Tuesday, January 28, 2014

A New Year, A New Semester

First week of class

The other day I was telling a colleague that I had only been at Rutgers-Newark since the fall of 2012, and he expressed surprise, because, he told me, it seemed to him that I'd been on the faculty for much longer. But it really has only been a year and a half, and I now enter my fourth full teaching semester, summers and the winter breaks not included, which is to say, my second year. Since arriving I have not taught the same course twice; I have taught undergraduate and graduate literature and creative writing courses; I have taught courses geared primarily towards English, African American and African Studies, and creative writing students; and I have taught courses that bridged these various disciplines. Each of these classes has included its share of challenges, some intellectual, some pedagogical, but all have turned out to be quite enjoyable, and one of the greatest benefits of each one has been the students I have had the good fortune to work with. Thus far I have not supervised or work with teaching assistant, and my smallest classes have totaled 12 students (graduate) and 15 or so (undergraduate), while my largest class, last spring, had 40 students (which was, nevertheless, a manageable number).

This spring my courses are Writers at Newark II and History and Myth in Contemporary African Diasporic Fiction. The former is a graduate course that entails reading, discussing and writing about the work of writers who will be visiting and reading in Rutgers-Newark's MFA annual literary series. This spring semester's visitors include two program colleagues, Rachel Hadas (poet, nonfiction writer and scholar) and Jim Goodman (historian and nonfiction writer), as well as Richard Blanco (the inaugural poet), Andew Solomon (the nonfiction writer), Natasha Trethewey (US Poet Laureate), Edward P. Jones (the Pulitzer Prize-winning fiction writer), Matthea Harvey (poet), and George Saunders (fiction writer). I have taught the work of several of these writers before, and appreciate the mix of genres, which mirrors the mix of interests the MFA students bring to the program. We just finished lively discussions of Rachel's The Golden Road: Poems (TriQuarterly Books/Northwestern University Press, 2012) and Jim's But Where Is the Lamb?: Imagining the Story of Abraham and Isaac (Schocken, 2013). Next we will be discussing Richard Blanco's Looking for the Gulf Motel (Pittsburgh, 2012) and Andrew Solomon's Far From the Tree: Parents, Children and the Search for Identity (Scribner, 2013). Both writers will be on campus later this month, and I'm looking forward to meeting and hearing both of them.

My second course is a new version of an undergraduate English course I taught several times at Northwestern, though I have updated it with different texts, trimmed away a lot of what I realized was somewhat unwieldy theoretical material, and recalibrated it so that it better meets the needs of my current students. It officially falls under the rubric of Studies in African and Caribbean Literatures, and is crosslisted both in English and AAAS, though it is more than any thing a Comparative Literature class. Whereas in the past I would sometimes shoehorn as many as 10 books into a term's reading, along with a bookshelf's worth of background and theoretical articles (on the quarter system, no less!--what was I thinking?--my former students in that course and others all certainly deserved medals for endurance and fortitude), I have pared that number down to 7 novels, with a number of short stories mixed in. The writers we're reading include: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Nana Ekua Brew-Hammond, Edwidge Danticat, Nalo Hopkinson, Ana Maurine Lara, Alain Mabanckou, Zakes Mda, ZZ PackerIshmael Reed, Yvonne Denis Rosario, and Jean Wyllys, as well as one of my own brief stories, with short theoretical articles by Natalie Zemon Davis, Robin D. G. Kelley, Claude Lévi-Strauss, and Colin Palmer. So far the course is going well, and several new students have signed in, so it should be an intellectually enriching experience for them (I hope) and me.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

The Snowstorm (Thundarsnortex)

Cold I was expecting. For the last few days the weather forecasters were predicting temperatures in the mid-20s and lower for this upcoming week, the first of the new spring semester, so I have made sure to have longjohns, ski gloves and cap, a heavy wool scarf, and other Chicago-level weather essentials ready. Then, yesterday, I think C and I caught an evening news broadcast that announced a major storm would be blowing through, beginning in the afternoon. Major it is, but the thundersnow arrived in Jersey City this morning.  Snow has steadily fallen, horizontally, and by noon I received an email alerting me that after 3 pm all Rutgers campuses would close for the day.

The university is supposed to open tomorrow at 10 am. We'll see. If the still-falling snow and polar vortex conditions--thundarsnortex, I think Gothamist labeled it--continue, I may not teach my first class until Thursday. A snowplow has visited our street twice so far, a very good sign, but this afternoon I took the light rail, which was running without a hitch, to downtown, to make sure it was running in preparation for tomorrow, hit the post office, and get out and about. The main streets also appear to be ploughed but outside those, here downtown, some of the streets remain untouched. The snowfall is so thick that it's enfolding the tops of our local skyscrapers and lower a curtain such that you cannot even see a yard across the Hudson. Somehow, though, the seabirds, soaring in undulating lines across the water's shirring surface, know where they're heading.

The Hudson River, with its head of snow (Manhattan, usually visible, is straight ahead)
Exchange Place, looking toward the ferry terminal to Manhattan
The parking lot near Harsimus cove
Near Exchange Place
The light rail platform and tracks

Monday, January 20, 2014

Two Events in Chicago: New Translation & Red Rover Series Vulnerable Rumble Performance

UPDATED: See: corrected "Codes of Vulnerability."

January, to those in the literary studies and related fields, means the annual conference of the Modern Language Association (MLA). This year's gathering took place in Chicago, but instead of heading to give a paper, sit on a hiring committee or interview for a job, I headed to attend two off-site events, one focused on translation and organized by Patrick Durgin, a poet and publisher of Kenning Editions on January 10, the second an experimental reading that the Red Rover Series organized at the Outer Space Studios in Wicker Park on January 11. Given the bad run of weather in the Midwest and more than a decade of familiarity with sudden snowstorms and treacherously icy runways, I was concerned about whether I would even get there by the time of my evening event, and my concern was not misplaced, because the first leg of my connecting flight, from Newark to Philadelphia, was delayed by 1 1/2 hours, which meant that I had to run--literally, sprint, with my bad knees--to my departing gate, which in Philadelphia's airport requires transport via a winding, slow bus! I barely made the flight (by minutes), landed in Chicago, picked up my rental car, and then spent 2 1/2 hours in driving iced rain, in part because I hopped on the expressway and a fire on a CTA train (on which my cousin's husband was riding to his job at the airport!) necessitated a partial shutdown of the highway, which meant that after being stuck in gluelike traffic I had to divert via local roads to my hotel, gliding across sheets of ice, past mountains of snow (Chicago had gotten 9 inches in its last snowfalls) and amidst crazy driving....I arrived at my first scheduled event a bit out of harried, but thankfully, in one piece, and on time (7:30 pm).

The translation event, pithily titled New Translation, was held at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago's Sharp Building on Friday. The translators included Nathanaël (speaking, with her usual cogency and grace, about translating Hervé Guibert from French), Anna Deeny (speaking about translating several different Hispanophone writers, including Alejandra Pizarnik and Raúl Zurita from Spanish), Daniel Borzutzky (speaking about translating Zurita and Gabriel Soto Román from Spanish), Urayoán Noel (speaking about translating Amanda Berenguer's "concrete poetry," which he defined in relation to the usual connotations of this term, from Spanish), Jonathan Stalling (speaking about several different authors from Chinese and his creation of a "phonotactic" structure to do so), Jennifer Scappettone (speaking about translating F. T. Marinetti's "aerofiction" and "aeropoetry" from Italian), Joshua Clover (speaking about translating--which he called the "last gasp of close reading"--Jean-Marie Gleize from French), and I. Translator Johannes Göransson was unable to attend. 

The event unfolded without a moderator; we were to time ourselves, reading a small amount of our translations and speaking about the process and anything else related to the topic, theoretic, critical, scholarly, or otherwise. With 8 translators, however, things went long, though everyone offered up insightful comments about their practice and the texts they were translating. Daniel Borzutzky in particular offered one of the most clarifying presentations, linking our presence in Chicago to the Chicago School of Economics, which used Chile, Raúl Zurita's and Daniel's native country, then under the control of a military dictatorship, as its testing ground, with sometimes disastrous, often problematic results (its Social Security program, its huge inequality gap several decades ago, etc.), and was now using turning those same neoliberal policies back on the US, in particular Chicago, under the tenure of "liberal" Democratic mayor Rahm Emanuel. Another really interesting point he made, echoed by others, was how transgressive Zurita's writing about nature was, in light of the Pinochet dictatorship and its severe censorial constraints.

I ended up going last, and so restricted my comments to the minimum, instead reading a few sections of Hilst as well as a little of her Portuguese to convey the rhythmic and sonic challenges her work posed even for Lusophones reading it aloud. I also noted how she played with the idea contained in the word "oco" (hollow, hole) throughout, telling the reader that Stamatius, both through her use of words echoing this one ("coco," "trouco," "toco," "pouco"--all of which contain the sound of "oco," or "OH-koo") and by having one of the protagonists, Stamatius/Tiu, tell the readers he was going into his own "hollow," and then titling the final section of the novel "De outros ocos" ("Of Other Hollows"). I also answered a question about Hilst's use of a pornographic linguistic register and discourse, to which Nathanaël, who with Rachel Gontijo Araújo collaboratively translated Hilst's The Obscene Madame D, added important information. It was an excellent event, and afterwards most of us headed a few doors down for dinner and drinks, and multilingual conversation.

A snapshot of the panel (© Jennifer Scappettone)
Poet, critic and Cal Arts professor Christine Wertheim,
before the event began
The translators, from left: Urayoán Noel, Daniel Borzutzky,
Anna Deeny, looking down, Nathanaël, and assorted attendees
(Joshua Corey is wearing glasses)
More of the attendees (translator Steven Teref sits
next to Christine Wertheim at right)
Patrick Durgin, organizer
Joshua Clover, Jonathan Stalling, Urayoán Noel


The second event that brought me to Chicago was "The Vulnerable Rumble," a reading-performance organized by local poets and activists Jen Karmin and Laura Goldstein, along with Laura Mullen in from Louisiana, as part of their Red Rover Series. Established back in 2005 by Jennifer and Amina Cain, the Red Rover Series has insistently fostered innovative poetic practice and performance or, as the series subtitle states, "[readings that play with reading]." During my decade in Chicago I was fortunate to catch a number of their events and participate in several of them; we even partnered together on May 2011's "Poetry for Labor" event at Haymarket Square downtown. Saturday's gathering, held at the Outer Space Studio, the upstairs artist-run performance space in the Wicker Park neighborhood, was #71, and staged as a special event for (and in response to?) the MLA's theme of "Vulnerable Times," or, in MLA President Marianne Hirsch's words
Vulnerable Times addresses vulnerabilities of life, the planet, and our professional disciplines, in our own time and throughout history. Its aim is to illuminate acts of imagination and forms of solidarity and resistance that promote social change."
As always, Jen, Laura and Laura thought carefully and creatively about this theme, and devised an open, aleatory program that, as I told Carla Harryman (one of the liveliest and most daring participants, whom I'd read for years but never met until this event), felt akin to what one might have encountered decades (the 1960s-1980s) ago, before poetry readings turned into tidy, academic-friendly affairs. Or, as I thought to myself, somewhat like the vibrant performances that Thomas Sayers Ellis thought up from time to time for the Dark Room Writers Collective. 

Some two dozen-plus poets--Kazim AliAmaranth BorsukAmy CatanzanoB. K. FischerChris GlomskiAlan GoldingRob Halpern, Carla Harryman, Lyn Hejinian, Douglas KearneyPhilip Metres, Laura Moriarty, Ladan OsmanDanielle PafundaLily Robert-Foley, Kenyatta RogersHeta RundrenJennifer Scappettone, Evie Shockley, Jonathan StallingDivya Victor, Barrett Watten, Christine Wertheim, Keith Wilson, Ronaldo V. Wilson, and Kate Zambreno, as well as Jen, Laura and Laura--were scheduled to perform. Whether all of us did I cannot say; the poets I know from the list above all did make appearances, but several of I know but never met I cannot say for sure read. At any rate, while Red Rover has more than once presented readings that break the usual form of reading, I could not remember one I'd attended--and none I'd ever participated in--that included so many poets and with such a free-form approach. 

Laura, Jennifer and Laura imaginatively theorized and wrote the event's aims and approach in their "a vulnerable manifesto," which they read from at the evening's start, pointing out "often an order that allows one voice at a time to be heard, or one voice, the automatic discomfort at interruption- the exposure of muted layers that slide up against brains not programmed with patience." And: "if i hold you off for a minute before i must succumb, will i experience the rare sensation of my voice as presence? it's all i can think of in this moment but maybe you will think of more. i think more can happen that we haven't thought of yet, i'm sure." More specifically, all of the participants received a list of nine loose guidelines, or "Codes of Vulnerability," which were also posted around the studio space. 

1. The curators announce the beginning and end of the performance.
2. Readers self-determine the order by choosing when to appear onstage.
3. The evening proceeds by readers interrupting each other to take turns onstage. 
4. Readers can choose to stand in silence, as a signal that they will soon begin.
5. If a reader does not wish to be interrupted, shake head or make a stop signal with hand.
6. Readers can halt or disable their own live readings. 
7. Duets and choral readings are divine, welcome co-readers by waving hands forward.
8. Readers can reappear and read more than once.
9. Strategies are encouraged to respect each reader’s time and space for the work to be heard. 
10. Failure is also encouraged.  See Judith Halberstam’s The Queer Art of Failure,
“Work together. Revel in difference. Fight exploitation. Decode ideology. Invest in resistance.” 
Indication by raising the hand or shaking one's head. Duets and choral readings. Self-halting and disabling. Strategies to encourage reader time. Failure. What principles, and I say that without irony. Oh, if only more poets would internalize many of these! What became clear as the evening proceeded was that many of us did, and rather quickly; there were some who read briefly, some who leapt in and then out, some who paired up more than once but never too long, some who added a theatrical or performative element to change the reading dynamics, and a few who seemed to step right back into the usual holding-of-the-floor at length, as if any other approach would not do. But, as Jennifer said and underlined, even failure at these "codes" was acceptable, so anything went.

One other interesting and important element was the presence of a stool featuring the works of Amiri Baraka, who'd passed away only days before. In a note to participants, Jen Karmin called attention to Baraka's death, and several of us decided that, if we could, we'd honor him by reading his work. To facilitate this for everyone, Jen provided several Baraka texts, including Dutchman, which factored in several times later on, and, I think--though I could have this wrong--The Amiri Baraka Reader. I made a point of creating a .pdf featuring several Baraka poems, as well as my own, and determined that before I read anything I'd written, I'd bring him into the space with me, and for all of us.

There were many highlights, but the event launched with performances that set the tone for what might follow. First, Christine Wertheim, crouched in the front left corner of the room, took one of Jen Karmin's hands (I believe it was Jen's) and began a cry-wail that turned into a series of repeating lines, after which Lily Robert-Foley and Heta Rundren, emerging from their seats along the right wall's floor, rose and began an antiphonal song-chant that instantly shifted the tone and atmosphere. In an order I cannot recall, Kazim Ali moved into the front of the space, and shortly thereafter Doug Kearney glided through the packed crowd reading Amiri Baraka's "Ka'Ba." Someone from Robert Halpern's Music for Porn before Halpern did, reminding me of Halpern's reading last year at Poets House in NYC, and later Halpern himself read from the text himself--or did someone else also read from it? Yes: Lily Robert-Foley.

Amy Catanzano read a long, funny piece that riffed off net-speech. Jonathan Stalling sat and read/sang softly, intently in Chinese. Doug, Ronaldo V. Wilson and Amaranth Borsuk read in tandem, and Lyn Hejinian read twice with others: once with Barrett Watten, and once, towards the night's end, with Jennifer Scappettone, partially to the accompaniment of "Planet Rock" (I think), played by Ronaldo on his computer. Phil Metres, who was sitting beside me, read while on his hands and knees, and tore up and handed out pages from one of his books. I got one and erased some of the words, but I did not read them. His "The Blues of Charles Graner," exploring the horrors of the participants in Abu Ghraib, became:

The Blues

the Christian
but the corrections
officer can't
help love
a grown man
piss him

Later on, B. K. Fischer (I think) read, as Jen Karmin and Evie Shockley pulled at opposite ends of the rope, and then Evie, the floor hers alone, read a powerful poem, playing artfully with repetition, recursion and subtraction. Ronaldo ended the evening wearing a black mask, a paisley scarf wrapped around his head, on his side, as Jen (and Laura G.?) intervened by removing chairs. It was over. We all applauded.

(I should also note that I finally met a poet I'd first heard about when I was 18 years old, from her son,  who was one of the first people I met in my freshman year of college: Lyn Hejinian. A very good friend, Dorothy Wang, who attended the event, had mentioned meeting up with Lyn Hejinian the day before, and said she would be reading at this event, which I almost could not believe--after all these years, after quoting her in my first book, after reading and following her work for decades, I would actually meet this extraordinary poet in the flesh! I finally did meet her, and she was as lovely and gracious as I imagined. So that was another highlight of the evening for me.)

At some point early on, Carla Harryman--celebrating her birthday!--rose and inspected a plastic pot featuring various implements (a jump rope, a cone hat, a kazoo with streamers), and then, with Baraka's Dutchman, interrupted someone reading. There was a chair (visible in the photos below), and when things slowed a bit, I rose, suppressing my anxiety about interrupting anyone and just inserting myself into the proceedings, and, with Baraka's "An Agony. As Now," one of my favorites of his early poems, she and and I went back and forth, she reading Lula's lines from Dutchman, and I channeling Baraka. We performed the exchange, which seemed fitting given the format and the texts. I even felt like Clay/Baraka declaiming! I decided to practice a bit of self-curtailment and near the end of the poem I stopped. Maybe I even uttered this. I think it just felt too strange simply to walk off, though that is what I did. Did someone else join Carla Harryman? Did she stop too? Did anyone raise her or his hand? Did anyone nod a head to bring others up? I want to think someone did. Interruption was less frequent than patience and politeness mixed with volition about taking the floor. It worked.

Later Christine began reading from Dutchman. I thought about another Baraka poem, "SOS." Or "Letter to E. Franklin Frazier," which cuts me to the bone, to read with her. Or the poem I worked on listening to others. Or one of the ones I'd purposefully brought. But I stayed in my seat because some inner mechanism said, you have had your turn, and let others have the floor. So I sat and listened and watched and wrote. But I was utterly in the moment. It was thrilling, in the true sense of that word, and wonderful--full of wonder--in the deep sense of that word too. Like: I wonder if people are also finding this as fun as I am. I wonder if mixed in with the fun is a kind of anxiety about what might come next. I wonder when the poets I know who haven't gone will get up and should I act in some way to ensure they get a chance? I wonder how people are responding to this resetting of power, and authority, and exchange? I wonder if the men will respect the codes? They (we) did, and I thought it a remarkable event. Afterwards others concurred, or that's what I thought I heard. I want to do it again. And in the break I heartily thank Jen, Laura and Laura, and all the other participants as well as everyone else present, in the audience, for making it such a marvelous experience. Because that's what it was. An experience, with the emphasis on the root of that word that links to experiment. As the Red Rover Series has succeeded in pulling off, for nearly ten years.

A few photos (I aimed the lens at the light sources so some of the photos are a bit dark.)

Jennifer Scappettone and Christine Wertheim
Kate Zambreno holding forth
Carla Harryman
Alan Golding
Barrett Watten and Lyn Hejinian
(with Evie Shockley, Danielle Pafunda
and Christine in back)
Amaranth Borsuk, Douglas Kearney
and Ronaldo Wilson
B. K. Fischer, Phil Metres (kneeling)
and Jen Karmin
Some of the performance
Ronaldo V. Wilson
Ronaldo, at the evening's
The door to the wonderful

Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day

Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., from "The Impasse in Racial Relations," from The Trumpet of Conscience, San Francisco: Harper & Row, Co., 1968.

Update: You can listen a newly released audio version of an address Rev. Dr. King Jr. gave in 1962 to the New York State Civil War Centennial Commission at the Park Sheraton Hotel in New York City. He spoke to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation (issued on January 1, 1863), enumerating the history of human rights in the US, and criticizing the nation for not living up the ideals of the Declaration of Independence or Lincoln's proclamation. The New York State Museum has now made the address available.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Publication Updates + Reading @ Word, Jersey City (w/ Vincent Czyz)

In a previous post, I mentioned several forthcoming publications, and I now have the links. First, a snippet of my translation of Hilda Hilst's novel Letters from a Seducer is now live at The White Review: excerpt from "Letters from a Seducer." I recommend browsing all the new posted links, which include Humphrey Davies' translation of an excerpt from Lebanese-Ottoman writer Ahmad Faris al-Shidaq's Leg Over Leg, self-translations of new poems by South African writer Antjie Krog, a snippet of Chinese writer Can Xue's Vertical Motion by Karen Gernant and Chen Zipeng, and an essay, entitled "Afterword: The Death of the Translator," by George Szirtes, poet and translator of Lászlo Krasnahórkai, which should part of the ongoing conversations in translation studies and comparative literature. (If you can find one in a nearby bookstore, I also highly recommend The White Review's Issue No. 9, which includes an interview with Russia's pathbreaking writer Vladimir Sorokin, and visual work by the late experimental filmmaker, poet and artist--and no relation!--Jeff Keen--no relation).

Also, one of the shorter (very brief) stories from my collection Counternarratives is now live at the venerable TriQuarterly, which is now a publication of the Northwestern University MFA Program in Creative Writing. "Mannahatta" imagines the moment in which João Rodrigues (Juan Rodriguez), thought to be the first non-native settler of Manhattan island (and thus New York), makes his decision not to return to the Dutch ship on which he works. I was particularly happy that this story, which I wrote last fall in the midst of teaching and administrating, has been published, and that TriQuarterly, which I have read and admired for many years, is the periodical doing so. Many thanks to them, and the piece includes a brief paragraph about Rodrigues in case you do not know who he is (and we all should).


Last night, at the invitation of poet and Culture Society publisher Zach Barocas, author and Rutgers-Newark alumnus Vincent Czyz and I read at Word Bookstore's new Jersey City branch, which Zach manages. Although the series aims to feature local poets reading poetry, both Vincent and I write prose as well, so we mixed things up a bit, making sure, however, to keep the "lyric" in play. Vincent read first and began with a beautiful prose poem, then read an excerpt of the first story in his collection Adrift in a Vanishing City, which I urge you to check out (and which Samuel R. Delany has praised in an essay on Vincent's work). 

I followed with a brief invocation of Amiri Baraka, then read two short excerpts from the Hilst, including the opening section published in The White Review. I concluded with a brand new poem, "Power," which I partially wrote during the wild, aleatory Red Rover Series reading, "The Vulnerable Rumble," organized and curated by Jennifer KarminLaura Goldstein and Laura Mullen at Outer Space Studio in Chicago as a special event for the Modern Language Association's annual conference. 

We fielded several questions from the good-sized midweek crowd--it's always heartening when people turn out for a reading on a Wednesday evening--and then chatted with attendees afterwards. One young man was seeking to find out ways of using technology to transcribe interviews and espousing ideas about the death of originality, so that when I suggested to him that he check out the work of Kenneth Goldsmith and Craig Dworkin, two names that came immediately to mind, it turned out that he had Goldsmith's Uncreative Writing: Managing Language in a Digital Age (Columbia University Press, 2011) in his pocket! 

Below are a few pictures of Zach and Vincent, and of Word, a store Jersey City and the surrounding area badly needs. Stop in, since it's accessible from all over New Jersey and New York City (it's just steps away from the PATH train stop at Grove Street), catch some of their events, but by all means, please buy some books there and support them if you can.

Zach Barocas, introducing the reading
Vincent Czyz, reading his work
And here are a few pictures from a couple weeks back, I think, shortly after the store's opening in December.
The café section of Word
A browser 
Another booklover 
The well-stocked shelves

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Two Poems: Juan Gelman (RIP)

Juan Gelman, the politically committed and supremely inventive and talented Argentinian poet and winner of the Cervantes Prize, one of the highest for Spanish-language literature, passed away yesterday in Mexico City at the age of 83. Here are two poems by him, the first in translation, the second in Spanish and, according to the Spanish newspaper El país, the last poem he wrote. RIP.

Juan Gelman (from Coffee and
Saturday: Cultura y arte)

and with many birds and their songs in the /
highest part of the mind or head / and rumblings
in it like the sea / or laments /
or winds or movements / suns

that clash / go out / then burn again / or powers
like thousands of animals that track        
up the suburbs of the soul / suffering
terrible ordeals i mean / even so

the soul goes on whole in its quiet state /
or desire / or clear light untouched
by sorrow / scorn / misery /
suffering or ruin / so

what is this peace without vengeance / or memory
of a future heaven / or tenderness
coming down from your hands / spring water
where birds in the highest part of the mind

rally to drink / sing sweetly / or are silent
like light issuing from you / wing
flying softly above war and fatigue
like the flight of passion itself?

Copyright © "Saint Theresa" by Juan Gelman (2014), translated by Hardie St. Martin, from Exquisite Corpse, 2014. All rights reserved.


according to Coffee and Saturday: Cultura y arte, the last poem Gelman wrote, by hand:


Cada día
me acerco más a mi esqueleto.
Se está asomando con razón.
Lo metí en buenas y en feas sin preguntarle nada,
él siempre preguntándome, sin ver
cómo era la dicha o la desdicha,
sin quejarse, sin
distancias efímeras de mí.

Copyright © Juan Gelman, 2014. All rights reserved.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Yayoi Kusama's I Who Have Arrived In Heaven (or the "Impossibility Room") @ David Zwirner

I tried. Four times. Four times. To see Yayoi Kusama's "Infinity Mirrored Room" at David Zwirner Gallery. It was one part of her show "I Who Have Arrived in Heaven." I apparently never came early enough or waited long enough (3 hours was my maximum) online to get into that little slice of heaven. Instead, I experienced a tiny sliver of hell, standing on what felt like non-moving, infinite queues. It was like being in Vladimir Sorokin's novel, but without the charmingly bizarre conversations. 

Except that I nearly got in one time, on the day captured in the photographs below, making my way first directly to the paintings, for which there was no line whatsoever, and slipping ungracefully into the area where a line had curved around itself like an ourobouros, taking my place at the end of it, until a docent and one of the gallery's staff spotted me like a brown bear in a snowy field, and told me that I had to leave. Two young men in front of me had also sneaked in and were told to skedaddle. They split, verbalizing their upset. 

I went back to looking at the paintings, which, though very interesting, were nowhere near as enthralling as the brief glimpse I got of the "Infinity Mirrored Room"--an "Impossibility Room" given the lines, the peeved Zwirner staff, the near maelstrom that filled W. 17th Street one of the days I showed up, as there were not enough cordons or staff to order the lines, and a young woman strode out into the street and began screaming at all of us to go home, to leave, that we would not see the "Infinity Room" today, no possibility, an impossibility, which simply made the people around me ask each other--or me, or the air--if she had lost her mind, because she was offering no other information, she would not even answer questions, as an evidently perturbed young man later did (everyone under 40 is "young" to me now), telling us about the screw-up with the cordons, sawhorses, whatever was meant to keep order. No, she approached, screamed, never letting go of her coffee cup, screamed some more, "You might as well go home because you will not get in," and then disappeared back into the gallery. Maybe she vanished into the "Infinity Mirrored Room." It was like an unannounced performance, but it was not the "Infinity Mirrored Room," so neither I nor many others standing around me budged. At least for another half-hour.

So, the paintings. I'll say only that they were consolation of a sort. But I hope--want, demand--that David Zwirner or someone bring that damned "Infinity Mirrored Room" back. Charge for it. Charge a premium--well, not more than $25, or else it'll be a plaything of the elites, as so much in New York has become. And run it for as long as you can make money. Because you will make money, a lot of it. Or invite someone affiliated with Kusama do so. There are warehouses in Jersey City she could rent. You could make a lot of money. Even Christian Marclay's The Clock, with its limited entrance protocols, appeared in different, staggered editions. Let's do so with that "Infinity Mirrored Room." Maybe I should write a letter to the mayor. Of Jersey City, and New York. That glimpse was bliss. We need more.

The line, wrapping down 10th Ave.,
to see the Yayoi Kusama
"Infinity Room"
The monstrous line (which
punched out into the street)
And now some of Kusama's paintings. I admit, it's really trifling not to have written down the names of paintings, their dates, anything. This feels more like a Tumblr post than a Blogger one. But I was in a state of petulance and having yet again not gotten into that "Infinity Room," so please cut me some slack. The paintings, all in acrylic, all in vibrant colors (a few were more muted and emphasized negative space and color), all with vivid brushwork, all with titles suggesting playful profundity, were BEAUTIFUL, though, and to my untrained eye reminded me a bit of Australian Aboriginal art.

Update: Okay, in my annoyance and laziness when beginning this blog post I did not initially glance at Zwirner's site, which shows images and names for all of the pictures I photographed.

Searching for Love, 2013, Acrylic on canvas
My Heart Soaring in the Sunset, 2013, Acrylic on canvas
All the Love Overflowing, 2013, Acrylic on canvas
Dance Party Night, 2013, Acrylic on canvas
A detail from Dance Party Night
Pensive Night, 2013, Acrylic on canvas
Morning Has Come, 2013, Acrylic on canvas
Green Solitude, 2013, Acrylic on canvas
A Woman with Pink Hair, 2013, Acrylic on canvas
Praying for Peace in the World, 2013, Acrylic on canvas
Brilliance of Life, 2013, and
Standing at the Flower Bed, 2013,
both acrylic on canvas

Saturday, January 11, 2014

RIP Amiri Baraka (1934-2014)

Amiri Baraka (at right), at NYU,
May 3, 2014

"What will be / the sacred words?" - Amiri Baraka

A great light, a fire, a forge has gone out of our literatures, our cultures, our society: Amiri Baraka has passed away. There are many important and a few major living poets, writers, social critics today; fewer still have assumed the mantle of change-agents, have put and continue to place themselves at center of social, political and economic, as well as aesthetic transformation, and done so continuously for most of their lives. The risks are tremendous, the payoff perhaps invisible and too small in personal, let alone broader terms. But Amiri Baraka did. He lived what he thought and believed, even when it was problematic or outright wrong, and in the process he played crucial roles in reframing how we think and see. If we think of him primarily as a poet, we should also consider that his poetry, and a poetics of the self, of the mind, of action, flowed through everything he did, whether it was producing literature across a range of genres (poetry, drama, fiction, essays, speeches, collaborative works, etc.), creating institutions and fighting to keep them alive, serving as a teacher, a professor, an editor, a mentor, a paterfamilias and parent, a polemicist, a friend, a cultural connector, a mage, working with activists of his generation and younger ones, being and living as a revolutionary and liberationist. He took very seriously, embodied, the charge of the ancestors and the principles espoused by W. E. B. DuBois in his famous essay, "Criteria of Negro Art." For Baraka, art and culture were not value-free or worthless, but, as the great Cape Verdean-Guiné-Bissauan poet and freedom fighter Amílcar Cabral pointed out, often weapons, and Amiri Baraka wielded them, when necessary, towards goals and aims far beyond himself or his career.

I first read Amiri Baraka's work in childhood, in an anthology (was it Black Fire!) that my godparents had in their library. In junior high, I am amazed to say, we read his poem "In Memory of Radio (for Lamont Cranston)," which I did not really understand--the radio's centrality to American culture having given way by then to TV--though I did grasp that at some elemental level I was picking up a frequency I had to pay attention to. By the time I graduated from high school I had decided to include a quote by Baraka on my high school senior yearbook page (along with quotes by Gwendolyn Brooks, T. S. Eliot (!) and Archibald MacLeish). Yet again I did not fully grasp what I was quoting--and did not realize until this past spring, when I was teaching my course on the "Black Arts Movement" at Rutgers-Newark that the words came from his introduction, as "Imamu Ameer Baraka," the first name he chose after ceasing to be Everett LeRoi Jones, as he was born in Newark in 1934, to Black Fire!, the landmark anthology of Black Arts Poetry--but something in his words spoke directly to me, almost like a life-force, and if I cannot remember much poetry by heart these days, those words, or a version of them, took root deep inside me.

An excerpt from Amiri Baraka's
"Foreword," from Black Fire!
Later, in college and after, I read quite a bit of Baraka's work, and found some of it deeply upsetting, confounding, enraging, especially his sexism, misogyny and patriarchy, his homophobia, his anti-Semitism; sometimes all of these can be found in just a single of his works, like "Black Art" or the play Mad Heart. Yet I also learned to read Baraka as a person of his time--my own father shared many of the same feelings and ideas, even if he never, expressed them as furiously or eloquently as Baraka, or became a Black Nationalist, Marxist, a Maoist--and to appreciate his deep love of black people, of working and poor people, of people engaged in the struggle whatever their race or ethnicity or gender or sexuality; I came to appreciate his ongoing self-criticism and self-correction, however stuttered it sometimes was, his capacity for reading himself and rethinking his views, and for his courage--and this is one of the greatest gifts Baraka has given us, in addition to the work--his remarkable courage, at speaking out, and then even greater courage in revising and recalibrating his views.
The Black Renaissance Noire panel
at NYU (Barrett, Ismaili, Baraka, Johnson,
Dill, Jess), May 3, 2014
As a writer and artist, I admire his tremendous prodigiousness and fluency, the richness and variability of his works, their capacity to engage the mind and the heart in multiple ways. I admire his critical acuity and facility, his ability to merge creativity and critique in ways that still hold value long after the moment of a given work's conception has passed. I admire the range of his learning and his ability to infuse his art with it. I admire his use of his own life, in multiple ways, as the ground for his art, and his fusion of times of life and art, his performance of his life as a work of political art. Had he merely continued writing only poetry, he still would have been a significant literary figure in the poetic firmament, his first five books alone worth dozens by other poets of his generation. Had he shifted to plays and stopped there, he would have ranked with Adrienne Kennedy as one of the most innovative American and African American playwrights of the 1960s, and with his revolutionary plays that appeared in the late 1960s, he would have cemented his fame alongside Ed Bullins and others. Had he written more fiction, he could have gained significant currency as an innovator in that genre. As a music critic he wrote one of the still salient--foundational--texts on Black music, Blues People: Negro Music in White America, and could have rested on those laurels for the rest of his life. As an essayist he was original from the start, and could have packaged all his essays together and used their afterlife as a calling card, if not to a cushy position somewhere--his battles in and with academe are legendary, though it is in part through his struggles and those of other black literary pioneers that I and many others have our jobs today--then to the lecture circuit. 

Outside of the literary realm, as one of the co-founders of the Black Arts Movement, as one of the political artists engaged in real-world politics in pushing for a national black political convention, as a force in New York and in Newark (New Ark, he labeled) it who helped to elect the latter city's first African American mayor, Kenneth Gibson, he could have operated primarily in the political and social arenas, with identifiable success in his track record. Yet Baraka did all these things and more. It is both the particularities and the holistic quality of his life and work that commend him to us and to the ages. He was that rare thing, the real thing, and even in the works that were less successful--some of the poetry of the 1970s, for example--the force of his drive to work through his vision and understanding, even if a misunderstanding, of the world still burns through.

"Ka 'Ba," from The Amiri Baraka Reader

I feel very fortunate to have met and spoken with Amiri Baraka several times. One story involving him that I have told many times (forgive me for repeating it again) involves a job I had at NYU in the late 1990s, which entailed sometimes going to pick up important visitors for a weeklong summer faculty development program. I was thus sent, via car service, to Newark, to go pick up Amiri Baraka at his home. Off we drove, we arrived at his house, I went in, and met his assistant, and then, we waited. He was getting ready, I believe--I don't think he was feeling his best then--and various people, all friendly, came and went from the living room. I cannot remember if Mrs. Baraka was there, or if I spoke with any of his children--I had met Ras Baraka some years earlier, when I was in my early 20s and with the Dark Room Writers Collective--but I vividly recall him finally appearing from upstairs, and then, we were off. Only we weren't. We had to stop to get his books and pamphlets, from another residence. I began to worry because given the awfulness of New Jersey and New York traffic at the best of times, but especially near rush hour, I could see us being late, possibly very late, and I knew my boss, and my boss's boss, the then-Senior Vice President at NYU, were not going to be happy. But I also had to accommodate our speaker. So as things proceeded at a glacial pace, our car eventually on the road and crawling from Newark through Jersey City to the Holland Tunnel, I sat there beside Baraka, and tried, despite my mounting anxiety, to make small talk with him and his assistant. (I wish I could remember his name.)

What did we talk about? His work, my admiration for him, Ras, black writing, NYU, all sorts of things. It was light and nothing went beyond the surface of my nerves or his politeness. He was not warm, but he also was not rude. I even summoned the brazenness to give him a copy of my first book. At some point, one of my bosses called my cellphone and said, "Where are you? You're late, and the big boss is thinking of firing you on the spot." I pleaded with him and tried to explain what was going on, but knew it was out of his hands. On we crept, inching forward, and Baraka could feel my anxiety, so he asked me what was wrong. I told him, and he urged me not to worry. Finally we arrived at NYU's Cantor Film Center, where he was to give his talk. All my colleagues were lined up at the curb, including the Senior Vice President. (Even she knew how important Baraka was.) The first thing he uttered after getting out of the car and greeting everyone was to defend me and explain why we were so late. He assumed all the blame, and even said something to the effect of "Do not fire him," quite forcefully, as if to preempt what at least one of the higher ups was considering. I apologized profusely and quickly, and then my direct boss said, "Just find out what he needs and bring him into the lecture hall." I accompanied him inside, he said he had to go to the bathroom, I made sure he was okay and he asked me if I was okay, and with that, he went into the packed hall where faculty members from all over the country were waiting, and brought the house down. It was one of the best lectures the program had witnessed, I was told, in its history. I kept my job.
Amiri Baraka, at NYU, May 3, 2014
Last spring I saw Baraka for the last time this past spring when I attended a May 3, 2014 launch reading for the Spring/Summer 2013, Vol 13.1 issue of the journal Black Renaissance Noire, edited by Quincy Troupe. Among the readers were Tyehimba Jess, A. Igoni Barrett, Rashida Ismaili, Lesley Dill, and Jacqueline Johnson. And Amiri Baraka. I thought I had blogged about this, but when I searched my posts it turned out that I hadn't, nor had I at the very least included the photos in my "Random Photos" post. He was fiery, feisty, full of life, referring to the provocative essay he had written on the anthology Angles of Ascent, but more than anything, he was vintage Baraka, a figure who in a few words could bring a room to life. All of the readers were superb, and I was glad that I caught the reading, but I especially wanted to speak with Baraka afterwards, because, since I was teaching his work, so wanted to say hello to him in person after the reading, express on behalf of my students their enthusiasm for him and the ideas of his and the other Black Arts figures that they were encountering, and ask if he would be willing to come speak to my class in the future. Without hesitation, he told me, "Yes." I asked a gentleman who was standing nearby to take our picture, and he only captured our hands, in a shake, though I didn't realize this until afterwards.  I think of that handshake now, and of all that I have gotten from Amiri Baraka, all that we all have received from him over the years, and without hesitation, I can say, Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

Rest in piece, Amiri Baraka (1934-2014).

Amiri Baraka's hand, and mine 

Tuesday, January 07, 2014

Emotional Outreach Project 5.0: Emotional Exercises


Starting tomorrow and throughout January and February, the Emotional Outreach Project 5.0: Emotional Exercises, will be underway at This Red Door @ Kunsthalle Galapagos, in DUMBO, Brooklyn, NY. 

Emotional Exercise Card


January-February 2014

Dear Collaborator:

Thank you so much for agreeing to participate in the "Emotional Outreach Project, 5.0: Emotional Exercises." Previous versions of the "Emotional Outreach Project" have comprised a series of business card-sized vouchers, which we originally distributed in 2002-2003 (in New York, Jersey City and Chicago), 2007 (in New York, Jersey City and Chicago), 2009 (in Cuba, in Spanish), and 2013 (in New York, and for the 4.0 version, in Germany, in English, German and Yiddish). The cards have been distributed free of charge and with disinterest to individuals, under various performative and temporal controls and using specified variables.

This 5.0 version of the "Emotional Outreach Project" marks a change in approach. While maintaining a focus on the emotions and affect, this new version proceeds along the axis of a different but linked conceptual approach, that of the "instruction," a perennial of conceptual and performance art, here mobilized toward the practice and goal of an "emotional exercise," similar in concept but different and distinct in its underlying ideological and belief system from the "spiritual exercises" of ancient Greek philosophers (cf. Pierre Hadot, etc.), those of the Church, particularly those of St. Ignatius of Loyola, or more contemporary versions (cf. Michel Foucault, etc.). As with the previous versions of the "Emotional Outreach Project," this version is electively participatory; the unspoken assumption is that taking a card enters one into the process of participation, collaboration and engagement.

On one side of the cards, in bold black ink, we list a series of discrete, simple, perhaps banal instructions, one per card (the total exceeding 100), which range from "Spend most of one day asking questions. Remain silent, and avoid positive or negative assertions of any sort, unless absolutely necessary (with family members, for your job, etc.). Briefly write up the experience," to "Create an imaginary word that means love, and teach it to someone else. Urge them to teach it and continue the process." Each of the instructions is simple and self-explanatory. Rather than identifying an emotion or emotions in an a priori fashion as the prior vouchers did, these allow the necessary emotions to arise from the performance of the instructions, and any subsequent actions the participant engages in linked to them.

On the flip side the cards now read:

Dear friend, thank you for participating in this emotional exercise. When you have satisfied the instructions on this card, please enclose the card or attach it to a postcard & mail it to: John Keene, Rutgers-Newark, Conklin 321, 175 University Avenue, Newark, NJ 07102
You may also email a copy of the card to: fieldresearchstudygroup@yahoo.com

Thus, participants, having fulfilled the instructions, should return the used cards, either by US Postal service to the name and address--or photographed/scanned to the email address--listed above.

We greatly appreciate your collaboration and participation in this project. Thanks so much, and best wishes for the holidays and New Year,

*Email: fieldresearchstudygroup[AT]yahoo.com