"Commemorating." "Celebrating or mourning?" "Expounding upon."
"Paradox. Ambivalence. A dialogue looking from all angles."
--Janna Plant, "Dialogue Notes RE: Statehood 6Feb09 Land Use Commission Meeting"
To read responses to Hawai`i's recent 50th anniversary of statehood (August 21, 1959) is to encounter stark either-or positions. In Nancy Moss's The Statehood Project skit, "Debate," the student Kenji says, "Think what it will mean for business!" while Ah Quon responds, "More people to oppress. Stick out in the fields cutting sugar cane." While Moss's skit is set at McKinley High School in 1937, in some ways the debate has not changed an iota. Consider the Governor's press release about the 50th anniversary. "Key breakout workshops include: Hawai‘i’s Tourism Future; Military Partnerships – Part of Our ‘Ohana . . ." These first two items speak volumes as to why Hawai`i became a state in the first place, and to the precariousness of its current economy, based almost exclusively on tourism and the military. Another gem among the celebrations of this 50th year is this one: "July 23, 2009 – The state’s namesake submarine, the USS Hawaii (SSN 776), the first Virginia-class submarine to be home-ported in the Pacific, arrived in Hawai‘i." The official celebrations, then, are more about what comes in from the outside than for what the inside is, a rich group of cultures and conflicts, a "state" unto itself.
Then there's this, from a series of articles in the Honolulu Advertiser by Michael Tsai. The money quote comes in the second paragraph:
"Fifty years later, Hawaiian activists are calling for an end to the statehood era, not as a goal unto itself but as a necessary step in remediating a series of illegal acts through which, they say, the United States robbed Hawai'i of its rightful status as a sovereign nation."
The "or" in Janna Plant's question (above) is crucial: "commemorating or mourning?" It's also what makes conversation on the subject of statehood so difficult, and the series of skits and monologues now at Kumu Kahua Theatre in downtown Honolulu so hard to pull off. Pull them off they have--Harry Wong and his troupe of seven actors and a participating stage manager.
While mourning is clearly foremost in the minds of the "spontaneous collaborators" of The Statehood Project (more on the project's origins here), contemporary hot button issues (Hawaiian sovereignty, Asian Settler Colonialism, tourism, the military presence, and on and on) are mostly presented satirically. There's a joy and a lightness to the presentation that does not cover over, but opens up, these issues to fruitful discussion. Or so it seems to this audience member. (My colleague Ruth Hsu, whose piece "`Ohana" is included, says a few people walked out of the theatre the first week; no one but an actor walked out last night, yelling as she went that she would cancel her subscription.) Much of the humor is physical--a young woman's unspoken anger comes to life as she pummels her Navy sailor date--and its physicality proposes an immediate release, or redirection, to the tensions built up in dialogue.
The "spontaneous collaboration" is necessarily uneven, poem ceding to skit ceding to monologue. What holds the pieces together is a series of performances of Wayne Westlake's poem, "Statehood" which goes:
The poem is performed several times, first by a single actor, later by all the actors. The poem is spoken and sung as lament, as cry, as fugue.
If the Westlake poem is the chord that resolves the piece, the project itself is quite diffuse. Ann Inoshita's skit on a young local Japanese girl who discovers Asian Settler Colonialism on her own and decides she needs to go back to Japan, ends when she finds a sympathetic ear in the psychiatrist her parents take her to. The shrink persuades her that she needs to speak standard English and ought to learn American history, if only to oppose it. Gavin McCall's "Detention," about kids picking up trash at school as punishment, also comes close to a breaking point when one character asks how mixed race people could go back to their "homelands": "Yeah, yeah, so what, spend half my time one place, the other half somewhere else? How that would work with half-Hawaiian people, then?" The irresolution of the piece comes when character #2 tells his friend (#1, who favors statehood) that "Maybe no can actually do anything. But bra, no try deny what happened, the go rip on Ms. Kanaka`ole for talking about it."
Other highlights of the production were Ryan Oishi's "Ballad of the Last Goat on Kaho`olawe," spoken by an actor wearing goat ears and occasionally braying a bit, surrounded as she is by her dead (bombed) peers; Sage Uilani Takehiro's potty-humored take down of ethnic stereotypes, "State Throne," in which actors are all pooping together on one small pot; and Jason K. Ellinwood's "The 1959 Joint-Ethnic Commission on Hawaiian Statehood," another take-down of stereotypes. Double take-down, actually, as actors assume non-blood roles. The skinny white woman actor becomes a large Samoan; another actor is sometimes Korean, sometimes Puerto Rican; another is Chinese and Filipino.
The writing is good throughout, though I found "Bringing Donna Home" tedious and badly placed at the end of the show. But what makes this production work is that Kumu Kahua's actors perform the roles assigned them so well. Yes, it's a play and so of necessity a performance. But what they get at with near perfect pitch is that Hawai`i is a place where people are assigned--or assign themselves--roles. The state is a performance, often a deadly serious one. No wonder so much art here is broadly performative, whether it's slam poetry or comedy or theater. It's no mistake that The Statehood Project works best when it is most satirical; it's through our (sometimes angry, always self-directed) laughter that we recognize our parts in the ambivalent, fraught, paradoxical dialogue.
For performance times, ticket prices, other details, see here.
This past Wednesday, we inaugurated English 410 (Form & Theory of Poetry) with a discussion of one of my favorite Shakespeare sonnets, #XXX, which begins, "When to the sessions of sweet silent thought / I summon up remembrance of things past . . ." The sonnet works as a fugue of metaphors--legal, financial, emotional--that circulate against the central metaphor of the poet's mind as a courtroom where memories are brought forth and weighed as evidence of his losses. The judge's gavel comes down with the happy ending in the final couplet, where the poet's thoughts of "you" make all things right, losses turned to gain.
One of the things I love about this sonnet is the way that the word "sessions" opens up the entire poem, once you linger on its legal connotations. The economy of the poem is so tight (so in the black) that words like "grieve" wobble productively, pointing to the complaints our memories bring back in our mental courtrooms, and to the grieving we do afresh each time we remember. That we grieve for what we do not remember only adds to the affect (and effect).
I told the story of my daughter's encounter with the difference in meaning between words of the same sound. When she was first learning English at age three--her first language was Nepali--she wanted to know what my husband was making for dinner one night. He responded that he was making tortillas. Now, our cat's name is Tortilla, so what ensued was a very long evening during which she repeatedly demanded to know if we were going to eat our cat. (What made the long story even longer was that my husband eventually said yes, out of frustration with her unwillingness to take no for an answer.)
Tortilla, tortillas. Both are nouns, but one we do not eat. A lesson learned through tears. It was a story my mother would have loved, or loved to tell, had it been hers. She was a wonderful story-teller, and many of her stories were about words. I remember one about a young soldier who greeted her each day in Italy during the Second World War by yelling, "wanna marry me, Marty?" My mother got tired of the greeting, so she asked the military chaplain to walk with her one day. When the soldier called out his greeting, she said, "Yes! Right here and now!" That put an end to his greeting, that promise to enact his words as a deed (of marriage). There was the less happy story of a pilot she knew who told his girlfriend that if she did not marry him, he would not return from his next mission. She said no and he did not. Whether there was volition in his disappearance or just another random act of war no one would ever know, just as we often fail to know the ends of our words' stories.
These stories came to mind when I telephoned my mother yesterday. For two or three years now her responses on the phone from her Alzheimer's home have reminded me of the language tapes I used in college to learn German. The tapes employed repetition and small variations (moves from past to present, present to future in shifts of vowel) as ways to impress verb forms and phrases in the mind. So my mother would say each week, "I'm so glad you called and that everything is all right. It's important to know that everything's all right." Then she would want the conversation to end (she never lost the sense that long distance phone calls cost a lot of money and should be kept short). She would sometimes vary things by answering questions about the weather, or the food she was eating. Sometimes she said she was happy there.
This time, there was silence, not rote repetition. I spoke into the silence, but I'm not good at inventing talk in thin air. I asked if she was there. She said, "yes, I understand," and then went quiet again. Never before has there been such pause between words, even words that didn't mean much except that we were still speaking them to each other. She is losing speech, even as she loses weight (seven pounds this month). Where stories ceded to phrases, the phrases now succumb to quiet.
I needn't have gotten up at 4 a.m. to see Teddy Kennedy's funeral; there was much gathering of people and vehicles and media chatter, and the ceremony did not begin for over an hour. Yet I'm glad I did. Leaning on his son's arm, Sargent Shriver was ushered into the cathedral, muttering as he went. The reporters told us that he suffers from Alzheimer's, had just recently attended the funeral of his wife, Eunice, and run after the hearse perhaps a bit inappropriately. That the family chose to have him in church says much. That they did not hide him from the public strikes me as a model for the rest of us. My mother's home, albeit lovely in spirit and space, can be entered only through a door that requires a combination to get in. It's a sealed place; the gardens form a circle that cannot be broken. The Kennedy's broke that circle, making us all witnesses to the Alzheimer's sufferer not as someone else, but as one of us.
At the ancient pond a frog plunges into the sound of water (Basho)
The last time I taught American literature since 1950 an odd thing happened. The contents of the course and the contents of my life folded together like an accordian. I would teach a book, then seem to enter it, move on to another, and enter that one. The first such incident attended our reading of Catch-22, by Joseph Heller. That farcical-tragic novel features a wounded soldier called "the man in white." No one knows quite if he's alive or dead; he simply lies on his hospital bed, his leg propped up in the air, and other characters stare at him, try to suss out whether or not he breathes. So I was driving home on the H1 freeway one day, about to merge into the right lane after the Pali turn-off, when I looked to my right and gasped. Beside me was an odd ambulance with uncurtained back windows through which I saw a person wrapped in a white sheet, his arms raised in the air. The man in white.
Later synchronicities included hearing from a former civil rights worker (he'd been an aide to Stokely Carmichael) as we read Toni Morrison's Song of Solomon; this man was moving to Maui and wanted to talk about how to publish his memoir. Then, as we read Maxine Hong Kingston's China Men, I found myself in a meeting with an immigration lawyer and a graduate student from China I was sponsoring. She was trying to stay in the country. The lawyer asked her how her name is transcribed in English, as a word, or by syllables. This (and much else) happens to Chinese immigrants in the book. Memory won't offer up another example just now, though I'm certain there was one.
And so today, a couple of years later, I sit down to read haiku by Basho for my English 273 (Creative Writing & Literature) class. On my syllabus the students will read, "Monday, August 31: Hamill. (Buson) Go to the Krauss Hall pond . . . this week and sit for a while." Many of us who work at UHM walk through the pond area on our way to our offices; it's one of the few spots on campus that suggests community. It's alive with cats, carp, turtles, and waves of old and new ducks. One tree blooms purple, sheds its blossoms into the water, blooms again. Any change to the pond causes consternation in the faces of the resident custodian and those lucky souls who work in the building that surrounds the pond on three sides. One of my mother-in-law's cats was found by the pond.
As I begin my reading, I get an email from my colleague, Jon: "Bien the groundskeeper told me today that this weekend all the ducks will be removed from Krauss Hall, permanently, along with most of the fish."
The Ron Padgett Handbook of Poetic Forms, which I have assigned to my students, defines haiku as "a 'poem recording the essence of a moment keenly perceived in which nature is linked to human nature.'" To which one might add that it is a poem about deeply felt transiences. One of my favorites is about the longing Basho feels for the very place in which he is:
Even in Kyoto, how I long for Kyoto when the cuckoo sings (Hamill, 39)
The sense of repetition ("I long for Kyoto, while in Kyoto") is intensified by the cuckoo, which tends to sing twice or more (at least when my husband's clock is working well!)
Padgett's definition is quite secular; nowhere does he mention the moon-viewing huts one sees in Japan near Shinto shrines. Nor does he mention Buddhism, its emphasis on transience. But what I miss at the moment is the clear link, not between "nature and human nature," but between "nature and human economy." For it's the state budget cuts that are lopping away at these few places where nature inhabits the university, provides a spot to watch the animals and each other. Whatever the cause, however, I will miss Krauss Hall pond as I sit at Krauss Hall pond and remember the ducks that are no longer there.
Even by Krauss Hall pond how I long for Krauss Hall pond where ducks swam and quacked.
On another note, one that wrought-irons together (hat-tip to Amalia Bueno of English 410 for that verb) the poor economy and book publishing, I've been asked to spread word of the University of Alabama's Modern & Contemporary Poetics Series "recession special." Among others, my book of essays is on offer at half its list price. Such a deal may never happen again, if we're lucky. Although I did buy Tyrone Williams's first book of poems the other day on amazon.com for one cent. Postage extra.
--The passenger sits in 44G, beside the toilet. The flight attendant's husband is driving eight hours home to Albuquerque, because he likes to sleep in his own bed. He's too old for that.
--The distant relative whose son died young in California is not allowed to see her grandchildren; something about a will.
--The relative she'd never met says her father was "the accomplished one." Says his state hasn't had a governor for a year and a half because she wants a job with Obama. She counters that her governor worked for Sarah Palin. The dentist was an English major at Michigan. His wife's cousin died young in Honolulu.
--She will not, cannot, sleep between the bride and the groom, but they married. The minister, his degree purchased on-line, spoke about the Odyssey, Ulysses and Penelope, marriage as community. "That went right over my mother's head," one said.
--"It's not my mother-in-law, it's my wife's mother-in-law who is the problem." She still makes the strong one weep, the ex-drinker drink, the ex-smoker smoke. She says the forks and knives are wrong on the table, the grandson is not respectful, and the new President is "a Negro."
--The poet watched the Tour de France on his suburban television, rode his bike after.
--The young soldier in desert fatigues waits for his backpack to come round the airport carousel. He holds a small camouflaged pillow in his left hand, a cell phone in his right.
--Pigeons fly in and out of the top windows of the Detroit Free Press building. Inside an empty room the blown-up headline, "Men Land on the Moon" covers part of one wall.
--He and she broke up with him and him. He was a "user"; he was "manipulative." No TROs, but.
--The building with trees growing from the top, crude paintings in the windows, is due to be imploded.
--When she was there, they would not give her the courses she wanted to teach. When she was leaving, they offered them.
--The Greek man scoops chili and dogs in the window of Coney Island Hotdogs. Just down the street a man sits on the sidewalk, reading his Bible. Tourists arrive, speaking Italian; our Benedetto talks to them from the next table.
--The retired pressman constructs the Bounty in his garage, the scale larger than usual to aid his arthritic hands. He does not want detainees in a Michigan high security prison. The ship is for display; it will not float.
--The suburban houses are all, it seems, for sale. Three are abandoned up the street. The young man at Coney's handles foreclosed properties in the city. One on his list for $750. It's just a shell, he says; you have to fix it.
--The bride's mother weeps at rehearsal. "Stand at a 45 degree angle for the photos; I'll just take a few."
--The poets eat on their deck, talk about memory, the way it changes, public/private Facebook communication, the PDFs that will draft memoirs, the dangers of public private memories. Of lyrical essays about Detroit, all lament and no fact.
--Ichiro, in right field, constantly stretches. His practice throws stylized, his batting stance pigeon-kneed. He throws the Tigers' winning hit into the crowd.
--"My mother-in-law is terrible. She said awful things when Michael Jackson died."
--The young women talk in the restroom during the wedding reception. "He's got what he wants from you."
--On Belle Isle the diners are all white, the servers black. "I saw the mayor earlier." He played in the NBA. The island is all Canadian geese and pigeons, tall grasses. A middle-eastern couple walks toward the shore; a few black men fish; a woman barbecues for her daughter after the rain.
--The poet does not like the wisdom position. His interlocutor distrusts bitterness. "I understand that a lot better," he says. "You can't just fix it now."
--The middle-aged flight attendant is dating a man she probably doesn't want to marry. He lost his job; she feels sorry for him.
--His cousin lives in an artist house downtown. Farming is art in abandoned lots. He took video for Toyota; she takes photos for magazines in Birmingham. Her "own" photos are of naked women; they need to accept themselves as they are, she says. We wait for scallops, crepes. The man who makes my crepe drops the pan twice on the carpet.
--He's the only Asian at the wedding. When he friends me later, I see his name is Polish.
--The Ethiopian driver drives a burgundy van, puts on his dress hat. A cross hangs from the mirror, says Jesus loves us. The passenger asks what brought him to Detroit. He moved to Erie with his wife and six children (one his sister's); moved on to Detroit to get work. His wife stayed, a divorce. This bothers him, because he tried. Someone put him in touch with a woman back home. He is traveling to see his mother, marry this woman. A big trip. Please pray for him.
A dream: somewhere near a large city (I'm thinking Seattle), walking out of the small town where I was staying, thinking I could return in a large loop. Walking until near dusk. Stopped in a hotel and walked up some stairs. Suddenly emerged on a platform from which I saw high mountains (looking more like the sheer, corduroyed Ko`olaus than anything in Washington State). Beside me was a large dam. Water flowing everywhere--waterfalls on the mountains, closer by, then on the dam. I went downstairs to ask a hotel employee where my small town was and if I could get there by nightfall, but I'd forgotten the town's name.
The father of an old friend, a man who'd grown up in Germany and emigrated to the US after WWII, once told me that he no longer remembered which cities he'd traveled to and which he'd imagined.
Tomorrow night I travel to Detroit for a young cousin's wedding. Without having seen it, it would be hard to imagine Detroit, the less glamorous L.A. of the midwest, dying at the center and the peripheries, where foreclosure rates skyrocket. Two summers ago we traveled to see my cousin, who lives in Shelby Township, and my 91-year old aunt, who lives in Troy (like my dad, she grew up in Romeo, once and still a farming area, though the suburbs and strip malls approach from the south like a large generic storm). My cousins grew up in Highland Park, near (I think) the old Chrysler factory (here's something on Highland Park's Ford factory), an area that for decades lacked police or fire department, full of large houses, some of which are still intact (if weary-looking) and others that are burned out. I don't know if this was the Chrysler plant where my father worked, fresh off the farm, for a year he remembered as an object lesson in moving on (which the military helped him do when it drafted him in World War II). The old car plant is empty and, like much of Detroit, there are a lot of vacant lots, abandoned and boarded up houses, broken stuff. There had been Dutch elms until the blight wiped them out in the 1970s. Nearby was the site of Vincent Chen's 1986 murder at the hands of unemployed, aggrieved and racist auto plant workers. Mark Nowak's poem is worth a visit, some time spent. The poem alternates with photographs of the abandoned factory; one bit of graffiti goes, "FACTORY BUILT MALICE." When Chin was attacked, he was taken to Henry Ford Hospital, where he died. One of Detroit's tragic histories can be located in that sentence alone.
[Highland Park, 1956]
[Highland Park, circa 2007]
One of the most interesting places in contemporary Detroit is the Heidelberg Project area, where Tyree Guyton began making houses, vacant lots, and even trees over in the 1980s as art spaces. Twice the project was partially demolished by the city and twice it reemerged intact, if you can call it that, the beauty of recycled decay. Here are some photos:
Note the cars with crosses on them, which remind me of this church sign in the suburbs of Detroit, the centrality of cars to the secular and religious economy of the area is clear:
This sign piggybacks nearly seamlessly onto this call to prayer for the Detroit Tigers baseball team:
The graffitied houses also force us to reread history: 1967 (the year of the Detroit riots, after which most whites fled the city); OJ; Oklahoma City. The word scatter matches the conceptual scatter a spectator feels when she sees these houses. To say nothing of the panic she felt when Tyree himself appeared and demanded to know "the purpose of art!" In a city that was born and thrived for a time on use value, the relative uselessness of these houses--no one lives in them, after all--seems especially striking. Down the street a ways, my cousin Bill, his daughter, and I ran into some art grad students from Wayne State. They wondered where to find old tires for a new project; some were setting out in clunkers to hunt down their treasure. We felt confident they would find plenty. Recycling for art's sake, where art cannot be for its own. Reminds me of the alternative economy of Tinfish journal covers, the last of which was made of real estate magazines, the kind you can pick up for free around town. They point at the artifice of our (of any?) housing market, as the wacky beauty of the Heidelberg project highlights Detroit's destruction by forces beyond its control.
One of Bill's relatives offered me an embodied definition of "Reagan Democrat" when he blamed Coleman Young for the death of the city, for getting whites to flee by making it clear they weren't welcomed. What a lot of history gets rewritten in our assumptions of what it means.
We mostly stayed home this summer, which provided time to get to know this place a bit better. I became a big fan of 1970s era government studies--a study of the Kawainui Marsh in Kailua and one of what became, in part, the Ho`omaluhia botanical garden near Kane`ohe. The old photos are amazing documents. One in particular is of the He`eia bridge near the state park (which was a place where souls were judged and separated); in the 1920s photo, there is no vegetation around the bridge at all. When I ride my bike over it now, by way of contrast, I can hardly see a thing because the mangroves are so thick. It seems a reverse haunting to see what was not there as present in one's imagination of history. These reverse hauntings are everywhere in Hawai`i. That's something I learned from my brief time in Detroit.
Years ago, around the turn of the last century, as one might say, I bought a copy of Richard Wright's haiku via the internet. It wasn't that I was a Wright fan, though Native Son had a big impact on me in high school. Nor was it for love of haiku, a form I appreciate mainly in the abstract (though I'll be teaching haiku in a few short weeks). I got the book of Wright's haiku because we were admitting a student to our Ph.D. program--a Japanese national--who had written on them. It was rumored that the student's mother was an important tanka writer in Japan (I have no idea if that is true). As someone whose primary memory of Wright involves an alarm clock, a rat, and a Chicago tenement, the haiku surprised me. They seemed so classical, so wrapped up in nature (despite their provenance in Paris), so faithful to the intentions of their form. "In the damp darkness, / Croaking frogs are belching out / The scent of magnolias," goes #227. Equally intriguing was the Japanese student of Wright, one Goro Takano, whose English was quick, word rich, and accented. Once we were on speaking terms in the hall, I asked him how the Richard Wright project was going. He indicated he'd moved on.
Goro returned to Japan to work on his dissertation. I got an email from him, asking if I'd direct it; it had become a novel, he said, and he'd been working on it for years. He'd started writing in Japanese, then turned to translating the manuscript into English. It had taken on a life of its own in English, insisted on being written in this "stepmother tongue." One of the novel's characters, in other words, was a language that was not its writer's blood relative (not sure I like this parsing of blood and not-blood, but there you have it). As a poet I was unsure how to take this request, but Goro sent writing samples, odd parables more reminiscent of Kafka than Ernest Hemingway or Raymond Carver. So I said yes. It proved one of those marvelous dissertations that directs its director. I was left to fling pages full of questions at Goro by email slingshot, not so much to recommend revisions as to help us both through knotty philosophical and literary issues. "Is this a Japanese or an American novel?" I remember asking at one point.
Now, on reading the proofs of the large novel--With One More Step Ahead--from Blazevox [books], I realize how little meaning that question ever had. This novel is post-national in the best sense. An American-language novel with African American influences, its primary subject is the amnesia suffered in post-World War II Japan. An American novel, it involves a lot of Hawaiian material. A novel in part about Hawai`i, it engages the Japanese fascination with these islands. The novel owes a lot, perhaps, to the contemporary Japanese writer, Haruki Murakami, who has also written about Hawai`i, but its intellectual edge is sharper, its encyclopedic investigations of contemporary literature, film, and gender politics more attuned to the academic eye and ear. Ah, but what to make of a narrator/translator who suffers dementia, a husband/writer who communicates only by moving his eyeballs, a sex cultist named Cosmo who has no gender, a TV producer who wants pathos at the expense of his subjects' happiness, or the boundaries of the A-bomb dome broken by lovers who copulate on ground zero? If much of the energy of the novel is intellectual, it manifests itself in surreal, time-criss-crossing plots and subplots that will make it a page turner, once it escapes the pdf form I'm reading it in. Or is it that I simply haven't yet imagined it and me with a Kindle?
Amusing, yes, that Goro Takano, the expert on three line haiku, emerges here as the author of a 379-page novel (including bibliography!), its pages slathered with words, complicated syntax, an English that is not quite that spoken by a native--sometimes better. This reader became so involved in the subtle differences between her own English and Takano's that actual English words began to become foreign. Take the word "distressful." I was convinced it was the neologism of a non-native speaker until I looked it up on merriamwebster.com and realized that it IS an English word. Goro's prose enacts the (English) language in the process of being reinvented and rediscovered. It's an exciting read on many levels, but this is one that I find crucial to the overall effect of the novel. Nowhere is this as apparent as in the poems Takano includes in the novel, poems by Lulu, the demented narrator/translator. Lulu writes in various modes, including the ballad. Chapter 23 begins with a quote from John Ashbery's "37 Haiku" in A Wave: "He is a monster like everyone else but what do you do if you're a monster." Then we get Lulu's proto-Bob Dylan ballad, which opens:
Hard rain is falling down. All over this small town. Misty cold midnight. Only a few city lights are on.
The poem's tone is odd, to say the least, rather like one of Ashbery's funny/sad poems. "Finnish Rhapsody" comes to mind, though that poem's not so jangly as this one.
Her dearest daughter is gone. Run over by a truck. That was also a rainy night. Her kid was walking after her.
As it takes its nine page course, this poem comes to record the intense ethical conflict of a TV reporter over whether he should have saved the girl or recorded her death on film.
I can't say for sure if that poem was written in that way because Takano is a second language writer in English; in some ways, the poem reminds me of Sarith Peou's simple yet searing poems inCorpse Watching, also composed in non-native English. But there are moments in the book where the second language English emerges, making the writing more effective. Take "Lulu's Fifth Poem: 'Tanka: I Am.'" Ron Padgett'sThe Handbook of Poetic Forms defines the tanka thusly:
"Tanka (from the Japanese for 'short poem') are mood pieces, usually about love, the shortness of life, the seasons, or sadness. Tanka use strong images and may employ the poetic devices, such as metaphor and personification, that haiku avoid." (187)
Takano's / Lulu's poem opens in unsurprising English (the formatting is going to hell, sorry):
I am a spider whose dewy web is still missing many warps and woofs; yet, I am master of myself.
I am a mist who spreads gradually far and wide, while still searching for a chance to confine myself.
But as the poem goes on, its English gets less predictably English. Take this section:
I am a rain; I won't chase anymore those who scattered away--Because, look, here's someone waiting for me.
I am a mud drying up with a good number of footsteps of the people masking their true faces.
Or the last line of the final section:
I am a forest who flourishes deep inside of a newborn's mind; as time goes by, maybe, I'll be doomed to soil and wane.
Some native English speakers could come up with a line that combines "be doomed to soil" with "be doomed to wane," (the aforementioned Ashbery comes to mind) but something tells me the line is more easily arrived at if these words remain somewhat foreign. And phrases like "I am a mud" and "I am a rain," which seem to ask for the reader to take out the indefinite article, or to add something to the end, like "spot" or "drop," are effective precisely because they resist native fluency. They are more like lines from Peou's "Corpse Watching":
Corpse watching provides excitement, Corpse watching is filled with fear The corpses are someone's father, brother, sister, mother-- Sometimes corpse watching brings tears. (np)
It would be "better" English to write that "corpse watching makes me cry," but it would not be more effective communication. Nor would the first two lines benefit, in this context, from being "corrected" out of its cliches, its generalizations. Because, for once, these abstractions work--largely because of the Cambodian genocide that lurks in every line of this poem and the eponymous chapbook. But also because what Evelyn Ch'ien calls "weird English."She writes "about the ushering in of a global subjectivity, in which the diaspora consciousness caused a number of writers to relate their experience polylingually."
To read Takano's entire novel is to be constantly jolted by the often miniscule differences between one's own English and Goro Takano's English. We (native speakers of English) are constantly reminded that we, like Lulu, are translators of this text, even if our translations are from English to English. The frequent parenthetical interruptions by "Translator" emphasize this difference between the American novel we think we're reading and the Japanese content--and/or vice versa. While Ch`ien's interest is primarily in weird Englishes spoken by immigrants, or Pidgin spoken by non-dominant groups (see Lisa Kanae and Lee Tonouchi's works), Takano is a writer who studied in the United States and returned to Japan, where he is now associate professor of English at a medical school. So, while he is now teaching "weird English," he is not immersed in it. His English now belongs more to Japan than to the United States, although his book will find most of its readers in this country. How appropriate that his book be published by Blazevox, "a publisher of weird little books." At first I disliked that phrase, thought to tell the publisher, Geoffrey Gatza, as much. Now I get it. Weird is good, though this book is not "little" in any sense of the word. It's complicatedly astonishing.
This past Wednesday we employees of the University of Hawai`i-Manoa received another in an increasingly long line of memos from our Chancellor, Virginia Hinshaw, about the sorry state of our budget. You can see the entire memo here. Suffice it to say, as the Chancellor does in her first paragraph, after the chirpy "Aloha!" with which she opens, that "we . . . the citizens of the State of Hawai`i, along with people around the world, are dealing with financial challenges that are also heavily impacting our university." The mind reels at that image of vague challenges impacting an abstract institution, but she quickly cuts to the chase, offering up numbers: $14 million of cuts, on top of 4% on top of $20 million. The photo at the top shows what nearly 20 years of cuts have already accomplished; this is my building, Kuykendall Hall, whose paint falls off as I type, whose elevator has never worked right, and whose offices are emptying out from retirements, moves, and soon-to-be layoffs.
Having set forth the problem, Chancellor Hinshaw immediately assigns blame. Is it our Republican governor, Linda Lingle, who refuses to raise taxes? Is it greed on the part of politicians, administrators, even the lamentable football coach (whose $1 million annual salary was cut 7% for an anti-gay slur)? No, it's the UH public employee unions, of course, who have not yet reached an agreement with the powers that be. And so, there will be "retrenchment," perhaps the only euphemism in the language uglier than the word it replaces, "lay-offs."
Lest we think the administration is not working with due diligence, Hinshaw lets us know that "over the past several months, members of our Chancellor's Advisory Committee on Prioritization and Budget Workgroup have been meeting separately and in recent weeks, together, to discuss ways in which UH Manoa can maintain our focus on academic priorities and, at the same time, maximize our limited resources more effectively, including the identification of areas of reduction/elimination and recommendations on additional ways to generate more revenues." Doesn't that make you feel better, oh employees of UHM?
Hinshaw adds some bullet points about our future cuts and exemptions from cuts. She closes by promising a "campus-wide forum" (does that sound to anyone else like a "town-hall meeting"?) where we can share our ideas. "This is a time for creativity and action; thankfully UH Manoa is blessed in having a lot of mind power to apply to our challenges. . . I am grateful for everyone's passionate support during these tough times." She signs off with the Hawaiian words, "Mahalo nui loa," and then leaves us to gather up her syllables and march forward into the future our creativity and passion(!) will have endowed us with.
I cannot do justice to the awfulness of our Chancellor's prose, but I wanted to do something to it. So I went to a cut-up generator, one of those computer programs that makes William S. Burroughs's work so easy--too easy, because actually chopping away at the words might prove a better release. But here's what happens when I take the the memo and cut it up multiple times:
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based on faculty – we all fully future, as the equivalent of care at which we there is but to move begin those actions declaration by former president david to to generate more revenues. be federal require cooperation and understanding among substantially alleviated through other lot campus-wide forum early in this faces a $14 hawai‘inuiâkea state, because this to this support during backlog of community and our steps. therefore, we have no choice began the upcoming fall semester, the provided by chancellor email@example.com
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aloha! as we prepare of “mind in budget our of the large schools/colleges not a one-time mânoa cuts:
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over the past students. as we are the definitely plan improves. as cuts, the campus university. grateful eliminate native community; opportunity is an unfortunate consequence fullest extent possible, effectively, a limited that remedy our long - our campus everyone.
• plan for permanent, focus on these tough times.
mahalo nui achieve savings through retrenchment. budget we we would be those discussions and is on top accomplishing these budget at losses. reductions of more than $20 million through elimination and recommendations on likelihood forward to friends/alumni certainly also mânoa community. we the safety of our campus for creativity and do it well. following up deeply about our meeting separately – hawai’I at mânoa along action – damaging impact hinshaw uh mânoa mânoa can maintain alleviation power” to importance to programs this month, we have reductions in staff and the hawai’I - for time, ways doing and hawaiian
• exempt must unfortunately implement steps current levels and then have to financial future will worsen tuition increases. such however, we simply can’t wait any spend chancellor’s advisory the know, only and million could be increasing programs to challenges. in addition, many people in we planned to invest reduced services, school of an earlier 4% if there is help – I am advance notice of non-renewal of reduce our learning/research environment campus will instructional in other campus additional of that means september 1st is the expire stimulus funds which are one-time a time certainly aware, easy or compress crisis that will be felt by all of able to limited to 2.5%, while the level of our now
There are some truthful post-op nuggets here: "this additional loss of revenue careers," the Steinian "I have concluded that uh which uh least four months"; "manage the need policies"; "we all fully future"; "aloha! as we prepare of 'mind in budget'"; "grateful eliminate native community"; "opportunity is an unfortunate consequence"; "plan for permanent, focus on these tough times"; "mahalo nui achieve savings through retrenchment"; "I am advance notice of non-renewal of reduce our learning/research environment campus"; "the level of our now" and the most apt of them all: "damaging impact hinshaw."
Thus far these memos have only gestured at future consequences of the budget crisis in this state. We await the real news. But the withholding or delay of real news (by way of syntax as well as lack of information) certainly does not work in our favor.
My son notices many things I do not. From a moving car he sees a deer a hundred yards away in a field of tall grass (in Washington State); he sees the small hands carved into the artificial rocks on a path at the UHM Art Department; he sees the small blue bird peering out of its hidden perch at the San Francisco Academy of Sciences museum. To take a walk with him is to discover what is there in front of me already. What he does not see well are letters, words, pages of writing. For him, reading involves a lot of guesswork. When he was younger and his books all included large pictures, he would carefully study the pictures and then invent the text, using the first letters of each word as his clues. The results were sometimes astonishingly close to the written story, other times as far away as that deer in the field. When his more literate friend comes over and wants to play Star Wars Mad Libs, Sangha declares that he won't follow the rules. I know he won't because he can't. But I appreciate the imagination it takes to re-invent games so that you can play them. The game of reading is hard to game, however, especially when school is rigged on the side of the good readers.
This summer we sent Sangha to Assets, a school in Honolulu that specializes in teaching dyslexic children. While Sangha mostly told us about his enrichment classes in rocket building, art, and construction, he was especially excited one day that they had talked about "dge" as part of a word. Edge, ledge, knowledge: many a dge lurks in our words. (This reminds me that during Sangha's Russian sounds phase of his aquisition of language, he once assigned the sounds "dge dge deva" to a meal of salmon and rice.") That was about the time he also sounded like a Brooklyn cop muttering under his breath, lots of "disses" and "dats" from the back seat of the family car.
My colleague, Laura Lyons, recommended Maryann Wolf'sProust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain . One of the book's revelations (and there are many) is that the act of reading is not natural for human beings. There is no reading center in the brain; instead, reading is an activity made up of other brain functions. Reading is adaptation. For good readers, reading is "bidirectional: we bring our life experiences to the text, and the text changes our experience of life . . . wherever we are led, we are not the same" (160). We adapt to (because of) our reading. Wolf has a marvelous few paragraphs about the ways in which our reading changes over the course of our lives, how particular books mean different things to us at different times. How true. I will often counsel students resistant to a particular text to try it again in ten years, twenty years. The analogue is the way we read our own lives differently over time, or how we read time. If, as Ashbery writes, things acquire a "sheen" in your late thirties, then my sense is our later years reduce the sheen and expand the pathos. Some of us, in any case, move from abstraction to tangibility. But in that tangibility is contained the potential for more feeling. I once detested Williams's wheelbarrow. But it's been growing on me for years now.
My son's gift is that, at 10, his world is tactile, tangible. Reading, however, is an abstraction, difficult as math was to me at his age. His reading of the world is immediate; not so his reading of his books. He's got the wheelbarrow down already, just not Williams's (or anyone's written) rendering of it.
August is the month to spread the syllabic seeds, plan courses, set forth expectations, say no to cell phones, ipods, and texting in class. The syllabus is map to an undiscovered place--not a new continent, but the place you live in already whose details are still hidden. It points, like my son pointing at a bird. But that's why it's a scary thing. For me, the syllabus sets forth the promise of what books and poems can do for a (usually timid) reader; for the student, the syllabus is a mix of possibility and danger (how many tardies do an absence make?) I'll be teaching two courses this Fall, English 273: Creative Writing & Literature, and English 410: Form & Theory of Poetry. The first is an introductory course of recent vintage; I like this course because it institutionalizes the way I like to teach anyway, mixing reading and writing in equal measure. This Spring I taught it with an emphasis on documentary writing, including C.D. Wright's, One Big Self, about Louisiana prisons and Lisa Linn Kanae's Sista Tongue. This semester we'll read Eleni Sikelianos's The Book of Jon. We will also be studying and riffing off books by Craig Santos Perez, Kamau Brathwaite, Joe Brainard. And we'll begin by reading and writing haiku, poems wedded to the tangible world. The other course is upper level; in it, students think about writing as they do it. So I've put Lofty Dogmas on the reading list for its essays by poets on poetry. And, for the first time in over a decade, I'll be teaching Jerome Rothenberg and Pierre Joris's Volume 1 of Poems for the Millennium. It's still my favorite of their anthologies. I've posted drafts of my syllabi here and will be refining them over the next few days.
I remember being in a poetry class with Alfred Corn my senior year of college. Alfred, already very much a New York City poet, hailed originally from Valdosta, Georgia. I drove through Valdosta once; my only vivid memory of the place is finding myself in a restroom with some cheerleaders. Their accents were so strong that I couldn't understand a word. One member of our college class marveled that Alfred did not himself have a southern accent. "I do when I'm angry," he responded.
Mr. Call, in the video above, has an accent. So does the woman who has taught her dog not to accept treats when they are offered by "Obama." Her anger is understated, but clear. Mr. Call's accent is from Maine; the woman's accent is southern. Both of them are angry. Both are obsessed with words. Mr. Call tells the reporter not to call his wife a "call girl." "Don't play with my words," is what he seems to be saying. And yet the jumble that follows, about his being forced to stay in the woods (literally and figuratively); about how "freedom is not free"; about people fighting for the America that's "being taken away" from him. Those words are important to him, but he does not have as much control over them as he does over the probably exhausted joke he's told all of his married life. And the dog who refuses Obama treats has been trained to recognize that some words are taste-less, not worth the reward that he takes happily when it comes from "dad" or "mom." Obama is not part of our family, in other words.
This is not to say that people with accents are haters, of course. But there's something in the intensity of their voices, their uses of words (however recycled and tired those words might be) that enables their accents to draw us in, then fling us back. There's pathos in their attentions to words and phrases--"call girl," "in the woods," "Obama"--precisely because they do not attend to their other words--"freedom," "fight," "my country"--with any awareness of what they might mean to the rest of us. I'm not sure what to make of this stew of anger, accent, and word salad, except to say I'm scared of it.
The boy was about my son's age, maybe a year or two older. He was watching my son's team play, but he was also performing for the other spectators. His back to the field, he began to talk loudly about "fags," some kid who was one. One of the players' dads laughed loudly, so the kid said "fag" again. I was sitting off to the side, unsure of how to react. The kid came toward me, was about to walk by, when I reached out and grabbed his arm. "Many of my friends are gay, and I don't want to hear you say that again," I said to him. He smirked. He pulled at his arm; for a moment, I didn't release him. I never heard my son's baseball coach say anything of the kind, but he did punctuate his coaching with yells of "don't throw like a girl" and "don't hit like girl," even though his daughter played varsity for Kamehameha Schools softball team and one of his former charges was a star for the UH softball team (and in my Creative Writing & Literature class). Years ago, when I coached t-ball, one of the dads asked me to tell his son "not to act like a girl." Homophobia, misogyny: a not-so-odd couple trotted out at sports events where manhood is on the line, even if the players are 10 and under.
The UH football coach, Greg McMackin, has been suspended for 30 days, docked 7% of his pay, and required to do community service with LGBT organizations for a recent press conference in which he referred to the Notre Dame football team's "little faggot dance" (discreetly written as "f----t" on the kitv.com website). The UH haka dance is masculine and bold, of course. After his suspension and pay cut, he gave another public statement during which he shed tears and said the following (you can listen there):
"I would sincerely like to apologize for the inappropriate verbage, words I used. You know, couple things, cause I have nothing against the University of Notre Dame. I have... I don't talk like that and I'm really ticked off at myself for saying that. And uh, I don't know what to tell you. I don't have any prejudices and it really makes me mad that I said that, and I'm disappointed in myself. I know that there are a couple of you who know me. I'm a very competitive person. I think I told you guys that was the worst loss in my 40-year career in the game and that it ticks me off, that you know, that I said that cause Notre Dame played a great ball game. What I was trying to do was be funny and it wasn't funny and it's not funny and even more, it isn't funny, too. I was trying to make a joke and it was a bad choice of words and it really, I really, really feel bad about it, and I wanted to apologize. I'm going to apologize to my team and apologize to the people in Hawaii."
He moves from saying he might have offended Notre Dame to talking about his lack of prejudice, to saying he's very competitive, to claiming he was trying to be funny, to an apology to his team and the people of Hawai`i. Unpack that paratactical morass and the purported origins and evident cover for hatred become clear. You're hurt, you attack a marginalized group, it's just in good humor, and now you apologize. You apologize to the same group that laughed with you, namely the press. In a poem addressed to the coach, which will appear soon in the Honolulu Weekly, R. Zamora Linmark refers to the "joke" as "beyond boring to me" and expresses his ironic pleasure that the coach does "not have a problem with either" his being "a faggot or a homosexual," noting that "there really is very little difference between the two, / except to discern the discreet from the closeted." Zack follows that with his own enjambed joke about "your tight ends / and receivers."
As Zack notes, McMackin is hardly the first person in Hawai`i sports to find homosexuality threatening. Almost ten years ago, well before McMackin became the coach, the football team changed its name from "Rainbows" to "Warriors," got rid of the light green uniforms with rainbows on them, and changed to black uniforms with a forbidding H stenciled on. The Thursday, July 27, 2000 article by Dave Reardon in the Honolulu Star-Bulletin bears some close-reading; in "Ushering in Hawaii's new brand," Reardon alludes but once to "the gay movement" in his reporting on the change of name and logo. Reardon does quote a Hawaiian activist on problems with the new Warrior mascot and logo: "The issue," says Pi`ilani Smith, "is no longer about the mascot, the issue is no longer about this hideous logo. The issue is about misappropriating identity and racist slurs." Hugh Yoshida, then Athletic Director, responds that the "designs were thoroughly researched for cultural sensitivity, and experts at the university's Center for Hawaiian Studies were consulted." So there. No mention of "experts" on LGBT issues, of course. The euphemistic haze gets denser. Former UH receiver Kyle Mosley is quoted as saying, "Being called the Rainbows, especially for men's teams, left them open to ridicule . . . Warriors has a much stronger connotation." Charlie Wade, the assistant women's volleyball coach, added that the word "rainbow," "is a loaded one, especially on the Mainland." "Once you get away from Hawaii, (Rainbow) can mean a lot of different things," said Wade, alluding to "Jeff Gordon's pit crew known as the Rainbow Warriors, Jesse Jackson's Rainbow Coalition, and the gay movement." Now which of these three items is most "loaded," do you think? Again, Zack takes the euphemisms and raises them, almost literally, into the sky:
I was not ticked off nor even offended ten years ago, when the team refused to kick- off until the name and mascot were changed from "Rainbows" to "Warriors," for fear of affiliating with Newton's palette or anything to do with meteorological phenomenon [sic] . . .
"Throw like a girl . . . hit like a girl": surely what follows these insults is the phrase, "cries like a girl." So in a private email, my Dean (a happily married gay man) writes, "But even more (much more) interesting than my being offended (Zack is right to call that 'beyond boring') was McMackin's total collapse into girly-man tears at his press conference. Now what was behind that?" Good question. Of course McMackin was not the first coach to break into tears over a football matter. When the last coach, June Jones (what's with that first name?), resigned as head coach, the Honolulu Advertiser's Stephen Tsai quoted a friend of the coach's as saying: "He cried like a baby . . . he doesn't want to leave. . . This breaks his heart." The language of manliness gives way, with seeming naturalness, to the language of sentiment--babies, women, what's the diff?
Stephen Tsai's work for the Advertiser and for espn.com is worth a closer look, for Tsai's rhetoric brought together, sometimes sublimely, the mix of masculinity, fundamentalist Christianity, and heroism that hovered about Jones's tenure as coach. At the same time, Tsai aided in the cover-up of Jones's affairs, his purported love child with a volleyball player, and the greed that sent him packing to SMU in 2008. Tsai was not the only writer to romanticize Jones's tenure as coach, but more than most he elevated Jones's position in the community by lauding his character. Crucial to the Junes Jones myth (one that lasted roughly the length of the George W. Bush administration) was the car accident that nearly took his life in 2001. Tsai began his article, "Jones became symbol of optimism for Aloha State" with the stark words, "Paradise froze." What follows in the article about Jones's accident are myriad mentions of prayer: the governor is praying, the mayor reports that the citizens of Hawai`i are praying, there was a moment of prayer before a game with Texas Christian (do I really need the italics?). Jones, who presided over the shift from Rainbows to Warriors, is described by friends and colleagues as "a people's coach," an agent of optimism in the face of economic recession, an Island Son. My favorite quotation comes from Larry Beil, a UH grad and former ESPN anchor: "Right next to the Duke Kahanamoku state [that means "statue"], they should make one for June Jones."
Ah, but this mythical character is also a good and a humble man, according to Stephen Tsai: "Jones does not have a secretary, keeps his own appointment book and answers his own calls, usually on his cellular, which is as much a part of his everyday wear as socks are not." He drives his own car!!! (Your blogger knows this is true, because June Jones drove himself in his fancy SUV through her picket line in 2000, when the faculty struck for better pay.) Tsai ends his encomium by using the two worst words in contemporary journalism. The accident, he writes, was "so ironic and tragic." Need I add that the ironies were unspoken, and the tragedy incomplete, since the flawless hero survived.
Tsai updated this article six years later, after the Warriors' undefeated season, but before Jones left for other pastures. The update fills out the language of religion and heroic recovery from the accident. The very headline alludes to the coach's "new life," at once actual and spiritual, and reads like a saint's life. What fascinates me about Tsai's article is that so much space is devoted to love. As quoted in the article, June Jones sets forth a philosophy of familial (his mother cooked him breakfast every morning; his dad attended all his games) and divine love ("It is that love--God's love--that seized his soul when he was a teenager"). Reminded of saint's lives, I did some traveling on the internet this morning and found a site that features the "Saint of the Day" on Catholic Online. Turn to today's Saint of the Day on-line at the "Saints and Angels" section of the Catholic on-line site, and you find this on St. Cajetan:
"Cajetan took a different route. Just as concerned as Luther was about what he observed in the Church, he went to Rome in 1523 -- not to talk to the pope or the hierarchy but to consult with members of a confraternity called the Oratory of the Divine Love. When he had first come to Rome many years before, he had felt called to some unknown great work there. A few years later he returned to his hometown of Vicenza -- his great work seemingly unrealized. He had however studied for the priesthood and been ordained and helped re-establish a faded confraternity whose aims were promoting God's glory and the welfare of souls."
Let me now quote Coach Jones's spiritual guide, Pastor Norm, as quoted by Stephen Tsai. Listen for the echoes of St. Cajetan's life, the fraternity of "Divine Love," the promotion of "God's glory and the welfare of souls." "The crash woke him to to why he's on Earth . . . It brought him back to realizing his purpose. He's here to change young people's lives, which he can do better at the college level than pro level. It recalibrated his life and his priorities. He understood that 'this is why God put me here and why God made me like this'." Following the Lives of the Saints model, Tsai goes on to list Jones's good deeds, which included offering a scholarship to a homeless player, creating a charitable foundation, giving another scholarship to a football fan with cerebral palsy, and so on. Tsai is proleptically channeling the good pastor Norman Nakanishi's sermon on June Jones; Nakanishi's recent Twitter feed indicates he's praying for Coach McMackin: "Called & emailed UH Coach Mac. May God reveal himself. Pray w/me.12:26 PM Jul 31st from mobile web."
Far be it from me to mock the Catholic saints, but I do feel an upsurge of skepticism about the saintly coach, as I would confess to the nearest priest, or to you, fond reader. I might take a rhetorical question from Tsai's article out of context and ask, "What's wrong with this picture?" and point back to the language of hatred with which I began this post. Coach Jones was never quoted as using the word "faggot," but then there were (enamored) writers like Stephen Tsai to cover for him. Coach McMackin, a less charismatic coach, alluded to reporters covering for him after he used the word "faggot" at the press conference. This coach got caught by the out of town press.
The haters on the internet can now hate the Coach for crying, for apologizing (mostly to Notre Dame, it should be said). Homophobic language, along with its close relatives sexist and racist (and even anti-semitic) language (see here for an especially vile example), are alive and well. So it's good to have the homophobic language of public officials dragged out of the closet. It's good to see that there are consequences to the use of such language, even for the coach of the football team. It's good that the Coach will be working directly with the LGBT community. While the phrase "policing the language" has a bad name (what? I thought we weren't supposed to speak ill of the police!), let's try to keep policing this dance of saying and not saying words that can--on the field of play--break some bones.
Let's save the language of love and sentiment and spirituality for other fields of play. Like poetry.
Here's Linmark's entire poem in response to Coach McMackin.
That Little Faggot Dance, Said the Coach R. Zamora Linmark
McMackin apparently pleaded with the press not to report on the slur. “I want to officially, officially apologize…Please don’t write that statement I said as far as Notre Dame. The reason is, I don’t care about Notre Dame. But I’m not a – I don’t want to come out and have every homosexual ticked off at me. from Towleroad
Coach, I am a faggot and a homosexual and I know and am glad that you do not have a problem with either, because there really is very little difference between the two, except to discern the discreet from the closeted, and when the issue extends beyond the grassy field where preference of position is played out to the tee, almost identical, but not quite, to your tight ends and wide receivers. And although you were only trying to make a joke that ended up not being funny to you and beyond boring to me, the joke being about “that little faggot dance” the Fighting Irish of Notre Dame did before you sent your boys to slap their heads and beat their chests then go into a Polynesian trance that your Hawaii fans now suspect was the reason for the 20-point loss, which is almost equivalent to three touchdowns. But why did you use “faggot” three times at the press conference then try to retract by calling it a “bad term”, which, whether you and I and the rest of the Emperor penguins like it or not, is almost similar to you calling me a bad person. For I am that bad choice of word, when you could’ve consulted Roget’s or me via Facebook for more engaging, if not better get-creative-with synonyms, like “Aero-splitting fudgepackers” or “Powwow fairies”, almost alike and at least oxymoronic. That said, I am not ticked off and am far from offended, just as I was not ticked off nor even offended ten years ago, when the team refused to kick- off until the name and mascot were changed from “Rainbows” to “Warriors”, for fear of affiliating with Newton’s palette or anything to do with meteorological phenomenon, like the time I sided with the rain on one side of the street and you were glinting with the sun on the other.
The Daily Show's advertisements are heavy on horror and suspense movies; my husband and I have sat through many a bad trailer while watching Jon Stewart skewer the stooges of the right. Last night, I thought the horror was that the trailer had eaten The Daily Show. An ad for A Perfect Getaway went on and on, until I thought we must be watching the movie itself. Set on the Na Pali coast of Kaua`i (by the look of it) the movie tells the sad tale of a couple of newlyweds who, thinking they're going to spend time in Paradise, find big-time apples instead. Someone is killing honeymooners, and they might be the other couple on the trail, the ones with matted hair and sinister smiles. At some point, people start jumping off cliffs and badly managing get-away kayaks.
I've lived near or in tourist locations nearly all my life: Washington, DC, Williamsburg, VA, Honolulu and now the windward side of O`ahu, with stays in places like San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, which is overrun by ex-pats, the tourists who come and never leave. I have also been a tourist, spending three weeks mostly inside a van driving through Chinese cities; having my wallet professionally lifted in the Madrid subway; gawking at the burned out buildings in Highland Park, Michigan outside Detroit. If tourism too often resembles watching a video (if it's in another language, there are no subtitles), then the language of tourism is equally superficial. "Look around. There's no place on earth like Hawaii." "THE PEOPLE OF HAWAII WOULD LIKE TO SHARE THEIR ISLANDS WITH YOU." It's this language that causes such a frisson when A Perfect Getaway suggests that someone in Hawai`i would actually prefer to kill you.
And it's precisely this language that Ara Shirinyan skewers in Your Country is Great: Afghanistan-Guyana (Futurepoem Books, 2008). This is not the "great" of Alexander the, but the "great" of "Hawaii is great year-round, but prices fall in autumn," or "Hawaii is great even with the cursed idols," or even "Hawaii was great, not what I expected though??" or "Paris Hilton in Maui Hawaii, looking great in a new bikini." That's what I got when I googled "Hawaii is great." And Your Country is Great is what Shirinyan got (with editing, of course) when he googled the countries from A-G in the CIA fact book and called them "great." What he got, beyond the humor of second language English and the degradation of the word "great," is an examination of the various strands of (male) tourist talk:
--what's to eat? --what's to drink? --who's to screw? --what's the music like? --what's to fear? (robbers, mostly) --what's to do? --where's the "but"? There's the standard line that goes something like, "Hawaii is great, but I wouldn't want to live there."
The word "great" becomes an engine for locating touristic cliches, not simply about each country, but about any country tourists visit. The generic nature of language elicited by the phrase "X is great" is initially eye-opening (if only to see shallow spaces), but begins to grate pretty quickly. As someone who recognizes the lingo, I begin at about the letter B or C to want more. Give me the CIA fact book material! (It's actually a really neat resource, even if the source is spooky.) Kenneth Goldsmith's blurb is accurate: "Instead of accepting current notions of language as a medium of differentiation, Shirinyan persuasively demonstrates its leveling quality, demolishing meaning into a puddle of platitudes." He is also wrong, of course. Because this is merely the language of the tourist bureau and the unreconstructed tourist imaginary. Need I say we don't get the view from the shore?
Not that the view from the shore is necessarily more benign. There's a genre of "tourist go home" poem that objectifies the tourist every bit as capably as the tourist objectifies the natives. The motivation may be different, but the poems aren't necessarily more interesting. At least they get away from the eye candy quality (or lack thereof) of the unreconstructed 747 poem. This is what Rob Wilson and others call a poem by a poet who flies in, flies out, then writes an authoritative poem about the place he (usually) saw from the plane window. But there are alternative views, those that pillory the language of tourism and then add to our knowledge of the place. Take "Guam is Great." Shirinyan covers the bases: the volcano, the beach, the people, the diving, the hotel, the service (not so great), the food, the water activities, the ww2 history (unexamined). Now compare that to Craig Santos Perez's Guam and you'll see the limitation to the "Guam is Great" formula, as well as to the touristic one. Perez shows us the destructiveness of tourism (empire, the military, the loss of indigenous culture and language), but he gives the outsider reader access to the insider's story. Much of the stark pathos (and I realize Shirinyan is not into pathos) of Perez's book comes in the poet's recognition that he is something of a tourist in his own home. He speaks the language, but not well enough. He knows the culture because his grandmother tells him, but she too has gaps in her knowledge. The gaps were instituted by imperial laws against speaking Chamorro (or Hawaiian or Korean, as the case may be). This seems a richer vein to tap than the artery of banal language Shirinyan mainlines.
Jennifer Firestone's Holiday (Shearsman Press, 2008) offers us the language of a tourist who knows she's a tourist, knows she's missing something, and spends her vacation wondering what that might be. While lacking in the ginned-up suspense of A Perfect Getaway, there's suspense in the not-knowing-but-still-sensing that she describes. She knows that holidays are usually "made up" (13), that
Over the bridge slopes dictate the way below it shines don't stop for reflection (13)
where reflection is at once a visual and a meditative act. Firestone meditates, then, on her vacation, and what her vacation prevents her from knowing:
no where or precise memory just land mountains (14)
[apologies for the lost formatting] and "each shape had names"--but not names that she knows, or she might write them down. The forms of Firestone's poems, airy, open, reflect not simply her reflectiveness, but also draw out the gaps in knowledge that are the paradoxical subject of the book.
Firestone, like the honeymoon couple in the movie trailer, senses danger: "Michelangelo / despised painting / 'fit for women'"; the old masters were out to erase you. (The impressionistic descriptions of the old paintings are among the best passages in the book.) There's violence in the art, there's violence at home (a murder), and there's violence in the American invasion of Iraq.
What Firestone does not offer is the research, the historical depth of someone who returns from vacation and tries to discover what it was she saw. Nor does she offer what Hank Lazer does in Elegies & Vacations, namely a meditation on the self, inspired by travel and by the re-reading of familiar poems in unfamiliar places. Lazer mixes the here and there in fruitful ways, ones that largely and wisely evade the temptation to "own" the place one visits. Pam Brown has performed similar experiments; her chapbook 747 Poems (Wild Honey Press) includes self-aware tourist poems. Firestone begins a process that I would hope she continues. Knowing that she has not lived the places she's visited, this reader would like to see her write poems out of what she looks for when the trip is over.
Shirinyan's book is funny. We laugh at tourist language because we know its banalities so well. What it lacks is something one can find in Rap Reiplinger's skit, namely the voice of a member of the service industry. S/he speaks in "a medium of differentiation," namely Pidgin. Rap manages to mock both the tourist, "Mr. Fogarty/ Frogtree," whom he plays, and the hotel desk clerk he likewise plays--in drag. Click here to watch the skit. Chart in your laughter lessons we might get from reading Shirinyan and Firestone in the same sitting, while overhearing the voices of hotel workers in the paradise getaway we're inhabiting for a week or two. Ah, but who the hell are "we"? And "they"?
["Activity's time-running antidote" is the last line of Jennifer Firestone's book (80)]
Not one half hour after I posted yesterday's entry on AWP's capricious selection (non-selection, rather) of panels, I got an automated announcement from them that another panel I'm on had been accepted. Organized by Janet McAdams, the panel is called "Editing Indigenous, Editing the Americas"; its purpose is "to enlighten our audience about the complications and rewards of publishing and delivering Indigenous writing and translation to larger reading communities." Surely this is a good thing.
Less than an hour after that my phone rang. When the caller ID read "George Mason University," I gulped. AWP headquarters. Sure enough, the caller was Christian Teresi, Director of Conferences, AWP. He said he was calling to answer any questions I might have. We talked for a while. I told him that the AWP has gotten a lot more diverse and interesting since I first attended (Albany, late 1990s). But many of my colleagues who have proposed panels on (among many other subjects) Hawai`i and Pacific (Indigenous) work have been turned back. To see more amazing rejections, look to Phil Metres's blog; he's been collecting evidence. I've also heard stories on facebook from Tim Yu (who proposed John Yau and Mei-mei Berssebrugge on a panel that was rejected) and Stephen Hong Sohn, who had a similarly stellar panel turned down.
Lest one think that paragraph two indicates on-going ethnic bias on the part of AWP, the first paragraph argues against that bias. Neither is evidence enough for any conclusion. But that's one of the problems: there is no evidence, because panels are rejected without any feedback or context. The process might, in fact, be rigorous, but it seems capricious. Capriciousness is the writer's friend (so much room for interpretation!), but it's the institution's enemy (so many angry writers!). I've lived in English departments long enough to know that capriciousness can provide cover for unstated agendas. Simple words like "craft," like "theory," take on fierce, yet unspoken, allegorical meanings and are used to exclude others (and Others).
There is reason to be suspicious of the capricious. After all, D.W. Fenza, an energetic enthusiastic partisan of AWP, has laid down a stark agenda in essay after essay. I'm sure he does not speak for all members of AWP, but he is the Director (currently on sabbatical). So, when he takes on "critics," calling them out seven times in one paragraph of "Advice for Graduating MFA Students in Writing: The Words & the Bees" (2006), and remarking that they "sustain a parasitic lifestyle" and engage in the "systematic humiliation of literature" with "gruesome interrogations" and live in a world he calls "academentia (forever)," well then.
Close-reading Fenza's essay may be exhilarating fun, but it's too easy. He's clearly on a romp, and it would be easy to respond with a romp of one's own. As Patrick Playter Hartigan advises in yesterday's comment stream (where Fenza also makes an appearance), go for the goal, not the stance (even when you're faced with such a one). So true, though one of the problems with AWP is that it represents institutions rather than writers, branded ways of thinking about literature and writing rather than new or synthetic ones, ways that bring together craft and culture, content and form, and yes, theory and practice.
In his essay, "Who Keeps Killing Poetry?" published in The Writer's Chronicle in 2006, Fenza cites D.G. Myers'sThe Elephants Teach: Creative Writing since the 1880s. This important book explores the origins of creative writing as a discipline that grew out of composition, emphasized creation over reception. While dense, the book is useful in teaching the pedagogy of creative writing, something I've been drawn into in recent years in my work with Ph.D. students. What it shows most starkly is how the workshop method developed as a tool for teaching creative writing. The workshop method emphasizes craft, community, and other good things, but often at the expense of content, experiment, or immersion in unfamiliar--in all senses of the word--literatures. The danger of workshop classes is that they are often content-free. They also tend to be conservative. If you have a group of students whose experience of literature is limited and based on notions of realism and linguistic transparency, it's hard to encourage experiment and risk-taking of a new kind if they are mostly talking to one another. "But that isn't realistic!" "No one talks that way!" Mark Wallace has written on this pressure to "make it real."
AWP is like a giant old-fashioned workshop, seems to me. What it needs are some good Bernadette Mayer exercises to remind it that its role is as much creative as it is institutional. Joseph Harrington remarks in yesterday's comment stream that institutions are meant to be gate-keepers. Perhaps this is true, and perhaps entering the institution ourselves is a danger we should think more about. And yet what I and others love about AWP is that it IS too big, it is diverse (in some ways, at least), and it offers a place where we can see each other, swap books and tales, and show off our wares as small publishers and poets and writers.
So what to do, aside from guerrilla tactics? I thought it amusing that the Director of Conferences offered to advertise an off-site event for me, as if that is what I wanted. Co-opted before I began!! I still think guerrilla tactics would be good fun, even good for AWP itself. But what are those positive goals that Patrick is advising us to shoot for, now that the AWP is clearly listening, or at least hearing? Here are some AWP experiments, after Mayer.
--Tear out pages from previous year's programs and write all over them. You might choose to erase words to create new proposals (see Ronald Johnson, Janet Holmes), or you might add new words.
--Cut up old programs and splice pages together randomly. Anything new pop up?
--Write down lists of talks you'd like to hear, then ignore the list and open yourself up to surprises! Make decisions more transparent. The AWP website has a long list of "Event Types," but everything I've seen that was rejected fit one of those types. Christian mentioned that some people will volunteer panelists who don't know they're being proposed, but that's not the case either, in my experience.
--Write lists of goals for the organization. Make decisions not based on who's on the board, but on goals of the organization itself. Christian told me that the Board decides, and the board is always changing. Well, there's one way not to be transparent! If the AWP sets goals for (let us say) including some panels on literature and theory (don't tell Mr. Fenza), or literature and journalism, or literature and cultural studies (as Joseph Lease suggested to me backchannel) and gets board members who know these things, then we might get somewhere.
--Write lists of writers outside MFA programs that you like to read. Invite them to AWP. De-emphasize programs, and re-emphasize writers and teachers of writers. This would be difficult as the AWP has as in its name the term "writing programs." But many of us teach creative writing, even if we are not faculty of MFA tendering institutions. Or, if we are, we don't teach in that track. Some of my colleagues do not teach creative writing, but have had great influence on students who write. I'm thinking now of someone like Craig Howes, who has been on dozens of fiction committees over the years.
--Write short descriptions of different kinds of diversity, ethnic, theoretical, stylistic. Encourage diversity ON panels, as well as in the program itself. Encourage panels that include poets and parasites, the morally upright and the "morally repugnant" (sorry, I go back to Fenza's rhetoric--it's seductive, isn't it?) On that last blast, see Reginald Shepherd, Charles Bernstein, Christian Bok, et al.
--Write a short play about AWP, then perform it on the street outside your house. Have events outside the buildings. Street theater, poet's theater, slam poetry in the streets. This is a way to reach out to the communities in which we're camping out for a few days. Get out of the hotels!
--Write poems in the form of AWP panel descriptions. Then turn the descriptions into poems. Make those panels happen.
--Collaborate with strangers who goad you. Add their goals to your list and vice versa. As Mayer puts it: "11. Get someone to write for you, pretending they are you."
I'm glad that Christian Teresi called. While he couldn't clear up matters that are opaque (like how panels are selected), he sounded open to suggestions. Let's start making them. We needn't attack. Just do.