Saturday, October 29, 2005

You Know You're on the North Side When...'s three days after the Sox won the World Series and every guy you see is wearing a Cubs hat.

Thursday, October 27, 2005

White Sox Win!

I got a phone call from a friend of mine (a Canadian, as it happens, now resident in Utah) just before game time last night, who wanted to offer me premature congratulations, as the only person he knew who had a remote claim to being a Chicago South Sider. (Our place in Chicago is, indeed, in Hyde Park.) He was polite enough not to mention (or, perhaps, to know) that as someone who grew up in the north suburbs I am actually a Cubs fan, which seems like about the silliest and most ungrateful thing a Chicagoan can be today.

Still, I did my fair-weather best. I don't have cable here in Toronto, so I spent the past few days either listening to the radio or wandering about looking for a bar that had the game on. The pub two blocks from my office, usually a good bet, had the Series on a small TV above the bar, flanked by two huge flat-screens showing hockey. Okay, wrong country. I watched Game 2 in another nearby pub, nearly empty; inexplicably, a group of three Asian kids who came in and sat at a table behind me turned out to be Astros fans. Last night I found myself in yet another pub, watching the final game on a big-screen TV I had all to myself.

The Fox broadcast kept cutting to frenzied-Sox-fan shots at Jimbo's, with the caption "Southside, Chicago." I always get annoyed by this. It's "South Side" and "North Side" (and also "West Side"). You don't see people referring to something being located on New York City's "Lower Eastside" or lining up to see "Westside Story." It's certainly not "South Chicago," which is another town altogether.

Another oddity: at one point I heard one announcer rattling off names of various South Side neighborhoods, followed by the names of the various ethnic groups that inhabited them: Irish, Italians, Germans, Lithuanians...I didn't catch them all, but it struck me that this was a perpetuation of the image of Chicago (much like the self-image of Boston) as a city of white ethnics, a sense reinforced by the white faces in Fox's "South Side" fan shots. This despite the fact, of course, that the South Side as a whole is now predominantly non-white. The Sox, in this sense, are seen less as the team of the South Side as a whole than as the team of Bridgeport, the Irish enclave that is the home turf of the ruling Daley clan.

In the mythology of Chicago, the Cubs/Sox divide thus gets played as a class rather than a geographical division, with the Cubs as the team of North Side yuppies and suburbanites and the Sox as the team of the working-class ethnic. That allows Chicago sports types to avoid the awkward fact that "North Side/South Side" in Chicago has become a shorthand for "white/black."

Monday, October 24, 2005

Gale Force Metaphors

Something about covering a hurricane brings out the worst in a writer:
Palm trees bent; their fronds looked like they were on a 100 mile an hour ride in a convertible...

At about 9:30 in the morning, when the torrent of wind and rain and calmed down somewhat, people ventured out. They looked like extras in a dawn-of-the-dead movie as they walked through the destruction from the storm.

Saturday, October 22, 2005

Is literature conservative?

Jonathan on his politically wary colleagues:
They worry that literature itself is a conservative thing. That is, they view the object of study itself as somehow suspect, infused with conservative baggage that it is their task to be suspicious of.
If I'm understanding this statement correctly, it's a little different from the subsequent discussion over at Bemsha Swing, which is about the relationship between the politics of the author and the politics of reading his/her work. Since a) we can find plenty of authors who are politically on the left and b) there's no reason you can't read a "reactionary" author in a "radical" way, I don't think that discussion quite gets at the issue.

The question, rather, seems to be whether there is something inherently conservative about the act of studying literature, or maybe even about the idea of "literature" itself. I can think of a few possible responses to this:

Academic answer #1: Yes, and no. The idea of studying literature is inherently conservative in the simple sense that it seeks to "conserve" something: old texts by dead writers. It's also backward-looking, in the sense that literary study as we now do it involves at least nominally placing a work in some kind of tradition that extends backward in time. This doesn't necessarily have to be associated with the political right (one could, say, be attempting to conserve the radical viewpoints of earlier writers), although today it often is (e.g. in attempts to defend "Western culture" in the curriculum). Essentially, though, literature, in this understanding, is relatively independent of political values.

Academic answer #2: Maybe. This answer is premised on the idea that #1-style conservatism is, in fact, political and not just curatorial. The teaching of literature, and its perpetuation of a limited "canon" of great works, can enshrine reactionary, nationalist, racist, and sexist values by aestheticizing them. It may be possible, though, by opening up the canon (to women, writers of color, gay and lesbian writers, and across national borders) and questioning its status, to mitigate some of these tendencies and to inculcate values seen as more progressive.

Academic answer #3: No. This one's based on the idea that studying literature is a form of "critical thinking," which anyone who's ever read a student evaluation form knows is supposed to be one of the main goals of a college education these days. Critical thinking, one assumes, is supposed to give on the ability to detect propaganda, lies, and malarkey of all kinds, but I would guess that in the current political and cultural climate the ability to read language carefully and to remain skeptical of the texts produced by corporations, governments, and media would be a skill more closely identified with the left than the right. (Literary study, in this model, has little or nothing to do with maintaining a tradition or body of texts; you can "critically read" anything, including New York Times articles and cereal boxes.)

Cultural capital answer: Yes. In its academic version, this is based on the idea that the study of literature is a way for powerful groups to extend their power into the cultural realm; literary "value" becomes an element of class domination. In its popular version, this is the idea that studying literature is an elitist and snobbish pursuit.

Materialist answer #1: Yes. Literature is ideological; it provides a timeless fiction of reconciliation that conceals or even justifies socioeconomic domination. Literature, at least in its conventional venues of the academy and mainstream publishing, is either merely a commodity or a distraction from the real work of organizing and direct political action.

Materialist answer #2 (via the Frankfurt School, I suppose): No. Literature's autonomy from social life, far from being ideological escapism, actually gives it enormous value in its critical distance from the relentless logic of capital and domination. Literary value can, at least momentarily, escape commodification, and great literary works (when read properly) can provide a critique of society as rigorous as that of critical theory.

I note that none of these answers (with the possible exception of academic answer #2) depends all that much on which texts are being taught; they have much more to do with the institutional status of literature and what its general social function is.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005


From Jon Leon:

Poets and Parties:

Issue #2 of Wherever We Put Our Hats has arrived and will be hitting the post Monday morning with a spritely new cover and a generous cache of poems from the young and the old(er), and the young and the western.

See the contents here:

Thanks to all the contributors past, current, and future for making wwpoh your home.
The University of Chicago Committee on Creative Writing's
Emerging Writers Series

presents a poetry reading by

Tuesday, October 11
Classics 21
Reception to follow

The Emerging Writers Series presents three joint readings per year that pair a professional emerging writer with a U of C student writer of his/her selection. This Fall's Emerging Writers Series Reading will feature poet Sam White and MAPH student Geoff Hilsabeck, whose work was selected from over 60 student submissions.

SAM WHITE’s debut collection The Goddess of the Hunt is Not Herself is now available from Slope Editions. He is a graduate of the Iowa Writers Workshop and a recent MacDowell fellow in poetry. He has published his poems in many journals including Jubilat, the Paris Review, the Harvard Review, Ploughshares, and American Letters & Commentary among others. A story in Poets & Writers chronicled his experiences reading ten great poems to passersby in Times Square, NYC. He currently teaches at the University of Rhode Island, and lives at Monohasset Mill, an art collective on the west side of Providence.

GEOFF HILSABECK received his B.A. from Vassar College in 2003. He is the author of one chapbook, The Keepers of Secrets, published as part of the ongoing Kenyon-Vassar Chapbook Series. He is currently enrolled in the Master of Arts Program in Humanities at the University of Chicago.

This event is free and open to the public.

Wednesday, October 05, 2005


So I'm idly browsing some stories on the announcement by 15-year-old golf prodigy Michelle Wie that she's going pro when I start to notice some oddities about the way her nationality and ethnicity are being described.

The first story, from the Rocky Mountain News:
Wie, though born in Hawaii, is of Korean ancestry and speaks fluent Korean. The straight-A student also is learning to speak Chinese and Japanese and figures to be a bigger draw in Asia than she has been in the United States.
Emphasis added, obviously: so what's with that "though"? As if her being American-born was an afterthought, secondary to her ethnic origins?

And there's another theme that I started noticing in all the articles--the idea that Wie is going to be a huge hit in Asia. But again, this story seems to make slightly too big a deal of this: why would she be so much more popular overseas than in her own country? Are Americans going to have a problem with her?

So then I see this AP story in the SF Chronicle:
But her marketing appeal is above any other woman in golf — a 6-footer of Korean heritage who was raised in Hawaii, has loads of charisma and power and a captivating smile to boot.
This avoids the question of nativity altogether--indeed, it implies that Wie is not American-born but was just brought up in Hawaii.

More on the Asian theme from Sports Illustrated:
Her heritage -- both of Wie's parents are Korean-born -- suggests that she will be embraced by Asian golf fans.
Go on, I dare you: "Tiger Woods's heritage--his father is black--suggests that he will be embraced by African golf fans."

Of course the Tiger Woods comparisons are everywhere, but without any of the "breakthrough" rhetoric that accompanied the perception of Woods as the breakthrough black golfer (even though Woods is, of course, part Asian); Wie's ethnicity is all gravy, pure marketing pleasure:
She's a Tiger-like blend of promise, magnetism, ethnicity (a Korean-American from Hawaii) and glamour.
Well, at least that guy knows the term "Korean-American."

Maybe the oddest piece is a long feature in Fortune that hauls out pretty much every stereotype of the model minority family you can think of:
Up to this point it has been the three Wies—Michelle, BJ, and Bo—vs. the world. As first-generation Americans who speak English as a second language, BJ (short for Byung-Wook) and Bo (short for Hyun Kyong) have guided their daughter's every move through the fierce world of high-stakes golf.
I'm curious about the relationship between that "As first-generation Americans..." and the rest of the sentence: just an oddly dangling modifier? Or (as I suspect) a implicit reflection of the inward-looking, controlling Asian immigrant family? (Compare the characterization of Wie's parents to, say, that of Venus and Serena Williams's father, who's usually portrayed as a raging tyrant.)

The bottom line, of course, is that Michelle Wie is (exotically) hot:
Over six feet tall, with creamy skin and black sloping eyes, Michelle Wie is a knockout.
Black sloping eyes? Oh no you didn't.

Don't worry, though. Michelle Wie is still a good all-Asian American girl.
She stresses about the SATs and getting into college. (Her top choice is Stanford.)
Look out.

Susan Wheeler at UChicago

POEM PRESENT Reading and Lecture Series

Reading: Thursday, October 6
Classics 10, 1010 E. 59th Street
A reception will follow the reading

Lecture: Friday, October 7
Wieboldt 408, 1050 E. 59th Street

Title: "Mutant Vernaculars!"

Susan Wheeler is the author of four collections of poetry, Bag ‘o’ Diamonds (1993, University of Georgia Press), Smokes (1998, Four Way Books), Source Codes (2001, Salt Publishing), and Ledger (2005, U of Iowa Press); and of Record Palace, a novel (2005, Graywolf Press). Her awards include the Witter Bynner Prize for Poetry from the American Academy of Arts & Letters, the Norma Farber First Book Award from the Poetry Society of America, two Pushcart Prizes, and fellowships from the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation and the New York Foundation for the Arts. Her work has appeared in eight editions of the Scribner anthology Best American Poetry, as well as in The Paris Review, London Review of Books, Verse, Talisman, The New Yorker and many other journals. On the creative writing faculties at Princeton University and the New School’s graduate program, she has also taught at Columbia University, the University of Iowa, Rutgers, and New York University.

Recent interviews w/ Susan Wheeler:

Susan Wheeler's reading is funded in part by Poets & Writers, Inc

This event is free and open to the public.

Myopic Poetry Series: October

MYOPIC POETRY SERIES -- a weekly series of poetry, fiction, and occasional talks

Myopic Books in Chicago -- Sundays at 7:00 / 1564 N. Milwaukee Avenue, 2nd Floor


Sunday October 2 - Chicago Noir hosted by Adam Levin

Sunday October 9 - Melissa Buzzeo and Amina Cain

Sunday October 16 - Raymond L. Bianchi and Jennifer Karmin

Sunday October 23 - Matvei Yankelevich and Anna Moschovakis


Sunday November 6 -- Phil LaMarche & Chris Fink

Sunday November 13 - Andrew Zawacki and RM Vaughan

Sunday November 20 - Tyehimba Jess and Krista Franklin

Sunday November 28 - NO READING THIS WEEK

Sunday December 4 -- Stefan Kiesbye & Jeff Parker

Sunday December 11- Simone Muench and Barry Silesky

Sunday December 18 - Matt Hart and TBA

Sunday December 25 - NO READING THIS WEEK

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Realizing the extent to which Sau-ling Wong's theory of Asian American literature relies on an analogy between texts and persons:
Just as the Asian American ethnic group is a political coalition, Asian American literature may be thought of as an emergent and evolving textual coalition, whose interests it is the business of a professional coalition of Asian American critics to promote.
It's an elegant conception, simple to the point of brilliance, possibly the only coherent theory of how Asian American texts work together I've seen. Reading the rest of the book, I can't argue with the results.

But I'm still trying to decide whether, on some more fundamental level, I buy that basic move. It's a way around the thornier word "tradition"--acknowledging that the usual lines of influence and direct allusion that might define, say, the tradition of British or American letters simply won't suffice to hold together a diffuse and emergent canon. It's also a way to avoid a conception of Asian American literature that uses an extratextual prop--say, the (fictious) unity of "Asian American history" or "Asian American experience"--to give the category coherence.

Monday, October 03, 2005

Comment box spammers seem to have found me over the weekend; I came back to a good two or three dozen junk comments. I may have to suspend commenting if it continues, despite the devastating impact I know that will have on national poetry discourse.

Long absence over the past month largely due to general start-of-term busyness, I guess. I'm again teaching an undergrad course on Asian North American literature (this week: Carlos Bulosan; next week: Asian American poetry from the 1970s), as well as (for the first time) a grad course in Asian North American studies. Two things I've concluded from the latter so far: Frank Chin is a much better and more nuanced critic of Asian American writing than you'd think from his over-the-top rhetoric; and the most intelligent and sensitive reader of Asian American literature I've seen is Sau-ling Wong, hands down. Reading Asian American Literature is just good. (I guess it's that Stanford Ph.D.)

In other news, I did make it to the Toronto Film Festival for at least a couple of showings; given the overwhelming schedule, I picked more or less and random, with predictably random results. The closet thing to a big-ticket experience I had was Breakfast on Pluto, for which I waited in the longest line I've ever seen: well over three city blocks long. I enjoyed it in an antic sort of way, although the weird stitching-together of queer-coming-of-age story and IRA violence was jarring and even clumsy at times (e.g. the slow-motion explosion of a disco ball in a bombed nightclub), and Cillian Murphy's performance was compelling despite the occasional Mrs. Doubtfire quality to his breathy falsetto. Still, I got to see Ralph Fiennes shamble up to the stage for the Q&A and Murphy hiding behind his hair as he murmured responses to audience queries.

I also took in an hour-long sampling of films by Ernie Gehr, silent street scenes filmed in New York in the 1970s and recently edited onto digital video: screamingly dull for the first twenty minutes or so and then there was that breakthrough that you sometimes get in the midst of boredom, where the abstract shapes of shadows passing rapidly over a paving stone seemed compellingly beautiful. Not so rewarding was the program of Canadian short films I saw: some hideously pretentious animations; an entertaining visualization of a poem by Al Purdy; and some videos made on a cell phone.

Meanwhile, what you should all be doing instead of reading this silly blog is buying this. If you already haven't.