Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Random Photos

Chigozie Obioma, talking
about his work at NYPL
Scaffolding art
Batman in Midtown!
After opening day at Yankee Stadium
34th St. station 
I <3 NY M&Ms (scattered
on the grounds) 
Our wacky NY-area news (a clip
on the Cookie Monster Furry molester) 
Making art, Midtown 
Cantilevered, mirrored awning,
near Times Square 
Students outside the new
academic building, New School 
Mobile Game of Thrones
photo booth, near 18th St.
Spring shoots
Fantasy (World) has gone
and moved from 7th Avenue

Monday, April 20, 2015

The Spring 2015 Awards & Prizes Season

Greg Pardlo reading at his
book party in November 2014
This afternoon I learned upon signing onto Facebook that the poet Greg Pardlo received the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, for his 2014 collection Digest, published by Four Way Books! This is a marvelous selection for an incredibly talented writer, and an excellent book of poems. CONGRATULATIONS TO GREG and to his publisher! I was fortunate to attend Greg's book launch last November at Dumbo Sky in Brooklyn, and after hearing him read and purchasing a copy I pored through the smart, inventive volume on the subway-and-PATH trip home. A graduate fellow of Cave Canem, Greg's first book of poetry, Totem, was selected by Brenda Hillman for the American Poetry Review/Honickman First Book Prize, and published by Copper Canyon Press. That collection offered more than a few clear signals that he was on his distinctive, poetic way. In addition to writing poetry and criticism, Greg is a translator, and brought Pencil of Rays and Spike Mash by the Danish poet Niels Lyngsø into English. The other poetry finalists for this year's Pulitzer included the great poet Arthur Sze, for his collection Compass Rose (Copper Canyon Press), and Alan Shapiro, for his collection Reel to Reel (University of Chicago Press).

Other Pulitzer Prize winners this year include fiction writer Anthony Doerr for his novel All the Light We Cannot See (published by Scribner); playwright Stephen Adly Guirgis for his play Between Riverside and Crazy (Suzan-Lori Parks was a finalist in this category for her play Father Comes Home from the War (Parts 1, 2, 3)); David I. Kertzer for his biography The Pope and Mussolini: The Secret History of Pius XI and the Rise of Fascism in Europe (Random House); reporter Elizabeth Kolbert in the general nonfiction category for her book The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History (Henry Holt); and composer Julia Wolfe in the music category for her oratorio for chorus and sextet Anthracite Fields (Red Poppy Music/G. Schirmer, Inc.). In the news category, no paper received an award for print coverage of the murders of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri or of Eric Garner in Staten Island, or any other similar state-sanctioned murders that occurred last year, nor for reportage or commentary on the subsequent protests, but the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, once part of the Pulitzer family of newspapers, did receive a Pulitzer in the Breaking News Photography category for its photojournalist coverage of the aftermath of Brown's death. Congratulations to all the finals and winners!

***

I don't think I posted congratulations for Claudia Rankine, who was awarded both this year's National Book Critics Circle Award in Poetry, and just the other day the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, for her timely invaluable book Citizen (Graywolf Press). This collection of innovative prose and verse texts had earned an unprecedented nomination in the criticism. Other recipients of the NBCC awards included Marilynne Robinson in fiction for Lila (FSG); David Brion Davis in history for The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Emancipation (Knopf); Roz Chast in autobiography for her graphic novel Can't We Talk about Something More Pleasant? (Bloomsbury); John Lahr in biography for Tennessee Williams: Pilgrimage of the Flesh (W. W. Norton & Co.); and the late Ellen Willis in criticism for The Essential Ellen Willis (University of Minnesota Press). There were three other awards presented: Military veteran Phil Klay, who had won the National Book Award for fiction last fall, received the John Leonard Prize for his collection of short stories Redeployment (Penguin Press); Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison received the Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award; and Alexandra Schwartz received the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing.

At the Los Angeles Festival of Books, which took place last week, other winners of book prizes included actor LeVar Burton, who was honored with the Innovator's Award for his successful, ongoing efforts to increase reading among children; Andrew Roberts in the biography for Napoleon: A Life (Viking); Jeff Hobbs in current interest for The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace: A Brilliant Young Man Who Left Newark for the Ivy League (Scribner); Siri Hustvedt in fiction for The Blazing World (Simon & Schuster); Valeria Luiselli, with the Art Seidenbaum Award for First Fiction, for her book Faces in the Crowd (Coffee House Press); Jaime Hernandez in the Graphic Novel/Comics category for The Love Bunglers (Fantagraphics Books); Adam Tooze in history for The Deluge: The Great War, America and the Remaking of the Global Order, 1916-1931 (Viking); Tom Bouman in the mystery/thriller category for Dry Bones in the Valley (W. W. Norton & Company); Pulitzer Prize-winner Elizabeth Kolbert in the science/technology category for The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History (Henry Holt & Co.); and Candace Fleming in the young adult category for The Family Romanov: Murder, Rebellion, and the Fall of Imperial Russia (Schwartz & Wade/Random House Children’s). Congratulations to all the finalists and winners!

***

This month also brought the announcement of the 2015 John Simon Guggenheim Foundation fellows. The list is always a compendium of major and emerging figures in the broad areas the foundation supports, which include creative arts, humanities, natural sciences, and social sciences. Among this year's cohort in creative arts and humanities are a number of friends, colleagues and acquaintances, including Jeffrey Renard Allen, Brent Hayes Edwards, Thomas Sayers Ellis, Percival Everett, Cathy Park Hong, Rowan Ricardo Phillips, Christina Pugh, Beryl Satter, and Akhil Sharma. Other literary figures receiving awards include Dan Beachy-Quick, Maud Casey, Vikram Chandra, Megan Daum, Matthew Dickman, Kristoffer Diaz, Rivka Galchen, Anthony Marra, Cate Marvin, Bernadette Mayer, Joshua Mehigan, Kevin Powers, Alex Ross, and Kenneth Warren. Also, visual artists such as Mel Chin, filmmakers like Akosua Adoma Owusu, philosophers like the aesthetician Dominic McIver Lopes, critics like G. Gabrielle Starr, composers like AACM member and chronicler George Lewis, and social scientists such as my former colleague the eminent psychologist Jennifer Richeson all received fellowships. Congrats to all the recipients!

Friday, April 17, 2015

Hilst Translation Makes Longlist + New Counternarratives Review in Harper's

Hilda Hilst
Last February Nightboat Books published my translation of Hilda Hilst's Letters from a Seducer (Nightboat Books), and despite its formal daring and thematic outrageousness (it contains an insatiable character named "Little Butthole," which should give you a clue about how wild it is), I have worried from time to time that it might fall into the literary publishing rabbit hole. So many books, and not so many translations, but without a champion a book can and may disappear. Any positive news about it, therefore, is welcome. It was extremely positively and welcome news to learn, then, that the book had made the Longlist for the 2015 Best Translated Book in Fiction Award, which is sponsored by the Center for translation at the University of Rochester. Many thanks to the Center, and especially to editor, curator and critic Daniel Medin, a member of the judges' panel, who has written and spoken favorably about the translation in the past and again for this award.

As part of the process of selection for the next stages, including the finalist list, which will be named on May 5, and the award, to be given out on May 25, judges present arguments, in a variety of formats, for why certain books deserve to advance and win. Daniel interviewed me about Letters, and you can read the entire exchange here. It isn't very long, and gives a brief overview of Hilst's work, including my favorite passage in Portuguese. (NB: A stray apostrophe crept into the word "wont," though I meant the older adjectival form, meaning "likely," not the contracted future verb form.) A snippet:
DM: Letters from a Seducer is a part of Hilst’s famous “pornographic tetralogy.” How are these works different from what she was had been doing before? What distinguishes Letters from the others? 
 JK: Let me begin by saying that all of Hilst’s prose fiction is experimental, from her initial fiction text, Fluxo-Floema (1970), on, and is informed by her prior primary focus as a poet and a playwright. (She continued writing poetry throughout her life, I should note.) Her earliest poetry, published in the 1950s, is fairly conventional, but by the 1960s you can detect subversive notes, experiments with earlier Lusophone (and Iberian) forms, etc., so that when she began writing prose, it was hardly surprising that she would not follow the standard route. Yet I think it’s fair to say that her fiction is distinctive even from parallel experiments that were happening in Brazilian literature at the time, as a comparison between her texts of the 1970s and those of her close friend, Lygia Fagundes Telles, one of the major fiction writers of Brazil and in the Portuguese language, will suggest. While a book like The Obscene Madame D (1982) does overtly treat sexual themes, in the “porno-chic” works, as she called them, she more openly and directly uses and plays with pornographic language and discourse, and the works themselves turn in part on themes that might be considered pornographic, except that Hilst’s artistry, irony and wit transform them into something quite different. Letters (1991) is the second novel and masterpiece of the four texts; one of them, Contos d’Escarnio: Textos Grotescos (1990) is a collection of stories; Bufólicas (1992) comprises poems; and O Caderno Rosa de Lory Lamby, or Lory Licky’s Pink Notebook (1990), as I think the brilliant translator Adam Morris dubbed it, is an extremely ludic, graphic precursor to Letters written in the voice of a child. (And possibly not publishable in the US, despite its relentless humor.) With Letters, Hilst reaches the pinnacle of the tetralogy and, I think, her art, fusing all the strands that have come before into a profound text about writing, living, sex, human mortality, and so on. It is also quite funny; she never sheds her humor, even at some of the most outrageous moments in the text, which is one of the things I really appreciate about her work.
Getting to the finalist stage and winning are both tremendous long shots, and the other long-list books represent exalted company, many by some of the best translators out there, of major living and deceased writers, but I am very happy that the book is getting some recognition, and if this brings more readers not just to this translation, but to the others, by Rachel Gontijo Araújo and Nathanaël, and to the one by Adam Morris, that will be a very good thing! Que fique mais da Hilst em inglês!

***

Miss La La at the Cirque
Fernando,
Edgar Degas, 1879
(National Gallery, London,
Oil on canvas.)
Reviews continue to come in for Counternarratives, and the most recent is the best by far. In the May 2015 Harper's Magazine, Christine Smallwood pens a thoroughgoing, engagingly thoughtful review of the book. (Her review unfortunately is only available for subscribers to Harper's, but it's in the newsstands now.) Framing the review with images of the Mississippi near Vicksburg, Mississippi, and Edgar Degas's famous 1879 painting Miss La La at the Cirque Fernando (the subject of my story "Acrobatique"), Smallwood begins with a discussion of Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and the homoerotics and racial dynamics of that text, noting its contemporary survival in the form of "bromances" (and, I'd add, the curdled buddy films that once starred Eddie Murphy and Danny Glover, and now feature Kevin Hart), as a way of shifting into a discussion of how my approach to Twain's text (and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer), "Rivers," like the rest of the collection, represents and embodies the concept of a counternarrative.

Smallwood writes, "John Keene takes aim at this sacred cow and shoots it straight in the hip," describing the story's plot and noting that this could have come off as "corny," but its execution transforms it into something else. (And I should note that I was a little nervous about taking on the Jim and Huckleberry story, and was surprised that almost no other black writers had done so--because it is so iconic? Because Twain's fame and reputation looms so large? Because it wasn't worth the time of doing so?--but also felt that imagining some aspects of Jim's life after that novel, a few glimpses, would be worth the risk.) She goes on offer the following beautiful assessment of the entire collection, for which I will forever be grateful: "Counternarratives is an extraordinary work of literature. Keene is a dense, intricate, magnificent writer," before going on to discuss my background a bit (though Christopher Stackhouse accidentally becomes "Charles") and more of the stories, even quoting several of them.

One quote:

In "The Aeronauts," for example, a Philadelphia freedman with an uncanny memory joins the Union Army Balloon Corps. The story ends with him in the balloon, feeling "something not quite fear and not quite elation, I can't put a name to it, I try to utter it but cannot." Naming it, Keene suggests, would only contain the moment, and make it less than what it is. His characters refuse to accept freedom that is given by others--they either take it by force or resist it altogether. In this way they are the avengers of Twain's Jim, who wasn't aware of his freedom until he had gone to great trouble to gain it a second time.

Again, many thanks to Harper's both for reviewing the book and for the superlative review, and I urge J's Theater readers to preorder a copy! The corrected galleys have been submitted, will be out now on May 21, 2015!

Sunday, April 12, 2015

My AWP 2015


Posing with the Mary Tyler
Moore statue (downtown
Minneapolis)
(Photo by John Domini)
I've just returned from the year's biggest annual American--and perhaps global?--creative writing gathering, the Associated Writing Programs (AWP) conference, which concluded yesterday after four days in Minneapolis. Over 10,000 (or was it 11,000?) writers, readers and publishers packed the rooms and auditoriums of the Minneapolis Convention Center, nearby hotels, restaurants, bars, clubs, libraries, and a variety of offsite venues, to deliver papers, talks and presentations, and to read their work, buy books, talk about writing, and just hang out with other literary folks.

Inside the Convention Center
As an officially academic conference AWP primarily convenes people in academe or who want to be in it, focuses a sizable portion of its panels on educational issues, and represents one of the major networking opportunities for those seeking jobs within educational institutions. Yet despite this it is above all a writers' and writing conference. To me AWP's real emphasis, unlike that the Modern Language Association's annual conference or the Book Expo America, remains on conversations on and around writing and literary practices and production, and the presentation of literary works; the opportunities to participate in and attend the onsite and offsite readings and book-signings, and the immense book fair are chief among the reasons many writers scare up the funding to attend. Another key benefit is running into new and old friends and acquaintances, and meeting new ones, with the added possibility of hearing them read and talk about their work.

One of the skyways leading
to the Convention Center
A post-snowy morning
outside my hotel

Giving and attending readings and seeing people I otherwise would not get a chance to were mu reasons for attending this year, and my visit didn't disappoint. I should note that during the worst days of my knee troubles earlier this year, I was not sure at first that I would be able to attend, but hope springs eternal and physical therapy works, and since the trip to Missoula, I have grown increasingly more mobile, so I was able to make my daily way from my hotel, the Marriott City Center, to the convention center mostly on foot, and most outdoors, even during one of the sleet/snowfalls that occurred during the conference's run, and I even spent a good several hours every day I was there in the immense hall hosting the book fair, walking as much as 6 miles on Friday alone. I did feel all the walking while there and once I go back, but I was resolute in not wearing any knee braces and in not carrying around a backpack or bookbags full of books, so I avoided straining my knees and utilized UPS's services several times, and now my campus office has heavy, stuff troves waiting for me.

Inside the AWP Book Fair
At the Book Fair
The perambulations around the book fair afforded many serendipities, including running into countless writers I seldom get the opportunity to see and hang out with, as well as happening upon books I had been intending to buy, with the writers nearby to sign them, as well as ones I had no idea about but am incredibly I happened upon. I saw and chatted two of the publishers I have worked with (New Directions and Nightboat Books), and learned that at the former a steady stream people were asking for my book, which will be out on May 21, 2015 (a few weeks later than originally). I took that as a very positive sign. Other highlights were the lunches and dinners with friends and colleagues, including former students, and one amazing book party I attended where I had the opportunity to meet yet more writers. While I prefer the scale of smaller conferences like Thinking Its Presence, AWP definitely has its charms, and rather than feeling overwhelmed as I sometimes have at  the sheer size of the crowds, the surfeit of texts on display, and the undertow of competitiveness, this year felt more manageable and enjoyable. (Was it the 10,000 or 12,000 fewer people than a year or two ago?)

At New Directions table; Tynan Kogane
is seated at table; to the right is Archipelago
Books, where I learned a former student,
Eric Wilson, is now working
Lorenzo Herrera, poet and publisher
of Kórima Press, which shared a table
with Lisa Moore's RedBone Press
For the first time ever I was a featured reader, on a panel sponsored by the Cave Canem Writers Foundation that featured four poets who received the Mrs. Giles Whiting Foundation's annual writing awards: Thylias Moss, Tyehimba Jess, Atsuro Riley, and I. Before the conference I learned from a colleague that there was tremendous concern over the paucity of openly gay featured readers and LGBTQ-focused panels, and another friend told me that I was the only out featured reader, though I learned that another fellow member of my reading slate, the poet Atsuro, is openly gay, so that doubled the total, and also meant that two men of color were intersectionally representing for LGBTQ communities at AWP. Instead of poetry I read the lyrical opening to my story "Blues," in which Langston Hughes and Xavier Villaurrutia meet up in Depression-era New York. The story is a tribute to both poets, but especially Hughes, as well as Richard-Bruce Nugent, author of "Smoke, Lilies and Jade," whose style and themes provided the template for mine. Supposedly we were visible on a Jumbotron monitor, which I thankfully could not see or I'd never have been able to take the podium! Many thanks to CC, the Whiting Foundation, and to AWP for the event!

Lisa Moore and I
A panel on creative writing as a second career,
headed by Tayari Jones (at right), with Evie
Shockley seated at the table at center
The following evening I read at an offsite event to promote the new Volta Book of Poets, edited by Joshua Marie Wilkinson and published by Sidebrow Books, between whose covers I have a few poems. The 3-hour reading was at Harriet Brewery in St. Paul, and many of the poets in the anthology were present, including Eric Baus, Susan Briante, Julie Carr, Don Mee Choi, Arda Collins, C. S. Giscombe, Fred Moten, Yona Harvey, Dawn Lundy Martin, J. Michael Martinez, Andrea Rexilius, Evie Shockley (my cab and Uber mate), Matthias Svalina, TC Tolbert, and Lynn Xu. (I probably have left someone off, so my apologies.) The beer hall was loud and packed, and some patrons seemed more eager to hear poetry than others, but the readers in general were on their game and I aimed to have fun and read an Internet-app based poem that elicited a good deal of laughter, in keeping with the venue's tone. I had to head out to another event, so I missed the evening's final readers.
At the Harriet Brewery reading,
Fred Moten seated at center
The Obsidian panel, with (1-r) Kwame Dawes,
Duriel Harris (editor), and Sheila Smith McKoy
I also got to attend several panels, including one devoted to the literary journal Obsidian, which I have read for years and now serve as one of its fiction and hybrid forms editors, and the invigorating words and atmosphere of fellowship in that room underpinned for me, as so many other experiences did, of why I attend AWP.  Next year's conference will take place in Los Angeles, and I'm already looking forward to it. Below, a few more photos!

The Convention Center
Lynn Xu at the Volta reading
Fred Moten at the Volta reading
Don Mee Choi, translating, and Valerie
Mejer, reading in Spanish,
at the Volta reading
Susan Briante at the Volta reading
Yona Harvey at the Volta reading
Cecil Giscombe at the Volta reading
and:

An arrest Tyehimba Jess and I witnessed
one night walking back from dinner

Tuesday, April 07, 2015

The Murder of Walter Scott

Here we go again.

In this April 4, 2015, frame from video provided by Attorney L. Chris Stewart representing the family of Walter Lamer Scott, Scott appears to be running away from City Patrolman Michael Thomas Slager, right, in North Charleston, S.C. Slager was charged with murder Tuesday, hours after law enforcement officials viewed the dramatic video that appears to show Slager shooting a fleeing Scott several times in the back. (AP Photo/Courtesy of L. Chris Stewart)

Walter Lamar Scott was murdered in North Charleston, South Carolina, by white cop Michael T. Slager. Slager had pulled Scott over for a traffic violation, a broken tail-light, and when Scott fled, Slager initially tried to Taser him.

When that failed, Slager shot Scott dead, in cold blood, in the back, eight times. 

For a traffic stop. A traffic stop. A traffic stop.

Scott was not armed. Scott was not armed. Walter Scott. Was. Not. Armed.

Slager then apparently handcuffed the corpse of the man he had just killed and attempted to plant his Taser on him, with the apparent assistance of a fellow cop, a black man. Despite his attempted cover-up, a now-surfaced video belies it.

Unlike many cops in his position, he has been fired, and is being charged--though whether he will be prosecuted and convicted remains to be seen--with murder.

Again and again and again this keeps happening, because even though we repeat that "Black Lives Matter," in reality in this country, in this society, on this globe, what we see is that they do not.

As Jason Parham notes on Gawker, last month alone, 36 black people were killed by police, or roughly one every 21 hours. This approximates a slow and almost shameless form of genocide.

More Black Americans were killed by cops in 2014 than the total number of black people who died in the 9/11 attacks.

Like Parham I want to write something more thoughtful, more insightful, something illuminating, but I am exhausted. I really am. I have lived this reality all of my life, now approach 50 years. The foreground changes but the backdrop of racism, white supremacy, black disposability and social death, and state violence allied to elite social and economic interests are the same. Yes, things have improved, always as a result of sustained struggle, since I was a child, and they continue to improve, but we still have a long way to go.

These state murders are occurring as this country warehouses vast numbers of black and brown people in prisons, many of them privatized and providing cheap labor for corporations and earning dividends for investors. Countless black and brown people--children, adolescents, women, men--cycle through the failed penal system and its prison industrial complex annex, sometimes as a prelude to be murdered, at some point in their lives and usually with impunity, by the state, which does everything to protect elite interests, global corporations, and the billionaires who are destroying this country piece by piece.

It has to end. It MUST END.

No amount of telling black people how to behave, whether around officers or otherwise, no amount of "diversity training," no amount of explaining away the disparate ways that black americans (and brown americans who are treated like black americans by this system) are treated by the law and its officers, no amount of appeals to "black on black violence," divorced from the larger social context or not, no rationalizing away or ignoring all the ways in which black people in this society pay extensive social, political and economic taxes just for being black, is going to do it.

What has to happen is that cops have to stop killing unarmed black americans, and when they do they have to be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. Cops have to stop serving as the shock troops of white supremacy, neo-colonialism, the plutonomy and global capitalism. THEY MUST STOP KILLING US. What has to happen is that the entire foundation and edifice upon which this society has been built and developed has to be addressed, rethought, and remade. This is not an interpersonal issue. It is a systemic and structural problem. And it has to be addressed and redressed.

NOW.

Monday, April 06, 2015

Out of Bonds: The Slave Past & Contemporary Poetry at Rutgers


Last Friday I participated in a great mini-symposium, "Out of Bounds: The Slave Past and Contemporary Poetry," at Rutgers University-New Brunswick. Organized by Douglas Jones, an assistant professor in the English department at Rutgers-New Brunswick, with the assistance of Gabrielle Everett, a doctoral student in English, the event aimed to explore ideas contained in a paper entitled “On Failing to Make the Past Present" by UC-Berkeley English professor Stephen Best, that appeared in a 2012 issue of the journal MLQ, through talks, presentations, discussions, and poetry readings.
To summarize Best's article, in it he suggests that rather than taking the approach of Toni Morrison, in Beloved and other works (though not A Mercy) of reviewing and reanimating the past as a means of understanding the present, which is to say, of viewing slavery and its conditions as part of an epistemological continuum with and prism to understand present day concerns, contemporary black scholars and writers might have followed--and still might follow--Orlando Patterson's 1970s prescription for African Americans to utterly remake ourselves anew as if from a clean slate, or, to put it another way, reading through the lines of argument in A Mercy, rather than racial and historical affiliation, "We seem less held together by race here, and more together in our abandonment."

Meta and Evie
The symposium began with a vibrant, provocative, and probing open conversation, led by Jones and Ivy Wilson, my former colleague and an associate professor at Northwestern University, on Best's article. I arrived halfway into this conversation, which was truly open to all present, which meant not just faculty and graduate students, but undergraduates and other audience members, but the sizable portion of Jones' and Wilson's exchange, as well as the questions and commentary from everyone else, that I caught was superb and highly informative. I kept thinking as I listened that Jones's article echoed in some key ways Kenneth W. Warren's provocative arguments in What Was African American Literature?, which have merited several waves of responses, and Jones articulated this connection with considerable brio, illuminating the parallels before challenging both approaches.

Evie reading her poem,
which is projected on the screen
behind her.
This portion set the stage for the next portion of the afternoon, which was the two sets of conversations pairing contemporary literary and cultural studies scholars, and contemporary poets (though Evie Shockley is also a major scholar in her own right). Radiclani Clytus, a filmmaker, critic and assistant professor of English at Brown University and I began, with Radiclani posing some thoughts about my work, both older poems that directly treated the theme of slavery (I had dug them up for him), leading into a discussion of some of the pieces in Counternarratives, in which slavery and its aftermath is not only thematized in multiple ways, but narrativized and dramatized in half the stories. Radi is as sharp as a laser and kept me thinking on my toes, creating a free-wheeling back and forth. It was easily one of the most enjoyable public conversations I've had in years. I wish it were possible to participate in public discussions like this, with Radi and others, more often.

Tyehimba, reading one of his
syncopated sonnets

Next came Evie, a renowned poet and scholar of poetry, who teaches at Rutgers-New Brunswick, and Meta DuEwa Jones, an acclaimed scholar who teaches at Howard University. Evie and Meta talked about Evie's work, beginning with Evie reading one of her formally and linguistically experimental poems that allowed them talk in and around the notion of the cut--"how does tight, taut form work in relation to damage, monstrous intimacy" (citing Christina Sharpe's brilliant work here)--and so much more. Along the way, Stowe's "Topsy," critics Sylvia Wynter and Alex Weheliye, legal tender, Toi Derricotte, the confluence of multiple heritages, histories and herstories, and M. Nourbese Philip's Zong all arose in the course of their back-and-forth.

Tyehimba, reading one of the poems
that adapts the ghazal form
Tyehimba Jess concluded the events, delivering the keynote presentation, introducing and then reading a series of poems, many dealing with historical figures who emerged during and shortly after the Civil War period, such as Blind Tom, Black Patti, and the McCoy Twins, from his forthcoming collection Olio. His new work, following formally from the inventive, innovative aesthetic vision in his award-winning first collection Leadbelly, includes a number of poems using innovative forms, among them what he has labeled "syncopated sonnets," which incorporate multidirectionality and improvisation into their formal structures, which is to say, multiple possibilities for reading (up-down, across from top to bottom and the reverse, skipping diagonally between lines, and so on) left up to the reader-performer, and Jess did so with panache. He also read poems that adapted the ghazal (and Golden Shovel) form, again showing how the poems themselves suggested certain performativities and how he, as the author and reader, improvised on those, creating at certain points what felt very much like the blues and at others like hip hop. No one does it like Jess!

It was a scintillating afternoon and evening, and I want to thank Doug, Gabrielle and Ivy, and Radiclani, Meta, Evie and Jess, as well as my sister campus in New Brunswick again! And as we said, we have to do this again--soon!


Wednesday, April 01, 2015

Borrowed Post: Heriberto Yépez on Kenneth Goldsmith

Happy Inter________ Poetry Month, and April fools are welcome here. Poems are on the way.

Out of deep interest, however, I am beginning this month's posts by borrowing the following entry directly from poet, translator and activist Guillermo Parra's site, Venepoetics, which I have now linked to at right and which I came across several times before being directed there in linkworthy fashion by coldhearted scientist وداد's post on Juan Sánchez Peláez. At both sites there are blossoms there too numerous to name so I recommend dropping in and wandering in the garden, sitting, staying a while, reflecting, and then dropping in again.

But back to the purloined post (all rights reserved): Parra presents his translation of a statement the poet and activist Heriberto Yépez gave on the recent anthropophagous spectadebacle by Kenneth Goldsmith at Brown.  Scroll down and you'll see a link to an earlier, prescient piece Yépez wrote about Goldsmith, who is a literary hustler of the highest order, have mapped and pursued a trajectory upwards from the local airwaves to a post at Penn. Nice work if you can get it--and he did. At any rate, Yépez is on to him. Keep reading, and you'll see. I'll be posting on the Mongrel Coalition Against Gringpo very soon.

But seriously, do check out Parra's site, as well as coldhearted scientist وداد's!

***

El escándalo del sujeto-concepto: Kenneth Goldsmith / Heriberto Yépez

The Subject-Concept Scandal: Kenneth Goldsmith


On March 13th, the well-known writer Kenneth Goldsmith read a poem titled “The Body of Michael Brown” at Brown University. It was an appropriation of the autopsy report for the African American young man murdered by a police officer in Ferguson in 2014; this lynching has provoked huge protests against persistent racism in the United States. As soon as news of Goldsmith’s poem circulated, the polemic exploded on the Internet.

On his Facebook page Goldsmith justified that the poem gives continuity to his work, based on the appropriation of texts. Then he asked the university to not make the video available.

I’ve already written about my political disagreement with Goldsmith. Now I’d like to make note his conceptual inconsistency.

Goldsmith advocates for an uncreative writing derived from textual appropriation in the era of electronic distribution. But his work is actually a re-creative writing of the manner in which the gravity of reports is destroyed by the neoliberal system.

Goldsmith has transformed into art the kind of appropriations usually conducted by media, corporations and the U.S. government.

A key tactic of this conceptualism is to deny the geopolitics that make this re-creative aesthetic possible; applauded, literally, by the White House.

In the face of the indignation provoked by his re-creation of a report about the cadaver of a victim of racial ultra-violence, Goldsmith tried to allege there were no bad intentions.

This is an inconsistency because Goldsmith himself has insisted for years that his works are derived from concepts removed from the Romantic subject. But by defending himself morally, Goldsmith recurs to the poetic subject he claims to have left behind.

In order for Goldsmith to be consistent with his art he should stop feigning innocence or justifying his re-creations.

If Goldsmith wants to be consistent he should let him himself be completely appropriated by the logic of the U.S. government. He should become a subject-concept ruled by neoliberalism and rigorously embrace the brutality, the looting and the total program of capital.

The legacy of Goldsmith will be to have emptied North American literary experimentalism of any anti-capitalist critique. If he doesn’t want to undermine that legacy, he should take it to its final consequences instead of appealing to personal motivations or retreating into alleged misunderstandings or good intentions.

Goldsmith will make a contribution to the history of poetry if he finishes the job of burying the last remnants of the lyrical I and transforms it into a conceptual-subject predetermined by capital.

Kenneth: you shouldn’t abandon the inner logic of your work. On the contrary, you should allow capitalism to completely appropriate your literary-persona, instead of trying to justify it by means of your moral-persona. You’re a neo-imperial artist. Don’t sabotage that function with a retro-romantic artist’s discourse.

Besides, that literary work and persona already incarnate the desire for beautifying the Capital Concept.

And don’t forget, the crisis will be transnational —or will not be at all.


{ Heriberto Yépez, Archivo Hache, Suplemento Laberinto, Milenio (México D.F.), 21 March 2015 }

Monday, March 30, 2015

Chomsky on the Death of American Universities

(Copyright © Flickr / WorCehT)
In a recent issue of Jacobin magazine, scholar, theorist, critic and activist Noam Chomsky, whose work needs no introduction, offers one of the most succinct and powerful critiques of the direction of contemporary universities and colleges that I have read in quite some time: "The Death of American Universities." Much of what Chomsky says here, which is an edited transcript (prepared by Robin J. Sowards) of remarks Chomsky delivered in February to members and allies of the Adjunct Faculty Association of the United Steelworkers in Pittsburgh, will be familiar to anyone in higher education, as well as any who have experienced--or closely followed--the travails of students and parents, contingent and permanent faculty, and institutions struggling to deal with budgetary cuts and economically unsustainable cost inflation, narrowing educational goals, the imposition of market-based ideologies, the effects of technological shifts, and various forms of anti-intellectualism, some of very long standing as the late Richard Hofstadter, Susan Jacoby, and others have argued persuasively, that have taken root in our contemporary society.

Perhaps the only area he does not touch upon is athletics, a subject he has commented on in the past. But in every other area what he says applies to every institution in the US, including the richest and most elite--think Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Stanford, Duke, etc.--though in some areas, such as renewing a focus on the arts and humanities, feeling the pinch of federal and state cuts, and trustees who are more concerned with how the football team does rather than whether students are receiving the highest quality education for the complex world in which we live, a world which they will help to shape and transform, these institutions are still somewhat insulated. 

But even Chomsky's former home base, MIT, is not immune to the critiques he lodges or challenges he describes (the MIT Sloan School of Management is one of the major incubators of high-level business thinking in the US), and as he always does, he makes sure to broaden his discussion to larger issues in the society, noting how the "precariat" is not just an issue for higher education, but central to contemporary asset-based globalized capitalism. You might quibble with some of his assertions, but in general, I think he gets things very right, and I wish more than anything that upper-level university administrators and leaders, legislators and other public officials, college and university trustees, and members of the media would read this piece without blinders or prejudice, whether they ultimately disagree or not. I see up close what he'd talking about; getting those in positions of power to acknowledge and address what's going on is another matter. 

Here are a few quotes, but do read the entire article.

This idea is sometimes made quite overt. So when Alan Greenspan was testifying before Congress in 1997 on the marvels of the economy he was running, he said straight out that one of the bases for its economic success was imposing what he called “greater worker insecurity.” If workers are more insecure, that’s very “healthy” for the society, because if workers are insecure they won’t ask for wages, they won’t go on strike, they won’t call for benefits; they’ll serve the masters gladly and passively. And that’s optimal for corporations’ economic health. 
At the time, everyone regarded Greenspan’s comment as very reasonable, judging by the lack of reaction and the great acclaim he enjoyed. Well, transfer that to the universities: how do you ensure “greater worker insecurity”? Crucially, by not guaranteeing employment, by keeping people hanging on a limb than can be sawed off at any time, so that they’d better shut up, take tiny salaries, and do their work; and if they get the gift of being allowed to serve under miserable conditions for another year, they should welcome it and not ask for any more.

and

In fact, if you look back farther, it goes even deeper than that. If you go back to the early 1970s when a lot of this began, there was a lot of concern pretty much across the political spectrum over the activism of the 1960s; it’s commonly called “the time of troubles.” It was a “the time of troubles” because the country was getting civilized, and that’s dangerous. People were becoming politically engaged and were trying to gain rights for groups that are called “special interests,” like women, working people, farmers, the young, the old, and so on. That led to a serious backlash, which was pretty overt. 
At the liberal end of the spectrum, there’s a book called The Crisis of Democracy: Report on the Governability of Democracies to the Trilateral Commission, Michel Crozier, Samuel P. Huntington, Joji Watanuki, produced by the Trilateral Commission, an organization of liberal internationalists. The Carter administration was drawn almost entirely from their ranks. They were concerned with what they called “the crisis of democracy” — namely, that there’s too much democracy.

and

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. 
These are not radical ideas, I should say. They come straight out of classical liberalism. So if you read, for example, John Stuart Mill, a major figure in the classical liberal tradition, he took it for granted that workplaces ought to be managed and controlled by the people who work in them — that’s freedom and democracy. We see the same ideas in the United States. Let’s say you go back to the Knights of Labor; one of their stated aims was “To establish co-operative institutions such as will tend to supersede the wage-system, by the introduction of a co-operative industrial system.”

Counternarratives Reviews & PW Interview Posted

In a little over a month from now, my next book, Counternarratives, will be appear (the new cover is at right, featuring original arork by the vernacular artist Ike Morgan), and so far the early reviews have been strong. Two weeks ago Kirkus, which is known for fairly stringent reviews, gave the collection a strong review, and this past weekend Publishers Weekly gave the book an even better review, covering quite a lot of ground concisely and cogently.

Although I told New Directions after the PW review that I won't look at any more reviews (it's best to stop while you're ahead, no?), I do look forward to longer readings (that others can read and recount to me) that will explore the complex explorations of nationality, sexuality and religion that run throughout the text. I also hope someone will talk about the variations in style and voice, and the ways in which form and content are in conversation with each other.

I was happy that in this review that reviewer mentioned one of the stories that nearly didn't make it into the book, "Persons and Places," which I initially wrote as a piece of microfiction, and which is as much about form as content, in that in a very brief space it puts two of the important figures of the turn-of-century intellectual world, one now well canonized (W. E. B. Du Bois) and the other mostly forgotten (George Santayana) in brief but charged proximity. At first I thought it might be too brief to include (especially alongside several novellas), but I think it works on its own terms and as part of the larger whole.

I was very pleased too that PW's Yulia Greyman posed a few questions for me to answer; they're now live on the site under the title "Literary Mixtapes: PW Talks with John Keene" (March 27, 2015). Here's a glimpse of the opening page (many thanks to Gabe Habash at PW and to my college dean, Professor Jan Ellen Lewis, who forwarded links and .pdfs!). It was also delightful that she mentioned the "philosophical concerns" the book raises. Alongside all the action, mystery, and so on, there's a good deal of thinking going on!




Saturday, March 28, 2015

Jeremiah Moss's #SaveNYC


One of my regular blog reads is New Yorker Jeremiah Moss's Jeremiah's Vanishing New York. Since 2007 through today he has relentlessly chronicled the changes to the city's social, political and economic ecology, noting the disappearance of longtime businesses, the increasing waves of hypergentrification, and the homogenized cityscape that has resulted. While it's true that gentrification in New York is hardly new, or that the city has never been static, the pace of the changes (towers rising, small businesses vanishing) has become dizzying, as Moss shows again and again. Also, while too much nostalgia dissolves in sentimentality and the blame for the city's changes lies at no one doorstep, it is nevertheless important to document, as Moss does, how the absence of laws or a system to counter the pro-elite zoning that began under former mayor Rudy Giuliani and accelerated into hyperdrive under billionaire plutocrat Michael Bloomberg, has deleterious effects on many aspects of what people think of as New York (distinctive, economically diverse neighborhoods, particular sub-cultures, and so forth). When every neighborhood in Manhattan increasingly becomes a combo high-end condo district coupled with luxury outdoor mall, what kind of city remains?

Moss has decided to launch a project, with a website, entitled #SaveNYC. As he says on the website:

#SaveNYC is a grassroots, crowd-sourced, DIY movement to protect and preserve the diversity and uniqueness of the urban fabric in New York City. As our vibrant streetscapes and neighborhoods are turned into bland, suburban-style shopping malls, filled with chain stores and glossy luxury retail, #SaveNYC is fighting for small businesses and cultural institutions to remain in place. Our mission is to bring attention to the plight of Mom and Pop, and to lobby state and city government to implement significant and powerful protections for small businesses and cultural institutions across the five boroughs of New York City. The devastation has been overwhelming. Protecting what remains will require a multi-pronged approach. 
The projects first steps including raising awareness by collecting video and photographic testimonials from people everywhere who love New York and want to see its diverse culture and heritage protected. One component involves using social media, via the hashtag #SaveNYC, and a concomitant Facebook group. On the political front, Moss is pushing to pass the Small Business Jobs Survival Act (0402-2014), which he says "will make it possible for small businesses to negotiate fair lease renewals with landlords, thus stemming the tide of mass evictions and catastrophic rent hikes." Currently, landlords' ability to hike up rents, by doubling or tripling the going rate, has meant that businesses that had survived for decades or even a century have been shoved out in favor of chains.

Of course anyone paying attention to the asset-based economic logic of Wall Street, whose power and goals fuel these changes, will grasp what's happening here, as there's always more money to be made by expanding private and publicly traded corporations than in an environment in which there are lots of small businesses and well-rewarded labor. Money, for a very few people, is all Wall Street cares about. Another issue is the rising cost of real estate, and laws that favor certain kinds of elite and corporate investors and spur appreciation, to the disadvantage of the vast majority of renters and homeowners. Although New York mayor Bill de Blasio campaigned on behalf of the city's majority, his actions to save small businesses have been not matched the rhetoric, nor have those of the City Council. Meanwhile, chain stores, businesses like bespoke barbershops, frou-frou restaurants and spinning (not of yarn but weight-focused wealthy people) proliferate.

I urge J's Theater readers to explore Jeremiah's main site, linked above, and #SaveNYC. If you're a New Yorker, you can:
Pass the Small Business Jobs Survival Act (SBJSA) to create fair negotiations of commercial lease renewals, so landlords can’t use insane rent hikes to evict dependable and beloved business people.

Jeremiah outlines other steps as well for those in NYC. Even if you don't live in the city, you can add a video or a photo showing your support for Jeremiah's initiative and offering visual support on behalf of the New York that is being subsumed by a shiny, super-expensive new and increasingly dull version. The more Mayor de Blasio and the New York City Council hear from New Yorkers and those who participate in this initiative, the more likely the SBJSA, as well as other approaches, like emails and daily tweets to public officials to control the spread of chains (as has been done in San Francisco), taking away the over-generous tax breaks for megacorporations and aid small businesses; and penalize landlords to maintain empty storefronts to gain the highest commercial rents possible (i.e., from chains or luxury boutiques).

One need only look at the evisceration of the West Village's 8th Street between 5th and 6th Avenues, once Bookstore and later Shoe Row, but which is now a dull, depopulated street dotted with a few high-end restaurants and boutiques, a fancy hotel, and empty storefronts, that could be anywhere, to see the direction things are going. Now I need to post a photo, since I'm not so adept at making and editing personal videos!