Monday, April 30, 2012

Poem: Ishmael Reed

Ishmael Reed (National Black Writers Conference)
We come to the end of Poetry Month. Since I began the month with a poem by a poet I know and have had the great luck to study with, I shall choose a final poem about poetry by another poet, of an earlier generation, whom I also had the good fortune to study with. This writer's poem "i am a cowboy in the boat of ra" was my favorite in childhood and for many years after, even though it took me years to fully understand what he was talking about. In fact, I would have chosen that poem, but it doesn't foreground thinking about poets or poetry as a medium in the way that the poems I've selected all month do, so I must pass it by, this time.  This poet first introduced me to the work of Mei-Mei Berssenbrugge (in person, no less); Adrienne Kennedy; and Jessica Hagedorn.  He also invited me to participate in the only reading I gave as a college student (which, it turns out, several of the Dark Room Writers Collective founders attended, though we didn't know each other then), and has over the years been an advocate. I know he is a controversial figure for many, but he was an excellent teacher, and, when I think of his work in prose fiction, in poetry, in playwrighting, in nonfictional and critical essays, and in lyric writing for musical accompaniment (whether it be jazz, hiphop, or other musical genres) I can only say that he remains one of the more original American and African American authors of his and subsequent eras.

He also has been a diehard champion of underrepresented perspectives in American literature, whether championing the work of Native American, Latino and Latina, Asian American, Arab American and mixed race writers, or founding Konch, which provided a venue for those writers, or editing over a dozen anthologies, such as From Totems to Hip-Hop: A Multicultural Anthology of Poetry Across the Americas, 1900–2001 (2003), featuring writers of all backgarounds, or establishing with others the Before Columbus Foundation and PEN/Oakland, which has given out the American Book Awards to writers whom the mainstream literary world often ignored.  His most frequent mode is satire, which often works very well, but sometimes not; but it has provided him with a means for engaging in one of the longest sustained critiques of of American exceptionalism, imperialism and structural racism of any American writer living. While producing this large and impressive body of work, he taught for 35 years at the University of California, Berkeley and elsewhere (which is where I encountered him). In 1998, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, perhaps considering not just his many literary works but his literary advocacy and community building efforts, honored him with their "Genius" Award.

Who am I talking about? I am talking about Ishmael Reed (1938-). And I will end this month with one of his best known--and, according to Gale Research, one of the most widely taught--poems in the curriculum. You may know which one I mean: "Beware: Do Not Read this Poem."  It is a masterful post-modern poem about poetry's seductive power, the satire undercutting the figurative and literal horror Reed invokes when he talks about the film's and the poem's voracious, anthropophagic appetite, but then cites the US Census figures on missing persons, a stat whose bureaucratic and ominous significance shifts through its connection to poetry.  Reed is saying, I think, through and amidst his satire, that poetry does have power, even if it might be rendered hyperbolic and linked to the obvious artifice of a "horror film" scenario and character.  It makes you laugh and think. Look at yourself, the poem says: not just the poem, but the poet and the readers themselves, have quite a bit of power. The power to devour each other, but of a voraciousness that might not be so bad. If you let it, if it lets you.


tonite, thriller was 
abt an ol woman , so vain she 
surrounded herself w/ 
          many mirrors

it got so bad that finally she 
locked herself indoors & her 
whole life became the 

one day the villagers broke 
into her house , but she was too 
swift for them . she disappeared 
          into a mirror 
each tenant who bought the house 
after that , lost a loved one to 
          the ol woman in the mirror : 
          first a little girl 
          then a young woman 
          then the young woman/s husband

the hunger of this poem is legendary 
it has taken in many victims 
back off from this poem 
it has drawn in yr feet 
back off from this poem 
it has drawn in yr legs

back off from this poem 
it is a greedy mirror 
you are into the poem . from 
         the waist down 
nobody can hear you can they ? 
this poem has had you up to here 
this poem aint got no manners 
you cant call out frm this poem 
relax now & go w/ this poem

move & roll on to this poem 
do not resist this poem 
this poem has yr eyes 
this poem has his head 
this poem has his arms 
this poem has his fingers 
this poem has his fingertips

this poem is the reader & the 
reader this poem

statistic : the us bureau of missing persons re- 
         ports that in 1968 over 100,000 people 
          disappeared leaving no solid clues 
          nor trace     only 
a space     in the lives of their friends 

Copyright © Ishmael Reed, "Beware: Do Not Read This Poem," from New and Collected Poems, 1966-2006, New York: Carroll & Graf, 2006.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Poem: W. H. Auden

W. H. Auden
(Photo © Jill Krementz)
I mentioned him in yesterday's (or a recent) post, so here a poem by the one and only W. H. Auden (1907-1973), one of the lodestones of 20th century Anglo-American poetry, whose life and work really need no introduction.  The fifth line in this poem's second stanza is one of the most quoted by poets, though the fuller thought often is not. Ireland remains (even today) torn, and the Irish Republic finds itself saddled with one of the worst economic collapses in all of Europe (blame those bankers and their government enablers), so in that regard, as with the weather, Yeats' poetry might not have made anything happen, but on the other hand, it's clear that Yeats and countless other writers prepared the way, politically, culturally, socially, discursively, for the Free Irish State and the Republic that followed, and provided a framework through which an Ireland, no matter how governed, could imagine itself as constituting a(n even illusory) whole.

That was in part the aim of Modernism, shoring fragments up against ruin, to echo T. S. Eliot, trying to create a whole from the shards modernity, in its multifarious ways, had left behind.  Auden continues: "For poetry....survives/In the valley of its making where executives/Would never want to tamper, flows on south/From ranches of isolation and the busy griefs,/Raw towns that we believe and die in; it survives,/A way of happening, a mouth." In effect, it does make things happen, by its every survival, which, he astutely noticed, passes right by the "executives" out of the mostly solitary conditions (this was in the days before MFA programs) of poets' affective and material labor ("busy griefs"), onto pages, into eyes and ears, through and out of every "mouth" that utters or imagines uttering a poem. So it was with Yeats's poetry, so it is with Auden's, so it will be with every poem that survives. There is so much more to say about this poem, a tribute, a memoriam, an elegy, an invocation, but I will leave it to Auden himself, one of the best rhetoricians of his or any age.



He disappeared in the dead of winter:
The brooks were frozen, the airports almost deserted,
And snow disfigured the public statues;
The mercury sank in the mouth of the dying day.
What instruments we have agree 
The day of his death was a dark cold day.

Far from his illness
The wolves ran on through the evergreen forests,
The peasant river was untempted by the fashionable quays;
By mourning tongues
The death of the poet was kept from his poems.

But for him it was his last afternoon as himself,
An afternoon of nurses and rumours;
The provinces of his body revolted,
The squares of his mind were empty,
Silence invaded the suburbs,
The current of his feeling failed; he became his admirers.

Now he is scattered among a hundred cities
And wholly given over to unfamiliar affections,
To find his happiness in another kind of wood
And be punished under a foreign code of conscience.
The words of a dead man
Are modified in the guts of the living.

But in the importance and noise of to-morrow
When the brokers are roaring like beasts on the floor of the Bourse,
And the poor have the sufferings to which they are fairly accustomed,
And each in the cell of himself is almost convinced of his freedom,
A few thousand will think of this day
As one thinks of a day when one did something slightly unusual.

What instruments we have agree
The day of his death was a dark cold day.


     You were silly like us; your gift survived it all:
     The parish of rich women, physical decay,
     Yourself. Mad Ireland hurt you into poetry.
     Now Ireland has her madness and her weather still,
     For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives
     In the valley of its making where executives
     Would never want to tamper, flows on south
     From ranches of isolation and the busy griefs,
     Raw towns that we believe and die in; it survives,
     A way of happening, a mouth.


          Earth, receive an honoured guest:
          William Yeats is laid to rest.
          Let the Irish vessel lie
          Emptied of its poetry.

          In the nightmare of the dark
          All the dogs of Europe bark,
          And the living nations wait,
          Each sequestered in its hate;

          Intellectual disgrace
          Stares from every human face,
          And the seas of pity lie
          Locked and frozen in each eye.

          Follow, poet, follow right
          To the bottom of the night,
          With your unconstraining voice
          Still persuade us to rejoice;

          With the farming of a verse
          Make a vineyard of the curse,
          Sing of human unsuccess
          In a rapture of distress;

          In the deserts of the heart
          Let the healing fountain start,
          In the prison of his days
          Teach the free man how to praise.

From Another Time by W. H. Auden, published by Random House. Copyright © 1940 W. H. Auden, renewed by The Estate of W. H. Auden. Used by permission of Curtis Brown, Ltd.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Poems: Nikki Giovanni

Nikki Giovanni
Ah, Nikki Giovanni (1943-). When I was in junior high and starting high school she was my favorite poet. There was something about the directness of her address, the humorous way she dealt with frustration and rage (though she wasn't always so funny), her articulation of power in the face of marginalization, her truthfulness about what it meant and means to be young and black and living in the US (and she was at least a generation or two older than me, but everything she wrote spoke immediately to me), her sophisticated use of vernacular, all of it made her a poet I could not get enough of. There were other poets I adulated at this age, but alongside nearly all of them, Giovanni held pride of place until I turned 16 or so, and then I drifted away from her work.

I used to be able to recite "Nikki-Rosa," "Ego-Tripping," and some of her other poems by memory. Now I can only summon a few lines. But I have been fortunate to be able to teach her work in the intervening years, to junior high and high school students, and then to college students, and I marvel at how readily they take to her, how powerfully her work continues to resonate.  Among literary scholars, though, she doesn't make the same impact. I sometimes think it's because she's considered not especially profound or interesting or innovative, that she's read as too simple and not worthy of research beyond work on the Black Arts Movement. That may be just my misreading, but I would be hard-pressed to recall any discussion of I've had with folks teaching poetry and poetics, except those working specifically in African American literature, or with other creative writers, over the last 10 years, in which her name arose.

That is, outside of the moment when the tragic events at Virginia Tech thrust her back into public view. Yet this year at the Associated Writing Programs conference in Chicago, her public conversation with Thomas Sayers Ellis--which I couldn't attend because I was teaching at that hour--reportedly was packed.  Among the creative writing community she still is a draw. That results not only from her poetry, which speaks for itself, but from her work as a teacher, consciousness-raiser, and mentor, especially to younger writers. She has taught at Virginia Tech since 1987, where she is now Distinguished Professor, and has received many awards for her poetry, which can be found in more than two dozen collections. She also has published essays, children's book, and recorded her work on vinyl and CD.

Here are two early poems by Giovanni that capture some of what I described above. Both are also about being a poet and writing poetry, which is to say, about art, artists and their power.  As a young poet who saw the need for and participated in a social and cultural revolution, she was aware, even when expressing her doubts, that what she was doing had some value. Poetry does make things happen, pace W. H. Auden (whose poem in which this formulation, more carefully and fully stated, I probably should select for tomorrow), though not in the ways that poets might imagine and that others dismiss. What is clear is that good poems do survive, and their work continues long after they were written and for that we should always be thankful. So thank you to Giovanni, and here are two of her poems. Enjoy.

kidnap poem

ever been kidnapped
by a poet
if i were a poet
i'd kidnap you
put you in my phrases and meter
you to jones beach
or maybe coney island
or maybe just to my house
lyric you in lilacs
dash you in the rain
blend into the beach
to complement my see
play the lyre for you
ode you with my love song
anything to win you
wrap you in the red Black green
show you off to mama
yeah if i were a poet i'd kid
nap you

My Poem

i am 25 years old
black female poet
wrote a poem asking
nigger can you kill
if they kill me
it won't stop
the revolution

i have been robbed
it looked like they knew
that i was to be hit
they took my tv
my two rings
my piece of african print
and my two guns
if they take my life
it won't stop
the revolution

my phone is tapped
my mail is opened
they've caused me to turn
on all my old friends
and all my new lovers
if i hate all black
and all negroes
it won't stop
the revolution

if i never write
another poem
or short story
if i flunk out
of grad school
if my car is reclaimed
and my record player
won't play
and if i never see
a peaceful day
or do a meaningful
black thing
it won't stop
the revolution

the revolution
is in the streets
and if i stay on 
the fifth floor
it will go on
if i never do
it will go on

Copyright © Nikki Giovanni, "kidnap poem" and "My Poem," from The Selected Poems of Nikki Giovanni, New York: William Morrow & Co., 1996. All rights reserved.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Poem: Qiu Xiaolong

Qiu Xiaolong
(Confucius Institute, UNSW)
This morning in the New York Times I came across an Op-Ed essay entitled "Intrigue in Chongqing," on the rise and precipitous fall of former "princeling" Bo Xilai, whose alleged corruption and spying activities doomed him, as did his wife's alleged involvement in the murder of a British citizen. I had read several stories on this case, which calls for novelistic, dramaturgical and operatic treatment, but I'd never heard of its author, who'd once suffered the indignity of having Bo steal his ping-pong racquet and, who, based on the details in his essay, is the son of a "capitalist" who'd been punished as a "counterrevolutionary"; writes detective novels; and is planning to include some of Bo's story in a future book, but also knows enough Chinese literature to quote from the ancient Chinese classic, The Book of Songs.  According to the Times, Qiu Xiaolong (裘小龙 1953-), "author of the forthcoming novel Don’t Cry, Tai Lake," penned this piece, and I learned via his byline that he's a resident of St. Louis. That made me even more curious, naturally.

So I searched and in seconds found his website, which announces that he is a "NOVELIST AND POET." I kept reading. The site offers a brief, thorough introduction:

Qiu Xiaolong was born in Shanghai, China. He is the author of the award-winning Inspector Chen series of mystery novels, Death of a Red Heroine (2000), A Loyal Character Dancer (2002), When Red Is Black (2004), A Case of Two Cities (2006), Red Mandarin Dress (2007), and The Mao Case (2009). He is also the author of two books of poetry translations, Treasury of Chinese Love Poems (2003) and Evoking T'ang (2007), and his own poetry collection, Lines Around China (2003). Qiu's books have sold over a million copies and have been published in twenty languages. He currently lives in St. Louis with his wife and daughter.
Wikipedia additionally informed he had raised money for the students who participated in the Tiananmen Square Revolution of 1989, thus he thought better of returning to China after a trip to the US for research on a book on St. Louisan T. S. Eliot.  Qiu has, it's clear, received a great deal of praise for novels, and at least one has been made into a movie. I checked out his poems. One of the first I came across is the one below; it's unclear whether he wrote it initially in English or it's a translation, but either way, it's pretty tight. (I would say that as hard as it is to write proper prose in another language, it's even harder to write do so with poetry.)  On the back cover of Lines Around China, republished now as Lines Around China: Lines Out of China, he even sports a blurb from Mona Van Duyn (1921-2004), the former Poet Laureate of the United States in 1992, and a highly lauded writer, who received the 1971 National Book Award for her collection To See, To Take (Atheneum, 1970), and the 1991 Pulitzer Prize in Poetry for her collection The Near Changes (Knopf, 1990).  I also know of her because when I was growing up, she was one of the famous writers living in St. Louis (the other local bigwigs of that era were William Gass, Stanley Elkin, Howard Nemerov, and Donald Finkel, most of them associated with Washington University in St. Louis, which is also where Van Duyn taught too).

I can't tell whether Qiu is affiliated with Washington University (though he did receive his MA and PhD in Comparative Literature from there, which makes me think he must have had some direct contact with Gass, at least), but a Mona Van Duyn blurb is the biz, and I do like this poem, which is a lighthearted poem about poetry, so I'm posting it. When I get the opportunity, I'll also read one of his mysteries. They do sound worth the while.

(Bonus: The Browser's "FiveBooks Interviews" with Qiu Xiaolong on Classical Chinese Poetry)


Back home at 8:30
with five or six small fish in the pail
including the baby blue gill
which could hardly count,
a water snake, its triangular head smashed
into a rotten persimmon--still, not
a too bad day, I have to say, a sunburned nose
peeling under the scrutiny of my wife
who, discovering a China-like map
of mosquito bites on my bare back, snaps:
What's the point--nine hours
under the scorching sun, you have
to buy the gasoline, the drink, the bait,
two hot dogs, half a pack of Camels, and
now these tiny fish, three bucks' worth
in a market, you are really hooked.

An accountant, she sees no point
calculating a split-second
of catching the golden sun
in silver scales.

Copyright © Qiu Xiaolong, "Poetry," from Lines Around China: Lines Out of China, Saint Louis: CreateSpace, 2008. All rights reserved.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Kgositsile in Evanston + My Bookshelf

On Monday Keorapetse Kgositsile (1938-), the Poet Laureate of South Africa and a beacon in African and African Diasporic arts and letters, came to Northwestern to read his work. In lieu of a recap of his excellent reading, introduced by Reg Gibbons, and  graced by Douglas Ewart's pipe accompaniment on three poems, here are a few photos. I previously posted the itinerary for Kgositsile's travels throughout the rest of the spring here. His tour is winding down, and the dates and some of these final events may have changed so please check in advance, but I definitely recommend going to hear him if you can.

April 30th (Monday): Brown, 4:00 pm—arrive on Sunday the 29th and return to NYC on Tuesday

May 1st, with Chinua Achebe

Kgositsile and Ewart (at right)

Kgositsile reading his poetry


It's been a while since I posted what's on my bookshelf (including the books selected at right), but then I've had little time to read anything other than work-related material of late. These books, some begun a while ago, some recently brought into my personal orbit, are all for edification, education and enjoyment:

  • Suzanne Collins, The Hunger Games, New York: Scholastic Press, 2008.
  • Samuel R. Delany, Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders, New York: Magnus Books, 2012.
  • Qwo-Li Driskill, Walking with Ghosts, Cambridge: Salt Publishing, 2005.
  • Harmony Holiday, Negro League Baseball, Albany: Fence Books, 2011.
  • Michel Houellebecq, The Map and the Territory, Gavin Bowd, translator, London: Heinemann, 2011.
  • Michel Jouvet, The Castle of Dreams,  Laurence Garey, translator, Cambridge: MIT Press, 2008.
  • Reza Negarestani, Cyclonopedia: complicity with anonymous materials, Melbourne: re-press, 2008.
  • Edith Pearlman, Binocular Vision: New & Selected Stories, Wilmington: Lookout Books/University of North Carolina Wilmington, 2011.
  • Charles Rice-González, Chulito: A Novel, New York: Magnus Books, 2012.
  • Rebecca Skloot, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, New York: Crown, 2010.
  • Justin Torres, We The Animals, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2011.
  • Jesmyn Ward, Where the Line Bleeds, Chicago: Agate Publishing, 2008.
  • Chris Ware, Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth, New York, Pantheon Books, 2000.

Poems + Translations: Ana Cristina César

Ana Cristina César (from
Several years ago I came across the poetry of Ana Cristina César (1952-1983), and was immediately struck by how different they looked and sounded in Portuguese, to much of the Brazilian poetry I had been reading. Or they looked different primarily because I did not yet have a context for them. As I read more and studied up on César, I learned that there were, in fact, a number of poets (Cacaso, Chacal, Francisco Alvim and Paulo Leminski, among others) with whom and with whose work hers was in conversation, though that did not diminish the singular quality of her poems for me. I also learned that she was and is still considered one of the most important Brazilian poets of the 1970s era.  A native of São Paulo, she lived in Rio de Janeiro, studied and spent time in London, and later resided in Brasília. What I was detecting in the Portuguese was a poetry that, whether written in verse or prose, often unfolds like a conversation or dialogues, the intimacy enhanced and mitigated by Cesar's quiet, often irreverent, sometimes quite dark humor; a wide range of references, allusions and irony; and above all by her attentiveness to the power and limits of eros.  A queer, feminist poet, César produced poetry that represents a critique, in important ways, of the traditions, in Brazilian and more globally, of poetry as it has developed.  Sometimes her poetry doesn't look like poetry at all; it approximates what another poet I've am drawn to, Nicanor Parra, has called anti-poetry.  At the very least it raises the question of what is poetic, what is literary, and who has the power to designate it as such. American literature and culture was particularly important to her at one stage in her life, and one her strangest little poems comprises nothing more than an index of names of figures she considered significant to her life and art. It is, appropriately, titled "Index of Proper Names" ("Index onomástica"); I include it below.

As the dates above suggest, hers was a brief life, though she began publishing her poetry in childhood, and by the time she was in her 20s, she had gained public notice as an avant-garde pioneer, ranking among the best of the Poetas marginas (Marginal Poets). She was also queer, and her work espoused a discernible feminism. Her fame inside and outside Brazil has steadily grown since her death, by suicide, at the age of 31. During her lifetime she published several collections, including the acclaimed Luvas de pelica (Kid Gloves, 1980), and A teus pés (At Your Feet, 1982), as well as the prose work Literatura não é documentação (Literature Is Not Documentation), on the politics of documentary filmmaking.  I have translated a number of her poems, and featured a rough translation of one (with a companion poem by another Brazilian poet favorite of mine, Leminski), on this blog back in 2010.  Although there is a fine British selection of her poems, Intimate Diary, translated by Cecilia McCullough, Patricia E. Page, and David Treece (Boulevard Books, 1997), I don't believe an American one exists. A fellow translator told me the other day, however, that a very famous American poet is now translating Cesar, so her translations will probably appear in book form before any of mine do. At least I have this blog.

Here then are "First Lesson" and "Index of Proper Names," both of which I translated from a bilingual Spanish-Portuguese anthology of her work entitled Álbum de Retazos: Antología Critica Bilinguë, Ana Cristina César, edited by Luciana Di Leone; Florencia Garramuño; and Ana Carolina Puente, Buenos Aires: Corregidor, 2003. The first is overtly about poetry of a particular kind, the second about literature more broadly. Both press at the very limits of what lyric poetry is; are they--especially the second--even poems as we usually know them? Also it's Poem in Your Pocket Day; both of these poems are short enough to carry around in a pocket or your memory, whichever's easier.


The genres of poetry are: lyric, satirical, didactic,
    epic, light.
The lyric genre comprises lyricism.
Lyricism is the translation of a subjective feeling, sincere
    and personal.
It is the language of the heart, of love.
Lyricism is also so named because in other times
    sentimental verses were declaimed to the sound of
    the lyre.
Lyricism can be:
a) Elegiac, when it treats sad matters, almost always death.
b) Bucolic, when verse about rustic subjects.
c) Erotic, when verse about love.
Elegiac lyricism comprises the elegy, the dirge, the
    threnody, the epitaph, and the epicedium, or funeral
Elegy is poetry which treats dolesome topics.
The dirge is poetry in homage to a dead person.
It was declaimed beside a bonfire on which the corpse was
Threnody is a poetry which reveals the heart's sorrows.
Epitaph is a short verse form engraved on tombstones.
Epicedium is a poetry which relates to the life
    of a dead person.
I look for a long while at a poem's body
until I lose sight of whatever is not body
and feel, separated between my teeth,
a filament of blood
on my gums


Alvim, Francisco
Augusto, Eudoro
Bandeira, Manuel
Bishop, Elizabeth
Buarque, Helô
Carneiro, Angela
Dickinson, Emily
Drabik, Grazyna
Drummond, Carlos
Freitas F°, Armando
Holiday, Billie
Joyce, James
Kleinman, Mary
Mansfield, Catherine
Meireles, Cecilia
Melim, Angela
Mendes, Murilo
Muricy, Katia
Paz, Octavio
Pedrosa, Vera
Rhys, Jean
Stein, Gertrude
Whitman, Walt

All poems, Copyright © Ana Cristina César, 2006, 2012; Translations by John Keene, 2010, 2012. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Poem: Kamran Mir Hazar

The US has occupied Afghanistan for a decade. The war, or something approximating one, grinds on; drones ply the skies over Khost; Afghan people, like the coalition soldiers, are still dying and suffering serious psychological and physical injuries; the government there teeters on...the brink? I would venture that most Americans know as little about Afghanistan today, save for the names of a few cities--Kabul, Kandahar, Mazari Sharif--and politicians--Hamid Karzai--than we did before the war began. About Afghan literature, I would imagine our knowledge remains as minimal as ever. I am not excepting myself. Today, then, I am posting a poem--about writing and so much more--by an Afghan poet [کامران میرهزار], Kamran Mir Hazar (1976-), who has garnered internatioal praise for his poetry, his journalism, and his political efforts to promote human rights and civil society in Afghanistan.

A member of the Hazara people, and poet and journalist in Dari and Hazaragi, Kamran Mir Hazar founded and has edited the websites Kabul Press and Refugee Face, the former of which the governments of Afghanistan and Iran block access to. Hazar also has served as a radio journalist and editor. For his journalistic and human rights projects he has won the 2006 Hellman/Hammett Grant from Human Rights Watch, and a 2007 Freedom Award from the Afghanistan Civil Society Forum. He has published two collections of poetry, Ketâb e Mehr (The Book of Mehr) and làhn-e tond-e àsbi dàr ezlâ'-e parvân-e sjodan (The Cry of a Mare about to become a Butterfly), as well as a literary critical book on Afghan literature. Of his most recent book, Johnny Cheung's translated introduction on the Poetry International Website says:

Mir Hazar’s most recent book, Censorship in Afghanistan, has recently been published by Norway’s IP Plans e-Books. It is the first book to explore the systematic suppression of free speech in Afghanistan, which has been a feature of its ruling authorities for hundreds of years.
Hazar now lives and works in Hønefoss, Norway. You can click here to read several Guardian articles on him. He also has a threadbare, multilingual website (including one English-language links) at

I obviously cannot speak or read Dari or Hazaragi, so I cannot comment on the original poem, posted below, nor can I comment on the quality of the translation (though I did slightly change two things, transposing one nominal phrase ("crashed computer"), and changing a preposition ("on" for "behind" the "diesel-powered laptop," to make the language more idiomatic), but the story it tells is significant, and the questions provoked by the speaker--who is the lyric speaker here? where is s/he at the moment of this poem? how can our understanding of the poem's multiple ironies, its shifting discourses, its satire, aid us in locating her or him?--are ones that made me sit up and think, ask questions, reread the poem several times. That the medium cited is the net is also significant for this blog, which serves as one my means for connecting with people all over the world.  Too many viruses, of imperialism and militarism, authoritarianism and orthodoxy, of sexism and homophobia, of ignorance and indifference, mark humanity at this moment in time; this poem calls attention to them, at the local and the global level. "Just what is mankind up to?" someone asks a "Kabul sparrow," a term that has multiple meanings, and Hazar tells us the sparrow's answer. Whether a boom accompanies it and it's blown to smithereens is another question.

Nevertheless, we still have this poem, this poet, his and others' poetry. There is hope yet.


Writing viruses
And electronic labyrinths
With a blackout and no computer
In a rented house, at seven thousand a month;
Kabul, the Afghan capital!
What silly poem is this?

You ask yourself, is poetry the same lonely words
    that wander in electronic corridors,
Cut off from their existence,
Thrown away, with no choice but to become a poem?
You watch imagination wandering through paths, over
    the paths,
You throw the leash at yet another word,
Trying to subdue this wild one,
And if you fail,
You stop functioning,
Like a crashed computer.

There was someone, someone who wrote viruses
On a diesel-powered laptop
Looking for URLs and
An anonymous mail would be sent
Connecting you to a site, infected;
“I am from Florida, the USA, and 23 years of age,
Looking for someone to follow the link, and
    make happy”;
To open the mail and to make someone happy?
First, stop the programs;
Passing through security, typing 97, 98, 99,
Approaching the death of romance between zero
    and one.

A virus-writer drank half a beer bottle at once;
Then, computer deaths;
First to the east of Paris, a house,
Australia, three minutes more,
A man is waiting out the last minutes of
    an office shift
Needs to get home;
A party is starting in half an hour;
The Philippines, minutes later,
A 19-year-old girl
In a chat room,
Showing off a used body;
In Egypt, more or less the same time,
And the next morning, Kabul.

You, and you, also you,
Yes, you and also you,
You are all arrested!

They tell me, stop writing!
You write and we’ll show you Guantanamo
    at home,
You write, we’ll kill you.
Kabul, summer of ’07
Hands in handcuffs, feet tied up;
This is Afghanistan, and this here where it is
Dead bodies over dead bodies.
The poem has no choice but to stop writing
This is prison.

They asked a Kabul sparrow
Just what is mankind up to?
The sparrow considered this and died!

© Translation: 2010, Nushin Arbabzadah (with slight modifications)
Publisher: First published on PIW, 2010

And the original, in Hazara:

Copyright © 2010, Kamran Mir Hazar, Publisher: First published on PIW, 2010

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Poem: Denise Levertov

Denise Levertov
Do students read Denise Levertov (1923-1997) in high school or college these days? Do high school teachers or college professors teach her work?  I never hear anyone mention her name, and it's a shame. It was in junior high that I first read a poem of hers, though I don't remember which; I made a faint impression, but an impression it did make. I decided to learn more about her when I started coming across books of hers from the 1960s and 1970s at used bookstores in Boston, and became curious about her poems, how they worked, why they worked--because compared to other poets I was reading a lot of then, they seemed deceptively understated, quiet, sometimes even casual, shorn of metaphor and allusion, often given to descriptions of objects, scenes, people, places--and then about her, her life, her relationship with the poets closely and loosely grouped about the Black Mountain school and her political stances, especially during the Vietnam War.

She wrote a number of poems about her opposition to this conflict and against war in general, especially in the volume The Sorrow Dance (1967) and The Freeing of the Dust (1975) and her progressive views on many different topics are evident in her poetry. Yet it is the poetry itself, limpid and lucid, proceeding often as if she were speaking but carefully shaped, full of internal music, that testifies to her importance in American letters.  Levertov was born in the United Kingdom, however; her father was a Russian Jewish immigrant who converted to Christianity, and her mother was Welsh. She served as a nurse during World War II, and came to the US only in 1948, a year after marrying an American writer, Mitchell Goodman. From then on, through her affiliation with the Black Mountain writers, on to her final works, which include more personal and sometimes overtly confessional lyrics, she published regularly and to considerable recognition, while taking stands on behalf of women's liberation and civil rights, and teaching and mentoring younger writers, including at Stanford University from 1981 to 1994.

Here's one of her poems, "To the Reader," which gives a sense of how effortlessly profound she can be. At first, she contrasts the experience of the reader with an almost generic scene occurring somewhere in nature (which of course could be and is, ironically, a scene in this book), which quickly becomes much more specific and memorable with that "saffron" (note too the subtle, but effective music here, born of deftly deployed prosody, consonance and rhyme), and then in the second stanza, she shifts to a more ambigious scene--where is it taking place, described as it is with evocative lyric precision--"lie among lianas: eyes of obsidian"--and then, only in the final paragraph, do we get a metaphor, the sea turning the pages of its waves, like the reader of the book, the final repetition both mirroring the action of the reader and the sea, while also inverting the action through personification so that it's the sea's "dark pages" that now have agency, turning the pages, of life and time; the natural world is set into motion by the work of art, this poem. Of course analogically these shifts are akin to what reading offers, what a good book, a great poem, can do: leaps of all kinds are possible, not just between stanzas, but between words, images, metaphors, or, as is the case here, metonyms and images, activating the world and life itself. I do hope readers turn to her from time to time; there is much to gain from doing so, and much to love.


As you read, a white bear leisurely
pees, dyeing the snow

and as you read, many gods
lie among lianas: eyes of obsidian
are watching the generations of leaves,

and as you read
the sea is turning its dark pages,
its dark pages.

Copyright © Denise Levertov, "To the Reader," from The Jacob's Ladder, London: Jonathan Cape, 1965. All rights reserved.

Auf Wiedersehen,

It know that it occurred 7 years ago, around the time I began this blog, but I cannot recall the route by which I first happened upon, the website whose motto is--or was--"Let's Talk European." I say was, because almost a month ago, on March 28, the editors, Thierry Chervel and Anja Seeliger, posted a valedictory letter, letting readers know that this little internet torch of knowledge would be doused; there would be no more new articles, magazine essay summaries, feuilletons, links, anything. All good things do come to their end, but the web will be intellectually and discursively poorer without, which focused primarily on German arts and letters, but cast its net widely to gather together reviews, intellectual debates, controversies, new cultural discoveries, translations, and a range of other materials few other sites matched.
German writer Emine Sevgi Özdamar (
Most of the authors, among whose ranks you could find the likes of 2009 Nobel Prize winner Herta Müller, eschewed the sort of refined, sometimes icy hauteur in displaying their prodigious learning a reader might encounter in The New York Review of Books, yet by the same token they also delved more fully into their topics than New York Times or Guardian journalists. Since the site was anchored in German history and culture, that country's and the Germanophone world's concerns usuallyfilled its scrolling headings, but the range of topics often crossed (European and global) national boundaries. The weekly (every Tuesday at noon!) European magazine summaries, the last appearing March 27, were like smorgasbords of information, often offering a slant perspective on American takes on the news.  To give one example, there's been little coverage in the US press, save in Paul Krugman's blog posts, about the growing rise of fascism in Hungary, but in this last grove of links, you could learn about the mutual far-right admiration societies in Poland and Hungary, the latter's influence sending chills up the spines of moderate and left-leaning Poles.

Among the longer articles, a representative range might include "The medium is English," questioning whether there were still any British intellectuals; "Against obscurantism," which covered the Argentinian philosopher and scholar Horacio Potel's battle against publishers who sought to kill (and did) his not-for-profit websites featuring texts by Nietzsche, Heidegger, and others; and "How to save the quality press," an impassioned and informed article by none other than Jürgen Habermas, one of the world's greatest living thinkers.  More than once on Sign and Sight I learned something new about a figure, like Christa Wolf, whose work I thought I was conversant with, but I also would learn about writers and thinkers I'd never heard of. For example, Friedrich Kittler (1943-2011) a German media theorist, scholar, and peer of and correspondent with Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, and Klaus Theleweit. In an interview conducted by Andreas Rosenfelder originally in Welt am Sonntag (Sunday World newspaper) that posted, I learned that Kittler's seminal works examined "discourse networks," war and militarism, hacking and computers, popular culture, and, in his latter years, love as concept and practice. Such is his following that there exists a group of young scholars who call themselves the "Kittner Youth." I also learned that Kittler wrote the first chapter, on Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's Faust, of his influential dissertation only after rolling a joint and inhaling deeply. He also apparently had crackups, traveled to hear Jacques Lacan's seminars, and proposed a distinctive way of thinking about technology, including writing as technology and the technology of writing. I have, suffice it to say, since sought Kittler's work out.

Here is his response to Rosenfelder's question about whether he has any interest in Facebook:

No, not remotely. It gives me the uncanny feeling that normal people have become so unimportant for those in power and business that self-presentation is the last resort. When I arrived in California for the first time and went up Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley heading for campus, I passed a playing field full of exhibitionists running about. People dressed as harlequins begging for money or smoking dope. When I then entered campus and looked at the people there, they lowered their eyes. People either seem completely depressed or they put on a huge show and telephone loudly in the train restaurant.

As for the interview itself, he compared it to the pleasures of psychoanalysis, the creating of literature while lying on the couch. A bit of that literature, he hinted, might have been created in his conversation with Rosenfelder; a trove of literature, it's clear for anyone who regularly read, could be found behind its seven-years-worth of headlines. Auf wiedersehen!

Monday, April 23, 2012

Poem: Kamau Brathwaite

Edward Kamau Brathwaite (from
I was trying to remember if I had featured Kamau Brathwaite (1930-) on J's Theater before, and I was pretty sure I had, but it turns out that while I have mentioned him many times, including in my very first post, the only work of his that I've ever featured is his highly anguished call for help to save CowPastor/Cow Pasture, the large open areas near where he lives in Christ Church, Barbados, that the government and private entities seized control of through which to lay roads. Not to aestheticize the letter, but it bears many of the hallmarks of Brathwaite's poetry, from its orthography to its reconstitution of language itself. As it turns out, poet Tom Raworth set up a site, Save Cowpasture, that's still up, and last fall Brathwaite wrote Raworth to thank him for keeping the site up. He also mentions the TIME OF SALT, and there's a link to +++SaVing CowPastor & the KB Cultural Lynching 2004-2011+ by clicking this link, which is, to put it mildly, an extraordinary document, a setting of the letters, accounts, recountings, the stories, of the fight for CowPastor/CowPasture and Brathwaite's struggles in New York and Barbados.

Extraordinary really only scratches the surface when it comes to Brathwaite. I know. I studied with him, and count the experience among the most fortunate in my life. I'm not just talking about him as a teacher, critic, theorist, historian, or raconteur, nor as the sort of person who, almost out of nowhere, announces that a graduate class should begin preparing to go to a foreign country for a class trip (he did this), or who tells of how he witnessed another famous writer's wife walking through a wall (he did this). I don't want to start delving into mysticism, metaphysics and the supernatural, but let me just say that when you spend some time around someone operating at this level, a true konjur man with a mind like the libraries of Alexandria and an ability to see into the hidden heart of things you tend not to doubt them. He pulled off that trip. That transmural passage as a result didn't seem so inconceivable. There are keys all throughout his work that he operates or accesses many different channels. You really could spend a lifetime teasing some of these keys out, following the threads, raveling and reraveling them again, and if you read him carefully enough he points them out. A sharp graduate student will probably elect to do this at some point down the road.

To put it another way, he is the one of the most important and original living Caribbean poets, one of the major poets writing in English, a signal figure of African Diasporic poetry and poetics, and a living treasure. He has proved this over nearly 40 books of poetry, critical prose, and memoirs, many of these works constituting works of hybrid genre that defy easy categorization. Through this rich body of work, he has developed a language drawn from his native Barbados, the Caribbean and Latin America, his readings, studies and experiences in Britain and the US, strikingly singular and personal, but also transnational and universal. To fully capture this language, informed by the principle, in part of nommo (from the Bantu) and nam, he created typography/textual form, the Sycorax Dub script (I believe that's the name). He has garnered, among his many awards, the Neustadt International Prize for Literature, which used often to be a tip for the Nobel Prize; the Griffin Poetry Prize, one of the highest awards for world poetry, handed out in Canada; and Premio de la Casa de las Américas, awarded by the Cuban government for an exceptional from the Caribbean.  I know him because he has served for two decades as Professor of Comparative Literature at New York University.

This potted intro hardly does him justice, though. There is no substitute for his poetry, which is so verbally and visually powerful it dazzles. The poem below, which I recalled from a journal I had in my office, is a distillation. If you can, read it aloud, and you will feel the bird rising off this screen; it might even guide you to places you had not ever imagined.


Until it come to the time for the great bird the Mithurii .
    to begin its ascent
its challenge against the eart . the paradoxical oracle of wind . the
    the wings beating
unchaining. out. boarding as seamen might say . the gret beast
    ruffled & rising
as in all the great legends

and this happening here before me now under me now wonderfully
    surrounding me
the white silver louvered feather shift & chevron stretching out
    across the sunlight
the great terrible beauty & beating we have always heard about
beating beating upward & forward . the planks of its shape
    shivering at first like a ship

like a dhow . then spheering down into smooth as we scool
    up. wards

Now the first hills at the darker mountains of english . the sea
    below all shard
& silver like our shadow . the beacon topaz eyes unblinking even
    through all the shudder
the wings now stretched across all space openly & awesomely . so
    that we are not beating
any. more but ahh sailing something like singing . because at last
    I have been able

to use all the wounds in the language . as long as I lay them out
    softly & carefully
like these unfluttering feathers of song . like the sea below
    turning into a grey ball of wine
without fishes or sperm . like the darkness no longer lingering
    above us
but we moving towards it as part of its fuse & its future . the àxé
    & ayisha of sails

one last time in our ears . the earth gone a long time now from
    green spur arrogance
of john crow mountain. strange
not even the memory of a veiled carefree river in these high
    places . too far up now
for sunsets through all this rain & distance in our eyes. in our
    sleep. in our silence

the metaphor at last afloat almost alight in the darkness
Copyright © Edward Kamau Brathwaite, "Bird Rising," in Conjunctions: Bi-Annual Volumes of New Writing, No. 27, The Archipelago: New Writing From and About the Caribbean, Edited by Robert Antoni and Bradford Morrow, pp. 89-90. All rights reserved.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

5th Annual Writing Festival @ Northwestern

A couple weeks ago (April 12-14) the undergraduate Creative Writing Program at Northwestern University held its 5th Annual Writing Festival, a three-day event bringing together students, faculty and three writers representing each of the three major genres--poetry, fiction and creative nonfiction--in which the program offers major and minor curricular tracks.

This year's visiting writers were poet Kate Daniels (who teaches at Vanderbilt University), creative nonfiction writer Jane Brox, and fiction writer ZZ Packer (teaching this semester at the University of Texas, Austin).  Each individually hosted a master class for the students, gave a reading of their work, and then together participated in a conversation on their lives and work guided by three of my colleagues, Sheila Donohue, Brian Bouldrey, and Rachel Webster. In her master class, Daniels spoke about the "garrulous poem" (which would describe her sinous, talky, information and action-rich poems); Brox in hers talked about transitions both with her specific books and across the span of her writing life; and Packer combined narratology and critical theory with practical reading in her presentation on voice. I was unfamiliar with Brox's nonfiction, so it was enlightening to hear her read and talk about it, and though I had read Daniels' and Packer's work, I felt like I heard and learned something new with their readings and presentations. All the events were packed, which was great to see, and my conversations with students after the event affirmed that they had gotten a great deal from the presentations and the readings. I certainly did, as I have every prior year.

A special highlight this year was the participation of students from Evanston Township High School, the local public high school.  During the month of March, several colleagues and I, led by poetry professors Mary Kinzie, Rachel Webster and Susannah Gottlieb, the force behind the Poetry and Poetics Colloquium, and aided by graduate student and poet Laura Passin, supervised half a dozen outstanding senior undergraduate poetry students, who led the high school students in writing exercises at Evanston Township High School and via online workshops. Mark Onuschek, the English teacher and program coordinator, along with nearly all the high school students who participated in the program and many of their parents were present at the Writing Festival event, and nearly all of the students read one of their poems, as did their undergraduate student mentors. It was wonderful to have writers at this level present and to hear their work in conversation with the established writers.

Here are a few photos from the events (no drawings, unfortunately, as I did last year of David Shields).

Kate Daniels, Northwestern Univ. Writers' Festival
Kate Daniels, at her master class

Jane Brox, Northwestern Univ. Writers' Festival
Jane Brox, leading her master class

Rachel Webster, Northwestern Univ. Writers' Festival
Rachel Webster, introducing the student writers

NU student & ETHS student, Northwestern Univ. Writers' Festival
Undergraduate poet Jonathan Ayala, and an ETHS student poet (in red)

ZZ Packer giving her master class
ZZ Packer, leading her master class

Panel of writers, Northwestern Univ. Writers' Festival
The writers' panel (Donohue, Packer, Brox, Bouldrey, Daniels, Webster)

Poem: Martha Collins

Today's poem is by a poet I've never featured before, but this poem, and this poet's work, have intrigued me, not least because of one rhetorical device (of the many) she uses so well: repetition. In several of the poems by Martha Collins (1940-) that I've read, repetition serves as the means for what might in music be called motivic variation, at least if I'm grasping the concept right.

She will introduce a word, a phrase, an idea, and then repeat it with variations in its placement, context, meaning, function. In one of her better known poems, "Lines," she spins from that word's many meanings a complex little poem about composition, connections, relationships, the algebra of love. In many poems she plays with the mechanics of syntax, semantics and spatiality, allowing her to make quite complex works with the seemingly simplest of tools--think Williams Carlos Williams's machine made of words, but with hidden, powerful gears.  It should hardly be surprising, then, that she has written books titled Some Things Words Can Do (Sheep Meadow Press, 1999), and The Arrangement of Space (G. Smith Publisher, 1991).

The poem below operates a little differently, but as you read it you start to see how she can take an idea and draw all sorts of interesting things out of it, using, among her tools, repetition. This is not to say, however, that her focus is only on language; in her 2006 book-length poem, Blue Front (Saint Paul: Graywolf Press), she took on history directly, writing about a lynching that occurred in her father's hometown of Cairo, Illinois, bringing to bear her poetic skills to render unforgettable one of many too-forgotten, horrible moments in American history.

Martha Collins is a native of Omaha, Nebraska, and established  the creative writing program at the University of Massachusetts Boston. She currently is the Pauline Delaney Professor in Creative Writing at Oberlin College. She has published five books of poetry, and one chapbook, and has edited a book of critical essays on poet Louise Bogan, and translated two books of poetry from Vietnamese, The Women Carry River Water by Nguyen Quang Thieu (1997), edited with Ba Chung Nguyen; and Green Rice by Lam Thi My Da (2005). Among her awards are the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for Blue Front, and fellowships from the Ingram Merrill Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the National Endowment for the Humanities.


Several things could happen in this poem.
Plums could appear, on a pewter plate.
A dead red hare, hung by one foot.
A vase of flowers. Three shallots.

A man could sing, in a burgundy robe
with a gold belt tied in a square knot.
Someone could unite the knot.
A woman could toss a gold coin.

A stranger could say the next line,
I have been waiting for this,"
and offer a basket piled with apples
picked this morning, before the rain.

It could rain in this poem,
but if it rained, the man would continue
to sing as the burgundy silk fell
to the polished parquet floor.

It could snow in this poem:
remember how the hunter stamped his feet
before he leaned his gun in the corner
and hung his cap on the brass hook?

Perhaps the woman should open the ebony bench
and find the song her mother used to sing.
Listen: the woman is playing the song.
The man is singing the words.

Meanwhile the hunter is taking a warm bath
in the clean white tub with clawed legs.
Or has the hunter left? Are his boots
making tracks in the fallen snow?

When does the woman straighten the flowers?
Is that before the hunter observes
the tiny pattern on the vase?
Before the man begins to peel the shallots?

Now is the time for the woman
to slice the apples into a blue bowl.
A child could be watching the unbroken peel
spiral below the knife.

Last but not least, you could appear.
You could be the red-cheeked child,
the hunter, or the stranger.
You could stay for a late meal.

A Provencal recipe.
A bright red hare, shot at dawn.
Shallots. Brandy. Pepper, salt.
An apple in the pan.

Copyright © Martha Collins, "Several Things," from The Catastrophe of Rainbows, Cleveland: Cleveland State University Press, 1985. All rights reserved.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Poem: Carl Phillips

Today's poem is one of congratulations! to a poet I've read for nearly 20 years. I met and befriended him right before he was to publish his first book, the award-winning In the Blood (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1992, selected by Rachel Hadas), when he connected with the Dark Room Writers Collective, which I've mentioned a bit here over the last few weeks. I am talking about the one and only Carl Phillips (1959-), who is, as I write this, one of the most important writers of his generation, a major American and African-American poet, a highly esteemed teacher and subtle critic and dedicated mentor of many other poets and writers. He has published 11 books of poetry, and 1 of criticism, I believe, and received, among many honors, the Kingsley Tufts Prize, Lambda Literary Prize, and the Fellowship of the Academy of American Poets. He also serves as the judge for the Yale Series of Younger Poets Prize.

For many years he has taught at Washington University in St. Louis, where he now holds a chair, and he also has taught at the Cave Canem Foundation's summer workshops. When I first met him, Carl was a soft-spoken, disarmingly funny, dazzlingly smart person, and these traits, along with his distinctive gift for syntax (which he once told an interviewer, I believe, he learned from his study of Classical poetry, a field he explored in graduate school for a while), also mark his poetry, which often unfolds in slow, serpentine fashion, the effect almost like wandering into a cloud, or fog, in which are suspended particular moods, or feelings, only partially perceptible at first, but then, and this happens not infrequently in Carl's poems, what follows a line or stanzaic break might be an image, a truth, a recognition or realization embedded in either, that cracks like a whip right at the center of your consciousness, so quickly you don't and can't realize what hit you.

It one of his many gifts as a poet. Between the hypotaxis, the enjambment, the suspension, not just in Latinate but sometimes in the fashion almost of German syntax of key words and ideas, and his precision with regard to imagery and recurring symbols (cf. arrows, sheep, and so forth), his careful use of conceits and extension of metaphor across an entire poem, and, as I said, a wry humor that springs on you without warning, his poetry works real magic. It was already thus from the very first book. Here is a poem from another early book of his, my favorite, Cortège (Saint Paul: Graywolf Press, 1995), whose raison d'être will gel if you sit with it for a bit. Oh, and I mentioned that this was a post of congratulations: last night Carl received the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Poetry, for his most recent book (also nominated for many other awards), Double Shadow: Poems (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2011). Congratulations to an exceptional poet.


Late-American. A boy mostly, but with a
man's half-concerns about letting his hair

go, or how his eyes and just under, tired
of waiting him out, show signs of going

without him. Other times--weekends,
the odd stolen day off--any man in boy's 

armor: big-boy boots, pants that fail
to hide enough ankle. A name, spelled

backwards, falling somewhere between god
and what's good. All the promise of salt,

how it hangs back on the tongue for a while
after. Connect, miss briefly, try again:

his method. Every word has meaning, but the
way something simple--a flower, a bird--

means. A song, but with all the notes left
pending, so a poem. So a kind of music.

Himself the last to give a name to it.

Copyright © Carl Phillips, "Étude in D," from Cortège, Saint Paul: Graywolf Press, 1995. All rights reserved.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Poem: Gary Snyder

Gary Snyder (l), Allen Ginsberg (r), 1965
Glacier Peak, Washington State (Photo © Allen Ginsberg)
When this Poetry Month posting business began, I said I was going to refrain from intros, précis(es), and the like. Or keep them brief.  But then I think every day as I'm selecting these poems, it isn't fair just to post them without saying something. Sometimes that something can fit into a tiny box of concision. Other times it just pours forth from my fingertips like a sluice. I guess it depends on the day. Today, in honor of my selection, Mr. Gary Snyder (1930-), a poet of such distinction (including a Pulitzer Prize, back in 1975, for Turtle Island (New Directions)) that he really needs no introduction, and who can pack an entire landscape into a small stanza, I shall be ultra-brief.

Of this figure allied with the Beats (he was the prototype of Jack Kerouac's character "Japhy Ryder" in The Dharma Bums) and the San Francisco Renaissance, this longtime Zen Buddhist and environmentalist, this former professor at the University of California, Davis, I will say that his poetry's attentiveness to nature and its material and spiritual dimensions, his gifts for simplicity, brevity and the telling detail, his openness to non-US influences, and his generosity as a poet, all recommend reading him as much as possible. The poem below also shows another gift of his, wit, which glides right up on you. I like to listen to podcasts of Snyder sometimes, just to hear his laugh. The seriousness of intent and lightness of touch in his work fit together like a hand in a glove, or, using a metaphor of his, a handle to an axe-head.

(NB: I am unable to replicate the glyphs that appear between stanzas in the original text.) 


As for poets
The Earth Poets
Who write small poems,
Need help from no man.

The Air Poets
Play out the swiftest gales
And sometimes loll in the eddies.
Poem after poem,
Curling back on the same thrust.

At fifty below
Fuel oil won't flow
And propane stays in the tank.
Fire Poets
Burn at absolute zero
Fossil love pumped backup

The first
Water Poet
Stayed down six years.
He was covered with seaweed. 
The life in his poem 
Left millions of tiny
Different tracks
Criss-crossing through the mud.

With the Sun and Moon
In his belly,
The Space Poet
No end to the sky-
But his poems,
Like wild geese,
Fly off the edge.

A Mind Poet
Stays in the house. 
The house is empty
And it has no walls.
The poem 
Is seen from all sides,
At once.

Copyright © Gary Snyder, "As for Poets, " from Turtle Island, New York: New Directions Publishing Corporation, 1975. All rights reserved.

Marc Bamuthi Joseph's & Theaster Gates's rbGB @ Chicago MoCA

I am not a dance critic nor a dance scholar, let me make that clear. I point this lest I incur the sort of situation that allegedly occurred a few years ago when some kind person cited this blog in a dissertation on dance. It startled my (very generous) colleague who's a leader in that field and happened to be participating in the dissertation defense. So please, dear reader, read these remarks as those of a fan and nothing more.  I do love dance, I love to dance and I love going to see dance performances. I don't do this enough, I'll admit it. Fortunately, last week, I got my tail into gear and headed down to Chicago's Museum of Contemporary Art to see red black and Green: a blues, the collaboration between Marc Bamuthi Joseph/The Living World Project and local artist and urban planner Theaster Gates.  This was only one of several events that Joseph/The Living World Project held at MoCA, from April 12-14. Others included a conversation with former Obama administration official and environmental and jobs activist Van Jones; and SHareOUT, which turned the stage over to a number of young Chicago poets and activists, including Young Chicago Authors, Kuumba Lynx, YOUmedia, FilmLAB@1512 and AgLAB@1512 of the Better Boys Foundation, and The MCA Creative Agency

Marc Bamuthi Joseph, dancing in foreground, Theaster Gates through the open door
Marc Bamuthi Joseph (foreground) dancing, Theaster Gates through door

For red black and Green: a blues, Joseph conducted field research, including interviews and community-based events, for several years, in the four cities--Chicago, New York (Harlem), Houston, and Oakland--that formed the compass points for the performance, which he and collaborators Gates, Chicago native Traci Tolmaire and Tommy Shepherd a.k.a. Emcee Soulati also structured according to the four seasons, four cycles of life, and four rooms of a shotgun-style house (porch, kitchen, bedroom, front/living room).  With Gates, he realized the house metaphor through an interactive and versatile stage installation, a mobile house/set seemingly built out of scraps (an organic, green set), titled The Colored Museum, playing off the title of George C. Wolfe's famous play, that the public could view during museum hours, and which provided the setting and backdrops for each part of the performance. One of the exciting aspects of red black and Green: a blues, was being able to join Joseph, Gates, Tolmaire, and Shepherd down on the stage at the beginning of the performance. Everyone attending, as well as the ushers, were invited to mill about, observe them, find a spot, engage. They not only interacted with the audience, singing and speaking directly to us, handing out watermelon slices, gently ushering us about as the installation-house-set underwent its initial reformulations, but our presence, I think, probably shaped how this first part of the event unfolded, provoking some improvisation. The space itself, then, became embodied, not just by the performers, but by the audience.

Tommie Shepherd, in red black and Green: a blues
Tommy Shepherd, making music

Let me say that Joseph can dance his behind off, as can Tolmaire; Gates can sing; and Shepherd can create any beat you might envision. But they all sang, and danced, and made music. They sang and danced and made music out of seemingly nothing, out of anything, out of everything.  They all also embodied the various people--characters--Joseph had interviewed, harmoniously fitting together the documentary material, Joseph's stirring spoken word poetry (I mean, this man can write and perform some poetry!), the dancing in multiple styles, from ballet to hip hop, the singing (which included Gates's and the others' performances of standards, blues songs, and original pieces), to create an embodied whole that suggested a larger vision.

The audience leaving the stage, before the second part of red black and Green: a blues
The audience heading back to seats after the first part of the show

With each shift to a new season and city, a new cycle of life, came a new configuration of The Colored Museum, and at every point, even during the transitions, Joseph or his collaborators kept things going and flowing, though they also were not afraid to show the seams. Other elements of the multimedia performance included still and video projections on the back walls, judicious use of materials like seeds and bowls and water, lights and darkness, and taped music.  At one point, after the Harlem scenes, I was convinced that everyone had danced and sung themselves out, and if Joseph just decided to lie on the stage and Gates went silent but for a blues hum, I wouldn't have faulted them. But they kept moving towards the finale, and by the end, their aims had become clear. A reporter sitting next to me remarked at the end of the event that she would be reflecting on this performance for some time to come, and I had to agree.

red, black and Green: a blues

The red black and green subtext of the performance, i.e., blackness, as well as the blues, I think, were clear from the beginning, but I was curious to see how they would tackle the Green. The complexity of black--and brown, and working-class--people's relationship to the environment, natural, built, always constructed in social, economic and political terms, was complex. red black and Green: a blues made clear that any blanket pronouncements about a green approach that did not take into account historical and material conditions, the diverse and sometimes divergent perspectives of people who were often living in a state of multiple displacements, the rich connections between and across cultural circuits, was bound to fail. Joseph himself is Haitian-American, the son of an immigrant; in one scene, he portrayed himself talking to his son about the Black Panthers, and his and the landscape's relationship to them. His working through of their legacy for him and for his son, and for those who'd come after and might not know how they effected change and yet were not able to accomplish some of their goals, but left traces on those who came after, left traces in the landscape itself, marked it, was quite moving. His son, he suggested, was able to pick up the threads.
A scene from red, black and Green: a blues

The deft weaving of global and regional traditions, alongside critical and intellectual engagement, in embodied practice, was the highlight of this performance. Yet it never felt like a critique turned into art, or intellectualism for its own sake. The embodying of concepts, words, movements, gestures, voices, practices, of the space itself, occurred in a thrilling, unforgettable way. If red black Green: a blues comes through your city, don't miss it. I am looking forward to whatever these amazing artists come up with next.

Theaster Gates, after the show
Theaster Gates, after the show

Tommie Shepherd, after the show
Tommy Shepherd, after the show

Traci Tolmaire, after the show
Traci Tolmaire (on right), chatting with fans

Marc Bamuthi Joseph, after the show
Marc Bamuthi Joseph, at show's end

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Poem: Lorna Dee Cervantes

I was trying to figure out how to introduce the following poem, by Lorna Dee Cervantes (1954-), which I thought of when I read the hedging admission by the House Majority Whip, Eric Cantor (R-VA) that anti-Semitism and racism were (still) a problem in his (the Republican House) caucus.  Well, duh. (Yet does he realize how he's been part of the problem?) I read this poem many years ago and recall it every so often because of how it captures so much of what was surging through me back then, and what I still sometimes feel, beginning with her opening line, "In my land there are no distinctions." Yet she must qualify her utopian statement rather quickly by noting that despite this view, despite the fact that "there are no boundaries," there is a system that is trying to destroy her, there are people whose words and actions are killing her, people who do not want her be alive, that there "is a real enemy / who hates me," and that even some of the best and best-meaning people seem unwilling to do or say anything to stop this.

I also know that she wrote it when she was very young and yet it shows such nuance, such sophistication, then ends with a bang that I feel we shouldn't forget.  We are a country at war, sadly, without our selves, "our various selves," as Amiri Baraka once put it. At any rate, I was thinking of introductions when I came across this 2007 blog post by none other than Cervantes herself, from her blog Lorna Dice, in which she explains to a student named Emily her motivations, the writing of the poem, and what she thinks it means. (Can I just say, I love that with I can read Lorna Dee Cervantes' musings after a few seconds' search via DuckDuckGo. She actually has two other blogs: Lorna Dee Cervantes, and Mission Poetry Center--La Misión Poética)  Cervantes, for those who may not be familiar with her, is a Chicana/Native American (Chumash) poet long active in feminist, progressive, antiracist causes, and has been writing and fighting since the 1970s.

Her first, perhaps best known book, is the award-winning volume Emplumada (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1981).  Ten years later she published her second book, From the Cables of Genocide: Poems on Love and Hunger (Houston: Arte Público Press, 1991), and has gone on to publish two more volumes, while also serving as editor or co-editor of journals and anthologies, teaching (for many year at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and now at University of California, Berkeley), and keeping the dream of a better world alive through her work in many communities.  Her blog is an extension of this; on it you see she not infrequently responds to young people who contact her about her work, theirs, life in general, the issues they're going through, and it represents yet another aspect of her longtime efforts to improve literacy among young people, especially young Latinos.

One thing I want to note about Cervantes' poetry, especially since I have called attention to her emphasis on social activism, is how much it summons vivid, sensuous details of the natural world, particularly flowers, details of the urban terrain, material aspects of the everyday world, to etch sharp pictures in the mind. In my mind, when I think of her poems, I often see them beginning with the naming of a plant whose blooms, colors, scent, grounds me immediately. She writes many other kinds of poems, but her work also makes clear that one doesn't have to surrender social concerns no matter what or how one is writing a poem.

Now, this famous poem, which seems especially fitting given the rhetoric that regular fills the airwaves and the numerous tragedies, arising out of sexism and misogyny, racism, homophobia, classism, religious intolerance, and general disrespect for the humanity of others, for difference and pluralism, that have scarred the news of late. Do read her blog if you get a moment; she doesn't disappoint there or in her poems.


In my land there are no distinctions.
The barbed wire politics of oppression
have been torn down long ago. The only reminder
of past battles, lost or won, is a slight
rutting in the fertile fields.

In my land
people write poems about love,
full of nothing but contented childlike syllables.
Everyone reads Russian short stories and weeps.
There are no boundaries.
There is no hunger, no
complicated famine or greed.

I am not a revolutionary.
I don't even like political poems.
Do you think I can believe in a war between the races?
I can deny it. I can forget about it
when I'm safe,
living on my own continent of harmony
and home, but I am not

I believe in revolution
because everywhere the crosses are burning,
sharp-shooting goose-steppers round every corner,
there are snipers in the schools...
(I know you don't believe this,
You think this is nothing
but faddish exaggeration. But they
are not shooting at you.)
I'm marked by the color of my skin.
The bullets are discrete and designed to kill slowly.
They are aiming at my children.
These are facts.
Let me show you my wounds: my stumbling mind, my
"excuse me" tongue, and this
nagging preoccupation
with the feeling of not being good enough.

These bullets bury deeper than logic.
Racism is not intellectual.
I cannot reason these scars away.

Outside my door
there is a real enemy
who hates me.

I am a poet
who yearns to dance on rooftops,
to whisper delicate lines about joy
and the blessings of human understanding.
I try. I go to my land, my tower of words and
bolt the door, but the typewriter doesn't fade out
the sounds of blasting and muffled outrage.
My own days bring me slaps on the face.
Every day I am deluged with reminders
that this is not
my land

and this is my land.

I do not believe in the war between the races.

but in this country
there is war.

Copyright © Lorna Dee Cervantes, "Poem For The Young White Man Who Asked Me How I, An Intelligent, Well-read Person, Could Believe In The War Between The Races," from Emplumada, Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1981.