Thursday, May 26, 2016

The Brazilian Coup

Suspended Brazilian President
Dilma Rousseff (Photo ©
One topic I've meaning to write about for a while is the current political crisis in Brazil. As has been widely reported (with the best English language coverage I've seen appearing on Glenn Greenwald's The Intercept and TeleSur's English language site), on April 17, 2016, Brazil's Lower of House of Congress, led by now former-President of the Chamber of Deputies Eduardo Cunha, of the center-right Brazilian Democratic Movement Party (Partido do Movimento Democrático Brasileiro, or PMDB), voted to forward to the Brazilian Senate impeachment proceedings against the democratically elected president of Brazil, Dilma Rousseff, a member of the leftist Workers' Party (Partido dos Trabalhadores, or PT). A few weeks later, on May 12, Brazil's upper house, led by Senate President Renan Calheiros (PMDB, from the northeastern state of Alagoas), voted 55-22 to have Dilma stand trial on the charge of budget manipulation, or "pedaladas," in which she allegedly used public bank funds to cover a lack of funding for government programs, with the goal of hiding deficits in order to ensure her reelection. As of that date, she was formally suspended as President, and the lawyer Michel Temer, her vice president and a member of the PMDB, like Cunha, assumed office as Acting President.

Just two years ago in the 2014 general election, Dilma won a second presidential term, defeating her centrist opponent Aécio Neves of the Brazilian Social Democratic Party (Partido da Social Democracia Brasileira, or PDSB). With her reelection victory, Dilma extended the Workers' Party's control of the presidency to four consecutive terms, the first two coming under her once highly popular predecessor and former labor organizer Luiz Inácio "Lula" da Silva.  Under Lula and then Dilma, during her first term, the federal government created a series of programs, including the Bolsa Familia, that lifted millions of Brazilians out of poverty, and the overall economic successes of this era, based on rising commodity prices and a roaring manufacturing sector, helped to dramatically expand the country's middle and working classes.

Under Lula and Dilma, Brazil's per-person GDP ascended from around $3000 in 2001 to high of $13,000 in 2010, and the country weathered the global recession far better than nearly all its South American peers and most of Europe. It's also important to note that as Brazil rose economically, its demographics were shifting so that by 2014, a majority (51%) of its citizens were self-identifying as brown/mixed or black, a striking fact in a country that at one point had undertaken an official state policy of whitening, beginning under its former emperor Pedro II (1825-1891, his reign lasting rom 1831 to 1889 ), by actively inviting European immigrants to settle on its shores and where state-sanctioned slavery lasted until 1888 and violence against Afrobrazilian, mixed-raced and Indigenous populations has continued for decades since. Many of these brown and black Brazilians saw their fortunes rise under Lula's and Dilma's stewardship of the country's economy, and provided crucial support for both during their presidential runs.

Not long after Dilma's second victory, the bottom fell out of commodity prices, the economy slipped into a recession, inflation began rising, and jobs started to dry up. Dilma had also continued her predecessor Lula's progressive and successful social programs and increased public spending overall, leading to a growing deficit and national debt. Additionally, in preparation for the 2014 FIFA World Cup, Brazil spent hundreds of millions of dollars on new stadiums and facilities, provoking a series of pre-tournament protests from a cross-section of the populace who preferred that the funds go towards more pressing needs, like support for public transportation and education. To make matters worse, during the event Brazilians endured global humiliation when eventual victor Germany's powerhouse squad defeated the acclaimed home team by a 7-1 score. The public dissent leading up to the World Cup could not bode well for Dilma's public standing, and it did not help that in two years, the 2016 Summer Olympics would be held in Brazil's second city and former capital, the densely packed, favela-ringed Rio de Janeiro, which meant that the country would have to spend many hundreds of millions more on athletic facilities, housing and related infrastructure, while also undertaking major environmental and security upgrades.  

One of the main Olympic venues, Guanabara Bay and the ocean area outside it, around which the city of Rio unfolds and in which rowing and some swimming events were to occur, tested so dangerously polluted that athletes competing in it for pre-Olympic events have repeatedly fallen ill with a range of diseases, including serious staff infections. (I have suggested elsewhere that that the sailing and other water events be moved to the far south of the country, to Florianópolis, where the water quality is much better, and that other events be distributed to several other central and southern Brazilian capital cities, like São Paulo, Curitiba and Porto Alegre, that already have first-class athletic facilities). Both Brazil and the International Olympic Committee, however, are dead set on not changing their minds or the sites, and many of the promised infrastructure improvements, which the government claimed would benefit not just the Olympic visitors but denizens of Rio, have yet to materialize. In addition, part of at least one favela has been razed and its residents displaced, and the military's "pacification" of others has led to increased violence against some of the city's most vulnerable people, most of them black and mixed-race.

Brazil's Congress Building
(Photo by RNLatvian)
Alongside the toxic mix of an economic slowdown and the costly international athletic events, last year Brazil found itself grappling with a new public health crisis when pregnant women, primarily in the country's northeast but eventually in other regions of the country, began giving birth to babies suffering from microcephaly. Research determined that this and related illnesses, including cases of Guillain-Barré syndrome, were the result of infections with the Zika virus, caused by Aedes mosquitoes. While Zika appears native to parts of Africa, it had not previously struck in Brazil, though there had been outbreaks in the South Pacific, and one conjecture is that it might have arrived with a 2014 World Cup attendee. After initial government paralysis, Brazilian authorities have worked, in conjunction with officials and organizations across the globe, to address the mosquito threat, but a great deal remains unknown about the virus, which also appears to transmissible between humans through semen and bodily fluids, and which does not appear to result in birth defects in all pregnant women. Chaos at the upper reaches of Brazil's government, however, makes ongoing coordination of Zika prevention a challenge.

Lastly, the problem of endemic corruption among political, economic and social elites, which has plagued Brazil for centuries, finally sparked widespread public backlash after revelations about the Petrobrás scandal began to emerge two years. During Lula's consecutive terms, from 2002 to 2010, several high-level Workers' Party members were convicted of corruption, but Lula avoided indictment. Since taking office, Dilma has not been charged with corruption, but as Lula's Minister of Energy she led Petrobrás, the state-owned oil company at the center of a vast corruption scandal, from 2003 through 2010. The Petrobrás scandal, in a nutshell, involved construction companies creating cartels to offer inflated bids on Petrobrás contracts, with Petrobrás employees approving the bids, which then led the construction companies to pocket the difference. This surplus included kickbacks to the Petrobrás employees, and to government officials, some of whom helped to place pliable employees in the ranks of Petrobrás, creating a perfect corruption feedback loop. 

The scandal came to light when Brazil's federal police began an investigation in 2014, under chief prosecutor Sérgio Moro, called Operação Lava Jato (Operation Car Wash), initially investigating money laundering, until one of the chief suspects, Alberto Youssef, spilled the beans on how extensive the alleged scheme truly was. The subsequent scandal has stretched far beyond Brazil's borders, and may have involved the illegal transfer of more than $5.3 billion state funds. Over 90 people have been convicted, and many more are currently under investigation, including several dozen sitting lawmakers, as well as ex-president Lula himself. His personal charity allegedly pocketed $7.8 million in donations from construction company executives linked to Petrobrás, leading to a recent police raid and arrest at his home. Shortly thereafter, and before her ouster, he was abruptly appointed Dilma's chief of staff, temporarily shielding him from the law's arm. A wiretap of their conversation arranging for his post spurred considerable public anger.

Palácio do Planalto, the official work residence
of the Brazilian President, Brasília
It should astonish no one that this confluence of grave economic, social and political crises spurred public outrage, but nothing suggested that Dilma, who I should note again has not been accused of any direct personal criminality, would suffer impeachment. Continuing street protests, calls for her resignation, defection of coalition partners, and increased criticism from the opposition parties seemed the likely outcome, and with her popularity falling to a low of 9% and her base voters stating in opinion polls that they disliked her tenure, she might well have chosen to step down. Federal deputy Eduardo Cunha, however, took matters into his own hands, however, and launched impeachment proceedings based on Dilma's alleged role at Petrobrás during the corruption scandal, combining this charge with her acknowledged use of federal funds to cover the deficit, even though her predecessors had taken this very same budgeting step without penalty. Lacking enough allies in the lower house, Dilma suffered a massive defeat, with Deputies voting 367 to 137 to send impeachment proceedings to the Senate, one third of whose members are under investigation for an array of crimes, some quite serious and linked to Lava Jato; one of them is Brazil's disgraced, impeached former president Fernando Collor de Melo (of the right-wing Brazilian Labor Party). With its vote to initiate its official trial of Dilma, her post now goes to Michel Temer.

In noting all of this I want to underline that as we witnessed in the late 1990s, impeachment can occur on the flimsiest grounds even in the US, and that governmental stalemate can occur here as well, as Barack Obama's battles with the US Congress over the last six years in office have underlined. Yet Brazil's democratic system has greater instability baked into its DNA, because a broader array of parties can hold power by forming tenuous coalitions, much like a parliamentary system and unlike in the US, where two fairly stable parties jostle for power, but without the presence of a prime minister to marshal forces on the president's behalf (i.e. France) and without a parliamentary presidential system's ability (cf. France again) to dissolve a failing government. To a far greater extent than in the US, one major conglomerate, O Globo, controls most of the public media, giving the right-leaning company outsized influence, and the presence of state-owned companies like Petrobrás, which lack strong independent oversight, open up vast possibilities for financial pillage.

Supreme Federal Court of Brazil, Brasília
President Dilma Rousseff, Lula's hand-picked successor, was a trained economist and a survivor of Brazil's two decade-long military dictatorship, during which she suffered detention and torture. Though an anti-dictatorship activist in her youth, she has not been a lifetime politician or handler, and although she was able to continue Lula's coalition with the PMDB, she did not cultivate the kinds of necessary relationships, through gladhanding, favors and monetarily greasing the wheel, that might have retained PMDB support and forestalled her impeachment. In any case, by removing Dilma, Eduardo Cunha, Senate President Renan Calheiros, and former Vice President and now acting President Temer, all from Dilma's former coalition partner the center-right PMDB, have effectively canceled the outcome of the most recent Brazilian presidential election, i.e., the majority votes of 54 million Dilma supporters. Immediately before taking office Temer announced one of his first moves would be "pension reform," a neoliberal hobbyhorse and fixation of the global right, and since assuming office, he has appointed an all male, all self-identified white cabinet that includes figures linked to Wall Street firms such as Goldman Sachs, and begun pushing for right-wing goals like privatization of public assets, while also eliminating ministries through consolidation, and championing greater government austerity through a lower fiscal target and reduced public expenditures.

The response has been still more protests, with one particularly notable challenge to Temer's radical shift emerging from Brazil's artistic community in response to the elimination, through consolidation and merger, of the Ministry of Culture. As a result, Temer has announced that it will be restored. The growing sense within Brazil and across the globe that Dilma's impeachment was a coup gained strength after three sensation recent wiretaps were made public via the influential Folha de São Paulo newspaper. 

First, in April 2016, just before the lower house was set to vote on whether to refer impeachment proceedings to the Senate, a wiretap captured Temer discussing Dilma's impeachment as if it were already a fait accompli, and he was the new president. Wikileaks documents had previously shown him to be a US informant since 2006, particularly against former President Lula. Then, an even more explosive wiretap from May 23, 2016 captured Interim Planning Minister and Senator Romero Jucá (PMDB, from the distant Amazonian state of Roraima) conferring with ex-senator Sérgio Machado, also a former CEO of Petrobrás subsidiary Transpetro, about the former's talks with the Brazilian Supreme Court, which will be responsible for trying Dilma and which has launched investigations of many legislators, and with key figures in the Brazilian military, which ran the country from 1964 through 1984, to guarantee that Dilma would be removed from office. In addition, the tapped conversation appeared to suggest Jucá was working to quash the Supreme Court's investigations of legislators. O Globo, the main newspaper organ of the Globo conglomerate, editorialized against Jucá, leading him to resign from his cabinet post, though he still holds his Senate seat.

Today, yet another wiretap, released to the media, appears to show Senate president Renan Calheiros also telling Sérgio Machado that they needed to change the the laws dictating investigations into corruption, primarily the plea bargain rules, because a number of politicians were "afraid" of the ongoing corruption dragnet. As with Jucá, Calheiros also appears to have been in conversation with Brazil's Supreme Court about forcing Dilma from office. 

The least generous appraisal of these wiretaps would lead one to conclude that Dilma's impeachment is the result of a concerted effort not only to oust her in undemocratic fashion while ostensibly using constitutional tools, but also to shut down the metastasizing corruption investigations. In so doing, the center-right and centrist parties, which cannot win the presidency, would thwart the will of a majority of Brazil's voters, and maintain the elite networks of corruption--into which certain fortunate new political actors can enter--while imposing failed conservative and neoliberal policies that will only enrich the uppermost stratum of Brazilian society while once again impoverishing those at the middle and bottom.

By involving the Supreme Court, politicians like Jucá and Calheiros are tainting the investigation process and showing that there is no real separation of powers, and by bringing military officials into the discussion, they appear to be setting the stage for an even more horrifying eventuality, which is to say, the transition from what is essentially now a "soft coup" to a hard one, with the military in control. In any case, the goal appears to be less about rooting out corruption and more about returning unpopular elites to untrammeled power, including the power to rob the country blind, while reversing the economic and social gains of the Lula (and Dilma) years.

Among the impeachment leaders, Eduardo Cunha is now suspended from the House of Deputies for alleged intimidation and attempted obstruction of investigations of his receipt of bribes totaling $40 million, which he is said to have squirreled away in a Swiss bank account. Acting President Temer also faces potential impeachment proceedings because he approved the same sorts of budgetary sleights of hand as Dilma; he had already been ordered to pay a fine for campaign finance violations and barred from running for office for eight years, yet was allowed to assume the interim presidency just the same.  Also under investigation are Calheiros and Machado, as part of Lava Jato. Indeed, in Calheiros' case, there are other investigations still brewing; he had previously been  involved in a 2007 scandal in which he was investigated for having received funds from a lobbyist to pay for child support for a child from an extramarital affair. A secret Senate ethics panel vote decided not to impeach him on the charges, but he currently still faces three other charges related to the scandal nine years ago. 

With Dilma out, and Temer barred from running for office and potentially under impeachment, this would tip the presidency to Interim President of the Chamber of Deputies Waldir Maranhão (Progressive Party, from the northeastern state of Maranhão), who has said he will not assume the post, thus handing it to Calheiros, who is...under investigation. And on it would go. To call this situation a hot mess hardly does it justice. To say that it deeply harms Brazil's democratic present and future is an understatement. In fact some Brazilian politicians, among them federal deputy, evangelical Christian, and extreme racist and homophobe Jair Bolsonaro (Christian Social Party, from Rio de Janeiro), have praised Brazil's military dictatorship and expressed nostalgia for its return. Bolsonaro event went so far as to publicly praise the very general who had inflicted torture on Dilma during her prison detention! If not the military, then a rightist Trump-like candidate could step into the breach. Multiple scenarios bode ill for Brazil, the world's fifth largest economy, which nevertheless must get through the rapid conservative changes under Temer, the Olympics, and the impeachment trial before anything else.
Palácio da Alvorada, the official
resident of Brazil's President,
in Brasília
One other disturbing note: the current US ambassador (ambassadrix) to Brazil, Liliana Ayalde, was Ambassador to Paraguay in 2012 during the period when that country's parliament shockingly and abruptly impeached and ousted its leftist president, Fernando Lugo. His two-day removal from office placed his Vice President, from an opposing party, and a year later a subsequent general election presidential vote installed Horacio Cortes, a conservative multimillionaire businessman from the party that had governed Paraguay for 50 years before Lugo's election. A US cable allegedly discussed a desire by some opposition figures to remove Lugo from office via impeachment, and when he was drummed from office, the US issued a bland statement that gave tacit approval to the process and outcome. Ayalde's presence during both impeachments seems to underline which side the US, yet again and quite unfortunately, is on.

Monday, May 23, 2016

Katarina Bivald in Oakland

Katarina Bivald
One other highlight of the trip to Oakland was catching a presentation by Swedish author Katarina Bivald at Laurel Bookstore. I was unfamiliar with her work, but my dear friend and former colleague Jennifer DeVere Brody, who lives and teaches now in the Bay Area, had read Bivald's brand new novel Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend (Sourcebooks Landmark, 2016), and suggested we check it out. I imagined the standard reading followed by Q&A scenario, but Bivald instead spoke to the audience, taking many questions, for an hour or so, and did so with aplomb. She unfortunately did not read from Readers, though many present at the event already had done so and were quite familiar with the characters and plot.
A few doors down from Laurel Bookstore
Though she writes in Swedish, Bivald is fluent enough in English to be able to walk all of us through many aspects of her writing life, including her experience with repeated rejections followed by eventual purchase of her manuscript; the differences between Swedish and US publishing (think scale, no agents until you are already famous and seek to sell foreign rights, and the comparative lack of diversity of voices there); her interest in 20th and 21st century American literature; her fascination with US small towns, including the eponymous Iowa hamlet "Broken Wheel," where her novel is set; and the absence of anything like US MFA programs and the institutionalization of creative writing in Sweden.
Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend is set in a small Iowa town, but it turns out Bivald was writing more from her imagination than any real time spent in the state, and one of the errors she got wrong, she laughingly shared, was having the characters wear cowboy hats (!), instead of the more likely baseball caps. When her book was translated into English and published in the UK, the British editor and readers had no problems with this factual solecism, since they were as unfamiliar with this sartorial peculiarity of the American Midwest as Bivald, but when the book was to be published in the US, Bivald shared, the headwear had to change. She has subsequently had the opportunity to tour in Iowa, and, it turns out, readers there are quite taken with the book.
No caption needed
Some of Bivald's most illuminating comments came when she was discussing her pre-publication view of how writers should create versus her changed perspective. As a beginning writer she had the idea that you should issue a book on a yearly basis, and not dither around, yet having made it onto bookshelves as a published author she now believed that authors should take their time and aim to produce the best book possible, however long it required. What she also emphasized was that authors should writer for themselves as opposed to the market, and challenge themselves in terms of their work. For obvious reasons, I appreciated all these comments.
Laurel Bookshop, on the right,
City Hall on the left
I asked her about how she saw herself bridging Swedish and US, recalling as I did so Tim Parks' eloquent discussion of non-US writers aiming for an American readership and the global (Anglophone) literary market. We discussed the differences in translation between Sweden (which, as a small country with a vibrant literary culture undertakes a sizable number of translations, particularly from the US) and the United States (whose publishers, as I've argued elsewhere and as Bowker's surveys point out, issue only a tiny fraction of non-English titles every year). Bivald pointed out that in Swedish, even the nomenclature was different; it was rare to hear "translated" work or "translation" there, whereas in the US, despite the frequent elision of translators in reviews and discussions of writing, publishers must highlight, sometimes to the detriment of a book's marketing and sales, its "translated" status.
A cathedral near the restaurant
Afterwards Jennifer, Katarina, and several others friends (Tanya, Maceo, and Emily) went out for drinks and a meal at Plum Bar, just down the street from Laurel, and I had some of the best cocktails I've drunk in a while. Their Boulevardier, which included barrel aged liquor, was so smooth you could have skated a figure eight across it! Thank you, Jennifer and Tanya, for a delicious meal, and thanks to Sean Hoskin and his friend Alex for the dinner fun at Duende the following night)!

Although it isn't the sort of novel I tend to read, I enjoyed Katarina's presentation so much I am looking forward to her book, and wishes her the best as she continues work on a new one, set in...Oregon!

Oakland Book Festival

This weekend I traveled to Oakland, California to participate in its second annual Oakland Book Festival, on Sunday, May 22. Though I have traveled a number of times to the Bay Area over the last few years, I hadn't ventured to Oakland in over a decade and a half or more, so it was a treat to have a reason to return to the East Bay metropolis. The Oakland Book Festival, which convened a wide array of authors, publishers, booksellers, and Bay Area residents, is, I learned, a one-day non-corporate sponsored ideas fest, held in around Oakland's majestic City Hall, and the diversity and political salience of the panels and screenings, which ranged from the FBI's pursuit of African American writers to utopian thought today and the future of the family to the experiences of porn stars and sex workers, bore this out.
L-R: Manuel "Manolo" Callahan, Stefano Harney,
Fred Moten, Linda Norton, and two unknown attendees
at the Convivial Research panel
Author and radio host Justin Desmangles, who heads the Before Columbus Foundation, organized and moderated the panel on which I participated, on the theme of multiraciality in 21st CenturyAmerican literature. The other panelists were two highly acclaimed writers I know and admire so much, the married couple fiction and nonfiction Emily Raboteau and fiction and comics writer Victor LaValle. Our public conversation, of the afternoon's first, ranged widely, with explorations of capitalism's and slavery's influence on American literature today, the challenges writers of color, including President Barack Obama faced, of public racial representation, and the current political climate, including one of its most horrifying emanations, Donald J. Trump. I personally thought the exchanges, including the audience's comments and questions, were informative, and I loved the differing approaches Victor and Emily took. It was an honor to be in conversation with them, and Justin. Many thanks to everyone who came to hear us, including Tan Khanh Cao and D. Scott Miller, as well as Elmaz Abinader, whom I had the chance finally to meet, among many others. 
Rochelle and her colleague at Prison Lit Project
After our panel and a short stint signing copies of the newly issued paperback version of Counternarratives, I moseyed to some of the other panels, only to learn that festival organizers were very strict about adhering to occupancy code requirements, so I could not get into a number of panels I wanted to attend. In the interim I did run into a number of writers and publishers I admire, including Aaron Bady, Adam Levy and his partner Ashley Nelson Levy at Transit BooksMauro Javier Cárdenas, and Caille Milner. (Because of the booksigning I missed Mauro's and Caille's panel). I did manage, however, to slip into the "Working With Others: On Convivial Research" panel, featuring Manuel (Manolo) Callahan, Stefano Harney, and my friend and hero Fred MotenLinda Norton, whom I had the pleasure of chatting with a little earlier, and whose shared a copy of her exquisite book Public Gardens: Poems and History with me, served as moderator. I had never heard of convivial research, but by the time Callahan, Harney and Fred had finished defining and walking us through examples of it, I certainly did.
At McSweeney's table
I relished also having the opportunity to check out the booksellers' tables. One serendipitous encounter came when I happened upon writer, editor and critic Rochelle Spencer, who is doing great work with the Prisoners Literature Project. So great to see you! I keep vowing when attending book festivals that I will not buy any books, but the serendipity of new enchanting titles or the availability of ones I intended to buy once again overcame my willpower, and I bought enough books to fill a tote bag, which I mailed back to my university office rather than paying an extra bag fee to the airline bringing me home. I also got to chat with Brad Johnson, bookseller extraordinaire. Thanks so much to Diesel Books, which had copies of Counternarratives for sale (and whose pile of many was a pile of just a few by the time I returned later in the day--thank you, Diesel and readers!), and to Small Press Distributors, which had a trove of goodies I could not resist. Now I will have even more reading to catch up on this summer!

A few more photos from the festival:

Hip Hop for Change
Some of the booths
Booksellers and other vendors
At Diesel Books
Author signing
A familiar book at the center of
this photo
More books
Loviosa, advertising the
Harry Potter conference in
Las Vegas
LitQuake's booth
Nomadic Press's Open Mic

Saturday, May 21, 2016

New Directions' 80th Birthday Party at Greenlight Books

The sandwich board announcing
the event (Photo by Sachyn Mital)
In 1936, while still an undergraduate student at Harvard CollegeJames Laughlin, the heir to a steel company fortune and a poet himself, founded a publishing company devoted to experimental and innovative literature in his dormitory room. 80 years later, that small house, New Directions Publishing Corporation, now headquartered in Manhattan, is still around and still marking out new territory in the literary world, with a position as one of the major American publishers of non-US and non-Anglophone literature. It is hardly hyperbole to say that New Directions has influenced peers, spawned successors, and played a vital role in transforming the landscape of US and global literature.

From perennial favorites like Arthur Rimbaud, Charles Baudelaire and Herman Hesse to Modernists like H.D. and William Carlos Williams, to Nobel Laureates Boris Pasternak, Octavio Paz and Tomas Tranströmer, to Pulitzer Prize winners Tennessee Williams and Gary Snyder, to less well known international figures like Rene Philoctète, Raja Rao and Inger Christiansen, to singular figures like Robert Walser, W. G. Sebald and Fleur Jaeggy, to contemporary literary pathblazers like Kamau Brathwaite, Susan Howe, Roberto Bolaño, César Aira, Nathaniel Mackey, and Jenny Erpenbeck, New Directions has kept up the cause of writing that challenges and resets expectations and conventions. I personally feel quite fortunate to have become one of the writers on their rich and expansive (1500+) roster!

Yesterday at Greenlight Bookstore in Brooklyn, New Directions held a celebration for its 80th anniversary that featured six writers offering toasts in various forms, with readings included, for no more than three minutes each. The lineup consisted of yours truly, who went first; Rivka Galchen, whose The Little Labors appeared just weeks ago; Eliot Weinberger, whose new nonfiction collections The Ghosts of Birds and Nineteen Ways of Looking at Wang Wei are forthcoming this fall; Bernadette Mayer, whose newest collection of poetry, Works and Days, will be issued this summer; Anne Carson, whose The Albertine Workout was a standout among its 2014 pamphlet series; and László Krasznahorkai, the great Hungarian novelist, whose previous New Directions book, which won him and his translator Ottilie Mulzet the 2014 Best Translated Book Prize, is one I consider to be one of the greatest works of 21st century literature so far, Seiobo There Below. (Krasznahorkai also received the 2015 Man Booker International Prize, and has two books, in one volume, forthcoming from New Directions this fall: The Last Wolf, and Herman I: The Game Warden & Herman II: The Death of a Craft.)
Group portrait: L-R: László Krasznahorkai, Bernadette Mayer,
me, Rivka Galchen, Lauri Callahan, Mieke Chew (crouching),
Barbara Epler, Eliot Weinberger, Georgia Phillips-Amos,
Anne Carson, Tynan Kogane, Chris Wait, ND friend, ND Friend,
Declan Spring, ND friend (Photo by Sachyn Mital)
After a warm introduction by Mieke Chew, New Directions' Co-Director of Publicity, in which she introduced all the staff members present, we each read. I actually included a toast and read from the final page of "Rivers"; Rivka Galchen read from two different New Directions authors, including Stevie Smith; Eliot read a distilled version of an erotic poem to goddesses, dedicating it to ND's "goddesses"; Bernadette read two short poems, including one with hip hop rhymes; Anne Carson read two footnotes from The Albertine Workout, and her "Epithalamium," or marriage poem, to her husband, who was present; and finally, closing the event out, László Krasznahorkai--whom I gushed to in the back as he was signing books and with whom, after the event ended, I briefly chatted about Gerald Murnane's study of Hungarian--delivered a concise, lyrical and enigmatic poem of abnegation, in which he suggested that he would give up everything. Except New Directions! It was the most fitting end to the reading one could imagine.

Afterwards the large crowd filled the bookstore and spilled out onto Fulton Street, enjoying the champagne, the writers, and books, the marvelous Brooklyn evening. It was a special delight for me to see some of our Rutgers-Newark MFA students and recent graduates, including Laura Spence-Ash and Evan Gill Smith, there! Among the people I had the pleasure of chatting with were critic Christopher Byrd, and John Madera, a writer and the force behind the Franklin Park Reading Series. Many thanks to my dear friend, author and filmmaker David Barclay Moore, who came to the reading and afterwards showed me a perfect little wine bar not far away that I'll have to head back to in the future.
Barbara Epler, at center, and Bernadette
Mayer, at right (with cane),
(Photo by Sachyn Mital)

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Poetry Month Blogging at Harriet (On Translation)

Rosetta Stone (from
During the most recent (Inter)National Poetry Month, poet and critic Daniel Borzutzky was invited to serve as one of the Poetry Foundation's four guest editors on its online site Harriet, and as part of his editorial charge he invited a host of poets and critics to contribute short blog essays on various themes. The poets he invited included Don Mee Choi, Lucas de Lima, Jen Hofer, and Cecilia Vicuña, as well as yours truly. When Daniel and Michael Slosek first invited me, I said yes (after assurance that only one post would be needed), and then, as April approached and innumerable deadlines closed in, I worried about what I might contribute. 

After reading sparkling thoughts by Cecilia, and then Don Mee's brilliant essay, though, I developed cold feet, which froze when I viewed Lucas's stellar entry. Daniel, however, was a calm, patient and encouraging helmsman, and eventually I was able to send an essay his way, to join the others, as well as Jennifer's dazzling entry, which concluded the series, for all of which he wrote illuminating introductions. I should add that because of a little rights quibble with the Poetry Foundation the essay temporarily vanished from Harriet, but it has been reposted and is available for everyone to see.

I have posted links to the blog posts, which are all smart and concise essays, and quite creative. Mine, "Translating Poetry, Translating Blackness," arose out of longstanding concerns I have had about the body of translated work available to US and Anglophone readers, and culminated initially in a talk I gave last year at the Thinking Its Presence: Racial Representation conference at the University of Montana, organized by Prageeta Sharma, Joanna Klink and Dorothy Wang, and named after Dorothy's eponymous, foundational study.

I should note that all of the translations in my essay are my originals, so any faults therefore are mine. Also, I asked and received permission from the Poetry Foundation to publish a snippet of Daniel's introduction, and from my essay. To read the full piece, which isn't long, please do go straight to Harriet, and if you enjoy it and the other essays and find them useful in any way, please do let the Poetry Foundation know. I believe they'd appreciate hearing from readers. (Please also check out the great entries curated by Dawn Lundy Martin,  Brandon Shimoda, and Stephanie Young.)

Lastly, it is tremendous honor to note that the esteemed translator Susan Bernofsky, who has brought Robert Walser, Jenny Erpenbeck, and Yoko Tawada among other major writers to US readers, wrote a beautiful piece about my essay and the topic in general, which she posted on her blog, Translationista. Please do check it out, and if you are are so motivated, please consider undertaking translation!


Don Mee Choi: "Darkness, Translation, Migration"

Lucas de Lima: "Poetry Betrays Whiteness"

Jen Hofer: "Proximate Shadowing: Translation as Radical Transparency and Excess"

Cecilia Vicuña: "Language Is Migrant"

John Keene: "Translating Poetry, Translating Blackness"

From Daniel's introduction to my blog post:
How does the absence of texts in translations deny individual readers reflections of their race and identity as it is presented in other countries and cultures? What does it mean that U.S. readers might not even be aware of the presence of black people, let alone black writers, in countries like Pakistan and Iraq? How does this absence limit our understanding of both the black diaspora in general and, more specifically, as John alludes to in a footnote, of the very different and often times very complex conceptions of race found in countries such as Cuba, Brazil, and the Dominican Republic? Part of the question I’m hearing here is that at this moment in the U.S., when opinions about race continue to be presented as essential truths, that it would do a world of good for unitedstatesians to understand that some of our ideas about race are arbitrary, and that others have been constructed to fit the needs of historical, establishment powers.
And from my essay:
Why is this absence of translated black voices significant? One of the ongoing problems, if I can state it bluntly, is that if we already are experiencing serious and ongoing crises in American society in part through the omission, elision, and erasure of, and indifference to narratives, stories, and other forms of imaginative expression, in all their complexity, of black American people’s lives and existences—an issue that affects not only black Americans but everyone in the society; as the Native American writer Bill Yellow Robe, among many others, underlined in a talk he delivered at the 2016 Thinking Its Presence conference, the same is true with narratives, stories, plays, and so on by indigenous peoples, to give another glaring example—we further limit our understanding of the world, in multiple ways, in the absence of black stories and voices from outside the Anglosphere, which is not a coherent whole, but nevertheless is limited in its capacity to convey the breadth of experience of black peoples across the globe. Just as black Americans are hardly a “fringe,” neither are black people and voices from the rest of the world.

Friday, May 13, 2016

Semester's End & Congrats to the Graduates

The Rutgers-Newark full commencement
ceremonies, at the Prudential Center
UPDATED: Rutgers-Newark held its Commencement ceremonies on Wednesday, May 18, 2016. The Commencement speaker was journalist and author Soledad O'Brien, and the honorary degree recipient was human rights activist and diplomat Radhika Coomaraswamy. I've included a few photos from the event. Congratulations to all the graduates and their families!

My absence from this blog is testimony to many things, one of which is the very busy semester I just concluded. Chairing, even a small department, is no joke, but many good things have happened, so I'm glad to have played a part in facilitating them. But back to more immediate things: Let me begin by congratulating all of Rutgers-Newark's 2016 graduates! Yesterday I had the tremendous honor of serving as the hooder for all 12 of our MFA fiction students who walked in the Graduate School's ceremonies. Our campus-wide ceremony will take place next Wednesday!

Our MFA graduates lining up before
our procession into the Essex Room
at Robeson Campus Center, Rutgers-Newark
Congratulations to all of these fine fiction writers, including the three phenomenal authors whose theses I advised, Mustafa Gatollari, Mel King and Anisa Rahim, and to all our graduating poets! I am glad I had an opportunity to teach many of them in workshops either last year or this one, and certainly will miss them!

Our MFA graduates and faculty (acting director
Rigoberto González is in the back row, at center,
and Brenda Shaughnessy is standing to his left/
viewer's right)
Congratulations also to my English department honors student Angelíc Forde, who completed a marvelous collection of poems entitled Limestone on My Feet, drawing upon her experiences as an immigrant from Barbados. It was always a pleasure to turn to Angelíc's poems, which included poems written in traditional fixed forms and ones drawn from the Bajan and African American traditions. (At Commencement exercises on Wednesday, I learned that Angelíc graduated summa cum laude, so even more kudos to her for a stellar undergraduate career!)

Soledad O'Brien giving her
Commencement address
Congratulations also to Tasha Hawthorne, now Dr. Hawthorne, on whose committee I sat, and who successfully completed and submitted her dissertation on African American pulp fiction at the very end of last year. Tasha will receive her Ph.D. in English from Northwestern University this June! Congratulations, Tasha!
Soledad O'Brien on
the big screen

Sunday, May 08, 2016

RIP Michael S. Harper

Yesterday I learned that Michael S. Harper (March 18, 1938 - May 7, 2016), one of the major poets of his generation, a profoundly influential teacher and mentor, and the Kapstein University Professor Emeritus at Brown University, had passed away, surrounded by his family and the music of one of his favorite musicians, John Coltrane.

Michael was, first and foremost, a poet of tremendous skill, whose poetry often fused a precise contemporary lyric style, profoundly informed by the African American tradition, with subject matter drawn from his personal life, as well as the vaster tapestry of black history and culture. Though he emerged in the wake of the Black Arts Movement and developed a poetics informed by it, he was not a polemicist, and his later poems suggested ways to bridge the racial divide. He was in particular a master of the occasional poem.

Michael published fifteen collections of poems, was twice nominated for the National Book Award, edited several important anthologies, including (with Robert Stepto) Chant of Saints: A Gathering of Afro-American Literature, Art, and Scholarship, and Every Shut Eye Ain't Asleep: An Anthology of Poetry by African Americans since 1945 (with Anthony Walton); served as the first poet laureate of Rhode Island; and received many honors, including the Melville Cane Award of the Poetry Society of America and the Frost Medal for lifetime achievement from the Academy of American Poets.

As any of his students might attest, Michael was a proselytizer for the cause of poetry in general, and of black poetry in particular. He urged those who studied with him as well as fellow poets to delve more deeply in the black American poetic past. Accounts of how he would send a budding poet, who came to his office to chat about poems with him, into the archive to do background work in preparation, are legion. His own personal stories about figures like Sterling Brown were legendary, and he trained a number of major writers during his long tenure at Brown.

My own interactions were Michael were few, but memorable. The first came during a National Black Arts Festival and involved assuring him that I had a distinct identity from my boss, a literary editor, at that time. It took a while, and the intercession of another academic figure, to convince him of this. The next came several years later during my first year at Cave Canem, I found myself no longer needing an alarm clock, as Michael's early morning efforts on his typewriter in the room next door more than sufficed in waking me up early. Very early. Then there was the experience of walking alongside him and as we chatted he listed in my direction and eventually had me flat against the wall, all the while recounting a series of insights I can no longer remember. (I remember that experience of being against the wall!). He was a towering figure, literally as well as figuratively, so I believe I squeaked out a "Professor Harper" to free myself, and return us both to our journey down the hallway.

In my second year at Cave Canem I lucked out in having Michael as one of my workshop leaders. I'd been waiting for this experience for years, since I'd never attended Brown and had missed him in the round-robin rotation of faculty members the year before. As part of his workshop, he had us memorize poems, and I chose Robert Hayden's "Those Winter Sundays," one of the masterpieces of 20th century African American and American poetry, a poem I had read more than once but had not fully internalized. One of the pleasures of memorizing that Hayden poem, in addition to integrating it into the very fiber of my being, was witnessing all the other poets in Michael's workshops that summer learning their chosen poems by heart. And recite them we did. To this day, I can still recite that poem, and, despite the fact that he wasn't so fond of the poem I wrote in his workshop, can recall many of the lessons Michael taught about rigor and concision and listening to one's ear.

During the year I taught at Brown I never saw Michael, but we communicated a few times via notes. I have retained one of the notes he left for me, typed out on a standard index card, and the little message unfolds like poetry. I knew he had gone through a great deal and recognized the toll that academe had taken on him; that was another lesson I tried to learn, that our colleague Aishah Rahman tried to make sure I understood. He was a poet to the core, and one of my hopes is that readers return to his work and find the many treasures in it. I also hope that his students carry on the best aspects of his teaching, including sending students to the archives to read and read and read some more, and to be as exacting with their own work as is possible. Read the greatest writers, learn how they do what they do, listen to their stories and share them with others, and push yourself. Push yourself. You can't fake the funk.

Here is one of my favorite poems by Michael S. Harper. When he read during my first year at Cave Canem, as all the faculty do, I tried to send him brain waves to read it. He went through poem and poem and then announced, "A Mother Speaks..." and I turned to Toni Asante Lightfoot and said, I willed that poem! Perhaps it was telepathy, or just him deciding on one of his masterpieces, as relevant, sadly, today as it was when he wrote it in the 1960s. For this and all his work in the world, I think him. RIP, Michael S. Harper.


It's too dark to see black
in the windows of
Woodward or Virginia Park.
The undertaker pushed his body
back into place with plastic and gum
but it wouldn't hold water.
When I looked for marks or lineament or fine stitching
I was led away without seeing
this plastic face they'd built
that was not my son's.
They tied the eye torn out
by shotgun into place
and his shattered arm cut away
with his buttocks that remained.
My son's gone by white hands
though he said to his last word--
"Oh I'm so sorry, officer,
I broke your gun."

Copyright © Michael S. Harper, from Dear John, Dear Coltrane,
University of Pittsburgh Press, 1970.

Friday, May 06, 2016

Counternarratives' British Life + Saroyan Prize Short List

This April, Fitzcarraldo Editions, a new, small and vibrant publisher, issued Counternarratives in the UK and British Commonwealth countries--in its enchanting Yves Klein International Blue dust jackets--and since then, the collection has found not only a new set of readers, but spurred a new set of reviews. Two micro reviews appeared in the British publications The Lady and Buzz Magazine, the latter of which named Counternarratives its Book-of-the-Month for April 2016. Thanks so much to both reviewers for their reviews!

The collection received a different kind of mention in The Telegraph when critic Anthony Cummins included it in a May 1, 2016 article entitled "Clear-eyed and cutting edge: has the short story come of age?" In this short essay he discusses contemporary short fiction on both sides of the Atlantic, arguing that short stories may be more commercially viable and aesthetically daring on US shores, but that some British writers are, like their American peers, showing what short stories might do.

Among the writers he essays are some well known for their play with short fictional form and content: Helen Oyeyemi, Greg Jackson, Philip Hensher, and Mark Haddon. Into this mostly British mix he adds a side of Counternarratives, calling it "postmodernism with blood in its veins," and goes on to say that "This is no average work of historical fiction...rather, it’s a set of complex and unpredictable tales about slavery and racism." It's quite gratifying to note the book's distinctive approach to the short story form, its evident post-modernism, and its against-the-grain approach to historical fiction conventions. Many thanks to Mr. Cummins, and to The Telegraph.


One very pleasant surprise came earlier this week when I learned that Counternarratives had made the short list for the biennial 2016 William Saroyan International Prize for Writing, administered by the Stanford University Libraries. The Saroyan Prize takes its name from the late, award-winning playwright and fiction writer, and the 14 other books on the short list include works by Amina Gautier and T. Geronimo Johnson, among other very talented writers, and prior recipients have included Kiese Laymon, Daniel Orozco, Rivka Galchen, George Hagen, Nicole Krauss, and Jonathan Safran Foer, so I'm not getting my hopes up, but it is nice to receive this level of recognition. The awards will not be announced until later in the year.