Saturday, September 16, 2017

Quote: Charmaine Nelson

FM: What is the most interesting, surprising thing you’ve come across in your archival research or reading?

CN: I found a fascinating person in the Quebec fugitive slave ads. Part of what I’m looking at is creolization, or how Africans became African American or African Brazilian and so on, and what that meant culturally. This one man—Joe—was particularly haunting. I found five different ads for him, and you can actually map Joe’s creolization across these ads.

In the first ad, Joe is described as a “negro lad”. His owner, a man named William Brown, owns the newspaper—he’s putting an ad for Joe in his own paper. The ad says Joe was African-born, which is significant because a minority of enslaved people are people born in Africa. Slave ships always stopped in South America or the Caribbean first. So, Joe survived two middle passages: one from Africa to somewhere in the American South, and then one to Halifax, Quebec City, or Montreal. William Brown also says Joe speaks English and French tolerably.

By the fifth ad, Joe is a man. He’s fluent in English and French, and he was working as a pressman—he was running the press! Joe must have known exactly what a runaway slave ad was. He had probably been made to formulate, print, and edit ads for his fellow enslaved people. The newspaper he was helping to print, the Quebec Gazette, was owned by the guy who owned him. He must have known Brown would come after him.

But, ads can’t tell you if a person was caught or not. So, how do you finish Joe’s narrative? You can go to other archives and personal letters. But, the real obscenity is that you go to the will or the state inventory of the person who owned the slave. The thing is—William Brown would have had to die before Joe in order for him to be in the will. If Brown dies, Joe is passed down or sold, which was likely because enslaved people had shorter life expectancies. So, my question is: How do you read fugitive slave ads against the grain? They sought to criminalize stealing yourself. How can I use the ads to re-humanize people who were dehumanized?

From the Harvard Crimson's "15 Professors of the Year, 2017: Charmaine Nelson." According to the Harvard Crimson, Professor Charmaine Nelson is "an art historian from McGill University [who] joined the faculty of Women, Gender, and Sexuality...[in 2016] as a visiting professor. Nelson’s work examines art and visual culture from across America, Canada, Europe and the Caribbean. Her research at Harvard concerns fugitive slave advertisements in Canada, challenging the myth that Canada was always a refuge for enslaved people in North America."

Thursday, August 31, 2017

Random Photos

Unlike previous summers, this has been mostly a quiet one, with recuperation from the semester (and a bit of surgery), and preparation for what looks to be a very busy fall. Here are a few photos from the last few months.

Our front gate, after a car
crashed into it again
(it's since been repaired) 
The vaulted ceiling at the still-under-repair
Hoboken rail station (remember
the terrible crash there earlier this year?)
New York City and some of the
flotsam on the Hoboken site 
Famous First Baptist Peddie
Memorial Church, Newark 
New towers steadily rising (Trump's
second tower in the middle), downtown
Jersey City
Translator Alicia Maria Meier,
at the Us&Them Reading,
Molasses Books, Brooklyn
Translator Bonnie Huie at
the Us&Them reading 
A sculpture at the plaza where 8th Street,
6th Avenue and Greenwich Avenue meet,
Service Changes,
on the PATH 
The Sistine Chapel exhibit,
PATH World Trade Center station 
The Sistine Chapel exhibit,
PATH World Trade Center station 
Scaffolded walkway, which
could be almost anywhere in
endlessly-under-construction New York, West Village
CA Conrad, reading and performing
at the White Review Issue 20 launch,
McNally-Jackson, Manhattan 
Sophie Robinson
at the White Review Issue 20 launch,
McNally-Jackson, Manhattan 
Another one of our new luxury towers
in Jersey City 
The Upper West Side, near Columbia University
Outside Book Culture, Upper West Side 
At the Women in Translation Cocktail Hour
reading, with Susan Bernofsky, Ann Goldstein,
and Nathan Xavier Osorio, Book Culture 
At the Women in Translation Cocktail Hour
reading, with Susan Bernofsky, Ann Goldstein,
and Nathan Xavier Osorio, Book Culture 
L-r: Nathan Xavier Osorio, Ann Goldstein,
and Susan Bernofsky, Book Culture 

Susan Bernofsky signing copies
of the books she's translated,
Book Culture, UWS 
Lower Manhattan
Chelsea restaurant BEC
(Bacon Egg & Cheese)
A Twitter office (I assume
from that logo), Chelsea
A building site, Jersey City
Impromptu poetry, Jersey City street
UN Building, west side of Manhattan
Two stilt walkers, Jersey
City Pride, 2017 
Sugar & Spice (?), performers at
Jersey City Pride, 2017
Wrestling an umbrella, Jersey City 
Lunch al fresco, Jersey City

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Hurricane Harvey: How to Help Its Survivors

from Washington Post

This past weekend, Hurricane Harvey struck the Texas Gulf Coast, becoming the first cyclone to make US landfall since 2005, and has left almost undefinably horrific destruction in its wake. Over the last six days, the initially Category 4 hurricane and subsequent rainfall have drenched the coast and the Houston metro area with over 50 inches of rain, requiring 13,000 rescues (and counting); obliterating the coastal city of Rockport, where it touched down; flooding roadways large and small; displacing many thousands of people, and crippling a metro area of over 6 million people; and causing at current count roughly more than two dozen deaths.

from Washington Post

Though the storm is tracking eastward, potentially causing flooding and displacement in Louisiana, rain continues to fall both in the city of Houston and its environs, rivers, lakes, bayous, reservoirs and dams are at capacity, and highways, streets, and entire neighborhoods remain underwater. A great deal of Houston's critical infrastructure is either under threat or damaged as well. It is the worst recorded flood in Texas history, and recovery will likely take many years. My thoughts and prayers are with everyone there and their family members across the country and globe. The few people I know living in Houston are thankfully all out of direct harm's way, but have no idea when they will be able to return to their homes.

from Washington Post

Both in the near term and the long term, residents of the affected areas are going to need support, from the government and everyone else. In particular, children, the elderly, those who are ill, homeless people, and people with disabilities, to name just a few, will require sustained help. Below are links from reputable news sites with links on how to donate money, blood, food, clothing, funds for clean-up and rebuilding, and more. All Houstonians and residents of the Gulf Coast and states to the east, where rain is currently drenching cities and towns, will need our support. Please scroll through the various agencies, and if you can give something, please do, now and, if possible, down the road. 

Via NPR:
(Links for general relief, blood donations, shelter, food, people with disabilities, children, and animals)

Via Huffington Post:
(This was the first set of links I saw, and it includes crowdfunding links for specific needs.)

Via Colorlines (h/t Ernest Hardy for this link)
(More targeted donation options)

Via The New York Times:
(A fine list of organizations, with links, to help people in the affected areas)

Via CNN:
(Many very helpful links here)

Via Rolling Stone:
(Some of the same links as above, with a few different ones)

Via Forbes:
(A list with updated links)

Friday, July 28, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Anthurium: A Caribbean Studies Journal Special Issue on Paule Marshall

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

To that end, Kelly Baker Josephs, Associate Professor of English at York College, CUNY, has edited a new issue of Anthurium: A Caribbean Studies Journal (Vol. 14, No. 1) devoted to Paule Marshall's life and work. Free and available at CUNY's Caribbean Commons, this issue, titled "The Work of Paule Marshall Today," comprises a range of essays that offer ways of thinking and reading Marshall's writing, particularly around the theme of Black women--especially Black Caribbean women--and personhood, as Baker Josephs frames it in her introduction.

Other contributors include Marlene Clark on Marshall's prescient understanding of "slumming" and gentrification in Brooklyn; Justin Haynes reading Marshall's The Timeless Place, The Chosen People through the lens of the posthuman; Shirley D. Toland-Dix on Marshall's rereading of The Tempest; Janelle Rodriques on Afrofuturistic diaspora in Marshall's Praisesong for the WidowPetal Samuel on "regimes of aural discipline" in Marshall's The Fisher King; Patricia G. Lespinasse on women and jazz in that same novel; Lia Bascomb on mapping Diaspora "through biomythography"; and Jason Hendrickson on speech, resistance, and the ongoing relevance of Marshall's work. I also contributed a short piece that began as response to questions posed by Baker Josephs, about having studied with Paule Marshall, which was one of the best classroom experiences I had at NYU.

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

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

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Commemorating the 50th Anniversary of the Newark Rebellion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, July 08, 2017

Quote: Ibram X. Kendi

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

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

Thursday, June 22, 2017

The Pen Behind Jeremiah Moss (Vanishing New York) + 27 Cooper Square Dedication

Add caption
For a decade, a blogger writing under the nom de plume Jeremiah Moss has been chronicling the Bloomberg and post-Bloomberg era gentrification--hypergentrification--of New York City, primarily through posts that tally the disappearance of countless small and medium-sized, often longstanding businesses. While not always avoiding nostalgia and though he has mostly focused on Manhattan, Moss's blog, Vanishing New York, has set the standard in consistently demonstrating city and state policies favoring plutocratic real estate interests, in combination with the national and global neoliberal economic system, have had a devastating effect on so much of the city's social ecology, its distinctive neighborhoods, and its diverse cultural vibrancy, let alone affordability, all of which have drawn creative people in particular to New York for more than a century.

Though gentrification in New York is hardly new, Moss has detailed how over the last 10 years, particularly in the lead-up to and through the Great Recession, whole sections--and increasingly boroughs--of New York have transformed into hollowed out museums of themselves. (Lost City was another blog that contemporaneously recorded the loss of many New York landmarks, from 2006 through 2014. Gothamist also provides updates amidst its general news about the city.) Among the terms I've learned from Moss's blog are yunny (young urban narcissists), zombie urbanism, and hypergentrification, to name just a few.  From my first encounter with Moss's lamentations--appropriately enough, an early entry from 2007 bore that title--and jeremiads, I became a fan, finding in his posts arguments that compellingly articulated what I saw happening as far back as the period right after 9/11, in 2001, and also underway simultaneously and without explanation, in Chicago.

From Jeremiah's
Vanishing New York
Certainly many have written persuasively about gentrification and its effects, and we can always use more informed takes. But Moss has also urged readers to go beyond mourning and support the pro-small business, cultural landmarking, anti-chain approach of SAVE NYC. Moss also has tried to address readers' questions, including why he began the blog, whether gentrification is (ever) good for working-class and poor people, how Bloomberg's tenure really affected New York (for the worse), and how New York City has become increasingly suburbanized, or a dense, vertical simulacrum of the suburban--an elite suburb, that is. Notably, he also has not shied away from addressing questions of race, class, and political access, among other topics key to the problem of hypergentrification.

For his efforts he has received a great deal of press, and some awards. Until now, Moss has not compiled his thoughts in book form, but that is set to change with Vanishing New York: How a Great City Lost Its Soul (HarperCollins), which will hit bookshelves shortly. A book party is set for July 27, in SoHo.

What also has remained unknown to most readers of Moss's blog is who the writer really is. (In fact I have to admit I was quite willing not to have his real identity revealed.) Recently, however, in a New Yorker "Talk of the Town" piece by Michael Schulman, Moss does share with the world who he really is: Griffin Hansbury, a transgender psychoanalyst, social worker, and aspiring novelist who has lived in New York for more than a quarter of a century. He lives in the East Village, and has shifted, as Schulman points out, from elegist to activist, when he rallied readers behind the attempt to save Midtown's Café Edison, which did not succeed but which fed into the #SAVENYC campaign.
So why did Moss (Hansbury) unmask himself?

[He] decided to reveal himself, he said, so he can show up at his own rallies and on panels. Also, “Vanishing New York” is now a book. Walking down St. Mark’s Place, past a dark-glass building that he called the Death Star, he mentioned a study that measured pedestrians’ skin conductivity outside a sleek Whole Foods and on a more diversified street. “They found that blocks that are all this glass stuff actually shorten the lives of senior citizens, because they’re so depressing,” he said.

And, as I can attest, they can turn into giant magnifying glasses, scorching the ground around them. I hope to share this and other thoughts--like the increasingly disturbing lack of adequate infrastructure in New York and New Jersey, especially to handle all of the building, new arrivals, or catastrophic contingencies like a worse version of the 2003 blackout (which I experienced firsthand) or another tropical storm as strong as or stronger than 2012's Hurricane Sandy-- in person with him, at his book event or another, but either way, I'll be picking up a copy of Vanishing New York, the book version, while continuing to read his blog.


A few days ago, another New York City blog I regularly browse, EV Grieve, posted about a plaque dedication at 27 Cooper Square on June 21. Though increasing swaths of Manhattan and New York City have been or are being leveled or built over in favor of the kinds of cookie-cutter designer glass luxury towers that Moss has decried on his blog, 27 Cooper Square managed to survive the wrecking ball, mainly because, as EV Grieve points out, two of the building's resident, including acclaimed poet and memoirist Hettie Jones, balked at moving out so that the Cooper Square Hotel could be built next door. Jones and her fellow tenant had secured artist loft status in the 1980s, and thus had the law on their side. Now, as the luxe Cooper Square Hotel looms beside them and an increasingly hypergentrified Downtown New York surrounds them, the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation (GVSHP), in partnership with Two Boots Foundation, will commemorate 27 Cooper Square's importance as a cultural node during the 1960s.

The 1845 building, as the plaque announces, was the home of several key artistic figures during the 1960s. Quoting EV Grieve (and the email the site received from GVSHP):

In the 1960s, this 1845 former rooming house became a laboratory for artistic, literary and political currents. Writers LeRoi [later Amiri Baraka] and Hettie Jones, their Yugen magazine and Totem Press, musician Archie Shepp and painter Elizabeth Murray all had homes here. The vacant building was transformed into a vital hub of cultural life, attracting leading figures including those from the Beats and the world of jazz. It was also the childhood home of a second generation of East Village artists and thinkers.

GVSHP and Two Boots Foundation will install a plaque on the building at 27 Cooper Square to mark the significance of the site in the artistic legacy of the East Village.

The event's slated speakers included Archie Shepp's son Accra Shepp, a noted photographer, and Hettie Jones, as well as a representative of the GVSHP, and poet and Bowery Poetry Club co-founder Bob Holman. You can watch a video of the dedication on YouTube, and see photos on Flickr. Though cultural producers still live in the area, as Jones pointed out in the 2008 New York Times article on her successful battle against the Cooper Square Hotel, "This used to be an area where people got their start. Now it’s a place to land once you’ve made it." And it's only more so these days, but the plaque will remind people, at least those who stop and read it, that the area was once more, much more, than a hub of global lucre.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Boston Globe Picks Counternarratives + Matthew Cheney on My Sentences

Counternarratives originally appeared roughly two years ago in hardcover, and since then has received a host of reviews, on these shores and across the Atlantic. What has not occurred since July 2015 (and The Wall Street Journal's positive take) was for a major US newspaper to review the book. So it was both surprising and encouraging that the Boston Globe selected Counternarratives, among a host of other books, for its Summer 2017 Reading Picks, and reviewer Anthony Domestico offered one of the better rationales to check out the book, a one-sentence summary that could serve as a perfect little blurb:

"Keene’s story collection is truly radical — in its politics, in its stylistic restlessness, in its rethinking of the myths we tell ourselves about race and sexuality in the history of the Americas."

The Boston Globe blurb
Beach reading? Why not?


It is National Short Story Month--did you know that? I didn't!--and author, blogger and critic Matthew Cheney has chosen to write one of the best short critical assessments of Counternarratives' prose for his friend, Dan Wickett, at the Emerging Writers Network. Titled "Keene Sentences," it provides a perspicuous reading of what he sees the Counternarratives' sentences--and the prose, spreading outward to the stories' structures, and the collection as a whole--undertaking and achieving.   He gets it, and gets it right on target. Here's a quote:
Here, again, deferral: “It was […] the very first thing he saw.” Because of it’s structure, this is not a sentence most readers will absorb fully on one reading. It is a sentence that explodes from the inside, its substance packed in between subject, verb, and object, and as such it enacts many of the ideas of this book — for instance, that the detail and complexity of experience is lost by some ways of telling stories and using language and constructing histories. What Keene is up to in this sentence, and in much of the book generally, parallels some of what Chinua Achebe achieved with Things Fall Apart, reflected in the painful, ironic final sentences of the novel (“One could almost write a whole chapter on him. Perhaps not a whole chapter but a reasonable paragraph, at any rate. There was so much else to include, and one must be firm in cutting out details. He had already chosen the title of the book, after much thought: The Pacification of the Primitive Tribes of the Lower Niger”).
The reference to Achebe's writing I take as the highest praise, and I thank him for this deep and illuminating reading, which is what authors hope for from critics. If you want to read more of Matthew Cheney's writing, you can purchase his Hudson Prize-winning short story collection, Blood: Stories, published by Black Lawrence Press in 2016. A fine review of the award is available here, and you can hear Matthew talking about Blood: Stories on New Hampshire Public Radio.

You can also read his 14-year-long blog, The Mumpsimus, which brims with smart literary and cultural readings and critiques, sharp as a laser but never wielded like a blade. In his most recent post, he writes about watching the films of the late German wunderkind director Rainer Werner Fassbinder now. (I keep thinking and hoping that Fassbinder's aesthetically innovative, critically engaged art and his guerrilla approach to filmmaking will inspire younger generations of queer, especially queer POC, filmmakers, and perhaps that's happening, perhaps on YouTube or Vimeo or another platform, so if anyone knows whether this is the case, please do post a comment.

In other recent posts, Cheney has explored Guido Mazzoni's A Theory of the Novel, and earlier posts walk readers through Samuel Delany's temporally-reversed Dark Reflections, and a book by an author I often recommend to students interested in speculative writing and good storytelling, Kelly Link's Stone Animals. There's a lot more at Mumpsimus, so definitely check it out, and pick up his collection if you can.

Friday, June 16, 2017

Tracy K. Smith New Poet Laureate of the US + Poem

Photo by Rachel Eliza Griffiths
In a marvelous move, the new Librarian of Congress, Carla Hayden, has just named Tracy K. Smith (1972-) as the new Poet Laureate Consultant to the Library of Congress, i.e., Poet Laureate of the US. She is the 22nd person to hold this post, and succeeds acclaimed poet Juan Felipe Herrera, who was the first Latino to serve as in the post. She also will join a long list of distinguished predecessors, including three Black women who have won the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry, as she did: Gwendolyn Brooks, who served--as Consultant for Poetry, before the Poet Laureate post was officially created--in 1985 and 1986; Rita Dove, who served from 1993 through 1995; and Natasha Trethewey, who served from 2012 through 2014.

Tracy is a native of Massachusetts, and grew up in California. I have known her since her undergraduate years, when she first joined the Dark Room Writers Collective as she was finishing up at Harvard, where she studied English and African American Studies. She later attended Columbia, where she received her MFA, and was a Stegner Fellow from 1997 to 1999. Tracy now directs the undergraduate Creative Writing Program at Princeton University, where she is Professor of Creative Writing.

Her poetry has received acclaim from her earliest book, The Body's Question, which received the Cave Canem Prize and was published by Graywolf Press in 2003. Her second book, Duende, earned her the James Laughlin Award from the Academy of American Poets and was published by Graywolf Press in 2007, and her third book, Life on Mars, was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 2012. In 2014, she received the prestigious Fellowship from the Academy of American Poets, given for distinguished achievement. Tracy has also published a highly praised work of nonfiction entitled Ordinary Light: A Memoir, and has a new book of poetry, Wade in the Water, forthcoming next year.

Among the last ten or so Poet Laureates, some, like Trethewey and Herrera, have been very active in taking poetry outside the academy and engaging an array of communities in public programs and projects. About her own aims for the post, Tracy has told the New York Times' Alexandra Alter:
“I’m very excited about the opportunity to take what I consider to be the good news of poetry to parts of the country where literary festivals don’t always go,” she said. “Poetry is something that’s relevant to everyone’s life, whether they’re habitual readers of poetry or not.”
I am excited about her appointment, not only because of her gifts as a poet, teacher and poetry citizen, but particularly because if there is anyone who can negotiate and navigate the challenges a Poet Laureate--or any major figure in the arts--might face in our deeply divided country, particularly with the current President and administration operating in the foreground and background, it's someone like Tracy. Congratulations to her!

Update: Although Tracy noted in the Alter article that she did not plan to "advocate social causes," despite the fact that her work has, from the beginning, demonstrated a complex grasp of the world and social engagement, the following first step is a good sign: On the PBS News Hour's site, Tracy recommends four poetry books to read, and all are not just fine works of craft, but each speaks in a different and necessary way to our current political moment: Solmaz Sharif's Look; Erika L. Sánchez's Lessons on Expulsion; James Richardson's During; and Claudia Rankine's Citizen.


Here's one of Tracy's eponymous poems from Duende, her second collection, my personal favorite of her three poetry books, and perhaps the most formally daring, borrowed from the Poets.Org (Academy of American Poets) website. (One poet who comes to mind whenever I read Tracy's Duende poems but whose name I've never seen mentioned in conjunction with hers is Jay Wright, oddly enough.) The voice in this collection's poems immediately grabbed me. Tracy's lyric transformations, the dramatic movement in these poems, which follows not just the actions the poems describe but the pathways of feeling flowing throughout them, show incredible skill, and often in this volume, as here, cast a spell.


The earth is dry and they live wanting.
Each with a small reservoir
Of furious music heavy in the throat.
They drag it out and with nails in their feet
Coax the night into being. Brief believing.
A skirt shimmering with sequins and lies.
And in this night that is not night,
Each word is a wish, each phrase
A shape their bodies ache to fill—
         I’m going to braid my hair
     Braid many colors into my hair
         I’ll put a long braid in my hair
     And write your name there
They defy gravity to feel tugged back.
The clatter, the mad slap of landing.
And not just them. Not just
The ramshackle family, the tíos,
Primitos, not just the bailaor
Whose heels have notched
And hammered time
So the hours flow in place
Like a tin river, marking
Only what once was.
Not just the voices of scraping
Against the river, nor the hands
Nudging them farther, fingers
Like blind birds, palms empty,
Echoing. Not just the women
With sober faces and flowers
In their hair, the ones who dance
As though they’re burying
Memory—one last time—
Beneath them.
               And I hate to do it here.
To set myself heavily beside them.
Not now that they’ve proven
The body a myth, a parable
For what not even language
Moves quickly enough to name.
If I call it pain, and try to touch it
With my hands, my own life,
It lies still and the music thins,
A pulse felt for through garments.
If I lean into the desire it starts from—
If I lean unbuttoned into the blow
Of loss after loss, love tossed
Into the ecstatic void—
It carries me with it farther,
To chords that stretch and bend
Like light through colored glass.
But it races on, toward shadows
Where the world I know
And the world I fear
Threaten to meet.
There is always a road,
The sea, dark hair, dolor.
Always a question
Bigger than itself—
          They say you’re leaving Monday

          Why can’t you leave on Tuesday?

Tracy K. Smith, "Duende" from Duende.
Copyright © 2007 by Tracy K. Smith.
Reprinted by permission of Graywolf Press.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Book Expo America 2017

Part of my book haul (I had Sinclair's
book, so now I have an extra copy)
In 2013 I wrote about my first visit to Book Expo America (BEA), which I'd heard about but never attended. Or had the opportunity to attend, as I usually was in Chicago and Evanston in the spring while BEA was running in New York City. (Ironically BEA initially began in Chicago, though before my time there.) I returned the following year, and then BEA returned to Chicago (and my knees began acting up), so I ended up taking a few years' hiatus from this massive publishing fair. Oddly enough, I did not go either year that Counternarratives appeared, either in hardcover (2015) or paperback (2016) version, though I believe I made up for it by attending a wide array of other book events, from AWP to the Brooklyn Book Fair. In any case, I also gave myself a short reprieve on gorging on free books, which is one of the great benefits of BEA, and a chief reason that, as I witnessed during my prior visits, so many attendees arrive and depart with suitcases, roller bags, and other large mobile containers to haul as many books back home--for their own libraries, public and private ones--as possible.

This year I decided to drop by the Javits Center on the festival's final day primarily to see several events my friend David Barclay Moore was scheduled to participate in. David's debut book, The Stars Beneath Our Feet, is a Middle Grade novel set to appear this September from Random House, and as part of the book launch he was on several panels, including one for "Buzz Authors" (writers singled out as likely to create a buzz among readers this year), and  also participated in a single author book signing in Random House's ample, skillfully arranged publisher's area. (Congratulations again, Dave!) I did get to see David speak about his book with other Middle Grade authors, learning something about the genre in the process, and it was also fun to watch him receive VIP treatment with his book signing, which required a ticket to get in line. When I got to his book signing table, I related the following conversation to him:

Woman #1 (in line across from mine, to her friend, Woman #2): Who are you going to see?
Woman #2 (in line in front of me): David Barclay Moore.
Woman #1: What did he write?
Woman #2: The Stars Beneath Our Feet. Who are you going to see?
Woman #1: Lawrence O'Donnell. The TV show host, on MSNBC.
Woman #2: Oh, OK. Tell him I said hello!

Between David's panel and book-signing, and again towards the end of the afternoon, I wandered around the floor, taking in the various booths and designated sections. I did get to see a bit of Lawrence O'Donnell's conversation with Ed Asner, but unlike at the two previous BEAs, where I happened upon Congressman John Lewis, Tracy Letts, Dick Cavett, and others, they were among the very few already famous people I encountered, and I did not step over the cordon to introduce myself to either one. This year the people at the elite university press booths were indifferent at best, or outright ignored me, but since it was the last day of BEA--with Book Con, a book fan-focused gathering at which books are not free--I followed etiquette by asking whether I could take books, and, receiving neither positive nor negative response, I helped myself to a few. Quite a few clusters of people--agents, booksellers, people selling various services (audio rights, etc.)--were huddled at tables all over the place, so the book business writers and certainly most readers rarely see or think about was clearly on display.

At other presses, particularly the smaller university presses, the non-US ones, and the indies, as well as publishers of graphic texts, comics, children's books, etc., the representatives were very friendly, and I ended up collecting roughly a sizable box's worth, which I hauled around at first in my arms until I commandeered one of the rare book bags I could find--most had already been snapped up, I think, over the previous two days and Friday morning--and then mailed straight to my Rutgers office. I won't detail all the books I picked up, but I will mention one book I did grab, after of course asking and not receiving a "No, don't take it": Chris Kraus's new biography of Kathy Acker, simply titled After Kathy Acker. I had to get this book because I was an enthusiastic reader of Acker's work in my youth, and having read and nearly taught Kraus's I Love Dick, and then having watched Jill Soloway's quirky but addictive TV version, I am now on a sort of Kraus kick, if you can call it that. (I taught Kraus's 2013 novel/memoir Aliens and Anorexia as part of a graduate workshop in the spring of 2016. Some of the students loved it, a few absolutely hated it, but it provoked passionate responses in both cases.)

In general I was looking for another literary diamond, one of those texts I'd happened upon before at BEA, like Craig Steven Wilder's Ebony and Ivy, which rocked my world when I brought it home and read it, and which has gone on to become one of the signal texts of the last few years. I did pick up some gems, including Jordan Abel's Injun (Talonbooks) and Hoa Nguyen's Violet Energy Ingots (Wave Books), both of which made the Canadian shortlist for the Griffin Poetry Prize, and hope to get to some of them before the summer slides into fall. Perhaps because I went on Friday as opposed to the first or second day, and perhaps because it was the afternoon rather than the morning, the fair felt a bit subdued. Certainly some of the booths, like W. W. Norton's, where New Directions' books would usually be, featured shelves stripped bare--by readers, I think--and though I did pass lines for book signings, they were not anything like I remembered in the past. The FedEx office where I mailed my books was packed, though, and as one of the photos below shows, those suitcases were brimming too. Perhaps next year I'll aim to catch more of the readings and events, and maybe I'll bring a suitcase or roller bag. Or maybe not.

David Barclay Moore and his fellow Middle Grade
Buzz Authors: Kamilla Benko, The Unicorn Quest: The Whisper in the Stone;
Molly Ostertag, The Witch Boy; Eucabeth Odhiambo, Auma's Long Run; and
Jake Burt, Greetings From Witness Protection!
Dave, Kamilla and Molly
Filmmaker Ndlela Nkobi, another friend,
recording the panel for posterity
David and fellow Middle Grade authors
One of the displays
The Confucius Institute's books
London Review of Books (LRB) booth
African American Expressions booth
Columbia University Press, Princeton UP, etc.
New books signing tables
Skincare treatments for book lovers
Barron's financial press books
A kiosk with a book signing behind it
Ed Asner (center) and Lawrence O'Donnell (right)
Printing Korea booth
Counterpoint Press/Catapult/Soft Skull
(with one of my incoming student's first
novel prominently displayed above the
head of the man at right!)
Some great books from Coffee House
Press and others (Dawn Lundy Martin's stunner
Good Stock Strange Blood among them)
From Talonbooks
The line for Dave's book signing
Random House scanning badges
 for the book signing

David signing books for his brother
and niece, in from Atlanta
Directing readers to another book signing
David Funches, of Lion Forge Press
Books by Olive Senior and others
(they would not gift me with these)
Graywolf's offerings (including a new
book by Danez Smith)
Kevin Hart, in cardboard form
Readers, checking out books
A subsequent panel, featuring designer
Zac Posen (at right)
This booth had something to do with
L. Ron Hubbard, I think,
hence the person in the costume
Harvard theorist Danielle
Allen's new nonfiction book
about her cousin, Cuz
Packing those suitcases!
The Javits Center Atrium at the end of the day