Obama the Ellisonian: Another Reading of the President’s Worldview


Early in the speech that Barack Obama gave last year to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of “Bloody Sunday,” standing in front of the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Alabama, the president asked, “What can be more American than what happened in this place?”

That line deserved more attention than it got. To recap what happened there: a large group of unarmed, peaceful protesters walking from Selma to Birmingham to demonstrate for voting rights for all citizens attempted to cross a bridge named for a Confederate general and early leader of the Ku Klux Klan. While crossing, they were ambushed by a force of state troopers who, first, refused them passage and then, when the protesters didn’t yield, chased them back and attacked them with fists, billy clubs, and tear gas. It was a moment when all of America’s history, tradition, and institutional authority seemed to coalesce violently to beat back a fragile movement toward racial justice.

What does it mean to characterize that as the essential American moment? And to do it in a speech described as optimistic? And if you do that, how can you also be criticized for your romantic view of American history, and for your refusal to “accept that plunder and bigotry are part of America’s foundation?Continue Reading

Who Speaks How


I love when people ask my friend Jenny and I how we know each other, because long before we co-taught a queer theory elective and drove cross-country and made parallel moves to Pittsburgh, she was one of my first writing teachers. It was in her Xeroxed handout of eclectic love poems that I first read Stanley Kunitz’s 1971 “After the Last Dynasty”: what would become my first truly beloved poem, which itself begins with a transformative event of reading.

Reading in Li Po
how “the peach blossom follows the water”
I keep thinking of you
because you were so much like
Chairman Mao,
naturally with the sex
and the figure slighter.
Loving you was a kind
of Chinese guerrilla war.

This being the 20th anniversary of National Poetry Month, I wanted to observe this poem: to submit how it works and what it means to me as anecdotal evidence of poetic capacity.

The summer I found this poem, I was 16 years old. It was my first time studying at the Young Writers Workshop, an immersive alternative to sports camp then housed in an un-air-conditioned freshman dorm in Charlottesville, Virginia. It was, to borrow the hyperbole of that particular moment, a transformative summer. Emboldened by critical pedagogy and a lot of Ani DiFranco, I wrote love poems for my camp boyfriend, ekphrastic poems for seventeenth century paintings, slam poems (I know) for men who’d harassed me on the metro.Continue Reading

Looking Otherwise

“Decide Who You Are, #1: Skinned Alive,” Adrian Piper, 1991.

“Decide Who You Are, #1: Skinned Alive,” Adrian Piper, 1991.

We are one month post-“Formation.” In the wake of Beyoncé’s video release (/Super Bowl halftime performance/world tour announcement), a frenzy of reactions and reactions to reactions has proliferated. Only they’re not just reactions, they’re readings.

On the immediate surface of the song’s lyrics, “Formation” is about being Black, and crucially also about looking Black, about embodying Blackness via sensible markers, from the phenotypic negro nose to the gastronomic promise of post-coital Red Lobster. The images, too, are objectively loaded in their simultaneous specificity and abstraction: a sinking police car, a cordon of cops miming hands up don’t shoot, variations on plantation couture, the ineluctable cool of a fur coat and a hatchback in slow motion. The edit braids fashion and trauma to beckon and provoke: You can talk about Trayvon Martin. You can compare brands of highlighter.

Strung together across wide interpretive intervals, these images are ripe for the isolating amplification of meme. Thus the video sparked both instant citation of the “it me” variety, and subsequent—let’s call it, “not you”—backlash. I saw, mostly via Twitter, in roughly this order: celebrations of the video, profound disinterest in/discouragement of white viewers’ reactions to and discussions of the video, calls to publications to hire Black women to respond to the video, and suspicion of the video-spectacle as ultimately apolitical consumerist distraction.

The furor points to questions of literacy. At what point, and for whom, are features of a text not only visible, but legible? How do writers and critics aestheticize difference, and how does difference produce a range of literacies? That last how is expansive. Not just technical mechanics or even an origin story, but under what ongoing conditions are different literacies produced and sustained: e.g. joy; duress; resistance.Continue Reading

The Place of Zines in Contemporary American Politics

Zines straddle the border between Fluxist market-dodgers and the reputably tainted world of self-publishing literary dropouts. The difference between a zine and that 50 Shades of Grey-inspired alien erotica novel is function and intention. A zine works as a platform for writing and art that’s too provocative, political, or honest for traditional newsstand publications. According to Barnard College, which hosts one of the primary zine databases, literary zines are not well received, and that’s because literary works already hold a predominant place in the writing world.

As we wait for the results of the Iowa caucus and New Hampshire primary, there’s a sense that momentum is building toward a political explosion. A quiet shuffling, for now, which appears like a whisper on the pages of political zines: the most prevalent and useful of the breed. In response to the ISIS attacks on Paris in November, for example, Comedy Zine (a political satire zine) unabashedly suggested campaign slogans for Syrian president Bashar al-Assad such as “Bomb, baby, Bomb!” In a stab more closely related to the presidential campaign, the zine also listed dialogue overheard at a Jeb Bush campaign event as “Vote Bush, third time’s the charm.” The Pulp Zine explicitly criticized voters with “You’re fired, America,” for taking interest in Donald Trump as a presidential candidate.Continue Reading

Review: Circus Maximus by Andrew Zimbalist


Circus Maximus: The Economic Gamble Behind Hosting the Olympics and the World Cup

Andrew Zimbalist

Brookings Institution Press, 2015

175 pages

Buy: book | ebook

In a way, everything about Andrew Zimbalist’s Circus Maximus is great. The book is thoroughly researched, thoroughly argued—hard to find a hole in its logic. And yet: how devastating. Zimbalist draws from an apparently bottomless well of examples of cities and countries who turn their well-being inside-out in an attempt to host the biggest, grandest Games—a family shoving themselves into bankruptcy by insisting their dinner party have silk napkins, a private chef, gold-speckled sundaes.

The sheer volume of information, all of it pointing to the same conclusion, is hard to argue with: a country who doesn’t already have massive stadium infrastructure in place should never attempt to host these outsized tournaments. Zimbalist frequently points to the only two financially successful tournaments in recent history—the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics and the 1992 Barcelona Olympics—because they provide such a stark contrast with the mess that every other tournament has left in its wake, its final stadium-building bill simply too large for any country to responsibly volunteer paying. There are the business atrocities, yes—the 2008 Beijing Olympics earned a tenth of what it cost&mbdash;but too frequently there are human rights atrocities on top of it: at the time the book was written, over a thousand migrant workers had died while constructing stadiums for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar.Continue Reading

The Ploughshares Round-Down: The State of Poetry in the US

Early last month, PEN International publicly condemned the killing of Thai poet Mainueng K. Kunthee. The poet had been shot to death on April 23rd, presumably because of his public criticisms of the monarchy and Thailand’s lèse majesté law.  Known as a poet of the people, Kunthee was immensely popular; his work “spoke of social justice, the rights of the poor, and in protest of laws against free expression.”

After Kunthee’s death, free expression became even more suppressed in Thailand–thus the PEN condemnation six weeks later. “PEN International is deeply concerned for the safety of writers, academics and activists in Thailand,” the report states, “who are increasingly at risk of attack and imprisonment solely for the peaceful expression of their opinions…”

PEN’s report and condemnation recirculated the story on June 10th, with write-ups in LA Times and The Poetry Foundation, among others. As it happens, three days later, the New York Times published a piece entitled “Poetry: Who Needs It?”–in which the author summarizes and laments the overarching neglect–if not general loathing–of poetry today.Continue Reading

Chucking “Art for Art’s Sake” – Writers and Social Impact

will write for social changeOne morning in late September, I found myself backstage at the “Annual Day of Peace” in Covington, KY—an event that kicks off October as Domestic Violence Awareness Month. I’d been asked to perform a song I wrote about my family’s history of domestic violence, and was listening as speakers urged the young audience to find—and use—their voices to prevent violence. I wondered how many listeners were writers, performers, artists, and how many might go on to use their art as voice, changing their communities in the process.

audrelordeLeaving that day and re-entering the media binge on the word “shutdown,” I couldn’t help thinking about writers around the globe: how we use our voices; whether (and how) we’re heard. I also couldn’t help thinking of Audre Lorde:

We lose our history so easily, what is not predigested for us by the New York Times, or the Amsterdam News, or Time magazine. Maybe because we do not listen to our poets…

Creative writing has the potential to change perceptions, elevate public discourse, inform, protest, and/or bring awareness to difficult issues and situations. Could we do more with this potential? Should we?

is this gonna get political


Before anyone gets politi-scared, hark! I don’t believe writers should start “politicizing” all our work, or Woodie-Guthrie-ing our poems for the greater good. But I do believe that if we’re moved by any current economic, cultural, political, and/or social suffering, there’s a place for us—and our craft—in the fray.

But how? Where? If you’re interested in finding your writerly place in this kind of work, here are three steps even non-“activist” writers can take to dive in:

  1. Identify Our Stories
  2. Re-imagine “Going Public,” and
  3. Chuck “Art for Art’s Sake.”

Continue Reading