Sunday, January 22, 2017

Contemporary Black Canvas Podcast + Counternarratives News: January 2017

For years I've regularly listened to literature and ideas podcasts but have long felt about far too many posted by mainstream US institutions lack any real diversity, some hosting lineups of invited artists and thinkers so un-diverse that it would be dishonest to describe them as practicing anything but intellectual, literary and cultural apartheid. Fortunately these days are increasingly more options, one of which I learned about last fall: Contemporary Black Canvas. Hosted by founder Dr. Pia Deas, a literature professor and scholar at HBCU Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, and available on the iTunes store and via the net (for your laptop), Contemporary Black Canvas aims, as Deas states on the sites landing page, to celebrate

the depth and breadth of the Black artistic and intellectual traditions from across the African Diaspora and Africa. Through conversations with leading writers, musicians, filmmakers, visual artists, dancers, radical gardeners, and institution builders, we examine the Black imagination as a vital, vibrant, and dynamic force for individual and collective transformation.

Generocity'Dante Kirby wrote an informative article about Deas and Contemporary Black Canvas, which I recommend. So far Contemporary Black Canvas has challenged black underrepresentation on the podcast front by hosting a rich array of contemporary cultural producers, including culinary artist Pascale Boucicaut and photographer Adachi Pimentel, curator and festival organizer Maori Karamel Holmes, visual artist Akili Ron Anderson, multiplatform artists Mendi+Keith Obadike, dancer and choreographer Lela Aisha Jones, and Poet Laureate of Philadelphia Yolanda Wisher. Most recently she invited me to participate in a conversation about Counternarratives and my work in general, and it was a wonderful experience (even if I do sound a bit of a spaz!). I really appreciated for the opportunity.

Please do consider adding the podcasts to add to your mix, and enjoy!


I recently received the very good news that Counternarratives had made the shortlist for the inaugural Republic of Consciousness Prize for Small Presses! I'd previously written about the crowdfunded prize and how my collection made the longlist, which comprised some twenty works, many experimental in form and content, by independent publishers in the UK. The Guardian features a short writeup about the shortlist of 8 books, evenly divided between novels and short story collections, including a nice mention of Counternarratives. However it goes, many thanks to the judges and especially Neil Griffiths for establishing this way to honor small presses.


Another positive mention for Counternarratives appeared in LitHub's list of the "Most Important Books of the Last 20 Years." One of the judges deemed the collection worthy of inclusion, so many thanks to whoever among that illustrious list selected my book. After reading through the list, which is long on imaginative literature (poetry, fiction, creative nonfiction, a few academic and journalistic books), a good thing, I think, but a bit short on scholarly books, so I posed the question on Twitter, which scholarly books published in the last 20 years would you list as the most important or influential? Please leave your suggestions in the comments section.


Two recent reviews, one extended, the second brief, of the French edition of Counternarratives have been published. The longer one, by Juan Asensio, appeared on STALKER of Counternarratives / ContrenarrationsContrenarrations. Probing and laudatory, it also manages to broach some aspects of the book that haven't been touched upon at all in most of the books reviews, in the US or British press, including the book's exploration of marranos and conversos during the Inquisition era, and invokes figures ranging from Siegfried Kracauer to Leo Strauss (!) in discussing some of the ideas it contains. It's a wonderful piece, and I really appreciate that Juan Asensio engaged with the book so deeply.

French novelist Florence Noiville wrote a mini-review for major French daily Le Monde's book section, as part of their year-end 28 "Books in brief" section. She describes me as a "new voice in African American literature," which isn't really the case, but ends with "And to follow closely," which was nice. I hope French readers will do so, and buy the book.

Lastly, in Mediapart, Lisa Wajeman makes the case in her article "L'histoire noire américaine est devenue un sujet littéraire," which, based on French historian's Sylvain Pattieu's Nous avons arpenté un chemin caillouteux (We Have Walked Along a Stony Path), which explores Black Panthers Jean and Melvin McNair's 1972 hijacking of a plane to AlgeriaNate Parker's film Birth of a Nation, and translations of Ta-Nehisi Coates's meditative critical essay Between the World and Me and Counternarratives, African American literature has over the past year become a literary France. One fine touch is Wajeman's use of the concept of "counternarratives " to frame not only my book, but all the works under discussion.

"Employment of whites and black people in Georgia, and
"Enslaved and free black people between 1790-1870,"
color plates from W. E. B. DuBois, The Georgia Negro:
A Study, 1900. All rights reserved.

Friday, January 20, 2017

Trump's Inauguration

Philadelphia-based artist Theodore "Teddy" Harris expresses my thoughts on this tragic farce more succinctly than I ever could in one image: "Vetoed Dreams," a 1999 photo collage print of his I picked up over a decade and a half ago.

To put it simply: Lord help us, and resistance is crucial!

Theodore Harris, "Vetoed Dreams," 1999. Original signed print.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Happy Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day

Happy Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day!

Instead of posting a long write-up, I came across a Salon article by Kali Holloway, originally published in Alternet, that features nine quotes that our US media often overlook when invoking the name and career of Rev. Dr. King Jr. You can find it here.

Here is a small quote from Dr. King Jr.'s 1967 speech "The Three Evils of Society," delivered at the National Conference on New Politics:

Again we have deluded ourselves into believing the myth that Capitalism grew and prospered out of the Protestant ethic of hard work and sacrifice. The fact is that capitalism was built on the exploitation and suffering of black slaves and continues to thrive on the exploitation of the poor – both black and white, both here and abroad.
You can read the entire speech here, and hear him deliver it here.

Also, in light of the forthcoming inauguration of Donald Trump as the 45th President of the United States, I think the image below offers one way of honoring Rev. Dr. King Jr.'s legacy. It's going to a difficult fight, and a long four years!

Honor King: End Racism! broadside, April 8, 1968. (Gilder Lehrman Collection)

Friday, January 13, 2017

Kenward Elmslie's *The Orchid Stories* Book Launch

In 1973, Doubleday published Kenward Elmslie's (1929-) experimental, poetic prose collection The Orchid Stories. It is almost impossible to imagine Doubleday, or any of the large international or New York publishers, issuing such a work today. Exuberant as the hothouse orchid from which its title derives, complex, unspooling according to a logic all its own, and decidedly anti-commercial, it's no wonder that the collection, which might also be read as novel or novel-in-stories, went out of print, depriving readers of the opportunity to experience this series of provocations by Elmslie, one of most talented but also lesser known of the  New York School-affiliated writers.    

In The Orchid Stories Elmslie weaves together many strands of his long career, as a poet, fiction writer, librettist and song-writer, editor, and performance artist, creating a tapestry of compelling strangeness. It is a coming-of-age story narrated by a figure whose exact name eludes the reader the entire way through. Certain characters possess more than one name, and The exuberance, unflagging playfulness, and musical currents swirling within the prose make the text one to read and re-read--or rather, it may require rereading--aloud. And that is what several writers, I included, did on Wednesday night at the Poetry Project at St. Mark's Church, to launch the reprint, by New York publisher The Song Cave, of The Orchid Stories. (BOMB features a selection here.)

This new edition features an introduction by radio interviewer and critic Michael Silverblatt, who served as the evening's master of ceremonies, and introducing him was another member of the New York School's second generation, poet, fiction writer, essayist and critic Ron Padgett. The lineup included a number of luminaries who'd long known and even performed with Elmslie, including Ann Lauterbach, who read with breathless brio a section of prose set in Arkansas; Anne Waldman, performing another section as chant and song with Devin Waldman on saxophone and Ambrose Bye on piano, before she shared a song she'd performed more than once with Elmslie himself; and songwriter and longtime Fugs member Steven Taylor, who sang one of Elmslie's songs.

Not only had I never met Elmslie or heard him present his work live, but before I received a copy of The Orchid Stories, I'd only read several dozen of his poems. The collection has intrigued me and led me to read more of Elmslie's work. Although I did know that he had been described as the fifth--or sixth, if Barbara Guest were placed before him--I also had not realized that he was in the same cohort with John Ashbery and Frank O'Hara at Harvard, graduating in 1950, or that he'd been the partner of John LaTouche for a period of time, a fact that Silverblatt recounted in his introductory remarks. (You can read a shorter version of his introduction to The Orchid Stories at the Paris Review's site.) Lastly, as Silverblatt also shared, the great Nat King Cole recorded one of Elmslie's songs, "Love-wise," which appeared on Cole's 1959 album To Whom It May Concern. (I did learn on Wikipedia that Elmslie is the grandson of Joseph Pulitzer.) In additional to copies of the book the publishers also brought a number of Elmslie's LPs. I read a brief selection from the short section or chapter entitled "Waking Up"; it required attention to various kinds of formal and stylistic shifts but thankfully, given my inability to hold a note, no singing. Unfortunately Elmslie was unable to attend the event, but I imagine someone told him how well-attended it was and how enthusiastically the audience responded.

Here a few photos from the event, all borrowed courtesy of the Poetry Project's Facebook page. Please check out Elmslie's work, consider supporting the Poetry Project and enjoy the photos.

Steven Taylor
Devin Waldman, Anne Waldman, and Ambrose Bye
Ann Lauterbach
Michael Silverblatt
Ron Padgett
Yours truly

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Random Photos

Here are few photos from the last few months.  Scroll down to the bottom to see how the New York Post, and New Yorkers, responded to the New Year's Eve flub by Mariah Carey. Poor Mimi!

One of Kerry James Marshall's paintings,
now on exhibit at his Met Breuer
show, Kerry James Marshall: MASTRY

Profs. Marisa Fuentes and Deborah Gray White,
who co-edited (in record time) the
superbly executed Scarlet and Black:
Slavery and Dispossession in Rutgers
(Rutgers UP, 2016)
 at the public launch
last fall 
At a gallery on the Upper East Side
Outside the Grove Street PATH station, Jersey City
The Delmar Loop in St. Louis
Muslim Voices, a Rutgers-Newark AAAS-
sponsored program led by Prof. Zain Abdullah,
of Temple University, at the Newark Museum
One of the last episodes of this season of Empire,
featuring a reproduction of Edgar Degas'
"Miss LaLa at the Cirque Fernando," the subject
of my story Counternarratives "Acrobatique"  
Festive trees in the Manhattan
Financial District
Lower Manhattan, from the offices
of the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council
Artists at the offices of the Lower Manhattan
Cultural Council's residency site
Zuccotti Park, where Occupy NYC
took place, now glitzed up (again)
Poet, essayist and editor
Saeed Jone speaking on behalf of
his former teacher, Rigoberto González,
who was being honored at Poets House 
My amazing colleague
Rigoberto González
In the WTC Westfield Shopping
walkway, with a giant telescreen
in the background 
On the phone, in the WTC
Newark's gentrifying Halsey Street
New buildings in Newark 
Vintage car on campus 
The cast of Kaija Saariaho's
L'Amour de loin, at the Met Opera
Post-SantaCon Santa,
almost on the rails 
At the Rutgers-Newark MFA holiday
reading, party and book exchange 
Tonya Foster and David Barclay Moore
at the book launch for Robert F. Reid-Pharr's
Archives of Flesh: African America, Spain,
and Post-Humanist Critique
(NYU Press, 2016)
Robert F. Reid-Pharr (r) and his editor at
book launch for his new scholarly book
Archives of Flesh: African America, Spain,
and Post-Humanist Critique
 (NYU Press, 2016)
New York Post: "The Plot Against Mariah"

Wednesday, January 11, 2017


Although FilmStruck has existed since 2006, I only discovered it last fall when I happened upon an online mention and decided to explore the website. A streaming service like Netflix, FilmStruck is owned by Turner Classic Movies and features classic and more obscure art house and independent films from Hollywood and across the globe. A significant portion of its movies are part of the acclaimed Criterion Collection, which struck an exclusive deal with TCM and FilmStruck this past year to take over Criterion's US streaming from Hulu. As a result, FilmStruck's cinematic cornucopia now includes feature, short and documentary films by major 20th century international filmmakers ranging from Michelangelo Antonioni, Catherine BreillatRainer Werner Fassbinder, and Costa-Gavras to Nagisa Oshima, Yasujiro OzuPeter Weir and Wim Wenders. Unlike Netflix, though, there is no DVD option, nor any original series, as far as I can tell. (MUBI is another cinephile service, like FilmStruck, that I've downloaded the Apple TV app for, but haven't experimented with it yet. Green Cine, which I belonged to years ago, was a DVD subscription service, and did not have a streaming component.)

One of the curated mini-festivals,
films based in the City of Love, Paris

I've only been using the service for a few weeks, but I've been impressed by the movie selection and additional features available so far. The site organizes the films by general FilmStruck and Criterion Collection offerings, and by genre (with the total tally of films in each), newest arrivals, and most popular viewer choices, while also offering curated micro-festivals organized by theme, concept, filmmaker or cinematographer, aesthetic style, and more. If you didn't know anything about Dusan Makavejev's oeuvre, or perhaps have only seen a few Alain Resnais or Chantal Akerman films, FilmStruck provides a quick tutorial. As with Criterion DVDs, additional features, such as trailers, interviews with filmmakers, clips on film production, and so on, also are sometimes available. 

I do wish, however, that more sub-Saharan African, Asian and Latin American films, more films by women and more LGBTQ-themed films were available on the site. The search tool, though it works fine, doesn't allow searching by country or region, so it has often been through the "related titles" list of suggested films that I've been able to find and bookmark films I want to see. (I realized that another option for Criterion Collection films was to go directly to Criterion's site, identify as many of the films I wanted to see there, and then add them to my watchlist if they were on FilmStruck.)

Now playing

What's also not clear is whether and when most of the films's runs online (based on the site's licenses for them) expire. The curated mini-festivals do vanish, but do all the films in them remain online in perpetuity or for some fixed period (one month? three? six?) that only the site knows about? Clearly not all the Criterion Collection films are on the site, which I attribute to licensing and copyright issues, but is there a key or guide somewhere to let a viewer know which ones are on the site and how long they'll stay up. (This would be very helpful for planning the order in which to watch them.) I do know that a number of sites list which Netflix films are arriving or disappearing--didn't Netflix used to post this info on their site?--but I haven't found a similar calendar for FilmStruck. I also like the simple, easy-to-navigate interface. The site is more streamlined than Netflix, especially after the latter's "upgrade." Please keep the design intuitive and user-friendly, FilmStruck! Also, based on my recent experience, customer service has been sterling. When I was having trouble with my registration, I used the contact form, and promptly and repeatedly heard from FilmStruck to ensure that everything was operating smoothly.

Genres (and available films
in each category)

In terms of the films I've watched so far, they have been a mix of films I've always wanted to see, some I've seen before, and some I've just stumbled upon. In the first category, Djibril Diop Mambéty's 1973 masterpiece Touki Bouki has been a revelation. A vibrant narrative about a young straight couple's desire to emigrate to France for better opportunities, Touki Bouki succeeds in fusing some of the formal experimentation of the French New Wave with the poetic realism and social commentary of 1970s sub-Saharan African cinema. In its imaginative play with editing, and its frank and comical depiction of queer hustling, alone, it it feels more daring than the vast majority of what is being produced in either Hollywood or Nollywood these days. I would say the same about the aesthetic daring and the political component, though with a rather different content and focus, about Nicolas Roeg's Walkabout (1971), which I also had never seen until a week ago.

A few films on my watchlist queue

In the second category, I watched David Cronenberg's still disturbing Scanners (1981), which holds up in terms of its visionary and horror qualities decades later. I know Cronenberg has shifted away from horror and science fiction, which in his body of work usually had a conspiratorial component, but I hope that he returns, even if just for one more time, to the genre in which he made his name. In terms of sheer awfulness, though, his 1979 film The Brood, which I hadn't seen before, wins the award. There is a scene that truly embodies the term "horrifying," and it was so disturbing that when the film first appeared that the worst of the horror was edited out in the US. Thankfully FilmStruck is screening the complete version, but again, as graphic as many Hollywood films now are, nothing comes close to Cronenberg's presentation of motherly love as literal monstrousness at the moment of trans-human post-parturition.

One of the films I'd never heard of but decided to watch that also fits the "horror" category, with a twist, is Czech director Jaromil Jires's 1970 film Valerie's Week of Wonders. Hybrid in genre, surreal in form and style, the movie explores a teenage girl's sexual awakening, if lived in a Hieronymous Bosch painting. Let's just say that films of this sort, whether under the horror or fantasy genres, or some other, simply don't get made any more. Another was Nils Gaup's Pathfinder (1987), a historical thriller and Academy Award nominee about a peaceful group of indigenous Samí residents of what is now Finnland, circa 1000 AD, whose tranquil existence undergoes a shock when an all-male troop of Chudes, ancestors to Russians, arrives, with brutal consequences. A teenage hero steps in, and its his canniness, rather than physical prowess, that proves decisive. A third was Avie Luthra's 2012 film Lucky, about a young rural Black South African boy who loses his mother to AIDS, then moves to the city to live with an uncle who despises him and blows through his school money. Lucky craves and will do anything for an education, and bonds with an older, racist South Asian woman. This film was painful to sit through at times, but in the end moved me to tears.

Other discoveries: films I'd never heard of or had been intending to watch by Youssef Chahine, Victor Erice, John Frankenheimer, Aki Kaurismäki, Martin Ritt, Ken Russell, Carlos Saura, Jacques Tati; and by directors I'd never heard of, including Luis García Berlanga, Juan Carlos Cremata, Ahmed El Maanouni, Metin Erksan, Pierre Etaix, Jean-Pierre Gorin, Mikio Naruse, Edgar Morin, Kundan Shah,, and many others. Next up, I think, Pedro Costa's widely acclaimed docu-fictional trilogy about Fontainhas, in Lisbon, Portugal: Ossos (1987), In Vanda's Room (2000), and Colossal Youth (2006), and as many of the Chantal Akerman movies as I can get through before classes start next week.

Monday, January 09, 2017

Quote: Christina Sharpe

"What does it mean to return? Is return possible? Is it desired? And if it is, under what conditions and for whom? The haunt of the ship envelops and persists in the contemporary. French President François Hollande 'returned' when he began his trip to the Antilles on May 10, 2015, with a visit to Guadeloupe for the opening ceremony and the dedication of a 'museum and memorial site to honour the memory of slaves and their struggles in the French Caribbean island Guadeloupe,' the 'first of its kind by France to remember those who suffered during the slave trade.' The Memorial ACTe, housed in a former sugar factory in the Guadeloupian city of Pointe-à-Pitre, is called 'a place of remembrance and reconciliation' and described as 'a Caribbean centre on the expression and memory of slavery and the slave trade.'"

"Hollande's visit to the site spotlighted, for those who would not and did not know, the ongoing reparation claims made by descendants of enslaved peoples in Guadeloupe, in Haiti, Cuba, and all over the Caribbean. And while in 2013, Hollande acknowledged France's 'debt' to Africa because of slavery and the 'baneful role played by France,' he added that this history 'cannot be the subject of a transaction.' Unless, of course, that transaction benefits France (like the indemnity Haiti was forced to pay) through trade and other contracts and 'investments.' But what is a moral debt? How is it paid? Is it that Black people can only be the objects of transactions and not the beneficiares of one, historical or not?"
-- Christina Sharpe, from In the Wake: On Blackness and Being, Durham: Duke University Press, 2016, p. 60.

Thursday, January 05, 2017

Riding the New NYC 2nd Ave Subway Line

What a year 2016 was! Alongside some very positive personal experiences and news the year brought the debacle of a national election and, just a few weeks ago, during the holiday season, my brother's untimely death. I do want to thank everyone who has sent private notes about my family's loss. I deeply appreciate them.

The other day, to lift my spirits, I decided to visit one of New York City's newest attractions, the Second Avenue subway line. Planned for almost 100 years, with multiple groundbreakings in the 1970s that led to stalled efforts, the line now is now running, having debuted on December 31, 2016.  In truth it's really a "tiny-snippet-of-2nd Avenue" Q train, which no longer heads into Queens; but that tiny snippet, which cuts through one of the City's richest neighborhoods on the Upper East Side, is worthy of praise. The new stations are clean (still), light and airy, like ones you might find in Barcelona or Paris, with public art, and, when I visited on Monday, sightseers were milling about, smiles gracing nearly every face, cameras out for group portraits and selfies. Even some of the MTA workers were grinning happily, perhaps because none of the three new stations had yet become so crowded with commuters--or tourists--that they were almost dangerously unmanageable, as other once new attractions, like the High Line in Chelsea, now are. (I've yet to see to the new 7 Line Hudson Yards-area station, but I hope to soon.)
The vaulted, airy upper floor, 72nd St
The new 2nd Avenue line, though limited in length, should begin to help alleviate the crowding on the 4-5-6 Lexington Avenue line, which I can attest from my many NYPL Schwarzman Research Branch trips is often so packed during evening rush hour that once I've wedged myself into a car I can hardly breathe, let alone move. One argument that I've seen advanced, and which I agree with, is that as the MTA is completing the 2nd Avenue line, which will eventually run from 125th Street in East Harlem to Hanover Street at the southern tip of Manhattan, it should also aim to optimize all other resources to address numerous straphanger requests and needs across all five boroughs. While many of the MTA's stations have undergone renovation and improvements over the last fifteen years, and there seems to be new or ongoing construction on several lines, most notoriously the L, many stations are still in dreadful shape, train service often feels chaotic on the weekends, and the infrastructure in general has not kept up with the City's ever-rising population. On top of this, the price of MetroCards keeps increasing, with inadequate to no subsidies for poor, working-class and even middle class riders, making the subway, one of New York's most vital assets, increasingly unaffordable for millions of riders.

The train to 96th Street
One positive change that has affected nearly all Manhattan stations is enhanced Internet service. I can never connect to the MTA's wireless system--which is probably a good thing, for security reasons--but I was been able to connect to AT&T in all the 2nd Avenue stations, as well as while on the E train yesterday. To tell the truth, I'd rather see air conditioning and a better PA and alarm system in the subways than wireless access, but net access is a welcome addition. One thing I have yet to witness, thankfully, is loud telephone conversations in the cars, but I'm sure those are coming if VOIP service is also universally possible.
Two more New Yorkers

After a short wait I caught the Q train at 14th Street, and rode it up to 96th Street, got off at that station, then rode down to 86th, did the same tour of the station, then finished up at 72nd St. When the train got to 63rd Street I almost got off to photograph that station too, but recalled that it was just a new route for the Q and not a new stop.  Here are photos of the stations and sightseers, with mosaics at 86th Street based on Chuck Close paintings, and mosaics at 72nd Street showing New York's racial, ethnic and social diversity.

A sign announcing the Q's route
In the station
Last stop
Upstairs on the mezzanine level 
The escalators 
The mezzanine at 96th Street
MTA workers with new guides
at 96th Street; the murals in the background
Looking down at the boarding area
Photographs in front of the
unoccupied newsstand 
Leaving the 96th St. station 
The dark gray-green marbled
stairwell and escalator wall (at
all three stations) 
One of Chuck Close's paintings,
of musician Esmeralda Spalding
in mosaic form
The Spalding image up close 
A mosaic version of Close's
portrait of artist Alex Katz 
People gathered around a mosaic
of Close's self-portrait
A view from the mezzanine
Selfie with mosaic of Kara Walker
The boarding area; you can see
how newly laid the tiles are
At 72nd Street
Heading upstairs 
Some of the mosaics at 72nd Street
I believe these are images of real New Yorkers
A crew filming a straphanger with
one of the mosaic portraits
Waris Ahluwalia (one of the few
mosaic portraits I knew)
One of the most talked about mosaic portraits,
featuring a working-class same sex couple 
A mural
One of the MTA workers taking a photo