Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Finding Time...

Yesterday I took part in a Casino-Free Philadelphia protest. It was a long day. Up at 4:00 AM, on Delaware Avenue by 6:00, still dark, the first rosy glow not yet visible on the horizon across the river.
I was one of those who volunteered to be arrested: civil disobedience-- a symbolic blocking of the construction site of the state imposed Sugarhouse casino. One by one, we had our hands cuffed behind our backs, and one by one, helped into police vans. That was the most uncomfortable part of the day—almost two hours in the vans before being taken out for processing… the cuffs cut from our wrists. I had been worried about the nerve damage in my shoulder—but because of it, I could not press my hands close enough together behind my back for them to tighten the plastic cuffs. Mercifully, I was able to slip out of the bands to relieve my injured shoulder—and sneak a scratch on my nose. I was very careful to keep this hidden, slip my hand back into the bands, lest they tighten those straps and leave me in real discomfort.

We were processed and placed two by two in cells. The walls, ceiling—virtually every painted surface was covered with graffiti—scratched, gouged, burned, written with markers… amazing, given that we were stripped of pens, belts, shoelaces… virtually everything but paper money… and our eyeglasses (which I think was a concession to our ‘special status’ as civil criminals). Each cell was approximately 6 x 9 feet, a steel bench about 30 inches wide on one side, the usual open steel toilet against the back wall… ours did not flush.
I would have been honored to share this space with any of my companions—there was, for one… George Lakey, a lifetime advocate of peace and teacher of non-violence…I single him out only because it was Lakey who made me recall Wilmer Young from some forty years back. I’ll return to that later. But for my state at the time, I could not have had a better cell mate than Jessee Brown. If I say we talked about everything under the sun, you would think I was exaggerating. But it would only be a modest description of our conversations… from the microwave radiation left from the Big Bang to alternative deaths of our own life giving star, from cuttle fish and squids to poetry, learning to overcome adversity and of course—a wide range of social concerns and politics, of which he has a depth of knowledge and experience far beyond my own... but it wasn’t the conversations (and they weren’t limited to the two of us… but included the police guards, who were by no means enthusiastic about what those casinos would mean for their work)… it was the hours we spent in meditation. Each in our own place, in our own way… and yet, a presence... by not letting go… by letting each other alone… and for that, a sharing all the more intimate.

Our first quiet period lasted almost four hours. Time did not stand still, far from it! The body does not give up its right to complain for lack of exercise, restricted circulation-- but neither did time weigh us down in its passing. I say “us”… I hope, without presumption. We didn’t say much about it—expect for mentioning the fact—but I had the sense that this was a time of deep significance for both of us—if in howsoever different ways. When we are in a place of greatly restricted possibilities, freedom resides in the ability to accept those limits, and let ourselves dwell in the unfettered reach of a mind without need to control what comes next… or when.
It was a great relief to hear, some 12 hours later,  the cheers of those who endured what was likely an even more boring passing of hours to wait for our release. I thought, what a fine and practical skill, this meditation business is in such circumstances. And perhaps, I’m only reading into the experience what I would like… but so many things have come together for me in the 24 hours since that I cannot, however objective I try to be, dismiss the connection, the deeply felt connection, between those hours of meditation and this gradual sense of freedom and new direction that’s been seeping out, and into me… like the gas leak in my stove…

When I came home last night, there was a fire truck, lights blinking… and in front of my apartment! Men inside… but that’s another story…( 3 days later, landlord has yet to replace the stove)
For five months, since learning that I would not be teaching again this fall, I've been looking for part time work. Without success. I had already become reconciled to scaling down and living on Social Security. My needs are simple. I sleep on a blanket roll on the floor. I have no car, little property… my books, a gift mountain bike, clothes to keep me warm in winter. This is not a problem.

But what has been troubling me… for all the time I've had on my hands—why has it been so difficult to make effective use of it to work on my writing? Am I essentially lazy? I know how much I need to do this… it’s my one most effective counter to disabilitating depression. I’ve missed the structure that teaching provided. And missed the volunteer work I did in the presidential campaign--missed being involved in something that mattered to the community at large--not lost in my own solipsistic dreams.
These were things that had been on my mind for some time before I went to the Casino-Free Philly protest yesterday... it wasn’t anything I'd thought or talked about then, in those long hours of conversation and meditation, but something that rose to consciousness later... why look for a paying job when there were so many things I could do as a volunteer?

How easily we miss what should be most obvious!
Tonight I went to a Friends of the Free Library meeting—my local branch.I recalled how important the library had been to me as a child, and when they asked what my interest was, what had brought me there, I had to speak very slowly to keep my emotions from overflowing.

Here's what I can do with this gift of freedom, I thought--not having to grade papers or worry about class evaluations… or…
Sitting in that cell I recalled stories about the Quaker, Wilmer Young-- how at the age of 70 he refused to pay taxes, and at 80, had submitted himself to arrest for civil disobedience--by climbing a fence guarding a ballistic missile site. Here I was, 12 years short of his age at the time... and the memory of carrying those stacks of books home from the library when I was a child--of conspiring with the librarian to let me browse and check out books from the adult shelves... something came together. Not necessarily work with the library... but a larger idea... finding ways I might offer my time and service, and let that define the structure that I need for my writing... and for my life.
I remembered an old woman when I was knocking on doors for Obama. She told me she resented paying taxes for schools… because she had no children… and I thought, but did not say: because you have no children, those taxes are the future you would otherwise have no claim to.

The time left to one is not measured by the duration between the present and the day of one's death, but by the duration and vitality of the life of the human community one serves.
A video of the action HERE. I'm the one with black cap, white beard, 1:02 -1:16 into the video. Meditating as we await  ARREST.    A bit player in a bigger picture.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Goodbye New York? Why do we do it?

Write, that is... and why is it so difficult a question to answer? DANIEL NESTER recalls life before leaving.

Goodbye to All Them

I’d like to say I left New York and never looked back, that there was some cloud-parting moment of clarity when I knew I had to stop being a New Yorker, stopped claiming the appellation of New York Poet, and never looked back. But I can’t.

My life as a New York Poet begins at age 26, in seminar rooms near Washington Square, reciting first drafts with sober incantation. Star Teacher #1 orders us to read Poet in New York. I do. “New York has given me the knock-out punch,” Federico García Lorca writes back to his family in Spain in 1929. I share classes with a Troubled South African Poet of Indian Descent, who ululates and laments the absence of servants in her West Village apartment. She brings in handwritten poems, calls her classmates racists. Finally, one night, Star Teacher #1 tells her this is all inappropriate, calls her into her office. We never see her again. Two years later, another student asks Star Teacher #2 what to do when we get out of grad school: Should we apply for teaching jobs, send poems to journals? Her tone is desperate; she really wants to know. Star Teacher #2 pauses, looks at the ceiling—dreaming of his summer house in Vermont, no doubt.

“Try just being a poet,” he says.

People write this down.

My life as New York Poet ends 12 years later, on March 12, 2005, when I announce my intention to move out of town—upstate to a teaching job, the coveted prize for poets—to 312 people on my personal email list. No one responds to this email

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Free Will ?

From a post on Will Buckingham's Think Buddah

“OK, forget all this to-ing and fro-ing, and all this ‘I-must-make-a-decision-ing’. Let’s just see what I do next …”, then – perhaps rather curiously – what I do next is often the thing I really ought to do.

The fear is that – if we give up on the idea of this internal decision-maker – somehow we will be giving up on ethics. As I have suggested before, this may just be an internalisation of the idea that without God there is no ethics, with the little decision-making homunculus becoming a kind of internal god directing the whole show. But as time goes on, I have a greater trust in the wisdom of decisions that arise in this “Let’s just see what I do next…” way, than I do in the kinds of decisions that arise in this “Let’s just work out what I ought to do next…” way.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009


Paul Levi Bryant at Larvel Subjects offers some Lacanian insights on Finnegans Wake that apply equally well to the L-A-N-G-U-A-G-E poets , their cousins and heirs, to FLARF--and to much of the poetry outside of what Ron Silliman calls the 'school of quietude.'
Perhaps thinkers and artists shouldn’t be evaluated by influences within their art or discipline, so much as by their idiosyncratic fetishes and obsessions that fall outside of their work. What are we to make, for example, of Graham’s obsession with Gibbon? As I read Harman’s daily posts about Gibbon, I can’t help but feel that I’m encountering something purely singular and inarticulable. As Graham himself would admit, I’m sure, there is something deeply libidinal in this obsession, a jouissance that falls outside of language, even though it seems to be all about language. If the suggestion of a jouissance outside of language that is all about language seems paradoxical, we need only think of Joyce’s final work. As Lacan observed, Finnegans Wake is a pure jouissance, a sinthome rather than a symptom.

Where a symptom is either a metaphorical substitution or a metonymical displacement susceptible to interpretation, a sinthome is a jouissance that admits of no interpretation. Lacan, perhaps influenced by Deleuze and Guattari, referred to the sinthome as a haecceity. When a woman continuously has fits in public where she falls down and where there’s no medical condition that accompanies this malady, we probably won’t be far off the mark in concluding that the signifier “fallen woman” is at work somewhere in her unconscious. This symptom is a message to the Other, indicating perhaps the manner in which she has betrayed her desire. The sinthome by contrast, does not function in this way. When Lacan says Joyce cannot be interpreted, he is not saying that he is so difficult that his work defies any analysis. Clearly this is not the case. What he is saying is that the relation to language in Joyce is that of the sinthome or a pure jouissance in language itself, without this language being organized around a series of metaphorical and metonymical substitutions that would allow for an interpretive master key. And indeed, to read the late Joyce you have to read him at this level. If you are looking for meaning in Joyce’s later work (i.e., the relation between the Imaginary and the Symbolic), you’re going to be tremendously frustrated and outraged. Joyce has to be enjoyed at the level of the rustle of his language itself, at the level of the texture of that language. While the later work of Joyce is capable of producing a great deal of meaning (it’s almost like hyper-text), it does not contain pre-delineated meaning that would lie beneath the shimmer of the text as its secret key.
I would take this further and suggest that in the strongest poets, there is always a remainder that eludes interpretation, not because its symbolic meanings are inexaustable, but because it is beyond and outside of the configurations of imagination and symbol. Think of Blake. How accesible his poetry is to children.(*) My oldest son would carry around a little paper back anthology: "My Book of Blake," he called it.  I remember with what joy he would recite Tyger Tyger and Rose Thou Art Sick--and this,  not long after he learned to read.
Then we grow up and read Frye and think we have found our way toward a deeper understanding. More complex, yes--and not without meaning... but deeper?
(*) "...accesible to children: ok... not Milton, or the Four Zoas... for the longer 'prophetic' works, we can be grateful for Frye... )

Saturday, September 19, 2009


A great find! Thank you Edmond Caldwell.


I think I've touched the hem of genius! I may even take up my bed and start blogging again.

Storytime at FafBlog

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Noam Chomsky: What do they mean by 'anti-American?'

Who has done more to deconstruct the double talk and get to what matters: the underlying motives of power and authority? What then is behind Chomsky's marginalization (an understatement... more like his almost total absense from liberal/progressive discourse). What is it about his analysis of the U.S. political, economic propaganda machine that has earned him his place with dustballs and dirty socks--under the bed and out of sight ? When was the last time Chomsky's name was cited on Daily Kos... let alone The Huffington Post? As though the left center had swallowed whole the right wing's demonization--afraid to so much as mention his name.

Richard Crary has a post on (mostly) just this on the Exixtence Machine.

I’ve also been thinking about literature and politics: more specifically—about the relationship between literature and politics on this blog. There’ve been occasions when I’ve written an overtly political piece, only to delete it the next day--as though this raised questions about my intentions for the Barking Dog: questions I still don’t know how to address.

All literature is infused with politics. I say that in the same way I would claim that all literature is infused with Eros. That said, I find overtly political fiction and poetry is to what I might call (after Hannah Arendt), the politics of the human condition—what pornography is to Eros.
At the same time, discussions of art that remain detached from any recognizable political ground feel utterly frivolous, lacking in flesh and blood. At this point, I confess that I’m at a loss as to how to integrate these elements, which are in their essence, or should be... inseparable.
 This goes back to something I think I got from Camus: neither victims nor executioners.  If that sounds like seeking 'middle ground,' you haven't read Camus.
I am of two sides on this, on the one hand, a radical-- way off the visible political spectrum, and on the other,  a pragmatist: that is... one who would acknowledge the entangled reality that has to be got through to accomplish even the most modest of goals. The things I read on political blogs and in print commentary are, on the one hand,  either goal defined critiques without regard to political realities, or prescriptive views that let perceived pragmatic formulas define and determine the goal--as though they set the limits to imagined possibilities. And there is my problem.
The 'middle ground' is slavery: recapitulation of the worst of the past.  Is this where literature and politics join hands? The future is never gained by seeking middle ground, nor in joining with one extreme or another... but holding them both together at once--in all their contradictory power... though they tear us assunder as we try.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Audio of James Joyce, Finnegans Wake

Audio abridgement of Finnegans Wake, read by the Irish actor, Jim Norton