Friday, August 31, 2007

David Grossman's The Yellow Wind

This summer I read David Grossman's The Yellow Wind, the Israeli novelist's journalistic exploration of Palestinian life under occupation, first published in 1988. I have been teaching his novel, The Smile of the Lamb, a Faulknerian multi-perspectival narrative of the spiritual costs of military occupation for both occupier and occupied. The Yellow Wind,in part, retraces the steps of Palestinian lawyer Raja Shehadeh, author of the important book, The Third Way, which articulates the nonviolent steadfastness of the "Samid"--one who steadfastly refuses to cede his culture, land, and dignity in the face of oppression. Both, it seems to me, should be required reading for understanding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict beyond the stories of suicide bombers and targeted assassinations. They constitute a third way, a commonality that we rarely hear about, for Israelis and Palestinians. But Grossman is not averse to provoke his national audience, by confronting himself and fellow Israelis with the sexual ecstasy of domination, discovered after the 1967 Six Day War:

Then, in 1967, the surging energy of our adolescent hormones was coupled with the intoxication gripping the entire country; the conquest, the confident penetration of the enemy's land, his complete surrender, breaking the taboo of the border, imperiously striding through the narrow streets of cities until now forbidden, and the smells, the primal view, and that same erotic tingle latent in every first meeting between conqueror and conquered--ah, what a sensuous explosion of all the pent-up desire that was in us! And on a grand scale! With the entire country! (211)

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Monica Raymond's "In Cana"/Sestinas for Peace

I discovered poet and playwright Monica Raymond's "In Cana," in Colorado Review (Spring 2007), a journal not normally known for political verse. It's a large world made smaller by google, as I discovered that she is active in political theater and in imagining ways out of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. I emailed her, and this was her reply:

I notice you are interested in writing around Israel/Palestine, and, in my other life, as a playwright, I have done quite a bit of work around this. I helped organize a program of plays by Palestinian-American and Jewish-American writers, OCCUPIED TERRITORIES, at Boston Playwrights Theater in 2004, which included my short play HIJAB (about a Jewish teenager who's determined to wear a Muslim headscarf to high school) as well as work by Saul Slapikoff, Barry Oshry, and Soha al-Jurf. HIJAB has also had several other productions, including at NYC's Vital Theater, the Samuel French Festival, and the Boston Theater Marathon. I hosted a panel on "Theatre about Israel/Palestine" at the 2005 Association for Theater in Higher Education (ATHE) convention in San Francisco.

My most current full-length script, THE OWL GIRL, is a magic realist play about two families in the Middle East, both of whom have keys to the same house, and what happens when they try to live in it together. A winner of the Gold Medal in the 2006 Clauder Competition, it had a staged reading this past May at Portland stage's "Little Festival of the Unexpected." You can read an excerpt from it on the Massachusetts Cultural Council site here

What attracted me to the poem was its evocation of the Biblical stories of wedding feasts--particularly when Jesus turns water into wine (always a good party trick). Cana, or Qana, as it is spelled today, has been the site of two bombing massacres, when Israelis have tried to attack Hezbollah but instead (also?) rained hell upon civilians, once on a wedding party. It's terrifying to think that, amidst such a ritual act of union that such devastation can occur. The poem avoids explicit mention of these events, and of the politics of blame, but all these contexts reverberate in and among the lines.

"IN CANA" by Monica Raymond

The Lebanese spelled it with a q, without the u.
Qana. That town where John said Jesus at a wedding
turned water into wine. The other gospels missed it.
They caught other miracles, but they missed that first miracle.
The guest said "You're not like the others, who just serve good
wine till we're drunk." Later Jesus said "I bring not peace but the sword."

But in that first miracle, there was nothing of sword.
It's important you understand this, you
apocalyptic idiots, Muslim, Christian, and Jew. A good
party, that was all-- people dancing those wedding
dances, lifting a chair, like they still do, a miracle
they can get it up there without dropping it,

or, if they do drop it, without killing whoever's in it.
But it's family they love there, so if they do a sword
dance, it's just clacking them together like the Morris men, minor miracle
of coordination. At the Revels, they clacked so hard--you
should have seen!--they broke the blade. At a wedding,
that would probably be bad luck. It might be good

to leave the swords out of it for good.
That's a disarmament proposal, what do you think of it?
What if we acted as if the whole world were a wedding
with good wine till the end? What if you left your sword
at the door and never retrieved it? And you
just kept dancing and drinking all night, like that first miracle

and the wine never got less good--that would be a miracle.
You know I'm not just talking about the wine being good.
I'm writing a little parable or a sermon for you.
Yes, a dead prophet is not the only one who can do it.
I'm saying we've seen what comes of bringing the sword.
Now let's bring a covered dish, and get back to the wedding.

I like to think that maybe it's a wedding
of people from different sides, ordinary miracle--
two black-browed lovers, aflame like flowering swords.
Gladiola. Bird of paradise. What looks like a knife-edge sheathe till it unfurls in good
blossom. The angels each holding a stem of it
at the door of the fiery world, and they beckon to you.

They hold the flaming sword to protect the wedding,
and they want to include you in this miracle.
Not blood, but good wine that pours. Let us dream of it.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Charles Simic's "Paradise Motel"/Meet the New Boss

Halvard Johnson recently sent this poem out to this lucky recipient. Charles Simic has recently been appointed the new U.S. Poet Laureate. I've found Simic's work to be an intriguing translation of Eastern European surrealist modes to a quirky (and sometimes purposefully oddball) American free verse vernacular. Like most poets with so many books, Simic has his misses. But this poem, beginning in death and ending in color, dramatizes the scary way in which we move from mass death to aestheticism, despite our best attempts.

Paradise Motel

Millions were dead; everybody was innocent.
I stayed in my room. The President
Spoke of war as of a magic love potion.
My eyes were opened in astonishment.
In a mirror my face appeared to me
Like a twice-canceled postage stamp.

I lived well, but life was awful.
there were so many soldiers that day,
So many refugees crowding the roads.
Naturally, they all vanished
With a touch of the hand.
History licked the corners of its bloody mouth.
On the pay channel, a man and a woman
Were trading hungry kisses and tearing off
Each other's clothes while I looked on
With the sound off and the room dark
Except for the screen where the color
Had too much red in it, too much pink.

--Charles Simic

Monday, August 27, 2007

Malvina Reynolds' "Little Boxes"/First Day of Classes

I was thinking about Malvina Reynolds' "Little Boxes," a song I like to play, punk- rock-fast, on the last day of classes, since I'm terrified that, whatever I do, all I'm doing is making the conveyer-belt of university production run a bit more efficiently...and I discovered that apparently it is the opening song for the cult hit "Weeds." See below for that opening:

Here's Pete Seeger's version:

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Call for Poems and Links

Dear Reader,

Today I'm inviting you to contribute to the blog with poems, essays, and links to issues pertinent to poetry, war, and peacemaking. Just send it to me at or navigate through the website, Thanks for visiting.

Philip Metres

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Lawrence Joseph's "Sand Nigger," "About This," and "News Back Further Than That"/Poetry After "The Game Changed"

A Lebanese-American lawyer from Detroit, Lawrence Joseph emerged in the 1980s as a poet whose work was inflected by the working class storytelling of Philip Levine (another Detroiter) and his own ethnic roots. A poem such as “Sand Nigger” dramatizes the Levinian influence, articulated to the cultural experience of Arab American (Lebanese Christian) immigrants:

“Sand Nigger”

In the house in Detroit
in a room of shadows
when grandma reads her Arabic newspaper
it is difficult for me to follow her
word by word from right to left
and I do not understand
why she smiles about the Jews
who won't do business in Beirut
"because the Lebanese
are more Jew than Jew,"
or whether to believe her
that if I pray
to the holy card of Our Lady of Lebanon
I will share the miracle.
Lebanon is everywhere
in the house: in the kitchen
of steaming pots, leg of lamb
in the oven, plates of kousa,
hushwee rolled in cabbage,
dishes of olives, tomatoes, onions,
roasted chicken, and sweets;
at the card table in the sunroom
where grandpa teaches me
to wish the dice across the backgammon board
to the number I want;
Lebanon of mountains and sea,
of pine and almond trees,
of cedars in the service
of Solomon, Lebanon
of Babylonians, Phoenicians, Arabs, Turks
and Byzantines, of the one-eyed
monk, saint Maron,
in whose rite I am baptized;
Lebanon of my mother
warning my father not to let
the children hear,
of my brother who hears
and from whose silence
I know there is something
I will never know; Lebanon
of grandpa giving me my first coin
secretly, secretly
holding my face in his hands,
kissing me and promising me
the whole world.
My father's vocal chords bleed;
he shouts too much
at his brother, his partner,
in the grocery store that fails.
I hide money in my drawer, I have
the talent to make myself heard.
I am admonished to learn,
never to dirty my hands
with sawdust and meat.
At dinner, a cousin
describes his niece's head
severed with bullets, in Beirut,
in civil war. "More than
an eye for an eye," he demands,
breaks down, and cries.
My uncle tells me to recognize
my duty, to use my mind,
to bargain, to succeed.
He turns the diamond ring
on his finger, asks if
I know what asbestosis is,
"the lungs become like this,"
he says, holding up a fist;
he is proud to practice
law which "distributes
money to compensate flesh."
outside the house my practice
is not to respond to remarks
about my nose or the color of my skin.
"Sand nigger," I'm called,
and the name fits: I am
the light-skinned nigger
with black eyes and the look
difficult to figure--a look
of indifference, a look to kill--
a Levantine nigger
in the city on the strait
between the great lakes Erie and St. Clair
which has a reputation
for violence, an enthusiastically
bad-tempered sand nigger
who waves his hands, nice enough
to pass, Lebanese enough
to be against his brother,
with his brother against his cousin,
with cousin and brother
against the stranger.


I first became aware of Joseph when I came across “About This,” which appeared in the Michigan Quarterly Review around the time of the Persian Gulf War. Two things struck me about “About This.” First, it was one of the very few poems to have emerged in a poetry journal within a year of the war (the journal is dated Spring 1992). Second, it was a poem that broached the messy and not immediately “poetic” realm of capitalism and consumption as part of the puzzle of global conflict. Clearly, wars have predated capitalism; yet, the poem seemed to probe, anxiously, the subjective position of those of us in privilege and how that privilege may, if not cause, then fuel, global conflict. This poem is suggestive of the influence of political poets such as Robert Lowell, but it also contains the seeds of a new direction of Joseph’s poetry, away from a poetics of autobiographical narrative and toward a poetics of consciousness itself.

“About This”

I surfaced from my reflections to see

a sign on the mirror of Le Club Beirut
an obvious object of interpretation during

quote, the month that shook the world—
and here and in Paris the fashion news

this season color runs riot. Once again,
in the midst of my delirium, my companions

on the subway, those who clean offices
all through the night, close their eyes,

Ash Wednesday faced, much less anxious,
even more anxious than I am. That beauty’s

green-gray eyes slanting like a cat’s
must feel the battery of world views.

I do, and believe Nebuchadnezzar in his bunker
religiously is watching himself on Cable

Network News. Where’s my sense of humor?
Prices are soaring in the futures pits.

There—over there are the Asian refugees
starting to tear apart the sewage pipes

under the villa to moisten their lips.
Here I squint into the twilight’s blazes,

into stabs of dazzling dark radiations,
a set of sights attending my sun bath.

One of us, very old, stop uncontrollably
Laughing, sighs, sighs, three, four times,

before starting in again. That rickety one
staring hard at the digital disc player

on display in The World Financial Center’s
Palace of Palm Trees covets precision.

Gold (the old favorite in times of stress)
has lost most of its post-invasion gains.

Enough of a shooting war, enough military
expenditures, there may be no recession.

Is it true, the rumor that the new
instruments of equity are children, commodified?

That the Attorney General has bit off his tongue?
Those are—nails! that maniac wearing

winged-tipped shoes, turning a tattooed
cheek, throws at us while we talk about evil

outside, over burgundy, at the Cloisters.
This is August and September. This is wartime

bound to be, the social and money value
of human beings in this Republic clear

as can be in air gone pink and translucent
with high-flying clouds and white heat.


The reference to "counts"--bank accounts and fucking counts--against the backdrop of a war where our leaders professed "we don't do body counts"--echoes uncannily. In a war that employed the language of corporate production, the desire to efface the "bottom line," the outcomes, was never more terrifying.

With Into It (2005), his fourth book of poems, Joseph has shed almost completely the autobiographical, in favor of a poetics that hearkens back to the great modern writers of consciousness. So it’s entirely appropriate that Wallace Stevens provides the epigraph to Joseph’s book, Wallace Stevens quoting Henry James. It is an interesting moment in poetry, when poets as different as Joseph, Jorie Graham, and Michael Dumanis reach back into the Stevensian sound- and land-scape to make sense of the ongoing wars on terror. What makes Joseph’s book so engaging—and why it appears to have garnered more attention than his previous work—is that the book shows how a poetics of consciousness is capable of becoming a poetics of conscience. In the wake of the attacks of September 11th, 2001 in New York City (where Joseph lives and works), Joseph’s book is able to move deftly between poems of evanescent landscape and meditations on human depredation—as if to capture that uncanny aspect of the gruesome attacks, happening on such a clear, beautiful autumn day.

Going through the book, I note about half the poems functioning as “landscape” (both outer and inner scapes), and half functioning more or less as political poems. The landscapes include: “In It….,” “When One…,” “The Bronze-Green…,” “The Pattern-Parallel….,” “On That Side…,” “August Absract.” Three poems that appeared in Jacket are of this style and subject:

Some of the political poems: “I Note in a Notebook,” “Inclined to Speak,” “Woodward Avenue,” “What Do You Mean, What?,” “Why Not Say What Happens?,” “In a Mood,” “Unyieldingly Present,” “News Back Ever Further Than That,” “Rubaiyat,” “Metamorphoses.”

David Wojahn, in his article, “Maggie’s Farm No More: The Fate of Political Poetry,” argues for Joseph’s relevance as one of the very few successful political poets of our age. Wojahn aptly discusses how Joseph’s political poems employ not only collage (as was typical of Vietnam-era war resistance verse), but also Old Testament language and rhetoric, multiple voicings, etc.:

The speaker seems to be desperately trying to bring order to his surroundings, but no fragments can be shorn against these ruins: the poems often sound like a radio playing on the scan mode. Yet references to two events are alluded to obsessively in the collection, and in a perverse fashion act as leitmotifs which give the individual poems and the book itself a cohesive form. As a consequence of the World Trade Center attacks and the second Iraq War, Joseph insists in the book’s penultimate poem, “the game changed.”

Here’s an example that Wojahn quotes, from “News Back Even Further Than That”:

Dust, the dust of a dust storm;
yellow, black, brown, haze, smoke;
a baby photographed with half
a head; the stolen thoroughbred
the boy is riding bareback attacked
by a lion; the palace, fixed up
as a forward command post—“This,”
says Air-War Commander Mosely,
“would make a pretty nice casino”:
why is such a detailed
description necessary?
that smell in the air is the smell
of burned human flesh;
those low-flying A-10 Warthogs
are, each of them, firing
one hundred bullets a second.

The President refuses to answer a question
he wasn’t asked. The President denies
his are the eyes of a lobster.
The map is being drawn: Mosul in the north,
Baghdad in the center, Basra in the south.
The news back even further than that:
“He Says He is the Prophet Ezekiel.
In the Great mudflats by the River Chebar.
He Has seen, He proclaims, Four Angels,
Each with Six Wings, on a Fiery Wheel.”
Collaborators cut into pieces and burned to death
in public, on spits, like lambs. In spray paint
across the armored personnel carrier:
“Crazy Train,” “Rebel,” “Got Oil?...” There,
on Sadoun Street, in a wheelbarrow, a coil
of wire, carpet, rolled, Persian, antique.


“I’ve just been to see her. It’s made her
mad—angry, yes, of course, but I mean mad,
truly mad. She spoke quietly, quickly—
maniacally. ‘Wargame, they’re using wargame
as a verb, they didn’t wargame the chaos—
chaos? Do you think they care about
the chaos? The chaos just makes it easier for them
to get what they want. Wargame!
What they’ve wargamed is the oil,
their possession of the oil, what they’ve wargamed
is the killing, the destruction,
what they’ve wargamed is their greed...’
Had I noticed that Lebanon has become
an abstract noun, as in ‘the Lebanonization of”?
‘It may just as well have been two or three
atomic bombs, the amount of depleted
uranium in their bombs, the bombs
in this war, the bombs in the war before this—
uranium’s in the groundwater now,
uranium is throughout the entire
ecology by now, how many generations
are going to be
contaminated by it, die of it, be poisoned by it?...’
War, a war time, without limits.
Technocapital was a part
of our bodies, of the body politic.
She quoted Pound—the Pisan Cantos—
she couldn’t remember which—
there are no righteous wars.
‘There is no righteous violence,’
she said, ‘it’s neurobiological
with people like this—
people who need to destroy and who need to kill
like this—and what we’re seeing now
is nothing compared
to what we’ll see in the future…’”

In the wake of the attacks, I found myself hyperaware of my own Arabness, and recall catching paranoid glances from strangers who seemed to accuse me of the attacks. Even more strangely, I felt as if, somehow, maybe I was responsible for these attacks—the pictures in the newspaper looked almost like a bunch of cousins. As if I were looking at a Warhol rendering of a family photo album (the women, weirdly, excluded). It is, from a rational standpoint, absolutely ludicrous; my sense of the world is so different from the attackers that I feel as if they are from a different universe. The Lebanese are, in a sense, quite a different bunch than the Saudis, but identification is identification and reductively, absurdly so. Once, on an international flight, an elderly white woman across the aisle stared at me nearly the entire trip—and her eyes grew wide and neck crane as I, slowly removed my shoes. What could I say?

For this reason, I find it quite fascinating that, at the very moment that I felt I could no longer “hide” my Arabness, could “pass” as white, Joseph has moved to a more universal voice, a voice that may be inflected by such experiences but does not feel entrapped by them. Perhaps his geographical proximity to the attacks, paradoxically, enabled Joseph to feel part of the “we” of the attacked than I, safely in flyover Ohio, had felt. Perhaps his own poetic journey would have moved him toward a verse that is not explicitly autobiographical, even if it emerges from his life. The stance is worth noticing—it demonstrates his courage, his belief in the art, that he neither falls back on identity—(as I have been tempted to do, now that Arab and Arab American voices are desired, on some level, to be heard, if only to explain what is happening)—nor rejects it entirely. A self-proclaimed moralist—no small task for a poet—Joseph creates a vision of theological depth, but without the exclusivism of our tribal faiths. Instead, he gives voice to the voices that both reflect and deflect from what may be his own subjective position; he suddenly, as Whitman exhorted himself, comes to “contain multitudes.”


Hear/see Lawrence Joseph read at Boston College in 2006

Friday, August 24, 2007

Grace Paley, War Resister, Peace Activist, Rest in Peace

Thanks to Jonathan Skinner for his thoughtful post to the Buffalo Poetics Listserv. Here it is.

Date: Thu, 23 Aug 2007 14:32:29 -0400
From: Jonathan Skinner
Subject: Grace Paley

This obit overlooks the fact that Grace was also a wonderful poet--one who, without simplifying or degrading the tasks proper to poetry, showed that poets could and needed to be responsible to more than poetry. "I wrote a lot of poems, and I went to a lot of demonstrations," she said. She was a feminist who wrote great poems about fathers. She was an environmentalist who straddled the urban-rural divide--a poet laureate of Vermont, with Yiddish roots and a green thumb. And she was a fabulous performer: indeed, a natural storyteller. She wrote without sanctimony, with great wit and humor, about all-too-human life in a more-than-human world.


Interview, with readings, here:

"Then Vera stopped at the flower called fireweed . . .

. . . Still we are the gardeners
of this world and often talk about giving wildness

its chance it's I who cut the field too late too
early right on time and therefore out of the earth which
is a darkness of timed seed and waiting root the sunlight

chose vervain jewel weed boneset just beyond
our woodchuck-argued garden a great nation of ants
has lived for fifteen years in a high sandy anthill

which I honor with looking and looking and never disrupt
(nor have I learned their lesson of stubborn industry)
they ask nothing except to be not bothered and I personally

agree" (Gracy Paley, Thetford Poems)

Acclaimed Writer Grace Paley Dies at 84
By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 23, 2007; 12:14 PM

Grace Paley, 84, an American writer who achieved literary renown as a master of the short story and forged a small but influential body of work that illuminated the frustrations and joys of women's lives, died Aug. 22 at her home in Thetford, Vt. She had breast cancer.

Ms. Paley's output was relatively small -- several dozen short stories as well as a few collections of poetry and essays -- but the quality of her work attracted superlatives from the country's brightest literary figures.

Novelist Philip Roth praised her "understanding of loneliness, lust, selfishness and fatigue that is splendidly comic and unladylike." Writer Susan Sontag called her "a rare kind of writer, a natural with a voice like no one else's: funny, sad, lean, modest, energetic, acute."

Ms. Paley was often regarded as a feminist writer because her stories brought rare and early insight into how urban women struggle with emotional and physical vulnerabilities; demanding children and lovers; and absent, often misogynistic husbands.

She found the feminist label confining, yet she gave credit to the movement for elevating her stature. "Every woman writing in these years has had to swim in the feminist wave," she wrote. "No matter what she thinks of it, even if she bravely swims against it, she has been supported by it -- the buoyancy, the noise, the saltiness."

Her earliest stories were rich in humor and irony. In "The Loudest Voice," a Jewish child's vocal stamina makes her the ideal narrator of a school Christmas play.

Ms. Paley gradually gave way to grimmer themes ranging from rape to mental illness. She also ventured into character studies less driven by plot.

She tended to draw more mixed reviews for the later work. Still, Robert R. Harris, an editor for the New York Times Book Review, once noted that Ms. Paley's literary reputation remained largely untarnished because "her best stories have staying power, and a few can justifiably be called brilliant."

Her first collection, "The Little Disturbances of Man" (1959) contained some of her most anthologized works, including "Goodbye and Good Luck." The story is narrated by the vivacious Rosie, who has a long affair with a married Russian actor known as "the Valentino of Second Avenue."

"Goodbye and Good Luck" contained many of the hallmarks of her prose -- the uncluttered sentences, the flawed but sympathetic female narrator and the pitch-perfect Bronx street vernacular of her youth that U.S. poet laureate Robert Pinsky once called "the lyrically yakking cadence of New York City speech."

The title of the collection referred to a line in another short story, "An Interest in Life," in which a housewife named Virginia sums up in the opening sentences the husband who has deserted her: "My husband gave me a broom one Christmas. This wasn't right. No one can tell me it was meant kindly."

Virginia later takes a lover who discourages her from trying to get on a game show called "Strike It Rich" because the program is meant to help people who "really suffer" in natural catastrophes, not those enduring "the little disturbances of man."

Ms. Paley wrote her fiction slowly and sparingly, spending a great deal of time focused on her deepening political involvement as a pacifist concerned with environmental and anti-military causes. There was a 15-year gap between her first short-story collection and "Enormous Changes at the Last Minute" (1974), which received mixed reviews as she experimented with style and darker content.

The short-story collection "Later the Same Day" came out in 1985, the same year as her book of poetry called "Leaning Forward." She also wrote "365 Reasons Not to Have Another War," published in 1989. In her fiction, she often rekindled her alter-ego, a single mother named Faith, to comment on sex, friendship and, ultimately, aging.

Although Ms. Paley once attempted a novel, she said she had no luck and shrugged off the effort by saying "art is too long and life is too short."

She was the daughter of Jewish-Ukrainian immigrants who had been dedicated anti-czarists and punished with exile. The family name was changed from Gutzeit to Goodside upon arrival in New York. Her father, Isaac, became a doctor and a painter.

Grace Goodside was born Dec. 11, 1922, in the Bronx. She later recalled the neighborhood as "a world so dense with Jews that I thought we were the great
imposing majority."

As a child, she developed a keen ear for the Yiddish, Russian and broken English spoken around her. A bright but indifferent student, she entered Hunter College at 15 and was expelled the next year for absenteeism.

"I really went to school on poetry," she later told The Washington Post. In the early 1940s, while working as a typist for an elevator repair company, she studied under English poet W.H. Auden at the New School for Social Research in New York.

She was deeply influenced by his criticism of her work. He advised her not to borrow words from his prose, such as "subaltern," and instead find her own voice.

In 1942, she married Jess Paley, a movie cameraman. They had two children before divorcing, Nora Paley, now of Thetford, and Danny Paley, now of Brooklyn, N.Y.

Besides those two children, survivors include her second husband, author Robert Nichols, whom she married in 1972, of Thetford; three stepchildren, Duncan Nichols of Thetford, Eliza Nichols of Manhattan, N.Y., and Kerstin Nichols of Hartford, Vt.; and seven grandchildren.

As a young mother, Ms. Paley drifted away from writing for more than a decade and became involved in community activism in Greenwich Village.

Then she had what she called "the first of two small lucks": a bout of flu that kept her away from her children and gave her time to think and write; and meeting a father of her children's friends who was an editor at Doubleday. He encouraged her writing and ultimately urged Doubleday to publish "The Little Disturbances of Man."

The book received elaborate praise and established her reputation. However, Ms. Paley, who once described herself as "a somewhat combative pacifist and cooperative anarchist," was willingly distracted from her writing by other pursuits. She gave more attention to teaching fiction at Sarah Lawrence College north of New York City and especially to her political activism.

During the Vietnam War, she encouraged young men to avoid military service, participated in rallies against the war and in 1969 went to Hanoi as part of a U.S. delegation to bring home prisoners of war.

She once spent time at Greenwich Village's Women's House of Detention for blocking a military parade. She described her time there in the essay "Six Days, Some Rememberings," noting among other things that the bullpen is "an odd name for a women's holding facility."

In 1978, she and other members of the War Resisters League were arrested and fined $100 for unlawful entry on the White House lawn and unfurling an antinuclear banner. During this period, she also attended peace conferences in the Soviet Union and El Salvador, meeting in the second with mothers of the disappeared during a bloody anti-government struggle.

A New Yorker, she also maintained a second home in Vermont, where she protested the war in Iraq in a low-key manner she once described as "vigiling on the common."

Ms. Paley could talk wryly of her activism. In her introduction to the "Greenwich Village Peace Center Cookbook," she warned the reader that "this cookbook is for people who are not so neurotically antiauthoritarian as I am -- to whom one can say, 'Add the juice of one lemon' without the furious response, 'Is that a direct order?' "

Michelle Detorie's "birdbox" and other hypertext poems/The Undertext of War

Michelle Detorie's intriguing deployment of hypertext for her poems--a series written during National Poetry Month 2007 called "BellumLetters"--enables her work to attain a level of simultaneity. At the risk of reading too literally, a poem such as "birdbox" is, on the one hand, a poem about a birdhouse, and, given the hypertext links, suddenly a poem about a missile... To read the hypertext versions, go here.



no arrival, only the construct

a tethered thing, a lid
to lift


wood from the sea
where birds are made
wood box

the saw

white tail
blade feather

box of knives
box of beds


thermometer for blood making

syringe, feeder

drained and piled
faceless wings

shaped to slip, flesh grip
soft and bone

glass on stone
tip red tip

knock on bone
without breath


outside, too
a life stretch
brown and moving
eye, wing stitch
the missing sound



sad neck, deflated
unfrozen and soft

homeless, three
missing home
tapered tail to tip

without flight

Labels: bellumletters, iraq, links, napowrimo, poem, protest, war
posted by Michelle Detorie at 11:01 PM 0 comments

Thursday, August 23, 2007

David-Baptiste Chirot on the Guantanamo Poems

And David Baptiste-Chirot, on Poems from Guantanamo, written for the Buffalo Poetics Listserv, which ranges in its meditation on "suspects," "authors," Artaud, War on Terror, and translation:

It's been over a year now that the story as well as some of the poems of this book have been making the news, and now come the reviews, and even the posts here noting that the book is "suspect". (After all, it IS written by "suspects"--!)"

A book produced by the Pentagon, or a book of bad poetry by bad people----already the poems are being put into their own form of Guantanamo--the military-controlled translations, the use of the word "suspect" with regards to a book of poetry by "suspects", the immediate response that the poems are bad, and their only reason to be read at all is that they issued from Guantanamo, a sort of curiosity
that in time--and the quicker the better!-- will be forgotten.

The responses to the book only reinforce the military's judgement--the work is "suspect" (may contain hidden messages/contains no message and/or formal qualities worthy of attention)--it is "bad"--(written by a bunch of very bad guys/by a bunch of bad poets) and, as the reviewer perhaps subtly implies, written by persons from cultures inferior to those of the Russian Mandelstam or the Japanese interned by the Americans. After all, Russian and Japanese poetry is far better known to/by the American reader than that of the languages and cultures of the prisoners.

When Foucault wrote that the "author" is a product, a nexus, of the discourses of her times, he could as well have included the reader. "Who reads?" It's easy enough to figure out "who is reading" in most cases, by the readers' responses. It becomes more difficult to tell "who" is reading when the interrogation light is turned on oneself. What a bunch of cobbled together nonsense, knee jerk reactions, leanings on the authority of someone's theory or "Word", adherences to an ideology, a prejudice--spews forth like a burst sewer main! "Hard headed realists' clarities", "brutal analyses", "convincing critiques", "radical readings"--how much of it is not just regurgitated internalization of the discourses of one's personal
preference? And how much of it is not based on a "willing suspension of disbelief"--in other words, a belief in fictions which one takes as facts, "truths", as "self-evident"?

Hasn't this book been placed already in the position of being "set up" to "fail"--in terms of "quality" and "quantity" also if people know what's "good for them"? One can pretty much imagine what many a blog and web site, pundit and poet, will have to say ahead of time about the weaknesses and failures of the book. And its "triumphs" it will immediately be pointed out, are all of them very much "suspect".

Who wins? The "American discourse" so to speak, employed with equal disdain by the military and the poetry community, as well as a lot of people who won't want to read/see/hear the words of "terrorists" or "Islamo-Fascists" or simply "Moslems" to begin with. Once again "America" has triumphed!! Even over a "triumph of the
human spirit"--something we know cannot belong--or be allowed to belong-- to suspected terrorists, Moslems, or Third World persons all supposedly violently opposed to OUR definitions of "democracy", "freedom", "post-avant poetry" "borders" and the like.

The more one thinks about it, the more this book makes America look Great, doesn't it? Whichever way you look at it, "we" come out looking even better than ever than "them". I mean isn't it satisfying and somehow very myself-as-an-American confirming to find out these bad guys are also bad poets? And doesn't that put in their place a bit all those "bleeding heart" types who will fall for any kind of poetry providing it is written by the the "right kinds" of subject positions? Look how free "we" are--reading only the "right kind" (the ood") poetry regardless of ideology, subject position and so forth! You see, the more the poets of Guantanamo "lose'"-the more "we" all regardless of ( which American) point of view stand to gain!

The Guantanamo book does however raise very interesting questions regarding translation in times of War, and especially in the loudly and long declared Wars Without End--the War on Poverty, War on Drugs, War on Terrorism, a Trinity each of which effects greatly the other. The Imperialist American agenda abroad is just as much a War at home, on those of the American people "not worth saving". The
"Health Care" system in this regard is really a program of eugenics, working in tandem with the other methods of limiting the elite and powerful of the society to the right few and their various sycophants, assistants, collaborators, undertakers, prison wardens, media and institutions.

In light of these Wars, i thought the review interesting as in itself it creates its own possible "after" review or meta-review, in many strange ways, among them the little discourse on translation. I recall reading in an article from last summer in it may have been the Guardian----a little bit about one of the poets mentioned, the first one of whom there was an account of having written his poetry incised in styrofoam cups. (A very interesting way to write in that one may read it with the touch rather than the eyes alone; a haptic poetry, literally--). This particular poet was Pashtun, and what to the reviewer may seem hackneyed or trite phrases, in Pashtun and in the other poetry traditions within which the prisoners write, these lines are filled with centuries of echoes, allusions, references to
sites/sights/cites which are profoundly evocative of one's homeland and personal home. Even through the non-literary translations done by military approved translators, there is always going to be a certain amount of the poetry which slips through the bars, in between the lines, as well as in the themselves. Some of it may be recognized by an attentive reader, and/or many other aspects be present even in a poor translation, yet unrecognized due to a non-recognition of the writer's culture.

In other words, the poetry may be there, for all the dis-translation and dissing, yet, just as the military feared, it is camouflaged, hiding in plain sight, or long ago departed for parts unknown, seen as clouds floating over a distant land by someone who will recognize the poem from their friend, relative, fellow country

Artaud, in the Preface to The Theater and its Double:

Furthermore, when we speak the word "life," it must be understood we are not referring to life as we know it from its surface of fact, but to that fragile, fluctuating center which forms never reach. And if there is still one hellish, truly accursed thing in our time, it is our artistic dallying with forms, instead of being like victims burnt at the stake, signaling through the flames.

Isn't this exactly what the criticisms of the book are all about? That is doesn't measure up in regards to the "artistic dallying with forms" while all the while the visible/visible hooded person's signals vanish behind the asphyxiating smokescreens which have been deliberately cranked full mass and volume to hide them? Isn't the discourse about the "bad" poetry and Pentagon interference all a way to ignore that somewhere inside all the smokescreens there is indeed someone burning at the stake?

Obviously, someone must have seen Artaud in Dreyer's film La Passion de Jeanne d'Arc--and doesn't want any poet in "our custody" to die a martyr, "signaling through the flames"!

God forbid there be any interruption in "our" "artistic dallying with forms"!

An aspect of this that is quite striking is to find how dangerous poetry can be not only to the military, who rightly know that poetry can conceal messages they would rather not allow to get out, but that this paranoia carries over to the reviewer also. The reviewer essays to restrict the poems within the limits of being
witness-only poetry--and not even very good witness poetry at that.

It's as though there is a fear that some form of otherness, if unbounded from the restraints of a narrowly confined genre, might indeed be producing a poetry which he won't be able to hear, understand, grasp--the same fear the military has. Maybe these poets in spite of everything just may be sending messages out there to
someone somewhere! I.E someone reading them as poetry (in a tradition, in a language) with far more depth than the reviewer will allow them to have.

The War on Terror, of which the Guantanamo prisoner poets are such a powerful, hooded, simultaneously visible/invisible example, opens also the the mine fields of translation in relation to "intelligence" and "news" as well as (and AS)propaganda. The War on Terror, which would seem to require the most exacting forms of intelligence and translation, instead seems to have taken an alternate route--into the realms of controlled translations, deliberate dis-translations, the removal of feared words and their replacement with words giving a happier picture of things, or a more frightening, as the occaision demands. Translation--which, in the case of a great many ancient and modern classics is always being done over and over again--is always trying to keep pace with "today's new, modern usage" and "latest researches and forms". The same demands are put on translations of intelligence and the news, and when one essays filtering poetry through this, it begins to create a small to very huge disturbance of the methods of deceit that are employed against its supposed and feared methods of deceit.

The language of poetry, already super charged, creates a difficult problem for military translators used to identifying "hidden messages" in a way oddly analogous to literary critics approaching a text which they have a pre-formed intention towards--whether it be an animus or a friendly welcome. "Objectivity", which one would think would be a goal of intelligence, starts to corrode, and in the
presence of poetry i think the corrosive effects are acting in ways that the translators feel is getting a bit out of hand, though not being able to identify quite where or in what way.

In order to try to maintain control, the spin doctors go to work, and the poetry is reconfigured, reworded, until it conforms as closely as possible to the desired template. Even then, something in its very awkwardness and "bad poetry-ness" seems to indicate that it is still "suspect", that something is still "troubling".

This same anxiety seems to be haunting the reviewer. If the texts can be kept confined to being witness poetry only, then he can make a very easy judgement. If they start to corrode the walls of this further confinement, then he doesn't know what to do with them.

One gets a feeling that he would much rather keep things confined and in that manner be done with the issue. After all, the prisoners it is implied are not Mandelstam, and not Japanese interned in America--people who it seems to be implied are of a higher poetical character than the prisoners of Gitmo. The bios of these men seem
reassuringly simple to comprehend, while their poems do not. (Even if they are "bad" poems--they keep inducing an anxiety, as though being more "complex, ambiguous" than they seem so obviously NOT to be.)

Again, there is the feeling, as with the military, that somehow, something is slipping through the critic's grasp and making its way into the world where someone somewhere at sometime will indeed recognize it in some way.

Translation itself with the War on Terror has become a further field of manipulated and controlled propaganda--with independent organizations attempting to get out alternate versions of translations than does MEMRI, the mega mouthpiece for a good part of the world's versions of texts from the Middle East that are used in
newspapers, radio, tv around the world. MEMRI is known for subtly to greatly altering articles to fit their agendas, as well as planting stories in various Arabic and Farsi language newspapers and then providing the "translations" (i.e. the "originals") of these very stories to the world at large--again all done with an eye to the agenda. News becomes propaganda via dis/translation and the translations/pre-writings of "real" fake stories planted in real newspapers which are "found" and then "translated" into the readymade original language as well as into others and then distributed throughout the world as "real" news found in a real journal/online site.

The reader/listener/watcher of all this propaganda requires, like the fiction reader, a "willing suspension of disbelief." History has proven over and over again that in times of fear, of concern for Security of the Homeland, the willing suspension of disbelief is one of the first modes of response chosen by the majority of people.

Complete fictions trigger wars, hatreds, massive arms races, enormous security and cleanup contracts, the building of corporate mercenary forces above any law, national or international, the construction of ever bigger and more lethal Walls. No one running for office or in office wants to look anything but tough on Crime, Dope, Terrorism, Immigrants, the Poor, the Sick, all of them pitched into the same
roiling pot of gumbo.

The "news" becomes a vast spectacle of partial facts, a few "safe" facts, fictions, lies, distortions, all guaranteed to make one feel "up to date" in the "most modern efficient way". The tricks of the intelligence community get fed back outwards into the news, to effect events and opinions, ideas, which in turn effect actual events,
creating further distorted and falsified "translated" versions of these. To attempt to control and spin these continuous streams of information, disinformation, dis-translation and out right fictions, news organizations become ever more dependent on "government sources", "intelligence briefings" which in turn feed them their own mixtures of facts, fictions, disinformations. The resultant texts are either
taken seriously or provide fresh fodder for comedy shows. Either way, the status quo is maintained.

The continual fear is that for all the elaborate constructions of fictional "intelligence" and "news" there will always be something that gets through unnoticed, igniting questions which need to be muzzled, controlled, censored.

Oddly, since the "free press"'s cited (real or fake--) source is claimed to be the enemy's newspaper/tv/radio/blog/web site in order to give it "authenticity", it is considered on the one hand "false", "suspect" and on the other "real", the "real voice of the Arab world/street. These constructedly fictional or severely
dis-translated as possible bits of "intelligence," these supposedly hardened, "irrefutable" "facts" have the very instability they were meant to replace and suppress. The constant fear that something will "leak out" or "leak through" requires ever more vigilance, surveillance, and ever more censorship. Attacks need to be launched on various individuals, presses, books, speakers, to discredit them
and silence their criticisms. Mass responses to such outbreaks of criticism have to be contained by a deluge of media "reporting" and "discussion" whose intent is to annihilate the person/publication/professor/poet in question. The fewer critics of
the fiction there are, the more the fiction can triumph. The more emphatically and forcefully critics are made to disappear, the less likely new ones are going to come forward and take a similar risk.

In this way, the reader/writer may disagree in general but not in the particulars with the viewpoints presented by the controlling powers. The responses of poets to the Guantanamo poems may not be all that far at all from being nearly the same as the military's. "The poems are suspect". "The poems are bad." "I won't buy the book." "I won't read the book." "I'll satirize the book."

With the Guantanamo poets, the reviewer seems to have a fear that poetry somehow has made it through every effort, including his own, to muzzle it. For, after all, a great many poetries that have endured through time and space have done just that. Don Quixote began his chase after the "impossible dream" in a prison, and to quite some astonishment found himself conquering the El Dorados of Broadway. At
various times, any writer worth their salt was expected to have done a good turn or two in prison! Johnny Cash and Thoreau only needed one night there to profoundly move millions with their jail inspired work.

The list of prison writings that are both powerful bearers of witness and very good pieces of writing is very very large indeed.

Perhaps, just as the military --and the reviewer--and readers--feared, their is something there in the poems, which has yet to be found--and yet that remains very much a question of who controls the dis-translations and who --as a native speaker--will be able to read through the English into the heart of the original languages of
composition, inside the manacles and under the hoods. One can always also "suspect" that concealed somewhere in the layerings of fictions, constructions, censorings, dis-translations, there are still traces of lines of poetry which have issued from the anarkeyological strati of a "mother Earth" "mother tongue" and poetic tradition. Until one knows much more what the poems are, passing a swift judgement on them seems to be to participate in the discourses of power which Foucault thought
of in "Who is an author?"

Because Who IS the Author here--the poet, the military, the translator, the press, the publicity, the opinions of poets found here, the reviewer, myself? Because of the muzzling and censoring and dis-translating of the poems, ironically the reader becomes very much what a lot of theoretical-critical positions advocate--a co-producer if not more of the (nearly absent, hooded, manacled) poem's "meaning,"
"quality," and "direction," "category," "value," "cliches," "witnessing." The reader becomes complicit in the creating of the poem as "bad," "suspect" in a way not too far removed from that of the military. The effort on both parts is to be able to render the poetry as absolutely ineffectual as possible. The worse, the weaker, the more pathetic the poems can be made to be read and received, the
better and safer and more secure the good American reader/military can feel. All is truly for the best in this best of all possible worlds!

And American poetry is safe and "free" from the "threat" of there being any "good" Guantanamo poetry, composed on what after all are "our shores".

If one finds "suspect" the Guantanamo poetry, why not subject to an equally "suspect" level of investigatory consideration o the news, the poetics, the words of the "great leaders" in all walks of American society and the arts that everyday participate in the construction of various levels of fictions one is supposed to "willingly suspend one's disbelief" for?

Earlier this year was the appearance of IMPOUNDED Dorothea Lange's Censored Photographs of Japanese American Internment Camps with texts by Linda Gordon and Gary Y. Okihiro . 97% of the books images have never before been published. The photos, shot primarily in 1942, were never shown but for a very few, as Lange, despite following the contrainsts placed on her choices of things to photograph, still conveyed far too much of the reality of the camps. Or--allowed the realities and people to express themselves too cleary through her being open to what was being said. What makes the book even more haunting is the inclusion of the original titlings for each photo, which give a "positive" light to the most grim, stark image. The juxtapostion of image and official caption can be extremely disturbing in a way no detourned caption could ever be. Again, there is the issue of translation--the photographic translation as it were, then the military approved captions, then the present day texts. There is also the fascinating ways in which these photos are finding their way in a development of the methods and "look" of Lange's famous
Depression Era photos. Since the book gives one both the censored images and the original military dis-translation captions, as well as the contemporary commentary to put things in historical perspective, it is perhaps prototype of what may or not become someday of the Guantanamo poetry and the history of its censorings and final release of the original poems, not just by the poets included in this book,
but all the poems by all the poets. It took over sixty years for Lange's work to reach the American public--who knows when if ever the same may be possible for the poetry?

Another very interesting book of an American incarceration and its expression in art that has many eerie foreshadowings of Guantanamo is: Warrior Artists Historic Cheyenne and Kiowa Indian Ledger Art Drawn by Making Medicine and Zotom by Herman J. Viola with Commentary by Joesph D. and George P. Horse Capture. This is the story of the capture, and thousand mile train and forced march journey of the warriors and chiefs of four tribes to the 17th Century Spanish-built Fort Marion Prison in St. Augustine, Florida. There the Indians were taught to read and write and speak some English, sing Christian hymns and say the Lord's prayer, listen to sermons and be trained in the discipline of the American army. They were also given pencil and paper and the result was a flood of "ledger" books in which the lives of the
imprisoned "terrorists" are recorded. (Some of the prisoners had killed men, women and children settlers in an effort to stem the tide of settlements and the attendant killing off of the buffalo and Indians both. Others were teenagers who hadn't done a thing. The choosing of prisoners was done in a completely arbitrary way.)

Translation with regards to the Indians involved translating them into White terms, behaviours, handicrafts, disciplines, religion and language. If the former "savage" could be rewritten into an acceptable, well behaved, simulation of a White--why
he or she could go free--i.e. be allowed to leave the prisons and go live on the reservations where their families had already been shipped off to. There, they were supposed to teach the ways of the Whites and maintain discipline and order. This was hoped to be a "kinder, gentler" way of vanishing the Indian than simply to continue killing every last one of them.

Better a poor imitation, a bad translation, of a White version of being, safely confined on reservations, dependent on the Bureau of Indian Affairs for food and aid, than a terrifying, "terrorist" savage!

So isn't it much better to have "bad" poetry from "bad" people safely confined in Guantanamo, safely dis-translated, safely dismissed, than to have to read the terrifying, "terrorist," "savage" alternative? Isn't it much better to "know" "our" poetry and ways will always be better than "theirs"?

After all, what could be more frightening than if the best poet on American soil turned out to be an imprisoned "terrorist" "suspect" or a reservation Indian? What might happen to the "willing suspension of disbelief" continually required to keep on believing in the Empire's New Clothes, New Writing, New Threats, New Bread and

What if after all one was confronted with signalings through the flames, rather than smokescreens, Walls, border security fences, prisons, distranslations, fictions, lies?

Would the flames and signalings reveal too much of the "still one hellish, truly ccursed thing, . . our artistic dallying after forms"?

Another Take on the Guantanamo Poems/Dan Chiasson's review

In Dan Chiasson's review of Poems from Guantanamo, he tries to claim a space for reading such poetry--"You don’t read this book for pleasure; you read it for evidence"--even if he finds the work lacking in such evidence: "But the bulk of these poems are so vague, their claims so conventional, that they might have been written at any point in history by anyone suffering anything."

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

"my god" by Steve Dalachinsky/The Ill-logics of War

Though I'm pretty much drenched in the intellectual aspects of the Catholic tradition (I've gone to Jesuit high school, college, and now teach at a Jesuit institution) I've never been a huge fan of Just War Theory. Initiated by St. Augustine during a time when Christianity was adapting its eschatological ethics to being the official religion of the Roman Empire, Just War Theory is an intellectually-engaged approach to mesh religion and warfare. Which sounds like a good idea, except there's never been a war in my lifetime when someone didn't employ Just War Theory to justify the conflict. In other words, the theory seems a bit elastic for my taste. Steve Dalachinsky's poem "my god" approaches the problem of rationalist consequences through its relentless parental rhetoric: "because you do this, I shall do this..."

"my god"

clouds & sun pacing back & forth
in the sky

because they are harsh to us
we turn against our allies

because they are harsh to us
we kill their sons & daughters

because they are harsh to us
we loot their national treasures

because they are harsh to us
we silence all their voices

because they are harsh to us
we set up puppet governments

because they are harsh to us
we make them a "democracy"

because they are harsh to us
we fill them up with fast foods

because they are harsh to us
we steal their natural resources

because they are harsh to us
we incorporate their bodies

because they are harsh to us
we turn them into factories

the clouds dominate the sky today
the waves crash violently
upon this usually calm shore
my shoulders & chest convulse w/shivers
my teeth chatter
my bloodless fingers go stiff & numb

the gulls are beginning to circle
only a few children & old men are brave enough
to swim at this hr
the hammering has stopped
the girders silenced
the crane still creaks in the wind
helicopters still patrol
the music's turned nasty like the weather
as the water reaches my feet
i feel a warmth within the undercurrent
like a comforter
a message from hell

because they are harsh to us.......
because they are harsh to us.......

the sailboat beyond the rocks seems so relaxed
the white of its sail so still
3 children run from the ocean
the oldest ( a girl ) waves something
"i found a dollar --- i found a dollar"
& she had
in the water among the waves the waves
.....the last place you expect to find
the waves .....

because they are harsh to us
we destroy them then defend them
we befriend them then destroy them


we fold up our blankets & go home

because they are harsh to us
we are harsh to them

because we are harsh to them
they are harsh to us

steve dalachinsky brighton beach brooklyn ny 8/9/04

Monday, August 20, 2007

"On Political Poetry" by Farideh Hassanzadeh–Mostafavi/Adrienne Rich and Sam Hamill Step Up to the Board, Billy Collins Takes the Zero

In a recent article, "On Political Poetry," Farideh Hassanzadeh–Mostafavi interviewed a handful of well-known poets and asked them some loaded questions about their poetry in light of the contemporary, um, "big stick policy" (code word for "imperialism") of the United States. Talk about putting Billy Collins into an awkward situation. He pleads the fifth, as is his constitutional right (and perhaps, as Halvard Johnson suggests, his economic imperative--doesn't want to lose any of his adoring fans). Two answers, by Andrienne Rich and Sam Hamill, are worth quoting here.

Adrienne Rich, answering the question, "You involve yourself in the disasters of the modern world and sympathize with victims of war and of Imperialism. Does it move you away from poetry as a form of art or does it take you closer to the true essence of poetry?":

I believe that for poets all over the world the human condition, not simply their own private griefs, has been a profound source of poetry. I think of Neruda, Roque Dalton, Nazim Hikmet, Mahmoud Darwish, Bertolt Brecht, Paul Celan, Kamau Brathwaite, Aimé Césaire, our Walt Whitman, Muriel Rukeyser, Gwendolyn Brooks, Robert Hayden, Thomas McGrath, June Jordan -- to name some whose work I turn to over and over. For me, the question is: Why should poetry not engage with the largest possible range of materials, and how can we live in a world such as this and draw a circle around our concerns?

And Sam Hamill, on Kafka's notion of war as the failure of the imagination:

War is childish -- infantile -- behavior. War is a country soiling its diapers and pitching a fit, a temper tantrum. Kafka's right: no imagination. Sappho's right: war is childish. I like to think of that splendid movie about Gandhi, and the image of him in his loincloth, walking stick in hand, standing up to the British military, absolutely fearless in his convictions about nonviolence. I think of Nazim Hikmet rising up out of the bilge where he'd been thrown, and he throws back his head and looks up at his oppressors, and he sings. The only way to achieve peace is to embody peace. By embodying peace within ourselves, we bring peace to the home. With peace in the home, we bring peace to our community. With peace in the community, we bring peace to the state. Peace comes from within, and it requires great imagination. It cannot be imposed from above, such imposition being, by definition, un-peaceful.

That is why the Saddams and Bushes and Osamas and other tyrants wage fear. Fear unsettles peaceful lives. Fear brought the Nazis to power. Fear allows us (Americans) to finance a huge military while our schools and our country's infrastructure are falling apart. Bush wants a fearful future. He's a heaven-or-damnation Christian and believes in an apocalypse. "Believe in me or burn in Hell!"

Scary stories keep the children in their beds.

Jim Andrews on Poetry and Peacemaking/How Vispo Came to Host PRIME

What does poetry have to do with peacemaking, and vice versa? On the Buffalo Poetics Listserv, poet Jim Andrews recently posted information about PRIME, a collaborative Israeli-Palestinian educational project that attempts to "disarm" the exclusivist aspects of the national narratives promulgated by each people. I highly recommend going through this webpage and checking out what courageous Israelis and Palestinians are doing to build peace and attempt to create the ground for peaceful reconciliation. What struck me, however, was not just that he was hosting the PRIME website, but that it was part of a larger website devoted to visual poetry (, and I wanted to know how that came to be. Here's Jim's response to my inquiry:

A friend of mine, Sid Tafler, is a journalist. His folks lived in Israel. He would visit them several times a year. He met Dan and Sami during one of his trips. Sid asked me if I'd help him with the Web site. I just do the HTML and provide the hosting space on

But, yes, I agree the PRIME project is fascinating. Not only the Learning Each Other's Historical Narrative project--and its "disarming of the teaching of history" in the schools--but their other projects as well. For instance, they've interviewed a lot of old Jews and Palestinians--folks who were adult in 1948--with video, and filmed them talking with one another.

Their "peace-building" projects are truly inspiring. I admire what they are doing very much. I'm proud to host the PRIME site.

The connection between poetry and peace-building is multi-faceted, isn't it. Part of what poetry involves is seeing things from multiple perspectives. A precondition for peace is a willingness to entertain the viewpoints of 'the other', even 'the enemy'. It has been pointed out forcefully in the twentieth century that literature rarely has a humanizing effect, even when the work itself is profoundly human. I mean multi-perspectival,compassionate, illuminating of the individual and collective conflicts and dynamics. Because, as Paul Simon says, "a man sees what he wants to see and disregards the rest."

But it's precisely that which the multi-perspectival and compassionate seeks to penetrate. So even if poetry of compassion does not reach many people, its continuing existence and creation is important just as "peace-building" projects, as Dan and Sami say, are important to there later being "peace making" by the political representatives.


Sunday, August 19, 2007

CAConrad's Hair and the War in Iraq

There is something about war and hair, dissent and locks. Ever since Homer in his ILIAD brought the protoprotestor, Thersites, onto the scene with scraggly hair, dissenters have been mocked for their unruly locks. Poet CAConrad finds himself continuing the long tradition, but not as an act of hippie liberation, but rather as a daily reminder of the war. As Husker Du once wrote in the liner notes to "Warehouse: Songs and Stories" (I'm paraphrasing here): "revolution often begins at home, preferably in the bathroom mirror."

The first few years of occupation seemed to be years where everyone was discussing, attending marches, keeping the fever pitch, spreading the descent [sic]. But on the morning of the 3rd anniversary of our occupation I remember not moving in bed, just staying still and thinking about the war.

And thinking too about thinking about the war. And asking myself quite honestly if in fact I thought about the war every single day. And it seemed an honest answer to say Yes, that I did. But I was worried about the future, was worried about continuing to think, to remember the many lives my tax dollars pay to destroy.

It was that morning that I wanted to make something, just for myself, something that would remind me every single day without fail that we are a country at war. A handwritten, or painted sign could easily be gotten used to and lost in the room. So many ideas kept coming. I even considered a tattoo, but felt that that too could get lost in the routine of survival and pain of routine.

My hair. When I finally thought about my hair I knew that I had the answer. And ever since the 3rd anniversary of our American invasion of Iraq I have refused to cut my hair. Every morning I have to see it, and feel it, and wash it. It's grown beyond my shoulders, and the longer it gets the more care it needs. And I've had long hair in the past, but I didn't care for that hair like I do this hair. It's a personal metaphor to live with, this War Hair of mine. I've never spent money on conditioners like I do now. Being with this hair keeps me in check, keeps me angry,
keeps me mournful, keeps me far FAR FAR from sentimentality and other stupidities, and sets me down in the middle of this breathtaking landscape of American denial.

This hair will not be cut until we are out of Iraq. And my friends keep asking what that means exactly. Does it mean when our soldiers are out? Or when the war itself is over? Or? Or peace? Or?

It would be nice to not die with it is all I can answer.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Ruth Lepson's "it never goes away completely"

it never goes away completely
like the usa in the 50s
in a poor small town in the middle of nowhere
in those weeds by the side of a house, its paint peeling
and nobody home I am sitting here and do not move
across the street 2 american flags
cheer like leaders in the wind
that brought memory and war again
jazz helps fast language helps
war wounds yelp men dead again
we went to strange places on vacation
it hurt to live with them
there was no way to communicate
blurting it out didn't help anything
they just say you're strange in the vest
in the sink poison in the purse
so rest, rest till all that talk of
's squeezed out of you

About the poem, Ruth Lepson writes:

I guess I wrote the poem to express some feeling abt the personal & political, how intertwined they are. Saw a painting of some weeds behind an old house & felt melancholy & realized that in childhood when my parents & I went to unknown places (to us) that were poor or out of the way I felt sad. Later I realized I was projecting something onto the people who lived there. I used to live in Watertown, MA (moved to Cambridge last winter), in a working class neighborhood, where flags were displayed, which always made me feel I shd keep my politics to myself.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Gary Lawless, My Kind of Soldier

On the Buffalo Poetics listserv, CA Conrad, Stephen Vincent, and others have been talking war and the impact on our soldiers. From Stephen Vincent's post, we learned from a Washington Post story that Gary Lawless, the owner of Gulf of Maine Books in Brunswick, Maine, is conducting writer's workshops for war veterans, in his words, "to get their stories literally out of their bodies, so they're not carrying them around by themselves." Thank you, Gary Lawless.

Thursday, August 9, 2007

Kevin Prufer's "Patriot Missile"/Becoming the Bomb (again!)

I came across Kevin Prufer's frightening "Patriot Missile" in a recent issue of Colorado Review, and wanted to pass it along for those who haven't read it. What caught my eye about this poem is partly what caught my ear--it's an tense poem simply on the level of sound, and probably naturally so, because this persona is working with the precision machinery of the "Patriot" missle. In opposition to my usual style of talking about the poem and then delivering it, I've posted Prufer's own reflection on the poem afterwards. (I'm still fiddling with his spacing, which hasn't appeared properly yet).

"Patriot Missile" by Kevin Prufer

I loved the half-constructed hulk of it,
the firing condenser that, bared,
caught the light
and made of it a copper flare—
nose and husk, electrolyte.
And I, tweezing a clot of oil, a metal shaving from its stilled heart,
might smile, as if to tell it Live


and it just slept at my work station,
its screen gone black and strange,
its alien lungs and chest, in an oiled and armless husk,
its one-eyed head—
for days it nearly died in the workroom


and I caressed it thusly:
with my thumb across its rough coils, and down
where the detonator
clasped the breaker.
And once, holding its lungs just so, I turned the dial
so the screen came on. It smiled.
I told it Breathe and, for moment,
it appeared to. I told it Darling and Love.


And no one in the factory speaks to me.
I’ve forged a metal face
to cover up my face.
My brain is made of coils, my heart of wires.
I’ve written down my thoughts and stowed them in its guts
and screwed the breastplate back—


Nights, I think about its perfect, absent brain,
the wires that pulse in the breakers,
the payload’s hum,
and sometimes wind,
antenna cap and spark, the thought or throb
when it finds its target
and, finally smiling—

published by Colorado Review (2007)


About the poem, Kevin wrote this:

At a certain point in my writing life, maybe ten years
ago, I decided that I would never write about myself
again. (My first book was very autobiographical.)
The result was that I found this whole world of
possible subjects, and I began to take on voices that
were as far from mine as possible--the voices of Roman
emperors, say, or the decaying children of the Czar.
This poem has definitely grown out of that, as well as
my nearly endless love of horror movies. I know I
began by imagining someone working in a sort of dreary
yet still fanciful missile factory. He imagines the
half-constructed missile in front of him is something
like Frankenstein's monster, that it might have a
weird sort of consciousness beneath its face plate, a
consciousness similar to the speaker's own. (That is,
it might also be cold and irresponsible and gleeful.)
As I wrote, I became interested in how the speaker
(who I began to imagine might be any of us who pay
taxes, who tacitly support our current military
adventures) comes to resemble the thing he creates.
When the citizen-worker who speaks in the poem
imagines the missile smiling into flame at the end, I
figured that he also must be smiling--as so many of us
were encouraged to, watching as we took down Baghdad.

(I wrote the first drafts of this when we were still
being told how wonderful things were in Iraq, etc.
Well, I guess we're still being told that, aren't we?)

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Gary Sullivan's "My Problems with Flarf"/A Poetics of Discomfiture

Gary Sullivan, showing his google chops, spotted my un-factchecked namedrop of him on the last post, and rectified where the quote came from:

That quote from me is actually from an entirely Googled piece called "My Problems with Flarf."

It is made up of things that other people have said about flarf. Most of what is in that paragraph was actually originally written by Allyssa Wolf on the now underground LuciPo list. To be very clear, I not only completely disagree with her--and thus the passage you quoted--but I find her argument laughable.

Shanna has it part right: "My Problems with Flarf" was inspired by a similar piece called "My Poetry" by David Bromige, which was "written" by David in the 1980s by taking things that critics & others had said about his work.

It makes sense, since Gary is part of the Flarf Collective, that he wouldn't be forwarding such a reading as proposed by Allyssa Wolf (sp.?). Nada's comment, as well, seems particularly salient, that the poem is uncomfortable because it speaks to some truisms therein. Mike Magee, another Flarfist who has drawn a firestorm for what was perceived as anti-Asian representations, first began by replying with measured and thoughtful defenses of his poems, and then, he related to me, he found that it was better just to let the poems speak for themselves. In a sense, the Flarf tactic now appears to be to let go of the language school reflex of explaining everything and just letting the poems speak, sing, and sting.

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Drew Gardner's "Chicks Dig War"/Is Flarf "Scorching Irony" or "Living through the Fantasy"?

Drew Gardner's "Chicks Dig War" became something of an anthem for the Flarf Collective and its supporters, but it was not without its critics, including Gary Sullivan on his blog, Elsewhere:

Does google "lead" people to this ugliness? Hell yes. It's there all over the place in our virtual world...certainly there are more intelligent ways of pointing to it and commenting on it. Just spitting it back out is suspect. There are no flarf poems about how funny lynchings are--are there? So why is it funny to dehumanize women (e.g., "Chicks Dig War")? Is that just an easier target? Something you can still get away with "in the community"? As said the wise man Pee-Wee Herman, "That's so funny, I forgot to laugh." If "Chicks Dig War" is the "Howl" of our generation we've got a big problem here. Problematic doesn't even begin to describe it.

Might I also add, in addition to its uneasily-exultant relationship toward women, is its replication of another of the cultural detritus swept from the web: the pacifist as pathological. All of which to say is that flarf courts the very opposite of critique, and even Douglass' notion of scorching irony--it courts just being retrograde as a camp gesture.

Here is yet another possibility: that Flarf is (if you're willing to defend it), engaging in the dangerous Zizekian "living through the fantasy." In other words, by becoming medium to these variously retrograde language-utterances of the web, we acknowledge their claim over us, in us, and own up to them in a way that p.c. language refuses. In the owning up, perhaps, is the possibility of paying out.

Here's Drew reading the poem at the Flarf Festival: