Thursday, December 31, 2009

Poem: "Bethlehem"

Bethlehem

You come home to be counted but no room
is to be had at a cost you can afford,
having silenced the lathe and stilled the loom,
paying the hours with your heart toward
a vast accumulating sense of doom
that counts the certain end its own reward.
The journey stops, not in Jerusalem,
but backward, dirty, crowded Bethlehem.

Go into this unwholesome stable where,
before the beastly eye picks out its blank,
a stench of piss has stenciled in the air
muscular curve, bold stroke, animal flank;
hands, filling in detail of flesh, declare
the body a deposit and a bank,
care less what cock has shafted home what ass,
mad with desire and mad with disease.

The kings, they come with their gold offering,           
to bless the body’s lust with frankincense,
and bitter myrrh the body’s lingering.
The shepherds stand astonished by presence.
And you, unkept, soon to be undone, sing
of the swift massacre of innocence,
sing of the body’s torture on the thorn,
keep singing of the place where love is born.

*

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Rob A. Mackenzie reviews EQUAL TO THE EARTH

Scottish poet Rob Mackenzie reviews EQUAL TO THE EARTH: "Koh's formalism serves the poems rather than the other way round. They are extremely well-written, moving, pointed and refreshingly unfashionable...." Nice to be read and compared with George Szirtes' latest book.

I knew Rob through the online poetry workshop PFFA. As a poet he is always innovative and yet principled. As a critter he balances judgment with generosity. His first full-length collection of poetry The Opposite of Cabbage was recently reviewed in the Times Literary Supplement. I conducted an email interview with him on his book.

Monday, December 28, 2009

A Single Man and Invictus

Am I the only one to hate Tom Ford's directorial debut "A Single Man"? I just read the imdb user reviews and they all lapped up the movie. The same things they loved--the parade of well-cut suits, the Kennedy-era authentic details, the cold detachment of the camera--repulsed me. Based on the Christopher Isherwood novel, the film is about a man's grief after the death of his lover. Colin Firth, who plays English professor George, goes through the motions of a day at the end of which he plans to kill himself. Firth looks uncomfortable in the picture, as uncomfortable as the British expatriate in  in his perfect Californian suburban house his character is. Julianne Moore has a wonderful turn as Charley, fading beauty, divorced and hopelessly in love with George, and nearly steals the show from Firth's grief.

I guess I don't believe in George's mourning for Jim (the handsome Matthew Goode). There is insufficient irony between his grief and the material perfection of his life; the film runs too close to treating grief as a kind of conspicuous consumption. The flashbacks to a happier past with Jim are visual cliches: the handsome sailor hitting up George; both men lying on a beach; both men reading together in a couch, Jim with Breakfast at Tiffany's. The flashbacks do not flesh out Jim, why this man is so mourned by the living. Then those tedious shots of Firth turning helplessly in water, to show him drowning in his sorrow. Haven't we seen that image before and before?

"Invictus" is a very different kind of movie. Full of good intentions, it does not aim for subtlety; instead it wants to be a rousing hooray for Nelson Mandela and his vision of a reconciled South Africa. The film, based on historical events, shows Mandela's eye for political symbolism when he supported the national rugby team--associated with white Afrikaners and apartheid--in their quest for the World Cup. The film tries to humanize the icon somewhat by giving him a roguish and flirtatious sense of humor, moments which Morgan Freeman fully exploits, but the icon remains very much an icon, and speechifies instead of talks. Matt Damon plays the team captain Francois Pienaar with a kind of desperate stubbornness. He buffed up beautifully for the role, his hair cut to emphasize his golden youth.

The film is much too long and lacks dramatic pacing. More surprising to me, Clint Eastwood is not able to bring out the physical beauty of the game. The shots are generic TV, as are images of the enthusiastic stadium during the finals against the NZ All-Blacks. Except for the grunting from the scrums, the stadium noise drowns out any of the game's distinctive sounds. But one cannot help cheering for the team and the country once the credits roll.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Rockettes and Ghazals

Saw the Radio City Christmas Spectacular yesterday afternoon with my sister, brother-in-law and two nieces, H who is five, and L who is one. The show was not as enjoyable as I hoped. The Scenes, as they were called, were lavish, but not very imaginative. That left the dancing, by the Rockettes. I thought the choreography was so-so, the range of emotions limited, and when the famous precision was less than precise, what was left? This sounds more disappointing than I actually felt, sitting in that grand theater, with its scalloped proscenium stage. Both H and L were captivated throughout. I thought H showed some taste when she said her favorite scene was the first, the one with the Rockettes dancing as reindeer, and pulling Santa's sleigh. It was fresh and fun then, before it felt like more of the same.

Precision and innovation. Watchwords for my ghazal sequence too. Sometimes surface precision can overshadow deep innovation. I think the full sequence of my ghazals will garner extreme reactions. That is to the good. Five of them have been published in PN Review 191, along with poems by John Ashbery, Jeffrey Wainright, James Womack, Chris Peddle, Linda Gregerson, Fiona Sampson, Robert Gray, Fleur Adcock, and Elaine Feinstein. Buy a copy at the bookstore or subscribe online.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Laura Cumming's "A Face to the World: On Self-Portraits"

Why do artists paint self-portraits, Cumming asks, and so expose themselves and their art to the accusation of narcissism? Her answer is that self-portraits "make artists present as the embodiment of their art" and they often do so to ask who this person is who is looking back from the mirror. Cumming's book is a series of linked essays, roughly chronological in order, from Jan Van Eyck to Cindy Sherman, focusing mostly on paintings. 

A mighty gallery of artists are discussed under rubrics such as "Eyes," "Behind the Scenes," "Mirrors," "Stage Fright," "Loners," "Egotists," "Victims" and "Pioneers." Their inclusion demonstrates that self-portraiture is a main branch, and not a mere off-shoot, of the artistic tradition. Individual essays are devoted to Durer, Rembrandt and Velazquez, and these are the best chapters in a very interesting book. Cumming's discussions of Durer's Christ-like Self-Portrait of 1500 and of Velazquez's Las Meninas c. 1656 convey not only her fascination with the paintings, but also her love for them. The book is no dry scholarly tome, but is an articulate and informed response to a personal obsession. Cumming has been the art critic of the Observer since 1999. 

Looking at the lavish illustrations, I was drawn to Tintoretto's Self-Portrait c. 1546-1548, with his darkly handsome face; the muscular art of Artemisia Gentileschi (1593-c. 1652); and the friendly self-portrait of Giovanni Battista Salvi da Sassoferrato (1609-85) who gave his name to the blue used as the background to his painting. Cumming thinks that painters have a strange tendency to behave in self-portraits as they would in life. I found myself responding to self-portraits as I would to people, mentally judging this one vainglorious, that one reticent, and yet another deep. So what about the three that stand out for me? Together they represent the virtues of honesty, power, and friendliness, the same qualities I hope to achieve in my own verbal art.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Poem: "Fever Fragments"

"Fever Fragments" is written in response to Idra Novey's "As in Cincinnati," which in turn responds to Kimiko Hahn's "these toys." This extending wire of communication, branching out into others, will be published online next summer as Telephone Project, edited by Jonathan Farmer, poetry editor of At Length.



Fever Fragments

Can you forget what happened before?
—Sappho, “Six Fragments for Atthis”


The picture is still so clear to me
I cannot imagine you cannot see.
The fire’s marks are red, and burn;
I turn and turn for your return.

Then I see what I did not see:
you see a different part in me
that when the cold and dark return
the fire in you will burn and burn.

*

All smoke now, the white stars, the stupid wax
that crouched too fast under the hooded heat.
No stub of toe, no crust of tears, no sex
but dissipating wisp, finished, incomplete.

*

I would make accusation a form of love
except it has been done before.

*

Sundays we watched the Giants fumble
another play, but somehow stumble
to a big touchdown.

Your hands were sure, ran down my zipper
and caught so well I took you for a keeper,
took you in my mouth.

*

I suspect the lonely ones who compose long poems
of hearts unbroken.
My suspicion is ungenerous, I confess,
fever of the forsaken.

*

Sappho, teach me to lay a curse on him that sits:
when boys eat his ass, give them a mouthful of shit.

 *

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Marion Shaw's lecture "Larkin and Tennyson"

HS made me a copy of the revised text of the Distinguished Guest Lecture delivered at the Larkin Society AGM on 13 June 2009. In the lecture, Marion Shaw discussed Larkin's ambivalence towards Tennyson, how he at once excoriated the Laureate's silliness and envied the poet's, and his period's, "range, the colour, the self-confidence of it all" (Required Writing, p. 182).

Using Bloomian theory in The Anxiety of Influence (1973), a book Shaw describes as "slightly mad," she reads three poems by Larkin as  "corrections" of his poetic predecessor. "Lines on a Young Lady's Photograph Album" directly quotes "sweet girl-graduate" from Tennyson's The Princess. The "heavy-headed rose/ Beneath a trellis" also works within a field of Tennysonian reference, in particular that of his early English Idylls, perhaps "The Gardener's Daughter." The narrator of Tennyson's poem is a portrait painter who invites the reader to look into the past. In Larkin's poem, it is the work of photography, "a different kind of recollection, harder, sharper, more accurate," as Shaw puts it. She goes on, "The twentieth century cannot tolerate too much in the way of roses."

She compares Larkin's "Here" to section CXV of Tennyson's In Memoriam by pointing out both poets' skill in working with different visual distances. Her conclusion here is a rich insight: "Although Larkin's Here" is bleaker and even slightly sinister, and Tennyson's poem is optimistic, both belong to the traditional pastoral form which finds in nature an echo of human emotion. Tennyson gave this kind of landscape writing, which of course does not originate with him, an apparent simplicity and large reflectiveness which Larkin could draw on, could mould to his own desires, could rewrite with a characteristic, clear-sighted focus on the parochial and the mundane."

Finally she reads Larkin's "Aubade" as a reworking of Tennyson's poem about the dawn "Tithonus." Larkin would have known the Tithous myth, but would have recognized that his readership would probably not know it. Shaw comments, "So his own dawn song swerves away from the glorious colour and self-confidence of his predecessor." Here I am reminded of Larkin's criticism of poets who resort to the common myth kitty, a comment that points to a highly self-conscious choice of poetic strategy. But one breaks with one strand of tradition only to connect with another. If not Tennyson, then Hardy. Larkin seems, to me, not to attempt an individualism like the American Eliot, but to choose his lineage carefully. Or is the difference between choosing and taking for granted the choice?

It is interesting to me that Shaw concludes her essay by quoting Heidegger, from his essay "What are poets for?" The German writes, "In the age of the world's night, the abyss of the world must be experienced and endured. But for this it is necessary that there must be those who reach into the abyss." Asked about the melancholic nature of his poetry, Larkin said, in Shaw's paraphrase, "ah, but writing something, no matter how sad, is a celebration, an achievement, like laying an egg." The abyss and the triumph over it through art is Nietzsche's central thesis. Nietzsche--Heidegger--Larkin. The line, preposterous at first glance, is not so silly. I don't mean the Nazi taint. I mean something more fundamental, a tragic view of the world.

Monday, December 21, 2009

"Henri Cartier-Bresson: The Impassioned Eye" (2003)

JS, EN and I braved the snow last evening to see Robert Frank at the Met. It was strange: I did not like the show of photographs as much as the first time. Many of the photos were really not very interesting, and seemed to be there in "The Americans" for the sake of theme than for their individual aesthetic power. JS said that he has seen many images at Flikr as good as the ones in the show. I guess Frank should get some credit for doing it first.

Perhaps I have been influenced by the documentary on Henri Cartier-Bresson called "The Impassioned Eye" (2003). The photos of the French Master wielded great power, as a result of what he called the alignment of the eye, mind and heart. Some photos were more concerned with geometric form, others with emotional mystery, but they were all individually beautiful. I love the images of old Matisse with his birds. History was captured at the liberation of Paris, the death of Gandhi and the Communist takeover of China. This was a photographer of a great many subjects and wide sympathies. 

In the European art galleries at the Met, we spent some time looking at Rosa Bonheur's dashing "The Horse Fair" (1853-5). The painter dressed up in man's clothing in order to sketch the horses unnoticed. She appears in the center of the oil painting as one of the riders, the only "man" without a mustache. We also enjoyed tremendously the huge canvas "The Organ Rehearsal" by Henry Lerolle (1848-1929). The figures were drawn in the strikingly stiff posture of Seurat's "A Sunday Afternoon," giving them a modern feel. EN thought that the painter depicted the organ music synesthetically as the light in the church. I am not so sure. For one thing, the light is too airy for the weight of organ music. For another, the windows at the top of the painting already explain the light naturalistically. Still, one of the nicer things of looking at paintings with friends is that one gets to disagree with them.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Colored Balls of Wool

TLS December 18 & 25 2009

from Frank Whitford's review of Vincent Van Gogh: The complete letters, edited by Leo Jansen, Hans Luijten and Nienke Bakker:

Though self-absorbed, the letters testify to both the uncertainty and single-minded struggle of a painter who suffered, in the beginning at least, from a lack of facility, even from clumsiness. Like Cezanne, Van Gogh had to work hard to achieve anything. Then he discovered how to take strength from his weaknesses.
*
High-key colors helped him convey his feelings and so influence ours. A key passage about his painting "Interior of a Cafe at Night" (1888) explains how he did this.
In my picture . . . I have tried to express the idea that the cafe is a place where one can ruin oneself, go mad or commit a crime. So I have tried to express, as it were, the powers of darkness in a low public house, by soft Louis XV green and malachite, contrasting with yellow-green and harsh blue-greens, and all this in an atmosphere like a devil's furnace, of pale sulphur.
His palette was unconventional; his colour combinations even more so--pink beside yellow ochre, dashes of Naples yellow beside citron. Most of these juxtapositions were surely intuitive, though Van Gogh did keep a box of variously coloured balls of wool to help him find unusual combinations. The box is in the exhibition (and may help explain his use, beginning in 1887, of long parallel strokes of pure, contrasting colors like patches of embroidery.

***

from Raymond Martin's review of Barry Dainton's The Phenomenal Self:

Like virtually every other neo-Lockean, Dainton is struck by what he takes to be the conceivability of oneself . . . surviving radical changes in one's physical constitution. But unlike most neo-Lockeans, he is equally struck by what he takes to be the conceivability of oneself surviving radical changes in one's psychological constitution. The importance that other neo-Lckeans, including [Derek] Parfit, assign to psychological continuity, Dainton assigns to experiential continuity. . . .
The central feature of the sort of experiential continuity that, in Dainton's view, is essential to one's continued existence is "a phenomenal unifying relationship" that binds together experiences in ordinary streams of consciousness. He says that this relationship, which he calls co-consciousness, is that of being "experienced together", a notion that he takes as primitive, but thinks will be "utterly familiar" to everyone. In his view a "compound conscious state consists of nothing more than experiences, and the unity of these experiences is the product of relationships of co-consciousness among its constitutuent parts". Hence, in his view, experience--that is, co-conscious experience--is self-unifying.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Sarah Sarai's "The Future Is Happy"

If a poet can be cheerful without being nauseating, Sarah Sarai is she. Her optimism is undergirt by a restless intelligence, a hardheadedness about the world, and a willingness to be vulnerable. She hears happiness in a tenor sax and hipness in Count Basie's Band. Music buoys her sufficiently to dance and sing:


There's no foot in the grave, only the dead.
Swing time. Bebop. If you need more, I can't help you.
(from "The Future Is Happy")


Most of her poems, unlike the one I just quoted, are not crowd-pleasers in a poetry reading. They are too dense with cultural, historical and literary references to be understood at one hearing. They are better read and heard in the quiet of one's own room. They are friendly (many of them are dedicated to friends) but not flattering. Sometimes they are too heavy with cultural freight ("In Denzel Washington's Gaze" and "We All Know Things Together"), but at their best their knowingness gives them extended wings. A poem about love, "Flight" moves swiftly from the speaker's white heart to Kilamanjaro to Greek heroes Jason and Aeneas to Lavoisier to Merriam Webster to Prophet Mohammed to the


belief in mountain spirits leading us
to something or someone to curl into.


She can be scathing, as when she criticizes the logic of war in "A Rhetorical Inquiry Into the Moral Certitude of Cause and Effect." She can also be delightfully sensual. "Six, Seven Strawberries" begins with an exclamation of pleasure:


Oh to be a strawberry so smashed on a slice
of buttered bread that insides and outs are
children standing, arms wide and mouths
open in the dancing downpour. Oh to feel
sugar sprinkled. We Swedes may be dumb
like smiles glossy from a nincompoop's
joke but try this and tell me life's bleak[.]


Grappling with life's mysteries, some poems fall back too much on vague abstractions (like "life's mysteries") but Sarah already knows that, and ends the beautiful poem "Unreasonable"--the image of silver nets in the breast is magical--with a sly twist on that tendency:


Tragedy is a shard, pottery, broken
and exhibited for its poignancy.
Life is full, holds water, cracks and
gets repaired. I've gone abstract
(again). What I need is another kiss.


The mind is everywhere seeking the body. They come together as a divinity Sarah names, simply, She. She is corporeal as a buttock but "an idea only is She an/ impulse defying all impulse" ("Incorporeal"). She is the created Creator who elicits from her creatures


the absolutely amazingness
of She Herself forming such
a thing as pine boughs shaken
by burning cold winds when
we're all alone and looking up


Looking up is what this debut book of poems does so naturally. The Future Is Happy is published by BlazeVOX.

*

Friday, December 18, 2009

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Gregory Woods's "Articulate Flesh" Post 2

This book of gay poetry criticism is divided into two sections: Themes and Variations. Under the rubric of Themes, Woods examines The Male Body, Men of War, and Childless Fathers. In the first, he describes from the literature of men who desire men the specific attractions associated with each year of adolescence. After that fascinating chronology, he explores the three ideal male physiques in Western art, and their correspondence to mythical and historical figures that recur in gay male poetry. The discussion of Orpheus is of great interest. Woods writes:

Intact, torn and scattered: such are the three conditions of the body of Orpheus. The first, being the condition, also, of Apollo already dismissed, is negligible. But the second and third bear some relation to the nature of sexual appraisal and activity, insofar as looking at and making love to a person may be deeds of dismemberment. 'The true body is a body broken.' So says Norman O. Brown, before quoting Yeats: 'Nothing can be sole or whole/ That has not been rent'.

In the chapter on Men of War, Woods discusses not just soldiers, but sailors, cops, bikers, firemen and toughs: symbols of hyper-masculinity. The most subtle analysis of the theme comes in the section on the enemy-as-lover. I find particularly interesting his finding that this erotic theme is relatively scarce in the literature of the Pacific half of the Second World War, of the Korean War and of the Vietnam War. Woods suspects that this scarcity may be due to "an unstated sexual racism, which magnanimously grants the Asian enemy the respect due to a human being, and the right to life, but not the visual beauty required of a warrior-lover."

That gay poets play father to their poems is a common enough topos. Most interesting in the chapter on Childless Fathers is the section on adoption. Because the attraction to one's "son" smacks of incest, this motif appears infrequently in gay male poetry. Woods insists, however, that "the adoptive relationship is no less strongly felt for being merely semantic--a matter of definition--the power of words being emotively greater than that of biological 'law'." I think this must be correct.

Section two discusses Variations on the themes in the work of five poets: D.H. Lawrence, Hart Crane, W.H. Auden, Allen Ginsberg and Thom Gunn. The poets are selected on the basis of the homosexual tendencies in their work, even if, as in the examples of Lawrence and Crane, they did not identify as such. Woods shows how their poetry is productively, and not reductively, read as homosexual. To deny such homosexual readings is to disfigure the work.

Woods's reading of Crane is so exciting that it sent me back to Crane's White Buildings, especially his sequence "Voyages," here read specifically as about homosexual love. My experience of re-reading Crane repeated my experience of reading him: first, excitement with his metaphorical density and suggestiveness, and then boredom with the luxuriance of the language. The chapter on Thom Gunn is persuasive in seeing Gunn's tough men as poseurs. Gunn knows that only madmen would conflate the person and the pose. The change in his later work towards tenderness is associated by Woods to Gunn's coming-out and to the gay liberation movement.

In his final paragraph, of the chapter and of the book, Woods defends the continued vitality of gay male poetry after liberation. It is a fighting, uncompromising statement.

I therefore take Gunn as a model of the contemporary gay poet in transition. As one who has progressed from pre-Wolfenden Cambridge to post-'Liberation' San Francisco, he has built a career in parallel with modern gay history. His leisurely growth into openness is a an affront to the sensibilities of those who believe that homosexuality, if it must exist, should be neither seen nor heard. Objecting to the openness is a question not, as some would claim, of aesthetic judgement, but of aversion to homosexuality itself. The explicit literature of homosexuality is problematical only to the extent that homosexuality itself is a problem. If we require homosexual men to behave like lunatics, sinners, and criminals, we must exclude their behavior from the limits we set to sanity, virtue, and legality. Similarly, if we require our homosexual writers to employ the elaborate fabrications of neurosis and guilt, we must censor them or, better still, demand that they censor themselves. Otherwise, we should welcome their emergence into lucidity.

Monday, December 14, 2009

from Gregory Woods's "Articulate Flesh: Male Homo-eroticism & modern poetry"

The book begins with a white-hot description of the male body. "Three types of male physiques, " writes Woods, "three distinct ideals, occur in Western art: the adolescent pliancy of Narcissus, Apollo's form but graceful maturity, and the potency of Heracles, tacitly poised on the verge of deterioration." He elaborates:

The three physical types correspond with sexual types. The adolescent may be endowed with an indefatigable penis, but is chiefly admired for the delightful promise of his backside. Shakespeare is not interested in his boyfriend's penis (sonnet 20). . . .
Heracles is the opposite type, unequivocally phallic. When he lays down his club, he is still heavily armed. His musculature seems designed for the pinning down of loved ones, while the phallus does its work. He and the adolescent, as sexual opposites, together form the perfect couple: Heracles and Hylas, Hadrian and Antinous.
Between the two lies the adaptability of Apollo, the single couple: a dual sexual nature in one physique. He is best depicted in three dimensions: for we must be able to wander at will from penis to buttocks to penis, gazing at his statue as though in his bed, making love with each aspect of him in turn. He has no one point on which to focus, and must be sculpted or described as the body, complete. . . . In the versatility of his manhood, Apollo is, perhaps, the ideal ideal.

How perfect of the perfect to be the god of song!



Ryan Daharsh, model

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Gregory Woods's "A History of Gay Literature: The Male Tradition"

Gregory Woods is the Professor of Gay and Lesbian Studies at Nottingham Trent University. In A History of Gay Literature, he does not so much as constitute an alternative literary tradition as show the centrality of gay writing (broadly defined) to "mainstream" literature. It is astonishing that so much of what we take as the canon is written by men who loved men. This book then, almost encyclopedic in its scope, is not just for the gay reader who seeks to understand his literary heritage; it is also for the straight reader who wants to discover the sources of his pleasure in this writing.

Like other gay critics and anthologists before him, Woods names names. Many of the names are by now familiar, but others--like T. S. Eliot--are not usually discussed in this context. That is one pleasure of this book: the re-orientation of a familiar waste land. Yet other names still attract debate. The chapter on Shakespeare homes in on the interpretation of Sonnet 20, often used by straight critics to argue that the speaker's interest in the young man is not sexual. Woods points out that, besides the boy's penis, "[m]uch remains to be made love to." He also quotes the convincing argument raised by Rictor Norton against critics who claim the whole sequence is merely conventional:

The sonnet reveals a man who is nearly obsessed by the fact that his lover has a penis. By expressing this awareness on paper, he had violated all the decorum proper to the missives between a faithful friend and his alter ipse. I can find no other example in Renaissance literature, either in England or on the Continent, in which a gentleman even hints at, much less so blatantly, his friend's genital endowment and its relation to his own pleasure. The tacky dismissal of its usefulness to him raises an issue that should otherwise have gone unnoticed. 

I confess it gives me a thrill to hear Woods call Shakespeare's lover his boyfriend.

Besides Shakespeare, Christopher Marlowe and Marcel Proust get their own chapter. Other writers are discussed in chapters on their literary periods or movements, such as The Christian Middle Ages and The Harlem Renaissance. Thematic chapters lend variety to the chronological arrangement. I find the chapter on masturbation "From Solitary Vice to Circle Jerk" particularly exciting. There are chapters too on non-Western writers. I am in no position to judge the treatment of "Black African Poetry" but I think the chapter on Chinese and Japanese writers is too dependent on other specialists.

A poet himself, Woods also argues for the centrality of poetry to the gay literary tradition. His last chapter "Poetry and Paradox" tries to clear a space of difference for gay literature. He locates that difference in the use of paradox (Greek para and doxa, meaning contrary to public opinion). For authority, he refers to Cleanth Brooks who writes in The Well Wrought Urn (1949) that paradox is "the language appropriate and inevitable to poetry." If poetry is paradox, and gay literature is paradoxical, the argument goes, poetry must be an essential part of gay literature.

I am of course oversimplifying a nuanced argument, but reduced to a simpler form the argument appears to me to be at least problematic. The Brooks quotation suggests that all poetry, and not just gay poetry, uses paradox, and so the gay poet has no special claim to it. It also seems strange to me to rely on a New Critical conception of poetry, a conception that seems to me severely limited. Wilde, who appears as the first example, and the exemplar, is known more for his plays than his poetry. "Each man kills the thing he loves" may have a special gay meaning, but is hardly a gay idea.

It's a tricky issue, the gay difference. I am not even sure if there is such a difference, beyond the obvious difference of subject matter and theme. My feeling is that the deeper difference lies not so much between gay and straight writers, but between writers and the rest of society. There is something very queer about someone who retreats from fellow human beings to fiddle around with words.

Monday, December 07, 2009

Eboo Patel's "Acts of Faith"

Acts of Faith is the biographical story of a man growing up American, (South) Indian and Muslim. Patel's Ismaili Muslim parents moved from Bombay to the United States in search of a better life, and so Patel grew up between worlds. If the coming-of-age story sounds familiar, Patel enlivens it with well-chosen anecdotes and an interesting cast of characters, including a meeting with the Dalai Lama.

The book is also an argument for religious pluralism over what it calls "religious totalitarianism." Its main thesis is that behind religious terrorists, who are almost always young people, are charismatic leaders and established institutions who have reached the youths in a way that mainstream religious organizations have failed to do. While interfaith organizations have existed for a long time, they are dominated by greybeards ad so appear irrelevant to young people. Inspired by heroes in different religious traditions, and by the discovery of diversity within Islam itself, Patel founded Interfaith Youth Core, an international organization based in Chicago, that brings together young people from different religious backgrounds for service and reflection.

The writing is thoughtful throughout, bearing the influence of literary heroes such James Baldwin. The book does not attempt an in-depth analysis of religious terrorism. Its explanation of the phenomenon may seem biased by the author's personal quest for identity, however, the virtue of combining biography and analysis is that you know where the writer is coming from, unlike other seemingly more objective tomes.

I wish Patel explored the more troubling aspects of Islam; he is a little too eager, I think, to put Islam in a good light, though that impulse, given the Islamophobia in the USA, is understandable. Patel touches on potential conflicts in interfaith discussions, emphasizing that such discussions need to focus on the idea of service instead of truth. In his experience, young people who participated in such interfaith service return to their own religions with greater understanding and commitment. He does not, to my disappointment, discuss the status of atheism, and its relationship to interfaith discourse and organizations.

Sunday, December 06, 2009

Ten impressions of PoCC, and one thought

I returned last night from the People of Color Conference with a mixed bag of impressions and one main thought. The impressions first:

1. I do not like the term "People of Color." It implies White is not a color. It assumes too much similarity or solidarity between different ethnicities. It emphasizes racial and ethnic diversity over other kinds of diversity such as gender, sexual orientation and socioeconomic status. It is also not a term with which I can imaginatively identify.

2. John Quinones, an award-winning TV journalist, told the compelling story of his rise from immigrant poverty to mainstream success. The story highlighted the personal qualities of ambition, perseverance and talent. It described racist discrimination but also the advantages afforded by his ethnicity. My impression is that the crucial difference in Quinones lies, not in his circumstances, but in his response to his circumstances. The difference is the mystery of character.

3. It is easier to talk about validating others than to practice it. For my first affinity group session, I attended the International, Non U. S. Citizen group. Three African men spoke about how they used to judge African Americans unfairly until they understood better the injustices of the African American past. The same men dominated the group discussion, pointing to various people to speak. They gave flirtatious and extended attention to a very beautiful African woman, and considerably less attention, and talk time, to the other women in the group. When a young African American administrator talked about the poor academic behavior of his African American students, one of the older African men "corrected" him by again referring to the need to understand the students' background. The same ageism appeared when an older Latin woman from Mexico felt the need to correct the understanding of a younger Chinese Canadian, although she misunderstood the Canadian's point. The African men and the Mexican woman are veterans of the PoCC. The behaviors I witnessed suggest that the Conference needs to understand better sexism and ageism.

4. Sexist language was deployed by two speakers at the opening ceremony. One, a white man, advised conference participants to moisturize their hands regularly because the air in Mile-High City is dry. Even manly men like lumberjacks do that, he said, oblivious to the gender implications of his words. The second speaker, a black man, spoke in another context of the need to "man up."

5. We see what touches us most nearly, and don't see what doesn't. The woman workshop presenter referred to those two examples of sexist language in passing, and obtained nods of recognition from women in the audience. She was making a very good presentation of a school course called "Freshman Foundations," which teaches health and diversity topics. One of the activities on this course is to get students to form a circle which another student has to try to get in. The activity illustrates insider privilege and outsider deprivation. The presenter, who does not look Asian, referred to the ethnicity of a student only once, when she described how an Asian student tried to get into the circle by threatening to tell the school the circle was racist if it refused to let him or her in. Why, I asked myself, did the presenter refer to the student's ethnicity when the example did not require that information? What assumptions about Asian students did the presenter unconsciously call upon? Why did I, one of the few Asian-looking people in the room, notice that, and not those members of the audience who nodded knowingly to what the presenter said?

6. I was very impressed by Kenji Yoshino, one of the general sessions speakers. I have heard him speak before, at the LGBT Center, in NYC. But this time, I admired not only his obvious intelligence and eloquence (he has to be as an NYU law professor) but also how his language embodied his ethics. He referred to himself as a gay person, instead of a gay man. When he referred to a general person, he used the pronoun she. This was not mere political correctness. Political correctness implies some form of social coercion, in this case, to use the "right" language. Yoshino's language was free of such social coercion; it was the natural result of an examined life and an examination of the world.

7. An AP English course that deals with race, religion, gender and sexual orientation. That sounded like something right up my alley, I thought. The course, however, was poorly conceived and superficial. The course reader, put together by its instructor, was a mishmash of extracts from Edward Said's Orientalism, Cornel West's Race Matters, the Bible, CNN online, some MD whose name I do not recognize, a poem by Langston Hughes, etc. The extracts, all photocopied, were not contextualized in the reader.

Each week the class met to discuss a different diversity topic, a format that does not seem to me to lend itself to deep or extended reflection. The instructor said he tried to present both sides of a topical argument, and not impose his view on the class. Someone in the audience pointed out that care must be taken even in the framing of the questions. For example, homosexuality was discussed as an issue of right and wrong, the students reading Leviticus as an indictment of it, and reading that MD for an explanation of its "naturalness." But racism would, and should, never be discussed in that way. The instructor would never invite a Klansman to speak to the class, though he invited an Evangelical minister to speak against homosexuality. Responding to this audience comment, the presenter repeated that it was not his purpose to impose his view on the class. The answer was a cop-out, with regard not only to the concern raised, but also to a teacher's responsibility for what he teaches.

The instructor's presentation and responses gave me little confidence that class discussion would be sufficiently thoughtful to deal with the wide (dis)array of materials and ideas. As if to confirm that conclusion, he showed an example of the summative project of the class, a video documenting their new understanding of a diversity topic. The supposedly exemplary video asked a large number of people to rate the level of racism in America on a scale of one to ten. One by one the interviewees gave a number but were not asked for how they arrived at their rating. After watching five minutes of this inanity, I left the room.

8. Twice conference organizers referred to the overwhelming experience of minority students who found themselves for the first time in the majority at the conference, and to the experience of majority students who found themselves for the first time in the minority. The speakers were thinking in terms of black and white. What about the minority students who found themselves in the minority even at the conference? I am not just thinking Asian or Middle Eastern; I am also thinking gay and transgendered.

9. The Chinese Canadian referred to earlier is my colleague. On the second day of the conference, she decided to attend the Asian/Asian American affinity group instead of the International group, after her husband, who is white, encouraged her to embrace her Asian identity. She told me she felt at home in the group, meaning they understood her without needless explanation.

10. My student, feeling maternal, said she wished I had found my group at the conference. I told her I was too much a student of Auden to regret not finding a group. Having studied Auden together this year, she knew immediately what I meant.

One thought:

Who am I? I am a poet. All other aspects of me--Chinese, Singaporean, gay, male, middle-class, middle-aged, and so on--are adjectival; the only noun is poet.  I hope I do not distance myself from my adjectives because I am ashamed of them in some obscure way. Where I am ashamed, I have to work on not being ashamed. However I consider them adjectival because I did not choose them. I chose instead to be a poet. I choose self-determination over all social determinants. I choose to exert my will over all that would overcome my will. I choose the ordering intelligence over the pieces that need ordering. I choose creation over obedience.

A matter of choice, my identity is also a matter of work. It is work in the sense of a vocation. It is work also in the sense of requiring effort, to write good poems, and to receive and understand fully my poetic heritage. And what a heritage. Wherever and whenever human beings have put words in some beautiful order. Homer is my forebear, as is the poet of Gilgamash. Tagore is as close to me as Su Tungpo. I am related to Keats far more intimately than to any cousin. To paraphrase Nietzsche, poets are kindred spirits who strive to overcome what is accident, chance and fragment in themselves, in order to create themselves as destinies.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

People of Color Conference Dec 3-5, 2009

I'm off today to Denver, to the three-day People of Color Conference, organized by the National Association of Independent Schools. First time attending the conference, first time in Denver too. The conference program looks packed, so there won't be time for gallivanting around the city. No time for shoot-em-ups.

According to wiki, the city is nicknamed the Mile-High City because its official elevation is exactly one mile above sea level. It sits in the bowl of the South Platte River Valley, east of the Front Range of the Rockies. Downtown is just east of the confluence of Cherry Creek and the South Platte River. Always good to know the names of the running waters nearby.

The 105th meridian west of Greenwich runs through Union Station, making it the reference point for the Mountain Time Zone. The zone is two hours behind Eastern Time Zone.

Perhaps I will bring back a poem from the wild West.

*

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

A dream

I woke up in a strange bedroom, a red plush chair standing from the clutter. I thought I had gone home with someone, and he would walk into his room any moment now. What would he be like? This must be a dream since I was sure I had fallen asleep in my own room. I tried to see my room in that room but the strange room stayed stubbornly. Then it left, and I was bereft.