Sunday, December 10, 2017

The Postmodern Dystopic: One Year/Year One of the Trump Presidency

President Donald J. Trump & former FBI
Director James Comey, January 22, 2017
(Photo © NBC News)
On January 20, 2017, Donald J. Trump became the 45th President of the United States of America. His presidency really began, however, on the night of the national election last fall on November 8, 2016, when he defeated Hillary Rodham Clinton, by a 77 vote margin in the Electoral College and despite a loss of nearly 2,868,691 popular votes. Or, one might even argue, it began before he was formally elected, while Barack Obama was still the legal president, when Trump's rise signaled a shift, long underway, in our election process and public discourse that his victory only confirmed. In saying this I am not referring to the now steadily amassing body of evidence that suggests that Russia involved itself extensively in the 2016 election, and had numerous ties of various sorts to the Trump campaign. What I am suggesting is that Trump's ascent, from his declaration of his candidacy in the summer of 2015 forward, marked him out as the emblem not only of the contemporary Republican Party, for which he is the standard bearer, but underlined where our politics and society had begun to head during latter years of Bill Clinton's and all of George W. Bush's presidency, and which has found its true tribune in him.

Before I say anything more, let me note that I have found these last 12 months so exasperating, depressing, maddening, and absurd to the point of outright laughter by turns--though I have also been trying to convey in personal conversations that in some ways they still do not approach the insanities of 2001-2008, a period this country has still not recovered from, which in part has made Trump's rise possible--that I have not registered here, as I once might have, every significant outrage committed by this president or his allies and defenders. First, there are too many and they come in such steady and heavy flurries that they would make a snow-cloud jealous. Second, it really would require someone with the patience of Job--or an army of fact-checkers--to keep up with the daily tide of lies, misstatements, half-truths, and misinformation, let alone the innumerable questionable and potentially actionable violations of rules and laws that this administration seems to engage in. We currently have one major political party, the Republicans, who hold all the reins of federal power, utterly in his thrall, and a second, the opposition Democrats, who still have not reckoned with the opponent they face nor with the shifts in the broader social and public discourse that demand that the the Democrats change how they function in order not just to remain a viable party for the future, but a potential backstop against the complete dismantling of our society.

On October 2016, as I watched the election unfold, I wrote a post entitled "Our Postmodern Election(s)." (Jeet Heer later wrote an article in New Republic that expounded on some of these themes while exploring other ones in relation to this president.) It had its limitations, and on the key point of Trump's electability, I was wrong. One of my dear colleagues recently decried the idea that Republicans, let alone this president, have taken up postmodernism and run with it, though I think it is a foregone conclusion that they have, and as I tried to assert in that earlier blogpost, the postmodern condition (and, in many ways, an essentially neoliberal framework) underpins our entire society, including our politics, so it is not merely the GOP that has adopted and warped a postmodern worldview, but, more broadly, it defines this society itself to an estimable degree. I won't restate that post, but I think it's fair to say that "truth" has no fundamental relationship to how Donald Trump operates, unless one takes the Platonic (in the sense of his The Republic) and, perhaps more correctly, Nietzschean views that truth is what the ruler--or Übermensch--or similar corporate entities declare it to be.

In fact, as Trump has made clear for decades and especially over the last few years, especially with his championing of the Birther conspiracy, verifiable factualness, material evidence, reasoned argumentation, and science-based statistics have no bearing whatsoever on what he believes, let alone how he acts and moves through the world. Yet it is not Trump, but large numbers of Americans who reject verifiable facts, appeals to any authority but that of their feelings and those who agree with them, even what we might call objective reality itself. Additionally, both the mainstream media, by manufacturing consent (as Noam Chomsky brilliant argued years ago) and "normalizing" Trump's actions, and numerous parallel organs of reportage and pseudo-reportage, have served to make a muddle, at least for a sizable number of people, of what "truth" might look like. Figures like Steve Bannon and Mike Cernovich are quite aware of the tenets of postmodernism, as the latter pointed out in a New Yorker profile earlier this year, and have made great use of them. This is a feature, not a bug, of how they and the Right have come to operate.

Housing and Urban Development Secretary
Dr. Ben Carson, at his confirmation hearings
(Copyright © NBC News)

In that earlier post, I did not believe that American voters would elect Trump. Or rather, than enough white voters would not be appalled by his campaign and behavior not to vote against him. (My predictions about the Senate were closer to how things actually turned out.) As I say above, I was wrong. Despite admitting that he had forcibly kissed women and groped their private parts without their permission, while also pursuing married women "like a bitch," he received 52% of white women's votes. Since taking office, he has lurched from crisis to crisis, now so numerous it's hard to keep track of them. In this regard, he has made Obama's first year, which included addressing inherited national and global financial crises and multiple wars, while also trying to pass a stimulus bill, a comprehensive health insurance bill, and a bill to rein in Wall Street's excesses, look like paint drying. Trump's first year has also transformed the slow-rolling catastrophe of Bush's inaugural year into a series of surprising but nevertheless dull anecdotes, 9/11 notwithstanding. In January I thought about regularly posting on the Trump administrations scandals, which seemed to be accruing as soon as he entered the Oval Office, and then again, after his first 100 days, which seemed to mark yet another low-point in his tenure. But one could pick any point over the last 11 months, or before, to find evidence of the debacle this presidency is turning out to be, and so it might perhaps be best to say that like the classic figure of synecdoche, any point is representative of the whole, and metonymically, the Trump administration is synonymous with corruption, disruption, and a sense of foreboding and rolling disaster.

If, as Aristotle once pointed out in the Nichomachean Ethics that "Man is the rational animal," while also arguing that there also was an irrational component to human existence, Trump has exemplified that this country's most powerful man is the dominating and dominant "emotional animal" whose main goal is to satisfy his own psychological needs and energize those of his core supporters. This would be worrying in any leader, but it should be especially concerning to have such a person at the head of the most powerful government and military on earth. One effect has been to keep not just his government, but the entire national and globe in a state of disquiet, dis-ease, since the demands and effects of his emotional needs and outbursts cannot be contained within the walls of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Trump campaigned like a right-wing racist nationalist and has seeded his government and presided like an ultraconservative white supremacist authoritarian. He appointments to his Cabinet, save one or two, are to the right of the kinds of people George W. Bush placed in office, and his Supreme Court appointee, Neil Gorsuch, has positioned himself so far to the right that  Antonin Scalia, the justice he replaced, would be envious. Significantly and in Orwellian fashion, many of the people Trump has placed in positions of power actively and openly seek to undermine or destroy the very organizations they are running, and ensure, as his formally dismissed but still potent advisor Bannon championed, the "deconstruction of the administrative state," or rather, the federal government as we have come to know it.

Several Cabinet departments, among them the most important like State, appear to be in disarray and withering on the vine, at a time when world affairs, made so precarious in part through prior US attempts at creating a "New World Order" and "nation building," are approaching a precipice. To take one example, the chief means by which the United States has kept North Korea's nuclear ambitions and aggression in check has been through diplomacy and partnership with allies and, in some cases, hostile countries that have a vested in interest in containing the North Korean government. Under Trump, however, we keep inching nearer and nearer to outright war with the North Korean government, a turn of events that would most certainly lead to cataclysm, including the deaths of hundreds of thousands, potentially millions, of people in South and North Korea, China, Russia, Japan, the United States, and countless other countries if nuclear weapons were involved. Yet Trump at times appears to be undermining his Secretary of State, former oilman Rex Tillerson, who, for his own part, appears to undermining the State Department itself, through a bungled reorganization that has led to numerous empty bureaus and widespread understaffing. One major lever of power the US yields, through its wealth and influence, for good or bad, is soft power via diplomacy, yet even in a crisis zone like Korea, under Trump and Tillerson, we lack an ambassador to South Korea since Trump, in one of may steps against precedent, summarily canned all of Obama's ambassadors shortly after taking office.

Rather than detailing the numerous crises, scandals, failures, and so forth that have occurred under Trump's watch, though a number of sites do have lists, cheat sheets and more notating the Trump administration's mis-actions through this month. It should suffice to note that beyond appointing Gorsuch to the court; striking down many of Obama's executive actions; succeeding in most of his appointments to his administration; and presiding over the growing economy bequeathed by his predecessor, Trump had no major successes in the legislative arena until the recent monstrous tax cutting bill, a massive giveaway to billionaires and corporations, which still requires reconciliation between the House and Senate and could yet end up another of his failures. In his account, by contrast, he has been the most successful president since Abraham Lincoln, though unlike each of the various men to hold the office before him, he is the least popular president at this point in his term, with a majority, upwards of 50% in many polls, disapproving of his governance.

United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley
(Copyright © CBS News)

Among the low lights thus far of Trump's tenure, and this is hardly an exhaustive list, once could mention:

  • his constant attacks, deflections and projections on and mis-representations of the free press, his opponents, his former campaign opponent Hillary Clinton, his predecessor Barack Obama, the US intelligence services (including the CIA and FBI), and even fellow members of his party;
  • the repeatedly attempted Muslim ban (which, after revision, was finally allowed to take effect); 
  • firing the FBI director, James Comey, initially for one set of reasons proposed by his Attorney General and Deputy Attorney General, only to contradict them on television and later to the Russian Foreign Minister and Ambassador, in the Oval Office (more about this below);
  • his dismissal of Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates, who had warned him about General Flynn;
  • the resignation of his now convicted National Security Advisor, Michael Flynn, after 24 days, for allegedly lying to the Vice President about his contacts with Russia (more about this below); 
  • the repeated failure in his attempts to legislatively repeal the Affordable Care Act/Obamacare (though he continues to shred it by other means); 
  • his equivocation on the white supremacist Unite the Right tiki-torchlight march and subsequent murder of Heather Heyer in Charlottesville;
  • his failed response to Hurricane Maria's battering of Puerto Rico, which remains in dire condition;
  • his flipflops on the DACA policy, leaving countless young undocumented Americans in legal jeopardy, and his rescission of the refugee policies for Haitians and Salvadorans;
  • his illiberal pardoning of Arizona prison chief and avowed racist Joe Arpaio, who had been convicted on a misdemeanor charge for contempt of court, because he was disobeying a judge's order to stop racial profiling.
Also:
  • his attacks on Black football players and other athletes protesting state and police violence on and racism against African Americans and other people of color;
  • his establishment of a Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity, admirably bi-partisan, but headed by a man, Kris Kobach, known for racist views and who has actively worked against expanding democracy and voting rights;
  • abandoning the Paris Climate Accords, leaving the US only one of 2 nations not to sign on;
  • losing two Communications Directors, Sean Spicer and Anthony Scaramucci, within the span of six months, while also forcing out his chief of staff, former RNC head Reince Priebus;
  • his advocacy for the Dakota Access pipeline and the Keystone XL pipeline (which actually burst not long ago, leaking 210,000 gallons of oil);
  • his appointment of new commissioners who are vowing to repeal net neutrality;
  • his use of a slur against Native Americans during a ceremony to honor Native American military heroes, the famous "Code Talkers," while standing before a portrait of President Andrew Jackson, whose record of extensive anti-indigenous policy and violence is well-documented;
  • his promotion of anti-Muslim videos, including one considered to be fake, posted by a fringe, extremist white nationalist British political group;
  • his constant tweeting, through which he has advanced conspiracy theories, false information, and unilateral policy without alerting his administration (such as banning transgender troops in the military without first discussing this or consulting with his Joint Chiefs of Staff)

To conclude the list, Trump is now campaigning for and recording robocalls for a man, Roy Moore, who has been credibly accused of molesting a 14-year-old girl and assaulting another teenager, was twice removed from the bench, and whose ideas are so far out of any mainstream that he repeatedly lost out in prior attempts at runs for statewide positions in a state dominated by his party. And the above list does not even touch upon the administration's possible violations of the Emoluments Clause of the US Constitution; the Hatch Act; the Logan Act; and other ethical or legal landmines. Nor does it include the debacle of the Al Hathla Raid in Yemen, which faces a humanitarian crisis in part because of US-supported actions by the Saudi Arabian military, or the Tongo Tongo ambush, in Niger, which still remains unexplained to the wider public.

Amidst all of this, as a backdrop, Congressional panels in the House and Senate, as well as a Special Counsel, lifelong Republican and former FBI Director Robert Mueller, continue to investigate the Trump administration for obstruction of justice in the firing of James Comey and its ties to Russia before and after the 2016 election. The investigation includes the various revelations in MI5 agent Christopher Steele's "dossier"; alleged Russian hacking of the Democratic National Committee's server and the accounts of other DNC and Democratic officials, as well attempts on state and local voting systems; the Trump campaign's ties to various Russian officials, oligarchs, and emissaries, as well as Russian, Russian-allied and foreign banks and institutions; the Trump campaign's links to Wikileaks; other alleged Russian forms of and attempts at meddling in the US election process; and the Trump campaign and administration officials' financial ties to other foreign entities like Turkey, Ukraine, and so on. (And there may be even more that I have not listed under investigation.) The bizarre scene earlier in the year, involving the Russian Ambassador and Foreign Minister, in which the US press were effectively barred, is just one of many strange moments in this administration's shadowplay with Russian.

(Chris Detrick | The Salt Lake Tribune) Gov. Gary R. Herbert
swears in Jon M. Huntsman, Jr. as U.S. Ambassador
to Russia during an Ambassadorial Swearing-in
Ceremony at the Utah Capitol Saturday, October 7, 2017.
Mary Kaye Huntsman is in the middle.
Among Mueller's actions so far have been to indict former Trump campaign head Paul Manafort and his adjutant Rick Gates on felony charges; to secure a felony guilty plea from former Trump advisor George Pappadopoulos; and to gain a felony guilty plea for lying to the FBI from Michael Flynn. Attorney General Sessions, special advisor and Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner, Trump's son Donald Trump Jr., and many other Trump campaign and administration officials, including the President himself, may find themselves caught up in the FBI's net as well, as a fundamental line propagated by Trump from the very beginning of his campaign, that he had no ties to Russia, now looks increasingly like a falsehood, and the President's actions since taking office have not advanced the perception that he views Russia as a hostile foreign power, as his predecessors and most of the US's allies, all have.

But--and this is a major point, beside this backdrop, as I have labeled it, Trump's power to disrupt remains. To give but one very contentious example, he could fire Mueller, it seems, creating a constitutional crisis if the GOP were unwilling to stand up to him, and whereas even some very conservative Senators expressed faith in the investigation months ago, they now appear to be wavering. The conservative head of one Congressional committee, California Republican Devin Nunes (temporarily?) recused himself after troubling contacts with the White House. Although several Democrats, led by Congressman Al Green of Texas, have introduced Articles of Impeachment, nothing can happen unless either the Republican majority decides to act upon them, which is not assured even if the Congressional committees and Mueller identify possible material evidence of collusion, coordination, and financial crimes, or the Democrats win an airtight House majority and a significant enough one in the Senate in 2018. The former is not inconceivable; the latter is much more of a stretch.

In our postmodern political and social climate, there is no guarantee that even in the face of proof of obvious crimes the GOP in Congress, let alone Republicans across the US, would sanction impeachment of Trump, nor agree with attempts by Bob Mueller to indict him or his family members, if it came to that. Nor is it a lock that the Congressional Democrats, unlike those of the 1970s or 1980s, would have to have the will and fearlessness to take Trump and his administration on either. Thus far they have done a mostly lackluster job challenging him publicly or creating a compelling counternarrative to energize voters to oust the GOP. For the Republicans' part, they very well might argue, as some seem to be doing and, as one, a "anonymous source linked to the Bush administration" told journalist Ron Suskind in the October 17, 2004 issue of The New York Times Magazine:

"We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors…and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do."

That empire under Bush was a putative failure, but Trump's has quickly taken shape and continues to emerge. Truth may have an implicit "liberal bias," as some wags like to say, but nearly one year of Trump has shown us that the liberal imagination, and liberal, democratic and republican structures remain imperiled when a leader decides, with the support of millions, to create and enact his own reality. At the rate things have occurred this year, we should all, whatever our perspective, be very concerned about what will await us at this point one year from now. 

Emotional Outreach Project: Life As a Work of Art (Karen Cantrell)

This is a cross-posting, with a few revisions, from my other blog, the site for Field Research Study Group A, where I've shared information for the last few years about various versions of the durational Emotional Outreach Project I've engaged in for over a decade now (since 2003).

Please do visit that blog, and feel free to check out this post and this one, both from 2016, if you would like to participate. Also, at the end of this post, please note the correct email address to which you can send your responses if you elect to write one or several.

***

It has been a while since I last posted here at Field Research Study Group A--over a year!--but I wanted to share a new response from the most recent version of the Emotional Outreach Project.

Below is a reply that Karen Cantrell sent back in May (2017) via the FRSGA Yahoo account, in response to one of the vouchers I passed out earlier this year (I believe.) Based on her reply, I imagine her card's emotional exercise read as follows:


If I may quote her email directly, she writes: "The card with the assignment fell out of my bag, and I took its appearance as a sign. A paragraph, however, is hard. I have summarized my day as a work of art to one sentence and included the paragraphs that describe what I saw."

Here is her full response:

Sentence: 
I liked picturing myself as a better person, more attractive, stronger, a person who knows the right thing to do and has the courage to perform accordingly.

Paragraphs: 
I first conjured a series of statues – me doing perfect poses, no wobbles even during chaturanga, not though the full moon increased the gravity. Sculptures of smooth, hard stone, all extra padding shaved away, no greasy fingerprints disturbing the gloss, a yogic serenity smoothing my features. 
Second, an animation to capture the papers and toys and books and used dishes returning like autonomous agents to my mother’s living room, days after I cleared the clutter and wiped the dusty cobwebs from behind framed needlepoints. 
A photo of a lonely dog jumping on the little old ladies who deigned to drink tea on the patio, chewed remnants littering the backyard beyond them. A sentence to describe the Rottweiler my sister-in-law brought into the house, a week before she left, a puppy bigger than the little boy he was supposedly meant for. 
In the screenplay, over a shared taco salad, the red shell split in half, the sour cream pushed to the side, I tell Mom what I’ve learned about my half-brother, his reluctance to take the DNA test, his fear of abandonment, his sadness. Then I segue into the question I scribbled in my journal weeks before, the question that inspired me to give her a book: “Do we have to be freed from a secret to really love and thus to live?” 
As a work of art, I am not the self who waits until she spies The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri on the floorboard of her mother’s car, then assumes a pedantic tone as she steps her mother through the questions like a reluctant undergrad. Still the truth is that Mom liked the book enough to want to pass onto a friend, and the story Mom tells, a time her father took his cane to her mother’s zinnias, is the best she can do. Just as I park the car outside Departures and turn back into a sculpture, smooth and hard, no greasy fingerprints disturbing my glossy serenity as I stride through the airport.

Text written and submitted by Karen Cantrell.

Many thanks to Karen for her collaboration, and I will post most responses as they come in. Any readers of this blog should feel free to respond to the instructions above, and write a response along the lines of Karen's and forward it directly to fieldresearchgroup[AT]yahoo.com, or center your QR reader app and utilize the QR code below.


Friday, December 01, 2017

A Few New Interviews

This summer, I had the pleasure of chatting in person with Madison McCartha, who is currently a student in the MFA Program in Creative Writing at the University of Notre Dame. Madison had previously held conversations other writers, including the amazing Douglas Kearney and Rachel Galvin, to discuss topics under the rubric Polyphone: Interviews with Diasporic Poets. We ranged over all manner of things and people, and I really enjoyed meeting Madison and am looking forward to his work as it appears in the world. Recently the journal Full Stop published the interview, which you can find here. Many thanks to Madison for the excellent questions and thoughts, and to Full Stop for running this discussion.

Here's a snippet:

In an essay on the Poetry Foundation’s Harriett Blog, Ken Chen says he always finds himself “met with troubles [as] to how to fit something infinite like death energy of grief or the death energy of Empires within a box that is finite like a book of poems or a book of fiction.” I’m wondering what has been the difficulty for you in translating the sublime trauma of imperialism, as he calls it, and whether that process (of translation) expanded or complicated your thinking about it?

By all means. It’s extremely difficult, and part of the challenge is presenting it in a way that is comprehensible to people today. Because on one level, yes, we can try to imagine what it would be like to be a black soldier in a battle in the US Civil War. On the other hand, I think it’s quite difficult to ever imagine what that experience was like. I mean consider the multiple layers of precarity that that person was embodying, but also, at the same time, their extraordinary bravery: to put oneself in extraordinary danger, not just for one’s own home but so many others. What does that mean? What does such a radical practice of freedom look like? How do we depict it?

There are multiple ways. Creating scenes, and creating characters, to tap into emotions elusive to us and yet that we know intimately: that is a form of translation. That’s something art can actually do, that other forms of writing can’t, or not exactly. Moreover, there is the question of the larger canvas, of colonialism and empire: how does a fiction writer convey these larger systems and structures without didacting, without essentially writing an essay (though there are hybrid fictional-essay forms that would work well)? What does it mean to put pressure on the usual recourse to the individual, when what we need is this larger backdrop, which tends to go missing in so many of our public discussions?
***

A few years back, perhaps shortly before Counternarratives was published, I met up with writer, scholar and activist Rochelle Spencer to discuss the topics of Afrofuturism and speculative Black writing and poetics, but I'd forgotten about it until she alerted me that our exchange was set to appear in Chicago Literati, and it did this past spring (April). Here's a link to the piece, which Rochelle titled "'Like Currents in a River': A Conversation with Speculative Writer John Keene." Since this discussion occurred before the many since Counternarratives appeared, it was a bit more free-wheeling in many ways. Many thanks to Rochelle (now Dr. Spencer, I believe!) and Chicago Literati for running it.

Here is one Q&A exchange from that conversation that centers on the Black Arts Movement:

RS: You just alluded to the Black Arts Movement. How did the Black Arts Movement influence the Dark Room?

Keene: The DNA of the Black Arts Movement is in every contemporary Black American poet and in Black poets all over the world, whether they acknowledge this influence or not. The ideas of self discovery, black pride, connection, to do something on your own rather than waiting for someone else to do it—those ideas were central to Dark Room Collective writers in their youth, so I feel we wouldn’t have been possible without them, without the crucial well of Black Arts Movement poets. They are invaluable, and they remain invaluable, though people sometimes talk about the Movement as if it failed. I think counter to that: their influence will continue well into the first century and beyond.

***

Lastly, I don't think I'd mentioned on this blog that, by some strange turn of events, Counternarratives finally received a review, two years after its hardcover debut, and a glorious one at that, in The New York Times Book Review this past September. I extend my profound thanks to writer and critic Julian Lucas, who authored the long and insightful review essay, one of the finest and most in depth the book has received. Titled "Epic Stories That Expand the Universal Family Plot," it situates the collection in relation to the history of fictional family sagas in order to show how it performs, as it were, a kind of queer affiliation and relationality, how it embodies a different understanding of history and kinship, that might offer a way forward for the future. (I have decided not to expend any additional energy trying to figure out why the Times completely ignored the book when it appeared in 2015.)

Here is how Lucas ends his review, a fitting tribute to the book and to many who are tending similar literary and artistic gardens:
Entranced by the ancestor who crossed on the Mayflower, escaped from the plantation or started anew in a hostile foreign city, we too often limit our retrospective gaze to those predecessors who made provisions for a future we recognize in our own present. We deprive ourselves of people whose visions were never realized, who left no obvious legacy. More people have lived on earth than the tendentious nets of genealogy — inevitably tangled in the chronologies of faith, race, nation — can catch, and we are connected to them by threads more subtle, and resonances more profound, than have yet been explored. Imagining those lives, deeply and without the prejudice that they must be prologue to our world, can be both radical and beautiful.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Azzedine Alaïa: "Joe's Film"

Alaïa at work, from Joe's Film 

Back in March, stylist Joe McKenna posted a beautiful little documentary, "Joe's Film," about the designer--design artist--Azzedine Alaïa, who passed away last week on November 18 at the age of 77. I saw it mentioned on New York Magazine, watched it in and rewatched it, telling myself I'd make a note to repost it on the blog. The reposting got lost in the midst of everything else, but I am posting it below as a way of remembering Alaïa.

A native of Tunisia and the child of farmers, he had lived in Paris for most of his adult life, and began to make his name after opening his atelier in the late 1970s. After launching his first ready to wear collection in the 1980s, his reputation gained steam, and by the early 1990s he was considered one of the most inventive and distinctive designers of his generation, and had dressed many of the world's most famous and glamorous women, including former US First Lady Michelle Obama, singer and former French First Lady Carla Bruni Sarkozy, supermodels like Naomi Campbell, Veronica Webb and Linda Evangelista, actresses like Zoe Saldana and Charlize Theron, musical artists like Tina Turner, Grace Jones, Lady Gaga, and Rihanna, and many others.

One of Alaïa's elaborate skirts,
from Joe's Film
His relationship with the fashion world was complicated, however; at one point, mourning his late sister, he vanished for a while, and then returned to the spotlight in the early 2000s, only to cease regular runways shows over the last decade. He also held fast to his vision of a particular kind of high fashion, forgoing the money-driven branding approach that has become the norm today. As McKenna's film shows, he was designing up till the end, and the beauty of his work had lost nothing to the years.

Enjoy this little gem, and many thanks to Joe McKenna for making and sharing it.

Joe's Film from Julie Walsh on Vimeo.

Friday, November 10, 2017

Master Class on the Novella in Translation

Bolaño's Una novelita lumpen
At the beginning of September, the fall semester always looks endless to me, like a river whose mouth or delta lies beyond the horizon of the looming holidays. Once class begin, however, the weeks and months always race by more swiftly than I envision. By December, I find myself remarking how the term has slimmed down to final papers and exams, with the restorative winter break--that terminus--only weeks away. Even still, I always worry about overloading and wearing myself out, which I have come to realize is unavoidable. Beyond classes these days, there is everything else, which was always there, but even more so with each passing year.

I nevertheless had the idea that a mere month's worth of--four--classes on a free Wednesday alongside my usual teaching and advising load would not be unreasonable and a pleasant change of pace, and it turns out that it was. For four weeks from mid-October through the beginning of November, I taught a masterclass on the novella in translation to a small cadre of MFA students at Columbia University's School of the Arts, and once I properly figured out the commute, which required heading in the opposite direction from Newark, things ran quite smoothly.

Having not headed into Manhattan regularly during morning rush hour in 17 years, I was reminded that the PATH trains are usually reliable, if stuffed like a coffee vacuum pack, at that hour, and that the trip into the city is especially quick because it only requires a few stops to Christopher Street station, which once was my destination when I was a student at NYU (except when I taught in the East Village and in the winter, when I would take it further, to 9th Street) and again when I worked in SoHo in the late 1990s. From the Christopher St. PATH stop, I walked down the famous street, still mostly shuttered at 9 am, to the 1 Train at 7th Avenue, and then changed to the 2 to speed uptown, then back to the 1 to end up right outside Columbia's main gate on Broadway. Trips back to New Jersey (and usually the Rutgers campus for afternoon meetings) ran more leisurely in reverse.

Since we had only four weeks, so I assigned four novellas in translation:
  • Roberto Bolaño's 2005 mini-masterpiece A Little Lumpen Novelita, the last work of fiction he published in his lifetime, which was translated by Natasha Wimmer and published by New Directions in 2016;
  • Amélie Nothomb's 1993 novella Loving Sabotage, translated by Andrew Wilson and published by New Directions in 2003;
  • Yoko Ogawa's The Diving Pool: Three Novellas, originally published as three separate works, in 1990 and 1991, and translated by Stephen Snyder and published by Picador in 2008;
  • and Abdourahman A. Waberi's 2009 Passage of Tears, translated by David and Nicole Ball, and published by Seagull Books, 2011.
I had read all of these books before, the Waberi and Bolaño texts most recently, and the Nothomb not long after it appeared a little over a decade ago. I chose these texts with the aim of linguistic, aesthetic, and thematic diversity, among other goals, yet still ended up with two Francophone authors, writing from rather different perspectives, and three works in European languages. (Since I can read French and Spanish, though, I had a clearer sense of the translators' skills.) Of the four works, Bolaño's and Ogawa's were clearly labeled novelas (or "novelita"), while Nothomb's and Waberi's were issued as novels. All four are authors I admire, Bolaño especially so, and though I had taught his work before, I had never included fiction by any of the other authors, nor these four works, on my syllabi.

I'd chosen Waberi's text, I realized after the course had begun, in part as a provocation, because its length suggests that it might not fit the criteria. And what are they? I won't reprise the essay, based on a talk I gave last spring at Northwestern's annual spring Festival of Writing, that I revised and shared with my students to start the class, but some of the key characteristics I asked the students to think about were the novella's usually limited scope (more than a story, perhaps, but less than most novels) and concentrated effects, its unity of voice and plot, and its concision in narration. One of my students metaphorized, specifically apropos of Ogawa's work, the novella's narrative focus to a "tunnel." I thought this a brilliant insight, and thought it applied, in varying ways, to all four works. The students' assignments included in-class discussion and writing, response papers, and, as their final submission, a set of novella starters. Each student produced several that I hope they pursue, if not as novellas then, plumped out as novels.

They were to a person smart, engaged, and original in their thinking. I did not see any of their creative work, but nearly all were fiction writers, and I got a sense of what each of them was working on. It was a pleasure to experience thinking through the texts with them. Each novella offers different challenges in terms of how it works, and the class as a whole was more than up to the case, puzzling out as well other aspects of the texts. One of the students who read French was able to point out how much more ironic Nothomb's original was compared to the English (and how it riffed off a variety of works that Francophone readers would know, though Anglophones might not), while Waberi's French was a bit more formal in places, and less so in others.

Will they write a novella or novellas? I hope my proselytization was effective, though I did discuss, in the essay and the class, the US publishing industry's reluctance about the shorter long form. I also hope I might have sparked an interest in translation among some of them. I did leave the very brief course--like an "eyeblink," as one student put it--as encouraged as I always am when I finish a semester with my MFA (and other graduate, and undergraduate) students at Rutgers-Newark, about the future of American literature and writing. The hurdle, of course, is to get inventive, talented writers (of all ages and backgrounds) like these students and my Rutgers students and mentees, into print, and their work to readers. The sharp, gifted novella class cohort, I sincerely hope and trust, will be doing so before long.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Random Photos

A few photos from the last month or so. More posts coming soon, I hope!

New School University, readying for an outdoor event
A worker at a construction site (Calvin Krime)
West Village
More booths being set up near New School University
"Global Media Activism"
I walked around an entire day with
this book in my pocket, like a talisman
Cabinet delivery (or disposal?),
West Village
Sidewalk (trash) display, West Village 
Observant meter, Newark
Amazon locker, Haynes Bldg, Newark
Erika L. Sánchez, MFA Associate Director
Rigoberto González & Ben Lerner
at Writers@Newark reading, September 2017
Outdoor performance, Military Park, Newark

Military Park, Newark
David Barclay Moore's debut novel
(& my new copy!)
"AFTWAY" NYC 
Examining records, 19th St., Manhattan 
Another view (at Academy Records) 
Workers on break, 19th Street
Near MoMA PS1
Lorca's view, Canal Street
From Renee Gladman's Prose Architectures (2017)

Friday, September 29, 2017

New York Art Book Fair


As has been the case for the last few years, I was able to get over to MoMA PS1 in Long Island City, Queens for the annual NY Art Book Fair, one of the largest art-book gatherings in the US. Running for four days, presented primarily by Printed Matter (with a host of sponsors), and featuring over 370 "booksellers, antiquarians, artists, institutions, and independent publishers from 28 countries," to quote the website, it is always a bonanza for arts-based publishing, and the ideal venue to learn about and find books you might not readily encounter elsewhere. I used to go on the first day, but realized the last day--Sunday--is the best for bargains and smaller crowds. The MTA's usual challenges as well as the Sunday travel schedule meant a slightly more involved journey over to Queens, but once there and on the bus, it was a short hop to the venue, which tends to have as many interesting look people milling around outside it as inside.

Street décollage (on the way there)
A vendor in the domed tent 
A vendor and reader
One of many booths
Last year, I made sure to head to Image Text Ithaca's (ITI) booth to sign copies of GRIND, and they were there again this year, with a number of newly published texts. I had the opportunity to chat with some of the students in their MFA program, as well as with photographer, publisher, ITI co-organizer and my collaborator on GRIND Nicholas Muellner. (I'd just missed author, artist, publisher and ITI co-organizer Catherine Taylor, who'd been there for most of the event.) New Directions, which was there in 2015, skipped this year, though I imagine they'll be back next year with some of their new offerings, including new entries in their pamphlet series. This year, I said I would try to visit every floor, and as many of the rooms and booths as I could handle, within a four-hour window, because the building tends to get a bit toasty and so many exhibits become overwhelming. (This is my strategy for BEA and AWP, etc. also.) In addition, I said that I would not load up on books, or no more than I could fit reasonably fit in one book bag, and I stuck to my vow, bringing back lots of cards, but fewer books and works of art than in the past.

The bustling courtyard
One of the vendor areas, off
MoMA PS1's main courtyard 
The geodesic domed tent
A room wallpapered with
images of uteruses
A closeup of the wallpaper 
At a booth where I found some great
photos last year
I'm always fascinated by the mix of vendors at the NY Art Book Fair. You have pretty high end university presses, like Yale, for example, and tiny publishers who clearly are a one-person operation.  Those booths and books are often some of the funnest to check out, because the work often is highly original and a labor of love, though I imagine everyone at the fair wants to at least make back the fees for exhibiting, and to develop regular readers and subscribers (for the magazines and zines). Another publisher I always look for is Song Cave, helmed by poet Alan Felsenthal and others.  As in the past, they were in the geodesic dome, with their trove of new and backlist titles. One especially intriguing book of theirs I picked up was an edited volume of Subcommandante Marcos's writings, Professionals of Hope, with an afterward by Gabriela Jauregui, which read like (some of the best overtly political) poetry and philosophy.

Free posters ("WAS WAR WON")
Art and books and viewers 
This gentleman was selling the
controversial and discredited
Black Panthers Coloring Book,
produced not by the Black Panthers
but by the FBI to discredit them
(the book is actually pretty fascinating)
Photography books for sale
The image I that from a distance
I at first thought was a window!
More photographs for sale
One of the things I've noticed over the last few years is that the vendor base is diversifying somewhat, with more (especially young) artists and publishers of color and queer creative figures. This always means that if I can go slowly enough through the booths and displays I'll find some gems I would not see elsewhere. There are also art exhibits, but I chose to skip most of the freestanding ones this time, and booksignings, which I also skipped unless the artist or writer was there at the table. There probably are readings and conversations. I think I'll try to catch some of these next year, because if I'm in town, I will make every effort to be back!

Aperture's table
Brownbook
In one of the large upstairs rooms
Nathaniel Otting, at left, and
books and zines for days!
Nathaniel and a bookseller,
from the Philadelphia area (though
I think he said he's now in NYC,
but the store is still in Philly) 
Door display
Gregory R. Miller & Co.
He signed a card I bought 
Another room bursting with books of all kinds
Delicious zines!