Monday, October 4, 2010

Clowns

The clown seems to have some large cultural significance here in Brazil. Often cell phone stores and other businesses hire clowns to pass out pamphlets and coupons on the street. And the other day, while trying to compose an email, I was distracted by a persistent whistle coming from the street. When I went outside to discover the cause, I saw a clown holding a big red banner. He was campaigning for some local politician. Politics reduced to the circus--literally.

Dusting off the horn...

I didn't take the time to celebrate the latest issue of The Dark Horse here when it first came out. I was happy to see that Poetry Daily featured one of its essays some weeks ago, namely Rory Waterman's review of William Logan which is not to be missed. If you haven't, you should pick up a copy of it. A couple of my poems made it into this edition. My copy is waiting for me in the States. Otherwise, I would find more to comment on. The website offers a lot of choice content as appetizers.

Toot.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Be Where You Are

We are leaving Brazil this year. I had hoped to stay until June or July of 2011, but my plan had been to visit home in December, return in January, then return again in the summer, and all of that adds up to a tidy sum. We are already half-broke as it is. Dealing with the rigmarole of securing my papers gave me enough frustration not to regret the decision to leave early. I have only just now secured my permanent residency visa. (Actually, I have a slip of paper that endows me with the same rights as the visa, but the visa itself won't be available until December or January--I may or may not be able to retrieve it before leaving.) The entire ordeal has been enough to make the U.S. DMV seem like the ideal of competence and expediency. But I don't want to complain any further. There is a lot about living here, especially on a tight budget, that can make you grind your teeth to the very roots, but there is a hell of a lot of good here, too. Today I made a point to take it in. I haven't done anything special. Mostly I have stood on the balcony of our apartment, drinking coffee, watching the clouds pass over the hills, and watching the people as they walk along the street going about their business.

Whenever I get set to move I have a hard time being where I am. I'm like Kramer on Seinfeld, about to move to L.A., pointing to his head, telling George, "Up here, I'm already gone."

I have designs on graduate school, and have started the application process by taking the GRE, which I took at an English school in nearby Recife. In the coming weeks I will compose my statements of intent, writing samples, etc. If I get a good offer, and that's only if I get accepted at all, we will end up either in Texas, or back in Boston.

Boston conjures a great deal of saudade and homesickness. When I moved there, I met a lot of people around my age who had lived there for some time, all of them sick of Boston (they came from all over the country). When I left, I was tired of administrative work but I was not at all beginning to tire of the city. Indeed, I wasn't taking advantage of all it had to offer. I went to the Symphony only once, and then it was a weekend event mainly geared toward children. I attended one opera, and one play, my three years there. That is a disgrace.

So, if we land in Boston next year, I already have an itinerary of things to do if time and money permit. If we end up in another city, then I will have a lot of exploring to do. Either option promises so much excitement that I forget to take advantage of the good times on offer here.

My Portuguese is now pretty passable. I continue to note improvements with comprehension, and sometimes if I'm leaving a message on the phone I hear myself speaking muito rapido and wonder, for a moment, who the hell I am to be speaking so fast. My facility with the language leaves much to be desired, and I continue to work on it, but I remind myself that learning the language wasn't truly my primary reason for moving here. I moved here to get experience teaching, to learn if this is something I would like to do. Happily, it is something I enjoy very much. Bad days, it's more than bearable. On good days, I leave the classroom utterly elated and satisfied. I haven't liked a job like this since I worked as a DJ at a small AM station, where I spent my Saturday and Sunday afternoons in my last years of high school listening to oldies, making announcements every half hour or so, and reading poetry and fiction. Indeed, I thought of a career in broadcasting when I first entered college, but in my first poetry workshop I realized that my calling was something altogether different.

The other reason for moving here was to have more time to write. I've accumulated quite a collection of drafts that I am proud of. How they measure up to everything else out there is hard to say, but I have done some of my best work here, and I have my free time to thank for it.

I hope to post on this blog more often. Until then, vá com Deus, caros amigos.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Language and Concept

Very intriguing article in the NYT on the subject.

I've been a very bad blogger lately. Will update this thing as soon as I can.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Ainda estou com a testa sangrando

There is an expression in Portuguese, Estar com a testa sangrando, to be with a bleeding forehead. If someone says something particularly snarky, or makes a quick and witty comeback, it's a blow that leaves your forehead bleeding. It's used in the same way as the American-English expression, "Oh snap!" Or "you got served."

I learned this expression today while repeating one of my favorite stories about Bebel, or Maria Isabel, my niece. She's just turned five. One night we were at dinner with her and a bunch of other family members. Someone commented that Bebel falta educação, that is, she lacks manners. Wanting to try out my Portuguese, I turned to her and, with a mouthful of french fries, said, "So, you don't have manners, Bebel?" Without missing a beat, she rolled her eyes and and with an exasperated sigh, replied, Não falo com boca cheia -- "I don't speak with my mouth full."

My forehead is still bleeding from that one.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Fundamentalists

I was reading Don Share's comments regarding Ron Silliman's take on W.S. Merwin being named the new poet laureate, when it occurred to me that the poetry world is stricken with fundamentalism.

What brought me to that conclusion is the last sentence of Share's entry:

I always get a kick in the pants for espousing the eclectic, but if appreciating and nurturing the many conflicting textures of our poetry isn't consistent with the best dreams we can have for this country overall, then what is?

Kicked, that is, for suggesting that one keep an open mind. I can clearly see people taking Share to task for supporting various types of poetry (or poetries, which seems to be the going phrase today). This is the kind of behavior I witnessed growing up, when I was told on a number of occasions that having an open mind meant leaving yourself open for Satan's influence and an eternal life of damnation. That's the kind of talk that's meant to keep you in your pew and your money in the offering plate.

But eclecticism isn't solely about keeping an open mind. It means that one derives one's ideas and tastes from a broad number of sources, subscribing wholly to none in particular. It is to think for oneself, disregarding the mandates of this or that school or authority. The so-called Christian attitudes and beliefs I observed growing up were based on authority. To end any argument, all one had to do was recite the appropriate scripture. Case closed. God said it, end of story. Again, it was about keeping that butt in the pew, but it was also about maintaining the strength of the group. It doesn't take much knowledge of the poetry world (and I'm not as well-versed in the various contemporary scenes as I'd like to be) to see a parallel between this kind of "us vs. the world" mentality and the various camps, sects, and factions of Poetry.

Years ago I participated in workshops at the Frost Place and at West Chester, and thoroughly enjoyed both. In one of my first Frost Place workshops, the leader begged me not "to become one of those neo-formalists." At the time I had been reading much of what is called the "New Formalist" movement and was busy taking from their ideas what I thought fit my own personal vision and voice because, by God, I had my own, even then. I felt hurt by the workshop leader's comments, but later realized that I couldn't help her prejudices and would take from her other comments whatever I thought would help improve my work.

At West Chester, I bought a book of criticism by Anthony Hecht as a gift for a professor who had written a recommendation letter for me, and who, I knew, loved Hecht's poetry. This was the same professor who had introduced me to such writers as Charles Bernstein, Jackson Mac Low, Susan Howe, and scores of others. Making small talk with a fellow participant, I mentioned my professor's eclectic tastes, indicating that the Hecht book was for them, and was met with a dismissive look. "Well," my colleague said, "maybe that professor will learn a thing or two." All I had to do was utter the name Bernstein to magically summon a demon of disdain.

A former roommate of mine was always wont to repeat the old saw, "There's no accounting for taste." I always love to add to that, "I don't know what you have against accountants." (Insert rim shot and cricket noises here).

Old Saw is right, of course. I don't fault anyone his or her own tastes. And I realize that a lot of the animosity dates to before I was even born, and that at some point it involves tenure-track jobs and there is more at stake than the decrees of taste. Fine. But I think that's all the more reason to reach a hand across the divisions and become, as Share puts it in his beautifully written post, "hybrid readers."

Me, I mostly read work that one might call "formalist," or "traditional." My favorite poets include Hecht and most of the recurring faculty at West Chester, and of course poets like Frost and Bishop. But there are reams of that kind of poetry that I wouldn't even clean my behind with. There are hundreds (thousands? millions? billions?) of sonnets out there that, in my opinion, don't hold a candle up to Robert Hayden's "Often I am Permitted to Return to a Meadow."

All of this to say: right on, Don. Right on.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Everything we hold dear is dying and we will have to answer for it

After weeks of depressing articles regarding cuts to higher education in my home state of Louisiana, I read this piece in the Los Angeles Times. My response to this in a moment. First, about education in Louisiana.

My alma mater, Southeastern Louisiana University, announced last month that it plans to cut its French program. After that, we got the news that soon universities across the state would lose LOUIS, a consortium of university libraries that provides a number of online databases to its members, thereby expanding the scope of research capabilities in small libraries. When I studied at SLU, such databases were indispensable. If I had relied entirely on the collections of books and periodicals housed in the library itself, my research would have been inestimably poorer. I imagine that these resources are, in many cases, the one factor that keeps academic programs at Southeastern competitive. Cutting this program seems to me the equivalent of a leg amputee shooting himself in his one good foot.

Louisiana actually enjoys "one of the nation's most progressive student assistance programs." I did not have to take out a loan to attend college, and only when I took summer classes (every summer) did I pay any tuition. Since I lived off campus, my fees mostly went to parking passes and textbooks. This law came about from the same politicians who constantly bemoan the fact that many of Louisiana's brightest students flee the state as soon as they can get into a better funded and equipped university anywhere else in the country. I stayed in Louisiana to attend college because I had met some of the faculty through a program that allowed me to take college courses while a junior and senior in high school, and because I earned a TOPS scholarship. They're letting go of some of their best and brightest faculty, it seems, and I wonder how handicapped the library will be when the funding for LOUIS runs out. If I were a graduating senior today--and maybe this is a bit too reactionary on my part--I would be gone from Louisiana the day after my graduation ceremony (or I'd leave soon after the last class and let them mail me my diploma).

Getting back to the national issue of library cuts. That piece from the L.A. Times says it all. I miss having a well equipped and stocked library in walking distance, and I regret that I did not spend more time in the libraries of the Boston area while I lived there. My wife visited the public library here in Garanhuns, which amounted to a small room with poorly organized shelves. She says that that is pretty much the norm in this region. One wonders how conditions might change in this country if the distribution of information and education were just a little more equitable. New books in Brazil are prohibitively expensive to all but the middle class and elite. Even though this is a university town, there is only one used book store, and while one may find a few gems there, it's nothing compared to its equivalent in the States.

Public libraries are definitely appreciated in many counties throughout the United States. I can't help but think, however, that more could be done to encourage the public to make use of them. When I read the article about the closing of the French department at Southeastern, I was reminded of the time I had signed up for a semester of study in France. The trip was canceled, and I was refunded my money, because too few students enrolled in the program. At the time, I blamed it on the "freedom fries" hysteria. (This was at the beginning of the war in Iraq, when the Gauls had the gall to oppose American foreign policy.) But now I think it was probably because there were only a handful of French majors (I minored in the subject), and few of them had enough money for the trip.

So, when I read President Crain's statement that French is a "low-completer" program (and currently enrolls only 25 students), I thought, "Well, I can't argue with him there." French at Southeastern, as long as I've been familiar with it, is characterized by a paucity of students. My advanced classes barely met the minimum enrollment for a class. Now, I am not supporting the decision to cut French. Southeastern, like every Louisiana institution, wastes money on any number of ill-conceived notions annually. And beyond whatever the university itself has failed to do, there is the question of state funding. I just can't help but think that if more students were enrolled in that department, the question of cutting French would never have been uttered. In other words, we can all do our part to help save these vulnerable things that we love. It may often be a losing battle, but it's worth fighting.

All of this, of course, is happening in the wake of one of the greatest environmental disasters in U.S. history (is that right? I'm just guessing). Even when I don my rose-colored glasses, the future of Louisiana (and the rest of the country) is as brown and stinky as....