Thursday, July 02, 2015

Book Launch III @ McNally Jackson + Flavorwire/WSJ/Time Out Reviews & Picks

Last night marked the last and final leg of my launch of Counternarratives. At McNally Jackson Bookstore in Manhattan, I read and participated in a conversation with the super-smart writer and Harper's New Books columnist Christine Smallwood. The room was packed, so many friends, colleagues and former students were there, and the dialogue with Christine, whom I'd never met before but am glad to have had the opportunity to chat with, was lively, in no small part because of Christine's excellent questions, and, I hope for those present, entertaining and informative. We also sold a great number of books!

Many, many thanks to Alice Whitwham and Valerie Slaughter at McNally Jackson and to the store; to Christine Smallwood again for her extraordinary review of Counternarratives and for participating last night; to New Directions for making the book and this event possible; and to everyone who has supported me in any and every way along the way, including by attending these three readings. I hope to see friends and readers who could not attend at events down the road, and I'll post future reading dates as those firm up (there are several under plan for this fall)! Again, thanks so much!

Some photos (all by C):

Reading
A sliver of the audience
Christine Smallwood and I in conversation

Signing books 
Signing (never loses its thrill)
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From the delightful artist Kate Gavino's Tumblr site, Last Night's Reading:



Check out her Tumblr blog for many more readings and writers!

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More good news on the reviews and book selection front. First, on Flavorwire Jonathan Sturgeon selected Counternarratives as one of its "15 Best Works of Fiction of 2015 So Far"! I will simply quote the entire blurb, which is about as good as these mini-reviews get.

Richly conceived and brilliantly executed, the most original set of fictions to be released so far this year, John Keene’s Counternarratives does for American literature what Alexander Kluge’s fiction has done for German literature — it reopens its future by laying bare its ideological roots. The long narrative “An Outtake From the Ideological Origins of the American Revolution,” which documents the lost story of a runaway slave — as if this story were cut from Bernard Bailyn’s Pulitzer Prize-winning history — is a masterpiece of short fiction.
I particularly love the mention of Kluge, who is one of my favorite writers, and whose work I've written about many times and even translated on this blog.

Second, critic Sam Sacks delivered a strong affirmation in his June 26, 2015 Wall Street Journal review of Counternarratives. Pairing his discussion of the story collection with Iranian writer Bahiyyah Nakhjavani's novel The Woman Who Read Too Much (Redwood, 2015), which he praises highly, Sacks says of Counternarratives
He exerts superb control over his stories, costuming them in the style of Jorge Luis Borges as dispassionate archival documents—found diaries, newspaper clippings, obscure scholarly texts; Carmel’s story is literally structured as a footnote to a reference work on early American Catholicism. Yet Mr. Keene preserves the undercurrent of excitement and pathos that accompanies his characters’ persecution and their gropings toward freedom. The book’s post-colonial angle may not be wholly new, but storytelling prowess is something that never grows old.

First Kluge, now Borges. That's empyrean company!

Last, the exemplary folks at Park Slope Community Bookstore, which hosted my first launch reading, selected Counternarratives for Time Out New York's list of "15 books you should read this summer." Again, fantastic company, with wordsmiths of the highest caliber, including Naomi Jackson (whose debut book The Star Side of Bird Hill just appeared from Penguin), Celeste Ng, Siri Hustvedt, Kamel Daoud, Neil Gaiman, and Ian McEwan.

Thanks a gazillion to these reviewers and listmakers! I'll keep knocking on wood, and I ask that you keep reading and telling people about Counternarratives.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Supreme Court Affirms Obamacare & Marriage Equality

In this March 23, 2010, photo, President Barack Obama
signs the Affordable Care Act in the East Room
of the White House in Washington.
 (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File)
This year's Supreme Court of the United States session is nearly over, but the court has just issued two major decisions that will resonate for years to come. In the first, in a 6-3 decision to King v. Burwell, a lawsuit brought by four conservative plaintiffs to challenge the legality of subsidies for people buying plans on the federal Affordable Care Act--a/k/a Obamacare--exchanges, the court ruled in favor of the landmark law. Conservative Chief Justice John Roberts Jr., who had previously voted with the majority in the 2012 case NIHIB v Sibelius to uphold Obamacare's mandate as a tax, again wrote the winning decision, stating that the ambiguous wording of the statute, "established by the state," should be understood in light of Congress's intentions, which were that the subsidies should not be limited to state-established exchanges, but were legally extendable to the federal ones as well. Roberts was joined in his decision by Associate Justices Stephen Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Elena Kagan, Anthony Kennedy, and Sonia Sotomayor. Dissenting were conservative Associate Justices Samuel Alito, Antonin Scalia, and Clarence Thomas.

As a result, not only will the 6 million+ people in danger of losing their subsidies retain them, but this ruling effectively ensures the existence of Obamacare through the end of the President's term. What is also clear is that given its proven successes of providing health insurance to 16 million new people through the state and federal exchanges, and of guaranteeing coverage for over 160 million by striking the pre-existing condition bar, it very well may become as popular, despite its multiple market-friendly, neoliberal components, as prior social insurance programs like Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid now are. This, along with the taxes levied on high income owners has been, I think, one of the major reasons behind the conservative hatred of the law. The other major one was, despite its origins in and similarities to early 1990s Congressional Republican health care plans and to the state plan Mitt Romney successfully implemented in Massachusetts, the fact that this marked a major legislative victory by President Obama.

One effect of the ruling I noted was that in those states that faced challenges in rolling out local exchanges, shifting to the federal exchange was now a viable option, thereby federalizing the law even more through the back door. Whether this will lead eventually to Medicare-for-all or, even better from a logistical and economic standpoint, a form of single payer health insurance, remains to be seen. But the President was right to point out that as this ruling ratified Obamacare for the near term; it is here to stay, and in the loss, the Republicans dodged a major bullet, since they had no viable, comparable health insurance plan to speak of. Even conservative journalists had begun to question some Republican leaders on this fact. Now they won't have to devise one; it already exists, and is working.

One final thing I'll say is that it struck me that a bit of literary critical study--or even basic reading comprehension--could have led the court to reject this challenge outright. "The state" in common parlance certainly does mean an individual state, as in "the state of New Jersey, like all others in the US, issues drivers' licences." However, "the state" also has the popular meaning of "nation" or "federal entity." It's not just the literary gambit of William Shakespeare writing of"something [being] rotten in the state of Denmark," but regular invocations of "state violence" or "the state's overreach," etc., that point to this other meaning being valid. Thus it strikes me that the Congress's alleged inartfulness was actually quite clever; in those four words, they had already made their case, and all that was needed was careful reading, which Roberts and the five other justices gave the law. Dissenting conservative Associate Justice Scalia disagreed, in spiteful fashion, but what else is new?

***

Black lesbian couple marrying
on beach (BlackEnterprise.com)
Not to be outdone with the Obamacare decision, on LGBTIQ+ Pride Weekend in New York City, the Supreme Court affirmed, in a 5-4 decision in Obergefell v. Hodges and several other linked cases from Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio, and Tennessee, that according to the 14th Amendment of the United States Constitution, same-sex marriage was a federal right for all Americans under the Equal Protection clause. The opinion, written by Associate Justice Anthony Kennedy, cited equal protection and due process, and effectively federalized same-sex marriage, which only 15 years ago existed in one state, Massachusetts. Kennedy's decision, joined by Associate Justices Breyer, Bader Ginsburg,  Kagan, and Sotomayor, was the culmination of decades of work by marriage equality activists and theorists.

As Huffington Post notes:
In the majority opinion, the justices outlined several reasons same-sex marriage should be allowed. They wrote that the right to marriage is an inherent aspect of individual autonomy, since "decisions about marriage are among the most intimate that an individual can make." They also said gay Americans have a right to "intimate association" beyond merely freedom from laws that ban homosexuality. 
Extending the right to marry protects families and "without the recognition, stability, and predictability marriage offers, children suffer the stigma of knowing their families are somehow lesser," the justices wrote.
In response to the ruling, each of the judges on the losing side, Chief Justice Roberts Jr., and Associate Justices Alito, Scalia, and Thomas, wrote separate dissents, some of them extreme in their rhetoric. Roberts cited problematic historical precedents; Alito wondered whether people who disagreed with same sex marriage would be discriminated against; Scalia harshly mocked Kennedy's opinion and writing style, while seemingly approving sexual liberationist rhetoric; and Thomas, perhaps most offensively, wondered whether enslaved and interned people did not still maintain their dignity, thereby calling for continued discrimination.

The ruling could have been narrower; Kennedy could have found only for cross-state recognition of marriages performed by a state that had legalized same-sex marriage in ones that had not, but the ruling not only ratified that principle, but also legalization in states that had overtly passed anti-marriage equality statutes. The case's lead plaintiff, Ohioan James Obergefell, had married his late partner of three decades, John Arthur, who passed away 3 months later, and had sought to be listed as Arthur's spouse on his death certificate.

Kennedy's 2003 decision in Lawrence v. Texas, which decriminalized state laws against sodomy--in its same and opposite sexual forms--was an important step in the decade and a half-long process towards marriage equality. Another step came in 2013, when the court struck down the odious 1996 Defense of Marriage (DOMA) law, which the GOP-led Congress had passed and President Bill Clinton had signed into law. The decision also tracked the shift towards public support of same-sex marriage, which currently stands at 60% (Gallup), after having been as low as 44% (vs. 53% against) only a decade ago, and 27% back in 1996 when DOMA passed. A major component of this cultural and political shift has occurred because of younger Americans, who show higher levels of LGBTIQ acceptance than their elders.


Despite the significance of the ruling, numerous challenges for LGBTIQ people remain. First, there is no guarantee--despite the legal ruling that some recalcitrant states will apply the laws as required, without visible or invisible resistance. (State responses to various civil rights laws and rulings offer a precedent.) In addition, a number of the leading GOP candidates have called for resistance to the ruling, and several, such as Mike Huckabee, have called for a Constitutional Amendment to counter the new status quo. Perhaps more importantly, in a majority of states, as NPR noted in April, it is still legal to discriminate against LGBTIQ people, or those thought to fall under this category, in employment, housing, and public accommodations. Surprisingly to me, many people, including many queer people, seem not to grasp this. To put it another way, you can now get married to a person of the same sex in Mississippi, but if you live in a municipality that does not offer civil protections, you can be fired, lose your apartment, and be denied a hotel room! You also may risk losing custody of your children as well.

I should also note that there will be increasing pressure on LGBTIQ peeople to marry and thereby (homo)normalize our relationships, a push counter to the gay liberation ethos of the 1970s and early 1980s, in which LGBTIQ people sought to define ourselves as we saw fit, against and outside the demands of oppressive heteronormativity. Not only will innovative and distinctive forms of domestic arrangement between consenting adults become frowned upon, but legal possibilities such as domestic partnerships and civil unions, which my partner and I have, may also be phased out, forcing LGBTIQ people into the same narrowed options as heterosexuals. While this may be fine for some--many?-- homonormative people it may not fit for all, and while I personally and strongly support the legalization of same-sex marriage and support marriage equality under the law, I also believe consenting adults should not be restrained by such laws in creating relationships that work for them. The question no longer may be whether the state will recognize alternative relationship possibilities, but whether LGBTIQ people will sanction them.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Amazon to Pay by Page Turn + WORD Jersey City Reading

The behemoth strikes again. By behemoth, I mean Amazon, the global retailing corporation that also is the world's largest bookstore, and a major force in contemporary (American) publishing. According to a Monday report in The Guardian, the most recent big news in the annals of Amazon's publishing ventures involves its decision to start paying writers based on page turns. Page turns! This policy won't, however, affect all authors whose ebooks are available on Amazon. Yet. Right now it applies only to self-published authors whose books appear in Amazon's Kindle Owner's Lending Library and Kindle Unlimited services. But it portends a shift in publishing that writers may want to pay attention to.

Amazon, as a book publisher, originally paid self-published authors royalties once a customer read 10% of an ebook. This unfairly penalized authors of longer works (compare a 600 page novel to a 60 page novella, or long form essay), who got nothing if readers stopped reading before the royalty trigger. Some authors then decided to start dividing up works into shorter pieces to ensure their royalties, leading to a potential flood of material--or more than already exists--on Amazon's site. So Amazon came up with a new plan to address the problem, as well as a system to normalize the meaning of "page" in ebooks and what counts as "reading it"; think time spent on the page, standardized fonts, and so on.

In The Guardian, Amazon says of its rationale,
We’re making this switch in response to great feedback we received from authors who asked us to better align payout with the length of books and how much customers read. Under the new payment method, you’ll be paid for each page individual customers read of your book, the first time they read it.
In other words, if you write that 600 page novel and someone reads it all the way through, you'll be paid more than the author of a 60 page novella. But if a reader gives up 10% of the way through the longer book (i.e., 60 pages), both of you will earn the same. It should also be noted that the payments will come from a limited, dedicated pool of money Amazon calculates on a monthly basis--based on total sales?--so authors will be competing against each other directly for royalties.

As I noted previously in a February post on ebooks and surveillance, this is part of the advancing corporate intrusion into what had previously been for centuries a private experience; since the advent of silent reading of codex books, no one truly knew how much or in what ways you read. With e-reader tracking, this information is readily accessible by all e-book publishers. E-devices, however, can now track you down to how far you get into a book, what you reread, and where you stop reading, as many readers do with many books. These activities are being commodified and financialized, quietly in the cases of the e-reader companies themselves, but overtly now with Amazon's new move.

In my earlier post I also suggested, following the lead of Francine Prose, who wrote about e-reader tracking in The New York Review of Books, that this surveillance and the data resulting from it would begin to reshape how some authors imagined their work, which is to say, their aesthetics. It's a direct line from anticipating, based on data, what will draw readers, to feeling pressure to write based on what will generate page views--and turns--and then from there to publishers' demands to do so. Longer books with each element shaped by data about what keeps readers turning pages...of course this is something some authors may grasp intuitively, and some books that fit this criterion are very well written, and true works of art.

But the write-by-the-numbers approach could also have disastrous effects on literary production, while also further breaking down the already shaky publishing system's financial base. This may sound like dystopian view of things, but we have, as I pointed out, the example of contemporary Hollywood filmmaking. If no one ever reads a book to the end or stops halfway through most books, most authors will earn even less than they already do. And as the examples of the journalistic and music industries show, will any but a very few earn a fair and liveable amount for their creative labor?  The lure of market-based thinking is a strong one these days. Amazon is a apex predator corporation, and other publishers, especially the bigger ones, will feel the need to follow Amazon's lead.

Put the two together...well, let's write that horror film another time.

***

Many thanks to everyone who came out to last night's reading at WORD Bookstore in Jersey City! Thanks also to everyone at WORD, especially Caitlin and Zach, for making the reading possible. It was energizing to see a healthy crowd, filled with so many familiar faces, and to be able to share with a live audience something I hadn't yet read aloud--the final pages of "Rivers"--from Counternarratives.  

Also, thanks to WORD for having a good number of copies of Counternarratives in stock, and to everyone who bought a copy. I have one more New York area reading, on July 1, before heading off to Ithaca for Image Text Ithaca, so please come out to McNally-Jackson Bookstore, where I'll be reading and participating in a conversation with Christine Smallwood!

If you are in Jersey City, make sure to stop by WORD, which is at 123 Newark Ave., just steps away from the Grove Street PATH station. A few photos:



Friday, June 19, 2015

Racism, American Culture and the Massacre at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston

No sanctuary in this society, it seems, none. Not in our homes, not in the streets, not behind the wheel, not in a store, not in public swimming pools, not even in our churches. Nowhere in this country, it seems, can black people not live and breathe and simply be without fear of being hunted down, beaten, brutalized, killed.

Emanuel A.M.E. Church
On Wednesday the nation and world witnessed another example of this fact when a 21-year-old white terrorist massacred nine black people in the historic Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. The Rev. Clementa Pinckney, 41, a South Carolina state senator, who had welcomed the murderer into the church to participate in a Bible study session, was among the slain, as were Rev. Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, 45, a mother of three and a high school track coach; Cynthia Hurd, 54, a librarian at St. Andrews Regional Library of the Charleston County Public Library; Tywanza Sanders, 26, a recent graduate of Allen University and barber, who had attempted to shield his 87-year old aunt, Susie Jackson; Myra Thompson, 59, the wife of the vicar of the Holy Trinity Reformed Episcopal Church; Ethel Lee Lance, 70, a cousin of Susie Jackson and a longtime member of the church; Rev. Daniel L. Simmons, 74, a ministerial staff member at the church; and Rev. DePayne Middleton Doctor, 49, a minister, member of the church choir, and mother of four. Tywanza Sanders' mother and a 5-year-old child played dead to survive

The terrorist, Dylann Storm Roof, of Columbia, South Carolina, fled the scene and was on the loose before being taken into custody in Shelby, North Carolina, after a florist spotted his car and called authorities.

While it is unknown why Roof chose the Emanuel AME Church, the oldest AME congregation in the South, founded in 1816, the church does have a long and visible civil rights history dating back to the 19th century, and Roof specifically asked for Rev. Pinckney and sat next to him. Among its early members, who included enslaved and free blacks, was Denmark Vesey, who attempted a slave revolt in 1822 before being betrayed, after which the church was burnt to the ground, its rites thereafter being conducted in secret until after the US Civil War. Over the years the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had visited the church, which played an important role in civil rights organizing the city and state, to champion black South Carolinians' right to vote, and his widow, Coretta Scott King, addressed and then led participants in a march for hospital workers' rights. Its leader, Rev. Pinckney, had pushed for body cameras for police officers in the wake of the shooting of Walter Scott in North Charleston earlier this year. Before the shooting, Rev. Pinckney and the other Bible study participates openly welcomed Roof into their session, where he allegedly sat for an hour, disagreeing with the readings of Scripture, before opening fire and killing nearly everyone there in cold blood. According to a survivor, he also reportedly told those he massacred that, "I have to do it. You're raping our women and taking over the country. You have to go." Once apprehended, he confessed to the murders
Historical marker
(National Park Service)
After his arrest, journalists and online commentators pieced together clues showing the terrorist clearly had expressed anti-black racist, white supremacist sympathies and behavior. Roof's Facebook profile, which suggests he had a number of black "friends," shows him in one photo wearing a jacket with the flags of apartheid-era South Africa and Rhodesia, both of which are considered racist symbols, while in another he perches over an ornamental license plate featuring the Confederate flag. Friends of Roof, including former classmates, a childhood friend, and his roommate, have since told authorities that he was known to make racist comments in high school, was ranting about Trayvon Martin and Freddie Gray, believed black people "were taking over the world" and sought racial segregation, was involved with "racist groups," wanted to launch a "race war," and yelled a racial epithet at and threatened to kill a black woman on the street. Despite all of this, no one felt the need to alert authorities. His friend Joseph Meek Jr. even removed Roof's gun, but returned it at his girlfriend's suggestion because he, Meek, was on probation.

Most appallingly from the standpoint of lack of prevention, Roof's white roommate Dalton Tyler said that Roof had been planning a slaughter for "six months," and Christon Scriven, who is black and the resident of a trailer park that Roof regularly visited, said that Roof outlined his murderous plot last week. "He flat out told us he was going to do this stuff...he was looking to kill a bunch of people." Scriven thought Roof was just being "weird" and joking, a miscalculation with mortal consequences. Roof apparently had never finished high school and was unemployed. Reports also say that his parents gave him the money for a gun as a birthday gift, and he has said that he bought it. His prior run-ins with the law include an arrest at a Columbia mall for possession of an unprescribed controlled substance, the drug pain drug Suboxone, and a month later for trespassing at that same mall. According to several news articles, he had been partially raised and recently living with his sister in Lexington, South Carolina.

As church members and people across the country were mourning the slain churchgoers, leading Republicans, including South Carolina governor Nikki Haley, unsurprisingly sought to deflect the discussion away from the obvious causes of the slaughter, as did some conservative news sites, making a mockery of the horror, the facts, and of Christianity itself. Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, who had just come from Charleston on a fundraising trip, stated that the country needed to face "hard truths about race, violence, guns, and division," though the issue in this case, as with the relentless state violence against black and brown Americans, the expanding carceral state, government-enabled inequality, US imperial action against nonwhite people all over the globe, and so much more, has been the system and structures of racism and white supremacy that pervade every aspect of American life

It is not "race" or "racial issues," but RACISM, particularly anti-black racism, black disposability, and white supremacy, that are the problem. It is exhausting to have to keep experiencing and witnessing the effects of racism much as it is to have to keep pointing this out, but it seems that far too many people would rather not deal with this reality and connect the dots, since doing so may implicate them and expose their own  privilege. President Barack Obama was, for his part, somewhat better, calling out American gun culture and our distinctive contemporary problem with mass murders, and historicizing attacks on black churches and people, though he also danced around invoking outright the beast of racism and racial domination, whose visible symbol, the Confederate flag, is still flying at full staff at the state capitol while the US and South Carolina flags were lowered in tribute to the dead. (And its continued presence at the capitol is, I should note, the result of a compromise with its promoters.) 

Rev. Sen. Clemente Carlos Pinckney
(1973-2015, Emanuel
A.M.E. Church)
Yet it is not just the South's blood-drenched standard, but the silences that stand in for the act of naming, decrying and dismantling this poison that has continued to course through the nation's veins since before the country's founding, and which renders the statements with which I started this blog post, of no sanctuary, anywhere, reality for millions. The Justice Department, under Attorney General Loretta Lynch, has announced a hate crime investigation into the attack. Yet the reality of living under the regime of racism and white supremacy in this country will not change, no matter how many federal hate crime investigations occur, unless we make a conscious effort to change things. Nor will we reduce the plague of gun-related murder, including mass murders, until we reform our gun laws and make it harder to get our hands on guns than than to acquire tickets to the Mayweather-Pacquiao fight. We have an immense standing military, funded to the tune of billions of dollars; we no longer need a "well regulated Militia" to maintain "the security of a free State." We must change this society for the better. We must. 

Despite their devastation and in the depths of their grief, many of the family members of the slain churchgoers have already expressed love and forgiveness. One tangible way you show your sympathies is to sign ColorofChange's sympathy card. You also can help out Emanuel AME Church is by going to its website and offering a donation here.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Toro Wins Ahsahta Poetry Prize + More Spring Awards + New Counternarratives Review

Vincent Toro
I have been intending for several weeks to offer congratulations on this site to Vincent Toro, one of the first students I taught upon arriving at Rutgers-Newark, though not in a creative writing course. A poet and playwright, Vincent was one of the intrepid souls who signed up for my Fall 2012 graduate literature class, "Topics in Postmodernism: Transhumanism and Posthumanism," which unfolded in almost magically smooth fashion, despite the intercessions of Hurricane Sandy.

I did not have another opportunity to work with Vincent, but I could tell by his MFA program and off-campus readings, as well as his performance and final submission in the literature course that he was not only a brilliant mind but also possessed a special gift as a writer.

After graduating with his MFA in 2014, Vincent, a New York native, received a Poets House Emerging Poets Fellowship, and also earned a Fellowship from the New York Foundation for the Arts. Not long ago, I learned the great news that he won the 2015 Ahsahta Press Sawtooth Poetry Prize, which includes $1,500 and publication of his first book, Stereo.Island.Musicwith Ahsata Press, in January 2016. This year's judge was my former Northwestern colleague, the marvelous Ed Roberson, and the two finalists, Sasha Steensen and Lauren Russell, are noted poets as well. 

You can read more about Vincent at the Ahsahta Press website, and do look for his first book early next year!

***

On June 8 the PEN American Center held its annual awards ceremony, adding one of the last waves of authors and books to 2014's list of prize winners. I did not attend the ceremony, but as with prior years, the organization created a bit of excitement with its withholding of all the winners in advance, reserving some honorees' names until ceremony time. (Also overshadowing the event was the uproar surrounding PEN's decision to give its inaugural PEN/Toni and James C. Goodale Freedom of Expression Award to Charlie Hebdo, which led a number of its major author, beginning with Francine Prose, Peter Carey, Michael Ondaatje, Teju Cole, Rachel Kushner, and Taiye Selasi, to withdraw from this year's annual fundraising dinner in New York.)

The main award event went off, if the absence of reports of any dust ups are to be believed, without a hitch. One of last year's most highly praised--and timely--works, Citizen: An American Lyric (Graywolf Press) by Claudia Rankine, received the PEN Open Book Award for a Distinguished Work by an Author of Color, while another, Rutgers-Newark alumnus and Buzzfeed writer Saeed Jones, received the PEN/Joyce Osterweil Award for Poetry, for his sparkling debut collection, Prelude to a Bruise (Coffee House Press). Saeed's was by a wide measure one of the better poetry books published last year. 

Other winners included Jack Livings, who received the PEN?Robert W. Bingham Prize for his debut novel The Dog (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux); Sheri Fink, who received the PEN/John Kenneth Galbraith Award for Nonfiction for Five Days at Memorial: Life and Death in the Storm-Ravaged Hospital (Crown); Anna Whitelock, who merited the PEN/Jacqueline Bograd Weld Award for Biography, for her volume The Queen's Bed: An Intimate History of Elizabeth's Court (Sarah Crichton Books/Farrar, Straus, and Giroux); and Adriana Ramírez, in the PEN/Fusion Emerging Writers Prize category, for her unpublished manuscript Dead Boys.

Among the translation awards, Eliza Griswold received the PEN Award for Poetry in translation for her assured rendering from Pashto of I Am the Beggar of the World: Landays from the Contemporary Afghanistan (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux). I have no familiarity with this particular language or poetic tradition, but because of Griswold I felt as if I were grasping something vital in and from these poems. I also appreciate that the award went to an author translating non-canonical work from a non-European language. The prose winner was Denise Newman's translation from the Danish of Baboon (Two Lines Press), by Naja Maria Aidt. For distinguished lifelong work in this area, Japanese literature translator Burton Watson received the PEN/Ralph Manheim Medal for Translation.

Unusually among the annual bestowers of American literary honors, PEN also hands out awards for sports and science writing; you can find out who received those awards, as well as the wonderful fact that this year, all the winners of the playwriting awards were women (none of whose work I was familiar with, though I plan to look all of them up), and more of the awards here.

***

László Krasznahórkai, whether in his native Hungarian or in the stirring translations by George Szirtes, is a masterfully innovative stylist. His sentences are serpentine to a dizzying degree, and within them he is able to weave a range of material so that once you as a reader fall under his spell, proceeding through his books almost feels like navigating down a strange and enstranging but deeply compelling living river. (Twitter they ain't!) The Danubian sentences, with their clusters of narration, observation, detail, and imagery, give way something lighter, more luminous, more strange and yes, more compelling, to my mind, in his recent book Seiobo There Below (New Directions, 2013). This text confirmed for me at least his greatness as an international literary figure, a fact that the Man Booker International Prize jury saw fit to ratify by giving him, and his translators, who include Ottilie Mulzet, this year's award, which it only presents on a biennial basis. (Why? There are too many great authors to wait every two years to honor one.) 

About Krasznahórkai's award, the judges, enamored of those sentences, stated: 
In László Krasznahorkai’s The Melancholy of Resistance, a sinister circus has put a massive taxidermic specimen, a whole whale, Leviathan itself, on display in a country town. Violence soon erupts, and the book as a whole could be described as a vision, satirical and prophetic, of the dark historical province that goes by the name of Western Civilisation. Here, however, as throughout Krasznahorkai’s work, what strikes the reader above all are the extraordinary sentences, sentences of incredible length that go to incredible lengths, their tone switching from solemn to madcap to quizzical to desolate as they go their wayward way; epic sentences that, like a lint roll, pick up all sorts of odd and unexpected things as they accumulate inexorably into paragraphs that are as monumental as they are scabrous and musical.’

In addition, judging panel chair Marina Warner added:
Laszlo Krasznahorkai  is a visionary writer of extraordinary intensity and vocal range who captures the texture of present day existence in scenes that are terrifying, strange, appallingly comic, and often shatteringly beautiful. The Melancholy of Resistance, Satantango and Seiobo There Below are magnificent works of deep imagination and complex passions, in which the human comedy verges painfully onto transcendence. Krasznahorkai, who writes in Hungarian, has been superbly served by his translators, George Szirtes and Ottilie Mulzet.
I sign on to what she's saying 100%. Krasznahórkai was in excellent company, too. The other finalists included César Aira; Ibrahim al-Koni; Hoda Barakat; Maryse Condé; Mia Couto; Amitav Ghosh; Fanny Howe; Alain Mabanckou; and Marlene Van Niekerk. I don't know the work of al-Koni, Barakat or Van Niekerk at all, unfortunately, but any of the others could have received the award, though something tells me none of their work--Aira's prodigiousness; the smartness of Condé's fiction; Couto's fantastical portraits of Mozambique; Ghosh's immense and knowing novels; Howe's poetic prose; and Mabanckou's witty, opportune fiction--cast the same spell, on the judges, of those sentences! Congrats to all the finalists, and to Krasznahórkai, who I'm told will be in New York this fall, so I hope to hear him read live at some point!

Another Central European author, also writing a quite singular book, received a major international prize recently. I am talking about Jenny Erpenbeck, who with her translator Susan Bernofsky, one of the greats, received the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, for the novel The End of Days (New Directions, 2014). She becomes the first living German author to receive the award, as the prior ones, -W. G. Sebald and Gert Hofmann, were both honored posthumously. Among her shortlist companions were Haruki Murakami (Japan), Edwin Mortier (Belgium), Daniel Kehlmann (Germany), Tomás González (Colombia), and Juan Tomás Ávila (Equitorial Guinea).

The award, now in its 25th year, honors non-Anglophone authors and their translators for a book published the previous year. Longtime prize panelist and Independent columnist Boyd Tonkin noted of Erpenbeck's book that "This is a novel to enjoy, to cherish and to revisit many times. Into its brief span, Erpenbeck packs a century of upheaval, always rooted in the chances and choices of one woman’s life." This only scratches the surface of this entrancing, disorienting book, which opens with the main character's death...only to reveal what might have happened had she lived and followed other paths, and died...and lived...and died...and--well, if this description intrigues, you should run and get the book!

***

I want to offer my deep thanks to Nate West for his probing, laudatory review of Counternarratives, which is now up at the arts and letters site Music & Literature. His reading, which opens with a discussion of the contemporary cleavage among writers between those who adhere to a conception that the bourgeois imagination is sufficient (Jonathan Franzen, for example), and others who believe in the necessity of confronting, through a variety of formal and stylistic means, the effects of history and politics (the late Edouard Levé, W. G. Sebald, and I'd add, Roberto Bolaño), as a way of talking about how he believes Counternarratives addresses questions arising from this divide. I'll let J's Theaters dive into the review to find out where the critic takes this thread, but I want to note that West's thorough reading of the book, though not long, brims with insight, ultimately identifying something I have not really been asked about in any of the excellent reviews so far, which is to say, the political thread woven throughout all the stories.

Two quotes:

Keene’s Counternarratives offers a corrective to boilerplate that would forbid art from entering into the political. Its very title suggests that not only that the story has been told wrong, not only that it is not enough to tell other stories to be placed in their appropriate box (African-American, Post-Colonial) and thereby neutralized before being passed on to readers as ersatz probity while the real economic and political conditions that perpetuate injustice grind on unaffected; but rather that, for literature to continue to fulfill its vocation, the record has to be set straight. The political is not imposed on these tales from above; instead, a full account of the character’ life histories cannot be given without recourse to the political. Even their names are imbued with relations of power

and

Throughout the book, Keene plays with the possibilities of his title: Counternarratives serves as the heading for the first group of stories, Encounternarratives the second. The final section, Counternarrative, implies a more conceptual approach—the opposition to narrative, or the narrative that exists solely by opposition. It consists of a single story, Lions. In a conversation between a dictator and his muffled victim, the easy continuity between ideology and demagoguery and the inexhaustible lure of corruption come to life in a cell that could equally lie in Zimbabwe, in Uganda, or in Equatorial Guinea. The two figures speak of their youthful idealism, their yen for Fanon and Amilcar Cabral; of the depraved luxury of power and rapine; of boyhood love incompatible with the struggle for dominance; of what might have been, had Africa been untouched by Western hands.

Do check it out, and many thanks to Music & Literature!

Friday, June 12, 2015

Remembering Ornette Coleman

(Randolph Denard) Ornette Coleman (March 9, 1930 - June 11, 2015) succeeded, through his extraordinary musical gifts and linguistic inventiveness, in introducing a new term and form into American music: free jazz. It was the genre for which Ornette--whose first name alone sufficed as his calling card--was best and will always be known, and it exploded upon the landscape with such force that some major figures have still not fully reckoned with it. He did not, however, introduce free jazz alone; his collaborators, beginning in the late 1950s, were the heralds of, as Coleman's albums announced, "Something Else!!!!," "The Shape of Jazz to Come," "Tomorrow is the Question!," and of course, "Free Jazz."

Ornette Coleman was born and grew up in segregated Fort Worth, Texas, and never formally studied music, though he began playing the saxophone while still in high school. He allegedly was dismissed for improvising during a performance of John Philip Sousa's famous march, "The Washington Post"--the shape of things to come!--and later performed R&B and bebop, then the dazzling, dominant trend in jazz, first with his own band and then with a traveling R&B show. After a brutal physical attack in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Coleman switched to the alto saxophone, which would become his primary instrument for the rest of his life.

Beginning with Something Else!!!: The Music of Ornette Coleman and continuing through the landmark albums of the early 60s, which paralleled Ornette's gigs at major venues across the US, he developed what would become quickly viewed as a revolutionary approach to jazz. I am obviously not a musicologist, but I can say that when I listen to these records I hear the variations of the blues and bebop expressed as a series of wails, plaints, chants, extended runs; dissonance liberated, melodies stretched like rubber bands, and harmony pressed beyond its limits in improvisatory and daring ways in solos and instrumental combinations; and a sense of ever-new discovery of what a (plastic, initially) saxophone individually and in combination with small ensemble, can do. Coleman labeled his approach harmolodics, which he defined as "the use of the physical and the mental of one's own logic made into an expression of sound to bring about the musical sensation of unison executed by a single person or with a group."

Coleman drew supporters, among this collaborators such as Don Cherry, Paul Bley, Billy Higgins, Charlie Haden, and even Lionel Hampton and Leonard Bernstein, but also harsh critics; Miles Davis, another of the greatest musicians of his era and a bebop veteran who was pioneering his own new style in the late 50s, "cool jazz," in some ways perhaps the musical antithesis of Coleman's development, mocked the saxophonist, saying he "was all screwed up inside," though he allegedly subsequently retracted this statement.  The effects of Coleman's and his collaborators' performances and pressings, however, would ripple out with free jazz becoming a genre in its own right. From the mid-1950s through the mid-1960s, he was married to the great poet Jayne Cortez, and their son, Denardo Coleman, eventually became an important musician in his own right.

Later Coleman shifted to working with bigger ensembles, particularly string orchestras, as well as electronic instrumentation, and tended to record his own compositions. One of my favorite albums by him is his 2005 LP Sound Grammar, which features tunes that quote standards by Richard Rodgers, among others. The album received a 2006 Grammy nomination for Best Jazz instrumental Performance, and went on to receive the 2007 Pulitzer Prize in Music, making Coleman the first and only person to receive a Pulitzer Prize in music for a jazz recording, and only the second African American winner in this category. Among his other honors were the 2001 Praemium Imperiale from the Japanese Imperial family, the 2004 Gish Prize, the 2009 Miles Davis Award, and a 2007 Grammy for Lifetime Achievement.

Though he is gone, his music--and free jazz, in its many permutations today--will live on. Here are a few recordings. Enjoy!


The Shape of Jazz to Come (full album), 1959

Free Jazz, 1960

Tomorrow Is the Question (Full Album), 1959

 Dancing In Your Head (Full Album), 1976
Sleep Talking, from Sound Grammar, 2005

Thursday, June 11, 2015

The Crisis at Cooper Union

The Cooper Union's Main Building
with student protest signs in
the windows, 2013
For most of its history, The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art was free for all students who attended. Let me say that again, because I recall the first time I learned this and could not believe it. The Cooper Union, established in 1859, charged no tuition to any of the students who attended. This policy of full scholarships resulted directly from directives by its founder, industrialist Peter Cooper, who wanted to create a school along the model of France's École Polytechnique that would be open to qualified students regardless of their race, religion, sex, social status, or family wealth. This was an incredibly progressive vision 170 years ago, and would certainly qualify as such today, especially at time when most public and private institutions grow increasingly unaffordable for a large portion of the US population, leading to campus economic, social and racial-ethnic stratification and segregation. As a result of the zero-tuition policy and its excellent faculty, Cooper Union had long attracted a stellar student body and boasted of one of the highest enrollment yields in the US. Yet one thing I wondered while attending graduate school at the hyper-expensive university next door to Cooper Union was how long it could maintain its tradition of no tuition, particularly in light of New York's increasing gentrification.

It turns out that Cooper Union might have been able to maintain free tuition but for a series of moves, among them prior sales of land holdings in the West Village, and then the decision under the prior president, George Campbell, Jr., to build an admittedly acclaimed, LEED-certified, $175 million new building at 41 Cooper Square to house its engineering and art schools. This starchitect Thom Mayne-designed building was completed in 2009, and Cooper Union reported took out a fixed-rate mortgage loan, with an $81 million pre-payment penalty, to fund it, at a time when the school's revenue was basically nil beyond revenues from its $723 million endowment and annual payments it received from its ownership of the land beneath the Chrysler Building. (It had also apparently borrowed $51 million more, according to economist Felix Salmon, to fund "all the infrastructure needed to charge all those fees in the first place," along with "$8 million in additional fees to do so!) The engineering faculty had voted twice, it turns out, against the new building, and fundraising to support it came in below forecast. Despite a Wall Street Journal article claiming that Cooper Union had weathered the global financial crisis without problems, by 2011 there were rumors of financial straits, and in 2012 the Board of Trustees approved the policy sift to charge tuition for Cooper Union's graduate programs, beginning in September 2013, which augured the eventual levying of fees on undergraduates.

In May 2013, to protest the likelihood of undergraduate tuition, students occupied administrative offices in the Foundation Building for a week, which brought widespread media attention to the crisis underway, and several protesters stayed in new president Jamshed Bharucha's office for 65 days. The Board of Trustees, in conjunction  Bharucha, who had arrived two years before and immediately begun raising the issue of a serious budget deficit, voted to impose undergraduate tuition, up to $19,500 per year, on a sliding scale, for students admitted beginning in the fall of 2014. (Even this tuition, exorbitant in relation to the prior price policy, would make the school one of the least expensive private schools to attend in the US.) This shift spurred an investigation by the New York State Attorney General, Eric Schneiderman concerning the school's real estate dealings and a lawsuit by an alumni group, the Committee to Save Cooper Union. (I should note that although I have no ties to the Cooper Union, I have supported the Committee to Save Cooper Union advocacy group with small donations, since I think utterly necessary to preserve its unique, progressive vision, tradition and policies.)

Cooper Union's New Academic Building
(Hyperallergic.com)
Under pressure for Schneiderman's investigation, the board voted 13-6 in April 2015 not to renew Bharucha's contract for next year. Two nights ago, five trustees who had supported Bharucha and charging tuition resigned. They were Martin Epstein, real estate honcho and former board chair; Vassar President Catherine Hill; investment banker Monica Vachher; Cooper alumnus and starchitect Daniel Liebeskind; and architect and oil services heir François de Menil. Epstein blasted the rest of the student, faculty and alumni protesters and the board, with Artnet News reporting that he wrote, "I know that there are some in the Cooper Community that will take my resignation as a false victory of some sort....As a donor, I am withdrawing my financial support for the college." For his part, Liebeskind pointed out that "As an alumnus of the school who had joined the Board recently, I expected that in this difficult time of change, there would be a meaningful and open discussion—one which would assure Cooper Union's stability and future....My experience was far from that."

Then yesterday, Bharucha also resigned, and will take up a post next year as Visiting Scholar at Harvard University's Graduate School of Education. In his farewell letter, he argued on behalf of his tenure and the new tuition plan, stating that
The class completing its freshman year was the first to be admitted under the 2013 Financial Sustainability Plan, and the class just admitted will be the second....These two classes uphold Cooper’s unparalleled standard of excellence. With need-based financial aid, we have also been able to increase access to those who can least afford it, as shown by an increase in the proportion of students eligible for Federal Pell Grants.
In response to Bharucha's departure, the remaining members of the board praised his tenure, writing, "The financial exigencies with which [Bharucha] was confronted upon his arrival were not of his making and he deserves credit for sounding the alarm about the need to take urgent action to ensure Cooper Union’s long-term financial sustainability." Cooper Union's’s current vice president for finance and administration William Mea will become interim president until the board can find a replacement for Bharucha. But who in her right mind would take this job?

Felix Salmon has argued that the blame for Cooper Union's financial and administrative difficulties lies squarely not just with the prior president Campbell and with Bharucha, but also with the various rosters of the enabling Board of Trustees. Why, he has asked, did they greenlight a building for which the institution had not raised sufficient funds? Harvard, where Bharucha heads this fall, has an endowment of $36.4 billion as of last June--and rising, as it is now well along in a $6.5 billion fundraising effort that has already raised about 77% of that total--decided at the peak of the global financial crisis, when its endowment dipped temporarily to about $26 billion in 2009, not to build a new museum of contemporary art along the Charles River. Was it neoliberal hubris and a desire to transform Cooper into a very different kind of school that led Campbell, Bharucha and their board supporters to go the route they did? Does this ethos still exist among the remaining board members, and do they have a viable plan for the future?

Perhaps more importantly, who will possibly step into the breach at this point to lead a school that remains so internally riven? Will the next leader have board support to return Cooper Union's undergraduate program, at least, to full scholarship status? Or have the dice been cast such that there is no turning back, such that what was Cooper Union's unique calling card, will be lost for good? (New York (and nearby New Jersey) do have a wide array of high quality public and private art and engineering institutions, with a major one--Cornell Tech--under development.) And what about Cooper Union's students, who were once guaranteed not only relief from worrying about funding their educations but a unique intellectual freedom, within the school's academic constraints, to construct their educations as they saw fit and then, debt-free, to elect careers that did not depend on them having to pay back massive loans? I ask all these questions not to suggest that institutions should not change and evolve, but to ask, in the tumultuous transformation of  the Cooper Union, what have we, and American higher education more broadly, lost?

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Juan Felipe Herrera New US Poet Laureate

Juan Felipe Herrera, the new
US Poet Laureate (A Plus Journalism)
Juan Felipe Herrera, who has served these last two years as the Poet Laureate of California, was named the new Poet Laureate of the United States (Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress) early this morning by Librarian of Congress James H. Billington. He becomes the first Latino and the first Chicano to serve in this post. A retired professor, longtime advocate for bringing poetry in a wide array of spaces and, since 2011, a chancellor of the Academy of American Poets, Herrera is the author of over two dozen books, including collections of poetry and works for children. In 2011, for National Poetry Month, and again in 2012, when he was named California Poet Laureate, I wrote short blog entries and featured poems by Herrera. In 2011, I said
One of the things I particularly like about his work is its versatility, of subject matter, voice, and form. While he draws frequently from his life, he will also set aloft a conceit like the one below, flavored by and steeped in his experiences yet resonant far beyond his own biography.

Like May Swenson, he can do a lot of different things well, and has been known to move words in very interesting ways around the page. Herrera finally received some major props in 2008 when he won the National Book Critics Circle Award, becoming the first Latino poet to receive it.
In the latter post, I wrote
his work covers a broad range of styles and forms, sometimes melding Spanish and English, though it is often colloquial in tone, frequently tinged with humor, and always attentive to the resonances of everyday life and people, sometimes effortlessly bringing profound cultural and spiritual dimensions to the fore. It is in this regard quintessentially American, and nourishes a rich tradition of such poetry going back centuries.
I'm excited to see the breadth and richness of American poetries reflected in this new choice and look forward to seeing him serve as Poet Laureate. I envision him attracting a wide array of people to the worlds of poetry, and hope that this post brings far more readers to his playful, profound work.

Congratulations to Juan Felipe Herrera!

>>>

Here is another poem by Juan Felipe Herrera, shared from the Academy of American Poets' website, from Half the World in Light: New and Selected Poems. It's brief, and manages to be both comical and serious, with touches of surrealism and the metaphysical, resonating like that sixth guitar string.

Five Directions to My House

1. Go back to the grain yellow hills where the broken speak of elegance
2. Walk up to the canvas door, the short bed stretched against the clouds
3. Beneath the earth, an ant writes with the grace of a governor
4. Blow, blow Red Tail Hawk, your hidden sleeve—your desert secrets
5. You are there, almost, without a name, without a body, go now
6. I said five, said five like a guitar says six.

From Half the World in Light: New and Selected Poems. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2008.



Saturday, June 06, 2015

Lambda Literary Awards + Lambda Literary Review Interview

Gloria Steinem, presenting the
Pioneer Award to Rita Mae Brown
This past Monday, the Lambda Literary Foundation held its 27th Lambda Literary Awards, honoring some of the best of the previous year's LGBTIQ writing. The ceremony, mc'd by comedian Kate Clinton, was held in the Great Hall at the Cooper Union, and included performances by Toshi Reagon, who dedicated her songs to the late Octavia Butler, and Lauren Patten of the musical version of Alison Bechdel's marvelous graphic novel, Fun Home. Though I did not attend, I followed the social media tweets and posts about it, experiencing the excitement of the presenters, award finalists and recipients, and friends attending vicariously.

NY Times Opinion columnist Charles
Blow, accepting the Lambda Literary
Award in Bisexual Nonfiction
Author Alexis De Veaux accepting
the Lambda Literary Award in
Lesbian Fiction for Yabo
Chief among the honorees were foundational lesbian author Rita Mae Brown, who received the Pioneer Award, and filmmaker and writer John Waters, who received the Lambda Trustee's Award for Excellence in Literature. Other winners in categories that ranged from Bisexual Fiction to Lesbian Erotica to Transgender Non-Fiction to LGBT Studies include the late poet Vincent Woodard, a Cave Canem graduate fellow, whose academic study Delectable Negro: Human Consumption and Homoeroticism within US Slave Culture, edited by Justin A. Joyce and Dwight McBride (NYU Press), took the scholarly prize; young playwright Robert O'Hara in the Drama category for his play Bootycandy (Samuel French); and New York Times Opinion page columnist Charles Blow, in the Bisexual Nonfiction category, for his memoir Fire Shut Up In My Bones (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt).

Additionally, Alethia Banks and Virginie Eubanks, with Barbara Smith, were honored in the Lesbian Memoir/Biography category for Ain't Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around: Forty Years of Movement Building with Barbara Smith (SUNY Press); Alexis De Veaux received the Lesbian General Fiction for her superb novel Yabo (Red Bone Press), which I enjoyed tremendously; and, in the talent-filled Gay Poetry category, Danez Smith received the award for his exceptional debut collection, [insert] boy (YesYes Books), which I was delighted to select last winter for my Volta Best of 2014 list.

Danez Smith, accepting the Lambda
Literary Award for Gay Poetry
You can find the complete list of Lambda Literary winners and finalists here, and more photos of the event here! It looks like it was so much fun I sincerely hope to attend the event one of these future years!

***

The Lambda Literary Review--and Reggie Harris in particular--conducted a short email interview with me, titled "John Keene: On Hidden Histories and Why Writing Official Narratives is Queer" that posted two days ago. Reggie takes a somewhat different tact from other recent conversations, asking questions specifically about the queer aspects of Counternarratives. I deeply appreciate the opportunity to talk about the book, so thank you Reggie (and thanks also to William Johnson at Lambda)!

Below are two excerpts. Please do peep the entire interview too!

Can form itself be queer?The answer, I think, is yes. If form pushes against and destabilizes usual norms and conventions, then it would be queer, no? The stories in Counternarratives trouble contemporary narrative conventions in American fiction, in part through an emphasis on storytelling in itself; through a play with structure, genre and voice; and through the queerness of the characters themselves. Nevertheless, the stories all are—at another level, I trust—accessible and readable.

and

Why did you feature 20th-century queer writers Langston Hughes and Mário de Andrade in two of the stories—and why include sex scenes?Hughes and Andrade are heroes of mine. Towering modernist figures in their respective countries, both were of African descent, both displayed multiple talents, and both are now widely though not uncontroversially understood to have been gay, so I wanted to offer glimpses at moments in each man’s life, particularly beyond their youth. In the case of both, a public narrative arose that elided their queerness. With Hughes, we saw this with the furor, sparked in part by the Hughes estate, around Isaac Julien’s 1988 film Looking for Langston, and later in Hughes’ biographer Arnold Rampersad’s suggestion that Hughes was “asexual.” In Brazil, with Andrade’s life, a similar storyline that downplays his queerness has developed. There are so many clues in each man’s work, as well as in their biographies, letters, etc. Also, as scholar Robert F. Reid-Pharr has suggested in Hughes’ case (and this could be the same for Andrade), and as the CUNY Lost and Found Series of pamphlets exemplify, there are still archival troves that have yet to be examined. I should add that in both cases, their poems provoked me to write about them, and for both, I also wanted to make the sex(uality) a reality.


Friday, June 05, 2015

The Threats to Wisconsin's University System

Bascom Hall, University of Wisconsin
At the end of March I blogged briefly about acclaimed linguist and sociopolitical critic Noam Chomsky's Jacobin essay, "The Death of American Universities" (whose link somehow became mangled and led to a junk site--my apologies). As part of my preface, I noted that much of what Chomsky argues in this short transcribed talk, delivered in February to members and allies of the Adjunct Faculty Association of the United Steelworkers in Pittsburgh, would be familiar to anyone working--and paying even passing attention to the changes--in academe today, though the effects are perhaps more evident in public institutions, which are more economically vulnerable because of their reliance on shrinking state and federal support, and smaller institutions lacking the massive endowments of the elite research universities and liberal arts colleges.

Even at the wealthiest institutions, however, a neoliberal ethos has increasingly become preponderant. Nearly all US universities today are increasingly viewed and run as quasi-businesses, with all that that conceptual shift entails. Tuition costs and fees grow ever more exorbitant; students are labeled and treated like consumers; the administrative bureaucracy waxes, paying itself at near corporate levels; fiscal austerity and competition for funding have become the baseline for most aspects of the university except the sports programs and high-end infrastructure renovation; the ranks of contingent faculty swell and tenured positions dwindle; donors are given outsized say (cf. the University of Illinois and the Stephen Salaita case); market-based policies become standard; and a fixation on promoting what elites in society believe will translate into direct benefit for corporations, or what is popular--and preferably what falls at the nexus of the two (computer science? biomedical engineering? financial engineering and sciences?)--gains emphasis at the expense of all else, with concomitant corporate-style jargon, acronyms and programs proliferating like kudzu.

I could give numerous examples of how this has played out at institutions across the country, including my current one, where, as I noted three years ago when I arrived here, the three-university system, and particularly the universities in Newark and Camden, found themselves in a fight for their lives. The story of that particular battle is a complex one, but let me just note that it was student, staff, faculty, administrative, union, and alumni pushback that not only saved the university, but perhaps made those who were seeking yet again to transform it for the worse to step back, at least temporarily, and rethink their actions. We have subsequently been engaged, at our university, on the conceptualization and development of a strategic plan that has been a model of shared consultation and conversation. When I was in Montana this past spring, several professors at that state's university whom I met there, and who were not directly linked to the conference I attended, bemoaned the constantly shrinking budgets and the onslaught of attrition. They spoke with admiration of what had occurred in New Jersey.

Just last week, the  University of North Carolina's Board of Governors' educational planning committee announced the elimination, discontinuation, consolidation, and demotion of whole departments across the entire university system, including one at flagship campus University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, a policy the full board later voted up. Over fifty percent of the cuts were slated for four campuses: East Carolina University, UNC-Greensboro, North Carolina State University, and UNC-Charlotte. Among the eliminated programs were African Studies, women's and gender studies, various K-12 educational programs, and so on.  The Board of Governors based their decision, as one put it quite bluntly, on neoliberal principles: "We’re capitalists, and we have to look at what the demand is, and we have to respond to the demand."  This followed the recent move by Tom Fennebresque, NC Board of Governors president, who, along with the rest of his colleagues, had previously ousted UNC's highly regarded president, Tom Ross.

Yet as far as I know, the most extreme assault thus far on public universities and the American university system, which is also an attack on academic freedom, appears to be taking place in Wisconsin, where that state's Republican-dominated legislature's Joint Committee on finance voted this week not only for over $250 million in budget cuts but also to remove guarantees of shared-governance involving faculty and students, and to strike faculty tenure, from state law. The legislation clearly states this:
Tenure: Approve the Governor's recommendation to delete the definition of a "tenure appointment" and language establishing the conditions under which the Board of Regents may grant a tenure appointment to a faculty member. Delete current law specifying that a person who has been granted tenure may be dismissed only for just cause and only after due notice and hearing. In addition, delete the definition of "probationary appointment" and provisions limiting the length of such an appointment to seven years.
That is the chilling language taken directly from "University of Wisconsin: Omnibus Motion," linked above, which Wisconsin State Senator and Majority Caucus Chair Sheila Harsdorf and Representative Michael Schraa introduced for a vote. Both are Republicans.

According to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the proposed legislation passed the committee on a party-line vote, despite warnings from Democratic legislators that it would harm the university system, widely acknowledged and ranked as one of the nation's best, and it will likely pass both GOP-majority houses of Wisconsin's legislature. After that Republican governor Scott Walker, who had previously gutted public and private sector unions, and survived a recall election, intends to sign the bill into law, whereupon he plans to launch his run for the presidency on the Republican ticket. The tenure-stripping measure was but one of several on which the legislature and Walker, who had initiated a push to restructure the system into a more top-down format, agreed, though there was disagreement on others involving the independence of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, tuition increases, and the depth of the cuts.

In response, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the University of Wisconsin's Board of Regents voted unanimously today to temporarily add tenure protections to their board policy should this almost broadly accepted standard will be struck from state law. This appears to be a reaction to the regent's acknowledged inability to convince the legislature to change its mind, though several members of the board have urged the legislature to remove the "non-fiscal," or non-budgetary changes from the law, thus far to no avail. Not only does the stripping of shared governance and tenure endanger academic freedom, but it transforms the future Wisconsin professoriate into an contingent precariate, subject to much easier dismissal, based on political views, statements and actions, under the rubric of elimination and discontinuation of programs, as is occurring in the North Carolina system. Should a new professor like the distinguished historian William Cronon espouse views critical of or contrary to the wishes and beliefs of Wisconsin's leaders (broadly understood), she very well could now be fired. As might any or large numbers of his colleagues.

To put it another way, the professoriate will be subject to the same precarious status as employees at most US businesses, with no guarantee of tenure to ensure stability while pursuing research of any kind, let alone controversial research, whether in the natural sciences (think of the geologists at the University of Oklahoma who have shown a causal link between fracking and earthquakes) or the social sciences (economists studying inequality, say) or the humanities (teaching socially critical works of literature), or engineering (biomedical engineers working with human embryos). But then this destabilization and quasi-privatization is the neoliberal goal, and this silencing of anything that might be viewed as socially or politically controversial is the conservative goal, isn't it?

Though the US Constitution seems to protect prior tenure contracts, the realities of the new law will eventually devastate Wisconsin's faculty, its system, and its educational profile. But then that is the same goal Republicans (and many "school reform" Democrats) have effectively pursued against public elementary and secondary education all over the US, and the effects could be just as far-reaching, since the destruction of the public sphere and commons, with all that they entails, have serious consequences. The people behind such policies act as if because they can neither accept nor transform faculties' independence and liberal tendencies, whether in knowledge, politics or any other sphere, by persuasion, then coercion might work, with dismissal a final step. We have been here before, at various points in history, and the outcome rarely is positive or pleasant. What I hope most people understand is that this is only the beginning, and if voters don't challenge such policies at the polls by publicly denouncing what is happening and voting out legislators advancing agenda like these all over the country, we will rue the day we watched this destruction unfold and sat by, doing nothing, thinking, well, that's just Wisconsin, but in my state....

However, lest we assume there was ever an idyllic or platonic idea of American university life, Chomsky, in the talk to which I linked above, brings us back to earth. As he suggests, great democratization of our universities, with students, staff, faculty, and administration all having a voice in how things are run, is the direction things shifted in the 1960s, to create the examples of shared governance we now think of, at least at many institutions, as the baseline. But let me offer Chomsky's words directly, remind us, as he does, that these ideas come out of Millian classical liberalism, which shows how far contemporary conservatism has moved from its economic and social roots:

First of all, we should put aside any idea that there was once a “golden age.” Things were different and in some ways better in the past, but far from perfect. The traditional universities were, for example, extremely hierarchical, with very little democratic participation in decision-making. One part of the activism of the 1960s was to try to democratize the universities, to bring in, say, student representatives to faculty committees, to bring in staff to participate. 
These efforts were carried forward under student initiatives, with some degree of success. Most universities now have some degree of student participation in faculty decisions. And I think those are the kinds of things we should be moving towards: a democratic institution, in which the people involved in the institution, whoever they may be (faculty, students, staff), participate in determining the nature of the institution and how it runs; and the same should go for a factory.
Exactly.