Saturday, May 30, 2015

In the Garden

Once upon a time when spring rolled around, I would post as soon as possible on this blog about our efforts in the backyard garden. Two winters ago, the extreme cold, which seemed to linger well past its usual , killed off such a large number of our perennials such that we had to start from new in many of the plots, though the sage, the rose bushes, the rhododendron, the lilac tree, and the honeysuckle all survived, as did the river magnolia, which we had cut back because it was creating a canopy not only over our yard, but over our neighbors' too.

This winter was not as harsh, but it was still cold and snowy enough that it devastated several of the plants, including a jasmine tree whose roots froze, and a thriving lavender bush that had flourished for several years when almost every other lavender planting we previously tried struggled. We decided we would replace some of these plants when the weather sufficiently warmed--and I would do my part once my knees were up to the kneeling gardening requires. The spring temperatures, without previous years' rains, finally did arrive and I have felt much better, so we got to work.

So far we have replaced the rosemary and lavender bushes, and C bought a new jasmine bush to implant. (We will probably have to wrap it more carefully this upcoming winter.) C additionally planted a new hydrangea in the back and a new rose bush in the front, both of which are growing, as are the hosta and elephant ears that initially appeared to have been frozen out. He also planted a blueberry plant amidst the strawberries; whether it grows only time will tell, since we've never had much luck with blueberries, except one year when one planting actually grew, only to die off after producing fruit. The blackberry bush once again is thriving, after several years of no fruit and semi-dormancy, and the strawberry patch also is vibrant, spreading its area into our neighbor's yard.

In the little vegetable plot, I have planted plum, cherry, and beefsteak tomatoes, a yearly staple; yellow squash; and pickling tomatoes. At the periphery of the plot, I added several sweet basil plantings, which seem to keep the bugs away. If there are more herbs and vegetables available this Monday at the farmer's market, I plant to get a few more squash, red peppers, cucumbers, and perhaps a few more herbs, like chives and sweet marjoram. Behind the stonecrop in the far back of the yard, lemon balm, and there and under the lilac bush, mint, have reappeared, so we should have enough for tea--and mojitos--by the middle of the summer. Below are a few photos of the garden over the last week.
Roses, in bloom
The new lavender plant
The hardy sage and rosemary
Clematis, flowering
A blood-red rose, and
a clematis flower
A new jasmine bush
(the winter slew the
previous one, behind it) 
L-r: tomatoes of differing kinds,
sweet basil at right
Yellow squash in back,
pickling cucumbers in front
Limelight hydrangea,
with honeysuckle in rear
The back of the yard, which C
transformed into something much
more presentable (climbing 
hydrangeas, elephant ears, hosta)
Rhodendrons, in bloom
Rhododendron buds 
A flame of color 
Blackberry blossoms  
More blackberry blossoms

Friday, May 22, 2015

Counternarratives Now Officially In Stores

Signing first editions
at the Strand Bookstore, in their
Rare Book Room
Last night's reading at the Brooklyn Museum was special not only because of the opportunity to read with friends and fellow writers Erica Doyle and Chris Stackhouse as part of the "Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Unknown Notebooks" exhibit, but also because it occurred on what was my official book publication day!

I have had a few copies since early May, and am thoroughly pleased with the beautiful job that everyone at New Directions did with the book, including some tricky typographical elements that they resolved with aplomb. (It turns out that one very brief story in the collection, "Persons and Places," which features none other that W. E. B. Du Bois and George Santayana, proved a challenge for e-book formatting because of its double columns, which e-books cannot--though apps can--reproduce with ease, except as image files, which means no scrolling, but ND figured out a method for presenting it in e-book format that I'm quite happy with.)

Counternarratives has already begun shipping to readers across the country (and overseas), but it is now officially in bookstores, so if you are so inclined, please drop by your nearest independent bookstore, or even Barnes & Noble, and pick up a copy, and if Amazon is the most convenient option, please order from them. (And if you have a bit of money to spare, buy another recently published work of fiction or poetry to help other authors out.) 

Tynan Kogane, in the Strand
Bookstore's rare book room,
with copies of Counternarratives
A week back, I met up with New Direction's Tynan Kogane at The Strand to sign copies of Counternarratives for their Signed First Editions Subscriptions program, in which store employees select three texts--a work of fiction, a work of young adult fiction, and a work featuring visual art--from which subscribers pick one, 5 or 10 times a year, to be sent to them. It sounds like an excellent program, and if you are building up a library of contemporary literature an optimal way to do so. Many thanks to the Strand and Brianna for picking Counternarratives for this program!

Also airing yesterday was a very brief conversation I participated in with journalist Willis Ryder Arnold for St. Louis Public Radio (WKMU) about Counternarratives. Our discussion focused on the story "Rivers," which flashes forward in the life of Jim from Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, with a few detours into black Roman Catholics and the necessity of challenging master narratives, particularly ones that have become American "truths." I can't listen to my own voice on the radio, but C and others have said it's a good interview, so many thanks to Willis Arnold and everyone at WKMU who edited it into coherence. If you go to the WKMU, you can also hear a brief clip of me reading from "Rivers." Enjoy!

Below is a listing of upcoming readings and conversations I'll be participating in. Please do come out to these events if you can. So far I've also lined up potential readings for the fall in Baltimore and parts west. As more readings materialize I'll let you know, and if you have an open slot in your series, do consider me and Counternarratives

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Brooklyn Museum's "Art off the Wall: Decoding Basquiat" Reading Tonight

King Holiday
(Photo © Randy Pressman)
Tonight, I'll be reading poetry with some of my favorite writers, Erica Doyle, Christopher Stackhouse, and Harmony Holiday, along with the 10-piece band King Holiday, as part of the Brooklyn Museum's "Art off the Wall: 'Decoding Basquiat'" event. This reading and musical performance accompany the Brooklyn Museum's Basquiat: The Unknown Notebooks exhibition, which runs until August 23, 2015. The events begin at 6:30 pm and run for three hours.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPhone

UPDATED: Here are a few images from the reading, which took place in the Brooklyn Museum's vast and rather loud atrium. Upstairs things grew so crowded that we were told people waiting to see the show and hear the band, King Holiday, would probably not get in. Poet Harmony Holiday unfortunately could not join us, but Chris, Erica and I did our thing, and it was encouraging to see some familiar faces on what turned out to be a very busy night for poetry in New York City.

The crowd before we began 
Erica, reading her
poem about gentrification
Chris reading from his
"In Parts" series
Basquiat: The Unknown
Notebooks catalogue

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Congratulations to the 2015 Graduates

2015 Commencement at Rutgers University-Newark,
at the Prudential Center, Newark, NJ
(photo © Rutgers University-Newark Facebook)
When I switched back from teaching on the quarter to the semester system in 2012, I wasn't sure how long it would take me to readjust, but in truth it took no time to reacquaint myself with the fact that May, rather than June, would bring a swift conclusion to the academic year, with final exams and grading compressed into a rapid-fire period, and graduation following swiftly thereafter. (I confess that I do like semesters more--a lot more!--than quarters.)

This year, my sabbatical-sick leave has kept me away from campus for most of the last five months, so the spring academic calendar has remained fairly hazy, but when May rolled in, I knew graduation events would also arrive soon. This past Saturday evening I was able to drop by the celebration for our graduating Rutgers University-Newark MFA students, who received their hoods at a ceremony that afternoon. They, like the rest of the graduating students from all the university's constituent divisions walked at the university-wide Commencement ceremony, which was held at the Prudential Center in Newark on Monday.

Rutgers University-Newark's 2015
Commencement speaker, Earl Lewis,
President of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation
(photo © Rutgers University-Newark Facebook)
Because of the sabbatical I did not advise any MFA or undergraduate students this spring, but I was fortunate to have many of the graduating writers in classes that included last spring's Writers at Newark and last fall's fiction workshop, and I taught some of the departing undergraduates in courses ranging from Foundations of Literary Study to my courses on contemporary African Diasporic Fiction and the Black Arts Movement. Both groups were diverse in every way, and I feel fortunate to be able to say that I have learned as much from them as they from me.

To all of the 2015 Rutgers-Newark MFA graduates, as well as my many undergraduate students who have received their degrees this week, I offer my heartiest and warmest CONGRATULATIONS! I look forward to staying in touch in the years to come, and as I always say to the writers among you, please keep writing!


Over the decade that I taught at Northwestern, I supervised quite a few students: 13 MFA theses as first reader; 11 as second reader; 15 MFA student independent studies; 11 undergraduate creative writing honors theses; 4 undergraduate literature or African American Studies theses; 2 undergraduate internships; 1 MA independent study (which was curtailed when the student was injured in a car accident); and 7 undergraduate creative writing or literature independent studies. These superb students have gone on to do wonderful things in the literary and other worlds, and I treasure having had the opportunity to work with all of them, as I do with all my students, going back to NYU, Brown, and of course, now at Rutgers-Newark.

Yet it was not until a few weeks ago that I could offer congratulations to my last NU MFA thesis advisee, Whitney Youngs, who submitted as her thesis an excerpt of a novel she is writing. I was delighted to serve as her first reader, to read the manuscript through again, and to be able to sign off on her behalf. As a result, Whitney will receive her MFA degree in June! I have watched Whitney grow as a writer and person since she enrolled in an MA/MFA workshop I taught many years ago, and it has been a special pleasure to work with her in shaping and polishing her fiction, especially this novel, which I hope she completes and publishes.

To Whitney, congratulations many times over, and to all my students, including the Northwestern MA/MFA and undergraduate students with whom I worked and who are also receiving their degrees this June, CONGRATULATIONS AND THANK YOU!

Monday, May 18, 2015

On Vanessa Place, Gone With the Wind, and the Limit Point of Certain Conceptual Aesthetics

When it appeared in 1937, Margaret Mitchell's sole novel, Gone With the Wind, was a publishing sensation, selling one million copies in its first six months and winning its author that year's Pulitzer Prize for the Novel, as the fiction category was then known. The book would sell even more copies after the movie version, starring Vivien Leigh and Clark Gable, appeared in 1939 and won its own spate of highest honors, among them Academy Awards for Leigh as Best Actress for her portrayal of Southern belle Scarlett O'Hara; for Victor Fleming as Best Director; and for Selznick International Pictures and Metro-Goldwyn Mayer as the Best Film of the Year. The Academy also broke new ground by nominating, for the first time, and awarding the Oscar to an African American, actress Hattie McDaniel, who reprised Mitchell's novel's "Mammy," who was not just a character in the novel and film but a social archetype and offensive stereotype, with deep roots in the white Southern and broader American racist imaginary. That stereotype, it cannot be emphasized enough, still resonates today.

The film remains an icon of American cinema, its characters, its quotations, and its portrayal of the Civil War and its aftermath seared into the national--and international--consciousness, much like its ideological predecessor, D. W. Griffith's 1915 film, Birth of a Nation, based on white supremacist and arch-segregationist Thomas Dixon's novels, had done with the Reconstruction period in the South. It is not going too far to say that Gone With the Wind's images, its themes, and its revisionist master narrative, like other forms of racist ideas, and visual and material culture, including Blackface minstrelsy, have suffused American popular culture, and exist just beneath the surface of a good portion of what we still see today onscreen and in books. Both Mitchell's novel and the film Gone With the Wind are racist and revisionist in ideological terms, infused with a "Lost Cause," anti-Unionist perspective that can be traced directly back to its author's and the larger Southern society's belief in and justifications for the Confederacy. As that seditionist state's former Vice President, Alexander Stephens, underlined in his Cornerstone Speech of May 1861 in Savannah, Georgia, "[the Confederacy's] foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and normal condition." There you have it, white supremacy and anti-black racism in distilled form, from the viper's mouth itself.

Gone With the Wind, in its cinematic version, retains many aspects of the novel, down to direct quotations of the text, but it is one thing to watch Scarlett, Rhett, Melanie, Ashley, Mammy, and Prissy, among others, cavorting on screen, often beguiling, sometimes cringe-inducing as the entire spectacle, especially the latter characters' scripted, stereotypical and caricatured actions may be, and it is another to read Mitchell's written text, which brims over with her historical revisionism, grotesque depictions of the enslaved African Americans, and her flawed renditions of black speech, including liberal use of the n-word. In 1937, such characterizations and language would have provoked few to no negative responses from white or many black readers, as the book trafficked in white American literary and cultural conventions; today, in a novel or story collection, they would, I trust, spark criticism from critics of all races. That is, unless they were part of an ongoing "conceptual" project that mostly flies under the public radar, with some versions appearing in literary journals, and others in extended, durational form on social media platforms, in which case until someone noticed and paid attention to them, little if any criticism or critique might arise. Then all hell would break lose.


Conceptual art, or more accurately, conceptual artistic practices, have a long provenance that one might date back to various antecedents; from the perspective of Euro-American art, one could point back to Plato's ideal forms, or Kantian formalism, or various experiments in music, the plastic arts, or Medieval and Early Modern forms of group and appropriative writing, or to performances by Modernist and post-Modernist figures on multiple shores of the Atlantic, with the various iterations of Yves Klein, Happenings, Fluxus, socially engaged projects in the US, South America, Europe, and elsewhere, and more formal dematerialization practices and performances of the late 1960s through the 1970s marking "conceptual art" as an established category. In its many guises, conceptual art underlines one of Plato's central aesthetic insights, which is that art gains its power in part because it can be a vehicle for ideas and practices, which is to say, that ideas themselves can be incredibly powerful, and, as Plato warned, dangerous. 

However you chart the genealogy, conceptual practice remains a valuable path in contemporary imaginative culture. Not every conceptual project or action succeeds, however, and none exists outside a given framework or frameworks that do not automatically endow and invest it with value and meaning. Content, form, style, and the project's originators and practitioners (if there are any) matter as much as the contextual frame of the conceptual piece. For example, a conceptual project that plays on the idea of unspeakable but publicly objectionable ideas has a different meaning in a society in which types of speech are banned or criminalized by possible imprisonment or death than it does in a society in which all types of speech are possible, though liable to social sanction. To put it another, self-evident way, no conceptual project is value-free, and all are political in some manner or fashion.

In the case of Kenneth Goldsmith's March 16, 2015 Brown University performance, in which he "remixed" and "read" Michael Brown's autopsy report, the very fact that he, as a wealthy, socially privileged cis-gender straight white male, chose to appropriate and perform the remixed report, within (and despite) the broader and longstanding social and political context of the crisis of police harassment, the prison-industrial context and the New Jim Crow, and the state-sanctioned murder of black people, especially black men, made it an overtly political act. That he remixed it, ending with a riff on the murdered black man's genitalia, to entertain a mostly white audience at one of the nation's most elite universities, underlined the political valence of the performance. The dismemberment and display of black bodies before white audiences has an ugly history in the US, such that one might view Goldsmith's performance as a form of symbolic lynching. Here the appropriate practice was neither "uncreative" nor apolitical; in its commodifying and reifying action-as-spectacle, it reinscribed the violence of Brown's (and other black people's) tragic death and its aftermath, and the erasure of his humanity, in an effort at ironic, clever entertainment. It was thus an act of oppression-as-art that fits well with the logic of white supremacy as it has long functioned in American society. It also broaches the question, beyond this specific conceptual act, of what is the formal manifestation of the sociopolitical philosophy and ethic/aesthetic modus operandi of anti-black racism and white supremacy, and aren't there many such manifestations? Don't we see them all the time?

To perform such an act is Kenneth Goldsmith's right, as an artist and person. He and anyone else should be able to and ought to do whatever they feels brave enough to do. I do not know him, but I would imagine that he even if he did not realize that his actions would brook harsh criticism, once the critiques began he recognized that they weren't going to end, especially if the videotaped version of his performance aired, which is perhaps why he asked that it not be. Perhaps he even has considered the implications of his performance, and asked himself why he did it, why he felt it was necessary, and what he believes it contributed, to the Brown community, to the larger body of art in the US and the world, to his own oeuvre. Meanwhile, since Michael Brown's murder last year and Goldsmith's performance, at least several dozen black people, including Walter Scott in North Charleston, South Carolina, Tony Robinson in Madison, Eric Harris in Tulsa, and Freddie Gray in Baltimore, have been killed by police, and the system that makes such murders possible has not changed, though concerted protests all over the country strive to effect the changes--as opposed the sloganeered "Change"--we badly need and are literally dying for. Perhaps Kenneth Goldsmith has thought about this as well, as have his supporters, who defended this work or remained silent in the face of it, which is, of course, their right.

Every artist takes such risks if she or he dares to do something truly transgressive, but certain forms of transgression are easier and less fraught than others. Given the racist and white supremacist history of the United States, and the ongoing systemic and structural forms of racism that still exist in what some commentators have been pushing to label a post-racial--if not post-racist--society, especially since the first election of Barack Obama in 2008. So it is with attorney, author and artist Vanessa Place's apparently ongoing conceptual project--and I am characterizing it as such, though she may view it differently--involving variations on Margaret Mitchell's novel and the subsequent film version of Gone With the Wind. Although I have contributed reviews to and periodically read Drunken Boat, I had missed her 2006 (?) work of "fiction" in the journal, "Gone with the Wind,". A trip to Germany and encounters with the "multifarious reminders of Nazism" sparked this fiction. In her own words, 
This piece—the gleaning of all passages in Gone With the Wind in which “nigger” features prominently (omitted are other racial epithets or denigrating enactments), then set in a block of text, a slave block—aims to remind white folks of their goings-on and ongoings. Self included, for there is personal guilt there as well, given my family is not just Caucasian American, but Southern, Virginian, as they say, “by the grace of God.” And God’s grace carries with it a certain responsibility for the error of blind loyalty (see, Abraham & Isaac). Too, GWTW is still a very much beloved bit of Americana (Molly Haskell recently published a book on Scarlett O’Hara as feminist icon, and last year’s Best Actress Oscar was announced to the soaring strains of “Tara’s Theme”), with very little attention paid to its blackface, or that its blackface is blackface. Or that, in such texts, characters are to people as people may be to property. So I have stolen Margaret Mitchell’s “niggers” and claim them as my own. In a funny way, I am replicating Huck Finn's dilemma/conversion: to understand that keeping (not turning in runaway) Nigger Jim is stealing, for which one may well go to hell, and to do it anyway.    
There is so much to criticize here, from the idea that this text will remind "white folks of their goings-on and ongoings"--really? did this text have this effect on any of its white readers?--to the personal guilt which elides the larger social and historical guilt, violence and trauma not only of chattel slavery, but of Civil War and post-bellum violence, forms of debt peonage and forced imprisonment, Jim Crowism and de facto and de jure segregation, redlining, and on and on. The elision of the societal and social in favor of the personal is a common liberal gesture, and it fits with a perspective that can call out individual racist moments or events (which is a good thing), but maintains naieveté and innocence before the systems and structures of racism and white supremacy that make white (skin) privilege and power possible, and does not seek to dismantle them.

Moreover, who must be elided or erased for GWTW to be a "much beloved bit of Americana"? Whose graves and bodies must be trampled on, without a second thought? And, as I need not say, not only is it deeply disturbing to hear a queer white woman talking about stealing Mitchell's "'niggers'" and claiming them as her own--in the process commodifying and reifying them--but placing herself in the affective space of the naïf Huck, with his partial "innocence" of the fact that, at one level, as Jane Smiley has pointed out, he was taking his "friend" into ever greater danger, made literal when Jim was re-re-enslaved in Arkansas. In other words, she was reproducing the very power relations she allegedly aimed to be critiquing.

Another version of this project appeared in the July/August issue of Poetry, in which "Miss Scarlett" appears. I will not quote the piece here, but I will reprint the note beneath the poem, which reads as follows:
NOTES: Taken from Prissy’s famous scene in the movie version of Gone with the Wind, Place phonetically transcribes the “unreliable” slave’s words, which are then set in Miltonic couplets. Through the simple act of transcription, Place inverts our relationship to Margaret Mitchell’s best-selling and beloved American epic by prioritizing the formal aspects of language over Mitchell’s famous narrative. With this deconstructive move, Place illuminates the many subtexts embedded in the text concerning plays of power, gender, race, and authorship. By ventriloquizing the slave’s voice as well as Mitchell’s, Place also sets into motion a nexus of questions regarding authorship, leading one to wonder: who is pulling whose strings?
Again, so many issues. A conceptual, which is to say formalist white-gaze gesture, involving the screenplay version (whose authors included the white screenwriters Sidney Howard, Oliver Garrett, Ben Hecht, Jo Swerling, and John Van Druten) of racist author Margaret Mitchell's rendering of purported black speech, is supposed to represent a "deconstrutive move" that reveals subtexts in the text concerning power, gender, race, and authorship. As if those are not already legible in the very fact of who wrote the novel and the screenplay, and who directed the film, let alone the life experiences of any black American person living in the United States in the era in which the film was set, or was made! Quite a few people reading Mitchell's novel, or watching the film, or reading Place's poem, realize quite clearly "who is pulling whose strings." The question is, who doesn't? Or who isn't even being considered--who is being elided and effaced?--in the conceptualization Place's poem engages and enacts?

Which brings me to the most recent manifestation, in my viewing, of this project, Place's durational tweeting of Mitchell's novel's text. As part of this effort, Place replaced her Twitter avatar with an image of Hattie McDaniel as Mammy, and featured an image of a minstrel "Mammy" featured on the cover of the sheet music for Martin Saxx's 1899 song "Jemima's Wedding Day," visible on Brown University's online library depository.

I do not follow Place on Twitter, so I had missed it until I noticed that the Mongrel Coalition Against Gringpo not only had rightly called attention to it (and has forcefully critiqued the entire Gringpo biz, as have others in academic and non-academic forums), but was seeking to get the Associated Writing Programs to rethink Place's role as an official arbiter of the panels at next year's annual AWP conference in Los Angeles. Many others joined in the effort, on Twitter, Facebook, and elsewhere. (This effort, and a petition initiated by Tom Volpert, appears to have succeeded.)

As I noted on Twitter, I believe Place, like Goldsmith, has the right to post such things, and if she feels compelled to continue doing so, she should. Their supporters should continue to support them, and make arguments on their behalf as they see fit. I do not believe in censorship, and she or anyone else ought to say whatever she likes, however offensive to one or many groups, with an awareness of what the effects of such behavior are, as well as the potential consequences might be. In the case of the tweets and the petition, it struck me as valid to call AWP's attention to the fact in that someone engaging in repeatedly replicating racist speech, whether singly or in multiple forms, whatever the vehicle, might not be the right person to make judgements about the panel submissions of people targeted by or whose panel topics, ideas and themes were the targets of the racist speech, but that was a decision for AWP and any organization to make.

Most importantly, though, I think it is crucial to call racist speech what it is and not dance around it. and as I stated at the Thinking Its Presence conference at the University of Montana in Missoula, it is especially incumbent upon white people, especially progressive white people and allies in the anti-racist cause, to publicly call out not just personal instances of racism, but to actively critique white supremacy and its effects. Even at the cost of the privileges and power it conveys. While it might be theoretical or conceptual to some people, I and many millions of other people have to deal with the reality of racism and white supremacy as part of our daily life experiences. An onslaught or even single instance of racist speech--or homophobic, or sexist and misogynistic, or ableist speech, to give other examples--whether spewed by a human being standing before you or appearing daily in a Twitter feed, on a news website, on blogs, or wherever, is quite different for people who are the targets and objects of such invective.


What is the limit point of conceptual practice of this sort? Does such conceptual acts really and truly represent a counterstatement or argument to the implicit ideological violence and trauma of the source idea--and text, in the case of the projects--when it reinscribes and commodifies that violence and trauma? How does it undermine or deconstruct the social, political and economic relations that make such violence and trauma possible? Let me ask again: what is the formal manifestation of the sociopolitical philosophy and ethic/aesthetic modus operandi of anti-black racism and white supremacy? Are not the multiple forms of literary and cultural apartheid today, among other tangible artifacts, so frequently and casually deployed and allegedly unintentional, not part of the larger American ideological matrix whose corollary was the Nazism Place rightly noted to be still evident, in various ways, in Germany? What is the terminus in terms of extremity? These are not questions with easy answers, but if we are exploring the possibility of conceptual aesthetics, we should be asking them.

They come down once again, I would argue, to the factors I enumerated above, chief among them to the social, political and cultural contexts in which the concept act or project is enacted. Under what contexts would reading Michael Brown's autopsy report have been acceptable, or the reinscription been acceptable? And to whom? You could say that if a member of Michael Brown's family, or protesters speaking against his murder, made the decision to perform a verbal re-autopsy, you might have a case that would stand up. That is not what happened in the case of Goldsmith. What about retweeting Gone With the Wind? Place, in her book Tragodia 1: Statement of Facts, for example, presented horrifying accounts, drawn from real court transcripts, of sex crimes cases. Did this text go too far? Or did the justifications of Place's aims for this material and project suffice?

I also was wondering whether another artist's next step, after Place has exhausted the storehouse of Gone With the Wind, would be another text from the vast trove of racist Americana, with black Americans or black people in general, as its target, which would be in keeping, as I said above in relation to Goldsmith's text, with this society's white supremacist and anti-black racist social and political logic. Would it even be ironic in the face of the revealed phantasm--how many more black people have to be shot dead by cops? How many attempts at striking down voting laws need to be pushed and passed by state legislatures, and ratified by the US Supreme Court? how much resegregation, disinvestment and displacement through gentrification needs to occur?--of post-raciality (if not post-racism). Indeed, since Place sought to call attention to racism by enacting it in her Drunken Boat poem, if she or someone else wanted to continue along this trajectory, would not another anti-black racist text be appropriate? Why not go to one of the American fonts, like Thomas Dixon, or William Pierce themselves?

Or could the textual target be other racial or ethnic minorities in the US? Would it be mixed race people, who have long been a hobbyhorse of white supremacists? Would it be Asian Americans, or Arab Americans or Indigenous peoples, all of whose bodies have been historically subject to state violence, repression and oppression in the US? What about other socially or politically targeted or marginal people in the US, like LGBTIQs, or undocumented people, or differently abled people, especially people of color intersectionally embodying more than one of these categories? Would it be a text that parodied or singled out religious minorities, like Muslims? Would not any of these targets, if not as easy as going after black people, nevertheless be expected?

Would any of the conceptualists dare engage in the very anti-Semitism whose "formal manifestation" as sociopolitical philosophy and ethical/aesthetic modus operandi, as Place pointed out in her Drunken Boat "Artist's Statement," was Nazism? Why would anyone feel the compulsion to do this, and how would she explain it? Would a conceptualist dare tweet or make "fictions" or poems from Mein Kampf, or the extreme racist text The Protocols of the Elders of Zion? Would this represent a limit point, and how would not just the artist, but supporters and friend react to the certain criticism to follow? Would any mainstream national or international institution hesitate, even for a second, to respond to such a provocation? Would that close the book on this strain of conceptual practice temporarily, or for good? 

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Remembering B. B. King

It felt momentarily like a light went out in the world when Riley B.--"B. B."--King (b. September 16, 1925, near Itta Bena, Mississippi) passed away last Thursday. One of the consummate and best known musicians of his generation, he excelled as a songwriter, singer, and guitarist in a range of musical genres, though he was without a doubt most renowned for his skills as a bluesman and as a pioneering instrumentalist who influenced several generations of blues, R&B and rock & roll guitarists, including Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page. His skillful use of vibrato in his solos, and his style of singing, which matched restraint and deep emotion, are unforgettable once you have heard them. It is no surprise that he gained the nickname "The King of the Blues" and that he was considered one of the "Three Kings of the Blues," along with the late Albert King and the late Freddie King.

King grew up in Indianola and Kilmichael, Mississippi, the home of many of the greatest artists working in the blues, and sang in the church choir as a child, his immersion in church music evident to the very end. Self-taught on the guitar, he began performing as a traveling guitarist with the King John's Quartet while still a teenager, and eventually began to make a name for himself on the radio while playing in Memphis, Tennessee, another major home for the blues and black music. While DJing at WDIA radio station in Memphis, King gained the nickname "Beale Street Blues Boy," which became "Blues Boy" and then the lasting "B. B." by which he would be revered by music lovers across the globe. Although he began playing on an acoustic guitar, he would eventually shift to an electric guitar and develop the style that grew into his trademark.

By the 1950s King had formed his own bands, started composing, recording and touring the US, and garnering fame with the then burgeoning genre of rhythm and blues. Among his major hits from this era were "Woke Up This Morning," "Whole Lotta Love," "Every Day I Have the Blues," "Sweet Little Angel," and "Please Love Me," a number of which were later covered to great acclaim by other musicians. King founded his own record label in Memphis, Blues Boys Kingdom in 1956, allowing him to record and promote other important R&B and blues musicians. As his fame grew, he reached new audiences, appearing as the opening act for the Rolling Stones 1969 tour, recording with U2, Clapton and others, and charting on the R&B and pop charts, but he never lost his deep connection to blues or his distinctive performing style, as recordings and video clips up to the end of his life attest.

B. B. King received a Grammy Award in 1970, the National Medal of the Arts from President George H. W. Bush in 1990, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President George W. Bush in 2006. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987. In its 2011 list of the 100 greatest guitarists of all time, Rolling Stone ranked him #6. On May 1 of this year, he announced that he was in hospice care, having battled complications caused by diabetes for several decades.

We have his music, though, so that light still burns. Below are a few clips of King performing, from the late 1960s through 2011. They take me back to my childhood and adolescence, when my father would put his records on, sharing his love of the King's music and pointing out one of the sources of the r&b and rock & roll I was listening to. RIP, B. B. King, and do watch and enjoy the YouTube lips.

B. B. King giving what he felt was one of his best recorded performances

Sounding Out (1972)

B. B. King, live in Africa

B. B. King on Ralph Gleason's Jazz Casual, in 1968

B. B. King performing "The Thrill Is Gone," in 1971

B. B. King and Buddy Guy, performing "I Can't Quit You Baby"

B. B. King, with Stevie Wonder and John Legend, performing "The Thrill Is Gone," in 2009

B. B. King, Eric Clapton, Buddy Guy, and Jimmy Vaughan, performing "Rock Me Baby"

Friday, May 15, 2015

"Rivers" in VICE + "The Lions" (& Interview) in The Offing

Brazos (de) Santiago, Texas, where
the final battle of the US Civil War occurred
One of the stories in Counternarratives, "Rivers," is also one of the riskiest. Not because of its form or style, but because it takes up the thread of--and takes on, it's fair to say--one of the greatest writers and books in American literature, Mark Twain's 1885 novel The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Or, more precisely, it revisits one of that novel's central characters, the enslaved man Jim, without whose presence the novel could not exist, but whose perspective throughout it remains mostly on the periphery, except in rare glimpses that are played for comedy.

My goal with the story was not so much to revise Twain's novel, whose main story stays mostly offstage in "Rivers," but rather to imagine Jim's life, particularly after freedom, his freedom, both the convenient legal version given by Twain and whatever subsequent freedom(s) Jim earned himself. Before the novel appears next week, thanks to VICE magazine and its editors, and New Directions, you can read "Rivers" in The VICE Reader and see where the character of Jim, as well as Huckleberry, led me, discover the significance of the story's title, and find out what it was like to participate in the final battle of the U.S. Civil War. Accompanying the story are photographer Alec Magnum's stunning, stirring photos from his series "Sleeping by the Mississippi."


In another fascinating coincidence, another story in Counternarratives, "The Lions," appeared this week in The Offing, the new literary publication of the Los Angeles Review of Books. About "The Lions" I'll say only that it is the last story in the collection and deeply disturbing. There are many inspirations for each of the characters, which is one reason neither is named, and you can take your pick about who seems to fit which role. (It is set in contemporary Africa, but could take place, with some adjustments, all over the globe.) Many thanks to the editors at The Offing and at New Directions.

Accompanying the story is a brief online interview, "No Whitewash," on The Offing's Tumblr that Bix Gabriel conducted with me, about the new collection and this collection, so please do check it out. (Thank you, Bix!)

A snippet:

Other stories or aspects of the book you’d like to readers to know about?
Spirituality and religion, in their multiple manifestations, flow throughout many of the stories, and some, like “A Letter on the Trials of the Counterreformation in New Lisbon,” turn in part on the clash between spiritual systems, which are also systems of knowledge. What does it mean to know, and can knowledge lead to freedom? Liberty and fugitivity are throughlines in the text. How might freedom be lived, embodied? Also, queerness in the many senses of that term is another current throughout all of these stories. Lastly, I hope it’s clear that I had a lot of fun creating and then following the stories of many of these characters.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Counternarratives News & Readings

With the new book,
at New Directions'
offices (selfie)
With the publication date just one week away, positive advance notice for Counternarratives thankfully continues to roll in. Last week, Vanity Fair (!) chose the collection for its "Springs Reads for Parks and Picnics" list. It is in excellent company, with new books by my former Northwestern colleague Aleksandar Hemon; the late authors of the novel that became Andrei Tarkovsky's film Stalker, Boris and Arkady Strugatsky; the highly regard fiction writer Jim Shepard; and Nell Zink, whose debut novel The Wallcreeper, from small indie publisher Dorothy Project, has been a sensation; and the extraordinary Anne Carson, whose Antigonick, a retelling of the Sophokles' Antigone, is being reissued in paperback with new illustrations.

Like the most recent review in Harper's, this brief one was laudatory, saying that
the latest work by John Keene, the award-winning novelist, poet, translator, and professor, has been accruing buzz for months. A book of “stories and novellas” that spans from the 17th century to present day, Keene’s ambitious, confident storytelling is matched by his complex, evocative, and compelling voice: in one story, Jim, a free man, and Huckleberry Finn re-unite; in 1920s New York, Langston Hughes and Xavier Villaurrutia, the Mexican poet, have an intriguing meeting; a slave escapes his captors during the American revolution. Keene finds inspiration in newspaper clippings, memoirs, and history, and anchors them in the eternal, universal, and mystical. 
To that I say: Thank you, Vanity Fair!

Also, at Library Journal Barbara Hoffert chose Counternarratives for its Spring/Summer list of "12 New Collections from Writers to Watch." Thanks, Library Journal!

Recent Readings

Photo by Jeff Beck
On March 24, at the invitation of poet, critic and Dean Dr. Jeffrey Beck, I read at Kean University, in Union, just down the road from Rutgers-Newark. I'd never been to Kean before, so I appreciated the opportunity to share my work there.  The reading brought out a good crowd, and afterwards Jeff led a Q&A that focused on many aspects not only of the story I read, "Cold," from Counternarratives, but on the collection and my prior published work.

His questions were thoughtful and provocative, as were those of the audience members, and made me think about elements of the stories and my work in general I had not extensively considered. The event was taped, so I hope the transcript will be publicly available. Many thanks to Jeff and to Kean University and the program's sponsors!

Photo by IRADAC
Last month, on April 29, I was invited to delivered the annual Audre Lorde/Essex Hemphill Memorial Lecture at the City University of New York Graduate Center, under the auspices of the Institute for Research on the African Diaspora in the Americas and the Caribbean (IRADAC).

Previous Lorde/Hemphill Memorial Lectures include Hortense Spillers, Cheryl Clarke, and Thomas Glave. After some introductory remarks (and a little competition from a raucous Rent Stabilization meeting in the auditorium next door), I read the story "Blues," in Counternarratives, which felt especially appropriate for the event.

Reading under the auspices of Audre Lorde and Essex Hemphill, two of my heroes--and I noted in my remarks that I had the incredible fortune to meet and interview Essex at the Dark Room House a few years before he passed away--was an honor I will always cherish. Many thanks to all who came out, thanks for the great post-reading questions and commentary, and deep thanks especially to Robert F. Reid-Pharr, director of IRADAC, for the invitation and his hosting, and to Zee Dempster, for ensuring that everything ran smoothly and her patience and kindness.

Upcoming Readings

On June 2, I'll be reading and in conversation with Jeffrey Renard Allen, at Community Bookstore in Brooklyn, at 7 pm, and on July 1, I'll be reading and in conversation with Christine Smallwood, New Books Editor at Harpers, at McNally Jackson Bookstore in SoHo.

On May 21, I'll be reading poetry with some of my favorite writers, Erica Doyle, Christopher Stackhouse, and Harmony Holiday, along with the 10-piece band King Holiday, as part of the Brooklyn Museum's "Art off the Wall: 'Decoding Basquiat'" event. This reading and musical performance accompany the Brooklyn Museum's Basquiat: The Unknown Notebooks exhibition, which runs until August 23, 2015. The events begin at 6:30 pm and run for three hours.