Friday, October 21, 2016

RIP Kelly & Antin + Dylan A No Show So Far + Nobel Thinkers

Brigit Pegeen Kelly (Academy of American Poets)

I was very sorry to learn via Twitter that poet Brigit Pegeen Kelly had passed away. I still have not seen an obituary so I will write only what I know about her, which is that she was born in California in 1951, had taught for many years at the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana, and was the author of several acclaimed books whose lyricism is nearly peerless. James Merrill selected her first collection, To the Place of Trumpets (1987), for the Yale Younger Poets Series prize, and her second collection, Song (1995), received the  Lamont Poetry Selection of the Academy of American Poets. Her third collection, The Orchard (2004), was a finalist for numerous awards, including the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics' Circle Award.

I was fortunate to meet and hear Kelly read and speak when she came to visit Northwestern back in 2008 as part of the Creative Writing Program's annual Festival of Writing. I remember that she was very shy and asked that we have a guided conversation, providing her with the questions in advance, which was a departure from the usual approach, but she participated without a hitch, and I still have the notes I took from her responses. Best of all was her reading, in which the poems themselves set the air on fire. Lyric poetry can be many things, and Kelly's work represents the best of one stand in that larger tradition; the poems achieve what a great deal of literature, as Oscar Wilde suggested aspires to, "the condition of song," while being very much in and of a contemporary idiom, shot through with traces of myth and ritual, and with emotion so profound that in a lesser poet it might overwhelm the art.

Kelly's output, though slender, was of the highest quality. Right after her reading I blogged one exquisite example of her work, "Iskandariya," which can stand against entire books, to put it kindly. Lastly, I know that one of her finest acts in the literary world was selecting for the National Poetry Series Leadbelly, the first collection by one of my favorite fellow poets, Tyehimba Jess. To her family I send my sympathies, and to her I say, Rest in Peace and Poetry.

Poet David Antin's death today marked another loss for the world of literature. Born in New York City in 1932 and a graduate of City College and NYU, Antin began his career as a translator of business manuals and fiction before shifting to poetry. He and his wife Eleanor Antin, the well known conceptual and performance artist, moved to southern California in 1968 so that he could take up a teaching position in San Diego, and by 1971, Antin had begun to pioneer his improvisatory audience-and-context specific poems, or "talk-pieces," for which he became quite famous. I unfortunately never had the opportunity to see Antin perform live, but have read his books for years, and have watched some of his more recent performances, including several in Paris in 2011. You can find one here. May he also RIP.


Bob Dylan, by Andyp57
After last week's literary absurdity--or postmodern coup, as you may see it--in which the Swedish Academy awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature to songwriter Bob Dylan, for "for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition." Yeah, OK, if you say so. (Compare the Kelly poem above to most of what Dylan has written, and...well, maybe don't, if you don't want to throw up your hands in exasperation.) At any rate, the Baby Boomers' beloved bard from Hibbing, Minnesota, has not seen fit to respond publicly to his Nobel prize benefactors--out of indifference? embarrassment? truculence?--and instead actually removed a note on his website mentioning the honor. Swedish Academy member Sarah Danius, who made the award and, with a mostly straight face, compared Dylan to Homer and Sappho, the first the originator of the Greek epic tradition, and the second one of the great figures in early European lyric poetry, seems fairly unconcerned by this, but another member, writer Per Wästberg, who holds Chair No. 12, publicly commented that Dylan's silence was "impolite" and "arrogant."

Wästberg is correct, but then, what did these 17 (one chair is empty) powerful figures think would result when they made what can charitably be described as a "category error," to quote The Conversation, or, to put it another way, as a travesty against the very idea of literature as we know it? (Forgive me, but do Dylan's lyrics, as "poems," hold up against the best 50 random contemporary Anglophone poets of his generation or subsequent ones? NO. And what about the other major poets, writing in a wide variety of languages, who died without even being considered at all for the Nobel Prize, which is for better or worse the most important literary prize in the world.) As I posted on Facebook and elsewhere that I doubted any number of other superb and original English-language songwriters--take Stevie Wonder, say, or Rakim, or Joni Mitchell--let alone any major non-English song writers or singers (Caetano Veloso, Miriam Makeba, Gilberto Gil, etc.), or, to truly invoke the oral tradition, spoken word poets from anywhere, or non-European oral poets and storytellers, like African griots, would be considered at all, and certainly not anytime soon. Does anyone think they will?

After this year's pick perhaps the 2017 prize might--and ought--go to Matt Groening, creator of The Simpsons, among other entertainments. The Simpsons has been innovative and increasingly global in its influence for several decades now. I can vividly recall a Brazilian poet I know making an analogy in which he cited The Simpsons as if it were standard Brazilian TV entertainment. And it is. In fact, why even consider poets, fiction writers, playwrights, nonfiction writers, creators of hybrid written and imagistic forms, etc. (Or someone who can actually sing?) That's so 20th century and pre-post-literary, no?

Here are award-winning writer Caille Millner's funny and on-point thoughts in the San Francisco Chronicle about Dylan's (non-)response.


In reviewing the case I made a few weeks ago for potential Nobel honorees, I realized that I had completely overlooked one set of recipients whose predecessors the Swedish Academy had recognized, to a limited degree, in the past. I am talking about critical nonfiction writers, particularly philosophers and essayists, which is to say, authors working primarily in and known for work in this genre, whether they also created in other literary forms.

Among this group, past Nobel Laureates include philosophers Bertrand Russell, Henri Bergson, and Jean-Paul Sartre, historians Theodor Mommsen and Rudolf Eucken, and the conservative British politician Sir Winston Churchill.  Before this year's debacle, the most recent Nobel Prize recipient was a creative journalist, Svetlana Alexievich. I decided for a change to crowdsource potential picks should the Swedish Academy return to primarily written genres and forms and bestow its kröner on one of the living critical or philosophical pathblazers of our era.

Among the suggested winners, according to the great folks who posted on my Facebook page, were:

Giorgio Agamben, K. Anthony Appiah, Alain Badiou, Lauren Berlant, Judith Butler, Anne Carson (who'd of course qualify, I'm sure, as a poet, and who has also probably been nominated by now), Fidel Castro, David Chalmers, Noam Chomsky, Edwidge Danticat (also a major fiction writer), Samuel R. Delany (also one of the major living fiction writers), Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Nelson George, Henry Giroux, Jürgen Habermas, bell hooks, Luce Irigaray, Saul Kripke, Julia Kristeva, Catherine Malabou, Fred Moten, Reza Negarestani, Sianne Ngai, Martha Nussbaum, Derek Parfit, Paul B. Preciado, Avital Ronell, Sarah Schulman, Peter Sloterdijk, Gayatri Spivak, George Steiner, Charles Taylor, Haunani Kay Trask, Paul Virilio, Alice Walker (a major fiction writer, of course), and Slavoj Zizek.

There are many more potential candidates, including perhaps Houston Baker, Jr. Vint Cerf, Angela Davis, Souleymane Bachir Diagne, Basil Fernando, Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Paul Gilroy, Byung-Chul Han, Donna Haraway, N. Katherine Hayles, Rem Koolhaas, Humberto Maturana, Brian Massumi, Bill McKibben, Charles Mills, Trinh T. Minh-Ha, Thomas Nagel, Jean-Luc Nancy, Linda Nochlin, Michel Onfray, Arundhati Roy (also an excellent fiction writer), Thomas Scanlan, Peter Singer, David Suzuki, Tvetan Todorov, Sherry Turkle, Roberto Mangabeira Unger, and Sylvia Wynter, to name just a few. Strangely--or perhaps not, given the preponderance of academics on the prize-judging committee--this fertile orchard of brilliant minds, nearly all of whom have produced  important critical--if not creative in the usual sense--literature, apparently is not under consideration at all.

This leads me to think that perhaps just as the Nobel Prize organization, broadly understood, created a new prize in economics in 1969, to be issued by the Royal Bank of Sweden, "in memory of Alfred Nobel," some enormously wealthy Swede--Ingvar Kamprad, founder of IKEA--with a somewhat dicey background, like Nobel's, might spiritually ennoble herself/himself/theirselves by creating a series of new "Nobels," in important fields, including environmental science, mathematics, applied engineering, and critical--and humanistic?--thought. This may not help the creative writers among us, but it may mean recognition for more of the world's greatest minds. Would this be a bad thing? Who would you choose?

Sunday, October 09, 2016

Our Postmodern Election(s)

Donald J. Trump and Hillary Clinton at the second presidential debate
at Washington University in St. Louis.
Credit Doug Mills/The New York Times        
The Presidential election is less than a month away, and as J's Theater readers are probably aware, unlike the 2008 election or even the 2012 edition, I have hardly written anything about it. I could chalk it up to the farce that I've found the entire campaign season to be since early 2015, and to exhaustion after the last eight years of political paralysis and crisis in Washington (I did and continue to support President Barack Obama, though I have many criticisms of his policies), but more than anything, I wanted to move away from writing about electoral politics, which I had done quite a bit during the final, horrible years of the George W. Bush administration, as well as before and during the 2008 and 2012 elections. It's hard, however, not to write something about the debacle underway, so here are a few non-systematic thoughts. I should begin by saying that I supported Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primary, and will vote for Hillary Rodham Clinton in November.

The Postmodern Election
Postmodernism is dead, long live postmodernism. During the 2004 election, journalist Ron Suskind famously reported in the October 17, 2004 issue of  The New York Times Magazine on the chasm between what an anonymous source linked to the Bush termed the "fact-based community" and the faith based, epistemically closed world of turn of the 21st century conservatives around the sitting president:

The aide said that guys like me were "in what we call the reality-based community," which he defined as people who "believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality." ... "That's not the way the world really works anymore," he continued. "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."

One way of reading this statement is an assertion of raw Nietzschean reshaping of the truth to the dictates of power. It would not be out of place in any dictatorship, or, to be less strident, any real political power center anywhere.

Another way to look at it is as postmodernism in its contemporary and diffuse, political form. We now live in a society in which multiple, conflicting "truths," which is to say subjective or discursively shaped impressions of reality, do not and cannot cancel each other out. Instead, much like postmodern stylistic antecedents of the late 1970s and early 1980s onwards, they sit side by side, often awkwardly and, unlike their literary and artistic predecessors, often antagonistically, rendering any possibility of a unifying, ideologically coherent master understanding or reading of reality not impossible, but difficult and often futile. Our politics now consist of contrasting regimes of truth, some as manufactured as any work of fiction on a library bookshelf, which hold sway and constitute "reality," or the kinds of "new realities" that Suskind's interlocutor was talking about, thereby allow agents of that reality--Congress, corporations, what have you--to reshape reality as they see fit.

While it's easy to point the finger at Fox News as the main progenitor of this situation, critic Bob Somerby has shown on his Daily Howler site how, since the 1990s in particular, the legacy--supposedly "liberal"--media have been repeatedly at fault, nearly sinking Bill Clinton's presidency with the fake "Whitewater" and "Travelgate"s scandals, their embrace of "truthiness" and creating false equivalencies between candidates such as George W. Bush and Al Gore, while also penning damaging, untrue stories or inflating created narratives (those Gore "sighs") about the latter candidate, thereby helping to ruin his chances of victory in 2000; and vitally aiding in the push to send US troops into the debacle that we now know as a the Iraq War. These are only a few of the many examples from the last 20 years, but the process has been underway for quite some time.

I hate to say because it represents real cynicism, but I think this situation is only going to get worse no matter who wins, and it will require a deep and thorough reckoning from people on all sides to think through how ideologically requisite critiques of the status quo and the political, social and economic spheres, which is to say, attempts to understand and challenge the dominant discourse and the systems that constitute it, can function without a complete dismissal of any baseline of factuality or, to put another way, any recourse to a foundation of empirical and coherent truths. As far as this election goes, it seems, it's a wash.

Bernie Sanders
Bernie Sanders was the candidate the Occupy Movement made possible; he was, to some extent, the one who, in political and economic, if not symbolic and social terms, they--or we--had been waiting for.  Given the deep vein of frustration about the slow and unequal recovery, wage stagnation for most workers and student loan debt for millennials, and the steadily widening post-Great Recession wealth gap, Sanders spoke to an enthusiastic constituency on the left. Indeed he went further than nearly any major candidate I've seen in recent years in offering a vision and proposing policies that would fundamentally reform and transform our economic system for the better. It was, to paraphrase, Noam Chomsky, a kind of New Deal 2.0., and badly needed. At the same time, however, Sanders sometimes came off as a one-note herald--important though that one-note was!--who did not seem to grasp how important and necessary it was to take a more intersectional approach to the country's pressing issues and challenges.

His relentless pursuit of addressing economic inequality, the rigged tax system, corporate power, and Wall Street's manipulation of Congress, was and remains invigorating, but he also has seemed blind at times to our longer and more problematic history, including the basic fact that Black Americans in particular have never started out or been on the same economic, political or social footing as White Americans, despite all attempts by the the GOP, Libertarians, some Democrats, and others, to dehistoricize our past. (He did attempt to respond to and incorporate some of the important critiques put forward by the Black Lives Matter movement.) To put it another way, he critiqued the structural depredations of late US and global capitalism, but did not always appear able to articulate how structural racism, misogyny, etc. have intersectionally inflected the economic situation we find ourselves in today. Also, having witnessed now for most of my adult life how our political system works, it was also clear to me that, like most previous progressive Democratic candidates, Sanders wasn't going to surmount the hurdles erected by the legacy media or the Democratic National Committee, beholden as both are to Wall Street and global corporations. Yet even in failure Sanders' candidacy has proved to be invaluable. He was there to push the party, the discourse, and his main opponent leftward, and to some extent, his efforts have worked.

Hillary Clinton
So, instead of Sanders, we have Hillary Clinton. She is brilliant; she is accomplished; she has a long record of public and governmental service. She would--and likely will--become the first woman president in the history of the US. That will be a major achievement, particularly in symbolic and historical terms; it's easy to forget that only 100 years ago, women in the US could not even vote in presidential elections. As New York's junior US Senator Clinton voted reliably along socially liberal lines, but  then as she has again and again during this campaign, she has shown that her initial instincts are usually primarily neoliberal in economic terms and neoconservative in global interventionist terms. (The recent Wikileaks document dump of emails to her campaign chief John Podesta suggest that her core beliefs are decidedly pro-market and "open borders," and that she views progressive positions as nothing more than a "public face" to gain political and electoral support.) One reason I absolutely could not support Clinton in 2008 was because of her vote for the Iraq War, against all better judgment and evidence, and the Patriot Act. Little in her campaign suggests to me that she has completely reoriented her thinking about the path she has helped to lead us down. And yet, other than voting for Jill Stein, who will not win, or not voting at all, what choice do we have but to vote for her, and for every possible progressive candidate running for Congress, and then demand that they not reprise the 1990s or early 2000s?

Moreover, her history on race and racism leave a great deal to be desired. Beyond her role in the Clinton administration's triangulatory economic and social policies, which often had a racial--and racist--component. More than a few commentators have noted Clinton's adoption of conservative language pathologizing black adolescent criminals in the 1990s, and her support of the odious Welfare Reform legislation, Three Strikes laws, and so forth, and her failure to speak out initially about Stop and Frisk and Broken Windows policies. In fact, I can recall how her husband left his federal judicial court nominee Lani Guinier twisting in the wind because of conservative screeching about her eminently reasonable approach to the voting system, at which point Hillary Clinton cut her longtime friend loose as well, greeting her with the casual and dismissive "Hey Kiddo" when they ran into each other in the White House.

As I acknowledge the reality of Hillary Clinton's record, I want to aver that I believe she will govern along mostly along the lines laid out by President Obama, who has enacted far more socially progressive legislation and some economically progressive policies than he is given credit for, and if she improve and advance some of his signature policies and goals, like climate change and renewable and clean energy, a Medicare-for-all or public option for the Affordable Care Act, closing Guantánamo and winding down the wars in the Middle East, while also reforming the prison-industrial complex, rethinking immigration policy to make it fairer and not just another element on global corporations' wish lists, making college free or subsidizing public higher education, especially community colleges, more fully, and addressing police and state violence against black and brown people, she will be more transformative than she ever imagined. What's clear is that she won't have to lay the foundation, since it's already there. Her major challenge will be to deal with the recalcitrant and ideologically purist--extreme--Republicans in Congress. Given the ongoing collapse of the Trump campaign, she might even have a Democrat Congress to work with, at least for two years, so she had better be ready to hit the ground running.

Donald J. Trump
Under the circumstances of most presidential elections since 1944 or so, a candidate who launched his formal campaign with hateful, racist, and lie-ridden attacks on a friendly, neighboring country and ally, its people and people who have immigrated from it and their descendants, would probably have met enough censure to drop out of the race immediately.* That did not happen with Donald J. Trump, however. Instead, as became clear by the middle of summer 2015, to a large degree because of pockets of dissatisfaction and rage on the right, and because of his incessant lying and hateful rhetoric against Mexico, Muslims, China, immigrants, Latinxs, Black people, women, war heroes, the disabled, and his fellow primary candidates, as well as his outrageous, unworkable, substance-free policies, like building a wall on the US's southern border or rounding up Muslims and putting them in detention camps, he was soon polling as the Republican to beat. Infamously, a roundtable of media commentators, whose performance around Trump's run has been atrocious over the last year and a half, laughed out loud as Congressman Keith Ellison (D-MN) tried to warn them that Trump might win. He got the last laugh but we got Trump as the Republican nominee.

There has been a great deal of commentary about Trump's candidacy since his launch, about his support and supporters, and so on, and I will not rehash it here in full. What I will say is that he has run his campaign, beginning with the GOP primary through the general contest against Clinton, like a reality show, which shouldn't be surprising since his fame today primarily derives from his successful show The Apprentice (which I watched, often with some amusement in its initial years). What does seem surprising to some pundits, however, is that his political persona derives from the simulacrum he presented there. Instead of a business leader or entertainer-as-candidate, however, we have gotten The (Bullying, White Supremacist, Lying Narcissistic, SociopathicAuthoritarian. (Is there any question why Vladimir Putin spurs Trump's feelings of bromance?) This new reality show, in which we're all playing part, whether we want to or not, has excited a core of white mostly male voters whose support of him tracks well with people polling strongly on feelings of racial resentment and backlash, His quasi-populist proposals, involving revoking free trade, tearing up the US's NATO commitments, and limited family leave, have also appealed voters unhappy with Clinton's candidacy, and with the two victories and tenure of President Barack Obama.

In the case of Trump, the media have been his major abettors, even more so than the Republican Party, which, in real time, took its time coming around to supporting him. There are quite a few Republicans who still refuse to back Trump; one, John Kasich, was one of the leading contenders for the Republican slot, and had he won probably be 10 points ahead of Clinton at this point. Not just Fox News, but CNN and MSNBC, which I've taken to calling Trump Central, turned their screens over to him for hours at a time. None could be bothered, for example, to examine in a sustained way at his tax plan, which would balloon the deficit and federal debt and widen the inequality gulf without resulting positive Keynesian effects, or, until recently, deeply investigate the fact that he probably had gamed the federal tax system and not paid taxes for years, as New York Times bombshell underlined. In fact, it has taken nearly the mainstream media nearly the entirety of the election season to investigate with any doggedness Trump's multiple corporate fiascoes and reliance on taxpayer dollars to keep his bankrupt businesses afloat, his allegedly criminal interactions with Cuba, his flawed and potentially illegal shenanigans involving his foundation, corporate activity and campaign, his sham of a university, and so much more.

His arrogance and self-absorption have finally blown in his face, however. During his first debate with Hillary Clinton two weeks ago, he was the clear loser in terms of substance and style. In it she came off as calm, unflappable, eminently knowledgeable, moderate Democratic politician prepared to handle anything he or the moderator, Lester Holt, threw her way, and to step into the presidency tomorrow. Trump, however, descended quickly into petulance, talking and at times yelling at and over her, mansplaining, uttering patches of peeved gibberish, and finally expressed exasperation that he was faltering against so fully against someone he had clearly underestimated. The debate crystallized what many people, I included, already knew about the two candidates. The Vice Presidential debate last week appeared to boost his running mate, the ultraconservative Indiana Governor Mike Pence, more so than him.

The true showstopper, however, might be the Washington Post's publication on Friday of a 2005 Access Hollywood audio and videotape featuring a live-mic'd conversation between Trump and show host (and George W. Bush's and Jeb Bush's first cousin) Billy Bush, in which Trump utters misogynistic vulgarities and appears to admit to sexual assaults with impunity, saying that he has regularly "kissed" women without their permission, because he is famous and can get away with it, that he has even "grab[bed] 'em by the pussy." Similar recordings, from his appearances on The Howard Stern Show, also have been released. The resulting firestorm was swift and has steadily grown, though he issued a videotaped non-apology early Saturday morning.

Trump's campaign is looking increasingly doomed, with dozens of Republican officials denouncing him, renouncing support for him, and urging him to drop out of the race. Trump will probably hold onto his diehard base, but his support from educated white women voters, whom he must have for any chance of winning, looks increasingly dim. I should note that he's on state ballots across the country no matter what; the cutoff date was September 1. Should he drop out or should his running mate, Gov. Pence, step down, the Republican Party, through the RNC, would be tasked with finding a replacement, either by convening all the national delegates or via an executive board vote. The leading candidate would like be Ted Cruz.

Ratf*cking & Dirty Tricks
One element of the election that I don't think has gained enough coverage is the use of dirty tricks, not just by the two campaigns, but by foreign countries. As we learned this past summer, the Democratic National Committee's servers and accounts were hacked, possibly by Russian state or private actors, or some combination of both, and other major, non-corporate hacks have occurred as well. Information dumps, many of them laundered by Wikileaks, have dribbled out periodically, with one of the most damaging concerning the machinations the DNC former head Debbie Wasserman Schultz's took to ensure Sanders did not win the nomination. As I note above, I figured from the campaign's start that, based on who runs and funds the Democratic Party, this was a foregone conclusion, call it cynicism, realism, pragmatism, or nihilism as you see fit.

In any case, it managed to enrage many Sanders supporters in advance of the Democratic convention, in Philadelphia, from which Clinton nevertheless emerged with a noticeable bump in the polls. The recent emails, which appear to be authentic, again portray Clinton in a bad light. I'll be interested to see what we learn after the election's conclusion about foreign influence and domestic dirty tricks--or ratf*cking as it was called during the Nixon campaign; I imagine it's far more extensive than most voters, or even many journalists, envision. (A Nixon operative, Roger Stone, is closely allied with Trump's campaign.) What's been a bit dismaying is how easily people seem to fall for such things, but then the people behind trickery of this sort tend to understand how human nature and our emotions, even when dealing with obvious propaganda, work, while most of us, unfortunately, do not.

The US Senate
Most predictions I've seen suggest that the GOP will retain the House of Representatives, though were Clinton to ride a wave-type election, it could flip. Only a year ago what appeared more likely was that the Democrats would take back the Senate by a slender margin, thereby enabling a newly elected Democrat's plans, or giving them the power to frustrate a Republican's. The Democrats currently hold 44 seats, with 2 held by independents who caucus with them, and the Republicans hold 4, meaning that the Democrats would need to gain 4 seats to control the Senate if they win the Presidency, with the Democratic VP breaking the 50-50 tie, or 55 seats if they do not win at the top of the ticket. 10 Democratic seats were up for grabs, versus 24 Republican ones.

Right now, those four net seats seem tenuous, though not out of reach. Democratic candidates in Illinois, Wisconsin, Indiana, Pennsylvania seem poised to win and take seats from incumbent Republicans. In Nevada, however, the Democratic seat held by Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid is in currently leaning towards the Republican candidate, Congressman Joe Heck. This would mean only a net gain of 3 seats, and not enough to allow the VP to cast tie votes. Should Nevada, which was trending mildly toward the GOP until recently turn more blue, Catherine Cortez Masto, the Democratic candidate, could slip, and seal the Democrats' control. Another seat on the line belongs to New Hampshire Republican Kelly Ayotte, who has been leading her challenger, Democratic Governor Maggie Hassan. A recent Ayotte gaffe, in which she called Donald Trump a "good model" for children, along with a shift toward the Democratic ticket, could send her home on November 8. Nate Silver's FiveThirtyEight site suggests that it could either be 50-50 or 51-49 on behalf of the GOP at this point, but again, the volatility of events and the electorate's feelings about the choices before them suggest that even with the best models we won't know until November.

Saturday, October 08, 2016

Photos: Venice Beach

While out in Los Angeles last week to read at the Otis College of Art I had the pleasure of visiting Venice Beach, which I hadn't seen since I was a child. Many thanks to everyone at Otis, especially Peter Gadol, who made my visit possible, and here are a few photos from my stroll along the Venice Beach Speedway and up Rose Avenue nearby.

Looking north along the Speedway,
towards Santa Monica
Looking south 
One of many talented
live musicians
Another view
Pigeons and other birds
feasting on bagels 
People biking along the beach
Looking east 
I didn't dare hop on a skateboard
though it might have been the quickest
way to see everything
A bit of turf near the surf


The mural says it all  
A vintage Jeep 
Rose Ave
Self-portrait in a plate
glass mirror
Full Circle
One of many homeless
A semi-arbor (or
overgrown bush) 
A rhododendron 
Looking west to the beach
Street scene 
At Otis College of Art,
during a fire drill
In the quadrangle
Some of the Otis students

Monday, October 03, 2016

Updated: Perennial Post: Who'll Receive the 2016 Nobel Prize in Literature?


ABSURDITY (A short Nobel Prize in Literature play*)

Swedish Academy Guy 1: Ngugi should get it.
SA Guy 2: Ko Un. Very good poet, I hear. I don't read...Korean?
SA Guy 3: Um, is Philip Roth dead?
SA Guy 4: That Brazilian guy...what is his name? You know. Guys?
SA Woman: Any women???
Quorum: Dylan!!!

*In memory of playwright, activist and provocateur Dario Fo (1922-2016), 1997 recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature.


Can Xue (
Another year, another year of speculation: who will win the 2016 Nobel Prize in Literature, whose announcement has now been pushed back to next week? (The same thing happened 11 years ago.) Almost every year that I've blogged here, I've devoted longish columns to forecasting about this most widely known, recognized and publicly exalted (and execrated, in some quarters) of literary prizes, and more often than not, I've been wrong about the possible winners, though I have at times tossed out names of people who did go on to win. Cast a wide enough net and you will catch something.

Some of the potential honorees who appeared in my first J's Theater wish list back in 2005 are no longer with us. Assia Djébar, Carlos Fuentes and E. L. Doctorow (the latter two my former teachers), to name a few, have departed for that distant library in the heavens. (Still others I pointed to in subsequent posts, like Andrée Chedid, Pramoedya Ananta Toer, and Mahasveta Devi, also have passed since that initial post 1l years ago.) One writer I did state ought to win, Harold Pinter, received the prize that year, though I can't say I singled him out. (I was and remain a fan of his work.) While I have frequently mentioned Patrick Modiano as a fascinating case study (of a writer who essentially writes the same book over and over) to my students, I did not think he'd slip past far more inventive and compelling French writers like Yves Bonnefoy or Michel Tournier (both of whom died earlier this year). Remaining on the French tip, I still am baffled by J. G. M. LeClézio's win in 2008.

Prior Nobel posts: 2005 - (2005 discussion of Pinter) - 2006 - 20072008 - 2009 (1) - 2009 (2) - 20102011 - 20122013 - 20142015.

In any case, as many critics, I included, have noted, the prize--which is the result of ideologically tinged choices by a relatively tiny committee of Europeans but has global ramifications--has in recent years increasingly turned towards European literature, with roughly 11 honorees out of the last 15 either born or based on that continent. Additionally, only 4 of the 15 have been women. The imbalance is not only one of region and gender but of genre: only one writer working primarily as a poet, Tomas Tranströmer, has been awarded, and the same is true in terms of drama: since 2000 only dramatist Harold Pinter has received the award. (Elfriede Jelinek writes both fiction and plays, but I believe she received the award based on her novels.) Last year's winner, Svetlana Alexeievich, practices a form of creative nonfiction that had not been highlighted among prior winners, though a few past laureates, including former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and philosopher Henri Bergson have been recognized for nonfiction prose. I also don't think an openly gay or queer writer has won in some time, but I could be wrong. That appears to be a blind spot among the Nobel judges.

(And as I have pointed out many times in the past, quite a few of the greatest writers were completely overlooked by the Nobel committee. That is going to continue to happen with a prize going to only one writer per year, most of whom are European and male, and which overlooks work by women, work that is very formally innovative, politically complicated, and work not regularly translated into major European languages. One writer about whom I'll post soon, Elena Ferrante, strikes me as potentially falling in this category, not just because of the controversies that have swirled around her "identity," but also because her dazzling, profound work is also so popular, within and outside Italy.)

So: instead of a long argument about the history of the award, a rundown of good or bad prior choices, and so on, here's a short list of people I think are deserving. I should point out that I tweeted thoughts to Shigekuni about his Nobel Prize list, and we have some overlap. I also found Two Lines Press's conversation, arranged in betting fashion, intriguing, though I wish they'd gone a bit deeper with their praise and critiques. I admire a number of the writers they include, some of whom make my list. A third and superb run-down of the global greats appears at The Birdcage. One thing that I think should occur is more double prizes, or even a triple prize, as sometimes occur in the Chemistry and Physics categories. Some of the writers listed below are getting up there in age, so rather than dragging things out, honor several in one swoop, and be done with it!

(I should point out that Ladbroke's list is out, and as usual, it includes some of the usual suspects and some idiosyncratic choices. These are the folks the bettors think might win. At the top is Haruki Murakami, a writer whose work I'm quite fond of, but who should not be selected over any of the people listed below. Yet again, Philip Roth and Joyce Carol Oates are high on the list. Others who appear include John Banville, Jon Fosse (I read him for the first time a few years ago and was charmed), Peter Handke (politics may doom him again), Peter Nadas (he wrote a giant novel, which always impresses people), Amos Oz (I'm a fan), A. B. Yehoshua (also a fan of his), Adam Zagejewski (beloved by comp lit people), Juan Marsé (hmm), Kjell Askildsen (never read him but I know he's controversial), and Doris Kareva (never read her). Note that other than Murakami, Adonis (in second place at 6/1 odds), Ngugi wa Thiong'o (fourth at 10/1 odds), Oz and Nadas, all of the other writers are...European! Do scroll down for some of the interesting choices below.)

Frankétienne (Allison Shelley for
The New York Times)
Anyways, here's my list:

‡. Adonis - One of the major poets in contemporary Arabic literature, enchantingly lyrical and formally daring, he'd be a timely pick, and probably should have received the Nobel Prize a few years ago.

‡. John Ashbery  - Perhaps the most influential living English-language poet, 89 years old and still writing and publishing.

‡. Tahar ben Jelloun - Prolific, intense, and a major living North African and Francophone fiction writer.

‡. Can Xue - She has been labeled by male critics as crazy, but this self-taught genius is a lodestar in Chinese-language literature. Her chances of winning the prize right now are probably low, however, because of the recent award to Mo Yan and a prior one in 2000 to Gao Xiangjin. From what I can tell based on the translations of the work of all three, Can is the best and most aesthetically daring of these three.
‡. Juan Goytisolo - Among living Spanish-language writers, he is a pathblazer, and his trilogy, which includes Count Julian, is a landmark in Hispanophone literature. One of my favorites of his works is a much more modest but highly inventive and entertaining work, The Garden of Secrets. He's openly gay and has harshly criticized European colonialism, so he may never win.

‡. Nuruddin Farah - One of the most important writers of East Africa, an author of influential, engaging and beautiful novels, Farah would be a great choice.

‡. Frankétienne - Haiti's powerhouse, a master artist in Caribbean and African Diasporic literature, this author has left his mark in numerous genres, and should have won the Nobel Prize over some of the lackluster picks of recent years. He has predicted his death will come in 2020, so get on it, Swedish Academy!

‡. Patricia Grace - Grace has deeply enriched New Zealand and Maori literature, Grace is the author of numerous highly praised novels, collections of short stories, and children's books. She received the 2008 Neustadt International Prize.

‡. Wilson Harris - Guyanese-British, utterly original, prolific, and now 95 or so. One of my heroes and one of the greats.

‡. Kim Hyesoon - I cannot read Korean, but I am highly persuaded by poet Don Mee Choi's excellent translations of Kim's work. No writer from Korea has ever won the award, so Kim would be  a positive first.

‡. Ismael Kadaré - An Albanian writer, and thus a European, though Albania remains figuratively and literally on the margins of Europe. I have read only one of his novels and it was as good as the novels I've read by any of the last 10 laureates, and outrageously funny.

‡. Laszlo Krasznahorkai - As European fiction writers go he is in a category of his own. His Seiobo There Below is, like past laureate J. M. Coetzee's Elizabeth Costello an innovation on the novel form deserving the highest praise. I believe his health is stellar, but I think it should go to several others who are older and more frail first. But very deserving.

‡. Abdellatif Laâbi -This Moroccan poet's oeuvre ranks among the finest in contemporary Francophone and North African literature.

‡. Antonio Lobo Antunes - I have long been a fan of his, but I cannot ever forget how my Azorean teacher, guiding me through Portuguese conversation, dismissed him as a writer who needed "the dictatorship" and "war" to have something to write about. She was much more positive about other Portuguese writers like Jorge de Sena, Fernando Namora, and of course, José Saramago, who received the Nobel Prize.

‡. Friederike Mayröcker / Alexander Kluge - German-language writers haven't had to suffer long droughts in recent years, but these two are so original they deserve some kind of major honor. Mayröcker is an Austrian poet and playwright, while Kluge is a German fiction writer, philosopher and filmmaker. Their work looks like no one else's. Both are up there in years, so give it to both of the if one is even in the running.

‡. Cormac McCarthy - His prose is singular, his scope is narrow, and his work is most certainly not of an "idealistic" nature, which was Alfred Nobel's charge for the prize, but when McCarthy is on, he is really on. I should note that I am rereading The Road with my graduate seminar now, and it is even more moving than my first reading of it. Blood Meridian is one of the greatest and most disturbing American novels of the last 50 years too.

‡. Nicanor Parra - He is 102. (102!!!) His poems are scrumptious morsels that make you go Wow. He is a pioneer of "anti-poems." His oeuvre is considerable, inventive, and impressive. He should have received the Nobel Prize two decades ago.

‡. Adélia Prado - One of Brazil's leading poets, highly readable, a poet of daily life, desire, the soul laid bare, prolific, and the recipient of many national awards. Very consistent and consistently very good.

‡. Ngugi wa Thiong'o - A pioneering, politically engaged and prodigious writer who has transformed the landscape of African literature. An excellent choice.

‡. Ko Un - Again, I don't read Korean, but his name has popped up for years as a potential winner. He's a poet so that would be a plus no matter what.

‡. Jay Wright - If there were a prize solely for originality and daring, or for lyric excellence, Wright would have won it long ago. He is one of the main predecessors to poets like Nathaniel Mackey. He's 81....

‡. Raúl Zurita - One of the leading Latin American poets, highly original, compelling ironic and strange, and quite prolific. He also wrote against the Chilean dictatorship while living under it.

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Playland (A New Chapbook)

A lifetime--or decade and a half, to be exact--ago I completed a book of poetry entitled Heroic Figures. It was a finalist for an Academy of American Poets Prize, and later, a finalist for the Cave Canem Prize. My experiences with publishers, however, unfolded in the same way: interest, sometimes quite genuine, only for nothing to happen or the book to be rejected. I even thought about self-publishing it, but ended up working on Seismosis, the collaborative project with artist and poet Christopher Stackhouse, as well as a novel (still in progress) and Counternarratives, and so the poetry manuscript, I thought, would be consigned to the archives.

Earlier this summer, however, Ron Mohring of Seven Kitchens Press wrote to ask if I still was interested in publishing a distilled version of the earlier collection that I submitted a few years ago to one of their contests. (It did not win, of course.) I looked back over the manuscript, and realized that I could add a few newer poems and have a little collection that looked back to my writing in the 1990s, a good of which dealt with my youth in the late 1980s and early 1990s, during the worst days of the HIV/AIDS and linked them to more recent concerns. The result, which I sent to Ron and which passed his muster, is Playland, a chapbook of 20 or so poems now available, in very limited quantities, from Seven Kitchens Press. Many thanks to Ron for making this publication possible!

The poems include one of the first I wrote as an adult writer, "Mission and Outpost," a response to a visit in 1990 or 1991 to San Francisco, where I hung out with the cousin of one my former bosses and mentors, listened to his stories of pre-AIDS San Francisco, and mused about how I might have responded to the liberatory promise that seemed to beckon to those heading there in the first decade after Stonewall. A much more recent one, "Suit," emerged as I considered my friendship with the late performer and dancer Phil Horvitz, who was the boyfriend of artist Nayland Blake. Phil and I worked at National Video Resources in the late 1990s, and whose career as an artist I only fully learned about after we'd both moved on to different jobs. The title poem is one I wrote while a Cave Canem Fellow, and the collection owes a huge debt to my three years at their invaluable workshops. I should admit that I initially worried that the poems might read as out of fashion compared both to my newer writing and to the brilliant poetry my contemporaries and younger poets are writing today, but I'm happy to say I think all of it holds up pretty well, since the emotional content crosses temporal and chronological barriers. (Now if I can only figure out to publish the revised volume of poems and a new one!)

You can order a copy here. There are only two dozen for sale, so if you're interested, please get yours today!

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Random Photos

A bit more jaunting around New York means one thing: random photos!

Here are a few, from recent weeks (and the first three are from much earlier in the summer), including  one showing the new business that occupies what had been my former workout spot, Steel Gym. It was right across from here that domestic terrorist Ahmad Rahami set off one of his bombs, which blew a Dumpster straight across 23rd Street. The mangled remains landed right in front of the new Scottrade office!

Remember, if you click on them you can see them at full size!

Super-fro (Cumulofronimbus)
At Triple Canopy, in Brooklyn
In Dumbo
Filming in Union Square Park 
Outdoor bazaar
The fake--and real--pigeon seller
Modern Furniture, in the street 

A cup of (Hillary) Clinton
Loading prints on 19th Street 
A doored cyclist, on 6th Avenue
At work, on a flatbed 
Mounting a door 
My former gym's façade, now a Scottrade office
(and right across from where the 23rd St.
Dumpster bombing took place)
Same as it ever was: sleeping
in a Manhattan doorway
New World Trade Center
skyline, from Hoboken
Grove Street, Jersey City
Outside MoMA PS1:
the sign reads
Searching for the right selfie spot,
World Trade Center 
Tourists (note the person
in the knee-high, Italian
flag-colored socks)
Polish veterans, Jersey City
Shoe change, 19th Street
Fruit vendor, Upper West Side