Friday, January 30, 2015

The New New Republic?

UPDATE: In a Huff Post Live chat with Marc Lamont Hill, newly appointed New Republic Senior Editor Jamil Smith, who is African American, asked that readers give the magazine a little time to rebuild before declaring it dead.

Roughly a little over a month ago The New Republic imploded. The now 101-year-old mainline liberal publication, founded in 1914 by Progressive journalists Herbert Croly, Walter Lippmann, and Walter Weyl, with the financial support of members of the Whitney family, and which had changed ownership many times over the years, found itself hemorrhaging writers as a result of editorial changes pushed by its newest owner, Chris Hughes, an out gay, Facebook-cofounder, Harvard College graduate, near-billionaire, and Obama campaign internet strategist, who purchased a majority stake in the magazine in March 2012.

With the Harvard tie he is hardly out of place TNR; the Washington-based magazine has had a long history of white male Crimsons, beginning with Croly and Lippmann, up through avowed racist owner and publisher Martin Peretz, and editors Michael Kinsley, and Andrew Sullivan, filling its pages. Hughes, however, is a product of the new Silicon Valley world and its "disruption" ethos, though these ideas did not immediately manifest themselves when he bought the magazine. He kept its editor, Franklin Foer, a returnee to the magazine after a prior stint from 2006 through 2010, and TNR most continued as it had, advocating a mainstream liberal--often varying degrees of neoconservative (as in its pro-Iraq War stance under Peter Beinart), neoliberal or mildly libertarian ideology at times--approach to politics, economics and culture. It also continued as a magazine staffed mainly by white Ivy League graduates, with some rare exceptions.

Chris Hughes and Franklin Foer
(© James Estrin/New York Times)
Throughout the magazine's 100th anniversary year, tensions were mounting. The New York Times reports that TNR, an acronym Hughes urged staffers to nix in favor of The New Republic, was losing "$5 million per year," a small sum compared to his overall fortune, admittedly, but nothing to sniff at either. Despite Hughes's push for higher traffic, some longtime staffers, like literary editor Leon Wieseltier, continued to champion TNR's traditions and longstanding format, publicly airing comments of this sort at the magazine's centenary celebration last November. By hiring Guy Vidra, a former Yahoo exec as CEO, one month before the ceremony, however, Hughes indicated as clearly as possible that he was going in a new direction. Hughes' and Vidra's new plans include removing "Liberal" from the masthead, truncating the publication schedule from 20 to 10 issues, moving the editorial offices to New York and transforming the publishing venture into what Vidra has described as "a vertically integrated digital-media company." (As The New York Times puts it, Vidra said that he intended to "break shit.") Hughes' decision to pursue this route allegedly accelerated after his husband, Sean Eldridge, Political Director of Freedom to Marry, lost his Congressional race for New York's 19th district by 30 points.

In December, Hughes ousted Foer, and appointed Gabriel Snyder, a former Bloomberg, Atlantic Wire and Gawker staff member, in his place. The mass exodus, of Wieseltier and others began, with concomitant denunciations by a wide array of TNR writers, including an open letter signed by a luminaries' list (Robert Reich, Hendrik Hertzberg, Jeffrey Rosen, Andrew Sullivan, Sean Wilentz, etc.) that appeared on Facebook.  So extensive were the losses in human capital that the magazine had to suspend print publication during December, though it has continued with its online presence throughout the internal tempest.

Not all critics sided with Foer, Wieseltier and Reich; some, like the Atlantic's Ta-Nehisi Coates, highlighted the magazine's mostly monochrome editorial staffing and its sometimes horrendous racist history, about which I'll say more in a few paragraphs. But in general, the attacks, from a wide array of quarters, on Hughes in particular, were damning, which left me wondered how he and TNR would recover.

It now appears that TNR is again up and running, with new staff under Snyder, though on its site no masthead is yet accessible. From Facebook I learned that acclaimed poet Cathy Hong Park will be in charge of poetry, a welcome shift from the past. (TNR certainly could stand to publish more poetry and fiction--and perhaps even playlets and cross-genre works--as it once did.) Whether there will be other staff members who are not white and not male, as well as non-staff contributors who break the longstanding TNR political and cultural l remains to be seen, though a scan of its current pages suggests that this is happening. At any rate, TNR will prove its commitment by sustaining any changes, and I don't expect that when it comes to politics and economics it will be trending in the direction of Socialism, let alone Trotskyism. Its owner has those many millions to protect (from taxes), don't forget.

One could argue about all of this, WHO CARES? I remember saying this about TNR back during the early 1990s, during which former editor Michael Kinsley, now a confirmed contrarian, was appearing on CNN's Crossfire show and writing TNR's TRB columns, and a friend who would later briefly work for the Clinton administration reminded me of the conservative-within-liberal politics influence that any number of its writers and staffers have had in Washington. It was, in fact, allegedly "the in-flight magazine of Air Force One" during Bill Clinton's presidency, and its importance didn't end in 2000. To repeat, Hughes, the owner, Publisher and Editor-in-Chief, has close ties to the current President of the United States. But you need only look at early 2000s editor Peter Beinart's full-throated advocacy for George W. Bush's invasion of Iraq in 2003, which played a crucial role in amplifying the case for and push towards war. (Beinart has since, thankfully, come to regret his hubristic stance.)

Or one could point to Jonathan Cohen's campaign, cited by various DC journalists and politicians, for the passage of Obamacare, which counts of one of President Obama's great successes, to underscore that TNR, despite its smallish subscriber base of 45,000, has consistently played a central role in the Democratic Party's--especially Democratic Leadership Council/neoliberal--political and legislative echo chamber. Kinsley wasn't the only staffer to make the leap to the broader public arena. One could quickly cite former editor and (neo-) conservative Andrew Sullivan, whose TNR notoriety included promoting the supremacist Charles Murray-Richard Herrnstein Bell Curve tome, as another figure whose tenure at the magazine led to an outsized voice in the public, especially official Washington, discourse. As a post-TNR blogger, Atlantic staffer and author, he was invited to meet and advise President Barack Obama along with other "liberal" journalists very early in the president's first term, in 2009.

Whether TNR can possibly have that same role remains unclear.

An article posted within the last few days, however, represents a positive step in TNR's process of at least beginning to come to terms with some of the worst aspects of its past. On January 29, TNR published South Asian Canadian, Toronto-based journalist and comics critic Jeet Heer's insightful, historical reflection, "The New Republic's Legacy on Race." As any person of color familiar with liberalism can attest, an economically, politically and socially open-minded approach does not guarantee good or progressive racial politics, or a challenge to racism, white supremacy, sexism, classism, or many other corrosive ideologies. Heer notes the magazine's mixed history on racial issues and racism within its ranks. On the one hand, it can point to periods of enlightened publishing policies and discourse, Heer notes, during the Civil Rights Movement; on the other hand, there is the 38-year Marty Peretz era, whose stench still perfumes any discussion of TNR.

Heer shows, as other commentators online have noted, that not only was Peretz notorious for uttering anti-black, anti-latino, and, especially, anti-arab and anti-muslim comments, but he infused the magazine with a racist, neoconservative, hyper-Zionist ideology that its pages often reflected. Sometimes his editors and writers, like Kinsley, did not so much agree with him as mostly remain silent publicly about the magazine's toxic rhetoric. Why did so few of these liberals not speak out against Peretz, even after leaving the magazine? In the case of Sullivan, the attacks on affirmative action, black intellectuals (which was in essence a trashing of Cornel West) and the push for the Bell Curve material, or with late editor Michael Kelly, who supported Bush's Iraq War folly, the support for Peretz's perspective was nothing less than that of a true believer. Heer doesn't stint on the magazine's editorial ignominy, noting the centrality of racist stereotypes, downplayed in some of the commentary about both, in articles by notorious disgraced plagiarists Stephen Glass and Ruth Shalit.

2008 covers
Moreover, despite the publication of some black and other writers of color, many of them conservatives in politics, culture or both, during the Peretz era and after, the magazine's record on hiring and publishing staff who were not white has been abysmal. (See that luminaries list, which had few women on it as well.) Many online defenders have mentioned Dayo Olopade, who had an excellent five-year run as one of TNR's best younger talents, but can anyone name any other black, asian-american or latino writers--and if so, beyond one or two--who came to wider public notice because of their work at TNR? On top of this, its coverage of cultural issues has been terribly limited, especially for a magazine based in Washington, of all places. Art critic Jed Perl, and literary critic Ruth Franklin, outside of a few instances (eg. Perl on Ai Wei-Wei, Franklin on Zadie Smith), seldom or only irregularly covered exhibitions or books, respectively, by artists of color, especially Americans.

Both Perl and Franklin are gone now; will their replacements be any better? Will they come from a broader pool of writers or still mainly be Ivy seedlings? Will the magazine, in its ideological push to replicate contemporary Silicon Valley modes of operation and in its shift to the East Coast capital of hypergentrification and displacement, let alone Wall Street's lair, New York City, be able to rethink its neoliberal and sometimes neoconservative drift, or at least provide platforms for dissenting Left voices, even if it is not about to replace The Nation, Mother Jones, or other more progressive organs? And now that it is based away from DC can it possibly have the same political and legislative influence it had? Will it be as close to the next president, Democratic--or Republican--as it has to the most recent three?

Will people soon be saying who cares? about TNR? Or will it gives us all reasons, good, bad or otherwise, not to?

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

2 New Hilst Reviews: The Quarterly Conversation & Three Percent

Literary translation is, as anyone who engages in it knows, a labor of love. The financial rewards are minimal, and outside of the case of some highly regarded translators (Gregory Rabassa, Susan Jill Levine, etc.), many US readers may have no idea of who has translated the non-English works they deeply admire. Perhaps readers do recall that Chris Andrews and Natasha Wimmer have dazzlingly captured the richness of Roberto Bolaño, but can anyone who professes to love Karl Ove Knausgård's My Struggle, for example, name the translator(s) who transformed the six Norwegian volumes of his Min Kamp into English? It's therefore always heartening when a review notices the challenges and successes of a translation, particular with regard to a writer like Hilst who, as at least one critic has noted, was known to baffle even her fellow Brazilian readers.

In "In the Funnel of Infinity: Life Portraits by Hilda Hilst," which appears in The Quarterly Conversation, critic and translator Christine Craig reads and writes about all three of the extant English translations of Hilst's prose works: the first one to be published, the novel The Obscene Madame D., translated collaboratively by Rachel Gontijo Araújo and Nathanaël (Nightboat, 2012); the novella With My Dog Eyes by Hilda Hilst, translated by Adam Morris (Melville House Press, 2014); and Letters from a Seducer by Hilda Hilst, translated by me (Nightboat, 2014). While most of the joint reviews of these books have focused primarily on the first two, Craig, in her thorough and insightful analysis of Hilst's themes and ideas, devotes a number of paragraphs to Letters, and provides one of the best reading yet I've seen of what Hilst's work is doing.

Craig examines many of the thresholds Hilst's novels explore and exploit, beginning with the psychological torment caused by the divergence between the two halves of the human, the animal and the psychic/symbolic, that her avatar Ernest Becker, the dedicatee of With My Dog Eyes, investigated in his philosophically profound and psychologically invaluable anthropological studies, particularly The Denial of Death. As a symbolic creature with psychological and affective interiority, man is the animal that suffers from the knowledge of our eventual death, which can lead to mental illness, a perception that Hilst understood because of her personal history, and which she wove extensively into the fabric of her texts.

Craig goes on to assess Hilst's understanding of the line between meaningful and meaningless language, and her inverting of the idea of "saint[hood]" as something beyond human limits, "the symbolic equivalent of death," often marked by the disgusting. At one point, citing my mention of Deleuze and Guattari in the Music & Literature roundtable from last year, she expands upon the reference, via Brian Massumi's reading of Deleuze, in order to show how Hilst's fiction sits at the nexus between "transcendence (orgasm's explosion of possibilities)" and "immanentism (life's sad remainder: the abandoned fish)." To quote her:
In “The Autonomy of Affect,” Massumi describes it as the simultaneous point of emergence and vanishing of “the unclassifiable, the unassimilable, the never-yet felt, the felt for less than half a second, again for the first time—the new.”

In his own writing, Karl is plagued by a “crazy urge” to reproduce the fundamental language of Daniel Schreber as described in Memoirs of My Nervous Illness. It is, as Karl writes, the desire “to not make sense of some things, some words, of my own life.” In his memoirs, Schreber, a schizophrenic former judge, painstakingly explains, with ample footnotes, his own personal delusional system, according to which his body has been overwhelmed by “nerves of voluptuousness”—nerves which, according to Schreber, naturally occur on all surfaces of the female body but which, on the male body, remain concentrated in the genitals. The propagation of Schreber’s own nerves has effectively turned him female (“unmanned” him, as he writes). What’s more, his overabundant nerves are constantly under invasion by God’s penetrating “rays,” agitated into a state of insupportable vibration—the source of his “nervous illness.”

Schreber’s fundamental language, or nerve-language, in which Karl would aspire to write, is the vibratory language of euphemism and coded paradox through which God’s rays “speak” to Schreber’s nerves and against which Schreber’s only defense is not thinking, or more precisely, the cultivation of “not-thinking-of-anything-thoughts” through semantic satiation: he repeats words until they grow meaningless and his thoughts turn empty and mechanical. Schreber reasons that if he can cease thinking entirely he might trick God into believing him dead.
There is also this gem about my translation, though the credit does go to Hilst, whose lead I followed:

Letters from a Seducer brings us directly into the work of the two fictitious writers, Karl and Stamatius (“Tiu”). We first get to know Karl—depraved “aristocrat” and widely published author—through his love letters to a distant, cloistered sister, Cordelia, in which he speculates about her implied affair with their father, supposed to have occurred when they were both teenagers and both in love with him. Suffice it to say Karl has his doubts. Prove it, he says: “Prove to me you had in your hairy cavern the big paternal cock and curls.” Karl has a seemingly endless supply of sly, poetic euphemisms for his sister’s vagina, but his best is perhaps: “your purse, your poor pussy so without pursuers”—a turn of phrase for which translator John Keene (and not Karl) actually deserves our applause.
Madeleine LaRue, Associate Editor of Music and Literature, in her post "The Books I Haven't Forgotten, Or In Lieu of a Plot," on the January 25, 2015 weblog Three Percent, cogently and succinctly discusses four translated books from 2014, the first two from New York Review Books, Last Words from Montparnasse, by Qiu Miaojin, translated by Ari Larissa Heinrich, and The Woman Who Borrowed Memories: Selected Stories, by Tove Jansson, translated by Thomas Teal and Silvester Mazzarella; the third The Elusive Moth, by Ingrid Winterbach, translated by Iris Gouws, from Open Letters Press; and Hilst's Letters. All she recommends as worth reading, even though the site had previously not devoted a freestanding review to any of them. About Hilst's Letters she says:
And one more word on my most recent read: Like Last Words from Montmartre, Letters from a Seducer by Hilda Hilst (translated from the Portuguese by John Keene) is passionate and epistolary, but its tone couldn’t be more different. Letters from a Seducer is an irreverent catalogue of outrageous, theatrical sexualities. Hilst delights in breaking taboos and detailing fetishistic obsessions, making constant fun of phallocentrism and bourgeois sensibilities. But she does it with a good sense of humor and often great literary panache. (Translator John Keene deserves praise for the number of euphemisms he’s managed to generate for various body parts alone.) Behind the absurdity are also flashes of deep feeling, comical desperation in the face of writing, and these meditations lend Hilst’s short novel staying power as literature, and not only as (in the author’s own words) “brilliant pornography.”
I'll take the praise, and note that Hilst actually uses "euphemisms," or rather, quite striking metaphors, many of them in current use in contemporary Brazilian popular and vernacular idioms, and that those body parts--and sexual acts--appear with such profusion in the text that I sometimes had to duck just to get to the next sentence! Now doesn't that make you want to read it?

Monday, January 19, 2015

Rev. Dr. MLK Jr. Day: His 1965 Interview with Alex Haley

Selma-Montgomery March: Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King leading march
from Selma to Montgomery to protest lack of voting rights for
African Americans. Beside King is (l-r), Ralph Abernathy, James Forman,
Reverend Jesse Douglas and John Lewis, March 1965.
(Photo Credit: Steve Schapiro/Corbis)
Today on Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, I thought I'd post a link to one of the best interviews Rev. Dr. King (1929-1968) ever gave, with journalist and author Alex Haley, of Roots fame. The interview took exactly 50 years ago today, in January 1965, the year of the Selma-to-Montgomery March--and of the story underpinning Ava Duvernay's highly acclaimed new film Selma--and appeared in Playboy magazine, preceding the famous Alabama march and the assassination of Malcolm X, but following many other landmark moments in Rev. Dr. King's and the Civil Rights Movement's long march towards social, political and economic equality and freedom.

It's worth reading the entire interview (linked from, which gives a far fuller portrait of Rev. Dr. King's mindset in the mid-1960s. In it he talks about mistakes he felt he made, his disappointment of the lack of support and righteousness from white Christian ministers and churches in the cause of Black equality, the moving resistance of young people, the concept of "militant nonviolence," strategizing for the future for Civil Rights, a critique of the Nation of Islam and Malcolm X, the challenges of nonviolence and the dangers of violence as a solution, racist science and white supremacy, the relationship between African Americans and Black people around the globe, and so much more. Here is one quote:
King: I mean to say that a strong man must be militant as well as moderate. He must be a realist as well as an idealist. If I am to merit the trust invested in me by some of my race, I must be both of these things. This is why nonviolence is a powerful as well as a just weapon. If you confront a man who has long been cruelly misusing you, and say, “Punish me, if you will; I do not deserve it, but I will accept it, so that the world will know I am right and you are wrong,” then you wield a powerful and a just weapon. This man, your oppressor, is automatically morally defeated, and if he has any conscience, he is ashamed. Wherever this weapon is used in a manner that stirs a community’s, or a nation’s, anguished conscience, then the pressure of public opinion becomes an ally in your just cause.

and here is another, concerning the Civil Rights Act, which Rev. Dr. King didn't think went far enough:

King: One of these decisive developments was our last major campaign before the enactment of the Civil Rights Act—in St. Augustine, Florida. We received a plea for help from Dr. Robert Hayling, the leader of the St. Augustine movement. St. Augustine, America’s oldest city, and one of the most segregated cities in America, was a stronghold of the Ku Klux Klan and the John Birch Society. Such things had happened as Klansmen abducting four Negroes and beating them unconscious with clubs, brass knuckles, ax handles and pistol butts. Dr. Hayling’s home had been shot up with buckshot, three Negro homes had been bombed and several Negro night clubs shotgunned. A Negro’s car had been destroyed by fire because his child was one of the six Negro children permitted to attend white schools. And the homes of two of the Negro children in the white schools had been burned down. Many Negroes had been fired from jobs that some had worked on for 28 years because they were somehow connected with the demonstrations. Police had beaten and arrested Negroes for picketing, marching and singing freedom songs. Many Negroes had served up to 90 days in jail for demonstrating against segregation, and four teenagers had spent six months in jail for picketing. Then, on February seventh of last year, Dr. Hayling’s home was shotgunned a second time, with his pregnant wife and two children barely escaping death; the family dog was killed while standing behind the living-room door. So S.C.L.C. decided to join in last year’s celebration of St. Augustine’s gala 400th birthday as America’s oldest city—by converting it into a nonviolent battleground. This is just what we did.

and a third, concerning the relationship between Black Americans and Black Diasporic peoples:
King: Yes, I do, in many ways. There is a distinct, significant and inevitable correlation. The Negro across America, looking at his television set, sees black statesmen voting in the United Nations on vital world issues, knowing that in many of America’s cities, he himself is not yet permitted to place his ballot. The Negro hears of black kings and potentates ruling in palaces, while he remains ghettoized in urban slums. It is only natural that Negroes would react to this extreme irony. Consciously or unconsciously, the American Negro has been caught up by the black Zeitgeist. He feels a deepening sense of identification with his black African brothers, and with his brown and yellow brothers of Asia, South America and the Caribbean. With them he is moving with a sense of increasing urgency toward the promised land of racial justice.
Do read the entire interview; so much of what he says still pertains today, a sign of his extraordinary vision and of the challenges we still face.

Friday, January 16, 2015

JCFabLab's Open House

Owner and organizer
Eric Nadler
Although some local organizations provide access to 3D printers, laser cutters, and similar tools, residents of Jersey City and nearby cities in Hudson, Bergen and Essex counties will now have an excellent new option for acquiring knowledge and skills in basic and advanced digital fabrication with the launch of Jersey City Fabrication Laboratory's (JCFabLab) programs for the wider public. Yesterday JCFabLab, a 2000-square foot space in the Jersey City Heights neighorhood near Union City held a multi-event house that included an afternoon Make-a-boat workshop for children, showing them how to laser-cut, assemble and decorate paper boats and rowers; a ribbon cutting with Jersey City's mayor, Steve Fulop; and two evening artists' talks, the first, which I attended, by Miriam Songster, who spoke about her Rauschenberg Foundation-Marfa Dialogues-sponsored, site-specific public performance, Ghost Food, exploring sustainability involving simulated food and a 3-D printed olfactory stimulator. The second, which I missed, Eric Hagan delivered, on his efforts as an installation tech helping to assemble Kara Walker's monumental sculpture A Subtlety this past summer at the former Domino Sugar Factory in Brooklyn.

JCFabLab is the creation of Eric Nadler (who, it turns out, is an old friend of my friend Jerry Weinstein), and as Eric told me last night, after many years (8) of planning and a year of getting the lab up to speed, which involved working closely with artists, manufacturers and others who needed digitally fabricated products, ranging from jewelry, figurines and plastic, wooden and metal prototypes to robots--yes, robots; I forgot to ask about these yesterday--which included workshops and classes, he felt ready to open the doors for classes and regular programs, for people of all ages, with various levels of membership available. The ultimate goal is create, foster and nurture a collaborative creative community for Jersey City.

One of the fabrication rooms
"This is a place where people can come together and collaborate and make things that they would otherwise not be able to make," explains Nadler, who has a varied background in filmmaking, video game design, computer programming, and product fabrication. "The possibilities are endless. You can meet someone you would never meet otherwise and create something you would never be able to create on your own."
He says a large aspect of the Fab Lab is the various classes and seminars it will host for children and adults, taught by a selection of respected artists and entrepreneurs within Nadler's network. 
Nadler said classes could be anything from a basic drawing class to building your own surfboard. 
"I don't believe you should have to pay $60,000 and go to Parsons or Pratt to get a basic design education," said Nadler, who attended the prestigious Tisch School of the Arts at NYU. "Our classes will give people a basic foundation in art and design and teach people woodworking and welding techniques on all our machines."
One of the laser cut
boats, assembled
and on display
At the Open House all of the lab's machines and a selection of its products were on display, ranging from stickers and figurines to some of the boat templates. (What I didn't see where the were lab-produced JCFabLab Dollars available for machine time credit on the Laser/Engraver, the computer numerical controlled (CNC) Mill, or for children's workshops and memberships. Something else to inquire about next time I drop by.) The Open House also included free food and non-alcoholic drinks, as well as a stirring performance by members of, and Songster's talk about her Ghost Food project with Miriam Simun, a Brazilian artist, provided a different way, at least for me, of thinking about what you might do with digital fabrication technology and tips on funding and organization. All in all, a fab night at JCFabLab, and I'll definitely be heading back there.

More photos:

A display table featuring some
fabricated materials (enlarge to see them) 
3-D printer 
Computer work station 
A laser cutting machine
Open house attendees
Miriam Songster, one of the
JCFabLab technical staff members
and Nadler before Songster's talk 
Miriam Songster talking
about Ghost Food
Another view of Songster's talk
from JCFabLab's Facebook page
(yours truly at left)

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Ian S. MacNiven's "Literchoor Is My Beat": A Life of James Laughlin, Publisher of New Directions

Say you were born at the start of World War I, the second son and heir to a prominent Northeastern steel company fortune on your father's side, and a wealthy, patrician family on your mother's; and say your family milieu was conservative, stolid, pious--a bit narrow-minded, snobbish and prejudiced--but with some sense of civic duty and responsibility; and say your own father, who had gone to Princeton and expected you to as well suffered from serious mental health issues for which there was neither analytic or pharmacological relief, and those same mental health issues would hover around you all your life, manifesting themselves fairly late in life, and your mother was fairly cool to you from the moment of your birth, though you had other powerful, rich female figures who stepped into the breach with love and guidance.

And say you, this scion, had both artistic and scholarly interests, nurtured at your preparatory school, and instead of desiring to follow your older brother into the steel company business you had aesthetic leanings, and chose, to your father's disappointment, to enter Harvard, where you promptly encountered, as your roommate, another extremely wealthy scion and art collector, Joseph Pulitzer, Jr., and by the end of your freshman year you were palling about with the likes of Robert Fitzgerald, Wayne Andrews and Robert Lowell, befriending slightly older prominent cultural avatars like Lincoln Kirstein and Sherry Mangan, and eccentrics like John Brooks Wheelwright, while also chatting up and dining with the Norton Professor of Poetry, who happened to be the by-then increasingly world famous T. S. Eliot; and say that in part through Eliot's intercession and your own boldness you were able to meet another poet you idolized, Ezra Pound, living in Rapallo, in Italy, and instead of encouraging you toward a career as a poet and scholar (as he certainly was in the first case and might be considered eccentrically in the second) he (apocryphally) urged you to become a publisher.

If you somehow happened to fit all those conditions and took the advice of Pound, you would be James Laughlin IV, who did found a publishing house, initially by compiling an annual anthology called New Directives, which eventually would New Directions Publishing Corporation. Laughlin did this while still a Harvard undergraduate, and as Ian S. MacNiven's ample, enjoyable biography "Literchoor Is My Beat": A Life of James Laughlin, Publisher of New Directions (Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 2014) makes clear, Laughlin's creative and intellectual affinities, combined with a compulsion to work, played a key role in the development of what we think of as American literary Modernism, particularly in terms of poetry. When Laughlin got going in the late 1930s, of course, Eliot and Pound, as well as William Carlos Williams, Wallace Stevens, Marianne Moore, Langston Hughes, Louis Zukovsky, and others had already begun publishing their work, and several of these poets, like Eliot, were already well known and acclaimed.

Yet Laughlin's decision to bring together reprint older and newer work by them, particularly in terms of Pound and Williams, set the stage for their wider recognition. That he managed this in the midst of attending classes and sitting for exams, participating in other school activities like the Harvard Advocate, taking off on holidays to ski--once missing by half a year frantic communiqués from Williams to print more copies of the great poet's collection White Mule, which had received excellent reviews, because Laughlin was off in New Zealand and nearly impossible to reach--and semesters to traipse about Europe (expressing pro-Nazi sentiments at first, until he woke up), and courting various young women, is almost mind-boggling. It did take him seven years to complete his degree, though he did earn it cum laude. (As for the skiing, he would soon thereafter establish a ski resort, Alta, still standing and drawing afficionados in Utah.)

Laughlin did manage all of this and more, though not without the assiduous assistance of a range of people, some of them noteworthy figures in their own right, including writers Kenneth Rexroth, Hayden Carruth, and Delmore Schwartz, until the latter's paranoia finally drove him away not only from Laughlin but to an early death, while other longstanding helpmeets, like Gertrude Huston, for many years his mistress, in-house designer and eventually his third and final wife, remain little known even today to history. MacNiven guides readers through Laughlin's entire history, beginning with the origins of the American Laughlins, originally from Ireland though they liked to claim Scottish heritage--it being more respectable--and their march toward industrial success, which provided James Laughlin with the financial means to pursue his avocation. Indeed, MacNiven does not stint on details at any point, though as the years progress and events pile upon themselves, he does start to pare the tapestry of the narrative down.

At its core lies several main threads: Laughlin's longstanding relationship with Pound, which would be perhaps the most important of his adult life; his struggles with his own art-making, and the persistent feeling that his work and life--except the womanizing--not only kept him away from but overshadowed his pressing desire to write poems; his lurking fear of having inherited the family's "madness," which destroyed his father and several uncles; and his musical chair games with his female lovers, some of whom, like Huston, became his wife, while others, like Lady Maria (Britneva) St. Just, would retain his lifelong affection. MacNiven devotes many pages to each of these biographical strands, using a great deal of Laughlin's personal--and often erotic--poetry not just for illustration but sometimes as factual proof. I had not thought of Laughlin as a documentary poet, but sometimes, MacNiven suggests, particularly in works like Byways, he was.

Though I was familiar with Pound's history, a good deal of the material here felt new to me, in part because of how important Laughlin's hand was in making Pound's reputation, pushing it relentlessly despite the elder poet's diffidence and truculence, and, as his World War II fascistic radio broadcasts represented, treasonous behavior. From Pound Laughlin gained not just a landmark author--crazy as he was--but ideas, however ill-formed, about poetry, art, economics, the world, as well as a deep intellectual, almost filial bond. Pound provided a male anchor that Laughlin's father Hughart could not. Laughlin did not have a particular aesthetic or even political stance, or rather, belonged to no school, but he did possess a keen eye for the new and formally experimental, particularly through the first 25 years of his firm, and Pound and Pound's poetry, like William Carlos Williams and his work, was central to that sense of what poetry could be. As the biography's title demonstrates, Laughlin even communicated in his letters using a playful, faux-naif Poundian idiom for his entire adult life. Pound grows no less politically repulsive here, but, especially in terms of Laughlin's life and career, considerably more significant.

Part of Laughlin's connection with Pound involved a casual attitude to racial and ethnic slurs, though Laughlin had already begun to break away from a good deal of the racism and ethnocentrism of his familial milieu by the time he reached college; at the college of "Jews and Beaconhillites," as his father labeled it, he was casting a far wider social net than anyone in his family could imagine, and not just for lunch dates and evening parties. (And Williams, half-Puerto Rican, was no stranger to racist slurs either.) Alongside the devotion to Pound, MacNiven shows, Laughlin spotted a great deal of other talent, either directly or after the recommendation of others. He nearly became the publisher of Elizabeth Bishop, for example, but for a sexist comment; he did, however, catch on early with Tennessee Williams and the impoverished Welsh poet Dylan Thomas, who would become a sensation in the US, and two of his other favorites, Henry Miller and Thomas Merton, would serve as central figures of wings of the American counterculture for years to come. He also introduced a great deal of Modernist European literature, as well as some Asian and Latin American writing, into American bookstores, schools and homes, including Gabriel García Lorca, Boris Pasternak, Vladimir Nabokov, Pablo Neruda, Jorge Luis Borges, Ernesto Cardenal, and Hermann Hesse, whose Siddhartha remains a strong backlist seller. Alongside these authors, his Alvin Lustig-designed covers--with other famous designers, including Ray Johnson later--would become iconic for generations of readers, especially young ones.

Part of his prospecting came as a result of his work, which I had never heard about, for the Ford Foundation, working in conjunction with the University of Chicago's former boy-genius of a president Robert Maynard Hutchins. As Laughlin's marriage disintegrated and his relationship with his eldest son Henry remained contentious (a younger son, Robert, suffering from what was probably inherited bipolar disorder, would commit suicide in New York in the 1970s), the publisher-poet traveled all over the globe, leaving his company in the care of a trusted assistant, and serving as an editor-publisher for Ford's and the US government's Cold War (and propagandistic) national literary annuals. While in Asia he immersed himself in what was for him mostly unknown literary traditions, except where Pound had offered glimmers, with the result that he ended up bringing out volumes by Raja Rao, Osamu Dazai, Yukio Mishima.

Although Laughlin did mostly shed his family's anti-Semitism, and included Hughes in an early annual, MacNiven notes that he published no African American authors, yet strangely does not mention perhaps the first one--and for many years the only one--whose books he did, Bob Kaufman, one of the most original Beat and midcentury poets. Laughlin also published few Asian American or Latino (other than Williams, though until recently he was not considered such) authors till far into his publishing tenure, and in general was no great pacesetter in terms of race. He also missed out on publishing many of the major Beat poets, finding their behavior repellent, though he did issue works by important members of other mid-century experimental schools, including the San Francisco Renaissance (Duncan, Ferlinghetti) and the Black Mountain writers (Creeley, Levertov), as well as Gary Snyder, who would later count as one New Directions' Pulitzer Prize winners.

Another blind spot, oddly, was the New York School, three of whose members, John Ashbery, Kenneth Koch, and Frank O'Hara, attended Harvard a decade after Laughlin. In fiction, the domestic track record was quite eccentric, but Kay Boyle, John Hawkes, Edward Dahlberg, and later Walter Abish and Clarice Lispector would be among the great finds. (After his death, of course, came the polestars of W. G. Sebald and the inexhaustible Roberto Bolaño.) He published one of Vladimir Nabokov's first books written in English, but passed on Lolita. (Imagine if he had taken it.) Barney Rosset's Grove Press, which emerged in the late 1950s, was a spur to get back on the ball. One of the pleasures of this biography is MacNiven's accounts of Laughlin's interactions with many of these figures, including Djuna Barnes and the wily Nabokov; as his days start to dwindle in the 1970s and his great friends die, a wistful tone colors his correspondence and tinges MacNiven's prose. In these final 20 years, particularly as Laughlin's health worsened, Guy Davenport becomes a key correspondent, which provided the pretext for one of the late examples of Laughlin's daring, which involved pushing for the publication of Davenport's potentially scandalous prose. (There was, however, no scandal.)

I should note that I never met James Laughlin in person, though he was still alive when New Directions accepted Annotations; I believe we may have spoken on the phone, though we mainly communicated through the intermediary of then editor, now President of the firm Barbara Epler. I knew that he was well up in years and spent most of his time in Connecticut, though I had no sense of the larger story of the firm, its rich and often ground-breaking history, or of Laughlin himself. I did know that he wanted to have a glossary at the end of the book, in part to learn what "rudipoots" were, and that he was willing to sign off on the book's publication. He got the glossary, the book appeared, he passed away shortly thereafter, and it would be almost thirty years later--today--through MacNiven's efforts that I discovered a great deal more about this extraordinary person, his important work as poet and publisher, and about a vital sector of the  landscape of 20th century American and global literature. 

Monday, January 12, 2015

Review: Empire (on Fox)

Terrence Howard and Grace Grealey
(Photo still © Chuck Hodes)
Like almost everyone we know, C and I made time to catch Empire, the new midseason drama that debuted on Fox on January 7.  Extensively ballyhooed on Facebook, Twitter and elsewhere, Empire is the creation of Academy Award-winning director Lee Daniels and Danny Strong, and aims, as some accounts I have read suggest, to be a fusion of Dynasty, the 1980s evening soap opera, hip hop, and King Lear. And don't forget The Sopranos. It definitely has Dynasty's melodrama and larger-than-life acting, a good deal of original hiphop in its soundtrack, and Shakespeare's three battling children (including a queer Cordelia figure), as well as the former New Jersey show's cast of semi-domesticated gangsters, but whether it all works together--though it most definitively is the work of Lee Daniels, as anyone standing in the next room overhearing could tell without much effort--is another matter.

Empire tells the story of music mogul Lucious Lyon (Terrence Howard), who has raised his three sons Andre (Trai Byers), Jamal (Jussie Smollett) and Hakeem (Bryshere Gray) by himself as his ex-wife Cookie (Taraji P. Henson in an every-scene-stealing performance) has served time for a drug conviction, though when the series starts, she's just been released, of course without anyone else's foreknowledge. It's unclear how old Lucious is supposed to be--yes, black don't crack but the man doesn't appear a year over 45, even though his eldest son could be nearing 30 (it is biologically possible, I know)--but he is thinking about his eponymous empire, which he is about to take public, and about his potential successors. By the end of the pilot episode, he also receives health news that will eventually take him off the show (unless it turns out to be a misdiagnosis; the writers have written themselves in a bit of a corner with this one). He also commits a mortal crime (I don't mean the hair), but it's so clumsily handled that it can only lead to serious problems.

In Lear fashion, the sons don't exactly delight in each others' time. Andre, the eldest and CFO of Lyon Entertainment, feels he doesn't get enough respect from his father because of his lack of musical ability, suffers from bipolar disorder (I'm almost cringing to see how this is depicted), and is married to his white college sweetheart, Rhonda. Jamal, who possesses enough music skills to make Prince jealous, is openly gay, anti-corporate, estranged from his father--who, in a scene taken from Daniels' life but nevertheless horrifying, throws the child in a trashcan (!) when he appears in drag during a family party--and lives with his Latino boyfriend, Michael (Rafael de la Fuente). Hakeem, who struck me as the least well drawn character so far, parties too much, loves older woman (Macy Gray, Naomi Campbell, etc.) and holds deep hostility towards his mother for having abandoned him (prison, remember). He would send the "Empire" down the drain if left with it for too long.

Bryshere Gray and Jussie Smollett
(Photo still © Chuck Hodes)
That leaves Cookie, who blows out of prison like a tornado and heads first to see her children, to reconnect with them if not exactly to make amends. She wants to manage Jamal. She wants respect from Hakeem, whom she beats with a broom (!) to show him she still Mama and boss. (Cookie don't play that....) She wants her piece of the company. She wants to head the company's AR division. She...well, fill in the blank. Henson is a talented actress, with a capacity for small-scale to megadrama-style acting, and so it was no surprise that once she made her appearance, especially in this role, she would turn things out. One problem with her scenes, though, is that it's not clear Daniels has found the right surrounding frame for her yet, throwing everything off and rendering the proceedings a bit cartoonish. The general tinniness of the dialogue--though there are some great moments--does not help. 

Other characters include Grace Grealey as Anika Calhoun, Lucious's lover and head of Empire Entertainment's AR division and thus Cookie's rival; Malik Yoba as Vernon Turner, a longtime friend of Lucious' and chairman of the company; and Antoine McKay as Bunkie Campbell, a longtime homeboy of Lucious and Cookie from back in the day who ends up paying a serious price for speaking up for himself. Also filling out the cast is actress Gabouré Sidibe, with blond highlights no less, playing Becky, Lucious' assistant. None of these characters was especially compelling, though something tells me that in addition to Bunkie's seeming demise, we may witness some of these other characters taken out or with their hands on a trigger of some sort. I sincerely hope Yoba gets to do more than sit and take insults, and that Sidibe isn't racing breathlessly behind Howard in future episode.

The show raises lots of questions, including whether focusing on a faltering industry, and in this way, is the right setting for a 2015 series; were this show set in 1990 (or had it been made then), it might have resonated much more in every way, but today while there are still music companies, both indies, semi-independents and those fully attached the conglomerates, we can see a cavalcade of their members and participants with minimal varnish and maximum drama on Real Housewives of Atlanta or Love and Hip Hop Atlanta, New York or LA. Are the technical aspects of music-making that this series features anachronistic today? Indeed, the entire landscape of music as an enterprise, along with related industries like music journalism, music TV, etc., has been transformed. Other than Henson's or Smollett's characters, was anyone on the show half as interesting or compelling as Stevie J and Joseline, Li'l Scrappy, Erica Mena and Sin, Joe Buddens and Tahiry, Peter and Amina Buttafly, or Ray J and anyone else on that LA mess factory?

Taraji P. Henson and Terrance Howard
(Photo still © Chuck Hodes)
That the show traffics in stereotypes also rankled, but I know that drawing with broad and familiar strokes is Daniels' purview, and seeking too much subtlety probably was asking too much. Nevertheless, given the paucity of shows about contemporary Black life, anyone traveling this road should make the best effort possible. Respectability isn't the answer, but neither is a lack of complexity. But we will see. The treatment of homophobia, also played into stereotypes. A harshly homophobic Black father isn't such a stretch, of course; I've lived that scenario myself. But did Cookie have to refer to her son as a "queen" and his boyfriend using a feminine pronoun? It was a positive step that the boyfriend ended up being Latino (and we learned that an earlier one had had dreadlocks, if I heard correctly), so the gay = white equation didn't hold. But I will be interested to see how the series plays with Jamal's character, and whether in the interests of pleasing the broad audience, homonormativity becomes Jamal's norm. As is, he's refreshingly distinctive as TV show portrayals go.

One last question that I could not stop asking was: WHY is Terrance Howard running around with a conk? I kept trying to think of figures he might be based on, but since the show is set after 1965, I confess to bafflement. I could even see an old head with 1) a high-top fade--late 80s still and forever, 2) a fro, 3) a Jheri curl, 4) even dreadlocks or a Quo Vadis, but that pressed hair seems straight out of someone mistaken fantasy. His clothing choices also seemed off, as did Hakeem's, but that could just my finickiness. That said, all the houses, cars, and bling do seem appropriate, so perhaps a bit of recalibration can get the show to where it needs to be. But this is just my opinion; it turns out, unsurprisingly, that a good portion of viewers are starved for representations of anything involving Black people or other people of color, and Empire's first night ratings were through the roof. I enjoy watching beautiful people, especially black people, doing their thing, as well as a good soap opera, so I will be tuning into Empire next week too.

Friday, January 09, 2015

Some Photos from the Ace Hotel Show

One Night Only: Selections from the Ace Hotel Artists in Residence Program show is still up and running through January 31. Though I wasn't feeling so great earlier in the day, C and I made it out on an arctic night to the opening in the Ace's small but accommodating main floor gallery, which was packed. There were other artworks on display in an display case in the hotel's entryway.

One of the co-organizers, Ben Sisto, was present to greet everyone, and as the work on exhibit showed, everyone took a different approach to their overnight residency, though drawing and painting on paper were the most common approaches. I wasn't sure which of my drawings they'd select, but Ben's was a  good and political choice.

This made the second straight January that I have had work in an exhibit, which was truly heartening, and I really hope to accomplish more artistic projects throughout 2015. Many thanks to those friends who dropped by (including one who arrived before the vernissage began and one, I learned, whow as misdirected by someone to the wrong space in the hotel!--my apologies). Some images from the show (you can click on any to enlarge them).

My "Untitled ('I can't breathe')" at center; 
L-R, top row:: Lizzi Bougatsos, me,
Jason Polan; bottom row: FCKNLZ, 
Stefan Marx, Colin Self.
L-R, top row: Stefan Marx, Colin Self;
bottom row: Philip Birch, JD Samson
Curator and organizer Ben Sisto
Top to bottom: Patrick Higgins (excerpt),
Denise Kupferschmidt, Will Owen
A work by Confection, Ltd.
I believe this was by
The crowd (it grew increasingly packed)
Towards the end
of the evening

Wednesday, January 07, 2015

One Night Only: Ace Hotel Residency Show, January 2015

If you're in New York City, do drop by the Ace Hotel New York, where I think that at least one of the pieces I worked on during my residency there will be on display from January 8-31, 2015.

Monday, January 05, 2015

(Still) Blogging in 2015

Part of what I was up to
last year
Another Happy New Year to any and all who are (still) reading J's Theater, or happening by here for the first time. This blog has experienced several different lives, beginning with its initiation as an experiment in 2005, and has shifted through various incarnations, including as a scratchpad for personal thoughts, a mini-news site, a soapbox (after some reticence) for politics, an ongoing global poetry anthology, a virtual gallery and translation journal, a memorial space, and, more recently--2014 to be exact--an increasingly fallow space, to which I paid intermittent visits amid all my other duties and responsibilities. Launching one new book (the Hilst translation) and finishing my most recent own book of fiction while teaching and serving as an administrator, as well as navigating life itself, which included some health-related hurdles, proved to be quite a challenge, so blogging paid the sacrificial price, though it was not for lack of desire, or material.

I still enjoy blogging, and have been happy to see that after blogging was declared dead a few years ago, it has witnessed a resurgence. In fact with platforms such as Tumblr and Instagram, as well as with the original weblogging format, blogging seems to be ubiquitous in our popular culture, such that I can turn on any reality show these days--they still exist and keep proliferating, it seems--and if I wait for a few minutes, I'll hear someone referring to "bloggers" or "the blogs" or "blogging," often as a site of conflict or notoriety. This blog probably will never be mentioned on anyone's reality show, or on TV at all for that matter, and has sparked little notoriety since my post many years ago on George W. Bush's warrantless wiretapping--remember when that was controversial? I do hope to continue, when possible, to contribute to some of the public conversations underway, and I also hope readers will post when they feel moved to do so. (Spammers, though, no thanks!) The conversations with those of you who have offered thoughts has always been enlightening, and I appreciate that you do (still) drop by here.

So, on to 2015!


I thought I'd post blogging stats for the week (Jan 5, 2015 7:00 PM – Jan 6, 2015 6:00 PM), which I find fascinating, and this past month (12/7/2014-1/5/2015).

First, the week:

I'm not that surprised by the US providing the largest number of readers, but it does fascinate me that Ukraine (!), Taiwan, Czech Republic, and Romania make up the top 10. For the week, the most read entries are: a 2005 post on poems by Allen Ginsberg, including "America" and "To Aunt Rose; a 2005 post of a translation, though not by me, of one of my favorite poems, Julia de Burgos's "To Julia de Burgos"; my 2013 post (not the 2014 one) on the Nobel Prize in Literature; my New Year's greeting post; a 2012 post titled "Whom Does Economic Austerity Benefit?," which is probably as appropriate for today as it was almost three years ago; poems and translations (by me) of Brazilian poet Ana Cristina Césara 2006 post questioning an award to Richard Wilbur, and exploring the return of track star Shawn Crawford Back on the Track; a note on a 2011 Encyclopedia 2/War Diaries reading at AWP; a short celebration of Nobel Laureate Herta Müller's lyric stories Nadirs; and my 2011 post on art curator Kynaston McShine, which I think remains one of the rare extended online treatments of him and his career.

And now, for the month:

I'm not sure why France is at the top, but over this past month, the most read pages are the Burgos post; the Ginsberg post; the 2013 Nobel Prize in Literature post; a 2006 post on whether Thomas Pynchon was posting on his then forthcoming novel, Against the Day, from 2006; a post on MTV's True Life show episode "I'm Dead Broke," from 2007; my last random photos post from 2014; the account of the Ace Hotel residency; my 2014 holidays post; the new year's post; and a 2006 post on Claudio Lomnitz on Mexico's racial problems, among other topics. Perhaps there's something in that list that the French are drawn to. Burgos? Ginsberg? Pynchon? The images of the metro area? But Ukraine? Czech Republic? Who knows, but please, keep reading!

Thursday, January 01, 2015

Happy 2015!

Happy New Year!
Feliz año nuevo
Feliz Ano Novo
Bonne année
Buon Anno e tanti auguri
Kull 'aam wa-antum bikhayr
Aliheli'sdi Itse Udetiyvasadisv
Na MwakaMweru wi Gikeno
Feliĉan novan jaron
聖誕快樂 新年快樂 [圣诞快乐 新年快乐]
Bliain úr faoi shéan is faoi mise duit
Nava Varsh Ki Haardik Shubh Kaamnaayen
Ein gesundes neues Jahr
Mwaka Mwena
Pudhu Varusha Vaazhthukkal
Afe nhyia pa
Ufaaveri aa ahareh
Er sala we pîroz be
سال نو
С наступающим Новым Годом
šťastný nový rok
Manigong Bagong Taon sa inyong lahat
Feliç Any Nou
Yeni yılınızı kutlar, sağlık ve başarılar dileriz
نايا سال مبارک هو
Emnandi Nonyaka Omtsha Ozele Iintsikelelo
Subha Aluth Awrudhak Vewa
Chronia polla
Szczesliwego Nowego Roku
Kia pai te Tau Hou e heke mai nei
Shinnen omedeto goziamasu (クリスマスと新年おめでとうございます)
IHozhi Naghai
a manuia le Tausaga Fou
Paglaun Ukiutchiaq
Naya Saal Mubarak Ho

(International greetings courtesy of Omniglot and Jennifer's Polyglot Links; please note a few of the phrases may also contain Christmas greetings)