Thursday, September 13, 2007

Damn You, Mr. Guggenheim!


I am struggling to finish a Guggenheim application. There is something about congratulating oneself and asking for money simultaneously that feels well, like a Presidential candidate. No, not like a Presidential candidate. Maybe like a really sorry-assed rap star. Who is running for President. That's it. But these are the things poets do. The grant would be a tremendous honor, and the money would allow me to travel to the Philippines and visit the places my grandfather and his family, including my mother, were during their internment in a Japanese prison camp during World War II. My next project will use my grandfather's notebook kept while there, so seeing places personally would be a terrific asset. You see, I can't stop writing my grant proposal even now.

Tonight I listened to the Mets beat Atlanta again, and while I was worrying about Mota's inability to keep opposing batters from hitting RBI singles at will, I picked up Gerhard Richter's Atlas. I saw the show in London at the Whitechapel Gallery, and I was totally floored by it. One of those things that makes the Rilke poem, Archaic Torso of Apollo spring to mind.

We cannot know his legendary head
with eyes like ripening fruit. And yet his torso
is still suffused with brilliance from inside,
like a lamp, in which his gaze, now turned to low,

gleams in all its power. Otherwise
the curved breast could not dazzle you so, nor could
a smile run through the placid hips and thighs
to that dark center where procreation flared.

Otherwise this stone would seem defaced
beneath the translucent cascade of the shoulders
and would not glisten like a wild beast's fur:

would not, from all the borders of itself,
burst like a star: for here there is no place
that does not see you. You must change your life.

Part of the power of that poem is of course the turn that the end where the lyric description is end-stopped by a Zen-like crack of the bamboo on the back of "You must change your life." But for me, the best line is just preceding that: "for here there is no place/that does not see you." That's totally spooky, but I like it. I want that. I want to be able to see like that. Not only to see everything, but to not be able to not see everything.

In an earlier poem of my own, Death of a Tractor's Son, I was writing about the death of a farmworker who was carried out of the house into the fields by another person. It came from a moment spent talking to a farmer on the edge of his land in Charles City County, Virginia near the James River. He was one of those naturally poetic figures who spoke about the depression of being a farmer with a full-hearted love. When I sat down to write the poem, I found I couldn't remember what he had said exactly, but I could see it. So I tried to decribe what I saw with a made up epigraph:

If I ever see that white light
that comes up the back of the head
and lays out all sides of everything,
I'll lay down my tools.
I'll walk away.

What I like about Gerhard Richter is his sight. His ability to see everything. Sure, there is a Germanic organizational fetish that is a little scary (I once had a professor who told us about an epiphany he had when he realized the pristine level of organization that was whisking him speedily through Frankfurt airport to his waiting plane was the same organization that whisked people to the gas chambers during the Holocaust.) But beyond that is a vision that sees everything as important enough to organize it. To see it and keep it. To put it somewhere it can be found and used. Each photo in his Atlas is part of the lyric chain that leads to the denouement of his final expressions - his paintings. By looking at the photos in Atlas, you come to understand how he arrived upon the blurry black & white paintings, the smeared paintings, the portraits, the military paints, the gray paintings, etc. - all of these in their infancies were a moment in which a shutter clicked right after an eye saw something. Or just before.

And that's the real excitement for me in the conceptual expression that is the Atlas as exhibited. How many images? A lot - many rooms. It took me 2 or 3 hours just to feel like I had seen everything, and yet I could have stayed longer and seen more. But what I did see was perhaps the shadow of an eye - what gets projected upon it or through it - and a willingness to allow things to project and be seen without evident filters.

Of course, Richter is filtering things throughout Atlas. We don't see totally bad shots or every waking moment of his day. Still there is an openness to seeing everything - in the construction and in the presentation - that means a lot to someone who is trying to write poetry.

So what to write? Everything. What to photograph? Everything. As Wolfgang Tillmans' exhibition title said, "If one thing matters, everything matters." Quite a romantic notion, which is exactly why applying for things like the Guggenheim makes me feel like someone dropped sand in my shorts. It feels so much like the person who hasn't yet seen the archaic torse of Apollo or been elevated by Gerhard Richter. What good are these visions?

I operate from a position of resistance in nearly everything I do. Politics, art, academics. Poetry. I am frequently furious. Quite often rebellious. And yet, here I sit worrying that my Guggenheim grant application sucks. I am not sure I see well enough, and yet I see everything. I must change my life.

Monday, May 14, 2007

David Grossman's "Writing in the Dark" essay, NYTimes 05.13.07


David Grossman has a nice essay in the New York Times today. I remember reading something about him at the time of his son's death during the recent fighting in Lebanon. And I remember him being quite well-spoken even then when he was obviously distraught at the loss of his son. I guess he is one of the literary voices for peace in Israel, and a number of people felt that perhaps now that he had lost his son in battle, his views would shift. But he didn't, and if I remember correctly, that was what the original article was about.

I think the current article is very well written in that it explains writing from the position of self-preservation against the onslaught of mind-numbing conflict. He suggests that “the ongoing state of war” creates a “shrinking of the 'surface area' of the soul that comes in contact with the bloody and menacing world out there.” Susan Sontag presented a similar model in regard to the viewing of photographs of tragedy in her book, Regarding the Pain of Others, in which the viewer feels first the shock at the horror depicted, then the call to action to cease the current or prevent any future horror, followed quickly by impotence in the face of the immense inevitability of the institutional perpetrators of horror, and then lapsing finally into the malaise of an apathy ironically inoculated against feeling anything like the original shock ever again. Both Grossman and Sontag understand that the danger here is that conflict and its continuous spectacle of tragedy, rather than preventing future tragedy (i.e. a war to end all wars) make it easier for future tragedy to be perpetrated by “those who might 'know better'” as it serves their interests against our own. As our exposure to conflict increases, our apathy grows, our compliance increases, and those who might lead us find their jobs easier and truth more malleable. We contract. They expand.

The Italian philosopher, Giorgio Agamben, suggests that the model for modern governance is that of a “state of exception” in which the ruling body convinces the polity that the current epoch is unique in its relationship to imminent threat, and as such, special powers should be accorded the ruling body that might not otherwise be accorded in a free and open society. All language is focused on supporting this idea, and the energy of the state is expended, through military action, through legislation, and through the daily rhetoric of those in power, to convince the polity that this state of conflict is continuous and imminent. The cloak in this case is that democracy is held out as the model, while the hidden dagger of fascism slices off individual freedoms one by one. The power of polity is decreased. The power of the ruling body is consolidated and increased.

Grossman offers that writing is the act that reverses this “narrowing” of the world, a phrase he borrows from Kafka's mouse in the short story, “A Little Fable”. Through writing, Grossman says, he can “relieve myself of one of the dubious and distinctive capacities created by the state of war in which I live - the capacity to be an enemy and an enemy only.” I think this is right on. Following from J.M. Coetzee's book, Waiting for the Barbarians, having an enemy and being an enemy are the same form of subjugation, especially if the definition of “enemy” is one handed down to you by “those who might 'know better'” and occupy a position of power over you. Or as President Bush said, “You are either for us or against us,” as statement, when made from a position of power (and therefore as a deadly threat,) is so anaerobic that objectors are reduced to meaningless defenses of their positions like, “I support the troops.”

Grossman, on the other hand, points out that writing allows the writer to escape the subjugation of this false oppositional duality: “All of a sudden I am not condemned to this absolute, fallacious and suffocating dichotomy - this inhumane choice to 'be victim or aggressor,' without having any third, more humane alternative. When I write, I can be a human being whose parts have natural and vital passages between them; a human who is able to feel close to his enemies' sufferings and to acknowledge his just claims without relinquishing a grain of his own identity.” Right on.

Part of Jean Amery's argument in his book, At the Mind's Limits, is that the purpose of resistance is resistance, not winning or change. Thus when all else seems lost, resistance is still important - in fact, it is paramount. If one accepts that writing one's conscience is a form of resistance that allows one to “cease to be the helpless victims of whatever it was that enslaved and diminished us,“ then Grossman's ideas about why one must write dovetails nicely with the philosophy that came out of the Holocaust and the determination that it never be allowed to happen again, that we are active, vigilant & aware, “not the slaves of our predicament nor of our private anxieties; not of the 'official narrative' of our country, nor of fate itself.“ In a word, resistant.

“Our private anxieties” and the dislocated behaviors they produce - anti-immigration polemics in a nation of immigrants, intolerant rhetoric in a nation stitched together by tolerance, persecution of difference globally by a country made of diversity - are what make the United States such a polarized and polarizing country right now. If writing can free us, let's get to work.

Finally, I like Grossman's perception that the rhetoric of “predicament“ comes down through society from the military in a way that “ultimately seeps into the private, intimate language of the conflict's citizens, even if they deny it.” In the United States, one need look no farther for a physical manifestation of that phenomenon than the products developed by the military that now appear in everyday society - Humvees, nylon, SPAM, GPS systems, etc. We are more Sparta than Athens I think.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Popular Ink—because everyone needs a shirt and everyone needs a story!

one of each

My new chapbook, All About the Blindspot & Other Poems, just came out the other week. There should be a link to the publisher's site to the right. Popular Ink is a cool company, and I hope they do very well. Below find their press release to find out more about their company.

"The high-concept publishing and accessories company, Popular Ink, is reinventing the traditional literary publishing model for the 21st century with its debut line of five limited-edition books and matching t-shirts. The founders of Popular Ink, a collective of writers and artists who wish to keep their identities anonymous, have created a new publishing approach and online community to share writing and spark interest in reading. What better way to get people talking than with stylish t-shirts printed with enigmatic phrases from portable new works?

Inspired by the affordability and accessibility of the wildly popular Penny Press, Popular Ink tees sport attention-getting lines from the work of new writers. And each tee comes with the matching book—a pocket-sized, perfect-bound cache of poems or a fresh, new story. The writers for the debut line are: Jorn Ake, M. C. Boyes, Paula Champa, Nathan Alling Long and Jessamyn Joy Ross. (Collect the whole set and you'll never go naked or lack for a good read again.)

Popular Ink's first in a series of tees can go from yoga to brunch to Memorial Day barbeques. Choose the washable, giftable tees and mini-books in five limited-edition colors, like lazy-ass yellow, disturbing fin gray and think-tank pink. Popular Ink tees and books are available only at To link directly to the shop: (Shipping is free.)

Cool tees and provocative reads not enough? In Popular Ink's Indelible Kitchen, everyone is invited to join the riff of conversation. Each week, the blogazine Indelible Kitchen will feature writing, art and more. This lightly juried blogazine is a unique place to post new writing and art — with the opportunity to become a permanent contributor. Simply click on the email function to submit posts.

The editors at Popular Ink routinely read the Indelible Kitchen looking for the authors and illustrators for their next set of books. The Popular Ink website also offers a direct submissions link for authors who hope to see their names in bright lights (or at least in print).

Popular Ink features a stand-alone t-shirt, the Popular Monkey, by artist Chris Shrader. In June, Popular Ink will launch the first Remake the Monkey contest. Artists can submit their illustrations in the Indelible Kitchen.

The company plans to debut new shirts, other unusual items and giftbooks in limited editions of collectible colors and a full range of sizes four times a year. Watch for new items and contest announcements."

If you get one of my books, send me a photo of you wearing the t-shirt. I'll start collecting them for later posting here!

Virginia Tech and Baghdad


The irony struck me when close on the heels of the tragedy at Virginia Tech (i.e. the next day) there was a huge series of bombings in Baghdad in which over 170 people died immediately. And this was one day. Earlier in January, 70 students and staff were killed in a bombing at a Baghdad university.

Don't misunderstand me - the presence of violence and tragedy in other parts of the world doesn't make an event NOT a tragedy in this part of the world. The VA Tech shooting, where I have friends and acquaintances who are faculty in the English department, was definitively a tragedy in many different ways. There is no mitigating that fact, nor would it be my intention to do so.

But I couldn't help wondering - must not just about every Iraqi who sees coverage of this event on CNN be wondering if any of the students on VA Tech's campus will connect their experience of violence & its psychological aftermath with the experience of violence that has become a daily presence for people living in Baghdad and elsewhere in Iraq? I am not of course saying that VA Tech was caused by Iraq. That would be a simplistic misreading of my point. I am wondering merely whether the moment of violence at VA Tech might give the people who experienced it directly & those of us who followed it on television, pause to consider what living in Iraq might truthfully mean to the people we insist we are helping. Can anyone of us imagine what it must be like to live in a country where VA Tech happens every day, if not VA Tech x3 or 4 or 5? Even in this dismal moment of meaningless violence, how many of us are considering how insanely lucky we are that we live in this country?

And given the resultant understanding that might come from careful consideration, what are we going to do now?

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Helene Cooper in the New York Times, 01-14-07


Sometimes an article appears in the New York Times that is so bad, I wonder really whether the editors read it. Such is the case with Helene Cooper's article, "The Best We Can Hope For" in the Week in Review section of the Sunday edition on 01/14/07. Cooper attempts to suggest that the Spanish Civil War provides a hopeful model for the end of the Iraq War - in short, that the war would remain an Iraq War and not become a regional or global conflict. I was so astonished at the simple-mindedness of this article, that I could barely write a letter to the New York Times. The worst articles are always the most difficult to object to concisely, because they usually are bad in a mind-bendingly three-dimensional manner and their rebuttal seems always to include repeating verbatim the entire history of the twentieth century. Just so, this article by Helene Cooper. I include my attempt to respond to its weaknesses below.


Dear Editor:

Helene Cooper's article is astonishingly bad, even for the New York Times. Apart from the flippant cocktail-party tone taken about subjects as serious as the Spanish Civil War and the Iraq War, she insists on missing her own points. To quote:

"But, in the end, the Spanish Civil War stayed Spanish. The Europeans sent money and arms and even volunteers, but they didn’t let the war engulf the continent. (Probably because the continent was busy getting engulfed in World War II, but let’s not be too technical.)"

Huh? So in history, what actually happened is merely a technicality?

Regardless, she continues by warning that somehow we risk turning the Middle East into a nuclear conflagration or merely a world war by not increasing the numbers of troops in the area. Somehow by devoting more troops to the conflict we will keep the Iraq War in Iraq, just as the Spanish War kept the conflict Spanish, thereby averting another world war of some sort. But back to the mere technicalities of history - wasn't the Spanish Civil War followed by World War II? So really, to follow Cooper's logic (which she herself seems reluctant to do, probably because it doesn't make any sense) what we need to keep the conflict in Iraq IN Irag is another world war, just like the one that followed the Spanish Civil War.


The Spanish Civil War involved players from all sides of the future conflict that became World War II. Many of these players are also actively involved in the Iraq War - anti-fascists, industrialists, weapons manufacturers, world powers, etc. Even the rhetoric in the speeches is similar - compare those of Franco with those of President Bush and you will find some (shocking) similarities in the use of The Enemy as a pry-bar on their respective countries' sense of democracy and civil justice. The true horror of the Spanish Civil War was the lack of enough tactical and material superiority on either side to end the war quickly. Instead it dragged on for a couple extra years while the fractious combatants bludgeoned each other, killing hundreds of thousands of people in the process. The half-interested intervention of world powers did much to prolong the conflict and prevent a negotiated peace earlier than it occurred. As a civil war, the situation in the Spanish Civil War is closer to that in the Yugoslavian Wars than it is to that of the Iraq War, which is basically a war of imperialist intervention and why it is dangerous regionally.

The Iraq War is dangerous not because it might spread to other countries, but because the Bush administration is trying to prevent the spread of the Iraq War into other countries (and thus ensure its own petro-economic agenda) by keeping other countries from being involved in the solution to the problems in Iraq. Because Iran, Syria and Saudi Arabia are not involved in the process of creating a peaceful Iraq, they can only distrust any goal that the United States, a (non-Muslim, pro-Israel) foreigner in the region, may have for that peace. Iran fought a long and costly war against Iraq it does not want repeated. Syria sees an American-backed government in Baghdad as a direct threat to its dictatorship, especially since Bush keeps trumpeting the exportation of democracy. Saudi Arabia watched Iraq overrun Kuwait and sees the fate of minority Sunnis as its responsibility in the region. The House of Saud cannot maintain face in the Arab world and allow Sunnis to be killed simultaneously. Keeping all of these countries out of the deal guarantees that each country will seek influence individually in order to ensure their strategic interests are maintained through whatever means possible. The Bush administration needs to involve these countries in order to make certain that what peace can be achieved in the region has the blessings of all parties. Otherwise, nothing but instability will be the result. The Iraq War cannot remain Iraqi. It involves all the other countries in the region already.

And then there are the Kurds and the Turks.

In the end, Helene Cooper's article just seems incredibly shallow and naive, perhaps even slightly malformed. I would suggest the more active participation of an editor in the future.

J Ake


I know, I shouldn't snipe at the editors. But really, the editors at the New York Times are just not paying attention. If Cooper's piece is an Op-Ed, then the article should be in a different section. If the piece is an analysis, it should take that tone and honor the presence of historical information, not denegrate it to mere technicality.

If you would like a good book on the Spanish Civil War (and one that gives good examples of the rhetorical approach of Franco that you can compare to the speeches of Bush and his pals) check out Anthony Beevor's The Battle for Spain: The Spanish Civil War, 1936-1939.