Friday, May 31, 2013

BookExpo America 2013

Looking down at the main exhibition floor, BEA 2013
Looking at the main floor of the BEA
Every year, around this time, I have heard tales told of Book Expo America (BEA) the giant annual book trade fair held at the Jacob Javits Center, on the far edge of Midtown Manhattan, but I until this year I had never been able to attend. A four-day and costly event, the fair convenes most of the major and numerous mid-sized and small US publishers, many from overseas, agents, distributors, authors, artists, librarians, and book lovers, who were present in droves despite the mid-summer temperatures that turned the sidewalks into a griddle and the glass walls of the air-conditioned Javits Center into magnifying glasses. I believe there were academics present too, though far fewer operating solely in that role than you might find at the Associated Writing Programs or Modern Language Association conferences, neither of which has the commercial or global feel of BEA.
Congressman John Lewis signing a comic book, BEA 2013
Congressman John Lewis (D-GA) signing his comic book
Hero Congressman John Lewis handing a signed book to a fan, BEA 2013
Congressman Lewis
In fact, the BEA thrums with the sensation of real-world, real-time significance; the numbers of people huddled at tables hashing out whatever they're hashing out, the sizable section of digital and electronic consulting companies seeking to bring the trade into the 21st century, the half-closed publishing house curtains where big deals and planning were taking place, the numerous people pumping up potential books to the houses ("I'm sorry," one young woman at Taschen told another, "but we don't commonly give out editors' email addresses," in response to a query about a book idea she had), and so forth, made the sometimes grueling, often joyful experience of writing--dreaming, planning, writing, revising, revising again, revising again, etc.--feel both infinitesimally small and indescribably important. To put it another way, writers could, in the scheme of this hurdy-gurdy of excitement and high stakes almost appear forgotten, and yet also, without authors, would any of this be possible? (Of course there are some who might answer yes, but....) Moreover, all authors, of all types, were present here. Some who'd never been seen anywhere near academe, as well as others who are paragons of literature and creative writing classes, were present. There were many long lines for authors I'd never heard of, which means I need to get out and read more widely, but there also were on display books by authors I deeply admire who probably don't get read as much as they ought to. But someone is publishing, and someone is reading their work.

11th Ave. & Jacob Javits Ctr, NYC
The Javits Center, at left (Columbus Circle in the distance)
Mexico book area, BEA 2013
Mexican publishing and book section
No surprise in the numerous hierarchies on display, most visibly the size and elaborateness of booths and sections based on the size and financial might of the publishers, and the prioritization of commercial and genre fiction and nonfiction over literary fiction, poetry, drama and other literary forms (which was quite rare in some precincts), nor was the frostiness of some of the publishing types a surprise either. (Others, however, were quite pleasant, and the micro-climates of attitude meant that I could pass from spaces where publishing staff did not even look in my direction to lively conversations with editors and reps from presses like Duke or Yale or Biblioasis or New York Review.) And it additionally was not a surprise, though a bit disappointing, that nearly all the publishing representatives, like the authors whose booksignings I noted, except for a very few cases (one of which I'll mention below), were by white, at a time when the country is growing ever more diverse. But there were glimmers, and I must note that, perhaps heartening to VIDA, the organization that champions women writers and equality in the literary world, the majority of authors I saw greeting customers and signing books were women. (The actual numbers, however, may be different, but I am going off my rough count.) I had heard that people brought suitcases to cart off the free books and swag (bookbags, blow-up toys, maps, pens, corporate-branded bric-a-brac of all kinds, beer, etc.), yet I didn't believe it, then I saw person after person not only lugging around book-heavy bags and backpacks, but yes, wheeled suitcases, and I realized, that was certainly foresight (or learned experience at a prior BEA). I didn't need a suitcase, but I did bring back two full bookbags full of books, some of them so interesting I started paging through them on the subway and PATH, and a number of which I selected in part because I very well may be able to incorporate them in future classes.

Elizabeth Gilbert signing her book, BEA 2013
Elizabeth Gilbert, signing her new book
Paula Deen, signing an ad for her next book
There were a few star types there (Tony Kushner, actor Jim Carrey, etc.), but the highlight for me was meeting and chatting a little with Congressman John Lewis (D-GA), one of America's true heroes, and a signal figure in the US Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. He is the sort of person I always imagine will be so heavily thronged it would be impossible to get near him, but there was a small line and I was able to ask him to sign a comic book he had co-authored and then talk with him, letting him know not only that his name had come up in my recent class, but how much an inspiration he and his generation are for my students and me. I also thanked him for his bravery, courage and vision, in essence thanking his generation and those before him who had blazed the paths I and so many can walk down today, and together we noted that the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington was approaching, and that the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation was only a few months before, an amazing confluence that also pointed toward future goals and gains. I probably could have left after meeting him, but I instead did walk the entire main hall, collect books, take a sip of champagne (it was free), and admit to myself that being in an environment filled with free books and readers was a pretty enjoyable place to be.

Tony Kushner signing books, BEA 2013
The amazing Tony Kushner, signing books
Jim Carrey, signing a flyer (?)
Okey Ndibe signing his book at BEA 2013
Brown Univ. prof. Okey Ndibe, signing his book
George C. Fraser, BEA 2013
Author and success champion, George C. Frasier
Aisle 1900, BEA 2013
Aisle 1900, with presses on either side
Chinese Publications booth, BEA 2013
Chinese publishing booth
Kobo eReader booth, BEA 2013
Kobo eReader booth
Spain book section, BEA 2013
Spain's publishing area
Author Marek Krajewski at BEA 2013
Polish author Marek Krajewski, with
translator (in red) and fan
Artbooks area, BEA 2013
The art books section (one of several)
Author Landau and his lovely wife
Author Landau, and his lovely wife
One of many long lines for a book signing
One of the reserved areas, BEA
Publishers' curtained off private areas
Free cupcakes from Disney, BEA
Free cupcakes, from Disney
Boxes of books waiting to be shipped, BEA 2013
Books and other items, waiting to be shipped home

Monday, May 27, 2013

Considering Mark Carson, Homophobia & Homophobic Violence

Mark Carson Memorial, Greenwich Village
Makeshift memorial for Mark Carson,
6th Avenue & 8th Street
I have been thinking about the recent horrific spate of anti-gay attacks in New York City, including one last night in Hell's Kitchen, and perhaps most specifically about the murder of Mark Carson, a young, African American gay man, who was pursued up a main Greenwich Village street, 6th Avenue, and shot to death in broad daylight. The attacks come as national public attitudes, at least as expressed by polls, suggest an ever-increasing acceptance of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, and same-sex marriage, especially among younger people. They are occurring at a moment when the President of the United States has repeatedly and openly expressed gay-friend and non-homophobic sentiments, including in his second inaugural address (preceded by an out latino poet, Richard Blanco, delivering the inaugural poem), and most recently at his otherwise controversial graduation address at the prestigious, historically black all-male Morehouse College, which has had its own issues with sexual orientation and difference. We have just had the first male athlete actively playing for a major league team sport, black basketball player Jason Collins, publicly come out, and this weekend, another out gay male athlete, the white soccer player, Robbie Rogers, resumed major league team play for Major League Soccer's L.A. Galaxy. These assaults also are occurring at a moment when one of the leading candidates to become mayor of New York, Christine Quinn, is a corporate-friendly out white lesbian, and another, white Democrat Bill DeBlasio, is married to a black woman who had previously outed herself publicly in the pages of Essence several decades ago. Same sex marriage is now legal in Minnesota and Rhode Island, bringing to a dozen the states and federal districts where nuptial equality has advanced (and, with France's legislative adoption of same-sex marriage, 14 countries across the globe).

This is thus hardly a moment of post-queerness, just as it is hardly a moment of post-raciality or post-racism (or post-classism, post-feminism, post-ideology, etc.). Nor have homophobia, heterosexism, heteronormativity disappeared. We still have many mainstream religions, one of the country's two major political parties, a range of public and private institutions, and the law itself upholding an anti-gay ethos. Yet we nevertheless are living in an era we have never before experienced in this country, nor globally that matter, of widespread queer visibility, perhaps queer hypervisibility, which is to say, out queer people are increasingly present, representing and represented, everywhere, queerness itself, in and as discourse, is widely and actively produced, and the ways that this visibility, and the onward march of equality of all kinds--though primarily social equality--are transforming the society are sometimes difficult to apprehend even as we are living through them. And unlike during prior periods of queer visibility, such as the immediate post-Stonewall period or during the HIV/AIDS pandemic, though negative discourse about homosexuality still circulates and enacts considerable violence, it does so in a changed and changing environment in which some of the key negative tropes and figures of the past (that homosexuality is a sickness or disorder, that AIDS is a gay disease leading to certain death, etc.) are not always or no longer dominant. Moreover, queer representations proliferate. If the official ones, from Hollywood and the legacy TV stations continue to be narrow in terms of race, gender, class, religion, and so forth--to represent queer America, and the world, as homonormatively young, abled, educated, privileged upper-middle-class white men, mostly, and women--increasingly a wider array of representations are also out there, across an array of media, offering anyone who looks (or seeks not to) a glimpse into the far broader and more vibrant imaginaries that exist. We still have a ways to go to present the richest portrait of ourselves, but we are further along than we once were. If it was possible once to say I have never seen or known an LGBTIQ person or I had never seen an LGBTIQ person who looks like me, that is becoming ever rarer. It is still possible, but less so with each passing day.

Mark Carson Memorial, Greenwich Village
Makeshift memorial for Mark Carson,
6th Avenue & 8th Street
It is this visibility, this hypervisibility of difference and semblance, and the self-legibility that they enable, that I think are at the heart of these attacks, and the best response, it strikes me, is to continue to increase visibility, to fight for it, to push whatever the short-term costs, because the long-term victory will be to recast and transform, if not fully eliminate, the conditions under which homophobia and heterosexism can function. (This is one of the key insights and grounds for the utter importance of the International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia and Transphobia--IDAHOBIT, which takes place every May 17.) The homophobe is often unnerved by the embodiment of his (queer) desires, enraged by the visibility of their enactment and empowerment, in others, others' bodies. (I use the male pronoun throughout here though people of all genders manifest homophobia and heterosexism.) It unsettles him to see, to have to see, to not be able not to see not just a small band of abjected queers, onto whom he can project his disgust as a reflection of his desires, but an ever-increasing circle of queers, some of whom look like him, may be him, are him under other circumstances, whose desires and actions are not being self-regulated and self-policed out of visibility, or regulated and policed by the state or private institutions in the way they once were, out of visibility, who can present and represent and perform their queer subjectivities in ever freer and differing ways, ways he cannot bear to witness, because he may have to see them, look at them, read himself in them. Queer visibility destabilizes his own certainty, any certainty, his own invisibility, queers normativity and makes his own queer legibility that much more likely; it casts the light and reflection back on the homophobe, on the transphobe, because, as the old phrase goes, if you are secure in your sexuality (manhood, womanhood)--as if any sexuality is ever "secure,"whatever that means, as if "manhood" in particular were ever a stable or objective category--why are you getting so upset at what someone else is doing? We often get upset at what someone else is doing even if it has no negative effects on us or anyone else, or even the person doing the thing that upsets us, because we at some level are threatened, read our own actions, our own selves, in what we can barely bear, in what we condemn. This is not merely the epistemology of the closet but another kind of epistemology. What do we start to know if we look at others--and then look closely at ourselves?

And so we see the reactions, based on religion, based on ideology, based on strategies of biopower, based on legalisms, based on incoherence masquerading as a viable system or method of critique, against homosexuality, against gender instability, against queerness even if it is not and cannot be named as such. We see the actions and reactions, rhetorical, discursive, physical, against it. We see how a man (and his friend) pursues another man (and his friend) up a street, in a neighborhood known to be gay-friendly, a "gay" neighborhood, calls out to him and presses him about whether he (and his friend) is a "gay wrestler"--so specific, as if the embodiment of a "type" he may have seen or thought about or dreamt of, that frightens him--as a prelude to striking out, to killing that type, murdering the man who at that moment, in that moment, embodies that image. We see a young man harass another young man he sees coming out of a "gay" club, that he reads as gay, that he questions about being gay ("are you a faggot"?), whom he strikes in the jaw for seeming or being or performing as "gay," for being legible as gay, visible as gay, as a host of friends join in and attack the legibly gay man--what is the young man, what are the young men striking out trying to strike out? What do the bullies who torment queer young people hope to harass or embarrass or brutalize out of them--and themselves? What does the Family Research Council want to quash in its effort to quash everything that it even thinks is queer? What do Fred Phelps's church and its followers hope to achieve by protesting anyone and anything even seemingly connected with empathetic feelings towards anyone, let alone gay people? What are they trying to cancel out because they cannot bear to see--or see in themselves? Of course I am abstracting a great deal here; I am not talking about other fluid intersections, such as power in its multiple manifestations (inflection points), race and ethnicity (inflection points), gender (an inflection point), class (an inflection point), capital (an inflection point), and others. In fact I specifically have chosen not to take up questions of race and ethnicity, since I have noted on more than one online forum that commenters slide very readily and easily onto racist tracks (and tracts), though Jason Collins's coming out, like Mark Carson's murder, have thrown them for (a bit of) a (queer) loop.

Mark Carson Memorial, Greenwich Village
Makeshift memorial for Mark Carson,
6th Avenue & 8th Street
Perhaps this is too much (bad, tired, tiresome, shopworn) speculative psychologizing. I am not saying anything many people don't already know, though I must admit I haven't (yet) seen many people saying  this. But also perhaps as a black man, a black gay man from a working-class background who lives with the persistence of racism and homophobia and heterosexism and classism and sexism and other forms of political, economic and social violence, as someone who is always aware of history and histories and herstories that are suppressed or forgotten, as  someone who listened for most of my elementary and secondary school education to Catholic priests and nuns expatiate on the dangers of homosexuality even as I recognized the queerness in those same authority figures, as someone who is always trying, striving to be critically aware and stay aware, while living in the present and understanding it, I know that every success is hard won, is not permanent, is a paving stone on the vaster and longer road to a better place, and that simply supposing that there is an easy or obvious answer to issues like this is always problematic, but also that not looking carefully at what's going, especially with accumulated evidence before you, also is problematic. It is not enough simply to say the homophobes are staring into a mirror and trying to break it, or that they are peering through a window and disliking (and perhaps liking, and thus fearing) what they see. But that is part of it; more mirrors, more windows exist, proliferate. To wit, to see, to look, in the oldest sense of those terms, is to know. It is increasingly harder for any of us not to see, look, at ourselves, or look away, and also not have that other, that reflection, ours, not see us, not look back.

ALA Conference in Boston

Yesterday evening I returned from the American Literature Association conference in Boston, where I chaired a panel on "commodity aesthetics" and their relation to human rights in works of contemporary graphic narratives, Latin-American and African Diasporic literature, and experimental poetry.  I have never attended an AmLitAssociation conference before, but given how lively an organization it appears to be, I probably will do so again in the future. (And I must give props to any organization that has an official Octavia Butler Society!) The panel went well, we had a small but engaged audience, and I ran into some friends at the conference, so I'm glad I agreed to participate.

Boston Marathon attack memorial
Makeshift Boston Marathon attack memorial, Copley Square
Oddly enough, this was the third conference in Boston that I attended this year; first came the Modern Language Association's annual conference, and then the Associated Writing Programs' yearly gathering. Both occurred before last month's tragic bombing and subsequent attacks during the Boston Marathon, and, I must admit, I was curious to see the city after both. I have tended in the last year or so not to blog immediately about most such events in order be able to gain a clearer grasp of and better understand them, and I am not yet ready to provide an assessment of the Tsarnaev brothers or their horrific actions. Their bombing increasingly appears to be only element in a series of crimes they took part in, including the murder of three people several years ago, and I hope we will eventually learn as much as possible about the planning and execution of this and any other terrorist activities they took part in.
Boston Marathon attack memorial, Copley Square
Makeshift Boston Marathon attack memorial, Copley Square
The drizzly, chilly weather and gray skies cast everything in a subdued light, but the Back Bay area did not feel sepulchral. I noted two makeshift memorials, one quite small, near where I used to work for a brief time shortly after college, the other more expansive and near to Boston's famed Trinity Church, which sits in Copley Square and through which I passed countless times in my 20s. The sites of public mourning mirror those you would find anywhere, though sneakers, evoking the dead and injured runners and spectators, and the marathon itself, were as present as candles, cards, signs, and placards. I also noted a number of signs mentioning that Boston stay "strong," a response I imagine to the intimidation terror by its very nature seeks to instill in us, and a tip perhaps to the city's and region's tradition throughout US history, of resistance and fortitude.
Boston Marathon attack memorial, next to Copley Statue
Makeshift Boston Marathon attack memorial
and John Singleton Copley statue, Copley Square
Uncannily it turns out that Boston Marathon officials had scheduled the running of a more reduced version of the race this weekend, so that when I got ready to head to the hotel where the conference panel was taking place, my cab driver told me that we would have to take a more circuitous route there, because of the cordons and barricades. Yet I never saw any runners or officials or anything, and thought on the way home that I might have dreamt the whole scenario, except that C confirmed for me that it had occurred, and that there were images on TV and the net. I did take part of the trip to step back into time, specifically that of my big novel, and retraced the steps of my main character, who would have walked these same streets nearly 200 years ago. The grid is mostly the same, though much more expanded (and even more so since I last lived in Boston, 20 years ago), the hills no less winding, the golden dome of the statehouse still gleaming, and, like the city, in a state of recuperation.
Boston Marathon attack memorial, Boylston Street
Makeshift Boston Marathon attack memorial, Boylston Street
Trinity Church, Copley Square, Boston
Trinity Church, Copley Square
Old South Church, Boston
Old South Church, near Copley Square, Back Bay, Boston
African Meeting House, Beacon Hill, Boston
Phillips School, Beacon Hill
Beacon Hill at night, Boston
Beacon Hill at night
Boston Common at night
Boston Common, at night
Massachusetts State House at night
Massachusetts State House

Friday, May 24, 2013

Random Photos

Main building, Cooper Union (with student
protest graffiti in the windows)
Washington Square Arch
Washington Square Arch
Washington Square Park
Rainy Washington Square Park
Ugo Rondinone Sculptures, Rockefeller Ctr.
Ugo Rondinone sculptures, Rockefeller Center
Ugo Rondinone Sculpture, Rockefeller Ctr.
Ugo Rondinone sculpture, Rockefeller Center (GE Building)
Harmonica Lewinskys, Grove St., Jersey City
Harmonica Lewinskys, Grove Street, Jersey City
Aiport bus queue, Pershing Square, NYC
Airport bus queue, Pershing Square (Grand Central Terminal in rear)
Loading ornamental trees outside Cipriani's, NYC
Loading ornamental trees, outside Cipriani's, Midtown
Backdoor to Cipriani's, NYC
Cipriani's back door, Midtown
Clothes on an impromptu drying rack, Greenwich Village
Impromptu clothes rack, West Village
New Fumihiko Maki mixed-used building
New Fumihiko Maki building, 8th St.
& St. Marks Place (site of the former
Cooper Union Engineering Building and
various coffee shops)
Sidewalk plaque, 41st St. (Library Row)
Literary sidewalk plaque, 41st Street (Library Way)

Friday, May 17, 2013

Semester's/First Year's End + Congratulations to 2013 Graduates

It seems hard to believe, but as of today I have concluded my spring semester and first year teaching at Rutgers-Newark. I've graded the exams, read, reread and assigned grades to the final papers, signed off on MFA theses and an undergraduate honors thesis, and reviewed the work of my independent study student. CONGRATULATIONS TO ALL THE GRADUATING STUDENTS! I now have only to complete an assessment for my department and the undergraduate college, and I believe I will be fully done until this fall, a few administrative tasks notwithstanding.

On Twitter I described the experience as "exhilarating", and it was, though I also feel mentally and physically drained as I do at the end of every term, the spring/summer ones perhaps even more so than the fall ones, since no matter where I have taught, far more occurs from January to June than September to December. I designed and taught four new classes, which is unsurprising considering that this was a new job, but as anyone who teaches regularly will attest, new courses, especially at a new institution, require a tremendous amount of work, and since none of these was a repurposed course from my prior institutions, they entailed even more work and planning than ever before.

I have already written about the fall courses (an undergraduate Afro-Latin literature course, and a graduate course for English and American Studies under the Topics in Post-Modernism rubric on post-humanism and trans-humanism), so I'll say a little about the two spring courses, one a jointly listed course in English and African American and African Studies (AAAS) on the Black Arts Movement, and the second the spring half of the year-long, introductory survey course for AAAS. I enjoyed both, though I must admit I particularly loved the literature class, which took place at 8:30 AM and meant very early Sunday and Wednesday nights for me, as well as arriving in Newark when almost no one was on the street. My first morning I tweeted how shuttered everything was at 7:30 AM, and my colleague Tayari Jones, though on sabbatical, helped guide me via Twitter to a spot where I could grab coffee.

In the literature class I taught more poetry than I have ever taught in a single, non-survey course, as well as more drama (four plays, two by LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka, and one each by Ed Bullins and Kia Corthron), a film, and rap music (three different artists, also a first), with a good helping of historical, critical and theoretical material. One of the most powerful moments for me was when I read the students' creative pieces (they wrote 6 short essays, a creative piece, and a final paper), and could see how fully nearly all of them had engaged with the course materials, in aesthetic, theoretical and personal terms. Their final papers represented an extension of this engagement.

The survey course was a huge challenge, as I had not taught such a large class in a few years, and I realized while planning it that I would need to create a narrative for the students to bring the disciplinarily disparate materials together. As an undergraduate I studied history in its various forms (including social history, which became my main approach), and into my historical narrative I tried to weave, to varying degrees of success, works of literature, sociology, political science, and journalism, to present the students with a way of understanding the rich and complex stories of African America from 1865 to the present. Based on the final exams, I think I succeeded, though I also know what to work on to improve the course, and my teaching of it, for future versions.

I want to note in particular how energizing it was to once again read Booker T. Washington's Up From Slavery, which I read as an undergraduate and only recalled in pieces, and W. E. B. DuBois's The Souls of Black Folk, which impressed me no less this time than it had before. I had never finished LeRoi Jones's/Amiri Baraka's The Blues People, but did for this class, nor had I ever read beyond a few chapters in Nelson George's The Death of Rhythm and Blues, which together provide excellent overviews of Black music, and thus by extension, African American culture and society, from the mid-19th century through the end of the 20th. Their narratives provided a second scaffolding for us to follow as we proceeded chronologically from the Emancipation period to the election of Barack Obama. To teach this class in the year marking the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation and the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington (both of which we talked about) was also energizing.

I also have even deeper appreciation for the work of so many former colleagues, including Robin D. G. Kelley, Darlene Clark Hine, and Aldon Morris, whose work I taught and from which I, like the students, learned a great deal. Among the exciting moments for me was when I had the chance to discuss with the class Robin Kelley's exploration of working-class and poor African Americans' day-to-day battles in the mid-to-late 1940s, the innumerable acts of resistance, self-protection and self-assertion that constituted "small war zones," in public transportation in Birmingham, Montgomery and other Southern cities, that helped prepared the ground for the Civil Rights movement struggles and victories that would soon come there and elsewhere. The poet and scholar Geoffrey Jacques has noted more than once how badly we in the US could benefit from a careful and thorough study of the history of African Americans, and this course underlined how important and pressing Geoffrey's suggestion continues to be. Most of us--including African Americans--still don't know enough, beyond some significant historical facts and anecdotes, about our past, and how much that past continues to inform our contemporary--which is to say, American, and global--experience.

These courses unfolded as Rutgers itself has faced a significant institutional crisis, which began before I started last fall and which continues to unfold as I type this blog post. In both classes I was able to note how significant the social, political and cultural activism we were studying had proved in the past fortunes of our campus; in 1969, black students occupied Conklin Hall for a week, thus provoking changes that helped to create the vibrant, racially, ethnically, economically, and culturally diverse campus--the most diverse campus in the United States--Rutgers-Newark is today. I also was able to point out to them that one of the sources of the university's current crisis, the forced integration of the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey (UMDNJ) into Rutgers as the "new" medical school, had an antecedent in the state's rezoning and forced clearance, using eminent domain, of an African American Newark neighborhood in 1967, in order to build a new campus for UMDNJ, and which led to the 1967 Newark Uprising, that profoundly scarred and changed the city. How fitting that these earlier history has been all but buried in the discussions about Rutgers's transformation, but how powerfully it resonates in the threats Rutgers-Newark (and Rutgers-Camden) and the university as a whole face as the changes unfold. I tried my best to let the students know that they could and must be agents of change, as their predecessors were.

I must add that at this point over the last 10 years (with the exception of 2006, when I had a spring leave yet nevertheless had university business to address) I would still be in class, in the final weeks of the spring quarter, so I continue to feel a bit unsettled, as if I am leaving classes full of students hanging in the lurch. I remind myself: the grades are in! It feels good to be done before the end of May, and I imagine that by next year this time, I will feel as if an earlier start to the summer is the way things have always been. Once again, congratulations to all the 2013 graduates!

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

American Academy of Arts and Letters Ceremonial

I have heard of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, which is headquartered in New York City, but until I ventured up to its annual ceremonial, as the guest of a guest (+1 of scholar and critic Dorothy Wang) of a recent prize recipient, I had no idea where it was located or what its programs entailed. To put it simply, it's a big deal, or rather, a big financial deal, as it annually awards many thousands of dollars (this year, I believe I heard the figure in the hundreds of thousands), in prizes and ceremonial awards to artists working in the fields of literature, the visual arts and sculpture, European art music (and perhaps other genres), and architecture. It's an august institution too: a closed honor society of 250 members selected and elected by standing members without outside nomination, it grew out of the National Institute of Arts and Letters, founded in 1898, consisting eventually of 200 members, from which the American Academy of Arts and Letters, a smaller and more elite sub-organization of 50 of the most eminent figures in their fields, emerged in 1904. US President William Howard Taft signed a Congressional act that incorporated the Institute of Arts and Letters in 1907, and the Academy in 1916. In 1976 the two organizations merged, and in 1993, all 250 members merged into one entity now known as the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

Seating chart, American Academy of Arts and Letters Ceremonial
The seating chart
Who belongs to the American Academy, which operates like an Academie Française only without the single focus on language and with a far broader narrower mandate, at least ideally? The president is architect Henry Cobb, Vice Presidents for Literature include writers Ann Beattie, Yusef Komunyakaa and Tony Kushner, Vice Presidents for Music include composers John Corigliano and John Harbison, the secretary is architect Billie Tsien, and the Treasurer is composer Charles Wuorinen. Members include a number of major scholars and artists, ranging from Daniel Aaron, Edward Albee, Kwame Anthony Appiah, and Isabel Allende to Gary Wills, Olly Wilson, Terry Winters, and Ellen Taaffe Zwillich. Every year in the spring, a subset of these members, constituting committees in various fields, award lucrative prizes to selected artists without nomination, and present them at the annual "Ceremonial"--awards ceremony--at the Academy's building at Aububon Terrace, in Washington Heights, across a courtyard from the Hispanic Society of America, and next to what used to be the old headquarters of the national Museum of the American Indian, which is now located at Bowling Green in downtown Manhattan, and which Boricua College has replaced.

The empty stage, American Academy of Arts and Letters Ceremonial
The stage, with numbered seats
Having never been to one of these shindigs I had no idea how it operated, but it appears that a certain number of members show up, along with the prize recipients, and are seated in a set order onstage, in order that an annual photograph be taken, and so that family members and friends can figure out who's who if you don't know them by sight. Also, distinguished figures in a given field hand out awards to peers and up-and-comers, so it was the case that Louise Glück, the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, gave out awards to many of the literature awardees. There a few awards I'd heard of before, like the Rome Prize, which went to poet Peter Streckfus, and a number of others, including one for distinction on the radio, that went to Ira Glass, who gave one of the best brief speeches I've heard in a while, yet there were many others, with hefty awards attached, that went to creative people I'd never heard of. (No surprise there.) Also unfortunately, and unsurprisingly, as I commented to a friend, critic Dorothy Wang, and later to other writers and artists, very few winners were people of color; I think two black people (one writer, one artist), two asian-americans (both musicians), and a few latinos received awards, but most of the awardees were white, though at least half or more, like the presenters, were women, which is always a positive sign. I'm not sure if the proceedings are always so monochrome, because the membership does appear to be diverse, at least in certain fields, so I hope in other years a wider range of artists, reflecting the rich tapestry of this country, benefit.

Francine Prose speaking with Garrison Keillor
Francine Prose and Garrison Keillor
Michael Chabon delivered the Blashfield Address, a smart, sometimes funny lecture that explored the relationship between literature and rock and roll. It even invoked both Bob Dylan, who was slated to receive a major award but could not attend, Frank O'Hara and Rakim, among others. A friend, poet Joanna Klink, received one of the literature awards, and a fiction writer whose first novel unfolds like poetry, Briton Adam Foulds, received a prize given specifically to writers from Britain and Ireland. The highlight of the event was witnessing the awarding of the Gold Medal for Literature, which Paul Auster presented to one of my former and very best professors, E. L. Doctorow. One of the leading contemporary American fiction writers, recipient the National Book Award for Fiction, three National Book Critics Circle Awards for Fiction and the PEN/Faulkner Award, a longtime teacher at New York University and a former professional editor, Doctorow is perhaps best known for his inventive novelistic treatment of the life, trial and execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, titled The Book of Daniel (1971), which pushed him to the front rank of American writers, and for his innovative, controversial novel Ragtime (1975), which later became an acclaimed film and a highly praised musical. Though mainly known for his novels that explore key historical moments through the depiction of society at multiple, overlapping levels, he is also a perceptive, suasive, politically pointed critic, and a superb short fiction writer. His speech, which concluded the event, was succinct and profound, and the perfect ending a ceremony of this type. 

People assembling, American Academy of Arts and Letters Ceremonial
The members, prize recipients and guests assembling
After the awards, there was a tented reception behind the main building, and in an adjoining one, an exhibition of artworks and other materials, including scores, manuscripts, and much more, by award recipients. I did not get an opportunity to offer my congratulations to Doctorow, but I did get to chat briefly with composer T. J. Anderson II and his wife, whom I met aeons ago when the Dark Room hosted and feted him, artist Richard Hunt and late writer Leon Forrest, at the African Meeting House in Boston. I also got an opportunity to say hello to Olly Wilson, another African American composer who ought to be better known. I did not, however, meet Darryl Pinckney, who received one of the literature prizes; I'm a fan of his criticism, so I hope one of these days to meet him in person. Below are some photos from the day.

First Row, American Academy of Arts and Letters Ceremonial
Nearly full section (l-r) unknown man, dancer Edward Villella, Meryl Streep,
Lydia Davis (speaking with Francine Prose), E. L. Doctorow, Damon Galgut
People arriving, American Academy of Arts and Letters Ceremonial
The stage, filling
The Ceremonial's photographer, speaking from the balcony
The photographer
Posing for the group photo
Joanna Klink, receiving a poetry prize from Louise Glück
Louise Glück hugging recipient Joanna Klink
Composer Tania León
Composer Tania León, announcing awards in music
Meryl Streep
Meryl Streep, who subbed for Steven Sondheim
and also presented an award to Edward Villella
Artist Njideka Akunyili, receiving her award
Artist Njideka Akunyili, receiving her award
Michael Chabon, delivering the Blasford Lecture, American Academy of Arts & Letters
Michael Chabon
Lydia Davis receiving the Award of Merit
Author and translator Lydia Davis receiving
the Award of Merit for literature
Ira Glass
Ira Glass, receiving his award
and delivering a hilarious speech
Meryl Streep presenting an award to Edward Villella
Meryl Streep, honoring Edward Villella
Paul Auster presenting the Gold Medal to E. L. Doctorow
Paul Auster, reading his introduction
and citation for E. L. Doctorow
(Garrison Keillor at left, in red tie,
Chuck Close at right, Alison Lurie behind him)
El Cid statue, Audubon Terrace
The statue of El Cid, at Audubon Terrace
Art exhibit, American Academy of Arts & Letters
The exhibition, with the works of
artist Njideka Akunyili on display
Ira Glass & Calvin Trillin, 157th St. Station, NYC
In the 157th Street station, Ira Glass, chatting
with Calvin Trillin