Wednesday, January 28, 2009

What Would You Order for Your Last Meal?

SAN FRANCISCO ARTIST AND ACTIVIST Richard Kamler has long been involved in advocating for the rights of those on death row. Some of his best work is The Waiting Room series which looks at the accoutrement of capital punishment.

For this project, Kamler fashioned lead versions of last meal requests from 17 inmates in the state of Texas. Etched into each tray is the name of the inmate and their date of execution. Each tray is 11" x 17" and weighty--both literally and metaphorically.

A new blog, The Last Meal, asks readers what they would order for their last meal.

So far, there are only ten comments, but I suspect that will grow. I wonder also if the gravity of the site will temper the otherwise uncontrollable urge of glibness.

We'll see . . .

Sunday, January 25, 2009

First 100 Days Poem Site

POEMS FOR THE FIRST 100 Days is a very smart new blog begun by Rachel Zucker and Arielle Greenberg just a few days ago. It is slated to publish a new poem every day for the next 100 days about the new administration.

This may be the most exciting conflation of contemporary American poetry and contemporary American politics in a long time.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

More on Elizabeth Alexander's "Praise Song for the Day"

SINCE TWR'S POST ABOUT Elizabeth Alexander's inaugural poem, "Praise Song for the Day," I've been fielding emails that say things like: "I disagree with you. I liked Alexander's poem."

I'm not sure why readers thought I disliked the poem. Even the part of my reading that appeared in the Times highlighted what I thought worked well.

For the record, I, too, liked the poem. It's a good poem--humble and quiet, elegant and introspective. Cadenced well and dotted with some lovely internal rhymes, the poem is more than competent. When she writes, "Say it plain," she's talking both to us and herself, giving us an indication of the work she wants her poem and her voice to do.

My main observation about the poem--and this is not a critique--is that it lacks ambition. To be sure, it's nearly impossible to write a poem commensurate with the spectacle and significance of a presidential inauguration. Especially this one. But, I would say that the poem didn't stretch as much as it might. It tried hard to be accessible and poetic at the same time, and it succeeded. Ultimately, it may have been more effective than memorable.

This would be in keeping with Alexander's writerly ego. It seems obvious to me that she did not want to detract from the importance of the event, to out rhetoric the new president, himself so poetic. She indicates as much in her funny interview with Steven Colbert:

Miller Williams' poem for the second Clinton inaugural has not emerged as a particularly memorable poem, though it was also a strong effort. We'll have to see if Alexander's poem rides the waves of history like his or Angelou's. What is most important, though, is that her poem, like Obama's speech, is call for action, attentiveness, and answerability. She did a great job of showing why poems can and should be part of America's political and cultural discourse.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Transcript of Elizabeth Alexander's Inaugural Poem

Praise song for the day.

Each day we go about our business, walking past each other, catching each others' eyes or not, about to speak or speaking. All about us is noise. All about us is noise and bramble, thorn and din, each one of our ancestors on our tongues. Someone is stitching up a hem, darning a hole in a uniform, patching a tire, repairing the things in need of repair.

Someone is trying to make music somewhere with a pair of wooden spoons on an oil drum with cello, boom box, harmonica, voice.

A woman and her son wait for the bus.

A farmer considers the changing sky; A teacher says, "Take out your pencils. Begin."

We encounter each other in words, words spiny or smooth, whispered or declaimed; words to consider, reconsider.

We cross dirt roads and highways that mark the will of someone and then others who said, "I need to see what's on the other side; I know there's something better down the road."

We need to find a place where we are safe; We walk into that which we cannot yet see.

Say it plain, that many have died for this day. Sing the names of the dead who brought us here, who laid the train tracks, raised the bridges, picked the cotton and the lettuce, built brick by brick the glittering edifices they would then keep clean and work inside of.

Praise song for struggle; praise song for the day. Praise song for every hand-lettered sign; The figuring it out at kitchen tables.

Some live by "Love thy neighbor as thy self."

Others by first do no harm, or take no more than you need.

What if the mightiest word is love, love beyond marital, filial, national. Love that casts a widening pool of light. Love with no need to preempt grievance.

In today's sharp sparkle, this winter air, anything can be made, any sentence begun.

On the brink, on the brim, on the cusp -- praise song for walking forward in that light.

Thanks to the New York Times and CQ Transcriptions

A Quick Reaction to the Inaugural Poem

TWR DOESN'T NORMALLY LIVE blog, but we thought today's inaugural poem warranted immediacy.

We don't have the full text of the poem in front of us, but we found it fine. It lacked punch, linguistic and thematic gravitas, but then again, compared to the drama and high rhetoric of the campaign, even President Obama's inaugural speech glided low. Both Alexander's poem and Obama's speech were measured. Neither went for the "Ask not" or "The only thing to fear" moment; they sought commonality and connection, they evinced humility.

Interestingly, both Obama and Alexander took this opportunity to imbue their moments with pragmatism. Neither were particularly poetic. They laid out plans, they sketched blueprints, they wrote menus.

The best moment in Alexander's poem may have been her catalogue of professions (teacher, farmer) who, in going about their business embodied the practice of everyday poetry. Echoing Whitman, William Carlos Williams and Langston Hughes, Alexander also invoked Angelou toward the end of her poem, "On the brink, the brim, the cusp," suggesting the optimism sitting, not so patiently, on the nation's tongue.

Lift Every Voice and Sing

The inaugural benediction by Rev. Joseph E. Lowery began with the final stanza of a great poem by James Weldon Johnson. The full text is below:


James Weldon Johnson (1871-1938)

    Lift every voice and sing
    Till earth and heaven ring,
    Ring with the harmonies of Liberty;
    Let our rejoicing rise
    High as the listening skies,
    Let it resound loud as the rolling sea.
    Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us,
    Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us,
    Facing the rising sun of our new day begun
    Let us march on till victory is won.

    Stony the road we trod,
    Bitter the chastening rod,
    Felt in the days when hope unborn had died;
    Yet with a steady beat,
    Have not our weary feet
    Come to the place for which our fathers sighed?
    We have come over a way that with tears has been watered,
    We have come, treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered,
    Out from the gloomy past,
    Till now we stand at last
    Where the white gleam of our bright star is cast.

    God of our weary years,
    God of our silent tears,
    Thou who has brought us thus far on the way;
    Thou who has by Thy might
    Led us into the light,
    Keep us forever in the path, we pray.
    Lest our feet stray from the places, our God, where we met Thee,
    Lest, our hearts drunk with the wine of the world, we forget Thee;
    Shadowed beneath Thy hand,
    May we forever stand.
    True to our God,
    True to our native land.

TWR on Obama and Pop Culture

TWR takes this Tuesday off to celebrate the inauguration and prepare for the inaugural poem. Lazy and self-important, he offers instead a link to Dan DeLuca's column in Sunday's Philadelphia Inquirer partially devoted to SemiObama--the joint project of TWR and Jonathan Silverman.

Check back later in the day for reactions to Elizabeth Alexander's poem!

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Sarah Palin Invites TWR to Alaska!

LOYAL READERS OF TWR, will remember a time in the glorious past when the box to the right encouraged readers to subscribe to The Weekly Rader because Sarah Palin does. Well, to our great surprise, TWR's devotion to the former veep candidate curried favor with the good governor--we've been invited to Alaska!

And, if that isn't enough, Sarah herself is throwing in a free travel guide.

Out of humility, I didn't want to let on that the governor and I were on a first name basis, or that her pet name for me was "Neighbor" (an inside joke referencing my days living in Russia). But, now that her political future is "stable" for the time being, and no accusations of conflict of interest can be leveled at either of us, there is no reason to keep our "relationship" private any longer.

How long will I be in Alaska? Who hasn't asked that question?

Rest assured, I'll be sure to post plenty of photos of Wasilla, that bridge, and all of the helicopter/moose chases I see. Speaking of which, in the nature of full disclosure, I suppose I should mention that "watchable wildlife" is code for "in front of bulls eye in pen." I'll also post pictures of all my trophies.

Best of all, I understand my suggestion for the new motto for the state capitol has been approved. When I'm there, expect a public unveiling of official t-shirts, bumper stickers, stocking caps, and dog sweaters sporting: "Juneau Juneau like I know Juneau?"

Monday, January 12, 2009

Interview with Thomas Lynch

In a world of hyphenated descriptors, Thomas Lynch has to have one of the oddest: mortician-poet. An author of three collections of poems and two books of non-fiction, including the American Book Award winning The Undertaking, Lynch is also the owner of Lynch & Sons Funeral Directors in Milford, Michigan.

I interviewed Lynch for the program at the Telluride Film Festival, where a documentary about him and his work—Learning Gravity—was entered in the festival.

Dean Rader: Being a mortician, like being a poet, demands an attention to aesthetics. In a poem like “Couplets,” these two vocations merge beautifully. Are there other overlaps in the Venn diagram for you? Does the poetry business ever influence the mortuary business?

Thomas Lynch: To the extent that they both traffic in myth, metaphor, symbol, cadence, images, wordplay. Handy too, I suppose, that the fashionable color for both is black.

Rader: You write in a number of different genres. Do you approach genres in different ways? Is the poetry-Lynch a different bird than the prose-Lynch?

Lynch: Well poetry happens acoustically to me first, whereas prose -- both fiction and nonfiction happen intellectually first. Fiction in particular has more of a visual trigger: I'll see someone and want to get them in a story, imagine their history and future, all the particulars flash sometimes first. Truth told, they all are chasing metaphors around, trying to make connections.

Rader: Traditionally, both poets and morticians live on the margins of mainstream society. Do you think this helps them with their work, or does it merely provide yet another distancing mechanism?

Lynch: I think in both enterprises there's a good deal of waiting around for something to happen, someone to call, some necessity to press itself into your schedule. I suppose the culture regards both with great ambivalence: we're glad for funeral directors to be "on duty," in the way we approve of poets and oncologists. But both the reading of poems and being at funerals fall nearer the root-canal end of our favorite things.

Rader: My father worked in a funeral home all through junior high, high school and into college, where he studied mortuary science. He remains a profound believer in death with dignity, despite the fact that important specialists like Sherwin Nuland suggest this is a myth. Is there such a thing as a dignified death? If not, then what is death?

Lynch: Well, as oxymoronic as "the good death" sounds, I think I've seen some versions of it. And I've surely seen some clumsy, miserable, meaningless ones. So I think you're father's on the right track. Dignity is possible, even grace, and all of the opposites.

Rader: Do you still drive the Dead Wagon? [Lynch's term for his hearse]

: We still have one, but I don't drive it as much.

Rader: What’s the funniest experience you’ve had as a mortician?

: I don't think I've had it yet, least ways nothing comes to mind, though the dear knows I've spent more time laughing than crying so far.

Rader: What profession elicits the oddest response—being a mortician or being a poet? Have you ever been tempted, when meeting someone new, to “bury” your work as a mortician?

Lynch: Few people are shocked by anything anymore. Life is full of hyphenated types: the wrestler-governor, the belly-dancing colo-rectal surgeon, the cowboy-president. And no, I've never been tempted that way.

Rader: Most of us have anxiety dreams about our work now and again. What is one of your recurring mortician dreams?

Lynch: I don't think I have one...and now I'm feeling a little left out. Sometimes I dream I'm in a bar with my hands on a glass of Irish. It's always Mrs. Egan's Marble Bar on O'Curry Street in Kilkee. She's long dead, the bars gone, (turned into a gourmet chipper); I've not had a drink in going twenty years. I always wake up with a dry mouth, a cold sweat, in a panic -- which is a lot like what happened in my drinking days. Always glad it's only a dream.

Rader: In The Undertaking, you write about how often poets write about death. Coming at this from a different angle, do you think that death (or morticians) have anything to say about art?

Lynch: Death is demonstrably mum on this and other subjects. Morticians will, of course, hold forth on any theme. The real thing though -- art -- mostly leaves us all a little gobsmacked and dumbstruck.

Rader: Is there a great film about mortuary science?

: Aren't they all? Sex and death: the themes between which all the others seem to fall in line?

Monday, January 5, 2009

Obama and "the whites"

THOSE READERS TIRED OF basketball posts will be relieved to know that this short piece is less about basketball and more about race.

The New York Times ran the photo to the left as part of their January 3 story of Obama as a high school student at the prestigious Punahou school in Honolulu. According to author Jackie Calmes, Punahou was known as the school where the "whites" went. Calmes interviewed classmates and school officials who experienced a much different "Barry Obama" than the young, conflicted Obama that the President-Elect writes about in Dreams from my Father.

Both Calmes and her interviewees seemed surprised that the young Obama was hard to read--an inscrutable text of outward pleasantness and inward turmoil.

As Toni Morrison notes, Americans have never been particularly good readers, and that level of near illiteracy can often extend to reading humans and their emotional terrain as texts. We tend to be shallow, easy, even lazy readers.

Except for Obama.

Navigating the dangerous waters of the elite private school for white conservatives taught him to be an uncanny reader of all sorts of texts--particularly those racial texts of skin, culture, and taste. But, even Calmes notes that this patient, observant ability to decode, served the young (and the older) Obama well:

Blacks were a small minority statewide, too. Celebrated as a melting pot, Hawaii has for years had its own racially charged brew of native Hawaiians, ethnic Asians and whites; the few blacks mostly came in recent decades as part of the American military presence.

In bridging the unusual racial undercurrents, Mr. Obama honed the people skills that helped him fit in and ultimately propelled him into politics, with the crossover appeal that won him the presidency.

Friday, January 2, 2009

2009: The Year of the Poem

HAPPY NEW YEAR FROM all of us here at TWR Central. We took the week between Christmas and New Year's off to count up all of the Google Ad revenue from 2008. Looks like we can buy than Snicker's we've been pining for . . .

Speaking of pining, it's become more and more clear that, without knowing it, Americans are pining for poetry.

Sure, there is no evidence for this; in fact, the landscape looks pretty bleak. Some estimates suggest that only around one percent of the U. S. citizenry purchase collections of poetry, and I suspect that figure may be high. Everyone knows that unlike Russia or Chile, the United States is a country of prose, in part because Americans are intimidated not merely by reading poems but by the concept of poetry; it’s very label and all of the painful associations of class and learning that come with it. Of all the countries in the world, perhaps none are more transfixed by labels and categories than the U.S., whether it comes to movies, cars, food, clothes, or music.

It is fair to say that this preoccupation with boundaries occurs in the world of literature and literary criticism but also in the popular reception of literary texts. Americans buy fiction, non-fiction, comics, and self-help. They rarely buy poetry. Even in the most mainstream literary project—Oprah’s Book Club—there are no collections of poems. Similarly, in a quick survey of book clubs in San Francisco (perhaps the most poetry-friendly city in the country) and of those on various radio programs, I have yet to come across a book of poems up for discussion. Hollywood makes no movies of poems or poetic projects; collections of poems are rarely featured on display tables at Borders; poets are never guests on The Daily Show or Late Night with David Letterman—they don’t even make Charlie Rose. In a world of decreasing time, of truncated attention spans, of short films and videos, one would think that the lyric poem would provide the sort of quick fix that White Teeth or Almanac of the Dead cannot.

But, TWR wants to do something about this, so it has officially deemed 2009, The Year of the Poem!

We don't know what this means, exactly, but we'll follow up with subsequent posts.

In the meantime, enjoy the new year and a new poem . . .