Saturday, December 31, 2011

Happy New Year!


Happy New Year and all best wishes for 2012!
Feliz año nuevo
Feliz Ano Novo
Bonne année
Buon Anno Nuovo / Felice Anno Nuovo
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)
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)

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Remembering a Hero: John G. Lawrence

Garner & Lawrence
One of two key figures in a momentous case that is still too little discussed passed on November 20, 2011, to no public notice: John Geddes Lawrence.


The Lawrence of Lawrence v. Texas, the legal case that went to the US Supreme Court, which in 2003 ruled, in a momentous 6-3 decision written by Associate Justice Anthony Kennedy, in Lawrence's and co-plaintiff Tyrone Garner's favor, consequently striking down Texas's anti-sodomy laws, as well as the thirteen others still in force across the United States, thus decriminalizing all private same-sexual activity between consenting adults. This ruling invalidated the 1986 Supreme Court ruling in Bowers v. Hardwick, which had found, by a 5-4 ruling, that there was no constitutional right to private sexual behavior.  John Lawrence's and Tyrone Garner's (1967-2006) are thus two names that all Americans--for sodomy, so defined, between opposite-sex consenting adult couples, was also criminalized in a number of states--but especially all lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people should know, by heart.

How did this case begin? In 1998, outside Houston, a neighbor named Robert Eubanks (who was seeing Garner at the time and who had allegedly been harassing the couple) called the police claiming to have heard violence occurring in Lawrence's apartment. The police entered the apartment and found Lawrence and Garner having sex. Although they could have left the two men alone, they arrested Lawrence and Garner, and held them overnight in jail, charging them with violating Texas's anti-sodomy statute, the Texas Penal Code's Chapter 21, Section 21.06, designated as a Class C misdemeanor anal or oral sex with a person of the same sex.

Both Lawrence and Garner pleaded no contest to the charges and were convicted, thereupon asking for their right to a new trial before a Texas Criminal Court, making the argument that the charges should be dismissed based on the equal protection grounds of the Fourteenth Amendment to the US Constitution. The Criminal Court rejected this request, pleaded no contest and reserved their right to appeal, which they took up, leading them eventually to the US Supreme Court, which agreed to hear the case in December 2002.

And we know the outcome. Five judges voted to strike down the Texas law, averring that it violated the due process guarantees, while Sandra Day O'Connor, in a concurring opinion, found that it violated the equal protection guarantees Lawrence and Garner had cited to the Texas Criminal Court. Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote the majority opinion, joined by justices David Souter, John Paul Stevens, Ruth Bader Ginsberg, and Stephen Breyer. Voting against the law were Chief Justice William Rehnquist, Clarence Thomas, and Antonin Scalia, who, writing the main dissent, predicted that state laws against same-sex marriage, among other issues, could be struck down as well.  And we know....

Lawrence, who died in Houston, is survived by his partner, Jose Garcia.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Quartet: Chamberlain / Frankenthaler / Rivers / Havel

Last Wednesday, the sculptor and plastic artist John Chamberlain passed away. He was 84. I always think of him as Mr. Crushed Cars, though he worked in media other than, well, crushed scrap metal from cars. But what he could do with car parts! I often perceive a physical lightness (akin to the wittiness of their names) in his sculptures that is quite at odds with the weightiness of their materials and materiality.  Interstellar flowers, often brightly, crazily colored, gracing our world. Here are a few images of his sculptures.
BIG E (© 2001 John Chamberlain / Artists Rights Society (ARS))
Taffeta Coupé (© PaceWildenstein, 1999)
Imagescrimmage, 2007 (image courtesy of:
Untitled, c. 1961 (image courtesy of:
Also leaving the world was Helen Frankenthaler, one of the New York School's major figures, an adept of Clement Greenbergian formalism, whose career spanned the entire second half of the 20th century. She was 83, and a pioneer in "stain painting" untreated canvas. I had no  idea that she was conservative in her leanings and even participated, as a friend's email relayed, in helping to shut down the National Endowment of the Arts's grants for visual arts when she went on record criticizing several of the grantees, including Andrés Serrano. Bad politics, to my mind, yet there is, however, the art.  I have seen some of the paintings in person, and find them quite beautiful, lyrical, enchanting.  To reframe a point made by another artist in a forwarded email, does Frankenthaler's formalism provoke thoughts about the politics of form, and if so, what politics (and ideology) does her formalism suggest?  Some images:

The Bay, 1963 (© Detroit Institute of Arts via Detroit Free Press)
Nature Abhors a Vacuum, 1973 (© National Gallery of Art, Washington)
Bacchus, 2002 (© Knoedler and Company, New York)
Driving East, 2002 (© Knoedler and Company, New York)
 Mauve Bag, 1979 (© Helen Frankenthaler, Morgan Library, NY)

Geoffrey J. noted that another figure who passed recently was the saxophonist Sam Rivers, one of the brightest lights in New York's loft jazz scene of the 1970s. His Studio Rivbea, on Bond Street in the East Village, open from 1970 till 1979, was one of the major sites places to catch him and others during this period.  A native of Oklahoma who grew up in Chicago, Rivers was 88, and began playing free improvisations in the late 1950s, eventually working in combos with Miles Davis, Cecil Taylor, Dave Holland, Dizzy Gillespie, and many other greats.  He could turn his tenor saxophone inside out, offering dazzling improvisations that the videos below give hints of, but he also could make music on a range of instruments, and could set the pace in a variety of styles. he In recent years he was living in Florida, and revived his Rivbea Orchestra.  Now, those videos:

Sam Rivers and Dave Holland, Pisa, 1980

Sam Rivers Quartet 1989 - Beatrice

Sam Rivers Trio, 1979 - Germany

Sam Rivers and the Rivbea All-Star Orchestra, rehearsing, 1998

Sam Rivers and the Orlando Rivbea Orchestra, 2010

Jazz at Lincoln Center, JazzStories podcast, 2011


Lastly, an artist who put his career on hold in the service of freedom, others' and his own, Václav Havel (1936-2011), the playwright and former president of what was then the new post-Soviet Czechoslovakia, and what is now the Czech Republic, has passed away. He was 75. The scion of a wealthy family that was targeted by the post-World War II Czech Communist regime, Havel was denied the opportunity initially to study the humanities, yet later took a correspondence course and trained in the theater, developing his skills as a playwright in the early 1960s before becoming, after the Prague Spring period in 1968 one of his country's leading dissidents, ending up in jail and continually persecuted until the winter of 1989 and the fall of the old order. With his country's transition to democracy, he became its leader.  His tenure was rocky, through no fault of his ideas or ideals; politics, he knew and relearned, are difficult and often complicated, and with an opponent as dogmatic and deadset as Václav Klaus, he had a battle on his hands.  As a playwright he had often captured this difficulty, this complexity, ad absurdum: now he was living it. His tenure ended finally in 2003; he wrote an autobiography, and returned to dramaturgy as well.

One of Havel's greatest and most enduring works is his 1978 essay, "The power of the powerless," in which he says, in words prefiguring the transformations his own nation witnessed nearly two and a half decades ago, and that we are again seeing across the globe over the last few years:

 For the real question is whether the brighter future is really always so distant. What if, on the contrary, it has been here for a long time already, and only our own blindness and weakness has prevented us from seeing it around us and within us, and kept us from developing it?

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Some iPhone/iPad Drawings

I've drawn very few of my little and bigger portraits since the summer, but here are a few of those and one or two new ones. As always, most are life drawings (save the Sagat portrait--I think I drew his face too long and not wide enough--and the final one, based on an photo of football player Dez Bryant), done in one sitting (or, more usually), standing.

At a cafe (iPad drawing)
Woman in café, Manhattan (iPad)
Francois Sagat (iPad Drawing)
Actor/porn star, François Sagat (iPad)

iPhone sketch (on PATH)
Young man on PATH (iPhone)

Man on train (iPad drawing)
Man in café, Chicago (iPad)

Train sketch
Reverse drawing (iPhone)

Train sketch
Man on light-rail train (iPhone)

iPhone sketch (at Kinokinuya)
Man sitting across from me, Kinokuniya (Manhattan) (iPhone)

iPad life drawing
Man on PATH (iPad)

Monday, December 26, 2011

On The Penguin Anthology of Twentieth-Century American Poetry

First, I have not yet done more than glance at this anthology but, as a major hullabaloo has arisen around it, here are some links, with a little commentary, tell the story.

Rita Dove, a poet I know (a little) and admire greatly, edited The Penguin Anthology of Twentieth-Century American Poetry (New York: Penguin, 2011). For those who may not be aware of her background, Dove is the author of 9 books of poetry, the third of which received the 1987 Pulitzer Prize in Poetry for her collection Thomas and Beulah (Pittsburgh: Carnegie Mellon, 1986) (she was the second African-American, and second black woman to be so honored). She has also published a book of stories, a novel, a play, and a collection of essays. (I should note that I once wrote a short critical précis of her play; I also have taught several of her stories, in addition to her poems, over the years.) She was US Poet Laureate from 1993 to 1995. She is Commonwealth Professor of English at the University of Virginia, which is where I met her (and had the pleasure of working with her on several projects while employed there).

In the November 24, 2011 issue of The New York Review of Books, a publication that very infrequently publishes reviews by American critics who are not white or reviews of works by American authors who are not white, Helen Vendler, a major contemporary poetry critic, and the A. Kingsley Porter University Professor at Harvard University, wrote a demonstrably negative review of Dove's anthology, entitled "Are These the Poems to Remember?" For those not aware of Vendler's background, she is the author or editor of 31 works of criticism, including several anthologies, among them The Harvard Book of Contemporary American Poetry (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1985) and The Faber Book of Contemporary American Poetry (1986). She is known for her non-theoretical, close readings of the poetry and poetics of a select number of Anglo-American Modernists, Romantic poets, and contemporary American poets. (I should note that as a managing editor, I edited an early, literary journal version of her essay on Dove, "The Black Dove: Rita Dove, Poet Laureate," which appears in her 1996 collection of essays, Soul Says: On Recent Poetry (Cambridge: Harvard University Press).)

Dove responded, as poets--as writers, especially ones as famous as she is--rarely do, with a blistering takedown, in The New York Review of Books. Writing about the "row," as he termed it, the poet James Fenton suggested in the London Evening Standard that Dove should not have answered Vendler, and that she should not have criticized Vendler personally, before he criticized Dove's anthology on some of the same grounds as Vendler.  Yet given Vendler's history of writing about almost no poets who are not white (though, as I note above, she has written about Dove, and I once heard her give a great talk on Langston Hughes, whom she notes in the introduction of Soul Says, is a "black" poet that she, as a "white" woman, does enjoy--these are her words, not mine, and you'll find them on Google Books, I assure you)--which is her right, as a person and critic--and given the rhetoric at the close of the review, a riposte was in order.  Among Dove's many points of rebuttal, she calls out Vendler out for condescension and racism, a step that also doesn't occur very often among poets of Dove's stature. (I will note that Dove's husband, the author Fred Viebahn, famously and publicly critiqued the cliquish, sexist, racist composition of the Academy of American Poets' Chancellors--a board of major poets legitimating the organization's work--back in 1998. His letter buttressed the resignation, in protest, of two of the Academy's rare female Chancellors, the Pulitzer Prize-winning poets Maxine Kumin and Carolyn Kizer, thus helping to change that organization's structure and approach to the American poetry world.)

One snippet from Dove's response:
The amount of vitriol in Helen Vendler’s review betrays an agenda beyond aesthetics. As a result, she not only loses her grasp on the facts, but her language, admired in the past for its theoretical elegance, snarls and grouses, sidles and roars as it lurches from example to counterexample, misreading intent again and again. Whether propelled by academic outrage or the wild sorrow of someone who feels betrayed by the world she thought she knew—how sad to witness a formidable intelligence ravished in such a clumsy performance.
Vendler's response: "I have written the review and I stand by it." That's it.

The Chronicle of Higher Education saw fit to write about the exchange, titling it "Bloodletting Over An Anthology," which seems to focus more on Dove vs. Vendler and the latter's supporters, while deflecting attention from many--most?--of the larger issues Vendler's review, and Dove's response, as well as the responses of many to the critique and rejoinder enjoin, including the larger history of American and European racism and ethnocentricity, which color literary production as much as anything else; the contestations around American literature history and literary studies, and the politics of the literary canon; the struggles between poets and critics around and for critical and aesthetic authority; the ongoing transformation of the American poetry world and its multiple power centers; and the politics of anthologization and literary publishing.  As I need not note, this critical exchange between Dove and Vendler does not occur in a vacuum, and its prehistory is the early history of American literature--and colonialism and its discontents--itself. One need only look at the critical condescension that the first published African American (and second American female) poet, Phillis Wheatley (c.1753-1784) has endured since publishing her only book, and the relationship between this view of writing by authors who are not white (or male), and the long history of excluding or condescension to works by authors who are not white, male, Christian, openly queer, working-class and poor, and so forth, not just from anthologies, but from classroom curricula, print book reviews and online review sites, and so forth, practices that unfortunately still may be occurring today, to grasp that the stakes go beyond these two figures, and point to a much broader problem that persists.  As someone who has had to deal with these issues on many levels, I can attest to their persistence at the institutional level, and in the broader world of literary art and criticism.

I'll end by noting that Dove's anthology has received some other negative reviews, such as this Jeremy Bass's, entitled "Shelf Life"), which appeared in The Nation.  Bass was respectfully critical without descending into nastiness. The Chronicle notes a few others. Yet the anthology has also received positive reviews, including a Starred review (the best) in Publishers Weekly, and strong reviews also in Booklist and The Chicago Tribune, to name two other venues. One of the criticisms that Vendler broached that Dove responds to in another venue, the current issue (December 2011) of the Associate Writing Program's Writers' Chronicle (the article unfortunately is not online), is the exorbitant fees and extortive tactics one publisher engaged in over several authors for whose works it held the rights, Allen Ginsberg and Sylvia Plath among the most famous of them, which prevented Dove and Penguin, an admittedly major and very wealthy and powerful publisher, from running these poets' works.  In the Chronicle article, some commentators suggest that without these authors, both of whom are among the most important 20th century American poets, the anthology is inadequate. Point taken. But then again, no anthology is perfect. How could one be, unless it were something of the sort that might be found in Jorge Luis Borges's Library of Babel?

Having written all this, I now need to go check out--buy--Dove's anthology!

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Happy Holidays

Joyeuses Fêtes! Felices Fiestas! Sikukuu Njema! Trevlig Helg! Boas Festas! สวัสดีปีใหม่! Selamat Hari Raya! Mutlu Bayramlar! 假期愉快! Sarbatori Fericite! გილოცავთ ახალ წელს! Wesołych Świąt! חג שמח! Jie Ri Yu Kuai! Bones Festes! Yeni yılınız kutlu olsun! С праздником! Aw ni san'kura! Gleðilega hátíð! Mele Kalikimaka! 楽しいホリデーシーズンを! Buone Feste! Καλές δικακοπές!  عید مبارک! Nghỉ lễ vui vẻ! Ii holide eximnandi! Gledelig høytid! Весели празници! आपकी छुट्टियाँ आनंददायक हों! Frohe Feiertage! selamat tahun baru! Prettige feestdagen! أعياد سعيدة ! Hau'oli Lanui! Beannachtaí na Féile! 해피 할러데이즈! Vesele Praznike! 節日快樂! Selamat Hari Raya! Sretni praznici!  Boldog Ünnepeket!

Friday, December 23, 2011

Photo: The Kiss

V-J Day in Times Square © Alfred Eisenstaedt (Life, 1945)

Marissa Gaeta (left) kisses fellow US naval officer Citlalic Snell Photograph: MC2 Joshua Mann/AFP/Getty Images

Monday, December 19, 2011

Tanta Saudade: Cesaria Evora

Reading Fly Brother's blog entry today reminded me that back in the early 1990s, two different friends introduced me to the music of Cesária Évora (b. 1941), whose renditions of morna, a Blues-like musical form, and the more upbeat caldeira, both from her her native Cape Verde, made her and these genres global sensations some thirty years ago. Évora began singing in the 1960s, but gained international acclaim only after recording her first album, La Diva Aux Pieds Nus (The Barefoot Diva), in France, in 1998. She began touring, people couldn't stop listening, and the rest is history.  Évora passed away two days ago, after many months of heart trouble. 

I believe the first album of hers that I heard was Miss Perfumado, from 1992, but the first ones I bought were Cesária, in 1995, and Café Atlantico, in 1999, both issued by Lusafrica. Her voice, like her music, is often brimming with joy and saudade. Évora kept her home open to all, and reportedly was still receiving people and enjoying life just two days before she passed away. Here are a few YouTube clips, beginning with one of her most famous songs, Sodade (i.e., saudade), to remember her by. Enjoy!
Sodade (live, in Paris) Cabo Verde (one of my favorite songs of hers) Angola (live, in New Bedford) Africa Nossa Ligereza (live, in Moscow) Carnaval de São Vicente (live, in Paris) Isolada (live, in Paris)

Sunday, December 18, 2011

1/2 US Near Destitution + Acemoglu on Inequality

I don't spend much time in the precincts of the 1%, so it was no surprise to me to read back in the New York Times back in November that according the US Census figures, in 2010, 1 in 3 Americans, or around 100 million Americans, adults and children, were economically just above or already below the poverty line. The Times article focused on how an alternative measure of the US economic situation that adjusted for cost of living and included government benefits and income lost to taxes, health care and work expenses showed 17% now falling into the "near poor" category, as opposed to the 10% that the official government measures had identified (cf. the US Census Bureau). For these Americans, only a gossamer barrier--a paycheck or two, ill health, a shock of any sort--is keeping them from outright destitution.

Recent figures, however, suggest the situation is even more dire. NPR reported on Thursday that new measures of poverty, which account for "medical, commuting and other living costs" have pushed the number of those living in the near-poor to deep poor range to 146.4 million, or 48% per cent of the US population. To put it another way, nearly half the US population is right up against or in economic destitution, and despite the official economic indicators, which point to slow, modest economic growth and private job creation, half the country is still staggering through the Great Recession. As both the earlier and the current figures make clear, were it not for governmental programs, more people would be in the poor and deep-poor categories; even with them, millions of Americans are barely keeping food in their and their children's stomachs, roofs over their heads, gas in their cars or change in their pockets for public transportation.

These figures underline the fact that despite the White House's and Congress's conservative shift towards deficit reduction, the most pressing national and global problem is the economy, and a key element of the US's economic problems continues to be the unemployment crisis, especially for those trapped in long-term joblessness.  Persistent joblessness and underemployment are exacting a severe toll on Americans, especially children and people of color.  As the NPR segment notes, these dreadful economic figures represent as clear a picture as one might envision of the shrinking middle class. 30 years of wage stagnation for most working people, coupled with the 2008 global financial and economic crash, and the resultant Great Depression, have devastated the fortunes of a sizable chunk of America.  I would venture too that though the figure say little about those who are doing somewhat better, for many millions more out there making ends meet is more difficult than it has ever been.

The wage stagnation since 1980 for most workers, along with other factors including regressive federal individual and corporate taxation, job outsourcing, technological and structural changes, and the increased focus on short-term profits and rising stock prices, have led to the widening US income and wealth inequality gaps that the Occupy Together protests have brought to national and international attention. Yet I still do not see any move by those with the power to rectify things doing so. Instead, from the President and too many Democrats we get defensible but unimaginative plans that are watered down to nothing through "compromise," or as bad, "Grand Bargain" policies that will not address the problematic status quo; from the GOP we get intransigence and policies, when economically feasible at all, that will wreak even more social havoc.  One of the major aspects of the current economic crisis, the housing debacle, is still getting too little attention from

All over Europe, too, the Left has been supine, while conservatives have implemented policies that are bringing the Eurozone and individual economies, like the UK's, to the brink.  The push for fiscal austerity has been a shove towards contraction wherever it has been tried.  In Britain, Labour's leader, David Milliband, instead of challenging the demonstrated fiscal ineffectiveness of David Cameron's Conservative-Liberal Democratic coalition government's policies, offers only a tepid counterargument.

Yet it's not like other plans are nonexistent. There is The People's Budget, a truly progressive short-and-long-term plan that runs counter to the approaches of both major parties, as well as self-described "centrists" and their establishment media enablers, but it can barely get a hearing. Occupy Together protests are right to stay away from electoral politics, but if they can--if we, and we must--press a hearing on options other than the awful ones we have endlessly dangled before us, options like the People's Budget, and elect representatives to enact while also changing the structure of the system, as Senator Bernie Sanders is urging with his Constitutional Amendment to end corporate personhood, we will be on the road to preventing some of the most serious problems we now face.


Daron Acemoglu, who won the American Economics Association's 2005 John Bates Clark Medal for the top economist under 40. and who is now the Elizabeth and James Killian Professor of Economics at MIT, recently participated in an interview, featured on the The Browser's website, in which he discusses US and global economic inequality.  The interview itself is too brief to provide much insight on the topic, but far more enlightening are what follow the interview questions: his recommendations and concise discussions of five books on inequality, each of which takes on a different facet of the topic.  Alongside Paul Krugman's New York Times blog and columns, and the discussions of the topic I've found in online posts by Dean Baker, Brad DeLong, and Felix Salmon, among others, it fills in some useful gaps.

A snippet of the interview:
In terms of the actual figures, how bad is inequality in the US and, say, the UK? 
Based on the work of Thomas Piketty and Emmanuel Saez, if you look from the 1950s up to the end of the 1970s, the share of total national income in the US earned by the richest 1% was about 10%. If you look at the 2000s, it’s well over 20%. It rose up to nearly 25% and then came down. In the UK it’s at about 15%, up from 7% or so. The trend towards inequality over the last 50 years has been very similar in the Anglo-Saxon economies, though it’s important to say that it’s not just an Anglo-Saxon phenomenon. There are similar trends in many economies, though there are a few that haven’t experienced it to any notable extent.
And an excerpt of his discussion of one of the recommended books, Unequal Democracy, by Larry Bartels, a political science professors at Vanderbilt University:

That’s what’s interesting about Occupy Wall Street. Its supporters aren’t just crazy lefties who don’t believe in free markets, but respected economists. 
I’m definitely in that camp. I do believe in markets. I passionately believe in the importance of property rights and private property. I think they are absolute sine qua nons for prosperity. But I also believe that these things are very political and the politics shouldn’t be one-sided. Gore Vidal said, “The United States has only one party – the property party. It’s the party of big corporations, the party of money. It has two right wings; one is Democrat and the other is Republican.” If that is true, that’s a real threat to a free market and a fair society. For that reason I think Occupy Wall Street is very important. It’s a grassroots movement that tries to stand up to this tendency of our political system.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Iraq War (Finally) Over + Hitchens Passes

Panetta, in Iraq
This is the way the war ends, not with a bang, but a whimper.  And though American troops are still there, though in severely reduced numbers, the Iraq War, one of the US's worst foreign policy and political blunders, has finally wound down to its sad end.  The Secretary of Defense, Leon Panetta, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Martin Dempsey, yesterday traveled to Iraq to declare the military mission officially over.  Most of the troops and much US equipment and matériel are finally departing that shattered country, as per schedule (and through the haplessness of this current administration, a small favor in all its irony), after nearly a decade of tumult. I won't recite the litany of the war's costs, its destructiveness over its lifespan (or deathspan), and what it has bequeathed, to the US, Iraq, Iran, the rest of the Middle East, the globe, but the costs have, by most measures, been astronomically high, whether one cites the number of US and coalition troops killed or wounded, the toll on Iraq's citizens and the sea of refugees it has provoked, the political crisis that now plagues Iraq's government, the regional empowerment of Iran and destabilization of neighboring states, and on and on.

And still we have never had a thorough investigation of how the country ended up in this disastrous war; no investigation, let alone prosecution, of those behind it, despite the revelations of their lies and duplicity; no censures of any of the many ancillary dramatic personae, the Perles and Wolfowitzes and Chalabis and Judy Millers and on and on; no reprimands in or of the Congress that lay prostate before the war's architects; and no bulwarks to prevent another such disaster. Instead, the US has barreled forward into even more treacherous territory: wars without any Congressional oversight; bloated and rising military budgets; increasing privatization of military services and a strengthening of the military-industrial complex; and creeping un-Constitutional laws and alegal structures, such as wiretapping of US citizens without need of warrants, indefinite military detentions, extrajudicial killings of suspected "terrorists," including US citizens deemed such by the President or secret tribunals, and on and on. War without end is the permanent condition of our politics and polity.

As much as we might criticize many awful moments in US history, we also should recognize that where we are today is perhaps among the worst places, in terms of a complete mockery of the rule of law, as we've ever seen. And worse it gets, day by day, under a president who ran a campaign of changing the disasters this war not only symbolized, but embodied. His challengers are as bad or worse. Meanwhile, the soldiers are coming home, but to what?  And why were they ever over there in the first place?  Really? Beyond the "sea of oil" and the fanatical plans of PNAC, and the undying neoconservative dream of perpetual war against enemies near and far, so long as the neoconservatives themselves never have to go into combat, never have to witness their children being slain on foreign soil or sand or seas, never have to do much beyond rant into prose or a microphone, in coddled ideological seclusion, while the results of their febrile passions unfold in gory spectacle continents away.  The Iraq War has been a tragedy we have only begun to reckon; we won't know its final accounts, there, and here, for years to come.


Christopher Hitchens (David Levenson/Getty Images)
Speaking of ironies, on this very day, one of the Iraq War's staunchest supporters, Christopher Hitchens (1949-2011), died of esophageal cancer at the age of 62. The encomia for the British-born, American-naturalized former far-left, neoconservative-turned, Oxford-educated essayist and critic have, I noted from the time I signed onto Twitter yesterday, been steadily mounting. I was not and am not an admirer. Glittering prose and wit always have a place in my heart, but used to such devices as Hitchens did, especially over the decade of his life, left me cold.  His prodigiousness is worthy of citation; his charm, even when he was at his most repellent, was undeniable; his fearlessness at challenging the media's commonplaces, touchstones and darlings, like the silence around atheism, or the public characters known as Margaret Thatcher, Mother Teresa of Calcutta, and Diana, Princess of Wales, was peerless, among his media set and many others.

Yet I also recall how awful he became on political matters in the United States, how he went after Bill Clinton and how he slavered over George W. Bush and Dick Cheney. What comes to mind is Paul Johnson's slashing description of the Young British Artists, adapted and shorn of Johnson's gross homophobia, to Hitchens, during his neoconservative state, which deepened into something much more and worse than a phase: brutal, horribly modish and clever-cunning, exhibitionist, loud-voiced and stone-fisted, aiming to shock and degrade, arrière-garde, and, as with those he so deeply championed, arrogantly, utterly and indefensibly wrong.  Hitchens, a self-described "Marxist" who made deep peace with global capitalism and its depredations, was unfortunately still unwilling to apologize for having championed the Iraq disaster even at the end of his life; fast as a magnet he held to his convictions. What awaits him is anyone's guess. It is no guess, however, that he probably knew by heart the following lines, and with them may he rest, wherever he's headed, in peace:

...But whate'er I be,
Nor I nor any man that but man is
With nothing shall be pleased, till he be eased
With being nothing.
 Richard II, Act 5, Sc. 5, William Shakespeare.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Oscar Niemeyer Turns 104

Grades are in, and now it's letters of recommendation time, a few more graduate projects to read, and final preparations for the new quarter, which begins January 3. Yes, you read that correctly. A swift little break this will be...half of it spent at the library!


There are octogenarians among us who continue to create, nonagenarians still at their art, and, believe it or not, centenarians too who are practicing their craft. One is the Brazilian architect and political activist Oscar Niemeyer, who turns 104 years old today. Perhaps most famous for his now iconic buildings for the new, mid-century Brazilian capital of Brasília, Niemeyer has continued to draw upon his inner visions to create buildings of note, transforming metaphors and images into unforgettable structures. One of the 20th century's pioneers in reinforced concrete structures, Niemeyer designed his first building, the Education Ministry in Brazil's then-capital, Rio de Janeiro, in 1936, creating what was reportedly the first state-sponsored modernist skyscraper in the world. The building debuted in 1943.

Memorial JK, Brasília
As this building was underway, Niemeyer met Juscelino Kubitschek, then mayor of Brazil's fourth largest city, Belo Horizonte, the capital of Minas Gerais state. This personal connection would would prove fruitful several times over. At the behest of Kubitschek and Minas Gerais's governor, Benito Valadares, Niemeyer designed Pampulha, a suburb of Belo Horizonte, whose striking complex, completed in 1943, included a church, São Francisco de Assis, which the church authorities would not consecrate until 1959 because of its form and the imagery in it.  Later, when Kubitschek became president of Brazil in 1956, he immediately called upon Niemeyer to help him design a new capital in the country's interior. Niemeyer's former employer, Lúcio Costa, created the plan, and Niemeyer the buildings, and thus was the core of what is now one of the most famous world capitals launched. Even today, over half a century later, Niemeyer's buildings in Brasília, the Presidential residence (Palácio da Alvorada), the House of the Deputies, the National Congress of Brazil, and the Cathedral of Brasília, among others, have not lost an iota of their unique beauty or capacity to arrest the eye and mind.

Government buildings, Brasília

Among Niemeyer's many other buildings notable creations are the Headquarters of the United Nations, designed collaborative with one of his epigones, Le Corbusier (1947); São Paulo's Ibirapuera Park, which commemorated that city's 400th anniversary (1951); the French Communist Party seat in Paris; the headquarters of Mondadori, the Italian publisher, in Milan; and, in Brazil, two of the most eye-catching of buildings of the last 40 years: the space-ship like Museum of Contemporary Art in Niterói, the former state capital that sits across Guanabara Bay from Rio de Janeiro, and the hovering eye that is the Oscar Niemeyer Complex in Curitiba, Paraná State. Niemeyer designed the Niterói museum at the age of 89, in 1996, and the Niemeyer Complex in Curitiba in 95. In Brasília, he also designed a tribute to the city's founder, the Memorial Juscelino Kubitschek, in 1980. In 1988, he received the highest international prize for architecture, the Pritzker Architecture Prize, becoming the second Latin American (after Luís Barragán, of Mexico, in 1980) and first Brazilian (Paulo Mendes da Rocha followed in 2006) to be so honored.

Centro Niemeyer, in Avilés, Spain
One of Niemeyer's most recent designs, the Óscar Niemeyer International Cultural Center (or Centro Niemeyer) in Avilés, Asturias, Spain, opened 9 months ago to national and international acclaim, but is shutting down, temporarily one hopes, and will remove Niemeyer's name after an ongoing brouhaha between the new conservative government and the art center's administrators, who are accused of having misspent public funds. Whatever happens with the arts complex, it's clear that as long as he's breathing Niemeyer will keep designing, and I look forward to marking his 105th birthday next year.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Quote: Yoruba Folktale

Thus Elenuobere was acquitted and absolved from his labours. The mouth that had put him into trouble had talked him out of it again. Nevertheless my friend, it is wiser not to open your mouth too wide. For it is always easier to talk yourself into trouble than to talk yourself out of it.

--Copyright © Bakare Gbadamosi and Ulli Beier, from "The mouth that commits an offence must talk itself out of punishment" in Not even God is ripe enough: Yoruba Stories told by Bakare Gbadamosi and Ulli Beier, London: Heinemann, 1968.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Quote & Excerpt: Sahar Tawfiq

"She went to Tahrir Square, ascended the steps to the pedestrian bridge which encircled the vast roundabout, walked around it several times. She felt tired, and thought about sitting on the steps. She descended and walked to the corniche. The old man was sitting there, reading a book.

"She wished she could sit beside him and read with him. She longed for him to read to her in a calm and sympathetic voice, while she listened to him and gazed at the water, not saying a word.

"After a time he got to his feet. She walked behind him. He took the bus, and so did she. He got off at one of the bus stops on the route, and she got out behind him.  He crossed the square and turned off into a narrow street, then entered an area to which she had never been, one full of alleys, cul-de-sacs, and crowded, narrow streets. He went on, walking down one street, only to turn into another. Finally he came to an old house, its façade a faded yellow. Going down a few steps, he reached a doorway and went in. The interior was full of darkness.

"She gazed for a while at the dark entryway before turning to go back. She discovered she had forgotten the way she had come. She wandered through the small streets and alleys until she came out into the square.

"She took a deep breath, filling her lungs, and gazed at the vast sky and the light encompassing the square at midday.  She resumed walking, briskly now, smiling at everything and everybody.  She looked at her watch; it was almost time for her appointment with Said. She found that it wasn't even particularly important to her. She stopped in a crowded spot, shading her eyes from the sun. At that moment, as her watch ticked on at its regular pace, she tried to recall the features of the old man. She tried very hard but she could not."

--Copyright © 1991, 2011, Sahar Tawfiq (1951-), from "In Search of a Maze," in Stories by Egyptian Women: My Grandmother's Cactus, Introduced and translated by Marilyn Booth, Austin: University of Texas Press, 1991, pp. 163-164. The story, titled "Al-Bahth 'an mataha," originally appeared in the author's short-story collection An tanhadira al-shams (Cairo: GEBO, 1985, pp. 59-65). All rights reserved.

Thursday, December 08, 2011

Thursday Hodgepodge (Obama in Osawatomie, Gingrich Ascends, Pujols Departs, etc.)

Very little posting these days, because it's exam week, and it has been a nonstrop reading extravaganza since September, though the pace has accelerated over the last few weeks as so many things appear on my desk and must be addressed, ASAP.  A few thoughts on various things going on, below.


I was stunned to read about the shooting earlier today at Virginia Tech (Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University).  According to the most recent accounts I've seen, two people are dead, one a campus police officer, the second the alleged shooter.  I won't comment on what this means or attempt any sort of grand statement, but rather state how saddened I am to hear that there has been another shooting anywhere, but especially on the grounds of any educational institution, and especially on this one, which was the site of a horrific spree in 2007, in which 33 people died and 25 were wounded.  I can only imagine how shaken people at Virginia Tech and their friends and family members are right now. My thoughts and best wishes go out to their entire community.


from the New Yorker
I was very happy to hear President Barack Obama's lively, progressive speech at Osawatomie High School in Osawatomie, Kansas, reprising some of the themes not only of the 2008 Democratic campaign and of the Occupy Resistence Movement, but also of Teddy Roosevelt's 1910 speech in which he expounded his famous "New Nationalism" ideas, championing a positive government role in domestic affairs.  Reggie H. smartly (as always) pointed out today, and I've seen almost no media mention of it, that Osawatomie also has a deeper resonance. It is one of the towns the (New England) Emigrant Aid Society founded in the wake of the 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act to ensure Kansas was a free state, unlike its neighbor to the east, Missouri, and it was to Osawatomie that abolitionist John Brown--whose half-sister Florella Adair had already established a home there with her husband, anti-slavery preacher Rev. Samuel Adair--traveled in 1855 to take up the cause of anti-slavery resistance. Brown made the Adair home his base of operations, and in 1856 killed five pro-slavery men at Pottawatomie Creek, near Lane, Kansas, an event that was subsequently known as the Pottawatomie Massacre, and which helped to give Kansas, along with Missouri a site of constant skirmishes and later, during the US Civil War, outright battles, between anti-slavery and pro-slavery forces, its moniker of "Bleeding Kansas."

I would imagine that as smart as President Obama is, he knows this history, but he is probably doing the right thing by focusing on TR, as as opposed to JB. Now, if he would only stick to the substance of this speech, as opposed to launching yet another attractive Zeppelin that goes nowhere, and if he would begin by firing his Secretary of the Treasury, Timothy Geithner, one of the chief engineers of his approach to Wall Street and the banks, I think I'd be willing to take him more seriously as TR's (or even JB's) modern apotheosis.


Yesterday, Illinois's former Democratic governor Rod Blagojevich, was sentenced to 14 years after being convicted on 18 counts of corruption, including attempting to sell off the US Senate once held by President Barack Obama.  Judge James Zagel noted that although Blagojevich had done some good while governor (he was a good advocate for working-class Illinoisans and the elderly), his crimes deserved severe punishment.  He put it this way: "When it is the governor who goes bad, the fabric of Illinois is torn and disfigured and not easily repaired."

Blagojevich's sentencing follows his effective prosecution by US Attorney for Illinois Patrick Fitzgerald, who yesterday expressed his utter disgust for Blagojevich's brazen behavior.  An earlier trial concluded with jurors unable to convict on more than just 1 of 24 counts, lying to the FBI.  In the second trial, Fitzgerald snared him on 17 of 20 counts.  What made Blagojevich's situation so outrageous is that he was elected in 2002 on a reform platform, and his immediate predecessor, Republican George Ryan, was convicted of corruption and is still in jail.  Of the four Illinois governors sent to prison in the last 40 years, Blagojevich has received the longest sentence; Ryan only received 6 1/2 years.  He will have to serve at least 12 unless he is pardoned, an unlikely outcome.

What is likely is that he'll appeal, but the wiretaps that helped convict him this time won't be going away, so he had better start preparing for a long stay behind bars.


Watching Newt Gingrich ascend to the top of the GOP polls feels like a combination of vertigo and déja vu, but it stands to reason that one of the most notoriously outrageous and corrupt rhetoricians to grace our national politics, a former professor of history, a lobbyist par excellence, a party boss, and, at his professional peak, the Speaker of the House of Representatives, has returned, like a horrendous repressed memory or the zombie discourse of the 1990s, with renewed vigor and force, to vie as the Republican nominee for the 2012 US presidential race. There are so many awful things about Newt Gingrich's record, his history of gross misstatements, distortions and lies, his hypocrisy, and so much else, that I would have thought he'd forever disqualified himself from public office, anywhere, including outside the US. But such is the logic of American life that certain people--not everyone--get second or even multiple chances, and if you are rich and famous and outlandish enough, you might even get the biggest second chance of all, to lead the country, including right into the ground. On the one hand I view Gingrich's ascent with a bit of laughter, but he is so unbelievably compromised, to the point of absurdity; on the other hand, I also keep in mind that in my lifetime, my fellow Americans twice elected Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and George W. Bush, so...well, I'd rather not put that horrible outcome into words.  And let's work to ensure it's not an actuality, either.


Albert Pujols, Oct. 29, 2011 (Jeff Haynes / Reuters)
On a far less important note, at least to the majority of people out there who are not Saint Louis Cardinals baseball fans, the wires reported today that Baseball Hall of Fame-bound first baseman Albert Pujols has signed a 10-year-deal with a no-trade provision, for $250 million, with the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. (Yes, that is their official name.)  Pujols spent exactly 11 years with the Cardinals, and produced a record that outstrips that of many of the greatest baseball players of all time. The 2001 National League Rookie of the Year and a three-time winner of the National League Most Valuable Player Award (in 2005, 2008 and 2009), Pujols has hit 445 home runs, driven in 1,329 runs, scored 1,291, won a battle title (in 2003, at the age of 23, hitting. 359), led the National League in slugging three times, in OPS three times, and in total bases 4 times. He also was a key player in the Cardinals' post-season success during his tenure; they won the World Series in 2006, and again this year, and made it to the finals in 2004 (losing to the Boston Red Sox), and were repeatedly in the playoffs, in no small part because of his consistently excellent play.  The Cardinals' ownership had offered Pujols around $200 million for 9 years, but it apparently was not enough. Saint Louis's loss is Los Angeles (and Anaheim's) and the American League's gain, but whatever Pujols does after this point, he made his name, his career and his fame in the Mound City.

Reyes donning his new team cap (LM OTERO / AP PHOTO)
Also changing teams was the New York Mets' longtime shortstop and emergent star, José Reyes, who will now play for the Miami (no longer just the Florida) Marlins, who also have a new taxpayer-funded stadium in the city's Little Havana neighborhood. Reyes has said that he never received a firm offer from the Mets, who are still reeling from some of the ownership's involvement in the Bernie Madoff ponzi scheme scandal, and who, despite packing the team with all-stars in the mid-2000s, could never seem to go all the way. Reyes has suffered repeated leg injuries over the last few years, but still won this year's National League batting title, and is only 28, so the Marlins should get at least half a decade's worth of good years out of him, and vice versa.  Currently on a spending spree, they also got the Chicago White Sox's best pitcher, my homeboy Mark Buehrle, and their former manager, Ozzie Guillén. If they keep up at this rate, they will be the team to watch next season and for season to come, whether they win or not. The Marlins forbid long hair (???), so Reyes must again cut off his beautiful dreadlocks. (I know, I know, I cut mine off two years ago, so I shouldn't be saying anything, but still...I didn't look like José Reyes!)

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

On a Word In ZZ Packer's Story: Drupes

Last month, as my advanced undergraduate fiction students and I were reading ZZ Packer's stories, I drew a little box around a word she uses in the first paragraph of "Doris Is Coming," her beautiful evocation of a young woman's personal, public political protest against segregation in the early 1960s: "drupes." This word caught my attention because it both stood out--though I don't think any of the students mentioned it in particular--as yet another example of Packer's precise and brilliant gifts for detail and diction, and because it was and is such a simple and strikingly unusual term. What is a drupe? Do you know? Have you ever heard anyone use this word? If you read Packer's story, did you know this word as you finished the paragraph? Did you look it up?  I remember saying I would look it up the first time I read the collection and did not, so this time I had to do so.

"Drupe" is another name for all stone fruits, which is to say, all fruits with a fleshy outer tissue surrounding the shelled seed or seeds, or pit, in the center.  Among the many common and well-known drupes we encounter and eat daily are: olives, coffee, mangos, jujubes, most palms, and all members of the Prunus family, from peaches and apricots to cherries and plums.  One of my favorite fruits, and one that abounds in the backyard garden--it is a wonderful pest--is the blackberry. Each blackberry fruit consists of scores of tiny drupe-lets, which is why it is such a good source of fiber. You can't not eat its pits, which you must avoid with most other drupes for fear of choking (and in some cases, poisoning)--as happened unfortunately to my great aunt, one of my late paternal grandmother's older sister, about whom my mother used to say that she was "too mean to die," but a plum pit did her in, in her 90s--and of course, that dark coloring and sweet, somewhat tart flavor mean blackberries brim with anti-oxidants.

I was curious to see where the word comes from, and according to Merriam-Webster's International Dictionary, 11th edition online, it appears to derive from the New Latin word drupa, from the older Latin term for an overripe olive, which derives from the Greek term dryppa, olive. It apparently entered the English language quite late, in 1753.  The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language online says that drupe derives from Latin drpa, druppa, overripe olive, from Greek drupp, olive, possibly alteration of drupeps, ripened on the tree, deriving from drs, dru-, tree, and suggests one review deru- in Indo-European roots + peptein, pep-, to ripen, while also looking at pekw- in Indo-European roots. In Noah Webster's 1828 Dictionary, he says the word derives from "L., Gr, olives ready to fall, Gr., a tree; to fall."  One thing I immediately notice is the relation between the Indo-European root deru-, Greek dru-, drupp, and the English word tree.

The Online Etymological Dictionary gives a bit more information on tree's origins; though English is a Germanic langauge, the German word for tree is Baum, related to English's beam, as in a wooden beam, and in Dutch, a tree is a boom (pronounced "boam"). (The general Latin word for tree is arbor, though termes means tree branch, especially of the olive tree.) English's tree is linked to its northern Germanic cognates, it appears, and directly to other Indo-European words meaning tree, wood, and specifically, the oak:

O.E. treo, treow "tree" (also "wood"), from ProtoGermanic *trewan (cf. O.Fris. tre, O.S. trio, O.N. tre, Goth. triu), from PIE *deru- "oak" (cf. Skt. dru "tree, wood," daru "wood, log;" Gk. drys "oak," doru "spear;" O.C.S. drievo "tree, wood;" Serb. drvo "tree," drva "wood;" Rus. drevo "tree, wood;" Czech drva; Pol. drwa "wood;" Lith. derva "pine wood;" O.Ir. daur, Welsh derwen "oak," Albanian drusk "oak"). Importance of the oak in mythology is reflected in the recurring use of words for "oak" to mean "tree." In O.E. and M.E., also "thing made of wood," especially the cross of the Crucifixion and a gallows (cf. Tyburn tree, gallows mentioned 12c. at Tyburn, at junction of Oxford Street and Edgware Road, place of public execution for Middlesex until 1783). Sense in family tree first attested 1706; verb meaning "to chase up a tree" is from 1700. Tree-hugger, contemptuous for "environmentalist" is attested by 1989.
The link of our word tree metonymically to the oak, an ancient hardwood tree, which has mythological resonances, obviously goes quite far back, and crosses cultures. (The English word oak has cognates in the other Germanic languages (cf. O.N. eik, O.Fris., M.Du. ek, Du. eik, O.H.G. eih, Ger. Eiche), from the Indo-European root *aiks, but without cognates outside this family. In Greek, there is an added element: one classical Greek word for tree, dendron, (from the root dendro-), which is even today in modern Greek the word for tree, is also the word for a fruit tree.
Comb. form meaning "tree," from Gk. dendro-, comb. form of dendron "tree," sometimes especially "fruit tree" (as opposed to hyle "timber"), from PIE *der-drew-, from base *deru- "to be firm, solid, steadfast," specifically used for "wood, tree" (see tree).
From this same root we get the Latin durus, meaning hard, strong, so endure, a word that entered English during the Norman period from French, around the early 14th century, meaning "to undergo or suffer" (especially without breaking). It later took on the meaning, later in the 14th century, of "to continue in existence." It comes from the Old French endurer, make hard, harden; bear, tolerate; keep up, maintain, from Latin indurare, make hard, in Late Latin to harden (the heart) against, from in- + durare "to harden," from durus "hard," from PIE *deru- "be firm, solid." So too perdure, duration, durable, obdurate, and so on.

To be firm, solid, steadfast; hard wood, an oak, a tree, fruit; so going quite far back in human history, those Packer drupes.  The word also made me think too of English's verbs to droop (Middle English drupen, from Old Norse drūpa; akin to Old English dropa drop), and of course to drop (the verbal form of the noun drop, a Middle English term, from the Old English dropa, akin to Old High German tropfo drop). There is probably no directly link to drop, droop and drupe, but as ZZ Packer or anyone walking near fruit trees on a late summer or early autumn day can attest, those drupes on a drooping tree branch very well might drop, as they did for our forebears, and once cleaned and bitten into, we recall the childhood admonition: sate yourself, but do not eat the pit.

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

Quote: Jim Baital

"In the army, Tali did not find life as simple as he had expected. There was very little freedom, and he could not do anything without someone telling him off.

"'All right you lazybones, get up and get a move on', ordered the sergeant. They bounced out of their beds, jumped to their feet, and as birds scatter, starting from one end to the other, so did the soldiers, as the sergeant marched down the corridor. The sound of fluttering clothes, of running feet, and of showers being turned on at full speed continued for about half an hour. Nudity was everywhere, as though God had just created them all from the earth. Some men stood shamelessly naked. Others only exposed their hairy chests and covered their thighs with either a towel or their torn underwear.

"Tali was a bit too shy to expose himself completely. Why should he be so shy, when all around him beamed the same picture by the same artist with the same brush and black-paint. Indeed, an immaculate piece of work! Why should he feel inferior to these men -- these soldiers who were going to do the same things and eat the same food. No. No it's not a question of feeling inferior, he thought to himself. It's just that I have got to get used to things first, and only then can I relate to the situation I find myself. 'Yes, that's it! That is just it!' Tali said aloud as he walked back from the barracks."

--Copyright © Jim Baital (1949-?), from Tali, in Three Short Novels from Papua New Guinea, Edited by Mike Greicus, with Illustrations by Grava Aura, Auckland: Longman Paul, 1976, pp. 125.

Friday, December 02, 2011

Nicanor Parra Wins Cervantes Prize

What is an antipoet? That answer I'll leave to someone else, but a self-styled holder of that moniker, the Chilean poet Nicanor Parra (1914-), a trained mathematician and physicist who has been publishing since the 1930s and whose 1954 collection Poemas y Antipoemas electrified readers across the globe, yesterday received the 2011 Miguel de Cervantes Prize, widely considered the highest honor in Spanish-language literature.

Parra has famously rejected what he considered the pomp and formality of the poetry business, as well as the elaborate style of Spanish-language poetry, choosing instead a more colloquial, often humorous approach.  He has written poems with titles like "Chistes para disorientar la polícia/poesía" ("Tricks to disorient the police/poetry") "Toda la poesía es mierda" ("All poetry is shit"); "¡Silencio mierda!" ("Shut the hell up!"); "La muerte supersónica" ("Supersonic death"); and Like other writers who step outside the mainstream he has not received the sort of acclaim due him, though he did receive Chile's National Prize for Literature in 1969 (following in the footsteps of Nobel Laureates Pablo Neruda and Gabriel Mistral), and he is rumored to have been nominated several times for the Nobel itself.

There are several English translations of his work, including Antipoems, translated by Jorge Elliott (City Lights, Pocket Poets Series No. 12, 1960); Poems and Antipoems, edited by Miller Williams and translated by Fernando Alegría (New Directions, 1967); Poems and Antipoems, edited by David Unger (New Directions, 1985); Antipoems: How to Look Better & Feel Great, translated by Liz Werner (New Directions, 2004), and After-Dinner Declarations, translated by Dave Oliphant (Host Publications, 2009).


De estatura mediana,
Con una voz ni delgada ni gruesa,
Hijo mayor de profesor primario
Y de una modista de trastienda;
Flaco de nacimiento
Aunque devoto de la buena mesa;
De mejillas escuálidas
Y de más bien abundantes orejas;
Con un rostro cuadrado
En que los ojos se abren apenas
Y una nariz de boxeador mulato
Baja a la boca de ídolo azteca
-Todo esto bañado
Por una luz entre irónica y pérfida-
Ni muy listo ni tonto de remate
Fui lo que fui: una mezcla
De vinagre y aceite de comer
¡Un embutido de ángel y bestia!

Of medium height,
With a voice neither shrill nor low,
The oldest son of an elementary school teacher
And a piecework seamstress,
Naturally thin
Though fond of good eating,
With drawn cheeks
And oversize ears,
A square face,
And slits for eyes,
And the nose of a mulatto boxer
Over an Aztec idol's mouth
-All this bathed
In a light halfway between irony and perfidy -
Neither too bright nor totally stupid,
I was what I was: a mixture
Of vinegar and olive oil,
A sausage of angel and beast!

Copyright © Nicanor Parra, translated by Jorge Elliot, from Antipoems (translated by Jorge Elliott), San Francisco, City Lights Books, The Pocket Poets Series, Nº12, 1960. All rights reserved.


Wednesday, November 30, 2011

What Is a Publisher? or, Changes in Scholarly Publishing

Work, and not post-turkey recovery keeps me from these pages. We're now in reading week, which means conferences with the undergraduates, honors and theses manuscripts and other program and departmental materials to read, and final preparation for next quarter, which begins January 3, 2012. Brief indeed will be my break.  I am trying to complete a syllabus for a new course, one of three I'll be teaching come January, which falls under the department's theory rubric, in post-Stonewall American LGBTQ literature, and though I have taught some of the theoretical and creative texts I'm considering for it, I'm still trying to figure out how best to map some of the theoretical texts onto the rough 40-year historical timeline I've conceptualized. Book orders need to be in by tomorrow, so I will certainly figure it out soon!


As he always does, Reggie H. forwarded along a very important link the other day that I have not yet been able to stop thinking about. In Monday's Chronicle of Higher Education, in the Prof. Hacker section, which offers tips on teaching, technology and productivity, Adeline Koh, a professor of literature at Richard Stockton College, New Jersey discusses her experiences at THATCamp Publishing in Baltimore. Koh, whose scholarly interests include postcolonial theory and literatures, 20th century British literature, African and Southeast Asian literature, global feminist theory, and the digital humanities, describes THATCamp (The Humanities and Technology Camp) Publishing as an "'unconference'" that explored the salient issues around contemporary academic publishing, including, as she breaks them down

  1. Who should publish digital scholarly research?
  2. Should digital academic research be published by the university press, or the university library?
  3. How should the process of peer review change?
  4. And finally, who should provide the work that goes into producing a publication—editing, peer review, administration and graphics?
As she continues

THATCamp Publishing provided a forum for three stakeholders in this changing industry: traditional academic publishers, libraries-as-publishers, and faculty. While traditional publishers are interested in the bottom line, libraries-as-publishers are focused on the problem of access. Faculty, on the other hand, are concerned with how their publications will lead to promotion, tenure, and the advancement of knowledge. THATCamp Publishing highlighted how the evaporation of funding for scholarly publishing and the rise of the Internet as a low-cost, easy-access means of dissemination are radically changing the nature of this industry, and the inter-relationships of these three stakeholders.
On a more fundamental level, you could perhaps say the central question of the conference was and is, Who and what is a publisher? Beside this question we might ask, Who can (afford to, these days) and should publish scholarly journals and books? Koh focuses on university libraries, but I would say that small, independent academic e-publishers could step into the breach, but the problems of funding, revenues and humanpower remain. What happens when the technological infrastructure and conditions make publishing easier yet undercut the financial model that has supported scholarly book publishing up to today? What happens when the revenue and funding streams, even after structural reconfiguration, no longer exist, and what might counterbalance this financial loss? How do these changes and challenges effect future scholars, those emerging from graduate school, those already holding tenure-track positions, and those already tenured?  And, perhaps most pressing to me, are academic institutions and faculties, especially hiring and tenure committees, taking into account these technological, structural and economic changes?

My questions, which aren't rhetorical, exceed in some cases Koh's focus, though they're linked. She homes in on the issue of scholarly journals and their financial and structural relationship to monographs.  As she points out, at many presses, the scholarly journal subscriptions have subsidized the scholarly monographs, which often do not sell well enough to avoid balance-sheet losses. When the journals go online, however, cutting the revenue stream and making the subsidy structure no longer viable, what happens to the monographs? 

She goes on to talk about open access journals and asks about peer review in light of these changes. For many peer review scenarios, anonymity, which allows referees to speak their minds freely, is key; in the absence of anonymity will referees be as candid? Will they pay a price for their candor? Koh also asks how open can journals be in permitting commentary, and what about trolls or people seeking primarily to be nasty and flippant? Even controlling for these challenges, what about the academic and possible financial capital that referees gain from engaging in this (now anonymous) process? For faculty members at every stage of their career, serving as outside referees and peer reviewers is an important responsibility, but if it becomes a free-for-all in the future, how much weight will doing so carry?

There is the even more pressing issue of underwriting the work associated with producing journals and scholarly books. Where is the money to come from? As things stand, many colleges and universities may provide subvention funds, from various sources, which go to publishers to help scholars publish worthy books that will not result in sufficient sales. But subvention funds to cover publishing costs is one thing; as Koh says, "Upon signing a contract with a traditional publisher, authors and editors generally expect that the publisher will be responsible for work like copyediting, administration, finding peer reviewers, graphic design, and marketing." University libraries, which Koh points out have gotten into the game of publishing, do not, like some smaller presses, provide such activities, but see themselves as offering "publishing support services." I think it's inarguable to say that they cannot afford the complete roster of services traditional university publishers could, and as Koh goes on to point out, their relationship to the university presses with which some of them may be affiliated remains unclear and "in flux." Again, where is the necessary funding to come from?

It is 2011 and we are not, however, going to turn back the clock. E-publishing is here to stay. I was thus happy to learn that these issues, which I have broached in relation to mainstream publishing (and to a lesser degree, academic publishing) in my Situation of Writing class and also bring up in other courses, are part of lively cross-institutional discussions and wish I could have attended THATCamp.  Yet given how much these changes are upon us, I must note that I have not heard more than a passing discussion, in my department at least, of any of this in the 9 years I have been at the university. It is as if it does not exist, or is occurring in some off-stage realm that does not directly concern humanities--literature--scholars, at a time when the role, place and teaching of humanities in higher education are themselves, like the current university model, facing economic and existential threats.

In my email response to Reggie H. and others in our email circle, I pointed out that at the university, the library oversees the press, so that a version of the library-as-publisher model is already underway, down to the library and the university requiring that the press minimize losses, with the result that everything, from editing to marketing, operates on a shoestring, and financial subvention is required for certain types of publications. Also, it's the case that some journals have faced closure because of costs. This isn't theoretical, but the reality, and has been thus for some years now. On the other hand, let me be clear that, as far as I know, the library is not itself yet directly publishing journals, or books. 

I also stated that, in my experience, some humanities faculty members of previous generations who are still teaching may not be sure how to evaluate any scholarly work that does not appear in a major cross-field journal, in a well-known specific sub-field journal, in a new journal from major journal publisher, or that, in the absence of any of these, does not have a major scholarly name or institution associated with it. E-versions of these journals would probably pass muster, but new open access options would be a problem. They respond the same way with book manuscripts; they must come from one of the major presses for academic books, or from one of the chief press known to be theoretically or methodologically progressive, or from a press known for expertise in a particular field or subfield. I have sat through more than a few meetings where issues concerning a given publishing house, contracts and so forth, have arisen.

My question to Reggie H and others is: what will change this attitude given that in increasingly more humanities fields, there is minimal readership for and no publishing money to issue the books--monographs based on dissertations--that graduate students are still producing and must produce? In some fields that continue to grow, or where scholars, with a second or successive books, feel able to write for broader audiences, there may be broader readerships out there who will mean a loss is less likely. But how many people even in certain fields can get through some of the admittedly valid and important scholarly works being produced, and if publishers are saying they cannot afford to produce because the former economic model has vanished as a result of technological changes, what is going to happen and when will faculties make the shift?  Will we return to the point where a first or in the cases of certain institutions, a second book, is less important? Will only those who manage to produce books be tenurable, and how will this affect what's studied? Will online and open access books be taken seriously sooner rather than later as things change? Which publishers will be considered valid?

These questions are valid for the publishing industry as a whole, as e-publishing increasingly takes hold. Many creative writers and authors of other sorts are coming to terms with the changes and trying to stay apace if they cannot get out front of what's going on, as are literary agents, mainstream publishers, libraries, the bookselling industry, and so forth. I think universities are also doing so, but I do think that there should be more discussion in departments and among scholars of these shifts, which are happening right now and aren't going to change. I thus thank Adeline Koh, THATCamp, and the Chronicle for putting them front and center, and would love to hear J's Theater's readers' thoughts on how this all is unfolding.