Thursday, December 25, 2014

Happy Holidays!

Wishing all J's Theater readers the very best for the holiday season, whether you celebrate Christmas, Kwanzaa, Hanukkah, Festivus, or no specific holidays at all!

Friday, December 19, 2014

Random Photos

So many photos, so many events, so quickly these last four months have flashed by. Here are but a few images, from a vast trove. Enjoy.

Man with see-through pants,
near Herald Square
Hamilton Grange (Alexander Hamilton's
historic home), Hamilton Heights, Harlem 
At the BLACKNUSS outdoor book fair,
organized by Sharifah Rhodes-Pitts,
in Harlem (near 132nd St.) 
At BLACKNUSS, publisher Siddhartha
Lokanandi at center, poet & curator
Genji Amino at right 
Sean Mitchell, my Rutgers-Newark colleague,
lecturing at the New York Public Library's
Schwarzman Research Branch,
on Brazil, race and that country's space program 
Sleeping cat (with
makeshift pillow)
ALIFE photo shoot,
Astor Place 
At the Majors-Minors Fair,
repping for African American and African Studies,
Street refuse (or art?)
Human sculpture in vitrine,
"The Subject Is Black" exhibit,
curated by Lawrence Graham-Brown
Leslie-Lohman Foundation
David Moore and curator Lawrence
Graham-Brown, "The Subject
Is Black" exhibit
Leslie-Lohman Foundation
Readying for the show,
Fire & Ice Ball, Robert Treat
Hotel, Newark
A performer, Fire & Ice Ball,
Robert Treat Hotel, Newark
Fan with Mike Tyson statue,
outside NYU's Student Center
In front of an empty gallery
(is that the Bowery?)
At New Directions' sales launch
for W. W. Norton, Cornell Club
Posting an ad,
Grove St. PATH
I can't remember where this was,
only that I was struck by the "Oh,mammy"

At Greg Pardlo's book launch
for Digest (Four Way Books, 2014)
(that's Greg reading), Brooklyn Sky
Street art, Newark
Finishing touches, near Fulton Street (I think!)
The new Fulton Street Station,
Lower Manhattan
(the tunnel to the PATH station
is still not open)
The Fulton Street Station's striking "Oculus"
The final cherry tomatoes of the season
from the backyard garden
Camouflage jacket drying
on vents, University Place
Outside Deutsches Haus, NYU
Rainy Washington Square Park
In a SoHo store window:
"I can't breathe"

Saturday, December 13, 2014

The Ace Hotel Artist-in-Residency

For Eric Garner
It is now almost a week since I spent an evening (too brief!) and morning as Artist in Residence at the Ace Hotel New York, in Manhattan, courtesy of the Ace and of Word Bookstores in Jersey City and Brooklyn. It was, to sum it up in one word, extraordinary. This residency, which I hadn't heard of before, has been taking place since earlier this year (I believe), and courtesy of Jenn Northington of Word, and Ben Sisto, of Ace, I entered the mix, so I gladly and heartily thank them again for the honor.

Since I've never held an artist-in-residency (visiting professorships don't really count, I think, nor do residencies to artists' colonies, like Yaddo, right?), in any of the artistic genres, this was truly a first for me, and though nervous, I was determined to make use of the time, space and resources, to tackle a few projects. One vow I made was to keep the TV off (except for Homeland and The Comeback, which I ended up watching on my iPad, so I didn't violate that); the other was that I'd only work on school-related projects that were absolutely necessary, so I did read my fiction workshop's final submissions.

The desk area, with some of their
and my materials (cf. the guestbook at center)
Some of the art materials
I had to work with
But I spent the rest of the time drawing, something that I do regularly but not in this sort of concentrated manner. I primarily wanted to draw out my visualizations of textual conceptual/performance scores I'd written up earlier, to see what they might look like if I mapped them, almost like choreographic charts. In addition, I worked a bit on the Emotional Exercises project, tinkering with the card design, and trying to think more carefully about the categories of exercises the cards might contain. I also wanted to let my mind draw from my inner well of creativity, and the murders of, horrendous grand jury verdicts concerning, and ongoing protests on behalf of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, among many other black victims of state violence, provided me with more than enough to think about.

As part of the residency, I had to take two Ace Hotel photo booth strips (I haven't done this in years, and it was fun); make use of some of the materials the hotel provided (paper, pens, a drafting board, etc.); leave some materials I'd worked on; write a message in the residency guest book (mine was a Venn diagram that included a drawing focusing on hypergentrification and artmaking, and of course a thanks to the Ace and Word); and not trash the room or engage in destructive hijinks (no problem there). I also received two drink tickets to the hotel's downstairs bar, the Breslin Bar & Dining Room, which was packed when C and I arrived, and later, around 11, when I took a short break and had a beer, and a gift card to a nearby restaurant, which I didn't use.

C and others I know had been to the Ace for meals and events, but I had only passed the hotel in the past, so it was exciting to have a reason to spend some time there. The room options vary, from bunk beds to loft suites, and the affiliated stores and cafe are pretty high end, as most Manhattan businesses appear to be heading these days (is there anything left for middle class people?). My clean, comfortable (small? mid-sized?) room, which looked out on what I think was steadily gentrifying Broadway was outfitted in vibrant hipster fashion, with modern and retro furniture and artifacts in equal measure.

There was a turntable with a selection of LPs, an industrial looking radio, and a refrigerator that might either vintage or vintage-style, but amply stocked, with $11 water (and up!) and more. The bathroom was small but immaculate, and included a Kennedy half dollar-sized square of black soap, supposedly great for one's complexion, as well as anything else you might want and could have forgotten. (Unfortunately, neither in the bathroom or at the front desk, nor at any neighboring businesses could I find the exact USB scanner cable I'd left at home!) To top it off, the main internal wall was covered with New York Times foolscaps from the 1930s; mine featured a strangely high number of images of Adolf Hitler's and other top Nazis' faces! (Obviously newspapers from that era would be likely to feature this murderous gang, but, uh, to know they're looking at you while you're working and sleeping...hmm....)

That's you know who....
Nazi portraits, page-long accounts of the Great Depression, and reports of the death of the King of the Belgians (yes, he was staring from the wall too!) notwithstanding--which is to say, ironically enough--I had a wonderful, very productive time. Here is the Ace Hotel's Facebook page on my residency. I do hope to perform (or find someone to do so) some of these scores this upcoming summer or at some point in the future, and publicly share the Emotional Exercises cards sooner rather than later. Weather, health and time will determine when and where, I suppose, but in the interim, I can look at these dream maps, as they were, to get a sense of what might be possible.

This upcoming week's Artist in Residence is Deji Bryce Olukotun, the author of Nigerians in Space (Unnamed Press, 2014). Word to Ace and Word, and I'll looking out for what he comes up with.

Some of the score visualizations:

Some of the other drawings:

"I can't breathe" in New York City
Add caption

The desk when I'd begun
packing up

Friday, December 05, 2014

Counternarratives, Artist in Residency at the Ace Hotel & Other News

These have been four of the busiest months of my life, so my posting here has been spotty at best. I usually draft about two paragraphs of an entry, then find that I have to turn to more pressing professional or personal matters. As a result, I have not yet finished my annual Nobel Prize in Literature post, nor blog commentaries on the National Book Awards ceremony debacle, the grand jury decisions in the Michael Brown or Eric Garner murders, or anything else. I have caught a few art shows and Suzan-Lori Parks' new play, attended a number of great readings, and even made it to the Institute for Distributed Creativity's excellent "Digital Labor" conference at New School University, but could not find the time to finish my blog about it. I'll try to wrap up a few of these before the year's out, no matter how out of time they appear, but I also think I'll try, as I did during my first year of blogging, to post something every day. It was an exciting challenge and kept me thinking and writing in an informal manner, alongside all the other writing I usually have to do.


About two months ago, Reggie Harris wrote to tell me that he had received New Directions' Spring 2015 catalogue and saw that Counternarratives, my forthcoming collection of stories and novellas, was the first of the new books listed in it, which was incredibly encouraging and energizing. He did note that the catalogue used a very old photo of me, from 1995, and while I once again have a closed-cropped cut (I sheared off my dreadlocks in 2010, though they appear on Nightboat Books' page, a photo that surprised some of my Rutgers-Newark colleagues who'd never seen me with them), my hair, on my head and face, is much more heavily salted. Yet another spur to commission a new professional photo, and soon.

I had not yet received the catalogue, so I searched on line, first on my mobile phone, and found Counternarratives, first popping up on Amazon's UK site, and then, within a few days, it was on their main US site. 

New Directions has set the publication date for May 5, 2015, which is very exciting, as it's roughly 150 years, to the month (April +1) of the end of the US Civil War (1861-1865), and two of the stories, "The Aeronauts" (which is set in the milieu of the Union Army's Balloon Corps, in 1861) and "Rivers," in which Jim, from Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn, now renamed and much older, encounters his former raft-mate during the war's final battle, in Texas in 1865, among other places), are set at bookending moment of this seminal American conflict. As in that war, as in the US's current conflicts, these and other stories in the collection they treat questions of race, gender, class, region, nation, citizenship and freedom, and ultimately, power. 

I believe the cover may change a little, perhaps with "Stories and Novellas" appended to the title, which New Directions thankfully agreed to keep. I am in the process of setting up readings, so if you are interested in hearing lively fiction set during the Civil War, or about early Manhattan; the American Revolution; present-day and colonial Brazil; Afro-syncretic spiritualities, sorcery, the Roman Catholic Church, and Judaism; the mixed-race German-born acrobat Miss LaLa (Olga Kaira) and her encounters with the eccentric, world-famous painter Edgar Degas; how W. E. B. DuBois and George Santayana took initial, passing measure of each other on a street in Cambridge; the final day in the Catskills of one of the major architects of late 19th century blackface minstrel productions; the queer dreams of Brazil's great modernist poet and musicologist Mário de Andrade; what secrets Langston Hughes and Mexico's Xavier Villaurrutia shared in Manhattan during the latter's jaunt down from his year of study at Yale; or the transcript, so to speak, of a conversation in a jail somewhere in contemporary Africa, you can pick up a copy of the book, and also drop me a note to invite me to present the work live. 


In other news, this upcoming Sunday, December 7, 2014, I'll be an Artist in Residence at the Ace Hotel in Manhattan! This is my first Artist in Residency ever, and came about through my association with Word Bookstores, which has branches in Brooklyn and Jersey City, so I offer my deep thanks and appreciation to them, and to the Ace, and urge J's Theater readers to patronize both. 

This will be a publicly announced but private engagement, in which I'll be working on several projects while staying at the Ace, so some of my process-related materials will be visible at the hotel, I believe after Monday at noon. 

Among the projects I plan to work on while at the Ace is a series of scores for weeklong performance, some of which touch directly upon current events, which at the very least to I hope to send overseas next summer, and preferably to stage and perform some of myself, health and finances willing. I'll also be working on an updated version of the new "Emotional Exercises" cards, some of which I hope to perform in NYC, Jersey City and Newark before the snow, let alone the spring, arrives.

I will keep J's Theater readers posted on how it turns out!


Over the years I have been nominated a number of times for a Pushcart Press Prize, for both my fiction and my poetry, but have never won, so I never raise my hopes high. Yet I want to note for posterity that I was nominated again by the wonderful, new Madcap Review, which in its début issue (No. 1) published two poems of mine, "CO2," relatively newish, and "Apostate," the latter of which I wrote a few years back in tribute to one of the greatest figures to emerge from the St. Louis area, the trumpeter and bandleader extraordinaire Miles Dewey Davis, Jr. (1926-1991). Madcap nominated "Apostate" for a Pushcart Prize, which I truly appreciate. Do check out the site for lots of great poetry, fiction, nonfiction, and digital art! You can print an issue if you like via Issuu here.

(I should add that some years ago I wanted to send this poem to Askia Muhammad Touré after hearing him talk about Charlie Parker at the Bowery Poetry Club, but the address I had for him in Boston was no good, and the note and poem returned unopened. If anyone knows how to reach him, please let me know!)

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Patrick Modiano Wins the Nobel Prize

Patrick Modiano (© SIPA)
For many years, as some of my students will attest, I have shared with them my ongoing fascination with writers who essentially write the same book over and over. By "same book" I mean these writers take what might thought of as a core text, however fully articulated in its first published version, and then rewrite it over and over, with some variation. Though I have often expressed my interest in such projects, it is not because I do so myself; I am constitutionally incapable of doing so. A senior writer I admire greatly once asked, with interest and perhaps concern for my career, why I had not written multiple variations on Annotations, suggesting that they might have gotten published. (And created a brand?) My general approach, however, seems to be to condense two--or multiple--books into one, as my slender oeuvre will suggest. Each book, however small or large, stands as its own creature, and multiple ones.)

Yet I have always urged my creative writing students to write any book they produce at the very least twice, the second time to perfect what they attempted the first (another bit of advice I've never been able to follow so far, for the reasons outlined above). In so doing, I tell them, they will written two books instead of just one, meaning potentially two to publish, and experience has taught me that many readers have little problem with reading an improved variation on a previous book. (The same seems true of movies.) Nearly all writers in the United States, are rewarded for being productive, and for publishing, hiring, award, etc., purposes, two is better than one, four than two, six than three, etc. Some writers manage to make a lifelong career of this.

To take one example, John Ashbery has essentially written the same book over the last 25 years (, after producing sometimes quite distinctive books over the first 25-30 years of his career (think Some Trees through A Wave). Our current US Poet Laureate, the great Charles Wright, also has rewritten, with slight variations, the same book--poem--over his last half-dozen collections. In fiction, nearly all (though not A Little Lumpen Novella, for example) of Roberto Bolaño's final ten published novels and story collections are variations on a core book, with similar characters, themes, techniques, etc. Bolaño, in my humble opinion, had the skill to transform each book into something distinctive, however. And certainly there are many more. Oe Kenzaburo has repeatedly written a variation on the same book: a writer has a child with developmental disabilities, and the rest of the plot follows from there. Oe usually finds engaging ways of addressing this theme.

Another writer I deeply admire, Alexander Kluge, also has done this; you could conceivably take any of this story collections, beginning with Case Histories (Lebensläufe), through the most recent ones, and, accounting for an increasingly radical concision, interchange them. The depth of and variation in the content, however, is impressive. Alice Munro, who received the Nobel Prize two years ago, has also been accused of rewriting variations on the same story, too narrow subject matter, and so on, though close study of her skill at varying her subject matter offers a master class on prose fiction. One could say of another favorite of mine, Harold Pinter, that his early works and the late ones could conceivably read as the same work, with slight changes (characters, scenarios, development of style, etc.). The same is true of the Norwegian playwright Jon Fosse, whose work I acquainted myself with earlier this year.

By "same book" I do not mean works merely marked by a consistent style, carry-over characters, etc. Anyone familiar with Toni Morrison's style, say, or Christine Brooke-Rose's formal playfulness, could spot one of their books. You can spot a sentence by Henry James or William Faulkner on the other side of the library door. But each of their books is clearly different in terms of structure, content, and so on. Nor do I mean a serial writer, like Marcel Proust, whose A la recherche du temps perdu, or Anthony Powell, whose A Dance to the Music of Time, or Nathaniel Mackey, who in both poetry (The Song of the Andoumboulou) and fiction (From a Broken Bottle Traces of Perfume Still Emanate), has produced a series of texts which, in the eyes of the author, are intentionally part of and constitute a larger, continuous work.

I say all of this as a prelude to noting that this year's winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, the French author Patrick Modiano, is one of the great literary replicationists of our or any era. The Nobel committee praised him in its citation "for the art of memory with which he has evoked the most ungraspable human destinies and uncovered the life-world of the Occupation." Modiano has, since his outrageous, highly controversial first novel, La place de l'étoile (still untranslated as a whole into English, but roughly, The Place of the Star, the doubled meaning of the actual Parisian address, where the Arc de Triomphe stands, and of the yellow star the Vichy Government forced Jewish residents to wear embedded in the French term--you can find an excerpt, translated by Pepe Karmel, on Agni's site here), written the same book over and over, or rather, variations on the same, fairly narrow theme, characters, and plots. In fact, one could say that his entire body of work functions as a vast, continuous investigation of the same concepts, themes, ideas, and characters, with variations. Yet in Modiano's hands, when he is writing at his best, this repetitiveness ascends to the status of considerable emotional power and beauty.

I am neither a scholar of French literature nor of Modiano's work, but I have read several of his books, mostly in English, as well as two in French, and I can say that you can pick up almost any Modiano novel--or, in the case of Dora Bruder, which could also be read as nonfiction--and you will encounter the following: characters who vanish or forced to do so; some reference to the German Occupation of France, the Vichy collaboration, and, in the background, the terrors of the Holocaust and World War II; a meditation on time, memory and loss; ethical complexity, such that many of his main characters are neither easily categorized as good or bad; and some element of mystery as a narrative mode, though not in the direct form of the mystery genre per se. There is also his precise, occasionally lyrical French--we are not talking about Proust, for example here, but work that reads stylistically almost like his inverse--prose, which is deceptive in its simplicity. In some, of course, this combination works better than in others.

One of the best that I read a few years ago is the 1995 novel Du plus loin de l'oubli (Farthest from Oblivion, translated as Out of the Dark, by Jordan Stump, University of Nebraska Press, 1998). Rather uncannily, though perhaps because I'd mentioned him to my graduate fiction class, I wrote to a friend shortly before the Nobel announcement that:
Modiano tells the same story over and over and over, but sometimes, he can be very original and striking. Out of the Dark is one of my favorite of his books. It’s about this guy who meets a couple and falls in love with the woman. They run away to Britain, but after a short period of time, she leaves him. The husband seems to be a criminal or gangster. Then, years later, he meets the woman again, this time briefly. Turns out she’s married, but he’s still smitten, only he realizes he cannot have a life with her, though he remembers their youth and the excitement of that earlier moment. Third time, years later, he sees her again, but now he does not even try to catch her attention; the memory is enough. That’s the whole novel. But it’s thrilling. What you can do with art, man!
That's basically it. Of course the plot is a bit more complicated than I outline above, but Modiano often manages to achieve complexity with carefully chosen details, brief lyrical passages, and shifts in rhetoric and perspective.

His 1978 novel, Rue des boutiques obscures (Street of Dark Shops, translated as Missing Person by Daniel Weissbort, Boston: David R. Godine, 2004), which received France's most prestigious fiction prize, the Prix Goncourt, is a mystery novel that fails at that genre, yet manages to be utterly enthralling. Set in 1965, the novel concerns the protagonist Guy Roland, who mysteriously lost his memory and identity 15 years before, at which point his soon-to-retire boss in a Parisian detective, (Baron) Constantin von Hutte, created the new one for him. The novel explores Roland's search for his past self, through his interviews with people who may have known him under his prior guises, as (Jimmy) Pedro (Stern) (McEvoy), a Salonican Jew and "broker", later to "disappear," only to return as an envoy at the Dominican embassy, who'd married a beautiful young woman, Denise Coudreuse, of French and Belgian Christian background, and then, when the stranglehold of the Gestapo and their Vichy authorities and foreign collaborators grew too tight, attempted to slip away with her to Switzerland via the mountains separating that country from France.

I'll say no more except that Modiano manages to do quite a bit with impressive narrative economy, to give a history lesson while appearing not to, and to create a constant air of menace, psychological but also at times almost corporeal, with the slenderest of means. Many threads remain hanging but, once you set the book down, you begin to piece them together. For example, was it Hutte, the former tennis champion, who rescued Pedro in the Swiss snow? Did Pedro, working in concert with the Argentinian embassy, create the story that Salonica's archives--which would have contained family histories, thus making it easier to identify Greek Jews there--had been destroyed? Was it not Oleg de Wrédé who'd arranged to entrap Pedro and Denise? And, more broadly, was not Pedro's story a version of Modiano's mother's and father's stories, only without the stranding at the border? Missing Person is, as the Nobel committee noted, a masterpiece of the highest order, though, as I noted at the beginning of this paragraph, as a mystery novel, it most certainly fails.

I'll mention one other work of his that suggests his innovativeness and gifts and is worth reading, though I did not like the book was much, despite its evident skill and haunting elements. I am talking about the 1997 text Dora Bruder (translated by Joanna Kilmartin, University of California Press, 1999), which could either be a novel or a work of memoiristic nonfiction. In it, Modiano explores the disappearance of a girl, Dora Bruder, who was nearly his father's contemporary, during the period of the Occupation. Dora Bruder, a young Jewish girl, Modiano learned by reading a 1941 Parisian paper, had run away from a convent school, but whereas this would mainly provoke parental concern and censure under normal circumstances, under Gestapo rule, the stakes rose incalculably. Her parents, frantically searched for her, placing the notice that Modiano discovers, and from this he begins to assemble a mystery backwards--much as in Missing Person--with elements of fictional narration, as well as nonfictional speculation and meditation woven together uneasily. What we come to grasp is not only Modiano's own troubled youth after the war, but the perilous path, parallel to Dora Bruder's Modiano's father, like all French citizens of Jewish faith and ancestry, found himself on. Utterly saddening is the moment when Modiano finds Bruder's name on a 1942 list of people deported to Auschwitz. Had his own father suffered the same fate, he and we realize, there'd have been on Patrick Modiano.

So, on the whole, I recommend his work, and while I do think there were more deserving French (Michel Tournier, Yves Bonnefoy, etc.) and Francophone (Assia Djebar, Maryse Condé, Leïla Sebbar, FrankétienneEdouard Maunick, etc.) writers, as well as other writers who might have been considered, like the pioneering figure Ngugi wa Thiong’o, or perennial favorite Haruki Murakami, or writers whom I mention every year who seem never to receive enough consideration (Jay Wright, Wilson Harris, etc.), Modiano is not a bad choice. Prolific, distinctive, and capable of doing a great deal with very little. That's not a bad epigraph.