23 October 2011

Recent (re) Reading

"...Old Jimmy Lyons, who used to tear up the Hammond organ over at Stompit had told him he was a four, and fours were builders, but lots of fours never got around to doing what they were put on earth to do cause they was so busy feeling boxed in by them four sides of their nature that they didn't have sense to look up and appreciate all that space they could build into. And Jimmy Lyons had told him another thing, that the Negro people were fours and so long as they paid more attention to folks trying to pen the in, hem them in, box them in on all four sides thinking they had them in prison than to the work at hand, why then they would never get a spare moment to look up at the sun and build. That Jimmy Lyons was one philosophizing fool..."

Toni Cade Bambara (1939 - 1995), The Salt Eaters (1980)

17 October 2011

Blog Action Day 2011: Food

As can be seen by my waistline, I love food. I think those who can cook are artists, touched by the divine. This goes for both great home cooks as well as superstar chefs. I grew up watching Julia Child, Graham Kerr "The Galloping Gourmet," Martin Yan, Justin Wilson, and my favorite Saturdays are still those when I can curl up on the couch and watch the parade of cooking shows on PBS.

I am proud to take part in Blog Action Day Oct 16, 2011 www.blogactionday.orgSo it was a real problem, for a period of time in Baltimore, I lived in a 'Food Desert.' The quality of our local supermarket got progressively worse, and was eventually closed, meaning that those who lived in the neighborhood had to walk further or take public transportation in order to do their shopping. There was food around - at the corner stores, gas stations, fast food establishments, chicken shacks, Chinese carry out, pizza chains. And there was an amazing weekly Farmers Market...but for 'real' food during the week, not precooked or processed, and at a less than the sometimes expensive Farmer's Market price, you had to travel. We eventually got a new supermarket, practically around the corner from us. But the problem in some areas of the city remains, and was of such a concern that the library partnered with the Health Department to allow people to do their shopping on line and pick up their groceries at their local Pratt Branch.
A really fantastic partnership, and one that I hope gets replicated in many places across the country.

I still think about 'Food Deserts' now, even though surrounded in Brooklyn and Manhattan by fruit sellers on numerous corners, food trucks, pizza parlors, and bodegas. We would seem to be overwhelmed by abundance, and the range of the availability of some items is better, but there are still problems. Bodegas are monuments to packaged and processed food - or perhaps I should say 'food-like' items. And once again I find that the quality of meat and poultry at our closest supermarket leaves a lot to be desired (I'd say it ranges from adequate to poor), with better choices a few blocks further away.

How difficult is it for the average person to eat healthily and inexpensively when surrounded by aisles filled with empty calories and high fructose corn syrup? Or perhaps the better question might be 'Why is it so difficult?' But then, that's gets us into the realm of agribusiness, politics, money....I'm in danger of losing my appetite!

Here, from Michael Pollan, are some basic 'Food Rules'

"Eat food, not too much, mostly plants."

Probably the first two words are most important. "Eat food" means to eat real food -- vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and, yes, fish and meat -- and to avoid what Pollan calls "edible food-like substances."
Here's how:
  1. Don't eat anything your great grandmother wouldn't recognize as food. "When you pick up that box of portable yogurt tubes, or eat something with 15 ingredients you can't pronounce, ask yourself, "What are those things doing there?" Pollan says.
  2. Don’t eat anything with more than five ingredients, or ingredients you can't pronounce.
  3. Stay out of the middle of the supermarket; shop on the perimeter of the store. Real food tends to be on the outer edge of the store near the loading docks, where it can be replaced with fresh foods when it goes bad.
  4.  Don't eat anything that won't eventually rot. "There are exceptions -- honey -- but as a rule, things like Twinkies that never go bad aren't food," Pollan says.
  5. It is not just what you eat but how you eat. "Always leave the table a little hungry," Pollan says. "Many cultures have rules that you stop eating before you are full. In Japan, they say eat until you are four-fifths full. Islamic culture has a similar rule, and in German culture they say, 'Tie off the sack before it's full.'"
  6. Families traditionally ate together, around a table and not a TV, at regular meal times. It's a good tradition. Enjoy meals with the people you love. "Remember when eating between meals felt wrong?" Pollan asks.
  7. Don't buy food where you buy your gasoline. In the U.S., 20% of food is eaten in the car.

09 October 2011


Your time is limited, so don't waste it living someone else's life. Don't be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people's thinking. Don't let the noise of others' opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary. -Steve Jobs, Stanford Commencement speech, 2005 (full text and video here)

A very difficult week, filled with losses - and the lessons about how hard you have to push to change the world.

Fred Shuttlesworth
Shuttlesworth, Abernathy and King
may not be a household name to most, but as one of the 'Big 3' of the Civil Rights Movement along with Martin Luther King and Ralph Abernathy, his influence looms large. He and King were, in a sense, the 'Good Cop/Bad Cop' of the movement, as author Diane McWhorter says, "Shuttlesworth was in the vanguard of direct action, pushing towards confrontation. King was the person who could really deal with white people and was more conciliatory. The two of them together formed a dialectic that drove the movement forward." Such death-defying defiance as his was desperately needed in the horrifying atmosphere of "Bombingham" Alabama in the early 1960s.

Derrick Bell
may also not be a familiar name, but as the first tenured African-American professor of Law at Harvard, and founder of Critical Race Theory, which explores how racism is embedded in laws and legal institutions, he and his legacy loom large (his Race, Racism and American Law is now a standard law school textbook). He may be even more well known for taking an unpaid leave of absence from Harvard in 1990, saying he would not return until the school appointed a female of color to its tenured faculty. I also remember him joining the contingent of Black Gay Men who participated in the Million Man March in 1995 as a 'straight ally.' Author of numerous books, he was also known for his use of stories to illuminate his legal and civil rights points, most particularly in his famous "The Space Traders" which imagines what might happen if aliens offered to solve all the US' problems in exchange for all the country's Black people. As poet, author, and Michigan State University law professor Brian Gilmore commented, "If James Baldwin had been a lawyer, he would have been Derrick Bell."

Much of the week, and the blogosphere, has been taken up with expressions of sadness regarding the death of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs -- and rightly so for a man whose products and influence seem ubiquitous in this digital age. His name appears on 317 patents, ranging from the Macintosh Operating System to computer mice, to the packaging Apple products come in and the adapters used to power them. Even those of us who don't use Macs owe Jobs a huge tip of the hat for Apple's work on the Graphical User Interface (and many of us have said for years that Microsoft has 'borrowed' Apple's ideas time and time again and applied them to Windows). And I'm sure I'm not the only PC person who would go into an Apple store and swoon at how *beautifully designed* their products are. Purely for making technology attractive and, well, sensuous (note how well the curve-edged iPod fits into the hand) Jobs deserves our unending gratitude. And I haven't even mentioned the animated pleasures of the films of Pixar studios, which he purchased in 1986...

One of the more interesting recent articles about Jobs, and one that in some ways ties each of these three extraordinary men together, is this one, In Praise of Bad Steve by D.B. Grady. As the author says, we want to remember people positively, as always being good, kind, generous...but sometimes in order to get things done right, you have to be a Bad Cop, and push people - into innovation in Jobs' case, into doing the right thing in the case of Shuttlesworth and Bell.Always dissatisfied, always pushing, always innovating, these giants changed our world, and I am greatful to all three.


As I was writing this, news of another, perhaps more personal, loss came through as well: professor and fellow Cave Canem poet James Richardson. Sadly I didn't know him well (he was one of the many people who I have a mainly e-mail relationship), but will forever be moved by the generosity of offering his apartment to The Other Half and myself when he was teaching at Morehouse, despite not being familiar with us. This reinforces the messages I have been seeing from fellow poets about his 'beautiful soul,' in addition to his brilliance, and skills as a violinist - and salsa dancer. He will be missed.

Thanks to Brian Gilmore (again!) here is a Richardson poem that appeared in the Autumn 1999 issue of Callaloo.


homegirl, I'm thinking: are you really free? 

cause in every portrait the very pores 
of your wild-black skin scream, wracked with ennui, 
trapped in Quaker grays that smother wooden floors. 
how often do they pat your defiant hair? 
and why are your eyeballs stretched puppy-wide? 
your tall, tight collar thwarts sin (and air). 
that's no small feat: you've so much black to hide. 
i bet in your mind you laugh your thighs apart 
on velvet-lush plains, your teeth to the sun. 
all soaked in color, you sniff strange sweat and start: 
too late. sun-pink flesh, rattling chains, a gun. 
they ask: art thou joyful, freed christian lass? 
you answer with sugar, with salt, with ground glass. 

23 September 2011

Recent Reading

from "Acheiropoietos," Chapter 11 of Create Dangerously: The Immigrant Writer at Work by Edwidge Danticat

...I am even more certain that to create dangerously is also to create fearlessly, boldy embracing the public and private terrors that would silence us, then bravely moving forward even when it feels as though we are chasing or being chased by ghosts....Creating fearlessly, like living fearlessly, even when a great tempest is upon you. Creating fearlessly even when cast lot bo dlo, across the seas. Creating fearlessly for people who see/watch/listen/read fearlessly. Writing fearlessly because, as my friend Junot Diaz has said, "a writer is a writer because even when there is no hope, even when nothing you do shows any sign of promise, you keep writing anyway." This is perhaps also what it means to be a writer. Writing as though nothing can or ever will stop you. Writing as though you full-heartedly, or foolhardily, believe in acheiropoietos.

Wikipedia: Acheiropoieta (Byzantine Greek: αχειροποίητα, "not handmade"; singular acheiropoieton) — also called Icons Not Made by Hand (and variants) — are a particular kind of icon which are alleged to have come into existence miraculously, not created by a human painter. Invariably these are images of Jesus or the Virgin Mary. The most notable examples are, in the Eastern church the Image of Edessa or Mandylion, and in the West, the Veil of Veronica and the Shroud of Turin.

23 August 2011

Shaking things up Back East

I awoke when the ground of dreams gave way
beneath my bed.
-- Pablo Neruda, Earthquake, from Canto General (translated by Jack Schmidt)

So this is how you welcome someone to New York - the ground literally moves for them?

My thoughts of concern go out to everyone in Virginia, and all along the east coast after today's quake (and how you doin' Colorado?) Buildings shook here in Manhattan, and folks evacuated, but all is well. And it was a lovely day to be outside up here. One office was telling people it was okay to return "If you'd like." Gee, stay out here in the air and sun by the river, or go back into the office....hmmm, that's a tough one....

Three notes:
One - Calling someone via cell phone was nearly impossible, with everyone jamming the circuits trying to get through. Texts, however, seemed to make it.

Two - Facebook never stopped, and many of us got our news from posts and links there. Interesting....

Three - The strangest thing was all of us in the office feeling this movement, then asking each other, "Did you feel that - or is it just me?"

The view toward the East from California with unsurprising snark ("Now you know what it feels like on the West Coast")

10 August 2011

Philip Levine

"I want to bring poetry to people who have no idea how relevant poetry is to their lives." -- Phillip Levine

Heartiest congratulations to Phil Levine, newly appointed U.S. Poet Laureate! I've been a fan of his for a number of years, and his poetry has led me to a little side-project of investigating poems about Work and Workers.

Now, I will say, as an aside, as happy as I am for him, that there has not been a Laureate 'of colour' since Rita Dove stepped down (her years were 1993 - 1995). While I most certainly have nothing against those that followed her ("The Roberts" Hass and Pinsky, Stanley Kunitz, Billy Collins, Louise Glück, Ted Kooser, Donald Hall, Charles Simic, Kay Ryan (the first openly LGBTQ Laureate), and W.S. Merwin: Complete list here), in my admittedly somewhat biased opinion, a great deal of the talent and energy of American poetry now can be found in the work of Black, Latino/a, Asian, and other "Other" writers. I would love to see the Library of Congress recognize this excitement and quality in contemporary poetry by appointing a non-white Laureate - Soon.

In case you were wondering, previous African American "Consultants in Poetry to the Library of Congress" - the historic name for the position - were Robert Hayden [1976-78] and Gwendolyn Brooks [1985-86].

Here is my favorite Levine poem, and one of my all-time favorite poems by anyone. Enjoy

What Work Is

We stand in the rain in a long line
waiting at Ford Highland Park. For work
You know what work is — if you’re
old enough to read this you know what
work is, although you may not do it.
Forget you. This is about waiting,
shifting from one foot to another.
Feeling the light rain falling like mist
into your hair, blurring your vision
until you think you see your own brother
ahead of you, maybe ten places.
You rub your glasses with your fingers,
and of course it’s someone else’s brother,
narrower across the shoulders than
yours but with the same sad slouch, the grin
that does not hide the stubbornness,
the sad refusal to give in to
rain, to the hours wasted waiting,
to the knowledge that somewhere ahead
a man is waiting who will say, “No,
we’re not hiring today,” for any
reason he wants. You love your brother,
now suddenly you can hardly stand
the love flooding you for your brother,
who’s not beside you or behind or
ahead because he’s home trying to
sleep off a miserable night shift
at Cadillac so he can get up
before noon to study his German.
Works eight hours a night so he can sing
Wagner, the opera you hate most,
the worst music ever invented.
How long has it been since you told him
you loved him, held his wide shoulders,
opened your eyes wide and said those words,
and maybe kissed his cheek? You’ve never
done something so simple, so obvious,
not because you’re too young or too dumb,
not because you’re jealous or even mean
or incapable of crying in
the presence of another man, no,
just because you don’t know what work is.

— From What Work Is by Philip Levine (Alfred A. Knopf, 1991

This and other Levine poems can be found here at the New York Times website). Happy Reading

25 July 2011

Amy Winehouse, 1983-2011

Head over to Ernest Hardy's blog for his excellent take on the troubled singer. Anything I could possibly say would only pale in comparison.

"We’ve so romanticized the tortured artist, been complicit in turning her/him into a blueprint pose and commodity, that we’ve forgotten there is sometimes painful truth at the root of the cliché: There are artists whose muse and round-the-clock demons really are one and the same. We, the herd of consumers, cheer the bad behavior, eat up the self-destructive actions, nod theatrically (so everyone around us can see) that we identify with the pain, maaaan. But we grow impatient when the artist who’s genuinely fucked up doesn’t act like a mercenary CEO, keeping just inside the lines of marketable debauchery and edible despair. We laugh and mock, made uneasy when it turns out shit is real. My writing this isn’t an attempt to excuse or glorify bad behavior or the selfishness of an artist showing up (over and over) too wasted to perform. It’s not meant to “enable.” It is an attempt, however, to recognize a broader context of issues (addiction; depression; creativity; the places where they meet) that are deserving of thoughtfulness and some measure of compassion..."

20 July 2011

Hello Again - but Goodbye Borders (and don't dispair)

How ironic: My return to blogging coincides with the end of the Borders Bookstore chain (I had nothing to do with that, btw - except perhaps for tending to want to make most of my purchases from Independent and Used bookstores). While some are saying Borders brought this on themselves, whatever the reason, having one less place to purchase and browse, flip through magazines, hang out and loiter surrounded by texts is a very sad thing. For truly sometimes as much if not more is learned by seeing and accidentally running into those books that surround the item you want than from the particular book itself.

As much as I often repeated the joke "Millions of books - except the one you want" while talking about the big box stores, their range and variety is far greater than what is replacing them in the 'non-virtual world.' A quick (and it will be just that - quick) look at the offerings on the bookshelves at Target, Wal-Mart, or Costco is enough to make most writers slit their wrists.

The big box stores, and these new brick and mortar venues for books (I'm tempted to say "Bric a Brack" venues!) hide the amazing vibrancy that's going on in small press publishing now. There has been some very sad news - the University of California putting it's amazing New California Poetry Series on hiatus as that institution faces uncertainty about its budget, for example - mixed in with some very pleasant surprises, like Akashic Books' unexpected Best Seller "Go The F*ck to Sleep." (Click here for - who else?- Samuel L Jackson's pitch perfect audio version).

Here at Poets House, for example, we're wrapping up the month-long Showcase, an annual event where we display what we hope are all the poetry books published in the US over the past year. This July we are showing 2,458 books from 767 publishers around the country. This includes broadsides, chapbooks, poems published as matchbooks, and in other unusual configurations.

Most people when they see the Showcase say "I never knew there was this much poetry!" and it is true. In most bookstores, the sales of poetry are so small that it doesn't make financial sense to carry a lot of it. But that hasn't stopped writers from writing or publishers from putting out their work. Nor has the e-book revolution hit this segment of the writing world too hard - yet - mainly due to problems with formatting poems. Once that's been fixed, all bets are off).

We were also fortunate to host a celebration of the 75th Anniversary of the astounding independent publisher New Directions here as well, somehow managing to pack around 200 people into both levels of our space (read John K's recap of the event here). I recognize that New Directions is an 'outlier' and that more often than not independent publishers don't make it for very long. But the fact that an uncompromising and defiantly literary enterprise like New Directions has made it - and that others, like Haki Madhubuti's Third World Press, for example which has lasted for 44 years, have done so as well - has to help to reduce one's level of despair.

Sometimes I think, as far as the Book Biz is concerned, we are living through times similar to the last days of the dinosaurs. The small presses are like the early mammals, running around while the huge lumbering (corporate-owned) majors flail around wondering how - or if - they are going to survive. To the small, fast and nimble goes the race -- I hope!

"New Directions was founded to counteract, in its small way, the tendency to treat a book as nothing more than a package of merchandise. Perahps the editor is an idealist. But that species is not yet extinct. Our first years have shown there are a great many people in this country who love the best in literature and resent its degradation. Confident of their support and anxious to deserve it, New Directions enters another publishing year." - James Laughlin, 1939