Friday, November 29, 2013

Poem & RIP: Wanda Coleman

Wanda Coleman at Woodland
Pattern's 25th Anniversary Celebration,
Milwaukee (© Woodland Pattern)

There is so much to say when a great poet leaves us, and so much we need to say when that poet, while critically praised, nevertheless did not receive the acclaim she deserved during her lifetime. Wanda Coleman (1946-2013) was such a poet. The unofficial poet laureate of Los Angeles, her native city, a product of the flowering of writing workshops, some informed by the political and social currents of the 1960s, a working poet her entire life as well as a TV scriptwriter, journalist, playwright, novelist, a soothsayer and mage of language in a range of registers, a writer who knew how to fuse criticism and beauty, wit and ugliness, often funny, often lacerating, rough as tea leaves, gentle as a blowtorch, prolific, daring, unapologetically black and a woman and a mother and a lover, unapologetically cosmopolitan and creative and visionary, someone who lived her literature, Coleman passed away last weekend after a long illness.

She was one of the poets I always wanted to hear and see read live. I remember someone telling me about her performance that later appeared as poems in Tripwire, how she rocked as she read, how she declaimed the poetry with force and ferocity, how she could as easily be reading with a jazz or blues or rock band--and she recorded with Excene Cervenka among others. There was rhythm, blues, jazz, roll, rap, struggle, soar, and sear throughout her work. But I never was where she was when she was reading live, and so I was a fan from afar, turning to the pages of Mercurochrome or African Sleeping Sickness or her other books with admiration and awe, knowing that somewhere out there in the cosmos, Wanda Coleman's gifts, received and given, were and are resounding, and that readers, young and old, who were unfamiliar with her work might be so moved to crack open a volume to sample and savor what she has to offer.

Here are two poems from Mercurochrome: New Poems, a volume which includes a fine range of her talents, including her continuation of her "American Sonnets" series, which play hard with that form, as well as her "Retro Rogue Anthology," a series of riffs on major American poets (from Alan Ansen and John Ashbery, to C. D. Wright and Charles Wright), that both capture and send up those writers while also demonstrating Coleman's skill and verve. She was the real thing, word. So: two poems. Remember her, remember and read her, read her and listen to what she has to say.


leads me through one overtaxed
little citytown
after gas stop after vista view,
eludes the gridlocked main highway,
avoids the rain-and-moon patrols and fiery
extinction on that hairpin curve
of credit and industry. i'm on the look see
for that mean motor scooter,
one payment outracing the other
as i nightdrag cloud-lined bluffs toward
the destination i'm building on installments,
fingers crossed as i drive, double-malted in one hand,
French fries tucked against the armrest,
cheeseburger leaving grease stains
on the dashboard of my vision


seized by wicked enchantment, i surrendered my song

as i fled for the stairs, i saw an earth child
in a distant hallway, crying out
to his mother, "please don't go away
and leave us." he was, i saw, my son. immediately,
i discontinued my flight

from here, i see the clock tower in a sweep of light,
framed by wild ivy. it pierces all nights to come

i haunt these chambers but they belong to cruel
     churchified insects.
among the books mine go unread, dust-covered.
i write about urban bleeders and breeders, but am
troubled because their tragedies echo mine.

at this moment i am sickened by the urge
to smash. my thighs present themselves

stillborn, misshapened wings within me.

"El Camino Real" and "American Sonnets: 95," Copyright © by Wanda Coleman, from Mercurochrome: New Poems, Santa Rosa: Black Sparrow Press, 2001. All rights reserved.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Happy Thanksgiving

REPOSTING from 2011, with updated dessert photo!

A happy Thanksgiving Day to all, and I wish the best to all J's Theater readers. Wherever you are, whatever you are doing, try to take time out to consider what you have to be thankful for, as tiny or tremendous as it is, and also consider how you might help someone else out there who might be struggling in some aspect of life.

For those who are scrambling to finish holiday meals, if you want a thorough and easy-to-read guide to holiday cooking with a soulful edge, consider C's Holiday Kitchen, which is now available as an ebook on the Amazon Kindle, B&N Nook and iTunes stores.

There's also an iPhone/iPad app version as well!

I can attest to the deliciousness of every dish in this book. But don't just take my admittedly biased advice: as Maggie Da Silva writes in her review,  the author

is no snob and helps us out with painless instructions for turkey roasting, “one of the easiest meals to prepare,” he writes. “Try it!”  He also provides simple recipes for dishes I had assumed were beyond my reach – like lemon curd! Who knew it was a snap? In fact, most of the recipes in this delectable ebook reveal what all experienced cooks know: food doesn’t have to be complicated to be great.

So true!

This year I am going to make a pumpkin pie, so if it turns out okay, I'll post a photo of it!

Update: The pumpkin pie! It turned out well, and everything about it, from the crust to the filling, is homemade!

Homemade pumpkin pie, using
real pumpkins!

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

The Black Atlantic @ 20 @ CUNY Grad Center

Every scholarly book is important (at some level) to its author, but as with other kinds of texts only a select few resound long beyond their field and moment of publication. Paul Gilroy's The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness, published in 1993 by Harvard University Press, is one such book whose central premise, that "blackness" was and remains constitutive of and central to "Modernity" and the political, economic, social, and intellectual development of the "West" as we know it, opened up new ways of thinking about and understanding the relationship between these concepts across a range of fields, including literary studies, anthropology, history, sociology, political and philosophical thought, and cultural studies. Two decades on, and despite an array of critiques, Gilroy's The Black Atlantic, continues to foster and inform new and older epistemologies linked to modernity and its multiple afterlives.
Paul Gilroy speaking with Jacquelyn
Nassy Brown and Robert Reid-Pharr
A month ago, at the CUNY Graduate Center, CUNY's Academic Research Collaborative, Certificate Program in American Studies, Caribbean Epistemologies Seminar in the Humanities, Institute for Research in the African Diaspora in the Americas and the Caribbean (IRADAC), and the Revolutionizing American Studies Initiative, sponsored a two-day event, The Black Atlantic @ 20, as part of a series of events throughout the 2013-2014 academic year, focusing on the Gilroy's book and work. The speakers included Gilroy himself, as well as numerous luminaries teaching or visiting CUNY, including Jacquelyn Nassy BrownSusan Buck-Morss; Tina Campt; Kandice ChuhDuncan FahertySujatha Fernandes; Eric Lott; Stephan PalmiéRobert F. Reid-Pharr; and Ruth Wilson Gilmore. 
Faherty, Nassy Brown, Reid-Pharr,
Buck-Morss, Fernandes, Wilson Gilmore
and Bennett
As the program noted concerning the effects of Gilroy's book, "scholarship no longer simply posits the relationship between blackness and modernity as an irreconcilable problem," and while we might argue that Gilroy was not the first or only thinker to challenge this assumption, his study, perhaps more than any of its particular moment, the ideas in it, and the pedagogy he and it enabled "engendered debates" in a range of humanities and social sciences fields that were "once perceived as the exclusive domain of an organic and hermetically sealed Western tradition." The opening night's panelists, Bennett, Nassy Brown, Buck-Morss, Fernandes, Wilson Gilmore, and Reid-Pharr, all delivered short pithy (9 minute) presentations showing the field critiques and responses respectively in history; anthropology; philosophy; hip hop and musicological studies; geography; and literary studies. Each asked and answered the question of whether it is possible to "produce innovative work around race, colonization, cosmopolitanism, and imperialism while also continuing to privilege traditional modes of intellectual inquiry," and several also contributed to a larger conversation that the Revolutionizing American Studies initiative and other programs have been posing for some time about ways to restructure research and pedagogical approaches at the CUNY Graduate Center and beyond.
Paul Gilroy chatting with an audience member
I could fill about 10 blog posts if I were to recount all of the dazzling insights the panelists offered, but I'll touch upon only a few. I should also note that not everyone who spoke offered a paean to Gilroy's book; several were thoughtfully and respectfully critical. Yet all attested to the centrality of the work to ongoing work in their fields. Herman Bennett noted how the text had helped to further an "epistemological exorcism" in terms of understanding race in Latin American intellectual history, and opened up "a new horizon of employment." Nassy Brown was more overtly critical, and cited Gilroy's earlier landmark study, There Ain't No Black In the Union Jack as particularly important, but averred that Gilroy's work in both texts had played a key role in fostering an anthropology of global blackness, and its engagement with geography, which is now framed in dialogic terms. She also noted the importance of its having posited "emancipation" as a touchstone for black subjectivity.
Ruth Wilson Gilmore speaking with
a member of the CUNY community
Buck-Morss did not deliver a paper, but spoke from notes. She urged that we not forget the "political reality in which the text emerged," its challenges to the "disciplinary police," and its skill in placing events and histories in juxtaposition, its rejection of ethnocentrism and nationalism (which remains controversial, as Gilroy noted in his own comments the next day), and its exploration of aesthetics as self-fashioning and critique of art as "immanent." Fernandes focused on how music in particular held pride of place in Gilroy's analyses, to some extent displacing language and writing, but how his text also pushed us away from Black American situatedness towards a more diasporic perspective. Wilson Gilmore's short talk brimmed with insights, beginning with the basic fact that the book had made it possible for her to understand the discipline she'd chosen. Other key points she made were that in this text, "theory is method," that it brought together the concept of diaspora not by a mythic path but through a "continuous and ongoing present"; and that it critiqued Raymond Williams' famous Structures of Feeling, in part by laying out the contradictory structures of feeling in diaspora, asking what discontinuous traditions rested on, and what might be the infrastructures of feeling that made the structures of feeling possible, reshaping our sense of the archive.
Poet and scholar Tonya Foster
Reid-Pharr concluded the panel presentations with brio, asking that, after Gilroy, we think about black intellectuals in less obvious positionalities, such as among the enslaved people in transit, on board ships or at market, that we ask who counts as a proper subject of our inquiry, and that we consider immigrants, sex workers, soldiers, and so on, jettison our reliance on heroic subjectivities. Are we, in the light of Gilroy, committed to give up cultural nationalism, he asked. After these brilliant presentations, Gilroy graciously took the podium to thank everyone for their comments on his behalf, and noted that he had always thought of The Black Atlantic as an "open-source project," rather than a closed intellectual work forbidding critique. It was a powerful moment, and added to the intellectually generous atmosphere that unfolded as the question-and-answer session began. If one sentence can sum up the fascinating exchanges during this section of the program, it would be: "Freedom is the practice of making unbounded life."
Scholar and critic Eric Lott
The next day, I did not make it over to CUNY until the early afternoon, and thus missed the morning talks by Palmié and Campt. I did get to hear Eric Lott, whom I first met many years ago when he had just published Love and Theft and was starting out at the University of Virginia, weave a web of thought that has to be read to be fully appreciated, but his talk "Open Letters," which poet and scholar Tonya Foster introduced, managed to tie together President Barack Obama's Dreams of My Father, and his negotiation between sovereignty and homo sacerLauren Berlant's concept of the "anatomy of national fantasy"; the Emancipation ProclamationMartin Delany's Blake; Jay-Z's and Beyoncé's controversial trip to Cuba and Young Hov's rap "Open Letter," which Lott assessed as "derailed by neoliberal self-regard"; Assata Shakur; and methods and ways of reading and analyzing popular music. It was a breathtaking tour.
Paul Gilroy
Last came Gilroy, who in a talk entitled "The Half-Life of The Black Atlantic" spoke about the book's afterlife, criticisms of this and subsequent work (especially the furor-inducing Against Race: Imagining Political Culture Beyond the Color Line (Harvard UP, 2002), and how he might rewrite The Black Atlantic today. He also mapped out what he saw as potential future pathways the book's ideas might offer. He began by discussing the critique of methodological nationalism in the book, and said that were he to write it today, he would include Alain Locke in it. He also spoke about how one strand in it to develop might to look more closely at the idea of culture in relation to "war," and African-American culture as "the machinery of diplomacy" today, which is to say, as a kind and form of "soft power". He related this to Penny von Eschen's work, and the idea of the "weaponization of culture." He also talked about the cultural revolution neoliberalism is wreaking, and how this is altering the currency of racial difference. He gathered around this idea the notion of "neoliberal poetics" and "depressive hedonia." Religion was another direction for further pursuit, and the idea of freedom as "individuality within a religious context," which he asserted once would have been problematic within Christianity.

Other points included thinking of Marcus Garvey and the idea of a cultural multiculturalism not limited only to black people and other racial and ethnic minorities; the increasing influence of neoliberal "self-help books" among young people of color in the UK and the USA (Sawyer, 50 Cent with Robert Green, etc.), and the ways that these ideas were having the effect of "soliciting the cooperation of people into their own subordination." He related this to the ongoing belief that through "work" and financial success, "deep racism" could be overcome, and to history of being denied recognition as a individual and how this was leading to an "extreme individualism." From this he proceeded to talk about the possibility, inherent in Aimé Césaire's writings, of the "human raised to the dimension of the world" as a way of positing a "new humanism," but which licensed a "critique of racial categories." Such thinking about "humanism" would be difficult given the extensive anti-humanist training and reflexes now present in the academy, and the appetite both for post-humanism and adherents to that concept's lack of concern with racism. (We discussed this in my fall 2012 class on the topic.)
Robert Reid-Pharr
In discussing this possible humanist turn, Gilroy invoked W. E. B. DuBois (whose name had, naturally, come up more than once already) and his idea of the tertium quid (that third thing, between human and animal); the humanism of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and the strikers in Memphis (I AM A MAN); June Jordan's Civil Wars, in which she demanded a "reinscription of the human guided by cosmopolitanism" and gender, reifying no identities at all; and the great Sylvia Wynter, who long sought to give critical theory a role in "re-enchanting humanism," with "race" summoned as "solidarity." Lastly, Gilroy spoke about the role in South Africa of forgiveness in informing humanism. Unsurprisingly, many questioners asked Gilroy specifically about his conceptualizations of humanism, and he ranged widely, mentioning Frantz Fanon, the US success of "settler colonialism" and the lack of public queries about a Truth and Reconciliation Commission (or multiple ones) here, Donna Haraway's arguments about Sojourner Truth's aims to articulate "an alternative humanism", Fanon's and Edward Said's secular humanism, and so on. In response to Caricom's call for "reparations" from Britain, Gilroy talked about being "disposed against melancholic formations" and called for a "working through rather than melancholic" responses. And there was so much more (environmentalism and biocolonialism; his omission of "Taksim Square" in relation to the topic of "democracy"; the topic of temporality and music, and how sonic environments allow us to "hear around the corner or into the future", etc.), but I'll end here by saying that it was like a weeklong seminar I'm still working through, and I thank all the speakers, and especially the organizers and Paul Gilroy himself, for this exemplary event that offered real intellectual and critical engagement.
The Skylight Room
Reid-Pharr and Gilroy, in conversation

Monday, November 25, 2013

Farewell to the Clocktower Gallery

In 1972, New York was a very different city than today. (It was even quite different as recently as 2002.) Less populous, far poorer, much grittier. The City was only a few years from near-bankruptcy, and decades into its ongoing economic decline. Yet 1970s New York was also experiencing one of its great moments of creative ferment, as artists old and young were developing new artistic forms as well as venues to perform and display them. The Clocktower Gallery, which Alanna Heiss established in the upper reaches of a beautiful 1894 Mead, McKim and White building in lower Manhattan, became one of the important sites for downtown avant-gardists, as well as one of several spaces operating under the larger framework of the Institute for Art and Urban Resources, which produced experimental works in under-used spots, among them 10 Bleecker Street, the Coney Island Sculpture Museum, the Idea Warehouse, and P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center (now MoMA PS1), all over the city. As a result Clocktower was the oldest continuous space for alternative art in New York.

Among the artists who exhibited at the Clocktower Gallery are names now burned into the annals of late 20th century art: Marina Abramovic, Vito Acconci, Laurie Anderson, Richard Artschwager, Lydia Benglis, Gordon Matta-Clark, Michelangelo Pistoletto, Pat Steir, and Richard Tuttle. Matta-Clark even famously soaped up and showered on on the actual external clock's hands! Some 30 years later, in 2003, the building began housing the online radio station and audio archive Artists International Radio ( In keeping with contemporary New York reality, developers have purchased the building and plan to transform it into…you know what's coming: luxury condominiums and retail space. Because there cannot ever be enough housing for the superrich, or spaces for national and global chain stores or restaurants and service outlets for the global élite!

This past Saturday the Clocktower Gallery was shuttering its final exhibit, Dale Henry: The Artist Who Left New York, an amalgamation of a number of Henry's (1931-2011) prior New York shows, and last-day performances, so I made sure to stop by. The Clocktower Gallery was not just an exhibition space, but a hive of artists' studios, most of which had been almost completely packed up by this weekend. What I found once I had passed through the security gauntlet downstairs (after being singled out--I was the only brown-skinned person waiting to get in--by one of the guards, who demanded to know if I'd RSVP'ed, and even after I said I had and tried to explain the admissions procedures on the website, would not believe me, until someone from the gallery itself appeared and ushered me forward--WTF?) was that only traces of the once vibrant art-making atmosphere remained. Henry's show seemed a fitting analogue to the gallery's closure, however. He had left the city in the 1980s after growing increasingly disenchanted with the art world of that era (which of course is nothing like the international financial behemoth of today), and moved to a small town in Virginia, from which he stayed in contact with longtime friends and where he continued to create new work. At his death, he left his art to gallery founder Heiss, with the proviso that it not be parceled off and out to the same sort of wealthy speculators involved in the gallery's closure.

The security gauntlet downstairs
At the gallery's entrance
Performing on the gallery's final day was Min Tanaka, who danced a farewell to the space. I'd never seen any of his prior performances at Clocktower, but his history with the gallery and the New York artworld was a long one, and included a dance at the opening of PS 1 and a dance to commemorate author and critic Susan Sontag's death in 2005. Tanaka danced his slow, almost dirgeful piece on a roof facing east, with a backdrop of skyscrapers worthy of Joseph Stella and a sky that Van Gogh might have dreamt of unfurling behind him, amid winds that made clear that winter was starting to settle in. A mourning, yes, but also a celebration of all the years that the Clocktower had brought so much new art to the city and the world. Now it searches for a new home, though it will lodge temporarily at Neuehouse, contributing to that space's programming; Heiss will be Curator in Residence. In 2014 the gallery will head to Brooklyn, now another global brand, to collaborate with Pioneer Works, Center for Art and Innovation, staging a new presentation of Henry's works and staying for a year's residency. As a result, Clocktower will live on beyond the archives, physical and memorial.  Below are some photos from the space.

Entering the Clocktower Gallery space
The hallway off which studios once bustled;
Mary Heilman's Two-Lane Highway is
visible on the floor
One of the former studios
Part of Dale Henry's Continuous Lineage Drawings
and Prosody Drawings, originally exhibited in 1973
One of the evacuated studios
The roofs cape of lower Manhattan
In another of the former studios
Another of the former galleries
$3 glasses of red and white wine
One of the stairwells to the upper floors
Henry's Camera Obscura, 1996

In the main gallery, with several different
series of Henry's paintings
A ceiling-mounted painting
from Henry's Wet Grounds, 1971
(I love the idea of this; why don't
more artists try this?)
A closeup of one of the pieces from
Henry's Primer Sets Installation, 1972
Some of the rows of paintings from
Henry's Primer Sets Installation, 1972
A closeup of several of the paintings from
Henry's Primer Sets Installation, 1972
Henry's Body of Work, 1976
The original announcements for Henry's
shows, as well as a 1970s guide
to New York's art galleries
Some of Henry's Stretcher Bar Series, 1976
works (all made from wooden stretchers)
Waiting for the performance to begin
The spiral stairwell to the clock tower itself
(it was roped off)
People gathering for Tanaka's performance
One of the gallery attendants, adorning
the spiral staircase
Onto the roof below the clock
(The Woolworth Building in the rear)
More (including Min Tanaka) after the jump!

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Remembering Chinua Achebe @ United Nations

It doesn't seem as if it has been that long since Chinua Achebe passed away, but March 21, 2013 was nearly a year ago. I had planned a little tribute on here to Achebe, one of the leading lights of contemporary Nigerian, African, Anglophone, and global letters, but such are the best-made plans during a steamroller of a semester. I believe there have been various tributes to Achebe in and around New York City, but I was not able to make one until recently. Thanks to talented poet and fellow Rutgers educator Darrel Alejandro Holnes, however, I finally did get to experience a loving, public tribute to Achebe the writer, thinker, visionary, and advocate for peace. Representing event co-sponsor Rutgers University Writers House, Darrel, along with Bhikshuni Weisbrot, President of the United Nations SRC Society of Writers, which also co-sponsored the event with the United Nations SRC Film Society, offered a warm welcome to a packed room of Achebe fans, former students, family members, and UN officials and visitors.

I actually had never been inside the United Nations complex, so this was a special treat, and because of construction and, I surmise, security requirements, other attendees and I had to take a long, circuitous route to the Dag Hammarskjöld Library where the event took place. I am often snapping photos, but I kept my camera in my suit pocket as we walked along the UN's East River promenade, which I must say is one of the more picturesque views you will get in Manhattan. After what felt like a journey along an almost Kafkaesque (or Borgesian) trek, we reached the library, and the event began. Among the speakers were Nigerian Ambassador Usman Sarki, Deputy Permanent Representative of the Federal Republic of Nigeria; author and priest Uwem Akpan; Chukwuma Azuonye, a professor of African American and Africana Studies at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, who called for the UN to pass a resolution for an "International Week of Peace" in Achebe's honor; Frederick Douglas Academy VII High School teacher and Afro Heritage publisher Olutusin Mustapha; and Rutgers-New Brunswick scholar, poet and Chair of Women's and Gender Studies Abena P.A. Busia, who read her poem "A Poet Daughter's Farewell: Still Morning Yet".

Darrel Alejandro Holnes and Bhikshuni
Weisbrot, with a large photo of the
late Chinua Achebe at left
Also speaking or performing were Darrel himself, who talked about first reading Achebe's novel Things Fall Apart while in middle school and Panama, and being empowered tremendously by it, before he shifted to a discussion of teaching Achebe's work and the trove of insights his students gained from it; singers from the Sri Chinmoy: the Peace Meditation at the United Nations, who sang a poem Sri Chinmoy had written specifically for Achebe; saxophonist David Engelhard, who performed a solo piece entitled "Things Fall Apart"; Bahula Boring, President of the UNSRC Film Society, who introduced a short film clip of a 2008 interview with Achebe at his home on the Bard College campus; and, among the afternoons highlights, Chochi Ejueyitchie, Achebe's granddaughter, who spoke endearingly of the chief lesson he taught her, "humility." As she spoke I thought about this in relation to the fact of Achebe as a pioneering and best-selling of African writers and literary artists, as a brave figure who put his life repeatedly on the line on behalf of the state of Biafra, as a critic who risked ostracization by his colleagues when he openly critiqued the racism of Joseph Conrad in the 1970s, and as a "gentle" man who persevered after the 1990 accident that paralyzed him from the waist down. Humility: this is one of the supreme human and spiritual virtues, and a central aspect of ethical personhood.

In the film clip several of Achebe's quotes really struck me, particularly in reference to sitting in a room in the United Nations, the reality of the debates about immigration in the US and elsewhere, the status of refugee and stateless people, xenophobia, neocolonialism, imperialism, racism, and ethnocentrism, and the various kinds of supremacies that still are too prevalent--and deadly: "Because we are one we are entitled to move from place to place," he said, in relation to his experiences living in Nigeria and the United States, which he followed up with "you are entitled to the world." These are the words not just of a great writer, thinker and visionary, but, as Professor Azuonye said, of a "weaver of myths to live by," the King of Masks, Ijele himself, and his presence was in that room, and, let us all hope, stays with us all always. As always, photos from the event, below.

Part of the packed audience
Uwem Akpan

Darrel Alejandro Holnes
Ambassador Usman Sarki
Olutusin Mustapha
Professor Abena P.A. Busia
The singers from the Sri Chinmoy: The
Peace Meditation at the United Nations
David Engelhard
Achebe's granddaughter,
Chochi Ejueyitchie
Attendees, departing the UN complex