Friday, July 28, 2017

Happy 90th, John Ashbery + Roffman's New Ashbery Bio

John Ashbery receiving the National Medal for
the Arts from President Barack Obama, in 2012
Today is the 90th birthday of John Ashbery, one of the most influential American and English-language poets of late 20th and now 21st century literature. Ashbery's career has had its ups--in addition to having won nearly every major award in the United States, he is the only poet, I believe, to have received the National Book Award, National Book Critics Circle Award and Pulitzer Prize for a single collection, his 1975 masterpiece Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror--and downs, which included critic John Simon famously using Ashbery's own words to trash the poet's second book, The Tennis Court Oath, as "garbage," an assessment that other peer poets like James Dickey agreed with, using different terms.

One might also surmise that from the vantage point of the late 1950s and early 1960s when he began publishing his collection, Ashbery would not have appeared to be the most likely candidate for major status. Among his near-exact contemporaries (born in the 1920s, and including several who were former classmates at Harvard) were quite a few white, mostly straight male poets who began publishing at the same time as him, and in some cases more swiftly achieved critical attention and received most of the major poetry and literary awards. Think Ammons, Blackburn, Bogardus, Creeley, Davison, Dickey, Dorn, Dugan, Gilbert, Ginsberg, Hall, Halpern, Hecht, Hoffman, Hollander, Kinnell, Koch, McClure, Meredith, Merrill, Merwin, Snyder, Whalen, Wilbur, and James Wright. In addition, two poets and close friends who were part of Ashbery's New York School poetic coterie were also poised to become significant figures in the American poetic firmament. (And I have not even mentioned the many white women poets, like Maxine Kumin, Denise Levertov, Ann Sexton, Mona Van Duyn, and Sylvia Plath, as well as poets of color, like African American poets Bob Kaufman, Ted Joans, Etheridge Knight and James Emanuel, of roughly the exact same generation, or who came of age shortly afterwards, like Amiri Baraka, who also made their mark.)

Yet Ashbery's persistence and distinctive aesthetics have paid off. The Tennis Court Oath, which provoked bafflement at its appearance, is from today's perspective is a visionary text that foresaw the emergence of Language poetry and other contemporary trends. Ashbery's prose poetic foray, Three Poems, while not the first text of its kind, also represented a pointer for texts that followed it. Moreover, as Susan M. Schultz's edited collection The Tribe of John: Ashbery and Contemporary Poetry noted, one can find his influence across a wide array of English-language poets and poetics, ranging from John Yau, who was his student, to Jorie Graham, to countless contemporary younger poets. The influence also extends beyond the US: as someone quipped to me years ago, how unfortunate to be the English poet John Ash, whose poetry not only shows Ashbery's strong imprint but also whose name itself sounds like a truncated derivation. Contemporary French poetry, as well as Hispanophone poetry, among others, also have taken lessons from Ashbery's approaches to lyric poetry, even as he has kept moving, shifting, and inventing.

To add a personal note, I first heard of John Ashbery when I was in college. In fact, I kept hearing his name--he was winning acclaim for A Wave (1984) by then, and had been on the Harvard Advocate, as I was--but for whatever reason, I did not read any of his poems. Perhaps the hype turned me off. Nor did I take a single class where we read his poetry. Allen Ginsberg's, yes. James Merrill's, yes. (I read these poets, and others like Gwendolyn Brooks and Robert Justice, in high school, and had read still others, like Robert Frost, Amiri Baraka, and Ishmael Reed, in childhood or on my own.) When I think of the various journals and magazines I was reading, I still happened to miss Ashbery's poetry. A few years later, however, I was working at MIT as an office drone, and regularly visited their humanities library, where every book seemed to stay on the shelves. It was then that I checked out Some Trees (1956), The Double Dream of Spring (1970), and my initial favorite, Rivers and Mountains (1966). It was like little bombs went off in my head; this was a poet I had been waiting to read all my life. As many who know me will attest, I have been a fan of Ashbery's ever since.

Ashbery has now lived long enough to sound utterly contemporary and a few years ago was even named the Poet Laureate of MTV (a fact I once heard another senior poet dismiss by suggesting that Ashbery was already part of the "establishment," and yet I thought as he said that I could count more than a few poets I knew who thought Ashbery was unintelligible, a sham, and really not worthy of all the acclaim or, to their mind, interest by younger poets). He also is recognized as a significant gay poet, and studies like my former undergraduate TA John Shoptaw's On the Outside Looking Out: On John Ashbery's Poetry (1995) have opened up readers' understanding of Ashbery's work, particularly how sexuality marks its poetics, in relation to the larger socioeconomic and political contexts in which Ashbery wrote it. At 90 he continues to write and publish, with his most recent book  and to draw new generations of readers.


Earlier this summer, I finished Karin Roffman's rewarding new biography of Ashbery's early life and budding career, The Songs We Know Best (Farrar Straus & Giroux, 2017). Roffman's account opens with the story of Ashbery's parents, Chester and Helen Lawrence Ashbery, who lived on a farm in Sodus, in western New York State, and his grandparents, Addie and Henry Lawrence, a physics professor at the University of Rochester, who profoundly encouraged him in his literary pursuits, and moves adroitly through his childhood, when he lost his younger brother, Richard, and later appeared on the national TV show Quiz Kids, showing that he was famous long before truly achieved lasting fame. From childhood on, Ashbery's intellect, his interest in literature, music and visual art, and his queerness, marked him out as different and proved an ongoing source of tension with his father, who favored the more outgoing, athletic Richard. Again and again, we see the portrait of the artist as a young child, his gifts and vision shaped by circumstances and the contexts in which he grew up, and how he adopted strategies of self-concealment that would later develop into what we think of as his adult style. One of Roffman's revelations, based on copious childhood diaries Ashbery kept and later shared with her, was his pre-adolescent fragmentation and abstraction of his queer desire, into poetic entries that read like later Ashbery, to prevent his mother from figuring out what he was describing.

Pursuing this thread, Roffman delves into Ashbery's difficult experiences at the elite, then all-boy's Deerfield School, where a wealthy, troubled classmate who was somewhat obsessed with him stole his poems and sent them to Poetry, where they were published under the classmate's name. When Ashbery later sent the same poems into Poetry, the editors mistook him as the plagiarist. At Deerfield, his distinctive poetic gifts began to flower, but it was at Harvard College, where he fell in with an artistic milieu and began several gay relationships, that he wrote a number of the poems that would fill his first collection, the Yale Younger Poets Series Prize-winning Some Trees (1956), which was selected, with some disaffection and after a convoluted process, by W. H. Auden. Roffman traces out Ashbery's literary influences and the various personal and immediate and broader cultural strands that led to these distinctive, still provocative poems, while also giving an account of how Ashbery negotiated being gay at a time when it was not just still extremely fraught but illegal. Through the Harvard Advocate--which Roffman reveals had a kibosh on gay, Black and Jewish students--he met Kenneth Koch, who remained a friend till the end of Koch's life and, at the very end of Ashbery's senior year, Frank O'Hara, who became his fast, and best friend until O'Hara's early death in 1966. Koch, Ashbery and O'Hara all nurtured each other's avant-garde interests, and O'Hara in particular offered another model for out queerness during the Cold War and the McCarthy era. Roffman ends her account with Ashbery's immersion in New York City's mid-century art world, which he navigated as a young writer bouncing from job to job and then as a graduate student at NYU and Columbia, before his departure for France on a Fulbright.

If I have any quarrels with Roffman's book it would lie in what I felt were his misreadings of the poems, hewing closely to his biography while overlooking what the words themselves say, though this is common in many a literary biography. Roffman's sense of pacing, her skill and judiciousness in weaving facts together, and her eye for telling details make this a valuable text for glimpsing a white, cis-queer, middle-class, male writer's formation in the pre-Stonewall Era. What also comes into focus is the politics of Ashbery's style; the New York School poets were criticized, in part because of flippant comments by O'Hara during the Vietnam War, for their lack of overt politics, but what this book suggests, alongside ones like Shoptaw's Ashbery study On the Outside Looking Out, was that Ashbery's and James Schuyler's--and more overtly, Frank O'Hara's poetry, could be viewed through other lenses as insistently political, especially in how it subverted the conventions of then contemporary American lyric poetry and in its recurrent pursuit of queer--in broad terms--themes and subject matter, as well as its incorporation of wit, camp, and irony. A poem like "The Instruction Manual," Roffman and Shoptaw lead us to see, is not just about reverie, fantasy, and the drudgery of office labor, but also a critique of idealized heteronormativity and an expression, in negative, of what could not be expressed so openly at that moment, same-sexual desire, love, and coupling. If you are a fan of the New York School poets or Ashbery, I recommend Roffman's biography.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Anthurium: A Caribbean Studies Journal Special Issue on Paule Marshall

The vagaries of literary fortune are such that a writer who was quite famous in her time might very well be forgotten a decade later, while a little known and acknowledged wordsmith might find her work resurrected and championed. For a writer like Paule Marshall (1929-), still with us and an author whose long career has included numerous distinctions, she should be part of current literary, critical, theoretical, and cultural conversations, particularly around Black women's, Caribbean, African American, African Diasporic, immigrant, New York, and contemporary US writing.

To that end, Kelly Baker Josephs, Associate Professor of English at York College, CUNY, has edited a new issue of Anthurium: A Caribbean Studies Journal (Vol. 14, No. 1) devoted to Paule Marshall's life and work. The issue comprises a range of essays that offer ways of thinking and reading Marshall's writing, particularly around the theme of Black women--especially Black Caribbean women--and personhood, as Baker Josephs frames it in her introduction. Other contributors include Marlene Clark on Marshall's prescient understanding of "slumming" and gentrification in Brooklyn; Justin Haynes reading Marshall's The Timeless Place, The Chosen People through the lens of the posthuman; and Shirley D. Toland-Dix on Marshall's rereading of The Tempest.

Also in the issue are Janelle Rodriques on Afrofuturistic diaspora in Marshall's Praisesong for the WidowPetal Samuel on "regimes of aural discipline" in Marshall's The Fisher King; Patricia G. Lespinasse on women and jazz in that same novel; Lia Bascomb on mapping Diaspora "through biomythography"; and Jason Hendrickson on speech, resistance, and the ongoing relevance of Marshall's work. I contributed a short piece that began as response to questions posed by Baker Josephs, about having studied with Paule Marshall, which was one of the best classroom experiences I had at NYU.

I'll end by quoting Baker Josephs's insightful introduction, and urge you to check the full issue out:
The very different approaches to Chosen Place included in this issue indicate how fertile it can be for us at this historical moment, in which one has to cull the past to understand the roots of—and to locate resources with which to combat—contemporary traumatic social and political violences. In “Ghosts in the Posthuman Machine: Prostheses and Performance in The Chosen Place, the Timeless People,” Justin Haynes reads the interaction between humans and machines in the novel as the space within which we might examine the limits of resistance and mobility then and now. Haynes’ reading of Vere’s Opel is especially compelling amidst current controversies about autonomous automobiles. More interested in the timeless challenges of human interaction in the novel, Shirley D. Toland-Dix reads the novel as Marshall’s “audacious” reimagining of the Caliban-Prospero dyad via the Merle-Harriet dyad. TolandDix’s careful reading of the interactions between these two complex characters against the larger backdrop of the novel and its concerns argues for the ways in which Marshall articulates and anticipates the later demands of black and third world feminist movements.

In particular, the dynamic Marshall probes between socially (and often financially) privileged white women and less powerful women of color illustrates the implicit “limits of personhood” that plague attempts at intersectionality (when attempts are made at all). The direct link in the novel between Harriet’s choices and the failure of the Bournehills project foregrounds the blind enactment of privilege that we see criticized today in similar “development” projects. Harriet’s consistent alignment with power, even as she professes otherwise, may also evoke for readers comparable contemporary moments in which race and class privilege prevail over the promise of gender and sex equality—think here of the demographic breakdown of results in the 2016 United States presidential election, with 53% of white women voting for Donald Trump while 94% of black women voted for Hillary Clinton. One can easily see parallels between Merle’s insistent (especially about Harriet’s complicity) and Angela Peoples’ iconic 2017 Women’s March photo.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Commemorating the 50th Anniversary of the Newark Rebellion

Protesters and guardsman with a bayonet
(Neal Boenzi/The New York Times)
Fifty years ago today, the Newark Rebellion, also known--still too often ideologically misnamed and misread, I would argue, as the "Newark Riots"--unfolded in New Jersey's largest city. The rebellion was one of a wave of uprisings in the US and across the globe, especially during the tumultuous year that followed, 1968, and left Newark deeply scarred, in human and material terms, and in the local and national imagination. Lasting five days, resulting in 26 dead (mostly Black residents of Newark, as well as a White firefighter and cop) and 700 people injured, the riots left numerous streets in the city in ruins, to the cost of roughly $10 million (roughly $73 million adjusted for inflation today).

A coalition of organizations, including ALI - Abbott Leadership Institute, The North, New Jersey Performing Arts Center (NJPAC), People's Organization For Progress New Community Corporation, WBGO News, New Jersey Institute for Social Justice, Newark Public Library, City of Newark, NJ - City Hall, Newark NAACP, and The New Jersey Historical Society, has organized a weeklong 50th anniversary commemoration of the rebellion that began yesterday. Events include a prayer and memorial service; a 50th anniversary march to the monument memorializing the rebellion; a public forum to be aired on local NPR-affiliated radio station WBGO; an intergenerational conversation about the rebellion; and, to conclude the week, a conversation at the Newark Public Library involving people who lived through the rebellion.

Commemoration poster
My Rutgers-Newark colleague Junius Williams, who directs ALI and lived through the rebellion, has created a deeply informative website, RiseUpNewark, that provides a rich background to how Newark came to be the city it was and is, as well as specific sections examining the period leading up the rebellion (1950-60) through the decade in which it occurred.  I would venture to say that the vast majority of Newarkers and New Jerseyans have not encountered the trove Williams's site provides, and though it is specific to Newark, its broad outlines suggest a narrative applicable to many other urban areas across the US. Professor Williams has also written a first-person account, "The Rebellion in Newark," that appears in New Jersey Monthly.

Here's an excerpt (the medical school he mentions eventually became the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey (UMDNJ), and is now the Rutgers School of Biomedical and Health Sciences (RBHS)):
For weeks, black people had been saying the community was ready to explode. I heard it in bars and at neighborhood meetings. I heard it from speakers protesting the two hot issues of the day: Mayor Hugh Addonizio’s plan to build a medical and dental school on 150 acres in the Central Ward that would displace 20,000 mostly black and Puerto Rican residents; and the mayor’s decision to place James Callaghan, a white man with a high school diploma, in the position of board secretary (business administrator) for the Newark public schools, instead of Wilbur Parker, the first black CPA in New Jersey. “Keep this shit up and there’s gonna be a riot in Newark!” was the word on the street. (Applause meter off the charts; everybody agreed.)

In addition, the New York Times, which covered the rebellion in real time, devotes a feature on the momentous event's anniversary today. Rather than straight reportage, the Times assembles the voices of people who lived through the uprising, creating an oral historical collage that provides a fuller view than standard reportage usually provides. In many of the accounts, the frustration and sorrow at the conditions that led to the uprising, and its aftermath, are front and center. One of the immediate consequences was the acceleration of White flight, already underway since the 1950s, and the departure of numerous businesses, some of which were departing Newark as cities all over the country were deindustrializing, a shift that continues today.

I think it's fair to say that Newark is on the upswing these days under its current mayor, Ras Baraka, but the turnaround has been a long-term process and is nowhere near complete. Some of the key challenges the city faced before 1967 are still in place, and the still pressing issue of decent wage-paying jobs for the city's residents has not abated. Gentrification, evident near Rutgers-Newark and the downtown area, will only exacerbate this problem, though having (some) people in power, particularly in the city, who want to listen and collaborate with Newark's people is a major advance over the situation of 50 years ago.

A man taken from a building in which
sniper fire was coming (Neal Boenzi/New York Times)
Below are a few excerpts from the Times' curated testimonies. I found some of the feature's photos, like the one at the top of this blog post, particularly evocative and moving.
Junius Williams
As the smoke cleared and the last dying embers of the flames receded, some of us realized the power structure was afraid. First time they had ever been afraid of us in this city. So we began to think of, how are we are going to take advantage of this violence that nobody wanted? My group was formed, the Newark Area Planning Association, and we decided we were going to work on the medical school. We had to cut that medical school down. Some people didn’t want it at all, but some of us saw it as something valuable.

The black community was definitely empowered. Nobody wanted that violence. But at the same time, people were politically adept enough to see that we had the opportunity to turn that destructive power into something that was positive for the community, which if they had just allowed us to do in the beginning, it never would have happened.
Jonathan Lazarus
I grew up in Newark when it was a thriving commercial and manufacturing hub, a city of vast parks, strong schools, wonderful branch libraries and viable neighborhoods, all except the Central Ward, the deliberately overlooked ground-zero ghetto. This all went away with the riots. My family moved to the suburbs in 1957, so we escaped the immediacy of the destruction, but felt its impact for a lifetime.
I worked nights in Newark for the remainder of my news career and saw the scarring effects of those four nights of hell linger for decades. But Newark has definitely managed to turn a corner. 
Development, jobs and commerce are improving. The city has become a higher education center. Political leadership, while imperfect, is superior to previous iterations, both black and white. And, after a 40-year absence, the city ended its food-desert reputation by enticing supermarkets to come in.
Mildred C. Crump
There has been significant progress, but not enough, trust me. But there's been progress for African-Americans. Now we’re a black and brown community. Our Hispanic brothers and sisters were part of the progression that we made. For example, my husband and I bought a house in the South Ward where the Jewish community was in prominence. That could never have happened if 1967 had not happened.

Saturday, July 08, 2017

Quote: Ibram X. Kendi

"Hate and ignorance have not driven the history of racist ideas in America. Racist policies have driven the history of racist ideas in America. And this fact becomes apparent when we examine the causes behind, not the consumption of racist ideas, but the production of racist ideas. What caused US senator John C. Calhoun of South Carolina in 1837 to produce the racist idea of slavery as a positive good, when he knew slavery's torturous horrors? What caused Atlanta newspaper editor Henry W. Grady in 1885 to produce the racist idea of "separate but equal," when he knew southern communities were hardly separate or equal? What caused think tankers after the presidential election of Barack Obama in 2008 to produce the racist idea of postracial society, when they knew all those studies had documented discrimination? Time and again, racist ideas have not been cooked up from the boiling pot of ignorance and hate. Time and again, powerful and brilliant men and women have produced racist ideas in order to justify the racist policies of their era, in order to redirect the blame for their era's racial disparities away from those policies and onto Black people.

"I was taught the popular folktale of racism: that ignorant and hateful people had produced racist ideas, and that these racist people had instituted racist policies. But when I learned the motives behind the production of many of America's most influentially racist ideas, it became quite obvious that this folktale, though sensible, was not based on a firm footing of historical evidence. Ignorance/hate-->racist ideas-->discrimination: this causal relationship is largely ahistorical. It has actually been the inverse relationship--racial discrimination led to racist ideas which led to ignorance and hate. Racial discrimination-->racist ideas-->ignorance/hate: this is the causal relationship driving America's history of race relations."
-- Ibram X. Kendi, from "Prologue," in Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America, New York: Nation Books, 2016. (This book received the 2016 National Book Award for Nonfiction.)