Saturday, January 29, 2011

Egypt on My Mind

Egypt on My Mind

With reports today that police fired into a gathering of protestors in downtown Cairo, and several people were killed, the uprising in Egypt puts even greater pressure on the U.S. government to act decisively—to push its client Mubarak out and to make peace with whatever leaders emerge from this revolution.

President Obama is in a position comparable to that of LBJ with Vietnam, where a leftist revolt sought to take power from our client, a corrupt corporate-friendly postcolonial establishment. In the end, the leftists won and today we have stable, friendly, profitable relations with Vietnam.

In a way, Americans who side with Mubarak are like the Tories who sided with King George III during the American Revolution.  The forces of repression, fearing the unleashing of popular revolt, usually take the part of the establishment.

In Egypt today the protestors come from a wide range of interests. Among their leaders is Mohamed ElBaradei, 68, a Nobel Prize winner, the former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, and a former assistant to the Egyptian foreign minister. You might remember that ElBaradei inspected Iraq for WMD and reported it had none; he also disputed the American canard that Iraq had purchased Nigerian yellowcake for building nukes. He is, as far as I can determine, an honest broker, and this is what he said about his homeland the other day:  "The international community must understand we are being denied every human right day by day. Egypt today is one big prison. If the international community does not speak out it will have a lot of implications. We are fighting for universal values here. If the west is not going to speak out now, then when?"

So will our government heed ElBaradei’s call to support the voice of protest against our repressive client state or will it hope that Mubarak can somehow save his sclerotic police state and continue to do America’s bidding in strategically located Egypt? After Tunisia, and with protests in Yemen and Jordan, the old order in north Africa and the Middle East is changing in a way that will cost the U.S. many of its client states and demand the utmost in diplomacy to maintain its interests in the area. How long till our Barack must desert our Mubarak?

Thursday, January 27, 2011

New Satire

I often post work  at, a satiric weblog, hosted by the talented writer Peter Grossman. Please take a look at my new satire there, "Shootout at the OK Corral School."

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

A Reader's Attention

David Riesman, in The Lonely Crowd, posited the existence of three kinds of persons, the tradition directed, inner directed and the other directed. Similarly, there are three kinds of readers, those who primarily read the classics, those who always have a book or two going, and those who usually lament their lack of time to read but welcome suggestions about what to read next. The inner-directed reader has no time for them, already having a personal list of books to read.

I’m a browser of shelves in bookstores, mainly indies like St. Mark’s and Three Lives, in the Village, and Canio’s, in Sag Harbor, and on each visit I usually buy a book or two that suits me. At Canio’s last summer I discovered the historical novelist Alan Furst and read three of his novels in six weeks. Right now I am reading Roy Harris’ art-historical essay The Great Debate about Art, Nasim Taleb’s book of aphorisms The Bed of Procrustes, and Hans Fallada’s great German novel Every Man Dies Alone.

I am also a habitual reader of poetry collections and literary magazines, and I’d like to bring to your attention a new one, Electric Literature. Founded by young writers and published in Brooklyn, this quarterly includes just five short stories per issue. Among the recognizable writers published in its first four issues are Michael Cunningham, Joy Williams, Rick Moody, Colson Whitehead, and Lydia Davis. Issues are sold in paperback or in a variety of electronic formats at half the cost of paper.

The second story in No. 4 caught my attention because it is written in unusually long sentences. The first story in the issue, Joy Williams’ “Baba Iaga and the Pelican Child,” opens with a conventionally short, direct sentence: “Baba Iaga had a daughter, a pelican child.” Welcome to the land whimsy or the fairy tale.

By contrast, the next story, “The Resignation Letter of Señor de Santies-Teban,” begins, “Whether it was one of those bizarre occurrences to which Chance never quite manages to accustom us, however often they may arise; or whether Destiny, in a show of prudence, temporarily suspended judgment on the qualities and attributes of the new teacher and delayed intervening, in case such an intervention should later turn out to be a mistake; the fact of the matter is that young Mr. Lilburn did not discover the truth in the strange warnings issued to him by his superior, Mr. Bayo, and the other colleagues only a few days after he had joined the Institute, until he was well into the first term and sufficient time had elapsed for him to forget, or at least to postpone thinking about, the possible significance of the warnings.”

Chance, strange warnings, a young Englishman and his Spanish superior? These are the intriguing ingredients of this story by Javier Marías (b. 1951, Madrid), maybe Spain’s greatest living writer, as translated by Margaret Jull Costa. His work has been showing up regularly in America’s best magazines for the past few years, and I recommend his writing, particularly as a change from the simplified English that workshops seem to encourage these days. Anyone with Marías’ control of tone and syntax and his story-telling ability deserves a reader’s attention.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Talks on Poetry, by Michael Graves

The notable poet Michael Graves has a series of Friday evening talks about modern poetry at Bengal Curry, where he also hosts the Phoenix reading series on Sundays. This Friday, Jan. 21, 8-10 PM, he will address Yeats's superb poem "Among School Children."

Bengal Curry
65 West Broadway
New York, NY 10007-2292
Between Murray and Warren.
1 1⁄2 blocks below Chambers St
Take the 1, 2, 3, A, C or E trains to Chambers Street

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

The National Climate of Anger, a Guest Post

Today I received the email posted below, with permission of its writer, Bill Britton. A former bayman and Marine Corps Airborne Radio Operator, Bill and I met when he took my graduate poetry workshop at Queens College in the ’90s. Since then, he has retired and moved to Florida, where he continues to edit for Johns Hopkins University Press and writes satire (see and commentary on politics and the decline of America. Bill writes as follows:
I put this on Facebook and got an angry response, to which I then responded.
My initial post:
Sarah Palin’s PAC had a number of candidates under crosshair images before the fall election. It is this type of irresponsible and inflammatory politicizing that can push some nut-cases over the edge. Sure, it’s freedom of speech, but that rings hollow when 7 people are gunned down.
My subsequent post:
Your response is off base.  My post implied a link, yes, but between inflammatory statements in general and the climate of anger that is running rampant in this country.  Palin’s PAC website serves as a potent example.  You say that all parts of the political spectrum make inflammatory statements, but that is only partly true.  The political Right has elevated it to an art form, which can be heard on most talk radio and on Fox News daily.  When travelling, I scan radio stations out of curiosity.  The one exception is NPR, which can be left-leaning but there is no spewing of vitriol as is found on the Right.  I don’t believe that anyone on the Left can hold a candle to the statements issued by a Palin, Bachmann, or Engle, which then spill over into their followers’ rally signs.  To equate Olbermann with Limbaugh, for example, is ridiculous.  Olbermann can be both caustic and sarcastic, but Limbaugh is malicious to the core.
The implication that I am in favor of censorship is silly.  Any “policing of words” (your words) should be undertaken by the politicos and their talking heads themselves by exercising self-restraint.  There is nothing weak about a public discourse grounded in civility.  But to use guns as a metaphor for political action can provide negative reinforcement to a troubled mind.  This is a total distortion of the Second Amendment.
As you know, I spent 4 years in the Marines.  The assumption on the part of people I don’t know is that I am a Right-winger.  Two examples: When I moved here, a neighbor who saw the Marine decal on my car began sending me links to what you would agree were blatant, hateful lies about Democrats.  Another time, while at the gun range, a fellow shooter looked at my Marine cap and said, “I bet you’d rather be shooting at a silhouette of Obama.”  You can imagine my responses, which I must admit were sharp, but given the circumstances, were justified.
I think about anger in America a lot and try to examine its roots, and at the end of the day, it all comes down to personal economics—the alienation of the 17% who are unemployed or have given up looking.  They provide the tinder for angry public discourse.  The gap between the common good and the corporate conscience grows wider each day.  In other words, corporate profits trump “what is good for America.”  Many major U.S. corporations now have workforces dominated by foreigners.  Whose interests do they serve?  Wall Street churns money for the benefit of the few and the despair of many.  A corporate oligarchy now rules America and has no interest in bettering the plight of the disappearing line worker or the likes of [business' name struck].
Your libertarianism might be the answer--I don’t know, but its standard-bearers seem closely aligned with the philosophy of the corporate oligarchy.  And I suspect that the new Tea Party members in Congress will be gobbled up by the system and have only a marginal impact on the juggernaut of special interests that, in actuality, run this country and, incidentally, are running it into the ground.
Government and business should be addressing a number of major issues in this country, e.g.: (1) Infrastructure, e.g., roads and bridges, railroads, the electrical grid; (2) Structural unemployment, i.e., retraining of the workforce to replace jobs that are never coming back; (3) Return to basics in education (including much-diminished humanities curricula, but let’s get rid of jewelry-making); (4) Admit that democracy isn’t for everyone and let foreign belligerents fight their own battles (and in tandem, reduce military expenditures substantially). I see only token progress on any of them.  Good luck, America.

As a footnote, Bill writes that his Facebook respondent has dropped him as a Friend.
Check out Bill’s blog at

Thursday, January 6, 2011

The Electronic Sandbox

I heard this morning on the radio that a student in Omaha left a profanity-laced suicide note on his Facebook page before shooting others and then himself. And I recalled that I recently exchanged emails with a friend on the subject of how lonely many FB users seem, and we wondered if commenting on FB helped to ease their pain and sense of isolation. In the case of the Omaha suicide, apparently not. One can feel ignored even on a social network.

Looking at my Facebook wall this morning, reading about this woman freaking out and that man posting photos from his early boyhood, this woman advertizing her latest poetry reading (mea culpa) and that man sucking up to an editor, I wonder if the popularity of this social-network site is its indulgence of immaturity. The level of communication is generally pitched quite low, encouraging adults to behave like children--maybe not kindergarteners but elementary-school or high-school students. Is Facebook the way for many people to make up for the attention they longed for but never got in school? Is it an electronic pool for Narcissus to gaze into? Also, in spending a lot of time online, including on FB, are people ceding politics, which still demands face-to-face contact, to the most venal among us? And pols also excel at manipulating the Internet.

Thankfully, there are some intelligent FB users who seem to desire genuine discourse and who post provocative questions, good quotations, or references to serious reading and who reply to other users with thoughtful comments. I like to think that these are the sort of people who follow my blog, and I thank them. And, yes, I'll post this blog entry on Facebook.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

New Story

My short story “The Cloakroom” is included in the current issue of Pennsylvania Literary Journal. Here’s how the story opens:

At Edgedale High School Miss Elizabeth Graves was the only teacher with glamour. To have glamour in the early Fifties was to resemble cover girls like Jinx Falkenberg or Hollywood stars like Merle Oberon. Miss Graves’s glamour centered on her mouth, full lips glistening with deep red lipstick, perfect white teeth gleaming an Ipana smile. Black ringlets circled an oval face, and rouge highlighted prominent cheekbones. Her eyes were a laughing green, and smile lines creased her otherwise clear skin. She wore form-fitting jerseys or sweaters that outlined her small breasts, and in warm weather a peasant blouse revealed a hint of cleavage. Her long shapely fingers often gracefully flew about her, accentuating her dramatic reading from our literature textbook, and her nails were always elegantly manicured. The seams of her dark-toned nylons were always aligned straight down her calves when she stood while writing on the blackboard. We also saw a lot of her legs when she read to us while she perched on the front of her desk, her skirt drawn up to just above her knees.

Here’s the link to the PLJ web site if you’d like to check out the contents of the issue and, maybe, order a copy:

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Bowled Over

It's New Year's Day, for sports fans the day on which college football bowl games are played. When I was a kid, there were 4 major bowls, the Cotton, Sugar, Orange, and Rose. The Gator and the Tangerine were tangential. Today there are 35 bowl games, starting before Xmas and finishing on Jan. 10, Monday Night College Football. While three of the old four major bowl games are still played on Jan. 1, their names have changed to include their corporate sponsor: The Discover Orange, the Allstate Sugar, and the Rose Bowl Game presented by VIZIO. The hoary Rose Bowl resisted at least the indignity of becoming the VIZIO Rose. (Cf. Tokyo Rose.) The AT&T Cotton is slated for Jan. 7.

The current biggest bowl game is the Tostitos BCS National Championship Game, with the finalists chosen by a controversial rating system, and it's the one to be played on Jan. 10. The same sponsor has named the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl, scheduled for today.

Two perennial football powers, Auburn (BCS Game) and Ohio State (Discover Orange), have stars playing under a cloud. The fabulous Cam Newton, Auburn's quarterback and the Heisman Trophy winner for best player, was cleared to play after the NCAA ruled that he had no knowledge of his father's efforts to auction Cam to the highest bidding football program. A football program is the raison d'être for the existence of the modern university: it makes the most money for a school's athletic department, offers a free minor league for the National Football League, and helps recruit players and other students who love big-time college football.

In the case of Ohio State, 5 of its football stars were convicted by the NCAA of violating rules by selling their autographs and were punished by being suspended for 5 games--next season, if they are even still enrolled to play Akron, Bowling Green, and Northwestern, the first 3 patsies on the Ohio State schedule. If you wonder why their suspension does not include their next game, in today's Orange Bowl, it's for the same reason that Cam Newton was judged innocent of his father's illegal machinations on his behalf: without these stars, attendance would suffer, and the NCAA's main function is to assure that money keeps rolling in to athletic programs, which make big bucks from bowl-game participation.

On this New Year's Day I can't help wondering what would happen if universities returned football to amateur status, and the Auburn Tigers and Ohio State Buckeyes were just club sports teams, and their institutions cared more about higher education than stadium box-office receipts. More likely, college football might become a formal minor league for the NFL, which would subsidize its "programs" in exchange for naming rights for the season-ending bowl games, which would host a playoff of the top dozen teams to determine the national champion. When that happens, we'll welcome the Miami Dolphins Orange Bowl, the New Orleans Saints Sugar, the Dallas Cowboys Cotton, and the Rose Bowl Game presented by the NFL.