Wednesday, December 31, 2008

The Face of War in Gaza

Witness, for example, the dizzied face of a 17 year old girl whose house has been destroyed. Watch how she can't find her footing.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Poetry as a Healing Rite

Rodney Koeneke found an appropriate poem to end the year, "To Act I Come" by Henri Michaeux, a poem in the long tradition of poetry as a rite of healing, a spell of language to sound out and cover the wound. One of the sections of Come Together: Imagine Peace is called "Prayers and Meditations." "To Act..." is something between a prayer and a spell, and begins like this:

Opening the door inside you, I have entered
To act, I come
I am here
I support you
You are no longer abandoned
You are no longer in difficulty
Their strings untied, your difficulties fall
The nightmare that left you haggard is no more
I am shouldering you
With me you place
Your foot on the first step of the endless stairway
Which carries you
Which brings you up
Which fulfills you

I appease you
I am spreading out sheets of peace in you

The rest you'll have to read here.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Thinking of Gaza

My heart aches with the recent escalation of violence and the devastation wrought upon the people of Gaza (of course, all the people visited upon by violence, regardless of nationality). This video highlights some elements of the reality of daily life in Gaza, irrespective of the recent bombings. Next, we'll have the inevitable incursions, then the delayed international response, and then, perhaps, some "agonizing reappraisal." The human cost to this violence is surreal in our distance, our relative plenty and security.

When I saw the coverage on CNN, titled something like "Crisis in the Mideast"..."What it Means to Americans," I see the pundits wagging their lips, but their faces betray an unruffled calm. How is it possible, given the raw human ugliness that people are facing right now, from bombings piled on the ongoing blockade. It is a kind of living nightmare, and any simple narration about it feels grotesque, bulldozered, punctuated by shrapnel.

A Tribute to Lisa Rosen/"All the Way Up"

Larry Smith, co-editor and publisher of Come Together: Imagine Peace, passed along news that one of our poet contributors, Lisa Rosen, died after a struggle with cancer. Here is one of her poems from the anthology. Peace, Lisa.

"All the Way Up"

flowers float like pale stars
in the grass, and at the top
of the hill there’s a plank
of wood hanging from an oak.

I lift myself into its level lap,
a pendulous Sabbath where
branches curve and meet,
framing landscapes.

Blow sweet shadows,
there’s no holding back
the light, it curls
through the leaves
and snapping grasses. It pads

along Queen Anne’s lace.
Someone with faith in roots
and a weathered limb,
cut, carried, measured and

slipped sleeves of rubber
over rope, knotted it so I’m swinging
between hayfield and cloud.
Someone I will never know
is blessing me.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Mark Moskovitz/Another Cleveland Gem

I recently met Cleveland-area artist Mark Moskovitz--through our wives' common interest in Community Supported Agriculture coop--and shared with me his contribution to "Five Minutes of Designed Freedom." This piece clearly echoes the Four Freedoms, as represented by Norman Rockwell, but with a decidedly postmodern edge and edginess. After all, commercial ads and war propaganda have common origins and common aims....

The very thought of bringing an ad "circular" into the framework of art is a conceptual gesture that made me think about circulars themselves as beyond mere annoyances. After all, on our tight budget, we actually use the damned things. In a few years, I can imagine that the circular itself will go the way of the 8-track, when everything gets onlined, and stores already know what we want, and when we want it.

"Surrender": the International WOW Company's war simulation drama

The play in which my sister plays an Iraqi civilian whose house is being raided will be engaging in its second run. (There's nothing like repetition compulsion for the traumatized, be they simulated or real!)

This play takes Brechtian theatre to another level of audience engagement, though exactly what the critics and audience participants glean from the experience tends to vary by participant. The critics note the intensity of the experience:

"The hallway was hot, dark and loud. Bursts of gunfire and screams echoed through the warren of rooms. A frantic Iraqi woman in a headscarf blocked the doorway. "Only women and children here," she said. I pushed past her, and saw a man with a gun squatting in the corner. I switched my rifle to semiautomatic and fired twice....SURRENDER plunges Theatergoers into the chaos, adrenaline, dread and camaraderie of modern urban warfare...SURRENDER ups the ante by putting the audience, quite literally, in the soldier's shoes."
-Wall St. Journal

"Hallucinatory...Profound...Theatergoers are in a squad, racing through rooms and facing tense scenes in enemy territory: a pregnant mother bristles with resentment at the invasion of her home; lovers are interrupted in an embrace; a lifeless body conceals a machine-gun magazine.... direct, immediate and focused"
-NY Times

A read-through of the audience comments suggests that for some, the play functions as a kind of 3D video game, while for others, it is a powerful induction into the experiences of counterinsurgency warfare (though, not surprisingly, from the soldiers' perspectives):

Unexpectedly, the experience of Surrender has changed me…For me, participating in Surrender was a brief foray into the unimaginable. Thank you so much, again, and thanks to Josh and the whole cast for an unbelievable and stunning experience.”
“Beautiful! The epitome of thought-provoking theater. Audiences have no choice but to do something about this reality.”
“I’m numb- frightening – overwhelming- found tears in my eyes though I wasn’t aware I was crying.”
“Mesmerizing. Amazing how the participants embraced their roles. Made me realize how scary it would be to be drafted.”
“Awesome. Fucking awesome. I didn’t want act 2 to end. [In Act III], I began to understand what people in the military go through.”
“This completely changes my idea of what theater could be. I want to do it again. I am in awe.”
“Most incredible piece of theater I’ve ever seen. How are they actors?”
“I can’t think of a more effective audience interaction in a performance I was brought to tears by audience members. Amazing.”
“All f-cking amazing! I’m sorry for the few words. I’m still a bit speechless.”
“My best friend is a Sergeant in the USMC currently serving in Iraq. This entire act was very emotional but gave me hope. Thank you.”
“My heart was pounding, especially in the Humvee. My hands were shaking from holding my gun but I felt like I couldn’t put it down because it was so real, and if I took my eyes off my target, something would happen. My brother is being deployed next month for his 3rd tour of Iraq so this was very eye opening. I can never know what he has gone through while in the army but this gave me a little taste.”
“ I thought the training was pretty g-ddam realistic. I have a friend going to West
Pointe and I finally have a tiny fraction of an idea of what he is going through.
I’ve never been so g-ddam sweaty at a performance in my life. Thank you. I was
alternately terrified, exciting, appalled, turned on, etc. Brilliant.”
“I can’t describe this act [three]. I can only say it is going to inspire me for months to come. Thank you.”
“F-cking scary. Felt genuine. I felt like crying several times – wanted to comfort
civilians – did not want to kill anyone – that felt strange but necessary on account
of the circumstances. Whoa.”
“This experience was so real. I felt like a soldier. I was nervous, anxious, and felt
alive…The most amazing experience I’ve ever had in a theater. This was heartbreaking,
gut-wrenching, emotionally driven. Beautifully choreographed and staged.”

Read more about "Surrender" here, and for tickets.

Here's one review, by Philippa Wehle:
Conceived and directed by Josh Fox
Written by Josh Fox and Jason Christopher Hartley,
The International WOW Company
The Ohio Theatre
66 Wooster St. New York
Opened October 26, closes November 16
Reviewed by Philippa Wehle, November 13, 2008

Imagine a line of 60 people in front of an Off Off Broadway theater in Soho eagerly volunteering to don Army uniforms and be trained by a veteran of the Iraq war in the arts of warfare. This is what I encountered when I arrived at International WOW company’s new show Surrender, a simulated war deployment experience in three acts, playing at the Ohio Theatre through November 16th. They had come to experience not only the grueling training that recruits must go through before deploying to Iraq, but also the feelings of fear and anticipation evoked in soldiers as they enter the rooms of Iraqi homes and make split-second decisions to kill the enemy or be killed in return.

Working with Jason Christopher Hartley, an army veteran who served in Iraq in 2004 and published a memoir Just Another Soldier; A Year on the Ground in Iraq, in 2005, Josh Fox, artistic director of WOW, has created a unique interactive show that is
fascinating throughout and important in terms of our understanding of what it means to go to war in Iraq and Afghanistan..

Even before the first act began, I had the good luck to listen in on what was happening behind the curtains where the volunteer audience members were exchanging their civilian clothes for standard military uniforms and receiving instructions about how to tie their shoe laces, for example, on the special boots they had been given (only square knots, no loops). The cast of professional actors playing team leaders, squad leaders, doctors and nurses as well as terrorists, prisoners, and Iraqi women, 27 in all, was there to help them through the process.barking orders and making sure that they entered the performance area as quickly as possible.

Those who chose not to be soldiers, myself among them, were observers or civilians in military parlance. Ours was not as exciting a part to play as the roles of those actively involved in the experience of a simulated war but we were nonetheless close to the action at all times, and we felt very much a part of the event.

In Act 1, the nearly 60 soldiers, women and men of old ages, entered the Ohio Theater space and were divided into squads led by actors playing NCOs who had been trained in combat techniques by Jason Christopher Hartley. Once they had been properly lined up, Sargeant Hartley proceeded to give them a crash course in how to handle a rifle, how to clear a room and how to engage the enemy. If any one was not following instructions, he or she was ordered to "Push." And down they went, doing however many push ups required of them. The earnestness of these non-professionals was fascinating to watch. There was never any giggling or smirking, only what seemed to be genuine concern for learning the techniques and rules of war and helping each other to follow them.

In Act 2, the soldiers were deployed into a multi-room installation to put their military training to the test. They learned and practiced the rules of basic room clearing, stacking up, tapping it up, and learning the language they would have to use to clear the room or identify bodies, be they friend or foe. They were also given a lesson in how to search the bodies for any useful information as well as how to carry the wounded to the hospital, a room down stairs where doctors and nurses were frantically trying to save lives. It was good to hear Hartley remind them more than once that the dead must be respected, whether they are the enemy or not.

Next, we observers were invited to walk around the space and look into a series of rooms through openings in walls that had been roughly built around the training space. There we became witnesses to a number of unsettling scenes taking place in Iraqi homes: women mourning the loss of husbands and brothers, a couple shot in the act of making love, a prisoner being tortured. Fortunately we had been warned to wear the earplugs we had been given as these scenes were accompanied by the deafening noises of warfare: helicopters overhead, grenades, and rifles popping.

After a brief intermission during which the soldiers were allowed a few heady moments of well-deserved R & R, complete with beer and Go Go dancers, it was time for the troops to go home.

In Act 3, the soldiers joined the observers in the theater’s seating area, and together we took off on a Delta airlines flight taking these weary soldiers home. In typical WOW theater fashion, we were treated to a series of seemingly unrelated scenes as we watched the TV sitcom Friends on the overhead screen. One minute the stewardesses were giving us the usual instructions, the next a terrorist was slitting the throat of one of them and a soldier in war paint was racing forward to deliver a frenetic speech; dance sequences were interspersed with a visit to a hospital where the war wounded wearing tiger, pig, and shark costumes reenacted a scene we had seen in Fox’s 2007 piece You Belong to Me, and some of the volunteer soldiers were invited to play roles in scenes about looking for a job, attending a funeral, and grappling with the difficulties of reuniting with former girlfriends (their lines provided by a karaoke scroller screen), and much more.

The show lasted about four hours (none of them the least bit boring even though some might question how exciting it is to watch recruits being trained) and many of the participants stayed on afterwards to talk about their extraordinary experience (one female soldier told me how emotional she had felt during the Iraqi house raids; they had brought tears to her eyes, she said).

Surrender is a masterful achievement on all fronts. Not only have Fox and his company succeeded in producing an important piece about the war in Iraq, but the interactive nature of the show allows both soldiers and observers to get a much closer look at what it means to volunteer for duty, to train, kill and be killed, than we ever get from televised reports of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.. How they manage to harness the energies, dedication and enthusiasm of a new group of amateur players each time the show is performed is equally remarkable. Unfortunately this memorable show only runs for three weeks. I can only hope that it will find other sponsors and another space so that many more people can observe war close up.

Harold Pinter's Nobel Lecture: On Art, Language, and Politics

If you're distressed by the mediocre quality, go to the Nobel website here and watch.

a selection from Pinter's speech:

Political language, as used by politicians, does not venture into any of this territory since the majority of politicians, on the evidence available to us, are interested not in truth but in power and in the maintenance of that power. To maintain that power it is essential that people remain in ignorance, that they live in ignorance of the truth, even the truth of their own lives. What surrounds us therefore is a vast tapestry of lies, upon which we feed.


What has happened to our moral sensibility? Did we ever have any? What do these words mean? Do they refer to a term very rarely employed these days - conscience? A conscience to do not only with our own acts but to do with our shared responsibility in the acts of others? Is all this dead? Look at Guantanamo Bay. Hundreds of people detained without charge for over three years, with no legal representation or due process, technically detained forever. This totally illegitimate structure is maintained in defiance of the Geneva Convention. It is not only tolerated but hardly thought about by what's called the 'international community'. This criminal outrage is being committed by a country, which declares itself to be 'the leader of the free world'. Do we think about the inhabitants of Guantanamo Bay? What does the media say about them? They pop up occasionally - a small item on page six. They have been consigned to a no man's land from which indeed they may never return. At present many are on hunger strike, being force-fed, including British residents. No niceties in these force-feeding procedures. No sedative or anaesthetic. Just a tube stuck up your nose and into your throat. You vomit blood. This is torture. What has the British Foreign Secretary said about this? Nothing. What has the British Prime Minister said about this? Nothing. Why not? Because the United States has said: to criticise our conduct in Guantanamo Bay constitutes an unfriendly act. You're either with us or against us. So Blair shuts up.

The invasion of Iraq was a bandit act, an act of blatant state terrorism, demonstrating absolute contempt for the concept of international law. The invasion was an arbitrary military action inspired by a series of lies upon lies and gross manipulation of the media and therefore of the public; an act intended to consolidate American military and economic control of the Middle East masquerading - as a last resort - all other justifications having failed to justify themselves - as liberation. A formidable assertion of military force responsible for the death and mutilation of thousands and thousands of innocent people.

We have brought torture, cluster bombs, depleted uranium, innumerable acts of random murder, misery, degradation and death to the Iraqi people and call it 'bringing freedom and democracy to the Middle East'.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

"A Long Way from Order": On the Death of Harold Pinter and Protest Poetry

Harold Pinter, Nobel Laureate and one of the greatest playwrights of the 20th century, died this week. Although he was not known principally for his poetry, his 2003 collection, War, brought him widespread attention for its excoriation of the imperial motives and operations of the United States in Iraq. It's by no means great poetry--in any sense of the term--except, perhaps for the publicity it engendered by its doggereled outspokenness, its blistering outrage.

Here are some of the poems, both prior to and after that collection, including this one:

Order (12 September, 1996)

Are you ready to order?
No there is nothing to order
No I'm unable to order
No I'm a long way from order
And while there is everything,
And nothing, to order,
Order remains a tall order
And disorder feeds on the belly of order
And order requires the blood of disorder
And 'freedom' and ordure and other disordures
Need the odour of order to sweeten their murders
Disorder a beggar in a darkened room
Order a banker in a castiron womb
Disorder an infant in a frozen home
Order a soldier in a poisoned tomb

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Anti- Issue #3

Just in time for Christmas, Anti- presents Issue 3!

26 poems by Donald Zirilli, Ellen Wehle, Erin Elizabeth Smith, Nic Sebastian, Karen Rigby, Kristen Orser, Jeff Newberry, Juan J. Morales, Philip Metres, Mark McKee, Nathan McClain, Mira Martin-Parker, Patrick Lawler, Jenn Koiter, Donald Illich, Brandi Homan, Christopher Hennessy, Chet Gresham, Emily Kendal Frey / Zachary Schomburg, Noah Falck, Adam Deutsch, and Julia Cohen / Brandon Shimoda.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

On the Shministim: Israel's Conscientious Objectors

This Omer Goldman. Here's her story:
I first went to prison on September 23 and served 35 days. I am lucky, after 2 times in jail, I got a medical discharge, but I'm the only one. By the time you read this, many of my friends will be in prison too: in for three weeks, out for one, and then back in, over and over, until they are 21. The reason? We refuse to do military service for the Israeli army because of the occupation.

I grew up with the army. My father was deputy head of Mossad and I saw my sister, who is eight years older than me, do her military service. As a young girl, I wanted to be a soldier. The military was such a part of my life that I never even questioned it.

Earlier this year, I went to a peace demonstration in Palestine. I had always been told that the Israeli army was there to defend me, but during that demonstration Israeli soldiers opened fire on me and my friends with rubber bullets and tear-gas grenades. I was shocked and scared. I saw the truth. I saw the reality. I saw for the first time that the most dangerous thing in Palestine is the Israeli soldiers, the very people who are supposed to be on my side.

When I came back to Israel, I knew I had changed. And so, I have joined with a number of other young people who are refusing to serve - they call us the Shministim. On December 18th, we are holding a Day of Action in Israel, and we are determined to show Israelis and the world that there is wide support for stopping a culture of war. Will you join us? Please, just sign a letter. That's all it takes.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Of the Work Ahead: Thomas Merton on...Peacemaking? Poetry? Prayer?

“Do not depend on the hope of results. When you are doing the sort of work you have taken on, essentially an apostolic work, you may have to face the fact that your work will be apparently worthless and even achieve no result at all, if not perhaps results opposite to what you expect. As you get used to this idea you start more and more to concentrate not on the results but on the value, the rightness, the truth of the work itself. And there too a great deal has to be gone through, as gradually you struggle less and less for an idea and more and more for specific people. The range tends to narrow down, but it gets much more real. In the end, it is the reality of personal relationships that saves everything….All the good that you will do will come not from you but from the fact that you have allowed yourself, in the obedience of faith, to be used by God’s love. Think of this more and gradually you will be free from the need to prove yourself, and you can be more open to the power that will work through you without your knowing it.” (Thomas Merton, To Jim Forest, Feb. 21, 1966)

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Answering Hix's "Twenty Questions"

H.L. Hix did a guest blog at Best American Poetry Blog last week, and asked poets to respond to "Twenty Questions." Here are my answers, such as they are. YOu can find other poets' responses (Ron Silliman, among others) here.

Philip Metres' Answers [by H. L. Hix]
Philip Metres is the author of To See the Earth (2008), and recently co-edited Come Together: Imagine Peace (2008).

1. What poet should be in Obama’s cabinet, and in what role?

Walt Whitman, Department of Homeland Security: “unscrew the locks from the doors! Unscrew the doors themselves from their jambs!”
Emily Dickinson, Central Intelligence Agency
Gary Snyder, Environmental Protection Agency
William Stafford, Department of Peace (to be created under the new Obama Administration)
Adrienne Rich, Justice Department

2. If you could send Obama one poem or book of poems (not your own), what would it be and why?

I’d give him William Stafford, Every War Has Two Losers.

3. What other poetry-related blog or website should I check out?

Other than Silliman’s Blog, just to keep you in Philadelphia, I’ll say Al Filreis’ blog at

4. Who is the most exciting young/new poet I’ve never heard of, but whose work I ought to find and read?

I tend to think that you’ve read everyone already! Among many others, I’m fond of Mark Nowak.

5. What’s the funniest poem you’ve read lately? What was the last poem that made you cry?

I laugh with and love David Berman’s “Community College in the Rain.”
Poems tend to bring tears only when I read them aloud, in front of others; excepting a couple of my own, Naomi Shihab Nye’s “Jerusalem” chokes me up. “It’s late but everything happens next.”

6. William or Dorothy? Robert or Elizabeth Barrett? Moore or Bishop? Dunbar or Cullen? “Poetry must resist the intelligence almost successfully” or “No ideas but in things”? Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas or Tender Buttons?

I’m a sometimes Hegelian. Both/and, plus the synthesis of their beautiful unions.

7. Robert Lowell wrote a poem called “Falling Asleep Over the Aeneid.” What supposedly immortal poem puts you to sleep?

My daughter’s dream breathing. Seriously, I’m more at risk of being intimidated by a book of poetry (and thus, looking at its cover repeatedly and never opening it—thank you, Charles Olson’s Maximus Poems) than being narcotized by it.

8. Even for poetry books, the contract has a provision for movie rights. What poetry book should they make into a movie? Who should direct it, and why? Who should star in it?

“The Book of the Dead” by Muriel Rukeyser would be a safe, progressive, “Harlan County U.S.A.” type of social action documentary. I’m actually surprised there hasn’t been a movie about Frank O’Hara, starring Frank O’Hara—that guy seemed to think of his whole life as a movie.

9. What lines from a poem you first read years ago still haunt you now?

“O tree standing in the ear! O pure transcendency!” Rilke’s first “Sonnet to Orpheus”

10. What poem do you love, love, love, but don’t understand?

I wish I could say that there was such a poem for me. Better a poem than a person.

11. If the official organ of the AWP were not the Chronicle but were the Enquirer, what would some of the headlines be?

Poetry is a Ponzi Scheme! Fiction is a Bunch of Lies! See inside for pictures of pantoums wearing no panties out between parties! Ron Silliman seen lunching with Christian Wiman at Lolita’s!

12. If you were making a scandal rag for poetry in the grocery store checkout stands, what fictitious poetry love triangle would you make up to outsell that tired Hollywood story of Angelina and Brad and Jen?

I think the AWP is doing quite fine, thank you very much.

13. This is the Best American Poetry blog. What’s the best non-American poetry you’ve read lately?

The Butterfly’s Burden by Mahmoud Darwish, in particular, the latter two books within the collection, “State of Siege” and “Don’t Apologize for What You Haven’t Done.”

14. We read poems in journals and books, we hear them in readings and on audio files. Sometimes we get them in unusual ways: on buses or in subway cars. How would you like to encounter your next poem?

As a message on my answering machine. (216) 397-4528.

15. What poem would you like to hear the main character bust out singing in a Bollywood film? What would be the name of the movie? What would be the scene in which it was sung?

Don’t they all work that way? Actually, any Tom Eliot would be tremendously improved in a musical setting.

16. Do you have a (clean) joke involving poetry you’d like to share?

There are no clean jokes about poetry. And poetry isn’t funny. But once, in college, after a long night of hosting a blow-out party, after everyone had left and my housemates and I repaired to the kitchen for toast at four a.m., a guy wandered in. Someone said, “hey, it’s Ramon Fernandez.”
If you laugh at that, then friend me on Facebook. I owe you an idea of order and a margarita.

17. Tell the truth: is it a poetry book you keep in the john, or some other genre (john-re)?

I used to have the Norton Anthology in the john, the one from high school with my crazy high school notes. In the margins of the first stanza of “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”: “body mind a numb sedate/evening wasteland meaningless relationship fertility “no meat” emptiness what is the meaning of life? No inquisitiveness.” etc.

18. Can you name every teacher you had in elementary school? Did any of them make you memorize a poem? What poem(s)?

Sister Somebody Who Terrified One of My Classmates So Much She Peed in Her Seat
Miss Neubauer Who Left Midway Through the Semester Thus Breaking My Heart
Miss Steinberg Who Taught Me How to Sing
Nobody made me memorize any poems, to my recollection, but I did get to sing in our version of “The Mikado.” One teacher also took us out on “nature walks”—oh look everyone, a BUTTERFLY! Everyone in class thought this lady was crazy. Now I believe she was a mad genius, secretly teaching us Whitman and Dickinson.

19. If you got to choose the next U.S. Poet Laureate, who (excluding of course the obvious candidates, you and me) would it be? Of former U.S. Poet Laureates, who did such a great job that he/she should get a second term? Next election cycle, what poet should run for President? Why her or him?

The other night at The Lit in Cleveland, I saw Naomi Shihab Nye give an absolutely engaging, energetic, funny, and welcoming reading, and as I was sitting there, it suddenly struck me—she should be the next poet laureate. Why? If the Library of Congress were to choose a mid-career, civically-engaged, and approachable poet for whom such duties are not perceived as a devil's bargain, a dollar-woven laurel, they might find a laureate who has the energy and vision to create a program that would bring poetry into the public conversation again. When I think back on the highest-profile tenures of Poets Laureate, the following come to my mind: Rita Dove, Robert Pinsky, Robert Hass—all mid-career, civic-minded poets, who had a vision for bringing poetry to the people, and the people to the poetry. Others have gratefully received their laurels and did their duty and rode off into the sunset.

20. Insert your own question here.

Dear Fugees, what does this mean: “how many mics do we rip on the daily?” Solitary, off-white boy wants to know.

Monday, December 15, 2008

The President's Reflexes Are in Good Order

Homage to Guy Picciotto

Guy reminds me of the fugitive nature of art, against the ritual forms embedded in various art modalities (pop song, sonnet, etc.)--and that to stay connected to the living impulses in us, we must keep moving.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

On the 60th Anniversary of International Human Rights Day

Mike Marcellino, poet in the band Split Pea/ce, reads "Human rights" and "America rediscover" at the 60th Anniversary of International Human Rights Day at the Old Stone Church in Cleveland, Ohio on Dec. 10, 2008. Photo published in The Plain Dealer today.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Ted Leo Was an English Major/"Bleeding Powers"

I've been trying to see Ted Leo live for about a thousand years, and last night, by pure chance, I walked in to the B Side, and there he was, playing solo, in the dark, and ending with "Dancing in the Dark." Happy Birthday, Jimmy.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Poet Remi Kanazi on You Tube/Thinking about Self-Censorship

Remi Kanazi, poet and editor of the recent Poets for Palestine anthology, here performs two poems, the second of which begins with a lament that the issue of Palestine is often taken off the agenda of anti-war rallies, for fear of disintegrating the peace movement.

In my investigations of peace movement files for Peace Action at Swarthmore College, I found direct evidence of this. A letter sent from the Arab-American Institute, dated May 1991, requested Peace Action (SANE) to “review and endorse the enclosed working paper, ‘New Thinking for Israeli-Palestinian Peace.’” The letter itself simply states what would become a fairly standard “strategic tradeoff in which Israeli would obtain diplomatic recognition, economic cooperation, and security guarantees in return for withdrawing from the Occupied Territories.” Handwritten in the upper left hand corner is the following: “The main problem is the sponsor/author. It is a good proposal but will not be accepted by the Jewish community unless it is on another letterhead.” How disturbing, that a progressive peace group would refuse to sign onto something from an Arab American progressive group (AAI) because it might not “be accepted by the Jewish community” SIMPLY BECAUSE OF THE SPONSOR! It fails to give "the Jewish community" (as if it were a monolith) the possibility of responding differently. I would hope that peace groups would not engage so swiftly in acts of self-censorship.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Monday, December 8, 2008

On Stanley Moss' "Peace"

I didn't get a chance to comment on the poem that I posted on Friday. Stanley Moss' poem is an intriguing fantasy of a time that has not yet existed--or at least, one which is lost between or beneath the tank treads of the History of Wars. Just for fun, I'll take it sentence by sentence, though it's a single stanza.
"Peace" by Stanley Moss

The trade of war is over, there are no more battles,
but simple murder is still in.

This epoch which Moss describes is one in which war is done but murder still can occur. It's a funny line--as if to say, at least organized mass violence is out, but some little nastinesses still may occur. In other words, this isn't complete pie in the sky nonsense.
The No God, Time, creeps his way,
universe after universe, like a great snapping turtle
opening its mouth wagging its tongue
to look like a worm or leech
so deceived hungry fish, every living thing
swims in to feed. Quarks long for dark holes,
atoms butter up molecules, protons do unto neutrons
what they would have neutrons do unto them.

Now, what still strikes fear in the hearts of men is what always has, the "great snapping turtle" of Time that waits until we are deceived and in her mouth, seeking succor. In fact, all things, from the smallest particles on up, desire to be taken up into larger constellations of being (atoms to molecules, protons to neutrons, etc.), and all things act as they would like to be acted upon (something akin to a first principle of ethics.)
The trade of war has been over so long,
the meaning of war in the O.E.D. is now “nonsense.”
In the Russian Efron Encyclopedia,
war, voina, means “dog shit”;
in the Littré, guerre is “a verse form, obsolete”;
in Germany, Krieg has become “a whipped-cream pastry”;
Sea of Words, the Chinese dictionary,
has war, zhan zheng, as “making love in public,”
while war in Arabic and Hebrew, with the same
Semitic throat, harb and milchamah, is defined
as “anything our distant grandfathers ate
we no longer find tempting—-like the eyes of sheep.”

Moss then goes into language itself, the way the old words for war now have come to mean anything but war--nonsense, dog shit, obsolete verse form, whipped cream pastry, making love in public, or what the ancestors ate but no longer tastes good, "like the eyes of sheep."
The final line,
And lions eat grass.

necessarily comes as a kind of shock, the icy water of reality after the flights of fancy. The poem's logic seems to suggest, then, that though we might imagine human words could change meaning when reality changes, it is ludicrous to imagine a lion ever eating grass, and thus, despite our best efforts, there is something in us, in the world, in nature ("red in tooth and claw") that will never be tamed into peace.

Peace is a mere fantasy in the face of lions. It echoes, of course, the apocalyptic vision of Isaiah, which is popularly misquoted as "the lion lies down with the lamb" (it's a wolf)--an imagination of a time when all the natural orders are reversed, and the impossible becomes possible again. Interestingly, this is a passage read during Advent, as it is seen as a precursor vision of the birth of Jesus:
The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb,
The leopard shall lie down with the young goat,
The calf and the young lion and the fatling together;
And a little child shall lead them.
--Isaiah 11:6

There is a whole tradition of Christian poetry that unites the vision of peace with the birth of Jesus, including Milton's "Nativity Ode."

What annoys me about the Moss poem is that it employs the rhetoric of nature's essential violence to suggest why war may be inevitable. Does it necessarily follow?

Friday, December 5, 2008

"Peace" by Stanley Moss

"Peace" by Stanley Moss

The trade of war is over, there are no more battles,
but simple murder is still in.
The No God, Time, creeps his way,
universe after universe, like a great snapping turtle
opening its mouth wagging its tongue
to look like a worm or leech
so deceived hungry fish, every living thing
swims in to feed. Quarks long for dark holes,
atoms butter up molecules, protons do unto neutrons
what they would have neutrons do unto them.
The trade of war has been over so long,
the meaning of war in the O.E.D. is now “nonsense.”
In the Russian Efron Encyclopedia,
war, voina, means “dog shit”;
in the Littré, guerre is “a verse form, obsolete”;
in Germany, Krieg has become “a whipped-cream pastry”;
Sea of Words, the Chinese dictionary,
has war, zhan zheng, as “making love in public,”
while war in Arabic and Hebrew, with the same
Semitic throat, harb and milchamah, is defined
as “anything our distant grandfathers ate
we no longer find tempting—-like the eyes of sheep.”
And lions eat grass.

published in The New Yorker, December 1, 2008

Monday, December 1, 2008

Reading for the Sudanese Lost Boys in Cleveland.

Check out John Burroughs' review of the Lost Boys benefit reading at The Lit last weekend. It was an inspired event, a packed house, and many of the men who have borne the mantle of "lost boys" came out, standing in the back in sport coats and ties, as the poets read. We scrambled for chairs, which seemed the right thing to do, but I really wish that we invited the Lost Boys to speak for themselves as well. I'm not sure we anticipated that so many of the Lost Boys would be there in person; their full silences and their eyes spoke their own sorts of poems. I hope it won't be the last time we come together.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

I'll Take "Plowshares" over Ploughshares Most Days

I began this blog nearly a year and a half ago, and I've found myself drawn equally--and maybe more--to the representations of dissent resistance increasingly available online--than simply to the poetry of dissent and resistance. Why is that?

Though I have recently co-edited a volume of peace poetry (Come Together: Imagine Peace), done a critical investigation of resistance poetry (Behind the Lines: War Resistance Poetry on the American Homefront since 1941), and continue to write poems and review works of poetry, I find the major energies of poetry to be separate from the energies of the peace movement. At times, I'm disappointed with contemporary American poetry and its self-satisfactions, the ways in which it reflects its own cultural self-preoccupations. At other times, I'm disappointed by the peace movement's own foci and self-narrations. Still, something in me finds "Plowshares" (the campaign of radical symbolic actions for nuclear disarmament and demilitarization) more vital than Ploughshares (the highly esteemed literary journal). But I can't live without either the peace drive (pace Freud), or the poetry drive. So I give thanks that each exists, even if they exist in their own spheres. May some intrepid poets be the Venn between those spheres.

A Tribute to Tom Lewis

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

"A Document of Listening"/An Interview with H.L. Hix

Check out my interview of H.L. Hix about his book, God Bless: A Political/Poetic Discourse in the new issue of Jacket Magazine.

Here's the opening:

"A Document of Listening"

H.L. Hix’s recent work, God Bless: A Political/Poetic Discourse (2007), comes almost entirely from speeches made by George Bush and Osama Bin Laden, which Hix transforms to create poems in various traditional Western and non-Western forms, from the sestina to the ghazal. It is a fascinating project, demonstrating an aesthetic attention that becomes a kind of ethical and political attention, a close reading of the first order. A document of close listening, God Bless aptly demonstrates the profound lack of listening at the heart of this administration’s decision-making process. Documentary poetry, in Hix’s rendering, becomes a kind of history lesson for the poet and his readers, a way of reading into the archive and thus extending the archive into poetry, poetry as “extending the document.”

Philip Metres: One of the things that struck me about God Bless in relation to your past work is the intense formal operation that underlies the book, its obsessive proceduralism. And yet, your work to date has not been quite this explicitly political. What procedural rules did you set for yourself to write these poems, and how did you try to make sure that you weren’t misquoting or manipulating your source material. In other words, for you, what are the aesthetics and ethics of collage?

H L Hix: The process itself, in some ways, was simple. I just hired an assistant to download from all the public statements Bush made in his first term and convert the text into a Microsoft Word file. I printed this giant document — several thousand pages of tiny type — and simply read through it, a month’s worth at a time, highlighter in hand. Then I would cut the highlighted passages and paste them into a smaller document, so that I would have everything in one place. So the gathering part of it was very straightforward — just reading and reading, collecting what seemed relevant.

Once I started composing, the primary rule I set for myself was that I could juxtapose passages, but not leave things out silently. So any time there’s a continuous passage with something that drops out, an ellipsis marks that it’s been chopped in that way. Otherwise, I’ve allowed myself to take a passage from here and from there and put them together. I’m sure this results in various forms of distortion — how could it not? — but my thought was that this project was in some way like caricature, where distortion of features is intentional: “yeah, your nose isn’t that big, but I drew it that big because it’s a prominent part of your face.” Even though the caricature is distorted, it’s recognizable. Maybe, in a certain way, it’s more accurate for the distortion. My objective was that sort of accuracy, that foregrounding of certain things. It’s too easy to take anyone’s words (Bush’s words, or anyone’s) and construct something just the opposite of what the speaker meant. I was interested in compressing things Bush said, putting together stuff said at different times but thematically connected, to test one by another. Political cartoons, a form of caricature, give one analogy for what I was up to.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Kafka is Alive and Well ("Held at Einab Junction: Inside Israel's New Terminals")

Held at Einab Junction: Inside Israel's New Terminals
by Anna Baltzer

When I first the West Bank in 2003, checkpoints were controlled by young Israeli soldiers, nervously clutching their weapons and yelling at Palestinians to stay in line. When I returned in 2005, I found many checkpoints replaced by metal turnstiles into which Palestinians were herded to wait for soldiers to push a button, letting them through one by one or sometimes not at all. Each year I return, the method of control over Palestinian movement is further institutionalized, most recently Israeli terminal-style buildings, entirely separating soldiers from the Palestinians whose movement they are controlling.

I first encountered one of these terminals after visiting a women's cooperative in Tulkarem to purchase embroidery to send home. Because there are no reliable postal services in the West Bank, and because I did not want to risk the products being damaged or confiscated by Israeli airport security if I transported them in my luggage, I knew I would have to send them to the US from a post office in Israel. I had traveled from Tulkarem to Tel Aviv once in the past by taking a shared
taxi to the nearby Einab junction, where I had walked from the Palestinian road to the Israeli one and caught transport into Israel.

This second time, I was traveling with my backpack and six plastic bags full of embroidery, and I assumed the trip would be as straightforward as it had been in the past. When I arrived at Einab junction, I found a large new building, fortified by several layers of metal fences, walls, and gates. The first layer reminded me of rural parts of the Wall—wire fence reinforced with electric sensory wire and razor wire with a heavy iron gate. The gate was open but nobody was on the other side. I walked through and came to two large iron turnstiles surrounded by a wall of iron bars. The turnstiles were locked.

Frustrated, I put down my six bags to rest for a moment. Maybe someone would come back? I waited, but still there was nobody.

I called out. "Hello? Anybody there?"

"Please wait a moment," a staticky voice above me blared. I looked up to find a speaker attached to the turnstile.

I didn't have much choice but to wait.

Whoever was operating the turnstiles didn't seem to be in much of a hurry, so I took out my camera.

"Excuse me!" the voice snapped.

"Yes," I answered as I took my first photo.

"Please put your camera away immediately!"

"Please let me in immediately," I answered.

"I said to wait," said the voice, and I answered, "And I am waiting."

The light above the turnstile turned from red to green and I put away my camera and picked up my bags to walk through. It was difficult squeezing into the tight rotating cage with all my bags, and by the time I'd made it to the other side, I was hot and cranky.

In front of me was a metal detector surrounded by iron bars. I began to walk through but the voice called out from another speaker above: "Stop!"

I continued through the metal detector and groaned, "What?!" into the air, wondering where he was watching me from.

"Go back and put down your bags."

I went back through the metal detector and set down my six bags, which were feeling heavier by the minute. I took the opportunity to take another picture. The soldier didn't bother protesting this time, but ordered me to walk through the metal detector again.

I tried to pick up my bags again but he ordered, "No, without your bags." I walked through. Nothing happened.

"Now, go back."

I closed my eyes with a sigh, walked back, picked up my six bags, and walked through again before he could give me the order to do so. Somehow this seemed so much worse than the turnstiles and metal detectors I had seen at Huwwara checkpoint. At least there you could see the people humiliating you. Or maybe it was more upsetting because I wasn't used to being the one humiliated.

Beyond the metal detector was another set of turnstiles, locked again. I took a deep breath and stared at the red light, hoping to see it turn green rather than let the guard hear my voice crack if I spoke.

Thankfully, the turnstile buzzed and I squeezed through to reach the building itself. That was the end of the pre-screening. Now it was time for the real screening.

The inside of the building reminded me of an airport terminal—high ceilings and multiple floors, and multilingual signs for travelers. The ones here read, "Prepare documents for inspection" in Hebrew, Arabic, and English. The signs didn't clarify where one was supposed to go, however. There were a series of five doors with red lights on top, and I called out, "OK, my documents are ready... Now what?" I had yet to see a human face.

This time nobody answered, so I asked again. Again, nothing. I set my bags down, annoyed. My back was hurting, I was sweating, and I didn't know where I was or what was going to happen to me. I yelled, "Is anybody there?! Hellooooooo!"

Eventually a second staticky voice came through from a speaker on the wall. "Please proceed to the door."

"Which door?"

"The one on the left."

"Left of what? Where are you?"

"I can see you," the voice said. "Walk backwards and go left."

I saw a door behind me on the left and carried my bags over to it. Above the door was a red light, which I stared at. Nothing happened. I was ready to cry. "Now what?" I yelled. Silence. I yelled again, even louder.

"What am I supposed to do?!"

"Calm down!" yelled a cheerful soldier walking by on an upper level above me. He was finishing a conversation on his walkie-talkie, and put up his hand for me to wait. I glared at him. "Go there," he pointed to another door near the one I was standing at, and began to walk away.

"No, please!" I blurted out, forgetting my policy of not pleading with soldiers. "You're the first human face I've seen and I'm starting to lose it."

He motioned towards the door and promised that if I stood there, the light would eventually turn green. I picked up my bags, approached the door, set them down, and waited. Eventually, the light turned green, this time accompanied by a little buzz that unlatched the full iron door. I expected to find a soldier on the other side, but as the heavy door slammed behind me I found myself in a tiny room with white
walls, no windows, and a second iron door. That door eventually buzzed as well, and I struggled to open it as I held my bags, settling to kick one in front of me instead.

The next room had three walls and a double-paned window with a soldier on the other side. The soldier asked for my ID and I slipped it under the glass. He tried to make small talk and asked me what part of the United States I was from. I told him flatly, "For the first time in my life, I want to blow something up."

He must not have heard me because he let me through to the next tiny windowless room. The next buzzing heavy door led out into the other open-spaced side of the terminal, where I picked up the pace, hoping to get out finally, an hour after I'd arrived. No such luck.

One more soldier behind a window beckoned for my passport again. "Where's your visa?" he asked, not finding the stamped slip of paper issued by Israel when the passport itself is not stamped. I answered truthfully, "They told me at the airport that there were none left and that it would be OK." As the words came out, I realized how absurd this sounded, and I kicked myself for falling for it when I'd flown in the week before. How could the airport run out of visa sheets? Wasn't it more likely that they were deliberately trying to inhibit my travel in the Occupied Territories?

It was hard to blame the soldier, since, for all he knew, I'd snuck in over the hills of Jordan. "Whatever," I sighed. "Call airport security—I promise I'm in the system."

I knew it would be a while, so I sat down again. I thought I was past the point of anger until I noticed a line of 25 or so Palestinians waiting outside to come in from the other direction, heading back to Tulkarem. Had they been waiting there all this time? Why weren't they being processed? I asked the guard holding my passport and he said he'd tend to them after I left.

It was one thing to feel frustrated and humiliated, but another to know that my ordeal had held up dozens of Palestinians from getting back to their homes and families. "Wait," I said. "Are you telling me that in your fancy new facility you can't process people coming in two directions? Don't let the problem with me delay these people any longer."

He told me not to worry, that the Palestinians were used to waiting. This made me even more upset. I insisted that I would rather wait longer myself, and eventually he beckoned the group forward. I marveled as they waited patiently and yet somehow not submissively, beacons of dignity next to my defeated and angry presence. I took out my camera and took a few photos. Within seconds, a guard appeared next to me—in person, nothing but air between us!—and said sternly, "Come with me."

I followed the guard back towards the section of the terminal from which I had just come. We passed through the windowless rooms and into a new room with crates on the floor. From there, the guard opened another, even heavier iron door, and motioned for me to pass ahead of him. Expecting the guard to follow me in, I turned and instead found him placing my bags into the crates. Realizing that soldiers were going to go through my bags, I demanded to be present during the search to ensure that nothing would be damaged or stolen. "That's not possible," the guard said flatly, and the door slammed shut between me and my belongings.

I kicked the door with frustration, realizing that all my contact information for Palestinian organizers and friends was still on my computer. I realized that I still had my phone in my pocket and quickly called my friend Kobi, an Israeli activist. I told him where I was and asked if he might make some calls on my behalf. He said he'd do what he could and we hung up.

I looked around the room. It was empty except for a chair and an empty crate on the floor. There were no other doors, but there was a two-paned window with a soldier watching me from the other side of it. "What are you looking at?" I snapped at the soldier, and he walked out of view. Another soldier appeared, a young woman. She spoke into an intercom so that I could hear her through the window. "Please take off your clothes and put them in the container on the floor."

It took a moment for the words to sink in. Once they had, I looked the soldier straight in the eyes, and I began to undress. I removed each piece of clothing slowly, not once taking my eyes off hers. I watched her with a look of hurt. I wanted her to see that she was not just searching me—she was humiliating me. Several times she looked away. When I was down to my underwear, the soldier stopped me; she said that was enough. A part of me wished that she hadn't. Perhaps if I were completely naked, she would more likely recognize the extent of my humiliation and her role in it.

The iron door behind me buzzed and the soldier told me to place the crate containing my clothes and phone into the room where I had last seen the guard. My other belongings were long since gone, and I could hear soldiers in the next room going through them. When I got back to the room, the soldier in the window was gone. I sat down on the chair and waited. The soldiers next door were chatting and laughing. I imagined them examining my personal photographs and letters. I was too upset to sit still. I stood up and started pacing back and forth in the small room. I had to do something—anything—to express my emotions. If I could hear them, then they could hear me. I began to sing.

I sang an old song that I'd learned at summer camp as a child. Its words were meaningless, but I sang it at the top of my lungs. Within seconds, the female soldier was at the window, looking alarmed. I waved. I sang that stupid song until my voice hurt. It felt good to sing—I felt empowered. It was easier to act like a crazy person than a prisoner. If I was unpredictable, then they had lost the power to control me.

Half an hour passed. Or was it an hour? My energy had worn off and I sat down miserably on the chair. I was tired. The soldiers were gone from the next room now. What was taking them so long? It was cold in the room, and I had nothing to cover myself with. I began to shiver and rock back and forth on the chair. I had no more energy to yell. I began to cry. I cried for what felt like a long time. Eventually, the female soldier appeared in the window. I could tell she felt bad for me. I looked away. The door buzzed and she instructed me to open it. On the other side was a jacket and a cup of water. I put on the jacket and drank the water to soothe my throat, but I was unimpressed. I didn't want a jacket or water. I wanted my freedom to leave. I wanted my dignity back.

Time passed. I stopped looking at the soldiers and talking to them. I stopped thinking of ways to pass the time or express myself. I didn't even feel like myself anymore. I felt empty, defeated. I just sat and waited, with a feeling of profound loneliness.

After what felt like an eternity, the iron door buzzed and I opened it to find all my clothes and bags in a large pile brimming over the tops of the containers. The soldiers had emptied every single item separately into the crates. The papers from my notebook were strewn about loosely. Each piece of embroidery had been removed from its protective wrapper and crumpled into a pile. A can of tuna had been opened and left amidst the hand-sewn garments. Even the boxes of Turkish delight—a soft sticky candy covered with powdered sugar, which I'd brought for some friends—had been opened and rummaged through.

The only thing stronger than my anger was my desire to leave. I sat down miserably and folded everything back into my bags. I was crying uncontrollably, but I bit my tongue each time I was tempted to speak. When I was dressed and ready, I stood up, collected myself, and tried to open the door. It was locked.

"The door's still locked," I informed the soldier watching through the window.

"Yes, please wait a little longer."

"Why?" I asked. "You saw everything I have. You know I'm not a security threat, and surely you know by now that I have a visa."

"I'm sorry but you're going to have to wait," she said.

I couldn't hold myself back any longer. I lost it. I opened up my bags and took out what was left of my canned tuna. With my fingers, I began to spread the oily fish all over the window.

"What are you doing?" asked the soldier, disturbed.

"You don't respect my stuff, I don't respect yours," I answered.

Next, I opened a box of Turkish delight. "I'm not going to stop until you let me out," I announced as I began mashing the gummy cubes into the hinges of the iron door.

"OK, OK," said the soldier's voice over the intercom. "You can go now." The door buzzed.

I gathered my bags and walked out. A soldier was waiting for me on the other side. He gave me my passport and said I was free to leave. I called Kobi as soon as I was outside. He said it was the US Consulate that had helped get me released. The army claimed they were holding me because of the photographs I had taken inside the terminal. Interestingly, they hadn't bothered to delete the images from my camera when they searched my bags.

I told Kobi what had happened. I felt as if I had lost a part of myself inside that terminal as I had slowly lost control. Kobi reminded me that even the option of losing control was a sign of privilege—Palestinians who behaved as I had would not likely have been freed. I tried to imagine what it would be like to endure such an invasive screening every day of my life.

Kobi told me a story about his Palestinian friend, Sara, whom he'd met in Maryland. Sara would frequently travel back and forth between her home in Palestine and the United States, where she was studying. Each time she returned to Palestine, she was able to walk right through the checkpoints. She had enough confidence to just assert her will and go through, simply by the fact that she was used to being treated like a person. And each time, after a few months in Palestine, she would lose that ability.

In just a few hours I had gone from empowerment to craziness to submission to destructiveness. What would I become after months of such treatment? What about a lifetime of the even worse treatment that Palestinians experience?

It was dark outside the terminal as I hung up the phone. I had been held for 3 hours, and there were no more buses running. I could see the lights of a settlement on a nearby hill. I began walking in what seemed like the direction of Tel Aviv. I stuck my thumb out to the occasional passing car, and eventually a settler stopped. He moved his gun out of the front seat so that I could get in. Feeling lousy about it, I accepted a ride to the nearest bus stop from where buses were still running to Tel Aviv. I boarded the first bus out and cried the whole way back to the city.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

"In Harm's Way" Looks at the Israel/Palestine Conflict

My jaw dropped when I saw scenes from Palestinian protests in Ni'lin (West Bank, Palestinian territory) about the separation wall in the middle of this Palestinian community on nightly TV, in Cleveland no less, half a world away. Despite the relative lack of contexts, and framing it as an heroic and harrowing endeavor principally for photojournalists, "In Harm's Way" went farther than I've seen in showing some of the aspects of the simmering conflict, and how the conflict gets framed...

Friday, November 14, 2008

from "The Cure at Troy" by Seamus Heaney/Thinking about Collective Subjectivity, Whitman, and Tempered Hopes

With the election of Barack Obama, many of us have felt that some tide of history has shifted, and some great possibility is awakened in us again. I came across Seamus Heaney's poem, "The Cure at Troy," and it reminded me again of that byword of the Obama campaign, "hope," which was employed to such moving effect with the song and video called "Yes We Can," by's piece echoes and tunes itself around a speech by Barack Obama, in ways that evoke and embody the collective voice (the "we" of "yes we can") that the speech invokes.

In a powerful way, the song "Yes We Can" brings us into the nationalist project of Whitman, which "contains multitudes," and sings the larger song in which each of us participates--drawing back through the history of struggle--and forward into what the future holds. Relatedly, Heaney's poem, with its suffusion in classical Greek sources as well as the background of the Troubles of Northern Ireland, has the kind of tempered hope that feels appropriate to the moment--perhaps even more so--given the challenges ahead.
from "The Cure at Troy " by Seamus Heaney

Human beings suffer,
they torture one another,
they get hurt and get hard.
No poem or play or song
can fully right a wrong
inflicted or endured.

The innocent in gaols
beat on their bars together.
A hunger-striker's father
stands in the graveyard dumb.
The police widow in veils
faints at the funeral home.

History says, Don't hope
on this side of the grave.
But then, once in a lifetime
the longed for tidal wave
of justice can rise up,
and hope and history rhyme.

So hope for a great sea-change
on the far side of revenge.
Believe that a further shore
is reachable from here.
Believe in miracles
and cures and healing wells.

Call the miracle self-healing:
The utter self-revealing
double-take of feeling.
If there's fire on the mountain
Or lightning and storm
And a god speaks from the sky

That means someone is hearing
the outcry and the birth-cry
of new life at its term.
It means once in a lifetime
That justice can rise up
And hope and history rhyme.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Two Takes on Studs Terkel (R.I.P.), plus audio...

The death of Studs Terkel, the great documentarian of American life, came when I was reading Class Matters, selections of Karl Marx, and talking with other John Carroll faculty in a Poverty and Solidarity faculty learning group. I have become more and more interested in poetry which actively employs documentary modes as a way to introduce voices that have been left out of the wider conversations that constitute our national conversation; poets such as Muriel Rukeyser, Charles Reznikoff, and Mark Nowak interweave these (unheard) voices into their work in ways that activate what Walt Whitman famously wrote in "Song of Myself":
Through me many long dumb voices,
Voices of the interminable generations of prisoners and slaves,
Voices of the diseas'd and despairing and of thieves and dwarfs,
Voices of cycles of preparation and accretion,
And of the threads that connect the stars, and of wombs and of the father-stuff,
And of the rights of them the others are down upon,
Of the deform'd, trivial, flat, foolish, despised,
Fog in the air, beetles rolling balls of dung.

Through me forbidden voices,
Voices of sexes and lusts, voices veil'd and I remove the veil,
Voices indecent by me clarified and transfigur'd.

Terkel, whatever his flaws, became such a medium of voices of "them the others are down upon."
Studs Terkel Audio Podcast from This American Life

And two takes on Studs Terkel, one liberal centrist, one radical:

Studs Terkel Gave a Voice to Many, Among Them Himself
Published: November 2, 2008
The voice is unforgettable, as if each phrase scraped the ear with a scoopful of gravel. What remains in the memory too is the earnestness that could turn both fervent and sentimental. And there was the music, jazz and blues that often provided a respite from the trademark persona.

Skip to next paragraph
Studs Terkel, Listener to Americans, Dies at 96 (November 1, 2008)
Times Topics: Studs TerkelBut after hearing that Studs Terkel had died on Friday, I thought about his WFMT radio shows, which I had heard during my years in graduate school in Chicago. He seemed to be without pretense and compassionate but not terribly revealing or comforting. He had some terrific guests, but he rarely stood aside.

Since Mr. Terkel’s death, testimonials have proliferated. “I think he was the most extraordinary social observer this country has produced,” Robert Coles, professor of psychiatry at Harvard, told The Los Angeles Times.

“He was the quintessential American writer,” Representative Dennis J. Kucinich wrote on The Nation’s Web site, “He was our Boswell, our Whitman, our Sandburg.” (Though wasn’t Whitman already our Whitman and Sandburg our Sandburg?)

And without Mr. Terkel’s radio program, which was broadcast daily between 1952 and 1997, and without his books of oral history — including one that won him the Pulitzer Prize — it is difficult to imagine that National Public Radio would have evolved in the way it did, or that Ken Burns could have made oral history into a cinematic tradition. Just dip into some of the imposing volumes of oral history, in which Mr. Terkel took on the social world of the 20th century — “Hard Times,” “The Good War” or “Working” — and you are amazed at the range of people who spoke with him about the Depression, the Second World War or the world of the workplace: the bookmaker and the stockbroker, the carpenter and the washroom attendant, the mayor and the supermarket cashier. Mr. Terkel anticipated the academic movement of recent decades to tell history from below — not from the perspective of the makers of history but from the perspective of those who have been shaped by it. He once said he was interested in the masons who might have built the Chinese Wall, or the cooks in Caesar’s army. That is also one of oral history’s implicit ambitions: using a populist style to tell populist history. The oral historian does little more than hold up a mirror, just making sure the glass is clean. The practice claims to be self-effacing and world-revealing. How can a collection of interviews be anything else?

But if you look closely at these oral histories, you can never forget who has shaped them and to what end. It often seems easy to guess whom Mr. Terkel liked and who is there to make a particular point or provide ironic contrast. When in “Working” — compiled in the early 1970s — we read about a public-school teacher who is unfashionably strict in her classroom, the rhetorical blade cuts the shape of the account. She ends by telling of her most memorable pupil who was “special” and “never any trouble,” later a cashier at a supermarket who “gives no one trouble today either” and “has the same smile for everyone.” Neither the teacher nor her star pupil is meant to be admired.

The most admired are those who, because of personal gifts, transcend the monotony of working life; the most respected are those who come to recognize those horrors most clearly and speak of them. The interviews fit the intellectual framework set up by the “Working” introduction: “This book, being about work, is, by its very nature, about violence — to the spirit as well as to the body.” That means it includes, in Mr. Terkel’s list, ulcers, accidents, shouting matches, fistfights, nervous breakdowns, daily humiliations and “scars, psychic as well as physical.” There are some, he says, who may enjoy their work, but these cases may “tell us more about the person than about his task.” He seems to cheer the questioning of the “work ethic,” though he himself clearly relished it and relied upon it.

This vision of work, though, is an obvious translation of a traditional Marxist view of the alienation of labor — the sense of disassociation that comes from the capitalist workplace. The most transformative accomplishment would be to recognize the causes of that alienation, because that would help usher in a new world; this is what Mr. Terkel seems to cherish in his most admired laborers and what he hopes to accomplish in the book itself.

It is, in fact, impossible to separate Mr. Terkel’s political vision from the contours of his oral history. You grow more cautious as you keep reading. Mr. Terkel seems less to be discovering the point latent in his conversations than he is in shaping the conversations to make a latent point.

This is not something often recognized about these books. Yet when Mr. Terkel’s 1970 oral history of the 1930s Depression, “Hard Times,” was reissued in 1986 in the heart of the Reagan administration, Mr. Terkel’s new introduction worked strenuously to show how the two eras were comparably nightmarish — though the 1980s never had anything like the 25 percent unemployment of the earlier era. Mr. Terkel writes: “In the ’30s, an administration recognized a need and lent a hand. Today an administration recognizes an image and lends a smile.” Similarly, Mr. Terkel’s 1985 Pulitzer Prize-winning book, “The Good War,” has a title in ironic quotation marks because the emphasis, again and again, is on World War II’s shadows and injustices, with allusions, in the words of one interviewer singled out for attention, to a contemporary “meanness of soul.”

All this is saying, perhaps, is that Mr. Terkel was a man of the political left — something of which he made no secret. The difficulty is for readers who presume they are being presented history without perspective, just a series of oral histories. But its perspective actually seems to guide its strategy, so one is no longer sure what is being omitted and how much is being fully seen. No part of history or human experience should be ignored, but all of it needs to be placed in a larger context.

Part of Mr. Terkel’s wide appeal was that he seemed to be a scrappy liberal in his choice of causes and concerns, but look more closely and it becomes less clear where his liberalism slips into radicalism. Though Mr. Terkel was not a theorist, nearly every one of the positions approvingly intimated by him seem to fit models shaped by Marxist theory; he even wore something red every day to affirm his attachment to the working class.

Mr. Terkel also provided a blurb for the memoirs of William Ayers, the Weatherman bomber whose connection with Barack Obama has been a point of controversy. “A deeply moving elegy to all those young dreamers who tried to live decently in an indecent world,” Mr. Terkel wrote. “Ayers provides a tribute to those better angels of ourselves.”

Mr. Terkel presented himself as an avuncular angel with close contact with the salt of the earth, a populist with a humane vision of the world. There are times such gifts are evident, but there are also times when such dreamers should make us wary.

and a second, a retort by Howard Zinn:

By Howard Zinn

November 6, 2008

Reading Edward Rothstein's sour commentary on Studs Terkel, I was surprised that Rothstein, presumably a sophisticated thinker, seems to believe one can separate one's political views from a historical narrative, even from oral history: "It is, in fact, impossible to separate Mr. Terkel's political vision from the contours of his oral history."

It turns out that Rothstein is not complaining about the intrusion of Studs's "political vision" into his oral histories. I doubt, knowing Studs pretty well, that he would deny that. Indeed, I suspect he would embrace it. Would he be proud of attempting (yes, attempting, because it cannot really be done) to be a neutral conduit of his interviewees' thoughts?

No, what Rothstein resents is the specific character of this intrusion, that is, Studs's political beliefs. On Studs's oral history: "You grow cautious as you keep reading." I'm inclined to think that Rothstein did not "grow" cautious but that he started out being cautious, on the alert for radical ideas, or worse, anything that might suggest Marxism.

Rothstein is disappointed in Studs, because "he seemed to be a scrappy liberal...but look more closely and it becomes less clear where his liberalism slips into radicalism." Rothstein is evidently a proud liberal, possibly scrappy. I suspect Terkel, were he still alive, would have approved what Norman Mailer wrote once to Playboy magazine:

I don't care if people call me a radical, a rebel, a red, a revolutionary, an outsider, an outlaw, a Bolshevik, an anarchist, a nihilist, or even a left conservative, but please don't ever call me a liberal.

Rothstein gives examples of Studs's "radicalism." These are positions so reasonable that they would give a good name to "radicalism," just as McCain's worry that Obama is "socialist" because he wants to redistribute wealth divests socialism of its worst connotations and makes it quite attractive. For instance, Rothstein objects to Terkel comparing FDR's reaction to the Depression to Reagan's reaction to economic distress, wherein Terkel says that FDR "recognized a need and lent a hand," while Reagan "lends a smile."

He doesn't like the quote marks around Studs's "The Good War" because "the emphasis, again and again, is on World War II's shadows and injustices." Would any reasonable and "balanced" assessment of that war not emphasize, precisely because that has been missing in the general romanticization of the "good war," the "shadows and injustices"--Dresden, Hiroshima, Nagasaki, the imprisonment of Japanese-Americans, the segregation in the armed forces?

Rothstein finds that "nearly every one of the positions approvingly intimated by him seem to fit models shaped by Marxist theory." Should we be alarmed? I can understand why J. Edgar Hoover would be alarmed--but someone as well-educated as Edward Rothstein? Looking at the state of the world, observing capitalism self-destruct to the point where even the Wall Street Journal questions its viability, it would seem that it may be time to take a second look at "models shaped by Marxist theory."

"The difficulty is for readers who presume they are being presented history without perspective, just a series of oral histories." Is Rothstein one of those readers? Does he believe, does anyone believe, who has given some thought to the myth of "objective" history, that one can present history "without perspective"? Indeed, would that be desirable? Do we want from history, even oral history to be "just" a series of statements that suggest no perspective?

Rothstein worries that with Studs's oral histories "one is no longer sure what is being omitted and how much is being fully seen"...Surely, he must understand--unless he possesses a naiveté we would never suspect in a New York Times writer--that one is never sure what is being omitted, and therefore we must always look beyond the words set before us. And no phenomenon is "fully seen," so we try to see as much as we can, and add to the universe of knowledge, as Studs Terkel did so brilliantly, our little piece of truth.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Phil Donahue's Body of War

Thinking of you veterans out there today, what you have given, and what has been taken away. What we might give, and what we might take away. Because 90% of casualties of war in the last century were civilians, we need to broaden our sense of who is a veteran of war, while not forgetting and attending to those in this country who have seen and done more than they can tell, more than anyone should have to bear.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Come Together: Imagine Peace (An Anthology of Peace Poetry)

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Poetry. Anthology. Edited by Ann Smith, Larry Smith, and Philip Metres. With an Introduction by Philip Metres. A grand collection of poetry (seventy poets both past and contemporary) written against war and for peace: poems that sustain us with their vision.

"Peace poetry is larger than a moral injunction against war; it is an articulation of the expanse, the horizon where we might come together. To adapt a line by the Sufi poet Rumi: beyond the realm of good and evil, there is a field."

--from the Introduction by Philip Metres.

100 poets voice their concern and vision for peace.

Poems of Witness & Elegy, Exhortation & Action, Reconciliation, Shared Humanity, Wildness & Home, Ritual & Vigil, Meditation & Prayer.

Precedents: Sappho, Whitman, Dickinson, Cavafy, Millay, Patchen, Rexroth, Shapiro, Lowell, Creeley, Rukeyser, Ginsberg, Levertov, Lorde, Stafford, Jordan, Amichai, Darwish

Contemporaries: Abinader, Ali, Bass, Berry, Bauer, Berrigan, Bly, Bodhrán, Bradley, Brazaitis, Bright, Bryner, Budbill, Cervine, Charara, Cording, Cone, Crooker, Daniels, di Prima, Davis, Dougherty, Ellis, Espada, Estes, Ferlinghetti, Forché, Frost, Gibson, Gundy, Gilberg, Habra, Hague, Hamill, Harter, Hassler, Haven, Heyen, Hirshfield, Hughes, Joudah, Jensen, Karmin, Kendig, Komunyakaa, Kovacik, Kryss, Krysl, LaFemina, Landis, Leslie, Lifshin, Loden, Lovin, Lucas, McCallum, McGuane, Machan, McQuaid, Meek, Metres, Miltner, Montgomery, Norman, Nye, Pankey, Pendarvis, Pinsky, Porterfield, Prevost, Ragain, Rashid, Rich, Roffman, Rosen, Ross, Rusk, Salinger, Sanders, Seltzer, Schneider, Shabtai, Shannon, Sheffield, Shipley, Shomer, Silano, Sklar, Smith, Snyder, Spahr, Sydlik, Szymborska, Trommer, Twichell, Volkmer, Waters, Weems, Wilson, Zale

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Women of Liberia: Fighting for Peace

Listen to what the Liberian women did for peace.

Nas' "Black President" and "Election Night"/"Yes We Can" Redux

Barack Obama:

It was a creed written into the founding documents that declared the destiny of a nation.

Yes we can.

It was whispered by slaves and abolitionists as they blazed a trail toward freedom.

Yes we can.

It was sung by immigrants as they struck out from distant shores and pioneers who pushed westward against an unforgiving wilderness.

Yes we can.

It was the call of workers who organized; women who reached for the ballots; a President who chose the moon as our new frontier; and a King who took us to the mountaintop and pointed the way to the Promised Land.

Yes we can to justice and equality.

Yes we can to opportunity and prosperity.

Yes we can heal this nation.

Yes we can repair this world.

Yes we can.

We know the battle ahead will be long, but always remember that no matter what obstacles stand in our way, nothing can stand in the way of the power of millions of voices calling for change.

We have been told we cannot do this by a chorus of cynics...they will only grow louder and more dissonant ........... We've been asked to pause for a reality check. We've been warned against offering the people of this nation false hope.

But in the unlikely story that is America, there has never been anything false about hope.

Now the hopes of the little girl who goes to a crumbling school in Dillon are the same as the dreams of the boy who learns on the streets of LA; we will remember that there is something happening in America; that we are not as divided as our politics suggests; that we are one people; we are one nation; and together, we will begin the next great chapter in the American story with three words that will ring from coast to coast; from sea to shining sea --

Yes. We. Can.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Derek Walcott, on Poetry and Isolation

Derek Walcott, from The Guardian piece called "A Life in Writing" (October 4, 2008):

Walcott is eager to forge a link between the damage done by "bad teachers" who urge students to throw out poetic technique - "to beware of melody" - and what he calls "the totalitarian view of anything, the callous view, the indifference to beauty. If you are indifferent to that, as part of your politics, then everything is permissible. If you can say God is dead, then harmony is dead, melody is dead, music is dead, therefore faith is dead. Therefore it's easy to do what you have to do in the name of necessity. The rules no longer apply. You have something that is a semi-poem, just as you have something that is a semi-democracy or a semi-foreign policy. And you don't count the dead in Iraq because it's not part of the melody."

He is critical of contemporary American poets generally, for not addressing the topic of war. "America is so isolated from what is happening that poets still don't write about the foreign policy of their country. You don't get anything from them that says: 'We are doing terrible shit to the world.'" It is part of the reason why he wanted to do the opera, and why he is making King Creon the head of a modern state. "It's about civilised, high-toned tyranny."

Is Derek Walcott the isolated one? Are we?

"Black Watch" by Gregory Burke from Studio 360