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Saturday, September 29, 2012


On Richard Rorty’s Shadow of Pragmatic Hope                                                                                          

Kevin Young promotes the idea of the lost shadow book in The Grey Album.  “In some crucial ways,” according to Young, “the lost shadow book is the book that blackness writes every day.  The book that memory, time, accident, and the active forms of oppression prevent from being read”(14).  Young, of course, is lying like a first-class philosopher as he recycles the governing idea in Ishmael Reed’s Mumbo Jumbo: Jes Grew must seek its text.

Sometimes the lost shadow is oral, as was the brilliant public conversation between Max Roach and John Scott at a Zora Neale Hurston Festival.  The conversation was not taped.  It can’t be heard.  It is a shadow of memory in the minds of those who were there, who listened in awe.  To be sure, those fragile shadows are hastened to oblivion by the brighter shadows of emerging technologies.

Swerve to digression, to Richard Rorty’s Philosophy and Social Hope (1999).  Social hope is a long blue shadow in blackness. It grows equally well on native or alien soil.  One of the better shadows in Rorty’s book is his occasional paper “The Humanistic Intellectual: Eleven Theses” (127-130).  It is true grist for those who wear the garments of translucent blackness. Especially thesis 11.

Determined that postmodern whatever should not stymie his thinking, Rorty was most black in lying his way toward a truth.  Attend to his anti-Platonic signifying:

If you don’t like the ideological weather in the local English department these days, wait a generation. Watch what happens to the Nietzscheanized left when it tries to replace itself, around about the year 2010. I’m willing to bet that the brightest new Ph.D.s in English that year will be people who never want to hear the terms “binary opposition” or “hegemonic discourse” again as long as they live”(130).

Rorty’s social hope is germane in discussions of African American literature and culture, because the terms “post-colonial” and “post-human” are already “post-old.”  By 2023, new Ph.D.s in Cultural Engineering will be waiting in electronic social hope for the expiration date of “theoretical enslavement.”  Philosophy has so many blueblack beautiful lies.

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.

September 29, 2012                                                                                                       

Friday, September 28, 2012

NEH African American Poetry Institute

Institute for teaching African-American poetry awarded national grant

Maryemma Graham

More Information

LAWRENCE – A grant awarded to a University of Kansas researcher from the National Endowment for the Humanities will spur the creation of an institute on reading and teaching African-American poetry.
The project is led by Maryemma Graham, a University Distinguished Professor in the Department of English in the KU College of Liberal Arts & Sciences. The institute, “Don’t Deny My Voice: Reading and Teaching African-American Poetry,” will be open to college and university teachers from across the country. NEH awarded $189,000 to support the program.
The institute will be guided by experts in the field and supported by the archival resources of KU’s Project on the History of Black Writing and the Furious Flower Poetry Center at James Madison University.
Graham founded and continues to direct the Project on the History of Black Writing, located within KU’s Department of English, which is the only archive of its kind and has been in the forefront of black literary studies and inclusion efforts in higher education for 29 years. This grant marks HBW's seventh from NEH and the fifth national institute in its 14-year history at KU. The institute will be coordinated by Sarah Arbuthnot Lendt, Project on the History of Black Writing grant specialist and KU English instructor.
“Don’t Deny My Voice” comes at a time of resurgence in interest in contemporary poetry, its expanded production and wide circulation. The program at KU will provide participants with an opportunity to develop a deeper understanding of the range, diversity and popularity of African-American poetry, and to engage in projects for teaching and further research.
The institute will focus on the history and transformations of African-American poetry in cultural and social contexts over three critical periods: 1900-1960, 1960-1980 and 1980-present. Participants will examine the creation, production and performance of poetry, and consider new methods for reading, teaching and interpreting. This institute will be driven by key questions and themes focusing on the nature of black poetry in addition to those raised by individual presentations and panel discussions.
KU faculty working with Graham include Anthony Bolden, associate professor of African and African-American studies; Joseph Harrington, associate professor of English; William Joe Harris, associate professor of creative writing; Jill Kuhnheim, professor of Spanish and Portuguese; and J. Edgar Tidwell, professor of English.
Faculty from other institutions include Joanne Gabbin, director of the Furious Flower Poetry Center at James Madison University, Howard Rambsy II of Southern Illinois University in Edwardsville and Jerry W. Ward Jr. recently retired from Dillard University in New Orleans and currently an adjunct research associate, Department of English.
Scheduled for July 14 through Aug. 3, regular sessions of the institute will meet each weekday. A number of public events will occur during the institute, including a weekend field trip to nearby Kansas City that will include visits to the American Jazz Museum for a poetry slam and discussion with Kansas City poets. Participants will view the Furious Flower Poetry Center’s four-part video anthology over the course of the three weeks, with discussions following the films.
Collaboratively designed projects and subsequent webinars will extend the conversations and the application of knowledge gained from the institute beyond its three-week run. Webinars will be open to the public and will feature a group of intergenerational award-winning poets, including Rita Dove, Nikki Giovanni, Terrance Hayes, Liegh McInnis, Ishmael Reed and the 2012 U.S. Poet Laureate Natasha Tretheway.
For more information, visit the Don’t Deny My Voice website.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

a gliberal take on ethics

Reinventing Ethics

The Stone
The Stone is a forum for contemporary philosophers on issues both timely and timeless.

What’s good and what’s bad? There are plenty of reasons to believe that human nature changes slowly, if at all — all’s still fair in love and war. For millennia, religious believers have attributed our nature to God’s image, as well as to God’s plan. In recent years, evolutionary psychologists peered directly at our forerunners on the savannahs of East Africa; if human beings change, we do so gradually over thousands of years. Given little or nothing new in the human firmament, traditional morality — the “goods” and “bads” as outlined in the Ten Commandments or the Golden Rule — should suffice.
My view of the matter is quite different. As I see it, human beings and citizens in complex, modern democratic societies regularly confront situations in which traditional morality provides little if any guidance. Moreover, tenable views of “good” and “bad” that arose in the last few centuries are being radically challenged, most notably by the societal shifts spurred by digital media. If we are to have actions and solutions adequate to our era, we will need to create and experiment with fresh approaches to identifying the right course of action.
Let’s start with the Ten Commandments. We are enjoined to honor our parents, and to avoid murder, theft, adultery and dishonesty. Or consider the Golden Rule: “Do onto others. “ A moment’s reflection reveals that these commandments concern how we treat those nearby — we might say those 150 persons who, according to anthropologist Robin Dunbar, each of us has evolved to be able to know well. For most of history, and all of pre-history, our morality has been extended to our geographical neighbors — anyone else falls outside the framework of neighborly morality.

This characterization is largely true until we reach the modern era — the last few centuries, particularly in the West. The one dramatic exception is the brief period of the Greek city-state. Citizens of Athens pledged to work for the improvement and glory of the entire society. And in extending the gamut of responsibility, the Hippocratic oath of the Periclean era enjoined physicians to extend aid and avoid mistreatment of any person in need of medical attention. As explained a century ago by the German sociologist Max Weber, professionals were no longer simply humans relating to their neighbors. Rather, the doctor, the lawyer, the architect, the educator had taken on more specified and finely articulated roles, with characteristic rights and responsibilities. Now, the morality that we direct to those living in the neighborhood and the ethics that a responsible professional should direct to all who come within his or her ambit, whether friend, foe, or someone from outside one’s customary circle, are two quite different matters.
Leif Parsons
It would be hyperbolic to maintain that “the ethics of roles” disappeared for almost two millennia. Yet this wider sense of responsibility was much less evident after classical times, when almost everyone was a peasant, guilds kept their practices secret and emerging states were hierarchical and authoritarian. Only as these trends were gradually overturned in the West in the last few centuries, did the role of the responsible professional re-emerge. The rise of the Fabians in England, of the progressives in the United States or of the elite professional classes in Bismarckian and Weimar Germany, to take some familiar examples, established a cohort of individuals who were given status and a comfortable livelihood in return for the license to render complex judgments and decisions in a disinterested manner. According to the historian Kenneth Lynn, writing in the early 1960s, “Everywhere in American life, the professions are triumphant.”
But even as Lynn wrote, the hegemony of the professions was breaking down. It was not only the witty George Bernard Shaw who believed that “professions are a conspiracy against the laity.” Many saw the professions as the province of the privileged — chiefly white, primarily Anglo- Saxon in lineage, largely male. Most of us today deem the democratization — or demoticization — of the professions as a healthy development. Yet, I maintain that this trend had its costs. Specifically, the very notion of professions serving the wider community has broken down, to be replaced by a growing consensus that professions are by their nature destined to serve parochial interests.
When Anthony Kroman, a professor and former dean of Yale School of Law, wrote nostalgically in 1995 about “the lost lawyer,” he has in mind the “found lawyer” who is no longer concerned with the health of the community but only with the wealth of his employers, generally large corporations. And the same waning of disinterestedness can be seen in the once-solo practitioner physician (“Marcus Welby”) who is now “managed” by the business school graduates of the health maintenance organization; the once “Mr. Smith goes to Washington” politician now under the thumbs of the most wealthy donors; the once selfless “ Mr. Chips” who serves his own careerist interests rather than those of the discipline, the college or the students.
Why should this matter? If my argument is correct, the professional deals every day with issues that cannot possibly be decided simply by consulting the Bible or some other traditional moral code. At which point should the journalist protect an anonymous source? Should a lawyer continue to defend a client whom she believes to be lying? Ought a medical scientist take research support when the funds come from a convicted felon or when subjects cannot give informed consent? Alas, traditional texts don’t provide reliable answers to these questions — they don’t even raise them. And yet, if professions are to disappear, should we simply answer these vexed questions by flipping a coin or by majority vote?
Perhaps the gradual undermining of the professions was inevitable, but it has certainly been accelerated by the emergence and increasing prevalence of the digital media. At the fingertips of anyone with a digital device, one can now learn the good, the bad, and the ugly of just about any professional practitioner — without the means of determining the legitimacy of these characterizations. Moreover, one can instantly access all forms of real and faux expertise on issues ranging from the treatment of disease to the preparation of term papers to the drawing up of a will or a trust fund. Tomorrow, if not today, one will be able to gain accreditation or diplomas for the thousand-plus careers that now style themselves as “professions.” And shouldn’t we honor these sheepskins, particularly if we cannot reliably distinguish on the basis of a score on a bar exam between those who went for three years to Yale Law School and those who enrolled in Dr. Khan’s free online course in legal thinking and practice?
These forces of democratization and digitalization will not go away. Ethical dilemmas are no longer going to be decided solely by those who wear certain clothing and who have a certain professional pedigree. How then should we go about deciding which of the alternative courses of action is the right one, or at least the one that is more ethical?
More From The Stone
Read previous contributions to this series.
My solution involves the recasting of venerable institutions into forms appropriate for the contemporary era. In ancient Greece and Rome, citizens gathered in the central square, or agora, to discuss complex issues. Much the same occurred centuries later in the fabled town hall meetings of New England. A congruent “mentality” characterized the physical “commons” in which members of a community grazed their animals. Unless each member respected the need to limit grazing time, the pasture land would not be arable.
I call on members of a professional community to create common spaces in which they can reflect on ethical conundra of our era. For the first time in human history, it is not essential that participants occupy the same physical space. Virtual common spaces can allow all who have interest and knowledge in the area to weigh in — whether the topic is the protection of sources by journalists, the determination of which intellectual property can legitimately be downloaded and which not, whether studies of the creation of a deadly new strain of virus should be published. Indeed, in the last decade, in professions ranging from journalism and law to medicine and science, such spaces have been created and, in some case, have been ably curated.
Still, by themselves “virtual agoras” are limited; they can be hijacked, trivialized, or ignored. And so I recommend the reinvigoration of the role of “trustees” — individuals afforded the privilege of maintaining the standards of an institution or profession. Traditionally, trustees were drawn from the rank of wise seniors, and such persons can offer both time and experience. But particularly in a fast changing world, trustees should reflect the range of ages and experiences. And so, as an example, young journalists should be asked to choose as trustees both peers and veterans whom they admire; and veteran journalists should nominate both peers and younger colleagues who embody the best of the profession. These trustees should have vested in them a spectrum of powers, ranging from an identification of best practices to the institution of rules governing admission to or expulsion from the profession.
Clearly, in an era marked by fast change, the creation of attractive agoras and of respected trustees will not be easy. Nor will the relation between these spaces and these persons be straightforward. Yet, given the importance of establishing ethical practices in our time, we need starting points, and these appear to be the most promising. I’m fully confident that good trustees and well-curated agoras can improve on my recommendations!
The problem with a belief in the immutability of morality is the same as the problem with a belief that the American Constitution contains the answers to all legal disputes. Like the Ten Commandments (or the code of Hammurabi or the Analects of Confucius), the Constitution is a remarkable document for its time. But it’s absurd to believe that the text magically contains the answers to complex modern issues: the definition of what it means to be alive, or how the commerce clause or the right to bear arms amendment should be interpreted; or whether a corporation is a person. By the same token, while we can draw inspiration from the classical texts and teachings of neighborly morality, we cannot expect that dilemmas of professional life will be settled by recourse to these sources. But we need not tackle these alone. If we can draw on wise people across the age spectrum, and enable virtual as well as face-to-face discussion, we are most likely to arrive at an ethical landscape adequate for our time.

Howard Gardner
Howard Gardner is the Hobbs Professor of Cognition and Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. His most recent book is “Truth, Beauty and Goodness Reframed: Educating for the Virtues in the Age of Truthiness and Twitter.”

On Reading Wolf Totem

Your reading of Jiang Rong’s Lang Tuteng. Changjiang Literature and Arts Publishing House, 2004; Wolf Totem. New York: Penguin, 2008.persuades  you to hear a tangential echo from Niccolo Machiavelli’s The Prince, Chapter XVIII: In What Way Princes Should Keep Their Word.

Since a prince, then, is required to know how to assume a beastlike nature, he must adopt that of the fox and that of the lion; for a lion is defenseless against snares, and a fox is defenseless against wolves. Hence a prince ought to be a fox in recognizing snares and a lion in driving off wolves.  Those who assume the bearing of the lion alone lack understanding.

 In the context of the 2012 presidential election, you are asking what kind of animal is President Barak Obama and what kind of animal is Mitt Romney.  Machiavelli’s political theory tells you what kind of animals Obama and Romney ought to be, but you alone must read between the lines of The Prince and read the habits of Romney and Obama.

Wolf Totem is a better political work of art than The Prince, because you read the novel as a long ecological poem and as an indirect allegory on the Chinese (Han) character.  Addressing a specific period in modern Chinese history –The Cultural Revolution, 1966-1976, Wolf Totem fulfills what in the West you call the Horatian imperative (instruct and delight) without being entrapped by the vulgarity of propaganda and thus falling short in aesthetic appeal.  Rong’s novel instructs so well because it delights so thoroughly.  The merely political melodrama of an American election is dull in the face of Rong’s snow-sparkling tragedy of Nature and man.  You do not confuse the concrete impact the American election will have on your daily life with the transcendent impact Wolf Totem has on your imagination. You are merely grateful that Rong has deepened your understanding of what bodes ill for China’s future. Developmental excesses, particularly in China’s urban centers, begin to take their toll before the first portions of steel and cement are thrown against the sky.  America, like Huck Finn, has already been there.

Using the focalization that can be accomplished from the limited omniscient point of view, Rong writes superbly about good choices and poor choices, about the knowledge and sacrifices required to sustain life in extremely brutal environments. The novelist affirms that humility is man’s last best resort on this planet, for Nature is the ultimate winner.  The lessons that Chen Zhen, the rusticated student, must learn from Old Man Bilgee, the Mongolian elder, on the amoral grasslands of Inner Mongolia are precious. The four olds (old thought, old customs, old practices, and old culture) shall be with us when memory of the infamous Red Guards is nothing more than the yellow sand that turns imperial Beijing “into a hazy city”(524).  Wolf Totem, as the translator Howard Goldblatt puts it, “is a work that compellingly blends the passion of a novelist who lived the story he tells and the intelligent ethnological observations of a sympathetic outsider” (vi).  A reading of Wolf Totem turns you into an empathetic witness.

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.      September 26, 2012

James Baldwin email exchange

Dear Ed,

In the early 1980s, I had a small taste of "vigor...of JB's mode of living and working" in Jackson, MS. He was in the state to give a talk at Parchman and was in Jackson overnight, so I got assigned to be his driver. At 4:00 a.m. we were having a great conversation about film and how Pasolini crossed a forbidden line in the film Salo and the horrible mysteries of the Atlanta child murders and I am fit to fall through the table from our drinking. His mind was sparkling. He was so alive in the wee hours of morning. I simply could not match him as a nightowl. He was not ready to leave the club, but I managed to say "Mr. Baldwin, I must take you to your hotel now." He wasn't drunk. He was thinking, feeling through what Mississippi had been and still was.

I probably met Erskine Peters at some MLA convention, but I don't recall having had a conversation with him. But you are right. We should use every opportunity to ask people about the meaningfulness of their conversations with people who are famous. In most instances those conversations are very human, so unlike the public representations.

I finished reading Jiang Rong's Wolf Totem yesterday. When you have finished your Baldwin project, I suggest you read the novel. It is a beautiful allegory of the Chinese and ecological transgression.



> Subject: Re: Visiting Hours at the Color Line
> From:
> Date: Wed, 26 Sep 2012 00:13:39 -0400
> To:
> Hi Jerry,
> Yes, not as easy to step off stage as it appears!! Well, whatever you're doing seems like it's working. Was great to have a chance to chat in ATL.
> I know what you mean re: a bona fide moral witness vs. media cipher. Part of it is the dizzying media whirlwind of the late 20th/early 21st century. But, I agree, part of it is the rare depth, vigor (as opposed to rigor) of JB's mode of living and working. The far far off place he arrived from, the deep deep close up place he arrived to, and to and fro in ways (always different) only he could do for decades.
> Interesting that in 1971, he told Nikki G, "you use the word "morality," I'd say "energy".
> In 1955, he wrote, "At almost thirty-one, I'm not about to change, I'm only trying to develop." And develop he most certainly did, and, in a way, he never did change! Sounds simple. Not so.
> Finishing my chapter, "The Half Ain't Never Yet Been Told," (his phrase) on the 70s now. Interesting, he called himself "a kind of poet" throughout the decade. . .
> Did you ever know Erskine Peters? He spent time w JB in Berkeley. Interviews, etc. 1979. I met Erskine in the early 90s, and he was very very kind and beautiful w me. I wish I'd asked him about that time w JB.
> Anyway. Up here at the Du Bois Inst. Traveling w Jimmy, everyday. Should start the final chapter, "Hell Is Not Other People," (his phrase), 1980-86, by Oct. 1.
> Ok. More soon, Ed
> Sent from my iPhone
> On Sep 24, 2012, at 5:04 PM, Jerry Ward <> wrote:
> > Dear Ed,
> >
> > I returned from China in July and will be in New Orleans until next May, enjoying the blessings and pitfalls of retirement. "Retirement" is not an apt word, because I find myself working as hard at projects as I worked when I was teaching; moreover, I am teaching still when I am at Central China Normal University and in the USA by way of helping a small number of graduate students who have befriended me with "growing" their ideas. I foolishly thought when I stopped working at Dillard I would walk through a magic gate into leisure. Wrong. I walked through a portal of no return into work! But life is good when we are not annoyed by hurricanes!
> >
> > Thanks for sending me the good news. I look forward to the publication of the Baldwin letters, because reading them will help me to formulate ideas about what I am calling the "ethical turn" more specifically. From my very biased vantage, Baldwin was the last twentieth-century writer who had authentic moral authority. I had hoped that Cornel West would have become a strong moral voice for the twenty-first century. My hopes have been dashed by his transformation into an unreliable, ironic social critic. Thus, your making more words from Baldwin available is a godsend.
> >
> > Congratulations on winning a slot in the National Poetry Series. It would be truly wonderful if Natasha Trethewey invited you to read at the Library of Congress.
> >
> > Do stay in touch,
> >
> > Jerry
> >
> > Date: Wed, 19 Sep 2012 18:46:40 -0400
> > Subject: Visiting Hours at the Color Line
> > From:
> > To:
> >
> > Hi Jerry,
> >
> > Hope all's well with you. Are you in China still?
> >
> > Am in Cambridge at work and nearing completion of the Baldwin letters book. Continues to amaze.
> >
> > Some good news, here. That ms of poems you saw, Visiting Hours at the Color Line, won a slot in the National Poetry Series for 2013. Very happy to have a route for that work into the world.
> >
> > Thanks for the support over the past year + !
> >
> > Send word when you have a moment.
> >
> > All the best, more soon, Ed

Monday, September 17, 2012



                In the later years of the last century, Edward Said’s Orientalism (1978) and Culture and Imperialism (1993) broadcast clear signals about the misdeeds of humanistic disciplines in the United States, the British Commonwealth, and the theoretical centers of Europe.  Said’s aim was not to erase the Western intellectual tradition that informed his thinking.  He only wanted to expose its hidden agendas, its disinformative ideologies.  Said’s pugnacious critiques have yet to be digested by people who study literature and culture.  Perhaps the wounds we shall suffer from Arab Spring and Taliban Summer will promote greater attention to Said’s work, to his brave integrity.  Said was cool.

                Should Said be too old-school for students and scholars of post-tomorrow, their tastes might be satisfied by Alan Liu’s The Laws of Cool: Knowledge Work and the Culture of Information (University of Chicago Press, 2004).  Liu is cold.  He has extended the pioneering project of Robert Farris Thompson’s Flash of the Spirit: African & Afro-American Art & Philosophy (Vintage, 1984) to argue a definition: “Cool is, and is not, an ethos, style, feeling, and politics of information” (179).  The definition is cold.

                One of Liu’s major premises is “that the academy can no longer claim supreme jurisdiction over knowledge” (21). Common sense and the rise of MOOCs give some credibility to his premise. Lui cleverly detects that our current century possesses an “astigmatism of sensibility” (232) from which it is unlikely we shall recover.  Institutions of higher and lower education in the West have been co-opting this astigmatism for several years.  Their awkward reforms of education do indeed keep it real.  But Dick and Jane Nobody on the street are “rad” know what time it is, even if guardians of power work overtime to use new technologies and media to systemically murder the will to know.

                The Laws of Cool gives us no solutions for anything.  Nor should it. This book merely provides a context for reflection on how to minimize nihilism and “absolute violence” in our life-sustaining efforts to hold fast to our will to know.  It is a prelude for invested reading of Reiland Rabaka’s Forms of Fanonism (Lexington Books, 2010) and for transforming Fanon’s theorizing into praxis (good deeds) in our local communities.  Study of the humanities and making of knowledge is not to be divorced from the use of humanities and knowledge to help people.  We arm ourselves for service by supplementing what we think we know of aesthetics, history, and culture by acquiring new knowledge about labor and economics, the hard sciences,  law and incarceration----do something more than gawk at Michel Foucault’s speculations on punishment or Hegel’s invitations to enslavement.  Don’t slip gentle into night.

                I am ignorant enough to believe human beings can keep their souls and shape their destinies by observing the imperatives of Margaret Walker’s “For My People” and Gwendolyn Brooks’ “First Fight. Then Fiddle.”  Eschewing being cool to become cold involves holding fast to the deep time and honorable behaviors of African American humanistic tradition.  We are not obliged to collect thirty pieces of silver on an electrified or electronic rug.

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.    

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Poetry at The Gold Mine

Poetry at The Gold Mine, September 13, 2012

(for Megan Burns, Bill Lavender and Dave Brinks)


If events started on time at 8:00 p.m., people would die from toxic shock.  So what somebody called the “Rock Star” evening can’t start at 8:00 p.m. because Jamie Bernstein the musician/poet has to tune his guitar and Bill Lavender the poet who occasionally gets to be a musician has to tune his guitar and his voice and the conga player, who looks too clean-cut to be one of us, has to tune his hands to tap lightly and the audience has to tune its many ears and then wash its many throats in beer and wine and harder liquors as Dave Brinks tunes up the audio equipment (which later demonstrates it has an independent state of mind) and Michael Zell tells me he needs my email address and a willing ear hears about my two months in China whether the willing ear really wants to hear about my two months in China or not, and then I am glad Nancy Dixon got a job at Dillard University and out of the hellish situation in the wake of Bill Lavender’s being  nastily fired as director of the UNO Press so he can now publish a lot of good work through his own Lavender, Inc. Press and feel as unburdened as I do for having retired from academic life more or less, although Danny Kerwick reminds me I have begun to look Chinese because I do teach and lecture several weeks each year until July 2014 at Central China Normal University (but my Asian connection is Choctaw not Chinese) and it’s a good thing that the opening of The Zeitgeist Chronicles is not tonight so I don’t have to miss seeing Thaddeus Conti  defy Indian Summer by wearing a winter scarf as he walks to the bar to begin making Thaddeus Conti drawings or miss Dave Brinks telling me how he has resolved a touchy problem regarding Eastern European poetry or miss giving the peace sign to Dennis Formento who sits like a witnessing Time Lord out of Doctor Who or miss promising to give Jimmy Ross a new birthday poem next week when he climbs up one more rung on the ladder of senior citizenship (but I forgot I’ll be in Kansas when he climbs) or miss the pleasure and profit of a “Rock Star” event.  Yes, you see, Faulkner had to be drunk to write a decent sentence.

This is a splinter of the poetry scene in New Orleans in 2012.  The evening will be a series of alternations.  Bill reads in a straight ahead no chaser voice from Transfixions as Jamie invents appropriate music behind Bill’s voice, and Bill will play later behind Jamie’s spoken words.  Jamie plays flute sotto voce as Bill lets flow a scatological satire “You Work Hard” about the loyal pigs at the University of New Orleans ---Bill’s guitar grinds out an angry music as harsh as the treatment he suffered and some woman up front  proclaims with glee “Yes, fuck UNO.”  I think maybe you really don’t want to do that.  That you might remember UNO houses the Marcus B. Christian Papers, a treasure trove, in the Earl K. Long Library. That you might out of empathy with Bill detest the pigs but not do what the radical Islamists are doing in destroying the written history of Mali.  Besides, the woman’s remark lacks originality as if she got the words from a guidebook on correct gliberal behavior. Go visit Gustave Le Bon’s The Crowd.  Bill is exploiting the aesthetics of the vulgar, of utter disgust, and I am hearing the family resemblance with the anger of some Black Arts/Black Aesthetic poetry, although that anger came from a different place and time.  I am thinking people in the audience are relating Bill to Ginsberg’s “Howl!”

Maybe I am wrong, but I know I am right about topicality and specificity of reference and the kind of knowledge you have to bring to appreciation of a topical poem.  So, a decade down the line Bill’s poem will function as a memory rather than an immediacy.  But at this moment you have to know George Orwell, Ishmael Reed, and the history of corruption and racism in Louisiana ---the whole background story—to appreciate how Bill is transforming the conventions of dross into gold, being the satiric alchemist.

What Bill pulled up from the cesspool is offset by Jamie’s “My Brother Tree,” a delicate reminder that man wants to identify with Nature despite the frequency of his alienating himself from Nature and from humanity.  The wretched of the earth pay a high cost to have desires.  And the plot of Jiang Rong’s Wolf Totem leaps through my head at just the moment Bill begins to read the Maddox segment from his most recent book Memory Wing, which is the focus of the evening, since Jamie did not bring copies of Black Santa or of his new song “How Do You Get to be a Streetcar Driver?” Or perhaps my ear misheard and he sang “streetcar rider.”   Either way it works and highlights the streetcar as an important item in the cultural history of New Orleans, and that history authenticates Jamie’s desire.  So I am digging the triplet –stance, dance,  circumstance – in Jamie’s song just as I will keep in my head Bill’s spiking refrain “Dancing Naked in a Hurricane.”  Bill is so downhome, so happily mired in the blues.  And poets do need rain as a reason to get naked, a reason to animal their bodies in the raw elements.

So this evening takes us back fifty years to the stars and rocks and dim glamour of the Beat Generation, assuring us the force that through the green fuse of that age drove the flower drives still the production of poetry and elevates the grit of creativity above the glitz of mechanical reproduction and pretend feeling in so much of contemporary American poetry.  This evening in The Gold Mine is the genesis of my unwritten poem “America, you funked up,” which might have the refrain “But god said don’t apologize.” I am looking for the crossroad of James Joyce and Bob Kaufman and the choices jazz musicians make in the Crescent City.  Truth be told, poetry in New Orleans is one of many activities that nurtures the workings of the spirit, the dark and sudden beauty of things.  When all is said and halfway done, New Orleans is a multicultural poem that must not mean but be!

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Shteyngart's Super Sad True Love Story (2010)

Some commentators, from the best of intentions, have assured readers that this is a good novel and not merely a good Jewish novel.  But of course Super Sad True Love Story is a Jewish novel ---what white man could ever have written it?  It is drenched in Jewish life, talk, attitude: it tells us how distant even the best of the whites are from the Jewish men that pass them on the streets; and it is written from a particular compound of emotions that no white man could possibly simulate.  To deny that this is a Jewish novel is to deprive the Jews of their one basic right: the right to cry out their difference.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

A Novel by Tao Lin

An Asian American Concession


                If Tao Lin is “a new literary voice to watch, and reckon with,” there is little to see and less to reckon with.  The notion of watching a voice is a signal of 21st century taste, of the failure of many contemporary critics to ponder their reasons for glorifying trash.  You have to give Tao Lin credit for exploiting the malaise that infects contemporary American literature and for pandering to readers who are passively paranoid, easily gulled by the hypertextuality of minimalist experimental writing.  In this sense, Lin’s novel Eeeee Eee Eeee (2007) is a cheap fix.  You have to give Lin credit also for understanding, in ways only the very young can understand, how American society progressively devalues its cultural capital. He knows that you can’t expect better in a society that wears an aura of self-deception.  A society that worships a god who is only green paper. Why try?

                Lin’s novel is a generous toilet into which he dumps the pure products of the WASP imagination:

David Lynch films, Honda Civic, Denny’s, Batman, Domino’s Pizza, Wal-Mart, Lucky Charms, Cheerios, MTV, Mel Gibson, Target, Kmart,  Schopenhauer, Jean Rhys, Spiderman, SUV, Braveheart and Mulholland Drive, a president who utters what everybody already knows ----“Politics is a pretend game where it is very important to block out the information that it is a pretend game”(195).

After you finish reading Lin’s novel, flush the toilet.

                Flushing the toilet accomplishes little more than the sound of rushing water, but you feel better for having given sound to the silence of this ethnic American novel.  Lin does not have to underline the Asian presence you find in fiction by Amy Tan and Gish Jen.  That presence is announced by the fact that the most intelligent characters in the novel are a bear, a dolphin, and a moose.  The signifying monkey of Lin’s imagination speaks his mind.

                Born in 1983, Lin belongs to a generation of writers who create under the influence of hip hop, a generation programmed and predisposed to make cynical critiques of post-everything.  Their literature of exhaustion secures a fragile referentiality in a gumbo of brand names and clich├ęs, seasoned with a few grains of cultural literacy.  The exceptions are works that avoid the potholes of pretend naturalism and realism by walking along the pathways of speculative fiction and by pulling up the primordial roots of story.  Lin is young.  If he is smart and more than tendentiously witty, he will recognize what a dead end the aesthetics of trash is.  He has begun his journey to what from the perspective of Asia is the Far East.  If he is smart and a genuine writer, he will recognize the gift ethnic American literatures can make to the republic of letters in the United States.  Eeeee Eee Eeee is exotic wrapping paper, an Asian American concession looking for a box to decorate.


September 8, 2012