Monday, September 30, 2013

Reading @ Naropa + &Now Festival

Percival Everett and Lynne Tillman

Percival Everett & Lynne Tillman

Every summer for the past decade a writer I know has headed to Boulder, Colorado for the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics/Naropa University summer sessions, either as a student or to teach, and almost to a person, they have raved about the experience. In part has the enthusiasm seems to derive from the people gathered there for the summer sessions, in part it appears to come from the university's ethos and atmosphere, and in part it arises from the immediately evident charm of the beautiful city of Boulder (and for those who do get an opportunity get out and about, nearby Denver and the surrounding region).
I'd never been to Boulder or Naropa, however, so it was a pleasant surprise to be invited to participate in their What Where series, reading alongside poets Carmen Giménez Smith and Laura Mullen. I was particularly concerned about whether the reading, and the &Now Festival taking place later in the week, were going to occur at all because of the terrible flooding that caused extensive damage in and around Boulder, but I was told that despite a few showers Naropa had made it through mostly unscathed, as did the University of Colorado, where the Festival was being held, and all of the hotels where attendees would be staying, so the trip as of the weekend before remained on.

Carmen Gimenez Smith reading, Naropa

Carmen Giménez Smith reading at Naropa

Laura Mullen's marvelous film, Naropa

A clip from Laura Mullen's hilarious, scabrous film

The Naropa reading was on Tuesday evening, so I flew out that morning from Newark, and, after a bit of finagling with Delta Airlines, which had rescheduled me without notice for a flight that would have gotten me in too late, I reached Denver via a connecting flight from Detroit with about a hour and a half to spare. No problem, right? I decided to take the Super Shuttle from the Denver Airport, since it promised to drop me off right at the inn where I was staying. It did (and I do recommend Super Shuttle if you have lots of time to spare), but I was the last one to reach my destination; we took detours through other surrounding cities and suburbs (Erie, Louisville, Lafayette, etc.), such that I had to ask the driver, my voice rattling like a guira, will you be able to get me to where I'm going by 7 pm? I think he pulled into the inn's driveway right at 7, and I quickly checked in, readied myself for the reading, and walked over to Naropa, which wasn't far away. But--and this is key for anyone who has not spent time in that part of the world--I immediately began to feel as if my entire body was composed of lead, and was sinking into the earth, because I am one of those people who suffers from altitude disorders, at least on land. (Planes are not a problem.) So I had to collect myself before the reading, a slip of bark from Allen Ginsberg's favorite tree helping (thank you, Bhanu Kapil), and even while I was on stage I could feel the exhaustion kicking in, but I made it through and felt much better by the time the reception afterward started. Carmen and Laura both gave superb readings, and it was a tremendous honor to read with both of them after having read their work for years. It was also great to meet the Naropa faculty, including Michelle Naka Pierce, who extended the invitation, and many thanks to the wonderful Arielle Goldberg, who was the point person coordinating the visit.

Fortunately I had a day to rest up and acclimate (it took two) before the &Now Festival began, on the campus of the University of Colorado. I had also heard about amazing prior versions of this conference, but seeing it up close, it felt like what the Associated Writing Programs conference would be if it were not so 1) institutionalized; 2) focused on mainstream writing and comprehensive; and 3) utterly interwoven with academe. I say this while noting that yes, &Now took place at a major public university and most of its participants are part of academe, but I got the feeling less of being of the university system than in it. Some of the writers I met made it quite clear they were not teaching and, at least for the time being, were not planning to. In any case, the focus was on writing, literature, creative work, play. It was refreshing to see a range of approaches to panel presentations and performances, which included but were not limited to--on my panel alone, organized and led by Tisa Bryant--improvisatory rapping and dancing (Ronaldo V. Wilson); a talk smartly invoking astronomy and physics (Lillian Bertram); a pre-recorded audio track, with more verbal play than a shelf of hiphop CDs (Doug Kearney); and a heartfelt, thoughtful discussion about teaching (Ruth Ellen Kocher). And we were one of the first panels of the conference, and the one that addressed the intersections of The Dark Room Collective, Cave Canem and The Black Took Collective (all connected by a colorful human Venn diagram). 

There was a poets' theater/experimental play staged by 1913 Press that was quite provocative and inspiriting. There was another panel that included a fiction writer's on-the-spot transformation into a scarf-wearing medium; a Brazilian Yoruba-inspired Tarot reading; a conceptual art performance; a sharp paper bringing together magic and feminism; and a discussion of how creating an art book provided a means through writer's block. And on it continued, culminating, at least for me, since I had to return on Saturday (though the conference continued through that day), with a reading and Q&A involving two writers I have long revered, Percival Everett and Lynne Tillman. This kind of conference practice creates an environment in which the focus is on experiment, conversation, exchange. This is not to say that people were not struggling with all the usual anxieties that (American) academe and the (American) literary world induce, chief among them the issues of (any) jobs, publications, departments, tenure and promotions, and so forth. This is also not to say that the bugaboos of racism, sexism and misogyny, homophobia, classism, and so on also did not rear their heads, and in fact, at one reading, a poet (whom I know and did speak to about this right after the event finished) managed to combine the first two issues in spectacularly problematic fashion (you know how it is when someone is digging a hole and can't seem to stop himself). But there was much more going on, and even the people laying down rough patches appeared willing to discuss what they had done. That was a very positive aspect of the conference.

Ruth Kocher, Lillian Bertram, Tisa Bryant, yours truly
(photo © Latasha N. Nevada Diggs)

In general, the atmosphere felt far less like the usual conferences I go to, such as the Modern Language Association, the more-relaxed recently attended American Literature Association or MESEA (Society for for Multi-Ethnic Studies: Europe & the Americas) conferences, or the jam-packed AWP, all of which of course have their (important) value. Instead, &Now was much more like the sorts of community-based conferences I used to attend in my 20s, considerably more free-flowing and open and about literature itself, as opposed to the politics and power-plays of academe, bureaucracy, star systems, fame, money, and all the other things that are key elements our post-industrial, neoliberalist, horribly unequal capitalist, corporatized society. Or maybe those conferences--I'm thinking of the Celebration of Black Writing in Philadelphia, where I met the writers Kevin Powell and Major Jackson years ago and learned, sitting in the audience, that Nelson Mandela had been released from jail; or OutWrite, in Boston, which included and involved a large number of people not at anyone's university, not taking classes, but nevertheless writing, on panels and in conversations--were like the usual ones I attend, and I was too green and inattentive to notice.

At any rate, I had a great time, and by Friday morning, I was sufficiently grounded enough to walk to and from the campus from downtown Boulder twice (that day I registered 6.2 miles of walking on my phone pedometer), without falling out. I also walked around the downtown area of Boulder itself a bit, and as I note above, I was concerned about the city's physical state given the saddening post-flood images, but it appeared as though the CU campus and the downtown area, with the exception of a few spots, had not suffered extensive damage, though there were a number of repair crews dotting the landscape, and most of the locals I spoke with at both Naropa and the &Now Festival had also escaped the worst of the storm, though I believe I heard that the co-organizers of the Festival did lose quite a bit in the storm.  The highlight of the Friday panels had an incredibly problematic title--"Colored Bitches in a White Boy's World"--and featured writers Carmen, Lilly Hoang, Jackie Wong, and Sandy Florian. While I was unable to catch the actual discussion (though I heard quite a bit about it), I did make it to their Q&A, where the exchanges were insightful, respectful, and, I think and hope, productive and generative for many people in the room. (That title, though!) In between the panels and readings, there was enjoyable meeting, listening, talking, sharing, thinking, amidst equally enjoyable bibulousness, which included a secret/semi-hidden bar, a longstanding dive, a colleague's lovely home, and a restaurant with a piano player (not a player piano) who was trying his best to deafen everyone present.

Many thanks to the organizers and all the participants. The next &Now Festival will take place in 2015, on the campus of California Institute of the Arts, in Valencia, California, north of Los Angeles. I hope to be there. Here are some photos from the event. If I can post one of the videos I'll do that too! Enjoy.

Ruth Ellen Kocher

Ruth Ellen Kocher, poet and CU professor

Lillian Bertram

Lillian Bertram, at the What the Dark Cave Took panel

Ronaldo Wilson at the What the Dark Cave Took panel

Ronaldo V. Wilson

Ben Dollar & Sandra Dollar (dancing)

Ben Dollar and Sandra Dollar, at the 1913 Press play-performance

At the 1913 Press play-event-performance

The cast of Victory overthe Sun

Ronaldo and Sandra dancing

Ronaldo V. Wilson and Sandra Dollar dancing

Ronaldo and Sandra

Ronaldo and Sandra dancing

At the 1913 Press play-event-performance

Lee Ann Brown, the "sun," rising again

More photos after the jump:

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Gukira on Kangemi & Westgate

Businessman Abdul Haji crouches near an elephant
sculpture in the mall during the attack
(© Goran Tomasevic / Reuters / REUTERS)
There are probably very few people who could approach the tragic Westgate Shopping Mall attack and, with insightful brilliance link it to other events in Kenya as well as to a broader understanding of disposability as Gukira does here, so in case you have not headed over to his site, below is a small snippet, and here's a link to the full post: "two places."

Following the Kangemi demolitions, many Kangemi residents protested the government’s actions. They blocked roads, set tires on fire, raged and mourned. They mourned that their lives were so disposable; they raged that their livelihoods had no value. With very few exceptions, Kenya remained silent. These were not lives worth valuing. A death in Kangemi is not worth mourning. 
Reports indicate that president Uhuru Kenyatta was personally affected by Westgate—a nephew and his fiancée were killed. Photographs from Westgate have traveled across the world. We know names and faces and occupations and relationships.
Who will grieve with the mourners?
For the past few months, I have been thinking about disposability, about its reach and grasp and ever-expanding power. And while I continue to learn from Judith Butler about whose lives are grievable, about who is deemed worth grieving, thinking about disposability leads me to ask about killability.
To be disposable is to be ungrievable. Not to merit grief or thought. We have other words for this: acceptable losses, collateral damage. Yet, disposability is not passive, not simply a category into which we place the ungrievable. Instead, it is a hungry logic and practice. It becomes ever-more voracious as it eats. 
Copyright © Gukira 2013, All rights reserved.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

New York Art Book Fair

Last weekend, I finally had the opportunity to catch the New York Art Book Fair, which the bookstore Printed Matter, Inc. organized and held at MoMA PS1, Long Island City, Queens. The Fair, which convenes all manner of art book artists and publishers, including creators of zines, fine art books, magazines and journals, art prose publications, and ephemera, ran from September 20-22, with a preview on September 19 on the steps of MoMA PS1, which featured a live set from MASKS, a New York City-based dance music duo, comprising Alexis Georgopoulos and Max Ravitz, along with basement house star Terekke (aka Matt Gardner).

There were a number of publications and publishers I was familiar with, ranging from Yale University Press to Butt, but there were far more that I'd never heard of before, such as B&D Press, and had I thought to bring cash with me (which I will do next year), since many of the exhibitors were not accepting credit or debit cards, I would have purchased many more of the (refreshingly and) relatively inexpensive smaller publications. (I did pick up a replica of a Joseph Beuys felt business card; it is as strange and fascinating as it sounds.) I also will give myself more time to walk through all the booths and view the related exhibits. There was a room at PS1 dedicated to the work of Ray Johnson, one of my favorite artists, that I raced through in part because it was crowded and in part because I'd allotted myself only so much time to see the entire exhibit before I was to meet a friend in Manhattan for a late afternoon lunch.

Next year, I plan to check things out early and over several days. Given how much there was to see, I almost wish it ran for a week. Below are photos from the event.

New York Art Book Fair, PS 1, Queens
A portion of the crowd on MoMa PS1's stairs
(there was a performance on the landing)
New York Art Book Fair, PS 1, Queens
The geodesic dome exhibition space in the courtyard
New York Art Book Fair, PS 1, Queens
Artist Carlos Quispe and another exhibitor
New York Art Book Fair, PS 1, Queens
The Butt table (with related publications)
New York Art Book Fair, PS 1, Queens
New York Art Book Fair, PS 1, Queens
New York Art Book Fair, PS 1, Queens
Bear art exhibitors
New York Art Book Fair, PS 1, Queens
A medium giving tarot readings
New York Art Book Fair, PS 1, Queens
Artist-author Eloisa Aquino, signing a copy of one of her
Famous Butch Dykes zines
New York Art Book Fair, PS 1, Queens
More photos after the jump:

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Introducing Cynthia Cruz + Poem: Cynthia Cruz

Cynthia Cruz and Ruth Ozeki
Last Tuesday, on September 17, Rutgers University in Newark's MFA Program held its first Fall 2013 Writers @ Newark reading, which featured poet Cynthia Cruz and fiction writer Ruth Ozeki. I was asked to introduce Cynthia Cruz, a poet whose work I was not previously familiar with, but whom I had the pleasure of reading and thinking about in the weeks leading up to the reading.

Below is my introduction, and here is a link to upcoming Rutgers-Newark MFA readings. Please do attend if you can!


Broken, remade: out of the wrack of experience, of language, from life's and the imagination's wrecks and ruins, Cynthia Cruz crafts--poems, moments of lyric intensity so sharp they pierce you, like a necklace of thorns, like a hypodermic needle, like an apperception flooding into your consciousness and overwhelming it such that you will not easily see the same way again. These poems do not say: life is beautiful. They do not say: Life is easy. They do not say: Life is what you want it to to be or what make of it. These poems, in their accounting for anomie, for loss, for death, for the living that can be a kind of dying and the fast steep slope downwards into the recognition of our human limits do say: it is rarely easy to make something beautiful out of what you have lived, what you have imagined, but here is how you might do it.

In Cynthia Cruz's poetry there is a rhyming, of form, condensed to its essence like diamonds, and content, the saying what has to be said and could not be expressed any other way, producing a semantic and aural surplus. Less here is always more:

 His hands were moving like the twin engines
 But his lips unzipped my pants.
 He told me, in a voice of cold pennies,
 You're the prettiest boy I've ever seen.
 In a wasted field of spirit-weed, a few miles
 Off the interstate, a lost trucker gentled me
 With his slow song of longing.
  -- "Traveling Gospel," from Ruin

There is no decoration here, no trying to figure out what to do with evident gifts, but a great deal of music, coruscating, indelible, the imagery and rhetoric consonant with a capacity for imagining and inhabiting, as fully and poetically as possible, other selves, including ones that only language itself can summon. One you have read their prophesies, as in her series of poems in The Glimmering Room called "Strange Gospels," you might not be so sure where you really going or what will come.
The poems say: this is what poetry can do. These poems say: you may want to look away but you cannot, and the knowledge you gain may not save your life but it will make you look and think. These poems say: if you have such a powerful tool as poetry this is one way to use it.

 Sun leaking through
 The open screen like a planet, seething.
 They say the first five years define you.
 The first five years are missing from my memory.
 -- "Strange Gospels," from The Glimmering Room

Cynthia Cruz was born in Germany and raised in Northern California. She is the author of Ruin (Alice James Books), and The Glimmering Room (Four Way Books). She has received fellowships from Yaddo and the MacDowell Colony, as well as a Hodder Fellowship from Princeton University. Her poems have been published in The American Poetry Review, Boston Review, Kenyon Review, The New Yorker, The Paris Review, and other periodicals. She lives in Brooklyn.

And a poem by Cynthia Cruz:


Pharmaceutica Fantastica, wild
What the mind will do

When memory's delicate template
Has been removed.

Substandard State
Hospital corridors, liquid like

Rubber cement inhaled
By children. Sweet

Sister of the biosphere
Called Nurse Station

Hands out meds
And Halloween candy.

We stand in the Tundra of

Waiting for our lives
Never to begin.

Copyright © Cynthia Cruz, from The Glimmering Room, New York: Four Way Books, 2012, p. 46. All rights reserved.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

RIP Donald Agarrat + Kofi Awoonor

Hot Shot Donald Andrew Agarrat
Donald Agarrat (photo © Jen Bekman, from Flickr)
Two days ago, I learned via a Facebook post that Donald Agarrat, a photographer and web designer C and I have known for about a decade and a half, had passed away. There were no details. Subsequent posts from his friend, author, editor and archivist Steve Fullwood, have revealed that Donald was found dead in his apartment. He lived alone in Harlem. While Donald and I were not running buddies, we maintained an acquaintance that became a friendship over the years, especially via the net, and were linked on Flickr, Twitter, and, first and foremost, our blogs (he had inaugurated several different versions of Anzi Design). I first came to know of him online, and then in person via mutual friends, and quickly learned about his web design work, which many people affirmed and swore by. I soon learned of his photography, an art genre for which he had real talent, such that his work was highlighted, as part of its Harlem Postcards series, by The Studio Museum in Harlem. I also would run into him when he worked at Tek-Serve in the Village, but once I went out to Chicago, we communicated mainly online.
Donald Agarrat, the great photographer & person, @ Schomburg Ctr.
Donald in June (photo by John Keene)
Donald was a gentle, witty, often hilarious soul, someone deeply rooted in the communities (black, queer/sgl, artists, tech, and more) to which he belonged, all of which he affirmed in his life and work, and he had eyes and a face so expressive they could stop traffic, a smile that was unforgettable. I associate him not only with the visual but with the music he loved. Many were the times he would send a message letting friends know about an upcoming show he hoped to attend. I feel fortunate to have been able to hang out with him this past June, when my dear friend Tisa Bryant came to town to read and participate in a public conversation at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. Donald was there, taking pictures he posted to Flickr, images that capture more than just what happened but the life of any given moment, the person beneath the face, something richer and more soulful, something beautiful. I snapped a photo of him that I have posted above; we talked at dinner little afterwards, and later as we all walked through Harlem. It was too brief; I wish I had called him to hang out more since I've been back. I also don't think he received his due as an artist, but many people I know appreciated him and his work, as I did and do. We will all miss him. As I wrote on Twitter, one of the spaces in which we chatted from time to time, the flowers of his soul will be with us always.''

Donald's family is raising money to bury him properly. If you want to and can contribute, you may do so here: Donald Agarrat Memorial Fund.


Kofi Awoonor
We have all heard of yesterday's horrific Al-Shabaab attack on the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi, Kenya. As I write this entry, 68 people are said to have been killed, and over a hundred wounded. The Kenyan military has tweeted that it has rescued most of the hostages, but it remains unclear whether or not they have captured or subdued the assailants, who were vowing earlier to no negotations. Among the many killed in this horrible event was one of the greatest living Anglophone African poets, 78-year-old Ghanaian éminence grise, former diplomat and government official Kofi Awoonor (b. 1935), who was attending the Storymoja Hay Festival, a four-day gathering of storytelling and writing in Nairobi, and who was shopping with his son when the Al-Shabaab attackers burst in. Awoonor was slated to read the evening he was killed.  His son, though wounded, is expected to fully recover from his injuries.

Kofi Awoonor was born in Ghana when it was still a British colony known as The Gold Coast, and began publishing his poetry in the 1960s under the name George Awoonor-Williams. His work, which included poetry, novels, plays and essays, is perhaps most strongly informed by his native Ewe oral traditions (his grandmother was an Ewe dirge-singer), though one can also see parallels in the later poems to other emergent African poetries of the independence era and African Diasporic poetries, as well as the influences of the Modernist-era and mid-century Anglophone lyric.

Awoonor studied at the University of Ghana and University College, London, and lived in exile in the United States in the 1970s, where he received his PhD at and served as chairman of the department of comparative literature at SUNY Stony Brook and published two of his major books, the novel-in-verse This Earth, My Brother and the poetry collection The Night of My Blood.

After returning to Ghana to teach at the University of the Cape Coast, he was imprisoned in 1975 on the pretext of participation in a coup, which sparked worldwide condemnation. He also served as Ghana's ambassador to Cuba and Brazil in the 1980s, and as the country's 8th Permanent Representative (Ambassador) to the United Nations from 1990-1994, where he headed the committee against Apartheid. Earlier he had served as Ghana's Chairman of the Council of State.

The University of Nebraska Press, in conjunction with the African Poetry Book Series, established by the editor of Prairie Schooner, the eminent Ghanaian-Jamaican poet and editor Kwame Dawes, is slated to publish Awoonor's New and Selected Poems: 1964-2013 next year, with an introduction by fellow Ghanaian poet and scholar Kofi Anyidoho. It was to be perhaps one capstone to an exceptional career, but the book will now also serve as a tribute to a poet, statesman, teacher, mentor, and friend to countless other writers, across Ghana, across Africa, across Africa, and all over the globe. As Kwame Dawes wrote on Twitter: “Kofi Awoonor's death is a sad sad moment here in Nairobi. We have lost one of the greatest African poets and diplomats. I've lost my uncle. I woke hoping that the news I got late in the night was false.”


The weaver bird built in our house
And laid its eggs on our only tree
We did not want to send it away

We watched the building of the nest
And supervised the egg-laying.
And the weaver returned in the guise of the owner
Preaching salvation to us that own the house
They say it came from the west
Where the storms at the sea has felled the gulls
And the fishers dried their nets by the lantern light
Its sermon is the divination of ourselves
And over new horizons limit at its nest
But we cannot join the prayers and the answers of the communicants.
We look for new homes every day,
For new altars we strive to rebuild
The old shrines defiled from the weaver’s excrement

Copyright © Kofi Awoonor, from Poetry Foundation Ghana, 2013. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Gayatri Spivak & Anne Carson @ NYU

Gayatri Spivak after her talk
This blog post's title suggests that in some strange confluence two eminent contemporary figures, Gayatri Spivak and Anne Carson, perhaps appeared together at New York University. But that was not the case. This past Thursday, both Spivak and Carson spoke at New York University, though they did so at completely different venues. I do wonder what it would be like to bring them together; what might the points of connection and contact be? Where might their thought intersect? Have they read each other? Something tells me that given the prominence of Spivak's theoretical production and Carson's poetry, perhaps they have at least familiarized themselves, however briefly, with each other's work.

Spivak delivered a talk entitled "Democracy and Representation" that Arjun Appadurai introduced and which NYU's Department of Media, Culture, and Communication hosted, with additional funding from the NYU Africana Studies Program, the Comparative Literature Department, and the Anglophone Project in the English Department. Ostensibly her aim was to speak about the problem of political representation in light of structures and practices international democracy, through a discussion of the late Patrice Lumumba, the first democratically-elected leader of a free Congo (now the Democratic Republic of Congo), who Belgian forces, in collusion with the United States, assassinated shortly after he took office. Her talk was then to shift into a discussion of a new "epistemology for engaging the contemporary by working through the inter-animation between postcoloniality and democracy." She in fact did talk about these issues, but she also spoke extensively, sometimes in Bengali, about her projects working with subalterns in India, and she offered informative sallies, often brimming with generosity, of a range of issues, including the relationship between "democracy" and social justice, the role of ancestor worship in Raoul Peck's Lumumba versus Jacques Brassine's deeply flawed colonialist post-colonial documentary Spectres, Belgium's and European colonization's roles in the spread of HIV in Congo, the reality of "sustained underdevelopment," and the Occupy Movement.

One aspect of her talk that I found most compelling was her discussion of her efforts toward what she called "supplementing vanguardism," which is to say, helping to create a subaltern intellectual, in terms that Antonio Gramsci articulated a century ago. As she noted, she has aimed for "intellectual labor conversations," viewing her work in part as "using intellectual labor to produce intellectual labor in students," moreso than merely imparting information. This, one might say, is part ofthe knew epistemology she was trying to fashion. She went on to talk about this work as "epistemological performance," and, against the obsession with STEM, talked about the necessity for a "training of the imagination," an "aesthetic imagination," which she correlated with "the humanities at work." She also juxtaposed this with the growing systematization and statistization of human development measurement, urging that it be supplemented by the humanities, that a different approach from that of "capital and colony" be taken into account, that we engage in "imaginative activism." As part of her broader critique, she noted that "underdevelopment" did not begin with capitalist colonization, and that this would be clearer if we moved questions of development away from the statistical development model, but that one way to do this was through this imaginative activism, utilizing the power of the humanities at work, but this must entail going beyond mere "activist writing," which could become self-referential and self-satisfied, but have few direct or practical effects for subalterns engaged in struggle. Moreover, political passion alone cannot suffice either. As she said, and as we know just from US history, organization, coalition building, direct action, and other forms of mobilization beyond immediate demands and protests for action, are necessary; "political passion, even when it is incandescent, cannot lead to permanent political structures." (Gramsci, I believe, thinking about Croce.)

There was one moment toward the end when a questioner asked Spivak to explain an incredibly complex formulation that she had made in her talk, and warned the audience about in terms of its difficulty, and, as I have seen her do now many times of the years (at the University of Virginia, at Northwestern, etc.), she basically diagrammed her formulation such that it was not only comprehensible but almost dizzying once you realized what she was saying. I will only say that it involved a formulation about reproductive heteronormativity and its relation to the autonormativity of ideas. At any rate, she returned several times during the Q&A to her emphasis on the necessity of training the imagination to think what is not there, to resisting the impulse to think only of oneself, to using whatever tools--including our two hands--to produce resistance, and to praising the emergence of structures and entities like the Khan Academy, which she nevertheless said must be supplemented by "imaginative training." There was a brief, powerful quote she uttered that I repeated at the MoCADA event, with attribution to her, about how Gramsci noted that "the subaltern is denied the right to abstraction." A great deal of what she has done and continues to do is to challenge this idea, to show and make possible access, among subaltern peoples, to "abstraction," the tools of social justice and liberation. There is, she noted, good and bad in everything; how to understand the difference, and make use of the better aspects of what's around us, including abstract structures such as democracy, money, the law, particularly in the face of the increasing subalternization of the 99%, remains the challenge. This reminds me of Clay's speech to Lula at the end of Amiri Baraka's Dutchman, in which he tell Lula how dangerous he and other black people could be if they use the Enlightenment tools, chiefly reason, instead of sublimating their oppression and transforming it into art. How to use those tools, without losing sight of that aesthetic dimension, is part of what Spivak spoke so evocatively and persuasively about that night.

Having written all of that about Spivak, I must admit that I have less to say about Anne Carson, though she was no less invigorating, in a different way. The MacArthur Foundation Fellow and NYU Distinguished Poet-in-Residence received an affirmative introduction by NYU Creative Writing Program head Joanne Landau, and, it turns out, was reading for the first time in a while at NYU without her husband and frequent collaborator, Robert Currie. She primarily read from her latest work Red Doc> (Knopf, 2013), which takes up the thread of Geryon, the strange, red, unforgettable monster-child from her earlier work, the brilliant novel-in-verse The Autobiography of Red (Knopf, 1998), but she also read assorted older and newer work, including one of the best things I've ever heard from her, one of her dialogues titled "Krapp House," in which she imagines Samuel Beckett's eponymous protagonist from his play Krapp's Last Tape conducting TV interviews various notable historical figures and literary characters. In the "Krapp House" interview she read, Krapp was interviewing Helen of Troy, who made a monstrous choice of her own--captured women vs. her dog; I'll leave J's Theater readers to figure out what Helen did, but let it be said that Carson can treat the profundity of horror, self-absorption, and ethical quandaries, among so many other things, as well as anyone. She ended the event with participatory short talks that were like delicious candies handed out to all who attended. Few writers can bring the house up, then down, then back up again, as deftly as she can. I now will keep my eye ready for announcements about new performances of Red Doc> or anything else she and "Currie," as she called him, are up to.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Jersey City Book Festival

This Saturday brought the 6th Annual Jersey City Book Festival, "A Tale of Our Cities," sponsored by the Jersey City Public Library and the Jersey City Department of Cultural Affairs at beautiful Van Vorst Park in downtown Jersey City, which I must admit I had never heard about until 1) Evie Shockley mentioned it to me on Friday and 2) Vincent Czyz sent me an email alerting me that it was happening. If I count back 6 years, that brings me to 2008, so I would have missed it anyway every fall except for 2009, when I had a rare sabbatical and was back in Jersey City, but I don't remember a book fair then, and I try to pay attention to what's happening on this side of the river as much as I do the excitements across the Hudson.

Nevertheless, though its existence was news to me I went, stopped the various tables, and listened to part of a reading by one of our many local authors. More like the Harlem Book Fair and less like the Brooklyn Book Festival, the authors were preponderantly self-published, though some smaller houses were present, as was the Rutgers University Press, which was doing a brisk business, as I witnessed and as an author at a nearby table told me, though neither of the reps behind the cordillera of RUP books would deign even to look in my direction. (SAMO.) Given how many books I regularly buy, it was their loss. A local celeb, former Seton Hall University and Utah Jazz baller Luther Wright was present signing his book, as was author Steven Hart, whose book American Dictator seemed to be quite a draw. There was also a vibrant author lineup for children.

One of Jersey City's longtime publishers, Talisman House, which has issued vital volumes by Joseph Lease, William Bronk and others, is no longer based here and thus was not present; they have since moved to Greenfield, Massachusetts. I'm not sure if there are that many independent publishers (The Jersey Journal, Science Fiction and Fantasy Magazine, Poohdolph, and a few others) in Jersey City, though I imagine there must be some in the surrounding areas--not counting, of course, the publishing capital of the United States, New York City--including Newark

I hope that next year the organizers will beat the bushes and try to bring in more publishers, more local writers (I was surprised that none of the authors I know who teach at Jersey City-based or other local institutions like St. Peter's UniversityNew Jersey City University, or Hoboken's Stevens Institute of Technology were on the roster, nor were Rutgers-Newark and New Brunswick colleagues, nor even were local schoolchildren; at the very least, a poetry slam or story-reading event would have been a great addition), and a greater presence of e-publishing and e-books. 

While I was there the event appeared a bit sparsely attended, but I attribute this mostly to the scant publicity. Given the like nice end-of-summer/early fall weather, the ambience of the park, the sizable elevated gazebo and stage, and the ample space, a livelier, better attended book fair is possible. Once Word comes to town, perhaps they'll help jumpstart things. Meanwhile, for an example of a jam-packed (to the point of daze-inducing) book festival, there's that gathering next weekend in Brooklyn.
Vince and his wife, Jersey City Book Festival
Vincent Czyz and his lovely wife
An author speaking to a reader
(the author had written a huge book
about how NYC schoolkids had predicted
the global financial collapse)
Booksellers and an outreach table
Rutgers University Press's table
Reading on the gazebo
A children's book author

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Poem: "Untitled" (After Hugo McCloud, "Untitled")

As part of the poetry reading and discussion "Experimentation and the Black Aesthetic" at The Museum of Contemporary African Diasporic Art (MoCADA) in Brooklyn, organized by my Rutgers colleague and superlative poet and scholar Evie Shockley, and which included amazing poet-theorist-praxtitioner Dawn Lundy Martin and poet and multi-platform artist LaTasha N. Diggs, all four of us wrote new, short pieces in dialogue with/response to one work on display. Since I was on the panel and was unable to take photos, and was one of the participants, I thought I'd share my piece here, to give a flavor of what we were up to. All of us, it seems, chose a painting by Hugo McCloud. Rather than describe it, here's the artwork and what I wrote. Enjoy.

Hugo McCloud, "Untitled", block print series #2, aluminum coating,
 aluminum paper on tar, 60 x 60 inches, 2013.


Silver: shimmer. Sheen as clamor. Calmer, stroking it with vision: the blackground. There is an answer ground into the black. Stroke by stroke, layer by layer. Texture, here in the place of mirror. Into the surface pace. To peer into the space of reflection, the under-surface. Crossing into the space of aporia. Enter it, beyond the sign. Eyeing the face of reflection, between answer and question. Resting momentarily on the surfacing shimmer. The fragile layer which emerges as identity. What stirs in the reflection of the tinseled plane. Pressing, silver limning an opening: seeing. Identities emerging: artist, other. Compress them. What is the absence that lies behind. What surfaces beneath the surface as the event of recognition. Fragile covering as soft as armor. See necessity. Touching discourse. Reflection and absence. Axial, scene. Stroking vision in the aluminum pane. Abstraction: letting go of the metaphor. To let go of the face and enter allegory. Catching the emblem, the flights of coral. The eye as an open road, letting it pass into you. The I as route into and under the inner worlds. What echoes of the idea lingering at the crossroads. Passing through. Lateral music, not literal. To appear in the debris, the unrecovered, mind it. To you, in order to face it. Through you, making it. Peering at the symbol, calling. Beneath the detritus the glittering space. Down into the black. The call that need not ever be concealed comes back. Listen: the noise as the music of a enduring absence under the surface. Calling all viewers. Only then can you know the seeping. In the blueblackground: let it flow.

Copyright © John Keene, 2013. All rights reserved.

Me reading at MoCADA (Evie Shockley on the left, LaTasha
Diggs on the far right. Photo © by David Barclay Moore)

Friday, September 13, 2013

Pattern Recognition: Reading/Panel @ MoCADA in BKYN Tonight!

If you are in or around Brooklyn this evening, drop by MoCADA to catch PATTERN RECOGNITION, an amazing exhibit of contemporary abstract art, and then stay for the reading and conversation I'll be participating in!


Friday, September 13
6:30-8:30PM | MoCADA

Evie Shockley, author of the new black and Renegade Poetics: Black Aesthetics and Formal Innovation in African American Poetry, will join celebrated innovative poets LaTasha N. Diggs, John Keene, and Dawn Lundy Martin for a reading and discussion on craft, language, politics and the search for a “black aesthetic” in contemporary art. 

Seating is limited, please arrive early. Wine will be served and author books will be available in the MoCADA Shop. $3 contribution.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Meditations on 9/11

1. More than anything about the World Trade Center before 2001, I remember the subterranean maze of the concourse, always pulsing with the hustle and bustle of people zooming from one set of trains to the next, gliding from restaurants to stores, moving, always moving beneath the vast, windy, unwelcoming plaza. I remember sitting upstairs outside and hearing a jazz band perform there, its melodies wafting off in the relentless summer air. I remember holding down food wrappers so that they wouldn't blow away as I tried to each lunch; I remember always perceiving the impossibly tall towers looming above as so high and immense that it dizzied me to look up as I stood beneath them. I remember going up to the top, to the observation area, and feeling something akin to vertigo, despite the sublime portrait of the city spreading out before me. I did it once and vowed I would never do it again. For years I could not grasp the geography of the plaza, the train stations, the streets, anything of that portion of lower Manhattan above ground, but the concourse I grasped almost immediately. Even today when I ascend the steep escalators from the lower level where the PATH trains power in from New Jersey, in almost Pavlovian fashion I look for that concourse. My memory walks it even if I follow the new route, fully understood and memorized, towards the terminal at Fulton Street.

2. In 2000, I read in the Barnes & Noble beneath the World Trade Center towers, with Asha Bandele. I cannot remember who invited us, or why we were paired together, but I recall enjoying meeting her, and I recall the reading, at which she read from her memoir The Prisoner's Wife, and I read poems. New York 1 taped and broadcast us, and the screening of that reading provided me with the only bit of public fame I have ever had (outside of a childhood performance as John Henry at Loreto-Hilton during the Bicentennial Year, and among adolescent readers of my poetry in Sicily). Several times people recognized me on the street, including in the post office on 10th Street, off 6th Avenue. My poems were nothing to speak of, but one wasn't so bad, a paean to Jackie Robinson and St. Louis, and an old man even blurted out to me, apropos of nothing but his delight at seeing someone from TV, "I liked your baseball poem." That experience seared into my consciousness the power of television, but also made me wonder later what show had broadcast our event, why couldn't I find the email or notes of who had invited me to participate, why everything but the aftermath of the reading was such a blur. I cannot even say that I remember where in that concourse the Barnes & Noble was, though I do know I went in there once or twice just to browse. Does that tape of that reading even still exist, and would it not be too macabre to see it now?

3. On the morning of September 11, 2001...well, I have recounted this many times elsewhere, but I will only say that I had begun the second stage of my commuting-to-teach life, to Providence, for a wonderful year-long stint for which I will always be grateful. That day was the first I was supposed to teach. It goes without saying that it was tumultuous, wrenching, impossible. I did not know if my partner and his colleague were on one of the hijacked, weaponized planes. I did not know if there were other attacks, as the landlady of the little inn where I was lodging asserted, based on what she had seen on TV. We watched it that morning together, in shock and horror. I did not know if I could even bear to teach, or if my students could sit through a class. (I did, they could, we all were nevertheless shaken.) What I most recollect about that day, beyond seeing the towers being attacked on TV, beyond the cars with open doors broadcasting the news, beyond several of my colleagues breaking down in tears, beyond trying, using the rotary phone in the old building where the Creative Writing (Literary Arts) Program was then housed, to reach C and make sure that he was okay, was the seemingly interminable faculty meeting I and everyone else had to sit through, some of the senior people on the verge of breaking down. We went through every bullet point on the agenda. Every single one. I don't, however, remember getting my university ID card, which still bears the proof that it was issued that afternoon: September 11, 2001.

4. The hysteria and spectacle that rightly or wrongly followed the terrible events of 9/11 caught and continue to snare us in their net. On the train I rode back to New York the following day, September 12, a phalanx of police--local, state, auxiliary, etc.--scoured every car, with dogs and machine guns in tow, based on the report of man in a turban carrying a knife. The terrorists had seen fit to continue, by way of Providence. It turned out to be a Sikh passenger carrying his ritual knife, though I did not learn this until the train finally was pulling into New York City, which was on high alert given the tragedy that had just unfolded and was still ongoing. I and everyone else got off that train even more frazzled that we could have imagined. There were more reports and accounts of attacks or strange incidents on the day of the attacks and in the days after, but all were but immediately efflorescences, soon to lose their horrible blooms, of a trauma that lingered, that still lingers, a decade on.

5. In the days and weeks, in the months after 9/11, New York City felt ghostly--figuratively, and literally. There was the gravesite, a smoldering wound, at which thousands of people had died, and legions were working heroically to search. There were the many people who had lost loved ones, the many who had escaped, the many, like a friend of ours who was living in Battery Park City at the time, who lost everything but their lives, and were displaced. There was a vulnerability and fear so raw they might erupt like a volcano, and a resolve and determination as strong as the most tempered armor. But what was going to become of New York? And to a lesser degree, New Jersey, which is always hasped to the city but so easily and readily forgotten? Friends of ours moved away; they couldn't deal with the undiminished horror, the danger, the uncertainty. Some went "home"; some moved to Atlanta; some just scattered to wherever life took them. One of my closest friends, a brilliant man, began to suffer a nervous breakdown shortly after the attacks from which he never recovered. He is, the last I heard, still homeless. Every September the city holds its memorial for those lost in the attacks, and there is a memorial museum which will anchor memories for the rest of time; the site where they occurred is transforming into a New York-style zone of nostalgia and commerce; and the empty storefronts and makeshift tributes and scars of 12 years ago are mostly erased, having given way to luxury skyscrapers and bike lanes and bedizened parks and a level of prosperity, at least among the super-rich, to rival the Gilded Age. The wound remains, if concealed. All who lived through that moment carry it around, and those who have arrived since do to, even if they cannot feel or imagine it.

6. That wound: the city, the country, and the globe have never fully recovered. The horrific attacks became the pretext for wrongheaded, unending wars, a monstrous hyper-surveillance and security state, a military-industrial complex so out of control, so rapacious, that we are yet again at the precipice of an unnecessary, ill-conceived, potentially disastrous intervention that an overwhelming majority of Americans, and people across the globe, do not want to occur. We have a nebulous "War on Terror" that is as unjustifiable today as it was shortly after 9/11. Meanwhile, so many basic questions surrounding the 9/11 attacks have never been answered satisfactorily. We have rampant spying on American citizens and, as we have learned from Edward Snowden's disclosures, on everyone and everything across the globe that moves or breathes, have had it since before 9/11, but we still have no assurance that the basic sharing of classified, flagged information, that would have prevented or at least stunted the attacks in 2001, is occurring. Despite the fact that Russia tried to warn the US about one of the terror suspects in the Boston Marathon bombing, he was still able to proceed to his murderous goals. Yet we are told lie after lie about the entire security apparatus we are living under, at the same time we hear the word freedom uttered as readily as greetings. Are we free? Were we ever? We certainly are, by many measures, far less free. That is one of the wounds we all live with. All the airport security theater, the secret courts and unwarranted warrantless wiretapping, the cameras on every corner and in every hallway, the truly nefarious militarization of law enforcement, and of our culture: these are all signs of that still open wound. They are symptoms of a fever that has not broken. They are the residue of our inability to deal with the root causes of what led to those terrible attacks. Someday, perhaps in my lifetime, we will come together and figure out why we did not do what we needed to before the fact, why we persist in the grip of our delusion, why we cannot rightly diagnose the problem, ourselves, and prescribe the right medicine. We do not have to live this way. But we will continue to unless we recognize why we do.

7. I wrote, on the train heading and returning, on the comforter-covered bed in the inn where I stayed, at my desk at our old apartment from which we once could see the Empire State Building, the Chrysler Building, and the Twin Towers, a short piece, a fragment, that was to be the beginning of a longer work. I was never able to finish it. I published it in an anthology edited by the friend of a friend, a professor at NYU. I had not thought it dealt at all with 9/11, but it was if I had distilled the moment before and the long period after into a dialogue, or monologue, depending, that could not go any further. The echo of that failure, of the absent text that was supposed to precede what I had written, haunted me for years. I used to think, if only I could have forced it, but those voices were meant to go where they were meant to go.

7. I am mildly obsessed with photographing--to the point of having to stop myself at times--the new World Trade Center Tower, the Freedom Tower, which may not be its name any longer and which sounds jingoistic and hyperbolic, though I have that name stuck in my head and when I see the tower, which is visible from Jersey City, from Hoboken, from Bayonne, from many a vista in Manhattan, which looms above everything, that name comes to mind. It has not erased the Twin Towers in my mind, but it has joined them. I see the one tower but somewhere, in a chamber of my thinking, there are three. Tonight the original two are columns of bluish-white light, but when I pass by the solid, impregnable base of the new tower, the Freedom Tower, a giant obelisk of steel and glass and who knows what else, those invisible towers, that unmanageable plaza, the phantasm of that teaming concourse return. The head can hold as much or more than it can bear. Memory can hold even more. We cannot and must not forget what happened on September 11, 2001, or all who died that day and afterwards as a result of the attacks, or all those who essentially gave their lives and health in the process of rescue and recovery, or all those who lost loved ones and continue on with those losses inside. We cannot and must not forget as well what has transpired since those attacks, what we as a nation have become, what sense of the world we had as a people, and what it will take to recover it.

Bill de Blasio's [Near?-]Victory (& Secret Weapon) + UPDATE

Dante, Chiara, Bill and Chirlane de Blasio
(© David Handschuh, New York Daily News)
Below I've posted bit of silliness from one of my little drawing notebooks, though this post is about the serious and very positive outcome of last night's New York City Mayoral primary, which was the victory (perhaps without a runoff) of Brooklyn City Councilman Bill de Blasio over his Democratic rivals Bill Thompson (the 2009 opponent of retiring Mayor Mike Bloomberg), City Councilor and Bloomberg ally Christine Quinn, disgraced former Congressman Anthony Weiner, former City Comptroller and Councilman John Liu, and several other candidates. De Blasio needed 40% of the vote to avoid a runoff against the second-place finisher (Thompson, who finished with 26%) and appears to have just crossed that line, but all the votes have not yet been counted so if his margin does not hold up, there will be a runoff election in three weeks. The possibility of this became Bill Thompson's chant last night.   Even if there is a runoff, de Blasio is leading in the polls, and will likely trounce the mumbling Republican victor,  Joe Lhota, former MTA head and deputy mayor to Rudy Giuliani. The three Republicans running together received fewer votes that third-place Democratic candidate Quinn, a portent of what the outcome will be in the general election.

Just a few months ago De Blasio was listing in fourth place behind Quinn, Weiner and Thompson, but the combination of increased exposure to Quinn's record, Weiner's disastrous scandal, and Thompson's waffling on the New York Police Department "stop and frisk" policy opened up a space for one of the two most progressive candidates running. (Liu's politics are decidedly to the left of the other Democrats, and he was an outspoken critic of "stop and frisk," but the whiff of financial impropriety, linked to his prior campaign and a major funder, kept him in single digits throughout.)  What boosted De Blasio's profile were his insistent push for economic policies that differed from those of the Bloomberg era, and the brilliant debut of a campaign commercial featuring a 15-year-old, brown-skinned prodigiously afroed young man named Dante, who speaks personally about the "stop and frisk" policy, and who reveals only at the political ad's end that he is, in fact, Bill de Blasio's son. Perhaps there was no direct correlation, but after the ad aired, de Blasio's star began to rise and it soared all the way to the campaign's end. It neutralized Thompson's support among black voters and reflected for Democratic-leaning voters a reality, embodied by de Blasio's family, of the city most of them live in; not just one brimming with hipsters and billionaires, but the largest, most racially, ethnically and religiously diverse city in the US. De Blasio also won over women and LGBTIQ voters from Quinn, who, had she emerged as the front-runner, would have been New York City's first woman and lesbian (i.e., openly gay) mayor.

De Blasio will face an array of challenges when he takes office. First among them will be negotiating both back wages and new contracts with the city's various unions. There will also be the issue of future pension funding, a responsibility that is the direct purview of the city's comptroller, a job that former Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer won over former governor and Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, but over which the mayor will have some say. Another pressing issue will be to find a way, at a time of tremendous, increasing economic inequality and government complacency about unemployment and the housing crisis, to create more and better-paying jobs for poor, working-class and middle-class New Yorkers. Under Bloomberg the city has increasingly expanded its tech sector, but the job opportunities remain stratified, with little for average New Yorkers in a city that is already among the most expensive in the world. Whether De Blasio will continue the positive, visionary aspects of Bloomberg's tenure (quality-of-life improvements like the bike lanes; advance planning and transformation of the city's infrastructure in preparation for mega-storms caused by global warming, etc.) is unclear. De Blasio might have visionary plans of his own that will benefit a wide array of city residents and visitors. He inherits a city that works in many ways but doesn't in others. Building upon the former while addressing the latter are tall challenges, but de Blasio looks more than capable enough to meet them.

UPDATE: As of today, Friday, September 13, 2013, 70,000 votes remain to be counted in the Democratic primary. These emergency, absentee and affidavit ballots, mainly in predominantly black neighborhoods, could break for Thompson or de Blasio, or perhaps for another candidate, so they should be counted. I must note that in 2009, Mike Bloomberg defeated Bill Thompson by only 50,597 votes total, in the general election for the mayorship. So counting and certifying all the votes is crucial, and Thompson should stay in the race until this happens, even if that means a run-off. De Blasio still seems poised for a victory in that contest, and in the general race against Joe Lhota.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Translation: Three Microstories by Alexander Kluge

Alexander Kluge
Obergrenze der Raublust
Ein Raubtier, das sich von Adlern und Löwen ernährt, braucht eine Heimat von der Grösse ganz Schottlands. So wie Macbeth und der "Zug der Schattenkönige", die er ermordete, eine Unterwelt brauchen, die von Schottland bis Gibraltar reicht. Dieser Raumbedarf setzt der Raubtiergrösse innerhalb der Evolution Grenzen.

Rapacity's Upper Limit
A predator that feeds on eagles and lions needs a home the size of all of Scotland. Just as Macbeth and the "pull of the shadow king" that he murdered need an underworld spanning Scotland to Gibraltar. This space requirement comprises predator size within evolution's limits.


Stufen des Lebens
Vier Stufen sind es vom Plankton zum Mörderwal. Die Stufe vom Wal zum massiven Walfangschiff in japanischer Bauweise erzeugt keinen zusätzlichen biologischen Tatbestand, behauptet der Analytiker T. Sachse, es sei denn, man betrachtet die gierigen Mäuler der Walesser und die Einfüllstutzen der Maschinen, mit denen Walöl geschmeidig und als Putzmittel geeignet gemacht wird (oder die Interaktion zwischen Greenpeace und den Walfängern), als eine Stufe des Lebens.

Stages of Life
There are four stages from plankton to killer whale. The stage from the whale to the massive whaling ship under Japanese construction generates no additional biological facts, the analyst T. Sachse says, unless one considers the greedy mouths of the whale eater and the filler pipes of the machines by which whale oil is rendered supple and as an appropriate cleaning agent (or the interaction between Greenpeace and the whalers), as a stage of life.


Ende des Lebens
Ein junger Russe des Jahrgangs 1929, der 1937  beide Eltern verloren hatte, übernachtete als 82jähriger in dem Berlin Hotel "Brandenburger Hof" und ging noch spätabends durch die Strasse des Scheunenviertels, die er als Soldat 1945 zum letzten Mal gesehen hatte. Steine des Trottoirs, unregelmässig geworden durch Kriegseinwirkung, lagen noch so desolat wie damals frisches Gras dazwischen. Während rings Neubauten prangten, zu denen er keine Verbindung mehr aufnahm.

End of Life
A young Russian of 1929 vintage who in 1937 had lost both parents stayed until the age of 82 at Berlin Hotel "Brandenburger Hof" and ventured out late at night through the streets of the Barn Quarter, which he had last seen as a soldier in 1945. The pavement's stones, having become irregular as a result of the war damage, still lay as desolate as the once fresh grass in between them. While all around blazed new buildings, to which he no longer held any connection.
--Copyright © Alexander Kluge, from Das fünfte Buch: Neue Lebensläufe, 402 Geschichten. Berlin: Suhrkamp Verlag, 2012, p. 526, p. 528, 519 respectively. Copyright © all translations by John Keene, 2013. All rights reserved.

Thursday, September 05, 2013

Goodbye to the Summer / Back in Class

Rutgers undergraduate Paul Robeson
with fellow football players
On Tuesday, I resumed my old new fall rhythm. "Old," because I have been teaching for more than a decade now (though last year started at Rutgers University in Newark's campus); "new" because instead of my usual gearing up for hopping on a plane to return to a different home and readjust to a different city, I returned to my routine from last fall, and via public and bipedal transportation alone, was standing in front of my class, opening the semester.

As I was riding to campus I realized this past July marked the first time in 13 years--since 2000--that I had spent a continuous year at home (work-related trips excepted) in New Jersey. My prior dozen years weren't itinerant as Erasmus's career, of course, nor comparable to the experiences of numerous friends and colleagues, who have hopscotched all over the country for short-term and longer-term gigs, but it did sear into my consciousness that September equalled leaving home, whether for part of a week (as when I commuted to Providence) or a sizable chunk of each season.

Acclimation to the new rhythms perhaps accounts for why, for the first time in my career, I did not feel the blizzard of nerves that usually overwhelms me before my first course meeting. I still sweated through my clothing, got through only half my notes, and did not copy enough syllabi given the number of students who (since I have tended to assume that they will download it in advance, and my classes have tended to grow at Rutgers after the first week, rather than shrinking), but the flow of teaching went more smoothly, and felt less wracking too.

This was the case even though I am teaching a new preparation, "Foundations of Literary Studies", a required course for English majors, but I am excited about the opportunity to guide students through the material. As part of our first class we read and talked about two of my favorite poems Rainer Maria Rilke's "The Archaic Torso of Apollo" and Gwendolyn Brooks's "we real cool," and this weekend they will read an essay by Terry Eagleton before launching into the first nonfiction prose work (they are reading that genre, as well as poetry, fiction, drama, and graphic literature), The Travels of Dean Mahomet (which is free online at the University of California Press's website, if you want to check it out).

Another aspect of the fall is greater departmental responsibilities with one of my university homes. With two of my colleagues, including my chair, in African American and African Studies on sabbatical, I have been named as acting chair till January. I undertook a great deal of work related to this temporary post this summer, but there are still some major tasks to complete before December rolls around. One unexpected result of my spring AAAS teaching was an email I received this summer from a drama student at the Université de Lomé (in Togo) who has studied some African American literature, and had downloaded my course syllabus and inquired about some of the texts. I responded, sending him an essay by Richard Wright, but we have continued corresponding, and he passed on the names of some of Togo's leading poets, fiction writers and playwrights, only one of whom I'd heard of, so I look forward to delving more deeply in Togolese literature.

It's still difficult to believe the summer is over, even if not officially. This was one of my most productive writing summers in a long time. I completed a number of larger prose projects, one of which I continue to call a story but really is a novella, several of the others more clearly long short stories. Earlier in the year, as I was riding on the subway back from the Countee Cullen tribute event at Woodlawn Cemetary with Patricia Spears Jones and Rowan Ricardo Phillips and talking about having written a draft of what was essentially a novella after 10 years of intermittently leading the novella half of the year-long creative writing sequence to my Northwestern undergraduates, Rowan diagnosed my approach as "empathic composition." I think this is right in part; there is also the small window of the summer (this one without any travel) to complete anything, so I believe I successfully pressed rather quickly out of the scant grapes available.

I also finished revising and refining, with A Bolha Editora editors Rachel Gontijo Araújo and Stephanie Sauer the translation of Hilda Hilst's Letters from a Seducer, and cannot wait to see it in print later this month or early next. I wrote and delivered a short paper on the process of translating it, and perhaps I'll publish this at some point. The book will open, however, with a beautiful introduction by Princeton professor and Brazilian literary and cultural scholar Bruno Carvalho. I'm especially proud that I was able to accomplish this while teaching, though it would be wonderful to receive a fellowship to aid in future larger scale translations.

With the intense focus on my own writing and preparations for this fall I was unable to blog as frequently as I like. I hope to resume posting a bit more frequently. I still have unfinished posts in the queue, including a short tribute to Seamus Heaney, whom I have the honor of having kept from a good night of sleep--I'll say more about that soon--and perhaps some reviews, though my efforts in that area have tended to appear elsewhere (Drunken Boat among other places). Here's an exciting, productive fall for all J's Theater readers--and by "exciting," I do not mean another hurricane or tropical storm. Sandy was enough for a lifetime, or two!