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#shakeass17: Queering our Futures

Update #1: I’ll add audio and video of the sessions as they become available.

Queer Natures audio

Color of Membership audio

Update #2: Plus three Storify stories from the eagle-eyed Kim Hall

Color of Membership, Part 1

Color of Membership, Part 2

After the Color of Membership

 

Taken together, our shared experience of #shakeass17 in Atlanta included storm-caused rupture. Despite much erudition, innovation, rage, and love, the impersonal hand of the tornado-razor that sheared away nearly a fifth of our swelling number defined our time together and punctuated most of our conversations. So many were missed, throughout the whirlwind. Usually in storms, I’m with the Boatswain: “Blow till thou burst thy wind, if room enough!” But too often this year there wasn’t room at the airport.

As a member of the Program Committee who helped assemble this year’s paper sessions and seminars, I felt a little nervous that the good ship SAA would ride out the storm. I was anxious to see the success of the Friday morning plenaries, Queer Natures, which I had a small hand in instigating though Karen Raber did the hard work, and also the first iteration of #shaxfutures17, a three-year initiative that is the brainchild of the awesome Erika Lin, and which all of us on the Program Committee – chair Natasha Korda, Lucy Munro, Barbara Fuchs, Erika, and me – are hoping to see flourish now and in the future.

Not everything went right this stormy weekend, but those two panels did.

What I loved about the two-plen morning – the most exhilarating morning I’ve spent in 20+ years of SAAs – wasn’t just the individual brilliance of the nine papers, or the sinuous entanglements among and between the two panels. It wasn’t just the passion of Arthur Little’s exfoliation of academic culture’s racism or the deftness of Laurie Shannon’s reorienting of the most familiar lyric in the language.

The best part was the blaze of possibility that I felt in the room, and in my imagination, and compiling itself rapidly through the #shaxfutures17 hashtag.

Thinking about the panels now, on little sleep and with SAA pixie dust still between my toes, I’m trying to extend and understand that brief gap of time, to codify and prosify it, which inevitably means to falsify and dampen it, perhaps also to mansplain it. Apologies in advance for all that I garble or misremember. I speak only for myself, as I’m trying to make sense of the past few days. To push forward in experiment, I’ll entangle the two panels, pairing the speakers from Queer Natures with those from The Color of Membership.

Joe Campana; Dennis Britton (read by David Sterling Brown) 

The opening papers plunged us into uncomfortable modes of communal identity: swarms that dominate and control, and white traditions of Shakespeare scholarship that exclude geniuses such as Nikki Giovanni.

Dennis explored Giovanni’s desire for Shakespeare and to be a Shakespearean, which motived her publication of an essay in Upstart Crow in 1990. The great African-American poet wanted to get through her art what the dead white Bardfather gets every day from us and from our mainstream culture. Giovanni sings out a poet’s ambition, the motivating fire that makes art and perhaps all writing. “All we have,” she concludes, “is constant change.”

The bees of Joe’s swarms re-hived our pretty fantasies of community, making us into something both alien and (sometimes) sticky-sweet. Stings and honey!

Arthur Little; Vin Nardizzi

The necessary anger and precision of Arthur’s already-legendary talk (see responses on the official twitter hashtag #shaxfutures17) picked up where Giovanni left off, pushing hard against exclusion and the legacy of genteel whiteness that disfigures our profession. His words won’t be soon forgotten, I hope.

What response does such eloquence and exposed injustice make possible? What can we build or rebuild atop this past? Its ugliness shocks, whether in G.K. Hunter’s words fifty years ago as quoted by Arthur or, as Mike Witmore reminded us at the start of the panel, in the anti-immigrant racism that animated  the first Director of the Folger in the 1932.

The #shaxfutures initiative seeks to incubate some answers, or at least to provide a forum for new possibilities. On Friday morning I was also thinking about the intimate pluralities that Vin’s paper on “Fruits and Vegetables and Flowers” unfurled in Queer Natures. It’s not easy to connect a paper on posthuman hybrid bodies with one on racial injustice, since the desire to move past the merely human is not a straightforward match for the urgent need to recognize the full humanity of all the people in the room, and the people excluded from it.

The fruit-bodies of Pyramus, Bottom, and Archimboldi surface plurality alongside dreams of solidarity and community. It may be, or perhaps it can sometimes be imagined, that bodies are not only what they seem to be and have been. They and we can become other things.

Jyotsna Singh; Karen Raber

Humans crave difference, as the scrolling sideshow of images of Renaissance horse-art behind Karen’s brilliant talk showed us with visual abandon and gorgeous excess. The “equeer” desire she unraveled was marked by differences to which our bodies are inadequate and also desiring.

Might the theatrical stages and cross-cultural productions of Shakespeare of which Jyotsna spoke represent, in ideal if nearly always not in actuality, venues for engaging difference without asking it to resolve into sameness? Can we ask the SAA to open itself or indeed to become such a venue?

Karen’s semi-defense of the Dauphin’s horse-love in Henry V imagines utopian pluralism as a dream of embodied flight and extension of the human capacity to embrace difference, even at the risk of having it all crash back to bare forked earth when the rider leaves the saddle.

Laurie Shannon; Jean Howard (read by Patricia Cahill)

At the heart of our profession, the best things we do involve ethics and generosity with that most precious educational commodity, attention. Jean in absentia gave a master class is how a teacher continues to learn and change and extend herself into the futures we want to create. To be (in her phrase) “productively self-conscious” as an old white guy teaching Othello and Audre Lorde and Spenser to students of all colors in Queens: Jean has given me an apt language to describe what I need to keep trying to do better.

Laurie’s achingly suggestive talk closed Queer Natures by repurposing “nature’s changing course” in Sonnet 18 to gesture toward the queer and painful rain that wets Lear to the skin. The love poem’s capacity to entangle human emotion and natural sensations becomes — inevitably? — a scene of ecological extremity. Why do we want to compare our love to a summer’s day? Reason not the need!

I also can’t help mentioning, though I know I’ve already gone on too long, that amid so many stunning papers, I was deeply impressed by and grateful for the nearly-invisible labor of David Sterling Brown and Patricia Cahill, who read papers for Dennis and Jean, both absent-by-tornado. It’s not an easy thing to voice a paper you’ve not written and probably only seen for the first time that same day. These two readers – I’m reminded that we often call many things that we do as professors “readings” – carried us through the storm.

Joyce MacDonald

The concluding paper of The Color of Membership, which as the fifth doesn’t have a partner from Queer Natures, returned to the ethical and emotional audience to which we communicate our profession, our students, only some of whom join us at SAA. Joyce reminded us that we owe them love and truth, including disturbing truths and a love that challenges them to be open to things neither we nor they (yet) know. That’s the Futures part of #shaxfutures, which is the important part.

***

I could say more about these papers, the questions that followed, and the overflowing bowl of the rest of #shakeass17. I’ll write something separate about Craig Dionne and Lowell Duckert’s great #shaxanthropocene seminar, to which I was respondent Friday afternoon. The NextGenPlen was sizzling and plural, employing a dizzying range of methodologies and archives including book history, nonsense verse, and a polytemporal theorizing of racial difference. I could say more about an excess of cocktails and deficit of sleep, predictable accompaniments to every SAA. I could talk about the furries next door at the Marriot, though Andy Kesson has already written eloquently about them. I might make a note to myself that when Jeffrey Cohen finds the location of a 24-hour diner at 3 am, things are only going in one direction.

More later, but first I want to take time to express my hope about the possibilities that blazed across Friday morning. I sat in the front row like a fanboy for both plenary sessions, next to Natasha and Erika, not far from Heather and Ayanna and Lena and many others whose work and imagination make the SAA go. As the second plenary finished, the line from Shakespeare that came to mind as we stood and ovated – a line from Shakespeare always comes to mind, right? – was from Coriolanus:

Ladies, you deserve / To have a temple built you (5.3)

That temple, I imagine and hope, will be an SAA that, following Nikki Giovanni’s maxim, continually changes and gets better.

The theatrical context of that Rome-hasn’t-been-burned moment in Coriolanus might not bear too much scrutiny, but my comfort on it is that I hope that at this historical moment the SAA is not at the exhausted end of a violent tragedy but plowing through storms onto changing seas.

Thanks to all who were there, all who were stormed out, and everyone who made #shakeass17 and #shaxfutures17 possible

Next year in LA!

 

 

 

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Dead Horse Bay event at Urban Glass Sat 3/25

Anyone who’s been to any of the Oceanic New York events or students from the “Open King Lear” course last fall who remember our trip to Dead Horse Bay with guest lecturer Craig Dionne might enjoy coming by the gallery Urban Glass in Fort Greene this Saturday 3/25 at 3 pm.

The event will celebrate the final weekend of the exhibition The Glass Graveyard of Brooklyn, and will feature poetry about the Bay written by a gathering of contributors to Underwater New York. I’ll be reading a poem about a doll’s leg that was recovered from Dead Horse Bay and featured in Elizabeth Albert’s exhibition and book, “Silent Beaches, Untold Stories.” 

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Tempest @ St Ann’s Warehouse

In Donmar Warehouse’s all-female Shakespeare Trilogy, directed by Phyllida Lloyd and starring Harriet Walter, the set has always been the same: a women’s prison. Before each performance, a siren sounded in the lobby and then the cast, shackled and in grey prison sweats, was marched through the crowd under the watchful eyes of uniformed guards as well as audience members. In Julius Caesar in 2013, guards and inmates snarled at each other. In Henry IV in 2015, Hal’s pre-show announcement — “I’m gettin’ out!” — set a trap that finally snapped shut with Falstaff’s show-ending wail to the now-king, “Don’t you fucking leave me!” In both cases, the shows were brilliant as performances of Shakespeare, but they also played compellingly with the prisonhouse exterior.

Last in the trio comes The Tempest. The drama of forgiveness and reconciliation lacks the angry critique of male egotism and violence that served as spine for the previous two war stories. But the play’s language of bondage and liberation, shared by Prospero, Ariel, Caliban, and Miranda, as well as the Italian castaways, resonated in the setting. Even more consistently than the previous two shows in the trilogy, this Tempest repeatedly emphasized the extra-Shakespearean identities of the inmates. Thus Harriet Walter’s Prospero was also the “prison character” Hannah, who was in turn (according to an insert in the playbill) based on the true story of Judy Clark, a onetime member of the Weather Underground who has been in prison in New York State since 1983. The prison-story toggled back and forth with the Tempest-story, with guards helping with scene changes and requiring, for example, that the Neapolitan aristocrats change from regal to prison garb.

Jade Anouka as Ariel
(New York Times)

There was a lot to like about this production, much of it centering around the brilliance of Jade Anouka, who also stole the show as Hotspur in Henry IV. Playing Ariel this time, as well as (at least the night I saw it) one of the prison guards, she (as it were) “flamed amazement.” Dancing, singing, rapping, teasing Prospero and mocking the castaways, the spirit dominated the stage. Working with music by Joan Armatrading, Anouka represented the heart of what I liked most about this Tempest and the whole trilogy: the whirling energy and relentless drive of the staging, acting, and production. As she said of her storm and her performance: “Jove’s lightning, the precursors / O’th’ dreadful thunderclaps, more momentary / And sight-outrunning were not!”

Anouka’s performance wasn’t the only theatrical highlight of the evening. The lovers were much better than they sometimes can be, energetic as well as sweet, with a slightly goofy loose-limbed enthusiastic performance as Ferdinand by Sheila Atim and a wonderfully lively Miranda by Leah Harvey. Pouting when her father made her beautiful prince carry those boring heavy logs (or, in this case, the recycling), Miranda’s teenage rebellion and eagerness recalled in happier terms the scene in Henry IV when the sullen teenage prince Hal put on dark glasses and Beats so he could ignore his father’s war council. Sophie Stanton’s Caliban was also wonderfully funny and engaging, if perhaps lacking a bit of the bite of her Falstaff in 2015.

The balloons Prospero will pop
(New York Times)

Many reviewers, including Ben Brantley in the Times, who called this production the “most entertaining Tempest I’ve ever seen,” loved Harriet Walter’s Prospero more than I did. Her performance only really moved me once, when she punctuated “Our revels now are ended” by running around the stage popping the dozen or so huge balloons onto which a cheesy vacation-masque montage had just been projected. Searching for the last balloon to pop, ranging about the stage amid startled actors, she hit the familiar lines with real fire: “We are such stuff / As dreams are made on, and our little life / Is rounded with a sleep.” Pop!

I kept thinking about the magic island as a prison, and wondering how that meshed with the play’s utopian lyricism, in Gonzalo’s rehashing of Montaigne’s fantasia about the cannibals of Brazil and Caliban’s “sweet airs that give delight and hurt not.” I was also thinking about the harsh force of the end of Henry IV, in which Hal but not Falstaff got out of jail.

The last turn of the stage-prison surprised me, in a good way. I’m still thinking about what it means. Prospero, once again in the prison character of Hannah, was the one left behind. All the other inmates waved to her from the stage doors on top of the bleachers. She has drowned her book of spells in a plastic garbage bag, but has a paperback to read, Margaret Atwood’sHag-Seeda brand-new revision of The Tempest. Alone, she sat on a bare cot on a bare stage. With Ariel, Miranda, and the others all gone, her island lacked magic and music.

I didn’t love her performances, but I did buy her book

Not all wizards escape.

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#mla17: Hope amid Cleverness

Into cold water

I woke this morning to single digit temperatures in snow-blanketed CT. No heat, no water, no wifi. #frozenpipesarenotjustanallegory. Reflecting on the aftermath MLA and the plumbing in my home, I wondered: what’s the best way to get everything flowing again?

Training north out of snowy Philadelphia early the day before, I had been thinking about Hermione Granger. A lover of scholarly pursuits like the thousands of academics who gathered for #mla17, she values other things more —

Books! And cleverness! There are more important things – friendship and bravery and — (1.16.287)

Might the core virtues of adventure fiction — solidarity and courage — be things we academics need as much as books and cleverness, in the face of coming storms?

I went to MLA this year seeking radical hope, and I came back with some things to hold onto.

Signs of Hope

  1. My panel on hope buoyed me up during Saturday afternoon’s snowstorm, and no part more than the Lynne Bruckner‘s gorgeous and moving talk on “Hope and Breath in The Rape of Lucrece.” Lynne’s been a longtime leader in the early modern ecostudies community, and — as she courageously announced to the audience — this was her first public talk as she recovers from a traumatic brain injury. She was nervous beforehand but assured throughout. In a stunning conclusion, she performed the intake of breath that punctuates the caesura in the last line of Sonnet 18 — “So long lives this, [take a breath in] and this gives life to thee” — and demonstrated how perhaps the most familiar sonnet in the language can still stir new feeling. It was one of those talks during which you feel fortunate to be in the room.
  2. Books! Like Hermione and yet unlike her too, nothing entrances me more at MLA than the hopeful assemblage of books. So much beauty and cleverness on display! I came back with bags stuffed and lists ready for the University Library. I even saw, for the first time, a new volume with my name on its spine, alongside that of my wonderful co-editor Marty Rojas. The cover image shows a polar bear diving off an iceberg into cold water. We leave the allegory as an exercise for the reader.
  3. Patsy Yaeger’s “The ocean as quasi-object”: The essays in the book originated at the Hungry Ocean conference at the JCB back in 2011, and the almost six years between then and now have been a windy road. The most shocking loss was of our contributor, keynote speaker, and inspiring colleague Patsy Yaeger. With the support of Patsy’s husband and several of her colleagues, we’re very proud to have been able to complete and include her brilliant and generative essay in the book. I wish she could see what the next generation of ocean-scholars will do with her work: “Swimming with Marx and Latour brings us up to the limits of both theoretical perspectives, and possibly past them into a different model entirely. Ultimately, it may take poets to show the way” (167).
  4. Ecologies everywhere! I went to lots of sessions, but could not keep up with all the premodern ecocritical and Anthropocene panels. Among many favorites were Karen Raber’s “The World is Flat: Ecomaterialist Perspectives in the Renaissance,” and Jeffrey Cohen’s multiple sessions, including “Ecomedia” and “Extro-Fictions” (which I missed), and a great roundtable on Ecological Catastrophe that packed the house at 8:30 am. There were two Shakespeare enviro-sessions, on “Eco-rhetorics” and “Climatology” — plus many other sessions in and around the field, not all of which I could hear or overhear via twitter. Perhaps ecocrit has really arrived?
  5. Futures: The best kind of post-MLA feeling, other than the luxury of a good night’s sleep, is the sense that multiple good things are peeking above the horizon and many bubbling pots are being carefully tended. Despite the orange cloud rising soon in Washington, “something good” — to borrow from the wisdom of Plenty Coups — will also come.

And yet…

MLA always casts a melancholy shadow, as the conference rolls above a vast grey river of job-market misery. The human cost of the river of suffering seemed slightly less visible this year compared to a few years ago, perhaps because many first round interviews are now done via Skype, but our profession continues to devour our young. To the extent that I’m insulated from such melancholy, it’s due to being old & tenured & without a lot of students at MLA.

It feels cynical to feast on brilliant books and talks and imaginative excellences while keeping only one eye attuned to the plight of those who the “market” churns up. Even the word “market” seems dishonest, as academic job culture bears little resemblance to an economist’s ideal marketplace.

Today the MLA approaches a crossroads, with the search beginning for a new Executive Director and the long-central place of the MLA interview shifting under technological and financial pressures. Can the organization become a force to support its precarious members as much as it already does those (like me) who are comfortable? That’s the task. I hope whoever steps into the leadership role knows it.

Though I recognize that feeling able to choose is a privilege, I’m going with the hope that motion gives over despair at the academy’s frozen pipes. I’m also thinking about Hermione’s priorities: friendship and bravery over books and cleverness. Like most MLA-ers, I love the latter two things to distraction. What’s better than beautiful books and clever words? But we need not to forget the first two. We need friends and the courage to build better futures.

The Schuylkill, as I’m heading north

A little later on this chilly morning I learned that warmth, time, and patience can open blocked conduits. Plus I was pleased to benefit from whatever magic Comcast does to make the wifi reanimate. By 10 am my home was flowing and hopeful again.

 

 

 

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Radical Hope and Early Modern Ecologies #mla17 #s598

Out of the ashes of 2016…

Crawling out of the wreckage of 2016 into the New Year, don’t we all need a little hope? Come join us at session 598 on Saturday at the Convention Center (Room 112B at 3:30 pm).

Here are the abstracts and presenter bios. Featuring Lynne Bruckner, Dan Brayton, Jen Munroe, and Tiffany Jo Werth!

Here’s how I’ll open the panel, explaining what we mean by radical hope.

When we proposed this panel last winter, we didn’t know how much we’d need hope in early 2017. We were concerned then and now with environmentalist thinking in our catastrophic present, which seems to oscillate between tragic visions of apocalypse and technology-inspired fantasies of redemption. Either we are all doomed, or electric cars will save us just the way we are. This panel on premodern literature aims to historicize the relationships between humans and the nonhuman environment. Seeking alternatives, we offer the abundance of historical difference.

Our title comes from philosopher Jonathan Lear’s 2006 book, Radical Hope, which unfolds the story of Plenty Coups, the nineteenth-century Native American Crow leader who guided his people to accept the end of their traditional way of life. Plenty Coups’s dilemma – “How ought we to live with this possibility of collapse?” (9) – resonates with the dire pronouncements of environmental doomsayers in the Anthropocene. Plenty Coups shows that it’s possible to reframe breakdown as futurity: “We must do what we can,” Lear ventriloquizes the Crow leader, “to open our imagination up to a radically different set of future possibilities” (93). Plenty Coups’s vision of the Crow people enduring without mobility, wealth, or war may parallel our prospects in the face of climate change.

Facing the unknown kindles fear and stimulates courage. The required stance, as Lear interprets Plenty Coups, is deceptively simple. “Something good will emerge” (94) insists the leader who turns forward into catastrophe. The form and shape of the good remain unknown and unknowable. Preserving optimism when facing a blank constitutes heroism. This stance is also, Lear emphasizes, a “traditional way of going forward” (154) – not because Crow traditions had any experience with a world without buffalo, but because Plenty Coups used traditional cultural resources to generate not-quite-articulable hope.

We early modern ecoscholars use this hope to historicize the Anthropocene. But as 2016 has turned out, it is not only the nonhuman environment that needs a dose of radical futurity. In the rawness of the November 21st issue of the New Yorker, the novelist Junot Diaz reached for Lear’s book in the Age of Trump. “Radical hope,” Diaz writes, “is not so much something you have but something you practice; it demands flexibility, openness, and what Lear describes as ‘imaginative excellence. We academics butter our bread by cherishing imaginative excellence, though like everyone we sometimes shy away from disorienting openness. My hope is that this panel will plant flexible seeds in our thinking and our teaching. In time, they will grow into flowers that we didn’t expect and have never seen before.

Looking forward to seeing everyone in Philly!

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Theater in 2016

I blog-reviewed eighteen plays or performances (in sixteen posts) this past year, of which ten were early modern plays and seven were part of New Haven’s #artsideas festival. Here’s the year-end summary:

  1. Theater for a New Audience’s Pericles
  2. The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart (#artsideas)
  3. Our Ladies of Perpetual Succor (#artsideas)
  4. Abraham.in.Motion (#artsideas)
  5. Steel Hammer (#artsideas)
  6. The Bookbinder (#artsideas)
  7. The Square Root of Three Sisters (#artsideas)
  8. Wendy Whalen (#artsideas)
  9. Tumacho (by Ethan Lipton)
  10. Cymbeline (RSC)
  11. Hamlet (RSC)
  12. The Alchemist and Dr Faustus (RSC)
  13. The Taming of the Shrew and Macbeth (Globe)
  14. The Rape of Lucrece (New York Shakespeare Exchange)
  15. Kings of War (Toneelgroep Amsterdam)
  16. Coriolanus (Red Bull)

I also wrote a slightly revised and Trump-ed response to the Richard III part of Kings of War, published in Hypocrite Reader as He Must See Ghosts: Richard III, Trump, and the Future

A good year in the aisles.

 

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Bookfish in 2016

A few stats for 2016 —

~ 12,400 page views. That’s about what it’s been for the past several years. Roughly 7000

32 posts. Up slightly from 30 in 2015, but still down from 2014’s 55 (!).

Most in one month was June (6, all theater reviews from #artsideas in New Haven). Least was zero in May.

Sixteen — exactly half — of the blog posts were theater reviews. I’ll collect them in a separate post. Of those sixteen, nine were plays from the Renaissance (or close to it.) Four were responses to academic events.

Maybe I’ll start doing something different with the Bookfish in 2016?

 

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250 in 2016

It was pretty much down to the wire, as I juggled pool-time between shuttling my kids around New Haven County in late December — but I hit my goal of 250 swimming miles in 2016. Here’s the chart —

My Progress for Go The Distance 2016

Month Total Distance
Jan 24.33 miles (=42,820 yards, =39,155 meters)
Feb 24.82 miles (=43,690 yards, =39,951 meters)
Mar 11.82 miles (=20,800 yards, =19,020 meters)
Apr 23.81 miles (=41,900 yards, =38,313 meters)
May 29.18 miles (=51,350 yards, =46,954 meters)
Jun 23.16 miles (=40,768 yards, =37,278 meters)
Jul 14.49 miles (=25,508 yards, =23,325 meters)
Aug 15.24 miles (=26,816 yards, =24,520 meters)
Sep 22.23 miles (=39,130 yards, =35,780 meters)
Oct 13.61 miles (=23,950 yards, =21,900 meters)
Nov 21.32 miles (=37,525 yards, =34,313 meters)
Dec 26.22 miles (=46,150 yards, =42,200 meters)
Total 250.23 miles (=440,407 yards, =402,708 meters)

 

A little more detail:

19 swims in Jan = 24.33 miles

18 in Feb = 24.82 miles

8 in March = 11.82 miles (Spring break! Worst month)

17 in April = 23.81 miles

20 in May = 29.18 miles (Best month – b/c my classes end before the kids’ do)

18 in June = 23.16 miles

16 in July = 14.49 miles

16 in August = 15.24 miles (Summer travels cut into the mileage)

21 in Sept = 22.23 miles

10 in Oct = 13.81 miles (a slow transition from salt water back into the pool? Also trips to Boulder and DC)

15 in Nov = 21.32 miles

17 in Dec = 26.22 miles

 

195 total swims x 250.23 miles = 1.28 miles on average

195/366 = I swam 53% of the days of 2016

 

Not bad. Travel makes it tough — I was on the road a fair amount in March and October this past year. (Summer travels are easier: I know a great pool in Stratford, and a week in Greece gave me lots of decent-length swims.)

I wonder if I can push up to 300 next year…

 

 

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He’s Not There: Hard Rain in Stockholm

La cantautor estadounidense Patti Smith canta "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall", de Bob Dylan, durante la ceremonia de entrega de los premios Nobel en Estocolmo, el sábado 10 de diciembre del 2016. Smith tuvo que tratar dos veces antes de que le saliera bien el tema. Dylan fue el ganador de este año del premio Nobel de Literatura pero no asistió a la ceremonia porque dijo que tenía otros compromisos. (Jonas Ekstromer/TT News Agency via AP)

(Jonas Ekstromer/TT News Agency via AP)

Of course he didn’t show. How could he?

I’ve been ten thousand miles in the mouth of a graveyard.

He sent in his stead an early ballad, “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” sung by Patti Smith. The New Yorker called her performance, with full orchestral backing, “transcendent.” Visibly moved, she garbled some lyrics in the second verse:

I saw a black branch with blood that kept drippin’

[Update: Patti Smith reports in the New Yorker that she picked the song.]

Recorded on Dylan’s second album, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan (1963), which was his first to feature mostly original songs, Hard Rain had its legendary debut at the Gaslight Cafe in Greenwich Village in 1962, leading the folk singer Dave Van Ronk to name it “the beginning of an artistic revolution.”

Heard the song of a poet who died in the gutter

When Dylan got the Nobel nod back in October, I said that I thought the committee, in this Age of Trumpian and Brexitish Nostalgia, wanted to retrieve and celebrate the “old, weird America” in place of the Orange One’s racist fantasia. The sense that Dylan bears a harsher and truer past seems more intensely pertinent in today’s hard rains. I also think about what Robbie Robertson said about recording the Basement Tapes with Dylan: “He would pull these songs out of nowhere. We didn’t know if he wrote them or if he remembered them.” That’s one task for art: making new things that sound as if they have just crawled out from under ancient stones. He sings a painful, living, entangled past.

I met a young child beside a dead pony

He also sent some words to stand in for his absence at the banquet. Never shy, Bob was thinking about what it felt like to write Hamlet:

I was out on the road when I received this surprising news, and it took me more than a few minutes to properly process it. I began to think about William Shakespeare, the great literary figure. I would reckon he thought of himself as a dramatist. The thought that he was writing literature couldn’t have entered his head. His words were written for the stage. Meant to be spoken not read. When he was writing Hamlet, I’m sure he was thinking about a lot of different things: “Who’re the right actors for these roles?” “How should this be staged?” “Do I really want to set this in Denmark?” His creative vision and ambitions were no doubt at the forefront of his mind, but there were also more mundane matters to consider and deal with. “Is the financing in place?” “Are there enough good seats for my patrons?” “Where am I going to get a human skull?” I would bet that the farthest thing from Shakespeare’s mind was the question “Is this literature?”

Where are you going to get a human skull? What will we do with it now that we have it?

And I’ll tell it and think it and speak it and breath it

In 1963 the Hard Rain was nuclear, but not only. Today’s it’s nativism and racial resentment, but not only.

Bob’s question — “What’ll you do now?” — echoes his dramatist predecessor’s: “that is the question.” Art’s past demands artistic futures.

What will we do now, my darling young ones?

 

 

 

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Public Writing and #trumpnoise

Who cares about poetry when surrounded by #trumpnoise? As outrages and tweets accumulate, attention divides. The idea of a “public” feels fractured and disorienting. Who are we talking to? Each other?

In the bitter climate of early November 2016, I spent my 50th birthday surrounded by friends and theater. A few days later I woke feeling as if my country had morphed into its own evil twin, recognizable but horribly distorted. In this raw season, I’ve been thinking about public writing, about values, and about how to counter #trumpnoise.

Like many humanities scholars, I write largely for what Paradise Lost calls “fit audience…though few” (7.31). My books and articles are aimed at fellow specialists and students of (mostly) premodern literature. I love it when an artist or non-academic writer or actor or old friend or anyone finds something of value in my work, and I’ve been enjoying recent collaborations with non-professors in projects such as Oceanic New York  but I also believe in scholarship on its own terms.

Now I’m not sure those terms are enough, at least not by themselves.

So, a month early, I’m resolving that in 2017 I’ll do more public writing, about public questions, for public venues. It won’t all be about politics. I’ll be trying to show in public the humanist and more-than-humanist values that I cherish. It won’t cut through all the #trumpnoise, but I’m hoping for a slowly expanding circle of clarity and resistance.

To borrow a great line from  in the New Yorker, “Now is the Time to Talk about What We are Actually Talking About.” Writing and talking in public — showing the reasoned and tolerant speculative intellectual culture that we in the academy teach, in all its various and sometimes discontented voices — is worth doing more deliberately.

I have no magic wisdom to impart, and I don’t want to aggrandize myself. But I believe in the diverse, imaginative, vibrant America that Brandon Victor Dixon, the actor currently playing Aaron Burr in Hamilton, spoke publicly to Mike Pence about two weeks ago. I want to bear public witness to the value of this multiculture.

I’m not aiming to become a media star like the awesome medieval-historian-turned-journalist David Perry, but it seems important, now, to reach outside academic conversations. Clarity can counter #trumpnoise, at least on the margins, over time. History moves in surprising directions, but I don’t believe that irresponsible greed and selfishness represent lasting American ideals. History reminds us that 2017 won’t be the first year that an unrepentant white supremacist will work in the West Wing — but history also shows that hatred shrivels in sunlight. Eventually.

So, here’s a new public piece on Trump and Richard III, via the online magazine Hypocrite Reader. The whole December issue — SAFE (THE TRUMP ISSUE) — is very much worth reading in these uneasy times.

The moral of my story, told by ghosts, celebrates plurality in public.

He Must See Ghosts: Richard III, Trump, and the Future

The man who wanted to rule stood apart, downstage left, staring at his body in a full-length mirror. The Dutch actor Hans Kesting, playing Richard III in Toneelgroep Amsterdam’s jarringly prophetic Kings of War at BAM the weekend before the election, projected a sinuous intensity that should have warned us all what was coming. Kesting’s Richard was enticing and violent, without any elaborate physical props except a wine-colored stain under one eye. He threatened by standing still, separate, eying his reflection while the other aristocrats pretended they were in control of the kingdom.

Kesting’s Richard walked as if on springs, unstable and uncomfortable, with his hips slightly forward and arms back, enough to disorient but not tipping into caricature. Only once did he he cascade into ridiculousness, wearing the crown he’d not yet claimed, draping a rug over his shoulders, and running around the stage in a parody of the humpbacked king.

We watched that same narcissism and blind ego triumph in pre-dawn darkness on November 9. Why did the people choose him? Shakespeare’s shown the answer for four ambivalently democratic centuries.

He dominated with unbearable greed and need. Seducing Lady Anne, betraying his brothers, condemning the princes in the tower: every step sang out reckless desperation. When he bared his breast and offered Lady Anne the knife, he revealed urgent but not sexual desire. He must be at the center, he must be the most hated and the most loved, the only one who matters. He-Who-Must-Always-Win.

Today we need a narrative to unseat that center-grabbing need. Shakespeare built that, too. Ghosts undid Richard. We must make him see ghosts.

Before the battle of Bosworth Field, King Richard sat in the chair of power with his back to the audience, staring at his own massive image on a video screen. Slowly, the features blurred to superimpose his victims: Henry VI, brother Clarence, the young princes, Lady Anne. Their presences maddened the king. As the screen faded to red he galloped around the stage bellowing:

A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse!

What he wanted and could not have was a stronger and more animal body, a vehicle for boundless ambition and drive. He never got it. We saw him defeated. He galloped horseless until the video curtain pulled up to reveal the full cast, the nation, dressed as an invading army, with the future King Henry VII at the head. Trump-Richard snaked through the crowd and vanished.

We need to make him see ghosts. Against a solitary sleepless ruler with his fingers on twitter we juxtapose the relentless heterogeneity of the world. Ghosts represent history’s victims but in the half-light of this new regime history itself risks becoming spectral. Against his singularity we assert our plurality. We need everything and everyone to stay visible. He must see and we must see. Ghosts must show themselves on screens and streets—not just that shining spirit in her white pantsuit bearing the popular vote, but all the human and nonhuman people he’d rather ignore. Our ghostly plurality must refuse relegation to invisible spaces on national margins.

I missed the super-short deadline but wanted to add a final punch-line. I’ll splice it in here:

The ghosts whisper: Don’t normalize. Pluralize!

More soon!