Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Katie Ford, poet

I had the good fortune of hearing Katie Ford read her poems about New Orleans last year when she visited my school. She reads with such poise and presence. I remember skimming through some of her poems before she arrived and not really experiencing their essence (not really possible in the act of skimming, is it?), but then I heard her read and they all came vividly to life. I was trawling around last night looking for a good poem and came across a November one of hers from The New Yorker. Not sure how I missed this. I also found a video of her reading. Haven't figured out how to embed it but I am including the video link below the poem, as it is pretty good quality. I have been feeling poemless for the last few days. Wanting to rest my mind on something but whatever that something is, it has been just out of reach. I'm glad I ran into Ford again.

"November Philosophers" by Katie Ford
published Nov. 9, 2009 in The New Yorker

Nothing is nothing, although
he would call me that, She was nothing.
Those were his words, but his hand was lifting
cigarettes in chains and bridges
of ash-light. He said he didn’t want his body to last.
It wasn’t a year I could argue
against that kind of talk, so I cut the fowl
killed on the farm a mile out—brown and silvery, wild—
and put it over butter lettuce, lettuce then lime.
I heated brandy in the saucepan, poured a strip of molasses
slowly through the cold, slow as I’d seen
a shaman pour pine tincture over the floor
of my beaten house.
She seemed to see my whole life
by ordinance of some god
who wanted me alive again.
Burnt sage, blue smoke. Then sea salt shaken
into the corners of violent sadness.
She wrote my address
across her chest
to let everything listening know
where my life was made.
We waited, either forgetting what we were
or becoming more brightly human in that pine,
in her trance, in the lavender I set on the chipped sills,
not a trance at all but my deliberate hand cutting
from the yard part of what she required.
Now wait longer, she said, and I did as I would
when the molasses warmed over the pot enough
to come into the brandy,
to come into the night
begun by small confessions—
that this was just a rental, and mine just a floor,
that the woman he loved was with another man,
his mother mad, his apartment haunted in the crawl space.
Then I told of the assault at daybreak between
the houses. Heat, asphalt, all of it and my face toward
the brick school where the apostolate studied first-century script
and song. There must have been chanting,
as it was on the hour.
What we said was liturgy meant only for us
and for that night. Not for anyone else
to repeat, live by, believe. Never that.
Our only theories were inside of our hands,
flesh and land, body and prairie.
I reached to smoke down his next-to-last,
which he lit and made ready.
The poultry like a war ration
we ate all the way through.
What we wished, we said.
What we said, we found that night
by these, and no other,

Katie Ford Reading/Marick Press

Sunday, December 27, 2009

The Decade We Had

I haven't read anything worth writing about in the last few weeks, and I'm stewing around about this fact. I recently started Colum McCann's Let the Great World Spin, and it is so miserably depressing that I have put it down for awhile. I know it won the National Book Award, and I'll eventually persevere and finish it. But it is not, at the end of 2009, a book I feel compelled to read. I'm feeling the same way about Up in the Air, which I did see. And what a brilliant downer of a movie it was.

Interestingly, I did find something of Colum McCann's today worth reading and celebrating. The New York Times published a lengthy multi-piece editorial titled "The Decade We Had," in which ten noteworthy and diverse writers (Richard Ford, Anthony Bourdain, Scott Turow...) chronicle the first ten years of this century. Each author specializes in a year and talks about it from his or her perspective. These pieces are each short, and there is no reason not to read all of them. However, my attention span is even shorter. I'm requiring the extraordinary at the moment, and Colum McCann delivers a big dose of it in his overview of 2008, the only year I've found interesting enough to finish. Not surprisingly, McCann talks about the historic nature of 2008 in terms of literature. It is probably egregious to cut and paste the whole piece right here, and I'm doing it anyway. I just reread it again, and it is so extraordinary that I am going to pull out that wretchedly depressing new book of his and give it another try.

"Titles of the Times" by Colum McCann

We are built on the wounds and mercies of the past: everywhere we are is everywhere we have been. I traveled to America long before I came to America. I grew up in Ireland in the ’70s, a teenager reading Kerouac, Ginsberg, Brautigan, Ferlinghetti. I would walk the length of Dun Laoghaire pier — a moving corduroy of sea waves in front of me — with a paperback copy of “Trout Fishing in America” tucked in the waistband of my jeans. Leaving was already written in me.

When I became an American citizen more than two decades later, I took James Joyce along with me. He sat on the metal chair at the swearing-in ceremony, and it was our secret that I’d now become a man of two countries: the only other people I told were my wife and children.

I still, these days, mark time by books. It is my chance at history. So I enter the 1920s not through Wilson, or Harding, or Coolidge, but in Gatsby’s gorgeous pink rag of a suit. I find Herbert Hoover hanging out on the running board of the Joad jalopy. Kennedy and Johnson traipse along feeling the weight of the things they have carried, and Bill Clinton sounds out the saxophone alongside the white noise.

Literature can stop my heart and execute me for a moment, allow me to become someone else. It is another chance at history. It is also my opportunity to align myself with the sort of American that I would like to be.

But for all my pursuit of what it meant to belong, I still hadn’t, by 2008, three years after I took the oath, told anyone but my family about my blue passport. Throughout the Bush years, I carried an awkward brick of language around with me — “Blackwater” and “levee” and “jumpsuit” and “Enron” — and that was not a language I wanted to build a house upon. I stayed silent and I tucked my dual citizenship away.

Then on the evening of Nov. 4, 2008, Barack Obama stepped onto the stage of a country maimed by war, cleaved by greed, riven by a collapsing economy, and I walked outside my New York apartment with my 5-year-old son in my arms, and I felt those old bricks falling away from me, the guilt, the doubt, the American stammer. Up and down the street, people shouted out the windows of their cars. Strangers were hugging one another. It was the briefest of parties — Bernie Madoff was on the way, after all, and Afghanistan loomed — but my boy had fallen asleep on my shoulder, and I felt I was, then, like the old phrase, the son of my son.

Fiction deals elegantly with issues that politics eventually wrestles with, corrupts, destroys, but nothing specific had been written to prepare me for President Obama. I wasn’t able to align him with any fiction, and yet it seemed that so much of literature has worked toward the moment. From Vladimir Nabokov to Aleksandar Hemon to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, American literature has always been prepared to take in the “other.” It has also allowed writers to hold onto their own country, so that they can have their hands in the warmth — or bitter cold — of both places.

The night confirmed for me so much of what I had wanted from the American experience, and so much of what I’d already received from her literature. Two halves of me were welded. It was as if politics had woken me from books, and I felt rooted and at home.

When 2008 is crushed and lying in the smithereens of memory, far from now, when it has taken on new shape, or when it has been undone by other years, when it has been dissected and torn, when it has been transformed into novels, shot through with language, reinventing the president, and indeed us, I will still return to that November evening, a moment that — like good fiction — was the marker of a beginning and an end.

Colum McCann is the author of “Let the Great World Spin.”

Editor's note: 2001 is a good read, too.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Blackberry Farm Cookbook

Yesterday I went to Davis-Kidd and heard my friend Sam Beall speak about his new Blackberry Farm cookbook. The talk was lovely because he is so passionate about what he does. I showed up looking like a bat out of hell, having come straight from a run, but he was completely gracious. I'll admit I was also the first to dig into the fantastic pimento cheese and salumi (check it- it's a word) that he brought, but I made sure to purchase some, too. A lot of people already know this about me: I happen to be a connoisseur of pimento cheese, and Blackberry Farm's is winning my personal contest right now. The cookbook is coffee-table gorgeous and full of simple, inspiring recipes. I use the word simple in the best way: simple because everything equates and connects with Tennessee's seasons. There are no frivolous ingredients. In this way the recipes remind me a bit of Ina Garten's, but Blackberry Farm's seem even more connected to the earth.
Listening to Sam talk about the farm, the food, the inn - it's clearly a profession that becomes a way of life. I've been thinking recently about teaching in the same way. I know there are ups and downs to this kind of life work, but I wouldn't trade it.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Kenji Yoshino

I heard a brilliant law professor named Kenji Yoshino tell his story at a conference in Denver last week. I have never, as far as I know, been in the same room with someone who could unequivocally affirm that he was in the process of changing the world. In response to an audience member's question about the need for federal protection against discrimination in the workplace based on sexual orientation or gender identity, Yoshino said in so many words, "We're working on it. ENDA will pass - give me three years." It was thrilling to be in that room at that moment.

He recently published a book called Covering: The Hidden Assault on Our Civil Rights and spoke to us about the concept of covering. I am still exhausted from traveling, grading, and wrapping up the semester, so I am going to cut some corners and post here what others think of this book. I plan to read it over the break as soon as I can get my hands on it...

“This brilliantly argued and engaging book does two things at once, and it does them both astonishingly well. First, it’s a finely grained memoir of young man’s struggles to come to terms with his sexuality, and second, it’s a powerful argument for a whole new way of thinking about civil rights and how our society deals with difference. This book challenges us all to confront our own unacknowledged biases, and it demands that we take seriously the idea that there are many different ways to be human. Kenji Yoshino is the face and the voice of the new civil rights.”
--Barbara Ehrenreich, author of Nickel and Dimed

“This stunning book introduces three faces of the remarkable Kenji Yoshino: a writer of poetic beauty; a soul of rare reflectivity and decency; and a brilliant lawyer and scholar, passionately committed to uncovering human rights. Like W.E.B. DuBois’s The Souls of Black Folk and Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, this book fearlessly blends gripping narrative with insightful analysis to further the cause of human emancipation. And like those classics, it should explode into America's consciousness.”
--Harold Hongju Koh Dean, Yale Law School and former Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights

“Who’d expect a book on civil rights and the law to be warmly personal, elegantly written, and threaded with memorable images? [T]he beauty of Yoshino's book lies in the poetry he brings to telling his own story.”
--O Magazine