Saturday, October 30, 2010

Whale Sound and Other News

Nic Sebastian reads my poem "Childhood Punishments" at Whale Sound. She reads it much more quietly, reflectively, than I do. I like her interpretation very much. You can lose a Saturday listening to the growing archive of poems.


GASPP: A Gay Anthology of Singapore Poetry and Prose is reviewed by the gay Asian website Fridae. I hope the major papers in Singapore will have the guts to review it too. The book is carried by independent bookstores, but no news yet about the big chains.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

"Scottsboro Boys" the Minstrel Show

John Kander and Fred Ebb teamed up for the last time to write "The Scottsboro Boys." (Ebb died in 2004.) The musical provocatively revives the racist theatrical tradition of the minstrel show to "tell the truth" about nine young black men convicted wrongly of raping two white women in rural Scottsboro, Alabama, in 1931. In doing so, the musical "deconstructs" the assumptions of white superiority that underlay the minstrel show. It also demonstrates how art forms associated with African Americans are rooted in the experience of slavery.

In an interview, 83-year-old Kander said that he had actually directed minstrel shows at a boys' camp in the 1930s. They were a part of the national culture then, performed without much thought about their offensiveness. The 1930s are not really that long ago. They are within living memory.

As Haywood Patterson, one of the nine men, Joshua Henry was a powerful and charismatic presence on stage. John Cullum played the difficult role of the Interlocutor well. The set consisted only of chairs and planks, which were rearranged to form a train, a prison and a courthouse. The show at the Lyceum was directed and choreographed by Susan Stroman, whom TH knew when he was working in Madison Square Gardens.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Conceptual Art at Dia and Elsewhere

Visited Dia at Beacon last Saturday with GH. Was entranced by Sol LeWitt's Drawing Series, an on-site work that made the rooms into a chapel, and Robert "Spiral Jetty" Smithson's glass and mirror sculptures. I would have liked to go to the edge of Michael Heizer's negative sculpture, North, East, South, West, but it was cordoned off by a glass barricade. The former biscuit factory was a beautiful place to view the art. I had never had as strong a response to Conceptual and Minimalist art as I did that afternoon. It needs the space it cannot get in museums. Even Andy Warhol looked good here, represented by the serialist work, Shadows. Lunch was in a diner in Beacon, with T and D, and S who was visiting them from London.

On Sunday, GH and I walked round Williamsburg, looking at recent and new condominiums. GH is working on converting a commercial building for residential use, and so took lots of photos of windows, doors and walls. He was excited to stumble on a house, which he saw in a magazine. The small converted warehouse had a "green" front wall. We ate a tasty brunch at the nicely restored Roebling Tea Room, walked about some more, and then took the L train back to the East Village.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

"Payday Loans" on Amazon

Poets Wear Prada Press is printing my chapbook Payday Loans through Amazon's CreateSpace, a print-on-demand publishing service. So I can now be found on Amazon, and you can buy my book here. My copy, which arrived this afternoon, looks very good. It is perfect-bound, not saddle-stitched as before, and the glossy cover is sturdier. And the sequence of 30 sonnets, organized by the month of April, still costs the same: US$10.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Hearing Naipaul at 92Y

V.S. Naipaul was climbing out of a cab when I approached the 92Y. He was a small man and leaned heavily on the arm of his bigger, younger wife. At the Y to promote his latest book The Masque of Africa, he read from the Gambon section, in which a French-educated biracial Gambonese lawyer speaks about the forest at the heart of African religions. Ultra-civilized himself, Naipaul read the account of magical rituals and secret rites in the voice of an interested but detached reporter, conveyed through prose at once transparent and artful. The interview segment was less successful, The interviewer asked convoluted questions but gave Naipaul too little time to respond. The questions were also too abstract. Last night tested Naipaul's faltering memory, but did not give the storyteller a chance to mesmerize.

Poem: On Reading "Not a Muse," an Anthology of Women's Poetry

A rough draft.

On Reading Not A Muse, an Anthology of Women’s Poetry

I am not a woman,
have never made love to a woman
and will probably never make love to a woman
since I prefer a man’s sweet nerve.

Reading this anthology, subtitled
the inner lives of women,
I wonder what a thing a woman is.

I think she is my sister
crying at the other end of the line, in a different continent,
who not so secretly worshipped and resented me
but now asks in wild abandonment,
“Why can’t you keep it in?”

Saturday, October 16, 2010

"Oriental Wares"

KM forwarded me this video of Singapore in 1957. Produced by the Malayan Film Unit, it advertised to British travelers the charms of a visit to Singapore, "the world in miniature." KM asked me if this was the Singapore which I grew up in. I remember from the 70s Van Kleef Aquarium, the sights and sounds of the amusement park, the smells of roadside hawker stalls, but I don't see the crowded shophouse in Tanjong Pagar that hold my first memories of home, or the new housing estate of Telok Blangah Crescent, to which I moved at the age of five, and where my parents still live. Of all the exoticized figures in the film, I identity most immediately with the woman in the Malay dance hall, waiting for a white man and his dance ticket.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Rose Kelleher's "Bundle o' Tinder"

Rose Kelleher's debut, the winner of the 2007 Anthony Hecht Poetry Prize, is full of familiar pleasures. The precise observation of "Rays at Cape Hatteras." The witty image of "Mortimer." The sharp social satire in "Hybrid." The reformulation of myth in "The First Uprising." The formal inventiveness of the exploded sestina "Random Sextet." The musical punch-line in "Neanderthal Bone Flute." The carefully served-up poignancy of "The Rectangle."

The risks taken in this book are ones of content, and not of perspective nor of style. There are poems about famous sadomasochists, underaged weed smoking, an Adam's apple fetish, and a killer whom the speaker knew when they were young, all carefully labelled "Perversity," kept away from other sections named "God," "Science," "People," and "Love." It would have been far more provocative to assign the weed to "Science," the fetish to "People," the killer to "God," and the sadomasochists to "Love."

When Kelleher kicks against her version of the poetry establishment, as in the ironic "The Poet Who Will Win This Competition," her parting shot is to say "fuck you," in terza rima. It is as if she wants to be the bad girl of the village, and to be rewarded by the village for it. The village is called American Formalism.

My last remark is rather unkind, and certainly ungrateful, for Kelleher featured me in the "Fetish" issue of Shit Creek Review she guest-edited. But I am led quite unwillingly to that comment, for, when I finished reading the book, I was astonished to realize that I don't care to return to any of the poems. I wonder if Richard Wilbur, who judged the prize, would.

Except for one poem. I would return to it, and have done so many times, reading it with deepening pleasure, more, with deepening consolation. I'm not sure if I can explain why this poem comforts me so profoundly. Unlike the other poems in the collection, it is not self-assured, it is not knowing. I would like to quote it in full because it can only be appreciated in full:


The others stand upright, but not this pine
that thrusts its swayback out over the pond
clawing at noon's face. It started straight,
but here, waist high, it curls around a space
once filled by something bigger than itself.
A sapling then, it grew up in the shade
between a rock, most likely, and a hard place.
Or maybe it was buffeted by winds--
pushing downwards from the north, its stock
still immature--and couldn't stand its ground.
Who knows? Could have been something in the seed
itself, telling it to twist, and crouch, and sniff
at dirty life, unsmitten with the sky;
a skin of algae sometimes broken by
a blacksnake's graceful writhings--harmless things--
and snapping turtles who sunbathe on its limbs.

The poem is not quite sure what to make of this crouching pine, its doubt repeated in "something bigger," "most likely," "maybe," and "Could have been." It is conscious that its explanations are cliched: "between a rock...and a hard place"; "buffeted by winds"; "couldn't stand its ground." Who knows, it asks itself, as it asks the pine. But as speculations spiral round the pine, the tree becomes ever more a tree, just as the blacksnake and the turtles remain themselves at the end of the poem, and not mere symbols. There is nothing obviously beautiful in the poem. In fact, a phrase like "clawing at noon's face" is really quite ugly. And the last line--"snapping turtles who sunbathe on its limbs"--risks bathos, and so is suffused with warmth and light.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Eshuneutics reviews Bob Hart's "Lightly in the Good of Day"

"Bob Hart’s first full-length book of poems, published by Bench Press, is evocative work: in an almost magical sense of that word for the poems read like conjurations. As Jee Leong Koh notes in an effective and thoughtful introduction, Bob is a Robin, a Robin Goodfellow, a Puck of Midsummer. True, he is also a kind of Prospero, who as performance poet/mage understands the dramatic nature of words...." Read more.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

The Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival

This year the Dodge Festival was held in the city of Newark. I attended it on Friday, with TS and a few students. In the morning, we heard Michael Cirelli, Dunya Mikhail and Oliver de la Paz in NJPAC. One was hip, one was sentimental, one was lyrical. Then we walked over to the Horizon Foundation Theater, in the Center for Arts Education, and heard Kyle Dargan talked about race and poetry, and why it is nearly impossible for a poet to be in a relationship with another poet. 

Finally we heard Billy Collins, Rita Dove and Sharon Olds. Collins was his usual witty self. Of all the poets we heard that day, I was most impressed by Rita Dove. Her new book Sonata Mulattica, about the biracial violin prodigy George Augustus Polgreen Bridgetower who inspired Beethoven and helped shape the course of Western classical music, sounds ambitious and achieved. Olds read odes to douche bags and tampons. 

Monday, October 11, 2010

A Nest in Hudson Valley

Just returned from a visit to GH's friends who have lived for ten years in Woodstock, in upstate New York. We took the Trailways bus from the Port Authority Bus Terminal to Kingston. T and D picked us up, and drove to lunch at a small restaurant in Phoenicia. After not finishing the short (!) stack of pancakes--buttermilk, blueberry, pumpkin--we looked into the small local library and a few curiosity shops, before driving to the Kaasterskill Falls, painted famously by Thomas Cole. GH and I left T at what we thought was the Falls and hiked along the river. Not realizing that the Falls was ahead of us, we turned round after a while, and came back to the waiting car.

Photo by GH

T and D's house was a treasure trove set in a landscape of riches. Every inch of wall and floor and countertop held or was covered with painting, photograph, carpet or sculpture. There were kitschy worker dolls from Mao's era. A home-made chandelier of branches draped with Christmas lights presided over the dining table.  On a living room table, a stuffed coyote threw its head back and howled. A huge bust of the Buddha meditated by one side of the room. High on one wall was displayed an impressive collection of crucifixes. One the other side of the same wall hanged tree trunks in the shape of human groin, buttock and legs. This was the house of inveterate collectors and art lovers.

After dinner at a Chinese restaurant, we watched D's videos at home. She had a piece on her colonoscopy, and another piece called Dread on the death of her younger son. Almost without a pause, T played the movie Howl, about the obscenity trial of Allen Ginsberg's poem. Written and directed by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, the film depicted the Beats as countercultural heroes persecuted by society. It was too hagiographical for my taste. James Franco portrayed Allen Ginsberg with appealing innocence, so wholesome that he would make every mother's list of fucks for her gay son. The animation that accompanied the first reading of the poem attempted to convey its radicalism, but looked more trendy than experimental. The high-tech did not match the low-scenery. I was surprised that Franco read the poem with some humor. I thought from reading Paul Goodman's description of a reading that the poem was read in a crescendo of agony.

The next day, after a brunch of fruit, baked treats and quiche, we drove to see Olana, the home of Frederic Edwin Church. Named after a fortress-treasure house in ancient Greater Persia (according to Wikipedia), the estate was crowned by a heavily stenciled villa built in a mixture of Victorian, Moorish and Persian styles. The building looked kind of odd to me, sitting so exotically above the Hudson Valley, and the odd impression was strengthened by a group of period musicians singing "Yankee Doodle" and strumming banjos and guitars.

Photo by GH

We left Olana and drove to the town of Hudson, where we wandered in and out of antique and furniture shops. At the Carrie Haddad Gallery, we saw the landscapes painted by Leigh Palmer using beeswax (encaustic) paint. They had the look of enamel, but were scraped and sculpted as if they were made of clay. The work was, to my mind, a successful engagement with the domineering influence of the Hudson River School. From Hudson we drove to see Bard College's performing arts center, designed by Frank Gehry. Its undulating steel exterior was astonishing; the material was not supposed to behave like this, but it did with such musical grace.

We went home for a rest before dinner. I finished reading Daniel Mendelsohn's translation of The Unfinished Poems by Cavafy. Of the thirty poems, I liked most "The Item in the Paper" and "Crime," both of which were limned by wishful regret. GH read the first page of all the Michael Cunningham novels T owned. Dinner was at the Bird's Nest, a small restaurant decorated with changing designs by its gay owner. My pork loin was good, as was GH's plate of quesadillas. Back in the house, we were going to watch another movie, but after finishing "The Amazing Race" (the Asian dad and son are still in!) we were too tired to view anything else. So much information, so many impressions, one can be forgiven for thinking that the country is more exciting than the city.

Thursday, October 07, 2010

Musical Tastes

We watched two plays together so far, but yesterday was our first joint concert. GH loves the passionate virtuosity of the soloist in concertos, and Joshua Bell was in fine form last night when he played Sibelius's Violin Concerto in D minor with the New York Philharmonic. GH also liked the full-blooded Romanticism of Richard Strauss, in his tone poem Don Juan.

I liked both works but preferred Debussy's languorous Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun, which opened the program, and Hindemith's inventive Symphonic Metamorphosis of Themes of Carl Maria von Weber, which closed the evening. GH disliked Debussy for his lack of structure, and Hindemith for his lack of direction. He values clear musical design, just as he values clean lines in architecture.  I am biased towards structure and clarity too, but other people have persuaded me that delicacy can be beautiful, and disorder invigorating.

I should not exaggerate the difference in our aesthetic preferences. When we both saw the cover design for my new book, we both liked the concept very much, but thought that some of the photographs need to be changed. He was quicker than I was, however, in putting his feelings into words.

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

Poem After Four Months of Silence

The body of an ageing woman
Is a memory
—Eavan Boland, “Anna Liffey”

The first fluency
has left me. Sex has
acquired history.
I grow afraid of
repeating myself
unknowingly. Love,
new man, old enemy,
you enclose me with
your mouth. Go slowly.

Sunday, October 03, 2010

Gay and Working Class Arts

GASPP: a Gay Anthology of Singapore Poetry and Prose will have its pre-launch in KL, Malaysia, on 17 October, and its official launch at a popular gay club in Singapore on 29 October. Details here, and the dishy cover. I have a poem in it.

Editors Ng Yisheng, Dominic Chua, Irene Ho and Jasmine Seah provide this book synopsis:

GASPP is Singapore’s first anthology of writers who identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and otherwise queer. It’s the combined work of 35 authors, translators and editors, who’ve contributed poetry, short fiction, memoirs, essays and experimental writing in English, Mandarin and Malay.
Between these covers, you’ll meet a loving couple struck by HIV, a lesbian lawyer confronted by her past, a voyeur in a New York library, an alarmed government censor, and a bomoh with a magic formula that keeps gay men faithful.
Romantic, sensual, hysterical and bizarre, these works are a testament to the range of voices that constitute queer literature in Singapore today. Featured writers include Johann S. Lee, Ovidia Yu, Alfian Sa’at, Cyril Wong, Ng Yi-Sheng and Adrianna Tan.


Yesterday afternoon GH and I watched The Pitmen Painters, Manhattan Theatre Club's first offering of the season, at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre. The play, about a group of miners turned artists, was delightful in its first act, but the second gave it substance and complexity. Oliver Kilbourn (played very convincingly by Christopher Connel) had to decide if he would accept a stipend from rich collector Helen Sutherland (natural Phillippa Wilson) to paint. The decision raised issues about patronage, artistic integrity, community, and class.

When Oliver was painted as a miner by Robert Lyon (Ian Kelly), the academic who taught the miners to paint, the play took a leaf from Pygmalion. Commenting on his erstwhile master's sketch, Oliver pointed out that the drawing had no individuality, that Lyon had always seen the miners-painters as a group, as a class instead. But how far was that judgment barbed by the natural resentment that comes from being invented by someone else? The play offered no definite answers.

It ended with the miners celebrating the nationalization of the mines after World War II. It seemed to them that utopia was in sight, when the means of production (and representation) would be owned in common, and everyone could lead fulfilling and creative lives. But that was not to be. The ending was an ironic elegy to lost dreams. The play was written by Billy Eliot author Lee Hall, and directed by Max Roberts.