27 April 2007

...or are you just glad to see me?

In honor of New York's 'Poem in Your Pocket Day' today, a poem by Pulitzer Prize Winner Natasha Trethewey, from her book Native Guard


Homo sapiens is the only species to suffer psychological exile. -- E. O. Wilson

I returned to a stand of pines,
bone-thin phalanx

flanking the roadside, tangle
of understory - a dialectic of dark

and light - and magnolias blossoming
like afterthought: each flower

a surrender, white flags draped
among the branches. I returned

to land's end, the swath of coast
clear cut and buried in sand:

mangrove, live oak, gulfweed
razed and replaced by thin palms -

palmettos - symbols of victory
or defiance, over and over

marking this vanquished land. I returned
to a field of cotton, hallowed ground -

as slave legend goes -- each boll
holding the ghosts of generations:

those who measured their days
by the heft of sacks and lengths

of rows, whose sweat flecked the cotton plants
still sewn into our clothes.

I returned to a country battlefield
where colored troops fought and died -

Port Hudson where their black bodies swelled
and blackened beneath the sun - unburied

until earth's green sheet pulled over them,
unmarked by any headstones.

Where the roads, buildings, and monuments
are named to honor the Confederacy,

where that old flag still hangs, I return
to Mississippi, state that made a crime

of me - mulatto, half-breed - native
in my native land, this place they'll bury me.

Native Guard:
Poems by Natasha Trethewey

26 April 2007

Exits and Returns

One of the things I learned, the easiest of lessons, was that the better you do your job, often going against conventional mores, the less popular you are likely to be. (So, if you seek popularity, this is probably not the profession for you.) . . . .

There are a few things I would like to pass on to you as I come near to the end of my career.

One: It's not about fame. By and large, the more famous you are, the less of a journalist you are. Besides, fame does not last. At its best, it is about being paid to learn. For fifty years, I have been paid to go out and ask questions. What a great privilege to be a free reporter in a free society, to be someone whose job is a search for knowledge. What a rare chance to grow as a person. . . .

Nor for that matter, is it about prizes or awards, although these are very nice...Rather, the richness of the profession – and it has been an uncommonly rich life for me – has been in the wonderful collegial friendships I have, many from those Civil Rights and Vietnam Days, right through to the present, the friendship of so many people who care passionately about what kind of a country we are.

When I was young, I wanted to be a witness to important events. That’s one of the reasons I went to the South in the beginning. What I got was a great ticket to sit in on history, far better than I could ever have imagined, and above all, a life where I was never bored...

I want to leave you today with one bit of advice: never, never, never, let them intimidate you. People are always going to try in all kinds of ways. Sheriffs, generals, presidents of universities, presidents of countries, secretaries of defense. Don't let them do it. . . .

Never let them intimidate you. Never. If someone tries, do me a favor and work just a little harder on your story. Do two or three more interviews. Make your story a little better.

David Halberstam, Speech to the Columbia School of Journalism, 18 May 2005:

Again, the bitter sweeness of life: Days after the death of the great journalist David Halberstam, Bill Moyers returned to PBS with the resurrection of Bill Moyer's Journal.

The first show was like a bucket of cold water thrown in the face of those 'Beltway Guys,' the entrenched Washington press corps, delving into how they all seemed to miss the falsehoods and evasions of President Bush's justifications for war in Iraq (the video of the show, "Buying the War," and a transcript are on line). The show pointed out how, in the wake of 9/11, the press like the rest of the nation fell into almost blind patriotism and did not look deeply into the claims the administration was making about Iraq and Saddam Hussein. Later, most reporters seemed content to buy what the White House was selling, without questioning the sources or checking facts. Some -- particularly CNN -- seemed more afraid of being called non-patriotic by (and losing ratings points to) Fox News than they were interested in doing basics of reportage. It was a sad, but illuminating, report, and one I hope journalism schools make all their students watch.

My partner and I are ardent Moyers fans, starting back with his glorious talks with Joseph Campbel, through his time on Now, and the recent 'On Faith and Reason' episodes. So we're in Televised heaven right now, and looking forward to his next reports.

In memoriam, I close with some sharp, on target comments by David Halberstam on the state of the press today from Glenn Greenwald's blog on Salon.com

Those to whom the most is given, the executives of our three networks, have steadily moved away from their greatest responsibilities, which is using their news departments to tell the American people complicated truths, not only about their own country, but about the world around us. . . .

What I think is happening is something extremely serious,nothing less than a change in the value system in a very important part of the news business.

At the core of the old value system was a belief on the part of the men and women who worked in journalism that this was an uncommonly privileged life, that we did not do this for the money -- almost all of us could have made a great deal more money in some other field, but we were uncommonly privileged, free men and free women working for a free press in a free society, beneficiaries of exalted constitutional freedoms, willing, if need be on occasion, to report to the nation things which it did not necessarily want to hear.

What has changed is not the talent and idealism and passion of the journalists out there, but the value system which governs the way they work, and finally what gets in the paper or on the air. . . .

A number of things stand out in the change of values which has come about in the last decade or so. Because of its growing power and influence and because of the ever-greater competition, not just network against network, but network against cable show, the television executive producers have redefined what constitutes news -- often going for stories that television likes to cover, stories which are telegenic, because they have action or are sexy or are tabloid- or scandal-driven.

We have morphed in the larger culture from a somewhat Calvinist society to an entertainment society, and that is reflected in the new norms of television journalism -- where the greatest sin is not to be wrong but to be boring. Because boring means low ratings. And so altogether too many people at the top in the television newsrooms have accepted the new, frillier dictates of the men and women above them in the corporations.

But the quantum change had come with the coming of cable, and the fierce new competition generated by cable news shows, which were primarily about sex, scandal and celebrity. Or celebrity, sex and scandal. Soon, we began to see a willingness on the part of the networks -- their own audience fragmenting, their ratings down -- to embrace, particularly in their magazines, these tabloid values as their own....

Television's gatekeepers, at a time when a fragmenting audience threatens the singular profits of the past, stopped being gatekeepers and began to look the other way on moral and ethical and journalistic issues. Less and less did they accept the old-fashioned charge for what they owed the country.

The viewpoint seemed to be -- from their testing and polling -- that the American people did not want to know what was going on, so why bother them with unwanted facts too soon? So, if we look at the media today, we ought to be aware not just of what we are getting, but what we are not getting; the difference between what is authentic and what is inauthentic in contemporary American life and in the world, with a warning that in this celebrity culture, the forces of the inauthentic are becoming more powerful all the time.

20 April 2007

Poetry Month: Wish List & Must-Read Favorites

Picked up the first half of this idea from Dr Peter Pereira's Blog; the second, complimentary listing I thought up on my own, based on books I read last year. Feel free to 'Tag' yourself and list your 'I gotta get that/You gotta read this' pairings as well.

Five poetry collections you may not have read but certainly must: The collections, for whatever reason, should be a bit off the beaten path.(...deliberately leaving out books by friends/people I know I've yet to get to)

As Elected: Selected Writing by Bp Nichol (Talonbooks)

The Black Reeds by Mark McMorris (University of Georgia Press)

Concerning the Book that is the Body
of the Beloved by Gregory Orr (Copper Canyon Press)

Killarnoe by Sonnet L'abbe (McClelland & Stewart)

Saints of Hysteria: A Half-Century of Collaborative American Poetry, edited by David Trinidad, Denise Duhamel, and Maureen Seaton (Soft Skull Press) -- Idiot that I am, I saw it but didn't buy it at AWP (and it was at a discount even!)

Five poetry collections you have read and think others certainly should read also: The collections, for whatever reason, should be a bit off the beaten path. (...again, leaving out great books by friends/people I know)

Acts of Love by Edgar Gabriel Silex (Curbstone Press)

The Heat Yesterday by Ian Iqbal Rashid (Coach House Press)

Immanent Visitor: Selected Poems Of Jaime Saenz
, Forrest Gander and Kent Johnson, translators (University of California Press)

The Shine Poems by Calvin Forbes (University of Louisiana Press)

The Steam Sequence by Carly Sachs (Washington Writers Publishing House)

Rave Faves -- I'm pretty sure I'm going to be living with these two for a long time:

Every Goodbye Ain't Gone: An Anthology of Innovative Poetry by African Americans, edited by Aldon Lynn Nielsen and Lauri Ramey (University Alabama Press)

Open Field: 30 Contemporary Canadian Poets
, edited by Sina Queyras (Persea Books)

Happy Reading!

18 April 2007

Poem: "Ay ay ay de la grifa negra" by Julia de Burgos

Today's Poetry Month poem is from one of Puerto Rico's greatest poets, Julia de Burgos

Ay ay ay de la grifa negra

Ay ay ay, que soy grifa y pura negra;
grifería en mi pelo, cafrería en mis labios;
y mi chata nariz mozambiquea.

Negra de intacto tinte, lloro y río
la vibración de ser estatua negra;
de ser trozo de noche,
en que mis blancos dientes relampaguean;
y ser negro bejuco
que a lo negro se enreda
y comba el negro nido
en que el cuervo se acuesta.
Negro trozo de negro en que me esculpo,
ay ay ay, que mi estatua es toda negra.

Dícenme que mi abuelo fue el esclavo
por quien el amo dio treinta monedas.
Ay ay ay, que el esclavo fue mi abuelo
es mi pena, es mi pena.
Si hubiera sido el amo,
sería mi vergüenza;
que en los hombres, igual que en las naciones,
si el ser el siervo es no tener derechos,
el ser el amo es no tener conciencia.

Ay ay ay, los pecados del rey blanco
lávelos en perdón la reina negra.
Ay ay ay, que la raza se me fuga
y hacia la raza blanca zumba y vuela
hundirse en su agua clara;
tal vez si la blanca se ensombrará en la negra.

Ay ay ay, que mi negra raza huye
y con la blanca corre a ser trigueña;
¡a ser la del futuro,
fraternidad de América!

Cry of the Kinky Haired Girl

Ay, ay, ay, I am black, pure black;
kinky hair and Kafir lips;
and a flat Mozambican nose.

A jet black woman, I cry and I laugh
at the thrill of being a black statue;
of being a piece of the night, where
my white teeth flash like lightning;
and being a black whip
that is twistes on blackness
to shape the black nest
where the crow lies.
Black piece of blackness where I carve myself
ay, ay, ay, for my statue is all black.

My grandfather was the slave they say
the master bought for thirty pieces of silver.
Ay, ay, ay, my grandfather was the slave
that's my pain, that's my pain.
Had he been the slave master
that would have been my shame;
for among men and among nations,
if the slave has no rights,
the master has no conscience.

Ay, ay, ay, the sins of the white King,
let the black Queen wash them in forgiveness.
Ay, ay, ay, my black race is slipping away
with a buzz toward the white race it flies
to sink in its clear waters;
or perhaps the white race will grow dark in the black.

Ay, ay, ay, my black race is slipping away
running with the white race to become brown;
to become the race of the future,
fraternity of America!

Julia de Burgos, "Ay ay ay de la grifa negra," tr. by Claudette Williams from Daughters of the Diaspora: Afra-Hispanic Writers, edited by Miriam DeCosta-Willis (Ian Randle Publishers, 2003)

We are all Virginia Tech

Nikki Giovanni at the VT Memorial Convocation, 4/17/07

We are Virginia Tech.

We are sad today, and we will be sad for quite a while. We are not moving on, we are embracing our mourning.

We are Virginia Tech.

We are strong enough to stand tall tearlessly, we are brave enough to bend to cry, and we are sad enough to know that we must laugh again.

We are Virginia Tech.

We do not understand this tragedy. We know we did nothing to deserve it, but neither does a child in Africa dying of AIDS, neither do the invisible children walking the night away to avoid being captured by the rogue army, neither does the baby elephant watching his community being devastated for ivory, neither does the Mexican child looking for fresh water, neither does the Appalachian infant killed in the middle of the night in his crib in the home his father built with his own hands being run over by a boulder because the land was destabilized. No one deserves a tragedy.

We are Virginia Tech.

The Hokie Nation embraces our own and reaches out with open heart and hands to those who offer their hearts and minds. We are strong, and brave, and innocent, and unafraid. We are better than we think and not quite what we want to be. We are alive to the imaginations and the possibilities. We will continue to invent the future through our blood and tears and through all our sadness.

We are the Hokies.

We will prevail.

We will prevail.

We will prevail.

We are Virginia Tech.

Addenda 1 (To bring it back home): 76 people have been murdered in the City of Baltimore as of Tuesday March 15, 2007

Addenda 2 (To talk about what some have called the '800 pound gorilla in the room Nikki didn't have to mention, thanks to the presence of George W Bush in Blacksburg'): Tim Grieve of Salon.com's "War Room" notes this:

From Blacksburg to Baghdad

We know that Baghdad, Iraq, is a long way from Blacksburg, Va., and we don't mean to take anything away from the tragedy that struck this week at Virginia Tech. But still, we've got to ask: How much airtime will the networks commit -- how many convocations will George W. Bush attend -- to honor the lives of the 178 people who were killed in bombings in Iraq's capital today?

16 April 2007

Pulitzer Prize Poetry and Music

As a counter to this week's horrific news (my thoughts and prayers are with family, faculty, staff and students at Virginia Tech) and last week's I-mess: Art and good news.

Poet Natasha Trethewey becomes only the 4th African-American to win the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry (joining Gwendolyn Brooks for Annie Allen (1950); Rita Dove for Thomas and Beulah (1987); and Yusef Komunyakaa for Neon Vernacular: New and Selected Poems (1994)), for her collection Native Guard. I read the book last year, and it's delicious(Another African-American woman, Cynthia Tucker of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, also won this year's prize for Commentary). Last May, she appeared on PBS' NewsHour, returning to post-Katrina Gulfport, Mississippi, to reflect and read some of her work.

As a long time jazz fan, I'm especially overjoyed to learn that John Coltrane received a *LONG OVERDUE* "posthumous special citation" (as did SF writer Isaac Asimov for his writing, a 'gateway drug' to the world of science writing and Science Fiction for many people, myself included).

Free Jazz giant Ornette Coleman won this year's music Pulitzer for "Sound Grammar," his first recording in 10 years, and the debut release on his own label of the same name -- a recording which I just bought last week (I particularly adore the version of "Sleep Talking" from the 1979 "Of Human Feelings" recording that's on here)

Guess I got that 'Pulitzer mojo workin' baby'...now to try it with the Lotto!

For a number of years, thanks to posts on blogs by Alex Ross and Greg Sandow, I've followed some of the grumbling by 'Classical' composers over the loosening up of the music category, an attempt to make up for their previous woeful ignoring of jazz and other forms of popular music -- started in part by complaints about the prize from the amazing composer (and past Pulitzer winner) John Adams (pictured at left) for ignoring "most of the country's greatest musical minds." Kudos to the highly respected and successful Adams for raising a ruckus -- but then what do you expect from someone with his own MySpace page?

The Pulitzer Board now accepts recordings, no longer requiring artists to send in scores of their music, although that it still 'encouraged.' (Sandow finds that 'encouragement' problematic, thinks it still means "We prefer Classical", and that perhaps they should just come out and say the prize is FOR Classical music and be done with it).

Not all composers were with John Adams. John Harbison for example let loose with this, "If you were to impose a comparable standard on fiction [comparable, that is, to the standard the Pulitzer board now mandates for music] you would be soliciting entries from the authors of airport novels."

Which to my ear is just this side of an up-market variation on Don Imus' recent empty-headed comments - particularly when most of us recognize that it would probably be a jazz musician that would likely wind up winning the prize (and look what happened -- "Ornette on Pulitzer!")

Justin Davidson on Ross' blog also provides an interesting note on Coleman's win -- no one nominated him!

"As jurors huddled for a weekend in March to go through the hundred-plus scores and recordings, someone noticed that despite the official desire for submissions in jazz, film music and other genres, Coleman's latest CD, "Sound Grammar," wasn't in the pile. [J]uror John Rockwell sent someone out to scare up a copy...."

Of course, it's not just in music where the Pulitzer Board has stubbed it's toe, as The Village Voices' Gary Giddens notes:

"Laughing Boy
beat The Sound and the Fury and A Farewell to Arms; Years of Grace beat As I Lay Dying, The Maltese Falcon, and Flowering Judas; Now in November beat Tender Is the Night and Appointment in Samarra; and the board could find no worthy fiction at all in the years For Whom the Bell Tolls, Native Son, The Hamlet, The Adventures of Augie March, V, Idiots First, Losing Battles, and Gravity's Rainbow were eligible."

There was no 1974 Fiction award due to a disagreement between the Fiction Jury and the overall Prize Board: Gravity's Rainbow, which the jurors had chosen, but some members of the Board found obscene. This echoes how the music jurors were overruled in 1965 when they wanted to give the prize to Duke Ellington for his body of work and got overruled by the Board, pointing out that the award was supposed to go to a single work (as Giddens points out, they didn't correct their error by awarding it to Duke (and Billy Strayhorn) for the magnificent 'single work', 'The Far East Suite,' the following year).

No review of the Pulitzer would be complete without noting William H. Gass' gleeful demolition of the Fiction category and why writers should give the award a pass, Prizes, Surprises and Consolation Prizes" (called "Pulitzer, the People's Prizes" in his collection Finding a Form).

"...the Pulitzer Prize in fiction takes dead aim at mediocrity and almost never misses; the prize is simply not given to work of the first rank, rarely even to the second; and if you believed yourself to be a writer of that eminence, you are now assured of being over the hill - not a sturdy mountain flower but a little wilted lily of the valley."

Personally, I find something like Sweden's Polar Music Prize to be much more to my liking. Call it "The Odd Couple" award if you want (winners include Steve Reich and Sonny Rollins in 2007; Valery Gergiev and Led Zeppelin in 2006; Gilberto Gil and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau in 2005; B. B. King and György Ligeti in '04...Dizzy Gillespie (left) and Witold Lutoslawski (pictured at right) in 1993!)

To my mind, this more accurately reflects the overall notion of 'excellence in music' than awards in just one category (and the winners list also looks a lot like my own music collection). And if they got the winners to play on the same stage...talk about one heck of a concert!

09 April 2007

Au Revoir Phebus

Phebus Etienne at Gladys Knight and Ron Winan's Chicken and Waffles, Atlanta GA (photo courtesy of January Gill O'Neil)

I received the shocking news today that friend and poet Phebus Etienne passed on March 31, 2007, at the age of 41. I'm stunned, and feel a deep emptiness...I honestly can NOT believe that she's gone...

A fellow Cave Canem poet, her work appeared in a number of anthologies, including Making Callaloo: 25 Years of Black Literature, and her manuscript, Chainstiching, was finalist for the 2005 Tupelo Press poetry contest and semi-finalist for the 2006 Beatrice Hawley Award from Alice James Books.

None of this tells you about how glorious a person she was, the beautiful music of her soft voice, or how equally beautiful and strong her talent was. Warm, friendly, honest, and *human* in a way that so many of us aren't, I loved her smile, I loved her hugs, I loved and love her still.

Six of her poems can be found here on the Second Avenue Poetry website.

A clip of Phebus reading "Long Walk Home" at the Cave Canem Fellows Reading, Spellman College, Atlanta, Georgia, Friday March 2, 2007, from Amanda Johnston's Blog

The poem below, title poem from her manuscript, is from the anthology, The Butterfly's Way: Voices from the Haitian Dyaspora in the United States, edited by Edwidge Danticat


After I buried my mother, I would see her often,
standing at the foot of my bed
in a handmade nightgown she trimmed with lace
whenever I was restless with fever or menstrual cramps.
I was not afraid, and if her appearance was a delusion,
it only confirmed my heritage.
Haitians always have relationships with the dead.
Each Sabbath, I lit a candle that burned for seven days.
I created an altar on the top shelf of an old television cart.
It was decorated with her Bible, a copy of The Three Musketeers,
freesia, delphinium or lilies if they were in season.
My offering of her favorite things didn’t conjure
conversations with her spirit as I had hoped.
But there was a dream or two where she was happy,
garnets dangling from her ears,
and one night she shuffled some papers,
which could have been history of my difficult luck
because she said, “We have to do something about this.”

She hasn’t visited me for months.
I worry that my life is an insult to her memory,
that she looks in and turns away
because I didn’t remain a virgin until I married,
because my debts will remain unforgiven.

Lightning tattoos the elms as florists make
corsages to honor living mothers.
I think of going to mass at St. Anne, where she was startled
by the fire of wine when she received her first communion.
But I remember that first Mother’s Day without her,
how it pissed me off to watch a seventy year-old daughter
escort her mom to sip from the chalice.

Yesterday, as the rain fell warm on the azaleas,
I planted creeping phlox on my mother’s grace,
urging the miniature flowers to bloom larger next year
like the velvet petals of bougainvillea that covered our neighbor’s gate.
I crave a yard to plant lemon and mango trees as she did.
Tonight I mold dumplings for pumpkin stew,
add a dash of vinegar for spice as she taught me,
sprinkle my palms with flour before rolling the dough between them.
I will thread my needle and embroider a coconut tree on a place mat,
keep stitching her presence in my life.

Phebus Etienne

Blogging Poets and Writers remember Phebus:

John Keene

Jan(uary Gill) O'Neil

Tayari Jones

Oliver de la Paz

Mendi Lewis Obadike

Tara Betts


The following arrangements have been made for Phebus:

Wake: Friday, April 13, 4-9 pm, with a service by Father Francis Gargani at 7:30 pm; Andrew Torregrossa & Sons Funeral Home, 2265 Flatbush Avenue (Between Filmore Avenue & Avenue R), Brooklyn, NY, 718.253.5900.

Funeral Mass: Saturday, April 14, 9:15 am ; Saint Gregory the Great Church, Saint Johns Place & Brooklyn Avenue, Brooklyn, NY, 718.773.0100.

Internment: Rosedale & Rosehill Cemetary, 355 East Linden Avenue, Linden, NJ 07036, 908.862.4990.

03 April 2007

National Poetry Month: Theme and Variations

I know
I know...
long time -
no Blog

the weather has been
so warm and clear.

I will try
to do better

In the meantime, and in honor of Poetry Month, two poems by one of my all-time favorites, Dr. William Carlos Williams, M.D. of Patterson, New Jersey -- with variations on them.

This Is Just to Say
by William Carlos Williams

I have eaten
the plums
that were in
the icebox

and which
you were probably
for breakfast

Forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold

Variations on a Theme by William Carlos Williams
by Kenneth Koch

I chopped down the house that you had been saving to live in next summer.
I am sorry, but it was morning, and I had nothing to do
and its wooden beams were so inviting.

We laughed at the hollyhocks together
and then I sprayed them with lye.
Forgive me. I simply do not know what I am doing.

I gave away the money that you had been saving to live on for the next ten years.
The man who asked for it was shabby
and the firm March wind on the porch was so juicy and cold.

Last evening we went dancing and I broke your leg.
Forgive me. I was clumsy and
I wanted you here in the wards, where I am the doctor!

The Red Wheelbarrow
by William Carlos Williams

so much depends

a red wheel

glazed with rain

beside the white

The Red Cadillac
by Reginald O'Hare Gibson

Willie “Slick” Williams reads William Carlos Williams, then writes a letter to the producers of the TV makeover show Pimp My Ride, explaining why his car should be featured on the program.

so much depends

a red cadillac

with turtle

beside the white