Wednesday, October 07, 2015

Who Will Receive the 2015 Nobel Prize in Literature?

This is Nobel Prize week, and as I have done nearly every year over the last decade, I cannot help but speculate on this blog, which began in 2005 with a focus on literature, about this year's winner in the literary category. The honoree will be announced tomorrow, I believe. (Here are my posts from 2005 (and after Harold Pinter won in 2005); 2006; 2007; 20082009; 20102011; 20122013; and post-award to Patrick Modiano in 2014.)

My batting average has admittedly been poor, in part because I keep thinking that the Swedish Academy, which awards the prizes, will end its focus on Europe in favor of the broader literary world, and yet for the past decade, the annual prizes have been weighted towards European writers, or, in the case of Alice Munro--whose work I am a huge fan of--writers of European descent across the globe. The last 15 Nobelists include Patrick Modiano (2014); Alice Munro (2013); Mo Yan (2012); Tomas Tranströmer (2011); Mario Vargas Llosa (2010); Herta Müller (2009); Jean-Marie Gustave LeClézio (2008); Doris Lessing (2007); Orhan Pamuk (2006); Harold Pinter (2005); Elfriede Jelinek (2004); J. M. Coetzee (2003); Imre Kértesz (2002); V. S. Naipaul (2001); and Gao Xiangjin (2000).

Three of these writers, LeClézio, Lessing and Coetzee, come from Africa, but all are of European descent; one, Vargas Llosa, is Latin American, and again, primarily (wholly?) of European descent; and two come from the most populous country on earth, China, which before the selection of Gao, an exile living in France, had never had a Nobel Laureate in literature. Of this gathering, I wholeheartedly endorsed the selections of Munro, Tranströmer, Pinter, Coetzee, and Kértesz. I did not know of either Mo's or Gao's work before their selections. I have long been a fan of Modiano's, as my linked post above makes clear, but I think there are better Francophone fiction writers, with far greater range, such as Michel Tournier, or the much younger Alain Mabanckou (French-Congolese), and in any case, because of both Modiano's and LeClézio's awards, France's greatest living poet, Yves Bonnefoy, was overlooked yet again.

 Orhan Pamuk was clearly a political choice, and is a fine writer, but I slogged--as if wading through mucilage--through several of his books, including Snow and Black Book. Each had great moments and set pieces, but in general, I am not a fan. I may be alone in this judgment, though. I do think Müller is an exceptionally gifted writer and have written before on the blog about her prose, particularly in Nadirs, but there are other German-language writers of great talent who should have been higher in the queue, like Alexander Kluge, one of the true originals in any language. I also believe Vargas Llosa is prolific and not the worst choice, but with so many other talented Latin American fiction writers who have been overlooked, I thought his selection was a wasted choice. Lessing's selection made an important political point, though I do not like her work at all, and it was a very good choice to select writers from China, about whose literature I am completely ignorant (though I have since read one novel by Mo Yan in translation and am trying to catch up). Meanwhile, a path-blazing writer like Assia Djébar (of Algeria), for example, who in some key ways renovated the literature of her country while adding a vital voice to contemporary letters, not only was passed over, but passed away in the meantime.

Of course the Europeanist slant is the Swedish Academy's prerogative. They are Europeans, after all, and hold the literatures of that continent in the highest regard, which should hardly be a surprise. Yet the Nobel Prize has long been a global literature prize, sometimes given for a lifetime's achievement, and at other times for a work or series of works that seem to capture the spirit of the age. Many of its winners have been major innovators in their national and global literatures, and have had an outsized influence on writing that follows. Others have been eccentric choices that few people knew of and perhaps even fewer read today. And then there have been other choices like Jelinek that remain confounding. Her choice, in fact, led one member of the committee to resign in disgust. I am not sure if it merited that level of response, but apparently the rancor around her selection was significant.

So: given the tendencies of the Swedish Academy, who will they choose tomorrow? Critic and book lover Shigekuni makes some smart picks on his eponymous blog. High at the top of his list is someone I have repeated touted since 2005, and one of my favorite writers in the world, the highly original Guyanese-British writer--there really is no one who writes like him--Wilson Harris, who is now 94 years old, and who published his last novel several years ago. Harris would be an excellent and inspired choice, but for that reason I doubt it will happen. Another writer from the Anglophone world that Shigekuni points to is John Ashbery, now 88. Ashbery is one of the writers who survives from the remarkable generation of American poets born between 1925 and 1935, whose oeuvres still loom larger in our national literature, and he has been, like Harris, utterly original as he has also become, without question, one of the most influential poets not just in the English language, but globally. (To the dismay of some, I should add.) I am not sure, however, whether Ashbery's recent poetry, which sometimes reads like a parody of his best work, may have harmed his chances.

Shigekuni additionally mentions Nathaniel Mackey, another major American--and African American--poet (and fiction writer), who has finally begun to receive his due. Given two of Mackey's (and our) direct literary ancestors, the extraordinary poets Jay Wright and Edward Kamau Brathwaite, are still alive, I almost feel that either or both of them should receive the award first, but any of these authors, but especially Harris, Wright and Brathwaite, would be excellent. An African writer that Shigekuni cites, the Nigerian fiction writer Buchi Emecheta, strikes me as unlikely, though she certainly has a large and strong body of work. I have feeling that as with Guadeloupean writer Maryse Condé, one of my perpetual favorites, Nicaraguan fiction writer Claribel Alegría, and Brazilian poet Adélia Prado, all of these incredibly talented will continue to be overlooked by the Nobel committee, though the work of any of them should the award. Two other Latin American poets who probably will be passed over but who merit the award are Raúl Zurita, the singular, innovative Chilean poet so beautifully translated into English by poet Daniel Borzutzky, and his fellow Chilean Nicanor Parra, who is aging towards the clouds at 101--yes, he is 101 years old!--but whose poetry still cuts like a well-honed razor.

Other writers Shigekuni mentions who would be top choices, and one of whom may emerge as the Prize recipient, include Ngugi wa Thiong'o, whose prodigious writing not only sets a high standard but also helped to spark a crucial shift in African and decolonialist/post-colonial writing in general when he elected to write in Gikuyu, a language indigenous to Kenya, rather than in English. Ngugi also has been outspoken politically throughout his career, and as Shigekuni mentions, was jailed and went into exile as a result. Another is the lyrical master of Arabic poetry Adonis (Adunis, pen name of Ali Ahmad Said), a native of Syria, who has more than established himself as one of the leading figures in his language. Adonis's poetry is politically aware and clear-sighted, and has been widely and deeply praised. (I featured one of his poems back in 2005; in 2013 I had the almost inexpressible pleasure of meeting him in person, and shared a photograph of him on J's Theater.)

My thought is that given the turmoil in the Middle East, and the fact that the Swedish Academy has not honored a poet since Tranströmer and few others in the last 15 years, as well as no writer working in Arabic since Egyptian fiction writer Naguib Mahfouz in 1988, Adonis will be the pick, though it very well could be Ngugi, who more than deserves it. Ladbrokes, the betting site, has Ngugi third at 6/1, and Adonis twelfth at 20/1 but either really should be a top choice. Will the Swedish Academy do the right thing, or will it be one of the usual suspects high on Ladbroke's list? First there is the Ukrainian writer Svetlana Aleksijevitj, whose work I am not at all familiar with, though I know she is a journalist of some note.  Also high on their list are Japan's Haruki Murakami, a writer I do enjoy reading and have taught many times; Joyce Carol Oates (???); and Jon Fosse, whom I read as I was writing Counternarratives, and found compelling and somewhat like a more abstracted Pinter.

Also on the list are perennials Philip Roth; Peter Handke, who may be disqualified because of the controversy that still surrounds his pro-Serbian statements; John Banville, a writer's writer I think is very good but perhaps not Nobel-worthy; and Nawal El Sadawi, the Egyptian feminist I remember reading in my early 20s with enthusiasm. If it must go to a European writer, and it isn't one of the very senior figures like Bonnefoy, Lászlo Krazsnahórkai, who received last year's Man Booker International Prize, and whose most recently translated book into English, Seiobo There Below (New Directions, 2014), merits the epithet "sublime," ought to be the choice. That novel is peerless, and, like the late Roberto Bolaño's 2666, represents a possible, vital path for other writers to follow. (Krasznahórkai) currently is in New York City, so I am angling to find a way to meet him before he heads back to Hungary).

Lastly, there are the Swedish Academy's geographical gaps. Since Rabindranath Tagore received the Nobel Prize in 1913, no writer from that country has received the Nobel, yet India abounds in superb writers, as does much of South Asia in general. No Korean has won the award, though Ko Un is often cited as a likely choice. Indonesia's literature also has gone unrecognized. In the Americas, Brazil's rich literary tradition has never been honored with a Nobel; should it go to a Brazilian, I predict it will be either Lygia Fagundes Telles, now up in years, or the prodigious João Gilberto Noll, from the far south of the country, who published, as my colleague put it, several very "strange"--but to me striking--novels several decades ago, and who seems to be at the top of favorite lists among Brazilianists I know. (I had the pleasure of meeting Noll several years ago at a dinner in Evanston, and though he had lived and taught for a while in the United States, we rambled about haltingly, more because of my nerves than his, in Portuguese.)

Whomever they pick, the Swedish Academicians will certainly spur us to comment. If it's an obvious choice, we'll say, Of course we knew this was coming. If things go as they have of late, though, we might just be saying, well, of course I knew Mia Couto (Mozambique) or Patricia Grace (New Zealand) was going to receive the award! But really, we didn't! I will most certainly update this blog post either way.

Monday, September 21, 2015

2015 Rugby World Cup Underway

English and Fijian ruggers vie for the ball
Once upon a time visitors to J's Theater would be likely to encounter regular postings about professional sports, both of the US domestic kind (i.e. baseball in particular, as well as soccer and football) and of the kind played and championed in other parts of the globe (i.e., rugby, the Olympics, etc.). Back in 2005 I even wrote a post some years ago all the sports I like(d) to follow.

At some point, perhaps during one of my very busy autumns half a decade ago or so I ceased posted about baseball, for the most part, and also about all other sports, though I last year did mention soccer's FIFA World Cup in Brazil, with its attendant protests. (It turned out to be a debacle for the Brazilian team and harbinger of a looming political crisis for the country, though the World Cup in general went off without real problems after the first few matches.)
Try is good!
US rugger Andrew Durutalo
Fiji vs. England
Fiji's breakaway run
I haven't posted about rugby union's World Cup since 2011, but I marked my calendar not to miss this year's version, the 8th meeting of this sport's quadrennial global championship, and through the miracle of the Internet, I've been able to catch a few matches and catch up on many more. The UK is serving as host nation for the 2015 World Cup games, which began on September 18, and run through  October 31. The pool matches are taking place across England and Wales. The final will be held in Twickenham Stadium in London.

20 nations, including powerhouses New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, and France, as well as the United States, Canada, Italy, and Japan, and Pacific Island nations Tonga, Samoa, and Fiji, are in the competition. 12 of the 20 countries qualified by finishing in the top 3 places in their pools in the prior World Cup, in 2011, and only Uruguay, replacing Russia, did not compete in the prior championship. There are four pools of five teams, with each team in a pool playing a round-robin of 10 games with other pool members to establish which ones will advance to the next round on points and points differentials.

The pools are as follows:

Pool A: Australia, England, Wales, Fiji, Uruguay
Pool B: South Africa, Samoa, Scotland, Japan, United States
Pool C: New Zealand, Argentina, Tonga, Georgia, Namibia
Pool D: France, Ireland, Italy, Canada, Romania

Thus far, there have been expected outcomes, with host England defeated Fiji (though quite badly, which was surprising) 35-11, France walloping Italy 32-10, Ireland wiping Canada 50-7, and Wales defeating Uruguay 54-9, but there also have been upsets, with international powerhouse South Africa falling to Japan 32-34, and Argentina giving the New Zealand All Blacks a stiff challenge before going down 26-16. The US, which is somewhat near the bottom of the pack in global rankings, fell to Samoa 25-16, though they have the skills to win at least one match, if not more, in their pool.
After Fiji's loss to host England
Tonga's succesful try!
US (in dark blue) vs. Samoa
Tonga, and Georgia, during a scrum 
I'll end by noting that whenever I watch rugby I'm reminded of its many similarities to US football. Both involve a group of big men running up a field, with a ball, that they can throw to each other, kick down the field, and try to put over a goal line, or through upright bars, for points. On the other hand, in rugby there are no set yard gain requirements, no padding (except for earguards), and no forward passing.

The sport also involves a scrum, and the fascinating set play where each team hoists a player into the air to catch a sideline pass. (All of these game elements have specific names that I should look up.) When I was in high school, where rugby was played, I thought it was nowhere near as thrilling as football (and I didn't play it, either), but now, watching certain breakaway runs I think it gives football a credible challenge. I'm looking forward to watching more matches, and will aim to post a few more times before the championship is over.

Next matches up, this Wednesday: Scotland vs. Japan, Australia vs. Fiji, and France vs. Romania. Here are a few screen captures from the first few matches. Enjoy!

NZ All Black hooker Kevin Mealamu
throwing in the ball against Uruguay 
All Black back row rugger Victor Vito
New Zealand vs. Uruguay 
Uruguay tackles a New Zealander 
All Black rugger making a run 
New Zealand back Aaron Smith diving
for the goal line and try
Fijian lock Leone Nakarawa
England (in red) and Fiji,
during the match
A Tongan, going for a try (touchdown)
The Tongan player is almost there
South African players,
before their match 
Japan vs. South Africa 

Japan's Ayumu Gomomaru,
attempting a conversion 
Samoan players celebrating a try against US 
Samoan player throwing in
the ball, US vs. Samoa 
US player making a run
US teammates celebrating
US player attempting a goal kick 
Samoan player, after his team's
victory over the US

Friday, September 18, 2015

Baseball Season Winding Down

Our youthful obsessions, how hard it is to shed them! For much of my childhood and adolescence, and well into adulthood, I followed Major League Baseball avidly. Many testaments to this enthusiasm fill past pages of this blog, and although I haven't ceased watching professional baseball, my ardor has waned, especially after the revelations several years ago about the extensive use of performance enhancing drugs by a large number of players, including some, like the New York Yankees' superstar third baseball Álex Rodríguez, who had denied ever doping up.

Jason Heyward, St. Louis Cardinals
More than being disgusted at all these athletes, including the ones who repeatedly and consistently misled the public, I was most disgusted with and by Major League Baseball itself, and its handling of the crisis as it erupted over a series of several years. For much of the 1990s into the 2000s the pro teams had benefited from the juiced players and their almost superhuman feats. The Mark McGwire-Sammy Sosa home run battle in 1998, when McGwire hit 73 home runs to Sosa's 66, was the unmistakeable epitome of how PEDs had turned already great players into transhuman freaks, but Major League Baseball, attempting to draw audiences back after a strike and aiming to bank as much money as possible, aided and abetted the timber show, only later to denounce the two "heroes" for what was now clearly a PED-fed spectacle. (I must add that as far as I know, Sammy Sosa, once one of my favorite players, was never caught using PEDs.)

Perhaps even worse, by 2010, Major League Baseball had clear results of positive tests among a wide array of players, but rather than either exposing them and fining them or accepting the fact that supervised cycling could be beneficial for players and the sport, it appeared to hide the results until they later emerged as the result of a lawsuit, rendering the sport as believable as the theatrics on display with World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE). It has taken years for me to surmount my distaste for MLB's debacles, but my support for the St. Louis Cardinals never completely died, nor did my interest in pro baseball in general, which brings me to the current 2015 season, now winding to a close.
Dee Gordon, Los Angeles Dodgers
So what does the coming playoff picture look like? Let's start with the NL. In the NL East, the New York Mets (84-65) have a 6-game lead over the Washington Senators; in the NL Central, the Cardinals (93-56) lead Pittsburgh's Pirates (89-60) by 4 games and the Chicago Cubs (87-62) by 6 games, with 10 the Cards' magic number and the other two teams likely to achieve Wild Card status easily; and in the NL West, the LA Dodgers (85-63) lead their closest competitors by 7.5 games, with 7 the magic number.

Thus far the Cardinals have set the pace with strong starting pitching and a solid position-playing lineup without any stars, unlike in past years, when future Hall of Famer Albert Pujols, and Cy Young Award-winning pitcher Chris Carpenter led them to 2 World Series wins in 5 years (2006 and 2011). All of these teams have real talent, though. The Mets have one of the best starting pitching staffs in the league; the Pirates have excellent young players; the Dodgers play more as individuals than a coherent whole, but have the pitching and hitting to go all the way. I'm rooting for the Cardinals, but whether they can get past all these challengers will be the test.
Chris Archer,
Tampa Bay Rays

In the American League, the East division leaders are the Toronto Blue Jays. Yes, the 85-64 Blue Jays, and not the Yankees. It's almost like a flashback to their 1992-1993 Cito Gaston years. The Yankees are only 2.5 games back, at 82-66, but have looked far less dominant than in recent years. In the AL West, which seems to be the perpetually weakest division, the Texas Rangers (80-69), who've had several continuous years of playoff success without winning the World Series, lead the Houston Astros (79-71) by 1.5 games. It's in the NL Central, though, where you can find the AL's real powerhouse, the Kansas City Royals (87-62). The Royals have a good but not dominant starting pitching staff, bolstered by the excellent Johnny Cueto acquisition from the Cincinnati Reds, but they do possess a punchy ineup and strong pitching relief.

It also has been 30 years (1985) since the Royals and Cardinals faced each other in the (in)famous "Interstate 70" series that involved a terrible umpiring call, the superb pitching of former Royals All Star Bret Saberhagen, and the only World Series appearance of Hall of Famer George Brett. That year the St. Louis Cardinals won 101 games and lost 61; this year they are grinding towards another 100 win season. The last two times they won 100 games, in 2004 and 2005, they lost the World Series to Boston and the National League Championship Series to Houston (now in the AL). In their recent World Series-winning seasons of 2006 and 2011, they had what appeared to be shaky records of 83-78 and 90-72. This is not to say that they cannot win the championship if they break the 100-win mark but I want to note that the last time they won the World Series in a season in which they won 100 games was 1967--and they had one of the greatest pitchers of all time, Bob Gibson, on the mound to defeat Boston in 7 games. However it goes, though, Cards, Royals, Yankees, Mets, or one of the other teams, I'll be watching!


Jake Arrieta, Chicago Cubs
The statistical leaders thus far, in a season that has included six no-hitters, by Chris Heston (SF) against the New York Mets; Max Scherzer (WAS) against the Pittsburgh Pirates; Cole Hamels (PHI) against the Chicago Cubs; Hisashi Iwakuma (SEA) against the Baltimore Orioles; Mike Fiers (HOU) against the LA Dodgers; and Jake Arrieta (CHC) against the Dodgers, and Zack Greinke's 45 2/3 innings scoreless streak:

AL Batting Leaders: Miguel Cabrera (DET) .338, Xander Bogaerts (BOS) .322, Michael Brantley (CLE) .315

AL Home Run Leaders: Chris Davis (BAL) 43, Nelson Cruz (SEA) 42, Mike Trout (LAA) 39

AL RBI Leaders: Jason Donaldson (TOR) 120, Chris Davis (BAL) 109, Kendry Morales (KC) 105

AL ERA Leaders: Dave Price (TOR) 2.42, Dallas Keuchel (HOU) 2.56, Sonny Gray (OAK) 2.72

AL Wins Leaders: "King Félix" Hernández (SEA) 18, Collin McHugh (HOU) 17, Dallas Keuchel (HOU) 17

AL Strikeout Leaders: Chris Sale (CWS) 259, Chris Archer (TB) 243, Corey Kluber (CLE) 224

NL Batting Leaders: Bryce Harper (WAS) .343, Dee Gordon (MIA) .332, Buster Posey (SF) .327

NL Home Run Leaders: Bryce Harper (WAS) 41, Nolan Arenado (COL) 39, Carlos González (COL) 37

NL RBI Leaders: Nolan Arenado (COL) 114, Paul Goldschmidt (ARI) 100, Matt Kemp (SD) 98

NL ERA Leaders: Zack Greinke (LAD) 1.65, Jake Arrieta (CHC) 1.96, Clayton Kershaw (LAD) 2.18

NL Wins Leaders: Jake Arrieta (CHC) 19, Zack Greinke (LAD) 18, Madison Bumgarner (SF) 18,

NL Strikeout Leaders: Clayton Kershaw (LAD) 272, Mike Scherzer (WAS) 237, Madison Bumgarner (SF) 219

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Reading @ Rutgers-Newark + New Reviews & Interviews

On Monday, as I mentioned in my post about my HuffPost Live appearance, I gave a reading at Rutgers-Newark as part of the African American and African Studies Fall 2015 event series. This was actually the second time I read from Counternarratives at the university, though the first since the book was published back in May. Previously I had read "Mannahatta" at the MFA program reading back in 2013, but this time, I read "Acrobatique," and, for an encore, two short sections from "The Aeronauts."

Though the reading coincided with the MFA program's workshop period, a full crowd filled the room, with many colleagues and students present, as well as members of the Newark community; the question and answer session was lively; and I sold and signed a handful of books. A free reception with lots of delicious food followed.

Below is a short film by Justine Hunter with some video clips and a voice-over of me reading. Many thanks to Justine, and to departmental administrator Christina Strasburger and administrative assistant Rabeya Rahman, as well the Dana Library, for making this wonderful event possible!



The good reviews keep rolling in, thank the gods. Brad Johnson, a bookseller and critic, penned and published one the most laudatory reviews of Counternarratives to appear thus far, in The Quarterly Conversation. I am especially pleased that Johnson connected the collection's themes to today's local and national events, and identified the political consciousness informing the stories. Like several other readers, he views it almost as a novel in stories: A quote:
This is the context of John Keene’s ambitious collection of stories and novellas, Counternarratives. Though many of these were published elsewhere, together they read very much like the multi-genre, patchwork novels of Alexander Kluge—or perhaps more grandly still, László Krasznahorkai’s recent Seiobo There Below, a work bound not by plotted coherence but by a conceptual aesthetic thriving on difference. This is to say, while Counternarratives makes no claim to being a “novel of short stories,” its epic sweep and conceptual unity bear the marks. Indeed, one might speculate further that this “story collection” lives up to its title and effectively challenges—like Kluge and Krasznahorkai (among others)—the commonplace sense of how a novel should look and what it should do.

In Front Porch Journal, a journal published by MFA students at Texas State University, critic Patrick Cline praised Counternarratives, with a focus on its aesthetics, which we discussed further in a conversation with Book Reviews editor Michaela Hansen. One quote:
To this reader, the chameleon-like range of the writing is impressive. The book as a whole feels like an entry from Oulipo, the French writer’s collective devoted to prompts and restrictions, but like a really good Oulipo book. One whose writer is invigorated by the challenge posed by each prompt, and uses each as an opportunity to explore his pet themes—freedom and control, legacy and hauntings, the influences of religion, and queer love throughout history. Each story is a surprise and a success, and cumulatively they come together to feel vital. This is an important book—it’s important to own, to read, to teach, and to slip in your shelf beside the classic narratives that it’s in conversation with.
In Full Stop, reviewer Patrick Disselhorst offers kudos through and amid a perceptive reading of Counternarratives that gets the relationship between the written and the oral, the constructedness of narration and of lives, and the power of fiction to reorient not just our thinking, but our vision of the world. He writes of a sentence in the first story, "Mannahatta":
Keene’s long sentence meanders and searches for something to grasp ahold of. But, the lack of specificity, the lack of demarcations, is inherent to his character’s predicament. Rodriquez [sic], Keene alerts the reader in the introductory note to the story’s initial publication in TriQuarterly, as “a mulatto . . . of San Domingo,” the son of a Portuguese father and African mother, complicates the reader’s understanding of New York. The first settler of the city, simultaneously African, Dominican, and Latin American, is underrecognized, but in this story, he emerges, “never to return to the Jonge Tobias, or any other ship, nor to the narrow alleys of Amsterdam or his native Hispaniola.” Rodriquez [sic] functions as our introductory figure to the text — a man of African descent arrives as a settler, and along with him, an alternative understanding of how the Americas were initially constituted. Keene trains the reader to be alert to openness; to view things singularly involves a lack of foresight in watching figures or situations brush up against received knowledge.

Three of the best interviews and conversations I've participated in have recently been published. In conjunction with the Front Porch Journal review, which I link to above, I chatted with Book Reviews Editor Michaela Hansen and reviewer Patrick Cline, who sent me a set of questions, and then sent a few more based on my first set of responses. In this interview, titled "Countering the Narrative," I love how much they delved into the stories and how curious Patrick was about the relevance and effects of a post-modernist approach:

FP: Hmm, I suppose it’s the stylistic pastiches of “Encounternarratives” that I’m asking about. The styles invoked seem to correspond to the historical moment of each story—an impressionistic style in “Acrobatique” to capture an impressionist subject, the cacophony of languages in “Cold” at a time when it seemed that art was working to capture exactly that (e.g. Dada, Eliot)—as well as the subjects. I think what I was most struck by was that the stories seem to exhibit no fear of Yvor Winters’ “imitative fallacy”—that they’re fully willing to invent new stylistic modes simply to accurately capture varieties of experience, without reflexively casting doubt their ability to do so. I’m wondering if the justification of pastiche affords them this boldness. 
JK: Your identification of the historicization embedded in the stories’ forms is a great one. I do wonder, though are these fully stylistic “pastiches”? Of Modernist prose? Or does “pastiche” function as one of many modes in them and all the volume’s narratives? I see the forms and styles as apt textual embodiments and enactments of the stories’ themes. To put it another way, the prose forms and texts here serve not merely as presentations but as partial representations of the narratives they convey, which is to say, they possess a mimetic function or component, which is, admittedly, fairly uncommon in contemporary American literature. With “Acrobatique,” the prose visually mirrors the story’s progression but also its central ideas. In popular memory, the specificity of Miss La La had become as lost to us as any single thread within the vast tapestry of Degas’s artistic output. That recovered thread, via my imagination, is the one the story hangs on. As for Winters, I suppose I read his “imitative fallacy” as too proscriptive, which is always a spur to defiance. How did Caliban put it in The Tempest? “I’ll have none on’t.” Or as Elizabeth Alexander has written, “Oh language/my trinket, my dialect bucket,/my bracelet of flesh.” If we listened too closely to Winters, we’d lose a sizable swath of our literary treasures, and not just those from modernism—or post-modernism—o

Earlier this summer, writer and reviewer Blake Butler conducted an interview with me for VICE. We spoke by phone around the time of the book launches, and some of what we discussed I've since repeated several times, but the conversation was free-wheeling and I felt particularly expansive at times. At one point we discussed current approaches to teaching Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn:
I remember maybe it was like five years ago when they were trying to get the racial slurs removed from Huck Finn, or at least change them to a different word. Do you think of a practice like that versus going in and exposing the trouble from a completely different way?  
I feel like we shouldn't whitewash anything. Because Huckleberry Finn, and any number of such books, are artifacts of our history. And I think if you're teaching it to a younger person then the teacher should frame it. You don't want to say, "This is a bad book, this is a good book." You want to say: "This term will appear here, and we want to understand why it is in here. So one of the things we are going to think about while we're reading—and it's not going to be easy—[is] why do you think this term appears in here and what does it tell us about the moment, the era, the time in which it was written?" I think this is actually very, very powerful for students. But it's the role of the teacher to contextualize and assist the students in understanding why a book reads the way it does. This is not just in the matter of race and racism, but gender and misogyny, and homophobia and classism in certain kinds of books. Because if a book is a very good book on most levels, we want to understand not only why it's a good book and its successes, but also what are its failures? What is problematic about it? Not just a book, but any work of art. What is succeeding in it, and also what isn't succeeding?

Last but not least, while at Image Text Ithaca I participated in a long, remarkable conversation with poet, critic and scholar Tonya Foster, whose new, stellar collection of poems A Swarm of Bees in High Court has just been published by New York publisher Belladonna*. The conversation appears in the new Fall 2015 issue of BOMB Magazine, and so is not online yet (I think it'll appear in full once the next issue goes to press), but an excerpt, titled "Haikus of Grief, Silence in Harlem," did appear on LitHub, the new aggregator site sponsored by several major New York publishers.

Though it's a tiny sliver of our exchange, and zeroes in on questions of grief and trauma in Tonya's collection, it offers a distilled taste of what we both were thinking and had to say. I can't wait to post the full version, and please do grab a copy of BOMB to read it if you can.

From LitHub:

John Keene: In the notes at the end of your new poetry book, A Swarm of Bees in High Court, you describe it as “a biography of life in the day of a particular neighborhood,” and you use the phrase “the multiple as subject and as swarm of actors.” Based on those descriptions you could have written a nonfiction text or a more literal reflection, but you’re capturing this world in a lyric mode, undertaking compelling things with form.

What really comes through is a play of both the ear—sound, music, and noise, in the positive sense of the term, as distortion—and also the eye. Could you talk about how you decided to go with the haiku-like form, which you stick to at certain points, and you break in others? At the very end we get a little section of prose, almost like a fable.

Tonya: The first thing that comes to mind is Amiri Baraka saying, “You know, I would read poems in The New Yorker and think, I can’t write poems like that.” (laughter) The work of the book began when someone asked me to write about 9/11, and I thought, What? It just seemed bizarre.

How do you write about grief when you’re in the middle of it? How do you imagine or traverse that necessary distance? I had been writing erotic haiku to a man I liked. And someone else said, “Why don’t you write haiku about 9/11?” I thought, Okay, I could do that and not weep, right? I could write these little condensed pieces about New York at that period. It was a time when there were these condensed, very tense encounters with the images of people who were missing—but not only with them; you were also encountering the people missing them, looking for them.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

My HuffPost Live Segment on *Hamilton*

As far as I can remember, I've never participated on a live online discussion before, but that changed yesterday when I appeared on HuffPost Live's daily segment to discuss Lin-Manuel Miranda's remarkable new Broadway biomusical Hamilton: An American Musical, which currently is playing at the Richard Rogers Theater.

The segment host
A HuffPost producer, Felicia Kelley, had read my VICE review--praise song--of the musical, and invited me to join several veteran theater critics--Jesse Green, senior theater critic for New York Magazine; Suzie Evans, senior editor at American Theater; and journalist and playwright Michelle Williams in discussing why Miranda's creation is so popular and important. We connected on Google Hangout, which I've heard people mention before, but this was the first time I'd ever used it, and I highly recommend its simplicity and functionality.

The set-up in my office
I was extremely nervous, though, and despite the fact that we'd been prepped a bit about the direction of the conversation, we had no idea what questions the segment host, Caroline Modaressy-Tehrani, would ask. It also was live and unedited, so what we said was exactly what viewers saw and heard. I think I acquitted myself decently under the circumstances, and did remember to mention US history, immigration, race and casting, the musical's relevance in relation to the current presidential campaign, and the fact that it includes multiple styles of hip hop, including beat box, chopper and freestyle moments. Otherwise, it was a blur, but a fun one, and I loved hearing what the theater critics had to say about Miranda's masterpiece.

A few hours after that I gave an evening reading at the university, without a hint of nerves. I'll be posting on that tomorrow. Enjoy the discussion, and above all, if you can, go see Hamilton!

My screen grab during the conversation

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Call and Response: The Gift of Women Poets

Ntozake Shange in 1977
(© Marilyn K. Yee/New York Times)
A month ago, poet, critic, activist, and visionary Amy King sent out a call to an array of writers inviting us to write on a woman poet who had influenced our work and whose poetic gifts to the world we wanted to celebrate. The effort was to be collective and collaborative, producing a micro-anthology commemorating some of the greatest--and in some cases forgotten--voices in and of our literatures, voices without whose efforts many of us would not be writing. 

We were urged to choose writers who either were no longer physically with us or who were getting up in years, since in both cases they are less likely to receive the attention that contemporary, younger women writers do. Most importantly, given the continued sexism and misogyny in the literary and wider worlds, compiling this poetic pageant remains necessary work. Singing these poets' talents, and bringing others to their songs, is one of the most important things we can do. We need their vision, and we need it to shape our own.

As Amy says in her introduction to "Call and Response: The Gift of Women Poets (Part 1)," which now appears on the Poetry Foundation's Harriet website:
While I am very much a fan of recovery projects, this collaborative endeavor is not that. If, as the curator, I must frame it at all, this rich pageant of poets highlights the very worthwhile intersections we all reach individually in our lives: that of recognizing that women-identified poets are of intense, even transformative value, despite living in a culture that often devalues the feminine. Each writer sings out an older or no longer living poet who had a personal influence on them. What you will find is a series of anecdotes and lead-ins to the work & personhood of these female poets who have endured and brought forth, for us, words that have deepened, moved, and given us the gift to see otherwise.

I wrote about the great Ntozake Shange (1948-), an ever-innovative writer who has been and continues to be tremendously influential for me. She is still with us, but several years ago suffered several strokes, in addition to the effects of a neurological disorder, and has experienced trouble speaking and getting around.  Her imagination and artistry are incandescent; most people rightly know her landmark choreopoem for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf, but Shange also is the prolific author of collections of poetry, novels, essays, works for children, and numerous other plays and choreopieces. You can find my celebration of Shange at the second link below; Part 1 encompasses Etel Adnan to Myung Mi Kim, while Part 2 includes Carolyn Kizer through Margaret Walker.

Friday, September 11, 2015


14 years ago today, my first day teaching in Providence, a day whose events and aftermath we all will be living and dealing with for decades to come.

Wednesday, September 09, 2015

Random Photos

Readers at the Jacob Lawrence: The
Migration Series
event at MoMA
(l-r, Rita Dove, Crystal Williams, Yusef
Komunyakaa, Elizabeth Alexander, Nikki
Finney, Terrance Hayes, Lyrae Van Clief-
Stefanon, Tyehimbe Jess, Natasha
Trethewey, Patricia Spears Jones,
Kevin Young)
Mr. Statue of Liberty,
World Trade Center 
Napping cabbie

Late night ride, MTA 
At the bewitching hour 
The futuristic new WTC PATH
station, which inches toward completion
At Grove St. Station, Jersey City
A local who decided to change
his clothes in public
Original editions of Yugen,
the famous journal edited by
Leroi Jones and Hettie Jones
(found in Ithaca)
Near the World Financial District 
The roofers at work
Author and playwright James Earl
Hardy, at the New York performance
of his play version of his landmark
B-Boy Blues on its 20th anniversary 

Churchyard, Jersey City 
My university office desk,
clean for a change!
Workers in Newark
On the street, Jersey City