Friday, December 26, 2008

NYT Piece on Elizabeth Alexander

Dwight Garner of the Times Book Review interviews Elizabeth Alexander and muses on the inaugural poem in this recent piece.

Friday, December 19, 2008

The Theft Outright, A Poem by Heid Erdrich

IN RESPONSE TO MY most recent post about Elizabeth Alexander and the role of the inaugural poet, my friend Heid Erdrich sent along a copy of a fairly recent poem of hers, which he has been gracious enough to let me post here. In truth, Heid's poem is a response to Robert Frost's famous inaugural poem, "The Gift Outright," read at John F. Kennedy's inauguration. As I suggest in an earlier post, the poem is a swan song for the chauvinism and ethnocentrism of Manifest Destiny. Suffice it to say that when in the first line the speaker says, "The land was ours before we were the land's," he was not channeling Chief Seattle, Wovoka, or any person of color. Frost, frosty as they come, embodied whiteness.

Erdrich (Ojibwe) plays with Frost's line and its sentiment, inverting the poem's claim to land by invoking the transgressive history of land reclamation, removal, and theft.

A special thanks to Heid Erdrich and her publisher, Michigan State University Press, for allowing TWR to print "The Theft Outright" from Heid's forthcoming book, National Monuments.

The Theft Outright

after Frost


We were the land's before we were.

Or the land was ours before you were a land.

Or this land was our land, it was not your land.

We were the land before we were people,

loamy roamers rising, so the stories go,

or formed of clay, spit into with breath reeking soul—

What's America, but the legend of Rock 'n' Roll?

Red rocks, blood clots bearing boys, blood sands

swimming being from women's hands, we originate,

originally, spontaneous as hemorrhage.

Un-possessing of what we still are possessed by,

possessed by what we now no more possess.

We were the land before we were people,

dreamy sunbeams where sun don't shine, so the stories go,

or pulled up a hole, clawing past ants and roots—

Dineh in documentaries scoff dna evidence off .

Th ey landed late, but canyons spoke them home.

Nomadic Turkish horse tribes they don't know.

What's America, but the legend of Stop 'n' Go?

Could be cousins, left on the land bridge,

contrary to popular belief, that was a two-way toll.

In any case we'd claim them, give them some place to stay.



Such as we were we gave most things outright

(the deed of the theft was many deeds and leases and claim stakes

and tenure disputes and moved plat markers stolen still today . . .)

We were the land before we were a people,

earthdivers, her darling mudpuppies, so the stories go,

or emerging, fully forming from flesh of earth—

Th e land, not the least vaguely, realizing in all four directions,

still storied, art-filled, fully enhanced.

Such as she is, such as she wills us to become.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Elizabeth Alexander Selected as Inaugural Poet

IN "ARS POETICA #100: I BELIEVE," one of my favorite poems by Elizabeth Alexander--President Elect Barack Obama's choice to be his Inaugural Poet--we hear more than the echoes of past poets like Wallace Stevens and Langston Hughes or the words of Civil Rights leaders such as Martin Luther King. We hear the soaring rhythms of Mr. Obama himself:

Poetry is what you find
in the dirt in the corner,

overhear on the bus, God
in the details, the only way

to get from here to there.
Poetry (and now my voice is rising)

is not all love, love, love,
and I’m sorry the dog died.

Poetry (here I hear myself loudest)
is the human voice,

and are we not of interest to each other?

It's that final line that sounds so much like Obama. That desire for connection, that fundamental interest in the other.

But, so does the irreverent line about the dead dog. Alexander is a serious poet who doesn't take herself too seriously. One can say the same about Obama as a politician (just check out the header photo at SemiObama to get an idea of his willingness to poke fun at his persona).

But, there is nothing funny about this occasion.

How does one write a poem as momentus as the inauguration of the first African American president?

The presidency, like poetry, is a construct. It has its rules, its genres, its rituals, and its traditions. Being successful at both requires a knowledge of those traditions but not an allegiance to them.

It is that quality in Mr. Obama that no doubt prompted him to select Alexander to read his inaugural poem--the first time since Bill Clinton's second inauguration that event will include this bizarre but charming neo-tradition. Unlike many of Obama's cabinet choices, Alexander would not have appeared on many inaugural poet short lists--including those on this site. As much a scholar and an essayist as a poet, Alexander isn't really a central figure in what some refer to as "the poetry shirt crowd"--the central cast of poets who win awards, appear in The New Yorker and Poetry on a regular basis, and move in the main poetry circles. Her books are not published by the big New York publishers or the elite university presses; instead she goes with Graywolf, one of the best independent presses--one that focuses on quality over quantity.

A professor at Yale, Alexander has published four books of poems. Her most recent, American Sublime (2005) was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. It's a great book, full of jazz and popular culture references as well as riffs on the classic "ars poetica" (the art of poetry) genre in which she re-examines poetry through the lens of race and popular notions of race. This makes her an unusual candidate for such a big moment. How will she do? What tone will she take? Will her poem be funny? Earnest? Will its resonance be commensurate with that of the moment at hand?

Pundits have spent the last several weeks dissecting Mr. Obama's cabinet selections, musing over what they suggest about his presidency. Along those same lines, I'm interested in what his selection of the inaugural poet reveals.

I am impressed that he resisted the pressure to reappoint Maya Angelou or to go with more obvious choices like Nikki Giovanni, Yousef Komunyakaa, or Rita Dove, who served as the Poet Laureate. All three are outstanding writers, and all would write memorable poems. Of that, you can be sure.

Ms. Alexander is, in some ways, more risky.

The others have had a large stage. She has not. But, like Obama himself, she is a thinker. Her poems indicate someone inward-looking and nuanced. Someone thoughtful. Again, not unlike Obama.

I can say this--I'm more excited to see what kind of poem she will write than I would be by any of the three I mention above. The anticipation of her poem--like the anticipation of the Obama presidency--is that of the unknown . . .God in the details, the only way to get from here to there.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Conservatism Matures

TO THE SURPRISE, AND no doubt, dismay of many conservatives, Bill Kristol closes his November 17 column for The Weekly Standard, with earnest congratulations for Barack Obama and suggests, of all things, support:

We at The Weekly Standard congratulate Barack Obama on his impressive victory. We pledge our support for those of his policies we can support, our willingness to give him the benefit of the doubt in cases of uncertainty, and our constructive criticism and loyal opposition where we are compelled to differ. We hope President Obama's policies and decisions will strengthen the nation he will now lead, and that our country and the cause of freedom in the world will emerge from the next four or eight years even stronger than they are today.
Conservatism has always been more persuasive as an idea than a project, and to be sure, Kristoll is an idealist. Moreover, through a combination of economic extremis and a slightly more progressive American mainstream, intellectual conservatism finds itself in a tough place. Having been forced to hitch its wagon to the bigger, more powerful social conservative horse, it has been dragged around through the mud and muck, with no one of any real strength on the reins. But, social conservatism seems to have gone the way of the wagon, leaving more moderate conservative thinkers wandering around the trail, not sure where to go.

In the old days, most Republicans would take this opportunity to set Obama in opposition to mainstream America, but Obama's views pretty much mirror mainstream America. This makes things even more difficult for conservative idealogues. Kristol's stance signals a major shift in how intellectual conservatives see the immediate future. Perhaps their best hope is, ironically, in Obama.

The election of Obama solidifies America's move to the center. Many liberals claim the first Black president indicates a sharp move left, but, Obama is a centrist, and this past election (think Proposition 8 here in California) simply reinforces America's political (and social) middle of the roadness. More Americans probably agree with Kristol than Bill O'Reilly just as they likely find resonance with Keith Olberman more than Michael Moore.

One wonders, then, if Mr. Kristol's comments are more than a congratulation--perhaps they are also a valediction: a goodbye to the hate mongering of Rush Limbaugh and Mike Savage; a farewell to the anti-Christian rhetoric of James Dobson and Jerry Falwell; a so long to the smug vacuousness of Sean Hannity and Bill O'Reilly.

Though they may never admit it, intellectual conservatism is, in actuality, a centrist stance. It tends to be agnostic on religious/moral issues, arguing instead for issues of public policy like smaller government, lower taxes, lighter regulations, and a stronger military. It's more about how government governs than how individuals make decisions.

Kristol's comments set him apart from those conservatives who are on a mission of conversion, revealing instead a man wooed by ideas--the very engine driving the Obama campaign.

We at The Weekly Rader congratulate William Kristol on his impressive column. We pledge our support for those of his ideas we can support, and our willingness to give him the benefit of the doubt in cases of uncertainty, and our constructive criticism and loyal opposition where we are compelled to differ. We are confident that in the next four or eight years, we may see him and Hillary Clinton giving each other the dap.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

What We're Thankful For


HERE AT TWR, WE'RE thankful for the newest addition to the staff (see left). But, for those of you less taken with the ability of a newborn to twirl a basketball on his umbilical cord, you might be wondering how thankful you should be for the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and its soon-to-be-departing chair, poet and corporate vice-president, Dana Gioia.

In a recent piece in The National Review Online, Baylor University professor Thomas S. Hibbs claims that we (at least conservatives) should be surprisingly thankful for Gioia's tenure. Hibbs points to Gioia's life as a barometer of how Gioia (himself a text) should be read. According to Hibbs, Gioia is a model of the marriage of "populism and intellectual cultivation" and a beacon for conservatives who are worried that contemporary American culture is a cesspool of "smut and filth"--Gioia's description of how the conservative Right has long viewed the NEA--a perspective he sought to remedy.

Hibbs himself sees the NEA through such a lens. To him, Gioia stands as a conservative bulwark against the tide of what he sees as the NEA's moral relativism, shoddy aesthetics, and disdain for ameliorative art. Though he doesn't mention Andres Serrano or Robert Mapplethorpe by name, there is no doubt that these projects are, for Hibbs, symbols of the NEA's moral ambiguity.

Uncomfortable with such projects, Gioia moved away from funding edginess. Instead, he championed opera and Shakespeare--icons of Anglo high culture and for some, that culture's elitism. "Gioia's own work," notes Hibbs, "offers something for which conservatives should be justifiably proud and grateful." What appeals to conservatives about Gioia is his inflexibility in regard to entertainment versus art. For Gioia, for Hibbs, and for most conservatives, there is a sharp distinction between the two. Art lifts and transcends; entertainment deadens and stupefies.

I have written about this issue in a couple of different venues, most notably in the magazine Conversations in which I address Gioia's and the NEA's alarmist report Reading at Risk. The argument I lay out is too tedious to unpack here, but simply referring to the photo above brings the pointlessness of generic distinctions into focus.

My son holds both a basketball and a copy of Wallace Stevens' Collected Poems (two things for which I'm incredibly grateful). For those who have read early Stevens and watched Michael Jordan play basketball, is it really that obvious how I would respond to baby Gavin if he asked me which was entertainment and which was art?

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Palin as Poet?

A TWR NOD GOES out to new parent Jeff Paris for turning us on to Julian Gough's funny article on Sarah Palin as Poet Laureate. Paris was spot on when he lamented that Gough got to this story before TWR; indeed it represents a marriage of two of this blog's most common topics of late. If Palin as Poet Laureate shows up on Stuff White People Like, then that's like the TWR trifecta.

For Gough, Palin isn't incomprehensible, merely poetic. To prove his point, he scans and breaks one of her responses to Greta van Susteren thus:

Here she is, in a work I have taken to calling “The Relevance of Africa.” (Not a single word or comma has been changed, but the line breaks are placed where they naturally fall.) In it, Palin blends the energy of free verse with the austerity of a classic 14-line sonnet.

It reads: “And the relevance to me /With that issue, /As we spoke /About Africa and some /Of the countries /There that were /Kind of the people succumbing /To the dictators /And the corruption /Of some collapsed governments /On the /Continent, /The relevance /Was Alaska’s.”
How bold to connect so many thoughts with so many prepositions. As with much else, Palin leaves standard poetic rules by the side of the road and charts her own linguistic course.

To be fair, Gough steals a little from Hart Seely, who played this same game with Donald Rumsfeld. In fact, Jonathan Silverman and I published the following "poem" in the second edition of our book, The World is a Text:

The Unknown
As we know,
There are known knowns.
There are things we know we know.
We also know
There are known unknowns.
That is to say
We know there are some things
We do not know.
But there are also unknown unknowns,
The ones we don't know
We don't know.

—Feb. 12, 2002, Department of Defense news briefing

It's difficult to say whose poem is deeper. Certainly Rumsfeld is more philosophical, while Palin more elliptical. Rumsfeld is clearly grounded in Modernist notions of knowledge (think Wallace Stevens' "The Snow Man"), while Palin fully embraces the fragmentation of Postmodernism.

What do these poems say about our politicians and statespeople? Probably not much. In fact, I suspect they say more about what Gough, Seely, Silverman, and Rader think about poetry . . .

Sunday, November 16, 2008

How Great *are* Great Books?

NOT LONG AGO, I was at the dentist's office, getting my teach cleaned, when the technician asked my profession. When I told her I was an English professor, she asked, "So, have you read the great books?" I wasn't really sure what she meant, but I had an idea. "Well, sort of," I said.

"Really," she said back to me, pointy curved utensil inches from my mouth, "All of them?"

This led to a long, involved conversation about the canon, multiculturalism, and who decides what is "great." Turns out she had just seen an ad in a magazine where just anyone off the street could actually own all of the great books, and she thought this was just . . . great.

For better or worse, when we were done with my cleaning, she had rethought her determination to buy all of "the great books," since I had convinced her there were no the great books but rather, some important books.

Her question was a good one, and it leads to others. What happens when high culture goes mass market? To what degree are great books actually great? Are the so-called great books actually great for all Americans to read?

James Campbell poses these and other questions in his review of Alex Beam's A Great Idea at the Time: The Rise, Fall, and Curious Afterlife of the Great Books in Sunday's New York Times Book Review. Among the many things Beam examines is just how successful the great books project is and was.

Let's be honest--the notion of the great books was perhaps the best literary marketing project since the Book-of-the-Month club.

Leave it to stuffy academics to be the arbiters of greatness.

As Beam notes, the great book project was an attempt to canonize those central literary works that embody the "best" of Western writing and thought. Of course, that meant what well-heeled, well-educated white men thought the "best" was. And, not surprisingly, the great books were used less as tools to help people navigate the murky waters of existence and deployed more as a kind of punch card into the upper-middle class.

The greatness of the great books, according to folks like Mortimer Adler (in the photo above) was in their ability to codify those texts that have shaped what has been taught (and therefore what has been valued) at America's elite institutions. Want to know what those things were? Just take a look at the photo. See Adler in black tie, drab suit, cocked head, and, best of all, cradling a pipe. See Adler surrounded by big, heady tomes. See Adler at Wal-Mart? See Adler watch American Idol? See Adler eat a hot dog? I don't think so.

Is this why the great books don't seem so great?

The arrival and implementation of multiculturalism was the death knell to centrality, except that now there is a new centrality. So, maybe the fact that the great books are in hospice is really a testament to the incredulity toward that which is fixed--the finality of values.

So, what is the prognosis for the great books? Greatness gained, is rarely greatness lost, but greatness that is exclusionary will always lose out to greatness that is inclusive.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

TWR Goes on Paternity Leave

TO CELEBRATE THE BIRTH of the newest staff member of The Weekly Rader, we will be on a temporary hiatus for a few days. Updates to follow!

Thursday, November 6, 2008

An Open Call

AS SOON AS BARACK Obama was elected president, the first question asked in emails and texts from Dallas to Dubai was the obvious--who will Obama select to deliver the inaugural poem?

As loyal readers may remember, TWR was first on the inaugural poem scene back when the world was different. But now, it's all Chris Todd, Chris Matthews, Bill O'Reilly, Katie Couric, Cokie Roberts and others can talk about. Rita Dove? Nikki Giovanni? Maybe the underrated Terrance Hayes. Who knows? One thing we all know, the oddsmakers in Vegas are going crazy handicapping poets. Yousef Komunyakaa I put at 3 to 1.

In the spirit of this new era, for the first time, we're asking for comments, predictions, and suggestions. That's right: The Weekly Rader is making an open call. Send or post who you think President-Elect Obama should select to read the next inaugural poem.

Either email or post your comment below. We'll do a summary post toward the end of the year.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

The Weekly Rader Presidential Endorsement

SWAMPED BY THE DEMANDS of work and family, TWR has not only not gotten around to making its endorsement for president of the United States, it has also not really had a chance to see who its rival publications (New Yorker, Harper's, Washington Post, New York Times, Cat Fancy) have championed for the nation's highest office. We also don't have cable here at the TWR headquarters, or, for that matter, a radio, but we stay informed. Don't you worry about that.

We know, for example, that race has become a wedge issue for many voters. It's a fact of life, though, that we live in a multicultural society. Salsa, it's reported, is now the nation's most popular condiment. If that doesn't tell you something, I don't know what does.

It is in that spirit of equality that The Weekly Rader endorses the fiery Chicano Democrat from Texas, Matt Santos, for President of the United States. We haven't seen much of him, but that documentary about him on Bravo is unusually penetrating. Its ability to go behind the scenes and show us the real candidate is refreshing. Plus, his kids and wife are so cute, even though she reminds me of that selfish actress from Meet the Parents.

Don't be mistaken, we were also impressed by Arnold Vinnick. A real maverick, Vinnick speaks his mind and refuses to be a puppet of the Republican party. But Mr. Santos embodies change we can all believe in.

We're not sure what to think about having a Texan in the White House. It's hard to imagine someone from the Lone Star State getting elected twice, but I suppose crazier things have happened.

So, back to the issue of race. How, some ask, can we have a brown person in the White house? This question is a testament to how short Americans' memories can be. Can a shocking assassination really make us forget David Palmer's important tenure as Commander-in-Chief?

Like President Palmer, Matt Santos wears good suits, and his wife isn't nearly so bitchy. He's also funny.

So, won't you join us at The Weekly Rader and support Matt Santos for president? We need a little more West in the West Wing.

Friday, October 31, 2008

Al-Quaeda Endorses McCain

MOST OF US WERE wondering what to make of Nicholas Kristof's op-ed in Sunday's New York Times, when he mused on the significance of Al-Quaeda's endorsement of John McCain for president. For Kristof, a McCain presidency would mean

four more years of blindness to nuance in the Muslim world would be a tragedy for Americans and virtually everyone else, but a boon for radical groups trying to recruit suicide bombers.
It's a bizarre endorsement that no one has really been talking about.

The staff here at TWR has been wondering what we could do to get Al-Quaeda's endorsement for something---maybe "Least-threating blog." However, because of our "confrontational route," we may be out of luck there.

Still, while we wait for that one, we came up with a list of other potential groups we're going to try to get to endorse us, simply out of mere confusion:

NRA
GoPac
Operation Rescue
The Washington Times
Fox News

If you have other suggestions, let us know!

Thursday, October 30, 2008

God is Basketball, by Chris Haven

IN HONOR OF THE tip-off of the new NBA season, TWR is proud to publish Chris Haven's mantra on God and basketball. We like many things about this poem--not just the conflation of basketball and divinity--including how, in the second-to-last stanza, the poet uses basketball terminology as metaphors for the essence of God.

Haven is an assistant professor at Grand Valley State University, where he teaches in the writing department. He is at work on a novel that takes place in Oklahoma just after the land rushes.


God is Basketball

God the ball
God the leather
God the air

God the net
God the rim
God the gym

God the floor
God the shine
God the squeak

God the clock
God the tick
God the buzzer

God the lights
God the time
God the outs

God the shot
God the muscle
God the memory

God the glass
God the angle
God the drop

God the one
God the deuce
God the three

God the deal
God the steal
God the foul

God the block
God the walk
God the blood

God the forward
God the guard
God the center

God the crossover
God the stab-step
God the fadeaway

God the loss
God the win
God the crowd

Monday, October 27, 2008

The Season Finale of Mad Men + A Second Shot at Swingtown

TONIGHT'S SEASON FINALE OF season two of Mad Men was more about the future than the past. Crippled by the Cuban missile crisis, the merger of Sterling Cooper, and the unexpected news of both pregnancy and paternity, the men and women of the show braced themselves for the invisible unfolding of the future, even though the audience sees them as relics of a charming era when people actually ordered gimlets and wore tie clips without irony.

It is a tribute to the show's writing that so much of the program eschews the easy nostalgia for 1962 and instead focuses on the unsettling encroachment of postmodernity with its incredulity toward metanarratives and its tofu. And now it's going away!

If Mad Men's hibernation has you antsy for an interesting companion program, check out Swingtown. The first season, originally on CBS earlier this year, is currently being rebroadcast on Bravo.

Though it is set in a suburb of Chicago in 1976, Swingtown shares a great deal with Mad Men. In particular, both series feature detailed examinations of the romantic and emotional relationships of unusually attractive (and slim) suburban couples who seem to be drifting apart. Much of the topical source of the tension in Swingtown is a long-married couple's decision to "swing" with some saucy new neighbors, but, like Mad Men, the roots of the infidelity are deeper than mere fad. Though the contexts in the two shows are different, it's astonishing how similar (and awkward) suburban communication between men and women can be on TV--even more awkward than the hair.

Like Mad Men, Swingtown revels in the trivia of a bygone era, pulling more generously from music, icons, and the joie de vivre of the times than its '62 counterpart; but it lacks the historical or political depth of the older model. It's less dark, less moody--in short, less cable--and, as such, Swingtown is also less enjoyable. It lacks Mad Men's relational tension, its pressure of codes and restrictions. In Swingtown's suburban Chicago of the 70s, pretty much anything goes, which you would think would make for fun TV. But that lack of circumscription (plus network TV's enforced circumscription) makes the series about wife-swapping not quite as swingin' as you might expect.

Still, it's fascinating to see how fashion, interior design, music, culture, and sexual freedom changes from the 1962 of Mad Men to the 1976 of Swingtown. It's hard to imagine the era between the two is only 14 years; it seems like twice that much. And yet, it's equally stunning to see how little gender roles alter, despite the fact that so many other aspects of American life seem to completely invert. In these suburbs, women still stay home, they still depend on their husbands, and they still have no idea what their partners really want. The women--particularly the wives--also don't know what they want. Both programs are at their best when the changing shape of culture catalyzes the women's moments of self discovery.

I have suggested before that Mad Men is really about women, and I would make the same argument for Swingtown. The guys are fine, and their extra-marital conquests are fun to watch. Or, are they painful to watch? Regardless, whether it's the 60s or the 70s, the emotional landscape of women--with its hidden pitfalls, its peaks and valleys, and its rivers of consequence--is just more interesting terrain to map.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Why Saturday Night Live Actually Matters Right Now

AS WE'VE SAID IN an earlier post, this year's presidential debates have proven neither insightful nor entertaining. As my colleague Christopher Kamrath argued on a recent panel, the debates have devolved into a kind of sporting event--people tune in to see how the home team has done. The debates are so scripted, so predictable, we no longer look to them for information but to confirm what we already believe.

This time around, the debates did so little real work, they abdicated their claim on political culture and migrated entirely into the realm of popular culture.

From appearances of the candidates on Late Night with David Letterman to the Sarah Palin drinking game during the vice-presidential debate (every time she says "maverick") to the Palin as President website, to the goofy photos of John McCain, to the Sarah Palin debate flow chart. None though have resonated so often and with so many as the various skits on Saturday Night Live and in particular, Tina Fey's spooky embodiment of Sarah Palin.

Because the presidential debates are presidential debates, we have to distill them through some sort of lens. We can't ignore them. And, since we can't really look at them through a political lens, we have chosen to view them through a comedic one. SNL has been particulary good at showing us the appropriate ways to see both the debates and the candidates themselves.

The candidates' attempts to control the setting of the debates may make the debates themselves safe texts, but that lack of drama also makes them unusually fair game for parody. This is especially the case given the high stakes of this election and its revolutionary components. With the first serious African American presidential candidate and the first serious female Republican candidate for vice-president, one would think the discourse of the debates would be commensurate with the significance of this election.

But not so much.

Senator Obama has to look presidential, so he can't afford to be provocative or surprising. Senator McCain has to stick so closely to the conservative platform the Right Wing has laid out for him, he can't really maverick things up. So, Tina Fey becomes our maverick and SNL becomes the most useful TV media outlet (not Fox, not MSNBC, not PBS) to help us place the candidates and their debate performances in the proper cultural context.

If Marshall McLuhan is right and the medium is the message, it is worth inquiring into the ultimate message sent by both the televised debates and their televised parodies. Now, for example, Gov. Palin seems to be impersonating Tina Fey impersonating Gov. Palin. How can we tell the dancer from the dance if they both shoot moose?

What we finally learn from SNL about the debates and the candidates is that the gap between earnest performance and earnest parody may be narrower than we ever imagined.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

On Battlestar Galactica

NO ONE IS MORE surprised to see a post about science fiction on TWR than the already cranky staff here at TWR. But, here it is: the first and probably the last entry about a science fiction text, unless, of course, you count Lost. But, that's another story.

This story is about Battlestar Galactica--the remake of the 1970s TV show, the remake ridiculed on last week's The Office, the remake beloved by geeks and non-geeks alike (though, I think, more by geeks, as indicated by the photo on the left)--and its provocative stance on religion. Very few television shows deal with issues of religion in complex ways. Programs like 7th Heaven and Touched by an Angel sentimentalize spirituality and the supernatural; they don't really explore its contradictions or look at how religion shapes cultures. Friday Night Lights, oddly enough, may do the best job of this on network TV in exploring the degree to which religion forges behavior, cultures, and attitudes.

The most interesting plot point of the new BG is the tension between the fundamentally different religious systems as held by the two warring civilizations: the humans and the cylons. Within the weltanschauung of the humans (with whom we are supposed to identify--they are looking for earth and may be our ancestors) the cylons are merely machines. The humans believe the cylons are incapable of rational thought or valid spiritual beliefs--in part because the cylons were created by humans. But, the cylons evolved; in fact, they sort of out-evolved the humans. They are more advanced, in many ways, despite their machine-ness. The humans are humans with all of their human flaws, their human desires, and their human beliefs.

Interestingly, though, one human belief on the show is the unwavering certainly in many gods; whereas the cylons believe in only one true omnipotent god. And thus, in the vast frontier of space (yes, it is all too familiar), a religious war is waged--monotheists against polytheists.

What's not familiar is the alignment of those beliefs. Within the narrative trajectory of the story, we find ourselves, of course, rooting for the humans, who seem to embody many of the standard characteristics of mainstream Christians. They pray, there are holy books, they ask for forgiveness, and they tend to ignore the gods except in times of distress. It's just that they pray to many gods, instead of, you know, just one.

On the other hands, the cylons make as part of their fundamental modus operandi the enactment of God's vision and design. In other words, the machines--who can appear ruthless and anti-human (even anti-American)--are more devout, more holy, more Christian than the humans.

Adding to this tension are other plot lines that come straight out of the Bible: a search for a promised land, a miracle baby that seems to embody the hope for the future, prophets and visions, temples and scriptures. To its credit, the show doesn't sympathize with the humans over the cylons. Both races are equally noble and ignoble. Similarly, the show doesn't indicate which system of belief is "correct," though much more time is devoted to the human polytheism. In fact, one of the annoying sci-fi traits of the show is to have the humans utter phrases like "oh my gods!" or "gods damn the cylons," rather than the singular noun. The human polytheism and its normalcy gets coded and recoded again throughout the show.

What will be fascinating is to see how the writers reconcile the ultimate destiny of the two races--will it have anything to do with one or many gods? In other words, the show poses the same question Columbus, Cabot, Cabeza de Vaca, and many early Pilgrims asked not only each other but their own god--who is right? Those who believe in many spirits, or us, trained to rely solely on one?

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Reading Debate #3 As A Text

TO BE SURE, DEBATES are constructed texts.

They have authors and audiences, plots and themes, rising and falling actions, both composition and juxtaposition. In general, debates in the contemporary era (over any office of any real authority) are pretty dull. Rarely are they, in fact, debates but rather as many, many have noted, little more than staged responses to anticipated questions. This fact makes them even more of an intentional text than extemporaneous back-and-forthing might be.

In the text that was last night's presidential debate, a protagonist and an antagonist emerged. Barack Obama seemed to fully embody his persona as favorite, front-runner, and cypher for the hopes and dreams of the majority of the American electorate, while his nemesis, the cranky, jowly, stiff, and persnickety John McCain relished his role as the adversary. How happy and comfortable he appeared as the thunder at Obama's picnic, the tank full of water in Obama's Porsche, the jackhammer during Obama's nap.

Characters become what we want them to be. No one knows more than actors in a play that they are actors in a play. The debate is no different. Sure, it's a sleepy play, but the price is right, and, even better, the audience is big. McCain knew people were going to expect him to play the role of the aggressive underdog, and he wore the collar with pride. Similarly, Obama took direction to play the role of the contender with poise and confidence. The word "presidential" may have even been invoked once or twice during rehearsals.

If texts are about tension and counterpoise, the debate stuck to its guns: young vs. old; black vs. white; smooth vs. crotchety; jowels vs. ears; hope vs. experience. Thematically, this meant few surprises, just the regular resolution such plot points dissolve into.

So, then, if there is little to learn, what can we learn?

Well, we learned that we don't really want surprise or excitement in our politicians--especially in a time of economic and military crisis--we want predictability. We don't want a lyric poem or a literary novel; we want a light hour-long TV drama, like Monk or Grey's Anatomy. We want reassurance, and we don't want to be challenged. We want hope, sure, and perhaps even change--just not from us.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Poems Katie Couric Would Like: Brian Clements, "Basketball Benediction"

IN HONOR OF HER good work in the Sarah Palin interviews, TWR features another round of its smashing new series, "Poems Katie Couric Would Like." True, it's a basketball poem, but it's one that is funny, accessible, and sympathetic to the perils of aging. The poet, Brian Clements, incorporates long lines and lists of names reminiscent of Walt Whitman and Allen Ginsburg.

One of the many things I like about this poem is how Clements conflates the personal with the public. Friends (Anthony Headly & Tom/Pat) are just as present in the poet's memory as icons like Kareem Abdul Jabbar. Sometimes, nostalgia trumps celebrity.

Blogger is not a great tool for posting poems, but I hope the energy and expansiveness of Clements' text comes across.



BASKETBALL BENEDICTION

And soon will come the time, when the knees have taken on the
permanent aspect
of Willis Reed’s ankle forever frozen in stiff-legged memory

To wave goodbye to basketball… Goodbye! Goodbye to shin splints
and sweatsox up to here like the Ice Man used to wear with the short
shorts on top of those spindles knee up and coming at your chin like
Tony Headley’s elbows when he used to do his Moses Malone in the back yard (butt poke, elbow, straight to the board)

Goodbye to the blacktop right after Game 7 wishing just once for that kind of air or, hell, just to be able to play baseball as well as Jordan or
even Ainge though
I’m pretty sure I can golf as well as Barkley probably gamble better too

Goodbye to the turn-around to the baseline that I copied from Hakeem
when he was
Akeem Olajuwan in the old SWC I always thought Larry Michaux was a
bad
mofo and Clyde the Glide always smoother than shinola but never
showed
up when it mattered and the time I saw Guy Lewis in the lobby of the Parker Meridian, “Hey, Coach Lewis!” “Hey young man, how’re you?” he seemed a hell of a lot nicer
than on TV but never did he have as sour a puss as Old Abe Lemmons who must have been
born 80 years old with crabs up his ass

Goodbye to Weepy Simms so curly haired and sad faced he looked like Lenny Wilkens on
the side about to cry on Jack Sikma’s shoulder I don’t know a damned thing about
Lenny Wilkens personally but he always looked like he was ready to quit just
quit it all goodbye, goodbye, and goodbye

Goodbye to my 20-inch vertical leap and good riddance of Larry Bird his Indiana St. never
should have made it to the Final Four cheesy ass travel call when US Reed was
tripped let Bob Heaton come down and bump a fifteen footer around the rim,
fall lucky in I’d rather see Magic Fucking Johnson hit a half-court hook shot
every year to win the championship than Larry Bird a single time

Kareem! Abdul! Jabarr!

Which brings to mind Chris Jackson Mahmoud Abdul Raouf goodbye to him I miss his
jumper from the top of the key he was hot shit at LSU with Shaq
or was he before Shaq not great in the pros but I tried to pull
my feet up for a while like Chris Jackson Mahmoud Abdul
Raouf I don’t like to sing the national anthem either

Goodbye to the wristband and the sweatband and goodbye to Bill Walton of the similarly
gimpy knee I once heard Walton on TV mention Paul Arizin as though speaking
of an Avatar of Vishnu who the hell is Paul Arizin?

Goodbye to the clothesline, the nutgrab, the shortpull, the titty pinch. These all are your
legacy, dirty guy I played with in Binghamton, and yours as well, Kevin McHale!

Goodbye to the fantasy All-Star game we used to play on 4t St. in Sonny Campbell’s
driveway I barely knew how to play but I knew who the hell Wilt Chamberlain and
Rick Barry were and Barry Heinley was the tallest so he was Chamberlain and that
may have been an appropriate casting a few years later I saw him once
at the mall kissing two girls at once and whoever got picked last had to be Rick Barry
and shoot free throws underhanded (Goodbye to the underhanded free throw) an
old guy down the street used to come by and play when we needed one
and always wanted to be Jerry West

Kareem!
Abdul!

Jabbar!

Goodbye to the scattershot point guards I usually have to guard like Chris Haven or that
little guy I played against at the Boy’s Club who moved laterally across the lane
faster than I can lift a hand I got to see Tiny Archibald play his last year or two and
sometimes I imagine Hal Greer played that way though I also sometimes imagine Hal
Greer lumbering something like Rosie off the stage and onto the floor after Sirhan
Sirhan and shouting the gun

Goodbye Tom/Pat I know we played a few times though I can’t remember much about your
game except perhaps that you moved well without the ball and that you’d gun it up
from anywhere and that too soon you left Pistol Pat

Goodbye to 98 degrees Arkansas pickup games so sweaty you can’t pick up the ball so much
sweat in my eyes it took me a while to realize that the star of the UCA Bears was in
the game, kid named Scottie Pippen Goodbye Scottie—we all need
a Scottie Pippen

Goodbye to the pick and roll I don’t even have to put the names here you know who
they are unlike say Isaiah Thomas what the hell was so great about Isaiah Thomas if
he didn’t have Dumars and Laimbeer would he have been any better than Gary
Payton hell or Mookie Blaylock a one-time six category guy Goodbye Mookie
Blaylock formerly of Garland, Texas and namesake of a kid my wife taught in
first grade Goodbye Mookie!

Goodbye to the six foot eight guy with a pony tail a writer whose name I can’t remember
Patton or something like that the inevitable big guy who thinks he’s a shooting guard
and refuses to step foot in the paint as though the Admiral were down there just
waiting for his ass to come within ten feet I love that Goodbye wimpy big guys!


KAREEM!

ABDUL!



JABBAR!


Goodbye to the cocky big guy in the church league in Dallas who took pleasure in dunking in
a no-dunk church league I didn’t go to church but I did enjoy the church league
except for Big Daddy Diesel here come down among the mortals I wished Kevin
McHale had been around to punch him in the nuts even though it was a church league

Goodbye to the guy with a waist the size of half a gallon of milk who rose above me on a
breakaway in a pickup game at UT ball extended to the heavens like he held up the
sun and fired the ball through the net without touching the rim like a solar flash it was
a thing of beauty I always wondered what it would be like to be dunked on by Dr. J
Thank You skinny UT student and Goodbye!

Goodbye to the basketball politician, the basketball broadcaster, the basketball executive but
Goodbye too to the basketball dentist, the basketball plumber, the basketball maker of
tool and dye. In your minds and in mine you all are Earl the Pearl and Clyde Frazier
combined not really but it’s nice to say so Hey did you ever notice on Knicks games
that Clyde uses funny words Goodbye Clyde’s funny words

Goodbye to the little guy who used to block my shot every time I turned to the right you’d
think he was Bill Russell Goodbye to Bill Russell you seem like a very nice man I
would like to have had my shot packed by you and Goodbye to George Mikan you
too were probably pretty nice though in film your game looks like my Dad’s shooting
semihooks over the backboard I’m sure you never shot it over the backboard

And goodbye to all the other guys including the girls I ever played with I didn’t like some of
you but some of you I loved to see curling around a pick at the free throw line
ducking head down and shuffling toward the basket I didn’t even have to look just
knew you’d be there sweet that’s probably what it was like playing with Parrish or
Unseld or Hayes maybe even no not Ewing but KAREEM ABDUL JABAAR! there
are some other guys who were great but I’d feel dishonest mentioning them because I
never saw them play even on tape just saw them on Lectric Shave commercials or
HAVLICEK STOLE THE BALL! I’m sure Oscar Robertson must have been great
just look at those numbers but the Big O that fills my mind is Oliver Miller dishing to
a cutting Big Nasty Goodbye Big O and Big O Goodbye Big Nasty

And goodbye in the end to the bonehead move and the jubilation in its wake; if only in that
game in junior high when I scrambled on the floor and came up throwing to the
opposing coach I’d been the James Worthy and not the Fred Brown whole lives might
have been changed Goodbye, Fred Brown I’ll be with you in the annals of infamy
with my flat-footed jumper and my flag crew D and with Phi Slamma Jamma and the
New Orleans Jazz and with the greatest never to win big I’ll be there with you soon
Fred Brown and with the candy-ass Mavericks and the missed-chance Suns and with
sadsack C Webb in perpetual time out

Friday, October 3, 2008

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Paper Delivery: LeAnne Howe, Miko Kings

IN HONOR OF THE arrival of the MLB playoffs, the new Paper Delivery for October is the best baseball novel I've read in years: LeAnne Howe's Miko Kings.

Using letters, photographs, diary entries, film stills, time-travel, and veiled autobiography, Howe deploys a postmodern narrativity to make a provocative but compelling assertion: Indians invented baseball. The novel is too complicated, too layered, to capsulize easily here, but suffice it to say that Howe creates frames within frames, stories upon stories, rendered through many voices over many eras.

One segment of the novel tells the intertwined stories of Lena Coulter, a Choctaw writer, and Ezol Day, a progressive, artistic Choctaw postal clerk who lived in the early 1900s and who travels across the decades to visit Lena. When she was alive, Ezol was in love with a star player on the Miko Kings--an actual Choctaw baseball team that dominated the Indian leagues and even defeated the team of the Seventh Cavalrymen from Fort Sill, Oklahoma.

The story of Choctaw baseball, its connection to Choctaw culture, and American baseball’s debt to Choctaw “base and ball” is the subject of the second strain of Howe’s novel. Ezol appears in both sections, connecting both history and sport. She also functions as the moral compass of the novel. She not only understands the tribal impulses of baseball, she also foresees how Choctaw baseball will influence how the tribe moves forward into the future.

The future, at least for Lena, can't shake the shackles of the past. Lena, who has traveled the world but never felt centered, longs for information about her family and the Choctaw, a substantive root fastening her to a people and place. And, as a writer, she wants her own storying to intersect with Choctaw storying, but at present, all aspects feel fragmented. Near the novel’s end, Lena asks Ezol the reason for her groundlessness, to which Ezol responds: “Because when your mother died, you had no other real ancestors to turn to . . . I may not have been your blood grandmother—but I should have been. And I have always been with you in spirit. That is the true story I came to tell” (221).

As it turns out, it is Lena’s ability in the present to write about the past’s line through to the future that brings everything into right relation with each other. “As you know,” Ezol tells Lena, “I continually occupy myself with patterns and questions. The interpretation of time, the speed of love, the velocity of a meteor shower, or the time it takes for a small white ball to fly from the pitcher’s hand across home plate. These things still interest me. As you have always interested me, my girl” (221). Home plate is a double metaphor here. A place of arrival and completion that is both inside and outside of time, rooted to a place but with connections across all space.

Fans of baseball, fans of Native American fiction, and fans of time-traveling sci-fi will all find something in this novel to appreciate. Furthermore, aficionados of postmodern fiction's matrix-like structures, plurality of voices and non-linear narratives will also dig Howe's collage-like text. It's also just fun to de-bunk the myth of America by de-bunking the myth of America's Game. Somehow, through an invention of baseball, Indians engage in an inversion of conquest.

Would anything make Manny Ramirez happier?

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Reading the Palin/Couric Interview

TWR ENDED ITS PREVIOUS post with a claim that it had no interest in telling people who to vote for. In the days since Alaska governor Sarah Palin's interview with CBS anchor Katie Couric, TWR has changed its mind.

Before the interviews, we here at TWR headquarters were willing to entertain the notion that Governor Palin was capable and intelligent, if inexperienced and misguided. But after watching both segments of her interview with Couric, it's clear that the Alaska governor's dominoes are missing some dots.



As a semiotic text, the interview was a study in the politics of scrambling. Believing she was bolstered by her bump in the polls, her affiliation with McCain, and her righteousness, Governor Palin was no doubt convinced was fitted with a kind of protective armor a fellow cute female couldn't pierce. No Seymour Hirsch, no Sam Donaldson, Couric is about as far from a bulldog as one can get, and yet, even she found herself stifling growls and howls at some of Palin's remarks.

David Brooks, George Will and other conservative columnists have intimated that Palin should drop out of the race for the good of the GOP. And, most recently, the National Review's Kathleen Parker argues that even issues of gender have to take back seat in this regard:

Only Palin can save McCain, her party, and the country she loves. She can bow out for personal reasons, perhaps because she wants to spend more time with her newborn. No one would criticize a mother who puts her family first.

On one hand, it's easy to understand why conservatives--even middle of the road Americans--might "like" Ms. Palin. They see themselves in her, and in so doing, believe that she will represent their interests. But, that's what congress is for. The president and vice-president must lead. They must articulate, and they must envision. Knee-deep in a disastrous war and on the brink of the most cataclysmic financial shock wave in nearly a century, it's obvious what the toll can be when one's leaders are neither articulate nor visionary.

When one reads the interview, one sees not guile, nor even, really, scary conservatism. One sees an amateur. One sees fear, and one sees a narrowness of scope. Capable neither of thinking through an issue or constructing a persona that would command respect in the face of uncertainty, Ms. Palin made thousands of hearts sink as viewers imagined her in high-level talks with foreign leaders or, even worse, in the chambers of the senate. Folksy affability should not be a criterion for president. The stakes are too high.

In the debate on Friday, John McCain claimed he does not need on the job training. Good thing, because his running mate does.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Reading the Palin Swag


WHAT'S THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN Palin swag and a pit bull? One wears you out; the other, you'd never actually wear out.

And yet, the world's speediest entrepreneurs are hoping to cash in at the Palin picnic. The question is, are the ants already marching toward the cupcakes? Sure, our friends over at SemiObama are doing a fine job reading images of the Democratic candidate in popular culture, but who is paying attention to Saracudda?

To be sure, the McCain buttons, t-shirts, and tote bags were among the lamest since the Michael Dukakis gimme caps, but the addition of Alaska governor Sarah Palin to the ticket has put the t & a back in "political."

To wit:

The t-shirt to the right is a little dirty, in part because it plays off of the geeky fantasy of the naughty librarian with that buttoned-up outfit, the neo-hair bun, and the nerdy glasses. But, the shirt's double entendre is notably more suggestive than your typical political bumper sticker.

That said, the series of MILF and VPILF options take this one step further.

I'm almost never shocked, but I have to say, these particular products caught me off guard. I was surprised how quickly Palin's image has been sexualized--much more than Hillary Clinton, for whom sex, sexuality, and the discourse of sexuality has long been part of her macro political persona (whether she's liked it or not). Interesting also is how much more eroticized the Alaska governor has been than Cindy McCain or Michelle Obama, both of whom are attractive women in positions of power.

The button to the left, like the one above, also points to another mystifying tendency--the need to Photoshop Governor Palin's face and beehive onto a lingerie model's body. If she's so naturally attractive, why falsify or fake her comeliness? I wonder if both the MILF/VPILF and the Photoshopping are a way of humiliating her, reminding her and everyone else she can still be objectified.

A similar thing might be going on in this t-shirt as well. Dogs, lipstick, type A moms, bitches . . . I don't know. I may be reading too much into it, but I don't think so.

To be sure, part of the fun of Palin in pop culture is the newness of gender on the vice-presidential ticket in this age of fast images, visual media, and buzzy buzz. There is so much to make fun of, so many puns, so much discourse to riff on, comment on, and riff on again. So many lines to repeat, edit, and culturize; so many jokes. So many comments about Tina Fey . . .

The best of the lot also plays with gender but of a gendered strength from a different era. Here, sexuality is less a weapon than it is potential.

TWR has no interest in telling people how to vote, but we're not sure if anyone should take Governor Palin's candidacy for president seriously. Ultimately, we wonder if the comic, over-sexualized, destabilizing images above don't also make the same argument.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Essay Review of the Salt Earthworks Series


HOW IS IT THAT laziness sidles up to TWR yet again? We apologize for substituing a rather boring link for the standard Tuesday post, but we also want to drive traffic to the San Francisco Chronicle Book Review--an excellent review edited by Oscar Villalon--that has had to cut back the number of pages devoted to books reviews.

Today's link is an essay penned by one of the staff members here at TWR. It is a short review of the fabulous Earthworks series, put out by Salt Publishing. This series, edited by Janet McAdams at Kenyon College, is the first series of books of poems written by contemporary American Indian poets. In my mind, it is one of the most important poetry projects in the United States.

The essay was also picked up by Poetry Daily (thanks to Brian Clements for that head's up).

Finally, here is a link to the Earthworks site itself.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Grading John McCain's Speech


THERE IS A SUBTLE but important distinction between winning and victory.

Generalizations are tricky, but, by and large, Democrats like winning; Republicans like victory. To be victorious is to triumph, and without question, there is a palpable air of triumphalism at the Republican convention. As a friend noted last night when he called to talk about Sarah Palin's speech, Republicans are uncommonly attached to the "U-S-A" chant, which has become a kind of mantra for American supremacy. Nationalism or Patriotism--it's often hard to tell the difference.

These, and Sentator McCains jowls, are the distractions one endures when one watches McCain speak rather than read the transcript. For better or worse, the overfed, over-eager audience and their boos and cheers affect not just the rhythms of McCain's text but its impact. To be fair, the convention speech is a tough gig. Punctuated by cranky protesters, applause, jeers, and howls of support, it's hard to build and sustain momentum, since the very design of such speeches arrange themselves to pause for dramatic sound bytes and thunderous applause--the aural semiotics of victory.

As a speech, McCain's text was less bitchy than Palin's and less humorous. But, it was more specific. He actually proposed things--it wasn't policy he put forth but reassurance.

Most notable, though, was his thinly veiled critique of the Bush administration's low points, the transgressions of Republicans like Jack Abramoff, and the hardness of Karl Rove and Dick Cheney (though none were mentioned by name). To his credit, he acknowledged that in many ways, Republicans have failed.

As New York Times reporter David D. Kirkpatrick has noted, no politician has gotten more mileage out of the apology than McCain, and tonight, McCain used that oft-ignored rhetorical device as a kind of trampoline to catapult him over the dismal record of George W. Bush. Short on Obama insults and long on pro-military jargoning, McCain argued that the disease of the Iraq war has infected all aspects of American life. Curing that ill--which, he implied, he is best able to do because of his military background--will cure America's ills.

Toward the end, McCain's crescendos of "fight, fight, fight" got the already puffy crowd even more frothy. Was that the same John McCain of 2000?

Hinging your entire platform on Iraq is packing a lot of bullets into one holster. What if Americans are tired of fighting? What if they want to start talking?

As it turns out, it wasn't the McCain of 2000. That McCain would not have been a shill for the mainstream Republican platform. That McCain would not have foregrounded drilling in Alaska, school vouchers, and blindly cutting taxes. That McCain would not have chosen a anti-choice, creationist running mate. In this sense, his speech was not nearly as maverick-ish as it could or should have been. It did not appeal to moderates or independents, and it said absolutely nothing about race, gender, or class.

For that reason, I give his speech a C. He gets a B for his denture-rattling close but a D for lame policy, easy cliches, and that drowsy portion halfway through when I wanted to switch over to college football.

Did he galvanize hardcore Republicans? Probably. Did he convince people on the fence? Probably.

He convinced them victory is likely going to be found in Obama.