Sunday, March 30, 2008

Beauty and Beast?

A strange and unexpected development means that an addendum to my recent post on Annie Leibovitz over at my personal blog seems due. It appears that Vogue (and therefore indirectly Leibovitz, who shot the offending image) is taking some flak over the cover image of the April 2008 issue which is themed to pitch superstars of sports together with supermodels (a somewhat bizarre choice of theme, but I guess one that plays into twin American obsessions: strength and beauty). Apparently certain viewers of the cover image of James LeBron and Gisele Bündchen think that the representation of LeBron is stereotyping him as a monstrous specimen of black masculinity, or downright denigrating his humanity by portraying him with a facial expression which they read as rage-filled and frustrated and showing him as holding Bündchen in much the same way that King Kong is remembered to have done when "man"handling Fay Wray...

This snippet from FOX Sports is representative of the criticism:

But the image is stirring up controversy, with some commentators decrying the photo as perpetuating racial stereotypes. James strikes what some see as a gorilla-like pose, baring his teeth, with one hand dribbling a ball and the other around Bundchen's tiny waist. It's an image some have likened to "King Kong" and Fay Wray.

"It conjures up this idea of a dangerous black man," said Tamara Walker, 29, of Philadelphia.Magazine analyst Samir Husni believes the photo was deliberately provocative, adding that it "screams King Kong." Considering Vogue's influential history, he said, covers are not something that the magazine does in a rush. "So when you have a cover that reminds people of King Kong and brings those stereotypes to the front, black man wanting white woman, it's not innocent," he said.

If nothing else, Walker said the cover underscores the need for a more diverse workplace. "If more people of color worked for Vogue in positions of editorial authority, perhaps someone in the room might have been able to read the image the way so many of us are reading it now, and had the power to do something about it," she said.

Walker and Husni to me seem to be typical of ethnic minority representatives who are prone to read specific ethnic narratives into mainstream material. One sees similar tendencies in other academic disciplines where queer academics often live to read queer narratives into canonical literature such as Henry James' "The Turn of the Screw". Such interventions are often extremely enlightening, but one should always be alert to the difference discourse hierarchies that are produced by such interventions.

To illustrate, I would propose that an equally important narrative regarding gender ideology could be read into the cover image. Why is Gisele reduced to an object for handling by the active male subject, barely more important than the basketball he is dribbling with his right hand? Are we to take it that LeBron's right hand partner is the ball - the handling of which is the key to his multimillion dollar earnings, whereas Gisele is his left-hand squeeze, the morganatic wife that all kings (also those of the NBA, where LeBron goes by the moniker King James) can afford to keep along with their other trophies (A morganatic wife. Defined by Captain Francis Grose in his Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (1811) as: ' A concubine; an allusion to an ancient German custom, according to which, when a man married his concubine, or a woman greatly his inferior, he gave her his left hand.' )

The other images in the Vogue spread can also be experienced online. They feature speed skater Apolo Ohno and supermodel Doutzen Kroes, snowboarder Shaun White and model Daria Werbowy, as well as swimmer Michael Phelps and model Carole Trentini. Of these pairings Ohno is of course an Asian-American, but he is diminutive of stature and does not pose in anything approaching a threatening manner. Phelps, while big, is portrayed as an elegant aquaman throughout, and Shaun White gives new meaning to the idea of the petite male... The final pairing is more parallel to LeBron/Bündchen, pitching discus thrower Jared Rome with Raquel Zimmerman. One image - titled 'Crouching Tiger' has Rome 'bench-pressing' Zimmerman over his shoulders, another has him getting ready to fling her as he would a discus. These images tell the same gender specific story as the controversial one, but because there is no inter-racial dynamics in it, there have been no comments regarding this shot.

One can perhaps see more about Leibovitz's intentions behind the cover tableau by watching the so-called behind-the-scenes Diary at Vogue's web-site... Certainly the interview with Bündchen and James depicts them as equals - and they make it very clear that only one person was the boss at the shoot: Leibovitz, who literally made them jump through hoops for her...

One can also read the cover story on-line here...

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

The Edge of the American West

About three weeks ago, our friends at East Anglia posted a brief introduction on The Edge of the American West,a fantastic blog written by historians, Eric Rauchway and Ari Kelman. I had first discovered them a few months back through Historiann's "History Geek Squad", and found myself often clicking through her blog into Rauchway and Kelman's portal. Lately I've been reading daily and felt an introduction here was long overdo.

The title, so I've read, stems from the fact that they, "teach history at a fine public university at the western edge of the American West." But I also wonder to what extent does the western edge of the American West exist as a cultural space?

Like East Anglia, I too enjoy the "on this day" posts. See the latest here.

Last week Eric posted, Batman vs Superman accompanied by this image.

Who's Batman and who is Superman? I won't tell, just click through the link and then read the review. Given my own interest in political uses of visual narrative and the recent racial tensions and wounds that have been opened during the Democratic primary, I think this image is definitely worth reconsidering.

The "dog whistle politics" have only just begun to play on many of the deep seated fears and racial (and gender and class) stereotypes. Most of this has been between Democrats thus far so it could get real nasty when the "vast right wing conspiracy" gets into the fray. Although, Carl Rove's January Op-ed provided a glimpse (playing pickup basketball) into what we can expect. Rush Limbaugh (20 million listeners) and Fox News (way too many viewers) don't even bother with the dog whistle.

Although I received a BA in history, I don't consider myself a historian. Although within the utterly undefinable discipline which is American Studies, I definitely fall more within the social studies side of the spectrum. So I "do" history.

However, what makes "The Edge" unique and interesting for non historians is the second thing their blog is about;

2. Applying history to current events. Both of us sometimes do this in certain publications. But this is a readier, less filtered outlet for such observations.

They recently "found" James Baldwin on the You Tubes and these short films on the still unreconstructed post-Katrina New Orleans are a "must see." Furthermore, if the political history of US populist and progressive movements has anything to teach us today then you'll certainly find Eric and Ari digging it up. See the link in our blogroll.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Hard-core Divas Hit the Stone: Sharon, Gertrude, Lynn

I have recently attended a conference in Reims on the interesting topic The Cultural Kernel. On popular demand, for those that can't wait for the paper to come out in Imaginaires, here's a preview. This pre-publication is also in response to Stuart Noble's call for papers dealing with American women writers.

My essay takes its point of departure in contemporary poet Lynn Emanuel’s work. Emanuel’s poetry is engaged in making cultural statements which are often based on a link between portrayal and ideas – character portrayal, object portrayal, and depictions of places and personalities from Gertrude Stein to Sharon Stone. I argue that Emanuel’s poems establish themselves as cultural texts, and as such, as discourses that address several levels of reality: 1) in order for the poems to work communicatively, they have to put into operation and activate the author’s and reader’s cultural awareness; 2) in order for the poems to make themselves intelligible, relevant, and aesthetic, (a tall order for any text) they have to be involved in a deliberate reworking of cultural elements. We never experience culture as something complete or at a distance. The cultural kernel is not just an object that is in the poems, but can be thought of as more of a process of collaboration between the author, poems, and the reader. These levels show the extent to which the author’s intent of pulling the reader into her world can be said to change the reader’s perspectives which in turn rework the interpretations of the poems.

By means of illustrating what culture does in terms of the collaborative, I begin here with a consideration of the title of the conference: The Cultural Kernel. When the call for papers came, I looked at the keywords and I could see that the ones I liked were the ones that hit me in my own poetic gut. Thus, my first question to myself for a potential paper was this: will there be any stones in it? I stumbled over Lynn Emanuel’s poem "Homage to Sharon Stone" from her 1999 collection Then Suddenly, and decided that it was no small pebble. In it there were definitely stones. I was ready to dig. I reproduce the poem here:

It's early morning. This is the "before,"
the world hanging around in its wrapper,
blowzy, frumpy, doing nothing: my
neighbors, hitching themselves to the roles
of the unhappily married, trundle their three
mastiffs down the street. I am writing this
book of poems. My name is Lynn Emanuel.
I am wearing a bathrobe and curlers; from
my lips, a Marlboro drips ash on the text.
It is the third of September nineteen**.
And as I am writing this in my trifocals
and slippers, across the street, Sharon Stone,
her head swollen with curlers, her mouth
red and narrow as a dancing slipper,
is rushed into a black limo. And because
these limos snake up and down my street,
this book will be full of sleek cars nosing
through the shadowy ocean of these words.
Every morning, Sharon Stone, her head
in a helmet of hairdo, wearing a visor
of sunglasses, is engulfed by a limo
the size of a Pullman, and whole fleets
of these wind their way up and down
the street, day after day, giving to the street
(Liberty Avenue in Pittsburgh, PA)
and the book I am writing, an aspect
that is both glamorous and funereal.
My name is Lynn Emanuel, and in this
book I play the part of someone writing
a book, and I take the role seriously,
just as Sharon Stone takes seriously
the role of the diva. I watch the dark
cars disappear her and in my poem
another Pontiac erupts like a big animal
at the cool trough of a shady curb. So,
when you see this black car, do not think
it is a Symbol For Something. It is just
Sharon Stone driving past the house
of Lynn Emanuel who is, at the time,
trying to write a book of poems.

Or you could think of the black car as
Lynn Emanuel, because, really, as an author,
I have always wanted to be a car, even
though most of the time I have to be
the "I," or the woman hanging wash;
I am a woman, one minute, then I am a man,
I am a carnival of Lynn Emanuels:
Lynn in the red dress; Lynn sulking
behind the big nose of my erection;
then I am the train pulling into the station
when what I would really love to be is
Gertrude Stein spying on Sharon Stone
at six in the morning. But enough about
that, back to the interior decorating:
On the page, the town looks bald
and dim so I turn up the amps on
the radioactive glances of bad boys.
In a kitchen, I stack pans sleek with
grease, and on a counter there is a roast
beef red as a face in a tantrum. Amid all
this bland strangeness is Sharon Stone,
who, like an engraved invitation, is asking
me, Won't you, too, play a role? I do not
choose the black limo rolling down the street
with the golden stare of my limo headlights
bringing with me the sun, the moon, and
Sharon Stone. It is nearly dawn; the sun
is a fox chewing her foot from the trap;
every bite is a wound and every wound
is a red window, a red door, a red road.
My name is Lynn Emanuel. I am the writer
trying to unwrite the world that is all around her. (53-54)

Emanuel’s poem here is an example of how the cultural kernel as that which resists us can be overcome by observing domestic practices. While we may not always understand another culture and thus be able to crack its literary productions due to missing implicit referents and indigent symbolizations, daily routine is something that most of us can relate to. We all have bad hair days. Not only does Emanuel establish a close proximity between herself and her reader, by bringing her reader into her house, but she also collaborates with the reader towards understanding the workings of collective cultural competence. If the kernel resists us, or creates a gap, we go for the nearest association. We will understand something, if it must be through misreading. In considering Sharon Stone, the reader who may not know the famous actress, may be prompted to think of the infamous 70s hit song by Smokie: “Who the fuck is Alice?” (Sharon, Gertrude, Lynn):1

Sally called when she got the word,
She said: "I suppose you've heard -
About Alice".
Well I rushed to the window,
And I looked outside,
But I could hardly believe my eyes -
As a big limousine rolled up
Into Alice's drive...

Oh, I don't know why she's leaving,
Or where she's gonna go,
I guess she's got her reasons,
But I just
don't want to know,
'Cos for twenty-four years
I've been living next
door to Alice.
Alice, who the fuck is Alice?

If we don’t stumble over stones in this song, we certainly get hit by a car. A big car. A limo, to be more precise. Is Emanuel thinking of Alice, when she sees Sharon, one would like to ask? Lynn Emanuel, the speaker of Emanuel’s poem definitely wants to know what Sharon is up to. And she clearly knows who Sharon is. But Sharon is taken out of her context, which makes the act of observing even more significant, particularly as it relates to consolidating the condition of all cultural understanding and subject constitution: look first, imitate, and understand later. So Lynn does what any good amateur anthropologist should: observe what’s going on. In this poem it begins with her taking a seat: by the window, by the door, by the desk. She positions herself strategically in relation to the objects and people that surround her. The aim is to put something on paper. Encircle. What she notices is that the neighbors are also engaged in their routine, namely, playing the role of unhappily married.

The poem shifts quickly between observations that depict cultural manifestations as they happen and their aesthetic translation into text. Characters in their roles, while taking their roles for granted or accepting them as part of societal constraints, are also in a position to pass judgment on their culture’s relentless emphasis on creating sameness. The poem thus suggests that even though we all do the same things, culture itself is a generator of difference. The poem concludes with a desire to “unwrite the world that is all around her,” Sharon Stone, and presumably Lynn Emanuel alike, but not before the reader gets to witness “the carnival of Lynn Emanuels” as a composite of another character embodiment expressed in the wish to be “Gertrude Stein spying on Sharon Stone at six in the morning” (53). What this example demonstrates is that we never experience culture as something ineffectual. The assumption is that we learn to distinguish between the internal and external origins of inspiration by standing in close proximity to “actuality”, or the very thing that happens while it happens.2

As Emanuel’s poem writes itself through the metaphors of cracking the kernel and smashing the core-stone, the style that emerges from the collaboration between the poet, her subject, the poem, and the reader, also demonstrates that the act of portraying establishes a close relationship between the verbal and the visual. While the depiction of Sharon Stone relies on creating an image-world for the reader, which goes beyond language, the fact that the images conjured up are all context-based and anchored in cultural competence points to the significance of how language works in use and the consequences of its being self-referential. What we are dealing with here is a poem which expresses not just ideas (as poems often do primarily) but also a conscious awareness of the workings of language in and through time. While we can easily see Sharon Stone diva’ing about in a limo in 1999, we do not in the same breath associate the idea of a diva with the 50s tradition.

Emanuel portrays herself as a 50s housewife, mocking the last decade of glamour, and contrasts herself here with another ‘housewife’ of the new millennium for whom even the chore of curling the hair involves external agency (as Sharon Stone probably has somebody else attending to her hairdo). The 50s housewife is thus recast in the passive role of watching, observing, and ultimately identifying, yet not with the character under scrutiny, but the character’s role. The irony is that the 50s housewife is endowed with double agency: on the one hand, she has to make sure that the status quo is maintained, (she stays a product of her culture: she is a housewife, before she is a writer), and on the other hand, she has the potential to become someone else, precisely because this potential is activated by the writer within the housewife.

The subtle point that the poem expresses is that while Emanuel may not be a confessional writer who writes in the same vein as Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, Robert Lowell, Allen Ginsberg, and Frank O’Hara, at the same time she both acknowledges and subverts the long tradition of articulating mundane situations in highly crafted poetic constructions. She brings in literary figures such as Gertrude Stein, whom the reader familiar with either her writings or photos of her will instantly recognize as being situated in the opposite direction of glamour: not thin, no curls, no housewife. The fact that Stein, who was also concerned with craft and composition, and wrote in a most ordinary language, is here taken as a barometer – as Emanuel would like to hear Stein’s confessions about Stone – indicates a performative gesture on Emanuel’s part which consists of pulling the reader into the image world of ‘stone on stone’, and ultimately letting her carve her own inscriptions.

This example points to the way in which language works as a cultural construct, and how it configures the human condition according to a specific aesthetics. Emanuel’s poem with its concatenation of language awareness and cultural images is ultimately a poem on portraits, a portrait of a poem, a portrait of a (self)portrait and a poem about itself. In other words, a narrative in verse that is not only a manifestation of, but also a gesture towards cultural understanding.

One of the other implicit messages in the poem that we can extrapolate an understanding from is that where culture is concerned events come and go. What remains are portraits, photographs, descriptions of people in other media. What connects us to events either current or the ones that remain distant in the past and thus only have significance for people who have experienced them first hand is that they remind us of something else. In Emanuel’s poem, language itself traverses with and through these events and is shown to adapt itself easily to new modes of representation. We thus go from the event of writing, in which something must be recorded, to activating a memory about a film with Sharon Stone, or a picture that Gertrude Stein portrayed with words. Thus, what Emanuel suggests is that pictures collaborate to inspire writing, and that writing in turn ‘reminds’ us of fleeting visual moments.

All these alternative modes or representations that are the result of cultural manifestations following a dominant in a certain time and age – writing, film, music, painting – are furthermore shown to collaborate towards the process of de-mystifying seemingly strange relations. We take seriously Emanuel’s advice, not to think of big, black cars as symbols for something, but a quick glance at the way in which her writing shapes itself on the page, shows that her “Symbol for Something” is spelled in capital letters which makes us think that Emanuel’s writing betrays her at the very moment its graphical representation takes place. Where this reader is concerned, I can’t stop thinking about the mob driving mysteriously in their black Cadillacs in the 50s. The depiction of Sharon invites that very association insofar as she is portrayed as being a bit mysterious and distant. Any diva with respect for herself will know how to play the mystery part. Roles are thus played seriously. Actors are generous. Directors are merciless. And bit-players take it all in, and then they write about it.

In Emanuel’s poem, the smart move from the trivial associations that we get from linking picture to picture – film to film, song to song, writing to writing – to overcoming the state of ‘this merely reminds me of something’ is done through bringing in a master who knows a thing or two about strange relations. In her famous book, The Making of Americans, written in 1909 and published in 1925, Gertrude Stein repeatedly insists that she writes for herself and strangers. What can culture do in the face of such enunciations, or questions, one is tempted to ask? Or what is the textual cultural practice that enables or conditions the articulation of such enunciations, or questions? What can strangers do for one’s writing, and what can one’s writing do for them? This reminds me of my own writing practice these days when I find it difficult to get out of the essayistic mode, especially when attempting to be most scholarly. More than ever technology has enabled what Stein has prophesied: I blog to myself and strangers. So we associate. But there is nothing new in that. So we associate incongruous events. Nothing new in that either. Perhaps it’s more interesting. So we associate symbolic events. While the situation of ‘nothing new’ presents itself again, we can at least claim self-authorial legitimacy for this or that interpretation.

The knack to dealing with the cultural kernel is not in the cracking, but in the playing of parts. Lynn Emanuel finds Sharon’s question: “Won’t you, too, play a role?” attractive. She is a bit-player, like the rest of us. What is suggested in the line immediately before this question: “amid all this bland strangeness is Sharon Stone” is that in the face of remaining speechless in our encounter with the strange, especially the bland kind, or strangers, especially the blond ones, we can start singing our own praises. The picture that Lynn Emanuel depicts of the other Lynn in the poem, the one who is engaged in a very similar writing practice to our nowadays blogging, is suggestive of the kind of impersonations we are capable of in the face of performing. We assign roles to one another and play the parts too by taking turns at being the other.

But what about the third of September? Is that Sharon’s birthday? Or Gertrude’s? Or Lynn’s? Or is it really about the 15th of November when T.S. Eliot went to see Gertrude in Paris, which made Gertrude write that portrait poem that has wool and silk in it? Lynn says Sharon’s head is swollen, and Gertrude says Eliot’s mouth is woolen. Speech impediment. Or is it about me, having to skip a meeting on the 12th of March, because I have to bash my brain and write on the writers of dates for this gathering here? I collaborate too. I let my friend and colleague, a polyglot punster and professor of German, Hartmut Haberland, know that I’m on my way to France – no pilgrimage on stones – but by flight through air, and this is what he gives me: “Gertrude Stein was born on February 3 as so many other good people. (Joyce was one day early, which must have been a mistake. Groundhog day! Who would eat a ground hog? Well, I better mince my words ...) I was always wondering if Alice B. Toklas was a real name or a pun. I hope your topic doesn’t leave you speechless. ‘Talkless in Reims’ sounds like a take-off on ‘Speechless in Seattle’ (You have my permission to use it.)” And so I do, here, now, to our collective stunning astonishment.

We step around the cultural kernel by looking at the alphabet. Grammar of the stepping-stone. It’s all in there: in the stoning of the text. Gertrude says in her To Do: Book of Alphabets and Birthdays: “alphabets and names make games and everybody has a name and all the same they have in a way to have a birthday” (Stein, 2001: 5). Groundhog day is here to stay. Baptism day.

P.S. The story doesn’t end here. There was a mail from my colleague, one day after he had sent me the above, in which he says: “of course I meant ‘Sleepless in Seattle’. Maybe you thought it was intended (and since we are talking about open texts here), who gives a fuck for my intention?”

It goes to show that if the cultural kernel resists us, we have a couple of choices we can make, at least where authors’ intentions are concerned. The tongue won’t know the difference, if it sleeps, slips, or remains speechless.


[1] In the original version played by Smokie, there is no reference to the f-word. However, whenever they often played the song in Ireland, the audience would shout "Who the fuck is Alice?" when the main line was sung, "I've been living next door to Alice". The band then decided to do a spoof of their own song and insert the line in their subsequent recording of it. They collaborated for this with the foul-mouthed Roy Chubby Brown, a stand-up comedian.

[2] Russell Edson wrote a collection of prose poems, The Very Thing that Happens (1964) which influenced a number of poets interested in the relationship between readers, writers and the materiality of power in language.

The Cultural Kernel and the Transnational Subject: Meena Alexander

A while back Stuart and I agreed that celebrating Women's History Month needn't be a purely American thing, nor a thing reserved purely for historians, so I thought I would post a bit about some recent work I've been doing on American, transnational poet, Meena Alexander:

My interest in her work is quite recent, so I am definitely not an expert on her poetry or scholarly practice yet, but I am currently reading as much as I can of her and on her work. The whole thing started, as it often does, with three apparently unrelated incidents.

First off, the launch of the excellent journal on poetry, Studio - which featured Meena Alexander in their very first issue. They reprint a lot of good selections from her 2004 collection, Raw Silk, as well as supplementary material in the form of a very rich talk on those poems and their writing which Alexander gave at Shippensberg U., and later at Dartmouth - titled "Fragile Places: A Poet’s Notebook".

Second, I was asked to be the external examiner for a superb MA-thesis on Indian, transnational poetry in English. The student had done a beautiful job in presenting his findings, had a good grasp of theory and of close reading, so we of course gave him the top grade available. One of his subjects was the poetry of Meena Alexander, which he read as an example of what Homi Bhabha calls unhomely texts.

Third (and according to Freud, the uncanny part of repetition is when things repeat themselves not once, but twice), I received a call for papers from a friend of mine who regularly puts on great conferences with themes such as 'Chaos and Order', or 'Pluralities of Interpretation'. This time Daniel in Reims wanted papers on what he proposed to call the 'Cultural Kernel', asking/stating provocatively: “The question is: how can we determine when our understanding of a literary work stops? There always seems to be a gap that cannot be bridged, a kernel that will always resist us.” For me it seemed a short leap to start thinking of Alexander as a producer of texts that ought to, for me at least, have a number of culturally specific elements that might be investigated as 'kernels' resisting interpretation. Thus, I was all set to propose a paper on her work, and I was accepted and in fact presented my work last week in France...

Even a cursory glance at Alexander's bio will peak your interest in her: She was born in Allahabad in 1951 to Syrian Christian parents, raised in the Sudan, educated in English-speaking contexts there (BA in English and French from Khartoum University) and in Nottingham, England (PhD in English), returned to India for a number of years, married another Indian academic, and is now residing in the USA, where she is a Distinguished Professor at Hunter College and CUNY in NYC. Her linguistic history is, if possible even more fascinating: Mother tongue: Malayalam, with a knowledge of Hindi on the side - in Khartoum, exposure to Arabic and French - after return to India, exposure to other Indian languages - throughout a tendency to exploit English as lingua franca, but not stopping at that: developing an acute poetic ability in that language too...

I knew that in Alexander I had found a subject that was extremely different from my own background as a male, white, European academic and that, given my reading protocol with its foundation in those identity positions and difference discourses, I might well hit a few interpretative bumps in my reading of her texts. As it turned out I was to be positively surprised...

Alexander is a very political individual and poet. Her work speaks out for the weak and marginal groups and individuals. She is also extremely conscious of her native country's troubled history and political conflicts. Raw Silk is written in the aftermath of the violence of two Septembers: Her adopted country, the USA's 9/11 trauma, and her native province, Gujarat's ethnic unrest in September 2002. The result is erudite, compassionate poetry about the effect of violence on victims and poets alike, and the poems weave an intricate intertextual web with precursor poets, politicians and philosophers from India: Rabindranath Tagore (Nobel Laureate, 1913), Mahatma Ghandi, and Sankara, the 8th C. Vedantic philosopher and religious teacher...

The poem I mainly analyze is "Fragile Places" which closes the Raw Silk collection. I cannot share my entire paper with you before its eventual publication, but here is an excerpt from the analytical part, where I endeavour to give a 'classically founded interpretation' of this particular poem and the collection as a whole:

The key poem in the collection is “Fragile Places”, which is set partly in Gujarat where Mahatma Gandhi lived and partly in Kerala where the 8th century Vedantic philosopher Sankara was born. These two figures, both associated with intense religious and pacifist feelings and ideas, function to structure the poem. Sankara, whose desire was to revitalize Hinduism and point to the identity between self and the whole, figured as the highest (and ultimately only) deity Brahman, is addressed at the poem’s beginning and end, so that the poet speaker’s desire to hear the words of Sankara comes to frame the whole poem. The effect is heightened by the use of a quote by Sankara, “The world is a forest on fire,” as the poem’s motto. The reading protocol an experienced reader of poetry will invoke here is to expect that the motto will set the tone of the poem, as is quickly borne out by the poem’s insistence on violent images involving fire, culminating with the references to the burning child in the second to last group of couplets. Similarly the custom of addressing an absent interlocutor, akin to invoking a distant deity will be familiar from much Romantic poetry and the whole set of conventions concerning the ode. Therefore one experiences little difficulty in encountering the beginning exhortations of the poet speaker addressed to Sankara, pleading for shelter, refuge, protection: “carry me through the house of silt/ the low slung bone,/ wind me in raw silk” – and ultimately insight: “Who dares to burn/ with the stamp of love?/ Words glimmer/ then the slow/ march to sentences./ Sankara speak to me.”

The role of Gandhi in the poem is less clear as he is not referred to explicitly. Only the place of the poem’s setting indicates his role in the poem and the culturally competent reader will associate the location of Gandhi’s ashram in Gujarat with the site of the ethnic unrest the poem describes. The ashram would historically be just such a place of refuge as the poet speaker calls for, but in other poems in the collection with the give-away title “Letters to Gandhi”, the nation’s father is gently chastised for not having influenced his inheritors sufficiently, and the shame of his old ashram barring the doors for Muslims seeking shelter from violence, rape and murder is pointed out. Gandhi’s grandson is also mentioned in the notes to these poems, as well as in Alexander’s talk on the poems.

Yet another figure ghosts the poem “Fragile Places”, this time through a more conventional intertextuality, as his poetry is quoted in the Alexander poem. This figure is Rabindranath Tagore, the 1913 Nobel Laureate, who is remembered and revered in India along the same lines as the philosopher and the politician discussed above. The biography of Tagore at the Nobel Prize Organization’s website emphasizes some similarities between Sankara and Tagore’s origins, mentioning his father’s sect which “attempted a revival of the ultimate monistic basis of Hinduism as laid down in the Upanishads.” It is well-known that Tagore and Gandhi were close friends, and we thus have a closely linked trinity of men from the past history of India, all representing similar ideals of unity, peace and non-sectarian beliefs, all present in the poem. The quote from Tagore is: “I lay with you at the water’s edge/ a red rose blossomed in my breast.” The complex symbol of the red rose blossoming is decodable as feelings of erotic love (“I lay with you”), or as agape (love for one’s fellow man), or as the blood of the heart running out of a dying man’s body after a stabbing or shooting, or as yet another image of the fires that otherwise crowd the poem. These readings are all fairly conventional, and intertextual precursors including at least Dante, Shakespeare and T.S. Eliot could be invoked here. Again, while the symbol cannot be decoded in an entirely unitary way, the gap presented by the text is not unbridgeable – rather there are almost too many bridges crossing this particular gap, which then hardly constitutes an uncrackable kernel.

If one now turns to the presence of difference discourses in the poem, one is surely not disappointed, nor particularly surprised to find an implicit dichotomy between the three great men, who are ultimately all portrayed as powerless to influence the course of history in a non-violent direction (the two Septembers’ violence was perpetrated regardless of their lasting presence on Indian soil, and Tagore’s words displayed on giant posters in Kolkata have little effect), and the female poet speaker and her references to her matriarchal lineage back to her grandmother whose house the speaker inherits (grandmother’s birthplace is the same as Sankara’s). Another important figure in the poem is the woman who responds to the burning of the child by stopping in her washing of the rice in her kitchen and turning to write instead. This mirror image of the poet is more of an insider to the region, and her donning the writer’s mantle is a sign of hope and her inscriptions a guarantee of the lasting memory of the events: “Words glimmer/ then the slow/ march to sentences.” It is therefore clear that we have a case of the gender difference discourse playing out in a form of reversal in Alexander’s poem. Nothing new or challenging here.

Likewise her figuration of the transnational self is a variation over the in-group/out-group dichotomy that is typical of the national difference discourse. The poet speaker has a foot in each camp: she is rooted in India, yet has left the country only to return and mourn its state. Her presence is problematized as not entirely authentic. While she claims: “I have come to ground/ in my own country,/ by the Pamba’s edge” and her grandmother’s house is her inheritance, there is still a doubt spurred on by her role as an interloper. The poem’s words on identity illustrate this dilemma: “Unable to reconcile those that are scattered/ with those bound in fragile places/ we turn to where alms/ are collected for the poor,/ identity pulled apart/ on the tongs of war.” Scattered, yet bound as the migrant figures are, it is the unpleasant tool of war that creates the identity split in the poet speaker’s tenuous ‘we’.

As you can begin to see, I was not finding the uncrackable cultural kernels I had been expecting in Meena Alexander's work. I read her memoirs, Fault Lines, where she reflects on her multicultural background, tells stories of her grandparents whose house she has inhereted, and who received Ghandi as a visitor. I read her poetry and reflections in The Shock of Arrival: Reflections on Postcolonial Experience where her academic analysis enriches her poetic practice. I read more of her poems, including her most recent collection, Quickly Changing River, from 2008. I still feel that I understand her very well...

I look at some of the many good resources online for Alexander: This interview, this overview of her work, another blog interview, Ruth Maxey's Kenyon Review interview... All this reading adds more to my understanding of her.

At the conference my colleagues did not disagree with my interpretation of her poem, nor with my observation that her knowledge of and mastery of Western poetry in all its forms, conventions and intertextualities helped us all to engage with her work. On the question of how I felt as a white, male, not-quite-dead European after having interpreted her work so 'fully', I had to answer that such an experience inevitably makes you feel like God in some 'omnipotent' way. Of course, in that context, we must always remember that God is a black, lesbian woman....

Obama and America's Racial Stalemate: A Counter-wedge to the Southern Strategy

This is where we are right now. It's a racial stalemate we've been stuck in for years. Contrary to the claims of some of my critics, black and white, I have never been so naïve as to believe that we can get beyond our racial divisions in a single election cycle, or with a single candidacy - particularly a candidacy as imperfect as my own.

Obama has just delivered a speech (which he wrote himself) for the history books. I won’t go into a full analysis but like any memorable speech from the American scene, his included the themes of; American exceptionalism, generational progress, religious freedom and tolerance, and of course, founding myths of American democracy.

You can read the entire transcript here.

But judging by the initial big media coverage, this was just another politically motivated, tactical campaign speech. For example, The New York Times headline reads; Assessing Race in U.S., Obama Calls Pastor Divisive. And the Washington Post; Obama Confronts Race in U.S. “Presidential candidate tries to stem damage from divisive comments delivered by his pastor.” Not surprisingly, Fox News headlines; Obama Won't 'Disown' Pastor.

The speech on the one hand sets out to answer the controversies around inflammatory statements made by Obama’s friend and pastor of his church, Chicago's Trinity United Church of Christ. While he has publicly condemned Reverend Jeremiah Wright, he takes the opportunity to place what he defends as Wright’s understandable frustrations within the context of racism and oppression.
Like other predominantly black churches across the country, Trinity embodies the black community in its entirety… The church contains in full the kindness and cruelty, the fierce intelligence and the shocking ignorance, the struggles and successes, the love and yes, the bitterness and bias that make up the black experience in America.
And this;
Understanding this reality requires a reminder of how we arrived at this point. As William Faulkner once wrote, "The past isn't dead and buried. In fact, it isn't even past." We do not need to recite here the history of racial injustice in this country. But we do need to remind ourselves that so many of the disparities that exist in the African-American community today can be directly traced to inequalities passed on from an earlier generation that suffered under the brutal legacy of slavery and Jim Crow.

Obama both confronts and embraces the racial tension within himself and American society.

I am married to a black American who carries within her the blood of slaves and slaveowners - an inheritance we pass on to our two precious daughters.
I can no more disown him [Reverend Wright] than I can disown the black community. I can no more disown him than I can my white grandmother - a woman who helped raise me, a woman who sacrificed again and again for me, a woman who loves me as much as she loves anything in this world, but a woman who once confessed her fear of black men who passed by her on the street, and who on more than one occasion has uttered racial or ethnic stereotypes that made me cringe.

These people are a part of me. And they are a part of America, this country that I love.

He defies the post-racial media meme and directly engages the legacy of racism, challenging contemporary White and Black perceptions. This in and of itself was groundbreaking for contemporary American politics.

But race is an issue that I believe this nation cannot afford to ignore right now. We would be making the same mistake that Reverend Wright made in his offending sermons about America - to simplify and stereotype and amplify the negative to the point that it distorts reality.

It's simply one of the boldest and most thoughtful public speeches on race in recent memory.

However, there is another message, a deeper message which may be lost on those only paying attention to his sober discussion of race. Early in the speech Obama alludes to what he proposes is unique about his candidacy for President;
In South Carolina, where the Confederate Flag still flies, we built a powerful coalition of African Americans and white Americans.

But it is at the end of the speech where he sets up his underlying argument for his candidacy;
For we have a choice in this country. We can accept a politics that breeds division, and conflict, and cynicism. We can tackle race only as spectacle - as we did in the OJ trial - or in the wake of tragedy, as we did in the aftermath of Katrina - or as fodder for the nightly news. We can play Reverend Wright's sermons on every channel, every day and talk about them from now until the election, and make the only question in this campaign whether or not the American people think that I somehow believe or sympathize with his most offensive words. We can pounce on some gaffe by a Hillary supporter as evidence that she's playing the race card, or we can speculate on whether white men will all flock to John McCain in the general election regardless of his policies.

He directly challenges the Republican "Southern Strategy" as he appeals to poor and working class, but especially Whites. Obama does not whistle past Dixie. Instead, he revives the ole Southern Populism in a multi-cultural and inclusive language. This message would not have resonated in say, 1985. But the economic conditions which created the White Southern Middle Class are simply not what they used to be.

Here he lays out his populists messages;
...Or, at this moment, in this election, we can come together and say, "Not this time." This time we want to talk about the crumbling schools that are stealing the future of black children and white children and Asian children and Hispanic children and Native American children... The children of America are not those kids, they are our kids, and we will not let them fall behind in a 21st century economy. Not this time.

This time we want to talk about how the lines in the Emergency Room are filled with whites and blacks and Hispanics who do not have health care; who don't have the power on their own to overcome the special interests in Washington, but who can take them on if we do it together.

This time we want to talk about the shuttered mills that once provided a decent life for men and women of every race, and the homes for sale that once belonged to Americans from every religion, every region, every walk of life. This time we want to talk about the fact that the real problem is not that someone who doesn't look like you might take your job; it's that the corporation you work for will ship it overseas for nothing more than a profit.

This time we want to talk about the men and women of every color and creed who serve together, and fight together, and bleed together under the same proud flag. We want to talk about how to bring them home from a war that never should have been authorized and never should've been waged, and we want to talk about how we'll show our patriotism by caring for them, and their families, and giving them the benefits they have earned.

Many on the Left have been critical of his embracing of “moderates” and “independents” at the expense of Liberal and Progressive positions. However, it now seems clear that Obama is trying to forge a populist counter-wedge into the 40 year conservative Southern Strategy, breaking the racial stalemate. This is the kind of transformational politics which usually only succeed during major social and economic upheaval. It’s yet to be determined how well this message will play out among the general public but the unpledged Super delegates will have no doubt gotten the message.

While this speech may be remembered most for the candid language on race and racial tension, Obama also presented the most economically populist message of his campaign. He has finally defined his vague message of “change we can believe in,” providing some concrete vision. Barack Obama has outlined his philosophy to break the Southern Strategy and forge a generational neo-progressive, new New Deal coalition.

UPDATE: Ari, one of the historians over at The Edge of the American West has an interesting perspective. He doesn't place the speech in the top 10 of all time but I think his analysis confirms my point that we certainly haven't seen anything like it in recent memory.
The most obvious historical parallel is with John F. Kennedy’s decision to take to the airwaves to rebut charges that his religion disqualified him from the presidency. But Kennedy often delivered speeches in moments of crisis. Including, after he was elected, an inaugural address, at the height of the Cold War, that forced Americans to consider their responsibilities as citizens.

The Beat Goes on...

The final instalment in my Beat Generation Revisited course dealt with Beat aftermaths, in the sense of what cultural legacies of the Beat Generation texts and ideals might still be present in the 21st century - whether specifically in the US, or in a Danish/Scandinavian context - or at large in a globalized space/time compressed world... For this session I had asked my students to mail in references they might have come across, whether specific intertextual references or just Beat traces and influences they thought were apparent. 10 of my great students came through with links or tips that they shared with me and the class. This post will mainly serve as a reservoir of those references...

One way of systematising such legacies is to first distinguish between texts that really are straightforward adaptations of Beat texts, on the one hand - and more indirect textual influences, on the other. An example of the first would be movies based on iconic Beat texts, such as Cronenberg's version of Naked Lunch, or the horrible old Hollywood version of Kerouac's The Subterraneans. Both these would be examples of adaptations, but of course adaptations that either add or subtract essential elements of their original 'seed-texts': Cronenberg's film adds a substantial amount of biographical material on Burroughs which is not to be found in his novel, whereas The Subterraneans a la Hollywood has removed the central tension of the novel, which is a portrait of an inter-racial love affair...

Overall, there are surprisingly few film adaptations of Beat novels, and most other Beat inspired films are based on autobiographical material, such as Heart Beat (based on Carolyn Cassady's memoirs), or The Source, based on reenactments of biographical scenes from the lives of prominent Beats (We need this one out on DVD now, please!). TV has also virtually only used stock stereotype characters and incidents in its representations of Beats and Beatniks, and not really done major adaptations. Maynard Krebs is cool, but we could use some real Beat characters on the small screen - why not do Dharma Bums as a mini-series? Anyone? Mr. Spelling??

These and other adaptations are also examples of remediations of Beat texts - all involving shifts from the written medium of literature to other more visually oriented media. A very good example of this is the comix that one of my students found, which is a remediation of Kerouac's life as The Shadow - a reference also to his novel Doctor Sax. Mark Beebe's A Vision of Kerouac as the Shadow is terrific noir stuff, but ultimately also more of a Beebe memoir than a real adaptation of Kerouac.

Other remediations would involve turning Beat characters or narratives into songs, and there are literally hundreds of those, so that would be impossible to cover fully here. Some of my favourite songwriters such as Tom Waits and Van Morrison, should be mentioned here, though, as Beat fans and remediators... If for some reason you are into modern crooners, working in commercial styles that would have sounded familiar to Kerouac and his generation of radio listeners, you could do worse than checking out this video:

Leaving adaptations and remediations, we enter a more loosely defined category of influences from Beats and Beat texts on other, later artists, or artists working in other parts of the world than the US. Starting in a Scandinavian context, I guess the best-known case is Swedish singer-songwriter, Ulf Lundell, who references a Beat ethos in many of his songs and who is also the author of a road novel with the obvious title Jack... In a Danish context I would briefly suggest poets Poul Borum and Dan Turéll as carriers of the Beat spirit, and also as translators and disseminators of the great Beat inspirators in a Danish literary and critical context. More recent 'tough' realist prose literature such as Jakob Ejersbo's novel Nordkraft could also be forwarded here (the book refers specifically to both Naked Lunch and On the Road)...

Ultimately, almost every country in the world has its Beats, and it would lead too far to cover that in this post. I would like to mention, though, as some of my students pointed out, that for instance the poetry slam movement owes a lot to the Beats' practices of spontaneous, uncensored speech. See this example:

I would like to suggest that we now look at more specific intertextual references, because they also lend themselves to categorization as icon-work - either collaborative or adversarial interactions with the famous (hence iconic) Beat figures and/or their texts. Here one can also distinguish between homage and pastiche, all according to the intentions of the new texts: to celebrate or to imitate (and possibly make fun of) the original. My students found several wonderful examples of this:

Here is a U2 music video which features William Burroughs as 'The Light', playing with all sorts of apocalyptic ideas, alien invasions etc.
Of the many Ginsberg appearances in music videos, I like this one where he revisits his Uncle Sam persona. It's a 1996 collaboration with Paul McCartney.

A hip-hop remix of Ginsberg's voice such as this one seems an obvious case of homage, as well...

The Ginsberg figure in the fantastic 'Dylan'-film, I'm Not There is another case in point...

More unclear examples of pastiche, where the intention seems both to poke fun and to give tribute can be found in these two wonderful Simpsons episodes:

Bart vs. Thanksgiving where Lisa rewrites the beginning of "Howl"! (c. 13 min, 7 secs in)

Hurricane Neddy, where we finally get the back-story for how Flanders became the present-day sanctimonious hypocrite we all love to hate (clue: Beatnik parents) (c. 14 min, 50 secs in)

Both examples reference their objects of pastiche 'silently', relying on our cultural competence to decode them. Therefore I read them as primarily collaborative icon-work - while we are meant to laugh, we laugh with "Howl", rather than at it. In the example with the Flanders parents, we are not so sure, until we learn that the experimental 'cure' that made Ned what he is today involves years of spanking-therapy - thus relatively speaking making the Beatnik style of upbringing ("We've tried nothing, and now we are out of ideas!") seem marginally preferable, at least from my point of view!

In closing we should perhaps mention that hundreds of books and films are dedicated to Beat figures or cite Beat texts as mottoes. Also thousands of web pages and e-mail signatures use Beat quotes in a similar fashion. There are Beat portals galore - some of which I have mentioned in previous posts...

It seems that it is fair to say that the Beat legacies are thriving and more with us than ever. Can we have a movie version of On the Road now, please?

Saturday, March 08, 2008

Beat 'Others', 2 - Racial Othering

Picking up on the following remark from vol. 1 of this post, I want to focus on the role (or lack thereof) of African-Americans in the Beat movement:

Representations of the racial Other in the Beat 'canon' also are problematic. Kerouac notoriously idolized the racial Other as a Fellaheen primitive, who was more in touch with the land and with the immediacy of human needs and urges, and whose creativity was somehow primordial, and usually pre-linguistic. Thus the great jazz-men of On the Road blow tremendously, but rarely speak - in fact it is their animalistic qualities that are always singled out as their distinguishing marks. The most acute analysis of this figuration of the racial other as the sociopathic, orgasm-directed figure, prowling the subconscious of white disaffected youths, of course remains Norman Mailer's influential essay "The White Negro" which can now be read on-line at Dissent Magazine's website. I recommend that one also reads Frantz Fanon as a counterpoint to Mailer's discourse to get a perspective on what it feels like to wear a white mask over black skin...

Of all the fellow travellers with the Beat Generation group, the one African-American writer of distinction is Amiri Baraka. Most of the other black figures associated with the Beat phenomenon are relegated to supporting or minor roles as 'inspiration', or at best 'forerunners'. Such figures as the hipsters with the ability to talk 'the jive', or the be-bop musicians with their improvisatory skills - almost exclusively black - were major influences on Kerouac's aesthetic ideals, and with him put their stamp on the diction and tonality of much Beat writing. Some would argue that both hipsters and jazz-men were performers, and that the public and theatrical element of the Beat writing and life-style comes straight from there. The history of the 1940s hipster subculture is not yet something I have personally researched, but the current Wikipedia entry on the subject seems above average for the site, so it may safely be consulted...

Obviously, African-American culture has its own, much deeper roots, and Baraka has always kept a consciousness of this multifaceted heritage at the forefront of his literary and political practice. His participation in the Black Arts Movement from the late 50s onward, including setting up the Harlem based theatre company The Black Arts Repertory Theatre, is a case in point. The link above will take you to one of several resources on the history of the movement, and this is another. Baraka's several political and aesthetic mutations are detailed quite comprehensively in the Literary Kicks' web-page on Baraka. His activities with his publishing house, Totem Press, from 1958 onwards were significant to the Beats, but more so his journal Yugen, and later the newsletter The Floating Bear, which he edited together with Diane di Prima. This site reproduces a bunch of issues of the Bear. As Jed Birmingham points out: "It seems like he had his hands in every major magazine coming out of New York City in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Jones published Michael McClure, Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Frank O’Hara, Charles Olson, Gary Snyder, Philip Whalen, Ed Dorn, Diane Di Prima, and Paul Blackburn."

Several sites are dedicated to the work and thinking of Baraka: from The Academy of American Poets has a comprehensive page w. bibliography, and a direct link to for the LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka Reader and other Baraka titles.

The Modern American Poetry site, as always, features selected excerpts from critical works on individual Baraka texts, as well as some resources situating him in literary and cultural history.

A Finnish site on Books and Writers has a capsule personal biography plus bibliographies of Baraka's work and selected criticism.

The best portal for Baraka resources, however, remains his own web site, which features a gallery of photos, a short bio, links to and covers from selected books, and - most valuably - links to a wealth of on-line Baraka texts and critical resources.

Of the many YouTube clips available I recommend the following three:

A brief soundbite on the link between performance poetry, rap, and street poetry...

Here is a longish interview from the site, featuring both Amiri and his second wife Amina Baraka. Note how Amiri liked to hold his head and shake it a bit when he is asked a question that perhaps he finds a bit naive (all of them). Pay particular heed to what he thinks the price is for not being a revolutionary poet...

Finally, my favourite clip is Baraka in performance from 2007. He treats us to what he calls Lowkus, a bawdy form that shouts back in a trickster vein, but very politically so, at the sometimes pale aestheticism of the Haiku. So Lowku, which also puns on 'loco', the Spanish word for crazy, and also hints at the whole locomotion Baraka would like to get started against, say Bush, is a wholly original performance genre... Enjoy Baraka scatting and riffing (this is Bud Powell, he tells us) in between the little slogans and joking digs his lyrics consist of...

Baraka has perhaps never been so intensely scrutinised in the public eye as after the poem he wrote about the 9/11 events - a poem that cost him his post as Poet Laureate of New Jersey, and generally has been very controversial. Why don't you read it for yourselves and judge?

"Minor Characters"? Beat 'Others' 1

After introducing 4 male authors, all white (although not all generically white-bread American), and approximately half of them more or less straight - it is high time to ask whether there were no women Beat writers, and no Beat writers of colour...

The immediate answer is that of course there were some, but none who have gained as much interest (neither publicly, nor academically) as the big four (Kerouac, Ginsberg, Burroughs and Snyder), nor even as much as the next echelon of writers, which would count Gregory Corso, Michael McClure, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and perhaps Whalen, Lamantia and Welch (all male). Nor are the main non-writing Beat culture heroes female or black: Cassady, Huncke, Carr - you name 'em - white males...

Thus the sharp irony with which Joyce Johnson titles her memoir of life as a female member of the Beat circle, Minor Characters, is terribly apt. In fact, this irony of marking alterity, simultaneously with hedged belonging, runs through several of the titles which the Beat women who have published about their own lives, as well as the lives of their famous men or fathers, have chosen: Carolyn Cassady's Off the Road and Jan Kerouac's Baby Driver both play off Kerouac's On the Road title and road persona. Two other Beat women's memoirs tell stories of identity crises and formation: Hettie Cohen Jones' How I Became Hettie Jones, and Bonnie Bremser's Troia: Mexican Memoirs (apparently Troia is a Mexican slang term for prostitute) both deal with the sometimes shocking sacrifices these wives made for their husbands, LeRoi Jones (later Amiri Baraka) and Roy Bremser, respectively...

However, I have chosen to focus today's blog on two figures who are both excellent poets and have stood up for their identities without subordination and apology. Diane di Prima is a fine, bold poet who has commented on sexual identity and gender inequality through her work (sometimes in a direct writing back to more established male figures), and Amiri Baraka has long since transcended his initial affiliation with the Beats and with his insistence on Black roots and belongings has contributed greatly to political art in the US for at least the last 50 years.

Before discussing these two figures, I do want to point out that the representations of the sexual and racial Other in the Beat 'canon' also are problematic. Kerouac notoriously idolized the racial Other as a Fellaheen primitive, who was more in touch with the land and with the immediacy of human needs and urges, and whose creativity was somehow primordial, and usually pre-linguistic. Thus the great jazz-men of On the Road blow tremendously, but rarely speak - in fact it is their animalistic qualities that are always singled out as their distinguishing marks. The most acute analysis of this figuration of the racial other as the sociopathic, orgasm-directed figure, prowling the subconscious of white disaffected youths, of course remains Norman Mailer's influential essay "The White Negro" which can now be read on-line at Dissent Magazine's website. I recommend that one also reads Frantz Fanon as a companion to Mailer's discourse to get another perspective on what it feels like to wear a white mask over black skin...

The alterity representations get even more striking when the racial and the sexual Other melt into one in Kerouac's prose. Sometimes an unholy marriage of antisemitism and homophobia is found in descriptions of 'fags' and 'queers', and such epithets regularly spilled over into Kerouac's own real-life love-hate relation with Ginsberg (no doubt sometimes spurred on by Kerouac's mother's rather unmitigated racism and bigotry) and his paranoid belief in a Jewish intellectual mafia trying to discredit him and his work.

On other occasions (as in the notorious description of Mardou Fox, the black protagonist of The Subterraneans, whose genitals are seen by the male Kerouac alter ego as oversized and supplemented by monstrous, non-human attributes) it is the depiction of women of colour as promiscuous beings, usually prostitutes - who are on the one hand hotly desired for their primordial sweetness and immediacy (which translates into availability), but on the other always objects of either contempt (when they give in too easily) or fear, as in the case of Terry, the Mexican girl Sal Paradise seduces in On the Road, whom he then instantly decides must be a whore, whose pimp is waiting at the bus station to steal Paradise's money. Although she retaliates by accusing him of being the pimp, and they subsequently make up and Sal spends a bucolic fortnight as a Fellaheen farm worker with her Mexican brothers, he ends up summarily dumping her and moving on when the pressures of her love become too insistent for him to handle...

Not just Kerouac had problems seeing women as equals, as Rebecca Metzger points out in her now apparently defunct blog Beat Generation Women, in which she for instance refers to Ginsberg's less than feminist atitudes towards Elise Cowen, who in addition to being his on-and-off girlfriend during the years Ginsberg experimented with going straight, also served as his typist and would-be friendly critic. Even a quite highly developed consciousness of eco-sensitivity did not stop Gary Snyder from penning a condescending and essentialist poem such as "Praise for Sick Women" (their only apparent sickness being their menstrual cycle), which notoriously begins with these lines:

The female is fertile, and discipline
(contra naturam) only
confuses her
Who has, head held sideways
Arm out softly, touching,
A difficult dance to do, but not in mind.

This reduction of the female to a birdlike simplicity (can dance, but cannot think) is however fortunately not left unchallenged, as Diane di Prima mockingly writes back to him in "The Practice of Magical Evocation":

i am a woman and my poems
are woman's: easy to say
this. the female is ductile
(stroke after stroke)
built for masochistic
calm. The deadened nerve
is part of it:
awakened sex, dead retina
fish eyes; at hair's root
minimal feeling

Di Prima rather indelicately reminds the male poet that the vagina has more qualities than he seems to realize: not merely fertile but 'ductile' - pliable both for the penis going 'stroke after stroke' but ultimately also ductile for the event of childbirth. Females are always objectified by other-labelings: as women poets, writing woman's poems; as passive receptacles 'built for masochistic calm', as ultimately fishlike beings of 'minimal feeling'... Note how even the form and graphic lay-out of di Prima's poem, which btw. borrows Snyder's beginning for its epigraph, parodies his structure and mannerisms, such as the show-off'y parenthesis.

Di Prima's other poems in collections such as This Kind of Bird Flies Backwards, Dinners and Nightmares, and Revolutionary Letters, plus her prose in Memoirs of a Beatnik, are all marked by a surefooted sense if independence and self-esteem, while never shying away from controversy and explicit sexuality. Unlike much other confessional literature di Prima's texts regardless of genre are strongly anecdotal and funny in their revelations and observations of the follies of others as well as the poet herself with regards to lifestyle and subcultural choices. In this light it is a bit ironic that di Prima's own official website features a somewhat condescending quote by Ginsberg as its front-page caption, labelling and subtly diminishing her with these words: "A great woman poet in second half of American century, she broke barriers of race-class identity, delivered a major body of verse brilliant in its particularity." Why 'woman' poet, why brilliant 'in its particularity'?

Among the several good online resources for di Prima, I recommend's page on her, captioned with a typically ironic "No Problem Party Poem" by her; and, as always with Beat related matters, Literary Kicks has a fine (but too brief) page on her. Why she should be absent from both and the Modern American Poetry site is beyond me. Her major later work, such as the poetry cycle Loba has drawn much praise from fellow female poets (Muriel Rukeyser, Adrienne Rich, Marge Piercy), but the testimonials di Prima herself has gathered on her Reviews page come mainly from male colleagues. Her recent memoirs volume, Recollections of My Life as a Woman, has been well received, too, as a chronicle of the Counterculture heyday:

"Because it is so unashamedly personal and true, it will disturb all those who lived that passionate time when theatre and poetry, love and revolution seemed at last conjoined." - Judith Malina

Listen to her read a poem for her grandfather:

The other women writers associated with the Beats have latterly experienced somewhat of a renaissance, involving getting anthologized more as well as having their work re-issued or published anew in better editions. Among these publications I want to mention 3 memoirs: First, Carolyn Cassady's now classic Off the Road, which she discusses among other places at this website which is the official site of the Cassady estate. Carolyn earlier on published a shorter book on the same topic, her menage a trois with Neal and Jack, titled Heart Beat, which was actually turned into a Hollywood movie, starring Nick Nolte.

Secondly, Hettie Jones, who HAS made it into the Academy of American Poets and has a page at their site, despite only debuting with a poetry collection as late as in 1997, and her very detailed account in How I Became Hettie Jones of life with LeRoi Jones and being his partner in running (out of their apartment in the Village) a publishing house, a newsletter and a journal of experimental poetry, Yugen, which was almost unique in bringing together on its pages the various dissident poetry groups and coteries such as the Black Mountain poets, the New York School of Poetry and the Beats. Jed Birmingham has the following to say about Hettie's role:

Much of the work of constructing Yugen was done by Jones’ wife, Hettie Cohen. Cohen worked as an editor at Partisan Review which gave her invaluable experience in putting together a magazine. She performed many editorial tasks as well as designing the layout. Like with many magazines of the period, the construction process, such as collating, folding, mailing, and stapling, provided a center for the literary community. Collating parties became literary events. Hettie Cohen’s How I Became Hettie Jones is mandatory reading on the literary community in New York City in the late 1950s, early 1960s, as is Diane Di Prima’s Recollections of My Life as a Woman. Both books provide detailed accounts of the day-to-day process of running a literary magazine. I highly recommend them.

And finally, Bonnie Bremser, who paid a dearer price than most for following Ray Bremser into refuge from the law in Mexico. There is a very good write-up of Troia: Mexican Memoirs at by Ronna Johnson. Here is her evaluation of how Bonnie Bremser manages to transcend the conventional victim position that seems scripted for her through her forced life in prostitution:

Both protagonist and narrator, Bremser is a sexual adventuress partaking in the descriptive gusto usually reserved in Beat writing for freewheeling masculinity; her confessed inner states provide the text’s gritty, visceral discourse. Merging memoir with road narrative, domesticity with adventure, Troia inscribes a revisionist, hybrid female protagonist. In this, Frazer [Bremser's birth name] converts “beat”—the subcultural ethos that rejected traditional values and inhibitions for nonconformity,
self-determination, and existential improvisations—to her own specifically gendered ends.

Returning to Joyce Johnson, she is one of several so-called Beat 'muses' or almost-wives who has written about their life with one or several of the Beat luminaries. Her memoir Minor Characters and subsequent other beat related works, such as Door Wide Open: A Beat Love Affair in Letters, are special in the sense that they also emphasize the role of herself and other women in the circle of friends and writers, and the real work they did to help the better-known writers to become just that: writers. Interviews with Johnson and Hettie Jones from 1999 (carried out by Nancy Grace) have appeared at the Artful Dodge site, giving also a nice historical frame for the Beats:

Much of my research over the last several years has focused on an attempt to expand the definition of Beat by turning the critical lens toward the women. And there were indeed women involved who were much more than girlfriends, wives, or muses. They were writers themselves--poets, novelists, playwrights, editors--individuals who have thought quite seriously about what it meant, and means, to be Beat.

Closing the book for now on the women Beats, I just want to mention the two readers that have appeared: Brenda Knight's anthology Women of the Beat Generation (2000), and Richard Peabody's A Different Beat: Writings by Women of the Beat Generation (1997). Of the two, Knight offers the slightly better selection (she includes precursors and a few artists) and more volume. Both volumes have their stars, mostly writers I have already mentioned. Both also deservedly feature Elise Cowen who committed suicide in 1962, but left poignant poems behind showing similarities to some of Sylvia Plath's work. One volume of critical essays on women Beat writers complements the two readers particularly well: Girls Who Wore Black: Women Writing the Beat Generation - ed. by Ronna Johnson and Nancy Grace.

Peabody's book is, strangely enough, the only Beat reader to have been edited by a man - Charters, Waldman and Tonkinson who have compiled the three main Beat readers are all women. So it seems there may still be remnants of a gendered division of labour now transposed to the critical field: the men create, the women compile, archive and comment...

The second part of this post will focus on the work of Amiri Baraka and on the racial other in Beat literature.


"America I'm putting my queer shoulder to the wheel."

H/T the Literary Outpost.

This is Ginsberg reciting his poem but I don't know why the word order is changed from the original. I'm sure Bent could help us with this.

I think this re-mix is fantastic. I've emailed the creator of the video to ask her/him about the music and video that was chosen. I love how Ginsberg is adopted and recreated as contemporary political and social commentary.

UPDATE: Here's the reply I received from the video's author.

The project had more to do with American history (1932-62) than Ginsberg himself or the Beat movement. It accompanied an essay about how we got from the New Deal to the Communist witch hunts and Cuban Missile Crisis.

The music is from Angelo Badalamenti and the Prague Philharmonic. The reading is from a Library of Congress recording from San Fransisco in 1959. The video is public footage from news reels from the above period and my own archive of family home movies from the Fifties and early Sixties.

I suppose the intention is to project how the population's own divided feelings about the national identity reflect Ginsberg's confused feelings about his own identity as American.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

The Politics of Gotham

While researching examples for my last post, Postmodern Presidential Branding, I stumbled across some typesetting blogs discussing the Obama campaign's font, or typeset; Gotham.

So I was naturally interested in the typography as a visual political narrative. What does Obama's choice of Gotham say about his campaign, about his political philosophy? I imagine that Obama had nothing personally to do with choosing the font but his design team saw Gotham perhaps as a reflection of the candidate. Here's what Jonathan Hoefler and Tobias Frere-Jones, the designers of Gotham have to say;

A journalist recently asked what it is about Gotham that we think suits the Obama campaign. We'll defer to designers John Slabyk and Scott Thomas to make that call — they selected the font for Obama for America, we merely provided it — but one thing we can say as type designers is that Gotham isn't pretending to be anything it's not, which makes it an unusual and refreshing choice for a campaign. Political typefaces have a way of being chosen because they underscore (or imagine) some specific aspect of a candidate, working hard to convey "traditional values" or "strength and vigilance," or any number of graspable populist notions. The only thing Gotham works hard at is being Gotham.

Gotham then in some ways represents an American Helvetica, a typeface that, "shouldn’t have a meaning in itself" because "meaning is in the content of the text and not in the typeface." In Obama's case, does Gotham convey the message that the meaning is in the candidate? It does feel fresh, clean, and neutral. Like Obama. Perhaps the candidate, like the text, has no meaning in itself which has allowed his following to project their own meaning into the race.

Gotham, as it turns out, is quintessentially American Modernism. I find this terribly fascinating as Hoefler and Frere-Jones research to create Gotham suggests a contemporary Myth and Symbol American Studies project through the lens of typography.

An American Vernacular

Like most American cities, New York is host to a number of mundane buildings whose facades exhibit a distinctively American form of sans serif... And judging by how often it appears in signs for car parks and liquor stores, this might well be the natural form once followed by neon-lit aluminum channel letters. Although there is nothing to suggest that the makers of these different kinds of signs ever consciously followed the same models, the consistency with which this style of letter appears in the American urban landscape suggests that these forms were once considered in some way elemental... Read more...

Long before the emergence of a profession called “graphic design,” there was signage. Up until the mid-twentieth century, the job of providing architectural lettering often fell to engineers or draftsmen, most of whom worked outside of the typographic tradition. The shape of facade lettering was often determined by the practical business of legibility, rather than any sort of stylistic agenda — although inevitably, even the draftsman’s vision of “basic building lettering” was influenced by the prevailing style of the time.

Here is a short Youtube clip of the two type designers discussing the creation of Gotham, the font "born outside of type design."

The Youtube clip is actually a bonus feature from the DVD release of the documentary, Helvetica. Yes, an entire movie about a typeface. I'll never quite be able to look at typeface the same.

Here is the trailer for the New York release.

Monday, March 03, 2008

This Blog is Rated E for Excellent

Historiann has rated our blog E for Excellent.

...and we were listed among some very good company to boot.

Thanks so much for the blog love. As I understand, we are meant to pass this rating along.

1. Historiann. Can we do that without charges of nepotism or...? Seriously, we've written before about how much we enjoy her blog. Colonial history, liberal politics and Friday Barbie Blogging all rolled into one. And what's more remarkable is she's geographically situated (like when she's not online) in one of America's bastions of reactionary conservatism. Ok, that might be an overstatement, but Fort Collins is certainly not a liberal oasis."History and sexual politics 1492 to the present." Enough said.

2. wood s lot. Bent had a short write up of this wonderful blog, "the exquisitely designed culture/theory/aesthetics portal," a few months ago here. There's something for everyone there kids.

3. Bag news Notes. Michael Shaw's blog has been on the blog role here from the beginning, whenever that was.

"a progressive blog dedicated to the political, psychological and media analysis of news images, and the support of concerned photojournalism."
Shaw has a great cast of contributors and an active intelligent community. Just read the comments and you'll get a sense of the community. Furthermore, he's been trying out some cool new tools to enhance the conversation. His work has largely inspired me to take the occasional, and purely amateurish, attempt at visual political analysis.

We've positioned our "blogs of note" blog role higher up the page and moved these three blogs to the top three spots for the month. When you drop by these sites do leave a comment or just say hello.


One of the really great things about blogging is the reverse chronological order of posts. It's also sometimes frustrating as more writers are posting content that older posts become quickly buried bellow the fold.

So here let me draw your attention back to some earlier articles you may have missed along the way.

First, Bent's series on Beat Writers is definitely worth a look if you haven't seen them all. Kerouac times, Basic Hip - Kerouac times, vol.2, Alan Ginsberg and the American Scream, Howl tape unearthed, and more recently, Dr. Benway, I presume... . See also Robert Gibbons comments below the post. Bent's piece on Gibbons is also very much worth revisiting. His latest piece is just bellow this post.

Anne Dvinge introduced herself with, Words, Jazz, and Spaces in Between… an introduction of sorts., including a "bonus track" of "the meister of spaces in between." Yes, it's often the spaces in between but we hope those spaces here are not too few and far between. Again, welcome aboard Anne!

Steen's recent and timely post,
Celebrity Pastiche, looks at images of Hollywood simulating itself. It's a fascinating article and many of the photos are quite intriguing. Simulacrum or not, the Renée Zellweger Vertigo portrayal of Kim Novak is simply stunning.

...and elsewhere out on the internets,

With Steen's post in mind, what does this say about postmodern US politics?

The folks at East Anglia report that the US Embassy in London is supporting a live webchat to discuss the US elections. Very cool.

Tim Lacy at US Intellectual History has a piece on William F. Buckley. Oh, and for something interesting about Buckley and the Beats, see the comments here to this post.

David Nye continues his reflections on the 2008 elections. It feels like there is primary election fatigue setting in so the idea that Florida and Michigan may re-vote could jolt the presses back into hysteria.

Finally, a little musical diversion. This is Tusk , the title track (accompanied by the USC Marching Band) to Fleetwood Mac's 1979 double album. This was the version of the band that included; Mick Fleetwood, John McVie, Christine McVie, Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks. Who does double "albums" anymore?