Tuesday, April 29, 2008

The Final Day of National Poetry Month Post: The Salt Earthworks Series

SINCE I BEGAN NATIONAL Poetry Month with a post on poetry and race, it seemed fitting to end with that topic as well. This time, though, the subject is a series of books, rather than a single collection. Salt Publishing, a great press whose main office is located in the U.K., recently launched a poetry series devoted to contemporary American Indian poetry. Edited by poet and scholar Janet McAdams and featuring books by LeAnne Howe, A. A. Hedge Coke, Heid Erdrich, Diane Glancy, Deborah Miranda, Gordon Henry, and Carter Revard, the Earthworks Series has emerged as the most important poetry series in the United States this century--maybe the most significant since the Pitt Poetry Series began three decades ago.

There are many things to celebrate about this series.

First, it establishes contemporary American Indian poetry as a canon-making genre. A potential criticism of the series might be that it further segregates poetry by Anglo writers and writers of color, but I would argue that this series, when taken as a whole, offers a panoramic view of recent Native poetry, enabling readers not familiar with such work to better see how it may fit in to the larger sweep of "American Poetry." Stumbling across a random book of poems by an author here or there may not tell you much, but this series allows Native poets to paint in broad strokes on the canvas that is Native discourse.

Second, Salt keeps its books in print and never charges reprint fees for other publications and anthologies. This last point is, in some ways, the most important. As someone who has to reprint a lot of poems for various publications, paying copyright and reprint fees can be prohibitive. Since Salt allows those publishing anthologies and criticism to publish Salt works free of charge, I predict more and more poems from this series will find readers.

Additionally, the series is just cool. The covers are artistic, evocative, and metaphorical without stereotyping or sentimentalizing. Several of the books have won or been shortlisted for awards. LeAnne Howe's hilarious Evidence of Red, won the 2006 Oklahoma Book Award for poetry. (Bonus: a trip to the website, (click above) takes you to the Salt page where you can view a photo of Howe receiving her award while doing her best impersonation of her stoned undergraduates). Heid Erdrich's book, a meditation on love, family, and maternity, was a finalist for the Minnesota Book Awards. Most importantly, the series introduces new writers by publishing young poets whose names are not yet well known, like James Thomas Stevens, Cat Ruiz, and Phillip Carroll Morgan, whose collection, The Fork-in-the Road Indian Poetry Store won the Native Writers Circle of the Americas First Book Award.

Down the road, it will be important for someone to write about why this collection exits, what, exactly, its contribution is to American Letters, what, if anything, the totality of the books argue about American poetry and Native American realities, and why a series of Native American poetry is published by a British Press. But, for now, with the ghost of National Poetry Month settling in for a long nap, we should just celebrate that this fine collection is out there working this earth.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Southwest Semiotics: Native American Roadside Texts

WITHOUT QUESTION, THE AMERICAN West is one large, complicated text, ripe for any number of readings. With its mythology of "free" land, the promise of gold, virgin wilderness, and the vistas of the Rockies and the Sierras, the West has enjoyed decades of a kind of cultural free pass. The Southwest, on the other hand, The West's younger troublemaking brother, has its own mythology, but nothing quite as grand as its bigger sibling. The main iconography of the Southwest's myth--for better or worse--is all things Indian. On one hand, the pervasiveness of Indian imagery reminds Americans passing through Native lands that Indians are still here. They are alive, well, and doing just fine. On the other hand, the stereotyping--especially among roadside statues and sculptures--continues to rankle.

For example, the Chief above giving the "Howe" greeting looms out front of Howe Chevrolet in Clinton, Oklahoma, just off of Route 66 and Interstate 40. It's been there for as long as I can remember, and it stands as the car dealership's main visual cue. But, it also reminds too much of the painful cigar store Indian, which (even if not intentional) evokes images of the stoic, "wooden," passive, and defeatable Indian. Even though this particular guy looks ready for the WWF, the idea that he is the icon for used Pontiacs and Cherokees is just too much.

The sign and statue to the left stands outside the Cherokee Restaurant and Trading Post near Hinton, Oklahoma. This guy, too, seems a bit stiff, but at least he is armed for battle. I'm not at all convinced he's wearing traditional Cherokee clothes, and again, he's bare-chested. I'm still waiting to see a statue of an Indian holding a book, looking through a microscope, sitting in a stately chair, or holding hands with a white woman. The problem with images like these is their reductiveness--it limits how we see Indians. We think we're smart enough not to equate these images with true Indianness, but if these are the only representations of Indians most Americans see, aside from the Land O' Lakes gal and the American Spirit tobacco guy and the Washington Redskins mascot and the Atlanta Braves mascot and the Florida State Seminoles mascot . . .well, you get the idea . . .

The collection of arrows surrounding the visitors to this Gallup, New Mexico gas station and convenience store also reinforces the Indian-as-warrior motif, though, with a better sense of humor. Again, rather than being reminded of the many contributions American Indians have made to American culture, the same old brave/savage notion gets reinscribed one more time. To be sure, the arrows are bright and fun and kind of cool the way they appear to have been lobbed from the outcroppings in just to hem in unsuspecting drivers in need of fuel, big cokes, and dream catchers, but very quickly, they can lose their campy charm.

You have to admit, the teepee remains one of the most resilient Indian texts. Even here, in Arizona, where no one really lived in teepees, they perform strong semiotic work. When coupled with the "Geronimo" sign, it's really a twin billing of weirdness. At least Geronimo, who was Chiricahua Apache, was born in what is now Arizona (then, Mexico). But the teepes? The designs? Teepees as icons of Indianness are nothing new. From Oklahoma to Arizona all the way up to Washington, there are roadside teepees, restaurant teepees, and even hotel teepees. Yes, they are everywhere, but, their ubiquity doesn't make them good.

Of course, no one is accusing any of the proprieters of racism, but it is unlikely drivers in the Deep South would see similarly caricatured statues of African American slaves or visitors to Brooklyn see hulking likenesses of Jews. So, the question remains--why is it okay to caricature Indians?

While most would agree that these kinds of Indian texts play with stereotypes and are a bit tacky or campy, it becomes more problematic with images like "The Guardian," another bare-chested Indian warrior who sits not along the road but atop the rotunda of the Oklahoma State Capitol building . . .

Friday, April 18, 2008

John Yoo and Tenure: A Guest Post by Greg Barnhisel

MANY OF THE READERS of The Weekly Rader are academics, have connections to academia or are interested in the world of academia and ideas. In fact, The Weekly Rader and indeed, the entire blogosphere, are primarily about freedom of expression. The recent calls for the termination of conservative UC-Berkeley professor John Yoo have caused an interesting rift among right and left wingers both inside and outside the academy.

Greg Barnhisel, our guest post-er, is an assistant professor at Duquesne University, where he teaches in the English Department. As a scholar of Ezra Pound and American poetry during the Cold War, he is interested in issues of free speech and academic freedom, which the Yoo case has is spades, hearts, clubs, and diamonds.

A Guest Post by Greg Barnhisel

Who are these leftists and lawyers calling for Berkeley to fire John Yoo? What are they thinking? This logic appears to come from the same place as did Hillary’s vote on the Iraq war—“I’ll give them this authority, and I’m CERTAIN it’ll never come back to bite me in the ass.” To recap: John Yoo, the Justice Department functionary who wrote what have become known as the “torture memos," now has returned to his “happily” (this sneering adjective tends to accompany calls for his dismissal) tenured teaching post at Boalt Hall, Berkeley’s law school.

While working at Justice, Yoo sketched out, in what is both repugnant and faulty reasoning, an argument that the Bush administration has since used to try and immunize themselves from legal punishment for torturing prisoners. It’s the old “in a time of war, no law applies to the commander-in-chief” argument that the administration has been using since 2002, and basically Addington and others in the OVP wanted someone in Justice to provide them with an ostensibly “outside” legal opinion sanctioning what they wanted to do. Yoo, providing a model of independence that would later be taken up by Fredo Gonzalez, was pleased to serve.

I’m not a legal expert and thus I rely on the good work of those, such as Glenn Greenwald, who have pointed out that Yoo’s actual scholarship is pretty shoddy; he was acting entirely as an enabler to policies that were going to be pursued anyway. (If anyone’s a “little Eichmann” here, it’s Yoo.) I’m happy to hear that Yoo is back at Berkeley, in fact; he’ll do less damage there. Notwithstanding my disgust at Yoo’s puppy-dog enthusiasm to provide legal justification for the President’s right to crush a small boy’s testicles, I have been quite surprised by the vehement calls by many on the left for Yoo’s job.

Their argument, as I understand it, relies on two claims: 1) Yoo has the right to make whatever arguments he wants, but his legal advice has led directly to a “culture of torture” perpetuated by the Administration, and this—ideas leading to objectively repugnant acts—transcends the latitude of “academic freedom”; 2) and this is Ezra Klein of THE AMERICAN PROSPECT speaking

“tenure doesn't protect those with unpopular ideas, it just makes them harder to fire, and thus raises how unpopular an idea has to be before it merits termination. So on the one hand, firing someone with crackpot notions about tax cuts paying for themselves isn't really worth the trouble. On the other hand, if, say, Greg Mankiw called for the extermination of the Jews tomorrow, Harvard and MIT would direct their physics departments to come together and create a time machine in order to help them fire Mankiw last week. The question with Yoo isn't whether he's protected by tenure, but whether his claims are so self-evidently unconstitutional, and so morally odious, as to make firing him worth the trouble.”

I’m not sure what Klein is arguing, besides “Yoo’s ideas are REALLY awful, and this should override his guarantees of academic freedom.” Klein appears not to understand either what tenure is or the history of threats to tenure in this country. (The National Lawyers Guild have a different, and I think slightly better argument, which is that Yoo should be disbarred, which I believe would then exclude him from teaching law.) Boalt Hall Dean Christopher Edley posted a good statement on the issue, pointing out that “Assuming one believes as I do that Professor Yoo offered bad ideas and even worse advice during his government service, that judgment alone would not warrant dismissal or even a potentially chilling inquiry. As a legal matter, the test here is the relevant excerpt from the "General University Policy Regarding Academic Appointees," adopted for the 10-campus University of California by both the system-wide Academic Senate and the Board of Regents:
Types of unacceptable conduct: … Commission of a criminal act which has led to conviction in a court of law and which clearly demonstrates unfitness to continue as a member of the faculty. [Academic Personnel Manual sec. 015].” Good.

But what’s particularly disturbing to me is the scary blindness shown by any leftist who wants a tenured professor fired because of his or her beliefs. Just two years ago, David Horowitz was peddling his “Academic Bill of Rights” here in Pennsylvania, a smokescreen for ideological tests for profs (which would result in the exclusion and firing of most professors who tended to the left). The primary argument that the right makes about academia is that its faculty is out of the mainstream, that its ideas don’t reflect general societal consensus in America today, and that it is a haven of lefty ideas. Ward Churchill was a wonderful figure for them—scary, loudmouthed, insufficiently respectful of a national wound—but it is very clear that people like Horowitz would be happy to clean the leftists out of universities, using criteria based on the political views of the faculty. Use these criteria to fire Yoo, open this door, and I foresee a time when every last Marxist in every last English department at every last state university will be looking for a new job.

I graduated from two schools that ran leftist professors out during the McCarthy years, so I’m sensitive to this. And I am as furious at Yoo, and as hopeful that the Bush administration will face war-crimes charges, as anyone. But attempting to accomplish this by undermining academic freedom is a gravely misled way to show our revulsion at what Yoo helped create.

Monday, April 14, 2008

When Memoirists Lie: Revisiting the Margaret B. Jones Controversey

ONE THING IS FOR sure, we may hate fraud, but we are attracted to it. In yet another example of literary fraudulence, Margaret Seltzer’s (aka Margaret B. Jones) recently exposed memoir, Love and Consequences, continues to make the news. It also continues to delight and anger various bodies in the blogosphere. At the University of San Francisco, I teach a class called "Ethics, Writing, and Culture," with a specific section on ethics and autobiography; so this issue is particularly interesting to me.

On March 16, I published an Op-Ed piece on the Seltzer/Jones controversy in some of the Bay Area News Group papers, that includes the Oakland Tribune and San Mateo Times. Below is a shorter, edited, more blog-friendly version of that piece.


No one who watched Oprah Winfrey confront James Frey will forget Ms. Winfrey’s outrage, disappointment, and, in particular, her overwhelming sense of betrayal over the fact that Frye’s memoir, A Million Little Pieces, turned out to be a thousand little lies. Though Ms. Seltzer’s fabrications were exposed last week before millions of readers could fully internalize her story of growing up in a gang-ridden Los Angeles foster home, there was notable furor over yet another false memoir. The New York Times, for example, ran the story on the front page of the newspaper’s web edition, to be followed by pieces in USA Today, Slate, and coverage by NPR, all of which underscored the severity of Ms. Seltzer’s transgression.

Less interesting than the details of Seltzer's fictitious memoir are the questions such falsehood raises and the emotions it elicits. Why, for example, do memoirists lie? What is at stake when they do? And, even more importantly, if we lie about our own life story now and then, why do readers feel so hurt when authors lie about theirs?

One reason memoirists fib is the simple fact that most people live unremarkable lives, and those very rarely translate into captivating memoirs. To wit, Ms. Seltzer’s and Mr. Frey’s tales of drugs, violence, addiction, mixed-blood ethnicity, gang life, and foster homes pretty much hit all of the hot button topics of contemporary culture. Quiet memoirs about a life of introspection and illumination don’t sell; it’s the story about bottoming out, about personal and societal violence, about grappling with the demons of identity, abuse, and shame that speak to the people who relate to those stories and who are voyeuristically drawn to them. We love the shocking memoir because another’s reality is often more appealing (or revolting) than our own.

In their memoirs, Ms. Seltzer and Mr. Frey engage in what I call “edited reality”-- a cut and pasted mix of fact and fiction whose strongest advocate is reality TV. More than authorial license or shock value, edited reality may lie at the core of these authors’ justifications to craft an invented world. In the most popular contemporary texts, truth is edited to create a more exciting truth. Acting has become more authentic than authenticity. Publishers want fact over fiction, drama over poetry. Our culture is on reality overload. Thus, a bizarre formula begins to emerge: demand for reality + advocated edited reality = fake memoirs.

The question remains, though, if television programs can get away with it, why can’t authors?

Old school though it may be, we still hold print to a higher standard of ethics than any other media. Most of us assume television is invented (that’s one reason we like it), but we expect serious journalism and literary publishing to tell us the truth. Something about the printed nature of the written word, its fixed nature, its immutability, demands an ethical code. This is true for memoirs and for this very publication. When that is broken, so is the trust the publishing world relies on.

The main reason readers feel betrayed by false memoirs it's due to the special relationship between reader and author. Oprah felt *personally* let down by James Frey. When was the last time anyone felt personally betrayed by Big Brother? We don’t care if TV lies to us because we don’t know a TV show’s author. Unlike a novel, which we assume mixes fact with fiction, we come to memoirs having made a silent pact with the author—you give me truth and candor, and I’ll let you into my life.

Ultimately, what is at stake when memoirists invent their lives is the realization that our emotional reaction to their story, like the promise that one life may enlighten another, could also be an illusion.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Call for Comedy: Oklahoma Decides NOT to Arm College Students

EVEN THOUGH IT COULD have set the stage for some exciting movies and even more tragedy-based news coverage in Oklahoma (the state of my home town), the Oklahoma State Senate, in its infinite wisdom, decided late last week not to hear a controversial bill that would allow certain people to carry concealed weapons on college campuses. The bill was put forth by spunky young legislator Jason Murphey, a Republican from Guthrie, who has threatened to pop a cap in any lawmaker who stands in the way of the bill's passage.

Despite objections by educators, administrators, and students, the Oklahoma House of Representatives approved the bill back in March (by a vote of 65-36) that would enable students and faculty members to carry a concealed weapon into their classes who are
- active military members;
- or were honorably discharged from the military, National Guard or Reserves;
- or had received at least 72 hours of training from the agency that trains Oklahoma law officers.

As a former Dean in the College of Arts and Sciences who interviewed, tried to hire, and did hire dozens of faculty members, I assure all readers that it would have been next to impossible to hire talented faculty if such a law were in place here. Also, having spent a lot of time working with our office of admissions, I'm also quite certain such a law would dramatically hurt student admissions to USF. In short, such a law would have the opposite effect it was intended to have--for any college under its purview, the law would mow down the university's academic climate and reputation.

True, such a bill is unlikely in California, but it is not far fetched to imagine a similar law passed in other states in the West, the Midwest, and the South. Well-meaning lawmakers no doubt think laws like this arm students against those who might go on shooting sprees on college campuses. However, this law would have allowed Timothy McVeigh, the man responsible for the Oklahoma City Bombing, since he was a military veteran, to pack heat in his physics class. Woe to the unpopular professor to busts out a pop quiz in Trig the day after Spring Break . . .

An indication of America's anxiety about guns is the deficit of appropriate humor about gun violence, carrying guns, and even gun culture. No one hates an earnest blog post more than me, but it's difficult to strike the right note when writing about potential shooting sprees. My joke above was as close as I'll get; we are all still a tad shaken by the recent shootings on campuses, which should be a site of protest but not massacres.

Rather than crack wise about gun culture, it might be prudent to include here a passing observation that right-wing reactionaries tend to want to combat violence with the accoutrement of violence. If we want to curtail violence on college campuses, the bizarre notion of arming students is just a band-aid. It's a quick, easy solution that plays well to conservatives and the gun lobby, but no one really thinks it will do anything but cause more violence and more anxiety.

Ending violence among young people requires a cultural procedure (not merely a band-aid) that stops violence at the root. Like a staph infection, it's a systemic problem, not an abrasion. So, even if popular culture has not yet provided a language of humor for guns, perhaps it can soon provide the humor needed to fully lampoon those who think the militarization of institutions of learning, liberation, service, and inquiry is the American way.

Professors and writers and educators and administrators who enjoy the reputation of respect and influence should use their rhetorical tools to shape public discourse about this issue. In the meantime, I invite all readers to write in with either nicknames or caricatures of Representative Murphey.

Winning suggestions will appear in a later post!

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Romance + Reading = ?

"IN LITERATURE AS IN LOVE," writes French author Andre Maurois, "we are astonished at what is chosen by others."


In last week's essay for the New York Times Book Review, "It's Not You, It's Your Books," Rachel Donadio explores the nexus of these two great obsessions--literature and love. Her premise--which has gotten a surprising amount of attention, including a stint on NPR's "Talk of the Nation"--is that literary taste can be a romantic deal breaker. Donadio weaves in and out of quotes from writers and readers who have ended relationships based on a romantic object's taste for distasteful writers (like Ayn Rand). According to Donadio, when the literary pieces of a relationship don't fit together, it could be an indicator that the entire relationship is itself a puzzle destined for incompleteness.

There is no question that in the world of Match.com (and even cooler sites like Salon/Nerve), who you like is often filtered through what you like. This is uber dreamy for book-o-philes for whom books are never just books but windows, signposts, flagpoles, EKGs--evidence of beauty, interest, loyalties, and intellectual activity.

For better or worse, other aspects of popular culture don't seem to share literature's promise of transcendence. In the book (and film version of) High Fidelity, music and musical tastes are a barometer for coolness, but it's unlikely Nick Hornby would be presumptuous enough to argue that preferring R.E.M. over Creed will ensure romantic bliss. Sure, indy film lovers and devotees of cinema bond over celluloid, but could adoring movies like Titanic or Forrest Gump really be enough to end a relationship? What about fans of reality TV?

Book lovers, however, are different; at least in terms of literature. Our society has fostered the assumption for some time now that good novels, poems, plays and essays transcend the commonplace, elevating their readers to a level of ethereal specialness. Whether it's true or not, such a stance is unabashedly romantic. Thus, when you marry the romance of books with the romance of romance, you arrive at a perfect storm of romance. Believe it or not, such a storm can often rain on the parade of actual love and day-to-day living.

Not long ago, two undergraduates in one of my classes fell in love with each other while we were reading Love in the Time of Cholera. They each loved the book so much, and they loved that each other loved the book. They believed, as many of us do, that the two loves are equal, interdependent, and eternal. The great dream for those who have fallen in love with books is that their mate will ultimately do for their lives what books have done--give it meaning, wholeness, reciprocity. We tend to think, whether it is realistic or not, that if one identifies or admires the values and qualities of a piece of literature, then s/he will likely embody (or seek to embody) those values and qualities. In short, they will become like the books they admire. But, as many of us have discovered, that rarely happens.

To wit, in the British author Alain de Botton's charming On Love: A Novel, the love-sick protagonist muses how his girlfriend who has such good taste in books can have such bad taste in shoes. He's shocked that someone whose aesthetic scale lines up with x can, at the same time, be drawn to y. Love, however, like literature, is anything but a formula. Or, put a different way, literary desires don't necessarily add up to romantic desires.

Much of the best literature is about enjoying the simple pleasures of love, the richness of family life, the emptiness of obsession, and the daily tedium made less tedious by the kindness of a partner or spouse. The love of good literature may not be much different than the love of triathlons, stamp collecting, bird watching, gardening, wine collecting or, for that matter, the love of bad books. What an avid reader tells us is what all of these other activities tell us--that the person is an engaged member of society, an active participant in the great big text that is this human world.

Doesn't mean you can't buy them of book of Wallace Stevens poems though . . .