Monday, October 4, 2010


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.


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


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....

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Workingman Blues

The argument could be made that Americans work way too much. The term workaholic is more often complimentary than pejorative. Countless people I know sleep with their blackberries on their nightstands, or on the pillow beside them in place of partners, and are trained to wake at the sound of the little machine vibrating. That is, if they sleep at all, if they are not already awake shooting off e-mails, preparing for the day that is just a few hours away. The average vacation for those lucky enough to enjoy the luxury of vacation time is two weeks. Much of that time is often spent on calls to the office to check in on how affairs are going. All of this could be used to illustrate that Americans are too busy chasing the almighty dollar to take the time to enjoy life, or to rest and recuperate the energy burned in the chase. I think that in some cases this is definitely the case. When I was working in a publicly traded company, I knew that the lifestyle of many in that company was not for me at all. The ones who were not nearing burnout, though, seemed to thrive off the fast pace of the business. They enjoyed fighting with their numbers, which they dutifully tracked in countless interlocked spreadsheets that got bumped up to the corporate office seemingly every second.

That’s one extreme. The other extreme is a culture that takes frequent holidays, with many if not most workers getting the day off to celebrate. The majority of businesses in any given town will close for the entire day. It’s difficult to keep up with if you’re not used to the rhythm. Every other month I get a surprise holiday. When I am busy trying to keep my classes on or ahead of schedule, the word holiday turns into a curse. “Another F—ing holiday, great, behind again…”

Now that the World Cup is on, employers all over the city are being challenged to cope with a dwindled workforce any time Brazil plays a game. Most of them just close shop for the day and take part in the festivities—if you can’t beat them, join them. It’s not as if they will see a surge in customers or clientele on a game day anyway, unless they own a bar or restaurant. Ask someone to keep an appointment on a game day, and you risk a look of scorn that will turn your blood cold. I never encountered this in Boston—it was understood that if you shirked work to watch the Sox play, you could take the next day off, and the day after, and the day after….

So, that’s the culture here in my city. Like everything, it has its pros and cons. I do enjoy the extra time off now and then. One of my main reasons for moving here was more time to read, write, and study. On the other hand, it’s frustrating when I need something from a store, but find it closed due to a soccer match. I guess it doesn’t help that I have never cared for sports (admitting that to anyone around here raises a cry—yes, an actual cry—of disbelief). It’s all about perspective.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

I Mean You

An error I often make when speaking Portuguese is using the singular você when addressing a group of people. Vocês is the correct form. And of course each person has its distinct conjugation--the plural often requiring a nasal vowel at the end. Of course, forgetting that there is a plural second person other than the decadently southern "y'all" (or "yaw," as it's often heard) is such an obvious mistake for a native English speaker to make as he mangles a Romance language that I kick myself every time.

One of the most common English mistakes I hear is the replacement of the verb "to be" with the verb "to stay." I'm sure this occurs because, in Portuguese, we can say either eu estava com raiva or eu fiquei com raiva, literally "I was with anger" or "I stayed with anger," or, I was angry; I stayed angry. One can of course stay angry in English, but first one must be angry. And even then the usage doesn't seem natural to me. "Tammy Sue got angry with Tyler for cheating on her with that tramp he met on the Springer show, and she stayed angry, too, I tell you what." To my ear, it sounds very colloquial. My point, though, is that ficar, to stay, expresses duration and, I think, added intensity, in these situations. Also, a common idiom is to say o banco fica nessa rua, "the bank stays on that street." This is silly in English; of course the bank stays on that street--what, will it get up and walk to another?

That's all I got. I'm pooped. I'll leave you with my good friend Monk. I haven't actually watched this video--something's iffy with my internet connection. But I trust that it shows what is advertised, a performance of "I Mean You."

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Maria Rita

I have been listening to this song obsessively:

Monday, May 31, 2010

More on Birthdays

I find it funny that you say "congratulations" on someone's birthday here. It implies that living another year was quite an accomplishment, and after I've chuckled I am reminded that, in fact, it is. It feels good to have survived another year on this dangerous planet. The other day I tripped and fell on the sidewalk, in the direction of the street. I suffered only a sore leg and a scraped forearm, and I quickly realized that if I had fallen just a few inches more to the left, I could have been run over. I didn't even break my glasses--that would have been a very expensive accident.

My wife was hit by a bicycle last year. We called an ambulance to take her to the emergency room only as a precaution--I was worried that perhaps there had been some internal injury we couldn't detect. She turned out fine, and our minds were preoccupied with all of the worse things that could have happened in the same instant. It could have been a motorcycle, or car. She could have hit her head on the pavement and suffered a concussion.

I don't want to reveal just how morbid my imagination gets on a daily basis. I'm very much a Monty Python, "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life" kind of guy. And looking on the bright side often means considering the greater extent of the harm we didn't come to.

I have been thinking about some people I have met who have always made a point to take the day off for their birthdays, something I have never felt compelled to do as an adult. I have been unlucky enough to work the same shift as one such person, and every other breath I'd hear, "I can't believe I'm working on my birthday." Gets old quick.

Well, I can't believe I'm blogging on my birthday. Later, dear reader.

Parabéns Para Mim!

In Portuguese, instead of hearing the equivalent of "happy birthday," one usually hears "Parabéns!" or, "Congratulations!" The "Happy Birthday Song" starts off with "Parabéns para você..." The title of this post, then, is "Congratulations to me!"

But enough about my "special" day. It is this day every year that we also celebrate the birth of Walt Whitman, a poet I discovered in high school and one I keep revisiting.

Also celebrating his birthday today is Clint Eastwood, another American treasure if you ask me.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

The Hazards of Learning Haphazardly

Last night I started screaming. My wife kept saying, half-laughing, "Calma! Calma!" But I only replied, "NO! NO! You of all people know how frustrating this is!"

The problem? For the past year and a half I have thought that the Portuguese word for eyeglasses is "o óculos." The first "o" is the masculine singular definite article meaning "the." So, I had thought that even though the word "óculos" appeared to be plural, it should be treated as singular. "Meu óculos" instead of "meus óculos." (You've probably gathered by now that in Portuguese articles and adjectives have to agree in number and gender with the nouns they modify.) I looked it up in my textbook, and sure enough it said "o óculos," just as I've been saying it lo these many months. But when I checked two different dictionaries, they listed the noun as plural. So, was there a typo in my textbook?

No. It's common to hear the noun treated as singular. But technically it is plural. And this is something that baffles Portuguese speakers who are savvy enough to question it. I just consulted an opinion online, and there is a theory that "óculos" has been lumped in with a bunch of nouns that end in "s" but are singular. (My own theory is that, sometime in the history of this word, the phrase "o par de óculos" (pair of glasses) was common, and over time the words "par de" were elided, so that when we say "o óculos, we really mean "o par de óculos"--as in English when we say "a pair of glasses.") Because of this little linguistic anomaly a gringo nearly suffered a stroke last night.

It didn't stop there. I was asking my wife about the phrase "não se preocupe," (don't worry) which I had thought should be rendered "não se preocupa" because it is an -ar verb. We argued back and forth about the correct ending before I realized that in order to form the imperative for an -ar verb, one must use "e." For example, "call me" (by telephone) is usually: "Ligue para mim," with the infinitive being "ligar," an -ar verb. Once we remembered how to form the imperative (and after I sighed relief--I knew I wasn't going crazy, only getting forgetful), we were still confused about the reflexive pronoun "se"--but I won't go into all that.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Turtles and Monkeys

I woke up at 9:00 this morning intending to set the world on fire. Instead I wasted a lot of time browsing various entertainment blogs and by 11:30 had washed the dishes, satisfied for having at least done something useful to somebody. It's only 2:30, now, so I have the rest of the day ahead of me. Perhaps genius will strike. I have been dividing my free time among various little projects--studying Shakespeare's plays (right now I'm plodding through A Comedy of Errors and am not impressed, having just spent weeks immersed in the Henry IV plays), studying Latin (I'm on my way to completing Wheelock's by December), and of course practicing and studying Portuguese.

While I was picking up a sandwich for lunch, I had the idea to watch the copy of the original Ninja Turtles movie dubbed in Portuguese that we acquired the other day. That way, I'd be able to indulge in some infantile nostalgia while also improving my listening skills in Portuguese. And it was a blast. Some of the dialogue was over my head, but I was able to comprehend a surprising amount of it. We don't get television in the apartment--we detest Brazilian TV so much that we didn't even bother hooking up the antenna. The down side to that is that we only watch DVDs, and they are almost always in English. Television and movies are a great way to study a language, of course, and I have been depriving myself of this invaluable tool. No longer. I'm going to make it a daily habit to watch one movie in Portuguese a day.

Most of the people I see on a daily basis at the school where I teach are only interested in speaking English with me, and I don't blame them. So, I don't have many conversations in Portuguese, not as many as one would think since I am living in Brazil. My wife and I have always spoken English to each other, and it's difficult to break that habit. Someone recently told us that there have been studies on bilingual couples, and that they usually stick with one language when talking to each other, finding it very difficult to change. Our experience jibes with that. Still, this week I have forced myself to start conversations with my wife in Portuguese, and it's been very helpful. And funny.

I wish I had some specific little mix-ups to mention, but I haven't made any translatable mistakes lately.

There is an expression here, "Pagar um mico." To pay a monkey. When you make a mistake, you have to pay a monkey. When they taught me this expression, I said, "Já pagei muitos micos!" I have already paid many monkeys.

There are a lot of expressions involving my favorite animal here... the word for coveralls is macacão, meaning "big monkey." In English, "monkey suit" denotes a tuxedo, which in Portuguese is "smoking," likely borrowed from the English "smoking jacket." Back to monkeys, the word for "jack," i.e. the device one uses to lift a car to change a flat tire, is called "um macaco." A monkey. And, when one becomes an expert, one is then um macaco velho, an "old monkey."

I have hopes that I have only scratched the surface of monkey references in Brazilian Portuguese. I knew that I would love learning this language.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Laughter as a Foreign Language

Even the vocalizations that seemingly need no translation from one language to the next feature different spellings and phonetic identities. In English, a dog goes "ruff ruff ruff" or "bow wow wow," but in French he goes, "oua oua oua!"

I've been taking note of the different ways laughter is spelled by my online Portuguese-speaking friends. One spelling is "rsrsrsrsrsrsrsrsrsrsrs," which to my ear is more of a snicker than a chuckle. Incidentally, another popular spelling is "kkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkk." Em fim, finally, there's "asuhasuhasuhasu!" I have no idea how that's supposed to sound, but it features a few vowels which leads me to think it's a bit more booming than the other two.

A scene from The Simpsons comes to mind. I can't remember the exact episode (sorry, comic book guy), but it involves either Lisa or Bart interrupting a French class in Shelbyville. The teacher, of course, is a beret-wearing, prison-stripes Frenchman cliche. The children laugh in the usual adolescent American idiom: "heeheeheehee," but are stopped by the gruff teacher, "Non on on, en français!" And so the children recommence: "ron ron RON!"

In one of my first French classes, before the professor entered, I asked my fellow students if they had been practicing their French laughs. They looked puzzled. Then I broke into a loud "ron ron RON!" They laughed in English.

Monday, May 3, 2010

The Writing Life

I am simultaneously drawn to and bored by articles, blog entries, musings on the writing process, rejection, writing rituals, and all the related minutiae. I suppose I am drawn to them to see how my own haphazard processes compare, and am often bored since we are talking about what amounts to sitting alone in a chair, in front of a computer screen, a typewriter, or with a pad and writing instrument. The excitement happens somewhere between brain and page, and I'm not sure there's a way to capture that excitement without dropping into the banal. Then again, counting the number of drafts a poem takes to "get there," or detailing how many times you've sent off a manuscript before acceptance, isn't all that fresh when you compare the hundreds or thousands of such chronicles that one finds online or in writing magazines like Poets and Writers. The finally product of all this busywork, one hopes, will turn out infinitely more interesting.

I am reminded of the Bob Dylan biopic I'm Not There, a flick I flat-out hated. I had seen so much potential in the concept only to be disappointed by a more-or-less conventional rock and roll story, more of the same drugs and broken relationships. It was more or less the same movie that Walk the Line had been. I realized that everything I liked about Dylan and Cash was in the music, and the personae that came through the songs. I don't care to know much about their personal lives.

All of that to preface a few comments on the writing life.

I recently threw in my two cents in a discussion on Facebook concerning editors' requests for re-writes. I think that fiction writers get these a lot more often than poets, but I have had a couple in my day. They were minor requests to fix little bumps in the meter or to tone down an overly sentimental line here or there. In each case the poem was made stronger, and I was grateful for the careful editorial attention. Others in the discussion treated the issue as deplorable, as high and mighty editors believing they know more than the writer. I can see how this must be true in some cases. But I think it should be taken on a case-by-case basis. I'm not so great that I can't take a bit of advice or a suggestion from an editor devoted to putting out the best work, and patient enough to help me get my own work there.

Thursday, April 29, 2010


One of my students has turned me on to rapadura. As the Wikipedia article states, it's basically dried sugar cane juice sold in bricks. Very sweet, potent stuff. It's used as a sugar substitute, and here it is eaten by itself as a candy and energy boost. My wife says it was a favorite food of her father's when he farmed during her childhood--he would eat some rapadura after lunch in order to have some quick-burning energy to take back to the fields.

The taste is pleasant, very surprising given that the odor has a bitter tinge. In Louisiana there are a number of local brands of pure cane syrup from the southern cane fields. I have never liked this syrup. If memory serves, it has a smokey quality that overpowers the sweetness. I was expecting rapadura to possess the same punch, but its caramel flavor was well balanced. The texture is lovely--it melts as it crumbles in the mouth. And a little bit goes a long way--I only ate a couple of shavings just now, with some coffee, and it's got me near jitters.

Sugar production is something in common between this region of Brazil and southern Louisiana. João Cabral de Melo-Neto, a poet from Pernambuco, has a few poems devoted to the cane fields of the region. I can't help thinking of Louisiana poet Jack Bedell, my friend and former teacher, when I read the de Melo-Neto poems. He, too, has a number of poems relating to the fields, and the hard lives of those who work them.

Monday, April 26, 2010


In Portuguese there is an "I" in team: "time," pronounced something like "TEE-mee." I'm sure it found its way into the Luso-lexicon by way of futebol fans who luso-fied the pronunciation and spelled it according to Portuguese orthography.

Of course, "I" doesn't really mean anything in Portuguese (to my limited knowledge anyway) except perhaps as the Roman numeral for one.

The Portuguese "time" is an import from English. There are a lot of English words peppering the language. Buffets are popular here, but they are called "self-services." There is a fast food chain here called Milk Shake (I have eaten there on a number of occasions and have yet to try their name sake beverage).

Que mais? What else?

Today someone mumbled to me in Portuguese and I understood almost verbatim what he said. That's a new one. Deciphering mumbling is quite the test. One of my best American friends is quite the mumbler, though he will deny it up and down. I have a hard time understanding his English.

Some friends asked me the word for someone without clothes. I discussed the nuances between "naked" and "nude," and then asked for the Portuguese equivalents. They made an even trade with "nu/a" and "pelado/a."

Everyone in the room broke into uproarious laughter when the word "pelado" was uttered. I asked them why that word was so funny, but no one could tell me.

I recounted the conversation to my wife, and she hypothesized that the humor in "pelado" is that it is often taught to children, and is therefore cute by association. Also, when kids play impromptu soccer matches without proper equipment, referees, etc., just for fun, it's called "pelado," which calls to mind some vivid images if one considers the subject too literally.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Ninguém merece estudar as conjugações!

It's been a while since I have updated this blog. Thankfully the culprit has been busyness and not my usual demon, laziness. I have been hitting the Portuguese books these days, striving in earnest to fill in the gaps in my knowledge of the language.

I'm breaking things down into easy-to-swallow portions, focusing on one element at a time. The first: verb conjugations. The most important part of any language. I spent a whole week only on an overview of verbs in the simple present and the many irregulars. Yesterday I did a blitz of all the other tenses, from preterite to conditional.

Until now I had never attempted a systematic study of verb tenses. The textbook I have been using since last year, Português básico para estrangeiros by Rejane de Oliveira Slade (given to me as a gift in 2007 by a good friend who knows me better than I know myself--at the time, I was dating the woman I would marry but had no idea I'd ever find myself in Brazil), anyway, this book is terrific in that it uses an immersion method--the entire book is written in Portuguese, and it introduces vocabulary and grammar as it goes along. But this is also its weakness--I have always benefited from a more analytical approach to learning foreign languages--I'm talking about old fashioned paradigms, laying it all out for memorization. This book features some charts, but they usually come after the usage is introduced integral to a text.

When we were last in the U.S., I picked up The Everything Learning Brazilian Portuguese Book. You've probably seen this "Everything" series...kind of like the Idiot's Guide or Dummies series. It presents the material in English, which is helpful because it helps me to stick my toe into the water before making a splash. I think I am benefiting from utilizing both approaches, though. I plan to return to the immersion book after finishing the Everything.

For the most part, I am learning English haphazardly and, until now, I haven't devoted very much time to my studies. Which makes it all the more surprising when I carry a conversation with someone, or when I understand the gist of an overheard conversation. My wife got a new cell phone, passing the old one down to me, so today I got a few of her calls, people who didn't have her updated information. And I was able to understand their requests and answer them fluently. Is there anything more encouraging than that? When I stop to think about it, though, I get a strange sensation--"How did I just do that?" As much as I hate The Matrix, I can't help but compare it to the famous scene when Keanu Reeves says "I know Kung Fu!" Sometimes it feels as if I am suddenly bilingual (well, suddenly almost bilingual).

My reading knowledge of French is as good as it ever was, which means that I struggle with it, and can read at a very basic level--and I earned that with three years of very hard work in French classes at the university level. So, immersion is the best way to learn a language, even when you spend most of your time in the house, speaking and reading your native tongue. But it's only taking me so far. Even though I haven't formally studied much over the past year, I don't think I would have gotten this far if I hadn't cracked a book. I think the exposure to native speakers has helped reinforce what I have studied, although I have learned quite a few constructions (like the past tense) from very patient friends correcting me over and over.

Well, I am happy to have taken the time to update this blog. I hope to write more, and soon.

The title of this post, by the way, means "No one deserves to study conjugations!" I am told it's a very common expression amongst native students of Portuguese. I developed quite a headache yesterday, keeping the future and conditional straight in my head. I'm still not sure I have it--so, I am off to crack the book yet again.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Black Coffee

I have had the coffee conversation, in English and broken Portuguese, too many times to count. Here in the northeast (I am not sure if this extends everywhere in the country) it is almost unheard of to drink coffee without sugar. Most people take it black with copious amounts of sugar, and the rest add milk to the mixture. The sugar is added during the brewing process, in fact, which to me is a very rude thing to do--Americans can be particular about such things. If all you have to offer is sweetened coffee, you're potentially excluding not only gringos like me who don't like the taste of it, but also diabetics. The solution: when someone orders coffee black, they are served instant coffee. It's an outrage.

I, for instance, take my coffee black, and have done so for almost as long as I have been a coffee drinker. When I started drinking coffee at 18, I usually added half-and-half and two packets of sugar. One day I tried it without sugar, and found that the cream complimented the coffee a lot better on its own. After some time I eschewed cream and haven't looked back since. I even drink espresso black.

I can tolerate milk or cream in my cup, but I have become an enemy to sweetened coffee. To me, combining the sweetness of sugar with the smoky bitterness of coffee is too much of a flavor clash. That's the taste I've acquired. I also am not a snob about my beans--I'll drink whatever's sloshing in the pot, as long as it at least reminds me of what coffee should taste like.

When a friend visited from the States last year, he had enough of my exasperation in cafés: "No matter how many times you order it, people are going to look at you funny. You can't change that. Get used to it."

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Life is Like a Side of Bacon, Miller Williams, and More

I am sure that many of my readers are familiar with Charles Dickens' conceit of melodrama as a side of bacon. It begins chapter 17 of Oliver Twist:

It is the custom on the stage, in all good murderous melodramas, to present the tragic and all the comic scenes, in as regular alternation, as the layers of red and white in a side of streaky bacon. The hero sinks upon his straw bed, weighed down by fetters and misfortunes; in the next scene, his faithful but unconscious squire regales the audience with a comic song.

After more illustrations from the stage, Dickens give us this summation:

Such changes appear absurd; but they are not so unnatural as they would seem at first sight. The transitions in real life from well-spread boards to death-beds, and from mourning-weeds to holiday garments, are not a whit less startling; only, there we are busy actors, instead of passive lookers-on, which makes a vast difference.

The last two weeks for me have been one lean side of bacon, dominated more by the red of wrath than the softness of fat. I really am taken by Dickens' metaphor, probably because I am the son of a butcher. It also calls to mind greasy x-bacon sandwiches (pronounced sheez-baycone) I enjoyed in Arcoverde, filled with slabs of bacon thick as pork chops which I know have taken off five years of my life (oh, but it was worth it). There you have it--the salty, fatty, triglyceride-ridden savor of junk food and the quiet accumulation of platelets in the aorta. The red and the white.

But let's put away my frustrations as they really have no bearing on what I'd like to address on this blog.

I was thinking of writing a short note about Miller Williams, James Whitehead, and other poets of that generation that are either from the same area (the Arkansas MFA program) or who share generational and aesthetic ties (the late George Garrett, whose poetry and short fiction I became more acquainted with on vacation in December, comes immediately to mind). Alas, my prime example as critic is neither Eliot, nor Adorno, but Popeye the sailor man. That is to say, "I yam what I yam, I likes what I likes." In other words, I'm not much of a critic, or at least don't consider myself as such and have not exercised the muscles involved. I intend to change that one day, but that day is not today. I don't want that to stop me, however, from pointing interested readers in the direction of writers who deserve attention.

I was thrilled to see Leon Stokesbury featured on Brian Brodeur's How a Poem Happens. Mr. Stokesbury has edited a wonderful anthology of southern poets entitled The Made Thing. It is not to be missed. It's a comprehensive overview and a strong introduction to Southern American poetry of the last half of the twentieth century. Oops, that's me trying to play cricket. More important than the qualifiers "comprehensive," "definitive," "good introduction" is "damn good read," and that's this book.

So, getting back to Miller Williams. He's certainly had a good career, one of his many honors being one among the chosen few to read at an inaugural address for a U.S. president (Clinton). Few may remember that Billy Collins was in effect discovered by Miller Williams, and they seem to share an affinity for intellectual wit and a strict avoidence of obscurity. Williams avoids the pitfalls that have probably made Collins the more famous (if I were so inclined, I'd count how many times Collins refers to "the heart" in his work--it's his sugary signature). Williams excels at dramatic monologue -- I would say that his poem "Ruby Tells All" stands up with the best in the form in English poetry.

Williams came to mind as I was reading David Mason's review of the late Michael Donaghy's collected prose and poems in the latest Dark Horse (and happily available online). Mason laments the lack of word regarding Donaghy in the States, and I share his regret. And, again as Mason points out, Donaghy was a master of the dramatic voice, resulting in some fine dramatic monologues. And I thought about Williams, little spoken of outside of the Fayetville crowd these days (although his last book was reviewed in the New York Times, so he's not exactly wallowing in neglect), and his entertaining, moving, and stimulating dramatic poems. Some of the most-read and read-again volumes in my poetry collection are Williams' Selected Poems and Donaghy's collections.

Speaking of Williams, again, it was nice to read a review of his latest book as part of the editorial for the newest Unsplendid. Editor Douglas Basford pulls no punches, and I think the result is a good assessment of the poet's strengths and weaknesses. He gives the red and the white of it, so to speak.

As you're enjoying the rest of that issue of Unsplendid, don't miss my little offering, "Sparkles from the Wheel," which steals its title and dominant image from a poem by Whitman.

Monday, February 15, 2010

João Gilberto

Eu e É O

The title of this post translates as "I and Is The." To this gringo's ear this personal pronoun and verbal phrase sound identical in Portuguese, which causes a number of problems in daily conversation. I will follow along with a speaker's train of thought for the first few words, but then all of a sudden I can swear that I hear them say "Eu," and my brain shifts to interpret what comes next as a new sentence beginning with "I." At this point I'm struggling to remember the words I just heard, make sense of what is being spoken, and framing a response based on what I can only guess is the statement or question that's been formed. Usually I just sigh and say, "Sorry, I don't speak much Portuguese," or "Please speak slowly." It's annoying when my request is answered with a puzzled look and an even faster gush of confusing vowels. I am used to speaking English slowly for non-native speakers, not just from teaching here but also through business dealings in Boston with people from all sorts of ethnic and linguistic backgrounds.

If, like me, you're new to Portuguese, be mindful of the homophones eu and é o. It'll help with comprehension if you realize this sound has two distinct meanings dependent on context.

I am intrigued that in Portuguese there is no attempt to avoid hiatus in the phrase é o, indeed in any occurrence of hiatus with the exception of constructions like na or no meaning em + a and em + o. Avoiding hiatus is, if memory serves, of paramount concern to French speakers. It seems to me that in English we tend to avoid it, but we're not overly fussy with it. To my ear, Brazilian Portuguese speakers flaunt it. It's a bit like a violin's trill.

I fear I'm a bit over my head without looking through references for all this linguistic mumbo jumbo. I hope that a kind, more knowledgeable reader out there will correct where I may have erred, or further illuminate me on the subject.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Adultery and its Discontents

One day a friend approached me and asked for the English word for a man whose wife has cheated on him. I told my friend that there is a now obsolete word, "cuckold," but that, as far as I knew, contemporary English really doesn't have an equivalent. I said that we have a word for the person who cheats, and that is, of course, "cheater." But we do not have a name for the one cheated.

The word corno in Portuguese is equivalent to "cuckold," but it has not obsolesced in everyday speech. I recently read an article in a Brazilian magazine about the internet's contribution to sexual infidelity, and it was replete with illustrations of men and women growing horns much like those you see in 15th and 16th century British woodcuts depicting "cuckolds."

"Well," my friend said, "what would you call such a person whose spouse sleeps with someone else?"

"A poor bastard," I replied.

Please replace your seats and tray tables to their upright and locked position....

If this blog were a fish-tank, all my betas and little sharks would be belly-up. My apologies for not sprinkling food-flakes of news and views. Here's a summary of what's happened since December.

We had to rush through our classes in order to leave the country on the 16th for a trip to visit family in Louisiana. By the middle of December we were both equally fed up with the frustrations of living where we do in Brazil (noise pollution and air pollution, insane traffic, cluttered sidewalks that necessitate walking into the street where aforementioned traffic is a threat to life, and bureaucratic nightmares Kafka couldn't have dreamed up.) Not that living in the States doesn't have its own frustrations. But every locale requires its own special brand of daily fortitude.

I wish that my trip to the States was more eventful. We became couch potatoes when we weren't driving up and down the interstate visiting friends. The vacation lasted from the middle of December until the end of January, and during one of those weeks we visited Boston.

Boston has become our very real, much remembered Shangri-la. Whenever we need to vent, we'll recall tales of museum outings, long afternoons spent in used bookstores, or the countless good meals to which we treated ourselves at our favorite restaurants. Garanhuns is the privation of all these things, but I am happier here, on a whole, than I was in Boston. This is because I am not working a 40 hour week in Brazil. I haven't tallied up the hours yet, but my schedule this semester is probably less than 20, and I'm working more hours now than before. We're still challenged to make ends meet, to make enough to save, and we're both aware this current situation is not viable in the long or even short term--we need to find more work, and quick--but having all of this time to pursue literary endeavors has been a major blessing, and has contributed more to my happiness than could all the museums, restaurants, libraries, concerts, and used bookstores in the world.

And, of course, Brazil is not without culture. Every time I leave the house I'm confronted with a culture that proves more unique and elusive no matter how familiar I become with it. At present, this is something I cannot quite put my finger on, but I hope in the near future to start dealing with the fine particulars of my new home, to explore the customs and people more thoroughly.

A note on language: my Portuguese is functional, barely. My listening comprehension is not so good--I still have the common beginner's complaint that everyone "talks too fast." I think it's a sign that I haven't done enough daily immersion. Since I spend much of my free time in the apartment, surrounded by books in English, internet sites in English, DVDs in English, and a wife who forgets to speak Portuguese to me even mid-sentence. I have not been a good student and forced myself to dive right in every day. But this week I've made a point to change that. I'm starting to mark the calendar every day I study, so that I can monitor not only my progress but my discipline.

Of course, another reason I have a hard time understanding the language is that I often encounter people who speak very bad Portuguese with very bad accents. My wife confirms this.

That's all for now. More later.