29 October 2007

Callaloo Anniversary Readings (Two)

More from the Weekend Literary LoveFest

(Lyrae Van Clief Stefanon, Your Humble Co-Respondent, Prof. Herman Beavers, and Christian Campbell. Photo by the beautiful, talented, and ubiquitous Tayari Jones)

In the Maryland Building (Engineering) on the campus of Johns Hopkins University, under the sign of the Interrobang, the 'next generation' of African-American poetry stars --
Major Jackson, A. Van Jordan, Terrance Hayes, Dawn Lundy Martin, and Tracy K. Smith -- pulled out the stops with a Saturday morning reading, introduced by The Man who made it ALL happen, Kyle Dargan. In addition to being a 'peer' or 'contemporary' of these folks (and friends in a couple of cases) I also confess to being a member of the fan clubs for all of these folks, so this was an extra extraordinary morning for me. Their talent and success inspires me, figuratively and literally: After not writing a poem since July, I've written three since the weekend -- thanks ya'll!:)

And nickname it the "Now and Later" reading, as Major read two poems which name checked the candy, causing Van to read a poem that did the same as well.

Here are samples of the works of all six poets with photos by the glorious Rachel Eliza Griffiths:

Urban Renewal ix.
To Afaa Michael S. Weaver

Bless your gnarled hands, Sir, and their paternal blues.
Tonight Kala grazes a palm over a battered face,
feeling his new-born features in a Correctional zoo.
The shock is permanent like the caged primate
who suddenly detects he's human. A Homo Erectus
stands upright on guard outside his cell.
For the record, good friend, tropes are brutal,
relentless, miraculous as a son—s birth. King Kong—s
memoir gets repeated on the evening news
like a horror flick, and everywhere dark men
are savagely ambushed. So, when a woman strolls
towards a homeless Bigger, the audience
tenses up involuntarily beneath a cone of light.
This is the work of blockbusters: Kala—s groan
twisting on a steel cot, and by morning—s sunlight,
your cramped hand. Pages pile to a tome
on a kitchen table; its defense is three-fifths
human, two-fifths man. I await its world premiere;
till then, when the soul hears of black guards who strike
harder, the brain goes arthritic, tropes proliferate,
and a wide screen blooms with images of heavy-weights
whose gloved-hands struggle to balance a pen.

-- Major Jackson

Einstein Ruminates on Relativity

INT. Theater. 1931—NIGHT

Premiere of City Lights starring CHARLES CHAPLIN, New York City, Albert Einstein is Chaplin's invited guest. They sit together and the audience stands to applaud them.

Charlie Chaplin tells me
that the world loves him
because they understand him
and the world loves me

because they don't, which doesn't seem fair
but it's true: This is relativity.
Journalists ask for a definition,
but the answers are all around:

a woman loves you for a lifetime
and it feels like a day; she tells you
she's leaving, breaking it off,
and that day feels like a lifetime,

passing slowly. I listen to Armstrong
play his cornet and it sounds
like a Wednesday afternoon in heaven;
some hear Armstrong play

and it sounds like a Monday morning
in Manhattan. Some hear the war on the radio
and they hear acts of love; some
hear details of the war and it sounds

futile. Outside my window
people decry the rain;
somewhere else people pray
for rain to run down their faces.

-- A. Van Jordan

The Blue Terrance

If you subtract the minor losses,
you can return to your childhood too:
the blackboard chalked with crosses,

the math teacher's toe ring. You
can be the black boy not even the buck-
toothed girls took a liking to:

the match box, these bones in their funk
machine, this thumb worn smooth
as the belly of a shovel. Thump. Thump.

Thump. Everything I hold takes root.
I remember what the world was like before
I heard the tide humping the shore smooth,

and the lyrics asking: How long has your door
been closed? I remember a garter belt wrung
like a snake around a thigh in the shadows

of a wedding gown before it was flung
out into the bluest part of the night.
Suppose you were nothing but a song

in a busted speaker? Suppose you had to wipe
sweat from the brow of a righteous woman,
but all you owned was a dirty rag? That's why

the blues will never go out of fashion:
their half rotten aroma, their bloodshot octaves of
consequence; that's why when they call, Boy, you're in

trouble. Especially if you love as I love
falling to the earth. Especially if you're a little bit
high strung and a little bit gutted balloon. I love

watching the sky regret nothing but its
self, though only my lover knows it to be so,
and only after watching me sit

and stare off past Heaven. I love the word No
for its prudence, but I love the romantic
who submits finally to sex in a burning row-

house more. That's why nothing's more romantic
than working your teeth through
the muscle. Nothing's more romantic

than the way good love can take leave of you.
That's why I'm so doggone lonesome, Baby,
yes, I'm lonesome and I'm blue.
-- Terrance Hayes


Zero as the translation of O. The circle a mouth makes in pronouncing. O. I have never told anyone this before. It is ruby. Rubbed. Spot that throbs and gapes. Sound of the O. On my skin (it has a surface) I inscribe with a hot clip the letters of a puncture. Deserted carousel. Headless horse.

The fit is tight. Splitting into—stiff cup. A dark mouth moves, enters the tremor of a voiced, Uh. But, all this is not love, not love in the way one milks the center. Instead, chronic terror stripped to bone grating upon bone. Of down home, twang twang, and promise. My knees pressed behind ears.

Between poundings, the body Uhs. Cracked R. Cracker, crack her. Laughing: you ain’t nothing but a black maid. The process is a patient body, waiting for discovery, hovering, crissed, saying Christ. This is raw data. Standing broken the udders flap. He grunts: Is this what you want, whore?

Swimmingly. Neck drooped. One attempt. Another. This is a very private moment. Zero as the incarceration of a theme. Uh, and Uh again. Peels the pink inside of the cheek. As if hollowing out. Hollering a big giant O. There is the saw sawing and the needle pinning. I wait. Unspeaking.

[Signal] [A black thought] [Black as in a tunnel darkening] [A secret] [Cranked] [Red] [Sense of unmoving] [Pleasure of seeing a dead thing] [Female as in floating, floating] [Whispering] [Muh]

-- Dawn Lundy Martin


The woman in a blouse
The color of daylight
Motions to her daughter not to slouch.
They wait without luggage.
They have been waiting
Since before the station smelled
Of cigarettes. Shadows
Fill the doorway and fade
One by one
Into bloated faces.
She’d like to swat at them
Like the lazy flies
That swarm her kitchen.

She considers her hands, at rest
Like pale fruits in her lap. Should she
Gather them in her skirt and hurry
Down the tree in reverse, greedy
For a vivid mouthful of something
Sweet? The sun gets brighter
As it drops low. Soon the room
Will glow gold with late afternoon.
Still no husband, face creased from sleep,
His one bag across his chest. Soon
The windows will grow black. Still
No one with his hand always returning
To the hollow below her back.

Desire is a city of yellow houses
As it surrenders its drunks to the night.
It is the drunks on ancient bicycles
Warbling into motionless air,
And the pigeons, alseep in branches,
That will repeat the same songs tomorrow
Believing them new. Desire is the woman
Awake now over a bowl of ashes
That flutter and drop like abandoned feathers.
It’s the word widow spelled slowly in air
With a cigarette that burns
On its own going.

-- Tracy K. Smith

Ars Poetica

Stone John wasn't prone to ruckus,
just running—letters branded on his cheeks
from his first flight. Soft jewels,
toes, and an ear lopped clean off and mounted
on the stable posts after a second, a third.
Fourth try, he gimped his way past the limits,
stood there, inhaled faux free air to know
it could be done, and floated on back. So was John—
kindling angst within his family, keeping the slavers
honest as scripture. Fifth time, pateroller
caught John amongst the pines and there
he refused to give the hunter any more flesh
or weather his family's salty tongues.
He straightened up and turned to rock—
jagged skin tearing chunks from the whip,
form too heavy for men or mules to haul. In
the woods, winds made John hum sweetly
and people brought ears. Stone John stands
in a museum up south now. He is loved
—his glass quarters kept so clean.

-- Kyle Dargan

Big HUGE Bravos and thanks to all!

Callaloo Anniversary Readings (One)

UPDATE: Reading Podcast now available from the Pratt Library Website

A great weekend of readings and panels here in Baltimore surrounding the 30th Anniversary Celebration for the African-American literary journal Callaloo. It was a wonderful Old Home weekend of reunions with folks, some of whom I haven't seen in years and years (Big UP! Christian!) for me as well.

The Pratt was fortunate enough to play host to a reading by three powerhouse poets, Carl Phillips, Natasha Trethewey, and Yusef Komunyakaa Friday night. The rain was heavy, and downtown traffic next to impossible, so we got off to a late start, but otherwise it was an amazing night. Carl read some of my own favorites of his work from his Quiver of Arrows collection (Thanks!), Natasha read from the Pulitzer Prize Winning Native Guard, and Yusef mainly read new work, including an amazing "Requiem" for New Orleans. Some of the finest and most highly respected living poets (and please note: not 'black poets' not even 'American poets,' but finest poets on the planet/global/"universal" ), it was an extraordinary thing to hear them reading together from the same stage.

(Photo by Rachel Eliza Griffiths)

Here are three poems read by the readers on October 19th, to give you a little flavor of the program. (Podcast of the program pending)

As from a Quiver of Arrows

What do we do with the body, do we
burn it, do we set it in dirt or in
stone, do we wrap it in balm, honey,
oil, and the gauze and tip it onto
and trust it to a raft and to water?

What will happen to the memory of his
body, if one of us doesn't hurry now
and write it down fast? Will it be
salt or late light that it melts like?
Floss, rubber gloves, a chewed cap

to a pen elsewhere - how are we to
regard his effects, do we throw them
or use them away, do we say they are
relics and so treat them like relics?
Does his soiled linen count? If so,

would we be wrong then, to wash it?
There are no instructions whether it
should go to where are those with no
linen, or whether by night we should
memorially wear it ourselves, by day

reflect upon it folded, shelved, empty.
Here, on the floor behind his bed is
a bent photo - why? Were the two of
them lovers? Does it mean, where we
found it, that he forgot it or lost it

or intended it for safekeeping? Should we
attempt to make contact? What if this
other man too is dead? Or alive, but
doesn't want to remember, is human?
Is it okay to be human, and fall away

from obliation and memory, if we forget,
and can't sometimes help it and sometimes
it is all that we want? How long, in
dawns or new cocks, does that take?
What if it is rest and nothing else that

we want? Is it a findable thing, small?
In what hole is it hidden? Is it, maybe,
a country? Will a guide be required who
will say to us how? Doe we fly? Do we
swim? What will I do now, with my hands?
-- Carl Phillips


We tell the story every year—
how we peered from the windows, shades drawn—
though nothing really happened,
the charred grass now green again.

We peered from the windows, shades drawn,
at the cross trussed like a Christmas tree,
the charred grass still green. Then
we darkened our rooms, lit the hurricane lamps.

At the cross trussed like a Christmas tree,
a few men gathered, white as angels in their gowns.
We darkened our rooms and lit hurricane lamps,
the wicks trembling in their fonts of oil.

It seemed the angels had gathered,
white men in their gowns.
When they were done, they left quietly.
No one came.
The wicks trembled all night in their fonts of oil;
by morning the flames had all dimmed.

When they were done, the men left quietly.
No one came.
Nothing really happened.
By morning all the flames had dimmed.
We tell the story every year.

-- Natasha Trethewey

from Autobiography of My Alter Ego

I did what I did. To see
friends turn into ghosts
among the reeds, to do
deeds that packed the heart
with brine and saltpeter
was to sing like a bone
for dust. All the questions
were backed up
inside my brain. Questions
I didn’t know I had -
as if I had stopped
at the bloody breach -
the stopgap between
animal and human being.
I did what I did.
I called the Vietnamese
gooks and dinks
so I could kill them. But one night
I had to bash in the skull
of a dying GI.
I was the squad leader,
but I didn’t order
PFC MacHenry to do
what I couldn’t do.
Or Private Ortega.
I used the butt
of my MI6
& stars bled on the grass.
Was the soldier black?
Was he white?
I can only say
I did what I did
because he sounded like a pigeon
tied to a hunter’s stool,
cooing with eyes sewn shut.

-- Yusef Komunyakaa

22 October 2007

Fall Verse

I've not posted poems here for a while, and so to correct that:

I'm always impressed when 'non-poets' recite poems from memory (I'm also impressed when POETS recite from memory as well, particularly when they're doing one that they themselves didn't write). Here's the poem that Garrison Keillor closed his recent library appearance with, "A Blessing" by his former teacher, James Wright

A Blessing

Just off the highway to Rochester, Minnesota,
Twilight bounds softly forth on the grass.
And the eyes of those two Indian ponies
Darken with kindness.
They have come gladly out of the willows
To welcome my friend and me.
We step over the barbed wire into the pasture
Where they have been grazing all day, alone.
They ripple tensely, they can hardly contain their happiness
That we have come.
They bow shyly as wet swans. They love each other.
There is no loneliness like theirs.
At home once more, they begin munching the young tufts of spring in the darkness.
I would like to hold the slenderer one in my arms,
For she has walked over to me
And nuzzled my left hand.
She is black and white,
Her mane falls wild on her forehead,
And the light breeze moves me to caress her long ear
That is delicate as the skin over a girl's wrist.
Suddenly I realize
That if I stepped out of my body I would break
Into blossom.

This poem appears in Keillor's collection Good Poems, an anthology which former US Poet Laureate and frequent Prairie Home Companion guest Rita Dove objected to, on the grounds that so few black poets appeared in the selection

For those readers who might have missed it... let me point out that in Keillor's entire book, all two hundred and ninety-four poems of it, I could find only three Black poets—all of them dead, no less, and the one woman actually a blues singer. Now, I may be missing someone—poems can be blessedly color-blind—but by any standard, this is an abysmal percentage. (Nor is there a Hispanic or Asian-American or Native American presence to speak of.) In his foreword, Keillor claims to have merely collected poems America—real America, good America!— wants to read; one can only conclude that his America never reads work by living African-American poets...

Although her comments were not meant to rail against her own absence from the volume, it is with interest that I note that in his followup book, Good Poems for Hard Times, Keillor or the editors included this Dove poem from the Writer's Almanac:

Dawn Revisited

Imagine you wake up
with a second chance: The blue jay
hawks his pretty wares
and the oak still stands, spreading
glorious shade. If you don't look back,

the future never happens.
How good to rise in sunlight,
in the prodigal smell of biscuits—
eggs and sausage on the grill.
The whole sky is yours

to write on, blown open
to a blank page. Come on,
shake a leg! You'll never know
who's down there, frying those eggs,
if you don't get up and see.

My admittedly quick survey of the contents of that volume, however, seems to indicate that she is the only black poet in that collection. The more things change...???

Full Disclosure note: I 'sampled' (with proper credit, of course!) a few lines from "Dawn Revisited" for a poem of my own, On The Road (for James Byrd), that appears in the Ringing Ear: Black Poets Lean South anthology. And no, I'm no where near big-headed enough to include my own work in the same post with Dove and Wright!

19 October 2007

Foot in Mouth Disease (Nobelist Edition)

UPDATE (10/25/07): James D. Watson, the eminent biologist who ignited an uproar last week with remarks about the intelligence of people of African descent, retired today as chancellor of the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory on Long Island and from its board.

Since I mentioned this in a recent post, I feel moved to post Dr Watson's retraction. Sadly, perhaps, his "illness" has caused the cancellation of further stops on the Good Doctor's tour

PS: although I've done fairly well on them, I tend to agree with the late, great Stephen Jay Gould's belief in Mismeasure of Man that IQ tests are a form of 'scientific' sexism and white supremacist racism...

NYTimes October 19, 2007

Nobel Winner Issues Apology for Comments About Blacks


James D. Watson, who shared the 1962 Nobel prize for deciphering the double-helix of DNA, apologized “unreservedly” yesterday for comments reported this week suggesting that black people, over all, are not as intelligent as whites.

In an interview published Sunday in The Times of London, Dr. Watson is quoted as saying that while “there are many people of color who are very talented,” he is “inherently gloomy about the prospect of Africa.”

“All our social policies are based on the fact that their intelligence is the same as ours — whereas all the testing says not really,” the newspaper quoted him as saying.

In a statement given to The Associated Press yesterday, Dr. Watson said, “I cannot understand how I could have said what I am quoted as having said. There is no scientific basis for such a belief.”

But his publicist, Kate Farquhar-Thomson, would not say whether Dr. Watson believed he had been misquoted. “You have the statement,” she said. “That’s it, I am afraid.”

Late yesterday, the board of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, a research institution in New York, issued a statement saying it was suspending the administrative responsibilities of Dr. Watson as chancellor “pending further deliberation.”

On Wednesday, Bruce Stillman, president of the laboratory, had issued a statement saying the laboratory’s trustees, administration and faculty “vehemently disagree” with the sentiments of Dr. Watson, who has served as director and president of the laboratory, whose school of biological sciences is named for him.

Scientists at Cold Spring Harbor study plant and animal genetics, cancer and other diseases. Dr. Stillman said they did not “engage in any research that could even form the basis of the statements attributed to Dr. Watson.”

Dr. Watson is in England to promote his new book, “Avoid Boring People: Lessons From a Life in Science” (Knopf). In a statement, Paul Bogaards, a spokesman for Knopf, said only that it was “understandable that his comments have caused upset throughout the world.”

There is wide agreement among researchers on intelligence that genetic inheritance influences mental acuity, but there is also wide agreement that life experiences, even in the womb, exert a powerful influence on brain structure. Further, there is wide disagreement about what intelligence consists of and how — or even if — it can be measured in the abstract.

For example, in “The Mismeasure of Man,” Stephen Jay Gould, the evolutionary biologist, dismissed “the I.Q. industry” as little more than an effort by men of European descent to maintain their prominence in the world.

Nevertheless, Dr. Watson, 79, is hardly the first eminent researcher to assert that inherited characteristics like skin color are correlated to intelligence and that people of African descent fall short. For example, William B. Shockley, a Nobel laureate for his work with transistors, in later life developed ideas of eugenics based on the supposed intellectual inferiority of blacks.

His ideas were greeted with scorn, and Dr. Watson is encountering a similar reaction. According to the BBC, the Science Museum of London canceled a speech Dr. Watson was to have given there today, saying that much as it supports robust discussion of controversial ideas, Dr. Watson’s assertions on race and intelligence are “beyond the point of acceptable debate.”

Henry Kelly, president of the Federation of American Scientists, a private group that works to bring science to policy making, said it was “tragic that one of the icons of modern science has cast such dishonor on the profession.”

How did scientists decide that intelligence was unipolar and quantifiable, and why did the standard keep changing over time? (Stephen Jay) Gould's answer is clear and simple: power maintains itself. European men of the 19th century, even before Darwin, saw themselves as the pinnacle of creation and sought to prove this assertion through hard measurement. When one measure was found to place members of some "inferior" group such as women or Southeast Asians over the supposedly rightful champions, it would be discarded and replaced with a new, more comfortable measure. The 20th-century obsession with numbers led to the institutionalization of IQ testing and subsequent assignment to work (and rewards) commensurate with the score, shown by Gould to be not simply misguided -- for surely intelligence is multifactorial -- but also regressive, creating a feedback loop rewarding the rich and powerful.... -- Rob Lightner on The Mismeasure of Man

18 October 2007

"When you speak of this in future years, and you will...

...be kind."

A fond farewell to Deborah Kerr. My favorites of her films include the stunningly beautiful Black Narcissus, the urbane romantic masterpiece An Affair to Remember, verbose late-Tennessee Williams Night of the Iguana, "Turn of the Screw" adaptation The Innocents -- and of course the "Walk Like A Man" movie, Tea and Sympathy, where the title quote comes from. A remarkably subtle film actress (its all about the look on her face, what she does with her eyes) no one could express sexual and emotional repression like Kerr. The Washington Post, NYTimes, and LATimes remember.

In other news:

Can you revoke a Nobel? DNA co-discoverer James Watson says whites are smarter than Africans (Scroll down the article for Watson on the relationship between skin color and sex drive, and how it would be okay to abort potential homosexuals). FYI: He, Francis Crick and Maurice Wilkins have been under the microscope in recent years over how much of the credit for DNA should also have gone to colleague Rosalind Franklin. Did the boys want to keep things to themselves?

We told you so! Study shows Feminists have more fun in bed.

And speaking of movies -- Tyler Perry, Box Office King.

Some have wondered if this will lead Hollywood to make more films for black audiences. He certainly knows his audience well, and the casting of Janet Jackson and Jill Scott helped to bring in their fans (and, although few will admit this, black gay men -- for whom 'Miss Janet' is a "Diva" in the way that Madonna is one for white gay men -- have been circulating shirtless photos of hard-bodied actor Michael Jai White from the film that somehow managed to 'leak out' in the weeks leading up to its release as well, so some of that first weekend money is from us!)

I'm less than optimistic about the future of black films however. I've seen it before (as well as the 'boom' in Latino/Hispanic films that was supposed to occur after the success of La Bamba -- remember that?) I'm sure we'll see more from Perry (particularly if he stars in it -- note the numbers in the Lions Gate article linked to his name above), but I suspect, sadly, that it will continue to be a hard sell to get anything beyond silly comedies and interracial buddy movies made. "Fluke" tends to be a favorite word of the Powers That Be, whether in film or in books. Confusion reigns when minorities flock to a film or rush out to buy a novel. Who knew 'they' would be interested? How do we repeat that success? Gee I don't know.....dumb stares all around.

Do you think that maybe there'd be less confusion if more people of color were in the boardrooms and decision making centers of these industries? Just a thought....

17 October 2007

What Becomes a Legend Most

The Baltimore Book Festival was held at the end of September here, around our Washington Monument. Events like these are always mixed blessings. One gets to see a number of 'big names' (Nikki Giovanni was here, for example, as was Zane sitting in the Strebor Books booth, along with some ab-tastics who looked like they stepped out of one of her book's pages. And unlike the young lady mentioned in this article, I didn't scream for Clifford the Big Red Dog, but did have a giggle-fit on seeing one of Maurice Sendak's Wild Things wandering around, much to the confusion of The Other Half).

But the Festival can also be very difficult, not only for visitors with so many different programs going on at the same time, but also for small press and self-published authors, or someone who does not have a 'name' (Baltimore City has also put most of its book eggs into the Book Fest basket, making little to no room for things literary at other events, like the annual summer fest, Artscape). Sitting in a booth or walking around for three days, enticing people to purchase or even look at your book....it's tough. But what can I say? It's hard out here for a...n author! These are the dues one pays on the road to becoming an Overnight Success.

The festival was also a chance for many of us in the Maryland Literary Community to pay respects to one of the hardest working women in our number, the late Barbara Simon. She taught at the University of Maryland Baltimore County (and elsewhere), was president of the Maryland State Poetry & Literary Society, and was involved in a wide variety of literary and writing-related projects in this area: Poet’s Ink, Attic, the 3rd Sunday Reading Series at Minas Gallery, the Baltimore Book Festival, and the Maryland State Arts Council Arts in Education and Poetry OutLoud programs. She along with Rosemary Klein was also half of 3 Conditions Press, and published my book, and others.

She had so much time for other people, and other's work, that she never got around to pulling together a collection of her own work. Fortunately Rosemary and others including MiMi Zannino, Alan Reese, Dan Cuddy, Leslie Miller, and Karen Elliott, worked to change that, and debuted the collection The Woman from Away at the Book Festival on Saturday.

The biggest draw of the weekend by far, however, turned out to be Tim Gunn of Project Runway and TG's Guide to Style fame. The crowd of people there to see him was IN-credible, and the line waiting for him to autograph his book snaked down the street. Word is that the bookseller sold out of copies of his book while Gunn was still talking, and had to go back to the bookstore for a couple more boxes -- and then sold all of those as well!

Tim Gunn talked and answered questions, signed for over an hour and a half and got to everyone's book, posed for pictures, and was smiling and as gracious and dapper the entire afternoon. And it's true: the man apparently does not sweat and is a model celebrity (unlike, say, someone else who appeared at the festival, speaking to the audience for only about two minutes before saying, "If you want to talk to me more, buy my book!"). Unflappable and stylish, Gunn makes everything look easy.

More recently Mr. Lake Woebegone, Garrison Keillor, came to the library for a program launching his new book, Pontoon. Rumpled but stylish (his red sneakers with white striped matched the trademark white shirt and red tie he wore with his dark blue suit -- Tim would approve I'm sure), he'd done a Prairie Home Companion show here the night before, and we had a good deal of publicity thanks to our connection with the local NPR station, WYPR, and the place was packed with somewhere between 550 to 600 people. We've had similarly large crowds here before -- most recently for Terry McMillan, John Hope Franklin, M. L. King biographer Taylor Branch, and Chris "Pursuit of Happyness" Gardner (and let's not even talk about the mass hysteria that occurred when Dexter King was here!) so it wasn't completely unusual. But it is still astounding to see so many people show up for a person who still considers himself a writer and storyteller.

So: do we all need a radio program or a reality show to 'make it big'? McMillan famously sold books out of the back of her car going from city to city hitting beauty parlors to small book groups. Mr. Franklin has been toiling in the field of History for longer than I've been alive. Tim Gunn was at Parsons for over 20 years, and Garrison Keillor talked about how he started by filling in at a small radio station as well as how slight and unassuming Prairie Home was when it began. Most of us won't luck out and be
Soulja Boy and Crank That on Youtube: It usually takes a long time -- and a lot of hard work -- to become an "Overnight Sensation."

UPDATE: Listen to a podcast of Keillor's presentation from the Pratt Library website

14 October 2007

The Perfect (Nobel) response

"I can't say I'm overwhelmed with surprise. I'm 88 years old and they can't give the Nobel to someone who's dead, so I think they were probably thinking they'd probably better give it to me now before I've popped off." -- Doris Lessing

(thanks for the heads up Tayari!)

Congratulations also to Al Gore, Nobel Peace Prize Winner! An Oscar, the Nobel...who needs the White House? Prediction, 2009: Al Gore wins Tony Award for "Global Warming on Broadway"....

10 October 2007

Cherchez la Femme

Congratulations to Doris Lessing, this year's Nobel Laureate. The always unpredictable Academy pulled another fast one on me, picking someone who's been "On The List" of the deserving for so long, I'd forgotten her! She was one of the women who were founders of the notion of the "Personal as Political", so Brava to her! I also vividly remember how she came under attack for her Canopus in Argos: Archives series of novels. How DARE a 'major writer' write Science Fiction with creatures from other galaxies commenting on situations here on Earth! And then Philip Glass turned two of the novels (The Making of the Representative for Planet 8 and The Marriages Between Zones Three, Four and Five) into Operas -- Shocking....

(And am I the only one who hears just slightest of nods to the current world situation in the fact that, although British, Lessing was born in Persia -- a country we now call Iran?)

The choice of Lessing fits in well with something I wanted to comment on anyway: how seldom it seems we view women as 'major writers'. Even I didn't have that many on my Possible Nobel list, only short story wizard Alice Munro and (speaking of the personal/political connection) poet-novelist Margaret Atwood (another possible Canadian winner would be poet Anne Carson, but the Academy has been noticeably poet-phobic of late). Young as they are both Edwidge Danticat and Zadie Smith are (or should be) just one or two solid books away from Shortlist status, with Britain's "Ali Sisters" (that's the non-related Ali Smith and Monica Ali) perhaps right behind them.

Britain's Orange Prize was organized to redress the lack of consideration women authors tend to get from the other majors. This year's winner was the wonderfully talented Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (photo at right) for Half of a Yellow Sun.

All this is very strange (dare I use the "M" word, misogyny?), particularly since there may not be a publishing industry without women. Even the Queen herself, Oprah, hasn't picked a book written by a woman in some time (Tayari Jones makes an interesting comment on the Catch-22 involved in that. Don't forget, when she started choosing books, even if they were written by men, the titles were considered "Women's Books" -- sometimes you really Can't Win....). Fortunately, some male writers 'get it' and speak about the importance of women writers to their own work.

But women's voices are disappearing elsewhere too. In the most outrageous news of this ilk, a movie studio head declares he doesn't want to make movies with women in the leading role anymore.

Even though it has been faulted, perhaps Susan Faludi is onto something with her new book The Terror Dream. At this post 9/11 "Macho" point in our history, when the woman running for president has to 'prove how tough she is', no one wants to hear from the 'weaker sex'. However, we ignore their voices at our peril.

"Women's rights is part of a larger story - about human rights, the declining engagement in public life," a force, Faludi says, that "stops people from not just being consumers, but citizens."

08 October 2007

The Most Wonderful Time of the Year?

If it's Fall (according to the calendar, if not the thermometer), then it must be Awards Season. This year's MacArthur "Geniuses" have been chosen (particular congratulations to Chicago Favorite Stuart Dybek, the gloriously-voiced Dawn Upshaw, and artist Whitfield Lovell, who gets the joy of placing his 2007 award next to that of his partner, 1999 recipient Fred Wilson.

Nominations for the OTHER NBA (i.e. the National Book Award) will be announced later this week (October 10), as will the British Man Booker Prize (October 16)

The National Book Critics Circle on the Season (be sure to check the end of the last paragraph on how timing is everything in publishing for the Big Shots). The NBCC awards usually get announced in January

Jamaican Novelist Marlon James' take on the Nobel

Place your bets! British Bookmakers publish the Nobel Prize Odds

My friend John and I usually do the Nobel shortlist thing. He's posted his take for the year. I've been calling out Philip Roth for a number of years now, and suspect (unless the Swedes just can NOT bring themselves to award an American with The National Cowboy in the White House) that he's the man to beat this year. As always however, there are folks who I would like to see win, that is writers who I think are very deserving of the award, and those who are more likely to win. As with everything in life, these are often not the same people.

If there were any justice, astonishing writers like Jay Wright, Wilson Harris (John's favorite), or Thomas Pynchon should have one a long time ago (after Mason & Dixon would have been a great time for the mysterious Mr Pynchon, and Mr Wright has a new book out now). Salman Rushdie has been on a lot of short lists for a while, as has Chinese poet Bei Dao, and will most likely win one day. I feel the same way about Spanish author (and blogger)Javier MarĂ­as. And John Ashbery seems to have gotten every prize BUT the Big Gold One. It's also astonishing to me that neither Juan Goytisolo nor Milan Kundera haven't been Nobel-ed (Some people think they have!). And if there were such a thing as a posthumous Nobel, I suspect it would go to W G Sebald, who the lit crit types were chomping at the bit to honor during his much too short writing life.

My 'shortlist' for this year would have to be Roth, Canadians Alice Munro (who says she's retired from writing) and Margaret Atwood, Adonis (Adunis) and Mahmoud Darwish (how about a political double header with either of these two and A. B. Yehoshua or David Grossman?), Nuruddin Farah or the Father of the Modern African Novel, Chinua Achebe (again, is he another one the Academy has forgotten they didn't give the prize to?), Haruki Murakami, and perennial nominee Thomas Transtromer (who probably doesn't win because the Swedes don't want to look like they're playing favorites by picking one of their own). Those looking for something to read this fall and winter should consider taking a look at the work of these authors.

BTW: Here's my choice for any and every possible prize: Junot Diaz's astoundingly fantastic Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. And if I really wanted to go out on a limb, I'd predict an all-Hispanola sweep of fiction and non-fiction categories, with Diaz's novel paired with Edwidge Danticat's wrenching Brother, I'm Dying. Run out and buy them now!

Oh for more time for reading!

06 October 2007

Quote: Michael Palmer

As Octavio Paz notes, the poem is alive only when the reader opens the book; until then it is nothing, it is waiting in the dark. The poem then is not some self-contained, isolated, self-sufficient object, but something that comes to be in a site that is social, contingent, and indeterminate. It captures and reconfigures time, but it remains at time's mercy, as we all do. Yet, supreme paradox, it also outlasts. As the great Chuvash poet Gennady Aygi once wrote in Stalinism's shadow, "Drive [poetry] out the door, it comes back through the window." That elusive thing, poetic truth, outlasts the demagogues, corrosive misrule, and the lies of power. Certainly today, with the values of our republic and our constitution under siege from within, with a regime bringing shame upon this nation and its people and untold death and destruction to our young and to countless others, and to the Earth itself, it is essential to continue to propose an alternative space and an alternative conversation, many conversations in fact, free to circulate in that space and celebrate otherness and difference and free to insist upon the crucial importance of the artistic imagination in its eternal resistance to the given and the inhuman. Such conversations or exchanges take place "between innner and outer worlds," in Wallace Stevens' words, "never certain, never fixed."

Michael Palmer
, from "Time's Mercy" (Acceptance speech on recieving the 2006 Wallace Stevens Award from The Academy of American Poets)