon
Snow in Chicago
Snow in Chicago, December 6
Chicago snow
Snow in Chicago, December 9
Chicago snow
Snow in Chicago, December 9

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Happy Holidays & Merry Christmas

Happy Holidays - Merry Christmas - Happy Hanukkah - Happy Kwanzaa - Best Wishes For This Season and Always!

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Rugby League Four Nations Tournament 2010 + Casula Powerhouse Body Pacifica Calendar

It's the holidays, which means its time for what one J's Theater reader once charitably called "rugby porn." Not real pornography, of course, just shots of ruggers running, tackling, scoring...and whatever else it is they do on the field. This year's Gillette Rugby League Four Nations tournament occurred in Australia and New Zealand in October and November 2010, months in which I was working diligently and postly lightly. This year's participants were Australia, New Zealand, England, and the winners of the 2009 Pacific Cup, Papua New Guinea.

I'll skip all the tournament round-robin play, which amounted to 7 games, to say that the final pitted Australia against New Zealand, and the Kiwis won in a shocker to the dominant Aussie team, 16-12.  And now, that means photos!

Sam Thaiday of Australia

England's side
Frank-Paul Nuuausala of the Kiwis
Kiwi Shaun Kenny-Dowell being tackled by Michael Mark of Papua New Guinea
Paul Aiton of PNG being tackled by Kangaroos
Kangaroo Lote Tuqiri, vs. PNG
Paul Aiton of PNG facing England
PNG celebrating
Kiwis' Benji Marshall, against England
Papuans getting love from a fan
Aussies tackle an Englishman

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Darnton's The Library: 3 Jeremiads + Brathwaite's Elegguas + National Book Foundation's New Reading Prize

Last spring I checked out from the university's library the esteemed Enlightenment historian and (Harvard University) librarian Robert Darnton's The Case for Books: Past, Present, and Future (New York: PublicAffairs, 2009) to gauge his arguments about the present and future state of the world of books and literature for my own edification and to preview it for a class. Darnton, one of the most important figures in his fields, has a gift for subtle argumentation and narration, and I ended up skimming the book, which replicated in longer and more polished form a number of the essays he has been publishing along these same lines in the New York Review of Books, for the last several years. Many concern the role of the computer behemoth Google, and its relationship to the publishing and library worlds, and he has also made a passionate case in the pages of the NYR for a national (which would also be an international) digital library, drawing from the resources of private libraries like the one he heads, public ones like the unmatched Library of Congress, and the trove of 7 million and counting books that Google has already scanned in, with the cooperation of institutions like Harvard and the New York Public Library, but also against the wishes of some publishers and authors, who successfully prosecuted a lawsuit to gain compensation from Google for copyright infringement.

In the current issue of the NYR, in "The Library: Three Jeremiads," Darnton returns to the arguments he has made before, but this time with a trio of "jeremiads," as he calls them, concerning three pressing economic and resource-related issues that American research libraries face which also negatively affect scholarly publishing; universities and college library collections, along with those of public libraries; library patrons, which is to say, readers; and, to a degree not yet fully understood, the humanities, intellectual life, and knowledge production themselves. The first two of Darnton's jeremiad's focus on the exorbitant cost and terms, verging on extortion, of subscriptions to scholarly journals, especially in the sciences, relative to other kinds of texts, which has forced libraries to cut their purchase of scholarly monographs, thus harming libraries' budgets and university presses' bottom lines. Over the longer haul, this economic problem, juxtaposed with constrained university and research library budgets, threatens the sustainability of the academic research enterprise as a whole.  To give a sense of the astronomical prices charged by some publishers, information about which many professors are completely unaware and which have far exceeded the cost of inflation, the chemistry journal Tetrahedron costs $39,082 per year, while The Journal of Comparative Neurology costs $27,465 per year, and both, like many journals from a given publisher, must be purchased in bundles, with high kill fees to end subscriptions for specific journals and so forth. Humanities and social science journals total less per year but are still high and part of this system, with the result that the average cost in 2009 of a US journal title was $2,031 and $4,753 for a non-US title, and that year the journal publishing giant Elsevier made $1.1 billion in profits.  Moreover, there is little transparency in this system, according to Darnton, giving the journal publishers an advantage over libraries, which, for the sake of the scholars they serve, cannot opt out.

Scholars and librarians have attempted to respond, with mixed reuslts.  In the case of the Mellon Foundation-funded Gutenberg-e program, which sought to publish digital monographs of award-winning PhD dissertations in scholarly areas under greatest threat, the potential was great but it did not work out as planned, and the project is now defunct; in the case of digital, open-access scientific journals, there has been some success after scientists at University of California-Berkeley and Stanford circulated a petition in 2001 calling for colleagues to patronize only these journals. The publisher BioMed Central, according to Darnton, has shown since 1999 that this model can work. But the larger question of the effects on libraries and particularly on the humanities and social sciences remains. Darnton had been holding out hope for the Compact for Open-Access Publishing Equity (COPE), founded this year, would lead universities towards the open-access model in terms of publishing, and also subsidize authors who could not get grants or subvention money from their home institutions, with the texts ultimately available in both digital and print form via the Espresso Book Machine, about which I've written on here. But, and this is the core of his third jeremiad, there loometh Google.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Carmen Herrera Paints On + Wojnarowicz Film to Travel

It sometimes is the case that great artists, especially highly original ones or who do not fit the artworld's templates and expectations, may work an entire lifetime and get little or no recognition or notice, and less remuneration.  Okay, that sounds a bit depressing, but here's a positive story, about Cuban-born, New York-based artist Carmen Herrera (1915-), discovered at age 89, that has been reported several times over the last year, though I like these two pieces, one in The Telegraph and the other in The Guardian UK, most of the ones I've read about this artist.  Both show Herrera to be a hoot, as sharp as a knifeblade and as candid as an open window, with a wit and way with words. (Her poor assistant.) But she also sounds like she could be fun to spend some time with, before you became a bother and prevented her from doing her work, which she is evidently (and thankfully) going to do, with aplomb, until she can't any more. So, take it away, Carmen Herrera! (from the The Telegraph interview, conducted by Helena de Bertodano, "Carmen Herrera: 'Is It a Dream?" reposted at Repeating Islands (by Lisa Paravisini):

‘It’s a very selfish way of doing things – I [Herrera] have to work on it for a while before I come to a decision. Sometimes it takes weeks and sometimes I get stuck.

I get very mad and sometimes I win and sometimes the picture wins. I hate being interrupted when I am working but now I am interrupted all the time.’ She looks at me accusingly and laughs.

‘Really, fame is ridiculous. I didn’t used to bother anyone and no one bothered me. Now I am paying because they are paying me.

‘The money is useful because at the end of life, to my amazement, you need a lot of help. Otherwise I would end up in a nursing home. And I dread that.’

Herrera has four helpers who rotate around the clock, enabling her to stay in the home she has occupied for decades.

I ask her when she moved in. ‘About 18 years ago,’ she says. Bechara, who sits in on part of the interview, intervenes. ‘Come on, darling, 18 years ago! You came here in 1968.’

‘You are very nasty, Tony,’ says Herrera. ‘When you are 95 you will forget your own name.’

If you happen to be in London, her work is currently on exhibit alongside work by Peter Joseph at Lisson Gallery, London NW1, until 29 January 2011.

Red with White Triangle (1961)

As has been widely reported, the National Portrait Gallery at the Smithsonian Institution bowed to crass political pressure when it removed the 4-minute excerpt of late artist David Wojnarowicz's (1954-1992) film "A Fire In My Belly" from its landmark queer portraiture exhibit, "Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture." As the Chicago Tribune's Lauren Vieira reported on Saturday, it was only a month into the show's run when the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, the outfit run by Bill Donohue, denounced the film as "hate speech," based on an 11-second clip in which ants crawl across a crucifix.  Shades of L'Age D'Or, etc. The lachrymose incoming Speaker of the House, John Boehner (R-OH), also slammed the work as a waste of taxpayers' money. Said the museum in a December 6th statement, the "Hide/Seek" exhibit would "continue as planned," until February 13, 2010, without Wojnarowicz's film, which allegedly "distracted from the overall exhibition." Ah, thuggery.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

"Disunion" (Civil War History Series) in the New York Times

I'm going to sing the praises of The New York Times today, and note that since October 30, 2010, it has been publishing one of the best and most informative series of articles, mini-essays, and nonfiction stories (tales, in the older sense), under the title "Disunion," that I have read in any newspaper, journal or other periodical anywhere, ever. The pieces, along with a timeline, interactive maps and documents, and photos and engravings, commemorate the 150th anniversary of the breakup of the United States, in 1860, from period leading up to the election of Abraham Lincoln, to the chain of state secessions that provoked the four-year US Civil War (1861-1865). Each day one of several eminent and less well known historians, archivists and writers (Adam Goodheart, Ted Widmer, Susan Schulten, Jill Lepore, Jamie Malanowski, etc.) produces a short imaginative, usually narrative entry, based on their own or others' historical research, journalistic and archival documentation, and so forth, that fills in key gaps about how the North and South split, or rather, the cultural roots of the national divorce, in which North pressed its political, economic and sociocultural case to represent the nearly 100-year-old country's best interests, prevent its dissolution and end slavery, while the South hewed to the interests of its slave-owning leaders and began the process of secession to defend this odious institution. Some are more engaging than others, many incorporate the various trends underway in contemporary historiography (material, cultural and political history, the role of various discourses, the role of race and racism, feminist historiography to some degree, historical theorization and cultural theory, and quantitative methods), yet present vivid stories of our national unbecoming and becoming.

Others have focused on the particulars of candidate and then elected-but-not-yet-inaugurated new president Abraham Lincoln, the first Republican to hold office, shrewdly announced one approach publicly but manipulated his fellow party members behind the scenes; how Southern leaders, like Senators Jefferson Davis of Mississippi, James Henry Hammond of South Carolina, and Robert Toombs of Georgia, and plantocrats like Robert Barnwell Rhett, uttered rhetoric as harsh as any heard today espousing a desire to defend slavery at all costs, white supremacy as the social, cultural and political ideals of the Confederacy to come, and, in Toombs' case, the possible extermination of all black people if the Southerners did not get their way; how leading authors, like Walt Whitman and Herman Melville, discursively and creatively imagined this moment of national fracture; and how famous former US residents, like Giuseppe Garibaldi, a revolutionary in Brazil (Rio Grande do Sul) the founding hero of a united Italy, were linked directly what was occurring on these shores.

In today's paper, Harvard historian Lepore historicizes Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's "Paul Revere's Ride" to show how it was as much about preparation for the coming war as about the Revolutionary era hero, and writer and memoirist Edward Ball shows that South Carolina, the first southern state to secede (and which will celebrate the 150th anniversary of its secession tomorrow), made clear in its articles of secession that the right to enslave fellow human beings as property was central to its traitorous fissure.

One of Goodheart's entry, one of the most moving and riveting I have read yet, described Harriet Tubman's final pre-war journey south, to rescue her sister and niece and nephew in Maryland. Yet when Tubman learned that her sister had died and then her family members did not turn up at the appointed meeting place, Tubman helped a couple escape, which entailed a drama fitting of the best narrative poem or short story one might imagine (an allegedly "crazed" white man was repeated walking about and mumbling to himself in a clearing near where Tubman and the fugitives had hidden, and after a while Tubman realized he was giving them secret instructions about how to get away!). Tubman, the couple and their infant, who had to be drugged to remain quiet, did make it across the Mason-Dixon line, they heading on to Canada and she back to her home in Auburn, New York, and this story, which I have read about in more than one book, came to life for me again in a way that felt as fresh and thrilling as any version I'd heard of it before.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Bye Bye, DADT! + Niemeyer's 103rd

There's been so little to celebrate of late with the current administration or the now lame-duck Congress, and the capitulation on the tax cuts for millionaires-to-get-an-extension-of-unemployment insurance for the most vulnerable Americans, during the winter holidays no less, was a particularly bitter pill.  But today proved that the government will not end the year only on low notes.

Today brought one of the highest of the year thus far. Although Senate Republicans last week killed a bill to provide funding for 9/11 first-responders and the Defense Appropriation Bill, which had included a DADT repeal component, and this morning, with the support of five Democrats, quashed passage of the Dream Act for the children of undocumented immigrants, the Democrats with some GOP help today broke this sorry string by first voting 63-33 (a third of the US Senate was still voting no, but six Republicans, Collins, Brown, Murkowski, Olympia Snowe, Mark Kirk and George Voinovich, voted with nearly all the Democrats) to invoke cloture on a bill introduced by Joe Lieberman, then voted 65-31 this afternoon to repeal the 1993 Don't Ask Don't Tell (DADT) policy, which barred openly lesbian and gay servicepeople from serving in the US military. The House had already passed a DADT repeal earlier this week. President Obama, who had promised in campaign to repeal this odious policy, has fulfilled this promise, and is expected to sign the bill in the next few days.

For years before the 1993 policy, enacted under President Bill Clinton as a response to extreme reactions to his attempts to end the prior, harsher policy against LGBT servicepeople (Secretary of State Colin Powell, the Chairperson of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was strongly against allowing openly gay LGBT to serve), brave active duty soldiers, veterans and gay activists had fought to allow LGBT people to serve openly in the military, and after the 1993 policy took effect, activists increased their efforts to repeal DADT, since like previous policies it consigned valuable members of the US military to dismissal, destroying their careers and livelihoods prematurely, based solely on their sexual orientations or others' perceptions thereof.

After this week's votes I, like all other LGBTQ people, and like all Americans, can say I have lived to see the day that this heinous, unequal policy and the one preceding it were repealed by my federal representatives, and signed into law by the President. Most impressive to me was that Congress's courage finally matched that of the American people, who in increasing numbers in recent years have come to believe this policy should be ended, and that of the military's leaders, officers and soldiers, who also agreed that it should be repealed.

Thank you to all those who fought tirelessly to end this policy, through protests, lawsuits, putting their careers and lives on the line. Thank you to all the LGBT people who protested, wrote their officials, wrote articles and blogs to push for the repeal, and to all the non-LGBT allies. Thank you to all those in the military leadership, from the Secretary of Defense to the Chairperson of the Joint Chiefs and present and past officers, who changed their views and did the right thing. Thank you to the rank-and-file, whose responses helped to shape the broader public discourse and the specific arguments used by those who still were unsure. Thank you to Congress, especially Speaker of the House Pelosi, and Senators and Majority Leader Harry Reid, Joe Lieberman, and Kristen Gillibrand, along with the handful of Republicans, for passing this bill. And, once President Obama signs it into law, we will be able to thank him for doing what he promised he would do, and what should have been done years ago.


On Wednesday, one of the great living architects, Oscar Niemeyer, an artist whose medium is sinuous concrete and steel, turned 103, and celebrated his birthday by inaugurating the newly opened site he had designed in 1997, the headquarters of the Fundação Oscar Niemeyer (Oscar Niemeyer Foundation), in Niterói, a city across Guanabara Bay from Rio de Janeiro.  The Foundation was created in 1988, but is only now debuting this spectacular, futuristic site, which is several kilometers to the north of another of Niemeyer's masterpieces, the space ship-atop-a-hill that houses Rio's/Niterói's Museum of Contemporary Art. Both the foundation's new headquarters and the Museum are part of a series of buildings and sites, known as the Caminho Oscar Niemeyer, in Niterói (formerly the provincial capital when Rio de Janeiro was the federal capital of Brazil), which also includes People's Theater of Niterói, Charitas Boat Station, and Plaza JK (Juscelino Kubitschek, Brazil's president from 1956-1960, and the visionary behind Brasília).  All are accessible after a short and picturesque ferry-ride from the city of Rio.

Though Niemeyer has designed notable sites and buildings all over the world, 600 in total, including some of the buildings at the United Nations (with Le Corbusier), he is perhaps most famous for his site plan and structures for Brazil's third and permanent capital, at Brasília, which he created at the behest of then-president Juscelino Kubitschek beginning in 1956.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Quotes: Nicholas Carr + Richard Holbrooke

"The constant distractedness that the Net encourages--the state of being, to borrow another phrase from Eliot's Four Quartets, "distracted from distraction by distraction"--is very different from the kind of temporary, purposeful diversion  of our mind that refreshes  our thinking when we're weighing a decision. The Net's cacophony of stimuli short-circuits both conscious and unconscious thought, preventing our minds from thinking either deeply or creatively. Our brains turn into simple signal-processing units, quickly shepherding information into consciousness and then back out again.
     "In a 2005 interview, Michael Mezernich [Emeritus professor of neuroscience at the University of California, San Francisco] ruminated on the Internet's power to cause not just modest alterations but fundamental changes in our mental makeup. Nothing that 'our brain is modified on a substantial scale, physically and functionally, each time we learn a new skill or develop a new ability,' he described the Net as the latest in a series of 'modern cultural specializations' that 'contemporary humans can spend millions of "practice" events at [and that] the average human a thousand years ago had absolutely no exposure to.' He concluded that our brains are massively remodeled by this exposure.'"--Nicholas Carr, from The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2010, pp. 119-120. (H/t and thanks to Lisa Moore)


Could the late Ambassador Richard Holbrooke (1941-2010) have put things more simply and candidly as his last words as he was being wheeled into surgery? Is there anything concerning the ongoing foreign policy disasters, warmaking, failed nation-building, and budget busting to fill the coffers of the military-industrial complex that this current president (and any future ones) need pay more attention to? Here's a suggestion: why don't each of us print out this statement, properly quoted and attributed, on a postcard (to save money) or a piece of paper, and send it to our Congresspeople? (We might even consider sending one at least once a week for the month of January, as a wakeup call to them. Perhaps I'll organize this on the other blog, and let's see how this goes...)

""You've got to stop this war in Afghanistan." - Richard Holbrooke

Thursday, December 16, 2010

NYC Empty Storefronts: A Mini-Photo Essay

On Wednesday morning last week, hizzoner Mayor Mike Bloomberg gave a speech--ranted, you might say--about what was wrong with Washington, DC, and suggested ways to address the country's serious economic short-term and long-term problems. His solutions were predictable: not enough bipartisanship, not enough will to cut taxes for businesses, which are recording record profits these days, etc. Bloomberg went on to suggest that our third and current capital of the United States, Versailles-on-the-Potomac, whose leaders' main goal is self-preservation of the status quo, which is to say, plutocratic power and corporate dominance and influence, needed a shakeup, but really only a gentle one. Not from below, though--NOT THE RABBLE. But from above.

Above all, after the shake up, the same sorts of people in power, who had brought the country to its present state, should remain in power, and this week, after he had again declared his non-candidacy for the US Presidency, an office to which he could and should never be elected, he and similarly minded plutocratic-focused, corporate-friendly, power-worshiping conservative Democrats and moderate-to-right-leaning Republicans labeled themselves the "No Labels" party, convened to chat, issued a proclamation that was pure mush, and addressed not a single one of the major problems facing the majority of American people. (For their emblem they also purloined an artist's graphic designs yet initially denied doing so, to top it off. And they won't reveal their funders. Not a good start by any measure.)

But that's not my point, really. My point is that one of the first things I thought about as Mayor Bloomberg was ragging on Washington was the economic state of the very city he is supposed to be leading. He was, let us not forget, re-elected to a third term he engineered through the City Council, which changed the term limits law in his favor, by a slender 50,600 vote margin over Bill Thompson. New York has 4-5 million eligible voters, so this was a gossamer margin.  Not only is New York facing the largest income gap of any major city in the country, and not only do only 25% of its young young black male residents NOT have jobs, but the city itself appears, despite Bloomberg's official line, to be in as shaky shape as the country at large. I have seen it with my own eyes.

The other day, as I went to New York to pick up a piece of hardware from the Apple Store on 14th Street, I began to note, once again, between my entrypoint into the city, at lower Christopher Street and far West 14th Street where the Apple palace is, how many storefronts were again empty, redolent to me not of the economically listless period in New York of the late 1980s or even of the early 1990s, but of that horrifying moment right after 9/11, when a cataclysm struck, businesses closed, people C and I knew fled (one friend told me he simply could not live in NYC any longer, and was gone shortly thereafter), and it was unclear what was going to happen next.

I decided to snap shots of all these empty store fronts, going farther, up into Chelsea, which despite its A-listers, endlessly sprouting luxury condo towers, and chic boutiques, is also not as economically healthy as hizzoner would like the world to believe.  Of course Mayor Bloomberg will not be reading this blog and couldn't give a flying you-know-what about what I have to say, but some J's Theater readers will recognize in these images their own cities, towns and suburban areas, and ask, perhaps already knowing the answer, why are the people in power so seemingly oblivious to this, and so fixated only one thing, which is reducing their top marginal federal tax rates, and those of businesses, despite the fact that they are taking home an increasing share of the economic pie and getting richer by the day as a result of the policies now in place?
This was the first empty storefront I spotted. I remember going into this place from time to time when it was a deli-corner store. They never had my favorite date bars, but it was okay in a pinch. Then it became a clothing boutique geared towards the wealthy, and now....
This place holds sentimental value for me, because I copied many a poem, short story, whole sections of Seismosis, papers for NYU, etc., here. And now look at it.
Empty Storefront, NYC
This was a restaurant, I think, then a boutique of sorts. I think; I can't remember.
Empty Storefront, NYC
This was a too-pricey Portuguese restaurant, Alfama, where my friend Arthur and I had a meal. When I went to order some wine, the word for cup (copa!) slipped completely from my memory.
Empty Storefront, NYC
A restaurant, no longer.
Empty Storefront, NYC
I can't recall what was here; it appears it was a restaurant.
Empty Storefront, NYC
A Thai restaurant was here for years. I went there once when I was in school. Not great but not bad. Inexpensive, always a godsend to students and working people.
Empty Storefront, NYC
Not sure what was here, but when I peered through the pane I spotted beautiful wood paneling and wainscotting, and a sumptuous red leather-covered bench inside. A bar? A restaurant?
Empty Storefront, NYC
A bike shop, but no longer.
Empty Storefront, NYC
Two stores, just stones throws away from the Apple Store, what used to be the Meatpacking District and then the Rich People's Downtown district, and now...?
Empty Storefront, NYC
The twin storefront of the previous empty storefront
Empty Storefront, NYC
This was heading towards 6th Avenue. After a while it got so cold and I had errands to run that I stopped taking photos, but the name of this now defunct business stopped me. "Whynot"? Indeed.
Empty Storefront, NYC
And yet another.
Self Portrait on 20F Day
At the end, before I got on my way, I took this self-portrait. I can attest that years in Chicago have weathered me well for New York's cold spells. Still, nothing will acclimate me to the signs of the city's--and country's--distress.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

MFA vs. NYC vs. Third Stream? or the World of Contemporary American Writing

Next quarter I'll once again be teaching one of the undergraduate writing program's required courses, one of my favorites, "The Situation of Writing," and one central component of it involves discussing contemporary American literary publishing; the processes by which books come into print or, nowadays, e-print; the relationship between writers, agents, editors, and publishing houses; how writers do or don't make a living from publishing literary works; and so forth.

Increasingly as part of this discussion the issue of the MFA degree and MFA (and PhD in writing/poetics) programs arise, and I have tended to juxtapose lapidary overview texts on 20th century American publishing (like Jason Epstein's charming The Book Business: Publishing Past, Present and Future, W. W. Norton, 2002, or André Schiffrin's much more polemical The Business of Books: How International Conglomerates Took Over Publishing and Changed the Way We Read, Verso, 2001) with more recent journalistic articles on New York publishing's crises as part of the discussion. UCLA professor Mark McGurl's 2009 scholarly book, The Program Era: Post-War Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing (Harvard), provides an excellent, thoroughgoingly historicized and theorized reading of these programs, which have become increasingly normalized as the means by which American writers become (American) writers, but Mark's remarkable book is 480 pages, and really deserves extended treatment and discussion, worthy of a semester-long graduate seminar, which I unfortunately do not have in a 10-week quarter, especially given the amount of material I must cover.

I was thus extremely pleased to read Chad Harbach's essay "MFA vs. NYC," which appears in the journal n+1 and is excerpted in the November 26, 2010 online edition of Slate.  Though it has its faults, as any such wide-ranging, systems-summarizing piece does, from being too binary and tidy to too vague and generalizing in places, it nevertheless provides one of the best overviews of I've seen of what the contemporary American publishing world, both the longstanding, commercial mainstream one (headquarted in New York, but with major nodes in Los Angeles, Boston, Chicago, San Francisco, and Philadelphia), and the increasingly parallel one that has developed in university MFA programs. Whereas I have tended in my classes to discuss the New York one, which is, as Harbach notes, in a period of extreme economic stress and structural change, the parallel one, located in MFA programs, is now as significant and important, and as much as the literary world hasn't fully reckoned with this, I would suggest that outside of figures like McGurl and many writer-critics, the scholarly world hasn't either. Moreover, though my introduction to the writing world was primarily through the New York angle, my personal trajectory has straddled the development of the MFA world, and I am now located within it. I studied in an MFA program and have taught in several; my publishing experience bridges both too.  If it is almost impossible now to live off one's literary publications in New York or most major American cities--which was not the case 25 or 30 years ago--it is also growing more and more difficult to get creative writing jobs, because of the supply-and-demand problem and university funding crisis, which, though nowhere near as bad as in the humanities more generally, is worsening. The MFA world, consisting by its very nature of artists, and being situated in the university, is still viewed with suspicion by the scholarly world--what is it that writers do?--and yet it has, as McGurl and Harbach note to differing degrees, as institutionalized and conventionalized as the instutions of which it is a part (and less so each day, apart).

The tensions between these two worlds have played out with several of the major American awards of late, especially the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Awards for fiction, which have been awarded to MFA-produced and based writers published not published by major houses.  In the case of Paul Harding's Tinkers, it famously was rejected by countless major publishers before it found a small publisher and went on to win the Pulitzer.

What Harbach doesn't discuss or even broach (in part because the world of n+1, situated as it is at the nexus of the NYC and MFA worlds, doesn't see it), is a third American literary world-system, however, parallel to both of these, which neither NYC's official publishing hierarchy nor that of the MFA programs, at least in the official sense, takes immediate or consistent note of, but which the structural and above all technological shifts and changes over the last 25 or so years have made possible, which is the autonomous/self-publishing/minoritarian/issue-based/grass-roots writing communities. This world, which is both diminished in key ways as elements of it have been assimilated by the NYC and MFA worlds (queer writing; black writing; black queer writing; etc.) and, for non-creative work, by the institutionalization of criticism, is the world of the slams; the world of community-based minoritarian organizations; the world that produced Language poetry, the Violet Quill, the Fag Rag Collective, OutWrite, Other Countries, Seal Press, Alyson, Gay Men's Press of New York, and so on, and that was already on the wane by the early 1990s. This is a world that many writers of my generation and I also came out of. The Dark Room Writers Collective, my first post-collegiate exposure to the literary world and an autonomous entity based in but distinct from the larger literary world in Cambridge and Boston, was inspired in no small part by and developed out of the historical, social and political trends of this world, as did a great many of the writers (Essex Hemphill, Thomas Grimes, Paul Beatty, Ntozake Shange, etc.) who came through the Dark Room in its earliest days.

But even then, all these competing worlds were already in play, and some of the Dark Room's literary avatars, writers who visited and read and provided advice, like Walker, had been honored by the pinnacle of the New York publishing world, the Pulitzer Prize committee, or Shange by the Obie and Tony Awards; Derek Walcott was an internationally renowned poet teaching in a distinguished M(F)A program, and would soon win the Nobel Prize; and younger writers like Elizabeth Alexander and Carl Phillips were in doctoral humanities programs and had received MAs or MFAs; and the pull of the university was something that every single writer in the Dark Room felt, and eventually followed (or succumbed to, as it were).  The NYC publishing world, as I said, has assimilated some writers from this realm, especially the most commercial ones, the older ones of a certain level of distinction and public recognition, and those whose work could be commodified and marketed as part of a niche (a historical style, period, etc.), and academe has done the same, with the focus being on intellectual thematics, schools, critical arguments which these writers might be said to have generated or been a part of. Death and time are powerful passports to either, I hate to say.  Nevertheless, a gulf still remains between the work of this sort that continues, independent writing and publishing not attached to or located either in the publishing capitals and not part of any educational institutions (I think, for example, of a superb small press like Redbone Press and its publisher, Lisa Moore, for example), and the NYC and MFA worlds, which have their own concerns, forms and modes of socialization, interests, understandings of politics, and so forth.

One person who always reminds me of this quite thoughtfully is poet and activist Jennifer Karmin, who at the pre-Poets Theater panel discussion broached the issue of resources in relation to the sort of project that had unfolded at Oracle Theater, and who such work was for, who had access to it, what its origins were beyond the ones usually suggested (the New York School coterie, for example, the Beat Poets, and similar groupings). Amiri Baraka, Sarah Schulman, and Sonia Sanchez are other contemporary writers, activists and critics whose life and work have underlined the connections and tensions surrounding these various streams for me. All began in what we might call this alternative or grass-roots stream; all have eventually moved into the university and taught creative writing; all have been honored or recognized, and to some degree published, by the NYC world; but all retain vital connections to the aesthetic and political sites from which they emerged.

I feel this tension in my own life and work, and it lies in part at the core of my critique in the talk I gave at the Museum of Contemporary Art, at the center of what I have been trying to think through but not fully able to articulate yet, has to do with the lack of recognition of this third or alternative stream, in relation to avant-gardism, even though at this point it really the only one capable of addressing, at least in a direct way, the ongoing concerns that many of us feel about the onward march of libertarian-capitalism/neoliberalism/communicative capitalism (to use Jodi Dean's term). It comes up for me every time not just my students, but writers I know in the world, ask no longer whether they should attend an MFA (or PhD) program but take that as a given and want me to parse and rank them, but also when I think about how some of the NYC-based folks, agents, critics, etc., simply could care less about what's happening on campuses, or even more so off them, unless there's the possibility of capitalizing on and somehow effectively commodifying this work so that it can become, well, a means to money, to influence, to a livelihoood.

This brings me back to what I have labeled this alternative stream, which I strongly believe is as crucial for contemporary American art as the other two, and my ongoing wonder about how effective it can it ever be, could it ever be, in a world in which the money remains, at least for the moment in NYC and with mainstream publishing, or what's left of it, while the entropic force and power has moved towards and has now diffused throughout MFA programs is another question, but such are my imperfect and still fully unworked-through thoughts after reading and thinking about Harbach's piece.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

C's New Apps, Cooking, Sound Machines & More

Back in July I'd written that C had created and debuted his first app, the fashion-forward, informative MBF TrendTalk, for the MBF consulting company and its site.  (The next New York Fashion Week is coming up in a little over a month, so it's an app to have if you want to be on top of things.) Since then he's been working steadily on new apps, and his company, CAC-IT has since introduced several new free or very affordable apps that are either available or will soon be via the iTunes store.

The second was C's Holiday Kitchen, a holiday cookbook for the iPad, featuring some of his delicious, failsafe holiday recipes, ranging from the staples like roast turkey, apple and sausage stuffing, collard greens, and homemade cranberry sauce, to desserts like coconut cake and sweet potato pie, to dinner rolls you cannot mess up nor stop adding to your plate.  He has since updated this app and introduced an iPhone version, C's Holiday iKitchen, which is now also available on iTunes.  I recommend trying out the cranberry sauce if you've never made it before; it's so simple it will shock you and you'll never want to go back to canned cranberry sauce again.

Two of his newer apps are in the Apple pipeline: the first is my favorite of all, the Soundbox Celebrator, which is a virtual iPhone sound machine for the holidays, sporting events, and anytime you want to punctuate your thoughts and comments with loud audio accompaniment.  It includes a variety of sounds, including an air horn, church bells, and my favorite, the vuvuzela, as well as a stately version of "For Auld Lang Syne," with the lyrics in case you're too blitzed to remember them.  I hate to admit it but had this been available when I was in high school, I very well might have been expelled as a result of it! (As it was, we had to make do with Bic pens, spitballs, and a laughing machine, which nearly sent my elderly German language teacher into apoplexy, but that's another story....)

The second is a lifestyle and travel app for Monaga, covering the the full range of LGBTQ life and activities in the Dominican Republic and more. The app will feature links to Monaga's main page; the legendary Monaga blog; and a Monaga-designed map showing gay and tourist highlights for Santo Domingo-area travelers.  As Joan Crawford in Mommy Dearest might say, it will ensure travelers know where to find "the booze, beaches, and boys!" As I said, it's in the Apple pipeline as well, and should debut quite soon.

Since I don't have the skills to program more than simple html these days, I'm very impressed by all of this, and I urge you to check these out if you're interested, and check with iTunes or CAC-IT's site to see what apps C is devising down the road, or to inquire about getting your own.