24 January 2013

Conditioning, or Pavlov's Dog Goes to the Movies

Last week, I had the pleasure to attend a screening of Middle of Nowhere, the new film by director Ava Duvernay staring newcomer Emayatzy Corinealdi, Omari Hardwick, David Oyelowo and Lorraine Toussaint.

I really enjoyed it. The performances were uniformly good and film has it's own relaxed pace and a beautiful understated quality. I was also impressed by the writing, which I thought was very good and very 'real.' The characters talked the way people actually talk, and nothing seemed forced, which was a great pleasure to luxuriate in.

But one interesting thing that both the friend who invited me (thanks Bernie!) and I commented on afterwards is how we 'kept expecting something to happen.' This is a movie with no gunshots, no drive-bys, no explosions. It is disturbing to realize this, but sadly, we've been conditioned to expect these things when going to the movies - and particularly to movies staring African-American characters.

It bothers me no end that I have fallen for this, to expect to see violence on screen when I watch a movie, or a television show. It disturbs me that a plot point or the resolution of a problem comes so often accompanied by a gun shot, explosion, or the throwing of a fist, that I've been trained to expect to see that all the time, in nearly every show. Many of us, myself included, are so used to 'sensation', spectacle, quick cuts and fast pacing, that a film or TV show that has its own pace, that takes its time, can feel 'slow,' that 'nothing is happening' on screen (I am glad to have seen Nowhere in a theater so that I could be enveloped in it, as opposed to at home on DVD where I may not have given myself up to it as much).

And of course the possibility of violence seems to always lurking when Black characters appear in a movie. Many years ago I read an article that noted how many African-American characters on television have a relationship with the criminal justice system - either as cops or criminals. Part of that is a function of there being so many cop/mystery shows on TV, but much of it also is the LACK of Blacks as regular characters on non-cop shows. We tend to be associated with crime (on both sides of the line) - so is it any wonder that there is this fear of (in particular young) black people in the real world? See enough negative images and one begins to expect things to 'jump off.'

So I am very grateful to the makers of Middle of Nowhere for slowing me down, allowing me to rest for a while in their world, and above all helping me to realize that something not very pleasant that has been happening to me - that I have been turned into a well conditioned test subject. Thank you for helping me to recognize this, and helping me to truly see.

09 January 2013

Inaugural poet Richard Blanco

Richard Blanco, Poet, Cuban-American, Gay, Inauguration, Obama
Richard Blanco (photo by Nico Tucci)
I was planning on putting a poem on the blog today, anyway - then early this morning news came down that gay Cuban American poet Richard Blanco had been chosen to read an original poem at President Obama's Inauguration on January 21st! I've known his work since his Agnes Lynch Starrett Prize-winning debut, City of a Hundred Fires (1998), and so am completely thrilled by this news, and am anxious to hear what he has written to present to the nation.

I am also expecting some backlash - 'Obama is catering to his gay base, he's playing the Latino card, this is more about Identity Politics than the Art of Poetry' and other forms of similar BS. Blanco's work is strong enough to stand such petty, 'Sour Grapes' sniping.

PS: As a friend mentioned on Facebook last night, for those keeping partisan score at home, in the Inaugural Poet category that's

Democrats 5, Republicans 0

(Robert Frost, Kennedy; Maya Angelou and Miller Williams, Clinton; Elizabeth Alexander and Richard Blanco, Obama)

Here's a prose poem by Richard Blanco, that is part of our One City, Many Poems initiative here at Poets House. Hear him read this poem on his website

Mexican Almerzo in New England

for MG

Word is praise for Marina, up past 3:00 a.m. the night before her flight, preparing and packing the platos tradicionales she's now heating up in the oven while the tortillas steam like full moons on the stovetop. Dish by dish she tries to recreate Mexico in her son's New England kitchen, taste-testing el mole from the pot, stirring everything: el chorizo-con-papas, el picadillo, el guacamole. The spirals of her stirs match the spirals in her eyes, the scented steam coils around her like incense, suffusing the air with her folklore. She loves Alfredo, as she loves all her sons, as she loves all things: seashells, cacti, plumes, artichokes. Her hand waves us to circle around the kitchen island, where she demonstrates how to fold tacos for the gringo guests, explaining what is hot and what is not, trying to describe tastes with English words she cannot savor. As we eat, she apologizes: not as good as at home, pero bueno. . . It is the best she can do in this strange kitchen which Sele has tried to disguise with papel picado banners of colored tissue paper displaying our names in piñata pink, maíz yellow, and Guadalupe green--strung across the lintels of the patio filled with talk of an early spring and do you remembers that leave an after-taste even the flan and café negro don't cleanse. Marina has finished. She sleeps in the guest room while Alfredo's paintings confess in the living room, while the papier-mâché skeletons giggle on the shelves, and shadows lean on the porch with rain about to fall. Tomorrow our names will be taken down and Marina will leave with her empty clay pots, feeling as she feels all things: velvet, branches, honey, stones. Feeling what we all feel: home is a forgotten recipe, a spice we can find nowhere, a taste we can never reproduce, exactly.

from Directions to the Beach of the Dead (University of Arizona Press, 2005)

03 January 2013

Welcome 2013 / 2012's Books

Happy New Year!

I resolutely refuse to make New Years Resolutions....but one of the things I hope to do this year is be more regular with posts here on the blog. Of course with Facebook, Twitter, and other forms of social networking, blogging is now SO 2005, and may soon be going the way of the typewriter and snail mail. But since I still send cards and notes via US Mail, I guess I'll stay back here in the dark ages for a while longer.

I recently mentioned to a friend (via Tweet of course!) that I read over 60 books in 2012. Actually looking at my list of titles, I managed to hit 70 before 1/1/13 (With a push I might have made it to 71, but I finished Colm Toibin's luminous Testament of Mary on New Years morning.)

Hello, my name is Reggie, and I am a book-a-holic.

Yes, I am one of those people who can read more than one book at a time - so long as they are sufficiently different. I often have a fiction and a non-fiction book going at the same time, unless one totally grabs me and I can't put it down. Reading poetry takes me LONGER to read than other forms of writing, so a 'slim volume of verse' may take me a while to get through. I also write reviews, and have been on the judging panel for book awards in recent years, so that ups my numbers. The real secret, however, is having a healthy commute - 45 mins each way on the NYC subway for reading every weekday to and from work. That undivided time has greatly increased my ability to devour books. As the marvelous Underground New York Public Library tumblr site shows, I'm not the only one. Sorry, Baltimore - New York is "The City That Reads!"

Ms. Donalay Thomas reading "Resurrecting Midnight" by Eric Jerome Dickey on the A Train (NYTimes 9/6/2009).
It is also amazing to see the incredible range of books people around me are reading, which goes far beyond the usual best sellers list (Although in 2011 it did seem as though *everyone* was making their way through  Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy). One of the negative things about e-readers I feel is that while it increases privacy it masks what you are reading, making the act of reading in public less social. Everyone is curious about other people's books, whether they are on the lookout for the next thing to read, or so they can recall their experience reading that title, or so they can wonder "Why on earth are they reading that!?!"

My reading tends to be pretty random. I do have favorite authors and a couple of them (see Winterson, Delany and Schulman, below) came out with new books in 2012. Every now and then you'll catch me with a best seller; more often than not I'm in the middle of something a little older, or something I 'should have read' a long time ago. I may try to keep up with new poetry, but otherwise it's difficult to predict what I may be reading.

Rather than the ubiquitous "Top 10 List," here almost in the order that I encountered them during the year are a few of the books that really stood out for me. And yes, I know I'm being too coy by half in not mentioning poetry...so sue me!

Paul Russell - The Unreal Life of Sergey Nabokov
Colm Toibin - The Empty Family: Stories
Jeanette Winterson - Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?
Keith Haring - Journals
Samuel R Delany - Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders
Sarah Schulman - The Gentrification of the Mind: Witness to a Lost Imagination
Martin A Lee - Smoke Signals: A Social History of Marijuana - Medical, Recreational and Scientific
George Lois - Damn Good Advice (For People with Talent)
Valerie Martin - Property
David Byrne - How Music Works
Ayana Mathis - The Twelve Tribes of Hattie