Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Emigres and Outsiders

TLS May 13, 2016

from Commentary, introduction by Luke Parker to "On Generalities," a talk by Vladimir Nabokov:

This condition--what we might call a poetics of future perfect--treats the present as it will have been remembered or memorialized. In the story "A Guide to Berlin" (1925), Nabokov's narrator imagines "some eccentric Berlin writer in the twenties of the twenty-first century, wish to portray our time", for whom "everything, every trifle, will be valuable and meaningful". For Russian emigres of the 1920s, tipped by Trotsky into the dustbins of history, the notion of an eventual vindication was comforting. After all, a posthumous critical redemption had long been the imagined asylum of under-appreciated artists, gifted and talentless alike. 
In "A Guide to Berlin", one émigré tells another: "I think that here lies the sense of literary creation: to portray ordinary objects as they will be reflected in the kindly mirrors of future times; to find in the objects around us the fragrant tenderness that only posterity will discern and appreciate in the far-off times when every trifle of our plain everyday life will become exquisite and festive in its own right: the times when a man who might put on the most ordinary jacket of today will be dressed up for an elegant masquerade".


from Freelance by Bryan Cheyette:

To use Zygmunt Bauman's distinction, rather than heterophobia (the hatred of difference) it was "proteophobia" (anxiety caused by uncategorizability) that turned "the Jew" into a heady mixture of fear and desire.


TLS April 29, 2016

from Emily Wilson's review of Beyond Greek: The beginnings of Latin Literature by Denis Feeney:

The traditions of oral epic, and later (from the eighth century onwards) the creation of Greek literary texts, allowed people who spoke different dialects and were vastly dispersed in space to identify with a common heritage. Feeney argues that literature did much the same thing for the Romans .... Roman literature allowed the diverse citizens of what was eventually a vast empire to maintain a sense of "connected identity". Feeney refers to this process as participation in "the worldwide web"; the internet analogy is not pursued in any depth, but hints at the globalizing consequences of making literature for the Romans. 
The Tim Berners-Lee of Roman literature was one Livius Andronicus. The story, as told both by Feeney and by the Romans themselves, begins in 240 BC, when Livius Andronicus created a Latin play translated from an Athenian drama, which was performed at the official games to celebrate Roman military victories--the Ludi Romani.... [Feeney] emphasizes that 240 was, "so far as we know", the first time that a translation of any Athenian dramatic script had been staged. Many other ancient cultures were heavily influenced by the Greeks and aware of their literature, including the Romans themselves for many generations. But nobody, until Livius Andronicus, had translated it. The Ludi Romani had been held for generations, and nobody before 240 seems to have felt that the occasion demanded Latin drama in the Athenian mould. So why did it happen, and why then?... 
The answer must have to do with Rome's extraordinary rapid and very recent military success.... For the first time, the Romans had control over the whole of the Italian peninsula. Feeney argues that they used the Roman Games as part of a "new international dialogue", asserting their power and cultural credibility to the rest of the Mediterranean world.... 
Feeney points out that it took the Russians at least three generations to turn their awareness of French, german and Italian literature into a thriving native literary tradition. The Romans managed it much faster, because of some rather unusual cultural conditions.
Perhaps the most important of these is the existence in Rome, already in the third century BC, of a tradition of bilingual education. Elite Romans read Greek literature in the original language, unlike the elites of many other ancient cultures.... 
Roman elite men hired Greek men, often enslaved but highly educated immigrants, to tutor their sons. These Greek immigrants were in fact the first Roman authors, and the inventors of Roman literature. Livius Andronicus himself may have been originally a slave, and was certainly a tutor in an elite Roman family. It used to be commonly argued that he produced his translation of the Odyssey as a crib, to help his boys struggle through the original.... Livius Andronicus' own mode of translation in the Odyssey ... suggests a lively domesticating style, using a native Italian metre (Saturnians), rather than adapting the Greek hexameter, and converting the Greek "Muse" into the native equivalent (Camena). Feeney argues that it is essential to remember that Livius himself was not a Roman insider, "Hellenizing" Roman traditions; as a Greek living in Rome, he straddled two traditions, and if anything, he should be seen as Romanizing his own literary heritage, rather than writing as an insider to Rome. All the early Roman writers/translators had complex national and ethnic identities: Naevius spoke Oscan, Greek and Latin; Ennius, the first great poet in Latin, claimed to have "three hearts" for his three languages (Oscan, Latin and Greek), but he was probably also a native speaker of Messapic. The choice to convert Greek literary forms into Latin was a way for these cosmopolitan outsiders to straddle at least two of their own linguistic identities, and to find a place for themselves within the dominant culture. It is no coincident that classical Latin literature, unlike Greek literature, is almost entirely composed in the standardized language of the Roman metropolis-elite, rather than a mash-up of local dialects. This global language, and this literature, was manufactured by people from outside the system. 

Monday, June 27, 2016

Difficult decision made esay

Eric Valles, the director of Singapore's National Poetry Festival, invited me to contribute a poem to the festival's ekphrastic-poetry exhibit. Since the festival is partly funded by the National Arts Council, I had to turn down the kind invitation because I have decided not to work with the NAC since its withdrawal of funding from Sonny Liew's political novel "The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye," followed by public statements from NAC CEO Kathy Lai and NAC Chairman Chan Heng Chee supporting the continued censorship of the arts. (For the thinking behind my decision, you could see I have also had to turn down a request to include my poems in a major formal poetry anthology, UnFree Verse, because the editors are, not unusually, seeking an NAC grant for publication. These decisions are taken not against the festival organizers or the anthology editors, but in protest of NAC's politicization of arts funding. Until the NAC returns its funding to Sonny's book and gives an unequivocal statement of support for the freedom of artistic expression, I will continue not to work with it.

Kok Heng Leun, Nominated Member of Parliament for the Arts, has organized two focus-group discussions and will hold a Town Hall session on June 30 on arts funding. This initiative is necessary and praiseworthy. But, judging from the Facebook page, the agenda for these discussions is limited to the NAC Funding Framework. . There is no discussion about how the state can be prodded to diversify and decentralize arts funding in the country. Such diversification and decentralization is crucial to the health and success of American arts, as economist Tyler Cowen argues in his excellent book "Good and Plenty," an approach very different from the Europeans' state sponsorship of the arts. Diverse funders will have diverse ideas about art, and together they create a competitive and entrepreneurial art-making environment, which has a greater chance of throwing up true innovations. Why do we want to subject funding applications to NAC panels comprising established artists, who may very well not recognize artistic innovations because these new ideas are, by definition, different from what the arts establishment expects? Why does the state, through NAC, want to play arts arbiter? The really arts-friendly role that the state should play is to develop a diversified and decentralized arts funding environment, and not to crowd out other funders by massively giving out direct grants in pursuit of a policy that inevitably instrumentalizes the arts. For the state has an obligation to explain to taxpayers why it is investing so heavily in the arts: this explanation will always revolve around costs and benefits. But true art has no use beyond itself.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Four Poets

Smart, inventive, observant, the poems of Kay Ryan are a genuine delight. The lesser poems in this New and Selected are the fallouts of her strengths. When the love for epigram trumps the fire of imagination. When the final rhyming pair clicks shut but the box is empty. The Best of It allows through too much. Thin poems are best collected in a thin volume. "Things Shouldn't Be So Hard" affords a rare glimpse into the private life. It leaves me wanting more, not for the sake of voyeurism, but for the sake of the complete victory.

Brian Turner's book of poems Here, Bullet is about miscomprehensions as much as it is about the misadventures of war. The book foregrounds the Arabic language in the prelude poem, and in the titles of many poems thereafter. It is the book's contention that the poet has the right and the authority to deploy the language because he, and his fellow soldiers, has paid for it in blood. Turner was there fighting the war as an infantry team leader with the 3rd Stryker Brigade Combat Team in Iraq. The book does not, however, sufficiently interrogate the weaponization of translation, how the learning of Arabic enabled the American military to invade and conquer. The poem "What Every Soldier Should Know" begins to do so, with its acknowledgement of the Other, the misspelled graffiti sprayed on the overpasses that says, "I will kell you, American." To speak to the Other, to threaten and to kill, one has to speak in the other's tongue. But the poem ends with American fears instead, that the child or woman chatting amiably with you one moment would dance over your corpse in the next. Some poems in this volume are insufficiently transformed from incident and detail. The pressure to record, to memorialize, was simply too strong. Some of the best poems are erotic in their inspiration, when desire is powerfully mixed with fear and hatred, in a power keg.

I deeply admire Glück's refusal to repeat herself. This new volume Faithful and Virtuous Night works with long poems (the title poem is 10 pages long, and gripping), prose poems, a new persona, that of a male painter who was orphaned as a boy when his parents and sister died in a car accident. Romantic medievalism is at stake in the volume: the boy sees his brother, and other redemptive figures, as a a heroic knight, but he is up against Glück's refusal of redemption. We understand this refusal as Glück's, but why is it the boy's, and then the adult painter's? Tragedy and trauma is insufficient to explain it. For me, the persona remains, at the end of the book, a glove puppet. Glorious poems, but also niggling doubt. The opening poem "Parable" is tremendous. It should be read and reread in our era of postmodern dogmatism.

Intellectually challenging, Gregory Pardlo's Digest gives no quarter to the reader not up to scratch on Western philosophy, African American history, and popular culture. The music of the poems very often carries me through seas of incomprehension. It is a wry, knowing, and, yes, tragic voice. The last because it understands the situation of loneliness. Despite family, communal, and intellectual ties, the speaker feels his loneliness in the marrow. He makes me feel again mine.

Friday, June 24, 2016

Complete Headrush

I've been trying to catch up with myself. Classes were over by June 10, but the very next week I taught my first summer poetry writing workshop for high school students, titled brashly The Complete Poet. It was/is open to students from my school and elsewhere, but as it turned out, only two students from my school signed up, both of whom had studied with me. Although the enrollment was tiny, I went ahead with the course. Better to get the ball rolling than to wait at the start line, to mix my metaphors. I'm so glad I did. We had a great time reading a poet a day, writing poems inspired by the poet, and workshopping the poems. First day, we read Kay Ryan's New and Selected called The Best of It. We discussed her use of nature for metaphor and commentary, and her spin on common idioms. Second day, we read Brian Turner's Here Bullet, about his experience fighting as an American soldier in the Iraq war. Here we focused on his use of Arabic as a way of understanding and misunderstanding his stressful environment. We then wrote poems that took a foreign expression as a launchpad. Third day, we read Louise Gluck's Faithful and Virtuous Night for her use of a male persona to talk about family, and her deployment of the prose poem. The students found her long poems a strong inspiration to write their own long poem about family, but through a mask. Fourth Day, we read Gregory Pardlo's Digest. We talked about his mixture of lyrical imagery and pop references. The students imitated one of his poems by beginning and repeating "I was born...." That exercise gave them a template on which they enjoyed improvising. Fifth and last day, we read Tara Bergin's This Is Yarrow, and discussed her use of folklore, song, and hands imagery.

While the workshop was going on, I was frantically preparing for the benefit for the 2nd Singapore Literature Festival in NYC. Fortunately I had the assistance of an excellent team of volunteers. The benefit was held on Thursday, 06/16/16, at the National Opera Center. Cef Kian Lam Kho, the winner of the Julia Child First Book Award for his Phoenix Claws and Jade Trees: Traditional Techniques of Chinese Cooking, crafted the menu for the occasion. Gina Apostol, a festival author, read from her PEN Open Award-winng novel Gundealers' Daughter. Jakarta-born, California-raised Angky Budiardjono, accompanied by pianist Peiharn Chen, sang a serenade from Mozart’s Don Giovanni, Pierrot’s “Tanzlied” from Korngold’s Die Tote Stadt, and, finally, “Love in the Thirties” by American composer William Bolcom. We also held an art auction of works donated by Singaporean artists: Hong-Ling Wee, Jason Wee, Colin Goh, and Melinda Lauw. Ken Chen, the Executive Director of the Asian American Writers' Workshop, was the guest-of-honor. The turnout was excellent and everyone had a good time. I was especially heartened by the presence of many festival benefactors, supporters, and partners.

This week I've been busy confirming the festival program with authors and hosts. At the same time, I am looking forward to events in Singapore. "Singapore Unbound" is the theme of this year's Singapore Literature Festival in NYC.

1. Meet the Poet at Caffe Pralet 
Friday, 8 July, 6:30 pm, Caffe Pralet, 17 Eng Hoon Street, #01-04, Eng Hoon Mansions, Singapore 169767

On this Friday evening, connect with poet Jee Leong Koh and experience culinary delights in a cosy environment -- any blues are sure to subside by the end of this event! Whether you're an aspiring author, corporate executive, or home-maker, you're welcome to join us with colleagues, friends and loved ones to enjoy an informal exchange about "Steep Tea", a unique collection of insights that blend traditional and contemporary poetic styles. During the session, Jee Leong will share his life experience, and how he got to down to writing and publishing the book in the UK. For details and directions:

2. Singapore Unbound: Writing, Reading, and Publishing Overseas 
Saturday, 9 July, 7:00 pm, National Gallery, The Glass Room (Level 4 Mezzanine, Supreme Court Wing)
Alfian Sa'at, Ovidia Yu, and Koh Jee Leong

Three prominent Singaporean writers, Alfian Sa'at, Ovidia Yu, and Koh Jee Leong, read from their works and share their experiences with overseas readers, editors, and publishers. Between them, the writers cover multiple genres, including fiction, poetry, drama, essays, crime stories, and children's writing. They will discuss the impact of Singapore literature beyond the boundaries of the country, and how their writing is, in turn, changed by the encounter. They will also speak about the upcoming 2nd Singapore Literature Festival in New York City, to be held from September 28 - 30, 2016, and their hopes for the future of Singaporean writing. This event is organized by & Co, the National Gallery's museum store.

3. Singapore Unbound: The Transgressions Reading 
Wednesday, 20 July, 7:30 pm, Booktique, CityLink Mall
Cyril Wong, Ovidia Yu, Tania De Rozario, and Koh Jee Leong

Forbidden love. Broken promises. Criminal acts. Blasphemy. Cyril Wong, Ovidia Yu, Tania De Rozario, and Koh Jee Leong read their transgressive writings in the heart of sanitized Singapore, and go unpunished. Or punish them, if you're into it. Proudly presented by the Singapore Literature Festival in NYC.

4. Justin Chin Memorial Reading 
Saturday, 23 July, 7:30 pm, Artistry Cafe, 17 Jalan Pinang

Justin Chin died last December but not before writing some terrific poetry, stories, essays, and performance pieces, and achieving prominence in the San Francisco arts scene. Born in Klang, Malaysia, Justin was educated in Singapore, in ACS and ACJC. His writings will be celebrated at this memorial reading by a line-up of local authors, including Christine Chia, Desmond Kon, Cyril Wong, Yeow Kai Chai, Raksha Mahtani, O Thiam Chin, and Tse Hao Guang, who's co-organizing the event with me.

There is also supposed to be a reading for the writing program at Nanyang Technological University, to be held on Tue, Aug 23, 12:30 pm. Perhaps I will finally meet the reclusive Boey Kim Cheng there.

Friday, June 10, 2016

Orchid Haiku

A pot of orchids from my poetry writing workshop students! It was wonderfully energizing to meet ten eager young poets every Thursday at 7:20 am before the start of school, in order to read contemporary poetry and workshop their poems. Their dedication to learning, exploring, and changing nurtured mine.

Orchid petals--
streaky stains in the air
after rain

Thursday, June 09, 2016

Monday, June 06, 2016

Haiku Time

TLS March 11 2016

from Thomas Heaney's review of Vanessa Ogle's The Global Transformation of Time:

In the early 1960s, E. P. Thompson started scouring anthropological reports and journals for examples of peoples around the world with a less calculating sense of the passage of time. He was looking for temporal measures that were still deeply embedded in human action. In Madagascar, there was a word that designated "the time it takes to cook rice" and another for the moment it took to "roast a locust". In Burma, there were monks who started the day "when there is light enough to see the veins in the hand". In the English language, Thompson found linguistic markers closer to home: there were once such things as "a pater noster wyle", "a misere whyle", and there there had survived a rarefied measurement known as "a pissing while".

Summer breeze—
a pint of blueberries
from the store

Sunday, June 05, 2016

Tyler Cowen's Good and Plenty

As the subtitle "The Creative Successes of American Arts Funding" suggests, Tyler Cowen defends the decentralized approach to arts funding adopted by the USA against the more centralized approach of the European states. The defense is, to my mind, thoughtful and thorough. Thoughtful because it takes into account both aesthetic and political claims, not over-stating either, but exposing excessiveness where he sees it. Thorough because it examines the long history and the contemporary context of American arts funding. The only caveat here is that the book was published in 2006, and so its data and findings need updating. The update is unlikely to overturn the book's conclusion.

The decentralization argument, or the use of indirect subsidies instead of direct subsidies, is the core of Cowen's thesis. It helps to answer not only the demand for more arts funding coming from the arts community, but also the demand for less funding, arising from Christian critics of immoral art and libertarian critics of coercion. By decentralizing arts funding, society does not place the impossible responsibility on the state to define what is art, and to decide what is worthy of funding. Instead, society provides for different ideas of art, and therefore encourages innovation and creativity. How Cowen phrases the decentralization argument has particular relevance to Singapore, with its top-down, centralized approach to arts policy and funding:

In some areas of human life, we learn by amassing the cooperation of "the best and the brightest" through centralized institutions. The Manhattan Project proceeded this way in its later stages. Or if we wish to study quarks, it may be best to invest heavily in a single, high-powered particle smasher (though not all scientists agree on the cost-effectiveness of this approach). 
Other endeavors require more decentralization. Artistic discovery, for instance, is rarely a matter of brute force, or amassing enough laborers to work on perfecting a single technology. Rather we are hoping that the artist can "look at things differently" and see something that others have not. To make this happen, the artist must have the ability to market his or her vision to a diverse set of consumers, donors, and funders. It is unlikely that any single source of support will grasp the important of all these innovations. Creativity flourishes when many different visions have a chance of succeeding. 
Along these lines, we can view arts funding as a portfolio or investment problem. In most cultural markets, if we are trying to pick tomorrow's winners, we cannot forecast in advance what will work. In this regards cultural markets resemble Internet start-up firms or classic R & D problems. A few tries will hit it big, and many more will fail. In this kind of environment it makes sense to try many different approaches, rather than put all our eggs in one basket. 
The American system helps generate artistic innovations, encourages new ways of marketing and distribution, and supports competing critical visions for artistic contributions. In essence, the American system satisfies the "Hayekian" standard that institutions should support the generation and dissemination of knowledge. Austrian economist Friedrich A. Hayek emphasized "competition as a discovery procedure" in many of his writings, and stressed the inability of a central authority to plan discovery. Entrepreneurs have opportunities to test their diverse visions in a setting with many different sources of financial support. 
Hayek's argument has often been viewed as a plea for laissez-faire, but a look at arts policy belies the necessity of that interpretation. In reality, the argument implies that we should have many decentralized sources for producing and evaluating ideas. This may or may not imply laissez-faire, depending on the institutional setting. Both tax-breaks for knowledge-producing institutions and a publicly subsidized university system may encourage decentralization, to provide two examples. American arts policy uses government to induce a more decentralized pattern of financial support than would arise through pure laissez-faire.  
These policies do not imply that investments in the arts, relative to alternatives, yield especially high social returns. We should not think in terms of subsidizing the arts at the expense of other activities, or giving the arts special status. Rather we should think of American policy as encouraging decentralization for all creative activities, the arts included. 
In this regards the development and decentralization arguments are distinct. The development argument asserts that the arts bring net economic advantage at the relevant margin. The decentralization approach seeks the greatest possible chance of generating, at the margin, whatever brings the greatest net economic advantage. 
Most deliberate governmental attempts to stimulate the discovery process have failed, and for reasons that Hayek and other economists have outlined. Government does not have the knowledge needed to centrally plan innovation. To provide one well-known example, after the energy crisis of the 1970s, the U.S. government subsidized research into alternative energy sources, such as synfuels and solar energy. The end result was wasted money and little or no net technological progress with energy conservation. The government had no idea which energy-saving technologies were going to be the winners. Most improvements in energy efficiency have come from market-based institutions, encouraged by a desire to save money or to earn a profit from a new technology. 
Governments usually stimulate discovery best when they eschew central planning, instead providing support according to some non-market criteria. This approach does not require that government can do an especially good job of picking winners, or that government is smarter than the market. It requires only that government distributes support according to some principle differing from what is already available. The real question is not whether decentralization is beneficial in today's world, but rather how we should encourage decentralization at the margin. 

Cowen goes on to argue why we should support decentralization by giving one aesthetic and two economic reasons. From the aesthetic perspective, more art is desirable and so we should invest in the preconditions of quality art, namely diverse sources of financial support. The second reason, from the economic viewpoint, is that art, like information, is a public good and involves a positive externality. The last reason, also economic, is that extant analyses suggest that entrepreneurs undersupply variety to consumers. I think of how literary festivals all over the world recycle the same few writers. To increase variety, we should support a variety of arts funding.

Cowen defines indirect subsidies, the tool of decentralization, very broadly. They take the form of tax breaks as well as subsidies to organizations not usually or solely considered arts-related, such as the military, which commissions and buys art, and the public university, which sponsors artists and art programs.

At the end of the book, Cowen asks what vision of arts and arts funding will command wide public adherence, offer the possibility of inspiration, and mesh with American politics, economics and religious beliefs. Without a Goethe or a Shakespeare, the USA could and should look to a set of values, Cowen suggests, for its guiding myth. He nominates three values as cultural central to the liberal vision of his book:

1. Innovation
As a culture we should value and reward the ability of individuals, including artists, to strike out on new paths. Openness to innovation is commonly perceived as an American value, relative to the attitudes of other countries. 
2. Entrepreneurship
As a culture Americans recognize and admire the ability of ambitious individuals, including artists, to change the world for the better. Often we refer to these individuals as entrepreneurs. We seek, however imperfectly, to maximize opportunities for these individuals. 
3. Charity and Generosity
Americans are the most generous private donors in the world, including to the arts. As outlined in chapter 2, they have given time, money, energy, and vision to the nonprofit sector in unprecedented magnitudes. Furthermore this attachment to charity is rooted deeply in American culture.

Similar to America in so many ways, Singapore can do worse than to adopt these three values for its vision of the arts and arts funding. To the skeptics of Singaporean charity and generosity, I venture to say that the present niggardly situation is new to Singapore, and that it has been brought about by decades of relentless economics-only development. Before our time, Singaporean arts philanthropy from the elites and masses was prevalent. The tremendous financial support for the setting up of Nantah (a form of indirect subsidy for the arts) was one prominent instance. Our current situation is the result of mistaken engineering, and with some ingenuity it can be reversed.

Thanks, Winston, for getting me the book.