29 October 2010

How YOU Doin'?

One of the differences I've noticed already between New York and Baltimore is that people don't 'speak' up here.

Not that they are silent -- not at all -- but rather that whole thing of total strangers or neighbors passing you on the street and saying Good Morning doesn't happen very much in New York. Even the "Black Male Head Nod" ™ (with optional opening or closing "Yo!" and/or 'Zup? )as guys pass each other on the street isn't very prevalent here....curious...

But then this is a city with over 8 million people in it, where the streets, subways, and other forms of transportation are seldom if ever empty - you'd be exhausted trying to say something to even every other person within a matter of a block or two. And, once you engage them, New Yorkers are actually helpful and for the most part friendly (although they don't want people to know that - something about that Rough New Yorker Stereotype is appealing, and gets people to leave you alone). Still, I have to say, there's something about the casual camaraderie of quick acknowledgment I miss.

But, of course, a couple of days ago, as I was thinking about writing this, a guy passing by me in Brooklyn nodded and said, 'Zup? So there! Exceptions always prove the rule I guess...

22 October 2010

Poem of the Week: Charlie Howard's Descent by Mark Doty

Passing along Split This Rock's 'Poem of the Week', "mourns the gay and lesbian young people who committed suicide in the past weeks: Justin Aaberg, Asher Brown, Raymond Chase, Tyler Clementi, Aiyisha Hassan, Billy Lucas, and Seth Walsh."

Charlie Howard's Descent

Between the bridge and the river
he falls through
a huge portion of night;
it is not as if falling

is something new. Over and over
he slipped into the gulf
between what he knew and how
he was known. What others wanted

opened like an abyss: the laughing
stock-clerks at the grocery, women
at the luncheonette amused by his gestures.
What could he do, live

with one hand tied
behind his back? So he began to fall
into the star-faced section
of night between the trestle

and the water because he could not meet
a little town's demands,
and his earrings shone and his wrists
were as limp as they were.

I imagine he took the insults in
and made of them a place to live;
we learn to use the names
because they are there,

familiar furniture: faggot
was the bed he slept in, hard
and white, but simple somehow,
queer something sharp

but finally useful, a tool,
all the jokes a chair,
stiff-backed to keep the spine straight,
a table, a lamp. And because

he's fallen for twenty-three years,
despite whatever awkwardness
his flailing arms and legs assume
he is beautiful

and like any good diver
has only an edge of fear
he transforms into grace.
Or else he is not afraid,

and in this way climbs back
up the ladder of his fall,
out of the river into the arms
of the three teenage boys

who hurled him from the edge -
really boys now, afraid,
their fathers' cars shivering behind them,
headlights on - and tells them

it's all right, that he knows
they didn't believe him
when he said he couldn't swim,
and blesses his killers

in the way that only the dead
can afford to forgive.

-- Mark Doty

17 October 2010

Blog Action (a Day or so late) and some "Brokeback Love" for the Lit Prizes

Sheesh! Try to get back into the swing of blogging, and immediately fall behind! I was away from computers for much of Friday, and so missed out on participating in this year's Blog Action Day (October 15th). The topic this year is/was "Water".

Almost a billion people around the world don’t have access to clean, safe drinking water. And in the industrialized nations, water is tied to technology (an iPhone requires half a liter of water to charge, cotton t-shirts take 1,514 liters of water to produce, jeans an extra 6,813 liters), mass produced food (24 liters of water to produce one hamburger) and our love affair with bottled water. People in the US drink an average of 200 bottles of water per person each year, requiring over 17 million barrels of oil to manufacture, 86 percent of which will never be recycled.
More info on these facts here

(I'm guilty too, but the bottled water thing still seems a little odd because much of it tastes just like tap water to me - and that's before I reuse/refill the bottles city water!)

Please visit the links and take action -- or at the very least THINK before you slap down that $1 for a bottle of H2O or let your faucets run and run and run..


Awards season in the book world has started. Congrats to Mario Vargas Llosa for his Nobel Prize for Literature. The award has caused a flurry of discontent amongst Latin American writers because of the author's political turn to the Right, and stance against the movements of native peoples in Latin America since his run for the presidency of Peru in 1990. During our annual 'Nobel Speculatin', John and I were both pulling for Syrian poet Adonis. It seems truly wrong to me that a poet hasn't won since Wislawa Szymborska in
1996 (following "Famous Seamus" Heaney's 1995 award). What did we poets ever do to the Nobel Committee? There also hasn't been an American Nobelist since Toni Morrison (1993), but since at least one Committee is on record as not likin American Literature, I guess that's not as much of a surprise.

The National Book Award Nominees were announced as well. Like the rest of the Cave Canem family I'm very pleased to see our own T-Bone, Terrance Hayes nominated in the Poetry category, and there are other writers on the lists like Shriver, Yamishita, Youn, Williams-Garcia, and Dean of Young Adult Fiction Walter Dean Myers, I'm happy for as well. With the National Book Critics Circle finalists announced in January 2011, and then the Pulitzers in the spring, writers have about six months of waiting for the phone to ring to look forward to.

After having recently participated in a flurry of e-mails about the Yale Younger Prize (congratulations to new judge Carl Philips), I have mixed emotions about them. Sometimes the best book is nominated, and even wins, sometimes not. Sometimes the winner is memorable, at other times one barely remembers the winner a week after the announcement. And don't get me started on issues of race and gender and the Prizes! Ultimately, however I have to agree with Tayari Jones (as usual!) and her take on the whole Awards Biz (in a post titled "I Wish I Knew How to Quit You, NBAs":

I know it's foolhardy, but my relationship with these book prizes is like my relationship with a bad boyfriend that I just can't quit. I know he's trifling, but sometimes he's nice, and I keep telling myself that his heart is good, and that he will change. Silly as it is, I keep holding out for happily ever after.

I know what you mean, Tayari, even though those kinds of guys break your heart everytime, baby....

Finally, unqualified congratulations to Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo, currently imprisioned in China for his non-violent human rights work. Since he also writes poetry, I guess a poet DID win a Nobel this year! Here's one of his poems, from the PEN American Center website.


for Xia

over the tall ashen wall, between
the sound of vegetables being chopped
daybreak’s bound, severed,
dissipated by a paralysis of spirit

what is the difference
between the light and the darkness
that seems to surface through my eyes’
apertures, from my seat of rust
I can’t tell if it’s the glint of chains
in the cell, or the god of nature
behind the wall
daily dissidence
makes the arrogant
sun stunned to no end

daybreak a vast emptiness
you in a far place
with nights of love stored away

(Translated by Jeffrey Yang)

13 October 2010

Poem of the Week: Pedres (Stones) by Gemma Gorga

Two Catalan writers stopped by Poets House on Wednesday for a lunchtime reading and chat, Portuguese novelist and food writer Paulo Moreiras and Spanish poet Gemma Gorga.

Any translators out there, PLEASE take a look at their work and help bring it into English, they're both terrific!

Here is a translation of one of the poems that Ms Gorga read for us that I particularly enjoyed, with a video of her reading it in in Catalan.


If the voice could come out in photographs
in the way shadow or tenderness does -- even while
being more vulnerable realities -- I would hear
once again my father telling me that, before
picking up a stone, you should roll it over
with your foot or a branch to scare away
the scorpions hiding underneath like dry thorns.
I never worried about that. Being six years old
was simple, simple as dying. In both cases,
there was no secret other than the air:
breathing it or not breathing it, as if the soul
were full of tiny alveoli that open
and close. The first scorpion I saw
was in the natural science book,
trapped forever in the severe pincers
of time. On occasion, though, books don't tell
the whole truth, as if they didn't know it
or had forgotten it on the way from the printer's.
Arachnid with body divided into abdomen
and cephalothorax. It said nothing of the burning
sun in the tongue, of fear, of the spike
pierced into the neck. I didn't know then
what words were immense icebergs
hiding beneath their icy waters much
more than they show. Like the word scorpion.
And now, as the phone insistently rings
-- a sharp daybreak cry -- as I get up,
turn on the light, move my hand to its white body
of plastic that shines like a stone in the sun,
as I pick it up and say yes? and someone tells me you're dead,
I only think of scorpions, of what
you wanted to tell me when you repeated roll
the stones over, please, roll the stones over.

(from El desordre de les mans, 2003, Translated by Julie Wark)

12 October 2010

Cha-cha-cha Changes

Okay so I've been TERRIBLE about updating this, but (as if this is an excuse) a number of major changes have been happening with me.

The main one being this: After nearly 20 years at the Pratt Library, and even more than that in Baltimore, I am now in New York City, and working at Poets House. An amazing shift, but one that I think is just perfect for me right now.

I will NOT however, betray my (woebegotten) Orioles by becoming a Yankees fan (I've always had a soft spot for the equally hard pressed Mets) or abandon the Ravens. One has to be True to Their Team no matter where they live after all!

Yesterday was National Coming Out Day, and sadly, this has been a terrible season for LGBTQ people - especially young people, with six suicides in the past five weeks (Aiyisha Hassan, 19; Raymond Chase, 19; Tyler Clementi, 18; Seth Walsh, 13; Asher Brown, 13; Billy (William) Lucas, 15) and one young man, Tyler Wilson (aged 11), whose arm was broken by bullies in school because he joined the cheerleading team.

And, most horrifically, there are the nine gang members, who have been arrested for the rape and torture of two 17 year old gang recruits and the 30 year old Salvadoran man they supposedly had sex with, coming less than a week after the leader of a Baltimore gang was given a life sentence for ordering the murder of a gang member suspected to be gay.


I honestly don't know what to say about the intra-gang violence, other than sadness to see that these alternate (and homosocial) families that young people have created are resorting to such violent policing of heterosexuality amongst their ranks.

As someone who suffered from depression for many years, and contemplated suicide more than once, however, I think I recognize a bit of what's going on with the recent rash of self-destructions.

I think many in the mental health field can report that there's an element of 'contagion' in suicide. Those who have contemplated it can, in a sense think, 'Well if they did it, I can do it too' when they hear news of others killing themselves. Hearing about someone else doing it makes it seem more of a valid option. And one thing those who may not have considered this must realize is that the person thinking those thoughts is in a great deal of pain, actual physical and emotional pain, and wants to end their lives to make the pain stop -- or to end the pain they think their existence is causing someone else.

"I was that man, I suffered, I was there...."

Dan Savage created the "It Gets Better" video project, where gays speak to the younger versions of themselves, urging them to 'hang in there' through their teens because Life Gets Better.

Personally, I think that some things in life DO get better -- and others just change. "Bittersweet" seems the best word I can come up with to answer the question "What Is Grown-Up Life Like?"

And also you have to MAKE things better, following the suggestions created by the young people on their website, and not just (to take a phrase from an old Springsteen song that I used to repeatedly play for myself when I was in my teens) "Waste your summers praying in vain for a Savior to rise from these streets." As much as you can, take control of your own life.

It is also imperative that we as adults step in and stop bullying and harassment of young people (and other adults) for being 'different.' And be seen by younger people doing so as well.

And I also want to echo the words of someone who I've grown to admire a great deal, former basketball player John Amaechi, who in his Coming Out Day message said, in part

...I believe you should know that in this climate, there is poison all around. People and institutions who would marginalize and abuse you for being who you are and as such, I would encourage you to come out judiciously. Know that coming out doesn't mean the whole world needs to be told at once - or ever - some people will never earn the right to know the whole you.

Full post, well worth reading, is here.

People do have to *earn* the right to get to know you and be your friends. Try to limit your time around negativity and negative people. Do what you can to retain and hold onto a positive outlook, but don't be blindly optimistic either -- can we say "Trust but Verify" perhaps?

Know that there are people out there that can help you, or that will be happy to just listen to you vent if you like. And there is a community of people out there(gay, straight, both and neither) who will be glad to welcome you.