Friday, September 25, 2009

Poet Kazim Ali at John Carroll University: A Reading

Last night, I had the honor introducing poet Kazim Ali as part of John Carroll University's Visiting Writers Series. This is what I said:

Tonight we have a writer who transcends genre. Kazim Ali is the author of two celebrated books of mystical and enigmatic poetry, two novels, a memoir, and a forthcoming book of essays on poetry and art.... In short, he’s a dynamo, a phenom, a magnet for the envy of fellow writers (myself included)--for his dazzling abilities to span worlds with mere words, to bring words where nothing had been before.

To read and to hear Kazim Ali’s poetry is to enter into a space where the sacred meets the everyday. Using the rhetoric and forms of speech to the higher powers, prayers to God, Ali dips into various religious and mystical traditions-—most recognizably from his ancestral Islam of his family, and from Hinduism, and from yogic practices.

Though I sometimes sour on the rhetoric of mysticism, where I occasionally feel disconnected from the pungencies and vitalities of this world, Ali’s poems have a sensuousness and self-questioning that makes them feel real, makes them feel both ancient and modern. In a world where people often roll their eyes at religious earnestness, Ali risks in his poems to reach toward the ineffable--that which great poetry marks by its limits--toward our final end.

All week long, I’ve been mulling over his line, from "The Far Mosque," "a person is only metaphor for the place he wants to go." I have about five readings for this line, but the simplest is: we, in our physical selves, in this life, are most ourselves, are the souls we are meant to be, when we moving toward a destiny that we do not know, but to which we constantly lean. If this little line has you thinking, then you’re not alone. He’s the kind of poet whose lines resonate not as easy answers, but as questions to keep unfolding. To move into.

Kazim gave a wonderful reading, and gave the following advice to writers, roughly:

1) read voraciously (even outside your genre) especially what's being written now.
2) the body is a gift to us to experience the world, and get in touch with your breathing and pay attention to how your body feels in the world.
3) the world is a proving ground for compassion.

He also referred to Rumi as "like Ayatollah Khomeni, only warmer and fuzzier," and read his marvelous recent poem, "Dear Shams." I love Kazim's way of being in the world through words, where he cultivates both ecstasis and compassion. We'd all be a bit better off in such gardening.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

On Sumud (Steadfastness)

Found on Palestine Telegraph:

Palestine, September 23, 2009, (Pal Telegraph) - Associate professor and former Dean of Arts at Bethlehem University, Dr Adnan Musallam teaches in its Department of Humanities. He obtained his Ph.D. at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, in the contemporary history of the Arab world and the Middle East.

He has conducted research and published widely on the contemporary history of the Middle East, Palestine and Bethlehem. Among other things he teaches oral history. He is member of the advisory board of AEI-Open Windows.
See also his website, at

It is inevitable that when you talk about sumud you talk against the backdrop of the Arab-Israeli conflict, how 750,000 Palestinians were dispersed, how despite all the difficulties, the Separation Wall, the permits, the settlements, the high rate of unemployment, especially in Gaza, and so on, that the Palestinians have been able to stay steadfast on their land. Despite what others tell about you, and what they are doing to you, you are here to stay. You are part of the land, and you do not want anybody to move you.

Part of steadfastness is that you face this phenomenon, which is throwing you out of your house, trying to negate your presence, disconnect you from your roots, to put you in nowhere. Against this, sumud is trying to prove that you exist, on your land and everywhere; that you are worthy as a human being. You remember that in the 1970s the Israelis, like prime minister Golda Meir, said that there was no such thing as Palestinians... The Palestinians have proved that they are in place. The Palestinian cause is still there, it is all the time in the world headlines.

Palestinians refuse that their destiny becomes like what sadly happened to the Indians in North America, who were put in ghettoes. Sumud is that you stay in history. Palestinians don't want to be denied the right to self-determination, to have their own state with East-Jerusalem as its capital. They want to be like other peoples. Without steadfastness our demise would be pretty clear. Steadfastness relates to the essence of the Palestinian case and is indeed the soul of the Palestinian people.

Despite its centrality in the Palestinian struggle, sumud is also problematic for Palestinians. If you go and look into reality, you see Palestinians in every place, in New Zealand, Australia, the Philippines, Indonesia, and so on, scattered all over the world. They left because of the 1948 refugee problem, the 1967 refugee problem, and because of the lack of job opportunities. Many have chosen to leave the land, to go and search for a better life. People are fed up; they want to live a life like a normal human being.

Let's not be idealistic. Many Palestinian Christians and Moslems are leaving the land, finding steadfastness not to be worthwhile at this stage. It's tiring for them, for their children, they find elsewhere more opportunities. When we say that this is not happening, we hide our heads in the sand. The ongoing departure from the land is not good for the steadfastness of those who remain. It is a big loss for the people in the West Bank and Gaza. The land is emptied gradually. Although everybody says that numerically we are stronger than the Israelis, I believe that the more we leave, the more we loose in steadfastness.

Emigration is not just a Christian phenomenon. This is a stereotype. It is true that emigration started in the 19th century among the Christians from the Bethlehem area, but now it is really all over the place. Last summer, I had two history classes, I asked the students to do an oral history project, and we concentrated on the phenomenon of emigration. It's obvious: both Moslems and Christians emigrate. All have relatives all over the world. Emigration occurs in all Palestinian strata, all regions, among those working on the lands, town dwellers, in the refugee camps. You cannot even say that the middle class or the urban society is leaving more than others. You can only say one thing: that the rich leave more than the poor. The people with a lot of money have left the country. They take the money and invest it in a factory in Latin America, for example.

The peasantry and sumud

Even the peasants, who have a special contribution to give to steadfastness, are leaving.

Let's take a historical perspective on the last issue. The problem is that since the early time of the British period the peasants have been leaving their lands, from the 1920s on, because of the high taxes. The state policy was to create hard circumstances so as to uproot the Palestinian people, and make room for the Jewish homeland. So many Palestinian peasants left to work for the railroads, or work for British workshops. To be a laborer in Haifa was more profitable than to stay as a farmer. They didn't leave the country, but left agriculture.

That was a big loss for Palestinian agriculture. On the other hand, the Zionists brought more and more people and tied them to the land; it was a kind of Zionist steadfastness. On our side, throughout the mandate period and after, people have been leaving the land. Nobody guided them, supported them to stay on the land. Even now, we don't know how many peasants are staying on the land, whether they are keeping sumud, or whether they work in the city or in Israel during the day and at the end of the day go back to their land. I don't know how much of that commuting contributes to steadfastness. I don't know whether Israel's Wall and checkpoint policy to keep people outside of work in Israel contributes to steadfastness here in the West Bank, I am curious about that. The people who have been prevented of working in Israel - do they now work on the land? I hope so. I don't have the exact figures.

Of course I don't blame the people, it is not because they love to work as laborers but because they need to. As a human being I can understand that in the end people need something to live on. Who am I to tell them not to go? Am I supporting them to stay on the land, with jobs so that they can stay? There are so many things that work against steadfastness. The Palestinian Authority is so limited financially; it is dependent on financial contributions from other countries.
During the British mandate time sumud was there with the Palestinians as a collective consciousness, not as a concept, slogan or label. "I am ready to face dire consequences but I don't want to leave," that mentality was certainly there. When examining steadfastness historically, I would start doing research on sumud by focusing on the people in their relation to the land and the leadership. In the 1930s we had the big six-month strike of 1936; a revolt broke out in 1937-9, and then in 1938 all Palestinian leadership was in exile. Shortly often the Nakbeh took place, people were scattered allover the place, without a leader.

That is in fact part of the Nakbeh. The only signs of hope came from such leaders as ‘Ab Al-Qader Al-Husseini and cadres like the more secular jihad organization at the time. Husseini's martyrdom in April 1948 was really a big blow to the Palestinians. I do believe that the April 1948 battle at the Qastel [near Latrun to the west of Jerusalem] was a turning point. The Nakbeh started there. On April 9 you had the big massacre of Deit Yassin. And at the 11th the villagers fled because they were afraid that there would be more massacres like Deir Yassin. You need to have a leader who tells you: "Stay, I am coming to fight for you." The leaders should support you, they should make sure that you don't leave the land, don't emigrate.

That call to stay was more effective in 1967. Soon after the Israeli victory, the Israelis started with their loudspeakers to call the people to leave. Some got afraid of that, including the refugees of 1948, who fled for a second time and went to Jordan. But the rest of the people, no. They asked their leaders to go to the incoming Israeli forces and tell them: "Here we are. Don't do anything with us." The word sumud may not have been used, but it was there. And people remained in their homes, and they worked, and made a living. You fight for your life and you love this land, and you want to stay here. Nobody needs to tell you about sumud because you do it on your own. Sumud has been there all along but nobody examined it. Maybe some leaders started to use it as a slogan, in the 1960s, 70s and the 80s, but for the people it was a real thing.

Despite all the difficulties, despite all the contradictions, they showed that they were here.

A human concept

What does it mean? Sumud doesn't mean that you go and sleep. Just staying here, not speaking out nor doing anything is not sumud. Yesterday I heard about a small town south of Bethlehem, called Maesara. Like in Bil'in, they display steadfastness. They have marches, they prove that they are here. Sumud is about showing and telling others that you exist, so that nobody can deny your existence. Sumud is voice, communication.

Sumud is a broad, active, human concept. It is not allowing to let you being dehumanized. Let me give you an example. Part of showing your presence is keeping your ability to laugh. Laughing is a defensive mechanism. You are laughing, chatting, joking, so that you can continue to be like a human being. When you become totally pessimistic you are really saying, I am ready to die, I don't want to live anymore. You dehumanize yourself. Humor is essential to be able to stand up and stay steadfast. It's part of saying: I am here and nobody can deny my presence here.
Sumud is worth to be given courses about at Palestinian universities. You can come across sumud in Palestinian poetry, essays, the literature of resistance. It's a multidisciplinary subject. Take poetry. Mahmoud Darwish exemplifies the poetry of steadfastness. His small village was completely wiped out, but he didn't give up, he went to a neighboring town there and he practiced his poetry of resistance, also in exile. His poetry is definitely about Palestinian identity.

Sumud can be applied to architecture. Look at these beautiful homes all around the place, it shows that people are not hopeless. I looked at the terrains in Bethlehem ten years ago, when there were wide open fields around and now, when there is no space left for homes. Building a home, especially a traditional home, in traditional architecture, is an assertion. If people were so desperate, they would ask themselves, why should I build a home?
Religion is related to sumud. The religious community gives you needed spiritual support, so that you don't become hopeless. Again, sumud should be viewed as a broad, human subject. Part of steadfastness is that Palestinian people are people who believe in interfaith dialogue. You shouldn't be close-minded. You want to live in this land, but in a good atmosphere, where people are dialoguing with each other, as in a normal society. Steadfastness does not mean that you close your mind and just stay on the ground.

Also in another sense steadfastness shouldn't be narrowly defined. It includes all Palestinians, those living inside and those living outside. Sumud should be a comprehensive and inclusive concept. It is possible from outside Palestine to contribute greatly to the steadfastness of the Palestinian people. For instance, when you fight for the recognition of the Palestinians as a people like other human beings. This, too, has to be examined, the steadfastness agenda for Palestinians outside. Sumud is worth to be researched.

This is the second part in a series of interviews with Palestinians about the concept of sumud or steadfastness made by Dr Toine van Teeffelen, who is anthropologist and development director of the Arab Educational Institute (AEI-Open Windows) in Bethlehem. The series contributes to the Spirit of Sumud cultural tourism program at AEI-Open Windows ((

The first interview, with Dr Walid Mustafa, can be read in the Palestine Telegraph, the on-line newspaper:

Monday, September 21, 2009

Michael Leong's e.s.p. (Silenced Press, 2009)

Michael Leong's debut collection, e.s.p, just published by Silenced Press, on the heels of his translation of Estela Lamat's I, The Worst of All, aptly demonstrates what he calls in one poem's title, "Notes Toward A Ludic Inarticulacy"--balanced between the anarchic impulses of the ludic, and the hierarchial ones of articulateness, Leong tries on poetic strategies the way a good actor tries on character.

Echoing the ludic experimentalists like Lev Rubinstein, Charles Bernstein, Bob Perelman, and Christian Bok, Leong darts and weaves through serial litanies, riffs on foreign idioms and cliches, pangrams, magnetic poetry, acrostics, anagrams, concrete poetry, ekphrastics, alliteration, and so on. He has a lot of fun with the array of new forms (often, themselves, older forms but taken at a conceptualist's promixity), which luxuriate in the sound of words, as Stevens once famously wrote, which could hold off the pressure of reality, in "The Noble Rider and the Sound of Words."

What if poetry--and all art--is a kind of escape? If so, what kind of escape does it provide? Is it like Achilles' shield--that first ekphrastic poem--which both represents the world and keeps it from killing us?

The ludic is, of course, never "just fun and games." It is fun and games as a way of being. (How's that for making even the ludic sound unfun?). I'm reminded of my buddy M--- G--, who, just a day after we'd heard of the tragic death of a classmate, began to tell jokes where the punchline was this student's name. It was pretty ballsy, but it was a strategy for surviving. He was clearly thinking about her--as were we--and his mind went to the ludic.

I'm particularly drawn to the poems that create the vertiginous effect that such jokes gave--where the ludic is wrestling with the "pressure of reality" a la Stevens. Where the fun is the vertigo of facing the abyss, as in Leong's "Pensando en la inmortalidad del cangrejo," where the thinking literalizes the metaphor and dizzies us into the real. Read the poem here. Here's the end:

Within the oceanic O
of my omphalos,
the crab is dreaming
a fathomless dream about
the bottom of the sea,
where the kelp sways lazily,
and the coral feeds
at its leisure,
and, from time to time,
bursts of bubbles
unexpectedly rise
to the surface,
which, from here,
give only the slightest impression
that the water is boiling.

Leong has given us a promising collection, where the possibility that the seas are boiling, seems both funny and ominous.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Think of Empire as a Video Game

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
The Unwinnable War in Afghanistan
Daily Show
Full Episodes
Political HumorHealthcare Protests

Alison Weir on Israel-Palestine Coming to Cleveland

Alison Weir on Israel-Palestine
09/21/09 6:00PM - 7:30PM

Alison Weir will present at Peace House, Monday, September 21
University Circle - 10916 Magnolia, Cleveland
6 pm - 7:30pm
Sponsored by Middle East Peace Forum and Free Gaza Coalition

Alison Weir is the founder of If Americans Knew, an organization
providing information on topics of importance that are substantially
misreported or unreported in the US media, with a primary focus on
Israel-Palestine. In particular, If Americans Knew analyzes media
coverage of this issue, and has conducted a number of statistical

Alternate Focus, which produces videos for Public Access television
stations, has produced an excellent 30-minute video about these

Alison Weir on "how I got here":

Like most Americans, I originally knew little about Israel-Palestine.
In fall 2000 I was the editor of a small weekly newspaper in
Sausalito, California. When the current Palestinian uprising began at
the end of September, I became curious about this issue and began to
follow the news reports closely. When I did that, I quickly noticed
that, journalistically, the reports were highly Israeli-centric. Since
I wanted full information I began to look for additional reports on
the Internet.

After several months of following the situation closely -- daily
learning of civilians and young people being ruthlessly killed and
injured -- and seeing that very little of this was being reported by
NPR, the San Francisco Chronicle, etc. it began to seem to me that
this was perhaps the most covered-up story I had ever seen. I finally
decided to go over the see the situation for myself. I quit my job and
traveled to the West Bank and Gaza as a freelance reporter.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Attention Span 2009: Poetry That Stayed With Me

I am indebted to Steve Evans for asking me to contribute to his phenomenal blog, Third Factory, for my 2009 picks for poetry (Attention Span series). Visit his blog and learn up on all the good things that he's been doing, thinking, and recording. Here's where this appears: My Attention Span 2009. There are a host of other poets, critics, and others who have their own lists.

Attention Span 2009 – Philip Metres

At the end of a long summer of reading, listening, and watching, I found myself wondering whether I actually like poetry; I felt as if I luxuriated in the mythic capaciousness of novels like One Hundred Years of Solitude or Don Quixote, the vivid strangeness of films like “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly,” the documentary power of “When the Levees Broke,” the magical low comedy and strange frames within frames of Arabian Nights, the surreal collage soundscapes of Guided by Voices, the martial punk radicalism of the Minutemen, the sultry ache of Cat Power.

Perhaps the “90% Rule” is in effect, even for poetry—that 90% of anything is bound to be forgettable. Perhaps, too, I find myself dissatisfied with the boundaries we have placed upon our art, its odd professionalisms and its professional oddnesses. But it’s probably also true that the 10% are worth living for. Here are a few books that I’m glad to have read, and have been compelled to re-read, review (excerpted here and there herein), and reiterate.

Mark Nowak | Coal Mountain Elementary | Coffee House | 2009

Whitman’s notion, in his Preface to the 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass, that “poems distilled from other poems will likely pass away,” feels salient to Nowak’s vital anti-poetic stance. Coal Mountain Elementary draws upon and extends resources, voices, and narratives of the Sago mining disaster (and ongoing disasters in Chinese mines) that are—in the hothouse of contemporary poetry—richly unusual, and feel more akin to the projects of the field recordings of the WPA in the 1930s, the interviews of Studs Terkel, the history of Eric Foner and Howard Zinn, etc. It’s also not afraid to learn us something. Coal Mountain Elementary, even in its title, foregrounds strongly the pedagogical/didactic—the “elementary” refers to the project as a primer on the experience of coal miners and their families, at the same time that it interrogates the use and manipulation of education and mass media journalism—in particular, through the sampling of the exercises generated by the U.S. coal industry and the Xinhua wire stories (a numbing catalogue of Chinese mining accidents). Historian Howard Zinn calls the book “a stunning educational tool.” A beautiful book, with haunting photographs to boot.

Jules Boykoff and Kaia Sand | Landscapes of Dissent: Guerrilla Poetry & Public Space | Palm Press | 2008

Landscapes of Dissent provides a forceful reminder of the critical need to reclaim public space as a site of political action, symbolic exchange, and collective being. In the words of geographer Don Mitchell, “public spaces are decisive, for it is here the desires and needs of individuals can be seen, and therefore recognized, resisted, or… wiped out.” (7). Drawing upon the theories and practices of poets engaged in articulating and building a poetics in and of public space, Landscapes of Dissent offers itself both as a microsurvey of guerrilla poetry in the avant-garde tradition, and a how-to manual for future deployments of such locational verse. Accompanied by photos documenting guerrilla poetics in action, the book makes participating in such homespun actions seem more than possible — it makes them seem inviting and necessary.

Peter Cole | Things on Which I’ve Stumbled | New Directions | 2008

The cover image of poet, translator and publisher Peter Cole’s third volume of verse, Things On Which I’ve Stumbled, a woodcut by Joel Shapiro entitled “5748,” anticipates the central poetic concerns of this erudite, politically charged, and often dazzling collection. “5748,” of course, refers to the Jewish calendar year (September 1987-1988) which commemorated the fortieth anniversary of the founding of the state of Israel, as well as the advent of the First Palestinian Intifada—the popular uprising against military occupation in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The woodcut itself, in its concatenation of blocky rectangles, evokes (at least to these eyes) both a broken swastika and a person mid-stumble. Such is the bifocality of Cole’s project—it is at once a dilatory celebration of the rich mystical and sensual traditions of Jewish life—which has survived despite a history of oppression and marginalization—and an unsparing look at the politics of Israel/Palestine. In this way, Cole’s work offers us nothing less than a poetics of coexistence, in a time when a future of coexistence seems more distant than ever, and never more necessary.

Susan Schultz | Dementia Blog | 2009

Susan Schultz’s moving Dementia Blog, a book of poetic prose chronicling the personal crisis of her mother’s rapid descent into dementia and increasing need for full-time care, is a remarkable and exemplary chapter in that struggle. But simultaneously, it is a reminder of why we still need an avant-garde practice, and how avant-garde procedures can be as homely and unheimlich as the process of grieving a mother’s decline, set against the backdrop of a nation’s decline.

The 1970s: NPF Conference | authors various | Orono | 2008

Hands down, the best poetry conferences are in Orono, Maine. 2008 merely continued the streak of greatness. Intellectually and artistically stimulating to the point of circuit-overload, but without the smarmy self-promotional aspect of some other well-known literary conferences.

Armand Schwerner | The Tablets | NPF | 1999

A winning, at times hilarious pastiche of scholarly translation of ancient and indigenous texts (fabricated, of course, by Schwerner himself). “The Waste Land” if Eliot had a bawdy sense of humor. Every time “pig” is mentioned, the translator notes it can also mean “god.”

Kazim Ali | “Orange Alert” | U Michigan Press | forthcoming, 2010

Though I sometimes sour on the rhetoric of mysticism, though I sometimes find the rhetoric of political engagement obvious or stultifying, though I roll my eyes at the bathos of identity investigation, Ali’s ability in these essays to bob and weave through these ways of being and writing in the world so effectively quite simply blew my circuits. It helped me not only understand Ali’s poetry in a new way, but also all the work that surrounds his work, and to have a greater feeling for his final reach, that reach toward the ineffable—that which great poetry marks by its limits.

Rachel Loden | Dick of the Dead | Ahsahta | 2009

Rachel Loden’s new collection, Dick of the Dead (Ahsahta, 2009), vibrates with the same parodic music that so energizes her previous collections; I consider her among the pantheon of contemporary poets working the vein of parody (along with Kent Johnson, the flarf collective, conceptualism, etc.), though hers is closest to Johnson’s in its acid take on our imperial politics and our complicity as citizen-poets. I love the music of her poetry, their sheer joie de vivre, their secret rhymes, their snarl and snap.

Kent Johnson | Homage to the Last Avant-Garde | Shearsman 2008

Kent Johnson’s Homage to the Last Avant-Garde, a full-length poetry collection that gathers work from previous chapbooks such as the excoriating Lyric Poetry After Auschwitz, extends Johnson’s ongoing parodic provocation of (and through) poetry. Organized in packets of “submissions” to various journals with experimental reputations, beginning with the experimental Evergreen Review (where Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” first appeared in the 1950s) to The World, the book is a subversive talkback to various generations of the avant-garde, and moves in ways that feel both admiring and admonitory. It’s that ambivalence toward the self-appointed avant-garde–and the ways it seems to fall short of its admirable aims to narrow the gap between art and life, to engage in art as social change, to innovate in ways that make revolution possible–that drives Johnson’s project.

Fady Joudah | The Earth in the Attic | Yale | 2008

Joudah’s The Earth in the Attic is the sort of book that shows its textures and layers after re-reading—I’m tempted to say (so I will) the way in which a seemingly wild landscape comes to reveal evidence of human habitation only after careful attention. Joudah, who expertly translated the inimitable Mahmoud Darwish in The Butterfly’s Burden, composes a narrative poetry that defies the linearity of dull narration; instead, his is a braided technique, full of returns, fragments, and veerings-off before inevitable conclusions. This is a kind of story-telling that seems most suited to poetry—where image, texture, and intimation infuse the forms rather than get locked into the inevitabilities of character and plot.

Sharon Mesmer | Annoying Diabetic Bitch | Combo / Zasterle | 2007

There’s something to be said for a book that makes a teacher feel like hurling before having to teach it. Annoying Diabetic Bitch is by turns offensive and hilarious, and instigated some interesting conversation about the definitions and limits of poetry. For a workshop full of undergraduate poets charmed by the dry urbanity of Billy Collins and confused by everything else, Mesmer’s flarf was a necessarily messy hurricane. I’m not even sure I “like” this book, but I like that it exists.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Rachel Loden's "The Toy Box of My Intentions"

From her brilliant Dick of the Dead, Rachel Loden's meditation on "intention," a word with deep philosophical implications in the Western ethical and legal traditions, strikes out against the putative rationality of law itself. In each section, Loden proposes a situation in which those who control or know their "intention" exert it perilously and devastatingly against those whose must swallow others'.

(It has always struck me as strange that our law considers "intention" to be part of how one determines the seriousness of a crime; perhaps there is no way around it, but such thinking involves a lot of retrospection not always accessible at the time).

In any case, George Bush (and his elder, Tricky Dick) make their entry into this poem, with their occasional bombings of wedding parties (section 4), and the unfortunate (unintentional?) packaging of emergency airlifted food--which resembled precisely the yellow bits of cluster bombs (section 5). What makes this poem more than a mere protest is how she includes the enigmatic first section, which links an unknown "she" to these distant victims (is she a protestor hauled off to jail, or a random criminal?), and the third section, in which she identifies with those whom G-d (one of the names of God in Hebrew) has made to swallow the nails of intention.

"The Toy Box of My Intentions"


So many of them strewn about!
Intention is what the prisoner understands

as she hurtles through Manhattan
with her jailer—

and he too, leaning on his steering wheel,
separated from his dazed and reeling captive

by a wire mesh grill, knows
his way along the shining grid of streets

just as he knows
the grander moral map of his intentions.


Did you say intention?
Intention that the wall of red-brown mud feels

as it rolls over a darkened Panabajan village,
or that a song knows

when it hears itself on television,
trying to die amidst the thousand tapping feet?


O O O O everything
happens for a reason

Elah Sh'maya V'Arah
never gives us more nails than we can scarf down

at one
fairly elegant sitting


Intention, you toy!
The boy-president plays with you

whenever, somewhere in the world,
a wedding party

is in sudden need of slaughtering;
and when the one-way holiday makers

light up their jet-fuel cigarettes
and sift down to earth in all their purity

intention smears them extravagantly
with the dust of Jews and women.


Augh, so much lovely damned intention!
When the stars come out

loose hunks of the burning stuff
fall off the mental dirigible

as it dreamily plummets down
and all the while sticky

spider-threads and ribbons tie me
up in gaily festooned packages,

packages which intention
gallantly wrestles to the ground.

(originally published in epr, now in Dick of the Dead)

Monday, September 14, 2009

Jamey Hecht's Limousine, Midnight Blue: Fifty Frames from the Zapruder Film

Limousine, Midnight Blue: Fifty Frames from the Zapruder Film, is an obsessive slow-motion breakdown, in all the senses of the word, of that moment of trauma when the President was assassinated, and a country's dream of itself shattered. Composed of near-sonnets, echoing Dante's Inferno in its descent into an American hell, Hecht takes the Zapruder film as a kind of ekphrastic trove, from which he moves anywhere--from Dallas to space, from Nietszche to 'Nam.

The poems have a sardonic, lacerating edge, in the mode of the best confessional poems which admit to the political (Lowell, Plath, Wojahn, etc.). It seems that Hecht makes the kind of historical ex post facto error that Oliver Stone makes--if only Kennedy did not die, then we never would have went to 'Nam, and the center would have held during those hectic years--but it may be, in fact, that Hecht is both echoing and parodying the way in which the assassination has come to signify The Fall in U.S. political history.

Here's one:


How about the triple underpass as the cervix of the world
and GG300 as the tragic DNA-laden tadpole
that makes the poor young planet swell with future
wars and toys and sedatives. How about

the limousine is itself one giant bullet
pointed, well, you know where. In fact,
you’re still bleeding. Or the pink pillbox hat
is also a horse tranquilizer we must every one of us

choke down, and the headlights are hypnotic lamps
and the pathetic death-of-a-salesman lunge
of Clint Hill onto the lurching hood
is the official dance of the People’s Democratic

Republic of Craven, Malignant, Heartbroken, Sleepwalking.
Or maybe that’s only the Miltown talking.

There is a kind of Berryman-madman-performative aspect to Hecht's poems, which Hecht aptly demonstrates in his video-performances; here are some:

Fred Marchant's "The Salt Stronger"

"The Salt Stronger" by Fred Marchant, from The Looking House

I have seen the legislators
on their way,
the jacketless men
in mid-winter who will cast
their votes like stones for this war.

Men who have to cross the street
through slush
and over gutter, their cuffs
now vaguely blued with a salt
that dries in dots where it splashes,

and mingles with the finely
woven cloth
of the chalk-stripe suits,
the soi-distant practical men,
you can see them now tiptoeing,

now leaping, balletic, windsor-knotted,
and shaved,
they pass, they pass
the window of the Capitol Deil

wherein I am writing to my friend
in Baghdad,
he a "witness for peace,"
a poet who for years has wondered
what good poetry is or has been or does.

I compose today's answer from here,
I think of poetry
as a salt dug from a foreign mine
that arrives like a miracle in Bostone

as pellets to break underfoot
and melt
the dangerous plated ice
and cling to the acknowledged lawmakers,
to stay with them in their dreams,

to eat at the cloth and reach down
to the skin
and beyond the calf
into the shin. I think the soul
is equivalent to bone, and that conscience

must hide in the marrow,
float in the rich fluids
and wander the honeycomb of the brain,
or even the heart is where

the words attach, where they land
and settle,
take root after the long
passage through the body's by-ways.
Just think
, I write, of how some poetry rolls

off the tongue, then try to see the tongue
in the case
that faces me, a curious,
thick extension of cow-flesh
fresh from a butcher's block.

I think that if my tongue alone could talk
it would swear
in any court that poetry
tastes like the iodine in blood,
or the copper in spit, and makes a salt stronger than tears.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

"The Complete Poems of Chili Davis" and Other Books We Dreamed Were Real

My buddy Brian Gunn once joked that he'd been reading "The Complete Poems of Chili Davis," the brawny, taciturn outfielder for the Giants, right around the time we learned that Dan Quisenberry, the submariner-reliever for the Royals, began to pen his own poetry. I found this little piece online:

From "How I know the world as we know it is almost over":

in the newspaper I read
they have a new vacuum
so strong it can suck
a baby's head off before it can breathe
and some people are so mad
they shoot the doctors who
do that, in the name of god
saying "thou shalt not kill"
I wonder who will sorrow
when other babies reach eighteen
twenty-one or thirty-something
and get sniped in bosnia
somalia, iraq, okinawa, korea

The Quiz must have been quite the anomaly in the bullpen. Baseball culture tends to be macho, but Dan was always a little different.

Still, when I heard about Fernando Perez's love of poetry--and his reading of Lyn Hejinian and John Ashbery--I just about choked on my sunflower seeds. It sounds like an farce, a po-biz wet dream, but just listen to this guy.

Introducing the Center for Nonviolent Solutions...

One of my professor-mentors, Mike True, author of numerous books on literature and nonviolence including An Energy Field More Intense Than War: The Nonviolent Tradition and American Literature, has spearheaded his own nonviolent campaigns in education and in the world. He has been doing some institution-building. The Center for Nonviolent Solutions now has its own web site, which is chock full of resources to spread the word and deed of nonviolence.

Mike True is also available for lectures; listed below are some of his topics.

Michael True, Professor Emeritus, Assumption College, and the author and editor of twelve books, including An Energy Field More Intense Than War and The Nonviolent Tradition, 1995, and People Power: 50 Peacemakers and Their Communities, 2007.

I. The American Tradition of Nonviolence

A slide/lecture, with commentary and handouts, about resisting injustice, resolving conflict, and bringing about social change without killing, from the 17th century to the present. A narrative on the abolitionist, workers’, women's, civil rights, and Catholic Worker movements: William Penn, Abigail Kelley Foster, Henry David Thoreau, Eugene Victor Debs, Jane Addams, Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King, etc.

II. The Story of Global Nonviolence (People-Power) 1980-2000

A slide/lecture, with commentary and handouts, on the achievements of nonviolent direct action : Greenham Common Women, Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, Solidarity, the overthrow of Marcos in the Philippines, democratic uprising in China, firmeza permanente (persistent resistance) in Latin America, the Plowshares and School of Americas Watch.

III. Poetry and Resistance: A Celebration

A reading and discussion of contemporary American poems reflecting struggles for social justice and community building: Poems by Walt Whitman, Denise Levertov, William Stafford, Muriel Rukeyser, Stanley Kunitz, Karl Shapiro, Lucille Clifton, Mary Oliver, Bruce Weigl, etc.

The Center provides speakers on a variety of topics related to creating nonviolent solutions. Contact us with your specific needs and we will be glad to arrange for a qualified speaker to address your group.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Saadi Yousef's "The Tormented of Heaven"/An Iraqi Response to Abu Ghraib

Saadi Yousef
Sa ‘di Yusuf, (known in American poetry journals as Saadi Youssef) [b. 1934 Basrah, Iraq], is one of the most prolific and greatest contemporary Arab poets. He has published more than forty works of poetry and prose, including translations of selected poems by Walt Whitman. As a committed secular and revolutionary poet Yusuf is widely known for his uncompromising opposition to Saddam Husayn’s regime. Currently living in London, Yusuf has lived most of his life in exile in Arab and European countries. A collection of his poetry, translated by Khaled Mattawa, was recently published in the United States under the title Without an Alphabet, Without a Face (Graywolf, 2002). These poems have been translated from the Arabic into English and used with the poet’s permission.

"The Tormented of Heaven" by Saadi Youssef
(Translated from the Arabic by Salih J. Altoma)

We are on our way to Allah
for shrouds we have only our blood;
for camphor, the eyeteeth of wolfish dogs. (*)

The closed cell suddenly swung open
to let in a female soldier
our swollen eyes failed to clearly identify her
perhaps she was from an ambiguous world
she said nothing
she was dragging my brother’s bleeding body, like a worn-out mat.

we will walk toward Allah
with putrid feet
with lacerated limbs

Are the Americans Christians?
in our cell we have nothing for anointing the prostrate corpse
in our cell there is nothing but our blood clotting in our blood
and the odor coming from the continent of slaughterhouses
the Angels will not enter here. The air is stirring
it’s the wings of hell’s bats
The air is still.

O Lord , we waited for you
our cells were open yesterday
we were lying motionless on its floor
and you, O Lord, did not come.

But we are on our way to you
we’ll find the road to you even if you forsake us
we are your dead sons
we have trumpeted our Day of Resurrection
Tell your Prophets to open for us the doors:
the doors of cells and paradise
Tell them we are coming
we washed ourselves with dry sand (**)
the Angels know us all … one by one...

(*) Islamic method of bathing a dead body includes washing the body with a mixture of water and camphor.

(**) The poet uses here a Quranic verse which deals with ablution rituals before prayer. It recommends washing with dry sand or clean earth when water is not accessible.” And [if] ye find no water, then take for yourselves clean sand or earth, And rub therewith Your faces and hands.” The Quran IV: 43.

Salih J. Altoma is professor emeritus of Arabic and Comparative Literature at Indiana University.

The Clash's "Ghetto Defendant"

"Ghetto Defendant"
Though the Clash ranks as one of my favorite bands, for their unique blend of raucous punk energy with world music, their trenchant and acid lyrics (all hail Joe Strummer!), their album Combat Rock never stormed my attention. There are, of course, the inimitable "Rock the Casbah," "Should I Stay or Should I Go," and the haunting "Straight to Hell", but too many of the other tracks feel like the band has run its course. So when I started listening again, absent-mindedly, I was surprised to hear a familiar voice, Allen Ginsberg, mono-intoning amidst a song on the second side, "Ghetto Defendant." Ginsberg, like Dylan and Strummer, never wanted his art to be limited to coteries or crowds, so collaborations were natural, even if spastic/awkward the way Allen could be. Here it is.
by The Clash, with Allen Ginsberg

[/=allen ginsberg lyrics
everything else is the clash]

/ do the worm on the accropolis
/ slamdance the cosmopolis
/ enlighten the populace

Hungry darkness of living
Who will thirst in the pit?
/ hooked in metropolis
She spent a lifetime deciding
How to run from it
/ addicts of metropolis
Once fate had a witness
And the years seemed like friends
/ girlfriends
Her babies can dream
But dreams begin like the end
/ shot into eternity
/ methadone kitty
/ iron serenity

Ghetto defendant
It is heroin pity
Not tear gas nor baton charge
That stops you taking the city

/ strung out committee
Walled out of the city
Clubbed down from uptown
Sprayed pest from the nest
Run out to barrio town
/the guards are itchy
Forced to watch at the feast
Then sweep up the night
Flipped pieces of coin
/ broken bottles
Exchanged for birthright
/ grafted in a jiffy

/ strung out committee
/ sitting pretty
/ graphed in a jiffy
/ no pity, pretty

The ghetto prince of gutter poets
Was bounced out of the room
/ jean arthur rimbaud
By the bodyguards of greed
For disturbing the tomb
/ 1873
His words like flamethrowers
/ paris commune
Burnt the ghettos in their chests
His face was painted whiter
And he was laid to rest
/ died in marseille
/ buried in charleville
/ shut up

Soap floods oil in water
All churn in the wake
On the great ship of progress
The crew cant find the brake
Klaxons are blaring
The admiral snores command
Submarines boil in oceans
While the armies fight with suns

(and more...listen to Allen closely)...

Friday, September 11, 2009

"Into the Fire" and "Empty Sky": 9/11 after 9/11

Listening to the Boss in the year after 9/11, I'd be all chills and fever every time I heard these songs. I'm not crazy about these photo images, which always feel coldly distant from the feelings and alarm of those hours. Springsteen remains one of our greatest poet for the masses, poet of hope and grief, poet of memory and desire.

Our poetic responses, while not absent, felt smaller, more localized, though William Heyen's anthology "Making Sense of September 11th" is an excellent memorial to the thinking of that moment; how even then, writers strained against the narrowing constraints in public discourse.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Tom Orange Teaching Chance and Procedural Writing at SPACES Gallery

Chance & Procedural Writing: History and Practice
The Plum Academy – SPACES Gallery – Fall 2009
Tom Orange

Description: During World War I, Tristan Tzara famously instructed would-be Dadaist poets to tear up a newspaper article into pieces, put them into a hat, shake vigorously, draw them at random and transcribe the results. With such seemingly farcical advice, Tzara also offered a profound critique of Western civilization and its embrace of logic and reason. Since the 1950s, composer John Cage and the French Oulipians as well as certain conceptual writers today have extended and updated
Tzara's procedure. This forum considers the history of chance and/or procedural writing, the methods at work, and the rationales or motivations for creating such work, and how to evaluate it. There will also be regular opportunities for participants to enact these writing practices for themselves. Register online at

WEEK 1: Tuesday September 15 6:30-7:30pm

The Dadaist Poem: Then and Now
Discussion and Practice

Reading: Seven Dada Manifestos by Tristan Tzara (especially pages 39-40)


Take a newspaper.

Take some scissors.

Choose from this paper an article of the length you want to make your poem.

Cut out the article.

Next carefully cut out each of the words that makes up this article
and put them all in a bag.

Shake gently.

Next take out each cutting one after the other.

Copy conscientiously in the order in which they left the bag.

The poem will resemble you.

And there you are - an infinitely original author of charming
sensibility, even though unappreciated by the vulgar herd.


when dogs cross the air in a diamond like ideas and the appendix of
the meninx tells the time of the alarm programme (the title is mine)
prices they are yesterday suitable next pictures/ appreciate the dream
era of the eyes/ pompously that to recite the gospel sort darkens/
group apotheosis imagine said he fatality power of colours/ carved
flies (in the theatre) flabbergasted reality a delight/ spectator all
to effort of the no more 10 to 12/ during divagation twirls descends
pressure/ render some mad single-file flesh on a monstrous crushing
stage/ celebrate but their 160 adherents in steps on put on my
nacreous/ sumptuous of land bananas sustained illuminate/ joy ask
together almost/ of has the a such that the invoked visions/ some
sings latter laughs/ exits situation disappears describes she 25 dance
bows/ dissimulated the whole of it isn't was/ magnificent has the band
better light whose lavishness stage music-halls me/ reappears
following instant moves live/ business he didn't has lent/ manner
words come these people


WEEK 2: Tuesday September 22 6:30-7:30pm

Chance versus Causality in Music and Writing: John Cage and Jackson Mac Low
Discussion and Practice

Video: John Cage about silence

Audio: Cage's “Music of Changes”

Reading: Jackson Mac Low, selections from “Stanzas for Iris Lezak”


WEEK 3: Tuesday September 29 6:30-7:30pm

Writing with Constraints and Concepts
Discussion and Practice

Reading: “Into the Maze: OULIPO” by Mónica de la Torre

“Sentences on Conceptual Writing” by Kenneth Goldsmith

Something About Health Care Before It's Too Late

Friday, September 4, 2009

Peace Show 2009

Folks, come on out to the Peace Show, directly or as part of your Labor Day doings. I'll be taking audio recordings as part of my "Stories of War and Peace" project. Look for my booth.

2009 Cleveland Peace Show

Labor Day, Monday, September 7, Noon to 6pm

Willard park, East 9th and Lakeside, downtown Cleveland

Non-Violence Works. War Doesn't.

Peace Cranes, not War Planes.

Volunteers are needed - contact Elizabeth Schiros -

Music by Kristine Jackson, Peggi Cella, Early Girl,
Cindy Mackay, Deborah Van Kleef

Games for Kids & Adults
Food & Lemonade

Download flyer for info and distribution

Presented by the Cleveland Non-violence Network and Artists for Peace

Thursday, September 3, 2009

"The Museum of Stones" by Carolyn Forche, from SPLIT THIS ROCK 2008

"The Museum of Stones" by Carolyn Forche

This is your museum of stones, assembled in matchbox and tin,
collected from roadside, culvert, and viaduct,
battlefield, threshing floor, basilica, abattoir,
stones loosened by tanks in the streets
of a city whose earliest map was drawn in ink on linen,
schoolyard stones in the hand of a corpse,
pebble from Apollinaire’s oui,
stone of the mind within us
carried from one silence to another,
stone of cromlech and cairn, schist and shale, hornblende,
agate, marble, millstones, and ruins of choirs and shipyards,
chalk, marl, and mudstone from temples and tombs,
stone from the silvery grass near the scaffold,
stone from the tunnel lined with bones,
lava of the city’s entombment,
chipped from lighthouse, cell wall, scriptorium,
paving stones from the hands of those who rose against the army,
stones where the bells had fallen, where the bridges were blown,
those that had flown through windows and weighted petitions,
feldspar, rose quartz, slate, blueschist, gneiss, and chert,
fragments of an abbey at dusk, sandstone toe
of a Buddha mortared at Bamiyan,
stone from the hill of three crosses and a crypt,
from a chimney where storks cried like human children,
stones newly fallen from stars, a stillness of stones, a heart,
altar and boundary stone, marker and vessel, first cast, lode, and hail,
bridge stones and others to pave and shut up with,
stone apple, stone basil, beech, berry, stone brake,
stone bramble, stone fern, lichen, liverwort, pippin, and root,
concretion of the body, as blind as cold as deaf,
all earth a quarry, all life a labor, stone-faced, stone-drunk
with hope that this assemblage, taken together, would become
a shrine or holy place, an ossuary, immovable and sacred,
like the stone that marked the path of the sun as it entered the human dawn.