Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Portraits of Me (by Colleagues)

I haven't posted any iPhone or iPad or scanned pen or pencil drawings in quite a while, mainly because I haven't had time to complete (m)any, but I've learned that there are J's Theater readers who take note of them, some of them quite distinguished colleagues, who have duly produced their own original drawings, in pen and colored pencil, of yours truly. I assured several of them that I would post their original drawings, so here they are.

(© Brian Bouldrey)
Brian, always brimming with wit and possessing a way with words, captures me in my post-locs cap and glasses, with Van Dyke (which I have persisted for years in calling a goatee), and highlights an aspect of my personhood in his dialogue bubble. Were he to describe this drawing he would have you rolling on the floor with laughter; he's one of the best and funniest public speakers I've ever come across. At any rate, as a famous wag once said (or didn't), On ne peux pas survivre sans les livres ou vivre sans la théorie.

(© Eula Biss)
Eula, whose work is as sharp as a laser, polished as crystal, and deep as a diamond mine, employed a light and gentle touch with colored pencils to capture me as I was and once again am, again, sin trenzas, as they might say in DR. I like this one because it gives me a full hairline (I still do have the widow's peak, though) and makes me look much younger. No squint lines between my eyes or gray beard!

(© John Bresland)
John is a mage in the video essay field, which means that he has and knows from vision, and he envisions me as I was until a few years ago, with a full head (of slowly graying) hair.  I love that he captures the widow's peak as well. Very Frederick Douglass, I think, or Dennis Brutus, two heroes. When I was very young I used to worry that the widow's peak made me look too much like Eddie Munster, until one day I looked at it another way, as a nice anchor for my forehead.
(© John Bresland)
John also drew himself, waving goodbye. He depicts himself pretty well. You can see the look of engaged thought on his mien, though; whenever we pass in the hallways or walkways I wonder, what is he dreaming up? Something exciting, I'm sure. Let me return the wave, and tell them all, many thanks. I'll really miss you all.

Monday, May 28, 2012

On Memorial Day

Installation View, Emily Prince
at the Saatchi Gallery,
via Saatchi Gallery
Today, with Memorial Day in mind, I was thinking of artists who've attempted to capture the scale of loss the US and other countries have experienced as a result of the two recent wars (one sort-of-but-not-really-ended, in Iraq, the other ongoing with a sort of-deadline-in-sigh, in Afghanistan), and I recalled having come across the work of Emily Prince, a California-based artist specializing in process-driven, often durational art, who since 2004 has been, in her words, "drawing wallet-photo sized portraits of the American servicemen and women who have died in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan." (Each of the images includes a drawn portrait, information on the casualty, and color-coding keyed to the deceased soldier's skin color.) The project's title is American servicemen and women who have died in Iraq and Afghanistan, but not including the wounded, nor the Iraqis, nor the Afghans, and she has exhibited in in various cities across the globe for the last 7 years.

Emily Prince’s Installation American Servicemen and Women
at the Saatchi Gallery, via ArtDaily

I learned about her powerful metonymic artwork via an online article I read on her 2010 show at the Saatchi Gallery. She is still drawing the portraits, and reconfiguring them, and so long as we have troops stationed in Iraq and a war, however hazy its aims since the deposition years ago of the Taliban and the subsequent assassination of Osama bin Laden, she will have portraits to draw, stories to record. But on day like today, her drawings can stand, as I see it, not just for the soldiers lost in these two wars, but for all the US servicepeople and civilians working with or on behalf of the military who have sacrificed their lives throughout US history.

American servicemen and women who have died in Iraq and Afghanistan, but not including the wounded, nor the Iraqis, nor the Afghans, by Emily Prince

As naïve and simplistic as it sounds, we have to push for a time when Emily Prince will have no more US soldiers slain in Iraq or Afghanistan to draw.  A time when no artist, for that matter, will have cause to draw any deceased or wounded US or US-coalition military personnel, or the civilians in the countries they have been ordered to invade. It is not impossible. War should be as rare as coelacanths, or pure rose alba, or fullerenes, or byssus, or Escorial wool, no matter how frequently warmongers invoke it, or commanders-in-chief send troops to prosecute it. Let's remember our fallen servicemembers today, but also let's work to ensure they will be few in number in the future.

Some below images from Emily Prince's project; all images copyrighted, and for illustrative use only.

Kaite M. Loenksen (© Emily Prince)

Curtis L. Glawson, Jr. (© Emily Prince)

Gabriel J. Figueroa (© Emily Prince)

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Valediction Forbidding Mourning, or Farewell to Evanston & Chicago

My office bookshelf
Part of my office bookshelves, soon to be packed up

Since my colleagues and students at both institutions know, and since my family members and most friends know, and since C has asked me more than once when I'm going to do so, I figured that now that the spring quarter is nearly over (yes, it runs until mid-June) and I've already begun packing up, I can share with J's Theater readers who do not already know that, after nearly a decade in Chicago and Evanston, at the university (Northwestern), I will head to a new one this fall, back home in New Jersey (Rutgers-Newark). I shall be teaching similar but slightly different things, in a similar, very amenable configuration, and am now winding down at the former institution and up at the new one.

As even infrequent readers of this blog will know, I have greatly enjoyed many aspects of my time at NU.  I will certainly treasure the relationships and friendships I developed with so many wonderful students, colleagues and staff, and will always consider them invaluable.  I particularly cherish the opportunities to teach a range of courses at the undergraduate and graduate level, in creative writing and literary and cultural studies. Although I previously had taught at the secondary school level, in non-academic settings, as an adjunct, at a superb private university, and as part of public and private university-sponsored writing programs before arriving at NU, I can say without hesitation that it's there that I truly learned how to teach, and how to learn from my students and colleagues. Shortly after arriving I applied and was admitted as a fellow into the university's Center for Teaching Excellence, which aims to improve college-level teaching. My year in that program taught me a great deal. But more important has been my time in the classroom, listening to my students, working to create the conversations that ensure dynamic learning, figuring out how to adapt and change when needed, and observing my students' learning processes to improve my teaching for subsequent classes. Crucial too has been observing colleagues who are excellent teachers. Several years ago one colleague said at her investiture ceremony that to become a better teacher, one of the models she followed was that of one of her teachers, who was always "present in the moment"--and I have striven every day to take that to heart, to make that my practice.

I also learned about many other aspects of university-level teaching, including how to be an administrator, how to serve on multiple committees simultaneously without losing one's mind, how to work with colleagues across different fields and departments, how to be a junior colleague and to advocate for them once I'd moved up the ranks, and how to survive the tenure process. I learned how to advocate for and support students, especially women, students of color, queer, and working-class students, who sometimes do not have the support they need or enough people to advocate on their behalf. I learned that one of the most important things that I could do was to be in the room and speak up. I learned that one can read hundreds of job applications, 54 student short stories, masters and doctoral theses chapters, honors and independent study projects, and a mountain of committee-related material, and still work on (some of) my own writing. I learned that zilch happens without the remarkable support staff who really keep everything running. I learned that laughter is one indispensable element of being a professor, and may have to be deployed more than one ever envisioned. I learned that university administrators can be approachable, and that they can often be allies if you get communicate with them. I feel utterly fortunate to have had wonderful chairs in place during my time at Northwestern; each of them was different, but demonstrated how to lead in their various ways.

I especially learned that it's possible to teach anything at the undergraduate and graduate levels in the inhospitable-to-learning quarter system, and that when I've reached students, the knowledge they acquired and built upon would be there not just for subsequent courses but for years to come.  I will miss these students and the prospect of teaching them, and my many extraordinary colleagues, in a range of fields, who have taught me so much. But I also am deeply excited to my new position at a new and very different institution in a new and very different city, my soon-to-be-colleagues, and my new students, whoever they may be. I'm looking forward to many new challenges (and to forgoing others, like long-distance commuting), all of which this past decade has prepared me for.

I'll like to end with a photo of one of the last Northwestern students I worked with, my honors advisee this year, Steve Koteff, reading a selection of his superlative novel(la), WalMart, at the annual English department prizes ceremony. Not only did this novella earn Steve departmental honors, but it also received the English Department's 2012 Thesis Prize in Creative Writing, and this dazzlingly gifted young man will be heading to Syracuse University this fall to continue his studies. Congratulations to him and to all my students who are graduating this year, and a million thank yous to all my Northwestern students, colleagues and staff for many wonderful, insightful, amazing years.

My honors undergraduate student, fiction writer extraordinaire Steve Koteff
My final NU undergrad honors student, thesis prize-winner Steve Koteff (c)

Friday, May 25, 2012

Another Great Gatsby + Egan's Twitterature Experiment

Some people have too much money handy. What am I talking about? Baz Luhrman's initial trailer for his version of F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby.

Watching this, I have one question, whose answers I already know (A: "Because he can; because the producers imagine dollars flowing in based on the name, stars, style; because Hollywood is intellectually bankrupt and seems to have forgotten that there are countless novels written since The Great Gatsby that might make interesting films; because etc."). Why?


Jennifer Egan, who received the 2011 Pulitzer Prize in Fiction for her novel A Visit from the Goon Squad, has decided to share the beginning of her new novel, Black Box, via Twitter, as a series of Tweets via The New Yorker's feed @NYerFiction. She began doing so on Thursday night, and the first section is up on the magazine's site, as "Black Box." More than anything it reads to me less like Egan's other prose fiction that I've read--and she does write in a variety of voices, as A Visit from the Goon Squad exemplified--than a poetic experiment, the enforced concision of the 140 character pushing her towards a condensation whose result is aphorism, or something akin to it.  Think G. C. Lichtenberg, or E. M. Cioran. Were she wrapping these nuggets in ampler verbiage, I'd even cite the Walter Benjamin of One Way Street.

Take the opening lines:

People rarely look the way you expect them
to, even when you’ve seen pictures.

The first thirty seconds in a person’s
presence are the most important.

If you’re having trouble perceiving and
projecting, focus on projecting.

Unlike a prior experimenter in this microserialist format, Rick Moody, who in the late fall of 2009 tweeted a 153-tweet story, over 3 days, entitled "Some Contemporary Characters" for Electric Literature, she isn't allowing the sentences to run past the 140-character (Twitter's) limit, which is to say, to enjamb them. Or is the verb for sentences flowing past their technologically-enforced boundary "superlineate"? I asked on Twitter earlier whether "Twitterature" itself was a word (I imagine it is), and whether this text by Egan might not be a noteworthy contribution to it.

Japan has an entire fictional genre born of text messages; others, beyond Moody, like John Wray, have written stories and novels on Twitter; and our most recent inaugural poet, Elizabeth Alexander, like many predecessors, conceived of using the platform as a means for poetry.  Its asseverative quality seems especially apt for that oldest of literary forms. If Egan plans to proceed stylistically like this, I find it hard to believe she'll sustain this beyond a chapter or two. But she's as talented a writer as you'll find out there, so she probably has a larger design up her sleeve. I will certainly read the final version.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Congress's Speech, or They Don't Write Like They Used To

Yesterday, via Digby, I came across Lee Drutman's Sunlight Foundation's article on the "changing complexity of Congressional speech." According to the article, which Drutman and Dan Drinkard based on statistical analysis, using the Flesch-Kincaid test (which uses a "reads at a n-th grade level" standard), of the Capitol Words site's word cull of speeches given by members of Congress, the linguistic grade level among Congressional speakers on the floor of both houses has has fallen by nearly a grade level compared to 7 years ago, falling from a "10.6 grade level" to a "11.5 in 2005."

Drutman writes: "Congress now speaks at almost a full grade level lower than it did just seven years ago, with the most conservative members of Congress speaking on average at the lowest grade level, according to a new Sunlight Foundation analysis of the Congressional Record." Moreover, it turns out that the speech complexity of Republicans' official statements used to exceed that of Democrats, but that has flipped, and that members of Congress on the more moderate ends of both parties give more complex speeches than those on the less moderate ends, with conservative Republicans allegedly utilizing the lowest grade level.

Before you leap with delight at having your appraisal of Congress and of the GOP confirmed or start cursing and dismissing the study out of hand, I'd suggest one way of looking at this is that Congresspeople have begun to deliver speeches closer to that of average US voters who, according to Drutman, average out at an 8th grade reading level. Rather than talking down to constituents, they are talking, well, at them (though we all know the only people they're really talking to are the ones who various things for them involving sums of money).  In other words, I'm cutting them some slack.

I haven't watched C-SPAN in years, but I must admit that when I used to do so, in the late 1990s, I was often appalled at the simplistic level of the speeches Congresspeople on both sides gave, and it was a rare moment when the level of oratory (or wit, or knowledge, or anything) rose even to the standard that was expected of me and my coworkers, or that I had to achieve when speaking in high school. Former President Bill Clinton, however, like Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, then First Lady, was often very good at speaking off the cuff at a level and with a complexity that nevertheless did not exceed the grasp of listeners; in my opinion, both rarely failed to impress.

One of the things I've sometimes worried about with this blog and my writing in general is that my tendency is towards language that's too syntactically complex, ungainly, serpentine. I think in compound-complex terms, often opening a thought with a qualifying conjunction--it's just how my mind works.  I went through a period in which I strove to write simply and directly, and still try to do this when I have to deliver an introduction or talk, but since this blog is more of a sketchpad than anything else, I restrain myself less here. (Note that the preceding sentence stretches for five lines, and is compound in its syntax.) I can, however, write simply. Like now.

At any rate, I decided to try a different test to see at what level my writing averaged out, and used to assess the readability and grade level of my prose. I then scoured the web for snippets of work I could easily drop into writing tester's box. Most copyrighted work is difficult to copy and drop, but I also wanted to see how different prose texts over the last hundred or so years ranked. Our first two presidents, an Enlightenment philosopher, and Henry James land on the more difficult to grasp side; our most recent presidents, Toni Morrison, and Abe Lincoln write such that most people can understand them. I turn out to be rather close to Henry James. I'll take that as I shall.

One note: the hyper-enthusiastic, exclamation point-tipped guide for understanding the scores comes straight from the writing test site. I can be exuberant, but the lack of restraint below is not mine.


My Brooke-Rose commentary on this blog:

Readable Score: 32 (The higher the score the easier the article is to read!)
Grade Level: 10

My recent Drunken Boat book review:

Readable Score: 19 (The higher the score the easier the article is to read!)
Grade Level: 12

Opening section of my published short story, "An Outtake from the Ideological Origins of the American Revolution"

Readable Score: 34 (The higher the score the easier the article is to read!)
Grade Level: 10

Second section of my published short story, "On Brazil, or Dénouement: The Londônias-Figueiras"

Readable Score: 33 (The higher the score the easier the article is to read!)
Grade Level: 10


Opening paragraph of Immanuel Kant's Critique of Pure Reason (translated by J. H. Bernard, 1892, corrected for the tester):

Readable Score: -21 (The higher the score the easier the article is to read!)
Grade Level: 20

Declaration of Independence:

Readable Score: 20 (The higher the score the easier the article is to read!)
Grade Level: 13

Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address:

Readable Score: 48 (The higher the score the easier the article is to read!)
Grade Level: 8

Opening paragraphs of Frederick Douglass's Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave, Written By Himself:

Readable Score: 51 (The higher the score the easier the article is to read!)
Grade Level: 7

Opening paragraphs of Herman Melville's Moby Dick:

Readable Score: 45 (The higher the score the easier the article is to read!)
Grade Level: 8 

Opening excerpt (beginning "The fact of his having married a rich woman") from Henry James's Washington Square (from Google Books)

Readable Score: 31 (The higher the score the easier the article is to read!)
Grade Level: 11

Opening excerpt (beginning "Jewel and I come up from the field") from William Faulkner's As I Lay Dying:

Readable Score: 47 (The higher the score the easier the article is to read!)
Grade Level: 8

Opening excerpt (beginning "124 was spiteful") from Toni Morrison's Beloved:

Readable Score: 61 (The higher the score the easier the article is to read!)
Grade Level: 6

Opening paragraphs of Zadie Smith's essay, "Generation Why?", New York Review of Books, November 25, 2010:

Readable Score: 45 (The higher the score the easier the article is to read!)
Grade Level: 8

Entire article "$tuck in a f’book bind: Wall St. leaves savvy invest kid in dark," by Mark DeCambre, New York Post, May 22, 2012

Readable Score: 44 (The higher the score the easier the article is to read!)
Grade Level: 8

Entire article, "Rutgers Webcam-Spying Defendant Is Sentenced to 30-Day Jail Term", by Kate Zernike, New York Times, May 22, 2012

Readable Score: 45 (The higher the score the easier the article is to read!)
Grade Level: 8

Entire article, "US-Pakistan tensions deepen as Obama snubs Zardari at Nato summit", by Ewen MacAskill, The Guardian Online, 21 May 2012:

Readable Score: 29 (The higher the score the easier the article is to read!)
Grade Level: 11

Entire article, "Man in his 40s becomes third person to fall down Niagara Falls and SURVIVE after failed 'suicide' plunge," by Daily Mail Reporter, Daily Mail UK Online, 21 May 2012:

Readable Score: 37 (The higher the score the easier the article is to read!)
Grade Level: 9

Entire article, "Dancing with the Stars Sizzles in Spectacular Finals," by Dahvi Shira and Mike Fleeman, People Magazine, May 21, 2012:

Readable Score: 37 (The higher the score the easier the article is to read!)
Grade Level: 9

Opening paragraphs of George Washington's "First State of the Union Speech," January 8, 1790:

Readable Score: 13 (The higher the score the easier the article is to read!)
Grade Level: 13

Opening paragraphs of John Adams's "First State of the Union Speech," November 27, 1797:

Readable Score: 3 (The higher the score the easier the article is to read!)
Grade Level: 15

Opening paragraphs of George W. Bush's "First State of the Speech," January 22, 2002:

Readable Score: 47 (The higher the score the easier the article is to read!)
Grade Level: 7

Opening paragraphs of Barack H. Obama's "First State of the Union Speech," January 27, 2010:

Readable Score: 49 (The higher the score the easier the article is to read!)
Grade Level: 7

Sunday, May 20, 2012

HUMAN MICROPOEM @ Protest NATO Rally, Chicago

The 2012 NATO Summit is currently taking place in Chicago, and as I need not tell anyone, the city's and state response to dissent of any sort, by groups and people affiliated with the Occupy movement, longstanding peace and anti-war activists, veterans, union members, and others on the left and left-of-center who expressed a desire to assemble and march without confrontation, has been really over the top. From the militarization of the police forces surrounding the site of the summit, the McCormick Place Convention Center, near Soldier's Field, including restrictions on access to major roadways and north-south routes; to an early-morning raid on Zoe Sigman's home in Chicago's Bridgeport section, which resulted in the arrest of 3 people, with 2 others arrested on different charges today, though alternative reports suggest that the arrestees have been framed or the charges have been trumped up as a deterrence; to violent responses to marchers over the last few days, including a brutal showdown at McCormick Place this evening, the state reaction to Constitutionally-guaranteed dissent has been reactionary and violent.  I demurred for a moment, I must admit, but only for a moment, before deciding to participate in today's HUMAN MICROPOEM, performed by a loosely-affiliated group of poets and performers sponsored by and affiliated with the experimental Red Rover Series, who have supported the Occupy Chicago movement in its earlier Federal Reserve of Chicago encampment mode, commemorated Veterans Day with a march to the Vietnam Veteran's Memorial, and staged guerrilla readings at this year's Associated Writing Programs (AWP) conference in Chicago. More generally, "The Human Micropoem is a call and response choral form utilizing the human microphone at the occupy movements to amplify the speaker's words by those listening. The speaker says a line and then everyone who can hear repeats it."

I turned out to be the fourth of a quartet who convened as the HUMAN MICROPOEM from 11 am to a little after 12 pm, on the sidewalk at the southwest corner of Jackson & Columbus, just catercorner to the major March and Rally to Protest NATO in Grant Park (and directly across the street from the rump side of the Art Institute of Chicago), a legal, permitted rally at Petrillo Bandshell, in the park, to be followed by a march toward McCormick Place, with the Iraq Veteran's Against the War (IVAW) marching  in solidarity and culminating in IVAW members of IVAW conducting a closing ceremony in which they planned to return their medals to NATO.  We Human Micropoets performed original works, including declaiming from a collaborative poem by one of the poets, reading dictionary entries (cf. "revolution," "peace," "action," "silence," etc.), offering impromptu chants, and reciting poems by other, well-known writers (June Jordan, Czeslaw Milosz, Thomas Transtromer, Lorine Niedecker, and Siegfried Sassoon) writing anti-war, pro-peace poems.  We drew a decent number of onlookers and participants, who arrived on their way to the main rally in waves, leading poet and organizer Jen Karmin to astutely time the readings by the lights. Cagean, as she put it. (For longer poems, of course, this presents a little problem.) Well-wishers included a tyke heading towards the lake with his parents, and numerous ralliers who stopped to take pictures and record us, as well as others who wrote up the event. A reporter from AP Radio even took audio, while a young onlooker assured me he would post the video of us on his YouTube channel. (It's not there but when it is I'll add the link.)  After the event, several of us went and sat on the lawn under a cooling bower, and chatted and listened to the speakers at the rally, whose crowds grew larger by the hour.  I had schoolwork to attend to, so I couldn't attend any of the several marches that were to take place. I headed back north, and it wasn't until a few hours later, as I was walking to the train and passed flat screens in the open windows of bars on Clark Street in Wrigleyville, that I learned that there'd been a violent standoff between police and the marchers south of the rally ground, and that the medal-returning event had also ended with brutal state response. The ironies are too numerous to list.

I do hope to continue the Human Micropoeming over the summer in the New York/New Jersey area. Among the many things it has clarified for me are how important public, social performances of poetry can be; that any sort of text, not just a poem, can work under the correct conditions; and that certain poems, particular ones that can easily be broken down prosodically and syntactically, that have a looser rhythm and shorter lines, often work best.  June Jordan's poems were perfect in this regard, and their severity felt in perfect keeping with the gravity of what protesters have faced over the last few years. Nevertheless, performing Milosz's "Declaration," I had to catch myself several times not stopping at the sheer power of his language, which, even somewhat atomized, still bore so much beauty and force.  As always, a few photos:

At the Human Micropoem performance, Chicago Rally Against NATO Summit
A rally participant photographing Jen (article here)

At the Human Micropoem performance, Chicago Rally Against NATO Summit
Peace activists who joined the performance

At the Chicago Rally Against NATO Summit
Marchers heading toward the rally site

At the Chicago Rally Against NATO
Grant Park, near the Petrillo Bandshell (Chiscrapers in the background)

At the Chicago Rally Against NATO
Rally participants relaxing near us

At the Chicago Rally Against NATO
Peace activists

At the Chicago Rally Against NATO
People distributing newspapers and leaflets

Chicago Rally Against NATO Summit
Rally participants

At the Chicago Rally Against NATO
As the rally site began to fill up

Saturday, May 19, 2012

50+ Years of Musicmaking: André Watts

Watts in 1971
Continuing the theme of invoking the great ones when they're still with us, I meant to post an entry on a true maestro, André Watts (1946-), who made his concert début with the New York Philharmonic 50 years ago this upcoming December when another maestro, Philharmonic conductor and composer Leonard Bernstein, invited the 16-year-old Watts to perform Franz Liszt's Piano Concerto No. 1 in E-flat at a Young People's Concert. The Philharmonic taped Watts's performance and broadcast it on CBS in January 15, 1963.  Right before the airing of the December concert, Bernstein again called upon Watts to spell an ill Glenn Gould, who was the scheduled soloist, for the Philharmonic's regular subscription series, and he again played the Liszt Concerto. So electrifying was his performance that not only the audience, but the entire orchestra gave him a standing ovation.  He has never looked back. Over the years he continued his musical studies, has performed all over the world, and now teaches at Indiana University's famed Jacobs School of Music. In 2011 President Barack Obama awarded him the National Medal of the Arts.

Watts today
Recently I listened to a podcast interview with him, from the National Endowment the Arts' Art Work Podcast series, in which he talked about his life and career, from his earliest years growing up in Europe as a son of a Hungarian mother and an African-American GI father, to how Bernstein selected him for that breakthrough Young People's Concert, to his love of certain musicians (Liszt especially) and lack of interest in others (Igor Stravinsky and Béla Bartók, two of my favorites), and much more.  Back in 1999, The Chicago Tribune featured a micro-interview with him, and it underlines what the NEA interview suggests, which is that he's got a buoyant sense of humor, doesn't take himself too seriously, and is grateful for all the success he's achieved, but is always pushing himself further. I'm also attaching some YouTube clips of Watts' setting the keyboard on fire. These are pieces I rarely listen to (I am much more a 20th and 21st century fan, J. S. Bach excepted, but played this well I can listen to them over and over.) Enjoy my fellow Gemini.

Non-embed: Watts performing the opening to Mendelssohn's Piano Concerto No. 1, in G-minor

André Watts performing Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata (video 1 of 2)

Watts performing Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata (video 2 of 2)

André Watts performing in Liszt's Sonato Tokyo

André Watts performing Scarlatti sonatas

Thursday, May 17, 2012

International Day Against Homophobia + Donna Summer Passes

Today is International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia (IDAHO), the global day set aside to battle homophobia, one of the persistent and pernicious forms of oppression affecting US and every other society across the globe. As the late Barbara Smith wrote in her essay "Homophobia: Why Bring It Up?" (The Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader, New York: Routledge, 1993), "Homophobia may well be the last oppression to go, but it will go. It will go a lot faster if people who are opposed to every form of subjugation work in coalition to make it happen."

I've posted several times over the years about this important day, its origins, and even interviewed the person, Francophone (Martinican) author, scholar and activist Dr. Louis-Georges Tin, who played a key role in helping to establish it. In light of the recent anti-civil rights vote in North Carolina, the denial of judgeship to a gay man, the murder of a transwoman in New York, the countless cases of bullying and abuse of lgbtq children, teenagers, and adults, and the continuing furor that has followed President Barack Obama's and Vice President Joseph Biden's positive comments about same-sex marriage, it's quite clear than in the US, at least, though we have come very far indeed, we still have a ways to go, and at the root of all the examples I lay out above are what Barbara Smith and many others for decades have identified as a foundational form of oppression: homophobia.

But homophobia (and its attendent kin, heterosexism and heteronormativity) aren't problems just in the US. All across the globe, often in the face of state and popular opposition and worse, people are battling homophobia, often inscribed as religious dogma or cultural norms or traditional values, even though in many cases these "traditions" are as much the result of historical and political formations, and in places like sub-Saharan Africa or Latin America, of colonial discourse and policies, as the "homosexuality" the reactionaries are fomenting against and labeling as alien.  So today and at various points throughout the year, visit the IDAHO site or affiliated sites, read up on the causes and effects of homophobia, transphobia and heterosexism, and do what you can toward eliminating these forms of subjugation and oppression. They destroy not just lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer people, but ultimately the lives of everyone.


Taking a tip from the ever-on-it Reggie H., and after my longish tributes yesterday to Carlos Fuentes and Christine Brooke-Rose, I'm going to link to his great blog, Noctuary, which features a post on IDAHO and on Donna Summer, who died today of cancer at age 63. She was without a doubt the Queen of Disco, a trailblazer in a musical genre that played an important role in the emergent post-Stonewall gay and lesbian cultures, while also serving as one of the soundtracks for 1970s African-American and urban Latino and working-class White folks more broadly.  Summer, a native of Boston, received five Grammy Awards, and had a string of hits, including "Love to Love You, Baby," "Winter Melody," "I Feel Love," "Heaven Knows," "Hot Stuff," "Bad Girls," "Dim All the Lights," "On the Radio," "The Wanderer," and the unforgettable "Last Dance," from the corny movie (that I loved), Thank God It's Friday. As Reggie H. says, she and other disco artists were the forerunners of a number of other subsequent musical genres, and despite the public backlash against disco (which did not exist in my house, where we listened to her and Chaka Khan and Tavares and the Bee Gees and everything else from R&B and soul to jazz and fusion), disco's and Summer's influences are still thankfully with us.

At her peak Summer was an icon, with a powerful voice that could pack ten different emotions into a melody, a public persona that embodied desire and possibility, and a figure who seemed to function both within the world of her songs as well as outside them and the limits of the society around her.  I was too young to go to discos during her heyday, but I can vividly remember skidding around a roller-skating rink as her songs boomed from the loud-speakers. In her post-disco fame religious conversion stage, which coincided with the eruption of the AIDS pandemic, she openly espoused homophobia, turning on one of the very communities that had brought her to fame. It was a horrible shift, which ultimately damaged her career as well, but she eventually apologized for what she'd said and done. One of the things I always consider with someone like Summer is that her behavior should remind us that homophobia can exist inside all of us, even in those who have been friends and allies, even in those of us who are queer, and so today, let's remember Summer and raise a skate (or a toast) in her memory, but also let's vow to bury homophobia once and for all. One of my favorite Donna Summer songs, "MacArthur Park"-"I don't think that I can take it/cause it took so long to make it/and I'll never have that recipe again/Oh noooo" (how true those words were for her, though she never really did lose the recipe, even posting a chart topper in 2010 with "To Paris With Love"):

Cecil Taylor on NPR + Poem

Cecil Taylor (from All About Jazz)
Via his Twitter feed and New Black Man's blog, a very appropriate tribute for today, International Day Against Homophobia, one of jazz's and contemporary improvisatory music's greatest living and rare out queer figures, one of my heroes, Cecil Taylor (1929-). Over the last two weeks he's been honored with a series of concerts in New York City, and was the focus today of a segment NPR's All Things Considered. As someone posted today on Twitter, honor folks while they're still with us. So I am. For those in New York City, he'll be giving a rare solo concert at Harlem Stage tonight. I've seen him play and there's nothing like it.

Here's a poem I wrote about him (and of course, more broadly, all innovative artists), that appeared in Jazz Poems, edited by Kevin Young (Everyman's Library, 2006), and which cultural worker Fred Joiner featured on his blog. Thanks so much, Fred!

  Cecil Taylor Poem
Jazz Poems

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Remembering Carlos Fuentes & Christine Brooke-Rose

Carlos Fuentes, at home in Mexico, 2001 (Henry Romero/Reuters)
In the mid-1980s, Carlos Fuentes (1928-2011) was at the height of his fame. He had published a dozen novels, many formally experimental, including a handful that made and cemented his reputation, among them his début, Where the Air Is Clear (La Región Más Transparente, 1958); Aura (1961), which continues to be censored in certain countries; The Hydra Head (La Cabeza de La Hidra, 1978); and his masterpieces The Death of Artemio Cruz (La Muerte de Artemio Cruz, 1962); Terra Nostra (1975), a work not unlike Gabriel García Márquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude (Cien Años de la Soledad, 1970) in its scope and ambition; and The Old Gringo (Gringo viejo, 1985), a shorter novel reiminaging the life of writer Ambrose Bierce that garnered tremendous attention and readership in the United States, a country in which Fuentes, one of Mexico's leading authors, had spent many years, including part of his childhood.  He had also by that point published four collections of short stories and five collections of essays, and written four plays and seven or so screenplays. The honors he received for his work steadily increased, from the Xavier Villaurrutia Award in 1976 to the Mexican National Prize for Arts and Sciences in 1984, and a few years later he would win what is arguably the most important prize for a Spanish-language author, the Miguel de Cervantes Prize, in 1987. But this period was significant for another reason: Fuentes had begun to teach at a number of American universities, and it was during one of these stints that I was able to take an undergraduate class with him, an experience that made a profound impression on me and led me, perhaps, to a life of writing and teaching myself.

Fuentes held, I believe, an august chair for visiting writers, and taught a lecture course that permitted him to expound, in magisterial fashion, on all sorts of subjects. The specifics, I must admit, I do not remember. But I vividly recall how he would hold forth, in each class, on stage before a vast crowd, how he wove together a narrative that seemed to capture everything in its net, how he looked and acted the part of an international man of letters, of the engaged writer, which he had been and still was. Tall, handsome, witty, able to range across languages, to cite authors and ideas without recourse to notes, no name dropper but someone who actually knew and had worked with the people he was invoking, he truly loomed larger than life. I had no idea at that time that he'd been a Communist in his youth and a supporter of Fidel Castro and the Cuban Revolution, though I did know his general ideological orientation was on the left, and that his work, as in Where the Air Is Clear and The Death of Artemio Cruz, openly critique the Mexican elite and governing classes, as well as Mexican history itself. But Fuentes had gone much further; a diplomat from 1965 on, he resigned as Ambassador to the UK to protest the 1968 massacre of students in Mexico City, and left the foreign service in 1977 to protest the appointment of Gustavo Díaz Ordaz, the president of Mexico during the 1968 assault, as Ambassador to Spain. Morever, Fuentes refused the 1972 Mazatlán Literature Prize to protest the Mexican state of Sinoloa's actions against students at the State University of Sinaloa. (Such actions sparked criticism within Mexico's commentariat; in 1988, writer Enrique Krauze deemed Fuentes the "guerilla dandy.") I don't think he ever mentioned any of this in his lectures, but it was clear that he stood against dictators and democratically-enabled tyrants both (and this included not only Mexico's long dominant Institutional Revolutionary Party and its leaders, but Hugo Chávez of Venezuela and George W. Bush as well), and that literature, even if seemingly not overtly political, might stand as a bulwark against both. As I said, the specifics of the course I have mostly forgotten, but the model he set is one I have taken to heart, even if I have not thus far been able to come anywhere close to it.

One of my favorite Carlos Fuentes stories entails something I did not personally witness, but which I heard and have recounted many times to fellow writers and to students to let them know that, when they feel they are so deep in a poem or story or novel chapter they almost feel they're in another world, that it's perfectly okay.  It may be utterly apocryphal, but bear with me nevertheless.  Supposedly Fuentes was visiting Rome, perhaps on vacation, and was in his room in the middle of the day.  The chambermaid came to clean the room, and as she approached the door, she could hear raised voices, and then what sounded like a violent argument. A man was yelling, passionately, and then his voice fell to a normal tone, and then another voice, likely a woman's, responded, with fury. This went on for a while, the voices going back and forth, the tempest between them such that the worker thought twice about knocking, let alone opening the door. She also wondered whether she ought contact the concierge, or security, so passionate were the exchanges at certain points.  Other guests staying on the hall paused momentarily at the brouhaha, and went on their way. But finally the voices died down, and she proceeded to rap on the door to find out if she could enter. The gentleman who opened the door beckoned her in. The chambermaid, expecting to see a woman seated somewhere in the room, in a chair, on the bed, peering at the man from an interior doorway, saw instead only him, and a sheaf of papers, on the bedspread, some of them fanned out as just tossed down. The man was clutching a few. The chambermaid asked the gentleman if everything was okay, for she had accidentally overheard a fiercesome quarrel. The gentleman smiled and reassured her that all was fine. There was only he in the room; the quarrel was his reading through his novel, still underway, his voice animating those of the characters. This gentleman, this writer, was Carlos Fuentes.

Carlos Fuentes, Union Sq., 1995 (AP Photo/Rick Maiman, File)

Fuentes, one of the pilots of the Boom movement in Latin American literature, which placed numerous fictional works from across the Hispanophone global south on the literary landscape, was tipped to win the Nobel Prize in Literature several times; his compatriot, the poet Octavio Paz, did win it, in 1990, as did Fuentes's friend, García Márquez, in 1982, but the great Mexican fiction writer did not. (Instead, the most recent Hispanophone writer to receive the award was the right-leaning Mario Vargas Llosa, of Peru, in 2010.) Not that this oversight stopped Fuentes. He kept pouring forth fiction, essays, occasional pieces, everything, publishing the English translation of his 2003 novel, The Eagle's Throne (La Silla del Águila) last year, and an essay on the French election in Mexico's Reforma newspaper the day he died.  His finest works, and the example he set, both in his fiction and criticism, and as a public literary and cultural figure, an ambassador of the word in the fullest sense, will endure. So too will his importance to the literature of his country, a multifaceted portrait of Mexico taking shape in and through his works, and to all writing across Latin America, and the Americas. Carlos Fuentes passed away in a hospital in Mexico City on Tuesday. He was 83 years old.


Brooke-Rose, 1970
Perhaps as publicly and widely acclaimed as Fuentes was, so obscure and little known in contrast was, and remains, Christine Brooke-Rose (1923-2011), a writer almost his exact peer, and nearly as prolific too, with 17 novels to her name, and many other works of short fiction, nonfiction, literary translation, and academic literary criticism.  Brooke-Rose passed two months ago, on March 21, at the age of 89. Fuentes was, from the very beginning, experimental in terms of form; perhaps not as experimental, say, as Mexican writers such as Fernando del Paso or Daniel Sada, whom I mentioned in a previous post, but no straightforward realist either. The Death of Artemio Cruz, for example, is narrated by a dead man, shifts in time and voice, and uses the second person to great effect; Christopher Unborn begins, in Sternian fashion, before the character leaves the womb; Destiny and Desire, I believe, is narrated by a severed head. But Brooke-Rose went much, much further. She is, by an easy mark, one of the most innovative writers in English-language prose in the late 20th century, and sui generis in Anglophone letters in many ways, for she went beyond diegetic experimentation to the level of grammar itself, pushing the limits of how one might tell stories as a way of embodying the deeper themes and critical possibilities of those stories, and the enacting the concepts underpinning them.

What do I mean? One of the techniques Brooke-Rose played with was the lipogram. In the hands of a number of writers affiliated with the Ouvroir de littérature potentielle (Oulipo), this lipogrammatic technique, of leaving out a letter, say, across an entire work, presented a constraint that they could nevertheless resolve.  Thus there's the famous example of Georges Perec's La disparution (A Void), which eschews the most frequently used letter in the French language, "e"--which is also, interestingly enough, the most frequently used letter in English as well. (In the prior sentence alone, "e" appears 32 or so times.) Quite a challenge. But Brooke-Rose extended the lipogram to the grammatical level, and thus in her novel Between, which explores the experiences of a translator, she leaves out the most common verb in the English language, which happens to be the verb..."to be." That is, the copulative verb ("I am a writer," "She's hungry," "Are you there?" etc.), also used for the past voice ("I was led to believe you had emailed me"), progressive tenses ("We're heading there now"), and so forth, one of those English language tools, learned at the earliest stages of language acquisition, to which a speaker and writer learns she can attach a subject and predicate and turn anything into a sentence--is missing, in this entire novel. Note of course the multilayered irony of a novel about a translator, a woman trapped between languages (and names, places, everything) without recourse to the very verb--the grammatical form signifying action-- that elementally connects and binds in most European languages, titled "Between."

Such was Brooke-Rose's genius. And she did this again and again. She wrote novels exploring the language and the concept of discourse itself (Out, 1964; Such, 1966; Thru, 1975; Amalgamemnon, 1984), novels that treated questions of cybernetics and the dawning digital age (Xorandor, 1986; Verbivore, 1990; Textermination, 1991), novels that reimagined the human (Next, 1998; Subscript, 1999), and a very personal, autobiographical works that hovered between genres (Remake, 1996; Life, End Of, 2006). Before she wrote any of these, she had already published conventional works in poetry, prose and criticism (Gold: A Poem, 1955; The Languages of Love, 1957; A Grammar of Metaphor, 1958), and then several satirical novels (The Sycamore Tree, 1958; The Dear Deceit, 1960; The Middlemen: A Satire, 1968), but it was with Out that she went truly out beyond almost anything most of her British peers, save a few (J. H. Prynne; B.S. Johnson; Ann Quin; David Jones; Basil Bunting; etc.) were up to, creating an post-apocalyptic world that turned racial identification on its head. Subsequent novels involved leaving out the verb to have (Next); requiring readers to construct, as with a puzzle, the narrative (Thru); writing a work narrated by rocks speaking in what approximates computer language (Xorandor); and picturing a convention, in the United States, in which characters from famous novels convened, absent their authors, with pandemonium breaking loose (Textermination). It is therefore fair to say that Brooke-Rose not only pushed formal boundaries but those of content as well, making many of her works a challenge for readers, and this, coupled with the fact that she spent a great deal of her career teaching in France, and with the fact that while she explicated the likes of writers like Ezra Pound and speculative fiction writers and Harlan Ellison yet spent little time, at least until the end, explicating her own work (which of course should have been left to the works themselves, and to others), and because she was a woman writing the sort of work that men usually get all the acclaim for, she has been critically underexplored and popularly underread.

Her own account of her life is worth savoring, so I'll offer a few points that suggest another reason both for her linguistic curiosity and for her lack of attention. Brooke-Rose was born in Geneva, Switzerland, to an English father and an American-Swiss mother, and grew up mostly in Brussels, Belgium--think of all the languages she was coming into contact with--where she received her education, later heading to Somerville College, Oxford University and University College, London. Already gifted with linguistic ability, she worked as a Women's Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) in intelligence at Bletchley Park, the UK's main decryption center during World War II, and after the war's end, completed her degree, married, and worked as a journalist and author. Divorced in 1968, she took a position teaching at the University of Paris-Vincennes, the radical, experimental campus outside Paris, and taught there till 1988. Throughout this period, she published steadily and with no loss of imaginative daring, though her only major award came in 1966, when she received the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for Such.

More than once when I have students who turn out to be voracious readers and are seeking out anything that will challenge them, and I hope to get them past the writers they are more likely than not to encounter, contemporary and past, I will recommend Brooke-Rose. I have thus far never had a student tell me that she or he took to Brooke-Rose's work as they have to novels by George Saunders, or Cormac McCarthy, or Renee Gladman, or Nalo Hopkinson, or Kenzaburo Oe, or Maryse Condé, or Ricardo Piglia, or any of the other people I have sent them off to explore. For numerous reasons, the gantlets she throws down are too difficult to tender. (I find the same to be the case with another British experimentalist, J.G. Ballard, whose unparalledly strange vision also never ceases to astonish me.) Or maybe other reasons are at play. I do know that I have found her work enthralling at times, and often quite funny. Life, End Of, even as its textures steep with sorrow because it's clear the author has reached the end of her life, is nevertheless so compelling I found it hard to put down, and I felt the same way about Remake, which tells a personal tale so dramatic and delicious that many a lurid nonfiction writer would be hard-pressed to match it. Then there are her experiments in the speculative realm, which some writers might devote an entire career too. The novels of the late 1960s, on the other hand, should have dissertationists reaching for their (the books') spines. This very well may be occurring somewhere. I don't know.

I do know that in her equally heartbreaking collection of essays, Invisible Author: Last Essays, which, after I finished it, I believe I had to run and call Tisa B. I was so struck by the frustration infusing it, Brooke-Rose points out how almost none of her academic critics ever seemed to be able to figure out what she was doing, instead noodling off on one or other points. She even laid this at the doorstep of a champion, Hélène Cixous, about whom I'll say no more. Instead, I urge people to read Brooke-Rose, perhaps beginning with Remake and Life, End Of (which leave out the pronoun "I"), and then, Out and Textermination. If you dare take up her dare, keep jumping around her fiction after that. Your brain will get a workout, a very good one. And you'll keep the memory of her dazzling originality, sadly too little heralded, alive.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Russian Writers Lead Protest Walk + Daniel Sada's Almost Never

Boris Akunin (© RIA Novosti. Ilia Pitalev)
"[Writers are] engineers of the human soul."

I'd never read this quote before, and having done so today, hesitated to reprint it, despite its truth, mainly because of who uttered it and how he acted on its ramifications. I'm talking about Joseph Stalin, the Soviet dictator whose ruthlessness has no peers in the modern history of that country. The tally of Stalin's victims is vast beyond accounting, perhaps, but the names of writers he persecuted and murdered is less hazy to many, and any student of literary history could find parallels throughout the annals of literature. But I'm not posting about authoritarians' and totalitarians' persecution of writers so much as clumsily searching for a way to highlight an important event that took place the other day in in Moscow: a peaceful march  of opposition and resistance to the May 7, 2012 reelection of Russian president Vladimir Putin, led by a dozen of Russia's most famous writers, which drew over 10,000 participants. Among the march's organizers were poet and conceptual art pioneer Lev Rubinstein (1946-), journalist Sergei Parkhomenko, and disability rights activist, economist and journalist Irina Yasina (1964-), and other leaders included internationally renowned detective fictionist and translator Boris Akunin (1956-) and poet, journalist, and essayist Dmitrii Bykov (1967-).

The route proceeded from a statue of Russia's poetic icon, Alexander Pushkin (1799-1837), exiled, as New York Times reporter Ellen Barry notes, by Czar Alexander I, to one of Alexander S. Griboyedov (1795-1829), whose ludic send-ups of the Czarist-era bluebloods were proscribed until after his death. At the park housing Griboyedov's bust, in the Chistye Prudy neighborhood, anti-Putin activists have set up an Occupy-style encampment, which has so far not been attacked, though Putin has vowed to do so. Only a week before, a demonstration against Putin's reelection and inauguration near the Kremlin culminated in a brutal assault by the police forces, with 700 people arrested, some for allegedly doing nothing more than wearing white protest ribbons, and the state forces have remained on the prowl for any signs of antigovernment protest.  Moreover, opposition figureheads Alexei Navalny (1976-) and Sergei Udaltsov (1977-) were jailed for 15 days on May 10, 2012, for "disobeying police orders" as they met with supporters in Moscow, and, according to the Times, "Russia’s Parliament is considering a draft law that would increase fines for causing unrest at demonstrations to 1.5 million rubles, or about $50,000, and introduce a penalty of up to 240 hours of compulsory labor."

As a result, opposition activists decided to rethink their tactics, engaging in more artful "dilemma protests," such as flash gatherings, nonviolent resistance, ludic small-group activities, and site occupations, not unlike those of the Occupy Movements across the US and the rest of the globe.  The organizers of this march decided four days ago to see if the very act of walking together, on a "test stroll," without a permit, through Moscow's streets would provoke a police response involving "being blocked, beaten, poisoned with gas, detained, arrested or at least subjected to stupid molestation with questions." It did not, thankfully, and one point the phalanx of protesters, many clutching the books of the march's leaders, spanned over a mile. Afterwards, marchers got autograph and an opportunity to chat with the writers and each other, then dispersed.  As of today, the Chistye Prudy encampment remains , but for how long it's hard to say. A much larger March of Millions is planned for June 12, 2012 in Moscow. Perhaps writers across the globe should consider June 12 solidarity marches, on behalf not only of the Russian people, democracy, freedom of speech and protest, but against authoritarian and totalitarian forces, including corporate ones, worldwide.


Today Reggie H. sent along Marie Arana's May 10, 2012  Washington Post review of an exciting new publication by Graywolf Press, the first novel by late Mexican genius Daniel Sada (1953-2011) to be translated into English, Almost Never (2012, originally published as Casi nunca by Anagrama in 2008). The translator is Katherine Silver, co-director of the highly regarded Banff International Literary Translation Centre (BILTC), which several translators I deeply admire have attended. Rachel Nolan gave Almost Never rhapsodized over the novel in the April 20, 2012 New York Times. Sada passed away late last year after many years of battle with kidney disease, but in his brief writing life he was not only prolific, but made his name as one of the more important and inventive prose writers not just in Mexico but in the Spanish language, winning numerous national literary prizes and the adulation of peers across the Hispanophone world. The late Robert Bolaño (1953-2003) in particular sang Sada's praises many times, while Nolan, in her laudatory article, wrote this: "If you read only three novelists on Mexico — and you should read many more, but that’s your affair — choose Juan Rulfo, Roberto Bolaño and Daniel Sada." That is very high praise, especially considering how many exceptional contemporary let alone past Mexican fiction writers there are.

As I replied to Reggie, I'd been told of Sada but it wasn't until I saw his email that I recalled two prior encounters with his name: one, a 2006 Bomb interview, conducted by Mexican novelist José Manuel Prieto and translated by one of the best contemporary translators of Mexican poetry, poet and book artist Jen Hofer, and this 2011 epicedium, in The Paris Review, by author, journalist and critic Francisco Goldman. In the Prieto interview, Sada ranges widely in discussing his work, describing his reasoning behind his use of Spanish prosody in writing verse-novels (about which I'll say more below), and what he learned from Juan Rulfo (1917-1986) one of Mexico's canonical literary figures and the author of Pedro Páramo (1955), with whom he took a writing class. Of his lessons from Rulfo, he says:

He once recommended that I shouldn’t persist in intellectualizing everything I was experiencing, because that would end up getting in the way of my perception. Reading is perpetual nourishment, never a vehicle for vanity. Intellectuals, in general, are braggarts, perhaps because they do not possess a true interior landscape. Artists are more silent; they are observers and have, naturally, a great capacity for astonishment. Artists are continual absorbers, and it is perhaps only much later that they pick and choose. These are all Rulfian concepts, and were spoken, I will confess, very close to my ear, as if they were secrets that can only be told in low tones.

 Goldman talks about Sada's influence on and aid to Bolaño, who set many of his novels in Mexico, where he spent his adolescence, but which he never returned to after his move to Spain in his early 20s, while also describing Sada's work and its significance, and their confabulations over the years.  One of my favorite passages in Goldman's memoriam comes when he translates a reminiscence by Sada's friend and editor at Tusquets Mexico:

He wasn’t interested in luxury or power, though his prose is a true luxury. Nobody could write the way he could. In life, he only ever boasted about one thing: his way of writing. To the students who took his writing workshops, he gave one of the simplest but most valuable pieces of advice: in literature there are no excuses. You have to organize your life to be able to write at least a half a page every day. After a week, you’ll have enough words to finish a story, after a month enough for a novella, after a year enough for a novel or a collection of stories … Some of his first novels were written under great economic duress, but they are among his best: Una de dos, Albedrío. t took him six years to write his most ambitious novel, amid personal upheaval and much moving around, but he never lost his energy or concentration …  

Daniel Sada (Pascual Borzelli Iglesias © New York Times)
About Sada's innovation: I cannot pretend to have read his work, but from what I can tell, he distinguished himself not just by overall narrative adroitness, tending towards the baroque (as with Cuba's unsurpassable José Lezama Lima (1910-1976)), but through his use of traditional Spanish prosody as the foundation for his novels.  As he told Prieto:

It is in no way a desire to be flashy or overly elaborate that leads me to use octosyllables, hendecasyllables, alexandrines, decasyllables or heptasyllables. I have a deep knowledge, from childhood, of the most elemental constructions of these metric forms, so characteristic of Spanish. In my primary school in Sacramento, Coahuila, Panchita Cabrera, a rural schoolteacher who was an ardent fan of the Spanish Golden Age (a type that no longer exists) taught us these phonetic techniques with one goal in mind: that we might fine-tune our ears in order to appreciate the expressive delicacy and virulence of our language. In fact, to be honest, it’s more difficult for me to write free prose, because I don’t have any technical (phonetic) resources on hand that might provide some support.
"Octosyllables, hedecasyllables, alexandrines..." I couldn't make that up. As a result it makes his work quite difficult to translate into English, which uses a very different stressed prosodic system. (Among American writers of the last 50 or so years, I immediately thought of Vikram Seth (1959-), who wrote his astonishing novel Golden Gate in "Onegin stanzas," as well as of Anne Carson (1950-), Peter Taylor (1917-1994), and Thanhha Lai (1965-), each of whom wrote works of fiction in verse, but none in conventional meter or even blank verse.) On top of this, he apparently also was a master of puns and other forms of wordplay, as well as rhetorical devices and figures, and a good deal of this is lost--as it must be--in English.  Rereading the Prieto interview, I thought of Spanish-language wordsmiths like Guillermo Cabrera Infante (1929-2005) and Julián Ríos (1941-) both of whom, however, also knew (and in Ríos's case, still does) English, and wrote Spanish prose, playful and elaborate, that could still be rendered into English. Cabrera Infante even possessed the remarkably rare capacity not just to write in English but to pun in it as well, and to write puns that could signify in many cases in both languages. But Sada's languages were all drawn from the registers of Mexico, and so Silver's labor, and that of subsequent translators, will require a golden-drummed ear. I'm eager to peek at Sada in the original, though I imagine my Spanish will be too rudimentary to grasp his richness, but I also want to read Silver's translation and compare it, to learn what she was able to successfully bring over, or, invent as needed.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Happy Mothers' Day

Best wishes for a Happy Mothers' Day to all mothers, grandmothers, motherly friends and guardians, and those who serve as mothers to others.

To all of you, I say THANK YOU!

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Obama Again Supports Marriage Equality + NC Again Denies Equal Rights + Garry Wills on the Myth of Marriage

A busy week, with a big deadline, so these posts will be brief.

I was very glad to see President Barack Obama cease his seesawing and finally (once again) back marriage equality, i.e., same-sex marriage yesterday morning in his conversation with Good Morning America's Robin Roberts. Ever the politician, he qualified it by noting his avowal was only his personal belief and not a policy statement for his administration. He also made no larger or broader statements about the gross inequality that now exists between states that permit same-sex marriage and those, like North Carolina, that have now doubled down on banning it. (It was already outlawed in the Tarheel State; the new law also cancels out civil unions and domestic partnerships.) Popular opinion, however, trends on towards greater acceptance of same-sex marriage, and it eventually will exceed 75% or more, in my lifetime, I believe, which is an amazing thing to consider. And as I said, Barack Obama in a sense is coming home. In 1996, when he ran for the Illinois State Senate he supported same-sex marriage. To become US Senate from Illinois, however, he began his backwards shimmy, and has been dancing around ever since. Until yesterday.


As I noted above, Amendment One, banning same-sex marriage and stripping away even more equal rights, passed in North Carolina, 61% to 39%, on Tuesday. I'm not surprised this occurred; civil rights should never be put up to a vote, and while North Carolina is not and has never been the most conservative Southern state by any measure--and even during the US Civil War nearly sided with the Union--it is still not so progressive that Amendment One would have been defeated. I particularly feel for all the North Carolinians who now face having their government-sanctioned relationships voided, because of a bigoted majority.  One question I have for the Democratic Party, which has chosen to hold its presidential convention in Charlotte later this year: why?  North Carolina's recent history with unionized labor was bad enough, but it adds insult to injury--to use that cliché--to hold the event there now.  I'm sure there are other cities that could swing into gear; the Democrats should consider Buffalo, or Cleveland, or return to Denver. Anything but Charlotte, which admittedly provided many votes against the heinous Amendment.  But still...Democrats: Pittsburgh, maybe?


A footnote: the eminent historian and my colleague, Garry Wills, with a brief, historically informed commentary, "The Myth of Marriage," on the New York Review of Books' blog.

A quote:

Those who do not want to let gay partners have the sacredness of sacramental marriage are relying on a Scholastic fiction of the thirteenth century to play with people’s lives, as the church has done ever since the time of Aquinas. The myth of the sacrament should not let people deprive gays of the right to natural marriage, whether blessed by Yahweh or not. They surely do not need—since no one does—the blessing of Saint Thomas.